THE SCENT OF JASMINE (Chapter 1)
PEPPER MACNEIL PULLED THE KEY from the ignition of her Rabbit and twisted in her seat to gather the pile of letters and magazines. Casey Lane, the quiet country way where she was parked, was her favorite stretch of her mail delivery route, for she walked it rather than simply driving from one rural box to the next. Here there were people—warm people, friendly people. She was looking forward to seeing them again.
Sliding from her seat, she paused to savor the richness of summer in Maine. She'd been gone for only two weeks, yet the trees looked more lush, the flowers more colorful. Perhaps it was an appreciation of home, she mused. As exciting as Europe had been, as beautiful the cities she'd visited, she was glad to be back.
Balancing the bundle of mail on her hip, she headed for the first house. A simple frame structure of Victorian design, it was painted white, as was the crisp picket fence around its lawn. A huge maple shaded her path from the strong morning sun. A mock orange bush, its white blossoms filling the air with perfume, awaited her.
She moved lithely along the paved walk, easily taking the four wooden steps leading up to the veranda. When she had nearly reached the door it opened, and a small, gray-haired woman emerged, smiling broadly.
"Pepper! It's so good to see you! How was your trip?"
Pepper grinned. "Wonderful, Mrs. Burns. Absolutely wonderful." Lifting several letters from the top of herpile, she held them out. "Vienna was magnificent, just as you said it would be."
"Mind you, I've never been there," the older woman cautioned, "but my daughter's been raving about it for years. Y'heard your music?"
"Oh, yes. You can't imagine what a thrill it was … to be there where so much of it was written, then to hear it played in the most charming garden settings you've ever seen." She blinked and sighed. "Yes, I heard my music."
"Mozart and Strauss and Schubert. Waltzes drifting over treetops, dinners serenaded by violins, Danube park … it was wonderful!"
"Must be hard to come back."
"Oh, no. It's great. I missed you all."
The woman hugged the letters to her chest in lieu of Pepper herself. "Well, we missed you, too."
Pepper treasured the warmth in her words. In the ten short months that she'd been the U.S. Postal Services rural carrier for the town of Naples, she'd found an acceptance she'd never known before.
"How are you feeling? Is the arthritis behaving itself?"
Mrs. Burns smiled sheepishly. "As much as y'can expect, given that I'm an old lady."
"You're not an old lady."
The other held up a gnarled hand. "Uh, uh, let's not start all this again. Nothin' you can say, Pepper MacNeil, can take any of these seventy-one years and make 'em go away. But I do love ya for your good intent." She paused, her eyes taking on an expectant gleam. Her voice lowered. "Have you seen 'im?"
Pepper raised her brows. "Seen him?"
"Him." The older woman cocked her head. "Down the street."
This time Pepper's brows furrowed. "Old Sam?"
"No, no, child. Not Old Sam. Old Sam's as pesky asthose mosquitoes he's always cursin' I'm talkin' about … him."
Pepper's lips quirked in amusement. "No, I haven't seen him. Who is he?"
Mrs. Burns eyed her speculatively, then straightened and inched back into her house. "New neighbor. You'll see." She gestured with her hand. "Go. Go."
"Mrs. Burns … ."
"Go, child. Move. I've got other things to do with my day than to stand jabberin' with the mailman." The screen door bounced shut as the older woman hobbled down the long front hall of her house.
Pepper stared after her for a minute before shaking her head, turning and retracing her steps. New neighbor? She dropped her gaze to the mail in her arms and was about to sift through for an unfamiliar name when, with a cacophony of happy yips, a blur of gold caught her attention. The new neighbor was forgotten.
"Rochester! You little scamp!" Grinning, she squatted to scratch the ears of the frisky cocker spaniel at her feet. But the puppy wouldn't stay still long enough. Its paws danced wildly, its nose darted time and again toward the pocket of her government issue Bermuda shorts. "Smart cookie, aren't you," she said, laughing as she tugged a doggie biscuit from the pocket under attack and held it up. The dog sat instantly, the only thing threatening its pose being its tail, which wouldn't quit.
"There you go." She released the biscuit just in time; it was never to be seen again. Only then was she able to scratch the silky fur between the puppy's long ears. "So you missed me, too, did you? I could swear you've grown a foot. Can't be calling you a puppy much longer—"
Pepper looked up to see a young woman approaching, the baby on her hip clinging to her long brown hair. "Sally! Hi!"
