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 III
T'was the week before Christmas
2:42 p.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
Now at BWI. Dad sorry u rn't here 2 take stitches out.
2:45 p.m. Text message from Stevenson, M.H.
Tell him scissors won't reach that far.
2:49 p.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
He says u should improvise.
2:52 p.m. Text message from Stevenson, M.H.
Never mastered folding space.
2:57 p.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
He says Southwest does that 4 u.
3:01 p.m. Text message from Stevenson, M.H.
Is that an invitation?
3:06 p.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
Yep. www.southwest.com .
3:08 p.m. Text message from Stevenson, MH.
Subtle. I'll think about it. J
3:12 p.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
No pressure. But…
3:14 p.m. Text message from Stevenson, MH.
3:17 p.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
I'd like it 2
3:21 p.m. Text message from Stevenson, M.H.
3:23 p.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
More than I have left in text minutes 2 tell u.
3:26 p.m. Text message from Stevenson, M.H.
It would be one helluva house call.
3:29 p.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
3:31 p.m. Text message from Stevenson, M.H.
Can't promise. Will see what I can do.
3:34 p.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
3:37 p.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
Short Murphy happy 2.
3:39 p.m. Text message from Stevenson, M.H.
4:01 p.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
Prove it. Car here. Murphy out.
Two days before Christmas
8:15 a.m. Text message from Stevenson, M.H.
Have emergency. Not able to get away today. So sorry. Will call later.
8:26 a.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
Sorry 2. Will miss u. Call when u can.
1:22 p.m. Text message from Stevenson, M.H.
Still at hospital. No progress. Will you be at home tonight?
1:42 p.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
After 8—r u ok?
1:53 p.m. Text message from Stevenson, M.H.
1:58 p.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
L Wish I could hug u.
2:03 p.m. Text message from Stevenson, M.H.
9:30 p.m. at The Murphy's house in Towson, MD. Syd's cell phone rings. It's in her purse, on the foyer table where she left it after coming in from a late dinner with her aunt and uncle. She runs down the stairs from her old bedroom to try and catch it before it rolls to voice mail. Her brother Tom gets to it first. He is eating a slice of cold pizza.
“Syd Murphy's Pleasure Palace. Remember to ask about our special Yuletide Smack-Down —two hot babes emasculating you for the price of one. Will you be paying by cash or credit card?”
“Tom, you asshole—I am so going to kill you if you don't hand that to me right now! ” Syd hissed, as she danced around her taller brother in frustration. He backed away and held the phone up over her head. As he slowly started inching up the steps, he raised it to his ear again.
“What's that?” he asked. “You're interested in a volume discount? Oh? A doctor? In that case—would you like me to set you up with a house account ?”
“I mean it, Tom! If you don't want to spend the rest of your life singing soprano , you'll hand that to me right now!” Syd grabbed the leg of his faded blue jeans and yanked him down to a sitting position on the stairs. She thought she could hear faint laughter through the earpiece. She finally succeeded in grabbing the cell phone and prepared to unleash another torrent of abuse just as Tom shoved the half eaten slice of pizza into her mouth. “ Motthurphumpks…jerksufa !”
Chuckling at her distress, Tom daintily stepped over her and headed back to the kitchen.
On the other end of the line, Maddie's voice was calm. “Excuse me? Do you think you could repeat that last part? I was trying to find my credit card.”
Syd furiously wiped at her moth. “I'm going to kill him.”
“You know, I've never regretted being an only child—until right now.”
Syd sat back against the stair riser. “You must be joking? If you think his phone manners are bad, you should see his bathroom habits—it's like living with Cro-Magnon man, incarnate.”
Maddie chuckled. “I doubt it's as bad as all that. He sounds pretty—amusing.”
“ Amusing? Yeah…well…you're just lucky that you can't see the hair on his palms through the phone.”
Maddie's voice was thoughtful. “Then again—maybe I'm not sorry that I won't be able to get up there.”
Syd's heart fell, but she tried to keep her tone light. “What happened?”
Maddie sighed. “I have a young patient named Héctor Sanchez—he's seven. I saw him about a month ago when he had a strep infection—but now, he's in the hospital with viral meningitis. It was touch and go for a while—we thought it might be bacterial, and I worried that we'd have to quarantine his entire family. I'm afraid that his older brother has it, too—we're waiting on his lab results right now.”
“God. I'm so sorry. Will they be okay?”
“Hopefully—if I can figure out how to keep them in the hospital. They don't have any insurance, and their mother is eight months pregnant. I worry about her ability to manage both of them at home in her condition.”
“So, you're going to stay around and keep an eye on them?”
“I am. I feel that I have to—they don't have any other family in the area. Mr. Sanchez works for one of the bigger Christmas tree farms over in Ashe County—and he's traveling right now, delivering trees to lots near the coast.” She paused. “I'm sorry, Syd—I really did want to try to make it up there, just for a night.”
“I know,” she said quietly. “It was just a whim—we knew it was an outside chance at best. Dad will be disappointed.” She smiled to herself. “I think he's rounded up every broken appliance in a three-county radius. He seems to think that you'd look pretty fetching in a tool belt.”
“Oh yeah? Whoever gave him that idea?”
“I simply cannot imagine.”
“Maybe it's just as well. I actually don't own a tool belt. Your father would be disappointed.”
“He's not the only one.”
There was a pause. “Oh, really?”
Syd demurred. “Well….”
“You know, I've observed that the telephone seems to morph you into some kind of altered state.”
“What do you mean?”
“Remember once that you said we should have more conversations in the dark?”
“Yeah?” she said, warily.
“Well, I think we should have more conversations on the phone.”
“How am I different?”
“I don't know— different. ” She paused. “Taller maybe?”
Syd let out the breath she had been holding. “You're such a jerk.”
“Why do you love to torment me?”
“If I knew the answer to that, I'd be a very wise woman.” When Syd didn't reply, Maddie continued. “Do I really?”
“Do you really what?”
“Do I torment you?”
“Are you seriously asking me that?”
“Let me see…I think I am.”
“Well then—yes. You torment the shit out of me.”
“How do I torment you?”
Syd sighed. “Well for starters—there's your whole ridiculous height advantage.”
“Hold on a minute—I can't be held responsible because you're uncommonly short.”
“And then there's your— hey! I am not ‘uncommonly' short!”
“Reeealllly?” Maddie drawled. “Then how come you can't see anything above my waist?”
“You can't even imagine how wrong you are about that one, wise guy.”
“Oh, yeah?” Maddie's tone was challenging. “What color are my eyes?”
“Oh, give me a break.”
“You're seriously delusional .”
“I knew it.”
“You can't answer me because you don't know.”
“That's ridiculous. The entire world knows what color your eyes are—I think they're even listed in Zagat's Best of Virginia guide.”
“So. Where was I? Oh yes—the ways you torment me. Let's see…there's your complete and unselfish devotion to your patients.”
Maddie sounded confused. “Well, I'm hardly Florence Nightingale—but how is that a torment for you?”
“It means I won't get to see you tomorrow.”
The both were quiet for a moment and the only sound was the quiet hiss of the miles between them.
“Wrong again. That's my torment.”
“So am I. We'll—I'll miss you.”
They were quiet again.
“When are you coming home?”
Syd was surprised by her reaction to the question. She had never really thought of Jericho as “home.” But something about that characterization now felt comfortable. It seemed to fit—just like her growing relationship with Maddie and her small circle of friends seemed to fit.
“Friday,” she answered. “I'm coming home on Friday.” In truth, she had planned to stay in Maryland until Sunday—but her ticket had an open return, and she decided right then to take advantage of it.
“Really?” Maddie's tone seemed brighter. “Wanna come over for dinner on Saturday night? We can have a belated celebration.”
Syd smiled. “I'd love that.”
“Great. Will you cook?”
Syd sighed. “If I want something to eat besides pimento cheese spread, I guess I'll have to.”
Maddie laughed. “Well, think about what you'd like to have, and text me a list—I'll do the shopping.”
“Good luck with Héctor and his brother. I hope they're soon on the mend.”
“Thanks—I do, too. Give my best to your folks—apologize for me.”
“I will. Bye.”
“Merry Christmas, Shortie”
She smiled and held the phone just a little tighter against her ear. “Merry Christmas, Stretch.”
She closed her phone and sat quietly for a few moments, staring straight ahead at the big wreath hanging on the inside of her parents' front door. It flickered with about a hundred tiny white lights. Friday. Three more days.
It felt like a lifetime.
Tom and Syd sat with their parents in the living room of the family home in Towson. It had been drizzling most of the day, and the colder, nighttime temperature quickly coated everything outside with a glaze of ice. Syd wished it would snow. She had checked the weather forecast earlier in the evening, and it was snowing in the mountains of Virginia. Snowing on Christmas Eve. In her mind's eye, she could picture the way the landscape would look there—she could imagine the muffled quiet on the deserted street below her apartment, and the sticky, sweet smell of cedar twigs burning in her corner woodstove. She'd sit with her mug of hot tea, wrapped-up in blankets on her sagging sofa, reading Jane Eyre and trying to ignore the cold air that snaked in around the window frames.
Her father got up and added another log to the fire. In the background, Bing Crosby was crooning. Silver bells. Christmastime in the city. She loved her parents. She even loved her obnoxious brother. She was happy to be with them—but she didn't want to be in the city. Not at Christmas. She wanted to go home.
Home. When did Jericho become home? For four years, she had lived in Durham with Jeff—and never once did she call it “home.” It was confusing. And that confusion joined forces with the rest of what was confounding her—filling up her senses with something unnamed. It disrupted her sleep and kept her on edge—but still it remained formless, just beyond her line of sight. Sometimes, she caught fleeting glimpses of it as it crept closer to her in the predawn hours, before it retreated again into the darkness behind the tree line of her subconscious.
