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Chapter 1

Lexa McCaskill ran both hands through her coppery hair, adding up appetites.

Non-wedding for 50, the job slip on the refrigerator door read. But fifty, when it came to party food, in her experience meant either forty grazers or sixty, depending on whether last-minute lightning strikes of invitations offset the no-shows. She still marveled at how people treated guest lists like poker hands, panicking when their hole cards sent regrets and then bluffing wildly to try to fill out the room. The last occasion she did the catering for, she had overheard the host introducing his mi chi instructor.

Now she remembered that tonight's was a lakefront techie bunch, whose style was to balance their plates with a dab of this and an atom of that while comparing the latest paraphernalia of their health clubs. Go strong on dip dishes and let them eat their treadmill hearts out if the smoked salmon and the Swede balls run short, she decided.

While she religiously jotted down today's chores on stickits, a habit picked up by osmosis from Mitch, she was restless to head outside. Out the kitchen window the beaming morning weather was almost enough to make a person forget Seattle's rainblotter reputation. In celebration, the jazz jockey on KPLU played the Eckstine-Vaughan cut of "Ain't It Clear." The window-high bush of sunlit white rhododendron blossoms nodded along in the Puget Sound breeze. She hoped the sun would hold for Mitch while he flew back up the coast. He seemed to need all the warming up he could get, these days.

Lexa, at forty, long since had adjusted to a lot of life's double talk, but modern living-together still took some tiptoeing through the terms. When they started at this -- when she and Mitch Rozier swallowed away what they had done to Travis -- she and for that matter Mitch had to get used to being called a Significant Other. Then along came the census takers, who flapped on them the information that they had become POSSLQs, Persons of Opposite Sex in Same Living Quarters. Now all of a sudden the expression for what they were to each other seemed to be Spousal Equivalent, which possibly was one reason Mitch looked so furrowed up lately.

Earthly mischief in every Sarah Vaughan note, "and ain't...it...clearrrrrr."

Lexa killed the radio, went into the backyard to the herb bed and started gathering burner to flavor the vegetable dip. From his garden patch next door where he was bent over from the waist to stab slugs with a trowel, their landlord Ingvaldson watched her suspiciously. He was possessive of Mitch, and as yet Lexa's presence -- now six years -- was something he preferred not to acknowledge.

"Morning, Henry," she called over to him. "Your slug supply holding out okay or should I send over some of mine?"

"Yah, I got plenty," Ingvaldson said moodily, and eviscerated a six-inch-long banana slug.

A bit of grin twitched on Lexa as she snipped Stems of burnet while Ingvaldson went back to pretending she was nowhere in sight. There was an ocean between the crabby old fisherman and her, literally. He liked to fill Mitch full of tales of the North Pacific because Mitch did not know a bowline from a bulkhead, but Lexa most definitely did, having cooked on fishboats out of Sitka and Yakutat and Kodiak. A woman who had trawled farther north than Henry Ingvaldson was always going to be grounds for consternation.

Back in the kitchen, whistling to herself for the company of it, she pulled out her next-to-largest mixing bowl. This was on the early side to be making the vegetable dip, but she had learned that no one at a catered shindig could tell that the dip had been sitting in the refrigerator most of the day. Whereas if the carrot sticks tasted more than a minute old, there would be Handel choruses of whining. So, stir now, chop later, always a sound policy. She spooned globs of yogurt and mayonnaise into the big bowl, followed those with judicious sloshes of buttermilk and began to whisk the mixture, her Square rugged hands liking to be doing something.

Every so often she caught one of her customers staring at these hands, attention snagged on the glaring white swaths of scar across the base of both palms. In the territory of suicide try, yet not quite on target across the wrists, which caused the uncertainty in those stares. Barbwire was responsible, she never bothered to tell the customers. She had put all her weight on the lever of the wire stretcher, one last notch, her father rummaging in the Dodge Power Wagon they used for fixing fence when he thought to call out, "Hey, petunia, I think that's about enough," but the barbwire already snapping with a murderous twang and sharp metal whipping across the bottoms of her clenched hands, the next thing she knew was the white face of her father as he tore apart a grease gun and globbed grease onto her slashes to stop the flowing blood. She was thirteen then and, scarred for life, was mad only that she would have to forfeit the entry money for her and her roan Jasper in the barrel race at the Gros Ventre rodeo the next week.

