Lois Cloarec Hart
Copyright, February 2012. All rights reserved.©
My thanks, as always, to my wonderful beta readers; my darling wife, Day, and my dear friend, California Kathy. They helped me shake off a year’s worth of rust, and reminded me yet again why I enjoy writing.
If you'd like to comment on this story, I'd enjoy hearing from you at: email@example.com
“And in conclusion, our aim is to ensure a smooth and trauma-free transition for your mother. We will be available to you 24/7 until your mother is happily settled in her new home.”
A derisive snort interrupted Daena Thorsen’s patter and she subtly raised an eyebrow at her business partner. Gabriel responded with an equally subtle shrug and a look of sympathy. This family had been difficult.
Taking a deep breath, Daena tried to resume her summation, only to be interrupted again.
“New home, my ass! Mom was perfectly content where she was until you stuck your big fat pretentious nose in their affairs.”
The speaker was a forty-something woman with spiky orange hair, who glared at her elegantly dressed older brother who was sitting at the head of the table. The third and middle sibling, long versed in keeping the peace, tried to soothe her sister.
“Callie, Richard is just trying to do what’s best for Mom. You know she can’t go on living as she did before the stroke.”
“You neglect to mention, Aven, that Mother no longer even owns her home, thanks to that piece of garbage—”
Callie lunged at Richard, knocked over Daena’s water glass and drenched the table. Daena jumped back and tumbled to the floor. As she extricated herself from the chair and rose, Gabriel and Aven tried to pull Callie away from Richard, who punched back in a most ungentlemanly manner.
When the dust settled, Callie stormed out of the office with her backpack slung over one shoulder. Richard withdrew to the men’s room to make repairs. Aven began to apologize profusely.
“Oh my God, you must think us utter Neanderthals. I’m so, so sorry that you were subjected to this. I thought we had ironed out a reasonable compromise before we got here. Obviously, I was wrong.”
“Please don’t worry, Ms. Stanger. My partner and I are well aware that family dynamics are often strained in such life-altering situations.”
Daena hid a smile as she listened to her partner spin the situation. Gabriel could weave silk thread out of donkey dung, though it looked as if he’d have to draw on all his oratorical powers today.
“Strained family dynamics?” Aven Stanger shook her head with despair. “I wish that was all it were. Look, can we reschedule for another time—”
Richard re-entered the room at that juncture and shook his head at his sister’s proposal. “Impossible, Aven. Winnie and I are leaving for Palm Beach in three weeks, and the arrangements for Mother need to be wrapped up before we go.”
“Couldn’t you delay your trip, or maybe let Winnie go on ahead and join her later? This is important, Richard.”
“I don’t disagree; however, there is no reason for delay. I’m sure Ms. Thorsen and Mr. Pierce are perfectly capable of arranging Mother’s new accommodations and facilitating her move from the care facility. As far as I’m concerned, it makes no sense to involve Callie when she is clearly emotionally unprepared to deal with the situation.”
“Callie has as much right as either of us to be involved. It’s her mother, too, and she’s not the only one who’s upset about Marni being banished—”
“Do not ever mention that woman’s name in my presence,” Richard snapped in an icy voice. “She’s the reason Mother drained her savings and lost the house. She’s probably the reason Mother had the stroke, since she’s responsible for all the stress of these past five years.”
“Marni would never hurt Mom! They’ve loved each other, taken care of each other for over thirty years.”
“She stole our mother from our father and broke up our home. Don’t think I will ever forget that. That bitch can rot in hell for all I care, but she’s never going to be a part of our mother’s life again!”
“This is so wrong, Richard. All Mom wants is to be with Marni again.”
Richard snatched up his briefcase. “You’d best keep in mind that the only reason Mother will even have a home is because I am paying for it. Callie couch-surfing with her latest pot-smoking boyfriend, you barely making enough with on-line tutoring to pay for a studio apartment; where else, exactly, do you think Mother could go when she is discharged from the care facility?”
“To be with Marni.”
“Living on the streets? Is that what you want for our mother? Because that’s exactly where that woman is right now.” Richard strode out of the office, leaving a breathless silence behind.
“Damn him!” Aven slammed a fist down on the table, causing Daena and Gabriel to jump. She slumped in her chair, clearly distraught by the confrontation with her brother.
Silently Gabriel mouthed “your department” at Daena and slipped down the corridor to his office.
“Please call me Aven. After what you’ve seen of our family’s dirty laundry, we might as well be on a first name basis.”
“Aven, may I get you a cup of coffee?”
“Please. Just cream.”
Daena went to the coffee nook and poured for both of them. She set a cup in front of Aven and took the opposite chair. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Aven regarded Daena steadily as she sipped the hot brew. “I have to ask you a question first.”
“Now that you know that my mom has...had a long-time female partner, does that fact change the way you’re going to treat her, or us?”
“I assure you, Ms...Aven, that Gabriel and I are sensitive to the needs of our clients, regardless of their orientation, race, disabilities, or any other of the diversities of humankind. We take great pride in accommodating all our clients, and if you require more than my word, we have files full of grateful letters that specifically make that point.”
Aven blew out a breath. “Thank God. But please don’t mention that to Richard. This is the one thing that he is totally irrational about. He’s done everything in his power to force Mom back into the closet since she got ill. When the first hospital refused to ban Marni from Mom’s side because of the federal hospital visitation law, Richard had Mom transferred to a private care facility where the director grovels obsequiously at his feet. Richard won’t allow Marni in the front door, and he’s had a private security guard stationed there ever since Marni tried to see in Mom’s window one night.”
Daena fought a growing loathing for Richard, even as she reminded herself to stay neutral. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”
“You don’t know the half of it. With that toady director’s acquiescence, Richard hired private caregivers for Mom. We set up a surveillance camera to see how they were treating Mom when we weren’t around. Callie and I caught one of them reading Mom passages from the Bible to illustrate what a sinner she was. Mom can’t walk or talk now, so she’s trapped. When we saw what was going on, we threw one woman out on her ass and raised holy hell with Richard and the director about another. We told them we’d have both of them in court for elder abuse if they didn’t let Callie do Mom’s care from then on. Callie was unemployed so she had the time to do it, but now she’s got a job starting this week that she really has to take.”
“I’m so sorry, Aven. No one should be treated so cruelly, particularly someone in such a vulnerable state.”
“The thing is, Richard does love Mom. In his One Percenter brain, he actually thinks that he’s doing the best possible thing by putting Mom in an expensive assisted living facility. But even all these years later, he’s so twisted with anger that he can’t forgive Marni or Mom for falling in love, even though Dad had left Mom before she even met Marni. Richard blames them for Dad’s heart attack, too, conveniently forgetting that Dad had serious health issues that had nothing to do with Mom and Marni. It wasn’t like Richard was even home at the time; he was married and starting his own family by then. Callie and I were still living with Mom, but I was only two years away from going to college. Callie was the baby of the family; she was with Mom and Marni for the longest. She regards Marni as her second parent, so naturally she’s furious at Richard for what he’s done.”
Daena asked delicately, “Mr. Stanger mentioned something about holding your mother’s partner responsible for losing their home?”
“Hah. Richard also holds Marni responsible for unrest in the Middle East and drought in the Sudan. But seriously, he’s got a point on this one. About six or seven years ago, Mom re-mortgaged their home. Marni used the money to start up a small, private, maintenance business that had decent potential. Before the recession, the business had eight employees and four trucks and was making a good go of it. But when the economy tanked, it took Marni down with it. Ironically, Richard is in venture capital, and for a while we thought he and his family were going to lose everything too, but the government bailed them out and Richard’s company received a golden parachute. Marni got no help, of course, and lost everything. All she could find was part-time, minimum wage work, and Mom, retired with a small pension, couldn’t keep the payments going on the house. Richard offered to bail her out, but only if Marni left. Mom would have no part of that, of course, so a couple of months ago the bank foreclosed on them. Less than a week later, Mom had her stroke. About the only thing Richard did to help out through the whole crisis was to arrange for a storage locker for their stuff. He’s got a real heart of gold, that brother of mine.”
