Read Off Season Online

Authors: Jean Stone

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General

Off Season (3 page)

Hugh followed him inside. He pulled Ben’s hands behind him and clamped cold metal around his wrists. “Ben Niles,” Hugh said, “you’re under arrest for indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of fourteen.”

Chapter 3

Rita supposed she was having a hot flash. She supposed the reason she was standing at her window with her body half-hanging outside in the freezing autumn morning was because
time had finally arrived, though she was only forty-six and it seemed premature.

The bitch of it was, she knew she was right. She’d missed her period last month and the month before that, too, and the gravity-slide of departing estrogen had already begun to thicken her middle. She’d heard of those symptoms, but no one had told her she’d be nauseous as well. The only good part, Rita supposed, was that she’d no longer have to worry about getting pregnant—as if that were an issue, for the last time she’d checked, in order to get pregnant one had to have sex.

She stepped back from the window, wondering if she’d ever have sex again, and if this quasi-hot flash didn’t have more to do with nerves than with her ovaries drying up.

Not that Rita Blair had anything to be nervous about.

Throwing on the long chenille robe that she still liked though she now could wear silk, she ambled downstairs to brew up some coffee, grateful with each step that she
owned this old saltbox free and clear, yet still pained by the fact that it had been the life insurance that Ben Niles—Kyle’s employer, Jill’s husband, her friend—had taken on Kyle that had paid off her debts, that had set her financially free. The death of the son, saving the life of the mother. Though it had been over three years, Rita knew that would never be right.

As she entered the kitchen, her heart filled with Kyle, she didn’t expect anyone to be at the table. She screamed, startling her mother, who screamed back in return.

“Jesus, Mother, you scared the shit out of me,” Rita said once she’d regained her composure. “Do you have to creep around in the middle of the night?”

“It’s not the middle of the night, it’s eight in the morning,” Hazel commented. “And if anyone’s creeping around, it’s you, not me. I’ve been sitting here for hours. I’ve had an entire pot of coffee and read
The Gazette
twice over.”

Rita checked herself before saying
Bully for you
, remembering that Hazel was pushing eighty and was only up from Florida for a visit, though she’d declined to say for how long. She smiled at the woman whose hair was still as flame-colored as Rita’s (L’Oréal number 4LR, because they were both worth it) and marveled that the recently widowed Hazel was in full makeup already, though there were no men around as far as Rita could tell.

“I think I’ve hit menopause,” she announced to her mother. She did not mention that she dreaded this “passage” because she’d watched Hazel go from mere crazy to berserk between her mid-forties and fifties and was afraid she was in for the same.

“Have you missed your friend?”

Hazel had always referred to her period as her “friend,” as if a monthly gush of blood accompanied by double-you-over cramps was the kind of friend every girl would want. “Yes,” she replied. “Twice.”

“You sure you’re not pregnant?”

Rita closed the cabinet a little too firmly. “I’m forty-six years old, Mother. I’m not pregnant.” She did not feel a need to announce that the last time she’d had sex was last summer. She had been with Charlie, of course, because since Kyle’s death, Rita was just too damn depressed to go near anyone else. After that last time, though, she hadn’t even gone near him again.

“Not because Charlie Rollins wants it that way. How many times has he proposed to you now?”

Gritting her teeth, Rita began making a fresh pot of coffee. She regretted ever confiding in her mother. “I’m not pregnant,” Rita repeated. “And I’m not going to marry Charlie Rollins. I’m not going to marry anyone.”

“Oh, that’s right, I forgot. Little Rita is too good for any man. Well, your friend Jill isn’t. She’s made a nice marriage for herself. You should follow her example. Take a leap of faith.”

It amazed Rita that, over forty years later, her mother was still holding her daughter up to the standards of Rita’s childhood best friend. It also amazed Rita that such a mention could still send prickles up her spine.

“Sorry, Mother,” she said, “but it appears that the only leap I’ll be making is into menopause: hot flashes, memory lapses, and vaginal dryness.”

Her mother picked up the newspaper. “Then get on the phone to Doc Hastings,” Hazel said. “No sense in you becoming as nuts as I was.”

As nuts as you are, Mother
, Rita wanted to say, but instead she asked, “You think I should take estrogen?”

Her mother opened the paper again, perhaps to doublecheck the obituaries (a favorite pastime) to see if anyone she knew was there, life laid out on a page. “Just call Doc Hastings. Say it’s an emergency. Or you’ll end up like me and no one will have the guts to tell you.”

Rita wondered if all mothers had the ability to read their daughters’ minds. Then she wondered how it was
that, yes, Jill had finally made a “nice marriage,” while Rita could no longer even make a commitment to have sex, even with Charlie, the one man in her life she supposed she’d ever loved; Charlie Rollins, Kyle’s father, though he’d known that too late.

Suddenly, the thought of coffee made her feel sick. She grabbed a bagel instead and ate it dry on her way upstairs to get dressed.

Even though the season was over, Rita had told Charlie she’d still work at the tavern. Without that she’d be bored and probably anxious as hell with Hazel around. Besides, working helped take her mind off Kyle now that the tourists had departed and distraction was tougher to find.

She still had her real estate business, such as it was, and still kept her magnetic S
sign on her aging Toyota. But Rita had long since given up trying to compete with the big guys. Nor had she succumbed to working for them. It was a matter of principle: she was a native to the island—a thoroughbred Vineyarder, the yuppies called them—and the big business maggots were not.

Of course, there was Sea Grove now, the elegant development of big-ass houses that she and Charlie and Ben Niles were planning to build.
, she thought as she unlocked the back door of the 1802 Tavern,
Rita Blair, a real estate mogul
. But the pleasure she might have taken in the concept was once again snuffed out by the fact it had been that damn double-indemnity policy that had provided her the funds to buy in.

