Disclaimers: None. All of the characters are mine (although two of them may bear uncanny physical resemblances to two others you might recognize).
Violence/Sex: Some (brief) violence. There is, ultimately, after YEARS of dedicated reading, consensual sex between two people who may bear uncanny resemblances to two… well… you get the point.
Warning: This story does involve a consensual loving and sexual relationship between two adult women. If this offends you, is illegal where you live, or if you are underage—please consider another story selection.
Dedication : To all of you who are brave enough (and persistent enough) to read this, my first work of fiction. Bear with me and forgive me for any significant grammatical or literary transgressions— Jericho and I are both works in progress.
Special Thanks : To my best pal, writing dominatrix (she looks really cute in that meter maid costume, but can never make change), and Beta-reader—the FAMOUS JLynn (who told me it didn't suck). So if you think it does , please tell her instead of me. You will find her works of fiction posted at this site, too.
If you decide that you like it, however, write me— I'd like to know what you think. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Copyright Ann McMan, November 2010. All rights reserved. This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced without the prior express permission of the author, except for the purpose of personal enjoyment, provided that all disclaimers remain intact.
Jericho is complete, but will be posted in ten parts.
Jericho Part I
I'll try to keep myself open up to you.
It gets easier and easier to do.
Just like Jericho—
The walls come tumbling down—
Falling on the ground, and all the dogs go running free.
The wild and the gentle dogs, that own me.
The last couple of boxes barely fit into the crowded station wagon. Syd waited until the last few minutes to pack up the essentials of her daily life—the things that would keep her company for the next 18 months during her sojourn in the tiny mountain town. The things that would keep her sane and remind her that the rest of the world's cranky machinery was chugging along, even if her own had frozen to a complete stop. The movers had already been and gone, and the majority of her personal belongings were now on their way to a climate-controlled storage facility west of Raleigh. She'd figure out what to do with it all once she figured out what to do with what was left of her fractured life.
After closing the tailgate on her car, she walked back inside the shopworn bungalow that had been her home for the last four and a half years. She walked slowly from room to room—five rooms in all. Sturdy, spare and still resonating with the sounds and smells of the life she had lived there. The familiar shotgun design of the house—one room behind another behind another—again struck her as curious. Why would anyone choose to live in such a straight line? It didn't make sense. Life wasn't like that—people weren't like that. People were bent and contorted by life into all kinds of irregular shapes. Life was anything but linear.
Architecture like this was a distinctly Southern invention—stubborn in its implied insistence that life was a straightforward thing that would always work out, and always proceed according to some master plan. It was no accident that all of the houses on her street opened onto wide front porches that seemed to converge with nature. They were designed like ludicrous parodies of religious parables: imitating a person's plodding and unvarying path through life—culminating in a grand and glorious reward.
Well, sometimes, the rewards weren't so glorious. And today, she was moving—but it wasn't toward anything glorious. It wasn't toward anything; it was just away from here.
Syd walked back through the house, taking a last look inside closets and cabinets. Something caught her eye in the back of a kitchen drawer, and she bent over to see the corner of a white piece of paper wedged between the drawer and its backstop. She tugged at it gently and was surprised when it turned out to be a badly creased photograph. It was a picture of her with Jeff—taken outside her parents' house in Towson, on the day they had packed-up to move to North Carolina together. They looked happy and in love, as they posed with their arms wrapped around one other in front of Jeff's impossibly overloaded 4Runner. Syd shook her head as she gazed down at the tiny image of herself. Stupid . Stupid. What a waste . She tucked the photo back into its hiding place and closed the drawer. Turning off the kitchen light, she made her way back through the house. On the threshold of the front door, she paused briefly, then exhaled, pulled the door shut, locked it, and slid her key back through the brass mail slot.
She walked around her car one last time to ensure that it looked fit for travel. The sturdy, ‘95 Volvo station wagon was mostly reliable—but a daylong drive in September heat wasn't like her usual twenty-minute commute to the Carolina campus. She prayed for the millionth time that she'd reach Jericho without incident.
Climbing into the car, she started the engine and snapped her seatbelt into place. After setting the trip odometer, she popped a disc into the dashboard CD player. Without looking back, she pulled away from the house on Broad Street, and drove toward the Interstate as strains from Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time filled the car.
Maddie wished for the hundredth time that she'd left Pete back at the house. Her five-year-old Golden Retriever, frantically paced back and forth in the rear of the Cherokee. Any time Maddie made the trek to Charlotte for supplies with Pete in tow, she had to endure his excited behavior whenever the New River snaked into view along the roadside.
“C'mon, Pete—please settle down. We'll stop for a swim on the way back. I promise . Be a good boy, now.”
In the rearview mirror, she saw only the strobe like flash of the dog's tail as he continued his frenzied pacing, which now was accompanied by a high-pitched whine. She only had a few more miles of this to endure—once they crossed into North Carolina, he would settle down and sleep the rest of the way.
When Maddie brought her eyes back to the road, she noticed a blue Volvo wagon ahead—halfway pulled off onto the grassy shoulder. Its flashers were on. A woman stood at the back, leaning into the open cargo area, pulling out boxes and suitcases. As she slowed to pass, Maddie saw the culprit—a blowout on the left front tire. Pulling over and turning on her own flashers, Maddie hopped out of the Cherokee and walked back toward the stranded motorist.
“Stay,” she sternly commanded the dog, whose curiosity was rapidly overcoming his excitement at stopping. The woman behind the car had stopped unloading, and now stood a little warily, watching Maddie as she approached.
“Having some car trouble?” Maddie asked, from a respectful distance.
“You might say that,” the woman said, gesturing toward the shredded remnants of her front tire. “Funny—it was fine when I put it on the car 60,000 miles ago.”
Maddie smiled. “Well then, I'd say you definitely got your money's worth.”
“That's me—a shrewd consumer. I just have lousy timing.”
“It looks like your sense of geography isn't so hot either,” Maddie noted, wryly gesturing at the wooded landscape that surrounded them. “There's no semblance of a town within 20 miles of here.”
The petite blonde threw her hands up. “Of course! My cell phone can't get a signal here, either.”
Maddie pointed toward the open cargo bay. “Let me help you out. I assume you're trying to unearth a spare?”
“Thanks. I know I packed one.” The blond smiled at her—all traces of wariness now absent from her green eyes. She appeared to be about Maddie's age, or slightly younger. She was very pretty.
In tandem, they lifted out cartons of house wares, books, and linens, and stacked the boxes along the bank next to the shoulder.
“Moving?” Maddie asked. The woman nodded. “Where are you headed?”
Maddie raised an eyebrow.
“I'm setting up a new library there.”
“Oh,” Maddie nodded with recognition. “I'm familiar with that project. It's a wonderful thing for the area—long overdue.”
“My name's Syd, by the way.”
“Sid?” Maddie looked confused.
“S-Y-D—like ‘Sydney.' It's a family name.” She explained. “A nickname. My first name is Margaret—but only my mother calls me that.”
“I'm Maddie.” She smiled at her. “And the stunning natural blonde up there is my dog, Pete.”
Syd craned her neck around the car to look more closely at the dog, whose strong head jutted from an open back window. His nose was bobbing up and down as he sniffed at the air outside the Jeep.
“He knows it.” Maddie said with an affectionate glance at the dog. “Don't let him hear you.”
Syd laughed. “Are you from this area?”
“Yes and no. I was born about thirty miles from here, but I have only been back here to live for about 18 months.”
Syd nodded and gestured toward Maddie's Jeep. “Hence the PENN sticker on your bumper?”
Maddie regarded her with interest. “That's pretty observant.”
“Librarians. We notice things.”
“Ah, that accounts for it.” Maddie smiled as she lowered the last box to the ground. “Yes. I went to school in Philadelphia and stayed on there to work—although that seems like a lifetime ago.”
“So, it's quite a change being back here?”
“You could say that. But, on the whole—it's been a nice one.”
Syd pried open the door to the spare tire well. “That's comforting. I'd hate to think that I hauled all of my worldly possessions up here to this lovely roadside only to be miserable.”
Maddie looked at the litter of items spread out along the shoulder. There were many boxes of books. “I dunno—at least you won't want for something to read.”
Syd smiled at her as they lifted the grimy tire from its mooring and rolled it toward the front of the car. “I sure wish I hadn't cut driver's ed the day they did this.” Syd wiped her hands on the seat of her jeans. Maddie walked back to the rear of the Volvo and extracted the t-bar socket tool clipped to the side of the wheel well. She knelt by the front tire and looked up at Syd with a wide smile. “Let's pray that your lug nuts aren't rusted.”
Syd wrinkled her nose. “I just know there's a one-liner lurking in there someplace.”
Maddie laughed, “Well with me, that's usually a safe assumption.” She forced one of the lugs loose and handed it to Syd.
“I won't let myself take too big a hit for this situation—car maintenance, or lack thereof, was always my husband's responsibility.”
Maddie forced another of the stubborn lugs free. “Was?” she asked.
“Yeah.” Syd took the second lug from her and clacked it against the first in her palm. “I'm now an official member of The First Wives Club —or I will be shortly.”
“Oh.” She paused, holding the t-bar against the next lug nut. “Am I sorry about this?”
Syd looked pensive. “No—I'm fine. It's the right thing for both of us.” She slowly shook her head like she was clearing it of cobwebs. She met Maddie's eyes. “You seem like you've done this before. I feel worthless just watching you work. Isn't there something I can do to help out? It's my mess, after all.”
“Sure. Wanna go to the trunk and bring up the jack?”
Syd squinted. “Is that a tool-thingy?”
Maddie rolled her eyes. “Yeah…it's a square, flat-looking tool-thingy—and it should be the only tool-thingy left in the tire well.”
“Right.” She nodded as she headed toward the back of the car. “I'm all over it.” She came back with the jack just as Maddie removed the last of the lug nuts
Maddie stood up and brushed dust off the knees of her pants. “Okay—let's give this tool-thingy a whirl.”
Twenty minutes later, she had the spare safely installed and they were rolling the remains of the flat to the rear of the car. It took them a little while to repack all of Syd's boxes of belongings. When they finished, Maddie closed the tailgate to the Volvo and turned to face her. “You're all set.”
“I just don't know how to thank you,” Syd began.
“Forget about it.” Maddie interrupted, as she wiped her hands off. “I needed to stop anyway. Old Bowser up there was about due for a swim break, and this is as likely a spot as any.” She gestured across the road toward the water glinting through the trees.
Syd seemed interested. “Oh, really? Are you going to let him out?”
“Can I keep him in is a better question.” She smiled at the smaller woman. “I need to rinse my hands off, anyway.” She stood there quietly for a moment as Syd gazed toward the river. They could hear it, roaring along below the embankment.
“It flows north, you know.”
Syd looked at her. “Pardon me?”
“The New River. It flows north, not south.”
“You're kidding, right? That's…counterintuitive—is it some kind of metaphor?”
Maddie smiled. “Well it may be—but the New is one of the oldest rivers in North America—and, for some strange reason, it flows north .”
Syd's eyes narrowed. “Like the Nile?”
“Right! I guess your sense of geography isn't as impaired as I suggested earlier.”
“Lucky guess,” Syd replied.
“I doubt that somehow.” Maddie considered the smaller woman. She was impressed by her obvious intelligence and her dry sense of humor. She would make a welcome and interesting addition to the provincial town of Jericho. She hoped they would run into each other again. She mused that it was very likely they would —she had inherited her father's position on the Tri-County Library Board. She decided not to mention that fact, thinking that it might seem presumptuous—and she was enjoying their easy camaraderie.
“Why don't you stick around for a few more minutes—relax and recover from your roadside trauma before heading on up into the hills?”
“I've got a thermos of hot coffee and two cups,” she offered, hopefully.
Syd shot her an appraising look. “What kind of coffee?”
Maddie gave her a knowing smile. “Oh, very special coffee. I order it online from A Southern Season in Chapel Hill and grind it myself.” She closed her eyes and hummed. “Oh, yeah…it's gooood stuff—practically like coffee-crack.”
Syd eyes glazed over. “All right, already—I'm in! My last cup was from a Bojangles in Durham.” She shivered. “Trust me—it wasn't special.”
“Great! Let me go and unleash the wildebeest.” Maddie strode off toward the Jeep, fishing her keys out of a front pocket. As soon as she raised the tailgate, Pete vaulted from the back in a flash of gold and bounded across the road, heading at a high lope for the riverbank.
Maddie tossed Syd a bright green tennis ball. “Canine pacifier,” she pointed out. Let me just grab the thermos and a blanket.”
The two women slowly made their way down the bank flanking the road, and walked through tall grass toward the edge of the river, where Pete was already sloshing about happily.
“Here, Pete!” Maddie took the tennis ball from Syd and heaved it out into the current. The dog plunged in after it and swam back to shore, his trophy proudly clamped between his teeth. “The trick now ,” Maddie cautioned, bending over to wash her hands in the icy water, “is to find a sitting place outside of his shake zone.”
“I see what you mean.” Syd watched mesmerized as the dog emerged from the water and shook his massive frame. Sparks of sunlight emanated from the shower of spray that flew out from his vibrating coat like shards of glass. Pete then trotted to within ten feet of them and sank to the ground, chewing contentedly on his tennis ball.
They spread the blanket out on a relatively flat piece of terrain, several yards from the water's edge. The air was filled with the pungent scent of pine needles and dry grass. Already, the dogwood trees were turning red—one of the first hints of impending autumn. The repetitive droning of a nearby mockingbird floated on the air above the roar of the river. Over the ridge across the water, the hazy outline of the Blue Ridge Mountains could be seen through the trees.
Syd leaned back on her elbows and looked around at the view.
“My god—this is really beautiful.”
Maddie nodded as she unscrewed the top to the thermos. The wonderful aroma of coffee wafted up toward them. “I know—I forgot about how much I loved this during my years in Philadelphia. Getting back to this river is one of the best things about being at home again.”
Syd looked over at her. “You said your father passed away?” Maddie nodded as she poured out two cups of coffee. “I'm sorry about that. Had he been ill?”
Maddie handed one of the steaming cups to Syd and recapped the thermos. “No—it was a massive coronary—completely unexpected. He had been in perfect health—or so we thought.” She paused “It was such a shock—he was so strong and vital. I still can't quite take it in—and it's been over a year and a half.”
Syd tentatively reached out a hand and touched her gently on the forearm. “I'm so sorry.”
Maddie met her earnest gaze. “Thanks. I miss him a lot.” She raised her cup. “How about a toast?” Syd gamely lifted her cup. “Here's to happier days and fewer road hazards!” They clinked rims and sipped the hot beverage.
Syd moaned in appreciation. “God…you weren't kidding—this is amazing.”
Maddie smiled at her. “Glad you think so. I'm kind of a coffee snob.” She gave a self-deprecating laugh. “Actually—I'm just kind of a snob . Or at least, that's what most of the locals seem to think.”
“I confess that I worried about that same thing when I came up here to interview for the library position. I wondered if my outlier status might cause problems for me.”
Maddie regarded her with a thoughtful expression. “Well, my best advice is to do whatever you can to avoid being isolated. It's easy for that to happen here—especially if you're not from the area.” She paused. “I've had my own struggles with that since coming back—it can be lonely.”
“I think it might be even harder in my case—I came here from Durham, but I'm not even from the South.”
Maddie nodded. She remembered the weekend that the interviews for Syd's position had taken place—she had been out of town at a conference. “I noticed your conspicuous lack of accent. Where are you from originally?”
Pete chose that moment to stand up and walk over toward their blanket. He was still ringing-wet from his sojourn in the river. Maddie sat up defensively. “Uh oh—take cover. Here comes Lighthorse Harry.”
Syd laughed as she drew her legs in closer. Pete flopped to the ground right in front of them and continued to chew contentedly on his tennis ball. Syd reached out and ran her hand along his thick yellow coat. “He really is beautiful. Have you had him long?”
“Just since coming back here—he was my dad's dog.” She scrubbed his head affectionately. “He's a good boy. Great company. I love having him—it's like still having a bit of my father with me.”
“I can understand that.” Syd drained her coffee cup and glanced down at her watch. She sighed regretfully. “I suppose I should get on with it. I'm scheduled to meet the county supervisor in an hour to pick up my keys.”
Maddie nodded. She recalled that there was a tiny manager's apartment over the old storefront facility the state had leased to house the new library. “I should get rolling, too—I need to be in Charlotte before 5:00.”
They stood up together and folded the blanket. Pete raced ahead of them toward the Jeep, sensing where they were headed, and not wanting to be left behind. After Maddie had stowed the blanket and thermos, she opened the tailgate of the Jeep and Pete jumped in. He still held the tennis ball in his mouth. Syd reached in and patted his blonde head.
“So long, handsome. You enjoy the rest of your ride.”
Maddie closed the tailgate and turned to face her. “Best of luck with the rest of your move.” She extended her hand and Syd shook it warmly. “I hope we see each other again.”
Syd smiled at her. “Oh, just brew a pot of coffee and I'll come and find you.” She released her hand and pulled her keys out of her jacket pocket. “I really can't thank you enough for all you've done for me today—you were an absolute lifesaver.”
“It was my pleasure. Be safe now.”
“You, too.” Syd turned back toward her car. “So long.”
Maddie gave her a casual wave as she climbed into her Jeep. “Bye.”
In seconds, they both were underway. Maddie was aware of Syd's Volvo following along behind her for several miles, until she reached the I-74 turnoff in Wilson. Syd blew her horn as she rolled on past the turn, and headed on her way toward the tiny hamlet of Jericho.
Syd had visited the new Jericho Branch Library twice before, but this time was different. Today it was real. As she drove through the Jericho “downtown” area, she noticed a moderate amount of activity at a corner service station and convenience mart. Several cars and pick-ups competed for parking spaces out front. Teenage boys, out for the evening in trucks and obvious family sedans, leaned against their cars, smoking cigarettes and loudly calling out to a group of bored-looking young women clustered by the door to the market. A neon sign in the window advertised “Pizza” and “Video Rentals.” Innocuously taped below the neon was a hand-lettered placard promoting $24.95 oil changes and stating that this was an Official Virginia Inspection Station.
There was a Firestone tire dealer located next door to the mini-mart, and Syd decided that she would venture back on Monday and drop off her damaged tire for repairs.
The rest of the town was fairly quiet. It contained one or two shallow side streets with a litter of small houses, a consolidated school comprised mostly of modular units linked by aluminum-covered walkways, two Baptist churches, a Laundromat annexed to a used appliance dealer, a barbecue restaurant (closed), a hardware store, several auto body shops, and a Volunteer Fire Department.
There was no doctor's office, no bank, no newspaper—and until now, no public library.
“What's it like?” Her mother had asked, when Syd called with the news of her successful appointment.
“What? The library?”
“Yes—for a start.”
Syd tried for a moment to see the bedraggled structure through her mother's eyes. “I think you'd say that it lacks refinement.”
“And the town?”
Her mother feigned exasperation. “The area, then.”
“Um...somewhat rustic. Not the usual sort of sleepy southern hamlet profiled in Country Living.”
There was a pause. The telephone line hissed quietly. “Margaret, how small is this place?”