“Want this, Sis?” She looked up to see Tom, standing in front of her. He was holding a tumbler filled to the rim with eggnog. She could see the hefty floater of rum he'd added to it, clinging to the inch of froth at the top of the glass. She gave him a grateful smile.
“Thanks. I could use it.” He winked at her before reclaiming his seat next to the fireplace.
“If this drizzle keeps up, it's going to be impossible to get out later.” Janet was looking out the big front window toward the street. “We should call Marsh and see if he wants to plan on going to Mass tomorrow morning—instead of at midnight.”
“Go on and call him—I'm not going anyplace tonight.” George stretched his legs out on the ottoman in front of his chair. “Too bad all we're getting out of this storm is ice—they're getting tons of snow further west.” He glanced over at his daughter. “Good thing you aren't leaving until Sunday—you might have trouble navigating those mountain roads any time sooner.”
Syd gazed back at her father. She hadn't told them yet that she'd decided to leave early. And now wasn't the time. Tomorrow. She'd tell them tomorrow.
“It's probably good that Maddie didn't try to get up here tonight,” he continued. “Although I sure do wish she'd been able to join us. Not to mention, it would have been nice to have had her remove my stitches.” He glowered at his wife as he plucked absently at the palm of his right hand, and the loose pieces of dried skin that lined the path of his healing cut. Janet had grabbed his hand without ceremony that morning, and quickly cut and removed his stitches with pair of kitchen shears.
“Yeah—just when do I get to check out this gorgeous brainiac?” Tom asked.
Syd looked over at him. “Never.”
He looked crestfallen. “Why not?” He looked to his father for support. “She's single, right? And hot? Why wouldn't she want to meet me?”
“For starters,” Syd began, “She has an I.Q. well into the triple digits—that'd make conversation a little tough for you.”
He snorted. “Who said anything about talking? There are all kinds of ways to communicate—right, dad?”
George thought about that. “In this case, son, I think you're way out of your league.”
Syd was pleased with that answer, and looked smugly at her brother. “Told you.”
“Oh come on—like you'd be one to judge. I bet I could have her eating out of my hand in ten minutes. Hell—I nearly had her there on the phone the other day, and we only talked for two seconds.” He paused. “She's got a hot voice, by the way—I mean, like phone sex operator quality.”
“Uh huh. And you can make this comparison— how, exactly?” Syd asked.
“Hey, Mother Theresa—don't blame me for having a healthy libido. You're just a frustrated prude and you wouldn't know what to do with it if it fell into your lap.”
Syd opened her mouth to speak, but thought better of it. How could she tell her little brother what she didn't understand herself—that finally she was beginning to inch closer to knowing exactly what she'd like to do with “it.” The problem was that “it” wasn't anywhere near her lap—or any other part of her life experience. It remained indistinct and out of reach—and probably always would.
Tom took her silence as acquiescence, and prattled on. “Don't worry, though—there's probably another loser like Jeff Simon out there, just pining for you to notice him.”
“That's enough, Tom.” Janet's voice was sharp.
Syd raised her head and looked at her mother with surprise. “It's okay, mom. He's right.” She shook her head slowly. “I was an idiot to marry him—why pretend otherwise?”
Tom set his glass down and leaned forward in his chair. “Hey, Syd—I'm sorry . Really. That was uncalled for. I didn't mean it to come out that way—honest.” His eyes were round and soft. “Jeff was a jerk—he never knew what he had in you. I'd like to punch his damn lights out for hurting you.”
She gave her brother a small smile. “I allowed myself to be hurt—it's not all his fault. But that's all behind me now. I won't make a mistake like that again.” Not ever, she thought to herself. Not even if I spend the rest of my life alone.
“Well, I'll drink to that.” George got to his feet. “Who else would like a refill?” He collected glasses and headed for the kitchen. The three remaining Murphys fell into silence while he was gone, each lost in their own thoughts. When George returned after a few minutes, he carried a small tray with three fresh glasses of eggnog. He had a cordless phone cradled between his shoulder and right ear, and he was talking animatedly to someone. None of them had heard the phone ring, so it was clear that he had placed the call. Syd assumed it was to her uncle, and concerned plans for their midnight Mass outing.
George set the tray down on his ottoman and distributed the drinks. He was laughing. “I'm not kidding you—she used kitchen shears . Can you believe it? The same ones she uses to cut up chicken breasts. I'll be lucky if I don't get lockjaw or something.”
Syd was perplexed. Who was he talking to? Across the room, her mother rolled her eyes and took a healthy sip from her glass.
“That's what I told her ,” he gushed. “But she said that you would've done it the same way if you'd been here.” He walked over to the fireplace and picked up the poker to rotate the top log. “How did all of that emergency business work out? Are the little boys doing better?”
Oh my god. Syd felt her face grow hot. He's talking to Maddie. He called Maddie. Jesus . Her pulse began to race. She took a big gulp of her eggnog to try and compose herself. She needed to look indifferent. She needed to feel indifferent. She needed to go outside and stand in the rain until she cooled off.
George was still talking. “I'm glad to hear that. We're so sorry, though, that you couldn't be here to join us.” His eyes tracked across the room to light on Syd. He watched her face as he listened to the voice on the phone. “She's fine. She's right here, in fact—looking like she's about to pass out from the heat of this fire I've got going. Hold on a second, and you can say hello to her.” He held the phone out to Syd. “Here, honey—why don't you take this out on the porch and cool off while you two talk?”
Syd didn't know whether she wanted to fling her arms around her father's neck in gratitude, or bolt from the room. Instead, she reached for the telephone and stood up to make her way toward the front door of the house. Her mother intercepted her, and handed her a folded afghan. “It's cold out there—bundle up if you decide to sit down.”
Syd took the throw and smiled at her mother as she opened the big front door and stepped out onto the porch. She pressed the phone to her ear.
“Hello there,” she said, finally. “Fancy meeting you here.”
She sat down on the swing and wrapped herself in the warmth and familiarity of Maddie's quiet laughter, forgetting entirely about the blanket in her arms.
Syd's plans for returning to Jericho changed again when she told her parents about her decision to leave on Friday instead of Sunday. They protested at first, but it soon became clear to them both that she actually was anxious to go. She was anxious—and excited. And excited was an emotion neither of them had seen in their daughter for too long. They quickly made peace with the change in plans, but suggested that she consider driving back with her brother, instead of flying.
Tom had planned to leave on Friday all along. He was a graduate student at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg—only an hour and a half north of Jericho. Janet had a large bag of clothing, a desk lamp, and a box of assorted kitchen utensils she wanted Syd to take home with her, so the prospect of having Tom drive her back held great appeal. Syd struggled with the decision—her car was parked at the Raleigh airport, so she would have the later ordeal of prevailing upon someone to drive her over there to retrieve it. And, frankly, she wasn't certain that she felt up to spending six hours in the car with her brother.
Tom intervened. “Look—why don't you just go ahead and fly, and I'll run your stuff down to you on Saturday? I'd like to see the library, anyway—so I can drop your things off, and be back at Tech before the Duke game on Saturday night.”
Syd was surprised by his generous offer. “Are you sure?”
He shrugged. “Yeah. I feel bad that I wasn't around to help you when you moved—lemme at least do this.”
She smiled at him. “Thanks, then. I'd really appreciate it. I don't want to have to ask anyone to drive me all the way to Raleigh to get my car. “
“Yeah, what up with that? Why didn't you leave out of Charlotte? It's a damn site closer to Jericho than Raleigh. Shit, by the time you to got to Raleigh, you were halfway here.”
“Not quite,” she said. “And I wanted to get some work-related stuff out of my storage unit there. Besides, I'm flying free on rewards miles, and Southwest doesn't go into Charlotte.”
“Whatever. Let's get your shit packed up. I want to be on the road by noon.”
It snowed again on Saturday. Hard. Tom was already over halfway to Jericho when it started coming down in earnest. He'd gotten a later start than he'd originally intended, because he'd spent the night before partying and getting reacquainted with his sometime girlfriend—a fellow classmate in the veterinary medicine program at Tech. He was confident that the interstate would remain passable long enough for him to drop his sister's things at her apartment, and head back before it got too bad to travel. What he hadn't counted on was how bad the secondary roads would be once he got off the highway in Jefferson. The snow there had been falling at a rate of about an inch an hour, and already, local traffic was at a near standstill. His Pathfinder was a 4-wheel drive vehicle, but visibility was becoming the real problem. The snow was blowing so hard that it was difficult to see more than a few hundred feet in front of the car. He finally reached the tiny hamlet of Jericho a little before 2:00, and pulled into the lot next to the old storefront building that housed the library and his sister's apartment.
Syd met him at the street door with a concerned look on her face. “God, I was so worried. I tried to call you on your cell phone, but it kept rolling to voice mail.”
He smiled apologetically. “Yeah—I left it at my girlfriend's house this morning. Not the best day for that. If I'd gotten stuck in this, I'd have been screwed.” He carried a large, taped-up box and a Hefty Bag full of clothing. Syd took the box from him and led the way up the stairs to her small apartment.
“I can't believe you still came. You're not going to get back out of here today.”
“Sure I can. I don't think it can continue at this rate much longer. I'll just hang out for an hour or so, and then head on back.”
They entered the apartment and closed its door against the frigid air sweeping up the stairs from the street. Syd put the box down on her kitchen table. “I wouldn't count on it. I've been watching the Weather Channel, and what we're seeing now is just the leading edge of a larger system that's moving in. By tonight, we're going to be in full-fledged whiteout mode. They're predicting ten to 12 inches before it tapers off tomorrow morning.” She turned to face him. “You're stuck here,” she smiled at him demonically, “with your evil big sister.”
“ Great .” He shrugged out of his leather jacket and looked around her tiny, furnished apartment. “Jeez, Syd. This is the best they could do for you?”
“Well—as Faye Dunaway once said, ‘These accommodations ain't particularly de-luxe.'”
He looked at her. “ Bonnie and Clyde , right?”
