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A Special Note of Thanks to the ReadersDisclaimers: The characters in the following story are of my own creation. Any similarities to anyone living or dead are purely coincidental. No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission from me, the author.
Over the last couple of months I've received a slew of wonderful notes asking how we're doing after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Each and every one of them was a treasure that has helped us through this hard and strange time, so on behalf of my partner and I, please accept our heartfelt thanks. Your thoughts, prayers, offers of assistance and well wishes were extremely appreciated.
To the many of you who wrote wanting to read more of Piper and Kendal, I want to apologize. With the clean up at the house and editing "The Devil Inside," the novel I have coming out in January with Bold Strokes Books, time just got away from me. The other thing is that Piper and Kendal are busy ripping out drywall, insulation, flooring and tending to a new baby so they've taken a break from fighting evil. Unless you've been down here and seen some of the mold growing on the walls, it's evil incarnate I tell you.
This Halloween I wanted to introduce you to a new set of characters that are more romantic based than scary, and live in a pre-Katrina New Orleans. As many of you are aware, a majority of the places I mention in the stories aren't fiction, and the restaurants are some of my favorites. So if you come for a visit, give the city a few months so that the restaurants and places I mention can get their roofs repaired, and their suppliers back on line. If you have a craving for coffee and donuts though, Café DuMonde is open and as wonderful as ever, and the only hurricanes we have brewing now are being served in those nice curvy glasses down at Pat O'Brien's on Bourbon Street.
We wish all of you a safe and happy Halloween, and I hope you enjoy the story.
"It's up to eighty-seven." The young man's eyes never left the scrolling numbers on the computer screen and the hangnail he'd ripped off of his thumb with his teeth was now bleeding. "Briar, did you hear me? It's up to eighty-seven fifty-three."
"Timothy, do you know why you won't make it in this business?" While her employee scanned the stock numbers, Briar Kilston studied the New York skyline from her office window seventy stories up.
"For God's sake, it's at ninety, we should sell." He had long since started on his index finger ripping the nail so viciously he had to stop and shake out his hand from the sudden self inflicted pain.
"You have no sense of timing and you have no balls. Both are essential if you're shooting for the big game around here." She stretched her feet out in front of her and put her hands behind her head, the total picture of relaxation. It was almost a comical study in opposites. "My father was fond of saying you should be locked and loaded, and ready to pull the trigger but only when you were sure you were going to make a killing. I don't sense a kill shot just yet."
"It's back to eighty-nine seventeen."
Briar picked up her phone and punched in the number to the floor of the stock exchange. "Tony, pop them for another twenty thousand. Make it quick, we're working against the bell now."
"Twenty thousand more? You're fucking insane," said Timothy.
She stood, took her jacket off and put on a drab gray one and put her credentials around her neck. The minute she walked onto the trading floor from their office building, the fury began. Kilston wouldn't be buying a dead stock so the other buyers didn't let her down and started the run she was counting on. When the bell finally rang she'd sold at ninety-seven and change.
When she made it back to the office Timothy was the first to try and offer his congratulations. Ten minutes later he was standing on the street holding a box of his possessions wondering where his day had gone so wrong. Briar couldn't work with anyone who didn't have the ambition not only to win, but also to completely annihilate everything and everyone who stood in your way to get that victory.
It was another lesson she'd learned early from her father. Because even though he'd founded the brokerage firm she now ran, Briar had started in the mailroom. The corner office had been earned one deal at a time.
Now that the non-believers had been dealt with, she started working the phones and finishing some numbers for the next day's conquests. Her assistant Shelia came in at ten and held up the long discarded jacket. She'd found early on that most times Briar needed a kick in the pants to call it a day.
This had only been Shelia's second job after graduating from junior college, but she doubted she'd run across anyone who was as much a workaholic as Briar. The brokers who finally made it out of the bullpen and into an office were the ones who worked as hard and put in the hours, but none of them topped their boss at the end of every week.
"You have a reservation with Claire in thirty minutes. If you leave now you might get lucky."
"With you or Claire?" asked Briar.
"I'm not the one filling up half your closet with designer clothes so let's go with Claire." She smoothed the shoulders of the jacket after Briar slipped it on, and accepted Briar's arm to the elevators. "And could you do me a favor?" she asked when the leather cigar holder came out.
"Order a salad with dinner. Even if you treat it like a center piece it'll make me feel better."
"Shelia, I'm too much of a bitch for anything to happen to me. Besides, if God had meant for people to eat things that are the color green they'd taste like beef."
"You walk me downstairs every night, buy me flowers every Monday, and never forget my birthday or any other important date. Don't give me some story about how bitchy you are. But fifteen hour days, a steady diet of red meat, cigars, scotch and a woman who could inspire frustration in Christ it shocks me that you're still here giving me a hard time."
Briar's car was waiting for them but Shelia declined a ride and smiled when Briar put her in a cab and paid more than enough for the fare. As long as her days were, it was these consistent kindnesses, that Briar rarely showed others, that kept Shelia loyal. The woman was a hard ass to work for but she was also generous to a fault if she cared about you.
"Remember the salad," she yelled as Briar closed the door for her.
She turned back as the cab pulled away to see Briar light the cigar and wave with a huge relaxed grin on her face. It was that smile on the strikingly attractive face that caught most people off guard at times. Briar in Shelia's opinion was good looking, not because of the shoulder length light brown hair, nor the pale blue eyes and tall build, but because none of those things seemed to matter to her. Her boss was fond of saying it was just genetic luck and nothing more. It was Briar's compassion for others and her passion for life in general that made her attractive.
In their years together on the job, Shelia had never met anyone who loved life as much as her boss. She couldn't cook, but would take chances that people like Timothy thought were crazy. Briar was fond of saying food could be ordered out, but the thrill of winning when everyone bet against you couldn't be bought. She wasn't much for the outdoors, but had a love for sunsets and sunrises that no one would have guessed about her. The one thing that always surprised Shelia was that Briar didn't like the water. The ultimate risk taker had never learned to swim.
