In The Victim's Shadow

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Chapter 16

Katherine was sorting papers on her desk when John stuck his head in and said, “Quitting time, you workaholic.”

Katherine looked at her watch. “I didn’t realize it was that late.”

“Are you hungry?”

“Starved,” she said.

“I’ll buy you dinner.”

“It’s my turn.”

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” John smiled. “Really. My treat.”

Katherine stood and walked around the desk, to join him. She held up her hands in defeat. “Okay.”

John lifted her coat from the coat rack beside the door and helped her on with it. She laughed. “It feels like you’re courting me.”

John laughed nervously. “Don’t be absurd.”

Peter’s words came back to him again. Wake up boy, before she gets away.

“Would that be so bad?” He tried to make it a teasing tone, but he wanted a serious answer.

They were walking down the stairs and had come to the second floor. She stopped and smiled at him, looking him over. She grasped his jaw in her hand, turning his face from side to side. “Good, solid, firm face.” She poked his midsection. “Not bad,” she said, grinning. “I guess it wouldn’t be that bad.”

She laughed and trotted off. He followed her, yelling, “Not bad? I work hard for this form.”

They were still laughing when they arrived at the restaurant. Henry greeted them with a warm, friendly wave and a quick hug for Katherine.

“Where have you guys been? I’ve been worried about you.”

Katherine and John exchanged a wry grin. “You know you eat out too often when the waiter at the restaurant misses you,” Katherine said, chuckling.

They took their usual seats. Henry turned to walk away. “I’d like to see a menu,” John said.

Henry turned back to them, a shocked expression on his face. “Menu? You never want to see a menu. You always order the sea bass.”

“Well, not tonight. Tonight’s different.” He smiled at Katherine, a tender, compassionate smile. She blushed, lowering her eyes demurely.

Henry looked between the two of them. “Wait, you guys aren’t on a date, are you?” When neither of them corrected him, he said, “Oh, my God. This can’t be happening.”

He rushed off, laughing. Katherine looked at John. “Is that what this is, John? Is this a date?”

“Do you want it to be a date?”

“I asked you first.”

John looked thoughtful. “Your dad said something to me that’s been bothering me.”

“My dad says plenty of things that bother me.”

He shook his head, chuckled. He knew she joked. Peter Winters was one of the nicest, most generous men John had ever met. “Let me ask you a question.” She raised her eyebrows in consent. “If you have a bad day at work and want to vent to someone—whom do you call?”

She didn’t hesitate with an answer. “You.”

“Who is the first person you think of when you win a big case?”

“You.”

“When you want a date for the movies…”

She sighed. “You.”

He raised his eyebrows at her. “Do you see a pattern here?”

“Yes, John, but we’re best friends. Best friends do that sort of stuff.”

They stared at each other for a moment. “What kinds of friends make the best spouses?”

She took her time with her answer, thinking back over the years at the many times John comforted her, smiled at her, encouraged her. Then flashes of her parents rushed through her mind…her father comforting her mother, smiling at her, encouraging her. Lowering her voice, almost to a whisper, she said, “Best friends.”

Henry returned with John’s menu. Neither of them looked up as Henry put the menu in John’s hand. Katherine said, “Henry, I’ll have a menu, too. I also want to try something new tonight.”

In the courtroom the next day, Katherine could barely concentrate. Her mind kept wandering to the previous night’s dinner.

“Ms. Winters,” the judge said.

Katherine shook her head. “I’m sorry, Your Honor?”

“It’s your witness.”

Katherine looked over at Brenda Cooper, who gave her an impatient glare. She nodded toward the witness stand.

Katherine slowly approached the bench. “Mr. Cooper,” she began, “How long have you and Mrs. Cooper been married?”

Allen Cooper looked at Brenda. “Ten years.”

“Was she a good wife?”

He shrugged. “She could have been better.”

The audience laughed.

“Was she a good mother?”

“No! In fact, she’s the one who is putting the children in danger. That’s what I’m trying to make everyone see.” He turned toward the judge. “I’m telling the truth!”

Katherine jolted in surprise but recovered quickly. She approached her table, withdrew a stack of papers, and approached the bench. She looked at her opposing attorney, and then at the judge. “These are copies of what I submitted for evidence.” She handed them to Allen Cooper.

“Mr. Cooper, please read aloud some of the headlines.”

He looked down at the papers. A flash of anger crept into his face.

