Thursday, June 21, 1951
Ricky’s stomach hurt. His dad was giving him away, giving him to Grandpa Eliot. Ricky didn’t like Grandpa Eliot. Thinking about Grandpa Eliot made Ricky’s stomach hurt.
"Young Rick is an intelligent, inquisitive, and dynamic lad," Grandpa Eliot said, "and we want to ensure he lives up to his considerable potential."
Three nights ago, after he’d gone to bed, Ricky heard Dad and Grandpa Eliot talking. He had crept to his open bedroom window and listened to them down on the patio.
"This coming school term," Grandpa Eliot said, "we would like to bring the boy home with us to Pasadena and enroll him in Flintridge Prep. At Flintridge, the boy would be ensured a superior education, worthy of his potential, throughout his secondary schooling."
Ricky reached from his sleeping bag and felt for his flashlight. He clicked it on and swept its broad beam around the tent. Sharp-edged shadows scurried across the khaki-colored canvas walls.
Ricky was sleeping by himself, in his own tent in his own backyard, for the first time ever. He’d asked for months, ever since Dad had given him the camping set. Mom surprised him today, actually asked him if he wanted to, even helped him set up the tent. At first, Ricky thought he might be a little bit afraid-but he wasn’t afraid. He was really brave for a seven-year-old.
"Flintridge is close enough," Grandpa Eliot had said, "that the boy would be able to visit you and Rebecca every summer, and on major holidays, of course."
Ricky squirmed from his sleeping bag, zipped open his tent, and stepped onto the frosty grass. The fog tickled his face. He surveyed his backyard. From atop the back wall of their hacienda (his dad liked to call the house a hacienda), light from a flood lamp filtered through the mist and bathed the lawn in a hazy glow.
"When Rick completes Flintridge, Helen and I would be honored if you allowed us to send him through USC, for his undergraduate work and law school. It’s a fine institution, my alma mater, and the degree would ensure the boy a fine future."
Ricky’s tent made a neat fort. High stone walls surrounded the backyard, and were interrupted only by the barred wrought-iron gate that led to the driveway. Ricky counted eleven steps from his tent to the back door, which Mom had left unlocked in case he wanted a drink of water.
"One last thing, Bob, something you don’t need to think about right away." Grandpa Eliot paused and sniffed." As you know, Rebecca has no siblings. She is our only child, and I am the last male in the Jefford line."
At the entrance to Ricky’s adobe, Spanish-style hacienda, a drive-through wrought-iron gate exited to a clearing; beyond the clearing, a concrete driveway crawled down a shallow ridge for a hundred yards or so, then wound through the California chaparral for almost half a mile, where it met a narrow macadam road. The intersection was marked by a stand of eucalyptus and Ricky’s brass mailbox, a glittering sentry in the moonlight: Bob and Becky Adair / 144 Bernardo Canyon Road.
"Something I’d like you to consider," Grandpa Eliot had said. "I would be honored if you and Rebecca might someday find it in your hearts to consider changing Rick’s surname to Jefford."
Ricky wished Dad was home tonight, but Mom said his business trip was going to take two more days, and she and Ricky’s little sisters were alone now, in the dark, in that big hacienda. Ricky had promised Dad he’d watch over them until Dad came home.
Maybe if he did a really good job, Dad wouldn’t give him away.
"The lad is, after all, half Jefford in any case, and this wonderful favor would ensure the boy a considerable inheritance."
After Grandpa Eliot and Grandma Helen left that night, Ricky woke up when Dad yelled at Mom, yelled something about Ricky. Dad never yelled at Mom. Dad was mad at Ricky, about something bad he had done. That’s why he was giving him to Grandpa Eliot.
Dad never did tell Grandpa Eliot, No, you can’t have Ricky. He just said, Becky and I would need to discuss that, Eliot.
Ricky went back to his tent.
