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"Don't tell me not to panic. Any sensible person would panic!"
Vivienne Jansen held the phone away from her ear as her twin's remaining thread of sanity snapped.
"Why the hell did I ever listen to you 1 must be crazy."
Seventeen hours into her surprise visit, Viv sat down on the floral couch in her sister's suburban Auckland home, eyed the schnoodle glaring at her through the front door's sidelight and really tried not to take all this unjustified hostility personally. "Of course you're upset," she soothed. "You're about to have surgery, but don't worry I'll"
"Who talked me into wearing high heels?" Merry demanded. "Who?"
"Stature adds confidence" Viv crossed her own teeterhigh ankle boots "and you said you needed a boost for the job interview this morning."
"Something else I let you talk me into. Except I won't be a nurse here, I'll be a patient with a broken shin." Merry's voice broke. "As if my life wasn't enough of a mess already. Oh, Viv, what will I do? They say I'll be here at least a week." Her sister was in Hamilton, an hour south of Auckland and the perfect place, Viv had argued over last night's jug of dutyfree margaritas, for a fresh start. The schnoodle barked. "What's wrong with Salsa?"
"Nothing." Returning the whiteandgray miniature hellhound's glare, Viv lifted a finger to her lips. He gave her a "you're kidding, right?" look and barked again. "He's playing in the yard Good dog!" Yeah, right.
Salsa's begrudging tolerance had disappeared the moment Merry left the house, replaced by low warning growls that frayed Viv's jetlagged nerves. When she'd discovered him chewing one of her Jimmy Choo UGG boots she'd lured him outside with the second sheepskin boot and the fervent wish that he'd choke on it.
They were not friends, oh, no.
Salsa kept barking, and Viv hurried into the guest bedroom and shut the door. Maybe if he couldn't see her.
Merry started to cry. "Charlie's going to find out I was interviewing out of town he'll be furious that I'm considering moving with the kids Oh, God, he'll use my hospitalization as an excuse to move them to his mom's. Sue for full custody like he threatened when we first separated."
"As if he wouldor couldtake the kids away from you. Take deep breaths." Encourage thatpresurgery sedative into the bloodstream.
Though, what did she know about custody laws in New Zealand? Not to mention her brotherinlaw had been acting completely out of character. Charlie had walked out on the marriage three months ago and was apparently making her sister's life a misery with his onerous demands on visitation.
How could Merry move on when they were constantly doing kiddy handovers, and her estranged spouse was dating their baby's daycare teacher? Worse, Merry still pined for the SOB. It was way past time for an intervention.
"Charlie's at school camp with Tilly for two more nights," she reminded her twin. The fourday adventure camp, organized through school, relied heavily on parental volunteers. "That leaves us plenty of time to come up with a way to spin this."
"But what about my baby?" Merry sobbed. "I'm due to pick up Harry from linda's at five and"
"I'll go get him and I won't say a word to your motherinlaw about the accident." Viv opened a window to dispel the lingering mustiness of the spare room and the scent of freesias wafted up from the garden bed.
"He'll be thrilled to meet his auntie." Her nephew had been in bed when Viv made her surprise appearance at 7:00 p.m. and Bad Granny had picked him up early. Viv didn't do early. As a New Yorkbased costume designer, she was a bright lights, late nights kind of girl.
"You're right of course you're right." Merry gulped in an obvious effort to compose herself. "Look, I'm sorry about blaming you earlier. This is all my fault."
"You have every right to make a fresh start," she said hotly. "And the job's ideal for your new circumstances school hours five days a week instead of three long graveyard shifts. And it's not as if you'd be taking the kids to Siberia. It's only an hour's commute, for God's sake."
It had been precisely this defeatism that had prompted Viv to fly home when the cancellation of an upcoming Broadway show freed up her schedule for a month. Plus, she needed to get away from Jean Paul.
"Anyway, I'll pack you a bag, pick up the baby and drive straight to Hamilton. We should be there by the time you're out of surgery."
"No. Harry will need a bath and dinner first." Her sister swung into mom mode. "Do you know anything about looking after a fifteenmonthold?"
"Of course I do, I babysit all the time." Theater divas. But it would be easy enough to find information on the internet who was the kid guru again? Dr. Block Flocks Spock.
