Chapter Two


Present Day

St. Louis, Missouri

The phone rang and Katherine Schaub swiveled sideways in her office chair, shifting her unlit cigarette to the corner of her mouth. "Damn communist ‘No Smoking’ buildings are killing me," she murmured. She glanced at her caller ID box before answering, mindful of the hounds from her credit card companies who had already called work three times this week. Pressing the receiver to her ear, she dropped a manila folder into her outbox and said, "Hey, sweetheart, I was wondering if you were ever going to get back to me." Unconsciously, her hand moved through her white-blonde hair, and she straightened the short spikes as she spoke.

"How could I resist? In fact–"

Her lips curled into a slow, coy smile when the words coming from the man on the other end of the phone began to get steamy enough to get her pulse racing. "Yes, you’re forgiven," she said gently. "Tonight then?" Her smile broadened and her face took on a dreamy expression. "I can’t wait either. Love you, too. Bye." Long after the line was dead she hung up, unable to focus on anything but the vision of a sexy pair of brown eyes. She and her beau had been a couple for more than a year and she still felt like a lovestruck teenager. That was a very good sign.

Finally, she grabbed another file from her inbox and opened it, plucking a pen from the plastic holder that was overflowing with them.

The phone rang again and she grinned.

Without looking, she reached behind her and picked it up, her voice melting into a sexy purr. "Couldn’t wait ‘til tonight, huh, lover?"

A burst of laughter from the other end of the line caused her to scramble back and look at the phone display. "Toby, you bastard."

"Me?" Toby laughed again. "What did I do, lover?"


"I thought it was."

"What do you want, Toby?" Her tone was a cross between impatience and teasing, heavy on the impatience. "If I want to get out of here before six, I need to get busy."

"Well," Toby let out an indignant snort, "I’ll bet you weren’t this grumpy with lover boy."


"Fine. Since you’re in such a great mood, I’ll cut right to the chase."

Katherine gave a mental groan. "I’m sorry." She reached down and took off her shoes, tucking them under the desk before leaning back in her chair. It had already been a long day and she still had hours to go. "You know what early September is like for me. I’m swamped."

"And don’t forget that you’re mean because you’re giving up cigarettes."

"How could I forget?" Katherine removed the cigarette from her mouth and sniffed the end, taking in the pungent scent of tobacco with a look of unadulterated bliss. "Those bad, bad things," she murmured insincerely. For a fleeting moment she wondered if she couldn’t just eat the tobacco and get her nicotine buzz that way. How many calories could tobacco really have? "I just hate them." With the tip of her tongue she tasted the end.

"Uh huh." Toby’s voice was doubtful. "You hate them the way I hate hot dogs and cheesecake."

"Oh, God." Katherine’s eyes rolled back in her head. "If I could have all the cheesecake and cigarettes I wanted, sex would be irrelevant because I’d be so satisfied." Then she thought about that for a moment. "Well," she conceded, "I might get horny when the high from both wore off. But only then."

"You’d be too fat and cancer-ridden to even reach your horny parts."

"Ugh." With a look of disgust, Katherine tossed the cigarette on her desk. "Now I know why I stopped dating you. Was there a reason you called? You usually don’t call me at work."

"Well, I thought you'd be interested that my nerdiness has finally paid off for you. I hit on the finger."

"In English, Toby, please. We can’t all be senior information consultants, aka uber-nerds, for Fortune 500 companies."

"Wow, when you say it that way I sound really important. Will you describe my job like that to my mother?"

"Toby," Katherine warned.

"Fine. Fine. In laymen’s terms, after we spoke last month and you told me about your trouble with the credit reporting agencies, I did a little creative account accessing–"

"Hacking, you mean."

Toby continued to speak as though he hadn’t heard Katherine’s comment. "I put a tracer on your file so that I could peek in on anybody who was peeking in at you. With me so far?"

A nod. "Still with you."

"Earlier in the week you had an interesting hit. I didn’t have the time to check it out then, but it stuck in the back of my mind, and so today I did a little digging. Someone has been checking you out, Katherine… thoroughly."

Katherine tensed in her chair. "Somebody who?" Her voice rose a notch. "You mean those damned VISA people? God, a little bad luck and a few late payments and they’re all over me like stink on shit. I paid my full payment this month!"

"No, not them. That’s what caught my eye. It was a smaller company. One I’d never heard of."

Katherine could hear Toby lean forward in his chair.

"Here’s where things get interesting. It took me some major digging, this guy is good, but I found that whoever was poking around was logging on from small local company. And they were using a bogus name and office address to do it." All traces of good humor left Toby’s voice. "What kind of trouble are you in?"

Katherine blinked slowly, too surprised to speak. Who would be checking her out? And more importantly, why? Something came to mind instantly, but she dismissed the notion as paranoid and the product of inflated sense of guilt. "Honestly, I’m not in any trouble. When my meager investments went tits-up last year, I tried to cover them with cash. And soon the cash was gone too. Things were rough there for a while, you know that, but they’re getting back on track now. I’m actually caught up and saving again."

"On your salary?"

One of Katherine’s eyebrows quirked. "Yes, even on my pitiful little office manager’s salary."

"I’m sorry, Katherine." Toby winced. "I didn’t mean it like that."

"I know." Katherine picked up her cigarette and put it back in her mouth, this time not bothering to fight her urge to chew on the end. "So why is someone checking me out." She audibly gulped. "What the hell do they want?"

"You sound a little worried for someone who’s not in trouble."

She shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "Don’t go there, Toby. If you don’t believe what I’ve told you then that’s your problem."

