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The fifth floor of the insurance company was impressively quiet. Nothing so crass as noise leaked from the opulent and distinguished conference rooms at the end of the long corridorwhich made junior actuary Lorelei Keller want to cringe at the staccato echo of her navy pumps against the marble tile. She preferred to stand out in meetings because she possessed a lightning-quick mind, not because everyone could hear her coming from a mile away.
As if her footfalls weren't making her self-conscious enough, the cell phone in her jacket pocket suddenly buzzed. Even with the ringer turned off, the vibration seemed loud in the empty hall. She fished the phone out to check the display screen and scowled. Though no name showed, the 830 area code meant Fredericksburg, Texas. More specifically, her mother. Again.
Exhaling an impatient breath, Lorelei turned the phone off completely and repocketed it. Wanda Keller was her only immediate family and Lorelei loved the woman. But mother and daughter were painfully dissimilar. Graduating from an Ivy League university had been easier for Lorelei than getting through to her mom. Not that I'm deliberately avoiding her. She fully intended to call Wanda back later, after business hours. Headed into a meeting with one of the company's top executives was not the time to rehash their argument about Lorelei's refusal to visit at the end of the month.
"You loved Frederick-Fest as a child," Wanda had burbled just two days ago, sounding as enthusiastic as a child herself. She claimed the timing of the week-long March event would be extra festive this year, since its dates fell over St. Patrick's Daynever mind that their ancestry was German, not Irishand the spring equinox.
"But I'm not a kid anymore," Lorelei had pointed out as gently as possible. "I have adult responsibilities, like a job I worked hard to get."
"They have to give you vacation time, don't they?" Wanda had persisted.
Lorelei had bit her tongue to keep from saying anything cruel. Like, I'm not about to use up vacation to come help sell crystals and hand out bookmarks on the protocol for "What to Do if You Encounter a Hill Country Ghost." "I've got a really busy month ahead of me, Mom."
Wanda's voice, which had been by turns cheerfully cajoling and stubbornly challenging, fell to a barely audible level. "You haven't been home in over a year."
Home. How could Lorelei explain that Texas hadn't felt like home since her father had died twenty years ago? Her freshman year of college, Lorelei had joked with her roommate about "Philadelphia freedom" because moving to Pennsylvania truly had liberated her. She'd been free of living in a house that was a shrine to her dad, free of her mother's increasingly bizarre beliefs. Lorelei had soothed her frazzled nerves with the orderly logic of numbers and let her first snowy Pennsylvania winter numb a decade of tangled emotions.
"You know I had to cancel at Christmas because I had the flu," Lorelei had defended herself. "I'll come down for a visit this year. I promise."
"I don't know, Mom. Soon." Soonish, anyway. "But not this month, okay? I'll look at my calendar, talk to my boss and get back to you."
Her mother had sighed, clearly skeptical. "Sure. I'll be here."
Reaching for the door to the conference room, Lorelei gave a quick shake of her head, her long dark hair swirling about her shoulders, and banished the memory of her impulsive promise. Now was the time to focus on the more pressing topic of risk management. One of the few women in her department, she was determined to distinguish herself among her colleagues. She straightened her spine and stepped into the office, her footsteps now swallowed by the plush carpet. But a last lingering stab of guilt pierced her. I'll talk to my supervisor tomorrow about vacation time. Conscience appeased, Lorelei lost herself in the two-hour meeting, all thoughts of Texas and her mother pushed aside.
Lorelei was seated at her desk, immersed in notes for a liability audit, when a male voice said, "Knock knock," from the doorway. She glanced up to see Rick Caulden.
He flashed a knowing smile. "You forget about me again? Reservations? Tuesday night? Any of this ringing a bell?"
"Of course I remember. I've been looking forward to our dinner. I just thought you were going to call when you got here." She enjoyed her periodic dates with the handsome attorney.
Employed by a law firm several blocks away, Rick worked as hard as she did. He was charming but refreshingly unsentimental. They shared the same pragmatic streak and career drive.
"Tried calling," he said. "Kept going straight to voice mail, so I decided I should come up, find out if your meeting ran long and if I was on my own for dinner."
"Oh, rightI turned my phone off before the meeting and totally forgot to turn it back on." A mistake, or a Freudian slip? Had she deliberately left it off because she suspected Wanda would call back? Maybe Lorelei had been trying to avoid the guilt trip of feeling like an ungrateful daughter yet again.
As soon as Lorelei repowered the phone, a message bubble appeared. She frowned. "Wow, that's a lot of missed calls."
"At least three of them are me," Rick said.
And the other six? "Hang on a sec." She stood, gathering her purse and coat. "I just want to check voice mail before we go."
"Sure." He smirked. "I always make our reservations for fifteen minutes later than I tell you. I know how difficult it is to drag you out of the office."
Under different circumstances, she might have pointed out that she spent an equal amount of time waiting on him or assuring him she didn't mind canceling because he needed the extra time to prepare a motion or speak with a client. Right now, she was more concerned with her messages than Rick's unexpected double standard.
Because of the 830 area code on the missed calls, Lorelei assumed her mother was phoning from one of the hotel lines instead of her private number. But it wasn't Wanda's voice that greeted her.
"Lorelei? I don't know if you remember me, but this is Ava Hirsch."
As if Lorelei had been gone so long she wouldn't recall her mom's best friend? Though Ava's husband was of the vocal opinion that Wanda was "a gallon shy of a keg," the two women had always been inseparable.
"I'm calling " Ava stopped, sniffed and tried again. "I'm calling about your mother, dear."
At the end of the sentence, Ava's voice broke and the world tilted beneath Lorelei's feet. She groped blindly for her chair.
"Lorelei? What is it?" Rick's concern sounded miles away; Ava's condolences were even more distant, fading beneath the pounding in Lorelei's ears.
But Lorelei didn't need to hear the rest of the message to know. She was going home to Fredericksburg, after all.