Ben and Charlie had tried to talk her out of it.

“Kyle wanted your life to be easier,” Ben had said not long after the funeral.

“Use the money for yourself, Rita,” Charlie had added.
“Buy a new wardrobe, take a trip around the world. He would have wanted you to have some fun.”

But fun was the last thing Rita had felt like having. So she’d paid off her bills, including the twenty grand she owed Charlie, and stuffed the rest in the bank, where it sat until the Sea Grove deal surfaced.

They said it was a risk, but Rita figured that so far her whole life had been nothing but risks, so what was one more? Anyway, she had to believe Kyle would be happy to think she’d invested “his” money with the two most important men in his life: his boss and his dad. It made the presence of the cash a little less painful.

The tavern was quiet when Rita closed the door behind her. She glanced around the low-ceilinged, oak-beamed kitchen. The shiny copper pots hung as they should—charmingly Old New England, visibly inviting to the peering eyes of tourists, and steering their gaze away from the beat-up aluminum pans stored under the cabinets, the pans that, in reality, they used.

Then she noticed the far end of the room, where Charlie Rollins sat, Charlie the tavernkeeper, since he’d bought the place from Jill’s mother after Jill’s father, George Randall, had died.

“Top of the morning to you, Charlie!” Rita exclaimed. She turned on the overhead light and inhaled the aroma of coffee. Charlie was a tea man who drank coffee only to burn off the fuzz from a morning-after linger of a scotch or two. He did not do it often. “Late night?” she asked.

His answer was a chuckle. “Careful, my dear, I might mistake your concern for jealousy.”

The twinge that she felt might have been just that. Hopefully, it was only her hormones or lack thereof. She dropped her oversized nylon bag into the corner, glad that Doc Hastings had agreed to work her in this afternoon. It was always difficult to find people once winter
set in—so many headed south with the Canada geese except for the diehards like Rita and Charlie and Ben Niles. “I’m hardly jealous, Charlie Rollins,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’m only concerned about the health of one of my partners.”

He stood up and chuckled again, then rubbed a thoughtful finger across his dirty blond mustache that, in all these years, still did little to make him look his age, which was the same as hers, give or take a few weeks. Every so often—not now, thank God—Rita saw a flash of Kyle in Charlie’s brown eyes, or in his smile, or in his walk. “Don’t worry about me, Rita. Worry about yourself. And worry about Halloween.”

She groaned. “I thought we agreed not to do the party this year.”

“Amy wants it.”

Jill’s daughter had worked at the tavern since her high school graduation in June. At first Jill had balked, but Amy had argued that it was her birthright, the establishment having been started by God-only-knew how many generations back of Jill’s family in Edgartown. It was even believed that one or two of them still haunted the place. So now Amy wanted the party, and Amy got it, because all of them—Jill, Ben, Charlie, and Rita—treasured her so much with Kyle gone.

“Will she do it all?” Rita asked. “The decorating, the ordering, the advertising …”

Charlie smiled. “She can’t do it all, Rita. She’ll need your help. And Marge Bainey’s.” He took his cup to the sink and splashed in the dark contents. “Marge said she’d be glad to help Amy figure the booze.”

Rita stared at Charlie’s back. It did not escape her that he had not looked at her when he’d mentioned Marge, the middle-aged liquor distributor from the mainland who seemed to be spending more time lately on the island
than off. “Well,” she said, grabbing a pile of potatoes for today’s chowder, “bully for her.”

“Careful,” Charlie said, “that sounds like jealousy again.”

“And that sounds like the response of a typical male.”

“Hey,” he said, hauling a bucket of clams from the refrigerator, “cut me a little slack. I gave up on you a long time ago. Just like you wanted.”

Rita picked up the shucking knife and got busy. “Good,” she replied.

Child molester. Sex offender

Ben stared out the Plexiglas, iron-barred doors—Jesus Christ, they really were
—at the Dukes County jail, the goddamn
, and wondered what he was supposed to do next.

The only lawyer he trusted on the island was Rick Fitzpatrick, so he’d called him at two in the morning when he’d finally realized that this was no joke, not even the sickest kind. Rick did his best, but he was a real estate attorney, for chrissake, a long way from F. Lee Bailey.

The cops had finally stopped questioning Ben at five o’clock—
, his neighbors, his friends. They assured him their silence because, they said, Mindy was a minor and Ashenbach demanded it, and that guy was a loose cannon on a good day, never mind now that his granddaughter had been … molested.

. Allegedly by Ben. The only man—maybe the only person—who had ever given the kid the time of day. He’d let her hang out at Menemsha House since he’d opened the museum, partly because she was a feisty, eager kid who was obviously lonely and neglected, partly because he thought it might help soften her grandfather, Dave Ashenbach, into not being so much of a pain in the
ass about the fact that the museum property abutted his land.

He’d let her hang out at Menemsha House, and he’d shown her the ropes. He’d shared folk tales of old Yankees and legends of the Indians—just trying to let a kid know that somebody cared enough to be there. He’d even taken her to the cliffs at Gay Head a few times and told her about Noepe, his old Wampanoag friend, and showed her how to see pictures in the clouds in the sky.

He’d done all these things—and this was where it got him? With Ashenbach saying he’d molested Mindy? Or worse, according to the old blowhard, with
saying he had?

Ben looked down at his feet that were once again in socks, because his boots and his belt and his watch and probably his goddamn mind, if he had one left, had been sealed in an envelope and stuck inside a locker.

Not that he remembered putting on his boots. It must have been some time after Hugh had followed him into the museum, but before he’d stood in the booking room, cuffed to the counter, bright lights shining on him, with a lump in his gut and no spit in his mouth.

Even now he was not sure what was happening.

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