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 co-chairman 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.

"Mother?"

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."

-2-

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."

-3-

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.

"Yes."

"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.

"You didn't."

"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.

-4-

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!"

"You misunderstood."

"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."

-5-

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?"

"No."

"Well, what did happen?"

"I drove her home, and we had coffee."

"She invited you in?"

"For coffee."

"And?"

"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."

"Whaaat?"

"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.

-6-

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?"

"Twenty-nine."

"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."

-7-

"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?"

"Fifty-one. Why?"

"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."

"Liz?"

She did not look happy. "She gave him a hot lead back in February, and he sent her flowers."

"That's it?"

"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."

-8-

"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."

"John?"

"Holy shit. Dinner?"

"I'm extending the invitation, yes."

"Holy shit." He stood up and began pacing a small circle.

"Holy shit."

"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?"

-9-

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

"Nicole."

"Too formal."

"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."

-10-

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."

"Oh no!"

"You bet."

"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.

-11-

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.

-12-

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."

-13-

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.

-14-

"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?"

"Well?"

"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?"

"Tell me."

"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."

"What

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.

-15-

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?"

"Sure."

"What do you think of John?"

"I like him."

"That's all?"

"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."

"Why not?"

"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.

-16-

"Rose, John says people are talking."

"He's right."

"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?"

"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.

-17-

"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?"

"John."

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?"

"Mother?"

"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."

-18-

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."

-19-

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.

-20-

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 fight?"

"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.

"Knew what?"

"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."

"He did?"

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.

-21-

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."

"Yes?"

"It's been lively, having a cowboy in my bed."

-22-

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."

"I know."

"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."

Part 2-Hilary

-23-

John and a late summer storm came roaring into Dallas together on a Sunday night.

He had pressed straight through from the northeast, driving as fast as he dared, relying on hour-long naps and bolted meals at rest stations along the way. Now, with water sluicing down his car windows, wipers whipping across the windshield, he was forced down to a crawl. He just wanted to reach Richie's house to shower, eat and collapse. After a year up north, he wondered if he would feel like stranger in town, but the landmarks were familiar in city center. Up on the left was Symphony Hall; he had attended weekly concerts as a sophomore for a Music Appreciation course. And behind it was the Bijou; he and Art had been thrown out of there one night when they were both so drunk they could barely crawl. And up on the right: there was Bristol's, where Dorie Calahan had proposed to him. I should have been drunk night, he thought; it might have made her crying easier to take. He cringed, remembering her face as it turned from happy anticipation to grieving defeat. Her anger and humiliation were evident; she had never spoken to him again. He shook off the unpleasant memory and veered toward his exit, thinking about saying goodbye.

Nicole hadn't cried when he left, he thought. Just a hug and a kind word. Ma had cried, but you had to expect that from mothers. Elizabeth had looked a little weepy, but she wiped her eyes and smiled anyway. Barry, George, Frank... they all slapped his back and told him to keep in touch.

He sighed for friendships lost and shifted uncomfortably behind the wheel, trying to stretch his aching back. The storm was in full fury, and he drove slowly, cursing the weather and his sentimentality. Just tired, he thought, ing up the radio over the pounding rain. Just tired. He couldn't even remember which radio stations he'd liked, but it certainly wasn't the talk format he'd somehow ended up A primary candidate named Hilary Issler Vernon -- John grinned at the use of all three names -- accused her opponent of padding his staff payroll at public expense. It had to end, she said, and that's why she sought the nomination.

Joel Hawkes has become a disappointment to citizens in general and an embarrassment to Democrats in particular. If the good people of Dallas would nominate her on Super Tuesday, she would be an honest, elect able voice for the Democrats. Hawkes had been there long enough -- too long -- and he was entrenched in the lax integrity of the House of Representatives. She would use her experience as an attorney in the fight to clean up the mess in Congress. She'd reclaim the pride of Texas. She'd be a voice of incorruptibility in Washington.

Just what we need, he thought, searching the dial for music; another lawyer in office. Well, at least Texas politics hadn't changed; they still came out early, swinging. Here it was, only August and she was talking about a primary that wouldn't be held until March. The storm was moderating, and he cheered up a little.

-24-

"How are things here?" John asked Rich Hayden. He'd had some bourbon, a shower and a meal, and now they were sitting in the living room. Rich's wife poured fresh drinks all around before she took a seat on the couch.

"Is it as bad as I've been reading?"

"Well, the hard times might be letting up some," Rich said. "My firm was nearly dead for a while there, but we're starting to hire again, thank God. I hated seeing architects driving cabs."

"Lucky you weren't one of them," John grinned.

"You bet I'm lucky." Rich refused to joke. "A lot of people haven't been."

"What kind of building's going on now?"

"A little bit of industrial/commercial. You going back to Connors?"

John took up his glass. "I think so. Herb's made noises like he's got a spot for me." "Not a lot of residential stuff lately."

"But there's been some, right?"

"Housing sales are better," Sandra said. "Title searches are up, but new starts are still flat."

"Talk about potential for growth," John said. "Still, it couldn't be worse than New Jersey."

"What kind of projects were you working on?" Rich asked.

"Residential development." He put his legs up over the arm of the chair, a little drunk and completely at ease.

"But land's so hellish expensive up there that you have to build a palace on a postage stamp to get your money's worth in the end. "But here -- " he spread his arms wide, splashing the drink a little. " -- here you can afford to spread out, build in proportion to lot size." He licked the drops off his hand.

"Well, good luck," Sandra said dubiously.

"We'd be happy to work with you on design," Rich said.

"I'll bet you would, son," John said, looking at his friend from under half-closed eye lids. "Well, I've gotten pretty good at lining up investors. We'll see how it goes."

Richie leaned back comfortably in his chair, legs stretched out before him. "How did you get into the investment side?" he asked. "I thought you were strictly sales."

"Luck of the draw," John answered. "There's lots of guys figured with prices so high they'd better get in on it. Then, when the bottom fell out, other smart boys thought they'd clean up on the pickings." He drank down his bourbon. "I was with a guy who's made a business out of brokering deals. A pretty good business, too. It's just another form of sales, really." Sandra poured him another drink. "Enough of this business talk," she said. "Did you hear that Dan and Linda finally got married?"

"Really?" John said. "That's nice."

Richie laughed. "He's the last of us."

"Except you, John," Sandra teased. "Come on, now, don't be shy."

"Shy about what?" John grinned. "No one calls me shy and lives to tell the tale."

"Aren't there any women where you come from? Didn't you meet anyone?"

John sighed and looked away. For a moment Sandra wondered if he had dozed off. "Yes, I met someone," he said finally. "I met a woman named Nicole."

"Why didn't you bring her with you?"

"She couldn't come," he said. He stared into his glass, watching oily swirls of bourbon turn slowly around the ice. "She wouldn't consider it?" Sandy asked.

John looked up. "She considered it. She just couldn't come. Her place is up there."

"What do you mean, 'her place'?" Richie asked. "She sounds like some kind of servant."

John took a big swallow of his bourbon. "Hardly," he said. "She's -- well, she's got too much going on up there."

Sandy persisted. "But who would turn down a great catch like you?"

"Sandy, you don't understand," John said. "She's got a life up there. Kids, a home." He thought about the news Nicole gave him as he left. "A grandchild on the way."

"A grandchild?!"

Rich and Sandra spoke in unison.

"Yes, a grandchild. Her daughter's due in February."

"You didn't take up with a 32-year-old grandmother, did you, John?" Richie looked disappointed. "I always thought you were attracted to -- I don't know -- smarter women."

Sandra looked shocked. "What did she do? Have her first child at 15? And the pregnant one's 15 now?"

John did the math, impeded by liquor and fatigue. "No, I guess she was about 25 when Vicky was born."

Richie and Sandra were silent, waiting for more information. John said nothing.

Finally Richie spoke. "Uh, John, how old is this Nicole?"

"Fifty-one."

"Divorced?"

"Widowed."

Again they were silent, looking expectantly at him.

John gave in to their stares. "She's 51, and widowed.

She has two kids. Vicky's expecting a baby, and Rob is in college." John stiffly swung his legs off the arm of the chair and sat with his elbows on his knees, gazing at the floor. "I met her at a charity ball last February. I guess we fell in love." He smiled sadly to himself. "But she couldn't come with me. I asked, but she couldn't. She has a house, and investments, and all that charity stuff. She's like the Hallorans down here: rich, important, connected to everything. She can't just drop it all to come to Texas with He put down his unfinished drink, and looked up with tears in his eyes. "You see, Sandy, you really understand. You don't understand at all."

He got clumsily to his feet and started toward the guest room. "I'm just a raggedy-ass cowboy. The great catch."

John was up in time for Sunday lunch with his hosts, groggy but moving well. He apologized for growing maudlin over his liquor.

"Everything's OK, John." Sandy put down her paper and poured coffee for him. "You were fine."

"Not really," he said. "Nothing like crying in your beer." He shrugged. "That's what comes of too much booze after all that driving. Anyway, Nicole was just one of those things. We had our fun, and now it's over."

"You're among friends," Rich said. He made a sandwich for John and put it on the table. "Eat up and don't worry. You'll find a rich older woman down here."

"Just a goddamn minute, pal." John hitched his chair back and leaned toward Richie. "If you think -- "

"Rich, stop it," Sandy said. "No one's called him a gold-digger yet." John sat back, mollified. "At least not to his face," she murmured, and they all laughed.

John took a section of newspaper and glanced through it idly. "Who's this Hilary Issler Vernon?" he asked, spotting an article. "Why does she use three names? What's she got against Hawkes?"

"She's running against Hawkes on an environmental ticket,"

Rich said. "She says he's handed the nation carte blanche to destroy Texas. Offshore drilling and all."

"She just uses all her names," Sandra said. "Lots of businesswomen do these days. Issler is her mother's maiden name. She's one of the Fort Worth Isslers."

"And it doesn't hurt to remind people of her old Texas stock," Rich said cynically. "Her family's got money and influence."

"No, I've met her and she's not like that," Sandy said.

"She's very natural, not at all high-brow. She's nice."

"An environmental ticket?" John asked. "I heard her on the radio last night, talking about payroll padding."

"Well, accusations of corruption are just a sideline," Richie said. "Wouldn't be Texas politics without some smearing."

"But isn't it a little early to campaign this hard? The primary's not until next year."

"She's a fighter," Sandy said. "She says she wants the issues to get discussed; that's why she's going so hard so soon."

"And she's got the money to do it," Rich said. "She's a partner at Saunders/Coleman/Combs, and apparently she's got a lot of her daddy and mama's money behind her."

Sandra took issue with that. "She's got a lot of public support," she objected. "There are plenty of people who think we're poisoning ourselves, letting oil companies walk all over the state. I think she's right."

"Those oil companies help makes Texas what it is, Sandy,"

John said. He folded the paper and traded sections with Rich. "Ah, real estate. This is what I want to see."

-25-

Herb Connors came from behind his enormous mahogany desk to greet John. "Long time," he said. "When did you get back to town?"

They shook hands firmly. "Around Labor Day," John Connors made his way back to his desk. "And are you thinking of coming back to us?

John sat in the armchair Connors had indicated. "I think I can do you some good," he said.

Herb leaned back in the tall leather chair. "You can do me a world of good if you've still got your contacts in this town."

"Had dinner with Rafer and Diane last week," John said.

"And George Ben son still takes my calls." Rafer Charles was president of the local business association; Benson was a member of the board of First Dallas Savings. "I've bumped into some of the old crowd, and no one's snubbed me yet." "Glad to hear it, son." Herb pulled some files from a drawer. "We've got our feet to the fire on this O'Hagen thing; you could do a lot to cool it down some."

"What's the deal?"

Connors sketched the scene briefly. "We've started this project -- we call it RiverField -- on 200 acres of the old O'Hagen spread, over along the river. Luxury home community, houses about 3,500 square feet. There's a club house, spa, tennis courts, docks... all the amenities." He waved a colorful brochure toward John. "It's more than half built, but only ten per cent occupied. And with sales slow, the bank's getting edgy, talking about freezing the credit line."

"Who's the contractor?" John asked. "Is he still working?"

"That's the first problem. Those goddamn Jason Brothers are the contractors on this one, and they've caught wind of the whining over at Fidelity Union. They're making noises like they're looking to cut and run at the first sign of trouble."

"You think Fidelity will really dry up the line?"

"Hard to say." Connors pushed the papers aside and leaned toward John. "First off, don't believe all the crap you hear about the market down here. Things have been looking better lately, and I expect we've hit bottom, ready to head back up. New money's heading into town, and old money's freeing up again."

"Are the contractors getting paid on schedule?"

"As on-schedule as these things ever are. We're two, maybe three weeks out on invoices."

"Realtors showing the property?"

"All the time."

John considered for a minute. "What's the second problem?"

"Fidelity's gotten wind that Ron Jason's in an uproar. They've got the idea that work's about to stop; nothing I've said will change their minds."

"So the money will dry up for fear the work's going to stop, and the work's going to stop for fear the money will dry up?"

"That's about right."

"Where do I come in?"

"I want you in on this as project manager." Herb came out from behind his desk, took the chair next to John's. "You made your mark in Dallas before. There's people here trust you, who'll listen to you. I want you to talk to folks, keep things moving. I want you to get all these bastards calmed down."

John grinned. "What's in it for me?"

They spent two hours hammering out details. The salary was not astonish ing, but commissions, bonuses and profit-sharing sweetened the pot. John made the deal, and agreed to start immediately.

-26-

He rented an apartment. He bought furniture and food. He got started on RiverField. Slowly life began to feel normal again. He wrote a letter to Nicole, describing his new house and his old friends. He wrote Elizabeth, to say hello to the office crowd and give them his new address. Nicole replied, telling him about the Seaside Ball and the coming baby and asking him about his new job; Elizabeth sent a card wishing him luck in his new home. He put both notes aside, planning to write when he got a moment.

In October, John invited some friends over to watch football. In the beer-drinking during and after the game, someone moved the letters from the kitchen table to the top of the refrigerator. He didn't miss them, and he didn't write back.

Sandra Hayden worked on the staff of the University Library; although they had worried for Rich"s job in the depths of the slowdown, hers was secure. She"d have to commit a crime to be fired, she and Rich joked.

She was popular among her co-workers and with the students, she kept up with local and state events, and she was this year"s president of the Greater Dallas Chapter of the American Association of University Women. In that capacity, she was pleased to be able to present the group with Congressional Candidate Hilary Vernon as the speaker for their October meeting.

The evening gathering was well-attended. "You"re quite a draw," Sandra told the candidate before the meeting. "Folks want to hear what you have to say."

Hilary smiled. "Now that school"s started, women have more time for their own interests," she said modestly. "And I really appreciate your asking me, Sandy. The truth of the matter is that I want to hear what you all have to say." She scanned the room, watching the seats fill up. "I know it sounds sexist, but who knows better what needs to be done than the women of this state?" Sandra laughed and nodded.

Hilary had the knack of tailoring her speech to the audience at hand, and the talk went well. She stood before them and radiated enthusiasm.

The women in the audience, she said, the educated women of Texas, were the vanguard of the future. The women of Texas were the ambitious workers, the caring parents. the intelligent, involved citizens. They would decide if The Old Boy Network should give their state away to big business. They would decide if tax dollars went to support an obsolete, male-dominated political machine. They would decide if their children lived in a clean Texas, or a Texas polluted through the greed and thoughtlessness of government and industry.

The audience was hushed and attentive. Hilary had done her research, and she touched on many of their concerns. Her spirited attack on the things that troubled so many of them met with growing assent.

"The choices are in your hands," she told them at the end of her remarks. "You can stop big business from running our state -- from ruining our state. You can break the cycle of filth and pollution that endangers our children." She paused and her dark eyes seemed to glow with the vision. "You can make the difference between business-as-usual and a bright new future. You can make the difference: you can vote for me on Super Tuesday."

The applause was like thunder as the women rose to their feet. Sandy worked her way through the excited throng to the microphone. "I"m sure Ms. Vernon would be happy to answer your questions," she told the slowly-quieting group. "If there are any questions for the candidate -- "She turned the podium back to Hilary.

"Where do you stand on day care?" a woman asked.

"Day care is something we need and our children deserve," she answered. "Low-cost, dependable, loving care for our children while we"re working so hard to provide them with a good future. I would exert pressure on the President to create a comprehensive national day care policy, day care that won"t bankrupt the very families it"s supposed to serve."

There were murmurs of agreement. "How do you feel about abortion?" someone else called.

Hilary"s bright look turned somber. "Abortion is the hardest, saddest decision a woman will ever be called upon to make," she said. "I personally believe that abortion is wrong, that it"s worst choice any woman could ever make, no matter what the circumstances." There was a disturbed undercurrent of talk in the hall, and the candidate held up her hand. "But I"ll defend to the death any woman"s right to make that choice."

Applause broke out again, although a few women did gather their belongings and leave the room pointedly. The questioning resumed on less weighty issues. Sandy finally took the floor again -- it was after 10 o"clock -- and thanked the candidate. "Coffee and cake are ready," she told the women. "Hillary will be with us a little while longer if you have other questions." A hum of conversation broke out as the women converged for refreshments.

"I"m Candice Eubanks, Ms. Vernon," one of the women said as they stood in line for coffee. "Excellent talk, just excellent."

"Why, thank you, Candice," the candidate replied. "But please, call me Hilary." They moved forward with the line. "There are so many issues today that concern women, issues that Joel Hawkes simply refuses to address," Hilary said.

"Isn"t that the truth," another woman said from behind them. "The last thing that man did of any account was to vote for the Breckinridge Dam, and it was defeated anyway."

"Well, I"m glad it was," Candice said. "That dam would have destroyed the Wilderness Plains Reserve."

The woman in front of her turned to join the discussion. "But it would have given us a new reservoir, and it would have created a low-impact recreation area for tourism." She introduced herself as Tiffany Roman.

"And jobs," the first woman added. "Joann Hesseltine," she told Hilary, shaking hands.

"If we"re going to talk about short-term benefits, we"ve missed the entire point of Hilary"s views," Candice said stubbornly. "Perhaps a few jobs less is a low enough price to pay to leave our wilderness undisturbed."

"I"m with you, Candy." Another woman stepped into the fray. "Once we give up our untouched land, it"s gone forever."

"What about the water, Laura?"

"There"s no water shortage, Tiffany," Laura said. "And if we control development in Texas, instead of giving up every scrap of land to anyone with a dollar, there won"t be one." There were several nods of agreement at this.

Hilary listened to the discussion carefully. She had poured herself coffee, and she watched the group enlarge as others offered opinions; somehow the light conversation had become an informal public forum. "This economy has been built on development-" "This economy has been destroyed by over-development-" "Our land is irreplaceable-" "We came to Texas for the open spaces, not for tourist parks-" "We have to plan for the future-" "We have to think about the good of our children-" "Is it good for our children to have their parents unemployed-" "Is it good for our children to have every Texas acre turned into a shopping mall-"

Sandra turned to the candidate. "What are your thoughts, Hillary?" She gestured to the women gathered around. "As you can see, our membership doesn't"t lack for opinions."

"That"s the best part," Hilary said. "I can"t recall when I"ve heard such an intelligent, far-ranging discussion of our future needs." She glanced around the group to catch each woman"s eye in turn. "I commend you all for your excellent grasp of the complexities of a modern economy, and I assure you that we can control development. We can balance growth and conservation successfully." She put down her coffee cup. "I thank you for your kind invitation tonight, and I hope you will give me the opportunity to serve."

Hilary"s farewell broke up the meeting. Sandra walked her to the parking lot. "Thank you so much for coming," she said. "I think you"ve won votes here tonight. I know you"ve got mine."

