OUTSIDE THE SKY was a pale blue as if it had been bleached by the searing sun. The trees that lined the street wore thick coverings of rich green leaves. Neighboring lawns with nurtured grass and immaculately trimmed shrubs contrasted sharply with the gleaming oyster shell coloring of pavements and driveways. Behind the gleaming brick and wood homes lived the staid, affluent and cultured society of Denver, Colorado.
Lainie MacLeod stared through the gauze of white sheer curtains, her arms crossed and her hands rubbing her elbows in a gesture of nervousness. A bright yellow dandelion looked back at her from its solitary location on the front lawn. Her hazel eyes noticed the intruder as she sighed wearily. What they really needed, she thought dejectedly, was a part-time gardener, but she knew there was no way to stretch the budget to include him. Somehow she would just have to find time to do it herself, just as she had done with so many other things.
There was really no need to keep up any pretense that the income in this home even came near to equaling that of others on the block. Lainie was sure their neighbors were fully aware of the precarious financial position they were in. No matter how discreet she had tried to be, there was no way they could have missed seeing the consistent removal of priceless objects from the home. Only Lainie's pride refused to allow the outward appearance of the home that she had been reared in to show the true state of their affairs.
A shiny sports convertible turned into their driveway, its driver stopping the car and running her hands through her silky brown hair before hopping out of the car. Lainie smiled as she moved to the front door, glancing up the open staircase toward her mother's bedroom. The last thing she wanted was for the front doorbell to ring and rouse her mother, who had just drifted off to sleep.
It would mean endless explanations as to the reason for Ann Driscoll's visit, and Lainie wasn't ready to explain. Her mother had never approved of her friendship with Ann, insisting that Ann did not exhibit the breeding and culture that had always been expected of Lainie. It was immaterial that Ann's parents were wealthy people, or that Ann had married well. Mrs. Simmons considered Ann's outlook bohemian and treated her as such. But Lainie's own determination had kept their friendship intact.
Lainie knew Ann as the only true friend she had, the only one who had stood by her in any crisis. So when she greeted her at the door, her welcome was genuinely warm. Ann's greeting was just as fervent as always, her emotions mirrored in her eloquent blue eyes which never failed to reflect her feelings whether they be happy, sad, flirtatious or angry. Yet for all her elation at meeting her best friend, Lainie still remained subdued, her eyes straying to the door at the top of the stairs.
As the pair retreated to the kitchen at the rear of the house, Ann's eyes studied Lainie with concern. To a stranger, she would have seemed an enchantingly haunting woman, but to Ann, who had known her for over ten years, the telltale signs of strain were very apparent. The dark circles under her eyes, which heightened the incredibly dark lashes and the almond-shaped hazel green eyes, revealed nights of interrupted sleep. The tan and white checked skirt hung loosely around her waist, and the short-sleeved white linen blouse with its scooped neck accented the prominence of her collarbones. Both indicated the weight loss that was robbing Lainie of her energy. Even her dark hair, which had once been so well cared for that it gleamed with a satiny sheen, was now dull. Now that Lainie had so little time to care for it, she had drawn it away from her face and caught it at the back of her neck with a gold clasp. The severe style further emphasized her always prominent cheekbones, but with an uncomplimentary result.
But Ann also knew that any expression of her concern would be wasted, so she blinked away her anxiety and smiled as she accepted the tall glass of punch offered her.
"How's your mother? Did the doctor stop in this morning?" Ann watched the fleeting frown pass across Lainie's smooth forehead before she replied with deliberate lightness.
"Yes. He seemed very pleased with her, which irritated mother considerably." Lainie sighed heavily as she seated herself at the round table. "She complains so often of the pain that it's difficult to know how serious her condition is at times. And poor Doctor Henderson swears she reads father's medical books just to come up with new symptoms for him to diagnose."
"But everything is all set for tonight?"
"I mentioned it to him." Lainie met the questioning glance, indecision in her own eyes. "He felt as long as there was someone competent staying with mother, it would be all right."
"Who could be more competent than a registered nurse?" Ann shrugged airily.
"I just don't feel right about it." Lainie tapped the edge of her glass nervously. "Mother is so uncomfortable with strangers around. I think it would be best if we postponed it until another time."
