“Holy shit!” I blurt out, pressing my hand to my mouth. Immediately, I feel like a damned ingénue in a cheap novel and drop my pose. “You’re Ursula Meadows.” Talk about fucking coincidences! This is a big one.
“Yes, I am.” Ursula smiles and stands up, holding out her hand. She didn’t do herself justice with her self-deprecating description. Yes, she’s middle-aged with frizzy blond hair and wide hips, but what she forgot to say was that the hair reaches the middle of her back and the hips are accompanied by a generous bosom and a slim waist. She is wearing a black dress that shows her assets to their best advantage. She also forgot to say that she has porcelain skin with dark blue eyes and a ready smile. This is a woman comfortable in her own skin, and what beautiful skin it is. “You must be Rayne and?” She dangles the sentence attractively, waiting for me to fill in the blank. She stands up, showing off her nearly six-feet in its full glory.
“Uh, Rayne. Paris’s best friend.” I suddenly wish I had gone home to change. “This is Lyle. Paris’s partner.” Not a flicker from the cool Ms. Meadows.
“It’s so good to meet you, Rayne,” Ursula says, clasping my hand warmly in hers before doing the same to Lyle.
“Ms. Meadows, it’s an honor to meet you,” I say reverentially. “They were just talking about your upcoming book at Dog Eared.” She was a waitress before she hit the bigs. When And San Francisco Wept burst onto the scene, it shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller’s list. Critics gushed about her being the ‘trenchant observer of our postmodern, weary days’. They compared her to everyone from Bukowski to Stein, from Henry Miller to Flannery O’Connor. She’s been hailed as ‘a refreshing antidote to the ennui displayed by today’s youth’. She’s a local icon.
“Please, I am only Ursula.” She laughs and gestures to the seats across from her. “I’m so glad you brought Lyle along.” Lyle and I sit down, too awed to speak. At least, that’s my excuse. “How is Paris?” A frown creases her forehead. Lyle and I glance at each other, wondering how much to reveal. Though I instinctively like this woman, she is virtually a stranger.
“He’s in the hospital,” I say hesitantly. “Recovering from surgery.” That seems safe enough to say.
“I can’t believe the horrible hands of fate,” Ursula muses sadly, sipping on what appears to be a sangria. Our server miraculously appears out of nowhere to ask if we want anything to drink. He has a ready smile and dark skin that contrasts marvelously with his white shirt. I order a dry martini, not wanting to appear uncouth by having a Bud Light or something so horrible domestic. Lyle asks for a shot of Jack. Ursula orders us an appetizer consisting of goat cheese and bread before turning back to us. “It’s utterly ironic that I contact Paris yesterday afternoon, and hours later, he’s had an accident. So cruel.”
“How did you know it was hours later, Ms., uh, Ursula?” I ask curiously. I am fairly certain I didn’t mention when the accident happened, just that it had.
“I was guessing,” Ursula says ruefully, fiddling with her glass. “I talked to him late afternoon yesterday, and I just assumed it wasn’t this morning.” Probably true, but it’s hard to say. She tosses her magnificent mane of hair back, and smiles at us benevolently. It’s hard to believe this woman is in her mid-forties, but she must be if she’s Paris’s birthmother. “Well, kiddies, shall I tell you a story?”
Without waiting for a reply, she launches into her tale of woe. She grew up in Philly. When she was a teenager, she was a frump who had no social life. Worse, she was tall and gangly which did nothing to increase her appeal to boys. She spent Friday nights studying and Saturday nights crying in her bedroom. Her parents were loving, but distant as they were professors with full lives of their own. They liked her, were fond of her, but had no idea what to do with a spotty, stuttering girl who had no friends. Ursula turned to books, especially romance novels that promised a Prince Charming and a happy ending on the last page. She devoured them like candy, determined to have her romance one way or another. She dreamed of her own prince, and even had a name picked out for him. Nicholas. She thought it was regal without being stuffy. He would have dark brown hair and flashing brown eyes—she was partially to flashing brown eyes. He would be the end of all her miseries.
Fast-forward to her first boy-girl party when she was fifteen. She had been invited out of obligation by the daughter of a friend of her parents who threatened to take away her driving privileges if she didn’t invite Ursula. The girl grudgingly invited Ursula who was sky-high at finally being noticed. She made her mother buy her a new dress which was red and silky and, in Ursula’s eyes, quite fetching. She wound her hair on top of her in the happy anticipation of the pins being pulled out and her hair flowing down her back. She even applied some eye shadow, blush, and lipstick—all too dark for her fair coloring. She had never been more excited in her life, plying her mother with questions as her mother drove her to the girl’s house. Would she have to play kissing games? What if there was drinking? What could she talk about without sounding geeky? Ursula was painfully aware of her shortcomings and needed some reassurance that she’d be ok. Her mother told her to be herself and have fun, then dropped Ursula off.
