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 IV
On January 10, Tom Greene broke his arm in two places. The story he later told was that he sustained the injuries when he slipped on a patch of black ice while crossing a parking lot. The story his wife Muriel later told was that he fell off a barstool in their basement media room—and that the only ice he'd been near all evening had been floating in a tumbler of Jack Daniels.
But Dr. Greene's arm was well and truly broken, and it was clear that the Wytheville ER Chief was going to be out of commission for a good six weeks while he recovered. His first choice for a locum tenens was the supremely qualified Dr. Stevenson, who already filled in at the ER two weekends a month. But Dr. Stevenson had her own practice 22 miles away in Jericho, and he wasn't certain she could be prevailed upon to inconvenience her patients by managing his ER while he was incapacitated. He also had the option of trying to cherry-pick from doctors at neighboring hospitals, but Stevenson was the ideal choice. She had an impeccable professional pedigree, had previously worked as an assistant ER chief at a major metropolitan medical center, and was already familiar with his hospital's protocols. In addition, she spoke fluent Spanish—an increasing asset, since most of the undocumented Hispanic residents of the area received their medical care in the hospital's ER.
He was determined to persuade her, but he knew it wouldn't be easy. He'd run headlong into her iron will before, and he knew that to succeed, he'd have to couch his offer in exactly the right terms. He picked up the phone on his desk with his left hand, and slowly dialed her number.
“Maddie? Hi, it's Tom Greene. I doubt if you've heard this yet—but I fell yesterday and managed to break my arm.” He chuckled. “Yeah—it's pretty pathetic. Transverse fractures of the radius and ulna.” He looked down at the cast that encompassed his hand and covered his entire forearm. “The right one—of course.” He laughed again. “Listen. I'm sure you know why I'm calling you—and before you say ‘no,' I want you to listen to my proposal.” He paused. “Well, I was giving some thought to that Parish Nurse program you talked with me about a couple of months ago, and I think I have an idea….”
Maddie had been working for three weeks as Acting ER Chief of the Wytheville Community Hospital. Through some careful juggling, she had managed to maintain clinic hours in Jericho for two mornings and one afternoon a week. Peggy was holding down the fort the rest of the time, and, soon, she would have the additional support of a licensed Nurse Practitioner.
Tom Greene had managed to shake loose some uncommitted Untied Way funding, and had pledged to have his hospital underwrite the remaining part of the expense of hiring someone to staff a limited Parish Nurse program in the surrounding county. Maddie had conducted phone interviews with several candidates for the post, and was scheduled to meet with the best of the finalists in her makeshift office at the hospital on Friday afternoon.
It had been a busy day in the ER, replete with a rather grisly leg wound injury sustained during late-season bow hunting for deer. Two brothers had been out on a ridge near the New River Shot Tower, and one had fallen from a tree stand, lodging an arrow in his thigh when he hit the ground and landed on his hip quiver. His brother was able to control the bleeding and drive him to the hospital, where Maddie removed the broadhead-style arrowhead—which, fortunately, wasn't very deeply embedded. She then had to set and cast his broken left wrist.
She was required to report hunting injuries like this to the local fish and game commissioner, and even if she hadn't been, Maddie would have contacted the authorities once she smelled the alcohol on the breath of her patient. She was persuaded that his fall from the tree stand was due more to intoxication than excitement over getting off a clear shot at a retreating deer.
Once her patient had been attended to and the game commissioner had arrived to interview him, she headed off to her office to check her messages and prepare for the interview. She was surprised when she rounded the corner to see that her candidate had already arrived, and was quietly seated on a straight chair outside her office door. The woman looked up in surprise as Maddie approached, and smiled as she got to her feet.
“Are you Dr. Stevenson?” she asked, with a soft southern drawl.
Maddie nodded and extended her hand. “Yes. You must be Elizabeth Mayes.” They shook hands warmly.
“Please call me Lizzy. Only my mama calls me Elizabeth—and then, only when I'm in trouble for something.”
Maddie smiled at her. “Oh? Are you in trouble often?”
The petite redhead demurred. “You don't expect me to reveal a thing like that during a job interview, do you?”
Maddie nodded. “Right. Well, come on in and let's see what else I can trick you into not telling me.”
They walked inside and sat down on facing upholstered chairs. “Was the drive up from Nashville long?”
Lizzy settled her bag and briefcase on the floor next to her chair and crossed her legs at the ankles. “Not too bad. I left at about 7:00 this morning.”
Maddie glanced at her watch. It was a little after 3:00 p.m. “That's still a along drive. But you have family in the area, don't you?”
“That's right. My sister lives in Jefferson—Rachel Wilson. That's how I heard about the position. She works in the county manager's office.”
Maddie nodded. “Would you like something to drink? I have access to soft drinks—or I can get you a cup of the world's worst coffee?”
Lizzy smiled at her. “That does sound awfully tempting—but I think I'm just fine for now.”
“Well then, why don't you tell me a little more about yourself and why you think the prospect of practicing in a remote area like this sounds appealing to you?”
“Okay. And if you're satisfied with my answers—can I be direct and ask you the same questions?” Lizzy's brown eyes looked directly into Maddie's. They were intelligent and curious, and their corners were crisscrossed with smile lines. Her gaze looked open and unguarded. Maddie decided that she liked her.
“I don't see why not,” she answered.
Lizzy nodded. “So. I got my BSN at UT and worked for five years at a hospital similar in size to this one.” She paused. “I hated it. It was mostly housekeeping and paperwork—not the kind of nursing I'd always dreamed about.” She smiled to herself. “You know—I had all those Cherry Ames-type fantasies— Dude Ranch Nurse, Department Store Nurse, Cruise Ship Nurse . Crazy stuff. But I knew that, for me, nursing was a calling.” She met Maddie's eyes. “I won't deny that my faith is important to me—and I see a real parallel between the daily exercise of it and my chosen profession. Don't let that scare you,” she quickly added. “I'm not some kind of born-again snake-handler.” When Maddie chuckled, she continued, “And I sure hope you're not either, cause if you are, then I just blew the hell out of this interview.”
Maddie smiled at her. “I think your secret is safe with me.”
Lizzy let out a long breath. “Thank god. Well. I left the hospital and got a job in Nashville, working out of a community center managed by Lutheran Family Services. That's how I became interested in the whole Parish Nurse model. It just seemed to fit me perfectly. So I enrolled in the NP program at Vanderbilt, and finally finished up my degree last spring. The rest, as they say, is history.”
“How long have you been with Lutheran Family Services?” Maddie asked.
“Three and a half years.”
“Do you do any work out of local church congregations—or are all of your services provided through the community center?”
“Most of the work happens in the center—but I do remote visits to several small churches twice a month—on Wednesday nights and Sunday nights. I see about 40 regular patients that way. Many of them don't have access to transportation into Nashville—or would be terrified to try getting into the city if they could.”
“By comparison to here, Nashville is a teeming metropolis.”
“That's true. But you'd be surprised how quickly you get into genuine Tennessee backcountry once you're five miles outside the Nashville city limits.”
“I'm sure that's true.”
“And I have a more than a passing familiarity with this area. My sister and her husband have lived here for nigh-on fifteen years now. I've spent a fair amount of time with them on holidays and during the summer months. I'm devoted to my nieces and nephew.”
“Well, you have excellent credentials, Lizzy. Your transcripts from Vanderbilt are very impressive.”
Lizzy met her gaze evenly. “Thank you for saying so. I worked very hard.”
“It's clear that you did. Tell me what you find most appealing about the prospect of living and working here—and why a fledgling program like this one is of interest to someone with your accomplishments?”
“I'm 30 years old, Dr. Stevenson. I want to put roots down someplace—someplace simpler and less frenetic than Nashville. I want to do the good work I've been trained to do in a more direct way—a way that helps people and that feeds my need to embrace the real meaning of the vocation I've chosen. I want to be a nurse—a good nurse. And I want to know and care for the people I meet in ways that will enrich their lives, and mine.” She paused. “I really can't state it any better than that.”
They were both quiet for a moment. “I really don't think you could,” Maddie said.
“As for this particular program,” Lizzy continued, “I love the fact that I'd be getting in on the ground floor—and that I'd have a role in helping structure it to do the most good. And that's especially true during the early phases, while we're scouring around for permanent funding. You don't know this, but I'm a pretty determined cheerleader for the things I believe in. I think I could be a real asset to you as you try to embed this program in the minds and hearts of the people controlling the purse strings.”
Maddie nodded. “I freely confess that I royally suck at raising money.”
Lizzy laughed. “So, if you hired me, it appears that we would already be starting off with a good division of labor?”
“You might say that.”
“So?” Maddie replied.
“So—how about you? I won't deny that I did a bit of Google research on you to prepare for today. How on earth did someone with your stellar background end up in an area like this?”
“Oh, there's not much mystery to that. I'm a local. I came back here two years ago to take over my father's practice.”
“Oh, I see. That makes sense, then. Do you like being back here? You were at Presbyterian in Philadelphia, weren't you? That makes Nashville look like Mayberry.”
