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Annie Emerson was the lone occupant in the family car traveling behind the hearse that carried her grandmother to her final resting place. She stared numbly out a tinted side window. At the church, old friends of Ida Vance had said that at eighty-eight she'd lived a full, happy, productive life. But Gran Ida, as everyone called her, was Annie's only known relative, and Annie wasn't prepared to say goodbye.
She felt like a stranger in Briar Run, a small town bordering Louisville, Kentucky, where she'd grown up, and where Gran Ida had lived for nearly seventy years. Soon her grandmother would rest beside the man she'd loved and honored all those years, even though John Vance had died in World War II.
As the car crawled along, Annie reflected on the little she really knew about the woman who'd raised her from infancy. Ida didn't dwell on the past. In fact, it wasn't until after Annie had sought and accepted a scholarship to UCLAhalf a country away in Californiathat Ida deigned to share a bit of Annie's own history. Gran got out an old photo album and showed Annie pictures of her grandfather, John, who'd come home to Kentucky on leave before World War II turned really ugly. He had bought the Victorian home, then left again to fight and die before Ida discovered she was pregnant with a daughter from whom, sadly, she'd be estranged for many years. That daughter had been Annie's mother, but she still knew next to nothing about Mary Louise Emerson. Because Annie had badgered her, Gran admitted that the girl who'd run away at sixteen with an itinerant musician had reappeared at her door one rainy night seventeen years later, ill, pregnant and penniless; she swore she was married and her last name was Emerson. Later, weakened by a difficult birth, Mary Louise died without providing proof of any marriage.
That had all taken place thirty-four years agoher entire lifetime, Annie thought, wiping away tears of grief. For the past fourteen years she'd lived and worked in L.A. The truth was that she'd fled Briar Run because the boy she'd dated for two years and was sure she loved and loved her in return had let his parents break them up over Annie's iffy parentage. That created a grievance, which stuck with her long after Gran Ida informed her Brock Barnard and his family had moved away. The hurt went so deep, Annie hadn't been able to come back to Briar Run even for short visits until two weeks ago, when it became clear that Gran desperately needed her.
During those intervening years she had earned a master's in social work, and had taken a job in L.A. Her hours as a caseworker in a depressed area were horrendous. Her original aim had been to help young women like her mother. In the back of her mind, she'd foolishly imagined finding her fatherwhich never happened. Letting an unknown, uncaring dad and Brock Barnard's rejection drive her decisions for so long made no sense. And now, too late, Annie wrestled with guilt for avoiding Briar Run all this time.
And why hadn't she insisted Gran come and live with her? Maybe she could have gotten her the kind of medical care that might have prolonged her life. Gran loved her yearly visits to the coast, and Annie always sent her plane tickets. But Gran never stayed for more than a month. For the remainder of the year they spoke on the phone every Sunday evening. That felt like a cop-out now. She should have noticed signs of heart trouble during Gran Ida's last visit. She'd chalked up Gran's occasional memory lapses to old age. Annie truly hadn't suspected something might be seriously wrong. Not until a neighbor called to say Ida had trouble finding her way home from the grocery store. Or she'd put a kettle of water on the stove and let it burn dry. Annie had immediately phoned Gran's doctor. He'd said bluntly that Annie needed to come to Kentucky and arrange assisted living for Ida, whose arteries were hardeningarteriosclerotic heart disease, he'd called it.
Taking any time off meant Annie had to dump her caseload on her overburdened co-workerswhich took her a while. Then, after she got here, Gran flatly refused to discuss moving to a senior center anywhere, certainly not one in California. In fact, these past two weeks Gran had talked and acted as if Annie'd come home to stay.
The car stopped behind the hearse, next to a grassy knoll where a blue canopy stood. Annie's mind blanked when the funeral director opened her door, helped her out and led her to where Ida's pastor waited at the head of an open grave. Copious tears clogged her throat. Few people had come to the graveside service. Annie acknowledged Ida's next-door neighbors, the Gilroys and the Spurlocks. There was a well-dressed older gentleman she recalled seeing at church, but she didn't know him.
After the minister wound down a short eulogy, too short in Annie's estimation, mourners murmured condolences and drifted away. Annie hadn't planned a reception. First, she didn't think she could face one. Also, even Gran Ida had said a lot of their old friends and neighbors had moved away.
