It was mid-afternoon Saturday and the rain was still falling, a faint staccato against the roof of the bed & breakfast. The morning meal and lunch had come and gone and the women had made a round of phone calls, each eager to check on things on the home front.
Gwen felt as if a monster truck rally was going on between her ears. While she was long accustomed to imbibing, she usually didnt finish an entire bottle of champagne herself and was still feeling the effects of this mornings killer hangover. She came down the stairs and stepped into the parlor, three aspirin tucked in the palm of her hand. It would be, she decided, nearly impossible to feel worse. Even a short nap hadnt helped. Then she thought about what she had to do today and reconsidered her conclusion.
She looked around for Katherine and Audrey, but they were nowhere to be seen. She glumly wondered if they had packed up and snuck out after lunch.
"Hey." Jacie, who was sipping a cup of coffee and reading the morning paper on a sofa near the window, looked up from her task. Her hair was still a little damp from a long walk Nina had talked her into despite the light rain. "You feel like youre going to die, dont you?"
Gwens eyes narrowed. "That would be an overly optimistic diagnosis," she answered warily, not really in the mood to be told that she deserved it, even though she knew she did.
"Ive got some painkillers in my bag if you need them," Jacie said simply, then refocused on her paper.
Gwen blinked a few times. "Uh No, thanks." She held out her hand and showed Jacie her pills, unable to stop her surprise. "But I appreciate the offer."
Jacies attitude seemed to have thawed considerably since the night before. Between her nap and Jacie and Ninas long walk, this was the first time theyd had a moment to talk all day. Maybe things went well with her and Nina last night. Gwen focused on the other woman on the sofa, the one sitting on the opposite end from Jacie, whose socked-feet were thrown across Jacies lap. Every once in a while, Jacie would absently reach down and tenderly rub Ninas foot as she read. Then Ninas mouth would curl into a love struck grin and shed glance up at Jacie, her heart showing plainly in her eyes. Oh, yeah. Things went really well for them last night. Good for you both, she whispered silently.
Peeking into the room before she entered, Frances Artiste appeared, holding a handful of cloth napkins.
Jacie and Nina exchanged looks of indecision. Theyd discussed forgiving Gwen on their walk along the Missouri River but had been unable to come to any real resolution. Gwens words and actions ping-ponged between excessively prying into their personal lives and acting so much like the dear, much-loved friend they had known as girls, that they couldnt get a read on her at all. But even so, theyd agreed to this much. Jacie and Nina smiled and stood up as the older woman mysteriously flicked off the lights.
"Mrs. Art" Gwen began to question, but her mouth clicked shut when Katherine and Audrey wheeled into the room a small cart holding a white birthday cake. Flaming on its top were what looked like a million candles but were, in reality, exactly 40.
"Dont look so surprised," Katherine said gently, seeing a myriad of emotions flash across Gwens face. "Isnt this why were here?"
Frances smiled and quietly excused herself from the room.
For several long seconds Gwen stood motionless. Her eyes filled with tears, then took on the wild look of a panicked animal torn between fight and flight.
Audrey and Nina came forward to lay comforting hands on Gwens back. "Are you okay?"
"No," Gwen whispered brokenly, pulling away and presenting them with her back. She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. "Im really not."
Bright yellow candles were melting, dropping golden dots onto the cakes snowy surface. Wordlessly, Jacie began blowing them out as Katherine looked on in shock.
Gwen let out a shuddering breath. Ive got to do this now. If I do it after I tell them about the blackmail, theyll never believe me. They need to believe me. "We need to talk."
Gwen asked the four women to be seated on the sofa. It was, she decided, a strange feeling: facing a firing squad composed of dear friends and knowing you deserved every bit of their scorn. "This is hard." She chuckled nervously and the noise had an odd, almost hysterical edge to it, the sort of giggle reserved for inopportune occasions like funerals or fiery church sermons.
The other women glanced at each other uncertainly.
"Im not cracking up," Gwen assured them.
"Youre sure?" Jacie asked, remembering Gwens tentacle comments the night before.
Gwen took a few calming breaths to compose her scattered emotions. "Im sure. I know we made a pact to get together when we turned 40," she began, knowing that getting started would be the hardest part. "And even though we were just girls, the promises that we made to each other always meant something to us. Always." Her words were greeted with a chorus of nods.
Gwen paced a little as she spoke, the wide legs of her gabardine trousers brushing together with a light swooshing sound as she moved. "But I think we all know that my birthday isnt why were here."
The women on the couch shifted a little, each acknowledging privately that theyd really come to see their sofa-mates, and that Gwens presence, at least at first, was mostly incidental to that.
A heavy blanket of guilt wrapped around Katherine. "Gwen, its not like that. Not exactly. I"
"Please," Gwen interrupted. She held up a hand to forestall her. "I need to get this out all in one go, or Im going to chicken out."
Katherines eyes widened slightly, but she held her tongue as her head bobbed.
Gwen drew in a deep breath and pinned her oldest friends with an intense gaze. "I need to say Im sorry and I need for you to know that I mean it." She resisted the urge to start begging right off the bat but was unwilling to rule it out for later. "God," she shook her head a little, "Ive practiced this so many times over the years, and now when I actually need the words, everything I want to say seems so small and meaningless. But Im going to say it anyway."
She focused on Katherine. "What I did in college, the way I acted I broke up the Mayflower Club. I guess its really as simple and as complicated as that. I knew how important all of our friendships were to you and that if I hadnt acted so horribly well, well never know what might have happened. I also know that my treating Nina, Jacie, and Audrey so badly didnt just hurt them. It hurt you, too. I never meant for that to happen, Katy. I swear to you."
Katherine blinked a few times, not knowing how to respond.
"I robbed us all of something very precious. I was wrong and I was a fool and Ive regretted it my entire adult life." Weakly, Gwen shrugged one shoulder. "Im sorry."
"I forgive you," Katherine heard herself saying. And while the words were hanging there she decided she really meant it. She wanted a future with Tucker, and she wanted her friend back.
"You do?" Gwen looked as if a stiff poke with a feather could topple her.
"Ive missed you, Gwen. And I didnt get the worst of it like everyone else did. So, yeah, you sucked, and yeah, what you did was wrong and horrible. But I have less to forgive."
A tremulous smile twitched at Gwens lips. "Thank you," was all she could say.
Katherine smiled back, seeing an echo of her lover in Gwens puffy eyes. "Youre welcome."
"Okay, you next, Audrey." She focused all her attention on the heavy-set woman as she took a seat on the coffee table. "Everything I just said to Katy applies to you, too." She swallowed hard, her stomach clenching nervously. "But of course, theres more. That night at the Blagbrough Galleries, I was unspeakably cruel to you."
"I felt like youd punched me in the stomach," Audrey whispered, having a hard time meeting Gwens stare. "I was so embarrassed. I didnt understand ."
Soft blue eyes conveyed nothing but sadness. "You wouldnt have understood. Even though we were close in a different way than I was with the other girls, you werent really like me, Audrey. Youre fundamentally a kind person. You always thought of the rest of us before yourself. And no matter what was happening, you always wanted to make peace."
Gwens words were met with a round of nods. "I, on the other hand, didnt really know what it meant to be kind or to think of others before myself. I was at my best when I was with all of you." Her gaze swept the room and she was gratified to see everyone was paying rapt attention to her words. "By the time we met again that night, wed been apart for what seemed like so long, it was like Id forgotten that I needed to try to work at being a better person. I was scared and stupid and I thought that if I pretended hard enough I could make the Langtrees and all their snooty friends forget that I didnt belong. Problem was, I could never forget. And it showed in everything I did."
Gwen could feel tears welling and she bit them back with little success. "Im sorry. I-I havent cried this much since I was 16 and every little thing that happened in life was so vitally important that I nearly died."
Nina and Audrey hummed their agreement, easily recalling that desperate, almost-out-of-control feeling that was part and parcel of growing up.
Gwen closed her eyes. "After I was raped," she paused, slightly startled to realize shed never said those words out loud before. "After, I felt so bad about myself. I hated myself. I hated my weakness. I hated my poor judgment; after all, if I hadnt been drinking that night it might not have happened." She wiped at her eyes. "I hated my parents for not being there to support me, even though it was my choice not to tell them. And for years, even though I loved him madly, I couldnt help but resent the fact that Malcolm sat downstairs and played poker while some stranger ruined me."
"I wish Id been there to do something, Gwen," Jacie suddenly seethed, thinking of the stranger who had shattered Gwens life so completely and started a chain of events that would reach far farther than his intended victim. "Im so sorry that I wasnt."
"Ive wished a million times that I would have gone looking for you sooner," Katherine murmured unexpectedly, with Nina and Audrey chiming in their agreement. "Things should have been different for you."
Gwen sat stunned, her friends kindness after all shed done making her feel both small and hopeful. The sentiment touched her in an unexpectedly deep place, but it only served to throw her more off balance. One of these very nice women had been torturing her for months and was threatening to shatter her life. "Thank you," she finally muttered. Then she fixed her gaze on Audrey again. "Audrey?"
