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 VIII
The improvement in Celine was incredible. When Maddie and Syd arrived on Tuesday morning, she was sitting up in bed, reading the newspaper. Every available surface in her small room was rapidly filling up with get-well cards and brightly colored arrangements of flowers.
“Wow,” Maddie said, taking in the Technicolor display. “It looks like Gladys Pitzer exploded in here.”
Celine stifled a laugh. “Funny you should mention her—she actually sent something… interesting.”
“Really?” Maddie was surprised. News certainly traveled fast.
“Yes. See that basket over there on the windowsill, nearest the corner?”
Maddie walked across the room and picked up the arrangement in question so she could read the small card. “This one?” Celine nodded.
Syd walked over to stand next to Maddie. “Blue and gold carnations? How on earth?”
“I think she was going for the UCLA school colors,” Celine explained. “It's certainly— inventive .”
Maddie shook her head as she placed the basket back on the sill. “I wonder how she found a florist out here who was willing to torture innocent flowers like that?”
“There's also a slightly more genteel vase of cut flowers from Phoebe and David—with a very sweet note.” Celine sounded thoughtful. “It occurs to me that I've had more contact with people from Jericho in the last 72 hours than I've had in over 20 years.”
Maddie pulled up a chair and sat near the foot of her bed. “Yeah—nothing like a near-death experience to bring people together.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them. “I'm sorry, Celine,” she added quickly. “I didn't mean that to sound so flippant.”
Celine seemed unfazed by the remark. “I know.”
Maddie smiled at her shyly. “Old habits die hard.”
Her mother nodded. “Yes, they do.” She carefully refolded her newspaper—a task made more difficult by the cast on her left arm. “I have asked the nurses to take the flowers and share them with other patients. They should be coming to get them all shortly.”
“That's very generous of you,” Syd commented.
Celine smiled at her. “Not really. One or two vases of flowers I can deal with, but this many?” She waved her free hand to encompass them all. “This is just a tad too funereal. I don't really need any more reminders of my mortality just now.”
They all were quiet for a moment.
“Thank you for allowing me to stay in your home,” Syd sat down in the room's only other guest chair. “It's lovely. Stunning artwork.”
“Thank you. Although I have to confess that most of it came from my parents—they were the real collectors. I have added one or two pieces over the years.”
“I'll say,” Maddie cut in. “There's one six-footer that's especially impressive.”
Celine seemed embarrassed. “I take it, you noticed the piano?”
“Um hmm,” Maddie said. “Kind of hard to miss. When did you get it?”
“About two years ago.” She hesitated before continuing. “One Saturday, I was listening to a Met Opera broadcast on satellite radio. It was Massenet— Thaïs . The music touched me in a way it hadn't for years—almost like I could hear what was behind the sounds.” She slowly shook her head. “By the time the ‘Meditation' played in the middle of Act II, I was sitting on the floor in tears.”
Maddie sat forward on her chair, stunned by her mother's explanation. She had never known Celine to be so self-revealing. “My god.”
Celine met her eyes. “You don't know the half of it. When the broadcast ended, I realized that I had been listening to a vintage recording—your grandmother was the violinist.”
Syd's involuntary gasp was the only sound in the room.
Maddie quickly ran a hand beneath her eyes and tried to regain her composure. She spoke softly. “Why didn't you ask dad for Oma's piano? You know he would have sent it to you.”
Celine nodded. “I know. But I needed to reconnect with this part of myself on my own terms—not my mother's. It was only when I finally realized that I could separate the music from the memories, that I was able to let its beauty touch my life again.” Celine's eyes were glistening. “Do you understand what I'm saying?”
Maddie bit her lower lip as she nodded slowly—understanding all that her mother was saying, and much of what she was not saying.
“Besides,” Celine looked over at Syd, “you've got someone in your life now who can make good use of the Bösendorfer.”
Syd looked back at her with a startled expression.
Celine smiled. “Phoebe's note contained more than her best wishes for my speedy recovery. She was raving about the newest addition to her community orchestra.”
Before Syd could respond, an orderly entered the room, pushing a large metal cart.
“Good morning, Dr. Heller—they told me to come in here and get these flowers.”
“Yes—thank you. You can take all of those over on that side of the room—I'll just keep the cards.”
Maddie belatedly got to her feet and began to help the tall man remove the cards and load the flower arrangements onto his cart. When they finished, only two arrangements remained: a vase of cut flowers from Laszlow Kramer, and a small basket of red peonies from the family of Diego Vaz Peña.
“Thank you, Dr. Heller.” The orderly slowly backed his cart toward the door. “The folks who are here all alone with no family will really appreciate these flowers.”
Maddie looked over at Syd and Celine and felt a curious twinge of wellbeing. For the first time since her father's death, she realized that she didn't feel alone.
That evening, Maddie and Syd stopped at a Whole Foods Market on San Vicente in Brentwood, and picked out a variety of deli foods and confections for their dinner. They also bought two bottles of Spencer-Roloson Napa Valley Red—one of Maddie's favorite wines. When they arrived back at Celine's house, they quickly changed into more comfortable clothes, and took their food items and a bottle of the wine outside to sit on the patio.
