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It wasn’t your ordinary dime store synthetic satin groundbreaking ribbon. This was real French satin ribbon, specially ordered by Amelia Coleman Assante and trimmed with a half inch of Spanish lace. Yards of the opulent ribbon festooned the sequined pylons that were manned by a pair of handsome guards wearing well-fitted cobalt-blue uniforms. The shears, while not overly large for such a momentous occasion, were solid gold. “Nothing but the best for this opening,” Amelia cooed to her husband. “The crowd expects it. Smile, darling. We’re going live.” Cary Assante looked up at the tiny figure standing on top of Assante Towers. He watched as one of the cameramen signalled to the commentator who waited on top of the building.
“This is Dave Harrison of KBT Eyewitness News reporting to you live from atop Assante Towers in downtown Austin. All you armchair viewers should be glad you’re viewing this dedication in your warm living rooms. Today’s temperature is well below the freezing mark. A record breaker, ladies and gentlemen, but a nice way to start off the Christmas season. I’ll be switching you to Neal Tyler, my associate, in just a minute, but first I want to tell you a little bit about today’s groundbreaking ceremonies. Cary Assante, the creator of this architectural immensity, this city-within-a-city known as Miranda, will be cutting the ribbon shortly. I was told before airtime that a large crowd was not expected due to this record-breaking cold, but there must be a thousand people down there. Cary Assante is married to Amelia Coleman, and here in Texas, anything the Colemans are involved in is major news. This affair today, ladies and gentlemen, takes the spotlight away from the oil crisis that’s paralyzed our state for so long.
“The governor and the lieutenant governor are here, as well as the newly appointed mayor of Miranda. Yes, Miranda will have its own mayor, and even its own zip code. Senator Thad Kingsley of Vermont is in attendance with his beautiful wife, Billie, who was once married to Moss Coleman. Two of our own congressmen are here, and every socialite in the register is down there, all wearing their best furs. The Crystal City Band is down there, too, as well as the fire department and rescue squad.
“This is a wonderful turnout for Cary Assante, who worked more than ten years to complete this magnificent city within a city. KBT News will be taking you inside Assante Towers tonight for the gala opening in the grand ballroom. The color scheme for tonight’s festivities is red and silver, with over fifty thousand poinsettia plants flown here from San Diego. Special heaters were required for the planes and the trucks that transported the plants. It’s obvious that no expense was spared for this momentous occasion. And the crowd down below is loving it. This is Dave Harrison, reporting live from Miranda. Back to you, Neal.”
The Crystal City marching band swung into its third lusty rendition of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” as Cary Assante and local dignitaries mounted the beribboned dedication platform outside the Miranda Tourist and Information Center. The new mayor of Miranda drew himself up to his full six foot four inches. Thin streams of vapor escaped his pursed lips. He tried valiantly not to shiver in the record-breaking cold, but was failing miserably. His teeth chattered as he made his short speech, which was amplified by an echoing sound system.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is indeed a proud day for all of us. This marvelous state-of-the-art complex that has taken ten years and billions of dollars to build is your inner city. You who are privileged to live here will never have to stray outside these boundaries. The creators of this masterpiece have thought of everything. But I won’t keep you out in this cold or in suspense any longer—I suggest Mr. Assante cut the ribbon right now! I look forward to seeing you all this evening for the gala in Assante Towers. And now,” the mayor shouted, “the creator of Miranda, Mr. Cary Assante.”
Cary stepped forward, Amelia at his side. Her smile was brilliant and full of pride as she handed her husband the gold shears. “This is your moment, darling. Your dream is officially a reality.”
“Our dream, babe,” Cary whispered. His hand trembled as he cut the shimmering ribbon. He felt light-headed. All about him was a babble of congratulatory voices. The band members made a valiant effort to render still another chorus of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
Amelia stepped back. This was Cary’s time, and he deserved all the accolades. All she wanted was to find Billie and Thad and get inside, where it was warm.
Amelia Coleman Assante possessed the kind of beauty that comes only with maturity and being at peace with oneself. She was tall, but not as tall as her handsome husband. She carried her height with dignity and dressed to that dignity with carefully chosen designer clothes that masked a thinness that spoke of past health problems. Her soft gray eyes were almost translucent, a perfect complement to her hair, which was more silver now than chestnut. The fine lines around her eyes and the deeper creases alongside her nose spoke more of character than age, as did the light brown spots unsuccessfully covered with makeup. Perfectly white capped teeth, slightly yellowed now from medication and too much tea, nibbled on a thin lower lip to stop it from trembling with the cold. To those standing in the crowd who knew her, she was every bit as striking and commanding as she’d been in her earlier days.
