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 V
The Tri-County airport was small, even by rural standards. The FBO was a tiny brick building that housed a small pilot lounge, a weather computer, and a telephone used to file and close flight plans. It was outfitted with a couple of shopworn recliners, a sofa, an old console color television, and a several vending machines that had seen better days. The air inside was stale from cigarette smoke and smelled like burned coffee. The Spartan accommodations did little to calm Syd's jittery nerves. Outside near the field, she could see a litter of small planes—mostly high-wings. A few of the nicer-looking aircraft were tied down under aluminum t-hangars that ran at a right angle to the runway. While Maddie amused herself playing with the weather computer, Syd watched a fuel truck slowly make its way across the field and wondered when their pilot would show up.
Maddie crossed over to the counter and picked up the telephone receiver just as a squat, middle-aged man entered the room from outside. He was wearing an orange jumpsuit and a cap that read AeroServ .
“Hey, Doc!” he called out. “Do you want me pull her up for you?”
“Sure, that'd be great, Tommy! I have a few minutes ‘cause I still need to file my flight plan. Oh, by the way—top the tips for me while you're at it.”
“Can do, Doc.” He touched the brim of his cap and headed back outside toward the row of t-hangars.
Syd watched this exchange and the man's departure with a growing sense of dread. “Maddie?”
Maddie turned to look at her with one eyebrow elevated. “Yeeesss?”
“Is there something about this trip you neglected to tell me?”
“Um… like?” A smile pulled at the corner of her mouth.
Syd was losing patience. “Like just WHOINTHEHELL is our pilot?”
“Ahh,” Maddie stroked her chin with the fingers of her right hand. “That would be me.”
“You? You? Are you kidding me with this?” Syd was nearly beside herself. “You told me our pilot was experienced . You told me our pilot owned his own plane!”
Maddie reached out a hand to stop Syd's tirade. “She is. I do. You have nothing to be worried about.”
“I don't believe this! How could you not tell me?” Syd was pacing back and forth across the stained and faded carpet.
Maddie sighed and leaned her long frame against the counter that held the telephone. She crossed her arms and quietly watched Syd pace. “Once your extremities come to rest,” she finally said, calmly, “I'll be happy to share the details of my flight credentials with you.”
Outside the plate glass window that faced the field, Syd could see Tommy in a tug, pulling a shiny and sleek-looking low-wing out onto the tarmac. It was brightly painted in blue and yellow, and sported two big engines. She inclined her head toward the scene. ”That yours?”
Maddie's eyes followed her gaze. “Yeah. I've had it about five years now. It's a honey.”
Syd nodded. “Well of course it is. It would have to be, right? I mean… how could it be otherwise?”
Maddie uncrossed her arms and took a deep breath. “Look, Syd. I see now that not telling you about this was a mistake, and I apologize for that. I thought it would be a nice surprise for you—honest. Obviously I was wrong. Can you tell me now why this is so upsetting to you? I've been flying since I was sixteen-years-old. I am a careful and experienced pilot. You really will be quite safe with me. I know what I am doing and I never take chances.”
Syd turned to face her, suddenly a bit ashamed of her overreaction. She put a hand to her forehead and shook her head a couple of times. “I really am sorry. I don't know why that ticked me off so much. I guess it's just… I don't know.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Shit, Maddie. Tell me—is there anything you can't do?”
Maddie stood there looking pensive. Then she smiled slyly. “I have many skills.” Syd rolled her eyes at that. “But… yeah. There are a lot of things I positively suck at.”
Syd looked hopeful. “Like?”
“Well. I can't cook to save my soul. And no matter how hard I try I can never get just one of those damn tongue depressors out of the jar.” She thought for a minute. “And there's always relationships.”
Syd looked at her quizzically. “What about relationships?”
“I really suck at those.”
Syd smiled at her and shrugged. “Well, I certainly can't offer much in the way of advice there—but I might be able to help you out with the cooking thing.”
Maddie smiled back at her. “I'll take you up on that. Now… how about letting me file our flight plan and we'll get on our way?”
Syd sighed, and then nodded. “Go ahead. I'll get our stuff out of the Jeep.”
Ten minutes later, Maddie joined her out on the field and unlocked the door to the plane. Syd was shocked by its compact but fairly comfortable looking interior. “This is really beautiful,” she exclaimed. “What kind of airplane is this?”
Maddie was busy stowing their gear in the cargo hold behind the rear passenger seats. “This is a Cessna 310. It's small, but still nicely sized and fast for a twin-prop plane. My dad and I actually bought this together. We mostly kept it down here—but I often used it to hop back and forth between Jericho and Philly after I finished my residency. It was quicker and more accessible for me than trying to get in and out of Charlotte or Roanoke.” She stuffed their last bag into the cargo hold and climbed back out onto the tarmac. “Lemme do my preflight, and we'll get underway.”
Syd stood back and watched as Maddie walked around the airplane checking the tires, running her hands along the wing edges or “boots,” as she called them. Then checking the props and testing the fuel with a tiny-looking cross between a test tube and a syringe. Then they were ready to head out. She showed Syd how to step up onto the wing and into the cabin, then climbed in ahead of her and scooted over into the left seat. Once Syd was aboard, she helped her fasten her seatbelt and put on her headset. Maddie picked up a clipboard from behind her seat and ran through an instrument checklist. She flipped a couple of switches, lowered her window, and loudly called out “Clear prop!” Then she started the left engine. Even wearing the headset, Syd was surprised by how loud the noise was. It only increased when the right engine roared into life. She was startled when she heard Maddie's low voice speak over the radio transmitter in her ear. “You okay? I have to take us to the end of the taxiway and do a run-up to test the engines before we take off.” Syd nodded. “It'll be loud and the plane will shake a bit… didn't want you to be scared.” Syd nodded again. “Syd… you can speak. That thing in front of your mouth is a microphone.”
Syd smiled sheepishly and said “Sorry. I'm not used to any of this. You'll have to bear with me.”
After the run-up, Maddie spoke into the radio. “Tri-County traffic, this is Cessna Four Two Nine Whiskey Papa, departing runway two-three, Tri-County.” She released the brake and the plane started rolling down the runway. As it gained in speed, Syd began to feel a sense of exhilaration as the landscape raced by.
“Here we go,” she heard Maddie's voice in her ear as she pulled back on the yoke and the nose of the plane lifted up. Soon, they were airborne and rotating out over the field. Syd felt a rumble as the gear retracted and stowed away beneath the plane. Below, she could see the brick building of the FBO and the small parking lot where Maddie's Jeep was plainly visible.
Maddie executed a turn and headed them away from the field and toward the eastern horizon. “Tri-County traffic, Cessna Four Two Nine Whiskey Papa is departing the pattern, heading north.” After a moment, she spoke again. “Washington Center, this is November Four Two Nine Whiskey Papa. Just departed Tri-County, climbing to 7,500 feet VFR, and would like to pick up my IFR flight plan to Richmond.”
A crackly voice answered. “Roger, Four Two Nine Whiskey Papa. This is Washington Center. You're cleared direct to Richmond. Maintain 9,000 feet. Squawk 3612.”
Maddie replied, “Two Nine Whiskey Papa, maintaining 9,000 feet direct to Richmond. Squawking 3612. Roger.” She reached over and adjusted a set of four dials to read 3612. She punched a set of coordinates into the plane's GPS system, and then engaged the autopilot.
She turned to face Syd. “So. That's pretty much it. We let the plane do the hard work, now.”
Syd looked surprised. “That's it? No mystery? No drama? No mile-high heroics?”
Maddie laughed. “You'd better find some wood to knock on. The one thing we don't want is any mile-high heroics. What you wish for is a nice, uneventful, and boring flight.”
“Oh now you tell me,” Syd quipped. Do I at least get a free bag of peanuts for my trouble?”
Maddie smiled and reached behind Syd to rummage around in her flight bag.
“Here.” She handed Syd a foil-wrapped breakfast bar. “It's the best I can do on short notice.”
Syd smiled. “At least tell me that this trip will count toward my frequent-flier miles.”
“Tell you what,” Maddie said, unwrapping her own bar. “You may redeem this wrapper for one free round-trip to the destination of your choice.”
After landing and taxiing to Million Air, the Richmond general aviation center, they offloaded their gear and carried it inside the slightly more opulent FBO. Syd waited there by their bags while Maddie took care of getting her plane safely stowed. They took a cab from the airport and arrived at their downtown hotel shortly after 1:00. Maddie's first session wasn't until 4:00, but Syd's first meeting with the State Library representatives was scheduled for 2:30.
Their room was located on the 4th floor of the stately Old Dominion Hotel, and overlooked the James River. It was large and comfortably appointed with vintage furnishings but, when Maddie unlocked the door and they stepped inside, they both were surprised to discover that the room contained only one king-sized bed. It stood boldly in the center of the room like some kind of fabric-draped behemoth. They both stood stupidly in the doorway for a moment. Oh shit , Maddie thought to herself, before dropping her bags and looking around the room.
“Where's the phone? I'll get this straightened out in no time. I distinctly asked for two beds.”
Syd didn't say anything as Maddie crossed to the nightstand next to the massive bed and dialed the hotel's front desk.
A man's voice answered on the fourth ring. “May I help you?”
“Yes. This is Dr. Stevenson in Room 412—I just checked in. I requested a room with two queen-sized beds, but this room has only one king.”
“I'm sorry Dr. Stevenson. Let me check into that for you.” There was the sound of clicking on the other end as the clerk typed. After a moment, he spoke again. “Yes, I can see here that you reserved two queens—unfortunately, we had a water leak on the second floor yesterday and several of our rooms are closed for repairs. With the AMA conference in town, we were already overbooked, so we don't have any extra rooms available.”
Maddie eyed Syd in agitation as she deliberated. “So there's no potential for you to switch us to another room?”
“I'm sorry, Doctor. To apologize for the inconvenience, I'll code your account so that you and your guest can enjoy complementary breakfasts in the hotel dining room each morning during your stay with us.”
Syd walked in behind her, and calmly laid her garment bag across the bed with something that seemed like determination.
Maddie sighed. “I understand. Thank you for checking into it.”
“It's my pleasure, Dr. Stevenson. I apologize again for the inconvenience. Please let us know if we can do anything to make your stay more enjoyable.”
Right, Maddie thought to herself. You mean besides make me share a bed with the beautiful straight woman I'm in love with? Yeah—I'll be sure to let you know . “I'll do that,” she said instead, hanging up the phone.
Turning to face Syd, she waved her hand in frustration. “Well—it appears we're stuck. They had a water leak, and it took several of their other rooms off-line. They don't have any others available because of the conference.”
Syd hesitated for only a fraction of moment before responding. “Maddie, it's okay. We're both grown-ups. This bed is large enough to declare statehood. I think we can manage.”
Maddie was still doubtful. She didn't want Syd to feel uncomfortable, and she noticed that the other woman had been unwilling or unable to make eye contact with her since they entered the room. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. You're already doing me a huge favor by letting me share your room. I have no concerns.” She finally looked up at her. “Unless, of course, you snore?”
Maddie saw the faint glimmer of humor in Syd's green eyes. She feigned indignation. “I've never had any complaints.”
“It's settled, then. Dibs on the bathroom side.”
Maddie raised an eyebrow.
“What can I say? I have a pea-sized bladder. It's a curse.”
Maddie chuckled as she hefted her suitcase onto the stand at the foot of the bed.
Syd walked over to the windows and looked out across the city toward the river.
“Wow. This is some view. I've never spent much time in Richmond. Do you get here often?”
Maddie moved over to stand just beside her.
“Hardly ever. But I do know a couple of good restaurants.”
“Great. I hope I can remember what to do with a full set of silverware.”
“Oh, I think it will come back to you.”
Syd continued to stare out the window. “It's odd. You never really think of Richmond as a port city, but that certainly looks like an active waterfront.”
“Well, that's why it was the capital of the Confederacy.”
Syd turned to face her. “I keep forgetting that you're a native Virginian.”
Maddie's eyes twinkled. “Oh, you're just deluded by the fact that I don't have a stars-n-bars bumper-sticker on my Jeep. It throws a lot of people off.”
