This three-part novella first appeared on Faith Hope and Fiction in 2007 under the title, The Legendary Storyteller Sisters. We are pleased to share a slightly updated 10-year anniversary version here, which will be serialized over the next few months.
The door stood open, welcoming a balmy breeze off the Intercoastal and a stream of visitors who arrived as my taxi pulled up in front of The Sisters’ house. I paid the driver but didn’t get out of the cab right away. This lunch had been described to me as a get-together with a few people who wanted to meet me. That meant two or three, certainly not more than four. In the minute or so that I sat in the back of that taxi, putting my wallet away and checking my lipstick in the little pocket mirror I carried, I watched about ten guests arrive. This was not ‘a few people’—it was a crowd.
“This is the right place,” the driver said. His statement seemed to imply a question.
“None other.” I got out, smoothed the folds of my dress and started up the flagstone walkway. Hearing footsteps behind me, I quickened the pace, not wanting to be barraged with conversation before I got in the door.
Suddenly a man appeared at my side. “You must be Kate. Bess and Lillian have told everyone about you. I’m Dennis Rivera, and I’ve known your aunts for years.”
“Cousins,” I corrected. “Distant cousins. Yesterday was the first time I met them, although I’ve heard about them all my life.”
Dennis paused just inside the doorway. “Yesterday, huh? They have a way of getting into your life, though, don’t they? I met them in a restaurant right after I moved down here. They had overheard most of what I said to a client over lunch and had some advice for me. Call me crazy, but I listened to them—and every time after that.”
I had to ask. “What was the advice?”
Dennis shrugged and smiled. “That all I had to do was believe deeply in what I was doing. Then I wouldn’t have to try so hard to convince everyone else.”
The night before, Bess and Lillian had given me a vision for my life, of what was possible if I were willing to change my ways and break out of the tight little box of my existence. Last night it had sounded so profound; now, it just struck me as something you’d find in a book of platitudes in an airport bookstore.
Inside the house, the living room teamed with people; in the dining room, another cluster filled their plates from the table set buffet-style. I found The Sisters in the garden out back, holding court around a large patio table.
“There she is, our guest of honor,” Lillian sang out.
“Thank you, Dennis, for escorting her,” Bess added.
“What else would we expect from him?” Lillian smiled. “Such a gentleman!”
I started to explain that he had only met me at the door, but stopped, realizing that The Sisters were flirting a little with their guest, who was a good forty years their junior. They all laughed like it was a game they’d played many times before.
“Everyone,” Lillian called out, looking around at the dozen or so people on the patio. “This is our cousin, Kate Conrad. She’s the real writer of our family. We only tell stories; she writes them down!”
“If we had written down half of what we’d told over the years, we’d have a whole library by now,” Bess said.
And on it went. The luncheon was a swirl of conversation and canapés, a nibble here and a few words there. I forgot most of the names I heard as I was introduced, and had my hand shaken and clasped so many times my arm was tiring. Several times Dennis appeared at my side, gliding seamlessly into whatever group had nabbed me. Over the course of three intense hours of munching and mingling, I learned the scattered facts of Dennis’ life: that he owned a real estate management company, had grown up in Ohio but moved to Florida back in the 1980s, was divorced with a son in college, and was allergic to crabmeat but not shrimp (he had asked the waiter what was in a “seafood puff” pastry).
Each time he came back I felt buoyed by the presence of an old friend, even though we barely knew each other. Despite my thirty-nine years of age, in the dating and romance department I have all the confidence and finesse of a 13-year-old at a school dance, my back pressed against the wall, dying for some boy to notice me and praying that he won’t.
“So, Kate, what’s next?” Dennis asked, placing his hand against the small of my back as he guided me toward the divan that had just been vacated by another couple.
“Well, what’s next is a book signing at four o’clock.” I glanced at my watch, shocked to see that it was already quarter to three.
Dennis chuckled, the smile lines around his eyes crinkling attractively. He looked like someone who plays golf and tennis, and drives around with the top down on his convertible, wind blowing in his dark hair streaked with silver at the temples…
My own thoughts sounded like a bad novel. I checked my watch again.
“I mean, what are you writing now—or don’t you give away any hints about your work?” Dennis said. “Perhaps I can coax it out of you over dinner. Are you free this evening?”
“Sure.” My voice was so constricted with surprise and nervousness, I swear it squeaked.
We arranged to meet in the lobby of my hotel at seven. Dennis got up, put his hand on my shoulder, and said he needed to speak to someone. I watched possessively as he cut across the room, then relaxed when he engaged an older man in what seemed like a serious conversation.
