It was a beautiful autumn day, too nice reallyto be indoors, but Myra Rutledge had alreadybeen out with the dogs. She'd evenmade a trip to town to run some errands andstopped to have a solitary, boring lunch. At themoment, she couldn't remember what it wasshe'd eaten. She looked around her beautifulcountry kitchen and wished, not for the firsttime, that she had some kind of culinary expertise.She'd wished so many things lately,and none of her wishes had come true; norwere they likely to come true. Sad.
Oh, how she missed what she called the olddays, when she and the girls were righting justice,vigilante-style. The "girls," meaning Nikki,Alexis, Kathryn, Isabelle, and Yoko. But asCharles said, all good things must come to anend. She'd argued the point, as had Annie, butCharles had held firm with his words. Afterhe'd bandied about the word old at least a hundredtimes. Possibly more, until she and Anniehad run him off with the broom. He'd retiredto his lair in the catacombs, also known as theWar Room, beneath the house. Which hadn'tchanged a thing. At that time. Now, though, itwas a different story.
Myra fingered the pearls around her neck,her great-grandmother's heirloom pearls,which she was never without. Her intentionhad always been to leave the pearls to herdaughter Barbara, but that was impossiblenow. With Barbara's death years ago, her lifehad changed, and so would the legacy of herpearls. Maybe she'd just donate them to somecharity and let it sell them off for whateverthey could get.
A heavy gust of wind sent a cascade of brilliant-coloredleaves sailing across the backyard. Myradebated a moment as to whether she should gooutside and collect a bouquet for the kitchentable. She shrugged and decided that thechrysanthemums in the bright purple bowl onthe table still had some life in them.
Myra shivered as she looked across the roomat the thermostat. She walked over and turnedit up. She flopped down at the kitchen table.The dogs came running, not understandingwhat was going on with their mistress. She fondledall of them and babbled away about everythingand nothing. She missed the girls andthe boys, but most of all she missed Annie,whom she had seen every day until Annie wentto Las Vegas two days ago. She usually stayedten days or two weeks, which always left a hugevoid in Myra's life.
The bottom line was that she was bored outof her mind and had no clue what to do to occupyherself. She could, she supposed, godown to the tunnels and pester Charles, whowas writing his memoirs; but he'd make shortwork of her. She knew that because she'd triedthe trick on other days. Writing a memoir suchas Charles's had to be tough going since he'dbeen at it over four years. She had no idea whyhe was even bothering since he had to be socareful to change names, dates, and places soas not to incriminate anyone. In the end, whatwas the point? Whatever it was, it kept Charlesbusy, which was more than she could say forherself. Maybe she needed to write her ownmemoirs. Like there would be a market for herlife story! Then again ...
The dogs suddenly tensed, the fur on theback of their necks standing on end. Visitors?Intruders? They ran to the door as Myralooked up at the security monitor over thekitchen door. A car was whizzing through theopened gates. Someone with the combination."Annie!" Myra shouted, as she opened thedoor and ran outside. "Oh, dear God, you arehome!"
Annie hugged Myra. "You missed me thatmuch, eh?"
"I did. I do. I was sitting here going out ofmy mind missing you and feeling so very sorryfor myself. I wasn't expecting you for at least aweek."
"I knew you would be missing me, so I decidedto come back."
"They kicked you out again?"
Annie laughed. "They can't kick me out; Iown the joint. Things just go to hell when I'mthere for some reason. This time, though, Ithought I had it made. I tried sneaking in.Damn if they didn't know I was there before Ieven arrived. Does that make sense, Myra?"
"Since Bert Navarro took over as head of security,wind couldn't get through a crack. Wehave better security than the White House withall those Secret Service agents. If you have secrets,Vegas is the place to be. Which brings meback to what I was saying—they knew I wasthere before I even got there. It ticks me off. Iwon seventy-three dollars on my way out of thecasino. Do you want to go to lunch? My treat?"
"Anytime one of the richest women in theworld wants to buy me lunch, you won't hearme declining the invitation. Where would youlike to go?"
"Stop with that rich stuff, Myra. You have asmuch money as I have, and if the bill is overseventy-three dollars, you're paying the balance."
"Deal. What's wrong, Annie? I can read youlike a book."
"Let's get a few drinks under our belts andtalk then. Anything going on since I left?"
"Not a thing. Same old same old. The leavesare almost all down. I think there's supposedto be a harvest moon tonight. Before you knowit, there will be frost on the pumpkins. Iplanted some pumpkins just to see if they'dgrow. I have six or seven of a good size for thefront porch, and Charles will have enough forpies at Thanksgiving."
"That's it! That's your news! Three days is along time. Seventy-two hours to be precise. Ican't believe nothing happened in seventy-twohours."
"Sorry to say it is what it is. I haven't evenheard from the girls since you left. How wasBert? Did you meet with him?"