“Please, Mr. Cooper, read them.”

“Local mother wins an award for her campaign to end schoolyard bullying.” He flipped the next page. “Local mother and daughter team take the lead in the most Girl Scout cookies sold.”

“And the next page,” Katherine said.

“Local mother steps forward when Cub Scout Pack 31 found itself leaderless.” He handed them back to Katherine. “That doesn’t make her a good mother.”

“No?” Katherine asked.

She handed him another paper. “Read the headline, Mr. Cooper.”

“Local businessman is under investigation for illegal gambling.”

“Whose name is listed in the body of the paragraph?”

He didn’t even look at the paper when he answered her. “My name.”

“So, let me get this straight. All the articles about your wife show a strong commitment to the community while your article shows illegal activity. This evidence clearly shows who the better parent to raise these children is, wouldn’t you say?”

At that moment, the door burst open, and a frenzied woman and two young children flew through the door.

The children, excited, scanned the room, spotted their target and ran toward the witness box amidst emotional cries of, “Daddy!”

Allen Cooper stepped out of the box and met his children halfway across the room. After hugging them fiercely, he stepped back, looked them both over and asked, “Are you guys all right?”

“Yes, Daddy,” they cried in unison.

Katherine looked from Brenda Cooper, who clearly looked angry, to Allen Cooper displaying immense emotional concern for the children.

He turned toward Katherine, “To answer your question, Ms. Winters, newspapers lie.” He scooped up the children and headed for the courtroom exit.

Brenda jumped from her seat and ran after them.

The judge rapped her gavel, cried, “Mr. Cooper, come back here!”

Allen turned toward the judge and said, “Pardon me please, Your Honor. I need to verify the wellbeing of my children.”

The judge hesitated, looked at both attorneys, who stood frozen in place, and said, “Court adjourned until nine a.m. Both of you see that no fireworks explode in the hallway.” She rose from the bench and exited to her chambers.

Katherine looked at Blair Bryant and began to follow her client. When they entered the hallway, Allen Cooper was clutching his children, who stood frozen—their white, pale little faces streaked with tears while Brenda Cooper yelled fierce threats about violating restraining orders. A bailiff stood at the ready, waiting for directions.

“What is going on here?” Katherine asked.

“He did this on purpose,” Brenda accused, “to make me look bad.”

“I did no such thing,” Allen protested.

John nudged Katherine, pointed at the young woman who had brought in the children.

“Who is she?” Katherine asked.

Having forgotten the woman, they all looked at her. “She’s the children’s nanny,” Brenda said. “What are you doing here, Lisa? You shouldn’t have brought the children here.”

Lisa stepped forward. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Cooper. I didn’t know what else to do. I called all the relief numbers, but nobody was home. There has been an emergency in my family. It is my mother—she has had a stroke. I must fly home immediately.”

“That’s just great. What am I supposed to do while you’re gone?”

They all snapped their heads toward Brenda, who blushed, suddenly realizing how insensitive she sounded.

Mr. Cooper stood, walked over to Lisa and held open his arms. Lisa stepped immediately into them and began to sob. “Shhh…” he soothed, stroking her head as if she were one of his children. “It’s okay, Lisa. We’ll manage everything while you’re gone.” He looked down into her stricken eyes. “Are you packed?” She nodded. “Good. Then you go straight to the airport. My jet will be waiting for you. Are you okay to drive?” She nodded again, turned and fled.

Allen took out his cell phone and gave instructions to someone about Lisa’s flight.

Brenda, exasperated, grabbed an arm of each child and pulled it toward her. She stalked off without a farewell. The children yelled and tried to pull free from her grasp.

Allen, an eruption of anger exploding from within, screamed, “For God’s sake, Brenda, let me talk to them at least.”

She let go of their arms, and they flew back to their father. He stooped down to their level, cradled a head on each shoulder and soothed them in the same manner he had just used on Lisa.

“It’s okay, sweeties. You go with Mommy right now, and soon you’ll be with me.”

The girl turned her stunning blue eyes toward her father. “Promise, Daddy?”

He looked at Katherine, and she could see the longing for the truth to be there. “I promise,” he said.

Katherine winced. Was it fair of him to make such a promise?

He stood, and the children obediently walked to their mother but did not accept the offered hands she presented.

Katherine watched them walk away, the children looking back over their shoulders every few steps.

Allen Cooper looked at Katherine again, said nothing, and brushed past her.

