Chapter Four


Present Day

Salt Lake City, Utah


"Come to bed."

Audrey frowned as she ran a brush through shoulder-length brown curls. She sat down on a low padded bench, her back to the bed, and stared off into space. The room was dimly lit, and the sounds of crickets and buzzing insects drifted in through the open window. "In a minute, Enrique."

The man sighed and flopped back on his pillow, his longish dark hair falling into his face. "Not in a minute," he said, but there was no heat in his words. "It’s late."

Audrey’s brushstrokes were short and frustrated, and she grunted as she encountered a small snarl near her left ear. "I don’t know where she gets off. Who does she think she is?"

Enrique closed his eyes and yawned. He was wearing a pair of black silk boxers and the bedding felt cool and soft against his skin. "Who gets off?"

"Gwen." Frowning, she set her brush on the table in front of her and turned around to face her husband. Her eyes were flashing. "Who else?"

"Why are you still thinking about her and her invitation?" He threw his arm over his face to block out the weak light spilling from the bedside lamp on his wife’s side of the bed.

"Humph." Raising an eyebrow at Enrique, Audrey turned back around and faced the mirror in silence. She picked up the brush again, then changed her mind and set it down in favor of a tin of rose-scented powder.

The man cringed, not needing to see his wife’s face to know that the silence that had met his last words was not a good sign. "You know what I think?" he murmured.

"Most of the time." She sprinkled some powder into her upturned hand and tugged on the string that held closed the front of her nightgown, partially exposing her chest.

"Funny." He sat up and looked at the mirror, catching her gaze in the reflection. "I think you want to go." The rest of what he was going to say completely fled his mind as he realized where Audrey intended to apply her powder. His eyes darkened a shade.

Audrey’s mouth dropped open and the hand that had been on the way to her neck and chest froze.

Enrique frowned.

"I do not!"

"Sure you do," he insisted absently, still avidly watching his wife’s unintentional but surprisingly erotic display. "I love you so much and you are so beautiful."

"Err… thanks, honey." She was a little surprised by his sudden declaration of devotion. But she wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth either. With a delicate touch, she applied a small bit of powder to her neck, then her hand drifted slightly lower and Enrique stifled a groan.

"Here," he scrambled down the bed and jumped off, tripping over his own feet as he stood. "Let me help you."

Audrey’s eyebrows lifted and she glanced up at Enrique who was already at her side. "Are you okay? God, I haven’t you seen you move that fast in ages." She gave him a confused look. "I don’t really need any more pow–"

"A little more is always okay, right?" he asked eagerly, nodding in answer to his own question. "It can’t hurt."

"Well, I guess it can’t–"

Deciding he’d been granted permission, he snatched up the tin of powder. What he didn’t realize was the lid was already off. Powder flew everywhere, but mostly over Audrey. "Oops."

"Enrique!" She waved her hand through the thick cloud of powder that now hovered around her head. And she began to cough.

"Sorry, sorry. Here, let me rub that in." He reached out for her with both hands, his fingers spread wide apart and a sexy smile curling sensual lips.

"Enrique, you pervert!"

"Whaaaat?" he complained, trying to look innocent. "I’m helping."

She started to laugh, but soon that shifted into violent coughing. Then a split second before his hands reached their prize, she slapped them away.

"Oh, come on." His voice was pleading. "I’m a good helper!" He blew a stream of air in Audrey’s face, trying to disperse the powder, but only managed to send more of it up her nose and into her lungs.

"I don’t need anymore–" A cough. "Of your." A cough. "Help." Then her face twisted. "Aaaaaaaaaaachu!"

"Bless you," he said quickly, his hand moving to pat her back.

She glared up him. "Do not– Aaa–aaaa–aachu!"

"Bless you again, sweetheart."

"Shut-up, En–" She shook her head wildly. "Aaaaaaaaachu!"


In a lightning fast move, she wrapped her arms around his bare legs and propelled them both back onto the bed, sending several pillows and a quilt tumbling to the floor in the process.

Enrique landed with a grunt but quickly turned the tables on Audrey. He straddled her and pinned her arms over her head. "Oh, no, you don’t!"

She grinned unrepentantly. "Oh, yes, I do!" Then her eyes widened and her nose twitched. "I–aaa–aaa–"

"Here." With one hand, he grabbed a pillow and pressed it over Audrey’s face as she sneezed and then thrashed around, her muffled squeals of laughter still loud enough to make Enrique cringe.

Then they heard a loud knock on their bedroom wall. "Hey!" Ricky Jr.’s voice caused them to freeze and Enrique lifted up the pillow so a red-faced, disheveled Audrey could hear, too. "Could you keep it down in there, Mama and Papa? I have school in the morning, ya know."

"We’ll be good, mijito," Audrey called out, her words laced with humor. "We promise."

"Don’t make me come in there," Ricky Jr. called out playfully, giving the wall a final knock before burying his head under his blankets.

Enrique and Audrey stuck their tongues out at each other. "It’s your fault," they both whispered at the same time, each dissolving into muffled laughter at the other’s words.

"Whew." Enrique settled next to Audrey and held out his arm, waiting until she turned off the bedroom light and tugged up the wrinkled quilt before wrapping a strong

arm around her and sighing. "You do smell good," he said in a low voice, smiling into the darkness.

She chuckled. "I should." She sat up a little and stripped out of her nightgown, tossing it onto the floor before snuggling back into her place with a happy grunt. "Mm… Better."

"Much." He ran his fingers up her bare back, lightly rubbing her spine as he went. "Now, tell me why you’re not going to Missouri when I know you want to."

Audrey felt a big portion of her good mood vanish. She let out an unhappy breath. "Why should I go, Enrique? I’d rather stay here."

He nodded a little. "Good."

She blinked. "Really? You don’t think I should go?"

"Not really." He made a dismissive motion with one hand. "I never want you to go away because I miss you when you’re gone. But that’s not the point. Gwen didn’t give enough notice to plan for such a big trip. That was presumptuous of her to think you’d want to go or that we could afford something so large at the last minute."

"Inside Gwen’s invitation was a first class plane ticket. She didn’t have to do that," she murmured into his shoulder, her hand finding its way to his chest where her fingers played with the dark, curly hair there. "But it’s not like she can’t afford it either." The anger and hurt she felt towards Gwen reared its head with little provocation. "And what about her snooping in our business? How can I forgive that?"

"You don’t know that she has."

"I told you what Katy said. Somebody’s been checking us all out. She had her friend look. It only makes sense if it was Gwen."

"Why does that make sense?" He twirled one of Audrey’s curls between his fingers.

"Because Gwen would do something like that. She’s always been nosy."

"If she did do that, and we don’t know that she did, I don’t appreciate it either." He bussed her cheek. "She had to find you, didn’t she? Maybe she hired someone and that’s how they tracked us down."


"It’s not like we have anything to hide, Audrey. We’re doing really well, right?" Unexpectedly, he smiled, white teeth flashing in the muted light. "Our savings account is accruing faster than I realized. I was really surprised when I met with the loan officer last week. We won’t even need a loan to fix up the apartment for the kids."

Audrey shifted uncomfortably. Finances and the amount of overtime she worked had always been a bone of contention between them. They both earned a good, living wage. But when she wanted something extra, something frivolous, or if she wanted to buy a special gift, she had to put in extra time at work to get it. And that tended to tweak Enrique’s pride. "I umm…" she started reluctantly, "I did work a lot of extra hours this summer." She was a recreational specialist at a local YMCA, and this had been one of the busiest summers she could remember.

