Grantville, October 1634

Noelle Murphy rode into Grantville just before noon. It was well after dusk when she finished the in-box that had been waiting for her. People had started dropping things into it a month earlier, as soon as they found out she was coming back from Franconia. She looked at the note from her mother again. It wasn't very long and was dated right after Judge Tito had decided that Pat Fitzgerald had been married to Dennis Stull all along. Common-law, but married. It was certainly . . . different . . . to find out that her parents were married to each other.

Since I'm living with Dennis now, I decided to stop paying rent on the trailer the end of this month and gave your key back to Huddy Colburn's office. We cleaned it out and moved the things that were in your bedroom over to his ma's house, so they'll be there when you get back. Most of the time, he's working in Erfurt. Love.

It was a very "Mom" kind of note, Noelle thought. It brought up an interesting question. She got up and went down the hall to Tony Adducci's office. Normally, a field auditor in the Department of Economic Resources wouldn't just drop in on the Secretary of the Treasury of the State of Thuringia-Franconia, but he was, after all, her godfather. And it was after regular business hours.

"Tony?" she asked. "Ah. Mom's given up the trailer. Where am I supposed to sleep tonight?"

She handed him the note.

Tony looked at it for a while, thinking. "You're welcome to stay with us, of course. I can call Denise and have her put sheets and a blanket on the sofa. But . . . "

He dialed the phone. To his great gratitude and relief, someone picked up on the other end. Someone else who was working late. "Joe, is that you? Can you come over to my office for a few minutes."

He and Noelle chatted, mostly about the Ram Rebellion. Then a man came in. Noelle looked up as he entered. Not tall, very thick in the neck and chest. He looked more like a bullfrog than anything else she could think of.

Tony got up. "Noelle, I'd, uh, like to introduce you to Joe Stull. He's, um . . . "

She stood up and held out her hand. "The Secretary of Transportation for the state. Dennis' brother. My . . . uncle. I'm . . . I'm glad to meet you, sir."

Tony looked acutely uncomfortable. "He's got a key to Juliann's house. Where your stuff is. He can take you over there, if you'd rather. It makes more sense, in a way than having you on our sofa, because you'll be in town for a while and that's where they put your things. But you're welcome to stay with us, of course . . . " His voice trailed off.

Joe was shaking Noelle's hand, looking at her. The girl didn't much resemble a Stull. Luckily for her. Medium height, maybe five-four, more blonde than anything else. Broader in the shoulders than Pat Fitzgerald. That might be Dennis' contribution to the finished product or it might just be modern sports. Otherwise, he thought, this was Pat's daughter.

"Sure. I'd be glad to take you over there. Show you where it is. Just let me get my coat. There are extra keys on a pegboard in the kitchen, once we get there, so you can come and go. If that's what you want, just let me call Aura Lee over at city hall. We'll need to stop there and pick her up on the way. Since we live to the east, right at the edge of the Ring of Fire, I had our pickup converted to natural gas early on. There's a natural gas furnace in Ma's house, too, so the place will warm up quickly enough."

"That's very kind of you." Noelle's voice was a little stiff. She looked at Tony. "That might be better, really. For me to go on over there. I don't have much luggage with me and I'd love to get into some clothes tomorrow that I haven't been wearing for the last several weeks."

"I hate leaving you on your own."

"That's okay. I've gotten pretty much used to being on my own," Noelle answered.

Joe cleared his throat. "I guess it was pretty much a shock to you to hear that Pat and Dennis, ah, got back together this fall."

She smiled at him. "Not as much as you might think." She paused a minute. "I know where the house is. Actually, I've been there."

Both men looked at her in surprise.

"After Mom rented the trailer here in Grantville—after she gave up the house in Fairmont because Maggy and Pauly and Patty were all on their own and we didn't need another room and we did need money if I was going to go to college—I'd . . . ." Her voice trailed off a little. "Well, I'd wonder more about Dennis, sometimes, than I had in Fairmont. And what he had been like. Because, well, because he was . . . "

"Your father," Joe Stull said.

Noelle nodded. "And I'd never met him, of course. Because . . . "

"Because he left Pat before you were born." Joe didn't really believe in circumlocutions.

She nodded again. "So I heard that house was where his mother lived. It wasn't that far off the route I took when I walked down to the strip mall. I walked by it several times. And finally, one afternoon—it was the semester I didn't have any classes on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and Mom was at work, of course—I just stopped in front of it. And walked up to the door and rang the bell. She came to the door and I said, 'Hi, I'm . . . ' Then I didn't want to say 'Noelle Murphy,' so I just said, 'I'm Noelle.' And she asked me to come in, so I did."

