The man behind the desk looked at the boy across from him with a mixture of envy and admiration. Only twelve years old, yet the kid had a brain that people would kill to have. I mustn’t appear too eager, he thought. Must keep calm. We want him at Princeton—preferably chained to a computer and not allowed out for meals.
Ostensibly, he had been sent to Denver to interview several scholarship candidates, but the truth was, this boy was the only one the admissions office was truly interested in, and the meeting had been set to the boy’s convenience. The department dean had arranged with an old friend to borrow office space that was in a part of town close to the boy’s very middle-class house so he could get there by bike.
“Ahem,” the man said, clearing his throat and frowning at the papers. He deepened his voice. Better not let the kid know that he was only twenty-five and that if he messed up this assignment, he could be in serious trouble with his advisers.
“You are quite young,” he said, trying to sound as old as possible, “and there will be difficulties, but I think we can handle your special circumstances. Princeton likes to help the young people of America. And—”
“What kind of equipment do you have? What will I have to work with? There are other schools making me offers.”
As the man looked at the boy, he thought someone should have strangled him in his crib. Ungrateful little— “I’m sure that you’ll find what we have adequate, and if we do not have everything you need, we can make it available.”
The boy was tall for his age but thin, as though he were growing too fast for his weight to catch up with him. For all that he had one of the great brains of the century, he looked like something out of Tom Sawyer: dark hair that no comb could tame, freckles across skin that would never tan, dark blue eyes behind glasses big enough to be used as a windshield on a Mack truck.
Elijah J. Harcourt, the file said. IQ over 200. Had made much progress on coming up with a computer that could think. Artificial intelligence. You could tell the computer what you wanted to do and the machine could figure out how to do it. As far as anyone could tell, the boy was putting his prodigious brain inside a computer. The future uses of such an instrument were beyond comprehension.
Yet here the smug little brat sat, not grateful for what was being offered to him but demanding more. The man knew he was risking his own career, but he couldn’t stand the hesitancy of the boy. Standing, he shoved the papers back into his briefcase. “Maybe you should think over our offer,” he said with barely controlled anger. “We don’t make offers like this very often. Shall we say that you’re to make your decision by Christmas?”
As far as the man could tell, the boy showed no emotion. Cold little bugger, the man thought. Heart as frigid as a computer chip. Maybe he wasn’t real at all but one of his own creations. Somehow, putting the boy down made him feel better about his own IQ, which was a “mere” 122.
Quickly, he shook the boy’s hand, and as he did so he realized that in another year the boy would be taller than he was. “I’ll be in touch,” he said and left the room.
Eli worked hard to control his inner shaking. Although he seemed so cool on the exterior, inside he was doing cartwheels. Princeton! he thought. Contact with real scientists! Talk with people who wanted to know more about life than the latest football scores!
Slowly, he walked out the door, giving the man time to get away. Eli knew that the man hadn’t liked him, but he was used to that. A long time ago Eli had learned to be very, very cautious with people. Since he was three he had known he was “different” from other kids. At five his mother had taken him to school to be tested, to see whether he fit into the redbirds or the bluebirds reading group. Busy with other students and parents, the teacher had told Eli to get a book from the shelf and read it to her. She had meant one of the many pretty picture books. Her intention had been to find out which children had been read to by their parents and which had grown up glued to a TV.
Like all children, Eli had wanted to impress his teacher, so he’d climbed on a chair and pulled down a college textbook titled Learning Disabilities that the teacher kept on a top shelf, then quietly went to stand beside her and began softly to read from page one. Since Eli was a naturally solitary child and his mother didn’t push him to do what he didn’t want to do, he had spent most of his life in near seclusion. He’d had no idea that reading from a college textbook when he was a mere five years old was unusual. All he’d wanted to do was to pass the reading test and get into the top reading group.
“That’s fine, Eli,” his mother said after he’d read half a page. “I think Miss Wilson is going to put you with the redbirds. Aren’t you, Miss Wilson?”
Even though he was only five, Eli had recognized the wide-eyed look of horror on the teacher’s face. Her expression had said, What do I do with this freak?
Since his entry into school, Eli had learned about being “different.” He’d learned about jealousy and being excluded and not fitting in with the other children. Only with his mother was he “normal.” His mother didn’t think he was unusual or strange; he was just hers.
Now, years later, when Eli left his meeting with the man from Princeton, he was still shaking, and when he saw Chelsea he gave her one of his rare smiles. When Eli was in the third grade, he’d met Chelsea Hamilton, who was not as smart as he was, of course, but near enough that he could talk to her. In her way Chelsea was as much a freak as Eli was, for Chelsea was rich—very, very rich—and even by six she’d found that people wanted to know her for what they could get from her rather than her personality. The children had been two oddities in the boring little classroom, and they’d become eternal friends.
“Well?” Chelsea demanded, bending her head to look into Eli’s face. She was six months older than he, and she’d always been taller. But now Eli was beginning to catch up to her.
“What are you doing in this building?” Eli asked. “You aren’t supposed to be here.” Smugly, he was making her wait for his news.
“You’re slipping, brain-o. My father owns this place.” She tossed her long, golden, glossy hair. “And he’s friends with the dean at Princeton. I’ve known about the meeting for two weeks.” At twelve, Chelsea was already on the way to being a beauty. Her problems in life were going to be the stuff of dreams: too tall, too thin, too smart, too rich. Their houses were only ten minutes apart, but in value, they were miles apart. Eli’s house would fit into Chelsea’s marble foyer.