Daena understood. She and Gabriel had struggled to keep their speciality business afloat through the recession, and had only succeeded as a result of a loan from Gabriel’s father. “Forgive me, Aven, but I’m a little confused about how Richard took charge of your mother’s care instead of Marni. Was there some reason that Marni didn’t have power of attorney over your mom’s affairs?”
“God, I wish I had an answer for you. We all thought Mom and Marni had done the necessary legal paperwork. But the night the stroke happened, no one thought to bring paperwork. It didn’t matter initially, because Marni, Callie, and I were all in accord, and of course we all had the same goal—get Mom stabilized and save her life. It wasn’t until two days later that Marni looked for their legal documents, but she couldn’t find them so Richard stepped in and took over.”
“She couldn’t find any of their papers?”
“No. You have to remember that Mom and Marni had been evicted from their home; they’d just barely moved into an apartment. It was so tiny that most of their stuff was still in the storage locker. Many of the boxes they had taken to their new home were still piled, unopened, in their living room. Callie and I helped Marni go through everything at the apartment and the locker. In the locker we found the boxes Mom had marked ‘Home Office’, but we didn’t find any legal papers. We don’t know if they got lost in the move, or what happened. We even went back to the house to see if we’d left anything behind, but we couldn’t get in. The eviction notice was still on the front door and the locks had been changed. We peered in windows, but Mom took pride in leaving her home spotless, even if it wasn’t her home anymore. There wasn’t so much as a tissue left on the floor, let alone a file folder.”
A thought occurred to Daena, and she rolled it over in her mind for a few moments before carefully voicing it. “Were all of you in the ER the night your mother was rushed there?”
“All of us?”
“Yes, your siblings and Marni.”
“Marni, Callie, and I were there. Richard was out of town on business and didn’t get there until later that night, but Winnie came to the hospital with my nephews.”
Aven looked at Daena in puzzlement. “What?”
“Well, I’m still confused. Why didn’t Marni simply get copies of the papers from their attorney?”
“It was so long ago that Marni couldn’t remember who they’d used. It was someone Richard had recommended at the time, but he said he couldn’t remember the fellow’s name either, not that I believe him. Anyway, Marni thinks she remembers seeing the lawyer’s obit many years ago, so there was no apparent help in that direction.”
“And they hadn’t given copies to anyone else? Maybe an executor or family member?”
“Marni thought they’d given copies to Richard when they’d originally had everything drawn up, but even though she’s a lot younger than Mom, her memory is way worse. She can’t absolutely swear to it, and Richard denies he was ever given anything.”
“Okay, I get that, but why does Richard have control? Forgive me if I’m overstepping, but it’s clear that you and Callie disagree with Richard about your mother’s care and Marni’s place in your mother’s life. So, why, if it’s two against one, does he have full say?”
“At some point years ago, after Mom and Dad divorced, Mom did update her papers. She and Marni were dating then, but not openly living together since they both could’ve lost their jobs at their school. Mom assigned power of attorney to Richard and also named him executor since he was the oldest. His father-in-law got Richard started in the financial world and he was doing really well. Callie wasn’t even in her teens and I was just fifteen, so Richard was the obvious choice. But after thirty odd years together, I’m sure Marni is right: Mom would have changed her arrangements. They are utterly devoted to each other. But without more recent papers, the old ones stand, and naturally Richard still had his copies of those. Now that Mom is incapacitated and unable to communicate her wishes, Richard has final say.”
“The three of you couldn’t band together to fight him in court? It sounds to me like you’d have a pretty good case.”
“And they have more than one very good lawyer. In fact, they have the best legal counsel my brother’s millions can pay for. Marni, Callie, and I don’t have the resources to fight, let alone win.” Aven stood up, dejection clear in her eyes. “Thanks for listening. I probably dumped way too much of the family dirt on you, but I’m grateful for the friendly ear.”
Daena stood and extended her hand. “Any time, Aven, and I do mean that. When we take on a client, we take on the entire family. Our motto is: ‘The best outcome for all involved’, and we’ll work very hard to make that happen.”
“You may want to drop that motto by the time you’re done with us. Mom’s best outcome would be a home with the woman she loves, and I don’t see any possibility of that happening. But I do appreciate your upbeat attitude. What’s the next step in this process?”
“Richard gave us the keys to the storage locker, and we’ve gotten permission from the foreclosure officer to gain access to your mother’s old house to take photographs. We will go into her new home and arrange her furnishings as closely as possible to what she’s accustomed to. We repaint walls and even do minor renovations in order to re-create her sense of home. We normally hang pictures, put away clothes, and organize knick-knacks. Since your mother’s house has been emptied, we’re a bit stymied, but our goal is for her to instantly feel at home when she first walks through the door.”
“The only way she’d feel at home is if Marni was waiting for her inside, but I do like the idea of re-creating their home as much as possible. I can help you out with that. Mom and Marni asked me to paint their house years ago, and I think somewhere I still have the swatches we picked from.”
“That would be a tremendous help. Would you mind looking for them tonight and giving me a call?” Daena handed her card to Aven. “With your mother being released in ten days, we need to jump on this as quickly as possible.”
As the office door closed behind Aven, Gabriel emerged from his office. Daena looked at him with affectionate exasperation. “Coward.”
He grinned at Daena. “Hey, she’s a member of your family, not mine. I’ll handle the next distraught queen who’s ridden with guilt for putting his mama in a facility.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Gabe. There’s no way you can know she’s family.”
“Yes, I can. Zane and I saw her at Trousseau’s co-ed night last week.”
“Huh. And you want me to believe that you two actually remember a woman from Trousseau’s?”
“I agree that seems unlikely, but she was with the most gorgeous young man I’ve seen in forever. I thought he might be a younger brother—there was a family resemblance—but having met Richard, I now suspect it was his son. I wonder if dear old Richard knows he has a dreaded ho-mo-sex-ual in the family...other than his mother and sister, of course.”
Daena shot her partner a warning look. “Gabriel, nowhere in our company’s mandate does it say that outing clients is part of our job. Our business is to get Audrey Stanger comfortably situated in the luxury seniors complex Richard is shelling out for. Got it?”
“Keep your Birkenstocks on, sweetie. I was just indulging in a little gossip. You know I am always the consummate professional on the job. Although, the thought of that nasty man getting his comeuppance in such a poetic justice sort of way is perfectly delightful, and don’t tell me you disagree.”
Daena tried to suppress the grin her partner’s cheerfully bitchy words always engendered, but it was impossible. Gabriel smiled triumphantly and straightened his silk tie.
“All right, fun’s over. I’m meeting the foreclosure officer in half an hour to pick up the key and get access to the old place. I’ll be back with the photos within two hours. Where are you off to?”
“I’m going to go to the storage locker first, to see what furnishings we’re dealing with. After Audrey’s stroke, Richard’s lawyer apparently managed to get Marni locked out of the new apartment, so everything was moved to the locker. Then I thought I’d drop by the care facility to meet our client in person. I’m not sure how badly the stroke has affected her; I’m hopeful that she’s still cognizant and somewhat able to communicate. I’d like to outline our plans and see if she’s capable of providing any additional input. Meet you back here for dinner?”
“No can do, sweetie. Zane and I are invited over to the in-laws, so you’re on your own.”
“Why don’t you call that delightful Miss Aven and see if she can have dinner with you...for a professional consultation, of course.”
“I’m going, but do give it some consideration, Daena.”