By now the crowd had dwindled to a handful and I knew it was time to take my leave. I sought out Bess to ask about calling a taxi. “So, you spent quite a bit of time with Dennis,” she said, smiling.
If anyone could give me the lowdown on this guy, my legendary fifth cousins could. Since childhood, they’d told people the stories of their lives. “Nice man,” was all I said. “We’re having dinner this evening.”
“Have a nice time,” Bess said brightly. “Perhaps we’ll see you tomorrow. You’re leaving Sunday, right?”
I had one more day in Palm Beach and then it was back to New York. Five days ago, I would have said I couldn’t wait to get back, but now I wasn’t so sure. “Right.”
Bess turned to an older couple who stood a polite step or two away, waiting to say good-bye to both of us. “Would you mind taking Kate to her book signing? That way she doesn’t have to wait for a taxi.”
The bookstore manager greeted me warmly at ten minutes to four, with noticeable relief that I hadn’t forgotten or otherwise blown off the event. Sipping a glass of water, I paced around the back of the bookstore, looking at displays of books including my own, The Grande Dame of the North Woods
I regaled my audience with historical trivia about Giselle du Mont, the main character of my novel—friend and confidante of the two Bonaparte brothers Napoleon and Joseph—the only one among a community of French aristocrats who made the North Woods her home and not just a temporary escape. More than that, I told my audience about me and what it was like to write the book. I recounted one attempt to recreate the 19th century on location by parking my rental car and walking straight back into a swamp full of tamarack trees. I didn’t get too far before I stumbled, fell, lost my shoe, got scratched by branches, and was bitten by a swarm of mosquitoes—all to the dismay and amusement of a man who yelled from the porch of his house, “Why don’t you take the road?”
The audience roared with delight at this story, and the store manager, leaning against a bookshelf with his arms crossed over his chest, nodded.
The turnout was good—not just the twenty-five or so people who had come for the event, but another dozen or more who had seen the crowd, heard the laughter, and wanted in on the fun. I signed fifteen extra books for the store display, thanked the store manager profusely, and headed out of there at ten minutes to six.
Through the window of a boutique next door, where mannequins with attitude slouched in dresses I probably couldn’t afford, I saw two women locking up for the night. “We’ll be closing in a few minutes,” one of the women in the store said, gently but firmly.
“Good, because I don’t have more than a few minutes. Just finished my book-signing next door and I have a date tonight. I need a dress.”
The women sprang into action, sizing me up, eliminating possibilities as to wrong color or style, and sent me into the dressing room with the choice we all liked the best: aquamarine silk, square neckline, the hemline just above my knee. Opening the dressing room door, I pirouetted in front of the double-mirror on the wall. Perfect.
Dennis was late, thankfully, which gave me time to pace casually around the hotel lobby, admiring my reflection in a gilded mirror each time I passed it. When he bustled in at seven-fifteen with profuse apologies, he actually stopped in his tracks for a moment and looked at me.
Giselle du Mont would be proud, I thought.
We ate a leisurely meal at a corner table in a crowded restaurant. He asked me about my book signing, and seemed genuinely interested. When my internal monitor told me I’d hogged the conversation enough, I quickly changed the subject back to him. Dennis answered me vaguely, as if bored by too much business talk. “I spend my days explaining development plans to investors and business tenants.” he said. “I’d rather forget about it for a moment.”
Two hours later, when we were out of food and talk, Dennis suggested we take a walk. Through charming side streets we strolled toward the Intercoastal, where the running lights on sailboats and yachts reflected in the water. As I gazed into the night-darkened water, the smell of salt and fish tingling my nose, Dennis gathered me up into an embrace and kissed me. My brain was surprised, but my lips remembered what to do.
I kissed him back.
“So,” Dennis began.
“So,” I replied, not knowing what else to say.
“Does our evening have to end here?” He ran his fingers lightly up my bare arm.
A mental debate raged in my brain until my better sense won out. “I think it does,” I heard myself say with equal parts of relief and regret.
“Too bad,” Dennis murmured into my hair. “But you’ll be back. Bess and Lillian told me so.”
I pulled away from his embrace a little and laughed. “They did, did they?”
“Told me it was 100-percent guaranteed.”
I pondered again the story The Sisters had told me the night before, of what was possible if I took a chance. I would leave my comfort zone—literally move away from my little one-bedroom condo in New York City—and write the book I was destined to write. And I’d love a man who would tear down all of my barriers.
