pen it. What are you afraid of?”
A simple question, with lots of simple answers. Maggie Stevens was afraid of heights. Of snakes, deep water, dentistry, and needles. She was afraid of being stuck on a plane next to a guy who wouldn't shut up, of suddenly becoming allergic to chocolate, and of getting old and losing her butt.
And, apparently, of thick envelopes with the return addresses of law firms. She stood in the living room of the house in Houston where she'd lived for twenty years, her best friend, Barbara Stanowski, at her side. Sunlight poured through the curtainless windows, so that Maggie had to squint to read the embossed print on the heavy linen envelope: R
, 113 F
“What is Carter doing using a lawyer in Colorado?” she asked.
“You don't know it has anything to do with Carter.” Barb perched on the edge of a packing box and lifted her heavy mane of dark hair off her neck. The two friends had spent all morning wrapping dishes and taping boxes, and still Barbara looked like the former beauty queen she was. Maggie should probably hate her for it, but then again, there were things about her that Barb could probably hate, tooâthat kind of history was the basis of a solid friendship.
“He's already taken everything worth anything,” Barb said, looking around the almost-empty room, at the flat squares of carpet where furniture had once sat and darker sections of paint where pictures had hungâall the ghostly impressions of Maggie's former life. “What's left?”
“Maybe he wants the Steuben.” Maggie glanced over her shoulder at the four boxes of Steuben glassware she and Barb had carefully wrapped in tissue and Bubble Wrap. Carter Stevens had given her the first piece on their wedding day and then a new piece on every special occasion thereafter. Four boxes of memories too valuable to break.
“Open the envelope,” Barb said. “Maybe there's a house in Vail he forgot to tell you about and he's been guilted into giving it to you.”
“Carter never feels guilty.” Not about dumping her after twenty years for an older (richer) woman. Not about taking the retirement fund and leaving her with a house that was worth less than the mortgage owed on it. She slid her thumb under the flap of the envelope and ripped it open, then pulled out a sheaf of legal papers. On top was a handwritten letter on stationery that matched the envelope. It was dated May 18, only four days previous.
Dear Ms. Stevens,
I am very sorry to in form you of the death of your father, Jacob Charles Murphy.
The words echoed in her head like a snatch of song spliced into the middle of the stock market report, or one second of bad porn flashed on the screen during a Disney cartoonâout of place and unsettling.
“Maggie? Honey, are you all right?” Barb grasped Maggie's shoulders and led her to the only chair in the roomâa fake Eames armchair that was awaiting pickup by the Disabled Veterans. Maggie perched on the edge of the seat and stared at the letter until Barb took it from her.
“Oh, honey, I'm so sorry,” Barb said. “I didn't know your dad was in Colorado.”
“Neither did I. I didn't even know he was alive.”
“I remember you said he and your mom split when you were little. You never talked about him.”
How could she talk about someone who was more fantasy than reality? The laws of biology dictated that, of course, she had a father, but she'd never been sure she could believe science any more than she did religion.
“When was the last time you saw him?” Barb asked.
Maggie shook her head. “I never met himâat least not when I was old enough to remember.” The only things she had of her fatherâbesides his DNAâwere three pictures from the album her mother had kept on the top shelf of her closet.
Maggie had taken the pictures after her mother died two years previously, and tucked them away beneath the bras and panties in her underwear drawer, where she could be pretty sure Carter wouldn't snoop. After twenty years together, he knew the story, but she'd been reluctant to share those photographs with him. Maybe even then she sensed she couldn't trust him with those treasured icons. If only she'd paid attention to those instincts.
“You want to talk about it?” Barb asked.
Maggie shook her head, then sighed. “He and my mom married and then he left for his second tour of duty in Vietnam. He came home long enough to see me born and to name me after his mother. As far as I know, we never saw him again. Mama always said the war messed him up.” When Maggie was little, she thought that meant he'd been maimed or crippled. As she got older, she understood her mother meant the war had damaged her father's mind. She still couldn't pass a homeless man on a street corner without stopping to give him money, especially if he wore an old army jacket or fatigues, or had a sign that read: V
. “I thought about trying to find him, but never did anything about it.” That fear thing againâshe'd been too afraid of what she might discover.
Barb turned back to the letter. “Who handwrites a letter these days?” she asked. She flipped to the legal-sized sheets following and let out a whoop.
“What?” Maggie stood, her legs still a little shaky. “What is it?”
“It says here Daddy left you a gold mine.” She grinned. “Won't Carter eat his shorts when he hears that?”
Maggie grabbed the papers and scanned them, lines of crisp black type jumping out at her:
sole heir . . . all his worldly goods and possessions . . . French Mistress Mine.
“It sounds more like a brothel than a mine,” she said.
“It says farther down that it's in the Eureka Gold Mining District,” Barb said. “And it belongs to you.”
“Do they still mine gold in the U.S.?” Maggie asked.
“Why not? Do you know what the price of a troy ounce is up to these days?”
“No, do you?”
“Well, no,” Barb admitted. “But I know it's a lot. Jimmy bought me these earrings for my birthday and whined about the cost for a week.” She touched the large gold hoops at her ears.
Maggie read the letter through a second time, trying to absorb its contents.
I hope you will want to visit Eureka and see your new property. Please let me know if I can be of any assistance.
