Anna Nesmith tugged on a white velour caftan, its cool silk lining whispering over her supple flesh; her nipples came erect. She stood very still, trying to disengage her mind from her body's reaction to the silk. The mental trick did not work. Kevin ... Kevin ... her interior voice pleaded, you have to find time for me--and soon.
She went into his closet and buried her face into an old favorite sport coat, one he wore with jeans or khakis. Around the collar and lapels, the coat was redolent with the faint scent of Aramis. She inhaled deeply, and her longing became a thing so alive, so unbearable, her knees refused to support her. She folded slowly onto the floor, bringing the coat with her.
She gave an instant thought to satisfying herself, but no. She wanted her body against his. She wanted his lean arms around her, wanted his lips on her breasts, his tongue tracing the curl of ear, nipping with his teeth each and every one of her erogenous zones--the nape of her neck, her lower abdomen, the soft flesh inside her thighs. Most of all she wanted him hard and hot and thrusting inside of her until their passions consumed them both.
She inhaled and exhaled slowly several times, calming the thud of her heart and the ache in her groin. She returned his coat to his closet, her mind shifting to all of the reasons they had not made love in weeks: Kevin was called to work on his days off or he was jet-lagged. Or his mother, Clara Alice, wasn't feeling well--and bedroom doors had to be left open.
There were other reasons, too, problems she felt like a weight inside her--arguments about money, when best to start a family, the subtle manipulation intended to erode her sense of self. That was an argument in itself.
Yet everything her eye touched these days seemed to have some sort of sensual symbolism, like the Renoir print, Le bal a Bourgival, hanging over the bed on the textured gray wall. The couple portrayed actually seemed to be moving in their dancing embrace, and in her mind, Anna carried their delicately painted movements into bed.
In the small reading nook was the chaise longue, covered in Chinese silk, an ordinary piece of furniture, yet as soon as she picked up a book or magazine and leaned back onto the soft, feathery pillow, her mind strayed. She saw herself lying upon it naked, beckoning to her husband. In her mind he was always ready, engorged, meeting her sultry gaze with a look of sensuous anticipation.
Sadly, that was her daydream. She could not fathom what was so wrong with their marriage that her husband wanted her so seldom.
She began the ritual self-inventory that boosted her self-esteem. She'd graduated college with a degree in library science. Of course, librarians were dull by anyone's standards. She knew she expressed a seriousness, but a smile or laughter transformed her. Lord knows she'd practiced for hours in front of mirrors to make it happen.
She could cook. Not only ordinary everyday meals but fabulous concoctions that pleased the eye and did not disappoint the palate. She'd used a portion of her inheritance from her widowed mother to treat herself to a year in France. She had not squandered her time. She had attended Le Cordon Bleu, sharing a miniscule flat in the fifteenth arrondissement with another student from Ottawa. Not only had she learned to cook, , the experience gave her otherwise dull resume elan. She kept the house clean and her decorating skills had been honed by visits to museums, villas great and small in the French countryside, wineries, and elegant shops.
I have a job that pays well. That, too, was a bonus, especially in these difficult economic times. She was a Senate research assistant at the Library of Congress, a job that was neither exciting nor glamorous. But the holy truth was that, outside of politics, few jobs in D.C. were glamorous.
On the physical side, she wasn't pencil-thin chic but all soft curves, and her flesh hugged her bones. She wore her rich brown hair parted on the side and kept it professionally cut so that it framed her face and loosely brushed her shoulders.
A flirty old Frenchman had once told her she had eyes that lived, that saw and recorded life. Enchanting eyes. After which he'd invited her to his apartment for an aperitif. When she declined, he laughed and said, "Ah! You Americans--so prudish." Enchanting eyes. Perhaps that had been true ten years ago. But all the mirror reflected these past months were her brown eyes made darker that did little to hide her unrest.
She had one of those oval faces people always thought were so photogenic, no compression, no sultriness, with a high forehead and well-shaped mouth. The funny part was she didn't photograph well at all.