When Eli didn’t respond, she looked straight ahead. “Dad called last night and I cried so much at missing him that he’s buying us a new CD-ROM. Maybe I’ll let you see it.”
Eli smiled again. Chelsea hadn’t realized that she’d said “us,” meaning the two of them. She was great at the emotional blackmail of her parents, who spent most of their lives traveling around the world, leaving the family business to Chelsea’s older siblings. A few tears of anguish and her parents gave her anything money could buy.
“Princeton wants me,” Eli said as they emerged into the almost constant sunshine of Denver, its clean streets stretching before them. The autumn air was crisp and clear.
“I knew it!” she said, throwing her head back in exultation. “When? For what?”
“I’m to go in the spring semester, just to get my feet wet, then a summer session. If my work is good enough, I can enter full-time next fall.” For a moment he turned to look at her, and for just that second he let his guard down and Chelsea saw how very much he wanted this. Eli passionately hated the idea of high school, of having to sit through days of classes with a bunch of semiliterate louts who took great pride in their continuing ignorance. This program would give Eli the opportunity to skip all those grades and get on with something useful.
“That gives us the whole rest of the year to work,” she said. “I’ll get Dad to buy us—”
“I can’t go,” Eli said.
It took a moment for those words to register with Chelsea. “You can’t go to Princeton?” she whispered. “Why not?” Chelsea had never considered, if she wanted something—whether to buy it or do it—that she wouldn’t be able to.
When Eli looked at her, his face was full of anguish. “Who’s going to take care of Mom?” he asked softly.
Chelsea opened her mouth to say that Eli had to think of himself first, but she closed it again. Eli’s mom, Miranda, did need taking care of. She had the softest heart in the world, and if anyone had a problem, Miranda always had room to listen and love. Chelsea never liked to think that she needed anything as soppy as a mother, but there had been many times over the years when she’d flung herself against the soft bosom of Eli’s ever-welcoming mother.
However, it was because of Miranda’s sweetness that she needed looking after. His mother was like a lamb living in a world of hungry wolves. If it weren’t for Eli’s constant vigilance . . . Well, Chelsea didn’t like to think what would have happened to his mother. Just look at the horrid man she’d married. Eli’s father was a gambler, a con artist, promiscuous, and a liar of epic proportions.
“When do you have to give them your answer?” Chelsea asked softly.
“My birthday,” Eli answered. It was one of his little vanities that he always referred to Christmas as his birthday. Eli’s mom said that he was her Christmas gift from God, so she was never going to cheat Eli because she’d been lucky enough to have him on Christmas Day. So every Christmas, Eli had a pile of gifts under a tree and another pile on a table with a big, gaudy birthday cake, a cake that had no hint of anything to do with Christmas.
In silence, the two of them locked their bikes, then walked down Denver’s downtown streets, forgoing the trolley that ran through the middle of town. Chelsea knew that Eli needed to think, and he did that best by walking or riding his bike. She knew without asking that Eli would never abandon his mother. If it came to a choice between Princeton and taking care of his mother, Eli would choose the person he loved best. For all that Eli managed to appear cool and calculating, Chelsea knew that when it came to the two people he loved the most—her and his mother—inside, Eli was marshmallow cream.
“You know,” Chelsea said brightly, “maybe you’re overreacting. Maybe your mother can get along without you.” Without us, she almost said. “Who took care of her before you were born?”
Eli gave her a sideways look. “No one, and look what happened to her.”
“Your father happened,” Chelsea said heavily. She hesitated as she thought about the matter. “They’ve been divorced for two years now. Maybe your mother will remarry and her new husband will take care of her.”
“Who will she marry? The last man she went out with ended up ‘forgetting’ his wallet, so Mom paid for dinner and a tank full of gas. A week later I found out he was married.”
Unfortunately, Miranda’s generosity didn’t just extend to children but to every living creature. Eli said that if it were left up to his mother, there would be no need for a city animal shelter because all the unwanted animals in Denver would live with them. For a moment, Chelsea had an image of sweet Miranda surrounded by wounded animals and uneducated men asking her for money. For Chelsea, “uneducated men” was the worst image she could conjure.
“Maybe if you tell her about the offer, she’ll come up with a solution,” Chelsea said helpfully.
Eli’s face became fierce. “My mother would sacrifice her life for me. If she knew about this offer, she’d personally escort me to Princeton. My mother cares only about me and never about herself. My mother—”
Chelsea rolled her eyes skyward. In every other aspect of life Eli had the most purely scientific brain she’d ever encountered, but when it came to his mother, there was no reasoning with him. Chelsea also thought Miranda was a lovely woman, but she wasn’t exactly ready for sainthood. For one thing, she was thoroughly undisciplined. She ate too much, read too many books that did not improve one’s mind, and wasted too much time on frivolous things, like making Eli and Chelsea Halloween costumes. Of course, neither of them ever told her that they thought Halloween was a juvenile holiday. Instead of tramping the streets asking for candy, they would go to Chelsea’s house and work on their computers while dripping artificial blood. They sent the butler out to purchase candy that they’d later show to Eli’s mom so she’d think they were “normal” kids.
