Part 1 Nicole -1-
Every county has someone like Nicole Whitman.
"The motion is made and seconded," she said. "All in favor say 'Aye.'" Silence. "Those opposed?" There was a chorus of 'no's,' including hers. "The motion is defeated." She turned to the board secretary. "Please write a letter forming the teaching staff that the board has declined their request for improvements to the library."
"Yes, Mrs. Whitman."
She was both admired and feared, but she was not ignored. "We see a need for a teen-age parents' program," the Children's Center director told her board. "Although the start-up costs will be high, we believe the benefits will be enormous. I'd like to hear your thoughts." She paused. "Mrs. Whitman, will you begin?"
Nicole's place was undisputed: with her support, the program passed the board unanimously.
Her name alone meant something: describing a social event, people were likely to say, "It's one of those Nicole Whitman things," meaning simply that the men would be in black tie, the women would wear gowns, the price of admission would be stiff and the evening would benefit some community cause.
A wealthy widow, Mrs. Whitman supported a number of charities, and attended their dinners, concerts and balls. If they had to endure her iron will and icy charm, so be it. She gave generously, and her friends gave generously with her. Some said her circle was afraid of her, too.
"I move that each board member pledge $5,000 to the building fund," she told the Women's Shelter directors.
After a stunned silence, Ollie Garrison spoke up. "Second," he said faintly. Compromising on a quarterly payment plan, the motion carried.
She served on their boards and attended their events, and having Nicole Whitman on a committee guaranteed that fund raising would be successful. She was an accomplished hostess who knew how to make a benefit work.
She took the job seriously, and she demanded that theirs id too. "I'm very sorry," she told the United Way president. "I know it is a disappointment to them, but your staff will be served in the kitchen. They will have the chicken."
The unfortunate man tried to argue. "Mrs. Whitman, my staff is attending the party on a volunteer basis. They'll be working, and working hard."
"The cost of the Seaside Ball is $250 per person, and there are no free reservations available." She gently tapped a sheaf of papers. "As a matter of fact, Roger, I don't see that we've received your check. You were planning to attend, weren't you?"
She had been active in the community for more than twenty years, and she had made an impact: as younger women moved into positions of importance, they looked to Nicole's example. She was happy to leave most of the chairmanships to them, serving on subcommittees, but the style she employed had become universal. An entire generation of rich men's wives were cool and polite and deadly effective at doing good. And then came the Heart Fund dinner dance. Normally enthusiastic and lively, this dinner was different for Nicole. Preparations for the event had not been easy, for there was conflict among the committees, and by the night of the party she didn't care whether she attended or not. She had done her part, and made her contribution of time and money, but the squabbling had worn her down. She watched the chief combatants say hello.
"Gina, you look wonderful!" Diane Blesser greeted her cochairman and mortal enemy with a kiss. "What a beautiful dress!"
"Why, thank you." Gina smiled brilliantly and squeezed Diane's hand. "Everything is just lovely. You've outdone yourself."
Nicole turned away. She felt surrounded by hypocrisy, and the knowledge that she had done her share of insincere socializing over the years troubled her. She wondered if she seemed so false as the others appeared to her, and self-doubt was an unfamiliar feeling to Nicole Whitman. There was no one to ask. She hadn't confided in anyone since her husband died six years before. Victor had been completely at home in this circle, but he always said he could see straight through them. He was a successful businessman who had left her with two children and a sizable inheritance and a broken heart. Even though she served as a director on nearly a dozen charity boards, her life was quiet without him.
She had always been strong-willed, and she shook her head, determined not to think about sad things. The party was a success for the Heart Fund, and that would have to be enough. This evening would end sometime. She went from group to group, saying hello and moving on quickly.
"Nicole's in an odd mood tonight," Anita Johnson said.
"She doesn't seem very happy," Rose Zimmerman agreed. They watched John Lattimore walk toward her. "He'd better be careful," Anita said. "She might just hand him his head."
John Lattimore was starting again. He had come reluctantly home from Texas, called by family illness. He took a job with a real estate development firm and was involved in the social scene through his work. He looked good in a tuxedo, and although he preferred sports to symphonies, he could hold his own with what he called "the Nicole Whitman Crowd," which he defined as "the people who can actually afford to be there, who actually want to be there." His was the charm of the frontier -- fiery, friendly, honest -- and while they considered him a trifle rough, the other guests welcomed him. Many of the women introduced him to their daughters, but he remained unattached. "I'm going back to Texas," he kept telling them."Evening, Mrs. Whitman," he said. "John Lattimore. We met at the Foxley benefit in December."The Foxley School served emotionally disturbed children, and she sat on its board of directors.
"Of course, John, hello. How are you? How is business?"
"Business is good, considering," he answered. "Are you enjoying yourself? I thought I saw your name on the committee list."
"Yes. I was on the invitations committee."
"That must have been fun," he said, sipping at his glass.
She looked at him narrowly. "It was fine. I was happy to do it. The Heart Fund is an important cause."
"Absolutely," John said, waving away a waitress who offered hors d'oeuvres. "Excellent cause. Damn straight. I just wish they had better appetizers."
"You don't care for the menu?"
"My ma taught me to be polite, but she never said I had to eat raw broccoli."
Nicole laughed. "My husband used to say that crudities was rabbit food."
"He sounds like a smart man. I'm sorry I never met him."
"I think you might have liked him." She smiled gently. "He always said what he thought. There was a silence which John did nothing to fill. Nicole sighed. Her plan to forget Victor was falling apart quickly.
"Are you all right?" he asked. "Can I get you anything?"
"No, thank you." She put down her glass. "I'm just a little tired tonight."
"I'm boring you, and I'm real sorry about that. Let me get you a drink and I'll leave you to talk with your friends." John put down his own glass. "Look, there's Mayor Yorchuk. What can I get you?"
"Club soda, please, and you're not boring me. In fact, don't leave me stuck with Tom Yorchuk. Hurry back."
She was alone when he returned. He handed her the glass.
"What did you do with the Mayor?"
She laughed. "I didn't do anything." That was the complete truth: she had been so unresponsive to his conversational gambits that he had moved on. She sipped her drink.
"Nothing more bracing than club soda?" he asked. "Down in Texas an open bar is an excuse for some serious reckless drinking."
"I guess I'm not the reckless type."
"So I've heard," he said blandly.
She was startled into laughter. "Touche, Mr. Lattimore. I don't normally drink at these parties; I guess I take the hostess role too seriously." She looked at his glass. "What are you drinking, if I may ask? Something guaranteed to induce recklessness?"
He made an elaborate show of looking carefully for eavesdroppers before he answered, stepping close to speak quietly into her ear. "Promise you won't tell." She nodded, smiling at his antics. "It's Pepsi." She laughed again.
"Please, ma'am," he begged, making hushing signs with his free hand. "I have a reputation to uphold, same as you."
Nicole surprised herself. "I hope it's a livelier reputation than mine."
John nodded solemnly. "I hope so too, ma'am," he said, and they both laughed.
From the reception table, Anita noticed. "Looks like the cowboy's cheered Nicole up," she said to Rose. "Good for him."
"Good for her," Rose replied. "John is a nice young man." She gave a place card to a new arrival. "He's more her daughter's age, though." Anita thought for a moment. "But Vicky's married. He's the perfect match for my niece Sarah." She looked around the crowded room. "I wonder where she is."
Dozens of people greeted Nicole in the course of the cocktail hour; she was courteous but brief to them all. She and John were just talking now, interrupting themselves only occasionally with gusts of laughter when John told big Texas lies. Charlie Tucker stopped by to get in on the fun, and Nicole sent him firmly on his way.
He had just finished some nonsense about oil wells when the call came to be seated for dinner. "Tell me, John," she said, picking up her handbag. "Why did you leave Texas if you love it so?"
"Family emergency," he said. "My mother asked me to come back."
"I hope things are all right now." People were moving toward the tables, and she put down her glass.
He looked at her blankly. "Actually, ma'am, my father is dying."
"Oh, John." She took his hand in both of hers. "I'm so sorry. I know how hard that is."
"Thank you." He shrugged. "I guess it'll all work out somehow."
Vicky and her husband came over. "Ready to sit down, Mother?"
Nicole ignored them and pressed his hand. "Is there anything I can do?"
