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Hello, It's Me
By Wendy Markham

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 Hello, It's Me

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Hello, It's Me
By Wendy Markham
ISBN: 044661453X
Genre: Romance

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Chapter Excerpt from: Hello, It's Me , by Wendy Markham

Chapter


1


Hey, you've reached Andre. You know what to do. Wait for the beep and don't forget to leave your number." Clutching the phone between her shoulder and her ear, Annie pipes another stripe of red icing along a rectangular sugar cookie, wondering how many stripes an American flag has, anyway.

Not that it matters. There aren't fifty white dabs of icing on the square of blue to the left of the stripe. Who cares whether a flag cookie is historically accurate, as long as it tastes good? Beep.

Annie sets down the tube of icing and presses a button to disconnect the call.

Someday, maybe she'll leave a message, just for the hell of it. Even though Andre's phone, its battery long dead, is lying useless in a drawer, along with the other personal effects the hospital handed her that awful day. Or maybe someday, she'll stop calling Andre's cell phone just to hear the sound of his voice. Yes, someday, she'll stop paying the bill just so she can do that.

After all, it's not as though she can afford it. She can't afford much of anything these days. The Widow Harlowe is in dire straits, reduced to decorating cookies for some wealthy Hamptonite's Flag Day soiree tomorrow night, just to earn enough cash to keep her kids in Fritos and Lunchables.

She's lucky, she supposes, that her friend Merlin's catering business has taken off so quickly. With the summer season about to kick into full swing, she can probably count on enough cookie-decorating gigs to carry them through the summer.

Then what? Come September, the rich New Yorkers will flee back to the city, leaving the eastern end of Long Island to the hardy natives once again.

As much as she cherishes warm days in the sun and surf, Annie has always preferred the off-season. She may not have grown up here as Andre did, but she learned early on to resent the "outsiders" who clog the roads and restaurants and beaches from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Now, she resents that they've become her livelihood. Hell, what-and who-doesn't she resent at this point?

The summer people, the bill collectors who call incessantly, even her friends-especially those who are happily attached.

The Widow Harlowe can't help but notice that the world is one big Noah's Ark, made up of twosomes, which leaves her . . . Alone. You're all alone, Annie.

A tear drops into the icing stripe, bleeding red across the white buttercream background.

Annie is instantly reminded of Milo losing his tooth in the apple the day her world turned upside down. The day that began as happily as the endless string of others before it, and concluded with sirens and a uniformed policeman at her door.

And now . . . Well, now she's all alone. Everything happens for a reason, Annie. Andre said those words frequently-usually, whenever she was complaining about something that hadn't gone the way it was supposed to. Everything happens for a reason. Yeah. Right.

What reason could there possibly be for this? For Andre dying, for Annie being left alone to- Thud.

Annie looks up at the water-stained kitchen ceiling. Okay, not quite alone.

In fact, never alone. Never, ever alone. Being with her children 24-7 has taken some getting used to. She still isn't accustomed to not having a minute to herself during the day; nary a reprieve from her maternal watch.

Andre always liked to take Milo and Trixie off on adventures, leaving Annie with time to herself. She hasn't had that in almost a year now, but was too caught up in her grief to realize how much she craved relaxing solitude until recently.

"What are you doing up there, Milo?" she calls, even as she wonders whether the teardrop will make this cookie taste salty. She can always toss it aside . . . but then she won't have a full sixteen dozen, and Merlin-or his snooty client-are sure to notice.

Not that she's even met the man who's throwing the Flag Day shindig. But it's safe to assume that anyone with a waterfront estate in Southampton is snooty. "I'm practicing, Mommy," Milo shouts down the stairs.

Practicing. Of course. "Just be careful, okay?" she calls wearily, wiping her eyes on the hem of the violet-sprigged vintage apron she's wearing.

She pipes another, slightly jagged red stripe on the slightly soggy cookie and concludes somewhat illogically that it'll serve the snooty Southamptonite right to taste the tears of the Widow Harlowe.

Thud. "Be careful, Milo!" she calls again. "I will, Mommy," comes the reply. "That time I almost did it."

Sure he did. He almost flew.

That, after all, is what he's been trying to do for months. Blanket/cape tucked in at his neck, arms outstretched, he attempts to take off on a daily-all right, an hourly-basis. His mission: to fly up to heaven so that he can tell his dad about his lost tooth and his new superhero action figures and his first year of elementary school and everything else Andre has missed in the dozen months since he died.

