Town & Country, Missouri
"Here you go, Mrs. Langtree." A diminutive housekeeper with skin so black it held a tint of blue handed Gwen a stainless steel traveling mug full of steaming cappuccino. "Can I get you anything else?"
The morning air was cool, and Gwen could see her breath as she leaned against her convertible and accepted the warm mug. Her red hair was swept up in a clip that held it just off her neck and she was wearing a sleeveless white sweater, deck shoes, and soft jeans she hadnt had occasion to put on in several years. She smiled weakly, more nervous about reuniting with the Mayflower Club than she thought shed be. "No thank you, Ruby." She brought the mug to her lips and peered over the rim. "Did you remember to add the whiskey?"
Rubys eyes widened and her gaze flicked to the car. "But"
Gwen chuckled and took a sip. "Just kidding." She sighed. "Mostly."
Ruby pointed to the passenger seat that held a small travel bag, and her normally rich voice rose to a squeak. "Is that all youre bringing?"
A sassy eyebrow lifted. "Would you be surprised if I said yes?"
Ruby just snorted.
Gwen rolled her eyes. "Fine. I have more. Tucker came by to have breakfast with Mr. Langtree and I sent him inside to get my other bags."
Ruby hummed a little and spoke under her breath. "Thank Jesus Im too old to carry them myself."
"I heard that, Ruby."
Malcolm, dressed, but with a dab of shaving cream still on his cheek, trotted out of the house. He dismissed Ruby with a quick wave of his hand and the small woman shuffled back into the house.
Gwen frowned. Malcolm wasnt usually so rude.
He stopped in front of her, a curious expression on his face. "There was a phone call for you just now."
"Really," Gwen answered absently, fishing through her purse for her driving glasses with one hand. "Who was it?"
Malcolms normally mild-mannered expression went a little hard. "He didnt say."
Something odd in his voice made Gwen look up from her rummaging. "Malcolm?"
"Thats happened a couple of times this week."
"You know it has. Ive asked you about them."
"Do you want me to call the phone company?" she asked tentatively, unsure of where the conversation was headed.
Their gazes locked and Gwen felt the bottom drop out of her stomach.
A pained, lost expression swept over his face and tears filled his eyes. "Are you having an affair, Gwen?"
The unexpected question stole the breath from her lungs as surely as a punch to the gut would have. She actually had to grab hold of the car to steady herself. "Wh-What? Oh, my God.
He sniffed and lifted his chin, not caring that he was having this discussion in his driveway. "Are you?"
She stared at him for a moment, flabbergasted that he actually appeared to be serious. She reached out to touch his forearm, and he flinched before her bandage-covered hand could graze him. "How could you even ask me such a thing?" she asked harshly, her voice a loud whisper.
"How could I not!" He threw his hands in the air. The phone call this morning had been the last straw. "Youre acting so strange. I keep asking you about it and you wont talk to me!" He gently grasped her arm and held her bandaged hand in front of her face as proof of her erratic behavior. "Someone is calling here but wont leave his name. If I go near your computer, you act as though youre going to have a heart attack." He let her hand drop. "Whats going on, Gwen?"
Her heart began to thump wildly in her chest and she looked around self-consciously, despite the fact that the nearest neighbor was several hundred yards away and behind a privacy fence. "Nothing."
"Its not nothing," he growled. "Jill saw you!"
"What could your secretary have seen? Jesus Christ, Malcolm. Are you insane? Im not having an affair!"
"You told me you were visiting your mother yesterday."
"Then why did, Jill, see you coming out of the Werner Building downtown at lunch?"
Gwen closed her eyes. Shit. Shed asked Ted Gramercy to continue keeping tabs on the Mayflower Clubs members finances. And yesterday for the first and only time, shed gone by his office after hed called her and told her that Audrey had withdrawn $10,000.00 from her savings account with Enrique. The exact amount of her blackmailers last demand. I never should have gone there in person. Too close. Everything was closing in on her. "Malcolm"
"Do you deny it?"
Her gaze was heartsick. Lying to him tore at her insides, but the truth was even more unbearable. "Of course, I dont deny it, sweetheart. I went to Mothers after I stopped by the new gallery on the third floor of the Werner Building. It just opened last week." She dug around in her purse and pulled out a creased brochure from the gallery, holding it up for him to see and privately thanking God that shed picked it up on a whim as shed exited the building. "I must have forgotten to mention it because I was there for such a short time. You know how I feel about impressionists and that was the entire display."
Uncertainty colored Malcolms features and he swallowed hard.
This time when she reached out he accepted her touch, and she felt her racing pulse began to calm. She could tell by his eyes that he desperately wanted to believe her, knew the very second when painful uncertainty shifted into belief. She vowed on the spot to fire Gramercy Investigations and never contact them again. She couldnt risk it. "I dont know whos been calling here, it's only been two calls, but well contact the phone company and have it blocked or traced." She gently rubbed her fingertips through the hair on his arm. "Its probably some teenager playing a stupid prank."
She sounded so reasonable, so calm, that his wild accusation appeared rash and foolish. With an unsteady breath, he took the brochure from her hand and felt his cheeks began to heat. "I I dont know what I was thinking." His jaw worked and shook his head. "I"
Suddenly, she kissed him hard, feeling a strong arm wrap around her and pull her body tighter to his, the embrace so tight it hurt. When she pulled away, she spoke against his lips and his mustache tickled her mouth. "I love you, Malcolm. You believe that, dont you?"
"Yes," he whispered, but his brow was deeply furrowed. "But theres still something wrong." He chewed his lip as he thought. "Something youre not"
"No buts," she interrupted quickly, hoping the tremors she was feeling on the inside werent noticeable. "Its true, Ive been out of sorts thinking about this reunion." She lowered herself from her tiptoes, but maintained firm eye contact as she offered up a wan smile. "Im a little spooked about coming face to face with my childhood again."
"Thats all it is?" he asked skeptically. "You havent been sleeping." He trailed his fingers down her arm and circled her slender wrist, holding it up for inspection. "Im worried about you, Gwen. Youve lost weight." He licked his lips, hating to press the point but unwilling to let it go without a fight. "All because youre seeing your friends again?"
No, her mind screamed. Because I cant stand the thought of losing you and Tucker!