As Katherine and John began to leave the courthouse, Lisa stepped out from around a corner, where clearly she had been hiding.

“Lisa.” Katherine said, startled.

She thrust a piece of paper into Katherine’s hand. “Dig deeper,” she said and ran off.

Katherine looked at John, who shrugged. She opened the slip of paper. “It just says Sanford Arms. What do you suppose this means?”

“I don’t know. A better question is why would Lisa give us this clue, and why be so secretive about it?”

“She’s probably afraid of Allen.”

John shook his head. “She certainly didn’t look afraid of him.”

“Maybe our friend Google knows.” She took a picture of the note and sent it off to Beth with instructions to see what she could find out about Sanford Arms.

Katherine looked at John. “I see the wheels turning.”

“I’m just wondering. What do you think about the children’s reaction toward their mother?”

“I’m wondering the same thing. Clearly, they prefer their father.”

“I’m thinking they not only prefer their father, but they fear their mother.”

“I’m afraid you’re right,” Katherine said. “John, I’m beginning to wish I had listened to you when you tried to warn me about taking this case.”

He gave her a smug look but let her off the hook. “Where are you off to now?”

“Shopping for Beth’s birthday present.”

“Hey, I need to do that, too. Do you mind if I tag along?”

“You just want me to pick out the present for you.”

John frowned. “I have no idea what to get her.”

Katherine smiled. “I’d love the company.”

As they walked from the courthouse, John hesitantly asked, “Will you be my date at the beach party?”

Katherine lowered her shoulders. “I wish I could, but I kind of already made other arrangements.”

He looked surprised. “I hadn’t realized you were seeing anyone, and then at dinner the other night…well, I just thought we had a connection.”

Katherine, seeing his discomfort, placed her arm through his. “I made the plans before our dinner the other night.”

John took a deep breath, releasing it in relief.

“How about you be my secret date,” she offered as a compromise. “In fact, you can be my co-host.”

He laughed. “I feel cheap, but hey…I’m up for a secret rendezvous.”

Beth was just finishing lunch when her cell phone rang. She picked it up and noticed she had a picture text from Katherine. She opened it and frowned. “Now she’s sending me pictures of notes.” She chuckled, read the text underneath it. “Sanford Arms,” she said, puzzled. She sat down at her computer, intrigued. She typed Sanford Arms into the Google search engine and waited. A few seconds later, over 100,000 entries popped up. “You’ve got to be kidding,” Beth said. “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

She read a few entries. Most of them referenced either TV episodes or music CDs. There was an article about an apartment renovation—she doubted that had anything to do with the case. She tried again, adding Brenda Cooper at the end to increase her hits. Surprisingly, she got even less. She sighed and said with sarcasm, “Do you think you could have been just a slight bit more cryptic, Katherine?”

Her cell phone rang, startling her. She looked at the caller ID—Restricted. With hesitation, she pushed the talk button. “Hello.”

“Lizzie?”

Beth’s heart skipped a beat. The room began to spin, as she said, “What do you want, Jack?”

“Oh, Lizzie! You’re okay?”

“No thanks to you, you big loser.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen.”

“Of course, you didn’t. You never do.”

“What do you expect from me?”

Beth took a deep breath, trying to steady her nerves. “I don’t expect anything. That’s the point. Just go away. I have enough problems in my life without you complicating it.”

“That’s not what I want, Lizzie.”

Her mouth dropped open. She pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at it. Wasn’t that the problem? Wasn’t it always what Jack wanted? Did he ever care what she wanted? Or what their son needed. She put the phone back to her ear. “Don’t you get it? I don’t care.”

The line went silent, and for a few moments, she thought he had hung up. “Are you there?” she asked.

“I’m here.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Turn yourself in, Jack.”

“I can’t. I can’t go back to prison. I need to see Timmy grow up.”

“You can’t see him grow up when you’re on the run, either.”

“Aw, Lizzie. How did I make such a mess of this?”

“You make a mess of everything. It’s as if it’s second nature to you.” She paused. “What were you doing with the stuff anyhow?”

“I needed some cash. They don’t exactly send you out with the down payment on a house.”

She sighed. “No, I suppose they don’t. I would have helped you.”

“I’ve taken enough from you already.”

“As if this isn’t worse. Oh, Jack. How are you going to fix this? I can’t go to jail. Do you have any idea what that would do to Timmy?”

He was silent again. “I’ll come up with something. I promise.”

