Billie Kingsley blinked. It was the only outward sign
that she'd heard what the specialist had said. But inwardly, time stood still for her. What would happen to her family, to her children, her grandchildren? To Thad, her husband? They were her reasons for living. Now this man in his wrinkled white coat was telling her it was all coming to an end. He looked miserable, as if he were going to cry. She had to make the look go away. Her thin hand stretched across the desk. “It's not your fault, Aaron. I've always believed our death is ordained the day we're born.”
Aaron Kopelman had known all the Colemans, had been invited to their Texas barbecues, had gone to school with Moss Coleman, Billie's first husband. He remembered being introduced to Billie for the first time and wondering if she would be a match for the robust Colemans. How would this shy, pretty, inexperienced girl from Philadelphia fare among them over the years? It didn't take him long to find out and since then he'd loved her like his own sister. Billie Coleman Kingsley was unique, and God simply didn't make them any better. Or if He did, He kept them for Himself. “How will you tell Thad?” was all he could think to say.
“I don't know, Aaron. I told Thad I was coming to a fabric show, that I was thinking of doing some new designs. I'm not sure if he believed me or not. I've never lied to him, not once in all the years we've been married, but I just couldn't bear to give him even a moment's worry. I think maybe I'll go back to the hotel and do some thinking.”
“No you won't,” Aaron said spiritedly. “You're coming home with me. We have to talk about . . . treatment.” She was so beautiful, Aaron thought, and never more so than at this moment. How was that possible? Was it her essential goodness, her kindness and selflessness showing through? Even now she wasn't thinking about herself, but about her family, her husband, and how her illness was going to affect them. He felt a fierce protectiveness he'd never experienced before, and wondered if it showed on his face.
“No, Aaron,” Billie said gently, “I need to be alone. I need to absorb all of what you've told me, and I can only do that if I'm by myself. But I appreciate your invitation. You're a dear, wonderful friend, Aaron. Now,” she said briskly, with barely a break in her voice, “let's talk about my ... limited options.”
It was mid-afternoon when Aaron Kopelman walked Billie to the lobby. Promises had been made, commitments would be honored. “I'll be back a week from today, Aaron. Give Phyllis my love. I'll give Thad yours.”
Aaron felt hot tears prick his eyelids. He knew they were going to roll down his cheeks, but he didn't give a damn. Why Billie? Why not the killers, the drug dealers, the rapists? “If it were possible,” he said, “I'd change places with you. I swear to God I would.”
Billie laid a gentle finger against his lips. How dear this homely man was, how sincere, how loving. “Shhh. You're needed here. God knows that. And, if it were possible to change places, I wouldn't do it, you're much too important to leave this earth ahead of schedule. I, on the other hand, am not eager to go, but if it's my time, then I must accept it. I just hope I can meet my Maker with all the dignity Amelia had. I only want to be strong. Do you think, Aaron, that God will allow me that one request? You know, I never bargained with God for anything. I mean I've prayed, but never for myself. Maybe He doesn't know I'm here. Do you pray, Aaron?” she asked fretfully.
“Every single day of my life.” His voice sounded just as fretful as hers. “But like you, it's always for someone else.”
They said their good-byes, and as he watched her walk away, he said today's prayer there in the open doorway. He asked that God not let her suffer, but instead give her the strength and the dignity she needed.
It was six o'clock when Billie entered her hotel. She was glad she'd rented a suite instead of a room. She liked to walk around, and in its mini-kitchen area she could make a cup of coffee or have a drink without having to call room service. It rather felt like home. She also liked having a telephone in the bathroom, although Thad always said that it was obscene. A small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
Billie popped a can of 7UP and kicked off her shoes before she sat down on a dark, chocolate-colored love seat. She stretched out her legs, frowning at their thinness. After pressing the remote to turn on the television, she adjusted the volume to the lowest setting.
