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, youre forgiven," she said gently. "Tonight then?" Her smile broadened and her face took on a dreamy expression. "I cant 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. "Couldnt 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, "Ill bet you werent this grumpy with lover boy."
"Fine. Since youre in such a great mood, Ill cut right to the chase."
Katherine gave a mental groan. "Im 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. Im swamped."
"And dont forget that youre mean because youre 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 couldnt 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." Tobys voice was doubtful. "You hate them the way I hate hot dogs and cheesecake."
"Oh, God." Katherines eyes rolled back in her head. "If I could have all the cheesecake and cigarettes I wanted, sex would be irrelevant because Id 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."
"Youd 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 dont 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 cant 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 laymens 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 hadnt heard Katherines 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 didnt 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 theyre all over me like stink on shit. I paid my full payment this month!"
"No, not them. Thats what caught my eye. It was a smaller company. One Id never heard of."
Katherine could hear Toby lean forward in his chair.
"Heres 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 Tobys 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, Im 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 theyre getting back on track now. Im actually caught up and saving again."
"On your salary?"
One of Katherines eyebrows quirked. "Yes, even on my pitiful little office managers salary."
"Im sorry, Katherine." Toby winced. "I didnt 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 whos not in trouble."
She shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "Dont go there, Toby. If you dont believe what Ive told you then thats your problem."
Toby knew a "back off" when he heard one. There was something his friend wasnt 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, were 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, "Ive never heard of them."
"Well, Katherine, all I can say is that theyve sure as hell heard of you."
St. Louis, Missouri
"What are you doing here at five?" Jacies lips thinned as she unlatched the chain on her door, but pointedly didnt 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. Im just a little early to pick up Emily."
"Two and a half hours isnt 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 dont give a good God damn what youre ready for." Her jaw bunched and released as she tried to control her temper. "Its my weekend with Emily, and that doesnt end until 7:30 tonight. Thats 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. "Dont 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. "Ive changed my plans twice this month just so you could accommodate your girlfriends schedule. Im not changing today. We havent even eaten dinner yet." Her voice went a little cold. "Deal with it."
Jacie crossed her arms over her chest. "Takes one to know one."
"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 Ive 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."
"Dont take that tone with me. This is your fault, Jacie. If you hadnt left us"
Jacies eyes flashed. "I left you because you are impossible and we were all miserable. I never left Emily. Dont you dare even say that." Her words were met with a stony silence. "Come back to get our daughter at 7:30. Were going out for dinner, so dont 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-lovers 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 days work. Shed 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. "Dont worry, sweetheart. I told her that youre staying the whole visit this time. Shes 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. Theyd spent most of the afternoon on one of Jacies jobsites and then at her office. Lunch had consisted of cheese and crackers from the vending machine and sodas. "Im 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 wasnt 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.
Salt Lake City, Utah
"What do you mean shes 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. "Thats what she said. She said I love him, Papa. Im not pregnant, and weve run off to get married. Theyre 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 tonights evening newscast as nothing more than a smoldering pile of ashes on a Berber carpet. "Shes gone insane!"
Ricks head bobbed mechanically. "I want to call the police." He whimpered. "But shes 18. We cant 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 rooms neutral blue and crème décor wasnt having its intended, soothing effect. "I knew we should never have let Tina live until she turned 18! Now look whats 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 youre sorry now." She knew she was being irrational, but she couldnt 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? Ill tell you whats happened. Shes 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 wouldnt be able to meet his eyes in the hallway.
"What the hell sort of nickname is that?" Audreys brow creased again. "Hes six feet four. Doesnt he have all his fingers?"
"Yeeeeees," Rick said slowly. "Uh thats not it exactly."
"Well? Dont play 20 questions with me Rick. Im not responsible for my actions right now. You might not live through me asking you again."
A slow blush traveled up Ricks neck.
"What is wrong? I" When realization hit Audrey between the eyes, her face twisted in revulsion. "Oh my God. Thats gross! I dont want to know things like that. Ick. Ick Ick! Im the mother-in-law!"
The corner of Ricks mouth twitched upward. "I know."
Then their eyes met, and they couldnt help but burst out laughing. After a few moments, Audreys 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 wifes sturdy body and pulled her close, kissing the top of her head. The 20 pounds shed needed to lose in college had turned into 40 over the years. But she was still active and vibrant and to Ricks 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 cant stop them. We wont make it in time."
Audrey closed her eyes and let out a long sigh. "But theyre just babies."
Rick nodded. "Stupid babies who are going to need a place to live. Their dorms are not for married couples."
