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"What?! What do you mean I'm being cut?" Dr. Margaret Amis-Hollings, professor of women's studies in the sociology department at Hardis College, shot out of her chair and stared at the dean, Sally Smith, who remained seated.
"Calm down, Margaret."
"Calm down? Calm down, how? You just told me that I've lost my job." Pacing, she raked her hand through the tangle of auburn hair that never seemed to stay contained in barrettes. A million things went through her mind, not the least of which was how she would make her rent, her car payment, buy food. "Oh my God, how am I going to live?" Collapsing in the chair she'd just vaulted out of, she turned to face her friend and boss. Her expression was half despair, half anger, all shock.
"I'm so sorry, Margaret. The board has ordered more budget cuts. It hasn't been easy; you know how we've had to scrimp for the past few years. Now we even have to cull courses we think aren't serving the full interests of the students."
"But--but..." Eyes filling with tears, she couldn't at first finish her sentence. "But the women's studies classes? They're vital."
In fact, she had thought the reason for meeting with Sally was to discuss the addition of a new offering: Women Villains. She'd been so proud of the catchy and intriguing title and even had the hook for the course description. "What makes 'Jane the Ripper,' and how do her contributing factors differ from Jack's?" She'd anticipated sharing the materials she'd already prepared, and hearing Sally's happy response when she revealed the number of students who'd already indicated an interest.
She'd planned for questions of course, butanticipated support and excitement from Sally. The last thing she imagined was being let go.
In a rush she continued, not believing that she wouldn't somehow come up with the argument that would save everything. "What's more pertinent to young women than women's studies? Or even to men, for that matter. Knowing who we are, where we come from as a gender..."
"In an ideal situation, I would agree with you. But what do those classes do to prepare young people for jobs? For the real world? In the sociology department we need courses like demographics, polling, statistics, as well as the humanities like human interaction. Women's studies can be woven into many of them, but the reverse isn't as true. I have to stretch every dollar I have as far as I can."
Sally stopped as though trying to decide the best way to express her next thought. "Still, I might have saved some of the women's curriculum if you had been publishing, and you haven't. The last article you wrote for a professional journal appeared years ago. Every other person in the department has done better than that. You know the old "publish or perish" slogan. It's true."
Margaret stood again, twisting her hands and marching the length of the Oriental rug centered on the floor. "But I've been studying during the summers, designing different courses, developing relationships with women in the field. Doesn't that count for something?"
"Not enough, I'm afraid."
For several minutes neither woman spoke. Sally sat, her hands at rest in her lap; Margaret continued her frenetic pacing, her mind in a jumble.
"Does Harry know?" Harry Boland, the chair of the sociology department, had hired Margaret and been a staunch supporter of women's studies.
"I told him this afternoon. He didn't know before then. I asked him to let me tell you, a task he gladly relinquished. He's as upset as I am by this. He's losing other courses too, in the cutbacks."
"But no other faculty," Margaret said softly.
"No, no other faculty." Finally, Margaret fell into the chair, boneless, suddenly almost too tired to hold her head upright.
"When you turn your grades in for this semester you'll officially be on leave without pay." Margaret snapped her head toward Sally, trying to hide her anxiety but knowing that she wasn't succeeding.
"That's one concession I got for you, Margaret. You're on leave until the end of the school year. The severance will be reviewed then. I couldn't get salary, but I got a stay of execution, so to speak. Use the time to write. I mean write. Get commitments for articles, approach publishers about contracting for a book. Just get me something I can use in your defense at the end of the year and we'll see if we can't fit you in to teach something. Things might change by then, you never know. But if you're in the same place then that you are now, I'm afraid there's nothing I'll be able to do."
"I see." Margaret took a deep, cleansing breath, the way she'd been taught to do in the Emotions Management class she attended before filing for divorce. "Well, I guess there's no need to discuss the outline for the new class, is there?" She laughed and then wondered if it sounded as frantic to Sally as it did to her. She stood to leave.
"Margaret, there's one other thing. I hate to bring it up on top of everything else, but I've heard that you have a big paper due on Monday."