Maddie laughed. “It's not quite that dramatic. But, yes—I was at Presby. I did my residency there, and then stayed on to work in the ER. This, though,” she paused as she considered her words. “This grows on you in ways you wouldn't expect.” She looked up to meet Lizzy's brown eyes. “At least, in ways I didn't expect. I've been practicing medicine for over ten years now, but I can honestly say that I only really became a doctor about 18 months ago.”
Lizzy nodded. “I know exactly what you mean.”
Maddie continued to look at her intently. “I think you do.”
They sat for another moment in silence, and then Maddie patted her knees with the palms of her hands and got to her feet. “So, when would you like to go visit the clinic and see your new office?”
Lizzy looked at her with a stunned expression. “I'm hired?”
“Just like that?”
“Holy cow.” She looked up at Maddie with amazement. “You're serious?”
Lizzy laughed. “My sister is gonna freak out.”
“Fortunately, you'll soon be licensed to prescribe antidotes for that.”
“Don't think that hasn't occurred to me.” They smiled at each other. Lizzy shook her head in wonder. “Surely you're at least going to call my references?”
“I already have,” Maddie replied. “And don't call me Shirley.”
Lizzy snorted as she got to her feet. “Oh lord, another Airplane! junkie. This is getting way too weird.”
“I think you might be right.”
They walked together toward the hospital lobby, and made plans to meet the following morning at Maddie's clinic in Jericho. Maddie smiled to herself as she headed back toward the ER. Tom Greene was an old letch and a royal pain in her ass, but his little arm-twisting scheme to entice her to manage his fiefdom during his convalescence had certainly just paid off for the county. Big time. Things were definitely looking up.
It was Friday evening, and activity in the library had slowed to a crawl. The local high school basketball team had a home game that night—and most of the teens and half the adults in the county were planning on attending. Roma Jean and Jessie were both playing in the school's pep band, so Syd was staffing the place by herself. Her last patron of the day sauntered away from the circulation desk, carrying a stack of fat Chilton manuals. She smiled to herself. Somewhere in town, a late-model Dodge pickup was in for a serious overhaul. She watched him leave, and her eyes drifted again to the poster of Danica Patrick that hung on the wall next to the street door. I need to move that damn thing .
She hadn't seen or talked to Maddie in nearly ten days—and she had used that time to good advantage. Through careful and honest introspection, she had managed to dissect her— attraction —to the other woman. She now understood it as a somewhat surprising, but reasonable response to her emotional isolation. In the four months she had lived in Jericho, Maddie had all but shattered her self-imposed barriers, pulling her out of herself and into a warm circle of light that was populated with a quirky and amazing ensemble of friends.
And those friends now were her friends. It was an incredible turn of events—and it made sense that her gratitude toward the doctor would overflow and morph into something richer and more indefinable. It made sense. Didn't it?
Of course it did.
She reminded herself of what Michael said the day they talked. None of this changed anything about who she was. It wasn't that uncommon to confuse gratitude with—something else. And god knows, she'd been alone long enough to realize that she was sitting on a stockpile of suppressed sexual energy that could probably light up a small town. She felt sometimes like one of the damns on the river south of town—if she didn't stop holding it all back, she'd risk cracking into a zillion pieces and flooding everything in her path. God. Even the new manager at the tire store was starting to look good to her. It was no wonder she was such a mess. But at least she hadn't had any more of those dreams.
Well. Not many more.
At 6:15, Syd locked up the library for the night. She had just climbed the stairs to her apartment and unlocked her door when her cell phone rang.
“Hello?” she said, as she closed the door and dropped her keys on the kitchen table.
“Howdy stranger.” It was Maddie. “Remember me?”
Syd smiled. “Barely. How are you?” She pulled out a chair and sat down.
“Want the truth?”
“Of course I do.”
“I'm sure you are. I ran into Peggy today at Freemantle's, and she said you were burning the candle at both ends—running back and forth between the hospital and the clinic.”
Maddie sighed heavily. “Normally, I'd deny that—but this time, she's telling the truth. I should have my head examined for agreeing to take this on. When I got home last night, Pete actually growled at me. I don't know if he's mad at me for ignoring him—or if he simply didn't recognize me when I got out of the car.”
“I meant Pete . I think I'd probably growl at you, too.”
“Have I been ignoring you, too?” Maddie's voice sounded genuinely penitent.
“I'm nowhere near selfish enough to complain that you've been ignoring me—not when I know the reasons why you've been so out-of-pocket.”
“Really? And here I was kind of hoping you'd say you missed me.”
“I do miss you.”
Syd's candid response hovered in the air between them for a moment.
“I miss you, too,” Maddie said quietly. “But, hey? In three more weeks, Tom Greene will be back in the ER, and I can return to my life of simple lassitude.”
“I'll let the ‘lassitude' comment slide, since I know you're probably not firing on all 12 of your normal cylinders right now—but do you really think you can last three more weeks?”
“Oh, yeah. Especially now.” She sounded excited.
“I had something wonderful happen today—and selfishly, it's something that promises to make my life a whole lot easier.”
Syd was intrigued. “Care to enlighten me?”
“Sure. But first things first—have you eaten dinner yet?”
“Dinner? No—I just left the library.”
“Great. Wanna split a pizza with me?”
Syd smiled. “I think I could be persuaded.” She looked at her watch. “When and where do you want to meet?”
“How about at your street door in thirty seconds? I'm turning into your parking lot right now.”
Syd jumped up from her chair and walked over to the front window in time to see Maddie's silver Lexus pull into the library parking lot. She felt a rush of excitement as she saw the car pull to a stop, and the driver-side door open.
“So what would you have done if I hadn't been at home?” she asked, trying to keep her voice neutral, although what she was feeling was somewhere on the opposite side of neutral.
There was a flash of blue as Maddie climbed out of the car, and then reached back inside to remove a flat, white pizza box. “I'd have used the five pounds of pepperoni on this thing as bait to buy myself back into my dog's good graces.” She shut the car door and stood there, tall in her hospital scrubs, looking up at the window where Syd was standing with the cell phone still pressed to her ear. She smiled up at her and held both the pizza box and her cell phone over her head like offerings.
Syd shook her head and smiled back at her as she closed her cell phone and waved her toward the stairs.
They met at the door. Maddie smiled at her sheepishly and Syd knew she probably had a stupid grin on her own face. They regarded one another in silence for a moment before Maddie scrunched her eyebrows together.
“I know it's been awhile, but have you grown— shorter? ”
Syd yanked the pizza box out of her hands. “Gimme this and get in here before I change my mind.”
Maddie chuckled as she followed her up the stairs and into the tiny apartment. She put her cell phone and her keys down on the kitchen table and took off her leather jacket, hanging it over the back of a straight chair. Syd set the pizza down on the countertop, and walked over to the stove to turn the oven on. Then she turned to face the doctor. Maddie did look exhausted. She had dark circles under her eyes and there was an uncharacteristic droop to her shoulders. Before she could think better of the idea, she walked over to the tall woman and reached up to kiss her on the cheek.
“I really have missed you. And you look like hell.” She backed up a step. Maddie was plainly tired, but her blue eyes were sparkling. “Why don't you go collapse in a chair and I'll bring you something to drink?”
Maddie squeezed her elbows before turning toward the living room. “That's the best offer I've had in days.” She walked across the room and sank down onto the sofa. “Whatcha got? Something alcoholic, I hope. This is the first night in two weeks I haven't been on call.”
“Can do, Doctor. Beer or wine?”
“Surprise me.” Maddie kicked her shoes off and propped her feet up on Syd's fat ottoman.
Syd opened the refrigerator and pulled two bottles of Corona beer and a lime out and set them on the counter next to the pizza. “Do you want to eat right away?”
“No—why don't we relax and have a drink first—if that's okay with you?”
“It's more than okay. Let me stick this in the oven to keep it warm.” She lifted the pizza out of the box and arranged it on a baking sheet before sliding it into the oven and setting the timer. Then she opened the beer and stuck a narrow wedge of lime into the top of each bottle. She walked over to the doctor and held out one of the bottles. Maddie took it from her gratefully, and then patted the sofa cushion beside her.
“Sit down here so you can prop me up—if you don't I won't remain upright long enough to eat.”
Syd dutifully waked around the barriers created by the ottoman and the coffee table, and sat down on the couch beside her. They angled their bodies to face one another and clinked bottles.
“Here's to Friday-fucking night— at last .” Maddie took a long pull from her bottle and half-collapsed against the cushion at her back. “God, I needed that.”
“So, tell me what this good news is before you end up comatose on my floor.”
Maddie laughed. “Well, I just hired the county's very first full-time Nurse Practitioner.”
Syd sat up straighter and regarded her in amazement. “No way!”
“Way.” Maddie met her gaze with a smug expression. “Her name is Elizabeth Mayes, and she's going to start in two weeks. I'm showing her the clinic tomorrow.”
