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Jane Carlton choked on her hot tea, then covered the phone with her hand and mouthed to her assistant, "Did you say this is my grandmother?"
Lainie nodded, looking concerned. "What is it? She sounded okay. Is she okay?"
Jane threw up her hands as if to say she had no idea, then tucked the phone into her shoulder once again and said, "Gram?"
"Yes, dear. Did you hear me?"
"I…maybe," Jane admitted. "Say it again?"
"I'm in love!"
The words came out sounding like lyrics in a musical—theatrical, whimsical, larger-than-life.
There was just one problem.
The women in Jane's family didn't do love. They didn't do forevers.
Oh, they had men in their lives. But they made no mistakes about it involving anything as substantial and long-lasting as love.
Jane had learned that the hard way.
"Gram, I thought—"
"I know. I know! That's why it's so amazing! Me, in love, finally, at seventy-six! Who'd have believed it?"
"Wait," Jane said, shaking her head. "Gram, you're eighty-one—"
"He moved into one of the cottages a week ago! The most amazing man I've ever met in my life, Jane, and… Oh, here he comes! Leo! Over here! Over here!"
Jane's grandma sounded like a teenager.
This was so bizarre.
Was it some kind of sudden-onset dementia that had her believing she was only seventy-six? Worst yet, could that have taken her back in her own mind to her teenage years in the four days since Jane's last visit?
Because that's what she sounded like, a ridiculous kid in love.
"Say you'll come and have dinner with us so you can meet him," Gram said. "Tonight? All right? It's lasagna night. Goodbye, my darling girl."
One of Jane's big dates of the week.
Thursdays was lasagna with Gram, her great-aunt Gladdy and a few of their friends from their active retirement village—they stressed the word active in all things—called Remington Park. Sunday afternoons were spent taking Gram and Gladdy shopping, maybe to a movie or brunch.
There it was, the sad truth about Jane's big dates.
Oh, she could have found a man to go out with. Men were everywhere. But a man she truly wanted to spend time with? A man who could be depended on to show her a good time that topped a hot bath, a glass of wine and a good book?
There certainly weren't a lot of those around, Jane had found in her twenty-eight years.
She put down the phone—forgotten by Gram, who'd gone in search of Leo, the supposed love of her life—and sighed, trying not to think Gram had more of a social life than she did.
"Is she all right?" Lainie asked, hovering as she tended to do.
"Well, she's either forgotten her own age or she's pretending to be five years younger to impress a man. Please tell me we won't give a flip about impressing a man when we're eighty-one. I mean, at that age, who really wants one? They're bound to be more trouble than they're worth in their eighties. I mean, I think men in their thirties are more trouble than they're worth."
Lainie frowned. "Jane, you think all men are more trouble than they're worth."
Jane considered, decided she couldn't argue that point. "And?"
Lainie looked sad, as if she might just feel a bit sorry for Jane. "I'm just saying… Don't you ever get lonely?"
Absently drumming the keys on the powered-off calculator on her desk, Jane considered. "Not really. I have my work, my family. I guess I'm a little lonely now that Bella's gone—"
"Bella was a dog, Jane."
"I know. I've never met a man who was nicer to me than my dog was."
Then there was no even trying to hide it. Lainie definitely felt sorry for her, which made Jane wonder if it was really that sad, to have a beloved and recently deceased dog who was nicer to her than any man she'd ever met. But really, Jane felt lucky to have no illusions. To be honest with herself and in the way she'd put together a life of her choosing. And it was a good life. A good, satisfying life most of the time.
Sure, every now and then she got lonely, but didn't everyone?
"Men are so unpredictable," she complained.
"Life is unpredictable," Lainie insisted.
"No, life with men is unpredictable." Jane smiled, quite satisfied with that catchphrase.
She quickly scribbled it down on a list she kept handy for just these occasions. She'd come up with another great catchphrase for her work with the poor, unhappy women who hadn't yet come to the wisdom she had, wisdom she happily shared with others in her Fabulous Female Financial Boot Camp seminars. Where she preached financial independence with the same fervor of a good old-fashioned preacher trying to save lost souls. The women in her seminars were lost, too, in a wilderness of financial ignorance, irresponsibility and the completely mistaken idea that they were helpless to assist themselves, to take control of their own financial destiny.
