It was a beautiful autumn day, too nice really to be indoors, but Myra Rutledge had already been out with the dogs. She'd even made a trip to town to run some errands and stopped to have a solitary, boring lunch. At the moment, she couldn't remember what it was she'd eaten. She looked around her beautiful country kitchen and wished, not for the first time, that she had some kind of culinary expertise. She'd wished so many things lately, and none of her wishes had come true; nor were they likely to come true. Sad.
Oh, how she missed what she called the old days, when she and the girls were righting justice, vigilante-style. The "girls," meaning Nikki, Alexis, Kathryn, Isabelle, and Yoko. But as Charles said, all good things must come to an end. She'd argued the point, as had Annie, but Charles had held firm with his words. After he'd bandied about the word old at least a hundred times. Possibly more, until she and Annie had run him off with the broom. He'd retired to his lair in the catacombs, also known as the War Room, beneath the house. Which hadn't changed a thing. At that time. Now, though, it was a different story.
Myra fingered the pearls around her neck, her great-grandmother's heirloom pearls, which she was never without. Her intention had always been to leave the pearls to her daughter Barbara, but that was impossible now. With Barbara's death years ago, her life had changed, and so would the legacy of her pearls. Maybe she'd just donate them to some charity and let it sell them off for whatever they could get.
A heavy gust of wind sent a cascade of brilliant-colored leaves sailing across the backyard. Myra debated a moment as to whether she should go outside and collect a bouquet for the kitchen table. She shrugged and decided that the chrysanthemums in the bright purple bowl on the table still had some life in them.
Myra shivered as she looked across the room at the thermostat. She walked over and turned it up. She flopped down at the kitchen table. The dogs came running, not understanding what was going on with their mistress. She fondled all of them and babbled away about everything and nothing. She missed the girls and the boys, but most of all she missed Annie, whom she had seen every day until Annie went to Las Vegas two days ago. She usually stayed ten days or two weeks, which always left a huge void in Myra's life.
The bottom line was that she was bored out of her mind and had no clue what to do to occupy herself. She could, she supposed, go down to the tunnels and pester Charles, who was writing his memoirs; but he'd make short work of her. She knew that because she'd tried the trick on other days. Writing a memoir such as Charles's had to be tough going since he'd been at it over four years. She had no idea why he was even bothering since he had to be so careful to change names, dates, and places so as not to incriminate anyone. In the end, what was the point? Whatever it was, it kept Charles busy, which was more than she could say for herself. Maybe she needed to write her own memoirs. Like there would be a market for her life story! Then again ...
The dogs suddenly tensed, the fur on the back of their necks standing on end. Visitors? Intruders? They ran to the door as Myra looked up at the security monitor over the kitchen door. A car was whizzing through the opened gates. Someone with the combination. "Annie!" Myra shouted, as she opened the door and ran outside. "Oh, dear God, you are home!"
Annie hugged Myra. "You missed me that much, eh?"
"I did. I do. I was sitting here going out of my mind missing you and feeling so very sorry for myself. I wasn't expecting you for at least a week."
"I knew you would be missing me, so I decided to come back."
"They kicked you out again?"
Annie laughed. "They can't kick me out; I own the joint. Things just go to hell when I'm there for some reason. This time, though, I thought I had it made. I tried sneaking in. Damn if they didn't know I was there before I even arrived. Does that make sense, Myra?"
"Since Bert Navarro took over as head of security, wind couldn't get through a crack. We have better security than the White House with all those Secret Service agents. If you have secrets, Vegas is the place to be. Which brings me back to what I was saying—they knew I was there before I even got there. It ticks me off. I won seventy-three dollars on my way out of the casino. Do you want to go to lunch? My treat?"
"Anytime one of the richest women in the world wants to buy me lunch, you won't hear me declining the invitation. Where would you like to go?"
"Stop with that rich stuff, Myra. You have as much money as I have, and if the bill is over seventy-three dollars, you're paying the balance."
"Deal. What's wrong, Annie? I can read you like a book."
"Let's get a few drinks under our belts and talk then. Anything going on since I left?"
"Not a thing. Same old same old. The leaves are almost all down. I think there's supposed to be a harvest moon tonight. Before you know it, there will be frost on the pumpkins. I planted some pumpkins just to see if they'd grow. I have six or seven of a good size for the front porch, and Charles will have enough for pies at Thanksgiving."
"That's it! That's your news! Three days is a long time. Seventy-two hours to be precise. I can't believe nothing happened in seventy-two hours."
"Sorry to say it is what it is. I haven't even heard from the girls since you left. How was Bert? Did you meet with him?"