"Hi, yourself! I see you've been welcomed back properly. Nothing like a freeloader to tell you you've been missed."
Straightening, Pepper shrugged. "He's adorable." She put out a finger to the eight-month-old child, who quickly released her mother's hair in favor of a fresh attraction. "Not as adorable as this little one, though." Her tone softened appropriately. "How are you, Chrissie? You're looking very pretty today in your pink sunsuit." Chrissie was unimpressed by the compliment.
"A gift from my mother-in-law," Sally Brannigan explained. "She's convinced we don't have any stores in this neck of the woods. And nothing but Saks will do for her granddaughter. Of course, Saks might not care for the dirt that'll be on this little scrap of terry by the time the day's through."
"Dirt? She's crawling!"
Sally grinned. "Finally. I'd put her down and show you, but I'm driving over to Auburn in a little while and I don't want to have to bathe her again."
Side by side, the two women began to walk. Rochester gamboled in haphazard accompaniment. "Going shopping?"
Sally shook her head and looked at her daughter. "Meeting daddy for an early lunch. He had to take care of some business this morning, then he'll be heading north for a couple of days."
"Another sales trip." Pepper kept her tone sympathetic. Much as it angered her that Sally and Chrissie were left alone for days at a stretch, she knew her feelings on the score were far from impartial.
"Another sales trip. Easy this time, though. He should be back by Wednesday. Hey, you look wonderful. How was your trip?"
"Great. Really great." Freeing her finger from Chrissie'sgrasp, she reached for the Brannigans' mail and tucked it into the large front pocket of Sally's sundress.
"Thanks. The plane ride and everything was okay?"
"Smooth flying all the way."
"And the concerts?"
"Fantastic. You wouldn't have believed Salzburg, Sally. It was so quaint and beautiful. There were lectures. We toured Mozart's birthplace, his home, the Mozarteum. I took scads of pictures. I'll bring them along as soon as they're developed."
They reached the Brannigans' front walk and stopped. "Have time for a cold drink? It's going to be a warm day."
"Thanks, Sal, but I'll take a rain check. Since I've been gone for two weeks, it would behoove me—" she drew out the word in comical fashion "—to move right along. Besides, you're going out."
"Not for another little while," Sally argued, then paused. "Have you … have you seen him?"
Pepper abruptly raised her eyes from Rochester's antics. "Him?"
"Mmmm. The new guy."
"Mrs. Burns just mentioned him. No, I haven't—"
"Wait'll you do. Some neighbor."
Pepper turned to her mail again and began to sort through in search of a name. Sally put a hand on her wrist. "Just wait. He'll make your day."
"I'm not sure I like that gleam in your eye, Sally Brannigan." Pepper's lips turned down. "Mrs. Burns wore one just like it. I didn't know anyone was moving. Who is this guy?"
"No one moved. He bought the Fletcher place."
"The Fletcher place?"
"You know, the mausoleum that's been empty all these months?"
"Ah." Pepper instantly conjured the image of a decrepit old man frightful enough to go with the house that was situated at the very end of the dead-end street. "The Fletcher place. My Lord, it's been for sale since I moved here. What would anyone want with it?"
"Word has it he's planning to do it over."
The image in her mind changed to one of a robust gentleman wearing golf slacks stuffed with money. "He's a millionaire buying a summer home? It'll take bundles to get that thing in shape."
Sally looked smug. "Word has it he's planning to do it over himself."
"Himself?" The image altered again, this time to one of a brawny carpenter. "Oh, no. Machismo. Tell me the guy's got inflated biceps."
"Now, now, Pepper. I'm a married woman. Would I be looking at things like that?"
"You had to be looking at something to have that satisfied smirk on your face." She made a face of her own. "Maybe I'll take that cold drink, after all."
But Sally started up her front walk. "Sorry. Too late. Besides, you've got to be moving on. First day back from vacation and all." Pepper was sure she was grinning, but she didn't turn again.
"Chrissie," Pepper called, "you'd better watch out for that mother of yours. She's not being very nice."
As though at eight months the child understood just what was happening, she gave Pepper a wide, three-toothed grin over her mother's shoulder.
