Authors: Fern Michaels
Books by Fern Michaels:
A Family Affair
Forget Me Not
The Blossom Sisters
To Taste the Wine
Sins of the Flesh
Sins of Omission
Return to Sender
Mr. and Miss Anonymous
Up Close and Personal
Fool Me Once
The Future Scrolls
What You Wish For
The Guest List
Listen to Your Heart
Christmas at Timberwoods
The Sisterhood Novels:
Under the Radar
Hide and Seek
The Godmothers Series:
More Books by Fern Michaels:
Cinders to Satin
For All Their Lives
A Winter Wonderland
I'll Be Home for Christmas
Making Spirits Bright
Comfort and Joy
Sugar and Spice
Let it Snow
A Gift of Joy
Five Golden Rings
Deck the Halls
Jingle All the Way
Kensington Publishing Corp.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
For two delightful sisters,
Anne Griffith and Carol Walderman
At three-thirty in the afternoon, the loudspeaker in the offices of Babylon crackled to life. The decibel level remained high; customers continued to gamble. “This is a reminder, ladies and gentlemen, that Babylon will close its doors promptly at 6:00
and will not reopen until one minute past midnight. This announcement will be repeated six times during the next three hours.”
“Oh, Marcus, do you really think it's going to be a surprise?” Fanny asked her husband. “What I mean is, Bess and John are smart, don't you think they'll see through that little ruse we conjured up to get them out of the casino?”
“No, I do not. Bess knows you never ask her to do anything unless it's important. She thinks she's going to the chicken ranch to coax Ruby Thornton, yourâwhat is she, Fanny, your half sister-in-lawâto come to the casino? I think it's wonderful of you to want to include her in the family.”
“She's part of this family even though Ash said she came in through the back door. She has Thornton blood, and that's good enough for me and the kids. The same goes for Ash's son. It's not right to deny either Ruby or Jeff Lassiter their rightful place. They're both wonderful people. I know it and so do my children.”
“I hope it works out, Fanny.”
“Of course it will work out. Why wouldn't it? Don't rain on my parade, Marcus.”
“As if I would ever do that. Did the boy really agree to come in here and take over for Bess and John? I find that . . . amazing.”
“I had to do some fast talking. His mother helped convince him. He's worked in the casino summers and holidays while he was in college. He knows the business and what he doesn't know, he'll learn. We signed a three-year contract with him two days ago. It has to work, Marcus, because I had no other options. If Birch was here, it would be different. He isn't here, so I did what I had to do. It's settled, so let's not talk about it. What am I going to do if Bess and John balk at their retirement present? Just because I think a year-long trip around the world is wonderful doesn't mean she and John will think the same way. Her children packed her bags and brought them over earlier. The limo is coming for them at midnight to take them to the airport. Everything is set unless she balks.” Fanny clenched and unclenched her hands as she paced around the office. “She won't, will she, Marcus?”
“Not a chance.” Marcus's voice was airy, offhand. “She's going to love it. Stop fretting, Fanny. Let's check the dining room to see if your decorations are finished.”
“Billie did it all. She even planned the menu, all of Bess and John's favorite foods. For five hundred people. She didn't even blink, Marcus. My daughter never ceases to amaze me. She said Bess and John weren't the only ones who were going to be surprised tonight. What do you think she meant by that?”
Marcus chuckled. “It's probably one of those inside Thornton family jokes. You love surprises. Guess you'll have to wait.” He steered her into the dining hall, then watched as she darted across the room to embrace Billie.
“Oh, honey, it's beautiful. We have to take pictures.” Fanny hugged her daughter.
“The ice sculpture goes in the middle of the main table,” Billie explained. “There's a gizmo under the table that keeps it from melting. Sage hooked up the fountain. Chue brought the orchids earlier this afternoon. Aren't they gorgeous?”
“Only half as gorgeous as these tablecloths. Seed pearls sewn on linen, Billie?”
“I'm going to use them at our next trade show. I have a machine that does it. I wanted this to be really special. They're bringing the balloons at five o'clock. When Bess and John walk through the front door they'll drop. From there on, it's fun, fun, fun. Our own private night. Bess's family and friends, the Colemans, all our workers and their families. Josh Coleman is about to arrive from Virginia with his family. He called last night. We're going to have a full house. Think about it, Mom. Our blood family and our working family.”
