Liberty’s Secret: Chapter Two

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I wrote Liberty’s Secret thirteen years ago when I thought I was going to be a romance writer (before I got bored by the formula). But when I decided that wasn’t the kind of writing I wanted to do, my completed genre novel was essentially abandoned and forgotten. But sometimes I get nostalgic about the path I’ve taken as a writer (and that includes the path not taken). So over the next two months, I’ll be posting it here a chapter at a time.

This is Chapter Two.

*****

Quinn stood on Libby’s porch for what seemed like a long time, studying the house that was hidden from street view by dense foliage. It was a huge two-storey structure, a monotony of dark red bricks and glass. Through the gaping curtains he could see an open space of polished floorboards and two staircases leading to upstairs sections of the house. Exposed beams in the ceiling contributed to the feel of a ranch-style country home, and while Quinn didn’t expect to see antlers decorating the mantelpiece, he somehow knew there would be an open fireplace and a large welcoming kitchen. This was not just a house; it was obviously a home.

There was no sign of Libby from his vantage point at the window, so there was no way to evaluate her reaction to his comments in the taxi. He debated whether or not to knock on the door but knew he had to. He was not the sort of man who skulked on front porches. He was take-charge and he was confident. And, at the very least, he was curious.

He rapped on the heavy wooden front door and waited for her to open it.

‘What do you want?’ Libby’s voice was muffled through the wooden barrier. He wondered if she had been standing with her back pressed to the door, waiting for him to knock. Or waiting for him to leave.

‘I’m not sure.’ It was the only thing Quinn could think of to say. And it was the truth.

The door opened fractionally and Quinn met Libby’s eyes. ‘Can I come in?’ The door closed again and Quinn could hear the chain being removed. It opened fully to allow his entry. He moved inside, but only far enough to be standing alongside her. Her mark was stamped throughout the house – he could tell even from his cursory inspection – and for some reason he didn’t want to intrude. He noted the enormous fireplace, imagining a roaring fire in its hearth, and wondered where the kitchen was, wanting to completely confirm his expectations.

‘Come through to the kitchen,’ Libby invited flatly, leading the way, as if she had read his mind. He noted that her glasses were gone, giving him the first opportunity to study the entire plane of her face.

‘I don’t want to intrude,’ Quinn said, staying by the door.

‘If you were intruding, I wouldn’t have let you in in the first place,’ she remarked logically, pausing by the left staircase. ‘Are you coming?’ She didn’t wait for his answer, disappearing around a corner.

‘Yeah, I’m coming,’ he answered for only himself to hear.

Around the corner was a scrubbed pine table and to the left of that, the kitchen he had imagined only minutes earlier. Libby was busying herself at the sink although there appeared to be nothing to wash. Quinn sat on a stool at the breakfast bar and watched her nervous movements, feeling emboldened by her reaction to his presence.

‘You’re not wearing your glasses,’ he said merely for something to say.

‘No.’ Quinn could see she wasn’t the informative type. He stayed silent and never took his eyes from the back of her head. She looked at him over her shoulder and relented with a sigh, saying, ‘I don’t really need to wear them.’ And then he had to wonder why she had told him.

‘So why do you?’ he asked, suspecting he already knew the answer. She didn’t comment. ‘Nobody hits on the girl wearing glasses, right?’

Again she remained silent and her lack of response told him he had assumed correctly. Why would this woman want to scare off potential suitors?

‘Are you scared of me?’ he asked quietly, wondering if she wasn’t scared of all men on a romantic level.

‘No. Neither you nor Fraser can make me do anything I don’t want to with regard to the magazine.’ She kept her back to him while she spoke.

‘You know I’m here to convince you to come back to the magazine. So why did you let me in?’

‘Because you knocked on the door and asked to come in.’

Of course. Well, he had asked for that response.

‘You are scared of something.’ Quinn could feel it.

‘Just because I refuse to do publicity? Fraser knew my conditions when I signed on for this job. Just because he seems to have selective amnesia, it doesn’t mean I do. He knows my temperament, too. He knows I don’t suffer fools, whether it’s some lazy, know-it-all writer or the publisher of the entire group.’

Quinn could see that she was always going to get the better of him while she was on a business footing. He had to do something to throw her off balance. He wondered if he should kiss her. But he had a feeling that would just throw him off balance and she would start throwing punches. No, it was just time to stop talking about work. That was his way in.

‘You have a great house here.’

‘Thank you,’ Libby said after a moment, her expression confirming his intention had been accomplished.

‘How did you find it?’ Quinn asked.