"I know." His tone grew melancholy. "I wish you didn’t have to."

"Aww… Ricky." She tugged on his hair affectionately. "I did it because I wanted to, not because I had to. You know that."

"Yeah," he relented with a deep sigh. "I know." He forced his mind back on track. "If you go to Missouri, you’ll have to rent a car right? Or maybe you can use one of your parents’ cars. And what about work?" he reminded, his body relaxing under her familiar touch. "You’d have to take a few work days off. Could you even do that? You know I want us to visit my uncle in Oaxaca this Christmas."

"I could," she admitted, biting her lower lip as she thought. "I have more vacation built up than I can even use this year. And none of it will carry over till next year."

"But you’d want to spend your vacation with her?" He scrunched up his face. "I remember how she made you crazy and how rotten she was. Why would you want to see her again?" He knew the answer already, but he also knew that Audrey needed to come to her own conclusions in her own time. And talking always helped.

"She wasn’t always that way," Audrey heard herself saying. "Dammit, Ricky, why am I defending her? It’s not like we’re even friends anymore."

"No, but you were once."

"And she blew it."

"You’re right," he agreed softly. "She blew it. And nobody changes that much over time."

Audrey’s brow furrowed and she shifted in bed, resting her chin on his chest and peering up to try and find the dark eyes she knew would be looking back at her. "Some people do, don’t they?"

He smiled a little. "I have faith that they can. And it won’t be just her there," he prompted, knowing for certain Audrey would love to see her other childhood friends.

"I’m crazy to even think about it," she whispered, wishing he’d talk her out of what she was about to decide. "But just hearing from Katy was so wonderful. I’ve missed the brat." Then she thought of Nina and Jacie and all the things they had to talk about and, despite herself, even some things that she found herself wanting to share with Gwen.

"You might be crazy, but you’re crazy with me. And that’s all I need." He leaned forward and captured her lips in a soft, heartfelt kiss. "C’mere." He tugged her higher onto his body and wrapped both his arms around her back, his lips moving to her neck where the powder tasted slightly bitter but the skin underneath was so salty sweet that he didn’t care.

She moaned softly when his mouth found a particularly sensitive spot and his hand moved down to the soft skin of her bottom. "I’ll think about how to lose 40 pounds in a few weeks… later…" she decided on a slightly uneven breath, her hips moving forward of their own accord.

"Mmm… You do that, querida," he breathed against her skin. "In the meantime, I’ll enjoy every luscious inch of you."

She felt more than heard his rumbling chuckle and she gladly returned his loving touch, all thoughts of trips, diets, and the past banished in the wake of a vibrant and happy present.



Present Day

Town & Country, Missouri

"No!" The sound of exploding glass echoed throughout the house. Gwen closed her eyes for a moment, hearing nothing but her own panting breaths and the wild thumping of her heart. "Christ." She was alone in her bedroom and half-dressed for a dinner out that night when she foolishly decided to get directions to the new restaurant from her laptop. While online, she checked her email. And there it was. Another blackmail demand. After venting her anger, though, she did as the private detective had instructed and printed out a hardcopy for her private file.

Tears leapt to her eyes and she wiped at them with a shaking hand. She dropped the printout of the latest blackmail threat on her bed and slowly walked across the room to pick up the remains of her shattered crystal brandy snifter. She hadn’t meant to throw it.

"Gwen?" A voice sounded from outside the room. "Honey? Are you all right?"

When she heard her husband’s voice, she jerked in reaction and a sliver of glass cut deeply into her index finger. She hissed in pain as crimson drops splashed onto the pale carpet, leaving a spotted trail as she moved. "Just a minute, Malcolm." She clenched her hand to her chest and dashed back to the bed to pick up the email before he could see it.

She didn’t make it.

Malcolm strode into the room, his worried eyes scanning the room as he tried to figure out where the crashing noise had come from. "Are you okay?"

Gwen plastered on a tight smile and retracted the hand that had been reaching for the paper. "I thought we were meeting at the restaurant," she said, a red stain blossoming on her bra where she held her injured hand.

"I forgot my wallet so I– Jesus, Gwen, you’re hurt!" The tall man rushed across the room and grabbed his wife by the biceps. "Let me see." His hands ran lightly over her body as he searched for other injuries.

"It’s nothing." She tried not to look at the email that was lying in plain view on the bed. She decided it would be best to put as much space between her and it as possible. Roughly, she tried to pull out of his grasp. "Just a little cut. I’ll go to the bathroom and–"

"Let me look." His heavy brow furrowed in confusion over his wife’s strange behavior.

"It’s nothing," she insisted, shocked when she looked down and saw blood spilling between her clenched fingers and running down her naked torso to pool at the top of her nylons.

"I’m the doctor in the family." Frustration leaked into his voice. "Why don’t you let me tell you if it’s nothing?"

"You’re a damned dermatologist, not Marcus Welby, M.D.!"

Malcolm blinked a few times and released his grip on Gwen’s arms and took a step backwards. "What in the hell is wrong with you?"

When she finally focused on the bewilderment and concern showing so plainly on his face, her features instantly softened. "I don’t know. I’m sorry." Helplessly, she began to cry, the thought that she could be seconds away from fracturing the relationship with the man she loved so dearly too much to take.

Malcolm pulled her into a tight embrace, heedless of the blood. "Shh." He whispered into her hair, pressing his lips into its fiery strands. "It’ll be okay. I’ll take you to the hospital. Here…" He gently disengaged from her embrace and stripped out of his stained shirt. He held it beneath her hand to catch the droplets. "Can I see it now?" His gaze dropped to her hand and when she awkwardly uncurled her fist he let out a low hiss of sympathy. "That’s a bad one." His gaze lifted and he gave her a serious look. "It’s going to need stitches."

She sniffed and cursed her own stupidity. "Are you sure?"

He nodded. "Even dermatologists go to medical school, Gwen, remember?"

Gwen suddenly felt very ashamed and a memory of Malcolm studying for his med school exams with a very young Tucker lying asleep in his lap flashed behind her eyes. "I know that. I-I was just scared, I guess." Her voice conveyed true regret and a healthy dose of fear. "I don’t like hospitals."

"I have a feeling you’ll like the scar you’ll get even less than the emergency room. I could sew it up here, but–"

The blood suddenly drained from Gwen’s face and a million tiny black spots invaded her peripheral vision.

"Whoa!" He grasped hold of her firmly and guided her to the bed just as she began to sway. "You’d better sit down."

Her eyes widened as the thought of where he was heading jerked her back to alertness. "No! I–" But before she could stop him, Malcolm picked up the paper containing the latest blackmail request so that she wouldn’t sit on it.


Gwen swore at that moment her heart stopped beating completely. "I-I-" She floundered for something to say, praying he wouldn’t look at what was in his hand. "I don’t want to drip on the comforter."

He waved his hand in the air. "I don’t give a damn about the comforter. Stay put. I’m going to set this over here." He waved the email and then quickly set it on her dresser, not bothering to read a word of it. "My bag's in the closet. Hold my shirt to the cut. I’ll be right back."

Gwen let out a shaky breath and ran for the dresser as soon as he disappeared into his walk-in closet. She stuffed the email inside her top drawer and barely made it back to the bed before Malcolm returned with a black leather medical bag and his gym bag.