“I would never have pegged you as a covert secessionist.”
Maddie laughed. “Nothing covert about me these days—not since I moved back to Jericho. Don't you know by now that intimate details of the local doctor's life are considered public domain?”
Syd nudged her. “Well. Not all details.”
Maddie smiled sheepishly. “Touché.”
“But putting that aside, I have wondered how you cope with it.”
She shrugged. “Fortunately, most people are so motivated by self-interest that their provincial concerns about the great mystery of my private life are secondary to whatever malady prompts them to seek medical attention. And I have the advantage of being perceived as more-or-less a native. For once, trying to fill my father's shoes is a benefit.”
Maddie lowered her gaze from the window to regard the shorter woman. “I knew you wouldn't let that comment slide.”
Syd glanced at her watch before smiling at her. “Well you're in luck—right now I am faced with the unhappy prospect of trying to fill my own shoes. I guess I should go and try to make myself look halfway professional before my meeting.”
Maddie laughed and gestured toward the bathroom. “All yours.”
As soon as she was alone inside the bathroom, Syd leaned her back against the closed door and stood for a few moments with her eyes shut. Oh my god, how am I supposed to survive this? I can't let her see how freaked out I am—she'll think it's because she told me she's gay. Jesus . She opened her eyes and crossed over to the vanity, looking at herself in the mirror. The face that gazed back at her was completely distracted. What a mess. How do I act all blasé about this when I'm terrified? What if I have another one of those damn dreams while I'm actually in bed with her? Fuck, fuck, fuck. I so am not up for this. In desperation, she looked over at the tiny window over the commode. I wonder if I could survive a jump to the street?
Sighing with resignation, she began to remove cosmetic items from her small travel bag.
Syd emerged from the dressing room twenty minutes later wearing a striking, dark green suit. Maddie was reclining in a chair with her sneaker-clad feet propped up on the windowsill, reading the entertainment section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch . She looked up as Syd entered the room. Her eyes widened as she looked at her. She felt a twinge of pleasure as she noticed that Syd was wearing the necklace she had given her for her birthday.
“Okay—who are you and what have you done with the dour librarian I arrived with?”
Syd waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, come on. Hey! Dour? ”
Maddie cut her off. ”You look great. I don't know what dollar amount you've asked for in your budget request, but take my advice and double it.”
Syd blushed as she began to transfer items from her handbag into a briefcase. “I hate to disillusion you, but meeting with the state library board won't be anything like your favorite pastime of seducing pharmaceutical reps. The old tried-and-true cheesecake approach won't do me much good.”
Maddie was silent for a moment. “Don't underestimate yourself.”
Syd laughed and turned to look at her, but Maddie averted her eyes. “You want me to call you a cab?”
Syd nodded. “I'll probably be longer than an hour—wanna meet back here later on?”
“You betcha. My opening session shouldn't last more than an hour, so I ought to be back here by 5:30 or 6:00. Then we can spend the evening eating and drinking entirely too much.” Maddie smiled, “This is one night I don't have to worry about being on call. And I know a great little restaurant in the Fan that we can walk to.”
Syd smiled. “I can hardly wait.”
Syd's first meeting with the State Library representatives was short and uneventful. After finding the office building and walking up four flights of marble stairs, she was shown into a paneled conference room and offered a cup of very stale black coffee. After a lull of several minutes, the door opened and a middle-aged woman hurried in, apologizing for her tardiness.
“Ms. Murphy? I'm Denise Metcalf—the grant coordinator. Our rural services manger was supposed to join us, but got called away this afternoon.”
Syd smiled as they shook hands. “That's okay—I appreciate your willingness to meet with me over a weekend.”
“It's a pleasure—really. We don't get many opportunities to talk personally with our field librarians.” She was a small woman, with a round, friendly-looking face. “How are you making out?”
“Pretty well—all things considered. The branch opening went very smoothly. I've been the grateful recipient of lots of good volunteer help.”
Metcalf smiled and jotted a note on the inside cover of a file folder. “That's what we like to hear. How is the facility shaping up?”
“It's a bit rustic—but the locals have done an amazing job with renovations. We repainted the inside and installed new carpet squares. The interior lighting is still a challenge, so I rely pretty heavily on tabletop fixtures. I have a floor plan for you—in addition to the preliminary operating budget.”
“Wonderful! I can't tell you how unusual it is to have this information produced voluntarily and on time. We may want to use you as a poster child for our other branches.”
Syd laughed as she passed the documents across the table. “You might want to withhold your praise until you've had a chance to review these. I confess that I am flying blind on this budget.”
Metcalf flipped through the neatly typed pages. “Don't worry too much about that. We don't expect you to have an etched-in-stone report until a full year after the branch is up and running. You'll have an opportunity next fall to reassess and modify these figures.”
“That's a relief. I never really though of myself as a science fiction writer until I sat down to draft this.”
Metcalf chuckled. “Are there any glaring omissions in your initial inventory? Any critical equipment needs necessary to facilitate operations?”
Syd raised an eyebrow. “Within what dollar amount are we speaking?”
“ Oh, roughly in the range of free .”
“That's what I thought.” Syd drummed her fingers on top of her briefcase. “No—I guess we can manage for now.”
Metcalf nodded, then reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a business card. “Here are all of my numbers. Please give me a call anytime I can be of help.”
Syd took the card. “Thank you, I will.”
“Now, Judy Goldman—who is our state auditor, wants to talk with you tomorrow about some changes in funding that might be coming down the pike next year.”
Syd was surprised. “Is this something I should be worried about?”
Metcalf shook her head. “I don't think so—not now, anyway. But it would be disingenuous to pretend that we aren't all concerned about the fate of our less established initiatives in the wake of the hits our state budget has been taking. What we have to hope is that your local economy will be in a position to shoulder the expense of running the branch by the time the grant money runs out next year.”
“Well, that sounds vaguely ominous.” Syd stood up and buttoned her jacket. “I guess it's a good thing I didn't count on more than an 18-month tenure.”
Metcalf stood up, too, and extended her hand. “Don't be too worried—we generally find that once they get used to having a library, local governments are reluctant to give them up.” They shook hands. “I think your little branch will find a way to survive.”
Syd smiled at her. “I hope you're right. I've grown rather fond of the area—and the people.”
“Oh? So you might be interested in staying on there after the grant ends?”
“I've been giving it some thought lately.”
“Well be sure to tell Judy that tomorrow—it can't hurt for her to know that she's got a potential bird in the hand. It's been a pleasure meeting you, Syd. Your materials look very thorough—I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow. Thanks so much for coming all the way to Richmond.”
“Likewise—and I was happy to make the trip up here. I thought a little diversion would do me some good.”
“Have you been to our fair city before?”
“Not really. I'm embarrassed to confess that I've never done more than pass through Richmond on the interstate.”
“Where are you staying?”
“An older hotel called The Old Dominion —in the Fan district.”
“Oh, that's very charming. Enjoy your evening—and we'll see you again tomorrow afternoon.”
Syd smiled as she reached for the doorknob. “Thanks. I'll look forward to it.”
Since she had extra time on her hands, Syd had the cab driver drop her off several blocks from the hotel, thinking that the brisk air would do her good. She browsed in and around several interesting looking storefront shops and wondered how Maddie was faring with the conference. The sky had turned slate gray. Syd was no expert, but it looked like it could snow. She smiled to herself. I'll have to ask the resident flying ace and weather maven about that. She slowly shook her head. Goofball. I can't believe she sprung that on me.
She glanced at her watch. 4:45. Maddie wouldn't be back for at least another hour, and the weather continued to deteriorate. She decided to head back to the room and change into more comfortable clothes. There was a small café in front of the hotel, and she thought she would order some decent coffee and peruse their complimentary newspaper. When she got back, she was surprised to see Maddie crossing the lobby. The tall doctor was striking in a tailored blue dress, walking with long strides across the worn carpet toward the stairs. Stairs. Of course. Why take an elevator when it's only eight flights? Crossing to the elevators, Syd decided to do an end-run and surprise her.
Maddie huffed as she bolted up the last flight of stairs. Damn…I really gotta start working out. I wonder if I should pick up one of those Wii Fit thingies while I'm up here?
At the top, she hauled open the big fire door and was startled by the sound of a low, sexy voice. “Hey there, Stretch. Looking for some company? ”
She whipped her head around toward the sound and saw Syd, casually leaning against a doorjamb with her arms crossed over her chest and a small smile on her face. Maddie stood there, slack-jawed, and Syd broke into mirthful laughter. “Oh, poor baby! You look like a deer in the headlights. Did I scare you?”
Maddie took a moment to consider, deciding that a good offense was her best defense.
“On the contrary—I was just weighing my options.” She stepped closer to Syd so she could tower over her. “I've already sort-of made plans with another babe for tonight—but I think I can get out of it. She's a librarian, and probably won't last much past 7:30.” She gave her a rakish wink and bent even closer. “Wanna meet later in the bar?”
Syd dropped her arms in defeat. “Do you have to be better at everything ?”
Maddie laughed at her, and draped an arm around her shoulders as she steered them toward their room. “Don't be bitter—I already gave you an index to the things I don't do well.”
Syd responded without thinking. “Oh, yeah—let's see…we can either cook something—or fall madly into a relationship.” Realizing what she had said, she panicked and looked up at the taller woman, quickly trying to conceal her faux pas. “I think those were my options, right?”
Maddie nudged her playfully. “Tongue depressors. You forgot those.” She winked at her. “But given the choice, I'd definitely go for the relationship option.”
“And why's that?” Syd was intrigued.
Maddie's laugh was self-deprecating. She dropped her arm and reached into her bag to retrieve her room key. “Because even though the ending would be a nightmare —I could promise you a helluva good time getting there.”
Syd's pulse began to race as she watched her open the door to their room. She wondered what on earth had made the tall woman so bitter—and so fatalistic. Maddie stood aside so Syd could enter the room—and looked back at her with an implied question in her clear, blue eyes. Syd knew she needed to make some kind of response to the doctor's facetious suggestion.
“Tell you what,” Syd smiled at her. “I'll take it under advisement.”
Maddie shrugged into the arms of her leather jacket as they exited the elevator. “Why don't we commemorate having our first appointments behind us and go find some place monstrously overpriced to have dinner? I feel like celebrating.” She added with a sly grin, “I may even splurge and drink an entire bottle of wine by myself.”
Syd raised an eyebrow at that. “By yourself?”
Maddie nudged her arm playfully as they walked across the lobby toward the street doors. “Okay. I might be persuaded to share a small glass with you—if you promise not to question my selection or argue with me about who pays.”
“Arguing with you might always be a losing proposition, but I can't promise that I won't try.”
They stepped out onto the street. A line of taxis stood at the ready along the curb. “Do we walk or do we ride?” Syd asked, turning up the collar of her jacket. It was still shy of sunset, but the air was noticeably colder than it had been just an hour ago. Syd couldn't tell if it was going to rain or snow, but it was pretty clear that something ominous was brewing.
Maddie grasped her elbow and steered her away from the hotel driveway. “We walk.” She glanced up at the sky. “But let's hedge our bets and find something closer to the hotel in case the weather turns on us. We can grab some fresh air and look along the along the river for a nice spot with a view and a good wine list.”
“That sounds great to me. I feel like my butt is numb from sitting all day.”
“Reeeeaallly?” Maddie asked, stopping to consider Syd's backside. “Want me to take a look at it for you?” She dramatically flexed the fingers of both hands like tentacles.
Syd grabbed her by the arm and yanked her forward. “No, nut-job—I think it'll work itself out. Thanks all the same for the offer.”
Maddie sighed and shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket. “Your loss. I'll have you know I was the unbridled star of my session today.”
Syd looked at her in disbelief. “And your session on the conference itinerary has exactly what relevance to my backside?”
Maddie shrugged and shook her head. “Medicine is associative. Who can say how seemingly unrelated conditions might intersect in a diagnosis.”
“Riiight. Well, I think I'll take my chances and try to walk this particular malady off.” Syd smiled at her.