“Oh, Maddie. That's wonderful news. You must be beside yourself.”
“It is wonderful news.” She paused. “But I'm not really beside myself.”
Syd was confused. “You're not?”
“Nuh uh. I'm actually beside you —and given the choice, the view from here is a whole lot better.”
Syd knew that Maddie was just teasing her, but that didn't stop her heart rate from accelerating—nor did it short-circuit the blush that she felt creeping up her neck.
“Why do you do that?” she blurted, before she could stop herself.
“Say things like that to embarrass me.”
“Is that what I'm doing?” Maddie's tired blue eyes seemed to bore into hers.
“You mean it's not intentional?”
Maddie raised her arm to rest along the back of the sofa and opened her mouth to answer, but was interrupted by the sound of the oven timer beeping.
Syd looked toward the kitchen and sighed. “One slice or two?”
Maddie closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the sofa cushion. “Make it three . Maybe it'll help us both out if I have something to stuff into my mouth besides my foot.”
Syd ended up bringing the entire pizza into the living room and they made short work of it, sitting side by side on the sofa and resting their plates on the coffee table. While they ate, Maddie filled her in on the details of her candidate search, and her decision to hire Lizzy Mayes.
“She's going to be a godsend to the people who live in the higher elevations around here. We'll be able to extend the services of the clinic to populations who now rely entirely on the ER for routine medical care. It's a win-win scenario: they get better preventative health care, and Tom Greene's budget takes less of a hit on Medicaid expenditures.”
Syd nodded. “Will she also be available to see other patients of yours?”
“Oh yeah—on a limited basis. It's going to make it much easier for me to do things like the Richmond trip next month—and I might actually get a weekend off now and then.”
“In that case, I think it's an even better idea.”
Maddie smiled and sat back, rubbing her temples. “Me, too. I could really use a break.” She laughed quietly. “Not to mention, the vacuum cleaners are really starting pile up on my workbench.”
Syd watched her in silence for a moment. “Got a headache?”
“Yeah. It's been hanging around all day. I can't seem to shake it.”
Syd picked up a throw pillow and placed it across her lap. “Here,” she said, tapping the pillow. “Lie down and let me give you a head rub.”
Maddie opened one eye and regarded her. “Are you serious?”
“Do I not sound serious?”
“I just want to be sure before I collapse on top of you.” She was already shifting her six-foot frame around. “I'm an unabashed hedonist when it comes to head rubs.”
With an audible sigh, she leaned back and rested her head on Syd's lap. Her long legs draped over the arm at the opposite end of the sofa. Syd hesitated for only a moment before she slowly raised her hands and moved them into the doctor's dark hair, using her fingertips to make slow circles along the sides of her forehead. Maddie closed her eyes and moaned in pleasure, and Syd began to think that maybe this wasn't the brightest idea she'd ever had. She kept the soothing motions up, however, and tried to ignore her body's visceral response to touching Maddie in this innocent and well-intentioned way that suddenly wasn't feeling all that innocent. Her thick hair was surprisingly soft, and its sweet fragrance mingled with the unmistakable scent of antiseptic soap that permeated her blue scrubs. She felt the doctor relax under her touch—and after a few minutes, she realized that the sound of her breathing had deepened. Looking down at her with surprise, she realized that Maddie had fallen asleep. Smiling, she continued with the gentle touches and tipped her own head back against the sofa cushion, content just to enjoy their quiet proximity and not think too deeply about it. There would be plenty of time for that later.
Lots of time, she thought as she closed her own eyes. Lots of time .
Maddie sighed deeply and shifted her long frame. Her back was beginning to cramp from sleeping too long in one position. She'd obviously fallen asleep on the sofa again, but this time, she really didn't want to get up. Her head was cradled in a soft nest that smelled faintly of lavender, and the sensation created by the hands moving slowly through her hair was luxurious and sensual.
Her eyes flew open. Holy shit. She started to sit up, but immediately felt Syd's hand on her shoulder, calming her. “Oh, my god—I fell asleep, didn't I?”
Above her, Syd sounded amused. “Um hmm.”
Maddie reached up and rubbed her eyes. “How long?”
“About an hour.”
“Jesus. I'm sorry, Syd.”
Syd smiled down at her. “Don't apologize. But at least tell me that your headache is gone.”
Maddie struggled up into a sitting position. “Oh yeah—it's way gone.” She reached up and raked her fingers through her long hair, fluffing it out into some semblance of order. “Wow. You've got some kind of magic in those fingers of yours.”
“As much as I'd like to take the compliment, I think you just needed a nap.”
“A nap and a lap?” Maddie chuckled. “I'll have to remember this prescription.”
“Homeopathic remedies are often the best.”
“You'll get no argument from me there. And your lap is a lot more inviting than Pete's—his is much bonier, and he usually has gas.”
Syd rolled her eyes. “You say the most romantic things.”
“I try.” She gazed at Syd, wanting nothing more at that moment than to crawl back onto her lap and sleep the rest of the night. “I really have missed this—missed you . It's been a rough couple of weeks.”
“For me, too,” Syd said quietly. “It's like something has been out of sync. Of course, my social network is a tad more confined than yours, so I rely on you for stimulation.”
Maddie raised an eyebrow. “Oh, reeaaalllly? You find me stimulating?”
Syd sighed. “And here we go. Yes—I find your company to be stimulating. But before your head swells to nine times its normal size, let me hasten to remind you that ‘stimulating' is a broad term that encompasses many forms of meaning.”
“Oh, I know what it means, all right.”
“Well, wise guy—a cattle prod is stimulating, too. And far less arrogant.”
“But not as cute.”
Syd thought about that. “True.”
“And not half as much fun to eat pizza with,” Maddie added hopefully.
Maddie got to her feet. “On that happy and victorious note, I think I should drive myself home while I can still function with some degree of competence.”
“Are you sure you're awake enough to go?”
Maddie looked down at her. “Oh, yeah.” She had plenty to think about on her drive home.
Syd stood up and followed her into the kitchen, and waited while Maddie pulled on her jacket and picked up her cell phone and keys. At the door, Maddie turned and pulled the smaller woman into a warm hug. “Thanks for tonight. I really needed this.”
Syd wrapped her arms around Maddie's waist and squeezed her back. “Me, too.” They stepped apart, and Syd crossed her arms over her chest. “Good luck tomorrow.”
“Thanks. I'll call you?”
Syd nodded. “Please do.”
Maddie left the small apartment and walked down the stairs to the street, feeling better than she had in weeks.
Now if she could just get Pete to forgive her.
Lizzy Mayes was a human dynamo.
It had been two weeks since she had started working for Maddie, and already she had visited all four of the Methodist congregations participating in their pilot healthcare program. Her daily presence in the clinic had borne fruit as well, and Maddie was able to see a greatly expanded patient base, taking even more strain off the emergency services department of the area hospital. The local weekly newspaper had run a series of articles about the fledgling Parish Nurse program, and Maddie's small clinic was quickly flooded with requests for appointments—most from curious residents who just wanted an up-close look at their new neighbor from Nashville.
Lizzy had an easy and unaffected manner, and quickly endeared herself to the loquacious Peggy Hawkes. In no time, it was as if the two of them had worked together for years, and Lizzy was even able to motivate Peggy to make more determined progress at transferring patient files to the clinic's EMR system. Maddie knew that things were going well the day Peggy showed up at work with a lemon chess pie she had made for Lizzy and her sister's family to share.
The doctor was smart enough to have Lizzy actually sign her employment contract before she had a chance to sample the pie.
Maddie had one week left to go as acting ER-Chief before Tom Greene returned full time. Having Lizzy on staff made it possible for her to keep her clinic open during regular business hours, and promised to make her transition back into her normal routine easier and less hectic. She was looking forward to that—and to her upcoming trip to Richmond to attend the AMA conference. For once, she would be able to relax and enjoy the sessions without the added burden of courting pharmaceutical reps to try and interest them in funding her startup healthcare initiative. With Lizzy's level of energy and enthusiasm for the project, she was optimistic that local funding streams would remain robust enough to sustain the effort without the need for external support. And if that changed? Well—there was always next year.
Lizzy was temporarily living with her sister's family in Jefferson, but she was actively looking for a small house to buy. Phoebe Jenkins got wind of this through her son, and saw it as a golden opportunity to sell the small bungalow that had belonged to her recently deceased aunt. Iris Jenkins had always been a favorite of David's. She was a strong and independent woman who stubbornly lived alone until her death at age 92. She never married. She never trusted god or doctors. She never voted. And she never read a newspaper. Right up until the day she died, she chopped all the wood she burned in her small stove (she never trusted anyone to do that for her, either). She was a catbird —that's what the locals called her. A catbird. Growing up, David was never really too sure what that meant. He just knew that his aunt Iris was special. She never judged him—not even when he left home at age 16 and moved in with Maddie's father. He was never really certain if she had heard any of the rumors that led up to that last, explosive encounter with his father—but he knew somehow that even if she had, it wouldn't have mattered to her. She was a catbird. And catbirds generally went their own way.