"I can give you a shot for the pain, sweetheart." He stroked the back of her wet cheek with his knuckles.

She shook her head. "I don’t need that. I just want to go and get this over with and have a nice dinner with you." She smiled weakly. "I was looking forward to that new restaurant in the city.

He brushed his lips against her cheek. "Me, too. But I think we’d better save that for another night. Let me at least start taking care of this." Gwen didn’t even notice when he used tweezers to remove a large sliver of glass from her finger. She didn’t even feel the bandage being wrapped around the cut or the clean t-shirt Malcolm extracted from his gym bag and gently slipped over her head.

She stared across the room with unseeing eyes as her husband worked, thinking of only one thing. And how she would do anything to keep from losing it.


Present Day

Rural Missouri

A black Mercedes CLK500 convertible roared up the long, oak tree-lined driveway. Seeing the speeding car through the front window of the parlor, a stout woman with friendly eyes framed by bushy silver eyebrows strode out to Charlotte’s Web Bed & Breakfast with a purposeful gait. She was headed for an old but immaculately kept carriage house, which now served as a garage for guests. The woman straightened an imaginary crease out of her cargo pants and shoved her hands into her fishing vest as she rocked back on her heels and waited for her guest to emerge from her car.

Gwen pulled into the carriage house and killed the engine, checking the tape on the white bandage that covered her finger before she exited the car.

"You must be Mrs. Langtree." The woman extended a large hand. "I’m Frances Artiste. We spoke on the phone last week. Welcome to Charlotte’s Web Bed & Breakfast."

Gwen smiled and grasped the woman’s hand, her eyebrows rising slightly at the brisk, enthusiastic shake. She was dressed casually in a pair of tan linen slacks and a pale blue, sleeveless silk top. She had goosebumps all along her arms. She would have to put the top up for the ride home. "Thank you." She hummed a little in admiration. "It’s lovely here. The house looks like something right off of Lafayette Square." Gwen knew several families who lived in the exclusive, 30-acre residential district that was well known for its immaculate 19th century architecture.

Stepping out into the breeze, they left the garage and began the short trek to the house.

"She is a beauty," Frances agreed, gazing at the house with pride. "There’s not much Federalist architecture left in these parts."

The three-story B&B was narrow, but tall with a dark wood, six-paneled front door that contrasted nicely with the pale blue walls. The trim, shutters, and latticework were freshly painted a crisp white and two red brick chimneys stretched high into the bright morning sky. Each floor sported its own walkout porch, each of which was surrounded by a white railing and held two small wrought-iron chairs with a circle table between them. It looked to be the perfect place to have a quiet conversation as the sun went down or to sit and watch the squirrels play over your morning coffee. It was refined and light in its presentation and Gwen found herself admiring the simplistic, homey feel it exuded.

Rocks crunched under their feet as they walked. "But I was grateful to sell the place and let someone else deal with the financial side of things. I’m more suited to spending my retirement years thinking about what type of suet is best to keep my favorite woodpecker fat and happy than picking one crooked contractor from the next every time a branch hits the house. I’m pretty handy myself," she patted her own rather hefty bicep proudly, "but this body is too old for climbing up on the roof and other foolish things like that. My Norman always did the cooking and I did the home repairs, but luckily for the guests I did manage to learn my way around the kitchen in the 55 years we were married."

Frances didn’t elaborate on Norman, and Gwen assumed that he’d passed away. "You’re being modest, Mrs. Artiste. I hear that you’re an excellent cook." It was the truth. Gwen had spent several days investigating potential locations for the gathering. The Langtrees had modest property holdings, but they included a small luxury hotel and two other B&Bs, all in the St. Louis area. "I wouldn’t be spending my time someplace that served beans and weenies or Dinty Moore Beef Stew for dinner."

The older woman blushed at the compliment, her short, paper-white hair standing out even more vividly against her ruddy skin. "I’ll make a note not to serve either of those things while you’re here," she promised, a little surprised that Gwen Langtree even knew what Dinty Moore was.

Gwen chuckled as they ascended the front steps. "Thanks."

Frances opened the front door and gestured for Gwen to go in ahead of her. "How many guests should I be expecting?"

Gwen stepped inside and onto a large gray drop cloth that covered the entryway floor. A smile swept across her face as she took in the lovely décor. Nice. "Myself and four others." She hadn’t asked anyone to RSVP, but she felt sure all the women would come. And whoever was blackmailing her couldn’t afford to stay away and cast suspicion on herself. At least she hoped that’s the way things would work. Lastly, Gwen was relying on the fact that even if Jacie, Nina, Audrey, and Katherine didn’t particularly want to see her, they’d at least want to see each other. It was hardly a foolproof plan. But it was all she had.

As it always did, the thought of one of her friends doing something so utterly hateful as blackmail caused anger and hurt to well within her. She quickly turned her attention to something else. "How are the renovations coming, Mrs. Artiste?"

"Call me Frances, please." She pursed her lips as she thought. "Faster than I expected. We should be back open for business in a week or so after your visit. We’re refinishing all the floors next week." She shook her head. "I can’t understand why you’d want to use this place before it’s completely ready. If you’d only wait a little longer, you’d see her at her best, which is pretty darned good if I do say so myself."

"What is it they say in the real estate business?" The women continued to move through house. "Location, location, location?" Gwen gazed out a large window at the expansive back lawn and the several stone paths that crisscrossed there before disappearing into the trees beyond. Other than a small servants’ quarters that sat just to the west of the property which Mrs. Artiste used as her personal residence, there wasn’t another house for miles around. Through the open window, Gwen could hear the whispering wind, the jangling of the tree branches, and the occasional birdsong. It was, above all things, private. Which made it perfect. "So long as the place is mostly ready, and we have beds, bathrooms, and a functioning kitchen we’ll be just fine."

Frances shrugged. "Whatever you say. Would you like to see the rooms? Each one is decorated differently and filled with gorgeous antiques. Norman was a collector and a stickler about the details, too. There are only five rooms and they’re all in different stages of renovation."

"Lead the way." Gwen hesitated, but with a deep breath, bravely pushed forward with her plans. "Umm… I don’t think there’s an easy way to ask this, but I have a special bedding request that I’m hoping you’ll be able to accommodate."

Frances laughed. "This is your place, Mrs. Langtree. You can sleep in the hammock by the river if you want to. Lord knows I won’t stop you."

Gwen scratched her nose and hid a wry smile. "I hope that won’t be necessary. But I have a feeling that my little gathering of friends could turn out to be… interesting. When the Mayflower Club gets together, Mrs. Artiste, anything can happen."

Frances swallowed at the serious look on Gwen’s face. "Anything?"

"You have no idea."


Late Spring 1975

Hazelwood, Missouri

It was an unseasonably warm day and four fifth-grade girls lay in the deep, fragrant grass, of Audrey’s backyard. Having come home from school and changed out of their school clothes, they were now in various types of shorts and t-shirts, tennis shoes or sandals, and gazing up into a brilliant blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds. They were slightly sweaty and dirty from a game of tag that had ended up in a ticklefest.

Katy rolled over onto her belly, plucked a blade of grass from the lawn and popped the end in her mouth. "You can’t just be that, Audrey. You should be that plus something else."

Audrey frowned at her cousin and gazed unhappily over at Nina and Gwen to give Katy a nasty look. "Why? My mom is just a mom. So what’s wrong with me wantin’ to be one when I grow up?"