“Well don't say I didn't offer to help.”
After walking a few blocks, they came upon the entrance to a large pedestrian bridge that stretched across the James River. It was located next to an outdoor plaza dotted with bars, quaint looking shops, and neatly landscaped outdoor seating areas. Business people hurried along the sidewalks, talking on cell phones and checking their watches. Lively music, punctuated by raucous laughter, poured out the open doors of one of the bars. Maddie stopped and looked up and down the plaza. Her eyes narrowed as she scanned the row of shops.
“I think there's a—yeah. It's this way. C'mon.” She took Syd by the elbow and guided her through the melee of pedestrians. After walking about a block, they turned down an alley that led away from the plaza toward the riverbank. At the bottom of the tiny street, overlooking the water stood an old, three-story brick building. A small painted sign that read “River City Chop House” hung on rusty hooks near the large double doors. The legend “1854” was etched into a grimy-looking cornerstone. There were no cars—and no place to park them in any event. A chalkboard on an easel stood on the sidewalk near the entrance.
“It's been a while since I ate here,” Maddie explained. “But as I recall, the food is excellent and the atmosphere is even better. You game?”
Syd pulled her eyes away from the tantalizing descriptions of the evening fare and looked at Maddie with a glazed expression. “Are you kidding? Try and keep me out of here!”
Maddie grinned and walked up the three steps to the door and held it open for Syd. “Well, we're early enough that we should be able to get a seat without reservations.” When she opened the door, an intoxicating blend of odors assailed them. Syd nearly swooned and had to fight to keep her nose out of the air. The small lobby area was paneled in dark walnut and comfortably, but simply furnished. There were wine racks stashed everyplace—all of them full. The restaurant itself was made up of a series of smaller rooms—all with spectacular views of the waterfront.
A middle-aged man wearing a starched white shirt and black bow tie approached them from inside the restaurant. He wore a knee-length apron and carried several oversized, leather-covered menus. His eyes widened as he saw Maddie.
“Dr. Stevenson! Welcome back. Are you in town for the conference?”
Maddie grinned sheepishly and reached out to shake hands with the man. “Hi ya, Willie. Yeah—just here for the weekend. I thought I'd like to treat my friend here to the best food in Richmond. Willie—meet Margaret Sydney Murphy.”
Willie shook hands warmly with Syd. “Welcome, Miss Murphy. Let me get you set up someplace nice before the crowds arrive.” He reached beneath a large stationmaster's desk and picked up a hefty wine list. “If you'll just follow me?”
“Thanks Willie. You're the best.” Maddie gestured for Syd to walk ahead of her. As Syd passed her, she muttered under her breath, “Been a while since you ate here, huh?”
Maddie shrugged. “What can I tell you?” she whispered. “I'm a great tipper.”
Willie led them across a faded carpet to a small table in a corner, next to a large set of casement windows that overlooked the river. The view was breathtaking. The late afternoon sun was just starting to set, casting long shadows across everything along the riverbank. Small boats and cargo barges slowly moved along the inner-city waterway. From this vantage point, it was easy to imagine what life had looked like in old, antebellum Richmond. Down here, along the riverfront, there was little to suggest that anything in the city had changed. No cars. No traffic lights. No roads to speak of. Walkways lighted with gas lamps ran along the embankment. There was little pedestrian traffic. Here, the pace of life seemed to move along at the same, unhurried rate of the river itself.
They sat down and began to examine their menus. Maddie ordered them each a glass of cabernet to enjoy while they considered their dining and beverage options. Willie arrived in short order with the two glasses of wine and a loaf of freshly baked sourdough bread. They sipped their wine as he described the chef's specials for the evening, and then left them to their own devices. They eagerly discussed the menu, trying to devise a method to try at least one of everything—while Maddie made happy, groaning noises as she bit into a hunk of the hot bread.
Syd smiled and looked up from her menu. Behind Maddie, she could see a striking, dark-haired woman approaching their table. She wore a tailored navy blue suit and carried a black leather bag. She nodded at Syd as she reached their table, then she reached out a hand to touch Maddie lightly on the back of her shoulder.
“Hello, stranger,” she said, in a husky voice, tinged with an unmistakable New York accent.
Maddie started and turned to face her with a stunned expression on her face. She sat staring at the woman for several seconds before she quietly spoke.
“Gina.” It was just one word, but it seemed to speak volumes. “What, uh… what are you doing here?” Syd had never seen the doctor lose her composure like this. She was completely rattled.
Gina laughed. She seemed perfectly relaxed. “I'm here for the conference—just like you, I'd imagine.” She glanced over at Syd, and then shifted her gaze back to Maddie. “Are you going to introduce me to your friend?”
There was something about the way she said the word ‘friend' that bothered Syd. Maddie appeared to notice it, too. Syd saw the muscles in her jaw tighten.
“Of course. Syd Murphy, this is Gina Garcetti. Gina, Syd Murphy.”
“Nice to meet you,” Gina said as she extended a hand across the table and limply shook hands with Syd. Even while they were shaking hands, her eyes drifted back to Maddie.
“And you,” Syd replied, clearly speaking to herself. She studied the small woman. Gina was a looker all right. Glossy black hair, cut stylishly short. Brown eyes with amazing long lashes. A tight-fitting suit. Understated, but expensive jewelry. Prada bag. Manicured nails. Everything about her suggested taste and class. And she was looking at Maddie like she was something that had just rolled out on the dessert cart. Syd had a growing sense that a final piece of a puzzle was tumbling into place right before her eyes.
“Aren't you going to ask me to sit down?” Gina nudged Maddie playfully, adding to the doctor's obvious discomfort.
“Um… well…” Maddie fumbled. Syd reached across the table to push back the breadbasket in an attempt to clear a place for Gina, and knocked over her wine glass in the process. The red liquid spread across the tablecloth like a bloodstain and dripped off onto the seat of their only extra chair.
“Damn it!” Syd cried, belatedly tossing her napkin on top of the red tide. “I'm so clumsy! God. Please forgive me. Let me get a waiter to help us clean this up.”
Gina looked passively at Syd, then down at the lake of cabernet pooling on the chair.
“On the other hand—it looks like this is a bad time.” She turned to face Maddie again. “Let me catch up with you tomorrow. I'm sure I'll see you at Dr. Heller's keynote.” Without waiting for a response, she turned and walked away tossing an offhand “Nice to meet you, Syd,” over her shoulder.
Syd watched her walk across their tiny dining room as she made her way toward the lobby.
“Bitch,” she muttered.
Maddie gave her a startled look.
Syd raised an eyebrow and inclined her head toward their uninvited guest. “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
Maddie blinked, then burst into peals of laughter. “Oh my god! You did that on purpose , didn't you?”
Syd shrugged and set her glass upright. “It seemed like you needed a diversion, so I made the ultimate sacrifice.” She picked up her empty glass and sniffed it. “Too bad. I really liked this stuff.”
Willie arrived with the wine steward in tow, and in less than one minute, their table had been cleared and reset. The offending chair was removed. The steward asked Syd if she'd like another glass of the same cabernet. “Hell no,” Maddie roared. “We're celebrating. Bring us a bottle of the Margaux !”
Syd raised her eyebrows.
Maddie's eyes sparkled as she looked back at Syd. “Thank you for that.”
“Why do I think there's a long story lurking here?” Syd asked as she reached for a fresh piece of bread.
“Probably because there is ,” Maddie replied with resignation. She sat for a few moments, deliberating as she twisted the stem of her wine glass between her fingers. Then she shook her dark head. “What the hell. You want to hear the ugly truth now or after we eat?”
“Maddie… you don't have to talk about it at all if it makes you uncomfortable. I really don't want to pry.”
“Oh trust me. It doesn't make me uncomfortable—not like she does. I'm just not sure how much of this you really want to know. It might fall into the category of TMI.”
Syd smiled at her. “I'd like to think that we're friends. Unless your story involves pouring over photos of your gall bladder operation, I doubt you could scare me off.”
Maddie arched an eyebrow at her. “You don't wanna see my scars?”
“Only the metaphorical ones.”
The steward arrived with the wine and made a ceremony out of opening the bottle. He splashed a bit of it into a fresh wine glass, and Maddie eagerly took a sip. Her eyes practically rolled back into her head. “Oh yeah. That'll do.”
When both of their glasses had been filled and the steward had retreated, Maddie cleared her throat and said, “So…where to begin?”
Syd sipped her wine, then met Maddie's gaze. “Let me save you some time,” she offered. “I gather that Gina is the infamous ex?”
“That obvious, huh?” Maddie shook her head. “And here I wanted to be all mysterious.” She gave Syd a nervous look. “Are you disappointed?”
Syd looked at her curiously. “Why would I be disappointed? She's certainly beautiful.”
Maddie was surprised and slightly embarrassed by Syd's comment. “Well—that isn't exactly what I meant.”
“No. But, thank you—I think .”
“You mentioned to me a while back that you had been involved with someone—a surgeon, I think you said—before coming back to Jericho. Was that Gina?”
“And that relationship ended just before you returned to Virginia?”
“That makes sense, now. When we first met, I couldn't figure out why someone like you was unattached.”
Maddie raised her eyebrow. “Ditto.”
Syd blushed. “Okay...I guess I asked for that. What I meant was that you seemed so not of the area—even though I knew you grew up there. It was clear to me that you had some kind of story. That's all.”
Maddie considered Syd for a few moments before speaking. “Well, as you know, I only did part of my growing up there. After my parents divorced, I spent most of my time living with my mother in southern California. I'd come back to Virginia on holidays, of course, and for a month or so every summer. I saw a lot more of my father during my college years than I ever did during childhood.” When Syd didn't comment, Maddie continued with her summary. “Dad and I got a lot closer during my years at Penn—his alma mater, too. We shared passions for medicine—and for flying—and spent many weekends together hopping around in our little airplane. He was a frequent visitor to Philadelphia in those days.” She smiled at the recollection. “I miss him a lot. My decision to go back there and take over his practice wasn't tough at all—he'd been after me for a couple of years to move back and join him.”
“Are you glad you did?”
Maddie nodded. “I am. It just feels right. All except for the secrets I now have to keep. Sometimes I wonder how much longer I can keep it up. It feels so inauthentic—so dishonest.”
Syd took a sip of her wine. “If it's not too personal to ask—who else knows?”
“That I'm gay?”
Maddie sighed. “Well, besides David and Michael—my father knew. I don't know if he ever really managed to make peace with the information. I think he may have told Peggy Hawkes. She often lapses into this ‘I know something but I'm not telling' posture whenever any aspect of my private life comes up. And, unlike every other woman in the county over the age of 60, she never quizzes me about my ‘personal' life or tries to entangle me with some one or other unattached male.”
“Well, that's a cross we both have to bear,” Syd pointed out.
Maddie smiled wryly. “I know, Syd—but at least you have the singular advantage of having been married. I stand out like some kind of alien species.”
Syd quietly considered the woman before her. With her stunning good looks, she'd be a standout anywhere. “I don't know,” she mused. “We're both anomalies. But in terms of our professions, we're holding true to the stereotypes.”
Maddie snorted. “You mean we're both old maids?”
They sat quietly for a minute. Finally, Syd's voice broke the silence. “So?” she prompted.
“So?” Maddie repeated.
“You mean in the relationship?” Maddie asked.
“Oh, nothing so terribly dramatic. Gina was a third-year surgical resident in ophthalmology at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philly. I was finishing my final year in emergency medicine at Presby. We were introduced by mutual friends—and started seeing each other. It was her first same-sex relationship…” she paused, “and my first really serious involvement.” She waved her hand dismissively, pushing back deeper trains of thought. “We tried living together, but it just never worked out. Our schedules were just too erratic—too dissimilar. In the end, it was all too much for her. Trying to balance a medical career with the stresses of a serious relationship—and her ambivalence about the nature of that relationship—just became too complicated. We wanted different things—different lives. It all fell apart pretty quickly. Something had to give.”
She looked at Syd. “That something ended up being me.”
She glanced down at her plate and idly picked at her piece of bread. “By the time my father died, I knew it was over. That's when I made my final decision to come back and take over his practice.”
