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Chapter 1


Spring rain poured down on a winter-parched ground making the grounds lush with green grass. If it weren’t for the gray, also weathered white and gleaming black headstones in the Riverview Cemetery, the grounds were so well kept it would have been perfect for a golf course. Beautiful evergreen trees lined the huge cemetery and strips of boxed-in colorful geraniums were planted at each corner of each section of the grounds. The last car was leaving, winding its way down a gravel road that snaked through the cemetery to the newest section facing east, where Gil Roberts had just been laid to rest.


No one could have been more shocked than Patricia Drake, Ruth Ashton and Marilyn McGregor, three friends, all in their early 50s who had grown up together, to hear of his sudden passing seven days earlier. You would hardly know they belonged together as a three-some, they were each so different. Patricia was 5’5”, prided her medium sized clothes, liked to wear silk blouses, tight blue jeans and fancy cover-ups to minimize her over-sized bust. She had shorter thicker blonde hair with bangs and wisps of auburn streaks giving her a smart look. Everyone thought she was very pretty, with friendly green eyes, fair skin and level white teeth that almost glistened when she smiled. Most people found her easily approachable.


Ruth was the tallest of the three friends at 5’7”, had a graceful stance, wore her auburn hair short and kept it neat looking, giving her a sophisticated look. Her large hazel eyes seemed searching, but they had a warmth that drew people in. She had light tan colored skin and tanned easily because of it. She loved well-tailored designer clothes in the autumn colors of green, gold and beige. Her shoes were the imported expensive kind, made of leather, and she kept them spotless. Many people mistook her for a teacher or other professional, and most of the time she looked calm and serene, like she had it all together.


Marilyn was the youngest looking of the three women. Shorter at 5’4”, she was well endowed, yet carried her weight well, always careful to avoid unsightly bulges especially around her waist. She had blonde hair medium length that turned up at the ends, bangs and dreamy blue eyes. She loved her make-up, painted nails and lots of bright colors, especially blue to match her eyes. She often wore stoned-wash blue jeans and loved dressy black boots. All the women wore fancy designer progressive glasses and they all looked younger than their years, although they often admitted they felt older some days. And today they each wore smart-looking black dresses with black shoes and matching handbags to show respect for the grieving family. But they were so well dressed, in fact, with sequined collars, and silk scarves, that they could easily attend an evening gala and no one would be the wiser that they had just come from a sombre funeral.


Attending funerals was becoming common place for them, since this was the fourth funeral in the past 18 months that had brought them together in this same cemetery. They were the last ones standing by his open grave, huddled under a huge multi-striped beach umbrella that Marilyn had kept in the trunk of her spacious silver Buick in case of a sudden urge to hit the beach 20 miles away. The funeral director was waiting for them to leave so the groundskeeper could cover the gaping hole and let Gil rest in peace.


It had been Marilyn that had cried the hardest during the funeral, smearing her black mascara, giving her racoon eyes. She had used up the entire box of tissues that was placed on their bench. Both Ruth and Patricia were dying to find out why she was crying so hard. After all, Alex was her current husband, even though they had just separated a month ago. Still standing in the cemetery, Ruth offered Marilyn, who was still crying, her little packet of tissues.


Patricia handed the umbrella to Ruth to hold, put her hands on her hips and faced Marilyn.


“Okay sister, what gives?”


Marilyn blew her nose, swallowed hard, gained her composure and said, “I’ll tell you in the car if you promise never to tell anyone.”


They each tossed a red carnation into the grave, said goodbye to Gil and then started walking towards her car, which had been parked at the furthest end of the cemetery. They’d have lots of time to talk since the cemetery was five miles north of town.


Nothing much had changed between the three friends since grade school. The town was basically the same and Marilyn was basically the same, keeping secrets and then dying to make an open display so they would wonder what was going on, and then she could hardly wait to tell all. It was no wonder why she had chosen singing for a career, grabbing the spotlight when she could. But it had been a small career since most of her gigs had been in the high school and then later she sang in the local restaurants and lounges, and sometimes in the odd cocktail lounge in the city.