Audreys head snapped up and anguished brown eyes greeted Gwen. "Wh-What?"
"I felt so terrible about myself that I would have done anything to fit in with the people who were now my family. I was so wrong to hurt you. I shouldnt have dismissed you like you didnt matter. You did matter. You were beautiful and good then and you are now, and Im so sorry that I didnt have the courage to stick up for you and be proud to call you my friend."
Audrey sucked in a quick breath and reached for a Kleenex from a holder on one of the end tables. Instead of using it herself, she leaned forward and wiped the tears off Gwens cheeks.
The simple action nearly undid Gwen and so Audrey enveloped her in a firm hug, catching Katherines smile of approval from the corner of her eye. It took a few minutes for Gwen to pull herself together, and when she did, she squeezed Audreys hand. "Thank you," she whispered brokenly, not believing that things were going so well. She sniffed again and turned her eyes to Jacie and Nina.
Gwens heart lurched. "Nina," she started, blinking rapidly, "and Jacie. How can I even begin to apologize to you for what I did to you? I-I dont know what to say except that I do know that some things in life are unforgivable. And what I did to you both is one of those things."
Nina looked Gwen square in the eye. "Thats not true," she said softly.
Gwens eyes lit up.
"I think that I can forgive you for what you did to me, Gwen." Ninas voice dropped an octave. "But Ill never forgive you for what you did to Jacie. Never."
"Nina." Jacie brows drew together. "You dont have to I mean, I can take care of myself."
"This is not about that. This is about how one of us, one of us," she made a sweeping gesture that encompassed the group, "a person who I trusted as much as my own family, stabbed us in the back," Nina insisted, her emotions bubbling up to the surface in a way she hadnt expected. "And then when Gwen was done outing you to your parents, she twisted the knife by making sure you thought our relationship meant nothing to me. After you left," she turned back to Gwen, letting her see the pain shed lived with for so long, "I didnt know what to do with myself, my life. I wanted to die."
Gwen flinched as though shed been slapped.
Nina was on a roll and she didnt feel like stopping. She pointed an angry finger at Gwen. "You didnt need to be so cruel. We werent hurting a soul. What you did was petty and hateful!"
Gwens gaze dropped to her hands, which were shaking like leaves. "Youre right, Nina. Every bit of that is true. I was all those things and more."
Nina didnt expect Gwen to be so blunt or truthful and she was a little taken aback. Even when they were all the best of friends, Gwen had had a self-serving streak a mile wide, frequently shifting blame to avoid discomfort or conflict. As Nina regarded her old friend, she saw a measure of sincerity that had been all too rare for Gwen as a young woman. Maybe just growing up had been what Gwen needed all along.
"Whyd you do it?" Jacie asked quietly. "After everything wed been through. Surely the thought of my being gay couldnt have been so disturbing that you were willing to throw away all our friendships over it. I know you and I were never as close as you were with Audrey or Nina." She struggled for the right words. "But that fall we . I mean "
"That autumn, you more than anyone else kept me from falling apart at the seams," Gwen acknowledged easily, knowing it for the truth.
"So why then?" Jacie repeated.
Jacies voice held all the bewilderment of a child and it made Gwens heart hurt. "Its not so complicated, Jacie," she said, hating the sinking feeling that there were some things she would never be able to make up for, no matter how hard she tried. "Getting married to Malcolm so young was such a mistake." Her forehead wrinkled deeply as she considered what she wanted to say. "No, it wasnt exactly a mistake. I just wasnt ready. He tried to be a good husband, but he still spent most of his time on school and sports. I wasnt close to being an adult or even my own person yet. I had no idea how to fill my time if it wasnt with you all. When I found out that you were gay, Jacie, all I could think about was how you were ruining everything. And how you were making a huge mistake."
Jacies back straightened. "What?"
Gwen shook her head at her younger self. "I was planning on working my way back into all your lives, but the only way I could see that happening was if you all existed in this perfect little box Id placed you in. I didnt think that the Langtrees would accept anything less, and my own prejudices made it all the easier to believe that I was absolutely right.
"You were so pretty and smart that I reasoned you could have had any boy you wanted. I thought you were choosing to be different because you were stubborn and youd confused your friendship with Nina for something more. I thought you were choosing to separate yourself from us. Not only did your being a lesbian ruin my plans, but I just knew that youd end up as miserable and as alone as I was, once youd realized what youd done."
Tears streaked Gwens cheeks and her red-rimmed eyes made her look every day of her age. "I thought I was saving you from a terrible mistake. And I was positive that I was saving myself."
Nobody knew what to say in the face of someone whod been so entirely deluded. The room went quiet as everyones thoughts turned inward and it was during that painfully awkward silence that Frances strolled back into the room carrying some maps of local attractions. "Well now, girls," she began in a cheerful, robust voice. "Would anyone likeUhhh ." Her eyes shaped twin moons when she took in the rooms somber faces. And Gwen, who had been the picture of quiet elegance just the day before, looked like a train wreck. "Never mind," she squeaked and shuffled out of the room so quickly that she nearly ran head long into the doorframe.
Everyones gaze followed the older woman out of the room and several nervous smiles appeared until finally Gwen let out a soft snort, which opened the floodgates to everyones quiet laughter.
"Does that poor woman have more white hair than when we arrived?" Nina chuckled, slipping her hand into Jacies and feeling strong fingers twine with hers.
"Definitely," Gwen sighed, wishing her painkillers would hurry up and start working. Her head was still throbbing. "Im going to have to pay her double. Shes walked in on a half dozen awkward scenes since yesterday morning. Shes earned it."
When the chuckles and murmurs of agreement died down, silence rushed back into the room, filling every crevice. This time, however, Gwen didnt let the silence linger. "So, as I was saying " What else can I say? "I was a huge, enormous, gigantic asshole, and Im desperately sorry, more than youll ever know."
Audrey smiled gently at her. "You never did do anything halfway, Gwen."
Nina exhaled deeply, unable to hold on to most of her anger in the face of Gwens startling remorse. "You might even say you were an overachiever."
Jacie bit her bottom lip in a bid not to laugh even though it what Nina said was more true than funny.
"Go ahead," Gwen groaned, rolling her eyes. "Laugh all you want." She wiped her cheeks. "I deserve it."
Her friends took her up on her offer, anxious to relieve the tension that was making them all uneasy.
Gwen leaned forward and laid one hand on Jacies thigh, then the other on Ninas, feeling the warmth of their skin through their jeans and catching the delicate hint of spice in Ninas perfume. "I know you cant forgive me. But please at least accept my apology and know that I never meant to hurt you. What I did was out of fear and ignorance, never hate."
Everyone looked to Jacie. She had long been the unofficial leader of their group and it seemed that some things would never change.
Jacie laid a hand on Gwens to take some of the sting from her deadly serious words. "Had this weekend not turned out as well as it has, I think Id take this opportunity to tell you where you could stick your apology."
"But?" Gwen prompted, crossing her fingers.
"But I got the girl." She turned her head and grinned at Nina, her smile broadening when Ninas cheeks turned the most delicious shade of pink. "Not to rain on your big apology scene, Gwen," she blinked at the taller womans sudden frown, "but I got over most of my bad feelings about you years and years ago. It wasnt that I forgave you, I just got over feeling shitty about something that mostly wasnt my fault."
She was a little self-conscious about this next part, but it needed saying. "No matter what Gwen did, I shouldnt have just taken off. You all deserved better. It was losing you all, and most especially my best friend, that I was never able to get over." Nina wrapped a comforting arm around her and she smiled in pure reflex. "Now that Nina and I, actually all of us, have a second chance, Im having trouble feeling anything but wonderful."
Audrey and Katherine elbowed each other, pleased beyond measure at the way things were turning out. They couldnt wait to get back to their room tonight and gossip in private about Jacie and Nina, each cousin now insisting that they knew Jacie and Nina had a "thing" for each other all along.
"Im not sure that I can completely trust you, Gwen," Jacie said honestly, knowing that Gwen hadnt needed to pry into their lives and finances for a simple reunion this weekend. Something was still up and she was going to find out what.
"I wouldnt expect you to, Jacie." Gwen felt a rush of hope.
Jacie nodded, glad that Gwens hopes werent unrealistic. Surprisingly, she had no urge to rub her nose in everything shed lost. "Its going to take more than a weekend and a party to mend the damage youve done. And I cant forgive you for what you did to Nina. So the best you can expect on that front is for you to make peace with her."
"Understood." Gwens gaze flicked to Nina and their eyes met. She read encouragement and affection in Ninas expression, and she silently applauded her friends tender heart, wondering what life would have been like if she, herself, had had one of those from the very start.
Nina mouthed a silent, but sincere, "Ill try," and Gwen was lightheaded with relief. "Thank you," she said unevenly, doing her best not to burst into tears again.
Jacie closed her eyes. "So Im willing to let the past stay where it belongs and think about the things we can actually do something about."
"Like the future," Nina agreed.
Jacie opened her eyes, and her face relaxed into a beaming smile. "Yeah." Surreptitiously, she looked at her watch again, well aware that it was becoming a habit. Surely it had to be time to kiss Nina again.
