The Charlottes Web Bed & Breakfast smelled like chicken soup and fresh cut vegetables as the Mayflower Club sat eating their late lunch. The mood of the meal was, to say the least, subdued. And Frances Artiste had to be reassured several times that it wasnt the cuisine that had soured everyones mood.
Nina sighed and set her spoon down. She kicked herself for the way shed behaved with Jacie. Shed always had issues controlling her anger when it came to things she was passionate about, but there had only been one other time in her life that her actions had devolved into violence. And the recipient of that particular act just so happened to be this weekends host.
Ninas gaze strayed across the table to Jacie, who was industrially digging into her salad. She winced. Her hand hurt and she could only imagine how Jacies cheek felt. In truth, however, there wasnt much left to the imagination. Her old friend had a lurid red handprint on her face and the skin below one of those beautiful brown eyes had grown puffy and turned a disgusting shade of purple. Fuck.
Audrey and Katherine had spent most of the meal wondering to themselves why Gwen might be investigating them. Katherine had worked herself into a private tizzy and Audrey sat and stewed. Worst of all, the silence in the cheerfully decorated room was so loud that every clank of a spoon against a bowl was deafening, and Audrey swore she could hear the steam rising from her soup.
As the X-Files wisely advised, Gwen trusted no one. Ignoring the soup, whose thick evil noodles were undoubtedly packed with calories and carbohydrates, she restlessly picked at her salad.
Jacie, who didnt give a damn about calories, finished her soup in record time and then pulled the bread bowl squarely in front of her plate. She was a big fan of easy access. "Pass the butter, please," she asked Gwen, who shot her an envious look as she handed over the round dish.
Everyone stopped mid-bite and glanced up at Gwen.
"I was the only one married when we all ." awkwardly, she paused. "Err So, are any of you married?" She knew the answer of course, but it was going to be hell to figure out what was going on if she couldn't get everyone talking.
Nina gave Gwen a grateful look for getting the ball rolling. "Im single. But as I mentioned before, I have a son."
"Never married?" Katherine asked curiously, her appetite returning along with the conversation. "Cmon," she smiled, "you have to had a crack at plenty of Mr. Rights over the years. Youre a great catch."
An enigmatic smile twitched at the corner of Ninas mouth, and she gave her head a tiny shake. "No, no Mr. Right for me. In fact, I gave up looking for him a long time ago."
Audrey bumped shoulders with her. "Dont worry, itll happen. Im married." Her cheeks began to heat, and she nearly lost her nerve. But in a rush she added, "In fact, I married Enrique Diaz."
Katherine just kept eating. Her mother had mentioned Audrey running off with some guy named Diaz.
Everyone else gave her Audrey blank looks.
Audrey groaned inwardly, and with a deep breath she clarified, "Our Mr. Diaz."
Jacie leaned back in her chair and set her napkin on the table. "Our Mr. Diaz who?"
Katherines head suddenly lifted. "No Goddamned way!" she shrieked.
"Not that Mr. Diaz!"
"What are you talking about?" Nina asked, totally adrift. "I dont remember anyone named Diaz. Well," her brow furrowed as something occurred to her. "I guess except for Vice Principal Diaz. And Audrey couldnt have married him. She" Then she got a good look at Audreys face, she stopped cold. "Oh my God." A laugh bubbled to the surface. "When you said he had a cute butt in the eleventh grade, you really meant it!"
"Rick the Prick?" Katherine scrubbed eyes as though to wash away the mental image. "You married Rick the Prick? You actually have sex with Vice Principal Diaz?" Marrying their former vice principal, the one who used to gleefully assign them detention when they ditched homeroom seemed well, it seemed "That is so totally gross!"
"It is not!" Audrey defended hotly. "Hes wonderful!"
"I thought it was Rick the Dick, not Rick the Prick," Jacie commented conversationally as she reached for her coffee mug.
Audrey gasped, looking appropriately outraged and just a little amused. "No one called him that."
Katherine snorted. "Oh, yes they did, Audrey."
"They did not."
"Im quite sure I never said either of those horrible things," Gwen protested haughtily, all the while searching her memory to find out if what shed just said was actually true.
"I did," Nina admitted with a rueful smile. "Rick the Prick sounded so mean, I could never bring myself to use it. Somehow Dick had a much nicer ring to it."
Katherine burst out laughing. "Thinking of you two together is like envisioning my parents having sex." She affected a full body shiver. "Bah!"
"Feel free not to envision it then," Audrey ground out. "It's not gross. He's only ten years older than we are."
Katherine suddenly stopped. "Its not the age thing at all. Trust me. Its the principal thing." She waggled her eyebrows. "Does he punish you at home?"
"Is he a psychotic, heartless shrew, hell-bent on destroying your life and the lives of those around you?" Jacie asked interestedly.
Audreys blinked slowly. "Buh Of course not!"
Jacie grinned. "Then you beat me as far as finding a mate goes. Way to go."
The smile Nina had been wearing slid from her face, and she felt a familiar gnawing in her guts that had always signaled her worry for Jacies happiness and well-being. Who had Jacie partnered with?
"I think its great that youre still together, Audrey," Gwen said seriously. "Im so happy for you."
Audreys gaze bore into Gwens, and for once she didnt see a self-serving motive lurking beneath the surface. "You really mean that, dont you?" she asked, hearing a note of surprise in her own voice.
Gwens gaze softened. "With all my heart."