"He's fine and yes, we met for a drink. Helikes the job. He hired a new man a while backwho has his own story. I met him and gave myseal of approval to his employment. What thatmeans is Bert has more free time with an extraset of eyes and hands. Having said that, accordingto Bert, there is never a dull moment.He said Kathryn makes it back to Vegas justabout every weekend. Things are okay betweenthe two of them since he's accepted theidea that Kathryn doesn't want to get married,not now, not ever. Once he crossed that hurdleand truly accepted it, he's less stressed, andthey just enjoy each other's company for whatit is instead of tiptoeing around each other. Ididn't see Kathryn. Bert said she was due tomorrow.She thrives on driving that eighteen-wheeler,but then we all knew that.
"He's quite pleased with himself aboutHarry's agreeing to come to train his troops, ashe calls them. Like I said, we have better securitythan the White House. Does that boggleyour mind, Myra?"
"Yes, it does. Kathryn's young, Annie. Theyoung thrive on adventure, and driving overlandis an adventure. It's also survival forKathryn, so we can't fault her. You keep forgettingwe're old now. We can't do things like thatanymore."
"Says you," Annie snapped indignantly. "Ageis a number. Nothing more."
Myra looked at Annie, her eyes sad. "Wehave to be realistic, my friend. You can't stopthe aging process no matter how hard you try,and I know you're trying very hard, Annie.Now, why don't you tell me why you really cameback home after only three days, and don't trythat trick about how they kicked you out, becauseI'm not buying it."
Annie stared out the kitchen window at thecolorful leaves blowing in all directions. LikeMyra, autumn was her favorite time of year. Shepoured a cup of coffee and carried it to thetable. "I didn't realize I was that transparent."
Myra's voice turned gentle. "Annie, whateverit is, you can tell me. We've always toldeach other everything. You know I'm a goodlistener, and you also know I am not judgmental.Except for that time with the pole dancing,"Myra said defensively.
"My eyelashes are falling out."
"What? That's why you came back fromVegas, because your eyelashes are falling out!Everyone's eyelashes fall out, and new onesgrow. You can get new ones. I saw it on TV. Idon't want to hear that your toenails are yellow,either. That's why they make nail polish.Cut to the chase, Annie."
"Fergus left. He's gone."
Myra's eyes popped wide. "Where did he go?"
"Home. To Scotland. To his family that hehas been estranged from for years and years."
"What changed, Annie? Did something happenor change that you didn't tell me about?"She watched the tremor in Annie's hands asshe brought her coffee cup to her lips. "Youcan tell me," she said gently.
"I was blindsided, Myra. I didn't see it coming.And, yes, something did happen, but Ipromised not to say anything to anyone. Whenyour partner confides in you, you have to keepthat private, and a promise is a promise. Ferguswon the Irish Sweepstakes. It was a lot ofmoney. I don't know why or how he thoughthe could keep it a secret, but he did. Somehow,his children got wind of it, and theystarted making overtures toward him. Blood isthicker than water. We both know that, Myra. Itwasn't that he didn't want to share his winningswith his children; he did. The first thinghe did was set up trusts for the children andgrandchildren. I encouraged him to do that.I'm not sure in my own mind that he wouldhave done it if I hadn't pressured him into it.Regardless, it's water under the bridge now.He's gone."
"Is he coming back?"
"I doubt it."
"How do you feel about that, Annie?"
"Well, Myra, I understand it, but that doesn'tmean I have to like it. I would never, ever, standin the way of a family's reuniting. Nor wouldyou. We both know how important family issince we both lost ours. It is what it is. The sunwill come up tomorrow, and that same sun willset later in the day. Life goes on."
"So does that mean you're okay going italone? Did he ask you to go with him, Annie?"
"No, Myra, he did not ask me to go withhim. It's easy for me to say now that I wouldhave declined, but back in that moment oftime, I don't honestly know what I would havedone or said had he asked me."
"Is there anything I can do, Annie?"
"Not a damn thing, my friend. I have towork this out myself. Right now, I'm up forsome action."
"Well, my dear, you've come to the wrongplace if you expected action here at the farm.Unless you count taking the dogs out or ridingover to Nellie's to watch paint dry. She's havingher house painted as we speak. Pearl Barnes islaid up with a bad case of gout and is meanerthan a wet cat, so we can't visit her. Martine,our esteemed ex-president, is in Dubai or somedamn place with a lot of sand doing somethingor other. She left yesterday morning. It's justus, Annie. We can't even count on Charles toentertain us because he's deep into his memoirsand only comes up to cook and most of thetimes he ... God, Annie, I'm almost ashamed tosay this, but he's been using a Crock-Pot since itdoes all the work. I'm getting sick of one-potmeals. I might actually have to try my hand witha cookbook."
"Well, that sucks. Everything sucks. Don'tmind me, Myra, I'm just cranky. I took the redeye,and I haven't had any sleep."