They sat in silence again.
“Any regrets?” Syd asked, quietly.
Maddie met her gaze. “Not one.”
“Well…Gina certainly seemed— composed . But at the risk of overstepping—you didn't.”
“No,” Maddie shook her head. “No, I wasn't. I'm not . It ended—but it ended badly. And I haven't had any contact with Gina since I left Philadelphia two years ago.”
“So seeing her here was a surprise for you?”
Maddie poured herself another half glass of wine. “Yes. No. I mean—I guess I thought there was a pretty good probability that she would be here for this conference—especially for the ophthalmic sessions. I guess—I just thought I might be able to avoid running into her.” She exhaled audibly and shook her head. “You can see how well that delusion played out.”
Syd sighed. “Well I'm certainly no expert, but it seems like you might have some unfinished business.” She paused, and then continued quietly. “Is there a chance you still have feelings for her?”
Maddie's blue eyes tracked up to hers. “Oh, I have feelings for her all right. But not the kind you suspect. Believe me, Syd, Gina's—complicated. Not being around her is altogether in my best interest.”
“Okaaaaayyy. But it sounds like your plan to avoid her isn't going to pan out very well if you're in the same session tomorrow. Or is that one you can skip?”
“No…no that's one session I have to attend. In fact, it's the real reason I'm here—and that's something else I need to share with you.”
“With me ? ” Syd looked confused.
“Yeah. Especially since it seems pretty likely that you'll end up being involved in it, too.”
Syd sat up straighter in her chair. “ It? This is sounding pretty ominous. What is ‘it,' and how could I possibly be involved?”
“Weeeellll…the conference keynote speaker is one Dr. Celine Heller—associate dean of the UCLA School of Medicine and one of the nation's leading researchers in molecular toxicology.”
“Okay, I'm properly humbled. But why is this something I need to know about?”
Maddie sighed. “Well, Celine and I have a—history. And we haven't exactly been on very good terms for about the last, oh, seven years or so. In fact, I haven't seen her since I graduated from med school. It's fairly certain that she is at least going to want to dine with—um— us —tomorrow night.”
Syd narrowed her eyes. “Okay—we'll get back to that ‘us' part. But by ‘history,' do you mean….” she waved her hand.
Maddie looked at her quizzically, then laughed out loud. “God, no! Celine is my mother !”
Syd flopped back against her chair. “Oh my god.” She thought about it for a moment. “ Heller. Is that the ‘H' in Madeleine H. Stevenson?”
“Ding! Would you now like to try for Double-Jeopardy, where those dollars can really add up?”
Syd tore a hunk off her piece of bread and tossed it across the table at her. “You know, Doctor, you really might want to consider parceling out these little revelations of yours—I feel like my brain's about to implode.”
Maddie grinned at her sheepishly and reached across the table to squeeze the top of her hand. “I really was going to tell you about Celine tonight—honest. The Gina thing—that just happened. I didn't want to spring the idea of meeting my mother on you any sooner—I didn't want to give you time to back out.”
Syd shook her head. “You're a six-foot-tall chickenshit, aren't you?”
“More or less.”
“God. Well—I know one thing for sure.”
Syd poured herself another glass of the Margaux. “I'm not fighting you for the check.”
The two lingered at the restaurant until they became uncomfortable holding the table for so long on such a busy night. Their once quiet dining room was now filled with other patrons, and Maddie was eager to evade any more unwelcome intrusions by over-zealous conference-goers. Already, she had spotted two other physicians she knew from her years working at Presbyterian, and she wanted to avoid any protracted conversations about her mother's scheduled appearance tomorrow. Celine was a luminary in the medical profession, and conference organizers were still crowing about their incredible good fortune at snaring her to deliver the keynote address.
Maddie began to fidget.
Syd noticed. “Something wrong?
“Um… if it's all the same to you—how about we get out of here and walk back to the hotel for a nightcap? I think there's a nice little lounge off the lobby that might be a tad less populated .”
Syd turned her head and took a quick look around the dining room. “Why? Are there more ex-lovers of yours queuing up?”
Maddie rolled her eyes at her. “ Very funny. No. I'd just like to avoid any mind-numbing conference chatter—and that's going to be difficult if we continue to sit here. Already, I see a handful of myopic M.D.'s peering over at our table. It's only a matter of time before they muster the courage to pounce.”
Syd folded her napkin and placed it on top of the table. “Well since you've already settled the check and over-tipped to the point that your reputation remains intact—I suppose we can blow this joint with impunity.”
Maddie grinned at her. “I couldn't have said it better.”
Syd pushed her chair back. “Let's go, Casanova.”
Maddie stood up, too. “Ohhhh, that's right! I've got a hot date waiting for me back at the hotel bar…don't wanna be late for that .” She glanced at her watch. “Hmmm. It's 8:15,” she looked up at Syd hopefully. “Sleepy yet?”
“In your dreams, wise guy.”
They collected their coats and left the restaurant. Outside, the night had turned colder, but no precipitation was falling. They walked along the embankment toward the alley that would take them away from the river and back to their hotel.
“You know,” Syd said, as she pulled the lapels of her coat closed across her neck, “I'm sure I heard that the first day of spring is just around the corner. What gives with this weather?”
Maddie squinted up at the sky. “I don't think it'll amount to much.”
“Oh? Kind of like your chances of getting lucky in the bar later?” Syd bumped into her playfully as they walked along.
“Hey! Doubt me at your peril. I'll have you know that my reputation wasn't built on over-tipping alone.”
“Are you telling the truth?”
Maddie's blue eyes twinkled. “Do you wanna find out?”
Syd sighed. “Here we go again.”
Maddie grinned and grasped her elbow. “C'mon. Let's shake a leg. There are a couple of big shots of Bailey's waiting for us back at the hotel.”
Thirty minutes later, they were comfortably seated in two plush chairs in a dark corner of their hotel's lounge. A large fire burning in an open fireplace in the center of the room cast giant shadows on the paneled walls. Their waiter arrived and deposited two tumblers of Bailey's Irish Cream and a plate of small chocolate cookies. Syd immediately snatched one of them up and held it to her nose. “ Oh my god— these are just like Girl Scout cookies! I might die right here!” She bit into it happily.
Maddie laughed at her, and then shook her head. “Are you telling me that I ordered a Premier Cru Bordeaux at dinner when all I needed to impress you was a lousy box of Thin Mints?”
Syd shrugged and reached for another cookie.
Maddie chuckled and sipped her Bailey's.
Syd picked up her own drink and settled back in her chair. “So. Do you wanna tell me now about tomorrow and what I should expect?”
Maddie's eyes met hers. “You mean when we meet up with Celine?”
Maddie sighed. “I hardly know what to expect myself. When I found out that she was attending this conference—or any conference, for that matter—I realized that something was up. Celine hates public speaking—and there's no way she'd make an exception for an event on the opposite side of the country unless she had another motivation. I knew I was right when I got an email from her assistant six weeks ago asking if I was planning to attend.”
“From her assistant ?”
“Oh, yeah. She jobbed that little task out to one of her lab rats. So I took the bait and replied that I'd be here. She emailed me a few days later and suggested that we meet for dinner. I still have no idea why she wants to see me.”
Syd gazed at her. “She's your mother, Maddie—does she really need a better reason than that?”
“Oh, trust me—this has nothing to do with maternal instincts. Celine jobbed that out, too. I was pretty much raised by a succession of nannies. But to be fair,” she met Syd's eyes, “they all were enormously competent. I even think that one or two of them actually cared for me.”
Syd leaned forward and touched Maddie's knee. “God. I'm so sorry.”
Maddie covered her hand with one of her own. “Hey…it's okay. I'm not really bothered by any of this.”
Syd shook her head. “I know you're not—that's what upsets me.”
Maddie sighed and gave Syd's hand a squeeze. “I don't want to pretend that there weren't times when I struggled with this—with Celine's detachment . But eventually, it just became easier to accept my life on her terms.” She slowly shook her head. “When it comes to Celine, there is no there there. I do okay as long as I don't expect anything.”
Syd nodded and sat back. “So what can I do to help?”
“For starters, you can forgive me for taking such shameful advantage of you. For all my bravado, I am a little nervous about seeing her tomorrow.” She paused. “Having you there as my friend will help ground me and level the playing field. I'll be less likely to do or say anything I might regret later on.”
“Does she know I'll be joining you?”
“No. But if that makes you uncomfortable, I'll call her when we get back to the room and let her know.”
Syd tapped her index finger on the side of her glass while she considered Maddie's offer. “No. I think we should trust your instincts on this. If it becomes clear that my presence is too distracting—I'll invent a reason to leave.”
“I really don't know how to thank you for this.”
“Oh, don't worry about that,” Syd smiled at her. “I'll think of something.”
“Hmmm. I suppose I could just promise to keep you well-supplied with Girl Scout cookies.”
“That'd be a hell of a start.”
Maddie smiled at her and drained her glass. “It's a deal. Want another? Or are you ready to head upstairs?”
“Oh, I'm beyond ready for bed. But don't let me hold you back. Stay and enjoy yourself.”
“If it's all the same to you, I think I'll call it a night, too.” She stood up and noticed Syd regarding her with a raised eyebrow. “Hey—even the most accomplished love goddess needs a night off now and then.”
Syd rolled her eyes. “Come on. Stairs or elevator?”
“You're kidding, right? After that meal? I was thinking about having a porter wheel me up on one of those luggage carts. Of course, you're welcome to ride along….”
Upstairs in their room, Maddie changed into a faded, gray Penn t-shirt and baggy, flannel lounge pants, and made a nest in one of the big chairs by the window. She put on a pair of wire-framed reading glasses and pulled a copy of the JAMA out of her duffle bag, opening it to a section marked with a yellow post-it note.
Syd emerged from the bathroom wearing baggy, lightweight pajamas. She looked over Maddie's shoulder and quoted, “ Clinical Outcome and Phenotypic Expression in Cardiomyopathy .” She smiled sweetly at her. “A little light reading before bed?”
Maddie looked up from her journal and tried not to show too visible a reaction to seeing Syd in her nightclothes. She looked adorable. “Oh, yeah. This one's a real bodice-ripper. I started it yesterday and I'm simply dying to find out what happens next.”
“Well, I'll take pains not to disturb you. I'm going to bed.” She squeezed Maddie's shoulder. “Goodnight. Thanks for the wonderful dinner—and the conversation.”
Maddie smiled up at her. “Will the light bother you? I don't have to finish this now.”
Syd walked over to the bed and turned down the covers on her side. “Not at all. I could sleep in the middle of a bus station. Stay up as long as you want.” She got into bed and turned off her bedside lamp.
Maddie gazed over at her for a few seconds. “G'night, Syd. Sleep tight.”
A muffled voice replied, “You, too.”
Maddie settled down for a nice, long read. She wanted to be certain Syd was sound asleep before she got up enough courage to join her in the big bed.
Maddie woke up twice during the night. Once when she felt, more than heard, Syd returning to bed after a bathroom visit. “Everything okay?” she asked, groggily.
“Everything's fine. Just had to pee. Go back to sleep—sorry I woke you.”
The second time she woke up, it was closer to dawn and faint rays of pinkish light were starting to creep in around the edges of the drapes that were pulled tight across their window. She was aware of feeling warm—uncomfortably so—and then realized that the source of the heat wasn't coming from the blankets, it was coming from the softly snoring woman who was draped halfway across her body. Syd's head was tucked between Maddie's neck and right shoulder, and one arm was snugly wrapped around her waist.
For a moment, she panicked. Oh shit. How did this happen? Then, as she lay there listening to Syd's quiet snores, she smiled. God, she fits me like a glove. She shook her head and silently scoffed at herself. Who am I kidding? She closed her eyes. It's patheti c. I'm shameless. I should wake her up. She rested her cheek against the top of Syd's head and lay there a few more minutes, quietly warring with herself. Syd smelled like sleep, and soap, and lavender. On the other hand, I'll never get a chance like this again. She gave up the struggle with her baser instincts, and discreetly moved her own arms up and around the sleeping woman. She was out again in minutes.