She smiled at him.
“Some day, you need to see a movie that was actually made in this century.”
“Yeah, well—you got the reference.” She walked over into the kitchen area and took two mugs out of a cupboard. “Want some coffee?”
He nodded. “I only ‘got' the reference because it was just on TCM during Gangster Week . Dad watched it about ten times. He drove mom nuts.”
“Apparently you did, too.”
“What? Drove mom nuts?”
“Well, that goes without saying. I meant that apparently, you watched the movie, too.”
He sat down on a straight chair. “Sure. Faye Dunaway was pretty hot in those days.” He picked at a loose piece of tape on the outside of the big box their mother had packed for Syd. “I'd do her.”
Syd snorted. “You'd do a hole in a tree.”
He sighed and at looked at his watch. “This is going well. I've been here all of four minutes, and we're already insulting each other.”
She laughed. “See why I didn't want to spend six hours in a car with you?” She handed him a mug of coffee.
“Well, since it looks like you now get to spend the entire night with me, you may live to regret that decision.” He sipped his coffee. “What smells so good?”
“Chili. I started a big pot this morning. It seemed like a good day for it.”
“Sweet! Chili and basketball.”
“Oh come on—I had a ticket to the Duke game tonight. There's no way I'm not gonna at least watch it in on TV.”
“What makes you think it's going to be televised?”
He gave her a withering look.
“Fine. Fine. Watch your precious basketball game. I'm supposed to go out, anyway.”
He looked at her with interest. “Oh yeah? What about the impending ‘whiteout' conditions?”
“I don't have that far to go.” She walked into the living room and sat down on the sofa. He stood up and walked over to join her, sinking down into the room's only upholstered chair. “But, you're right. If this keeps up, I'll probably have to stay in, too.”
“So what is this?” he asked. “A date?”
“Why are you acting so squirrelly?”
She looked at him. “I am not acting squirrelly.”
“Shut up, Tom. It's not a date—I was just going over to a friend's house for dinner.”
“Uh huh. And that's why you're cooking chili—because you're going out for dinner?
“In fact, I am taking the chili with me. And if you keep acting like a complete ass, I won't leave any here for you.”
“Okay, okay. Truce.” He took another sip of his coffee. “So. Who's the friend?”
“God, Tom—you're worse than mom.”
He looked at her in mock horror. “That was a low blow.”
She relented. “It's Maddie.”
“Maddie, as in— I'm a six-foot tall, gorgeous hunk of woman with blue eyes and a genius IQ ? That Maddie?”
“Where do you get your information?”
He looked back at her without speaking.
She sighed. “Dad. God.” She shook her head. “You guys are so much alike, it's scary.”
“Wrong on both counts, Margaret. I Googled her ass.” His eyes grew thoughtful. “And what a fine one it is.
“You did what? ”
“Don't act so offended, Miss Research-Is-My-Life. It's not like you've never done this.”
“Tom, you're so full of shit. Stalking people online hardly constitutes research.”
“Yeah, well, to each his own. It was an hour well spent, lemme tell you. She was the editor of some hoity-toity med school journal at Penn, and there are lots of pictures of her up on that site—and several from some conferences she participated in while she was still working in Philadelphia. Oh, and apparently she was some kind of high school track star—hardly surprising with those legs.”
Syd was incredulous. “You're really starting to scare me now.”
“I'd send you the links, but there's really no need—you get to experience it all in the flesh…so to speak.”
“You're such a perv.”
“How does having a healthy sexual appetite make me a perv?”
“This has nothing to do with having a ‘healthy sexual appetite.' This is just creepy—like going through someone's underwear drawer.”
He sat back and regarded her. “Interesting segue, Sis. How'd we make the leap from looking at public photos of her online to sniffing her underwear?”
Against her will, Syd felt herself blush. “I didn't say anything about sniffing her underwear.”
“No—but that's what you meant.”
“I did not!”
“Did not. ”
“Then why are you blushing?”
“You're a perv and an asshole.”
A ringing telephone disrupted their argument. Shaking her head at her brother one last time, Syd got up to answer it. She recognized the number on the caller I.D.
“Enjoying our reprise of White Christmas ?” Maddie asked. “I hope you know we arranged this little curtain call just for you.”
Syd laughed. “You're too kind.”
“I'm really not—but it works out well for me that you think so. How was the drive back?”
“Not too bad—long. Boring. But I got the things I needed in Raleigh, so it saved me from having to make a trip back over there next month.”
“Good. Are you still up for coming by later?”
Syd looked out her front window. The street below was rapidly blending into the rest of the white landscape. “I don't know—what do you think? It's looking pretty ominous out there. If I come over, I might have to stay until spring.”
“Hmmm.” Maddie paused a moment. “How much chili did you make?”
Syd smiled. “A lot.”
“I'll take my chances, then.” She paused again. “Why don't I come and pick you up? I've got 4-wheel drive in the Jeep and I'm more accustomed to driving on these roads in the snow.”
“That could work.”
“I do think we should do it sooner rather than later. I want to make a good set of tire tracks on my lane while I can still see it.”
Syd glanced over at her brother, who was watching her with undisguised interest. “There is one other thing I need to share with you,” she began.
“My obnoxious little brother picked today to drive down here from Blacksburg with a pile of stuff my mother sent back for me. It's pretty clear that he isn't gonna be going back tonight.”
“Well, bring him with you—I'd love to meet him. Unless, of course, you think you should stay at home and do family-bonding-types-of-things—I don't want to intrude on that.”
“God, no. I've had enough family bonding to last me until Shrove Tuesday.”
“Well then, what's the problem?”
“Oh… that . He wants to watch the Duke game tonight?”
Syd sighed. “How do you know everything?”
“I know I'll regret admitting to you that I really don't . In fact, I've been sitting around here flipping channels for about two hours waiting to call you. I saw about 20 ads on ESPN for the game.”
“Why did you wait two hours to call?”
“I didn't want to appear too anxious. You see—I really do like chili.” She paused. “A lot. It's hard for me to relax when I know I'm going to be having it—especially when I haven't had it for days and days. The anticipation can be maddening. I have to keep my emotions under tight regulation.”
“Yes. Chili and I have a complex and storied relationship.”
“You're such a nut job.”
“Yes, I am.”
“So you don't mind if Tom comes over with me to watch the game?”
“Of course not. We can watch it on the big set in the front parlor—I'll make a fire. That's if you think he wants to come over—maybe he'd rather not spend the evening in the company of someone he doesn't really know.”
Syd laughed. “Oh trust me— that's not a problem. He thinks he ‘knows' you already.”
“Great. Then let's say I come and get you in about—twenty minutes?”
“We'll be ready.”
She hung up and faced her brother. “Well, wise guy—it looks like you're going to get your wish. Maddie is on her way over here to pick us both up. We're going to watch the game at her house.”
Tom's blond eyebrow crept up closer to his hairline. “Really?” He rubbed the palm of his hand back and forth across his chin and cheeks. “Do I need to shave first?”
“To watch a basketball game and eat a bowl of chili? I hardly think so.”
“No offense, but I was thinking about sampling something a tad hotter than your chili.”
Syd sighed. “Believe me when I tell you this, Tom—you've got a snowball's chance in hell of Maddie becoming your Miss Right.”
He gestured toward the snow falling outside. “And a great day for that analogy. Besides, I'm not looking for Miss Right—I'm looking for Miss Right Now .”
She rolled her eyes. “Perv.”
“Get your jacket and help me carry this pot downstairs—we'll wait for her in the library.”
“Cool. I wanted to see the sights while I was here. Now that the most remarkable landmark is on its way, we can kill time exploring the other one until she gets here.”
Syd picked up her keys. “Whatever.”
When Maddie arrived at the library, Tom and Syd met her in the parking lot. The tall woman left the engine running on her dark green Cherokee, but hopped out and crossed the lot to meet them as they approached. She was wearing jeans and a brown leather aviator jacket. Her long dark hair was loose and dotted with fluffy bits of snow. Tom stood slack-jawed, holding the big, covered pot of chili, as he got his first real look at her. Even though he'd seen about a dozen photos of her, nothing quite prepared him for the reality of meeting her face-to-face. Holy shit, he thought. She's fucking gorgeous.
He watched her stride right up to his sister and envelop her in a full-body hug, before she turned to face him with a magazine-cover smile on her face. She still had an arm draped loosely around Syd's shoulders.
“You have to be Tom,” she said in that sexy, alto voice. “I'm glad to meet you.” She studied him with the most incredible blue eyes he'd ever seen. “I think I'd be able to pick you out of a police lineup.” She looked back and forth between brother and sister. “You two could almost be twins.”
He had to force himself to stop gaping at her and say something. Open his mouth. Make intelligible sounds. It really wasn't that hard. God.
“Yeah. Nice to meet you, too.” Wow, that was really impressive . He tried again. “I hope you don't mind having me crash your reunion dinner?”
She released Syd and smiled at him again. “Not at all—I'm actually a closet college basketball fan, so I'm happy to have a good excuse to watch the game.” She winked at him, and he felt an unmistakable twinge of arousal as he stared back at her. Jesus.
Syd looked at her. “You are?”
She nodded. “Sure. But when you go to a lame-ass basketball school like Stanford, you don't talk about it much.”
Syd chuckled at her. “I think that's the first time I've ever heard the words ‘Stanford' and ‘lame-ass' used in the same sentence.”
Maddie shrugged good-naturedly. “Let's get going and head on out to my place—we can have a much livelier debate about this once we're safely inside and out of this weather. Tom, do you need a hand with that?”
He was still staring at her stupidly. “Uh—no. No, it's fine. Lead on.”