"I can tell theres more." He cupped her chin with a firm but gentle hand and tilted her face upward. "And"
"Hi." Tucker jogged up to the couple and looked questioningly between his parents, who both plastered on welcoming, though visibly uncomfortable smiles.
In Tuckers hands were two large leather suitcases. "Did I interrupt something?" His voice lacked its usual warmth and Gwen instantly wondered what hed heard, but a second later he flashed his father his usual smile and her concern was cast aside.
Tucker was several inches shorter than his fathers 6 feet 2 inches, with a slim waist and dark brown hair that curled around his ears and just above his collar. He was handsome in a brooding sort of way, with soulful eyes that held a perpetually vulnerable look that drew women the way blossoms drew bees.
Malcolm took the bags from his son and with a lingering look at Gwen, moved to the trunk, which was already open. "You know your mother," he teased gently. "She always decides its a good time to talk as she walking out the door."
Gwen stepped around Tucker to address Malcolm, affectionately patting her son on the back as she moved. "Well talk when I get home, Mal?"
"Count on it." Malcolms eyes conveyed his apology, and Gwen couldnt help but give him a hug, feeling his heart still beating fast from their discussion. "Its going to be okay," she whispered in his ear, her voice so low that only he could hear it, and was rewarded with a tightening of his embrace. "I know you want to talk, but I need to go."
Malcolm brushed his lips against the top of her head, torn between insisting she stay and not wanting to make a bigger fool of himself. "Have fun," he finally said, reluctantly admitting what he hoped was only a temporary defeat.
Gwen breathed a sigh of relief, her breath creating a fog in the early morning air. Worry still gnawed at her guts, but she did her best to ignore it. She needed to get out of here before she did something foolish. Something she couldnt undo, like telling Malcolm everything and begging his forgiveness. With a sigh, she gently disentangled herself from her husband to give Tucker a goodbye kiss, but the young man was already seated in his blood-red Mini Cooper, which was parked a few yards from Gwens car. A little disappointed, she picked up her travel mug as Malcolm closed the trunk. "Bye, Tuck." She gave him a quick wave.
He was very aware of the awkward interaction between his parents, and his forehead wrinkled as he waved back. They usually got along quite well, and he could always tell when they were arguing. But this, somehow, was different. "Bye, Mom." He let a grin overtake his face when he turned to Malcolm. "Cmon, Dad!"
Malcolm closed Gwens car door after she climbed in, giving the roof a pat when he was finished. He opened his mouth to say something else when Tucker playfully honked his horn.
The college student gave his father a woebegone look. "Im starving, ya know."
Malcolm held up his hands in surrender and chuckled weakly. "All right, Im coming." He gave Gwen a warm, apologetic smile and rocked back on his heels, not quite able to look her in the eye. "I love you," he mouthed silently.
Gwens heart clenched and for a long moment she was once again tempted to tell him everything. Instead, she said, "I love you, too," and started the ignition.
Tuckers horn sounded again and Malcolm shot his son a slightly annoyed look. "Hold your horses, chow hound. Im sure the club wont run out of eggs and orange juice," he mumbled.
She watched her husband fold himself into the tiny car, wishing that Tucker drove something safer, like a Volvo. Or a Sherman tank. When they were well out of sight, Gwen rested her forehead against the steering wheel, her fingers gripping the leather until her knuckles showed white. "What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?" she chanted. This visit was important. Things were beginning to unravel at home. Shed handled this badly so far, and shed worked too hard to have her life fall apart.
As she pulled out of her driveway, she thought bitterly of the women she loved and how one among them was driving a knife into her heart and twisting it.
Dressed in jeans and a soft, red fleece shirt, Audrey sat with her elbows on her knees on the front porch of Charlottes Web B&B. The mid-morning fog had yet to completely clear, and the vibrant autumn colors were just starting to peek through the mist. She smiled and took another sip of the rich Kona coffee with which Frances Artiste had graciously greeted her when shed arrived at the B&B only moments before.
She lifted her head and drew in a deep breath, a tiny smile edging its way across her face. The Missouri countryside smelled just as she remembered and no place else could quite replicate the combination of wet, bruised plants, fertilizer, and fragrant wood smoke that tickled her senses. It felt very much like home, and despite the fact that she loved her life in Salt Lake City, she felt a pang of homesickness that she hadnt experienced since her earliest days on her own.
The sound of a far-off car engine caused her head to turn, and the butterflies in her stomach to begin to flutter.
Audrey stood as a rusty, mint green Karmann Ghia clanked down the long driveway. Through the lightly tinted windows she could see a shock of pale hair and could feel the vibration of the pounding music as "Jessies Girl" blasted out of the cars amazingly loud stereo. Katy. Her excitement began to build, and she had to force herself not to run over to the carriage house-turned-garage to greet her cousin.
It took Audrey a second to realize that there was no reason in the world to tamp down her impulse. She was excited, dammit, and she couldnt bring herself to be ashamed of that. Grinning wildly, she set off towards the old garage.
"Katy," Audrey hollered as she walked, hearing the vehicle door squeak loudly as it was opened, then slam shut, "only you would be driving such a butt-ugly car, but manage to have a state-of-the-art stereo system."
"Audrey?" came the disembodied voice from inside the carriage house.
She stopped dead in her tracks, listening to a rusty trunk open and close. "Yes?"
"Are you still short and round?"
Audrey snorted, taking the insult in stride. She tapped her chin thoughtfully. "Depends. Are you still a trashy slut?"
There was a few seconds pause before both women shouted, "Yes!" and began to laugh.
Smiling broadly, Katherine emerged from the garage dragging a dinged suitcase behind her. "Hiya, cuz," she drawled.
Audreys excitement bubbled over. "Hiya, cuz. Now that the pleasantries are over, hurry up and get over here!"
The women threw their arms around each other and held on tight for a long time, rocking with the slight breeze.
"You look beautiful," Katherine whispered emotionally.
Audreys eyes closed and she let her insecurity over her appearance fade into the recesses of her mind, though after a lifetime of being self-conscious, it was something shed never truly get over. "You too." She pulled away and affectionately ran her hands over the very tips of Katherines short, spiked hair, giving it a critical once over. She nodded decisively. "I think it looks just like Grandpas did."