Men were what messed up everything.
Most women would be so much better off without them.
Jane didn't come right out and say that, exactly, to the poor, lost female souls who came to her. She didn't want to freak them out too badly right away, and Jane knew she could really freak people out if she wasn't careful, being so passionate and insistent in getting her ideals across. She just told women that unless and until they were in charge of their own lives, they would never have any true independence or stability, and that who, if anyone, should be in charge of their lives except themselves?
Empowerment and enlightenment, Jane promised in the advertisements for her seminars. Changing women's lives for the better.
Jane was completely in charge of her own life, and it was wonderfully predictable, dependable and sane.
And she liked it that way.
Wyatt Addison Gray IV got the look the minute he walked in the door at the main offices of Remington Park.
The administrator, a most aptly named Ms. Steele, was waiting for him, all starched and pressed and so buttoned-up it looked like her blouse might be strangling her, even as she stood there.
Wyatt asked himself, How bad could it possibly be? The man had only been here for a week. How much havoc could an eighty-six-year-old man possibly cause in seven days?
And come to think of it, why couldn't his uncle be immobile like so many men his age? Maybe just stuck in a wheelchair that conveniently didn't move, the wheels sabotaged for his own good? Was that too much to ask? Drugged into a mild haze that left him feeling no pain and causing no trouble? What would it take to arrange that? It wasn't really illegal, was it? Drugging and restraining a troublesome eighty-six-year-old?
Wyatt tried to fortify himself for what was to come, put on his best I-can-fix-this smile and extended a hand. "Ms. Steele. What can I do for you?"
"You promised there wouldn't be any trouble," she said, attacking from the first word as she stood in the doorway to her office.
"Yes," he said, pretending he believed every word he was about to say.
Nothing to fix.
She gave a curt nod that said, Inside my office. Now.
Wyatt smiled reassuringly and then tried to appear calm and confident—none of which he felt—as he complied with her unspoken command.
Ms. Steele seated herself behind a desk organized with rigid precision, pen here, clock here, phone here, files neatly housed in a small holder on her desk, paper in a short stack that looked like someone had taken a ruler to the edges.
Ooh, Wyatt thought, feeling like he was a teenager and had been summoned to the headmaster's office at boarding school. Again.
He sat back, determined to at least seem relaxed, and smiled. "What can I do for you?"
She huffed like she was already disgusted with him and his uncle, and Wyatt hadn't even begun to make his explanations yet.
"You think those of us in the eldercare community don't know each other?" she began. "Don't talk? Don't get together to share our problems and ideas on how to address them?"
He hoped not. Though he probably should have thought of that and negotiated a confidentiality clause with the other retirement homes his uncle had been in.
"Well, we do talk to each other," Ms. Steele said. "And I did some checking. I don't know how I let you talk me into taking him without talking to some people first—"
Wyatt knew exactly how he'd done it. It was, simply, what he did—talk people into things they didn't want to do. He was a divorce lawyer, and what he'd found, mostly, was that by the time they got to him, people really didn't want to divorce their spouse. They wanted to torture their spouse, mercilessly and without end, and the way to do that was to keep fighting about the divorce.
So he usually let them fight it out for a while, chalking up billable hours like crazy, until most of the fury had burned out, that gleam in their eyes about revenge giving way to exhaustion and growing financial distress, and then he talked them into what they really needed to do. Agree to the divorce.
It sounded cold and maybe a little as if he was taking advantage, but truly, he wasn't. People needed that time to let their emotions rage, he'd discovered. It wasn't pretty, but it was all about processing those bad, messy feelings that came from the breakup of most relationships. And without that processing time, people simply couldn't move on.
He gave them that time, at an outrageous sum per hour, as most attorneys did, and then when he felt they were ready, he got them to agree to the actual divorce.
