Garrett(2)

By: Anne Marie Winston



He unlocked his sleek bronze foreign car and drove back toward the beltway.

Thirty minutes later, he pulled into the quiet green oasis of the peaceful, shaded cemetery near Silver Spring where Robin had been buried the day before. Parking his car along the verge, he walked over the spongy earth to the fresh gravesite.

"Well, you've managed to surprise me, old man," he said aloud, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his suit pants. "How the hell you managed to keep up with something as young as that, I'll never know. No wonder you had a heart attack."

The flowers had wilted considerably just since yesterday in the humid July weather and he made himself a note to call the groundskeeper of the cemetery and ask him to remove them soon. He'd rather see bare earth than these pitiful reminders of mortality.

"I wasn't ready," he said gruffly. "I wasn't ready for you to go yet." It was the first time he'd allowed himself to think about what he'd lost. Dealing with the medical examiner, the funeral arrangements, and the never-ending calls from sympathetic well-wishers had helped him to avoid thinking about the loss of the man who had taken a rebellious teenage stepson in hand and given him self-respect and love. Now, the grief rose up and squeezed his chest until he could barely breathe, and he leaned heavily on the gravestone that had yet to have Robin's date of death inscribed beside his first wife's.

"Why?" he said. "What was so important about this woman that you put her in the will? Were you that lonely?"

It was possible, he supposed. Legions of aging men had been taken in by the solicitous attentions of glowing young beauties who professed devotion. He should know. Hadn't it happened to his very own father? Of course, there was one significant difference between the current situation and the past. Robin hadn't left a wife and a small child for the sake of a younger woman. Another was, of course, the age difference. Robin must have been nearly fifty years older than his paramour, a fact Garrett simply couldn't seem to wrap his mind around.

Sighing, he laid a hand on the marble of the stone, still cool even in the heat of the summer. "I don't begrudge you any happiness you might have found with someone who cared for you. But the thought of a woman taking deliberate advantage of your loneliness makes me damn mad." He paused, wondering why he felt so guilty. "If I neglected you, I am sorry," he said. True, he'd been busy in the past few years, but he'd always made time for Robin. Hadn't he?

Yes. He had, he confirmed as he searched his soul, and he shouldn't have regrets on that score. If anything, Robin had been the one who had been too busy recently for the several-times-weekly dinners they'd often shared. Robin had been the one who had had plans and had taken a rain check on a number of occasions. He'd been happier in the last year before his death than he'd been since Garrett's mother had died, his step more youthful, his still-handsome features smiling even more than usual. Garrett even had teased him about having a woman on several occasions, but Robin simply had smiled and lifted his eyebrows mysteriously...until last week.

Last Tuesday, just days before his death, Robin had responded in a different way to Garrett's teasing.

"I'll introduce you to her soon," he'd promised. "I believe you'll like her." The use of the feminine pronoun had confirmed Garrett's hunch. But he'd envisioned someone, well, someone older, more mature, a dignified, pleasant matron. Not the very young woman with the cover girl measurements and flawless complexion who looked young enough to be his daughter. Or even more likely, his granddaughter. True, Robin had been good-looking and modestly wealthy, in great physical shape for his age, or so everyone had thought. And it also was true that any number of lonely widows had let him know his attentions would be welcome. But it was a little too much to believe that a fresh-faced girl in her twenties would find him irresistibly attractive.

Unless she had her eye on Robin's fortune. That was a far more likely scenario. Robin's assets might have been modest in comparison to the huge financial coffers he, Garrett, had amassed, but Robin was definitely a wealthier man than most. It was more than possible that a young woman would look at that money and consider a few years with an older man worth the price.

He supposed he should be glad Robin hadn't married her. After Garrett's mother, Barbara, his second wife, passed away two years ago, Robin had said he would never marry again. But still...a man in his early seventies might have physical needs to fulfill. Considering he hoped to reach that age someday, he surely hoped so.

