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New York - Later That Night 2 страница



The small hopeful face turned up at her so earnestly culminated for Megan all the things she loved about teaching. "I'm sorry I've been sad, buddy, and thank you for the book. We'll read it to the class together and I'm sure it'll be great."

He ran off as soon as she finished, the size of his smile making her smile in return. She put the book down and forgot about her paperwork, choosing instead to pull out a picture of Vivian she'd found in her desk.

The day she'd taken it Vivian was getting ready to go on a solo sail. She looked thrilled with the prospect of taking the cat out on the lake alone. Her smile was huge as she mugged for Megan so she could finish the roll of film in the camera. It had turned out to be one of her favorite pictures of her late lover.

"I sure do miss you, Viv, and I'm not sure how to make that go away." She ran her fingers over the glass as if trying to elicit an answer. "Al wants me to move so he and mom can keep an eye on me, but I'm not ready for that."

A bell ringing could be heard throughout the building followed by the sound of little running feet. "I want to spend the summer on the boat reading and looking out at the water. Maybe I'll figure out what you found so fascinating about it. And if you're not too busy, why don't you send me a sign that you're all right. I don't think I can move forward without one."

With a cheeriness she didn't feel she greeted her class and took the time to read Jamarcus' book while he held it. At the end of the day she drove home to Mac and took him for a walk along the levee. The loyal little dog sat next to her with his head in her lap even after she unleashed him.

"You know something, boy?" He barked obediently. "It's just us now. After this summer if I don't have it all worked out would you like to go on a trip with me?" He barked again when she paused. "I'll remember you said that when you start to complain about my driving."

Mac never squirmed or whimpered when she help him close and cried. He only wagged his tail and tired his best to protect her by licking her face as the tears dropped from her eyes.

"God, Viv, why'd you have to go and die on me?"

The gentle waves of the lake didn't answer and neither did the stars that were out before she made it home. Before she went in for the night she went up on the deck and just stared at the full moon.

There was a ring of light around it and it brought to mind an old fish tale Vivian used to love to tell her whenever they saw the phenomenon. "It means something good is coming." Vivian had said it over and over again, but now it seemed just that - a fish tale.



************************************************************************

Briar stood outside with a glass of juice in her hand willing her brain to pretend there was vodka in it. From the balcony she could still hear the traffic somewhat but the moon was taking up so much of her concentration she barely registered anything else.

"Do you need anything else, Briar?"

She turned to the maid with a start and shook her head. "Thanks for dinner, Rose. You can go if you like. Sorry to keep you so late."

"Don't worry about me and just worry about you, sweetie. See you in the morning."

An hour had passed before she realized she'd been standing outside moon gazing and absently rubbing the scar on her chest. She thought about what her mom had said about listening to her heart, so she closed her yes and waited. When no great truths were revealed she laughed at herself for being such an idiot and went to bed.

The next morning she pulled a crisp blue shirt out of the closet and slipped it on. As always she started buttoning from the bottom up but something happened after the second button. She raised her head to the mirror and to the scar it showed. The sight brought with it an answer to the question from the previous night.

It was an absurd answer so she chose to ignore it and finished dressing. Rose was waiting with oatmeal, a glass of low fat milk and the Wall Street Journal. She picked up her briefcase and headed down to the car anxious to get to work. Two blocks later the answer wouldn't be ignored.

"Jeff, could you take me to a car dealership please." She picked up the car phone to clear a few things. "Better yet make it a Jeep kind of place."

"Whatever you want, Ms. Kilston."

"Shelia, do me a favor and clear the next couple of days for me." She waited for the inevitable lecture and questions. "I'm fine, really. I'm just doing what my mother asked me to do. After that I'll be back I promise."

The car stopped in front of a dealership and even though it was early, an eager salesman approached and held his hand out. An hour later she threw her briefcase in the back of the new white Cherokee and turned left into traffic.

Briar turned her phone off and just relaxed into the leather seat and started driving. Before she knew it, the city was behind her and the road opened up to hills covered with trees and different types of farm animals.

When the sun started to set she pulled off at the next exit and pulled into the first hotel she came to. It was then she realized that if you were going to lose your mind and follow your heart, packing would have been a wise course of action.

Another short drive gave Briar her first taste of something she'd only seen on television - Wal Mart. For someone who rarely stepped foot in any type of retail establishment, it was a learning experience starting with the greeter at the door. Everyone was so friendly she bought stock in the company when she got back to her room with her new pajamas and toothbrush.

