NOTE: This story is the second in a series. To fully understand the characters and various story lines, it is recommended that you read the stories in order.

Owen trailed his fingers over the sandstone wall, absently humming an off-key tune. A damp breeze ruffled his short blond hair, while flashes of lightning, grumbling thunder, and the occasional heavy raindrop splatting onto the brick sidewalk, announced an approaching storm.

He paused at the open door to Art's Barbershop, as a sharp crack, followed by a deep rumble of thunder and gust of wind, caused the nearby flag, outside the shop, to whip on its staff, and the t-shirt which hung from his back pocket, to tangle in his bare legs. Art, awakened from a nap by the sound, began to stretch and yawn. "Hey, Art!" Owen smiled, holding up a hand in greeting. "Want me to bring in your flag? It's starting to rain."

Art turned a bleary-eyed glance in Owen's direction, not quite sure who was standing at his door. He blinked a couple times and pushed his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose. "Oh, hi, Owen," he said, in his gravely voice. "Sorry," he continued speaking, around another jaw-splitting yawn. "Always takes me a minute to wake up."

"The flag?" Owen prompted, gesturing toward the open door.

"Oh, yeah. Would you mind bringing it in for me? It looks like it's gonna rain." As if in answer, thunder grumbled again, this time closer.

"It sure does," Owen chuckled, as he removed the flag from its holder, and rolled it around its staff, making sure not to crease the fabric. He placed it in its special holder, near the door to the shop, ready to be displayed the following day.

"Have any good dreams?" he grinned, turning back to his friend, who still seemed half asleep.

Art wiped his eyes and yawned, snorting a laugh. "Not likely! That sort of dream doesn't happen nearly often enough, anymore." He spoke around another yawn, trying to smile. "That's why I take so many naps . . . hoping I'll strike it lucky and have a really good one." He gestured to one of the chairs, inviting Owen into the shop. "Trouble is," he frowned. "If I did have one, I'd probably forget it," he said, shrugging and wearing a crooked smile, then groused. "Life doesn't hold nearly enough excitement any more."

"I could describe a couple of my dreams," Owen grinned, raising his eyebrows in an ingenuous offer, as he flopped onto one of the faded red leather chairs lining the wall. He slouched in the chair, and stretched his bare legs out in front of himself, crossing them at the ankles. "The good ones, I mean. I don't talk much about the bad ones." As he spoke, his smile faltered.

"I'll pass," Art laughed, holding up a hand to prevent his guest from launching into heaven knows what sort of tale, wondering at the sudden change in Owen's manner. "Thanks for the offer, though." He heaved his bulk out of the barber's chair, and patted Owen on the shoulder as he passed. "Wouldn't want you to wear out your voice, or something.

"Did all the guests get off okay, then?" he called, speaking over his shoulder, as he retreated to the back of the shop. "Looks like they all left town just in time to avoid the bad weather."

"Yeah." Owen linked his fingers behind his head, and glanced toward the older man, who was approaching with a cup of coffee and a soft drink. "Thanks!" His smile returned, as he raised the frosty bottle in a salute, before bringing it to his lips. "Mmmm, my favorite . . . strawberry."

"Last time, it was orange."

"Any flavor is good, long as it's got lots of sugar. Doesn't matter if it's in a soda, or a dessert. I just like stuff that's sweet." Owen stared into the distance, then looked toward his friend with a mischievous grin. "Someone'll probably write a report about me in one of those fancy medical books. 'Owen Carver, the man who succumbed to sugar,'" he intoned, in a sugary voice. "'Friends say they'll miss his sweet personality.' Sounds good, doesn't it?" he asked, answering his own question with a nod and smile. "I'll be famous!" he laughed, holding his arms out to his sides. "'Course, I'll also be dead." He contemplated the scenario, then shrugged.

"You were saying your guests all headed home?" Art hinted, shaking his head in wonder at the irrepressible young man.

"Oh, yeah." Owen settled himself into the chair, and placed his half-full bottle of soda on a table, among the magazines, looking very much like the ten-year-old Art remembered sitting in that very chair. "Lucas is gonna be gone for a couple weeks. He went to see everyone off at the airport, then has scheduled lots'a appointments with folks about stuff. He's lookin' into some new business adventure he's got planned. One of those hush-hush things. He's not even told me what's up his sleeve. I think he should be stayin' home and getting some rest. He's lookin' pretty worn out.

"Bailey and Riley are catching a different flight from Lucas and Bailey's folks. As soon as the guys land, Riley'll be off to Germany for his sister's wedding, and, lastly, Corey's up at the state capital, taking some sort of teaching tests, and arranging permits, or whatever, for the school. He's going to be the only teacher for a while. Most of the older kids want to continue going to Evanston, 'cause of their friends, n'all. That means Corey'll mostly be teaching the young ones. So . . . until those two get back, Sam, Jonah, and I will be on our own.

"Y'seen Sam around . . . between naps, that is?" Owen asked, in a droll tone.

Art eased himself into his recently vacated chair and blew on his coffee before cautiously taking a sip. "He waved to me, this morning, as he passed by, but that's it. He didn't have his fishing pole with him, so I don't think he's down by the river." Art looked at Owen with a curious expression. "The boy doesn't seem to have the knack for catching fish, does he?"

Owen threw his head back and laughed. "I don't think he's ever caught one! Probably never really tried. Truth be told, I don't think he'd wanna skewer a worm on the fish hook. He really goes out to the river for the quiet, prob'ly to get away from my talkin', as much as anything. Fishing's just an excuse. Me," Owen made a face, "I don't mind worms . . . much . . . but, I can do without frogs and crawly things. Not that I'd use 'em to fish with, though," he added, in a deadpan voice, then shuddered. "Sam doesn't mind handlin' squirmy things. He just doesn't wanna kill 'em. I'm a sissy. I don't even want to touch 'em.

