It was five o'clock on a Friday afternoon in June when Bree came into the kitchen. Even with the airconditioning going full blast, the kitchen was hot compared to the rest of the house. Sweat rolled down Mrs. Vorevkin's jowly cheeks as she stood bent over the kitchen sink, cleaning and chopping vegetables for the salad.
"I'm ready to go."
Olga turned and smiled at the young woman whose tan, lithe, and cheerful presence never failed to brighten any room she entered. "The cool chest is in the pantry," Olga told her. "It's all packed." She put down her knife and dried both hands on her apron. "The soup is ready," she added. "You should have some before you leave. Hot soup on a hot day will cool you off. Besides, it's such a long drive. You should eat something besides sandwiches."
Bree sniffed the air. Over the years, the O'Briens had gone through any number of cooks. Most of them hadn't lasted because they couldn't stand up to David O'Brien's stringent demands for quality and impeccable service. Olga, however, had been with the O'Briens a little over three years. She was an excellent cook who had come to them, by some circuitous path, from a job with the U.S. embassy in Moscow with an unexplained stop-off in New Orleans along the way. During her three years' tenure, she had developed a very loving friendship with this bright, golden-haired young woman who stood in her kitchen, waffling with indecision.
Bree glanced at her watch. Nacio, as she usually called him, would be off work in another hour. She wanted to be there in time to meet him when his shift ended, but there was just time for some of Mrs. V.'s delicious soup and athick slab of the crusty white bread she made on a daily basis, summer and winter.
"All right," Bree agreed at last, slipping into her favorite place at the kitchen table. "But I'll have to hurry."
The soup was a clear broth with a few green slivers of scallion floating on the top. Five or six tiny homemade meat-filled dumplings sat on the bottom of the bowl. It was wonderful.
"What time will Mom and Dad be home?" Bree asked, glancing casually at her watch. She wanted to be through the security gates, off Purdy Lane, and on the highway headed for Douglas long before her parents returned. Not that it mattered that much whether or not they were home when Bree left. She was going regardless. It was just always easier for her to leave without having to face them, without having to lie to them directly. Although, with practice, even that was easier now, Brianna was getting used to it.
Finishing the soup, Bree pushed her chair from the table, carried her dishes to the counter, and plucked a plump radish from the pile of clean ones Mrs. V. had stacked next to the sink. "Take two," Olga said with a smile. "They're not very filling."
Tossing her ponytail, Bree took a second radish and then hurried to the pantry. The cooler was right there, just as she had known it would be, packed with sandwiches, sodas, fruit, and, most likely, some little dessert surprise as well. Mrs. V. was a great believer in the Cajun tradition of lagniappe -- something extra.
Bree lugged the cooler as far as the front door. As soon as she opened it, she almost choked on the raw stench of cigar smoke that lingered in a hazy cloud just outside. Alf Hastings, her father's director of operations, was sitting in the shade of the verandah next to the fountain. He hurried to his feet as Bree came through the door. "Let me help you with that," he offered.
Alf hadn't been on Green Brush Ranch long. Bree didn't know much about him other than he was one of those middle-aged men who gave her the creeps. She suspected there were times he made unnecessary security sweeps through the yard outside her bedroom window on the off chance he might catch her in the act of undressing.
"No, thanks," she said. "I can manage on my own.,,
Not one to take no for an answer, Hastings leered at her. "Looks pretty heavy to me," he said. "At least let me open the gate to the camper."
That was the last thing Brianna O'Brien wanted. If he opened the camper shell on the pickup, he was bound to see all the camping equipment she had smuggled out of the garage and stowed there without anyone-her parents especially-being the wiser.
"It goes in front," she told him, quickly putting the cooler down on the ground. "I'll have to go back inside to get the key."
He was still standing there puffing on what was left of his cigar when she came back out of the house with the key in hand.
"Off to Playas again?" he asked.
Bree gave him a sidelong took. Was he testing her? Had he seen her loading the stuff into the truck and figured out what was really going on? Or was he just making conversation?
"That's right," she said.
This time Alf made no offer to help, but she noticed that he had moved off to one side, no doubt hoping to look down her tank top when she bent down to pick up the cooler. Give the dirty old man a thrill. If he's looking at my boobs, that means he probably isn't looking inside the camper. Once the cooler was properly situated on the rider's side of the seat, she slammed the door shut.
"Hope you keep the doors locked when you head off on your own like this," Alf said. "A young girl like you can't ever be...