Whiskey and Water

By Nina Wright

Chapter One

"Whiskey! Look what Prince Harry can do!" Chester's delighted laugh reached me from the beach below.

I didn't have the energy to open my eyes . . . much less sit up—or god forbid, get up—to investigate the antics of my young neighbor and his pup. The June sun was seductive. Lying on the chaise longue on my deck, I wanted to unwind all the way. To sleep, to dream . . . perchance to tan. I wouldn't move so much as an eyelid.

"Quick, Whiskey! He can't hold this pose much longer!"

"Describe it to me," I yawned. Which is what Chester was doing when I nodded off.

The next thing I knew I was dreaming, and it wasn't an especially sweet dream. Some man was shouting at me. For neglecting my kid and his dog. It had to be a dream because I don't have a kid although I do have a dog. A big dog. A big nightmare of a diva dog no one would want to wake up to.

That was part of the dream—Abra the Afghan hound's wet nose in my face. I pushed it away. She put it back. When I pushed it away again, she stuck her nose in my ear. I rolled away from her, my eyes still shut.

Then I felt the man in my face, so mad that he spat as he spoke: "You're laying here asleep on your fancy deck while the little boy and his pup almost drowned!"

"You're in the wrong dream," I said.

Then Chester piped up, sounding just like he did when I was awake. "Don't blame Whiskey. She's not a child-care provider. And she can't handle dogs."

"Whiskey?" the man echoed. "Is she drunk?!"

He grabbed my shoulder and shook me. Hard. I opened my eyes. The sun was much lower in the sky than it used to be. Chester and Prince Harry, both wet, shivered under an Army blanket. And Chester, who's always pale, looked blue. Not blue, depressed—blue, the color. I sat up so fast my wide-brimmed hat fell off. Abra grabbed it in her teeth and sauntered away.

"Chester, what happened?" I said.

"Riptide," the angry man announced. In his late sixties, he was weather-beaten, bald, and not inclined to like me. His fishing vest was festooned with hooks and lures. They gleamed like merit badges. "Carried him and the dog a mile down the shore."

He sniffed my breath and told Chester, "I don't smell whiskey. Maybe she slept it off."

Teeth chattering, Chester recounted his adventure. While he and Prince Harry were practicing "Coast Guard maneuvers," inspired by my step-grandchildren's ex-military nanny, they'd paddled out farther than usual. The next thing Chester knew, they couldn't come back in. A powerful current was pulling them along.

"I've read about riptides," Chester said. "So I know you have to go with the flow. I held onto Prince Harry, and away we went. Mr. Gamby was fishing from his boat. We waved at him as we floated by. He pulled up anchor and came after us."

Glaring at me, Mr. Gamby said, "The only thing you did right was make sure the kid had a life jacket."

Actually, Chester had made sure he had a life jacket. But he didn't take credit for it. And I was too mortified not to.

"I'm glad you're okay," I told him. Prince Harry barked to remind me that he was okay, too. "But why did you have Mr. Gamby bring you here instead of home?"

Chester looked uneasy. "Because my mother's . . . busy."

"Thank god you're not his mother," Mr. Gamby snapped.

Had he met Cassina, he might have preferred me for the job. She couldn't focus on motherhood, being too "busy" composing, recording, and touring—when she wasn't fighting with Rupert, her on-again, off-again manager and paramour. Rupert was also Chester's ineffectual father. I seldom saw Cassina and almost never saw Rupert. Cassina hired people to perform many odd jobs, including looking after her son. Unfortunately, she fired them so often she sometimes forgot to replace them. Cassina frequently left town with Chester locked out of The Castle, their villa just north of my place. Guess who ended up babysitting? My dog Abra more often than me. And Abra was less maternal than Cassina.

I looked around for Prince Harry's mother. The blonde Affie had retreated to a shaded corner of my deck where she contentedly munched my hat. Since she rarely chewed other people's possessions—preferring simply to steal them—I knew she was acting out.

