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 II
The grand opening of the Jericho Public Library was scheduled for Sunday afternoon from 2:00–6:00 p.m., and most permanent residents of the county found a reason to drop in. Even those who weren't especially curious about this evolution in public service were lured by the prospect of sampling free food from the Riverside Inn. Although he was unable to attend personally, Michael Robertson had graciously consented to cater the event, and the elaborate spread of cold and warmed appetizers he prepared evaporated quickly before the steady stream of area residents. They swarmed across the food tables like locusts, and by 3:30, it became clear that the branch was dispensing more canapés than library cards. Syd was certain that she would run entirely out of food well before the event concluded at 6:00.
The throng of attendees was peppered with luminaries. All of the county supervisors were there—along with two representatives from the state library association in Richmond. Five of the six members of the local library board were in attendance—one tall doctor appeared to be the only holdout. Syd was simultaneously relieved and disappointed by Maddie's conspicuous absence. They hadn't spoken or seen one another since their ambiguous encounter in Syd's apartment on Friday night, and Syd worried that Maddie's decision not to attend the event suggested that she was equally uncomfortable with their confusing, late-night interaction.
Roma Jean Freemantle and the inevitable Jessie Rayburn were on hand to help staff the event, and Syd noticed several of their fellow band members clustered around the punch bowl, laughing and talking behind their hands.
Syd was surprised when she saw Tom Greene making his way across the facility. She made a point of intercepting him as he reached the food tables, and couldn't help but notice the improvement in the older man's demeanor—he was polite and deferential as he greeted her and introduced her to his wife, Muriel. Syd greeted them both warmly—and expressed particular pleasure at seeing him in Jericho on a Sunday afternoon. He smiled and explained that since the branch opening coincided with his regular weekend off, he was able to attend the event.
“It's Dr. Stevenson you really need to thank,” he added, as he reached for another prosciutto and pear roulade. “She is holding down the fort at the ER today.”
Syd didn't know whether to feel elated or disappointed. She remembered Maddie mentioning that she filled in for Tom at the Wytheville hospital several times a month—this plainly was one of those times.
Syd smiled at the older man. “Thank you for solving that mystery for me—I actually was wondering why she hadn't made an appearance yet.”
“I tried to get someone to sub for her,” Tom said, glancing at his watch. “But she was pretty adamant about working a full shift today.” He met her eyes. “You know how stubborn she can be when she's already made up her mind about something.”
Syd eyed the rapidly dwindling trays of food. Probably just as well—there wouldn't be anything left for her to eat if she did stop by. She gave Tom a small smile. “I think I know what you mean.”
By 5:30, the crowd had thinned considerably, and the branch was all but emptied of patrons. Most of the locals were headed home to their TVs and the 6:00 p.m. green flag that would herald the start of the NASCAR race in Talladega. Syd was at the back of the library, stacking empty appetizer platters and clearing away punch cups when she heard laughter and caught a flash of blue out of the corner of her eye. Glancing toward the street entrance, she was surprised to see Maddie's tall form—striking in bright blue scrubs—leaning against a low bookcase as she listened to an animated David Jenkins.
David was plainly in the middle of chastising the doctor about something. Syd could tell by the way he was waving his hands around that it probably was the fact that she had shown up wearing her hospital garb. Maddie seemed unfazed as she calmly crossed her arms and tipped her head to the side while his monologue continued. Syd debated with herself for a moment, then decided to approach them.
As she drew close to the duo, she became aware of how much taller Maddie seemed in the scrubs. Her dark hair was loosely pulled back away from her face, and the cerulean-colored fabric she wore gave her eyes an almost neon appearance.
David didn't appear to be losing any steam.
“ I'd just like to understand just what this whole retro, scullery-maid ensemble thing is supposed to be about.” He clucked his tongue. “I gather we all should just be grateful that you aren't up to your shapely elbows in some kind of blood or gore?”
Maddie sighed. “Is your life really so lacking in drama that you have to seize every opportunity to create it?”
Syd stepped closer and spoke softly from just behind her. “Well I, for one, wouldn't care if you were up to your elbows in blood—I'd still be happy to see you.” When Maddie turned around with a startled expression on her face, Syd smiled at her. “I'm glad you made it.”
When Maddie answered her smile with a shy one of her own, Syd realized that had spoken the truth—she was glad to see her. They stood there for a few moments without speaking.
Syd became aware that David was watching their silent interaction with unbridled interest. He rolled his eyes and turned to address her. “Well, I suppose you could use the help cleaning up. I was gonna stick around, but now that Blue Boy is here, I can leave you in capable hands.”
“Got a hot date?” Maddie asked, with a raised eyebrow.
He gave her a condescending look. “Still trying to live vicariously, I see.” He pulled on his overcoat. “As it happens, this little shindig ain't the only game in town tonight. We've got a full house at the Inn, and Michael will go ballistic if I'm not back by six.” He looked from one of them to the other. “I trust I can leave the two of you alone to fend for yourselves?”
Maddie nodded. “Oh sure—I can fend. In fact, I'm terribly good at fending. I've been fending for years.”
Syd agreed. “It's true. I've seen her fend. She's checked out.”
He sighed. “You two deserve each other.” He kissed Syd on the cheek. “Nice job today, kiddo.” Then he turned and headed for the street door, throwing a backwards wave over his shoulder. “Catch you later, Sawbones.”
Maddie watched him depart. “Why do I feel like my chaperone just left?”
“Do you think you need a chaperone?”
Maddie met her eyes. “You tell me.”
Syd stared back at her for a moment before replying. She knew that her answer was important, but she wasn't exactly certain why. “No—I think you need something to eat.”
Maddie laughed. “You got that right.” She seemed to relax, and her blue eyes were mirthful again. “Is there anything left?”
“You're joking, right? You should have seen the food flying off those tables. Thirty minutes after I opened the doors, it looked like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had roared through here. I've never seen anything like it.”
Maddie chuckled as they slowly walked toward the back of the building. “I should've warned you—people around here save up for these catered events. Sometimes, they show up with relatives they haven't spoken to in decades—like they all decided that a big platter of crudités was enough of a reason to bury the hatchet. I sincerely believe that a couple of well-placed hors d'oeuvre tables could've shortened the Civil War by at least two years.”
Syd just laughed at her as they approached the now-vacant buffet. “I didn't expect to see you here. Tom Greene said you were filling in for him at the ER today.”
Maddie nodded. “I was. He offered to get Mike Lewis down from Roanoke so I could be free today—but Mike's wife just had another baby, and I didn't want to eat into their time at home together.” She looked at Syd. “I do apologize for showing up in these clothes—normally, I'd have changed at the hospital, but I really didn't think I'd get out of there in time to make it over here before 6:00.” She shrugged. “It just ended up being a pretty slow day.” She reached for the last remaining roulade.
“A slow day in the ER means a good day for everyone.”
“Unless you're the unhappy M.D. consigned to reworking the same Sudoko 85 times while trying not to stare at the wall clock.” She licked her fingertips as she chewed. “Damn—that was wonderful. Are you sure there aren't any more of those hiding anyplace?” She poked around at the stack of trays hopefully.
“Sorry, Doctor. The best I can do on such short notice is a slice of indifferent pizza.”
Maddie brightened up. “You have a pizza? Where?” She craned her neck and looked past Syd into the processing area behind the food tables.
“Well, unless you're in a real hurry, we could have one here in about 30 minutes. I confess that I didn't get to eat anything either. I was too anxious and too busy playing hostess.”
“How'd it go?” Maddie quickly held up her palm. “And before you answer that question—yes…I'd love to share a pizza.”
Syd smiled, relieved that they seemed to be back on their easy footing with one another. She now realized that she probably had overreacted to their encounter on Friday night. Even if Maddie had noticed anything odd or unsettling about that evening, she seemed as eager as Syd was to move past it, and to continue their relaxed camaraderie.
“Why don't you go into my office and order us some food while I finish clearing these things away? Then we can go upstairs, and I'll fill you in on all the details of the opening.”
“It's a deal.”
“There's a phone book on my desk,” Syd called out, as Maddie retreated toward the back of the building.
The library was empty now. Syd finished stacking the platters and punch cups in the large, plastic bins that Michael had provided. He told her that he would stop by on Monday morning to pick the items up. She was piling the bins against the rear wall when she heard the street door to the branch open and close. Her shoulders drooped at the prospect that another bevy of famished locals had decided to drop in. She glanced at her watch. 6:15. I should've locked the damn street door.
With resignation, she turned around and headed toward the front of the building.
A tall, bearded man with wavy brown hair stood gazing up at the poster of Danica Patrick next to the door. He was slender, and dressed in dark slacks and a bright red Columbia jacket. Syd gasped when she saw him, and he turned around to face her.
“What are you doing here?” She was incredulous.
He flashed her a broad smile, and held out his hands in mock appeal. “Can't a husband stop in to see his wife?”
Maddie hung up the phone and sat back for a moment in Syd's old, oak Bank of England chair, looking around the tiny office. Thank god that went better than I expected. She slowly shook her head . I must have overreacted. Again. She idly regarded the stacks of new books spread out across the top of the desk. Half of them were in Spanish. She smiled at that as she pushed the big rolling chair back, and stood up to go out and rejoin her companion.
“I hope pepperoni is okay with you,” she began as she exited the processing area. She stopped cold when she saw Syd standing near the front door, engaged in earnest conversation with a tall, good-looking man. There was something—familiar—about the way they stood there. She could tell immediately that, whoever he was, he wasn't a stranger to Syd.
They both turned to regard her. The man looked surprised and slightly wary—Syd looked flustered. She was the first to speak.
“Maddie—this is my husband, Jeff Simon.” She glanced up at him as she continued. “He was on his way through the area and decided to make an impromptu visit. Jeff, I'd like you to meet my good friend, Maddie Stevenson—she's our local physician.”
Jeff continued to stand there next to Syd—so Maddie walked toward them and extended her hand in greeting. “Hello, Jeff. It's nice to meet you.” As they shook hands, Maddie was aware of feeling irrationally pleased that, even in her flat-soled shoes, she was as tall as he was.
Jeff looked at Maddie curiously, but smiled as he released her hand. “Is it usual to have a physician on hand at these events?” He looked at Syd. “I didn't realize that libraries were so dangerous.”
Maddie eyed him coolly. “You'd be surprised.”
“Maddie is here as a guest—and as an esteemed member of the county library board,” Syd quickly interjected. She smiled at the tall doctor. “But it never hurts to have all of your bases covered.”
“Well then, Doctor, it's a pleasure to meet you.” Jeff turned to address Syd. “I was hoping that you'd be able to take a break and join me for dinner. I don't have any fixed time that I have to be in Roanoke tonight.” He shifted his gaze to Maddie. “I'm meeting with the fish and game commission there tomorrow to talk about a watershed project on the Roanoke River.” He turned back to Syd. “Whattaya say? Wanna go grab something to eat and get caught up?”
Syd seemed to hesitate. Maddie looked from one of them to the other. Although her internal voice was clamoring for her to remain silent, she spoke up. “Look, Syd—don't worry about me. I'm famished enough to eat an entire pizza by myself. I'll just run by there on my way home and pick it up.” She gave the smaller woman an encouraging smile. “You do what you need to do—I'll catch up with you tomorrow.”
Syd shot her a worried look as she continued to deliberate. Turning back to Jeff, she squared her shoulders and shook her head. “I don't think so, Jeff.” His disappointment was palpable. “I already have plans for dinner—and I don't want to change them.” He appeared about ready to argue with her, but she stopped him with a raised palm. “If you really want to talk with me, give me a call later in the week and we'll work something out—impromptu visits like this really aren't a good idea right now.”
He stood there, quietly chewing on his lower lip—plainly embarrassed by her dismissive response. “Right. I'll call you, then.” He gave Maddie a brief nod, and then he took a tentative step toward Syd before stopping himself and backing up. “It was good to see you—even for a minute. I've missed you.” He hesitated. “You look beautiful.”
Syd colored. “Thanks. It's—it's good to see you, too.” He smiled at that. “Good luck in Roanoke.”
He waved at them as he walked toward the door. “I'll call you mid-week.” Then he was gone.
Syd stood there for a moment without speaking, and then she dropped down onto one of the nearby oak study chairs. “Jesus.”
Maddie walked toward her and softly laid a hand on her shoulder. “You okay?”
Syd lifted her head and met the doctor's concerned gaze. “How dare he just show up like that?” She shook her head. “It's so typical—just like him to waltz in here like nothing has changed.” She huffed. “God. Incredible .”
Maddie knelt next to her. “I'm really sorry I was here—I know that made it more complicated for you.”
“Don't be ridiculous.” Syd was emphatic. “I'm relieved you were here—it made it easier for me to get rid of him.”
Maddie looked surprised.
“Does that shock you?” Syd asked, searching her face.
“Maybe. I guess I thought you might feel—ambivalent…or curious about why he was here.” She removed her hand from Syd's shoulder. “That's why I offered to leave—so the two of you could talk.”
“Well, I meant what I said to him: if he wants to talk with me, he can call me first and we can arrange something. It's not okay with me to have him just show up like this.” She stood up. “Were you serious about picking up the pizza and taking it back to your place?”
Maddie got belatedly to her feet, and tried to conceal her disappointment. “Sure. Of course you want to be by yourself—I completely understand that.”
“Be by myself?” Syd looked confused. “No—that's not what I meant. I was wondering if we could eat out at your place?” She looked around them. “I've feel like I've been cooped up in here for eons . Now that today is behind me, nothing sounds better than a change of scenery.”
Maddie knew she was grinning stupidly. “Grab your coat and let's get out of here.”
Syd locked the street door and they walked together to the rear entrance, turning off lights as they went. As they were descending the rear steps, Maddie punched her key fob to unlock the doors of her Jeep. “Why don't you just ride with me? I'll bring you back after we eat.”
Syd gave her a sideways glance. “Okay—but only if we both promise to remember that tomorrow is a school day. That means no wine-induced sleepovers.” She paused before adding, “No matter how appealing the idea is.”
Maddie crossed her heart as they walked across the parking lot. “I hear and obey.”
Syd scoffed. “Why do I think that's a first?”
“Hey! I think you're spending entirely too much time with David.”
Syd sighed. “Many hands make light work.”
“Oh good lord. I knew I'd live to regret having the two of you meet.”
“Rethinking the idea of telling me all of your secrets?” Syd asked sweetly.
Maddie considered that. “No—rethinking the idea of moving to another country .”
“Funny…I was having the same thoughts just the other night.”
Maddie opened the passenger door for her and stood back while she climbed inside. “Hmmm. Too bad about tonight's embargo on spirits.”
“It seems like we're both in the mood to be truthful.” She smiled. “In vino veritas.”
Syd met her eyes as she reached for her seatbelt. “All the more reason to stay sober.”
Maddie stood there a moment longer before shutting the door and walking around to the driver's side. She closed her eyes as she reached for the door handle. This is SO not helping. I should've just pulled a double shift at the hospital.
She climbed in and started the Jeep. She took her cell phone out of the center console and handed it to Syd. “I have every pizza joint in the county on speed-dial. If you'll hit #9, you can tell them we've decided to pick it up, instead of waiting on home delivery.”
Syd took the phone and dutifully punched the numbers in, while Maddie drove them out of the parking lot and onto the road toward town.
Jericho—Lunch with David
On Tuesday, David met Maddie for a quick lunch at her clinic. He walked in carrying a clear plastic bag that contained two Subway club sandwiches and two small bags of apple slices. Maddie was standing at the reception desk going over a patient folder with Peggy Hawkes when he arrived. The waiting room was empty except for a pregnant young Hispanic woman and her two small children. One of the children dozed with his head on his mother's lap, while the other quietly worked a puzzle on the bare floor at her feet. Maddie looked up when he entered.
“Hello, there. I have one patient left to see, and then I can take a short break. Do you mind waiting in my office?”
David smiled at her. “Nope. That's fine.” He turned to Peggy. “Hi ya, Nurse Ratched—you keeping this one in line?”
Peggy winked at him. “Barely. It's a tall order.”