Syd sighed. No matter how much time or distance intervened, her mother steadfastly refused to call her by her childhood nickname. “Well—to boil the whole of Western civilization down to its least common denominator—the nearest McDonald's is about twenty miles away.”
Twenty miles, Syd mused as she pulled into the parking lot beside the low, brick and block storefront, its new tin roof blazing in the late afternoon sun. It might as well be a million . But this backcountry area of Southwest Virginia, with its virtual anonymity, seemed exactly in keeping with her present state of mind. During her first visit to the area, Syd was captivated by the landscape. A string of tiny Main Street communities, ringed by ragged-looking farms, spread out along the perimeter of the hazy, brooding Blue Ridge Mountains. The towns, like the people who lived in them, seemed to imitate every dip and sag of the terrain. Faded, weary, worn down by time and the elements—but still hinting at former grandeur and elegance.
In fact, the 18-month posting, funded by a grant from the State Library Association, offered just the sort of programmed existence Syd thought she needed. She always preferred to keep the number of options in her life pared down; making decisions was not one of her strong suits. Now, in the wake of a failed marriage, she was willing to hand the immediate superintendence of her life over to the Commonwealth of Virginia. For the next year and a half, while she attempted to sort through the carnage of her personal life, she would lend herself to the citizens of Southwest Virginia.
She had no keys yet to explore the inside, but external improvements were obvious. The brick walls had been freshly painted in bright white, and some enterprising volunteer had built and installed two large window boxes on the front of the building. These planters were choked with bronze-colored chrysanthemums, all craning their springy, fat heads toward the sunny side of the building. A new hand-painted, wooden sign over the door proclaimed that this building was now the Jericho Public Library. In smaller type across the bottom, the sign painter had added “Highest library in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
A small door wedged between the library façade and the upholstery shop next door led to the tiny furnished, upstairs apartment that would be her home for the next year and a half. Syd glanced up at the big windows over the library that faced out onto the street. The front of the building was in shade, so at least the sun wouldn't be in her eyes in the evenings. There were empty window boxes beneath the upstairs windows as well, and she supposed she could fill those with mums to complement the library plantings at street level.
The window blinds had all carefully been closed, so Syd had no idea how much of her initial inventory had arrived. Behind the building, next to a sagging back porch, an impressive tower of corrugated boxes, broken down for ease of removal, looked promising. She wouldn't really know what awaited her inside until after she met the county supervisor at the courthouse in Jefferson, to get her keys and formally assume her position.
Syd had two months before the formal opening of the branch—two months to appoint the interior, unpack, organize and shelve the meager initial collection, set up her cataloging and circulation systems, recruit and train volunteers and prepare her first “acquisitions” budget for the state library board.
“Oh, yeah,” she pondered. “Grad school really prepared me for this.”
She walked toward her car and looked across the vacant lot next to the library at the tiny Jericho Post Office. The sun appeared to be on a collision course with the peaked roof of the building. Already, the flat tire and her brief respite on the riverbank had eaten away a good portion of the afternoon. Now, her side trip to visit the library before heading on into Jefferson ensured that when she unloaded the car for the second time that day, it would be in the dark.
Roma Jean Freemantle had been a godsend. The redheaded 16-year-old volunteered in the branch two afternoons a week after school. In exchange for her practicum with Syd, she earned course credit toward a general business requirement. The vivacious teenager was a hard worker and always very punctual. With Roma Jean as a willing emissary, Syd quickly became enmeshed in the daily lives—and loves—of her new neighbors. Friends of Roma Jean's had a tendency to drop by the library—even on days the redhead wasn't working. Syd got to know them all, and it became clear to her that the tiny Jericho branch library would quickly evolve into a hub of social activity once its doors formally were opened.
On Monday afternoon, Roma Jean and her “BFF” Jessie, were helping Syd shift stacks of reference materials from her processing area to the front of the building where she had set up study tables and a makeshift computer lab. The two girls carried on an unceasing dialogue while they carried stacks of books and manuals up to Syd, who was carefully arranging them on designated shelves.
“That's like the tenth time they've driven by here in the last hour.” Roma Jean sounded exasperated as she plopped six volumes of the Britannica Macropaedia onto an oak study table, and looked out the big front window toward the street. A vintage black Chevy Nova with shiny silver rims slowly rolled past the building—then gunned its engine at the corner and roared along down the rest of the street.
Jessie's frizzy brown hair bounced around her face as she nodded. “Losers. They're supposed to be at football practice.”
Roma Jean scoffed. “Not today! Jason got ‘hurt' on Friday and they had to take him to Dr. Stevenson's office. He's been benched for a week.” She huffed. “What a jerk .”
Jessie laughed as she pushed up her red-framed glasses. “You're just jealous that he had an excuse to go over there!”
Roma Jean shot an anxious look at Syd before shushing her friend. “Shut UP, Jessie! You're nuts .” She turned abruptly and huffed her way to the back of the building to pick up another stack of books.
Jessie rolled her eyes at Syd and turned to follow her friend.
Syd looked after the two girls with amusement, then stood up and looked out the front window in time to see the black Nova slowly making its way past the front of the building again. Smiling, she walked forward and waved at the two boys inside the car. They saw her looking at them, and quickly jerked their heads away—gunning the engine so the car lurched forward and squealed as it sped off. It didn't come around again.
The phone rang, and Syd walked over to the circulation desk to answer it.
“Jericho Public Library.”
“Miss Murphy?” It was Edna Freemantle. “Is Roma Jean still there? She forgot to pick up my shopping list this morning, and I need her to run by Food Bonanza on her way home tonight.”
“Hello, Edna.” She paused. “Please—call me Syd.” She craned her neck toward the back of the building. “Sure—she's still here. She and Jessie are in the back—let me get her for you.”
Syd laid the receiver down and walked toward the processing area to fetch Roma Jean. Before she got to the doorway, she could overhear the two girls in hushed conversation.
“Don't say crap like that in front of her—I don't want her thinking stuff like that about me! What if she said something to my parents? ” Roma Jean sounded desperate.
“Look—I said I was sorry …what do you want from me?” Jessie held her hands up. “I don't know why you're so upset if it isn't true .”
Syd cleared her throat. “Roma Jean—your mom's on the phone for you.” She smiled at the girls and turned around to walk back toward the front of the building. Teenagers. God.
She snagged a large mailing tube and a box of thumbtacks off the circulation desk as she walked past it, and headed toward the main entrance. The tube contained several oversized ALA posters that featured colorful photos of pop culture icons, happily engaged with their favorite books. Syd unrolled the posters and placed books on their corners to hold them open while she decided where to hang them. Cesar Milan, Danica Patrick, and Shaquille O'Neal all gazed back at her from the tabletops. Thinking that the posters would look good arranged around the street door, she drug a low stepstool over and stood atop it on tiptoes to see how high she could reach without having to commandeer a ladder.
Not high enough, as it turned out. She sighed as she started to climb back down—but jumped when she heard the sound of a car horn, followed by the loud roar of an engine. As she lost her footing and slipped to the floor, she saw a flash of black speed past the front door.
“Damn it!” She tried to catch herself as she fell, but only succeeded in twisting her left ankle as it tangled up beneath the stool. She landed in an untidy heap on the floor as blinding jolts of pain shot up her left leg.
Roma Jean and Jessie heard the commotion, and both raced to her side.
“What happened? Are you hurt?” They bent over her in concern.
“Syd struggled into a sitting position and tried to straighten out her left leg. “I fell off the stool.” She winced as she moved her foot. “I think I might have sprained my ankle.” She pulled herself up and sat down heavily on one of the straight chairs arranged around the nearest table. She grimaced in pain. “Damn it—I'm so stupid .”
Roma Jean pulled out another chair so Syd could prop her leg up. “Wow—it's already starting to get swollen. We'd better take you to Dr. Stevenson's office right away.”
Jessie looked up at the redhead in amazement. “Jeez, Roma Jean—you might wait like two seconds before you invent a reason to go flying over there!”
“Shut up, Jessie! Just go and get the car.” She gestured down toward Syd's outstretched leg. “Look at her ankle! It's really swelling.”
Syd raised a placating hand. “Girls—please. Give me a minute to catch my breath, okay?” She could feel her pulse pounding—every heartbeat sent answering echoes of pain up her leg. She knew Roma Jean was right, and that she probably needed an x-ray.
“Where is this doctor's office, anyway?” She asked the girls.
Roma Jean spoke up. “Oh, I can drive you there. It's no problem at all. It's only about ten minutes from here—right on the road to Jefferson.” She waved her hand toward the single road that led out of town.
Syd thought about it. The branch opening was only three weeks away, and she still had tons of inventory to catalog and shelve. She didn't want to waste any of their precious volunteer hours. She looked up into Roma Jean's earnest brown eyes. “I really appreciate the offer, Roma Jean—but it would help me more if you and Jessie stayed on here and kept working. I can drive myself with no problem.”
The teenager started to argue. “But Miss Murphy—you can't drive with that ankle. I can take you and Jessie can stay on here until we get back.”
Jessie looked at her in surprise and dismay. “Hey—that's not fair! You're supposed to drop me off at Mrs. Jenkins' house on the way home. My mom'll kill me if I miss another lesson.”
Roma Jean looked at Jessie like she wanted to strangle her.
“Girls—really.” Syd's voice was firm. “Stay and finish your work. Roma Jean—your mom needs you to do her shopping on the way home.” She struggled to her feet. “Just help me to my car and I'll be fine.” She paused to smile at the two of them as they huddled around her in concern. “Thanks for your help—I really don't know how'd I'd mange without the two of you.”
They smiled at her shyly as they helped her hobble toward the back door. Syd dropped Jessie's arm to grab her purse and keys off the corner of the circulation desk. There was a sturdy railing that led down the rear steps of the building and Syd grasped it as she stepped outside. “I think I have it from here, girls. Just be sure you lock the door behind you if you leave before I get back.”
Smiling through her pain, she descended the steps and awkwardly climbed into her car. The two girls continued to stand at the top of the steps, and gazed dejectedly after her as she slowly pulled out of the parking lot and begin the short drive to the doctor's office.
By the time Syd reached New River Family Medicine, her ankle had swollen to nearly twice its normal size. She feared that it might be fractured, or at least badly sprained—and seriously began to despair over her ability to finish preparations for the library opening.
Roma Jean had been right—the clinic was easy to spot. It was situated on a pretty piece of land on a bend in the road just on the outskirts of Jefferson—the county seat. There was only one other car in the gravel parking lot. As she limped toward the entrance to the small, brick clinic, she wondered if she had been foolish to refuse Roma Jean's offer of support. The slightest bit of weight on her left side sent white-hot bolts of pain surging up her leg. She felt like the cross-trainer on her foot would soon burst its seams. A white painted sign next to the entrance read M.H. Stevenson, M.D. , and listed the clinic hours. Grimacing, she pushed open the door and limped inside.
The waiting room in the medical center was small, but homey and very clean. American primitive antiques lined the walls, and several overstuffed Morris chairs were arranged around a glass-topped coffee table. An older woman wearing a white shift and a nubby gray cardigan sat behind a reception desk, organizing a stack of multicolored file folders. She looked up at Syd with unveiled curiosity, noticed her pronounced limp, then quickly stood up and came from behind the desk.
“Are you hurt?” she asked.
“Yes,” Syd replied. “I don't think it's too serious—but I fell and I think I may have twisted my ankle pretty badly.”
“Well, you sit right down over here, honey,” the woman gushed. She directed Syd into one of the upholstered chairs and dragged an ottoman over. “Prop your leg up on this and let's get that shoe off. Dr. Stevenson will be back in just a few minutes.”
“Thank you.” Syd accepted the small, round woman's attentions gratefully.
“Now, that's better,” the woman pronounced as she dropped Syd's paint-spattered Nike to the floor. “I'm Mrs. Peggy Hawkes,” she proudly announced, “and I've worked here ever since old Doc Stevenson opened this clinic twenty-five years ago.”
“Oh,” Syd looked squarely into a pair of penetrating, steely blue eyes. An implied question hung in the air. “Nice to meet you. My name is Syd Murphy.” Syd paused, then added, “I'm the new librarian in Jericho.”
Mrs. Hawkes nodded vigorously and rocked back on the heels of her crepe-soled shoes. “Of course,” she said. “I read about you in the paper. How you liking it up here in the hills? From up north somewhere, aren't you? I expect you see a lot of Curtis Freemantle out that way. He runs the mini-mart. You just missed his wife, Edna. She was in here this morning to have a neck boil lanced—same one, second time this month. Lord. Would you like some Pepsi, honey? Your color's a little off.”
Syd stared in amazement as Mrs. Hawkes droned on, oblivious to her expanding stream of unanswered questions.
Tires crunched on the gravel outside, and a car door opened and closed. Mrs. Hawkes cut her monologue short as something began to rub insistently against the outside of the clinic door.
“I swanny,” she huffed, as she walked over and opened the door.
A large yellow dog bounded into the waiting room. He skidded to a halt on the tile floor as he noticed Syd, then retreated shyly to a corner. He held a bright green tennis ball in his mouth.
Syd incredulously extended her hand. “Pete?” Tentatively, the dog approached her and sniffed at her outstretched hand.
Just then, a striking, dark-haired woman entered the office. The tall woman was wearing a red sweater and a pair of gray corduroys. She carried a large postal bin. When she noticed Syd, propped up in a chair with one sock-clad foot extended, she stopped dead in her tracks. Her blue eyes widened—then she laughed.
“ ‘S-Y-D,' right?”
Syd was equally stunned. “Right! I can't believe this.” Syd rubbed Pete behind the ears. “Do you work here?” she asked dumbly.
“It's worse than that,” Maddie drawled. “I own the joint.”
Syd blinked. “You mean you're Dr. Stevenson?”
“Dr. Stevenson the younger ,” cut in a curious Peggy Hawkes. “This was her daddy' s clinic.”
“I came back here to practice after my father died,” Maddie explained.
Syd continued to stare at Maddie in amazement. “Well, it looks like you're destined to rescue me once again.”
Maddie handed the bin of mail to Mrs. Hawkes and crossed her arms. “What happened?”
“I took a nose dive off a stepstool at the library and twisted my ankle.”
“It looks pretty swollen. How long ago did this happen?” Maddie knelt down next to the ottoman and carefully raised Syd's pant leg as she looked at her ankle.
“About half an hour ago.”
“Well, let's get you into an examination room and take a closer look.” Maddie stood up and turned to Peggy Hawkes. “Let's get some x-rays of that ankle—posterior, malleolus, and lateral.”
“Can you do that here?” Syd asked, struggling up out of the armchair. Maddie stepped closer and took her arm to steady her as she stood up.
“Sure can!” Mrs. Hawkes exclaimed. “Got a better x-ray machine than the county clinic over in Jefferson.”
Maddie helped Syd down the hall behind the reception desk and into a small, dimly lighted room that was dominated by a massive x-ray table.
“Have a seat up here,” Maddie tapped the top of the table and helped Syd get settled. “Peggy will be right in to take the x-rays—then we'll fix you up.” She smiled and left the room, closing the door behind her.
For all her flighty presentation, Peggy Hawkes seemed to be a competent nurse. She skillfully manipulated Syd's leg and swollen ankle and successfully took the three sets of x-rays in a matter of moments. In between, she grilled Syd on her earlier, apparent association with the doctor.
“So you two girls met before? Isn't that just the way of things? Where was it—at the library? I remember Maddie talking about needing to order a new PDR for the office. Did you help her with that? Turn this way a little, honey. That's good. I heard from Edna that you're living in that little apartment over the library. Are you going to look for a bigger place? Okay—don't move, now. We'll take this one just like the last time—I'll give you the signal, then you take a deep breath, and just hold still.”
Fifteen minutes later, Syd was seated in Maddie's examination room, still reeling from the nurse's inquisition. Idly, she glanced around the office while she waited on the doctor to reappear. There were several framed diplomas on the wall behind the padded examination table—one was an undergraduate degree from Stanford. Syd squinted her eyes. Summa cum laude . Not too shabby. Another was from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. The third indicated that Madeleine H. Stevenson had served as Chief Resident in Emergency Medicine at Penn Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia. Syd shook her head slowly. God...there's nothing like being an underachiever.
There was a gentle tap at the door, and then Maddie entered, now wearing a long white jacket and small, wire-framed glasses. A stethoscope dangled from her pocket. She held a clipboard and a blood-pressure cuff. She smiled at Syd.
“Let's get the routine stuff out of the way.” Opening a small drawer, Maddie took a foil-wrapped thermometer out, unsheathed it, and placed it under Syd's tongue. She apologized. “Our digital unit is on the fritz—we're temporarily operating in the dark ages.” She then took hold of Syd's wrist and counted her pulse.
“A little rapid,” Maddie observed. “Probably all the excitement. Let's get your blood pressure.”
Syd nodded her assent, and together they rolled up her shirtsleeve. Maddie fitted the cuff into place and fished out her stethoscope. She took readings on both arms.
“No problems there. What's this little gizmo say?” She pulled the thermometer out of Syd's mouth and held it up to the light. “Slightly elevated—also not surprising.” She made a few notations on Syd's chart.
“Will I live?” Syd asked playfully.
“I think so,” Maddie ventured. “But judging by the looks of that ankle, you won't be auditioning for Dancing With the Stars anytime soon.”
“Damn…I already had my outfit all picked out.”
Maddie was smiling as Mrs. Hawkes entered the room with the x-rays.
“Here you are, Doctor.” She turned to Syd. “Now you stop by my desk on the way out, honey, and we'll take care of all your paperwork.”
Maddie took the film from her. “Thanks, Peggy.” The nurse bustled out, winking at Syd as she closed the door.
“Wow.” Syd exhaled. She is absolutely exhausting.
Maddie chuckled as she clipped the x-ray films onto a wall-mounted light box. “I know what you mean. My father always said she had more lines than BellSouth. But she's got a big heart, and she's a damn fine nurse.”
Maddie studied the x-rays for a minute, and then turned to Syd.
“Those look just fine—but do you mind if I manipulate this thing a little? It may hurt a bit—but I'll try to be quick.”
“Twist away, Doctor. At least this time you don't have to contend with rusty lug nuts.” They both laughed. Maddie helped Syd to stand so she could move over to sit on the end of the examination table. She took her shoe and sock with her. Lifting Syd's leg in her warm hands, she gently rotated her foot—first to the left, and then to the right. Syd winced openly.
“Sorry,” Maddie said quickly. “One more, okay?”
She flexed the foot up and down several times, testing the muscle and mobility of the joint.
“How's that feel? Hurt as much as the other way?”
“Not as bad,” Syd said through clenched teeth, “but I won't lie and say it's pleasant.'
Maddie gently put her leg down and sat back on her rolling stool.
“Well, Madam—there's good news and bad news.”
“Okay,” Syd prompted.
“The good news is that nothing is broken—or fractured, as near as I can tell. The bad news is that you've got a class-A sprain. And I want you to stay completely off of it for at least three days. No arguments.”
“That's impossible,” Syd began.
“Look, Syd,” Maddie cautioned. “You can stay off it and give it a good chance to heal cleanly—or you can risk re-injuring it and ending up with a more serious and potentially chronic disability. Even though I don't see anything on the films, we can't rule out the possibility of a hairline fracture.”