So when David told his mother about Maddie's new nurse and her need for suitable housing, Phoebe quickly surmised that maybe Lizzy Mayes would be the ideal candidate to buy Aunt Iris's river bungalow. The two women agreed to meet, and to go together to visit the property on Wednesday.
Phoebe stopped by the library at lunchtime to drop-off some sheet music for Syd. There was a community orchestra concert coming up at the high school, and she had enlisted Syd's help to work with her struggling string section. Unknown to Syd, Phoebe had a rather expansive definition of “help.” She was determined to persuade Syd to sit in with the string section during the performance—giddy at the prospect of having someone in the orchestra who might inspire the other players to a higher level of accomplishment. If that didn't transpire, at least she would have a principal who could read music and actually play the instrument—and play it very well, as it turned out. They hadn't had a musician of Syd's caliber in the county since Maddie's mother left the area over twenty-five years ago. Phoebe was hell-bent on making hay while the sun shone: this was not an opportunity to be missed.
When she entered the library, she saw Syd bent over a desktop computer, working with Beau Pitzer on something. Beau had rocked back on the legs of his chair, and sat watching her while she typed—clearly enjoying this chance to get an unobstructed view of the attractive blond at close range. Phoebe clucked her tongue as she crossed the room and approached the makeshift computer lab. She was disgusted that Beau didn't even have the grace to remove his hat. A faded red baseball cap with “Skoal” stitched across the front in white letters obscured part of his face.
“Hello, Syd—I hope I'm not too early.”
Syd stood up and turned to face her with a smile on her pretty face. Beau dropped his chair forward with a thump and looked up at her with a barely disguised scowl.
“Hello, Beau. Nice to see you again. Any luck with the job search?”
He shook his head and stared at her without speaking.
“Well, don't lose hope. I heard yesterday that the glass plant might be adding a third shift.”
He mumbled something unintelligible and looked back at his computer screen.
Syd rolled her eyes and waved Phoebe toward the circulation desk. “Why don't we go back there and talk so we don't distract Beau?”
Phoebe nodded. “Good idea.”
Together, they walked to the rear of the library. Phoebe saw several other patrons sprawled in upholstered chairs reading newspapers. Zeke Dawkins, the postmaster, was at the copier running off some flyers. He waved when he saw her. Phoebe figured this had to be bad news—any time Zeke made flyers it usually meant the rates for something were going up.
She set her big leather bag on the circulation desk and reached inside to pull out a bulging file folder full of sheet music.
“Here you go,” she said, passing the folder over to Syd. “This is what I have in mind for our next concert. Let me know what you think.”
Syd took the folder from her, and removed the pages that contained hefty orchestral scores for Offenbach's Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld ; the finale to Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 5 , Copeland's Shaker Variations , and Grainger's Irish Tune from County Derry . Syd drew her brows together as she leafed through the selections, and looked up at Phoebe with a perplexed expression. “Aren't a few of these pretty advanced for our available talent?”
Phoebe shook her head. “I don't think so.”
Syd was not persuaded. “Three of these call for a pretty accomplished string section—I think that might be a tall order for us right now.”
Phoebe disagreed. “We don't need a strong section to play these—we just need a strong principal.” She smiled at the smaller woman.
Syd stared at her for a moment as recognition began to dawn. “Oh no —not a chance. Forget it , Phoebe! This isn't what I meant when I said I would help out.”
“Syd, I've heard you play. Any of these pieces would be a cakewalk for you. And think of the opportunity it would give you to really inspire the rest of the musicians.” She laid a hand on the librarian's forearm. “It's exactly the kind of motivation we need to really get this group pulled together. Please, Syd. Do this. It will mean so much to the community.”
Syd hesitated. “I don't even have anything to wear, Phoebe—I didn't bring any formal attire with me.”
“You don't need formal attire—just black pants and a white blouse.”
“Come on. I'm making David play, too—if that's any consolation.”
“You are?” Syd narrowed her eyes. “He told me that he used his clarinet for kindling.”
Phoebe scoffed. “Don't you know better than to believe anything that comes out of that young man's mouth? It's true that his band uniform was always more appealing to him than his instrument—but he actually plays a very good woodwind.” She smiled to herself. “It's all the hot air, I'm sure.”
Syd laughed with her. “Let me think about it, okay?”
“Okay. But don't take too long—we start rehearsals on Sunday afternoon.”
“I promise. And I'll still help with the string section, regardless of whether or not I agree to perform.”
“I can't ask for more than that,” Phoebe said with a smile. “Keep those copies as you mull this over.”
They both looked up when the front door to the library opened. Phoebe glanced at her watch, then smiled and waved at the redheaded woman who had just entered. “Right on time.” She turned back to Syd. “Have you met Maddie's new nurse, Lizzy Mayes? I asked her to meet me here. She's going to look at my aunt Iris's old river bungalow.”
Syd shook her head. “No—I haven't met her yet, but I've heard great things about her.” She watched the other woman approach with a curious and interested expression.
Lizzy was anxious to see the small, riverfront property that Mrs. Jenkins had described to her. It's compact size and isolated location appealed to her, and it's rustic appointments held greater attraction for her than any of the more contemporary, ranch-style homes she'd considered that were within her modest price range. Peggy Hawkes had already filled her in on the particulars of Iris's bungalow, so she knew that the house did, in fact, have a conventional heating system. But, Peggy added, old Miss Jenkins was just too stubborn to use it—and preferred to rely on her wood stove for heat during the long winter months. So Lizzy agreed to meet Mrs. Jenkins at the public library during her lunch hour, so they could drive together to view the property.
She was equally curious about meeting the town librarian—a woman she had heard much about since her arrival in Jericho. By all reports, Syd Murphy was an attractive divorcée who was new to the area, and who had quickly become fast friends with Mrs. Jenkins' son, David, and his partner. Peggy had also hinted at some kind of “special” friendship that she saw developing between the librarian and the enigmatic Dr. Stevenson. Lizzy wasn't too certain what she meant by that observation—but it did seem clear to her that there was no implied criticism in Peggy's remarks—although it was impossible to deny that her comments were delivered with a non-verbal wink and nudge. It didn't really matter to her one way or another, but the vague suggestion did go a long way to explain why someone like Dr. Stevenson was still single.
When they met for the first time over a month ago, Lizzy had been surprised—even stunned—by the tall doctor's appearance. For starters, she was much younger than Lizzy expected, and although she was functionally attired in hospital scrubs, she was remarkably beautiful. Lizzy remembered her first thought being that Dr. Stevenson looked exactly like one of the picture-perfect models who adorned the covers of glossy medical supply brochures. She found it hard that day to reconcile the accomplished professional of her Google search—the medico with the gold-plated resume—with the glamorous, self-deprecating, and quick-witted woman who sat before her, conducting her interview. She was a paradox. And Lizzy, who loved puzzles, suspected that working with the engaging and mysterious Dr. Stevenson would be many things—but never dull.
As she approached the circulation desk, she saw Mrs. Jenkins engaged in earnest conversation with an attractive blonde woman, who she assumed was Syd Murphy.
Mrs. Jenkins smiled and waved her over. “Lizzy, I'd like you to meet Syd Murphy, our town librarian. Syd, this is Lizzy Mayes, Maddie's new nurse.”
Syd smiled brightly at her and extended her hand. “I'm so happy to meet you. Maddie has been raving about you.”
Lizzy shook her hand warmly. “Likewise. I understand that you're new to the area, too?”
Syd's green eyes sparkled. “Oh, I feel like an old-timer by now—the people here are wonderful at making you feel welcome.”
“I'm glad to hear that. How long have you been here?”
“Nearly five months now, but it feels like forever.” She paused before adding with a wry smile, “I mean that in the best sense of the word, too. It's going to be hard for me to leave here when my grant funding ends next year.”
Phoebe cut in with a whispered aside. “We've already got other ideas about that whole scenario—we're not sure we're willing to let her go so easily.”
Syd rolled her eyes. “Don't tell me you've been listening to your son? I already told him that threatening me with leg irons and an orange jumpsuit wasn't the best way to entice me to stay.”
Lizzy laughed. She liked the perky woman. Her humor was infectious. “I'd imagine that with a little bit of creative thinking, you could make a permanent place for yourself here—if,” she added, “that's what you wanted.”
Syd seemed to be looking back at her with interest. “I'm not sure about my long-term plans yet. But I do confess that the idea of staying on here continues to grow on me.”
Phoebe smiled at her. “And with friends who are as determined to keep you here as David and Maddie are, I can promise that you won't get away very easily.”
Syd dropped her eyes and made no response to that comment. Lizzy began to sense that there might be some kernel of truth lurking behind Peggy's vague suggestion. She looked forward to having the chance to see the librarian interact directly with Dr. Stevenson, so she could make her own assessment.
She caught a flash of red out of the corner of her eye and quickly turned to find that a medium-sized man in a red ball cap had walked up to stand close beside her. Uncomfortably close. She took an involuntary step backward as he stared at her without speaking.