“I have to go. Katherine has put me on this impossible task of finding something or some place called Sanford Arms.”

“It’s a mental hospital in Arizona. Somewhere near Phoenix, I believe.”

Beth’s mouth gaped open. “How do you know that?”

“Believe it or not, one of my cellmates was transferred from there. He was in for a murder charge. His attorney got him convicted on insanity charges, but later they found out the attorney bought off the psychiatrist assigned to his case. Now the attorney, the psychiatrist, and my cellmate are all enjoying the same fashions.” He laughed, but Beth failed to see the humor. “Well, nevertheless, that’s how I know about it. Why do you have to find it?”

“A case we’re working on, but I can’t say more than that.”

He paused. “You like that stuff?”

She nodded, even though he couldn’t see her. “I have to go now. Please, think about turning yourself in.”

“Can I see Timmy?”

“Turn yourself in and we’ll talk.”

“At least you didn’t say no.”

“I’m hanging up now, Jack.”

She closed her phone and set it down beside her. She tried the Google search again, this time typing Sanford Arms and Phoenix Arizona. It returned one substantial listing. Beth clicked on it. The link brought her to a website for Sanford Arms Mental Health Facility, which treated the criminally insane. “What could this possibly have to do with Brenda Cooper?” she asked aloud. “Perhaps she used to work there.”

She picked up the phone and dialed the number. After three rings, a warm, friendly voice said, “Sanford Arms Mental Hospital, how may I help you?” Beth sat holding the phone receiver, stumped, wondering what she should ask. “Are you there?” the voice asked again.

“Oh, yes,” Beth said. “I’m sorry. My name is Elizabeth Reynolds. I am a paralegal for Walker and Associates Legal Services. I’m looking for some information. Perhaps on a former employee.”

“What’s the employee’s name? But mind you, I can’t give out personal information.”

“Oh, I know. I wouldn’t want you to violate any rules.”

“What’s the name? I’ll see what I can do.”

“Brenda Cooper.” She paused. That would be her married name. Beth was certain she hadn’t worked there since marrying Allen Cooper. She flipped quickly to the information page in her file. There was a place for maiden names. With any luck, Brenda had filled it out. “You might know her as Brenda Walls.”

“How long ago are you talking about?”

Beth did some quick calculations. Brenda was probably in her early forties. She and Allen Cooper married at least ten years ago. She couldn’t have worked there too long before that. “My guess would be about ten to fifteen years ago.”

“Nope,” the woman said.

“Are you sure?” Beth asked. “Perhaps you’d like to look back through the records for a minute.”

The woman became irritated. “There is nothing wrong with my memory, Miss. I’ve worked here for thirty-five years, and I know every employee who’s ever come through that door. Hell, I’ve hired most of them. This here ain’t no big hospital, you see.”

“I’m sorry,” Beth quickly rushed to say. “I didn’t mean to imply anything.” She was disappointed. She had hoped this might lead to something. On a whim, she asked, “Would you mind if I emailed you a picture? Maybe I have the name wrong.” Although she knew, she didn’t.

“I guess it won’t hurt for me to take a look. I’m off to lunch in a minute or two, but I promise to check it out when I get back.” She gave Beth an email address and hung up.

She decided she’d better let Katherine know what was going on. She dialed her cell phone number.

***

Katherine was fingering a silk scarf when her phone rang. She took the scarf and wrapped it around John’s neck. John blushed, and Katherine laughed as she said, “Hello, Beth.”

“Hi, Katherine. I just wanted to check in with you about the Sanford Arms thing.”

She related her actions over the last hour, ending with, “I’m emailing the picture as we speak.”

“Good work,” Katherine said. “It’s a long shot, so don’t get your hopes up too much.”

“Yeah, I know,” Beth said. “But it doesn’t hurt, either.”

John was struggling with the scarf, trying to get it off his neck. Katherine laughed. “I have to go and rescue John now. Keep in touch.” She hung up the phone.

“Honestly, John.” She untangled him, smoothed out the scarf. “What do you think?”

“It’s not my style,” he said, good-humoredly. “But it will look great on Beth,” he concurred. “Are you going to get it?”

Katherine nodded. “That and some pearl-studded earrings I saw on sale.” She walked back to the jewelry counter and pointed out the earrings to the sales clerk. “I’ll take those and this,” she said, handing her the scarf.

John sighed. “I still don’t know what to get her.”