Toby knew a "back off" when he heard one. There was something his friend wasn’t telling him, but it would have to wait. "Listen, I gotta go. I have a meeting in five. The name of the company doing the digging, and I mean digging, we’re talking credit report, tax returns, DMV, bank records, everything, is a local detective agency called Gramercy Investigations."

Anxiously, Katherine searched her mind for even the slightest hint of recognition. "But…" she shook her head a little, "I’ve never heard of them."

"Well, Katherine, all I can say is that they’ve sure as hell heard of you."


Present Day

St. Louis, Missouri

"What are you doing here at five?" Jacie’s lips thinned as she unlatched the chain on her door, but pointedly didn’t offer an invitation to come inside. She schooled herself in patience as she spoke. "What happened to 7:30?"

She had just walked in the door from an unexpected trip to the office when her doorbell rang. Her briefcase was still in one hand, a scuffed yellow hardhat in the other.

"Nothing happened to 7:30. I’m just a little early to pick up Emily."

"Two and a half hours isn’t a little early. Listen," Jacie tossed her hardhat and briefcase onto the floor next to the closet, causing the hat to bounce several times on the ceramic tiled floor. She stepped out into the hallway and quietly closed the door behind her. "I don’t give a good God damn what you’re ready for." Her jaw bunched and released as she tried to control her temper. "It’s my weekend with Emily, and that doesn’t end until 7:30 tonight. That’s our court-ordered arrangement."

Nervously, she peered over her shoulder at her front door and ran a hand through shoulder-length auburn hair as she consciously lowered her voice. "Don’t fuck with me over this." She let her hand drop tiredly, wondering why, after more than two years apart, they were still having the same old arguments. "I’ve changed my plans twice this month just so you could accommodate your girlfriend’s schedule. I’m not changing today. We haven’t even eaten dinner yet." Her voice went a little cold. "Deal with it."

"You bitch."

Jacie crossed her arms over her chest. "Takes one to know one."

"I never–"

"Yes, yes, I know," Jacie interrupted, knowing this particular rejoinder like the back of her hand. "Let me save us both some time, shall I? You should have never allowed me to adopt your child. What a horrible mistake that was on your part… Asshole," she added as her temper flared. "Never mind the fact that we planned having her and went through the months of you trying to get pregnant together. And never mind that I’ve been loving, raising, and supporting her since the day she was born. The judge clearly made a huge mistake by awarding me joint custody of our daughter."

"Don’t take that tone with me. This is your fault, Jacie. If you hadn’t left us–"

Jacie’s eyes flashed. "I left you because you are impossible and we were all miserable. I never left Emily. Don’t you dare even say that." Her words were met with a stony silence. "Come back to get our daughter at 7:30. We’re going out for dinner, so don’t bother showing up early." And with that, she marched back inside her condo and slammed the door behind her, hearing muffled cursing traveling down the hall. "Goodbye, Alison. You have a great evening, too," she said under her breath, feeling the knots in her stomach beginning to ease now that she was out of her ex-lover’s presence. For the millionth time she wondered how one of the worst mistakes of her life could have also produced the best thing in it.

She stepped over to a chair and angrily threw herself down. Her condo was cluttered, but not really dirty, and filled with low, whitewashed furniture and littered with marble coasters. Pale, overstuffed living room furniture sat atop colorful woven rugs and several watercolors graced the walls. It was the kind of atmosphere where Jacie could sink into the sofa, close her eyes, and put her feet up after a hard day’s work. She’d found a home in this small, eclectic building near Forest Park.

Just then a dark-haired 7-year-old bounded out of the kitchen with two cans of RC in tow. "Who were you talking to, Mom?"

Jacie smiled, her soft brown eyes now glittering with affection rather than anger. "Were you eavesdropping again, young lady?" Slender eyebrows lifted as she waited.

"No." Emily scowled, knowing she was caught. "I just heard people in the hall," she explained in a weak voice.

An unexpected chuckle erupted from Jacie as she began unbuttoning her lightweight, denim blouse and made her way towards her bedroom. "Don’t worry, sweetheart. I told her that you’re staying the whole visit this time. She’s coming back in a couple of hours."

"Yes!" Emily pumped her fist, a little dizzy with relief.

Jacie grimaced and laid a hand on her stomach when it growled loudly. "We need food."

The girl nodded eagerly. They’d spent most of the afternoon on one of Jacie’s jobsites and then at her office. Lunch had consisted of cheese and crackers from the vending machine and sodas. "I’m starved."

"Thanks for being a good sport about my needing to stop by the site for a while today." Jacie sat on her bed as she unlaced her well-worn work boots, then set about peeling off sweaty socks.

"No problem." In truth, Emily loved to accompany her mom to "Priest Tile & Marble" whenever she could. The workmen treated her like one of the guys, teasing her and buying her candy bars when her mom wasn’t looking. And Jacie always explained the details of her newest project. Once, her mom had even allowed her to pick tile designs for the hallway of a fancy apartment building on Brentwood Drive. "You can make it up to me by getting us pizza for dinner."

Jacie laughed as she entered her bathroom, leaving the door open so that she could hear Emily over the shower. "Do we ever eat anything besides milk and pizza for dinner on the weekends?"

"Is there anything yummier than cheese pizza?"

"Good point." Jacie shook her head knowingly and opened the shower doors, already dreading the lonely, seemingly endless days between now and their next weekend together.


Present Day

Salt Lake City, Utah

"What do you mean she’s getting married?" Audrey Mullins-Chavez grabbed both sides of her own head, fearing it would explode.