Clara Alice bolted into the bedroom, startling Anna into a sharp adrenaline rush.
"Anna! There's a strange man sitting in a car parked behind your Saab. He's just sitting there, staring at our house."
"Clara Alice--please! I've begged and begged you. Knock, and wait for me to--"
A petrifying thought raced through Anna's mind. Suppose she had been in the throes of... She buried her face in her hands. Please, God, somehow allow me a life--some privacy, a fulfilling marriage, a mother-in-law who lives on the other side of the country. The plea was no more in her mind than Anna felt an instant stab of guilt.
"Let's turn off the lamps in here," Clara Alice suggested. She moved around the bed switching off the lamps without waiting for Anna's agreement.
Anna tried not to sigh, but it escaped anyway. "Let's go into the kitchen. I'll make us some chamomile tea."
"In a minute." Clara Alice pulled back the heavy cotton-lined drapes and tweaked a blind, peeking out to the street. "It's starting to sleet. Now the windshield wipers are going."
Folding her arms, Anna leaned against the doorjamb of the darkened bedroom and waited. Outside winter wind howled; inside, her thinning patience screamed for relief.
Her mother-in-law had been in the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the building. A low-level file clerk, Clara Alice had escaped with no physical injuries but had been so traumatized by the experience she'd never returned to work. Within a few weeks it became apparent she was so fearful and dysfunctional, she needed long-term care.
She and Kevin had been married nine days when those tragic events unfolded. They had returned to Washington only two days before September 11, after having spent five rapturous honeymoon days in Cabo San Lucas.
Anna had used the half of the balance of her inheritance for the down payment on their newly purchased home, and before she saw it coming, Kevin was insisting his mother move in with them. Anna recalled how Kevin wore her down, saying he was an only child; that he'd promised his father he would always take care of his mother. Why did she feel so compelled to start their marriage with an argument that made no sense? By the time they were ready to start a family, Clara Alice would surely be stable, no longer so high strung, and able to function on her own.
She had to give Kevin credit--he was wonderfully skilled at guilt maneuvering. The bedroom she had planned for a nursery became Clara Alice's--and had been these past eight years. I've been patient long enough, Anna thought. If Kevin were home more often, he would see for himself how impossible the situation was becoming. Though she refused to fly and needed a lot of emotional support, Clara Alice was, today, entirely functional.
"Anna," Clara Alice whispered, "the man is out of the car and coming up our sidewalk."
Anna felt a tremor of excitement. "Maybe it's Kevin. He probably caught a ride from the airport."
"No. He's too tall. He's wearing a hat, like the one Humphrey Bogart wore in The Maltese Falcon. Oh, the wind just blew his hat off."
They lived in one of the older neighborhoods in Washington that wasn't backed up to a ghetto, a government building, or an exquisite brownstone. In the years they had lived there, Anna had noticed subtle signs of deterioration along the patched boulevard--old growth tree roots had cracked the sidewalks, a few of the houses needed a coat of paint, and on this house or that a shutter was missing. Yet there was nothing so alarming that Clara Alice should fear anyone coming to the door.
Anna heard the brass doorknocker as she emerged into the hall. It had the insistent tattoo of a hammer being wielded by an impatient man. She was sensitive to sounds, preferring them soft, musical.
She put her eye to the viewer. The porch light was faint, wobbly in the wind and sleet. She could make out few details. She thought tomorrow's news would be all about the damage to the cherry trees. The man had his muffler wrapped around his face almost to his eyes, and those were enigmatic. She saw his hand come up to the knocker again. She opened the door a crack. "Yes? May I help you? Who are you? What do you want?"
He unwound the muffler from his face. "Government business, Mrs. Nesmith. May I come in?"
Clara Alice hovered nervously behind her. "What did he say?"
Anna took her mother-in-law's arm. "Be a dear and put the kettle on for tea."
She turned back to the door. "Sorry. Show me some identification, please."