An hour later, Syd's travel alarm went off and she woke to find herself comfortably wrapped up in Maddie's arms. “Oh, my god !” She bolted up into a sitting position with a stunned look on her face. Her sudden movement shocked Maddie into wakefulness, and she quickly pushed herself up onto her elbows, her dark hair a maze around her face.
“What is it? Is something wrong? Are you okay?” she asked, urgently.
“Maddie—I'm…I'm so sorry .”
Maddie blinked and looked at her quizzically. “For what?”
Syd waved her hand back and forth between them. “For this . For that .” She pointed at a big drool spot on Maddie's t-shirt. “God.” She shook her head. “I sleep at home with a big, body pillow. I guess I—mistook you for it. I really apologize. I'm not normally such a—space invader.”
Maddie laughed at her and flopped back down on her back. “Is that all? My god . I thought the hotel was on fire!” She reached out and touched Syd on the arm. “No harm, no foul. Body pillow, huh?” She sat up again and tossed her hair back over her shoulder. “Well, I've been called worse.” She stood up. “Flip you for the first shower?”
Syd smiled up at her shyly. “You go first—it's the least I can do.”
“Well, now you know my motto… always do the least you can do.”
“Then break a sweat—we've got a couple of free breakfasts waiting on us downstairs.”
Maddie slowly turned to face her with an ironic expression on her face. She raised an eyebrow. “You know…I think you might owe me an apology after all.”
Syd's smile dissipated. “I really am sorry—”
Maddie cut her off with a raised hand. “Oh, not for that, ” she teased. “For doubting me last night.”
Syd looked confused. “Doubting you?”
“Yeah.” She dramatically brushed the nails of her right hand back and forth across her chest, and then blew on them. “Opinions might differ, but it appears that I may have managed to score with the town librarian.”
Syd sighed deeply, then stood up, and pushed past her. “Uh huh. Do you take comfort in these delusions?”
“ Delusions? ”
“Delusions.” Syd turned to face her, a sly smile on her face. “Trust me, Doctor,” her voice dropped a full octave, “if you had managed to score with this librarian, there'd be no room for divided opinion.”
Maddie's jaw dropped, followed soon by her butt, as she plopped back down onto the bed.
Syd smirked at her as she headed for the bathroom. “I'll try to save you some hot water.”
After Syd disappeared behind the bathroom door, Maddie muttered, “Don't bother—cold will be just fine.”
The question and answer segment of Dr. Heller's presentation was in full swing. Maddie glanced at her watch for about the twentieth time. Already the session had lasted 45 minutes longer than scheduled. Judging by the number of hands still waving in the air, it wasn't likely to be over anytime soon. She had intentionally taken a seat in one of the last rows of the auditorium, hoping she could avoid running into Gina—and forestalling the inevitable reunion with her mother. She felt vaguely like a stalker. Maddie shook her head in amazement as she watched Celine hold forth at the front of the hall, answering questions with dexterity and precision. She can still cut the most erudite prick down to size in about ten seconds.
As if on cue, Celine called on a questioner seated just behind Maddie. When she stepped away from the podium for an angle to see him better, her eyes landed on her daughter for the first time. Silently, the two regarded one another while the questioner droned on. Maddie resisted the urge to sink lower into her seat, and met her mother's gaze head-on. Celine pursed her lips, and then nodded slightly in acknowledgement. She then shifted her attention back to her questioner. Without losing a beat, she calmly responded to his query. When she finished, she walked back to the podium.
“I think that's enough for today. I'd like to thank you all for your time and attention—it's been a pleasure to be here with you.” There was a roar of applause as she collected her notes and exited the stage.
Show time , Maddie thought, as she stood up and made her way to the aisle that led to the stage. She made little progress. The throng of attendees in her part of the hall seemed in no particular hurry to exit—many of them standing in place, chatting about Celine's presentation or making plans for their evening amusements. After an endless string of polite entreaties and a few well-placed elbows, Maddie was finally able to see Celine, leaning against the apron of the stage. Her arms were folded across her chest, and her head was tilted to the side in a manner Maddie recognized as a posture she adopted whenever she was annoyed. Great. I wonder what put her in a foul mood so fast? Then she got a clear look at the woman Celine was talking to: it was Gina.
Her first impulse was to turn around and make a beeline for the nearest bar. Goddamn it to hell. What was I thinking when I agreed to do this? Her thoughts swung back to Gina's sudden appearance at their table in the restaurant last night. I should have known by her behavior that she'd pull some kind of stunt like this. Taking a deep breath, she straightened her jacket and continued on toward the stage.
Celine saw her immediately. Turning away from Gina, she watched her daughter approach. “Madeleine. You look well.”
“Celine.” She turned to Gina. “And, Gina—you're certainly omnipresent.” Maddie eyed her short-waisted jacket and shorter red skirt. As usual, Gina was tastefully but provocatively dressed. “I see you've met my mother?”
Celine spoke up before Gina could reply. “Oh, yes. Dr. Garcetti has been very entertaining. I had no idea that the two of you were so close.”
Maddie refused to be goaded. “Really? Well you can hardly be surprised that you've missed a few plot twists, Celine. Seven years is a long time.” She looked directly at Gina, “Dr. Garcetti is so modest that she probably didn't tell you what a brilliant ophthalmic surgeon she is. In fact, she even helped me see a few things more clearly.”
“Your daughter is too kind, Dr. Heller.” Gina's voice was icy. “She didn't need any help from me to find her way. If anything, I was more of a hurdle on her path to self-actualization.”
Maddie laughed. “I never was any good at those track-and-field events, was I Celine?” She looked back at Gina. “I caught my foot on every damn one of those hurdles.”
Celine held her palm up between the two of them. “ Enough . I really don't have the time or the inclination to stand here while the two of you engage in this sophomoric repartee.” She turned to face Maddie. “I came here to have a civilized conversation with you —not to get an unsolicited tour of your past indiscretions.”
Gina looked back and forth between the two women, as they stood practically nose-to-nose. Celine was a slightly shorter, older, and—right now— angrier version of Maddie. Her blue eyes looked almost violet as she regarded her daughter. Her face was smooth and nearly unlined. Were it not for her short, slightly graying hair, she could pass as Maddie's twin.
“I can see that I've intruded too long on your reunion.” Gina faced Celine and held out her hand. “Thank you, Dr. Heller, for your presentation today and for your many contributions to medicine. It was an honor to finally meet you.”
Celine shook Gina's hand. “Dr. Garcetti. I wish I could say the same.”
Without a backward look at Maddie, Gina turned abruptly and stormed up the aisle toward the nearest exit.
Mother and daughter stood together in silence watching her leave. After a minute, Maddie sighed. “Talk about Grant taking Richmond.”
Celine exhaled and shook her head. “Madeleine, I don't know what disappoints me more—your decision to waste your talents on an indifferent medical practice, or your penchant for wasting yourself on indifferent talent.”
Against her will, Maddie laughed out loud. “Dear god, Celine! That's the classiest put-down I've had in ten years!”
“Don't prevaricate. You give as good as you get. You always have.”
“I had a good teacher.”
Celine crossed to a seat in the first row and collected her coat and briefcase. “As enjoyable as this is, I think we should continue our discussion over dinner. I have an early flight back to L.A. in the morning and I need to return some calls later tonight.”
Maddie regarded her mother calmly. “Let's cut to the chase, shall we, Celine? Why did you want to see me?”
Celine straightened the collar of her jacket. “Do I need a reason?”
“Need a reason? No. Have a reason? Certainly. What is it?”
“I hate to destroy the dramatic picture you're building up, but I have no motivation other than my desire to take advantage of my presence here, and spend an evening with my daughter.”
They regarded each other silently.
“So this little reunion is just a glorified homage to geography?”
“If you choose to view it that way—then, yes.”
They started walking up the aisle toward the main exit. Maddie looked straight ahead as she addressed her mother. “Great. Then you won't mind if a friend joins us for dinner?”
Maddie saw Celine's back stiffen, but she kept walking forward. “Another friend? Charming.” She looked at Maddie. Her expression was unreadable. “I can't wait to meet her.”
Maddie didn't bother to correct her. They walked the rest of the way out of the hall in silence.
Syd's morning meeting with the field services librarian was enjoyable and uneventful—but her afternoon session with the state auditor had been sobering. Denise Metcalf was correct in her surmise that government resources were becoming strained to the point that any continuation of funding after the end of the initial grant period was looking increasingly unlikely. Judy Goldman strongly encouraged Syd to use the next 12 months to try and lobby local officials to think creatively about finding a way to fund the library's modest operating budget.
This was a bittersweet development for Syd, who not only had invested tremendous time and energy in setting up her tiny branch—she had actually begun to think seriously about the possibility of remaining on in Jericho after her 18-month tenure had elapsed. If, in fact, the state funding dried up and the local economy was unable to shoulder the expense of keeping the branch open, she'd be faced with an unforeseen and confounding scenario.
Six months ago, it would never have occurred to her that she would be so despondent about the prospect of having to leave the tiny mountain community. Six months ago, she worried more about her ability simply to endure the 18-month commitment.
Now? Now she was faced with a new and surprising set of issues—and emotions.
She didn't want to leave Jericho. Not now. With each passing day, that revelation gained greater clarity. She loved the library. She loved the quirky rural community with its colorful pastiche of residents. She loved her life there with its sense of independence and purpose. She loved the natural opportunity she had been given to dip her toe back into the world of music. And she loved her new friends. She smiled to herself. A lot.
She was in no hurry to get back to the hotel, so she decided to take a slow walk along the scenic river embankment. As she lazily made her way toward the hotel, she had time to reflect on all of these things—and on the equally confounding events that were unfolding in her relationship with Maddie. She closed her eyes as she thought for the hundredth time about waking up that morning sprawled on top of her. My god . She sat down on an unoccupied bench that faced the water.
Since Maddie's revelation the night of her birthday, she felt that everything between them had changed. Well—that wasn't entirely true. Maddie's behavior was essentially unchanged. Maybe she was bit more relaxed and playful—certainly, she was more direct and self-effacing than usual. It's me, she thought. I'm the one who's different . I'm more guarded and suspicious of my motivations. I'm not reacting to her as openly or honestly as I did before I knew the truth . She gazed out at the inky surface of the water as it slowly made its way toward the Chesapeake Bay. And what is the truth? That Maddie is gay? Why was that revelation so unsettling to her? It didn't change anything about their relationship.
She shook her head. No. That was wrong. It changed everything.
It was pointless for her to continue to deny the attraction she felt for the extraordinary woman. It was pointless and dishonest. It didn't help her to pretend it was a fleeting thing that had no deeper meaning. Prior to learning the truth about Maddie's sexual orientation, she had been able to keep the baser threads of her emotions sealed up behind a wall of pragmatism. Maddie was unavailable—so that made any deeper consideration of her as a potential object of desire pointless and futile.
And Syd didn't pursue things that were futile. She might eventually tell herself the truth about her developing attraction to another woman—but she would never act on it. Especially not when the other woman in the equation was so effectively off the table.
But Maddie wasn't off the table. Maddie was gay. Maddie was gay, and she was unattached. Maddie had the word “available” stamped all over her six-foot frame.
And Syd was terrified.
Her biggest fear was that she would do something that would compromise herself and alienate Maddie while she took the time she needed to sort through this tangled-up mess. She needed time—time to calm down and time to understand what, if anything, all of this meant for her. And she needed to stop tiptoeing around her emotions in some ludicrous pantomime of normalcy. She needed to know what, if anything, this revelation about Maddie really meant for her. What would she be willing to do with the information? How would it change the nature of their interactions?
Her emotions were like a house of cards that grew higher and more precarious with each passing day. What did the makeshift structure that was emerging reveal to her? And how long did she have to figure it out before it collapsed beneath the weight of its own simple truth?
She didn't know the answers to any of things. But she knew that she had to stop hiding from her emotions—and she had to stop withholding herself from Maddie. It wasn't fair. Michael was right: Maddie needed her friendship. And tonight, when they met her estranged mother for dinner, she had a golden opportunity to step up and help her friend in a very material way.