Her husband, Rick, looked down at his hands, his eyes wide and uncomprehending. Quietly, he set the phone back on the cradle and dropped down to the bed to bleakly stare at their white popcorn ceiling. "That’s what she said. She said ‘I love him, Papa. I’m not pregnant, and we’ve run off to get married.’ They’re in Las Vegas and coming home in a couple of days."

"Jesus Christ!" Audrey believed in spontaneous combustion and was sure she was going to be starring in tonight’s evening newscast as nothing more than a smoldering pile of ashes on a Berber carpet. "She’s gone insane!"

Rick’s head bobbed mechanically. "I want to call the police." He whimpered. "But she’s 18. We can’t stop her." His eyes turned to slits. "I want to kill that boy."

Audrey threw her hands into the air and started pacing around the bedroom. At the moment, the room’s neutral blue and crème décor wasn’t having its intended, soothing effect. "I knew we should never have let Tina live until she turned 18! Now look what’s happened. This is your fault." She pointed an accusing finger at her husband. "I wanted to kill her when she was 5 and drew that huge picture of a horse in permanent marker on the living room wall. And you talked me out of murder! Bet you’re sorry now." She knew she was being irrational, but she couldn’t help it.

His brow creased. "I thought it was a pig."

Audrey just waited, tapping her foot.

Rick closed his eyes. "What happened to my baby? I’ll tell you what’s happened. She’s run off with a boy who only two years ago was called ‘Stubby’ by the entire senior varsity basketball team." If the students knew how much gossip their principal was privy to, most of them wouldn’t be able to meet his eyes in the hallway.

"What the hell sort of nickname is that?" Audrey’s brow creased again. "He’s six feet four. Doesn’t he have all his fingers?"

"Yeeeeees," Rick said slowly. "Uh… that’s not it… exactly."

"Well? Don’t play 20 questions with me Rick. I’m not responsible for my actions right now. You might not live through me asking you again."

A slow blush traveled up Rick’s neck.

"What is wrong? I–" When realization hit Audrey between the eyes, her face twisted in revulsion. "Oh my God. That’s gross! I don’t want to know things like that. Ick. Ick Ick! I’m the mother-in-law!"

The corner of Rick’s mouth twitched upward. "I know."

Then their eyes met, and they couldn’t help but burst out laughing. After a few moments, Audrey’s shoulders slumped. "What are we going to do, Enrique?"

At the plaintive use of his real name, he sighed and patted the bed next to him. "What can we do, querida?" He wrapped his arms around his wife’s sturdy body and pulled her close, kissing the top of her head. The 20 pounds she’d needed to lose in college had turned into 40 over the years. But she was still active and vibrant and to Rick’s eyes, gorgeous.

"We could go to Vegas?" Audrey offered hopefully.

Rick thought about that for a moment. "We could. But who would watch Ricky Jr.?" Their 13-year-old was outside playing soccer.

"Your mother could watch him." She began to massage his temples, smoothing back the kinky gray hair there with gentle fingers.

He shook his head. "They were just about to go into the chapel, honey. We can’t stop them. We won’t make it in time."

Audrey closed her eyes and let out a long sigh. "But they’re just babies."

Rick nodded. "Stupid babies… who are going to need a place to live. Their dorms are not for married couples."

Audrey’s face darkened momentarily. Her head was spinning and she felt sick. "I don’t want to take any chances on either of them dropping out of school. You’d think straight ‘A’ students would be too smart for something like this. I must have dropped her on her head when she was a baby and just blocked it out." She rolled over until her chin was resting on Rick’s chest. "We could turn the attic above the garage into a little apartment and they could live there."

"Can we afford to do any remodeling on top of Tina’s tuition?"

"I can work some overtime if we can’t get a good deal on a loan."

"Mmm…." He began to chew his dark mustache. "Interest rates are good right now." He hummed a little. "Refinancing might be a good idea anyway."

"Yeah." Another sigh. "Maybe." Audrey felt a lump develop in her throat. "Did she sound happy?"

Rick blinked at the change in his wife’s voice and pressed his lips to her soft curls once again. "She’s on Cloud Nine."

Audrey was at a loss. "I don’t understand," she groaned. "No one was keeping them apart. They both love school. They see each other all the time anyway. What’s the hurry to get married?"

Rick shook his head. "You’re asking me? I’m sorry I let her start dating." He took a deep breath, catching a whiff of Audrey’s shampoo. "They don’t make any sense," he mumbled.

Audrey sighed. "They’re in love."

He took a moment to think about what she’d said, then commented. "They’re like us. Except you were not a freshman, and I had a real job. God, my poor mama." He slapped his forehead. "I’m going to call her this afternoon and beg her forgiveness," he decided suddenly, guilt gnawing away at him. He felt Audrey chuckle, and he knew she was reliving the moment they’d broken the news of their own elopement to his mother.

Audrey shifted in his arms. "Maybe we shouldn’t have made our midnight run to Reno sound so romantic." Problem was, their elopement had been romantic and whether it was amazing luck or fate, that night had turned out to be one of the best decisions of her life. She had no regrets.

As if reading her mind, Rick said, "Maybe they’ll be as lucky as we were."

It took a few seconds, but finally, a dreamy grin split her cheeks. "Maybe." She scooted up and brushed her lips against his.

They lingered that way for several long seconds, sinking into the contact and finding comfort and affection exactly where they knew they would… in each other. When they finally parted, they both looked a little less frazzled.

With a groan, Audrey moved off the bed and offered him a hand up. "Why did we have children again?"

"Jack Daniels?"

She snorted at his valiant attempt at humor. "Don’t be silly. I’m partial to the dark handsome types." She winked at him. "It was Jose Cuervo."