"Sure thing," he said, teeth chattering. He pulled off a leather glove, slipped his hand into his inside coat pocket, and produced his wallet. He flipped it open to reveal his photograph and ID. "State Department."
Anna felt a sudden weakness envelop her. Kevin worked for the State Department. "Has something happened?"
"Not that I know. We're doing routine security checks on our couriers. Mrs. Nesmith--Anna--your given name is Anna, right? In case you haven't noticed, I'm freezing my ass off out here."
She heard routine. However, since when were security checks performed in the field? Usually Kevin got a memo or a letter, went in for a polygraph, answered a few basic questions, and that was it. The man's ID was authentic. It was the same as Kevin's, carried in the official leather wallet. "All right, but don't drip on my kilim rug." Oh. Why am I being so petty?
He looked at her with a sense of frustration. "Sure, okay. Where would you like for me to drip?" The wind died abruptly, as if pausing for breath. He stepped inside and closed the door behind himself, not at all gently, then dropped his muffler to the floor and stood on it.
Great! she thought, an investigator with attitude. Just what I need more of in this house. "That looks awfully like a cashmere scarf," she said of the muffler. Cold was coming off him in waves. Anna shivered, the cold reminding her that she was barefoot and entirely naked beneath the caftan.
"Yep, early Christmas present." He pulled off his gloves, stuffed them into a pocket, and shrugged out of his overcoat. There was an antique coat tree in the foyer. He hung his coat on it. Sleet was sliding down off of it onto the floor--but not the rug.
"You let him in," came accusingly from behind.
"This is my mother-in-law," she said to the man. Damn it. She'd seen his ID, seen his picture, but had paid not one whit of attention to his name. "Clara Alice, would you get a towel for the gentleman?"
"No. I'll watch him. You get the towel." The look on her face said she was ready to hit one or both of them over the head with a golf club.
Anna went into the guest bathroom, buried her face into a wad of towels, and screamed. I don't want to do this anymore. God help me, I don't. Why, oh, why couldn't Kevin acknowledge that his mother was an affliction on their marriage?
"What's going on with you?" said the man from State, standing in the bathroom door.
Anna shoved the towels into his hands and moved past him, down the hall into the kitchen. The kettle was screaming. She put tea bags into cups, poured in the boiling water. The steam felt good on her face. Calming. She inhaled it greedily.
"Does the old lady have dementia or something?" He came into the kitchen drying his face and head. Finished, he draped the towel on the back of chair. Next, he was looking into the stainless steel fridge.
"Finding anything interesting in my fridge? Maybe you better check the mayonnaise for smuggled diamonds."
"I'm just looking for the half 'n half. Found it. So, what about the old lady?"
"She was in the Pentagon on 9/11." Anna loathed his type of bureaucrat that the Patriot Act had let loose on ordinary citizens. She held her tongue on that score because she was anxious about what the visit meant for Kevin. It was an affront to have him making himself at home in her house, delving into her fridge.
The man exhaled. "That was bad."
"Still is," Anna said while fishing for teabags with a spoon. She poured in the half-and-half. So much for a year at Le Cordon Bleu, where tea was always made in a porcelain pot, allowed to steep at least three minutes, then gently poured into delicate cups and warmed cream added if desired. "I'm sorry. I didn't catch your name. And, I'm sorry about your scarf." I'm sorry about 9/1l, I'm sorry Kevin isn't home, I'm sorry Clara Alice is so difficult, and I'm sorry I can't cope anymore. God, are you listening?
"No harm done. It's Francis Caburn. Frank or Caburn will do." He noticed an array of liquors on a sideboard, inspected the bottles, then chose a decent scotch. She had made three cups of tea. So. One was for him. He could use it. He poured a generous measure into Anna's tea, hesitating over his own cup. Regulations be damned, and who was looking? He'd need it to get through the god-awful mess Nesmith had left behind.
"Make yourself at home, why don't you?" Anna said, stepping back from the granite counter.
"Thanks. I will. I'll take the old lady her tea. You might want to find a pair of socks or something. Your feet are blue."
