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The high whine of a blow-dryer gnawed at Caroline Spencer's last nerve. Why on earth had she agreed to let Annie have her friend over for the night, when they all had to be at the airport by 5:00 a.m. for check-in? The girls, too wired with excitement to sleep, had giggled up to the sound of the alarm. Now they primped and preened and monopolized the bathroom, while Caroline fidgeted outside the door.
"Annie, honey, please hurry. I have to dry my hair," she called.
"Karen's in there," her daughter replied from behind her.
"Sorry, Miz C. Be right out," Karen called, cutting the dryer off.
"Mom, you don't have to dry your hair. That's the whole point of your new perm." Annie fluffed the wet ringlets of Caroline's red hair with her fingers. "That's why that old salon woman called it wash-and-wear."
"Stylist," Caroline corrected, feeling the ringlets rearrange themselves the moment her daughter let them be. "Old" salon woman indeed. "And Sally is just a few years older than I am."
"Just what I need, a sixteen-year-old know-it-all at three in the morning. Besides"--Caroline yawned and recovered--"that's what the tag said about this shirt too, but guess who's been ironing while you gals scarfed down your breakfast burritos?"
The bathroom door flew open, revealing Annie's counterpart, her enviably dry shoulder-length hair pulled up in a ponytail with a sparkling band.
All those kilowatts, not to mention precious minutes, just for that?
"Oh, no, Miz C," Karen said, looking at Caroline's crisp safari-print top as though the cheetah on it had bared its teeth. "You've got to wear the T-shirt Señora Marron handed out." She cut her gaze to Annie. "Like, you did give it to her, didn't you?"
Annie smacked her palm to her forehead and spoke, preempting the snap of Caroline's one remaining nerve. "I totally forgot. I'll get it right now."
Lord, lead me not into this melodrama, Caroline thought as she followed the girls into her daughter's bedroom.
"Here ya go, Mom. The bigger one's yours."
Caroline stared at the neon orange garment in her hand.
On the front was the Edenton Christian High School mascot perched on a banner that said "Go Eagles."
"What's the Spanish word for clash?" she asked.
"Mom, you will be totally cool, trust me . . . and everyone is wearing them."
"Well, we certainly won't lose anyone with these on," Caroline conceded. "Guess I'll pack my safari shirt for--"
The phone rang, launching Annie into overdrive. "I'll get it!"
As Caroline changed her shirt, she heard Karen's voice from the next room.
"What do you mean he's not there? He's gotta be. Gram . . ." she whined, as if she stood on the deck of Star Trek's Enterprise and the future of all mankind was hanging in the balance. "I knew something would go wrong. He didn't want to go to start with. All he cares about is work, work, work."
"What is it, Karen?" Caroline called out.
Caroline knew that Karen's trip had been touch-and-go since her grandmother fell and her father volunteered to go in Gram's place. The trip rules, designed to promote family togetherness, required that every child have at least one parent or relative along.
"Dad's not come home yet from Toronto, so Gram is going to take his suitcase to the airport. I'll just die if he doesn't make it."
Look out, William Shatner. The princess of drama is rising. Caroline let out her breath in a mingle of relief and annoyance. She should have known better. Since Karen had enrolled in Edenton several months earlier and become Annie's friend, Caroline had seen the girl become melodramatic over something as simple as cold fries. "Honey, calm down. It's just a change of plans. I'm sure that if your father misses this flight, he can catch up with us in Mexico City."
"But if he doesn't go, then--"
"Honey, he's going . . . bought and paid for." Caroline had helped Señora Marron coordinate the trip and had personally taken care of the last-minute change in the airline bookings.
"Besides," she said, zipping up her toiletry bag, "you're staying with Annie and me anyway, so if your dad misses the first night in Mexico City, it won't be the end of the world. With all that's going on in airports these days, delays are common."
From what Caroline had gathered in bits and snatches from Karen and chitchat with Karen's grandmother at the women's Bible study, Karen's father was a widower, away a lot on business.
"Hey, at least your dad is more than a support check," Annie consoled her friend. "My dad replaced us with a whole new family."
Caroline said a quick prayer for the hurt and cynicism in her daughter's voice. Frank Spencer had left Caroline for a colleague, claiming that Caroline, who ran a day care at home to put him through law school, was no longer his intellectual match. Annie had been six at the time and never understood why Daddy remarried and moved to the West Coast, much less why he never visited.
