“I'll help you.”
“You don't have to, Annie.”
“Why not? It's fun. Something to do.”
“You should be going on dates, not dusting off those old things.”
Nell gave her a sympathetic look that Annie missed, because she was peering through the window at a scale model of a covered wagon.
“Now that is wonderful,” Annie said in awe, reading the title on the placard by the display. C
. 1880. “Bet that's exactly how it was back then.”
“Yes indeed. I guess we don't have anything to complain about.”
A small figure of an old cowboy dressed in worn denim and a sheepskin coat held the reins of a team of straining oxen, his slouch hat pulled down low and his shoulders hunched, as if he were bracing himself against a fierce, invisible wind. A tear in the covered wagon's taut canvas offered a peek at wrapped gifts amid barrels and boxes of foodstuffs and necessities.
Annie kneeled down to see the cowboy's face. “Look at his wrinkles. Can you see, Nell? The face is made of dried apple.”
“It sure is. Can't you just feel the snow he's fighting against?” Nell leaned in, her breath frosty on the glass. “I wonder who made it.”
Annie looked more closely at the placard. “An original work created by Chester Byron Hamilton.”
“What a romantic name. But I don't think I know him.”
“Not everyone is from Velde,” Annie teased her.
“Just you hush up.” Nell straightened and bumped into someone behind her, apologizing automatically. “Oh dear. I'm so sorry. I didn't see you.” With a look of surprise on her face, Nell reached out to steady a wobbly old lady. “Elsie?”
Annie recognized Mrs. Pearson from the post office. She had a crocheted hat over her wispy white hair and wore a heavy coat that looked as if she'd had it a long time.
“Hello, Nell.” Her voice quavered just a little, but she smiled. “How have you been?”
“Just fine. And you?” Without waiting for an answer, Nell made the introductions. “Annie, I'd like you to meet Elsie Pearson. She was the school principal back when I first started teaching. Elsie, this is Annie Bennett.”
“A pleasure.” Mrs. Pearson nodded courteously and extended a thin, gloved hand.
Annie shook it carefully.
Nell looked as if she was just about to hug the frail figure, but she hesitated. The authority that Mrs. Pearson had once had wasn't entirely gone. The old lady still held herself with dignity.
“I haven't seen you for so long,” Nell went on. “Would you mind if I came over some afternoon?”
Mrs. Pearson seemed to be trying to come up with a polite refusal. “That would be lovely,” she said after a few moments. “But please call first. Jack's health isn't what it used to be and he doesn't like unexpected company. He's been undergoing tests, but the doctor has no definite diagnosis.”
“I'm sorry to hear that.” Nell chose not to dwell on what was obviously a sensitive topic. “And of course I'll call in advance. If I stop by, you won't have to do a thing. I'll bring cake and coffee from Jelly Jam. Would that do?”
“Yes.” Mrs. Pearson looked relieved. “Very nicely. That's thoughtful of you, Nell.” She drew herself up to her full height of five foot nothing and fixed her clear gaze on Annie's for a few seconds. “Nice to have met you, my dear. Now I must be going.”
They said their good-byes. Both Nell and Annie turned to watch the old lady's progress along the street. She walked without a cane, but not quickly, avoiding the icy spots.
“Goodness. Mrs. Pearson must be close to ninety by now,” Nell said in a low voice. “There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with her vision. But I wonder what's going on with her husband. Jack was always such a stalwart manâhe was a rancher. They sold the place shortly after she retired. It's a shame, really. I know how much she loved it. But moving to town probably made sense by then.”
“Maybe we could help her somehow,” Annie said. Her take-charge, get-it-done side was kicking in. Having something to think about besides a problem by the name of Marshall Stone would be a boon.
Nell's expression was pensive. “I had the same thought. But do you know something I don't?”
“Before you introduced us, I noticed Mrs. Pearson at the post office. She had a tax bill in one hand and an envelope from that speaker at the town meeting in the other. Connally.”
“Really.” Nell's penciled eyebrows rose. “I've been hearing that name. Of course, I don't try to eavesdrop on customers, but sometimes it's unavoidable. Some older folks have been discussing the man. He's looking for investors.”
“I wouldn't give him a dime.”
Nell gave a neutral shrug. “I gathered that he's selling shares in a high-yield private fund of some sort.”
“Is that all?”
Nell studied her for a long moment. “What's gotten into you?”
Annie didn't quite know. Maybe she just needed to think about someone besides herself and do a good deed while she was at it. She'd gotten over the idea long ago that obsessing over some guy for weeks was worthwhile.