Merry sounded doubtful. "So you like children now?"
Viv paraphrased W. C. Fields. "As long as they're well cooked." Her twin didn't laugh. Viv placed a hand on her heart where it got tangled in the beads. "I promise I'll look after him as though he were my own and you don't want to leave him with the motherinlaw, do you?"
Linda Coltrane was one of those awful women who saw her son's wife as a rival and had made her peoplepleasing daughterinlaw's life miserable for years. The old bat must be ecstatic having her son living under her roof again.
Merry seemed to read Viv's thoughts. "You will be polite, won't you? To Linda? And don't get all caught up defending me if she blames me for the breakup just grab Harry and get out of there."
"You can't be serious, she blames you? Even though Charlie walked out? Even though he's already dating another woman and" Viv bit her lip to stop herself from saying, "was probably screwing her while you were married?"
Meredith refused to discuss the circumstances around the separation. But last night after the third margarita, Viv had asked, "He cheated on you, didn't he?" and her twin had burst into tears. Enough said.
"And don't wear anything too revealing. You know how conservative Linda is."
Viv looked down at her bare legshers and Merry's best featureunder a shortsleeved, sunflowerpatterned minidress, their length accentuated by kickasshigh Isabel Marant boots. Her pushup bra cleavage was all but hidden under a tangle of thriftshop beads and phony diamond strands.
In New York and London her style was called boho chic; in the New Zealand rural farming community where she'd grown up her vibrant mixing of color, texture and bling had made Viv the brunt of jokes.
She'd forgotten that after a decade of being a costume designer living in cities that embraced diversity. Forgotten that when the other kids teased her, Meredith had always begged her to try to fit in.
"I'll put some jeans on," she said. Her sister was injured and frightened, and hurt feelings were selfish. "What do you want me to pack for youtoiletries, night wear?"
"I don't think you should come in the dark." Meredith was speaking a little slower. The tranquilizer must be kicking in. "You're not used to the lefthand side of the road anymore. Leave in the morning."
She wasn't used to driving anymore, period. "You need someone there when you wake up."
"I've managed without you for ten years. I'm sure I'll survive another night."
Her sister could always guilttrip her with one pointed comment. And like a pebble in a pond it rippled back to older transgressions Viv could never atone for. Being the greedy twin in the womb and taking more than her share of nutrientsunequal placenta sharing. Asking to be put in a different class on their first day of school. Suggesting at twelve that they didn't share every friend.
Merry didn't understand Viv's claustrophobia because she'd always been the twin who embraced family as opposed to the twin who ran away from it.
No, that used to be true. Viv might still be a screwup in her romantic life but everything else was under control she'd even tossed out the peroxide and let her hair grow. She was so secure in herself, she was relaxed about looking like her twin again. "I'll fix this, Merry. Have I ever failed to get you out of trouble?"
"I can't think " Thank God for sedatives.
"That's settled then," she said briskly. She should have come home immediately after her sister's marriage broke up. But she was here now.
"Viv, this is important." Merry's voice was a drowsy whisper. "I can't lose my kids. Not them, too."
"You won't, I swear." Before her twin lost the plot completely, Viv got the motherinlaw's address. Then she talked to the surgeon. First he described her sister's condition in terms she didn't understandlike "tibial shaft fracture" and "intramedullary rodding" before using words that unfortunately Viv did.
She sat on the bed and stuck her head between her knees as he described how a metal rod would be inserted down the center of Merry's shin to stabilize the break. He promised to call immediately after surgery with an update.
Viv hung up and dug in her tan slouch bag for her booklet of patron saints. For a moment she couldn't find the right saint to invoke. Her finger went down the list. Roch for knee problems and Servatius for foot troubles nothing for shins. Finally, she found Mammes, protector of sufferers from broken bones, and said a little prayer.
Thumbing to the kids' saints a horrified thought struck her. Was a fifteenmonthold out of diapers? Rolling off the bed, she opened her laptop and looked up Dr. Spock.
After wasting ten minutes reading a fascinating article on Leonard Nimoy's prosthetic ears, she found potty training information. The news wasn't good. Unless Harry was extremely advancedand given his father's stupidity in leaving the nicest woman in the world, Viv doubted it she'd be dealing with diapers. The food thing was more encouraging. Most of what he ate could come out of a glass jar.