He stirred and stood, straightening his shoulders and a deep shudder of revulsion worked through him. Don't go there. He'd have to talk to Miss Ana Birch again, despite the deep disgust he felt at the mere thought of Robin with that nubile seductress. The lawyer who served as Robin's executor had been very clear in his instructions. There would be no discussion of the terms of Robin's will unless Miss Birch and Garrett both were present.

When he returned to the house he'd shared with his stepfather, he went straight to his study and reached for the telephone. "Miss Birch, this is Garrett Holden, Robin's stepson," he said when she answered the phone. "You are required to attend the reading of the will—"

"No." Her voice was final. "You can have anything he left me. Send whatever you need me to sign and I'll do it."

And before he could even begin another sentence, she hung up. She was giving up an inheritance?

He stared at the phone he still held, torn between wishing that he wouldn't have to see her again and annoyance at her attitude. He didn't get it. Impatiently he punched the redial button. When she said, "Hello?" he said, "You don't understand. You have to be there."

"I do not." She sounded belligerent now. "Please don't call again." And to his utter astonishment, she hung up on him a second time.

Once he'd gotten past the shock, he thoughtfully replaced the handset in its cradle. Fine. He'd go and see her again. He'd figured her out now. She must want money, and she was being coy and devious in an effort to disguise her greediness. Despite her protestations, he suspected that she already knew the provisions of the will, at least as they concerned her. Which meant she knew more than he did. He'd just have to promise her more than whatever sum Robin had already promised her and she'd get more agreeable.

He rested his elbows on his desk and speared his hands through his dark hair, massaging his scalp. He'd had a nagging headache for the past few days and it didn't seem to be getting any better. It was probably all the stress.

Once the will was settled and he didn't have so many urgent things to attend to, he promised himself a week at the cottage in Maine. The small cabin that looked out over Snowflake Lake in southern Maine had been a special place for Robin and his stepson. Garrett knew he'd built it about a quarter-century ago. He'd long suspected it had been Robin's only indulgence, the single respite he had allowed himself from the burden his first marriage had become as his wife's mental illness had progressed until she'd finally passed away.

Garrett's own mother had had little interest in spending her vacations in a rustic cottage where the principal entertainment consisted of fishing and watching the sunsets. She'd always refused to come to Maine. So the cabin had become a place where Garrett and Robin went at least once a year for what Robin laughingly had called, "Boys' Week." They swam in the frigid lake, fished and canoed around its perimeter looking for wildlife, settled on the deck with drinks and plenty of insect repellent each evening, and gone for the occasional jaunt to the surrounding tourist locations.

Yes, a week at the cottage was just what he needed. It would be difficult without Robin, but in some ways, he felt he'd be closer to his stepfather than he was here in Baltimore where they'd spent the bulk of their lives together.

He drove back into the city in early evening, thanking the long hours of daylight that kept him from making the journey in the dark. This time when he knocked, the inner door opened almost immediately.

"Miss Birch," he said before she could speak, infusing his tone with more warmth than he felt, "I apologize for the insensitive way I broke the news of Robin's passing. It's been a difficult time. May I come in and talk to you for a few moments?"

She hesitated. He couldn't see her clearly through the screen, but she'd obviously changed clothes. Now she wore a sleeveless denim jumper with a short-sleeved top beneath. Her hair was still pulled up, but now it was in a tidier, thick ponytail that bounced behind her head. To his great relief, she pushed open the door. Wordlessly she turned and retreated into the house, leaving him to catch the door and follow her.

The room he entered was a living room, furnished with comfortably overstuffed furniture in a faded flower pattern, threadbare but clean. The small space somehow managed to look uncluttered and on the one sizable wall there was an unusual collection of hats. Old hats. Elegant, vintage hats.

She shut the door behind him and he heard the hum of an air-conditioner cooling the small half-house.

He raised one eyebrow and turned to her, forcing himself to ignore the leap of his pulse at the porcelain beauty of her features. Indicating the headgear displayed on the wall, he said, "You like hats, I take it?"

She nodded. "I went through a stage where I collected them. Those were a few of my favorites that I decided to keep when I sold the rest." She waved a hand toward the sofa. "Please, have a seat. May I get you a drink?"

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