She was alone now. Now she could react in private. Howl, yowl, curse, scream, cry, rant and rave. Instead, she thought of all those who'd gone before her and those whom she was about to leave behind. She sipped at her cold drink. She had to call Thad. She had to call everyone. She needed to hear their voices. All those she loved would give her the courage to do what had to be done.
Her husband picked up on the second ring.
“Darling, how are things at home?” Billie asked lightly.
“When are you coming back?” Thad grumbled.
“Tomorrow morning. I want you to meet me with a large bouquet of spring flowers. Artificial will do if you can't find any in bloom.” Billie giggled.
“For you, my darling, anything. A slice of the moon, a sunbeam, a sparkling star. Me. What time?”
“Wonderful. We can go to O'Malley's for lunch. I haven't had anything decent to eat since you left. I hate eating peanut butter and jelly for breakfast. Actually, it isn't the peanut butter and jelly, it's eating alone. God, I miss you, Billie. Did you find the fabric you were looking for?”
“No. They're going to send me some samples next week. New ones.”
“So what's new in the Big Apple?”
“Not much. But I've missed you too, Thad. This city frightens me to death. I can't wait to get back to the farm.”
“I volunteered to go with you, but you said no.” Thad chuckled. “Serves you right, old girl.”
Billie forced a smile into her voice. “A mistake I won't make again. I'll see you tomorrow. I'll be the girl in the red dress.”
“Sweetheart, you could be dressed in burlap and I'd pick you out of a crowd of thousands. I love you, Billie.”
“Tomorrow you can prove how much. Have a nice evening, darling. I'm going to curl up with a book. Maybe I'll call the children or maybe I'll turn in early. 'Night, Thad.”
“ 'Night, honey. Dream about me.”
“Count on it,” Billie said cheerfully.
Exhausted with the effort she'd put into the phone call, Billie leaned back into the depths of the love seat. She realized that Thad was going to fall apart at the news, and the thought made her straighten her shoulders.
would have to remain strong for all of them. Lord, how was she to do it? The family she so loved paraded behind her closed eyelids. A lone tear escaped and rolled down her cheek. She wiped it with a trembling finger.
The long, lonely night stretched ahead of her. What to do with it? Eating would take up some time. Tea, lots of tea. Tea always made things better. It didn't make sense; tea had caffeine. Maybe some plum wine. Both she and Thad adored plum wine. No, she needed a clear head so she could think about the situation. She picked up the phone and dialed room service. Her order rolled off her tongue: two glasses of plum wine, two pots of tea, a side of raw vegetables, and a ham and cheese sandwich.
She had thirty minutes until her food arrived. Do something, her mind ordered. Remove your makeup, take off your clothes, put on that snuggly, yellow flannel robe Thad likes so much. Brush your hair, the gray hair Thad asked you not to color. Remove the pearl earrings Thad gave you for your birthday. She found herself staring at her wedding ring, a wide, plain, gold wedding band. Would they leave it on her finger when it was . . . when it was time to go? Of course they would. She would need it when it was time to meet Thad in Eternity.
Write it down. Write everything down so there's no problem later.
The words ricocheted around her mind.
She finished writing just as the room-service waiter knocked on her door. With greedy hands, she reached for the wine and drank it in two fiery swallows. Her insides rebelled instantly, and she ran, blinded by watery eyes, to the bathroom.
When she was back in the sitting room, Billie nibbled on the sandwich, which wasn't like any sandwich she'd ever seen. Even Thad, who was a big eater, wouldn't be able to finish it. It was a creation, she thought as she picked at the ham and thinly sliced cheese. It looked pressed, like someone had used a hot iron to flatten it so that more meat and cheese could be added. She had to remember to tell Thad about this sandwich.
, her mind ordered. A moment later the phone was in her hands.
“Mam, what's wrong?” Maggie whispered fearfully.
“I'm so sorry, darling. I've had this feeling all day that I should call you. Is everything all right with you and Rand?”