"Sweet idiot," was all Shelia could think to say as her ride turned the corner. She was looking forward to tomorrow when she knew she'd learn more about the enigma that was her boss. With each day that came, Briar never disappointed her on that.
"You remembered didn't you?"
Vivian Loreio cut the engine to the crew boat she was piloting when they were about five feet from the dock, knowing from experience they would coast in the rest of the way and gently tap rubber covered wood. Her job was shuttling offshore workers up and down the Mississippi River all day, along with supplies, but it was something she loved since it kept her on the water.
She had partnered in business with Alan Beniot and after a couple of years they owned the boat outright and made a fairly good living. The two had grown up together and were more like siblings than business partners and spent most of these trips having conversations just like the one they were engaged in.
"Of course I remembered," she said as she watched the ground crew tie them up.
It had been raining for most of the day and despite the cap she had on, Vivian's blond hair was plastered to the back of her neck. They sat just outside the wheelhouse and watched as the crew unloaded the empty containers they'd picked up that afternoon and put them on the dock. The constant light rain would make for a long ride home on her bicycle if it didn't let up so she was taking a moment to work herself up to mounting up.
"What'd you get her?" Alan put his feet on the railing and brought his cap down lower to keep the water out of his eyes.
"It's unique, so I'm not telling you until tomorrow. I don't want to jinx her not liking it by telling your ugly mug about it."
They had been business partners and friends for most of their life, but the one thing they'd butted heads on was Megan Beniot. The thirty-year-old kindergarten teacher was Alan's sister and Vivian's partner. At least that's how Vivian referred to her as, but Alan was waiting to see the ring and some type of act that would convince him his buddy was in for the long-term.
"It's been more than enough years, Viv, so I hope you put some thought into Megan's birthday present." He hunched over and cupped his hand in front of his mouth trying to light his cigarette. When he did he handed it over to share. "I want her to be happy."
She blew the smoke directly at him and waited to see if he was through with his lecture. "You think she isn't? Isn't happy I mean."
"I'm sure she is, but I know Megan, and she won't push very hard for the things she really wants."
"I wouldn't worry about it. Call me crazy but I think we want the same things out of life and you can always be sure that I'll take good care of her."
She took one last drag from his smoke before going back in to get her bag. The rain had let up a little but was still falling as she unlocked her bike and headed away from the river toward Lake Ponchatrain. There was a section close to the industrial section of town where a lucky few, interested in simple living, had founded a community of houseboats.
While a majority of the owners only came out on the weekends, Vivian and Megan lived on the water in the last slip on the long dock. It was cramped but Megan never had the heart to make her partner leave the serenity of the area.
There was the houseboat that Vivian loved, but her favorite possession was tied in the adjoining slip. A two-man catamaran that she lived to take out alone when the wind was really whipping since Megan was afraid of the neck breaking speed the boat was capable of. It was as close to freedom and flying as she would ever get without leaving the ground.
She waved to the few people sitting outside enjoying the sunset as she slowly pedaled down the dock. She could see Megan was sitting on the upper deck under the awning reading a book, seemingly lost in another adventure or romance.
"Lousy day to be riding a bike, Viv."
Leaning her ride against a piling, Vivian climbed up and dropped into the empty chair. Megan's dachshund Mac was sleeping at her feet and stirred when Vivian's clothes let out a squishing noise and he responded with a lazy bark.
"Did you have a good day?" asked Vivian. She had intentionally not mentioned Megan's birthday earlier that morning to build the suspense.
"School was good and my kids gave me a collage they've been working on."
"I'm sure that was great, but wait till you see what the rest of the day has in store for you." She unzipped the backpack and pulled out a small box.
"You look as excited as my little ones." Megan accepted the box and just enjoyed holding it for a moment before lifting the lid.
"Happy birthday, babe. I know you think I forgot but I was just waiting to surprise you." Vivian motioned for her to look at her gift.
They had confessed their feelings for each other when they'd turned fourteen and it was the first time any of Vivian's gifts was small enough to be something as personal as jewelry. Not that she needed anything extravagant, it just wasn't Vivian's style, but after years of receiving things like bathmats and really cool kitchen gadgets, it would've been a welcomed change.
Slowly, as if to savor the moment, she lifted the lid and looked inside. Years of practice helped her put a pleasantly surprised expression on her face as she studied the box's contents. The thin piece of rope was tied in an intricate knot, the kind Vivian liked to practice as a way to relax, and it was sitting alone in the box.
"Thanks, honey." She held it up and smiled.
"It's a new knot I made up for you," Vivian took out a new piece of rope and started replicating the one in Megan's hand. "I wanted to give you something that would symbolize how you make me feel."
"I tie you up in knots?"
"Yeah," said Vivian as she handed over the new knot.
"Good to know, Viv." Her tone was light and amused since she realized Vivian meant the comment as a compliment. "You want to go out tonight?"
"Nah, let's just use up the leftovers from last night. The cat needs new sails so we're saving up."
It wasn't a good time to remind Vivian that, while she liked to sail as well, the boats weren't her first priority. But then it wasn't ever a good time. As true a heart as Vivian had, there was something missing from their relationship. Her birthday had made her realize that what was missing was passion.
For once Megan wanted to feel like the center of someone's universe and be swept off her feet. Then she realized how lucky she was that Vivian was so sweet and loyal, but the seed of want had been planted. Maybe today wasn't the day to talk about it, but it was coming, and like the storm that was raging at the center of the lake, it wouldn't be put off.
"Take your coat, Ms. Kilston?"
"Thanks." Briar shed the overcoat and handed it over. The place was still full despite the late hour, but a trip to the bar, as much as she wanted to make one, wasn't possible since her table and her date were waiting.