Audreys face relaxed into a smile. "Thanks. I really am happy. We have two beautiful kids. Well, a teenaged son and my daughter, Tina, is a young woman now18."
"I have a daughter, too," Jacie said, watching in amusement as Audrey tried to cover her shock.
The chubby woman squirmed in her chair as she tried to recover. "But I thought"
"Im still a lesbian, Audrey," Jacie quipped, but not unkindly. "I adopted my former partners birth daughter right after she was born. Shes 7 and we share custody now."
"Former partner?" Nina asked, her eyes on her soup.
Jacie nodded and her voice took on a deeper timbre. "Very former. For years now."
"Mmm." Nina thought about that. Years was much too long to go without love. She would know. She glanced up and caught Jacies gaze, trying not to linger on the vivid discoloring around Jacies eye. "Do you ever miss her?"
"All the time," came the immediate answer.
Ninas stomach dropped.
Then Jacie winked her good eye. "But my aim is bound to improve eventually."
Gwen shook her head and smiled. "Well, you all know about Tucker. I never had any more children and Im still with Malcolm." She cocked her head to the side. "How about you, Katy? Thank you," she murmured to Frances as the older woman quietly entered the room and set a plate of pumpkin bars on the table along with a fresh pot of coffee.
"How about me what?" Katherine had been dreading this moment.
"You know what shes asking," Audrey said, dark eyes dancing. "Tell everyone how many times youve been married. Go on."
Katherine's eyes turned to slits. Clearly Audrey had stayed tuned in to family gossip over the years, while she herself had remained in the dark. "How many do you know about?"
Jacie laughed and let out a low whistle. "This has gotta be good."
Nina smiled. This was more the way she remembered things being between them.
"Cmon, Katy," Audrey crooned, trying to pretend she didnt see the appetizing plate of frosted pumpkin bars sitting squarely in the middle of the table.
Jacie elbowed Katherine. "Spill it."
Katherine hung her head, and her friend caught the mumbled remnants of some curse words.
"Were wait-ing," Audrey said in a sing-song voice.
Katherine gritted her teeth. "A couple of times," she mumbled, her cheeks heating without her permission.
Audrey shook her head. After "Rick the Prick," Katherine wasnt going to get off the hook so easily. "What was that, Katy?" she said innocently. "A couple?"
"Fine," Katherine snapped, though it was clear she was more embarrassed than angry. "Three times. There. Three." Somewhat childishly, she crossed her arms over the chest. "I said it. Happy?"
"Three?" Nina mouthed silently, her eyes round. "Wow."
"Very happy," Audrey confirmed smugly, giving up her own battle of the bulge for the day when she saw Nina, Katherine, and Jacie each go for a spiced pumpkin bar.
Gwen poured herself some coffee and grabbed a package of Sweet & Low from the porcelain dish sitting temptingly close to the dessert. "With all those exes you must at least be getting decent alimony?" She hadnt recalled any additional sources of income for Katherine, but it paid to know every detail.
Katherine rolled her eyes. "Gimme a break. My boyfriends-slash-husbands were all of the poor as a church mouse variety."
Audrey moaned around a bite of nutmeg-laced nuts. "God, these are awesome," she murmured, dusting the crumbs off her slightly sticky fingers and fighting the urge to lick off the gooey droplet of cream cheese frosting that had thus far escaped her lips. "So your new boyfriend is poverty stricken, too?"
"Not really." Katherines expression turned thoughtful. "I guess he does okay, but Id love him just the same even if he didnt. He's really different from the other men I've been involved with. Plus it doesn't hurt that I'm crazy about him."
The other women smiled at Katherines heartfelt declaration.
"Good for you," Gwen announced happily. "Love is the most important thing, but having money does make lifes wheels turn a little smoother." She looked directly into Katherines eyes, hoping to spot a crack in their arctic-blue veneer. "Dont you think?"
Katherine shrugged one slim shoulder. "I guess I wouldnt know. But Ill take your word for it." Then she turned to Jacie as though an idea had suddenly come to her. "So, Jacie, whats it like to go down on a woman?"
Coffee shot out of Jacies mouth, spraying a fine mist all over Audrey. "Jesus Christ, Katy," she sputtered, wiping her chin with the back of her hand and choking a little.
Gwen gasped and Ninas face fell into her hands as her body shook with silent laughter.
"Damn." Katherine let out a throaty chuckle at Jacies reaction. "That good, huh? No wonder some guys dig it so much."
"Couldnt you have waited till she was finished drinking?" Audrey asked, plucking her napkin from her lap and wiping a dangling drop of coffee off the tip of her nose.
"What?" Katherine complained, taking the napkin from Audreys hand and wiping her chin as though her cousin were a messy 3-year-old. "Like you didnt want to know."
"Well, duh. Of course I wanted to know. But I was going to get her liquored up tonight and hope shed spill her guts and give us the juicy ." she winced at her choice of words. "Errr the interesting details."
Katherine frowned. Why hadnt she thought of that?
Gwens eyes were a little wide. "Is that really something you consider interesting?"
The cousins looked at each other and exchanged devilish smiles. "Yeah," they said in unison.
"God," Nina chuckled, enjoying the red tint to Jacies cheeks. "You guys are as warped as ever."
Doing her best Miss Piggy hair toss, Audrey sighed dramatically. "Curious is not the same thing as warped. Besides, couldnt you see that Katy was willing to do anything to get the topic of conversation off her many, many ex-husbands."