Only once had Chelsea dared tell Eli that she thought it was a bit absurd for them to sit at their computers wearing uncomfortable and grotesque costumes while calculating logarithms. Eli had said, “My mother made these for us to wear,” and that had been the final decree. The matter was never mentioned again.
As Eli rode his bike onto the cracked, weedy concrete drive of his mother’s house, he caught a glimpse of the taillights of his father’s car as it scurried out of sight.
“Deadbeat!” Eli said under his breath, knowing that his father must have been watching for him so he could run away as soon as he saw his son.
Every time Eli thought of the word father his stomach clenched. Leslie Harcourt had never been a father to him, nor a husband to his wife, Miranda. The man had spent his life trying to make his family believe he was “important.” Too important to talk to his family; too important to go anywhere with his wife and child; too important to give them any time or attention.
According to Leslie Harcourt, other people were the ones who really counted in life. “My friends need me,” Eli had heard his father say over and over. His mother would say, “But Leslie, I need you too. Eli needs school clothes and there are no groceries in the house and my car has been broken for three weeks. We need food and we need clothes.”
Eli would watch as his father got that look on his face, as though he were being enormously patient with someone who couldn’t understand the simplest concepts. “My friend has broken up with his girlfriend and he has to have someone to talk to and I’m the only one. Miranda, he’s in pain. Don’t you understand? Pain! I must go to him.”
Eli had heard his father say this same sort of thing a thousand times. Sometimes his mother would show a little spunk and say, “Maybe if your friends cried on the shoulders of their girlfriends, they wouldn’t be breaking up.”
But Leslie Harcourt never listened to anyone except himself—and he was a master at figuring out how to manipulate other people so he could get as much out of them as possible. Leslie knew that his wife, Miranda, was softhearted; it was the reason he’d married her. She forgave anyone anything, and all Leslie had to do was say “I love you” every month or so and Miranda forgave him whatever.
And in return for those few words, Miranda gave Leslie security. She gave him a home that he contributed little or no money to and next to no time; he had no responsibilities either to her or to his son. Most important, she provided him with an excuse to give to all his women as to why he couldn’t marry them. He invariably “forgot” to mention that all these “friends” who “needed” him were women—and mostly young, with lots of hair and long legs.
When he was very young, Eli had not known what a “father” was, except that it was a word he heard other children use, as in “My father and I worked on the car this weekend.” Eli rarely saw his father, and he never did anything with him.
But Eli and Chelsea had put an end to Leslie and all his Helpless Hannahs two years ago. It was Chelsea who first saw Eli’s father with the tall, thin blonde as they were slipping into an afternoon matinee at the local mall. And Chelsea, using the invisibility of being a child, sat in front of them, twirling chewing gum (which she hated) and trying to look as young as possible, as she listened avidly to every word Eli’s father said.
“I would like to marry you, Heather, you know that. I love you more than life itself, but I’m a married man with a child. If it weren’t for that, I’d be running with you to the altar. You’re a woman any man would be proud to call his wife. But you don’t know what Miranda is like. She’s utterly helpless without me. She can hardly turn off the faucets without me there to do it for her. And then there’s my son. Eli needs me so much. He cries himself to sleep if I’m not there to kiss him good-night, so you can see why we have to meet during the day.”
“Then he started kissing her neck,” Chelsea reported.
When Eli heard this account, he had to blink a few times to clear his mind. The sheer enormity of this lie of his father’s was stunning. As long as he could remember, his father had never kissed him good-night. In fact, Eli wasn’t sure his father even knew where his bedroom was located in the little house that needed so much repair.
When Eli recovered himself, he looked at Chelsea. “What are we going to do?”
The smile Chelsea gave him was conspiratorial. “Robin and Marian,” she whispered, and he nodded. Years earlier, they’d started calling themselves Robin Hoods. The legend said that Robin Hood righted wrongs and did good deeds and helped the underdog.
It was Miranda who’d first called them Robin and Marian, after some soppy movie she loved to watch repeatedly. Laughingly, she’d called them Robin and Marian Les Jeunes, French for “youths,” and they’d kept the name in secret.
Only the two of them knew what they did: They collected letterhead stationery from corporations, law firms, doctors’ offices, wherever, then used a very expensive publishing computer system to duplicate the type fonts, then sent people letters as though from the offices. They sent letters on law-office stationery to the fathers of children at school who didn’t pay child support. They sent letters of thanks from the heads of big corporations to unappreciated employees. They once got back an old woman’s four hundred dollars from a telephone scammer.
Only once did they nearly get into trouble. A boy at school had teeth that were rotting, but his father was too cheap to take him to the dentist. Chelsea and Eli found out that the father was a gambler, so they wrote to him, offering free tickets to a “secret” (because it was illegal) national dental lottery. He would receive a ticket with every fifty dollars he spent on his children’s teeth. So all three of his children had several hundred dollars’ worth of work done, and Chelsea and Eli dutifully sent him beautiful red-and-gold, hand-painted lottery tickets. The problem came when they had to write the man a letter saying his tickets did not have the winning numbers. The man went to the dentist, waving the letters and the tickets, and demanded his money back. The poor dentist had had to endure months of the man’s winking at him in conspiracy while he’d worked on the children’s teeth, and now he was being told he was going to be sued because of some lottery he’d never heard of.