The rest of the trip was just as adventuresome, building her stock portfolio as she went along. Two days later the cool, crisp air of New York was replaced by the humidity of Louisiana, but the further south she drove, the happier she got.

Instinctively she got off an exit of I-10 in New Orleans pulling into a middle class neighborhood. She blended in with some of her other purchases along the way, people just looking at the tall stranger because she was attractive not because she appeared lost.

She walked a few blocks before the now familiar rush of her heart stopped her. To her right would take her further into the neighborhood, to the left was a strip of retail outlets but neither seemed right. The only logical option was to go straight forward up the grassy incline of the levee.

The expanse of water made her want to strip her shoes off and wade in when she reached the top and got her first look at Lake Ponchatrain. Though she'd never laid eyes on it except from the air when she'd flown to the city on business a few years before, it felt like coming home.

"You all right there, stretch?" The old man who'd asked the question didn't get too close not wanting to frighten her. "You look like you've been pole axed."

"Just admiring the view and stretching my legs."

"Want to join me for some coffee."

Briar didn't move either but did turn and study his face for longer than seemed polite. "Why?"

"Just as easy to pour some extra water in the pot, and I figure you'd like the view better up close than from here. If that's not a good enough answer, then I'll go with southern hospitality."

The crack made her laugh and throw caution to the stiff breeze blowing and take him up on his offer. "How about I stick to water but I'll keep you company while you brew?"

She took his arm to steady him down the incline when he stumbled as she headed for the dock she failed to notice. "Thank you. I keep forgetting I'm not twenty anymore."

"My father used to say a little dizziness and a little pain beat the hell out of the alternative."

His new friend was dressed casually but Reuben Stickle noticed how soft her hand was as she continued to help him down the levee. Not a laborer like the clothes indicated, and not from the area from her speech pattern. This one had a story to tell and he was fixed on getting it out of her.

"Used to say? Did he find a cure for both?"

"He did but I wouldn't recommend it." Briar let go of him when the ground leveled out now fascinated by the small floating community."

"What, you're not going to give me a chance to try it?"

"It was the alternative." His gray brows came together to show he was confused so she elaborated. "He died."

"I really do owe you something to drink for being so stupid."

She waved off his comment and went back to studying the houseboats. Most of them were two stories, had no motors and had a good-sized deck either at the top or on the bow. They were floating but none of them appeared to be ready to set sail.

Reuben led her to his place and pointed to a set of chairs on his own sundeck. "You sure you don't want a cup of coffee?"

"Just water thanks."

As if knowing what was on her mind, he told her the story of their little community by the lake. It had started as a fishing community but the crabbers and fisherman moved on when their catches got smaller as the city's population grew. They relocated further south leaving their homes to the little group who just wanted some peace.

He went on to tell her about his years of teaching and of losing his wife Joan too soon after he'd retired. Three hours and a few glasses of water late he finally realized he still didn't know anything about his guest including her name.

"I hope I haven't bored you too much. My wife was always telling me I could go on until the other person just said uncle. So were you bored…" He trailed off the question wanting to see if she supplied her name.

"Briar," she held her hand out to shake his.

"Nice to meet you, Briar. I'm Reuben Stickle, and I owe you another glass of water for not introducing myself earlier." Since her hand was still in his Reuben noticed again how soft and perfectly manicured Briar's hand was.

"Thanks for the great afternoon, and I'll pass on anymore water. I just arrived tonight and I need to find a place to stay before it gets any later." A bark coming from close by stopped her explanation, turning instead to see what was agitating the dog.

"That's just Mac. He likes to make a fuss every so often but he's about as tall as flea on stilts so don't let him worry you." Rueben let out a loud whistle, which instead of calming Mac down made him leap from the deck to the dock and take off. "She's going to kill me if anything happens to that mutt."

Not bothering to ask who, Briar did some leaping of her own and took off. Half way up the incline she tripped. Mac came running and running and came to put his front paws on her head as if to finish off his conquest.

When woman and dog heard clapping, Mac didn't move but started barking again. "I always wondered what he did while I was at work. Who knew Mac was pursuing a career in pro wrestling."

The amused sounding voice made Briar reach up for Mac and turn around. When she sat up and faced her teaser she had to put her hand over her chest in an attempt to slow her heart down at the sight of her.

"He didn't hurt you did he?" Megan took a step forward not liking how pale the woman suddenly appeared.

"Sorry," a deep breath got things under control. "Your pup just wounded my pride is all."