Gwen sat there on the coffee table, not sure what should come next. She felt lighter than she had in years and was committed to whatever work it would take to repair their damaged friendships. What she couldnt understand was why no one was talking. This was the time that her blackmailer was supposed to come to the crystalline realization that she wasnt Satan incarnate and she didnt deserve to have her life ruined.
And yet no one said a word.
Gwen eyed her friends carefully, schooling herself in patience. Theyd been more generous than shed had a right to expect, but dammit, shouldnt someone be about to crack? Shouldnt one of them at least look guilty for trying to destroy her family?
Jacie shifted uncomfortably under that same stare that Gwen had been giving everyone all weekend. It was creepy and weird, and she was tired of it. "If you think it would help relieve a little of your guilt for me to punch you in the nose, Gwen, Ill make the sacrifice," she said gamely, a tiny bit of irritation coloring her words.
Nina smiled a little too sweetly, though her eyes didnt convey true malice. "Ill help."
The message was clear. While old grudges might be allowed to wither and die, no one was about to forget anything.
Gwen could live with that. "Gee, thanks," she deadpanned, edging her way off the coffee table in case someone else decided to "help" her.
Jacie wanted to let go of the fear that Gwen still had something up her sleeve, but after everything that had transpired between them, she found herself unwilling to trust blindly. And so she resolved to throw some light on what mystery remained. She stood along Gwen, but addressed Katherine. She needed to get everyone but Gwen outside for a private talk. "So, was that your ugly Karmann Ghia in the garage?"
Katherine was a little startled by the graceless change in subject, but she smirked when she thought of her much-beloved car. "Youre just jealous because your truck and its big manly tires practically scream I have a really small penis!"
Nina started laughing, eager to join in the banter and be finished with this draining, emotional chat. "So small its almost non-existent!"
"Jesus Christ, what do you mean almost?" Jacie crowed, bending over to pinch Nina in the thigh before offering her a hand up. "And I need my truck for work." Then she wrapped her arm around Ninas waist and began steering her toward the door.
"Wanna see it up close?" Katherine asked, stretching arms over her head and then quickly following Nina and Jacie.
"You have up close photos of Jacies penis?" Audrey enthused, as she pushed off the sofa and eagerly cut in front of Katherine. "Cool! I wanna look first."
Jacies eyes narrowed at her friends teasing. "I do not have a," she shivered hard enough for her teeth to rattle, "penis. Youve all seen me naked a hundred times. You know exactly what Ive got."
They all hummed their frank appreciation, with Nina letting out a low wolf whistle to boot.
"Very funny, guys," Jacie groused, even as her ego let out a contented purr.
"You can strip down any time youd like for verification purposes, sweetheart." Nina wrinkled her nose playfully. "I wont complain."
"Aww sweetheart," Katherine taunted as the foursome exited the room. "Ouch, Jacie!" she complained loudly from near the front door. "Thats going to bruise!"
Gwen was left standing alone in the parlor with no answers and a birthday cake that looked like someone had tried to write her name in the snow on top of it. She waited a few moments, hoping someone would return to the room to talk to her. But no one did. Then, in growing desperation, she scrubbed her face with both hands. Her head was still pounding from her headache, and she was pretty sure it was only going to get worse.
She vowed, right then, that the sun wouldnt come up again without her knowing the name of her blackmailer. If she was lucky, the three women who werent loathsome snakes would side with her and help her end this nightmare once and for all. If she was unlucky her train of thought derailed there.
Gwen prepared herself to make her own luck.
Jacie, Audrey, Nina, and Katherine trotted towards the garage to avoid the worst of the light rain.
"Whew," Jacie could see her breath when she pulled open the old carriage house door. "Was it this cold in October when we were kids?" Some well-maintained horse tack from another lifetime had been hung on the walls, partly because it had always been housed in this building, and partly for decoration, a gentle reminder of a slower time. Jacie examined it with interest.
Audrey blew on her chilled fingers. "No. This is unseasonably cold. Looks like we just got lucky like always," she said sarcastically, deciding to stuff her hands into her pockets. "Hey," she spun in a circle. "Wheres Katy?"
"She ran back inside for her car keys." Nina sucked a breath of cool air, glad to be out of the house. Her mind drifted to Robbie and she hoped that her mother was insisting he wear a warm jacket. Then she laughed a little, realizing that what her son was probably wearing was a permanent scowl because his grandmother had not only insisted on jacket, but on gloves and one of those goofy hats with a fuzzy ball on the top that only a granny could produce. Still, there were better ways to stay warm. "Hey, Jacie Ann?"
"Hmm," Jacie answered as she poked inquisitively at a sturdy-looking saddle.
"Can I put my hands in your pockets?"
Jacies eyebrows crawled up her forehead, and she rushed over to Nina so quickly that Audrey burst out laughing.
"Shut up, Audrey," Jacie mumbled.
On the front porch, Katherine slipped on her jacket and began dialing her cell phone. She kept her voice low and her eyes riveted on the front door in case Gwen decided to make a surprise appearance. "Hey, Tuck" she stopped talking, her shoulders slumping when she realized that it was a new message on Tuckers voice mail she was listening to and not him.
The message she left him was short and to the point. "Im through doing this to your mom. Im telling her everything tonight. Show up here by six, Tucker, or Ill do it alone. Im sorry and I love you, but I I just cant."
She pressed 'off' on the phone and stepped out into the air, whispering a quick, "Please dont let me down," before jogging towards the garage.
When Katherine arrived, Jacie reluctantly pulled away from Nina and poked her head outside to make sure that Gwen hadnt decided to join them. Gwen had always detested any talk of cars and Jacie was nearly certain that shed decide to stay inside while they discussed Katherines unfortunate choice of vehicles.
Jacie yelped when she felt a pair of hands grasp the back of her jeans and pull her inside.
"Youre getting soaked," Nina said, clearly exasperated.
Unable to stop herself, Jacie gave Nina a sexy, lopsided grin.
Much to Ninas annoyance, for the second time in one day she felt her cheeks heat wildly. "Oh, God."
Jacie grinned, finding it impossibly endearing that one minute Nina could be brazenly kissing her senseless in front of their friends and the next minute blushing at some simple innuendo. I have it so bad. "Your eyes look more green than blue today," Jacie commented, affectionately plucking at the sea-green fleece that Nina was wearing. She was finding it so easy to get lost in Nina that she was having trouble concentrating on anything else. "Pretty." So bad.
Audrey sighed, knowing very well the sweet flood of emotion that came with being in love. But this was too much. "At first this was cute, now Im just going to throw up."
"Yeah, yeah," Nina grumbled, waving her off. "So why are we out here to look at this ugly car?"
"Hey!" Katherine complained. "Its not ugly!"
Jacie cut off any car talk. "Were not here to look at her ugly car. What did you two come up with last night about those files? You were going to do some spying?"
"What did you come up with?" Audrey shot back, not wanting to admit that shed gone up to her room the night before and collapsed on the bed, sleeping until morning. Mata Hari, she wasnt.
Jacie bit her lower lip. "Nothing," she admitted, shaking her head and realizing shed just set herself up again. "We I mean, I "
"Ha! You were too busy getting it on with Nina to do any spying yourself!" Katherine accused, pointing a finger at Jacie and then Nina.
Jacies mouth dropped open. "I was not!"
"Mostly," Nina added devilishly, enjoying her revenge as Jacies face burned.
Katherine smiled triumphantly.
Jacie ground her teeth together. "Well, none of us are busy now, are we?" She didnt wait for Audrey to answer. "Good. Then lets get to work. Lets do something and lets do it now."
Instinctively, the women gathered in a small circle, crouching down into a huddle as theyd done as children, their hushed voices whisked away by the brisk autumn wind.
Audrey tucked her feet up underneath her and patted the sofa set to her right. "Cmon Gwen."
"How was Katys horrible car?" Gwen joined Audrey on the couch.
"Horrible," Audrey dutifully replied.
Gwens gaze strayed to the door. "Where are Nina and Jacie?"
"They went to the kitchen to get a snack "
"They went to take a nap," Katy said at the same time.
Audrey glared at her cousin.
Gwen scratched her jaw. Something was up. "Theyre doing both?"
"Yup," Katherine confirmed, taking the seat on the other side of Gwen. "They sure are. Not at the same time, of course."
Thoughtfully, Gwen nodded. "I think Ill go see if they need any help in the kitchen." She started to get up.
"No," Audrey and Katherine shouted in unison. Audrey put her hand on Gwens chest and pushed her firmly back onto the sofa.
Gwens eyes popped wide open. "Why shouldnt I?"
Audrey pulled her hand from Gwen and tried to look innocent.
Katherine licked her lips nervously. "Umm Because"
"Because Mrs. Artiste is already there to help them," Audrey interrupted, cursing her and Katherines pathetic attempts at distraction. Even as children theyd always, always, gotten caught while trying to be sneaky.
"No, she isnt," Gwen insisted, looking at Audrey as though she were crazy. "Not five minutes ago she told me she was going to go to her cottage to get some new candles for my birthday cake."