In order to calm the man down, Chelsea and Eli had to reveal themselves to the son who they’d helped in secret and get him to steal the letters from his father’s night table. Chelsea then sent the man one of her father’s gold watches (he had twelve of them) to get him to shut up.
Later, after they’d weighed the good they had done of fixing the children’s teeth against the near exposure, they decided to continue being Robin and Marian Les Jeunes.
“So what are we going to do with your father?” Chelsea asked, and she could see that Eli had no idea.
“I’d like to get rid of him,” Eli said. “He makes my mother cry. But—”
“But she says she still loves him.”
At that, Chelsea and Eli looked at each other without comprehension. They knew they loved each other, but then they also liked each other. How could anyone love a man like Leslie Harcourt? There wasn’t anything at all likable about him.
“I would like to give my mother what she wants,” Eli said.
“Tom Selleck?” Chelsea asked, without any intent at humor. Miranda had once said that what she truly wanted in life was Tom Selleck—because he was a family man, she’d added, and no other reason.
“No,” Eli said. “I’d like to give her a real husband, one who she’d like.”
For a moment they looked at each other in puzzlement. Eli had recently been trying to make a computer think, and they both knew that doing that would be easier than trying to make Leslie Harcourt stay home and putter in the garage.
“This is a question for the Love Expert,” Chelsea said, making Eli nod. Love Expert was what they called Eli’s mom because she read romantic novels by the thousands. After reading each one, she gave Eli a brief synopsis of the plot, then he fed it into his computer data banks and made charts and graphs. He could quote all sorts of statistics, such as that 18 percent of all romances are medieval, then he could break that number down into fifty-year sections. He could also quote about plots, how many had fires and shipwrecks, how many had heroes who’d been hurt by one woman (who always turned out to be a bad person) and so hated all other women. According to Eli the sheer repetition of the books fascinated him, but his mother said that love was wonderful no matter how many times she read about it.
So Eli and Chelsea consulted Miranda, telling her that Chelsea’s older sister’s husband was having an affair with a girl who wanted to marry him. He didn’t want to marry her, but neither could he seem to break up with her.
“Ah,” Miranda said, “I just read a book like that.”
Here Eli gave Chelsea an I-knew-she’d-know look.
“The mistress tried to make the husband divorce his wife, so she told him she was going to bear his child. But the ploy backfired and the man went back to his wife, who by that time had been rescued by a tall, dark, and gorgeous man, so the husband was left without either woman.” For a moment Miranda looked dreamily into the distance. “Anyway, that’s what happened in the book, but I’m afraid real life isn’t like a romance novel. More’s the pity. I’m sorry, Chelsea, that I can’t be of more help, but I don’t seem to know exactly what to do with men in real life.”
Chelsea and Eli didn’t say any more, but after a few days of research, they sent a note to Eli’s father on the letterhead of a prominent physician, stating that Miss Heather Allbright was pregnant with his child, and his office had been directed to send the bills to Leslie Harcourt. Sending the bills had been Chelsea’s idea, because she believed that all bills on earth should be directed to fathers.
But things did not work out as Chelsea and Eli had planned. When Leslie Harcourt confronted his mistress with the lie that she was expecting his child, the young woman didn’t so much as blink an eye, but broke down and told him it was true. From what Eli and Chelsea could find out—and Eli’s mother did everything she could to keep Eli from knowing anything—Heather threatened to sue Leslie for everything he had if he didn’t divorce Miranda and marry her.
Miranda, understanding as always, said they should all think of the unborn baby and that she and Eli would be fine, so of course she’d give Leslie the speediest divorce possible. Leslie said it would especially hasten matters if he had to pay only half the court costs and only minimal child support until Eli was eighteen. Generously, he said he’d let Miranda have the house if he could have anything inside it that could possibly be of value, and of course she would assume the mortgage payments.
When the dust settled, Chelsea and Eli were in shock at what they had caused, too afraid to tell anyone the truth—but if Heather was going to have a baby, then they had told the truth. One week after Eli’s father married Heather, she said she’d miscarried and there was no baby.
Eli had been afraid his mother would fall apart at this news, but instead she had laughed. “Imagine that,” she’d said. “But Miss Clever Heather did get her baby, whether she knows it yet or not.”
Eli never could get his mother to explain that remark, but he was very glad she wasn’t hurt by the divorce.
So now Eli had just seen the taillight of his father’s car pull away, and he knew without a doubt that the man had been there trying to weasel out of child-support payments. Leslie Harcourt made about seventy-five thousand a year as a car salesman—he could sell anything to anyone—while Miranda barely pulled down twenty thousand as a practical nurse. “As good as I make people feel, they don’t pay much for that. Eli, sweetheart, my only realistic dream for the future is to become a private nurse for some very rich, very sweet old man who wants little more than to eat popcorn and watch videos all day.”
Eli had pointed out to her that all the heroines in her romance novels were running corporations while still in their twenties, or else they were waitressing and going to law school at night. That made Miranda laugh. “If all women were like that, who’d be buying the romance novels?”
Eli thought that was a very good consideration. His mother often had the ability to see right to the heart of a matter.
“What did he want?” Eli asked the moment he opened the door to the house he shared with his mother.
