“I DON’T BELIEVE IN MIRACLES,” KAREN SAID, LOOKING AT HER sister-in-law with her lips pressed tightly together. Sunlight shone on Karen’s shiny-clean face, making her look like the “before” photo of a model without makeup. But lack of makeup only revealed perfect skin, high cheekbones, and eyes like dark emeralds.
“I never said a word about miracles,” Ann replied, her voice showing her exasperation. She was as dark as Karen was fair, half a foot shorter, and voluptuous. “All I said was that you should go to the Christmas dance at the club. What’s so miraculous about that?”
“You said that I might meet someone wonderful and get married again,” Karen answered, refusing to remember the car wreck that had taken her beloved husband from her.
“Okay, so shoot me, I apologize.” Squinting her eyes at her once-beautiful sister-in-law, Ann found it difficult to believe that she used to be eaten up with jealousy over Karen’s looks. Now Karen’s hair hung lank and lifeless about her shoulders, with split ends up to her ears. She hadn’t a trace of makeup on and with her pale coloring, Karen looked like a teenager without it. Instead of the elegant clothes she used to wear, she now had on an old sweat suit that Ann knew had belonged to Karen’s deceased husband, Ray.
“You used to be the most gorgeous girl at the country club,” Ann said wistfully. “I remember seeing you and Ray dance at Christmas. Remember that red dress you had, slit so high your tonsils were visible? But how you and Ray looked when you danced together was worth it! Those legs of yours had every man in the room drooling. Every man in Denver was drooling! Except my Charlie, of course, he never looked.”
Over her teacup, Karen gave a faint smile. “Key words in that are ‘girl’ and ‘Ray.’ Neither of which I am or have any longer.”
“Give me a break!” Ann wailed. “You sound as though you’re ninety-two years old and should be choosing your coffin. You turned thirty, that’s all. I hit thirty-five this year and age hasn’t stopped me.” At that Ann got up, her hand at her back, and waddled over to the sink to get another cup of herbal tea. She was so hugely pregnant she could hardly reach the kettle.
“Point made,” Karen said. “But no matter how young or old I am, that doesn’t bring Ray back.” When she said the name, there was reverence in her voice, as though she were speaking the name of a deity.
Ann gave a great sigh, for they’d had this conversation many times. “Ray was my brother and I loved him very much, but, Karen, Ray is dead. And he’s been dead for two years. It’s time you started living again.
“You don’t understand about Ray and me. We were . . .’
Ann’s face was full of sympathy, and reaching across the table, she clasped Karen’s wrist and squeezed. “I know he was everything to you, but you have a lot to offer some man. A man who is alive.”
“No!” Karen said sharply. “No man on earth could fill Ray’s shoes, and I’d never allow anyone to try.” Abruptly, she got up from the table and walked to the window. “No one understands. Ray and I were more than just married, we were partners. We were equals; we shared everything. Ray asked my opinion about everything, from the business to the color of his socks. He made me feel useful. Can you understand that? Every man Fve met before or since Ray seems to want a woman to sit still and look pretty. The minute you start telling him your opinions, he asks the waiter to give him the check.”
There was nothing that Ann could say to contradict Karen, for Ann had seen firsthand what a good marriage they’d had. But now Ann was sick with seeing her beloved sister-in-law hide herself away from the world, so she wasn’t about to tell Karen that she’d never find anyone who was half the man Ray was.
“All right,” Ann said, “I’ll stop. If you are bound and determined to commit suttee for Ray, so be it.” Hesitantly, she gave her sister-in-law’s back a hard look. “Tell me about that job of yours.” Her tone of voice told what she thought of Karen’s job.
Turning away from the window, Karen laughed. “Ann, no one could ever doubt your opinions on anything. First you don’t like that I love my husband and second you don’t approve of my job.”
“So sue me. I think you’re worth more than eternal widowhood and death-by-typing.”
Karen could never bear her sister-in-law any animosity because Ann truly did think Karen was the best there was, and it had nothing to do with their being related by marriage. “M y job is fine,” she said, sitting back down at the table. “Everyone is well and everything is going fine.”
“That boring, huh?”
Karen laughed. “Not horribly boring, just a little bit boring.”
“So why don’t you quit?” Before Karen could answer, Ann held up her hand. “I apologize. It’s none of my business if you, with all your brains, want to bury yourself in some typing pool.” Ann’s eyes lit up. “So anyway, tell me about your divine, gorgeous boss. How is that beautiful man?”
Karen smiled—and ignored the reference to her boss.
“The other women in the pool gave me a birthday party last week.” At that she lifted her eyebrows in challenge, for Ann was always saying snide things about the six women Karen worked with.
“Oh? And what did they give you? A hand-crocheted shawl, or maybe a rocking chair and a couple of cats?”
