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"ANYONE HEAR FROM ELISE?" Joe Bennett walked into the lunchroom at the back of the suite of offices he and his partner—and the bank—now owned. Eating meals ranging from fruit and yogurt to homemade burgers, the employees Elise Richardson supervised sat at the long, elegant wooden table.
"Not a word." Twenty-five-year-old Angela Parks glanced over her shoulder at him from the granite-topped island marking the center of the full kitchen on one end of the room. She was making a salad.
It was Thursday. On Fridays Elise cooked lunch for their nine-member staff. Maybe she was out grocery shopping for the next day's offering.
But it would be the first time in the ten years they'd been in business that she'd done so during the workday. At night, while Joe left the job and lived a life, Elise worked at home—or shopped for the office.
"She didn't say where she was going?"
"I think she had a dentist appointment," Ruth Gregory said, straightening a stem in the silk flower centerpiece in front of her. At fifty, she was the oldest B&R employee.
"No." Thirty-five-year-old Mark Oppenheimer popped the last of his usual peanut butter sandwich in his mouth and stood. "That was last month. Today she didn't say what kind of appointment, only that she shouldn't be gone more than an hour."
"What time was that?"
"Nine." As their chief financial officer, the skinny, bespectacled man was Elise's second in command and the source most likely to be up to date.
Glancing at his multi-dialed designer watch—which his then-wife had bought him for Christmas a few years ago and which Joe wore because it would be a waste not to, even though he preferred the simple large-faced cheap number he'd worn in college—he frowned.
"That was almost four hours ago." Mark wiped the crumbs he'd left on the table onto the floor—a man after his own heart. "I know," he said.
"And she hasn't called?"
After another few seconds of standing there blankly, Joe started to leave. And then turned back.
"Anyone think to call the hospitals to make sure she wasn't in an accident?" He was only half joking, but their chuckles followed him down the hallway.
"I've got lunch with Anderson, Anderson and Bailey," he told his secretary on his way out. The law firm was the biggest in the state of Michigan—a six-million-dollar account—and B&R had been courting them for a couple of years. "Text message me the second Elise gets in, will you?"
Bennett and Richardson Professional Employee Organization, or B&R PEO, offered companies a comprehensive package that included payroll, workers' compensation, tax compliance and group insurance, all at a rate lower than they could arrange for themselves. Joe Bennett was in charge of sales, and Elise Richardson, his best friend from college, oversaw virtually everything else.
Normally his cell phone was in the Off position when he was in meetings—commonly disguised as social gatherings now that he had two salesmen who made the office calls to sit with managers and work out logistics. Today he turned his cell on to Vibrate instead, so he'd know if and when a message came through. He didn't have an urgent need to speak to his business partner. He just wanted to assure himself that she was going to be around at some point to nag him about something.
THE LONG, FAMILIAR private road across the front of the cemetery was potholed and narrow, barely wide enough to fit the Corvette. Elise passed several lanes that sectioned off areas filled with headstones of varying sizes, many with urns bearing colorful floral arrangements planted on Memorial Day two and a half weeks before. As she rounded the back border of the carefully tended green acreage, she slowed to a stop, then climbed out of the car, wrapping her short, three-quarter-sleeved white sweater more closely around her.
She'd thought this stage of her life was about moving on. Becoming.
Yet it turned out, at the moment, she needed her family.
Concentrating on the feel of the soft, cool grass, Elise walked barefoot toward the stone bearing her family name. It brought a happy memory of running through the grass in bare feet, chasing her older brother—because if she could catch him, he'd let her ride on the back of his bike to go for an ice cream cone.
Back then, she'd thought that she'd always managed to catch him because she was so strong and fast. Now she understood that he'd allowed her to. And she smiled.
"Hi," she said.
Tucking her calf-length, white-and-pink floral cotton skirt beneath her, she sat directly in front of the main stone marked Richardson.And didn't know what else to say. Normally her visits were to take care of their gravesites—pull weeds, plant flowers, scrub their stones. And while she worked, she'd tell them about the business, something that happened with an employee or a new building in town—not that they'd ever even heard of Lowell, Michigan.