For a moment Miranda grimaced, annoyed that her son had caught his father there. Escaping Eli’s ever-watchful eye was like trying to escape a pack of watchdogs. “Nothing much,” she said evasively.
At those words a chill ran down Eli’s back. “How much did you give him?”
Miranda rolled her eyes skyward.
“You know I’ll find out as soon as I reconcile the bank statement. How much did you give him?”
“Young man, you are getting above yourself. The money I earn—”
Eli did some quick calculations in his head. He always knew to the penny how much money his mother had in her checking account—there was no savings account—and how much was in her purse, even to the change. “Two hundred dollars,” he said. “You gave him a check for two hundred dollars.” That was the maximum she could afford and still pay the mortgage and groceries.
When Miranda remained tight-lipped in silence, he knew he’d hit the amount exactly on the head. Later, he’d tell Chelsea and allow her to congratulate him on his insight.
Eli uttered a curse word under his breath.
“Eli!” Miranda said sternly. “I will not allow you to call your father such names.” Her face softened. “Sweetheart, you’re too young to be so cynical. You must believe in people. I worry that you’ve been traumatized by your father leaving you without male guidance. And I know you’re hiding your true feelings: I know you miss him very much.”
Eli, looking very much like an old man, said, “You must be watching TV talk shows again. I do not miss him; I never saw him when you were married to him. My father is a self-centered, selfish bastard.”
Miranda’s mouth tightened into a line that was a mirror of her son’s. “Whether that is true or not is irrelevant. He is your father.”
Eli’s expression didn’t change. “I’m sure it is too much to hope that you were unfaithful to him and that my real father is actually the king of a small but rich European country.”
As always, Miranda’s face lost its stern look and she laughed. She was as unable to remain angry with Eli as she was to resist the whining and pleading of her ex-husband. She knew Eli would hate for her to say this, but he was very much like his father. Both of them always went after whatever they wanted and allowed nothing to stop them.
No, Eli wouldn’t appreciate such an observation in the least.
Eli was so annoyed with his mother for once again allowing Leslie Harcourt to con her out of paying the child support that he couldn’t say another word, but turned away and went to his room. At this moment his father owed six months in back child support. Instead of paying it, he’d come to Miranda and shed a few tears, telling her how broke he was, knowing he could get Miranda to give him money. Eli knew that his father liked to test his ability to sell at every opportunity. Seeing if he could con Miranda was an exercise in salesmanship.
The truth—a truth Miranda didn’t know—was that Leslie had recently purchased a sixty-thousand-dollar Mercedes, and the payments on that car were indeed stretching him financially. (Eli and Chelsea had been able to tap into a few credit-report data banks and find out all sorts of “confidential” information about people.)
Eli spent thirty minutes in his room, stewing over the perfidy of his father, but when he saw that his mother was outside tending her roses, he went back to the living room and called the man who was his father.
Eli didn’t waste time with greetings. “If you don’t pay three months’ support within twenty-four hours and another three months’ within thirty days, I’ll put sugar in the gas tank of your new car.” He then hung up the phone.
Twenty-two hours later, Leslie appeared at the door of Miranda’s house with the money. As Eli stood behind his mother, he had to listen to his father give a long, syrupy speech about the goodness of people, about how some people were willing to believe in others, while others had no loyalty in their souls.
Eli stood it for a few minutes, then he looked around his mother and glared at his father until the man quickly left, after loudly telling Miranda that he’d have the other three months’ support within thirty days. Eli restrained himself from calling out that within thirty days he’d owe not three months’ support but four.
When Leslie was gone, Miranda turned to her son and smiled. “See, Eli, honey, you must believe in people. I told you your father would come through, and he did. Now, where shall we go for dinner?”
Ten minutes later, Eli was on the phone to Chelsea. “I cannot go to Princeton,” he said softly. “I cannot leave my mother unprotected.”
Chelsea didn’t hesitate. “Get here fast! We’ll meet in Sherwood Forest.”
“What are we going to do?” Chelsea whispered. They were sitting side by side on a swing glider in the garden on her parents’ twenty-acre estate. It was prime real estate, close to the heart of Denver. Her father had bought four houses and torn down three of them to give himself the acreage. Not that he was ever there to enjoy the land, but he got a lot of joy out of telling people he had twenty acres in the city of Denver.
“I don’t know,” Eli said. “I can’t leave her. I know that. If I weren’t there to protect her, she’d give everything she owned to my father.”
After the story Eli had just told her, Chelsea had no doubt of this. And this wasn’t the first time Leslie Harcourt had pulled a scam on his sweet ex-wife. “I wish . . .” She trailed off, then stood up and looked down at Eli. His head was bent low as he contemplated what he was giving up by not taking this offer from Princeton. She knew he hated the idea of high school almost as much as he loved the idea of getting on with his computer research.
“I wish we could find a husband for her.”
Eli gave a snort. “We’ve tried, remember? She only likes men like my father, the ones she says ‘need’ her. They need her tendency to forgive them for everything they do.”
“I know, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could make one of those books she loves so much come true? She would meet a tall, dark billionaire, and he’d—”
“Yes,” Chelsea said sagely. “My father says that, what with inflation as it is, a millionaire—even a multimillionaire—isn’t worth very much.”