The first hour was excruciating. After the girl let Ursula in, she abandoned Ursula to fend for herself. Ursula tried to talk to some of the other kids, but they all ignored her. One actually snickered and walked away before Ursula could even choke out a ‘hello’. Her face flaming, Ursula fled to a bedroom which was occupied by the girl’s older brother. Ursula was so mortified by what had happened to her in the party, she didn’t even register that there was another person in the room. When she finally paid attention to the boy staring at her with amazement, she nearly fainted out of renewed embarrassment. After recovering some of her aplomb, Ursula looked over her companion. He was tall—approximately six feet two to her five-ten—with a football player’s build. His almost-black hair was past his collar, but neatly combed. His hazel eyes were twinkling in amusement at the girl invading his bedroom. A Playboy lay in the corner of his room, opened to the centerfold. A girl with augmented boobs and a wide smile greeted Ursula’s eyes. She blushed and turned to go, mumbling apologies to the boy who continued to stare at her.
“What’s your hurry?” He asked, sitting on the bed. He patted the space next to him; after a minute’s hesitation, Ursula sat down. She didn’t want to return to the party, and he was being so nice.
They started talking about school, then about sports which Ursula didn’t know a thing about, but was willing to learn. The boy did most of the talking, with Ursula nodding her head at appropriate intervals. She was too busy staring raptly at him to say much of anything—here was the Prince Charming of her dreams. Her body tingled just from the close proximity. The boy, perhaps sensing her interest, leaned forward and kissed Ursula on the lips. For a girl who’d never been kissed before, she certainly did her best to keep up. She was so caught up in the experience, she didn’t notice his hands creeping around to the back of her dress. In one fluid motion, he had the zipper unzipped. When Ursula started in surprise, he patted her soothingly on the back before deftly undoing her bra. Even though Ursula’s mind told her that good girls didn’t, her body leaned towards the boy.
“You’re beautiful,” he murmured into her ear as he pushed the dress of her shoulders. Ursula, who had feebly been trying to fight him off, went completely still. No one had ever called her beautiful before, and she so desperately wanted to believe him. “You’re beautiful,” he repeated as he plucked her bra from her body. When he had the top half of her completely undressed, he sat back to admire his work. The boy spent the rest of the night making her feel things she never dreamed possible.
“I don’t regret that night,” Ursula says dreamily, picking at her tarragon-infused chicken. Her story has taken so long to tell, we have had time to order and receive our food. I dig into a pasta primavera though I’m not very hungry while Lyle tucks into some kind of quiche. “Even though he never talked to me after that, I was thankful that my first time was so great.”
“You got pregnant that night?” I say in amazement. What rotten luck to conceive the first time you have sex.
“Yes,” Ursula smiles, taking a healthy bite of chicken. “I knew immediately that I was. I’m clairvoyant that way.” Lyle looks skeptical, but I believe her. A friend of my mother’s can tell in a glance when a woman is pregnant, sometimes before the woman can tell herself, and knows the gender of the fetus. In earlier years, she would have been branded as a witch. “Of course, my parents pitched a fit when they discovered their virginal daughter wasn’t so virginal any more. They wanted me to abort, if you can believe it. I chose adoption instead. I crossed the state line, had the bab—Paris in Jersey, and I got a trip to Tijuana out of it.” She lifts her glass to her lips, but can’t quite hide the trembling of her hand.
“Do you ever regret giving up Paris?” I ask bluntly.
“Every day,” Ursula says softly, suddenly stripped of her persona. Her shoulders sag as the corners of her mouth pull down. Even her hair seems to droop as she thinks about Paris. “When I gave birth, you don’t know. Holding the—him in my arms was so perfect.” She cannot hide the tears in her eyes. “The nurse had to pry me away because I didn’t want to let go. I almost changed my mind right then.”
“Why didn’t you?” I am more gentle this time, not wanting to cause her more grief.
“What did I have to offer any child of mine at that point?” Ursula asks, looking me directly in the eyes. Lyle might as well not have been there for all the attention paid to him. “A sixteen year-old girl who was in her sophomore year of high school with no direction, no ambition, no boyfriend. My parents were firmly against raising grandchildren at the same time as raising a daughter; I had no one else to turn to.”