I settled my head against Dennis’ shoulder, deciding I could get used to this. “I am here tomorrow, you know.”
Dennis explained that he was meeting with clients the next day, and it promised to be a long evening as well. He probably wouldn’t get home until Sunday morning. “A friend of mine has a place down in Del Ray Beach, where I stay when I’m doing business around there,” he offered. “I know that’s where I’ll be crashing tomorrow night.”
The little fantasy bubble of happiness deflated inside me; I wouldn’t be seeing Dennis again, not on this trip and maybe not ever. As soon as I got back to New York on Sunday night, my adventure would be over, and everything would be back to normal. Normal. Routine, regular, predictable, boring.
Dennis interrupted my brooding with another kiss.
The Sisters called me before nine the next morning, invited me over to lunch and promised it would just be the three of us. Feeling like a native by now, I walked from my hotel, over the bridge, and along the linear park that lined the Intercoastal. It took 45 minutes to reach The Sisters’ house, but I needed the exercise and time alone with my daydreaming.
The house was empty of guests—but not quiet. From some corner came the sound of repair work being done. “Oh, that’s just Danny,” Lillian explained lightly. “He takes care of our roof. The tiles come off just as fast as we can replace them, it seems. And, this being a stucco house, we’re always on guard against cracks that let in the moisture.”
The Sisters led me to the patio where, under a wide umbrella, a light lunch of cold cucumber soup and finger sandwiches was served. They inquired about where I had dinner with Dennis, approving his choice of restaurant, but did not pry. Hoping to get some hint of a prognostication from them, I did mention that he’d hoped to see me again soon.
“You’ll be coming back,” Bess replied matter-of-factly.
“Any particular reason?” I asked in what I hoped was a light tone.
Bess looked at me as if I had asked what planet this was. “Because you want to, why else?”
Lillian was far more interested in the book signing and clapped with approval when I explained how I had told my audience funny little stories about writing the book.
At one point Bess leaned back in her chair and looked up, toward the roof line. “Have you had lunch, Danny?”
I didn’t want to interrupt my time alone with The Sisters, but Danny appeared at the table five minutes later, squinting from the sun as he ducked under the shade of the umbrella. Lillian formally introduced us, explaining that Danny Collins was much in demand. Not only as a contractor building new houses, but also for his skill as a restorer of old buildings.
The rest of lunch was spent talking about houses, and I was glad to be out of the conversational hot seat. I let my mind wander back to the night before, disappointed that I would not be seeing Dennis that evening, and wondering if I would hear from him before I left. If not, I consoled myself, I would call him as soon as I was back in New York. And then what? It seemed ridiculous to contemplate a long-distance relationship with a man I had known less than 24-hours, but Dennis and I did have a spark between us that neither of us could deny.
I jerked my head up, aware that I was absentmindedly stirring the remnants of my soup—completely in my own world.
“Forgive her,” Bess joked. “She had a date last night, and hasn’t been the same since.”
Danny gave me a wide grin. “Seems like you had a good time.”
My face heated up as I blushed and forced the conversation into a new direction. “It’s been a busy few days. I’ve been away for nearly two weeks. I’ll be glad to get back to New York tomorrow.”
“Really?” Lillian asked. “I thought you’d be making plans to come back by now.”
“You will,” Bess replied, lifting her lemonade glass in a little salute.
Danny went back to work, and I lingered at the patio table with The Sisters. When it came time to leave, I hugged them both and thanked them for everything.
Bess’ eyes lingered on my face. “We’re the ones who should be thanking you. I know you don’t understand that now, but trust me, you’ve given us so much.”
After crossing Flagler Avenue to walk along the water, I turned toward the house for a last glimpse. The Sisters still stood in the doorway, waving.
I was back in New York for three days, waiting for a call from Dennis but knowing he was very busy, when a letter arrived from Palm Beach. My heart skipped a little beat when I saw the postmark. Then I turned it over and saw the return address written on the envelope flap: it was from Bess and Lillian. The letter was long—four handwritten pages—and they had written it in tandem, a break in the handwriting the only visible seam in this masterpiece of prediction and persuasion. I was at a crossroads, they told me, and my choices were to follow the predictable path or the “one less traveled,” of which Robert Frost had written. That path, they assured me, led back to Palm Beach, although I should not come for any other reason than for my own self, my own life. It needed to be the decision that I felt destined to make—they underlined that word in case I didn’t feel the weightiness of it on its own—in order to alter (as they put it) “the inevitable trajectory toward mediocrity.”
How could I possibly read that line from anyone—let alone two women who had made their living telling people the stories of their lives—and not give it some serious thought?