She realized she was chewing her very expensive false nails and stopped.
"Get a grip. If you can survive eighteen months as a fur groomer on Cats" her first job "you can survive looking after a little person for one night until the cavalry arrives." That reminded herher father and brother didn't know she was in the country yet. Viv glanced at her watch. 4:30 p.m. They'd still be working the family farm, two and a half hours south. She'd call home later.
After hauling on a pair of Sass and Bide jeans she headed to the master bedroom to raid her sister's wardrobe for a sweater. When she'd packed, she'd imagined a New Zealand spring to be a lot warmer. Viv opened Merry's wardrobe, scanned the hangers and sliding baskets and winced. Had they sprung from the same species?
Half a dozen Tshirts in block pastels, far too many pairs of jeans, flat shoes and trainers. Sensible skirts, even more sensible blouses and shorts befitting a Brownie troop leader.
Only one outfit caught Viv's eye, the dress she'd given Meredith on her previous visit home two years ago. Pulling it out, Viv saw it still had the tag on. And she'd tried so hard to channel her sister's tastes, right down to Merry's favorite cherryred. Maybe the deep V in the back deterred her twin it wasn't a dress you could wear a bra with. Not that either of them had much to support.
Viv returned it to the wardrobe and dragged out a Vnecked green angora cardigan, which matched the leaves on her sunflower minidress. Linda would just have to deal with the cleavage Viv couldn't hide.
Then she called the cab company she'd used last night.
The dog's feathery curly hackles rose the minute she opened the front door. He gave a low, warning growl. Viv put a hand on her hip. "Cut the act, Salsa. I was raised on a farm with working dogs I'm not scared of a poodleschnauzer cross with button eyes and a shoe fetish."
Salsa sprang; Viv slammed the door closed.
"Okay I take that back," she called through the mail slot. "You're a fierce and awesome beast. How about we make a fresh start?"
Salsa snarled. His limbs and face were white, his body a darker gray that made him look like he was wearing a cute little jacket. He had a tuft of darker fur between his eyes that acted as a permanent frown. Viv glanced at her watch. "C'mon, mutt, I don't have time for this."
Considering for a moment, she went to the kitchen, donned a rubber glove and picked up the plate of four boneless sirloin steaks defrosting on the countertop. Opening the window closest to the front door a few inches she waved a bloody steak like a white flag. "See this? Yours if you behave yourself. Sit!"
Salsa barked. Once. Twice.
"Tough negotiator, huh? Okay, I can make a goodwill gesture." Viv tossed the raw steak at the narrow opening and missed. It slid down the inside pane, leaving a smear of blood behind it and flopped onto the hardwood floor. "Damn it!" Outside, Salsa leaped up and put his paws against the pane, scratching at the glass. "No Don't do that.wait!" Grabbing the meat she shoved it through the gap. It hit the pavement with a wet slap and Salsa fell on it, wolfing it down and then whining for another.
Viv picked up a second steak. "Sit!"
"Sit," she repeated sternly, and the dog half crouched on his haunches. "Nice try, mutt, but I can still see air." Reluctantly Salsa sat. Viv tossed him a second steak and worked out her escape plan. When the taxi driver honked, she opened the front door, hurled the two remaining steaks as far as she could across the yard, then sprinted for the gate, slamming it behind her.
Peeling off the bloody glove she dropped it in the neighbor's curbside trash can and smiled at the startled driver. "How fast can you drive?"
To be nicknamed The Iceman by your peers in the SAS one of the world's elite military unitswas a hardearned accolade.
And yet Ross Coltrane was close to surrendering his famed selfcontrol. Not because he was under enemy fire. Not because his foe had a territorial advantage and knew how to play him. No, what brought him to the verge of losing his temper was his stepmother's total disregard for civilian casualties.
"It's okay, mate." Pitching his voice gentle, he picked up his baby nephew who'd unexpectedly scooted in on his butt from the lounge where he must have been playing. Tears welling in his big brown eyes and lower lip trembling, Harry looked between his grandmother and uncle. The child hated conflict.