"Listen, we've done nothing but talk about this concert for a month now. It's all settled. Adam has bought the tickets and everything. You just can't back out now!"
Little sparks of blue fire flashed out of Ann's eyes as Lainie hedged at meeting her gaze. She chose instead to lean an elbow on the table and rub her forehead.
"I have been looking forward to the concert," Lainie admitted, "but I just can't help worrying about mother."
"You ought to start worrying about yourself for a change," Ann retorted sharply. "The worst mistake you ever made was coming back here to Denver when your mother became ill. You should have put her in a nursing home instead of knocking your brains out trying to take care of her yourself. In the seven months you've been back, how many times have you been out of this house? And I'm not referring to trips to the pharmacy or grocery store."
"I don't know. A few times," Lainie replied reluctantly.
"I'll tell you exactly. Three times! Once to have dinner with us, once to go shopping with me, and once to the cinema." Ann curtailed her growing anger and leaned forward to plead, "Lainie, if you don't make some time for yourself you're going to have a breakdown."
"Don't be melodramatic!"
"I'm not. You'd just better look in the mirror and discover that you aren't Florence Nightingale. You're not indispensable. Someone else can look after your mother just as adequately as you."
"Oh, Ann!" Lainie's generous mouth curved into a smile. "If only I could be as sensible as you, perhaps I wouldn't feel so guilty."
"It's your mother who's making you feel guilty. She's running your life just as she's always done. Those three years spent in Colorado Springs have forced her to change her tactics and use emotional blackmail to retie the umbilical cord."
"I had no choice," Lainie replied, her pride stiffening her chin. "There was no money left from father's estate and mother had allowed her insurance to lapse. She may not be the kind of mother that...that I would like her to be, but I would never humiliate her by forcing her to accept someone else's charity."
"And how long will your money last?" Ann asked quietly.
"It doesn't matter." Lainie couldn't bring herself to tell her friend that her money had run out over a month ago and the bills were still coming in. The little income her mother received combined with Lainie's monthly check from Rad were the only things that were keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads.
"All right, it doesn't matter and it's none of my business." Ann's cupid bow lips pursed into a tight line. She leaned over the table toward Lainie, the frustrated urgency she felt visible in her expression. "But you must come to the concert tonight. The chances of Curt Voight returning to Denver in the near future are terribly small. I won't let you miss it if I have to drag you there!"
Voight was a superb pianist, one Lainie had admired for several years. She knew she would be foolish to turn down an opportunity to see him perform in person, especially in the face of Ann's opposition. In the last several years there had been few occasions when she had been able to attend such exclusive events, not since Rad . . . There was a sharp, vigorous shake of her head at the unwanted memory.
"I'm going," Lainie said quietly, while Ann wondered what had caused the flicker of pain in the hazel green eyes.
The nurse, Mrs. Forsythe, arrived at six that evening so that she would be able to assist Lainie with her mother's dinner and allow Mrs. Simmons an opportunity to adjust to her daughter's absence that evening. Lainie had refrained from informing her earlier because she knew her mother would not be in favor of the idea. And she was absolutely correct.
"Oh, Lainie darling, please don't leave me." Her mother clutched her hand tightly as Lainie seated herself on the bed. Her dainty, superbly feminine features were drawn in petulant lines.
"You're going to be just fine, mother," Lainie soothed her, glancing over at the sympathetically raised eyebrows of the nurse. "Mrs. Forsythe is a very competent nurse. She's been trained to take care of people in your condition."
"But you are my daughter." Her white chin trembled fretfully. "What if something should happen to me? What if I should die? I want you to be here with me."
"Nothing is going to happen to you," Mrs. Forsythe inserted in a comforting voice. "And with as much spunk as you're displaying, I think it's highly unlikely that you'll die tonight."
Mrs. Simmons immediately reversed her tactics and sunk weakly against her pillow. Her lashes fluttered toward Lainie to show how little strength she had.
"Mrs. Forsythe knows exactly how to get in touch with me. I can be home in minutes if necessary, but either way I promise you I'll come straight home after the concert."
"You won't dally around with that wretched girl, will you?"
"No, mother, I'll come straight home."