"Oh, well," Audrey dismissed. "Lets sit here and talk. Tell me all about Tucker and Malcolm."
Gwen rubbed tired eyes. Then she reached out and affectionately patted Audreys arm, pleased that her old friend didnt flinch or move away. "Id love to tell you both all about them, but my headache is getting worse." Gwen grimaced, fearing she was on the verge of a full-blown migraine. "I think Im going to go lie down. Well chat later, okay?"
"You can lie down here," Katy said, getting up and fluffing a throw-pillow for Gwens head. She patted the sofa invitingly. "Its nice and soft."
Audrey nodded. "Great idea. Here " She picked up a blanket that had been slung over the arm of the sofa and held it up. "You can cover up with this and we can talk while your eyes are closed."
Gwen regarded them warily. "No thank you. The bed upstairs is much more comfortable."
Katherine was at a loss and it showed. Suddenly, she stretched her arms out in front of her and let out a loud yawn. "Im tired, too. See ya." And with that, she shot a worried look at Audrey and moved quickly for the stairs.
Wide eyes focused on Audrey. "What the hell is going on?" Gwen demanded.
Katherine was practically leaping up the stairs now, her spiky blonde head bobbing with every lithe step.
Gwen lifted her upper lip and showed a straight row of teeth. "Where are you going, Katy?" She took off after the other woman, dodging Audreys grabbing hands
"Nowhere!" Katherine called back to her as she disappeared at the top of the steps. She rushed down the hall and tapped rapidly on Gwens bedroom door. "Get out!" she whispered loudly. She tried the doorknob, but it was locked. A glance down the hall told her she was still alone. "Nina and Jacie! Get out now!"
Nina padded quickly to the bedroom door and Jacie fumbled to gather up the files that shed taken from Gwens briefcase and had spread out over the bed for her and Ninas review.
Nina threw open the door. "What? Dammit, Katy, you are supposed to be keeping Gwen busy while we" Her mouth clicked shut when a lightly panting Gwen appeared directly next to Katherine in the doorway.
A few seconds later and they all heard Audreys heavy footsteps pounding down the hall in their direction.
"While you do what, Nina?" Gwen asked, brushing past Katherine and Nina to face Jacie. Two sets of stony-cold eyes met and held. "How dare you invade my privacy!" She glanced at Jacies hands and recognized the files immediately.
"How dare I?" Angrily, Jacie threw the pile of files at Gwens feet, scattering pages all over the floor. "How dare you!"
Everyones gaze was drawn down to the messy piles as Jacie seethed. "You have information on my daughters school tuition and what I give my ex every month for expenses?" Jacie took a menacing step closer to Gwen. "And my retirement accounts and my truck payments?" Another step. "Where the hell do you get off spying on me?"
"Spying on all of us," Nina corrected gently, inserting herself between Gwen and Jacie before things could escalate out of control. Then Jacie stepped next to her and she caught sight of her swollen shiner and mentally rolled her eyes at herself. This entire weekend had been nothing but a series of out of control moments.
"I had no choice," Gwen shouted, her temper boiling over and her face twisting in rage. "It was you, wasnt it! I drove Jacie away from you and now you want to drive my family away from me." She was looking directly at Nina. "If you wanted to make me pay, then you fucking have. In spades!"
"My God, what are you talking about?" Nina asked, genuinely confused, her eyebrows at their zenith.
Gwen shook her head fiercely. "I dont know who to trust." She covered her ears, not wanting to hear more lies.
"Trust! " Audrey joined the fray, bending to pick up a file with her name written in black ink across the tab. "That's a good one. You spend half the morning apologizing for being an unholy bitch 20 years ago and neglect to mention that all the while youve been spying on us in the here and now and you are wondering who to trust? You need professional help, Gwen."
"Shut up!" Gwen barked, losing any semblance of control. "Shut up!"
Audrey actually backed up a step at the murderous look on Gwens face.
"I dont need professional help. I need my life back!" Gwen whirled around to face Katherine. "I need to not have to worry every second of every day!" She was gesturing wildly, unaware of the tears streaking her cheeks as she spun back to face Jacie. "I need my husband not to be so confused about the way that Ive been acting that he thinks Im cheating on him!" She began to sob.
The other women stood in stunned silence as Gwen continued to rant at the top of her lungs, tears and sobs making her even more difficult to understand.
"What I need," Gwen spat out finally, "is for the blackmail to stop!" She dropped onto the bed and covered her face with her hands, her shoulders shaking violently as she cried. "Please. Please. Please." She wrapped arms around herself and her voice dropped to a raspy whisper. "Please just stop."
Gwen was falling apart and the sight of it made the other womens stomachs roil. It rendered years of bad feelings meaningless because when it came down to it, when she needed them, they couldnt help themselves; they would be there for her.
Instantly, Nina dropped to her knees in front of Gwen. "I dont understand, Gwen." She reached out and tenderly wiped Gwens cheeks. She spoke slowly, her voice soothing and clear. "You need to explain things from the very beginning. Ill help you if youll let me, I really will."
Jacie nodded and placed a comforting hand on Gwens shoulder. And gave it a little squeeze. "Who is trying to make you pay? And for what?"
"I dont know!" Gwen sniffed. "But its one of you."
"Oh, my God."
They all turned to look at Audrey, who was crouched down on the floor, scanning an email sent to Gwen. It was from the blackmailer and she read it out loud, scarcely believing what she was seeing.
Pay me now or youll pay more later. If Malcolm
finds out that Tucker isnt his son, youll
lose everything. $10,000.00 is a small price to
pay to keep what you love.
Gwen reached out and snatched the paper from Audreys hand. In a fit of rage, she ripped the email to shreds and threw it in Audreys face. "I suppose you dont know anything about this either? Well, one of you sure as hell does."
Blinking, Nina sat next to Gwen on the bed. "Someone is blackmailing you over Tuckers paternity?"
Jacie closed her eyes. "Jesus, thats cruel."
"No, really?" Gwen laughed. She was verging on hysterical.
Audrey sifted through several more papers on the floor and found another email. It read basically the same as the first, only the demand went from $10,000.00 to $15,000.00. It was dated last week and sent from someone using a Hot Mail address and calling themselves Truthseeker101. "Is this why you had us investigated?" The letterhead on some of the papers had Gramercy Investigations on it.
"I had no choice. I had to find out who was doing this."
Audrey sighed. "None of us would do this, Gwen."
"Of course not," Nina assured her. "This is sick."
"It has to be one of you," Gwen insisted, her nose leaking down her face. With short, irritated movements, she wiped at it with the back of her hand. "Ive never told another living soul my secret. Never! And even the bastard who raped me couldnt know that he got me pregnant. No one knows but the people in this room."
"No one here has more reason to hate you than I do, Gwen," Jacie admitted quietly, her hand dropping from Gwens shoulder only to be quickly taken by one of Ninas. "But this? No fucking way. I swore to keep your secret. I didnt agree with it then and I still dont, but Ill take it to the grave."
"We all will," Nina promised, remembering the day so long ago that shed made that vow.
Audrey nodded her agreement, but Gwen wasnt paying any attention to her or Nina or Jacie. Shed stopped crying and was staring a hole through Katherine, who was as white as a ghost.
Jacie sucked in a breath at Katherines ashen face. "Katy?" she asked incredulously. "You would never tell, right?"
Audrey swallowed hard, feeling as though shed been punched in the gut. "Katy?"
Katherines mouth worked for a few seconds before she could manage any sound. And even then it was only a low moan.
"Katy?" Gwens voice was unnaturally high.
Katherine struggled to clear her throat. "I would n-never blackmail you, Gwen." Her mind was awhirl with thoughts of her young lover. Sweet Jesus, Tucker, what have you done?
"Then whats wrong?" Nina asked carefully. Katherine looked as though she was going to lose her lunch any second.
"Tucker," Katherine whispered. She glanced down at Gwen with anguished eyes. "I told him about I told him."
Gwen blinked, all of Katherines words not registering. "You dont even know him."
"I didnt want to tell you this way, Gwen. Please believe me. I cant believe he would do something so horrible. I-I swear Tucker doesnt know the whole story. I swear."
"You dont even know Tucker!" Gwen roared jumping off the bed and nearly giving Katherine a heart attack. "Dont you try to blame him for this! You sent those emails, didnt you?"
"No." Katherine shook, her body racked with tension. "I didnt. But I do know Tucker. You did the research yourself, Gwen. Or at least you paid to have it done. It was in my file. Im the office manager of Webster Universitys Admissions Office. I met Tucker there last year."
Gwen looked at her blankly. "I dont understand."
Katherine fought the urge to flee from the room. "I met him there and recognized his name. We started talking. I didnt tell him that I knew you. Not at first. But after we went out a few times, I wanted to be honest with him and"
Gwens hands balled into fists. All thoughts of blackmail vanished into thin air. Her nostrils flared. "What do you mean, went out?"
Ninas mouth was hanging open so wide Katherine could have driven her Karmann Ghia through it. She was too stunned to say a word.
