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Authors: Rita Mae Brown

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BOOK: Riding Shotgun
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In the background the television showed mangled corpses from an unexplained explosion in a midwestern granary.

“Hunter, turn off the news. I can’t face that stuff tonight.”

He clicked off the set just as Grace came through the back door. Woodrow and Peachpaws rushed to greet her. The cat hopped up on his hind legs and then rubbed against her leg. She bent down to scratch him behind the ears. Peachpaws wanted to shake hands.

“Just in time for supper.”

“What are you having?” Grace walked over to inspect Laura’s salad. “Umm.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Cig replied.

“Ain’t that the truth.” Grace agreed, and joined Cig at the stove. “I’ll do the veggies, if you do the pork chops. You’re better at meat than I am.” Grace tossed her luxurious vicuña shawl on the church pew along the wall.

“How come you don’t have some ball or ameliorative social function to attend?”

Grace slit open a pouch of baby limas and grabbed a microwave-proof dish out of the cupboard. “Will’s staying
late at the hospital, and there aren’t any balls tonight. If there were I’d make you go with me so I could relish your misery.”

Cig stabbed at the pork chops in the big iron skillet. “I’d sooner bleed from the throat than go to one of those balls.”

“I’ll go.” Laura spoke up. “I need experience.”

“Are you sure this isn’t your child?” Cig pretended to stab at Laura with the meat fork.

“We look alike,” Grace said.

“Think alike,” Laura chimed in.

“You think?” Hunter appeared surprised.

“Ha, ha.” Laura ignored him.

“What’s the scoop, Grace? Harleyetta West had lunch with Andy Trowbridge and you saw them. So who were you having lunch with—hmmm?”

Grace opened the microwave to pull out the lima beans and remembered she’d forgotten a hotpad, which Hunter threw at her. “Thanks.” She caught it and fetched the lima beans. “Cig, how far along are you with the pork chops?”

“Far enough. You can put those in a bowl
while
you tell me about your lunch. I’m more interested in that than in Harleyetta and Andy Trowbridge, although I’d never blame her if she had an affair.”

“Imagine being married to Binky West.” Laura shuddered.

“He looks like a manatee in drag.” Cig laughed.

“He wouldn’t be so bad if you could get the shot glass out of his mouth.” Hunter put ice cubes in each of the glasses, poured water, and surveyed his handiwork. He decided something was missing and disappeared from the kitchen.

“Hunter, we’re about to eat,” Cig called after him.

“I know.” The voice receded.

“Who were you having lunch with?” Cig’s voice became more insistent.

“What are you, my keeper?”

“I am my sister’s keeper.”’

“Yeah, well—” Grace pinched Laura as she carried the big salad bowl to the table. “Walt Manceron. He’s on the committee for the Cancer Ball.”

“He’s also drop-dead gorgeous.” Cig commented on the owner of the BMW dealership.

“That fact has not escaped me.” Grace smiled, revealing perfect teeth. “Nor the fact that maybe he’ll even give me a discount on that 7 series BMW I’m lusting after.”

“Lust for more than a 750i and he’ll give you the car,” Cig said wryly.

“Aunt Grace, all you have to do is wink at them. Men fall at your feet.” Laura stood behind her chair as the adults put the rest of the food on the table.

Hunter reappeared with a handful of golden mums. He plopped them in a low crystal vase and put them on the table.

“A centerpiece.” Grace beamed.

“We needed something.” He held the chair for his aunt as she sat down and then did the same for his mother. “I took them out of the back garden.”

“Good idea. The season will soon be over and we should enjoy them.” Cig was happy to get off her feet. She felt suddenly exhausted.

“What about me?” Laura, hands on hips, stood before her chair.

“What if I pull it out from under you?” He nonetheless seated his sister.

“Let’s say grace.” Cig reached for her sister’s hand, and they all held hands around the table.

“Heavenly Father, thank you for the food we are about to receive into our bodies and the love which we receive into our souls. Amen.”

“Amen,” they said in unison, each squeezing hands.

Hunter filled his plate, while the women watched in awe. Conversation could wait a moment. He was starved.

“Laura, what do you have to tell me?”

“Nothing, Aunt Grace.”

“Donny Forbush asked her to the Harvest Dance.” Hunter filled in the blanks. “She spurned him,” he continued in mock horror.

Laura glared at her brother. “So what!”