Syd spoke up at once. “Did you need something, Beau?”
The man slowly drew his eyes away from Lizzy and turned to face the blond woman. “The damn thing's locked-up again.”
“Okay—I'll come take a look at it.” She looked at Lizzy, then back to Beau. “Beau, this is Lizzy Mayes, the new nurse at Dr. Stevenson's clinic. Lizzy, meet Beau Pitzer.”
Lizzy smiled at him. “Hello, Beau. It's nice to meet you.”
Beau nodded at her without speaking. Beneath the brim of his cap, his eyes looked her up and down.
Phoebe clucked her tongue. “Well, Lizzy—we'd better get going or we won't have much time to look over the property.” She collected her bag and keys off the circulation desk. “Bye, Syd. I look forward to hearing from you about Sunday.”
Lizzy smiled at the librarian. “I hope we get a chance to talk again soon. I really enjoyed meeting you.”
“Same here,” Syd said as she walked around the desk to join Beau. “Call me anytime. Maybe we can grab lunch or dinner soon and get better acquainted?”
“I'd like that.” Lizzy smiled and turned toward the street door. As she walked out with Phoebe, she shook off her uneasy sense that the odd man in the red cap was still watching her.
Valentine's Day provided David with more than a license to offer wildly overpriced dinner packages to couples in search of special, romantic venues—it also gave him a plausible excuse for luring Maddie over to the inn for an “innocent” tryst with their favorite blonde. Valentine's Day, he explained to the dour and doubting doctor, was also Syd's birthday—and he had no intention of letting the occasion pass without staging a suitable celebration. They could, he explained, double-up on the special menu Michael had already crafted for the other diners, and commemorate Syd's birthday without exerting the extra effort that he knew she would balk at under normal circumstances. Maddie smelled a rat, but relented anyway—knowing that there was no way she could knowingly miss this chance to see Syd on her special day.
“Just how did you find out that it's her birthday?” she asked in surprise, when David called to share his plans for the event, and invite her to join them.
“I have my ways,” he said, with smug certitude.
“Do tell? I'm all agog.”
“ Agog? What the hell does that actually mean, anyway?”
Maddie sighed. “Agog. Adverb. It means a state of eager desire .”
“Ahh. Eager desire . Now I get it. Yeah—that about sums up your attitude where she's concerned.”
“Don't start, nimrod. Do you want me there or not?”
“Oh, like I could keep you away now that you know it's her birthday!”
“Whatever.” They were both silent. “So…how did you know?”
“I ran into Gladys at the post office. She had just delivered a whopping big arrangement of birthday flowers to Syd at the library. Roses. Two dozen. Long stem. And red. Any clue what that must have cost?”
Maddie feigned disinterest. “No idea.”
“More than you make freezing warts, wise guy.”
“Charming image, David.”
“I'm just sayin'— somebody clearly wants to hang their shingle on that hot little piece of real estate.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Why do you think?”
“To annoy the shit out of me?”
“Yes. Precisely. I want to waste my time annoying the shit out of you while some other schmoe breezes in and walks off with the woman of your dreams.”
Maddie was losing patience with him. “You're making me insane, David.”
“You were already around the bend on this one, Cinderella. Quit pretending that you don't know it. If the glass slipper fits—I say, wear it .”
“I think I'm going to hang up now.”
“Aren't you forgetting something?”
“Eight o'clock. Glad rags. And make it something revealing . It is her birthday, after all. Let's spoil her a little bit.”
Maddie mumbled an expletive.
“What was that? I didn't quite make it out?”
“I said I'd be there.”
“Thought so.” He hung up before she could.
Valentine's Day. Christ. Of course her birthday would be on Valentine's Day. She turned onto the gravel road that led down toward the inn. Ahead, she could see the parking lot, filled to near capacity with cars. Off to her left, she saw Syd's blue Volvo, and her heart rate accelerated. God. I'm acting like a teenager at my first prom . Finding a spot, she parked her Lexus and sat for a few moments listening to the final strains of Beim Schlafengehen, trying to regain her composure. Renée Fleming's rich voice soared and filled the space inside the car with a rising succession of silvery notes. Maddie shook her head, overwhelmed for a moment by the beauty of the sound, and the sentiment of the music. “Time to Sleep.” You got that right , she thought as she shut the car off and looked down at the small, wrapped package on the passenger seat. After some fancy footwork, she succeeded in getting the item in less than 24-hours. All it took was some careful deliberation, a phone call to her attorney in Philadelphia, and a small fortune in shipping charges. Was it the right choice? She guessed she'd know soon enough.
She slipped the small package into the pocket of her coat, and climbed out of the car. It was a cold night: there was snow in the forecast. The inn was hopping. It was plain that Valentine's Day was good for business. She didn't recognize very many of the cars that filled the gravel parking lot, so she guessed that most of the diners were from areas farther-flung than Jericho or Jefferson. She ascended the wide steps and heard the happy sounds of laughter and music as she crossed the wide porch toward the door. David met her just inside. After kissing her cheek, he reached out to take her coat.
“Gimme this and do a quick 180 so I can check out your stuff,” he said, making rapid circles with his index finger.
Maddie sighed and dutifully turned around so he could inspect her ensemble. Now that she was free from working in the ER, she had actually had time to give some thought to her appearance, and she opted for a long-sleeved black cocktail dress with a deep v-neck and button sleeves. The dress had a wide, fitted waistband that accentuated her tall frame, and its hem fell to just above her knees. She wore tiny, diamond earrings, and no other jewelry. She looked stunning. David was clearly impressed.
“ Nice .” He smiled at her in approval. “I'd do you.”
She looked at him in surprise. “I think that's possibly the nicest thing you've ever said to me.”
He winked at her as he took her arm and steered her toward the sun porch at the back of the inn. “Well take a deep breath, because your dinner date looks pretty tasty, too.”
“Did you just say ‘date'—as in singular ?” she hissed. “I thought this was a party?”
He chuckled. “Oh, it's going to be a party, all right.” He squeezed her arm when he noticed her obvious distress. “Lighten up, Cinderella. We're going to join you once the dust settles from this first wave.” He inclined his head toward the dimly lighted dining room as they walked past. Inside, the tabletops all glittered with candlelight, and a variety of intoxicating smells wafted out toward them. She saw heads turn as they walked past the open doors. “You should only have to be charming for about the next thirty minutes—think you can manage?”
She scowled at him as they turned the corner and stepped onto the glass-enclosed porch—then she saw Syd. The petite blonde stood with her back to the door. She was holding a wine glass and talking animatedly with Michael, who stood near the dining room entrance with his arms folded across his broad chest. Michael looked up when they entered and Syd turned around to face them. She was wearing a vintage silk dress in emerald green with a scoop neck and three-quarter length sleeves. The waist was cinched with a matching belt, tied at the front. She looked incredible. Maddie stopped dead in her tracks and stood, stupefied, as every receptor on every nerve ending in her body decided to stand up and phone home. A giant clue had finally been tied to a biological two-by-four, and it had just smacked her right between the eyes.
Oh my god , she thought, as rival sensations of panic and exhilaration chased one another up and down her body. I'm in love with her.
David touched her arm. “You okay?” He looked at her closely for a moment. Then he smiled and squeezed her arm. “It's okay, Maddoe,” he said softly. “You were bound to figure it out sooner or later.” He tugged her forward. “C'mon—she won't bite.” He chuckled and muttered under his breath, “Not unless you ask her to.”
Maddie's pitiful moan was barely audible as they crossed the remaining distance to join Syd and Michael.
Syd stood talking herself through every mind-control exercise she'd ever known to try and slow her breathing as Maddie and David made their way across the room toward them. Never before had she experienced this kind of visceral response to another person, and she was terrified that she wouldn't be able to conceal it. Her palms were sweaty and her face felt hot, and she wasn't sure she could trust her shaky legs to hold her up. The sensations hit her like a tidal wave when she turned around and saw Maddie standing in the doorway. It was impossible for her to deny the nature of her response. There was no way she could continue to dismiss it, falsely classify it, or characterize it as something benign . It was real—and right now, it was bigger than her fear.
And she had only an instant to try and recover her poise.
Michael looked back and forth between the two women. It was clear to him that something subliminal had just transpired—they both looked shell-shocked and he couldn't tell which one of them was more unsettled. Maddie , he thought. But, no—Syd was nervously twisting the stem of her wine glass and seemed shy about meeting the doctor's eyes. Not that I blame her, he thought as he took in her ensemble. She looks fantastic in black. Hell—she'd look fantastic in anything —he smiled to himself— or nothing . He shook his head. Damn. There must be something in the air tonight.
Now Maddie was tentatively reaching for Syd, and saying happy birthday. She stepped closer to the small blonde and kissed her on the forehead. She had a pained expression on her face as her lips hovered near Syd's hairline, then she stepped back and looked nervously over at him with a look that seemed to ask, “What now?”