"Thank you, Sandy," she said warmly. "Your support means a lot to me, and I"m happy to find that intelligent people are actually discussing the issues." She pulled a key ring from her expensive leather hand-bag. "These are crucial times for Texas, and women are going to play an important part in the future, more so than we ever have in the past. And Sandra, you"re an important part of this future."

"Me?" Sandra laughed. "I"m just another member of the AAUW; next year there"ll be a new president, and another the year after that."

"I"m not talking about temporary positions," Hilary said. "Vital as they are, they"re temporary. I"m talking about the gift of leadership, a gift that you possess." She unlocked the door of her dark blue Mercedes. "I wonder if you"d be interested in taking a more active role in my campaign."

"Good Lord, Hilary!" Sandra said. "I have no political experience."

"I have the political experience, and I have advisors a-plenty," Hilary replied. "What I need is someone like you: you"re trained as a researcher, and you have an intuitive feel for what"s on people"s minds. You have no idea how important that is, to get a grasp of what people care about; no yes-or-no poll can tell you about people"s hopes and dreams and fears." She opened the door and put her hand bag in the car. "I couldn't offer you much more than a stipend, but it would be a part-time position, so it wouldn"t affect your hours at the library. In fact, you could probably get a lot done during the day there anyway. Research and all."

"Well, I"m flattered that you think I could be of some help. Can I let you know tomorrow? I"d like to talk it over with my husband."

"Why, of course," Hilary said. The warmth was suddenly gone. "You see that it"s all right with him, and give me a call."

"I don"t need Rich"s permission," Sandra said quickly. "I"d just like to talk it over with him."

"By all means." Hilary settled in the driver"s seat and turned the key. "Call my campaign office. If I"m not there, you can leave a message and tell me what Rich thinks."

Sandra hesitated, feeling foolish. "No, you"re right," she said. "I"d be delighted to help on your campaign."

"That"s wonderful." Hilary smiled brightly and spoke a little louder over the car engine. "Let"s get together Friday evening to discuss it." She put the car in gear and prepared to pull out. "I"ll call you."

"It"s the University Library main --"

"Main branch reference unit," Hilary said. "Yes, I know."

-27-

"Nice going, John," Herb said. "Eight weeks back in town and things are back on track. You move quick." They were standing over the work table in John"s office, maps spread out before them. Work at RiverField had picked up, the financing was holding firm, and four more homes had been sold.

"Well, Fidelity Union"s stopped their fussing," John said. "That lunch I had with Howie Frankel and Ron Jacobs got things ironed out."

"That"s great." Connors looked over the landscaping detail. "Is the sod in around the clubhouse yet? I hate to have buyers seeing all that bare dust."

"Goin" in tomorrow," John answered. He pulled out a sheaf of papers. "The landscapers are re-sodding over at the models right now. The utility crew was digging, and they cut the sprinkler."

"Those bastards." Herb frowned, then brightened up. "I"ll charge them but good for the damage."

"Repair invoice is already in, Herb," John said. "I gave it to the supervisor this morning."

"Throw in some punitive charges?"

"For what? Shit happens. I billed them for sprinkler repair and re-sodding."

"Should have stuck it to "em, son." Herb laughed and slapped John"s shoulder. "You"re gonna have to grow up one of these days."

"This is as grown as I get," John said. "I"m old enough to talk money, and that"s damned old. And speaking of money, I want to offer the agents a $1,000 bonus on each sale."

"That legal?"

"It is if it comes out of your commission instead o mine." John laughed. "No, it"s fine. Call it a marketing expense."

"The marketing budget"s been taking a hell of a beating," Connors said. "Let me give that some thought and get back to you. Anything else?"

"No, not really."

"Excellent, John." Connors settled back against the work table and looked at John appreciatively. "This is excellent. Looks like you"ve gotten it sewn up in record time."

"Got my eye on that commission check, Herb." John grinned as he gathered maps and papers. "I"m thinking of a new car."

"Keep going like this and you"ll deserve one." Herb looked at his watch. "Tell you what: let"s celebrate. We"ll get ourselves a drink, and then I"ve got a spare ticket to that shindig over at Glen Halloran"s. Introduce you to this candidate, Hilary Vernon."

"Hilary Issler Vernon," John said.

"Yeah, whatever," Herb said, writing a note in his pocket calendar. "Can"t see how she"ll win -- Hawkes is mighty popular, been our representative for a long, long time -- but Glen always throws a great party." He put away his pen and pulled on his jacket. "Anyway, it never hurts to meet the folks."

"Fine, Herb," John said as he held the door. "Let"s go meet the folks."

-28-

The Halloran ranch, Rain Valley, was a thousand acres located southeast of town. Nothing about the name was truthful, from the long, level drive to the dry pastures where cattle grazed. Around the imposing house, though, a fortune in irrigation kept the grounds lush. Glen Halloran was from a long line of money, and spent his days managing his investments. Jean Halloran spent her days managing the landscaping. John had met them before, and he found them both shallow in the extreme.

On the other hand, he thought, this Hilary Vernon seemed to have a quick tongue and a quicker mind. He and Herb had joined a crowd where she stood informally at center, talking about government waste.

"Let"s abolish the franking privilege," she told the group. "Did you ever get a single piece of mail from Mr. Hawkes that made one damn bit of difference anyway? Look at his quarterly newsletter. It tells us nothing, and it"s no better than junk mail." She took a moment to look over the circle of guests. "In fact, junk mail is an improvement." There was a small ripple of laughter. "It"s a clear abuse," she said. "Except for certain election materials, he is free to send unlimited amounts of first-class mail -- usually unrequested, unwanted and unread -- at taxpayers" expense, just on his signature." She paused again. "But at least his signature"s good for that much."

There was a broader wave of laughter. Hawkes, like a number of his legislative colleagues, had been named as a habitual check-bouncer.

"What a bitch!" John said to Herb. "That was a cheap shot." He looked over the crowd to the candidate. "How much does the Congressman spend mailing the newsletter?" he called.

She looked for the source of the question, and met John"s eye. "That"s the adult population of the 14th district, about a half-million, times four, times 29 cents -- if the Postal Service hasn"t raised the price of first-class postage while we"ve been speaking here." There was another chuckle from the crowd, and murmurs of agreement.

"That"s another thing I plan to give my full attention," Vernon said to the group at large. "The Postal Service may be independent of the Federal Government, but it learned its wasteful ways from its overgrown parent. If you kind people will allow me to represent our party in the upcoming election --"

"Do you consider the approximately $900,000 Mr. Hawkes spends in franking his newsletter to his constituents to be more abusive than the same money spent for the same purpose by a congressman of Idaho?"

The candidate turned eyes of steel to John. "Sir?"

"Same math, ma"am," John said courteously. "Do you consider --"

She had lost none of her poise. "I am talking in absolute terms," she said. "Your tax dollars pay nearly a million dollars annually for Mr. Hawkes to send his blatantly pro-Hawkes newsletter."

"But nothing is absolute, ma"am," John said easily. "Everything is relative. And I think the people of Texas should have the same right to hear from Mr. Hawkes as do the people of Idaho to hear from their congresssman."

The candidate took on a faint grin. "Are you from Idaho, sir?" The crowd tittered, expecting a quick jibe for the heckler.

"No, ma"am. I"m from here in Dallas, lately of New Jersey."

"New Jersey?" She took on a serious expression and turned back to the crowd, clearly done with John. "This young man comes from a state with an unusually high incidence of cancer, cancer often affecting children, cancer some of the nation"s best scientists believe is of an environmental nature. It"s no coincidence that New Jersey is also highly industrialized, with a large chemical industry, including oil refining. If you kind people will nominate me in this primary..."

John laughed. "She"s quick," he told Herb. "I"ll give her that much." They drifted away. "Nice deflection," he said. They got themselves drinks and moved off the patio to the broad green lawn.

"Just wait "til she makes her speech," Herb said. "She really had "em going at the County Fair. She"s a good speaker." He looked at John. "Unless you decide to get into it again. What was that all about?"

"She made me mad with that signature crack," he said. "It"s not like Hawkes was the only fool to get caught in that check business."

"She"s a politician, John," Herb said. "She"s supposed to take shots at the incumbent."

"And she"s supposed to answer questions, too."

"Didn"t look like she had too much trouble with you."

John took a sip from his drink. "No, and she didn"t answer the question, either." >

"Still, she shut you up."

"Not for long."

-29-

They were working their way along the buffet when their host found them. "Evening, Herb," Halloran said. "You gentlemen enjoying yourselves?"

"As always, Glen," Connors replied. "Everything"s first-rate. You remember John Lattimore? He"s just come back to us from up north."

"Of course," he said, smiling faintly as he and John shook hands. "Now I remember you. And from New Jersey." He shook his head. "I"m afraid the lady got you, son, talkin" about New Jersey." He laughed outright. "She wants to meet you, asked me to bring you by." He indicated a table on the patio where the candidate sat with Halloran"s wife.

"Sure," John said. "I"ll be along when we"ve finished up. Don"t want to waste this good food."

"I"ll take care of that for you, John," Herb offered, reaching for his plate, and Halloran motioned to a waiter. "Keep this to one side for the young man," he said. The waiter nodded and held out his tray.

"Oh, no," John said, the faintest prickle of annoyance beginning in him. "I"m sure she"ll be there for a few minutes. I"ll be along directly."

Ever the gracious host, Halloran smiled. "I"ll tell her. Hurry by, John; my wife will want to re-make your acquaintance again, too. Good to see you, Herb." He nodded at Connors and moved up the patio toward his wife and the guest of honor. John and Herb watched him speak to the candidate, saw her nod and glance toward John, saw her grin.

"Who is this woman?" John asked, starting to eat. "Since when does Glen 1-lalloran get sent as an errand boy?"

"What"s gotten in to you?" Herb said mildly. "Glen"s not errand boy to anyone. The candidate wants to meet you, and he"s her host." He took a bite of salad.

"And I"m supposed to drop everything and go meet her? What is she -- the Queen?"

"No, John, she"s not," Herb said. "She"s the guest of honor, and she"s seeking a major party nomination for United States Congress. representing the great state of Texas. And with my luck and your performance so far, she"ll be elected by a landslide and destroying me will be her first official act."

John laughed. "I doubt it, Herb. I"ll just have a little more beef, and then I"ll say hello."

-30-

"Miss Vernon, may I present John Lattimore?" Halloran was at his most courtly as he made the introductions. "He"s just come in from New Jersey this fall. John, this is Hilary Vernon, our guest of honor tonight."

She stood and they shook hands. John was surprised at the strength of her grip. "Please call me Hilary," she said. She was nearly as tall as he.

"Thank you," John said, looking her in the eye. With a final squeeze he released her hand. She did not sit down.

Halloran spoke again. "And you"ve met my wife, Jean."

"Certainly," John said, turning to take her hand with a milder clasp. "Wonderful party, Mrs. Halloran. It"s very kind of you to have us here."

"My pleasure, John." Jean Halloran said. She remained seated. "It"s good of you to come." After a perfunctory smile she returned to toying with a plate of fresh-cut fruit. Halloran excused himself to them all before hurrying off. "Rafer!" they heard him say as he melted into the crowd.

Hilary was still standing. "I guess the business community is represented here tonight," she said pleasantly. Everyone knew Rafer Charles. "Even your friend Herb Connors, and I never thought he"d give a penny to me after I won a judgment against him on behalf of Curtis and Harper."

John knew nothing about Herb"s past litigation and chose the safest course he could see. "You must be very pleased at the attendance tonight," he said. "Even Herb"s."

"It"s broad-based support that wins any election," she said placidly.

"How is your campaign going?" he asked.

"Very well, thank you." She looked at her hostess. "Mrs. Halloran, will you excuse us?" She received a pleasant smile and a nod, and moved away. John shrugged and followed her.

"Nice point about absolute versus relative, John." She stopped at the bar and requested a soda.

"Thanks," he said, and got a double bourbon. He raised his glass in a toast. "To success," he said.

She touched her glass lightly against his. "And in what field do you seek success?"

"Tm working with Herb Connors on the RiverField community."

"I didn"t know you worked for him," she said. "Luxury homes, I believe?"

"The best." He drank off half his bourbon.

"I imagine those beautiful homes will attract the kind of people who will bring their intelligence, their ambition and their financial resources to Texas."

"That"s the plan."

She raised her soda. "To success," she said, and they touched glasses again. "That"s about 200 acres on the river?" she asked.

"You"re well-informed," John said.

"A candidate has to be aware of what"s going on around her." A voice called her name, and they looked toward Rafer Charles as he approached.

"Hilary!" He gave her a warm hug. "How are you, darlin"? How"s that pretty mama of yours?" He turned to John. "You know, John, Hilary"s practically my own girl. In fact --" he gave a broad wink " -- if her mama hadn't met Ross Vernon, I"d"a been her daddy." They all laughed, and Hilary made some flattering remark about Diane Charles.

"So you want to represent me in congress," Rafer said as the pleasantries ended. "I"d like to vote for you, but I hear you"ve come out against business." He looked troubled.

"Oh, no, Rafe, that"s not so!" Hilary said. "Business is what drives the Texas economy:

I wouldn"t dream of holding it back." She spoke about the business tax base and industrial employment figures, freely presenting numbers to support her views.

"And the intangibles!" she continued. "Patrons of the arts, shapers of society! Why, without business most of the endowed chairs in Texas colleges and universities would be empty! No, I"m very much in favor of business and industry."

John was impressed. "I had no idea your information was so far-reaching," he said. "But I thought your platform was built on anti-pollution planks directed toward industry. When you spoke about over-industrialization and environmental cancers in New Jersey..." He could see Charles nodding in agreement. He too wanted an answer.

"No sane person is in favor of pollution, John," Hilary said. "From what I can see -- and I"ve looked, believe me -- Texas industry is at least even with the rest of the nation in cleaning up its act; in some ways we"re far ahead. Toxic spill incidents are very low, and nearly every business in this state is making good-faith efforts to reduce its chemical waste output. New Jersey is far smaller and far more densely populated than Texas, and it"s been industrialized for far longer. These are important differences. You should have stuck around for the rest of the answer, sir." She smiled. "Did you think I didn"t notice when you left?"

"I won"t make the mistake of thinking you don"t see everything ever again," he said.

"You"re a smart fellow," she said. "Anyway, based on these facts, I see no reason to penalize our entire economic base on account of one or two stubborn companies who will have to fall into line eventually anyway."

"But what about off-shore drilling?" John asked. "I heard you"re opposed even to exploratory drilling."

"I don"t know how long you"ve been in Dallas, or to whom you"ve spoken, but that is not my position at all." Hilary looked at him kindly, as though at an erring child. "I only maintain that we must have policies to protect our beaches from oil spills, and that we must enforce those policies fully and without favoritism."

John nodded. "That seems reasonable enough," he said. "I"ll have to tell Sandra she misunderstood."

"Then you"re not completely new to this area?" she asked. "Or do you make friends so quickly?"

"Well, I"m not shy, ma"am, but the truth is that I"m back to Dallas after a year up north," he said. "My college friends, the Haydens, were kind enough to put me up for a few weeks while I got settled. And what Texans don"t talk politics of an evening?"

"Sandra Hayden?" Hilary said. "Why, she"s a charming woman. I met her when I addressed her women"s group." She shook her head and smiled at Rafer. "I guess my talk got a little difficult for them; I really must remember to speak in terms my audience can understand, particularly on so complex a matter as industrial development."

"Well, it"s good of the ladies to take an interest," Charles replied gallantly. "Hilary, honey, I"d say you"ve got my vote. I"ve known Joel Hawkes since -- well, since I don"t know when, it"s been that long. But when he couldn"t push that Breckinridge bill through, knowing what it meant to this area, I knew he was past his prime, knew it was time for new blood up in Washington."

"Mr. Hawkes has served long and well," the candidate said. "But perhaps he"s out of touch with his constituents; he obviously didn"t realize the tremendous benefits the Breckinndge Dam would have brought the state, or the overwhelming public support for the project."

Rafer looked pleasantly relieved. "Well, I"m glad to know your views," he said. "Now, if you"ll excuse me..."

She and John headed back toward the patio. "I"m impressed, Hilary," he said. "You"ve obviously done your homework, having those tax and employment figures on hand like that."

"And I"m impressed, John, at your tenacious grip on matters that concern you. Like that business with Hawkes" newsletter."

"It doesn"t concern me especially," he said. "I thought your remark about his signature was a cheap shot, and I used the ammunition at hand." They stopped at a table and he put down his empty glass. "But you never did answer the question."

She laughed. "One thing at a time. No, I don"t think Hawkes is more abusive about franking mail than any other congressman. If you recall, I didn"t say Hawkes should be restricted; I said we should abolish the franking privilege altogether. if it"s important to send mailings to the folks back home, it should be put in the budget like anything else."

"Fair enough."

"As for taking cheap shots, John, this is politics." She took a last sip of her soda and put the glass down next to his. He noticed the mark of deep red lipstick on its rim. "There"s an element of showmanship to the political arena, and everyone must play his part. To some extent, you"ve got to give the crowd what it wants to hear. And in Texas, cheap shots play well."

John shook his head, a rueful smile on his face. "I guess that"s fair enough too."

"They"ve cleared the buffets," she said, glancing around. "It"s time for me to speak to the folks." She looked him in the eye and held out her hand. "I"ve enjoyed talking with you." They shook hands, their grips every bit as strong as before. "I hope I"ll have the chance to meet you again."

"So do I," he said.

-31-

John worked his way toward the front of the crowd that stood to listen to her speech, which was short and to the point: she wanted to be nominated, she wanted to be elected, she wanted to serve the people, she wanted to go to Washington to represent the Great State of Texas. She wanted to bring the Lone Star State back to its former glory. She wanted to assure jobs for all. She wanted welfare cut dramatically, reserved for honest people who really needed it. She wanted to reduce the tax drain on business to spur growth and competitiveness.

She wanted a lot, but John lost track of the speech quickly.

He was astonished at the beauty of the candidate, there in the bright patio lights, the reflection from the swimming pool shimmering softly against her. He had noticed her honey-blonde hair when they spoke together, but he hadn"t appreciated the way the light turned it to a mass of coppery glints. He had noticed her lipstick, but he hadn"t noticed the grace of her mouth or the smoothness of her complexion. He had noticed the elegant cut of her suit; now he marveled that he had overlooked the perfection of the figure it covered but did not conceal.

Her brown eyes had seemed attractive enough; now they snapped with fire. "There is power in this state," she was saying. Someone had provided a small platform to lift her a bit above the crowd. "Each of you has a vitality all your own." She caught his eye and he started, believing for a moment that she was speaking only to him. "Each of you has a strength." She looked away, scanning the crowd. "This power, this vitality, this strength -this is what made Texas great. This is what will make it great again." She slowly turned back his way, and he could have sworn she was looking directly at him. "Share your power with me," she said quietly, and paused before looking away again. "Let me serve you -- and Texas."

There was a burst of applause. Hilary offered her thanks and John was amazed at her presence as she was helped off the platform. No foolish chatter, no clumsiness, no obvious pride at her unmistakable success, just a pleasant look and perhaps a word of thanks to the man whose arm she held. John looked at the crowd around him; it started breaking up slowly, people talking to each other in excited tones. Hilary retired to the house and did not re-appear.

-32-

"Well, I guess she"s got what it takes," Herb mused as they drove back toward town. "She"s quite a speaker, as I said. She"s good."

"She is that," John answered.

"What did you two talk about?" Herb took his eyes off the road to give John a quick look. "To tell the truth, boy, I thought you might come back minus your balls."

"She"s not that good," John said. "We were just talking about campaign issues. Rafer Charles came by and she was explaining her thoughts on business. About what you heard, I guess."

