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Maureen Hart watched the glass cleaner drip down the bedroom window as she waited for someone to react, her back to the three other females in the room. Usually she spent the third Saturday of every month with the Rowdies, a group of girlfriends who descended on San Francisco's club-and-concert scene with all the restraint of teenagers on spring break. This third Saturday, however, the Rowdies were blowing off steam without her as Maureen helped the pregnant-and-bedridden Bonnie Sinclair instead.
"He gave you a key to his house?" Maureen's aunt Cherie repeated, her reaction sufficiently surprised. She had picked up her red Candy Land game piece but didn't move it to the next purple square on the path. "Did you accept it?"
Maureen attacked the wet window with paper towels. "I didn't know how not to."
The game came to a complete halt at the news that Maureen's boyfriend of five months, Ted Montague, had made a show out of giving her a key to his house, having wrapped it up like a present and smiling like a kid at Christmas as she opened it.
"Did you give him yours?" Cherie asked.
"I didn't have an extra one."
Cherie gave her an easily interpreted look.
"Well, I didn't," Maureen said.
"Are you going to?"
"I either have to or return his, don't I?"
"Play, please," ordered five-year-old Morgan, fidgeting on the queen-size bed.
Morgan's seven-months-pregnant, ordered-to-bed mother, Bonnie, brushed the girl's brown curls from her face and smiled. "Be patient, sweetheart. This is important information for later in your life."
Morgan sighed. "Bor-ing. Can I watch a movie?"
The girl climbed off the bed and skipped out of the room. Bonnie rubbed her hands together. "Now we can talk. Why don't you want to exchange keys, Maureen? You've been dating long enough, and you're taking a big vacation together. It's a natural step."
It was a fish-or-cut-bait step, Maureen thought, eyeing the clean window for streaks. Exchanging keys was only a step away from moving in together, a first in her thirty-nine years.
"I'm sorry," Bonnie said, subdued. "It's really none of my business."
"No, that's not it at all. I just don't have an answer."
Maureen set her cleaning supplies aside and sat on a chair next to the bed that Bonnie had called home for a week, and would continue to until she gave birth. "I'm sorting through how I feel."
Maureen's gaze drifted to the framed photograph on the nightstand of a handsome Navy lieutenant, Bonnie's husband of six years, now stationed in the Middle East, with six months left on his current tour. "Did you hear from Jeremy today?" Maureen asked.
"I got an e-mail. He was very upbeat. I know he doesn't want me to worry ."
An impossible task, Maureen thought, since Bonnie was confined to bed, unable to work, unable to do much of anything for herself or her daughter, which left a lot of time for thinkingand worrying. She had no family nearby, was dependent solely on public services and Cherie and Maureen, strangers until a week ago.
Morgan bounded back into the room, carrying several DVDs. With the efficiency of someone who'd grown up with the technology, she popped in a movie then climbed onto her mother's bed, remote control in hand.
"So, Bonnie," Cherie said as she put away the board game. "What else can we do before we leave?"
"Else? You've cleaned my apartment, top to bottom. You've stocked my refrigerator, given Morgan a bath, changed the bedding. I can't even list it all. There's nothing else. Thank you so much. Both of you."
"Gregor will bring your food tomorrow and Monday. By Tuesday we should have a helper in place, at least for four or five hours a day. No word from your sister about coming to stay with you?"
"She's trying to work it out. She's got three kids of her own, you know. Everyone else has jobs they can't leave."
Can't or won't? Maureen wondered. "I'll see you on Tuesday," Cherie said. "Just to make sure everything is working out. Call me if you need anything before then."
Everyone hugged goodbye. A minute later Maureen and Cherie went down the flight of stairs and left the building. Night hadn't quite fallen on the cool, breezy June day, a time of year Maureen loved, contrary to winter, when it was dark so early, making her bus ride home from work seem twice as long.
"I can't believe no one from Bonnie's family has come," Maureen said as they walked to her car. "Or Jeremy's for that matter. Why isn't anyone helping?"
"My guess? Bonnie's downplayed the seriousness of her condition."
"Well, that's ridiculous. Maybe I can sneak around a bit, find a phone number or two and give someone a nudge."
"You're getting attached," her aunt said with a smile as Maureen pulled away from the curb, agitated.
Maureen smiled back. "Guilty. I can't imagine being restricted like she is. I'm glad you found out about her. Glad we can help."