Sometimes Eli was vividly reminded of how he and Chelsea differed on money. To him and his mother two hundred dollars was a great deal, but the woman who cut Chelsea’s hair charged three hundred dollars a visit.
Chelsea smiled. “You don’t happen to know any single billionaires, do you?”
She was teasing, but Eli didn’t smile. “Actually, I do. He . . . he’s my best friend. Male friend, that is.”
At that Chelsea’s eyes opened wide. One of the things she loved best about Eli was that he always had the ability to surprise her. No matter how much she thought she knew about him, it wasn’t all there was to know. “Where did you meet a billionaire and how did he get to be your friend?”
Eli just looked at her and said nothing, and when he had that expression on his face, she knew she was not going to get another word out of him. Eli had an unbreakable ability to keep secrets.
But it was two days later that Eli called a meeting for the two of them in Sherwood Forest, their name for her father’s garden. Chelsea had never seen such a light in his eyes before. It was almost as though he had a fever.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered, knowing it had to be something awful.
When he handed her a newspaper clipping, his hand was shaking. Having no idea what to expect, she read it, then knew less than she did before she’d started. It was a small clipping from a magazine about a man named Franklin Taggert, one of the major heads of Montgomery-Taggert Enterprises. He’d been involved in a small accident and his right arm had been broken in two places. Because he had chosen to seclude himself in a cabin hidden in the Rocky Mountains until his arm healed, several meetings and contract finalizations had been postponed.
When Chelsea finished reading, she looked up at Eli in puzzlement. “So?”
“He’s my friend,” Eli said in a voice filled with such awe that Chelsea felt a wave of jealousy shoot through her.
“Your billionaire?” she asked disdainfully.
Eli didn’t seem to notice her reaction as he began to pace in front of her. “It was your idea,” he said. “Sometimes, Chelsea, I forget that you are as much a female as my mother.”
Chelsea was not sure whether or not she liked that statement.
“You said I should find her a husband, that I should find her a rich man to take care of her. But how can I trust the care of my mother to just any man? He must be a man of insight as well as money.”
Chelsea’s eyebrows had risen to high up in her hairline. This was a whole new Eli she was seeing.
“The logical problem has been how to introduce my mother to a wealthy man. She is a nurse, and twenty-one percent of all romance novels at one point or another have a wounded hero and a heroine who nurses him back to health, with true love always following. So it follows that her being a nurse would give her an introduction to rich, wounded men. But since she works at a public hospital and rich men tend to hire private nurses, she has not met them.”
“So now you plan to get your mother the job of nursing this man? But Eli,” she said gently, “how do you get this man to hire your mother? And how do you know he’s a good man, not just a wealthy one? And if they do meet, how do you know they’ll fall in love? I think falling in love has to do with physical vibrations.” She’d read this last somewhere, and it seemed to explain what her dopey sisters were always talking about.
Eli raised one eyebrow. “How could any man not fall in love with my mother? My problem has been keeping men away from her, not the other way around.”
Chelsea knew better than to comment on that. Making Eli see his mother as a normal human being was impossible. He seemed to think she had a golden glow around her. “Then how . . .” She hesitated, then smiled. “Robin and Marian Les Jeunes?”
“Yes. I think Mr. Taggert is at the cabin alone. We have to find out where it is, send my mother a letter hiring her, give her directions, then get her up there. They will fall in love and he’ll take care of her. He is a proper man.”
Chelsea blinked at him for a moment. “A ‘proper man’?” She could see that Eli wasn’t going to tell her another word, but she knew how to handle him. “If you don’t tell me how you know this man, I won’t help you. I won’t do a thing. You’ll be all alone.”
Eli knew that she was bluffing. Chelsea had too much curiosity not to go along with any of his projects, but he did want to tell her how he’d met Frank Taggert. “You remember two years ago when my class went on a field trip to see Montgomery-Taggert Enterprises?”
She didn’t remember, but she nodded anyway.
“I wasn’t going to go, but at the last moment I decided it might be interesting, so I went.”
“For the stationery,” Chelsea said.
He smiled at her, glad of her understanding. “Yes, of course. We didn’t have any from the Montgomery-Taggert industries, and I wanted to be prepared in case we needed it.”
He told her how when he was standing there, bored, with a condescending secretary asking the children if they would like to play with the paper clips, Eli looked across the room to see a man sitting on the edge of a desk talking on the telephone. He had on a denim shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. Maybe he was dressed like the janitor, but to Eli the man radiated power, like a fire generating heat waves.
Quietly moving about the room, Eli got behind him so the man couldn’t see him, then listened to his telephone conversation. It took Eli a moment to realize that the man was making a multimillion-dollar deal. When he talked of “five and twenty,” he was talking of five million and twenty million. Dollars.
When the man hung up, Eli started to move away.
“Hear what you wanted to, kid?”
Eli froze in his tracks, his breath held. He couldn’t believe the man knew he was there. Most people paid no attention to kids. How had this man seen him?
“Are you too cowardly to face me?”
Eli stood straighter, then walked to stand in front of the man.
“Tell me what you heard.”
Since adults seemed to like to think that children could hear only what the adults wanted them to, Eli usually found it expedient to lie. But he didn’t lie to this man. He told him everything: numbers, names, places. He repeated whatever he could remember of the phone conversation he’d just heard.