Katy’s gaze dropped to the grass and she shrugged one slim shoulder. "I dunno. It seems so boring. Don’t you want to be an astronaut or rock star or anything? I’m gonna be a race car driver."

"There are no girl race car drivers," Gwen said. "Maybe you can be the first."

Nina’s head bobbed. "Yeah, you can b-be the first and I’ll go to-to all your races."

"Me, too," Gwen and Audrey chorused in unison.

"Groovy." Katy wriggled with delight. "What about you, Audrey? You could be a race car driver with me."

"No thanks," she replied quickly. "I want to have six children. I’ve got my dolls at home lined up just like my babies will be. Three boys and three girls. And I’m going to name them William, David, Peter, Heather, Misty, and Tina. And we’ll have a dog named Jack."

"Don’t you already have that dog?" Gwen crossed her feet at the ankles and pointed to the fat pit bull who was sleeping with its head hanging off of Audrey’s back porch.


Gwen’s forehead creased. "But I heard–"

"My brother has ‘A Dog Named Jack.’ That’s his name, ‘A Dog Named Jack.’ If anyone but him calls him by his nickname, Jack, then he pounds them."

Katy hummed her agreement. "It’s true."

Nina had rolled over on her side to face Audrey, bracing the side of her head with her grass-stained palm. "You have all the na-na-names picked out for your kids already, Audrey?"

Audrey look a little confused. "Doesn’t everyone?"

Katy rolled her eyes. "No, stupid. Just you. And you’re getting weirder by the day."

"Well, I do," Gwen stated boldly as she sat up on her elbows. "After I become either Miss Missouri or a doctor, I’m going to get married and have a baby boy named Tucker and a baby girl named Wendy. And they’ll both have red hair like me, freckles like Nina’s"–she paused when Nina crowed in delight–"and dreamy brown eyes like Freddy Prinze."

"Ooo, yeah!" Audrey squealed enthusiastically, the other girls joining in her giggles. "I just luuv him." Then she stuck her tongue out at Katy, vindicated. "Good names, Gwen."

Gwen beamed. "Thanks."

"How about you, Nina? What do you want to be when you grow up?"

They all flopped back down and gazed back up at the clouds, wishing that summer would hurry up and come.

"Well," Nina began, "I think I-I’d like to b-be a vet. I like cats and dogs."

The girls nodded their approval, instantly deciding that a vet would be a perfect job for their tenderhearted friend.

"You can be my Jack’s vet," Audrey told her. "I’ll need someone I trust to give him shots and stuff."

"I’ll be ex-extra careful," Nina swore. "He won’t f-f-feel a thing. I always win when we play Operation."

The girls all nodded. Nina had the steadiest hand in the bunch.

"Audrey," Katy started. "Will you bring your kids to my races?"

It was as close as she was going to get to an apology for Katy making fun of her career choice and she knew it. "Of course, dog breath. But only if you win."

Katy snorted. "Well, duh. I’ve got it all figured out. Girls weigh less than boys, right?"

Audrey looked down at herself and frowned.

"Well, most of the time, right?" Katy said quickly.

They all murmured their agreement.

"So since I’ll be lighter, my car will have less to pull and I’ll win."

"Nuh huh." Gwen said. "If that were true then all the best racers would be midgets. They’d weigh the least of all."

"Wrong," Katy stated smugly. "Their feet can’t touch the pedals. They couldn’t be good drivers."

Gwen pursed her lips. "Oh yeah." She felt foolish for not realizing that herself. "Sorry."

They’d laid for a long time, talking about nothing at all and everything important–where they would live when they grew up, what popular girls had snubbed or befriended them, and whether Bucky Lee’s cowlick would ever lay flat…. They watched the clouds change shapes, pointing as they saw faces and objects form and dissolve in the swirling billows. Gwen even swore for a split second, when two clouds collided, that she saw a perfect vision of President Ford peeking down at them.

But someone was missing from the scene, and when her voice interrupted their conversation, each girl smiled, a little happier that their circle was now complete.

"Whatcha doin', guys?" Jacie strode up, still wearing her red, white and blue bell-bottoms school pants, her book bag slung over her shoulder. Her hair was in her usual long ponytail and her longish t-shirt fluttered in the late afternoon breeze.

"Waitin’ f-for you," Nina answered, her face wreathed in a happy grin.

"Yeah, where’ve you been?" Katy wondered out loud. She peered at the mostly hidden sun, noting it was noticeably lower than when they’d all arrived at Audrey’s backyard. "We’ve already been here for nearly 45 minutes."

Jacie bit her lower lip, trying to decide whether she should lie and confused that she felt the urge to do so in the first place. "I stayed after school for a little while."

"What?" Gwen scooted over so Jacie could lie down between her and Nina. "Again?"

Jacie let her bag fall from her shoulder and looked up at the sky, wondering what her friends had been pointing at when she’d arrived. She didn’t see a thing. "Yeah. S’okay though, I didn’t mind."

In the blink of an eye move, Audrey stole the blade of grass that Katy was chewing and laughed as she addressed Jacie. "Did you get detention, Jacie? That hasn’t happened since last year. I thought you were reformed or something."

Four sets of eyes swung up to stare at the dark-haired girl and she squirmed a little under their weight. "No… err… Yes… errr… I just stayed after to give Mrs. Toliver a little help cleaning the blackboard and pushing in the chairs. Stuff like that." She rocked back on her heels. "She’s pretty cool," she said, hoping to sound casual. In truth, she knew she’d use any excuse to spend a little extra time with her favorite teacher. The woman was young and vivacious and unlike any teacher Jacie had ever had or even seen before. And most of all, Mrs. Toliver listened intently to whatever Jacie said and smiled at her in a way that thrilled her to the core, causing her stomach to flutter.

Katy’s eyes went wide. "You helped clean?"

"Yeah." Jacie lifted her chin indignantly. "So?"

Audrey snorted. "We’ve seen your messy room. Your mother is always trying to get you to clean, but you’re a pig, Jacie."

Every fiber of Nina’s being wanted to jump to Jacie’s defense. Unfortunately, she’d seen Jacie’s room, too, and Audrey was actually being kind by calling it messy.

Gwen couldn’t help herself. "Oink. Oink." She wiggled her nose. "Oink."

That’s all it took to send Nina and Audrey into a fit of helpless giggles.

Jacie put her hands on her hips and stamped one foot. "I am not a pig!"

"She’s right, guys." Everyone turned to gape at Katy, shocked at her words because she and Jacie had been antagonizing each other for weeks. "She’s not a pig…" she paused for effect, "but she’s some sort of animal because she’s teacher’s pet."

Once again, all except Jacie dissolved into laughter.

Jacie’s cheeks flushed a bright red, contrasting sharply against her white t-shirt. "Shut up, Katy," she warned darkly.

Nina recovered quickly and forced herself to smother her smile. "S-sorry, Jacie." She caught sight of Jacie’s flashing eyes and winced internally, feeling a little guilty for teasing her friend.

"Me, too," Gwen added sincerely with Audrey quickly joining in the apology and patting Jacie’s sneaker-covered foot with her outstretched hand.

"And what if I don’t shut up?" Katy shot back to Jacie, ignoring Nina and the other girls and directly challenging Jacie, the group’s natural, if reluctant, leader for control. It was a common struggle.

