GUS HOLLISTER COULDN’T REMEMBER WHEN HE’D BEEN SO tired as he closed and locked the doors of his CPA firm. Well, yes, actually he could remember. It was last year at exactly the same time, April 16, the last day of that year’s tax season. Not that it was totally over; he still had tons of stuff to do, extensions to file, but he’d made his deadline, all clients had their records, and he was going home. If only it were to a home-cooked meal and several glasses of good wine. Like that was really going to happen. But he was simply too tired to care whether he ate or not.
Instead of taking the elevator, Gus trudged down the three flights of stairs and out to the small parking lot. Exercise these days was wherever he could find it. He winced at the lemon yellow Volkswagen Beetle that was his transportation for the day. His wife had taken his Porsche, and he was stuck with this tin can. If only he were a contortionist, which he wasn’t. Gus clicked the remote and opened the door. After tossing his heavy briefcase on the passenger-side seat, he struggled to get his six-foot-four-inch frame into the small car. He hated this car. Really hated it. He inserted the key in the ignition, then lowered the windows and stared out at the dark night, an anxiousness, which had nothing to do with taxes and the long days and nights he’d been putting in, settling between his shoulders.
For some reason, he didn’t think it would be so dark, but then he remembered that they had turned the clocks ahead a few weeks back. Regardless, it wasn’t supposed to be dark at eight-thirty at night, was it? But he couldn’t bring himself to care about that, either.
He was almost too tired to turn the key in the ignition, so he just sat for a moment, looking out across the small parking lot to the building his grandmother had helped him buy. A really good investment, she’d said, and she was right. He rented out the two top floors to other businessmen, and the rent money he received covered the mortgage and gave him a few hundred dollars toward his cash flow every month. He owed everything he had in life to his feisty grandmother Rose. Everything. And they were estranged at this point in time because of his wife, Elaine. He wanted to cry at the turn his life had taken in the last year. He banged the steering wheel just to vent before he started the Beetle, put it in gear, and roared out of the parking lot at forty miles an hour.
Thirty-five minutes later, Gus untangled himself from the Beetle, a feat requiring extraordinary concentration and agility. Then he danced around, trying to work the kinks out of his body. The Beetle belonged to his wife. She looked good in it. He looked stupid and out of place sitting behind the wheel.
Today, Elaine had been out job hunting, and she wanted to make an impression, so she’d asked him if she could borrow his Porsche. Every bone and nerve in his body had screamed out no, no, no, but in the end, he had handed her the keys. It was just too hard to say no to Elaine, because he loved her so much. Especially when she kissed him so hard he was sure she’d suck the tonsils right out of his throat.
When that happened, he could deny her nothing, not even his beloved Porsche.
Elaine had passed the bar exam six months earlier and was looking for gainful employment. Or so she said. For six months now, she’d been looking for a job. Citing the economy, she’d told him that all the law firms wanted were slaves, not a qualified lawyer who had graduated at the top of her class. That was the reason she hadn’t been hired. Or so she said. She hadn’t even been called back for a second interview by any of the firms. Or so she said.
Sometimes he doubted her and instantly hated himself for his uncharitable thoughts, thoughts that had been coming more and more frequently of late. His gut was telling him that something was wrong; he just couldn’t put his finger on what that something was.
Gus reached across the seat for his briefcase, then closed and locked the Beetle. God, I’m tired. No one in the whole world could or would be happier than he when today, April 16, turned into tomorrow, April 17. He was a CPA, a damned good one if he did say so himself, and he had been working round the clock since January 1 to meet his clients’ needs. He’d made a lot of them happy and a few of them sad when he pointed to the bottom line that said, REFUND or PAY THIS AMOUNT!
Gus walked across the driveway, wondering where Elaine was. It was nine fifty-five, and she wasn’t home. The jittery feeling between his shoulder blades kicked in again when he saw no sign of his car. He frowned as he walked toward the back entrance of his house, the house his grandmother had bought for him. It was a beautiful four-thousand-squarefoot Tudor. He shivered when he thought about what she would say when she found out he’d added Elaine’s name to the deed in one of those tonsil-kissing moments. For months, he’d been trying to find the courage—no, the guts—to tell his grandmother what he’d done. He knew she’d go ballistic, as would his two aunts. None of them liked Elaine. No, that wasn’t right, either. They hated Elaine; they could not stand her. And Elaine hated them right back.