"Sally … ?" She tried a final time.
"See you tomorrow, Pep. Have a good day." The smile in her voice persisted. Pepper suspected it even erupted into a chuckle as the second screen door of the day banged shut on her.
"Have a good day, yourself," Pepper told the air, then twirled on her heel and resumed her route. "TypicalMaine," she mumbled, "all excited about a new face."
She wasn't being critical. The ways of the quiet townsfolk of Naples had intrigued her from the start. Yes, there was a certain wariness toward newcomers, particularly those transients who came to vacation, then left. Pepper herself was experiencing the seasonal influx for the first time. She'd started work right after Labor Day the fall before and so had missed the height of the season. Come June, the vacationers had begun to arrive, though. And now that it was July, her route would take several extra hours to complete each day.
She wondered how the summer people took to the locals. In her case she'd discovered that once the locals' wariness receded, there was a bounty of goodness remaining. She liked these people. They liked her. She was very comfortable in Naples. It occurred to her that she might stick around for a while.
It was a longer walk to the third house on the street. She breathed in the fragrant summer air, the smell of newly mown grass that never failed to strike a distant chord within her. She was always amazed when it happened, this sense of déjà vu. After all, she spent less than three years of her life in a town such as this, and she'd been so little then. That this particular smell should be familiar when she could remember nothing else of her time in Maine was remarkable. Then again, perhaps it wasn't, given all that had happened since she'd left.
Turning up the next walk, she drew herself from her reverie as Old Sam Thistle straightened from work on his petunia bed.
"If it isn't the wanderer," he stated with typically dry wit.
"Traveler, Sam. And it's good to be back."
He twisted his mouth at her attempt to talk native. "Needs some work. Must'a forgot all I taught you while you were off galavantin' round the world."
Pepper smiled. "I see your good humor's intact. How've you been, Sam?" She handed him his mail, which he proceeded to examine with the same scowl.
"Not bad. Hmph. Bills. If it isn't the heat, it's the phone. Not that I call much of anywhere now'days. Friends're dyin' off one by one. Like flies." As though to make his point, he slapped his arm, then drew his hand back to study what he'd caught. "Damned ‘skeetas. Get 'em every time. Stupid as hell."
With a chuckle, Pepper turned to leave. At Old Sam's next muttered words, though, she came to a halt.
"Seen 'im yet?"
She turned slowly. "No. Not yet."
Tossing his mail on the porch, Sam returned to his petunias. When he didn't speak, she prodded. "He must be quite something. You're the third person who's mentioned him."
The image began to expand. Bedroom eyes and a Hollywood smile. She wondered what more she would discover before she finally reached his house.
"Is he … nice?"
"When did he move in?"
"Week before last."
She was about to ask his name when she reminded herself that she did, indeed, have that information at her fingertips. She had begun to walk on again, thumbing through the mail, when Sam's parting shot hit her.
She turned. "Hmm?"
But the old man with the straw hat, the misbuttoned shirt and the pants that bagged beneath his bulging middlesimply shooed her away with a wave of his hand. At least he hadn't swatted her with that tart tongue of his as he'd done on any number of other occasions, she mused. Even now she recalled past tidbits. "What's a pretty thing like you doin' carryin' mail?" "Married? Well, why in the hell not?" "Watch out for that Newell fellow. He's itchin' to get his hands on … ."
But there'd been no aggression this time. In fact, Old Sam had been unusually tame. Perhaps he was glad to see her back. That had to be it, she decided with a fond smile.
Shifting the mail on her hip, she headed toward the small house owned by the Thompson sisters. Spinsters, they were, and utterly charming. As always, they were seated on the veranda, each in her respective rocking chair. As always, Miss Millie was crocheting. As always, Miss Sylvie was reading the morning paper. Pepper wasn't quite sure when they'd come to be known as Miss Millie and Miss Sylvie, since they'd been raised right here, far from the Southern mansion the form of address would suggest. But Miss Millie and Miss Sylvie they remained; it was, indeed, part of their charm.
Both looked up at her approach. Both quickly put down their respective work and sat forward.
"Pepper MacNeil, welcome home!" Miss Millie bubbled.