Katherine and the sales clerk looked at each other. They both wrinkled their noses and said, “Perfume.”

John shrugged his shoulders. “Okay. I guess it’s going to be perfume.”

The sales clerk finished Katherine’s transaction and led them to another counter, where she pulled out an array of scents. “Floral, musky, or sexy?”

“Sexy,” John and Katherine both said, laughing.

The clerk smiled, put several bottles back, and began handing various testers to Katherine. She held out her arm and sprayed. Instantly, a sensuous scent filled the air. She held out her arm for John to smell.

John picked up her arm, gently sniffing the fragrance. “Oh, my,” he said, grinning. “That’s nice.”

The touch of his arm on hers made Katherine’s legs go weak. Her heart skipped a beat and heat seared through her body. She looked into John’s eyes, saw the desire in them, and pulled back her arm. “I take it you like this one?” she whispered.

The clerk cleared her throat. “Perhaps something else for your friend?”

John shook his head. “I’ll take that,” he said. “But not for Beth.”

Katherine smiled. “It’s not my birthday.”

“No, but you deserve it. Besides, I’m buying it more for myself.”

She laughed and looked at the sales clerk. “Perhaps we should find something a little less sexy for our friend.”

The clerk grinned, pulled out another fragrance, and handed it to Katherine. She sprayed it on the other arm, holding it out to John. He nodded. “That’ll do,” he said.

The clerk rang up the second bottle, held up the first, and said. “Do you honestly want this one, too?”

John and Katherine exchanged smiles. John nodded. “Oh, yeah.”

Beth was just returning from lunch when the phone rang. She rushed to answer it.

“Katherine Winters’s office,” she said, snatching it.

“Thank God,” the woman on the other end said. “This is Esther Jacobs.” Beth was lost. “From Sanford Arms,” the woman said.

“Oh, yes,” Beth said. “I guess I didn’t get your name before. Did you recognize the picture?”

“How do you know this woman?” Esther asked.

“Why?” Beth asked. She felt her pulse quicken as an uneasy feeling swept through her. “Do you know her? Did she used to work there?”

“No,” Esther said.

“I don’t understand,” Beth said.

“Just answer the question,” Esther snapped. “How do you know this woman?”

“She’s a client,” Beth said. “Is everything okay? Do you know Brenda Cooper?”

The line was silent for a moment. “Are you still there, Ms. Jacobs?”

“I’m here,” she said, her voice hard. “I recognize your client, Ms. Reynolds. Only, she ain’t a former employee.” She paused. “Her name is Alison Gates. She’s a former patient, and she’s a fugitive.”

Beth gasped. “Are you sure?”

“Quite sure.”

“What was she in for?”

“She killed her husband and tried to drown her baby. They should have given her the needle if you ask me.”

“Why didn’t they?” Beth asked.

“Some fancy lawyer got her declared insane.” She scoffed. “Huh. She ain’t insane. Inhuman is what she is.”

“What happened?”

“The official version is, her husband was beating her, and she got tired of it and decided to fight back. One day she snapped and bought a gun. Then she shot him. If you ask me, he wasn’t beating her. I’ve seen a lot of abused wives in my line of work, and she doesn’t fit the bill, so to speak.”

“If he wasn’t beating her, who was?”

“I think she was doing it to herself.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because the bruises continued even after she got here. She claimed Lenny, another patient, was doing it, but it ain’t Lenny’s style. Lenny’s gentle as a kitten. The accusation traumatized the poor boy. They had to isolate him, and he’s afraid of being alone.”

“You said something about her trying to drown her child.”

“She claimed it was her husband, and she saved the child.”

“You said ‘claimed’ it was her husband.”

Esther sighed. “The neighbors heard the gunshot and called the police, who showed up at her door. When she didn’t answer, they busted it down and found her in the bathroom. She was holding the baby under the water. She said her husband did it and that she was trying to save it.”

“Did they believe her?”

“Naw, we ain’t as dumb as some people think.” She snorted. “They found her guilty, but as I said, some dumb, money-grubbing lawyer got her declared insane.”

“But she’s not?”

“Petty, stupid, selfish…I could go on, but insane she’s not. She knew what she was doing.”

“You said she’s a fugitive.”

“You bet. She got herself hooked up with an orderly, who got caught with his pants down if you know what I mean.” She snickered.

“Go on. This story is really interesting.”