He smiled sadly. "Can you stop time?"
"I wish I could." They looked at each other silently.
John jerked his hand free. "Evening, Mrs. Cochran, Mr. Cochran."
"Hello, John," Vicky said. "Ready, Mother?"
"Yes, dear." She shook hands with John. "It was a pleasure talking with you, John. Good luck."
His table companions, all co-workers, razzed him over dinner. Barry said, "So, Cowboy, you've been sucking up to Her Highness. We saw you two laughing together like old friends. Think she'll be able to do anything for you?"
"Don't call her names," Elizabeth said. "She's always been nice to us, even if she owns the entire county and half the people in it. I'm sure she could do John a world of good."
Barry aped a Texas twang. "Wahl, ma'am, I'd sure be pleased to kiss your backside. Much obliged, ma'am."
George got in on it, leering. "I'm sure John could her do a world of good."
Elizabeth laughed. "It must get dull being a rich widow. I'll bet she could use a cowboy."
John snorted. "Right, I'll teach her about life." He put down his fork and leaned closer. "Listen: I'm not interested. She must be nearly ninety. She's at least seventy."
They all looked at the table where Nicole sat with her daughter and son. "She's pretty old," George said. "I wonder if her kids are afraid of her too." There was a sudden burst of laughter from Vicky and Robert, and
Nicole smiled faintly. "Guess not," John said.
"Her kids are grown, so she must be at least fifty,"
Elizabeth said. "She's not seventy. Besides, she looks great."
"Lets drop it." John began again on his salad. "We're here to talk with the rich guests. I was talking with a rich guest: Nicole Whitman."
"Well, what's wrong with her?" Elizabeth demanded. "She's charming and intelligent and beautiful and rich. What more do you want?"
Barry had the answer: "Youth."
John glanced occasionally at the Whitman table. Nicole seemed distracted, inattentive to the speakers and award presentations. She frowned when Vicky and Tom got up to dance, and Robert made great pretense of standing courteously to push back an imaginary ten-gallon hat.
"They're laughing at you, Cowboy," Barry said. "Damn rich bitch."
Elizabeth had seen it too. "No, just the kids are laughing. She's not." She stood up. "Looks good, Johnny boy. Come on, George, lets dance."
John decided not to care. He caught Nicole's eye and grinned. She shrugged and smiled back.
"John Lattimore!" a voice caroled, and he was soon dancing with Anita Johnson's niece. When the song ended, George showed up to claim a dance with Sarah. "Go talk to the old girl," he hissed as John stepped away. "It might lead to something big."
"Oh, please," John said in disgust. "I'm leaving. Good night."
He threaded his way through the crowd, pausing to speak to Elizabeth. "Good night, Cowboy," she said. "I think you're the first to leave tonight." She seemed to be right; people were moving all around the ballroom, taking selections from the dessert carts, visiting at each others' tables. Even the guests that went out the gilded lobby doors all seemed to be returning.
"I reckon so," he said. He felt a hand clap him on the shoulder. "I see you made a big hit with Nicole Whitman, Cowboy," Charlie Turner said. "She certainly cut me cold."
He held on to John's arm, swaying slightly. "Tell me," he said confidentially. "She's not a bad looking woman. How do you think she'd do in the saddle?"
Elizabeth cut neatly between them, freeing John's arm. "Why Charlie! Everyone knows Mrs. Whitman is an excellent horsewoman; in fact, I'm sure you've seen her at the Cloverleaf Show." Smiling cheerfully, she turned to John. "It was nice to see you, John. I'll talk to you Monday."
He wasn't ready to leave any more. "Turner, I ought to bust you for that." He stepped forward, attempting to move Elizabeth. A few people nearby looked at them curiously.
"Don't, John," she whispered. "Let it go." She steered him, still glowering, toward the lobby. "Just let it go," she said. "Charlie Turner is an oaf, and everyone knows it. I don't know how his wife stands him." She pushed him through the doors. "Go home and don't worry about it."
In the lobby, John shook free. "Turn me loose, Elizabeth. Stop treating me like a child."
"Would you please be reasonable?" she hissed. "You can't take a swing at him, no matter how much he deserves it." She walked him to the coat check. "Just forget it."
"I'm not going to forget that son of a bitch soon," he said furiously, throwing his coat over his arm.
"This isn't the Lone Star State, John." She poked him suddenly. "Here comes Mrs. Whitman. Just shut up."
Nicole came across the lobby. "Hello, Elizabeth," she said.
"Hello, Mrs. Whitman," Elizabeth said. "Your committee has done an excellent job, as usual; the party is a huge success."
"It does seem to be going rather well, thank you." She turned to John. "Leaving so soon, John? Lucky you, to make an early night of it." "Yes."
"I was just saying I think he's the first one out the door," Elizabeth said. "Well, Cowboy, I'll see you Monday."
She walked quickly back to the ballroom.
Nicole watched her go. "Is everything all right?" she asked.
"I suspect I've interrupted something."
"No, Elizabeth interrupted something; I was about to make a fool of myself."
She smiled. "Getting reckless as the evening wears on?"
"I'm afraid so, ma'am."
"You know, John, you might want to talk to Phil Harris about that Northwestern tract your company is developing."
"I don't believe I mentioned that earlier," John said.
"I guess you really do own everyone is this county," John said, and then, "I beg your pardon, Mrs. Whitman. That was uncalled for. Please excuse me. Good night."
She ignored the insult, and the farewell. "I suppose your dinner conversation was a lot like mine?"
John sighed. "Only if they called you 'Cowboy,' ma'am."
"No, they called me 'Annie.' They called you 'Cowboy.'"
"I'm sorry," he said. "I've made a spectacle of you. If it's any consolation, I was born and raised right around here. I went to college in Texas, and worked there a few years. It rubs off."
"It must be quite a place."
"It is. I'm looking to get back there."
"Well, I hope not soon, we'd miss you. Especially Anita; I think she's going to introduce you to every unmarried woman in her family until she finds a match."
John laughed. "You saw that?"
"Of course I saw." She smiled. "Doesn't Anita do that every time she sees you?"
"You don't miss much." He shifted his overcoat to the other arm. "You must be cold, standing out here. Can I see you back inside before I leave?" He hesitated. "Or would you like a ride?"
She nodded. "Yes, I've had enough. I'll get my coat."
John made the same gesture that Robert had, tipping an invisible hat. "Allow me, ma'am.
They left together, laughing.
Vicky Cochran took the matter up with her mother the next day. "Mother, what were you thinking of, leaving last night with that cowboy?"
"His name is John Lattimore, as you well know, and I wasn't thinking of anything. Why do you ask?"
"Because it's mortifying, that's why," Vicky said. "You're old enough to be his mother."
"Since when is accepting a ride grounds for mortification?"
"It looks bad. You spent the whole night laughing with him. When Tom and I came along you were holding hands, for heaven's sake!"
"Then explain it to me."
"It's none of your affair, Vicky."
Vicky flinched. "Did you know that your cowboy friend nearly started a fight with Charlie Turner? Anita's niece Sarah told me. She thought they were going to come to blows, right there in the ballroom."
"I've wanted to strike Charlie once or twice myself. Was he drunk?"
"She didn't say. Was your cowboy drunk? Sarah said he sounded exactly like John Wayne. Elizabeth Lincoln got between them and smoothed it over."
"She's a brave girl. That Charlie is the size of a house."
"Did you hear what I said? John Lattimore nearly caused a brawl."
"What makes you think John started it? What provoked it?"
"No one heard what Charlie said first. Sarah said Elizabeth started chattering about you and the Cloverleaf Show."
"The Cloverleaf show?"
"Yes. Charlie said something, and John apparently asked him to step outside."
Nicole smiled thinly. "Don't you think that's rather gallant?"
"I think it's rather embarrassing. And then, after all that, you let him take you home. Everybody saw you. Mother, it looks like you're chasing a man half your age. Who knows what people are saying?"
"I beg your pardon," Nicole said. "I knew nothing about trouble with Charlie Turner. When Robert got in -- at a very respectable hour -- we were having coffee in the living room. And John was not drunk."
"I can't believe you invited him in. How could you do that?"