"He's like Corey. The two of 'em were cut out to be vegetarians, or somethin'. Not me!" Owen declared, sitting up, his eyes twinkling. "An animal stands still too long, I'll take a bite out of it. 'Course, it tastes better if someone else has already cooked it first."

After a moment of silence from Art, Owen looked up. "What? Did I say something to shock you?" He waved impatiently. "Don't worry. I've never taken a bite out of a living animal . . . though I did swallow a fly once. Abigail said it was 'cause I don't stop talking.

"Corey's been tellin' us about all the big stuffed, dead animals hangin' on the walls in Daniel's sister's office, over in Evanston. Claims they give him the willies, 'cause he thinks they're lookin' at him, or something. He told me he wants to stand up and shout, "Don't look at me like that! I don't even own a gun! It's not my fault!" Owen's infectious laugh caused Art to smile.

"Daniel's sister is an attorney, isn't she?" Art asked, raising his brows, hoping Owen would explain why Corey was visiting the woman.

Owen finished his soda. "Yeah. He talked to her about Maxine, 'cause he feels like one of us guys is gonna be a target of hers. He wants to protect all of us in case Maxine goes overboard and does something she shouldn't. I mean, worse than she already has, that is."

Art shook his head. "Yeah, poor dear. I've known her since she was a child. She's always been the same . . . even then. She has a great deal of pride, yet very little to be proud of. Bless her heart."

Owen compressed his lips. "Hmm."

"How's the library comin'?"

Owen sat up, his eyes sparkling. "Really good. We've hardly begun to even start sorting everything out, though. What with Lucas' and Bailey's folks in town, plus Riley, and Independence Day celebrations n'stuff, today's been the first time I've had a chance to really even look at stuff." He shook his head.

"It's all so mind boggling. There's so much of everything! I mean . . . even a couple of big rugs were delivered." He shook his head in disbelief. "It's like one enormous Christmas over there."

Owen lapsed into silence. After the moment's silence threatened to stretch unbearably, Art couldn't help himself. "What is it?"

"I was just thinkin'. I've never had a real Christmas, with Mama, n'everyone. Y'know, with gifts n'stuff. Someday, I'd like to have one of those." He grinned crookedly, the seemed to shake off his melancholy mood. "A nice Thanksgiving would be great too. Y'know, with a turkey and lots'a smiling and laughing people. I've never had one of those either . . . y'know the kind I'm talkin' about . . . with Jonah, Mama, and my sisters n'all."

Art nodded. 'The poor boy's emotions are swinging all over the place."

"Well," Owen said, as if dismissing thoughts of Thanksgiving and Christmas. "Nicky and his dad were waiting for me when I showed up this morning, over at the library. They wanted to volunteer. So, they've started sorting through things, helping me try to make sense of all the boxes n'stuff." Owen smiled. "Little Nicky wants to get everything done quick, so he can see what a library is like."

Owen smiled brightly, in another change of mood. "I wish Mama and Daniel would get busy and have a couple children! I'm really wanting to be a big brother. I already feel like I'm Nicky's big brother, but I'm greedy. It'd be nice to have a couple more children to spoil.

"This whole library-thing is so cool. I mean, there I was, wonderin' what I wanted to do with myself, and Bailey had the answer all along. I love it! There's so much stuff to do, though, that it's gonna be a while before I can get the place opened up."

"Don't let it all intimidate you. No one's expecting you to get the place set up overnight."

Owen wiped a hand over his forehead. "Whew! It's a good thing!" He laughed. "Mama and a bunch of other folks have volunteered to do stuff, but still . . . it'll be a big job. It's gonna be fun, though, 'cause when everyone helps out, the library becomes theirs. My name may be on the place, but it's Riverton's library.

"Oh!" he sat up even straighter. "I wanted to let you know what I'm doing with the money you and everyone in town gave me when I left for school."

"I thought you would have spent it! That's what we gave it to you for!" Art gave Owen an over-the-glasses look. "Don't tell me you still have it!"

"Sure I do! I didn't want to spend it on something frivolous, or anything! I was gonna get a computer, and some stuff like that, but Bailey's sorta taken care of all that. We have a bunch of computers, over at the library. So, I figured, since you all gave me the money to help out payin' for my education, that's what I'm gonna use it for. I decided to enroll at one of the online schools my old university recommended . . . a real reputable one. I'm gonna be able to pay for quite a few classes, using that money. And, once we get the library set up, I'll have the perfect place to study. Real quiet, y'know."

Art grinned, answering with a noncommittal, "hmmmm," doubting that anyplace Owen was, would be quiet.

"I may not be leaving Riverton to go to school, but I am gonna get my education! I also have a job. Life's pretty much perfect, I'd say."

* * *

"I have absolutely no idea what to wear to a wedding in Germany," Franklin Pruitt groused, as he stuffed some more clothes into a travel bag. "I feel like, with all the big stuff fixin' to happen, I don't have a snowball's chance in hell to come out on the winning side of the battle." He flopped backward onto his bed, and heaved a tired sigh.

'I know I've been a fool for not keeping tighter control over the money-end of the business. I just hate handling money, worrying about payroll and all that. I'm a salesman! I'm a builder, not a friggin' accountant!' He wiped a weary hand over his face. 'That's where I made my mistake. I thought I could trust the people handling my money. I've been a fool, and it appears as if I've been a fool for most, if not all, of my married life! I'm naive, I guess, thinkin' everyone's on the up-and-up.'

He looked toward the half-stuffed travel bag. 'Now, even though I've finally begun to take control over a bit of my life, I'm continuing to bow to Elizabeth's wishes, so we all can high-tail it off to Germany to attend the wedding of my daughter, who is the mirror image of her mother, to a man for whom I can only feel sympathy.'