"Hey!" Katherine gasped and slapped Audreys fingers away from the stiff peaks. "Ill have you know that I paid good money for this. It is a platinum blonde spike. Not a white, jar-head crewcut!"
Audrey affected a serious pose. "Oh, yes," she said slowly, making a show of examining the locks again. "Now, I see the difference now." She plucked at Katherines lightweight jacket and blouse and peeked down inside. "So wheres the Semper Fi tattoo? Grandma said Grandpas was right on his"
"Dont you dare go there, Audrey." Katherine wrinkled her nose. "And Ill have you know, since it took you all of three seconds to mention it, that Im not nearly the slut I used to be. Im too tired to stay out all night nowadays." A twinkle entered her glacier-blue eyes. "I have a steady boyfriend who Im crazy about. I think I might be off the market for a good long time."
"Ooo Will I get to hear all the torrid details?"
"Torrid details mixed with lies. The usual."
"Heh. Good." Her face suddenly sobered as she took a good look at the woman standing so close to her. Katherine was several inches taller than her own 5 feet 3 inches and had stayed slim over the years; a slight softening around her jaw line was the only clue as to the onset of middle age. She looked healthy and happy. Audreys voice took on a serious tone that was rarely used with her mischievous cousin. "My God, Katy, I feel like Aunt Gladys is looking back at me."
The women shared sad, slightly watery smiles. Katherines mother Gladys had died unexpectedly five years before.
"Thanks," Katherine rasped, her heart swelling from the sincere compliment.
Audrey stuffed her hands into her pocket. Her gaze dropped and shame colored her voice. "Im sorry I didnt make it back for the funeral." She kicked at a pebble and it skittered into the leaf-strewn grass. "Tina was sick that week and"
Katherine made a dismissive motion with her hand. "I dont need a reason, Audrey. Its okay."
Audrey glanced up doubtfully.
"Really," Katherine assured her, wondering how they got talking about something so serious so fast. "We didnt have a formal service anyway. Mama hated funerals. Dad just had a reception for the local family and friends and we toasted her all night long." She shrugged. "Its what she would have wanted."
"Still, I could have called you." But I was too embarrassed to make contact after wed been so out of touch for so many years.
Katherine sighed. That summer had been one of the lowest points in her life and a simple phone call, just one to make sure she was okay so that shed have known Audrey cared, would have gone a long way. She was about to say as much, when the look in Audreys eyes told her she already knew. Katherine arched an eyebrow for emphasis. "Next time I need a friend, youll call me." It wasnt a question.
Audrey let out a breath, immeasurably grateful at being so easily forgiven. Her stomach had been in knots over this very subject and she had promised herself on the plane ride from Salt Lake City that she wouldnt put it off. "I will," she confirmed quietly, deciding a shift to lighter subjects would be welcomed. They had three days to rehash old mistakes and make promises for the future. "Cmon." Her face visibly lightened, erasing a handful of years. "You have to see this place." She turned towards Charlottes Web and opened her arms wide. "Its gorgeous inside, though it looks like theyre doing a little bit of renovating."
Katherine wrapped her arm around Audreys shoulder as they strode towards the house. Tilting her head towards her cousin, she conspiratorially asked, "Did ya steal any ashtrays or pretentious paintings?"
Audrey snickered. "Ive only been here for a half hour. Give me time," she teased, a smile firmly reaffixed on her face. Their footsteps were loud as they crunched through the rocks on the stone-filled path. "Were the only ones here so far, except for the woman who runs the B&B." She drew in a deep, satisfying breath of scented air. "Ive spent the last half hour enjoying the morning and beautiful fall colors."
Katherines gaze flicked to the expanse of forest behind the B&B. It was so easy to forget to appreciate what was all around you, the little things and not so little things that surround you on a daily basis. Complacency, she decided, was its own sort of disease, stealthily diminishing the importance of things that truly make life special. Things you dont notice until theyre gone.
Near the door of the home was a sign that bore the B&Bs name and the year of establishment. "Langtree Enterprises" was written in smaller letters below Charlottes Web.
"Looks like Gwen wanted home field advantage." Katherine separated from Audrey and huffed a little as she began toting the suitcase up the porch steps. "Not that I can blame her. Damn, cheap wheels," she grumbled petulantly. "If she expects anyone to speak to her this week, shes got a lot of fences to mend." Though Katherine knew she herself was going to go out of her way to do that as well.
Audrey nodded. "Im here for you, Nina, and Jacie. Well see about Gwen later."
Katherine paused at the front door and studied the contemplative look on Audreys face. "You havent forgiven her, have you?"
Audrey let out a slow breath and gave the question its due. Her gaze darkened. "Im not sure, Katy. I want to. But when I think of everything that happened to us all, I get so mad and hurt. Sure, she didnt do to me what she did to Jacie, but she still cut me too, ya know?" She shook her head, at a loss to express exactly how she felt. "I guess Ill know what and how much I can forgive when I see her."
Katherine pursed her lips, reluctant to bring up what she knew would be a touchy subject, but doing it nonetheless. "Then theres the business of Gwen digging into our finances ." She let the sentence drop, wondering what Audreys reaction would be.
"How do we know it was her?"
Katherines eyes narrowed at the thought of Gwen invading her privacy and how much it could cost her. "Cmon, Pollyanna, who else would be investigating all of us at the same time?"
"I dont know," she admitted honestly, opening the front door and being greeted by a blast of warm air that smelled like caramel rolls. She thought she might swoon.
"Are you up for a little snooping?"
Audrey flashed her a wicked smile. "Are we talking about raiding the kitchen for whatever smells like heaven, or rifling Gwens bags to try and find out if shes the one whos been investigating us?"
"Good." Something caught Katherines eye. "Hey, you forgot your coffee." She trotted across the porch and picked up the cup, taking a drink from the cup without giving it a second thought. "Mmm
Audrey rolled her eyes and grabbed Katherines suitcase and carried it inside. "Holy Mother of God, what do you have in here? A dead body?"
A low, downright evil chuckle emerged from Katherine, causing Audrey to cringe. "Do you remember the summer we were obsessed with being tanned and spent all our time at that pond on Jacies uncles farm?"
"Yesssss," Audrey answered slowly, wondering what that had to do with anything.
Katherine only smiled.
