Blood Relations

an excerpt

Chapter One



Simon was the last of the Melvilles. His father had never tired of telling him so until the day he died and put paid to the claim.

Gerald had become estranged from his parents while he was in college, and his subsequent relocation to Hawaii and marriage to a local girl effectively severed his ties to the Melville clan. The perfunctory stream of cards and letters from well-wishing relatives dwindled to a trickle after the first few years of his marriage as the young Mrs. Melville was disinclined to reciprocate. Her own family was enough to deal with. Simon had once overheard her say, "Why waste time on strangers on the other side of the world?"

Thus, the Melvilles became quasi-mythical beings to Simon, existing in a peripheral reality, acknowledged but amorphous. Without even a photograph to go by, the young Simon found himself inventing the Melvilles in his head just as he invented Jesus, Salome or John the Baptist. By the time Simon came of age and moved to the mainland, the Melvilles--along with the biblical personages--had faded into the mists of childhood memory.

Now, years later, Simon held written proof of the Melville's existence in his hands.

"Well, I'll be damned," murmured Simon, lighting a cigarette. He took a drag and peered through the haze of smoke at the watermarked stationary of Harland Everson, Esquire. Simon blew away the fug and scanned the attorney's letter once more.

'Dear Mr. Melville,

Please allow me to express my belated condolences to you on the passing of your father, Mr. Gerald Melville. I did not know your father personally, but his cousin, the late Nathaniel Melville, held him in the highest regard. Sadly, it was the recent death of Nathaniel Melville's wife, Dorothea, that led me to the discovery of your own loss.

I will not burden you with too much legal detail at this early juncture, but I am writing to inform you that Mrs. Dorothea Melville named your father as her sole heir and you as successor, should your father predecease her.

The Melville estate is substantial, and it may surprise you to learn that, in addition to various financial interests, your legacy includes the ancestral home known as Melville Hall. The historic property consists of a manor house, several thousand acres of land and the remains of a lumber mill in disuse since the late nineteen forties.

I urge you to contact me at your earliest convenience so that we may arrange a meeting to discuss the particulars of your legacy.



Sincerely,

Harland Q. Everson, Esq.



Simon's vivid imagination alternately conjured images of the House of Usher and Tara; neither of which was likely representative of his newly acquired property.

My earliest convenience.

Simon glanced at his watch and calculated the time in South Carolina. Then he ground out his cigarette, reached for his phone and dialed the attorney's number.

* * *

Late fall and winter weather in the northern reaches of South Carolina was unpredictable--so Simon had read. The temperature on Christmas day might as easily reach seventy as dip into the teens. Now, the week after Thanksgiving, it stuck at a chilly thirty-seven but was expected to rise into the sixties in the next few days.

You're an indecisive one aren't you, Mother Nature?

Well, Simon could sympathize. As he turned the steering wheel of his rental car, the bright sun, reflected from frost and ice, played on the row of tiny diamonds in his engagement ring, reminding Simon of his vacillating emotions.

As much as he coveted the ring, the future it represented was not in the cards. How could it be? He wasn't ready to start raising a family. He doubted he ever would be. Wasn't that the point of marriage? That, or financial security? In response to these questions, Simon's lover, Izzy, had replied that it was all about commitment. Simon's flippant response had been that he loved Izzy too much to have him committed.

Izzy had not laughed.

They'd been having the same debate about gay marriage for years. Izzy contended that it was essential for homosexual couples to have the same marriage rights as their heterosexual counterparts to achieve true equality. Simon argued that homosexuals who married were only cow towing to a heterosexual paradigm that fostered the assumption of sexual 'roles' for each same-sex partner. For years, the argument had been academic and the points on both sides moot.

Then the laws began to change.

And the serpent entered the Garden of Eden.

"We've been in a relationship for nearly six years," Izzy had said quietly, trying to control his frustration and disappointment at Simon's less than enthusiastic acceptance of the engraved diamond engagement ring with which he had surprised his lover in a most traditional way--over dinner at their favorite restaurant. "Marriage is an affirmation of that; of what we've accomplished. What the gay community has accomplished."

Wrong choice of words, Izzy.

Simon could see that Izzy realized it, too, if belatedly.

"I am not the 'community,' Izzy. I am me. I do not intend to marry you just to prove a point. I have everything I need right now. I thought you did, too."

Izzy clasped his broad, hairy hands together and pressed them to his lips; a gesture which Simon understood indicated a supreme effort of will to keep his mouth shut. Then, Izzy leaned back in his chair and sighed.