"You might want to hang on to this," the manager held up a blue box with a white ribbon. He'd felt it before handing the coat over to one of his staff. "It looks important."
"Or like Shelia's been shopping for me again." She gave him a tip in exchange for the gift as she racked her brain for an important enough date to warrant a trip to Tiffany's.
He laughed as he slipped the money into his front pocket and started for her table. "Have a wonderful evening, Ms. Kilston."
Claire already had a drink in front of her but it was still fairly full. She liked the taste of a good Cosmopolitan but hated the calories. There was another drink set out for Briar, but that one was quickly drained.
"Hello, darling. Rough day?"
"Nothing to worry about. Besides, you hate talking about business," said Briar.
The waiter put down a fresh drink, and she used the interruption to study Clair's profile. Thin was always the first word that popped into her mind when she looked at the beautiful face. Not that there was anything wrong with thin, as all the romance novels prove, but there wasn't anything wrong with curves either.
"This is a special day so I thought I'd indulge you."
The comment prompted her to pull the gift out and slide it across the table. "No need to indulge anything but yourself, Claire."
"I knew you'd remember." Ignoring the comment, she reached for the box and immediately opened it.
"Of course I did." Briar figured this wouldn't be the time to pull out her Palm and put in a reminder to give Shelia a raise.
A diamond tennis bracelet came out of the box and sparkled beautifully in the low lighting of the restaurant. "I didn't realize you enjoyed our first date this much, darling." She handed the bracelet over and offered Briar her wrist. The gift was beautiful but Claire had to steel her face into a smile of surprise when she noticed the box was much larger than the one she was waiting for.
"It's a wonder I can think of anything else." As she closed the clasp a sudden feeling of sadness came over Briar.
Claire had just moved in one day and she hadn't thought to object, but there wasn't a burning passion to be with this woman. It was nice to have someone to talk to at the end of the day when the mood hit her, or to have someone sitting across the table from you at dinner, but the overwhelming sense of love everyone talked about was absent.
Luckily Shelia kept Briar from being a disappointment to the women who'd come and gone in her life by shopping for gifts to fit the things she kept notes on just in case, but she was disappointed in herself for not ever taking the initiative to go out and do it. There had never been anyone she felt compelled to roam the counters at someplace like Tiffany's for. Stopping to pick out something that would make their eyes light up like the diamonds of Claire's gift just didn't enter her mind. She was sure it would do the same thing to those places in her heart that had been closed off for way to long if she took the time to care.
"Are you all right?" asked Claire. She had placed her order and it looked like Briar didn't even know the man was standing there much less talking to her.
"What? I'm sorry, I'm fine." She opened the menu and scanned down to the steak section. "A filet medium, garlic mashed potatoes and a house salad."
"A salad? That's new." Claire handed over her menu and turned to Briar like she had grown horns. "You're usually so boring when it comes to food."
"Then it's a good thing to order something out of the norm. I wouldn't want to be too predictable." She smiled and didn't care that it wasn't completely sincere.
The night had been enlightening in so many ways, and while she cared for Claire, the seed of want had been planted. It was time for someone to share a life with who would eclipse everything and everyone else, especially work. Because for now, it was the only thing that made her blood rush and made her look forward to her days.
"Did she like it?" asked Shelia.
It was early, but the office was already full, and people were working the phones going over information from the foreign markets before they headed to the trading floor. Shelia met her at the elevator as usual and held up a cup of coffee and a cheese Danish. How Briar was able to keep such a trim waist was beyond her but it was her favorite way to start the day and she was there to make sure Briar was taken care of.
"Mighty generous of you, Shelia. Makes me wonder if you're not stepping out with my girl when I'm at work."
"Yes I have so much time on my hands and your money at my disposal to make Claire realize I'm alive much less happy."
Briar stopped walking and just stared at her as if Shelia had just spoken some deep truth no one had ever been brave enough to voice. "Do you really think she's only with me because of the money?"
"I can't answer that for you, boss." Placing her hand over Briar's chest she continued, "For decisions that important, that have to do with your life, you have to look deep in here. I know you don't like to have those types of sensitive chats but sometimes they're necessary."
The change happened so fast it was hard for Briar to realize what was happening. From the time she'd gotten up that morning she'd had a nagging case of heartburn and pain in her arm and neck, but she had blamed it on the late night meal. When Shelia placed her hand over her heart it was like she had started a radiating pain that was making it hard for her to breath.
"Briar?" Shelia took the cup of coffee out of her hand and put it on the nearest desk. "Briar, are you alright?"
"I can't…" The pain cut off anything else she was going to say and for one brief second she was overcome with a choking fear when her vision started to dim. "Shelia," she pinned her with those blue eyes that always reminded Shelia of the first blue of dawn, "please."
As frantic as the office usually was, it kicked into overdrive when Briar slumped against Shelia and ended up on the floor. While Shelia started to assess what the problem was, the guy behind her was on the phone to 911. The lasting image they all had was of Briar's shirt open and the EMS workers running enough current through her body to lift her off the stretcher.
"Clear," said the emergency worker when the first shot didn't work and they still had no pulse. The others stepped away but had equipment in their hands ready to continue their jobs knowing time was precious now. "Move, and call ahead and have the cardiac unit waiting for us."
Shelia ran after them to the elevator, tears making it hard for her to see, but she couldn't leave Briar alone to face this. Seeing her appearing so weak and vulnerable seemed so surreal. It was a run to the ambulance as they continued to pump in medication and strap on more monitors that showed a very weak pulse.
"Briar, don't you dare give up," said Shelia as she got into the back with her. On the way to the hospital she tried to call Claire to have her meet them at the hospital but her phone was off and she wasn't answering at the penthouse.
Hours later Shelia stood when a doctor came through the doors and waved her back to her seat. He sat next to her and exhaled like he was exhausted. "The nurse said you came in with Ms. Kilston."