Elaine said his grandmother and the aunts were jealous of her because she was young and beautiful and had stolen his love away from them. He’d never quite been able to wrap his mind around that, but back then, if Elaine said it, he tended to believe it. With very few reservations. His grandmother and the aunts had been a little more blunt and succinct, saying straight out that Elaine was a gold digger. End of discussion.
The strain between him and his beloved zany grandmother and dippy aunts bothered him. He had hated having to meet them on the sly, then keeping the meeting secret so he wouldn’t have to fight with Elaine and suffer through weeks of tortured silence with no tonsil kissing and absolutely no sex. Elaine held a grudge like no one he knew.
He owed everything to his grandmother. She’d raised him, sent him to college, financed his own CPA firm, then helped him again by buying him the beautiful house that he now lived in. With Elaine. And no prenup. His grandmother had never once asked him even to consider paying her back, even when he’d tried.
He loved her, he really did, and he hated the situation he was in. Tomorrow or the day after, regardless of how it turned out, he was going to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with his wife and lay down some new rules. Family was family, and it was time that Elaine realized that.
Gus opened the gate to the yard, and Wilson came running to him. Wilson was the one thing he’d put his foot down on. Elaine said dogs made her itch and sneeze. Well, too bad; Wilson was his dog, and that was that.
“What are you doing out here, boy?” Gus tussled with the German shepherd a moment before walking up the steps to the deck, which was located off the kitchen. The low-wattage back light was on. He didn’t need Wilson’s shrill barking to alert him to the pile of suitcases and duffel bags sitting outside the kitchen door. His suitcases. Six of them. And two duffel bags. All lined up like soldiers. Next to the suitcases was a pink laundry basket with Wilson’s blanket and toys. He knew even before he put the key in the lock that the door wouldn’t open.
“Son of a bitch!” He looked at the hundred-pound dog, who was barking his head off and dancing around the pink laundry basket. The jittery feeling between his shoulder blades had grown into a full-blown, mind-bending pain.
The words gold digger flitted through Gus’s mind as he tried to peer in through the kitchen window. The only thing he could see was the faint greenish light coming from the digital clock on the microwave oven. So much for that glass of wine, never mind a home-cooked meal.
“You shoulda called me, Wilson,” Gus snarled at the dog. As though what he said was even possible. The big dog barked angrily, as if to say, What do you think I’m doing out here?
“Let’s check the front door.” Wilson nudged Gus’s leg, then slammed himself against the door. The envelope stuck between the door and the jamb fell to the floor of the deck. The dog backed up and sat on his haunches. “Aha!” Gus said dramatically as he ripped at the envelope. He held up a single sheet of computer paper toward the light.
I’m sorry, but this just isn’t working for me. I don’t want to be married anymore. I’m going to file for divorce. I packed all your things, and they’re on the deck, along with your dog. As you can see, I had the locks changed. I don’t want to see you anymore, so don’t come here, or I will file a restraining order against you. I’m keeping the Porsche to show you I mean business.
The signature was a scrawled large E.
“Son of a bitch!” Wilson howled at the tone of his master’s voice. “And she’s keeping my car! My pride and joy! Next to you, that is, Wilson,” he added hastily. “How the hell am I supposed to take all my stuff in that tin can she calls a car? I damned well do not believe this!”
Wilson’s shrill barking told Gus that he had damned well better believe it.
Gus sat down on the top step and put his arm around the big dog. His wife didn’t want to be married to him anymore. But she wanted his house and his car. Gold digger! So, his grandmother and the aunts had been right all along. His thoughts were all over the map as he tried to figure out exactly how and when it had all gone wrong. There must have been signs. Signs that he’d ignored. How far back? The start of tax season? Before? October, maybe?
Elaine had been looking for a job for over six months, so that would take it back to October. What happened at that time? He racked his brain. Elaine had wanted to go on a cruise, but he’d been too busy to go. She’d pouted for two whole weeks and only gave up when he bought her a diamond bracelet. November was a disaster, and they’d eaten out at Thanksgiving because all Elaine knew how to cook was eggs and pasta. He’d wanted to go to his grandmother’s, but she had refused, so he hadn’t gone, either. A real man would have gone.