Annie hasn't the heart to tell her son that his mission is futile. How can she, when she herself spends every day longing for one last chance to tell her husband that she loves him?

With a trembling hand, she pipes another strip of red frosting, this one more wobbly than the last, on the cookie. Oh, hell. It looks like a zigzag, not a stripe. Annie tosses aside the icing tube and reaches again for the phone.

She dials the familiar number and waits as it rings once . . .

He's not going to answer. You know that. Even when he was alive and remembered to turn on his cell phone, he never picked it up on the first ring. Twice . . .

Usually, he didn't even grab it on the second. Remember how you used to picture him fumbling around, looking for it in his pocket, or the glove compartment, or at the bottom of his beach bag or tackle box? Three times . . .

He's not going to answer it. Not ever again. Why do you keep doing this to yourself, Annie? Fifty bucks a month just so that you can hear his voice? Four . . .

There's a click, and then the inevitable: "Hey, you've reached Andre. You know what to do . . ."

She waits for the beep. This time, when she hears it, she doesn't hang up. This time, heedless of the tears streaming down her face and plopping like raindrops onto the half-finished flag, Annie leaves a message. "No, Andre," she wails, "you're wrong. I don't. I don't know what to do. I need you so badly . . ."

Unable to force another word past the aching lump in her throat, Annie hangs up and stares bleakly into space. Raising a crystal flute to his mouth, Thomas Brannock IV takes a sip of champagne. It's odd, he thinks, to be drinking champagne when the afternoon sunlight is still beaming through the tall paned windows of his dining room. Happy hour is a few hours away. But then, this isn't pleasure; it's business. These days, what isn't? "What do you think? Too dry?" the stereotypically buff, good-looking, and effeminate caterer asks, hovering at his elbow.

"Too fruity," Thom pronounces, biting back the urge to add, "No offense." He sets the flute on the freshly polished surface of the eight-foot table that once graced his grandmother's Newport dining room. "Can I try the other one again?" "Of course."

The caterer-Marvin? Myron?-flits back to the first bottle and pours sparkling amber liquid into a clean flute. "Keep your menu in mind."

Thom nods, sipping the champagne. What is the menu again? By the time he's finished selecting the beverages that will be served, will he even remember? Or care? Did he ever care in the first place? "Dry enough?" Marvin or Myron asks.

It isn't, but Thom declares it just right. If he doesn't stop now, he won't be able to focus on his work. And when one is at the helm of a major financial institution and in the midst of yet another corporate takeover bid, one cannot afford not to focus.

"You're working again tonight?" Joyce pouted earlier when he informed her that he couldn't join her for dinner after all. "I thought you were on vacation." Vacation. Yeah, right.

He might be spending as many long weekends as he can at his sprawling seven-bedroom summer house complete with tennis court, pool, and private beach, but he doesn't really use the amenities. His mind is rarely far from his Wall Street office.

He watches the caterer make a note on a clipboard, then look up with a brisk smile. "We'll do the red wine next."

"Actually, Marvin-" "It's Merlin." Oops. "Actually, Merlin, I'll leave that up to you." "But-" "I'm sure you'll choose the right wine." "But-" "If you'll excuse me, I'd better get back to work," Thom says in his best class-dismissed tone, pushing back his chair.

I could have been a teacher in another life, he thinks, watching as Merlin takes his cue and begins clearing away the wineglasses and bottles. A teacher. Sure.

That would have gone over well with Mother. About as well as Thom's sister Susan's temporary engagement to an actor a few years ago. An Oscar nomination and a Beverly Hills mansion meant little to Mother. What counted more than anything, as far as she was-and is-concerned, is breeding. Susan's former fianc? didn't have it. The man she eventually married does. And so, Thom thinks with a twinge of resentment, does Joyce.

Like him, she grew up on Park Avenue and in Southampton. Like him, she went to all the right schools, rubbed shoulders with all the right people. Like him, she's attractive and intelligent.

Unlike him, she's thinking that it's time to settle down. As far as Thom is concerned, his whole life has been settled down. He can't help longing to . . . well, unsettle. "I'll just need to go over a few more details with you, and then I'll be out of your hair," Merlin announces, breaking into Thom's errant thought pattern.

Which is for the best, of course. There's little time for daydreaming when you're in the midst of putting together a multibillion-dollar corporate takeover bid to acquire a New England-based seafood packaging company and hosting a political fund-raiser for two hundred of your-make that your mother's and sister's-closest friends.