"Please tell me he isnt your boyfriend." Audrey poked her cousin with an irritated finger. "If this is some sort of a joke, its not close to funny. Tell me youre not dating Gwens baby."
"That was downright offensive," Katherine snapped, her resentment showing. "Do I look like Im joking? And, trust me, Tucker Langtree is no baby." Her eyes pleaded with them to understand. "I didnt mean for it to happen. He asked me out every week for two months before I blurted out a yes. I thought it would be a lark and that maybe Id hear some gossip about his mother. I didnt know that Id fall in love with him."
"Holy Christ!" Audrey shoved her cousin hard. "Youve lost your fucking mind!" She couldnt help but state the painfully obvious. "Youre old enough to be his mother!"
Katy covered her eyes with her hands. If she thought about that part too long things got all yucky in her mind. "I know, but"
"No. No. No. This cant be true," Gwen rambled, in shock.
"Be reasonable," Katherine begged, close to tears herself. "I love him and he loves me. I wanted to tell you, but he insisted that you wouldnt approve. He thought it would just be easier to keep things quiet."
"Approve?" Gwen looked at Katherine as though shed never seen her before. "Hes so private, all we know is that hes been dating some girl. A girl! As in someone who went to her prom a couple of years ago and still has Hello Kitty wallpaper in her room back home. Not someone who remembers President Nixon and has been having sex since God was a boy! You pervert!" Gwen let out a wild yell and lunged for Katherine, only to have Jacie grab her at the last minute.
Nina watched in amazement as the scene before her played out, irrationally relieved that her son was only in the fourth grade.
"Calm down," Jacie growled, struggling under a surge of surprising strength from Gwen. "You cant kill her. Hey! You cant." Hands made powerful from years of manual labor shook Gwen roughly when it was clear that she was too livid to listen. "Calm down!"
"Let me go, damn you! How would you feel if Katy was sleeping with your daughter? Huh?" Gwen continued to struggle, her eyes flashing. "How would you God damn feel about that, Jacie?"
Jacie froze for a split second as she considered Gwens words. Then she released her grip.
"Jesus, Jacie!" Nina rushed forward, but Jacie held her back from stopping Gwen. This was between her and Katherine.
Audrey gasped as Gwen flew at Katherine like a quarter horse out of the gate.
"Shit!" Katherine ducked a wild haymaker that would have resulted in her not being able to eat solid foods for months. She scrambled backwards, holding her hands up to stop Gwens advance, her eyes wide with fear. "Gwen, stop it! Be reasonable. This isnt that bad."
"Youre sleeping with my son and you want me to be reasonable?" Gwen clarified slowly. "Youre 20 years too old for him and have been married more times than hes been on dates and you want me to stop?"
Katherines face turned beet red, equal parts embarrassment and anger. "We do more than sleep together. Jesus, I told you we love each other!"
"Im going to kill you, Katy Schaub." Gwens voice was so low and wicked sounding that Nina, Audrey, and even Jacie knew theyd have to intervene. The rigid set of her body and guttural quality to her voice left no doubt that she was completely serious.
Nina reached Gwen first and they briefly tussled as Gwen tried to break free from Ninas grasp. They shrieked in surprise when the fabric of Ninas blouse tore and buttons rained down on their feet, exposing to the cool air her pastel green bra and skin lightly spattered with pale freckles.
Before Gwen could draw in another breath, Jacies vice-like grip took hold of her, cementing her in place and forcing her to release Nina. She muffled a yelp of pain at the long fingers wrapped tightly around her wrists, shockingly reminded of just how strong Jacie was.
Panting, Gwen seethed for a moment, eyeing Katherine with evil intent and cursing Jacie with some virulent word combinations that paid homage to her working class upbringing. But as her pounding heartbeat slowed, and once it was clear that she was locked in an unyielding clasp, she had no choice to but to deal with what Katherine had told her, instead of just reacting. It only took a moment for her fury to began melting into sadness, and finally into a profound sense of betrayal. "How could you, Katy? I know we arent really friends anymore. But once upon a time we were the best of friends." She gave her a disgusted look. "Hes barely grown."
Katherine felt a wave of shame wash over her. Not because she loved Tucker, she knew that her heart had decided that for her. But because she had handled things so badly. She should have never agreed to keep their affair a secret. At least not for so long. And once she began lying and sneaking around, it was almost impossible not to feel guilty about what she was doing.
"We I should have told you from the start," she readily admitted. "But I didnt know where our relationship would lead. At first I thought it was a casual affair with a handsome, younger man. Neither of us were married or attached to someone else, I didnt really care what you might think... it seemed harmless enough. But "
An ardent expression flickered across Katherines face. "Hes special. And before I knew it things had gone way past casual. Tucker insisted that youd never accept us as a couple and that youd do your best to make trouble for us." Katherine drew in a deep breath. "After what you did to Jacie, how could I doubt him?"
Katherines words tore at Gwens conscience, but this wasnt 20 years ago. "I was a foolish girl when I outed Jacie to her parents. You cant believe that I would ever do anything that would hurt my own son! I love him more than my own life."
"I didnt know what to believe." Katherine looked away for a moment and admitted, "I fell hard and fast, and I wasnt willing to risk losing him." She thought of her earlier conversation with Tucker. "I dont want to lose you as a friend, Gwen. I feel like Ive just found you again. But I want Tucker more." Her gaze sharpened and her voice took on added resolve. "If I have to choose between the two of you, as much as it would hurt, theres no contest at all. And I dont think thats a choice you want to give him, either. You might be surprised at the results."
Jacie glanced over at Nina. "We should go," she whispered uncomfortably. "This doesnt involve us."
Nina nodded. This was a little like watching a train wreck where people you loved were the doomed passengers. "Youre"
"Stay." Katherines voice was weary. "Youre going to find out sooner or later. You might as well hear it from me."
A big part of Gwen wanted to strangle Katherine, but an equal part was forced to acknowledge that Tucker had been partially right. She didnt approve of their relationship and while she would never have actually sabotaged it, she would have done her best to make him see that he had little chance of a future with Katherine.
Gwen blinked rapidly; the sick feeling that was already fermenting in her gut grew exponentially when she suddenly remembered what they were originally talking about. She gently disengaged from Jacie, who was only loosely holding her now, and gave her a little pat to let her know things were all right.
Gwen went back to the bed and sat down, sinking deeply into the fluffy comforter and grabbing a pillow, which she clutched to her chest. Her eyes were so wide they would have been comical under any other circumstances. "When you said you told Tucker about me, you meant that you told him about us being friends once upon a time, right? Thats all?"
Katherine squeezed her eyes shut. This was going to be even harder to admit. "I wish it were, Gwen." Reluctantly, she joined Gwen on the bed, leaving the other women clustered at the other end. She spoke gently, knowing the dangerous ground she was about to tread. "Shit," she hissed from between clenched teeth. "Id give a kidney for a cigarette right now." She held up an unsteady hand. "See? I have the shakes."
"Katy," Nina warned. Gwen looked like she was going to have a stroke before Katherine could spit out whatever it is she was going to say. "Cmon."
Katherine licked dry lips. "Yeah." She blew out a long breath and gave herself a quick pep talk. "Okay. After Malcolms heart attack"
"How do you?" Gwen stopped herself, realizing that Katherine and Tucker had to have been dating for months and months. She made a mental note to raise hell with Ted Gramercy. Gramercy Investigations should have known about this.
"After Malcolms heart attack," Katherine continued, wishing she had something to do with her hands other than tangle and untangle her fingers. "Tucker was a mess, remember?"
"Here." Jacie moved around the bed and handed Katherine a pillow.
"Thanks," she whispered, taking it and digging her finger deeply into the cool silk.
Grimly, Gwen nodded her eyes filling with tears over the recent memory. "We were all a mess." A far-off expression overtook her face as she relived that terrible moment when she had walked into Malcolms office and found him slumped over his desk. Her own heart had ground to a painful halt for the endless moment it took for her to find a weak pulse. "Malcolm almost died, and it was a nightmare for everyone who loves him. Tucker worships the ground his dad walks on."
Katherines eyes softened. "I know. He was distraught and confused, I think, and he was determined to quit tennis."
Gwens gaze snapped back to Katherine. "I didnt know that." A low groan forced its way from her throat. "Christ, was I too big of a mess to even notice?" But the question was a rhetorical one.
Shed spent days glued to a chair in the Intensive Care waiting room, then the hospital chapel, praying that Malcolm would survive. It had taken every ounce of her strength to keep from lying down someplace and never getting up. Tucker had been in nearly as bad a shape, but Gwen was so caught up in what was happening that she didnt really remember much about him during that time.
He was rarely at the hospital, and when he was, he looked so much like a lost little boy that it was physically painful for her to see him. When his visits grew less frequent, she recalled feeling distinctively relieved, along with guilty. It was one less complication when her world was already falling down around her. "I-I guess I thought he was dealing with things and trying to keep up with his classes."
"Nuh huh." Katherine shook his head. "He wasnt dealing at all. He told me that the doctors said his dads heart attack was the result of a congenital defect and that he was scared to death that the same thing would happen to him. I tried to reason with him and get him to go to the doctor just to ease his mind, but he was talking all crazy about quitting school and hurrying up and living his life instead of reading about people who had already lived theirs. He was freaked. I pointed out that Malcolm was more than 20 years older than he was, but nothing seemed to help."