"Briar, you all right?" Reuben asked having just made the trek.

"Seems like I'm not twenty anymore either," she joked as she stood, then handed the dog over. "I believe this little one belongs to you."

"Are you sure you're all right?" asked Megan again.

"I'm fine really, but I do have to get going." She shook Reuben's hand again and started back to her car. Not quite the top she stopped when he called her name again.

"The place across from me, that's mine too. Why not stay there instead of going hotel hunting now." He couldn't help but smile when she turned back and took his elbow again to steady him. "Promise its got clean sheets and there's even beer in the frig."

"If you let me pay…"

"Let's get through the first night then we'll talk money," he interrupted.

Briar made the walk back to the car after depositing Rueben at his place having a mental debate with herself as to the loss of her sound judgment. Never in her life, including her heart attack, had she felt more frightened than when she turned and faced Mac's owner. She'd run before learning her name, and now she realized it wasn't because she was being rude; it was that she truly didn't want to know. Knowing was the first step in giving into something she was sure she didn't want.

"Just tonight, Briar. Then tomorrow you go back to the life you know," she told herself in the rearview mirror before starting the car. Reuben had told her where to park for the night.

He was alone when she returned. He gave her the key and treated her to the sandwich he'd fixed for her while he was waiting. "Don't take this wrong, but you need to get some sleep. You look a little wiped out."

"Thanks, Mr. Stickle."

"It's just Reuben. Mr. Stickle retired a few years back," he joked waving over his shoulder. "Good night."

"Goodnight."

She threw her bag on the bed then went to sit outside. Her phone registered over a hundred messages when she finally turned it one, making her feel guilty for not calling Shelia more often. It was still early enough to call but she opted for one more day of peace.

A soft whimpering sound stopped her from changing her mind on the call. It was coming from the dock and when looked, she saw Mac sitting there staring at her. There was no noise coming out of him except for the first whimper to get her attention.

"Are you going to take off if I get out of this chair?" He lay down with his head on his front paws at the question.

Briar stood and Mac went back to sitting making her stop, which made him put his head down again almost as a reassurance. That made her laugh as she stepped into the dock. Having him at her doorstep so to speak meant she had to face her fears and bring him back.

Mac started walking and surprised Briar again when he passed the small gangplank to his home opting instead for the very end of the pier. He sat down and turned his head toward her as if showing her he was waiting for her.

She took a seat bringing her feet close to the water when she let them dangle down. "Come here often?" She asked the dachshund.

From her pocket she took out something she'd found in her briefcase and just held it. The reminder of one of her simplest pleasure made her mourn for the things she couldn't have anymore. There had been something about enjoying a good cigar at the end of a long day that she'd looked forward to, which was now a thing of a very different past.

Instead of lighting it she brought it up and put in her mouth for a taste. "What you should be asking though is what the hell am I doing here? But even if you did, I wouldn't begin to know how to answer you. I'd be willing to bet you 2000 shares of IBM I couldn't find this particular spot again if someone put a gun to my head and said go."

The little dog put his head on her lap in a silent plea for her to pet him, so she did liking how warm he felt against her fingers. "If you call my mother though, she'd tell you the cosmos had something to do with it. Heck I always thought she was nuts, but here I am sitting on a dock talking to a very understanding dog."

He crawled into her lap and flipped over showing Briar his belly. "Who obviously appreciates the values of a good massage." She ran her hand in a slow circular motion not wanting to frighten him. "So I guess I'll wait until tomorrow to try and figure out what I'm suppose to be doing here. Then I want some semblance of my life back."

A whimper came out of Mac again in protest at the comment it seemed to her. "You're a good listener, buddy. Maybe that's why I'm here. It's written in the stars I should get a small dog to listen to my problems."

"He's lousy at giving advice though."

The voice scared her so much the cigar in her mouth fell into the water, and Briar had to hang on to Mac to keep him from rolling in after it.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," said Megan. "Mind if I join you two."

Megan sat far enough away to give Briar her personal space. She laughed when Mac barked at being ignored too long. "I didn't get to my introductions earlier. This is Mac and I'm Megan."

"Briar." She offered her left hand since her right was occupied petting the dog. "I hope I wasn't disturbing you."

"You can sit wherever you like, I was just wondering where this trouble maker had gotten off to," she said pointing to Mac. "He's usually so standoffish."

Briar looked down at the totally relaxed dog with his paws in the air and laughed. "If this is standoffish I'd hate to see relaxed and comfortable. It must require Greek maidens and vats of scented oil."

