By FERN MICHAELS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP. Copyright © 2010 MRK Productions
All rights reserved.
Even though every light in the old farmhouse was on, it did nothing to dispel the gloom that seemed to shroud the house and its two occupants. Fragrant peach candles flickered on the dinner table, the crystal sparkled, and the delectable meal on fragile bone china sat basically untouched. Outside, a summer rain pounded on the roof and battered the ancient smoky windows.
"Myra, we need to talk," Charles said quietly.
"Hmmm, yes, I suppose we do. What would you like to talk about, Charles? It's raining outside. I always hated thunder, but I hate lightning even more. But then, you already know that, so there's no point in discussing it. Dinner is wonderful."
"How would you know? You haven't touched a thing on your plate. Close your eyes, Myra, and tell me what's on your plate."
"Roast beef," Myra snapped irritably.
"Wrong! It's pork tenderloin. You've always loved pork tenderloin."
"I used to love a lot of things, Charles. I'm sorry. We should just have had sandwiches and soup, or even just the soup."
"You wouldn't have eaten that, either," Charles snapped in return.
"What do you want me to say, Charles? I'm not trying to be difficult, it's just that ... I miss my family. You know what else, Charles? I'm sorry we got those pardons. I was happy on the mountain with the girls. I cry every time I think of them. I would give anything to have yesterday back."
"That's rather cavalier of you, Myra. The girls wanted their old lives back. They didn't want that outlaw life anymore. They wanted to get married and have families. Surely you can't fault them for that."
"Of course I don't fault them for wanting their old lives back. I was speaking for myself. It's been a year and a half, Charles! Do not, I repeat, do not tell me to get a hobby. I do not want a hobby."
"I never thought of knitting as a hobby, old girl. I'd love a hand-knitted sweater."
"Then go to town and buy one! I am too old to learn to knit, and I have arthritis in my fingers. Why are you deviling me like this? Why can't you just let me be miserable?"
"Because I love you, that's why. You're starting to act the same way you did when Barbara died, and you're scaring me. I can't go through that again, Myra, I just can't."
"Oh, Charles, no, that isn't going to happen. I'll get a handle on it, just give me some time. Just a little more time."
"Myra, a year and a half is a lot of time. We need to make some decisions here. We need to join the living, to get on with our lives. We can't keep marking time like this."
"No one needs me these days, Charles. Not even you. Somehow, you manage to keep busy helping the boys with Global Securities. There are just too many hours in the day to fill. I now know how Annie felt. There's nothing worse than not being needed.
"Those old, supposedly dear friends of mine from my other life have cut us dead. Nellie spends almost all day in therapy for her two hip replacements, and even when she's home, she's too tired to do anything but sleep. Pearl is out there somewhere doing her thing with the underground railroad. I volunteered my services, and she said that if she needed me, she'd call. Well, guess what, Charles, she hasn't called once. I don't want to be a pest where Lizzie and her new baby are concerned. She and Cosmo are so happy, they don't need me fussing around them even though they said their door is always open to us.
"I love it that Lizzie is just doing consulting work these days, and Cosmo is just on call in case some emergency crops up. They're such wonderful parents to Little Jack."
"Speaking of Little Jack, tell me again why we didn't go to Lizzie's baby shower at the White House?"
"Because it would have stirred things up, and I didn't want to ruin Lizzie's day. And it's the same reason we didn't go to Little Jack's christening. Isn't it wonderful how Lizzie and Cosmo donated all the gifts to Babies Hospital and to families who need all that baby gear? They've set up so many foundations for baby care, I can't count them anymore. I can't wait for them to come back to town. Just a few weeks, and we'll get to see Little Jack again."
"You're done with dinner, right?" Myra nodded. "Get your slicker. I have something I want you to see. If you don't come with me, I'm going to pick you up and carry you. Move it, old girl!"
Grumbling, Myra followed Charles out to the mudroom and donned her slicker and Wellingtons. She held his hand as they made their way to the barn. Inside, light blazed. The horses whickered softly at the intrusion. Somewhere deep in the barn, a dog growled. "Be quiet, don't make any fast moves or loud noises. Just stay with me.
"It's just me, Charles, Little Lady. I'm coming in. Remember what I said, Myra. Look!"
Myra looked down into a mountain of straw where a warm blanket had been spread. "I don't know what her name is or even how she got here, but here she is with her newborn pups. I found them this morning. I call her Little Lady — not that she's little, because she isn't."
"Ooooh, Charles!" Myra dropped to her knees in front of a magnificent golden retriever, who eyed her warily. She made no move to touch the mother or her pups. "Did you feed her, Charles?"
"I did, and she gobbled it all down. I'd like to bring her and the pups into the house if you don't mind. You know, just to keep an eye on her. I already called a vet, and he came out earlier this afternoon. Aside from being undernourished, Little Lady is fine. He gave me some nutrients and vitamins to give her. Like I said, it will be a lot easier to take care of them in the house."