Annie bent to place a long-stemmed white rose on Gran Ida's casket. Gran Ida loved flowers, roses in particular.
The well-dressed stranger approached as Annie straightened. He gave her a business card, saying, "I'm Oliver Manchester, Ms. Emerson. I handle your grandmother's legal affairs. We should meet at your earliest convenience to go over Ida's will, you being her only heir," he said.
Annie had been so grief-stricken by Gran's death, she hadn't thought beyond arranging a funeral. She read the man's card and tried to compose her response. "I, ah, left my rental car at the funeral home. If you're free at one o'clock," she said after a glance at her watch, "I can stop by. I'm anxious to get everything sorted out because I need to get back to my job in L.A. as soon as possible. I only arranged for a four-week leave."
"One o'clock is good. Our meeting shouldn't take long. I must admit, though, I was under the impression that you weren't returning to California. When Ida phoned me to say you were coming, she indicated you'd be staying on to help revive the neighborhood."
Annie frowned. Her grandmother had said something similar to her several times. She hadn't argued, and now there seemed no point in making excuses to Mr. Manchester. She tucked his business card in her purse without further comment, and watched him walk to a dark blue sedan. As he drove away, Annie belatedly wished she'd asked if her grandmother had many outstanding bills. Oh, well, it didn't matter; she was prepared to settle them. For a number of years she'd sent Gran Ida regular checks to cover rising food and living costs. Considering how badly the once-pristine home needed painting, Annie wished she'd sent more. What she really wished was that she'd made time to visit. Once again her heart constricted with guilt. If Gran had ever said she needed her, Annie would've come. Now all that might have enticed her to stay was gone.
It was ten after one when Annie jockeyed her subcompact rental car into an on-street parking spot outside Oliver Manchester's office. Climbing out, she paused to lock the door, and tightened her grip on her purse; she'd noticed that all the offices and shops had iron grates installed over their doors and windows.
She racked her brain, but couldn't recall Gran's ever mentioning the town's business district going downhill.
At the barred door, Annie read a typed sign instructing callers to push a buzzer for admission. Strangely this reminded her of the area where she workedin the tough, run-down neighborhoods of south L.A.
A woman opened the door and unlocked the outer grate after Annie supplied her name. "Mr. Manchester's expecting you," she said. "Would you care for coffee, or perhaps a cold soda, before you go into your meeting?" She smiled at Annie as she relocked the grate.
"No, thank you. Mr. Manchester told me he didn't expect this to take long."
Nodding, the woman opened a door and announced Annie's arrival. She stood aside, letting her enter a private office. The attorney's office was posh in the manner of old-time Southern aristocrats. The dark green pile carpet was deep. Leather chairs and an oversize mahogany desk befitted a well-to-do lawyer. Oil paintings graced his walls, and crystal decanters sparkled on a corner bar. It was easy to see why Manchester wanted to protect his belongings with bars.
He came around his desk to pull out a chair for Annie. "I've gathered all of Ida's files," he said, retaking his seat. He opened a manila folder and indicated a spreadsheet on his computer screen.
Annie blanched. Surely Gran Ida couldn't be so much in arrears that it required a spreadsheet.
"I'm sure you know Ida worked as a lead seamstress for a local lingerie factory until it went out of business."
"Yes." Annie's voice reflected a modicum of pride. "During my senior year of high school, Gran was honored as the company's longest-serving employee. Her award was a brand-new sewing machine we put to good use sewing my college wardrobe."
"Ida could have retired well before then. She was fifty-six when you came into her life, and she felt the need to prove to Family Services that she was able to care for you."
"For which I'm grateful." Annie smiled.
The lawyer cleared his throat. "Ida bequeathed you the house, of course. It's a bit of an albatross, I'm afraid, given how this community has declined in the three years since the glove factory, our last major employer, shut down."
Annie opened her purse. "Mr. Manchester, I don't make a huge salary as a social worker. Neither do I have time to spend everything I earn. I'm ready to cover any bills Gran Ida left unpaid. Should they add up to more than I expect, I'll take out a loan. If you'll provide me with a full accounting of her debts, I'll begin paying them today."