She glanced at her watch. She had an hour before she was scheduled to meet Maddie back at the hotel. An idea began to take shape. She smiled to herself as she thought about it. Yes—it might just work. If I can't get answers to my own questions, maybe I can at least help her resolve a few of her own.
She stood up and walked quickly in the direction of the hotel.
Syd watched Maddie drain her Cosmopolitan and signal the bartender for another. They had agreed to meet in the lounge of their hotel for a cocktail before leaving to meet Celine for dinner. One look at Maddie's face told Syd how the meeting with her mother had gone. It only took a few minutes for Maddie to fill in the blanks.
Maddie set her empty glass down on the table.
“Um…wanna slow down a little, Stretch?” Syd asked, gently.
Maddie gave her a look that was a perfect blend of irony and despair. “God. A dozen of these might just begin to take the edge off. What the hell was I thinking ? That woman is just so—bloodless.”
Maddie scoffed. “Either. Both. ” She shrugged. “Flip a coin.”
Syd regarded her with concern. “You know, I had all day to persuade myself that going along with you was an okay thing to be doing—now, I'm not so sure.”
Maddie reached across the table and grabbed Syd's hand. “Oh, god… please don't back out now. I know I'm a shameless coward—but I don't think I can get through this alone. Just ten minutes with her was enough to make the prospect of becoming a Betty Ford alumna sound appealing.”
Syd smiled at her. “Buck up. You'll do just fine.”
Maddie slowly released her hand. Her beautiful face was a study in desperation. “You'll still come along?”
Syd sighed in resignation. “I will never desert you, Mr. Micawber.”
Maddie stared at her blankly for a moment, then burst into near hysterical laughter. She leaned across their tiny table and kissed Syd warmly on the cheek. “Oh, man… I'm a sucker for Dickens!” Her blue eyes sparkled. “How'd you come up with that?”
“Please,” Syd feigned contempt. “I'm a librarian . I notice books. You have at least five editions of David Copperfield lying around your house.”
Maddie sat back, still chuckling. “Hmmm. So if instead, I had, say, five copies of The Case of the Velvet Claws —what would you have said?”
Syd winked at her. “Oh, that's easy—I'd have called you Chief, and asked if you'd like another martini.”
They stared at each other. Maddie shook her head slowly. “I think I'm in love.”
Syd smiled at her. “Hold that thought—it might actually work to your advantage for the next couple of hours.”
“What do you mean?” Maddie looked confused.
Syd leaned forward. “Given what you told me about your mother's reaction to meeting Gina—and to my coming along tonight—why not turn the tables on her and let her think that we are a couple?”
Maddie looked at her like she had two heads. “Are you kidding me?”
“No, I'm not.”
“Why on earth would we do that?”
“Because I simply don't believe her when she tells you that she has no real reason for suddenly waltzing back into your life. The surest way to get her to come clean is to rattle her cage and see what shakes loose. Let's just see how emotionally detached from you she is.”
“Now I really need that drink. Are you nuts ? Celine would see through a ruse like this in a nanosecond!”
“You underestimate me—and you underestimate Celine as your mother.”
Maddie slumped back against her seat. “It's not that the prospect of toying with Celine doesn't appeal to me, Syd—it's that I really just don't get the point.”
Their waiter arrived with Maddie's second Cosmopolitan. “Look,” Syd continued, after he had picked up the empty glass and walked away. “You said your mother was pretty pissed-off over the whole Gina exchange today. If she already knew about your sexual orientation and never expressed any interest or concern about it previously—then why would she get so worked up over running into your ex-girlfriend? It doesn't make sense. Something about that whole interaction really yanked her chain. Don't you want to find out what it is that's really stuck in her craw?”
Maddie listened to Syd in thoughtful silence. Then she shook her head. “I don't know. I mean—of course I'd like to know what's really going on with her. But I think it's a mistake for the two of us to breeze in there and perform some kind of elaborate pantomime just to try and force her hand. It could totally backfire. I mean, how do we even know we could pull it off? And what about you? Why would you be willing to risk having her—or anyone—think that you're my—my….” Her voice trailed off.
Maddie met her eyes. “Yeah.”
Syd smiled at her. “It isn't like I'm going to run into her next weekend at the Junior League rummage sale. Come on! What do we have to lose?”
Maddie thought about it. “You got me there. Not a whole helluva lot.” She sat back and looked at Syd with lingering indecision. “Okay.” She expelled a breath. “But I have to warn you—when she's cornered, Celine is like Jabba the Hutt in a Chanel suit.”
Syd laughed. “Don't worry—I know the type. Some day, I'll tell you about my former mother-in-law—I kept her back with wolf's bane and pentagrams.”
Maddie shook her head slowly. “God. Why do I think I'm going to live to regret this?”
“Tell you what,” Syd said. Her voice exuded confidence. “You just be your sweet and solicitous self—and leave the driving to me.”
“Oh, that part,” Maddie said, as she raised her glass in a mock toast, “will not be a problem.”
Celine was staying at The Jefferson, a five-star hotel located near the center of Richmond's financial district. In the interest of time, she and Maddie had agreed to meet for dinner downstairs at her hotel's premier restaurant, L'Etoile . She had spent the hours following her conference appearance back in her hotel room, returning phone calls and responding to departmental e-mail. An hour before she was due to meet her daughter, she closed her laptop and made arrangements with the concierge for ground transportation to the airport at 5:30 a.m.—well before the hotel's regular shuttle service commenced. Then she changed into more suitable evening dress.
The cell phone next to her laptop vibrated, and Celine glanced down at its illuminated LCD panel. Text message from Stevenson, MH. She flipped the phone open. On our way. There in 15. She sat holding the phone for few moments before closing it and placing it into her purse. Reaching into a sleeve on the inside of her briefcase, she pulled out a faded, black and white photograph of a doe-eyed child—sitting with confidence on the shoulders of a tall man. The two wore matching smiles as they posed in front of a small, high-wing plane. Maddie's dark hair was a wind-blown mass under the oversized aviation headset she wore. Celine turned the photo over to read its inscription: 4.29.79. Maddie's seventh birthday. Davis had surprised the little girl by taking her for her very first flight in his new airplane. Celine remembered that Maddie could barely contain her excitement. The child was so much like her father—no fear…of anything . Celine returned the picture to its resting place.
She thought back to her disturbing encounter with Maddie earlier that afternoon—and with Gina . She shook her head. Toxic. That was the only word for someone like Gina. Her disappointment in Maddie's judgment was palpable. She glanced absently at her watch, then stood up and collected her room key and purse. Squaring her shoulders, she left the room and headed downstairs to meet Maddie and her newest ‘friend.'
As they exited their cab in front of the Jefferson's impressive façade, Maddie took a deep breath and shook her shoulders like a pugilist trying to loosen up before climbing into the ring.
“Every time I know I'm going to see that woman, I feel like my hands should be taped-up.”
Syd gave her a perplexed look. “Why?”
“So I don't break my fingers when I try to punch through her veneer.”
Syd sighed and laid a calming hand on her arm. “Why not try a different approach tonight? Instead of gearing up for some predetermined battle royal, why not try to relax and see where she wants to go?”
Maddie scoffed. “Oh, I know where she wants to go.”
“Yeah. And it's the same place I want to go—as far away from here as possible.”
They crossed the lobby and found the hotel entrance to the upscale French restaurant. As they entered, Maddie felt Syd's hand tighten on her forearm. “My god .”
She stopped and looked at her in concern. “What is it?”
“I see her,” Syd whispered. “It's incredible. You look exactly alike.”
Maddie looked up and saw Celine, in an elegant and form-fitting black dress, standing next to the maître d'hotel. She was listening to her cell phone.
“Yep,” she muttered, “that's her— Mommie Dearest .”
Celine saw them approach. Closing her phone, she stepped forward to greet them. “Thank you for agreeing to meet here,” she said to Maddie. “I'm sorry that my flight tomorrow departs at such an ungodly hour.” She turned to face Syd. “I'm Celine Heller, Madeleine's mother.” She held out her hand.
Maddie appeared stunned by her mother's friendly introduction. “Excuse me,” she said, belatedly. “Syd, this is Dr. Celine Heller, my mother. Celine, I'd like you to meet my very good friend, Syd Murphy.”
As they shook hands, Syd smiled at Celine. “Dr. Heller, I'd like to thank you for allowing me to join you and Maddie this evening. I know the two of you have had only limited time together during this visit, and I am sensible of how intrusive this is.”
Maddie saw a flicker of recognition cross Celine's face as her eyes fell on Syd's necklace. She glanced quickly over at Maddie before returning an interested gaze to Syd. “Please, call me Celine. May I assume that ‘Syd' is short for something?”
“You may, indeed. My full name is Margaret Sydney Murphy—Sydney is my mother's family name.”
Celine was thoughtful. “Where are you from?”
She paused to consider this. “I taught at Johns Hopkins years ago and had a brilliant young teaching fellow named Marshall Sydney.”
Syd's green eyes grew wide. “ Uncle Marsh ?”
Maddie eyed them both with a stunned expression. “Okay...this is getting waayyy too weird! If the two of you join hands and start singing Kumbaya , I think my head will explode.”
Syd saw the corner of Celine's mouth twitch before she responded. “Let's see if our table is ready, shall we?” She nodded to the maitre'd, and he led them across the dimly lighted restaurant to their table. When they were seated, Celine picked up the wine list without looking at it and handed it across the table to her daughter.
Maddie took the oversized card from her without comment and began to peruse it. It was a transaction borne of familiarity.
“Red or white?” Maddie asked.
“Do you have a preference, Syd?” Celine was regarding her with a raised eyebrow. Her facial expression was so much like one of Maddie's that it took Syd a moment to stop staring and realize that she had been asked a question.
Syd recovered. “I'm sorry?”
Celine inclined her head toward the wine list her daughter was examining, and gave her a measured look. “Do you have a preference ?”
“Oh, I do ,” Syd rested her hand on top of Maddie's with slow deliberation. “But in this case, I'm fine with whatever our resident sommelier decides.”
The two women regarded each other as Syd's deeper meaning hovered in the air between them.
Maddie remained silent—clearly grateful that she could use the wine list as an excuse not to look at either of them.
Syd gave Maddie's hand a quick squeeze before releasing it to pick up her napkin.
Their waiter approached the table and Maddie ordered a bottle of the Sang des Cailloux Cuvée . They took a few minutes to review the restaurant's evening fare, and each opted to sample the chef's Prix Fixe option, since it promised a fairly representative sampling of the brasserie's Rhône Valley regional cuisine.
When the black-aproned waiter left the table with their orders, Celine took a sip from her water glass and turned her attention back to Syd. “So tell me—how is Marshall? Did he continue his education? We lost track of each other when I left Johns Hopkins for UCLA.”
Syd nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, yes. He went on and got his doctorate in neurology. Now he works in product development for GSK in Raleigh.”
Celine nodded. “Parkinson's Disease?”
“I think so. I remember that he was very revved-up about the whole embryonic stem cell debate when I saw him at Christmas. He and my mother had a few pretty heated discussions on the topic.”
“I take it she's not in favor of the idea?” Maddie asked.
“Oh, no,” Syd replied. “My mother is a public health nurse, but she has very traditional—very Catholic —views on social issues. Uncle Marsh was always more of a renegade that way.” She paused, and then smiled. “I think that's why he and I always got along so well. I followed his example a little too closely to suit her.”
Maddie was intrigued. “What do you mean?”
Syd grinned at her. “I got bounced out of Catholic school.”
Maddie snorted. “Why doesn't that surprise me?”
Syd playfully swatted the tall doctor on the arm with her napkin. “Back off, Stretch! I'll have you know it was for a good reason.”
Maddie rolled her eyes. “Oh reeeaaallly? What'd you do—put bubble bath in the sugar bowls?”
“No, wise guy—and I saw that movie! Hayley Mills...jeez. Just how old do you think I am?”
Maddie smiled sweetly at her. “Are we talking chronologically or metaphorically?”
Syd looked appealingly at Celine. “See what I have to contend with?”