He caught Syd's eye as they started trudging across the snow-covered parking lot toward the Jeep. She was looking at him with an odd mixture of amusement and suspicion. See? Her glance seemed to say. I told you she was out of your league . But there was something else, too. Syd's demeanor toward the tall woman seemed—proprietary. Even possessive. No. That couldn't be right. She just didn't want him to make an ass out of himself with her new BFF. But that hug. What was that all about? They sure looked—glad—to see one another. It he hadn't been watching the other woman with his sister, it would've been almost hot . He looked Maddie up and down as she pulled open the two side passenger doors of her Jeep. Her jacket was unzipped and he caught a glimpse of the long body it concealed when she bent over to move something off the rear floorboard. Shit. There's no way. Not her . He looked at Syd. Not her, either. Fuck. Who even knows any more? As he climbed into the backseat of the Jeep, he met those hypnotic blue eyes again. And who cares?
Maddie led them up the porch steps to the kitchen entrance of her house and stood, shaking the snow out of her long hair. She unlocked the door and stepped inside, barking a command at Pete, who had heard them approaching from the barn. “Sit! Stay.”
She ushered Tom and Syd inside. “Let me take your coats. Tom, you can set that right over there on the stove.” She gestured across the room toward the massive Wolf range.
Syd unwound her scarf and handed it with her coat to Maddie. She knelt and held her hands out to Pete, who was still seated, but squirming with excitement. “Hey handsome—come and see me.” The big dog waddled over to her and laid his head in her lap, his tail making a staccato beat on the tile floor. Syd kissed the top of his head. “I missed you. Yes, I did,” she cooed as she scratched behind his yellow ears.
Maddie watched them both with affection. “I think he missed you, too. I haven't seen him this animated since Thanksgiving.”
Tom walked back across the room and handed his jacket to Maddie. “This place is incredible. Have you lived here long?”
“In fact, this was my father's home—but I did sort of grow-up here. I've been living here full-time for about two years now.” She took his jacket and hung it next to Syd's on a peg near the back door, struck again by his strong resemblance to his sister. He was a handsome man—taller than Syd, but with the same sandy blond hair and green eyes. She guessed that he was pretty popular with the ladies back at Tech. She turned back to face him.
“So, Tom—Syd tells me that you're in veterinary school?”
“Yeah. But not to be a vet—I'm more interested in the lab side of things. I'm working on my MS in Biomed/Vet Services.”
She nodded. “So you want to do research?”
“Yeah. In truth, I don't think I could cut it as a practicing veterinarian—I don't really have the stamina for that.”
She laughed. “I know what you mean. It's a lot harder than med school.”
Syd looked up at her. “Oh, come on.”
Maddie nodded. “I'm not kidding. We only had to learn one system—veterinarians have to learn dozens.” She shook her head. “That was entirely too daunting for me.” She looked thoughtful. “Not that there haven't been times when I've treated patients in the ER who seriously pushed the envelope on what constituted a fair definition of human .”
Tom laughed. “I know what you mean. I was an undergrad at Drexel.”
“Oh, really? I participated in a couple of job-fairs there for premed students when I was working in Philadelphia.”
“I know,” Tom replied.
Syd stood up quickly. “Why don't we get this chili heating-up and go make that fire you promised?”
“Sure,” Maddie said, somewhat surprised. “Come on, Tom—you can help me carry some wood in from the front porch.” She turned and led the way down the wide center hall, with Pete following close behind.
The game was nearing the end of the second period and the Hokies were clinging to a narrow lead over the Blue Devils. Duke was suffering from an uncharacteristic number of turnovers and missed free throws, and the Virginia Tech team was cashing in on every mistake. Tom was clearly beside himself, but Maddie had seen the Blue Devils rebound too many times in the final minutes of a game to be so confident that the Hokies had put this one away. She picked up her chili bowl and decided to head back to the kitchen for another helping. In her view, this game was plainly headed for overtime.
“Anybody else ready for more?”
Tom was oblivious, but Syd stood up and joined her. “I'll go with you.” She looked down at her brother, whose gaze was fixed on the big, flat screen TV. Duke's best free throw shooter was approaching the foul line. She picked up his bowl, too. “He's in la-la land. I'll bring him some more.”
Together, they walked back toward the kitchen. It was the first time they had been alone together since Syd got back from Maryland. Maddie didn't want to waste the chance to enjoy a few minutes of solitude with her. Entering the kitchen, she set her bowl down on the center island and turned to face the shorter woman. She could hear Tom cursing in the background.
Syd put down the two bowls she was carrying, and gave her a quiet smile. “Hi.”
They faced each other in silence for a moment, before Maddie held out both arms in invitation. “Come here, you.”
Syd stepped forward without hesitation and they hugged each other warmly.
“I missed you,” Maddie murmured against the top of her head.
“Me, too,” Syd said, smiling against her shoulder. “Who knew a week could be so long?”
“Was it really that rough?” Maddie backed up and held her at arm's length.
“Not rough. Just long. Too long. I wanted to be here.” She met Maddie's eyes.
“Here?” Maddie felt her pulse begin to race.
Syd laughed. “ Here . Jericho.” She stepped back and absently tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “But here with you is pretty nice, too. Thanks for having us over. I know this probably isn't quite the reunion you had planned.”
You can say that again , she thought. “It's fine. I get to see you, and eat my weight in this truly fabulous chili. What more could a girl ask?”
Syd looked for a moment like she might have a response to her question, but they were distracted again by groans and curses from the front parlor. She rolled her eyes. “How much longer is this torture likely to last?”
“Do you mean the basketball game? Or my scintillating repartee?”
Syd seemed to deliberate. “Do I have to make a snap decision?”
“Smartass. And here I was trying to be all charming for your brother.”
“Oh, trust me—you don't have to try to impress him. He was sold on your ‘charms' about two seconds after meeting you.”
Maddie tried to hide her smile. “Really? Hmmmm.”
“Yeah, yeah—go ahead and gloat . Your conquest of the Murphy men is proceeding apace.”
Maddie leaned back against the granite countertop and crossed her arms. “And what about the rest of the Murphy clan?”
Syd lifted her chin. “What about them?”
“How likely are they to fall before my full-frontal charm offensive?”
“Well I don't know.” Syd's gaze was hypnotic. “How important is it for you to find out?”
“It could be very important,” she said, quietly.
“Oh, yeah?” Syd's voice was a near whisper.
“Uh huh.” Maddie dropped her arms and began to take a step toward her just as Tom entered the room.
“Hey—who took off with my chili bowl?” He stood in the doorway, facing the two of them with a surprised look on his face. “Um—did I interrupt something?”
Syd abruptly turned toward the stove. “Of course not. Are you ready for another bowl?”
Maddie walked over to the Subzero and opened its big glass door. “Want another beer, Tom?” she asked, ducking her head inside to hide it. Her heart was about to hammer through her chest wall, and she was trying desperately not to blush.
“Sure,” he said. “The game's gone into overtime—Duke hit four consecutive free throws. Bastards.”
Maddie laughed as she stood upright and handed him a cold bottle of Stella Artois. “Told you.”
“Yeah, well—it ain't over yet.” He took the beer and walked over to stand next to Syd. “Damn,” he said, as he looked out the kitchen window. “That's some storm raging out there.”
Not just out there , Maddie thought. “Yeah. We need to keep an eye on it or you two really will be stuck here until the spring thaw.” Syd looked up from ladling the chili to meet her eyes. Maddie felt momentarily woozy. What the hell was happening here? What had she almost done? Jesus. “What a shame that would be.”
Syd smiled at her without speaking and reached to pick up another bowl.
Tom tilted his head toward the front room. “I'm not going anyplace until this game is over. He picked up his bowl. “You two coming?”
Maddie sighed as she picked up her own bowl. “Right behind you.”
After two rounds of overtime play, Duke managed to hang on and nail an 18-foot shot at the buzzer to win the game 69–67. Tom was nearly inconsolable.
It was after 8:00, and the snow was finally starting to taper off. Syd was agitated beyond measure by her behavior with Maddie in the kitchen. She had been unable to concentrate on anything else since they had rejoined her brother in the parlor. If Tom hadn't walked in on them when he did, what would have happened? And even worse, what did she want to have happen? Her brain was on overload. Why did she continue to behave the way she did around Maddie—like she was some kind of hormone-addled teenager who was incapable of rational thought? God, she even made her brother look mature. She'd never acted this way before—not around other lovers, and certainly never around another woman. None of it made sense to her.
Maddie sat several inches away from her on the small loveseat. They had been consigned to sit next to each other when Tom commandeered the only other chair in the room. Syd hugged the armrest as tightly as possible, trying to avoid any accidental contact with their hostess. Maddie appeared oblivious to this as she quietly watched the end of the game. Syd discreetly stole a glance at her. Maddie had an arm propped up on the back of the sofa, and her head was resting on a curled hand. Syd allowed her gaze to travel down her shapely, long torso and along the length of her outstretched legs—crossed on the ottoman in front of them. God. She's so beautiful . She lifted her gaze, and realized that Maddie was now looking at her. When she met those blue eyes, something surged through her body like an electric shock. What was it? Panic? Fear? Desire? They stared at each other unblinking as the sports commentator droned on in the background. Jesus . Syd's heart was about to pound out of her chest. She was certain that Tom would hear it over the din of the TV. She couldn't think. Couldn't breathe. She was consumed with wanting to touch her—wanting to kiss her. For a split second, she thought that Maddie felt the same way. She saw something flicker in her blue eyes. They seemed to get darker, smokier. She lifted her head from her hand and moved her arm to rest along the back of the sofa behind Syd's shoulders. Almost involuntarily, Syd leaned slightly toward her—heedless of her brother sitting several feet away. Maddie slid her hand behind Syd's neck and pulled her forward, both of them gasping when their bodies finally came together. The broadcast of the basketball game thrummed on. Another foul. Another free throw. It didn't matter. None of it mattered. Syd was lost. Her confusion had dissipated. All that remained was a haze of yearning. She raised her hands to Maddie's face—her beautiful face with its classic features. She stroked the wide planes of her cheeks and ran her thumbs across her full lips. Then she kissed her. They dissolved into one another and sank down into the cushions as the capacity crowd in Cassell Coliseum exploded in cheers. A ninety-percent free throw shooter had missed another shot. Duke had missed again—and Maddie was on top of her, kissing her back.