“Support hose,” she said, then laughed. “No, no, I’m kidding. Just the usual things. Actually, they chipped in together and got me a very nice gift.”
“And what was that?”
Karen took a drink of her tea. “Aneyeglassessholder.”
Karen’s eyes twinkled. “A holder for my eyeglasses. You know, one of those string things that goes around your neck. It’s a very nice one, eighteen-karat gold. With little, ah, cats on the clasp.”
Ann didn’t smile. “Karen, you have to get out of there. The combined age of those women must be three hundred years. And didn’t they notice that you don’t wear glasses?”
“Three hundred and seventy-seven.” When Ann looked at her in question, Karen said, “Their ages total three hundred and seventy-seven years. I added it up one day. And they said they knew I didn’t wear glasses, but that as a woman who had just turned thirty I would soon need to.”
“For an ancient like you, support hose are just around the corner.” “Actually, Miss Johnson gave me a pair last Christmas. She’s seventy-one and swears by them.” At that Ann did laugh. “Oh, Karen, this is serious. You have to get out of there.” “Mmmmm,” Karen said, looking down at her cup. “My job has its uses.”
“What are you up to?” Ann snapped.
Karen gave her sister-in-law a look of innocence. “I have no idea what you mean.”
For a moment Ann leaned back against the bench and studied her sister-in-law. “At last I am beginning to understand. You are much too clever to throw away everything. So help me, Karen Lawrence, if you don’t tell me everything and tell me now, I’ll think of some dreadful way to punish you. Like maybe not allowing you to see my baby until she’s three years old.”
When Karen’s face turned white, Ann knew she had her. “Tell!”
“It’s a nice job and the people I work with are—”
Suddenly, Ann’s face lit up. “Don’t you play the martyr to me. I’ve known you since you were eight years old, remember? You take extra work from those old biddies so you’ll know everything that’s going on. I’ll bet you know more about what’s going on in that company than Taggert does.” Ann smiled at her own cleverness. “And you let your looks go so you don’t intimidate anyone. If that dragon Miss Gresham saw you as you looked a couple of years ago, she’d find some reason to fire you.”
Karen’s blush was enough to tell her that she was right.
“Pardon my stupidity,” Ann said, “but why don’t you get a job that pays a little more than being a secretary?”
“I tried!” Karen said vehemently. “I applied at dozens of companies, but they wouldn’t consider me because I don’t have a university degree. Eight years of managing a hardware store means nothing to a personnel director.”
“You only quadrupled that store’s profits.”
“Whatever. That doesn’t matter. Only that piece of paper saying I sat through years of boring classes means anything.”
“So why don’t you go back to school and get that piece of paper?” “I am going to school!” Karen took a drink of her tea to calm herself.
“Look, Ann, I know you mean well, but I know what I’m doing. I know I’ll never find another man like Ray who I can work with, so maybe I can learn enough to open a shop of my own. I have the money from the sale of Ray’s half of the hardware store, and I’m managing to save most of what I earn from this job. Meanwhile, I am learning everything about running a company the size of Taggert’s.”
Karen smiled. “I’m not really an idiot about my little old ladies. They think they use me to do their work, but truthfully, I’m very selective about what I agree to do. Everything in that office, from every department, goes across my desk. And since I always make myself available for all weekends and holidays, I always see what’s most urgent.”
“And what do you plan to do with all this knowledge?”
“Open a business somewhere. Retail. It’s what I know, although without Ray there to do the selling, I don’t know how I’ll cope.”
“You should get married again!” Ann said forcefully.
“But I don’t want to get married!” Karen nearly shouted. “I’m just going to get pregnant!” After she’d said it, Karen looked at her friend in horror. “Please forget that I said that,” she whispered. “Look, I better go. I have things—”
“Move from that seat and you’re dead,” Ann said levelly.
With a great sigh, Karen collapsed back against the upholstered banquette in Ann’s sunny kitchen. “Don’t do this to me. Please, Ann.”
“Do what?” she asked innocently.
“Pry and snoop and generally interfere in something that is none of your business.”
“I can’t imagine what you could be referring to. I’ve never done anything like that in my life. Now tell me everything.”
Karen tried to change the subject. “Another gorgeous woman came out of Taggert’s office in tears last week,” she said, referring to her boss, a man who seemed to drive Ann mad with desire. But Karen was sure that was because she didn’t know him.
“What do you mean, you’re ‘going’ to get pregnant?” Ann persisted.
“An hour after she left, a jeweler showed up at Taggert’s office with a briefcase and two armed guards. We all figure he was buying her off. Drying her tears with emeralds, so to speak.”
“Have you done anything yet about getting pregnant?”
“And on Friday we heard that Taggert was engaged— again. But not to the woman who’d left his office. This time he’s engaged to a redhead.” She leaned across the table to Ann. “And Saturday I typed the prenuptial agreement.”
That got Ann’s attention. “What was in it?”