But this was no time to dwell on what she might or might not have done to make it easier on them both. Taking up the blow-dryer, Caroline stared in the mirror, bemused by her unaccustomed curls. She'd worn her hair in a single braid for so long that she had no idea how to attack this shorter, wilder, shoulder-length job. In desperation, she snagged a pair of Annie's barrettes to pull it off her face.
With the jeans and tee, she could almost pass for one of the kids instead of the owner of Little Angels Day Care Center. At least until someone got close enough to see the bags under her eyes. Not enough makeup in the Cover Girl empire to hide those babies--especially at this hour of the morning.
"Mom, are we supposed to be leaving at four?" Annie said, sticking her head in the doorway. "'Cause it's quarter till."
In disbelief, Caroline glanced at her wristwatch and shifted into high gear.
"Okay, troops. It's time to zip and load," she announced. There was no time to dry her hair now. She'd have to trust in her hairdresser and go as she felt at the moment--washed and worn.
The Philly airport reminded Blaine Madison of an ant colony, hundreds of individuals busily making their way through the network of intersecting corridors. He claimed a generic black piece of luggage from the conveyor belt and checked the ID tag. Not his. With an aggravated grunt, he tossed it back onto the moving platform to snake its way around the bend. Maybe he should have put some ridiculous marker on the handle to make it stand out--like the neon pink pom-poms on the case claimed by the older lady next to him.
"Cute bear," the woman said, referring to the stuffed toy under his arm.
"My daughter collects them," he explained, without taking his attention from the endless stream of black nylon cases. "I try to bring her one from every place I travel."
It was something he'd done since Karen was old enough to appreciate the toy more than the box it came in. He'd picked up this bear--which sported a T-shirt with a Canadian maple leaf superimposed over crossed hockey sticks--at the Toronto airport during the delay caused by a security check. He'd missed his connecting flight and had to catch a later one. He'd be lucky if his bag even made it.
The lady leaned over and picked up a smaller bag bedecked with matching pom-poms while Blaine checked the tag on another black nylon case. He let it go and shoved frustrated fingers through his dark brown hair. He didn't have time for this.
"Here," the lady said, handing him a pink slip of paper. "Take a look and take a breather."
Blaine glanced at it, but on seeing the header "Psalm 127:1-2," he shoved it into his pocket. Why do these self-appointed evangelists force this stuff on people? If he wanted to get spiritual, he'd go to church. And he'd seen no point in doing that in a very long time.
"Thanks," he said with polite indifference. "I could use a breather."
Not that chaperoning the Edenton Christian High School's class trip to Mexico was his idea of a break. It meant time with his daughter, and he'd begun to wonder if his little girl had been abducted and some moody clone left in her place. No more ribbons and lace. The new clothes she wore looked like rags. She had no concept of time or commitment, except when it came to meeting her friends at the mall. And despite the private schooling that Blaine worked hard to afford, he hadn't heard her complete a sentence
in months. Now he was boarding a plane with a whole group of similarly clothed, idly chattering, high-strung, attention-deficient creatures and their holy-roller parents.
He grabbed another likely looking suitcase and flipped the tag. Bingo. And by the time he hoisted it off the conveyor and lifted the pull handle, the tract-passing pom-pom lady was gone. At least she hadn't tried to save him on the spot. Maybe his luck was changing.
With a stab of guilt at the antagonism he felt toward basically good people, he took up the briefcase at his feet. Blaine had no quarrel with religious people, as long as they kept their faith to themselves. He hadn't the time for a God who had ignored his prayers one time too many.
Hurrying to the security checkpoint, he almost ran into his mother, who was hobbling with a cane toward him.
"Thank God you made it," she said. "Karen checked in your bag for the orphanage. Here's your vacation bag."
"Sorry you had to bring it." Blaine leaned over and gave his mom a kiss on the cheek. "Don't know what I'd do without you."
"Karen was in such a stew. She was just positive you wouldn't make it on time."
His daughter always seemed to be in a stew of some sort. "The flight from Toronto was delayed," he explained. "Then I missed my connection. But I think we won the bridge contract."
"You're just like your father." His mother's observation was framed with concern. "Don't do what he did, son. Take some time out for yourself."
Blaine knew what she was getting at. His dad had burned out by the time his retirement came and he could turn the business over to his children. Blaine's "baby" sister, Jeanne, had become a successful marine archaeologist. His younger brother, Mark, supposedly helped him with the business but spent more time at play than at work. If Blaine wanted the business to succeed, he had to see to it himself.