Miss Sylvie echoed her enthusiasm. "It's good to see you, Pepper. Looks like traveling suits you. You're bright and perky—"
"She's always bright and perky," Miss Millie scolded, casting her sister a pointed frown. The frown was gone by the time her gaze returned to Pepper. "But you do look good. And that's a fine thing."
"Particularly," Miss Sylvie said, emphasizing each syllable, "since you'll be meeting the new neighbor in a bit. You haven't seen him yet, have you?"
Miss Millie's annoyance returned. "Of course she hasn't seen him. She just got back and she hasn't reached his house. How could she possibly have seen him yet?"
Miss Sylvie regarded her sister with disdain. "It's very possible, Millie, that she saw him around town this weekend." Her attention returned to Pepper. "You did get back Friday, didn't you?"
"Saturday—" Pepper began, only to be interrupted.
"You see, sister," Miss Millie scolded, "she hasn't had enough time to be wandering around town ogling every new face on the street. The dear Lord knows that this time of year there are plenty of those. And since this is her first day back on the job—"
"I know that," Miss Sylvie retorted, her chin tipped higher. "But he's no ordinary vacationer. And you know that just about everyone in town's been talking about him."
"Sounds pleasant," Pepper murmured, listening to the sisters' banter with an indulgence that was beginning to fray. Her first impulse was to drop her mail and run straightaway to the house at the far end of the street if for no other reason that to get a look at the man who'd set the town astir. Her second impulse, however, was the one she followed.
Very calmly gathering the Thompsons' mail from the top of the pile and extracting the latest issues of Reader's Digest and Yankee magazine from the bottom, she filled Miss Sylvie's waiting hands.
"Now, why ever do they do that?" Miss Sylvie exclaimed, exasperated at sight of the magazines. "I've written to them more than once. Send them on different days, I say. Stagger your mailings. I can only read one thing at a time. But, no. They insist on issuing them simultaneously."
"Sylvie," Miss Millie said, sighing wearily, as thoughthey'd had the same discussion many times, "those magazines are put out by different publishers."
"I know that. But it's no excuse. They've got to be aware of each other's publication schedules. They ought to be more attentive to their readers."
Miss Millie spoke as though to an infant. "Put one of the magazines away in the back room, Sylvie. Then you can surprise yourself with it when you're done reading the first."
With a gentle smile, Pepper turned. "I'll leave you ladies to work out the details of whatever plan you decide on. See you tomorrow."
As though suddenly remembering Pepper's presence, Miss Sylvie looked up. "Now, Pepper, you talk with him. You hear?"
Pepper paused. "Talk with him?"
"That's right." For once, Miss Millie was in agreement with her sister. "Don't just walk up and deposit the mail in his slot." She frowned and looked away. "Does he have a slot? Or is it a box? Or is it … ." With urgency, her eyes sought Pepper's again. "If he's put up a thing at the end of the drive, ignore it. Hand him his mail. Tell him you're just wanting to welcome him to town. Give him one of those beautiful smiles of yours. Do it, Pepper!"
The smile Pepper showered on the ladies was not one of those beautiful ones. Rather, it was slightly forced and disappeared the instant she turned and began walking again. "He'll get his mail," she stated. "One way or another."
First, though, Pepper delivered mail to the Shaws, neither of whom were home, then to the Biddles, one of whom was.
"Good to see you, dear," Mrs. Biddle said, coming to the front door the instant she heard Pepper's footfall on the step. "And how was your vacation?"
"Just wonderful. Not terribly restful what with traveling from city to city, but it was well worth every minute."
"I'm glad. But we missed you. You're always prompt. It's so nice to get the mail in the morning."
Pepper smiled. Ever the diplomat, Mrs. Biddle wouldn't utter a direct complaint. During rainy spells, she'd wistfully eye the sky and talk of how beautiful the sun would make everything look. If the plumber didn't show up, she raved about the electrician who did. When her sister-in-law from Rhode Island was visiting, she extolled the virtues of solitude.
"You have to forgive Will," Pepper offered. "He must have been bogged down with the summer swell. It wasn't the best time for me to go away, though I had no choice if I wanted to be on that tour." Handing the woman her mail, Pepper held her breath, wondering how long it would take Mrs. Biddle to mention her new next-door neighbor. For the Fletcher house was indeed next door. Granted, it was out of sight, separated from the Biddles by half an acre of forested land. But it was the next stop on Pepper's route. And it was, in fact, the next thing on Mrs. Biddle's mind.