“Seeing Mrs. Pearson again, I guess,” she said quickly. “I did worry when I spotted the envelopes, because I didn't like Connally, but she didn't know me from Adam and I didn't expect to run into her again.”
“It's a sign. Is that what you're saying?”
“No. I don't believe in signs. But you just filled in a few blanks and got me thinking.”
“I see.” Nell didn't quibble. “Well, the Pearsons may need help of some kind. God knows they were thrifty, but they never had much money to spare. Still, I doubt they would give someone like Connally the time of day.”
“We could find out.”
“Annie, the Pearsons were proud people and I'm sure they still are. Is their situation, whatever it might be, any of our business?”
Annie planted herself on the sidewalk. “You and I both know that quarterly property taxes are due by the end of the year. Maybe Mr. Pearson's health isn't the only thing she's worried about.”
“I wish I had followed up when she stopped coming to church last spring,” Nell fretted. “But I never seemed to have the time.”
“Let's talk about what we can do right now. Something's going on in Velde and it has to do with real estate.”
Annie left Marshall Stone out of it. Her initial sense that he was somehow involved in a secret land grab had been replaced with other suspicions that she was damned if she'd discuss with Nell or anyone else. She wasn't really able to believe that he would cheat anyone out of money or land. And she couldn't quite say that he had cheated on her when she had known him for only a few weeks.
But it still felt like it.
Nell snapped her out of it with a quick question. “Are you serious, Annie?”
“Yes. I even spoke to the town clerk. She wouldn't say anything specific, but she had her doubts about Connally too.”
“Oh my. Harriet Sargent is such a levelheaded gal. What exactly did she say?”
“Not much. But I'd like to get your take on what I've figured out so far.”
Annie steered Nell down the street toward the cafÃ© just ahead. She opened the door, inhaling the mixed fragrance of cinnamon and caramel. Fresh-brewed coffee provided the top note.
Nell swept past her to a table by the window. She put her purse over the back of a chair and got comfortable before the waitress arrived to take their order.
“Tell me everything,” she said to Annie. “Begin at the beginning.”
ell was as good as her word. She called Mrs. Pearson and then Annie, to let her know that they were invited to the Pearsons' the day after next.
“Don't dress up,” she told Annie. “Sometimes the housekeeping is the first thing to go for old folks. I don't want to make her feel awkward.”
The Pearson house turned out to be neat as a pin, once Elsie had opened the door and quickly motioned them inside. “Hello, you two. So nice of you to come. Don't let the hat out.”
She smiled, but Annie knew she wasn't joking. It was a charming old houseâa cottage, reallyâwith tall windows that let in abundant sunlight and bone-chilling drafts as well. Mrs. Pearson wore a thick, hand-knit sweater with a cowl collar that she had pulled up over her white hair. Annie didn't want to be rude, but she kept her jacket on.
Nell was braver and also better upholstered. She took off her swing coat and hung it on a foyer hook, over the handle of a cane that was much too long for Mrs. Pearson. Annie assumed it belonged to her husband.
“Everything is just the same, Elsie. Thanks so much for inviting us.” Nell paused, looking around discreetly. “Where's Jack?”
“Taking a nap.” Elsie glanced toward a room with a closed door.
“Oh. Well, we can save some cake for him.” She held up the bag with take-out coffees and a small bakery box.
“Thank you, Nell. I'll be sure to tell him you were here. Please sit down, Annie.” Mrs. Pearson led the way to a sunroom filled with plants and wicker chairs. It was warm enough for Annie to shed her jacket and relax a little.
Nell pretty much took over the conversation as the coffees were set out and the cake sliced and served up on small porcelain plates. Annie simply listened as the older women talked and talked. Mrs. Pearson sat up straight when Nell finally ventured onto the subject of money.
“Elsie, I want you to know something. Now, please don't take this the wrong way.”
The old lady's calm gaze didn't change, but she did raise an eyebrow.
“If you need anything at allâfor yourself or for JackâI just want you to know that I would be happy to help. I did very well after I retired and started my new business.”
Mrs. Pearson gave a faint smile. “Somehow I never imagined you behind a bar, dear.”
“You should come in. Maybe not on football nights, but in the afternoon.”
“Thank you for the invitation. Perhaps I will someday. I suppose I shouldn't have worn that shabby old coat the other day. I think you got the wrong impression. But I appreciate your kindness.”
Mrs. Pearson set aside her plate. Annie noticed that she had barely touched her slice of cake.
“I haven't done anything yet,” Nell reminded her.
