About the Author
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The two short sentences in the middle of his sister's e-mail had leaped out at Boone as if she'd typed them in bold black print instead of her usual girly green font. Just like she'd planned when she wrote them. She always knew how to get his attention. It must be the lawyer in her. Not that that was necessarily a good thing, but it had gotten him off his couch and his mind on someone besides himself.
Common sense told him if Aunt Gert had really been failing, Kelly would have been on the phone barking out commands in prosecuting attorney language and he'd have been on the next flight out of O'Hare. Instead, he'd spent a week preparing to be away for the summer before trundling down Interstate 65 in his Jeep this morning.
He sublet his apartment to a resident at the hospital nearby. He and Chris Fodrea had become friends after a rather violent racquetball game when the young orthopedist had told him his leg wasn't broken and that he didn't need painkillershe needed exercise. Boone forwarded his mail to the house on Twilight Park Avenue in Taft, Indiana, and stopped newspaper delivery. He'd stuffed a backpack with shorts and T-shirts, tossed his golf clubs into the back seat and buckled his laptop into the passenger seat.
He couldn't bear the idea of Aunt Gert growing old. Well, maybe she was already oldshe'd lied about her age so long he had no clue as to how long she'd actually been leaping headlong into life in her Birkenstock sandals and white bobby socks. She'd seemed old when he and Kelly had moved in with her and Uncle Mike, but they'd been young adolescents with pain dripping off them in hot and dark streamsso his memory was probably less than accurate.
The exit for Taft and the neighboring small towns that dotted the banks of the Twilight River jumped up unexpectedlyhad the town moved and he didn't know it?and he whipped the Jeep in front of an eighteen-wheeler to keep from missing the turn, waving an apologetic hand out the window. The trucker's response, immediate and absolutely unfriendly, didn't involve his whole hand.
Boone plucked his cell phone off the dash and spoke his sister's name into it, thinking voice recognition was probably a good thing for people who shouldn't talk on cell phones in cars but did it anyway. "Hey, Kell," he said, surprised when she answered her own phone, "what do you mean, failing?" He'd left her a message asking that same question on the day he'd gotten the email. If she'd called back, he didn't know it. He had a tendency not to check his messages.
There was a quiet moment in which he was pretty sure he heard the wheels turning in her head, bringing her mind back from wherever it had beenit was a shame that she'd gotten all the powers of concentration in the family. He'd been told frequently that he could do with a few himself. When she spoke, though, it was still his little sister's voice. Light and musical and, if you were her often-annoyed older brother, fretful. "She's just acting weird, Boone. Are you in your Jeep? It sounds like a hurricane. I really wish you wouldn't use the phone in the car. You're already the worst driver in three states."
He ignored that. Lawyers probably exaggerated everythingthat was how they made so much money. "What would be weird is if she didn't act weird." He inserted just a hint of a sneer into his voice. "You know that. What's she doing exactly?"
"Well, she's practically adopted this kid, Jack, to help with the yard and the garden. She can use the help and I suggested him to her in the first place, but I don't know, it's as though she looks at him and sees us when we were kids. For another thing, she has a renter. A woman. Young. With no apparentI'll be right there, Bridgetpast, no money, and a vehicle that should have been condemned in the last century."
"Does she need money? Gert, I mean, not the mysterious boarder. Or does she just want company? That's a big old house for just one person."
"No what?" He wanted to manage the conversation, really he did, because that was the best way to talk to one's bossy sister, even if she was two years younger and addicted to cosmetics and designer clothes.
"No, she doesn't need moneyshe's a freaking financial wizard. And no, she doesn't want company. Or, if she does, she's never said so, and you know very well Aunt Gert doesn't hold back."
They shared a dry and affectionate chuckle at that choice bit of understatement. Boone jerked the Jeep back into his own lane. Watch where you're going, idiot. "What else?"
"Well, she's gone into this crazy business thing, and when I tried to talk to her about it, she didn't take very kindly to my advice." Kelly sounded both prim and offended.
"Tell me you didn't use the word 'crazy' when you brought it up."