Billie Coleman Kingsley hugged her sister-in-law. “He really did it, Amelia. I’m so proud. You must be about ready to burst!”
“I am. There were times, Billie, when I thought this was nothing more than a nightmare, but Cary can do whatever he sets his mind to.”
“What do you think, Senator Kingsley?”
Thad laughed. “What I think is, I’m glad I invested in this project.”
“That makes two of us,” said Amelia, smiling. “Without you we’d have run out of money years ago. By the way, where is Mr. Hasegawa? I want to thank him for coming all the way from Japan. He really isn’t well enough to be traveling. We also have to thank him for his investment. We really did it, thanks to the two of you.”
“Mr. Hasegawa is with Sawyer,” Billie said. “I thinks he’s taking him back to Sunbridge. He’s very tired after his long flight, and he isn’t feeling well. But he’ll be back tonight for the festivities.” Billie paused a moment, and when she spoke again, her voice was full of awe. “Amelia, I’ve never seen anything like this, and Thad and I have been all over the world.”
“You look tired, Amelia,” Thad said, his brow furrowing, his voice full of concern.
Amelia smiled. “Now, I don’t want to be fussed over,” she said. “I’m fine. The doctor says I’m fully recovered from the surgery. I just hate being cold. And before you can say it, I’m going upstairs and rest for tonight’s gala. I really am excited about the library dedication. It was Cary’s idea, you know, to dedicate it to Mam. The Jessica Coleman Library. What are you going to do?” Amelia asked Billie as she bussed her on the cheek.
“Corral the family and take the tour, like everyone else.” Billie watched as Amelia headed toward the gleaming bank of elevators.
“I’ll meet you by the jitney,” Thad called over his shoulder.
Instead of moving off through the crowds, Billie remained where she was, her thoughts on Amelia. She didn’t look well, and it was more than simple fatigue. Regardless of what she said, it was obvious that the heart bypass surgery had taken its toll. A brief, sharp spasm of worry overcame Billie. She and Amelia were more than sisters-in-law; they’d been intimate friends for over forty years.
Billie’d been so young when she met Amelia for the first time, only eighteen, and so very much in love with Amelia’s brother, Moss. She’d been scared, too, of Moss and Amelia’s father, Seth. What a tyrant he was. Amelia had confided in her, and in turn, she’d shared her life with Amelia. They were more like sisters than sisters-in-law, drawing together out of need, giving and accepting one another’s friendship, sharing triumphs and disappointments.
Forty years of memories leapfrogged through Billie’s mind. Accompanying Amelia to a back-street abortionist while she herself was secretly pregnant. Seth’s hatred of Amelia because she’d had the audacity to be born a female. Amelia consoling her when Seth treated her like a brood mare, demanding that she produce a son—an heir.
While the war raged in England and Amelia couldn’t return to the States in time for her mother’s funeral, Billie had stood in her place and prayed for Jessica, just as Amelia would have done.
And it was Amelia who encouraged her, after Moss’s death, to become a designer. Thanks to Amelia’s support and confidence, she’d started her own successful business, Billie Ltd., an enterprise that had netted her a seven-figure yearly income.
Until Amelia’s marriage to Cary Assante, Billie had felt she was the only one who truly understood Amelia. Amelia had survived her father’s hatred of her. She’d survived his bluster and his boasts that he had the United States government by the balls and someday they’d make him a very rich man. How she’d hated those boasts. She’d survived war-torn England, and although she lost her husband in that war, she gained a stepson and raised the boy at Sunbridge. Rand—who was now Billie’s son-in-law. How close the bonds were. How long the connection. Forty years!
Forty years was half their life. If she had it to do over again, she wouldn’t change a thing—all the tragedies, the sorrows, the happiness that had brought them to this moment.
Thad exited the glass-enclosed elevator. Instead of heading for the jitney, he retraced his steps to the main concourse, where he’d left Billie. He knew she’d still be there. Thinking. How beautiful she was, so serene and gentle. His heart swelled with love. Every day of his life he thanked God for giving him the patience to wait for this woman—this wonderful woman who had been his best friend’s wife. Billie was his life. Not the navy, not Congress, and not the Senate. Billie. His partner, his wife, his love. In another year he’d retire from the Senate, and then it would be just the two of them, back in Vermont. Remembering Amelia’s recent illness, he prayed silently that nothing would happen to change their wonderful plans.