Despite himself, Rick laughed and rolled his eyes.

"C’mon. Let’s go take a look at the garage attic."

He puffed out his lower lip as he swung his feet over the bed. But before he stood he reached out and hugged his wife to him, pressing his face into her soft chest and sighing contentedly; he decided not to move from this wonderful spot for a very long time. "Can I still kill Stubby?" he murmured.

Lovingly, Audrey petted his head, returning the embrace. "Not if I get there first."


Present Day

Clayton, Missouri

"Is that the last box, dear?"

"The very last one." Nina held her iced tea to her forehead and allowed the condensation that had collected on her glass to drip down a pink cheek, mingling with a tendril of perspiration. "Remind me never to move again, will you, Mom?"

Mrs. Chilton laughed. "That would be my pleasure."

Nina reached out for her mother’s wrinkled hand, stroking the thin, soft skin with her thumb. She gave a gentle tug and scooted over so that the older woman could drop down beside her on the front steps of the old, but well-kept Colonial home. They both sighed and gazed out into a yard filled with poplars as they caught their breath.

Nina’s grandmother’s death hadn’t been unexpected and as per the old woman’s wishes, the family home had been passed down not to her widowed daughter, who would never leave her home in Hazelwood anyway, but to her unmarried granddaughter, Nina.

Nights of soul searching and some cajoling from her own very persistent mother, and Nina’s resolve to never move back to Missouri had wavered. Then, when her blanketing of the area museums with résumés just to appease her mother had resulted in an offer from the Missouri Historical Society, a large history museum in Forest Park, Nina had bowed to fate and come home. It finally, she admitted privately, felt like the right time.

The afternoon sky was a bright, pristine blue, and she shielded her eyes from the sun as she glanced around the large yard. "Where’s Robbie?"

"The last time I saw him he was in his bedroom unpacking."

Nina frowned. Her 9-year-old son was boisterous, fearless, and rarely quiet. She’d gone far too long without hearing a peep out of him and was only mildly placated by the fact that she hadn’t heard a loud crash or smelled smoke yet. "Robbie," she called out as she glanced back towards the house. "Where are you?"

"I’m up here, Mom," a proud voice called from about midway up one of the trees in the yard.

Nina blinked, her eyes widening when she saw the height of the tree. "Shit."

Mrs. Chilton gaped. "Nina!"

"Sorry, Mom." She jumped off the porch and jogged over to the tall tree, her heart beating a little faster as she craned her head and struggled to see through the thick branches and masses of leaves. She heard a creak and her eyes flicked to his slender form, which was about 15 feet off the ground. "Robbie?"

"Yeah?" This time his response was much quieter as he sensed he was in trouble.

"What are you doing in a tree?"

There was a few seconds of silence as Robbie considered his answer before he said the only thing he could think of. "Climbing it."

Nina rolled her eyes, realizing her question had been a stupid one. "I can see that, Son. But you’re going to get hurt." Real worry threaded her voice and her mind flashed to a similar scene and a fall. "Come down."

"Aww… C’mon, Mom. I’m not so high. See?" He bobbed up and down on the branch, sending a shower of loose bark down on his mother’s head.

"Now, Robbie." She fought the urge to stamp her foot. "I don’t want to be taking a trip to the emergency room with you today." Or ever.

A few moments later, two sneaker-clad feet hit the ground next to Nina. Robbie wasn’t quite up to her five feet six inches, and she figured she had a good couple of years left where she’d still be able to glare down at the boy. She decided to put that fleeting ability to good use. "Do I have to even say it?" She gazed at him expectantly.

He trained his eyes on the ground and sighed. "I guess not."

Suddenly, Nina felt like an ogre. He’d been excited about moving from a condo into a "real" house and finally having a place to play that didn’t require a trip to the park. They’d only been here a day and she was already ruining that.

She ruffled his short fair hair and wrapped an arm around him, guiding him back towards the steps and his waiting grandmother. "Maybe we could build a tree house," she offered finally, unable to take Robbie’s uncharacteristic silence. "But one that’s not too high off the ground," she added quickly.

His head shot up, his eyes sparking with delight. "Really?"

"The neighbors won’t like that, Nina," her mother warned gently, knowing full well it wouldn’t do any good.

Nina’s face suddenly broke into an unrepentant grin, and Mrs. Chilton saw a glimmer of the headstrong girl she remembered. Her museum technician daughter usually kept her rebellious side well under wraps, but it was there all the same, simmering, and something she clearly shared with her grandson.

"They’ll live, Mom. And if not they can bite my butt."

"Tsk." Mrs. Chilton gave her a stern look. "I didn’t teach you to talk that way, young lady."

Nina and Robbie, who was about to burst from excitement, sat down on the steps. She handed him her glass of tea, and he took a grateful gulp, fishing a few lemon seeds from his mouth when he chugged down the remainder of the glass.

"Piggy," Nina chided indignantly, taking back the glass that now held only a few chunks of ice and a soggy wedge of lemon. "I know I didn’t teach you to do that, young man." Nina mimicked her mother’s Missouri accent to a T.

Mrs. Chilton narrowed her eyes at her daughter’s good-natured impudence.

"Sorry." He smiled impishly, wiping his lips with the back of a dirty hand. "Can I go online and look at pictures of tree houses?"

Nina nodded slowly. "After you wash your hands and as soon as I call and get us hooked back up to the Internet."

His shoulders slumped. He’d forgotten about that.

"Aren’t you going to tell him about your tree climbing fiasco, dear?" Mrs. Chilton reminded her daughter helpfully, ignoring the high-wattage glare she got for her troubles.