Clara Alice appeared in the kitchen door. Caburn took her arm and gently turned her around. "I was just bringing you a cup of tea, dear heart."
"You really know my Kevin?"
Jeez, the old woman listened around corners. He'd have to keep that in mind. "I do." Only in name and only by the files in his briefcase. But 9/11 hung over the old lady like a dark cloud. If his instincts were right, and they usually were, the dark cloud had girdled the entire household as well. What a shame.
When Anna returned, she had blue snuggies on her feet and a knee-length sweater over the caftan.
"We can do this at the kitchen table, if that suits," said Caburn.
Anna shrugged. She sat. He put a tea in front of her, and took a seat across from her. She took a sip. She sighed for a moment, the bliss apparent on her face, but in another moment, her face changed. "You're being very forward. Do you always go into people's kitchens, snag their liquor, and pass it around? How do you know a person even drinks?"
"You look like you need it. So does the old lady."
Caburn knew interviewing Anna in her own surroundings put her at an advantage. The rules were to first bring some discomfort to the situation; second, become a best friend, the idea being that the interviewee would be more forthcoming. He did the best he could with the situation at hand. In addition, he had a bad, bad feeling these women didn't have a clue. The wife was already wound as tight as a tripwire. "This is a beautiful kitchen," he said, looking around. "State of the art." All the appliances were stainless steel, the counters a pebbled granite. "Is that one of those new-fangled convection ovens? My sister has been hinting around for one."
"Yes. I used to enjoy cooking."
"What's the difference between a convection oven and a regular oven?"
"It cooks faster."
"That's it? So does my microwave."
Anna almost smiled.
Getting there, Caburn thought.
A gust of wind shook the house. Anna glanced for a long moment toward a pair of French doors that led to the glass and wood sunroom. No sun, now. It was sheathed in ice. She took another sip of scotch-laced tea and exhaled.
"Something is wrong, isn't it?"
Oh, yeah, thought Caburn. Way wrong. "What makes you think that?"
"You. A State Department investigator knocking on my door in the middle of a winter storm screams trouble." She looked into his eyes. "Kevin is in trouble. You might as well tell me."
"We do checks on couriers all the time. We have to; it's mandated policy."
He watched her face, could almost see her brain flexing.
"Eight to four-thirty. Those are regular work hours."
"Those are your regular work hours. My department works 24/7." He took out a notebook and pen. He would have preferred to use the small tape recorder but had left it in his coat pocket, lest its appearance undo the small measure of balance she had managed. "Do you feel up to answering a few questions?"
"But that's just it. Why ask me anything? Kevin's the courier--not me."
Anna stared at him, obviously trying to read him, taking in the military short haircut, the lived-in face with beard stubble, the full lips that he knew he pursed when he was trying to compose his thoughts, like now. He was certain of himself, and people usually listened to him.
Anna glanced into her empty cup, looking slightly dazed. He imagined it was the warm scotch on top of an empty stomach.
"Mrs. Nesmith ... Anna... Are you with me?"
"Yes. A little scotch-fogged. I don't usually drink hard liquor."
"Do you know where your husband is right now?"
"Making a courier drop is all I know."
"So, he doesn't mention where he's going before he goes."
"You know he's not supposed to do that. But, I can usually figure out where he's been."
"Oh? How do you do that?"
"If he brings me a box of Swiss chocolates, I guess Switzerland. Once he brought me a black pearl. So I thought Japan. A good piece of leather or a pair of Clarks suggests London. Hermes scarf says Paris. Oh, he once brought me a set of carved amber animals, so I figured the Baltic States. Five yards of a fabulous, intricate patterned silk said China. I had one of the wing chairs in the living room upholstered with it." She closed her eyes, thinking. "He brought me a Krugerrand a few years ago."
"South Africa?" guessed Caburn.
"Lesotho, I think. I don't know if we still have a consulate there now or not. And I'm pretty sure he carried a dispatch to Mexico City. That was in January of '07, right after Calderon was elected. He brought me a replica of a Mayan..."