Mr. Gamby said, "Aren't you going to take that away from her?"

"What's the point? She'll only go steal something else."

"You're completely irresponsible! I should call Children's Social Services."

"I'm not Chester's legal guardian," I reminded him. "Or his nanny. I just live here."

A squirting sound got everybody's attention. Prince Harry was relieving himself against the leg of my chaise longue. As we watched, he peed and peed. I wondered how much of Lake Michigan he'd managed to swallow. Mr. Gamby glanced from the peeing puppy to his chewing mother to shivering Chester—and then shook his head in disgust.

I felt at that moment like I'd failed my gender. Or at least my mother. She had taught me so many things—cooking, cleaning, diaper changing, shopping, grooming, flirting—yet all I really knew how to do was buy, sell, and rent real estate. And use the occasional power tool.

At age thirty-four, I was still an excellent swimmer although I'd just slept through my best opportunity to prove it. I was fast on a bike, too, and I remembered most of what I'd learned as captain of my high school volleyball team. You might not think I'd have much need to cover the net. But you'd be wrong. During the fourteen months since my husband died and left me his kleptomaniac canine, I'd often been grateful that I was quick, strong, and six feet tall.

"Whiskeeeeeey!" I winced at the sound of my least favorite voice coming from up the hill, behind me. "Watch the kids while I'm out! I need a freakin' break!"

Without turning around, I understood that my stepdaughter, Avery Mattimoe, was about to jump ship, leaving me in charge of her seven-month-old twins, Leah and Leo. The only thing worse than taking over for Avery was living with Avery, which I was currently doing. Long sad story. For me.

"I thought you weren't a nanny," Mr. Gamby said.

"I'm not. The nanny is away at a conference. I'm the scapegoat."

That made Chester laugh. Although he looked six, he was actually eight and sometimes seemed wise enough to be forty. Too bad he couldn't introduce me to a real man that age. I urgently needed a shoulder to cry on, and burp a baby on.

"Their diapers need changing!" Avery hollered. "I've had enough shit for one day. Why is Chester wearing a blanket? It's like eighty degrees! Hey—there's a truck blocking me in. Move!"

I wished Avery would move . . . far, far away. Hugely pregnant and estranged from her family, she had come home to roost after her father died. Avery's sense of entitlement made me crazy. Still, I knew my late husband would have welcomed any adult child of mine.

She'd briefly settled down with the man who thought he was the father of her twins. That had been a strange time for me. Though relieved to be free of Avery and brood, I'd found myself disconcertingly attracted to handsome Nash Grant. He was closer to my age than hers, and I'd been celibate a whole year. A superficial charmer, he'd only wanted proof that he wasn't shooting blanks. When a paternity test revealed the twins weren't his, he'd told Avery to get out and take her spawn with her. The trio had landed back at my house, just in time for the start of my busiest season. And, just in time for Deely Smarr, the "Coast Guard nanny," to head overseas. I was struggling to hold things together till she returned.

"Better move your truck," I advised Mr. Gamby. "Avery's having a bad day."

"She trusts you to look after her babies?" He was appalled.

"I may be incompetent, but I work for free."

"Don't worry," Chester told the fisherman. "As soon as I put some dry clothes on, I'll come back here and help."

"That girl's sticking her tongue out," Mr. Gamby observed. I still hadn't turned to face Avery.

"It's nothing personal," I told him. "Just her tic."

That was true; Avery flicked her tongue at everyone. Any wonder I didn't want to look? She must have been holding the back door open. I could hear either Leah or Leo starting to howl.

"If I don't get outta here," Avery shrilled. "I'm gonna lose my mind. Somebody move the damn truck!"

Prince Harry finished peeing. Chester pulled him under the blanket, no doubt for additional body heat. Abra, oblivious to everything except my straw hat, gagged on the grosgrain ribbon.