As the man looked at Eli, his face had no discernible expression. “I saw you skulking about the office. What were you looking for?”
Eli took a deep breath. He and Chelsea had never told an adult about their collection of letterheads, much less what they did with them. But he told this man the truth.
The man’s eyes bore into Eli’s. “You know that what you’re doing is illegal, don’t you?”
Eli looked hard back at him. “Yes, sir, I do. But we only write letters to people who are hurting others or ignoring their responsibilities. We’ve written a number of letters to fathers who don’t pay the child support they owe.”
The man lifted one eyebrow, studied Eli for a moment, then turned to a passing secretary. “Get this young man’s name and send him a complete packet of stationery from all Montgomery-Taggert Enterprises. Get them from Maine and Colorado and Washington State.” He looked back at Eli. “And call the foreign offices too. London, Cairo, all of them.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Taggert,” the secretary said, looking in wonder at Eli. All the employees were terrified of Frank Taggert, yet this child had done something to merit his special consideration.
When Eli got over his momentary shock, he managed to say, “Thank you.”
Frank put out his hand to the boy. “My name is Franklin Taggert. Come see me when you graduate from a university and I’ll give you a job.”
Shaking his hand, Eli managed to say hoarsely, “What should I study?”
“With your mind, you’re going to study everything,” Frank said as he got off the desk and turned away, then disappeared through a doorway.
Eli stared after him, but in that moment, with those few words, he felt that his future had been decided. He knew where he was going and how he was going to get there. And for the first time in his life, Eli had a hero.
“And then what?” Chelsea asked.
“He sent the copies of the letterheads—you’ve seen them—I wrote to thank him and he wrote back. And we became friends.”
Part of Chelsea wanted to scream that he had betrayed her by not telling her of this. Two years! He had kept this from her for two whole years. But she’d learned that it was no good berating Eli. He kept secrets if he wanted to and seemed to think nothing of it.
“So you want your mother to marry this man? Why did you just come up with this idea now?” She meant her words to be rather spiteful, to get him back for hiding something so interesting from her, but she knew the answer as soon as she asked. Until now Eli had wanted his beloved mother to himself. Her eyes widened. If Eli was willing to turn his mother over to the care of this man, he must . . .
“Do you really and truly like him?”
“He is like a father to me,” Eli said softly.
“Have you told him about me?”
The way Eli said “Of course” mollified her temper somewhat. “Okay, so how do we get them together? Where is this cabin of his?” She didn’t have to ask how they would get his mother up there. All they had to do was write her a letter on Montgomery-Taggert stationery and offer her a nursing job.
“I don’t know,” Eli answered, “but I’m sure we can figure it out.”
Three weeks later, Chelsea was ready to give up. “Eli,” she said in exasperation, “you have to give up. We can’t find him.”
Eli set his mouth tighter, his head propped in his hands in despair. They’d spent three weeks sending faxes and writing letters to people, hinting that they needed to know where Frank Taggert was. Either people didn’t know or they weren’t telling.
“I don’t know what else we can do,” Chelsea said. “It’s getting closer to Christmas and it’s getting colder in the mountains. He’ll leave soon, and she won’t get to meet him.”
The first week she’d asked him why he didn’t just introduce his mother to Mr. Taggert, and Eli had looked at her as though she were crazy. “They will be polite to each other because of me, but what can they have in common unless they meet on equal ground? Have you learned nothing from my mother’s books? The rich duke meets the governess in a place where they are forced to be together.”
But they had tried everything and still couldn’t get his mother together with Mr. Taggert. “There is one thing we haven’t tried yet,” Chelsea said.
Eli didn’t take his head out of his hands. “There is nothing. I’ve thought of everything.”
“We haven’t tried the truth.”
Turning, Eli looked at her. “What truth?”
“My parents were nearly dying for my sister to get married. My mother said my sister was losing her chances because she was getting old. She was nearly thirty. So if this Mr. Taggert is forty, maybe his family is dying to get him married too.”
Eli gave her a completely puzzled look.
“Let’s make an appointment with one of his brothers and tell him we have a wife for Mr. Taggert and see if he will help us.”
When Eli didn’t respond, Chelsea frowned. “It’s worth a try, isn’t it? Come on, stop moping and tell me the name of one of his brothers here in Denver.”
“Michael,” Eli said. “Michael Taggert.”
“Okay, let’s make an appointment with him and tell him what’s going on.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Eli turned to his keyboard. “Yes, let’s try.”
Michael Taggert looked up from his desk to see his secretary, Kathy, at the door wearing a mischievous grin.
“Remember the letter you received from Mr. Elijah J. Harcourt requesting a meeting today?”
Frowning, Mike gave a curt nod. In thirty minutes, he was to meet his wife for lunch, and from the look on Kathy’s face there might be some complications that would hold him up. “Yes?”
“He brought his secretary with him,” Kathy said, breaking into a wide smile.
Mike couldn’t see why a man and his secretary would cause such merriment, but then Kathy stepped aside and Mike saw two kids, both about twelve years old, enter the room behind her. The boy was tall, thin, with huge glasses and eyes so intense he reminded Mike of a hawk. The girl, even taller, had the easy confidence of what promised to be beauty and, unless he missed his guess, money.
I don’t have time for this, Mike thought, and wondered who’d put these kids up to this visit. Silently, he motioned for them to take a seat.