To say that both men were surprised would have been an understatement.

Not that Joe was surprised that Juliann had never mentioned to any of them that Noelle had come. Ma had been able to keep her own counsel.

"Actually, I, ah, went several times. She said that first time that I was welcome to come back, so I did. I didn't think she'd say it unless she meant it."

Joe nodded. "If Ma said it, she meant it."

"And she was the only person who ever sort of explained it all to me. I mean, you know, when Mom took the older girls to see Paul and Maggie Murphy, I had to wait outside. They wouldn't let me in their house, but nobody really bothered to explain how come. Until Keenan told me it was because I was a 'fucking little bastard.'"

Tony looked down at the floor. "Damn Keenan."

"Well, I was about eight then. And he was a teen-ager. I was sitting in the car out front while Mom took Maggy and Pauly and Patty in to see them. Wondering why I was always left behind in the car. At least he gave me an answer, which was more than anyone else would. Mom sure never did."

Tony and Joe just looked at her again. Tony thinking that there were probably a lot of things none of the rest of them knew about that had gone into the making of Noelle. Reasons that had contributed to making her so unexpectedly . . . resilient . . . as a field agent, considering how young she was.

Noelle was looking at Joe again.

"Juliann said that Mom and Dennis, over the years, had hurt each other just about as bad as two people could. More than once. That Dennis hurt Mom when he wouldn't believe her about what was happening when he came back from Viet Nam and then again when he wouldn't stay with her unless she divorced Keenan's dad. And she hurt him when she married Francis in the first place and then again when she wouldn't divorce Francis after she got pregnant with me."

Joe nodded, looking at her carefully.

"But she said, too, that they couldn't have hurt each other so much if it hadn't been that they loved each other so much and for so long. That she didn't think they'd ever be able to stop loving each other. And that she still wouldn't be surprised if they got together again if they ever had an opening. So that's why it wasn't so much a shock to me, when Steve and Anita told me what had happened."

She paused and turned to Tony. "Thanks for your letter, by the way. I didn't get it for a long time. It kept following me around Franconia, from one place to another. It was weeks before it caught up. At that, it got to me before Mom's note did. And it explained a lot more than Mom's note did."

All Tony had written was a summary of what Pat had said as she sat on the floor of the funeral home. If Pat had written even less . . . "I don't really know what went on between them the first time," he said a little uncomfortably. "I wasn't really old enough to know what was going on."

"Juliann played me a song," Noelle looked at Joe. "She had a lot of nice old '78s and a turntable that still played them. I hope nobody got rid of those."

"They're all still there. We haven't done anything to the house, yet."

Noelle bit her lip. "When you do . . . if you all wouldn't mind, of course . . . do you suppose that I could have that record she played for me. As a memento, sort of."

"I don't see why not. What was it?"

"It was on a collection of 'golden oldies' that she'd ordered from a television advertisement." Noelle started to hum.

I've got you under my skin. I've got you deep in the heart of me.So deep in my heart, You're nearly a part of me.

"God damn it," Tony shouted, breaking the mood.

The other two looked at him, startled.

"A song with lyrics to match that one that Ron Koch keeps throwing at me. I've always told him that country music covers everything." He paused. "Never heard that one, though."

Noelle shook her head. "Well, it isn't country music. It's Cole Porter, I think. From some old Broadway musical. Way back in the 1930s."

"Hell," Tony looked disgusted. "Well, I guess a guy can't have everything. It ought to be country music, though. It's got the right spirit."

"It's not getting any earlier," Joe interrupted. "We'd better go pick up Aura Lee."

****

Aura Lee looked at Joe. "We can't just leave Noelle in that house with nothing to eat. I don't really want pizza. We'd better stop at Cora's for carry-out." She turned to Noelle. "Billy Lee and our Juliann both have things at school this evening. They won't be finished until nine-thirty or so. That's why Joe and I were both working late. Let's stop for something and we'll eat with you after Joe unlocks the house."

"That's fine," Joe opened the door on the driver's side. "You two stay in the truck. I'll go in and get today's adventure in cuisine. Whatever it may be."

"Thanks," Noelle was grateful. Not only grateful for the company, but she had missed lunch. She had been sort of wondering what to do about supper and not looking forward to going out again by herself once Joe Stull had let her into Juliann's house and found her a key to use.

