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Five Things They Don't Teach Fairy Godmothers

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1) One Person's Fairy Godmother Is Another's Wicked Fairy

Shirl was headed for the door, coat and purse in hand, when Alicia Turnbull caught up with her. Dr. Turnbull's heels slipped on the floor Shirl had waxed an hour ago; she waved a sheaf of papers.

"Would you enter this data for me?" she asked, blowing a strand of hair out of her eyes. She looked more disheveled than Shirl had ever seen her. "I have a meeting with Management in ten minutes."

"I'm sorry." Shirl held up her coat and purse. "I'm leaving. I quit, actually. But I'm sure the new workplace message facilitation director would be happy to help."

"Great." Dr. Turnbull's frown was deep enough to crack her foundation. There was a suspicious dark smudge at the corner of one eye.

"Are you all right?" Shirl asked.

The stray hairs fell back into Dr. Turnbull's face, and she yanked them behind her ear. "Not really. I thought, though, that if I could get this data about the latest Niebnitz grant added to my program, it might save my job."

A squiggle of guilt wormed through Shirl's stomach, but it was only a small one. The Alicia Turnbulls of the world looked out for their own interests, first and foremost--which was why they didn't often make breakthrough discoveries.

"I'm sorry," she said, though of course Dr. Turnbull had no real idea why she was apologizing. "It's good that the Niebnitz went to someone here, though. Management must be over the moon."

"They screwed it up."

Shirl frowned and opened her mouth, but Dr. Turnbull flipped her hand in a dismissive wave. "Not Management. The grant committee. Dr. O'Reilly's on exactly the right track. But Sandra Foster's only going to hold him back."

"I thought the cross-disciplinary approach was one of the factors the committee looked for." Shirl shifted her coat to her other arm, impatient to be gone.

"But it has to be the right blend of disciplines. And a truly compatible pair of scientists. I'm sure the committee thought they did the right thing, but those two are never going to get anywhere together." Her nose wrinkled when she said "together". "If the committee keeps making decisions like this one, they won't have anything to show for all the money they're throwing around. Unless lack of possible results is one of the things they look for." She added bitterly, "Maybe I should factor that in."

Shirl could feel her cheeks grow flush with annoyance. She sucked a quick breath between her teeth. She was supposed to be a mail clerk, after all. "You're still going to try to predict Niebnitz winners? Forgive me, Dr. Turnbull, but what's the point? Even if you could predict the next winner and find out who the committee members are, what would you do with that knowledge?"

Laughter rang down the hall out of the open door to Bennett O'Reilly's office. Dr. Turnbull's expression darkened. "I'd tell them to kiss my ass," she said, and turned and stomped away.

If the ass in question hadn't been clad in a Cerenkhov blue pleather skirt, Shirl might have thought about it.

* * * * *

2) The Apple Might Not Fall Far From the Tree, But Sometimes It Rolls

"Thanks Mom! Super Surgeon Barbie's the best." Jessie hugged the box to her chest.

"You should have asked for Fairy Queen Barbie," declared Heather, who was four and obsessed with fairies and princesses. "She's the prettiest."

"They should make an Army Commando Barbie." Scott, who exerted his seven-year-old machismo at every opportunity, pantomimed firing a machine gun. "At least then she wouldn't be totally lame."

"She's not lame. She's a doctor." Jessie hugged the box even tighter.

"That's enough, Scott," said Karen. "Go ahead, Jess, open the next one. It's from your father."

Behind Shirl--she had liked being Shirl and was thinking of staying Shirl for a while--Jessie's father cleared his throat. "Mom?"

Before turning her attention from her grandchildren, Shirl froze her smile into its rigid place. Chris would see right through it, but that was part of their dance.

"Are you really leaving Thursday?" he asked, her blue-eyed boy, and handed her a cup of hot tea. Never mind that he knew she preferred coffee, he always gave her tea.

Old ladies drank tea.

Shirl accepted it, still smiling, and nodded. "There's a group in Alaska measuring glacial melt, and they think they've discovered a way to--"

"If they've already discovered it, why do they need your money?"

Shirl set her cup on the table with a sharp clink. She kept her voice low, well aware of the children a few feet away. "It'll be a few days before I leave. Let's not argue right now."