When Dennis called me that evening, explaining that he had been going nonstop since he saw me on Friday night, I told him that I was making plans to return to Palm Beach to stay with Bess and Lillian. “I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to have you back,” he replied. “Of course, I’ll be happy to see you too.”
“It will take me a few weeks to get everything in order.” I knew it could be a month before I was there again.
“I’m going to be traveling quite a bit myself,” he replied. “An investor group in California wants to hire me to manage a project for them. I’m leaving for L.A. in the morning, in fact.”
We talked about that for a while, as I pushed down the anxious thought that, just when I made a move, he was scampering away to another part of the country. I told myself I was being ridiculous; Dennis traveled for business, but he still lived in Palm Beach.
Hanging up with a promise to be in touch soon, I remembered a line from The Sisters’ letter: I could not move to Palm Beach unless it was the move I felt destined to make. Bundled up in my winter coat, I took a walk to clear my head. It was cold and damp, as only March in New York can be, and I missed the warmth and sunshine of Palm Beach—even though I would soon be in for a whopping dose of Florida heat and humidity.
With each block I walked, I waffled from going to staying, until I decided to do something between the two: I would lease my condo for a few months and give Palm Beach a try. I could take my work with me, just as I had throughout the book tour. I had nothing to lose except “the inevitable trajectory toward mediocrity.”
Three weeks later I leased my condo for six months—longer than I wanted, but that was what the tenant demanded—and took The Sisters’ up on their offer to stay in their guest suite. I assured them that I wasn’t going to live with them for six months, just long enough to get my bearings and find my own place to live. I packed my clothes and my laptop, but left everything else. I rented my condo fully furnished.
I settled into The Sisters’ home easily, relieved that they did not dote on me or treat me like a guest. I came and went as I pleased. The only one who made regular inquiries of me was Dahlia, the cook, who each day asked what meals I planned to eat at home. I walked along the Intercoastal every morning, headed over to Ocean Boulevard in Palm Beach for a longer walk in the afternoon, and saw Dennis in the evenings when he was in town and his schedule permitted. Although I thought about writing, It hadn’t actually written anything.
It wasn’t because Dennis wanted to see me 24/7; on the contrary, we usually saw each other only once a week. My problem was that I was mentally preoccupied with him. Smitten, infatuated, and wholly unlike myself. I was lucky to keep up with my editing projects, and had to pull some late-night sessions just to meet my deadlines.
On a lazy Sunday afternoon as we took a drive, he asked if I were writing, or just goofing off all the time. He meant it as a joke, but I took it to heart—mainly because it was true. “I’m thinking of going off in a different direction, perhaps a book set in New York City, maybe historical, maybe not.”
He shot me a grin. “Sounds great.”
No, it sounded like one big, fat procrastination, but I kept that to myself.
“Listen I’ve got to go back to Los Angeles. I’ll be there for a week or so,” he said casually. “So while I’m gone, you can get some serious writing done.” He smiled again, and I was grateful for the gentle encouragement in his eyes.
While Dennis was gone I got down to business, setting a strict schedule for myself: up at six, two hours of writing, a brisk walk, and another two hours of writing. Each afternoon, I dove into freelance editing, which I thought of as my day job.
The first few days of writing produced little worth keeping, but on the third day I settled into a groove. A new character evolved from my rambling, a character clearly influenced by my own life choices, who was emerging from a routine of responsibility and disappointments into a circle of quirky, like-minded friends. My character had just quit her day job to open a café in a small town about an hour outside the city, and was trying on the kind of life that had always escaped her.
On the sixth day, I went to an office supply place and printed out twenty-seven satisfying pages, read them over, and left them on my desk while I went out for a walk to decide whether I should send them to my agent or not. By the time I came back, I’d convinced myself that I was ready to send her a taste of what I was working on. The door to the sitting room that I used as my office was ajar. I pushed it open and froze.
A drop-cloth was spread on the floor in the corner, on top of which stood a ladder. At my desk stood Danny, my pages in his hands.
“What are you doing?” I shrieked.
Danny jumped and dropped the pages, which scattered across the floor. “I’m so sorry,” he apologized. “Now that I’ve fixed the roof, I wanted to paint the corner there. See, where it’s discolored from water seeping in?”
“I don’t care about the roof or the ceiling. I want to know why you are at my desk, reading my private papers.”