I stood, rising at least four inches over Mr. Gamby. "Well . . . thanks so much for saving Chester. And for driving him home. He'll tell you how to get to his house." I offered my hand. Mr. Gamby didn't take it.

"I still think I should turn you in," he muttered, "before you lose any more kids."

* * *

Changing diapers is like riding a bike in the snow. Once you've learned how to do it, you can always do it. But you'll never like doing it. Avery had left me with two stinky diapers on two cranky babies. Leah, Leo and I all felt better after I'd cleaned their bottoms. I felt better yet after I'd drunk a goblet of Pinot Noir.

It was dinnertime when my doorbell rang. I assumed that was Chester, keeping his promise to come back and help with the twins. Really, he was such a sweet kid. A pettier person—or a less lonely one—might have avoided me after I'd let him almost drown.

It wasn't Chester, however. Not bothering to check the peephole, I opened my front door to his celebrity mom. Cassina had every right to be mad. Hell, she had every right to sue me. She was a pop music superstar. She could afford to sue anyone.

"I am so sorry!" I exclaimed.

Since Cassina was wearing Jackie O-style sunglasses, oversized and darkly tinted, I couldn't read her expression. But the rest of her, as usual, appeared to have just arrived from outer space. Cassina only ever wears white. That evening, she was swathed in what looked like a pigment-free, pure cotton body wrap that concealed everything except her face, her feet, and a few wisps of scarlet hair. All ten toes sported gold and emerald rings.

I gushed, "I've lost a lot of sleep since Avery and the twins came back, and Deely went to her animal rights conference in Amsterdam. So when I finally got an afternoon off, I just wanted to relax in the sun! I didn't mean to fall asleep! I didn't know there was a riptide!"

For a long moment, Cassina stared at me. Or so I assumed since I couldn't see her eyes. Finally, in her famously breathy voice, she said, "Whiskey, who gives a fuck? Are you going to let me in?"

Of course, I let her in, bowing and scraping. Although she left her dark glasses on, I could tell she was scanning my foyer for any sign of Abra. Cassina doesn't "do" dogs. Chester managed to keep Prince Harry only because The Castle, at twenty-thousand square feet, offered enough rooms to hide a puppy in. Even so, he sometimes stashed Prince Harry over here.

"Just so you understand," I said, "I never meant to be negligent."

"How sad for you," Cassina said. "I love being negligent. It makes life worth living."

"So . . . you won't sue me?"

"Why the hell would I do that? I've got enough hobbies."

At that point I wondered if Cassina even knew about her son's near-death experience. It didn't seem in my best interest to ask. Cautiously, I inquired as to what had brought her to my door.

"I need a favor," she said. "But first, I need a drink."

Although Cassina's performance persona was that of an ethereal fairy-like creature who whispered romantic ballads as she strummed her harp, in real life she usually seemed strung out. Her entourage and her son insisted that she had given up drink and drugs. I proceeded carefully.

"What would you like?"

"Well . . . anything with your name on it would be welcome."

Ah-hah. I invited the diva to sit while I poured her a scotch. My nickname notwithstanding, I rarely drink the hard stuff, but I do keep a well-stocked bar. I'm a red wine kind of gal. My husky voice earned me my moniker, way back in junior high. Jeb Halloran chose it for me; I kept it long after I divorced him and discarded his last name. The nickname was an improvement over the name I was born with—Whitney Houston.

Not sure how Cassina liked her whiskey, I brought it in a tumbler with ice on the side. She waved away the cubes, downed the whiskey in one toss, and handed me back the glass for a refill.

"Oh—while you're at it, you might want to send someone out to get the package I left in your driveway," she said.

Unlike billionaire Cassina, I didn't keep a staff of gofers to fetch for me. That hadn't occurred to her, however.

"You left a package in my driveway? May I ask why?"

"Get the whiskey and I'll explain."

I returned with no ice and a nearly full bottle, which I let Cassina pour for herself. After downing a second tumbler, she delicately licked her lips.