"Mac only wishes he had that kind of budget. Is that what you're doing out here, relaxing?"

"In a way. Life's too short to not try new things don't you think?" She laughed at her joke, but noticed Megan just kept her eyes on the water. "I apologize if I was out of line. Small talk isn't my best quality."

"What is?"

"My best quality?" asked Briar in return. Mac stretched out even more making her want to laugh again, but instead she gave Megan's question some thought when she nodded. "My ability to forecast."

"What kind of answer is that?"

"You asked and I answered. I didn't realize there was a test attached for the quality of answer."

"That's not what I meant." Megan picked at the wood under her hand in a nervous sort of way. "I should've said I didn't understand your answer."

For some reason Claire pooped into her head, as did the last conversation she and Shelia were having the day of her heart attack. The money - her money. Here under the sky full of stars with a dog in her lap she was just Briar anybody. Without the baggage she could finally see if people liked the person she was without the trappings al those correct forecast could buy.

"I'm good at math should've been my answer if we're getting a do over."

"That's a talent not a quality," teased Megan glad to see Briar was still willing to talk. The nights were long with just Mac as a sounding board.

"Staying cool in every situation. How about that?"

Megan had to will her fingers to stop before she broke a nail on the wood. "In every situation?"

"There's no reason to fly off just because something goes wrong. Being wrong about something can cost you money or a hard time, but that's usually it."

"What about a someone?"

The question was so soft and sounded so hesitant that Briar could only guess it was laced with true pain. The kind that was fresh and new. "My father no matter what was going on, got up every morning had coffee, read the paper and ate a bowl of Cheerios. He always got up a couple of hours before everyone else, did all that then washed his bowl, rinsed out the coffee pot, refolded the paper, and went back to bed.

"When he sat to eat breakfast with my mom and me, I always thought he was a genius because he knew exactly everything that was going on." She pulled gently on the end of one of Mac's paws making him roll over to one side ready for his rubdown to continue. "The day he died he called me at my place at four in the morning."

"Why?" asked Megan. "Did he feel bad?"

"Four was his usual wake up time, and he felt fine. He called to tell me he loved me and that he was proud of me. He told me to take care of my mom if something happened, but he figured that part wasn't necessary because that was a given."

She could remember how cool it was out on her balcony that morning, what the headline of the Times was and how her eyes had watered at his thoughtfulness. "He gave me a few more tips before he hung up. My mom found him in his favorite chair when she missed him later that morning. The call was a break in his routine, which makes me believe he knew. I did what he asked and took care of my mom, the arrangements and his affairs."

"That must've been hard."

"Doing all that was easy because he gave me the strength of his confidence. I might not have done it perfect but I did my best, which makes anything I did wrong forgivable."

Megan was so quiet for so long that Mac got up and went to sit by her sensing she needed him. "Why'd you tell me that story?" she finally asked.

"Because even with that great call, that was out of his routine, there was a million more conversations I wish I'd had with him. That I'd had more time to tell him what was in my heart, but even if I didn't, I think he knew all that already." Briar put her hand flat on the wood and turned to Megan. In the moonlight her eyes appeared almost light gray. "You may not have done everything perfectly, but you did your best. That makes whatever is eating at you forgivable."

"Did Rueben…"

"Mr. Stickle invited me for coffee and told me about the beautiful woman he shared his life with, and about the kids he taught. Your question about someone made me assume you wanted some type of answer. I'm sorry if I was wrong." She stood and offered Megan a hand up. "If I was, perhaps you're right and forecasting isn't a quality after all. Good night and thanks for talking with me."

The word wait was screaming in her head but it never made it out of Megan's mouth. Instead she convinced herself she didn't want any complications in her life, and that's what Briar had written all over her.

************************************************************************

At five the next morning Briar was dressed and ready to go. The bed with the handmade quilt on it had been comfortable, but now it just held her packed bag.

She left it behind wanting to take one last look around before the long trip back. Something had called her here but the time for trying to decipher those clues was over.

The answer came at six fifteen when she sat on the levee drinking a glass of orange juice looking out over the water. A full cup of coffee sat untouched beside her. The sun rose behind her but still painted the sky the most amazing color of pink. The site made her glad she'd decided to say the morning and not leave while it was still dark out.

"I thought you didn't drink coffee?"

"Morning, Rueben, and I said no such thing. Besides I'm not drinking it, I'm enjoying the smell."