Round one to Simon.

"At least promise me you'll think about it," said Izzy. "That's the point of an engagement, I think."

Simon smiled at Izzy's earnestness. He wanted to say yes just to make Izzy happy, but Simon knew that his lover would sense the insincerity and resent it, no matter how well intended.

"Good grief, Izzy," said Simon, deciding to fall back into the safety net of sarcasm, "you sound like a Victorian suitor. I suppose I ought to be having palpitations or catching the vapors; or something equally dainty."

Izzy laughed. A good sign.

"I didn't expect you to go into raptures and say yes immediately," Izzy said with a conciliatory note. "Besides," he continued, swirling the remains of his wine, "you'll have plenty of time to think while you're sipping mint juleps at Twelve Oaks."

* * *

Simon nearly missed the turnoff as his mind wandered. Only a few minutes outside of Rock Ridge proper and it felt like the boondocks. Hell, Rock Ridge was the boondocks as far as Simon was concerned. But he had to admit that the rolling hills, trees, and picturesque farms held a certain charm. Simon imagined that in the spring it would be quite a lovely sight.

The sight of the Melville family manse was something else entirely. Simon idled the engine as he approached the open gate of heavy wrought iron. He could make out the enormous 'M' worked into each panel quite clearly, although each letter was surrounded by a frenzy of arabesques and curly ques. Beyond the formidable gate, lay an expanse of dormant trees and shrubs. The long strait driveway drew Simon's eyes to the decrepit-looking Palladian style home to which the afternoon sunshine failed to lend even an iota of cheer.

"Lovely," mumbled Simon as he reached for his box of Nat Sherman's. Then with a rough gesture, he shoved the pack back into his leather messenger bag. He'd managed to cut down to a handful a month, and he'd already reached his quota. Simon closed the bag decisively and switched gears on the manual transmission. Piloting the vehicle slowly forward, the aspect of house grew clearer as its shape loomed closer and closer. It wasn't so much decrepit, Simon realized, as neglected, like a good quality dress shirt in need of pressing.

Welcome home, Simon Melville.

* * *

Once inside, Simon breathed a qualified sigh of relief. Within, the place wasn't nearly as bad as it appeared from without. A good deal of Simon's hopeful attitude had to be put down to the woman who received him. Geneviève Phillip was a slender, conservatively and expensively dressed woman whom Simon guessed to be in her late sixties or early seventies. Her short, dark brown curly hair was streaked with gray and styled in a side-parted pixie cut. Laugh and smile lines creased the cappuccino colored skin of her face. Not at all the Mrs. Danvers doppelganger Simon had envisioned. Simon imagined he detected a Caribbean lilt underlying the woman's soft southern accent, but failed to pinpoint its specific origin. The caretaker satisfied his curiosity with a brief autobiography as she gave Simon the fifty-cent tour.

"When my husband retired, we bought a bed and breakfast in St. Lucia, where I was born." said Geneviève, as she led the way up the wide stairway to the second-floor landing, "When Mr. Phillip passed on, I sold the place and moved back to the States to be closer to my niece, who lives in Spartanburg. Last year, I saw the ad for this position, and I just knew it would be perfect."

Simon looked around at the faded wallpaper, worn wood floors, and threadbare oriental carpets. "Perfect" would not have been his word of choice. The caretaker laughed, obviously reading the incredulity in Simon's expression.

"I'm an artist," said Mrs. Phillip. "Pottery, mostly. I love solitude and quiet. Melville Hall provides both in equal measure, as you can imagine. Plus, I have a studio to work in. Separate from the main house."

Closer inspection of the second-floor rooms led Simon to conclude that some recent attempt at renovation had been made. The windows appeared to be new, and the wood flooring restored to its original luster.

"The late Mrs. Dorothea Melville," explained Mrs. Phillip, "began a restoration project shortly before her death. It was Dodo who hired me, actually."

Dodo?

"A true Southern gentlewoman," said the caretaker, a soft smile taking years from her face. She laughed. "I used to tease her and call her Miss Daisy. It pissed her off, I know, but she was a good sport. About most things, anyway. I can't believe I actually miss the old bit--" She stopped herself short, apparently feeling she'd nearly said too much.

Simon chuckled, his deep voice making it sound more like a rumble.

"No worries, Mrs. Phillip," said Simon, placing a hand on the woman's forearm. "I didn't know Mrs. Melville. I didn't know any of the Melvilles. You probably know more about my own family than I."