Audreys face darkened momentarily. Her head was spinning and she felt sick. "I dont want to take any chances on either of them dropping out of school. Youd 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 Ricks 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 Tinas tuition?"
"I can work some overtime if we cant 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 wifes voice and pressed his lips to her soft curls once again. "Shes on Cloud Nine."
Audrey was at a loss. "I dont understand," she groaned. "No one was keeping them apart. They both love school. They see each other all the time anyway. Whats the hurry to get married?"
Rick shook his head. "Youre asking me? Im sorry I let her start dating." He took a deep breath, catching a whiff of Audreys shampoo. "They dont make any sense," he mumbled.
Audrey sighed. "Theyre in love."
He took a moment to think about what shed said, then commented. "Theyre like us. Except you were not a freshman, and I had a real job. God, my poor mama." He slapped his forehead. "Im 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 theyd broken the news of their own elopement to his mother.
Audrey shifted in his arms. "Maybe we shouldnt 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 theyll 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?"
She snorted at his valiant attempt at humor. "Dont be silly. Im partial to the dark handsome types." She winked at him. "It was Jose Cuervo."
Despite himself, Rick laughed and rolled his eyes.
"Cmon. Lets 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."
"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 mothers 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.
Ninas grandmothers death hadnt been unexpected and as per the old womans 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 Ninas 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. "Wheres 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. Shed gone far too long without hearing a peep out of him and was only mildly placated by the fact that she hadnt heard a loud crash or smelled smoke yet. "Robbie," she called out as she glanced back towards the house. "Where are you?"
"Im 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 youre going to get hurt." Real worry threaded her voice and her mind flashed to a similar scene and a fall. "Come down."
Cmon, Mom. Im not so high. See?" He bobbed up and down on the branch, sending a shower of loose bark down on his mothers head.
"Now, Robbie." She fought the urge to stamp her foot. "I dont 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 wasnt quite up to her five feet six inches, and she figured she had a good couple of years left where shed 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. Hed been excited about moving from a condo into a "real" house and finally having a place to play that didnt require a trip to the park. Theyd 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 Robbies uncharacteristic silence. "But one thats not too high off the ground," she added quickly.
His head shot up, his eyes sparking with delight. "Really?"
"The neighbors wont like that, Nina," her mother warned gently, knowing full well it wouldnt do any good.
Ninas 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.
"Theyll live, Mom. And if not they can bite my butt."
"Tsk." Mrs. Chilton gave her a stern look. "I didnt 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 didnt teach you to do that, young man." Nina mimicked her mothers Missouri accent to a T.
Mrs. Chilton narrowed her eyes at her daughters 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. Hed forgotten about that.
"Arent 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 wasnt."
Robbies jaw dropped. "Mom climbed a tree?"
"Dont make it sound like a physical impossibility." Nina gave him a mock sneer. "Im 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 dont want to start coloring it."
Mrs. Chilton unconsciously ran a hand through her own, permanently light brown hair. "Youll be sorry. Remember Bob Barker when he let his real hair color come in? He looked like hed seen a horrible ghost and aged 20 years overnight. Youre a young woman. You dont want to look old, do you?"
Nina sucked in an enormous gulp of air. "Too late. Im pathetically old."
"Men dont 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. "Its 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 couldnt 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 wasnt even breathing hard and his faced was wreathed in an enormous smile.
"Thats okay, Mom. Youre 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 moms glass. He stuffed it into his mouth. "Tell me about Mom climbing a tree, Grandma." He leaned forward so he wouldnt miss a single word.
"Mom," Nina whimpered. "Shouldnt 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 dont you tell the story? Im sure your perspective would be far more exciting than mine."
"Fine. Fine." Nina sighed good-naturedly, knowing when shed been beat.
Robbie moved to the edge of the step he was perched on and settled in to listen to his mothers clear, melodic voice.
As Nina thought back, she chuckled, then blushed.
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! Youre the lookout. The smallest member of the group is always the lookout. Theyre 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 Jacies house or in Katys basement, because her house was the most central to them all. But today the Mayflower Club had gathered at Ninas. They were about to begin their daily meeting when Katy noticed Stinky, a boy from last years 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 Ninas 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 dont you let me do it?" Jacie said, already reaching for the trees 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 dont have to, Nina."
Ninas 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 trees base and quickly moved onto her hands and knees. "You can use my back for a ladder. And dont look down or youll get scared."
Nina swallowed hard. "Okay." She stood on Audreys 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 hadnt 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 shed 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?"
Ninas fair eyebrows drew together so tightly they nearly touched. "See? I thought I wasnt 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 whats 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 dont 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 cant hear you."
Tears filled Ninas 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 dont think thats it." She chewed her bottom lip. "I think shes stuck."