Warily, Margaret turned to stare at Sally. In fact, just before her meeting, one of her students had approached her to ask for an extension. An extension she had seen no reason to grant. The assignment had been made weeks ago, but now that the school was involved in a big football game the Saturday before the due date, some procrastinators wanted to play instead of work. An extension would put her against the wall trying to grade papers as well as exams before grades were due at the end of the semester.
"I can't believe it," she said on a gasp, her blue eyes flashing. "Surely you're not going to tell me I have to give those lazy, spoiled kids an extension on their work. That assignment was made weeks ago."
Sally stiffened in her chair, avoiding Margaret's eyes. "Yes, well, I understand that. And I rarely interfere with something that's in the instructor's purview. But I've decided to make an exception in this case. The playoff game is something special. You know that football brings in a lot of money and attention to the school. I hope you'll be reasonable and extend the deadline for the paper."
"I can't. It gives me no time to do justice to grading the papers and the exams."
Sally looked at Margaret, a frown puckering her brows. "Oh, Margaret, you're not even coming back next semester." She stopped at Margaret's flinch, and softened her voice when she continued. "I'm sorry. But give yourself a break. You know generally what to expect from each of the students in your class. Grade the paper fast, and along the lines of what you know they'll do anyway. Then grade the exam as you normally would. Don't make it harder for me to get you back next year."
Margaret's mouth fell open in disbelief. When she recovered, she silently picked up her things and walked to the door. "I'm amazed you could suggest that, Sally. I'll do my usual job of grading, even if it kills me, and I'll have my grades in on time. I assume that since I'm officially on leave and not fired, I don't have to empty my office immediately?"
There seemed no opening to say anything else. "All right, then." She pulled the door open and left the office.
By habit, she turned to the right and descended the stairs, hardly knowing where she was going. It wasn't until she was out on the sidewalk and halfway to her building that she realized she was freezing, and that she had automatically headed toward her office instead of to her car. Shaking, she dropped her briefcase and donned her coat. Then, with a brisk stride, she walked to the faculty parking lot and fumbled the key into the lock of her BMW Z4 roadster. She started the vehicle immediately and turned the heater to its highest setting, even knowing that the tremors now making her hands almost uncontrollable were due to more than the cold.
Taking deep breaths, which didn't help, she leaned her head against the steering wheel trying to comprehend what had just happened to her and what she was going to do next. She jumped as a tap sounded at her window. Harry Boland peered in at her. Margaret squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and then reluctantly rolled down the window. "Hello, Harry. Have you been waiting for me?"
"Yes, I have. I wanted to be sure you were all right."
Margaret smiled wanly at the little man who led her department. Close to sixty years old, he was short, balding, and pudgy, with crooked teeth and thick glasses, but he had always treated her fairly and, almost paternally, had helped her in any way he could. A good department chair and a good man. She knew that he would have prevented this from happening if there had been any way.
"I will be as soon as I have time to assimilate it. Oh, Harry. I just don't know what to do. I can't spend the whole winter and spring with no income. Yet I can't stay here in town and wait tables, can I?" She felt tears spring to her eyes but she blinked them back.
He reached a hand through the window and awkwardly patted her shoulder. "It will work out, Margaret. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that things that seem like upsets often turn out to be great opportunities. I know that sounds clichéd, but there's some truth in all clichés. Is there anything I can do right now? Would you like to come home and have dinner with Myra and me?"
She smiled at him again, this time more warmly. "No, thanks. I've got to meet my mother. But I appreciate the offer. You're a good friend."
"Look, Margaret, Dean Smith told me that not being published enough was part of the problem. I've put together a list of publishers I know. I'll be willing to call them for you when you've come up with a plan of action. I don't want to lose you." He thrust a paper through the window. A cursory glance showed two columns of names and addresses.
Tears that hadn't come when Sally gave her the news, threatened with Harry's kindness.
He smiled at her and patted her shoulder again. "Go on home. Things will look better after the weekend. Something will come through for you, I feel it. Let's talk on Monday, okay?"
"Sure. Thanks again." She rolled the window up, shutting out the piercing wind. Shifting into reverse, she backed out of the parking space, wondering whether she'd be able to continue making car payments without her monthly salary. With a half-hearted wave to Harry, she pointed the little car toward home.