“It's like a dream. I just hope Bess and John love it all. Marcus and I are going upstairs. We'll be down at five-thirty. Call me when Aunt Billie and Thad get here.”
“I don't miss this place at all,” Fanny said as she unlocked the door to the penthouse. “It's a shame it sits here empty. I offered Jeffrey the use of it, but he said he prefers to live at home. I don't think his mother is well, and he likes to look after her. I respect that in a son. Ash was proud of the boy even though he wouldn't admit it. I think he's going to do very well.”
“Does that mean you like our little house better than these sumptuous surroundings?”
“Marcus, I love our house. What I really love is seeing you cook in that state-of-the-art kitchen. It's cozy. I love cozy things. I guess I'm just a snuggler. It reminds me so much of our old house back in Sunrise. We have a front porch, a back porch, a garden for flowers and vegetables, a dog run, a gorgeous fireplace, a Jacuzzi. You to share it with. I couldn't ask for more. Retirement is so blissful. Being able to wake up and decide at a moment's notice to take a trip is . . . what is it, Marcus?”
“It's wonderful. I have an idea, let's take a shower together.”
“Mr. Reed, you do come up with delicious ideas from time to time.”
“I do, don't I? Last one in has to wash the other one's back.”
Sage Thornton stood at the end of the jetway, his stomach muscles churning. He wondered if he was going to get sick.
He would have known his twin anywhere even though he was seeing him in profile. And then Birch turned. Air hissed from between Sage's lips. He stared at his father's image. Somewhere during his life, he'd seen this exact same scene. Probably sometime during his teens when he picked up his father from the airport.
Even from this distance Birch looked lean and fit, with a bronze tint to his skin. A baseball cap that said Thornton Chickens was pushed back on this head. It was worn and frayed. A tee shirt with “Babylon” across the middle, equally worn and frayed, faded blue jeans, and scuffed hiking boots completed his outfit. A canvas carryall was slung over his shoulder. His eyes were bluer than sapphires against his tan. His teeth pearl white. At six-two, Birch could see over the heads of his fellow passengers. The moment he spotted Sage he dropped his bag and shouldered his way through the crowd of deplaning passengers.
They stood eyeball to eyeball as passengers milled about them. Sage's voice was choked when he said, “It's been a long time, Birch.”
“Too long. The only thing I missed was you and Mom. C'mere, you big lug. Jesus, it's good to see you, Sage.” His voice was just as choked as his brother's. “I knew you'd be the one to get married first and have a family. I want you to meet my wife.”
Sage's jaw dropped. “You're married!”
“Yep, to the most wonderful girl in the world. We lived in a tent for three years so that should give you some kind of an idea of what she's like. She's simple and earthy like Mom. She's standing over there because she wanted to give us a few minutes alone. You're gonna love her.” Birch motioned for his wife to join them.
She was tall like a showgirl, thin but well proportioned, with blond hair faded white from the sun. Her eyes were dove gray, almost translucent against her honeyed tan. An eerie feeling washed through Sage when he met Celia's gaze. Somewhere within him an alarm sounded. He backed off a step and held out his hand once the introductions were made. He saw the puzzled look on Birch's face. His brother had expected him to hug his wife and welcome her into the family. Later he was going to have to think about this scene.
Celia's voice was sweet, almost honeyed when she reached for Sage's hand. “I feel like I know you. Birch spoke about you every single day.”
Sage forced a laugh. “I hope it was good.”
“Only wonderful things. I'm looking forward to meeting your family. We hung the pictures of you and your family in our tent. We used safety pins. Those pictures were the first thing we saw in the morning and the last thing we saw at night.”
“I'm flattered. You could have written more, Birch.”
“You know me. I was never a letter writer. You aren't either. Who's kidding who?”
“Okay, I'll give you that one. Do you have a lot of luggage?”
Birch and Celia burst out laughing. They pointed to their duffel bags. “This is it. We lived very frugally. I'm going to have to borrow some clothes or else show up at the party in this attire. I'm assuming it's black tie.”
“You assumed right. Big doings. Mom and Billie have been planning this for weeks. Probably months. Is this just a visit or are you staying? You didn't say.”
“We're here to stay. When you wrote that Bess and John were retiring I knew it was time to come back and run the casino. That's why I'm here. It's time.”
Sage thought his stomach was going to lurch right out of his body.
