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"I had a great time today, thanks, Crystal." Kendra Loner-gan smiled at the attractive middle-aged widow and got a wide smile back. A first! This was good progress. They'd spent the past hour down on Rat Beach tossing balls into the Pacific waves for Byron, the golden retriever Kendra regularly borrowed from a friend for appointments with her dog-loving clients.
"I had fun, too." Crystal bent and stroked Byron's reddish fur. "It felt good to be on the beach again. Thanks, Kendra."
"You are welcome. See you next week!" Kendra tugged Byron's leash and gave Crystal a quick wave before leading the dog back down the block to the Lexus minivan that had belonged to her parents. For a while now she'd been intending to sell the car and buy something smaller, but she didn't ever seem to have time, and wasn't sure what she'd replace it with. In the meantime, it was a niceif a bit toughreminder of the family she'd lost. "Up you get, Byron. I'll take you home now."
She unhooked his leash; Byron bounded into the car and settled on the towel Kendra kept on the backseat. What an amazing animalshe never had any trouble with him. His owner, Lena, Kendra's friend since kindergarten, worked typical lawyer hours and was delighted to have Byron out getting exercise whenever Kendra needed him. Kendra had thought about getting a dog herself, but.. she hadn't done that yet either.
The Lexus swung smoothly out of its parking place on Pullman Lane in Redondo Beach; she turned it south onto Blossom Lane, heading toward the Pacific Coast Highway and her hometown of Palos Verdes Estates, a hilltop oasis overlooking the vast urban sprawl of L.A. She was back living in the house she'd grown up in, a temporary situation that had stretched on as the weeks and months passed. The house was much too big for one person, but it was stuffed with memories Kendra wasn't yet ready to leave behind.
Climbing the steeply curving roads of Palos Verdes Estates, windows rolled down to enjoy the cool November breeze, she turned up the volume on a Mumford and Sons song she loved, "Little Lion Man," peeking occasionally at the view of Santa Monica Bay, which became more and more spectacular as she ascended.
She left the view behind and turned onto Via Cataluna, then into the driveway of the house where Lena lived with her husband, Paul. Her cell rang, a private caller.
"This is Kendra." She switched off the engine.
"Kendra Lonergan? It's Matty Cartwright."
Kendra blinked, taking a moment to place the name. Matty Cartwright? From Palos Verdes High School? Whom Kendra had last seen years ago? How typical of a Cartwright to think she'd need no further introduction than her name. "Hi, Matty."
"I'm calling to Oh, uh, how are you? It's been a long time."
Kendra pushed out of the car, rolling her eyes, not in the mood for friendly small talk. She hadn't seen Matty since her sophomore year, when Matty was a senior, and didn't think she'd ever spoken to her. "I'm fine. What a surprise to hear from you."
"I'm calling about Jameson."
Jameson. Kendra grimaced, opening the car's rear door. Matty's younger brother had been in Kendra's grade from Montemalaga Elementary School through Palos Verdes High School. Not her favorite classmate.
She followed Byron to Lena's front entrance, where she fumbled for the borrowed keys in the pocket of her sweatshirt, not really anxious to be having this conversation. "What about Jameson?"
"I wondered if you could work with him."
Kendra froze. Work with Jameson Cartwright? As in help him? After the way he'd treated her? Byron whimpered impatiently. She unlocked her friend's door; the dog raced toward the kitchen. "Whoa, back up a second, Matty. Where is he, what happened to him and how did you hear about me and what I do?"
A sigh of exasperation came over the line. Kendra gritted her teeth, tempted to tell Matty where to stick her Cart-wright attitude.
"I'm sorry, Kendra." Matty gave a short, embarrassed laugh. "I'm not making any sense. I'm just so upset."
Kendra hung Byron's leash in the foyer closet, feeling an unwelcome twinge of sympathy. "It's okay. Just start at the beginning."
The slobbery sound of Byron lapping water came from the kitchen. Kendra wandered into Lena's airy living room, able to picture Jameson Cartwright as if she'd just seen him the day before. Nordic like his whole familyblond hair, blue eyes, high forehead, strong jaw. Yet she couldn't describe him as severely handsome, like the rest of them, because of his one fatal flaw: a wide, sensual mouth more suited to lazy smiles and lingering kisses than sneering and barking orders. Totally wasted on him. He must hate that mouth every time he looked in the mirror.