"Is she alright now?"
He put his hand on her knee and tried to think of the most compassionate way of telling her Briar's prognosis. "She's being monitored, but Ms. Kilston's diagnosis is serious. This morning she suffered a significant heart attack that has left her heart muscle severely damaged."
"But with time or maybe an operation she'll be fine right?"
"I'm sorry, but the damage is irreversible. She seemed healthy but this episode came on because of severe blockages."
Shelia shook her head and tried not to cry but couldn't help the tears that started to fall. "What do you mean irreversible? Is she going to die?"
"We're helping her breathe and we're monitoring her heart, but we need to pray for a miracle now. A transplant is her only hope for recovery and with AB negative blood, it's going to take a miracle."
"Can I see her?"
He took her hand and walked her into the room in Cardiac ICU unit, and didn't let go when Shelia saw Briar for the first time. The vital and animated woman she knew was now lying there fighting for her life. Her fingers felt cold to Shelia as she held her hand, the doctor going back to the desk to give her some privacy.
"I should've asked you to start ordering a salad long before last night. Oh, Briar, you can't do this to me. Please promise me you're going to hang on and not give up."
There was no answer but Shelia sat there with her until the staff asked her to leave. On the way back to the office she called Claire again hoping to find her. She didn't want to just leave a message as to what had happened. If Briar were awake, the fact Claire was missing would have been the answer to the question she'd asked before her heart gave out.
"Morning, babe," said Vivian when she heard Megan behind her.
She had gotten up before the sun had risen and made coffee to take to the upper deck and watch the first colors of the day paint the sky. The rain from the day before had stopped only an hour before but had left a multitude of clouds and a heaviness to the air.
"Morning." She'd taken Mac for his morning walk and was feeling as sluggish as the weather. As she always did, Megan had tried to put aside the feelings that had occupied her mind the day before.
Putting her cup down Vivian walked over and kissed her and held her close for a long time. "You feeling okay?"
"I'm fine, just a little tired. You ready to go?" Because of their job, Vivian and Alan were on the road before six every morning.
"We don't have to go until a little later today so I thought I'd make you breakfast before you have to get to school." The offer garnered Vivian another kiss.
Her first job out of high school had been as a cook offshore and Vivian had discovered something about herself she would've never guessed existed. She found the domesticity of preparing a good meal very relaxing and enjoyed showing off her skills for Megan.
After enjoying vegetable omelets together, Vivian went out and unlocked her bike. Before she got on, she turned back and lifted her hand to wave. "Do me a favor," she called up to Megan.
"Sure. You want a ride?"
"Nah, I just want you to remember something for me."
She smiled and lowered her hand. "Just remember that I love you." It was as romantic a notion as Vivian ever displayed and it made Megan's face break out into a beautiful smile.
"That'll be easy to remember, honey. Be careful and I'll see you tonight."
When her principal came to the door of her classroom and asked to speak to her, it seemed like the words she told Vivian had just left her lips. Her boss started talking and it was all she could do to not tell her to shut up.
"They brought her to the emergency room at Big Charity." The principal held on to Megan and just kept telling her what she needed to know, no matter how painful it was. "Your brother just called so we have to go, honey."
"That can't be right," said Megan not even realizing she was being led out to the parking lot and into her friend's car. "She was fine this morning when she left for work."
She kept repeating that line as they drove up to the emergency entrance of the mammoth medical complex. Alan ran up to her and took over caring for Megan, putting his arms around his sister. They stepped into a small waiting room where a doctor was sitting patiently waiting for them. This was the part of the job there was no adequate class for. In his opinion, there had been no easy way devised to break such life altering news.
He took Megan's hand and turned his eyes to Alan trying to convey that he shouldn't let go of her. "I have a few things to discuss with you, Ms. Beniot, and your brother tells me you have Ms. Loreio's medical power of attorney."
"I have the paperwork at home if you need it, but I really need to see her. I'm sure this meeting is important but I just need to see Viv."
"No, ma'am, I trust we'll get to the paperwork eventually, if it's necessary. I just want to discuss what happened with you and tell you what to expect before we go in." He took a deep breath like he was about to jump into the deep end of a very cold pool and just started. "This morning because of the slick roads it's my understanding a driver skidded out of control and hit Ms. Loreio while she was on her bicycle."
"But she is always so careful," said Megan, as she gripped onto his hand like a lifeline.
"It wasn't her fault, sis. The guy just went through a stop sign and tried to avoid her but the wet road made him lose control," provided Alan.
"What we have to face now," the doctor paused and took another deep breath, and tried to smile as a way of comforting her. "What we have to face now is that Ms. Loreio has no brain activity so you have to make some decisions for her now that she can't make for herself."
"I know Vivian, and she can pull out of this. She's a hard worker and in great shape. She can beat this if we give her the time."
"Megan, the doc got about four opinions already while we were waiting for you to get here. It's the machines that are keeping her alive. I know Viv almost as well as you do. She wouldn't want this kind of existence. We had that talk once and I know for sure she wouldn't want that." Alan pulled her close to his chest and let the tears come. There were more than a few that fell down his own face for the friend he'd lost in one senseless accident.
"I can't do that to her, Al. I don't have the right to take her life away."
"Then let her words and her wishes do it for her," said the doctor. "Did she have a living will?"
"It's with all her papers. We drew them up a couple of years ago when we met with an attorney."
"Then your brother is right, Ms. Beniot. Let Vivian have what she wanted and ease your heart in that it's her wishes we'll be carrying out."
Megan moved away from Alan a little bit and grabbed on to the doctor's hand again before he could stand and move away. "Are you sure there isn't anything we can do?"
"My oath is always to preserve life were I can, ma'am. Especially when I see what the person has to lose if we don't do everything we can to make them whole again. The people they love and will be leaving behind if I don't do my job to the best of my ability is always a major factor in everything I do. I swear to you on all that I believe that Vivian is beyond my reach and for that I'm sorry."