Karen leaned back again, her face showing her distaste. “He’s a bastard, Ann. He really is. I know he’s very good looking and he’s rich beyond imagining, but as a human, he’s not worth much. I know these . . . these social belles of his are probably just after his money—they certainly couldn’t like him—but they are human beings and, as such, they are worthy of kindness.”
“Will you get off your pulpit and tell me what the prenupt said?”
“The woman, his bride, had to agree to give up all rights to anything that was purchased with his money during the marriage. As far as I could tell, she wasn’t allowed to own anything. In the event of a divorce, even the clothing he bought her would remain with him.”
“Really? And what was he planning to do with women’s clothing?” Ann wiggled her eyebrows.
“Nothing interesting, I’m sure. He’d just find another gorgeous gold digger who fit them. Or maybe he’d sell them so he could buy a case of engagement rings, since he gives them out so often.”
“What is it you dislike about the man so much?” Ann asked. “He gave you a job, didn’t he?”
“Oh, yes, he has an office full of women. I swear he instructs personnel to hire them by the length of their legs. He surrounds himself with beautiful women executives.”
“So what’s your complaint?”
“He never allows them to do anything!” Karen said with passion. “Taggert makes every decision himself. As far as I know he doesn’t even ask his team of beauties what they think should be done, much less allow them to actually do it.” She gripped her cup handle until it nearly snapped. “McAllister Taggert could live on a desert island all by himself. He needs no other person in life.”
“He seems to need women,” Ann said softly. She’d met Karen’s boss twice and she’d been thoroughly charmed by him.
“He’s the proverbial American playboy,” Karen said. “The longer the legs, and the longer the hair, the more he likes them. Beautiful and dumb, that’s what he likes.” She smiled maliciously. “However, so far none of them have been stupid enough to marry him when they discover that all they get out of the marriage is him.”
“Well. . .” Ann said, seeing the anger in Karen’s face, “maybe we should change the subject. How are you planning to get a baby if you run from every man who looks at you? I mean, the way you dress now is calculated to keep men at a distance, isn’t it?”
“My! but that was good tea,” Karen said. “You are certainly a good cook, Ann, and I’ve enjoyed our visit immensely, but I need to go now.” With that she rose and headed for the kitchen door.
“Ow!” Ann yelled. “I’m going into labor! Help me.”
The blood seemed to drain from Karen’s face as she ran to her friend. “Lean back, rest. I’ll call the hospital.”
But as Karen reached the phone, Ann said in a normal voice, “I think it’s passed, but you better stay here until Charlie gets home. Just in case. You know.”
After a moment of looking at Ann with anger, Karen admitted defeat and sat back down. “All right, what is it you want to know?”
“I don’t know why, but I seem to be very interested in babies lately. Must be something I ate. But anyway, when you mentioned babies, it made me want to hear all of it.”
“There is nothing to tell. Really nothing. I just. ..”
“Just what?” Ann urged.
“I just regret that Ray and I never had children. We both thought we had all the time in the world.”
Ann didn’t say anything, just gave Karen time to sort out her thoughts and talk. “Recently, I went to a fertility clinic and had a complete examination. I seem to be perfectly healthy.”
When Karen said no more, Ann said softly, “So you’ve been to a clinic and now what?”
“I am to choose a donor from a catalog,” Karen said simply.
Ann’s sense of the absurd got the better of her. “Ah, then you get the turkey baster out and—”
Karen didn’t laugh as her eyes flashed angrily. “You can afford to be smug since you have a loving husband who can do the job, but what am I supposed to do? Put an ad in the paper for a donor? ‘One lonely widow wants child but no husband. Apply box three-five-six.'”
“If you got out more and met some men you might—”
Ann stopped because she could see that Karen was getting angry. “I know, why don’t you ask that gorgeous boss of yours to do the job? He beats a turkey baster any day.
For a moment Karen tried to stay annoyed but Ann’s persistence thawed her. “Mr. Taggert, rather than a raise,” Karen mimicked, “would you mind very much giving me a bit of semen? I brought a jar, and, no, I don’t mind waiting.”
Ann laughed, for this was the old Karen, the one she’d rarely seen in the last two years.
Karen continued to smile. “According to my charts, I’m at peak fertility on Christmas Day, so maybe I’ll just wait up for Santa Claus.”
“Beats milk and cookies,” Ann said. “But won’t you feel bad for all the children he neglects because he spent the whole night at your house?”
Ann laughed so hard at her own joke that she let out a scream.
“It wasn’t that funny,” Karen said. “Maybe Santa’s helpers could— Ann? Are you all right?”
“Call Charlie,” she whispered, clutching her big stomach; then as another contraction hit her, she said, “The hell with Charlie, call the hospital and tell them to rush a delivery of morphine. This hurts!”
Shaking, Karen went to the phone and called.