‘I…I didn’t find it. I used to walk down this street every day on my way to school and a few years ago, I saw it had been put up for sale. There was a really decrepit old, weatherboard house here and I could see the developers just salivating over the size of the block. They wanted to put up town houses or something. Which would have meant destroying the garden, removing all the trees and shrubs.’ She picked up a tea towel and twisted it between her hands and Quinn wondered why the telling of this story should cause such nervous behaviour.

‘The old lady who used to live here, I knew her a little. She loved her garden. She worked for hours in the garden everyday. So I made an offer for the place, promising that the garden would remain intact. And it has stayed almost exactly the same. I had the house demolished though, and this one built in its place.’ It seemed like that was the end of the story but Quinn sensed there was more.

‘So do I get the grand tour?’

Libby looked at him quizzically, which he understood. Besides the kitchen, it was basically just one big room without walls dividing the separate areas, though he could tell what was what. A dining table in one quarter, a formal sitting area in another, a lounge surrounding a big screen television next to the kitchen and a billiards table on the other side. All that could be left were the bedrooms, bathroom and laundry.

He stared back at her with an open expression until she eventually put the tea towel down and walked around the breakfast bar to the other side of the kitchen from which they had entered.

‘Laundry,’ she said, opening the door and pausing so he could look inside, then closing it again. Looked like a regular laundry, Quinn thought. He followed her back the way they had come in and watched her point out the different areas in the huge open expanse. He took particular notice of the large portrait of a woman that dominated the mantle above the fireplace. The style was classic but he could tell it was not recent. The woman in the portrait was, however, the spitting image of Libby.

Her enthusiasm for the house was obvious as she pointed out its features, but she somehow managed to sound like a real estate agent. There were no personal details, no warm anecdotes, only a monologue that sounded well prepared and long memorised. She would have given great tours of the White House, Quinn thought as she opened the back door and took him out onto the balcony.

The back yard was lush green lawn surrounded by more towering trees and leafy bushes that offered a reclusive privacy. He was beginning to think that the property was an inanimate version of its owner. Only the jasmine, creeping up the trunks of a number of trees and intertwined with the green bushes, hinted at something beneath the surface. He wondered if this garden metaphor could be applied to Libby as well.

Down by the back fence, under a line of bushes, a medium-sized dog was digging a medium-sized hole. When Libby noticed, she ran down the stairs from the balcony and onto the grass.

Quinn followed her but pulled up slightly when he heard her yell, ‘Bruiser! Stop that!’ Bruiser immediately lifted his head from his excavations and then bounded up from the fence line.

‘Your dog’s name is Bruiser?’ Quinn questioned, staying on the bottom step of the stairs. Libby smiled as she watched him lingering behind the handrail of the steps.

‘Yes,’ she answered, and he could see she was holding back her laughter. The dog jumped onto her lap when she sank to the ground and immediately began licking her face with enthusiasm. Her expression was one of pure happiness, and induced by a dog. Quinn wondered if he would ever be able to put such an expression on her face.

She set the dog away from her when she noticed the intensity with which he was watching her.

‘Don’t worry about Bruiser,’ she pacified, misinterpreting the look, maybe intentionally. ‘We called him that because he was abused by a previous owner. We took him in from a dog shelter.’ She got to her feet and brushed off her skirt.

We? Quinn let the slip go, although he was instantly filled with curiosity. Who lived here with her? Was she married? She didn’t wear a ring but these days that didn’t mean anything. It had never occurred to him that she might have let somebody through the barrier with which she protected herself from the world.

She walked up to the base of the steps and he finally stepped down to the grass, which brought them face-to-face. Quinn kept his hands by his side but their bodies were so close, it nearly didn’t matter.

‘Did you want to see the rest of the house?’ she asked, not stepping back, but not looking him in the eye either.

‘Yes.’ He still didn’t move. She looked down to where the tips of their shoes were touching. Bruiser was licking his hand in a friendly manner. He wondered if acceptance by the dog was a good sign.

Eventually he moved to the side to allow her to pass up the steps ahead of him. As uncomfortable as those short skirts made her, he doubted they made her as uncomfortable as he was feeling, watching her legs move under the scrap of material. It was, however, the most appreciated discomfort he could ever remember.

With a smile on his face, Quinn followed her up the stairs and re-entered the house. She closed the french glass doors and left Bruiser sitting outside, staring at them and wagging his tail. She led him to the left, and through a door. Immediately they left behind the polished floorboards and were walking on thick, luxurious shagpile.

‘These are the bedrooms,’ she announced, rapidly opening doors and then moving on. Most of the bedrooms seemed to be for guests. They were empty of anything that would suggest regular occupation. The fourth bedroom, however, was every teenage girl’s fantasy. Posters of rock stars and actors adorned the walls, a superb mini stereo was set up in one corner, a computer sat on a desk and a dressing table held baskets full of makeup. In the centre of the room, pushed against the wall, was a four-poster, double bed in mahogany, with a modern gingham bedspread smoothed over the mattress.