“Ain't that the truth?” David looked Maddie up and down. “About six feet of one.”
The little boy raised his head from his mother's lap as he was seized with a coughing fit. She tried to soothe him, as she ran a hand back and forth across his narrow back.
“Está bien, cariño. La doctora le hará sentirse mejor.” The child raised his watery eyes to his mother's, and tried to stifle his cough.
Maddie stepped around the reception desk and walked over to the small family. She knelt in front of the little boy.
“Hola.” She pointed to herself. “Soy un doctora.” He looked up at her with luminous eyes. “¿Puedo ver su garganta?” She smiled at him. “Les prometo que voy a hacer que usted se sienta mejor.”
He looked at his mother, and then he nodded. Maddie held out her hand. “Vamos a ir a mi oficina.” She smiled at his mother as the child extended his hand. “We'll be right back.”
As the two of them started down the hallway together, David heard Maddie ask, “¿Cómo te llamas?”
A tiny voice answered, “Héctor.”
David shook his head and looked over at Peggy. “Another conquest, and it isn't even noon.” He sighed. “Even the sick ones are not immune to that smile.”
Peggy clucked her tongue as she rifled through a stack of papers. “Well, she takes after her daddy where that's concerned. Charmers—both of them.”
The Hispanic woman spoke so quietly that David barely heard her. “Ella es un ángel .”
Her soft words hung in the air like an anthem. David turned to face her. “Yes—yes she is.”
He walked over and sat down next to her, setting the bag containing the sandwiches on the seat between them. He leaned over and watched the other little boy work the puzzle. It was slowly taking shape.
“Is that a boat?” David asked. The little boy looked up at him quizzically.
“ Barco ,” his mother clarified.
“Sí,” the child replied.
David picked up a stray puzzle piece and waved it back and forth between them. “Can I help you?” The boy looked up at his mother again.
“Él quiere ayudar a usted.” The mother smiled at the little boy, who looked up at David and nodded shyly. She met David's eyes. “Gracias…thank you.”
David smiled back, and then slid onto the floor to sit next to the child. They worked the puzzle together quietly. The only sound in the small waiting room was the tick of the long second hand on the wall clock, and the occasional shuffle of paper as Peggy continued to manipulate her patient folders.
When Maddie returned to the waiting room with Héctor, she explained to his mother that he was in the early stages of developing a strep infection. She had given him an antibiotic shot, and said that he should be feeling better within 24 hours. She knelt next to the little boy, pulling a cherry lollipop out of her lab coat pocket.
“Usted fey muy valiente.” She smiled at him.
Héctor took the treat and nodded. Then he stepped forward to hug her before retreating quickly to stand next his mother. Maddie pulled a second lollipop out of her pocket and extended it to his brother, who still sat quietly on the floor beside David.
“¿Quieres uno también?” she asked as she extended it. The little boy took it eagerly.
She stood and addressed his mother, explaining that she should call her at once if she or any of the other members of her family developed a sore throat or began running a fever. She handed her a white bag containing throat lozenges and analgesics for Héctor.
The woman took the bag and held onto Maddie's hand for a moment. “Gracias, doctor. Bless you.” She looked down at her son. “Gabriel, recoger su juguete.”
David helped him collect the puzzle pieces and stow them into a battered box. Gabriel placed it into his mother's canvas bag while she helped Héctor into a coat that was sizes too large for him. She made eye contact with David as he discreetly slipped the Subway sandwiches into her large bag. They stared at each other for a moment, and then she smiled shyly and nodded.
David and Maddie stood together as the small family left the clinic. He nudged her playfully.
“ A-hem ,” he cleared his throat.
Maddie looked over at him. “What?”
“What am I—chopped liver? Where's my lollipop?”
Maddie rolled her eyes at him. “ After your lunch—and then only if you eat all of your sandwich.” She looked him over. “You know the rules.”
David demurred. “Yeah, well…about lunch—fancy a couple of hot dogs from Freemantle's market?”
“What? Why would we…?” He saw recognition dawn on her face as she glanced down at the empty bench behind them. She looked at him with unbridled affection. “C'mon—I'll drive.”
David and Maddie sat with their hot dogs and bottles of water at one of several small tables scattered along the back wall of Freemantle's mini-mart. The business was primarily a service station, but in recent years, Curtis and Edna had started serving hot sandwiches and pizza by the slice. The hot dogs were surprisingly good, and even though she normally shied away from any kind of fast food, Maddie would often make an exception on busy clinic days, and drop by the market for a quick bite to eat.
David shoved his open bag of Cheetos across the chipped Formica tabletop. “Eat some of these. I refuse to be the only person at this table with orange fingernails.” He licked his fingertips. “C'mon… they're the crunchy ones.”
Maddie shook her head. “Forget it—those things are disgusting. I can't believe you eat crap like that.” She took a bite of her hot dog.
David scoffed. “ This from a woman with a mouth full of meat by-product?”
Maddie swallowed. “You don't really think you can toss out a phrase like ‘mouth full of meat by-product' and think I'm going to let it slide…do you?”
“Oh, I tremble before your rapier wit.” He gave the bag another shove in her direction. “Come on. I know you hoard junk food at home—I've seen the empty Ambien bottles in your trash.”
“You're nuts, David.”
He held up a crusty, twisted Cheeto. “You know you want it….”
She growled at him.
“It's the perfect remedy for sexual frustration.”
Maddie rolled her eyes and snatched the blaze orange treat from between his fingers. “I hate you,” she muttered as she popped the fried morsel into her mouth.
He chuckled. “So tell me all about your tête à tête with the lovely Ms. Murphy on Sunday after the opening.”
She eyed him suspiciously. “What makes you think we spent time together after the opening?”
“Puh-lease. My mamma didn't raise no imbecile.” He regarded her with an amused expression. “You looked like a deer in the headlights when she walked up behind us.” He paused. “It was really pretty sweet. I haven't seen an expression like that on your face since the third grade, when you had that crush on Mavis Blankenship.”
Maddie looked at him with calm indifference. “I refuse to share any details with you.”
“Well now, that's a pointless exercise. You know I can make you talk.”
Maddie sat back and crossed her arms. “Oh, really? What are you gonna do if I refuse—hold me down and make me listen to your Judy Garland albums?”
Maddie shook her head. “God. Mavis.” She looked at him with wonder. “How do you come up with this stuff?”
David looked over her shoulder toward the front of the market as he answered. “Hold that thought—I think the future Mrs. Stevenson is headed our way.”
Maddie's blue eyes grew wide, and she twisted around on her plastic chair to see a smiling Syd headed toward their table. She was wearing faded blue jeans and a dark burgundy sweater. Her short blond hair shimmered under the fluorescent lights.
Maddie let out a slow breath. Somebody up there hates me .
David got to his feet as Syd approached, and Maddie belatedly followed suit. Syd was carrying a container of yogurt and a large package of batteries. David reached out and pulled her into a hug. “Yogurt and batteries? I read about this diet in O Magazine —they said that David Hasselhoff lost 80 pounds in two days.” She laughed at him and turned to face Maddie. The two women hesitated for only a moment before leaning toward each other and exchanging quick pecks on the cheek.
“I didn't know you ate here,” Syd said to Maddie. “I'm surprised I haven't run into you before now—I probably come in here four or five times a week.”
So will I, from now on . Maddie gave her a guilty shrug. “I have a hidden passion for junk food.”
Syd smiled as she reached out and brushed orange Cheeto dust off the lapel of the doctor's lightweight leather jacket. “Apparently.”
“That isn't the only passion she keeps hidden,” David added in an undertone, winking at Syd.
Maddie glowered at him. “Whoa there, Miss ‘Let's put on a prom gown and go eat at Waffle House' — I really don't think you want to go down this road.” She lifted her chin in challenge. “Do you?”
He threw up his hands. “Okay, okay—truce.” He touched Syd on the elbow. “Sit down with us.” He gestured at her yogurt. “Are you going to eat that?”
She looked down at the small container. “I was—but I really don't want to intrude on your lunch. I really just ran in to pick up the batteries—I have to stash some boxes in the crawl space and my flashlight's D.O.A.”
Maddie pulled another chair over toward their small table. “Well, sit with us for few minutes—I have to be back at the clinic soon, anyway. We were just grabbing a quick bite.”
She placed her items down on the table. “Okay—but let me go and get some water.”
“No, no—I've got that. You sit down.” David was gone in a flash.
The two women sat down and faced each other. Syd was the first to speak.
“So, how's your day going?”
“Pretty typical. But I just saw my third case of strep throat in as many days. Be sure to wash your hands a lot at work.”
“Yes, Doctor.” Syd reached for a Cheeto. “May I?”
“Oh, I insist. David was just trying to browbeat me into eating them by explaining that they're a great cure for sexual frustration.” Jesus…why did I just say that?
Syd paused mid-chew. “Really? I wonder if I can get a case discount?”
Maddie looked at her with surprise before bursting into laughter. “Wanna go halves on a skid?”
Syd's green eyes twinkled. “Maybe strep isn't the only malady making the rounds up here.”
David returned with Syd's bottle of water. He also gave her a cellophane-wrapped package of Oreos. “Sweets for the sweet.” He fixed Maddie with a level gaze. “I thought about picking up something for you, too—but ‘doughnuts for the dour' was too lame an alliteration, even for me.
Maddie smiled at him sweetly. “I appreciate your condescension.”
“So, Syd,” David began. “You'll never guess who just booked one of our best rooms for three nights over Thanksgiving weekend.”
Syd looked amused. “Oh, I just bet I can. George and Janet Murphy of the Towson Murphys?”
He nodded. “That would be correct. Thanks for the sterling recommendation. But I think you might have gone a bit overboard with your praise—your mother seems to think she's going to be staying at a Helmsley Hotel.”
Maddie snorted. “Oh, you can pull that off, David—just wear the taffeta.”
David gave her a withering look. “Don't you have some kidney stones to pulverize? We're having a conversation here.”
Syd smiled at the two of them as she opened her container of yogurt. “Well, be forewarned—my mother makes Mr. Clean tremble.”
“Interesting.” David snagged another Cheeto. “Well, since Michael emerged from the womb waving a bottle of Windex and a Scotch Brite pad, I'd say she's about to meet her match.”
Syd laughed at him. “Still, I think I'll hedge my bet and go ahead and apologize in advance. I confess that I'm surprised they're making the trip—I wonder if my erstwhile ex doesn't have a sticky hand in this.” She looked over at David. “My soon-to-be ex-husband made an unannounced visit on Sunday night—I think he's angling for a reconciliation.”
Maddie looked startled. “You do? What makes you think so?”
Syd sighed. “He called me last night and said as much. It was no accident that my mother called about thirty minutes later to tell me they'd made reservations at the inn for Thanksgiving.”
David leaned forward on his elbows. “Good lord—what are your thoughts about all of this?”
“I don't know.” Syd lowered her eyes as she rotated her plastic spoon around. “I told Jeff I'd meet him for dinner tomorrow night—hear what he has to say.” She looked up and met Maddie's concerned blue eyes. “I can't deny that reconciliation would make a lot of things less complicated for me—but I'm still not certain that I trust him.”
Maddie didn't fully trust herself to speak. She wanted to be supportive, but right now, she wasn't sure what form that should take. Should she encourage Syd to give Jeff a fair hearing, or should she fall to her knees and plead with her to roar ahead with the divorce? She was in a ridiculous place—a place she had no business inhabiting. The confusing web of her own emotions was beginning to immobilize her and cloud her judgment. She glanced over at David, and saw that his eyes were fixed on her with interest. Turning to face Syd more squarely, she spoke with a calm she did not feel.
“Maybe it's best that you do meet with him—try to get greater clarity.” She paused. “You don't want to make a mistake or do something that you might end up regretting.”
Syd looked at her with an expression that was hard to read. “You're right—I don't want to make a mistake.”
David sighed. “Well, it seems like there's only one thing for you to do, then.”
Both women looked at him expectantly.
He threw his hands up. “Duh! Tell us where you're meeting him so we can accidentally show up and eavesdrop .”
Maddie threw a Cheeto at him. “You seriously need to have your meds balanced.” She looked at her watch and sighed. “I feel like this is rotten timing—but I have to get back to the clinic.” She touched Syd on the shoulder as she got to her feet. “Can I call you later?”
Syd smiled up at her. “That'd be great. I'll be at the library until at least six—then you can find me at the apartment.”
David collected all of their trash and tossed it into a nearby receptacle. Syd retrieved her batteries and her small packet of cookies and walked with them to the front of the market. Edna Freemantle was behind the register, restocking a cigarette display. David walked over to greet her.
“Hello again, Edna. Great hotdogs.” He fished his wallet out of his back pocket. “Can I get a pack of Camels?”
“Sure thing.” Edna snagged a pack from her display and pushed them across the counter toward him. “That'll be $3.50.”
David pulled out three singles, and then looked expectantly at Maddie. “Got any change?”
She crossed her arms. “You're kidding me, with this, right? You don't seriously expect me to collude with you in your pursuit of this vile habit?”
“Why not? You collude with me in the pursuit of most of my other vile habits.”
“Okaaaayy.” He leaned against the counter and prepared to tick items off on his fingertips. “Number one: Cheetos—which we've already established. Number two: a fondness for videos starring a certain tall, leggy—”
“All right, already!” Maddie cut him off. She dug two quarters out of her jacket pocket and slapped them into his palm. “Don't come crying to me when your lungs turn to charcoal.”
He smiled sweetly at her. “Oh, I promise .”
Edna shook her head at Syd as she took the money from David. “Just like peas in a pod. They've been this way since they were knee-high to a grasshopper.”
“Sans the cigarettes, of course,” Maddie drawled.
David pocketed his Camels. “Thanks, Edna—see you around.”
Edna smiled at the three of them. “Have a nice afternoon.”
They walked out into the parking lot.
David gave Syd a quick hug. “Keep it between the ditches, cutie pie. Michael will give you a call about food options for your folks—he's all jazzed about cooking some kind of exotic goose concoction on Thanksgiving Day.”
Syd smiled into the wool of his blazer. “Thanks—I know it'll be wonderful.” She stepped back. “See you soon.” She turned to face Maddie. “Talk to you later on?”
Maddie smiled at her. “Count on it.”
Syd climbed into her Volvo and backed out, waving goodbye to them as she pulled onto the main road and headed back toward the library.
“Well, I know one thing for sure,” David commented as they watched her car disappear around a bend.
“Hers isn't the only goose that's about to be cooked.” He turned to face Maddie. His brown eyes were uncharacteristically serious. “Be careful, missy. Don't get hurt.”
She thought about protesting, but it was pointless. He knew her better than she knew herself. “I don't want to get hurt—and you can help me avoid it by giving up on these clumsy attempts to push the two of us together.” She laid her hand on his forearm. “Please.”
He covered her hand with his own and gave it a warm squeeze. “I always want what's best for you—I'm just not sure yet what that is.”
“Well, I know what it's not . And I don't want to wade any further into this particular bed of quicksand.”
“For what it's worth, I think she's just as confused as you are.”
Maddie gave him a hopeless gaze.
David sighed. “So—I guess that means you're not calling her later?”
Maddie shot him a withering look. “Let's go—I've got an appointment in ten minutes.”
David chuckled as they climbed into her Jeep. “Thought so.”
Maddie was sprawled in front of the small gas fireplace in her bedroom sitting area reading. Correction: trying to read. She had reread the same paragraph five times. In frustration, she tossed the journal down on the coffee table. Who cares about functional dyspepsia? Eat some damn Rolaids. She sighed and stared at the small mantle clock. 8:25 . I wonder if she's home yet? She cast her eyes around the room, trying to think of some other way to distract herself from her obsessive clock-watching. Her eyes fell back to the coffee table, where an open brochure advertised the upcoming AMA conference in Richmond. Picking it up, she looked for the hundredth time at the glossy photo of the keynote speaker. That was another thing that didn't make sense to her. She tossed the brochure back down, and sat tapping her foot in agitation. What a loser. I'm gonna take Pete out for a stroll—then go to bed. She slid her long legs off the chaise and stood up just as her cell phone began to vibrate. Snapping it up from the pedestal table next to her chair, she flipped it open.