David, who was the natural enemy of a vacuum, stepped in to fill the void. “You two look delicious enough to plop on top of a wedding cake.” He thought about it. “A Red Velvet wedding cake.”
Michael glared at him.
“Hey—don't even start with that look,” David whined. “It's my fantasy. If I wanna put a little Baywatch twist on it, it's my prerogative.”
“ Baywatch? ” Michael asked, with a perplexed look. “Isn't that the wrong kind of reference for one of your fantasies?”
David looked incredulous as he waved his hand back and forth between the chests of the two women. “ Hello? Seen what these necklines are barely concealing, big guy?”
That seemed to shock Maddie out of her torpor. She turned to face David with a raised eyebrow. “I refuse to run , no matter how much sand you haul in here—so don't even ask.”
Syd broke into peals of laughter.
Michael shook his head and gestured toward the dining room. “Come on let me seat you. We should be able to join you shortly—most of the other tables are nearing the dessert course. David—why don't you get the girls a bottle of nice wine?”
David reached up with both hands and adjusted the angle of his red bow tie. “I can do that.” Winking at the women, he turned on his heel and headed back down the hallway toward the bar.
Once they were seated, Maddie felt a bit more in control of her emotions. A bit. Syd looked so beautiful tonight, and the candlelight wasn't helping much, either. Her green dress seemed to glow—like her eyes.
She needed something safe to talk about.
“Your dress is lovely. I thought you left all your glad rags in storage?”
Syd smiled at her. “Ever heard of Mimi's New-to-You Emporium in West Jefferson?”
Maddie's eyes grew wide. “You're kidding me?”
“Would I do that?”
Maddie pretended to think about it. “In a heartbeat.”
Syd lowered her eyes. “Well—maybe I would…but in this case, I'm telling you the truth.”
Her appreciation for Syd's appearance grew. “So this is a vintage creation?”
“Yep. Circa 1960, I'd say.”
Maddie's blue eyes moved over her. “It does exude a certain Jackie Kennedy quality.”
“I thought so, too.”
“You certainly wear it well—it looks like it was made for you.”
“Why thank you, Doctor.” She took a sip from her water glass. “It's unusual for me to find something that's the right length—normally, I look like I'm standing in a hole.”
Maddie bit the inside of her cheek. “No comment.”
“Oh, whatever, Wilma Rudolph. At least I don't get a nosebleed when I stand up in the morning.”
Maddie sighed. “Yeah, yeah. Remind me to call you the next time I need to bake brownies.”
“We little people do have our uses.”
“I'll say,” Maddie quipped without thinking. She colored immediately, and thought that maybe Syd was blushing, too—but the candlelight made it hard to tell. “I'm sorry—I must have been channeling David.”
Syd met her eyes. Before she could speak, David himself showed up, wielding a bottle of wine and two champagne flutes.
“And to reward you both for your respective birthday hotness, I present you with this fine bottle of Duval-Leroy Rosé de Saignée. And I'd advise you to drink it slowly, cause it's the only one of these suckers we've got left.” He began to twist off the wire cage.
He eyed Maddie as he covered the top of the bottle with a linen towel and held it between his knees, twisting the cork out with exaggerated force. The loud pop echoed through the room, and diners at nearby tables turned and smiled at them.
“That was subtle,” Maddie drawled. “Did you skip Boy Scouts the day they explained how to properly open champagne?”
He scoffed at her as he filled their flutes. “Unlike you, I never earned the ‘Fine Wines' badge. What troop were you in?”
“Me?” She picked up her glass. “I flunked the physical—remember?”
“Hell—my troop would've waved it.” He stood back and crossed his arms as he raked his gaze over her. “You sure wouldn't flunk any physicals tonight.”
“That's for sure,” Syd added with a smile.
Maddie looked at her in surprise.
“What?” Syd asked. “You didn't notice that every head in this dining room turned when you walked in here?”
Maddie raised her eyebrows and looked at her with feigned innocence. “I thought it was because of that piece of toilet paper I had stuck to my shoe.”
Syd rolled her eyes. “Yeah— that, and the fact that you're drop dead gorgeous and look about nine feet tall in that outfit.”
Maddie sat back, trying to ignore the sudden hitch in her breathing. “What makes you think people were only looking at me?”
David cut in. “Uh huh. Well, I see that you two are doing just fine honing your polite conversation skills. Lemme move on and minister to some of our less fortunate guests.” He gave Maddie's shoulder an encouraging squeeze as he walked off.
After a momentary silence, Maddie gamely raised her glass of champagne. “There is no place I'd rather be right now—and no one I'd rather be with. Happy birthday, Syd—I'm honored to be a part of your life.”
Syd belatedly raised her own glass. Her expression looked shy and confused. “Thank you.” They clinked glasses and sipped the sparkling wine. “I wish I had the words to tell you how much your friendship has come to mean to me.” She dropped her eyes. “I think I'm only starting to understand how alone I was before I came here.” She looked at Maddie again with shining eyes. “You—all of you—have become such a part of me now. I can't imagine being without you.”
“Why would you need to be without us?” Maddie asked, quietly.
“This grant won't last forever. I only have funding for another year.”
“A year is a long time, Syd. A lot can happen.”
They looked at each other in silence. “I hope you're right.”
Maddie gave her a shy smile. “I hope so, too.”
Syd shook her head like she was trying to clear it. “But, in the meantime, I have Phoebe Jenkins—who is determined to drag my violin out of retirement and fill my lonely nights with song.” She smiled. “Or at least with some kind of soundtrack.”
Maddie raised her eyebrows. “Oh, yeah? It seems like I heard a rumor about that.”
Syd pursed her lips. “I'll just bet you did.”
“Hey—you can't pin this one on me. You set yourself up as soon as you agreed to start helping the kids out with music lessons.”
“Well, I certainly never intended for that gesture to end up resurrecting my ill-fated performance career.” Syd picked up the wine cork and absently rolled it against the tablecloth.
Maddie laughed at her. “Oh, come on. How bad could it be?”
“Have you ever heard the Jericho Community Orchestra?”
“Um. Well. You got me there. I guess it could be pretty bad, after all.”
“But look at the bright side,” Maddie fixed her with a hopeful expression. “This is a made-to-order opportunity for a selfless do-gooder like yourself.”
“Excuse me? Did you just call me a selfless do-gooder ?”
Maddie crossed her arms. “I believe I did, yes.”
“You must be joking?”
Maddie pretended to consider her comment. “Nope. Don't think I am.”
Syd sighed and sat back against her chair. “What on earth would lead you to characterize me as a selfless do-gooder?”
“Oh, gee. Lemme think…well-educated young professional leaves a thriving metropolitan area to work for pennies in a less-than-glamorous, publicly funded, social service venture in the mountains of Appalachia. Nope. Nothing at all noble about that.”
Syd tossed the cork at her.
Maddie chuckled as she caught it, and placed it down next to the bottle. “If you're going to start throwing things at me, I'd like to know now so I can go and change. I might need to wear this outfit again in Richmond.”
Syd raised an eyebrow. “Oh really? I thought you weren't going to have to seduce any drug reps on this trip?”
“Who said anything about drug reps?”
“Got someone else in mind?”
“You never know.” Maddie's blue eyes sparkled with amusement. “I might get lucky.”
“If you plan on wearing that outfit, luck won't have anything to do with it.”
“Why Miss Murphy—you'll put me to the blush.”
Syd rolled her eyes. “Right.”
They fell quiet. Syd looked for a moment like she wanted to say something, but then seemed to think better of it.
“What?” Maddie prompted.
“No—go ahead. What were you going to say?”
Syd shrugged. “It's none of my business, really.”
“ What's none of your business?” Maddie was curious.
“I just—I mean, it's obvious that you're not really seeing anyone—at least, not anyone who lives around here . I was just curious about that. About why that's the case?” She nervously waved her hand. “I know this is really personal—but you've been back here for nearly two years now, and there's no special man in your life. It just doesn't make sense to me—you're about the most eligible person in the county.” She lowered her eyes. “I've just never asked you about it.”
Maddie bit the inside of her cheek as she puzzled through how to respond. She had already decided to stop lying to herself—did she also need to stop lying to Syd?
“I'm sorry,” Syd said quickly, when Maddie didn't make an immediate reply. “I told you it was none of my business.”
“Oh, don't be silly.” Maddie reached across the table and patted the top of her hand. “I was just trying to figure out how to respond. I mean—I guess I thought you already knew.”
“Well, yeah.” A small smile pulled at the corners of her mouth.
“Knew what?” Syd looked confused.
Maddie opened and closed her mouth. In for a penny, in for a pound , she thought . Sighing and leaning forward, she spoke in a low and conspiratorial voice. “Syd, I'm gay.”
Syd's green eyes grew wide, and she sat in stunned silence with her mouth hanging open.
Maddie looked at her with concern. “Are you okay? You look like I just fired a gun next to your head.”
Syd raised her fingertips to her forehead. “Oh god—you must think I'm an idiot.”
“Why on earth would I think that?”