“And you won't have to. We don't need help. Jack and I get by. There's not much that we need at this stage of our lives.”
“That could change.”
The old lady cleared her throat. “Everything changes,” she said dryly. “Including who does what. Jack used to handle things like finances. I never had to worry. But he can't anymore. So I'm learning what I can.”
“Oh?” Nell didn't rush into the void with a lot of chatter for once. Annie waited.
“I spoke with that Mr. Connally recently. He gave me some good advice. He may be able to give us the cash we need to stay in our home, but it's complicated. I couldn't say I understand every little detail of what he was proposing.”
“Make sure that you do, Elsie,” Nell said firmly.
“Oh, I will. First I have to find our copy of the deed.”
Nell and Annie exchanged a look.
“Of course, I haven't signed anything yet.”
“Will you talk to me before you do?” Nell said.
Mrs. Pearson looked up at the sound of a door opening elsewhere in the house. “Yes. But not now.”
A tall, stoop-shouldered man came toward them and stopped in the doorway of the sunny room. Though his rugged face was lined and weathered, he was still handsome. But his gaze lacked focus. He looked at each of them in turn, smiling at his wife and staring hard at Nell.
“Hello, Jack,” Nell said cheerfully.
“Hello.” His deep voice sounded polite but blank, as if he had no idea who the woman who'd just greeted him might be.
“This is Annie,” his wife said. “And you know Nell.”
It was heartbreakingly clear that he didn't.
Elsie gave her visitors a speaking look that said it all. The conversation was effectively over. Jack sat down and got up again.
“He has good days and bad days,” his wife murmured when her husband had left the room. “I just wish I had a name for what exactly is wrong.” She paused, collecting herself, holding her head high. “It could be so many things.”
Annie got the same impression of unshakable dignity. She would add silent courage to that.
“I'm sorry he didn't remember you, Nell. He never was too good with names. And now, well . . .” The old lady didn't finish the sentence.
“Elsie. You don't have to explain.”
“There isn't anything more I can say. But he's still my Jack. And he always will be.”
“I understand,” Nell said finally. “I didn't know about this. But you don't have to deal with it alone, Elsie.”
“I can't talk about it now.” The old lady seemed to have withdrawn from them, her attention focused on the man moving about in the adjoining rooms. “I think you'd better go, in fact.”
Nell rose reluctantly and Annie followed her lead. “I hope you can forgive me for not staying in touch,” Nell said.
Elsie gave her a wry look. “Oh, of course. It's not entirely your fault. I never called you. And I do hope you'll come back.”
“Of course I will.”
It seemed best not to linger. They were outside in a few minutes.
“I almost don't know where to start,” Nell said. “But I'm not going to forget about her. Not with Christmas right around the corner.”
Annie took the white cardboard box of treats from the front seat and went in the side door of the house. Her mother never would have forgiven her for not bringing something home from her favorite bakery.
She set the Jelly Jam box down on the pine table in the kitchen and looked around. The winter sun poured through the windows. There was no sign of her mother, other than the immaculate counters and general air of tidiness. Lou Bennett had a place for everything and put everything in its place.
Tyrell had built the kitchen himself, putting in cabinets and shelves to his wife's specifications. All of it had been made to last.
Good storage beat hearts and flowers, her mom liked to say. But her husband made sure to remember those too.
Some day, some way, Annie was going to have a marriage like theirs. If a couple wasn't committed to love by deeds and not just words, she didn't see the point of it.
“Mom?” she called. “I'm home.”
A faint hello echoed from somewhere.
Annie filled the electric kettle with water and looked through the cupboards for tea bags. She made two cups just in case her mother wanted one.
A few minutes went by before Lou appeared.
Annie couldn't actually see her. Her petite mother was invisible behind the lightweight boxes she carried. They were all neatly labeled in her bouncy handwriting.
Ornaments. Garlands. Tree Topper
. There were more. Annie was glad to see her personal favorite in the stack.
They were heirlooms, hand-painted with showy tails, and spindly feet that had to be wound around Christmas tree branches.
“Is that you?” Annie asked, laughing as she went to her mother and removed the top boxes.
Lou set the rest of them on the kitchen table. “Seemed like high time I got all these down.”
“We don't even have a Christmas tree yet.”
“Oh, your father will take care of that. I just wanted to make sure nothing's broken and see if we needed anything new.”
“I understand there's a sale on elf-related merchandise at the hobby store.”
“Is there? Do you have a coupon?”