Daena was surprised at the seriousness in Gabriel’s voice. She turned over his suggestion as she watched him go. She did need to get the paint swatches from Aven. With a week and a half to get things ready, they’d have to work swiftly. Daena sat down at the computer and called up the client folder, then hesitated a moment before clicking on Contact Information. There was Aven’s number, listed below Richard’s and above Callie’s. She stared at it for a long moment, but ultimately closed the file. Her life was too busy for such complications.
Daena entered the Cavanaugh-Truscott Extended Care Facility through the main doors. A formidable woman sitting at the admittance desk looked at her pointedly, and Daena hastily stated her business.
“I’ll require ID, please.” Daena handed over her driver’s licence and the woman tapped her keyboard. She finally nodded and gave Daena a temporary pass. “Mrs. Stanger is in Room 134, down the hall to your left. Please be sure you check out before you leave the building.”
A uniformed man sat on a chair outside the door to Room 134; Daena assumed it was the private security guard Richard had engaged. He extended his hand as Daena approached. When she gave him her driver’s licence and pass, he perused his checklist.
“Okay, you’re on the approved list. You can go right in.”
As Daena pulled the door outward, it opened on a well-dressed woman pushing a wheelchair. A thin older woman sat slumped in the chair, her left hand curved into a useless claw and the left side of her face exhibiting a pronounced droop. Despite her disability, the older woman’s eyes were bright blue, and Daena thought she detected a flash of humour as she danced out of the way to keep from being run over.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Are you all right?” The woman pushing the chair reached out a hand to steady Daena. “I’m really not very proficient with this thing yet, am I, Mother Audrey?”
Audrey made an unintelligible sound, but Daena had the distinct impression that it held amusement.
“Are you the OT therapist? Were you here to see my mother-in-law? We were just going out to the garden, but we can delay our little outing.”
Daena realized the woman must be Richard’s wife. She introduced herself and handed over her business card. “My partner and I met with your son and daughters this afternoon. We’re in the initial stages of setting up your new residence, and I’d hoped to get some insight on what you’d like to see us incorporate.”
Daena saw sorrow blossom in Audrey’s eyes. It didn’t take any special insight to deduce the source. Daena often had to steel herself to neutrality when dealing with clients depressed and distressed by their circumstances, but in this instance she felt frustration and anger. Ever since Aven had related the story of Audrey and Marni, Daena hadn’t been able to shake the injustice of it.
“Would it be possible for me to have a little time with Mrs. Stanger? Alone?”
Winnie looked startled at the coolness of Daena’s tone. “Certainly, but I think I could be of some help.” Winnie knelt by her mother-in-law’s chair and took Audrey’s hand. “Would you like me to stay?”
Daena re-evaluated as she watched Winnie’s gentle manner with Audrey and the warmth in Audrey’s gaze at her daughter-in-law. When Audrey nodded, Daena relented. Okay, maybe Richard is the only SOB in this family, not that it’s any of my business.
Winnie stood with a smile. “Could we conduct our business in the garden? It’s such a lovely afternoon and Mother Audrey is tired of being cooped up inside, aren’t you?”
Audrey emitted another unintelligible sound, but she clearly agreed, so Daena stood aside. “Please, lead the way.”
When the guard began to follow them, Winnie looked at him sternly. “Is this really necessary, Mr. Randall?”
“Mr. Stanger’s order, ma’am.”
Winnie sighed and shook her head, but made no further protest as the guard followed them.
The garden was at the back of the care facility and well away from heavy traffic. It was an oasis of peace, obviously a favourite spot of Audrey and Winnie. Without hesitation, Winnie pushed the wheelchair to a bench near the street side of the garden. An ornamental wrought iron fence separated the garden from the street. A small park with a pond shining in the sun was across the street.
When the guard moved to take up a position behind the bench on which Winnie and Daena sat, Winnie shook her head. “My husband’s orders or not, Mr. Randall, I insist you keep watch from over there. I refuse to feel like a prisoner.” She pointed firmly at a bench on the opposite side of the garden, close to the facility’s stone walls.
The guard hesitated, but Winnie gave him a surprisingly steely look and his resistance quickly withered. He retreated while Winnie carefully arranged Audrey’s chair.
“There you are, Mother Audrey. Doesn’t the sunshine feel wonderful? And aren’t the birds in fine voice today?”
Audrey closed her eyes and canted her head on the wheelchair’s headrest. Daena was wondering whether she felt like a prisoner when Winnie’s voice drew her attention.
“So, Ms. Thorsen, how can we help you?”
Daena focused her attention on Winnie and restated their goals, explaining that, with the family’s help, they intended to make Audrey’s new home as familiar and comfortable as possible.
“Excellent. What do you need from us?”
Daena activated her iPad. “Aven is going to assist us with paint colours and the arrangement of furniture and such. Since Mrs Stanger’s new residence is much smaller than her former home, we’ll have to downsize considerably. We want to ensure that all her favourite pieces are included, so my goal today is to go over the list I was provided and pick out what should stay.” She angled the iPad towards Winnie and Audrey, though the latter’s eyes were still closed.
The next twenty minutes passed in a discussion between Daena and Winnie. At one point Daena glanced over at the guard, who fiddled with his phone. Audrey was apparently sleeping.
“I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what will be used to furnish the new apartment. Thank you very much for your input, Mrs. Stanger.”
“Please call me Winnie. Mother Audrey is the real ‘Mrs. Stanger’ in this family.”
“Winnie, thank you. Would you mind reviewing the list we’ve whittled down one more time to see if you can think of anything we might’ve forgotten?
Daena handed the iPad to Winnie and leaned back on the bench. With a start, Daena realized that Audrey’s eyes were not only wide open, but they were focused intently on something beyond the fence. She followed the direction of Audrey’s gaze, and saw an older woman standing across the street under the shade of a tree in the small park. She was staring just as intently at Audrey. Daena saw the stranger deliberately hold her hand over her heart, and curl the two center fingers down to touch her palm. Daena realized Audrey was struggling to make the same sign in response.
Much to Daena’s surprise, Winnie quietly reached over and helped Audrey bend two fingers down, resting her hand on her useless left forearm. Then Winnie fixed Daena with a firm gaze and handed back the iPad. The three held their tableau for long moments until the guard stood and stretched. Instantly the woman across the street darted behind the tree.
Winnie stood and released the brakes on the wheelchair. She turned Audrey to face the hospital door. “I think we’ve accomplished a lot here today, Daena. If there’s anything more I can do, please feel free to contact me directly. You needn’t go through Richard. He’s always busy, and leaves domestic matters in my hands.” Winnie handed Daena a card and then pushed her mother-in-law back inside, followed by the oblivious security guard.
Daena watched them go in amazement. She was certain that the woman across the street was Marni. So Winnie isn’t the enemy. She’s Audrey’s ally. That puts a whole new slant on things. Suddenly Daena felt a strong urge to pump Aven for information. She pulled up client contact information on her Blackberry and made the call.
The restaurant with its intimate lighting, soft music, and attentive staff wasn’t where Daena would normally have conducted a business meeting, but she’d rationalized that it was close to Aven’s apartment.
They hadn’t stopped talking since they sat down, covering the usual background: family, exes, and jobs. Daena was fairly certain there had been a mildly flirtatious undertone in Aven’s words ever since the entrees had been served, but she mentally scolded herself for her presumption.
“So did you become a teacher because of your mom, Aven?”
“Partly. I really admired Mom’s devotion to her students, but I also found that I loved teaching. At least I did for twenty five years, then the school board was taken over by right-wing ideologues who were more concerned with scoring political points than actually educating children.”
“Is that why you left the classroom?”