Franklin heaved himself off the bed and rapidly crossed his bedroom to the windows overlooking the manicured grounds of his house, the surrounding woods, and the skyline of downtown Atlanta in the distance. Many of the buildings which now shone brightly in the afternoon sun, he was responsible for. 'This is home. This is where I belong, not off in Germany! This is where my responsibilities lie . . . especially now.'

He half turned. 'Funny how I'm suddenly thinkin' about responsibilities, when I've neglected the responsibility of doing a good job of managing both my family and business for all these years.' He crossed the room and angrily dumped the contents of his travel bag onto the bed. 'I have friggin' paid for my inattention!' he wanted to shout. 'This is where it all ends . . . today . . . now. Elizabeth's welcome to go to Germany for her little bit of theater, but when she returns, she will be returning to a completely different life.

'The woman believes that I cannot think for myself.' Franklin chuckled. 'She'll soon learn otherwise.'

* * *

Bailey glanced around the waiting area of the small airport, and grinned, as he sat back in the hard fiberglass chair. 'Life is good!'

"I really don't want to go to Germany," Riley said, out of the blue. When he realized Bailey was watching him, he grinned crookedly. "I meanreally. I've made it a habit of staying as far away from Mother as possible. It's a policy which has served me well. Now . . . I'm gonna be trapped, having to take part in this little charade she's got planned. The only thing she's thinking, is how she can make herself sound important to all her lady-friends at the country club."

"There's something you're not telling me about your mother, isn't there?" Bailey asked, shifting in the fiberglass seat, to face the man next to him. "The closer we've gotten to the time to head home, the more withdrawn you've become. So . . . what's all this about?"

Riley heaved a sigh. "Ohhh, Gen'rl, there's lots I don't talk about, not only to you, but to anyone. Mother's an A-number-one character. Sort of like an old Southern Belle, right out of Gone With The Wind. She's accustomed to getting her way . . . in everything. M'brother . . . Nathan, and I . . . we're the two youngest in the family . . . Well, we usually put up a fuss, and our behavior has . . . caused . . . problems. The moment I was able, I left. I mean, the moment! I turned eighteen and, wham, I was out'a there faster than greased lightning." Riley shook his head. "M'poor brother, Nathan, just turned eighteen. I sure wish he'd get out."

"So, you don't want to go to Europe because you're afraid your mother will try to run your life?"

Riley heaved a shrug, flicking a glance in Bailey's direction, but remained silent. Bailey studied the man next to him, puzzled by his uncharacteristically somber mood. "While you're there, can't you do your best to stay away from her? Surely she's gotten the idea by now, that you're not going to bend to her wishes."

Riley snorted. "Mother lives in an alternate reality, Gen'rl . . . one in which she makes all the decisions, and tells everyone what to think and when to think it. She's a control freak. Y'know," Riley continued, warming to his story, "She's had so many face lifts, doin' her best to control gettin' old, that folks think she's always smiling. Trust me, she's not. What she is doing is figuring out how to ruin your day, or better yet, your life . . . sorta like ol' Maxine, back in Riverton.

"Y'know," Riley grinned, his eyes sparkling with sudden humor. "When ol' Maxine was born, she was so ugly, the doctor took one look at her, flinched, then hauled-off and slapped her mother!" Riley laughed, then quickly sobered.

"At least I'm not going to have to be cooped up on the same airplane with her, for the trip. The woman has no problem creating a scene, which makes everyone uncomfortable. She just needs to tell the flight attendants, right-off . . . soon as she gets on the plane, "I always get my way, so, as long as you realize that I will get whatever I ask for, and give it to me, as soon as I ask, we'll get along just fine." She'd bat her eyes, and smile winningly, but, believe me, Bailey, if she doesn't get what she wants, she will make your life a living hell.

"M'sister, Lisa, is cut from the same mold, though she's not as bright as Mother."

"What about your older brother? Kirby?"

Riley inhaled deeply, then slowly released his breath, as he considered how to answer the question. "Yeah, that's his name . . . a male version of Mother. He's also an attorney, which only compounds the problem, with him wanting to get his way. He doesn't smile and bat his eyes. He just puts pressure on you . . . something like thumbscrews." Riley shuddered. "Between the three of 'em, Mother, Lisa, and Kirby . . . geez."

"Hmm. Lovely family."

"You got that right. This trip to Riverton has been so wonderful, meeting Owen and the guys n'all, plus being with you. I guess I'm just feeling rotten 'cause I've gotta go back to the real world. Y'know? I didn't tell anyone where I would be going. She doesn't know where I've lived, during the time I've been at college, and she certainly doesn't know about where you live. She doesn't even know your name." He gave Bailey an uneasy glance. "I feel . . . safer, if she doesn't know anything about my life."

"You have to go to Europe?"

Riley nodded. "Yeah. I promised. I don't break a promise, at least if I can help it. If she'd told me what I was gonna do, it'd have been easy to tell her to take a hike, but Dad asked if I'd go. He caught me unprepared, and I agreed to it before I had a chance to think."

* * *

"See y'later," Owen shouted, over his shoulder, as he stepped out into the wind. Raindrops splatted on the sidewalk as lightning flashed and thunder echoed. "Gotta get home, before I get all wet and melt," he shouted . . . "like the wicked witch in that yellow brick road story." Owen's voice was drowned out by another clap of thunder.

Art shook his head in amusement, and waved at the retreating bare back. The red and white striped t-shirt, hanging from Owen's back pocket, snapping in the wind, was almost as much a trademark as the red baseball cap was for his brother, Jonah. Before Owen closed the door to the building, which held the apartments, he raised his hand and waved.