"Thank you then. I just needed to ask."
He stopped at the door and looked back at them. "I realize this may sound harsh, but was it also her intent to be an organ donor."
"That's something I really don't know," said Megan.
"I wouldn't want to push you but with her rare blood type she could make such a difference to so many people if that was her wish. Look at it as a way of letting Vivian's spirit live on and changing someone's life for the better."
Megan sat with Vivian alone for over an hour, whispering things she'd wished she said that morning before she had ridden off. She kissed her goodbye with a little guilt for the thoughts she'd had the night before when she'd opened the box to find a knot inside. Their relationship might not have been perfect, but not having Vivian there at the end of her days and in the mornings was going to be incredibly lonely.
She rested her head on Vivian's chest and listened to the beating heart inside one last time. It was something she took for granted every night as they went to sleep and Vivian held her. The sound was reassuring and just one of the things she would be losing as soon as they rolled Vivian into surgery.
"I want you to promise me that you'll move on knowing that you are the best thing in my life. I love you, Vivian, and I want to thank you for sharing your life with me. You gave your best always and I'm going to miss you more than I'll ever be ever to say. Take care, love, and you'll be in my heart."
She kissed her one more time and nodded to the medical personal outside. They came in and started to move Vivian as well as all the equipment, and she started crying when Alan stopped them for a moment and kissed Vivian's forehead and whispered his own goodbye in her ear.
"It's going to be all right, Megan. I promise it will be," said Alan.
"Thank you again for doing this," said the doctor as he joined them. "I hope that your kindness will be rewarded."
"Will she ever be back to normal?" asked Claire. She had finally resurfaced hours later at the penthouse she shared with Briar.
"We need to concentrate on keeping her stable before we start talking about long term prognosis, ma'am." Dr. David Rider finished writing something in Briar's chart trying to keep his voice calm since this woman was doing everything to get a rise out of him.
"I need a better answer than that," said Claire from the chair furthest from the bed. "As prepared as Briar is for everything we haven't had the opportunity for her to make provisions for me, so you have to tell me when she'll be up and around. Shelia, you tell him. Who's going to take care of me?"
"What's the chances of finding a suitable donor?" asked Shelia, ignoring Claire's outburst. It had been a long day but she'd refused to leave Briar's side.
"Right now what Briar has going for her is that on the current list, she's the only one waiting for an organ with her particular blood type. Our problem is the fact she had this particular blood type."
"And with a new heart, she'll be back to normal?" asked Claire again.
"It's her only chance at a normal life, ma'am, but right now all we can do is make her as comfortable as possible."
Before he could go on, Briar opened her eyes and looked directly at Shelia. "What'd you put in that coffee this morning?" she joked weakly.
"Honey, thank God," said Claire. She jumped out of her chair and ran to Briar's side as soon as she heard the raspy voice.
She looked shocked when Shelia grabbed her by the collar and pulled her back. "Give her some room to breath."
"Listen, Shelia, I realize you're upset but don't touch me again," said Claire.
"Claire," Briar turned her head and tried to find the strength to finish. "I want you to wait outside."
"But I want to take care of you."
"I need to tell Shelia a few things about work then you can come back in." Her lips never moved as Claire bent and kissed her before stepping out of the room. "Shelia, you know what to do about that."
"I'll take care of it don't worry. I'm just sorry it had to turn out like this," she said meaning Claire and her self-interest. "Don't worry about anything when it comes to Claire and work, I'll take care of everything."
"Keep it up and I'll give you the company," said Briar as her eyes closed. She had fought her way out of the darkness but after only the short talk she had no choice but to give into it again.
The shrill beep of David's phone made Briar open her eyes again. Her slow pulse picked up some when she saw the excitement on his face. "What's your ETA?" he asked the person he was talking to. "We'll be ready so radio dispatch to the operating room so we can be ready for when you arrive."
"What's going on?" asked Shelia.
"Your boss must have a lot of friends in heaven, ma'am." He moved to the door and signaled the nurse to come in. "Get the paperwork ready and we'll prep when you're done."
"Please, doctor," said Briar wanting to know what was going on herself.
"There's an organ in route and it's the right blood type. We'll have to do some further tests but it's a start. I just need your consent to operate if this works out."
"Give me the papers, doc. Life's full of gambles and I love nothing but to continue to sit at the table," said Briar as her eyes closed again. Despite what was happening she felt deceptively calm.
Early the next morning Shelia gave Dr. Rider the biggest hug he'd ever received in the family waiting room when he gave her the good news. It would take months of recovery and a lifetime of medications but Briar was on the way to a second chance.
The heart had been a perfect match and was in perfect condition. For David it was always a thrill to take a heart from an ice chest rushed into the room and watch it come to life in his patient's chest like it just belonged there.
"Take care of this one, Briar," he'd said as he closed her chest after surgery. "Someone gave you the ultimate gift so honor that by taking good care of yourself and those you love."
"Are you sure you aren't pushing it? It's only been two months."
Briar had a smart reply ready to fly then reminded herself Shelia was just worried about her. "It's been two months, sweetheart, and you've been to every doctor's appointment with me. Did he sneak off and tell you something he didn't tell me about my recovery?"
"It's just that I know you better than David Rider does. Given a chance you'll go back to smoking cigars, eating steaks, long days and aggravating women in no time." She pushed the container of applesauce closer since Briar had finished her low fat turkey sandwich.
"What if I promise to stick to a schedule you keep for me?" Briar put a pout on her face and tried to act pathetic. "I'll go mad if I have to spend another day holed up in here."
The apartment Briar had lived in for five years had a spectacular view of the park from the outside balcony where they were sitting. Inside the decorations were understated and comfortable, mostly reflecting her personality. Her study was lined with books that had actually been read and weren't for show. It was in that room that they spent a majority of their time when Shelia came over and gave her a run down of what was happening at the firm.