Syd cocked her head to the side. “Don't hold back, Doctor. Tell me what you really think.”
The corners of Maddie's blue eyes crinkled as she smiled. “Sorry. Sometimes my bedside manner is more suited to southwest Philly than southwest Virginia.”
“It's okay. I know you're right. I've just got so much work to finish before the library opening.”
“When is it?”
“November 12,” Syd answered. “Three weeks from today.'
“Do you have any help?”
“Yeah.” Syd winced as she pulled on her sock. “Two volunteers. But they only work in the afternoons two days a week.”
Maddie sighed. “Well, take my advice. It'll be difficult in the short term, but will do you much more good in the long run.”
“Okay, Doc—you're the boss.”
“In the meantime,” Maddie continued, “Just follow the tried-and-true RICE prescription— R est, I ce, C ompress, E levate. Take it easy. Alternate hot and cold compresses on the ankle for the rest of today, and take aspirin to reduce the inflammation and help ease the pain. You can wrap it with an ACE bandage to make sleeping more comfortable.” She reached into a drawer and drew out a cellophane-wrapped bandage. Handing it to Syd, she continued, “And keep this leg elevated as much as possible for the next 48 hours.” She finished jotting notes on the sheet attached to her clipboard. “Give me a call later in the week, and let me know how you're doing.”
Syd slowly stood up, still holding her left shoe in her hand.
“And, Syd?” Maddie began.
“If I don't hear from you, I may just send Peggy by the library to investigate.”
“Heaven forefend!” Syd declared. “Don't worry. I'll call. I'll write. I'll call and write!”
“I get the picture.” Maddie laughed. She extended her hand. Syd shook it warmly. “Nice to see you again. I'll look forward to hearing from you later in the week.”
Maddie didn't have to wait too long to find out how Syd was faring. Four days later, she ran into her—literally—with her grocery cart.
It was 8:00 on Friday night, and Maddie had ducked into the local Food Bonanza on her way home from the clinic for eggs and milk. She was famished. It had been a long day, replete with two emergencies—and she hadn't had anything to eat since 7:00 that morning. Deciding that a large Chef's salad sounded appealing, she decided to make a quick pass through the deli section for some fresh cold cuts and cheese. Spontaneously changing direction, she whirled her cart around and slammed right into the buggy of another lone shopper, who was several feet away examining boxes of cookies on a lower shelf. Before she could stop it, the second buggy lurched into motion and started rolling toward a towering display of Vanilla Wafers.
“Holy hell!” Maddie cursed and lunged forward to try and grab the handle of the runaway cart. She was too late. It made short work of the display, and a tsunami of cookie boxes fell into its basket, and spread out across the aisle.
“Oh shit. ” Maddie dropped her arms to her sides as she stood there viewing the carnage.
The other shopper stood facing her, ankle deep in Vanilla Wafers. When she spoke, her voice was familiar. “Personally, I was leaning toward the Oreos—but it seems like you feel pretty strongly about these.” She picked one of the boxes up out of her cart. A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.
Maddie recognized the petite blonde at once. Inwardly cursing herself for being so clumsy, she dramatically shrugged her shoulders. “So much for professional decorum.” She looked up to meet Syd's amused green eyes.
“Hello, Dr. Stevenson.”
“Hi there. And, please—call me Maddie.” She paused. “It's a privilege I extend to everyone I rear-end.” Syd snorted at that, and Maddie groaned when she realized what she had just said. “Oh, god—I'm sorry. This just keeps getting worse. Believe me—I'm not normally this accomplished a klutz.”
“Really?” Syd crossed her arms. “So you're more of a garden-variety klutz?”
“Touché.” Maddie's laugh was self-deprecating. “How are you? How's the ankle?” She stepped forward and started to pick up the boxes of cookies.
“I'm fine—nearly able to walk in a straight line.” She bent over and started pulling boxes of cookies out of her cart.
“You do not have to help me clean this up.”
“Don't be silly—It's partly my fault. It appears I was blocking the right-of-way—again.” She paused, holding boxes in both hands. “Should we try to restack these?”
“Beats me. Maybe we should just ditch ‘em and flee the scene.”
Syd nodded. “Normally, I'd be way ahead of you with that—but I'm starving, and I really need to find something to eat.”
“Oh, yeah. The branch opening is on top of me, and I still have tons left to do.”
“I guess you figured out that all the restaurants around here close at sunset?”
Syd sighed. “Uh huh. I thought about ordering a pizza—again. But I just couldn't face it tonight.”
They continued to stack boxes in silence. As they worked, Maddie was aware of a growing curiosity about the woman beside her. On the two previous occasions they had met, she found herself enjoying Syd's company and wanting to get to know her better. Tonight was no exception. It was rare for her to find someone she felt so immediately at-ease with—especially in Jericho. She glanced at her watch. It wasn't impossibly late yet—and they both had to eat. She wondered if Syd had any plans for the rest of the evening. She wondered if Syd would find it strange for her to ask.
When they were nearly finished, the blonde looked over at Maddie. “Why are you here this late on a Friday night?”
Maddie shrugged. “Similar story. I had a couple of emergencies today and didn't get a chance to eat anything. I thought I'd pick up some salad stuff on my way home.” She paused after placing the last box on top of their makeshift pile. She turned to face Syd. “Wanna join me? I can offer you some great wine and a table with a view.”
Syd seemed to hesitate as she considered the offer. “Are you sure? It's late and I know you must be tired.”
Maddie smiled at her. “I am tired—but to tell the truth, I'm more tired of eating alone. If you're up for it, I would really enjoy the company.”
“Well, then—sure. I'd love to.” Syd's smile appeared genuine.
“Great. Let's go cruise the deli aisle and see what looks tempting. You can follow me to my house—it's not far from here.”
Before they turned around and headed for the back of the store, Maddie reached out impulsively and tossed one of the boxes of Vanilla Wafers into her cart. When Syd looked at her strangely, she shrugged. “Might as well.”
When they approached the checkout lane, Syd was surprised to see Roma Jean Freemantle running the cash register. The teenager who volunteered in the library two afternoons a week had never mentioned that she had a part-time job here—or anywhere.
Roma Jean looked up from the copy of US Weekly she was reading, and recognized Syd right away. Her face broke into a wide smile.
“Hi, Miss Murphy!” She tucked the magazine back into its display rack and hopped up off her stool. “I bet you're surprised to see me here.” She smiled at Syd proudly
“Hello, Roma Jean.” Syd smiled back at her as she started removing items from her cart. “I sure am. How often do you work here?”
“Mostly just weekends—but sometimes they call me in if somebody gets sick.” Roma Jean's fuchsia fingernails were a blur as she quickly started scanning Syd's items and pushing them toward the bagging area. “I have to work until closing tonight. I don't usually mind that—but it's reeaaalllly slow right now. I keep hoping that some of my friends will come in—but I guess the game isn't over yet. I was supposed to go, but they called me in to work because Mrs. Pollard's car broke down again—that's like the third time this week. I'm bored out of my mind ‘cause there's nothing to do.”
“Well, if you're desperate—there's a display on aisle nine that could use some serious help.” Maddie's low voice interrupted Roma Jean's monologue.
The teenager looked up with a startled expression—noticing the doctor for the first time. She blushed and spilled the bag of oranges she had just picked up. They bounced across the conveyor belt, and Syd reached out quickly to catch one before it hit the floor.
Maddie eyed the redheaded teen with an amused expression. “Hello, Roma Jean. I saw your mom today—how's she feeling?”
Roma Jean appeared completely undone. “Oh. Um. Hi, Dr. Stevenson. She's fine—I think.” She fell silent and dropped her eyes, then shyly stole another glance at the tall woman. It was clear to Syd that Roma Jean was in awe of the doctor. She watched their interaction with interest.
“Good. Please tell her not to hesitate to call me at home over the weekend if she has any more problems.” Maddie began to unload their assortment of deli items from her own cart.
“Okay, um—I will.” Roma Jean stared down at the moving conveyor belt. She continued to blush furiously. “Thank you, Dr. Stevenson.” She belatedly started to scan the rest of Syd's groceries—but was noticeably slower, and had to scan several items repeatedly before she could get their prices to register.
Wanting to ease the teen's discomfort, Syd attempted to distract her by making light conversation during the rest of their transaction. “So, Roma Jean—are you going to be at the fire department barbecue tomorrow?”
Roma Jean looked up at Syd gratefully. “I think so. I get off at 3:00, so I should be able to make it. My dad is helping out with the cooking.”
“That's what I've heard—everyone says it's the best barbecue around.”
Maddie agreed. “I have to say that I'm not much of a barbecue fan, generally—but I look forward to this event every year.” She grinned at Roma Jean. “To tell the truth, it's really your mom's hushpuppies that draw me out. They're amazing.”
Roma Jean gaped at Maddie. “Honey,” she blurted out.
Maddie gave her a confused smile. “Excuse me?”
“It's honey,” the flustered teen explained. “She puts honey in the batter.” Her cheeks continued to blaze as she quickly looked away and handed Syd her change and receipt.
“Ah.” Maddie grinned at her. “So that's the secret.”
It was hard for Syd not to laugh at the girl's distress. It was clear to her now that poor Roma Jean had a super-sized crush on the good-looking doctor—it was written all over her face. She stole a discreet look at Maddie to see if she was aware of it—but the tall woman seemed oblivious as she piled the remainder of her items on the checkout counter. Syd had never witnessed a bona fide swoon before, but when Maddie stepped forward to stand in front of Roma Jean and the girl looked up into her clear, blue eyes—she thought she might just get her chance.
She decided that expediting their transaction and getting out of the store was the best way to rescue Roma Jean from complete mortification.
“Here, Roma Jean—let me help bag these things.” Syd walked around to the other side of the counter and started packing their groceries into paper sacks.
Maddie laughed at her. “You must really be hungry.” She swiped her debit card through the reader and punched in her PIN. “Maybe we should have opted for the pizza after all.” Her smile was dazzling—and its full-frontal, close range impact was nearly the undoing of poor Roma Jean. She looked like she was about to pass out.
Syd gave Roma Jean what she hoped was a reassuring nudge. “Dr. Stevenson is taking pity on me—I didn't realize that none of the restaurants around here stay open past 7:00.” The teen's eyes were like saucers. “She's kindly going to feed me some dinner.”
Maddie took the receipt that Roma Jean dumbly held out. “Thanks, kiddo. Maybe we'll see you tomorrow at the barbecue?”
Roma Jean just nodded as the two women collected their bags and prepared to leave the store.
“Wait a second,” Maddie said to Syd. Stopping and digging into one of the bags, she pulled out the box of Vanilla Wafers. Turning and handing it to Roma Jean, she smiled. “Maybe these will help sweeten the rest of your shift tonight.” She winked at her and turned to leave the store.
Syd sighed and slowly shook her head as she followed Maddie out into the parking lot. The poor kid was a real goner, now.
Once they were outside the store, Syd was surprised when Maddie stopped next to a small, silver Lexus Coupe. She hit a button on her key ring and the trunk lid popped open. Stashing her bags in the trunk behind a mesh cargo net, she turned to face Syd.
“Do you wanna put your cold stuff in here so we can carry it on into the house with us?”
Syd stepped forward. “Sure—good idea.” She handed her the bag with her dairy items. Looking over the sporty, hardtop convertible, she gave a low whistle. “Did the Jeep get a makeover?”
Maddie gave her an innocent look. “Oh, this old thing?” She drawled. “I don't drive it much—the roads around here just beat the crap out of it.” She chuckled. “Not that Philly was much better.”
“I've always loved cars that look like they're going 90 miles an hour when they're parked.” Syd's gaze was lustful. She reached out her free hand to touch the car's retractable top.
Maddie affected an ostentatious southern accent. “Why Miss Murphy—I never would have expected you to be so shallow .”
“Oh no…I love my creature comforts, all right. So, please—allow me these few moments of living vicariously. I don't get many opportunities these days.”
Maddie laughed at her good-naturedly. “Look. Why don't you just stash the rest of your stuff in the trunk and ride with me? I can run you right back out here after we eat—it's not far at all.”
Syd looked up into her blue eyes, and for just a moment, she identified with Roma Jean's lapse in composure. Maddie's high-voltage smile at close range really was unsettling. Syd found herself wondering why the beautiful woman was unattached. There had to be some kind of story there.
“Okay—if you really don't mind bringing me back out here.” She lowered her gaze to the car. “I'd love to ride in this thing.”
Maddie took Syd's other grocery bag and added it to the stash in the trunk. Snapping the lid shut, she walked to the passenger side door and grandly opened it for Syd. “Well then, Madame—if you would kindly sit down, we can get underway.”
Syd climbed into the surprisingly roomy car and sighed as she sank into the soft, leather seat. Her gaze drifted up to Maddie, who was watching her with an amused expression. “Would it be possible to have my dinner served right here?”
Maddie scrunched her brows. “You mean like Sonic Drive-In?” She fluttered the fingers of her left hand. “Little plastic animals on the cup rims…tater tots…the whole nine yards?”
“Well, I could do without the tater tots—but the animals would be a welcome addition.”
“I'll see what I can do.” Maddie smiled at her as she shut the door and walked around to the driver's side.
When Maddie sat down next to her, Syd detected a faint trace of something sweet and slightly peppery. It was fleeting, but the light fragrance seemed to suit the doctor perfectly. Maddie started the car and the dashboard was immediately illuminated with soft, blue light. The cabin filled with the deep and resonant strains of Mahler. It seemed to roll and swell out of every surface inside the car. She recognized the piece at once.
“ Das Lied von der Erde?” she asked.
Maddie looked at her with happy surprise. “Yeah—Janet Baker. It's one of my favorites”
Syd nodded. “I love it, too. This certainly is the definitive recording.”
“You like Mahler?”
“I'd call it more of a love-hate relationship. As a fan of classical music—I love it. As a musician—I hate it.” She wrinkled her nose. “It's a bitch to play.”
Maddie regarded her with interest. “You're a musician? What instrument do you play?”
Maddie looked at her oddly, then shook her head and eased the car into gear. “We have a lot to talk about.”
The drive to Maddie's house took about ten minutes. They left the main road about three miles from the shopping center and turned onto a curvy, paved secondary road that wound its way through fenced pastures and rolling land dotted with barns and stands of pine trees. Maddie slowed as she approached the turn onto a private lane that was flanked by split-rail fencing. The weathered boards at the entrance were covered with vines of sweet autumn clematis. The gravel lane climbed up past pastures and alongside a creek that dipped and turned, switching back beneath the road before it emptied into a pond that stood at some distance from a large, white-framed farmhouse that overlooked it from a low rise. The house had a huge porch that wrapped around three sides. A large yellow dog stood near the steps with his tail wagging—watching them approach There were several outbuildings, and Maddie drove the Lexus into the one nearest the house, and parked next to her Jeep.
Unclipping her seatbelt, she turned to face Syd. “Home sweet home. Let's get inside and make something to eat—I'm beyond famished.”
Smiling, Syd joined her at the back of the car and together, they lifted out their bags. Maddie led them toward the doorway past an impressive tool bench that was loaded with gizmos, and shelves that were full of small appliances that appeared to be in various states of disrepair. Outside, she stopped to greet Pete, who danced around them as they approached the steps that led up to the wide porch. She set her bags down on a rustic pine table covered with potted plants, and pulled open the screen to unlock the big oak door that led into the foyer of the house. Syd stood next to her on the porch looking out over the pond and the rolling land that spread out beyond it. The view took her breath away. She could hear the sonorous rush of water from the creek and, from somewhere near the house, the teakettle night song of a Carolina Wren. She was enchanted.
“My god, Maddie. This place is incredible.” Syd wanted nothing more than to sink down onto one of the painted Adirondack chairs on the porch and never get up.
Maddie turned around to face her. “You like? This was the old Ward family farm. My parents bought it back in the 70s when they moved here—not long before I was born.” Her voice was quiet. “I spent the best ten years of my life here.”
Syd turned her head to look at the tall woman next to her. “Well, hopefully you now have many more happy years ahead—it would be hard to imagine anything else in this setting.”
Maddie smiled at her. “I'm glad you think so.” She touched her on the arm. “C'mon, let's get inside. We can come back out here to eat if you'd like.”
“Oh, god—can we? I was just thinking seriously about claiming squatter's rights on one of these chairs.”
“Pick out one you like and call it yours—you are welcome here any time.”
Syd laughed as she turned to follow Maddie. “Oh, you say that now —wait until you get tired of stumbling over me every time you leave your house.”
Maddie gave her an amused look. “I think I'm equal to the challenge.” She held the door open for Syd, and followed her inside with their bags. Pete jogged along beside them, and quickly disappeared into the back of the house.
If possible, the interior of the farmhouse was even more amazing than the landscape that surrounded it. Comfortable looking double parlors with French doors flanked a large foyer filled with antiques. Maddie led Syd down a wide center hallway toward a spacious formal dining room. An open staircase ran along one wall and a set of double doors led into a huge country kitchen. It seemed that every room of the house had direct access to the wraparound porch. Syd followed Maddie into the kitchen and stopped dead in her tracks. The well-lighted space was dominated by a massive Wolf range with double ovens, and a glass-doored Subzero refrigerator with a companion wine storage unit that had to hold at least 100 bottles. She dropped down onto a stool that stood next to a granite-topped center island.
“I'm not leaving. Ever.”
Pete walked back into the room and sniffed at Syd's feet. Then he flopped to the floor beside her. He had the inevitable tennis ball in his mouth.
Maddie smiled at her as she began removing food items from her bags. “I wish I could take credit for this—but my dad was the chef in the family. This was all his.” She walked over to the Subzero and stashed Syd's bag of dairy items on a lower shelf. “I can barely boil water.” She took off her suit jacket and tossed it over a chair. “How about something to drink while we fix our plates?”
Syd nodded her assent. “I could use it.”
Maddie walked over to the wine fridge and opened the door to the top compartment. “Like red?” she asked.
“Oh yeah. Love it.”
She deliberated a moment, then pulled out a bottle and carried it over to the center island. She handed Syd a corkscrew. “Would you do the honors? The glasses are in that cabinet behind you.”
“I'd be happy to.” Syd stood up and removed two red wine glasses from a large pine sideboard. She walked back to the center island and opened the bottle of Pinot Noir while Maddie got plates and utensils out. She looked around the room. It showcased all the charm of a rustic farm kitchen—but had a tasteful overlay of epicurean convenience. The cabinets looked original—tall doors with glass panels that reached the high ceiling. There was an old-looking, bib-front porcelain sink that probably wasn't old at all. A plank-topped table with mismatched wooden chairs stood in front of large double windows that dominated the back wall. It was flanked by built-in shelves loaded with cookbooks and stacked pottery. The floor was covered with large Italian terra cotta tile. Several antique oak cabinets completed the furnishings in the room. She saw what appeared to be a man's denim jacket hanging on a peg near the back door.