The shrill ring of the phone woke her Sunday. Pulling the covers over her head to shut out the noise didn't work. Whoever it was knew the meaning of the word persistence. She didn't want to talk to anyone, but after eight rings she threw the covers back and grabbed the receiver. "Yes?" she demanded sharply.
"Babe? What's going on? I couldn't have gotten you out of bed, it's almost two in the afternoon."
Margaret recognized the smooth voice of her husband. Ex-, she reminded herself, ex-husband.
"Oh, hi, Jackson. Yes, I'm afraid you caught me out." She settled back on the pillow, pulling the covers up to her chin. "It's been a hard weekend. You do know that you don't have to worry about what time I get out of bed anymore, don't you? The papers should be here any day making me your former wife, officially."
"A piece of paper can't end what you and I had together, babe. In my heart you're still my wife. I can't believe you even went through with that divorce." His voice held a tsk-tsk in it. "But that's not why I'm calling. I wanted to ask you out to dinner."
"Why?" Suspicion colored her tone.
Hearing his voice was nice, silky, soothing on her nerves. He'd always been able to get her to do what he wanted when he used the right voice on her. Well, almost always. He hadn't gotten her to stop divorce proceedings. But now, when she was vulnerable, she knew she needed to exercise caution.
"Just to be nice? To have the chance to remind you of how sweet and nice and funny you are. And for me to enjoy it again?" It rolled over her, the persuasive charm that was Jackson. She braced herself.
"Not that I don't appreciate it, and believe me, I remember that you can be nice. Let me rephrase my question. Why today? I might think of you now as a friend instead of a son of a bitch, but let's face it, you haven't called in months except when it was necessary."
Jackson was quiet for several moments. "I heard what happened and I thought you could use a little cheering up."
"Oh." Unbidden, tears sprung to her eyes. "Oh," she repeated, knowing a sob could be heard in her voice.
"Ah, babe," Jackson whispered. "Tell you what. I'll go by that little Chinese place and bring over some of that chicken stuff you like so much. And fried rice and won tons and all of your favorites. How does that sound?"
Actually, it sounded good. Margaret hadn't eaten much since dinner with her mother Friday night. "I don't know..."
"I think it would do you good. Then we can talk." His voice dropped an octave and got even softer. Warning bells went off in Margaret's head as he added, "Then we can sit in front of the fire and I'll rub your shoulders. You'll feel better after some food and a backrub. Whadaya say?"
For a brief moment, she was tempted. To have Jackson's strong arms hold her and even to feel his touch as they had sex would be very comforting right now. Then Margaret laughed softly. "And then what? You almost had me, Jackson."
"What do you mean?"
She had to hand it to him, he honestly did sound perplexed by her hesitation.
"We always were good together, Margaret, you know that. I'd like nothing better than to be with you again, and I'll bet you feel the same. It will relax you."
"No doubt. You always did know just what to do to get my mind off my worries." She could hear his hum of agreement over the lines. "But we're divorced now. Where's Candi or Randi or whatever her name is?"
"Sandi. She's visiting her parents."
"Oh. Didn't she invite you to go along?"
He hesitated. It was slight, but noticeable. "Actually, she wanted me to go. I didn't want to. I thought I would stay here and see what I could do for you."
Understanding dawned. "I see. Don't want to meet the parents, huh?" At his grunt, she laughed again. "Jackson, I appreciate the offer of food and the backrub, and even of the other. I don't think it would be a good idea, but I'm very glad you called. I sure hope we'll stay friends. You've made me laugh a little, and now I think I can face getting up. Thanks."
"Margaret, no matter what those lawyers say, you're still my wife, and I'm here for you. Just call if you want someone to talk to."
When she hung up, the bed no longer held any attraction for her. After one final stretch, she kicked the covers off and padded into the bathroom where she spent a moment examining herself in the mirror. Dark circles shadowed her deep, blue eyes, eyes that normally sparkled with life. Her five foot six inch frame had gotten slimmer in the year she'd been on her own, but through exercise, not pining for Jackson, so she felt and looked fit. Consciously, she straightened her shoulders and held her head high, adding a world of confidence to her posture in those simple movements.