"I might have." Offended had become offensivedamn near whiny. "Because it is, Boone. I feel responsible"
Boone turned a laugh into a cough. He might be absentminded and on the clumsy side, but he wasn't stupid. "Tell you to butt out, did she?"
"In so many words."
"Aunt Gert's been adopting strays for at least twenty-some years. This kid and this woman don't sound any different. The kid, as a matter of fact, sounds like a really good idea, especially if it means I won't have to mow the yard or weed the garden this year. So far you aren't giving me anything to worry about." Which is good, but tell me again why I'm going to Taft for the whole summer.
"She's actually Okay, Bridge, I'm coming right now. Gotta go, Boone. Duty calls."
But she was gone. Off to do legal things, he supposed. Hard to believe his sister the homecoming queen was an attorney. He'd never seen her in courtthe mere suggestion that he watch her in action had horrified her to the extent he'd let the matter dropbut he always imagined her approaching the judge's bench wearing a funny-shade-of-blue satin gown and a corsage of tipped-to-match chrysanthemums. She'd have one of those banner things crossing her chest that proclaimed her Miss Indiana At-Law or something. He'd never been to her office, eitherthe timing and logistics had never worked out right for him to visit her there.
He knew a moment's regret. Time was passing them by. He needed to see her more. Maybe this summer.
Taft was just ahead. One more big swooping curve around the Twilight River and the city limits sign would appear. "Welcome to Taft, Indiana. Home of No One Special. Population 1841 counting cats, dogs, and the occasional parakeet."
He'd forgotten how sharp the curve wasit bent instead of swoopedoh, hell, what's that?
He made it back into his own lane in time to avoid smacking into the lopsided blue van that came from the other way, but the other driver over-corrected and wobbled inexorably off the road. The vehicle came to rest with its rusty nose against the bank that reared up from the ditch.
"Shit. Super shit." Boone swung his car into a U-turn, coming to a jerky stop behind the van. He jumped over the side of the Jeep and ran to the driver's window. "Are you okay?"
The woman was youngyounger than him, anyway. She had curly hair the color of butterscotch pudding and wide leaf-green eyes that were staring out at him in horror. She smelled holy God, she smelled like butterscotch pudding too. Aunt Gert's butterscotch pudding, to be more precise. She always cooked it till it was damn near burnta process that gave it an extra flavor and aroma that were famous all over town. The sweet smell sent a surge of unexpected longing through himit had been too long since he'd been to the house on Twilight Park Avenue that was the safest, warmest place he knew. Too long since he'd spent unhurried time with Aunt Gert.
But she'd kill him if he'd caused injury to someone because he was woolgathering. Or she'd threaten to, anyway. He and Crockett used to call her Aunt One More Time because those were the words that prefaced every dire warning of what was going to happen to them if they didn't straighten up.
Sometimes I'd give a lot for one more time to get it right.
But this wasn't the time or place for either remembering or reminiscing.
"Miss? Are you okay?" he repeated, wrenching open the door of the van.
The leafy eyes focused on him. Lord, she had beautiful skin. "Y-yes." She extended a hand as though she was going to feel his forehead for fever, then withdrew it before she touched him. "Are you? I'm so sorry. My mind was wandering and I must have scared you to death."
She was sorry? It had been her fault? Oh, good. Aunt One More Time wouldn't even have to threaten him. "I'm fine. No problem at all," he said magnanimously. "Let me help you out and we'll see what we need to do."
"Do you have a cell phone?" She accepted his hand to climb out of the van. "I'll have to call Sims to come pull me out and I forgot mine. I'm always forgetting it, or else letting it go dead. My dad used to holler at me as I was going out the door."
She laughed shakily and Boone glanced at her. "You're okay?" he asked again.
Her nod was decisive. "I'm fine. Messy, though. Sims will never let me hear the end of this."
"He still runs the service station?" Boone sniffed at the stickiness she'd left on his fingers. He'd been right. It was Aunt Gert's butterscotch. "He must be at least eighty. He's been talking about retiring for years. I figured he'd at least have hired someone to manage the place."
