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As always, Odelia first captured the eye. Wearing royal blue, she had anchored a crown of matching feathers in her fluffy white hair. Speckled, light blue beads the size of robin's eggs dangled by golden chains from her earlobes, completing the theme of her costume. Hy-patia, her sister's polar opposite, in expensive bronze silk and a neat silver chignon, placed her delicate Limoges teacup on its matching saucer and graced him with a smile from her customary wingback chair. Meanwhile, Magnolia—known to her many nieces and nephews as Aunt Mags—garbed in her usual frumpy cardigan and shirtwaist dress, her iron-gray braid hanging over one shoulder, beamed her frank enjoyment of his surprise at the room's occupants.
Kent Monroe, a pharmacist well past the usual age of retirement, was Odelia's erstwhile fiancé from at least half a century ago. A barrel chest had long since given way to a serious paunch, now bisected by gray suspenders and shielded with a pale blue shirt, topped with a jaunty red bow tie that sat atop his jugular like a strangled cherry crowning a generous scoop of blueberry ice cream. After his failed romance with Odelia, it was generally assumed that Kent Monroe would forever keep a cordial, mannerly distance. And he most likely would have, in the normal course of events. But the normal course of events had been greatly altered.
Asher narrowed his eyes suspiciously at his baby sister. At twenty-three, a full fifteen years his junior, Dallas was as impulsive as her short, frothy hair was red. An inveterate romantic, she had sighed over Odelia's failed engagement since girlhood, even going so far as to strike up a friendship with Ellen Monroe, Kent's granddaughter.
"Dallas, I'm surprised to see you here." If he had been called in on a legal matter, then why was his baby sister here?
"It's Chatam House, Ash," she retorted. "They're my aunts, too."
"Of course we are, dear," Magnolia cooed in a placating fashion.
"And Ellie's my best friend," Dallas went on in a tone that a five-year-old would have punctuated by sticking out her tongue.
Ellie was the greatest surprise of all. Granted, he had last seen her on graduation day some two or three years earlier, but the pudgy, dark-haired baby doll of his memory had morphed into an astonishing beauty in that relatively short period of time. Next to his coltish sister, in her black jeans and white, long-sleeve T-shirt, Ellie looked lush in a simple, navy blue sheath belted at the waist. Her chin-length hair curled and waved about her Kewpie doll face and violet eyes. Everything about her, even her smile, seemed luxuriant.
Abruptly aware of the streaks of gray in his own chestnut-brown hair and the subtle lines that creased his forehead, Asher felt suddenly self-conscious. He had previously thought those streaks entirely suitable for a successful attorney approaching forty years of age. He'd noticed the faint wrinkles without concern only days earlier. Now, suddenly, they seemed ominous declarations of the fact that he was aging. His aching knee called attention to itself at that moment, and he very nearly turned and walked out, mentally fabricating excuses for his aunts.
He did no such thing, of course. At thirty-eight, he was still in his prime. Plus, he was a Chatam, after all, as well as a very busy attorney, too busy to pay attention to old aches and pains. His sudden weariness could be attributed to this being Friday, the end of a long week, the third in the too-short, often dreary month of February.
The sound of his aunt's voice recalled him to his duty. Dropping his coat over the seat of an armless side chair, he strode forward to leave a kiss against her soft cheek.
"Aunt Hypatia. It's good to see you. Is there an emergency?"
He could surely be excused for assuming such was the case. Though the aunties were a bit outdated in their mannerisms and sensibilities—Asher's father, Murdock, insisted that his older sisters had been born a hundred years too late—Asher had never before received a message from them. This one had arrived, written on ivory vellum and hand-delivered by the aunts' middle-aged factotum, Chester, only an hour earlier, requesting his presence at Chatam House as soon after five o'clock in the afternoon as possible. Naturally he had rearranged his schedule and appeared, as summoned, at barely a quarter past the appointed hour.
"Not an emergency, per se," Hypatia answered carefully.
"There is, however, a problem," Mags added, summoning him to her side. He craned around the piecrust table and bussed her leathery cheek, then repeated the process with Odelia's plump one.