With a sigh, Thom dutifully shifts his attention from fantasies about unsettling to Myron and his clipboard. The next morning, Annie is sitting on the porch swing with Trixie, a bag of cheese crackers, and a dog-eared copy of Green Eggs and Ham on her lap when she hears the rain-dampened gravel crunching at the foot of the driveway.

For a moment-the most fleeting and exhilarating of moments-she thinks, Andre's home. Then the familiar, bittersweet sound of crunching gravel gives way to the sight of a vehicle that isn't Andre's truck. No, it's Merlin's latest ridiculously extravagant purchase: a cherry red 1956 Mercedes convertible 220S.

What that cost him, Annie thinks ruefully, would probably provide a few years' college tuition for one of her kids.

Stop resenting Merlin's money, she chides herself. His money and his newfound domestic bliss with Jonathan, a Sag Harbor antiques dealer he met in January. A lifelong friendship shouldn't be tainted by the fact that Merlin is living happily ever after while Annie has become the Widow Harlowe, as Merlin himself dubbed her after one too many margaritas at a Cinco de Mayo bash last month.

Merlin's black sense of humor, along with his checkbook, have buoyed her through this stormy year. She has no right to resent his good fortune. "It's Uncle Merlin, Mommy!" Trixie shouts, leaping from Annie's lap. "Hey, Milo! Come outside! Uncle Merlin's here!"

Setting the book aside, relieved to have this morning's third round of Green Eggs and Ham curtailed, Annie rises and brushes the Goldfish crumbs from her faded cutoffs. Belatedly, she realizes that the porch floor will be covered with bugs again in no time. She had to hose it off last night after she found the remains of a grape Popsicle hosting the entire ant population of Montauk less than a foot from the screen door.

The house is falling apart inside and out. It's hard to believe that she and Andre ever pulled up in front of this nondescript two-story cedar-shingled bungalow and proclaimed it their dream home. What were they thinking? They'd have been better off in a condo or a townhouse, like her brothers said. Especially now that Annie alone is responsible for the upkeep of antique plumbing and wiring and a huge yard she actually once, in her misguided new homeowner's bliss, considered an asset.

The grass needs mowing, the shrubs need pruning, the beds need weeding, and she really should move the snowblower back into the shed. It's been sitting under a tree since she abandoned it there in the middle of last February's single significant snowstorm, after realizing she had no clue how to use it. That, like lawn mowing, was Andre's department.

Not that he ever got much practice. Splurging on that snowblower as a holiday gift for him one year was wishful thinking on Annie's part. Since childhood, she had longed for a white Christmas to rival Dickens's London, but it never happened. Not once. At least, not way out here on Long Island.

Snow rarely fell on Montauk that early in the season, and it never stuck. The big storms, if they came, were reserved for February; March, even, when crystalline drifts had been known to blanket crocus blooms and emerging daffodil spires.

"I'll get my white Christmas sooner or later," she used to tell Andre. "You'll see." "Only if we get rich enough to buy a snowmaking machine," was always his reply.

"Are we going for a Serengeti motif now?" Merlin calls, stepping out of his car in Gucci loafers and wading gingerly through the puddles by the car, then the overgrown grass on the lawn. "Should I be keeping an eye out for roaming zebra? Or their droppings?"

"Bite me," Annie retorts to the man who is more of an uncle to her children than her two married older brothers ever have been.

"How about I loan you my gardener instead?" "If I could afford a gardener, I'd trade him in for a maid."

Annie stoops to pick up a small plastic army guy; the kind that kills one's bare foot if one steps on it while blindly feeling one's way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. She's done that enough times to have declared all army guys "outside toys." She probably would have been better off banning them to the garbage while Milo was busy with his flight training in another room. "I'll loan you my gardener and my maid," Merlin offers.

Descending the porch steps, Annie laughs and says, "No, thanks." "Come on, Annie. I'm serious." "I know you are, but-" "Let me do something nice for you." "Merlin-"

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a platinum credit card. "Here, if you won't let me loan you Enzio and Louella, take this and go shopping. It'll get your mind off your troubles. My treat. For your birthday." "My birthday was in April."

He shrugs. "I never got you a present." "You gave me a Prada bag."

"Oh, that." Merlin dismisses her with a wave of his hand. "It was a knockoff." "Yeah, right."

