THE CREAM-COLORED ENVELOPE was crammed into my mailbox, along with three bills, four solicitations, my professional biofeedback magazine, a sale notice from Loehmann’s, and the Public Television Sweepstakes offer. No checks. I tossed the bills onto my desk, dropped the magazine, the ad, and the letter onto the coffee table, dumped two of the solicitations, and put the worthiest causes in a basket to be considered when I win the Sweepstakes. Then I opened the Sweepstakes offer.

Notice I said when I win, not if. Recently, my mindset regarding easy money has undergone a major transformation. Never again will I carelessly toss one of those fat envelopes into the trash, and every week I blow a buck or two on a lottery ticket. Don’t get me wrong. I’m selective. I don’t buy into the come-ons (public television being the rare exception), but I diligently fill out the forms and stick the stickers on every ticket that gets delivered to my Norwood, New Jersey home. Not because I’m a candidate for Gamblers’ Anonymous, or because I’ve turned into one of those gullible sweepstakes addicts you see profiled every so often in the news, but because, just occasionally, the gods smile and miracles happen. I’m personally acquainted with someone to whom one did. My dad.

It wasn’t one of Massachusetts lottery’s biggest pots, but it was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for him. Despite gifting me and my children with ten thousand each and curing my insomnia by setting up trusts for their college educations, the windfall has allowed for all sorts of luxuries heretofore out of his reach. At the time it caused quite a stir in Worcester, where he and his wife live. The kids and I drove up for the celebration. All our pictures were in the papers, we were interviewed on television and wined and dined by the mayor who threw a gala bash in Dad’s honor. It may sound prejudiced coming from me, but it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

David Carlin may well be the last of a breed fast becoming extinct. A truly honest human being. A big gentle bear. Like the panda. He brought me up from the age of three without the help of a wife or nanny, on a diet of love and old-fashioned aphorisms, maxims by which he continues to live. Do unto others, a stitch in time, don’t judge a book by its cover, and so on. He was never big on the one about sparing the rod and spoiling the child, so I had a pretty happy childhood. It’s only since he married Eve–a sixtyish plus lady whose taste tends to run to pointy bras à la Monroe and skintight sweaters welded onto a body that’s more Roseanne than Marilyn, that the last one, that one about the book cover, has been giving me trouble.

Admittedly, my reaction to her has been colored by her habit of thrusting her more than ample bosom, like a giant mother hen, between my father and me in a well-intentioned effort to keep his heart pumping. Also by what I perceive as her minimally disguised disapproval of me.

To be honest, I’m not totally free of blame for this. The conclusions she’s drawn have a certain validity when you consider that she and my father had been married only a few years when it was trumpeted all over the media that I was the prime suspect in the murder of my husband’s mistress. Granted, I’d committed that particular murder in my head numerous times, but it was more in the way Jimmy Carter lusted in his heart. Anyway, I am only five foot three, weighing a hundred and twelve pounds; as a divorcee I’m raising, pretty much single-handed, two adolescent kids, Matthew, age eleven, and Alison, thirteen, and I’m a mental health professional, a biofeedback clinician, whose job it is to teach people how to cope with the more stressful times in their lives without developing holes in their guts or taking a flying leap off the nearest bridge. You’d think it would have crossed her mind that this is hardly the profile of a modern Lucretia Borgia.

My dad’s been my hero and my rock since my mother died. My recollection of her is vague, so I was pretty shaken up when he had his heart attack several years back. He was still in the hospital recovering from that event when he and Eve met. She, to give credit where credit’s due, was heading up a volunteer army of gray ladies who saved the day and probably not a few lives when a strike had drastically reduced the hospital staff. She takes excellent care of him and he seems to be supremely content eating rabbit food and being clucked over, so I keep my mouth shut and my feelings to myself. It’s only by pure chance and unfortunate coincidence that I’ve compounded the felony in her eyes by continuing to get mixed up in unpleasant situations. Seriously unpleasant. As in homicides. Solving, not committing. If you exclude the mistress, three at last count.

Perhaps because of these experiences and because I’m now living with the detective who investigated the murder of which I was accused, I’ve developed a keen interest, or as some might say, an obsession with puzzle-solving. Eve, however, views me as trouble, and not exactly the medicine a doctor would order for a sixty-eight-year-old man who’s had a serious heart attack and, subsequently, open heart surgery. Imagine my surprise, then, when after I’d filled out the sweepstakes form–my sights firmly set on that trip to Finland, Russia, and Scandinavia–and opened my bills, I got to the linen-textured envelope, glanced at the return address, and realized it was from her. In the very first paragraph she referred to me as her dear daughter and the only person in the world to whom she could turn in her present dilemma. My internal radar began sending out warning signals. I fortified myself with a glass of ice-cold Chardonnay and curled up on the couch to peruse the rest of the letter’s contents in an atmosphere of relative tranquility.