Somewhere in hell, a snowball got a second chance.
Maddie was kissing her. She was suffused with heat. Her brain was spiraling out of control. But something was wrong. A noise was distracting her. Beeping and grating. It grew louder. Her eyes fluttered open. It was dark. She was disoriented. The beeping continued. Recognition dawned. A snowplow. It was a snowplow on the street below her window. God. She was in her apartment. She was in her bed. Alone. She tugged her pillow out from beneath her head and held it tightly against her face. The beeping continued—a maddening, monotonous, unbroken stream. It was like a heartbeat. Beneath the blankets, she started to shake. Oh, Jesus. I am so fucked .
Syd walked back to the small oak study table near her office carrying two mugs of coffee. She'd asked Michael to meet her at the library, because she was going to be there all day, getting caught up on processing and shelving returns that had piled up during her week in Maryland. Tom had left shortly after breakfast that morning—once Syd got confirmation from Curtis Freemantle that county road crews had worked through the night, plowing the roads between Jericho and Jefferson.
She was exhausted and on edge. It had been impossible for her to go back to sleep the night before. Details from her dream had meshed so seamlessly with actual events from the evening at Maddie's that she began to grow confused about what was real and what was imagined. The dream. She didn't understand any of it—but she understood all of it. It was a terrifying jumble of known and unknown—things she thought she recognized tumbled together with new and unknown ingredients, creating a mixture that was exciting and strange. It was like her first experience of Indian cuisine: meats and vegetables she'd eaten her entire life were redefined. They exploded in new colors and exotic flavors—paired with spices and sauces in unlikely combinations that shocked her palate, and put all of her senses on high alert.
Even in her distress, she had to smile as she thought about how Maddie would react to being compared to a dish of garam masala. But that's exactly what she was: a dense and powerful combination of hot and sweet spices that made Syd shiver and sweat—but left her gamely craving more.
She handed Michael his coffee and sat down across from him. “Thanks for meeting me here—I know it seemed like an odd request.”
He shifted on his chair and stretched his long legs out to the side as he regarded her. “No problem. You sounded more than a little distressed. Did something happen with your brother?” He took a sip of his coffee and regarded her. Behind his dark-rimmed glasses, his gray eyes looked concerned.
“Not with Tom. No.” She nervously slid her mug back and forth between her open hands. “I—it's not about anyone else. Not really.” She met his gaze. “I need a sounding board. I need a friend—and I need to know that I can share this with you, and have it just be with you. And I apologize in advance for even asking that—I know it's unfair.”
“First—of course you can talk with me. And, second—I don't think asking me to keep this conversation just between us is unfair at all.”
She gave him a nervous smile. “You don't know yet what it is I need to talk about.”
He reached across the table and stopped her still-moving hands. “Then enlighten me, and we'll go on from there.”
She looked down at his hand as it rested on top of hers. “This isn't easy for me to talk about—I don't even know how to talk about it.” She looked up and met his eyes. “I'm not even sure what it is—but it's making me crazy and I have to figure it out.”
He continued to regard her quietly.
“Ever since I moved here, I've been—unsettled by something—by someone . And I thought—at first, I thought it was just a reaction to the separation, you know? To leaving Jeff and moving up here? I mean, I know I've been lonely and I haven't really—engaged—with anyone in quite a while. I had all those years in grad school to fill up my time, and it was easy to avoid how empty the rest of my life was. Does that make any sense?”
He gave her an encouraging smile. “Not yet—but I know you'll get there.”
She sighed. “I haven't had friends like you—like you and David…and Maddie—in years. She looked down at her coffee mug. “Maybe never.” She looked up at him again. “I mean, I've only been here—what? Three months? It's crazy. And already I feel happier and more settled than I've ever felt in my entire life.”
He looked confused. “And this is a bad thing, because?”
She shook her head. “It's not—it isn't that it's a bad thing. It's more that it's—complicated. I wasn't even aware of it at first. Not really. It just sort of grew up around me, and then I started to notice it from time to time. I still didn't quite get it—even when it was jumping up and down and waving its arms in my face.” She expelled a long breath. “And trust me: it's been waving its arms in my face for some time now. I can't pretend to ignore it any more.”
“And what is it?”
She leaned forward and raised her hands to her face. “Oh god. I thought this would be easier.”
“Syd?” he asked, gently.
She lowered her hands and met his eyes.
“What is it?”
“I think—Michael, I think I might have—feelings for—another woman.” She bit her lower lip as she looked at him with a lost expression. “For Maddie.”
He looked at her for a moment with an expression that was unreadable. Then he nodded. “And that makes you feel—how?”
“Oh god—how do you think it makes me feel? Lost. Terrified .” She shook her head. “Ridiculous. Confused.” She paused and added quietly, “Excited.” She leaned her forehead against the palm of her right hand. “I don't know what to do —I have no frame of reference for this. And even if I did—I don't want to risk losing her friendship.”
“Honey, what makes you think you would ever lose her friendship?”
“Michael, I can barely trust myself to be around her. Every time I'm near her, I start acting like a horny teenager—like some ridiculous caricature of Roma Jean Freemantle. I'm terrified that she's going to notice—that she's noticed already. I don't know what to do. I don't even know how to make sense out of this.” She looked at him with desperation. “I mean, is this a fleeting thing—a product of my years of isolation? Is it just a phase? Is it just a function of how starved I've been for meaningful adult companionship? What do I do? How do I understand this?” She rubbed her hand back and forth across her forehead. “And what if I lose her? I don't think I could stand that.”
“Okay. Okay. Let's just dial this back a bit. You can't take all of these issues on at once—you really will make yourself crazy.” He paused. “And me, along with you.” He smiled at her.
She sat back against her chair. “Okay.”
“So, you're saying that you've never had feelings or inclinations like this toward another woman before?”
“Like this? ”
She thought about it. “No. Not like this.” She looked past him toward the front of the library where the large poster of Danica Patrick hung next to the street door. The glamorous, dark-haired Formula One driver sat holding a James Patterson novel—staring back at her. Daring her to be honest with herself. She looked back at Michael. “I mean, sure—I've sometimes found other women to be attractive. But I've never—ever—acted on that or even thought about acting on it. No. No, it's never been like this. ” She slowly shook her head. “Not ever.”
He sighed. “So your feelings are pretty specific to Maddie?”
For just a moment, Syd felt like the floor had dropped away beneath her chair. “Yes.”
“Do you think this is just something you're ready to come to terms with, Syd? Something bigger about yourself that finally feels comfortable or safe enough to come out?” He paused. “Pardon the pun.”
Against her will, she laughed. “Oh god—I have no fucking idea.”
He reached across the table and took hold of her hands. “Here's what I think.” She stared back at him expectantly. “You need to try and relax . Don't keep trying to dissect this—let it evolve into whatever it's going to be. Give yourself time to figure it out—it's not some kind of relay race, and you don't have to break land records for speed to reach the next mile marker. Try to calm down. Cut yourself some slack.”
“But what if it's true?”
“What if it is? It doesn't change anything about who you are—not anything .” He raised an eyebrow. “Except maybe it shows that you have incredibly great taste in women.”
She rolled her eyes in dismay.
“Seriously. One day at a time, Syd. What will be, will be.”
She sighed. “I don't know if you just gave me good advice—or an index to your Doris Day recordings.”
He laughed. “With me, it's always best to ask.”
She sat quietly for a minute, digesting all he had said. “Even if I can manage to calm down—how on earth do I conduct myself around her? How do I manage not to mortify myself or embarrass her while I figure it all out?”
“Syd—I don't think you could embarrass her. Not with this. Not with anything, really. She's one of the best and kindest people I've ever known. You couldn't have a better partner—” he shrugged, “or friend in this.” He smiled at her. “Don't worry about Maddie. Don't worry about anything. Just take your time. Try to listen to your heart, and not your fear.”
“You make it all sound so simple.”
“Well that's the beauty of it. At the end of the day, it is pretty simple. Once you know and understand what the realities are, it's just a matter of choosing to accept them. And either you will or you won't—that's about all there is to it. The rest is just—noise.”
“Sound and fury?” she added.
He nodded. “Signifying nothing. ”
She sat back and nervously crossed her arms. “So where were you when I was going through puberty?”
He laughed. “When you were going through puberty? If I had to guess, I'd say that I was probably seated across a table from someone having exactly this same conversation—except I was sitting in your chair.”
“Should I try to avoid her? At least, until I have some greater clarity about my—motivations?”
He shook his head. “I don't see how that would help you—and it certainly wouldn't be fair to her. She wouldn't understand it. Believe me when I tell you that your friendship is important to her. She doesn't open up to people very easily—and being back here to live has been a difficult transition for her. She needs us—all of us.”
“I guess I knew that. I don't think I'd be very successful staying away from her anyway. It's the last thing I want.” She sighed, miserably. “And that's the problem.”
He took her hand again. “It only feels like a problem today. It won't forever—I promise. You'll get to the other side of this—and when you do, you'll know what the right course of action is. For you.”
She squeezed his big hand between both of hers. “I hope you're right. I feel so ridiculous right now—like I'm twelve again, with a crush on the most popular kid in school. I just don't want to make a fool out of myself.”
“You don't know that.”
“Yes, I do.”
She shook her head. “I'll just have to be more self-vigilant until I figure things out.”
“Syd, you don't have to be self-vigilant. This isn't a police action. If anything, you need to relax and be self-aware —that's what will set you free. The longer you try to constrain and avoid what you're feeling, the harder this process is going to be. Harder—and longer.”
“So you're saying I should just go on like normal?”
He nodded. “Like your version of normal, yes.”
