Heroes Are My Weakness(5)

By: Susan Elizabeth Phillips



She kept the flashlight pointed down so she couldn’t see her reflection in the mirror that hung over the old-fashioned sink. She knew what she’d see. A long, pale face shadowed by illness; a sharply pointed chin; big, hazel eyes; and a runaway mane of light brown hair that kinked and curled wherever it wanted. She had a face children liked, but that most men found quirky instead of seductive. Her hair and face came from her unknown father—“A married man. He wanted nothing to do with you. Dead now, thank God.” Her shape came from Mariah: tall, thin, with knobby wrists and elbows, big feet, and long-fingered hands.

“To be a successful actress, you need to be either exceptionally beautiful or exceptionally talented,” Mariah had said. “You’re pretty enough, Antoinette, and you’re a talented mimic, but we have to be realistic . . .”

Your mother wasn’t exactly your cheerleader. Dilly stated the obvious.

I’ll be your cheerleader, Peter proclaimed. I’ll take care of you and love you forever.

Peter’s heroic proclamations usually made Annie smile, but tonight she could think only of the emotional chasm between the men she’d chosen to give her heart to and the fictional heroes she loved. And the other chasm—the one between the life she’d imagined for herself and the one she was living.

Despite Mariah’s objections, Annie had gotten her degree in theater arts and spent the next ten years plodding to auditions. She’d done showcases, community theater, and even landed a few character roles in off-off-Broadway plays. Too few. Over the past summer, she’d finally faced the truth that Mariah was right. Annie was a better ventriloquist than she’d ever be an actress. Which left her absolutely nowhere.

She found a bottle of ginseng-flavored water that had somehow escaped freezing. It hurt to swallow even a sip. Taking the water with her, she made her way back into the living room.

Mariah hadn’t been to the cottage since summer, just before her cancer diagnosis, but Annie didn’t see a lot of dust. The caretaker must have done at least part of his job. If only he’d done the rest.

Her dummies lay on the hot pink Victorian sofa. The puppets and her car were all she had left.

Not quite all, Dilly said.

Right. There was the staggering load of debt Annie had no way of repaying, the debt she’d picked up in the last six months of her mother’s life by trying to satisfy Mariah’s every need.

And finally get Mummy’s approval, Leo sneered.

She began removing the puppets’ protective plastic. Each figure was about two and a half feet long, with movable eyes and mouth and detachable legs. She picked up Peter and slipped her hand under his T-shirt.

“How beautiful you are, my darling Dilly,” he said in his most manly voice. “The woman of my dreams.”

“And you are the best of men.” Dilly sighed. “Brave and fearless.”

“Only in Annie’s imagination,” Scamp said with uncharacteristic rancor. “Otherwise, you’re as useless as her exes.”

“There are only two exes, Scamp,” Dilly admonished her friend. “And you really mustn’t take out your bitterness against men on Peter. I’m sure you don’t mean to, but you’re starting to sound like a bully, and you know how we feel about bullies.”

Annie specialized in issue-oriented puppet shows, several of which focused on bullying. She set Peter down and moved Leo off by himself, where he whispered his sneer inside her head. You’re still afraid of me.

Sometimes it felt as if the puppets had minds of their own.

Pulling the scarlet cloak tighter around her, she wandered to the front bay window. The storm had eased and moonlight shone through the panes. She looked out at the bleak winter landscape—the inky shadows of spruce, the desolate sheet of marsh. Then she lifted her gaze.

Harp House loomed above her in the distance, sitting at the very top of a barren cliff. The murky light of a half-moon outlined its angular roofs and dramatic turret. Except for a faint yellow light visible from high in the turret, the house was dark. The scene reminded her of the covers on the old paperback gothic novels she could still sometimes find in used-book stores. It didn’t take much imagination for her to envision a barefoot heroine fleeing that ghostly house in nothing more than a filmy negligee, the menacing turret light glowing behind her. Those books were quaint compared with today’s erotically charged vampires, werewolves, and shape-shifters, but she’d always loved them. They’d nourished her daydreams.

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