Wyatt liked to think he provided a much-needed service to the miserably married public, that he gave his clients a nice balance of hand-holding, emotional venting opportunities and, in the end, closure. For that, he was incredibly well paid and had learned how to talk almost anyone into anything. A skill that he never imagined he'd need in such abundance in looking after his beloved but troublesome elderly uncle in the man's waning years.
Problem was, certain things about uncle Leo showed no signs of waning. Most distressingly, his interest in women.
When they'd come to Remington Park, Wyatt had been at his most charming, most reassuring, pushing to seal the deal without ever seeming like he was pushing, seeming like a man with no troubles at all, when he convinced Ms. Steele to take uncle Leo.
"Kicked out of three retirement homes already!" Ms. Steele commented.
It wasn't a question. She knew it was true. Damn. "Look, he just went a little… you know—"
"No, I don't," Ms. Steele said. "The man's eighty-six, not sixteen!"
"He and my aunt Millicent were together for eleven years," Wyatt explained.
Ms. Steele didn't seem impressed at all with the number.
Wyatt frowned. "No one in my family's ever stayed married that long. This was the marathon of marriages for the Gray family men—a record likely to stand for the ages if history is any guide—and uncle Leo was faithful to her the entire time. He swears it. But then, when she was gone… I mean, he was devastated. Truly, he was. But he also felt like…"
"He was running out of time?" she suggested.
Wyatt nodded. "I suppose."
"Had to get everything while he still could?"
That sounded more selfish than he'd ever considered Leo to be, but still, Wyatt conceded, "It's possible."
"A little like a kid in a candy store, given the fact that there are so many more women than men at his age? Or even in the age group ten or twenty years younger than he is? So many lonely women with no one to talk to? No one to flatter them? Flirt with them? Hold them? Convince them to let him take care of certain physical needs they might have forgotten, that he can bring back to life, like magic?"
"Okay, yes. He likes women," Wyatt admitted. "Always has. And they like him."
"Don't expect me to see this as some sort of public service he's offering. Servicing—if you will—lonely women," she said, looking every bit as dour and imposing as the last administrator who'd kicked uncle Leo out of her facility. "Because I certainly don't see it that way."
"And how do you see it?" Wyatt asked, thinking if he knew where she was coming from, surely he could fix this.
"Like he has caused women who've lived together happily, some of them for years in the same cottage, to now be at each other's throats! Like they were in high school, fighting over a boy! I won't have it. I can't—"
"Look, he's a flirt—"
She frowned down her upturned nose, holding a file folder in front of her. "He's doing more than flirting."
Damn, Wyatt thought. Leo's still got it. At eighty-six! A part of him couldn't help but feel a sense of admiration and reassurance about his own twilight years.
Eighty-six and still going.
On the other hand, he could really go for Leo moderately drugged and confined to a deliberately sabotaged wheelchair in an all-male home right now.
Did they have those? All-male homes? Wyatt would have to look into it, if he couldn't salvage this situation.
"Look, these women… He swears he doesn't make them any promises. No commitments. I told him he had to make that clear up front, so no one would get hurt." He'd thought about actually drafting a release, spelling it out in writing. No expectations of any permanent arrangement. And getting them all to sign before Leo got too close. "I mean, surely women still aren't looking for a long-term commitment in their eighties? Please tell me they're not?"
Ms. Steele looked aghast.
"He can't help it if women like him," Wyatt said.
"The women here got along just fine with each other until he came," Ms. Steele reiterated. "SoI don't think the women are the problem. He is. And if he causes any more of an uproar here, he's gone. I mean it. And you'll have to take him out of state to find him a new home. I won't have him doing the same thing to anyone I know in this business."
Okay, so…it wasn't that bad yet? They still had a chance. What a relief!
"He'll be great," Wyatt vowed. "Quiet, kind—without being too kind. Friendly without being too friendly. A model resident. I promise."
Bigger lies had seldomfallen from Wyatt's lips, he feared.
He wrapped up his meeting with Ms. Steele and went to find his uncle.
Remington Park was actually a series of small cottages, each housing eight to ten residents who had their own bedrooms and shared a common kitchen, living room and dining room. Those cottages were set around larger, more traditional assisted living apartments and a nursing home facility for people who needed a higher level of care.