by Kenna White
Joanna Lucas is single again, but a trip to Venice to consult on a mosaic restoration will help mend her broken heart. Most of her two weeks will be free to explore the beautiful Italian city with her friend Deena, but if she’d known who recommended her for the trip, she might have stayed home.
An award-winning painter, Chandler Cardin also gives private art lessons. She’s the last person Joanna expects to run into so far from Boston. Equally unexpected is the attraction that resurfaces, reminding Joanna of old times. But far too much water has flowed under those bridges.
Maybe she’d be better off taking Deena’s advice, and view Venice as her chance to experience the love ’em and leave ’em life—with anyone but Chandler.
Bestselling author Kenna White Romancing the Zone, Comfortable Distance takes readers on a breathless journey through the beauties of Venice and the romance of a lifetime.
Just About Write
February 2011: Kenna White has developed a reputation for writing satisfying romances with strong characters. Body Language may be the best she's written so far.
March 2011: Romance is White's forte and she does it well, once again, in Body Language, making us root for the protagonist and worry about whether or not she and her former love interest are meant to be together again.
Joanna Lucas sat staring at the telephone, drumming her fingers on the buttons as she decided whether to make the call. She spun her desk chair around and went to the window of her third-floor office and stared out at the busy street below.
It was a warm summer day in Boston but for some inexplicable reason she felt a chill. She didn’t have time for this. She had sixteen student interns waiting for assignments. She also had to restore an exquisite Victorian candelabra she suspected was sterling silver, but some jerk had spray-painted green, a sixteenth century French Bisque figurine with chips that needed repair and a one-of-a-kind grandfather clock that needed cleaning before the museum added it to their collection. She didn’t have time for this poor-poor-pitiful-me self-doubt. It was just a chill, probably from the air conditioning.
But it was the same chill she felt Saturday evening as she waited for LuAnn to meet her for dinner. She felt the chill again later that evening when LuAnn suggested they go back to her apartment. The idea of having sex with her had never frozen Joanna in her tracks before. Well, maybe it had, now that she thought about it. Several times in the four months since they met she had noticed that chill. She had tried to ignore it at first, attributing it to early relationship jitters. But as much as she tried, those feelings of apprehension were still there. Not the feelings she expected—the ones of anticipation and contentment over their next kiss or their next rendezvous. The sex was good. Joanna had to admit that. Or as good as sex could be when she looked forward to the orgasm more than the lovemaking.
There was no denying it. Something was drastically wrong. And there shouldn’t be. She had a right to expect more. She was tired of forcing a smile and pretending every touch was magical. When she kissed a woman, she wanted it to be passion driven. Not duty bound. Joanna couldn’t explain why but dating LuAnn had become a chore, not a pleasure. That wasn’t fair to LuAnn or to herself. At forty-one, Joanna wanted and needed more. And she knew it wasn’t going to come from LuAnn.
Joanna watched the couples walking the sidewalk, her hand subconsciously holding the collar of her blouse closed to the neck. She returned to her desk and snatched up the receiver, keying in the number. She leaned back in her desk chair and closed her eyes as she waited for LuAnn to pick up but it went through to her voice mail instead.
“LuAnn, this is Joanna. Sorry I missed you. I’m really sorry to spring this on you at the last minute but I won’t be able to make it this weekend. Something has come up at work. I know. I know. We’ve been talking about a weekend in P’town for weeks. Forgive me. Oops, got to go. Another call coming in. Talk with you soon. Bye-bye.”
She hung up and heaved a relieved sigh. She wasn’t sure she had breathed the entire time she was fibbing and hated herself for doing it.
“Ms. Lucas, you said to let you know when the crate arrived from Baltimore.”
Joanna only marginally heard her, the call she had just made still twisting in her mind.
“Ms. Lucas?” The co-ed in the doorway was twirling a lock of her long hair, dragging it across her mouth as if tasting it.
“Yes.” When are they going to stop sending me these babies as interns, she thought. They’re getting younger and younger. And not just younger, but perkier. Sexier. If life was a baseball game, Joanna knew she’d be the over-the-hill relief pitcher with tennis elbow and rotator cuff damage. The young perky graduate students, like the one draping herself around her doorjamb, would be the league MVPs. Joanna couldn’t compete with that. But when had that ever been a priority? God, is it that time of the month again? It has to be mood swings or the birthday she was hoping to ignore next week.