"Of course it will, but you said we can't touch them. How will we get them into the house? Will Little Lady allow us to pick them up?"
"I don't know. I think that's up to you, Myra. She trusts me, but she doesn't know you yet. You have to make friends. Talk to her, see if she'll let you pet her. Touch is very important, so be gentle."
"It's so damp in here, Charles. That can't be good for the puppies. Find the wagon, the one we use to wheel in firewood. If you lift Lady and put her and the pups in it, we can cover them with a tarp and scoot right back to the house. We can build a fire in the living room even if it is July and make a bed for all of them. That's a good idea, isn't it, Charles?"
Charles beamed. "Splendid idea, old girl. Now why didn't I think of that?"
"Because I'm a mother, and you aren't," Myra said as she stroked the golden's head. "I don't think there's anything more beautiful in the whole world than a new baby or a new puppy or kitten. What are you waiting for, Charles, Little Lady is shivering."
Forty minutes later, the air-conditioning in the house was turned off and a fire was blazing in the humongous fireplace. Old, worn, soft blankets were spread close to the hearth but not too close, in case a spark eluded the fire screen. Mother and pups were settled within minutes. A bowl of real food was set out for Little Lady, who gobbled it down within seconds. When she was finished, she used her snout to move the bowl away from the blanket, then she offered up her paw to Myra, who dutifully shook it.
"I think you have your family, old girl," Charles said.
Myra looked up at her husband, her eyes misty with tears. "Whatever would I do without you, Charles? You always make it come out right somehow. But what happens when these little creatures don't need me?"
"An animal always needs a human, Myra. That's a given. And for your help, you get undying love and devotion. They'll never leave you until it's their time. Can you handle that?"
Something sparked in Myra's eyes. "I'm a mother, Charles, and mothers can handle anything that comes their way."
Charles turned away to hide his smile. "Well then, there you go. If you have the situation under control, I think I'll head back to the kitchen to clean up. And then I have some work I need to finish. If you need me, just give a shout."
"Before you head down to the dungeons, I could use some coffee. It's going to be a long night, and I have a lot of stories to tell Little Lady, so she'll feel she belongs. She is ours, isn't she?" Myra asked anxiously.
"Damn straight she's ours, and so are those pups," Charles said. He didn't see any need to tell Myra the vet had brought Little Lady and her pups out to the barn yesterday. He'd called ahead when Little Lady's elderly owner passed away two days ago and asked Charles to take the dog and her pups. Sensing this was the solution to Myra's problem, he'd jumped at the chance, hoping his few little white lies to Myra would never come back to haunt him. He whistled now as he started to tidy up the kitchen.
It was so nice to have a family again.
Three thousand miles away, Annie de Silva was walking around the floor of the Babylon Casino. The customers ignored her as they feverishly dropped money into the slot machines or plunked down chips at the tables. Not so the casino staff. They imperceptibly straightened their shoulders, stood a little taller, their sharp-eyed gazes wheeling around the floor like random ricochets. Everyone learned from day one that Annie de Silva was hell on wheels, that she kicked ass and took names later. They learned it because Annie de Silva herself told them so and warned each and every one of them not to bring it to a test.
From time to time she would stop at a table or slot machine and, if the customer seemed amenable, strike up a conversation. She liked to know the people who frequented Babylon and loved hearing the nice things they said about the establishment she and Fish owned. She especially loved the seniors who came on bus trips for the free luncheons and the twenty-five dollars in chips her people handed out. The business never made any money on the little groups, but the casino counted on the goodwill the program generated.
As she ambled about the floor, Annie's mind wandered. How much longer was she going to keep doing this? It was so old hat that she could do it in her sleep, and the thrill had been gone for a long time now. She felt her eyes start to burn as she thought about Myra and the girls, and wondered if they felt at loose ends the way she did.
She was sick and tired of lying to Myra and the girls about how happy she was, that she loved working in the casino and being with Fish. Well, she did sort of love being with Fish, more or less, but she was just as happy when he took off for days, sometimes weeks, at a time to work for Global Securities. Plus, she was starting to think there was something a little screwy where that organization was concerned. Well, one of these days she'd figure it out, but not right this moment. Homecomings with Fish were rather nice but a real letdown at times, too. The bloom, if there had ever been one, was definitely off the rose these days. There just wasn't one damn thing about this new life of hers that was exciting or spontaneous. Not a single damn thing.
Sad to say, owner or not, the staff here at Babylon merely tolerated her, and that was the bottom line. It was time to take a crack at sticking her nose into the Post. Maggie probably wouldn't like it, but then, Maggie was expendable, just like everyone else. Annie owned the damn paper. She'd stay just long enough to stir up some trouble, screw things up, then take off for other parts. That was her life these days.