"Yes I can see where the average person would call the police the conditions are so deplorable."
The jibe made her laugh and she stood slowly to go inside to the study before Shelia had to return to work. Along with the rows of books the room had a large window under which sat a chess game. The pieces were still in play from the last match of wits she'd been locked in with her father. When he'd passed away, she'd just left the pieces where they sat.
Shelia looked at it as Briar took a seat behind her desk ready to study some papers she'd brought over. As well as she thought she knew Briar, coming up to the inner sanctum every day had brought her new insight. Briar's world in the office was filled with uncertainty and risks, but here there was order. From the closets to the kitchen that was used only by the staff because she didn't cook, it was all neat to the point of compulsion.
She turned back to the enigma that was her boss and noticed again the differences in her appearance. She' lost weight, and her skin had lost that tanned appearance, but she seemed more relaxed. "Are you sure you can't give it another month?"
"The doctor said it was fine and I believe him. Trust me on this one, Shelia. I need to get back and test this baby out," she said as she tapped her fingers over her chest.
"That's not funny."
"I'm sorry, but I promise to make the most of this second chance. I'm going to do that by going back to what I know best and enjoy it."
She walked Shelia to the door after calling for the driver. There was one more thing to do before she could put the trauma of what had happened on the shelf like one of the books in the office. The organ donation program had asked her to write a letter to the widow her donor had left behind. The fact they'd been married was the only personal information she had about the person who had lost their life to make hers possible.
She sat at the antique library desk, pulled out a few sheets of her best stationary and her favorite pen only to just stare at the blank sheet. An hour went by before she started and when she was done two pages were filled with her distinctive scrawl minus her signature. She sealed it then put that envelope in the one the organization had provided.
Not wanting to wait, she walked down the street until she found a mailbox to send it off. The letter was as poignant as she could ever remember being, but the magnitude of what had happened to her had a way of making her feel as if her life had become somewhat surreal.
When Briar returned home the place was quiet. The maid had gone home for the night and Shelia had kept her promise to not come back after work to check on her again. She locked the door and headed for the bathroom wanting a shower before having to face the bland small piece of chicken with a side of broccoli that was going to be dinner.
She stripped from the waist up and was about to take off her pants when something jumped out at her. The long wicked scar that now dominated the landscape of her chest had healed. With time the doctor had promised it wouldn't be so red and wide, but that hadn't happened yet and sometimes it caught her by surprise.
Her fingers were tentative as she followed her fingers in the mirror. Slowly Briar started at the top and worked her way down, the whole time awed by the truth that someone else's heart was beating in her chest.
"I didn't ask for this you know." She put her hand over her heart and felt silly for having spoken out loud but felt compelled to finish.
"My father had the same weak heart. He just wasn't as lucky. I'm not sure what you used to do, but tomorrow you're going to become a stockbroker." She laughed and flattened her hand more as if trying to feel the steady beat.
"They told me you were young, healthy and married. I'm sorry it took your passing to give my sorry ass a second chance. Please don't take it out on me by quitting anytime soon, and I promise to follow where you lead me."
"I promise I'm all right, Al." Megan was busy packing empty boxes into her car. School was fixing to end and she was staring to put away all the supplies they weren't using anymore.
"I don't understand why you don't move in with me and Bridget."
"Viv dying on me has made me sad, Mr. Worrywart, it didn't incapacitate me."
"You never leave the boathouse except to go to work for starters. How many times have we invited you over for dinner?" He took the boxes from her and carried them around to the trunk when the backseat was full. "Being holed up in there isn't healthy."
She moved closer and hugged him. "I know you worry because you love me, but I'm not ready. The way I'm going about it might not be your way, but it's the best I know how. I promise I just need time to come to terms with the fact that she's gone." She stopped there not ready to voice that she needed time to forgive herself for the feelings of wanting more than she'd had. Losing Vivian had been her punishment for those feelings and it was eating away at her.
"Sis, you can have all the time you need, but I don't want you to cut us out. We're your family and we love you. Mom keeps asking about you and I don't know what to tell her to keep putting her off."
She smiled and started for the driver's side having had enough of the emotional conversation. "When I'm ready, you'll be the first one I call. Until then you need to stop worrying so much. Tell mom the same thing." Before she opened the door she paused and turned to the grassy area at the beginning of the dock. "Because we both know how she felt about Vivian when she was alive. Having her worry about her now that she's gone seems tacky in a way."
"Just remember that I'm here for you." He moved closer and put his hands on her shoulders. "I miss her too you know."
"You spent more time with her than I did. I haven't forgotten that."
"Take care and I'll stop by in a couple of days."
The rumble of Alan's truck started and faded just as quickly as he made his way to work. She didn't turn around not being able to turn her eyes away from the grass lot that was just on the other side of the levee.
"We're going to be late," said Vivian as she looked at her watch. A college acquaintance of Megan's was getting married and she wasn't really looking forward to it. Why they had even gotten an invitation was still a mystery but not wanting to be rude Megan had accepted.
"Tell me again why I agreed to this."
"For the free liquor and fascinating conversation there's going to be at the reception," teased Vivian. She held out her hand to Megan to help her off the boat admiring how good she looked in the dress she'd picked out. "You look beautiful, baby."
They didn't let go of each other's hand as they made their way to the car so Megan was surprised when Vivian pulled her in the opposite direction of where she'd parked the car. The sun was starting to set and the breeze from the lake was starting to pick up. They stopped just at the slope of the levee and Vivian kicked her shoes off and bent to take off her socks. She looked so content with the grass under her feet Megan ended up doing the same thing.
She laughed when Vivian took off her jacket and spread it on the grass so she wouldn't get her dress dirty when they laid down to watch the colors fade into the violet color the sky in New Orleans was known for.