She pushed the telephone back on her desk as if putting the call out of her mind and looked up, saying, “Yes, Haley. I’m on my way.”
She sprang to her feet and headed out the door, once again in complete control of herself and the work she had to fill her day. As assistant director of the art objects department of the Straus Center for Art and Technical Studies, she was not only expected to critique incoming art objects for repair and restoration but was instructor to the interns hoping to become art conservators. She was also expected to make herself available for fund-raising opportunities that dragged her to endless meetings and luncheons. All of them activities she’d rather not have to do since they took her away from being an art conservator, something she truly enjoyed.
Haley wasn’t moving fast enough for Joanna and she passed her with long purposeful strides, high heels clicking along the polished marble floor and the lapels of her satin blouse bouncing against her cleavage. As she approached the workroom at the end of the hall, she could hear voices, more voices than were usually at work in that room.
“What’s up, kids?” she said, her mere presence parting the crowd as she entered. A dozen or so interns were watching two women lift the lid from a wooden crate. The only markings on the plywood box, something larger than a side-by-side refrigerator, were the words CAUTION–EXTREMELY FRAGILE stenciled on each side. She peeled the plastic invoice packet from the lid as they set it aside. She sifted through the papers as another student began the task of unscrewing the long rows of screws that held the front panel in place.
“Is that the only screwdriver we have, Rita?”
A middle-aged Hispanic woman looked up from her perch on a five-wheeled secretarial chair.
“Dr. Heath borrowed our toolbox and hasn’t returned it.” She shrugged matter-of-factly.
“Anyone have a pocketknife with a screwdriver blade on it?” Joanna asked, scanning the group hopefully. Everyone shook their heads.
“Can’t have them on campus,” one of the young men offered, as if Joanna should already know that.
“We’ll be here all day at this rate.” Only two screws had been removed and there were dozens left.
Joanna groaned indignantly as she spun on her heels and crossed the hall to an equipment locker. She returned a minute later with a screwdriver in each hand and gave them to two of the spectators. “Now we have three.”
When one of the screwdriver-wielding women broke a nail and gave that more attention than the job at hand, it was all Joanna could do not to grab the tool out of her hand and do the job herself. But she was supposed to delegate. That was part of her position as assistant director. She circled the crate, mentally calculating how long it was going to take to unscrew all the panels at this rate.
“Is anyone going to let us in on what’s inside?” a young man asked.
“Something to do with Dolley Madison,” Haley replied.
“So?” He didn’t seem impressed.
“Robert, what can you tell me about Dolley Madison?” Joanna asked, turning to her job as instructor.
“She was married to James Madison, the fourth President of the United States. It was her second marriage. He was quite a few years her senior and was President during the War of 1812,” he said, his arms crossed pretentiously. “She was a large woman. Buxom is the word I think they used to describe her.” He smiled chauvinistically.
“That’s part of her story,” Joanna said. “She also was a survivor. She and her son survived yellow fever that killed her first husband and a large percentage of Philadelphia’s population in 1793. Years later she was forced to sell off the family estate at Montpelier to pay debts her son incurred through alcoholism and stupidity. But it’s her eye for style and artistic flair that we’re celebrating with this piece of history. When the British marched up Pennsylvania Avenue in August of 1814, looting and burning everything in their path, it was Dolley Madison who’s credited with saving much of the silver and paintings in the White House. She had White House treasures loaded onto wagons and taken from the city before the building was burned. Even so, many of the exquisite pieces of furniture were lost.”
The class was listening attentively. She went on. “As an anniversary present for his wife, President Madison ordered a mahogany writing desk be made nearly a year before. The cabinetmaker mistakenly delivered it to the White House a month early. The First Lady wasn’t at home and the President was so busy with the war and the impending invasion by the British troops, he paid little attention to the mistake. But at the last minute, he changed his mind. He had the desk removed and put in storage to be delivered on their anniversary instead of her birthday. But with the burning of the White House it was long forgotten. It wasn’t until two years after he left office that the desk was rediscovered. It had been stored in the root cellar of one of the White House staff members.”
Finally the front panel was folded down, exposing excelsior packing material surrounding a plastic-wrapped piece of furniture.
“Let’s have a look,” Joanna said, tossing a wad of excelsior aside. “Watch out for the corners.”