Silent as a four-wheeled wraith, the showroom-new Buick hissed through the blackness. The fog shrouded the convertible; twin rapier-beams shot from the headlamps and shredded the mist; tendrils swept past the windscreen in blurred wisps.
Bob Adair scanned the green glow of the dashboard instruments. The clock read 9:41.
God, he was sorry! He had serious apologizing to do. He shouldn’t have yelled at Becky, shouldn’t have taken it out on her. It wasn’t her fault that her father-Eliot Jefford, senior partner of Jefford, Sloane and Riving, Attorneys at Law-was an overbearing, egomaniacal jackass.
The in-laws’ long-awaited visit went down the toilet in grand fashion. When Eliot Jefford asked to steal their kid. Bob managed to patiently wait until his in-laws left for Pasadena late that evening. Then, he exploded. Early the next morning, he left for San Francisco for the scheduled six days of merger talks. He left in a huff, didn’t wake Becky. Worst of all, for the first time in ten years of marriage, he violated their golden rule: never go to sleep angry.
His eyes narrowed, and he calculated his timing. From that last crossroads, he’d need fifteen minutes to pass through Tecolote, and another seven or eight minutes to make it to the "Last Chance" market.
Overall, the marriage had gone smoothly. Bob had weathered his rockiest challenge a couple of years back, suffered a bout with jealousy when he felt threatened by Jeremy Benson. A man gets nervous when his wife’s former fiancee moves into town and asks around about her. Counseling finally cleared the green-eyed monster out of his head, and Bob understood now that Jeremy Benson had never presented a threat.
Bob slipped into fantasy. He would awaken his lovely wife... ever so slowly. An erotic phantom. Becky... writhing beneath him, her head pressed back into her pillow... blue eyes wide, mouth agape... at first sighing, then gasping... finally murmuring...
He smiled at the memory, and went back to his timing. No more than four or five minutes to the market, then a ten-minute drive to the hacienda, give or take a couple. He’d arrive with an hour-plus to spare; he’d make it home before midnight, make it easily. He couldn’t wait to see the surprise on Becky’s face. At the San Francisco talks, he’d learned that Adair Instruments had multiplied its market value by twenty-fold. He felt light-headed, everything had whipped by so fast. Even now, he tried to wrap his head around the fact that he and Becky were actually wealthy, a prospect beyond his dreams two years ago. And he’d erase all of Eliot Jefford’s doubts. The old bastard finally would accord his son-in-law a measure of respect. Bob Adair would provide old man Jefford’s daughter-and those grandchildren, including Eliot’s signature grandson-with all the security and luxuries Becky had enjoyed when she was young. And more. They would send Ricky to college-the college of the kid’s choice-without Eliot Jefford’s interference.
Bob grinned into the fog. Becky expected to see him rattle home in his old Dodge this coming Saturday night. Instead, he was driving home her anniversary present, her white-over-maroon dream convertible, and two days early. Tomorrow he’d drop the top for her, let her drive it with the wind whipping through that beautiful blonde hair. He grinned with anticipation; home in less than an hour. He reached to the dash and switched on the radio.
"Because of you... " Tony Bennett.
The fog’s tendrils crept through the hacienda’s open second-floor window, suffused the master bedroom with scents of eucalyptus and chaparral.
From the velvet blackness, the radium-dialed clock on the nightstand glowed 9:52.
Becky Adair couldn’t sleep.
Her aquamarine-blue eyes open wide, Becky stared into the shadows. She tossed, turned-and tossed again.
She wanted him.
Becky writhed onto her stomach and squirmed into the warmth of the freshly-ironed sheets.
She held her breath. She felt the bedroom door whisk over the carpet, just a hsss. She caught the scent of his cologne. Musky. Becky’s heart drubbed staccato in her chest. Her skin tingled. He had come to her.
Bob peered through the fog, saw the sign. It floated in the mist, suspended in space; the orange halo glowed a spectral greeting: "GAS / LAST CHANCE / 14 MILES."