An uneasy silence had settled over them once they entered the house, and Syd realized that this was the first time they had really been alone in non-neutral territory. She was dimly aware that she had breached some kind of boundary by being here—and even though she had been invited, she guessed that the doctor probably didn't do this kind of thing often. Her thoughts shifted back to their first conversation on the day Maddie changed her tire along the river road. She had hinted at the feelings of isolation and separateness that had characterized her return to live in the area. Syd hoped she didn't now regret her impulsive invitation.
Maddie seemed aware of the awkwardness, too, as she quietly moved around the kitchen opening containers and getting condiments out of the refrigerator. She walked back to the center island with a small baguette. Pulling a large bread knife out of its block on the countertop, she placed the loaf on a cutting board and began to slice it.
Syd poured two glasses of the wine and held one out to her hostess.
“Thank you again for your hospitality.” She hesitated before continuing. “I probably should have had the grace to refuse.”
Maddie gave her a perplexed look as she reached out and took the wine glass. “What do you mean?”
Syd opted for honesty. “Now that I'm here, I confess to feeling a bit—intrusive. I suspect that you don't normally invite total strangers out here to your…” she struggled to find the right words. “Sanctuary? Incredibly-tasteful-and-otherworldly retreat?” She smiled shyly. “Your home?”
Maddie regarded her quietly for a moment before speaking. “Well, ‘normal' is a fairly broad term. I don't think I've been back in Jericho long enough to know yet what ‘normal' for me is going to look like.” She took a sip of her wine. “And I know it might seem odd—but I don't really think of you as a stranger .” She paused and narrowed her eyes before continuing. “On the other hand—you aren't brazenly concealing the fact that you're a homicidal maniac or anything, are you? If so—I definitely need to rethink my choice of wine.”
Syd was puzzled. “Why?” She looked down into her glass. “What's wrong with the wine?”
“Nothing,” Maddie drawled. “That's my point—I wouldn't want to waste a bottle this good on a lunatic who's only here to kill me.”
Syd sighed. “So many victims, so little time.” She tasted the wine. “Mmmm. Too bad I left my slasher gear in my other suit.” When Maddie snorted, Syd looked up at her accusingly. “You really weren't kidding when you told me that you were a snob, were you?”
“I plead the fifth.”
Syd smiled. “Forgive my lapse into melodrama.”
“No problem. C'mon—let's fix our plates and go sit on the porch.”
The two women relaxed in wide-armed Adirondack chairs on Maddie's front porch. They had inhaled their plates of food and were unwinding with second glasses of wine. Syd kicked off her shoes and propped her feet up on an ottoman. Pete was stretched out near her chair, snoring softly. His now empty food bowl rested behind him.
Maddie had stopped to turn on the stereo before they ventured outside with their meals, and the muted sound of the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello blended seamlessly with the ambient night noises that surrounded them.
Syd rested her head against the back of her chair and expelled a deep breath. “You know, there isn't much need for us to talk while this conversation is going on.”
Maddie was confused. “What conversation?” She looked over at the smaller woman. The semi-light from the house only dimly illuminated her profile as she sat staring out across the pond.
“The one taking place between Bach and this landscape. It's so perfect—I feel like I'm eavesdropping on something profound.” She turned her head to face Maddie. “I can't imagine what it must be like to have this experience every night.”
Maddie's tone was apologetic. “I'm afraid you'll think less of me if I tell you that I can't imagine it, either.” She shifted in her chair. “The truth is that I rarely make the time to do this—I'm normally home so late that I barely have time to eat before falling into bed.”
“Maddie, that's just wrong on so many levels.”
“I know it is.” She sighed. “Truthfully, I think sometimes that I keep myself that busy so I won't have to confront this.”
Maddie waved her hand. “ This —all that being back here implies.”
Syd turned in her chair to face the doctor. “That was sure loaded. Are you regretting your decision to come back here?” She paused. “Forgive me if that's too personal a question—I don't want to pry.”
Maddie shook her dark head. “Oh, no—you aren't prying. I brought it up.” She took a healthy sip of her wine and set the glass back down on a low table next to her chair. “I really thought I left my demons behind when I packed up and moved away from Philadelphia—but, presto! Somehow they all got boxed right up with the rest of my stuff.” She was quiet again for another moment. “W herever you go, there you are. ” She looked over at Syd. “Who was it who said that?”
Syd shook her head. “I don't know—but it sounds like T.S. Eliot meets Gertrude Stein.”
Maddie laughed. Syd's green eyes weren't visible in the dim light—but Maddie knew they would be sparkling with humor and intelligence. She wished their chairs were closer together so she could see her better. She wished that time would slow down so they could continue to sit here and talk for hours. She wished the small librarian wasn't so damn beautiful. She wished she could just go and submerge herself in the frigid water of her pond.
“I love your sense of humor.”
Syd smiled at her good-naturedly. “It's an acquired taste. I have to keep it under pretty tight regulation up here.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Well—you aren't alone in the wrestling-with-unwanted-demons category. I have my fair share, too.” She sighed deeply. “And I don't know about yours —but mine is a six-foot-tall spoiled brat with a trust fund and a Durham zip code.”
Maddie lifted her chin. “Your ex-husband?”
“Soon-to-be-ex-husband.” Syd corrected her. “Yeah. I really came up here to get away from him— and to figure out what I want to do with what's left of my life.”
“So how's that working out for you?”
“Apparently about as well as your retreat is working out for you.”
They smiled at each other in awkward camaraderie. Maddie lifted her wine glass. “Here's to kicking some demon ass.”
Syd clinked rims with her. “I'll certainly drink to that.” Just as she started to raise her glass to her lips to drink, Pete started up from his prone position on the porch floor and started barking as he charged toward the stairs leading to the ground. He vaulted over Syd's ottoman—his tail knocking the wine glass out of her hand. The red liquid sloshed out across her lap, but she caught the glass by its stem before it hit the floor.
“Oh, shit!” Maddie got up at once and rushed over to her, taking the glass and setting it down on a nearby table. “I'm so sorry! He probably saw some deer down by the pond—they come in at night to drink.”
Syd struggled to her feet. “It's okay. Really.” The wine continued to seep into her blouse and slacks. “But I'd better try to rinse this out now, or these clothes will be ruined.”
“Of course. C'mon inside—we'll fix you right up. We can just throw them in the wash—I'll give you something to wear.”
They walked back into the house together. “Don't bother with that—if I can just rinse them out, I can take them to the Laundromat tomorrow.”
Maddie led the way back through the kitchen to a laundry room at the rear of the house. “No way—you let that stain soak in over night, and that outfit's gonna be toast. She walked over to a folding table and pulled a clean set of sweats out of a pile. “Take off your clothes.”
Syd looked at her archly. “That's not the smoothest offer I've ever had—but you sure get points for an authoritative delivery.”
Maddie dropped her chin to her chest. “God—I'm such a steamroller sometimes.” She looked at Syd apologetically. “Sorry—I'm used to calling the shots. Occupational hazard, I guess.”
Syd reached out to take the sweats from her. “It's okay, Doctor. I'll take your advice.”
Maddie gestured toward the washing machine and all of its accoutrement. “Know how all of this works?”
“I'll be in the kitchen getting us some more wine.” She left Syd alone in the room to change.
Back in the kitchen, Maddie stood for a moment, gently knocking her head against the door of the wine fridge in consternation. Get a fucking grip. You're acting like a moron. She pulled the door open and looked over the tidy array of bottles. Pinots. Cabs. Zins. Syrahs. Blends. Wondering which wine went best with pathetic —she pulled out a Spencer Roloson Napa Valley Red . She heard the rush of water as the washing machine started filling, and then Syd walked back into the room. Maddie's sweats were comically large on the smaller woman. The cuffs of the pants were turned up so many times that Syd looked like she had fleece muffs around her ankles. The tall doctor stifled a laugh.
Syd rolled her eyes. “If we're going to make a habit of this, could you at least try to be shorter so I'll feel less ridiculous?”
Maddie's blue eyes sparkled. “Oh, I promise. Shorter. Yes ma'am. I'll get to work on that straight away.” She walked over to the island and started to open the new bottle of wine. “You look adorable—like you're twelve.”
“Oh, thanks—that's just the look I was going for…petulant.” She pushed the sleeves of the navy blue PENN sweatshirt up her arms, then noticed the time on her wristwatch. “My god —do you realize it's 10:30?”
Maddie stopped the corkscrew in mid-twist. She looked shocked. “No? Really?” She looked at her own wrist. “Oh.” She paused. “Well…you can have another glass of wine and wait on your clothes—or, if you need to go, I can take you back to your car now, and bring them to you tomorrow.” She demurred. “It's your call—the drill sergeant is off-the-clock.”
The seconds ticked by while Syd deliberated and Maddie stood with the corkscrew wound halfway into the bottle of wine. The time that elapsed until Syd finally spoke felt like an eternity to her.
“I'd really hate for you to make a special trip into town tomorrow. But, on the other hand—I don't want to keep you up any later, either.” She hesitated. “How tired are you?”
Maddie decided to reply honestly. “Strangely, I'm not tired at all—I'm enjoying the conversation.” She smiled. “It's nice to have some company out here for a change.”
“Okay…if you'll promise not to let me overstay my welcome, then I'd love another glass of wine.”
Maddie gamely raised three fingers on her left hand in a Girl Scout salute. “I promise.” She finished opening the bottle of wine. “Grab yourself another glass, and let's go sit in the parlor—it was getting a little too cool out on the porch, anyway.”
“Right behind you,” Syd said, retrieving another glass from the sideboard.
Together, they walked back up toward the front of the house. Maddie stopped at the front door to let a happily penitent Pete back inside, then led them into the large parlor on the left side of the hallway. She flipped a wall switch, and Syd caught her breath after the room illuminated and she saw the black baby grand piano in the corner facing the front windows. Its keyboard and soundboard covers were closed, but the cabinet looked immaculate.
“My god .” She walked over to it admiringly. “This is a Bösendorfer.” She looked up at Maddie. “I've never even seen one of these outside of a conservatory.” She looked it over with a stunned expression. “Was this your father's, too?”
“Nope. That belonged to my mother—she was the musician in the family.” She smiled. “Dad and I had to content ourselves with playing the stereo. We were both so unmusical that it drove my mother nuts.” Maddie set her wine glass and the bottle down on the coffee table situated in front of two leather-upholstered club chairs. “I went through six grueling years of lessons before she realized that I was better suited to operating on pianos than playing them. I think it all came to a head the day she came home from work and found me dismantling the soundboard.”
Syd gasped in horror.
“Yeah. It wasn't pretty.” She dropped into one of the armchairs. “Needless to say, I didn't sit down on that bench—or any other surface—for over a week.” She laughed. “I never took another piano lesson, either.”
Syd shook her head as she walked over and set her own wine glass down next to Maddie's. Crossing back to the piano, she lifted the keyboard cover. “May I?”
“Be my guest.”
Syd bent over the keyboard and played a chord. Then two. Smiling to herself, she played a sequence of arpeggios. The silvery sound rang through the room. She stood up and closed the cover, then turned and faced the doctor.
“It's in perfect tune. Perfect pitch. Perfect action.” She walked back to where Maddie was seated and dropped into the other chair. “It's perfect in every way.”
Maddie nodded. “That's good to hear. It actually belonged to my grandmother—so it's been in the family for quite a while. I think she bought it in Austria—so it's a bit different from the U.S. models.”
“You keep it tuned?”
“Yeah. Dad always did—so I've kept up with it since I've been back.” She hesitated. “I know that probably seems odd or morbid.”
Syd shook her head. “Not at all.” She met Maddie's eyes. “Is…did—has your mother passed away?”
“Oh, no. She's not dead—just gone. My parents divorced when I was ten and she moved to the west coast. She left it behind.” After a moment, she added. “There were quite a few things she left behind.”
Syd could sense that they were venturing into awkward terrain, so she shifted the subject back to music.
“Well that's an amazing instrument. I played a Bösendorfer once in college, and remember how different it was from all the Steinways the department had—heavier action—a different kind of resonance altogether.”
“Where did you go to school?”
Maddie raised an eyebrow. “Rochester?”
Syd shrugged. “Eastman.”
Maddie tilted her head to the side as she regarded her. “Impressive.”
“It really wasn't— I really wasn't.” She met the doctor's interested gaze. “I got my artist's certificate—barely. But I wisely changed my major to music education. I just didn't have the temperament for a full-fledged career in performance. The ones who did—they were just so different . Their lives were so focused and pared-down. It was like they each had only one life decision to make—and they had made it.” She took a sip of her wine. “That just wasn't me. It still isn't.” She set her glass down on a small side table, next to a worn and bookmarked copy of David Copperfield .
“Still…you're pretty modest for someone with an Eastman certificate.”
Syd scoffed. “Oh, really, Miss Ivy League? Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!”
Maddie feigned umbrage. “I'll have you know that I'm not modest at all . Arrogance was the first thing they taught us in med school.” She drew her brows together. “I think it had something to do with billing and fee schedules—but I confess that all of that weightier stuff was pretty murky to me.”
Syd snorted. She looked around the room and its walls lined with bookcases. Opposite their chairs, there was a beautiful fireplace with a whimsical, Chagall watercolor hanging over it. She inclined her head toward the picture.
“Was that your mother's too?”
Maddie followed her gaze. “The Chagall? Nope—that's mine. I bought it years ago at a gallery in Washington. It was my reward for finishing my residency.”
Syd's eyes grew wide. “You mean it's an original?”
Maddie laughed. “It's a lithograph—but it's signed and numbered.” She continued to look at it fondly. “I always loved his Magic Flute series.”
Syd nodded. “I know what you mean—the murals at the Error! Contact not defined. are stunning.”
They drifted into silence. At a low volume in the background, a cello played its last, heroic note. Syd heard the faint whirring sound of the CD changer from someplace across the room. After a pause, the sensuous strains of Mendelssohn's violin sonata filled the air between them. She smiled to herself. It was as if someone had faxed the doctor a list of her favorite recordings.
“Tell me more about your ‘soon-to-be-ex-husband.' What went wrong?” Maddie's quiet voice cut through her musings.
Syd stared down at the large red and black patterns in the kilim rug at her feet. She exhaled and looked up into Maddie's friendly blue eyes. “It'd be quicker and easier to tell you what went right. Describing what went wrong would keep us both sitting here until dawn.”
Maddie gave her a small smile. “That would be okay, too. Remember—I make great coffee.”
Syd brightened up at the mention of Maddie's coffee. “That's right—I forgot about that.” She smiled in remembrance of their roadside adventure. “Okay, then. Short version of the long story.” She sat back in her chair and draped her arms down over the sides. “I met Jeff when I moved back to Baltimore after college. He was there interning with my dad.” She looked over at Maddie. “My father is an agronomist at College Park—he works mostly in the watershed areas of the Chesapeake. Jeff was a grad student at Duke, and he came to Maryland on a summer research grant. That's how we met.”
“How long did he work with your father?”
“About four months. During that time, a professor of mine from Eastman connected me with the Baltimore Symphony. I got a job subbing for a music librarian who was out on maternity leave. That ended just about the time Jeff was leaving to return to Durham.”
“Now I know how you ended up in North Carolina.”
“And why I decided to go to library school—I really loved the work.”
“So the two of you got married?”
Syd shook her head. “Not right away. I moved to Durham with him—but we didn't marry until nearly a year later. My leaving with him without getting married totally freaked my mother out. Jeff wanted to get married, too—but I wasn't ready to take a step like that—not so soon. I got tired of fighting the two of them—finally, they wore me down and I capitulated.” She paused to push the sleeves up on the oversized sweatshirt. “It was impulsive. We got married on a Wednesday afternoon by a Justice of the Peace at Durham City Hall.” She absently rotated the tiny gold ring on her right pinkie finger. “We didn't even get dressed-up.” She shook her head and looked up at Maddie. “It's amazing how something that takes less than two minutes to accomplish can completely change your life.”
“Well, for starters—I didn't realize that I was marrying a perpetual student. He bounced around from one program to another—never completing anything. His parents were— are —terribly generous with him, financially. He could pretty much do whatever he wanted.” She laughed bitterly. “Still can.”
“Tell me more about him. If you married him, he had to have some redeeming qualities.”
Syd smiled at her. “You flatter me. But to his credit—yes, he was charming.” She ticked off his attributes. “Only child of wealthy, northeastern parents. Nice looking. Great personality. Loved the outdoors. Loved being around other people—got along well with everyone.” She rolled her eyes. “He got along especially well with starry-eyed, undergraduate coeds.”
“Yeah. But I didn't make that discovery until a year after we were married. By then, I was already in the middle of my library school program at Carolina.” She shook her head. “I hung in there with him for another year and tried to make it work—but by the time I finished my degree, I knew it was over.” She turned in her chair to face Maddie. “So you see—this opportunity came along at just the right time for me.”
Maddie's gaze was empathetic. “I'm sorry, Syd. That can't have been an easy decision to make.”
“You'd be surprised. The chance to hide out up here and sort out my future fell into my lap like manna from heaven. I jumped at it.”
Maddie was thoughtful. “It's ironic.”
“You came here to figure out your future—I came here to confront my past.”
Syd gave her a small smile. “Maybe it's no accident that we met on the roadside that day.”
Maddie raised an eyebrow. “Are you a fatalist?”
“Not generally—but I try not to miss the really big clues the universe tosses in my path.” She picked up her wine glass. “Like this, for example…if I drink any more, I'll never be able to drive myself home—not safely, anyway.”
The doctor sighed. “You're right. Frankly, I'm not sure I should even think about driving you back to your car.” She deliberated. “There's no way your clothes are going to be ready any time soon. Why don't you just stay over?”
“Oh, no,” Syd quickly began. “I could never impose on you like that.”
“It's no imposition at all. Trust me—this place is like a B&B. I have three guestrooms all ready to go—you can just take your pick. I can easily set you up with toiletries and something to sleep in.”
Syd was torn. She was comfortable with Maddie, and she was enjoying the warmth and ease of their interaction—but she worried, again, about pushing the limits of a new friendship too far too fast. She was aware of how isolated she had felt since coming to Jericho, and she didn't want to let her hunger for meaningful, human interaction make her appear clingy or desperate to the doctor.
Maddie's low voice cut through her silent monologue. “I can see you're struggling—I didn't mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”
Syd met her concerned blue eyes. “Actually, what I'm sitting here struggling with is entirely the opposite scenario. If anything, I feel too comfortable.” She waved her hand dismissively. “I don't want you to think I'm some kind of pathetic weirdo who's out looking for someone to glom onto.”
Maddie burst into laughter. “God—what a pair we are! I was just saying a version of the same thing to myself in the kitchen while you were in the laundry room changing clothes.” She continued to chuckle. “You know what this means, right?”
Syd nodded, with a wry smile on her face. “We're a couple of total losers?”
“That would be correct.” She chortled as she picked up the wine bottle. “May I top you off?”
Syd held up her glass. “You certainly may.” She sighed contentedly and kicked off her shoes. Sinking lower into her chair, she closed her eyes. “Is this where I ask for turn-down service?”
Maddie snorted. “One thing you'll learn about me if we spend very much more time together is that I rarely turn anything down.”