"He's fine and yes, we met for a drink. He likes the job. He hired a new man a while back who has his own story. I met him and gave my seal of approval to his employment. What that means is Bert has more free time with an extra set of eyes and hands. Having said that, according to Bert, there is never a dull moment. He said Kathryn makes it back to Vegas just about every weekend. Things are okay between the two of them since he's accepted the idea that Kathryn doesn't want to get married, not now, not ever. Once he crossed that hurdle and truly accepted it, he's less stressed, and they just enjoy each other's company for what it is instead of tiptoeing around each other. I didn't see Kathryn. Bert said she was due tomorrow. She thrives on driving that eighteen-wheeler, but then we all knew that.
"He's quite pleased with himself about Harry's agreeing to come to train his troops, as he calls them. Like I said, we have better security than the White House. Does that boggle your mind, Myra?"
"Yes, it does. Kathryn's young, Annie. The young thrive on adventure, and driving overland is an adventure. It's also survival for Kathryn, so we can't fault her. You keep forgetting we're old now. We can't do things like that anymore."
"Says you," Annie snapped indignantly. "Age is a number. Nothing more."
Myra looked at Annie, her eyes sad. "We have to be realistic, my friend. You can't stop the aging process no matter how hard you try, and I know you're trying very hard, Annie. Now, why don't you tell me why you really came back home after only three days, and don't try that trick about how they kicked you out, because I'm not buying it."
Annie stared out the kitchen window at the colorful leaves blowing in all directions. Like Myra, autumn was her favorite time of year. She poured a cup of coffee and carried it to the table. "I didn't realize I was that transparent."
Myra's voice turned gentle. "Annie, whatever it is, you can tell me. We've always told each other everything. You know I'm a good listener, and you also know I am not judgmental. Except for that time with the pole dancing," Myra said defensively.
"My eyelashes are falling out."
"What? That's why you came back from Vegas, because your eyelashes are falling out! Everyone's eyelashes fall out, and new ones grow. You can get new ones. I saw it on TV. I don't want to hear that your toenails are yellow, either. That's why they make nail polish. Cut to the chase, Annie."
"Fergus left. He's gone."
Myra's eyes popped wide. "Where did he go?"
"Home. To Scotland. To his family that he has been estranged from for years and years."
"What changed, Annie? Did something happen or change that you didn't tell me about?" She watched the tremor in Annie's hands as she brought her coffee cup to her lips. "You can tell me," she said gently.
"I was blindsided, Myra. I didn't see it coming. And, yes, something did happen, but I promised not to say anything to anyone. When your partner confides in you, you have to keep that private, and a promise is a promise. Fergus won the Irish Sweepstakes. It was a lot of money. I don't know why or how he thought he could keep it a secret, but he did. Somehow, his children got wind of it, and they started making overtures toward him. Blood is thicker than water. We both know that, Myra. It wasn't that he didn't want to share his winnings with his children; he did. The first thing he did was set up trusts for the children and grandchildren. I encouraged him to do that. I'm not sure in my own mind that he would have done it if I hadn't pressured him into it. Regardless, it's water under the bridge now. He's gone."
"Is he coming back?"
"I doubt it."
"How do you feel about that, Annie?"
"Well, Myra, I understand it, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. I would never, ever, stand in the way of a family's reuniting. Nor would you. We both know how important family is since we both lost ours. It is what it is. The sun will come up tomorrow, and that same sun will set later in the day. Life goes on."
"So does that mean you're okay going it alone? Did he ask you to go with him, Annie?"
"No, Myra, he did not ask me to go with him. It's easy for me to say now that I would have declined, but back in that moment of time, I don't honestly know what I would have done or said had he asked me."
"Is there anything I can do, Annie?"
"Not a damn thing, my friend. I have to work this out myself. Right now, I'm up for some action."
"Well, my dear, you've come to the wrong place if you expected action here at the farm. Unless you count taking the dogs out or riding over to Nellie's to watch paint dry. She's having her house painted as we speak. Pearl Barnes is laid up with a bad case of gout and is meaner than a wet cat, so we can't visit her. Martine, our esteemed ex-president, is in Dubai or some damn place with a lot of sand doing something or other. She left yesterday morning. It's just us, Annie. We can't even count on Charles to entertain us because he's deep into his memoirs and only comes up to cook and most of the times he ... God, Annie, I'm almost ashamed to say this, but he's been using a Crock-Pot since it does all the work. I'm getting sick of one-pot meals. I might actually have to try my hand with a cookbook."
"Well, that sucks. Everything sucks. Don't mind me, Myra, I'm just cranky. I took the red-eye, and I haven't had any sleep."