Herb nodded, and John settled into silence, looking at a brochure and a campaign flyer he had picked up. He studied her photo in the glow of passing Street lights. She was pretty, of course, but it was a strong beauty, not soft; she looked alert and intelligent, but he knew she was from meeting her; he didn"t need a photo to tell him that. She had a bit of mystery around the eyes, he thought. Maybe a bit of danger, a suggestion of the infinitely desirable, wholly unattainable woman. Independent, he thought. Maybe even cold.

Then he remembered her look when she spoke of power. No one could speak like that and be cold. Could she have been talking to him? He found it hard to decide. He could still see her face, still hear her speak. "Share your power with me," He heard that quiet voice over and over. "Share your power with me." It seemed the most seductive, most suggestive sentence a woman had ever uttered in his presence. Had she been talking to him? He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts.

Apparently she had made an impression on Herb, too. "Quite a speaker," he said again, turning toward John"s apartment. "Yeah, I guess she"s got what it takes."

John nodded in silent agreement. Whatever it was that she had, he thought, the crowd loved it; she had left them cheering.

And she had left him breathless.

-33-

The weather turned colder; stores put up tinsel and glitter and tiny white lights; charities and churches began soliciting donations to buy holiday turkeys for the poor; toy drives started. It was Thanksgiving, and Dallas was getting ready for Christmas.

Sandra was busy nearly every day on behalf of her candidate. Rich was not wild about her commitment, but she knew it had more to do with her solitary decision; they had built their marriage on discussing everything from the new car to the new dinnerware.

She put down the census report she was studying and thought about that. He"d gotten over it quickly, and even made a few jokes about all the things they could buy with her additional income (they could go out to dinner once a week on her new earnings, if they chose a modest restaurant), but she couldn"t lose the sensation that her first thought had been right when Hilary made the offer. She didn"t need Rich"s permission to work for a candidate any more than he needed hers to take on a new client, or even to replace the worn pool cover -- but he always talked it over with her anyway. She should have too. She wondered how she could make it up to him.

"Is that drug equivalence book here somewhere?" Professor Hicks startled her by appearing noiselessly before her, and she jumped. He looked quickly over her scattered desk. "I don"t see it," he said. "It"s not out, is it?"

"Good heavens!" she said, standing at once. "I"m so sorry, I haven"t gotten it yet. I"ll be back in just one minute." She flew into the stacks and got the volume, scribbling a retrieval slip as she went. "Here you go, Professor," she said breathlessly, placing the book before him. "Please sign the last line."

"Thank you, Mrs. Hayden." Hicks leaned over the slip and scribbled a signature. "I didn"t know you were interested in demographics," he said, straightening up and returning her pen. "I think you"ll find that the Public Affairs Resource Center has an excellent digest of the most recent census data."

"That"s an excellent suggestion, Professor. Thank you."

"Audrey Goodman"s students did the abstract." He gave her a keen look. "It"s quite good. Very comprehensive."

"Thank you, I"ll look into it immediately." Sandy fidgeted. He had his book. Why didn"t he leave?

"This sudden interest wouldn"t have anything to do with a congressional campaign on behalf of Hilary Vernon, would it, Mrs. Hayden?"

That"s why he hadn"t left! He had seen her work while she was away from her desk, and had correctly surmised that it was not part of her assigned duties. And he was on the faculty board of the library. Sandy blushed.

"I see." He frowned slightly. "You are aware, Mrs. Hayden, that you are an employee of the State of Texas?"

"Yes."

"And more to the point, that you are an essential part of the university library staff?"

"Yes, Professor."

"Far be it from me to discourage political involvement," he said severely. "Your attention to your civic responsibility is laudable, even if I find your choice of candidate questionable; nonetheless, I must insist that on library time you devote yourself to your library duties."

"You"re absolutely right, Professor." Sandy blushed even more fiercely and pointlessly shifted books and papers on her desk. "It won"t happen again."

"I"m sure it won"t," he said kindly, and she looked up at his change of tone. "And I"m sure there is no need to discuss this further."

"Thank you, sir." She felt weak with relief.

"Certainly, Mrs. Hayden." He picked up his book. "And by the way, you might want to examine some of the cases your candidate tried on behalf of Saunders/Coleman/Combs. Start with Steward v. AgriPlus" He smiled unexpectedly. "On your own time, of course."

-34-

John had taken a lively interest in the primary election. He tacked the picture from Hilary"s campaign brochure over his desk at home, and he started tracking her itinerary through the newspaper reports of her appearances. She was all over the district, attending professional meetings, addressing community groups, making speeches before service organizations. She hopped through Dallas, giving a talk here, attending a conference there, and it took John several weeks to find what he was looking for: the public was invited to the monthly meeting of the Dallas Teachers" Union, where primary contender Hilary Issler Vernon would be the featured speaker. He cleared his schedule for the Monday afternoon following the holiday and made plans to attend.

-35-

Sandy went back to work after the long Thanksgiving weekend determined to be a model employee, and she even cleaned up the perpetual mess on her desk. There were memos and scraps of paper dating back months, and she found that time had taken care of most of them.

Rich had been understanding when she told him about her humiliation at the hands of Professor Hicks, but not very sympathetic.

"I"m sure it was hard," he said. "But it could have gone a lot worse, and he was certainly within his rights. Actually, from his point of view, Hicks probably felt obligated to speak up." He was looking at an architecture journal and polishing his shoes while he spoke. "I"m sorry you were embarrassed."

"Embarrassed? I was mortified!"

"I"m sure you were," he said. "But it isn"t right to do campaign work on company time."

"I"m working for the future of the State of Texas! For all our futures!"

"Baby -- " he put down his shoe brush and looked at her. "Sandra, honey, you"re working for a candidate. Don"t ever forget that." She knew he was right, and it galled her. The discomfort of Hicks"s remarks sat uneasily with her throughout the holiday weekend.

She was still feeling very honorable and self-righteous about things when she came across a note stuck to the retrieval slip Professor Hicks had signed. Steward v. AgriPlus, he had scribbled. The son of a bitch knew what I was doing before he even asked, she thought. Still feeling honorable and self-righteous, she spent her lunch hour in the law library.

-36-

"Why, hello, John!" Hilary gave him a gratifyingly bright smile as she entered the high school auditorium where the Teachers" Union was to hold their meeting. "Did you have a nice Thanksgiving?"

"Hello, Hilary, yes, thanks." They shook hands with grips of iron. "I wondered if you"d remember me."

"Of course I remember you." She glanced over his shoulder at the half-filled hall. "Have you come to learn about my education platform, or did you want to ask another question about Idaho?"

He laughed. "No, I came to watch you in action. It"s quite a show. Can I take your coat?"

Her survey complete, she grinned at him. "No, thanks, Dean is somewhere behind me; he and Phyllis mind the details, like my schedule and my coat."

"I understand it"s quite a schedule."

"It"s a mess. I can"t wait "til this campaign is over and I can live like a human again. I can"t recall the last time I had an evening to myself, or a dinner that wasn"t banquet chicken or pork barbecue." She watched as four people came in through a side door. "Even with two people helping it"s hard to keep it straight." She looked at him again, smiling. "I could use another three, easy."

"Any time you want me to sign on, just say so." He gave her his slowest, sultriest smile. "And I"d be happy to get you out of the rubber chicken and barbecue rut any night you"re free."

"You"re sweet," she said distractedly, watching more arrivals enter. "There"s the Union president," she said suddenly. "I must speak to her. Will you be around after the meeting? I"d love to talk to you some more." She handed John her coat, still not looking at him. "Could you give this to Dean? He"s got wire glasses and a pin that says "Vernon for Congress" on his lapel."

"I"ll hold it ransom," he joked, but he wasn"t sure she heard; she was already heading purposefully down the center aisle without a backward glance, intent on her mission.

-37-

The speech was great, John told himself admiringly as he watched Hilary afterwards. Her grasp of educational issues and finance was formidable, and she effortlessly tied local problems to national programs she hoped to propose if these kind people would allow her to represent the Democrats in the upcoming election.

"We Texans are different from other Americans." Her smooth low voice rang out in the crowded hail. "We have a proud past, a history of being a sovereign nation, a nation that joined the Union of its own free will. No one can tell us how to think; we think for ourselves. No one can tell us how to speak; we speak our minds. And no one can tell us what to dream, for our dreams are as big as Texas itself."

The crowd stirred, and John grinned. That"s got "em going, he thought. Texans just love to hear how great they are.

"But we Texans are not that different from other Americans," she continued. "We also want the best for our children. We also need a living wage to support those children. We must also have the resources and the support to do the right job." John could see the Union members nodding and gesturing to each other. "We can and should reward excellence, we must continue to learn and grow, and to lobby for the further training of teachers. And we must -- we must -- support the groups, such as the Dallas Teachers" Union, that remind this nation of who instructs our children.

"We must remind this nation that teachers are not substitutes for parental care. That teachers are not social workers." She paused for the big finish. "Ladies and gentlemen, we must remind this nation that teachers are not babysitters. We must remind this nation that our teachers are professionals... the professionals who prepare America for its future!"

The crowd was on its feet, cheering. She hit that one right on, John thought, watching the union officials on stage shake Hilary"s hand with unrestrained enthusiasm. He made his way to the stage steps, waiting to help her with her coat. Dean was there, with his wire glasses and his "Vernon for Congress" pin, and John supposed the tiny woman next to him was Phyllis. "This speech should be good for an instant endorsement," he said to them.

Dean eyed him coldly. "Who are you?" Phyllis asked.

"John Lattimore," he extended his hand, but neither made a move to take it. "Hilary asked me to stop by after her speech," he said. "I have her coat, after all." He shifted it from his left arm to his right, to cover the awkwardness of having his hand left unshaken.

"Thank you, I"ll take it." Phyllis reached out, and John felt a flash of anger.

"I said she asked me to come and speak to her after the meeting," he said. "And I told her I"d hang on to her coat for her."

"Mr. -- what was your name? Lattimore? -- Mr. Lattimore, Miss Vernon has a very busy schedule and I will certainly tell her you"ve stopped by to say hello." Dean reached out and caught the collar of the expensive garment. "I"m sony she burdened you with her coat, but please do not confuse the pleasantries of a candidate with the familiarity of friendship." He gave a pull, and John could not see having a tug-of-war in the middle of a crowd. He let go, fuming.

"Listen, buddy," he began. "When I need your advice on how to conduct myself, I"ll ask. Until then -- "He was tuning up for a tirade when Hilary stepped into the middle.

"Dean, Phil," she said. "Hi, John; I"m glad you waited for me. Sorry I walked off like that before. What did you think of my speech?"

John shot the others a smug look. "It was great, Hilary. You had them eating out of your hand." Phyliss opened her mouth, but Hilary beat her to it. "Uh, John," she said quietly. "We don"t use expressions like that publicly." She rolled her eyes toward the Union officials above her who were trying to restore order and continue with the business portion of the meeting.

"Sorry." He grinned self-consciously. "I thought you touched on the major issues, and I think the audience appreciated what you had to say."

Hilary laughed. "Much better," she said. "You ought to hit the stump yourself."

"I think not." John laughed back at her. He had forgotten his anger. He had forgotten Dean and Phyliss altogether. "Can I --

Dean handed the candidate her coat. "Shall we?" he said.

"Yes, let"s let them get on with their meeting," Hilary answered. They stopped in the vestibule. "What were you saying, John?"

"I was going to ask if I could save you from a bad dinner in a crowded hall." He wasn"t wild about Phyllis and Dean standing there, but he had no choice. "if you"re free, of course, and if Dean and Phyllis here don"t have any objections."

Apparently they did. "You have a six a.m. call, Hilary," Phyllis said. "You"re addressing the Agriculture Board at their 7 o"clock breakfast, and then you"ve got a luncheon with the Chamber of Commerce."

"And there are a number of phone calls for you to return this evening." Dean consulted a list. "Denise called for you, and Mr. Charles, and Bill Rogers. And the notes for the Mayors" Council meeting are ready for your review."

Hilary plucked the paper from Dean"s hand. "You are both so kind to look after things like this," she said gratefully. "I can"t tell you how much I appreciate it." She shrugged into her coat and looked at the slip before putting it in her pocket. "I think you should both take the night off. Don"t worry about campaigns, or phone calls or schedules. The morning will come soon enough. Just take the evening to yourselves and relax."

They both looked stunned. John tried not to look too pleased. "Are you sure, Hilary?" Dean started to argue, and Hilary pretended to look severe.

"Really, Dean, you can"t keep working 30 hours a day. I know you"re trying to save me from all these details, but I insist that you take it easy for one night. We"ve got hard months ahead of us."

Phyllis looked doubtful. "You won"t forget the five o"clock wake-up, will you, Hilary? Shall I call you too?"

"That"s an great idea, Phil." She started walking toward the door and they both followed. John brought up the rear and he thought they looked like sheep; he admired the way she handled their feeble protests. "You call me, and I"ll be ready when the car gets there. You won"t oversleep, will you?"

"Of course not," Phyliss said. Hilary shepherded them to a white station wagon, and eased them inside. Dean started the car, but he still didn"t look convinced.

"The Mayors" Council notes -- "he began, but she cut him off, her drawl softened to honey. "Now Dean, I mean it! You simply have to give up work for the evening. It"s not even six o"clock; you have lots of time to take the family to dinner, or go to the movies, or read a good book. I"ll pick up the messages from headquarters; don"t even bother about that."

"Oh!" Phyllis dug in her skirt pocket and came up with a crumpled piece of paper. "This came in just as we were leaving." She leaned over and handed the note to Hilary. "Sandra Hayden called. I only spoke to her for a moment, but she said it was essential that she talk with you."

"I"ll call her, Phil; thanks." Hilary put it in her pocket with the other list. "What is she working on, Dean?"

"The crime statistics for your Sheriffs" Association talk next week."

"Do you suppose there"s something cataclysmic she might have found?"

"I doubt it." Dean smiled faintly. "Sandra is -- excitable."

"Sandra Hayden doesn"t fly off the handle at nothing, Dean." Hilary said quickly. "She"s very intelligent and she knows what she"s doing. T"m sure it"s something important." She stepped away from the car. "I"ll be sure and call her. You two take it easy now, and I"ll see you in the morning."

They watched the station wagon lumber out the driveway. "Thought they"d never leave," John said. "Can I offer you a lift?"

"I hope so," she answered. "I just sent my ride home without me."

"Over this way." They headed toward John"s car. "I didn"t realize Sandy was working for you," he said.

Hilary gave him a surprised look. "That"s right, she"s a friend of yours. isn"t she?" He nodded. "She"s an excellent researcher, and she"s very kindly agreed to help us out. She"s a master at uncovering obscure facts."

"Speaking of obscure," John said as he opened the car door and moved his briefcase from front to back, "I know of an obscure little Italian restaurant down town. Can I tempt you into dinner?"

She gave him a frankly appraising look as she settled in the seat. "Italian food sounds great," she said. "I thought you"d never ask."

-38-

John watched the waiter pour wine for them both. "What made you decide on politics?" he asked. "It"s kind of grueling, isn"t it? And there"s absolutely no promise of success."

"What field promises success?" She took a sip from her glass. "None that I know of. And I"m not afraid of hard work; compared to practicing law, this campaign is like a walk in the park."

"Come on. Lawyers sit in their offices until they stroll off to the courthouse," John said. "The law is just talk, as far as I can see."

She glanced around the restaurant quickly and turned back to him, looking amused. "As as I can see, you haven"t seen very far. A large law firm wants at least 30 hours a week in billing from each attorney; that requires about 60 hours of work. Forget the nine-to-five business: you"re at it from 7:00 a.m. until the work"s done. Forget losing yourself in a good book: all your reading is case law. Forget a social life: all your friends are lawyers, and they don"t have any time either." She drank again and turned the stem of the glass slowly between her fingers. "And they want even more from a partner. Partners are supposed to do all that and bring in new clients, preferably corporate clients whose work is never finished."

"So it"s easier to tear all over Texas, making speeches and sucking up to the crowd?"

"I was never one for easy, John. I"m not afraid of hard work, and no matter what people may think about my family"s money, everything I have I"ve earned myself." She looked up with a gleam in her eye. "And I don"t "suck up" to crowds; I state my honest, considered opinion. If we think alike, I"ll be elected. If we don"t, I"m sadly mistaken about what Texans want and need and I shouldn"t be elected."

He was filled with respect for this beautiful, ambitious woman. "If you want to be in congress bad enough to work this hard, how can you accept the possibility of failure so easily?"

"Don"t you accept the possibility of failure every day? Don"t we all? And besides, I haven"t failed yet at anything I"ve set my mind to."

"Nothing?"

She gave him that frank look again, and her mouth curled in a half smile. "Nothing."

He raised his wine, and they touched their glasses in a toast. "To success," he said.

She sipped her wine, her eyes never leaving his face, and then leaned forward on her elbows, slowly tracing the length of the stem with a dark-nailed finger. "And what success are you thinking of?" she asked.

John felt the breathlessness return. "You wouldn"t want to know," he said.

-39-

"I don"t understand it," Sandra said again as she looked over her notes. "Hilary tried Steward v. AgriPlus and she represented AgriPlus!" She slapped the tablet down in front of Rich. "She won, too. Look!"

"I see, honey." He looked it over carefully. "At least she"s a good lawyer."

"Don"t make a joke of this, Richie."

"I"m not trying to, Sandy, but maybe there"s more here then we realize." He gave up trying to decipher the scrawled pages. "Did she call you back yet?"

"No." Sandy began pacing the kitchen. "I left a message with Phyllis. They were heading out when I called."

"Let"s be reasonable about this," Rich said. "What"s the worst it could mean?"

Sandy thumped her clasped hands on the counter top. "It means she"s in bed with business, that she didn"t mean anything she said about making them stop pollution." She snatched up the notes again. "See? They were accused of poisoning the stream that fed the Steward"s land. All the cattle developed burns and lesions, and those that didn"t die outright had to be put down."

"What"s the best it could be?"

"I can"t think of anything good," she wailed.

"How did she win?"

"The Stewards" attorney couldn"t conclusively show that AgriPlus was the sole source of pollution. There was something about fertilizer run-off."

Rich sighed. "Maybe they weren"t responsible, San. Even big companies are entitled to a good defense."

Sandra was flipping pages, looking for something particular. "And the Steward"s little girl suffered burns after she went wading in the stream."

"Serves her right, wading in among the cows. Did they have to put her down?"

"How dare you! How dare you make light of this!"

"I"m sorry, honey. I just think you"re going to have to wait on Hilary for explanations, and I don"t think you"re going to get any tonight."

-40-

They lingered over their meal until 8 o"clock. Hilary excused herself once to speak to a prominent doctor she had seen enter; other than that, John had her to himself.

"It"s good not sharing you with a crowd," he said, rising as she returned to the table. "Except with Dr. Castle, of course, and he"s not really a crowd.

"But he represents a crowd," she said quickly, smiling. "He"s president of the State AMA. They"re considering an endorsement, so I had to say hello."

"Are you always campaigning?"

"if you tell me I have your vote. I"ll stop trying to persuade you right now." She toyed with the rim of her wine glass as she looked at him, outlining the small circle of crystal.

"Well, I don"t know," he said, leaning back comfortably in his chair, revealing none of the tension he felt. "There are lots of important issues in this race. Before I commit my vote, perhaps you"d better tell me what form your campaigning might take."

She brushed her hair back from her face with a slow, graceful gesture that left manicured fingers resting lightly against her throat. "I"d be happy to hear you ideas on the matter," she said. "Every campaign needs ideas."

The directness of her brown-eyed glance left him empty of rational thought; he wondered if he would ever get his breath back again.

"Not a one?" she teased at his grinning shrug. "I"m surprised, a clever young fellow like you. Well, that"s OK; I need to get used to the burden of decision if I"m going to Washington next fall." She leaned for her hand bag, and he caught a glimpse of lace at the top of her blouse. "I move that we head on out of here."