When they had finished the second bottle of wine and seen to hanging up Syd's laundry, Maddie walked back through the house turning off lights. Pete followed along at her heels. After stashing their used plates and glasses in the dishwasher, she picked up her discarded jacket and walked across the kitchen toward a back doorway that appeared to lead to the porch. “C'mon—let's go up this way. I can grab you something to sleep in.”
To the left of the back door, a narrow staircase led up to the second floor of the farmhouse. Maddie flipped some wall switches at the top of the stairs, illuminating a spacious master suite with large windows on three sides. It was plainly the doctor's bedroom. It had a small sitting area in front of a fireplace, and beautiful heart of pine flooring. Books and papers were tidily stacked on a low table in front of the fireplace. There was a brass pharmacy lamp on the floor beside an upholstered chaise. A pottery jar full of pens and highlighters sat atop a Shaker candle stand. The rest of the room was decorated with primitive American antiques and brightly colored kilim rugs. A large bed, neatly made-up with a star-pattern Amish quilt, jutted out into the room from a corner near the entrance to a huge, tiled bathroom. A few colorful art prints and several framed black and white photographs ornamented the walls.
Maddie tossed her jacket across the foot of the bed and walked over to an oak, five-drawer chest. Pete followed her and plopped down into an oversized dog bed near the door to the hallway. Syd noticed half a dozen tennis balls in various stages of wear in and around his bed.
“Let's find you something to sleep in.” She fished around in a bottom drawer and pulled out a set of bright blue scrubs. “These ought to work—they're left over from my residency.” She smirked as she tossed them over to Syd. “I was shorter in those days.”
Syd caught them and looked them over. The tunic top was stenciled PPMC . She held the drawstring pants up to her waist—the legs were impossibly long. “Right— way shorter.” She clucked her tongue. “Got any duct tape?”
Maddie chuckled as she closed the drawer.
Syd gestured at the room. “This is beautiful, Maddie. I don't know how you leave it every day.”
Maddie shrugged as she looked around. “I don't really think about it all that much.” She smiled at the smaller woman. “Having you here is going to be good for me—it's going to make see all of this with different eyes.”
“I'm glad. You should . I know people who'd chew their own arms off for the chance to escape to a place like this—I'd be one of them.”
Maddie crossed the room and stood beside her. “Well thankfully, you won't have to resort to anything quite so dramatic.” Her tone was warm. “You'll always be welcome here.” She gestured toward the hallway. “C'mon, let's pick you out a bedroom.”
They walked together out of the room toward the front of the house. Pete jumped up and followed along behind them, wagging his tail. Three big bedrooms opened off the wide, center hallway—and Maddie steered Syd toward the front one that overlooked the pond. “If I were you,” she said, flipping on the lights, “this would be my pick. It faces north, so you won't wake up with the sun in your eyes. And it has its own bathroom—a real perk. The other two rooms have to share.” She added, after a pause, “This was my room when I lived here as a child.”
Syd looked up at her, but the tall woman's expression was unreadable. “It's settled, then.”
The room was spacious and well appointed—similar in style to the master suite. The walls were covered with framed photos of small airplanes. It had a craftsman-style desk and chair in front of corner windows, and an oak four-poster bed. A large oak chest, an upholstered armchair, and a small washstand completed its furnishings. Maddie crossed the room and turned on the lights in the adjacent bathroom. It was tiled in black and white, and had a stall shower and a large, porcelain pedestal sink. She opened a linen closet. “There are clean towels and toiletries in here.” She pulled out a slender box and set it on the sink top. “Here's a new toothbrush.” She smiled at Syd. “You might want to leave it here after you use it.” Her blue eyes were twinkling.
Syd pondered. “Well, now that depends.”
“On?” Maddie looked intrigued.
“On whether your coffee is truly as ambrosial as I recall. Sometimes, memory can be deceiving.”
Maddie pursed her lips. “I see.” She glanced at her watch. “Well…I guess time will tell. I'll try not to disappoint you” she demurred.
Syd smiled at her shyly. “I'm sure you never will.”
They stood there awkwardly for a moment. “I'll say goodnight then. You be sure to let me know if you need anything.” She hesitated. “I'm right down the hall.”
Syd found the doctor's momentary loss of composure endearing. Impulsively, she reached out and hugged the taller woman. “Thanks for a wonderful evening—it turns out, I really needed it.”
Maddie hugged her back warmly. “Me, too. I'm glad you're here.” She stepped back. “C'mon, Pete—bedtime!” The big dog raced her to the doorway. Smiling over at Syd, she left the room, closing the door softly behind her. Syd could hear the clatter of Pete's feet as he trotted down the hallway behind her.
At 4:30 on Saturday afternoon, Syd locked up the library and walked back to her tiny apartment. She had been working since noon, and had made fair progress cataloging her inventory of New Media software. She felt strongly about the need to provide bilingual resources for the area's growing population of Spanish-speaking residents, and had ordered a significant number of tutorials and reference materials designed for this group of underserved patrons.
In recent years, Christmas tree farms had expanded to be become the dominant industry in the tiny mountain region, and many of the workers who moved to the area to work on the farms were of Mexican descent. Some of these workers were seasonal hires—men who followed the sun from locale to locale and sent most of their earnings back home to their families. Lately, however, more and more of them had been able to bring their families to live with them in Jericho year-round, and their impact on the community as a cultural and economic force was beginning to be felt. Syd understood that the public schools were overtaxed with the need to provide rudimentary English language instruction to students across all age groups. Likewise, adults needed help obtaining access to basic services like driver licenses and healthcare. Syd noticed that more than one church in the area advertised services en Español , and it was not uncommon now to see notices in store windows that were written in both English and Spanish. Even Maddie's tiny medical clinic had announcements and instruction leaflets available in both languages. It had occurred to her on more than one occasion that she ought to talk with the doctor about her level of service to this population, and mine any ideas she might have about ways the library could better support the town's efforts to integrate and serve this burgeoning subset of the community.
After climbing the stairs to her apartment, Syd dropped her keys and her cell phone on the kitchen table and looked around the tiny space. She knew that her decision to store most of her personal belongings for the eighteen months she would live in Jericho made sense—but on days like this, she regretted not having more of her own things to brighten up or at least humanize the Spartan place. Her thoughts naturally swung back to the night before and her unexpected sojourn at Maddie's home in the country. Waking up there that morning had an almost surreal quality—and Syd had to shake herself to remember where she was and how she came to be there. The place was even more breathtaking in the daylight, and she marveled at the doctor's ability to shrug it all off as if it wasn't anything out of the ordinary.
After rising and washing her face, she made her way downstairs in search of her hostess. She was still wearing the blue scrubs.
Maddie was up and sitting on the porch with her coffee when Syd ventured outside. They greeted each other somewhat sheepishly—both aware of the awkwardness that still hovered around the edges of their developing friendship. Maddie was casually dressed in faded jeans and a long-sleeved, blue polo shirt. Her shoulder-length dark hair was held back with a copper barrette, showing off the classic planes of her face. She looked relaxed and beautiful as she sat back in one of the wide-armed chairs with a hefty Charles Dickens novel open across her lap. The blue of her shirt matched her eyes perfectly. Syd could see Pete off in the distance, sniffing the ground around the perimeter of the pond. It had rained at some point during the night, and she could hear water dripping from a nearby eaves spout. All the plantings around the porch perimeter glistened with moisture. The air around them was filled with morning bird song. From somewhere in the distance, she could hear the plodding sound of a tractor.
The doctor was the first to speak. “The sleeper awakens.” She gave Syd a blinding smile. “Are you a morning person—or should I go and amuse myself on the back forty until you have your first cup of coffee?”
Syd answered her smile and dropped into a chair beside her. “I am not normally a morning person—but in a setting like this, I think I could become one in short order.”
“How'd you sleep?”
Syd stretched contentedly. “Like a rock—better than I have in weeks, actually.”
Maddie gestured to a thermos and extra cup on the table between their chairs. “The elixir of life awaits you. Do you need cream or sugar?”
Syd eagerly reached for the thermos. “Nuh uh. Just like this.” She loosened the cap and a heavenly aroma wafted out. “Oh god…this better be as good as it smells.” She poured herself a hefty cup and sat back in her chair. She took a sip and had to fight an impulse to moan. “My god, woman…why aren't you married?” The words were barely out of her mouth before she thought better of them. Looking quickly over at her companion, she apologized for her comment. “I'm sorry. I didn't intend to…I just meant…. This is amazing coffee.”
Maddie smiled good-naturedly at her discomfort. “No offense taken.” She regarded Syd for a moment. “It's true that I'm a pretty confirmed spinster. But, believe, me—it isn't by choice.” She picked up the thermos and refilled her own mug. “I seem to be unfairly challenged in the relationship department.”
Syd shook her head. “That's hard to believe. I'd think you'd have a line of suitors a mile long. What man in his right mind wouldn't want a shot at—this?” She raised her mug belatedly.
Maddie eyed her with interest. “You'd be surprised.”
“No contenders on the horizon?”
“Not down here.” Maddie's voice was thoughtful. “My wounds are still too fresh from my last relationship. It fell apart just before I came back here to practice.” She looked at Syd with her electric blue eyes. “Another entanglement is the furthest thing from my mind right now.”
Syd nodded. “Well we certainly have that in common. I'm sorry for you, though. Were you together long?”
“About two years. All the cards were pretty much stacked against us—two residents working at different hospitals, trying to find time for one another…we didn't have a chance, really.”
“So he was a doctor, too?”
Maddie looked at her for a few moments before responding. “A surgeon—ophthalmology.”
They drank their coffee in silence for a few minutes, and watched as Pete slowly made his way back toward them from the pond.
“Are you a breakfast person?” Maddie asked, changing the subject. “I have some decent bagels and fresh fruit inside. How about we make up a tray and come back out here to enjoy what's left of the morning?”
Syd smiled at her and got to her feet. “I'd love that. Then I can change and impose on you for a ride back into town.”
Maddie stood up and grabbed the thermos. “It's not an imposition—it's a pleasure.”
The ringing of her telephone brought her out of her reverie. Crossing to the table and answering it, she was surprised to hear Roma Jean's voice on the line.
“Miss Murphy? Hi, it's me.”
Syd smiled. “Hello, Roma Jean. What are you up to on this fine Saturday afternoon?”
“Well—I got off work a little while ago, and am at the fire department helping out with the barbecue.” Syd could hear talking and laughter in the background. “My mama wanted me to be sure and invite you to come out—she says there's plenty of food left and lots of people here you know.”
“That's really sweet of her.” Syd glanced at her watch. She had forgotten all about the event. “How much later will you all be there?”
“Oh probably a couple more hours—we don't usually pack it up until everything's sold. There's a big church bus from Elk Creek that just pulled in. It's the seniors group, and they'll be here forever .” She paused. “Are you coming? Do you need a ride? Daddy'll come and pick you up if you don't wanna bring your car out in this muck.”
Syd had forgotten about the rain overnight: it was likely that the field around the fire hall would be a morass with all the vehicle and pedestrian traffic. “No—that's okay. I can drive myself just fine.” She deliberated. “Tell you what—ask your mom to save me a plate, and I'll be there in about half an hour.”
She could hear the smile in Roma Jean's voice. “That's great! I'll tell her.” She heard a voice in the background say something to the teen. “Oh, mama says that you should park down the road near the old Exxon station—it's dry down there.”
“Will do. Thanks for calling me, Roma Jean. I'll see you in just a bit.”
“Bye, Miss Murphy!” The teenager disconnected.
Syd hung up the phone and shook her head. So much for her plans to spend a quiet Saturday evening reading. She supposed she could go and eat some of the legendary barbecue and enjoy the hospitality of the Freemantle family. They had been especially attentive to Syd since she arrived in Jericho—mostly due to the auspices of their vivacious daughter. Roma Jean had attached herself to Syd immediately when the new librarian had visited her high school class in search of volunteer support. The enterprising teen quickly signed-up to work eight hours a week for free in the tiny library—earning extra course credit through her high school business club. That's how Roma Jean talked her friend, Jessie Rayburn, into helping out on occasional Mondays after band practice. In exchange, Syd offered Jessie some free tutorials in learning to sight read her clarinet music. News of that enterprise caught on rapidly, and Syd was now besieged by requests from other band members who wanted the same type of instruction. She was toying with the idea of offering a free class on the topic once the library branch was up and running.
For today, though, she needed to get out and socialize with her neighbors and future patrons. Changing into jeans and a lightweight sweater, she grabbed a rain jacket and headed out for the county fire station. It took her about 10 minutes to make the drive, and as she approached the old Exxon station, she saw that she wasn't alone in her desire to avoid the muck of the terrain around the fire house. There were cars and trucks parked at rakish angles all over the place. She finally found a space big enough for her Volvo wagon behind a rusted dumpster that was overflowing with Styrofoam containers and drink cups. Hopping out of her car, she began the quarter-mile trek up the hill to the barbecue site.
On the way, she ran into Maddie's chatty nurse, Peggy Hawkes. She was walking back toward the gas station with a heavy-set, middle-aged man. He was wearing a yellow rain slicker and a Wal-Mart cap, and carrying two large plastic bags loaded with barbecue dinners. Peggy recognized Syd immediately.
“Hey there, honey!” She beamed at her. “How's that ankle? You look like you're moving around just fine. It must be feeling better.” She stopped in front of Syd and gestured to the man. “This is my husband, Al. Al, say hello to Syd Murphy—the new librarian in Jericho.”
Before the smiling Al could speak, Peggy continued. “We came by to pick up dinners for the nursing home—some of the people there can't travel this far, so we were going to drop these off on the way home. Al's mother lives there now, and she can't get out at all these days. But she loves barbecue and can still eat us under the table.” She looked around behind Syd. “Did you come by yourself, honey? I saw Maddie here earlier—pity you two girls couldn't come together. It would have been nice for each of you to have the company. I worry about her being alone too much. She never complains about it—but I think she misses her friends in Philadelphia. It's hard for her to be back here without her daddy—he was always such a social butterfly. She doesn't take after him in that way—but then, I think it's harder for a single woman up here in the these parts. Don't you agree?”
Syd's head was reeling. “Um—agree about what?”
Peggy laughed at her. “About how hard it is to be a single woman around here! You don't get invited out much—and there aren't a lot of ways to meet unattached men.” She looked over at her very attached husband. “Isn't that right, Al?”
Al just smiled, and shifted the weight of the bags full of food around in his hands.
“Well, honey—we'd better be off while these things are still hot.” She patted Syd on the arm. “You have a good time today—and be sure you ask Edna for the lemon chess pie—I made that.” She winked at Syd. “It's worth the price of admission.”
Syd grinned at her. “I will—thank you for the tip.” She turned to face Peggy's husband. “It was very nice to meet you, Al.” She gave him a wry smile. “I hope we get a chance to chat some time.”
He winked at her, and the two of them continued on toward their car.
Once she neared the fire station, she could see that things were still hopping. There had to be several dozen people milling around. Makeshift picnic tables had been set up all around the perimeter of the brick building, and people laughed and talked as they ate their plates of chopped pork and coleslaw and drank gallons of sweet iced tea. The big bay doors of the firehouse had been opened up, and the trucks had been pulled out and parked alongside the building for the event. Syd made her way to the end of the line and stood behind a semi-bald man she remembered from the tire store in town. Two local boys she recognized as band member friends of Jessie's were in line just in front of him. Not realizing that Syd had come up to stand behind them, the teens continued with their animated—and frank—discussion about girls. Syd smiled to herself and tried hard not to appear like she was eavesdropping.
“Did you see her in that black t-shirt?” The taller of the two boys said. He stood with his hands shoved down into the front pockets of his jeans and shifted his weight from foot to foot as they waited for the line to inch forward. “Jeez, man—she's totally hot .”
“You got that right,” his companion replied. “Those eyes of hers are freakin' amazing.”
“Who cares about her eyes? How about those….” The last word he muttered was low enough not to be overheard by anyone but his companion. They both guffawed sophomorically.
The second teenager punched his friend on the arm “Like she'd ever look at your sorry ass twice!”
“Hey—at least I'm taller than she is, you dwarf!”
“Since when is that a problem?”
The first teen scoffed. “You're such a freak. She's way too classy for you. It's lame the way you keep sniffing around her! I can't believe you faked that concussion during practice last week just so you had a reason to go to her office!”
“Shut the fuck up, man! You don't know anything! At least I don't cruise the library all the time hoping to get a look at that hot little blonde ”
An older man in front of the two boys finally had enough and turned around to frown at them. He noticed Syd and looked past the boys to nod and roll his eyes at her apologetically. The two teens turned around with shocked expressions on their faces and turned five shades of red when they saw Syd standing just behind them. Syd smiled sweetly at them and looked away, trying to save them from further embarrassment.
She had been surprised but not shocked when she realized that the boys had to be talking about Maddie. It appeared that poor Roma Jean wasn't the only teenager in Jericho afflicted with unbridled admiration for the doctor's—charms. She was also disturbed but slightly gratified to learn that she hadn't totally lost out to the beautiful woman in the admiration department—although it occurred to her that maybe she needed to encourage Roma Jean to stop inviting her friends over to help out during her volunteer shifts at the library.
When Syd got to the head of the line, Edna Freemantle warmly greeted her.
“Hey, Miss Murphy. I put back a plate for you—but it looks like we still have plenty left. Let's get you one of these fresh ones.” Edna was wearing a turtleneck sweater, but Syd could see a large bandage on her neck poking out above its rolled collar when she bent over to count out the change from Syd's twenty-dollar bill. Syd remembered Maddie mentioning that Edna had been in her office on Friday, and wondered if she was still having problems with her “boil.” She had Peggy Hawkes to thank for that recollection. God, one of the lunacies of life in a small town—you have no secrets.
“Thanks so much, Edna.” Syd took the plate from her. “Please call me Syd.” She smiled at her warmly. “I ran into Peggy Hawkes on my way in, and she said I should ask you for a slice of her lemon pie. Do you know if there's any left?” She cast her eyes back behind Edna where a group of volunteers worked a makeshift assembly line fixing plates and to-go boxes.
Edna warily followed her gaze. “Sure, honey. Let me get you a piece.” She walked back to one of the volunteers and gestured toward a row of precut desserts. Edna walked back to where Syd stood and handed her a plate that held a shiny piece of yellow pie—and a brownie. “Here you go.” She dropped her voice to a whisper when she continued. “Don't tell Peggy, but this really isn't very good.” She smiled. “I gave you a brownie, too—you'll want that.”
Syd thanked her and moved off toward the outside area in search of a place to sit down.
“Looking for company?” A low, sexy voice spoke softly from just behind her. Syd jumped and barely caught her dessert plate as it started to slide off the Styrofoam box that held her dinner.
She turned around to see a smug and smiling Maddie standing behind her near the drinks table. The doctor was dressed in the same faded blue jeans from the morning, but had changed her polo shirt for a fitted, black v-neck t-shirt. She had a straw-colored cotton sports jacket slung over her arm, and her thick dark hair was now loose about her face.
“Fancy meeting you here,” she said with a grin. Her blue eyes were twinkling.
“Back at ya,” Syd replied with a smile. “I ran into Peggy on my way in and she said you had been here—I assumed you'd already left.”
