She had told of her delight at seeing her name up in lights on Broadway, the excitement of playing at the Old Vic in London, the thrill of meeting Queen Elizabeth. She had spoken of dinners at the White House, conversing with world leaders. But had she said anything about children? Sally didn't think so. Yet how could she be sure the way her poor head had been spinning! Actually the thing she remembered most about that day was how she kept wanting to pinch herself, for she simply couldn't believe that it was she, Sally Grimes of Winner, Iowa, population five-thousand, being interviewed by the internationally known stage and screen star Diane Fenwick, for an assignment to write her life story. It was fantasy, the stuff dreams are made of, and what made it doubly sweet was how unhappy she'd been just two weeks before when the paper where she worked, the Winner Leader, was sold. For four years she had edited the Town Topics page of her hometown paper, and written an advice column. "Ask Sally," that has been very favorably received. But then, with shocking suddenness, she was unceremoniously dumped when the new owners of the Leader, part of a chain, decided to upscale and run "Ask Amy" instead. As the new managing editor told her, "It's nothing personal, kid. You write good stuff, right on the button, B But we're condensing Town Topics and we don't need two advice columns. Amy's a bigger draw." She couldn't argue with that, but she hated having to change jobs before she was ready. And then, completely unexpected, really out of the blue, didn't her dear Aunt Hallie stop in Winner on her way home to California. Aunt Hallie had been in New York to attend a wedding of some member of her late husband's prominent family, and while there had met the glamorous actress, Diane Fenwick, a fellow guest. "What's she like?" Sally had asked at dinner at her mother's house, where she'd gone to see Aunt Hallie. "I've seen several of her old movies on TV, and I think she's fabulous. Is she as beautiful in person as she is on the screen?" Aunt Hallie smiled. "More beautiful, in my opinion. But, even more important, she's nice. And surprisingly modest, when you consider the life she's led." "She must have been fascinating to talk to." "Believe me she was. Why, the very first thing I told her was that she ought to write her life story. And you know what she said? She got this real funny look on her face, and she said she'd been talking to a publisher about that very thing. Seems she's been searching for months for a collaborator, without any luck. And Sally, Aunt Hallie's eyes sparkled, "that's where you come in." "Me?" Sally said puzzled. "You!" Aunt Hallie nodded. "You're a wonderful writer, and you're at loose ends right now, what with your job simply evaporating right out from under you and all. So I want you to gather up a batch of your very best columns, and I'll send them to Diane PDQ. Then, if she likes them, and why wouldn't she? I'll call and arrange an appointment for you two to meet." "Oh, Aunt Hallie, I don't know..." "Well, I do! Trust me," Aunt Hallie said. And that's how it happened, two weeks later, that Sally was sitting in a posh New York hotel suite, being interviewed for the job of getting Diane Fenwick's life story down on paper. To her surprise and delight Diane was not only beautiful, but, as Aunt Hallie had promised, warm and friendly, too, and the two of them hit it off immediately. "Your work has a nice touch," she told Sally, "light and amusing, but serious, too, which is just the tone I want in the book. I don't think we should avoid the pits altogether, but, onthe other hand," she shrugged, "we don't have to accent the negative, either; know what I mean?" "Right," Sally said, not really sure of what she was agreeing to, but willing to go along with just about anything at that point. Diane smiled and said if it was all right with Sally then, and since they understood one another so perfectly, she'd have her lawyer draw up a contract. The contract specified she was to get sixty percent and Sally forty of any profits they made on the book. Sally's byline would appear beneath Diane's name, and in slightly smaller print, but her byline nevertheless. She would also receive a thousand dollars a week, plus room and board, for the three summer months, and if the book wasn't finished by fall they'd renegotiate the contract. It seemed an eminently fair and generous arrangement to Sally, who was so awestruck she would have worked for considerably less, and she was practically flying by the time she got back to Iowa. She packed, closed her apartment, said good-by to her folks and Nat, the veterinarian boyfriend she'd been going with on and off since college, and one week later here she was in Connecticut, gunning down the highway in a jaguar. And hearing for the first time about Diane's twins and what a chore they were at times __ "Although I have a full-time housekeeper," she added, "and also a mother's helper, one of the local girls. It's hard to keep decent help today." "Hmm-mm," Sally murmured. "They continued down the highway for another half-hour or so, then Diane turned into a smaller road. Soon Sally noticed a sign announcing the approach of Patchem's Head. She also noticed that the houses they passed seemed to be getting bigger and more imposing, as through the trees she caught intriguing glimpses of rolling green lawns leading down to the sea. It looked like a real Great Gatsby type of place, she though smiling, recalling one of her favorite novels. She was sure of it a few minutes later when Diane pulled off the road and turned into the driveway of one of the grandest mansions of all, a huge pile of gray stone, complete with turrets and towers, perched high on a cliff overlooking the sea. "Wow!" It just burst from her. "Is that your house?" "Nope," Diane shrugged, and her lips seemed to tighten for a moment. Then she said lightly, "That place belongs to Mr Morley-Watts, a most learned, distinguished gentleman, who also happens to be my landlord. I live in what used to be the caretaker's cottage. It ain't much, as far as glamour goes, but it's fine for me and the kids." As she talked she continued down the driveway, turned a corner, and came to a stop before a weathered, gray-shingled cottage half-hidden in the trees. The cottage was two-storied, with a screen-in porch running across the front and with a long flight of steps leading down to the beach. "Well, here we are. Home sweet home," Diane said. She stopped, andthey got out of the car. 