She stopped herself, and he wondered what she might have said. "A statuette of some sort."
"I've read about the Mayans, lots of bloody sacrifices. Even the Mayan king sacrificed his blood--" Caburn stopped. What his memory was hitting on was a depiction of the Mayan King sitting on a stool in all his feather and gold finery and cutting the underside of his own penis with a stone knife. A sacrifice to a sun god. Caburn shivered and crossed his legs beneath the table.
"Are you still cold? Shall I turn up the thermostat?"
"I'm fine. It's just the customs of primitive societies always leave me cold. Not cold, cold--"
"I know what you mean. It's like the aborigines in Papua New Guinea who eat the brains of their loved ones, become ill, and die. They called the disease kuru. The aborigines kept presenting with something like mad cow disease until a veterinarian discovered the similarity between kuru and scrapie, an infectious disease in the brain of sheep." Anna shuddered. "That put me off red meat for weeks."
Oh, man! What had he started? He liked his steaks rare. He had to ask. "If the meat is well done, does that kill the, uh, kuru?"
"I guess not. Only the women and children ate it. The men in the tribe stayed healthy."
Caburn was seriously irked at himself. He checked his watch and saw it was now almost seven-thirty. He was starving, and he wanted to stop and get takeout before he went home. Not beef or lamb, though. Maybe chicken or shrimp.
"Could you drink another cup of tea?" Anna asked, moving from the table to the kitchen counter. "I'm going to have one." She poured bottled water into the kettle and plugged it in. Leaning against the kitchen counter with her arms crossed, she asked, "Do you have any more questions?"
"Just a few. I need to get going before the roads ice up any worse. Don't take this amiss, but I think you are one smart lady--you know--to figure out all the places Nesmith carried dispatches."
"Carried?" Anna came on full alert.
"Sure," Caburn said, trying for a cool recovery. "Carries going out, carried coming home."
Anna nodded and picked up where she'd left off, but skepticism coated the words. "There are only one-hundred-ninety-five countries in the world, more or less--depending upon revolutions or protests for independence--not counting Taiwan. Kevin has been a courier for fourteen years, so I think he's probably been to most of them." Her forehead scrunched as if she'd had an afterthought. "But not Kosovo."
It wasn't easy to impress Caburn. It was something that she could pluck data out of her memory as if it were ordinary, like a family recipe for lasagna or pound cake. "One-hundred-ninety-five countries. You think one person in a thousand would have that kind of info on the tip of their tongue?"
"Geography teachers would. A senator from the Midwest asked for the data and how much the U.S. gave various countries in loans, grants, or foodstuffs."
"And you remembered?"
"It's my job to remember. Anyway, the dollar amount was in the billions, and most of the loans have been forgiven."
"Whoa. No wonder we've got a trillion dollar deficit. Not to mention my salary has been frozen."
"Mine, too," admitted Anna. The kettle began to hiss. She unplugged it and poured the hot water over fresh teabags. She put both cups on the table with the carton of half-and-half. Her hand hesitated near the bottle of scotch, and then she put that, too, within Caburn's reach.
"Why wouldn't Nesmith go to Kosovo?" He didn't need the information. It was just that now his curiosity was engaged.
"Mostly because the embassy is small. It's just a conduit for trade delegations from the U.S. Our office does the research." She looked squarely at Caburn, but her breath seemed to stutter for a moment. "I don't believe anything we've touched on has to do with what is going on with Kevin. He is coming home, isn't he?"
He met her look head on. "Yes, he is."
"When?" She studied him, watching for any telltale signs that he might be lying, tics or his eyes shifting away. He knew she saw none.
"In a few days. A week, at the most."
She took a deep breath and seemed to find her strength again.
"You can't tell me what he's done, what kind of trouble he's in?"
Caburn lapsed into silence for a few seconds. He shook his head. His instructions were to put off the inevitable as long as possible.