Syd looked at her through her spread fingers. “Because I wasn't able to connect the dots—and because I had to ask you in such a stupid fashion.”
Maddie laughed. “Oh come on—it isn't like I telegraph this information to everyone who moves here. I guess I should be relieved that you didn't figure it out within ten seconds of meeting me.”
Syd lowered her hands and shook her head slowly. “Ten seconds? No—I don't think that's something you ever need to worry about.”
Maddie was intrigued. “So you honestly had no clue?”
Syd looked uncomfortable. “I won't deny that maybe I thought about it once or twice—briefly and in a very fleeting way. But, no—I didn't have a clue. Not really.” She looked at her with an unreadable expression. “Wow.”
“Wow? Is that good or bad?”
“It's just—wow. You keep amazing me.” She added quickly, “And before you ask—that's not a bad thing.”
Maddie relaxed slightly. “Well, good.” She wanted more than anything to reach across the table and take hold of Syd's hand—but knew she couldn't. “I should apologize for not telling you sooner. I hope you know it's not because I didn't think I could trust you.”
“Why didn't you tell me?”
Maddie thought about her answer. “It seemed inappropriate at first—I mean, I was your doctor . Then, when we started to become friends, I just didn't want to make a big deal out of it.” She shrugged. “I guess I thought you'd simply intuit it from what you knew about my lifestyle—and my best friends.” She looked directly at Syd for a moment before continuing. “I'm sorry I never told you. I hope you'll forgive me for that.”
“God, Maddie. There's nothing to forgive.” She slowly shook her head. “So many things make so much more sense now.”
Maddie raised an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah? Like what?”
Syd gave her a wry smile. “Well, the whole vacuum cleaner thing, for one.”
Maddie laughed out loud. “Oh, that. Yeah, it's true: if med school hadn't worked out, I could've have had a stellar career rebuilding transmissions.”
“Never say never.”
“I rarely do.”
Syd sobered. “Boy. Things sure don't work out the way you think they will.”
“What's that supposed to mean?” Maddie asked.
Her gaze drifted over Maddie's shoulder. “I'll tell you later,” she said. “I think our hosts are finally going to join us.”
David pulled up a chair and poured himself a glass of the sparkling wine. “So, did you two lovelies find something to talk about?”
Maddie snorted. “You might say that.”
“Okay. What'd I miss?” He looked at her amused face as raised the glass to his lips.
She sighed. “Nothing much. I just came out to Syd.”
He loudly sprayed wine back into his glass.
Michael quickly reached over and patted his back.
When he could speak, David's tone was incredulous. “You did what? ”
“You heard me.”
He looked back and forth between the two women with shock and dismay. “I so do not believe this. How dare you do this without letting me watch? And on Valentine's Day, too.” He waved his hands in frustration. “That's just sadistic .”
Maddie sat back and folded her arms. “Sorry, dude—you snooze, you lose. Film at eleven.”
“I hate you.” He looked over at Syd, then back at Maddie. “How'd she take it?”
Maddie leaned toward him and spoke in a near whisper. “Why don't you ask her?”
Across the table, Michael chortled and laid his arm across the back of Syd's chair. “So it looks like we've got all kinds of things to celebrate tonight.” He met Syd's eyes. “I told you not to worry so much.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” David asked, clearly still agitated.
Michael rolled his eyes. “Will you just calm down, Mary Jane. Maybe if you're a good girl, Spiderman will spin you another web.”
Maddie topped off her own glass. “Don't count on it. I'm fresh out of secrets.”
David demurred. “Well maybe if we sit here long enough, something else will occur to you.”
“Maybe not,” Maddie said with determination.
Michael held out a placating hand. “How about you two retreat to your respective corners and we start this conversation over?”
Syd spoke up. “Why don't I just make this easier on everyone, and tell you that I more or less forced her to tell me?”
David threw his head back. “Oh, and that's supposed to make me feel better about missing the revelation of the century?”
Maddie looked at him in amazement. “Why are you so bent out of shape about this? You're acting like I just revealed that I was the one who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby.”
He sighed. “You're right. It was hardly a breaking news alert.” He fixed Syd with a penetrating gaze. “ Please tell me that you already suspected. I mean, surely, the tool belt was a dead giveaway?”
“Maddie doesn't have a tool belt.” Syd's face wore a deadpan expression. “And don't call me Shirley.”
Maddie chuckled as David gave Syd a withering look. “You two are so made for each other.”
Michael raised his wine glass. “I was just thinking exactly the same thing. Let's toast to the beginning of new friendships—and an end to old secrets.”
They all clinked glasses and drank. Then Michael waved their server over. “Now let's get this birthday feast underway.”
“Hear, hear,” David said. Turning to face Syd, he rubbed his hands together gleefully. “And while we eat, I'll regale you with salacious highlights from Madeleine Stevenson: The Lost Episodes .”
There was an audible thud as Maddie kicked him beneath the table. “Or not ,” she added sweetly.
David moaned as he bent over to rub his shin. “Do you mind? I don't happen to be wearing my lead-lined support hose tonight.”
“As it happens, I very much mind. How about we agree to confine our conversation to topics related to our guest of honor?”
Syd sighed in disappointment. “That'll certainly be less enthralling.”
Maddie met her eyes. “Not from my point of view.”
They smiled at each other as the server arrived with their first course.
Syd did her best during the meal to appear attentive and engaged, but her head was reeling.
Syd, I'm gay.
She was unprepared for the onslaught of confusing emotions the simple revelation caused. She felt anxious and overwhelmed.
She wasn't ready for this. Not now. Not here. Not tonight . She needed time. Time to sort through it all—time to understand why Maddie's spare and almost offhand disclosure was so unsettling. Was so distracting . Was so absorbing to the point that she was finding it nearly impossible to pay attention to anything else.
Syd, I'm gay.
David was asking her something. Dessert. It was something about dessert. She anxiously looked over at Maddie and found that the doctor's blue eyes were fixed on her. Maddie's expression was concerned—perplexed. She reached across the table and touched the top of her hand.
“Are you all right?”
Syd turned her own hand palm up and gave the doctor's fingers a quick squeeze before retracting it and pushing her chair back from the table. “I'm fine.” She turned to David. “Did you say something about dessert in the parlor?”
He was already on his feet. “Yes indeedy—let's have our coffee in there. We've got a nice fire going, and it'll be a much more private venue for you to open your presents.”
That got her attention. “Presents? Please tell me you're joking?”
“Oh, honey—I never joke about presents. They're sacred.” He looked over at Michael. “Aren't they, baby?”
“Ah, yeah. That would be a big 10-4.” Michael gave Syd an apologetic glance. “My best advice is just to kick back and try to roll with it—it's fruitless to protest. He'll just enjoy it more.”
Syd sighed. “I've got a very bad feeling about this.”
“Wise woman,” Maddie quipped.
David twirled the ends of his red bow tie. “Enough chatter. Let's go and see what the birthday fairy has in store for you.”
“Birthday fairy?” Maddie asked.
“Yes—I got a promotion.
Maddie rolled her eyes. “This promotion didn't, by chance, come with anything like a special costume, did it?”
“Don't worry, Cinderella—the only way you'll ever get to see my birthday suit is if you shell out about $60,000 and undergo at least four operations.”
“Well, thank god for small mercies.”
He slapped her on the shoulder. “Hey! One thing I can promise you is that there's nothing small about it.”
The four of them left the table and made their way across the dining room toward the hallway that would take them to the front parlor. The crowd had noticeably thinned out, and there were only a few tables of diners left. Maddie fell into step beside Syd.
“What's wrong?” She asked softly. “It's obvious that you're distracted.”
Syd met her concerned blue eyes, and quickly looked away. Distracted? You think? “I'm okay. I'm just feeling a bit—thoughtful.”
Syd shrugged. “I'm not sure, exactly. Maybe it's just the enormity of all of this.”
“This?” Maddie prompted.
Syd absently waved her hand to encompass their surroundings. “ This. All of this.” She met the doctor's eyes again, but didn't look away this time. “All of you. I can't take it in—how much my life has changed in just a year.” She shook her head. “In just a few months, really.”
“Is that a bad thing?” Maddie's tone was tentative.
Syd quickly laid a hand on the taller woman's forearm. “No—no, not at all. It's a good thing. I'm just a bit overwhelmed right now by all the changes—and by the uncertainty that's still ahead for me.” She gave Maddie a small smile. “I'm sorry to be so somber when you're all being so sweet and kind to me. I really am happy to be here with you.” Too happy .
Maddie laid a hand over hers and held it there as they walked the rest of the way to the parlor. “Hold that thought—something tells me you're going to need it.”
Syd was immediately suspicious. “Do you know something I don't?”
“Not specifically. But it's worth remembering that David has Babeland on speed dial.”
Syd stopped dead in her tracks. “Oh, god. Please tell me you're kidding?”
She closed her eyes in mortification. “If we turn around and run really fast, can we get out of here before he notices?”
Maddie laughed and tugged her forward. “Don't worry. I'll be there to protect you.”