"No," Nina ground out, dusting her hands off on her jeans. "As a matter of fact, I wasn’t."

Robbie’s jaw dropped. "Mom climbed a tree?"

"Don’t make it sound like a physical impossibility." Nina gave him a mock sneer. "I’m still in pretty good shape, you know."

"Yeah," he snorted. "Right, Mom."

Nina reached out to tickle Robbie but only felt a wisp of contact as he bolted from the steps. Not to be outdone, she was hot on his heels, and the chase was on. They ran around the yard, circling the streets, and skirting a large hedge for nearly ten minutes before Nina was forced to admit that her days of running like the wind were long gone.

Chest heaving, she stopped in front of her laughing mother and bent at the waist, her dark blonde hair, laced with the barest hint of gray, falling into her eyes and sticking on her wet cheeks and neck. "Stop looking at my hair, Mom," she said in a flat voice, not needing to see her mother to know what she was thinking. "I don’t want to start coloring it."

Mrs. Chilton unconsciously ran a hand through her own, permanently light brown hair. "You’ll be sorry. Remember Bob Barker when he let his real hair color come in? He looked like he’d seen a horrible ghost and aged 20 years overnight. You’re a young woman. You don’t want to look old, do you?"

Nina sucked in an enormous gulp of air. "Too late. I’m pathetically old."

"Men don’t like gray hair."

Nina bit her tongue, then addressed Robbie. She was still out of breath. "How do you like my hair, champ?"

He shrugged. "It’s pretty."

Nina grinned. "Well, there you go, Mom. All the men in my life are happy with my hair."

Mrs. Chilton grumbled something Nina was quite glad she couldn’t make out.

Nina motioned her son closer. "I surrender, Robbie."

The boy stopped dancing just out of her reach and stepped forward to pat her on the back, feeling the heat through her thin tank top.

With disgust, she noted that he wasn’t even breathing hard and his faced was wreathed in an enormous smile.

"That’s okay, Mom. You’re pretty fast for an old lady. You nearly caught me." Impossibly, his smile grew. "Not." He began to giggle.

Nina groaned, forcing herself upright to wipe the sweat from her eyes.

Robbie flopped down next to his grandmother on the steps and fished a mostly-melted ice cube from his mom’s glass. He stuffed it into his mouth. "Tell me about Mom climbing a tree, Grandma." He leaned forward so he wouldn’t miss a single word.

"Mom," Nina whimpered. "Shouldn’t you be too senile to remember things like that by now?"

"Hush." Mrs. Chilton reached out and swatted her daughter twice and Robbie squealed in delight at the sight of his mother not only being bossed around but punished.

"Thanks a lot." Nina winked at Robbie, then rubbed the recently molested thigh before joining her son and mother on the steps. She leaned back on her elbows and crossed her ankles as she readied herself for what she was certain would be a distorted version of her childhood.

"Well, it all started…." Mrs. Chilton paused and turned twinkling eyes on Nina. "On second thought," she said, smoothing the fabric of her crisply pressed cotton slacks, "why don’t you tell the story? I’m sure your perspective would be far more exciting than mine."

"Fine. Fine." Nina sighed good-naturedly, knowing when she’d been beat.

Robbie moved to the edge of the step he was perched on and settled in to listen to his mother’s clear, melodic voice.

As Nina thought back, she chuckled, then blushed.


Summer 1973

Hazelwood, Missouri

The summer heat was scorching and even in shorts, shoes without socks, and t-shirts, the girls were miserably hot, their clothing sticking to irritatingly moist skin.

Nina looked up into the tree with wide eyes. "Nuh uh." She shook her head violently. "Sorry, but n-no way."

Katy threw her arms down. "Come on, Nina! You’re the lookout. The smallest member of the group is always the lookout. They’re lightest and so they can climb the highest. You can tell us if you see Stinky or any other boys."

Usually the girls played in the field behind Jacie’s house or in Katy’s basement, because her house was the most central to them all. But today the Mayflower Club had gathered at Nina’s. They were about to begin their daily meeting when Katy noticed Stinky, a boy from last year’s class, going into a house only three doors down. Wanting to ensure the privacy and sanctity of their club, which had an inviolate "No Boys" rule, she had devised a plan under the protective branches of a sycamore tree in Nina’s backyard.

Nina glanced at Audrey, who for once was looking quite pleased about being chubby. She scowled. Then she looked at Gwen, who was looking back at her expectantly. Finally her attention turned to Jacie. The slim girl had her hands on her hips again, a sign that would forever mean she was running out of patience and about to blow. Nina sighed internally.

"Why don’t you let me do it?" Jacie said, already reaching for the tree’s trunk. "Then we can get on with this meeting. I wanna watch TV later."

Nina chewed her lower lip as she considered her current predicament. She could let Jacie go up the tree for her. That would mean, though, that she was nothing more than a puny chicken who would never get any respect from anyone. "No. I think I c-can do it."

Jacie pinned her with a serious, though not unkind look. "You don’t have to, Nina."

Nina’s insides were quaking, but she did her best to push that feeling aside. "I know," she told Jacie. "But I-I want–" To be like you and Katy.

Audrey threw herself down on the ground at the tree’s base and quickly moved onto her hands and knees. "You can use my back for a ladder. And don’t look down or you’ll get scared."

Nina swallowed hard. "Okay." She stood on Audrey’s back and then Katy and Gwen put their hands on her butt and pushed her up to the first branch as Jacie looked on worriedly.

"Be careful," said Jacie, regretting that she hadn’t simply climbed up the tree herself. She enjoyed high places and the euphoric feeling of freedom that went along with seeing the world laid out beneath her. It was far more nerve-wracking watching one of her friends do any of the stunts she regularly engaged in.