Mrs. Phillip responded with a tilt of her head, brushing back her hair from her forehead with a half-smile and an appraising look. Simon got the distinct impression that Geneviève Phillip was the type of person who didn't miss a trick. A good trait for someone who'd been in the hospitality business. And a good trait for an artist, too, Simon thought.

"You may not know them," replied Mrs. Phillip, as she waived Simon forward along the hallway, "but you do resemble them. There are quite a few portraits of your ancestors here. I've made a bit of a project of gathering them together since just before Dodo passed on. Some of them are very good and possibly quite valuable. It would be a damned shame to see them auctioned off."

"Oh, please, Mrs. Phillip," began Simon, not certain how to respond, "I'm sure I–"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Melville. My mouth tends to work independently of my manners. It's only that Dodo intended just that. She understood their potential monetary value but couldn't have cared less about their artistic merit until I impressed upon her how important they were to the history of the home."

She twisted her face into a disapproving expression and shook her head at the perceived folly of the deceased woman.

"And please, call me Genny."

Simon inclined his head.

"If you'll call me Simon," he replied. There was something very disarming and likable about the caretaker.

"Alright then, Simon. Let me show you to your bedroom. I think you're in for a pleasant surprise."

* * *

The room was beautiful. Fully restored, it bore the elegantly simple stamp of the period: free of ostentation, the wealth and status of the builders of Melville Hall were expressed in rich woods and fine detail work. Simon, who had never visited the historic homes of the South, was somewhat awed. He felt as if he'd stepped into a museum.

"The Hall is the only continuously occupied Palladian home in the state and is on the National Register of Historic Places," Genny said. "Construction was begun in 1745. The Melville family maintained sole ownership of both the Hall and the mill until just after the Second World War." Genny stopped abruptly and made a sharp tsk sound. "Just listen to me, going on like a tour guide. Of course, you know all of this already," she continued, smiling apologetically.

"As a matter of fact, I don't," Simon responded, eliciting a raised eyebrow from the caretaker. "I was serious when I said you probably know more about my family than me. My parents were estranged from the rest of the Melvilles, and I grew up in Hawaii. I didn't even know about Melville Hall until I got the letter from Mr. Everson."

"I see," said Genny in a tone which indicated that she did. And was that a wave of relief that Simon saw pass briefly over her face? "Well, then. That explains quite a bit. Mrs. Melville didn't know your father…and Nathaniel, I mean Mr. Melville, who passed on shortly before I came to work here, hadn't spoken to him in years, as far as I know."

"So, what happened after the war, then?" Simon asked, moving toward one of the four tall windows and pulling back the cream-colored velvet panels.

"From what I gather, there was a falling out among your grandfather and his siblings. Apparently one or more of the in-laws held the Melvilles responsible for the decline in family fortunes. These were the Hollanders. Dodo's family. They took control of most of the business interests, while the Melvilles retained the Hall and the grounds. This all happened behind the scenes, you understand. One Melville or another always continued on as a figurehead."

"Sounds like a corporation," commented Simon.

Mrs. Phillip nodded.

"I suppose it was something like that. Still is, as you've no doubt learned from Mr. Everson. Anyway, Dodo married a Melville, Nathaniel, your father's cousin, in 1976, and reclaimed the entire estate in the name of the Melvilles. Out of spite, apparently. I don't believe she got on well with her family." She paused, then added in an undertone: "There were no children."

"Then I am the last of the Melvilles," mused Simon as he stared out over the sloping lawn and beyond to the edge of the river. A large structure that resembled an elongated barn--or what was left of it--blighted an otherwise picturesque vista. The remains of the mill, Simon surmised.

Genny had no rejoinder for his comment, and Simon was glad of the fact. The caretaker was hardly as tactless and she claimed. That Simon had learned more about his family from a stranger in just a few minutes than he had from his own father in a lifetime shamed Simon in some way.

Perhaps sensing his mood, Genny flashed a bright smile before announcing her departure.

"I'll go and see to lunch, then. I can show you over the rest of the place afterwards, if you like."

Simon felt his stomach growl slightly in anticipation. As usual, he'd skipped breakfast.

"Thanks, Genny. I'd like that. But there's no need to fuss."

Genny's brown eyes twinkled with amusement as she regarded Simon, hand on hip.

"I reckon you're going to be the master of Melville Hall now, Simon. But I run the place. Man, haven't you read any gothic romances?"

Simon laughed and the feeling of sadness that had come over him dissipated.

"Fine," Simon said. "But don't you dare call me Miss Daisy!"