Katherine took her last bite of pumpkin bar and unrepentantly licked her fingertips. "Speaking of ex-husbands and lesbians... My second husband, Junior, could make you straight, Jacie. I guarantee it."
This time it was Nina who began choking on her coffee.
Audrey slapped her on the back absently as she anxiously waited for Katherine to continue.
Nina gave Katherine an incredulous look. "Where do you get these insane ideas?"
"He could, Nina! Well, maybe he couldnt make her straight. But he sure as hell could make her straightish. At least for one night." Her eyes twinkled. "He was an acrobat who performed on the flying trapeze at Circus Circus in Vegas." Then her voice dropped an octave, "And amazing."
Gwen blinked slowly and allowed her imagination to take hold. "Just how amazing are we talking?"
Jacies eyes thoughtfully regarded Nina, her friend was plainly uninterested in Juniors flexibility or talents. When Jacie spoke, her voice was quiet and resolute. "It wouldn't matter how amazing he was. Im pretty sure your ex wouldnt have had much luck with me, Katy. I know who and what I am, and Im happy with that." She gave Nina a meaningful look.
"I dont feel very well," Nina suddenly announced, pushing to her feet. Her gaze never strayed from the dark wood tabletop. "Im sorry. I think Im going to go up to my room for a little while."
Gwens words tumbled out in a rush. "Can I get you something? Some medicine? Or a doctor? I could call Malcolm and he could"
"No." A quick shake of the head and Nina tossed her napkin the table. "I think I just have a headache." She laid a hand on her belly. And my stomach is in knots. "Im sorry," she mumbled and hurried from the room.
Jacie closed her eyes and rubbed her temples for a few seconds. "Im going to see how she is."
Gwen jumped to her feet, smoothing her blouse as she stood. "Ill go, too."
"No thank you, Gwen," Jacie said distractedly, effectively dismissing her host as she walked out of the room.
The remaining women were left in a pool of silence. Finally, Audrey let out a long breath and squirmed a little in her chair. "Boy, that was weird."
Katherine nodded. "Tell me about it. One minute were talking, and the next Nina is as white as a sheet."
"Maybe it was the topic of conversation?" Audrey ventured.
Gwens brow furrowed worriedly as she tapped a long, manicured fingertip against the rim of her cup. "Maybe." Then her face cleared and she fought for something normal to say. "So, Katy, if husband number two was so wonderful, why is he an ex?"
Katherine chuckled softly. "It took me a week to figure out that there was no way I was staying in Vegas, that there isnt a big call for men who work on the flying trapeze in St. Louis, and that just being amazing isnt a basis for a marriage." She waved dismissively. "It took me a year to get out of the mess Id made for myself." She sighed and spared a wistful thought for her younger and far stupider self. "I should have known that something that started out in one of those disgusting, sleazy $29.99 wedding chapels was doomed to bring nothing but pain and misery to both of us."
"Oh, Tina!" Audrey suddenly burst into tears and bolted from the dining room.
Dumbfounded, Katherine and Gwen could only stare after her.
"Dammit!" Katherine slapped the table with an open hand. She looked at Gwen helplessly. "What did I say now?"
"Dont look at me."
"Id better go see whats the matter." Katherine stood.
Gwen started to rise. "Ill come, too."
"No thanks," Katherine said, already halfway through the doorway.
Gwen flopped back down in her seat and looked around the empty room.
A moment later, Frances popped her head around the corner, a plastic washtub in hands. "Oh," her gaze flicked around the room, finally landing on Gwen. A well-worn apron covered her corduroy pants and thin black turtleneck. "Im sorry. I thought youd all left. I can come back."
Gwen sighed and motioned her in. "No, no. Now is fine." She watched the older woman work, feeling the compulsion to offer to help and then quashing it as shed conditioned herself to do over the years. That wasnt her job.
Frances loaded up the small tub with dishes, careful not to clank the bread plates together. Gwen Langtree was high society, but the other women seemed like most of the guests that Frances encountered. Normal. Or as normal as women who wrestled, tried to spit on, and slapped each other could be. Actually, the more she thought about it, the more it seemed a good idea to lock the door to the servants quarters tonight.
The white-haired woman performed her task by rote, allowing herself to maintain a curious, sideways glance at Gwen. "Hows your gathering going so far?"
Gwen couldnt decide whether to laugh or cry. "About like I deserve."
Katherine poked her head into the guest room she was sharing with Audrey. The furnishings were decidedly Victorian with dark delicate wood, a busy rose-patterned wallpaper and mounds of crème-colored bedding and fluffy pillows trimmed in mint green and pale pink. Just seeing it made Katherine want to fling herself out the bedroom window. "Audrey? Dont make me stay in this room looking for you?" She poked her head behind a lace screen set up for discreet dressing.
But there was no one in the room. "Sure," Katherine mumbled. "Run off crying and then disappear." She had yet to see the other rooms so she headed down the hall.
A pair of hands shot out of an open doorway and pulled her inside.
"Shh!" A hand clamped over Katherines mouth. "Be quiet, you baby. Its just me."
Katherine whirled around. "Audrey!"
"I said shh!" Audrey whispered loudly. "Hang on." She stuck her head out the door and when she saw that the coast was clear she closed the door. When she turned back around, Katherine was standing nose to nose with her, her hands on her hips.