“And if my version of normal means I end up totally losing control and throwing myself at her—what then?”
“Well, for starters—try to give me a heads-up before anything like that happens so I can be sure to sedate David. But otherwise, if you morph into some kind of sex-crazed wanton around her—then that's probably good information for you to have, too.”
She raised her hands to her face again. “Oh, god.” They sat in silence for a minute. “You know, I dreamed about her last night—in a graphic way. And I didn't want to wake up. And I tried all morning to blow it off—to tell myself that it didn't mean anything, but I knew deep down that it did. And I knew that I'd go crazy if I didn't talk with someone about it.” She met his eyes. “So I called you. You were the first person I thought about.”
He smiled at her. “I'm glad. And look at the bright side.”
“There's a bright side?”
“Of course there is. If my advice ends up sucking, I can always make it up to you by keeping you well-supplied in baked goods.”
“You mean, like cookies?”
“We could discuss cookies.”
“That could happen, yes.”
She deliberated. “So, do I have to be a sex-crazed wanton to get these chocolate cookies?”
“I'll get back to you on that.”
“Well then, I suppose I can contain myself for a few more days.”
“That's my girl.” He looked over her shoulder toward the back door. “In other news, it looks like the sun just came out.” He smiled at her. “Maybe that's a good omen for you?”
They smiled at each other.
The last day of the year was cold, but sunny and clear. Much of the accumulated snow had melted, but stubborn expanses of it continued to dot the pastures and cling to north-facing slopes. The roads, except for the remotest, unpaved county byways, were mostly clear—good news for local law enforcement, who worried about the presence of any hazardous travel conditions on a night that was sacred to revelry.
Maddie spent the day seeing patients in her clinic. It was a slow day with only four afternoon appointments, so she sent Peggy home shortly after 3:00, and sat at the front desk herself, trying to get caught up on correspondence while she waited on her last patient. She looked up when the door to the clinic opened, expecting to see Gladys Pitzer, who had called earlier about a puncture wound on her left forefinger. She had run some florist wire into it several days ago, and now thought it might be infected. Although she worked near the hospital, she preferred to see her own doctor, and Maddie encouraged her to stop by the clinic on her way home that afternoon—or to give her a call at home the next morning, and they could make arrangements to meet at the clinic later in the day.
But it wasn't Gladys—it was David. And he was carrying two large cups of coffee.
“Howdy, hot stuff,” he cooed as he crossed the small waiting room. “I just got these at Freemantle's—Edna made us a fresh pot. I had a feeling you'd still be here.”
She reached across the desk and took one of the cups from him. “Yeah—I've only got one more tentative appointment. Thanks for the coffee. What are you doing over here this afternoon?”
He perched on the edge of the desk. “I had to get a leak fixed on one of the front tires—that damn sensor light was driving me insane. It was like a strobe light cutting on and off.”
“I know what you mean.” She sat back in her chair and regarded him. He looked snappy in his wool slacks and cashmere sweater. “Isn't this ensemble a tad too GQ for the Firestone garage?”
He looked down at his trousered leg, as he slowly swung it back and forth. “I hardly think so. Some of us like to demonstrate that we shop at places other than the Salvation Army Thrift Store. Besides, have you seen the new manager over there?” He fanned his free hand back and forth in front of his face. “Oh, honey—he ain't at all like the local white meat. I think he commutes in from Abingdon.”
“Uh huh. And does Michael share your appreciation of this new natural wonder?”
“Oh, puh-lease! Michael has already had the damn Range Rover in there three times since last week. I figured it was my turn to enjoy the view.” He took a sip of his coffee. “So, what do you have on tap for tonight? Settling down in your quilted robe to watch the Lawrence Welk marathon on PBS?”
She smiled sweetly at him. “How'd you guess? I really can't keep any secrets from you, can I?”
“I wouldn't advise you to try.”
“How about you guys? Are you planning anything at the inn?”
“Nope. Not this year. We have no guests this weekend—by design. We're going to kick back, make some big, greasy pizzas, and drink our weight in cheap North Carolina wine.”
“Care to join us? That's really why I stopped by.”
“I had a feeling.”
“Rescuing you from a life of drudgery is like a vocation for me, Cinderella—it adds another star to my crown.”
“I think you might have mixed your metaphors. Isn't Cinderella the one who ends up with the crown?”
“I was referring to my celestial crown. If you weren't such a heathen, and occasionally went to Sunday school, you'd know these things.”
“Yes, it's clear how well a life of religious perspicacity has served you.”
“Oh shit, I hate it when you start trotting out those five-syllable words. It always makes me feel like my co-pay just jumped another ten bucks.”
“You're a lunatic.”
“So, what about it? Pizzas? Cheap wine? Eight o'clock? Your place?”
“ My place?”
“Of course. It's hardly a night off for us if we're slinging hash at the inn.”
She sighed. “Okay. Fine.”
“What about Goldilocks?”
She eyed him with suspicion. “What about her?”
He rolled his eyes. “Duh? What are her plans for the evening?”
Maddie shrugged. “Why would you expect me to know?”
David raised his eyes toward the heavens. “Oh, gee…I dunno. Maybe because, for some strange reason that completely eludes me, she seems to think that your porridge is just right?”
He set his coffee cup down on the desk and crossed his arms. “And that's why you're blushing—because I'm nuts?”
“Shut up, David. I'm not blushing—and even if I were, it would only be out of embarrassment for you, and how you cling to this persistent delusion.”
“Uh huh. And which of my many delusions would we be talking about?”
“Syd. Me. Give it up—it's never going to happen. And I don't want you playing any more of these reindeer games.”
He sighed. “In the first place, you're the one harboring persistent delusions. Anyone with opposable thumbs can see that the sprightly and curvaceous Miss Murphy has a more than sisterly fascination with your—” he waved his hands around to indicate her shape, “ stuff. ”
“And in the second place,” he continued, “even if you were right—and you're not—it ain't like we all move in such an expansive social set that we can afford to start editing out smart, funny, and charming companions. Especially ones who are so easy on the eyes.” He paused. “She's a good friend, Maddie—to all of us. And I'm not going to avoid her just because you can't keep your libido in your boxer shorts.”
She regarded him coolly. “I don't wear boxer shorts.”
“Yes you do—you just wear them on your brain .”
“If I ever figure out what that's supposed to mean, I'll be sure to come back with a crushing response.”
“You do that.” He stood up. “But in the meantime, I'm going to call her and see if she has plans for the evening. You can go home and douse your head in a bucket of ice water—right before you shimmy into your sexiest big girl britches and deal with it.”
She sighed. “ Fine. At least if I'm at home, I can get drunk.”
“That's my girl—always looking for the silver lining.”
They heard the sound of a car in the parking lot out front, and the opening and closing of doors. “And that's my cue to exit.” He leaned across the desk and kissed her on the top of her head. “Don't worry so much,” he said quietly. “I actually can behave myself when it really matters.”
She laid a hand on his forearm as he stood up. “David?”
He stopped and looked at her.
“It really matters.”
He nodded. “I know it does, sweetness.” He winked at her. “I'll see you tonight.”
She watched him retreat down the back hall as the front door to the clinic opened, and a distressed-looking and very pregnant Isobel Sanchez entered—with both of her young sons in tow . Maddie got up from her seat behind Peggy's reception desk at once, and hurried around into the waiting room to meet her.
¿Qué pasa? Are the boys sick?”
“No—no, Doctora. They are well. Bien. It is me.” She hesitated. “Much—blood. Estoy sangrando.” She raised a hand to her forehead and looked nervously down at her little boys. They stood half behind her and gazed up at Maddie with luminous eyes.
Maddie took her by the arm to steady her. “How long? ¿Cuánto tiempo?”
“I'm going to call an ambulance—llame a una ambulancia. Can you walk?” She gestured toward her examination rooms. “¿Puedes caminar a mi cuarto examen?”
“Is anyone with you?” Maddie gestured toward the parking lot.
“No. Ellos no me podrían esperar. No one.”
“¿Dónde está Carlos?”
“Working. En casa esta noche.” She hesitated. “To- tonight .”
Maddie nodded and turned to address the children. “Come with us. I want to make your mother feel better.” She crooked a finger to indicate that they should follow her. “Voy a ayudar a su madre se sienta mejor.”
“Gabriel, Héctor— vamos .” Isobel leaned heavily on Maddie as they started down the hallway, but after only a few steps, she half collapsed. There was an audible pop, followed by a gush of brownish liquid that began to pool about their feet.
Maddie recognized the meconium-stained fluid at once, but hastened to reassure the young woman. “The baby is coming. El agua se ha roto.” She directed her into the first room on the left, and helped her up onto a padded table. Behind them, the boys looked terrified. They huddled next to the door, trying not to look at the murky liquid on the floor. Their brown eyes were like saucers. Maddie grabbed some clean towels from a closet and placed them around Isobel's legs, then turned to the boys.
“Come in and sit.” She pointed to two chairs in the room. “ Siéntese con su mamá. Don't be afraid. No tenga miedo.” They shyly entered the room and perched on the ends of the chairs.
Maddie walked back to the hallway and knelt next to the puddle of brownish fluid. She dipped the end of a towel into it and held it to her nose. It smelled vaguely like Comet cleanser. She dropped several towels on top of the wet area and stood up to reach for the wall phone in the hallway. She quickly punched in the emergency number for the Jefferson EMT service. They answered on the second ring.
“This is Dr. Stevenson. I have a 24 year-old woman here in my clinic—she's in the 36th week of her pregnancy and has just sustained a meconium aspiration. I need immediate transport to the Wytheville ER, and an OB-GYN surgical team standing by for a probable emergency C-Section. I can stabilize her here. Tell the paramedics to use the clinic's rear entrance—we'll be waiting on them. Right. Yes. None. That's right. Thanks.” She hung up. Inside the examination room, Isobel was quietly reassuring her sons.
