He stood in the doorway–a tall man in a suit and tie with a hopeful expression on his face. Several women stopped eating or talking to look him over, but his attention was focused on one woman, sitting by herself.
Lucky woman, they thought, as the man made his way to her table. The lucky woman’s eyes met his. And the man knew he’d lost.
The temptation to turn around and walk out was overwhelming, but after a brief hesitation, he made his way to the table where Kathy was sitting and slid onto the seat across from her.
Her lips moved in a tentative smile of welcome, but her eyes were solemn. A solemnity in direct contrast to the gaiety of freckles dusted across her nose and the bright copper of her hair.
“Charles. Thank you so much for coming. And thank you for the flowers. They’re gorgeous.”
“I just wanted to set the record straight.” That he was in love with her, even if she wasn’t in love with him.
And clearly she wasn’t, even though she didn’t say the I’m so sorry that hovered delicately along the edges of what she was saying.
He had done the right thing, hadn’t he? But then, once he’d discovered that Kathy loved someone she was estranged from, he’d had only two choices–stick it out and hope for the best, or cut his losses. Except, given the someone had turned out to be his best friend, he’d had one other option. The option he’d chosen and now regretted.
Kathy lowered her gaze. “Alan came to see me.”
“I know. He called me.”
“You’re good friends, aren’t you.”
She picked up a knife and began fiddling with it. “Then you must have known Meg.”
Surprising how much it still hurt to be reminded of Meg, but she’d been his friend as well as Alan’s wife. “She was his whole world. When he lost her…”
Kathy sat silently, waiting no doubt for him to continue, but he was finished.
“How…d‑do you know how she died?”
No way was he going to be the one to answer that question. “You’re taking a hell of a chance, Kathy Jamison.”
“I don’t understand.”
Her eyes, wide and guileless, tipped him into agony. “You’ll always be second best with Alan. He doesn’t have a free heart. But I do.”
Seeing the shock on her face, he realized he’d done an awful thing. But he wasn’t sorry, not if it gave him another chance with her.
She laid a hand on his arm. “I am so sorry. It seems I don’t have a free heart either.”
Flinching from her touch, he struggled to summon the cool persona that stood him in such good stead with juries. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride, wouldn’t they.” He stopped, to pull in a breath to expand a chest and throat that were tight with pain. Then he forced the rest of the words out while he was still capable of speaking. “Thank you, for meeting with me. For not leaving me hanging.”
“You’re a good man, Charles Larimore. Any woman in her right mind would find it so easy to love you.”
“Just my luck, you aren’t in your right mind.” He maintained the light tone and even appended a smile, but it was one of the most difficult things he’d ever done. He picked up her hand and rubbed his thumb gently across her palm. The knowledge it was the last time he would touch her almost did him in.
Looking troubled, she met his gaze. “What about you and Alan?”
“We’ll be fine. Might take awhile.” Not that he believed it. “You know, I’m really not very hungry all of a sudden.” He released her hand and stood. “You and Alan…just be happy, okay?” Without waiting for a response, he turned and walked quickly, blindly, out of the restaurant.
The whole thing was his own damn fault. After all, he was the one who’d helped Kathy and Alan reconcile.
And lost them both.
Luz made it through the funeral in the daze that had descended on her with her step‑aunt’s phone call. Her parents dead. In an auto accident. So abruptly and inconceivably that she still didn’t totally believe it. Except some part of her must be beginning to accept, because the world had turned dark and frightening.
She longed to lock herself in her room, huddle under the covers and give in to the grief that had wrapped around her so tightly she wondered why she was still able to move.
When she responded to the words of condolence, her voice sounded odd, as if her words were coming from a deep, hollow place. People hugged her, and their tears wet her cheeks, but she refused to cry.
The only thing forcing a normality she no longer believed in were her brother and sister. Marisol, only six, had some inkling, although she still didn’t really understand she was never going to see Mami and Papi again, but Carlito, still an infant, had no idea what had happened. He still gurgled and smiled when she picked him up.
She made sure he was fed and dry, washed and clothed, hugged and cooed back at, surprised she could manage it.
For Marisol and Carlito’s sake, she pretended everything was going to be okay, and she was beginning to hope that might eventually be true when her step‑uncle, Martin Blair, stopped by the house two days after the funeral.
With him was a woman with a barracuda smile who wore a tailored suit and carried a designer briefcase. The two settled themselves in the living room.
“We have arrangements to make, Luz,” Martin said.
Arrangements? Like they had to make for the funeral? But Martin hadn’t even asked her opinion, or she would have told him Mami disliked the hymn “On Eagles’ Wings” intensely.
“What arrangements?” Dammit, couldn’t she manage two words without them wobbling?
“Ms. Ross from Children’s Services is here to explain where Carlito and Marisol will be living.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. They’re going to live here with me.”