Her hair ... well, there was no help for that. Natural curl, the bane of her childhood, lent her auburn mane a wild, carefree look. Her face was softly rounded, with no sharp angles. Curling tendrils of shoulder-length hair, escaped from barrettes, braids, buns or whatever she used to try to tame it. It definitely had a mind of its own.
With a sigh, she pulled her hair off her neck and secured it with a clip. Leaning on the edge of the sink, she considered her hair. When she attempted to exert control, it unerringly escaped to frame her eyes or jaw line. In light of recent events, it served as an analogy. Maybe she should give in. Let it fall free and be what it wanted to be. Maybe she ... no. That wasn't who she was.
Turning on the shower and stepping in, she let the stinging spray shock her body into awareness.
She thought back over the previous two days and the conversation with her mother Friday night. Choosing not to confide about her upcoming layoff, she listened instead, as her mother talked about the man in her life and what the members of her bridge club were doing.
Margaret had gone to bed shortly after arriving home, and only got up for a few hours on Saturday. Instead of spending her Saturday gathering inner strength by reading and listening to classical music, she had sat around in her pajamas and robe, watching old movies and eating junk food. Now here it was, Sunday afternoon, and she was just rousing herself. Pity time is over.
Several minutes later, she dried off, pinned her hair up and put on old sweat pants and a sweatshirt, worn soft over the years. With heavy socks on her feet, she wandered into the kitchen to make coffee and find some "real" food.
Sitting at her kitchen table with an omelet, toast and coffee, she scribbled figures on a yellow pad as she reviewed her options. She had enough money in her savings account to pay rent until the end of the school year, and the car payment and rest of her bills for half of that time. Finding work immediately wasn't a necessity, but within three months she had better have income or get used to being car-less, not an option in New Jersey.
Sadly, she discovered, no matter how she juggled the figures, by next June, even with a job, her savings would be severely depleted. Unless... Unless she had a nice advance on a book.
There's a thought. Articles first, to get my teaching position back, and then maybe a book would be interesting.
Looking at the figures again, she felt panic. What if she didn't get an article published? What if something happened and she couldn't keep up rent and car and ... whatever else came up in her life? What if? What if?
With great reluctance, she wrote Mother in very small print at the bottom of the sheet. It wasn't that she didn't love her mother, but the thought of having to get financial help or--heaven forbid!--go home to live, well, it would be awful, that's all. She had to make something work.
Now, half depressed but fully determined, she thought about what kind of work there was in the area. Truthfully, not much for someone with a Ph.D. in sociology. She could apply at the nearby community college, but with the demands made in teaching she wouldn't have time to write, and getting her position back on the Hardis faculty had to be her main focus. Drawing a line through Community College, her thoughts trailed off to what might be a sure-fire topic to get an article printed.
With a second cup of coffee in front of her, Margaret pulled her briefcase over to find the list of contacts Harry had given her. Along with the list, her hand grasped the mail and other papers she had swept off her desk and into the briefcase before leaving for Sally's office Friday afternoon.
Among the standard collegiate notices and envelopes she found two official-looking envelopes. Both had been signed for by the department secretary. Using her letter opener, she cut a slit along the flap of the official-looking brown envelope marked Personal and Confidential.
The letter she pulled out was notification that the papers making her divorce from Jackson Hollings final and official--sanctioned and approved by the state of New Jersey--were ready for her to sign. Funny, she had just commented to him a few minutes ago that the papers were due any day, and they had been sitting in her briefcase, waiting for discovery.
Although she had initiated the proceedings and had fully expected the paperwork any day, actually seeing the words in black and white caused her stomach to drop and tears to come to her eyes. For six years she and Jackson had shared their lives. But for her eye-opening visit to his office one afternoon last fall they might still be. He was basically a good man, although not a particularly faithful one, and at one time she had loved him fiercely. But now she needed to move on with her life.
She put the letter aside and picked up the second envelope. It was addressed using her full name. Very formal. She glanced at the return address: Ronald Gibson, Esquire, Palmyra, Virginia.