‘Yours?’ Quinn asked but Libby merely looked at him with amusement. He couldn’t tell if it was a yes or a no but his instinct told him this was not her room. Maybe that solved the issue of who lived here with her.

She showed him the bathroom at the end of the hall and then retraced their steps back to the main living area.

She mounted the set of stairs to their left and climbed them all the way to the top. What Quinn saw when his eye level reached over the remaining stairs astonished him. It was a mezzanine level library. The walls of the upstairs section, which ran at least half way around the second floor, contained books, more books and even more books. In the centre, at the top of the stairs was some sort of home office. A huge corner desk was pushed against one wall and on it sat state of the art computer equipment. An underwater ocean scene occupied the screen. Reference books lined the shelves around the desk and papers were scattered around in haphazard order.

Quinn picked up one of the papers and studied it. He should have known.

‘It’s not enough for you to work all hours at the office, but you have to bring it home with you.’ He didn’t know whether to admire her or accuse her of overworking herself.

‘Turning the circulation figures around wasn’t as easy as everyone seems to think. I had to work damn hard to make that magazine a success again. And that meant bringing the work home with me.’ She was on the defensive again. She snatched the paper out of his hand and gathered the others, shoving them into a folder and yanking open a filing cabinet to store them.

‘You are such an enigma, Libby. You love that job, I can tell. You work all hours of the day and night to bring it back to something everyone is proud of, but you give it up in an instant when Fraser tries to move you momentarily out of your comfort zone.’ He leaned his hips on the edge of her desk while she straightened various other things.

‘There’s a reason it’s called a comfort zone. I’ve explored the outer reaches of mine and I know my limits. If Fraser doesn’t have the good sense to recognise that I know my own abilities, then there’s nothing I can do.’ She pushed the high-backed leather chair into place under the desk.

‘And I did love that job, but I don’t need it. You know I could walk into the offices of twenty different magazines and newspapers right now and be employed in seconds, even if I stipulated the most ridiculous conditions. Fraser’s faith in me has made me a very marketable commodity. But if he thinks he can now exploit it, well… I can tell you that he won’t get very far.’ She moved around the bookshelves, straightening the books lined there and inserting volumes that had been removed.

She seemed to be in constant need of something to occupy her hands. Quinn would have loved to see what she would find to do with them if it were just the two of them in a starkly empty room. The description made him think of his soulless apartment and he couldn’t help but compare it to Libby’s beautiful home. There was really no comparison to be made.

He followed her at a distance, noting she was back in business mode again.

‘The era of workers being exploited by bosses is over.’

‘What are you, a communist?’ Quinn mocked.

‘No, I’m a person. And I quite like the idea of turning the tables.’

‘I can tell that about you.’

She smiled that vague smile again, and he wondered if he had lost her completely. He contemplated again the idea of kissing her out of it but held back.

‘Well, that’s about the end of the tour,’ she said, descending the stairs and waiting at the bottom for him to join her.

Quinn looked over to the opposite side of the open expanse where the other staircase loomed invitingly. He gestured to it without saying anything but Libby put her hand on his arm when he went to move towards it. He looked down at her touch with a raised eyebrow and she removed her hand almost immediately, a flush lingering on the edges of her face.

‘There’s nothing up there. Just another bedroom.’

‘Your bedroom?’ Quinn surmised.

Another vague smile emanated from Libby. One more and he didn’t think he would be able to hold back. The urge to shake her, to kiss her, to touch her, among numerous other unmentionable urges, to elicit some sort of real emotion was becoming overwhelming.

He wondered at her hesitance and suddenly the thought that had occurred to him earlier came back to haunt him. ‘Are you married?’

That stopped her. And elicited a reaction he didn’t expect. She began laughing. So he took it as a no.

‘What made you think that?’ She seemed genuinely amused.

He shrugged his shoulders and shoved his hands in his pockets, somewhat confused at the relief that flowed through every vein in his body. ‘So do I get to see upstairs or not?’

She sighed and moved towards the other staircase, climbing with an evident reluctance. Why didn’t she just refuse him?

At the top of the stairs behind a door was an enormous bedroom. The walls were painted a calming green and the ceiling, surprisingly, looked like a bright blue sky on a sunny day. Clouds floated above them, almost seeming to change shape the longer Quinn watched them. A queen size wooden bed frame dominated the floor space. Above the bed head was a half moon window. To the left and right were more doors.

‘En suite to the left, walk-in-robe to the right.’

Quinn was fascinated by the room; the whole house in fact. The entire structure was a magnificent monument to style and design.