"Have you seen him yet?" the woman asked, arching one brow toward the brown hair that was pulled back into a neat bun.
"Not yet," Pepper replied, feeling as though she were a broken record.
Mrs. Biddle's second brow rose to mirror its mate. "Goin' there next?"
"I can remember my Paul at his age." She sighed. "A good-looking devil if you ever saw one."
Pepper had met Mrs. Biddle's mild-mannered husband on an occasional Saturday and, though he was thoroughly pleasant, she seriously doubted that he'dever been a devil, much less good-looking. She wondered if Mrs. Biddle was making an indirect statement about her new neighbor, and was about to make some subtle inquiry when the woman went on. "Men should be married by the time they're thirty. Should have a slew of children running around the yard. ‘Specially up here." She tossed her head toward the forested half-acre. "Perfect place to raise children." A wrinkle marred her otherwise smooth brow. "Least ways, that was what I thought. Of course, the kids had other ideas. All three of them are in the city now. Two in Boston, one in Pittsburgh."
With a wave, Pepper turned. "I believe you got a letter from Pittsburgh today." She trotted down the steps. She'd heard all about the Biddle offspring and didn't have time to hear more today. For one thing, there was half an armload of mail yet to be delivered, not to mention the piles left in the car. For another, there was … him.
Pepper barely heard Mrs. Biddle's, "Thank you, dear. Have a nice day." Curiosity sparked her step as she turned right onto the sidewalk and headed for the Fletcher place. Was he married? She wasn't sure exactly how to interpret Mrs. Biddle's chatter, but half suspected that the new neighbor neither was married nor had a slew of children running around the yard.
Glancing down, she studied the next piece of mail in her pile. Even had she not been so thoroughly alerted, she would have learned about the new resident when she found his mail sandwiched between the Biddles' and the Carsons', the latter of whom lived directly across the street and on the return side of her route.
Walking steadily, she thumbed through the mail and found four pieces for him. The first three were official-looking envelopes; the fourth caught her eye. Sliding it to the top of the pile, she ran her fingertips over the fineivory vellum. Though there was no return address in the upper left-hand corner, it was very obviously from a woman.
Coming to a halt beneath a broad birch, she glanced at the letter, then sniffed. Not freshly mown grass. Or mock orange blossoms. Or ever-present spruce. Slowly she raised the envelope to her nose.
Scents were her specialty. She tried to recall everything she knew about lavender. In aromatherapy it was used to tone muscles and relieve aches. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England, where lavender thrived, it had been thought to give "comfort to the brain," to "pierce the senses" in a refreshing manner. Even earlier, it had been used by the Romans for its ability to absorb heat.
Pepper could believe the last. The letter in her hand seemed suddenly hot. She quickly dropped it atop the pile, then stared at it. The stamp read Love, the postmark New York. And the address had been written in a broad, flowery, red-inked script.
Pepper made a face and, mildly incredulous, studied the name again. Naples's new resident, the man about whom every neighbor on the street seemed to be talking, the recipient of a lavishly lavender love letter was named John Smith?
She laughed and shook her head, then began to walk again. John Smith. As ordinary a name as could be. And despite the excitement his arrival had seemed to generate, he was to her no more than another stop on her route.
Turning in at the pebbled drive, she eyed the tall firs that bordered it before yielding to a broad lawn broken by aged maples. The last time she'd been here it was to turn her Rabbit around in the rain. Then, the grasshad grown wild; now it was freshly mowed. Her gaze skipped ahead to the house. It was a large Georgian colonial whose columns were peeling, whose windows were broken in places, whose shutters hung at odd angles. Though the brickwork on the front facade was intact, if mellow looking, the paint on the sides had seen far better days.
Yes, it was every bit as run-down a monstrosity as she'd remembered it … with one difference. High on its roof, applying new shingles, was a man.
Pepper stopped in her tracks and stared. For an instant she recalled the various images she'd conjured of him. The man high above, as yet oblivious to her presence, was no decrepit old patriot to match his home. Nor did he look like a millionaire, pockets stuffed with money. His denim cutoffs did have pockets, but they were molded so comfortably to his lean hips that she doubted anything was in them.