The house was dark when they pulled up. That was no surprise to her.

It was a surprise that after Joe opened the door, it was warm and there were lights on in the rec room at the back of the little hallway and sound from a television.

Joe paused. "Ah. We'll go on into the kitchen and get the table set. You might want to go on back there, Noelle. Dennis and Pat use the house when they're here rather than in Erfurt."

She walked down the hall, pulling off her hat and suspecting that she had been set up by Tony. She paused at the open doorway. Feeling a little betrayed, but maybe it was better that she hadn't been given a chance to duck it.

A man she couldn't remember ever seeing before was lying on the sofa, his feet up. Her mom was lying next to him, her head on his shoulder. The man was rubbing her mom's temples. She had her eyes closed.

"Excuse me." Noelle rested her hand on the doorframe. "I got Mom's note. The one that said my stuff was here. Joe let me in."

Pat's eyes popped open. She sat straight up on the sofa, folding her hands in her lap.

The man got up. Noelle looked at him. He was a couple of inches taller than Joe Stull-maybe about five-nine. Longer in the neck, not quite so burly in the chest. Gray hair, darker than her mom's shade of gray.

Noelle took a couple steps forward. "Joe and Aura Lee are here. In the kitchen. Aura Lee thought they should get carry-out."

The man grinned. "As long as I have known her, and that's over fifteen years now, Aura Lee has been hungry. We hadn't eaten yet, so that's fine." He held his hand out. "I'm Dennis Stull."

Noelle shook it. "I'm glad to meet you." She hoped that she meant it. Then she sat down and put her arm around Pat's shoulders. "It's all right, Mom. I'm not going to make any kind of a scene."

****

"Well, brother," Dennis put his feet up on the sofa. The women were washing dishes. "I have to say that you took something of a calculated risk."

"How so?"

"There have been quite a few evenings, when I wasn't quite so bushed as tonight, when I was lying there on the sofa watching the news and massaging various parts of Pat's anatomy that are less suitable for public viewing than her forehead."

"I don't think that Noelle is all that easily panicked. Given the reports we got on the way she handled things with von Bimbach and all that."

"Maybe not. But Pat is. I can tell that she's all upset, even this way, that Noelle walked in on us. Of course, she's way more upset about these hearings over at St. Mary's. She would just as soon have had them over before Noelle got back, I think. That's why I came down. I didn't want her sitting through those, all day, and then coming home to an empty house."

"Noelle would have found out everything anyway."

"Sure. But it's not quite the same thing."

"Noelle isn't going to be sitting there listening to the testimony," Joe pointed out. "She does have a full-time job."

"There's that." Dennis put his feet on the floor and leaned forward on his elbows. "Pat was a little worried by the letter that Noelle wrote her last summer, right after she found out about the shooting. The one that asked if Pat was sure that she knew what she was doing. She's afraid that Noelle doesn't approve of us."

Joe looked at Dennis. "Look, brother. That was nearly three months ago. It has to have been a good-sized shock to the girl when it happened and there's been a lot of water under the bridge since then. She's not made any fuss since she got back to Grantville. She didn't make any fuss this evening."

"That's what I'll remind Pat. But it won't help much. It's been pretty clear that quite a few of the wives of my employees up in Erfurt don't quite approve of us. And all of the discussion about bigamy isn't going to help much. They way most of them see it, either she was married to Francis and committed adultery with me or was married to me and committed adultery with Francis. Six of one and a half dozen of the other. Thank god for Amber Lee and Lorrie."

****

"What am I going to do about it?" Noelle asked.

"I can't see that it's such a problem," Bernadette Adducci answered.

"It is to me. Now that I know Mom wasn't ever married to Francis Murphy. After all the testimony at the hearings at St. Mary's. Even before the Ring of Fire, there were times that I felt awfully self-conscious about calling myself 'Murphy.' Several times, if I'd had the time and money and had been willing to go through all the hassle of changing my transcripts and stuff, I thought about going into court in Fairmont and asking to have it changed to 'Fitzgerald.' Now, with everything that's been going on, I guess that's not appropriate, either. And anyway . . . Well, I guess we can skip that."

"I can see your point," Tony looked at his wife. "What do you think, Denise?"

"Why not 'Stull'?" she asked.

Noelle shook her head. "Not unless they invite me. It's . . . Well, I don't want them to think that I'm pushy. It's not as if any of them in that family know me, really. I'd just like to get rid of 'Murphy.'"

Tony scratched his ear. "Let me think about it a bit."