'It's difficult to believe that is the same young man who left for school, barely a year ago." Art shook his head, and closed the door to his shop. 'So much has changed. If Owen had never left for school, Riverton would be the same dead-end town it always was.'

Art eased himself into the warmth of his barber's chair, and closed his eyes. 'I wonder if the boy has any idea of how he has changed Riverton.

'Still . . .' Art thought. 'His laughter barely hides his pain. He mentioned having bad dreams. I wonder what that's all about. I would'a thought Sam and Lucas would have been able to help him recover.' Art sighed. 'Maybe they have . . . some, but it's gonna take something more. The poor boy has become a symbol of all that is good, to so many of us, here in Riverton. I'm wondering if, maybe, he's having trouble figuring out where the symbol ends and the real Owen begins.

* * *

Jonah stood, with hands on hips, and surveyed the emerging plants. Less than half the greenhouse was planted, yet he was overcome with a sense of satisfaction. 'My first greenhouse,' he thought to himself, 'courtesy of Lucas and his folks.' He wanted to shout for joy. His dream of growing things year-round had become reality, and he couldn't help but wonder what his father would have said, if he had seen how the farm was being transformed. He raised a clenched fist in a sign of achieving his dream and as a signal to his father. "Look at what your little boy is doing!" he shouted, then flung out an arm. "Just look!"

He dropped his arm to his side, bowed his head, and closed his eyes. "Tell me you're proud of me, Pops," he murmured. "Tell me you're proud of your little boy."

He looked up as a cloud blocked the sun, darkening the interior of the large building. A moment later, as if in response to his shouts, a deep rumble seemed to shake the ground, causing Jonah to grin. "I'll take that as a signal." He looked upward, continuing his conversation with his dead father. "You always were good at grumbling. Now, you've got thunder as your voice, I'd better watch out." Jonah made a face. "I hope no one gave you lightning to go with the thunder!" he added, talking to himself. He turned in a circle, overcome with satisfaction, feeling as if his father had just given him a compliment.

A flash of lightning, followed almost instantly by another clap of thunder, broke him out of his reverie. 'I'd better get home before the storm sets in, or I'll be soaked.' He turned off the overhead lights and locked the building, as the misters turned on, spraying the newly emerging seedlings.

* * *

Nathan Pruitt chewed on lis lower lip, telling himself, 'Timing is everything. You have to become everything she detests most . . . at least for a short while.' He inhaled his own scent and grimaced. 'At the moment, even I'm not too fond of me.' He bit his lower lip, psyching himself up, as if he were an athlete about to enter an important game. 'You've gotta push the right buttons at the right time,' he told himself. 'You've got not only Mother, but Lisa, and big brother . . . all in one place at the same time. If one of 'em freaks, it's likely to spread, until someone says or does something incriminating. I'd lay my money on Moaning Lisa.

'Now, if only Dad can figure out what I'm trying to do, and help out.' He smiled to himself, looking down at his dirty clothes, and made a face, wishing he could stand upwind of himself. 'It would have been great if I had been able to bring Dad in on my thinking, but it'd be like him to tell me I'm breaking some sort of unwritten rule, or something. Now is not the time for rules. Mother has never played by the rules. I do . . . but, not this evening. She is not going to get her way. I am not going to do as she commands!'

The past few days had been a lesson in endurance, as his mother coordinated final details of the family's trip to Europe, to witness the marriage of his sister, Lisa, to some big shot German lawmaker. Both mother and daughter, though, steadfastly refused to mention Helmut's prestigious position in the German government, choosing instead to focus on his family's illustrious past, and the possibility that the man, being German n'all, must be heir to a castle . . . somewhere. Surely.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised if he owns more than one," Lisa told the family, at dinner, shortly after arriving from Germany, ostensibly to tend to business no one else could handle. "After all, his family is very rich . . . compared to this one," she added, pleased with her mother's displeased expression. "I don't suppose I could insist he move here," she mused, staring into the distance. "Germany wouldn't be so bad, if it were more like Atlanta." Her wistful sigh nearly caused Nathan to burst into uncontrollable laughter. "Him moving would certainly save me a lot of trouble." Lisa continued to stare into the distance, before returning her attention to her family, who looked on, wondering if she could possibly say something more self-centered than she already had.

'Our wait was not in vain,' Nathan chuckled, as his sister continued speaking.

"I just wish those people over there made more of an effort to speak English. It is so tiresome trying to make Helmut's staff understand what I want them to do. They just ignore me, even when I speak loudly and slowly," she whined. A moment later she brightened. "Helmut though . . . he speaks English. I don't believe I could become involved with someone who isn't bright enough to speak the language well," she sniffed, then added. "Even if they were rich."

'You've lived in Germany for years!' Nathan thought to himself, as Lisa returned to her dinner. 'And, you want the people of Germany to speak English?' He caught his father rolling his eyes, and smiled.

'I seriously wonder if the poor bridegroom has any idea of what he's getting himself into, by marrying Lisa,' Nathan thought.

Nathan had managed to avoid both his sister and mother, otherwise his preparations for his bit of theater would have been revealed and its impact lessened. Now, less than an hour before the family was scheduled to head to the airport, he was no longer trying to stay under cover. Instead, he wanted to be seen, and . . . smelled. He tried to hide his grin of anticipation as he watched his sister approach. In the distance, he could hear his mother giving orders, demanding that someone find the chauffeur.

'Yep,' Nathan grinned, as he watched his sister cross the room, doing her best to appear sophisticated, 'The engine's running, but no one's at the steering wheel.' He wanted to smile, but doing so would ruin his indolent pose. 'Well, as the saying goes, the worst four years of a blonde's life are the time they spend in third grade.' He caught himself. 'Wait, Lisa's not a real blonde.' He mentally shrugged. 'Must be built-in brainlessness.' He intentionally slouched further into his chair as she approached, knowing both the pose, his dirty, oversized gym clothes, and untied shoes, would have the same effect on Lisa, as on his mother.