It was a text message—from Syd.
R u still awake?
Smiling to herself, she quickly typed back.
She hit the send button, then sat down to wait for Syd's reply. A minute later, her phone vibrated again.
Up 4 a chat?
Now curious and a tad concerned, Maddie quickly answered.
Sure. Where are you?
A minute later, her doorbell rang.
Syd was glad that she hadn't agreed to let Jeff pick her up at the library. He pressed for that, but she insisted that they meet at the restaurant. She chose McGinty's, a locally owned pub in Wytheville. It was close to the highway, and had a decent atmosphere and a good salad bar. When she arrived a few minutes before 7:00, she saw that Jeff's dark red 4Runner was already in the parking lot. It was covered with mud and packed to the gills with gear—he rarely traveled lightly. She saw him waiting for her just inside the door.
He stepped forward as she approached and kissed her on the cheek.
“Thanks for doing this. I was afraid you'd back out.” He smiled at her as he took her elbow and guided her toward the hostess station. He was dressed in stylish outerwear, looking as if had just stepped from the pages of a Territory Ahead catalog.
“I won't pretend that I didn't think about it,” she said. There was no reason for her to be less than honest with him.
He looked at her sorrowfully. “Well, that's an auspicious beginning.”
“We're way past beginnings, Jeff. You know that as well as I do.”
The hostess seated them at a booth near the bar area, and they sat for a moment in awkward silence as they contemplated their menus. Jeff ordered a draft Stella Artois and Syd settled for a bottle of Pellegrino. She wanted to keep her wits about her, and she didn't want to prolong the evening by lingering over drinks. Fleetwood Mac's The Chain pounded away in the background, and Syd was tempted to smile at the irony. Their waitress brought the beverages and hovered by their table for a moment as Jeff made small talk with her. She was a perky, twenty-something named Randi. In short order, Jeff learned that she was a sophomore at nearby Radford University, majoring in Speech Communication.
Right now, she was having no problems communicating with Jeff.
When she left their table to return to the bar, Syd watched Jeff's eyes as they discreetly moved up and down her retreating back.
She sighed. “Isn't she a little young—even for you?”
He looked at her with surprise. “What do you mean?” He slapped his menu down on the table in exasperation. “Give me some credit, Syd. I was just being friendly.” He picked up his frosted pilsner glass and took a healthy sip of beer. Syd noticed that he wasn't wearing his wedding band.
“Why don't we cut to the chase? What do you really want?”
He sat back and folded his arms. “What do you think I want?”
“Frankly, I have no idea.”
“Why are you being like this?”
He waved his hand at her. “ This. So prickly. I don't deserve it, Syd.”
She considered that. “Okay. Tell me what you do deserve.”
He leaned forward. “I think I deserve another chance. Look—I fucked up, and I know that. I'm sorry . Sorrier than I can say. I don't want to lose you over something that didn't even matter to me.”
She sat in silence for a moment letting his words hang in the air between them. “It's that last part that's the problem. I believe you when you say that your various dalliances didn't matter to you—that's what makes them even more impossible for me to forgive or overlook.”
He lifted his hands in supplication. “I don't understand.”
She sighed. “I know you don't.” She poured a splash of Pellegrino over her tumbler of ice. “The fact that you could be unfaithful to me so easily—so many times—with women who didn't even matter to you is what makes your behavior so intolerable. If your heart wasn't engaged with them, it certainly wasn't engaged with me.”
He leaned back against the padded seat. “That's not true. You know that our physical relationship was never really what I needed it to be.”
She felt herself stiffen as he continued.
He shook his head in frustration. “It was hard for me, Syd. I know I screwed up—but I should think you'd be happy that I never really got involved with any of them. It was all just harmless. Just me being stupid.” He looked at her with puppy dog eyes. “I always loved you—I never wanted us to end up like this.”
For just a moment, he resembled the man she met so many years ago at her parents' home in Towson.
“I know you didn't. I didn't either.” She sighed. “But here is where we are. And here is where I need to stay.” He started to protest, but she stopped him with a raised palm. “I could never trust you again. I know that. And you should respect what I am doing to try and make a new life for myself.”
His frustration was starting to boil over. “And this is your idea of a new life?” He waved his hand at the landscape visible outside the windows of the restaurant. “A two-bit town full of rednecks who probably can't even read the books you're shelving? Come on, Syd. I know you—this isn't the kind of life you want.”
Her patience with him was waning. “I don't think you have the first clue about the kind of life I want. And don't be so quick to judge—you don't know anything about the people who live here. I've already made better friends here than I ever had in Durham.”
He scoffed. “I don't doubt that.”
“What's that supposed to mean?” It was against her better judgment to ask, but she took the bait anyway.
“Oh, come on—you don't seriously think I missed the ‘chemistry' between you and Dr. Tall, Dark and Deadly?” He flexed his fingers to make air quotes. “Not that I blame you,” he continued. “She's a real beauty. I'd be tempted myself.”
Syd placed her napkin on the table and regarded him coldly. “Am I supposed to know what you're talking about?”
His level gaze met hers. “I think you know exactly what I'm talking about.”
Syd dug a five-dollar bill out of her wallet and laid it on the table next to her glass. Her green eyes were smoldering. “Trying to make me responsible for your behavior is pathetic—but at least, it's consistent.” She collected her keys and stood up. “I'm glad I agreed to meet you here, Jeff. It was great confirmation for me.” He reached out a hand to stop her, but she drew back. “Don't waste your time—or mine.” She glanced over toward the bar to see Randi headed toward their table. “Enjoy your beer.”
She walked out. He did not follow her.
Outside in her car, she cursed herself over and over for her stupidity. What did I think would come of this? He's never going to change. She started the car and left the parking lot with no idea about where to go.
If she was honest with herself, she knew that her real motivation for agreeing to meet him was somehow tied to a desire to flee. But what was she trying to escape? Jericho? That made no sense—Jericho was her escape.
Her future hung in the distance, formless and murky. Once her work at the branch was complete, she had no idea what direction she would take. Going back to Jeff and her life in Durham would have simplified everything. But ten minutes in his company reminded her of all the reasons why she had left him in the first place.
And then there were his vague insinuations about her friendship with Maddie. It wasn't the first time that he had made retaliatory suggestions like that—usually in response to her rejection of his sexual advances. It infuriated her that he continued to lay the blame for their uneven physical relationship solely at her feet.
The on-ramp for the highway and a twenty-minute ride back to the library was just ahead of her. Impulsively changing her mind, she continued on past the interchange, and headed toward a shopping center where a brand new Wal-Mart Superstore rode the horizon like a three-masted ship of state.
Pete raced ahead of her down the stairs and danced back and forth in front of the big front door, barking. Shushing him, Maddie flipped on the front porch light and unlocked the door. Through an etched glass panel, she could see Syd, casually perched on the arm of an Adirondack chair. There was a canvas shopping bag at her feet.
Pulling the big door open, Maddie addressed her through the screen. “If you're finally here with my pizza, you need to know that you're about three and a half hours late.” She pushed the screen door open and Pete rushed outside with his tail wagging. “This is going to seriously eat into the size of your tip.”
Syd sat affectionately scrubbing the top of Pete's head. She looked up to meet the doctor's blue eyes. “If a pizza is the price of admission, then I'm screwed.” She lifted the canvas bag at her feet and held it out to Maddie. “Will this work as well?”
Maddie took the bag from her and burst into laughter when she looked inside. It contained a bottle of MacMurray Pinot Noir and a large bag of Cheetos—the crunchy ones.
“I apologize for just showing up this way—I needed a shoulder.” Syd stood up as Pete vaulted off the porch and headed for the pond. “I promise not to make a habit of this.”
Maddie set the bag down and stepped forward to pull Syd into a hug. “This shoulder will always be available to you.” She smiled as she felt Syd's arms wrap around her waist. “And you already figured out your co-pay,” she muttered into the shorter woman's hair.
Syd drew back and looked at her with a confused expression.
Maddie reached into the bag and held up the Cheetos. “I might be cheap, but I'm not free.”
Rolling her eyes, Syd pushed past her and walked into the house.
Smiling, Maddie followed her inside and closed the big front door. They walked together down the long center hallway toward the kitchen.
Syd took off her leather jacket and draped it over a straight-backed chair.
“Got anything to eat?”
Maddie raised an eyebrow.
“I'm afraid I didn't last long enough to order any food.”
Maddie walked over to the big Subzero and pulled open a door. “Funny you should mention that—I seem to have missed dinner myself. Let's see what we've got in here.” She began to rummage around, shifting through a myriad of plastic containers. Syd walked over to stand beside her and they peered into the massive depths of the fridge together.
“My god,” Syd was incredulous. “Don't you ever cook?” She looked up at her tall companion in the white light cast by the refrigerator. “You're a doctor, yet you have about the least healthy eating habits of anyone I know.” She picked up a round container of pimento cheese spread and held it up like Exhibit A. “I'm surprised no one has ever ratted you out to the union.”
Maddie scoffed. “You're joking, right? There isn't a physician on the planet who hasn't subsisted on a diet of doughnuts and Ramen noodles. We invented the whole ‘do as I say, not as I do' credo.”
Syd shoved her out of the way. “Yeah? Great—then ‘do as I say,' and go find a place to perch while I sort through this recycling nightmare.” She began to pull random ingredients out and stack them on a nearby counter. “What's your excuse for not eating dinner?”
Maddie pulled a corkscrew out of a drawer and began to open the bottle of Pinot Noir. She shrugged. “I dunno—just preoccupied. I wasn't really hungry when I got home, and by the time it occurred to me to eat, I was already past caring.” She cast a concerned glance over at the shorter woman. “How about you? You gonna tell me what happened at your non-dinner?”
“Oh sure.” Syd turned around to face her. “That'll take all of two seconds.” She walked over to the center island and began to wash some spinach leaves and a big tomato in the prep sink. “Got a pair of kitchen shears handy?”
Maddie opened a drawer and waved her hand across its contents. “Take your pick.”
Syd gasped as she looked inside at the neatly displayed array of culinary gadgets. She looked up at Maddie in surprise.
“Don't look at me. I told you—dad was the chef.” Maddie scrunched her eyebrows as she peered into the drawer. “I did a standard surgical rotation—but I confess that I have no idea what half of this stuff is. It looks to me like the contents of Jack the Ripper's tool box.”
Syd withdrew a large pair of stainless steel kitchen shears. “Well, take these and walk outside to that impressive winter herb garden and get me a few sprigs of basil and oregano.” She pulled out a garlic press before closing the drawer.
“Yes ma'am,” Maddie complied, heading for the porch door. She smiled as she walked outside and descended the steps that led to her father's lean-to greenhouse. This would please him. I'm glad that Miguel has kept this up. She resolved to give her landscaper a raise. It was dark in the tiny greenhouse, but balmy—and there was enough moonlight to make it easy to locate the right plants. Snipping off a few leaves of each, she turned back toward the kitchen. On impulse, she walked around the big porch to the front door. Pete met her at the top of the steps. Inside, she ducked into the front parlor and turned on the CD player. Once it spooled up, Alfred Brendel began grunting his way through a Mozart sonata. She smiled to herself as she stood in the center of the room and raised the fresh herbs to her face. The music and the aroma of the plants reminded her of her childhood—of an earlier time, when evenings like this one were typical. A time before everything fell apart. The music. Her mother's music. And down the hallway, her mother and her father would be together in the kitchen—cooking and talking about their days at work. She shook her head. How did all of that change so fast?
She continued to stand there. The cartoon-like colors of the Chagall print mocked her with their playful optimism. And now, here I am again . But dad's gone . And although her mother was still alive—she was gone, too.
She raised her head when she caught a whiff of garlic. Syd was sautéing garlic. And here she is.
Jesus. I'm in trouble .
She walked back toward the kitchen with Pete in tow.
Syd was at the island, chopping the tomato. The spinach leaves were washed and drying on paper towels. On the stove, the garlic sizzled in a flat pan, and a large pot of water was heating on a back burner.
Maddie handed her the herbs. “I see you found your way around.” She reached for two wine glasses and poured them each a hefty portion of the Pinot.
Syd took the glass Maddie held out and they clinked rims. “I hope that's okay—everything was pretty easy to find.”
Maddie grinned at her. “It's more than okay. I think my dad is probably up there smiling right now.” She hesitated, and then she stepped forward and kissed Syd lightly on the cheek. “He'd like you.” She stepped back and took a sip of her wine. “I'm glad you're here.”
Syd stood quietly for a moment. The only sounds in the room were the sizzle of the garlic, and a rapid-fire succession of notes from the Alla Turca rondo. She smiled shyly at Maddie, and took a sip from her own glass. “Me, too.”
Syd's concoction turned out to be wonderful. Aglio e Olio with garlic, spinach and tomatoes—all topped with fresh Parmesan. Maddie was in transports as the intoxicating smells wafted about the kitchen. When it was ready, she took two deep pasta bowls off a shelf and handed them to Syd.
“Let's take these into dad's study to eat. It's got a small gas fireplace that heats up in two shakes.” She picked up their wine glasses and utensils and hovered over the stove as Syd divided the pasta between their bowls. “If this tastes even half as good as it smells, I'm going to have to marry you.” When Syd looked up at her, Maddie nodded. “That's right. You'll just have to give up your day job.”
Syd smiled. “That sure would simplify concerns about my immediate future.”
Maddie bumped her playfully. “Yeah, well—we'll get to that, too. But for now—just hurry the hell up…I'm starving!”
“You've got the patience of a gnat, you know that?” Syd set the now-empty pot down in the sink and splashed some water into it. Picking up the two pasta bowls, she turned and faced the doorway. “Lead on.”
“Goodie.” Maddie left the kitchen and led them into a small sitting room off the main hallway. It was dominated by a massive oak desk, but also held two comfortable looking club chairs with matching side tables. The walls of the walnut-paneled room were lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases that were overflowing. Books were stacked on every available surface—even the deep windowsill. There were framed diplomas and photos hanging on every exposed bit of wall space.
“Have a seat,” Maddie instructed, as she set their wine glasses and utensils down on the tables. She walked over to the small fireplace and knelt to turn on its gas jet. When she pressed the igniter, a telltale pop sounded, and the opening filled with warm blue flames. As she sat down in one of the chairs, Syd handed her a bowl heaped with the fragrant pasta mixture. Gleefully, she wound a few strands around her fork and took a bite. Her eyes rolled back into her head.
“God. Fuck Cheetos. Who needs sex when there's food like this?”
Syd slowly chewed her own first bite. “I guess that depends on what you're used to.”
Maddie took another bite. She regarded her with interest. “Meaning?”
Syd shrugged. “A good meal can only get you so far.” She twirled her fork with practiced ease.
“Color me intrigued. Does our demure and girlish librarian have a checkered past?”
Syd glared at her. “You're not going to start with all that Sandra Dee crap again, are you?”
Maddie put her fork down and raised her free hand in surrender. “Nuh uh. Been there, bought the t-shirt. I think you've already established your— credentials. ” She reached for her wine glass.
“Well you know what they say—it ain't the years, it's the mileage.”
Maddie choked on her wine.
“Wimp.” Syd picked up her own glass. “Wanna rethink those Cheetos?”
“Do you and David have some kind of job-sharing arrangement that I'm not privy to, or is it just a perverse twist of fate that I ended up with both of you in my orbit?”
Syd laughed at her. “Poor baby. Are we really that hard on you?”
Maddie huffed. “He's pathological, so it isn't really his fault. You, on the other hand, have no excuse.”
“Not from where I sit.”
“Hmmm.” Syd tapped the edge of her bowl with her index finger. “There's really only one response I can make to a statement like that.”
Maddie looked suspicious. “What's that?”
“Change your seat.”
“Oh great. Already the two of you function like some kind of twisted incarnation of the Bobbsey Twins.” She took a big sip from her wine glass. “Soon you'll start dressing alike. It's going to get ugly. I just might have to go off the grid.”