"Do you want to skip lunch, go home, andtake a nap? Or you could go up to your roomhere. We could go out for dinner and skip thatmess bubbling in that pot on the counter."
"No, I want to do lunch. That seventy-threedollars I won is burning a hole in my pocket.Get your jacket, and let's go. Do you have totell Charles you're going?"
"You know what, Annie? He won't evenknow we're gone. He won't be coming up hereto check on anything. Like I said, that stupidCrock-Pot does it all."
"Fergus was a good cook, much better thanme. I might have to look into a Crock-Pot."
Myra rolled her eyes as she slipped into herjacket. The four dogs lined up, expectantlooks in their eyes. "Nope. You're stayinghome, guys. Here's a chew. See you in a littlewhile. Do not chew anything else while I'mgone."
The dogs, as one, looked at Annie, whoburst out laughing. "Sorry, guys, I have no jurisdictionhere."
"Hold on, Annie, someone is at the gate. Ican't see who it is other than that it's awoman," Myra said, when the dogs rushed tothe door. She eyed the monitor and frowned."I think ... it almost looks like Maggie." Myrapressed a button on the panel by the backdoor, and the electronic gate swung open. "Itis Maggie!"
Myra and Annie followed the mad rush ofthe dogs to get through the open door. "Youwanted some action, Annie! Looks like we justgot some. Oh, good Lord, the girl is crying!"
Maggie Spitzer barreled out of the car, stoppingto pet each dog before she ran into Myraand Annie's outstretched arms all the whilesobbing, as if her heart was breaking.
Back in the kitchen, both Myra and Anniefussed like two mother hens over Maggie,crooning and cooing to their younger chargeas they asked questions. Annie moved to maketea, the universal cure-all to everything in lifeas far as she was concerned. That it neverhelped was of no consequence. The bottomline was that when someone was in acute distress,you made tea. Tea was the magic elixir toeverything. Period. Bottom line.
"Please, Maggie, stop crying. I can't understanda word you're saying. We can't help youif you don't tell us what's wrong, dear," Myrasaid.
Maggie sniffled, then blew her nose in a wadof paper towels Annie held out. She gulped,took several deep breaths, and blurted out herturmoil in one long, sobbing sentence. GusSullivan, her husband, had died ten monthsago in Afghanistan when he had been called tohelp out with a security company.
"Ten months ago!" Annie and Myra cried inunison.
"And you're just telling us now! Why?" Myrademanded, as Annie urged the young womanto drink the tea in front of her.
"I didn't ... I couldn't ... I was in shock atfirst. Then I got angry because Gus didn't haveto go. He wanted to go. Even in the conditionhe was in, which wasn't all that good health-wise.He was in constant pain, and there wasnothing more the doctors could do for him.All he said was, 'I'm a soldier. I have to do this.They need me.' He didn't think twice becausesome damn company wanted him as a consultant.He didn't even ask me if I was okay withit, he just agreed. We had a horrible fight, andhe left. He just packed a duffel. Someonecame to pick him up, and he waved good-bye.He waved! Do you believe that? He wavedgood-bye. No kiss good-bye. I didn't see it coming.I felt like I was ... blindsided, for want of abetter term. Six weeks later, the same personwho picked Gus up came to the farm and gaveme the news, along with his gear. They saidthere wasn't ... there wasn't enough of himleft to send home for burial. It was a roadsidebomb."
"Darling girl, why didn't you call us? Wewould have rushed to you on winged feet. Didyou go through this alone? Was anyone therefor you? Oh, Maggie, we are so sorry," Myrasaid, wrapping the young woman in her arms.She looked up at Annie, whose eyes were wet.
"The girls. Did you tell the girls?" Annie finallymanaged to ask.
"No. I felt so guilty I couldn't bear to bearound anyone. By then I knew I had fallen outof love with Gus. I called Ted in the middle ofthe night, and he helped a lot. He was there forme. He even came to see me once during ...the worst of it. The only other thing I did wascall Gus's nephew, his only living relative, andtold him about Gus's death, and turned overthe kennel and the farm to him. He came in aheartbeat, and things finalized the other day. Ihad nowhere else to go, so here I am. I need ajob. Are there any openings at the paper? I'lldo anything, even maintenance if that's allthat's available. I kept my old house in Georgetownand paid the taxes, but there's a tenant inthere I'll have to ask to move."
"Ted knew. He never said a word," Anniesaid in a disbelieving voice.
"Because I asked him not to. I wasn't in agood place, Annie. I wasn't up to making decisions.
It was Ted's idea to turn the farm andthe kennel over to Gus's nephew, and thesooner the better. I would like to think that Iwould have done it somewhere down the road,but having Ted help me was even better. Hewould check on me six or seven times a day."
"Ted is a good man," Myra said gently.