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"You need a life," Carole said.
Leslie Baynton set her teeth, conjured up a smile, and controlled the urge to throttle her older sister. "I have a life, thank you very much."
"This?" A sweeping motion with one hand dismissed everything in the cluttered apartment, including Leslie.
"It suits me." As a defense, the words lacked punch. Leslie didn't entirely believe them herself. She knew from experience that nothing she said would change what Carole thought anyway.
While the older sibling prowled, looking for something else to complain about, the younger perched tailor fashion on her overstuffed sofa and braced herself for the next volley of criticism.
At forty-seven, Carole Marsdon Salisbury looked sleek and trim in expensive off-white slacks and a coral silk blouse. Leslie managed to contain a sigh, reminding herself she didn't really envy her sister's looks and sense of style.
She glanced down at the worn blue fleece that covered her from neck to ankles. When she was ten and Carole twenty, Leslie had been in awe of her sister s sophisticated beauty and had tried to imitate everything about her from clothing to mannerisms. Carole could have been a high-fashion model, she was that lovely and that perfectly proportioned. Leslie had inherited the same flawless skin and blue eyes, but there the similarities stopped.
Carole was a stunning blonde. Leslie had been obliged to settle for a sort of sand color. Her teen years had brought thick glasses, braces, and a bra size that was, to say the least, disappointing. And she'd stopped growing at five-foot-three instead of reaching the willowy height needed to be a model, her earliestcareer goal.
Still, she hadn't turned out so badly, and she'd come to prefer loose, comfortable sweatsuits like the one she had on now to designer clothes. She'd found better things to do than waste an hour every morning on makeup and hair. She'd learned, too, that she would never have been happy with a man like her sister's stuffy husband, and she'd have hated the obligation to engage in as much socializing as Carole and Mitch did. Since childhood, Leslie had been cursed with extreme shyness around strangers.
There was, Leslie realized, only one aspect of Carole's life she still sometimes longed to emulate, the part that involved children. Carole had raised two, a beautiful, talented, intelligent girl set to enter her senior year in high school, and a handsome boy heading off to an Ivy League college with both academic and athletic scholarships in his pocket.
Well aware of the futility of daydreaming about what she could not have, Leslie broke off her reverie and cast a wary glance in her sister's direction. She was just in time to see Carole run a finger across the top shelf of one of the five tall bookshelves that dominated the living room. She made a face at the streak she left in the layer of dust, then moved on to stand in front of Leslie's desk and glare at her computer.
A moment later Carole's scornful gaze shifted from the compact notebook computer to its owner. "You ought to get rid of this ... thing, Les. I swear, you've turned into a hermit since you bought it."
Leslie didn't bother to remind her sister that she'd always been a bit of a recluse. "The Internet is a great place to meet people," she said instead.
Although she'd once wished she had just a fraction of Carole's ability to make friends, during the last few years Leslie had learned to be content with her own company. The on-line chat rooms and digests she could access on the Internet might have been designed with someone like her in mind. Their very anonymity allowed her to be herself. More and more, lately, she'd felt free to express opinions, even argue about issues that were important to her. On-line, others respected her views.
"Meet people on the Internet?" Carole sounded appalled. "Oh, that's smart! Don't you read the newspapers? Why, just the other day there was a story?"
"I read the newspapers, Carole. I also watch television. I'm not going to send my life savings to some scam artist with a Web site, or invite a criminal into my home, or run off to have a mad passionate affair with a stranger."
That last possibility, however, brought a tinge of color into her cheeks, and Carole, for all her self-centeredness, saw entirely too much. Concern flashed in her eyes as she took note of Leslie's reaction.
"What are you involved in?" Carole demanded. "Some kind of singles club? Oh, Lord! Don't tell me you're using the computer to download pictures of naked men."
"Hardly. I've never had any desire for that kind of cheap thrill, and I've always avoided singles bars and their on-line equivalent."
She had, however, more than a year earlier, joined a discussion group for mystery fans. They e-mailed back and forth about books. And for almost a year, in private e-mails, she had been communicating with one particular member of that group, a man named Chase. They'd gradually branched out into other topics, discussing all kinds of things and always finding a great deal of common ground.