* * *

Luncheon was served in the painstakingly restored dining room. It seemed to Simon that the restoration project had not been approached with any sense of order, but as he sipped a post-meal amaretto from a cordial glass engraved with an 'm,' Genny told him otherwise.

"You see, the work on the structure of the home is where the biggest budget is needed. Dodo certainly had the funds on hand, but she felt that since the Hall is an historic property, the state ought to chip in. Dodo applied for a grant, but when she realized that entailed turning the place into a tourist attraction, she changed her mind. The prestige appealed to her, I think, but she never needed the money. Part of her plan to convince them that the Hall was worth preserving had been to restore the 'showpiece' rooms, like this one."

Genny finished off her cordial, looked around the room admiringly and then laughed. "I don't imagine the original owners ever envisioned a free black woman kicking back in here, drinking from their expensive French stemware." She twirled the glass around as the sunlight through the terrace doors caught its facets. "Your expensive French stemware, actually," Genny added, glancing up at Simon.

Simon looked at the decanter, his glass and the pale green Wedgewood plate which held a single uneaten broccoli flower and the remains of a delicious lemon sole fillet.

Mine.

"I thought…" Simon began falteringly, not knowing exactly what he thought. Though he knew what he felt: overwhelmed. He'd listened politely to all that the lawyer had said, nodded, and replied 'um-hum' and 'I see' at the right intervals but hadn't taken in half of it.

"Don't worry, my dear," Genny said. "You have plenty of time to sort everything out. I'm sure it's all a bit much; coming out of the blue like this." She poured them each another tot of liqueur. "I'll stay on if you wish, of course. Although Zola, my niece, has already urged me to 'get the hell out of that old dump'."

Simon was chagrined to realize he hadn't thought about what would happen to Genny. Half a day at the Hall, and he was already taking the woman for granted.

"You mentioned a studio," Simon said, turning the subject away from himself and the responsibility that loomed before him. "I'd love to see it."

Genny smiled.

"You take an interest in art?"

Genny's voice was hopeful. Simon understood that the caretaker was seeking out an ally in her quest to save the Melville family 'collection'.

"I do, yes," Simon replied. "My--" Boyfriend? Partner? Fiancé?? "A colleague of mine is a professor of art history, and our subjects often overlap. I teach Italian Renaissance literature. I also minored in fine arts."

"So, it runs in the family," said Genny cryptically. "Come on, then. Let me introduce you to some of the Melvilles."

* * *

The large yet uninspiring brick structure euphemistically called 'the studio' looked more like a shack to Simon. It lay at the end of a short path from the kitchen door.

"This was the original kitchen," Genny explained, fishing a key from the pocket of her tweed Aline skirt. "The builder Dodo hired said that the modern addition dates from the turn of the twentieth century. Old records indicate 1922 as the year this studio was designed."

Simon followed Genny into the building and was pleasantly surprised when the caretaker flipped the light switch. He looked approvingly around the loftlike space, noting the wood-burning stove that now functioned as a fireplace, the toffee colored velvet sofa half covered by a cozy mohair throw, the richly patterned Oriental rug. An old trunk served as a coffee table on top of which rested an enormous ceramic bowl in the shape of a chrysanthemum.

"I love it," said Simon.

"Most everything was already here," Genny answered. "Just needed a bit of elbow grease, new upholstery for the sofa and few modest amenities. Dodo was ready to throw everything on the trash heap. The woman had the wealth of Croesus, but five and dime taste." She shook her head sadly at the memory. "The vase is mine, though," she added with a tilt of her head toward the makeshift coffee table. "My work, I mean."

"It's beautiful." Simon moved closer to the object, examining the intricate pattern of pink leaves. "The detail is amazing. You're a talented artist, Genny."

"Thank you. Though I must admit that that one was more luck than talent. Got it right on the first throw." Genny laughed and winked, justifiably proud of her work. "But I didn't bring you here to show you my stuff. Come."

Genny beckoned with a wave of her hand and led Simon across the living area to a wall dominated by a massive farmhouse sink built into a workbench that ran the length of the room. Above were cabinets, presumably part of the original kitchen. Beneath the window to the left of the work bench sat a potter's wheel. To the right, an assortment of framed paintings, partly concealed by remnants of cloth, lay neatly against the wall.

"The Melvilles, I presume," said Simon with an air of flippancy that disguised his true curiosity. He approached the collection, pulled away the fabric with a theatrical flourish, and was astonished by the quality and apparent age of the first piece in the group.