"OH. MY. GOD!" Audrey screeched, a bright red flush working its way up from her chest to her round cheeks. "You swore you threw those pictures away!" She dropped Katherines suitcase and fumbled with the zipper, but it was locked.
Audrey pressed her hands against the soft cloth of the suitcase and felt the sharp corners of several bulky objects. Her eyes widened to a nearly comical degree. "You framed the photos of me topless that you swore to God you burned?"
Katherines sniggers turned into snorts that sounded as though they came from something more porcine than human, and she had to clamp her hand over her mouth. She chortled through her fingers, "I wouldnt do a thing like that," and stepped inside Charlottes Web. From just inside the doorway, she glanced over her shoulder and smiled unrepentantly. "Im an atheist, Audrey. And what youre feeling are books. The pictures of you are pages 16 and 20 in one of a set of photo albums that I keep on my coffee table for guests to browse thr"
"Argh!" Audrey lunged for her cousin, but Katherine was too quick and began running through the house with Audrey hot on her heels.
At the sound of squeals of laughter and shouting, Frances made her way out of the kitchen, her fingers covered with sticky bread dough. "What in the world ?"
"Hi," Katherine panted, skirting around a table so that Audrey couldnt reach her. "You must be Charlotte."
"Youd think that, wouldnt you?" Audrey answered for the older woman. She jumped forward, then whirled around and headed around the opposite side of the table, the surprisingly agile move catching Katherine completely off guard.
"Uff!" All the air left Katherines lungs when Audrey tackled her and they both went smashing onto the floor.
Frances eyes widened and her hand went to her mouth. "But"
"The key," Audrey demanded, wrestling Katherine into a position of submission and pinning her slender arms to the hardwood floor.
"Never!" Katherine cried, laughing so hard she thought she might wet herself. She began wiggling, but Audrey had her firmly trapped.
"God dammit, Katherine Schaub, dont you make me rifle your pockets!" She did her best not to, but a tiny smile flashed across Audreys face before it was covered up by a suitably outraged look. "Cough it up."
Katherines body suddenly went totally limp and tears filled her eyes. "I cant believe youre manhandling me like this. Were grown women, for Gods sake. Whats the matter with you? Youre hurting me!"
Audreys jaw dropped and her heart began to hammer. "I I Im sorry. I" She instantly let go of Katherine, only to find herself flipped onto her back with Katherine straddling her chest.
"Argh!" Audrey struggled wildly. "Asshole."
"Ive been pulling that one on you since kindergarten." She paused, nearly being bucked off. "Whoa! Hehe. Youd think youd have learned by wah!"
Audrey succeeded in throwing Katherine off her and scrambled to grab the woman who was desperately trying to crawl away.
Frances continued to watch them with wide eyes.
"Gotcha." Audrey used her greater mass to hold down Katherine, her knees pinning her by the chest, her arms holding Katherines wrists to the floor. Her chest was heaving and her dark curls were hanging in her face, sticking to skin now glistening with perspiration.
"Lemme go, you cow," Katherine sputtered, straining against Audreys grip and thinking this beat the hell out of Pilates any day.
"Yeah, right." Ebony-colored eyes narrowed. "Youre in for it now."
Katherine froze. Shed heard that tone of voice many times before. "I am?" she squeaked.
"Oh, yeah. I have a 13-year-old boy. Ive seen, heard, and smelled things so disgusting my toes curl just thinking about them."
Katherines eyes bugged. "Uh oh."
Remembering one of Katherines favorite and totally repulsive childhood tricks, Audrey gathered a large glob of spit in her mouth and began to slowly push it forward.
"Shit!" Katherine screamed, redoubling her efforts to escape.
Frances was transfixed on the unlikely scene playing out before her. "Sweet Jesus," she muttered, now quite glad shed never had any children. Even 40-year-old ones.
Audrey nearly choked to death on her own spit when she began to laugh, and no one in the room heard the front door open over the sounds of her gagging.
"Stop, stop!" Katherines head thrashed back and forth. "Ill do anything!"
"Wasnt that your reputation in high school, Katy?" Nina, with a bag slung over her shoulder, calmly stepped over both women. She turned to Frances. "Rooms are upstairs?"
The stunned woman nodded mutely.
"Save me, Nina," Katherine begged. "Puhleez!"
Ninas body shook with laughter, and she forced herself not to turn around as she ascended the first few stairs. "My son told me that if you spit up just as the other person is spitting down, you can fling their own spit back on them along with yours."
Frances looked horrified and began wringing her hands at the inevitable.
Audrey slurped back the tail of saliva that was beginning to dangle from her lips. "Oh, my God! Gross!" She jumped off Katherine, not willing to have such a disgusting event occur. "No fair telling her that, Nina. For once I had her right where I wanted her."
"Youve been wanting to spit on me?" Katherine squealed, eyes dancing with naughtiness. Despite everything she was going have fun this weekend.
Nina turned around and grinned impishly at her friends. "Hi, guys."
Katherine and Audrey ran up the stairs and threw their arms around her into a group bear hug that threatened to crush the air out of all their lungs. Just being in the same room together was a little uncomfortable, like something was out of place and yet familiar. And Nina decided that being reunited with people who knew so much about your past, knew so many intimate details about what shaped you from the girl you were into the woman of today, was a little scary and a lot wonderful.
Nina cleared her throat, emotion welling within her. She looked at them both, love showing clearly in her eyes. "Its so great to see you both."
Katherine and Audrey could only nod their agreement. When Katherine sniffed a few times as though she was actually going to break down and cry, Audrey rode to the rescue, knowing how much that display of emotion would bother her cousin. "You said you have a son, Nina?"
Nina beamed. "Robbie. Hes 9."
A million other questions danced on the tip of her tongue, but Audrey settled for saying, "Thats so great. I always thought youd be a wonderful mom. "
Frances breathed a sigh of relief that things appeared to be getting back to normal.
A few other words were exchanged before Katherine wondered out loud. "What did you get Gwen for her birthday?"
"Hemlock," Nina answered immediately, resituating her bag on her shoulder.
Katherine whistled through her teeth and hissed a low-pitched, "Damn." She was glad she wasnt Gwen.
"That sucks." Audrey sighed aggrievedly, pushing her thick hair out of her face and straightening her shirt. "Now Im going to have to take mine back."