Karen must have heard. She got up from the floor, where Jessie was oohing and ahhing over her new telescope, and joined them at the table. "Chris," she said, and her eyes were narrowed, her mouth tight, in the same expression she used when riding herd on her kids, "if your mom wants to go to Alaska, why shouldn't she?"

Chris twisted off the cap of his bottle of Michelob and huffed. "She wants to play super-incognito-spy-benefactor and give away money to a bunch of Eskimos who're never going to thank her, and are probably going to drown with the polar bears."

They were Inuit students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who would know enough to get out of the way of melting glaciers, but Shirl let that bit go. "That's enough, Christopher. You have your trust fund. What I do with the rest of the money is my own business."

"It's not about the money. This is about family. I miss you. Karen misses you." He nodded toward the living room, where squeals of glee were going up and Scott was telling Jessie how to use her new video game. "The kids miss you."

She was his mother--she was supposed to be the one who was good at emotional blackmail. Her cheeks were about to crack with the smile that she knew wasn't fooling anyone. "Then let's make the most of the time we have together." The truth was, if they spent too much time together, they'd never stop arguing.

"But Alaska? In January?"

It wasn't about money, and it wasn't about family, not exactly. It was about control. He'd never been comfortable with her urge to travel, to change homes every couple of years and plans every few hours. These days, she firmly believed, that discomfort was his own problem. As much as she loved him, she was done raising him, she certainly didn't need him trying to raise her. "This is when they need to collect their data, and it's harder for them to pull in support staff in the wintertime."

Chris set his mouth in a hard line, so much like his father that she forgot, for a brief second, where and when she was. But then he said, "You don't need to be anyone's secretary, but if that's what you really want, you should at least go someplace warm."

"Don't take that tone with me," she said through her teeth. "It was my secretarial work that got us out of that crappy studio apartment in on the Southside and into a brownstone when your father was still trying to get someone to notice his inventions."

Chris rolled his eyes; he'd heard it all before, though she was sure he barely remembered those early days. At first, they had struggled just to survive in Chicago, a couple of Montana kids who'd grown up on neighboring ranches and their infant son. The steps up the ladder to prosperity, and then to a level of wealth so ridiculous it embarrassed her, had been slow at first, and though Chris might look like his father, he'd never had Tom's ambition--or the need for it.

Somewhere she read an article about the children of the pioneers, who had spent their childhoods moving from one spot to another, caught in their parents' wake of hope and desperation. When they grew to adulthood, many resisted moving again, staying planted in one place the rest of their lives, even while some of their parents had continued to drift from homestead to homestead well into their fifties and sixties. The children had been reacting to--rebelling against--their endlessly shifting childhoods. She wondered what it was about her that Chris had rebelled against, and what she'd done to turn him into such a stick-in-the-mud.

"Grandma!" Jessie hurtled onto Shirl's lap, brandishing a torn red envelope. "Grandma, is it true? Am I really going to Space Camp?"

"As long as your parents agree. It's arranged for this summer, but if there's a better time, we can change it." She gave Jessie, who was all legs and freckles, a hug. "Turning ten is special. You deserve a special gift."

"Mom--" Chris put a low growl in his voice, though his smile remained fixed. "It's really too much."

With an arm still around Jessie's waist, Shirl felt the girl catch her breath, ready to protest. Karen spoke before her daughter could. "It's an incredibly generous gift," she said, putting a hand on Chris's shoulder. "Of course you can go."

"Thank you!" Jessie threw her arms around Shirl's neck, and the hug was almost enough to convince her to stay another week. "I've wanted to be an astronaut forever!"

"Or at least since last month," Karen added dryly.

Shirl slid a glance to Chris, who shrugged and downed half his bottle of beer in one gulp.

"Did you see the telescope Dad gave me?" Jessie asked. "It's a real one, not some kiddie plastic thing like I got in my stocking last year. He says we can go out to the country and watch the stars once it's warm enough, but I bet I can see plenty from the backyard. You want to try?"

"Of course I do," she said. "After cake."

Chris used to sit out in the backyard with her on cloudless nights, correcting her with the real constellations as she made up dot-to-dot clowns and baseball diamonds. But he'd never wanted to go to the moon.