For a while Leslie had been wary. She knew there were potential hazards in intense on-line relationships. But when Chase did not propose meeting in person, not even after they discovered that they both lived in Maine, she'd decided she had nothing to worry about. In fact, just lately, she'd begun to consider broaching the subject herself. She was curious about him and suspected he was as shy as she was.
"Come over to the house for dinner tonight? Carole's abrupt words broke into Leslie's thoughts. As usual, her invitation was more of an order than a suggestion. "Mitch has already asked the bank's new accountant to join us. You'll like him. He's..."
"Oh, please. No more blind dates." Especially not with men Mitchell Salisbury, conservative banker, thought were suitable companions for his sister-in-law.
Carole wasn't accustomed to being thwarted, and she reacted with sarcasm. "Don't tell me you already have a date."
Goaded, Leslie chose to be provoking herself. "I prefer to spend Saturday nights cuddled up to my computer."
"Because I like things the way they are? Because I don't want to be a carbon copy of you any longer?"
Carole tried to stare her down, but for once Leslie managed not to blink first. "Stop meddling, Carole," she warned when her sister lost this small test of wills. "When and if I decide my life needs reorganizing, I'll do it myself."
Annoyed, Carole stormed across the room to pluck her handbag from the table by the door. A pile of unopened junk mail tumbled to the floor, landing atop a brightly colored advertising flyer that had already been there for a few days. Tidiness had never been a priority for Leslie.
"Fine!" Carole declared. "I wash my hands of you." But just before she opened the door and sailed out into the corridor, she fired one last salvo. "You have no idea what an embarrassment you are," she said over her shoulder. "You've managed to turn yourself into a stereotype of the old-maid librarian living alone with her cat!"
"I'm not all that old," Leslie muttered as she uncurled from her position on the sofa and went to lock the door behind her sister. And she wasn't a maid, either. She'd been married, briefly, right out of high school, something that still ranked as the worst mistake of her life.
Only seconds after Carole's noisy exit from the apartment, a large orange tabby emerged from behind the sofa and meowed a question.
"Yes, Dewey. She's gone."
The cat, unconvinced, conducted his own search of the premises, curling his lip each time he caught a whiff of Carole's scent.
"She feels the same way about you," Leslie told him.
Smiling faintly, Leslie crossed to her desk and booted up the computer. She composed a lengthy e-mail to Chase, allowing herself to vent on the subject of Carole. Chase would understand. He seemed to have had the same kind of love-hate relationship with his late brother, Jake, that she had with her sister.
Chase was someone she could talk to, the one person in her life who really paid attention to her and offered practical advice instead of lectures. She'd never forget how he'd made her laugh after the previous week's debacle at work over the "big red book."
A college student had appeared at her desk in technical services and complained that he couldn't find a certain volume by Thomas Pyles, a history of the English language. When she'd checked and told him the library did not own the book in question, the young man had insisted they did. He'd used it before, he assured her. He even remembered that it was a big, heavy book with a red cover. That it wasn't listed as part of the collection didn't impress him. Leslie tried to help, spending more than an hour with the student, only to discover that he'd used the Pyles book at another library entirely. Instead of apologizing, he grumbled that the book ought to have been in the Three Cities library. The last Leslie had seen of him, he'd been stalking off in high dudgeon to file a complaint ... against her.
Still fuming by the time she got home, Leslie had recounted the silly, annoying episode to Chase. He'd put the situation back into perspective for her with one witty remark. "Want to make a little wager that when he finally finds that book it won't be red ... or read, either?"
For some reason, his response had tickled Leslie's funny bone. She'd felt a thousand percent better. Their relationship worked both ways too. Leslie knew she'd been able to brighten Chase's day at least as often as he'd provided a sympathetic ear for her.
Before she sent off her message, Leslie took a moment to scan the return addresses on her incoming e-mail. Nothing from Chase. She hesitated. He didn't talk about his job, but she did know all about his current family troubles. Sighing, she deleted what she'd just typed without sending it. This was not the time to plague him with her problems.
As she logged off, Dewey suddenly jumped onto her lap, and she cuddled his fat, furry body. "Chase is having a rough time just now," she told the cat. "He doesn't need to read about any more of my petty grievances." She supposed she shouldn't count on hearing from him at all until he'd sorted things out, but she'd gotten used to having e-mail from him at least once every day, used to having him around, even if it was only electronically.
Chase Forster had become a very big part of her life.