"Uncredited," Genny said, stepping to Simon's side. "But Dodo had an expert date it to the late 18th century. A lady of the first generation of Melvilles to live at the Hall, it would seem."

Simon examined the lady's green eyes, her oval face, and her small pursed mouth. Simon looked from her delicate hands to his own boney, long-fingered pair; from her fair skin to his. Simon's warm coloring, a gift of his mother's mixed Welsh and Polynesian blood, seemed downright brown in comparison to his ancestress' milk-white complexion. Despite the obvious physical dissimilarities, Simon found something of his father and himself in the woman's expression. He wondered if a mass of black curls lay coiled under that powdered wig.

"A fine example of 18th century portraiture," Simon said, more to himself than to Genny, as he pushed a lock of his own long dark hair away from his face. He knelt and flipped through several more paintings; some landscapes, some portraits of children. Simon drew in a breath as he beheld the next item: a framed sepia toned photograph.

"Remind you of anyone?" asked Genny.

The subject's military uniform, his stiff formal pose and his enormous moustache failed to obscure the man's striking resemblance to Simon. The wavy dark hair, the pale eyes, the stern set to the full lips that might have appeared feminine on another man, the wide jaw line. He could have been Simon's twin brother.

"Your great-grandfather," said Genny softly, putting a hand on Simon's shoulder. "Josiah Llewelyn Melville."

Simon remained silent as time seemed to slow. He touched his hand to the surface of the portrait. So, the Melvilles had been real. Not dreamed up characters. Here was proof of the family his father had disowned, proof of living history denied Simon all these years.

"Thank you, Genny," said Simon, his joints crackling slightly as he stood. "Thanks for saving them from the auction block. You have no idea how much they mean to me."

Genny beamed, her relief evident.

What a philistine dear old Dodo must have been, thought Simon angrily, but then moderated his silent criticism of Mrs. Melville when he recalled that Dodo had been a Melville by marriage. Simon could understand that the collection might not have moved the old lady. But why this sudden desire to be rid of things?

As if intuiting Simon's confusion, Genny spoke. "After her husband passed away, Dodo apparently went through a phase of wanting a break from the past…from painful memories. So, she did a total sweep of everything: mementos, photographs, paintings. But by the time she hired me, she'd adopted the idea of a total restoration of the hall as an historical landmark. The unpacking, collecting and achieving of everything she bundled away was--and continues to be--an onerous process."

Simon nodded understanding and draped the cloth back over the paintings.

"But you haven't finished," scolded Genny, indicating a second assortment of framed artwork. "I wanted you to see the portraits first," she continued. "Somehow, I thought you might need to." Simon smiled at Genny's insight. "But I saved my favorites for last." She turned on a nearby floor lamp and then pulled away the dust cloth covering the artwork.

"Oh my," said Simon with feeling as the first painting was unveiled. Simon recognized the subject at once, although it was now revealed in all its springtime glory: the view from the room which had been allocated to him by Genny as his quarters. The work was meticulously executed in the pointillist style, thousands of colored dots of oil paint bringing the landscape to vibrant life. Simon pulled it from the stack and leaned it against the wall. "I think that one belongs in my bedroom." He used the possessive naturally, without a thought. Simon glanced at Genny and found her smiling. "What? What's so funny?"

"Oh, nothing, my dear. Nothing at all."

Simon turned his attention back to the paintings. The next was a watercolor, but clearly the work of the same artist. It was a nude study of a fair-haired man with a goatee sprawled on his back in a sea of grass and dandelions. Simon studied the face, searching for the Melville 'look' and not finding it. A glance at the artist's signature confirmed his initial assessment; the same initials, H.M., were worked into the bottom right corner of both the landscape and the nude.

"Who was 'H.M.'?" Simon asked Genny as he positioned the watercolor beside the oil painting.

"I'm not certain. But I'm tempted to attribute the 'M' to a Melville, given the provenance. I've only just discovered them. They were bundled away in here for god knows how many years. They're good, aren't they? The oil is unique, by the way. The rest are all watercolors. And all portraits of the same man, painted around the same time."

"The early nineteen twenties," said Simon, comparing the dates written below the signature of each painting. "I guess we can assume that whoever turned this place into a studio was either a collector or the artist himself. Or herself."

Genny nodded.

"I came to the same conclusion. Whoever it was, I envy the artist that one."

Genny pointed to the next painting in the stack. Simon turned his attention to the portrait and immediately concurred with Genny's feeling. It was a masterpiece of watercolor technique, capturing the facial expression and the light of personality in the subject's eyes with a degree of insight and clarity few artists managed to achieve in that medium.