"It was simple. I said, 'Would you care for a cup of coffee?' and he said yes. The Heart Fund doesn't believe in caffeine; their coffee was terrible."
"This isn't funny, Mother." Vicky stood up. "I can't tell you how bad this looks. All my friends were asking what's going on with you and the cowboy."
Nicole also rose. "Anyone who is rude enough to make insinuations can speak to me himself."
"No one would dare, and you know it.:
"That's fine." Nicole frowned. "That's just the way I want it."
"And that's just the way you've got it. I hope you're happy."
Phil Harris was a good lead, and John made an appointment. They didn't decide anything, but Harris was definitely interested. John asked Elizabeth about it. "She told me to call him," he said. "Said he might be interested. And he is. Should I do something for her, say something to her?"
She closed a file and put it away. "I don't know what you should do. People say to call someone all the time; it doesn't mean they're ready to buy. Why is she different?"
"Because she was right. What do you think?"
"I think you're thinking too hard about Nicole Whitman."
"Isn't that why Frank sends us to those dinners? To get leads?"
"Yes, that's why." Elizabeth stacked the papers on her desk. "If you think something is due, send flowers."
"What should I say?"
"Cowboy, please. You're a grown man. Say you had a lovely time, say Phil Harris was a perfect gentleman, say anything you want." She looked at him curiously. "Why are you making such a big deal of this? Did something happen? Something you want to apologize for?"
"Well, what did happen?"
"I drove her home, and we had coffee."
"She invited you in?"
"And nothing. We had coffee. Robert came in."
"Did he interrupt something?"
"Dammit, that's just what he said." John rubbed his chin.
"'I hope I'm not interrupting something.'"
"What's her house like?"
"It's real nice."
"Did she show you around?"
"Well, I saw the kitchen when she made coffee."
"She made the coffee? No maid?"
"I guess not."
"What's her kitchen like?"
"Who knows?" John was exasperated. "I guess it was OK. It was big. I'm asking if you think I should do something."
"Fine." Elizabeth stood up and put on her coat. "Send some flowers. Nothing romantic, just a regular arrangement. Put in a note saying you're glad you had the chance to talk with her. That she was pleasant company. That if her son hadn't come in, important things might have happened."
"He was only home on a break from school."
Elizabeth slowly sat back down. "She told you that?"
"Yep. Said he was home on one of his mystery breaks, that he was heading back Sunday."
"Then he's gone now?"
"Elizabeth, that was a week ago. Are you listening to me? Yes, he's gone now."
She sat looking at him. "Be careful, John," she said finally. "She's as much as told you when the house is empty. Don't do a thing, don't say a word, don't send her flowers."
"I'm telling you, she's got her eye on you. She spends the evening talking with you, ignoring her swell friends. Then she lets you drive her home. She invites you in -- for coffee, of course -- and when her son arrives she tells you when he'll be gone again. What do you think?"
"I don't think anything. I drove her home. We had coffee, she saw me to the door and I left."
"Did you kiss her good night?"
"Good God, Elizabeth! Of course I didn't kiss her good night. What in hell are you thinking of?"
"That she's trying to tell you when to call her." She stood up again and dug her gloves from her pocket. "This isn't funny, Cowboy, no matter what I said at dinner that night. You make that woman mad, she could hurt you. You make her happy, the entire county will talk." She picked up her handbag. "They're probably talking already."
"What gotten into you?" John demanded, following her to the door. "There's no happy, no mad. She gave me a lead, I took it, and it looks good. I only asked if I should do something."
Elizabeth pulled open the door and fixed him with a cold eye. "I think you should do nothing," she said. "Stay away from that woman."
John left the florist's receipt on her desk.
On a gloriously warm April night, Barry, Elizabeth and John met at the hospital charity ball. No coats to check, they went straight to the ballroom and got drinks. Barry saw Nicole first, and gave John an elbow that nearly upset his glass. "There's your old friend Nicole, Cowboy. Want to say hello?"
"Not especially, thanks." He and Elizabeth went to the silent auction tables.
"Nice party," Elizabeth said, writing a bid for a necklace.
"You bet," he answered. They stepped around a knot of people. "Right crowded, though."
"Don't kid me, John. Your hockey games are more crowded, and the fans spill beer on each other."
He laughed, then grew serious. "How come you didn't tell George and Barry about the flowers?"
"None of their business," she said, stepping back to admire a painting. "Actually, it's none of my business either, but I'll ask: did you hear from her? Have you seen her since then?"
"Only in the newspaper." Nicole was the charity ball chairman.
"I guess I was wrong about her. Are you sorry?"
"No." John wrote a bid for a vacation weekend. "I'll be sorry if I win this, though," he said. "I can't even afford the minimum."
"Then why bother?"
"'Cause I'll be outbid right away, and it looks good to have my name on something."
"Hello, Cowboy." They both turned and saw Nicole's daughter. John stiffened.
"Hello, Mrs. Cochran," he said. "Please, call me John. This is a co-worker of mine, Elizabeth Lincoln. Elizabeth, you've met Vicky Cochran, haven't you?"
"Of course," Elizabeth said. "I saw your photo in the paper last week. You're on the hospital board, aren't you?"
"Yes, I'm kind of taking up Mother's torch."
"Why?" John asked. "Is she sick?"
She looked at him curiously. "No, I'm just carrying on the family tradition. My father was on the founding board here."
They made aimless small talk for a moment, and then Vicky spoke to Elizabeth. "Would you excuse us? I want to speak to John for a moment."
She led him out the glass doors. "Mr. Lattimore, I need to talk to you. About my mother."
"Why, ma'am!" John got out his worst western accent. "No 'Cowboy'? Not even 'John'? I thought we were beginning to be real good friends."
"Spare me." Vicky looked over the courtyard. "Mr. Lattimore, I was very concerned about you after the Heart Fund dinner."
"Why, thank you, ma'am, but I got home just fine. All safe and sound, as you can see."
"Cut the comedy."
The twang was gone. "You cut the comedy. What's your point?"
She turned to face him. "Just this: my mother is a woman of some means, and widowed. You are not the first man to flatter her with attention and flowers, and you won't be the last. You're just the youngest."
"You're putting me on."
"I assure you, I'm not. We saw you chumming up to Mother, and everyone in this county who matters saw her leave with you."
"And some who don't matter saw it too."
Vicky ignored that. "And my brother Robert finds you sitting in our living room at the end of the night. I tell you, I won't have it."
"Exactly what won't you have, Vicky?" Nicole asked, smiling pleasantly. She seemed to have appeared from nowhere.
"I won't have this -- this -- cowboy making a fool of you, Mother. Making a fool of our entire family. He's half your age."
"Actually, I think he's less than half." Nicole looked at him carefully. "How old are you, John?"
"Ooops, I was wrong. And I'm fifty-one." She turned to grin at her daughter. "There, Vicky, you see? He's not half my age; he's a mere twenty years younger."
"Mother, I can't imagine why you think this is funny."
"Vicky, I can't imagine why you think this is serious."
There was a moment of silence. "Well, this looks like a stand-off," John said. "I'll leave you ladies to settle it among yourselves."
"This conversation is not over!" Vicky snapped.
"Yes, ma'am, I'd say it is." He started to walk away, but turned back. "Mrs. Cochran, I think you'd best apologize to your ma. And Mrs. Whitman, I never meant to cause you any trouble. If you could, please say good night to my friends for me." He tipped his imaginary hat. "Evening, ladies."
"John, are you home?" Elizabeth and Barry were knocking at the door, and he opened it slowly. He had changed from black tie to blue jeans; his tuxedo was thrown carelessly over the couch.
"Hey, guys." He waved them in. "What brings you by?"
"We wanted to see you," Barry said. "Nicole Whitman came over and told us you had to leave, and we were a little surprised." He held up a bag. "We brought beer."
"In that case, make yourselves at home." They each took a bottle, and Elizabeth looked a him curiously.
"What happened out there? Why did you leave?"
John took a long drink of beer and put his feet up on the table. "Vicky Whitman told me to leave her mother alone."
"You're kidding." She got a glass from the kitchen and sat on a stool, looking out of place in yellow silk.
"Hell, no, it looked like a real cat fight was shaping up. I thought I'd best get out before anything really stupid happened."