Wrinkling her brow, she tried to figure out who she knew in Virginia. She slid her thumb under the flap and slipped out the sheets of paper. Her eyes widened as she read that she had been named sole beneficiary in the will of one Maude Rawling. Margaret looked at the second page of the notification. She had apparently inherited an antebellum house, with all furnishings and one hundred fifty-three acres, in Virginia.
Images of Gone With the Wind sprung to mind. She pictured a large, columned home commanding an expanse of lawn edged with azaleas and magnolias, and a circular drive around which carriages drove to discharge hoop skirted passengers. With a grin, she shook her head to dismiss the illusion.
Mr. Gibson urged her to contact him as soon as possible to discuss disposition of the property. Whether she planned to sell or live in the house, he advised, repairs had to be made. He recommended a contractor named Aaron Belton for the work, both for his expertise and knowledge of authentic reconstruction. Margaret reread the letter, wondering who Maude Rawling was, and why she would leave anything to her. She almost wished Jackson had come over after all, to sort through this with her.
Picking up the phone, she dialed her mother.
Patricia Ackerman, a vivacious, beautiful woman, was a most unconventional mother. Only eighteen years older than Margaret, she had just turned fifty-one at the end of the previous month. Married three times, although never to Margaret's father, Patricia had shared their various homes with several lovers. Living what she laughingly called an eclectic lifestyle, she'd built up quite a large bank account, as well as a strong network of friends. Although she was currently unmarried, even now she had a man firmly in the palm of her hand, and Margaret fully expected to be invited to another wedding in the near future.
When she promised to love Jackson until death, Margaret had tried to keep the specter of her mother's love life out of mind. Then, after the separation, she had hoped more than anything that the inability to have a truly loving relationship wasn't a part of her genetic makeup. Or at least that the inability to find a true man wasn't. But she somehow thought it was. She'd never had a relationship last. Jackson had been it, the longest, the one she'd committed to, and still she'd been disappointed in love.
"Mother," Margaret started, after exchanging opening pleasantries, "do you know a Maude Rawling?"
"No, who's she?"
"I don't know. But she lived in Virginia and she's left me a house and property in her will. I've never heard of her. Are you sure you don't know anything about her?"
"Hmm. Let me think." There was silence at the other end of the line. "Virginia, you say?"
"Yes. Some town called Palmyra. Do you know of her?"
"There was a branch of the family that lived in Virginia. They were on my mother's side. Mother was a Howell, but of course that would have been her father's name. We had very little to do with them, and they lived so far away." She was quiet a few more seconds. "But it does seem that one of my great-aunts was called Maude. If that's the case, do you mean that she just died? She must have been ancient."
"I never heard anything about family in Virginia. That might have been interesting to know about, Mother."
"Oh, I rather doubt it, dear. We had enough to do keeping up with the family and friends we knew about." Her mother chuckled. "Who told you about this?"
"A lawyer in that town, Palmyra. I'll talk to him tomorrow and see what it's all about, and make sure there's no mistake. Will you call grandma and ask her if she knows anything about this?"
"Sure. I'll let you know tomorrow. Well, that's an exciting way to start a new week, isn't it?"
"It's been an exciting week all around." Taking a breath, Margaret told her about having to schedule a time to sign the divorce papers officially ending her marriage, and the pending layoff at work.
"But Margaret, that's wonderful," her mother said about the layoff.
"Wonderful? Mother, I won't have any income for six months. More if I consider not being paid until after the school year starts."
"But darling, now you'll have time to write. I'm sure it's what you should have been doing all along. You'll be wonderful at it, just wait and see. Without teaching, you'll have no more excuses. And while I'm very sorry about your divorce being final, having a change of scenery and overseeing renovation of that house in Virginia will help you get through it."
Her mother sighed. "You know all I've ever wanted was for you to find your one true love and settle down. I always liked Jackson..."
Yes, with your taste in men you would. Margaret had the thought, then mentally slapped herself for her unkindness.
"...but if he wasn't the right man, then you need time to get yourself together and move on. I've always heard that Virginia is a beautiful state. Being away from here will be good for you. Of course you know that if I can help in any way I will, but I have a feeling you're going to be just fine."