She removed blocks of foam protecting the top corners. Several students helped to remove the desk from the crate, lifting it like it was made of glass. As the plastic was removed, the dozen or so onlookers moved closer. Joanna peeled back the last layer and studied the mahogany desk with a slow contented smile. “This is it, kids.” She circled the desk, sliding her fingertips along the edge of the desk as if caressing a lover. “Magnificent,” she whispered. “Look at the reeded quarter columns and the inlay. It’s gorgeous.”
“There’s a package in the bottom of the crate, Ms. Lucas,” Rita said, unwinding the bubble wrap around a wooden cigar box.
Joanna opened the box and unfolded several pieces of tissue paper. They contained six slivers of wood, each about four inches long and an inch wide. There was also a small brass name plate, tarnished beyond recognition. The tiny nail holes were clogged with dirt and grime.
“These must be the damaged parts of a drawer back.” She set the box in the top drawer for safekeeping.
“Are we just repairing the drawer?” Robert asked, giving his own circle to the desk.
“We have the privilege of cleaning and restoring Dolley Madison’s desk before it’s added to the First Ladies’ Collection going on tour after the first of the year.”
“Whoever had it didn’t take very good care of it,” he said, looking at it more critically than appreciatively.
“You’re a half-empty kind of guy, Robert,” Joanna couldn’t help but say.
“Well, they didn’t. Look at the legs. They’re all scuffed up. There is a big gouge out of the back. And it’s filthy.”
“I’d much rather have it arrive in this condition so we can restore it properly than have someone do the wrong thing. As far as we know, this is the only piece of furniture to be exclusively owned by Dolley Madison to ever have been in the White House prior to it being burned in 1814.”
“That’s just a technicality. It wasn’t there long enough to count.”
God, she hated these pompous young men with narrow minds and narrower educations. He obviously didn’t understand the importance of the piece and she didn’t feel like arguing with him. The gawkers, including Robert, gave a last look before drifting off to their own workrooms.
“Is she in there?” a gravelly voiced man called from the hall.
“Yes,” Haley said as she exited.
“I’m here, Dr. Finch,” Joanna replied without looking in his direction. “Come see the desk. It’s exquisite.”
He worked his way through the departing students. Dr. Finch didn’t have the commanding presence of Joanna although he was the director of the Straus Center and Joanna’s boss. He was a smallish man in his sixties with gray hair, balding with a deep comb-over. His eyebrows were bushy and unkempt like the tufts of hair sprouting from his ears. He was hard to look at without wondering why his wife hadn’t seen to his grooming needs, assuming she wasn’t blind or indifferent.
What Harvey Finch lacked in social graces he more than made up for in his academic attributes. He was well-read, well-schooled and well-traveled in anything to do with the conservation and restoration of fine arts. Unfortunately, his wealth of knowledge was smothered by his administrative duties for the Straus Center and the Harvard University Art Museum of which it was part. The politics of fundraising and budgetary constraints had dimmed his artistic interest and to Joanna that was a shame. He had been Joanna’s mentor when she was a green intern. In her view, he had sold out. She thought he was much more valuable in the lab than in the front office. But she wasn’t naïve. She understood the ascension up the administrative ladder. She also understood the Peter Principle about rising to your level of incompetence.
“What desk is this?” he asked, peering over the top of his granny glasses without much interest. Joanna noticed his eyes had stopped at the deep V of her blouse, wallowing around in the view a moment before moving on to the desk.
“The Dolley Madison writing desk from the Gillenburg estate.” She gave him enough information hoping to jog his memory. He only shrugged.
“The one from the White House, Dr. Finch,” one of the co-eds said. “The anniversary gift from President Madison.”
Joanna hated it when the interns talked down to him like he was a senile old man.
“Ah, yes,” he said as if the light had finally come on. “1814. Mahogany with rosewood inlay and brass capital columns.”
Atta boy, Harvey, Joanna thought.
“Yes.” She blew some excelsior dust from the surface of the desk. “They included the broken drawer back and the brass plaque. I haven’t checked to see if we have all the pieces but hopefully we can reconstruct the back.”
“What’s that?” he said, eyeing something on the front leg. “Surface check or split?”
Joanna tucked the back of her skirt behind her knees and squatted to examine the damage.
“It looks like the wood is dried out and cracked along the grain. The strip of inlay is all there but it’s loose.” She worked her nail into the crack, careful not to damage it more.
“Weather check probably?” He stooped closer, resting his hand on her shoulder for support as he looked. “Don’t let that piece get lost. You might want to take it out, clean the residue off the slot and the back of the inlay then replace it. It’ll make for a better fit.”