Grace cut into her pork chop. “Let’s not tell my husband, shall we?”

“Uncle Will will find out sooner or later,” Laura said.

“Later.” Grace’s voice had an edge to it. “Listen, he’s so busy at the hospital he probably won’t hear about it until after the dance so let’s not push it.”

“He’s in tight with the Forbushes. He will notice,” Laura declared.

Cig shot her a reproving look, although she agreed with her. Laura ducked her head and concentrated on her food.

Grace said, “Dr. William Von Hugel saves lives, he genuinely helps people, but let’s just say that he has his peculiarities, as do we all. He feels there are right people and ‘unright’ people.”

Hunter and Laura looked quickly at one another and then back at Grace, whom they loved and adored. But then everyone adored Grace.

“Will’s not the only one.” Cig sighed. “Laura, your salad is very good. Tossing in the sunflower seeds was inspired.”

The phone rang. Cig groaned.

Laura jumped out of her chair. “I’ll get it!”

They heard a polite murmur, signifying that the call must not be for Laura. “For you, Mom.”

Cig, her mouth full of delicious pork chop, wiped her lips with her napkin and excused herself from the table. While answering the phone during supper was uncivilized she couldn’t afford to lose business. The battery acid churned in her stomach.

“Hello.”

“Hello,” Lizbeth said. “Listen, we’ve decided to fly out tomorrow. Troy wants to look for property around Bozeman, Montana. We’ll compare and then let you know if we’ll be coming back.”

Cig’s stomach knotted. “It’s supposed to be unbelievably beautiful out there in Montana. I hope you find what you’re looking for there—or here.”

“Thanks. Ciao.” Lizbeth hung up the phone.

Cig returned to the table and sat down heavily.

The kids said nothing.

“More Looky Lous?” That’s what Grace called people who ran a realtor’s legs off then decided they weren’t ready to buy, didn’t have the money, or didn’t like the area. Realtors, unofficial tour guides, got the shaft more often than they got the sale.

“Yep.”

Hunter and Laura finished eating, then patiently waited for the adults to finish. Cig noticed.

“Go on. I’ll do the dishes.”

“Thanks, Mom.” They both scooted from the table.

Grace and Cig cleared the table. While Grace stacked the dishwasher, Cig built a fire in the big living room fireplace. She poured out two glasses of vintage port.

Grace joined her, kicked off her shoes and flopped on the comfortable old sofa. Woodrow stretched out on the back of it, while Peachpaws collapsed in front of the fire screen.

“Sorry about the buyers, Cig. Jane told me they’d been looking at really expensive stuff. That commission would have been a godsend.”

“If I really thought about it I could be incontinent in my hostility.” Cig felt morose.

A loud blare from upstairs could have shattered the windows. Cig lurched up and trotted upstairs. What good would it do to yell? They couldn’t hear her.

“They’ll all be deaf by the time they’re thirty.” Cig reached for her glass again as soon as she returned, the music turned down. “I’m beat, and tomorrow is a five thirty wake-up.”

“I still operate on the three-alarm system. One by the bed, one halfway to the bathroom, and one in the bathroom. Will sleeps in the other room on hunting nights.”

Cig’s mind switched back to business. “I’ll probably never see the Benedicts again, and much as I need the commission, I’m relieved. The wife comes out with the damnedest things. The first day I became well-acquainted with her physical person. Most especially her high-fiber, no-fat diet. But each day she yakked more and more about how she felt when she turned thirty. She hasn’t admitted to turning forty yet and my guess is she’s on the near side of fifty. Jesus, but
it was one thing after another. By the third day she was discussing the relative strength of orgasms according to the position.”

Grace laughed. “I’d have paid good money for that one.”

“And the husband would occasionally open his mouth to insert some important fact into the conversation, well, monologue was closer to it, and she’d shut up and look at him as though he were Albert Einstein. Believe me, that’s a woman who’s earned every Cartier bauble dangling from her starved body.”

“Was he smart?”

“Hell no. Dumb as a sack of hammers. He didn’t even know that sandy loam perks differently than clay, nor did he care.”

“He has to be smart about something if he’s looking at properties going for a million dollars.”

Cig thought about that. “I guess in his business he is, but haven’t you ever noticed how a man or a woman can be just terrific at one thing and completely oblivious to everything else—and they expect to have their asses kissed at regular intervals anyway?”