"But, Mother, I can't..." She stopped mid-sentence, letting what Patricia said sink in. Leave it to her mother to find the most adventurous angle in any situation. Why not go to Virginia? She could oversee the repairs, do some writing in a peaceful, perhaps genteel environment, sell the place and come back rejuvenated, ready to fight for her job. If she could sublet her apartment for the spring semester, she would have more money left in the bank, too. Maybe she should let go a little, take a chance on something new.
"That's actually a very interesting idea. I think I'll put up a notice about subletting the apartment. I mean, how bad can the house down there be?"
"That's the spirit! Besides, Virginia will be a warmer place to spend the winter. They hardly get any snow, I understand. I'm planning to go away for awhile myself--if I can get Lionel to pop the question, that is."
That brought a full laugh to Margaret.
Her mother chuckled, too. "I know what you think, Margaret, but I believe Lionel is really the one."
"My money's on you, Mother. I'll talk to you tomorrow."
"So, this is Palmyra," Margaret said aloud, unimpressed, as she pulled the car up to the pump island. She rolled the window down and then looked over the passenger seat and out, at the small building and aged pumps. There was barely enough room for two cars to get situated, and already a large pickup truck was parked on the opposite side of the island, with four other vehicles jammed into the lot. As she turned the engine off, another car pulled in behind her.
"Busy place," she mused. Now, where was that man to pump her gas? At her regular station in New Jersey, they were always fast to come out and help.
Margaret noticed with distaste that the glass on the front doors of the building was dark with grime of some sort, and that olive green paint was peeling off the front of the building. 'Sa my's' said the sign that swung from a hook over the front door, providing a stronger impression of neglect. Probably the best these poor country people can muster up. She shivered at the thought of having to go inside. If the outside was this bad, how much worse must the inside be? But go inside is what she would have to do if someone didn't come out soon to pump her gas.
She sighed impatiently. Having filled up before leaving New Jersey, she was now running practically on fumes. Without knowing how far she would have to drive to find the house, she couldn't take a chance on not getting gas here. If only I'd stopped back by the Interstate.
Just as she had decided to bite the bullet and go inside, a man emerged. For a moment it looked as though he was going to climb in the pickup parked across the island, but he glanced at her and then at the car that had pulled in right behind her. With a puzzled look, he came around the front of her car and leaned down to gaze at her through the opened window. "Is there a problem, Miss?"
Trying to look unperturbed at having to wait, Margaret looked over his shoulder instead of directly at him when she replied. "Yes, I've been waiting and waiting for someone to come out and help me, and as you can see we have a line forming now." She glanced at his eyes long enough to see the puzzled look change to one of surprise. "No matter," she said, waving her hand at him. "Fill it up with unleaded, please." She turned away and stared out the windshield, but that didn't prevent her from hearing the man snort, as though trying to stifle a laugh.
She watched in first the side and then the rearview mirrors, as he stepped to the back of the car and looked at her license plates. Then he turned to the driver of the car behind her, who had gotten out and leaned against his door, arms crossed. Pointing to the plates, he said something and they both laughed.
What, exactly, is so damn funny?
Finally, he flipped open the cover to the gas cap, took it off and inserted the nozzle. He strolled back to the side of the car. "Anything else you got in mind?" he asked with a lazy, slow drawl. "Want me to check your oil or clean your windows?" Despite the words, she perceived amusement in his tone rather than a true desire to help.
"No," she replied stiffly, turning to him with what she hoped was a haughty look. The look died however, when she found herself mere inches from his face as he examined her and the boxes of belongings in the backseat.
She hadn't actually looked at him before, more like toward him, and a more gorgeous man she had never seen. His eyes were the darkest blue, his hair the deepest black, his teeth the whitest white. And straight, she noted absently. If he had been wearing blue tights with a red cape and had a big yellow "S" on his chest, he would have looked exactly like Superman in the comic books she had read while growing up. Except this man had deep dimples bracketing his mouth instead of the comic book hero's cleft in his chin.
For a brief moment she sat breathless.
Then, "Well, maybe there is one other thing."
He rolled his eyes as though to say, "Yes, I thought there might be."