Gwens eyes fluttered shut, scattering tears on the pillow she had clutched to her chest. "Oh, God. I didnt know that he was afraid for himself." Bitter self-hatred painted her face. "What kind of mother am I?"
"Gwen," Katherines tone was gentle. "He didnt tell you what he was feeling because he didnt want you to worry. He said you had enough to deal with."
"I would have done anything I could! Hes my son."
Katherine smiled a little. "And hes just as stubborn as you are. One night," she edited out the "while we were naked and snuggled in bed together" part, "I think it was the day that Malcolm was finally moved out of the ICU, Tucker broke down and started to cry."
Gwens eyes immediately filled with new tears of her own.
The other women took seats on the bed, tucking their legs beneath them. Their hearts hurt for Tucker, but most especially for Gwen. Theyd all lost people they loved; parents, siblings, grandparents, and dear friends, but none of them had experienced the heartrending agony of wondering whether a partner would live or die. Jacie felt a flutter of panic course through her at the mere thought of losing Nina. She snuggled tightly behind the sandy-haired woman, resting her chin on Ninas shoulder and wrapping a possessive arm around her.
Nina leaned back into the warm body that was molded to hers. She gripped Jacies arm for a few seconds before grasping her hand and bringing it to her mouth, gently kissing her palm.
The simple gesture conveyed more than love; it spoke of a fundamental understanding that theyd shared since the earliest days of their relationship. Jacie pressed her head against Ninas and closed her eyes briefly as she hugged her. She breathed directly into Ninas ear. "I love you."
The sentiment and moist breath sent shivers down Ninas spine. Irresistibly, she turned and gently kissed Jacie on the lips. The touch was whisper soft, but as powerful as anything shed ever felt. When it was over, she found herself looking into startlingly vulnerable eyes. Not wanting to interrupt Katherine and Gwen, she silently mouthed a heartfelt, "I love you more." Contented despite the turmoil surrounding them, each woman relaxed into the other.
The entire exchange took only a few seconds and went utterly unnoticed by the rooms other occupants.
Katherine let out a shuddering breath. "Tucker was about to give up the things that mean everything to him because he was afraid. So I told him." Her heart pounded painfully in her chest. "I never set out to break my promise to you. I swear to God, I didnt. I wasn't going to tell him, but I couldn't stand seeing him so upset. When it came down to helping him or keeping my promise, I chose him." Now she couldnt hold back the tears. "Im sorry."
Gwen sniffed a few times, torn between wanting to kill Katherine and wanting to thank her for being there for Tucker when he needed her. "I would have told him, too," she finally said. It was the truth. She only wished that shed been strong enough for Tucker to trust that he could have come to her with his fears. "So now he knows that his father is a rapist." Gwen felt the familiar sting of shame.
"God no!" Katherine blurted, her eyes round. "I didnt tell him that, I swear. I would never! I told him that you were pregnant when you married Malcolm, so he didn't have to worry about Malcolms congenital heart problems."
Gwen blinked. "Thats all he knows?"
Katherine nodded miserably. "I couldnt bring myself to tell him any more than I had to. I thought that once he knew that Malcolm wasn't his dad that he'd talk with you. What you chose to tell him at that point would have been up to you. But after I told him, he never wanted to talk about it again. He was furious at you for a few weeks, but after that he seemed to accept it and settle down. He was more worried about Malcolms condition than about what Id said."
A million hurt and sometimes cold looks from her son suddenly made sense. Hed pulled away from her after Malcolms heart attack, seeming not only to need, but also to want less contact. Gwen had assumed that was his way of coping with the trauma of nearly losing a parent in combination with him becoming more independent and growing up. Thats what she told herself, anyway. "How could I have been so clueless?" She felt like screaming.
"Dios mio." Audreys dark brows knitted. "If no one else truly knows about Tuckers conception then he has to be the one blackmailing you, Gwen." Shed never met Tucker, and after today, she wasnt sure she wanted to. But she knew one thing with a bone-deep certainty. No one in this room was capable of using Gwens rape against her. "Damn, Im sorry."
Tension marred the skin around Gwens eyes. "I dont want to believe that hes capable of such a thing. God knows he doesnt need the money. He would only be doing this to hurt me." She picked at the bedspread, unwilling to see the truth in Katherines face. Distraught, she asked, "Does he really hate me that much?"
"No," Katherine said instantly. "He loves you and Malcolm both. Thats why it was hard for him to know that you lied to him and that he wasnt related to someone he adores. I dont know whats going on with those fuckin emails." She ran a hand through her short hair, feeling very much at a loss to know how to defend someone whod done something so despicable. "Hes not a bad person, you know that. He wouldnt do something just to be cruel. I have to believe that."
"Could he need money for something else." Jacie suggested, well aware of how easy it was to lead a hidden life from your parents. "Something you dont know about?
Nina hesitated, but reluctantly decided to voice what she was wondering. "What about drugs or gambling? A lot of people get into trouble and dont know how to get out, Gwen. He might need help."
"No," Katherine insisted, not giving Gwen time to answer. "And I would know. The answer is absolutely not." The shocked set of her body left no room for doubt. "He doesnt even drink because he thinks it will affect his tennis."
Gwen unconsciously put one hand on her chest. Even breathing hurt. "Then he has to despise me," she choked out. "He thinks I tricked Malcolm into believing that he was his father and that I lied to them both for his entire life."
Katherine didnt want to be cruel, but she wasnt about to ignore reality either. She cocked her head to the side and spoke softly. "Thats exactly what you did."
Gwens opened her mouth to protest but stopped herself a last second. Then she nodded. "Malcolm and Tucker and me, weve been a family from the very beginning. Since before Tucker was even born. Malcolm is Tuckers father in every meaning of the word except one. The fact that they dont share the same blood doesnt mean a damn thing." She paused and forced herself to be completely honest. "But Ive been telling the same lie for so long that I think that I forgot that it wasnt true." She sighed. "That is, until those spiteful emails reminded me."
The irony of the situation wasnt lost on Gwen. If the worst was true, then someone whom she trusted explicitly and loved deeply had betrayed her in the cruelest of ways. God, she decided, was surely a woman. Only another woman would appreciate this particular quirk of fate.
Frances approached Gwens bedroom door warily, half-expecting to find a body on the floor. Shed heard the yelling and what sounded like scuffling from downstairs. For the time being, however, the rooms occupants appeared to be talking quietly. She made the sign of the cross in front of her chest and cleared her throat as she showed herself in the doorway. "Excuse me, ladies?"
Five pairs of eyes swung her way.
The white-haired woman shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. It was clear by the looks on their faces that she was interrupting something. Again. She almost turned on her heels, but Gwen motioned her forward. "I have the new candles for your birthday cake, which I saw was still left out in the parlor. Did, uh, you want me to put it the refrigerator? It has cream cheese frosting and Id hate for it to turn and make someone sick."
Frances forced her eyes not to linger on Katherine and Gwens tearstained cheeks, Ninas torn blouse, or Jacies lurid, black eye. She figured that Audrey had remained unscathed only because of the added advantage of having some meat on her bones.
"Thanks, but Im not really in the mood for cake," Gwen answered, lifting her chin and squaring her shoulders as she gathered what shreds of dignity she had left. "Youve been a wonderful hostess, Mrs. Artiste. And under well, unusual circumstances. Ill be sure to recommend Charlottes Web to my friends and my husbands associates."
A chorus of agreement met Gwens words.
Frances tried to appear nonchalant as she surveyed the newly decorated guest room for damage, but Jacie easily recognized what she was doing. "Im sorry for the noise up here. We were um " She struggled to find an uncomplicated explanation for the noise. Somehow it seemed a little awkward to admit that two middle-aged woman were about to come to blows over a 20-year-old college student.
Surprisingly, it was Gwen who distilled things quite nicely. "I lost my mind there for a minute, Mrs. Artiste, and I may do it again." She shot Katherine a frustrated look. "But unless youre sleeping with my son, like some people in the room, I think youre pretty safe."
Katherine did her best not to roll her eyes. She was certain that she and Gwen werent finished discussing Tucker, but for now at least, it looked as though shed escape the day without a trip to the emergency room. On the other hand, she might have to take Tucker there. After she beat the crap out of him herself. This wasnt the sort of thing the earnest man she knew would do.
Frances eyes popped wide open at Gwens words, and she crossed her heart with her fingers shaping something she hoped resembled the Girl Scout promise. "Not counting my late husband, I havent had a date in 57 years."
Nina smiled kindly at the older woman and gave her a ghost of a wink. "Whew."
"You dont need to fuss over us, Mrs. Artiste." Gwen did her best to smile bravely. "Well manage on our own."
Frances smiled back. It was easy to like Gwen and she hoped that whatever it was that was upsetting the young woman would be over soon. "Heavens, its no bother. My job is to fuss over guests." Like a magnet, her gaze was drawn back to Jacies black eye. "Its also my job to disappear when Im not needed. Ill be in my cottage if anyone needs me. Dinner will be at seven unless someone tells me otherwise." She nodded her good-bye and quietly padded out of the room.