"Oh, my God." Barry pulled off his bow tie and put it in his pocket. "And you've been brooding here since 7 o'clock? It's nearly ten."
"I wouldn't call it brooding." John drank again.
"For crying out loud, Cowboy; lets hear some details!"
He looked down the neck of his beer. "Not much to tell, ma'am." Barry and Elizabeth glanced at each other. "She called me 'Mr. Lattimore.' Said I was only interested in her ma's money." He finished off the bottle, and reached for another. "Said I wasn't the first. Said she wouldn't stand for it."
"Did you tell her you weren't interested in her mother?"
"Why should I tell her anything? I don't have to explain myself to Vicky Cochran. It's none of her damn business."
"And what did Nicole say?"
"Oh, man, I don't even know when she got there. I don't know what she heard, but I guess she kind of told Vicky to mind her business."
"But what did she say?"
John looked into the distance, thinking. "Well, she said I wasn't half her age, only 20 years younger. That Vicky was too serious." He whistled softly across the top of his bottle. "It wasn't really what she said, it was her voice. She was smiling, but I'd died if my ma talked to me that
"Your accent's getting pretty thick, Cowboy," Elizabeth said. "How much have you had to drink?"
"I don't know. A lot."
Barry put his feet up. "If they weren't screaming at each other, why do you care? It's not like they made a scene. I don't think anyone noticed."
"I noticed. I reckon Elizabeth here noticed too."
"John, did you think I could hear you?" Elizabeth picked up the tuxedo and hung it on a chair. "Because I couldn't."
"Don't do that, Elizabeth. I'll clean up when I'm ready. No, I don't think you could hear; I just figure I got called down in the middle of a big party. Got called down by a girl and got defended by her ma."
"How old is Nicole, anyway?"
"Just curious," Barry said. "Greg Peteck said she was probably sixty." He dropped his empty back into the box and took another beer. "Ollie Garrison thought she was younger."
"So, y'all stood around talking about her." John put his hand over his eyes. "I thought you said there wasn't a scene."
"That was great, Barry," Elizabeth said. "Could you be a little more tactless?" She turned to John. "Look, Cowboy, you know how this county works: the people who saw you two yukking it up at the Heart Fund were there tonight. And Vicky didn't look real happy when they came back without
"How'd Miz Whitman seem?"
"Fine. She was talking with people, just like she always does." Elizabeth thought for a minute. "But I think she changed her dinner seat. She ended up with Arthur Beating, at table fourteen. Vicky stayed at nine." She took the last bottle from the six. "But they were talking together right after dinner when we left."
"Y'all skipped desert to come visit me?"
"Well, we were concerned."
"That's right kind of you." John rummaged through the empty bottles. "No more beer. Guess I'll have to switch to bourbon."
"Why don't you switch to coffee?"
"No, I'm looking to get drunk."
"I think you're well on the way," Barry said. "Just sit tight, Cowboy. I'll find you something." He went to the kitchen and came back with a soda. "Here, try this."
"I'd rather have nothing." He slumped back in his chair, and no one spoke. When the phone rang, they all jumped. John answered in a slow drawl. "Hey, Miz Whitman," he said. "No, I'm fine, thanks." There was a silence. "That's real kind of you, but I'm fine, really." He listened again, and took a deep breath before he spoke. "Miz Whitman, I'm sorry to have to say this to a lady, but I'm not quite sober right now." Pause. "No,
I don't think so. Would it be OK if you called me tomorrow? Or if I called you?" He wrote down a number. "Thanks for calling, ma'am. I'm much obliged." He hung up the phone and closed his eyes.
"Holy God," Elizabeth said. "I don't believe it. What did she want?"
"I don't know." John lay his head back on the chair. "See if I was OK. She started to explain something. I don't know. You heard."
"John." Barry spoke urgently. "John, what's going on?"
"There is nothing going on!" John snarled. "Ask Elizabeth if you don't believe me."
She did not look happy. "She gave him a hot lead back in February, and he sent her flowers."
"That's it." John pulled himself to his feet. "Happy? Nothing's going on. Why don't y'all hit the road now?"
Barry was insistent. "Then why are you drinking yourself silly?"
"Because it was humiliating, that's why. Because Elizabeth was right, and I hate that. Because Nicole Whitman is really very nice, and her daughter is really very stupid. Because I'd rather not talk about it." He opened the door and ushered his guests out. "Because I'm embarrassed."
"I'm terribly embarrassed," Nicole said. "I don't quite know what my daughter said before I got there last night, but I wanted to talk to you and see if we couldn't clear this
"There's nothing to clear up, ma'am. Your daughter made herself real plain, and I'm sorry you think -- I'm sorry she thinks -- " He stopped. He hadn't wanted to make this call in the first place. "I'm just sorry."
"I know what Vicky thinks. What do you think I think?"
"I'm trying not to think anything, ma'am."
She laughed. "Well, here's what I think: you saved me from an otherwise boring evening at the Heart Fund dinner. I told you to call my friend Phil. That went well enough for you to send flowers. Now please tell me, what do you think?"
"I think that's about it, ma'am."
"Fine. Then we understand each other."
"Yes." He rolled the phone cord between his hands. "You know, I only attend your parties for my firm, to meet people."
"I know. Why do you think most people attend those parties?"
"To support a charity. To see their friends."
"No, actually they're more like business conventions. The huge companies send people because they want the reputation of being charitable. Most companies have some pet charity, so they'll send people to that event.
Other companies, like yours, send people just to meet people who might be helpful to business. And a lot of people just want to be seen."
"How about you?"
"My work has become committee work. My children are grown, and the charities are important. I don't need to work, but I don't want to be idle."
"But they're your friends, aren't they?"
"Some of them are."
"How about the rest?"
There was a silence. "They're all nice people."
"You're kidding." John laughed. "You don't like them."
"I told you, they're all nice people."
"What bullshit. You'd never survive Texas." He laughed again. "That's good. 'They're all nice people.' Tact must be your middle name."
She laughed too. "I suppose I do all right."
"You do just fine." John hesitated. "Mrs. Whitman, I really am sorry about all the trouble I've caused. I never meant to embarrass you, and I never meant to cause bad blood between you and your daughter."
"John, you haven't done anything except be pleasant company. Vicky will just have to get over it. I'm sorry you got put in such an awkward spot."
"Well, I guess I'll have to get over it, too." He shifted the phone to his other ear. "I think I'll just stay out of sight for a while."
"Not at all. You're a Texan; didn't they ever tell you to get right back up on the horse?"
"I guess I'm not that much of a Texan. I hope you won't take this the wrong way, but I was planning to just stay away from you."
"I'm sorry to hear that.
"I wish you'd try to see it my way."
"No, I know what you mean. I'm sorry because I was hoping to invite you to have dinner with me tonight."
"Holy shit," he said, gripping the phone. "Holy shit."
"Holy shit. Dinner?"
"I'm extending the invitation, yes."
"Holy shit." He stood up and began pacing a small circle.
"Why do you keep saying that?"
"I beg your pardon, ma'am."
She laughed. "Don't go Texas on me, Cowboy. I've heard that word before; I use it myself sometimes. Have I caught you that much by surprise?"
"Holy shit, yes." He stopped pacing. "Did you just call me 'Cowboy'?"
"I'm sorry, I was provoked. I won't if you don't want me to."
"No, I was just surprised. A lot of people call me that." He rubbed chin, thinking. "Thanks for asking," he said finally, "but I don't think I should accept."
alice - WHAT LINE BELONGS HERE FOR NICOLE?
"You don't want to be seen with me. I'm going back to Texas; you still have to live here."
"Well, it's your decision, of course, but I wasn't planning a dinner party. I was going to grill a steak, nothing fancy."
John sat back down. "Mrs. Whitman, I don't know how to ask this, except just to ask: who else will be there?"
"I wasn't expecting anyone else. Why?"
"Oh, God," John groaned. "I knew that wouldn't come out right. Why am I asking? Because I don't want to cause a lot of talk. If your daughter hears I had dinner with you, she'll go bananas. And I don't think I could take getting told off again right away."
"From what I saw, you held your own very nicely."
"Well, sure. But I don't like fighting with women. They're mean."
"Exactly what did Vicky say to you last night?"
"Vicky said I'm after your money."
"Interesting. She told me I'm after your body."