On the bedside table were some photographs and he bent down to pick up a frame, knowing his inspection of her intensely personal space was much more intrusive than his guided tours of the other rooms had been. A little version of Libby smiled into the camera. Her sister, perhaps? He put the frame down and picked up another. This time, an older version of Libby. Another sister? Or maybe her mother, if the photograph had been taken a number of years ago. He decided not to ask.

He turned to take in the rest of the room and found Libby watching him through lowered lids, her head turned to the side. She looked away quickly when she realised he was returning her glance, but not quickly enough. He suppressed a smile and focused on the two paintings on the walls opposite the bed. In one, a woman dressed in an almost transparent orange sheath, which skimmed the curves of her body, was lying back on a bed or chaise of some sort, her form curled up. She looked uncomfortable but the painting was magical.

‘It’s a Frederic Leighton. Just a copy,’ Libby revealed, and though the information seemed impersonal, Quinn saw the opportunity for some further insight. He pounced on her interest.

‘And this one?’ he asked, moving across to the other wall. It was a painting of another woman, more formally attired though.

‘Leonardo da Vinci. Her name was Ginevra de’Benci. She was supposedly one of the most intellectual women of her time. I know everyone says the Mona Lisa has that secretive quality, that expression that made everyone wonder. But Ginevra has that and more. See that dark bushy background? It’s a juniper bush. Ginevra is Italian for juniper. I think.’

Quinn turned to look at her. The businesswoman was completely gone and in her place was someone enthused with passion. It was an interesting metamorphosis. And it was real. She truly felt it.

Something occurred to Quinn and he had to ask her about it.

‘Why did you show me around your house when you were so hesitant about it? I mean, I could sense your discomfort but you put it aside to give me the tour.’

‘So?’ She wasn’t defensive.

‘Why didn’t you just tell me you didn’t want to show me around?’ He sat on the end of the bed and watched the muscles in her face tighten, then inexplicably relax.

‘You found my weakness. Whenever anyone shows an interest in my house, I find it difficult to restrain myself.’ She walked to the Leighton painting and put her hand on the wall beside it. ‘I designed it, you see.’

‘The house?’ Quinn hadn’t thought he could be any more intrigued by this woman, but she had just proved him wrong.

‘Yes. I dreamt of this house since I was a little girl. An architect friend helped me draw up the plans and then oversaw the construction. We moved in a little over four years ago.’ She trailed a finger down the edge of the painting’s frame. ‘And now it’s home, not just the house I dreamt of. It was the only thing I really ever dreamed of.’

‘You didn’t dream of a great career, or a big white wedding, or little Libby Freemans running around while you kept a watchful eye?’ Quinn queried, again leaving her mention of ‘we’ to the side.

She thought a moment before answering. ‘No. Just this house. And to be happy. Sounds pretty simple, I guess.’

‘The best dreams always are.’

‘Maybe.’ The silence sat comfortably between them for an extended time. Then Libby broke it.

‘Well, that really is the end of the tour,’ she said with what Quinn suspected was a real smile.

‘You have a beautiful home, Libby.’

‘Thank you.’

He knew he had to raise the subject of Fraser and her job again but he didn’t really want to. He was too enthralled by this vision of Libby, the Libby she hid from people, the mind behind the body that had attracted him from the start. He wasn’t sure which was attracting him more now. But Fraser has sent him on this mission to bring her back.

God, Fraser! Quinn checked his watch and realised it had been almost two hours since he and Libby had deserted him at the restaurant. He had to ask the question.

‘Are you coming back to the office?’

She came to stand in front of him. ‘I don’t think so, Quinn.’

‘Fraser isn’t going to be happy.’

‘He’ll get over it.’

‘What about the magazine?’

‘The magazine will be just fine. We’ve set up a great staff and given them their autonomy. You could bring in a complete moron as editor and they wouldn’t be able to undo the structure we’ve set up.’ Quinn stood up and she took a step back to maintain some distance.

‘What about you?’

The question threw her. ‘Me? I’ll…I’ll be just fine, too. Like I said, I can walk into another job tomorrow.’

‘I guess that’s it then.’

‘I guess so.’ Libby moved to turn away but Quinn put a hand on her arm much as she had done to him earlier.

‘Will I see you again?’

‘What do you mean?’ She turned back to face him but didn’t look directly at him. He suspected she knew precisely what he meant.

‘I mean…I want to see you again.’

Libby smiled nervously and looked at the floor. Quinn propped a finger underneath her chin and made her look at him. And despite the smile, he could sense she was pulling back. If he didn’t take this chance now, he might never have another.

‘Quinn, I—’

‘Libby.’ And suddenly, as if she couldn’t help herself, she was looking back at him, her face only inches away. He moved closer still and as the intention to kiss her was transforming itself into reality, Quinn heard a voice.

‘Mum, I’m home.’

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