"Only cats get stuck up trees," Gwen decided. "Ninas 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. Somethings 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 couldnt 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 couldnt 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 Ninas back porch. "I could go tell her mom?"
"Right," Jacie grunted, her eyes still glued to the top of the tree. "Then shell just get a spanking or be grounded for sure. "
"Thats 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.
"Im going for help!" Gwen took off running towards Ninas back door.
"Im 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.
"Im coming, Nina. Hang on." Jacie tested a branch with her foot, hoping that it would hold her weight.
Nina pried her eyes open. "Jacie?"
"Thats me," she heard from somewhere below her.
"You cant fit up here," Nina told her quickly, hoping she wouldnt try to come up the same way she had. "Youre too big, Jacie. Youll 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. Shed never make it. "Ill 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 cant stand it!" she said finally, unable to take the sense of helplessness that had crept over her. "Im 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 Ninas 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 Im going, too. You can push me up and then Ill 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 Chiltons 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. "Its 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 Gwens 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.
"Were 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 Katys 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 wasnt 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. "Youd better go fast, Katy! If Audrey lands on you, youre dead for sure."
"Hey!" Audrey screamed indignantly. "Shut up, Gwen. What if I land on you?"
Gwens 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.
"Thats it, Nina!" Jacie cheered her on. She sent a far more impatient look Katys way. "Now you do that, too, you big stupid chicken!"
"You didnt call Nina a chicken," Katy complained, still refusing to move.
"Thats because she wasnt 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."
"Cmon, Katy." Even though her arms and legs were wrapped around the trunk of the tree, Audrey was losing her grip. "Youd 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 Katys.
"Im as b-b-brave as Evel Kneivel. Im 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 wasnt very far and she was elated that shed 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 Gwens 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. "Its 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 youre 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, maam," 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 dont understand you children," she said. "Why cant you play dolls like normal girls?" Her brow creased. "I cant reach you, Jacie Ann. Youre 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. Ninas back was to her fathers 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 were crazy, Nina."
Gwen nodded and Nina just shrugged. "I-I dont care. We can still play together." Her eyes got a little intense. "Sh-she said so. Even though she doesnt like t-t-tomboys."
"Cool," Katy interjected.
Gwens face took on a thoughtful expression. "I think grownups just dont understand our club."
"I dont think they understand anything," Jacie added, picking at a scab from an old mosquito bite on her leg.
Katy set her glass down. "We wont be like that when we grow up."
"No way," Gwen agreed. "Hey, I know! Lets make a pact."
Katys face scrunched up. "Whats that?"
Shed only learned the word the week before, though she did her best to act as though shed been born with the knowledge. "Its a promise. Lets promise to never get old and stupid."
"If you dont get old, then that means youre 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 lets promise that when we get old well still be friends."
"What if w-we dont 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 Jacies shorts.
Jacie either didnt notice or didnt care.
Gwen thought for moment. "Then no matter where we live well come back for a sleepover. Its the only way."
Audrey scratched her jaw. "Grownups dont have sleepovers unless theyre married."
"That just shows how stupid they are," Gwen shot back. "Remember the one we had last month at Katys house where Jacie ate too much popcorn and barfed in Ninas 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. "Lets promise then. When were old, well 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 thats old. Thats even older than my mom."
"Okay." Gwen nodded, satisfied. "40. Lets swear."
Katy and Jacies 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 cousins 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 Sundays panties?"
Nina blushed again and the other girls snickered and hooted, starting the "underpants" song all over again.
Town & Country, Missouri
"Mrs. Langtree?" A large hand waved in front of her face. "Whered you go?"
Gwens 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.
"Im 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 Gwens 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 shed 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 cant believe you found them all so quickly."
The tall man sat back in his chair and his lips curled into a pleased smile. "Its always someone close."
"I didnt want to believe it could be one of them," Gwen broke in emphatically. Then she drew in a measured breath to calm herself. "Its 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 hed cultivated over the years after having to tell many a wife and husband that their spouse was indeed cheating. "Im sure it isnt, Mrs. Langtree. Should umm I understand that you want to keep this quiet, but the best way to deal with blackmail is the police. Theyre the best"
He reached out to comfort her. "Im sorry I"
Gwen gave him a wan smile. "I have another plan in mind. One that doesnt 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 whats inside these envelopes. And I dont 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. "Youre 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 its too late. Theyll 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 Im the oldest of the bunch and Im having a birthday next month."
Ted Gramercy blinked slowly, still clearly bewildered.
The corner of her mouth quirked. "In a few weeks Ill 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. "Im going to be 40."
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