"Oh." John was embarrassed.
"Well, I might as well ask: are you after my money?"
"No, I'm not. Uh, excuse me, but are you after my body?"
"No," he said. John could hear the hum of the phone line in the silence. He decided against making a joke. "So," he said. "What time is dinner?"
Down Laurel, across Pine. Left on Mitchell. The houses were getting bigger. Right on Hawthorne. Third house on the right. He parked in the driveway, next to the Jaguar.
"I'm glad you decided to come," she said, holding the door open for him. "It's such a bore, cooking for one."
"It was nice of you to ask me." John looked at her carefully. "Do you look different, or is it me?"
She laughed. "It's me; I'm not wearing the eight pounds of make-up you're used to seeing."
John grinned. "You look fine; I guess I've just never seen you outside of some ballroom."
"Nor I you." She led the way across the living room. "And since we're trading observations, Mr. Lattimore, I must say that blue jeans suit you. Not that you're not smashing in black tie, you understand, but this is more of what I'd expect from a Texas cowboy." She stopped at a sideboard. "Would you like a drink?"
"Whatever you're having." He watched her pour. "You know, I wasn't a Texas wrangler," he said. "I've owned suits for years."
"And I wasn't always the rich bitch Nicole Whitman." She handed him a glass. "I hope wine is all right with you."
"It's fine, thanks." They went to the patio. John sat on a wooden planter. Nicole sat at an umbrella table. "I can't believe you said that," he said.
Nicole moved a bottle of salad dressing fractionally to the left. "Getting called names is an occupational hazard," she answered. "I can't deny that I've got money, and I'm sure I've gotten more demanding, more exacting -- I don't know -- less patient with silliness over the years." She smiled and sipped her wine. "There are worse names to be called."
"Maybe you'd survive with Texans after all," he said. "They don't hold with a lot of silliness either. You should go there sometime."
"Maybe I'll come visit you."
"I'd like that." John looked across the garden; the trees were tinged with green in the early spring sunset, and they were comfortably quiet for some minutes, watching the last of the light fade from the sky. He could see her in the spill from the house lights. She did not seem older without her make-up, just different. "Tell me, Mrs. Whitman," he said softly. "What do people call you when they're not afraid of you?"
"Vicky tells me that everyone is afraid of me." Nicole idly turned the steak, watching the marinade spread slowly over the surface. "I don't know, maybe she's right."
"Oh, what a load of crap!" He went inside and came back with the wine bottle. "You know who your friends are." He poured for them both. "When did you begin to trust your daughter more than you trust yourself?"
"When I met you, John." She put down the fork and looked toward to the darkened woods, speaking distantly. "I really don't mind fools calling me names, but it hurts to think that everyone is afraid of the wealthy Mrs. Whitman." He thumped the bottle down on the table. "I'm still asking: what do people call you when they're not afraid of
"Then you decide." She pushed the platter aside. "John, I'm old. I'm over fifty, probably older than your own mother. I've made a place for myself, and I can't get out of it now."
It was all happening too fast, but he didn't stop. "I'm not the child you seem to think I am." He pushed back her chair, pulled her to her feet. "You've let your daughter dictate to you, and that's backwards. If I want to kiss you" -- he hadn't realized until now that he did -- "then by God I will. You can slap me or kiss me back; I'll understand either." He pulled her close and kissed her, and kissed her again.
He could feel her arms around him. His lips were on her mouth, her face, her throat, his hands were full of her hair. Breathless, finally, they sank down, she to her chair and he before it.
He leaned forward and kissed her, gently. "I'm glad you didn't slap me," he said.
She smoothed the hair back from his forehead. "I am too."
In mid-May, Nicole's son came home, but to a decidedly different household, one that included a cowboy. John hadn't moved in, but he was there a lot. Vicky did not like it; Robert didn't mind. She called on a Thursday night, and they talked about it.
"Robert, is Mother there?"
"Dream on, Vicky. She and John went to the Adirondacks. They'll be back Sunday."
"She went away with him?"
"It gets better: remember she bid on the vacation weekend at Helen Schulman's cottage? That's were they've gone."
"Stop it, Robert," Vicky said. "You're starting to sound like him." She thought for a minute.
"She bought that stupid weekend at the hospital ball. Dammit, I there was something going on. He had a lot of nerve, saying I owed Mother an apology."
Robert had heard the story. He said nothing, busy with a pot of coffee.
"And Helen Schulman!" she said. "No one talks more than her. Anyone who doesn't know Mother is going out with that cowboy will know it by the end of next week."
Robert spooned sugar into his cup. "How could anyone not know? They're always together. Everyone saw them at the Children's Center carnival, and he was here at the dinner she had for the Richardson's."
"I heard about that. Fran said they were standing arm in arm, saying goodbye to everyone."
"Well, it's true." He took an experimental sip of his coffee. "Actually, they get along well together. Mother laughs a lot more now. He's pretty funny. Everyone likes "Robert, he's only three years older than me. Do you realize how foolish that looks?" She paused. "Has she given him any gifts?"
"If you're expecting her to adorn him with jewelry, I think you're barking up the wrong tree." He thought for a moment. "But I think she might have given him that red sports car he's been driving lately." Vicky practically screamed, and Robert laughed. "I'm kidding, Vic. He's still driving that crummy gray Toyota." He laughed some more.
"Boy, you really are all wound up about this. What's so terrible about Mother having a boyfriend?"
"Robert, listen to me. He's twenty-two years younger than her. How long do you think this romance can continue?
Besides, all those people who wouldn't dare ask her about it are asking.
'How's Nicole enjoying the cowboy?' That pig Joe Martin actually asked if John's been using his lasso on
"Then maybe we should beat shit out of Joe Martin."
"Are you crazy? You sound like John."
"Give it a rest," Robert said. "You're embarrassed because you don't have an answer for stupid, nosy questions.
John is fine. Mother's friends like him, I like him and Mother likes him. Mother may even love him."
"Never!" Vicky sounded stricken. "Do you think she'll marry him?"
"I don't know, Vicky. I haven't asked her. Why don't
"Mother and I haven't spoken three times since the hospital ball. Doesn't she say anything about him?"
"No, she doesn't. And I don't ask. Somehow it doesn't seem to be any of my business. And it's none of yours."
"I'm thinking about our family!"
"You're thinking about yourself." Robert put his cup in the sink, tired of the conversation. "If people are asking about Mother and Cowboy, act like you don't understand the question. Didn't she teach you anything?"
"She's going to be terribly hurt in the end."
"Vicky, haven't you ever been in love? Do you think she wasn't terribly hurt when Dad died? It's been six years, and she's happy now; stop worrying about later. What's the worst that can happen? We'll have John around forever. I think I could stand that."
"Well, I couldn't. Good-bye." She hung up.
Helen Schulman's cabin was charming and comfortable.
John and Nicole arrived with groceries, walking shoes and a full schedule of peaks to scale.
Sitting before the fire on their first night in the mountains, they got into a friendly argument over the reading of topographical maps and abandoned their hiking plans.
They spent the weekend making love.
Vicky called Anita, and they had a long talk. She started quietly, asking if Anita had seen her mother lately, and since Anita hadn't the conversation developed quickly.
"Of course, I'm happy she's found someone," Anita said.
"But I've always thought John was too young for her, more your age. I'm afraid she's gone a bit overboard."
"I hope she comes to her senses soon," Vicky said. "She's missed most of her meetings for more than a month; I'm afraid some of the boards are thinking of asking for her resignation."
"Oh, they couldn't!" Anita sounded shocked. "Your mother is an institution around here." She paused a moment. "Do you think they would?"
"I don't know, Anita, they might. They need someone who's going to attend their meetings and take an interest. If
Mother persists in acting like a schoolgirl, I can't see how they won't." Vicky sighed heavily. "And if we're treated to another display like John threatening to fight Charlie Turner, I think people are going to start dropping her from their guest lists."
"Yes, Sarah told me about that. I wonder what Charlie said to him."
"I really don't care," Vicky said. "There's no excuse."
"You're right, there's no excuse." Anita thumbed through her calendar. "Your mother is supposed to chair the Regatta Ball in August, and it's the biggest fund-raiser of the year for the Environmental Fund; they can't risk not having a strong chairman. Do you think it would be wise for me to talk to Jeanne about it?"