"I left the package in your driveway because I didn't know if you'd be home. Also, I didn't know if I'd want you to know that I left it. But I've decided that I do."

"Okay. . . ." This sounded like a game of Twenty Questions. "Is it . . . bigger than a bread box?"

Cassina, who was pouring her third very large drink, said, "Just have your man bring it in."

Rather than explain that I didn't have a man—of either the hired or desired variety—I went out to retrieve it myself. I doubted that Cassina even noticed I had left. Sure enough, there was a box in my driveway, about ten feet from her Maserati. I was relieved to see she had a driver; he and I exchanged waves. At least I wouldn't have to worry about getting the singer home—just into her car. And the driver looked strong enough to help. The box was small, or I might have asked him to help me with that. No bigger than a bread box, it featured several rows of holes. And the ominous label LIVE ANIMAL. As I stood there, staring at the box, it jumped. I jumped, too. I may also have let out a little shriek because the driver rolled down his window.

"He can't hurt you. He's just a wee thing."

The driver had what I thought was a Scottish accent. Convenient. He shouldn't mind the smell of scotch whiskey sure to accompany Cassina on the ride back to The Castle. But back to the box. . . .

"What is it?" I asked the driver, pointing to the container, which now rocked from side to side.

"I don't know. He's a cutie, though."

So were most babies, but I wouldn't want to find one in my driveway. Gingerly, I picked up the box. It couldn't have weighed five pounds. From inside, I heard panting. As far as I knew, the only thing that size capable of panting was a puppy. I put the box down.

The driver motioned me over. "Here's the thing," he began and handed me a certified check for one thousand dollars. I handed it back.

The driver said, "Miss Cassina and Mr. Rupert are having a row, don't you know. He gave her this pup to win back her love, but she's leaving the country for a month at a Tuscan spa. She knows you have a dog, so . . . here's another one."

Did he honestly think that made sense? He produced a second check, this one made out for two thousand dollars, and gave it to me, along with the first one.

"For the charity of your choice," he said.

"No!" I said and gave both checks back.

"Think of your nanny," he pleaded. "How she loves dogs and all creatures. How would she feel if you left this little one out here in your driveway?"

He pulled an exaggeratedly sad face.

I said, "First of all, I'm not going to leave him in my driveway. I'm going to give him back to you! Second of all, this isn't my nanny's house. It's my house. And I already have one dog too many!"

. . . which reminded me I hadn't seen Abra since the hat-eating incident on my deck. I made a mental note to look for her. Later.

The driver reached into the front-seat console and removed yet another check, this one made out for five thousand dollars.

"No!" I shouted. "I am not taking a bribe!"

"Just think, Ms. Mattimoe, of all the good works Fleggers could do with eight thousand dollars."

I shuddered. He was referring to Four Legs Good, the animal rights advocacy founded by my nanny and my vet—and the very reason Deely wasn't here to help me right now. Fleggers asserted that all animals were created equal and should be so recognized under the law. An alarming credo. I shared my life with a felonious Afghan hound who already had more clout than I did.

"Absolutely not!" I declared.

"I see," the driver said. He turned his gaze straight ahead and contemplated Lake Michigan. "In that case, how about a lucrative real estate listing? Miss Cassina owns a five-thousand-square-foot 'cottage' twenty miles up the coast. She sometimes goes there to . . ."—he cleared his throat—"work. But she's bored with the place and wants something new. She's asked me to find her a realtor."

He presented a manila folder, which I opened. It contained the paperwork required to list a property. Plus four photos showing a magnificently secluded three-story cedar-sided home in the dunes.

"A comparable property sold last month for three-point-three million," he said, dramatically rolling his Rs.

"Are you an agent?" I demanded.

"I was, back in Glasgow. MacArthur's the name. I'm studying now for my Michigan license. Are you hiring?"

I tucked the folder under my arm and told him to call me at the office. Then, against my better judgment—and all reasonable standards of sanity—I scooped up the rocking box and carried it into my house.

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