He managed to make conversation as they crossed town. "How does it happen that you use all your names in your campaign?" he asked.

"I"m very proud of my background," she said. "My mother"s family as much as my father"s. Joshua Jacob Issler came to Texas from Kentucky in 1866, dirt poor and looking for work herding cattle to market. He was no different than a thousand like him, except he used his intelligence and ambition and ended up owning 5,000 head of cattle and ten times that amount of acreage."

"So you come from a long line of money," he said. "I-low come you"re not empty-headed, like the Hallorans?"

She laughed. "I think the ambition got bred out of the Hallorans. Don"t get me wrong, they"re lovely people and I appreciate all they"ve done for me. It"s just that a line can"t survive long without new blood; the Hallorans, the Carlisles and the Benedicts have married each other for at least five generations." She gave him a playful slap on the knee. "Besides, men use all their names all the time, or at least their initials. Look at your boss: his company is called Herbert J. Connors, Inc. Why should I be any different?"

"Because you"re not a company," he said. "Where do I turn?"

Her interest had swung to his boss; after getting him to the right road, she returned to the subject. "What do you do for Herb Connors, anyway?"

"Right now, I"m project manager for RiverField." He explained briefly about the misunderstanding that nearly shut down construction.

"Really?" she asked. "I always figured a land owner built on his own land with his own money."

"Almost never," he said. "The cost of building is sky-high; most folks couldn"t afford to start, let alone finish. The cost of infrastructure alone -- roads and sewers and such -- is beyond belief."

"Then how does Herb afford it? Does the bank lend on every facet of development, or just on the residences themselves? Or is he that rich?"

"In this case, the county went to bond for the land improvements. They"ve gambled that the property taxes will pay them back over time."

"And the bank loaned him millions, knowing that he was responsible for millions in municipal bonding, too?"

"That"s the interesting thing about community associations," he said. "RiverField is called "A Luxury Home Community" for a reason: the community is responsible for debts incurred."

"No wonder Herb is so successful," she said. "He gets all the profit and none of the risk."

John laughed. "It"s a pretty good scam," he said.

"Is it a scam, really?"

"No, it"s all very legitimate. As long as the houses get sold and the residents pay their taxes, through their monthly maintenance and assessments, the bondholders are paid and so is the County."

"How are sales?"

"It looks good," he said.

"I"m glad," she said. "Wasn"t so long ago you couldn"t give a house away around here. Turn left at the next corner."

John made his way through the quiet neighborhood and turned into a graveled driveway. "Nice," he said, looking at the brick house and spacious, well-tended yard. "Nice house."

"Thanks." She opened the front door and switched on some lights. "I bought my husband out after our divorce. I"ve always loved this house."

"Divorce? I didn"t even know you were married."

"Only for a year or so." She took his coat and hung it with hers. "It was a while ago."

"Was he a lawyer?"

"No, a salesman." She looked at him sharply. "Electronics. He went back to Los Angeles. Any other questions?"

"Sony," he said. "I didn"t mean to pry."

She put a kettle of water on the stove to boil. "No, I"m sorry; I shouldn"t have snapped at you. It"s just that this business of being a candidate robs you of your privacy. "Hilary Issler Vernon, 36, divorced, no children, no criminal record, graduate of -- " well, you can imagine."

"No, actually I can"t." He leaned against the countertop and watched her get out tea and cups. "I guess I"m a pretty private person; I don"t think I could put up with that shit."

"Why? What ghastly secrets lurk behind that innocent mask?"

He laughed. "Nothing criminal, anyway. But I"ve had my share of escapades I"d rather not discuss."

"Oh, come on." She gave him a teasing grin. "What"s the worst you could have done?"

"Well, Artie Perlmutter and I got ourselves pie-eyed and thrown out of the Bijou once when we were in college."

"Oh, please." She rinsed a pitcher and poured milk. "Who hasn"t gotten themselves thrown out of the Bijou?"

"Have you?"

-41-

"Case closed, counselor."

She put the pitcher on a tray. "Actually, real scandal isn"t that common. if you tell everyone that you were a cut-up and a drunk in college, but have reformed now, they"ll call you a good ol" boy and a man of character for admitting your failings. But if you didn"t say you"d gotten drunk and disorderly, they"ll say you were hiding it, and then they"d hound you for every little crime."

"Wait, wait," he protested, laughing. "I didn"t say I was a cut-up and a drunk in college."

"Why are you trying to hide what you say was an isolated case of innocent excess, John?"

"So that"s the way it is?" He shook his head. "That sucks."

"It sure does. I"ve made it a habit to say everything right up front, just to protect myself in the end. Some of it hasn"t been too pleasant."

"What"s the worst thing you could have done?"

She came over to lean next to him and look off into space. He was captivated by her closeness. "Well, let"s see... the divorce was probably the most damning thing." She grinned suddenly. "Good thing it"s the "90"s. It"s not especially good for my image, but people have gotten used to it." She poked him playfully in the ribs. "Now, honestly, you couldn"t possibly have done anything as scandalous as get divorced, could you?"

"I"ve never been married," he said quickly, matching her light tone. "I"ve had no scandals to speak of, unless you count going out with a rich older woman. That wasn"t good for anybody"s image."

"No!" She poked him again. "I knew you were hiding something!" She laughed cheerfully as she poured boiling water into the teapot. "Well, that"s pretty bad. Did she give you lots of expensive gifts before you broke her heart?"

"She didn"t give me gifts, and I didn"t break her heart," he said. "It was, and then it wasn"t. That"s all."

She took up the tray and he followed her to the living room. "Was it a long time ago?" she asked.

"Seems like forever," he said. "It was a brief interlude in an otherwise dull existence." He looked at her pointedly. "Any more questions?"

The tea was spread, and she motioned him to sit next to her. "Can I take this to mean you aren"t seeing anyone?" she asked.

"That"s right." He sat down beside her.

"I"m glad," she said. "No further questions." She indicated the table. "Will you have tea?"

He was looking at the photographs on the mantle: Hilary graduating college: Hilary receiving an award; Hilary celebrating her law partnership. There were half-a-dozen others. "Why do you have all these pictures of yourself?" he asked. "Do you forget what you look like?"

She laughed. "Of course not. I"ve accomplished a lot, and I"m proud of it."

"Ever successful, hey?"

"Absolutely. I believe in it, same as you." She looked him in the eye. "Maybe even the same sort as you."

He grinned. "Are you thinking of selling houses?"

"No, I"m thinking of this." She leaned forward, brushed a hand slowly against his cheek, and kissed him.

John drew a deep breath. "Successful and psychic," he said, and he kissed her back. Then he kissed her again. After a minute or two she slipped off her shoes and leaned back against the couch.

John followed her movements, kissing her slowly, tasting her lipstick, catching her blonde hair in his hands. Her fingers were on him, moving under his jacket, gliding over the muscles of his back.

Her mouth was alive, her tongue moving with his, her breath coming quick and uneven. He moved from her lips to her long slender neck, inhaling deeply, smelling the perfume warmed from her body, drawing his tongue lightly along her tawny skin, feeling the smoothness of her flesh. He slid one hand to her breast, full and warm, and she groaned softly.

"You"re beautiful," he whispered, nuzzling her throat, opening the top buttons of her silk blouse one-handed. "God, you"re so beautiful." He licked slowly around her lace-covered nipple, pleased with the rough texture of cloth over the small, hard mound, feeling the ache of his own hardness pressing against her thigh. "So beautiful," he breathed.

She eased the jacket from his shoulders and slid a silky leg over his, rubbing herself frankly against him. He had her blouse open fully now, his hands behind her back under her lingerie, against her skin, crushing her to him, both of them grinding together as they kissed. "So beautiful," he whispered again, and he eased her slowly back, rolling, pinning her beneath him. The strap of her camisole slid from her shoulder, and he followed the thin strand of fabric with his mouth, pushing down her bra, exposing her breast, sucking noisily, greedily, as though he could draw milk. "Right there," she breathed, one hand pressing her breast tight and full against his mouth, the other behind his head, pulling as though she could bring him closer. "Right there."

When the phone rang John nearly jumped out of his skin. "Jesus!" he swore.

She sat up and brushed the hair from her face. "Saved by the bell," she said mildly. By the third ring she had answered, her voice low and calm. John sat back and looked at her, clearly eavesdropping.

"Hi, Sandy," she said. "Phyllis told me you called. I met your friend John Lattimore at a meeting, and he was kind enough to take me to dinner. In fact, we just got in." She was silent a moment, listening. "I"ll bet reading up on Steward v. Agriplus disturbed you," she said. "How did you happen to look into it?" She made a note on her desk tablet. "I"ve never heard of him," she said. "Well, no matter. I tried that case on behalf of Saunders/ColemanlCombs, and the best I can say is that it was my job to win. So I did."

John snorted. "Successful again," he said, and she motioned him to be quiet while she listened.

"I know it"s troubling, Sandy," she said finally. "It was troubling to me, too. But the facts of the case stand: Agriplus was discharging into that stream, but the run-off from the Steward"s own fertilizing was also a major factor. Honestly, once the child recovered from her chemical burns I felt the Stewards had gotten off lightly with only losing 50 head." She grimaced at John and motioned him to bring her a cup of tea. He put it on the desk and looked at her notes. "Professor Robert Hicks," they read. "History. Faculty board, University Library." She had underlined the faculty board part.

She turned the tablet face down and spoke again. "Sandy, the Agriplus case, distasteful as it was to me, crystallized my views about industry in this state. My job was to represent an industrial giant, and I did so to the best of my ability and I won for them. But I would much rather have represented the Steward family. That case is so typical of Texas -- big companies hiring expert talent while honest everyday people make do with the country bumpkins.

"I think that"s when I decided on a role in public life. The Stewards are like any other small family in this state. They work hard for what they have, and they spent it all bringing suit. The law should serve them, and it didn"t. I think it"s time we make laws that will protect real people." She was silent again. "No, I understand entirely; there"s no need to apologize. I"m glad you asked. It"s just one more example of something that needs to be changed." She laughed suddenly. "I"ll tell him. Thanks for calling, Sandy. Good night."

She hung up and sipped her tea. "Thanks for the tea," she said. "In addition to being cold, it"s also far too strong." She sipped again. "Sandra says hello."

John nodded. "What was that all about?" he asked.

"Remember what I said about a candidate"s past?" She tapped her fingernail idly on the delicate Wedgwood. He nodded again. "When I was practicing law full-time, I tried a wide variety of cases. Some of them weren"t very pretty, and Sandra caught up with one of the uglier ones. You heard the gist of it?"

"Yeah. Won"t it look bad for your campaign, winning for a big company against a bunch of farmers?"

"Yes, it will." She shrugged. "All I can do is tell the truth, John. I was hired to be a lawyer and that"s what I did. It"s unfortunate that I ended up on the sorry side of a sorry situation, but the Steward"s defeat doesn"t have to be in vain. That case taught me a lot about what the average citizen needs the law to do for them. I think I can make it happen." She smiled at him. "Why are you shaking your head?"

"Because you"re amazing," he said. "Anyone else would try to -- well, maybe not hide, but at least play down stuff like that. And you just come right out and say "here"s how it was." You"ve got balls, ma"am." He grinned and reached out to stroke her hair. "And you do things to mine," he said.

She pressed his hand to her cheek and looked at him, her eyes deep and dark. "And you do things to me," she said softly. "However, I was right when I said we were saved by the bell. It"s late, and I"d better send you on your way."

"I don"t want to hear that."

"And I don"t want say it." She turned her face to his hand, kissing the palm, slowly moving to trace the pads of his fingers with soft wet strokes of her tongue.

He could feel himself getting hard again. "Jesus, Hilary, is this how you intend to make me leave?"

"You"re right," she said, putting a small kiss on each fingertip. "Let"s get you tidied up."

He stood in the front hall, looking at her. She was tousled and barefoot and the light from the living room gleamed red and gold in her hair. "You really are beautiful," he said.

"I bet you say that to all the candidates," she said. "I bet you kiss "em all, too."

"No, this is a first." He put on his coat and kissed her. "I hope it"s not the last. I"d like to call you sometime."

"I"d like you to call me sometime." She leaned against the door frame, looking at him. "I think I can fit you into my schedule."

They kissed again, and then once more. Hilary"s hands slid into his unbuttoned coat, encircling him, pulling him close; he could feel her fingers massaging him, her nails dragging along his clothing. He leaned against her, felt her hips moving, slowly moving against the bulge that was forming in his pants.

Suddenly he caught her wrists and pinned them against the wall, leaning his weight along her arms. "Do you want me to leave or not?" he asked. He kissed her again, demandingly, crushing her mouth under his. She groaned, and he pressed his body flat against hers. "Do you want me to leave or not?"

"Yes," she whispered. "I want you to leave."

So he left.

-42-

"What was it all about?"

"Jim Curtis and Floyd Harper are a couple of criminals disguised, among other things, as electrical contractors. I used them on a project, and everything they touched turned to shit. I finally sued to get things moving, and damned if they didn"t hire Saunders/Coleman/Combs. And damned if Hilary Vernon didn"t represent them. She won, too."

"How?"

"I haven"t exactly figured that out. That whole firm is unbelievably well-connected. It was quick, but not painless. I had to pay them in full for the crap they handed me. Plus costs."

"Why did you contribute to her campaign, then?"

"You"ve got to face facts, John. She"s a well-connected woman, a partner in a well-connected firm, and she could very well win the primary. That"s as good as winning the election, and I"d like to be well-connected too, for Christ"s sake. That"s why I bought the tickets, and I"ll probably attend other things, too." He drummed his fingers on the desk. "I can"t believe she brought that up. She"s the one who"s supposed to have the vindictive streak, not me"

"What"s that?"

"I"ve heard she"s a poor loser. But I don"t know anything first-hand, son; she didn"t lose with me."

"What have you heard?"

"Well, I heard she cleaned out her husband in the divorce. Most of the money was hers to begin with, of course, but I understand he left town with a minor-league settlement and the clothes on his back. And he left town quick." Herb looked closely at John. "That"s why I figured you"d lose your balls that night. You interrupted the lady, crossed her up on one of her anti-Hawkes notions. Crossed her in front of witnesses."

"Nah, it was nothing," John said. "Just a little bantering."

"She looks smooth as silk, but she can be dangerous and I"ve got the scars to prove it." Herb consulted an invitation. "There"s a reception at Ridgewood Country Club, probably the last before Christmas. $50 a head. Go on down and stir something up if you want. Just watch your back if you go tangling with her again. And leave my name out of it." He flipped the card to John. "How about we get back to business? What else is going on?"

John shuffled through more files. "Let"s see. Oh yeah. The DEP guy was at the site this morning, taking water samples."

"What?" Herb looked up over the half-glasses he used for reading. "Water samples from where?"

"From the river, Herb. They"re verifying the studies Archer did before they issued the permits." John shifted in his arm chair and stretched out his legs. "This place has gotten to be as bad as New Jersey," he remarked. "Can"t turn around with out the government sticking its nose in." He leafed through a thick file. "Archer"s initial impact studies were submitted last year, and the DEP acknowledged receipt. I guess they would have held up the permits if there was a problem. I don"t see any trouble with it."

"Did they take samples from the well?"

"No, just the river." John looked at him. "Is there something wrong with the well?"

"No, not at all." Connors sat back again. "I just hate those guys. They act like I"d poison my own grandmother."

John gathered up his papers. "Well, wouldn"t you?" he asked.

"Well, sure." Herb picked up his phone as John headed for the door. "But only for a buck, of course."

-43-

Joel Hawkes came back to Texas himself, campaigning in the Christmas break. Billboards announced his legislative achievements; television and radio commercials reminded Dallas of the benefits his seniority brought them; mailings described his voting record in glowing terms.

It didn"t seem to help. The polls showed that voters didn"t have much of a taste for Hawkes, even though he was blanketing the airwaves. No, the public seemed taken with the pretty young attorney from Dallas.

As the campaign heated up, analysts began to mutter disapprovingly about the amount of money the candidates were spending. Millions so far, they complained, and the primary was still twelve weeks off; what obscene amounts would they spend in the last month? Dorothy Tate of the Texas Observer began investigating funding sources.

-44-

Ridgewood Country Club was opulent in its furnishings and tasteful in its holiday decorations. George Benson was in the bar and John bought him a drink.

"How"s business?" Benson asked. "Y"all selling any houses?"

"It"s been pretty good," John said. "Don"t expect much action over the next few months, but come spring -- look out!"

"That"s the spirit." Benson thumped John on the back. "That"s been our whole trouble down here: no confidence."

"Well, that and no money." John sipped his drink and put the glass on the bar. "But things are better now, aren"t they?"

"Things are no worse than they have been, anyway. I"m pretty safe -- people are always going to need food -- but it"s not what it used to be, I"ll tell you that." In addition to other holdings, Benson owned a chain of supermarkets.

"How are things over at First Dallas?"

"Good." He drained his drink. "The S&L"s may never recover from this bulishit, but at least we"re still solvent."

"How"d that happen?"

"Damned if I know," the older man laughed. "We"ve been inspected right up the old wazoo, too. Hard to believe they didn"t find anything, but First Dallas Savings is strong." Benson looked at John. "Why? Are you going to ask us for a loan? Got some big project in mind? I heard how you got RiverField back on its feet, and we"re always happy to talk to smart young men about their ambitions."

John grinned. "I"m just a working man, George."

"You working men make the best investments. And besides, John, if you"re just a working man, why are you giving money to Hilary Vernon?"

"Can"t a working man support a candidate?"

"Sure you can, son. And it"s just as easy to support a pretty one as an ugly one." Benson caught the bartender"s eye and ordered another round. "She"s as good a choice as anyone else, I guess. Maybe better: she"s got her mama"s looks and her daddy"s head for business."

"You think she has a chance?"

"I don"t know." He finished his drink, anticipating the refill. "Maybe if Joel hadn"t gotten himself tangled up in that check-bouncing business, it might not be so bad. But it"s a lot of things. He"s been there forever, and I think maybe people are tired of the same old faces. They just forget how powerful all those re-elections have made our good congressman."

"Rafe Charles said he was washed up after that dam business fell through." The bartender brought the second round. John paid.

"Ah, he was talking like a chamber member then. Besides, Rafe"s wife owns land the state would"ve had to buy if Breckinridge went through."

"That so?" John stirred his new drink and dropped the plastic stick on the bar.

"Sure. Nobody does anything for nothing, John." He picked up his glass, took an experimental sip. "Not even Hilary Vernon."

"What"s that supposed to mean?"

"Don"t get testy with me, boy," Benson said. "I haven"t figured out what she really wants, but I don"t figure anyone in his right mind would want the job she"s after. The salary means nothing, and every move you make is under a microscope; you can hardly steal enough any more to make it worth your while." He laughed at his own joke. "It must be power."

"Maybe she sees problems and thinks she can fix them."

"And maybe she sees a way to increase her say in the way things go."

"if you don"t like her, why are you here?"

"I never said I didn"t like her, John. I like her just fine, and I"ve know her family for years. She"ll do no worse than Joel Hawkes if she"s elected. I"ve contributed to him for years, and she"s a corner so I"m contributing to her." He swallowed half of his drink. "Besides, it"s worth my while just to make sure she sees I"m here. She"d never forgive me if I didn"t show up for something, and I"d rather not get on Hilary"s bad side."

"How"s that?"

"That girl"s got a mean streak in her, and don"t you forget it."

"Oh, come on. She"s always been fine, even when we were sniping over some bullshit at Glen Halloran"s."

"She must like you, then." Benson pulled his jacket off the back of the stool and stood to put it on. "Keep it that way."