All three women shared grim smiles and trotted up the stairs, Katherine taking a few extra seconds to retrieve her own mammoth suitcase before trailing after Audrey, the wheels of her case thumping loudly on each wooden step.
Gwen had said anything could happen this week and Frances groaned as she entered the kitchen. "How could I have known she meant that literally."
Late Spring 1981
"You know, I wish that I had Jessies girl!" Katy crooned loudly, the stereo of her brown, dented, 72 Chevy Impala blasting at full volume. She pulled up in front of Jacies house, the summer wind ruffling her freshly permed bob. She tapped the horn, the only thing besides the radio that was in good condition on the car shed gotten a few weeks before.
Jacie ran out of the house with her sneakers unlaced, a towel in one hand, and a bottle of bug juice in the other. "Hi!" She smiled and wedged into the backseat, crawling over Gwen to slide in between her and Nina.
"Hi, Jacie," Nina greeted brightly, bracing her hand against the doorframe as Katy pressed hard on the gas and they all were flung backwards.
Jacie frowned. "Watch it!"
"'Cos she's watching him with those eyes. And shes lovin him with that body, I just know it. And hes holding her in his arms late, late at night," Audrey screeched off key.
The car jerked and this time they were all rocked forward.
"Jesus Christ!" Nina gasped. "I think we ran over something."
"That was just a pothole and Audreys singing voice," Katy cheerfully informed them as she pulled onto Charbonier Road.
Audrey turned to face Nina, her massive hoop-earrings clanging against her neck as she moved. "Do you think I sound like a wounded animal when I sing, Nina?"
Katy, Gwen, and Jacie promptly answered, "Yes."
Audrey made a face at her cousin. "I wasnt asking you, tin grin." Shed had her braces removed last week, while Katy was still sporting hers. And she gleefully rubbed it in whenever possible. "Im asking Nina."
Ninas eyes widened. She was trapped. "Well Uh I-I-I"
"You havent stuttered in years, Nina," Katy reminded her drolly.
Nina sighed. "Well, maybe you dont sound exactly like a wounded animal."
"Like one in heat then?" Jacie supplied, lighting a cigarette and waving out the match.
Katy began to wail like a bloodhound as she reached over to poach a cigarette from her friend. "Jessies grrrrrrriarhroooooooo!"
"Shut-up, Katy!" Audrey gave Katy a vicious pinch right on the boob.
"Ahh!" Gwen and Nina screamed as the Impala swerved into the ditch, kicking up an enormous cloud of dust and spraying gravel in all directions.
It took a full 7 seconds for Katy to regain control of the car and ease it back onto the road. "Dont do that, Audrey!" she spat, rubbing her boob with one hand, her cigarette hanging limply between her teeth.
Audreys skin was pasty and she nodded her agreement. Boob pinches at 50 miles per hour were definitely out.
Jacie breathed an enormous sigh of relief that was echoed by the entire back seat. With slightly trembling hands, she lit another cigarette and exhaled slowly. Acrid smoke wafted into Ninas face and she waved her hand around furiously, trying to help it make its way out the back window. "I wish you wouldnt smoke," she said, wrinkling her nose in disgust.
"What do you mean, why?"
Jacie shrugged. "I mean, why do you hate it when I smoke? I only smoke every once in a while, so Im probably not hurting myself physically. And Katy bogarts most of the pack, anyway. Surely a little smoke cant be that bad?"
"Gag me with a spoon, Jacie, its totally grody! It is bad for you and you smell like an ashtray. And and " Ninas hands flailed as she tried to think of another reason.
"And Jerry wont want to kiss you," Gwen broke in, her teeth still rattling from their latest near-death experience with Katy driving.
"Oh, Jerry can kiss me all right. He can kiss my ass!" Jacie plucked her cigarette from her mouth and glared at it, irritated that she was considering throwing it away just because Nina had said she didnt like it. But it didnt take much self-convincing that it was easier to talk without one in her mouth anyway. She passed it up to Katy, who murmured her thanks and unrepentantly slid it into place next to its twin.
Audrey turned to face the backseat again and leaned forward interestedly. This almost qualified as something juicy and she couldnt believe that it was coming from Jacie. "What happened? You guys have been dating since Christmas. I thought things were going just fine."
Scowling, Jacie crossed her arms over her chest. "Things were fine, I guess. Until he made it his lifes mission to get into my pants."
Nina gaped. "What?"
"Well, duh, he is your boyfriend," Gwen laughed.
Ninas face began to flush, but she bit her tongue to keep from blurting out what she was thinking.
"Yeah," Katy piped up, "Jerrys cute and hes a guy. What do you expect?"
"I expected him to keep his paws to himself," Jacie shot back. "I had to wrestle my way out of his Mustang last night and I broke up with him on the spot." She brushed her hands together as though she was wiping off something repugnant. "No more Jerry."
"That bastard," Nina seethed, losing her battle with her temper as her gaze darkened. "Wait till I see him in homeroom on Monday." She began plotting his demise.
"Noooooo!" Gwen cried, startling everyone. "I thought you and Jerry were going to go to Prom together. Peter told me he was sure that Jerry was going to ask you
Jacie snorted. "Eventually? After I put out, you mean." I never should have agreed to go out with him. "And not that Id bother to go to something that lame anyway, but the prom isnt till next spring. So get a grip, Gwen. Im sure youll try to set me up with a half dozen losers before then." And this time Ill use my brain and say no.
"But Jerry has his own car."
"Katy has her own car." Jacie spread her arms wide and tried not to burst out laughing. The car smelled like a combination of smoke, cheap perfume, and mildew and the seats were so torn up that occasionally a spring popped out and nailed you right in the rear.
"Jerrys car is not a piece of crap," Gwen pointed out.
"Watch it, Gwen." Peeved, Katy pointed at the redhead. "You can always walk home." Then she thought about the last time shed actually filled up the gas tank and hoped they all wouldnt be walking home.
"Sorry, Katy, but its true. Besides," Gwen couldnt help but try again with Jacie, "Jerrys on the football team. Hes going to be a starter in September," she whined, not understanding how Jacie could just give up on her boyfriend because he had dared to try and kiss her. She enjoyed kissing her boyfriend and last weekend hed even, at her insistence, worn a tie to dinner at her house. Boys could be trained, at the very least.