Audrey scrambled to her feet and looked up the tree and watched Nina go. "Far out, Nina!"

Katy nodded her agreement with her cousin. "She can really climb. I knew she’d make a good lookout."

Nina grinned recklessly as she continued her path up the tree, the branches getting thinner and thinner as she went. She cleared her mind of every thought except for putting one foot higher than the next. The smell of the damp grass and dirt from below was replaced by the pungent odor of sap.

"What do you see?" Gwen asked in a raised voice. "Any B. O. Y. S. or can we start the meeting?"

Nina’s fair eyebrows drew together so tightly they nearly touched. "See? I thought I wasn’t sup-sup-sup-posed to look down. All I see is the t-tree," she yelled.

Jacie rolled her eyes. "You have to look down sometime, Nina. Or what’s the point of climbing?"

Nina licked her lips. She was as high as she could go. Her calves and arms were burning from the exertion and the sensitive skin on her palms felt raw and itchy. Reluctantly, she tore her eyes from the tree trunk and peered across the neighbors’ yards. Instantly, her knees went weak and her stomach lurched. "Uh oh." She closed her eyes again. "I don’t feel s-so good." Whimpering, she wrapped both arms around the tree trunk, holding on for dear life.

The girls on the ground all looked at each other and shrugged, unsure of what was taking so long.

"What did you say, Nina?" Gwen called up. "We can’t hear you."

Tears filled Nina’s eyes. "I-I-I-ARGHHH!"

Four sets of eyes went round. "Is a boy coming?" Katy whirled around to defend their territory.

Jacie adjusted her ponytail and continued to peer up at Nina. "I don’t think that’s it." She chewed her bottom lip. "I think she’s stuck."

"Only cats get stuck up trees," Gwen decided. "Nina’s not a cat and she can just come down the same way she went up."

Audrey circled the tree for a better view of the top. "I dunno, Gwen. Something’s not right."

Jacie felt her anxiety rise. "Nina, come down now, okay?" She and Katy were confirmed tomboys and climbed trees nearly everyday. But watching her openly frightened friend try the same thing was making her a little sick to her stomach.

"Yeah, Nina," Audrey and Gwen agreed. "Just come down."

Nina heard their voices, but she couldn’t seem to make her mouth work. A sharp branch was digging into her side and without letting go of the trunk she adjusted her position, causing her to sway dangerously.

Nina and Gwen screamed bloody murder at the exact same time.

"Shut up, Gwen!" Katy hissed, covering her now ringing ears.

Audrey began to fidget and circled the tree several more times, reminding Jacie of a puppy who needed to pee and couldn’t find a good spot. "What do we do?"

The girls looked at Jacie, who was surprisingly pale. "Jacie?"

The auburn-haired girl scrubbed her tanned cheeks. "We have to help her."

Gwen gave her an exasperated look. "We know that! What should we do?" She threw a nervous glance towards Nina’s back porch. "I could go tell her mom?"

"Right," Jacie grunted, her eyes still glued to the top of the tree. "Then she’ll just get a spanking or be grounded for sure. "

"That’s better than falling and twisting your ankle or something," Katy reminded.

"Or landing on your back and becoming a cripple."

The girls all stared at Audrey, uncomfortably reminded that her oldest brother, Willy, had come back from Vietnam in a wheelchair.

A gust of wind caused the tree branches at the very top of the tree to sway, and Nina cried out, pressing her cheek against the rough bark of the trunk until her face hurt.

"I’m going for help!" Gwen took off running towards Nina’s back door.

"I’m going for Nina," Jacie said grimly, her eyes quickly traveling up the tree for the best route to the top. Without another word, she leapt for the first branch and struggled to pull herself up. A second later, Audrey and Katy were grunting with the effort as they pushed her up from below.

"I’m coming, Nina. Hang on." Jacie tested a branch with her foot, hoping that it would hold her weight.

Nina pried her eyes open. "Jacie?"

"That’s me," she heard from somewhere below her.

"You can’t fit up here," Nina told her quickly, hoping she wouldn’t try to come up the same way she had. "You’re too big, Jacie. You’ll fall." Resentfully, she realized that Katy had been exactly right about the smallest person being the best person to be the lookout.

Jacie frowned, squinting as she peered through the branches. Nina was right. She’d never make it. "I’ll come up a different way." She altered her course where the tree trunk split into two and continued to climb.

Katy rocked back and forth below her. "I can’t stand it!" she said finally, unable to take the sense of helplessness that had crept over her. "I’m gonna rescue Nina, too."

"What?" Audrey punched her cousin in the shoulder. "Are you a retard? Jacie is already going to save her and Gwen went to get Nina’s mom."

Katy lifted her chin a little. "What if Jacie needs my help?"

Audrey stood motionless for a moment, unable to think of a good answer to that question. "Okay, but I’m going, too. You can push me up and then I’ll stick my arm down and help you, ’kay? You could never lift me."


And within minutes, Katy and Audrey were weaving their way up the tree, no more than a branch behind Jacie.

Gwen banged on the Chiltons’ back door. When no one immediately answered, she began dancing around the back porch in a panic. "What do I do? What do I do?" she asked herself, her pulse racing. Gathering her courage, she opened the back door, which led into the kitchen and barged into the small home. "Mrs. Chilton?" she called out. "Mrs. Chilton?"