It was Friday and I’d arrived home just before six o’clock, allowing myself plenty of time to prepare a gourmet dinner. I’d scheduled my last Attention Deficit Disorder patient for four and had managed to get out of the office by five so I could stop by the market for the ingredients. The children had been picked up after school by their father, who was taking them to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut for the weekend. I’d been looking forward to a quiet, or if all went well, a not so quiet evening with Ted, Detective Sergeant Ted Brodsky, the detective I mentioned. We’ve been living together in my three-bedroom fifty-year-old house for just about a month, and I’m still not entirely comfortable with the arrangement. It’s as though I’ve drunk some marvelous exotic wine and I can’t help wondering if the flavor I’m enjoying at present isn’t going to end up giving me heartburn. You know how some people have trial separations? Well, what we’re having is a trial get-together. Ted would like to do the whole bit, with rings and rice and all the trimmings, but I jumped on that bus nineteen years ago and found myself unceremoniously dumped off before the last stop. It’s taken some time for the bumps and bruises to heal, and I’m a little leery about another go-round. And there are my children to consider. They like Ted, but I have to be certain it’s going to work for them as well as for me.

The second paragraph told me that Eve was planning a visit, length unspecified, without my father. She would be arriving tomorrow, Saturday, would I pick her up at Newark Airport at 6:25 p.m., and would I please not call the house. She didn’t want to talk about this on the phone. It all had to do with a favor she needed from me having to do with the dilemma, the source of which she didn’t explain in the letter.

My first reaction was irritation at her assumption that I would have no plans for the weekend or would be happy to alter them at the delightful prospect of a visit from her. Plus, if she were planning to stay for more than a day or two, I couldn’t think where I was going to put her. My second was discomfort, as I remembered that Eve hadn’t yet been apprised of Ted’s having moved in. He still maintains his apartment, and if things get sticky he could always move back for a few days, which he’s done on occasion for propriety’s sake if one of the kids has a friend sleep over. But I wasn’t in the mood for a lecture regarding the unsuitability of my children being exposed to what, to her, would surely seem an illicit arrangement, especially since I was a touch nervous about it myself. Forget the morality issue which my children and I have discussed, and with which we’ve come to terms. It was the particulars of my divorce. My ex, Rich Burnham, who’d left me because he was having an affair (actually two or three), could, according to the law, live with as many women as he could fit into his bed. I, on the other hand, living with one man, but being an alimony recipient for four plus more years, was on shaky legal ground. So far, Rich has been pretty cool–mostly, I think, because he enjoys his bachelor lifestyle, he’s not tight for money, and the last thing he would want is a court battle where he might end up with custody of the children.

In frustration I tossed the letter onto the table. What favor could Eve want that she couldn’t ask me for over the phone? She had no right to drop in on me unexpectedly. She was simply going to have to go to a hotel. By the time Ted walked into the kitchen-family room at around seven thirty, I was banging pot covers, scowling at my reflection in the oven door, and talking to the rack of lamb.

“The animal’s dead, sweetheart,” he said, dropping a kiss on my head. “Let it rest in peace.”

I slammed the oven door shut, crossed to the table, and tossed the letter at him. “Guess who’s coming to dinner tomorrow.”

He draped his jacket over the back of the couch, shed his shoulder holster, and scanned the letter. “What’s so terrible? The kids are away for the weekend, and we don’t have anything special on. She can sleep in Allie’s room.”

“For openers, she’s probably expecting to sleep in my room. She doesn’t know you’re living here.”

He grinned, pulled me down on his lap, nuzzled my neck, and grabbed both breasts. “So now she will. One picture’s worth a thousand words.”

One of the things I love about Ted is his sense of humor. Also his cool which he manages to keep when everyone else–me especially–is losing theirs. It’s one of the things that make him a good cop. I’ve seen him pissed-off, I’ve seen him exasperated, and once or twice I’ve seen him glacial, but I’ve never seen him out of control. My annoyance began to dissipate. He was right. I’m over twenty-one–actually I’m over forty. I might owe the court, but I didn’t owe this woman any explanations regarding my lifestyle choices. I allowed myself to relax and enjoy the nuzzling etc., until I heard the rack sizzling.

“Since when did I get to be her dear daughter?” I grumbled between mouthfuls during dinner. “I thought I was the bane of her existence.”

Ted took a sip of wine and peered at me over the top of his glass. “What is it about her that bugs you?” His eyes crinkled at the corners. “It can’t be that you’re jealous of those Jane Mansfield hooters.”

I snorted derisively, but I thought about it and tried to be objective. When she and dad first married, I was probably a little jealous. Not of the hooters–I’ve never aspired to a D cup–but because I’d had him to myself for so long. But he seems happy and not lonely anymore, and I’m really grateful to her for that.

“I suppose it’s that holier-than-thou supercilious attitude she gets when she’s around me,” I admitted, finally. “She always makes me feel like she’s caught me with my hand in the cookie jar.”