"He's seventy-five." She was leaning back into the van, and her voice was muffled. "What a mess. I'll need to call Gert, too. It's a good thing she made extra."
The driver of the blue van was wearing denim shorts and a watermelon-colored T-shirt. When she leaned into the vehicle, the shorts stretched snugly across her backside. Boone had never realized he even liked green, but she certainly wore it well. Butterscotch pie filling was smeared all down her right arm. He wouldn't mind one bit licking it off. The very thought made him draw back. What on earth was he thinking? Nothing like coming home to toss you twenty years backward into puberty.
She said something, but his ears were buzzing. More retroactive pubescence. "Huh?"
"Do you have a cell phone?" she asked again.
"Oh, yeah." He sprinted back to get it, figuring up what he knew about the driver of the rusty van. Her eyes were the kind you could get lost in if you weren't careful, her nose slightly sunburned, and her fingernails chewed well into the quick. She wore tiny pale green earringsno necklaces, bracelets, or rings. Especially no rings. She was pretty in denim and butterscotch pudding, smelled good and took responsibility for her own actions. Maybe his too. Boone wasn't sure about that and he really didn't want to dig too deeply.
So what did she have to do with Aunt Gert?
He handed her the phone and went back to watching her. She was easy on the eyes, not at all a bad first sight when coming home. Was this Aunt Gert's mysterious boarder, the one who had Kelly all tied up in bossy knots?
"Hi, Sims," she was saying. "I went off the road out here by Bowditch's farm. Could you come and no, no one ran me off. I mean, there was another car, but yes, he's tall with brown hair I don't know, Sims, I can't see it. Do you want me to ask him?" She covered the mouthpiece of the cell phone and spoke to Boone. "Sims wants to know if you have a tattoo on your er. A coonskin cap tattoo?"
Boone sighed. And nodded. The mechanic's next words were going to be "One more time." Aunt Gert wasn't the only one with the threat gene going on.
"Yes, he does. What does that have to do Okay, I'll be here, but can you hurry some? I'm supposed to have four pies out to Mrs. Kline in a half hour and I'm wearing one of them He will?" She shifted her gaze back to Boone, her eyes wary. He felt insulted. It had been at least fifteen years since Taft in general, and Sims in particular, had been terrorized by its own dynamic duo, Boone and Crockett. Ah, Crockett
"I'll ask him. See you then." She disconnected the phone and handed it to Boone. "Sims says you'll run me on out to Mrs. Kline's while we wait for him. Could you?"
She grinned cheekily. The expression registered somewhere around a ten on his hormonal scale. "He says drive slow and pay attention to what you're doing. I take it you know each other?"
Boone grinned back. "Sure. She still live on Bumpy Road?"
"Yes." She reached into the van and came out with two flat white boxes. "Hold these, will you?"
He took the boxes, sniffing again and enjoying the aroma. "I'm Michael Brennan. People generally call me Boone."
She emerged from the van with the third pie. "I'm Lucy Dolan. People generally call me Lucy."
He moved his laptop to the back seat of the Jeep and opened the door for her, setting the two pies he held on her lap. Now that the pudding was drying in her hair, he could see that the soft curls really were the color of butterscotch, matching the freckles that marched across her pink nose.
"Gertrude Taylor's my aunt," he said, swinging onto the road without remembering to check the rearview mirror until a horn honk reminded him. He raised a hand. He was doing a whole lot of ges-ticulatory apologizing today.
"I figured that out when Sims asked about the tattoo. I should have known it anyway from the pictures on the walls of the house and from your aunt talking about you and your sister and Crockett." Wariness lingered in her eyes. "Gert's my landlady."
"Thought she might be." Why was she looking at him like he'd just crawled out from under a rock when she was obviously the encroacher here? And hadn't she nearly run him off the road? "I never knew Aunt Gert to take in boarders before."
She smiled, although the pink color seemed to spread from her nose across her cheeks. "My van broke down in front of her house. I rang the doorbell to use her telephone because mine was dead and never left. There's Bumpy Road just ahead," she reminded him, a little late.