They all squished into the front seat of the older car and Marilyn sped off ignoring the speed limit sign on her way out of the cemetery. Ruth and Patricia stared at Marilyn, waiting for an answer.


“You remember way back in high school when Gil and I were kind of seeing each other?”


“That far back?” Ruth ventured to calculate the exact number of years. “Thirty five years ago?”


“I guess so. You remember how he was the all-star quarter back and I was the head cheer leader?”


“Yeah, so what?” Patricia was growing impatient. She hoped Marilyn had some intelligent explanation for her weepy behavior, and she was starting to grate on her nerves.


“Did you know that we got so close that I got pregnant and that we were going to get married even though I was only 16? And that my parents sent me away to have the baby?”


Ruth and Patricia looked at each other bewildered.


“You mean in grade 11 when you were away for a long time and everyone thought you had yellow jaundice?”


“That’s the time.”


Patricia fiddled with the strap on her black patent purse. “You never told us the real reason you were away? How come?”


“I lost the baby and I could never talk about it again. Gil’s parents were so furious about the whole thing that they said that if he ever had anything to do with me ever again, they wouldn’t pay his way through college. And since he never got the scholarship for his football abilities, he had to do what they said.”


“So did this all come back to you today? I mean that was a long time ago,” Ruth pressed.


“I just got thinking about what could have been. I’ve never been able to have a baby in my first two marriages and now in this third one that’s coming to an end, it’s too late for me. I never made it in my singing career and now I’m alone.” Tears started filling her eyes. “So everything’s coming to an end for me. I’m just a could-have-been singer in this going-nowhere town with no future,” she said between sobs, swerving the car into the opposite lane as her eyes were filling with tears. Patricia had to grab the wheel to avert a crash with a farm truck.


“Stop the car. I’ll drive. One funeral is enough for this week!”


Patricia drove the rest of the way to her place, which was about a half mile east of town across the quaint Blueridge River that meandered through the town. She had invited Ruth and Marilyn to her spacious two-story house for tea and some left-over finger sandwiches and dainties that Gil’s oldest daughter, Amy, had offered her earlier from the luncheon at the church where the funeral service had been held.


After the tea was made, they settled into the sun room facing Patricia’s gorgeous back yard that had a patio, small in-ground pool, and a beautiful angelic fountain in the water garden, numerous flowering trees, and colorful flower beds.


Ruth took a sip of her jasmine tea. “Well, I think it’s just the rain that’s got you down. And what can be worse than standing in the cemetery in the rain? And we have lost three high school friends before this one in so short a time. That’s enough to make anybody sad and depressed.”


Marilyn didn’t say anything as she bit into a cream cheese and cherry filled finger sandwich, hungry from all the emotional upheaval in her life.


Patricia sat back in her comfortable cushioned recliner, put her feet up and bit into a chocolate fudge dainty.


“Well, I’ve been thinking about things too. What have I done with my life? I mean yes, I have made it as a mystery writer, and I have Alicia and my two grandkids. And even though I can’t get Jake to move out on his own, it’s comforting to have a son around. Ever since David and I split up and then he started seeing that witch Donna, I have felt the loneliness. But I don’t want Jake to live here forever. He’s almost 34 and he needs to gain some independence. Besides, if he’s going to meet a girl and get married, he’d better hurry it up.”


“Did you get your divorce papers finalized yet?” Ruth asked.


“This morning.”


“Oh I’m sorry,” Marilyn said, genuinely brightening for the first time, realizing she wasn’t the only one with problems.


“You know, I knew it was coming. I should have listened to my mother — she warned me to never marry a military man. They crack under pressure and either they drink too much or eventually they take up with another woman. She was right. I don’t think David and I were ever suited for each other. He was always so occupied with his military career as an officer training new recruits and we were always at odds when we were together. And then when I found out he was seeing Donna, one of the young recruits he had trained years ago, well that was the last straw!”