Maybe it skipped a generation, Shirl thought as Chris and Karen fetched plates, ice cream, and cake, and Jessie prattled on about planets and space camp. Maybe Jessie wouldn't be so eager to go if she didn't know she had a safe place to come home to. Maybe Chris was meant to be rooted here, just as she was meant to drift. Maybe, she thought as they all sang the birthday song, maybe, like it or not, they were both exactly what they needed to be.

* * * * *

3) Every Fairy Godmother Needs a Trickster

She sat in the break room of TransGenTech Limited, glumly stirring cream into her coffee. She didn't particularly like cream, but Mary Ann seemed to.

The fact that she was thinking of herself in the third--or maybe fourth or fifth--person had her convinced that this was a dead end.

"You can learn as much from failed experiments as you can from successful ones, sometimes more," Mr. Niebnitz had said, but all she'd learned in her month here was that Dr. Harold Lawrence, super genius geneticist, had an ego bigger than his reputation, and that he treated the people who worked for him with a combination of disdain and manipulation that fed his self-absorption and crushed any initiative they might once have possessed. The high-turnover environment provided plenty of chaos, and she'd thought there was a chance she'd find someone a little rebellious and defiant, ready to make an important breakthrough. But no one she'd met had that spark. They were all too busy trying to impress Dr. Lawrence to look outside of his box.

And the coffee in this place tasted like it had been made with the half-melted slush that surrounded the parking lot. As much as she hated the thought of giving up, this experience was killing her enthusiasm for finding grant recipients. She'd spent the morning composing her letter of resignation and researching fishing resorts in Canada.

"This is the break room. You get fifteen minutes."

Ellen ushered in the third new Assistant Executive Assistant in a month. Mary Ann didn't look up from her coffee. Ellen was as interesting as the chipped Formica table, and she tended to hire people exactly like her. But then the new girl spoke.

"You don't allow smoking in here, do you?"

Mary Ann blinked up in shock. "Flip?" Her hair--brown with green stripes--had grown out and was half in her face, but there was no mistaking that surly drawl.

Ellen blinked at them both, perplexed. "Mary Ann doesn't smoke."

"Who's Mary Ann?" Flip tossed the hair out of her face, and Mary Ann caught a glance of her bright blue eyeshadow and matching lipstick. Why in the world would Ellen have hired Flip? "That's Shirl. She got fired from a job for smoking."

Ellen sighed, her eyes wandering to the clock over the sink. "I'll come get you in fourteen minutes. It takes a week to learn the way back to your cubicle."

Mary Ann pulled out a chair for Flip, who looked around suspiciously--probably checking for illegal ashtrays and lighters. "Flip, why are you here? I thought you were with your dentist in Prescott."

Flip flopped into the chair. "Oh, he was a complete narb."

"Narb?" she asked, but Flip went on.

"He wanted me to be his receptionist all day, then go home with him and cuddle on the couch and watch movies every night. It was fun at first, but then I started to feel too itch." She let out a melodramatic sigh.

"You wanted a change?"

"Yeah. I couldn't take it anymore. Plus he was seeing someone else. I'm with Devon now, and he got a fellowship here, so--" She shrugged. "At least he likes to go out once in a while."

"Devon?" Mary Ann squinted, trying to remember. "Dr. Sheridan's lab assistant? He seems like a nice young man." Devon had curly red hair and a tendency to break glassware at least once a week.

"He has a fellowship," Flip repeated, sighing again, "and he still says we can't afford furniture from Ikea, so I decided to get a job here. Plus, he's always talking about Dr. Montero. You'd think she invented chromosomes." Flip paused, blinking. "She didn't, did she?"

"Of course not."

"Maybe it was chromatography. Why did she call you Mary Ann?"

It took a half-second to realize that Flip was referring to Ellen and not Dr. Montero. "Mary Ann's my middle name." As soon as it was out of her mouth, she realized how silly that sounded. "I decided to try something different. Ever since you convinced me to stop smoking, I've felt like a whole new person."

"Maybe Dr. Montero smokes," Flip said hopefully.

"Do you want some coffee?"

Flip wrinkled her nose and tossed the flop of hair out of her face. "Caffeine is bad for your blood pressure. I thought everyone knew that."

"I don't know about blood pressure," Mary Ann said, taking another sip and wincing, "but this stuff is bad for morale." She got up and dumped the vile liquid in the sink. "What kind of research is Devon doing?" she asked as she rinsed her cup.