"You are a certifiable slob, Nathan," his sister said, with a disdainful sneer. "I seriously doubt, looking like that, that you will ever make a significant catch, like I have." Lisa critically scanned him up and down, standing before him with hands on hips, before dismissing him as a lost cause. "We women of the family have to do everything," she concluded, with a derisive sniff and an upward twitch of her chin. "Of course, with the so-called men in this family, one can't expect too much."

She turned on her heels and left the room, pleased with herself. "The chauffeur arrives in ten minutes," she called, over her shoulder. "Do you think you can manage to be ready, or should someone hold your hand? Oh, and at least try to dress decently. We'll be in public, after all." Her disdainful laugh drifted back to where Nathan sat.

'My dear sister,' he thought, shaking his head. 'She's probably fixin' to check her makeup.' He grinned to himself. 'Trouble is, she's forgotten that objects in the mirror are dumber than they appear.' He was about to add, 'just like Mother,' then realized that, if even half of the things his father or Riley thought his mother might have done over the years were true, then the woman was very much more than she seemed at first glance.

'Well . . . sister,' he told himself, 'You, Mother, and big brother, Kirby, have seriously underestimated Dad and Riley.' He glanced to where his sister had made her movie-quality exit. 'Most importantly, though, you have seriously underestimated me.'

* * *

Franklin took a deep breath, steeling himself for the scene which was about to play out. 'I wish I could order Nathan to remain here in the States,' he thought, 'however, he's old enough to make his own decisions. Maybe he'll take the initiative, and, in the mayhem I'm about to unleash, will take it upon himself to tell his mother that he's not going with the rest of the bunch.'

"Good luck, sir," Franklin's long-time personal secretary, Rolf, said, from nearby. "I'll stick around until you've left, then I'll head back to the office."

Franklin gave him a crooked grin, patted him on the shoulder. "I'm not going anywhere, Rolf." At the secretary's raised-brow expression, Franklin paused. "My wife just doesn't know it yet. In fact, unless you have a strong stomach, you may wish to return to the office now. I imagine very few people will manage to escape being hit by some of the mud which is about to be slung around."

"Um . . ." the secretary hesitated. "If you don't mind, I believe I'll stay for the show," he grinned. "After all, my place is at your side," he added, with a mischievous glint in his eyes. "Besides, maybe I might find a way to be of assistance, and, I must admit, I am curious."

"Thanks," Franklin sighed. "I'm going to need all the assistance I can muster. This is the most difficult thing I've ever had to do."

"Good luck, sir," Elsie, the downstairs maid, added, as her employer approached his wife.

* * *

Elizabeth Pruitt was standing with her two oldest children, surrounded by baggage. Lisa, his and Elizabeth's daughter, was, as always, checking her makeup in a mirror which served as a constant companion. Kirby, his oldest son, was doing his best to stand apart from the tableau, but succeeded only in looking like a mannequin dressed in an expensive suit. Franklin couldn't help but grin to himself. 'I wonder when was the last time Kirby checked his makeup. Kirby's wife, Wanda, looked on, waiting for a signal from someone, and instructions about what was expected of her. 'The poor . . . dear,' Franklin thought, not for the first time, feeling sympathy for his oldest son's wife. 'If the girl ever had an original thought, it'd probably die of loneliness.' He returned her tentative grin.

Franklin's wife scanned him as he approached. "You've forgotten your bag," she snapped, flicking her hand in the general direction of the stairway. "Get it!"

"Nathaaan!" Elizabeth Pruitt bellowed, dismissing her husband with another arrogant wave of a hand, to follow her orders. "We're about ready to leave! Are you presentable?"

'Time to put the show on the road,' Nathan thought, as he heaved himself out of the chair. He took a deep breath, and artfully slouched, then shuffled toward the black and white tiled foyer, limp gym bag trailing behind, as he dragged it by a strap he'd extended especially for this . . . act.

"Yeah, I'm ready," he answered, in a sullen voice. He dragged himself into the foyer, noticing his father's quickly suppressed eyebrow-raised look of surprise. Nathan raked his fingers through his hair, desperately in need of a wash, and turned a slack smile on his shocked mother. "Here I am." He dropped the strap of the gym bag to the floor, and scratched his crotch, totally ambivalent to his mother's and older brother's open-mouthed expression.

"Nathan!" Elizabeth howled, in shocked outrage. "What do you think you're doing? We're about to head off on the most important trip of our lives and you're dressed like someone off the street! Not only that," she complained, as she waved a hand in front of her face, "You smell!"

"I told you," he heard his sister mutter, in a smug voice, nudging her older brother, who looked at Nathan, aghast.

"Yeah, we're leaving. So what?" he said in a petulant voice, he modeled after his sister's. "This trip isn't important to me. We're all just going so big sister can show off her catch, and so you can bring home ammunition to throw at all the girls at the country club to show 'em how important you are . . . as if they really cared. They're probably as bored with the entire thing as everyone else is." He yawned around a shrug. "Your friends are probably planning their own vacation, so they'll be away when you return . . . just so they don't have to sit through endless descriptions of how important this wedding is. All this hoopla means nothing to me. I'm just along for the ride. I don't care about Wolfgang, any more than I care about trying to impress one of your lady friends."

"It's Helmut, you nitwit." Lisa muttered.

"Yeah, whatever," Nathan shrugged lazily. "What's it to me? Helmut, Wolfgang, Gerhard . . . who cares?"