"Do you want to skip lunch, go home, and take a nap? Or you could go up to your room here. We could go out for dinner and skip that mess bubbling in that pot on the counter."
"No, I want to do lunch. That seventy-three dollars I won is burning a hole in my pocket. Get your jacket, and let's go. Do you have to tell Charles you're going?"
"You know what, Annie? He won't even know we're gone. He won't be coming up here to check on anything. Like I said, that stupid Crock-Pot does it all."
"Fergus was a good cook, much better than me. I might have to look into a Crock-Pot."
Myra rolled her eyes as she slipped into her jacket. The four dogs lined up, expectant looks in their eyes. "Nope. You're staying home, guys. Here's a chew. See you in a little while. Do not chew anything else while I'm gone."
The dogs, as one, looked at Annie, who burst out laughing. "Sorry, guys, I have no jurisdiction here."
"Hold on, Annie, someone is at the gate. I can't see who it is other than that it's a woman," Myra said, when the dogs rushed to the door. She eyed the monitor and frowned. "I think ... it almost looks like Maggie." Myra pressed a button on the panel by the back door, and the electronic gate swung open. "It is Maggie!"
Myra and Annie followed the mad rush of the dogs to get through the open door. "You wanted some action, Annie! Looks like we just got some. Oh, good Lord, the girl is crying!"
Maggie Spitzer barreled out of the car, stopping to pet each dog before she ran into Myra and Annie's outstretched arms all the while sobbing, as if her heart was breaking.
Back in the kitchen, both Myra and Annie fussed like two mother hens over Maggie, crooning and cooing to their younger charge as they asked questions. Annie moved to make tea, the universal cure-all to everything in life as far as she was concerned. That it never helped was of no consequence. The bottom line was that when someone was in acute distress, you made tea. Tea was the magic elixir to everything. Period. Bottom line.
"Please, Maggie, stop crying. I can't understand a word you're saying. We can't help you if you don't tell us what's wrong, dear," Myra said.
Maggie sniffled, then blew her nose in a wad of paper towels Annie held out. She gulped, took several deep breaths, and blurted out her turmoil in one long, sobbing sentence. Gus Sullivan, her husband, had died ten months ago in Afghanistan when he had been called to help out with a security company.
"Ten months ago!" Annie and Myra cried in unison.
"And you're just telling us now! Why?" Myra demanded, as Annie urged the young woman to drink the tea in front of her.
"I didn't ... I couldn't ... I was in shock at first. Then I got angry because Gus didn't have to go. He wanted to go. Even in the condition he was in, which wasn't all that good health-wise. He was in constant pain, and there was nothing more the doctors could do for him. All he said was, 'I'm a soldier. I have to do this. They need me.' He didn't think twice because some damn company wanted him as a consultant. He didn't even ask me if I was okay with it, he just agreed. We had a horrible fight, and he left. He just packed a duffel. Someone came to pick him up, and he waved goodbye. He waved! Do you believe that? He waved good-bye. No kiss good-bye. I didn't see it coming. I felt like I was ... blindsided, for want of a better term. Six weeks later, the same person who picked Gus up came to the farm and gave me the news, along with his gear. They said there wasn't ... there wasn't enough of him left to send home for burial. It was a roadside bomb."
"Darling girl, why didn't you call us? We would have rushed to you on winged feet. Did you go through this alone? Was anyone there for you? Oh, Maggie, we are so sorry," Myra said, wrapping the young woman in her arms. She looked up at Annie, whose eyes were wet.
"The girls. Did you tell the girls?" Annie finally managed to ask.
"No. I felt so guilty I couldn't bear to be around anyone. By then I knew I had fallen out of love with Gus. I called Ted in the middle of the night, and he helped a lot. He was there for me. He even came to see me once during ... the worst of it. The only other thing I did was call Gus's nephew, his only living relative, and told him about Gus's death, and turned over the kennel and the farm to him. He came in a heartbeat, and things finalized the other day. I had nowhere else to go, so here I am. I need a job. Are there any openings at the paper? I'll do anything, even maintenance if that's all that's available. I kept my old house in Georgetown and paid the taxes, but there's a tenant in there I'll have to ask to move."
"Ted knew. He never said a word," Annie said in a disbelieving voice.
"Because I asked him not to. I wasn't in a good place, Annie. I wasn't up to making decisions. It was Ted's idea to turn the farm and the kennel over to Gus's nephew, and the sooner the better. I would like to think that I would have done it somewhere down the road, but having Ted help me was even better. He would check on me six or seven times a day."
"Ted is a good man," Myra said gently.
Excerpted from BLINDSIDED by FERN MICHAELS. Copyright © 2013 MRK Productions. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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