The sun of the early April day shone in a cloudless sky. Yesterday’s rain had left the ground moist and easy for digging. Daffodils and tulips added color to the scene and delight to my spirits. I knelt beside one of the mint patches and loosened the soil around the emerging shoots. Soon the numerous varieties would be high and provide leaves for drying and blending into teas. This year, I planned to use green tea as a base in some of the blends.
I pulled weeds, then sank back to admire my work. My Maine Coon cat lay beside the gardening mat. With a boneless movement, Robespierre stretched. I sighed with envy and wished I had his supple spine. He ambled toward the car pulling into the driveway.
Jenna Taylor, one of my first floor tenants, slid from the red hatchback and waved. “Hi, Mrs. Miller.”
I rose and gathered my tools. “How was class?”
She grinned. “Thanks for your help on the Psych paper. Got an A.”
“I’m proud of you.”
Her hazel eyes filled with sadness. “You’re the only one.” She took the basket and carried it to the porch of my “Painted Lady.”
The Victorian house I’d lived in since my dead husband and I had settled in this
village had been converted into two apartments. I chose the second floor with
its view of the river and rented the first. A week after my return from Hudson
Valley , I’d acquired
Jenna and her friend as tenants. The young women were students at the local
college, Jenna in Nursing and Louise in Business. Santa Fe
I paused at the foot of the steps. “Why don’t you call your grandmother? I’m sure she’d be glad to see you and as proud of your accomplishments as I am.”
She shook her head. “And bring my problems with my uncle on her head? He hated my mother. After my dad died, Mom asked him for help and he refused.” Tears glittered in her eyes. “You should have heard the things he accused me of after my cousin’s death. I’m better off staying away from family.”
I touched her hand. “The accident was five years ago. Surely he’s over the loss by now.”
She combed her fingers through her short honey blonde hair. “He never forgives or forgets.” She handed me the basket. “Have to change for work. See you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” I echoed and followed her inside. Robespierre trailed me upstairs. There, I spilled a little food in his dish. He thinks he should be fed every time he returns from outside. I always indulge him by adding a few dry tidbits.
I put the kettle on. I hurt for Jenna. She’d seen more tragedy in twenty-three years than anyone should bear. Her father’s death, her mother’s alcoholism and series of abusive relationships. Orphaned at fourteen, she’d gone to live with her grandmother. Three years later, there’d been the accident and her cousin had died. For some reason I hadn’t learned until recently, Jenna had become a runaway.
In January, I learned from an acquaintance who taught at the college that Jenna had enrolled as a student and was looking for an apartment. When she was a child, I’d felt sorry for her and angry about the way her uncle had treated her. I offered her the first floor apartment at a reduced rate and had signed a lease with the girls. Over the past few months, Jenna and I had become friends.
After a quick wash-up, I brewed a pot of mint tea. Robespierre began his greeting dance. Before I had a chance to see who had arrived, the cat slipped through his door. When I saw him on the landing with my young friend Robby, I called a greeting.
“Mrs. Miller, can I visit?” Robby asked. “I need to ask you something really important.”
“Over milk and cookies?”
He nodded. “Mom said I can have three.”
“How does peanut butter with chocolate chips sound?” His grin provided my answer.
“Oh, yes.” He bent and scratched Robespierre’s head. The large cat rumbled like the sound of distant thunder.
Once the ritual greeting ended, three cookies and a glass of milk waited on the table. Robby pulled a stool to the sink and washed his hands. “See. I ‘membered.”
“So you did.” While he ate the first cookie, I filled a mug and sat across the table from him. “Do you want to tell me what’s bothering you?”
He propped his elbows on the table. “How can a boy be happy his grandma died? If I had one, I would be sad.”
I sipped the tea. “That’s a hard question. Want to tell me how you learned the boy was happy about her death?”
He leaned forward. “He’s in my class. Always saying bad things ‘bout her. Said she was rich and mean ‘cause she wouldn’t buy him all the toys he wanted.”
“Sounds like he’s greedy.”
Robby’s head bobbed. “He sure is. Always saying how his things are better than mine ‘cause they cost more.”
“So why was he happy she died?”
“’Cause his mom and dad don’t fight with his grandma ‘bout her money. They got it all.”
I cradled the mug. “Is he happy now?”
“Guess so. He says so but he’s still mean.” Robby reached for a second cookie. “He got a new bike and lots of video games. He’s gonna live in a big new house. They can ‘ford a new one ‘cause no more money goes to that place.”
“You know, the one on the river where old people go. Our class went there once to sing. They liked us.”
The private nursing home is where the rich of the area go to recover from surgery or to spend their final years. The boy’s grandmother must have had the means to pay for the luxurious service. I patted Robby’s hand. “I’m not sure I have answers for your questions. I’m not sure there are any.”
He looked up. “If I had a grandma, she would be just like you.”
“Thank you.” I patted his hand. “Tell you what. Why don’t I become your adopted grandma?”
His eyes widened. “You really could be mine? Like the puppy Pete said we’ll ‘dopt from the shelter?”
Being compared to a puppy tickled my thoughts. Laughter brought tears to my eyes. “Since I’m an experienced grandmother, I won’t need training in how to behave. The puppy will.”
He jumped up and hugged me. A frown wrinkled his forehead. “Mom says I have to call you Mrs. Miller. A grandma should be called Grandma.” He bit the third cookie and swallowed. “I know. You can be Grandma Mrs. Miller. Wait ‘til I tell Mom and Pete.”
Before he left, I gave him a tin of cookies. “Make sure you share.”