“No tenga miedo. La mamá es fina . El papá estará aquí, pronto. Sea valiente .”
Maddie stood there, holding the telephone and deliberating for only a moment, before she punched in another number and raised the handset to her ear.
“It's me. How good are you with kids?”
Syd laughed. “Is this some kind of radio quiz?”
Maddie sighed. “I wish. Look—I need your help. Now. Right now. Can you be at my clinic in ten minutes? I've got an emergency on my hands and I'm here alone.”
Syd didn't hesitate. “I'm on my way.” She hung up.
Maddie walked back into the examination room and washed her hands, before slipping on a pair of latex gloves and approaching the table. “Let's see what kind of entrance your little one is about to make.” She gave Isobel what she hoped was an encouraging smile. “Everything will be just fine. Todo será fino. We'll take good care of you.” She looked down at the two boys. “You, too. Usted, también.”
Syd arrived at Maddie's clinic just as the EMT truck was backing toward the rear of the brick building. She walked in the main entrance and met Maddie in the hallway that led to the examination rooms. She noticed the wet towels on the floor between them.
“Thank god,” Maddie said. “Perfect timing.” She wrapped an arm around her shoulders and stood with her a moment in the waiting room. “I owe you big time for this one. A very pregnant Isobel Sanchez is here with her two sons—and her water just broke. She's alone and doesn't have anyone to keep the boys until her husband gets back from Tennessee tonight. If she agrees, would you be willing to keep an eye on them until I can get back from the hospital? It shouldn't be more than a couple of hours.”
She nodded. “Absolutely. I'm happy that you thought to call me.”
Maddie smiled at her and gave her shoulders a squeeze. “Great. C'mon—I'll introduce you to them.”
Syd was anxious and intrigued as they approached an illuminated examination room. “Syd, this is Isobel Sanchez—and these are her sons, Héctor and Gabriel. Isobel is on her way to Wytheville to have her baby—and her husband is on his way back into town from Bristol. I'm going to ride with her in the ambulance—and we were wondering if you would be willing to keep Héctor and Gabriel company until their father can get back, or we can find a neighbor to help out?”
Syd smiled at the two boys. They looked wary, but curious. “Of course.” She looked at Mrs. Sanchez, who seemed barely more than a child herself. “I'll be happy to stay with them. Don't worry.”
Isobel gave Syd a grateful smile. “Thank you. Usted es muy amable.”
“I'm happy to help.” She hesitated. “Soy feliz de ayudar.”
Maddie smiled at her proudly, before leaving the room to greet the EMTs at the back door.
Syd knelt next to the chairs where the two children were seated. “Hola. Me llamo Margaret. Trabajo en una biblioteca. ¿Quiere usted los libros?”
They both nodded.
Isobel encouraged them. “Héctor. Gabriel. Vaya con la señora agradable. Debo ir al hospital ahora, pero el Papá estará en casa pronto.” The boys looked at Syd nervously. “Vaya con la señora— ahora . Go.”
Syd smiled at them encouragingly and held out her hands. The boys stood up and shyly took hold of them. She walked them out of the examination room and toward the lobby as the EMTs entered through the back door with a gurney. Maddie approached her and held out her hand. She was holding a set of keys. “Why not take the boys to my place? They can play with Pete.” She smiled at her. “It's well-known that Golden Retrievers are fluent in every language. I'll be home just as soon as I can get her settled—and have an ETA on her husband.”
Syd let go of Gabriel's hand and took the keys. “No worries. We'll all be just fine.” Maddie gave her hand a warm squeeze before releasing it. “Are the guys still coming by?”
“Yeah. I'll call them on the way to Wytheville—they can give me a ride home.” She looked back toward the examination room. “I need to go—with that amniotic fluid compromised, Isobel is sure to be facing an emergency C-Section.” She hesitated for just a moment. “I can't thank you enough for this, Syd.”
“Don't even think about it—I'm glad you called me.” She took Gabriel's tiny hand again. “Give me a ring when you can and let me know how she's doing.”
“Will do.” Maddie knelt next to the boys. “Be good for Miss Murphy. Su mamá será fina. No tenga miedo. Don't worry.” She rubbed them both on the tops of their heads and stood up. “See you later on.”
She turned around and walked back to join Mrs. Sanchez.
Syd smiled down at the boys. “Do you like dogs—yellow dogs? ¿Quiere usted jugar con un perro amarillo?”
They nodded in unison. “Let's go, then. Vayamos.” She led them across the lobby and out to her waiting car.
Michael was in a quandary about how he should conduct himself, once they all met up later at Maddie's. He needed to be mindful of Syd's confusion about her fledgling attraction to Maddie. He needed to help insulate Maddie from her full-blown attraction to Syd. And at the same time, he needed to somehow short-circuit any of David's continuing attempts to push the two women together.
And he needed to do all of this in secret.
Right, he thought to himself. A complete no-brainer. He was halfway home with groceries for the evening when his cell phone rang. It was Maddie.
“Well, hello. I was just thinking about you.”
“That's good, because we have a slight change in plans. I couldn't reach David.”
“No worries. What's up?”
“I have an emergency—and I'm actually on my way to the hospital now. Syd is already out at my place with a couple of additional dinner guests.”
“Really?” He was surprised. “Who?”
“I'll let her explain all of that. But I'm hoping you guys can go on out there a bit sooner than we planned, and give her a hand. She's actually babysitting some patients of mine. I don't know how long they'll be there—their mom's in labor and their father is out of town.”
“Oh—gotcha. She's keeping them at your place?”
“Yeah, it seemed easier. Do you think you could go on ahead and help her out? Maybe feed the kids some pizza?”
“Sure. No problem.”
“I was hoping that maybe David could give me a ride home from the hospital—my car's still at the clinic.”
“No sweat. Just give us a shout when you're ready and one of us will come and pick you up.”
“You guys are the best . I knew I could count on you.”
Michael laughed. “Some raucous New Year's Eve this is turning out to be.”
“You got that right. Look—I need to go, we're turning into the hospital.” She paused. “Oh—one last thing….”
“How's your Spanish?”
David and Syd were losing the card game. Losing badly. Across the kitchen table from them, Héctor and Gabriel had mounting books of cards. David groaned as he was forced to draw yet again from the dwindling deck.
Héctor giggled. “¡Vaya y pesque!”
David rolled his eyes. “Yes…that's right. I'm fishing . Again.” He eyed Syd as he tried to stuff the newest card into his burgeoning handful. “I think these two are shysters!”
“Don't look at me—I've got more cards than you have.”
The phone rang. Michael left the center island where he was rolling out pizza dough to answer it. “Happy New Year,” he said, holding the handset to his ear.
“How are things going out there?” It was Maddie.
Michael turned to face the card players. “ Great. I'm just about to get the pizzas in the oven—and your two favorite partners in crime are getting their tight little butts kicked in a cutthroat game of Go Fish . How are things where you are?”
“Isobel's doing just fine —she had a C-Section about an hour ago and is in recovery now. The baby is strong and healthy—a little girl.”
“Oh, that's great. Hang on—I know Syd wants to talk with you.” He turned to face the table and held the phone out toward Syd. “It's Maddie—and she's got good news.”
Syd jumped up from her seat and walked over to take the phone from him.
“Hi there. Tell me everything.” She perched on a kitchen stool.
“Hello yourself. It's all good—Isobel and the baby are both doing fine. She had a little girl—and she's beautiful. I just saw her.”
“Oh, Maddie—that's wonderful. Did she have the C-Section?”
“Oh, yeah. It was unavoidable. They couldn't wait on a vaginal delivery. There was too much risk of having the baby take that infected fluid into her lungs.”
“Has her husband arrived yet?”
“Yes, he just got here about twenty minutes ago. He's with Isobel now. I told him to stay at the hospital as long as he wanted to, and gave him directions to my place. He'll be by later tonight to get the boys.” She paused. “How are they?”
“They're fine. We've been playing cards.”
Maddie chuckled. “So I heard. Don't bet the farm, okay?”
“Oh, I promise . Are you coming home soon? We're about ready to feed the kids.”
“Yeah—that's another reason I'm calling. Do you think David would come and pick me up?”
Syd smiled and turned to nod at David, who was watching her expectantly. “If it got him out of this card game, I think he'd volunteer to Simoniz your Jeep.”
Maddie laughed. “Tell him I'll wait for him at the ER entrance.”
“Syd—I can't thank you enough for this. I know it was a lot to ask.”
“Don't even go there. Besides—Pete deserves most of the credit. You were right about his effect on the boys—they relaxed immediately when they got here and started playing with him.”
“Told ya. I'll see you soon, okay?”
She nodded. “Bye.”
David was already on his feet, putting on his coat and fishing his car keys out of a zippered front pocket. Syd turned to face the boys.
“¡Usted tiene a una hermana pequeña! Su mamá es fina, y su papá estará aquí pronto.”
They smiled as they nudged each other. Then they looked at Michael with concern.
“¿Cuándo comemos nosotros pizza?” Gabriel asked, seriously.
Syd sighed. “Men. You're all alike.” She looked at Gabriel “Yes. Soon. Pronto.”
They nodded and continued playing cards.
“And with that—I am outta here. I should be back with our wayfaring Sawbones in about an hour.” David headed toward the back door.
“We'll go ahead and feed the kids,” Michael said. “Then we'll eat together and celebrate when you two get back.”
“David waved as he walked out of the kitchen, “And get ready to pop a few corks—we've got some serious catching up to do.
Maddie and David got back shortly after 8:30, just as Syd finished settling the boys down upstairs in one of Maddie's guest rooms. At first, they were reluctant to go and lie down, but when she suggested to them that Pete looked really tired and needed a rest, they quickly volunteered to go along and help keep him company. Pete happily cooperated and hopped up onto the foot of the big double bed in Maddie's old room, and snuggled down between them. Syd knew that the boys would likely be sound asleep in minutes. She tugged the covers up over them and kissed them both on their foreheads.