“I’m married to one.” Grace held out her glass for more port.

“Will isn’t that bad.” Cig poured.

“He’s not that good.”

They sat in one another’s company, staring into the fire.

“Isn’t it queer to be alive today?” Grace broke the silence. “I feel like we’re living through the end of something but I’m not sure what it is. Oh, here I am getting morose, and the reason I stopped by was that I thought you might need cheering up tonight.”

“Me?”

Grace knew her sister too well to be surprised that Cig was slow to admit the significance of the day. “Tomorrow Blackie will have been dead a year.”

“He did fall off his perch on October twenty-second, didn’t he?” Cig tried to make light of the day that had changed her life forever, plunging her into grief and debt simultaneously.

“Cig, you don’t have to be tough for me.”

“I’m much more worried about money right now than my emotions. If I can keep my boarders and pick up some more lessons, I can make the mortgage, the electric bill, and food—barely. Some months I’m slow on paying—if only the Benedicts had bought something! And I can’t keep taking money from you.”

“You’re not taking money from me,” Grace said, smiling, “you’re taking it from Will.”

“Same difference, and I feel guilty as hell. Besides, Grace, I’ve got to make it on my own.”

Grace inhaled, her perfectly shaped nostrils flaring slightly. “It took almost a year just to untangle Blackie’s deals.”

“I don’t think we’ll ever know it all. He kept a lot under his hat. And he was in so much debt. If only I’d taken an interest in the way things ran while he was alive… but you know me, I never cared. It took all my meager brain cells to learn the real estate business, and I’m no whiz at it even now. Crass as Max is, he doesn’t have the heart to throw out his best friend’s widow.”

“Max isn’t that generous. You’re a good agent.”

“Not recently. I feel like I can’t get arrested.” Cig put the glass of port against her cheek. “But I mean it. I can’t keep taking money from you.”

“I told you, it’s not my money—then again, I helped him earn it.”

“In your own way, Grace, you earn it as much as Will does.”

“Doesn’t every woman?” The startling blue eyes clouded over.

“I don’t know.” Cig placed the glass on the coffee table. Tonight she felt genuinely old and beat up. “I’ll take the kids out of private school during the semester break. Western Albemarle is a good school.”

“Cig, all their friends are—”

Cig held up her hand. “Hunter needs a paper route, they pay pretty good, and I don’t know what Laura can do; but the kids have to pitch in.”

“Let me get them through high school.”

“Grace, you are generous to a fault. But a year is long enough to get my feet under me. Now I’ve got to stand up, corny though it sounds.”

“I can’t let you do this to yourself. I know how you feel about the kids’ education.” The full lips became a compressed line.

“And I can’t live off your charity.”

“It’s not charity! Think of it as recompense. You’ve gotten me out of one jam after another.”

“Grace, we’re talking about money, not your little side trips.” It was what Cig called Grace’s affairs.

“Oh God, Cig, you’ve been rescuing me from the consequences of my rashness since grade school. I leap before I look. You’d think I’d learn, but I don’t.” She folded her hands in her lap, giving her a schoolgirl air.

“You’re talking about impetuousness, love, I’m talking about money.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’re sisters. We stick together. The Deyhles always stick together.”

“Damn the Benedicts.” Tears filled Cig’s brown eyes, as soft as her sister’s were electrifyingly blue. “And damn Blackie. I thought only the good died young.” She smiled ruefully.

“M-m-m,” Grace murmured.

“I miss him. There were plenty of times while he was alive when I wished I’d never see him again, but now…”

“Things will work out, Ciggie, really they will.”

“I hope so. Sometimes I’m so scared I can’t sleep. Or I wake up in the middle of the night and my heart feels like a jackhammer. I can’t breathe and I think, how am I going to make it? How?”

“You will.”

“I wouldn’t have gotten this far without you.”

“You’d do the same for me.” Grace put her feet up on the coffee table. “Many’s the time I’ve wished it was Will who had died, not Blackie.”

“Grace!”

“Oh, it’s not like I wish him dead but he’s such a grind. Blackie was full of life.”

“He certainly shared himself.”

“He just liked women. Sleeping with them was how he paid the compliment.”

“Easy for you to say!”

“Yes, it is. Will is faithful, hardworking, and too dull to have been born. Be honest. Would you rather be married to an unfaithful Blackie or a faithful Will?”

BOOK: Riding Shotgun
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