"You buy coffee that you don't plan on drinking?" He accepted her raised hand to take a seat next to her determined to find out something about her. "If you like the smell I'd think you'd like the taste."

"I love the taste of coffee. I'm just trying to cut it out of my diet along with a few other things." She offered him the cup, confident it was still warm enough to enjoy. "Just trying to be healthier these days." A big smile came over her face when she heard the barking as it got closer. It looked like Rueben wasn't the only one able to find where she was that morning.

"Mac, will you slow down," she heard Megan admonish him as his little legs carried him up the slope before she had made it half down the dock.

"Good morning, little fella. Came to tell me goodbye," said Briar, as he ran right at her. Rueben didn't make a comment about her leaving, waiting instead for Megan to make it to where they were sitting.

"Sorry, I should've kept him on the leash."

"Are you kidding? No one in my life has been this excited to see me," said Briar as she held him back from a complete tongue bath to her face.

"Now I won't have to feel so bad when I go to work if he has you to play with all day then." Briar opened her mouth to say she was leaving but nothing came out when Megan's eyes met hers. The blond hair mixed with the deep blue-green eyes was so beautiful it made her feel foolish for not noticing it before. "Are you all right?"

"Perfect," said Briar with a shake of her head. "Off to work so early?"

"It's the last day of school so we're both off to work today. Mac gets to come and cause a melt down in my class one day out of the year, but he's such a ham I can't deny him the opportunity to be adored by twenty-five screaming little kids."

"Why don't you take Briar with you and she can help you keep some kind of order," offered Rueben taking a sip out of the cup she'd handed him. Before either of them could protest, he got up and headed back to his place leaving an uncomfortable silence behind him.

"Listen I don't want to intrude on your day…" started Briar.

"And you don't have to feel obligated to come, so where does that leave us?"

"By a big lake with a small dog wanting to go to kindergarten today. How about if I come for a little while and hold the short one here and if I'm in the way I'll get out of your hair."

"Are you sure?"

Briar cocked her head back to get a better look at Megan. "Why do you think I'll scare your kids or something?"

Instead of answering, Megan helped her up and waved Briar and Mac on ahead of her. They left the lake in separate cars in case Briar wanted to head back earlier than two in the afternoon when Megan would be finished. It turned out the tall woman made more of a commotion than the dog did when they walked in together.

With patience she didn't know she possessed, Briar spent the day finger painting, reading and making small clay shapes that resembled Mac who was posing for the class. For once Megan spent the day totally engaged in what she was doing and not dwelling on the pain in her heart.

That afternoon Briar followed Megan home again and accepted an invitation to dinner even though the day had been more tiring than she wanted to admit. When she arrived with a bottle of wine after asking Rueben where to shop, Megan led her to the small den that was adjacent to the kitchen.

"Want me to help with something?"

Megan looked at her and saw that the offer was sincere. "I getting ready to cut up some vegetables and sauté them as a side. If you want you can do that for me while I finish with the chicken." The panicked expression on Briar's face was so comical she came close to laughing. "Or you could tear lettuce for the salad."

"No I offered to help and I meant it." Briar eyed the stove like it was going to come to life and attack her, and was having a hard time coming up with the actual meaning of sauté.

A pile of vegetables was sitting on a cutting board and Briar treated them like live grenades. With a deep breath she picked up a knife, and like she did with her pen, she twirled it in between her fingers before she started. It felt like she was channeling Julia Child when the blade made quick and efficient work of the pile turning it into bite sized pieces.

She then poured a small amount of olive oil in a large skillet, heated it and knew somehow when to add the vegetables. Once everything was sizzling, Briar flipped her wrist in a style Emeril would be proud of to stir everything without using a utensil.

Something about the movements made Megan think she was watching Vivian with different coloring. From the way Briar handled a knife to the way she maneuvered the large skillet was so familiar it made her soul ache.

"There you go," said Briar sounding as surprised as she looked. Maybe all that television she'd watched while she was at home recuperating had paid off. "Anything else you need me to do?"

"Just sit and eat. I'll take care of the rest."

They went up to the deck to enjoy the mild night along with the bottle of wine Briar had brought for dinner. For two people who'd just met they were comfortable in silence for long stretches. When dinner was over Megan was reluctant to get up, but was having trouble saying what was on her mind.

"I've found that if you just spit it out, you're less likely to develop an ulcer."

She rolled her half full glass of wine between her hands and just stared at Briar for the longest time without saying anything. "How do you know something's eating at me?"





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