Upstairs, Agnes Chilton’s head was inside a large, turquoise-colored hair dryer. Hot air pounded her curlers, setting the utterly natural-looking style that would, with a hefty dose of Ms Breck Superhold, last for no less than four days. "Oh, tie a yellow ribbon ’round the old oak tree," she sang softly. "It’s been three long years…"

"Mrs. Chilton?" Gwen poked her head in the dining room. "Rats."

Agnes flipped the page of the magazine she was reading. "Do you still want meeee?"

"Mrs. Chilton?" Panting, Gwen surveyed the empty living room. "No!" In desperation, she bolted back through the kitchen and out the door, leaving the screen wide open.

The wind ruffled the long layers of her red hair as Gwen sped back to the tree. Under its boughs, she abruptly skidded to a halt, her eyes widening as she looked around. She was alone. "Where is everyone?" she wailed. Just then she heard crying and looked up.

Nina was still near the top of the tree, clinging to the trunk, her fingers locked together. But what had Gwen’s mouth hanging open was the sight of Jacie, who was nearly as high as Nina but on a different set of branches and unable to reach Nina, with Audrey and Katy directly below Jacie.

"What are all you guys doing up there?" No one was moving.

"We’re stuck," Katy cried pitifully, her arms wrapped so tightly around the tree trunk that her hands were turning white from lack of circulation.

"No," Audrey and Jacie said in unison. "Katy is stuck!" Audrey kicked at Katy’s head, but the girl refused to budge, issuing a curse that Gwen had never heard from a girl before.

"Move it, Katy!" Jacie roared in frustration. "My arms are getting tired and I want to get down." This wasn’t quite the heroic ending to the rescue that Jacie had pictured in her mind.

Gwen wrinkled her nose as she saw Audrey begin to slip. "You’d better go fast, Katy! If Audrey lands on you, you’re dead for sure."

"Hey!" Audrey screamed indignantly. "Shut up, Gwen. What if I land on you?"

Gwen’s mouth snapped closed, and she took two large steps backwards.

Nina sniffed and bent her head to wipe tear-stained, freckled cheeks on her t-shirt. Her guts were churning and bile burned the back of her throat, but she forced herself to take a step down. A trembling foot found purchase on a lower branch and then she made herself do it again and again, not looking anywhere but at the trunk of the tree.

"That’s it, Nina!" Jacie cheered her on. She sent a far more impatient look Katy’s way. "Now you do that, too, you big stupid chicken!"

"You didn’t call Nina a chicken," Katy complained, still refusing to move.

"That’s because she wasn’t stuck right below me and keeping me from getting down! Plus, I know you can climb trees. We climbed a bigger one than this last week, dummy."

"C’mon, Katy." Even though her arms and legs were wrapped around the trunk of the tree, Audrey was losing her grip. "You’d better move!" Knowing she was about to fall and crush her cousin to death, she began to cry, the sounds of her whimpers mixing with Katy’s.

"I’m as b-b-brave as Evel Kneivel. I’m as brave as Evel K-Kneivel," Nina chanted as she made her way to the bottom branch.

"Here, Nina." Gwen got down on her hands and knees so Nina could use her back as a step on the way down.

Maybe it was the fact that the rest of the way wasn’t very far and she was elated that she’d conquered her fear. Or maybe it was that she really, really had to use the bathroom. Nina never knew what possessed her to jump the rest of the way down. But jump she did. "G-g-g..." She never finished the word "Geronimo" as her shorts snagged on a small protruding branch and ripped clean off her body as she sailed over Gwen’s back, landing unevenly in the grass and falling to her knees.

"Uh oh." Nina tried to cover herself, but nothing could keep her bright pink panties from making their presence known.

Gwen looked at Nina and started to giggle. "It’s not even Tuesday, Nina!" She pointed to the word that was stitched into the cotton in fancy cursive letters and Nina flushed a scarlet red.

"I see London, I see France–" Jacie began before choking on her own laughter and having to grapple for a branch to keep from toppling over.

"What in the world?" Mrs. Chilton, who was miffed over finding her screen door hanging wide open, towered over Nina. She stared down at her and then up into the tree where Katy and Audrey were now sobbing and Jacie was laughing so hard she looked as though she was having a seizure. "Is there a good reason you’re in your underpants, Nina?" she asked as she hurried over to the nearby garage and emerged with a short stepladder. "Well?" She set the ladder up at the base of the tree.

"No, ma’am," Nina answered, her fingers twisting her underwear.

Mrs. Chilton quickly grabbed Katy, who weighed next to nothing, and set her on the ground. With a deep breath and a bit more elbow grease, she helped Audrey off the tree next. "I don’t understand you children," she said. "Why can’t you play dolls like normal girls?" Her brow creased. "I can’t reach you, Jacie Ann. You’re going to have to get down on–" She was still talking when Jacie scampered down the tree and dropped onto the grass next to Nina.

Agnes blinked. "Well, then." She took in the sight of two tear-stained faces. Then her eyes flicked to Jacie, who had several bleeding nicks on her from her hasty descent, her humiliated daughter, who was trying to stretch her t-shirt over her bottom, and Gwen, who looked more frazzled than all the rest combined, and sighed. In a chipper voice she asked, "Who wants Kool-Aid?"

An hour later and safely tucked into the Chiltons’ garage, the girls sat in a tight circle recounting their adventure with enthusiasm. Nina’s back was to her father’s black Chevrolet and sore from where the branches had poked her.

Jacie finished off her Kool-Aid, not bothering to wipe away her purple moustache. "Your mom thinks we’re crazy, Nina."

Gwen nodded and Nina just shrugged. "I-I don’t care. We can still play together." Her eyes got a little intense. "Sh-she said so. Even though she doesn’t like t-t-tomboys."

"Cool," Katy interjected.