Her eyes flashed with desperation; she wasn't going to let it go. "A few years ago, one of Kevin's colleagues was caught smuggling heroin."
"No... no, it's nothing like that," Caburn assured her. It's much worse. But he was relieved her mind was going down that path. It led to a cascade of possibilities, and he was certain she would rotate through each and every one of them, from Nesmith being robbed to being kidnapped by terrorists.
He offered her a small smile. "Has Nesmith brought you anything interesting lately?"
Anna looked thoughtful for a moment. "No. Nothing. He even forgot my last birthday."
"What do you think that signifies?"
She opened her mouth to say something then snapped it closed. She paused a moment longer before she said, "That he's not going places where he can shop, or he has a quick turnaround. If he comes home and sleeps for seventeen hours straight, I think he's carrying to Iraq or Afghanistan."
"How many bank accounts do you have, if you know?"
"It's just a routine question," he said.
"Does Kevin get asked that?"
"He does. And, as far as our records show, he's always been open and honest."
But she looked like she didn't really. She watched his hands as he scooped up the teabag in the spoon and wound the string around it then set it on the saucer. He poured in the half-and-half then picked up the bottle of scotch. He held the lip over her cup. She nodded. Neither spoke until they'd taken a few sips.
"We have a joint household account. Then we each have our own personal account. Clara Alice has her own account, her pension, but we don't let her pay for anything."
"How does that work? Your paychecks, finances, I mean."
"Just like yours, or anyone who works for the government. We never see our paychecks. They're direct-deposited into our personal accounts. Then we transfer funds from our personal accounts to the household account."
"But suppose Nesmith writes a check on the account, and then you do the same? How do you keep from having overdrafts?"
Anna looked at him steadily. "You're either a dinosaur, or you're playing dumb. We don't write checks. We use our ATM cards."
"I guess I'm a dinosaur. I write checks for my car payment, rent, and cash--whatever."
"Well, we don't. Our mortgage, car payments, utilities are all auto-withdrawn. Even our car insurances."
"And this is the only home you own?"
"You must be joking."
"A lot of young married couples have vacation homes."
"We're not so young. I'm thirty-four. Kevin is almost forty."
"And, no children, right?
"No. No children." A deep sadness washed over her face, leaving it drawn, and she looked down at her hands wrapped around the teacup.
Caburn thought of a string of expletives that he could not mouth in front of this woman. But he knew that when she learned the truth about her husband she would be cleft in two. "Does he call you ... say from whatever country he's in, just to check in, see how you're doing?"
"No. Never. He leaves his cell and his Palm Pilot in his car. But he does often e-mail me from the VIP lounges. That's where he has to wait until his flights are called, so he uses the courtesy Internet to alert me as to when or what time I can expect him home."
"Have you ever gone on a dispatch with him? Or met him at the end of run, say in London or Paris?"
"Well, that wouldn't be against the law, you know. A courier makes his delivery, and if he doesn't have a return pouch--or he has to wait for it--he can take a day or two off, meet his wife or girlfriend. It happens."
"Not with us. I have a job. We can't leave his mother for more than overnight. And that's only if our neighbor stays over. She's..."
"Right. I understand." Caburn drained his cup and returned his pen and notebook to his pocket. "I think that will do it. I appreciate your time and the tea. If I need anything else, I'll call first."
Anna gave him a curious look. "But why not just wait until Kevin returns?" But he knew she was thinking, or you get him back. She wondered how sensitive the documents were he'd last carried. Wondered, too, if he had been put in harm's way.
"That makes more sense than you can possibly know. I'm going to suggest it to my boss."
She walked him to the door and waited while he shrugged into his overcoat. A very fine vicuna, Anna noted. His picked his muffler up off the floor and shoved it into his pocket.
As he opened the front door, the lights blinked. "Oh, Lord, if the ice brings down the lines, we're in for it."
"Well, safe traveling," Anna said, and shut the door firmly--against the wind, the sleet, and Francis Caburn.
The brass knocker sounded. Anna opened the door to him again.