The cutoffs were all he wore. Swallowing once, she continued her analysis.
Biceps? Not overly inflated, though his back was broad and the arms that worked at holding and hammering shingles looked strong. The play of muscles beneath his skin was concise; he seemed hard, lean, well toned.
With a shaky breath, Pepper inadvertently inhaled the lavender scent that suddenly seemed oppressively heavy. If John Smith was a playboy from New York, he had a strange way of showing it. Even from the distance, she saw that his skin, tanned but with the hint of a fresh burn, glistened with sweat. His sandy-gray hair was thick and long enough to graze his neck. His legs were well formed, firm and leanly sinewed. His bare feet braced his body on the roof with ease.
Pepper shivered, the tiny movement jolting her fromher thoughts. She was the mail carrier, for heaven's sake. She was paid to deliver the mail, not to stand in driveways and stare at strange men on roofs.
Launching into a confident gait, she approached the house.
"Hello!" she called out in her most assured tone, shielding her eyes to look up as the angle sharpened.
John Smith turned his head then, and Pepper found herself staring once more. The sandy-gray hair that had grazed his neck also hung low on his brow. The shadow of a beard covered his square jaw. His face gleamed with sweat as his back had done, and the light swirls of hair on his chest looked damp.
If Pepper was staring, John Smith was doing no less, for the creature standing below was as natural, as beautiful a vision as any he'd ever seen. He took in the richness of her thick sable hair, drawn back from her cheeks and brow into a French braid at her crown, a braid that then blended with the heavy fall draped behind her shoulders. Her face was the palest shade of gold, her features strong, yet delicate in a purely feminine sort of way. He doubted she wore any makeup, for the faint flush on her cheeks and lips looked natural and exquisitely healthy. Though the pale blue-gray shirt she wore was masculine in style, as were her darker Bermuda shorts, neither could hide the soft swell of her breasts, the narrowness of her waist, the subtle flair of her hips.
He blinked, then mopped his sweaty brow with his forearm. Was it a uniform she was wearing? And in her arms … ?
A vague sense of disbelief cast his features into puzzlement. "You're the mailman … mailwoman … uh, mailperson?"
His uncertainty, instantly endearing, restored to Pepper the confidence she'd momentarily lost. She grinned."Any of the three. Take your pick." To her surprise, John Smith turned onto his backside and began to ease himself down to the ladder propped against the roof's edge. "Don't come down," she interjected. "I just wanted to say ‘hi.' I can leave the mail—"
But he was already descending the ladder, the sinews of his calves and thighs tightening on each rung. Pepper moved back and lowered her eyes. Sally had been right. John Smith was "some neighbor." Pepper had to admit that he added something to the neighborhood.
On the ground at last, he turned and held out his hand. "John Smith. And you are … ?"
He was very tall. Even barefooted, he towered over her by eight inches at least. She met his handclasp to find it warm and strong.
"Pepper MacNeil, mail carrier, at your service."
"Pepper MacNeil." He repeated the name and decided that it matched both the light freckles on her nose and the pixielike smile she wore. "And you do work for the postal service?"
She thrust out her left breast, with the official badge emblazoned on its pocket. Then, realizing what she'd done, she blushed and quickly changed the subject. "So you've actually bought this place?"
"Uh-huh. I've never met a lady mailman before."
"I'm not unique. You're going to fix it up yourself?"
"I'm going to try. Were you hired just for the summer?"
She shook her head. "I'm the regular carrier. I've been on vacation for the past two weeks, which is why you haven't seen me before. It's quite an undertaking, renovating this old house."
He cast a quick glance behind. "So I'm discovering. How long have you been carrying?"
Pepper's laugh was light as an evening breeze in the far willow. "You make it sound like a disease."
"No, no, I didn't mean that," he answered with such genuine concern that she instantly relented.
"Ten months. I started last fall."
"You enjoy it?"
She made a visual sweep of the landscape and breathed in deeply. "On a day like this, who wouldn't?" Her gaze landed on the roof. "You're making the most of the weather, I see."
He followed her gaze, but only for a moment. He'd rather look at Pepper MacNeil than slate shingles any day. Her eyes were a nondescript hazel shade, yet seemed to sparkle in a way that wasn't nondescript at all.