“ Off the grid? Who are you—Jason Bourne? And I can think of worse fates to befall me than having to share David's wardrobe.”
Maddie snorted. “Yeah—you'd look fetching in that magenta smoking jacket.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of that red cocktail dress. How ‘fetching' would I look in that little number?”
Maddie was silent for a moment, as images of Syd wearing the low-cut ensemble raced around inside her head. She needed to step off this gerbil wheel before things got any worse. “Well, I wouldn't recommend the shoes—the enhanced altitude might give you a nosebleed.”
Syd's jaw dropped. “Smartass. Your usefulness to the species went south when they invented the stepladder.” She paused. “And while we're on the subject of genetic abnormalities, just exactly how tall are you?”
Maddie sat up straighter as she answered. “Five feet, twelve inches—barefoot.”
“Five feet, twelve inches?”
“You're six feet tall?”
Maddie fixed her with a deadpan expression. “I'll bet you were the unbridled star of math camp.”
Syd threw her napkin at her. “ Math camp? I think you have my past confused with yours. Remember—I'm the one who spent my summers by the shore—tanning, surfing, and having carnal knowledge of brawny young men.”
Maddie sighed. “That's right. I forgot. Your mantra was ‘If it swells, ride it.'”
Syd gave her a withering look. “You're not half as funny as you think you are.” She set her empty bowl down on the table between their chairs. “If I didn't know better, I'd think you were jealous.”
“You're more right than you realize.”
Smiling at her, Syd stood up and walked over to stand before a large, framed object that hung on the wall just above the desk.
“What is this?” she asked, peering at it from close range. “It looks like part of a shirt.”
“It is.” Maddie got up to stand just behind her. “My dad was a pilot. It's customary to have the back of your shirt cut out the first time you solo. Your instructors mark it up with the date and the aircraft specifics, and tack it to the hangar wall until you get your private license.” She reached around Syd to indicate the writing on the lower left corner of the yellowed square of fabric.
“That's amazing.” She leaned closer. “What's N2527K ?”
“That was the tail number of the plane he soloed in. I'm pretty sure it was a Cessna 152—the workhorse of private aviation.”
Syd turned to face Maddie. “No wonder your old room upstairs is full of airplane photos—I wondered about that.”
“Yeah. We're a bunch of total aviation nerds.” Her smile was wistful. “I always loved flying with dad—he was a natural.”
“I know you miss him.”
“I really do. It just doesn't get any easier.”
“Some things aren't meant to. You'll probably always miss him as much as you do right now.”
Maddie nodded. “But let's shift gears here and talk about you.” She walked back to her chair and sat down. “I want to hear about your ill-fated encounter with Jeff.”
“Oh, god. I guess I do owe you an explanation for showing up and commandeering your evening.” She sat back down and picked up her wine glass. “Is there any more of this? It might help me feel a bit less mortified.”
Maddie picked up the bottle and refilled her glass. “There's no reason to feel mortified—and if you'd rather not talk about it, that's totally okay.”
“No. It's fine. I want to talk about it—I'm just embarrassed. I don't know what I was thinking when I agreed to meet him. I mean, he was ogling our waitress within five minutes of sitting down.” She shook her head. “And then he had the gall to suggest that I—” she looked up to meet Maddie's concerned gaze. “Never mind. It doesn't even bear repeating.” She took a sip from her wine glass. “Suffice it to say that all of our original issues are alive and kicking. He said some things that really pissed me off—and I'm afraid I stormed out on him.”
Maddie was puzzled. “Really? You don't strike me as the storming-out type.”
Syd met her gaze. “You don't know what he said.”
They looked at one another in silence for a few moments. Then Syd let out a slow breath and shrugged. “Oh, what the hell. He tried to suggest that I wasn't interested in reconciling because of my friendship with you.”
“Me?” Maddie was stunned—and alarmed. Her thoughts spiraled back to the night Jeff showed up at the library unannounced. There had been a fleeting moment when she thought he might be sizing her up as a potential rival—but she had quickly dismissed that idea as being ridiculous, and a product of her overactive imagination. Now, she wasn't so sure.
“Yeah—how absurd is that?” Syd asked. “It infuriated me. Jeff has always blamed our—issues—on what he chooses to define as my ambivalence toward intimacy.”
Maddie's heartbeat was accelerating at an unhealthy rate. She could barely take in what she was hearing, and she had no idea how to respond. Syd was regarding her with an earnest and open expression—and Maddie knew she had to say something. “Well…” she began, “that hardly seems like a characterization that's consistent with your life prior to marriage.”
“It isn't. But you have to know Jeff. In his world, any woman who doesn't immediately want to hop into bed with him has to be demented—or gay.” She sighed in frustration. “Of course, once our relationship hit the skids, that axiom was expanded to include me.”
“He thinks you're gay?” Maddie couldn't believe the turn the conversation had taken. She was tempted to stab herself in the thigh with her fork—just to be sure she was awake and not caught up in some torturous nightmare.
“He thinks any woman who doesn't want to sleep with him is gay.”
“I still don't see how I factor into this equation.” Maddie knew it was a mistake to ask, but she had to know what Jeff said about her to Syd.
Syd lowered her gaze. “He seemed to think that—well…. He found you extremely attractive. And in his book, if he finds you attractive then it must mean that I do, too.”
The tingling between her ears was getting worse. Maddie was certain she was blushing. “He thinks that we're….”
“In a nutshell. Yeah.” She raised her eyes and saw the distressed look on Maddie's face. “God—I'm sorry.” She reached out a tentative hand and touched Maddie's knee. “I must have been crazy to tell you all of this. I should've kept my mouth shut. I never meant to offend you.”
Maddie recovered enough to pat Syd's hand with her own. “I'm not at all offended. Honest.” She forced a shy smile. “If anything, I should be complimented. It's not often that I get cast as the third part of a triangle.” She sucked on the inside of her cheek. “Can you imagine David's reaction?”
“Oh god!” Syd covered her face with both hands. “Don't even think about telling him—I'd die of embarrassment.”
“You would? Now that's a darn shame.” She gave a dramatic sigh. “I sort of liked the idea that I might be the object of fantasy for someone.”
Syd peeked at her between her fingers, and then lowered her hands. “You're joking, right? At last count, you had a string of lovesick admirers that stretched from here to the state line.”
Syd was incredulous. “Did you actually just say pshaw ?”
Maddie glowered at her.
“No—really. You did . You said ‘pshaw.'”
“So what if I did? It doesn't make your insinuation any less ridiculous.”
“Ridiculous? You're so clueless. You have no idea how many poor, pathetic people are out there pining for you.”
Maddie scoffed at her. “ Pathetic would be the operative word, too.”
Syd crossed her arms. “Oh, so anyone who finds you irresistible is classified as pathetic ?”
“Well then it's a good thing I'm not gay—because if I were, I'd surely be at the top of your list of rejects.”
Maddie suddenly felt like her stomach was doing back-flips. She needed to get this conversation back on solid ground, and soon. “I wouldn't say that.”
“No. In your case, I might be inclined to make an exception.”
Syd looked at her with narrowed eyes. “Why's that?”
Maddie held up her empty pasta bowl. “I'd never reject the hands that fed me.” She winked and gave Syd her best smile. “Whatcha do for an encore, blondie?”
“We are still talking about food, right?”
“Were you in any doubt?”
“I'm slowly learning that with you, it's always safer to ask.”
“Then, yes. We're still talking about food.”
Syd stood up and collected their bowls. “Let's go see what else we can cobble together from your vault of shrink-wrapped delights.”
Maddie stood up, too. “Now I'm confused—are you talking about my freezer or my bedside table?”
“Pervert,” Syd muttered, as she left the room and headed for the kitchen.
On the Saturday morning before Thanksgiving, Michael Robertson made an impromptu visit to the Jericho Public Library. The main study area was choked with high school students. They were clustered around several oak tables in the reference area, pouring over encyclopedias and competing for access to the library's four computers. He recognized the inevitable Roma Jean Freemantle behind the circulation desk. She was engaged in an animated telephone conversation, but she waved excitedly at him as he approached. He found Syd at the back of the facility, enmeshed in trying to un-jam a photocopier. Piles of torn and crumpled up paper surrounded her. The entire front panel had been removed from the machine and lay at her feet. Syd was on her knees and had one arm buried shoulder-deep inside the unit. Michael could hear her soft curses as he approached from behind her.
“Come on you sorry piece of shit. I so do not need this today.”
Michael laughed as he stopped to stand just beside her. “Well, lucky for you, I have the perfect antidote.”
Syd jerked at the sound of his voice and banged her head on an open paper drawer as she quickly sat upright. “Damn it!” She raised her free hand to rub the top of her head as she turned to face him. “Michael—what a pleasant surprise! I hope by ‘antidote,' you mean that you know how to fix this thing.”
He slowly shook his head. “Not even close. Honey, if it isn't attached to a KitchenAid mixer, I happily abide in ignorance.”
“Great.” She pulled her arm free and sat back, still rubbing the top of her blonde head. “Where am I going to find someone who can service this thing on a Saturday? I've had over a dozen calls already this morning from people asking if it's fixed yet.” She waved her hand toward the throng of teenagers up front. “It's term paper time—and, apparently, the unit in the post office has been broken for about nine years.”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures. You might have to break down and throw yourself on the mercy of the county's resident fix-it wizard.”
“We have one of those?” Syd extended a hand and let Michael pull her to her feet. “I'm desperate— and out of time. Who do I need to call and how much do I need to pay him?”
“The fee is usually negotiable. But I've always had great success bartering for repairs with food.”
“Yep. In fact, I just might be able to help you out. The reason I stopped by is to ask if you want to play guinea pig tonight. I'm doing a dress rehearsal for Thursday's haute cuisine. Since it's your parents I'll be cooking for, I wondered if you'd like to join us to sample the fare?”
Syd smiled at him. “You don't have to ask me twice. I'd love that.”
“But I don't see how this helps me out with my copier—unless you're offering to supply me with leftovers to use as bargaining chips?”
“Not exactly. I was thinking more along the lines of inviting the tool jockey, too.”
Syd looked confused. “Just who is this mysterious Mr. Fix-It?
Michael held up an index finger. “That'd be Dr. Fix-It.”
Her mouth fell open. “You have got to be kidding me?”
“Afraid not. That woman can fix anything. Don't tell me you failed to notice that she has about twenty broken vacuum cleaners stockpiled in her garage?”
Syd stared at him as she tried to recall. “You're right—I did notice that the first time I went out there—but I was so overwhelmed by everything else, I didn't really think much about it.”
He nodded. “There you go.”
“Good lord. When on earth does she find time to work on them?”
He shrugged. “Beats me. I don't think she ever sleeps.”
Syd shook her head. “I wonder why the post office hasn't called her?”
“She won't do government contracts.”
Syd rolled her eyes.
He pushed his glasses up his nose with an index finger. “Look at the bright side: she's totally set up with an alternative career if we ever pass socialized medicine.”
“True. I don't suppose there are many places you can go to have your Electrolux rebuilt by a Stanford grad.”
He nodded. “Possibly our one claim to fame.” He glanced at his watch. “I've gotta run if I'm going to make it to the butcher shop in Wytheville before noon. Do you wanna join us at the inn around 6:30? We'll have cocktails before dinner.”
“I'll be there.” She gave him an affectionate smile. “Thanks for thinking of me. I suppose it's pointless for me to ask if I can bring anything?”
“Well, if you catch up with her before we do, you can bring Mrs. Goodwrench. Otherwise, just bring your sweet self. And dress casual—it's just going to be the four of us.”
“I think David's wearing a peignoir set.” His gray eyes glinted with humor.
“God, I love you guys.” She stepped forward and kissed the big man on the cheek. “See you tonight.”
Syd didn't have to call Maddie about the copier—or dinner at the inn. Michael ran into her himself in Wytheville. He was loading a large bucket of cut flowers and a couple of canvas shopping bags into the inn's white Range Rover when he saw Maddie walk out of the Dunkin' Donuts that was located across the parking lot from Gladys Pitzer's shop. She was wearing bright blue scrubs and carrying a large cup of coffee. Smiling, he let fly with a loud wolf whistle and waited for her to notice him.
She did. Shaking her head, she walked toward him.
He pulled her into a full-body hug, being careful not to spill her coffee. “Hi ya, hot stuff. I didn't know you worked this side of town.”
She smiled against his shoulder. “Only on Saturdays.” She stepped back. “I just finished seeing patients at the hospital—what's your excuse?”
He picked up the white bucket loaded with flowers and foliage. “Well, as it happens, I'm cooking tonight—and you're invited.” He stashed the bucket in the back of the Rover and closed its door. Riverside Inn was neatly stenciled across the side of the vehicle.
“Great.” She took a sip of her coffee. “What's the occasion?”
“We've got a full boat for dinner on Thursday, and I want to do a dry-run on the currant- and cornbread-stuffed goose.” He paused. “Bad choice of words— dry is exactly what I want to avoid.”
She smiled at him. “I'm sure it'll be fabulous.”
“I dunno. I don't have the best track record with goose—and since I'll be cooking for the redoubtable Mrs. Murphy, I want it to be perfect.”
“Why not switch the menu to something you are more comfortable with?”
“Because, my dear. Your future mother-in-law was very specific about what constituted a ‘traditional' Thanksgiving Day meal. She practically clipped recipes for me.”
Maddie looked confused. “ My future….” Comprehension spread across her features. “I'm really going to kill the two of you if you don't knock this shit off.”
Michael just laughed at her. “Lighten up, will you?” He kissed her on the forehead. “You're so cute when you're miserable.”
“Well, as long as my misery can lighten someone else's burden, I guess it serves a purpose.”
He stood there in silence regarding her. “Do you really want to stay away from her?”
She met his eyes, surprised by the sudden shift in the tone of their conversation. “No.”
He nodded. “Hang in there. It might all just work out the way you want it to.”
“To tell the truth, I have no idea what I want.”
“Don't you?” His gaze held hers.
She relented. “Okay. Maybe I know what I want —but what I want usually ends up being the opposite of what I need.”
“You aren't alone in that one, sweetheart. It's all a crap shoot—sometimes, we just get lucky.”
She sighed. “Are we talking about life, or about Rolling Stones lyrics?”
He laughed. “Both. So—you wanna join us for dinner?”
“Sure. Who are the other lab rats?”
He looked at her without speaking.
She threw her head back. “Oh, man . You really are trying to kill me, aren't you?”
“No—just feed you. Look, it's just dinner. We're not going to play spin-the-bottle, or get drunk and swap room keys.”
“Right. And do you think you can promise to keep David muzzled?”
He scoffed. “You're on your own with that one, sister. The last time I tried that, we ended up playing some really twisted boudoir games.”
“I didn't mean it literally.”
“Oh. My bad.” His eyes were wistful. “But he did look cute all tied up. He was stunned when he realized later that I used his Hermés scarf.”
“Beyond being appalled by the charming visual image this summons up, I'm stunned to learn that he has a Hermés scarf.”
“You know our boy.”
“Indeed I do. What time do you want me there?”
“How's 6:30? And if you stop by the library to rescue your damsel in distress—you can bring her along with you.”
Maddie was perplexed. “What do you mean? Why does she need rescuing?”
“Her copier is on the fritz. She was up to her shapely elbows in toner and cursing like a sailor when I stopped by there this morning.”
“What's wrong with it?”
He looked at her with incredulity. “You're asking me this question? That's your department. You need to pack up your socket wrenches and roar on over there. I told her she needed to call you—so she won't be surprised to see you if you drop by.”
“Okay. I suppose I could go take a look at her on my way home.” She caught her mistake. “ It. I mean—it.” She gave up, and smiled at him sheepishly. “I'll check it out.”
He chucked her on the chin before climbing into his car. “I am sure you will.” He started the engine. “See you tonight, sweet pea.”