"Something about nannies' tubes and their jeans." Flip rolled her eyes. "Nobody wears jeans anymore."

Flip wasn't wearing jeans. Her short skirt had more ruffled tiers than a wedding cake, and her tee-shirt, an acid shade that was probably called Soylent Green, was cut short enough to show the hoop through her belly button. Her necklace and earrings appeared to be made out of neon-colored twist ties.

"They're trying to find a cure for genetic diseases, so he probably doesn't study Levis," Mary Ann told Flip, and was met with a blank look. She remembered Dr. Lawrence sneering with a group of his toadies about the research team in the basement, and realized "nannies' tubes" had nothing to do with child care. "They're trying to find a way to use nanotubes to facilitate genetic modification."

"Whatever." Flip sighed and stood. "I'm going back to work. Some of us actually want to do our jobs."

Mary Ann felt more like doing her own job than she had in weeks. "You should wait for Ellen. It really is difficult to find your way back through the cubicles."

Flip shrugged, and her hair fell back over her face. "It can't be that hard." She walked to the door and turned the wrong way.

Mary Ann went back to her own cubicle and threw her resignation letter into the recycling bin.

* * * * *

4) Sturdy Boots Come in Handy More Often Than a Pair of Glass Slippers

She waited until all the professors had left the conference room before wheeling in the trash can. For reasons known only to the gods of academic traditions, it was the assistant department secretary's job to clean up the conference room. Heaven forbid the professors clean up after themselves.

The long wooden table was littered with foam cups half-full of stale coffee and paper plates covered in cookie crumbs. Megan Folsom sat at the foot of the table, looking dazed. Her Power Point presentation cycled on the white board behind her--slides of cell diagrams, graphs, and bullet points, with the occasional photograph thrown in.

"Well?" Pam asked. "Do I have the pleasure of meeting Dr. Folsom?"

Megan blinked out of her daze. "I--I don't know. They said I'd be notified of my status after they'd had a chance to discuss my defense."

"How do you think it went?" Pam swept a pile of crumbs from the table into her hand, then brushed them into the trash can. Dr. Jamison, no doubt; he couldn't carry his lunch down the hall without leaving a trail that even Hansel and Gretel could have followed.

"That's just it, I don't know," Megan wailed, and slumped back into her chair. "Dr. Henderson spent most of the time grilling me about why I changed my topic six months ago; he still thinks he can convince me to go back to pure research in chemistry. Dr. Jamison kept critiquing my stats, and the way Dr. Salazar broke down my results--" She shook her head, blinking back tears. "I think she thinks I cheated the data somehow."

"But you didn't."

"Of course I didn't! But maybe Dr. Henderson is right. Maybe I shouldn't have changed my research topic at the last minute."

Up on the board, the slide changed from a graph with four colored bars to a photograph of a row of wheat plants, each one progressively larger.

"Why did you change?" Pam asked, though she knew the story, had heard it straight from Dr. Henderson in the midst of one of his tantrums about how none of his students appreciated the value of pure research.

"It was the funniest thing." Megan picked up a printout, looked at it blankly, then set it down again. "I had that geranium in my office for months and it never bloomed. Then one day I was scavenging for my car keys and knocked a Petri dish with the cultures I was testing into its pot, and within a week that plant had a dozen blooms. I thought it was a sign." She sighed. "I thought this was a chance to do something that really mattered."

"Your results say that it does." Pam gathered pens and notepads stamped with the university logo and stacked them together at the end of the table. "I read your dissertation while I was making the copies," she added at Megan's surprised look.

"If I don't get my doctorate, it'll all have been for nothing."

Pam put the stack down and sat in the chair nearest Megan. "Let me ask you something. What will you do if you earn the Ph.D.?"

"Go to Africa," Megan said promptly. "These soil additives could increase crop production tenfold in drought-stricken regions, and the University of Zambia wants to try them."

"And what if you don't get the doctorate? Couldn't you still go to Zambia?"

"I couldn't afford it without an affiliation with a major university here in the States. I have loans out the wazoo that are going to come due the minute I leave here. I wouldn't be able to pay any grad students or support staff, and I can't do a project like this on my own."

"Maybe you can find the money some other way," Pam suggested. She wanted to believe that Dr. Jamison and Dr. Salazar, at least, would vote in Megan's favor, but she wasn't sure. "If you had the money, could you do it without the doctorate?"