“It says here there's a house and two vehicles in addition to the mine, and
âsundry personal belongings.' ”
“Sounds like your daddy did pretty well for himself. And he didn't forget his little girl.”
Maggie swallowed past a painful tightening in her throat. She'd never even known the man and she felt like weeping over his death.
No, not over his death. The tears that threatened were for the missed opportunities he hadn't taken advantage of, to know her and to be there for her when she could have used a father in her life. He might have held on to her memory for forty years, but why hadn't he bothered to contact her? Why wait until he was gone and it was too late for him to be anything more to her than a collection of might-have-beens and what-ifs?
“What are you going to do?” Barb asked.
Maggie looked at the discarded furniture and piles of packing boxesâall that was left of twenty years of marriage to a man who had turned out to be a stranger to her. Her hand went to the chain around her neck, where she'd worn her mother's wedding ring for the past two years. The day the divorce was final, she'd slipped her own ring onto the chain. She told herself she should sell it or put it away in a jewelry box, but she wasn't ready to give up something that had been a part of her for twenty years. Twenty years in which she'd made Carter the focus of her life, living where he wanted to live, working where he wanted her to work. At the time, she'd thought of her actions as the requirements of love and devotion; now, she felt she'd been sadly duped.
He was gone and she was left with no family, no job, and no idea what to do with the rest of her life. Her only plans were to take a trip somewhere, anywhere. She'd fantasized about spending the summer exploring Europe, eating bread and pasta in intimate little cafÃ©s in Tuscany and walking cobbled streets in Rome, seeing new sights and discovering new things about herself, and eventually ceasing to mourn the end of her marriage. But so far all she'd managed was a one-way ticket to Las Vegas, where she had a vague notion of staying at the Venetian and pretending she was in Venice.
She could probably trade in that ticket for one to Colorado. “I think,” she said, a shiver of excitement like incense smoke curling through her. “I think I'm going to Eureka.” She'd see this gold mine, sort through the personal belongings, and try to take stock of the man she'd never known and the life she needed to lead.
On the flight to Denver, Maggie was seated next to a dentist who felt the need to impress her with his life story. She devoured an extra-large chocolate bar and wondered if the sudden urge to scratch was the first sign of hives. When the flight ended, she raced to the airport ladies' room and checked the mirror. No sign of her ass disappearingâif anything, it was bigger than the last time she'd checked.
The flight from Denver to Montrose, the closest town of any size to Eureka, was on a turboprop that held maybe thirty passengers. The flight attendant shepherded them up the ladder to the plane, then climbed down and directed the pilot out onto the runway. Maggie spent the flight trying not to think about falling out of the sky and wishing for more chocolate.
After the plane had leveled out, she opened her purse and took out the envelope with the three photographs of her father. All three pictures showed a tall, slender man with reddish hair and clear hazel eyes. He had a high forehead and thick brows, and a wide mouth stretched into a smile so genuine and warm it made anyone who saw the pictures smile in return. In one photo, he stood by himself in front of a white 1966 Mustang, one hand on the driver's side door as if caressing it.
In the second photo, the man stood with a blond teenage girl. The girl wore a white pique mini dress and white sandals, and carried a bouquet of orange blossoms and stephanotis. The man wore army khakis, a private's insignia on his shoulders.
In the last photo, taken with a Polaroid camera and faded almost pastel with the passing years, the man cradled a pink-swathed baby. The infant's face wasn't visible in the photo; the man's face was the focus of the shot. His smile was stretched even wider, the eyes filled with such tenderness and pride; Maggie had burst into tears the first time she saw the picture. Even now, though she had looked at the image a thousand times or more, she felt her eyes mist and hastily tucked the photo back into her purse.
Reginald Paxton, Esquire, had offered to meet her plane, so while she waited for her suitcase, she scanned the crowd for anyone who looked like a lawyer. She'd about decided he was the fat man in the dark suit when someone tapped her on the shoulder. “Mrs. Stevens? I'm Reggie Paxton.”
Reggie was a forty-something biker with a silver ponytail; small, square, granny glasses; and a black leather vest. Maggie managed to pick her jaw up off the floor and offer her hand.
“Hello, Reggie,” she said. “I'm Maggie Stevens.”
“I'd have known you anywhere,” he said. “You look just like old Murph.”
“I do?” The idea made her heart beat a little too fast.
“Well, you're certainly prettier than Murph, but you've got his eyes and the red hair.”
She put a hand to the auburn curls she'd pinned up for travel. These days the color came straight out of a bottle; no sense telling Reggie her original shade was something her mother had always disparaged as “mouse.”
“We've got about a forty-minute drive, but I can use the time to fill you in on all the details of your father's estate and answer any questions you might have,” Reggie said, when she'd pointed out her suitcase and he'd snatched it from the belt.
To her relief, he didn't drive a Harley, or at least he hadn't brought it with him to the airport. Instead, he loaded her suitcase into a dusty blue Subaru with vanity plates that read: LGL EGL.
“I'm very sorry about your father's death,” Reggie continued when they were buckled in and headed toward the airport exit. “Murph was a great guy, and a good friend of mine.”
“IâI didn't really know him well,” she said. “Not at all, actually. He and my mother split up shortly after I was born.”
“Yeah, he told me the story. His side of it anyway. His biggest regret was never getting to know you.”
“He could have picked up the phone or got on a plane anytime,” she said, unable to keep the iciness from her voice.