"If you don’t shut your hole, I–" Jacie stopped and stared at Katy. She squinted, looking closely at the blonde’s shorts. "Isn’t that a spider crawling up your leg?"

Screeching like a banshee, Katy jumped to her feet and began frantically swatting at her own legs. "Did I get it?" She danced wildly. "Did I get it?"

Jacie sniggered and dropped down on the grass as the other girls roared with laughter, and it took only a second before Katy knew she’d been had. Her face turned beet red with embarrassment and she stomped off in the direction of the playground, muttering under her breath words that all the girls were forbidden to speak.

"Th-that was mean," Nina said, still laughing a little. But no on else bothered to comment on Katy’s departure. A least once every week or two, she or Jacie would get mad at the other and stalk off in a huff. But by the next time they all saw each other, the fuss had been long forgotten and everything was back to normal.

"It really was." Audrey high-fived Jacie. "Way to go!"

Gwen rolled her eyes at her friends, but her gaze sharpened when something about Audrey caught her eye. "Oh. My. God. You’re wearing one, aren’t you?"

Audrey’s cheeks flushed as dark as Gwen’s had and she nodded, correctly guessing what Gwen was referring to.

"Wow," Gwen breathed, trying to decide if she was brave enough to ask to see it.

"Wearing what?" Jacie glanced at her friend, seeing the same old Donny Osmond t-shirt she’d seen a million times and a pair of cut-off jeans for shorts.

Gwen gave Jacie’s leg a smack. "You’re so dense, Jacie! Just look."

Jacie looked again, and Audrey thrust out her chest. "Is that a new hair barrette?" she ventured, clueless.

Gwen rolled her eyes. "She’s wearing a bra!"

Jacie screwed up her face. "Gross."

"Shh!" Audrey’s gasped. "Not so loud, Gwen." She looked around to see if anyone else could have heard. "That’s private!"

"No, it’s not," Gwen insisted stubbornly. "I can see the straps through your shirt. How can it be private if I can see it?"

"It just is," Audrey said hotly. Then her expression cleared and she smiled as she crossed her arms over her budding breasts. "We went shopping for it special last week. Just Mom and me. We left my brothers at home."

Jacie looked over at Nina’s board-flat chest, then down at her own equally unimpressive boobies and shrugged. "I don’t need a bra and I don’t want one. Yuck." She let out an aggrieved sigh and turned pleading eyes on the other girls. "Can we talk about something else, please?"

Nina chewed the inside of her cheek. "Well, I-I sort of want one. They’re really pretty, Jacie. They come in white and pi-pink and my mom says we’ll all have one sooner or later so we might as well p-pick a cute one."

Jacie stared at Nina as though she was insane.

"Outta sight!" Gwen enthused, looking a little smug. "I not only want one, but my mom is taking me to the store to buy one next Saturday."

"Cool!" Audrey crooned, feeling a new connection with her friend. She had always had more in common with Katy, Jacie, or even Nina than she’d had with Gwen, who was such a girly girl and who had worked hard to get one or two popular friends outside the Mayflower Club. But lately, she and Gwen had spent more time together and she’d discovered that they both liked looking at Tiger Beat and talking about a lot of the same things.

A secret part of Audrey longed to be accepted by that other group of girls the way Gwen was. They were a sometimes-mysterious gaggle that boldly hung out in the very center of the playground and in the bathroom at school. They had only the coolest hairstyles and a different pair of shoes for each outfit, and most of all, the boys noticed them in ways they never did Jacie or Katy.

"Did you try it on at the store?" Nina asked, wondering if they came in extra-extra small.

Jacie shut her eyes and groaned as if she was in pain.

"Yup. I had to try on a few to find one that fit. Oooo… I almost forgot. They have the most far-out skateboard you can imagine right next to the baseball bats."

Jacie’s ears perked up. "Really? What store?"

"Kmart. Right next to the–"

Gwen gasped. "Kmart!" Her face showed her distaste.

Audrey’s eyebrows jumped. "Yeah. What’s wrong with Kmart?"

Jacie and Nina listened avidly. They both shopped there.

Gwen sniffed and repeated the words she’d heard her mother say. "It’s cheap and tacky."

"It is not!" Audrey defended angrily. "You’re just being a snot." She fought the urge to remind Gwen that her family was the poorest of the group and that she didn’t have any cause to be uppity.

"Yeah," Jacie agreed. "There’s nothing wrong with that store. I bought my bike there and it’s got a boss banana seat and super tall flag. And when I jump over things the tires don’t go flat like they did with my last one."

Nina frowned when Jacie mentioned jumping her bike. The dark-haired girl had set up two wooden ramps at the edge of a local park and had taken to jumping over anything she could get her hands on. She’d even talked Audrey and Gwen into laying on the ground as she sky-rocketed over them. Jacie rarely went a day without crashing, which Nina hated. "You just got your l-last cast off."

"Yup." Jacie happily wiggled the cast-free fingers of her left hand in response.

"You gotta b-be careful, ya know. You’d b-b-better not jump for a while," Nina reminded her friend, knowing that Jacie’s mom had recently forbade her from the activity, though that wasn’t likely to deter Jacie. Then she turned back to Gwen. "My-my dad bought a hose f-for the garden last week at Kmart. The s-store is okay to me."

"But those are bikes and hoses." Gwen waited for her friends to catch on, but they just looked at her, clearly confused as to what she meant. She sighed. "That stuff’s not the same as clothes."

"I think you’re a retard, Gwen," Jacie mumbled. "Uff. Hey!" She rubbed the ribs Nina had just elbowed.

"So where am I supposed to get my clothes?" Audrey said, starting to get upset. "My mom likes Kmart!"

"Well," Gwen began, considering the question carefully, "I think it’s fine to get them at Kmart, so long as nobody knows you got them there. And this is a bra we’re talking about." Jacie made a series of gagging noises that Gwen promptly ignored. "So if you don’t tell anyone, they won’t know."

"Oh." Audrey thought about that. She didn’t particularly care where her clothes were from so long as she liked them.

Gwen leaned forward a little. "Does it have a pink or blue bow right here?" She touched a spot between her own non-existent breasts.

Audrey beamed. Apparently, the style was right even if it was from the dreaded Kmart. "Uh huh! Blue!"

Gwen grinned her approval.

"Wanna see it?" Audrey asked, glancing over to Nina and Jacie a little self-consciously.

"Yes!" Gwen jumped to her feet and offered a hand to the chubby girl, grunting a little as she helped her up. Her gaze flicked to Nina and Jacie. "You guys coming?"

Jacie snorted. "I don’t want to see Audrey naked." A single dark brown eyeball appeared and she added, "No offense, Audrey."

Audrey plucked a piece of grass from her curly hair. "S’okay. It’s not like I want to see you naked either." Both girls laughed. "How ’bout you, Nina, you wanna see it?"

"Nah." Nina yawned. "I saw ‘em at the s-s-store. And I gotta go h-home soon anyway."

"Okay then." Audrey and Gwen started walking for Audrey’s back door. "Catch ya on the flip side."

"Bye." Nina and Jacie waved from their positions flat on their backs, their faces already pointing towards the sky.

"Well," Nina started after a moment or two of comfortable silence. She paused as an exceptionally pretty cloud caught her eye. "I guess I-I should go home."