"Im sorry about Jerry," Nina said sincerely, resting her hand atop Jacies. She licked her lips and softly admitted, "I never liked him much anyway. You can do way better."
For a reason completely beyond her own understanding, Nina had taken a dislike to the boy who wanted to spend so much time with Jacie. It wasnt that there was anything wrong with him exactly. He seemed to genuinely like Jacie, but that still didnt change the fact that he wasnt good enough for her.
Nina let relief wash over her. Even though she was livid at what hed done in his Mustang, she was thrilled to have an actual reason to think that he was a dick. After all, that meant she wasnt just being irrational.
Jacie looked down at their hands and swallowed hard. She felt more in that simple, loving touch from her best friend than she had in the dozens of sloppy kisses shed endured trying to be a "real" girlfriend, as Jerry had put it. But things werent supposed to be that way, were they? It was all so confusing that it was starting to give her a bellyache. But even amidst her inner turmoil, she couldnt help but hope that Nina decided to leave her hand there for the rest of the short trip. "Thanks, Nina."
Their eyes met and each smiled, well aware of the emotions thrumming between them.
"Almost there," Katy announced, making a final turn down the dirt road that would take them to their secret spot alongside the Missouri River. They whiled away many a summer afternoon at that spot, and they all had bronzed bodies and sun-lightened hair to show for their effort.
At Katys words, the girls began stripping off their t-shirts and wiggling out of their shorts to reveal their swimsuits beneath.
Audrey threw her shirt over her shoulder, hitting Gwen squarely in the face, and the tall girl responded by tossing the shirt out the window of the moving car.
"Gwen!" Audrey moaned, looking longingly after the bright orange garment. "I loved that shirt."
"Well get it on the way back," Katy promised, slowing down and turning off the main road as she headed for a thick stand of trees.
Nina stowed her shirt and shorts at her feet and readjusted her flip-flops.
The car pulled to a stop just as Jacie finished stripping down to her suit. When she turned to say something to Nina, her mind went absolutely blank and she forgot how to breathe.
Nina saw where Jacie was looking and cringed. "You dont like it?" Her face showed her disappointment. "I bought it yesterday. Ive never owned a bikini but I thought Well I thought " Last year shed lettered in track as a sophomore and her body showed the time she spent putting herself through a year of stringent workouts.
"It looks great!" Audrey said, envious that her friend had a figure cute enough to pull off the hot pink number. She herself was wearing the least revealing one-piece suit in the history of mankind. She only lamented that none of those skinny-assed designers had taken the time to invent a long sleeved, turtleneck version yet.
"You think its okay?" Ninas gaze shifted off of her chest and towards the front seat.
"Absolutely," Katy confirmed, throwing her t-shirt onto the dashboard and running her hands through her hair to feather her bangs. She could see Nina in the rear view mirror. "Youre going to have to beat the boys away with a stick." She smirked. "By the way, I hear Jerry is available."
"Very funny," Nina answered curtly, the mention of Jerrys name reminding her that she was going to strangle him at school on Monday.
Gwen checked out Ninas suit with a critical eye. "Very pretty," she finally pronounced, giving Nina a brief, encouraging smile and vowing to never let her boyfriend within five miles of Nina in that suit. Then she exited the car. Daylight was burning.
Audrey and Katy stepped outside, their doors creaking loudly as they closed them. Katy then popped her arm inside the car to turn up the tunes.
"Youre awfully quiet, Jace," Nina said once they were alone, worry coloring her words. "Is it Jerry youre upset about?"
Who? Jacies eyes shot to Ninas face and she suddenly realized that she was supposed to be able to speak under these impossible circumstances. "Err No," she muttered dismissively. "Im fine about Jerry."
"Is it what Im wearing then?" Nina tugged at the fabric self-consciously. Her cheeks began to heat. "There isnt much to it. My dads probably going to freak and"
"Its sexy as hell," Jacie breathed, hearing the husky note in her voice. She blinked furiously. Had she said that out loud?
Ninas face suddenly brightened. "It is?"
Jacie hoped her friend couldnt hear her racing heart. She no longer trusted her voice so she just nodded like a demented bobble-head doll. Then, to her mortification, she did something she couldnt ever recall doing. She blushed. Badly.
"Whew!" Nina wiped mock sweat from her brow, secretly overjoyed that Jacie thought she looked good. The auburn-haired girl was the most attractive person she knew, and a good word from Jacie left a warm fuzzy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Jacie wasnt sure whether Nina had noticed her red face or was simply too kind to point it out. She figured it was the latter and mentally thanked Ninas parents for their stellar childrearing efforts.
"Arent you coming?" Nina tilted her head towards the river, scattering her fair hair around her shoulders. "I know how much you like to swim and the waters bound to be extra warm today." It was nearly 100 degrees outside.
"In a minute." Jacie wrapped her arms around her own middle, feeling her guts clench every time her eyes strayed below Ninas face. She glanced up, and then when she looked into Ninas eyes, it happened again anyway. "I dont feel so good."
Concerned, Nina scooted closer and laid her hand on Jacies clammy forehead, which only served to intensify Jacies stomachache. "Whats wrong?"
You! "Nothing." Jacie did her best to put on a weak smile. "It was probably that last cigarette that did me in."
"Promise youll quit then?" Nina said seriously, giving Jacie her sternest look. Then she gentled her voice and watched curiously as Jacies expression softened in return. "I cant stand the thought of you being sick all the time. Katys lungs probably already look like a used oil filter and shes not even 18." Unconsciously, Nina began to stroke Jacies forehead with her thumb.
"I promise." At that moment, she realized, she would have promised anything to get Nina, her thumb, and her teeny bikini out of the car. "Go on. Ill be there in a minute."
But Nina didnt move. "Maybe I should stay, I"
Ninas eyes widened.
Dammit. "I mean go ahead," Jacie said more gently. "Ill be right out." She peeled Ninas hand from her forehead and laid it to rest in her friends lap, trying not to touch any golden skin so close to her fingers. "I think I just need to rest." And throw up.
It was clear that Jacie wanted her to go, but for the life of her, Nina didnt know why. Then something occurred to her. Maybe her staying would only keep Jacie from resting. "Youre sure?"