Celine smiled. “I'm afraid that I can't be much help to you in this department—it's really outside my area of expertise. Maddoe has her father's facility for polemics—arguing with him was always like being on the losing side in a fencing match.”
Syd glanced over at Maddie, whose wide blue eyes were fixed on her mother in amazement. When she spoke, her voice was so low it was hard to hear. “You haven't called me that in years .”
Celine didn't respond. A blanket of silence settled over their table.
Syd watched the interaction between the two them with a growing sense of anticipation—and dread. Celine seemed embarrassed by her display of candor, and Maddie's face was a study in a hundred conflicting emotions. Syd wasn't sure whether she wanted to say something to try to break their emotional logjam, or push her chair back and flee the restaurant.
She was saved when the wine steward arrived with their bottle of Cuvée. He opened it with a flourish and poured a splash of the fragrant varietal into Maddie's fluted glass. She nodded at him after she sampled it, and he gave each of the women a textbook, four-ounce serving before setting the bottle down and retreating.
Syd decided that trying to pilot the conversation back into safer waters was her best bet.
She turned to face Maddie, and playfully punched her on the arm. “I feel the need to defend my honor, here!” Maddie looked over at her gratefully, as she continued. “If you must know, I got bounced from parochial school because I organized a forum on STDs and passed out condoms to all of my classmates. The sisters of Bryn Mawr School tended to frown on that kind of extracurricular activity in the eighth grade.”
Maddie chortled. “Margaret Sanger in a plaid jumper. I have no problem imagining this.”
Syd took a healthy sip of the Cuvée. “Since we're here with your mother, I'll do you a favor and let the combined reference to plaid jumpers and your imagination slide.”
Maddie rolled her eyes and picked up her water glass. She glanced across the table at Celine, who was watching Syd with an amused expression on her face.
Syd pressed her advantage. “Besides, Dr. Mensa-baby—not all of us had the great wherewithal to skip half of high school, and then test out of the first two years of college!”
Maddie feigned surprise. “Why would you assume I did something like that?”
“I assume nothing,” Syd replied. “Your Wikipedia bio was very enlightening.”
“Stalking me online?” Maddie asked, in a singsong voice.
“In your dreams, egghead.”
“Please . You can't seriously lend credibility to a spurious source like Wikipedia —what kind of librarian are you?”
“Apparently, a very good one,” Celine's voice surprised both of them. She looked directly at Syd. “Don't let her mislead you—in this case, your sources are accurate.”
Maddie looked exasperated. “Oh, come on, Celine. It wasn't that big of a deal.”
Celine addressed Syd. “Madeleine will never tell you that at age 16, she was offered full merit scholarships to four of the nation's best undergraduate institutions. She also had her pick of top medical schools.” She paused and looked directly at Maddie. “However, her choice there ended up being driven more by sentimentality than ambition.”
Maddie sighed in mock resignation and dramatically dropped her chin to her chest. She shot Syd a sideways glance. “ Pow! Right in the kisser!”
Syd looked back and forth between the two of them. She decided to throw propriety out the window. “Okay, you two—don't make me stop this car.”
In concert, mother and daughter quickly looked at each other, and then back at her. Their expressions formed a perfect tableau of guilt and surprise. They looked so much like misbehaving children that Syd completely lost her composure and laughed out loud at them.
They were interrupted once again by the arrival of the waiter, who lavishly served their first courses, accompanied by a basket of flower-shaped Michette rolls. He refilled their wine glasses and quietly departed.
Celine was the first to speak. “So tell me—how long have you two been together?”
Maddie, who was in the process of drinking water, choked and noisily sprayed liquid back into the glass. Syd quickly reached behind her to pat her on the back.
“Are you okay, honey?” she asked with exaggerated concern, dabbing at the front of Maddie's jacket with her napkin.
Maddie quickly recovered her composure. Rolling her eyes at Syd, she batted her hand away. “I'm fine— dear .” She sat back and regarded her mother coolly. “Whatever do you mean, Celine?”
Celine was unfazed. She picked up one of the rolls and tore off a crusty petal. “We are still speaking English, aren't we?”
Just then, Maddie's cell phone began to vibrate. She quickly snapped it up, apologizing for the interruption. She glanced at the readout. “It's my service. I'm so sorry, but I have to take this.” She pushed her chair back. “Excuse me—I'll try to be quick.” She squeezed Syd's shoulder as she left the table and headed for the solitude of the lobby.
Alone, Syd and Celine faced each other across the table like opponents in a chess match.
Celine's blue eyes were unwavering as they regarded Syd. Her resemblance to Maddie was uncanny. She was the first to break their silence. “Madeleine seems happy.”
Syd took a deep breath. “I think she is. Mostly.”
“I think she misses her mother.”
Celine lifted her chin. “You speak very frankly.”
Syd's smile was self-deprecating. “Well—based on how limited our time together is, I thought I should make the most of this opportunity to indulge my meddlesome nature—who knows when I'll get another chance?” She paused briefly. “I hope I haven't offended you.”
“I'm not at all offended. But I confess that I am unused to this level of forthrightness from any of Madeleine's—companions.”
Syd laughed. “Now it's my turn to be nonplussed! You say that like there've been dozens.”
Celine smiled at her. “Not dozens. A few. Most not worth her time.”
“You're very hard on her.”
“On the contrary—I simply want more for her than she seems to want for herself.”
“And that is?” Syd asked, leaning forward on her elbows.
“I want her to be happy.” Celine paused and looked down at her uneaten salad. “I want her to find the happiness that eluded me. And I want her to find that with someone who is worthy of her—someone who is a radical departure from her blind succession of Ginas .” She looked up at Syd. “Maybe now—finally—she has.”
Unprepared for so candid a response, Syd blushed, and dropped her eyes . The seconds ticked by, and another uneasy silence stretched out between them . Her plan to trick Celine into revealing her true feelings had succeeded— but as a result, Syd was now trapped in a confusing maze that blended fiction and reality so seamlessly, she was unable to tell one from the other.
Celine was eyeing her with curiosity, but looked up when she saw Maddie heading back to their table from the lobby.
Maddie's telephone call concerned Jacob Halsey, an elderly, diabetic patient of hers who had suffered an acute bout of hypoglycemia while visiting his daughter in Charlottesville. Efforts by the family to resolve the problem had failed, and Mr. Halsey began having seizures. EMTs rushed him to the UVA hospital, where he still was not fully responding to treatment. His family insisted that his attending physician at the large university hospital contact Maddie to explain his condition, and to discuss treatment options. After their brief conversation, Maddie assured the family that Mr. Halsey was getting excellent care, and promised to stop in Charlottesville tomorrow on her way back to Jericho so she could meet with them all in person.
When she hung up, she tarried in the restaurant lobby a few extra moments to try and puzzle through her mother's uncharacteristic behavior. Celine's casual use of her childhood nickname was surreal—a stunning departure from her customary veil of formality. Maddie had no idea what to make of it. It actually seemed that Celine was making an effort at being civil and—even more strangely—that she liked Syd.
Maddie continued to stand there, tapping the back of her cell phone in agitation. Celine had taken Syd's bait entirely too easily. Why would her mother, of all people, suddenly have such prurient interest in this aspect of her life? Why would she care about how long she and Syd had been—together? It didn't make sense to her—especially considering their earlier tête - à - tête about Gina.
Maddie shook her head to try and clear it of confusion. She'd had far too much to drink, and she knew she couldn't trust her ability to react safely or smartly to any other revelations tonight. Already, she felt like her emotions were on the brink of stampede—and she didn't want Syd to get caught in the crossfire if she lost control. On top of it all, the cozy little romantic charade they were putting on for Celine was making it harder for her to submerge the reality of her attraction to Syd—threatening her resolve to keep herself out of danger.
Wistfully, she cut her eyes over at the entrance to the restaurant's bar. Then, with a sigh, she turned away and headed back toward the dining room. As she approached the table, it was clear that Syd and Celine were in earnest conversation about something—they were leaning toward each other from their opposite sides of the table, and neither of their appetizers appeared to have been touched at all. She had a vague sense of panic about what might have transpired during their time alone—and regretted, again, that she had been forced to leave Syd sitting there with Celine while she returned the call from her service.
Maddie addressed them both as she sat down. “I apologize again for that interruption. One of my diabetic patients went into insulin shock while visiting with his daughter in Charlottesville—he's now at the UVA hospital, but isn't responding to treatment.” She paused. “The family is necessarily distraught. I spoke with his attending—they're doing all they can for him.”
Celine nodded. “The diabetes and endocrinology unit at UVA is purported to be very good.”
Maddie agreed with her. “It is. If this had to happen to Jake, he picked the right place to be.”
“I am sure that having his family present is a huge asset, too,” Syd added with concern.
“No doubt,” she said, turning to face Syd, “but if you don't mind, I'd like to make a detour tomorrow and stop in Charlottesville on our way home to check in on him and see the family.”
Syd agreed immediately. “Of course—I absolutely do not mind. Do you think he'll pull through this?”
Maddie sighed. “I really have no idea. Jake is an old curmudgeon who refuses to follow his dietary regimen. Even if they can reverse the effects of the insulin shock, it's not very likely that he'll emerge with any greater appreciation for his limitations.”
Celine agreed. “Some patients simply choose to embrace their diseases—instead of fighting them. As difficult as that is for us as doctors, we have to accept that it's a reasonable and legitimate response to illness.”
Syd was intrigued. “I guess this is the heart of the whole death-with-dignity debate?”
Maddie spoke up. “Actually, it's more like a prequel to the debate. End-of-life or advanced-care considerations are separate from the conundrum of someone who seeks a course of treatment—but then refuses to follow it.”
“But the same root, psychological considerations are at play even at the outset of the process—they just have less clarity,” Celine added.
Maddie thought about her mother's comment. “Some would say a person's desire to seek treatment is a reflexive function of the organism—and its innate need to survive.”
“ Some would say?” Celine asked, sounding very professorial.
Maddie shrugged. “I cut my class in Medical Ethics the day they covered this, so I can't really speak with any greater authority.”
Celine rolled her eyes.
Syd laughed at her companion. “Well, I think stopping over in Charlottesville so you can see the family is absolutely the right thing to do. Besides—I'm euphoric about the chance to rack up all those extra Air-Stevenson frequent-flier miles.”
Celine looked over at Maddie with incredulity. “Did you fly here in your own plane?”
“Yep—in the 310.”
Celine sighed. “Old habits die hard. I see the torch is passed to a new generation.”
“Well you can't complain too much, Celine—you once were as involved in this particular passion as dad was.”
“That was a lifetime ago. I grew up.”
Maddie shook her head. “No…you ran away.”
Her words hung in the air like a pall.
Celine stiffened, but didn't respond. Abruptly, she changed the subject. “Before your service interrupted, you were going to fill me in on how the two you two met.”
“Was I?” Maddie's voice was icy.
Syd quickly placed a restraining hand on Maddie's thigh. “I moved to Jericho six months ago to manage a state-funded program to improve public library service. In true, superhero fashion, Maddie swept in to rescue me twice —first when I was stranded by a flat tire, and later when I was hobbled by a twisted ankle.” She lowered her eyes and smiled at the recollection, then she looked up to meet Celine's interested gaze. “We've been— seeing each other—for about the last two months.”
Celine looked surprised. “ Only two months? That's curious.” Her eyes took in Syd's gold necklace again. “You seem so intuitive about one another. It normally takes years to attain that level of symbiosis in a relationship.”
Maddie reached under the table and grasped the hand that still rested on her thigh. She looked over at Syd, then raised their linked hands and placed them in full view on top of the table. “Well,” she replied, leveling a steely gaze at Celine, “as my online biographer has already established—I am a prodigy.”
Maddie and Syd stood huddled together in the vestibule of the Jefferson, waiting while the concierge called them a cab to take them back across town to their hotel. Maddie was leaning against Syd, as much for assistance in remaining upright as for the moral support her proximity provided.
“Hang on, Stretch,” Syd urged, wrapping an arm around her waist. “The cab should be here soon.”
