The woman known as Margaret to her fellow volunteers at the animal shelter stepped out of her ex-housekeeper Gerty's serviceable sedan in the shelter's caliche parking lot.
And out of her real life, the one where reporters and gossipmongers waited for her to emerge in public, to gauge her reaction to the fact that Hilton had been caught in the Bahamas and was now sitting in jail, watched for her to crumble so more dirt could be dished. Tongues could wag.
Here, the only tongues she came in contact with wanted to bestow doggie kisses. The only thing that wagged were canine tails. This place had long been her refuge, the one thing she did for herself. As a child, she'd dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, a goal that had scandalized her father. Not a MacGregor, no. The MacGregors were Texas royalty. A MacGregor, with a lineage going back to Stephen F. Austin's original colony that settled in Texas, did not wear blue jeans or clean up after animals.
But cats and dogs didn't lie to you. Didn't cheat. They lived in the moment and accepted what was. Didn't spend time questioning everything.
Her last job of the day was her favorite: walking Harry, an aging yellow Lab. "Hey, fella," she crooned as she approached him. His rheumy eyes looked up at her with hope, his tail slowly beating a tattoo on the side of his cage. "How's my boy today? You ready for a walk?" The poor dog broke her heart, as so many of them did.
"Why do you do it, Mom?" Penny had asked her more than once when she'd returned home, shaken by how callous her fellow humans could be about the fate of innocent creatures that couldn't speak for themselves. Only her children and Gerty knew about this particular volunteer work, and none of them understood why she put herself through it.
"They need me," was the only answer she'd come up with. Even before her world fell apart, this had been the most meaningful part of her week. She hadn't missed a single timewith the exception of those terrible weeks right after the scandal had broken.
Thank goodness Penny's husband, Craig, had, in his own kind way, bullied her into returning long before she was ready to face the world.
"You don't care what the papers say, do you, Harry?" She crouched before him, scratching behind his ears as Harry groaned in bliss. "You're my guy," she crooned.
A long slurp of the tongue had her giggling. "Come on," she said, rising. "Let's go outside and you can water some trees."
Harry's ears perked up at the magic word outside.
Maeve held the leash and led him down the hallway between the cages, too intent on talking to Harry to notice the tall man who stood in the doorway, frowning.
"Mr. Lawrence?" The manager of the animal shelter, Carolyn Mason, glanced behind her. "If you'd come this way, I'll show you the wing we hope to expand if the fund-raising drive is successful."
Chuck Lawrence yanked his gaze from the small woman who'd brushed past without looking up. Something about her seemed oddly familiar, but he couldn't pinpoint it.
would take an interest," Ms. Mason was saying. "Don't you agree?"
"I'm sorry. What did you say?"
A line formed between the woman's brows, but she smiled even more brightly. "I said that our organization would be so fortunate if more board members were like you and came to look at what we need to do our jobs."
For his part, he thought anyone who took a position on a board of directors owed at least that much service, though he expected more of himself. He'd let himself be talked into this position by Cecily Dunstan, the woman he'd been dating for several months, though he had little patience with the do-gooder facade worn by too many social climbers with little or no interest in the actual cause.
"I couldn't agree more," he responded. If Chuck Lawrence made a commitment, he honored it. Just as he'd honored his wedding vows for years after his beloved late wife, June, was gone. He hadn't been able to face the dating scene and had chosen to redouble his efforts at making money, instead.
But he already had plenty of moneynot because anybody handed it to him, but through backbreaking work as an oil-field roughneck coupled with the cunning bred into him by the grandparents who'd raised him. The thrill of making more was long since gone. In time, though, he'd turned his efforts to making a difference, to applying his funds where they could do the most good. His two sons and a daughter were grown and they'd inherit a nice nest egg when he was gone, but he believed that children handed wealth often did not turn out well, so he'd insisted that they make their own way thus far. They'd made him proud, every one of them, and though they all had their separate lives, they were a close family still, even if the heart of them, their mother, was gone.
"Chuck. Call me Chuck." He wielded a lot of power, yes, first as an oilman and now as a venture capitalist, but he'd spent enough of his life at the bottom of the ladder that he understood the difference between social status and true worth as a human being.
uh, Chuck." She smiled. "Let's move outside for a minute. It's a little hard to hear over all the barking. The dogs get excited when a stranger arrives."