“That...and I’d just gone through a bad break-up with my girlfriend Michelle at the same time. I wanted to withdraw from the world for a while and lick my wounds. Teaching on-line was supposed to be an interim thing, but finding a full-time position during this recession has turned out to be impossible. And truth be told, I’ve appreciated the flexibility of teaching on-line. When Callie needs someone to spell her with Mom’s care, I am usually able to fill in. Plus I have a lot of time to pursue my own interests.”
“What about pursuing love?”
“I’d given that up after the disaster with Michelle.”
“You ‘had’ given it up? Past tense?”
“Mmm hmm. Recent events have me rethinking my position.”
“Really. But enough about me. I told you all about Michelle, the horrible ex. Do you have any Michelles in your past?”
“I do, but her name was Ella.”
“Did she stomp on your heart?”
“Oh, a mere heart stomping wouldn’t have been sadistic enough for Ella. She slashed my heart to ribbons with a scalpel and then took a blowtorch to the remains. Then, just for good measure, she took the ashes and cast them to the wind, scattering my heart to the seven continents.”
“Wow, indeed. She also cleaned out my bank account, stole my ID, and wiped out my admittedly meagre investments. But hey, no one’s perfect. She did leave me my car and the contents of my closet.”
“Okay, no contest. You win hands down. All Michelle did was cheat on me with my supposed best friend. I kicked her cheating ass out on the street and it didn’t cost me a penny. For all of Richard’s scorn for my little apartment, I’ve deliberately lived low-key since I graduated from college. My bank balance will never come close to his—or more accurately, Winnie’s family’s—but I’m not in any danger of starving.”
Daena couldn’t remember when she’d enjoyed an evening more. It hadn’t even hurt to recite Ella’s perfidy. She tilted the wine bottle towards Aven with an inquiring look.
Aven nodded and smiled as Daena re-filled her wine glass. “So, you were saying earlier that you saw Marni this afternoon?”
“I think so. A tall, thin woman in her mid to late sixties with short grey hair? She and your mom gave each other some sort of hand signal.”
Aven curled her fingers down in the identical gesture.
“Yes, that was it. What is it, a Vulcan peace sign?”
Aven laughed with delight. “No. I think it was originally American Sign Language. They may even have made it up, but Mom and Marni have used it for decades. When they couldn’t verbalize ‘I love you’ for one reason or another, they would make this sign to each other.”
“Aww, that’s so sweet.”
“When I was a teenager, I used to think it was nauseatingly sweet, but with age and, hopefully, maturity, I’ve come to appreciate the depth of their devotion to each other.”
“Do you think Marni will be able visit your mom in her new home?”
“I doubt it. Richard has already interviewed prospective live-in caregivers, and I know he’s issuing strict instructions as to who is to have access to Mom. Callie and I might be able to arrange some ‘accidental’ meetings when we take Mom out for a day, but if Richard’s pit bulls escort us, it’s going to make it very difficult. He’s going to do everything he can to keep them apart.”
Daena was quiet for a long moment as they sipped their wine. Aven studied her and smiled. “You’ve got something on your mind.”
“I don’t like to intrude in my clients’ personal affairs...”
“Then think of me as a new friend, not a client. That’s how I see you; feel free to intrude away. You believe this is as rotten a deal for Mom and Marni as Callie and I do, don’t you?”
“Yes, but is it just you and Callie?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I know Richard is dead set against them...” Daena hesitated. She hadn’t yet spoken of Winnie’s participation in the afternoon’s events. Taking a deep breath, she followed her instincts. “Your sister-in-law doesn’t seem as adamant as your brother.”
“Winnie? No, she’s a sweetie and she adores Mom. Her mother was a cold society fish, and Winnie has basked in Mom’s love and kindness from the first day Richard brought her home. But if you’re thinking that Winnie will stand up to Richard, you’re barking up the wrong tree. She was raised to defer to her husband, give birth to his progeny, look lovely on his arm, and throw beautiful dinner parties. She’s done all that very well, but I’ve never seen her cross him, not even if she thinks he’s wrong about something.”
“You have what?”
“Seen your sister-in-law go against your brother’s wishes.” Aven choked on her wine and started to cough. Daena reached across the small table to pat her back. “I’m so sorry. Are you all right?”
Aven nodded, coughed a few more times and dabbed her mouth with her napkin. “Are you serious? Winnie?”
“Absolutely.” Daena related what she’d seen in the garden that afternoon. “I didn’t realize until after they’d gone back in that Winnie had carefully orchestrated every move in the garden so the guard couldn’t see anything. She positioned your mom’s chair perfectly, and even helped your mom make that sign.”
“That should’ve occurred to me. Of course Winnie would have to assist. Mom is making progress, but she hasn’t regained full function of her hands by a long shot.” Aven leaned forward and grasped Daena’s hand with a delighted grin. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“That Winnie might help us?”
“Exactly. But how? We have to be clear on what we’re going for. Are we just looking for Winnie to influence Richard to let Marni visit Mom occasionally? Even that would be wonderful, but in all honesty, I simply can’t see Winnie standing up to him.”
“Why don’t we shoot for the moon? Why don’t we try to get your mom and Marni living together again?”
“God, Daena, do you know what the odds against us are?”
Daena nodded, well aware of Aven’s bright blue eyes that sparkled in excitement. She’s got her mom’s eyes. Daena pushed the thought aside to focus on their plan.
“I’ve been thinking about this all afternoon, but it hinges on Winnie’s willingness to help.”
“You have a plan?”
“Daena Thorsen, I could just kiss you!”
“Um, well, I’m not guaranteeing the plan will work.”
“Then I’ll make it conditional. The day I see Mom and Marni living together again, I’ll kiss you.”
Daena thrilled to the teasing look in Aven’s eyes. She squeezed Aven’s fingers. “You’ve got a deal. Now, I’m going to need your help. Step one; we need to talk to Winnie away from Richard. Can you make that happen?”
“I can make it happen. I can most certainly make it happen.”
The low, sensuously drawled words made Daena forget step two.
“She said what?”
“It wasn’t so much what she said, Gabriel, it was the way she said it. My God, the woman’s voice is Belgian chocolate, fine wine, and red roses all rolled up together.”
Gabriel hollered with delight, grabbed Daena and started to dance her around the office. “So why are you back in the office this morning? Why aren’t the two of you enjoying breakfast together?” He gave her a look of feigned sadness. “Have you forgotten how it’s done, sweetie? I know it’s been a while, and your memory isn’t what it once was.”
Daena thumped Gabriel’s shoulder. “Don’t be such a pig.” There was no heat in the words, and they grinned at each other.
“Seriously, though, you know I’d jump for joy if you found someone again, Daena, but this sounds like family quicksand. Are you sure about getting our company in the middle of it?”
“If you could’ve seen the way Audrey and Marni looked at each other, you’d be just as sure as I am. I’ve never seen such a look of desperate longing, Gabe. If ever two people were meant to be together, it’s them. Besides, if all goes according to plan, Richard will never even know of our involvement.”
“Famous last words.”
“So you won’t help?”
“Silly girl, of course I’ll help. I’m the last of the Great Gatsby romantics. Perish the thought that I would ever stand in the path of true love. If we get sued and lose everything, I’ll simply have to become some wealthy old man’s boy-toy.”
“Uh huh. I’m sure your husband would be thrilled with that. Besides, if it weren’t for your bi-monthly appointments with Serge, you’d be as silver as I am, Mr. Boy-toy, but far be it from me to dash your illusions.”
Gabriel sniffed ostentatiously, but Daena read the delight in his eyes. They had enjoyed getting in and out of scrapes together since they had met in Miss Wilkinson’s time-out corner in elementary school.
“So, what do you need me to do, D?”
“I need some information, and you can help me get it. Ever since Richard Stanger’s assistant first contacted us, I’ve been unable to shake the notion that I knew the name from somewhere. Last night, something Aven said finally tweaked.”