“Nah—I can't let the local undertaker be the only professional working this event.” Maddie paused to rake her eyes over the crowd, then nodded her head toward a tall, skinny man in a black suit who was slowly making his way from table to table. “I gotta drum up some business.”
Syd followed her gaze. “Oh really? Hoping someone will choke on a piece of gristle and need the Heimlich maneuver?”
Maddie snorted. “Gristle my ass!” She bent closer and whispered into Syd's ear. “Wait until you taste that lemon pie.”
Syd looked down at her dessert with alarm. “You know—you're the second person to caution me. How do I get rid of this without offending anyone?”
Maddie took her by the elbow and led her across the field toward a couple of unoccupied tables. “Stick with me, kid. I'm a pro at the old bait-and-switch technique.”
They sat down at a small table beneath a large red maple tree that vibrated with fall color. Maddie tossed her jacket across the back of an extra chair and folded her arms in front of her on the tabletop.
“Did you already eat?”' Syd asked, as she unfolded her paper napkin and opened her container.
“Oh yeah. But I wouldn't say nay to one of your hushpuppies.” Her eyes were hopeful.
Syd pushed the container across the table. “Be my guest—I don't really do well with fried food.”
“Amateur.” Maddie snagged one of the fried cornbread morsels and moaned happily as she bit into it. She looked down at Syd's meal. “Hey—do you want some tea? Or water?”
“Sure. I forgot to snag a bottle of water while we were up there by the table.” She started to get up.
“No—no. Stay put. I'll go. I want something else, too.” The tall doctor stood up. “Be right back.”
Syd watched her cross the field, stopping to laugh and chat with several groups of people on her way to the beverage station. She couldn't help but notice how much more relaxed and in command the doctor seemed in this setting—less like the shy and somewhat awkward woman she had been last night when they were alone together. It must be her professional persona. I guess she has to be like this in public—It wouldn't do for her to appear unsure of herself.
She took a few bites of her barbecue. Her eyes grew round. It was amazing—incredibly rich and flavorful with just the right amount of spice to the sauce. There was the sound of a large crash, and Syd looked up, startled, to see a commotion by the drinks table. Someone had tripped and fallen into the table, knocking over a huge tureen filled with iced tea. People in line were scrambling to duck the icy brown liquid as it raced across the plastic-covered tabletop and poured onto the ground. Syd stifled a laugh when she saw a beet-red Roma Jean, sprawled in an ungainly heap on the grass, wearing a dazed expression as Maddie bent over to help her back to her feet.
Syd shook her head and took another bite of the barbecue. The poor kid won't get any sleep tonight, either.
Maddie was back at their table in a few minutes holding two big bottles of cold water. She sat back down across from Syd. “I barely dodged that bullet.”
“Do you mean Roma Jean?” Syd asked, innocently.
“Roma Jean?” Maddie looked confused. “No—the tea. It went everywhere.”
“Right.” You're so clueless.
Maddie looked down at Syd's plate. “So…what's the verdict?”
“Are you kidding? It's fabulous.” She pushed the plate toward the doctor. “Best I've ever had.”
Maddie snagged another hushpuppy. “I think it's that sauce Curtis makes—he should bottle it.”
Syd lowered her voice so it was conspiratorial. “So, Doctor…what's your strategy for ditching this pie?”
“Ah, yes. Take the brownie off and slide the plate over here to me.”
Syd did as she asked. Positioning the plate just to the right of her elbow, Maddie casually pushed it toward the edge of the table. Then, straightening her arm out as she reached for another hushpuppy, she seamlessly knocked the plate off the edge. They heard a soft splat as the pie landed facedown on the grass.
“Oh, damn.” Maddie drawled. “How clumsy of me.”
Syd looked beneath their table at the gooey yellow mass. “Um, Maddie? Is that grass turning brown? ”
Maddie guffawed. “I wouldn't doubt it. My dad used to say that you could use the filling from Peggy's chess pies to grout tile!”
“Oh, god. Poor thing. And she thinks they're wonderful.”
Maddie smiled at her. “So—how was the rest of your morning? Did you get your work done?”
Syd nodded. “Yep. I made a real dent in processing the New Media materials I was telling you about.”
“I think it's great that you're sensitive to this need in the community—you'll do more to help the population here than any of the social service agencies have done to date.”
Syd shrugged. “It's why public libraries exist, really—to fill those gaps that traditional agencies don't or can't address. And I'm lucky that the trustees of this particular grant project have given me so much latitude and autonomy—I can pretty much design the collection any way I want.”
“Well, then—the residents of Jericho are fortunate to have you in this role. Anyone else probably would have opted for a set of encyclopedias and a bunch of Turner Classic Movies on DVD. What you're doing is really going to make a difference to many people who wouldn't otherwise have access to services that could materially improve their quality of life.”
“You know, you could be talking about yourself.”
Maddie blushed. “It's not the same thing at all—they pay me for my services.”
Syd held her ground. “Not all of them. Don't think I haven't heard about your weekend clinic hours for people with no insurance.”
Maddie shrugged. “It's not that big a deal. We all do what we can.” She gave Syd a small smile. “Don't canonize me yet—I still make a pretty decent living off this practice.”
“I know,” Syd teased. “I've seen your wine fridge.”
The doctor chewed the inside of her cheek. “That you have.” She sat back in her chair. “Are you nearly finished?” She looked at her watch. “Wanna go watch the sun set over the river? There's a gorgeous pathway a short walk from here that runs right along the east bank—the views are amazing.”
Syd brightened up “I'd love that.” They stood and collected her leftovers, discarding everything except the plastic-wrapped brownie in a nearby waste can. Maddie led them away from the fire station and toward a path that snaked back along the edge of the field. There were several other couples walking along just ahead of them—clearly motivated by the same idea. It wasn't long until Syd could hear the sound of the river rushing along beyond a dense stand of trees.
After a few minutes, the pathway opened up and the river came into view, flashing brilliantly in the late afternoon sun. The wind had picked up when they reached the clearing, and a cool breeze blew toward them across the surface of the water.
“My god, you weren't kidding. This is beautiful.”
Maddie smiled. “Told ya. One of the best things about living up here is that you're never more than five minutes away from this old beauty.”
They walked along a few more minutes in silence, and then Syd hit an uneven patch of ground. She lost her footing as the sudden shift in weight stressed her weak ankle. Maddie quickly caught her by the arms and held her upright. Syd fell against her and stood for a few moments with her face pressed into Maddie's shoulder.
“Are you all right? Did you twist it again?” Maddie asked with concern.
Syd pulled herself upright. “No—no. It's okay. I just stumbled on something. I guess my ankle is still pretty flimsy.
Maddie kept an arm wrapped around her. “Let's find a spot to sit down so I can take a look at it.”
“No— really. It's fine. Doesn't even hurt.” She looked up into concerned blue eyes that now searched her face from inches away. She sobered. The landscape seemed to melt and reform itself right before her eyes. It was a sensation identical to the one she experienced over a month ago, on her first day in Jericho, when she sat next to Maddie by this same river. She had a feeling that some primal force was giving her mental kaleidoscope a great, wrenching twist—tumbling the colored shards of glass inside into a curious and surprising configuration. Time seemed to stop as they stood there, rooted to the spot like trees, slightly swaying toward each other as the breeze swirled around them and the sun dipped further into the west.
The sound of pounding feet distracted them. “Come back here with that, you bastard!”
The two teenaged boys from the food line at the fire station burst through the trees and into the clearing. One raced ahead of the other waving an open can of beer over his head and swinging the rest of a ringed six-pack in his other hand. Beer and foam flew everywhere as he ran past them. The other teen slowed briefly when he saw the two women, but then he raced on by—clearly more focused on getting back his contraband than in stopping to admire them.
The women stepped away from each other belatedly. Maddie kept a secure hand on Syd's elbow. “Do you want to go back?”
Syd shook her head emphatically. “Not at all. I promise—it's fine. I'd really like to finish the walk.” She smiled at her companion. “Stop worrying, okay? I'm really not that brave—if it hurt, I'd tell you.”
Maddie smiled as she dropped her hand. “Okay. C'mon then—it's not much further.”
They continued on along the path until they reached a wide bend where the river turned and headed back away from them. There was a large, felled log near the bank and they sat down on it to rest before starting back toward the fire station. The sun was just above the treetops, and its late autumn light bathed everything around them in a warm, gold color.
Syd nudged the doctor playfully. “I wish we had another thermos of your coffee.”
Maddie looked over at her. “You know—I almost brought one along. If I had known for sure you were gonna be here, I would have.”
“Well, next time we'll know better.”
“That we will.”
Syd stared off across the water at the sunset. “It's so beautiful.”
“You can say that again.” Maddie's voice was enigmatic. They sat in silence for a few minutes and listened to the sounds of the water and the occasional notes of distant laughter that drifted toward them on the breeze. Maddie stretched her long legs out in front of her and leaned back on her hands. She turned to face her companion. “So. What do you have on tap for the rest of this fine evening?”
Syd shrugged and ran a hand through her short blond hair. “Nothing much. I thought earlier that I might try to relax and do some reading—but it's likelier that I'll end up going back into the branch to work for a couple more hours.”
“That seems like a shame. I was heading back into the clinic after this—but I think I've succeeded in talking myself out of it.” She nudged the smaller woman playfully. “See? You've already guilted me into paying more attention to my life away from work.”
Syd studied the doctor. “Really? You're quite a pushover.” Her voice was teasing. “Are you generally this easy to manipulate?”
Maddie raised an eyebrow. “Depends on who's doing the manipulating.”
“Oh— selective flexibility. Why doesn't that surprise me?”
Maddie crossed her arms. “You know, as your doctor, I could offer you some studied, professional advice.”
“Oh, yeah?” Syd lifted her chin as she regarded the taller woman. “Let's hear it.”
“I know you have the branch opening breathing down your neck—but I think you need to take at least one night a week off. Do something else—something personal—something that feeds your soul. You can't underestimate the restorative powers of a few hours of enforced relaxation.”
Syd held the doctor's blue gaze. “I thought that's what I did last night?”
Maddie held up an index finger. “No—that's what I did last night. And in this case, turnabout is fair play.”
Syd wrinkled her nose. “I'm not sure this prescription is covered by my insurance plan.”
Maddie laughed. “Tell you what—I'll give you a free sample.” She chewed her bottom lip for a moment. “What were you going to do if you went back to work?”
“Oh, it's highly technical—something only a licensed professional can do.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “I was going to paste cards and pockets onto the backs of about 200 pieces of media.” She sat back up and continued. “It sounds boring, I know—but after about an hour of inhaling the fumes from the rubber cement, you don't mind it at all.” She demurred, “I've actually wondered if there were 12-Step programs for this—it's kind of addictive.”
Maddie chuckled. “How long will it take you to do this?”
Syd shrugged. “I dunno—a couple of hours. Why?”
“I haven't been high since college.” Maddie's voice was dreamy. “I'm thinking it might be fun. How about some company?”
Syd's eyes grew wide. “Are you nuts? It's mind numbing! There's no way you want to spend a perfectly good Saturday night sitting in a dank old storefront up to your elbows in rubber cement!”
“Oh, c'mon. Let me exercise my philanthropic muscles a bit. I happen to know that I'm the only member of the library board who hasn't ponied up yet with some material support. It's long overdue.” She paused. “I'll even make us some coffee.”
Syd narrowed her eyes. “Now that's just playing dirty, and you know it.”
Maddie grinned at her good-naturedly. “Whattaya say? I can meet you there in half an hour, and we can knock this out in a fraction of the time it would have taken you. You can have your nose safely tucked into a book by 8:30.”
“You're pretty persuasive,” Syd said with amusement. “It must go with all of those abbreviations after your name.”
“Hey, don't knock it! Those abbreviations took ten years to acquire, and I'm still paying for most of them.”
Syd slowly shook her head. “I can't begin to understand why you'd want to do this—but I'd be crazy to refuse your help.”
Maddie gave her a dazzling smile. “Great. Let's go.”
They stood up and started walking back up the path toward the fire station. When they made the final turn and the field full of picnic tables came into view, Syd nudged her companion playfully.
“I wonder if there's any lemon pie left?”
Maddie eyed her with suspicion. “Why? Thinking you might want some dessert later?
Syd shook her head. “Not at all. I was thinking it might work better than rubber cement.”
The musical sound of Maddie's laughter trailed behind them as they made their way across the field and headed toward their respective cars.
On Monday night, Maddie worked alone in the clinic updating patient records. She was in the midst of moving all of the files in her practice to an EMR system she had purchased six months ago, but it was proving to be an arduous and protracted process, and she found herself spending many evenings just like this one—checking and cross-checking data entries for accuracy. Her father's practice hadn't been all that large, but he had been the chief medical provider to scores of families in the area for over twenty-five years, and the backlog of thick patient files was daunting. She thought again about engaging some extra help to make the tedious transition—but she was uncomfortable with the more customary practice of outsourcing the entire project to an agency, and there were sticky confidentiality issues related to engaging local part-time help. For the time being, she and Peggy continued to plug away at it whenever they could—and Maddie now managed all of her active records electronically.
She was making notes on Mrs. Halsey's sciatica when her cell phone rang. She answered it without checking the caller I.D.
“This is Stevenson.”
“Hi ya, sweet cheeks. What's shakin'?”
She smiled. It was David. “Nothing much. I'm just here at the clinic—cooking the books, like normal. What are you up to?”
“Oh, I'm gonna be playing host at an ostentatious soirée, and I need your help.”
Maddie pushed her laptop away and sat back in her desk chair. “Why am I suddenly suspicious about this call?”
David sighed dramatically. “Now don't start off with that attitude—this is a perfectly legitimate request. Besides—you need to get your self-righteous, hermit ass out once in a while. I'm tired of you hibernating out at that damn farm.”
Maddie rolled her eyes. “David? David—are you still there?” She tapped the mouthpiece of her phone with her index finger. “All I hear is a bunch of static that sounds vaguely like preaching .”
“Nice try, sawbones. Michael and I are throwing a big dinner at the Inn on Friday night—and I want you to be there. And before you say ‘no,' or invent a reason not to show up—I already told the new librarian that you'd pick her up and be her escort for the evening.”
Maddie sat up. “You did what? Jesus , David!”
“Jesus? I've been promoted…I should set you up more often.”
“Are you crazy?” Maddie was beyond exasperated. “She isn't gay —and even if she were, I certainly am not looking for that kind of company.”
“Whoa there, Bessie! I don't think I said anything about hooking you up—I said I ‘set' you up. With a dinner companion—nothing else.” There was a pause. “Is there something you need to share with me? It seems like I might have missed a few plot points here.”
Maddie sighed. “No. You didn't miss anything.” She mentally kicked herself for her knee-jerk response. Now David smelled a rat—and he'd be relentless. “Sorry—I'm just still pretty raw in that department. I didn't mean to take your head off. Gimme the details.”
David demurred. “Okaaaayy. This is kind of a ‘welcome-to-the-area and congratulations-on-the-grand-opening-of-the-new-library' kind of event. We're footing the bill for the food—so Michael is going all-out on the menu. I just figured that you'd rather spend the evening making nice with that cute little Syd Murphy than with Gladys Pitzer—who also will be coming solo. But, honestly, if you'd rather pick Gladys up—I'm sure she'd be thrilled .” He paused for effect. “And I know she'll be happy to reintroduce you to her genetically-challenged son. Beau is fresh out of rehab, so he's living back at home again. You two would look awfully cute together.”
Maddie sighed. “Alright, already. When and where do I pick her up?”
“Ah. I thought you'd come to your senses. At the branch—6:00.” He dropped his voice a full octave as he continued. “And try to look sexy —we couldn't afford an ice sculpture, so we need something tall to class up the entryway.” He hung up before she could respond.
Maddie sat there for a moment, dumbly holding the phone against her ear. God. I'll live to regret this. She closed her phone and placed it back on the desk. David Jenkins was her best friend in Jericho—and she had known him ever since they were children together. Reestablishing her friendship with David—and his partner, Michael Robertson—had been the one of the real perks of being back in the area to live. But David was determined to drag her out of her shell of self-imposed isolation. She smiled at his persistence—but she wished that he hadn't involved Syd in his rehabilitation scheme. Already, Maddie was finding it hard to keep an appropriate and safe distance from the attractive woman. The last thing she needed was David honing in on her vulnerability where the petite blonde was concerned—and she might already have compromised her feigned indifference to the newcomer's charms.
Oh well. She sighed in resignation. If I have to torture myself, I might as well get a great meal out of it.
Syd was dressed and ready when she saw Maddie's silver Lexus turn into the gravel lot next to the library. She hadn't been sure about what to wear to the event, but since it was an evening affair at the area's best inn, she opted for a green silk crepe “boyfriend” jacket with matching crepe trousers, a camisole, and heels. She met Maddie at the back door to the branch and tried not to gape at the taller woman. She was used to seeing the doctor well but casually dressed in business suits or weekend attire—but this was something different. Maddie was wearing a form-fitting, banded silhouette red dress that hugged her curves in all the right places. It had a plunging, halter v-neck top and fell to just above her knees. She wore a vintage black taffeta bolero jacket, and her long dark hair was brushed back away from her face, showing off black pearl and diamond earrings. She looked stunning.
“My god—you certainly clean up well.” Syd's green eyes sparkled with admiration.
Maddie looked the shorter woman over appraisingly. “You're not so bad, yourself. I was gonna suggest that we just blow this shindig off and go out for ribs—but I guess we'd look pretty ridiculous wearing those plastic bibs over these outfits.”
Syd laughed at her. “You just can't take a compliment, can you?”
Maddie shrugged good-naturedly. “I'm just out of practice, I guess. I really haven't had many excuses to get all glammed-out since I moved back down here.”
“Well that borders on the criminal—you look fantastic.” Syd pulled the door closed behind her and they started down the steps toward Maddie's car. She glanced over at her companion, who towered over her in heels. “Look, if you suddenly decide that you have your sea legs back and want to, um, enjoy some local color tonight…don't worry about me. I can easily find another way home.”
Maddie gave Syd a perplexed look as she opened the passenger door to her car. “What on earth are you talking about?”
Syd raised an eyebrow at her as she daintily sat down inside the car.
Maddie tossed her head back in mock exasperation. “Oh puh-lease! Just who do you think will be attending this event, hmmm?” She looked down at Syd with sympathetic eyes. “I hate to disillusion you, but this isn't exactly going to be like a night with the Chippendales—not unless you fancy bloated, blue-haired, Type 2 Diabetic women. And if that's the case, then maybe we should go out for ribs.”
Syd snorted, and Maddie grinned as she shut the door and walked around to the driver's side of the car.
Once they were underway, Syd turned to face the doctor. “So, tell me about David—and tell me about this inn he runs. I gather it's pretty swanky?”
Maddie nodded as she turned onto the highway that led into Jefferson. “The Riverside Inn is one of the oldest, continuous inns in Virginia. It's been written up numerous times in travel magazines—and it's a very popular weekend destination for people from Charlotte and Richmond. David and Michael have owned it for about five years now, and they do a tremendous seasonal business in weddings and corporate retreats.” She looked over at Syd. “Michael is the resident chef—and he's a first-rate one, too. He studied at Johnson & Wales in Charleston. David was there at the same time, interning in hotel management at The Planters Inn—near the Charleston Market. That's how they met.”