"You get upstairs, right now, young man, and make yourself presentable. Our future in-laws are going to meet us, and I want you presenting a decent appearance." His mother pointed toward the foyer's curving stairway, next to which Elsie, the maid, and Rolf, his father's personal secretary stood, side by side, engrossed in the drama playing out in front of them. "Now . . . do as I say," Elizabeth ordered. She pointed to the two onlookers. "You two . . . out!"

Nathan yawned, not bothering to cover his mouth. "No," he said, not even looking at his mother, ignoring his sister's indrawn breath, and his brother's grumble. "You take me as I am, or not at all. Like it or don't. What you think means nothing to me."

"What did you say to me, Mister?" Elizabeth hissed, stepping close and cursing the fact that she had to look up to see her son's face. Franklin barely suppressed a grin when he saw his wife about to grab Nathan's filthy gym clothes, then reconsider, a look of distaste twisting her porcelain-like skin.

Nathan answered his mother by standing straight and looking down at her, his voice no longer sullen. "I said, No. Surely you can understand. I'm not doing as you demand, so you might as well stop . . . demanding." The corners of his mouth turned up in a twitch of a smile, "Mother," he added, turning the word into a curse.

His mother did not see his eyes flash. If she had, she would have felt scorched by the intensity of the look.

"Kirrbbyy," Lisa, who did see Nathan's flint-like look, muttered, nudging her brother. "What's happening?"

"Franklin!" Elizabeth barked, her voice slipping upward, as she stepped away from the disagreeable odor of her unruly son. The carefully cultivated pale skin of her cheeks was flushed with unaccustomed color. Her eyes were wide, as she glanced from her youngest son to her husband, wondering when she had begun to lose control of the conversation.

'They're in this together,' she told herself. 'They want me to look bad in front of the hired help. Everyone is against me.'

"Yes . . . my love?" Franklin Pruitt purred, raising his brows, the tone of his voice sending a signal to his son. 'Message received, and understood.'

Elizabeth gave her husband a second glance, then pointed a shaking finger at the young man who stood straight, challenging her with his posture. "Do something! He's defying me. He's behaving in a way in which even you can not be expected to approve." She looked away, as Nathan scratched his crotch and adjusted himself within the pouch of his gym shorts.

"I see nothing which needs doing, my love," Franklin murmured, casually resting a hand on his son's shoulder. "The young man has given his response to your demand. I won't interfere. Besides, I have something of my own to discuss with you."

Elizabeth dismissed her husband, rounded on her son, suddenly aware of, and startled by, the change in his demeanor. "You do what I say, young man, or I'll . . ."

"Or you'll what?" Nathan interrupted, his steel-like voice cutting through his mother's tirade, bringing it to a halt. "Or you'll what?" he repeated. "Call in your hounds, to have me and Riley eliminated?" He was pleased at her startled reaction, as well as the way her glance flicked to her husband. In the background, he heard his oldest brother grumble a curse, at the same time his sister inhaled sharply.

"Kirbyyy?" she murmured. "What's he talking about?"

"Stay out of it, Lisa," he murmured, uneasily. "Something's happening, neither Mother nor I have control over."

"It's too late to get rid of two of your children . . . Mother," Nathan continued. "If you were going to have us . . . taken care of . . . to put you out of your misery, you should have done it years ago. We're beyond your reach, now, ma'am," he added, in a contemptuous tone. "Too many people know precisely how much you care for Riley and me. Too many people have been made aware of your plans."

"Plans?" Wanda, Kirby's wife, squeaked. When she moved closer to her husband, he pushed her away.

"Why you . . .!" Elizabeth hissed, raising her hand to slap her son.

Nathan grabbed her arm by the wrist and . . . squeezed . . . as hard as he could, silently battling with his mother, who was doing her best not to flinch. "Do . . . not . . . even . . . think . . . of striking me," he hissed, pausing between each word. He locked eyes with his mother, as he continued to hold her arm captive, pleased when she, at last, looked away. "And, do not raise your voice. You fail to either impress, or intimidate."

"OUT!" Elizabeth shrieked. In the back of her mind, she was worried that her outburst might have irreparably ruined her carefully applied make up. "Get out of my sight. You are no son of mine!" She pointed to the stairway with a shaking finger.

"If only that were true," Nathan retorted, turned, caught his father's eye and winked, then ran upstairs, taking two steps at a time.

Before anyone had recovered enough to say something about the scene they'd just witnessed, the telephone rang, a sharp interruption. "Ma'am," Elsie, the maid, mumbled, holding the phone at arm's reach. "The lawyers are on the line. They say it's most urgent."

Elizabeth snatched the phone out of the maid's hand. "Yes," she snapped. "What is it? Why are you calling? We're about to leave." She listened for a moment, then interrupted. "Who are you? I don't know you! I don't care if you are new, I want to speak with Gustav . . . now."

Franklin flicked a glance up the stairway, wearing a slight frown. 'What is that boy up to? Surely this is his doing.'

"I don't care if Gustav is busy. Get him on the line, now! And, what is this about wolves being at the gate?" Her voice faltered as she thought of the things the message could mean. Was it a code? What could possibly have happened? She and Gustav had everything under control. Surely nothing had happened. Yet . . . wolves . . . at the . . . door?' She took a breath, ready to demand the person who was calling explain himself, only to encounter a dead connection.

As she was speaking, the chauffeur opened the double doors, admitting a damp breath of Atlanta humidity to the house. "Is everyone ready?" he asked, in a cheery voice, which trailed off as everyone but Franklin and Wanda . . . turned to glare at him.

"Franklin!" Elizabeth snapped! "Tend to your son . . . if you're able."

"We really must be going," the Chauffeur interrupted. "If you intend to meet your flight . . ." He busied himself, collecting everyone's baggage, returning from the limousine to gather up the rest.