John was working on his reply when noise from the front lobby caught his attention. "Must be the candidate," George said. "Let"s go."

-45-

"Inspiring as always." John said as he and Hilary shook hands respectably after her talk. She had addressed the group on the problems of the Nation"s entitlement programs. They seemed to approve of her ideas, but now the crowd was thinning.

"You"re very kind," she said. "1 thought the subject was fitting, in this, the season of giving." She smiled brilliantly, gave his hand a surreptitious squeeze and looked over his shoulder. "Will you excuse me?" she said. "I"ll be right back." She was gone before he answered. "Tom, you look wonderful," he heard her say. "How did the..." Her voice faded into the knot of people near the door.

John got a cup of coffee and stood quietly, watching her work the crowd. She had worn a bright red dress and a holly-leaf corsage; among the subdued colors of her audience she stood out like a candle in the dark. Dean showed up beside him, holding a clipboard and a cup of tea.

"Hey, Dean," John said. "How is the campaign going?"

"Fine, thanks." Dean shifted his tea and they shook hands. "Did you enjoy Miss Vernon"s speech?"

"I was just telling her how inspiring I found it," John said. "I was going to flatter her some more, but she got away." He motioned to where she was talking earnestly. "It"s not easy pinning her down, is it?"

"She"s extremely busy. In fact, there"s hardly a spare hour between now and Super Tuesday." Dean smiled tightly. "That"s what I wanted to talk to you about. I may be a bit out of line on this, but I"m asking you not to pursue a relationship with Miss Vernon at this time."

"You"re a lot out of line on this, Dean," John said cheerfully. "I understand you handle Hilary"s political schedule, but did she turn her social calendar over to you, too? Or was this your own idea?"

"I thought you"d feel that way," Dean said, not at all put out. "No, I"m not in charge of her personal life; I just hope you realize that in politics there"s remarkably little difference between a private life and a public one. Everything a candidate does is open to scrutiny by the voters, by the media and by her opponent. And every associate is liable to fall under the same spotlight."

"I don"t have an idea in hell what you"re talking about."

"It"s very simple, really. By associating with a candidate, your past becomes an object of interest, and your future becomes an object of speculation."

"Who cares who I am?"

"Probably no one," Dean said. "But if you insist on associating with Miss Vernon and there"s anything -- " he hesitated, looking for a word" -- anything negative about you, you risk having it become public knowledge. And more than that, you risk the success of this campaign."

"What do you think I am, Dean? A serial killer?" John laughed. "Do you think I"m a bank robber?"

Dean did not smile. "I know you"re not a serial killer, and I know you don"t rob banks."

John"s grin faded. "And what else do you know?" he said sharply.

"Mr. Lattimore, I"m trying to explain this to you, I"m trying to make you understand. I know quite a bit about you, where you work, your schooling, your family --"

"My family, you bastard? What does my family have to do with this?"

"See if you can"t lower your voice," Dean said calmly. "Obviously your family has nothing to do with this. I"m trying to tell you that anyone who associates with a political candidate is subject to some degree of background check."

"By her own camp?"

"Better us than someone else."

"What else do you know, you bastard?" John asked.

"Remarkably little of interest," Dean said. "I know that you were a scholarship athlete and an all-star baseball player. I found no evidence of a criminal past. You weren"t a great student, but you got by and took a degree in business administration." He started to scan through one of the papers on his clipboard, but John took it from his hand.

"Grade point average," John read. "Awards, newspaper mentions, credit report -- " He pulled the sheet free and handed the board back. "You"ve got a lot of damn never, pal. Credit report. Jesus!" He continued looking at the paper. "My mother"s maiden name9 Why in hell do you care?"

"I don"t care, personally," Dean said patiently. "How often do you need me to say this? If you continue to be seen with Miss Vernon, if you"re seen regularly in her company, and her opponent learns something unfavorable about you, it could be damaging to this campaign. I had to find out first."

"She said there was no privacy," John said to himself. He folded the paper and put it in his pocket. "Fine, Dean," he told the campaign manager. "You"ve warned me. And now I"m warning you: butt out. Anything I have to do with Hilary will be between her and me."

"I understand what you"re saying." Dean sighed and pushed his eyeglasses up to rub the bridge of his nose. "I also understand that you"re upset. I just hope you understand me. Hilary Vernon is not like other women, she is going to be a candidate. Anything between the two of you will be between you, and her, and her opponent, and the press."

"I wonder how happy Hilary would be to find out you"ve been prying into my affairs," John said grimly.

"I expect she"d think nothing of it." Dean replaced his glasses. "And since you"re obviously lingering here for a word with the candidate, I"d advise you to ask her if you don"t believe me." He put his cup on the table. "And please don"t suspect any ill-will on my part, Mr. Lattimore, because there isn"t any. Politics is a hard game and I play the game hard." He left John and said a brief word to Hillary. They both looked at John, then Dean nodded and was gone.

-46-

"Can I get you something?" Hilary asked. John had driven her home and they were in her living room.

"Whatever you"re having is fine." He stood watching her. She had slipped off her shoes by the front door, sighing as she stepped out of them, and left her corsage on a table.

"I"d better take it easy," she said. "It"s been a long day." She poured two glasses of wine and handed one to John. "What were you and Dean going on about?" she asked.

John outlined their conversation briefly. "He said to ask you about it," he said finally. "He says you"ll think nothing of it."

She held her glass out and looked at the dark wine. "I think quite a bit of it," she said, but when John began nodding in triumph she quickly said "But not it"s not what you want to hear."

"I beg your pardon?" John put his glass on the table and sat forward. "You think investigating my mother is a fine idea?"

"Dean wasn"t investigating your mother, John, he was investigating you. And I"m afraid it had to be done." She curled her legs under her in the big armchair she had chosen.

"What in hell is this? I ask you to dinner and now I"m some sort of national security risk? Come on, Hilary!"

"Well, what if you weren"t really in real estate? What if you were some kind of con artist, or a newspaperman trying to learn inside information about my campaign? What if you were a criminal? What if --"

"What if I was telling the truth? Is there any room in your life for the possibility that not everyone lies?"

"There"s room in my life, but I"m not living my own life right now. I"m living a candidate"s life, and there"s a big difference. I have to know who"s around me."

"And you do this to everyone?"

"Not everyone. Friends and enemies only."

"Interesting categories." John took up his wine again.

"I need to know about my friends so they can"t embarrass me, and I need a good enemy so I can fight."

"Excuse me?"

"Nothing would serve me better than a worthy enemy, John. If I can find someone to battle, and beat them, I"ve won."

"I thought Joel Hawkes was your enemy."

"No, Joel is my opponent, my adversary. An enemy, though, a really good enemy, someone who supports Hawkes, someone well-known and seemingly honest, someone I could expose for a scoundrel and fight on principle.., that would tie it up. I"d be in for sure." She sipped her wine. "I haven"t found a really good one yet, but I will."

"What if your "worthy enemy" turns out to be Glen Halloran, or someone else you know?"

"So be it." She shrugged. "I need an enemy, and I"m going to find one. The issues aren"t enough; I need a fiend."

"Are you crazy?"

"No, not at all. I"m sorry; I know how disturbing this must seem to you, but it has to be done."

"And whose idea was it to look into niv deep dark past?"

She looked at him silently.

"Yours?" he asked. Still she said nothing. He laughed suddenly, unexpectedly. "I can"t believe it." He laughed again. "Jesus, girl, you"ve got balls!"

"No, John, i"ve got a nomination to land."

"And you"re always successful." John nodded. "Does this mean we"re friends?"

"That, or enemies." She curled more deeply into her chair. "I know it"s not pretty, but I couldn"t have waited forever to learn that you were a famous athlete in college. When did you plan to tell me?"

"Hah!" John snorted. "Those days are behind me now." He looked at the fireplace, where paper and logs were already laid on the hearth. "You"re all worn out from a long day. What you need is a roaring fire to warm you up." She nodded and he pulled a box of long matches from the wood box. "A roaring fire and perhaps a formerly famous athlete," he said.

He lit the fire and sat on the carpeted floor with his back against her chair. Flames licked slowly up the logs while they watched in silence, her hand slowly moving through his hair. John sighed finally. "I don"t know whether to be furious with you or not," he said. "I"d like to be, but you"re so beautiful..." He could feel her hand resting lightly on his shoulder. "And unfortunately your position does make some sense." He leaned his head back to look at her, upside down. "I guess there"s more to this election business than I thought."

She shrugged and smiled, and leaned forward to kiss him quickly on the forehead. "It"s just a fact of political life. Try not to think about it. Anyway, I haven"t learned anything evil about you."

"Come down here," he said. "Come down here and show me what evils you have learned."

-47-

It was nearly midnight when he stood up and began straightening out his clothes. "I"d better get out of here," he said. "I don"t think I"ve spent all night necking since high school." He buttoned his shirt and tucked it into his pants. "I hated high school," he said. He picked up his jacket.

Hilary sat up and pulled her own clothes together. "Oh, I don"t know," she said, tugging her lacy lingerie in place and fastening some strategic buttons on her brilliant red dress. "I had a good time in high school." She brushed her hair away from her face and smiled up at him.

"I"ll bet you did, babe," John said grimly. He found his tie and stuck it in his pocket.

"Babe?" She got up, bare-legged and shoeless, and collected the empty wine glasses. "You"re talking to a potential member of congress," she said. "I think "the gentlewoman from Texas" would be more appropriate." She carried the glasses away.

"Right," he said. "You have to get elected first. You get through the primary in good shape, I promise I"ll never call you babe" again." He looked under a table. "Where are my shoes?"

"By the couch." She stood in the kitchen doorway, watching him gather up. "You know, John, I can"t have you calling me foolish things. Like "babe." Or "darling."

"Darling"?" he said. "Let"s not let this get out of hand, Hilary." He sat down in the armchair and pulled on his socks. "God knows you didn"t." He stuck his feet into his shoes.

"I"m very sorry if sex was your objective tonight," she said. "I didn"t know I was expected to pay in some way when I accepted your offer of a ride."

He sighed. "Sex was not my objective. In fact, I was glad to bring you home, I"m happy you accepted. I enjoy your company." He tied his shoes. "It"s just that I"m beginning to sense a pattern here."

"Honestly, John," she said, and went into the kitchen. He could hear water running and he moved to the doorway. "I doubt you understood what I told you the first night we went out, or what Dean told you tonight," she said. "I"m a candidate. I"m under observation. I can"t afford to make a mistake."

"What mistake?" John asked. "Is sleeping with me any worse than groping around on the floor with me?"

"Probably not," she admitted. "I mean, to a witness, that is." She rinsed the glasses and opened drawers, looking for a towel. "On a moral level, of course, it"s better not to take that final step." She found a linen towel and pulled it out.

"The moral distinction between crawling all over each other, naked and sweating, and "going all the way" seems very, very thin to me." He took the towel. "Here, give me that."

"It may be thin, but it"s there." She watched him dry the fragile crystal quickly and carefully. "For reasons of practicality, of course, it"s infinitely better not to go to bed with you."

"Practicality?" He handed her the first glass and picked up the other.

"Every hear of pregnancy, John? Ever hear of sexually transmitted disease?"

"Ever hear of condoms?"

"Of course I have. I even own some." She put the glass in a cupboard. "Ever heard of Gary Hart?"

"You aren"t married, and neither am I," he said. "Gary Hart"s crime was being a fool, daring the press to catch him and then taking a woman home." He gave her the second glass. "Besides, this isn"t a national campaign."

"He was a fool, I"ll give you that." She put the last glass away and turned to face him. "But this campaign could develop national importance at any time, and I won"t have my face on the supermarket papers."

"For what"?" He hung the towel on the oven door handle. "For being seen with me? For sleeping with me? Even Dean admits I"m not a murderer." He ushered her out of the kitchen and turned out the light. "Do you think maybe you"re taking yourself just a bit too seriously?"

"I can"t afford not to take myself seriously right now," she said. "I have to take everything seriously right now."

He encircled her from behind with his arms. "Then take me seriously," he said, and kissed the soft skin in the hollow below her ear.

"I do, John." She tilted her head forward and he kissed her neck, rubbing his end-of-the-day whiskers against her soft skin, his breath hot on her cool flesh. "God, I do," she breathed. "I"ve never wanted any man more than I want you now."

He was rubbing his face in her hair, deeply inhaling the scent of her. "Then ask me to stay," he murmured. He eased the dress away and nipped her shoulder gently.

"I can"t." She turned to look him in the eye. "I think a time will come, but it"s not tonight."

He dropped his arms to his sides. "Fine, Hilary," he said. "You"ve got my vote in your hand and my balls in your pocket." She started to speak but he cut her off. "I"m accepting your terms this time but I"m not happy about it."

"Do you think I am?" she cried. She put her hands on her hips, and John could see lace through gaps in her half-buttoned dress. "Do you have any idea what it"s like to know everything you do, everything you say, is being examined?"

"I do now," he said.

"And you hate it, don"t you? How do you think I feel?"

"Ah, but you knew what you were getting into, didn"t you"?"

"Yes, John, you"re right," she sighed. "I knew what I was doing when I started this campaign." She sat down, looking tired and sad. "I was ready for the campaign, but I wasn"t ready for you. When it comes right down to it, I wasn"t any more prepared for you than you were prepared for me... and my campaign."

John felt a sudden sympathy for her. He sat down and put his arm around her, comforting her close against him. "You seem so strong -- you are so strong -- I guess I thought you were in control of everything. I didn"t think you were afraid of anything."

"I"m not afraid of anything but my feelings," she said softly. "I can"t control my feelings for you, and I can"t control yours for me. All I can control are my actions."

"And you"re doing a damned fine job of it," he said. She looked pained and he went on hurriedly. "No, I"m not blaming you; I"m sorry i"ve put you in this position, and I"m sorry I made that dig about you having my balls." He kissed her forehead gently and stood up. "But you do have my vote, and if there"s anything I can do for your campaign, just tell me." He held out his hand and helped her to her feet. "I"ll just keep hoping that the time will come. For now, I"ve got to get going."

She walked with him to the door. "I"m sorry I"ve disappointed you, John," she said. "I hope you don"t think worse of me."

"Never," he said gallantly. "As always, you make perfect sense." He kissed her. "I won"t keep showing up at your campaign stops, Hilary, but I hope you"ll let me see you some time." He kissed her again. "Why don"t you find something I can do to help, and call me?"

"I"ll try to think of something," she said. They kissed one more time, slowly, ardently, and she watched out the front window until his car pulled away. Then she turned out the porch light and picked up the phone. "Dean, it"s me," she said. "He just left." She listened for a moment. "He wants to know how he can help the campaign," she said. "It"s in the bag, just like I said." She laughed out loud and raised her clenched fist in triumph.

-48-

Herb Connors was furious. "You listen to me, Roy," he snarled into the telephone. "When I own someone, I expect to really own him." There was a chatter of hasty response from the other end, and Herb scowled. "I don"t care that your new boy has his pants on fire: call him off! I"m supporting you and your whole family, by God! You find out why my water quality reports are being questioned, and you fix it!" He hung up with a sweeping blow that crashed the phone to the floor and swept everything else with it. "Son of a bitch!" he roared, looking at the mess.

John rapped twice and stuck his head in the door. "You called?" he asked. He watched Herb picking up file folders and came over to help.

"What do you want?" Connors snapped.

"It"s Thursday, Herb," John said. "We meet on Thursdays." He picked up a fat blue file and started stuffing papers into it.

"Oh, yeah, right." Herb looked up. "Give me that," he said suddenly, and took the file from John"s hands. "Don"t bother with this. Thanks for your help. Come back in five minutes and I"ll be ready for you." He pushed the fat folder to the bottom of the stack he was building.

"Hey, the marketing budget!" John said, trying to read upside down before it disappeared. "I wanted to ask you about that."

"Come back in five minutes, John." Herb laughed heavily, mirthlessly. "Let me get myself in order here."

John sat back on his heels, boots creaking as they bent across the soles, and considered his boss. "Sure, Herb," he said. "Whatever you want." He looked at the tangled phone, the broken ashtray, the scattered pencils. "Is everything all right?"

"Everything"s fine," Herb said. "Everything"s fucking lovely. Now get out."

-49-

John sent no holiday cards. Instead he arranged to have Christmas dinner with Rich and Sandy, and he called his mother on Christmas morning. As he expected, the whole family was there.

Everything was fine up North, his mother said, and she was going to be a grandmother again. "Katie"s going to have a baby in June," Denise said of her second daughter. "I"ve got three grandchildren, John, and not one of them is a Lattimore. Don"t you know any girls?"

"Sure I do, Ma," he answered. "But most of them are married." He hesitated a moment and then took the plunge. "I met one girl, though, and she seems to like me."

"That"s good," his mother said. "Do you like her too?"

"Yes, I do. She"s very nice. Real smart, too."

"Is she pretty?"

"She"s beautiful."

"What does she do?"

"She"s a lawyer with a big firm down here. Actually, she"s a partner."

"Really?" Denise sounded pleased. "She must be very successful."

"She"s not practicing law right now, Ma. She"s running for Congress."

"United States Congress?" Her voice rose. "In Washington?"

John laughed. "Yes, ma"am, that"s right. U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C." He could hear the muffled noises of his mother covering the phone and calling the news to his sisters. He wondered if it was smart to talk about Hilary, but his mother"s pleasure easily outweighed the slight misgivings he felt. He could hear the phone being fumbled into a new hand.

"Merry Christmas, Johnny!" It was his sister Susan. "Are you really going out with a Congressman?"

"Merry Christmas, Suzy," he said, laughing. "I was just telling Ma that I met a candidate for congress. She"s a woman, not a man, and if she wins the primary in March she"ll probably be elected."

"Will you move to Washington?"

"Good Lord, Suzy! We"ve only gone out once or twice!"

"This is so exciting! When you two go to Washington, be sure and visit us -- or we"ll come visit you -- I can"t wait to meet her!" John tried to interrupt but there was more fumbling. "Here"s Katie," he heard Suzy call.

"Hi, John," a new voice said. "Merry Christmas."

John breathed a sigh of relief. Kate was the calm one. "Merry Christmas, Kate," he said. "Congratulations on the baby."

"Thanks. What"s this about Congress"?"

"Listen, Kate, try and keep this under control, will you? Mom and Suzy are already making too much of it. I just said I"ve gone out once or twice with one of the primary candidates down here. Tell Suzy I"m not moving to Washington."

"The House of Representatives?" Kate asked. "What"s her name?"

"Hilary Vernon." He couldn"t resist. "Hilary Issler Vernon," he said proudly.

"I"ve heard of her."

"What?" John gripped the phone tighter. "Way up there? How?"

"On one of those Sunday news shows. They were talking about how everyone wants to throw the bums out." There was a pause, and he could hear her telling a child to wait a minute. "Rick says hi," she said, returning to John. "Anyway, that"s the 14th district, right? Joel Hawkes is in there now."

"I can"t believe you know who she is!"

"Yeah, I"ve heard of her. They talk like she might score an upset."

"I hope so," John said. "Hawkes hasn"t done much for this area recently, and he can"t handle his own checkbook, let alone balance the national budget."

"That check business is a load of crap, John," Kate said calmly. "The rules of their country club bank allowed it. I have an overdraft account myself, and I overdraw it all the time."

John was silent for a moment. "Well, the system stinks, then," he said. "She"s got lots of ideas about how things should be."

"So do we all, sonny boy." There was a smile in her voice. "Just don"t vote with your privates, OK?" He could hear his mother in the background. "Katherine Louise!" she said in a shocked tone. He laughed.

"Oops, Mom"s mad," Kate continued. "Listen, how old is she? I thought you had to be pretty old to be in Congress."

"I don"t know about that, but she"s 36."

"Jesus, John, don"t you ever go out with women your own age?" There was another fumble of the phone and he could hear Kate calling good-bye.