"Well?" Katherine demanded, arching a thin blonde eyebrow.
"Were in Gwens room."
"Yeah," Katherine took in her surroundings with a smirk. "And it doesnt look like Martha Stewart threw up in here." The difference between this room and Audrey and Katherines was like night and day. This room had a contemporary flair with leather furnishings done in contrasting shades of black and white and the occasional splash of color brought in by throw pillows or a piece of modern art. "Its actually nice."
"Who cares about the furniture? This is our chance to snoop."
Katherines eyebrows lifted. "You mean you werent really upset when you ran out of the dining room?"
"Yes and no. Your comments made me think about what my stupid daughter did."
"She ran off to Vegas?"
"But Ive been dealing with that for weeks." She let out a deep breath as if trying to force away the stress the topic carried. "While you were all discussing what the hell was wrong with me, I really thought I could come up here and poke around in Gwens bags." She lightly smacked Katherines arm. "You werent supposed to come after me. Now whos keeping Gwen busy?"
"Then wed better get out of here." She made a move for the door but Katherine grabbed her arm. "Hang on. What did you find?"
"Nothing yet. I just got up here when I heard footsteps. Thank God it was you and not Gwen." Nervously, she glanced back at the door. "We need to leave. She could come up here any minute."
"No." Katherine shook her offered. "She offered, but I said no thanks. I think shell give me time to figure out whats wrong with you before coming up. You know how Gwen hates messy, emotional scenes."
Audrey licked her lips. Torn.
Katherines eyes took on a determined gleam. "Now where are her bags? I wanna see if there are any clues in there that will tell us if she was the one investigating our finances."
"The bags are in the closet. But I dunno, Katy." Audrey wrung her hands. Her shining moment of daring and bravery was fading fast.
"You go stand at the head of the stairs and act as a lookout." Katherine was already kneeling by the surprisingly roomy closet. "Dont let Gwen back in here."
Audrey nodded quickly. "Okay." She had barely turned around when
"Shh!" The brunette ran to the door and looked out. Fleetingly, she wondered briefly where Nina had gone, but her attention was drawn quickly back to Katherine.
"I dont believe it!" Her voice was tinged with anger and something else.
"What?" Audrey ran back to the closet. "What did you find?"
Socks, a navy-blue bra, and a pair of gabardine trousers now lay haphazardly on the floor. "These." Katherine held up four manila folders of varying thicknesses, each with the name of a member of the Mayflower Club written neatly across the tab. She opened her own and the very first page was a pie chart outlining her banking activity for the last year.
Audrey shook her head and muttered, "What on Gods earth are you doing, Gwen?"
"I want these." Katherine tucked the folders under arm.
"No!" Audrey grabbed them and knelt to start stuffing them back into the suitcase.
"What are you doing?" Katherine whispered harshly, reaching for the folders. "She doesnt have a right to those!"
"If we take them, shes going to notice that theyre missing."
"I dont give a rats ass!"
Audreys eyes sparked. "Well, I do. I want to know exactly whats going on. And I dont want to tip our hand too early. If Gwen panics, shell make up some lie. I want the truth."
Katherine chewed her lower lip. Audrey was right, though she hated this. "Fine. But if we cant figure out things by the end of the weekend, were confronting her." She pointed to the plush leather suitcase. "And were burning those files."
Audrey nodded and gravely said, "Agreed." Then her worried gaze shifted to the door. Now lets go before Oh, shit! Someones coming."
Katherines eyes widened. "Who?"
Audrey gave her an impatient look. "Do I look like I have x-ray vision?"
Two sets of eyes stared at the door as they intently listened to the footsteps growing louder and louder. Finally, Audrey cracked under the pressure. "Hide!"
"No friggin way."
Audrey pushed Katherine all the way into the closet. "Yes friggin way!"
"Shh!" Mashing herself against Katherine, she pulled the closet door closed just as someone entered the bedroom.
It wasnt particularly dark in the closet, as the bottom of the door was a good inch above the ground. In fact, Audrey got a good look at the murderous glare Katherine was tossing her way. The heavier woman put her finger against her lips to remind Katherine to be quiet.
Footsteps moved around the room and then there was the plinking sound of ice being dropped into a heavy glass and the glugging sound of liquid being poured from a bottle.
Then there was a measure of silence and Katherines eyes narrowed as she imagined several deep swallows of cool liquor burning its way down Gwens throat. Oh, great, now Im thirsty. Then they heard a muffled sob and despite what theyd found in Gwens closet, both women felt a stab of guilt over their duplicity and Gwens distress.
The crying continued for several long minutes, with Katherine shifting uneasily, but silently from one foot to the other the entire time. It was making Audrey insane.
Audrey had almost resigned herself to opening the closet door and facing the music when they heard the melodic tones a cell phone being dialed.
"Dr. Schuster, please. This is Gwen Langtree calling for my afternoon appointment."
Audreys mouth dropped open.
"Hello, doctor. Thank you for allowing me to do this via phone today. Ive been looking forward to our hour session all week. I really need to talk to someone. I appreciate having a therapist as flexible as you are."
"An hour session?" Katherine whispered a little too loudly.
Gwen turned towards the closet and frowned. She cocked her ear toward the door. If there were mice in this place, she was moving everyone to the Westin in downtown St. Louis.
"Im still here," Gwen said after staring at the door for a moment. "Of course we can pick up where we left off last week."