Maureen admired her aunt more than anyone on earth. At seventy most people had slowed down a little. Cherie seemed to get busier. Retired from a forty-five-year career as a nurse, she now volunteered at a free clinic three mornings a week; delivered Mobile Meals three afternoons a week, a service she started herself five years ago when she retired, and worked at a soup kitchen on Sundays. She swam twice a week and walked almost everywhere. A petite five-two, she dressed in comfortable, trendy clothes and kept her hair colored and highlighted. She'd never married, but men doted on her. Most people did, actually. She sparkled like the silver peace symbol she always wore on a chain around her neck.
"Are you going to catch up with the Rowdies?" Cherie asked. "Seems like there's enough time."
"I'm tempted just to take a shower, slip into something comfortable and watch TV. It's been a long day. But " Every Saturday Maureen acted as Cherie's driver to deliver meals to homebound people, starting at noon to pick up the prepacked meals from whichever restaurant was donating that particular day, until whatever time Maureen and Cherie finished delivering the meals and chatting with the recipients, who often didn't have other company.
"But?" Cherie prompted.
"But I hate to miss seeing the Rowdies. Kicking up my heels."
"How does Ted feel about your girls' night out?"
"He'd rather I spend the time with him, of course. I don't let it bother me." Much. Maureen turned onto Cherie's street and double-parked in front of her house.
Cherie patted Maureen's cheek. "Thanks so much for going the extra mile for Bonnie."
She hugged her aunt, the woman who'd been most responsible for raising Maureen since her mother died when Maureen was five. "It's fun watching Morgan, especially since she's so close in age to Riley."
"I know it makes you miss him more, too."
Maureen nodded and said good-night. Yes, she missed her grandson, and her daughter, too, who lived in Seattle. Maureen led a full, busy life. She had a job she loved, was even up for promotion to vice president of operations. She had a boyfriend, her first long-term, steady boyfriend in years and years. She had her Saturday work with Cherie for Mobile Meals, which satisfied a deep need to nurture. But it wasn't the same as being with the people she loved most in the world.
Maureen's house was only a few blocks from Cherie's in the same Bernal Heights area of San Francisco. She parked her car in the garage she rented a few doors down from her own garageless house, then walked home.
Maybe she should invite Bonnie and Morgan to move in with her until the baby came. She had a guest room. And toys not being used by anyone .
The wrought-iron gate at the bottom of her stairway creaked when she opened it. The climb to her sweet little house seemed steeper than usual. Sometime soon she was going to find time for an exercise routine beyond her once-a-day ascent up one single flight .
Uh-huh. Sure. What other fantasies do you entertain? "That Social Security will be viable when I retire," she muttered aloud. "That chocolate is a food group. That knights in shining armor exist."
Maureen fit her key into her front door and found it already unlocked. She froze. Had she locked it that morning? Of course she had. She never forgot to lock her door.
She turned the handle gingerly and eased open the door, then crept down the hallway to the living room, hearing voices. Heart hammering, she peeked around the corner and spotted her daughter and grandson watching television.
Shock gave way to pleasure, her heart pounding in a different way. She hadn't seen them in six months, since Christmas. "Looks like I need to call 9-1-1. Somebody broke into my house."
"We used Mommy's key!" her six-year-old grandson exclaimed, looking nervously at his mother.
Maureen laughed. "Well, it's not a crook, after all. It's my sweet Riley. C'mere, you." She crouched and opened her arms.
He finally smiled as he shyly approached her. His two front teeth were missing, giving him even more of an impish look than what she could see during their twice-weekly computer-video calls. Maureen kissed him, noting his shock of blond hair was spiked with gel, a new style for him. He looked adorable. Her heart swelled as she held him close. She wished he would relax against her. They'd had too little contact through the years, and had to rebuild their relationship every time they saw each other.
"Where did you come from?" she asked before she got mushy and embarrassed herself.
"From the car, silly."
"Can I get a hug, too?" came a hopeful voice.
"Jess, honey." Maureen reached for her beautiful daughter. She felt sturdy and strong, for all her slenderness. The rare pleasure of holding her daughter brought the sting of tears again. "What a wonderful surprise."
Jess was only a slightly darker blond than Riley, but they both had Maureen's green eyes, the only physical trait she seemed to have passed on to the next generations, which was okay by her. She'd been teased all her life about her red hair. "When did you get here?"
"Just a few minutes ago."
"We're having a 'venture," Riley said.
"You are? Are you going on a safari?"
"No, silly. We came to see you!"
"I'm so happy you did." Although curious and wary.
"You drove all the way from Seattle just to see me?" Without calling first?
"In only thirty-teen hours," Riley announced. Maureen looked sharply at her daughter. Like Maureen, Jess had become a single mother at seventeen. Unlike Maureen, Jess hadn't been a model of responsibility.
"Thirteen," Jess corrected her son. "We made plenty of stops along the way, Mom."