"It's amazing to me that for all the things that have changed over the years, the stars stay constant," said Vivian pointing to the emerging night sky. "There might be more of them now, but sailors who sailed to distant lands to make all sorts of discoveries depended on them to show the way."
"You sound like such a romantic." She turned and looked at Vivian's profile. "Maybe you were born too late."
"I get to share my life with you so I think I was born just right."
They had gone on to talk about whatever popped into their heads as they used the levee as a backdrop to look at the sky and listen to the lazy waves lap against the rocks on shore. Megan had learned a lot about Vivian that night. She had been a sailor at heart but loved the feel of thick grass beneath her feet. The wedding had been forgotten but that night would stay with her forever.
"I hope you found some stars to show the way to the next life, Viv. If you did I hope you left me a trail to follow when it's my time. I miss you."
"I want you to just sit and let everyone do their job today. The firm has done without you all this time and we didn't implode so just relax and ease back into the hustle." Shelia was sitting next to Briar on the way into work acting like she'd burst from the build up if someone pricked her with a pin.
"Speaking as someone who had a heart condition, I want you to calm down and take deep cleansing breaths." She put her hand over Shelia's knee and turned from looking out the window. "I promised you I'd be good if you didn't give me a hard time about coming back. Time to hold up your end of the bargain, sugar plum."
Next to them a truck pulled up and stopped waiting for the light to turn green. On the side panel was a sailboat cutting through rough waters if the full sails were any indication. A feeling of happiness came over Briar so strongly that she put her hand up to the window.
"I'm sorry, what?"
"I said to please not call me sugar plum where anyone would hear you," said Shelia. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine." The truck pulled away and just as quickly as it made its way down the street was as fast as the feeling left her. "Just saw something."
For the rest of the trip Shelia talked about certain deals they had going and who was accumulating commissions not noticing her boss sitting quietly rubbing the scar on her chest. The motion had become so second nature that Briar didn't realize she was doing it.
The trip into the office took some time as everyone came up to tell her how good she looked, and how glad they were to have her back. Her office looked as if no one had touched the papers she'd left for further review and the desk chair was facing the window. There was something new on the credenza on the side of her desk and along with the bow a card sat waiting for her return.
"I know you hate stuff like this but I saw it at Sharper Image and I thought it would come in handy on the tough days," said Shelia before Briar threw it in the trashcan.
"Then it should come in handy everyday," Briar answered with a teasing tone. "I guess I should ask what it is before I thank you."
"It's one of those sound machines that help you relax to the sounds of the forest or the ocean. I know it's silly but I really missed you and I want you around for years to come."
In an uncharacteristic moment, Briar pulled her close and hugged her. "If I haven't said it enough, thanks for everything, Shelia. I wouldn't have gotten better this fast without you taking care of me."
"Anytime, and before I give you this next message would you like to turn on my gift?"
"It can't be that bad." She took a seat and turned her new toy on to the sounds of the forest.
"Your mother called and wants to come and see you."
"I'll give you the company if you call her back and tell her I died in surgery."
Shelia came close to shooting coffee out of her nose from laughing so hard, which she tried to cover up by giving Briar a scolding glare. "She's your mother and you can't put her off forever."
"All right I'll call her. Maybe the planets are in their proper alignment and I'll get off with only a warning for not heeding her advice years ago."
"What was her advice?"
The pen on her desk was twirled without effort through her fingers and Shelia could see the small idiosyncrasies returning as Briar adjusted to being back. "To join a commune and learn to talk to nature."
"That doesn't sound horrible."
The pen came back the other way just as quickly. "Once I had that down pat, then I was supposed to make love under a full moon to learn the true meaning of life."
"Your mother sounds like an interesting person." The picture of Carlson Kilston hanging in the lobby didn't quiet fit with the person Briar was describing. "After working with your father for only a short time…"
"It's hard to believe he made love in the house much less outside. Uh huh, I always thought the same thing. My mother in my opinion is best described as a force of nature. She's sort of like a hurricane."
Shelia laughed in agreement of the description. She'd only met Henley Kilston a few times but she left a definite impression. "What does that make your father?"
Leaning back in her chair Briar took time to remember the man she tried so hard to please. Not that it had been hard, but she tried always to excel at everything she'd gotten involved with. Her life had centered around trying to build on what her father had started. She'd surpassed even his high expectations.
"It made him a thatch hut on the beach of life when it came to her," she finally said.
"That doesn't paint your mother in the best of light."
Briar shook her head. "I didn't mean it that way. Thatch huts just don't hold up well against forces of nature, and when they met it was the way he described it. She was a force of nature that turned him inside out and gave him a sense of being blown over. My mother, as different as she is from him, made him extremely happy."
The sound moved from the forest to a gentle rain as Briar fooled around with her new toy. "Maybe that's what you should hold out for then, your own force of nature."
"And I should get back to work."
For the next few hours she methodically went through the reports on her desk, returned some calls and had a brief meeting with her managers. She was enjoying the glass of orange juice Shelia had insisted she drink now that coffee was off her list of choices, when she flipped her gift to the sound of the ocean.
It was strange to feel her heart race for no other reason than the sound of waves, and then an overwhelming urge to be outside took over. Without Shelia or anyone else noticing Briar left the office and got into the first cab she found.
The driver looked at her though the rear view mirror with a bored expression. "It's a big place, so pick on entrance."
"First one you find that has sun and grass."
He pulled close to the entrance near the Plaza Hotel and accepted his fare not interested enough to ask if this was a good place. Briar got out and walked the path a bit till she came to an open area ringed by trees. She felt like aliens had taken over when she found herself taking her shoes and socks off so she could feel the grass under her feet.
It was cool and comforting making her heart beat slow to a steadier rate. The biggest surprise was that she felt and overwhelming sense of happiness come over her that far eclipsed the foolishness of standing there in a business suit in bare feet.