Katherine and Audrey whimpered quietly and did their best to get comfortable. Maybe they could smother each other with something in Gwens suitcase and cut short what was sure to be a miserable late afternoon.
Gwen lay back on the bed and closed her eyes and began to talk.
St. Louis, Missouri
"Cmon, cmon. Pay up, Katy." Nina, dressed in a University of MissouriSt. Louis sweatshirt and black jeans, tapped her foot impatiently. Shed already asked Katherine three times that day. "I need to bring the rent over to Mr. Gossler before we go to the game tonight." Their landlord lived next door.
Katherine sighed and sat up from her stretched out position on the ratty, burnt orange-colored sofa that theyd bought at a yard sale for $20. No matter what they did to it, the couch still smelled a little like wet dog. "Lemme go raid my piggy bank. Hang on." With a groan, she headed to the small bedroom she shared with Gwen and Nina.
The girls of the Mayflower Club were renting a house that was older than any of their grandparents and was located only two miles from the University of MissouriSt. Louis, where they were freshmen. The school had a mediocre academic reputation and underachieving sports teams, but it was cheap, local, and someplace theyd all been acceptedthe top three things on all their lists. Only Nina knew that Jacie had been offered a partial academic scholarship to Washington University, though even with the Priest family's meager assistance shed been forced to turn it down because tuition and room and board were simply out of her reach.
Nina sat down on the sofa and closed her eyes. Shed have to pay for attending tonights soccer match by studying all night tomorrow for her first history exam. Stilla small smile appearedit would be worth it. Jacie did nothing but work or study at the library these days, and if she didnt know better, Nina would have sworn the auburn-haired girl was avoiding her. But the more she thought about it, the more ridiculous the idea seemed. Sure, they hadnt gotten to spend as much time together as Nina would have liked, but Jacie was her very best friend, and that would never change.
Her stomach fluttered happily at the thought of an evening together.
Gwen stepped out of their tiny kitchen with a soda can in her hand. She, too, was wearing a sweatshirt in the school colors of red and gold, this one emblazoned with UMSL Rivermen. She sucked in a breath because her tight-fitting Gloria Vanderbilt jeans were cutting off blood to parts of her body she was pretty sure needed blood. Still, she looked fabulous, and as her mother had drilled into her headbeauty wasnt free.
Gwen glanced around. "Where is everyone? We need to go."
Nina looked at the plastic wall clock shaped like an owl, the kind whose demented eyes danced back and forth as the second hand moved. "Katys in the bedroom rifling the chair cushions for her portion of the rent. Audrey is in the other room and refuses to come out until shes lost 20 pounds and has a date for Homecoming. And Jacie isnt home yet."
"Oh, God." Gwen rolled her eyes. "I could kill that Tommy for making that comment about Audreys thighs."
Ninas eyes narrowed. "You and me both. Theres nothing wrong with her thighs."
"Who could you kill?" Katy asked as she approached the sofa with a thick stack of crinkled one-dollar bills in her hands. The tips she earned waitressing almost made up for her smelling like grease one hundred percent of the time.
Gwen sat down next to Nina. She set her soda on the floor and picked up the earrings shed left on the coffee table. "Audreys bastard ex-boyfriend." In one ear she placed a simple, fake diamond stud. In the other ear she slid in a stud with a long chain attached and a longer white feather that dangled at the end of that. Then she adjusted her pink headband. Olivia Newton John would be jealous. "He really did a number on her self-esteem."
"Is she still in the bedroom?" Katy had assumed since Audrey had been in there so long that perhaps her cousin had ended her self-imposed exile and somehow shed just missed it.
Nina nodded. "Still in there."
Katy sighed. "Ill go get her."
Gwen looked at the door. "Were going to have to leave Jacie if she doesnt get here soon." She grinned girlishly, her blue eyes dancing with delight. "Malcolm Langtree is going to meet me at the game and I cant be late."
Nina blinked. "The tall boy youve been flirting with since the first week of school? What was his name again?"
Gwen looked aghast. "Cmon, Nina, dont tell me youve havent heard of the Langtrees!" She gestured wildly. "Are you crazy?"
Nina batted round, innocent eyes. "Im sure I dont know who you mean."
Gwen stamped both her feet. "Nina!"
Nina couldnt help it, she burst out laughing. "Duh, Gwen." She smacked the taller girl on the arm. "Everyone in St. Louis knows who they are."
Gwen gave her a sheepish look, the color of her cheeks rivaling her headband. "Im sorry. Im just"
"Excited?" Nina gazed at her indulgently. "I noticed."
"He is awfully cute, though," she defended. "And hes taking me out to a late dinner after the game."
"Are those from him?" Nina inclined her head toward a wobbly end table that held a bouquet of fragrant flowers. The flora had been stuffed into an empty coke-bottle-turned-bud-vase.
"Uh huh. My first roses!" Gwens dreamy expression turned wry. "They almost drown out the smell of the sofa."
Both girls began to laugh.
The front door flew open and Jacie, still dressed in the black slacks and black silk blouse she wore every time she tended bar using her fake ID, strode into the living room. "Sorry Im late, guys, but I need as much overtime as possible this week." An art class shed taken on a lark was turning out to be her favorite course and the cost of supplies was killing her.
Ninas face lit up when she saw Jacie. She admitted privately that she loved the sight of her in her work clothes.