Joanna removed the bottom drawer and turned it over.
“Nice delicate dovetail joints,” she said, showing him.
“Marcus Role,” Harvey said, squinting critically at the drawer. “Or his brother, Henry. But I’d bet Marcus.”
“I was thinking the Hiblinger Furniture Company from Alexandria, Virginia. They worked with rosewood and burled inlay like this. They also used batwing escutcheons similar to these.”
“You’ve got a good point.” He ran his fingers along the rim of the drawer pull. “They did occasionally use reticulated escutcheons like these. But I’m not convinced.”
“What do you see I don’t?” Joanna was relieved to hear her mentor return to teaching if only for a moment.
“In 1805 or so, the Role Brothers started using alternating dovetail widths.”
“Do they add to the joint strength?”
“No. It was purely for show. They also used hickory for backup wood. Drawer bottoms and backs. It’s a dense wood that works well with mahogany. I doubt Hiblinger would have had the balls to use a lesser backup wood for a piece of furniture going to the White House.” He scratched the drawer bottom with his thumbnail then sniffed it. “Yep. Hickory.”
“Do we know for certain this was made by the Role Brothers?”
“We do now. You can confirm it by checking the bottom of the piece. If it was Hiblinger’s there would be a small rectangular plaque or the shadow where one had been. No one is going to make a piece of furniture for the White House without leaving their mark on it. If it’s Henry Role there will be a tiny HLR mark in the corner. Probably hand carved. If it’s Marcus, you’ll see MR with a circle around it about the size of your thumb. It will probably be a pressure stamp. He was the older brother and had a bigger ego. More ostentatious in his detailing. He was also a more skilled craftsman. I’d bet this is Marcus’s work.” Harvey gave the desk one last look as if releasing his interest in it. “You can check it later. Now, I need to talk to you. Have you got a minute?”
Joanna replaced the drawer and stood up, brushing off her hands and straightening her skirt. “Sure, what is it? If it’s about the luncheon next week, I already contacted the caterer. And I really think you should give the welcoming speech. Dr. Han isn’t coming to see me.”
“No, no. This has nothing to do with that.”
“Rita, you can go ahead and photograph the desk. Get a close up of the right leg. You’ll see the split. And take close-ups of the drawer joints. Document anything you find. Check the crate and the packing to make sure we didn’t miss anything. And photograph any marks you see on the bottom or back.”
Joanna led the way down the hall to her office, Harvey following. It wasn’t until she closed the door that he pulled a several-page folded letter from his suit jacket pocket and back-creased the pages.
“Coffee, Harvey?” she asked, stepping to the coffee machine on the credenza behind her desk.
“Sugar, no cream,” he said as he flipped through the pages as if looking for something. “I received another letter from the Procurator’s Council. Actually it’s the proto’s office but it’s all the same thing. They want an answer, Joanna.”
“I thought we gave them one.” She set the cup in front of him as he took a seat across the desk from her.
“Thanks,” he said and immediately took a swig. “Good. Good coffee.” He went back to searching the letter. “You need to reconsider, Joanna. This isn’t like a library group that wants you to attend their luncheon. This is Basilica de San Marco in Venice, Italy. Saint Mark’s Cathedral.”
“I know, Harvey. But I don’t have time. You go.”
“I’m the director. My job is to delegate. You’re the assistant director. Besides, they specifically asked for you.” He took off his glasses and tossed them on the desk with the letter. “This is nothing to sneeze at, Joanna. This is a very handsome proposal. A few more grants like this one and we can think about adding that stereoscopic digital scanner you’ve been harping about.”
“Bribery isn’t your best posture, Harvey.” She leaned back in her desk chair, holding her cup in her hands as if it were warming her on a winter day. “Let’s stick to the facts.”
“Did you even look at this?” He sounded disappointed in her.
“No. I assumed your doctorate in art history meant you could.” She said it with a little smile as she turned the letter on the desk so she could look at it. “Harvey, write a letter to the Procurator’s Council at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Tell them thank you for the consideration but we are unable to accept your grant proposal at this time. Recommend Augusta Wittingham in Houston. She specializes in religious artifacts. If she can’t do it she can recommend someone who can.”
“Did you see how much this grant pays? Half to the Straus Center. Half to you.” He raised his bushy eyebrows and pointed to the figure in the letter. “All expenses paid. Airfare. Lodging. Transportation. Food allowance. They’ll even have a computer available for your use. You won’t have to take one. Two weeks in Venice, Italy. And don’t tell me you don’t secretly fanatasize about going to Venice, Italy again.”