Leaning back, the man lowered his glasses and stared at Annie. "You mean you aren't aware that in addition to her home, Ida has left you annuities and tax-free municipal bonds totaling nearly a million dollars?"
Annie's jaw dropped and her purse slipped off her lap to hit the carpet with a dull thud. She swallowed a lump that rose in her throat and bent quickly to hide a rush of tears. When she straightened, she had to dash them away, all the while shaking her head in denial.
"I can see you had no idea," Manchester said, turning to print what was on his computer screen.
"N-no," Annie stammered. "How how can that be?" she asked, fumbling out a tissue. "Gran's salary was modest. And she's been retired for years."
"Ida made her first will when John died. She funded her first annuity with his military death benefit. Saving was important to her. The only time she skipped funding what she called her nest egg was after Mary Louise ran off with that guitar player. Ida dipped into it to find her daughter. A private investigator she hired did locate Mary Louise living in a tent on the west coast. She made plain that she hated Kentucky, and told the P.I. she had no intention of ever returning. It almost broke Ida's heart, but she rallied, cut Mary Louise out of her will and resumed her investments." The lawyer passed Annie a sheaf of papers. "Ida eventually forgave your mother, because you turned out to be the gift that gave her life purpose."
"I knew some of that. Not that Gran Ida tracked down my mother." Annie looked blindly at rows of figures that blurred. Figures showing, among other things, that Gran had also invested every penny Annie had sent her over the years. "I never felt we lived frugally," Annie murmured. "Gran Ida was lavish with her love and she convinced me I could do anything I set my mind to, although she didn't really want me going away to college. Letting me go was generousI understand that better now. Forgive me, Mr. Manchester, but this is too much for me to take in right now. I need to go back to the house, think about all of this, and I'll contact you again in a day or so."
He stood at once. "By all means. If it matters, I do know Ida's greatest hope was that you'd live here and use your many skills to help families in Briar Run rebuild this community she loved so much. I realize that's a tall order," he added.
"I have a job. Gran is gone, and anyway, I'm not sure what she thought I could do " Annie's voice trailed off.
"Well, I don't blame you. I'm retiring in a few months, and will be moving to Florida. This fund Ida built up will allow you to enjoy a very comfortable life, Annie."
Something in his comment annoyed her. Was he suggesting she do nothing and live off her grandmother's largess? The very notion grated all the way back to Ida's house. Her house now. She pulled into the drive, stopped and rubbed at her temples, where a headache was starting. As she left the car, she realized there was a flurry of activity at the homes on either side of Gran's. The Spurlocks, a young, newly married couple, and the Gilroys, longtime retired friends of Ida's, had work vehicles parked in their driveways. Locksmiths, according to signs on a panel truck, and a glass company apparently replacing broken windows on her neighbors' homes.
The women saw her, and hurried over. That was when Annie saw her front door standing agape. By then her shoes had crunched broken glass on the porch. "What happened?" she asked Peggy Gilroy, who was first to reach the steps.
"Break-ins," Peggy announced. "When we were at Ida's funeral. I'm glad you got home while the workmen are still here. You'll need to arrange repairs before dark, Annie. We scared the intruders off when we pulled in. I should have told you not to list Ida's funeral service in the paper. That was like an open invitation to gang members."
"We have gangs? I knew Louisville had problems, but Gran Ida never said a word about Briar Run. I suppose she didn't want to worry me." Annie glanced from one to the other of the women, and both nodded. Annie then turned to their husbands, who remained with the workmen. "Did you report this to the police for all of us?"
The two women facing her exchanged worried frowns. "It might not be the best avenue," Peggy said quickly. "The gang is run by bad elements out of Louisville. They've gained a foothold here over the past year. Our shrinking police force has enough trouble dealing with serious crimeworse things than broken windows and a few stolen electronics. Just do the repairs and lie low, Annie, so we don't attract the gangs' attention."
"Are you kidding? Three houses vandalized and the local cops can't be bothered to do anything about it? I think not." She hauled out her cell phone and punched in 9-1-1. As Peggy and Missy hurried away, still looking concerned, Annie paced back and forth on her porch, kicking at broken glass. She waved one hand in the air as she impressed on the dispatcher that they needed police intervention ASAP. Then she peered inside at all the things strewn around, but decided it was best not to touch anything.