"I suppose so." Megan sniffed, and started to collect the papers scattered around her laptop and its projector. The slide changed to a photograph of a mother and three children, all of them stick-thin and smiling broadly under the African sun.

It wasn't Zambia, but Tanzania that Pam remembered: the rough roads and the dry red soil that caked her from her hair to her hiking boots; the people who had nothing but offered everything they could to their guests; their hard work and the hope in the face of overwhelming poverty. Transfixed, Pam forgot Megan until the photo disappeared and the soft whirr of the projector ended.

"Want to come with?" Megan asked as she wound the cord.

"I'm an old lady," Pam said.

Megan grinned, shaking her head. "You're the only one in this department who actually knows what's going on. Without your help, I would never have known which forms to file to get as far as this defense. I could use someone to help with all the red tape we're going to have to cut." She smiled more broadly, the biggest smile Pam had seen from her in weeks. "You'd get to see the world."

"Maybe for a little while," she said, keeping her tone light. Africa, she thought, wasn't a bad idea at all--and then she had to swallow a wicked chuckle at the thought of Chris's reaction when she told him about that one.

But the smile slipped off Megan's face as she packed up her equipment. "It's a nice pipe dream, anyway. And I really would take you with me. You're a gem, Pam."

"Don't offer it unless you're sure you want me." Pam gave Megan a pat on the shoulder before she wheeled the trash can to the door. "One way or another, I have a feeling you're going to Zambia soon."

* * * * *

5) Once Upon a Time Wasn't All That Long Ago

Most people wouldn't go looking for a great scientific mind in a nursing home outside of Bozeman, but she wasn't most people. She greeted the receptionist with a wave, then headed for the second floor.

"He's not having a good day," the duty nurse told her when she asked about the patient in 211, "but seeing you might help."

The good days were becoming fewer and farther between, and every bad day made it harder to come back, harder to hope. But Diogenes had walked around with his lamp, looking for an honest man, even if he had professed no hope at all of finding one. And Alfred Niebnitz had come back year after year to teach high school seniors more interested in the football team's record than in Newton's laws and Einstein's equations.

Squaring her shoulders, she knocked on his door, waiting for his grunt before opening it. "Hi, Mr. Niebnitz."

His room was sunny, and there was a hint of chalk dust under the antiseptic that burned her nostrils every time she walked into the nursing home. Maybe after so many years, she assumed that whatever Mr. Niebnitz smelled like was the smell of chalk dust. She used to watch his hands fly across the board, tracing formulae and illustrating concepts with stick figures, moving so fast that a trail of white dust lingered in the air. A layer of it would settle on his dark hair, making her think then that she knew what he would look like when he grew older, and his fingernails had been caked with it. Most of the girls in the school had a crush on Mr. Kyper, the history teacher, but for her it had always been Mr. Niebnitz.

Now his hands were clean, his hair was white down to the roots, and his eyes were blank. He was sitting up, and the television was on, but it was just background noise, the noon news out of Billings. She pulled the curtains further back and cracked the window open an inch to let the Chinook into the room, but the man who'd moved his lectures outside one April to show them the world in motion didn't seem to notice.

She eased herself onto the padded vinyl chair next to his bed. "How are you feeling today?"

Nothing.

"It's beautiful outside. Pretty soon it will really be spring, and you'll be able to sit in the garden."

Nothing.

Sometimes it worked better to talk to him as if they were back in school. "Tommy Bayless says he's going to sneak into the lab and make stink bombs this weekend."

Still nothing.

She was afraid it would be another futile visit, until he pointed to the television. They were running a story about the latest kittens available at the animal shelter. "I'd name 'em Watson and Crick."

"What about Rosalind Franklin?" she asked, thinking about the woman who'd done a good chunk of the initial work on DNA structure and received almost no credit. Something clicked; he turned to look at her, and called her by name.

"Catherine," he said, and the years melted away. He was the only one who'd used her real name in a long, long time. To her lawyer and accountant, she was Mrs. Bayless; she was Mom to Chris and Sharon, Grandma to Jessie, Scott, and Heather, and whatever name she came up with on job applications to the rest of the world. Here, though, she was Catherine, seventeen and sure.

"Did you finish the homework?" he asked urgently. "You have to know how to use that slide rule if you want to get through the university coursework."