All through elementary and middle school he'd harassed her pretty steadily, mostly egged on by his odious older twin brothers. In high school there had been fewer incidents, since Hayden and Mark had graduated, thank God. Senior year Jameson had whipped Kendra for class president, not because he'd run a brilliant campaign, but because she'd been eccentric, brainy and overweight, and he was a Cartwright. Every Cartwright sibling had been president of his or her class.
"You know how our family is all in the military." It wasn't a question.
"Air Force, right?" Pilots going back generations, most attaining high rank or managing to be heroes of one sort or another, at least according to the Palos Verdes Peninsula News, which had done a rather gushy piece on the family some years back that Kendra had skimmed and tossed.
"Jameson did Air Force ROTC at Chicago University. He graduated last June with the Legion of Valor Bronze Cross for Achievement."
Kendra interrupted her who-cares eye roll. Wait, this past June? Kendra had graduated from UCLA and gone on to complete a two-year master's program in counseling at California State by then. "He just graduated?"
"It's a family tradition to take a year off before college and travel in Europe. Jameson settled in Spain and sort of took two. Anyway, after college, he finished basic officer training at Maxwell Air Force Base, a distinguished graduate for top marks in test scores and leadership drills."
My, my. How lucky Kendra was that she'd never have to suffer the pain of being so utterly perfect.
She entered Lena's bright yellow kitchen, where Byron was already lying in his crate, tired out from his frantic exercise at the beach. Such a good dog. "Then?"
"Then he was injured his first day of specialty training at Keesler Air Force Base, in Mississippi. He tore the ACL in his right knee and had to have surgery." Matty's voice thickened. "He's back home in Palos Verdes Estates on thirty days of personal leave while he continues recovering enough to go back and recover some more."
"Tough break." Why was Matty telling her this? Jameson needed a Scrabble partner? Someone to read him bedtime stories? Kendra closed Byron in his crate and blew him a kiss. "What do you need me for?"
"He, uh " Matty mumbled something. It was suddenly difficult to hear her, as if she was speaking through cloth. Kendra pressed the phone harder to her ear. " accident with a stray."
Kendra waited impatiently. Stray what? Bullet? Land mine? Grenade? "Sorry, I didn't hear. Accident with a stray what?"
"Cat." She said the word sharply. "Jameson was injured tripping over a cat. On his way to dinner."
Omigod! Kendra clapped a hand over her mouth to keep Matty from hearing her involuntary giggle. Seriously? Not that she'd wish that miserable an injury on anyoneeven Jameson Cartwrightbut karma must have had a blast arranging that one.
"What a shame," she managed weakly, barely stifling more laughter. Latest Cartwright's Journey to Hero Status Cut Short in Fierce Battle. Victim's last words: I tawt I taw a puddy tat.
"You can imagine what this means to a Cartwright." Matty spoke stiffly. "This could end his military career before it even starts."
But how is the cat? Kendra couldn't bring herself to be wiseass enough to ask. Though she couldn't imagine in a million years making a statement like "You can imagine what this means to a Lonergan." Like they were a rare and special breed of humans the rest of the world could barely comprehend. "I'm sure it's been hard."
"It's been awful." Her voice broke, making Kendra feel guilty for being. cattyha-ha. "Jameson is furious and severely depressed. I've called several times. He only picked up once and would barely speak to me. He won't talk to the rest of the family at all. I don't know if he's eating or anything. I've never seen him like this. Can you help him?"
Kendra's laughter died in the face of Matty's anguish. Depression was not a joke, no matter the cause. Kendra had been paralyzed for months after the sudden deaths of her parents mere days after her graduation from college. "How did you hear about me?"
"I was talking to a friend whose friend recommended you. She said you get referrals from doctors and therapists and hospitals, that your work supplements whatever care they're giving people in various stages of grief. That your methods are unusual but effective. Jameson won't accept traditional talk therapy."
"No?" Oh, there was a big surprise. Cartwright men didn't need some sissy talking out of their feelings. Why would they, when it was so easy to punch or ridicule someone and feel tons better about themselves?
"We weren't exactly raised on sensitivity and openness."
Well. Kendra raised her eyebrows at the unexpected admission, and at the bitterness in Matty's voice. At least she recognized that much. "I'm not sure I'm the right person to"
"I know what you're thinking."
"You do?" She doubted it.
"That Cartwrights don't have any whining rights. That I'm being arrogant and overprotective looking for professional help for a guy who isn't suffering from anything more than wounded pride. That he should get over himself and deal."
"Uh.. " Darn. That was exactly what she'd been thinking. Except the last part. Telling a depressed person to get over it was not generally effective.