Gabriel elbowed Daena and winked. “She said what she’d like to tweak?”
“Idiot. No, she mentioned that Richard is crazy about vintage motor boats, and that he keeps his collection at the Grace Harbour Marina, where—”
“Deacon keeps his. Of course...but how’s that going to help?”
“I need something to keep Richard distracted. The last time we had brunch with Deacon, he was bragging about acquiring some boat no one else in the area had.”
“His 1926 Chris-Craft runabout. I know. Deacon hasn’t stopped talking about it for months.”
“Well, Deacon probably moves in the same circles that Richard does, right?”
“With the exception of when he’s slumming with the boys, Deacon moves in a very rarified circle, D. He’s old money...really, really old. He regards Richard’s sort as pure parvenu.”
Daena was crestfallen. “So you don’t think he would help us out?”
“Oh no, he would. Deacon loves a lark almost as much as he loves those old boats of his. When I explain the situation, he’ll jump at the chance to help out. What exactly do you need him to do?”
“Use his boat to distract Richard while we’re moving Audrey’s things into her new home.”
“I sense a plot. Do tell.”
“I’m sort of going with my gut here, Gabe. Aven doesn’t think Winnie would stand up to Richard in any way, but the woman I saw coolly outmaneuver the security guard yesterday is already standing up to her husband. I just need to build on that, and on her affection for her mother-in-law. Aven and Winnie have volunteered to help me set up Audrey’s new home on Tuesday, and I need to be sure that Richard will be absent while we’re doing it. I’m hoping that Deacon will pretend to be interested in selling Richard his new toy in order to keep him out of the way.”
“I think he’d be okay with it, particularly when he finds out the reason. Deacon doesn’t have a whole lot of patience with ’phobes. So, assuming Deacon gets Richard out of the way, how are you going to use your opportunity?”
“Believe it or not, I’m a little torn. On the one hand, I was considering talking to Winnie, woman to woman. I think Aven and the rest of her family underestimate Winnie. I know Winnie loves Audrey; if she truly understood the pain that Audrey’s in because of her separation from Marni, I’m convinced she’d agree to help. On the other hand, I think it would be best to enlist Aven’s help to approach Winnie, because it would be family talking to family.”
“And the fact you’d be working closely with Aven has nothing to do with it?”
“I’m just saying there actually seems to be the possibility of something real happening between you two. I haven’t seen that for a long time.”
“It’s too soon, Gabe. Besides, Audrey and Marni are what matter right now. I’ve just got to get Winnie to understand how much they need each other.”
“You don’t think she understands already? Does she dislike Marni too?”
“I asked Aven that, and she said Winnie was always cordial with Marni on the rare times they met. But since Richard refused to socialize with his mother if Marni was around, Winnie never interacted with Marni much. Since Audrey can’t verbalize her distress, I don’t think Winnie fully realizes the depth of it.”
“Huh. So basically what you’re telling me is that you’re going to be a big buttinsky and hope for the best. That’s your brilliant plan?”
“Pretty much. Well, there is one other aspect to my plan, but...let’s just see how it plays out, okay? For now, I just want you to set up a meeting between me and Deacon.”
“Want me to come along?”
“I would, but it may be better that you don’t.”
“You’re leaving me plausible deniability, aren’t you? You know you don’t have to, Daena. We sink or swim together. Always have.”
Daena gratefully hugged her partner, then laughingly tousled his perfect hair.
Inside the open concept kitchen, Daena paused in unpacking Audrey’s dishes to admire the sight of Aven hanging pictures in the living room. Before she could get too far lost in admiration however, Winnie bustled in from the bedroom with an armload of clothes.
“Do you think we should keep all of Mother Audrey’s good clothing? Space is limited, and I know she sticks to easy-to-wear things these days. She hates attendants fussing over zippers and buttons, so she mostly wears elasticized sweat suits. What do you think, Aven?”
“I’m not sure, Winn. If we get rid of them, doesn’t that say we’ve lost faith in Mom’s future? That we don’t think she’ll ever be well enough to wear her favourite dress again?”
“If I may make a suggestion...”
Both women turned to face Daena. “We’ve found with previous clients that it’s best to leave a few nice pieces hanging in the closet. Then they have the option of deciding for themselves later on whether they want to get rid of them or keep them. For the initial settling in period, it helps to have as many familiar items around as possible. If there’s not room for everything, then perhaps the two of you could choose your mother’s favourites and we’ll store the rest for up to eighteen months. That’s included in our service.”
Winnie nodded approvingly. “Excellent idea. Aven, do you want to help me make the selections? We can begin by including the green dress she wore to Cousin Albert’s wedding. Richard was so proud of her that night.”
Winnie returned to the master bedroom and Aven scowled as she set down her hammer. “Mom did look good that night, but it wasn’t Richard she was trying to make proud...not that Marni was allowed to accompany her.”
“Did your mom always go solo to family occasions?”
“No, not on our side of the family, but if it was Richard’s in-laws and Mom couldn’t get out of it, Marni always insisted that Mom go alone. She didn’t like to make waves.”
It was Daena’s turn to scowl, but Aven shook her head with a smile. “Oh, don’t worry. Mom always ducked out as soon as possible. She and Marni had a standing date for dinner after any such command appearances. Trust me; Marni was able to fully appreciate Mom’s green dress.”
The women chuckled together as the chime of a doorbell sounded through the bungalow. Winnie poked her head out of the bedroom. “That’s probably Nathan. He said he would try to come by to help out with Gram’s new place. He’s such a good boy.”
Winnie withdrew as Daena drew a deep breath and met Aven’s eyes. “Show time.”
Aven crossed the room and laid a hand on Daena’s forearm. “Whether it works or not, I want you to know how grateful I am that you tried.”
Together they opened the door and admitted a young man who gave Aven a big hug.
“Hi, Auntie A.” Nathan turned to Daena and extended his hand. “You must be Daena. It’s nice to finally meet you in person.” He lowered his voice. “Thanks for what you’re trying to do for Gram.”
Daena shook his hand. God, Gabe was right. He’s gorgeous. Forcing her focus back to the plan at hand, she asked, “Everything go all right?”
“It did. Are you guys ready?”
“As we’ll ever be. Aven, do you want to go get Winnie?”
Aven was saved the task as Winnie re-emerged from the bedroom. “Oh, Nathan, there you are. Did your brother come with you?”
“No, Mom. Rick said he couldn’t get off work. He said he’d be by to see Gram once she was settled in. You know Rick.”
“I know, dear. Ricky’s a workaholic, just like his father, though your father’s playing hooky today. I think he said something about an appointment with one of his marina friends.”
Daena bit off a laugh as she saw Aven and Nathan raise identical eyebrows, but Winnie was oblivious to the byplay. “Winnie, I think the coffee’s ready. Would you like to join us for a cup before we get back to work? Why don’t you all sit down and I’ll bring it in.”
Daena returned to the kitchen to gather up cups and carafe, and watched as Winnie, Nathan, and Aven settled on the couch. Despite the warmth in the house, her fingers felt cold and her stomach was churning. So much depended on the next few minutes.
“Here we are.” Daena set the tray on the coffee table and began to pour. When she finished, she settled in an armchair opposite them.
Winnie nodded at the empty cup left on the tray. “Are we expecting someone else?”
Daena, Nathan, and Aven exchanged glances. Nathan nodded. “Yes, we are, Mom. But we need to talk to you first.”
Winnie rested her cup on her knee and regarded her son. “Goodness, you’re very serious. Is anything wrong?”
“Yes, Mom, there’s something very wrong.”
“We need your help, Mom. More to the point, Gram needs you. You’re the only one who can help her.”
“Me? What can I do?”