"I hate to think everyone is talking about Mother," Vicky temporized. "It makes her seem -- well, a little ridiculous."
Anita suddenly became firm. "Vicky, we are talking about your mother's reputation, and I'm sure it's important to her; she's infatuated with her cowboy friend right now, but she's bound to get over it. We've got to do everything we can to protect her until then."
"Well, maybe you're right."
"I'm sure I am. I'll speak to Jeanne."
"Well, thanks for for hearing me out," Vicky said with no hint of triumph in her voice. "Let me know if I can do anything."
Anita got the Environmental Fund director on the phone.
"Jeanne, when did you last see Nicole Whitman?"
Jeanne thought for a minute. "Well, she wasn't at our last board meeting..."
"Dana? It's Jeanne McConnell. Tell me, was Nicole Whitman at your committee meeting Thursday...?"
Anita spoke to Ollie Garrison. "I haven't seen her since April," he said.
Rose Zimmerman had last seen Nicole, with John, at Nicole's dinner for the Richardson's.
"They're a delightful couple," she told Dana. "So sweet to each other. And that John is terribly funny. We were all in stitches."
"But don't you think it's odd that Nicole's dropped completely out of sight?"
"No, I don't."
"Really, Rose!" Dana sounded shocked. "Nicole is making a fool of herself; she's old enough to be his mother. It's disgraceful, spending all her time with him, racing off to the mountains, neglecting her duties. The Environmental Fund is considering asking for her resignation. No wonder Vicky is ashamed."
"Vicky's ashamed, is she?" Rose's tone sharpened. "Dana, you listen to me, and you can tell anyone else who asks: I've known Nicole Whitman for twenty-five years; she has been an important part of this community, and she will continue to be. She is also a grown woman, capable of making her own decisions. And John Lattimore is a charming young man and a perfect gentleman."
"But she's twenty years older than him!"
"So what? Dana, Nicole is my friend, and she is a friend to most of the charities in this county. I don't care for these comments, and I don't expect to hear them again."
Rose called the Whitman house four times in the next week, but Nicole was never there. She still hadn't been to any of her meetings.
On the first of June, with Nicole nowhere in sight, the Environmental Fund board asked Vicky Cochran to take over chairmanship of the Regatta Ball.
Vicky was happy to accept.
"Cole!" John moved around his small kitchen, pouring coffee. Hearing no answer from the bedroom, he put back his head and hollered. "Cole! Get up, woman!"
"I'm up," she said, coming across the living room. "I was getting dressed; do you mind?"
"Yes, I mind," he said, getting out the milk. "Take off your clothes."
She took a place at the table. "You're crazy."
"Only about you." He looked her over. "If this is how people look at fifty-one, I can't wait to get there myself."
"Thanks, I think."
"It was meant as a compliment," he said. "You look great.
If we'd ever gotten out hiking I know you would have beaten me to the top."
"I had a good time not hiking," she said.
"So did I. Lets go not hiking again soon."
She laughed and sipped her coffee. "You know, you pay far too much rent for this apartment."
"It's about right for this area," he said. "One bedroom, utilities included. Five hundred dollars."
She cupped her hands around her mug and looked him in the eye. "You could save that."
"How? Will you call my landlord and tell him I don't have to pay any more?"
"You could move out to my house."
"Good God, Cole!" He put down his coffee and stared at her. "You're kidding."
"I'm serious." She put her mug in the sink and leaned
against the counter, looking at him. "Why not?"
"Because -- because -- " John fumbled for words. "Because of Robert. And Vicky. And your friends."
"To hell with them all," Nicole said, and smiled. "There, was that spoken like an honorary Texan?"
"Not bad." John rubbed his chin. "Do you know what kind of dust it would kick up if I moved in with you?"
"No." He stood up and took her in his arms. "Cole, you and I have been hiding out for the past two months. And it's
been great. But one day we're going to have to come clean."
"What do you mean by that?"
"You have to get back to your charities. I have to start paying more attention to my work." He rubbed his face in her hair. "Frank's been making remarks about my sales volume.
And more than that, Cole, I have to get back to Texas."
"I was hoping to distract you from that, Cowboy, at least for a while." She kissed him and turned away. He sat back down and watched her walk around the small apartment.
"Cole, please. I've never said otherwise, right from the start." She nodded. "And I'm serious about your friends.
You can't withstand their talk forever."
"Who's talking?" she asked. "No one's talking to me."
"When have you been around to talk to?"
"I pick up my phone messages."
"If you're returning the calls, I haven't noticed it."
"Fine, you have me there." She looked at him. "Do you hear people talking? What are they saying?"
"Stupid shit. People probably wouldn't say it to you anyway; they think I'm a cowboy, that I'll think they're funny. It started with Charlie Turner and it's gotten worse.
You don't want to hear."
Charlie say to you that night?"
"Nicole -- "
"I want to know, John."
"He was drunk."
"He usually is," she said. "What did he say?"
"He make some asinine remark about getting you in the saddle."
"Did he really." It was not a question. Her eyes narrowed. "We'll see about that."
John sighed. "Cole, listen to me. You are a beautiful and intelligent woman, and you deserve better than the crap being with me will bring you."
"I don't care about the crap."
"You're going to have to care. You've made your home here, and your name; you can't ignore it all forever.
You're going have to return to being Nicole Whitman: board member, party chairman, social force."
"Then I'd better get started." She gathered up her things. "You get to work. I'll return my calls. Would you like to come for dinner tonight? About six?"
"That would be good." He walked her to the door. "Please don't be mad at me. I just think I'd better keep this place."
"How could I be mad at you?" She gave him a kiss. "I love you."
He shut the door behind her and leaned against it. She had never said that before, and neither had he.
Robert looked up when Nicole came into the kitchen. "Hi," he said. He was drinking his morning coffee and reading the paper.
"Hi, Rob." She put two bags on the counter. "How's things?"
He laughed. "Things is fine," he said. "How's things with you?"
"Good, thanks." She started putting groceries away.
"What's been going on around here?"
They talked over current events -- Robert's dates, his summer job, neighborhood matters -- while she cleaned up the kitchen. That done, she sat on the stool next to him. "Rob, can I ask you something?"
"What do you think of John?"
"I like him."
"No, that's not all." Robert grinned. "I think he likes you too."
"I think you're right." She laughed. "I hear there's talk. What do you hear?"
"Nothing," Robert said. "When people called they just left messages; no one even asked where you were -- except Vicky, and she doesn't count."
"Because she's your daughter. She's supposed to be nosy, and she doesn't like Cowboy anyway. Everyone else thinks John is great. And so do I."
Nicole smiled. "I'm glad you like him." She looked at the note slips on the counter. "Well, that's all I wanted to know, I guess. Are any of these calls mine?"
"God, yes," Robert said, scooping them up. "Call all of your friends, because all of them called." She smiled and started leafing through the stack. He slid off his stool and kissed her cheek. "It's good to see you," he said. "Why don't you tell your cowboy friend to come here for a change?"
She mussed his hair. "I did," she said.
"Rose, John says people are talking."
"What are they saying?"
Rose thought about her answer. "There seem to be two schools of thought," she said at last. "Some people -- the people who know you, and who knew Victor -- are glad to see you happy. I'm one of them."
"Thank you, Rose. And the others?"
"Well, there's a lot of talk about John's age, that he's so much younger than you. I've heard some fairly vulgar things."
"Such as you haven't had a man since your husband died."
Rose said. She faltered for a moment, then continued. "I hope you can appreciate how embarrassing this is for me to say, but the talk is that you took off your clothes for John in April and you haven't had them on since. That it must be pretty lively, having a cowboy in your bed."
"You'll forgive me if I don't comment."
"I'd rather you didn't," Rose said. Her blush was practically audible.
"Is there anything else?"
"Well, some people think that you've been seduced by a suave young stranger who's only interested in your money."
"It's nice to know so many people are interested in my financial well-being," Nicole said grimly.
"Nicole, think for a minute. You're very well-known and you've disappeared in the company of a handsome young cowboy.
This is the most exciting thing to happen around here in years. People are just lapping it up: your mountain vacation, the business trips John's taken you on, the nights you've stayed at his apartment, everything."