Maddie stood there, watching him drive away. So much for a quiet evening at home. God, when was the last time I even spent a night by myself? When the white Rover left the parking lot and pulled out onto the main road, she slowly turned and walked over to her Jeep, marveling at the turn her life had taken since Syd's arrival in Jericho. It's not like we look for opportunities—we just always seem to end up thrown together. She unlocked the Jeep and climbed inside, setting her coffee in the console holder between the front seats. But it's not like I mind, either. She smiled to herself. An idea she'd had percolating for a few weeks came to mind again. She decided to go ahead and ask Syd about it. Maybe tonight. Tonight. Jesus. David. He'll be impossible. I must be crazy. She started the Jeep. I am crazy . She drove out of the parking lot, and headed west toward Jericho.
Syd was elated when the front door to the library opened, and she looked up to see a tall woman in blue striding across the carpet toward her. Her visitor was carrying a small, aluminum toolbox. When she reached the circulation desk, she set the box down and calmly regarded her.
“Does something here need a doctor?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. But I didn't realize that you made house calls.” She crossed her arms. “How much is this gonna cost me?”
Maddie scratched her chin thoughtfully. “How much you got back there in petty cash?”
Syd backed up and pulled open a drawer, sifting through its contents. “About $4.75. In quarters.” She looked up at Maddie hopefully. “Will that be enough?”
“Hmmm. Lucky for you, I'm not really licensed to practice here, so I can be flexible about my fee.”
“What if I sweeten the deal and let you be the first person in the county to check out a copy of—” she reached behind her chair to an overloaded book truck and randomly snagged a volume, “ Glenn Beck's Common Sense ?”
Maddie raised an eyebrow.
“You're right.” She tossed the volume back onto the truck. “I should pay you double-time just for having the gall to suggest that.” She smiled at her. “I take it you heard my tale of woe from Michael?”
“Something like that. I ran into him in Wytheville after making patient calls at the hospital. He told me that he saw you over here, going 15 rounds with your photocopier.”
“I couldn't quite go the distance—the damn thing had me on the ropes in about a nanosecond.”
“Well, don't throw in the towel just yet. Maybe there's some life left in it.”
Syd stood there deliberating for a minute. Then she shook her head. “Sorry—I've completely exhausted all the boxing metaphors I know. Will you take a look at it anyway?”
Maddie lifted her toolbox. “I make no promises—but lead on.”
They walked together to the rear of the building.
“I had no idea that you were such an accomplished repairman. I now understand why you have broken vacuum cleaners strewn all over your garage.”
Maddie laughed. “It's true. Remember I told you about taking my mother's piano apart? What I didn't tell you was that I generally could get things back together pretty well, too. Dad and I usually had something we were breaking down and rebuilding—lawnmowers, tractors, airplane engines—the list went on and on.”
Syd stopped her. “Did you just say airplane engines?”
“The mental image of an airplane engine lying in pieces around your barn doesn't help ameliorate my morbid fear of flying.”
Maddie set her toolbox down next to the still disassembled copier. “You just haven't flown with the right person.” She knelt next to the copier. “So tell me what happened, here.”
Syd sighed. “Beats me. Roma Jean was copying some inventory sheets for me when it jammed. Instead of stopping it, she kept hitting the copy button.' She rolled her eyes. “Half a ream of paper later, it shut itself off and hasn't booted-up since. I tried to un-jam it—but I think there still must be paper caught someplace that I can't access.”
“You're probably right. Has it been disconnected from its primary power supply?”
Syd stood there regarding her with a deadpan expression. “Why do you repair types always lapse into this obfuscated techno-speak when you're around us mere mortals?
Maddie sighed. “Is it unplugged?”
Syd knelt and held up the three-pronged end of a fat power cable. “Yep.”
“Okay.” Maddie squatted next to the unit and pulled out the two paper trays. Reaching inside the machine, she flipped a series of concealed green levers that unlocked the roller assemblies. She stood up and did the same thing beneath the platform at the output door. When the side panel dropped down, a wad of crinkled paper was visible, wedged beneath the feed tires. She opened her toolbox and took out a pair of long tweezers. She carefully started extracting the accordion-shaped wads of paper.
“Once we get all of this out of here, we need to look at the pick-off fingers. It might be that the separator is pulling in more than one sheet at a time. What weight paper are you running in this?”
“What?” Syd was watching the doctor with fascination. “I'm sorry. I'm just amazed that you knew how to do this. You said something about finger picks?”
Maddie laughed at her. “ Pick-off fingers —they're those little grabbers that snag the individual sheets of paper from the trays. They can get clogged with dust and paper fiber and don't work properly. What kind of paper are you using in this thing?”
Syd picked up a crumpled wad. “White?”
Maddie pulled the last piece of crushed paper away from the rollers. “Well, that's a start. Do you have one of the unopened packages?” She began to lock everything back into place as Syd walked over to a shelf and retrieved an unopened ream of the paper.
“Here it is.” She read from the edge of the package. “500 sheets. Bright white. Smooth finish. 20#.” She looked up. “Does that tell you anything?”
Maddie nodded. “Yep. It's cheap . You need to run at least a 24# weight in these things or they get really cranky. This lighter-weight stuff is very prone to curling—especially if you store too much of it in the trays.” She slid the two paper trays back into place after removing about half of the paper from each one. “How many reams of this stuff do you have left?”
Syd looked behind them at the storage shelf. “About five.”
“Maybe you can call your supplier and exchange it for the heavier weight. If not, just keep the trays about a third full until you run through it all. It also will help if you keep the unopened reams in a cardboard box—don't ask me why, but they seem to resist curling better if they're stored that way. I think it's some kind of humidor effect.” She paused. “You could keep your cigars in there, too.”
Syd looked at her blankly.
“Just seeing if you were still paying attention.” She stood up. “Okay. Let's plug ‘er in and see what happens.”
Syd plugged the unit in and Maddie pushed its power button. After a second, there was an audible beep and the display panel illuminated. The readout panel flashed its ready to copy message.
Syd's jaw dropped. “I so do not believe this.”
Maddie stood back and regarded her with a smug expression. “That's nothing. You should see me fix a broken person.”
They were quiet for a moment. Syd gave her a small smile. “Would that cost me more than $4.75?”
Maddie's blue eyes searched her face. “You aren't broken.”
Syd shrugged. “Opinions on that vary.”
They stared at each other.
Maddie was opening her mouth to speak when the sound of a loud crash interrupted them. They both swung toward the noise with startled expressions on their faces. The back door to the branch was standing wide open and a red-faced Roma Jean Freemantle was splayed across the floor next to the waste can she had just tripped over. She was staring up at Maddie in embarrassment and dismay.
Maddie and Syd looked back at each other for a moment—before smiling and walking back to help Roma Jean to her feet.
Dinner ended up being a sumptuous exploration of new twists on old classics.
Michael had set a table for the four of them in front of the stone fireplace, located at the back of the dining room, close to the kitchen. A smattering of guests dined at other tables spread out across the room—but, typically, business was slow during the days leading up to the holiday weekend, so the four friends were able to relax and enjoy a leisurely meal.
Apart from the stuffed goose, which was anything but dry, Michael served whole green beans tossed with toasted hazelnuts and brown butter, wildflower honey- and whiskey-glazed sweet potatoes, a pineapple and roasted poblano salsa, and zucchini and cranberry mini-muffins. Most of the dinner conversation was confined to talking about the food—with Syd in a state of bliss about getting to experience it all again on Thursday evening.
Maddie pushed her plate away with dramatic intensity. “Make it stop. I can't eat another bite.”
David plucked half of an uneaten muffin off her plate and popped it into his mouth. “So that would mean that you are not interested in sampling a piece of that chocolate, cashew, and maple pie I saw cooling back there in the kitchen?”
There was momentary silence as Maddie considered her options.
“I could maybe manage a tiny slice.”
“You're such a weakling.”
Maddie looked him over. “This from a man wearing pink socks?”
“I refuse to be goaded by someone who blithely conflates fashion sense with femininity.” He took a healthy sip of his Chardonnay. “You're a cretinous lout with the aesthetic sensibility of a Weimaraner.”
David sat back and regarded her. “Tall. Aloof. Blue eyes. Inordinately fond of flannel bedding.” He batted his eyes at her. “Any of this sounding familiar?”
Maddie sighed. “I don't know why I agreed to do this. You always get so fractious during the holidays.”
“Me?” David feigned umbrage. “You're the one with the whole “Mourning Becomes Electra” complex.”
Maddie rolled her eyes. “I'm not even going to ask what you mean by that comment.”
Michael chuckled in the background as he stood up and started collecting their plates.
Syd looked back and forth between the two antagonists. “Okay. I'll bite.” She turned to face David. “Clearly, you're dying to explain.”
Maddie groaned as David leaned forward, lacing his fingers together. “Well just let me just point out that our dear, reclusive physician here is the one with the deep-seated, mother-daughter, Chlamydia-Electra family drama going on.”
Maddie looked at him. “Chlamydia?”
“Duh,” David replied. “Electra's mother?”
“That was Clytemnestra , you nimrod. Chlamydia is a venereal disease .” She paused. “I should think that you, of all people, would remember that.”
David stuck his tongue out at her as Syd stifled a cackle.
Michael walked back to their table carrying the pie. “So—big slices all around?”
Syd expelled a deep breath. “My god—that looks amazing. Are you making another one of these on Thursday?”
“Sorry, sweet pea.” Michael cut a generous piece and handed a plate to Syd. “Your mama was specific about wanting pumpkin pie. This one is something special for Dr. Strangelove, there—she just loves maple.”
“That I do,” Maddie said holding out her own dessert plate. “Hurry up and dish, Wolfgang.”
“I thought you weren't hungry?” David asked.
“Shut up.” Maddie dug into her pie with gusto.
David got up and walked over to the bar, returning with a chilled bottle and four fluted glasses. “We picked up this really nice Shelton Blanc De Blanc when we were in North Carolina last week. It's gonna go great with dessert.” He tore off the foil top and unscrewed the cage covering the cork. “We thought it might be nice for your folks to sample some of our finer Yadkin Valley wines.” He popped the cork without ceremony and poured Syd a glass.
“You guys have gone to entirely too much trouble for my parents. I love you both for it—but I'm afraid that you've really put yourselves out.” She took a sip of the sparkling wine and smiled. “And if I drink much more of this wonderful stuff, I'll have to be poured into Maddie's Jeep.”
“That goes double for me,” Maddie said, covering the top of her champagne flute. “I can't have anything else, or I won't be able to drive us home.”
Michael smiled at both of them. “Lucky for you, we happen to know the innkeepers. Why don't we just put you both up for the night? We've got a couple of empty rooms, so you can relax and enjoy yourselves.”
Maddie looked nervously at Syd. “I don't know about that, Michael—we hadn't planned on a slumber party.”
David batted her hand away from the top of her glass and poured her a generous serving of the wine. “Tomorrow is Sunday. The library is closed. The clinic is closed. With all due respect—you're both pathetic loners with nothing better to do than stay up late and watch reruns of Storm Stories on the Weather Channel.”
Maddie began to protest. “Pete—”
“Pete,” David interrupted, “is probably already in the barn, sacked-out on the hood of your overpriced Lexus. Relax. Sit a spell.” He winked at her, slyly, and dropped his voice an octave. “Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.”
She glowered at him. Then she cast a worried look at Syd, who sat watching the two of them with amusement. “What do you think?”
Syd handed her now empty champagne flute to David. “I'd like another glass, please.”
David laughed as he refilled her glass. He locked eyes with Maddie as he sat back down. “Our kind of girl.”
They spent the rest of the evening laughing and talking, moving from the dining room to the smaller, front parlor where they shared another bottle of the Shelton wine before agreeing that it was time to retire for the night.
Michael walked them up the grand staircase and down the wide center hallway to two smaller rooms at the back of the house. The rooms were tastefully appointed with period antiques and had dormer windows that looked out over the sloping back lawn. Unlike most of the inn's larger rooms, these two shared a hall bathroom.
David joined them shortly, carrying two, folded sets of pajamas. “These should work for one night.” He handed a pair to each woman. Syd's were a soft and tasteful Nick & Nora creation, decorated with fat counting sheep on a pastel background. “And these are for you, Sawbones.” He handed Maddie an oversized pair of faded red Dr. Denton's.
Maddie unfolded the pants. “If these have a drop-seat, I'm so outta here.”
There was no drop-seat, but the pants had built-in booties.
“ Nice. ” She sighed as she draped the pants over her arm. “Why am I not surprised that you have these?”
“Quit complaining. It's more than you usually sleep in.” He turned to face Syd. “There are toiletries in a basket in each of your rooms. Help yourselves to whatever you need. We'll be out back in our annex—give us a call on the house phone if you need anything you can't find.” He glanced over at Maddie, who stood there frowning as she refolded her red pajamas. “However, that's probably not likely to happen—last time I looked under her hood, she was pretty well equipped.”
Maddie's head shot up, and her blue eyes grew round in disbelief. “Are you off your Ritalin again?” Syd chuckled quietly.
Michael shook his head and kissed Syd on the cheek. “Sleep tight, cutie pie. I'll see you at breakfast.” He walked over to the still smoldering Maddie and grabbed her—dipping her back dramatically, and planting a kiss full on her mouth. “G'night, hot lips.” He stood up and released her, and then jerked his thumb at David. “C'mon, honey. Let's leave the girls alone, now.” Quietly whistling a refrain from Meet Me In St. Louis , he strode off down the hallway toward the stairs.
David stood there a moment longer. “I've got a bad feeling about this.”
“Why?” Syd asked.
“Whenever he whistles Judy Garland tunes it means there ain't gonna be much sleeping going on—if you get my drift.”
Maddie raised a palm. “Okay, that's way too much information.”
David agreed. “You don't know the half of it. He's really horrifying as Mickey Rooney.” He thought about that. “Even Mickey Rooney was horrifying as Mickey Rooney. I'm so not drunk enough for this tonight.”
Maddie laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Buck up, Judy. The show must go on.”
He sighed. “You're right. I wonder where I left those shoulder pads?” He walked off toward the stairs, waving a hand over his head. “Night, ladies.”
At the bottom of the stairs, he hit a switch and the lights went out, leaving the two women standing together in near darkness. The only available light came from the blue glow cast by a small nightlight at the opposite end of the hallway. They heard a door open and close at the back of the house. Then it was deathly quiet—the only sound coming from the monotonous tick, tick, tick of the pendulum on the grandfather clock in the foyer below.
Syd was the first to speak. “This seems to happen a lot.”
Maddie considered that. “You mean being subjected to lurid details of David's private life?”
Syd laughed. “No. I mean that I seem to have acquired a remarkable ability to end up wearing someone else's pajamas.”
“That's true.” Maddie tapped an index finger against her lips. “Is this a chronic thing—or a more recent malady?”
“Oh, I'd say it's a very recent malady.”
“Interesting. When did you first start exhibiting symptoms?”
“I think it started right about the time a tall, distracted person knocked about two dozen boxes of cookies into my grocery cart.”
“Hmmm. Tall person. Cookies. Strange pajamas. Not seeing a connection.”
“Maybe it's not a medical condition.”
“I agree. You could just be a floozy.”
Syd threw her pajamas at her. Maddie caught them before they hit the floor. “Has it occurred to you that you're always throwing things at me?”
Syd thought about that. “You always catch whatever it is.”
“That might be true—but you're not getting these back until you apologize.”
“For hitting you with fat, flannel sheep?”
“And if I don't?”
“Then you'd better pray there isn't a house fire tonight so you won't have to run screaming from your room in the unforgettable altogether.”
“What makes you think it would be unforgettable?”
There was a pause. “I have an active imagination.”
There was another pause. “Tall person. Cookies. Strange pajamas. I think there might be a connection, after all.”
There was more silence. Again, Syd was the first to speak. “We should have more conversations in the dark.”
“How am I different?”
“I don't know— different . Shorter, maybe?” Maddie chuckled. “More accessible?” She paused. “Less guarded?”
“That's probably true. Right now, I feel supremely over-confident. Especially since I'm standing here with two pairs of pajamas and you have—lemme see? None?”
Syd sighed. “Okay. I apologize .” She held out her hands in supplication. I promise never to throw borrowed pajamas at you again.”
“That's more like it.” Maddie smiled as she closed the distance between them. “You're forgiven.” She held out a set of nightclothes.