"I forgot. My hat blew away. If it shows up in the neighborhood, would you hold onto it for me?"
"Yeah. It's a very, very nice hat." He started to say more, but a gust of sleet-filled wind slammed into him.
Anna closed the door and shot the deadbolt. She leaned against for a moment. Oh, Kevin--what have you done?
She knew without a doubt that her life was going to change, how, she didn't know, but she understood from this day forward she was going to have to learn to find refuge within herself--not in her job, her friends, or even Kevin.
As she went back to the kitchen, her mind was racing like the wind outside, touching down here and there on unpredictable currents.
She was flipping a grilled cheese sandwich when Clara Alice came into the kitchen.
"Anna, would you please make me another cup of tea? Like the one earlier--not chamomile, the one that tastes so buttery."
Please? Did I just hear Clara Alice say please? Anna looked at her mother-in-law. "Sure. Would you like a grilled cheese sandwich, too?"
"That sounds good. Could we have some cottage cheese with pineapple, too?"
Anna nodded, afraid to speak.
"I'll be right back," Clara Alice said. "I just want to watch the reveal on What Not to Wear. It's amazing how clothes and makeup change those women."
As soon as Clara Alice was out of the kitchen, Anna poured scotch into a cup, put the tea bag on top, and plugged in the kettle. She returned the bottle to the sideboard, stared at it, then moved it behind the other bottles. As crazy as it appeared, one ounce of scotch had done what two psychiatrists, a half dozen therapists, Prozac, Zoloft, and Effexor had not--returned her mother-in-law to the gentle soul she had first met before the tragedy of 9/11. She wondered if there was such a thing as liquor therapy.
As they finished their meal, Clara Alice was mellow. Anna wondered if feeding two ounces of alcohol to Clara Alice was elder abuse. Better not chance it, she thought.
"Did the man say..." Clara Alice began. "Is Kevin in some sort of trouble?"
Anna chose her words carefully. "He just said Kevin would be home in a few days, a week at the most."
"That's good news--isn't it?"
"Wonderful news," Anna agreed.
"Anna, may I ask you a really, really personal question? You don't have to answer if you don't want to."
"Ask me and we'll see," Anna said, offering a smile to take any sting out of her reply.
Still, Clara Alice hesitated. "I was just wondering... Are you and Kevin planning on children?"
"Clara Alice! Of course we are." How much to tell, Anna wondered then decided all of it. "We've been trying for years. We've both been to doctors, and we're both fine. There's no physical reason for me not getting pregnant."
"Maybe you and Kevin need a vacation--like a second honeymoon. You've never let me pay for anything all these years, so ... well, if you and Kevin would agree, I'd like to treat you to a second honeymoon."
Anna looked at the empty teacup before Clara Alice then up to her mother-in-law's face. There was no malice, no deception, no sly smirk. She could barely keep her jaw from hanging open.
"That's a really nice thought. Let's talk to Kevin about it when he gets home."
"I'll convince him. You know he always minds me. I got pregnant with him on my honeymoon, you know."
"I didn't know," Anna said.
"You've never seen his baby books, have you?"
"No, I haven't."
"Maybe we could get those out of storage. I don't remember where we put everything ... after ... after it happened."
Anna smiled at Clara Alice. A genuine smile, not one she had to paste on to hide dismay or irritation. "Kevin put all of your things in the basement. We can look for them this weekend."
"Oh. Let's put a bug bomb down there first. I hate spiders."
"Ew, me too," said Anna.
Later as she lay in bed, each time she closed her eyes thinking of Kevin, another face rose up to plague Anna. An angular face in which dark eyes tracked her every move, seeming devouring her, mocking her, piercing her brain, so that all her secrets were laid bare for inspection.
She turned on the lamp, propping herself up on a pair of pillows, forcing Caburn's image from her mind and, until sleep overtook her, devised ways to reclaim the rapture in her marriage. Kevin was coming home. Frank Caburn had said so. And for some unfathomable reason, she believed him.