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"Is that someone coming up the stairs? Now? At ten o'clock on a Sunday night? I don't believe these people!"
"I'll take care of it. Go on and do what you were going to do," Mara Pratt advised the elderly woman as Mara stood to give her a hand, pulling her severely
"Are you sure?"
"Positive. That's one of the reasons I'm here, remember? To run interference for you," Mara reminded.
Celeste Perry managed a tight, weary smile. "I don't know what I would have done without you this last week." "I don't know what I would have done without you for longer than that," Mara countered.
Celeste gave Mara a warm hug and then pointed at Mara's nose. "You have a little flour smudge from making cookies."
Mara brushed at the spot the older woman had brought to her attention. "Go. Get ready for bed. Tomorrow will be the roughest day yet and you need some rest. As soon as I send this reporteror whoever it ison their way, I'll pour you a little brandy and you can wind down."
The rotund woman nodded and disappeared around a corner of the small apartment the Pratt family owned and had rented to Celeste for decades.
Not that they had known they were renting it to the notorious Celeste Perry any more than they'd known her true identity throughout all the years they'd employed her at their dry cleaners. Theylike the rest of the people of Northbridge, Montanahad believed they were renting and giving work to a quiet, unassuming woman named Leslie Vance, a stranger new to town in 1970.
The solid, even thuds of steps coming up the outer stairs stopped about the time Mara heard Celeste's bedroom door close. Then a knock sounded.
Wanting to makesure she wasn't too unpresentable if she had to open the door, Mara glanced into a mirror on the wall for a quick check as she called, "Who is it?" "I'm here to see Celeste Perry," a deep male voice called back.
That was hardly a revelation. As the woman who hadin 1960, after a bank robbery that had rocked the small communityleft her two sons and her husband to run off with one of the robbers, Celeste was in high demand.
"That doesn't tell me who you are," Mara said, double-checking for any other problems with her appearance.
Earlier in the week she'd been caught off guard by a reporter and photographer at the door and had ended up with an unflattering picture splashed all over town. Not wanting that repeated, she made sure her shoulder-length, cocoa-colored hair was neatly tucked behind her ears and that blush still highlighted her reasonably high cheekbones. She wished that she at least had gloss on lips she thought needed to be a bit fuller, and she noted that, while her straight, thin nose was now unfloured, there was a tiny shadow of mascara beneath one navy blue eye. She ran a fingertip under her lashes to wipe it away and decided that was as good as it was going to get.
"I'd rather not announce my name from out here," the deep voice answered tightly.
Suspicious, Mara moved from the mirror and went to the door. She wasn't about to open it, however, without some information. If the man outside waslike Mara, her siblings and a large portion of the citizens of Northbridgea supporter of Celeste, it might be okay. But if the visitor was someone who condemned Celeste, or one of the many reporters hounding her for interviews, it could be dicier. So, without knowing who was outside now, Mara wasn't opening that door.
"I don't care whether you want to announce your name. Unless you tell me who you are, you might as well just go away."
"I'm not Celeste," Mara informed him, cutting off his uncertain use of the name.
"Who are you then?" he demanded, no longer uncertain.
"The question is, who are you?" Mara reiterated.
"I'm here to see Celeste Perry," the man repeated firmly, speaking more slowly, as if Mara would understand him better that way. Then, in a louder voice, he added, "If this isn't where I can find her, then where is she?"
Mara had faced down any number of muckraking reporters this last week, all of them tenacious, some of them pushy, but none this demanding or insistent. It was almost as if he felt somehow entitled to be. What Mara wanted to do was tell this guy to take a hike. The trouble was, if his loud voice roused the suspicions of the state patrolman, on duty to ensure Celeste remained in her apartment under informal house arrest, the officer would come up to the apartment, too. And very little peace would be had tonight.
So Mara knew she was going to have to give a little. "I'm Mara Pratt," she said. "And no one gets to Celeste without going through me."
"Pratt?" the man echoed. "I know the Pratts. At least I knew them. Cam and Scott"
"My older brothers. Who I can call and have over here in five minutes to escort you away from that door if you don't tell me who you are."
"I'm Jared Perry."
Mara knew who Jared Perry was, even if she didn't actually know himafter all, she'd been only twelve when he'd left town and, at six years his junior, had had no reason to cross paths with him in any memorable way before that.
Still, she was aware that Jared Perry was the black sheep of the Perry family. That he'd left Northbridge the day he'd graduated from high school after a very public argument with his grandfatherthe local reverend at the timeat the graduation ceremony. She knew that he hadn't returned since.
She also knew that he had, however, made a fortune as a corporate raider and he was the owner of a daunting reputation. Relentless, ironfisted, unflinching and unyieldingTake-No-Prisoners Perry was how the press referred to him and it had been said by the New York Times that if any floundering business, corporation, company or conglomerate caught his eye they might as well just mail him the keys to their headquarters and save themselves some trouble.
He was also one of Celeste's grandchildren. And someone the older woman would not want left outside on the apartment's small wooden landing in the January cold.
Mara finally unlocked the door and opened it. And there, in the light of the single bulb, stood a man who looked every inch the rich tycoon accustomed to the awe, respect and probably fear of braver people than Mara.
But still she held her ground and gave him a good once-over to make sure he was who he claimed.