Jacie stopped near the sofa and looked back at the front door. "Dont be shy, Karen. Cmon in." She motioned to a slender woman who was waiting quietly in the doorway. The woman looked to be in her mid-to-late 20s, and Jacie smiled as she strolled into their living room.
Gwen recalled seeing this woman once before when shed given Jacie a ride home from work last month. She eyed her red suede jacket enviously. "I saw your coat in the Famous-Barrs store window last week. Its great."
The pretty woman smiled, showing off perfect white teeth. "Thanks. I think so, too."
Nina wanted to gag over Karens syrupy sweet Southern accent.
"And thats Charlie perfume youre wearing," Gwen continued, looking closer to see if the jacket had the plain gold buttons or the ones with tiny silver flecks in them.
Impressed, the woman nodded. "Thats pretty good. Im barely wearing any."
Gwen blew on her fingers and then buffed them on her sweatshirt. "Its a gift. Im taking fashion design."
Nina glanced at Jacie, whose gaze was riveted on Karen, and inexplicably felt like growling, the tiny hairs on the back of her neck standing at attention.
"Gwen, Nina, this is my uh my friend Karen-Michelle," Jacie introduced, not able to look Nina in the eye. She and Karen had recently become lovers, and Jacie was drowning in guilt. She had no doubt whatsoever who really owned her heart. And it wasnt Karen. "We met at work." She rocked back on her heels. "And uh shes going to come to the game with us, okay?"
Gwen shrugged. "Sure."
"Thats great," Nina said, unable to project a single ounce of enthusiasm into her normally bright voice. Was this who Jacie was spending all of her free time with? She felt the sting of jealousy burning deep in the pit of her stomach and was instantly ashamed. Stop being an idiot! Shes allowed to have other friends.
Unable to sit still for another second, Gwen popped up off the couch and grabbed her purse from a hook on the wall. "Okay, lets go." She was already moving for the door.
"Katy and Audrey are still in Jacies room," Nina reminded.
Jacie nodded. "Ill get them and then change my shirt and Yeow!" She tripped over plastic bin of clean laundry that had been carelessly left out by Katy and ended up sprawled out on the carpet like a turtle on her back. "Ugh," she said to the ceiling. "That was graceful."
Both Nina and Karen rushed to her side. "Are you okay?" they asked at the same time. Surprised, they turned and stared at one another with slightly wide eyes. Then each woman stuck out her hand to help Jacie up. "Here," they chorused again. This time the looks they shot each other were filled with annoyance.
Jacie blinked slowly, her eyebrows crawling up her forehead and her gaze flicking from hand to hand.
Forcing herself to act like an adult and not a spoiled girl who now had to share her favorite toy, Nina gritted her teeth and began to withdraw.
Without her permission, Jacies arm shot out and she clasped Ninas hand, feeling warm, strong fingers wrap around her own. A tiny squeeze was her reward.
Karens eyes took on a knowing glint.
Confused but smugly satisfied, Nina tugged Jacie to her feet and after a few awkward seconds, reluctantly let go of her hand. She took a step backwards, finding something terribly interesting about their avocado-green shag carpet, though she couldnt stop the small smile from appearing.
"Thank you, Nina," Jacie said softly, forgetting for a moment that Karen was even in the room.
Karen rolled her eyes as so many mysteries about Jacie finally came into focus. Now she understood why Jacie, though shed finally allowed herself to be seduced, had seemed reluctant to move forward with their relationship. She was in love with someone else. The interaction between the two younger women made her wonder why the dishwater-blonde with the intense blue-green eyes was so blind.
Finally aware that Karen was watching her, Jacie tore her eyes from Nina and snatched a shirt and pair jeans from the clothesbasket. The shirt was Katys but she wouldnt mind, and a quick check at the tag told her the pants belonged to her and not to Gwen, who would mind but would get over it. With a little wave, she headed for the bedroom, giving the clothesbasket a small kick as she went. "One second."
With Jacie gone, the silence in the living room stretched on endlessly. "So," Gwen began politely, resisting the urge to check her watch again, "what do you do, Karen?"
Karen sighed loudly. "Way too many stupid things." She gave the girls a wry smile. "And I ought to know better."
Not having the faintest idea of how to respond to that, Nina and Gwen just stood there, shifting from one foot to the other and praying that Jacie would come back soon.
Karen turned to Nina. "Will you give Jacie a message for me?"
"Uhh " She pointed to the bedroom in which Jacie had disappeared. "Shes just in there. You can tell her your"
"Why dont you tell her for me?" Karen interrupted, giving Nina a direct look.
Ninas mouth snapped shut. "Well, sure. Okay," she finally muttered.
Karen smiled. "Thanks. Tell her I had a lot of fun and Ill see her around sometime. I suddenly remembered that I have other plans for tonight."
Ninas shoulders slumped. She hadnt exactly been rude, but she hadnt really welcomed Jacies new friend either. "Look, if youll just wait"
Karen waved a dismissive hand. "No thanks. I have a feeling Ill be waiting forever for that one."
"You will?" Nina said, shaking her head a little, clearly befuddled.
Karens gaze sharpened and she searched the girls face, trying to decide whether she was being mocked. But a good look into earnest eyes yielded a quick and certain answer and, despite herself, she had to smother a chuckle. If this werent happening to her, it would have been too cute for words. "Im sure of it." And with that, Karen saw herself out the front door and out of Jacies life, allowing the screen to slam behind her.