Maddie looked at her through a haze of exhaustion. She tried to smile. “I apologize for this. I don't normally subject women to my Gumby impersonation until the second date.”
Syd laughed and pulled her closer. “God. You're a charmer even when you're three-sheets-to-the-wind.”
Maddie gave her a crooked smile. “Glad you think so. I'm not sure my mother would share your charitable view.”
“I think you're wrong about that.”
“I'm not sure about anything right now.”
The large glass door to the street swung open, letting in a cold blast of air. It had started to rain, and the concierge entered carrying several dripping umbrellas. Over Maddie's shoulder, Syd could see a clear reflection of the lobby interior behind them. She thought she recognized the lone figure standing by an enormous potted-palm situated just in front of the bellhop station. She leaned her head closer to Maddie and whispered, “Don't react or turn around—Celine is watching us from the lobby.”
Maddie dropped her head. “Oh, god. I don't have the stamina for any more of this.”
“I have an idea. Do you trust me?”
Maddie lifted her chin and eyed her with suspicion. “What kind of idea?”
“The kind that should seal the deal.”
Shyly, Syd slipped her hands up behind Maddie's neck and tugged her closer. Maddie's eyes widened in shock as Syd pulled her head down and kissed her full on the mouth. The seconds ticked by as Syd softly pressed her lips against Maddie's. She felt Maddie belatedly raise her arms and wrap them loosely around her waist. When they separated, their faces remained inches apart. Alert and seemingly back in control of her faculties, Maddie whispered conspiratorially, “If we're gonna do this, let's really sell it.” She lowered her head to Syd's, and, this time, there was no hesitation on her part as they kissed.
Syd felt her knees unhinge, and her arms tightened reflexively around Maddie's shoulders. Jesus. What are we doing? Maddie's lips felt incredible against hers. Syd was unprepared for the onslaught of competing emotions she felt as all of her hibernating senses woke up and snapped to attention. God. She's a great kisser. Maddie continued the contact with scientific precision. It was passionate enough to look convincing, but restrained enough to protect the shifting boundaries of their friendship.
Before it ended, Maddie bussed her mouth a few more times in quick succession. Syd felt a wave of vertigo roll over her when Maddie's teeth tugged gently on her lower lip before the taller woman released her and stepped back. Both of them were breathing unevenly, and they stared at each other, lapsing into stunned and stupefied silence.
After what felt like an eternity, Maddie gave Syd a shy smile. “Think that did the trick?”
Unsure of her ability to speak coherently, Syd didn't reply right away. She looked over Maddie's shoulder at the darkened square of lobby reflected in the glass door behind her. There was no sign of Celine.
“She's gone.” Her green eyes shifted back to Maddie's face. “It must have worked.”
Maddie nudged her playfully. “You can say that again.”
Syd recovered her composure enough to roll her eyes at the doctor. “Sleaze.”
“Hey…don't blame me, Julie McCoy— you were the cruise director on this little installment of The Love Boat. I was just following orders.”
“Yeah…I noticed. How come you're never this cooperative when it's about something that doesn't involve your legendary libido?”
Syd looked at her archly. “I thought I just did.”
Their escalating banter was interrupted when the concierge timidly approached them to say that their cab had arrived.
“Saved by the bellhop,” Maddie quipped.
Syd sighed. “Will you please just over-tip this poor man so we can get the hell out of here?”
“Sure.” Maddie looked thoughtful. “What's the going rate for Sapphically-induced blindness?”
“Oh, good god.” Shaking her head, Syd pushed past her and walked out into the rain.
They were quiet during the fifteen-minute cab ride back to their hotel. The rain had picked up in intensity and drummed loudly on the roof of the car. It was punctuated by the occasional strains of Hindi music that floated back toward them from the driver's radio.
Maddie was in a state of complete sensory overload from too much alcohol, too much time with her mother, and too much feigned intimacy with Syd. She felt like all the synapses in her brain had fired in one explosive volley—leaving her dazed and physically drained. She sat propped against the passenger door with her eyes closed and her head tipped back against the seat. The passing lights of Richmond's downtown illuminated her features with sporadic flashes of color.
Syd kept stealing glances at her as they rode along in silence. Her mind was racing with confusion about whatever it was that had just transpired between them. She found it hard not to openly stare at her companion. Throughout the long evening, their already complex relationship had begun to unravel and take on a new and mysterious shape. Syd looked over at her now like she was some kind of exotic museum exhibit—halfway expecting to see a small, printed card pinned to her coat that would explain what she was, and how she came to be sitting beside her in this noisy Richmond taxi.
There was no denying that Maddie was a beautiful woman. Her long, shapely legs were stretched all the way across the floorboard of the back seat—her feet nearly touching Syd's. Hidden beneath the black raincoat was the kind of body that women envied—and men fantasized about. Syd shook her head in wonder as she considered all the non-corporeal aspects of what Maddie was—her engaging personality, her intelligence, her decency, and her lively and irreverent sense of humor. She was quite a package. And right now, the sum total of that package was stirring up in Syd a confusing volatility of feelings and desires she'd never experienced before. It was a paradox that was becoming impossible to ignore—and Syd was too tired and too aware of how frayed and compromised her perceptions were tonight to try and confront it. She thought, ironically, that the Bollywood music the cab driver was playing was exactly right for this evening. It provided a bizarre and cloyingly upbeat soundtrack to the surreal song-and-dance routine the two of them had performed with such precision for Maddie's mother.
Lost in her thoughts, Syd failed to notice that Maddie had opened her eyes and was quietly regarding her.
Syd jumped at the sound of the low voice, and guiltily looked up to meet Maddie's gaze, realizing that she had been caught staring at her legs. “Oh. Yeah. Just tired , I guess.”
“Meeee, too.” Maddie stretched her long frame before straightening up on the seat. “I can't wait to get back to the room. If we had been out for very much longer, my body would have started molting out of these clothes on its own.”
Syd smiled. “I know what you mean. My feet are positively killing me. I'm not used to wearing shoes like this all day.”
“Lucky for you—I minored in foot-rubs at Stanford.”
“ Did you, now? When did that become part of the pre-med curriculum?”
“Oh, just about the time I landed a departmental assistantship with a gout-ridden, forty-something professor of microbiology.” Maddie paused, then winked at Syd. “Talk about some creative extra credit assignments.”
Syd groaned. “Have you always been this behaviorally challenged, or do you just crank it up when you're around me?”
Maddie clucked her tongue. “You don't really expect me to give you an honest answer to that, do you?”
“I've given up knowing what to expect from you.”
“Right back at ya.” They lapsed into silence again.
The cab turned into the entrance of their hotel and pulled forward to stop under its covered portico. Syd won the battle to pay the fare, and they climbed out and walked into the lobby together. Maddie paused and touched Syd gently on the elbow. “I need to check in at the front desk and see if I have any messages about tomorrow. It should only take a second—would you mind grabbing us an elevator and waiting on me?”
“Of course not. See you in a minute.” Syd continued across the lobby toward the bank of big silver doors. It was nearly 10:30, but the hotel was still pretty active. She could hear the clink of dinnerware and laughter coming from the small café behind her.
True to her word, Maddie was back at her side in just a couple of minutes, and the two of them proceeded on up to their room on the fourth floor.
Once inside, they shed their bags and coats and played a quick game of rock-paper-scissors to see who got the bathroom first. Maddie won, and happily breezed past Syd with her sleepwear draped over her arm. Syd dropped into the nearest chair and kicked her shoes off. Maddie's reading glasses rested on top of her copy of the JAMA and what looked like a couple of patient files. There was a yellow pad filled with notations, and Syd picked it up and looked over the doctor's tidy, but indecipherable handwriting. Upon closer inspection, she realized that it was only unreadable because most of it was some kind of Latin shorthand. Good god. Remind me never to play Scrabble with her.
Just as Maddie emerged from the bathroom, more comfortably attired in her t-shirt and lounge pants, there was a soft knock at the door of their room and a voice in the hallway announced, “Room Service.”
Syd looked at Maddie with a confused expression, and Maddie inclined her head toward the door.
“I ordered us a little nightcap when we were downstairs. Do you mind grabbing it?” She walked toward the closet to hang up her suit.
“Do you think that's a good idea?” Syd asked, as she got up and headed toward the door. “I don't want you to wake up tomorrow with a hangover.”
“I think I'll be safe.”
Syd opened the door and a white-coated waiter smiled as he handed her a dome-covered tray. “You're all set,” he said. “Dr. Stevenson took care of the tip, too. Have a nice night.” He turned around and started back down the hall.
Maddie joined her at the small table in the corner of their room. “Oh, goodie. This should help us both sleep better.”
Syd was dubious. “I don't mean to be overly proprietary—but less than an hour ago, you needed my help to stand up straight. Are you sure this is something you want to be doing?”
“Uh huh. C'mon, blondie—serve it up.”
“Okay, but don't say I didn't try to warn you,” Syd said, as she lifted the dome off the tray. She was stunned when she looked down to see two small cartons of milk and a plate full of tiny, Thin Mint cookies. She looked up at Maddie, who stood there grinning like a Cheshire cat. Syd was undone by the sweetness of the gesture, and felt for a moment like she might cry.
“Oh, god—it's addictive .”
“What is?” Maddie asked, a smile still pulling at the corners of her mouth.
“You are.” She dropped the dome and reached out to hug the taller woman. “ This is,” she mumbled into her chest.
Maddie hugged her back. “I told you I'd keep you in cookies. A deal's a deal.”
Syd stepped back from the warm embrace and reached for the plate. She walked across the room and climbed up onto the bed, piling pillows up all along the headboard. “Well, come on, Stretch,” she said, settling back and biting into a cookie. “Get over here with the milk.”
Maddie picked up the milk cartons and climbed up next to her. “You don't have to ask me twice.” She set the milk down on the nightstand.
Syd regarded her with fondness. “You know, at some point we need to talk about what happened tonight.”
Maddie met her gaze. “You mean our little lobby encore for Celine?”
Syd blushed and dropped her gaze. “Well…that, too.” She absently fingered a loose thread on the coverlet. Then she looked up at Maddie. “But what I meant is that we need to talk about what happened during dinner. I really think it's possible that Celine was trying to make some kind of overture by coming here.”
Maddie sighed. “I know, Syd. But if it's all the same to you, I need to let it rest—just until tomorrow. I meant it when I told you that I was on sensory overload—I really don't think I can go there right now.”
They were silent for a moment. Syd reached out and softly touched her forearm. “Okay.”
Maddie shook her dark head, and then smiled as she drew herself up onto her knees. “I do feel up for one thing, however,” she said, as she moved toward the bottom of the bed. Her blue eyes were twinkling again as she looked back at Syd. “I think I promised someone a foot-rub….”
Syd woke up well before dawn. She saw white flashes of light behind the drapes, and could hear the distant roll of thunder. She was grateful when she realized that she still had hours left to sleep, and burrowed deeper into the warm cocoon that surrounded her. She shifted even closer to the body pressed tightly against her back and tightened her handhold on the arm that held her close. Then she noticed the soft, steady sound of breathing against her ear.
Her eyes flew open. Oh my god! Not again. She felt panic overtake her. What is it with the two of us? She slowly started to pull her hands away, when Maddie stirred, and spoke quietly into her ear. “It's okay. You were having a bad dream—I couldn't get you to stop thrashing around. This was the only way I could protect my vital organs.”
Syd closed her eyes in mortification. “God, Maddie—I'm sorry .”
“No problem.” She yawned. “Do you wanna move?”
Syd hesitated. “Are you uncomfortable?”
“Me either.” She smiled, and opted for the truth. “Chances are we'd just end up back in the same position anyway.”
“Probably. This bed has a lot of explaining to do.”
Syd chuckled and lightly rubbed her fingers against the arm that was still wrapped tightly around her. “Say goodnight, Gracie.”
Maddie lifted her head and gave Syd a feather-light kiss on the ear. “G'night, Gracie.”
They didn't speak any more. The only sound in the room was an occasional rumble of thunder as the storm outside blew itself out. They lay close together for the rest of the night, but neither of them got any more sleep.
Continued in Part VII
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