"Who's doing the talking?" she asked.
"A lot of people," Rose answered. "More than you'd expect."
"You're not going to tell me, are you?"
"I'm sorry, but I'm not."
"I want to know, Rose."
"Nicole, you and I have been friends for a long, long time. The way I see it, either your relationship with John will continue and people will get used to it, or it will end and people will forget it. For me to tell you more would cause a huge rift, and I can't bear that. Please don't ask Nicole thought for a moment. "How does Charlie Turner figure in this?"
"Charlie!" Rose sniffed. "No one cares what Charlie says; if it weren't for Angela no one would speak to him at all. But Nicole, I wish you would talk to Vicky; I think she's been hearing a lot of this, and it hurts her."
"Thank you, Rose," Nicole said. "I'll do that.
"Vicky, it's Mother."
"Mother!" Vicky sounded surprised. "Where are you?"
"I'm home." Nicole looked over a letter from the Environmental Fund. "I see you're chairing the Regatta Ball.
Congratulations. It's a big job, but I'm sure you'll do just fine."
"When you didn't return your calls, Jeanne asked if I would consider it." Vicky hesitated. "Are you angry?"
"Not at all," Nicole said. "They deserve the best, and it's been pointed out that I haven't been very attentive lately."
"Of all the nerve! Who said that?"
Vicky was silent for a moment. "John said that?"
"Yes, among other things." Nicole put the letter in the trash. "Vicky, just be cause you think of him as a cowboy
doesn't mean he doesn't notice and understand what's going on. He's not the bumpkin you'd like to think he is."
"What else did he say?"
"He said a several things, which I have since verified."
"What kind of things? Did you two break up?"
"No. He just told me that there's been a lot of talk, and Rose said that you've been forced to hear more than your share of it. I hope it hasn't been too hard on you."
"Well, it is kind of strange hearing your mother described as one-half of a couple called Cowboy and Cole."
"We have a team nick-name, do we? That's very interesting."
"Mother, that's the least of it. I wouldn't want to repeat half the things I've heard."
"Please don't," Nicole said. "Rose summarized the highlights for me, and it boils down to either my undue interest in sex or John's undue interest in money." Her daughter was silent. "Which do think it is, Vicky?"
"Well?" Nicole pressed the point. "Do you think I'm a sex fiend, or do you think John is a gold-digger?"
"I can't imagine what you mean."
"It's a simple enough question, Vicky. When you talk to my friends about me, do you say that I'm an aging slut, or that John is a young whore?" Her voice hardened. "Or does your assessment change depending on the person to whom you're talking?"
"I assure you, Mother, I have defended you completely, even though you have involved this entire family in an impossible situation."
"I don't care to have you defend me, Victoria. My actions require no defense."
"No, Mother, your actions are indefensible."
Nicole drew a deep breath, controlling her anger. "I beg to differ, but I'm not about to start explaining myself to you. This is the way things are, Vicky, and you have no options in the matter." She heard the back door open, and John walked silently into the den. Nicole looked at him questioningly, and he motioned for her to finish her conversation. She turned back to the phone. "I've got to go. But I will thank you to stop discussing my personal business." There was the beginning of a reply, but Nicole did not wait. "I mean it," she said. "And I mean immediately." She hung up summarily and turned to John.
"I couldn't reach you by phone," he said woodenly. "I won't be by tonight. My father's taken a bad turn." He cleared his throat roughly. "My ma called a half-hour ago.
It looks like the end. I'm going down there now."
"Oh, no." Nicole felt tears spring to her eyes. "Oh, John, I'm so sorry. Can I do anything?"
He went to the window and looked out. "There's nothing anyone can do, Cole. He's been very, very sick for a long time. I'm going now to be with my mother and sisters. I'll call you."
She walked him to his car. "Please let me know," she said. He held her tight for a moment, and she felt a tremor pass through him.
"Call any time," she said. "I'll be here if you need me."
It was a long day. Nicole did some small chores around the house, waiting to hear from John. Robert was working late, so she made herself a solitary dinner that she did not want and could not eat.
By ten o'clock she was pacing, remembering the sorrow of
Victor's death, remembering how she and the children sat for hours outside intensive care, waiting for news, waiting for the ten minute visiting periods. Remembering how they cried together after each visit, remembering his wasted face, ravaged by illness and twisted with pain.
Remembering Robert's face, silent, the color of putty, remembering Vicky, recently married, twisting her wedding band around and around, silently weep
Remembering her own lifeless, airless sensation that she was dying too, that she was already dead.
She wouldn't wish that on anyone, and yet she could do nothing to prevent it. There was nothing to do but wait.
At 1 am he called. She was still awake, sitting over a book she could not read. "How are you, John?" she asked softly.
"I'm all right. Nothing's changed here; the doctors say it's just a matter of time."
"Can I help?" She closed her book and set it on the table. "I'd do anything, you know."
"I know, Cole. Thank you." His voice was lifeless. "My mother and I are just sitting here. My sisters have gone; they both have kids at home. We're just waiting."
"Do you want me to come there?"
"I can't ask you to do that. It's the middle of the night, and thirty miles away."
"I would, though. I can't sleep anyway, thinking."
"Then come. I'd like you to be here with me."
St. Joseph's hospital was deserted. A security guard signed Nicole in at the front desk, and John met her in the main lobby. She took his hand silently; his face looked just like Robert's had, gray and stony. "Come outside for some air," she said.
Puffs of wind stirred the hot July night as they slowly paced the broad sidewalk. "Where is your mother?" she asked.
"She's at the nurses' station on Dad's floor," he said.
"I told her you were coming."
"Is there any news?"
"Nothing." He sat down on a stone bench. "Nothing."
"It's hard." She sat beside him. "I've been thinking about when my husband died. It's hard."
"How did you and he get along?"
"Fine." She looked at him curiously. "We got along fine.
It was fun being married to Victor, fun being in love with him.
"Did he know you thought that?"
"I think he did." She smiled sadly to herself. "Yes, I'm sure he did."
John was looking at her closely. "How can you smile? How can you sit here and smile?" An edge of hostility crept into his voice. "Are you glad he's dead?"
"No, not at all." She pushed back her hair. "I can smile now because grief doesn't last forever; after the pain of death eases a little, it's possible to remember happiness again. I just try not to think about it too much, because I can still miss him."
"Do you miss him now?"
"No, right now I'm thinking of my children. Robert was so young when his father died, just fifteen. And Vicky was twenty-one and just married; she tried so hard to be brave, and we pretended that she was, but she loved her father so; I don't think she stopped crying for weeks."
"Did he know? Did he know that she loved him?"
"He knew it then, and I believe that wherever he is, he still knows it." She took his hand again. "John, what is He stood up suddenly and began pacing again. "We had a terrible fight when I didn't come back from Texas after college, and we never really made up. He's been so sick that I didn't want to bring it all back up, and now he's in a coma, so I can't." John drew a shuddering breath. "He's going to die, and I've never said anything important to him."
"He knows you came back, doesn't he?"
"Sure. I've visited every week, sometimes more."
"Then that's enough. He knows you love him."
"But I never said so."
"He knows you came back, and he knows you love him." She looked up at the sky. "It's starting to rain. Lets go inside."
Silently they returned to the building. In the elevator, Nicole squeezed his hand. "Trust me, John. He knows."
William Logan Lattimore died at 6:09 am without regaining consciousness. Standing death watch were his wife, Denise Clark Lattimore, his son, John William Lattimore, and Nicole Butler Whitman, a close friend of the family.
Calm, dry-eyed, John spent most of Thursday making phone calls, notifying relatives, making funeral arrangements.
Denise Lattimore moved slowly, aimlessly around her house, speaking briefly with the family members assembled, or staring silently at photos of her husband. John sought her to make some decisions, and found her in her bedroom, looking closely at a picture taken on her wedding day. He closed the door and sat down beside her on the big double bed.
"Try not to be sad, Ma," he said. "Dad was terribly sick, and we knew this was coming."
"Knowing doesn't change the truth," she said. "Of course I knew. He did, too. But it doesn't matter." She wept quietly, holding the picture in her hands, looking at the proud young couple. "I'm old and he's dead. What more is there?"