"You could always," Bernadette commented, "get married."

Noelle grinned at her. "Women are keeping their maiden names these days, unless they deliberately ask for a change, so that won't help automatically."

Bernadette shook her head. "Face it, honey. Becoming a nun won't, either. The new order isn't going the 'Sister Mary Anselm' route. If you ever do join up, you'll be stuck with 'Noelle Whoever-you-are' for the rest of your life."

"Even if I did marry and take my husband's name, I still wouldn't want 'Murphy for a maiden name. There's no one around I want to marry, though."

"Let me think about it a bit," Tony said again.

After Noelle left, Bernadette looked at the other two. "I know the pair of you think I'm being too hard-nosed with her. But did you hear that? 'There's no one around I want to marry, though.' Not, 'I don't want to marry, though.' That there isn't anyone around now is certainly no guarantee that there won't be. She's only twenty-three. I have no intention in the world of letting a situation develop where Noelle is in a religious order when 'anyone' comes along. No matter how firmly I have to put her off. Or how long."

Erfurt, October 1634

"You know what, Dennis?" Amber Lee Barnes looked up from the papers on her desk.

"What?"

"She's triple sharp, that girl of yours. Noelle. We spent all day on accounts. I'm taking her home for supper with me to hash over some more of it, if you and Pat are willing to spare her. I can get the guy downstairs to walk her over to her room when we're done."

"That's fine. Um. She and Pat are having a little trouble finding things to say to each other right now. And it's not as if I really know her."

"Are you going to claim her?" Amber Lee asked.

Dennis looked at her. "What do you mean by that?"

"She's still going by 'Murphy.' Don't you want her to be a Stull? As I said, she's triple sharp."

"I hadn't really thought about it."

"Maybe you ought to," Amber Lee advised.

"She frightens me a little."

"How?"

"When I first saw her standing there in the doorway at Ma's place, I thought she was another Pat. A little taller, a little sturdier, a shade less blonde, but Pat. Until she shook my hand and looked at me with those eyes. Not blue like Pat's. Dark gray. Not judging, exactly. Measuring. Assessing. Evaluating."

Amber Lee examined him. "She's yours, too. Have you ever looked at your eyes in the mirror? Are you going to claim her?"

"The day after the shooting, in the hospital, Joe was wondering if she would be willing to claim me after all these years."

"That's probably what she's evaluating," Amber Lee went back to her paperwork.

****

"I think we're done." Noelle closed the ledger she had been using. "At least, as done as we can get until we go through some more of the records tomorrow. Bolender, Bell, Cunningham. I knew that I was looking for those names. But with the pecularities and discrepancies in these requisitions for machine parts, I keep thinking I should add a couple more. Barclay. Myers.

Amber Lee frowned. "Maybe I should talk to my mother about this. I have a feeling that Barclay and Myers have some kind of a family tie, but it escapes me. I don't know either of them, myself. Maybe you ought to ask Scott, too."

Noelle raised her eyebrows.

"Scott Blackwell, my ex. You must have met him when you were down in Franconia."

"Oh. Sure. But why would he know?"

"He and Stan Myers were both in the fire department. And in the National Guard together. So he may know what kind of a person he is. Or I can ask Dennis to do it, if you don't want to. I just feel a little odd about asking Scott myself, now that I've remarried."

"Yeah." Noelle tucked one foot underneath her, making her perch on the high three-legged stool a little precarious. She balanced by leaning one elbow on the podium desk that held the ledger.

"Not that we're on bad terms. We married in '93 and divorced five years later. Married because we were getting to that age and everyone said we were so well suited and every now and then we had sex, which was, errr, nice, because neither of us was having sex with anyone else. And we had known each other a long time and each of us knew that the other one didn't have herpes or genital warts or any of the other nasty STDs to which human flesh is heir. So my parents paid for us to get married with all the usual trimmings. Then after five years and no kids we realized that we bored each other so thoroughly that we could scarcely remember why we got married, so we divorced."

Noelle raised her eyebrows.

"Sorry to disillusion you, kid. Just having a lot in common really doesn't mean that a couple ought to get married. Scott and I tried to make it work. Counseling, various things that were supposed to put the zip back in a marriage like going out on dates, or having getaway weekends. We worked on communication. All that stuff. We bored each other just as much on a date or at a resort as we did at home. We didn't fight. He'd go and find a golf game or head for the library to do homework for his classes and I'd go to the gym and talk to the other aerobics instructors."

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