“Surely you’ve been.” There was a judgmental curiosity in his tone.
“I’ve meant to.” Joanna knew it sounded strange someone in her profession, all but a dissertation away from a doctorate in art history, hadn’t been to one of the most historic and embellished cities in the world.
“Joanna, do me a favor. Do yourself a favor. Look it over. Give it some serious consideration. It isn’t very often someplace like San Marco asks for an outside opinion. They have in-house advisors and experts. This is big league, believe me. This would look really good on your curriculum vitae. Hell, it would look good on anyone’s curriculum vitae. If I were twenty years younger, I might fight you for it.”
“You go.” She held out the letter to him.
“God, no.” He laughed, locking his hands behind his head. “Besides, you are the expert on mosaics. Not me. Think of it as the vacation you keep promising yourself and don’t take.”
“I take vacations.”
“No, you don’t. You take business trips. Those don’t count. I can’t believe you’ve never been to Venice.”
“I’ve been to Rome.”
“Not the same. That’s Roman, not Renaissance. The art doesn’t compare. Neither does the city itself.”
He finished his coffee then stood up, hooking his thumbs through the suspenders on his trousers. “Read the letter, Joanna. Give it some thought. As your boss, I can’t order you to go. But as a friend, I can strongly recommend it.”
“I’ll read it,” she said, scanning the second page.
Harvey opened the office door then looked back at her. “October. Two weeks. Venice, Italy. Not a bad way to spend the fall.”
“I’ll read it, Harvey.”
“Venice can be very romantic in October.” Harvey was showing a playful side Joanna hadn’t seen before. “That’s where I took Nancy on our anniversary. She insisted, and for once, she showed good sense in selecting a vacation destination. Take someone with you. Make it a real vacation.”
“I’ll read the letter, Harvey,” she said, folding her hands over it.
“I’ll need an answer first of the week.”
“Monday,” he insisted, giving her a fatherly stare.
“Why do I get the feeling something is bothering you, Joanna?” His eyebrows rolled forward, nearly touching the bridge of his nose.
“I have no idea.” She straightened her posture convincingly. “I’m fine. There is nothing bothering me other than I’ve got a boss who keeps harping on me to take a vacation.”
“Okay. Then I’ll see you Monday morning.”
She chuckled. “Goodbye, Harvey. And it might not be first thing in the morning. But sometime Monday, I promise.”
Joanna listened to his footsteps down the hall then went to close her office door. As she again took her seat behind the desk her eyes fell across the framed photograph on her desk of herself and LuAnn. She picked up the frame and studied LuAnn’s face. It wasn’t a good photograph. Their hair was mussed and they looked tired after walking the full length of the Freedom Trail across Boston. Why she had chosen that one to frame was a complete mystery.
She used her finger to block out LuAnn’s mouth and nose so only her eyes were visible. The more she studied it, the more she could see someone else’s eyes looking back at her, the soft, passionate and sparkling eyes of another. Why hadn’t she noticed it before? LuAnn’s eyes were the same shape and deep brown color as Chandler’s eyes. She quickly removed her finger, gasping at the revelation.
This was not Chandler and Joanna hadn’t wanted it to be. The two years she spent with Chandler Cardin had gone from ecstatically happy to painfully ugly so fast it made her head spin, leaving her with an open wound that took months to heal. But heal, it had. And Joanna wasn’t going to pick that scab anymore. Nor could she remain in an unfulfilling relationship with LuAnn.
Just as she reached for the telephone there was a knock on the office door.
“Come,” she said.
“Rita said to let you know she found a mark on the bottom of the desk you might want to see. She photographed it.”
“Thank you, Haley. I’ll be right there.”
Joanna waited for her to close the door then dialed. While she waited she studied the photograph on the desk. She placed her thumb over LuAnn’s entire face.
It is. It’s Chandler’s body. She even stands like Chandler. How could I have missed that?
“Hi again, LuAnn. Regarding that last message I left, I hope this isn’t awkward but I have good news. I was able to shuffle things around and I can make it this weekend after all. Hope this is okay. Talk with you later. Bye-bye.”
Joanna hung up. She looked down at the photograph, squinting her eyes to blur the images. She then dropped the frame in her desk drawer and closed it, feeling a sense of relief for the first time in months.