Gwen’s face took on a thoughtful expression. "I think grownups just don’t understand our club."

"I don’t think they understand anything," Jacie added, picking at a scab from an old mosquito bite on her leg.

Katy set her glass down. "We won’t be like that when we grow up."

"No way," Gwen agreed. "Hey, I know! Let’s make a pact."

Katy’s face scrunched up. "What’s that?"

She’d only learned the word the week before, though she did her best to act as though she’d been born with the knowledge. "It’s a promise. Let’s promise to never get old and stupid."

"If you don’t get old, then that means you’re dead, Gwen," Jacie reminded her reasonably, still paying more attention to her leg than anything else.

Gwen frowned. She hated it when Jacie was right. Which she usually was. "Then let’s promise that when we get old we’ll still be friends."

"What if w-we don’t l-live near each other anymore?" Nina asked, lifting the pitcher her mother had left in the garage and refilling her glass. She set it down carefully and wiped her wet fingers on Jacie’s shorts.

Jacie either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

Gwen thought for moment. "Then no matter where we live we’ll come back for a sleepover. It’s the only way."

Audrey scratched her jaw. "Grownups don’t have sleepovers unless they’re married."

"That just shows how stupid they are," Gwen shot back. "Remember the one we had last month at Katy’s house where Jacie ate too much popcorn and barfed in Nina’s shoes?"

Jacie lunged for Gwen, but a laughing Nina and Katy held her back.

Gwen lifted her nose in the air and ignored Jacie, trying not to look afraid. "Let’s promise then. When we’re old, we’ll have a sleepover."

"How old?" Katy asked, settling back into her spot after letting go of a grousing Jacie.

"Really amazingly incredibly old."

"25?" Audrey suggested.


The girls gasped.

"40?" Jacie ventured, the thought of being that shriveled up and decrepit making her wince.

"Wow," Nina murmured. "Now that’s old. That’s even older than my mom."

"Okay." Gwen nodded, satisfied. "40. Let’s swear."

Katy and Jacie’s gazes met and they shrugged. Instantly, they hurled large gobs of spit onto their hands and held out their palms while Nina and Gwen looked on in horror.

Audrey followed her cousin’s lead, but not without cringing first.

"H-how ‘bout we pinky swear?" Nina asked hopefully, her eyes pleading with Gwen.

The redhead looked so relieved Nina thought she might faint. "Good idea!" She thrust out her little finger into the air and waited until Katy, Audrey, and Jacie had wiped off their hands before crooking the digit. Then Nina had added her pinky to the mix and the girls solemnly intoned "I swear," and gave their pinkies a shake.

The deed was done.

"So, Nina," Jacie started, her eyes sparking with humor. "What color are Sunday’s panties?"

Nina blushed again and the other girls snickered and hooted, starting the "underpants" song all over again.


Present Day

Town & Country, Missouri

Mrs. Langtree?" A large hand waved in front of her face. "Where’d you go?"

Gwen’s eyes snapped up and she shook her head a little as she handed the manila folder back to Ted Gramercy. He looked a little guilty for jolting her out of her thoughts.

"I’m sorry. I drifted off there for a moment." The late afternoon sun peeked through the thin white blinds in the main office of Gramercy Investigations, painting stripes across Gwen’s yellow silk pantsuit. She moved a little in the chair, her backside numb from sitting there so long. She handed back the folder and the reports she’d spent the past hour reading. She felt like a voyeur for looking in on her old friends’ lives this way. But one of them, at least, had left her little choice. "I can’t believe you found them all so quickly."

The tall man sat back in his chair and his lips curled into a pleased smile. "It’s always someone close."

"I didn’t want to believe it could be one of them," Gwen broke in emphatically. Then she drew in a measured breath to calm herself. "It’s not easy to accept that one of the people you loved so as a child is now blackmailing you." Her grip on the email in her hands tightened.

He gently cleared his throat and gave his client what he hoped was a suitably sympathetic look. It was one he’d cultivated over the years after having to tell many a wife and husband that their spouse was indeed cheating. "I’m sure it isn’t, Mrs. Langtree. Should… umm… I understand that you want to keep this quiet, but the best way to deal with blackmail is the police. They’re the best–"


He reached out to comfort her. "I’m sorry I–"

Gwen gave him a wan smile. "I have another plan in mind. One that doesn’t risk my life going up in flames quite the way going to the police would."

He removed his hand, noting the determined eyes looking back at him. "And does Gramercy Investigations fit into this plan?"

For an answer Gwen reached into her Louis Vuitton purse and extracted four blindingly white envelopes, each one closed by a gold seal. "I want you to hand deliver these to each of the women you located, including Audrey in Utah. I need to know with absolute certainty that they received what’s inside these envelopes. And I don’t want them being returned to the house if something goes wrong with the post office or a courier."

He nodded, turning the square envelopes over in his hands. "You’re inviting your blackmailer to a wedding?" he ventured, unable to curb his curiosity.

Gwen rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Not to a wedding. Though those are invitations. I need to find out who is doing this and put a stop to it before it’s too late. They’ll all come…." Her voice gentled and nearly dropped to whisper. "No matter what happened, they promised." She swallowed thickly but quickly regained her composure. "You see I’m the oldest of the bunch and I’m having a birthday next month."

Ted Gramercy blinked slowly, still clearly bewildered.

The corner of her mouth quirked. "In a few weeks I’ll be really, incredibly, amazingly old."

He whistled through his teeth. If Gwen Langtree were what old ladies looked like nowadays, he was barking up the wrong tree with younger woman.

She stood to leave. "I’m going to be 40."

Next Part

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