'And here are Meagan and Alec __ Rufus, too. Hey, gang." "Mommy! Mommy!" Two small children, followed by a large, light-colored poodle, bounced out the porch door and literally threw themselves at her. Sally would have known they were Diane's children, even if she hadn't been told, they looked so much like her with their tawny eyes and light hair. Amusingly, even the dog looked like he belonged in the family, Sally thought, with his expressive orange-brown eyes, almond-shaped, and his pale apricot coat. Both kids and dog seemed inordinately glad to see Diane, Sally noticed. The children clung to her, jumping up and down, and pulling on her arms for attention, while the dog barked in sheer delight and wagged his pompom tail furiously. "Okay, enough. Simmer down now." Diane held the kids off. "That goes for you too, Rufus. This is Sally, who's going to be staying with us for a while, and I want you to say hello to her now like nice children." "Hello," Meagan and Alex said shyly, in unison. "Hi, guys," Sally smiled. Then turning to the now quiet dog, she added, "Hello there, Rufus," and reaching out started to pat him. Only to have him draw back, staring at her in wary but dignified silence. If it wasn't exactly a rebuff it was pretty close to it and Sally, who prided herself on being good with animals, was hurt. But then Diane laughed and said, "Hey, cut that out, Rufus. This is Sally, boy. Friend! Friend -- you hear me pal?" What followed was nothing short of amazing. For at the word "friend," in a sudden burst of exuberance, the dog jumped up, and with all the lightness and grace of a ballet dancer, soared high in the air. Watching him, Sally though of the words to that old song, "Oh, he floats through the air with the greatest of ease." The words might indeed have been written about Rufus. His movements were full of agility and grace, and when he finally landed on his two hind feet, he circled about her in a delightful dancing fashion. They all clapped spontaneously, and Diane said, all smiles, "Now you're really in, Sally. When Rufus gives his seal of approval it means he definitely likes you." "Well, that's a relief," Sally said, grinning. She got her bags, her laptop and portable printer from the car, and with Diane's help, went up the steps and into the house, the children and dog trailing along behind them. The screened-in porch was a jumble of toys and hanging plants, none of which looked very healthy, and the bare wooden floor in the living room was streaked with sand. The furniture, mostly wicker and chintz, had a faded, worn look and had definitely seen better days. On one side of the room were built-in shelves holding bowls and various knickknacks, and a few dusty volumes, that looked as if they hadn't been read in years. On the opposite wall stood a grand piano, the wood scratched and dull, the ivory missing from several of the keys. Candid snapshots, and signed studio portraits covered every inch of the top. Going closer for a better look, Sally recognized several of the celebrities, although some were not as prominent as they'd once been: Bruce Willis, Meryl Streep, the late Paul Newman, Sir Elton John, Clint Eastwood, former President Bill Clinton, to name just a few. The pictures were the only personal touch in the room, and after the quiet elegance of the St. Regis, where she'd first met Diane, this frumpy neglected house was something of a shock. But then she reminded herself that it was just a summer cottage, a place to work, and Diane was certainly right about the view. There was a sweeping panorama of sea and sky from every window, and except for the mansion next door, barely visible through the trees, the house did seem remote and completely private. As she was glancing around a door in back opened, and a stocky, middle-aged woman, in a plaid cotton dress, stroke in cuddling a big, calico cat in her arms. The woman had gray hair, through which her scalp was clearly visible in several spots, and milky blue eyes, almost lost in the pudgy creases of her face. The face itself was noticeable chiefly for the put-upon expression it was wearing, although when she glanced down at the cat the dour lips curved in what might almost have been a smile. "So you're back," the woman said to Diane. "I thought you'd gone to Alaska for sure, you took so long." Smiling Diane said, "We got back as fast as the law allowed." Then turning to Sally she introduced them. "This is my housekeeper, Mrs. Marlowe, Sally Grimes." "Hello," Mrs. Marlowe. I'm happy to see you," Sally said, putting out her hand. "Likewise, I'm sure." the woman replied. But she ignored Sally's outstretched hand so completely, Sally had no choice but to let it drop. Meanwhile, the cat was regarding her with slitted green eyes. To Sally, who loved dogs, but could take or leave cats, this one didn't have much to recommend it. A short-haired feline with a splotched coat in shades of orange and black and gray, it wasn't an