For once, Odelia, who was seated next to Mags on the settee, did not giggle. In fact, she barely smiled, nor had she yet spoken. Lovingly referred to by her nieces and nephews as Auntie Od, the woman was usually effusive to the point of silliness, which made this uncharacteristic solemnity seem ominous at best.
"What's wrong?" Asher asked.
"It's the Monroes, dear," Hypatia informed him kindly, signaling the elder Monroe with a regal wave of her hand.
"Well, you see—" Kent Monroe began.
"Our house caught fire," Ellie interjected quickly.
Some things, Asher noted wryly, had not changed. Ellie had always exhibited an unfortunate tendency to interrupt. He raised his brows at her, as he always used to do, in silent rebuke—only to tumble headlong into her wide, violet eyes. Surprised, he forced his attention back to the matter at hand.
"It's not a total loss by any means," she was going on blithely. "The smell is the worst of it, really, but that should prove no real problem. It's amazing how they have products now that can just take odors out of the air, isn't it?" She continued on about air fresheners and the unreasonable strictures of the fire department.
For an instant, Asher felt himself once more being pulled under by those dark-lashed eyes, and he realized that he was staring. He retreated swiftly to the fireplace. Parking himself there, he paused to take stock of the gathering in the huge, gilt-framed mirror above the mantle.
The first face to jump out at him from that group reflection was, of course, Ellie's. Rounded and apple-cheeked, her face seemed made of sweetness, a disturbingly adult sweetness. Her unusual coloring—pale pink skin, dark hair and sparkling violet eyes—added a sense of the ethereal to a face that could only be described as enchanting.
He felt a strange sense of alarm. This was Ellie, for goodness' sake, little Ellie Monroe, his baby sister's best friend.
She turned sideways on the edge of her seat, watching him with a wide, troubled gaze. He felt a sudden urge to bolt from the room. Instead, he turned and folded his arms, targeting Kent Monroe with a penetrating gaze.
"I'm sorry for your trouble. What exactly does this all mean?"
"The house is structurally sound but uninhabitable," Mr. Monroe said, glancing at Ellie apologetically.
"Which is why they are here," Magnolia put in.
Asher smiled. The aunties seemed to be making a habit of taking in strays. Over the past several months, they'd taken in no fewer than half a dozen needy souls, but he knew exactly who would be responsible for this particular state of affairs. He gave his sister a pointed, accusing glare, to which she immediately took exception.
"Don't look at me like that, Ash. Where else could they go?" She lifted her chin defiantly, tossing her short, red curls. Like him and all the Chatams, she had a cleft in that proud little chin. Hers was nothing more than a gentle dip in the center; his was more pronounced.
"And, of course, they are most welcome," Hypatia hastily said, "but I'm sure that they would like the insurance matter settled sooner rather than later."
Kent inclined his round head, saying in a gravelly voice, "You are too kind, dear lady, you and your sisters. Believe me, we want nothing more than to go home as quickly as possible and would not impose a moment longer that necessary, but the insurance company—"
"—is so impersonal," Ellie finished for him, rushing on. "You know how they are. They don't return your phone calls when you think they should, let alone write the checks. It's infuriating for him, especially after all these years of paying premiums, which is why I've taken over the whole thing." She spread her hands as if to say that the matter was settled.
Asher looked to her grandfather. "I assume that you are the policyholder." Kent nodded. "Confidentiality rules would prevent the insurance company from discussing the matter with anyone but you or—"
"I'm sure they'll settle eventually," Ellie interrupted. "These things never move as swiftly as we'd like."
"—your appointed legal representative," Asher finished doggedly.
"Ah," Magnolia said in a voice of deep satisfaction. "I knew you would agree."
Agree? Asher noted at once the look of smug approval on his aunt's face and felt a jolt. All these years of avoiding legal pitfalls, and he'd been led into a trap by a trio of little old ladies with sweet smiles and teacups. And it was a very neatly sprung trap, too.
Arguments against the Monroes taking on legal counsel, his in particular, immediately formed. Legal representation could sometimes gum up the works when it came to routine claims, and an attorney too busy to devote adequate time to the issue could well delay, rather than expedite, matters. On the other hand, well-phrased and well-timed inquiries from a legal source could work wonders.
