Janelle Barrett exited the head editor’s office and with a brisk step, walked over to her desk. She was a brash forty-six-year-old journalist ranked top in her field. She had won numerous awards for her articles that were honest and truthful. She took pride in her writing that delved into the innermost recesses of her subjects’ minds without going into personal details that could result in a scandal. She lived by a code of ethics and never wavered.
Today was to be her last interview before the Christmas holidays. Steve Austin, seventy-year-old retired colonel from the Air Force had granted her boss’s newspaper a lengthy interview on his former career at NASA and as an operative for the OSI. Steve insisted that Janelle Barrett be the one to conduct the interview for she was the only reporter he trusted in the business to report the actual facts and not fiction. Many were the newspapers in the countries that had been hassling the former astronaut for this rare opportunity but Janelle Barrett had outrun them all without breaking a sweat.
No sooner had she taken a seat behind her desk that her friend and co-worker Scott Gallagher surprised her with a shiny new gold pen.
“What’s that for?”
“You didn’t expect to scribble down notes of that sought-after interview with just an ordinary ink pen, did you?”
“Of course I did. Just Like I do with all my other interviews.”
He sat on the edge of the desk and waved his finger at her. “Ah but this one is no run-of-the-mill interview. You are going to be sitting down with famous astronaut Steve Austin. The same man who was an operative for a covert organization for fifteen years. Do you have any idea how many newspapers have been hankering after this golden opportunity?”
“I’m well aware of the fierce competition, Scott. But he’s far from being the only famous personality I’ve interviewed in the past. I don’t let it go to my head.”
“By the way, did you find what you were looking for?”
“Yes, I did,” she answered with a slight quaver about her voice.
“And?” he asked expectantly, cocking his head sideways to read her eyes that took on a rueful expression. She looked up at him and simply nodded her head.
“Are you planning to tell him?”
She inhaled deeply. “I don’t know yet,” she replied in a single breath.
“He has the right to know.”
“Does he?” she spat angrily. “Anyway he’s not the one concerned. She probably never told him.” She stared reminiscently at a family picture sitting on the side of her desk and let her mind wonder for a few seconds before collecting her thoughts. “I must go. I don’t want to miss my flight.”
“Good luck. Call me tonight if you fell like talking. You know I’m a good listener.”
She smiled back at him and patted his shoulder. “I know. Thanks.”
With a concerned frown on his face, Scott watched her friend walk over to the elevator. Now that Janelle had found answers to her questions he worried that she might choose to bury the secret for fear of hurting the one person who was dear to her heart.
She took a flight to California and drove to Ojai to an impressive Mexican-style ranch. At the gate, a tiny surveillance camera and a voice asking for her identity greeted her. The iron gates parted to allow her in onto the premises. At the main house, the owner of the property himself welcomed her. She could hardly recognize the sprightly seventy-year-old man as he took her suitcase and ushered her inside. She was overwhelmed by the size of the estate and even more surprised that the vibrant man she was with was none other that Steve Austin.
“By the look of surprise on your face I take it you were expecting to see an old man rocking in his chair?” he teased good-naturedly.
“Euh, not really rocking in his chair but certainly not that bouncy. Given the fact that you completely vanished from the public scene seven years ago, rumour spread rampant that you were all shrivelled and waiting for the Grim Reaper to knock.”
Steve burst out laughing. “That’s a good one! Nah! I don’t have time to grow old. This ranch keeps me pretty busy.”
“You have retained that great sense of humour.”
“My wife is a great moral booster. Her gaiety and playfulness are two of her contagious qualities.”
“Is your wife here?”
“No. She’s out shopping with our youngest son for an engagement ring to give his bride-to-be.”
“The young boy that would Markus, right?”
“That’s right.” He glanced up the stairs. “Do you want me to show you to your room now or do you prefer to have something to drink first?”
“IT has been a long trip. If you don’t mind I would like to freshen up a bit.”
“Of course not my dear lady. Follow me.” He showed her to a sizeable elegantly furnished bedroom where he put her suitcase down by the door. “If you need anything, just ask me. It’s the staff’s day off so I’m the one who’s in charge of pampering the guests.”
“I don’t need much. I promise I won’t be ringing the bell too often,” she teased back.
“Take as long as you want. We usually serve dinner at seven but since I’m doing the cooking tonight we can stretch it a bit. Don’t worry I’m a good cook if I do say so myself,” he boasted with a smirk.
“Thank you Mister Austin,” she said with a laughing smile.
“Call me Steve. I don’t like to be formal unless it’s absolutely required.”
“Call me Janelle.”
He gave a slight nod of the head in acknowledgement. “Miss Janelle. I’ll see you downstairs whenever you’re ready.”
Once the door close she sank into the bed and buried her face in her hands. She held them flat against her nose and heaved a sigh of despair. “I can’t tell him. I just can’t.”
Barely an hour later, Steve’s wife, Peggy Callahan, returned home with her son. Markus’s grin reached his ear as he proudly displayed the engagement ring to his father. “What do you think, dad? Do you think Katherine will like it?”
“This is exquisite, Mark. No girl is her right mind would loathe such a precious gem. It must have cost you a pretty penny?”
“Yeah, a little but my Katherine’s worth it.” He turned to his mother standing to his left and hugged her. “Thanks for the input mom. I’ll go give it to her now.”