About as much a knockoff as Merlin's Dolce & Gabbana silk shirt. It's a creamy shade of yellow that offsets Merlin's salon-manufactured golden hair and the expensive spray-on tan he gets weekly at a place in Amagansett. It's becoming more and more difficult for Annie to remember that this tawny, buff boy toy was once a pasty, dark-haired misfit in husky-sized dungarees. "Go ahead, Vivian," Merlin urges. "Take the card. Go shopping."

Vivian. Annie rolls her eyes, recognizing the reference to Julia Roberts's character in Pretty Woman, a movie she and Merlin watched together at least a dozen times back in high school.

"Vivian?" she echoes with a laugh. "And I suppose that makes you Richard Gere?" "Only in my dreams, cupcake," he says as she forces the credit card back into his hand. "Thanks, but no thanks, sweetie. Even a shopping spree won't cure my problems these days." "Never underestimate the power of retail, Annie." Merlin looks down, where Trixie is tugging his sleeve. "What's up, gumdrop?" "Uncle Merlin! My name's not Gumdrop!" "Oops, sorry . . . Jujube." Trixie screams with laughter. Annie struggles to fight off a pang of regret as she watches Merlin scoop her daughter into his arms and swing her playfully overhead. Andre used to do that.

Does Trixie even remember? Annie's youngest child's memory of her father is fading with every day that passes. Unlike Milo, Trixie rarely mentions Andre now, and when she does, it's in the abstract, rather than a concrete memory.

Behind Annie the screen door groans and bangs. She turns to see Milo stepping out of the house, cape fluttering around his bare legs.

"Milo, where are your shorts? And your underpants," she adds, catching a flash of exposed white skin as he bends to pick up a glass jar from the step. "In the laundry."

"Did you have an accident again?" "No, I just got tired of wearing pants," Milo says with a shrug.

"But Milo, you can't go around naked from the waist down."

"Why not?" Why not. Why not? Annie's too weary to figure out why not.

Milo has moved on to a new topic anyway, hollering, "Uncle Merlin, look what I found!" "What is it?" Merlin asks, after setting Trixie on her feet and kissing Annie on the cheek.

"A poisonous tarantula. See?" Merlin peers through the glass at the innocuous daddy longlegs lounging on a bed of grass. "Wow. That's cool, Milo."

"Yeah. I'm saving it to show my dad." Merlin catches Annie's eye. She shakes her head. Normally, she'd gently remind Milo that his dad isn't coming home again, but that would only lead into a discussion about Milo's upcoming mission to visit him in heaven. This morning, she's just not up for that. Annie wouldn't be up at all if it weren't for Trixie's latest night terrors startling her out of a bone-weary sleep at dawn. "Come on," Annie says, "let's get out of the rain." "It's only sprinkling, Mommy," Trixie says.

"But it's going to rain harder any second now, with lightning and thunder," Merlin announces, herding both children toward the house. "How do you know, Uncle Merlin?" "I'm magical, remember?"

"You're also addicted to the Weather Channel," Annie points out, knowing him too well. "Only when I've got an outdoor shindig scheduled. Which is just about every day in season." Annie shakes her head. "Is it supposed to rain all day?"

"Nope, just this morning. Then clearing for my big event later, thank goodness."

"Great, because the cookies are good to go," Annie says, leading the way up the steps and into the house. The screen door groans loudly as she opens it, reminding her that Andre always meant to spray some WD-40 into the hinges. She really should get to that-if only so that she'll be subjected to one less memory of her husband.

"Duck," she reminds Merlin out of habit, and he lowers his towering head to fit through the doorway. While house-hunting, Annie and Andre noticed that there are two kinds of old houses: those with towering ceilings, and those with impossibly low ceilings. Theirs falls into the latter category-not that it's an issue for anyone other than the towering six-foot-five Merlin. "I so hope you appreciate the fact that I was decorating your grand old flags until one in the morning," she tells him.

"I always appreciate you, honeybun. And they're fabulous," Merlin proclaims, peering at the plastic-wrapped trays that line the kitchen countertop. "I want one." Milo reaches for the nearest cookie. Annie stops his hand before he can touch it. "No! I told you, sweetie, those are for the snooty people." Merlin laughs. "They're not that snooty." "Yeah, right." Annie hands him the invoice she made up this morning, hoping he'll pay her now. He often does, but last week he had to wait a few days for payroll to take care of it.