Thank God. "Im sure. Dont forget these." She reached down and passed Nina a bottle of sun tan oil and a can of bug spray.
"Scream if you need anything, okay?" Reluctantly, Nina took the items and waited for Jacies confirmation nod before heading toward the riverbank, where her friends were already spread out, sunning like a trio of lazy lizards on a hot rock.
Jacie couldnt help but notice the gentle sway of Ninas hips as she strolled away. And in that instant she couldnt stop herself from feeling the rush of raw emotion that shed held at bay for so long. Jerry Brewster never had a snowballs chance in hell. Not only did she want Nina to hold her hand, she wanted more than anything to brush her mouth against Ninas and see if her lips were as soft and luscious as they looked. She dreamt of running her fingers along the curve of her breast and down the line of her thin waist. She craved melting into that beautiful, naked skin as Ninas body was pressed intimately against hers.
Realization hit her like a ton of bricks. "God," she groaned, truly in pain as she lay down in the backseat and curled into the fetal position. Oh, God. Oh, God. Now what am I going to do?
"Hey, Jacie!" Audreys voice drifted into the beat-up Impala. "Crank that tune, will ya? This is my favorite song."
Jacie leaned forward and snaked her hand between the front seats to turn the knob. It only took a second for her head and stomach to begin pounding in time with the raspy strains of "Bette Davis Eyes."
Gwen Langtree sat in her Infiniti with the engine off, staring at the back wall of the Charlottes Web garage. Her foot was nervously tapping the carpeted floor. Shed been in this exact position for nearly 20 minutes.
Three other cars were parked neatly next to hers; a compact rental that she assumed belonged to Audrey, a sedate Toyota Camry that she would have bet money was Ninas, and a ratty-looking, ancient Ghia, which could only be Katys. Jacie, despite, her blue-collar job title, had earned over two hundred and fifty thousand dollars last year and Gwen couldnt see that shed have a cheap rental, a rust bucket, or the best-selling, most boring car in America.
Which meant Jacie wasnt here yet. A surge of dread welled within her.
Calm down, she reminded herself. Shes probably just late. The invitation just said the date. Not an exact time. She could still be coming.
Gwen rubbed her hands together, trying to increase her circulation and ward off the sudden chill that had overtaken her. She longed for this weekend to be about nothing more than rekindling old friendships, not finding a blackmailer. But it wasnt and whatever happened she couldnt let herself forget that. She wanted to make amends, but more than that, she wanted her life back. If she had learned anything through painful years of trial and error, it was that lying to yourself yielded nothing but pain. She knew she deserved most of the Mayflower Clubs rancor. But she didnt deserve this.
"Ive got to keep my guard up every second," she murmured, closing her eyes. "Search for clues in every glance, every word. And not let anyone know what Im doing. I cant tip my hand too early." She nodded a little to herself, resolving to simply gather the entire group in a room at the end of the weekend and ask them all flat out, if she couldnt figure things out sooner. It would be humiliating. Not to mention as ridiculous as an Agatha Christie novel. But her blackmailer was using something more important than her pride against her. "Then, once I find out who is doing this and convince them to stop," she wasnt sure exactly how she was going to do that, "I can make up for lost time with the rest of them." She paused. At least I hope I can.
She let out a shaky breath and gathered her courage and decided to leave her bags for later. When she left the garage, she was surprised to see Nina, Katherine and Audrey exiting the B&B and taking seats around a small table on the porch. Their occasional laughter wafted over the yard, causing a stab of envy in her chest.
She nearly made it to the front stairs unnoticed when Katherine spotted her and the hum of conversation melted into a cold silence.
Gwen could feel her hands trembling and clasped them behind her back as she came to
stand before the other women. "Hi," she said quietly, surprised that her voice wavered on that single word. There was a moment of shock as she looked at these middle-aged women, all of whom looked great, but none of whom exactly matched the young college girls whod taken up residence in her memory.
Nina blinked. Had she not known who she was looking at well, she still wasnt quite sure she knew.
"Gwen?" Katherine breathed. "Wow." Gwen had always been attractive in an ordinary sort of way. Shed used her striking hair color and creamy complexion to its best purpose and even as a teenager how she looked had been of utmost importance. Some things, Katy acknowledged privately, never change.
A look of uncertainty swept across Gwens face. Shed wondered countless times what her old friends would think when they saw her and now that the moment was here, it was surprisingly underwhelming. Unwilling to stand the silence for another second, she blurted, "Youd be surprised at what a nose job, a boob lift, caps for my teeth, and a touch of Botox can do."
"No kidding," Audrey breathed, not sure why Gwen had changed her nose or needed a boob job, but forced to admit the overall look, the hair, the designer duds, was one of sophistication and style. Even her voice was different, the severe twang now replaced by a gentler but still distinctive tone.
Nina cleared her throat, not particularly interested in Gwens Botox treatment. "Hello, Gwen."
"Yeah," Audrey shifted uncomfortably. "Hi. You really look " I am grownup. I am. "You look really nice."
Gwen managed a smile as the wheels in her mind cranked furiously. "Thanks." Katys greeting appeared to be the most genuine. But was that a ruse? Shes got the least motive, but shes practically broke and in debt up to her eyeballs. "Thank you. Did everyone get settled in this morning?" Audrey looks so serious, like shes studying me under a microscope. And Nina seems a little sad. "Theyre doing a few repairs, but they shouldnt get in our way." I wonder if Ninas diamond stud earrings are real? Theyre nearly a carat each. She leaned against the porch railing and tried to pretend her next question was a nonchalant one. "I uh dont suppose anyone knows whether Jacie is going to make it?"
"Bored with us already, Gwen?" Nina said, not meaning for it to come out as harshly as it did.
Gwen blinked. "No! I uh ."
"I know whether Jacie is coming," Audrey said, rising to her feet.
Nina suddenly became very interested in the conversation. "You do?"
"Unless thats somebody else driving up in that pickup truck." She pointed to the truck that was just turning onto the driveway.
Ninas heart leapt at the same time her stomach dropped. She thought she might throw up.
Gwens reaction was nothing but relief. "Thank God," she whispered to herself.