"My sweet," Franklin Pruitt purred, approaching his wife, who involuntarily stepped back as he approached, determined to follow his son's performance, with one of his own. He caressed his wife's cheek with a tender touch, totally at odds with the flinty look in his eyes, which caused his wife to shudder.

'This independent thinking cannot be allowed to continue,' she told herself, at a loss as to what to do. 'There is only one person in this family who makes decisions, and it most definitely is not him.'

"Wolves at the gate?" he cooed. "I can only imagine what your dear attorney friend . . . Gustav Winton, had to say, but, I can make an educated guess. Shall I?" he asked, sparing his oldest son a look of contempt.

"Daddy . . ." Lisa began, in a small voice, but was interrupted by her father's sharp glance.

"Dear Gustav, has called to let you know that I have replaced him and his firm, as representatives of Pruitt Builders." Elizabeth Pruitt's eyes widened, the color of her cheeks having nothing to do with make-up.

"Shit!" Kirby's hiss caused his wife to flinch.

Elizabeth opened her mouth, but found she was speechless, unlike Kirby, who, after a shocked bark of exclamation, was rapidly speaking to his sister.

Elizabeth was stunned. Not only was her husband thinking, he was acting! 'Replaced my attorneys? That can't be! Too much depends on them staying where they are. If he succeeds, no telling what'll happen! Everything will come crashing down. I'll be ruined.'

Franklin continued, his wife's reaction to his announcement confirming his worst fears. "Ol' Gustav, your partner in crime, has learned that both a new law firm, an accounting firm, and an investigator have been in my employ for quite some time. They have been instructed to look into everything of Pruitt Builders' which you have touched. That's why I'll be staying here in Atlanta, while you are enjoying yourself in Germany."

"Motherrrr," Kirby spoke in a low voice, stepping away from his wife, who had no idea what anything she was witnessing, meant.

"Like Hell, you're staying!" Elizabeth hissed, doing her best to cow her husband. "I've made the decision and it's your job to do as I say. We all know it's a challenge for you to think. It always has been. That's why you married me. I tell you what to do and you . . . do it!"

Franklin merely grinned.

"Motherrrr," Kirby murmured. His mother ignored him, as she did her best to intimidate her husband.

"So . . . Franklin. Start showing some backbone and do what I tell you. You're going to do as I say, so stop arguing! Besides," her voice raised to a shriek, "You have no right to do anything concerning Gustav without first consulting me!" The significance of the telephone call, and her husband's revelations, were finally beginning to sink in. She paused a moment, recalling something Franklin had said, earlier.

"What do you mean, investigating? You can't make these sorts of decisions. You don't have the brains for it. I run this company! Without me, you're nothing! Nothing!" she repeated, her voice rising with each word.

Franklin Pruitt chuckled, shaking his head, and responded, as if speaking to an especially slow student. "You are so wrong. I run the company . . . my sweet. I have made the mistake of not paying close enough attention to what you have been up to, but that has . . . changed. I am on to you." He shifted his attention to his daughter, then his oldest son. "I am also on to you, Lisa, and you, you good for nothing slimebag of a son," he added, looking directly at his son, who flinched under his father's menacing glare. "You all have counted on my good nature, to get away with everything you've been doing, long enough.

"I believed you were honorable, so I . . . mistakenly, allowed you all access to my business affairs. I was a fool, and have gotten precisely what I deserve. I have been blessed with leeches for a wife, daughter, and oldest son. As your friend at the law firm warned you, the wolves are indeed at the gate. And, guess who they intend to . . . eat." He extended a forefinger and pressed it against his wife's heaving chest. "All I have to say is, bon appetit."

In the distance, a telephone rang. A moment later, Rolf, Franklin's personal secretary approached, caught his employer's attention. He spoke in low tones, then handed Franlin the phone.

While Franklin spoke, Kirby frantically conferred with his mother, wildly gesturing, as Lisa and Wanda looked on in incomprehension. The elder Pruitt thanked whomever was calling, told the person he'd be there as soon as possible, and handed the phone back to Rolf, who made a hasty retreat, back to the maid's side.

"You'e not going anywhere!" Elizabeth hissed, turning back to her husband, prepared to do battle. "You're going with US! You have no right to do any of this! Now, you get back on that phone and call off your dogs, or I swear I'll . . ."

"You'll never guess who that was, my love," Franklin interrupted, in a smooth voice, giving lie to his flashing eyes.

Elizabeth shrugged off Kirby's hand on her shoulder, determined to remain dignified in the face of adversity.

"I have just been told that the FBI is now part of the investigation into your dealings."

"Mother!" Kirby murmured, in alarm, while Lisa squeaked in disbelief.

"They tell me there is sufficient evidence to prosecute all the people who have been siphoning off funds from the Company, for at least the past twenty years. They have evidence of secret accounts, real estate purchases, and much, much more." Franklin shook his head. "Embezzlement . . . nasty business, that."

"Mother!" Kirby screamed, his voice rising in pitch.

"The airplane!" the chauffeur called, his voice rising above everyone else's.

"Mother!" Kirby's frantic voice was echoed by his sister, who glanced toward her father, feeling trapped.

"I have to use the ladies' room," Wanda whined, in the background.

"The FBI?" Lisa said, incredulous. "I've not done anything Mother didn't tell me to."

Elizabeth rounded on her daughter, and slapped her across the face.

"Mother!" Kirby insisted, ignoring his sister's exclamation.

"The ladies' room," Wanda repeated.

"The airplane!"

"Shut up, you asshole!" Elizabeth screeched at the chauffeur, losing any semblance of the dignified woman she spent a lifetime striving to achieve. She wiped spittle away from her cheek, with the back of her hand, smearing her lipstick and make-up.