The door hadnt been closed for three seconds when Jacie showed up, followed by Katy and Audrey. Jacies gaze bounced around the room. "Wheres Karen?"
Nina braced herself for Jacie to be upset. "She um she said to tell you shed had fun and would see you around."
Jacies jaw sagged.
"And that she suddenly remembered a prior engagement," Gwen added, quickly losing patience and wondering if it wouldnt be easier to just catch the bus. "Can we go now, please?"
Katy held up her car keys and jangled them. "Im ready."
"Me too," Audrey said. Having been the recipient of a pep talk by Katy and Jacie, she and her less-than-perfect thighs were once again prepared to face the cruel world.
"Im sorry about your friend, Jacie," Nina said quietly, truly meaning it.
Jacie let out a deep breath, visibly relieved. "Im not. She sort of invited herself along, anyway."
"Good," Gwen announced. "Now, Jacie give Nina your portion of the rent. Katy, go warm up the beast. Well pick Nina and Jacie up next door after Mr. Gossler gets paid." She beamed a smile at Audrey. "And, Audrey, youll never guess who Im meeting at the game!"
"Not Malcolm Langtree," she squealed excitedly.
Katy and Audrey were shuffled out the front door with Gwen chatting happily the entire time and literally pushing them along.
Jacie dug into her jeans pocket and pulled out a several twenties. She held out the bills. "I figured youd need this today."
Nina took the money. "Thanks." For some reason, her feet seemed rooted to the floor.
Jacie was equally uninterested in moving from her spot right in front of her friend. Eventually, however, she conceded that theyd better go or Gwen would come back in and have their hides. "Ill get my gloves. I think its going to be cold tonight." Jacie made a move for the closet but was stopped by a warm hand on her shoulder.
Nina audibly swallowed. "You um I mean, if your hands get cold, you could just snuggle close to me." Her heart began to pound and she just kept talking, needing to get this out. "Im really warm and warm, I guess." Her eyes begged Jacie to understand what she was feeling. "Or you could use one of my gloves and I could use the other or I could rest my hand on yours or I could just be close to you," she babbled. "Or"
"We could share?" Jacie asked quietly, looking deeply into Ninas eyes, seeing something she hadnt seen before, and letting every bit of love shed tried so desperately to hide bubble up to the surface and overflow.
The room grew as still as the night, and in those few seconds of electric silence, something profound passed between them. Something that stripped their hearts naked and laid their souls out bare. It was a bone-deep understanding that broke through the questions and doubts and, in that one powerful moment, gave them both more courage than either knew they possessed.
Nina smiled tentatively. It was either that or burst into tears. Her mind was awhirl with scary and wonderful possibilities, and she blew out a long breath as she tried to calm her shaking hands. "Id like that, Jacie," she whispered, hearing the hoarseness in her own voice and marveling at her own braveness. "Id like to share. A lot."
As it always did, Jacies smile reached her eyes, warming them, just a split second before it bowed her lips. And this one was the most beautiful smile that Nina had ever seen. "Id like that too." Her heart skipped a beat, and she reached out and took Ninas hand, twining their fingers together. "More than anything."
Audrey shook her head in wonder. "God," she whispered. "Gwen is totally screwed up! I used to think you were the most cracked among us. How wrong I was."
"Gee, thanks." Katherine gushed sarcastically. After another few moments she whispered, "I cant stand it anymore! Now shes still telling her shrink about her clothes and hair!"
"She finally got a cashmere sweater. I wonder if it was blue like she always wanted."
"Maybe thats cathartic for her," Audrey said quietly, not really believing what she was saying but hoping it would pacify her antsy cousin.
"Maybe theres a gun in her bag and I can end our suffering."
Audrey gave her a silent shove. "Youre not allowed to shoot me!"
"Not you, stupid. Gwen." Her fingers shaped a pistol. "Bang." She smiled blissfully. "Then nothing but silence."
"Oh." There was a pause while Audrey nibbled her bottom lip. "Ten more minutes and I might be your alibi."
"I cant make it that long!" Katherine whined. "Look." She held up her fingers, though it was too dark to see much more than the outline of them. "My nails are chewed to the bone."
Audrey stretched her legs out, stifling a groan. She whispered, "You just want a cigarette."
Katherine blinked. She hadnt even thought of that until now, and the craving swept over her with such intensity that she swooned at the idea of all that lovely nicotine melting into her bloodstream and infusing her body.
"Im making a break for it," Katherine announced boldly.
Ignoring Audrey, Katherine jumped up and flung open the closet door.
Gwen shrieked and dropped the phone on the bed, clutching a pillow to her chest.
At the sound of a blood-curdling scream, Audrey covered her face with her hands. "Oh, shit." Then she sprung out of the closet on Katherines heels.
Gwens eyes were round as saucers as she scrambled off the bed. "Jesus! Katy?" Then she looked at the slightly disheveled woman standing behind her. "Audrey?" Her voice was rising with each word. "What in the?"
"Surprise," Katherine yelled, pasting on a happy face.
Audrey looked blankly at Katherine, who elbowed her in the boob. "Surprise," she coughed, rubbing her chest.
"Happy birthday to you," Katherine crooned ridiculously. "Happy birthday to you."
Audrey joined in slightly off key.
Gwen looked at her friends as though theyd lost their minds. "Are you two drunk?
Pretending they hadnt heard her question, Audrey and Katherine soldiered on. "Happy birthday, dear Gwe-en. Happy birthday to you."