The rest of the women took her exit as their cue to leave.
"Katy?" Gwen said, interrupting her friends escape. "Would you stay? At least for a little while."
Katherine blinked. "I umm " She shook her head a few times, not believing her ears. "Youre sure?"
Chagrined, Gwen chewed on her lower lip. "One of us knows my son. And right now I dont think its me." She lifted her eyebrows in entreaty. "Please stay so we can talk?"
Katherine eyed her suspiciously. "Are you going to kill me?"
"Doubtful. The knives are all downstairs and Im too tired to choke the life out of you." A wry, watery grin tugged at her lips. "Though Ill admit that the idea does still hold some appeal."
Katherine blinked at Gwens honesty. "How about punching me in the nose?"
A red eyebrow twitched. "Maybe."
She shrugged a slim shoulder. "Okay. But" she ducked her head. "I want you to know that I understand what you must think about my being married, well, a few times and about my track record with men generally. It hasnt been good." She glanced up and met Gwens attentive gaze with a confident one of her own. "But I do know what love is. I really do."
She reached out for Gwens hand, taking it awkwardly and chafing the unnaturally clammy skin. "Itll be okay." Theyd argue like hell over Tucker later, she knew, but somehow theyd work through this. Unless one of them decided to give up on him completely, they had no choice.
Audrey, Jacie and Nina shared amazed smiles. The days events were more than they could really digest at the moment, but somehow, like Gwen and Katherine, theyd figure out how to make things work. Theyd continue to get reacquainted with their pasts and learn how to forgive each other enough so they could share a joint future.
Thats what friends did if they wanted it badly enough. And they did.
Jacie and Nina headed back to their room and Audrey went downstairs for the headphones and CD player shed left there that morning. They all wanted some time to think.
Once they were left alone, Katherine and Gwen stared at each other awkwardly for a few moments. "I " Gwen began, turning to face Katherine who was sitting at the head of the bed. "I dont know what to do," she said bleakly. "I need to make things right with Tucker and I dont know how."
Katherine gazed at her in sympathy. "Would a hug help?"
Gwens head bobbed like an eager childs. "Yeah. I think it really would."
Wordlessly, Katherine opened her arms to her friend. "Ill help you with Tucker," she whispered, Gwens head against her shoulder. "But you have to promise not to sink me with him." She stroked Gwens back and gentled her voice to take the sting from her words. "As much as youd appreciate it, Im not going to stick my neck out just so that you can lop off my head."
She felt the unexpected jolt of Gwens sad snort.
"I know you dont approve, but youve got to give us a chance to show you that youre wrong. Ill be careful with his heart. I swear."
Gwen went completely still and Katherine was sure that she was about to tell her to go to hell when she let out an uneven breath. "I promise, Katherine."
Over Gwens shoulder, a slender, broad-shouldered figure appeared in the doorway and Katherines eyes widened, then thinned angrily at the sight.
Silent and disheveled, Tucker stood there frozen in place, wearing a Nike tracksuit and tennis shoes. His skin was slightly flushed and his hair plastered to his head in a few places where it had been sweaty and then dried without being washed. Hed checked his cell phone messages between his practice sets and dropped everything to race over. No one had answered the front door and so hed cautiously let himself in through the kitchen entrance, desperate to find Katherine before she could do something crazy.
His thick brows furrowed in confusion as he took in the scene before him. If Katherine had told his mother about their relationship, theres no way theyd be hugging right now. Theres no way Katherine would be alive now. They didnt look angry, and yet, both women were clearly upset.
Katherine met Tuckers questioning gaze and her eyes flashed.
His stomach dropped.
"Gwen," Katherine prompted gently, hoping that her friend wouldnt turn around just yet. She kept her eyes locked on Tucker as she spoke. She truly loved him, but if he had done this to spite his mother, she didnt know if she could ever forgive him for it. "How did you feel when you got the first blackmail email
" A pause. "From Tucker."
The blood drained from Tuckers face so quickly that he had to put his hand on the doorframe to keep from keeling over.
Gwen made a face against Katherines shoulder, but made no move to disengage from the hug. This was the comfort shed been craving since this whole thing started, and she wasnt about to abandon it so soon. "What the hell kind of stupid question is that? I didnt know it was him then, but even so, I felt like someone was ripping my heart out of my chest."
She moaned as if in pain. "Now that I know it was Tucker, Jesus, I feel ten times worse than that. I love him so much, more than anyone on the planet. And I cant bear the thought that he did this just to watch me suffer." She began to cry again; a little surprised she had any tears left. "He got his wish. Its b-b-een like eating ground glass to think about losing his and Malcolms love."
His mothers voice was so raw and pain-filled that Tuckers eyes misted over, despite the anger that still burned hot inside him.
Katherine held her friend tighter. "I dont think he hates you. I dont think he knew what he was doing."
"He had to know this was killing me! What other point is there in blackmail!" Gwens sobs shook her entire body, her stomach twisting. "I think, I think I might be sick," she moaned.
"No," Katherine said firmly. "Youre not." At least I hope not. "Take a deep breath. Again. Slower," she coaxed kindly. "Thats it."
Gwen swallowed hard, letting all the pain, loss, and frustration she felt flow freely. "I can never forgive myself for hurting him. Bu-but I didnt want him to know the truth."
Tuckers jaw worked as he clamped down on his emotions. He forced himself not to say a word, though inwardly he was screaming at the top of his lungs.
"You married Malcolm because you were in love with him and not just because you were pregnant or you thought he was a good catch that you could trick. I know that for a fact." Katherine held her breath for a moment, balancing on a razors edge before making her decision. She pulled back gently and framed Gwens face with her hands. "And you didnt want Tucker to know youd been raped and that thats how you got pregnant."
Tucker entire body jerked as though hed been burned.
Gwen nodded miserably, "But Id rather he think that I cheated on Malcolm than know what really happened. Its better that he hates me than he thinks he was connected to something so brutal and ugly." Her face crumpled. "I know this is all my fault. The lies. Everything. I know that," she said fiercely, her tears pouring over Katherines hands. "B-but it still hurts."
A single tear seared a path down Tuckers cheek.
"I think you and Tucker broke each others hearts." Though her lower lip was trembling, Katherine managed a tiny encouraging smile. "But, please, please dont let things end there."
Tucker pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes; tears spilling freely down his face. He couldnt stand it another second. He pressed his lips together but had to pause and force the word past the solid lump in this throat. He bent at the waist, feeling sick. "M-Mom?" he rasped.
Slack jawed, Gwen spun around on the bed, not believing her ears, then eyes. "Tucker?"
Katherine closed her eyes. Please, God.
Gwen shook her head wildly, fearing the worst. "What are you Oh, God, what did you hear?" Her heart was beating so hard the words sounded like they were being said by someone else.
Tucker pulled his hands away from his eyes, his handsome face twisted with pain and guilt. "I-I heard enough." He rushed to the bedside and dropped on his knees in front of Gwen.
There wasnt a seconds hesitation, Gwen held out her arms and Tucker wrapped himself around her, crying every bit as hard as she had.
"I didnt mean to hurt you," Gwen whispered into his dark hair, kissing the top of his head over and over.
"Im sorry," he said at the same time. "I didnt know. I didnt"
Gwen nodded. "Me, too."
Katherine allowed herself to draw in a breath. She was shaking nearly as badly as Gwen and Tucker. She ran her hands through Tuckers hair and kissed the side of his head. Then she did the same thing to Gwen before going to the bedroom door and closing it quietly, with her still inside.
They had a lot to talk about.
The next day
The members of the Mayflower Club stood in the gray light of morning outside the carriage house, not knowing how to say good-bye. A light breeze that spoke of colder days ahead ruffled their hair and dusted their cheeks with color.
Tucker, Gwen, and Katherine had spent most of the Saturday afternoon in Gwens room. There were neither raised voices nor blood curdling screams, so Jacie, Audrey, and Nina had minded their own business and spent the time catching up with each other and making new memories.
That night theyd learned, much to Gwen and Katherines embarrassment, that Tucker had been behind the blackmail. Hed been sure that his mother had cheated on Malcolm and then tricked him into getting married for his money. Filled with anger and stinging from the heinous deception, hed thought it only fitting that his mother unwittingly finance his search for his biological father. A search made possible by a regular stream of blackmail funds and the services of two private detectives, who had consistently come up empty.
When the truth was finally exposed, Tucker experienced a level of shame and regret that Gwen could intimately relate to.
Their relationship was badly damaged, but not broken. Katherine would see to that.
Gwen was still worried sick over how Malcolm would react to hearing about the rape and Tuckers parentage, but the time for deception was long past. She knew that now and was willing to accept the consequences of her decision to lie so long ago. It was time.
"So?" Audrey rocked back on her heels. "Were not going to lose touch again, right?"
"No way," Katherine insisted, wrapping one her arm around her cousin, the other around Nina. "Not after all this. I want the club back."