“Now, Luz, you know that just isn’t possible.”
No, she didn’t know that. Spots danced in front of her eyes, and her voice continued to betray her. “Why not? They’re my brother and sister. And this is our home.”
Ross and Martin’s faces wavered, and the edges of Luz’s vision darkened. She’d begun to float, when a sharp pressure on her arm and a push on the back of her neck jerked her back to earth.
“Here, keep your head down. Now, take a deep breath.” The tucked and tailored Ms. Ross pushed on her neck with more efficiency than sympathy.
Luz kept her head down, and gradually the ringing in her ears subsided to be replaced by Martin’s voice.
“…parents’ names, of course, but the bank owns a big piece of it.” He sighed, still trying for sympathy no doubt. “I hate to have to be the one to tell you this, Luz, but there’s no money.”
Blinking, she sat up and pushed Ms. Ross away. “What do you mean there’s no money?”
“Sweetheart, I know this is a lot to take in all at once so soon after losing your parents. But I’m the executor, and I’ve already accessed all the bank accounts. There’s very little in them. And lots of debts. The funeral alone wiped out–”
“No!” Luz didn’t believe it. Some people lived on every penny, but not Mami and Papi. Especially not Papi, who had arrived in Scottsbluff with Luz and nothing else. Besides, when they’d discussed where she would go to college, Papi had told her his business was doing well, as was Mami’s practice. They could afford to send her to Colorado College. Even if she hadn’t won the scholarship, he said they’d be able to swing it.
“We’ll talk about all that later,” Martin said. “What we need to talk about right now are Carlito and Marisol.”
“Yes,” Ms. Ross added, after Martin nudged her with a look. “We’ll try to find them a foster home together, of course, but there are no guarantees.”
“Of course, dear,” Ms. Ross said. “Since you’ll be away at school, you won’t have to go into foster care yourself. But I know Judge Smale very well, and he would never grant custody for two young children to an underage sibling.”
Underage? She was nineteen, dammit. Old enough to get married, have her own children.
Judge Smale had to be an idiot.
She sat with her mouth hanging open as the significance of what they were saying sank in. No money, which she found impossible to believe. And even more impossible, they planned to take Marisol and Carlito away from her and make them live with strangers. She wanted to howl, but she was too stunned.
“So. We need to set a time for me to pick the children up. I’d like them to be ready tomorrow morning. You’ll pack their things, of course.”
The gall, the insensitivity, the idiocy, the evil. Luz ran out of labels for the outrage she felt. Martin was formidable, and she suspected this Ms. Ross was no pushover either. Highly unlikely she’d be able to change either of their minds.
The only option then was to pretend to go along with it.
She dabbed at her eyes. “Tomorrow morning would be awfully difficult.” The tears were ones of rage, not sorrow, but she doubted either Martin or Ms. Ross could tell the difference. “I promised Marisol I’d take her riding tomorrow. This has been so hard on all of us.” She continued to mop up tears, her brain going into overdrive as she tried to read how they were responding.
“I can have them ready for you Thursday. Please. I’d like this last chance, to, to–” A sob that was totally genuine cut off her words. Through the tears, she tried to gauge how her request was being viewed. Her step‑uncle appeared annoyed, but Ms. Ross was attempting a compassionate look. A definite stretch.
“I’ll compromise with you,” Ms. Ross said with a quick glance at Martin. “You can go for your ride in the morning. I’ll pick the children up at two.”
Would Martin buy a quick capitulation, or would he be suspicious?
He looked irritably at his watch, and Luz decided she didn’t need to lay it on any thicker. He’d bought her cooperation act, likely because he found it impossible to believe she would cross him.
As soon as Martin and Ms. Ross were gone, Luz put Carlito down for a nap. She came back to the living room and was surprised to find Marisol asleep on the couch. She hoped Marisol hadn’t overheard, or if she had, that she hadn’t understood what Ms. Ross’s visit was about.
While Marisol and Carlito slept, Luz went methodically through the house collecting items and moving them into the trunk of her mother’s car. First were the photo albums, but she also took linens, towels, kitchen supplies, a cooler filled with food, all of Marisol and Carlito’s clothes and Carlito’s stroller and high chair. She ran the dirty clothes through the laundry and added them to the growing pile of things in the trunk, all the activity giving her some relief from the rage and fear Martin had left behind.
As she packed, she thought about where they’d go and what they’d do for money. Then she remembered that Papi kept cash in the bottom drawer of his dresser, something she’d discovered while playing dress‑up years ago.
With a sigh of relief, she found the black wallet had $320 in it. It wouldn’t take them far, but it would get them out of Scottsbluff and give her time to plan.