She could almost feel the weight of the ponytail she'd worn all through high school pulling at the back of her head. "Yes, Mr. Niebnitz." Competence with a slide rule had been essential in those days before calculators. Once, he'd taken them on a field trip to see a computer, a punch-card reading behemoth that took up several rooms at the university and couldn't do a hundredth of the things the electronic organizer in her purse could do now.

"Good, good." He swung his legs to the floor and wandered over to the window. "Now, let's think about momentum. If I put my daughter, who's three and weighs, oh, let's say forty pounds, on a swing, and then I put a baby elephant, which would weigh around 250 pounds, on a swing next to her, how much more force will I have to apply to the elephant's swing to make it move at the same rate as Rachel's?"

He traced a diagram of the problem on the window with his finger. She remembered the snickers of the girls behind her; they'd pointed out Mr. Niebnitz's plaid pants and pocket protector, his long hair and scuffed shoes, and marveled that anyone would marry him, let alone have his child. Tommy Bayless had sat a few rows up, curling his lip and balancing his pencil on it to make the rest of the boys laugh.

She asked, as she had that day, "Is that how they calculate the force needed to get a rocket into space?"

His smile split his face, carving deep wrinkles. "You're going to go far, Catherine. You have what it takes. An independent mind and curiosity are the most important traits any scientist can have."

He'd said the same thing to her on graduation day, and she'd squirmed under her robes in the hot sun and blue sky. She squirmed now, realizing that these visits were not quite as selfless as she wanted to believe. He still saw her as Catherine Creel, the smartest girl in her class, the one who had potential, who could make something of herself.

It was a heady thing, to still be seen that way at her age.

She'd carried his faith with her all the way to college, but the boys club in the physics department had done her in, and Tommy Bayless had directed her curiosity in a different direction.

"What are your plans?"

"I'm sorry?" She was so lost in the past that his weak, gravelly voice startled her.

"What will you do after graduation?"

"I'm going to Colorado State." She paused, trying to gauge just how good a day it was. If Mr. Niebnitz had ever known what had happened to her, he'd never said anything. She'd rarely come home after high school, and when she had she hadn't looked up her teacher. By the time Tom had died and she'd moved back to Bozeman, Mr. Niebnitz had long retired. She'd come up with the idea of the grant, hoping to show him that she had made something of herself, had redeemed whatever it was he had seen in her, but the Alzheimer's had already taken hold by then. When she first went to see him to propose the award, he hadn't recognized her at all. "I'm going to get married, and have a son, and move to Chicago and work hard at whatever job will have me."

He shook his head impatiently, his eyes burning with a fervor she recognized. She'd seen it in the mirror when she'd met Lawrence Chin, Bennett O'Reilly, Sandra Foster, Megan Folsom, and a dozen others. "You need more of a plan than that, girl," he said fiercely. "You're meant to do so much more."

She thought of her work boots, stained with the red dirt of Zambia and waiting in her suitcase to carry her to the rainforests of Costa Rica. She thought of Tom's inventions, of Jessie's dreams, of chaos theory and artificial intelligence, of melting glaciers and applications of nanotechnology, of Flip's chaotic contributions to science, and of Alicia Turnbull's hopeless chasing after predictability. She did have a plan, even if had made her an anonymous fairy godmother in danger of developing an identity crisis, instead of the scientific Cinderella he'd hoped she would be.

She took a deep breath and started again. "Once I leave here, Mr. Niebnitz, I plan to work with biomedical researchers in Costa Rica. They're looking at plants in the rainforest as cures for all kinds of diseases--cancer, kidney disease, even aging. There's one they found that can cross the blood-brain barrier and enhance the delivery of oxygen, and another that might prevent Alz--" No, they hadn't known that word when she was seventeen. "--senility."

"The fountain of youth." He nodded. "The Spanish explorers weren't all that far off. They just took the metaphor too seriously."

"That's right," she said, and peered closely at him. Maybe it was a good day after all.

"They could use a mind like yours." He leaned against the window, the same way he used to lean against the chalkboard after the rest of the class left and she'd found some excuse to linger behind, and folded his arms across his chest. "What have you been up to since I've seen you last, Miss Catherine?"

"Well," she said, and settled back into her chair. "First, I went to Boulder."