“Do the right thing; make Dad see reason about letting Marni back into Gram’s life. She should be here looking after Gram, not some paid attendant who only cares about the money.”
“Oh, Nathan, I don’t think so. I don’t want to come between your father and your grandmother. It’s not my place.”
“It is your place, Winnie. You’re the only one who can make my idiot brother see how much damage he’s doing with his hatred and stubbornness.”
“Aven, that’s no way to talk about Richard.”
“You know I’m right, Winn. You can’t deny this whole situation stinks like last week’s fish! Why do you refuse to see that? I know you love Mom.”
“That’s right, Mom. And Gram loves you. She’s depending on you. Her future happiness rests on what you do in the next few days.”
“Nathan, that’s a terrible burden to put on me. I do love your grandmother, but I love your father too. Yes, I wish they’d work things out—”
“But they can’t anymore, Mom. Gram can’t talk. She can’t stand up for herself now. It’s up to us. You can’t say no, Mom. Please, you just can’t.”
Daena held her tongue as she listened to the impassioned words. She was impressed with how ferociously Aven and Nathan were fighting for Audrey and Marni, but she could tell that they weren’t convincing Winnie. So she stood and went to the door. Turning, she addressed Winnie.
“Mrs. Stanger—Winnie—I know I’m an outsider here and it’s not really any of my business, but I think you need to hear from someone who is also part of your family.”
Daena opened the door and gestured to the woman who had been waiting outside. Marni entered and shot nervous glances at her in-laws. Nathan and Aven rose to greet her with affectionate hugs. Daena hung back and watched as Marni hesitantly approached Winnie.
“You’re looking well.”
Daena knew there would be no such return compliment from Winnie. Deep shadows lay across Marni’s face, where weight had fallen away far too fast. Her clothes hung on her as if they belonged to someone much larger. Worst of all was the look in Marni’s eyes. The expectation of rejection warred with desperate hope.
Daena had located her by waiting in the small park across from the care facility. She’d known that Marni couldn’t resist returning in hopes of seeing Audrey again, and she had been right. It had taken some convincing, but a quick phone call to Aven convinced Marni that Daena could be trusted. Today they had enlisted Nathan to pick Marni up from the woman’s shelter in which she was living.
Suddenly the atmosphere changed. Daena watched with amazement as Marni’s back straightened, her shoulders pulled back and her jaw lifted. She looked like a reluctant warrior who had just accepted the need to fight one last battle.
“Winnie, I want to thank you for taking such good care of my wife. I know you’ve been helping out, letting us see each other through the garden fence and all. I know you’ve got a good heart, but I think you don’t have a good understanding of what Audrey and I mean to each other.”
Winnie started to protest, but Marni raised her hand. “No, Winn. You’ve always been real nice to me, but I think you look on me as Audrey’s friend—a roommate, nothing more. And that was okay up to now. Audrey and I know what we are to each other, and we never much cared what anyone else thought. But this is different. I’m not letting us go without a fight. These good people, they’re doing all they can to help. Hell, I don’t even know this lady, and she’s sticking her neck way out for us.”
Marni flashed Daena a look of profound gratitude and Daena nodded back, her eyes filling with tears.
When Winnie sat down, Marni took the armchair and leaned forward, urgency in every line of her body. “I don’t know how it is between you and Richard. I don’t know if back when you first met, you thought the sun rose on his head. But that’s exactly the way I felt the first day I met Audrey. I was just an ex-grunt and rookie school custodian. She was a teacher, worlds out of my league, but every day she would smile when we met in the hall. Audrey would ask how my day was going, and actually care about my answer. Lots of the staff was cordial, sometimes just because they needed things done in their classrooms, but Audrey had genuine warmth. Custodians hear things, you know? I knew her students loved her from the things I overheard kids say. And didn’t I go and fall under her spell as completely as any ten-year-old. For months I’d go home at night and replay in my head everything she said to me. It never once occurred to me that she’d end up feeling the same way. But she did, Winn; she really did.”
Daena suspected she wasn’t the only one with tears in her eyes. She saw Aven furtively swipe her eyes, and heard Nathan sniff. Winnie sat frozen on the couch, unable to take her gaze off Marni.
“We always joked that it was a damned good thing Audrey worked up the nerve to invite me out to dinner, because I’d never have found the courage to ask her. But from that night, from that first kiss, I’ve never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be by her side. Thirty-two and a half years we’ve been together. All through the years, we had to sneak around so we wouldn’t lose our jobs, or lose Aven and Callie to Social Services. All those years, nothing else mattered to me but her. If she had wanted the moon, I’d have figured a way to go up into the night sky and get it for her. Well, now, all she wants is for us to be back together, and that’s all I want too.”
Marni slipped off her chair and knelt on the floor as she reached for Winnie’s hands. “I’m not too proud to beg, because I’m begging for her life. I’m begging for my life, too, because without her, I have no life. Please, Winn, please...”
“I’m not sure what all of you think I can do. Richard won’t listen to me, not on this issue. He is adamant.”
Marni, Aven, and Nathan all started talking at once, until Daena whistled. All eyes turned to her. “Excuse me. Would you mind if I have a word with Winnie alone? I’d really appreciate it; it won’t take long.”
Aven rose immediately and pulled Marni to her feet. She extended a hand to her nephew and gestured to the door. “We’ll be just outside in the garden when you need us.”
Daena waited until they were gone and took the armchair. Winnie leaned back on the couch and regarded her with an inquisitive expression. “I trust you don’t plan to strong arm me, Daena.”
“No, ma’am, I would never do that, but I do want to ask you a couple of questions.”
“Am I correct in assuming that all things being equal, you’d be in favour of Audrey and Marni living together?”
“I suppose, but—”
“So you don’t have any sort of ethical or religious objection to their relationship?”
“No, not really, but—”
“Forgive me for being blunt, Winnie. As far as I can see, the reason you’re not objecting to your husband’s cruelty is...what?”
Daena saw Winnie flinch at the stark description of Richard’s actions. “Do you not think he is being cruel? Do you not think that doing everything in his power, including illegal acts, to separate two devoted life partners is cruel? Because, Winnie, if that’s not the very definition of cruelty, what is?”
Winnie paled during Daena’s frank recitation. “What do you mean ‘illegal acts’? What do you think Richard did?”
“I think he deliberately destroyed legal documents that gave Marni full power of attorney. I think he did it with malice aforethought and with the full intent of gaining power over his mother’s affairs, power that Audrey did not intend for him to have.”
“My God! How can you say that? Richard is rigid in his opposition to Marni, but he would never—”
“Please hear me out, Winnie. A few days ago, I had a very interesting and informative lunch with a friend of a dear friend. Deacon has something in common with your husband—a love of vintage boats. The day Audrey had her stroke, Richard was out of town on business, right? In fact, he was in Maine at an auction, bidding on a 1926 Chris-Craft. You see, Deacon was the one who outbid Richard for that boat. And it turns out that Deacon was with Richard in the bar buying him a consolation drink when your husband got your call about Audrey. Deacon remembers it very clearly. He told me that when he found out the nature of the call, he naturally offered his condolences and invited Richard fly home with Deacon in his private jet. Richard accepted, and he was back in town two hours later. You told Nathan to pick up his father on a ten-thirty flight. Nathan told me that his father was waiting at the curb on the Arrivals level when he got to the airport. But Deacon says he and Richard arrived back by eight. So where was Richard for that two and a half hours, and why the subterfuge about flying home commercial when he caught a ride with Deacon?”
“Surely not. He wouldn’t...he couldn’t... Could he?”
“You tell me, Winnie. You know him best. How deeply does he hate Marni?”
“Know him best? Do I? I’m not certain of that at this moment.”