Then came Christmas. Elaine said Christmas trees made her sneeze and itch the way Wilson did. So, no Christmas tree. He’d had a hard time with that as he remembered how his grandmother and the aunts went all out for the holidays. Elaine had gladly accepted presents, however. Lots and lots of presents, was what she’d said. And jerk that he was, he had complied.
He had mentally kicked himself and lost weeks of sleep because he’d kowtowed to his wife and not gone to see his grandmother and the aunts for Christmas. Now, right this moment, he felt lower than a snake’s belly. If possible, he’d felt worse on Christmas Day. Here he was, nearly four months later, and he still hadn’t so much as spoken to his grandmother or his aunts. He really did have a lock on stupidity. His shoulders heaved. Wilson was on top of him in a heartbeat. Man’s best friend. Damned straight. Right now, his only best friend.
“I’m thinking I need a lawyer, Wilson,” Gus said, getting up from the steps. He swiped at his eyes. “Real men don’t cry. Bullshit!” he said, swiping at his eyes a second time. Wilson howled his misery as he waited to see what Gus would do.
“Okay, my tail is between my legs, so the only game plan I can see at this point is to pack you up in that tin can, take you to my grandmother’s, and beg her to let us stay there until I can get my head on straight. If I’m lucky, maybe she’ll lend me that farm van of hers so I can come back to get our stuff. Let’s go, boy!”
Wilson ran down the steps and over to the yellow Beetle. He scratched at the door, leaving long gashes in the glossy paint. “Chew the damned tires while you’re at it, Wilson!” Gus said as he opened the door. Wilson leaped in and tried to settle himself on the passenger seat, but his legs hung off the seat and actually touched the floor. He barked and howled in outrage.
“It’s just for five miles, so relax. We’ll be there before you know it.”
Wilson threw his head back and let loose with an unholy bark that made the fine hairs on the back of Gus’s neck stand on end.
Gus clenched his teeth. “Yeah, you’re right, Wilson. We’re going to be damned lucky if my grandmother doesn’t kick our asses to the curb, and I wouldn’t blame her one bit. I’ve been a real shit. She really pulled the wool over my eyes, Wilson. Meaning Elaine, of course, not my grandmother. I’m even worse than a shit!”
Ten minutes later, they were at the turnoff to Blossom Farm, which his grandmother had renamed after his grandfather, Brad Hollister, had died, and her sisters, Iris and Violet, had come to live with her. For the sake of simplicity, his grandmother had also taken back her maiden name, Blossom.
“Okay, get ready, Wilson, we’re coming to the driveway. Look, this is serious, so pay attention. If it looks like Granny is going to kick my ass off her property, you have to step in and whine. However she feels about me, she loves you. You know what to do, so just do it!”
Wilson whined to show he understood his master’s words as he tried to untangle himself from the seat. The moment the car stopped, he was pawing the door to get out.
Inside the old farmhouse, the three residents were gaping out the window. “Rose! It’s either that gold digger or Gus! What are they doing here at this time of night? Oh, my God, lock the doors! Is the door locked? Of course it’s locked, we always keep the door locked,” Violet, Rose’s sister, squealed.
“We need to hide,” Iris, the third sister, said. “Rose, you can’t let him in, even if he is your grandson! We can’t let him find out what we’re doing.”
Rose Blossom peered out into the darkness. It was indeed her grandson and his dog coming up to the front porch. In full panic mode, she crouched next to her two sisters under the front bay window. “He knows we’re in here. Something must be wrong,” she hissed.
“Who cares?” Violet hissed in return. “If you let him in, we go up in smoke. Is that what you want?”
“Good God, no! We could go out on the porch. I’ll just tell him . . . something will come to me,” Rose dithered.
“No, something will not come to you, Rose. I say we just hunker down and wait him out. Unless, in one of your stupid moments, you gave Gus a key. Did you, Rose?” Violet snarled.
“He’s always had a key, you know that. I don’t see him using it. We are, after all, estranged,” Rose reminded her sisters. “Anyway, the key won’t work because we have a dead-bolt inside. All he can do is bang on the door. Let’s just stay put and see what he does.”
“Why is he driving her car?” Iris hissed.
“Maybe she’s dead,” Violet whispered.
“You wish. Highly unlikely, or we would have seen the obituary,” Rose said.