He glanced around him and saw with approval that though the shelter was crowded, the cages were clean and each animal had food and water. "You run a tight ship, it appears." He followed her through the doorway that opened onto a wide, grassy area.
"Without our volunteers, I don't know how we'd manage. We're seriously understaffed, yet another reason for the fund drive." At the sound of one dog's joyous barking, she smiled and turned. "Like our Margaret there. She's our special angel. Been coming here for several years every single week."
Chuck followed the pointing of her finger and saw the woman who'd passed him earlier. He couldn't help smiling, too. The yellow Lab who'd lumbered by him had seemed ancient, yet he was cavorting with the volunteer like a puppy. "Who is she?"
"Let me introduce you. She's wonderful. Margaret!" she called, and waved the woman over. "I have someone I'd like you to meet."
The volunteer shaded her eyes with one hand. "Could it wait?" she called. "Harry hasn't had his walk."
"She's very shy," the manager said. "Spends her time with the animals almost exclusively." She raised her voice. "Just for a second. I can ask Leo to walk Harry."
The woman's reluctance was clear. "Never mind," Chuck began. "Let's go on."
But as he was saying that, the woman and the Lab began to approach. Once again, something niggled at him, a sense of recognition he couldn't credit. He watched the woman closely as she neared. Probably five-four or -five, slim, clad in old blue jeans, a wrinkled cotton shirt and worn athletic shoes, her hair covered with a bandanna, she was probably younger than his fifty-seven, but not a young woman.
A few feet away, however, he thought he heard her emit a small gasp, quickly muffled. She ducked her head as Carolyn Mason introduced them. "Margaret MacGregor, this is one of our board members, Mr. Charles Lawrence."
"Chuck," he amended, and put out his hand. "Glad to meet you, Margaret. Carolyn here's been singing your praises."
"My pleasure," she mumbled as she shook his hand and just as quickly released him. "I'd better go now." With a tug of the Lab's leash, she all but ran away.
"I am so sorry," Carolyn said, confused.
"No big deal," Chuck responded absently, his mind engaged in recalling the brief glimpse he'd had of the woman's face. No makeup, not even lipstick, graced her features, but there was something
"MacGregor, did you say?"
"Yes, why? Do you know her?"
Do I? He couldn't shake the notion that he'd met this woman before, but where could that have been? Her hands had been soft and smooth, the hands of a woman with frequent manicures, not those of someone who performed manual labor. Her carriage, even with head bowed, was dignified, at odds with her rough attire.
He stared after her, wondering.
"Do you want me to call her back?" The anxiety in the manager's voice conveyed her concern that an influential board member might be put off, something the shelter clearly couldn't afford.
He shook himself. Focused on the manager. "No. No, that's fine. Now, where were we?"
The tour continued, with Chuck doing his best to return his attention to the matter at hand.
Dear mercy. Maeve's heart pounded double-time. Don't panic. Maybe he didn't recognize you. She rounded the corner of the building and forced herself to slow. "I'm sorry, Harry." She crouched before him, wrapping one arm around his neck. "I didn't mean to rush you, I just" She dropped her head to rest it on his neck. "What am I going to do?" Despair swamped her. The shelter had been her one refuge, the lone escape from the prison her home had become. If that man
what was his name? He'd been a guest at one of the dinner parties Hilton had insisted on throwing when he wanted to lure new investors into some venture.
How she'd dreaded those command performances where she'd had to be the elegant hostess, where Hilton wouldn't leave a single detail alone, never mind that she'd learned social graces from birth while he'd grown up a factory worker's son. He'd pick at her choices until she wanted to scream, but she never did.
It was part of the devil's bargain she'd made, she saw now. She had never liked the glare of publicity, had only endured it to keep peace in the family. Her philandering husband, the fugitive embezzler, had demanded that she take her place in society, just as her father once had. If she'd known Hilton would turn out so much like her father, she wouldn't have married him.
But when she'd met the charming and handsome Hilton Branch, he'd seemed like the answer to a prayer. Her elder brother, her father's shining hope to succeed him in the family bank, had been killed in Vietnam, and her father had turned the glare of his ambitions on her, regardless of how ill-suited she was to the task. Hilton was so dashing and magnetic, so full of ambitions to be everything she was not. When h...