Jacie smiled. "I want that too. I especially want that with Nina." A beat. "Only I want her to be naked at the time."
They all laughed, but the moment was bittersweet as goodbyes usually are.
"Ill email you all," Gwen promised. She let out a shaky breath, fear still clinging to her like mustiness to an old house. "Just pray you dont see my name in the papers under name changes."
Nina pulled Gwen into a fierce hug. "Youre going to be okay, Gwen," she whispered emotionally. "Ive seen you be stronger than I thought possible. You can do it one more time. Malcolm will understand. He loves you too much not to." She pulled away to look her in the eye. "Were only a phone call away."
Gwen nodded, more than a little choked up at the sentiment. She could see Jacie smiling at her over Ninas shoulder and knew that emotion was echoed by the other half of this newly minted couple. "I dont deserve that."
"I know you dont," Nina answered honestly. "But this is a weekend for second chances for us all." A small smile appeared. "And you're one of us, remember?"
"So youre getting lucky," Jacie added softly.
Sheepishly, Katherine wiped at her eyes. "What about getting together again for a weekend or something? We could do that, sometime, right?"
Gwen felt like a wrung out dishrag, and yet it was the happiest shed felt in months. "When?" she asked, kicking at a pebble near her feet, a sense of belonging that she hadnt felt in ages, carefully making its home.
Katherine thought about that. It had been her suggestion, after all. Once theyd caught up on the happenings of each others lives, except for Nina and Jacie, who were still slobbering all over each other like hormonal teenagers, theyd all discovered they didnt have that much to say to each other. The time theyd shared had been great, but she didnt have the overwhelming need for another gathering until she had more to talk about. And a little time needed to pass for that to happen.
Theyd never see each other everyday again, or every week, or even every month. But that was okay. They were busy women who had demanding lives to match. "What about this spring?" she finally said. "Its nice before it starts getting humid and Ill get a few days off during spring break."
Audrey frowned. "I cant afford to fly back so soon. And Enrique Junior runs track every weekend in the spring. How about summer instead?"
Jacie shook her head. "Thats my busiest season at work and I have Emily fulltime once school gets out. I dont want to ship her back to her mom if I dont have to and we already have a bunch of camping trips planned during the little time I will have off."
"Next fall then?" Nina suggested, tucking her cell phone into her purse. Mentally, she cataloged the exhibitions she knew the museum had scheduled for the coming year. "Maybe around this time?"
Katherine rolled her eyes. "If I still have a job at the university to go back to, itll be a miracle. October is hard for me because I spend that entire month playing catch-up for September admissions."
The women looked at each other and laughed.
"Why dont we think about it a while?" Jacie suggested, tossing her bag into the back of her truck. "We can still write and call each other, cant we?"
"Write?" Katherine chuckled. "I forgot how to do that. Its all email nowadays, Jacie." She elbowed her friend, who had been sure that computers would never really catch on. "Get with the times."
Jacies companys inventory, payroll, and billing were all done by computer, and fully a third of her business was derived from an Internet advertising plan shed come up with herself. Still, she wasnt above playing along with Katherine. She elbowed Katherine right back, only harder. "Freakin geek!"
"Okay, okay," Audrey broke in, knowing where this was heading. Not that shed mind seeing Katherine and Jacie wrestling like weasels in heat, but she had a plane to catch. "Maybe we could start one of those Internet lists like my kids are on. Yahoo has something where we can all email each other at once."
"Will you help Jacie with that, Nina?" Katherine asked sassily.
Nina chuckled. Shed spoken to Jacie about Priest Tiling many times over the weekend and knew damn well that Jacie was no technophobe. "Oh yes," she said seriously. "Ill do my level best to bring Cavewoman into the 21st century."
Jacie lifted an eyebrow, but let Ninas comment pass. "We wont lose touch ever again." Her expression went as serious as her friends had ever seen. "Promise?"
Her words were met with beaming smiles. "Promise," came the expected chorus.
And so it was done.
One by one, cars filed out of the carriage house, until Nina and Jacie were left alone, the morning mist infiltrating the large room and dampening their skin.
Jacie leaned against her truck. "Hey, Nina?" she said softly.
Nina stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Jacies neck, tangling her fingers in thick hair. "Yeah?"
She grinned girlishly. "Can you come out and play?"
Nina laughed. "Depends."
Jacie feigned insult. "On what?"
"Well " Nina tapped her chin with her index finger. "How long do you want to play? I have to plan my schedule, you know."
"Depends," Jacie shot back haughtily. "I have world records to break, you know. Im a busy woman. How long do you want to play?"
"Forever," Nina answered seriously, tightening her arms around Jacie. "I want you forever. Some things were never meant to change, Jacie Ann."
Jacie could feel a nearly electric current running between them. "Same goes for me. Only for longer if youre free."
"Hmm ." Nina smiled playfully. "Then Ill have to ask my mom." She paused. "And my son."
Jacie leaned forward and brushed her mouth against Ninas, grinning against the smiling lips that met hers. "Lead the way."
Jacie nodded once, the breeze carrying with it a whiff of Ninas shampoo. "Really. Im yours."
Ninas eyebrows jumped. "In that case " She took Jacies hand and began leading her back toward the B&B.
"Hey," Jacie glanced over her shoulder at the carriage house, having to increase her stride just to keep up with Nina. "Where are we going?"
"Were going back inside. Ill find Mrs. Artiste and make sure a room will be available for tonight. Now that Ive got you to myself, theres no way Im giving you up so quickly." Determinedly, she kept on walking. "You got a problem with that?"
Jacie laughed. "No, maam. I just thought you were anxious to get home and get ready for your new job."
Nina stopped walking and turned to face Jacie. She laid her palms on Jacies chest, warm skin heating her hands though soft denim. "Do you really want to know what Im anxious about?"
Jacie stepped a little closer so that their bodies were touching all along their lengths. "Mm. Of course."
Jacie inclined her head and waited.
"Okay, Im anxious to know when I can see you again and what it will be like and if youll ever let me get to second base."
Jacie started laughing. "You dont need to worry about that, Nina," she assured her, her voice a sexy purr. "I have dibs on batting first and I intend to make sure that youre too tired to care what happens after that."
Ninas mouth went bone dry, but she did her best to continue. Unfortunately, there wasnt enough blood left in her brain to think straight. "Uh What was I talking about?"
Jacie bit back a smile. God, she loved her. "What youre anxious about?"
"Oh, yeah. I-Im anxious about when I can tell my son, and my mom, and my neighbors, and everyone I meet on the street that youre my girlfriend. Im thinking of getting a t-shirt made."
Charmed, Jacie let go of her smile. Her friends had always labeled her as the fearless one of the group. If they only knew. "What else?" She gave her a little nudge. "Cmon, I wanna hear more."
The smile reached Ninas eyes before the rest of her face. "Im anxious to hear about what sort of TV programs and music and food you like nowadays and whether youll invite me to go camping with you and Emily."
"I want to know all those things about you, too."
"Nuh uh. Wait your turn."
"Were you always this bossy?"
Ninas eyes twinkled. "No, Ive really chilled out over the years."
Jacie chuckled. Then she tried to sound aggrieved, but couldnt quite manage it. "Court TV and the Home and Garden Channel, classic rock and sometimes jazz, and absolutely anything . so long as its pizza."
"Thin crust, extra sauce?"
"Is there another kind?"
Nina sighed. "The perfect woman."
"And you and Robbie are invited to go camping with us and to anything else were doing." Then she wrinkled her nose. "But Im not baiting your hook anymore. Thats just gross and doing it for myself and Emily is bad enough."
Nina shrugged. "Not a problem. Thats the whole reason I had a son. Youre off the hook." She waggled her eyebrows. "So to speak."
Jacie put her hands on her hips. "Is that everything?" She pointed at the B&B. "Theres a hot tub we never got to use in there, you know."
"Nuh uh." Nina peered at her from behind fair lashes. The way Jacie was looking at her filled her with bravery, and so she went for broke. She gently kissed Jacies chin. "Im anxious to wake up with you in my bed," another kiss on the tip of the nose, "and in my arms," this time the kiss skirted the very edge of full lips, "and to know that its for keeps." She crossed her fingers and toes, hoping she wasnt pushing farther or faster than Jacie was willing to go.
She neednt have worried.
Nina gulped. "Yeah?"
"Why dont we shoot for that to happen tomorrow morning? We can go back to your place." Jacie gently tucked a strand of Ninas blowing hair behind her ear.
"I dont have a hot tub."
"Somehow well manage." Jacie let herself feel Ninas nearness. It was a heady feeling that she never wanted to end. "I think Im going to be calling in sick for a few days."
A smile lit blue-green eyes from within, and impossibly, Nina found a way to snuggle even closer. So close, they were sharing the same breath. "You do?"
"Mm . Most definitely."
Nina's heart soared. "So do I." Then she said the first thing that popped into her mind. "Hey, Jacie, isnt it about time we kissed again?"
Jacie looked at her watch and grinned. "I thought youd never ask."
Coming in 2005 from Fortitude Press
Unbreakable - the novel.
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