"I figure I'd better get the roof done first so anything else I do won't get ruined when it rains. It does rain up here, doesn't it?"
Pepper raised her brows. "Oh, yes. A mail carrier doesn't forget those days."
"Get pretty wet?"
"You are. Pretty, that is." He was looking at her nose, which was short and slightly turned up at the tip, and he wondered how old she was. She didn't look more than twenty-two. When she proceeded to blush, he amended that to twenty.
"Thank you," she said softly, wondering why she suddenly felt shy. Unfortunately, her tongue didn't share the affliction. "So are you. Handsome, that is. They warned me. I should have been prepared."
To Pepper's astonishment, it was John's turn to blush, which he did in a way that was both boyish and manly and utterly charming. There was something about him, she decided, that was decidedly appealing. Then he smiled, and things went from bad to worse. For his smile was not like any she'd ever seen. Oh, she'd seen evenwhite teeth before, but the corners of his lips turned down.
"Remarkable," she murmured, not realizing she'd spoken aloud until John picked her up on it.
"Your smile. It's … it's—"
"Upside down? So I've been told."
"But you are smiling … ."
"Oh, yes. I don't think I've met anyone as fresh as you—"
Eyes widening, Pepper interrupted. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be fresh … ."
Again that smile, this time even broader. "Not fresh as in offensive. Fresh as in bright and uninhibited. You're delightful."
Barely recovering from the second smile, Pepper forced herself to wince. "I think this conversation's going nowhere. And I'm keeping you from your work."
"I needed to take a break anyway."
"Well, then, I've got work to do. If the mail can get through come rain, sleet or snow, it sure better get through in the bright sunshine."
"You won't stop for a cold drink?"
Her mouth was dry, her skin superwarm. But she didn't dare. "Uh, no. I don't think I'd better. I really have to run. Just wanted to welcome you to Naples." Wouldn't Miss Millie be pleased?
Pepper turned and began to walk, but the movement stirred the air enough to bring a floral scent to her nose. Lavender. She stopped abruptly and dropped her gaze to the mail hooked into her elbow.
"Oh, dear," she mumbled, grasping John Smith's four letters as she turned back to him. His smile was knowing, almost challenging. She thrust the letters toward him. "Nice one on top there. A little heavy on the scent. She must have worried it'd fade in transit. Determined lady."
And with that, Pepper turned smoothly and retraced her steps down the drive.
John stared after her until she'd rounded the evergreen grove and disappeared from sight. Even longer he stood there, wondering how such a beautiful day could have been improved upon. But it had. Pepper MacNeil, mailperson, had added spice.
Almost inadvertently he glanced down at the letters in his hand. From the topmost one came the scent Pepper had mentioned. She was right—it was heavy. Pepper, on the other hand, had a scent of her own. It was faint, coming only to him in wisps, as when she'd reached out to shake his hand and then again when she'd turned to leave. It was light, so light. Alluring as it was elusive.
He shook his head to free himself of the memory. She was young, too young. Hell, she wasn't much older than the students he counseled! Wise up, old man. Act your age. With a sigh, he glanced down at Monica's elaborate script. Then, slipping her letter to the back of the pile, he tossed the letters onto a rotting step and returned to the roof.
Farther down the street, Pepper made her remaining deliveries. She chatted with various neighbors who were home, telling them of her trip, asking what had happened in their lives while she'd been gone. When the inevitable question came—"Have you seen him?"—she simply nodded and smiled and commented on what a nice fellow he appeared to be.
Settling back into her car, she smiled to herself. He was a nice fellow. Intimidating at first with his good looks and superior height, but very down to earth. Almost … shy? No, gentle. Relaxing. Easy to talk to.
She wondered what he would do here in Naples, once he fixed up that white elephant of his, and knew that she could count on town gossip to eventually fill her in. Shewondered where he'd come from, and half wished she'd paid as much attention to those other three letters of his as she'd paid to the lavender one.
Turning the key in the ignition, she pulled into Mrs. Burns's driveway to turn around. He had nice eyes, too, she mused. Pale gray, matching the streaks in his sandy hair. Nice looking fellow, indeed.
Then Old Sam's parting crack came back to her. "Careful, girl," he had said, and suddenly she knew what he'd meant.
THE SCENT OF JASMINE. Copyright 1985 by Barbara Delinsky.