“Good luck,” Steve shouted to his ebullient son who was already out of the room.
“I don’t need luck, dad. Remember she already said yes,“ he shouted back before banging the door close, which caused both Steve and Peggy to cringe.
“So much like his father,” Peggy mused. “Oh Steve, the last of our babies is getting married,” she signed with a touch of melancholia.
“Baby! He’s 27 years old,” he pointed out amicably before wrapping his arm around her shoulders.
She leaned her head against his shoulder. “I know. But they’re still my babies, all four of them. Where has the time gone?”
“Ahhhhh come old lady, let’s get something to drink.”
In the evening, all three seated at the dining room table to feast on Steve’s gourmet dish. Janelle was a little overwhelmed by the Austins’ generous hospitality but felt comfortable in the presence. Throughout dinner topics or conversations abound, providing the reporter with more information than she had anticipated. What Steve and Peggy wished not to share remained undisclosed. Janelle took advantage of a break in the conversation to casually introduce the subject of the couple’s children.
“Sean the oldest is 34, married, two kids; Kirsten is 32. She’s also married with one child and I’m happy to say another one on the way,” Peggy smiled at the thought of being a grandmother once again. “Then there’s Candice; she’s 29 married but no children yet. And the baby, Markus, is 27 and engaged to be married sometime next year.”
“You both never had any other children before you met?” Steve and Peggy exchanged a puzzled look at Janelle’s question.
“No, not me. How about you dear?” Steve asked his life partner who shook her head. She confided that Steve was the first man she ever allowed in her bed.
“Something wrong, Janelle?” Steve asked, a bit concerned by her sudden aloofness.
“No. Look I’m pretty tired. You don’t mind if I retire early?”
“Of not course, dear. Are you sure you’re okay? You look a little flushed,” Peggy observed as she neared the disturbed woman and placed a hand on her shoulder. Janelle flinched slightly at the touch. “Is there something you need?”
“No thank you. I’ll be fine. Good night.”
Steve and Peggy walked Janelle to the bottom of the grand staircase and watched her climbed the steps and disappear into her room. “Something’s wrong, Steve. I’ll see if I can find out what it is. Maybe we said something that upset her.”
“I doubt it.”
“I’ll make sure anyhow.” She kissed her husband and went up to Janelle’s room. She rapped on the door. “Janelle, may I come in?”
Peggy entered just as Janelle was turning down her bed. “Are you sure everything’s okay?”
“I’m just a bit tired,” Janelle said unconvincingly, prompting Peggy to search for the truth behind her lying eyes. “It might help you to talk about it.”
“It’s a personal matter.”
“Oh! I thought maybe Steve and I said something to upset you.”
“In way you did.”
“What? What did we say?”
“It’s not what he said; it’s what you said,” Janelle said coldly. She turned to Peggy who was standing with a baffled look on her face. “When I asked if you had any other children and you answered no, that your husband was the first man you ever made love to.”
“That’s not true, is it? You had a baby when you were seventeen and put it up for adoption.”
Callahan flumped down on the bed in complete prostration. “How do you know about that?”
“I’m a reporter. It’s my job.”
“Please Janelle. No one aside from my parents knows about this. Not even Steve.”
“I have no intention of telling your husband much less print this in my article,” Janelle assured as she sat next to a shaken Peggy. “You have my word. I just want to know why you did it?”
“Why are you so interested in knowing?”
“Because…” she choked on her reply, then breathed out,” I’m that baby girl.”
Peggy stared shockingly at Janelle who nodded her head. “You?”
“I found out I was adopted when my mother died six months ago. I’ve been trying to locate you without much success. Then while I was doing background research on your husband, I stumbled upon the information.”
“That’s why you wanted this interview with my husband.”
“No believe me. The interview was set up days before I found out about my birth mother. Peggy I’m not here to stir trouble for you and Steve. Whatever you say to me will remain confidential. I just want to know why you gave me up.”
Peggy drew in a lungful of air to summon her courage then stood up and walked stoically to the window. “I was raped. One night I went out with a couple of college girl friends. We went to this local club where we met with a bunch of guys from our science class. The evening was great. But the next morning I woke up alone in a motel room without any clothes on. Three weeks later I found out I was with child. My parents were very understanding. I quit college when I started to show so no one would know. Then when the baby was born, my parents took it to an adoption agency.”
“Do you know who raped you?”
Peggy answered with a shake of the head as she continued to stare blankly out the window. A restrained silence ensued. She then turned to Janelle with imploring eyes. “Please I beg of you, don’t tell anyone, specially my husband.”
“Your husband already knows,” Steve said as he walked in with a reassuring smile on his face.
“I found out long ago from your mother, albeit by accident.”
“And you didn’t say anything?”
“I respected your right to privacy. I always say a wife and husband should have one or two secrets.”
“And it didn’t bother you? Just a little?”
Steve stepped up to Peggy and placed his hands on either side of her cheeks. “I love you Peggy. You are my reason to live. Nothing you did, do or intend to do will change the way I feel about you. You’re stuck with me, kiddo.”
On the verge to tears, she flung her arms around his neck and clutched him into a soul-stirring hug. “I love you so much, Steve.”
In the background, Janelle strived to retain her own tears at this heartfelt moment. She saw Steve walked up to her and place a kiss on her cheek. “Welcome home, daughter. You’re the best Christmas present we could ever ask for.”