"Don"t you listen to her, Johnny." His mother was back. "She reads too much anyway. And such language! How old is this lawyer friend of yours?"

"Thirty-six, Ma."

"That"s not so bad. You"re 30, right?"

"That"s right."

"Imagine my oldest being 30," Denise mused. "Your father would be proud." She was silent for a moment and John waited.

"Oh, I meant to tell you," she said suddenly. "Your friend Nicole Whitman sent the nicest card, and she and I had lunch together last week."

John felt his stomach drop. "Did you Ma? That"s nice. How -- " He stumbled over his words and cleared his throat. "How is she?"

"She"s good. We went to Philipe"s and had the nicest chat. I had a wonderful crab meat salad -- "There was the sudden sound of a child crying, and Denise voice became muffled. "Rachel, give Danny back his bottle, that"s a love. Suzy, look after him, would you?"

"Look, Mom, you"re busy," John said when he had her attention again. "I"ll call again soon.,,

"No, wait, there"s more," Denise said. "She"s going to be a grandmother too."

"I know," John said. "How"s Vicky?"

"She"s good. Very excited, from what Nicole said. Oh, and her son Rob has been accepted at medical school."

"That"s good."

"You don"t seem to have much to say, John," his mother said severely. "She"s such a lovely woman, and she was so nice to us when your father died."

"Yes, she was."

"That"s why she invited me out," Denise continued inexorably. "She said she remembered how sad Christmas was when she was first widowed, and she hoped I wasn"t lonely."

"That was very kind of her."

"Yes, it was. She"s a lovely lady." Denise repeated. "And she asked after you, and said to tell you hello."

"That"s nice, Ma. I"ll have to call her."

"She said to tell you that Helen Schulman"s cottage burned down."

"That"s too bad," he said. "Well, look, Ma, I"ve got to go."

"Just a minute, John," his mother said. "What"s your hurry? What"s wrong? Did you and Mrs. Whitman have some kind of fight?"

"No, Ma, it was nothing like that." John sighed. "We had been seeing each other for a few months, but we broke it off when I came down here."

"Seeing each other?" Denise asked. "You mean you and she..." Her voice trailed off. "You mean like a girlfriend?" she asked uncertainly.

"I don"t know if that"s the right word," John said. "We were -- seeing each other. It only lasted a few months. I"d rather not talk about it." He made an effort to lighten his tone. "I"m invited to the Hayden"s for Christmas," he said. "Did I ever tell you about Rich and Sandy? I know them from school."

She ignored him. "Good heavens, John," she said. "I thought she was a friend you knew from business."

He churned his fingers through his hair. "Now how would I be a friend of someone like her?" he asked in an exasperated voice. "What do she and I have in common?"

"Well, what does anyone have in common? What do friends have in common that a boyfriend and girlfriend don"t?"

"An interest in something besides sex," he blurted angrily. He bit his lip, grimacing, and waited fearfully for her reply.

"John!"

"Tm sorry, Ma." He groaned inwardly and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Forget I said that," he said. "Please excuse me; that was uncalled for."

"I should say so!" Denise said sharply. "What kind of son have I raided that would have a relationship based on -- on" she struggled for words " -- on pleasures of the flesh!" She spat it out like a curse. "And with such a fine woman! You can never make mc believe that!"

"Believe it, Ma," he said grimly.

"John William Lattimore!"

He sighed and attempted to dig out. "I"m sorry, Ma. I had no business saying that. I beg your pardon. Could we please let it go?"

"No, we could not! You"re telling me you didn"t have enough in common to befriends with that woman, and yet you slept with her? She"s so much older than you! And she"s so wealthy!" Denise sounded as though she was short of breath. "What must people have thought?"

"Apparently just about what you"re thinking right now," John said angrily. "Listen, Mother, you and I have never discussed sex before and I would rather not start now."

"Maybe it"s time we did," Denise snapped. "I never in my life thought a son of mine -any child of mine -- could be so depraved!"

"What do you mean by that?" he snarled.

"Don"t take that tone with me, young man," Denise said. "Do you think such disgusting, selfish behavior is excused by saying "Oh, it was only physical"?"

"Let me talk to Kate."

"Fine, talk to Kate." The phone slammed down on the table; John winced. He could hear his mother calling.

"Hi, John," Kate picked up the phone at last. "At least she"s not mad at me this time," she said. "What did you do?"

"Listen, Kate, fix this for me," he said. He drew a deep breath. "Apparently Ma didn"t know I was sleeping with Nicole Whitman."

Kate laughed. "She didn"t?" she asked. "She must be the only one who missed it. I guess she doesn"t read the papers, does she? Or maybe she missed the sexual revolution completely. That"s possible, you know. She is the right age."

"There was never anything in the papers about Nicole and me," John said angrily. "You only know because I just told you."

-50-

"No, John, I know because I"ve read all about the sexual revolution. And while I was reading about it, I also happened to see photographs from those fancy dress balls with my ravishing older brother and his glamorous older friend looking at each other all starry-eyed."

"Just fix this for me," he begged. "I accidentally told her it was nothing, just sex."

"You didn"t!" Kate exploded in laughter. "Did you think that was going to improve things?"

"Jesus Christ!" he yelped. "Stop laughing! I need you to help me."

Kate regained her composure, except for some slight choking noises. "Could I put Suzy on?" she said politely. "Maybe if you go through the family, one by one, somebody could think of something that might begin to straighten out this gaffe. Let me put Rick on the phone." She lost her grip and began laughing again. "No, wait, I"ll get Ed!": she gasped.

Ed was the dog. "Katie, I swear -- "he began.

"Wait a minute, John." He heard her blow her nose, and then she exhaled deeply into the phone. "Okay, sorry. Now, what do you think I should say?"

"God, I don"t know." John said. "Tell her, tell her -- "He groaned. "I don"t know."

"Well, what exactly was your relationship with the esteemed Mrs. Whitman?"

"Don"t call her that," John said. He thought for a moment. "She"s not going to believe anything I say, is she?"

"Probably not," his sister admitted.

"I"d almost rather she think the worst than start talking about the truth."

"What is the truth?"

He hesitated. There was a long silence. "You"re going to have an outrageous phone bill," Kate prompted him.

"I loved her," he said finally. "And she said she loved me."

"Why, that"s very nice, John," she said gently. "Why would you be ashamed of that?"

"Because no one would believe it," he said. "It"s too hokey. After all this time, I hardly believe it myself. Mom as much as called me a gigolo, and I bet that"s what everyone else thought, too."

"Did you ask her to marry you?"

"No. But I did ask her to come to Texas with me."

"What happened?"

"She said she couldn"t."

"Do you want me to tell Mom that?" Kate asked softly.

"I don"t know. I don"t want to think about it, and I don"t want anyone talking about it."

"Who"s Mom going to talk to about it? Who does she ever see?"

"I have no idea. It"s bad enough that she thinks I was a kept man. Maybe I should just let her hate me for that."

"She"ll get over it." Kate said. She sighed. "Let me go get her." The phone dropped again, but John pulled his ear away in time.

"Yes?" Denise said coldly.

"Ma, please don"t be mad at me," he begged. "I didn"t call to make you mad."

"I am more than mad, John," she said. "I am mortified. This is not how your father and I raised you. I sat across from that woman as a parent, as a friend, as an equal, never knowing my son -- " She stopped short. "I don"t even want to say it," she said quietly.

John tried to be calm. "If she didn"t mention it, why do you care?"

"What did you think she might say, John?" Denise"s voice was sarcastic and bitter. "Hello, we have children the same age and I"m your son"s lover."?"

"We"re not lovers any more."

"That doesn"t change anything. She knows what kind of son I"ve raised."

"I know you"re embarrassed, Ma," John said gently. "I am too. I could say a lot of things about Nicole and me, but they wouldn"t help."

"I don"t want to know any more about it," Denise said sadly. Her fire was gone. "You seduced one of the most prominent women in this county, and then you carried on a purely physical affair with her. I think that"s disgraceful."

"It wasn"t purely physical," he protested. "And who said I seduced her?" He stopped suddenly. "Strike that, Ma. I don"t want to say how it happened, and you don"t want to know. Please believe me: Nicole and I cared for each other."

"If you cared so much for her, how come she came looking for me to tell you hello?" Denise lost her voice, and John waited while she drew deep, shuddering breaths. "Obviously after you had your fun with the wealthy widow you simply left town and never said another word to her." Her voice quavered, then grew strong. "How could you have put a lady in that position? How could you!"

John was stunned. "Ma, I"m sorry, I never thought of that."

"There"s plenty you didn"t think about," Denise said. "You"ve mortified me and humiliated Mrs. Whitman and I have nothing more to say to you. Good-bye." He didn"t pull away quickly enough this time, and the phone slammed in his ear.

-51-

Hilary enjoyed Christmas settled comfortably in her parents" home. Her premiere gift was a full-length mink coat. "It"s just beautiful," she said, kissing her mother and then her father. "I can"t wear it campaigning, but you can be sure it will see good use."

"I hate to have you out there among any old kind of person," Laura Vernon said. "I hope you"re doing the right thing."

"Of course she is," Ross said. "You"re going to see your girl in the White House yet. This campaign is just the beginning." He caught his daughter up in a huge hug. "I brought some extra Christmas presents for you, Hilary." He gave her a packet of envelopes.

"Cards?" she said. "I"d hoped for better than cards from you, Daddy."

"Open "em up, darling" he laughed. "They"re from my friends. Open "em!"

The "Christmas Gifts," about 20 envelopes, totaled $140,000. Among the givers were Jim Curtis, George Benson, Floyd Harper, Roy Fletcher and Herb Connors.

-52-

John paced his apartment. Twice he tried to call back, but no one picked up the phone. "Oh, God!" he cried as he slammed the phone back on its rest. He thought of calling Nicole, but fear and shame stopped him: what must she be thinking? "Oh, God," he groaned.

He showed up at the Hayden"s as expected and tried to be cheerful. He laughed heartily, ate heroically and drank hugely, but he could not shake his feeling of gloom. He hoped it didn"t show.

Dozens of friends stopped by throughout the day. Rich and John replenished everyone"s food and drink while Sandy washed dishes and cleaned up after each onslaught. John joined in the jokes, sang with the caroling and proposed more than his share of toasts to the New Year, but it didn"t seem to help. It didn"t matter what he drank, or how mich: he couldn"t get drunk, and he couldn"t blot out Denise"s words.

It was black night before the three of them were alone again. Rich poured drinks from a bottle of Grand Mamier someone had brought as an open-house gift and settled on the couch with a tired sigh. The fire had burned to embers, and only the tree"s light, red-blue and soft, lit the room. They sat silently for several minutes. Finally Sandy stirred.

"So, John," she said conversationally, "what"s put you in such a state today? Did you find coal in your stocking?"

"I"m sorry, San," he said. "I"m trying to be a good sport. I didn"t mean to spoil your Christmas."

"You haven"t," she said, stretching and reaching for the glass Rich had put beside her. "You just don"t seem like yourself."

"Oh, I called home and had a row with my mother," John said.

"Want to talk about it?"

"Sandy -- "Rich gave her The Look.

"No, it"s okay," John said. "Do you remember that woman I told you about? Nicole?" They nodded. "Well, my mother had lunch with her." He sipped his drink.

"Uh oh," Sandy said.

"Well, Ma just wouldn"t stop talking about it, saying how nice she was and all, giving me the news, just talking. I tried to change the subject, I tried to get off the phone, but she just kept going on and on. I finally got mad and I accidentally told her about Nicole and me." He put his head back and looked at the ceiling. "I told her more than any man should ever tell his mother about a woman."

"Oh, John," Sandy said sadly.

"I hadn"t realized how long it"s been," he said quietly. "I"ve been here almost half a year and I haven"t talked to Nicole once. I didn"t even send her a Christmas card. I missed her birthday completely."

"I don"t understand," Rich said. "I thought it was all over between you and her."

"It was. It is." John shook his head. "But after Ma nearly died of shock, she told me Nicole must have invited her out just to get word of me."

"Why wouldn"t she just call you?" Sandy asked.

"I guess she wouldn"t want to chase me. She"s 20 years older than me, and she"s rich." He rubbed his eyes. "My mother couldn"t stop saying how rich she is."

"Then why don"t you call her if it worries you so much?"

John put down his drink and ran his hands through his hair. "I"ve waited too long," he said. "She probably thinks just what Ma does, that I had my fun with her and then left town."

"I wouldn"t think so," Sandy said gently. "If she really cared for you, she"d be happy to hear from you, no matter how much time had gone by."

"I can"t understand it," John said, ignoring her comforting advice. "It started out fine. Ma was real happy to hear from me, real excited to hear that I was seeing Hilary. My sister Kate has even heard of her. Anyway, we were having a real nice talk, and then it blew up in my face."

"You and Hilary? Really?" Sandy sat forward. "That"s great! Why do you care about this other woman?"

"Because, Sandy, at the vast old age of 30, I"m still afraid of my mother." John sighed and finished off his cordial. "Especially when I think she may be right."

-53-

Herb Connors spent the holiday alone, just he and Tucker, his springer spaniel. He ted the dog and made himself a solitary dinner, skipping the trimmings, then talked with his grown his daughter on the phone. By evening, at loose ends, he started going over his books.

The bottom line did not look good, he conceded to himself: the money he paid to Roy Fletcher, listed as a consultant"s fee, was high, and the $10,000 contribution to the Vernon campaign was beyond his immediate means. "God damn Ross Vernon!" he snarled, looking at the entry that marked his unwilling support of his old friend"s daughter. He closed the blue folder and took up a red accordion file. The next batch of invoices from Jason Brothers had to be paid before year"s end, and several notes would come due during the first quarter. He finally pushed all the papers aside got out a large yellow table.

Herb scribbled notes and figures far into the night, trying to project income, trying to cut costs, trying to beef up some accounts by cutting money from others. The floor became littered with balled-up paper.

It was past midnight when he put his papers aside. No matter how he calculated, he would need a miracle to hold things together until the spring sales pick-up. "Trouble"s coming," he said out loud. Tucker, sleeping on the rug by the fire, lifted her head sleepily at the sound of his voice. Herb took a good cigar from a ornately-carved box and lit it carefully. He sat back and thought. "I wonder how long I can last," he said to the dog. She thumped her tail twice and sighed heavily.

The day after Christmas, Joel Hawkes published a full-page newspaper ad calling Hilary a candidate of special interests. He said her "control big business" stance was a sham, that she had received funding from the very industries she had denounced.

Dean issued a press release for the next day in which Hilary replied that her broad support proved the legitimacy of her business-and-industry platform.

"Few Texans -- few Americans -- have not questioned whether or not industry has enjoyed too free a hand," she was quoted as saying. "I am supported financially by the individual men and women who want to see me elected, but I am proud of the support I have received from business. In strict compliance with federal funding laws, those contributions have been modest; it is the symbol that is important.

"I have proven to business that I mean not to stifle them, but to encourage them -- but within the reasonable guidelines that will allow the entire nation to grow together in a cleaner, healthier, more prosperous environment."

In the slow news week between Christmas Eve and New Year"s Day, a TV news producer read about the battle for the 14th Texas district and interviewed both candidates. The resulting profile was entitled "Ringing In the New" and the network picked it up for New Year"s Eve broadcast.

-54-

In contrast to the rollicking open house she and Rich had hosted at Christmas, Sandy planned to see in the New Year quietly. When John called to invite them to celebrate with him at his apartment, it sounded like the perfect evening. She offered to make canapes for the small party.

"Thanks, Sandy, but I don"t need any awnings," John said. "There"s a roof on my balcony already."

She laughed. "Not canopies, canapes! Little snacks on bread. Hors d"oeuvres."

"I figured you meant something like that," he laughed back at her. "That"s fine. I"m going to bake a ham, so do whatever you think will go good with that."

"Sounds tasty," she said, starting a market list while they talked. "How many should I make? Is it just us three?"

"Probably. I"m going to ask Hilary, but I doubt she"ll come."

"Oh, I hope she will," Sandy said. "I"d like Rich to meet her. I"ll plan enough for four, but let me know what she says."

They agreed on casual dress and an eight o"clock gathering time. Then John called the candidate. After four machine messages, she called him back.

"What"s this about a party?" she asked. "Will there be anyone there that I ought to meet?"

"Just me and Sandy Hayden and Sandy"s husband Rich," John said. "Sandy said she wanted you to meet him... or him to meet you. I forget the order. It"s all pretty casual, just four of us if you can make it. I hope you"ll come."

"Oh, John, I"m not sure. I always dress up on New Year"s Eve. I don"t think it"s in my nature to wear anything less than an evening gown on the last day of the year."

"Of course, your grace," he said. "And shall I send the coach and four to pick you up?"

She laughed. "That won"t be necessary, my good man," she said loftily. She continued in her normal voice. "You think I"m kidding, but I"m not. I have to start the New Year right, dressed to the nines. Nothing else would do."

"We could probably arrange that in your honor," John said.

"I don"t know... "she said.

"Do you prefer the Pierre Cardin tux for me, or would an Armani be in better taste?"

"For you, my good man, nothing at all would be in the very best of taste."

"Excuse me?" John said. "Did you just say that nothing would help, or that I should show up to my own party in my birthday suit?"

"Why, good heavens, John! Would I say a thing like that?" There was a small silence. "But if you must be clothed, I"m sure the Armani would be very nice."

"Done," he said. "Eight o"clock, then?"

"No, wait!" Hilary said. "I"m going to be on the news that night. Make it 6:30, and we"ll all watch."

"Which news?" he asked. "The petroleum report or the farm market results?"

"Thank you very much for your confidence and support," she answered. "You can find me, my good man, on NBC."

-55-

Rich was not amused about renting a tuxedo to spend New Year"s Eve with Sandy and John, but he finally acquiesced. "It"ll be fun," Sandy said, squeezing herself into a borrowed blue party dress. "We should live more graciously." She held her breath and turned so Rich could zip her up.

"Oh, sure," Rich said, closing the dress and pulling the back ruffles straight. "I"m dying to see what your candidate is wearing."

"So am I," Sandy said, looking through her jewelry box. She took out a small diamond on a fine gold chain. Rich started to speak, then sighed and put on his bow tie.

"You look marvelous," Sandy said. She was watching him in her mirror as he adjusted his cummerbund. "You should wear a tuxedo more often. It does something for you." She put back the diamond and looked through the modest selection. "I wish I had something big and shiny and silver," she said. "Silver and blue look so good together." She sat down and pulled on blue satin shoes, also borrowed.

Rich turned away from his mirror and looked at her. He grinned suddenly. "You look marvelous," he said. "I don"t care what your candidate is wearing; she can"t outdo you." Sandy smiled up at him. "And if you want jewelry, honey, just name it. We"ll go out and get it tomorrow."

She came over and kissed him. "You"re sweet," she said, "but I don"t need jewelry." She kissed him again. "I just need you." She kissed him once more and left the room. He could hear her wrapping the hors d"oeuvres in foil for the trip across town.

John was tempted to get colorful accessories with his rented Armani, but decided in the end to go with black tie. He opened the door for his old friends and ushered them in ceremonially. "Very stylish," he said when they had gotten rid of their coats. "Very nice."

"You haven"t looked this sharp since our wedding, John," Sandy said. "I was just telling Rich it does us good to get dressed up."

"I could say the same for you two," John answered. He took the platter of canapes Sandy had brought into the kitchen.

"Where"s the guest of honor?" Rich asked, following him in.

"Hilary?" he asked. "She should be here any minute, dressed to the nines." He uncovered the platter. "Sandy!" he hollered. "What needs to be done with this?"

"Nothing yet, sweetie," she said, coming into the door way. "Put it in the fridge and I"ll heat it up when we"re ready."