“Mam, hold on, I'm going out to the lanai. Don't hang up now.” While Billie waited for one phone to be picked up and the other to be hung up, she allowed herself to imagine the lanai, that wonderful, glorious patio, half indoor room and half outdoor room, which was full of colorful, vibrant flowers and greenery. Maggie had said, just a short time ago, that she had reupholstered all the lanai furniture in a wild fuchsia and purple pattern.
“Mam, I'm delighted with this call,” Maggie said when she came back on the line. “How are things in Vermont? What's going on? We just talked a while ago.
I know you want to know what I'm going to do about Billie Limited, right?” Billie Ltd. was her mother's design firm. Billie had decided to give up managing it and had asked Maggie to take over.
“Well, I do think you should be doing something besides swimming and sunning yourself. Sun isn't good for you, Maggie. What do you do all day, darling?”
“Hang out with Rand, read, walk, swim, cook a little, hang out with Rand, swim some more and hang out more with Rand.”
“It almost sounds,” Billie said lightly, “as though you can't let him out of your sight.” She wondered if Maggie had finally become aware of her husband's wandering eye.
Maggie's voice changed slightly. “It does, doesn't it? I think we're both caught up in this place. We call it our personal paradise. Rand goes to Hilo a few times a week to oversee the sugar refinery. I have to admit that he does more than I do. I've been thinking more and more about your offer. I guess I put it off because . . . well, because, you know me, I jump in with both feet and have no time for anything but whatever it is I'm doing. Rand would be ... I think he would be lost. Are you calling for a definite answer or . . . ?” Maggie let the rest hang in the air.
Something was wrong. Billie could feel it sing over the wires. Motherly intuition. “Darling, if you could just give me some indication if you feel positive or negative about taking over, I would appreciate it. Otherwise, I've had an offer to sell, although I cannot believe the amount. Can you imagine, the little design business I started when you were born is now worth over a hundred million dollars? I'm sure the Colemans' coffers could use the money if you aren't interested.” What she didn't say was that, in her own limited way, she would be ensuring her family's security. Billie Ltd. had always been separate from Coleman Enterprises.
“My God, Mam, you can't sell Billie Limited. Who offered you that much money? The Japanese, right? They're the only ones that have it. What kind of terms?”
“Cash,” Billie lied.
“I was stunned, Maggie, considering I haven't really done anything with the company for the past year and a half. It's more or less been running itself, and, I have to admit, going down in revenues. I need to spend time with Thad.”
“Let me talk to Rand, and I'll get back to you in a few days. Will that be all right?”
“Of course. Now let's talk about something
interesting. Have you spoken to Cole lately, or Sawyer? And how is the weather?”
“My children are fine, Mam. The weather is balmy, I'm here on the lanai, and the breeze is just heavenly. It is paradise, Mam. Did I tell you, I covered the cushions? Bright fuchsia and purple. They keep me awake during the day, the colors are blinding.”
Billie chuckled. “And Susan?” she said cautiously.
“Suse is Suse, Mam, you know that. One minute she's the world's biggest bitch, the next she's sweet as sugar. I think she needs to join âthe world' and grow up a little. That whining and helpless act she uses is getting a little dated, if you want my opinion. Listen, Mam, I know you take all this to heart and you blame yourself for Susan's . . . life, but don't do that to yourself. Susan is ... what, forty-eight? She's certainly old enough to take charge of her life. Aunt Amelia was . . . look, Susan wanted to go to England to study music. She wanted to live with Aunt Amelia. So now she's a renowned concert pianist. Not too shabby.”
“No, it isn't, but I never should have sent her. I feel that sending her off like that was the biggest mistake of my life. She was too young, too vulnerable. She needed me, but I gave in to your father and Amelia. What I did, Maggie, was to give my daughter away to Amelia. In my heart I believe she hates me for it.”
“Mam, no! You are the dearest person in the world to Suse. That simply isn't true.”
“But it is, darling. Susan wanted it all: England, the career, Amelia's twenty-four-hour doting, and all of us. As you say, Susan has to grow up a little. Listen, darling, I've kept you long enough.”
“I'm glad you called. Give Thad my love, and I'll call you in a few days with my answer.”