Jacie stopped the truck when she saw the small pack of women quickly making their way over the sloping lawn, wet leaves and blades of grass sticking to their shoes. But as she climbed out of the tall truck, feeling the tingle of anticipation laced with worry, she only had eyes for one of them.
"Holy Christ," Audrey murmured as they approached the driveway. "She cut her hair. Shes friggin gorgeous. Even better than before."
Katherine sighed, but was smiling. "That stinkin bitch."
Audrey chuckled low in her throat as she stepped over a log. "If I ever jump the fence, I wanna land on her. Well," she scrunched up her face. Jacie was like a sibling. "Maybe not exactly her. But her hot-as-hell twin."
Katherine hooted and high-fived her cousin, delighted by her unexpected statement.
Nina snorted softly.
Gwen tried not to look as shocked as she was. Had men somehow gone completely out of style without her knowing it?
"Jacie!" Katherine crowed, running the last few steps to stand in front of her friend.
The auburn-haired woman dragged her gaze away from Nina, who couldnt seem to meet her eyes directly, and smiled. "Katy!" It was clear that they were both excited, but they didnt embrace, instead they awkwardly patted each other on the arm and grinned like idiots.
"Hiya, Jacie," Audrey said, looking up into dark eyes that glittered with enough affection to make her feel warm all over. "I wasnt sure you were going to make it."
"Hi, Audrey." A flash of white teeth. "I wasnt going to come," she admitted, "but then I got to thinking that I might never have this chance again." She shrugged, not wanting to discuss the hours of soul searching it had taken just to get her this far. "So here I am."
Next, it was Gwens turn to step up to the plate. She took a deep breath and steeled herself, knowing full well it was time to face the music. "Hello, Jacie. Thank you for coming."
Jacies smile faltered and the temperature of the yard dropped several degrees. "Gwen," she acknowledged calmly, pinning her with an indifferent gaze before effectively dismissing her by focusing on the only Mayflower Club member who had yet to greet her.
Ninas pulse raced and was visible against her pale neck.
For the first time that Jacie could recall, Ninas expression was totally unreadable to her. And that hurt.
Frozen, the women silently looked at each other for so long that Katherine, Audrey and Gwen shared nervous looks and began fidgeting in the wake of the palpable tension. Then something behind Ninas eyes seemed to spark, and she closed the space between her and Jacie with surprising speed. Invading her personal space in a way the other women hadnt dared do, Nina grabbed hold of Jacies thin, cable knit sweater with both hands, pulled her close, and gave her a soft, chaste kiss on the mouth. It lasted only a second and when she pulled away, she looked directly into Jacies eyes. Seeing the confusion there, she bared a tiny piece of her soul. "Thats because I love you, Jacie."
Four mouths dropped open and Jacie began to stammer. "Nina, I I"
The sharp crack of Ninas open hand striking Jacie on the cheek made everyone flinch, and it sounded unnaturally loud against the whispering breeze. Glistening tears pooled in her soft, blue-green eyes, before several spilled down wind-chilled cheeks. "And thats for letting me wonder for the past 20 years whether you were alive or dead!"
Jesus! I cant believe I did that! Ninas hands were shaking. Without another word, she spun on her heels, tucked her hands under her armpits, and marched back towards the house, leaving a stunned silence behind her.
"Holy shit!" Katherine finally sputtered. "I thought if anyone was gonna get clocked this weekend," she jerked her thumb sideways, "it would be Gwen."
"Hey!" Gwen protested, but was instantly appeased by Katherines mostly-teasing smile and Audreys muffled chuckles.
Jacies temper flared and for a few charged seconds she was on the verge of racing after Nina, wrestling her to the ground and kissing her senseless? "Oh, Christ." Jacies eyes fluttered closed and she reached up to her lips. They were tingling, but she wasnt sure whether it was from the kiss or having the snot slapped out of her. She kissed me!
A large red handprint had already blossomed on her cheek, and she winced as she rubbed the abused flesh. A black eye would likely follow. Furious with Nina and herself, she stalked back to her truck, trying to decide whether to simply drive away from this entire mess. Her life was complicated enough as it was without borrowing trouble. But when she reached the cab, she couldnt help but glance over her shoulder at the compact form fleeing the yard and kicking the leaves and twigs out of her way as she moved.
Then Jacies heart overruled her head with such startling ease that she was forced to roll her eyes at herself for even thinking she might have the wherewithal to leave. What she wanted was clearly right here. Making her decision, she grabbed her carryon from the passenger seat and rejoined her friends, who were murmuring among themselves and casting worried glances in Jacies direction.
Katherine rocked back on her heels. "I guess youre not taking off then?"
Gwen mentally crossed every extremity she had and prayed that she hadnt misinterpreted what Jacie was doing. If her number one suspect fled before theyd gotten a chance to talk, her plan would be ruined.
"Im staying," Jacie confirmed and began to walk back towards the house, her pride and her cheek still stinging. "So long as you guys protect me from the dishwater blonde tornado in there." She lifted her chin towards the B&B. "Deal?"
Gwen suddenly paled.
Jacie saw it happen and took an abrupt step closer, putting her nearly nose to nose with the taller woman. "What?"
Gwen licked her lips and took a step backwards. "Now Jacie, I thought youd both like it." She lifted her arms to forestall Jacie, gulping at the look on Jacies face. "I swear!"
"What. Did. You. Do?" Jacie ground out harshly, her hands clenched in half fists.
The words spilled out of Gwen like water rushing through a broken dam. "Theyre renovating, honest! There were only three rooms and Katy and Audrey took one and I took the other."
Jacies eyes turned to slits.
"Mine only has a twin bed!" Gwen protested. "The king-sized is having its frame stripped and the mattress has been removed to be replaced. I didnt think wed need it."
Katherine scratched her jaw. She didnt particularly want to give up her spot in a room with Audrey, and there was no way she was sleeping on the floor in the same room as Gwen, the snorer from hell. "Looks like youre bunking with slugger, Jacie."
Jacies stomach fluttered, and she looked skyward in appeal. There would, however, be no mercy for her this weekend. She could just tell. Trying not to be too hopeful, she squared her shoulders and set her sights on the blue house, wondering if she was the one going to be caught in Charlottes Web this weekend.
From the window and the warmth of the parlor, Ninas gaze softened as she watched her childhood hero determinedly walk back into her life and her heart.
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