Jacie sighed. She didn’t particularly want to go yet. The new grass was cool against her back and the sun was still strong enough to warm the soft cotton of her shirt. Nina didn’t jabber on and on like Audrey and Gwen tended to do and it was still at least two hours until supper. "I guess I should go home and do homework too." She made a face as though she smelled something incredibly stinky.

Nina sat up and tugged over Jacie’s book bag. She unzipped it and peered inside. "How far are you on r-r-reading?" She moved aside Jacie’s math book and three-ring binder and pulled out a copy of Where the Red Fern Grows and Jacie’s social studies book.

"Finished up to Chapter 21 in social studies. Haven’t even started the book about plants."

Nina’s eyes bugged. "Ch-chapter 21 already! Bu-but we were only assigned Chapter 21 two days ago."

Jacie turned just her head to face Nina and this time it was her turn to stutter. "Well, I-I–"

"You’re the s-smartest of us all," Nina pronounced, knowing full well that Jacie didn’t like it when anyone pointed out how intelligent she was. But they were alone now, which meant Nina could say pretty much anything she liked.

"Am not," Jacie said stubbornly, crossing her arms over her chest. "You get all A’s and B’s and I nearly failed Mr. Richards’ bogus science class last fall."

Nina playfully swatted Jacie’s belly. "That’s because I-I-I did all my homework and half the time you forget to-to turn yours in."

Jacie gave her friend a lopsided grin. "I only forget when it’s extra boring."

Nina let out a long breath. "I haven’t even st-started social studies but I’m halfway th-through Where the R-Red Fern Grows." She held up the book they’d recently been assigned in their advanced reading group. "It’s really good and it’s not about p-plants at all."

Jacie glanced at the book dismissively. "Looks old and boring."

"It’s not!" Nina opened the book. "I’ll sh-show you." And then she began to read out loud.

Jacie just closed her eyes and listened. She couldn’t recall the last time anyone had read to her, and Nina’s voice was soft and clear and it lulled her into a completely peaceful state. Nina read for a long time and Jacie was completely absorbed by the story until…. "Hey!"

Nina nearly jumped out of her skin. She dropped the book and rose to her hands and knees. "What?" Frantically, she began looking around, trying figure out what caused Jacie to yell.

"You’re not stuttering any more."

Nina’s expression grew dark. The Mayflower Club never, never made fun of her stuttering. "What are you talking a-about?" She heard herself stutter and her chest clenched. She hated the way she sounded.

"When you were reading, you weren’t stuttering," Jacie insisted. She grabbed the book and forced it back into Nina’s hands. "Read some more." She gave her a little shove. "Go on."

Nina sighed and set the book down on the grass. "I-I always stutter, Jacie. Mama said I’d g-g-grow out of it. And it’s better then w-when I was little. But not that m-much better. Mama even made an a-a-appointment with a speech therapist."

"Just try it," Jacie begged. "Please?"

When those dark pleading eyes were turned Nina’s way, the girl found herself helpless to refuse. "Okay," she said hesitantly, picking up the book and finding her place. "But it w-won’t work."

"Just try."

Nina drew in a deep breath. She read the first line and stuttered several words. Angrily, she slammed the book closed and felt tears sting her eyes. "See!"

"Try again." Jacie’s voice was soothing and filled with confidence. "You weren’t stuttering before, Nina. Honest." She handed her back the book. "One last time. And this time just think about the story. It is good, just like you said. My favorite part was where…"

Nina tucked a strand of dark blonde hair behind her ear as she listened to Jacie, a little surprised at how intently she’d been listening. When she found the right page, she glanced over to Jacie, who was lying in the grass peacefully, her eyes closed as the sun painted her face. Nina gathered her courage and began to read again. She stuttered at first, but Jacie didn’t interrupt her, and before she knew it, she was lost in the story. It was a full ten minutes later when Jacie rolled over on her side to face Nina, her mouth shaping a triumphant grin. "Toldja."

Nina froze mid-sentence and looked at Jacie and found the courage to try again. She swallowed hard, then read a few more lines and realized that the words were coming out in a steady stream. Nina blinked. "Jinkies!"

Jacie let out a loud whoop of victory. "You did it!"

"How did I-I-?" She pounded the ground with one fist. "Argh!" She was stuttering again.

Jacie frowned. "You don’t do it when you read. Maybe you just need practice. You can read to me after school."

"But what about your p-piano lessons? You have to practice three da-days a week."

Jacie groaned. She’d forgotten about those. "If I tell my mom I’m reading with you, she might let me quit. Can’t you save me from them? "

"I c-can try." Nina paused, then bravely plowed ahead. "After all, wh-what are best friends for?" She searched Jacie’s face for a reaction, well aware that she’d never called Jacie her best friend before, though she’d felt it was true for so long, she couldn’t remember when it wasn’t true.

A thrill chased its way up and down Jacie’s spine and she shot her a toothy grin. "Exactly. Best friends help each other through thick and thin."

Nina released the breath she’d been holding just as Gwen and Audrey emerged from Audrey’s house and trotted over to their friends.

"How come you’re still here?" Audrey asked. "Jacie, don’t you have to eat dinner by six?"

"Damn!" Jacie roared, jumping to her feet. "I gotta go." She snatched up her book bag and took both the books from Nina, who also stood. Then she did something she’d never done to anyone outside of her family. She pulled Nina into a heartfelt hug, which Nina giddily returned.

"You shouldn’t swear, Jacie," Gwen admonished, still shocked that Jacie had hugged anyone. "It’s not ladylike." She scratched her head. "Hey, what’s up with you two?"

Jacie gave them a brief rundown of what had happened, and Gwen and Audrey squealed with delight, jumping up and down and hugging Nina.

"You can read to me on Mondays after school, Nina," Gwen offered, eager to help.

"And me on Tuesdays and Katy on Wednesday," Audrey piped up, sure that her cousin would want to help. "Would a magazine be okay?" All eyes turned to Jacie, the newly anointed expert on the subject.

Jacie flipped her ponytail off her shoulder and brushed some grass from her shirt. "How should I know?" But she gave the question its due. "I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. Reading is reading. Even if it is about foxy, dorky boys."

Audrey smiled. "Then I’m picking a magazine. ’Kay, Nina?"

"Okay." Nina felt like she might cry and her chin began to quiver. "Th-thanks, guys."

The moment was thick with emotion and Jacie shifted uncomfortably. "I really gotta go now."

Nina sniffed, then nodded. "I’ll walk b-back with you part way." And then they were off in the direction of their street, turning their heads after a couple dozen paces when Gwen called their names.

The tall girl cupped her hands around her mouth so that her voice would carry. "Jacie, you oughta be a doctor when you grow up."

Jacie waved at them but didn’t answer. "So," she glanced down at Nina as they walked. "Do you think I should be a doctor?"

Nina scrunched up her face. "Of course n-not. You’re going to be too b-busy breaking world records to be a doctor."

Jacie’s smile was so wide it was a wonder her face didn’t crack in two. Nobody knew her like Nina.


Present Day

Clayton, Missouri

"Who are we going to see again, Mom?"

Jacie steered the truck onto the quiet residential street where Nina now lived. "We’re going to see an old friend of mine." I can’t believe I’m doing this after she hung up on me. When she realized that her palms were actually sweating, she wiped them on her t-shirt, wondering if Emily could tell how nervous she was.

The girl rolled down the window and stuck her head out like a dog on a truck ride and grinned wildly, the wind whipping back her dark hair. "Why are you scared then?" she said loudly.

