Six weeks earlier...
From outside the house, Ben Brown could hear the insistent ringing of the kitchen phone. But Ben had more urgent concerns to address. Chief among them, breathing.
He wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his forearm, bent over at the waist and sucked in oxygen, ignoring the stitch in his side. He had told himself that turning thirty-eight the week before had been no biggie--just another nonexistent birthday candle on a nonexistent birthday cake.
But if it was so inconsequential, why the hell was it becoming next to impossible to clock seven-minute miles on his daily run along the towpath? Father Time was a cruel son of a bitch. Not to mention, almost as irritating as the phone that continued to drone on, demanding attention like an early morning alarm clock.
Ben straightened up--breathing was becoming tolerable--and considered the situation. Only three people had his unlisted number: one, his housekeeper; two, his one remaining friend from his former job--may everyone else burn in their greed and sense of entitlement; and three, his lawyer. Ben always thought in terms of numbers. According to his ex-wife, that was his strength but also his failing. What had been her name again?
He shrugged and cocked his head toward the open upstairs window, toward the sound of the vacuum cleaner going in his bedroom. Which could only mean that Amada, his housekeeper, had showed up when he was out running. So much for possibility number one. As for option number two, Ben knew that his friend and partner Hunt was in Davos, theoretically skiing, but more likely courting Swiss investors for their new venture capitalist firm. He looked at his sports watch. Four o'clock in the afternoon, which would be ten o'clock at night in Switzerland, too late for Hunt to be calling. Which meant it had to be his attorney.
Never a happy option if recent history was any guide.
Ben considered letting the call go to voice mail when he heard the vacuum cleaner stop. God knows he didn't want Amada to get mixed up in his business. Quickly he pushed open the door, the wood scraping along the slab of gray stone, an original element of the centuries old cottage.
I really do need to plane that, he reminded himself and picked up the phone.
"Brown," he said.
"George B. Brown? Is this Mr. George Benjamin Brown?" The voice was female, unctuous and unfamiliar. Female he could take. Unctuous and unfamiliar held absolutely zero appeal.
He was about to hang up when the woman added, "My name is Trudy Colliver, and I'm calling from Steamboat Springs, Colorado."
It was the "Steamboat Springs, Colorado" that stopped him from slamming down the receiver. "Yes," he said cautiously.
"Oh, good. I must say, you're not an easy man to reach," the woman at the other end of the line said. "I tried the Wall Street firm where you recently worked, and they suggested I contact your attorney in Manhattan. He, in turn, gave me your current number in Ð" Ben could hear a shuffling of papers "--in Grantham, New Jersey."
"Did he now?" Ben was wondering if he should fire his lawyer today or wait for tomorrow. If he remembered correctly, it was the ambulance chaser's birthday. Definitely today then.
"You see, I'm also an attorney, and I'm calling on behalf of a client. Charlise Worthington? I believe you were acquainted with Ms. Worthington?"
Charlise Worthington. Steamboat. Names out of his past, say, fifteen years past, right after he'd gotten out of the Marines. Thumbing his way across the country with no particular focus, Ben had somehow landed in Steamboat Springs for one winter season, despite the fact that he'd never skied or snowboarded in his life and didn't know a stem Christie from a telemark. No surprise there since foster homes didn't exactly cater to expensive winter sports.
He had eked a meager wage playing piano at a bar where Charlie had been a waitress. She was a local, addicted to powder. The kind you skied on, that was. Charlie had had no time for drugs, any more than world politics, corporate greed or long-term leases. They'd shared laughs, more than a few beers, and a brief affair.
The sad truth was--and Ben was beginning to be of the philosophy that truth was by and large sad--he had enjoyed her company and the sex immensely, but had headed for L.A. as soon as the snow had melted without an iota of hesitation and barely a glance backwards. A typically insensitive guy. The only salvation was that Charlie had probably seen it coming, given her whole no-long-term lease on life thing.
Now, thinking back, though, he found he was smiling. "That's right, " he said. "We go back, quite a few years, but we lost touch some time ago."
"That is what I was given to understand. Unfortunately it doesn't make my news any easier." There was a brief pause during which Ben could hear a long intake of breath. "Mr. Brown, I'm sorry to inform you that Ms. Worthington recently died."
The sweat soaking his T-shirt turned ice-cold. Ben turned around and leaned against the kitchen counter. "That's, ah, that's..." What did you say in response to news about the death of someone who embodied life to its fullest? "That's, ah, too bad." He rubbed his forehead. "Was she in an accident? A skiing accident?"
"No, it was breast cancer. She was very courageous, and remained positive throughout the course of her treatments and relapses, but in the end the disease was just too strong."
The tightness in his chest had nothing to do with the aftereffects of exercise. "I'm sorry. I'm...so sorry to hear that. Charlie was good, a good person. She didn't deserve to die so young."
Ben didn't respond. Unlike Charlie, he knew that he wasn't a kind-spirited person. He could think of any number of people whom he wouldn't shed a tear over if an errant bus happened to run over them. If there were any justice in the world, guys like him would be the ones to die young while the Charlies of the world would live to a ripe old age, sitting around a roaring fireplace, sipping hot drinks and enjoying their grandchildren.
He rubbed his jaw with his palm. "Listen, if there're some outstanding debts or things that need to be settled in her estate, I'd be happy to do so." He turned on the cold water and bent his head to drink from the faucet.
"Actually, there is a small inheritance, but there are some bills that require payment, and your offer is very generous. But in all fairness, I called with reference to another matter in Ms. Worthington's will."
Ben straightened up and wiped away some water that dribbled off his chin. "Whatever Charlie wanted to give me, I'd rather you donate it to charity. I really don't want for anything and prefer to live simply." He leaned over to drink some more.
"God knows that with two mortgages, one kid in college and another taking private figure skating lessons that cost more than most people's yearly pay, I can understand your preference. However, in this particular instance, it's not so simple to reject the offer. You see the bequest is a boy. A fifteen-year old boy."
The water ran into Ben's nose. It splashed over his face. His hand. He coughed. And coughed some more.
"Mr. Brown? Mr. Brown, are you all right?"
Blindly, Ben managed to turn off the tap and, leaning heavily on the edge of the sink, sucked in mouthfuls of air. Just to make sure, he gulped another large dose of oxygen. "Charlie had a son?" he said.
Charlie would have been a wonderful mother. Ben knew it. He could perfectly imagine what her kid must be like: blond, athletic, easy-going, one of those kids who was perpetually wind- and sunburned, maybe with a chipped tooth that he'd gotten from a skateboard accident.
But he never would have imagined what came next.
"And, Mr. Brown, she's named you as the boy's father."
(Copyright, Louise Handelman, 2009)