"Oh, one more thing, my dear," Franklin continued, in almost a conversational tone, taking perverse pleasure in his wife's breathless, wide-eyed panic. "While you're away looking at castles and such, keep in mind that, when you come back, it will be to a divorce, and, to whatever legal actions the . . . FBI . . . wish to take against you, my sweet, and you, my dearest daughter, and you, my first-born."

"I've only done what Mother told me to do!" Lisa repeated. "I'm getting married. You all can deal with this . . . unpleasantness. I want no part of it."

Elizabeth slapped her daughter, yet again. "Shut up, you ignorant slut. You'n Adolph can rot in the hottest hell, for all I care!"


"Mother!" Kirby pushed the chauffeur toward the limousine, followed by his whimpering wife, still complaining about needing to use the ladies' room. Next, Kirby grabbed his mother and sister, forcing them out the door and toward the limousine, ignoring his sister's continued whining protest.

"I need to pee," Wanda wailed.

"Don't expect Helmut and me to support you all," Lisa howled, as she was pushed, bodily, into the car. "You're on your own. If anyone's guilty of anything it's you, Mother."

Any more shouts or complaints were cut off as the door to the limousine slammed shut, and the vehicle accelerated around the curving driveway and through the wrought iron gates.

Franklin heaved a sigh, and gently closed the doors to the house. When he turned back, he was faced with Elsie, the wide-eyed maid, and Rolf, his personal secretary, who was doing his best not to smile.

"I'm sorry you both had to witness all that," Franklin said, feeling weary to his bones. "It wasn't at all peasant for me, either." He turned to Rolf, who had answered another call, and if anything, was more wide-eyed than ever.

Franklin took the offered phone, spoke for a moment, then chuckled, as he hung up. "Well, it seems that the FBI really is on the case, after all. They've just frozen all the assets of the company, plus the attorneys', Kirby's family, as well as dear Lisa's. Turns out, everything I just claimed, turned out to be real."

"You mean, it wasn't, sir?" Rolf, asked.

Franklin merely shook his head, giving his secretary an exhausted motion of a hand, as an answer. "Style, Rolf. My youngest son should give lessons!"

Rolf frowned, not quite sure what his boss' comments meant. "I'm not sure whether to express my condolences on the dissolution of your marriage, or my congratulations."

Franklin barked a laugh. "Congratulations, surely, Rolf . . . congratulations."

* * *

"Dad?" Nathan's muffled voice came from the other side of the bedroom door, in response to his father's knock.

"Yes, it's me," Franklin responded, feeling immensely weary. "May I come in?"


As Franklin entered the room, closing the door behind him, his youngest son emerged from the bathroom, naked, still glistening with water from a recent shower. His dark hair stood out in disarray. "Sheesh, I'm glad to be clean again. I was beginning to be sick of my own smell." He flopped onto a chair, his towel draped around his neck.

"Is it over?" he asked, as his father wearily sank to the bed, then flopped backward, with a whoosh of expelled breath, and stared at the ceiling.

"Yeah, that part is over. I'm sure much unpleasantness remains though." He tilted his head up, looking at his son.

"I want to thank you," he said, without preamble. "When I mused, asking you if you had any ideas about how I might be spared the trip to Germany . . ." He shook his head. "I had no idea!" He huffed a laugh. "Your little act, both in person, and on the telephone, put the fear of damnation in them. If there were any doubts of their guilt, in my mind before, their reactions to those calls of yours clinched it for me." Franklin chuckled. "I truly do pity everyone who is doomed to share the plane with Elizabeth, and the rest. Sometimes, that woman's voice is so shrill I expect it'll shatter my glasses. Still . . . Lisa and Kirby . . ." His voice trailed off.

"Dad," Nathan scooted to the edge of the chair, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping both hands, while studying his father. "Lisa and Kirby were seduced by Mother, ages ago . . . probably even before I was born. They are motivated by the very same things Mother is . . . money, power, status, money," he grinned. "Did I mention money?"

Franklin huffed a laugh. "You forgot to mention money," he added. "That always was her downfall. Ever since I met her, she was obsessed with the stuff. She never had enough." Franklin rolled onto his stomach, prying off his shoes and letting them drop to the floor. "She was always sensitive about her past . . . wanting to hide things from the rest of . . . society. I don't think anyone knows how much she's hidden." He shook his head. "I thought I did, but . . . I'm betting I was wrong. Who knows what else we'll eventually find out?"

Franklin turned to look at his youngest son. "If it weren't for you and Riley, I would wish that those couple years we separated, right after Lisa was born, would have become permanent. If they had though, neither you or your brother would have been born, and I would be immeasurably the poorer for your absence.

"I was taken by her beauty, y'know," he continued. "There I was, a clueless young guy, who found himself suddenly head of a big construction company, wondering if I would ever be able to attract a girl who would be interested in me, when wham, she showed up, and hooked me like a fish. It never occurred to me to think that some women might find me attractive simply because of my position." He huffed a laugh. "I didn't even put up a fight! I went willingly, no questions asked, convincing myself that I was lucky to have someone so pretty attracted to me." He turned to his son.

"I got what I deserved. I should never have allowed her . . . or anyone, to have as much control as I allowed. I was a fool, Nathan. From here on out, only you or your brother will ever have that sort of access."

Nathan made a sound which interrupted his father's thoughts. When Franklin returned his attention to his son, Nathan spoke. "Not even Riley or I should have as much leeway as you gave Mother. You are in charge. If you give Riley, me, anyone, power, you need to keep an eye out. That was your only failing . . . trusting too much."

Thank you for taking a few minutes to read my story. If you'd like to receive pics of the characters, as I envision them, please write:

My other stories, appearing on this website are, Phalen, Chris, and Wesley.