"If it was one of my other brothers or my dad, I'd agree with you. There's no way I'd ask you to try to help one of them. But Jameson is different." Her voice softened. "He's always struggled to fit in. I think life would have been easier for both of us if we'd been born into a different family."
Kendra blinked in astonishment. She didn't know Matty at all, but Jameson? Struggling? He'd always seemed to fit the Cartwright mold to perfectionarrogant, entitled, self-centered should she go on? "Huh."
"I know, you don't believe me. But he's different from the other guys in the family. And that's why this is hitting him so hard. It's worse than just losing out on his planned future. It's like the final proof that he can't cut it. You know? I don't see it that way, and Mom who knows but you can bet Dad and my brothers do."
Kendra stood in Lena's living room, phone pressed to her ear, having a very hard time processing this information, given that it contradicted everything she'd ever thought about Jameson.
"I just know that I can't help him right now, and while traditional doctors and therapists might, he won't go, and he really, really needs help."
"What makes you think he'd let me help him?"
"He knows you."
Kendra gave an incredulous laugh. He knew her? He knew how to typecast her, he knew which buttons to push and he knew how to make her feel loathed and worthless. Thank God her parents had been psychologists and had taken time and care helping her through the pitfalls of childhood with her self-esteem intact. "Not very well. In any case, I'm pretty booked."
"Please, Kendra. I'll beg if you want me to. You're the first ray of hope I've had in weeks." Matty sounded as if she was about to burst into tears. "I haven't slept all night in so long I forget what it's like."
Oh, geez. Kendra closed her eyes, torn between sympathy for Matty and her instinct telling her she wanted less than nothing to do with men like the Cartwrights ever again.
"Just call him, Kendra. Talk to him. If you think I'm overreacting or it doesn't feel right, then fine, you don't have to take him on. We'll go another route. I just don't know what that would be at this point."
Kendra forced herself into motion, letting herself out of Lena's house. Committing to one call was an easy out, not really saying yes or no, which Matty undoubtedly knew and was exploiting. She was a Cartwright, after all.
Maybe Jameson had grown up some. Maybe Kendra had misjudged him all along, typecasting him as he had her. Hard to imagine, but Matty would know her brother better than Kendra did.
"I'll talk to him." She climbed into the Lexus, started back down the hill toward her house.
"Thank you. Thank you so much." Matty's relief was humble and real, no triumph in her tone. "He's house-sitting at a friend's condo. I'll give you the address and his cell. Thank you so much."
"Sure." Kendra sighed, feeling both noble and trapped. Lena would have a fit when she told her.
"Um. There is just one more thing."
Uh-oh. "What's that?"
"I'd rather you didn't tell Jameson that I'm behind this. Even though he and I are close, he's a little sensitive when it comes to family right now."
"Meaning he wants all of you out of his face even if you're trying to help."
"That would be it exactly."
Pretty classic depression symptom. Though if Matty's description of Jameson as the outcast was correct, he could also be protecting himself from the rest of the family's judgment.
Damn. This was almost intriguing. "Okay. I won't mention you. But I'm not sure he'll buy that six years after our graduation I suddenly want to catch up."
"Tell him you're part of a new program the Air Force is trying out for soldiers on medical leave. Or that his commanding officer or surgeon heard of you through some doctor you work with here. Something that leaves him no choice."
Clearly Matty had thought this through. "So I should lie while I try to gain his trust?"
"Oof." Matty whistled silently. "Do you have to put it that way?"
"Can't you get your commander or some general to write a fake letter?"
"Not me." Matty laughed lightly. "I'm not in the Air Force. I'm an actress."
Kendra brought her car to an abrupt halt at an intersection before she realized there was no stop sign; luckily there was no one behind her. "You're an actress."
"Between jobs I sell real estate, but right now I'm in a musical called Backspace at the Pasadena Playhouse. I have a small part, but it's a job." The pride in her voice was unmistakable.
"It's an impressive job." Well, how about that. Her parents must have nearly dropped dead. A canker on the Cartwright family tree! And now Jameson injured and out of his training program? A regular crumbling dynasty. "I'll come up with something."
"Thank you, Kendra. Please stay in touch. And send the bill to me. How much do you charge, by the way?"
Kendra told her.
"What? You're kidding."
Kendra was used to surprise and had the explanation for her bargain-basement rates ready. "I want my services available to as many people as possible. I'm not in this to get rich. I like working with people, and I don't want to be limited by fees so high that my clients are thinking every second has to count triple for me to be worth their while."