"Sounds good." He looked at his guests. "What are you doing in here?" he asked. "People dressed like us don"t belong in the kitchen." He looked around the small room, which was messy with the signs of a man cooking more than usual. "I should have hired help," he grinned as he propelled them into the living room. "Something about this get-up makes me think I"m supposed to behave better than normal." He was mixing drinks when the doorbell rang. "That would be our girl," he said.

"Happy New Year, John!" Hilary sang out as she came in. John stared admiringly as she took off a full-length mink coat, revealing herself in a form-fitting black sheath. Diamonds surrounded her throat, and decorated the clips that secured her sleekly up-swept blonde hair.

"Happy New Year, gorgeous," he said, taking the coat. "You look great." He smiled and indicated the others. "You know Sandy, and this is her husband, Rich."

"Hello, Rich," Hilary said smoothly, holding out her hand.

"How do you do?" he said. "So you"re the man of the people Sandy"s been working for? Some uniform!"

"Oh, Rich," Sandy laughed. "Happy New Year, Hilary."

"Happy New Year, Sandy," Hilary said. "You look wonderful! What a marvelous color for you!" She took Sandy"s extended hand and embraced her warmly. "It does wonderful things for your eyes."

"Why, thank you." Sandy glowed with pleasure. "Your dress is lovely, just lovely."

"You"re so kind," Hilary said, looking around. "Nice place for a bachelor pad, John," she said.

"It"s comfortable," he said, bringing Rich and Sandy their drinks. "What will you have?"

"Well, it"s a big night," she said, considering. "I"ll take a Bloody Mary."

"I"ve used up all my ingredients and all my cooking skills on dinner," he said. "Try again."

"How about a Sidecar?"

"Yikes!" John looked at her reproachfully. "Choose something I"ve heard of, will you?"

She grinned. "You are obviously the victim of an incomplete education, John. We"ll have to work on that. Could you whip up a Manhattan?"

"I"m doing this wrong," John said cheerfully. "Let me start again. Happy New Year, Hilary, you look great. Would you like bourbon, wine, a martini or a soda?"

"Diet or regular?"
Rich was watching the candidate intently. "The rest of us are having martinis," he said. "John mixes a mean one. Give it a try."

"Hmmmm." She thought a little more, then smiled brightly. "I know! How about a martini?"

"Excellent suggestion!" John said, pouring from a clear pitcher. He put a small olive in the glass and handed it over.

"Cheers," she said, and took a sip. "Very nice, John."

"Thanks." He brought his own glass and sat down next to her. "So what"s this news story you"re in?"

"NBC picked up a story that Channel 14 taped this week. It"s going to be on their network broadcast tonight."

"That"s great, Hilary," Sandy said eagerly. "What did you talk about?"

"Watch and see," she said. "The show starts soon." She looked at a diamond-encrusted wrist watch. "Any minute now, in fact. John, will you do the honors?"

He sprang to his feet and turned on the television. "This is going to be good," he said. "I"ve set the VCR to record it, that"s how sure I am. Have you seen it?"

"No, but I think the interview went well. They talked to Hawkes first, so I got to respond to him." She sipped her martini. "That man is a fool."

"Someone had to be first," Rich said.

"Naturally," she said. "I"m just glad it wasn"t me. I love having the last word." Everyone laughed.

John kept the TV volume low while they talked. "Rich is an architect," he said conversationally. "He was finishing design school just as I was finishing my business degree."

Hilary looked impressed. "Would I have seen any of your work around Dallas?" she asked.

"Some," he said. "I was project leader on the Garwood School on Kcnnillworth Avenue."

"I have seen that!" she said enthusiastically. "It"s wonderful!"

Rich looked pleased, but dubious. "Thanks," he said. "I thought it was kind of plain, myself, but they had a limited budget and no imagination."

"But it"s so compact, and it looks so efficient."

"Oh, it"s efficient, all right," he said. "And the trees help disguise its blockiness." Hilary laughed. "Is he always so modest, Sandy?"

"Always," Sandy said proudly. "He"s not telling you about the Wesleyan Chapel on campus."

"I"ve seen that too," Hilary said. "That"s just lovely. So simple, and yet so graceful."

"That turned out well," Rich admitted. "We thought at first that the --"

"I was invited to address their Young Adults" group last month," Hilary told Sandy. "Their minister is very popular; the whole congregation just thinks the world of him."

"Everyone loves Rev. Joyner," Sandy agreed. "He"d been talking about a new chapel since I was in school, and they finally --"

"Oh, John, turn it up!" Hilary said suddenly. "Here it is! Watch!" She sipped her drink and gave her full attention to the TV set. "I wish you had a bigger screen," she murmured without looking away.

The story lasted about three minutes, and contrasted Hawkes with Hilary -- the Old with the New. Hilary watched intently; John wondered if she was even breathing. "Did you-- "he started to ask once, but she waved her hand to hush him.

There were comments and veiled accusations from Hawkes. Hilary answered firmly and clearly, frequently turning the accusations back on the congressman. There were shots of Hawkes working in a Washington office while Hilary was shown inspecting a dilapidated housing project. The incumbent wore a hard-hat and business suit at a cohstruction site; the challenger, dressed in blue jeans and wearing heavy gloves, helped in a community clean-up.

"The race for the 14th district is being run all over this country," the reporter summarized at last. "The battle between entrenched and the upstarts is being fought tooth-and-nail from Maine to California. If this campaign is any indication, the incumbents had better watch out. From Dallas..."

Hilary was on her feet immediately. "That went even better than I planned," she said, smiling happily. "I"ve got to use your phone."

Sandy chattered excitedly to Rich while John showed Hilary to the phone in the bedroom. "Right over there," he said. "But first -- congratulations." He caught her in a big hug, and kissed her. She responded immediately, pressing her body against his, sliding her hands down his back, opening her mouth. They were locked in a suddenly-steamy embrace until John broke loose. "I ought to arrange more of these news stories," he said with a laugh.

"You do that, son, and I"m yours." She gave him her slowest smile and looked him up and down. "All of me."

"I"ll get right on it," he said. "Now make your call."

She winked at him and dialed with quick jabs of her index finger. "Dean, it"s me," he heard her say as left the room. "That was great. I think we can follow it up with..." He pulled the door shut behind himself and leaned against the wall until his breathing returned to normal.

-55-

They drew the evening out, waiting for midnight. John held up dinner until nearly 10 o"clock, and they lingered at the table for an hour after they were done eating. Sandy and Rich switched to sodas after two drinks each, and John gave up on the martinis after three. Hilary, relaxed and happy, sipped the clear, powerful liquid until the pitcher was dry.

John watched her finish her last drink over dinner. "Don"t you get drunk?" he finally asked.

"No, I don"t," she said proudly. "I"ve got my daddy"s head for liquor."

"I"ve heard that you also had your daddy"s head for business," he said.

"That, too," she said easily.
"And the family head for politics?" Rich asked.

"Oh, heavens, no!" Hilary answered. "I"m breaking new ground this time."

"You"re doing a great job," Sandy offered. "I don"t think I"ve ever heard a better speaker. I don"t see how you can miss. How did you come up with the line about abortion?"

"Anti-abortion, but pro-choice," she mused. "I don"t really know. It just seems to describe the way I feel. I told your meeting that, remember? Abortion is the worst choice a woman could ever make -- but I think she should have that choice. Mostly, though, I think both women and men have to be careful of their actions if they don"t want children. We shouldn"t be using abortion to end unplanned pregnancies. An abortion of convenience is a cruel, heartless thing."

"What about cases of rape, or incest?" John asked.

"It"s always such a sad issue," Hilary said. "I know that women who have been raped or victimized shouldn"t have to become mothers through no fault of their own..." She trailed off, thinking.

"Well?" John said.

"Well, it just seems to me those babies shouldn"t have to be victimized either." She leaned forward on her arms; the candle light sparkled off her diamond necklace and glowed softly on her smooth hair. "There are so many couples that want to adopt infants; those babies could become part of a loving family."

"Incest breeds mental illness," Rich said flatly. "Monty Python jokes aside, the village idiots of the past were often the imbeciles born of incest. Charlemagne established the tradition of posting wedding banns so people could go quietly to the priest and prevent a marriage if they knew a couple had common blood."

"There"s so much that could breed mental illness, Rich." Hilary ticked off items on her fingers. "Drugs, alcohol, bad genes, environmental factors. And incest. But God gives us all a chance, and I think the mentally ill deserve their chance too. Plenty of older parents raise Downe"s Syndrome children, and they don"t love the child any less for its birth defect."

"No, some don"t," Rich said. "But plenty of marriages fall apart and plenty of lives are ruined by that kind of strain. And some of those children get no care and no attention and no education and no love. I"m not sure abortion is such a terrible choice in the face of irreparable pre-natal defects."

"What concessions do you want, Richie?" Sandy asked. "She"s said she"s pro-choice." She looked troubled.

"Concessions?" he asked in surprise. "I"m not looking for concessions, we"re just talking, covering the issues. I"m defending the view that some lives might be better left unlived."

Hilary put a soothing hand on Sandy"s arm. "And he"s arguing it very ably, too. You should be proud to have such an intelligent, well-informed husband, and you deserve no less." She turned to the men. "Do you two know what a wizard Sandra is at the facts and figures that fuel all these speeches I make? I couldn"t do half of this without her."

"Oh, it"s nothing," Sandy said modestly. "I just seem to know where to look for information."

"Just some little knack of yours, is it?" Hilary grinned. "Not many people are so lucky." She looked at John. "Remember the night she called me on that AgriPlus business? It was one more obscure case in a career made up of obscure cases, but she knew all about it."

"Well, I had a tip on that one," Sandy said. "Professor Hicks pointed it out to me."

"Ah, yes, Hicks. That was his name." Hilary nodded.

"Sandy didn"t tell you his "tip" was in the nature of a reprimand?" Rich asked.

"Rich," Sandy said. She gave a small shake of her head.

"Why, no, she didn"t," Hilary said in surprise. "What was that all about?"

"I was working on a demographic study at my desk in the library," she said. "He caught me at it and told me my first duty was to the library."

"Of all the nerve!" Hilary said peeveishly. "Well, another time, be sure to keep the good stuff out of sight.

"Excuse me?" Rich said. "Are you saying she should ignore her job while she does work for your campaign?"

"Rich," Sandy said again. This time she gave him The Look.

"Not at all, Rich." Hilary"s voice turned smooth once again. "I just wonder about people, that"s all. I suppose Robert Hicks has never sinned. I guess he"s never done Faculty Board work when he should be concentrating on his history students, never done research for one of his books when he should be doing research for the History Department." She shook her head grimly. "Hypocrisy disgusts me."

John hopped into the conversation. "It"s quarter of," he said. "Let"s turn on the radio and help ring in the New Year."

They moved into the living room and John chose a station that was broadcasting from the ballroom of a downtown hotel. The announcer cut in and out of the music, enthusiastically describing the scene, practically shouting above the noise of the crowd. Hilary sat down on the couch beside Sandy. "Don"t be grumpy at Rich," she said quietly, gently. "We really were just discussing the issues, and there"s room for every view."

"Oh, he"s a pest," Sandy muttered, looking at her hands. "If I didn"t say anything to you about Hicks telling me to mind my work -- and he knew I hadn"t -- why should he? I"m allowed to think for myself."

"It"s not allowed, Sandy, it"s expected."

Sandy looked up gratefully. "I thought you might figure I was -- oh, I don"t know -maybe that I was bringing disrepute to your campaign by giving a board member cause to complain."

"Oh, please!" Hilary laughed. "If people knew the half of this campaign, a rebuke from a mere board member would be the least of our problems."

"Then it doesn't"t bother you that I antagonized Hicks in your name?"

"Oh, hell," Hilary said. "The University reviews all the board appointments in their January meeting. Maybe they"ll send him packing. I don"t care either way, but I"m sorry if you were embarrassed on my account."

"Oh, Hilary, you"re so good!" Sandy squeezed her hand. "I was sure you"d be furious."

"Only at Hicks," Hilary said. "So don"t be mad at Rich. That"s no way to start the New Year." She stood up and looked at her watch. "It"s almost midnight," she said. "I must find my date."

-56-

Sandy looked around. "I think they"re clearing the table," she said.

"I"d better go help."

"Not for a minute," Hilary said firmly. She marched into the kitchen. "Gentlemen, it"s time!"

John and Rich came right out, holding frying pans, cooking pots and serving utensils. "Here," John said, and assigned her a tin pan and a big spoon. Rich gave Sandy an iron skillet and an ice cream scoop.

"What"s all this?" Hilary asked.

"No time to talk, babe," John said. "Come on outside! Let"s ring in the New Year!"

He slid open the balcony door and they all stepped into the cold night air. Behind them, the radio announcer was in full cry. "Eight! Seven! six!"

"Get ready," Rich said to no one in particular. Hilary and Sandy clutched their weapons.

"Four! Three!"

John lit a packet of firecrackers and threw them out toward the street below.

"Two! One!" the announcer screamed. "Happy New Year!"

The firecrackers started popping, and John began banging madly on his cooking pot. Sandy and Rich joined in, hollering. Hilary could hear similar noise from around them, and after a moment she thumped her spoon on the iron porch railing. "Happy New Year!" she cried and then she used both hands, beating the pan and the spoon against the black metal. "Happy New Year!" she cried again. "See you in Washington!"

The radio was playing "Auld Lang Syne," and Rich and Sandy were kissing. Hilary felt John"s hand on her shoulder, turning her toward him. "Happy New Year, Hilary," he said quietly, looking into her eyes. "Happy New Year -- in Washington."

She melted into his arms and kissed him. His mouth had never seemed so vital, his frame had never seemed so muscular, his grip had never seemed so strong. She pressed against him, kissing him ardently, feeling his arms surround her, feeling his hands at the back of her head, feeling him pressing her to him, feeling him kissing her, kissing her, kissing her.

"Happy New Year, John!" Sandy cried, and John released Hilary to give Sandy a chaste kiss and a hug. He and Rich shook hands, and Rich gave Hilary a small kiss on the lips.

"Happy New Year to the gentlewoman from Texas," he said.

"Thank you, Rich," she said. "Happy New Year to you."

They shivered on the balcony for a minute more, looking at the lights of Dallas, listening to the din of neighbors beating their own pots and pans. "Well, Happy New Year," John said at last. "Let"s not celebrate it by freezing to death." There was general laughter and everyone moved back inside. John excused himself to put on coffee, and they could hear him slamming dishes into the dishwasher at lightening speed. The rich smell of coffee filled the small apartment.

He returned a few minutes later, water-splashed and carrying a tray of cups and saucers. "If you"ll spread these around, I"ll get the coffee," he said, and hurried out again. "There." He put down a thermal carafe and a plate of cookies. Hilary poured a half-cup all around. "Little stingy there, aren"t you?" John asked.

"Oh, I"m sony," she answered. "I just thought it was so late, we probably wouldn"t want lots of coffee." She picked it up again.

"No, this is fine," Sandy said. "It is late." She took a cookie and sipped her coffee. Rich ignored his coffee and ate a gingersnap. Hilary put down the pot and sat back with her cup.

Conversation was light. John played with his coffee cup, watching his small party fade quietly, waiting patiently for it to die. He did not laugh out loud when Sandy and Rich gave each other The Look simultaneously, but he wanted to.

"Well, what do you say?" Rich asked.

"Yes, I think so," Sandy answered.

They rose together and John went for the coats. Hilary stood and shook Rich"s hand. "It was good to meet you, Rich," she said. "Sandy -- " she gave her researcher a hug" -- you take good care. And happy new year."

"Happy new year, Hilary." Sandy turned as Rich helped her into her coat. "Well, thank you, John," she said. "I had a wonderful time." She gave him a kiss.

"Happy new year," he said. "Keep that husband of yours in line." Sandy giggled.

"I heard that." Rich told John as they shook hands. "Happy new year, man," he said. They hugged massively.

"Can we walk you to your car?" Sandy asked at the door.

"Thanks, hut I have to call poor long-suffering Dean again," Hilary said. "I"ll rely on John to ensure my safety."

"Well, good night, then." The door closed behind them.

Hilary picked up two cups and earned them to the kitchen. "I"ll do that," John said. "You call Dean and I"ll get rid of this stuff."

She laughed and came back for the cookie plate. "I"m not calling Dean," she said. "Even i"m not mean enough to bother him at 1:00 am for a trifle."

John piled the remains of dessert on the tray and hustled it all into the dishwasher. Hilary disappeared into the bathroom, and he looked around for anything else that needed to be put away. She found him in the kitchen, holding a bottle of wine.

"I forgot the champagne," he said. "We were going to drink a toast."

"We still can." She took the bottle and began working loose the wire at the neck. "Get some glasses and we"ll toast the new year together, just the two of us." She released the cork with a small Pop! No wine spilled.

"Handily done," John said, putting crystal flutes out. "I wish I"d done this right." He watched her pour. "I got these glasses special for tonight."

"They"re very pretty," Hilary said absently. "There. Let"s go back to the living room."

They sat close together on the couch. "To success." John raised his glass.

"Success," she murmured. They sipped their wine. "You know what I"d like to do?" she asked suddenly. "Let"s look at that news story again."

"Fine," he said. "I"ll find it."

-57-

Hilary poured more wine while John scanned the tape. He found what she wanted and rolled it. Hilary sat forward, watching television, and John sat back, watching her. The diamonds at her throat flickered blue in the TV"s glow, and the dull shine of her black dress emphasized its sleek fit. Wisps were beginning to escape from the twist of her hair and lay in soft tendrils against her neck. Her shoulders were smooth and bare, and eased in graceful lines to her slender arms. He was enchanted, and waited impatiently for the news profile to end.

"You are completely beautiful," he said when it was over.

"Tm more than beautiful," she said, her dark eyes gleaming. "I"m winning." She clenched her fist triumphantly and he caught her wrist, pulling her toward him.

"You"re winning beautifully," he said.

"I sure am," she said, and then she was on him.

-58-

Hilary made love with a silky slowness that left him gasping. Time and again he verged on orgasm; time and again she suspended her sensual, rhythmic movements, holding him captive as she swayed on him. He reached up, groaning, and cupped her breasts in his hands, squeezing their fullness, rolling and rubbing the nipples between his fingers. She rode him with a sudden fury that brought him off in a minute, and her a moment after that. He lay still and tense, breathing through gritted teeth, waiting for the waves to subside. Hilary sighed deeply and, John still inside her, stretched out on him, stirring against him in spent carnal pleasure.

He exhaled noisily and relaxed, feeling the warm pressure of her body on his. "Oh, yeah," he said quietly, drifting a lazy hand up and down her back. "You"re something else," he said, and he kissed the top of her head.

"Mmmmm," she sighed, and snuggled her head against his shoulder. "I could say the same for you."

They lay quietly in his bed, tangled in sheets that had pulled free in their thrashing. Hilary"s breathing became slow and deep.

John started suddenly, squinting against the bed lamp"s brightness, aware that he had been dozing. "Hilary," he murmured. "Hilary, wake up."

"What time is it?" She brushed the hair out of her eyes and squinted at the clock. "Oh, God, three-thirty." She shook her head as though clearing it and rolled off him. "I"ve got to get going," she said. She stretched deeply and then lay still.

"Nothing doing," John said. He used a tissue to pull the condom the rest of the way off and got up to flush it. When he came back, she still lying in bed. He got in beside her and pulled the blankets up over them both, tucking her in closely. "Go back to sleep," he said.

"Wake me at six," she said sleepily.

He turned out the light and curled himself around her spoon fashion, rubbing his face gently in the mass of blonde hair, listening to her deep, regular breathing. She shifted in her sleep, and he lay still as she settled again. He rested one hand on her warm, soft skin, and began to get ideas.