animal you'd be likely to cotton to for its appearance. But if the cat were aware of its shortcomings it certainly gave no sign, as it perched regally in its mistress' arms, allowing itself to be stroked. Occasionally it would raise its head to his at Rufus, who returned the compliment by growling deep in his throat, much to the delight of the children who egged him on. "Sic her, Rufus, sic her," Sally heard them whisper. Unfortunately, Mrs. Marlowe heard them, too. "See what I mean! That's what I mean," she snapped at Diane, her face red. "No respect! Now I'm a reasonable sort, Miss Fenwick. I don't mind working crazy hours and never being sure of even getting a day off once a week. But when children won't behave and won't do as I say, well-ll, it really riles me!" "You didn't behave?" Diane said to her offspring, doing her best to look shocked. "Why, I can't believe it! How could you treat our nice Mrs. Marlowe in such a shabby fashion? And when she's been so good to us, too." "We're sorry," Meagan apologized. "But we didn't do anything bad, Mommy," Alec added, in their own defense. "Hump! Depends on what you call bad, I guess," Mrs. Marlowe sniffed. "Now I told'em to keep Rufus outside, since I wanted Mildred to have the run of the place for a change. But the minute my back was turned didn't those dickens let that fool dog in, where he cornered poor Mildred smack on top of the fridge. Had to beat him off with the broom, that I did, to make him stop barking, and then I almost broke my neck climbing on a chair to get Mildred down. She was so frightened, poor thing, she was shaking all over, and them two," she glared at the twins, just laughed. Lot of sympathy you get from that quarter, I must say." "Oh, you naughty things! And you, too, Rufus, bad dog. I've got a good mind to smack you all--good," Diane threatened, although, she didn't sound as if her heart was in it. "And that's not all," Mrs. Marlowe continued, warming to the subject, "You know that bimbo you hired last week to watch the children, that Lisa person, whatever her name was, I told you she wasn't worth her salt didn't I?" "You told me," Diane said nervously. "What happened?" "Well, what happened is that I was one-hundred-percent right. Miss Bimbo quit as of nine-thirty-five this morning. You'd hardly got out of the house before she was high-tailing it up the road to the bus stop.: "On, no!" Diane collapsed in one of the wicker chairs as if her legs had suddenly given out beneath her. "Oh, yes," Mrs. Marlowe said,, her voice dripping with satisfaction, "I just asked her if she wasn't ashamed, seeing the twins wearing the same shorts three days in a row, and why didn't she do some washing for a change. And she said if she was expected to do laundry too, for what you was paying her, you could take your fool job and shove it. Then she got her suitcase from the closet and left." "What do you think, Rufus?" she asked suddenly, turning to the dog, who all through this diatribe had been edging closer to her side. "Got any ideas in that smart old hear of yours?" In response the dog gazed at her with a plainly sympathetic expression and proceeded to cover her face with little kisses. "Ah, you're right. It's not worth getting upset about," she said. Then, all smiles again, she jumped up. "Mrs. Marlowe, why don't you put Mildred in your room and go for the groceries, while the kids and I show Sally her room." The room was upstairs in the front of the house, directly across the hall from the children's bedroom, and like the rest of the house it had a great view of the water, which was good, since it didn't have much else to recommend it. With a sinking heart, Sally noticed the unmade iron bed, painted white, the wavy mirror above the dresser, the lumpy old armchair, coveted in what looked like the same faded chintz as that used in the furniture downstairs. Limp white curtains hung at the windows, and there were several big balls of dust beneath the dresser. "I guess Mrs. Marlowe didn't quite make it up here today," Diane apologized, her eye following the direction of Sally's gaze. "That's okay," Sally said, wanting to spare her and more embarrassment, "If you'll just tell me where you keep the sheets and blankets--" "Mommy, I'm hungry," Meagan broke in. "Me, too, I'm famished," Alec added, not to be outdone. "We didn't get even a scrap of lunch." "Well, I'm sure that was your own fault," Diane said. "If you hadn't been so mean about poor Mildred and provoked Mrs. Marlowe --" her voice trailed off, and she sighed, rather helplessly. "How 'bout if I make them a sandwich. Make us all a sandwich," Sally suggested. "Oh," Diane's face was radiant, "would you be such a lamb? I'd be ever so grateful. The kids can show you where everything is, but I can't have lunch with you, I'm afraid. Good heavens!" she glanced at her watch. "I should have left here twenty minutes ago. I'm due in New
Haven at two-thirty to tape a TV interview. Such a nuisance, but it's necessary for the old career, you know. I really feel rotten leaving you on your first day here, but I'll make it up to you, I promise."
"Think nothing of it," Sally said. "I'll fix lunch, no problem. Then Meagan and Alex can help me make the bed, and later maybe we'll go to the beach. If that's okay with you?" "Fine,"Diane nodded agreeably, and Alec crowed, "Hey, that's perfect! We love going to the beach, and wading in the water. Huh, Meagan?" He gave his sister a non-too-gently shove. "Love it!" the little girl squealed, wiggling with excitement. "Yippee! We're going to the beach! Goody, goody, goody!" At which brother and sister joined hands and did an impromptu jig around the room. You would have sworn she'd given them a million dollars, Sally thought amused. [ #TOP ]