“Have to.” He giggled. “Pete would chase me around the table making pig sounds. I’m glad Mom married him.” He tucked the tin under his arm and opened the door. Robespierre dashed ahead of him. “Bye, Grandma Mrs. Miller.”
Just then, Jenna stepped from the downstairs apartment. “What was that about?”
“He wanted a grandmother so I adopted him.”
“That’s so nice.” Her voice broke.
“Come to church with me on Sunday.” Her grandmother was a member of St. Stephen’s. So was I. Martha Garner and I had become friends when we worked on several Women’s Guild projects. I know she often wondered what had happened to Jenna. Though I’d wanted to tell Martha about her granddaughter, I hadn’t broken my tenant’s confidence. Maybe the rift could be breached there.
“Not a good idea. Can’t you picture Uncle Marcus standing on the church steps with pointed finger and yelling, ‘Sinner, be gone. Your kind isn’t welcome here.’ I wouldn’t want to tempt him to appear as less than a good Christian.”
The note of bitterness in her voice saddened me. She’d been alienated from her family for too long. Surely, there was a way to bring about reconciliation, at least with her grandmother. An idea occurred. When I returned to my apartment, I made two phone calls.
* * *
Two days later, Martha and I entered Le Lune, a local restaurant where Jenna worked as a hostess/waitress. The small room holds a dozen tables in a cozy atmosphere offering exquisite food. Silver moons decorated the pale blue walls. On the tables, metal lanterns with moon cutouts held flickering candles.
As we waited to be escorted to our table, Jenna looked up. “Mrs. Miller. Gran!” She dropped the menus and hugged Martha.
“Child, you look wonderful. Why haven’t you called the house? It’s been five years since I’ve seen you. I’ve missed you.” Tears trickled down Martha’s cheeks.
“You know why.” Jenna looked away but not before I saw tears glistening in her hazel eyes.
Martha nodded. “You could have let me know you were all right.”
Jenna made a face. “I couldn’t. Uncle Marcus warned me to stay away.”
Martha tisked. “I don’t understand him. Where were you all this time?”
“With Dad’s cousin. She died this fall so I decided to go to school.”
“But she lived so close.” Martha grasped Jenna’s hand. “Don’t think we didn’t try to find you. Your uncle hired a detective. How long have you been in town?”
“Since January, right before classes began at the college.” Jenna retrieved the menus. “Let me show you to a table.”
“I just don’t understand why you didn’t let me know,” Martha said.
“Uncle Marcus knew I was here. He told me not to call or visit. He was afraid you would be upset and have a heart attack. He said you’re not well.”
Martha shook her head. “My heart is sound. I don’t understand why he’s still grieving over what happened so long ago. Child, what did happen that day? He won’t tell me.”
Jenna led us to a table and held the chair for her grandmother. “I won’t either.” She handed us menus. “The veal dishes are great and I recommend the house dressing.”
We decided on veal piccata. After Jenna took our orders, she headed to the kitchen.
Martha’s gaze followed the young woman. “She looks wonderful. Thank you for arranging this meeting. I’ve always refused to believe the stories I was told.”
“And what were they?”
“That she was abusing alcohol and using drugs. I never saw any evidence when she lived with me.”
“Who told you that?”
She frowned. “Maybe...I’m not sure but Sophie might have been the one.”
“How much did Marcus say about the accident?”
Martha took a deep breath. “That Jenna was high on something. I didn’t notice that when she left the house.”
“Why would he say that? Her tests were negative.”
“He said she and Mark quarreled and Jenna grabbed the keys. Mark tried to stop her, but she sped off and crashed into the tree.”
“But Marcus wasn’t there.” I stared at the candle. Why had her son lied? Mark had been the driver and his blood alcohol had been well over the legal limit.
A few hours after the accident, the first he’d seen since he’d joined the police force, Pete had come to the house. He’d known Mark. Pete had been upset for another reason. As owner and editor-in-chief of the local newspaper, Marcus had kept the details out of print. How could I tell Martha, her son was a liar?
“Are you sure you heard everything he said?” I asked. “After all, you both were in shock.”
Martha frowned. “I’m sure he said Jenna was driving. You know, she walked out of the hospital and ran away. Why didn’t she come home?”
“You’ll have to ask her.”
Our salads arrived. Jenna had been right about the dressing, a raspberry vinaigrette. When the entree arrived, the veal could be cut with a fork and the sauce had a bold lemon flavor.
Jenna returned to refill our cups and to deliver crème brulee. “You’ll enjoy this. My treat.”
Martha caught her hand. “Why are you working here?”
“The usual reasons.”
“I...” Martha shook her head.
“Gran, I’m doing fine.”
When Jenna left to deliver another customer’s meal, Martha leaned forward. “I just don’t know why the detective Marcus hired couldn’t find her. She was living an hour from here.”
Had he really hired a detective? My few encounters with her son regarding church matters made me doubt he had. Marcus Garner believed his way was the right and only way. Over the years, I’ve watched him manipulate others, including his mother. I believed he had no intention of sharing his mother’s wealth with a soul, especially not his niece. His young daughters were spoiled. His second wife was years younger and she thought money could purchase anything or anyone.
“Why didn’t Jenna come to me for help?”
“Maybe she doesn’t want money.”
“But that’s why she quarreled with Mark. She believed he was my sole heir and that wasn’t true.”
The last spoon of dessert slid down my throat. “Let me handle the check and take you home.” I couldn’t answer her question. Would she ask her son? The one person who could?
She touched my hand. “You don’t want to be involved and I don’t blame you. Family problems shouldn’t spill onto friends.”
I was already involved. Jenna was my tenant and Martha, my friend. I would find a way to mend the shattered pieces. How, I didn’t know.