“Your hand frequently is in the cookie jar.”

I glared at him.

“I mean, figuratively, from her perspective,” he amended. “She can’t understand why you keep getting into...peculiar situations. So why don’t you take this opportunity to show her what a nice, quiet existence you lead most of the time. Make friends.”

I wrinkled my nose in distaste.

“Do it for your dad. He knows you’re not crazy about her.”

“He doesn’t. I’m always very polite.”

“Carrie, my love, don’t ever play poker. You’re transparent”

I sighed. “What do you suppose she wants? What’s going on that she doesn’t want to talk about it in front of dad?” My fork stopped halfway to my mouth. “You don’t think there’s something wrong with him, do you? Something he hasn’t told me about?”

“No. She mentioned she needs you to do her a favor.” He grinned. “Maybe she wants you to have a little daughterly talk with him. Maybe he’s blowing his winnings on wine and fast women.”

“Yeah, my dad and the pope.”

“Seriously, from her letter, it seems to me that this is probably about needing your expertise as a professional.” He chuckled. “I can’t wait to find out exactly which of your several areas of expertise she plans to tap into.”

We pulled into the airport twenty minutes before the plane was due, parked the car in the short term lot, and took the escalator to Baggage Claim. I was checking out the computer to see if her flight was on time, when I felt Ted tugging at my jacket sleeve.

“The flight must’ve been early. Brace yourself. There she is.”

I glanced up to see Eve getting off the escalator. She was wearing a fluffy faux fur jacket of an indescribable color, sort of mottled yellow-brownish-beige. Whatever animal it was supposed to resemble escaped me, but it matched her frizzy hair perfectly. She had on high boots, dark tights under a brown skirt, and a small red hat that looked like it belonged on a bellhop except it had a bow in the front. I couldn’t suppress the thought that she looked kind of like an oversized organ-grinder’s monkey. She was lugging a small suitcase on wheels and carrying a shopping bag. I took a deep breath, pasted a smile on my face, and marched over to her.

“Hello, Eve,” I said, trying to sound welcoming as I bent to kiss her cheek. “How are you?”

She dropped her shopping bag and enveloped me in a bear hug. From somewhere around my chin I heard a muffled, “Carrie, Carrie, I’m so glad to see you.” Almost everyone, especially Ted, towers over me, but Eve makes me feel like Brooke Shields. It’s the one positive thing about our relationship.

Over her head, I shot a look of desperation Ted’s way. He rescued me, breaking her stranglehold with professional adroitness. Picking up her suitcase and shopping bag with one hand, he put his other arm around her and led her toward the carousel.

“What color is your luggage?” I heard him ask.

She gave him a quivery smile and nodded. “This is it. I didn’t check anything. How much does one person need?”

Why did it pop into my head that this was a dig, a reference to the visit the kids and I had made to Worcester for the lottery party, when we arrived toting five suitcases, a laptop computer, four live animals, and a couple of stuffed ones? I dismissed the thought as paranoid and mean-spirited. Nonetheless, that twinge of annoyance stirred again in my gut.

“Parking lot’s this way,” Ted said, steering her toward the door.

Despite Ted’s assurance to me last night, I had to ask. “Is everything all right with dad?”

“Yes, yes, he’s fine. Pushes himself too hard, cheats on his diet, but he seems to be getting away with it.” She heaved one of those sighs usually reserved for me.”

“Then what’s this about, Eve?” I inquired, as I followed them out.

She glanced uneasily at Ted, dropped back a few steps, and took my arm. “It’s kind of women’s talk,” she whispered.

Oh, God, she’s sick, I thought. That’s why she doesn’t want dad to know.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“My blood pressure’s up, no wonder, but other than that, I’m fine.”

“Well,” I said, enormously relieved. “If that’s all it is, you’ve come to the right place. I’m a whiz at reducing blood pressure. Tomorrow, we’ll take a run over to the office, I’ll hook you up to—”

“Oh, heavens, I don’t need any of that mumbo-jumbo you do.”

The twinge became a stab. The woman was barely off the plane and I was on my way to an ulcer, all my biofeedback training forgotten. Well, not quite. I took several deep diaphragmatic breaths and smiled. “What can I do for you, then?”

“Let’s wait till after dinner. We’ll talk when Ted goes home.”

After that mumbo-jumbo crack, I wasn’t about to pull any punches. “Ted won’t be going home. We live together now.” Like Henny-Penny, I raised my eyes heavenward, waiting for the sky to fall.

“Oh, really,” she murmured, flashing Ted a look that seemed to contain more consternation than condemnation. “Well, maybe he won’t mind leaving us alone for a while.”

I glanced at Ted from under raised eyebrows. He winked and blew a kiss.

“No,” I said. “I’m sure he won’t.”

What in God’s name, I thought, dumbfounded, could have precipitated such an extraordinary change of attitude?