To her relief, Merlin reaches into his pocket and takes out his checkbook. "What's today?" he asks, Montblanc pen poised above the dateline.

"June fourteenth," Annie tells him. "Milo, go put your shorts back on." "I don't like shorts." "I want to put shorts on," announces Trixie, who insisted on donning a party dress less than twenty minutes ago and is now decked out in pink organza and Mary Janes.

Annie sighs. "Fine. And Milo, if you don't want to wear shorts, put jeans on. Now." "Underwear, too," Merlin advises, as Milo sulks out of the room. "Interesting kid. Think he'll grow up to be a flasher?"

"Lord, I hope not." He turns back to his checkbook. "I can't believe you know the date. What's up with that?" She shrugs. "It's Flag Day."

"Says the woman who's usually clueless about which day Independence Day falls on." Merlin finishes filling out the check and hands it to her with a flourish. "July fourth," Annie says, sticking out her tongue. "I'm impressed."

She would have been, too, prewidowhood. That she's acutely aware of the calendar now is testimony to the approaching anniversary of Andre's death- which did, indeed, occur on the summer solstice. June twenty-first.

Ironically, for Annie, the longest day of the year will forever feel like the longest day of the year. Even more ironically, it wasn't a shark, or a riptide, or any of the other things Annie used to fear that took Andre's life.

No, her daredevil husband was felled by the most horrifically natural and random of causes: a blood clot in his lung.

Looking back, Annie can't recall a single warning sign. If Andre wasn't feeling good in the days or weeks before he keeled over on the beach, he kept it to himself. It wouldn't be the first time.

He learned early on in their relationship that if he mentioned a symptom-any symptom-to Annie, she blew it out of proportion. Andre didn't like doctors and he didn't like tests. She had to schedule appointments for him behind his back, and force him to keep them. If she had known he was having trouble breathing, or had the slightest pain in his chest, she'd have dragged him to the ER. Then the blood clot would have been diagnosed, and Andre would have been saved.

You can't keep thinking like that, Annie reminds herself. It's not your fault that he died. If anything, it's his fault.

Damn him. Damn him for not taking better care of himself. Damn him for brushing off her frequent worries as hypochondria. Damn him for not thinking they needed life insurance at their ages. Damn him for leaving her alone.

This, Annie realizes, as the surge of fury toward her dead husband ebbs within her, must be the anger phase her psychiatrist friend Erika keeps warning her about. Oh, well, it's about damned time Annie feels something other than profound, overwhelming, mind-numbing grief.

"Listen," Merlin is saying, as Annie tucks the check into her back pocket and wonders whether the bank is open till noon or one, "how desperate are you for money?"

"About as desperate as you were for a date last New Year's Eve. Does that answer your question?" Merlin pats her arm, smiling the benevolent smile of one who is confident of never again finding oneself dateless on New Year's Eve.

"Can you get a sitter tonight?" he asks Annie. "No." "Oh, come on, Annie. Yes, you can." "You act as though all I have to do is snap my fingers and Mary Poppins will appear. It's not that easy, Merlin. And anyway, why do I need a sitter?"

"Because I need an extra waitress for the Flag Day fund-raiser tonight." "No way," Annie says promptly. She may be broke, but she draws the line at waitressing. "Come on, Annie. I'll pay you double." She shakes her head.

"In cash." She hesitates only briefly, then says, "Nope." "Why not?" "Because." "Because . . . ?"

Because I can't bear the thought of leaving Milo and Trixie at night. What if he falls out of bed trying to fly? What if she wakes up screaming and I'm not there? "Because . . . ?" Merlin prods.

Because I can't bear the thought of waiting hand and foot on a bunch of snobs. I can't stomach watching them barely touch meals that cost more than a year's worth of my mortgage. I can't-

"Annie?" "Just because," she says churlishly. "You need the money. And I can find you a sitter if you can't. I bet Erika would do it." Erika Bauer is Annie's closest female friend, and she adores Milo and Trixie. But she's in Florida at a conference, and Annie tells Merlin as much. He shrugs, unfazed. "I know for a fact that Jonathan's niece is available and-"

"Then let her waitress for you." "She's only fifteen. That's too young to waitress." "Too young to babysit, too." "Oh, come on. You and Andre used to have your neighbor's daughter watch the kids when you went out to dinner Friday nights. She couldn't have been more than thirteen."