Daena could see how shaken Winnie was, and for the briefest of instants, she regretted what she’d said. Then she reminded herself of why she’d done it. Winnie would recover, even if her opinion of her husband did not, but there was something far more important at stake.
“How could Richard even have gotten the papers? Mother Audrey didn’t give him keys to the apartment.”
“But he did have access to the storage locker. If the papers were there and not in the apartment, it wouldn’t have taken him long to find them. I’ve been to the storage locker. Your mother-in-law had everything neatly arranged and clearly identified. I saw boxes labelled ‘Office.’”
Winnie stood on unsteady legs. “I need to...I need to go. I need to think.”
Daena rose too. “One more thing. There are security cameras at the storage facility. I don’t have any standing to ask to see footage for a particular night, but as a family member, you could. You could say you’re concerned some things went missing during all the uproar the night your mother-in-law had a stroke, and you just want to ensure no one had unauthorized access.”
Winnie shuddered, and Daena wondered whether she had gone too far. She doubted Winnie had ever had to deal with anything more traumatic than a cancelled dinner date, and now she was suggesting the woman go all CSI on her husband. It was a long shot, but it was their only shot.
Winnie walked wordlessly to the door.
Daena called out. “We’re moving Audrey in four days. Please think about her welfare above all else.”
Winnie paused, opened the door, and left.
Within moments, Aven and Marni hurried back into the room.
“Geez, what did you say to Winn, Daena? She looked like she’d seen a ghost. Nathan wouldn’t even let his mom drive herself home. He took her in his car.”
“I may have overstepped, Aven. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not. Maybe you got through to her; maybe she’ll be able to change Richard’s mind.”
Daena looked at the hope in Aven’s eyes and the desperation in Marni’s and shook her head. “Or maybe Winnie’s on her way home to tell Richard everything. If she does, my being fired is going to be the least of his retaliation.”
“I can’t speak for Aven or Callie, but there’s nothing more Richard can do to hurt me or Audrey. He’s already done his worst. Some days I think even death would be better than this.” Marni turned and bolted out of the house.
“Whoa! Death? Damn it, Marni, you get back here!” Aven scrambled for the door, pausing only a second. “I’ve got to go after her, Daena. I don’t want her doing anything horribly irrevocable.”
“Go. We’ll catch up later.”
Aven was out the door before Daena finished her sentence, and she slammed the palm of her hand against her forehead. “Damn it, Thorsen. Could that have gone any worse? Gabe’s right; you’re a big buttinsky. Just how many lives did you manage to ruin today? Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
Three days passed before Daena heard from any of the Stangers.
“Thorsen and Pierce. May I help you?”
“Hi, Daena. It’s Aven.”
“Aven, it’s good to hear from you. How are things going?”
“No change, I’m afraid. Mom’s transfer is still on for tomorrow afternoon, but there’s been no mention of Marni. I’m sorry, Daena; Winnie let us down.”
“I’m so sorry, Aven. I shouldn’t have gotten involved in your affairs. It was unprofessional of me, and I caused a lot of distress for nothing.”
“Don’t blame yourself. I should’ve known Winnie wouldn’t defy Richard. She never has before, so why should this time be any different. Callie and I will just have to figure out some way to arrange meetings between Mom and Marni. Maybe Nathan can help out too. Time will tell. Meanwhile, how are things coming at Mom’s new place?”
“I’ll be doing one final check tomorrow to make sure that everything is ready for your mother’s arrival.”
“Gabriel is working with a new client, so I’ll be there in case there are any last minute alterations needed. I think you’ll be happy with the results. We were able to duplicate many of the aspects of your mom’s former home. I know nothing we can do will replicate the joy of waking every day to a much-loved face, but at least your mother will feel the warmth of familiar surroundings. ”
“I really appreciate all the special attention you’ve give this. I know that my mom will too. Okay, I’ve got to get back to work. I’ve got a new on-line student who awaits my scintillating tutelage on senior calculus.”
Aven laughed. “He is, isn’t he? Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow. And Daena, just so you know, I wanted you involved in my affairs.”
A click ended the call before Daena could formulate a response. She sat at her desk with a dial tone in her ear and a smile on her face.
In the large, handicapped-equipped washroom, Daena finished checking off the last of the medical supplies Audrey would need. She had spent two hours going through the entire house, and was satisfied that all was in order. The Stangers would be arriving soon, and though the single most important thing hadn’t turned out as she had hoped, Daena still looked forward to Audrey’s reaction at seeing her new home.
The sound of the front door opening caught Daena’s attention and she frowned at her watch. I wasn’t expecting them this soon. Good thing I started early.
Before Daena could emerge from the washroom, she heard raised voices coming from the living room. She hesitated; she certainly did not want to interrupt what seemed to be evolving into a heated argument. But she also didn’t want to be accused of eavesdropping. Suddenly she realized whose voices she was hearing.
“What the hell are we doing here, Winn? We have a reservation for lunch at the club. We don’t have time for a tour right now.”
“This isn’t a tour, Richard. This is you and me having some private time away from the servants for a long overdue discussion.”
Daena edged back from the bathroom door; still she couldn’t help hearing everything clearly.
“Discussion? For God’s sake, can’t this wait? Honestly, I don’t have time for this nonsense.”
“Then make time, Richard, because if you don’t, you will most assuredly regret it.”
There was a stunned silence, and Daena almost giggled at the look she imagined had appeared on Richard’s face. You go, girl!
“What has gotten into you? Have your hormones gone into overdrive or something?”
“My hormones, as you so elegantly put it, have nothing to do with this, Richard Stanger. And as for what’s gotten into me, it’s a spine. Something I apparently set aside the day I accepted your proposal. It’s taken me far too long to locate it again, but now that I have, I assure you it’s permanently back in place.”
Daena’s eyes widened at Winnie’s icy tone. Damn, I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes, buddy.
“Winn, I don’t know what this is all about—”
“Be quiet and listen. Things are going to change, Richard. You’re not going to like the change, but you have no alternative.”
“Good lord! Are you threatening me?”
“No. I’m just telling you how things are going to be, and then I’ll tell you why they’re going to be that way. You may want to sit down for this, Richard.”
“I don’t need to sit down.”
“As you wish. We’re bringing Mother Audrey home this afternoon. You will not be in attendance. In fact, you won’t be visiting your mother at all until you can graciously accept the fact that she and Marni are living here together and act like a gentleman around both of them.”
Daena punched the air in triumph as a bellow erupted from the living room.
“Like hell, you say! There is no way that bitch will ever set foot in this house while I’m alive! And there’s not a damned thing anyone can do about it. I own this place and I have full power of attorney.”
Winnie laughed, and Daena’s blood chilled at the derisive sound. Who knew Winnie had that in her?
“Actually, your so-called power of attorney has already been revoked. The rightful power of attorney has been reinstated. Your mother testified, in front of my father’s oldest and dearest friend, Judge Stevens, that she packed their legal papers, including her power of attorney naming Marni, into a box—a box, by the way, with your fingerprints on it. It helps to have a brother with a nationwide chain of private forensic labs. I owe Wendell for that little favour.”
“That doesn’t prove anything. It was probably one of the boxes I helped move.” Richard’s voice was still defiant, but Daena could tell he knew he was losing ground.
“Richard, you haven’t done manual labour as long as I’ve known you, and you definitely didn’t help to move Mother Audrey and Marni’s things into the storage locker.”
“You can’t prove that. Maybe I touched that box at some other time.”
“You certainly did. The security tape from the night of your mother’s stroke clearly shows you entering her storage locker at 8:46, and leaving at 9:07.”
Daena hugged herself in delight as she heard the creak of the couch. Guess ol’ Richard decided to sit down after all.