Asher glanced at Odelia, recognizing her shaky relief, and knew he would do what he could, if only for Auntie Od. Odelia, God bless her, seemed far less comfortable than Dallas at having the Monroes as guests at Chatam House. That alone was reason enough to help settle the insurance claim.
Besides, why spend time and energy on escape when compliance would free him sooner? In fact, if he hurried, he might still be able to make his meeting.
It was a routine matter, really, the usual gathering of regional youth soccer commissioners at the beginning of a new season. He had intended to argue, once again and most likely without results, for the formal training of volunteer coaches at every level of the system. But he didn't care if he lost the argument. Soccer was his great, overriding passion. It was his buffer against a crazy world. He couldn't wait to get the season started.
He checked his watch, pushing back his French cuff. If he hurried, he could make the last few minutes of the meeting and still press his point.
"I'll look into it," he announced, smiling as he stepped away from the fireplace. "Call my secretary Monday morning with the particulars," he instructed Mr. Monroe.
Ellie sat up straight. "Oh, but—"
"I'll get back to you in a few days," he went on, walking toward the door.
"Can't you stay long enough for tea?" his sister asked pointedly.
"Sorry. I have a meeting."
He didn't quite make it across the impressive foyer before the quick tap of footsteps on marble warned him of pursuit. Dallas, no doubt. Slinging on his coat, Asher cast a glance upward issuing a brief, silent plea for patience.
Of his three siblings, his baby sister had always tried him most, so naturally she had been the one to follow him from the family home in Waco to Buffalo Creek, where she had earned a teaching degree at Buffalo Creek Bible College and remained to teach second grade. Intending to make short work of any confrontation, he whirled—and nearly bowled over Ellen Monroe.
She bounced off him, pinwheeling her arms to keep from falling over backward. Instinctively, he reached out to grasp her forearms and steady her. A bright smile suddenly lit her face, and electricity shot up his arms. Jolted, he snatched his hands back.
"No problem," she said, smoothing her skirt. "I—I just wanted to uh, thank you."
"I haven't done anything yet," he pointed out, frowning.
"No, but you're going to," she said, "and I'm beyond grateful. But I hate for you to put yourself out over this. I know how busy you must be, and " With a forced chuckle, she held out her arms in a broad shrug. "Well, I'm sure God will work it all out in His own good time."
Asher blinked, irritated by his odd response to Ellie, a response he couldn't quite characterize. "Is it not possible that God could use me to work it out?"
"Oh!" She clapped her hands to her chest just below her delicate collarbones. "I didn't mean—"
"Because I assure you that the insurance company will seek every means to mitigate their damages," he interrupted, "even if it's only delaying payment as long as possi—"
"But Dallas is always saying how busy you are, and I wouldn't want to impose."
He sighed. "You're not imposing. You're taking on legal representation." The attorney in him forced out a disclaimer. "Though, of course, I cannot guarantee that you and your grandfather will be entirely happy with the results of my actions."
Ellie flattened her lips as if disappointed. "I've found people are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be."
Life brought all sort of disappointments, as Asher knew well, unhappy and tragic things, like death and divorce, injury, malfeasance, house fires The list, in fact, seemed endless. But perhaps she was too young to understand the harsh realities of this life, while Asher, on the other hand, had seen far too much tragedy, animosity and downright dishonesty in the course of his practice to be so sanguine.
Recently, his cousin Chandler had been cheated of his investment in a ranch. Thankfully, all had turned out well. In short order, Chandler had married, become a father and purchased another ranch near Stephenville to the west. It had all happened, Asher mused, while Chandler and his now wife, Bethany, had been living in this very house.
Come to think of it, his cousins Kaylie and Reeves had also met their spouses while one or the other of them lived here, a fact which must surely have influenced his starry-eyed little sister to seek shelter for the Monroes in this place. Was Dallas trying to get Kent and Odelia together? And was Ellen also a part of that?
If so, shame on them.
Until a person had been disappointed in love, that person could not understand the depth of pain that accompanied such disappointment. Dallas and Ellie were still too young for that kind of experience.
Feeling sadly world-weary to the point of, well, old, Asher could have used a bit of Ellie Monroe's youthful naivete and enthusiasm just then. Instead, he smiled and brought the conversation to an abrupt end.
Posted June 22, 2012
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