He spun the convertible left onto Corral del Diablo Road and turned into the parking lot; the graveled surface grumbled beneath the Buick’s tires.
Bob crunched across the lot and threw open the weathered screen door. He glanced at his wristwatch, then quick-stepped past the service counter, down the brightly lighted aisle.
"Good evening, sir." The night clerk, a young fellow, catapulted to his feet and tossed behind the counter a magazine: Sunbather’s Digest.
Within a minute, Bob strode back to the register. He clunked a frosty bottle of Mumm’s champagne atop the counter and followed it with a dozen long-stemmed roses.
"A late date, sir?"
"Nope." Bob’s face broke into a smile. "On second thought, I guess you could say so. It’s our anniversary." He glanced at his watch. "That is, if I make it home before midnight."
"You live near here?"
"About three miles up the road."
The clerk glanced at the clock on the wall." You’ll have no trouble."
"Can you handle a check for ten dollars over?" Bob opened his checkbook. "I may hit the diner for a cup of coffee before work tomorrow."
"I’m sure I can, sir." The clerk brushed back a mop of brown hair and ducked behind the counter. "You have an account with us?"
"Bob and Becky Adair. One-forty-four Bernardo Canyon Road."
The boy popped up with a grey-metal file box. "Should be right up front... Ah, here it is." The boy glanced at Bob, and looked back at the box. "Mrs. Rebecca Adair?" He looked up, his expression puzzled, and asked, "The blonde lady, with the two little girls?"
Bob grinned. Finally, he was comfortable with this sort of reaction. At twenty-nine, Becky looked a gorgeous twenty-three. And Bob’s silver temples showed all of his forty-four years.
"We’ve got a little boy, too," Bob said. "Married ten years today, and three terrific kids. Therefore, champagne and flowers." He glanced again at his wristwatch. "Can you cover the ten bucks?"
"Oh, yes, sir!" The clerk yanked a ten from the cash drawer and thrust it at Bob. "Congratulations on your anniversary."
Becky lay motionless beneath the covers. A cacophony pounded in her chest.
The door clicked closed, and his footsteps padded across the carpet to the four-poster bed. The aroma of his cologne intoxicated her; she grew lightheaded.
She breathed deeply, steadily, feigned slumber. And smiled into her pillow. Beneath the covers, Becky lay naked.
His kiss tingled electric at the nape of her neck, and her body shivered. She murmured drowsily, a beautiful dreamer, and wriggled onto her back, tossed her silken tresses over her pillow, and shed the covers from her very shapely, very naked body.
The fog thickened, cut Bob’s visibility to less than fifty feet; but he knew the road, and the Buick clung to the turns, agile as a sports car.
He glanced at the dashboard clock, and grinned into the gray shroud. This would have been the first wedding anniversary they’d spent apart. But fate hadn’t counted on the determination of Bob Adair.
Ahead, a jagged vertical scar materialized; it became the stand of eucalyptus, and Bob backed off on the accelerator. The new brass mailbox erupted from the mist, shone in the glare of the Buick’s headlamps: Bob and Becky Adair. A little extravagant, that brass box, but it would last them through a dozen grandkids. He felt for the Mumm’s nestled beside him, ran his fingertips along the bottle’s icy wetness, and glanced over at the clock. Ten-eighteen! Touchdown!
Bob edged the convertible down the lane. He slowed for the wooden bridge and crept over the stream that rippled below. A moment later he accelerated, lunged into the fog’s blanket.
He approached the clearing, and the adobe hacienda took shape. At first pale and diffused, it surged from the mist. A chill traveled up his spine, and he basked in his home’s cold beauty.
The wrought-iron gate stood open. No need to close it, not out here. Security wasn’t a problem. Bob drove through the gate, switched off the headlamps, stopped beside the hacienda, and killed the ignition. From the convertible’s soundless cocoon, he peered up at the second floor, at the open master bedroom window. It was dark; Becky hadn’t heard his approach.