He knew scores of people, particularly on the Hill, couples who stayed together for political reasons, never letting their mutual disaffection show in public. That was what he despised about Washington—all the blowhards, all the phoniness, the crap you had to wade through, only to find more crap. He was grateful to Billie for refusing to allow the fishbowl life to infringe on their private lives. Everyone on the Hill knew what he stood for, and there was envy in the lot of them, or so Billie said, and he had no reason to doubt her. Every time he heard tales of his colleagues’ misconduct he’d shake his head and thank God again for Billie. The woman hadn’t yet been born who could make him take a second look.
Billie was every bit as attractive as her sister-in-law, but with a very different kind of beauty. Hers came with sparkling eyes and vivid color, something she was known for in the fashion world. There was a mellowness, a happiness to Billie that shimmered about her like a giant halo. She was half a head shorter than Amelia and only a few pounds heavier. She glowed with good health, and when she smiled the world seemed lighter, brighter somehow. Billie was truly a happy woman, and it showed. High cheekbones lightly dusted with color and her perfectly shaped nose complemented warm hazel eyes that were her best feature. Today she wore a brilliant scarlet scarf with a sapphire fringe, a Billie original. She looked vibrant, vital.
Soon enough Billie would feel his eyes on her and turn, he thought. And the next moment she proved his thoughts were on target, as he used to say in the navy. Billie turned, her eyes searching the crowd. When she spotted him her face broke into a wide, lovely smile. He mouthed the command: “Hold that smile.” He could sense her laughter as he shouldered his way through the crowd.
“I knew you’d still be here,” Thad said gently.
“I know you knew. That’s why I’m still here. I didn’t want you to have to search for me and perhaps miss the tour jitney I was on. We want to do this together.” He watched as a worried look shadowed her features. “Oh, Thad, I should have come down here more often to see Amelia instead of relying on phone calls and letters. She looks—” she hesitated, seeking the right word, “—unwell.”
“Darling, Amelia hates to be fussed over, unless it’s by Cary. Don’t take any blame. This last week had to be exhausting for her. She’ll take a few days off now and she’ll recoup.” He felt her begin to tense. “No, Billie, I’m not just saying that to make you feel better,” he said, reading her mind. “I’m not discounting the seriousness of her surgery or her recovery, but I’m sure Cary, or Amelia herself, would have said something to us if things weren’t . . . up to par. A cup of herb tea and a nap will perk her right up.”
“You don’t believe that any more than I do,” Billie said.
“We have to believe it, Billie.”
Billie clutched his arm tightly, her eyes growing moist. “I know, Thad. We’ve lost so many old friends, and now Mr. Hasegawa so ill . . . and Amelia.”
There weren’t any words, and Thad didn’t try to search for them. He circled her shoulders with his free arm and hugged her tight.
Billie took a long, deep breath and came back to the present. “Let’s round up the family, if they haven’t already taken their own tour!”
“Now, that’s an offer I can’t refuse. I can’t wait to see this place we helped build. I had trouble, darling, comprehending Cary’s vision of this complex. I mean, I saw the plans and then the buildings as they were going up, but nothing prepared me for this glass and steel marvel.”
“A city inside a city,” Billie said. “So self-contained. The outside world could seem like an alien planet if one wanted to live and die here. I don’t know if that’s good, Thad.”
“Choices. Options. They’re available. I think it’s wonderful for the elderly.”
“If they could afford to live here. Do you know what the rent is in Assante Towers? Five thousand a month, and it’s got an eighty-five percent occupancy as of today.”
Arm in arm, Thad and Billie climbed the broad steps of the center. At the top they stopped to peer into the crowd below.
“Here we are, but I don’t see any sign of Cole or Riley. I thought I saw Maggie a moment ago, but she’s disappeared.” Thad turned to look into his wife’s eyes, a conspiratorial smile on his lips.
“What say, pretty lady, that you and I take this little trip all by ourselves? And I’ll hold your hand so you don’t get nervous.”
A tour guide, commandeered by Cary from Disney World, spoke cheerfully as he shepherded the first tour group into the building. Thad and Billie melted into it.
“Let me start off by thanking you all for coming to this wonderful opening of ACH Enterprises,” the guide was saying. “For those of you who don’t know what ACH stands for, it’s Assante, Coleman, and Hasegawa. Mr. Cary Assante is the man who built Miranda, with the help of the Coleman and Hasegawa corporations. I don’t think I need to tell any of you from Texas just who the Colemans are!” Most of the crowd tittered knowingly. “For those of you who don’t know who Mr. Hasegawa is,” the guide continued, “he’s the grandfather of Riley Coleman and the owner of a Japanese publishing conglomerate called Rising Sun.
“From the time Miranda first appeared on paper till this day, it has taken ten years and several billion dollars. This,” he said, waving expansively at an immense display table strategically positioned in the middle of the vast Miranda City Planning Room, “is the result.”