“But, what’s done is done.” Patricia reached over and turned on a lamp as the sky grew dark with a thundercloud making the room darker.


“What about you Ruth, what’s happening with you?” Marilyn asked, now almost fully regained from her bout of sadness and crying.


“I guess we really do have a lot to catch up on. Even though we all live here, we’re all so busy with our own lives that we hardly see each other except in passing.”


“Or at a friend’s funeral,” Patricia quipped.


“Well, things have not improved with Timothy’s wife Andrea. She still refuses to have children and I just know my oldest son is going through hell living with her. Talk about spoiled! He’s giving her everything already and she still wants more. It’s a good thing he’s the top salesman for our company, Ashton Pharmaceuticals & Medical Equipment. He makes good money and gets to travel all over the country, all expenses paid. I’m sure he enjoys the peace and quiet being away from her at least for a few days at a time. Nathan, my youngest, is doing very well. You know he’s living in Florida and he’s acing his med school courses. He’s already in his third year. I’m so glad I encouraged him. He was always so interested in science and it helped that he came along with me to the hospital when I was still nursing. He was curious about medical things even as a small boy.”


“That’s great. But how are you doing?” Marilyn persisted.


Ruth lowered her eyes and ran a finger around the rim of her china cup.


“Things haven’t been the same since I lost Thomas. Two years already since that dreaded plane crash, and it still seems like yesterday. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it. But at least I don’t have to worry about taking over as CEO of the company. Thomas’s younger brother Steve is running things now, but of course I am the largest shareholder.”


“Do you oversee anything now that you’re retired from nursing, or do you just mainly attend the board meetings?”


“No, actually Timothy attends in my place. Sometimes he needs a signature, but I don’t really need to be there. Thomas had everything running so smoothly and it just continues to run as it always did. I just get my shareholder checks deposited to my account. Our accountant handles the financial side of things. But still, since I don’t have to work, sometimes I wonder what to do with myself. The house is too large and some nights I can’t even sleep it’s so quiet.”


Just then there was a crack of thunder, the lights flickered and then went out completely.


Patricia jumped off the chair.


“Don’t worry. I’ve got lots of candles. I’ll be right back.”


The lightning was so intense, it lit up the back yard showing Patricia’s angel fountain blowing the waterfall sideways as it worked hard to continue to pump out the water. The outside door slammed and both Ruth and Marilyn jumped up suddenly and let out a yelp.


Jake walked in drenched, carrying a flashlight.


“Sorry to have scared you, Mrs. Ashton and Mrs. McGregor.”


“You can call us by our first names, right Marilyn?”


“Of course. You’re making us feel like old biddies.”


“Okay, Ruth and Marilyn. Sorry to have scared you. I better run upstairs and change before I flood the house with my drenching wet clothes. Mom will skin me alive for the mess I’m making.”


“Maybe we should go,” Ruth said gathering her purse.


Jake turned around just as Patricia came back carefully holding a tray full of white lit pillar candles with a sweet vanilla scent.


“Glad you’re home Jake,” she said setting the tray down on the table lighting up the area like a Christmas tree.


“It’s bad out there. Some of the streets are already flooded. I barely made it home before the bridge overflowed with water. They had to close it down.”


“Isn’t there another road into town?” Ruth asked.


“It’s washed out.”


“So we’re stuck here!” Marilyn said with a tinge of panic in her voice.


“Afraid so,” Jake ran upstairs to change while the two friends stood, not sure what to do next.


“Oh don’t worry. I have two extra bedrooms. It’ll be fun, just like when we were kids,” Patricia offered. “I’ll make popcorn; we’ll get comfy, and talk and tell stories all night.”


“Yeah, who needs sleep anyway?” Marilyn laughed.


“We can sleep any old time.” Ruth joined in the idea.


“Besides, neither of you have anyone to go home to. So there’s nothing to worry about and no one to call.”


They sat down again warmed by the gentle flickering candles. No one said anything while they relaxed not having to go anywhere or worry about having to keep a schedule in order to please someone else.


Driving With the Top Down