“Have a nice nap. Duerma bien.”
They nodded and closed their eyes. She walked out and left the door ajar, so they could see the light from downstairs if they woke up before their father arrived. As she started down the hallway toward the back stairs, she smiled when she heard Maddie's voice drifting up from the kitchen below. She paused for a moment in the doctor's bedroom as she listened to the quiet sounds of talking, and the unmistakable clink of wine glasses.
She was happy. It felt right to be there—comfortable and right. Right in ways that were both exhilarating and terrifying. She knew that Maddie had probably had her choice of several dozen people who could have helped her out with Isobel's children—yet she had called her. Why? Was it because she spoke a little Spanish? Was it because she was coming by her house later anyway?
She turned her head at the sound of Maddie's silvery laughter. Or was it because she wanted to share this with me? With David and Michael —and me? Her thoughts drifted back to her conversation with Michael that morning. He was right: Maddie did need them. And they needed her. They were like a family—a curious, cobbled-together, but warm and comfortable family.
She looked around the doctor's bedroom. It was like an extension of her: tidy but lived-in—spare but tasteful, functional but personal—and punctuated with surprising flashes of color.
Yes. It felt right to be there.
She walked to the stairs and slowly descended into the kitchen.
Maddie looked up with a broad smile on her face as Syd walked into the kitchen.
“So you made it,” Syd smiled back at her.
“Oh, I'd never miss out on an opportunity to stuff myself on pizza and champagne.” Her blue eyes sparkled as she held a glass out toward Syd. “Join us in a toast?”
Syd walked over to stand beside her. “And just who might we be toasting?” she teased, as she took the glass.
David lifted his glass toward the ceiling. “To the newest little Sanchez—who just made her world debut two hours ago, but still managed to look older than Dick Clark!
“Hear, hear!” Michael agreed, clinking glasses with him.
“I'll drink to that,” Maddie said, locking eyes with Syd.
“Me, too.” Syd laughed.
They all drank together. Michael set his glass down and turned toward the oven. “Now clear a space—this pizza is beyond ready.”
“And I'm beyond ready to eat,” David said as he took his place at the table. “C'mon you two—siddown.” As they took their places, side by side, David topped off their glasses. “So tell me,
Cochise, was it hard for you to hand her off when you got to the hospital? I know how much you luuuuv to wield those sharp little knives of yours.”
“Nope. I was a good little family practice physician, and meekly got out of the way.” She reached out and plucked a Kalamata olive off the relish tray on the end of the table.
“Oh, yeah. I forgot,” David said. “Your track record with surgeons is serious bad news.”
Maddie shot him a dirty look before she removed the pit from her mouth and flicked it across the table at him.
“Hey! Watch the cashmere!”
“Hey, watch the comments .”
“Girls… please . Any more of this and I'll make you eat outside on the porch.” Michael set the large pizza down on a hot pad in the middle of the table. It was fragrant and bubbling—covered with garlic, fresh basil, goat cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes.
“My god, Michael—this smells fabulous.” Syd leaned over the pizza and tipped her head back as she inhaled.
“Yeah,” Maddie said. “And with the amount of garlic on it—it's a good thing we're all going to be eating it.”
“Oh, reeaaallly?” David drawled. “Just exactly what kind of activity did you have in mind for after dinner? Some kind of kinky, eclectic group thang?”
Maddie rolled her eyes. “Yes. Precisely. I thought we could play an adult version of your earlier amusement, and engage in a few provocative hands of strip Go Fish .”
David sat back and considered her. “Interesting. Draw a card—lose a garment. I like it. I'm game.”
“You're also an exhibitionist and a lousy card player.” She reached for a slice of pizza and put it on Syd's plate. “That's a dangerous combination.”
“Hey—I wasn't the only loser in the room. Miss Murphy over there was every bit as rotten as I was!” He took a sip of his champagne. “She'd end up naked a lot faster than I would.”
Maddie's hands paused in mid-air as she reached for another piece of pizza.
“Uh huh. That got you thinking, didn't it?” He sat back smugly and picked up his own slice.
Michael spoke up. “Honey, that cheese is really hot—be sure you take a nice big bite.”
David glowered at him.
Maddie shook her head.
Over their heads, the two little boys slept on.
And 22 miles away, in the maternity ward of the Wytheville Community Hospital, Carlos Sanchez and his wife Isobel named their tiny new daughter Madelena.
Carlos arrived at Maddie's farm a little before midnight. David and Michael helped him carry the still sleeping boys out to his battered station wagon, where they settled them under a couple of borrowed blankets on the back seat. Thankfully, they didn't have far to drive. Maddie and Syd followed them out to the barn where he had parked, and stood by while Carlos got his sons tucked in. He stood and turned to face the doctor.
“Gracias, Doctora. Estamos en su deuda para su bondad.” He looked at his shoes. “Yo nunca le puedo devolver.”
Maddie laid her hand gently on his shoulder. “No. You have a wonderful family. Fuimos todo feliz de ayudar.”
He met her eyes and smiled at her. Then he looked at Syd. “Gracias por cuidar de mis hijos. Thank you.”
She nodded and smiled at him.
He got into his car and drove slowly away from the house.
The four friends stood together at the edge of the yard and watched until his taillights disappeared.
David sighed. “And they're off. ” He held his wrist up into the light, and looked at his watch. “So…it's nearly time for that big, gaudy bauble to drop over Times Square. Let's go watch.” He took Michael by the arm, and steered him back toward the house. “You know, I heard that this year, they're using a set from one of Zsa Zsa Gabor's cocktail rings.”
Maddie couldn't hear Michael's muffled response as they walked off. She turned to face Syd in the semidarkness. They were standing in one of the long shadows cast by the light on the front porch, and she could barely make out her features.
“Quite a night.”
Syd laughed. “One for the record books, that's for sure.”
“I'm sorry about that—I know this probably wasn't the kind of evening you had in mind.”
“Don't be silly. I had a wonderful time. Those boys are adorable.”
Maddie laughed. “Michael and David?”
Syd chortled. “That goes without saying. But I was referring to Héctor and Gabriel.”
“They sure are.”
“I have to tell you, something like tonight would never have happened in Baltimore.” She looked at Maddie. “Or Philadelphia. We'd have had to turn them over to Social Services.”
Maddie nodded. “No kidding. I think that's one of the things I like best about being back here to live—it's possible to practice medicine that includes a healthy dose of human kindness.”
“I think that would be part of your practice no matter where you lived.”
Maddie was glad the darkness hid her blush.
Syd took a deep breath. “Look at that sky—I've never seen so many stars.”
Maddie agreed. “It's going to get a lot colder.”
“Uh huh—I'm freezing.”
Maddie wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Come on then, let's go warm up and welcome the New Year.”
They slowly started walking back toward the house. Syd had her arms crossed against the cold, and Maddie instinctively tugged her a little closer as they made their way toward the porch. “Are you tired?”
“Strangely, no. I guess it's all the excitement.” She looked up at Maddie. “I guess you're a little more accustomed to events like this.”
Maddie met her gaze. “Me? No—not really. I have to tell you that no matter how many times I witness it, I'm always awestruck when a woman delivers a baby. There's just something so surreal about being present at the outset of that tiny new life. I mean, there they are —perfectly formed, and perfectly unformed. They have everything before them. And for a few finite moments, everything is possible. They've never been hurt, they've never been disappointed, they've never been afraid, they've never made mistakes—they're just wonderfully present and ready to begin it all. ” She laughed and shrugged. “Starting with a meal, a bowel movement, and a good cry.”
Syd laughed with her. “You sound downright humbled.”
“I am humbled.” She stopped abruptly and turned to face her. “You're not now going to follow that sage observation up with some sarcastic remark about my ego are you?”
Syd gave her an innocent look. “Me? Would I do that?”
Maddie narrowed her eyes. “In about half a nanosecond.”
Syd laid a hand on her forearm. “Not this time. I like it when you get all sappy and philosophical. It's sweet.”
“ I'm sappy and sweet?
“Right now you are, yes.”
Maddie sighed and shook her head.
“I never knew you had such maternal instincts,” Syd said. “It's sweet .”
“Yes, you. I saw how you looked at those little boys—like they were pieces of marzipan.”
Maddie looked at her with a sober expression. “I hate marzipan.”
“I don't believe you.”
“Oh, now there's an informed response to a declarative statement.”
“Don't try and goad me into a different train of thought. Just admit that you like kids.”
“So what if I like them—sometimes? Occasionally. That doesn't make me all maternal.”
“You're not maternal?”
Maddie snorted. “No.”
“You don't ever want kids of your own?”
“Let's just say that it's not in my long-range plan.”
“You have a long-range plan?”
Maddie chewed the inside of her cheek. “I'm beginning to formulate one, yes.”
They were startled by a sudden burst of gunshots and firecrackers. The remote chorus raged for several minutes as they stood still to listen, standing close together on the lawn near the steps to the porch. Silently, they turned to face one another with smiles on their faces.
“So. Happy New Year,” Maddie said.
“Back atcha,” Syd replied, quietly.
They continued to stare at one another while the distant sounds of celebration from neighboring farms rolled across the valley and echoed all around them.
Maddie leaned forward and kissed Syd softly on her forehead.
David walked over to the front door and opened it, anxious to fetch the two women who were still out in the yard. He had a freshly opened bottle of champagne in his hand, and he was ready to toast the New Year. In the parlor behind him, the voice of Ryan Seacrest could be heard—shouting above the din in Times Square. He cast his eyes across the lawn toward the barn and saw them before he could call out. They were standing close together in the shadows near the porch. He strained his eyes to get a better view. No, they weren't just standing close together—they were hugging . He looked down at the beads of sweat on the cold bottle in his hand, and smiled as he raised it to his lips. “It's gonna be a good year,” he said, before taking a big swig, and retreating to join Michael in the parlor.
Continued in Part IV
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