Certainly he was considerably better dressed than any reporter she'd yet seen, wearing a charcoal, midcalf-length cashmere coat that almostbut not quitecamouflaged the impatient switch of his weight from one side to the other. He was tall, imposing and broad-shouldered, staring down at her from a height of at least six feet two inches through eyes that were deep-set, intense and intimidating even from the shadows they were cast in.
Mara mentally matched up what she was seeing with her memory of the pictures of Jared Perry in newspaper and magazine articles in conjunction with some of his business dealings, coming to the conclusion that even though he was far, far better looking in person than in any of his pictures, this was, indeed, the illustrious Jared Perry.
So, without further delay, she said, "Come in," and stepped aside to allow it.
Long, confident strides brought him inside where he seemed to fill the entire room.
Mara closed the door and went around to face him. "I'm sorry for not letting you in right away. You can't imagine how many people have shown up to see Celeste, and not all of them with good intentions. Plus it's late for a drop-in visit."
"I just got into town and I'd like to see my grandmother," he said flatly.
"She's worn out and has a difficult day ahead of her tomorrow"
"I know. I've spoken with my brother Noah. That's why I'm here nowto do what I can to keep her from talking to the authorities until she has a defense attorney."
"If only you could," Mara said somewhat under her breath. Then, more audibly, "I'll tell her you're here." Only as an afterthought did she add, "Take off your coat and have a seat."
Over her shoulder as she headed for Celeste's bedroom Mara saw Jared Perry remove the exquisite outerwear, exposing a rust-colored sweater that traced the V of an impressive torso to great effect, and dark wool slacks that fitted him so well they had
Nothing shabby about those clothes, either, she thought, pulling her eyes away before he caught her looking.
The apartment's single bedroom was at the end of a short hallway and when Mara reached the closed door she tapped gently.
"Les" Mara was still having some difficulty remembering to call Celeste by her given name instead of Leslie. But that had been the older woman's request so Mara was making every attempt and cut herself short to amend the slip of the tongue. "Celeste," she said through the closed bedroom door, "it wasn't a reporter this time. It's your grandson Jared."
"Jared?" Celeste repeated with the same amount of pleasure she'd shown each time any of her other grandchildren had come by in the past week, the grandchildren she'd only been allowed to view from a distance, until now. "Jared is here?"
"He is. In the living room."
"I'll be right out!" Celeste said excitedly.
Mara turned from the bedroom door but paused for a moment to glance down at her own clothes before rushing back to Jared Perry.
Jeans and a T-shirtthey were hardly going to knock Jared Perry off his feet, but there was nothing Mara could do about it. Although she didn't know why it should matter to her.
Celeste's grandson hadn't taken Mara up on her invitation to be seated. He was still standing, off to one side of the living room now, surveying the space that included a tiny kitchen separated only by a half wall.
"Celeste will just be a minute," Mara informed him when his glance fell expectantly on her.
He nodded, taking a turn at studying her suddenly and unnerving her to no end, especially since his expression gave nothing away and she couldn't tell if he liked what he saw or thought she was the epitome of the small-town yokels he'd left behind.
"Wouldn't you like to sit down?" she asked, hoping to get his eyes off her.
But he neither acknowledged the question nor stopped staring at her. Instead he said, "Mara Pratt."
"I only remember Cam and Scott, but as I recall there were a lot of you."
"Cam, Scott, then Neily, then me, then the tripletsBoone, Taylor and Jon," she said, listing all of her siblings in their birth order.
Jared Perry nodded. "And you're friends with Celeste?"
Clearly he had his own issues with what to call the woman helike the rest of the Perrysonly knew vaguely and peripherally as the counter help at the dry cleaners.
"She's worked with us downstairs since she came back to town and realized no one here recognized her anymore because of the weight gain. She was my mom's best friend and since I run the dry cleaners now, we're very close," Mara explained.
"So you're here playing watchdog?"
"Sort of. I'm here to keep her company and look after her and help wherever I can. I couldn't let her go through this alone."
He nodded a second time. "That's nice of you." "LesCeleste your grandmother has always done a lot for us," Mara demurred, embarrassed by his praise.
The woman in question joined them then, dressed in a pink chenille bathrobe, her coal-black hair released from its ever-present bun to fall to her waist, her ample cheeks rosy with the excitement of seeing another of her grandchildren now that they all knew who she was.
"Jared!" Celeste gushed as she came into the living room.
"Hello," he answered stiltedly, the awkwardness of the moment obvious, just as it had been with other Perrys who had come to visit Celeste in the six days since her true identity had been known.
"I was about to pour Celeste a nightcap," Mara interjected. "Can I get you a little brandy, too?"
"I think so," he said as if it were a welcome suggestion.
Mara left them in the living room and went into the kitchen. She doubted that the cheap brandy she poured from a plastic decanter would be up to Jared Perry's standards, but Celeste lived frugally and it was the only option.
"Let's sit," Celeste said to her grandson, motioning to the sofa as Mara handed them each a glass of brandy.
Celeste lowered her girth into the recliner again and this time Jared Perry took up a spot on the sofa nearby. Where Mara would soon be sleeping just as she had every night for the last week.
"Sit with us, Mara," Celeste invited as Mara was about to retreat to the kitchen again to allow them that slight amount of privacy.
But if Celeste wanted her nearer than that, Mara wouldn't refuse her and perched on an ottoman near the recliner.
Once she had, Celeste's attention centered again on her grandson.
And so did Mara's.