The limousine pulled slowly out of the cemetery and Bailey Montgomery sank down into the plush back seat. It was the end of a long day and she felt tired and ready to get home. Or to her mother's house, more precisely, because Bailey's home was almost three hundred miles away in Chicago. She closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind, but nagging thoughts kept swirling around.
She shouldn't have put off coming to visit. Showing up in her mother's last hours when she was too sick to recognise Bailey wasn't enough. Bailey knew she should have been there, should have done more.
She'd taken two weeks of vacation when her mother was diagnosed with cancer the previous year, and stayed for the first round of chemotherapy. There had been two more rounds since then, and Bailey thought the disease was under control. She didn't realise how quickly the cancer was progressing.
Her mother hid it from her, Bailey thought bitterly, and then shook her head in another attempt to clear it. When she started blaming her mother for dying, she knew she wasn't thinking straight.
The limo pulled into her driveway and Bailey thanked the driver as she got out. She glanced at the white clapboard house where her mother had resided the last five years. It was smaller than the other homes in the neighbourhood but had an attractive appearance just the same. Her mother had professed to love the little house, but Bailey never shared the enthusiasm. The place just never felt like home.
Melissa Montgomery had moved to the tiny town of Perry, Illinois, after the death of her husband. Bailey's beloved father had loved big cities and insisted they raise their daughter in his hometown of Chicago. Once he was gone, her mother had chosen to return to Perry, the place of her birth, and the tiniest town on the planet in Bailey's eyes.
She walked up the short sidewalk and the three steps to the porch, pulling her keys out. There was an envelope tucked in the front door and Bailey grabbed it as she went inside. She opened the card, from a friend of her mother's whom Bailey didn't know. She didn't know any of her mother's friends or neighbours anymore. For that reason she had requested no reception or gifts of food or flowers--she wanted to keep things as simple as possible. Donations to the Cancer Society or to her mother's church were requested in the newspaper write-up. Bailey spoke with her mother's minister and he agreed to spread the word among Melissa's friends.
Looking at the blinking light on her mother's answering machine, she felt too tired to face the messages and walked on by. More condolences from people she'd never met, who probably wouldn't want to know her. Ever since she'd arrived, she'd felt an underlying current of accusation. Her mother's friends thought she should have been here, too.
Down the short hallway to her room, Bailey peeled off her dress and stockings, then dug around in her suitcase until she found her spandex running tank and shorts. She looked in the mirror and thought about scrubbing the make-up off her face but decided to do it as she showered after her run.
She pulled her long brown hair into a ponytail and fluffed her bangs. They were overdue for a trim, but it would be a while before she went back to Chicago. It would take at least two weeks to sort through and dispose of her mother's things. She had requested a month's leave from Chicago Today, the magazine where she worked as an editor, just to be safe. Bailey winced as she looked around the room--it was full with just her things. The idea of clearing out the whole house was daunting. What to keep, what to throw away? Would she recognise the things that had been important to her mother? More guilt, realising that except for a few items, she had no idea.
She decided to run now and worry later. A nice long run was just what she needed to clear her head. Things usually seemed to fall into perspective after a few miles of sweating. Bailey was tying her second shoe when the doorbell rang and she went to answer it.
"Hi, I'm sorry to interrupt you." The woman was about her age, pretty with long blond hair and a nice smile. "I'm Sarah Stevens, I was a friend of your mother's from church and the neighbourhood." She held a small casserole dish with what appeared to be an apple pie on top of it.
Bailey looked at her, embarrassed. "I asked the reverend to tell people I didn't need food. It's just me here and..."
"I know." Sarah shrugged and smiled. "But you need to eat. It has to be incredibly hard on you, losing your mother and all. I wanted to bring you a little something."
Bailey shifted from one foot to the other uncomfortably, but Sarah didn't back down. She remained there, smiling pleasantly, until Bailey took a step backward and motioned her in.
Sarah entered and said, "I can put these in the kitchen for you. It looks like you were on your way out."
"Thank you." Bailey followed her.
The woman seemed to know her way around. She opened the refrigerator and set the food inside, then shut the door gently and straightened the towel that hung on the handle. She smiled at Bailey again. "So, you're from Chicago?"
"Yes," Bailey nodded. The woman certainly seemed to smile a lot. Is she covering up her disapproval?
"What do you do there? I think Missy told me but I can't remember."
"Your mother. She talked about you a lot, she was very proud of you."
Bailey stuck her foot on one of the kitchen chairs and began her pre-run stretches. "I've never heard her called 'Missy' before."
Sarah watched the stretching. "Everyone around here called her that. Didn't she tell you?"
"Nope." Bailey switched legs. "Never heard it before. Even my father called her Melissa--no nicknames or anything cutsie. That's why it surprises me."
"She talked about your father a lot, too. She loved him a great deal."
Bailey stood up and looked at her guest. "Yeah, she did. Well, if you'll excuse me, I was going for a run."
Sarah glanced over Bailey's physique. "You must run a lot. You're in great shape."
"Every day." She knew her taut bare midriff and long, tanned legs were good looking. She worked hard to keep them that way. But the scrutiny made her uncomfortable, anxious to escape. Heading for the front door, she stopped to get her cell phone and keys from her purse, then reconsidered and put the phone back. "No damned reception in this one-horse town."
"Guess there was reception at the cemetery."
Bailey looked at her and blushed slightly, remembering how her phone rang during the minister's final blessing. Evidently, the little cemetery which sat on a hill got great phone reception. Bailey hadn't answered the call and had shut her phone off quickly, but the damage had been done. Her mother's friends and neighbours had looked at her like she was a pariah.
Shrugging, Sarah commented, "Oh well. Hey, I put my name and phone number on the casserole dish--call me when you're done with it and I'll send my daughter to pick it up. Mandy's fourteen and thinks Perry is the most boring place in the world to live. She's dying to meet you, your being from the city and all."
"Okay," Bailey said hesitantly.
"If there's anything we can do, please call. We thought the world of your mother and would be happy to help with whatever you need." She stepped onto the porch and touched the handrail that led down the steps. It wiggled precariously. "Well, how did this happen?"
"What?" Bailey looked at the railing.
"This is broken. It's not safe at all. I'm going to send my brother over to fix it."
"Please don't bother," Bailey said. "I'm still trying to decide what to do with the house. I may have to hire someone to do some repairs if I'm going to sell it."
Sarah replied, "Doug did all the repairs your mother needed. He knows this place inside and out." She shook the rail one last time then looked at Bailey. "You'll know him when you see him, he looks like me but taller with dark hair. His name is Doug Kenny."
"I don't know," Bailey hesitated.
Sarah was insistent. "I'll send him to fix this because it's dangerous. You can do what you want after that."
Bailey shrugged and decided she didn't have much choice. "Well, thank you. And thanks for the food."
"You're welcome. Call if you need anything."
"Uh, yeah," Bailey answered, shoving her keys into her tight pocket and pulling the door closed. While it probably wasn't necessary to lock her door in this little town, she was used to the city and did it out of habit. She left the other woman standing on the porch as she headed down the road for her four-mile run.