As Syd took the garments from her, their hands met. She peered up through the near darkness at Maddie's face. “Thank you.” Her voice seemed miles away. “I guess we should get some sleep.”
“Probably.” Maddie started to back away, but on impulse, leaned down to plant a soft peck on Syd's cheek. She was unaware that Syd had the same idea, and before she knew what was happening, their warm mouths collided in an accidental kiss. They jolted apart immediately, and stood in shocked silence for a moment before sharing a nervous laugh.
“Well. Goodnight.” Maddie backed toward her door on shaky legs. “You can use the bathroom first.”
“Thanks.” There was an awkward pause. “Goodnight to you, too—I hope you sleep well.”
“Thanks.” The way Maddie's lips were tingling, she knew she didn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of sleeping well.
Syd turned away and entered her room, flipping a wall switch to turn on the bedside lamp.
Maddie quickly retreated into her own room, and stood quietly for a moment once she was inside.
“Hey!” She heard Syd's complaint through the closed door.
Smiling through her anxiety, she tossed the set of sheep-covered pajamas onto the bed. Humming a few bars from Strike Up the Band , she started to undress—preparing herself for another long and sleepless night.
On the other side of the wall, Syd stood leaning against the back of her door, still clutching the footie pajamas to her chest.
Oh my god. I can't believe that just happened. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths, trying to calm herself down. She could feel her heart pounding beneath the folded wads of red flannel. What the hell was I doing? She's going to think I was flirting with her. She opened her eyes and crossed over to the bed, sitting, and then lying down on the soft mattress. She stared blankly up at the tin ceiling, absently running the fingers of her left hand back and forth across her lips. She wanted to be anywhere but there.
With a start, she bolted back up into a sitting position. Oh, Jesus. I told her about Jeff. I told her about Jeff and the whole ‘you must be gay' thing. She closed her eyes. She's really going to think I was hitting on her, now. Waves of mortification washed over her, and she dropped onto her back again. Oh god. She held the Dr. Denton's against her hot face. Maybe I was.
It snowed on Thanksgiving Day. Maddie stood in the kitchen of her farmhouse, watching the fat flakes drift down and cling to every surface. She could tell by the size of the snowflakes that the storm was winding down, but it was beautiful while it lasted. She was surprised when she got up that morning to see the ground white, especially since it had been above the freezing mark when she'd finally retired the night before. Squalls of snow had rolled through off and on all day, and, although the roads were mostly clear, there had to be at least four or five inches on the ground.
Pete was still outside. Maddie could see him nosing around the fence posts near the creek bed, his yellow coat thick with snow. He'd be a pupsicle if she didn't soon coax him back inside. She felt envious watching him, as he slowly made his way along the fence toward the barn. Life was simple for Pete. He had land to roam, critters to chase, a big porch to sleep on, and a full bowl of food twice a day. He never complained. He never wandered off. He never hesitated to ask for the things he needed. And he never worried about the after-effects of the choices he made.
She was about to put on a jacket and go get him when her phone rang. She stood still for a moment, leaning against the countertop with her eyes closed—persuaded that it was probably someone calling in a panic because they'd choked on a dinner roll, or contracted a bad case of reflux from ingesting too much turkey gravy. For a split second, she thought about not answering it—thought about pretending that she was out of town. Out of town, and in her right mind—for once. The phone rang again. It would always ring again. Nights. Weekends. Holidays. The rings would always find her because they now formed the parameters of her life—a set of concentric circles that began and ended with a panicked voice on the other end of a phone line.
“This is Stevenson.”
“Final- fucking -ly! I thought you'd skipped town.” It was David.
“Nope. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.”
“Hey—no time for polite conversation. I've got an emergency out here.” He sounded desperate enough.
“What's wrong?” She was all business now. A quick glance at her watch told her it was a few minutes before five. She could probably be out there in fifteen minutes—faster than the EMTs could make it from Jefferson.
“Beats the shit outta me. The goddamn thing is on the fritz .”
“You heard me—it's on the fritz.”
She relaxed. “What's on the fritz?”
He sighed. “The frickin' espresso machine. Goddamn Italian piece of shit. And I've got a dining room full of overstuffed flatlanders who aren't getting out of here any time soon if I don't find a way to sober them up with some double-cappuccinos. Get my drift?”
“What's wrong with it?” She leaned back against the countertop and picked up her own coffee mug.
“How the hell should I know what's wrong with it? It's not— espressing . It's not steaming. It's not doing shit. I can't even get it to turn on .”
“So, what do you want me to do? Bring mine over?” She glanced over at her father's prized DeLonghi. The thing had to weigh over a hundred pounds.
He was really exasperated now. “No, Cinderella—I want you to put on a fucking ball gown and fly over here to do a pole dance on the sun porch. What do you think I want you to do? Grab your friggin' tool belt and come fix the damn thing!”
She sighed. “David, you're pathetic. It's a holiday, for god's sake.”
“Oh, gee—thanks for the news flash, Katie Couric. I know it's a holiday. Why else do you think I'm calling your obstinate ass?” There was a momentary pause in his tirade. “Look, I'm sorry—really. But I need your help. I'm desperate.” There was another pause. “Please, Maddie.”
That did it. He never called her “Maddie” unless he truly was desperate. She relented immediately.
“Okay. I'm on my way. Let me in through the kitchen—I don't wanna parade across the dining room with my toolbox.”
There was a long sigh on the other end of the line. “I owe you for this one, Cochise.”
“You got that right, Tonto.”
He hung up. Setting her cup back down on the counter, she took a long, last look outside at the white landscape. Pete was no longer visible—and it had stopped snowing. She could see faint ribbons of yellow light snaking across the horizon. If the clouds rolled out, it would be a very cold night. Some cappuccino might be good. She wondered if Michael had any more of that maple pie. She grabbed her car keys and cell phone, and snagged a jacket off one of the pegs by the back door before going outside to whistle for Pete.
Syd's father pushed his plate away with a moan. “I have never eaten so much wonderful food in my entire life.”
Too late, he realized his mistake and reached across the table to touch his wife on the arm. “I mean—out in a restaurant, of course.”
Janet Murphy rolled her eyes at him. “George, I don't even know how you manage to chew when your foot is always so firmly planted in your mouth.”
He squeezed her arm before retracting his hand.
Syd smiled at both of them. “Michael went to a lot of trouble for us—but the few times I've eaten here, the food has always been amazing.”
Her mother nodded. “I won't argue with you about that. I wasn't sure what to think at first about the cornbread stuffing—but I think it was a perfect compliment to the currants.” She took a sip of her white wine and glanced around the dining room. “Is it usually this busy here?”
Syd followed her gaze. It was true that the place was busier than she had ever seen it. There even were several tables set up on the sun porch adjacent to the dining room. David was running around frenetically, seating guests and taking beverage orders. “No—I've never seen it quite like this. I thought the snow might keep more people at home.”
Her father agreed. “Me, too. When I got up this morning, I was sure we were going to get buried in it—but it's all but stopped now. Maybe we can go for a walk outside after dinner?”
Janet looked at him with incredulity. “What do you intend to wear on your feet?”
“I have my waders in the back of the Tahoe.” His green eyes looked hopeful.
“Waders?” Syd looked wary. “Dad, I really think Michael and David might be able to outfit you with something more suitable.” She smiled to herself. “They're pretty accommodating when it comes to that.”
George sat back and crossed his arms. He looked handsome in his brown tweed jacket and khaki slacks. “Why, baby? Are you afraid your old man will embarrass you if he's seen tramping around in his high-water gear?”
She smiled back at her father. “Something like that, yes.”
He shook his head. “Last time I checked, there was something we used to call a river located about a quarter of a mile that way.” He inclined his head toward the sun porch and the white lawn that spread out beyond it. “I'd love to poke around in it.”
“Well, why don't you wait until tomorrow to do your exploring?” Janet picked a piece of white lint off the sleeve of his blazer. “Margaret and I are going to run up to Roanoke and do some shopping—that should give you plenty of time to muck around in the mud.” She pursed her lips. “Unless, of course, you'd like to join us?”
“Shopping?” His face took on a tortured expression. “I think I'll pass.”
Syd's face was a like mirror image of her father's. The prospect of spending an entire day in the raw glare of her mother's scrutiny was enough to make her want to hide beneath the nearest bed and not emerge until spring. They still hadn't talked about her recent encounter with Jeff—and Syd was fairly certain that he had probably already called her mother and given her his version of their unhappy exchange.
“You know, dad—I've grown very passionate about slimy rocks. Do you need any help tomorrow?”
“Nice try, Margaret.” Her mother drawled. “Don't stave off the inevitable. We're going. You need some new clothes. You don't have anything suitable for a winter up here.”
“Well, ‘suitable' is a pretty expansive term, mother. I'm only going to be here for eighteen months—it didn't make sense to bring everything.”
“I realize that—but shopping for a couple of new sweaters and some better boots won't kill you.”
“ What doesn't destroy me makes me stronger ,” Syd quoted. “Somehow, I don't think Nietzsche was talking about an afternoon at Orvis.”
Her father perked up at once. “Orvis? There's an Orvis in Roanoke?”
Syd felt a surge of optimism. “Oh, yeah—a BIG one, dad. In fact, it's one of their pilot stores.” She watched his eyes grow wistful. “Rods. Reels. Waders. Fishing maps of the Smith River with little flies attached to the best sites….” Her voice trailed off.
Janet watched the two of them with interest. “And it's conveniently located right next to the downtown mall. ”
George's face fell. Janet gave her daughter a triumphant nod. Her gray eyes glinted with humor.
Syd's shoulders drooped. She held up her thumb and forefinger. “I was this close to cheating death.”
She noticed that her father's gaze was now directed toward something going on behind her. She half-turned in her chair to see David, engaged in animated conversation with Michael near the beverage station at the back of the dining room. Michael had his arms crossed and stood there slowly shaking his head from side to side, while David gestured wildly toward the espresso machine. She thought she saw Michael say something that looked like “you're crazy,” before he walked off. He glanced over and saw Syd looking their way, and abruptly changed direction, stopping at their table on his way back to the kitchen.
Syd smiled as he approached. “Something wrong?”
Michael rolled his eyes. “Only the same thing that's been wrong for about 32 years.” He smiled at her parents. “How are you folks doing? Everything okay with the meal?”
They replied en masse, with a chorus of praise for his efforts.
Michael smiled good-naturedly and placed a large hand on Syd's shoulder. “I apologize in advance for what's about to befall you.”
Syd narrowed her eyes. “What's that supposed to mean?”
Michael sighed. “Well—according to David, the espresso machine is broken, and he placed a panicked call—begging for emergency repair service…if you know what I mean.”
Syd colored. “Oh, god. Is it really broken?”
“Who can say?”
“She's going to kill him.”
“One can only hope.”
Her father and mother looked back and forth between the two of them, intrigued by their cryptic exchange. Then her father's gaze shifted again to the back of the room. His eyes grew wide. “I've never been much of a fan of those boutique coffee drinks,” he said, “but if that's what you people call a repair person, I'm gonna buy five of those contraptions and break them all.”
Michael and Syd turned in unison to see Maddie, now standing next to David by the espresso machine. She was dressed in a pair of black jeans and a form-fitting blue sweater. Her long hair was loose and shining, and she held a small aluminum toolbox in her right hand. They watched her set the toolbox down on a nearby bussing table before she pulled the unit away from the wall and peered behind it. After a moment, she stood upright and turned to face David with her lips pursed, lazily swinging a disconnected power cord around in small arcs. They had what appeared to be an energetic exchange, before Maddie shifted her handhold on the power cord and held it up in front of David's neck like a garrote. He was still talking and waving his hands—now defensively.
Michael chuckled and softly whispered, “And in four, three, two, one ….”
As if on cue, David and Maddie turned to face the Murphy's table. Syd met the doctor's gaze and smiled shyly, lifting her hand in a polite wave. Maddie tossed her head back and closed her eyes, before picking up her toolbox and crossing toward their table. David, who now was grinning like a Cheshire cat, followed behind her.
George noticed the subtle change in his daughter's demeanor as the tall woman approached their table. She sat nervously clenching and unclenching the napkin in her lap, but her face looked open and welcoming as she exchanged glances with their visitor. It was clear that they knew one another.
He got to his feet as David performed the introductions. “Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, I'd like you to meet the county's most eligible and sought-after tool jockey, and my very dear friend, Madeleine Stevenson. Maddie, it's my pleasure to present George and Janet Murphy, of the Baltimore Murphys.”
Maddie smiled as she faced Syd's mother. “Mrs. Murphy, it's a pleasure to meet you.” She turned to face George, extending her hand. “And you, sir.”
George took her hand, and dumbly gazed into a pair of incredible blue eyes that were on a level with his own. He decided to throw caution to the wind. “I'm not quite sure what it is yet—but I'm fairly certain I'll break something later on. Would you and your toolbox like to join us and wait around until it happens?”
Janet swatted him with her napkin. Shaking her head, she looked up at Maddie. “Forgive my husband's lapse into puberty. But do, please, join us.”
Maddie laughed as she released his hand. “You're very kind—but I certainly don't want to intrude on your meal.” She looked down at Syd. “I just couldn't be here this evening and not come say hello to Syd's parents.”
“I'm glad you did.” Syd smiled up at her. “I would have called you myself if I'd thought there was any chance you'd venture out on a night like this.”
David snickered in the background. Maddie turned and fixed him with a menacing glare. “Don't think you fooled anyone here with your little manufactured crisis. Paybacks are hell, Davey.”
David gave the group a baffled look and feigned innocence. “How was I supposed to know the damn thing was unplugged? I'm not the one who majored in small engine repair—remember?”
Maddie was still glaring at him. “Oh, I remember.”
Michael cut in. “I have to get back to the kitchen—but may I assume that you'll all be having pie and espresso?” He looked over at Maddie. “You too, Doctor—I've got a slice of something special with your name on it.”
Maddie hesitated. George saw Syd discreetly touch her hand. “Please stay.”
George and his wife exchanged looks. “Let me get you a chair, Maddie.” George started to leave the table but David stopped him. “No need, Mr. Murphy—I've got one right here .” Without ceremony, he shoved an unoccupied chair into the back of Maddie's legs, causing the unsuspecting woman's knees to buckle. She plopped down and half fell across Syd's lap as she tried to avoid hitting the table.
George watched as the doctor tried to right herself without spilling the contents of her toolbox. She was blushing furiously as Syd grasped her by both forearms and helped her slide back onto the seat of her chair.
“Great,” Michael said, turning toward the kitchen, “that's four for pie. C'mon, David,” he dropped his voice, “I think your work here is through.”
David chuckled as he walked off, leaving the four of them alone.
Janet was the first to speak. “Did I hear Michael call you Doctor ?”
Maddie's blush was starting to subside. “Yes, you did.” She carefully set her toolbox on the floor, and slid it beneath her chair.
“Small engine repair isn't the only thing she excels at, mother,” Syd added, wryly. “Maddie is our local physician.”
George was visibly surprised. “Really?”
Maddie's expression was apologetic, but her blue eyes twinkled as she answered. “I hope you're not too disappointed, Mr. Murphy—I can still wear a set of greasy coveralls with the best of them.”
“I'll just bet you can,” he said, and nodded enthusiastically. “Please—call me George.”
Janet clucked her tongue. George sobered and cleared his throat, adopting his most fatherly persona. “So it's obvious that you two girls are friends?”
The two girls in question exchanged shy glances.
“I remember now that Jeff mentioned something to us about meeting the local doctor when he visited Syd here last month.” He smiled at Maddie. “I confess that from his description, I envisioned someone crustier —more of a Marcus Welby type. You're a bit of a surprise.”
At the mention of Jeff, Syd was instantly defensive. “Dad—” she began.
He raised his hand to stave off her impending caution. “It's okay, honey.” He met her eyes. “I know better than to listen to much of what Jeff has to say.”
Syd smiled at him gratefully, and seemed to relax a bit.
Their server arrived with four generous slices of pie and a fresh pot of coffee . The doctor smiled when she noticed that her plate contained something different than the pumpkin pie the rest of them were having.