Gwen blinked, still in shock. "This is a surprise party?"
Katherine smiled broadly. She was actually going to buy it! "Yes." She nodded once. "Yes, it is."
Gwen picked up her phone and placed it to her ear. "No, you dont have to call the police, Doctor. Ill have to call you back." A beep sounded as she pressed "off." Then she walked over to the closet and looked inside. Her bags were right were she left them. "If this is my party, then where are Nina and Jacie?"
"Uh ." Audrey looked at Katherine, her mind blank and her face showing it.
" Katherine looked back at Audrey and began to panic. "Audrey forgot to invite them," she blurted suddenly.
"What?" Audrey screeched, not liking that shed been made out to be the stupider of Dumb and Dumber. "Im the one who forgot?"
"Yes," Katherine answered confidently. "Yes, you did." She focused on Gwen and made a clucking sound. "God, she can be so dense. Uncle Allan swore she was the milkmans." She stepped away just in time for Audreys claw-shaped hand to whiz past her.
"Okay," Gwen said with exaggerated slowness, more convinced than ever that the cousins were indeed three sheets to the wind. She looked around the room. "So what do we do now?"
"Gifts!" Katherine shouted. "A party should have gifts." She turned to face Audrey, knowing that Gwen couldnt see her face. "Or did you forget those, too, Audrey?" She stuck her tongue out.
Audreys face turned a lovely shade of red, and she vowed on the spot that her revenge would be sweet. "Uh . A gift." The actual gift shed brought was in her bag in her room. But thats something she would have brought to a real party. "Katy has the gift in her pocket." She smiled evilly. "Dont you remember, cuz?"
Gwen smiled. If they had a gift, then maybe this was their sad attempt at a party. After all, they hadnt had years to hone their social skills at St. Louis finest country club. "So, whats my present, Katy?"
Katherine closed her eyes and gave a mental sigh. Then she whirled around and dug into her pocket, hoping that something would be in there. Quickly, she grasped the contents and dropped it into Gwens outstretched hands, a little surprised shed gotten so lucky.
Gwen looked down at her gifts. Her face was totally blank. "Oh, you shouldnt have, Katy."
Katherine blinked. "I shouldnt?"
Both Katherine and Gwen peered with interest at Gwens upturned palm.
Gwen held up the first item. "A Tic Tac." She lifted an eyebrow and then made a delicate sniffing noise. "Wintergreen. My favorite."
"Ooo " Then Gwen lifted a tiny brown pill and held it up to the light. "A birth control pill from " she squinted and read the expiration date. "1999. How thoughtful."
This time Audrey snorted so hard she began to choke. "Dont you ever do laundry?" she coughed.
A flush worked its way up from Katherines neck to cover her entire face.
"And finally," Gwen began again, "the piece dresistance. One dollar," she poked through the coins, "and seven cents." She smiled valiantly. "Now I can get that Diet Pepsi Ive been saving up for."
"The money part was from me," Audrey inserted, enjoying Katherines misery.
"Of course it was," Gwen allowed. "Only someone as thoughtful as you could have known that I was secretly saving the state quarters and didnt have Georgia yet."
Wordlessly, Audrey ran around Katherine and pulled Gwen into a solid hug. Then she reached out and grabbed Katherines hand and yanked her out of the room.
When she was alone, Gwen sat back down on the bed, looking at the items in her hand in bewilderment. What had just happened? And what had they heard her tell her therapist? She couldn't decide whether to be more or less suspicious of her friends after their bizarre behavior. It was all too much to consider. Gwen closed her eyes. "I think Im going insane. No," she corrected firmly, "I know Im going insane." She shrugged, "But what the hell," and popped the Tic Tac into her mouth.
"Nina," Jacie mumbled to herself, "where are you?" She tugged the collar of her jacket higher and stepped over a damp, decaying log. A quick check of the house had yielded nothing. But all the cars were still there, which meant Nina hadnt gone home.
Jacie stood at the edge of the back lawn, where the rock-covered path split in two. She closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath, and thought of Nina. She homed in on the persistent sensation in the bottom of her stomach, a sensation borne of their kindred spirits and mutual undying love, trusting that feeling to be her guide. Twenty minutes later, cursing, dirty, scratched, and with her jeans wet from the knees down from taking a detour through the woods, she headed back to the fork in the path so she could go the other way. She vowed never to watch Xena or read Missy Good again.
It wasnt long before she could smell the river, dank and lush. The sun had gone behind thick clouds and the early evening sky was heavy and gray. There, on a knotted wooden bench that overlooked the rivers banks sat Nina, tossing stones into its slow-moving depths.
"What took you so long?" Nina said quietly, not bothering to turn around when she heard rocks crunching under sure footsteps. Ker-plunk. A pebble disappeared beneath the murky surface.
Jacie dropped down beside her and picked up a stone from the pile that now sat between them on the bench. "I didnt know where youd gone," Jacie answered simply, scraping a blade of wet grass from the stone with her thumbnail.
Nina nodded, her eyes still on the water. "When we were kids and would play hide and seek you found me before anyone else. Always." For the first time, she turned and looked at her friend, sucking in a breath at the sight of the painful-looking black-eye shed given her. Tenderly, she reached up with chilled fingers and traced the swollen flesh. "I thought you were magic."
Jacie quirked a bittersweet grin. "No magic, Nina. You were the only one I ever looked for."
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