“I figured we'd live in the penthouse if no one objected,” Birch went on. “How do you like living at Sunrise, Mr. Family Man?”
“I love it. Iris and the kids don't even want to come to town anymore. She says we're hermits. Maybe we are.” He could feel the translucent gray eyes boring into his back.
“We have to buy something to wear, Birch. I didn't realize how awful we looked until I saw all these people so dressed up. Living in a Third World country is not conducive to fashion.”
“It's not a problem, honey. We'll just go to one of the boutiques in the casino and get whatever we need.”
“Just like that!”
Sage concentrated on positioning the bags in the trunk of his car.
“God, I can't wait to take a shower. I'm going to stand under it until the water runs cold,” Birch said.
“Sweetie, we have to shop. We don't want to embarrass your family.”
“No, Celia, we don't have to shop. We call downstairs and they send the stuff up. We pick and choose and they take the rest back. You can do that while I'm standing under that nice hot shower.”
Sage scrunched his big frame into the driver's seat. “Mom and Marcus are in the penthouse. I got you a room.”
?” Celia said.
“Actually it's a suite,” Sage said. He wondered why his voice sounded so defensive.
Birch's voice was cheerful when he said, “Guess you're going to have to wait a while to move into that fancy penthouse, honey.”
“It doesn't look the same, Birch. Mom redid it when she moved in. She hated all those mirrors, chrome and glass. She smashed the place up one day. It kind of looks like Sunrise now. She's got a set of those red chairs.”
“What does Sunrise look like?” Celia asked from the backseat.
“Comfortable and worn. Green plants, bright colors. Home,” Birch said.
“Oh,” Celia said.
“You're gonna love it, honey.”
“I'm sure I will.”
“So, tell me about this party tonight. No, on second thought, tell me about the family. How's Mom?”
“Mom's great. She's happier now than she's ever been. She has a wonderful life with Marcus. They live on the outskirts of town in a small house. They garden, they travel, they take the kids for days at a time. She really is happy. She and Dad made peace the last few years. There at the end he turned out to be quite a guy.”
“If you call pumping a bullet into your brother quite a guy, I guess so.”
“You weren't here, Birch. It was wrong, but it was right, too, in a cockamamie way. It's over, and I don't want to talk about it.”
“Sure. I want you to know, Sage, I tried to get a plane out but it was the rainy season and I couldn't. I was sick over it. Hell, we couldn't even get to a phone for ten days. I figured it was just better to stay where I was at that point. I did grieve, Sage.”
“We all did.” Jesus, what was wrong with him. Why was he acting so . . . so stupid? This was Birch. This was his twin. This was his best friend sitting next to him, and he was acting like he had a burr in his Jockeys. He struggled with his emotions. “Sunny's doing great. She's in a remission state right now, and she's living permanently at the center. She has a whole new life. There aren't any words to tell you how I admire our sister. She's good with the kids, too, considering her limitations.”
“I don't think I could ever give up my children for adoption,” Celia said from the backseat.
Loyalty ringing in his voice, Birch said, “If Sage was your brother, you could. I bet Iris is a wonderful mother to Sunny's kids. She's like Mom, isn't she?”
“Yeah. Yeah, she is. Mom gave her all her recipes. She taught her to sew and do all those mother things. She helped a lot with Dad at the end. Iris gets along with everyone. When the kids are older, she might want to go back to teaching at the university but then again, maybe she won't. Wait till you taste her strawberry-rhubarb pie. You can't tell the difference between hers and Mom's.”
“She's on top of the world. Three years in a row she was voted Woman of the Year by the textile industry. She managed to sell sixty-five million Bernie and Blossom dolls. They're still going strong. She's thinking of creating little brothers and sisters now. She's working on the prototypes. We'll test-market them in a few months.”
“Guess that means the Thornton coffers are full, eh?”
Sage took that moment to look in the rearview mirror to check on an eighteen-wheeler behind him that wanted to pass. He felt his shoulders stiffen at the sight of Celia's glittering eyes.
A devil perched itself on Sage's shoulder. “You know Mom. She siphons the money out as soon as it comes in. It goes right to the rehab centers.”
“How is the casino doing? The last letter I had from Mom said it was bigger and better than ever. She even sent me a clipping from one of the newspapers. The article said Vegas expects to host 33,000,000 visitors this year. It went on to say each visitor is expected to gamble $154.00. That's some very heavy money.”