Esther laughed. “It was the scandal of the year. Anyhow, as I was saying, she got herself hooked up with an orderly. One night, as they were doing it in her room, she slipped him some of her meds, which knocked him out. She stole his keys, and when the lights went out, so did she.

“The night shift supervisor got worried when the orderly didn’t come back from his break. He went looking for him and found him snoring away.” She laughed again. “Of course, he got canned immediately. He’s lucky she didn’t kill him, too. The district attorney made some waves about charging him as an accessory, but he didn’t. It’s too bad, too. That guy was nothing but trouble. I said good riddance. Hey, look, you gotta call the cops.”

Beth was already ahead of her. “I have to go now, Esther. Thanks for the help. Your information has been quite valuable.”

Esther broke out in a huge grin. “Hey, thanks. Will you do me a favor?”

“Sure.”

“Let me know what happens. Her disappearance has been a mystery around here. I’d love to be the one who solves it.”

Beth laughed. “Sure. However, I doubt you’ll be seeing her back there again. I don’t think she’s going to get away with anything again.”

A sudden, horrifying thought struck Esther. “She didn’t kill anyone again, did she?” she asked, holding her breath.

“Not yet,” she said, “and not again if we can stop her. What happened to the baby?”

Esther’s voice turned sad. “Unfortunately, the police didn’t arrive in time. The baby lived, but she’s in a lifetime coma. She suffered a severe brain injury due to her near-death drowning. She’s on life support.”

“That’s too bad.”

“You can say that again. I say they should turn off the machines and leave it to God, but I guess that ain’t my decision now, is it?”

Beth thanked her, leaving the question to hang. She promised again to call and hung up. She dialed Katherine, tapping her pencil anxiously while she waited for her to come on the line.

“Hello, Beth,” Katherine said. “Did you find something?”

“Plenty.” She relayed her conversation with Esther. “Shall I have the police pick her up?” she asked when they had finished the conversation.

Katherine thought for a moment, a smile eventually coming to her lips. “No. Let’s not alert her. I’ll talk to the police, myself. I want to let her squirm in her seat.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Let’s just say tomorrow morning’s court session is going to be memorable.”

“Oh, Katherine. You have to let me be there. After all, I was the one who broke the case open.”

“You may be there,” she said. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Beth picked up Timmy from the sitter’s house, stopped by the market, and struggled her way into her living room, bags bouncing off the doorframe as she tried to pass through.

“Here, let me help.”

She looked over her shoulder and saw her brother coming to her rescue.

“Thanks.” She surrendered her baggage and straightened her clothing.

“What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“Uncle Austin,” Timmy squealed. “Can you take me for a ride in your fast car?”

“Later, buddy. I have to talk to your mom right now.”

She eyed him suspiciously. “What about?” She took one of the bags from him, began wandering to the kitchen. Austin followed.

“Please, Uncle Austin—please, please, please,” Timmy whined.

Beth looked down at Timmy and scolded him. “What did Uncle Austin say?”

Timmy turned his lower lip out in a pout. “He said, ‘later.’”

Austin cringed. “Geez, Beth. Did you have to be so rough on him?”

She looked at Austin with raised eyebrows. “I can see that kid of yours is going to walk all over you.”

She pulled out a pan, filled it with water, and put it on the stove.

Timmy stalked off to his room to sulk.

She began to open some cans and pour them into a pot. “Are you staying to eat some pasta with us?”

He shook his head. “Betty Lee’s waiting for me.”

“Hand me some of that garlic.” She pointed to a wire basket hanging by the sink. He picked up a round thing with brown skin on it. She shook her head. “Those are shallots.” He put them back and picked up the round things with the white casing. She nodded, and he handed them to her. She peeled them and then used a strange looking device to squeeze the life out of them. Austin grimaced. She took out several jars of various spices and began dumping stuff into the pot. She opened a package of meat, took off the outer casing, and began to break it into a frying pan.

“What’s that?”

“Italian sausage.”

“Smells good, looks disgusting.” He shook his head. “I need someone to run interference with Dad for me.”

“Oh, no, Austin, you’re all grown up now. You can handle Dad on your own.”

“I can’t, Beth. Come on, you’re the big sister. He listens to you.”

She rolled her eyes. “No, and he doesn’t listen to me. He listens to nobody.”

He got down on his knees, clasped his hands together in a praying stance. “Please.”

Timmy returned, looked at his uncle on the floor, and started laughing hysterically.