Up from those hard-used hands, Alexandra Marie McCaskill -- married name, Lexa Mudd; she knew that last name was not Travis's fault, but it hadn't helped -- was what her parents' generation liked to term "presentable" and she herself had always calculated out as no more than a C+. To start with the plus side, there was the family flag of the McCaskills, that hair, an enviable royal rich red mane on her sister and a shading toward burnished copper in Lexa's pageboy cut. Another McCaskill attribute, though, Lexa could have done with less of, the expansive upper lip which must have come from generation after generation of ancestors' pursed expressions at their circumstances back in stony Scotland. The handsome gray eyes of that musing clan had not come down to her, only a faded sea color. Face a bit too square and unplaned. Nose a bit saucy. It all added up to what she ruefully knew was a permanent kid-sister look, which had not been made any easier by growing up alongside someone who possessed the power to cloud men's minds. The pair of sisters weren't even in the same contest on figure, Mariah lanky and shouldery as the McCaskill men had been, while she was more sturdily consigned to their mother's side of the family, chesty and puckish. So far, Lexa had managed to stay a few judicious pounds away from stocky even though, to Mitch's constant wonderment, she ate whatever presented itself.

Including now a contemplative tablespoonful of vegetable dip at eight in the morning, as she tried to figure out why it tasted so blah.

Right, whizbang chef remember the trip into the backyard?

She cut the frilly shamrock leaves of the burnet off the stems, minced the tiny pile with a butcher knife, then stirred their green flecks mightily into the bowl of dip, the better to have the catered-to ask, "Ooh, what gives it that cucumbery taste?"

With the dip stowed on the bottom shelf of the crammed refrigerator, she consulted its door again, the thicket of cartoons, snapshots, and other clutter there that served as the almanac, calendar, account book, album and footnotes of life in this household. Here was a young, young Mitch pictured as a college sophomore, grinning rather queasily amid the fallen cornices at the University of Washington after the '65 quake. And there his favorite shot of her, on a rocky shore: copper hair against the salal, rubber boots and a yellow rain suit, her arms full of beach find; peeking around her hip was the square of duct tape that reinforced the seat of the rain pants. Next, tucked alongside a forest of grocery coupons, the latest postcard from Mariah on her Fuji Fellowship to wander the world for a year and do her photography. The Bay of Naples this time. Shooting the ash outlines of the long-gone in Pompeii today, Mariah's handwriting on the back a slanting rain of ink. Makes a pair with the shadow burned into the wall at Hiroshima. Scotland next for, you guessed it, lighthouses. Then home, Brit A'ways #99 on the 12th. See you at SeaTac, honeykins. Sibling love, M. McC. Okay, Lexa told herself with a mix of pride and rue when those postcards came winging in from the storied corners of the world week after week, one McCaskill sister has it made. One to go.

She arranged today's stuck-on chores down the door in the order she ought to get to them: pick up smoked salmon and salad makings, prepare the meatballs, prepare the vegetable trays.

Prepare Mitch, for that matter. Her regular pourer, Brad, who like three-fourths of the males in Seattle dreamed of making his living by playing music, rarely got gigs, but he had one tonight. So Mitch did not know it yet but he was going to have to tend bar. From Lexa's point of view he was perfectly fitted to the job, since he didn't indulge in alcohol. But he never liked taking orders, even if it was only "White wine, please." And tonight's catering job was way over east of Lake Washington, in the land of software that he called Cyberia, so that was not going to be popular with him either. Could be quite a night in the food field, she warned herself.

It about blew her mind sometimes, the long arithmetic of chance that had delivered her here, to this, to life with him. Her father would have said she took the uphill way around. But a hilly day at a time, sometimes bumpy minute to minute, she and Mitch had been sorting out living together, right from the morning when it occurred to both of them that her stay under this roof seemed to be more than temporary.

They hadn't made it out of bed yet, skin still peeping at other skin, before Mitch broached, "This takes some getting used to, you know."

Did she ever. Here she was under the sheets, more or less, with a guy big enough to eat hay but who hung around with holy ghosts like Thoreau for a living. One minute Mitch was Mr. Love Handles of Steel and the next he was a sponge for language. Lexa's heart was, so to speak, still trying to catch its breath.

"What," she'd retorted, kidding but not. "Getting laid without dating?"

"That I can probably adjust to," he allowed, small wry smile on his big face. "I meant, more like playing house. Who's going to do the laundry?"

"Mmm, I see what you mean." They eyed each other across the love-mussed bedcovers. After a moment, Lexa said, "How about you do it for the first year, then it'll be my turn the next."

"A year?"

"You've been doing it practically forever, haven't you? A year is shorter than forever, last I knew."

"Can't argue with that. Weekend breakfasts?"

"I'll do Saturdays. No, wait, Sundays," she hurriedly amended and got from him the smile that said right guess.

So was it always going to be guesswork? she had to ask herself these days.

Copyright © 1999 by Ivan Doig

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