"How's the ankle?" he asked, changing the subject. Until Neta had twisted her ankle in the garden three days ago, she was supposed to accompany her granddaughter on the trip.
His mother let it go, but her frown spoke volumes. "Never mind me, just give me the bear and get on that plane. Karen won't forgive you if you embarrass her by giving her a teddy bear in front of her friends."
Blaine grimaced. He hadn't thought of that. The idea that his little girl had outgrown teddy bears from her daddy stung somewhere deep inside. He gave his mom a hug and a hasty kiss on the cheek and handed over the stuffed animal.
"Thanks, Mom. You take it easy while we're gone. I mean it." He put a hand on her shoulder, lightly tanned from early morning hours spent in her garden. With a little help from boxed hair color and a complexion that defied time, she hardly looked her sixty-two years. She'd always been blessed with good health, and he was blessed with her. She had rented out the home she and her late husband had shared in Florida and moved back to Edenton to take care of Karen after Ellie's untimely death.
"Now if that's not the pot calling the kettle black," she snorted, "I don't know what is."
"I don't know what I'd do without you," he repeated in earnest.
"Me neither." Neta gave him a gentle but firm shove. "Now get going. I promised Mark I'd meet him for dinner tonight."
"If he's not there by the end of happy hour, I wouldn't wait for him," Blaine called over his shoulder.
At the gate, Blaine handed the ticket clerk his boarding pass.
"Welcome aboard, Mr. Madison." A bright-eyed miss in uniform flashed a picture-perfect smile.
"Thanks for waiting." Not that it was her decision.
Some of the other travelers were not as tolerant, given the scowls cast in Blaine's direction. Scanning the seats, he spied a block of passengers wearing the orange-and-green colors of Edenton. In their midst, his daughter stood, waving frantically to get his attention.
"I didn't think you were going to make it," she accused.
"I was beginning to wonder myself. My earlier plane was delayed by a security alert. It made me miss my connec--"
"Here's your shirt."
"We're all wearing the same T-shirts so we know who is in our group." Karen enunciated carefully, as if he had the wit of a Neanderthal.
"I'll put it on later . . . although, you realize, it clashes with my tie," he said, hoping to lighten the mood.
With a roll of her eyes, she dropped into her seat.
Blaine hesitated a moment. The only seat open in the group was not beside his ponytailed daughter, but behind her.
"I was supposed to sit with you, but when you didn't get here, I swapped with Miz C so I could sit with Annie," Karen told him.
"Hi, Mr. Madison," said a perky blonde-haired clone beside Karen, her braced teeth gleaming through her smile.
So much for father-daughter quality time.
"Annie, good to see you again." He vaguely recognized her. Karen rarely had friends over, and if she did, they stayed locked up in her room as if adult exposure might be contagious.
"Sir, please take your seat and stow your briefcase." The flight attendant gave him a tightly fixed smile.
"Sorry." He slid into his seat.
"I have you checked in, Mr. Madison. Glad you could make it," a woman with a clipboard and heavy Spanish accent announced from across the aisle. Wearing dark-rimmed wire glasses, and with her equally dark hair knotted in the back and skewered by what looked like short wooden knitting needles, the lady dropped the board into a briefcase and shut it with an authoritative click. Blaine wasn't certain if it was the taut coiffure or heavy eyeliner that gave her coal-dark eyes the illusion of a slant.
"Thank you, Miss--" What was the name on the permission slip he'd signed? He finished with a smooth "Marron."
"Mah-rrrown," the Spanish teacher corrected, rolling her r's with a sharp purr. "Señora Mah-rrrown, por favor."
"Señora Mah-rrrown," Blaine repeated. "Sorry . . . er . . . lo siento."
"We could switch back, if you'd rather sit with your daughter," said a voice to his right.
Distracted from his impromptu Spanish lesson and Karen's not-so-empathetic grin, Blaine turned to the young woman next to him. Clad like the teens in denims and the green-and-orange shirt, she didn't look old enough to have a daughter Annie's age. Blaine searched his memory, wondering if Karen had mentioned in passing that Annie had a big sister.
"Aw," the girls moaned in collective dismay.
"Now, girls, this is a family trip."
No, she was a mother. Moms were masters of that steeled-velvet intonation.
"Thanks," Blaine said, "but I can take a hint. This is fine." He shoved his briefcase in the floor space in front of his seat. Once he was settled, seat belt fastened, he turned to his neighbor. "Miss . . . um . . . Señora C, I presume?"
"Caroline." She offered him a firm, friendly handshake. "Caroline Spencer."