Syd was fascinated. “So they came back here together?”
“Yep. A married couple from England had previously owned the inn, but they retired and went back to the U.K. five years ago. That's when David and Michael took it over. They do quite well—although they don't get a whole lot of local traffic. The accommodations and the restaurant fare are a tad too pricey to attract much of a robust local patronage.”
“Have you known David long? He seemed to talk about you with such affection—I assumed that you were good friends.”
“We are. I've known him since childhood. We were inseparable in the summer months when I'd come back here to stay with my dad.” She slowed the car down and turned onto a secondary road that wound down along the river. “It wasn't always easy for him here. There isn't much of a gay community—that's why he went away to school. His family was never very supportive.”
“That's so sad. Is it any better for him now that he's back?”
Maddie shrugged. “Yes and no. His mother seems to have mellowed out a bit. You know her—Phoebe Jenkins?”
Syd was surprised. “The school music teacher?”
“The one and the same.”
“Huh. What about his father?”
“Dead—for years now. He was a pretty brutal man—not very open and not very kind. David suffered a lot. My dad was always like a surrogate father to him—David actually lived at our place during his last year of high school. It was a difficult time for him. Dad helped him get into the hotel management program at N.C. State. He flourished once he was away from here.”
Syd was perplexed. “Why did he want to come back?”
Maddie looked at her. Her blue eyes were luminous in the dimly lighted interior of the car. “Maybe just to see if he could . It's hard to feel like an outcast—like you have no place to belong.” She looked back out at the road ahead of them. “I think he felt like it was time to reclaim his past—to try and live his life on his own terms, in full view of a community that never really accepted him.”
“Wow. That's certainly courageous.”
“Or suicidal. But that's David—he never held back on anything.” She laughed. “He still doesn't. And you know—he's just stubborn enough to persevere. If anyone can make this experiment work, he'll be the one.”
They turned onto a gravel lane that led up toward a sprawling, two story Victorian house with wide porches and gabled dormers. All of the downstairs windows glowed with yellow light. People milled about on the lawn in front of the house or stood in clusters under the deep eaves of the porch. A flagstone walkway led from a secluded parking area to the house. It was lined with gaslights that flickered behind bubbled-glass globes. Maddie and Syd could hear the mellow sound of jazz as they left the car and slowly made their way up the sidewalk toward the main entrance. Tantalizing smells drifted on the night air as they drew closer to the house. Maddie gently took hold of Syd's elbow as they ascended the wide steps.
A loud voice with an affected Southern accent accosted them as they approached the open front door. “Why, Madeleine Stevenson—as I live and breathe! And lookin' like she just escaped from Belle Watling's house of ill repute! Michael—fetch the smelling salts. I might just have a fit of the vapors.”
Maddie stopped and rolled her eyes at the flamboyantly dressed man who stood just inside the door near a wide staircase, clutching at his chest in mock distress.
“Hello, David,” she drawled. “Nice to see you, too.” She crossed over to him and kissed him lightly on both cheeks, standing back to admire his magenta-colored smoking jacket. “Nice suit—get that from the Truman Capote Collection? She batted her eyelashes at him suggestively.
He swatted her on the behind and pushed past her to greet Syd. “And who is this blonde beauty?”
He reached out to take Syd's hand, and kissed it dramatically. “Thank you for consenting to join us at this little soirée.” He leaned forward and whispered in her ear. “I apologize for consigning you to an evening in such boorish company.” He inclined his head toward Maddie, who had taken off her jacket and handed it with her bag to a white-coated member of the wait staff. Her broad shoulders glowed in the soft light of the foyer. When she turned back to face them, it was impossible not to notice how the red dress accentuated every tantalizing curve of her long body. David gave Syd's hand a gentle squeeze. “On the other hand—you could do a lot worse.”
Syd laughed at him. “I am not at all inclined to disagree. Thank you for inviting me.”
“Oh, honey—the pleasure is mine! Anything to lure that one out of her cocoon.” He winked at her. “We may need to make a habit of this.”
He tugged her forward and walked back to stand in front of the amused doctor. “And here you are in the truly glorious flesh.”
“So it would seem.” Maddie's tone was ironic. “Are you surprised?”
David ran a hand through his thick dark hair and steered them toward a set of double doors. “Of course I am. I have a healthy respect for your inventiveness when it comes to ducking out of social engagements.”
Maddie rolled her eyes. “Don't listen to him, Syd. He'll have you believing that I hide from my own shadow.”
David regarded her thoughtfully. “Now that you mention it—we did have six extra weeks of winter last year. Think there was any connection?”
Maddie punched him playfully on the arm. “Whatcha got to drink in this dump? I'm parched.”
“Oh? Have a long day bilking the insurance companies? That does take it out of one.”
Syd chortled. “You two should take this on the road.”
David brought his twinkling brown eyes to bear on her. “Oh, we have —trust me. The good doctor and I go way back.” He led them across the bar area toward a small, round table for two. “Now—what may I get you two bodacious beauties to drink?”
Maddie looked thoughtful. “You know—I think I'd like some champagne. Got any open?”
“For you? But of course. Le Veuve Clicquot —chilled and waiting.” He turned to Syd. “And for you, my lovely?”
“I think I'll join my erudite companion. Some champagne sounds wonderful.”
David gave them a brilliant smile and drifted off toward the bar, stopping to chat with several patrons along his way.
Syd watched him for a moment, and then turned to face Maddie. “He's wonderful. So vibrant and charming—I can't imagine anyone more suited to a place like this.” She gestured at their beautiful surroundings.
Maddie smiled at her. “I'm so glad you think so.” She looked at David with affection. “He really is like my family here. I don't know what I'd do without him.”
“I can understand that. It would be impossible to feel too isolated with David in your life.”
Maddie laughed. “I think you're on the verge of finding out first-hand how true that statement is.”
“What do you mean?” Syd was confused.
Before she could answer, their waiter arrived with two chilled flutes of straw-colored champagne. A crimson strawberry sat at the bottom of each glass. After he departed, Maddie held her glass up to Syd. “Here's to new friends—and an impending end to solitude.”
Syd nervously clinked rims with her and drank, wondering what can of worms her presence here had just opened. Hearing David's raucous laughter ring out from across the bar, she supposed it wouldn't be long until she found out.
In the hour before dinner, the two women took their glasses of champagne and milled about the spacious downstairs area of the Inn. Syd recognized many members of the county library board, and was introduced to their spouses, and to a slew of other guests whose names she would never recall. Maddie had been whisked away by another doctor from the county hospital in Wytheville—and he held her hostage across the room. He noticed her immediately when they entered the large front parlor, and made a beeline for her, insisting that she take a few minutes to meet some out-of-town colleagues of his who were in the area to golf and enjoy the fall foliage. Syd kept stealing glances at the tall woman, as she stood in front of a large bay window with the three, white-haired doctors. It didn't take a rocket scientist to realize that fall foliage wasn't the only thing the men were admiring—Syd noticed that they seemed incapable of keeping their eyes on Maddie's face. More than once, she looked over to find one of them ogling some other red-clad part of the tall woman's physique.
“So, Jessie tells me that you were the one who helped her out with her sight reading.” Phoebe Jenkins' voice distracted Syd from her spying. She realized, belatedly, that she had not been paying attention to their conversation.
“I'm sorry—what did you say?” She shifted her full attention back to the older woman. Phoebe was a shorter, rounder version of her son. She had the same lively brown eyes, and the same wavy black hair—although hers was now shot-through with gray streaks. Her face radiated friendliness.
“Jessie Rayburn. She tells me that you're the one who helped her out so much with her sight reading.”
Syd smiled. “Oh, that. Yes—she's a sweet girl, and she's been kind enough to help out at the branch. I thought it was the least I could do to try and repay her.” She touched Phoebe gently on the forearm. “I hope that was okay—I don't want to interfere with your methods.”
Phoebe laughed at her. “Oh, heavens—it's more than okay! I have over 200 students at that school, and I can only give private lessons to about a dozen of them. Anything you can do to help out is a gift to me—and to them.” She took a sip of her pink wine. “David tells me that you're quite the musician in your own right.”
Syd raised an eyebrow. There was only one way David could have learned anything about Syd's background in music. She stole another quick look across the room at her statuesque dinner companion, who now looked like she was ready to impale herself on a cocktail knife. Maddie chose that instant to look Syd's way, and gazed back at her in mute appeal.
Syd smiled and turned back to Phoebe. “Yes, I studied violin as an undergraduate—but my skills as a musician might be overstated. But if I can be helpful to you in any way by working with some of the students—I'd be happy to pitch in.”
Phoebe smiled at her sweetly. She looked over Syd's shoulder and called out to someone passing by behind her. “Gladys! Come over here and meet our guest of honor.”
A short, wiry woman with frizzy red hair and thick glasses stopped and turned her beady gaze on Syd. She looked her up and down without disguise, and then nodded quickly. “You're a looker, all right. I wondered what all the fuss was about.”
Syd colored at the odd woman's directness, and Phoebe rushed to intervene. “Syd Murphy—this is Gladys Pitzer. Gladys is a florist—David and Michael got all the fresh flowers you see here from her shop in Jefferson.”
Syd extended her hand. “It's a pleasure to meet you, Gladys. I think the arrangements are just beautiful—I noticed them right away.” Gladys took Syd's hand in a claw-like grip and continued to hold on to it long after their handshake had ended.
“I didn't do the arrangements—I just brought the flowers.” She cast a sidelong glance at Phoebe before continuing. “These boys have their own ideas about things.” She tugged slightly at Syd's hand. “Are you married?” Her question hung in the air like an accusation.
Syd was nonplussed. “I—um…yes, but I'm separated from my husband right now.”
Gladys dropped her hand without ceremony. “Unavailable.” She turned on her flat heels and headed straight toward Maddie and the trio of lecherous doctors.
They were all saved from further mortification because Michael Robertson chose that moment to enter the room and announce that dinner was ready to be served. Maddie was at Syd's elbow in an instant, and the two of them beat a hasty retreat from the parlor and made their way down the wide center hallway toward the dining room.
“Thank god ,” the doctor whispered close to Syd's ear. “Five more minutes of that and I would've grabbed a fire axe and chopped my way through a wall to escape.”
Syd laughed at her partner's distress. “Oh, I dunno—there are worse ways to spend an evening.” She looked her companion over. “They certainly were—attentive.”
Maddie scoffed. “Right. Attending to every nuance of my derrière —I never should've worn this damn dress. I'm gonna kill David.”
“David picked out your dress?”
Maddie looked down at her with raised eyebrows. “David lent me this dress—it's his.” She paused. “I don't know how he walks in these shoes.”
Syd burst into laughter and clutched her companion's arm. Several other couples turned and looked their way. “Behave,” she hissed. “We'll get tossed out of here.” She continued to chuckle as they approached the entrance to the large dining room. Michael Robertson met them at the doorway.
The big man reached out and pulled Maddie into a bear hug. “How are you, beautiful?” he asked, placing a kiss on her neck.
Maddie returned his hug, and then stepped back. Her blue eyes glowed with affection. “Why, I'm just fine.” She turned toward Syd. “Have you met Syd Murphy yet?”
Michael turned to regard her. He was a tall man—taller than Maddie. And he looked strong and solid in his white, double-breasted chef's coat. He was semi-bald and wore tiny, black-framed glasses. His gray eyes sparkled as he stepped toward her. “No, I haven't had that pleasure yet.” He hugged Syd warmly. “We don't stand on ceremony around here—any friend of the good Doctor's is a friend of mine.” He drew back, but still held Syd by her elbows and looked her over. “You're a welcome addition to our little community.”
She smiled at the burly man. “I'm so happy to meet you—I've heard wonderful things about your talent in the kitchen.”
Michael squeezed her elbows before releasing her. “Too bad I decided to pick this night to have Peggy Hawkes cater the whole damn thing….”
Maddie's involuntary gasp was audible.
Michael threw back his head and laughed loudly. “Come on you two—David has a special table set aside for you.” He winked at Maddie. “I think you'll like it.”
He led them past a dozen larger tables, all set for parties of four or six, to a more remote section of the room near the entrance to a large sun porch. Several smaller, more intimate tables were scattered along a back wall that was lined with windows. They overlooked a rolling lawn that sloped down toward the river. Lighted walkways snaked off in several directions, and other patrons could be seen strolling about outside—smoking or carrying their cocktail glasses as they meandered about in the early evening.
“Here you are—just what the doctor ordered,” he indicated a table set for two, and gallantly pulled out Syd's chair. “Or would have ordered, if she had the sense god gave Adam's house cat.”
Maddie looked up at him with a startled expression on her beautiful face—but Michael only chuckled at her as he strode off to greet other diners. Syd pretended not to notice the doctor's embarrassment. She picked up her napkin.
“They certainly watch out for you.”
Maddie shook her head. “Tell me about it.” She picked up the wine list that was already open across her plate. Then she sighed, and set it back down. “Look, I'm sorry about subjecting you to their full-frontal disapproval of my—lack of social life.” She hesitated. “I don't want you to get the wrong idea about their motivation.”
Syd sat back and regarded her companion with interest. “And what would that be? All I see are two charming and loving friends who don't want the extraordinary woman they obviously care about to be lonely.” She raised her chin. “Is that the wrong idea?”
“No.” Maddie smiled at her sheepishly. “That would be just about the right idea. But sometimes, they get a bit overzealous in their attentions. I fear they now think of you as a healthy dose of fresh blood in the water.”
Syd laughed. “So I'm a shark?”
“Not exactly.” Maddie's gaze was thoughtful. “ They're the sharks. Be prepared to be enlisted in the Jericho Salvation Army—they'll do whatever it takes to co-opt your assistance in their let's-drag-Maddie-back-into-the-limelight scheme.”
Syd continued to regard her with amusement. “So what happens if I turn out to be a willing recruit?”
Maddie sighed and picked up the wine list again. “Then I'd say that I'm probably toast.”
Michael had outdone himself on the evening fare. They dined on exceptional Low Country cuisine—starting with his signature She-Crab soup. For her dinner entree, Maddie opted for the grilled, pesto-encrusted grouper with creamy grits and fried green tomatoes. Syd had a shrimp and crawfish etouffee with white rice and scallions. Maddie ordered them each a glass of Charles Krug Sauvignon Blanc. For dessert, they shared a peach praline cobbler served with cinnamon ice cream. Their waiter appeared with two steaming cups of coffee and cordials of Frangelico.
“Compliments of the Chef,” he explained as he set the cups and glasses down in front of them. He tucked the serving tray under his arm and headed back toward the kitchen.
Maddie sniffed at the beverages. “And he has the nerve to call me a snob.”
Syd laughed at her as she pushed back from the table. “I can't eat another thing. I've never had so much great food at one sitting.” The metallic copper color of her sleeveless camisole reflected the flickering light from the oil candle on their table. Maddie noticed how toned and firm her arms were. The square-cut neck of her top showed off her well-defined shoulders and collarbone. She really did look lovely.
Maddie drug her gaze away from her companion and cursed herself for the umpteenth time for giving in to David's arm-twisting. Damn him. I should've agreed to bring Gladys Pitzer. She looked across the dining room toward the table where Gladys now sat, poking maniacally at the unhappy floral centerpiece in front of her. She growled and shook her head.
Syd noticed. “Something wrong?”
Maddie looked at her again. Syd's short blonde hair was feathered back from her face and her green eyes glowed in the soft light. “Yeah—I'm an idiot.”
“What do you mean?”
Maddie sighed with resignation. “Just a general observation.” She shifted in her chair. “It's hot in here. Do you wanna walk around outside for few minutes?”
Syd perked up. “Sure—that would be great. I'd love to walk off some of this meal.” As they stood up, she retrieved her jacket from the back of her chair. “Will you need your coat?”
She nodded, but gestured toward the sun porch behind their table. “Yeah, but let's go through here and grab it on the way out—I want to avoid the melee.”
“I'm all for that. I don't have the stamina for any more inquisitions about my marital status.”
Maddie led them through a doorway that led to the sun porch area behind their table. She retrieved her short jacket from a coat closet located just off the main hallway of the house. “Oh really? Who's been grilling you?”
“I lost count after the first half dozen.”
“Hmmm. Too bad. I could've hooked you up with the Three Billy Goats Gruff…they definitely were looking for some scintillating companionship.” They walked down the wooden steps that led from the sun porch to the back lawn. “Dr. Greene commented more than once that he'd been meaning to check out the ‘services' at our new library. After seeing you here tonight, I'd venture a guess that it won't be long before he drops by to renew his— patronage .”
Syd eyed her suspiciously. “Uh huh. Well the only thing related to me that Dr. Greene can look forward to checking out will be a book or a DVD.” She pointed a finger at herself. “ This piece of realia is not in circulation at present.”
Maddie chuckled as they strolled along one of the gravel paths away from the house.
Syd nudged her companion's arm playfully. “Besides, Dr. Greene seemed pretty persistent in his admiration of you. I got the distinct impression that this wasn't an unusual occurrence.”
Maddie sighed. “You're right—it isn't.” She looked at Syd with a resigned expression. “Because most of my background training is in emergency medicine, I fill in a few nights a month at the county hospital. Tom Greene is the ER chief there.” She laughed bitterly. “Trust me, there's nothing he'd love more than the chance to practice a bit of triage—on me .”
“God. What a sleaze. How do you deal with that?”
“About like you'd expect. Thankfully, med school was an excellent preparation for this. You'd be surprised by how literally many of my mentors took the whole ‘hands-on' instruction caveat in the course descriptions.”
“Well, I think that in this case, the common denominator might be you and not your profession.”
Maddie looked at her. “What do you mean?”
Syd laughed at her confused expression. “Come on, Maddie—you must know that you're drop-dead gorgeous! The poor guy's only human.” She paused. “Well…human and a sleaze. But it's true that the cards are pretty unfairly stacked against him.”
Maddie stared at her blankly. Then she shook her dark head and looked away.
Syd seemed to enjoy her discomfort. “You really can't take a compliment, can you?”
Maddie brought her blue eyes back to bear on Syd. They were narrowed with mischief. “Well, it's a good thing I'm not the jealous type.”
Syd's expression was wary. “I know I'm gonna regret asking—but what is that supposed to mean?”
“Well, let's just say that things have been a tad easier for me since a certain green-eyed blonde moved into the area.” She winked at Syd conspiratorially. “I've really been meaning to thank you for the division of labor.”
Syd blushed and swatted her companion on the arm. “You totally suck!”
Maddie raised an eyebrow. “I don't usually—but if I did, it probably would push my profile up a few notches.”
Syd threw her head back and considered the night sky. “What did I do to deserve this?”
“Why if I were a spiritual man, I'd say it's your karmic reward for doing good in a past life.” Neither of the women heard David walk up behind them, and they both jumped when his voice rang out from close range. “What are you two lovelies doing out here alone in the dark?” He looked them over from head to toe as he took a long drag on his cigarette. “On the other hand—who cares? Whatever you're doing—can I watch?” He sat down on a nearby bench and crossed his legs.