Annie stopped now where a gaggle of seniors were arguing over the slot machines. She sat down on one of the chairs and listened to the heated exchange. Half of the group wanted to cash in the chips for money so they could put it toward something or other at the group home they lived in, and the other half wanted to play with it.
Annie looked enough like some of the members that she felt she could stick her nose into their business and offer some advice. Without stopping to think, she started to chat up one of the women with a tart tongue who wanted to cash in the chips.
"Before you make a decision," Annie said to the sharp-tongued woman, "you should all play the only slot machine on the floor that actually takes a chip." She craned her neck to see that machine, standing apart from all the others. The bells and whistles emanating from it were earsplitting. She pointed to it and watched all the little old ladies and stoop-shouldered men staring at it. One of the men, who claimed to have exceptional eyesight, bellowed that it cost ten dollars a turn. His partner with two hearing aids shouted that the jackpot was $1.8 million.
These startling declarations started a whole new round of arguing. "We have to pay tax on it if we win!"
"What would we do with all that money?"
"We could prepay our own funerals so our kids don't get stuck with the bills."
"How will we get all that money back to Culpepper, Virginia, without getting mugged?"
"Then everyone will want to be our new best friends and borrow money from us."
"Who's going to manage the money?"
Annie wanted to swat all of them. "Come along, ladies and gentlemen, you can watch me play. I'll warm up the machine for you."
"Who did you say you were again?" someone asked.
"I'm a gambling addict," Annie said cheerfully, leading the way to the machine that promised untold riches. Cell phone to her ear, Annie whispered instructions, then quickly turned off her phone. She looked upward and nodded in slow motion to the unseen eyes that saw everything that went on down below.
"Hit it!" the man with two hearing aids bellowed. Annie hit it with a chip from her pocket. Nothing happened. "Bummer," the man said.
Annie dropped another forty dollars before she turned the machine over to the members of the group home. Another hassle ensued as each of them kicked in a dollar. With two dollars to spare, it was decided that the group had to sign off on a scrap of paper that if they won, the money would be divided equally. Everyone signed their name, but it didn't solve the problem of the extra two dollars. Annie settled it by snatching the twelve dollar bills and shoving them in her pocket. She handed out two ten-dollar chips.
By this time, to Annie's dismay, a small group started to form around the famous slot machine as the seniors started to argue again about who was going to press the button that might or might not make them rich. "You all need to just shut up for one minute here!" Annie screeched to be heard over the bells and whistles. "You!" she said, pointing to a mousy little lady wearing a shawl and carrying a string bag. The lady stepped forward and flexed her fingers.
"Shouldn't we say a prayer or bless ourselves or something?" the man with two hearing aids queried.
"Absolutely!" Annie said through clenched teeth. She wished she was sitting in an office at the Post writing a grisly story about something or other, one that would win her a Pulitzer Prize.
The mousy lady dropped the chip into the slot and pressed the button.
"Well, so much for that!" someone groaned.
"You still have one more chip!" Annie shouted.
The mousy lady flexed her fingers, sucked in her breath, and pressed the red button.
Pandemonium broke loose as Annie backed off and headed away from the fast-approaching crowd descending on the famous slot machine.
Annie's private cell phone rang. She clicked it open and drawled, "Yes?"
"I heard what you just did, Countess de Silva!"
"I bet you did. What are you going to do about it, Fish? Not that I give a tinker's damn what you think."
"Nothing. I just wanted you to know I know. And to tell you I won't be home until next week."
"I'm fed up with this place. But I have to tell you, that was the best and worst ten minutes of my time since I've been here. I'm going to Washington tomorrow."
"You gonna screw up the paper now?"
"I am. I'm going to write op-ed pieces, cover the crap no one else wants, then I'll move on to exposés and win a Pulitzer, and by the time they kick me out, it will be time to come back here and start all over again. I-am-bored, Fish!"
Fish laughed. "You could start planning our wedding."
Annie started to sputter, but Fish clicked off in midsputter.
Maggie Spritzer sat behind her desk and thought about going home, but she really didn't want to do that. The house in Georgetown was empty, with only Ted's cats, Mickey and Minnie, in residence. She'd moved them into her house while Ted was away working for Global Securities. God, how she missed him.
She looked down at the ring on her left hand, then at the new acrylic nails she'd had put on once she kicked the very bad habit of chewing her nails. She hated the nails because they interfered with the keyboard when she was typing. She even had a French manicure that she had to keep up with, which also irritated her. The only alternative was to stop wearing the ring, remove the acrylic nails, and go back to the hateful habit of chewing her nails.
Maggie's door opened, and her secretary stuck her head in. "If you don't need me for anything, Maggie, I'd like to leave a little early." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Cross Roads by FERN MICHAELS. Copyright © 2010 MRK Productions. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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