Jacie sighed. "Get your head back in the truck, crazy, and I’m not scared. I’m… Well, I’m just…" What am I? She let out a frustrated breath and decided to change the subject. There had to be some benefit to being the adult in the relationship. "My friend doesn’t know we’re coming today and I hope it’s going to be a nice surprise."

"Can you at least roll down your window?"

Jacie rolled her eyes, knowing it was too cool to need the windows rolled down, but doing it anyway because it made Emily happy.

The little girl was quiet for a moment, watching the trees and houses with an interested eye. "I was surprised when you came to pick me up from school today." She turned towards Jacie. "We don’t usually see each other during the week."

Jacie felt a lump form in her throat, and she had to swallow around it to speak. "I know. But I thought you might like to come with me today." She was still amazed that Alison, the evil whore-bitch, had allowed the impromptu visit at all and Jacie figured that her ex must have had plans for the night anyway and that Emily was simply destined for an evening with a babysitter.

An enormous smile met her mom’s words. "I always want to come with you."

Jacie nodded and grinned back. "Same here, kiddo." She eased through an unmarked intersection. "My friend’s name is Nina Chilt– Uhh," she realized she didn’t know whether Nina was married or if she even had the same last name. "Anyway, I guess you can just call her Nina." I have lost my mind. I know it.

"Okay." Emily shrugged. She didn’t much care what they did, so long as they did it together. "Is it her birthday?" She reached back to the backseat and retrieved a small wrapped box.

"Uh… No. I just… I had something that I wanted to give her." She licked her lips nervously. "I figured now was as good a time as any."

A few more minutes and Jacie pulled up in front of the gray Colonial. "Wow," she murmured. "It’s just the same as I remember it."

"You’ve been here before?" Emily asked as she unbuckled her seatbelt.

"Sure." Jacie didn’t move except to peer out of her daughter’s window. "I stayed the night here several times when I was a kid when my friend was here to visit her grandparents."

"That long ago?"

Jacie snorted. "Way back in the 1970s if you can imagine that."

Emily’s eyes went round. "Cool!"

Jacie chuckled at the awe in her daughter’s voice, though her stomach was in knots.

Emily exited the truck and stood on the curb to wait for her mother, taking the opportunity to look around. The neighborhood was nice, she decided. Pretty houses sat back far from the street and were separated by thick sets of bushes or trees. Then she spied something near the back of the house. "A treehouse!"

Jacie craned her head as she stared out the window but couldn’t see what Emily was looking at.

"C’mon, Mom," the girl rapped on the window excitedly. "Aren’t you coming out?"

Jacie sucked in a deep breath, a little unsure of the answer. Katherine had given her Nina’s address and phone number during their phone conversation. She swore she didn’t want or need the information, and yet, here she was. She’d picked up Emily and driven over here on impulse, taking only the time necessary to wrap a small gift for Nina. Now that she thought about it, she felt incredibly stupid for showing up unannounced. "Get back inside the truck, Emily. I think this was a bad–" She stopped when a tow-headed boy exploded out of the front door of Nina’s house and ran down the walk at full speed.

Jacie was afraid he was going to smash headlong into the truck, but he stopped just short of Emily, sticking both of his hands in his jeans pockets as he curiously regarded the younger girl. He was a sturdy-looking boy, whose face was covered with freckles. His hair was tousled despite being cut short and spiked on top and the thick locks were a lighter shade of blonde than Jacie ever remembered seeing Nina’s. There was, however, not a doubt in her mind that she was looking at Nina’s son.

"Hi, I’m Robbie," he said to Emily, glancing warily at the grownup in the truck.

Tentatively, Emily gave him a friendly smile, pleased that an older boy was talking to her at all. Then she cast her gaze to the ground, suddenly shy. "Hi. My name is Emily."

Unconsciously, Robbie puffed out his chest and stood a little taller.

Jacie’s eyebrows lifted at the natural interplay. "Gimme a break," she mumbled.

"How come you’re parked in front of my house?" he asked in a clear but gentle voice. "If you’re lost, I might be able to help you."

Jacie smiled at his kindness.

"We’re here to see your mom." Emily pointed through the open window to Jacie, who was still rooted in place. "That’s my mom." She crossed her eyes. "She’s afraid to get out of the truck."

Jacie shot Emily an evil look.

Robbie jumped off the curb as though he was competing in the broad jump at the Olympics, then ran around the side of the truck and stopped just short of poking his head into the window.

Jacie was glad she was sitting down, because when his blue/green eyes met her gaze it was Nina looking at her all over again and her knees felt like jelly. "H–" She cleared her throat a little. "Hi." She tried to smile reassuringly. "I’m Jacie."

"Nice to meet you," Robbie said politely. "My mom’s not home." Already bored with Jacie, he glanced back at Emily.

With a reprieve from those eyes, Jacie’s gaze strayed to the house and she wondered if she should fish for a little information. Oh, what the hell. "What about your dad? Is he home?"

The boy shrugged. "No dad, just us and Grandma, who’s watchin’ me tonight."

Just then Agnes Chilton stepped out onto the front porch, still drying her hands on a soft yellow kitchen towel. "Robbie?" Her brow furrowed. "Who are you talking to?"

"A friend of Mom’s," he bellowed back, loud enough for the entire neighborhood to take notice.

Jacie winced and rubbed her now ringing ear. She sighed inwardly, knowing that she couldn’t change her mind now and that she’d have to at least say hello to Nina’s mother. At least it’s not my mother. The thought left her cold.

Under her breath, Jacie cursed herself for not sneaking away while she had the chance. Then she cursed herself some more for being a hopeless chicken. The older woman slowly made her way down the front walkway as Jacie, who felt like she was 11 years old again, emerged from the truck. "Hello, Mrs. Chilton," she said, trying not to look as surprised as she felt at the sight of Nina’s mom. God, how did she get so old?

Agnes smiled warmly. "If it isn’t that scamp Jacie Ann Priest, all grown up and as beautiful as ever." She held out her arms. "Come and give me a hug. I haven’t seen you in ages."

Jacie let out a relieved breath. Clearly, Nina had never told her mother what had transpired between them. She closed the remaining steps to Agnes and gave her a gentle hug, laughing when the older woman increased the pressure just to hear Jacie squawk.

"I’m not so old I’m going to break, Jacie Ann. Don’t you dare coddle me!" But the smile on her face took any sting from the words.

After a long moment, Jacie stepped back and reached for Emily, taking her hand. "Can Nina come out and play?" she asked mischievously, earning a chuckle from Agnes.

Agnes repeated what Robbie had said, adding that Nina had had to go into work for some paperwork for her new job and that she probably wouldn’t be home until late. Jacie wasn’t sure whether to be relived about Nina being gone or not.

"Is that going to be a tree house?" Emily pointed to the pile of wood at the base of a tree that was just visible around the side of the house. Several boards had already been nailed into place.

"Yup," Robbie said proudly. "Wanna see?"

"Yeah!" Emily took a large step forward, then remembered she was supposed to ask permission. She turned and opened her mouth, but Jacie beat her to the punch.

"Go on." Jacie waved toward the side of the house. "Just stay with Robbie and no touching anything sharp." She lifted her eyebrows meaningfully. "Got me?"

Emily rolled her eyes. "Gotcha, Mom. Thanks!"