He slid his hand along the curve of her hip and felt the beginnings of his erection forming. His hand wandered slowly to her thigh, and then to her backside, caressing her, a finger drifting into the cleft between her rounded cheeks, then moving gently forward and back, spreading her wetness all around. His erection grew strong and he pressed himself against her.

She stirred again and he thought for a moment that she had awakened, that her breathing had quickened. He was still for a minute, listening to her soft, deep inhalations, and jumped a little when she spoke quietly. "Do you always assault sleeping ladies?" she asked in a clear voice.

"You"re only defenseless when you"re sleeping," he said. "What other opportunity would I have?"

"I am never defenseless," she said. "Even sleeping, as I"ve just proven. You couldn"t assault me if you tried."

"Do I sense a challenge here?" John rolled her over, trying to see her in the dim light from the window. "Don"t mess with me, Hilary; I can take any woman three falls out of five."

He could see her teeth as she grinned. "1 dare you to try," she said.

He was surprised at her strength, at how quickly she fought loose of his first clumsy grasp. He caught one wrist and held it above her head, reaching for the other as she flailed and twisted in an effort to break loose. One of her contortions brought her knee perilously close to his groin, and he flung his leg over hers, trapping her lower body in the scattered bed linens while he concentrated on grabbing her other arm. She nearly struggled free, but finally he rolled on top of her, grabbed her free wrist and forced it into a one-handed grip with the one he already held. He was a little breathless from the struggle, and he lay heavily on her, waiting to regain his voice. "Any questions"?" he asked pleasantly.

"Yes." She seemed to sense defeat, and lay quietly beneath him. "How did you plan to accomplish anything interesting? You"ve got me down, but there"s the small matter of all these blankets between us."

"You bitch," he laughed. "Don"t go anywhere."

He eased himself off her and scrabbled one-handed at the blankets, pushing them off the bed in a heap. Hilary lurched convulsively and he nearly lost his grip on her. They battled again in the dark in a tangle of bare flesh, rolling across the big bed as she twisted, trying to free herself; their heads knocked together once, her skull striking against the edge of John"s eye, and he cursed as he struggled to contain her and finally he did.

She was caught beneath him again and he kissed her brutally, following her head as she tried to turn away. "That"s it," he said hoarsely. "Give it up." He licked her throat slowly, tasting the saltiness of her sweat, feeling her nipples hard against his chest. "Beg me," he whispered, kissing around her hairline, breathing hot into her ear, feeling his erection throb against her. "Beg for it, bitch." He bit her neck, not quite gently. "Beg me."

"Yes," she gasped. "Do it."

He plunged into her in a single, swift thrust, and was rewarded by her legs coming up to encircle him. They grappled for a moment, moving together, seeking their rhythm, and then she was suddenly still. "Wait," she said. "Where"d we put those rubbers?"

He looked at her from three inches away. "What"s this shit?"

"It"s not shit." She twisted under him, looking around the darkened room. "I can"t see. Are they on the table?"

"Yes," John said.

"Well?"

"Well what? Your interest in safe sex is commendable, but I"m damned if I"m going to wrestle you again. I already won."

"I know you won," she said. "I concede. But you"re not going to collect your winnings without it."

He ground against her, moving from side to side. "No, babe; you"re not going to collect your winnings without it."

She giggled. "Proud, proud, proud," she said. "I"ll wait for you."

"You"d better," he threatened. "I"ve already won two bouts here."

"Bound to start losing soon," she observed.

Condom in place, he rolled back on top of her and kissed her softly. "Enough assault," he said. "How about some down-home lovin"?"

They made love in the dark, gently, quietly, tenderly, with small kisses and whispered words, clasping each other close in the final moments, drifting easily into the warm half-sleep of contentment. John turned drowsily and settled himself around her. "Happy new year. Hilary," he murmured.

She snuggled sleepily against him. "Happy new year, John," she whispered. "I think I could get used to you."

-59-

Six o"clock came and went; they had coffee at nine, John in old blue jeans and Hilary in his bathrobe. "You"re looking lovely as always," he said, putting a steaming mug before her.

"Thank you." She looked at him closely. "I think you"ve got a black eye going," she said.

"I thought I might." He touched his eye tenderly. "Did anyone ever tell you you"re hard-headed?"

"All the time."

"Don"t overwhelm me with sympathy."

"Well, I"ve been assaulted; it"s only right for you to bear some scars from your crime."

"Oh, hell," he said. "What"s a little assault between friends?"

She shrugged and smiled. "You could do me a favor," she said. "As a friend, of course."

"Name it."

"I can"t go out this morning in the dress I wore last night; I"ve got some clothes out in the car. Will you get them for me?"

"A wardrobe change?" John raised his eyebrows. "Did you plan this?"

"No, I didn"t." She stirred her coffee idly. "And I"m not sure it was such a good idea, but it"s done now. I keep spare clothes handy so I can get from one campaign event to another without having to go home."

"I don"t think you staying was a bad idea." He got up for the coffee pot and poured for them both. "You seemed to have a good time."

She shrugged again, but she didn"t smile this time. "My original reservations are still there. In fact, they"re even stronger now: last night"s news took this campaign national. I don"t want the reputation of sleeping around."

"Sleeping around? How many men are you sleeping with these days?"

"Is that any of your business?"

"Drink your coffee," he said. "It"ll put you in the right mood to bite my head off."

She put her cup down and frowned at him. "Just you," she said. "Just you and just last night. Don"t expect a repeat performance."

"Did I just miss something?" he asked. "We were sitting here having coffee and now you"re telling me you won"t see me again?"

"I didn"t say that. I"m saying you shouldn"t expect me to make a habit of going to bed with you."

He touched his eye. "I don"t think I could take too many more like last night anyway," he said mildly. She did not look amused. "Why don"t you calm down a little?" he said. "I"m glad you stayed last night, and I think I"m smart enough to understand the situation."

"I hope so."

John sighed and rolled his eyes. "Look, Hilary, what do you want from me? A signed oath? What should it say? "I promise I won"t hope that Hilary Issler Vernon will want to see me again"?" He leaned forward on his arms. "Well, I"m not signing that one. I hope you will want to see me. I"ve agreed to your terms."

"What terms?"

"Your terms are that everything is on your terms," he said. "I"ve agreed not to dog you at your campaign stops. I"ve agreed not to complain about being investigated. I"ve even agreed to taking Dean"s shit. Basically I"ve agreed that you"re going to call all the shots. Did I leave anything out?"

"I object to being made the villain here," she said. "You agreed to help the campaign any way you could, and that means letting me make the decisions about when and how we will meet, and if we will meet. if you want to call that "my terms," go ahead."

He gave her a lecherous grin. "I thought keeping the candidate happy might help the campaign."

"Could you be serious, please?"

"I don"t want to be serious," he said. "We"ve both had about three hours" sleep and that"s no way discuss anything."

"I"ve gotten by on less and still won my case in the morning."

He took his cup to the sink. "I know you"re some kind of superwoman, Hilary. I know you"re one tough cookie, and I know you always win." He looked out the window at the cloudy day. "I just don"t know why everything has to be a struggle. I"m going to get cleaned up."

She sat at the table, listening to the shower spray, listening to the small noises he made shaving. She poured the last of the coffee for herself and sipped it slowly.

"Hilary?" He came into the kitchen, holding her handbag. "If you"ll give me your keys I"ll get your stuff." She fished them out, picking through a handful of envelopes and note slips. "Interesting assortment of correspondents," he commented, looking over her shoulder. "IRS, The Libertarians, Common Cause, John Birch Society -- Hey, nothing from the Klan?"

"Never you mind," she snapped, handing him the keys and pushing everything else back. "Just get the small suitcase out of the trunk and don"t go prowling around my car."

"Jeeze, kid," he said, frowning. "I guess the honeymoon"s over; you used to think I was kind of funny."

"I"m sorry," she said. "Right now, I feel like the funny one; I feel extremely funny about this entire episode." She pushed her hair back with both hands. "I wish you"d just get my things. I"ve got to go."

"At least I"ve been elevated to an Episode," he said. "That"s something to build on."

"Go!"

He was gone. She stood by the balcony window, looking down at the street. When she saw him come outside and head down the block toward her car, she moved straight to his desk and began flipping through his appointment book.

-60-

Joel Hawkes was in conference with his advisors, looking for ways to grab back the headlines. He cursed the New Year"s Eve coverage that had treated Hilary so well, and the pro-Vernon publicity it had inspired. His aides suggested farm visits, shelter inspections, whistle-stop tours. Hawkes agreed to them all.

While they were planning, campaign manager Lou Fowler sent out for the Texas Observer and read the lead story grimly; opinion polls showed Hawkes trailing Vernon by 23 percentage points.

"Let"s see that," Hawkes said. He read it silently, expressionlessly, and then sat back in his chair. "It"s time to take the gloves off, gentlemen." His voice was smooth and cool. "We"ve got to get something on her. Find something -- find anything -- and find it fast. The primary is nine weeks off."

-61-

"Come on in, John." Herb said. He followed John into his big corner office and shut the door behind them. "How was your holiday?" he asked.

"Quiet, thanks." John took a seat in front of the desk.

"That"s no good, son." Herb looked toward the wall of windows, where Dallas lay 14 stories below, and gestured expansively. "There"s a big world out there for a young man to explore. You shouldn"t be spending New Year"s Eve alone."

"I didn"t say I spent it alone, Herb. I said I spent it quietly."

"Quietly?" Herb leaned forward and looked at John carefully. "Then how"d you get that shiner?"

"Let"s just say my New Year"s was quiet, but not silent." John laughed self-consciously as he fingered the darkened swelling by his right eye. "Things got -- enthusiastic."

"How"s the other guy look?"

"She looks just as glorious as she did last year," he grinned, emphasizing the first word. "Maybe just a little bit happier."

"Well, that"s even better, isn"t it?" Herb laughed. "Showed one of our Texas beauties a good time, did you?"

"I"d like to think so," John said glibly. "She seemed pleased." He shrugged. "I know I was."

"Well, sure." Herb leaned forward. "Anyone I know?" he asked conspiratorially.

John laughed. "Now, Herb, that would be indiscreet."

Herb laughed too. "Damn it, there"s nothing like a southern gentleman." He looked over the papers strewn across his desk. "Well, let"s talk about the new year, shall we?"

They reviewed the final construction details at RiverField, and John summarized his outlook for sales. Herb went slowly down a long list he had prepared and they talked for the rest of the afternoon; the early January sunset filled the sky with red and gold before they were done. "That"s about it," John said finally, putting his calculator back in his jacket pocket. "if things pick up in the spring like I expect, you should be on easy street by the Fourth of July."

"You make a very convincing argument for success, John," Herb said. "I sure hope you"re right."

"I think I am."

"I hope so," Herb said again. He was ticking off points on a long yellow pad. "Just January, and then February is a short month, and then it"s spring." He sat back and looked John over. "I"ve been thinking about the bonus you wanted to give the realtors," he said. "I looked over the marketing budget, and I just don"t see how we can swing it."

"That"s too bad."

"It is, and it"s the least of my troubles right now."

"What"s going on?"

Connors went to a polished wooden cabinet and brought back a bottle and glasses. "This project is the slowest mover I"ve ever done," he confessed, pouring for them both. "Cash flow is in the sewer."

"How bad is it?"

"Hard to imagine worse." Herb drank deeply. "I"m don"t know how we"re going to avoid raising the assessments." He drank some more, and refilled his glass. "Might have to go up by $500 a month each."

John looked at him in shock. "If you do that, we"ll never sell another."

"I know that, damn it!" Herb slammed his fist on the desk. "But I"ve got to get the last few things finished -- the docks, and that goddamn playground -- and even if I let them slide for a few months, I"ve still got to cover my payroll and I"ve got to keep paying on my notes and I"ve got to buy advertising. What do you suggest I do?"

John sipped his bourbon and thought about it. "What can I suggest that you haven"t tried?" he asked finally.

"Suggest something anyway," Connors said tiredly.

"People think of their monthly assessments as though they were taxes," John mused. "And since a realtor would probably describe them as "taxes and things," there"s no reason why they wouldn"t. I wonder if anyone reads their contracts carefully enough to realize they"re going to pay for the new clubhouse roof in 20 years."

"It"s a community association," Herb said quietly. "The residents are in this, too, whether they realize it or not. It could be done."

"Yeah, but they"d scream bloody murder and we"ll never make another sale."

"If RiverField goes under they"ll scream bloody murder when the notes are called. And then there really won"t be another sale -- unless the bank makes it." He topped off his drink. "All for the want of a crummy $50,000," he said. He shook his head and drank off half the contents of his glass.

"That"s all?" John asked. "Fifty thousand bucks to make it "til spring?"

"That"s it."

"Why not take out another note?"

"With Fidelity Union"?" Herb laughed shortly. "You"re the only reason they haven"t called the existing notes already. Remember?"

"Yeah." John stretched his feet out, thinking. Herb said nothing, watching him. The sky was darkening swiftly, and Connors turned on a brass lamp on the corner of his desk.

John sat up abruptly. "I"ve got it!" he cried. He put his glass on the desk and Herb refilled it automatically. "First Dallas Savings!" John said. "George Benson says they"re solvent and they"ve survived all the Federal bullshit." He took a huge swig. "I saw him at one of Hilary"s campaign stops and he practically begged me to ask him for money."

Herb looked doubtful. "RiverField is already being used as collateral for the Fidelity notes. There isn"t a stick of lumber on the place that doesn"t belong to someone else."

"No, no, listen: we can go for a $50,000 debenture. There"s no collateral, just the good reputation of RiverField and the promise Herbert J. Conners, Inc., to pay."

"How hard did George beg you?" Herb asked.

John laughed. "He said they"re always looking for ambitious young men."

"When can you see him?"

"Me?" John looked startled. "It"s your company, Herb; don"t you think you should make the pitch?"

"Hell, no," Connors answered. "He"s talking about you, an ambitious young man. I"m just an old guy trying to keep my ass out of the poorhouse. Besides, I told you: you make a hell of an argument for success."

"You want me to negotiate for you?"

Connors nodded.

John shrugged. "Well, I suppose I could see him sometime next week, but I"ll need some numbers from you before I do."

"Just tell me what you want."

"Let me find my calendar first." John said. "I have an 18-month book, all neat and clean, and I managed to misplace it." He stood up and stretched. "I"ve never lost a year and a half before," he said. "A day or two is my limit." He looked at his watch. "It"s nearly seven o"clock, Herb. Let"s get us some nice, juicy steaks. It"s on me."

"The hell with that," Herb said. "It"s on me. RiverField may be bankrupt, but I"m not."

-62-

The phone rang and Sandy turned away from her computer screen to answer. "Reference desk," she said. "This is San --"

"It"s Dean." He spoke without preamble. "I need some information."

"Sure." She pulled a slip of paper toward her. "Go."

"Get me a list of the University Board members," Dean said. "I need their phone numbers, too."

"Okay." She scribbled quickly. "Anything else?"

"No, but Hilary wants to talk to you. Hold on." There was a small silence, and then a click as Hilary picked up the line.

"Hello, Sandy," she said pleasantly. "I hope I"m not disturbing you."

"No, it"s quiet here. Most of the students are gone."

"Good," Hilary said. "Now that Dean has finished with whatever it was he needs, I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed spending New Year"s Eve with you, and how glad I was to meet Rich."

"Oh, we had a wonderful time! I"m so glad you were there, and I know John was too."

"You"re a loyal friend but I want you to confess," Hilary said pleasantly. "I barely know John. You put him up to that invitation, didn"t you?"

Sandy laughed. "Not at all," she said happily. "It was his idea."

"Are you sure?" Hilary asked. "I mean, he is awfully nice, but I was under the impression that he"s still carrying a torch for some woman in New Jersey."

"Nicole?" Sandy said in surprise. "Oh, no, I don"t think so. I think his mother cares more about her than he does."

"I beg your pardon"?"

Sandy laughed. "I"m sorry; that sounds ridiculous. What I mean is, John and his mother had a little tiff when she found out John hasn"t talked to Nicole since he got to Dallas."

"I suppose it wasn"t that serious, then, if he hasn"t spoken to her?"

"I"m not sure," Sandy said thoughtfully. "The night he got here, he seemed kind of sad about her." She brightened up. "But he was tired; he"d driven all that way, practically straight through."

"It"s a long drive," Hilary agreed.

"He was just exhausted," Sandy decided. "Anyway, he told us a little bit about her. He said they were in love, but I don"t believe that; she"s so much older than he is."

"So he said."

"Oh, yes, twenty years or more.

"As much as that?"

"Twenty years," Sandy repeated. "In fact, she"s going to be a grandmother." She dropped her voice. "And she"s rich."

"Really?"

"Sure. He said she was rich, like the Hallorans." She giggled "He actually called her "a good catch." Nicole Whitman, the good catch! Can you can believe it?"

"Never!" Hilary laughed. "What does she look like?"

"He never said." Sandy stopped suddenly. "Why, Hilary!" she exclaimed. "You"re pumping me! About John Lattimore!" She laughed gaily. "I guess you must really like him."

"Well, you"ve caught me," Hilary said sheepishly. "Don"t mention it to John, okay? I"d hate to have him think I was checking up on him."

"Your secret is safe with me," Sandy said.

"Thanks," Hilary said. "I"ll talk to you soon." She hung up instantly and started jotting down notes.

PART 3 " ENDINGS

Posted on Twitter on October 26, 2008 - Alice's birthday

Lexington Kentucky, July 27, 2007. We both awoke at the same time. We had both heard the same sound. Jane, Alice"s best friend from before high school had only arrived the night before. She had planned to visit in a few weeks, but my call to her a few days ago with the news that she must come now was answered with an immediate trip to Lexington from New Jersey. Alice"s sister Hillary had also come, but she was not here now. When they arrived at the hospital last night, there was recognition, a hug, and then sleep. I had been holding Alice"s hand for most of the night, but I had fallen asleep, and had let go. It was the sound of her breathing that brought both Jane and I to be immediately alert. And then silence; it was 6:45am. Alice had died.

Lung cancer had been diagnosed just 15 month earlier. There was treatment in Lexington, and when that did not look promising, trips to Duke Medical Center in North Carolina. We had always known that it may come to this, but we always had faith. This is what God had given us today, and we were ready to deal with it, but we also believed in rainbows. She had gotten worse and on July 5th was admitted to the hospital.

Alice had always wanted to finish "Cowboy" but she never could find the time. Year after year we would talk about what would happen next to John, Nicole and Hilary, how she would just take a few months off and get it done, finish the book, but there was always something that needed to be dealt with. Her job at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky had become her passion, not because she liked airplanes, no, she actually was afraid to fly. It was the possibilities that attracted her. She loved the fact that kids who visited the museum would be awed, inspired and dream. Her father had passed in 2003 and her mother was suffering from Alzheimer and, for a while lived with us. There just wasn"t time.

When I decided to post Cowboy, it was to show the world what Alice had done. I knew it would be a story without an ending. I had always been rooting for John and Nichole to get back together. I did not trust Hilary but I had hoped that deep down inside that she was a good person, but just not the right person for John, but we"ll just never know.

It was only a few weeks ago that it dawned on me that like Cowboy, Alice"s life story would not be finished either. I had hoped to grow old with her, having memories of a life well lived; but like her book, it just ended. We had time to talk about the future; she wanted for me what I would want for her if my time came first. She wanted me to be happy, to live life, to help and inspire the people around me. My life has more chapters, more pages to turn. I"m sure that my life with Alice would have had a happy ending, but we"ll just never know.

COWBOY - Copyright (c) 1991-2007 by alice anne McCormick, James R McCormick - All rights reserved

Do you enjoy this book, please donate to The Aviation Museum of Kentucky and reference Cowboy