"You can feel it, can't you?" asked Genny. "Or is it just my imagination? Whoever painted that was in love."

"A labor of love," said Simon quietly. There were four more portraits, all in different settings, in different seasons, but the soul of the subject that looked out from each of them was the same, captured like a snapshot; quickly, intimately. The face of one beloved. "No, Genny. I don't think it's your imagination at all."

* * *

Simon could picture Izzy's dining room table strewn with papers; Bongo, Izzy's orange tabby cat, lounging somnolently amid them as his master strove to squeeze an extra point out of the work of some promising but low-scoring student. Alternately, he might be taking grim satisfaction from plastering an 'F' on the magnum opus of a pupil who had plagiarized shamelessly. Either way, Simon realized his call was an interruption and kicked himself for not considering the hour before placing it.

"I'm sorry, Izzy. I lost track of time."

It was 6:40 in San Francisco. A creature of habit, Isadore Marx would have already consumed his evening meal, tidied his small kitchen, and then sat down to work at precisely 6:30.

"You got lucky this time, kiddo," replied Izzy with laughter in his voice. "The scholarship committee meeting ran overtime, so Bongo and I were both late for our feeding. I was only just putting detergent in the dishwasher. What's up? How's Green Acres?"

"What?" said Simon, "Imagining me in a pink peignoir feeding pigs, are you?"

Izzy laughed.

"Just don't let Billy Joe Bob and his three twin brothers get a look at you. They might torch the plantation."

"Mill, Izzy. Like The Mill on the Floss. And you can't have three twins. You mean triplets"

"Don't be pedantic. Seriously, Si, what's the place like?"

Si.

Simon had never allowed anyone but Izzy to abbreviate his name. And he couldn't remember when Izzy had begun to do so. It had just happened one day, Simon had ignored it, and it continued unchallenged. Simon disliked it, but never had the balls to say so. Izzy did it to nearly everyone's name – including his own. What difference did it make?

But is does make a difference. It's an assumption. A presumption. The kind of thing you do all the time, Izzy.

Simon worried the band on his left hand as he considered the implications of his thoughts.

'Are you still there, Simon?"

"Yeah… yes, I'm here. Just a bad connection."

"I wish you were here," Izzy said. "You're so far away."

Simon bit his lip. He knew his lover wasn't talking about physical distance. The distance between Izzy and Simon was ideological, political and god knew what else, and it seemed to Simon that it was growing dangerously wider.

"It's South Carolina, not Timbuktu," said Simon, skirting the issue that Izzy was attempting so subtly to bring up. He heard Izzy's long intake of breath and the short huff that followed.

"So, tell me about Melville Hall."

Relieved at having avoided the subject of their proposed nuptials, Simon launched into a detailed description of his ancestral home, giving special attention to the stash of paintings.

"Huh," was Izzy's curt response, but Simon knew that behind that one syllable, a sharp mind was virtually perusing catalogues and museum collections, searching for an appropriate 'H.M' to match to the mystery artist. "I'll run this by Marti Rios. You know her. She specializes in early twentieth century American art. We'll see what she comes up with."

"Thanks, Izzy."

"I miss you, Simon."

"I miss you, too."

Simon twisted his engagement ring. Took it off. Put it back on.

"Anyway, I should have everything sorted out here fairly quickly. Mrs. P. seems eminently efficient, so I'm sure I can trust most of it to her and Colonel Saunders."

"Colonel Saunders?"

"The lawyer. Trust me, if it were summer, he'd be wearing a white suit and a Panama hat. Very 'Big Daddy'."

"So you've decided to sell, then?"

Was that disappointment Simon heard in Izzy's voice?

"Well, it seems the practical thing. What the hell could we do with a seven-bedroom house and a rotting lumber mill?"

"No argument there," Izzy replied, the three words weighted in such a way as to infer that there was plenty of room for argument.

"True," said Simon, refusing to be baited. Why did everything come back to the frigging marriage? He just knew Izzy was already fantasizing about a 'private affair at the Hall' with a few hundred of their closest friends. Even if it was in the heart of gay bashing Dixie.

Simon yawned, not needing to fake it as an excuse to end the conversation. He was tired. And Izzy had papers to grade.

"I'll call you tomorrow. Around 5:30 'Frisco time. OK?"

"I love you, Si."

Bongo wailed in the background, as if to underscore his owner's sentiments.

"I love you too, Izzy. Sweet dreams. Kiss your pussy for me."