Maddie chewed the inside of her cheek as she turned and considered her friend. “Whattsamatter, Davey—nothing new on Adult Pay-Per-View?”
David took another drag and blew a line of smoke at her. “Now that insinuation is just cruel — you know we don't get decent satellite reception out here.” He turned to face Syd. The orange tip of his cigarette made laser-like patterns in the darkness between them as he waved his hand around. “She just loves to torment me.”
Syd laughed at him. “Yes, I can see what a hapless victim you are.”
“At last. Someone who understands my suffering.” He bowed to Syd. “I knew I liked you.”
Maddie scoffed. “The only thing you're a victim of is your own hyperbole.” She paused and reached out a hand to tug at the sleeve of his magenta jacket. “And maybe your fashion sense.”
David feigned umbrage as he yanked his arm away. “Oh, nice one, Miss Thing. I now regret defending your honor when I overheard that trio of mulligans speculating on whether or not your boobs were store-bought.”
Maddie gasped. “ What? ” Her blue eyes blazed as she looked back up at the house.
“Calm down, Xena—there's no need to storm the castle. I assured them that even Gladys Pitzer would look as well-endowed in the same dress.” He sighed. “Never underestimate the power of the right foundation garment.”
Maddie was still seething. “You know, I'm just one Hippocratic oath away from strangling you.”
“Ohhhh, baby—I love it when you go all butch on me.”
Syd stepped in between them. “I hate to be the one to disrupt this love fest—but, David, I think your mother is headed this way.”
David turned around and looked up the pathway toward the house. Sighing, he ground out his cigarette and tucked the butt into the pocket of his jacket. “Yep… that's her. And judging by the way she's walking, she ain't got good news.”
“Oh, there you are! We've been looking all over for you.” Phoebe was breathless as she faced Maddie. “Dr. Stevenson—your service called looking for you. They said it was an emergency.”
Maddie was suddenly all business. She nodded and turned to Syd, touching her lightly on the elbow. “I'm sorry—please excuse me while I go see what this is about.”
“Of course. Go ahead—I'll be fine.”
Maddie squeezed her elbow and hurried back to the house with an agitated Phoebe in tow.
After Maddie left them to return to the house, David shook his head and reached into his breast pocket for a fresh cigarette. “Aaaand she's off. Again.” He dug out an old-fashioned silver Zippo and lighted up. “I don't think I've ever gotten through an entire evening with that woman without some crisis intervening.”
Syd sat down next to him on the bench. “She's just doing her job.”
David gave her a longsuffering gaze. “My dear, her job is all she does. She does her job to the exclusion of having a life.”
Syd hesitated before speaking. “You're pretty hard on her.”
“On the contrary—I love her enough to speak the truth. When you get to know her a bit better, and you'll see what I mean.”
“You're right that I can't pretend to be an authority on Maddie—but I do know that she's aware of feeling—isolated. I think she struggles with it and wants to change it. It's just going to take some time.” David didn't comment, so she continued. “She's been through a lot in the last two years—losing her father, ending a relationship, moving away from her life in Philadelphia. That's a lot for anyone to deal with—even someone as exceptional as she is.”
David sat there, smoking quietly while he regarded her. “I was wrong about you. You don't need any more time to figure her out.” He smiled as he wiped some stray ash off his trouser leg. He looked over at her, his eyes narrowed. “So how much did the good doctor tell you about her ill-fated relationship?”
Syd felt vaguely like they were venturing into forbidden territory. “Not much—just that it all ended right about the time of her father's death. I know they were both doctors—that's about it.”
David nodded slowly. “Interesting.” He ground out his cigarette and stood up, reaching a hand down to her. “C'mon, cutie. Let's go and see what caliber of crisis has descended upon our resident Florence Nightingale.”
Once inside the house, Maddie retrieved her cell phone from her purse and called her service. She took down the number of her caller and dialed it quickly. A man answered on the second ring.
“Hello?” He had a deep, bass voice. She could hear music and laughter in the background.
“Hello—this is Dr. Stevenson. Someone at this number called me?”
“Well hey there, little sweetie. We sure did!” She could hear the clink of ice cubes against the side of a glass. “Tom said this would be the quickest way to find you—where'd you get off to? We were hoping you'd join us for a nightcap.”
Maddie's jaw dropped and she swiveled her head around to see the white-haired trio leering at her from their table in the bar. The phone was still pressed to her ear. “Are you kidding me with this?” She snapped the phone closed and stood there fuming. Then she straightened her shoulders and walked across the bar to stand in front of their table. Her eyes were smoldering. The raucous trio fell silent as they sat there, enduring her scrutiny.
“Dr. Greene, I wonder if I might have a word with you—privately.” Her voice was icy.
Tom Greene sat staring up at six feet of barely controlled rage. In a flash, he realized the enormity of the mistake they had made. He got belatedly to his feet and set his half empty tumbler down on the table. “Um—excuse me for a minute, fellas.”
Maddie turned on her heel and led them out into an unoccupied corner of the hallway. She stood close to the shorter man, using her greater height to its full advantage. She kept her voice low so no one would overhear her.
“Out of respect for your wife, I'm going to forget about this episode of ridiculous and offensive conduct. Muriel has always been kind to me, and I owe this debt of gratitude to her .” She stepped even closer. Dr. Greene had to tip his head back to avoid having his nose in her cleavage. “But if you ever decide to make me the object of your petty and sophomoric behavior again, trust me—I won't be so charitable.” She dropped her voice to nearly a whisper. “Do we understand each other, Tom?”
He nodded stupidly. “I'm—sorry, Maddie. Really.”
She stepped back from him. “Oh—one more thing.” She held out her hand, palm up. ‘Give me your car keys. You might want to call Muriel and tell her you've decided to spend the night here with your buddies.”
He thought about arguing with her, but Maddie just stood there glaring at him with her palm extended. Sighing with resignation, he fished his keys out of his trouser pocket and slapped them into her hand.
“You can get these from David in the morning. Good night, Dr. Greene.”
He shook his head slowly and turned back toward the bar. “Good night, Dr. Stevenson.”
Maddie watched him for a moment, and then headed back down the hallway toward the rear of the house. Syd and David met her at the door to the sun porch. David noticed her sour expression.
“What's up, Sawbones? You look like you've been chewing on ground glass.”
“Nothing. It was a crank call.” Maddie's tone indicated that the subject was closed. She looked at Syd and tried to lighten her mood. “Would you like something else to drink?”
Syd regarded her curiously. “If it's all the same to you, I'm kinda tired. Wanna call it a night?”
Maddie gave her a grateful smile. “Yeah. That call really got on my last nerve.” She looked at David. “Do you mind keeping Syd company a minute longer? There's something I need to ask Michael about before we leave.”
“It would be my pleasure. We'll wait for you on the front porch.”
Maddie nodded and headed across the sun porch toward the entrance to the dining room. She found Michael at the back of the room, talking animatedly with several members of his kitchen staff. Most of the tables had already been cleared and reset for breakfast. He saw her approach and met her halfway, reaching out to kiss her on the cheek.
“Hello again, gorgeous. How was your evening? Enjoy yourself?” His gray eyes sparkled with admiration as he regarded her.
“Well, with about three exceptions, the evening was flawless.”
“Three?” He looked concerned. “Care to enlighten me?”
“Remember my trio of admirers?” He nodded. “They went a bit too far in their pursuit of happiness and I'm afraid I had to come down pretty hard on my pal Tom Greene.”
“Yeah.” She handed Michael the set of car keys. “He's going to be spending the night here with his pals. Do me a favor and slip these to him discreetly in the morning. And fix them all something special for breakfast—on me.” She smiled sheepishly. “He really did act like an ass— but I feel a little sorry for him.”
Michael stood there regarding her for a minute. “You're a class act, you know that?”
She rolled her eyes. “From your mouth to god's ear. Good night, Michael. It was a wonderful meal—as always.”
He kissed her lightly. “Good night, gorgeous. You take care of that little blonde—she's a keeper.”
She glowered at him and he backed away with his hands in the air. “Okay, okay—you can't blame a guy for trying.”
Maddie turned into the gravel lot beside the Jericho library and parked next to Syd's Volvo. The town looked deserted—pretty typical for 10:00 on a Friday night. The football team was playing at home this week, and most of the kids in the county would be out after the game, dragging the main street in Jefferson or hanging out at the local Pizza Hut. She shut the engine off and turned to face her companion.
“Not really. I was wondering if you felt like coming up for some decaf?” She added quickly, “But if you'd rather head on home, I completely understand.”
“No—I'd enjoy the company. And some coffee sounds great. We didn't really get to finish ours at the Inn.”
“Well, I can't promise to equal your facility with a coffeemaker—but I'll do my best.”
Maddie smiled at her as she unhooked her seatbelt. “I can't wait to get out of these shoes.”
“Well then, let's go on up.” Syd climbed out and led the way across the parking lot toward the front of the library. It had turned much colder, and there was a steady wind blowing up the narrow street. A white plastic grocery bag had gotten tangled up with the chrysanthemums in the large planter that stood next to the street entrance to Syd's apartment. Maddie knelt and carefully extracted it while Syd unlocked the door. She stood up and displayed the bag with disbelief.
“Panda Inn Chinese Bistro?”
Syd turned to face her. “You're kidding? Isn't that in Roanoke ?”
“Yeah.” Maddie shook her head and dropped the bag into a nearby trash receptacle. “That's some kind of home delivery.”
“Or some kind of wind.”
“True. Too bad it didn't blow some fortune cookies our way, too.”
They started walking up the narrow stairway. “Why? Are you still hungry?”
Maddie chuckled behind her. “No—I'd just like to know the future.”
“Worried about what fate has in store for you?”
“You might say that.”
Syd turned on a lamp and dropped her bag and keys on the kitchen table. “Make yourself comfortable. I'll get some coffee brewing.”
Maddie looked around the small apartment and its threadbare furnishings. She had been here once before, and she regretted that the county hadn't done better to make the place more inhabitable. Syd insisted that she didn't really mind—and that she was spending most of her time downstairs in the branch anyway. She explained that her tenure in the area was likely to be so short that a more truncated, hotel-like existence suited her just fine. She wasn't ready to put down roots. Not yet—and not here.
That unhappy realization hit Maddie again as she kicked off her heels and dropped into an armchair, suddenly feeling deflated. Some lingering traces of anger over the whole Tom Greene episode continued to dance around the periphery of her consciousness—and she still felt vaguely like throttling David for his less-than-subtle insinuations about her developing friendship with Syd.
On the whole, it was an evening fraught with frustration—and it reminded her of all of her good and studied reasons for keeping to herself and staying out of social situations that just ended up making her life more complicated. She turned her head and regarded what was rapidly becoming her biggest complication, as it moved around the tiny kitchen making coffee.
“Need some help out there?” Maddie asked.
“Nope—got it all under control. It'll be ready in two shakes.” Syd walked into the living room and turned on her radio. A lyrical passage from Schumann's Scenes From Childhood filled the air between them. Syd took off her jacket and tossed it across the back of the sofa before sinking down into its sagging cushions. She kicked off her own shoes and reached out to drag a fat ottoman over to rest between their seats. Both women immediately propped their tired feet up.
Syd turned a questioning gaze toward Maddie. “So tell me—what really happened with the phone call?”
Maddie sighed. “It was Tom and his cronies—trying to track me down for a little moonlight madness.”
“You have got to be kidding! And they called your service ?”
“Yeah. I was pretty pissed.”
“No doubt. You really did look like you were spitting fire when you met us in the hallway.”
“It wasn't pretty. I felt bad about how angry I got with Tom—so I asked Michael to hook them all up with something special for breakfast tomorrow.”
Syd scoffed. “Well, you're a better man that I am, Gunga Din. I'd have ripped them all new ones and not thought twice about it.”
Maddie gave her a wry smile. “Well, if I had ripped them new ones, chances are I'd have been the unhappy one tagged with the task of stitching ‘em all back together. She playfully nudged Syd's leg with a stocking-clad foot. “So, see? In the long run, my motivation was purely a selfish one.”
Syd laughed quietly. “I don't know how you do it. That kind of poise just has to come from breeding.”
Maddie sighed as she slouched deeper into her chair and closed her eyes. “I don't know about that. Sometimes I think that coming back here was a complete mistake.”
“Why? They're just sleazebags, Maddie—you'd run into their ilk anyplace.”
Maddie shook her head. “Oh, not because of them . It's this whole enforced socialization thing—I'm just not ready for it. I'm still too raw. And nursing my wounds just makes me seem arrogant and stand-offish.” She expelled a long breath. “Nothing is further from the truth.”
Syd leaned slightly toward her and reached out a tentative hand to touch the doctor's arm. “And what is the truth?”
Maddie looked over and met her eyes just as a staccato beeping sound rang out from the kitchen.
Syd slowly withdrew her hand and got to her feet. “I'll go and get the coffee—but don't think this means you're off the hook.”
Maddie raised an eyebrow as she gazed up at her hostess. “Oh really? Think you can make me talk?”
“Count on it.” Syd walked to the kitchen and got their coffee, returning with two steaming mugs and a small plate of chocolate cookies.
Maddie took hers eagerly, but looked quizzically at the cookies. “Are you still hungry?”
Syd laughed. “Not at all—but I confess to having a rampant sweet tooth. And what's coffee without something sweet?”
Maddie leaned back in her chair and took a healthy sip of the hot beverage. “I thought that's why I was here?”
“Oh, I see that someone has finally regained her sunny disposition.”
Maddie met Syd's amused green eyes. “I apologize for that. I shouldn't let stunts like the one Tom and his buddies pulled get under my skin that way. It doesn't do much to ameliorate my whole ice-maiden persona.”
“You don't need to apologize to me—I would've been likelier to have made a scene.”
“Really?” Maddie was intrigued. “You don't seem like the scene-making type.”
“Well then, what type do I seem like?” Syd's tone was playful.
Maddie set her mug on the side table between them and tented her fingers in front of her face. “The sweet, sensitive, girl-next-door, Sandra Dee type.”
“Yeah…perky blonde actress—married to Bobby Darin—starred in all those Gidget movies….”
Syd huffed. “I know who Sandra Dee was, egghead—I just fail to see the similarity.”
Maddie gave her an exaggerated once-over. “Reaaallllly? No summers on the shore? No pretty, bronzed boyfriends?” She dropped her voice to a near whisper. “No surf boards in your closet?”
Syd colored. “Well….”
“Hah! Told ya.”
Syd threw part of a cookie at her. “I'll have you know that I'm not in the least like Gidget.”
“Oh yeah?” Maddie scoffed. “Prove it.”
Syd leaned forward and stared into the doctor's eyes from very close range. The faint scent of her perfume was intoxicating. When she spoke, her voice was low and husky. “Let's just say that my pretty, bronzed Moondoggies were very happy boys.”
Maddie stared back at her with a stunned expression. They sat in frozen silence for several moments with their faces inches apart. Maddie was overwhelmed by a sudden desire to grab Syd and kiss her. Wasn't that what this moment called for? Wasn't that where their conversation was leading them—where the entire evening had been leading them? She felt for a moment like an actor in the middle of a scene—and her tiny internal director was standing just off-camera waving his arms at her and shouting ‘Cue the kiss—do it, do it!' She thought she saw a brief flicker of something in Syd's eyes. Panic? Desire? Confusion? She didn't know. Then the smaller woman sobered, and slowly sat back against the sofa.
“Looks like you can dish it out, but can't take it.” She gave a small, nervous laugh.
Maddie looked at her with a raised eyebrow, not entirely sure what Syd meant. How far was she willing to take this? How much was she willing to risk to find out?
It was too soon. With a sinking heart, she realized that with Syd, it would always be too soon.
“Okay,” she replied. “So maybe I was slightly off the mark in my assessment of your relative innocence quotient—but I continue to maintain that you're a total creampuff when it comes to confrontation.”
Syd glowered at her. “I still would've decked those obnoxious drunks.”
“Don't think for a moment that I didn't consider it. I'd have had a better time being kidnapped by Somali pirates—at least the boat ride would've been fun.”
Syd laughed out loud—the tension between them dissipating. “You're such a nut.”
“Well, don't tell anyone. I'd hate to ruin my image.”
“Your secret is safe with me, Doctor.”
Maddie's eyes met hers. “You know, I begin to think that all of my secrets might be safe with you.”
They smiled at each other shyly, and drank the rest of their coffee in silence.
After Maddie left, Syd stepped back inside her apartment and stood for a moment with her head pressed against the doorframe. What in the hell was that about? She was used to the doctor's playfulness and the easy repartee that normally characterized their interactions, but tonight was different. She closed her eyes. My god—I almost kissed her. She was mortified by her behavior and had no idea how to make sense of it. Had Maddie noticed? What on earth did she think ? She shook her head. Jesus, how pathetic—I need to get laid. She walked through the tiny apartment turning off lights and thought back over the evening, trying to catalog her impressions. There had been so much to take in. Maddie and David. She smiled. They were adorable together. But Maddie seemed agitated by David's—and Michael's—obvious efforts to throw the two of them together. Why? She knew that David wanted Maddie to get out more—to socialize more. Yet he didn't seem interested in pairing her off with anyone in particular—at least, not with anyone at the inn tonight. She laughed bitterly as she thought back over the whole episode with Dr. Greene and his golf buddies. Certainly, they weren't serious contenders for the attentions of the tall beauty. Syd remembered the look of pure chagrin on Maddie's face when Tom Greene descended upon them in the parlor before dinner. She seemed to resent the intrusion—and she certainly escaped from their clutches with dispatch as soon as Michael announced that dinner was ready to be served. Syd felt spoiled by her ability to monopolize the doctor's attention throughout the evening—like she had won the top prize at a church raffle, leaving all the other ticket-holders unhappily to stand on the sidelines while she paraded about with her trophy.
But Maddie seemed to be a willing participant in their virtual isolation from the other dinner guests. She didn't seem to pay particular attention to anyone else—except David, of course.
David. Why was David so interested in finding out how much Syd knew about Maddie's failed relationship? The nature of his query made her uncomfortable—almost as if there was something unsaid lurking behind his question. What was it? She thought back over the few comments Maddie had made about the demise of her relationship. It was true that the details were sparse. She said that they were both residents—and that their schedules were impossible. She said that he was an ophthalmic surgeon.
But wait—that wasn't right.
Maddie never actually said “he.” In fact, she seemed skillfully to avoid using any pronoun.
For the first time, Syd wondered if maybe Maddie's ex wasn't a man at all. She had a sinking feeling that she was nearing the truth. That would explain a lot—like why she was still single. And why she stayed so isolated and careful about her social interactions. And why David's suggestive teasing about the two of them was so unsettling to her.
Oh my god. And I nearly kissed her. Syd felt a hot flush surge up her neck. What if she is gay, and I just acted like a horny teenager? Christ. She held her hands against her hot face. On the other hand—what if she isn't gay and I just acted like a horny teenager? God. There's no good outcome to this—I'm so totally screwed. How on earth do I face her?
She dropped down into a chair and sat staring blankly into the darkness of her apartment, overcome with embarrassment and confusion—and wondering vaguely if the university placement office had any job postings in Tiero del Fuego.
Continued in Part II
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