Violet clapped her hands over her ears when she heard the first bang on the front door. Her sisters did the same. Outside, Wilson howled and barked, the sound loud and shrill enough to set the sisters’ teeth on edge.
“My legs are cramping,” Iris grumbled.
“Mine, too,” Violet added.
“I know you’re in there, Granny, so open the door. Wilson needs a drink. I’m sorry! I really am. Please, open the door!”
Winifred, the sisters’ basset hound, took that moment to waddle up to the door. She barked, a charming ladylike sound that pretty much said, Welcome.
“Damned dog! Now for sure he knows we’re in here,” Violet hissed. “I really have to get up now, or I’m going to faint.”
“If you’re going to faint, do it quietly,” Rose shot back.
More banging and more apologies ensued. The sisters turned a deaf ear.
Winifred turned and started to waddle toward the kitchen.
“Oh, my God, he’s going to the back door. All he has to do is smash the glass, and he can open the door,” Iris said, momentarily forgetting all about the cramps in her legs.
“Gus wouldn’t do that,” Rose said. But her tone of voice indicated that she wasn’t sure if what she had said was true or not.
“He’s not going to give up,” Violet said. “That has to mean the reason he’s here at this hour is important, at least to him. Maybe you should just open the door and talk to him through the screen. Tell him you were just getting ready for bed or something. You and he are estranged, Rose. I don’t think Gus is here just to make nice. Just open the door and tell him to make an appointment to see you. That way we can, you know, just let him see what we want him to see.”
“That sounds like a plan. For God’s sake, do it, Rose,” Iris said.
“Do I have a choice?”
“No, not really,” her sisters said in unison.
Rose heaved a mighty sigh as she made her way through the dark house to the kitchen, her sisters following behind. She didn’t even bother to turn on the light when she opened the door. She tried to make her voice as cold and unfriendly as she could when she said, “Please stop banging on my door, Augustus Hollister. Why are you here? What do you want?”
“I need to talk to you, Granny. It’s important.”
“Well then, young man, I suggest you make an appointment,” Violet, the bossiest of the sisters, said coolly. “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’ve retired for the evening.”
“It’s not that late. You guys are night owls. Look, I need to talk to you; it’s important. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t be here, especially in that yellow sardine can that masquerades as a car.” The desperation in Gus’s voice was getting to the sisters, but they held their ground.
“Tomorrow afternoon around five-fifteen will work for us.
I hesitate to remind you, but you do have a wife. Shouldn’t you be discussing your important business with her?” Rose asked defiantly.
“That’s why I’m here. She kicked me out, stole my car, and is threatening to get a restraining order against me. I need to borrow your van to bring my luggage here. Elaine packed it up and left it on the deck. She changed the locks on all the doors and said she’d call the police if I went back. Elaine does not want to be married to me any longer. So I need to stay with you until I can find a place of my own.”
“You have a place of your own! I know because I bought it for you and put your name on the deed. So now we’re good enough for you! What’s wrong with this picture, Augustus? You cannot stay here with us; stay at your office if you have to.” Rose reached behind her for the keys to the van, which were hanging on a hook. She opened the screen door a crack and dropped the keys on the stoop. “Be sure to bring it back in one piece.” Her tone was troubled but not unkind.
“Will you at least let Wilson stay here with you?” Gus pleaded, his voice cracking with emotion.
The sisters looked at one another. Iris and Violet shrugged, which meant, okay, open the door and let Wilson in. Rose opened the door, and Wilson bounded into the kitchen. Rose closed and locked the door, then turned to face her sisters.
“Girls, that was so cruel, what I just did. Gus is my grandson.”
“Need I remind you that he is the grandson who turned on you after all you did for him and chose that gold digger over you?” Iris said.
“He’s young, and he was in love. We all make mistakes at some point in our lives. Gus just made his mistake earlier than most people,” Rose insisted as she tried to defend her grandson.
“Give it up, Rosie,” Violet said, wrapping her distraught sister in her arms. “Let’s get Wilson settled and have some cheesecake. We need to talk this over and come up with a plan where Gus is concerned.”
“We can’t let him in the house, that’s the bottom line,” Iris said. “Not tonight, not tomorrow, not anytime soon. If we do, it’s all over.”
“We know all that, so will you please stop reminding us?” Violet grumbled.