She wasn't. Annie closes her eyes briefly, staving off memories of their weekly tradition. My dinner with Andre, she used to call it. Funny how they never even rented that movie. They always meant to, but . . . But.

"I can't help you out, Merlin," Annie says tersely. "Sorry. You'll have to find someone else." Find someone else.

Again, a memory rushes at her like the incoming tide, nearly knocking her off her feet. "If anything ever happens to me, I want you to find someone else," Annie told Andre once when she was worried about some imagined fatal illness or other. "Oh, don't worry. I've already got her lined up," he said, eyes twinkling. "The second you fall into that coma, I'm outa here."

"I'm serious, Andre." "Yeah, well, you'd better not find anybody else, babe." She laughed.

"Hey, I'm serious, too," he said, eyes still twinkling. "If I'm ever in a coma, I expect you to visit me every day and sit by my bed and hold my hand. You promised to stay by my side forever, remember?" "I remember."

Their wedding: barefoot on the beach on a warm May sunrise as Merlin sang a cappella, "All I Ask of You" from Phantom of the Opera. Neither of them was particularly fond of traditional wedding vows.

"Talk about depressing," Andre said. "Who wants to discuss the potential for sickness and death on the happiest day of their lives?"

Not Andre. Not Annie. For them, the future held only happiness.

Instead of pledging to love each other in sickness and in health, till death do us part, they recited vows they had written themselves, vows that were as blissfully unconventional as they were.

Andre promised to keep his cold feet on his side of the bed, to never grow a beard, as Annie loathed facial hair, to stay by her side forever, and to tell her that he loved her every day.

Annie promised to laugh at all his bad puns, to never paint her nails when he was in the room because he hated the smell of polish, to stay by his side forever, and to tell him that she loved him every day.

"So if I'm in a coma, you'll stay by my side, and if I'm dead, you'd better not abandon me, Annie. You need to bring flowers to my grave and sit there talking to me for at least four hours a day. That'll keep you busy so you won't be tempted to date."

Rolling her eyes at the ludicrous notion of ever "dating" again, Annie pointed out, "I thought you wanted to be cremated and scattered in the Caribbean." Their honeymoon: a five-day cruise to the Virgin Islands that depleted their newly established joint bank account but yielded three bulging photo albums filled with glorious memories.

"Does that mean I don't get a gravestone?" She shook her head, laughing. "Not even a memorial plaque somewhere? Listen, I need a stone or something. Where else are you going to brood and plant flowers?"

"Annie?" She looks up, startled by Merlin's voice and his touch on her shoulder. "Are you okay?"

She realizes tears are trickling down her cheeks. "I'm fine," she lies, brushing them away, remembering something. "It's just . . . I'm one cookie short of sixteen dozen."

"I know, but I love you anyway." "You counted?" "Counted what?" "The cookies. I'm one short-"

"Oh! You meant literally." He chuckles. "I thought you were acknowledging that you're a little nutty." "I am not nutty!" she protests indignantly. "Sure you are. But in an adorable way. Anyway, you were saying . . . ?"

"I'm one cookie short. I cut the recipe too close and I had exactly enough . . . but then I had to throw one away," she says, gesturing at the trays. "I, uh, dropped it. Facedown."

"It's okay. I'm sure Thom won't notice." Annie is sure that he will, but he'll just have to live without the soggy, tear-stained flag. Just as she has to live without Andre. Okay, it's not the same thing.

If she were prone to smiling these days, she'd be amused by the ludicrous comparison of a snooty cookiecounting Southamptonite to the Widow Harlowe.

But Annie isn't prone to smiling. She's prone to tears. She sniffles and Merlin removes a neatly folded white linen handkerchief from the pocket of his khakis and passes it to her. "Here," he says. "Blow." She raises the handkerchief to her nose.

"Better?" he asks. "No." She leans against him as he pulls her close. At barely five feet tall, she finds her chin in the vicinity of his navel.

When Andre hugged her, she could put her head on his shoulder. He was only a few inches taller than Annie. They fit together perfectly, in every way. Oh, Lord. How is she going to make it through another day, another hour, another minute without him?

"When is it going to get easier?" she asks Merlin, closing her eyes against the terrible ache. "I wish I knew, Twinkie. But it will. I promise." "How do you know?"

"I know everything, remember?" She laughs. So does he. Once upon a time, when she was Annie Grimes of suburban Commack and Merlin was literally, though never figuratively, the boy next door, she used to tease him about being a bossy knowit- all.