She also pocketed the credit card she found with the money, then she gathered together Mami’s jewelry and went through Papi’s desk. Among her finds were the title to Mami’s car, Marisol and Carlito’s birth certificates, and her own birth certificate and citizenship papers. Running out of time, she piled the remaining files into a couple of boxes.
By the time Carlito and Marisol woke up, she had the car packed. She played quietly with the children until dinnertime, and after dinner, she bathed them and got them dressed in their nightclothes. By then, exhausted, she curled up with Marisol in their parents’ bed and managed to doze until midnight. The alarm woke her, and she drank a cup of instant coffee and forced herself to eat a sandwich.
Carlito didn’t awaken when she carried him to the car, and Marisol awoke only briefly. She backed down the driveway, heart thudding, and drove a block before turning on her lights. The gas tank was half‑full, so she went to the nearest station and filled it, charging it to the credit card.
She was removing the nozzle from the gas tank when a car pulled in behind her. Her nerves stuttered, but the driver, a tired‑looking woman in a waitress uniform, barely glanced at her. Sighing with relief, Luz got back in the car, and then with a burst of inspiration drove to the nearest cash machine and put the credit card in. As a pin, she entered the date Papi and Mami got married. The number worked, but the machine gave her only two hundred dollars. Still, it was a welcome addition to her tiny stash.
She left town, heading southwest, toward Denver. Maybe this was the wrong thing to do–running away. But she could see no other choice. She had to get away from Scottsbluff where Martin was in control.
The glow from the lights of Scottsbluff snuffed out behind her, and in the dark, reaction set in. All the fear and uncertainty she’d ignored since this afternoon began spinning inside her, making her nauseated. Not wanting to pull over and stop, she lowered the window. The cool night wind dried her tears and gradually the nausea abated.
It was still dark when they arrived in Denver. Technically, she supposed, she was now a kidnapper, and since she’d crossed state lines, not only Martin but the Nebraska police and the Feds would likely be looking for her.
She pushed the thought and the terror it brought with it away, focusing instead on the immediate–calming Marisol when she awoke to find herself in a place she didn’t recognize, stopping to feed Carlito and change his diaper, searching for an inconspicuous place to have breakfast.
She found an inexpensive motel on the outskirts of Denver, and they stayed there until she sold the car. The silver Lexus was bought by a young executive who was thrilled with his bargain and not inclined to ask many questions.
With the money she got for the car, she had a cushion, but it wasn’t going to last long. The steady outflow for rent and food was depleting her resources at a frightening pace.
She moved to a dingy residential hotel near a library and bus line and went to the library every day to read the newspapers. After they’d been in Denver two months, she found the ad for the Draper Arms. Wanted: Married couple to live‑in and manage twenty‑unit apartment building. In return for rent, said couple would be responsible for minor repairs, the cleaning and painting of units prior to rental, the maintenance of the laundry room, etc.
She took Marisol and Carlito with her to the interview, both to give weight to her claim to be one‑half of a married couple, but also because she had no choice.
The elderly man interviewing her smiled with genuine pleasure at both children. “My, my. Seems you’ve got yourself a handful there.” He stuck out a finger for Carlito to grab.
“Oh. Yes. But actually, you see, Marisol will start school as soon as we get settled, and Carlito is such a darling. He’s really no trouble. And I’m a very good manager.” She snapped her mouth shut, trying to clamp down on the nerves that were making her prattle.
“I’m quite certain you are, my dear. But an old building like this, it always seems like the toilets overflow in the middle of the night.”
“I’m a very light sleeper. Well, with a baby, I have to be.”
“And sometimes it takes a bit of muscle. Getting too old for that part myself. That’s why I thought maybe a resident manager would be good. I’m hoping to find a handyman type.”
Luz’s heart sank. She didn’t want to lie, but it seemed she had no choice. “Oh, the kids’ dad is really strong. He’d have come with me today, but he’s away on business. He’ll help with any heavy lifting, of course. As far as repairs, though, I’m better at that than he is. I worked in my family’s landscaping business for years so I learned to do all kinds of things. Plumbing, electricity, small engines, painting. Well, you name it. And I’ll be available on‑site practically all the time.” Stop it, Luz. You sound desperate. You don’t want to sound desperate. It just makes people suspicious.
She shifted Carlito, who was happily sucking on his fist, and smiled at the old man with what she hoped looked like confidence.
He frowned, looking back at her. The silence stretched until she was afraid she was going to start nattering again. Then he started to nod. “You seem a determined young woman. I like that. And your kids are well‑behaved. Neat. Clean.” He continued to nod.
She kept her mouth shut and crossed her fingers.
“Okay. I’m willing to give this a trial. Apartment 4D is empty, so you can move in today if you like. It’s a two‑bedroom. Nothing fancy, you understand.”
She sighed with relief. She didn’t know what she would have done if he’d insisted on references.