“So, Maddie,” Janet said, smiling as she picked up her dessert fork. “Tell us about yourself.” She glanced over at Syd. “Let's see what else Jeff got wrong.”
There was an awkward silence as Syd looked back at her mother with an unreadable expression on her face. It was clear that neither of the younger women knew quite how to respond to Janet's statement.
George stepped into the void. “Yes, Maddie—are you a local like David?” He saw Syd relax just a bit.
Maddie nodded. “I am—although I spent most of my childhood in California, with my mother. I came back here to take over my father's practice about eighteen months ago—shortly after his death.”
“I'm sorry for your loss,” George said quietly.
Maddie smiled at him. “Thank you.”
“Where were you before returning to Virginia?” he asked.
“Philadelphia. I went to med school at Penn and did my residency at Presbyterian. After that ended, I stayed on there as assistant ER chief.”
“ Really? That's pretty impressive. I've actually been to Presbyterian—that's a huge hospital.”
Janet gave him a perplexed look. “When was that?”
“Remember when I participated in that sustainability summit at Drexel two years ago?” She nodded. He looked over at Maddie. “I was sharing a cab back to my hotel with another speaker and he had a heart attack—in the car. The driver took us to Presbyterian. Kudos to you for the quality of treatment he got there in the emergency room. I have to say that it shattered a lot my stereotypes about big city hospitals.”
Maddie gave him a wry smile. “It must have been my day off.”
Syd swatted her on the arm. As Maddie laughed and dodged her assault, George realized that this was a fairly typical interaction between the two women—and he marveled at Syd's playful and proprietary demeanor toward the seemingly more reserved doctor. Maddie composed herself, and regarded him once again with her amazing blue eyes. “I hope your friend fared all right?”
“He did. He raves to this day about the quality of the care he got there.”
“I'm glad to hear that. We don't often get feedback on the success stories.”
“Coming back here must have been quite a change from such an urban environment,” Janet interjected. “I can't imagine the adjustment it must have been.”
“Still is,” Maddie added, thoughtfully. “I have to confess that the most frustrating part is figuring out how to extend care to all of our underserved populations. There are people living in remote areas of these counties who have never had access to even the most rudimentary kinds of health care. My father struggled with that, too.”
“I can only imagine,” Janet said. “Margaret may have told you that I'm a public health nurse, so I can empathize with your frustration level.”
Maddie eyed Janet with interest. “I don't suppose you'd be interested in alternative employment in a picturesque part of the Blue Ridge state?”
Janet laughed. “Not so much. Baltimore County is rustic enough for me. Are you looking for a nurse?”
“I might be. Back in Pennsylvania, I was involved with a parish nurse program in the Lehigh Valley. The nurses there networked through area churches, and were able deliver basic, on-site preventative care to scores of people who otherwise would have had none.” She paused in reflection. “It had a tremendous effect on the overall general health of the region. I'd love to be able to imitate those successes here.”
Janet leaned forward, caught up in the doctor's enthusiasm for the idea. “Have you been able to generate any interest for the idea?”
Maddie nodded. “Some. I've had a positive response from one of the local Methodist ministers. His circuit includes four congregations in several of the more remote areas. I'm able to have my clinic underwrite part of the expense to hire a trained R.N.—but I need to secure more funding to move ahead with the program.”
Syd seemed intrigued. “How about the state? Are there other funding sources akin to the one that's paying my rent these days?”
Maddie shook her head. “My petition to the general assembly for funding met with a fair amount of interest, but little promise of money.”
“What about private sources?” George asked.
“Funny you should ask,” Maddie replied. “I've become desperate enough to prostitute myself to a couple of pharmaceutical company reps at the next AMA conference. It's conveniently being held in Richmond this year, so it'll be easy to hop up there for a day or two.” She sighed. “I'll have to see how compelling I can be—but just between us, I'd rather put a sharp stick in my eye than have to fawn on these guys. So many of them are little more than glorified snake-oil salesmen.”
George chuckled at that. “I wouldn't worry too much—I think you'll fare just fine .”
Syd agreed. “Just let David handle your wardrobe—I'll guarantee that you'll come back flush with funds.”
Maddie looked at her with raised eyebrows. “Are you kidding? If I let David manage my attire I'd be flush all right—but it wouldn't be with funds .” She paused. “At least, not with anything larger than one-dollar bills.”
Syd snorted. George saw how Maddie's eyes softened as she looked at his daughter. He glanced over at his wife. Janet met his gaze. She noticed it, too.
“When is this conference?” He asked the tall doctor.
“Late March. I'm going to hop up there on a small plane so I can minimize my time away from the clinic.”
George looked at Syd. “Don't you have to go to Richmond in March, too, honey?” Janet kicked him under the table. “Owww. Hey! Why'd you do that? She does have to go—don't you, baby?” Janet rolled her eyes at him.
Syd glowered at both of her parents. “Yes, I do .” She looked over at Maddie apologetically. “I have to meet with the trustees of my grant sometime in March, and present my six-month report.”
Maddie seemed to consider this information. “You know, I've been meaning to ask if you'd consider going with me.”
George sat back smugly, still rubbing a hand back and forth across his sore shin.
Maddie and Syd smiled at each other shyly. “I thought it might just be a nice reprieve for you,” Maddie said, quietly, “and I'd certainly enjoy the company. Now that I know you have to go, too, I think it's a no-brainer.”
Syd nodded. “Going together might be a no-brainer—but I don't know about that ‘small airplane' part.” She squinted her eyes. “Is the pilot experienced?”
Maddie sighed. “Very.”
“And you can promise me that you haven't had your sticky mitts or your tools anywhere near the engine?”
“I don't have sticky mitts.”
“Your tools, then.”
“What about my tools?”
“Can you promise me that your tools haven't been anywhere near the engine?”
“I can't make that promise.”
“So you have worked on it?”
“I'm not saying that.”
“Well then, what are you saying?”
“I'm saying that I always travel with my tools—and my medical bag. Since I do, occasionally fly on small aircraft, it would be false to say that my tools have never been anywhere near the engines.”
Syd's exasperation was starting to show. “Why is getting a straight answer out of you like watching a rerun of Perry Mason ?”
“Beats me. It's not my fault if you can't ask a direct question.”
“Okay wise guy.” Syd leaned toward her and raised a menacing finger. “Can you tell me, unequivocally, that the engine on this airplane, in part or in total, has never been on or near your workbench at the farm?”
Maddie thought about that.
“Yes? Yes, what? ”
“Yes, I can tell you that this engine has never been on or near my workbench at the farm.”
Syd sat back and heaved a sigh of relief. “Finally.” She looked over at her mother. “Your witness.”
After dessert, the group decided to give in to George's entreaties for a walk outside. Most of the pathways behind the inn were clear—or at least passable—and David happily lent George a pair of his foul-weather overshoes. The women were already wearing boots.
Maddie's earlier surmise was correct, and the night had turned clear and very cold. White moonlight reflected off the snow, and there was an eerie quiet to the landscape as they meandered away from the inn and its warmer circle of yellow light. Drifting mounds of snow made the pathway narrower than usual, so they walked two abreast—with George and Janet taking the lead.
Syd tucked her chin lower into the red scarf that she had loosely wrapped around her neck. Glancing over at Maddie, she bumped her playfully as they slowly walked along. “Thanks for staying. I know this probably isn't what you had in mind for the evening.”
“No. But that doesn't mean I'm not enjoying myself.”
“Even though your emergency ended up being a complete red herring?”
“ Especially because my emergency ended up being a complete red herring.” She laughed. “David drives me insane—but sometimes, he actually dupes me into doing things that end up being good for me. I think this is a case in point.”
“I'm glad you feel that way. I really wanted you to meet my parents—but I didn't want to intrude on your privacy.” She laughed nervously. “Well—not any more than I normally do.”
Maddie looked at her. In the half-light, she could see puffs of vapor rising from the layers of scarf piled in front of her face. “Why would you think that?”
“Why would I think what?”
“Why would you think that you intrude on my privacy?”
“Are you saying that I don't?”
Maddie sighed. “Have we lapsed into another game of Twenty Questions? Of course I don't think you intrude on me. Where would you get such an idea?”
Syd rolled her eyes. “Hmmm. Let me think….” She tapered off until Maddie groaned. “But really—David's Weimaraner analogy isn't so far off the mark.” She paused. “Well—with the possible exception of the flannel bedding part. But then, I've never actually seen your sheets, so I can't be sure about that.”
Maddie raised an eyebrow in challenge. “We could remedy that mystery in short order.”
Syd had stopped to brush some snow off the surface of a birdbath that stood next to a stand of holly bushes. She looked up at Maddie with a perplexed expression. “How?”
Maddie just stared at her. “Is this what they call a ‘legally blonde' moment?”
Syd looked back at her with a blank expression before realization hit. “Oh, good god .” Without thinking, she dipped her gloved hand into the icy water and splashed some of it at the smirking doctor. “You can be such a jerk sometimes.”
Maddie just laughed at her as she ducked out of the way. “So I've been told.”
“Damn you,” Syd said as she peeled off her soggy glove. “Now this thing is soaked. My hand is gonna freeze.”
Maddie stepped closer. “Stick your hand in your pocket.”
“I don't have any pockets.”
“Well, I'd offer you one of my gloves—but, unfortunately, they're on the console of the Jeep.”
Syd noticed for the first time that Maddie had been walking along with her hands shoved deep down into the pockets of her overcoat. She glanced ahead to where her parents were veering off on a path that led down toward the river.
Maddie spoke again. “Do you wanna go back to the house?”
Syd looked up to meet her eyes. Even in the moonlight, she could see how blue they were. “No. Let's go on—I can wrap it in my scarf.”
Maddie took another step to stand just beside her. “I've got a better idea.” Reaching out, she took hold of Syd's cold, wet hand and pulled it into the pocket of her coat. Instead of releasing it, she held it there, and covered it with her larger, drier hand. “Better?” she asked, at very close range. Her frosty breath hung in the air between their faces.
Syd felt a tingle spread up her arm from where their hands were clasped together in the warm confines of Maddie's pocket. She nodded her head slowly. “Yeah.” Her voice was husky. She cleared her throat. “Thanks.”
She felt Maddie's fingers tighten around hers. “Let's see if we can catch up with your folks before they reach the river—I'm not sure I trust your father to stay away from any thin ice he might encounter in the dark.”
Syd nodded as they set off down the path, walking very close together. “He isn't the only one you need to worry about.”
“What do you mean?”
Syd laughed nervously. “Let's just say that he isn't the only Murphy with a penchant for skating on thin ice.”
Maddie felt her heart rate accelerate, but she didn't trust herself to reply.
They walked in silence along the river path, closely huddled together. The only sound came from the crunch of snow and loose gravel beneath their booted feet.
Up ahead of them, George and Janet were having a similar conversation.
“What on earth were you thinking?” Janet whispered, glancing nervously over her shoulder to be certain that Maddie and Syd were still out of earshot.
“What do you mean?” George asked, innocently.
“Don't give me that, George. You know exactly what I'm talking about. You can't play twisted games like this with people's emotions. Margaret is in a fragile place right now—she doesn't need to have anyone pushing her into something she's not ready for.”
“How do you know what she is and isn't ready for?”
“I know my daughter. She's confused—and scared. Her marriage has just ended and she's feeling lost and vulnerable. It's ludicrous for you—or anyone—to push her toward something that may not be right for her.”
He waved his free hand in exasperation. “Well, I'm not sure what you're talking about. I'm certainly not pushing her into anything—other than pursuing a healthy friendship with a strong and stable woman.” He stopped and looked at her. “How could she not be ready for that? You know how isolated she kept herself when she was with Jeff. Maddie seems…good for her.”
“Come on, George. You heard what Jeff told us about Syd's special ‘friendship' with the town doctor. Admit it: you were as shocked as I was when she showed up tonight and we realized who she was. My god—your jaw about hit your dinner plate.”
He thought about that. “Okay. Yes —I was surprised to learn that Syd's so-called, ‘special friend' wasn't an older man. But beyond that, I don't lend any credibility to anything Jeff has to say about our daughter.” He stared at her. “Besides—you'd have to be nuts to think that woman was…well….”
“Gay?” Janet asked.
Janet sighed and pushed her short, graying hair back from her face. “I'm reluctant to agree with you because I hate to endorse such a ridiculous stereotype.”
“What's that supposed to mean?” He looked wounded.
She linked her arm through his and started walking along the narrow path again. “Honey, being gay isn't a one-size-fits-all proposition. Lesbians now come wrapped in lots of fabrics besides flannel.” She smiled at him. “And don't forget her toolbox.”
He jostled her. “Now who's tossing out the stereotypes?”
She laughed, and they walked along in silence for a moment. In the distance, they could hear the rush of the river as they edged closer to its bank.
“Do you really think she might be gay?” His voice was so low she had to bend her head to hear him.
She was stunned by his directness. “I thought we were talking about Maddie.”
“I think we're talking about both of them.”
She sighed and lifted her gloved hand to his face. “I don't know honey. I don't think she knows, either. That's why we can't push her. I did that once—and look how it turned out.”
“You mean her marriage to Jeff?”
“Yes. I blame myself for that. It was clear that she wasn't ready for it. I have to accept that she may never be ready for it.”
“So what do we do?”
“Just love her—and give her the space she needs to figure things out on her own timetable.”
He nodded. “And you'll be okay with any outcome?” he asked. “Even if it involves a certain six-foot tall brunette with blue eyes and a killer smile?”
She sighed. “I guess I'd have to be. I mean—beggars can't be choosers.”
He stopped again and turned to face her. “What's that supposed to mean?”
She gave him a small smile. “I always said I wanted her to marry a doctor.”
Further up the path toward the house, Maddie and Syd were startled when they heard George's laughter ring out above the roar of the water. They looked at one another with baffled expressions before tightening their clasped hands, and continuing on toward the river.
On Friday morning, George set out early with his waders, rod and tackle to walk the river bank behind the inn and try his hand at a bit of cold water fishing. This part of the New River was well stocked with smallmouth bass, and Michael told him to be on the lookout for any natural springs along the banks—because these tended to raise the water temperature a few degrees, and the sluggish fish were inclined to stack up in those warmer areas.
He left the inn shortly after 8:00 a.m., armed with a thermos of hot coffee and a bag lunch that Michael had graciously prepared, determined to enjoy five or six hours of solitude while his wife and daughter made their shopping trek to Roanoke. It was a beautiful day—cold but clear, and the sun was blinding as it angled through the trees and reflected off the snow-covered riverbank. He walked and fished intermittently for about three hours before stopping to eat his lunch at a boat landing area, where there were a couple of battered picnic tables. The view here was breathtaking as the river widened and ran along next to a well-traveled secondary road. He guessed he was about two miles away from the inn at this point, and resolved that after relaxing with his meal, he would slowly start making his way back. He hadn't caught any fish yet, but he didn't really mind. Just being outside in the cold but clear air and having the latitude to walk and explore at a leisurely pace was enough to make the outing worthwhile. These days, he spent far too many hours cooped up in a classroom. The opportunities for fieldwork were becoming few and far between—budget cutbacks at the state level had seriously eaten into departmental funding for out-of-doors instruction. He thought, ironically, that if the same economic downturn had occurred five or six years earlier, his daughter would never have met Jeff Simon, a former intern of his—and she would never have ended up living in this backcountry region of Virginia. As sorry as he was for the circumstances and the heartbreak that had led her to her to accept a job posting in this remote area, he was finding it hard to regret her presence here. She seemed happier and more at peace with herself than he had seen her in years—at least, since graduating from college.
His thoughts drifted back to the conversation he'd had with Janet last night after meeting Maddie Stevenson. It was impossible to deny that there was some kind of bond between Syd and Maddie—it radiated off both of their faces whenever they looked at one another. ‘Chemistry,' Jeff had called it, in a voice dripping with sarcasm. It irritated George more than a little bit to admit that Jeff might finally have hit on something to be right about.
What would it mean for Syd if Jeff's—and Janet's—suspicions were accurate? Would she ever be able to come to terms with it? Would they ?