The children took off running towards the tree with Robbie slowing down just enough so that Emily could keep up. Jacie shook her head. "Remember when you were young enough to run everywhere you went?"

Agnes sighed. "No."

Jacie started to laugh. "Neither do I."

The two women sat on the porch and chatted for a few minutes with Agnes doing most of the talking and Jacie giving the occasional nod or adding a scant detail about her own life. It was hard to stop Agnes when she was on a roll.

"So," Agnes began casually, "you are going to that gathering of your old friends this weekend, aren’t you?"

The smile that Jacie had been wearing since she arrived slipped from her face. The more she thought about it, the less convinced she was that she’d be comfortable being in the same room with Nina, much less Gwen, who she might strangle just for the fun of it. Perhaps missing Nina tonight was a sign that the past was best left dead and buried. "Umm… No." She looked away. "I have plans this weekend."

"Oh, I see." Agnes’s tone was thoughtful. "Nina will be so upset."

Jacie’s jaw sagged. "She will?"

"Of course! The main reason she decided to attend was because you were going to be there. She’s all packed."

Jacie looked skeptical. "She actually said that?"

"She wants to see all you girls." Agnes’s gaze softened. "But you most of all, Jacie Ann."

Jacie chewed on that for a moment, not knowing what to say.

Agnes sighed. "Well, I hope you change your mind. You will change your mind, won't you?"

Jacie had to admire the other woman’s persistence. "As I said, I have plans. And," she slapped her thighs, "it’s getting time for supper."

"You’re welcome to join us for dinner," Agnes said quickly, hoping that Jacie would stay. "Since Nina’s not home, we’re having all of Robbie’s favorites, a kid-friendly meal that’s all white and consists of macaroni and cheese, cottage cheese, and French fries."

The women shared knowing, chagrined looks. "Emily would be in heaven, but as tempting as that is…" Jacie stood from her spot on the stairs and jumped the two stairs to the bottom as Agnes rose from her nearby chair. "I’ll have to say no thank you, Mrs. Chilton. Emily and I already have a date with a pizza parlor."

"If you’re sure?"

Jacie nodded.

"All right then." She patted Jacie’s forearm. "She’s a beautiful girl, Jacie Ann. How proud you must be."

Jacie’s face broke into a dazzling smile. "I really am." And as she said the words, she realized that she'd been looking forward to showing off her daughter to Nina.. She wasn’t close to any of her family and the thought of someone she cared about meeting her Emily was very, very appealing.

"Time to go, Emily!" Jacie called out, not surprised when both children came racing around the corner in a matter of seconds. But before they left, she asked for Emily to fetch Nina’s gift from the truck.

Jacie looked at the box for several long seconds, deciding whether she was going to part with it or not. With a deep breath she said, "Can you give this to Nina for me?"

Agnes took the slender box. "Are you sure you wouldn’t rather give it to her this weekend?"

Jacie smiled sadly. "No. I think this way is best. She'll understand."

Robbie patted Emily on the back. "Thanks for coming over to play. Can you come back when the tree house is done? It’s gonna be really cool."

Emily looked hopefully at her mother, but Jacie didn’t answer, unwilling to commit to something only to have to break her word later. "Maybe," Emily finally ventured.

"Goodbye," Jacie said warmly, directing the words to Nina’s son. Then her gaze lifted to Agnes, who was still standing on the porch. "And thanks."

Agnes and Robbie waved as the pickup pulled away and disappeared down the street.

Robbie sighed as he took the wrapped box from his grandmother and gave it a little shake, trying to determine what was inside. "Emily was pretty cool for a girl. And her mom, too," he said absently.

Agnes slung the dishrag over her shoulder and wrapped an arm around Robbie’s waist to lead him inside, the wheels in her head spinning at a furious rate. "Mm. They certainly were."


It was nearly nine o’clock by the time Nina pulled into the driveway. Agnes was waiting on the porch with a pitcher of lemonade and an extra sweater for Nina to ward off the evening chill. She was big into constant hydration and warmth. A few sluggish bugs buzzed around the amber porch light and the smell of damp leaves filled the air. For the first time all year, it felt like autumn.

"I’m sorry it’s so late, Mom." Nina ran a hand through her hair. "Tonight was so hectic. They’re trying to get a new exhibit up for this weekend and I decided to stay and help." Her gaze strayed to the second floor. "Is Robbie already in bed?"

"Bathed and snoring away."

Nina let out defeated groan. "You’re a miracle worker. I usually have to all but threaten his life to get him to bed by 9:00. Especially on Friday nights."

"I do my best." Actually, Agnes had threatened his life. But Nina didn’t need to know that. It was best to keep the all-knowing mother thing going for as long as possible. "Here," she gestured to an empty chair. "Sit and put this on."

Nina flopped down the seat and took the sweater, wrapping it around her shoulders. "I’m so tired," she moaned, already looking forward to sleeping in. She reached for the pitcher of lemonade as she stretched out her legs. "Anything interesting happen today?"

"Your friend Jacie Ann and her daughter Emily stopped by tonight."

Nina nearly dropped the pitcher. "Jesus Christ." She fumbled it for a few seconds before getting a good grip on the damp glass. Her eyes were wide as twin moons. "What? Jacie came by here? And she has a daughter?"

"That’s what I said."

In shock, Nina shook her head a little. "Wow. I can’t believe… How did she seem? Jacie, I mean."

Agnes cocked her head to the side. "Witty. Smart. Pretty. Same as always."

Nina wasn’t sure whether that was good news or not. Jacie was a mom? Wow.

"Are you going to Gwen’s gathering this weekend?" Agnes asked suddenly.

Nina rolled her eyes. "I already told you I decided not to go."

"But Jacie Ann is going to be so disappointed."

Nina blinked. "Since when!"

"Since I spoke to her tonight. She said the entire reason she was going was to see you." Agnes gave Nina a woeful look to complete the effect.

"But…" Nina was still shell-shocked.

"She even brought you a gift." Agnes reached down behind her chair and handed Nina a small box wrapped in brown Kraft paper.

"What’s this for?" Nina turned the box over in her hands and shook it, exactly the way Robbie had done.

"I have no earthly idea, but she said that you’d understand."

Nina licked her lips and wiped her damp palms on her jeans before tearing open the paper and lifting the lid. When she saw what was inside, her eyes slammed closed, a glistening tear escaping one corner.

Agnes gaped. "I didn’t know it would make you cry." She peered through the dim light to see what sort of gift could elicit such a strong reaction. "Well, what is it? What does it mean?"

Nina pulled the gift from the box and pressed it against her heart before handing it to her mother. She wiped her eyes and when she spoke. Her voice was heavy with emotion. "It means I need to go upstairs and pack. Can you still look after Robbie if I go to this gathering?"

Agnes’s eyebrows jumped. "Of course. But I–"

"Thanks, Mom." Nina pressed a quick kiss to her mother’s cheek. then hurried inside, leaving the older woman alone with the chirping crickets.

"Huh." Agnes held the gift up to the light to get a better look.

It was an old, tattered copy of Where the Red Fern Grows.

As she traced the letters on its cover, she wondered why a book about plants would bring anyone to tears. But, she decided, it really didn’t matter. What mattered was Nina’s ultimate happiness and towards that end she lifted her glass in a toast. "To friends and reunions…" she paused to nibble her lip, then added, "and to as many chances as it takes to get things right."

Next Part

Return to the Academy