"Oh, Ma." John held her while she cried. "You're not so old, and he's -- well, he's lived a long life, worked hard, had kids and grand kids, done right by you. I know how sad you are, but don't give up."
"I just can't imagine life without him. I knew this was coming, but I didn't know how much it would hurt. I don't know if I can stand feeling this way for the rest of my life."
He took her hand. "Nicole says grief doesn't last forever."
"How does she know?"
"Her husband died six years ago. Maybe you should talk to her about it. It might help." He thought for a moment.
"She said how thinking of it can still make her sad, but you know, Ma, she's gone on and done things on her own."
"What's she done?"
"Well, raised two kids. Been on a lot of boards. Been real important to a lot of charities. She's made a difference to a lot of people, especially to me." Denise looked at him. "Well, like last night. Coming down here at 2 o'clock. Listening to me go on about Dad, about the big fight we had when I didn't come back from college."
"What do you mean, 'what fight'?" John said. "He was furious when I told him I was going to stay in Texas."
"The night you told him, maybe he was. He didn't stay that way."
"Come on, Ma! He didn't talk to me for months after that."
"Oh, John." Now Denise took his hand. "That's when he was retiring from the Union, getting everything settled.
Then we drove out to see Aunt Katie in Oregon. He might have been mad for a little while, but that's only because he knew -- " She stopped suddenly.
"Oh, John," she said again. "He knew then how sick he was. They had given him two years, and he wanted to make sure your sisters and I were in good hands when he died."
John stared at her. "Why didn't he say so?"
"Because he didn't want you to worry. You were just out of college, just starting out, and he didn't want you to worry."
"He didn't want to worry about him dying?"
Denise put down the photo. "John, if he was mad, it was only out of concern for me and the girls. But then he realized that you would always come back when it mattered.
Didn't you write every week from college? Didn't you send us clippings when your name got in newspapers? Didn't you let us know when a big project went through, or fell apart? He knew you weren't deserting the family by staying in Texas.
He said so."
Denise stood up without answering. From the closet she brought a carton that she put on the bed. "Look through there," she said. "That's everything, and your Dad kept it.
Your Little League trophies are in there somewhere. And that economics report that won the ribbon. And the newspaper clippings. And your letters." She stirred through the papers and memorabilia. "These are what matters: things from a son who loved his father, cherished by a father who loved his son." She brushed the hair off his forehead, and stood up a little straighter as she headed to the door.
"It's all there," she said, pausing with her hand on the knob. "I must call Reverend Walkins," she said. "You have a look, John, and you'll see what I say is true." She shut the door gently behind her.
He pulled the box closer and examined the contents. He could hear his father's voice as he handled each thing. A fifth-grade poem about his dog, published in the school newspaper. ("You have to feed this dog, John, and play with him, and make sure he's happy. You have to look after him, just like I look after your mother and you kids.") A trophy from Little League. ("Nice try, son. You'll get it next time, don't you worry.") A college letter describing a new girlfriend. ("How serious is this, John? Are you sure you want to get involved so deeply before you finish school?")
Pay stubs from his first real job. ("Get up! I don't care how tired you are, get up! You have a job now!") His driver's permit. ("You can use the car, but I don't want to hear about you speeding, showing off, driving stupid.
And you have to take your sister to dance class on Mondays.")
The Dean's list letters. ("This is great news, son. We're proud of you. We knew you could do it.") A note asking for money. ("You need another new suit? Doesn't that landscaper pay you guys?")
And there, at the bottom, the little note that came with the glove his father gave him, his best baseball glove, the glove that made him want to try, that got him that college scholarship. "You can be anything you're willing to work at.
Merry Christmas. Love, Dad." It was clipped to John's letter announcing that he had made the conference all-star team. "It's great, hearing the announcer call my name. I guess all the hard work paid off, just like you said it would. Thanks for the good advice. Love, John."
He stared at the letters for a long time. And then, finally, he cried.
On Saturday afternoon, after the funeral, Nicole came home and changed out of her dark suit. Sitting at her desk, she dialed Vicky's number.
"Hello, dear. It's Mother."
"Yes, Mother?" Vicky's voice was cool. "How are you? How is the cowboy?"
Nicole ignored her tone. "I'm fine, thank you. John is fine, considering he buried his father this morning."
Vicky sighed. "I'm sorry," she said. "That must have been sad. When did he die?"
"Early Thursday, about 6 am."
"How is John taking it?"
"Fairly well, I'd say. His father had been sick for a long time."
"That's too bad. Did you go to the funeral?"
"Robert and I both did."
"Robert went? Why didn't you tell me? I would have gone, "No, I was being stubborn." Nicole doodled on a scrap tablet. "That's why I'm calling: John reminded me of you and Robert, when Daddy died. Especially you. I know how much you loved your father."
"Everyone loved Daddy," Vicky said.
"But you're his daughter, and no one could love him more than that." Nicole put down the pen. "I'm calling to apologize for speaking harshly to you the other day. I love you, and I don't want to fight with you."
"I don't want to fight either," Vicky said. "I love you "Thank you, dear," Nicole said. "And Vicky, don't worry about Cowboy and me. We will either become a nice respectable couple or we won't be a couple at all. John said we would have to come clean someday, and he's right."
"John said that?" Vicky was amazed. "He knew?"
"John knows a lot, including the fact that my disappearance is going to cost me my place in this community if it continues much longer."
"I'll be damned."
"Watch out, Vic; you're starting to sound like him."
She laughed. "You won't believe this, but before you started going out with him, I liked John just fine." She paused. "Are you really re-appearing? Should I speak to Jeanne about your chairing the Regatta Ball?"
"No, dear. I'm sure you'll do a wonderful job. Just be sure to let me know if I can help you."
"Thanks, Mother, I will."
"And Vicky, another thing, one married lady to another."
"It's been lively, having a cowboy in my bed."
John came over on Sunday evening, carrying flowers. "Hey, Rob," he said to the blur that flew past him out the kitchen door. "Nice to see you."
"Hey, John," Robert answered over his shoulder. "Big date. See you later?"
"Sure." He put the flowers in water. "Cole?" he called.
"I'm in here," she said from the den. "I'm just finishing something; come on in."
He stopped in the doorway and watched her work. "You're beautiful, you know?"
She smiled. "Thank you, kind sir. Why don't you sit for a minute? I'll be done right away."
"No, I'll just stand here and admire you."
"That's fine." She was silent for a minute or two.
"There." She put the letter in an envelope and sealed it.
"What are you working on this summer Sunday?"
"Just some things I've been neglecting. The Children's Center questionnaire should have gone back weeks ago, and I was supposed to submit committee notes to the Women's Shelter in June."
"Becoming Nicole Whitman again, are you?" He grinned.
She came around the desk and kissed him. "You bet.
That's who I am, remember?" She kissed him again. "You were right all along."
"Well, we're even: you were right about my father. My mother showed me all the things he kept, my school papers, my letters from college, newspaper clippings from my sports days." He put his arm around her shoulders and walked her into the kitchen. "Thank you for helping us this week." He pointed to the flowers. "My mother asked me to bring these, for you."
"They're beautiful, John. Thank you."
They got iced tea and walked to the patio. John sat on the planter. Nicole took a chair at the umbrella table.
John looked at the woods, lush green in the summer sunset.
Nicole smiled, seeing his gaze. "Seems like a long time ago that we first sat out here together, doesn't it?"
"Like a long time, and not nearly long enough." John brought his tea and sat down next to her. "Cole, I'm going back to Texas."
"Come with me."
She smiled sadly. "I can't."
He sighed. "I know."
They were comfortably quiet for some minutes, watching the last of the light fade from the sky.
"I love you," he said.
"I know," she answered.
At ten o'clock Monday morning the Women's Shelter board met. Nicole arrived dressed in a new summer suit, hair done, make-up flawlessly applied, wearing the heavy gold chain John had given her Sunday night. She took her place at the head of the table.
"Hello, Nicole," Ollie Garrison said. "It's good to see "Thank you, Ollie," she replied. "You're looking well."
The long table was filling up quickly. Greg Peteck sat at his accustomed place. "Good morning, Nicole," he said. "How y'all doing?"
She fixed him with a look, her eyebrows raised a fraction, no hint of a smile. "I'm fine, thank you," she said. She took up the gavel.
"This meeting will come to order."