Beth grinned. “What’s he doing that’s so awful this time?”

“He wants me to put on a suit and sit with him at the next board meeting.”

She stopped stirring her sauce and looked at him. “Now that’s tragic.” She laughed.

“See, what did I tell you? He’s going to kill me.”

She shook her head. Austin began sniffing the air. “That smells really good.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay?”

“Do you have enough for Betty?”

She looked in the pot, thought for a moment, opened another can of tomato sauce, and poured it in. “There’s plenty.”

He pleaded with her, giving her the puppy-dog look that always worked in the past.

She shook her head. “I’m way past the puppy-dog stare.”

“So, what are you into these days?” He looked at Timmy, hoping for an ally.

Timmy shrugged. “She likes smelly stuff.”

Austin wrinkled his nose. “I’m not going anywhere near the places that sell smelly stuff.”

“You’d better watch it, mister. You’re a married man now. Your wife’s going to expect things like that.”

“So…what will it take?”

She dipped a spoon into the pot, pulled it back out, bringing some of the sauce with it. She put the spoon into her mouth, looked thoughtful for a moment, and then satisfied it was perfect, set the spoon aside.

She looked at Austin, still begging on the floor. “I get to be godmother to the baby.”

He looked shocked. “You want to be the baby’s godmother?”

She nodded. “Of course, I do.”

“That’s it? That’s all I have to do? Deal.” He stuck out his hand.

She started to extend her hand, getting ready to shake his. “You have to clear it with Betty Lee first.”

“No, I don’t. We’ve already talked about it. We both wanted you to be godmother, but we were afraid to ask.”

“Why? I’ve been waiting for you to ask me.”

He started laughing. “What great communicators we are.”

Timmy tugged on his arm. “Please, Uncle Austin, can we go now? Can I ride in your fast car?”

Austin held a single finger up to his nephew. “One more minute, Timmy.”

He looked at his sister. “So, will you do it? Will you talk to Dad for me?” He sensed her hesitating. “Please, big sis. He listens to you more than anyone else.”

“What do you want to do instead? He’s going to want to know that.”

“You promise not to laugh?”

She shook her head and grinned. “You know I can’t make that promise.”

He hesitated. “I want to be a writer.”

She laughed and caught herself, clamping a hand over her mouth. “You, a writer? I never knew you had that passion.”

He shook his head. “I’m willing to work at the company until my writing takes off, but I don’t want to sit in some stuffy old boardroom.”

“Do you know how difficult it will be making a living from your writing?”

He stood and looked her in the eye. “I know. That’s why I said I’m willing to work at the company.” He sensed her wavering. “Beth, look at me.” He touched his chest openhanded. “Can you imagine me inside four walls every day, talking about what department is outselling the others? I’m a traveler.” He pointed to his head. “I have so many stories to tell about my travels. I need to get them out.”

“Betty Lee’s all for this?”

He nodded. Then he grinned. “I already have an agent.”

Her eyes opened wide. “Get out. For real?”

He nodded again. “I went to one of those writer conventions. I brought along some pages I’ve been working on, and someone liked them.”

“So you’re already writing?”

“I’m almost done with my first book.”

She opened her arms, and her brother stepped into them. “I’m proud of you, little brother.”

His eyes misted over. “Do you know how long I’ve waited for someone to say those words to me?”

She took on a melancholy expression. “I’m sorry I didn’t say them sooner. But we have a problem.”

“What?”

“You know as well as I that Dad isn’t going to take this lightly unless he has a replacement in mind. He only has two children, and well, I’ve already disappointed him there. This is going to be a blow.”

They stood thinking for a moment. Beth chewed on her lower lip. Simultaneously they both smiled and brightened. “But he has a grandson,” they declared in unison. They turned and looked at Timmy, who had been impatiently waiting, running his Hot Wheels car over the dining room table, making “vroom” noises.

He stopped and looked at his mother and his uncle. “What?” he said. “I didn’t do anything, I promise.”

“Timmy,” Austin said, “Do you want to ride with me to pick up Aunt Betty for dinner?”

He brightened. “In the fast car?”

“Yep, in the fast car.”

He ran to the door, waited for his uncle, to join him. As they walked through the door, Beth heard him say, “Timmy, Uncle Austin’s going to teach you all about Grandpa’s exciting company.”

“Will I be able to drive fast cars?”

“Any car you want.”

Beth laughed as the door closed behind them.

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