"Can you tell me how to reach the Rawling house? I think it's called River Peace."
River Peace. Every time she said the name she felt a little thrill, envisioning the plantation mansion she'd first conjured when she read Ron Gibson's letter. She couldn't wait to see it. "It's supposed to be somewhere near Palmyra, and this is Palmyra, isn't it?"
Abruptly his gaze sharpened and he looked at her more closely. "Yes, this is Palmyra." His drawl wasn't so pronounced now. "Why do you want to know about the Rawling place?"
She bristled at the question, unconsciously pushing hair that had pulled free of her braid behind her ear. "It's really none of your business. Do you know where it is or not? I'm sure someone inside will know if you don't." She frowned slightly at the thought of going into that dirty building, but if this gorgeous oaf wouldn't answer her, she would do it.
He straightened, standing close to the car and effectively blocking her exit. Still looking out the window, Margaret found herself facing his belt buckle, peeking out between the edges of the wool vest he wore. Involuntarily, she moved her eyes a little lower and saw a bulge in his jeans that startled her with its size. She gulped, feeling herself blush, but couldn't seem to force her eyes away.
Fantasies assailed her. Was his member really as large as it seemed, based on that bulge? She stopped herself. Member? That was no "member," that was a cock, plain and simple. And a big one, too. God, how would it be to touch it through his rough jeans? Her hand lifted off her lap before she forced it back. Did he know how to use it? She'd bet he did. Was he married? Wait a minute, married? Who cared? This was a fantasy.
Her panties were wet, the results of her wayward thoughts, and her nipples scraped hard against her blouse. She licked her lips, imagining his jeans pulled down around his thighs, his huge cock positioned right at her point of entry. He fit perfectly between her legs, as he slid through the moisture that betrayed her seeming disinterest, pushing into her...
She suddenly became aware that he had bent down and was speaking. Mentally shaking herself, she tried to concentrate on his words, at the same time hoping he didn't have mind reading capabilities.
"...road will narrow, and twist around. County maintenance ends after about a mile, so it deteriorates a little but you shouldn't have any trouble in this." He patted the roof of the Ford sedan she had borrowed from her mother in exchange for her Z4 roadster. "The Rawling place is just about the only thing back that way. You'll see the sign for River Peace. Go right up the drive and the house is at the top of the rise. Got it?"
"Yes," she said tersely. She realized she sounded a bit testy, finding it difficult to focus on the directions he had just given rather than the bulge in his jeans. "Sounds simple enough. Uh... Go up the road a couple of miles until it deteriorates and then turn right up the drive."
He blew out an exasperated breath. "No, turn around and go back toward town. Take the first road to the right. That's Route 803. From there it's a couple of miles and you turn right up the drive. Do you need me to lead you?"
"There's no need to get male about this. Sounds like there are only two turns. I think I can handle that all right, thank you."
Snap! She glanced over her shoulder at the sound of the pump shutting off, then dug out her wallet as he put the pump handle back in place and screwed the gas cap on. He spoke and waved to the man behind her, who waved back before getting in his car.
"It's twenty-one dollars," he told her when he came back to her window again. "They'll take it inside."
She thrust a twenty-dollar bill and a five at him. "Here. Why do I have to go inside?"
He looked at the bills in her hand and laughter lit his eyes. "Why indeed?" he murmured. He took the money and stood to leave.
"Wait!" Margaret called out. "Do you know a man named..." she picked up Ron Gibson's letter from the seat beside her, "...Aaron Belton? He's supposed to be some sort of carpenter or construction guy or something. In a burg this size I figured everyone would know everyone else."
Leaning down again, he smiled, and Margaret thought her heart would stop. "Yeah, I know him. What do you want with him?"
"If you don't mind my saying so, you're awfully inquisitive. I have business with him, and that's all you need to know. Do you have any idea how I can reach him? Is he known for good work?"
"Best work you'll find in four counties. Can't vouch for anything beyond that. He's in the phone book." With that, he straightened and strode off.
She watched him go into the building, then a few minutes later come out and climb in the pickup. Her mouth dropped open as he started the engine. When she hit her horn he merely stuck his arm out the window, waved the dollar bills in the air, and pulled away.