“Do your kids know about him?” I pause to eat more of my pasta which is nicely seasoned and refreshingly light. I can only have two or three bites, however, as I am past full.
“Yes. I told them after I tracked him down because, well, I’m settling some money on Paris, and my kids deserve to know about it.”
“You’re putting Paris in your will?” Lyle breaks in suddenly. I throw him a dirty look for breaking my rhythm, but Ursula doesn’t mind.
“No. I’m setting up a trust fund that he can access now. I’m not clear on the details—I’m leaving that up to my lawyers—but my idea is to make ten thousand dollars a year available to him should he need it.” Ursula looks pleased with herself at this generous gesture. “My firstborn! He definitely deserves to benefit from the bounty.”
I ask if her kids knew about Paris before. She assures me they did not as there was no need for them to know before. Now, there is. I stare at her, unsure what to say. I strongly disagree that her kids need to know about the trust for Paris especially as they probably don’t know anything about her finances in general. What a thing to burden her children with and in such a short period of time. A new brother who will inherit a great amount of cash from mom. According to Ursula, her boys, Sean and Desmond are thrilled with the news, especially as they don’t like their older sister very much. Lois, the sister, however, is another story. Here, the smile on Ursula’s face dims. She is obviously a Bond fan, or maybe just really liked the movie, Diamonds Are Forever. She clears her throat and continues to say that Lois wasn’t too happy about losing any part of her inheritance.
I ask Ursula how much she is worth because I’m curious how much of a dent the trust will make in her bank account. I don’t think she’ll answer such a nosy question, but it never hurts to ask. Besides, she’s already divulged so much intimate information, she might be willing to tell me more. She doesn’t even hesitate before saying that she’s worth an estimated twenty-five million when it’s all said and done. She allows herself a catlike smile of satisfaction as she pronounces the figure. Lyle and I are silent—stunned by the figure. Lyle looks a bit disgusted as well, but I’m just awed. She can easily afford to set up a trust fund for Paris and still have plenty of money for her other children, but they might not view it the same way. One thing about money is that most people never think they have enough. I doubt her youngest two are involved in the accident, but Lois, on the other hand is beginning to shape up nicely as a suspect.
“Where was Lois last night?” I ask casually, not wanting to offend.
“Out with her friends,” Ursula says, frowning quizzically at me. “Why?”
“Just wondering,” I shrug, taking a sip of my water. Ursula is not stupid, however, and she doesn’t let the matter drop.
“You never said what happened to Paris exactly. You just said he was in an accident. What kind of accident?”
“Hit-and-run,” I say hesitantly. I don’t know why I’m reluctant to tell her the full story except that I feel it’s something that shouldn’t be blabbed.
“Hit-and-run,” Ursula repeats, popping some bread in her mouth. “On purpose?”
“Why do you say that?” Lyle asks quickly, narrowing his eyes. Ursula turns her gaze onto him and studies him for a minute. Just as he begins squirming under her stare, she responds.
“You ask me these questions; you ask me to provide an alibi for my daughter—it’s not that hard to figure it out. In case you want to know, the boys were home studying while I was working on my next book. As for Blaine, my husband, I’m afraid he’s out of town right now.” She delivers this information behind a pleasant smile, but I sense a hint of anger.
“Paris was hit on purpose,” I say, deciding to level with her. What I’m telling her isn’t a secret. I’m sure it’s been on the news—so there’s no point in not telling her that much. Besides, I want her help, and I don’t think she’ll be forthcoming with it if I don’t give her something in return. “The driver took off, and we’re trying to figure out who it could have been.”
“Why would anyone want to hurt him?” Ursula whispers, the blood draining from her face. I notice that she can’t bring herself to say murder or kill, which is fine with me. “He is such a lovely boy. Even in the short time I talked to him on the phone, I could tell.”
“That’s what we’re trying to discover,” Lyle says grimly. I look at him without him knowing it. There is something off in his manner. He’s acting strangely, and it has something to do with Ursula. Since I can’t ask him in front of Ursula, obviously, I shelve the question for later.
“I have to see him!” Ursula dabs her lips and picks up her purse as if to leave.
“That’s not such a good idea,” Lyle says, his voice harsh. “His mother is at the hospital, and she’s not feeling kindly about you showing yourself.” Ursula looks at Lyle for a long second before setting her purse down again.