"When you were a kid you would've demanded I bathe you if your feet touched the ground." Her mother's voice startled her but Briar didn't move from her spot. Henley kicked her sandals off and joined her, and with her jeans and Indian style top appeared like she did this often.
"Hello, mom." Briar put her arm around her shoulder and gave Henley a hug. "How'd you know where to find me?"
"I was on my way up to see you when you shot passed me like your feet were on fire." She glanced down at the mentioned body part. "And it seems like I was right. Do you come here often?"
"Actually except for the occasional dinner down the way," she said pointing the direction of Tavern on the Green, "it's the first time I've been in the park."
"Why today?" Henley pulled back a lock of brown hair infused with a little gray wanting to see her daughter's face. A little of the normal healthy glow was coming back but Briar still looked a bit haggard.
Had anyone else asked Briar most probably would've made some thing up, but with her mother she knew better. "I was sitting at my desk listening to some sound machine Shelia gave me when the sound of waves made me want to take my shoes off."
"That's interesting don't you think?" Henley tried to sound neutral now trying to lead Briar to feeling one way or the other.
"Considering this was the first time I've ever had to rush out of the office to do something like this I'd have to say it's very interesting." With her hands in her pockets Briar rocked back and forth enjoying the sun on her face.
"Are you finding anything else interesting these days, sweetheart?"
"There are only so many admissions I'm willing to make in a day, mom."
Henley had to laugh at the answer it reminded her so much of her late husband. Carlson could be bent out of his normal routine to a point but he'd never fully snap. When she'd had Briar it was like the kid had completely skipped over the buffet of her gene pool in favor of Carlson's. If it couldn't be proven to them with charts, graphs and tons of sound research they took nothing on faith.
"That's true, so I'll let you off the hook for now." She bent to put Briar's socks in her shoes feeling the need to do something for her even if it was small. "Feel like taking your mother to tea?"
After putting their shoes back on the two walked across to the Plaza holding hands. For Henley the contact was special since Briar usually wasn't much into things like that either.
The jeans and sandals were forgiven with the size of Briar's tip and they were escorted to a table. Once they'd ordered Henley turned to her and reached for her hand again.
"I know you'll probably get mad, but why didn't you have Shelia call me when all this happened?" She'd been at the apartment plenty after the surgery, but had missed all of Briar's hospital stay.
"She tried, regardless of whether it was what I would've wanted or not, and I asked her not to since I didn't want to worry you. You were in New Mexico doing some volunteer work I think is what she told me. I was all right by then so I told her to let you finish. Your work's important to you and I understand that."
"Nothing in this world has ever been more important to me than you and your father. The thought of something happening to you too just about drove me mad when I talked to her."
She put her hand over her mother's and smiled. "You don't have to tell me that, mom. This, just like what happened to dad, was just something beyond everyone's control, especially mine, but it turned out for the best."
Henley sat back when the waiter put down a tiered tray of finger foods along with their tea. "Did I ever tell you your father and I had our first date here?"
Selfishly Briar shook her head wanting to hear the story again. She never foresaw a day when she'd answer yes to that question not wanting to hear her mother tell it. The telling had always given her hope that the story would be one more thing she could emulate her father in. His biggest success to her was the love he'd found with her mother. They had been so different, but Henley had give Carlson's life meaning.
"Thank you for sharing that with me," said Briar when her mother finished. "I'll have to play hooky from the office more often I had such a great day."
"Careful, honey, you might trigger a run on the market with talk like that." They walked down Fifth Avenue admiring the window displays. "You think you can handle one more bit of advice?"
"Does it have to do with dancing naked under the full moon or something?" The question got her a swat on the arm.
"After what you've been through, I did a lot of reading," started Henley. She was enjoying the feel of Briar's hand in hers and the calm look on the handsome face. Usually by her third word Briar was usually rolling her eyes.
"Patients of transplants are finding that at times their new parts come with an added bonus."
"A 90,000 mile warranty?"
Henley slapped her arm again. "I'm being serious."
"Sorry, I couldn't help myself," said Briar. "What did you find?"
"The research in some people found that the organ had somehow retained memories from their original owner."
Briar stopped walking at the answer. "How's that possible?"
"The doctor's can't answer that question, and I'm fairly sure you know my answer on the subject." She smiled at the way Briar nodded indulgently at her. Most of her late husband's friends had thought her zany at best, but Henley's more whimsical side had always been charming to him. "There are things in life you're just going to have to take on faith, my darling. Could you do me one tiny favor though?"
"Sure, I've made a few promises over the last few months, what's one more." Briar answered.
"There has never been a more important time in your life than now to start listening to your heart."
"I promise I'll try, unless it starts telling me that capitalism is bad and I should live in a box in the woods. Then it's on its own."
"We're going to Disney World this summer, Miss Megan." The little boy next to her desk was holding a book with a picture of Mickey Mouse on its cover.
"That's wonderful, Jamarcus. After your great year in school I hope you have a wonderful time." The bell hadn't rung yet so she was trying to finish her lesson plan for the week while her teaching assistant stood outside waiting for everyone to arrive. "Are you excited about it?"
"I can't wait to meet Mickey and Donald Duck. They're my favorites." He held his book higher hoping to take her attention from the papers on her desk. "They make me happy and they're both in here."
Putting her pen down she turned and bent down so they were at face level. Her hair was pulled in a ponytail and she was casually dressed in a pair of khaki pants, a look that helped put the kids at ease with her. "Would you like me to read this to you before everyone gets in here?"
Jamarcus shook his head and pressed the book into her hands. "I brought it from home 'cause I wanted to give it to you." He watched her face as she took it again hoping his plan would work.
"If it's got your favorite characters in it, then why would you want to give it away?"
"I wanted you to be happy too, Miss Megan. You don't smile as much as you used to and I thought my book would help."
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."
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."
"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."
"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.
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