He captures her left hand in his and raises it to look at her fourth finger. "You haven't taken it off yet." She flinches and lifts her chin stubbornly, glad he can't also see Andre's gold band dangling on a chain inside the collar of her T-shirt. "I'm not going to take it off, Merlin." "Annie-"

"In my heart, I'll always be married to him. I'm not taking it off." Never mind the fact that the ring keeps sliding dangerously close to her second knuckle, thanks to all the weight she lost. She should really have it made a size smaller.

Yeah. As if there's money to spare for that. Merlin shakes his head. "Wearing a ring a year later is just . . . look, Annie, sooner or later you might meet someone else. You might want to-"

"No way, Merlin. Andre made me promise that if something happened to him, I'd never replace him." "He did not."

"He did so." "If he said that he was teasing. Andre wouldn't want you to be alone." "I'm not alone. I have the kids." Merlin looks as though he's going to say something else, but just shrugs and drops her hand. After a moment he asks, "So how about bailing me out tonight?" Annie thinks about the stack of unpaid bills on her desk and the check in her pocket, which won't cover half of them.

It's tempting. Really tempting. Not just the money, but the idea of getting a sitter and leaving the house, alone. Even if it is just to wait on snooty Thom and his rich friends.

"Annie? Come on, what do you say?" She says, "No, thanks." Then she stands in the doorway flanked by her children as Merlin drives away through the rain in his fancy car.

"Can we have lunch now, Mommy?" Trixie asks when the sound of crunching gravel has faded. "Sure."

She makes them sandwiches using the last of the peanut butter and adds that item to the lengthy grocery list stuck to the refrigerator.

Then, feeling vaguely guilty, she allows the kids to eat in front of the television, something Andre always forbade. As a single parent, Annie finds herself relying on the good old electronic babysitter more and more frequently now that school is out for the summer. In fact, it's pretty much turned on all day, every day. It's the only way she can buy herself a few moments' solitude. Back when Andre was alive, she kept the radio on most of the time. She always loved a house that was filled with music. But the radio on the kitchen windowsill has been silent for almost a year now.

Her appetite having vanished permanently when Andre did, Annie skips lunch. Again.

Instead, she sits at the kitchen table, listening to the raindrops on the roof, sipping this morning's cold coffee, and flipping through the stack of bills she hasn't a prayer of paying in their entirety.

The trick, Annie realizes, after the third flip-through, is to prioritize. She sets aside the mortgage statement, the electric bill, the health insurance bill. Merlin's check and the money left in her account will cover these, and leave enough for groceries if she buys generic brands. Okay, so far so good. A little caffeine goes a long way. She nukes the remainder of this morning's coffee for good measure, and while she's waiting in front of the microwave, she again goes through the bills still left in her hand. If she doesn't pay the minimum on the Visa card soon, they'll cut her off. And Andre's cell phone is past due. She can't let that lapse.

Can't you? It makes no sense to keep paying it, just so that she can hear his voice every now and then and pretend he's still there, somewhere, on his way home.

It makes no sense, and yet she can't seem to help herself. Try as she might, she can't let go of the foolish fantasy that someday, she'll dial the number and he'll answer and she'll realize that this whole thing has been a bad dream.

A night terror. Rubbing her exhausted eyes, Annie sinks into her chair again. She sets aside the pile of bills and sips some coffee. It tastes acrid, but she needs the caffeine to make it through the day.

She lowers her head to the table for a few blessed moments, fighting off sleep, wishing she could crawl back into bed.

Yawning, she forces her eyes open and stands up, looking around the cluttered kitchen. Her gaze falls on the telephone.

Instinctively, she reaches for it and begins to dial. Just this once, she promises herself. One last time. Then she'll have the line disconnected and throw away the bill. One ring . . .

This time, of course, she'll hang up at the beep. She should never have left a message yesterday. Milo overheard her talking and thought she had reached Andre. Two rings . . .

She had to explain to her son that she was talking to herself, not to Daddy. He wanted to know why she was holding the phone if she was talking to herself, a question she found impossible to answer.

Waiting for the inevitable third ring, Annie reaches for the cell phone bill. This really is ridiculous. It's time. Time to get rid of the indulgent expense. Time to let go. Then, as she's about to rip the invoice in half . . . "Hello?" her dead husband's voice says in her ear.

Excerpted from Hello, It's Me , by Wendy Markham . Copyright (c) 2005 by Wendy Corsi Staub. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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