“When I saw you were out, I thought I could paint that corner before you came back. I was just getting set up when I saw the pages. I didn’t mean to read them, but what I saw was so compelling, I couldn’t help myself…”
“But you did help yourself!” I shook my head and began picking up the pages. When Danny stooped to help me, I hissed that I didn’t want him to touch anything of mine and warned him that he better stay as far away from me as possible.
Danny left without saying another word, leaving the ladder and the drop cloth in place.
I stayed in the room through lunch and well into the afternoon. I was so angry at his intrusion that I nearly tore up the pages, but knew that served no purpose. I read and re-read them, tried changing a few sentence, but couldn’t make any progress. Instead I read and napped, and didn’t emerge until nearly dinnertime.
“There you are,” Dahlia said from the stove where dinner was already underway. “We missed you at lunch.”
“I wasn’t hungry,” I mumbled, and opened the refrigerator to grab a piece of cheese.
“Don’t spoil your appetite now. Dinner is going to be served in about a half hour.” Dahlia handed me a glass of wine. “Bess and Lillian are outside. Go join them.”
Dahlia turned her back to the stove, and I watched her as she worked: the stoop of her shoulders, her gray hair gathered back in a loose bun. She was my mother’s age, I guessed, and her kindness and care were so overwhelming that I fought the urge to hug her. She turned and smiled. “Go on, now. They have something for you.”
Bess and Lillian spoke quietly together, their voices so soft I could not make out their words. They looked up at the same time when I slid open the patio door and stepped outside. Bess handed me an envelope.
“What’s this?” I asked, sitting down on the table.
“Just open it up and read it,” Lillian said.
The letter was an apology from Danny, begging my forgiveness for his invasion of my privacy. After the first page. I got the point: he didn’t mean to intrude and he was sorry. Turning to the second page, I had expected more of the same, and was taken aback to read a commentary on my writing. As much as I told myself that I didn’t care about his opinion, I kept reading. He found the story engaging and the characters believable. He asked intelligent questions about two of the characters, and pointed out an inconsistency in the story development that, quite frankly, was a very good catch.
I folded the letter and put it back in the envelope.
“Danny was awfully upset by what happened. He told us all about it,” Lillian began.
“It was an invasion of privacy,” I said tersely.
“Yes, it was. But your writing was so compelling he said he couldn’t help himself,” Lillian said.
I huffed an indignant little laugh.
“We’ve known Danny for five years and there isn’t a disingenuous bone in his body,” said Bess. “I won’t apologize for him; that’s his responsibility. But if he said he liked what he read, then he did.”
“And why should I care about a roofer’s opinion?”
Bess’s eyes narrowed as she lasered her disappointment. “Come now, you didn’t really say that, did you?”
With that, the subject was dropped and dinner was served. Lillian filled up the white spaces of our conversation with chatter. As I ate, my mood improved—the upset was over and done.
Toward the end of the evening, Bess reached over and laid her hand gently on my forearm. “We are very happy that you’re here with us,” she said.
“You seem much more alive than when we first met you,” Lillian piped up.
I had Dennis to thank for that and told them so.
Bess leaned toward me, this time taking my hand in hers. “Why did you come, Kate? Is this truly what you felt destined to do?”
“Of course!” I replied without thinking. “I love it here. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to get out of New York until I came here. Not that I plan on being your house guest forever.”
“You can stay until the end of time,” Bess interrupted. “I’m asking if the life you’ve embarked on now seems like the path that was waiting for you all along, or if you’ve merely hopped tracks while waiting for something to happen to you.”
Clearly Bess and Lillian knew, or thought they knew, something that they weren’t telling me. I felt manipulated by their sudden questions about why I moved to Palm Beach, when they were the ones who encouraged me to come in the first place.
Lillian made a soothing little noise before she spoke. “We just want to make sure that you’re happy and that you’re living life for you—not for anyone else.”
Bess put an end to the discussion as abruptly as she started it. “Let’s get the brandy glasses. Dahlia has made something sinful for dessert, and I feel like a drink to go with it.”
They left me alone at the table with a painful longing to speak to Dennis. I knew from his last text message that he was tied up with clients. Then I realized why The Sisters had asked me about moving to Palm Beach. Everything I felt, even my annoyance with Danny, was about someone else. All I had was my own life and the way I chose to live it—starting with my writing.
“I’ll join you in a second,” I told The Sisters as I passed them in the kitchen. Grabbing the pages off my desk, I returned to the patio where a slice of banana cake awaited me, along with a snifter of brandy. “So, do you want to hear a story?” I offered.
Lillian clasped her hands eagerly and Bess leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes. With that, I began to read.
To be continued next month with Part III of The Storytellers…