“Audrey stipulated to Judge Stevens—who, as you know, is also my godfather— that even if the power of attorney papers have been destroyed, she does not wish you to ever again have any say over her affairs. Marni has been restored to her rightful place as Mother Audrey’s guardian.”
“That’s impossible! Mom can’t testify; she can’t even speak. She’s a vegetable.”
“God, Richard, have you even looked into your mother’s eyes since the stroke? The only thing destroyed was her means of communicating; all we had to do was figure out a way around that. I arranged for Mother Audrey to get a Voice-Text synthesizer. She took to it instantly, and although she communicates slowly right now, there is no doubting her competence or her intent. She wants Marni back immediately. Not that it matters, since Mother Audrey’s wishes are paramount, but the rest of the family agrees, aside from Rick, who doesn’t want to get involved. Your opinion, needless to say, counts for nothing. The only reason you’re not cooling your heels behind bars at the moment is that your mother declined to press charges.”
“I...I only did what I thought best.”
“For who? Not for them. Not for Mother Audrey and Marni. What you did was beyond despicable, Richard. It was cruelty of the first order, and that you could do that to your mother, a woman who’s done nothing but love and care for you since the day you were born... When I watched the security video, I was sick to my stomach. How could I have so badly misjudged someone I’ve slept beside all these years, someone I have shared a life with? How could you be that man, Richard? How could you hate so deeply?
“You’re wrong. I love my mother. Hell, I not only bought her this place, I ordered her a top-of-the-line handicapped van. I’m going to make sure she’s looked after in comfort and has the best of care for the rest of her life. You know I’d do anything for Mom.”
“Anything but accept Marni’s place in your mother’s life.”
“She shouldn’t have a place. It’s just wrong!”
“Who are you to judge, Richard? Who gave you the right to play God over their lives? I know you love your mom. You’ve shown me you’re capable of deep and sustained love, but you have such a terrible blind spot. Only your mom and Marni have the right to make such decisions for themselves, and you stole that right from them. You far overstepped the line on this one, and things are going to change from here on out. And I don’t mean just with Mother Audrey and Marni. I love you, Richard, and I know you love me, but I can’t overstate how much these last few days have shaken my faith in you. We can’t ignore this. I can’t ignore this. I’m willing to see a counsellor with you, but I’m not willing to go back to the way things were between us.”
“This is all that bitch’s fault.”
“The very fact that you would say that, Richard, shows me how much work we’ve got to do. You haven’t even begun to accept responsibility for all the pain you caused. You not only need to do that, you need to make amends to everyone in this family. You can start by signing the papers to transfer ownership of their home to Mother Audrey and Marni. I’ve already set up an account they can draw on for expenses. After the hell you put them through, they deserve peace and security for the rest of their lives.”
Daena was touched by the sadness in Winnie’s response. She held her breath waiting for Richard’s response, but there was none.
“Let’s go, Richard. You can drop me at Mother Audrey’s. I know you’re not ready to see your mother yet, but I’m not going to miss her reunion with Marni. I just hope one day they’ll both forgive me for not stopping you before you went so far. I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself.”
The door closed on any further conversation as Daena leaped to her feet and danced around the washroom, pumping her fists in wild exultation. “Winnie, you’re my hero! My absolute, all-time hero! Damn, you did it. You really did it!”
Her phone rang, and Daena smiled as she noted the Caller ID. “Aven! Have you heard? Winnie did it! Winnie made everything all right. Audrey and Marni can be together again.”
“I know. Isn’t it fabulous! She told me about an hour ago. I’d have called you sooner, but I’ve been tied up with Mom’s doctors and therapists, getting everything ready. Listen, can I get you to do one more thing for me?”
“Uh oh, better be careful with issuing those blank cheques, Ms. Thorsen.”
“I’m pretty sure I can trust you to not write a cheque I can’t cash, Ms. Stanger.”
Daena thrilled to the sound of Aven’s laughter and then listened intently to her request.
“You’ve got it, Aven. I’ll see you all shortly.”
“I can’t believe this. I really can’t believe it! This is our home now? Mine and Audrey’s? Really?”
Daena smiled at the excited, nervous woman. Marni hadn’t been able to sit down since Daena had opened the front door for her and handed over the key. “It really is, Marni. And if you need help with any of Audrey’s care, all you do is hit the call button. There’s a full-time duty nurse who can be here inside of a minute.”
Marni stopped pacing and gave Daena a determined look. “I won’t need help. I can look after Audrey by myself. It’s all I’ve wanted, to be with her, no matter what.”
“It won’t help her if you burn yourself out, Marni. Richard is paying through the nose for the best care money can provide; make use of it. Focus your energies on enjoying the rest of your lives together.”
“I don’t get it. Richard hates my guts, has ever since Audrey first introduced me. How did Winnie persuade him to change his mind?”
“You asked her, and she did everything she could to help. It’s really as simple as that.”
“I didn’t think she would. I mean, Winn looked so upset when she left here, I didn’t think there was a hope in hell of her helping us out.”
“Miracles do happen.”
“That they do. And the biggest miracle in my life was the day I met Audrey. Nothing else could ever compare. Nothing.”
Daena tried very hard to suppress the tears that threatened to fill her eyes yet again. Fortunately, the doorbell rang as had been pre-arranged, and Daena gestured to Marni. “Stand here.”
Daena swung open the door to Aven pushing Audrey’s chair with Winnie, Callie, and Nathan following close behind. Everyone was beaming, and Audrey’s sharp blue eyes glittered with excitement as Daena moved out of the way and Marni stepped forward.
Marni dropped to her knees, embraced Audrey, and burst into tears. Audrey bent her head down, struggling to wrap an arm around Marni as she cooed unintelligibly into the weeping woman’s hair.
Giving up all attempts to stop her own tears, Daena noticed that tissues were coming out of everyone’s pockets and purses.
Aven wiped her eyes furiously and grabbed Daena’s hand. She dragged Daena away from the heartwarming scene and back to the privacy of the bedroom. Aven pressed Daena against the wall and tenderly wiped away her tears with an already sodden tissue.
“I can’t believe you really made this happen. I honestly can’t believe it. You’re some kind of miracle worker.”
Daena had no intention of breaking away from the arms that now encircled her, but she couldn’t take the credit. “It wasn’t me. Winnie is the one who pulled it off.”
“I’ve known my sister-in-law for over thirty years, and there’s just no way Winnie would’ve done this on her own. I don’t know what you said to her the day we were all here, but I know whatever it was, it was magic.”
Daena was about to argue, but Aven’s body was resting full against her own, and Aven’s mouth was so close to hers.
“I promised you something, Daena Thorsen.”
“You did. I’m glad you’re a woman of your word, Aven Stanger.”
Their whispers merged as lips met lips. Daena had no idea how long they stood there kissing. Finally there was a loud clearing of a throat from the bedroom door. It took a second ostentatious cough before they parted.
Marni stood behind Audrey’s wheelchair, grinning. “If you ladies don’t mind taking your celebration into the other room, I have someone here who needs to rest after all the day’s excitement.”
“Oh, geez; yes, of course. We’ll just get out of your way.” Daena knew her face was red and that she was babbling, but neither Marni nor Audrey seemed to mind. Aven snickered, then grabbed Daena’s hand again as they left the room.
“Is your timing always going to be this good?” Daena hissed under her breath as they approached three people who had knowing smiles on their faces.
“Don’t know. I guess you’re just going to have to stick around and find out.”
“Glad we got that settled.” Aven winked at Daena, then looked at the rest of her family. “Maybe we should all clear out and let Mom and Marni get settled into their new home in peace.”
As the other Stangers preceded them out the front door, Aven grabbed Daena’s hand. “I’m not sure that I’ve finished paying my debt in full. If you’d like to come over to—”
“I’d love to. In fact, that’s almost the best idea I’ve heard all day.”
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