She'd bought the plot and buried what was left of their ashes, brought with her from Arkansas, as part of her therapy about eight years before.
Her voice broke when she heard the word come out of her mouth. So she turned to another of the individual stones, bearing first and middle names, birth and death dates. "Daddy?"
It wasn't any easier. Her gaze moved again. "Danny?"
And again. "Ellen?"
There'd been four of them once. Four children filling her parents' home and hearts.
Now there was only her.
And... "Mama?" She cried openly because she couldn't help it, and because there was no one around to see. Wiping her eyes with the bottom edge of her skirt, she finally admitted, "I'm scared."
Complete silence followed the confession. Inside of her and out.
"I'm scared, Mama," she said again, more firmly. "I know I'm not supposed to be, that I'm a survivor, but sometimes I wish I'd died along with the rest of you."
She quieted, waited to be struck for the ungrateful thought. But nothing happened. She wasn't punished. And the thought didn't leave, either.
"Why did I have to be the one they got? Why did my bedroom have to be on the farthest side of the house? Why did Ellen share a room with Grace and not me? Why only me?"
Because you're special.
The words were a whisper in her mind, almost as though carried on the light breeze. They were a memory from her early childhood. And from the physically and emotionally agonizing months and years that stretched from her eleventh year to her twentieth. She'd lost track of the number of people who'd said the words to her.
But she could still hear them in her mother's voice the day she'd asked her why she couldn't have been the oldest like Danny, or the first girl like Ellen, or the baby like Grace. She'd been searching for her place, even then, stuck in the middle with no solid sense of how she fit.
She stared at the smaller stone bearing her mother's name. Wanting. Wishing. Needing.
"I'm pregnant, Mama." The stone in front of her blurred again. Pulling her knees up, her arms wrapped around them, Elise sat still and let her life settle around her as it would.And as the tears continued to flow, she lifted the edge of her skirt a second time, wiping her face. A face that none of the people whose names were engraved on those small, cold stones would ever recognize.
JOE WASN'T SURE what to think when, at five after six that Thursday evening in mid-June, he walked up the steps of his partner's elegant, colonial-style home on Lakeshore Drive overlooking the Flat River and knocked on the door. She pulled it open, looking as normal and fine as she did any other day.
"You're okay." He hadn't meant to sound disappointed. Hell, he wasn't! He was relieved as hell. But—
"You haven't missed a day of work since we opened shop ten years ago."
"Then I guess I was due."
"You didn't call." Sweating in his short-sleeved shirt and tie, although the evening was a balmy seventy degrees, Joe shifted from foot to foot.
"I own the company, Joe. I don't have to call." She was right, of course. "Co-own."
"How many times have you missed coming into the office and not called in about it?" Her chin lifted a notch, her dark, short, sassy hair falling away from her neck.
It was different for him. He made outside calls. And even when he took a day off... "I take my cell phone everywhere. You can always reach me if there's an emergency."
"I had mine, too."
"You didn't answer."
"I listened to the messages."
Then she realized he'd been checking to make sure she was okay. And she hadn't bothered to call him back, to assure him that she was.
Odd. "Can I come in?"
She hesitated and then nodded, stepping away from the door.
He followed her through the formal living room, dining room and kitchen to the family room in the back of the house. He'd never understood why a woman who lived alone wanted so much space around her, but then, he'd never understood Elise, period.
Outside the office, that was. A half-filled and perspiring glass of what appeared to be mostly juice and melted ice sat on the end table. The lamp was on. The large-screen television in front of the creamy white leather sofa was silent. There were no books, remote controls, or papers to indicate that his partner had been doing anything while she'd been sitting there.
Tucking her feet beneath her white skirt, she curled up on the sofa. And picked at her fingernails.
Her cats, Darin and Samantha, settled behind her on the back of the sofa.
"You mind if I get myself a bottle of water?" He wasn't thirsty. Except, perhaps, for a shot of bourbon. Straight up.
He hadn't consumed alcohol straight up since college.
"Of course not." Her smoky gray eyes were more mysterious to him than usual as she glanced at him. Why did the woman's expression so rarely show him what she was thinking, like everyone else's did? "Help yourself."