“You’re busy and so are we, so I’ll get right to the point,” Eli said.
Mike had to repress a smile. The boy’s manner was surprisingly adult, and he reminded him of someone but Mike couldn’t think who.
“I want my mother to marry your brother.”
“Ah, I see,” Mike said, leaning back in his chair. “And which one of my brothers would that be?”
“The oldest one, Frank.”
Mike nearly fell out of his chair. “Frank?” he gasped. His eldest brother was a terror, as precise as a measuring device, and about as warm as Maine in February. “Frank? You want your mother to marry Frank?” He leaned forward. “Tell me, kid, you got it in for your mother or what?”
At that Eli came out of his seat, his face red. “Mr. Taggert is a very nice man, and you can’t say anything against him or my mother!”
The girl put her hand on Eli’s arm and he instantly sat down, but he turned his head away and wouldn’t look at Mike.
“Perhaps I might explain,” the girl said, and she introduced herself.
Mike was impressed with the girl as she succinctly told their story, of Eli’s offer to go to Princeton but his refusal to leave his mother alone. As she spoke, Mike kept looking at Eli, trying to piece everything together. So the kid wanted a billionaire to take care of his mother. Ambitious brat, wasn’t he?
But Mike began to have a change of heart when Eli turned to Chelsea and said, “Don’t tell him that. He doesn’t like his brother.”
“Tell me what?” Mike encouraged. “And I love my brother. It’s just that he’s sometimes hard to take. Are you sure you have the right Frank Taggert?”
At that Eli removed a worn, raggedy envelope from the folder he was carrying. Mike recognized it as Frank’s private stationery, something he reserved for the family only. It was a way the family had of distinguishing private from business mail. His family frequently joked that Frank never used family stationery for anyone who did not bear the same last name as he did. There was even a rumor that on the rare times he’d sent a note to whichever date was waiting for him at the moment, he’d used business letterhead.
Yet Frank had written this boy a letter on his private stationery.
“May I see that?” Mike asked, extending his hand.
Eli started to return the letter to his folder.
“Go on,” Chelsea urged. “This is important.” Reluctantly, Eli handed the letter to Mike.
Slowly, Mike took the single sheet of paper from the envelope and read it. It was handwritten, not typed. To Mike’s knowledge, Frank had not handwritten anything since he’d left his university.
My dear Eli,
I was so glad to receive your last letter. Your new theories on artificial intelligence sound magnificent. Yes, I’ll have someone check what’s already been done.
One of my brother’s wives had a baby, a little girl, with cheeks as red as roses. I set up a trust fund for her but told no one.
I’m glad you liked your birthday present, and I’ll wear the cuff links you sent me next time I see the president.
How are Chelsea and your mother? Let me know if your dad ever again refuses to pay child support. I know a few legal people and I also know a few thugs. Any man who isn’t grateful to have a son like you deserves to be taught a lesson.
My love and friendship to you,
Mike had to read the letter three times, and even though he was sure it was from his brother, he couldn’t believe it. When one of his siblings produced yet another child, Frank’s only comment was “Don’t any of you ever stop?” Yet here he was saying his brother’s new baby had cheeks like roses—which she did.
Mike carefully refolded the letter and inserted it back into the envelope. Eli nearly snatched it from his hands.
“Eli wants his mother to meet Mr. Frank Taggert in a place where they will be equal,” Chelsea said. “She’s a nurse, and we know Mr. Taggert’s been injured, so we thought she could go to this cabin in the mountains where he’s staying. But we can’t find where it is so we can send her there.”
Mike was having difficulty believing what she was saying. He looked at his watch. “I’m to meet my wife for lunch in ten minutes. Would you two like to join us?”
Forty-five minutes later, with the help of his wife, Samantha, Mike finally understood the whole story. And more importantly, he’d figured out who Eli reminded him of. Eli was like Frank: cool exterior, intense eyes, brilliant brain, obsessive personality.
As Mike listened, he was somewhat hurt and annoyed that his elder brother had chosen a stranger’s child to love. But at least Frank’s love for Eli proved he could love.
“I think it’s all wonderfully romantic,” Samantha said.
“I think the poor woman’s going to meet Frank and be horrified,” Mike muttered, but when Samantha kicked him under the table, he shut up.
“So how do we arrange this?” Samantha asked. “And what size dress does your mother wear?”
“Twelve petite,” Chelsea said. “She’s short and f—” She didn’t have to turn to feel Eli’s glare. He wasn’t saying much, and she knew that it was because he was hostile toward Mike. “She’s, ah, round,” Chelsea finished.
“I understand,” Samantha said, getting a little notebook from her handbag.
“What difference does her dress size make?” Mike asked.
Chelsea and Samantha looked at him as though he were stupid. “She can’t very well arrive at the cabin wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, now can she? Chelsea, shall we go buy some cashmere?”
“Cashmere?!” Eli and Mike said in unison, and it made a bond between them: men versus women.
Samantha ignored her husband’s outburst. “Mike, you can write a letter to Mrs. Harcourt saying—”
“Stowe,” Eli said. “My father’s new wife wanted my mother to resume her maiden name, so she did.”
At that Samantha gave Mike a hard look, and he knew that all sense of proportion was lost. From now on, anything Eli and Chelsea wanted, they’d get.