Yeah—having you by my side while I unwrap pleasure aids—that'll help, all right . “I think I'm going to die.”
“Trust me—if you begin to die, I'll save you.” She leaned closer and whispered near her ear. “See how useful it is to have an accomplished physician as your escort? It simplifies everything.”
Not everything , Syd thought as the scent of Maddie's perfume piled up behind her eyes and clouded her vision. “I'll have to take your word for that.” Her voice sounded husky. Maddie's proximity was seriously affecting her ability to think straight. Oh, there's a nice bit of irony .
They entered the small and richly appointed parlor. There was a small log fire burning in the corner fireplace, and Michael had arranged two chairs and a loveseat in front of it. A coffee table sat in front of the chairs, and it held a silver tray that contained coffee cups, a carafe, cordial glasses, and a full bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream liqueur. David and Michael moved to occupy the two chairs, forcing the women to sit next to each other on the small settee.
Maddie's arm brushed against Syd's as she reached forward to take one of the coffee cups from Michael. Syd felt her heart rate accelerate. There's no way I'm going to survive this , she thought, as she bypassed the coffee and went straight for the Bailey's.
From the floor behind his chair, David picked up a small tower of wrapped packages and placed them at Syd's feet. There were four boxes in sizes varying from moderate to very small. Three of them were wrapped in the same, flocked paper and topped with opulent bows. One, the smallest of the group, was more simply appointed. David pointed at it. “I apologize for the condition of that one,” he said. “At least she didn't use duct tape.”
Syd smiled at him and lifted the largest of the boxes onto her lap. It was surprisingly light. With trepidation, she began to unwrap it. After the paper had been removed, she lifted the lid off the box to reveal a dozen, bright orange bags of Cheetos. She sank back against the sofa in relief and laughed, feeling some of the tension drain from her body.
“It's gonna be a long winter,” David drawled. “I thought you might need these.”
Syd was tempted to rip open a bag right then, but smiled gratefully at him instead. “You're too kind.” As an afterthought, she added, “I'll be sure to call you if I run out.”
David's brown eyes sparkled as he looked back at her. He shot a look at Maddie. “Thankfully, I know where I can get my hands on an inexhaustible supply.”
Maddie rolled her eyes and sipped her coffee.
Syd picked up the next box. It was much smaller, but surprisingly heavy. When she parted the layers of tissue paper inside, the first thing she saw were batteries— lots of them. She quickly replaced the paper. “Do I really want to know what else is in here?” she asked the room in general. Beside her, she felt Maddie chuckle.
David was leaning forward in his chair. “Go on, go on,” he urged.
After carefully removing the packs of batteries, she lifted out a tissue-wrapped cylinder. It was very heavy. Holding her breath, she slowly unwrapped it and was relieved when it turned out to be a high-tech, silver flashlight. She dropped it to her lap. “I'm really going to kill you,” she hissed.
“Hey—sometimes you need a little help to find things in the dark.” He winked at her.
She began to set the box aside, but David stopped her with a raised hand.
“Nuh uh—that's not everything yet.”
She looked at him in confusion.
He sighed. “You will notice that the box contained batteries in two sizes?”
“Here it comes,” Maddie drawled.
“So to speak,” Michael added, in an undertone.
“Oh, god.” Syd had a sinking sense of what was about to befall her before she even drew the last item from the box. It was a smaller, wrapped cylinder. Much smaller. Syd was mortified when she realized that she was holding a tiny, finger-shaped vibrator—a bright pink, finger-shaped vibrator with modular tips and a variable speed dial. “ Oh, Jesus ,” she muttered as she immediately dropped it back into the dark recesses of the box.
“David burst into merry laughter. “Well—if you use it properly , that will always be the response it elicits.”
Syd knew that she was probably turning pinker than the vibrator. “I don't think I can take any more presents right now,” she said, with closed eyes.
Michael reached over and handed her the last matching box. “Don't worry, sweet pea—this one's from me.”
Syd took it and slowly began to unwrap it. It was a book. She turned it over. Oh my god . She flipped it open. It was an autographed first edition copy of Arthur Miller's screenplay adaptation of Fania Fénelon's memoir, Playing for Time —the incredible story of a group of Jewish musicians who survived the horrors of Auschwitz by playing in the death camp's orchestra. She looked up at Michael with a shocked expression.
“Where on earth did you find this?”
He smiled at her. “Vintage clothing isn't the only thing you can find at Mimi's. You just have to know where to look.”
She rubbed her fingers back and forth over Miller's signature on the bookplate. “I can't believe this. It's incredible.”
The big man looked smugly at David, then winked at her. “I thought the content was especially timely, given Phoebe's efforts at conscripting you to play in the community orchestra.”
She smiled back at him as she hugged the book to her chest. “Thank you. This is wonderful.”
Maddie leaned closer and gently attempted to pry the book from her hands. “May I?” she asked, from very close range. Syd turned to look at her and their faces were only inches apart. It took her a moment to find her voice. “Oh—of course.” She released the book and leaned back away from the intoxicating woman. My god. I need to get a grip on myself. Ruefully, it occurred to her that David's gift might come in handy, after all.
Maddie reverently leafed through the pages of the volume. “You know, this is an extraordinary find—but don't you think it's a little harsh to compare playing in our community orchestra to internment in a death camp?”
Michael snorted. “Have you ever heard David play the clarinet?”
Maddie paused in her inspection of the book. “Good point. I stand corrected.”
“Oh, the two of you can totally kiss my tight, little ass ,” David hissed, as he poured himself another hefty shot of the Bailey's. “Forget about them, Syd. You've got one more package to open.”
Sighing, Syd leaned forward and picked up the last, tiny box. It was simply wrapped in silver paper, and tied with a white silk ribbon. She knew it was from Maddie, and her fingers felt thick and clumsy as she tried unsuccessfully to loosen the bow.
David spoke up. “Jeez, sawbones—what'd you tie it with? 3.0 silk?”
Ignoring him, Maddie gently stilled Syd's hands and deftly untied the ribbon for her.
Syd's hands were practically shaking as she unwrapped a small, black velvet box. Her eyes shot up to Maddie's. Maddie met her gaze evenly and gave her a quiet smile, silently encouraging her to continue. With trepidation, Syd opened the box. Inside, on a bed of white satin, was a beautiful gold necklace. She looked at it more closely. The pendant was a small, delicate but ornately carved replica of a violin bridge. It was exquisite. A small printed card tucked in the front corner of the box read Heifetz Stradivarius .
She looked at Maddie in disbelief. “This is a replica of the violin bridge from the Stradivarius played by Jascha Heifetz?”
“Oh my god. Syd shook her head in wonder. “I've never seen anything so beautiful.” She met Maddie's eyes. “I've heard of these—but I've never actually seen one. Where did you get it?”
Maddie smiled at her shyly. “It was my grandmother's. She was a violinist, too—and I know she'd be happy for you to have it now.”
Syd's jaw dropped in amazement. “I can't accept this—it's too much.” She offered the box back to Maddie with a stunned expression.
Maddie folded her hands around Syd's and returned the box to her lap. “I want you to have it. Please. ” The expression in her blue eyes matched the intensity of her voice.
Syd could barely speak. She felt tears begin to sting her eyes, and she blinked rapidly to keep them back. She met Maddie's gaze again. “Okay.” They stared at one another for a moment in silence. Then Syd involuntarily moved closer, and Maddie quickly closed the distance between them, pulling her into a warm hug. “Thank you,” Syd whispered against her ear. Maddie squeezed her tighter in response, before releasing her and sitting back to assume the most respectful distance the small settee would allow.
“Veeeerrrry nice,” David said. “I didn't know you had it in you.”
Michael simply smiled.
Syd gently lifted the necklace from the box and held it up to the light. Turning to Maddie, she shyly asked, “Would you fasten it for me?”
Maddie nodded as she took the necklace from her. Syd sat forward, and Maddie leaned closer—reaching around her to position the pendant on her chest. Drawing the chain around her neck, Maddie fumbled briefly with the clasp, but finally succeeded in hooking it—before resting her warm hands briefly on the smaller woman's bare shoulders, and retreating once again to her side of the sofa. Syd turned around to face her. The necklace looked stunning on her. The small pendant fell to just above the valley between her breasts, and the shiny gold was a perfect complement to the emerald green of her dress.
“Beautiful,” Maddie said, quietly. But her eyes were fixed on Syd's face.
“You got that right,” David added. “Pretty impressive bit of bling, Cinderella. It's clear that you've been holding out on us.”
Maddie turned to face him. “Maybe I had a secret or two left in me, after all.”
David nodded at her. “I'll drink to that.”
Michael held up the bottle of Bailey's and topped everyone off. “Let's all drink to that.” When they had all picked up their cordial glasses, he raised his high in the air. “Happy birthday, Syd—may we all continue to make sweet music together.”
As they drank, she realized that this was the best birthday she'd ever had. She wished with all her heart that his words would prove prophetic.
Continued in Part V
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