He looked out at the river. The water rolled by, making lazy and determined progress toward its ultimate union with the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. It might slow down, but it never stopped. It might change size or direction, but it always got where it was supposed to be. It might fight its way around an obstacle, or it might simply wear it down—but it always kept moving. It had all the time in the world to get where it was going.
He thought about the Irresistible Force Paradox, and how frequently he used it as a teaching tool to illustrate Newton's second law of the conservation of energy. The river was an irresistible force. The rocks that originally lined the banks of this gully were immovable objects. Yet the river prevailed—and the rocks moved.
It would, therefore, be ineffective for him to wade out into the center of this river, raise his hands toward heaven, and command it to stop—to turn around—to go another way. Ineffective. And it would be equally ineffective for him to try and stop the irresistible force he now saw washing over his daughter.
And in some way, he didn't want to stop it. Because, sooner or later, everything ended up exactly where it was supposed to be.
And she seemed—happy.
When faced with an irresistible force, an immovable object moves. It really was that simple.
After finishing his sliced duck and apple sandwich, he colleted his tackle and began his slow journey back along the riverbank toward the inn. By now, the sun had climbed well above the horizon and was shining down from directly overhead, illuminating eddies that weren't visible earlier. About a mile from the inn, he saw a spot that looked particularly promising, and decided to cast a line out and try his luck one more time.
The bank was fairly steep here, and the snow pack made it even more challenging, but he dropped his pack and readied his line, attaching a hefty lunker to make sure it dragged along the bottom once he dropped it near the eddy. It took several casts, but finally he got the position he wanted, and he watched the current draw his line toward the center of the whirlpool. In short order, he felt a hit on the line—then a more determined tug. He gingerly descended the bank toward the edge of the water as he began to slowly take the slack up out of his line. Suddenly, his pole jerked as the fish hit with a vengeance, causing his reel to whine as fishing line flew out across the water.
“So much for lazy bass,” he muttered. “This sucker is flying .” He was in the water now, wading out toward the eddy while he pulled back on his pole and wound up his line. Still the fish fought him, swimming downstream toward a small island that jutted out in the middle of the river.
“Oh, no you don't,” he growled. “I'm not falling for that one.” He continued to wrestle with the fish, trying to keep his line away from some fallen tree limbs that protruded from the water near the leading edge of the tiny island. It was hopeless—the fish was apparently too big and too fast, and he couldn't get a good enough purchase on the rocks to keep his line clear of the branches. In short order, it snagged—and he couldn't reel it in any further. He had no choice but to take out his Cliff knife and cut the line—losing both the fish, and his lunker.
As he was drawing his knife out of the sheath attached to his belt, the fish apparently changed direction, and his line broke free—the reel singing as the poll was jerked out of his hand. As he lunged to catch it before the current swept it away, his boot slipped on the rocks beneath the surface and he fell forward into the cold water. He felt the knife blade slicing into his palm, but didn't realize until he righted himself and stood up just how long and how deep the cut was. It was a clean cut, but it was bleeding profusely and would certainly require stitches—probably a lot of them. Sighing, he retrieved his poll and waded back to the shore, trying to keep his palm submerged in the cold water until he could reach his pack. He had only an oversized hand-towel to wrap his hand with, so he did the best he could, packing the cut first with snow to try and staunch the bleeding. It was going to be a long walk back to the inn—and he wondered, as he climbed the bank, whether or not The Irresistible Force would be found in her clinic on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Maddie met the two men at the door. The clinic was, in fact, closed, but she had been in her office most of the day entering patient records into her EMR database. When Michael called her cell phone to tell her about George's accident, she insisted that they come right over. There was no way she would consign Syd's father to seek medical care at the ER in Wytheville, where he would likely have to wait several hours for attention.
George looked embarrassed and apologetic as she let them into the clinic through the back door. She could see the blood already soaking through the fresh towel Michael had wrapped around his hand, and his pallor was too ashen to suit her. She directed them immediately into an examination room, and seated George, elevating his forearm on a rolling tray table.
“I can't apologize enough to you for imposing like this on a holiday,” he began.
Maddie waved him off. “Don't be silly—I was nodding off over patient files. This is actually a nice break for me.” She smiled at him as she helped him out of his jacket. “Let's unwrap this and see what we've got here.” She carefully unwound the blood-soaked towel and dabbed at the long cut with a sterile gauze pad. “Yep. It's a beauty. The good news is that it looks like a nice, clean cut. Can you flex your fingers for me?” He did. “Good. It doesn't look deep—just long. What kind of knife was it?”
He winced as she continued to blot the cut. “A Cliff knife—about a 5” blade.”
“Good.” She looked up at Michael, who was still hovering in the doorway with a countenance paler than George's. “Why don't you head back to the inn, Michael? I'll run George back out after I get him stitched up. I was about to knock off for the day, anyway.”
Michael met her gaze gratefully. “Really? I don't mind waiting, if it's out of your way—as long as I can wait someplace that's not in here .” He looked at George with round eyes. “I'm not very good around blood or needles.”
George tried to reassure the big man as Maddie prepared a basin of warm water and antiseptic solution to soak the cut in before stitching it closed. “Go on back to the inn, Michael. You've already gone beyond the call of duty by running me over here.” He looked up at the tall doctor. “I don't think Maddie would offer if it was really an imposition.”
Maddie lifted his arm and carefully submerged his right hand in the pan of warm water. “Nope. I wouldn't. You're just lucky it's not my bowling night.” Her blue eyes twinkled as she opened a drawer and withdrew an assortment of paper wrapped needles, gauze pads, and a large syringe. Michael winced when she started pulling on a pair of latex surgical gloves.
“In that case—I think I'll head on. He took a step toward the back door. “If Janet and Syd get back before you're finished here, I'll tell them what happened. I'll have a big Scotch ready for you, George.” He waved as he retreated down the hallway. They heard the door to the parking lot open and close—then they were alone.
Maddie sat down on a rolling stool and began to prepare her items.
“So. Whattaya think, Doc? Ten stitches?” George was nearly as curious as he was anxious.
Maddie lifted his hand from the basin and rested it on a bed of dry, sterile towels. “Nah. You're an overachiever, George. This is going to take at least 15 or 20.”
His eyes grew wide. “Really?”
She smiled at him. “Really. But don't worry—when I took Home Ec, I got an ‘A' in sewing.”
He laughed. “That's comforting. I should've brought my new pants along—they need hemmed.”
She smiled as she placed sterile towels around the wound opening. She picked up the syringe and a small vial. “Do you have any allergies to medications that you're aware of?” When he shook his head, she filled the syringe. “Okay—now for the not-so-fun part. I have to inject this into the cut so we can deaden the area.” She met his eyes. “It's going to sting like crazy, so I apologize in advance. Are you ready?”
Maddie injected the lidocaine into several locations inside and along the wound opening, working as quickly as possible. She saw George flinch and grit his teeth, but he remained perfectly still until she finished.
She withdrew the syringe and patted his arm. “Nice job. That's the worst. It should start feeling numb in about a minute.” She opened up several of the paper packets and began to thread a small, wedge-shaped needle. “How did this happen?”
He grimaced. “I was fishing about a mile from the inn—and had just snagged a big one.” He laughed. “At least, I think it was a big one—it drug me with it right out into the water. My line got tangled on some fallen limbs, and as I was getting my knife out to cut it loose, the fish got free and pulled the rod out of my hand. I slipped and fell into the water trying to grab onto it—that's how I ended up with the cut.” He paused. “I feel like an idiot—a novice.” He sighed. “Janet's going to kill me.”
Maddie looked at him with her clear, blue eyes. “Want me to fix you up with an extra impressive bandage to ratchet-up the sympathy quotient?”
His jaw dropped. “You'd do that for me?”
“Of course I would.”
He sat back with a smug expression. “I knew I liked you.”
In that moment, Maddie was caught by how much he looked like Syd. He had the same, mischief-filled green eyes, and the same childlike, snub nose. She laughed and gently tapped along the palm of his hand. “Do you feel this? Do you feel any pain or sensation along here at all?” When he shook his head, she set about methodically closing the wound with a series of tiny, perfect stitches—tying knot after knot with her hooked needle and a short pair of tweezers.
He watched her with fascination. “That's amazing. What do you call that knot?”
“This is what we call a mattress stitch—it's generally the most common type used on palms or soles of feet. It's faster and easier because you don't have to bury the knots.”
“Do you miss working in an ER?”
“I still keep one toe in that pool by working a weekend a month at the hospital in Wytheville. But the truth is, I don't miss it nearly as much as I thought I would.” She tied off another knot and reached for more silk thread. “It's nice to finally experience what it's like to have a life away from the office.”
“I gather you didn't have much of a social life in Philadelphia?”
She gave him a small smile. “Not really. No.”
“Well, at the risk of offending you—I guess that explains why someone as beautiful and as charming as you are is still single.”
Maddie slipped as she attempted to snag the loose end of her thread, and nearly dropped the tweezers. She met his eyes. “That doesn't offend me at all. I'm—flattered.” She nervously began to wonder where this conversation was headed.
“Good. I think that you and my daughter are both pretty extraordinary women.” He paused. “I wish sometimes that she had taken her time before getting married. Janet and I worry that we pushed her into something that she wasn't quite ready for.”
Maddie wasn't certain how to reply, so she kept silent and continued to work.
“She's a wonderful girl—so vibrant and sensitive. We're both grateful that she ended up in a place so nurturing.” Maddie looked up to find his eyes fixed on her face. “And that she has found friends like Michael and David—and you .” Against her will, Maddie felt a slow flush creep up her neck as George continued to gaze at her. “Her mother and I will worry less about her now that we know she has you to lean on.”
She laid her implements down and sat back on her stool. “I—” she began, then stopped herself and tentatively patted his arm. “That should do it. Let's get this bandaged up now.” She rolled away from him and tried to compose herself as she lifted a tube of ointment and some clean dressings from a drawer. When she returned to the little worktable, he was still regarding her with an earnest expression. She knew she had to say something—her silence was too compromising.
She began swabbing the cut with antiseptic ointment. “George, no one knows better than I how extraordinary your daughter is.” She met his eyes. “Her presence here has been like a gift to me. Michael and David feel the same way.”
George nodded. “We worry about her because she's been so isolated for the last few years. She lived in a fairly large city and attended a huge university—but she always seemed so alone…even though we knew she had friends.”
Maddie began to carefully wrap his hand with the sterile gauze. “That's hard to imagine. She's wonderful company.”
“I think maybe you're just good for her,” he said quietly.
She looked at him again. “I hope so.”
“She needs friends right now. It's a confusing time for her.”
“You mean, with the divorce?”
He nodded. “That—and other things. She has so much uncertainty ahead of her. We want her to be able to make good decisions.”
Maddie regarded him soberly. “I want that for her, too.”
“I know you do, Maddie.”
They stared at each other for a moment without speaking.
He shifted on his chair. “Anyway—Janet and I are just grateful that she found someone like you to confide in. We'll worry a lot less about her when we leave for home tomorrow.”
Maddie finished wrapping his hand. “There you go. What do you think? Impressive enough?”
He held it up and rotated around. The bandage was large and puffy and looped up around his wrist. “Oh, yeah—this looks like it's concealing something really nasty.” He smiled at her. “I owe you one. This ought to get me out of the dog house at light speed.” He continued to admire her handiwork. “By the way—how many stitches did you make?
“Sixteen. Not too shabby, George.” She cleared away the rest of her supplies and stood up. “Ready to head back to the inn and sit down with that big glass of Scotch Michael promised you? I think he's mortified enough to crack open one of the single malts.”
He stood up, too, and fished his wallet out of his jacket pocket. “I have my insurance card in here. Can you help me dig it out?”
She stopped him. “Don't bother, please. I hereby gift you with the coveted family discount.”
“On the house.”
“I can't do that—it's bad enough that I made you work on your day off. At least let the State of Maryland pay you for your trouble.”
“George, it was no trouble.” She held out his jacket for him. Her blue eyes were determined. “You don't want to make me mad, do you?”
When he met her level gaze, he backed down at once. “No, ma'am—I sure don't.” Sighing, he put his wallet away, and then shrugged into his coat. “Will you at least let me buy you a drink?”
She smiled at him. “I might consider that.”
His smug expression returned. “I definitely like you, Dr. Stevenson.”
Later that evening, Maddie was sitting in her father's study, reading dog-eared back issues of the JAMA and drinking Earl Grey tea when her cell phone rang. She absently picked it up off the table next to her chair and opened it without looking at its display.
“This is Stevenson.”
“This is Murphy.” There was a pause. “Well—I suppose I should narrow that down for you. This is Miss Murphy.”
Maddie smiled at the sound of her voice and laid the open journal down across her lap. “Hmmm. I might need you to be even more specific. Would this also be the short Miss Murphy?”
There was an audible sigh. “This would be the short and grateful Miss Murphy, yes.”
Maddie smiled into the phone. “How are you? How was the shopping trip?”
“I'm fine—and my day was apparently nowhere near as eventful as my father's. Or yours.”
“Yes. It's safe to say that your father got a real feel for the area today.”
“Thank you for taking care of him. He won't stop raving about you.” She paused again. “I think he might have a little crush on you—he gets all misty-eyed when he talks about how you fixed him up.” She chuckled. “Of course, that could also be the four double-Scotches talking.”
“I'm not kidding—Michael keeps pouring like a madman. What's that about?”
“It's a long story. Suffice it to say that Michael doesn't do well around blood and gore. He felt guilty about not being able to wait around on your dad while I stitched him up.”
“Ahh. Okay. Now about that other thing.”
“What other thing?”
“You stitching my father back together. How do I repay you for that?”
Maddie slouched down into her chair and drug the ottoman closer, prepared now for a longer conversation. “Hmmm. The possibilities are endless. Do I have to make a snap decision? I'd hate to waste this opportunity on something fleeting.”
“Against my better judgment, I'll agree that it doesn't have to be a time-value offer. You just let me know when you figure something out.”
“Oh, trust me—you'll be the very first to know.”
Syd laughed. “In the meantime—my mother has some serious doubts about your competence.”
Maddie sat up with an alarmed expression on her face. “What do you mean?”
“Calm down, Stretch. Did you forget that she's actually a nurse ? That ostentatious bandage didn't fool her for two seconds. My poor father was crestfallen that she didn't collapse, weeping into his arms.”
“Yeah. Now you two are tagged as co-conspirators. It's not going to be pretty when you see her tomorrow.”
“I'm seeing her tomorrow?”
“Oh, yeah. You're coming out to the inn for breakfast to help me see them off.”
“Give it up—it's pointless to resist.”
“Really. Once you're caught in her crosshairs, there's no escape.”
“Spoken like someone resigned to her fate.”
“Tell me about it. You haven't noticed that I've been running around all week with an infrared dot tattooed on the center of my forehead?”
Maddie thought about that. “Well, now that you mention it—I thought maybe it was just some kind of high-tech bindi mark.”
“You're not half as funny as you think you are.”
“In fact, I think I am.”
Maddie pressed her advantage. “Deep down, you think I am, too.”
“Deep down, I think you're a lunatic. Adorable—but a lunatic, nevertheless.”
“Excuse me—I think there was some static on the line. Did you just call me adorable ?”
“ Lunatic . I called you an adorable lunatic . It's not the same thing.”
It was Maddie's turn to sigh. “Can't blame a girl for trying.”
“Well, don't despair—my father will happily drink your Kool-Aid.”
“That's nice, but maybe he isn't the only Murphy I want to impress.”
Syd was quiet for a moment. “There are others on your list?”
“Could you be more specific?”
“Well, let's see—there's the short, grateful one who thinks I'm adorable.”
“Lunatic. The short, grateful one who thinks you're a lunatic.”
“Yeah. That one.”
“That one is already impressed.”
“In that case, I'd be happy to join you for breakfast.”
Syd laughed. “Great. Eight-thirty sharp. See you then.”
“It's a date.” She hung up and sat staring across the room for a few minutes, smiling stupidly, and wishing it really was.
Continued in Part III
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