“Would I lie to you? Yes to the first question. No to the second. I made you some tea. Let's look through the boxes.”
They spent the better part of an hour taking a sentimental inventory before Annie brought up the subject of Mrs. Pearson.
“Elsie Pearson? Yes, I know who she is,” Lou said absentmindedly. “But I couldn't say I know her personally.”
Annie recounted the story from the beginning, including their accidental meeting and subsequent visit with Nell, without adding a word about how vulnerable the old lady had seemed to her. With her dad on the verge of turning seventy, getting old was the last thing he wanted to talk about, and she suspected that her mother thought the same way, even though she was nearly a decade younger than her husband.
Annie wrapped it up with her thoughts on Shep Connally.
“Oh. The blowhard from the town meeting.” Her mother held up a glass bird and smoothed its flyaway tail. “I didn't think too much of him either.”
“But would you say he's trying to con her and maybe some of the other old people?”
“I honestly don't know, dear.”
Annie sighed. “I just want to help Mrs. Pearson.”
Lou set the bird into its niche in the ornament box. “You can't help people who don't want to be helped, honey. She has a right to make her own decisions. And I think Nell is going to be better at dealing with the particular problems involved.”
“What are you saying?”
“That you're young yet and you don't know everything.”
“I never said I did,” Annie replied indignantly.
Her mother seemed not to have heard her protest. “Above all, don't pry. If Mrs. Pearson wants your assistance with something, I'm sure she'll ask you. It does sound like you made a friend.”
“I hope so.”
Annie was quiet for a little while, fiddling with the ornaments. Lou Bennett finally stopped what she was doing long enough to sip her tea.
“Want me to heat that up for you?”
“I like it lukewarm.”
“No, you don't.” Annie took the cup from her and put it in the microwave, timing it for thirty seconds. She didn't turn to look at her mother when she asked another question.
“Mom, are you volunteering at the senior center this year?”
It wasn't exactly a center, just a spare room provided gratis at the town hall for seniors to meet in occasionally.
“Yes. Which reminds me. The president of the Groaners and Grumblers Club left me a message last night.”
“What did you call them? That's not nice.”
“Groaners and Grumblers. That's what they call themselves,” Lou pointed out. “At least they have a sense of humor. It's not easy being old.”
“You're not there yet, Mom.” Annie took out the reheated cup of tea when the microwave beeped, and brought it over.
“Says you. I officially qualified as a senior this year.”
“That bunch thinks you're fresh out of high school.” Annie picked a mini box of raisins out of the fruit bowl and munched on a few. “So do you think you could keep an ear open? See if they have any shared concerns?”
“What are you getting at?”
Annie polished off the raisins. “Like if anyone complains about Shep Connally. Or mentions reverse mortgages. Or anything else relating to real estate that sounds fishy to you.”
“If there's going to be an investigation, call the police.”
“They need evidence.”
Lou frowned and wiped off an imaginary spot on the counter with a folded dish towel. “Did they ask you to get it?”
“No. But I might as well start somewhere.”
“Annie.” Her mother stopped wiping and set aside the dish towel. “I think you're taking this too seriously. You're up in arms about something that hasn't happened and may never happen. I'm sure Nell knows who to contact at social services to help Mrs. Pearson.”
“She did say she was going to.”
“Good. I know you mean well, but you can't take on a situation like that. Besides, you should be spending more time with people your own age.”
“I am. I called Darla,” Annie said. “We hung out at the ski lodge for a couple of hours.”
“When was that?”
“Several days ago.”
“That would be my point. 'Tis the season to be jolly.” Lou went and got her purse and pulled out a flyer. “Did you know there's a dance coming up?”
“No.” Annie glanced at the flyer her mother set in front of her.
“The first annual Snow Ball. Doesn't that sound romantic?” Lou sighed.
Her mother read aloud from the flyer. “ âCome one, come all, for a night of magic. Enjoy three live bands that will tickle your ears and get your toes tapping with country swing, rockabilly, and your favorite sweet serenades.' ”
Annie wasn't about to admit that it sounded wonderful. “I don't want my ears tickled.”
“Sourpuss,” her mother chided. “You don't have to have a date to attend, you know.”
“Okay,” Annie said. “Because I can't get one.”
“Does that mean you might go?” her mother asked slyly.
“I'm not promising anything.”
“It's next Friday. Come to think of it, Helen Skerrit was going to come over that same night to play cards. She's bringing her stepson Alan. You know, the genius. Right now he has nothing to do. She said he just got kicked out of graduate school for some reason. Maybe what he needs is love and understanding.”