It was a pleasant evening and not yet dark. The air was thick with the scent of dark blue Ceanothus, which meandered along the back wall of Celine's garden. The hearty California Lilacs were interspersed with Desert Willow and slender stalks of White Sage. Maddie recalled helping her mother plant the White Sage not long after they had moved to Brentwood—and remembered the stories Celine told her about how the plants were sacred to Native Americans for their curative properties, and their efficacy in warding off evil spirits. For years, Maddie kept several smudge sticks of White Sage tied up and hanging from a hook in the back of her closet—hoping the mystical properties of the sweet-smelling incense would push back the darkness that had taken hold of her mother's heart. Tonight, as she sat with Syd and gazed out across the lawn at the row of now mature plants—she wondered if, finally, the magic had worked.
“You're very quiet.” Syd's voice was soft and tentative.
Maddie looked over at her. She was lovely. Her blond hair seemed to glow in the fading light.
“You're beautiful—you know that?”
Syd looked at her quizzically. “Thank you—but I think you might be a tad biased.”
Maddie shook her head. “No. You are. I noticed it the first time I saw you. There's a wonderful wholesomeness about you—it's captivating.”
Syd arched a blond eyebrow. “Wholesomeness? You're not dredging up that whole Sandra Dee business again, are you?”
Maddie laughed. “Not this time.” She thought back to the first time she had made that comparison—the night after their first dinner together at the inn. She could tell by Syd's expression that she was remembering it, too. “I wanted to kiss you that night. I damn near did.”
Syd's eyes widened. “You're kidding me? I spent the rest of that evening kicking myself because I nearly kissed you .” She sighed. “What a pair we are. To think that we could've saved ourselves all those months of uncertainty.”
Maddie reached across the table and took hold of Syd's hand. “I'm not complaining. We're together now, and that's all that matters.”
“It's going to kill me to leave you tomorrow.” Syd's voice was a near whisper.
“I know.” Maddie linked their fingers together. “I'll be home soon.”
Syd nodded and sat back, clearly trying to compose herself. “How did your conversation with Lizzy go?”
Maddie released her hand and reached for another one of the smoked cheese and green salsa taquitos. “Fine. It sounds like everything is under control—no emergencies.”
“She really has been a godsend, hasn't she?”
“You can say that, again. I don't know how I would've managed this trip without her.”
“You know, I owe you an apology.”
Maddie looked at her in surprise. “What for?”
“For the way I reacted when you tried to talk with me about Beau. It wasn't fair—I was just bitchy and jealous, and I took it out on Lizzy.” She poured herself another splash of the spicy red wine. “He really does give me the creeps—Lizzy wasn't wrong about that.”
Maddie regarded her quietly. “Well, I understand what you meant about it being difficult to keep him out of the library—but I don't like him thinking that this means he has carte blanche to pursue you—either of you.”
“I know. If it gets any more pronounced, I'll do something about it—I promise.”
Maddie sighed. She wasn't persuaded that waiting to see if Beau's behavior got worse was the wisest strategy, but she knew she had to respect Syd's judgment on this. “Okay.” She decided to shift the conversation to something less volatile. “I also talked with David this afternoon.”
Syd brightened up at once. “You did?”
“Um hmmm. He had a bit of local news. It seems they broke up a meth lab out on the River Road, not too far from the inn. He was worried that it might hurt their business.”
“How? Because it was so close to them?”
Maddie snorted. “No—because they closed it. He thought that having a ‘business' nearby with such strong local connections would raise their profile among the natives—make the place seem less snooty.”
Syd shook her head. “I somehow doubt that this would attract the clientele he's interested in.”
“You never know. He also told me that Michael was busy perfecting his recipe for pureed beef liver dog biscuits.”
“Oh, my god,” Syd stifled a laugh. “That sounds perfectly disgusting.”
“Yeah? Well yuck it up while you can—remember, you're the one who gets to work all the extra lard off my dog's ass.”
“Oh, I remember. Did he have anything else of interest to impart?”
“To impart? Not really. He did, however, ask me point blank if we'd managed to get horizontal yet.”
Syd's jaw dropped. “And what did you say?”
“What do you think I said?”
Syd gazed at her through the declining light with narrowed eyes. “Oh, my god—you told him, didn't you?”
Maddie was offended. “I most certainly did not tell him.”
“You are so full of shit—I can totally tell by your guilty expression that he knows.”
“ Ex-cuse me, blondie—I told him nothing. That is not to say that he wasn't able to intuit the details from my stony silence.”
“Oh, god.” Syd groaned. “Well, I suppose we'll have a few surprises waiting for us when we get back.”
“Oh, count on it. At the very least, I'd expect every bed at the farm to be short-sheeted. And if memory serves, he said something about having a U-Haul truck all lined-up and parked at the library for you.”
“A U-Haul? Whatever for?”
Maddie rolled her eyes. “I thought you said you did ‘research' on lesbian relationships?”
Syd was confused. “I did.”
“Well apparently your sources were a tad too esoteric if you missed the whole ‘What does a lesbian take on the second date?' joke.”
Syd scrunched her eyebrows together as she considered Maddie's remark, then she threw her head back and exhaled. “Oh, Jesus.”
“Hmmm. Well, I suppose there are worse things.”
Maddie was intrigued. “Than?”
“Than the awful prospect of having to move in with you.”
“I would have to agree with— hey! Did you just say that moving in with me would be awful ?”
Syd smiled sweetly at her. “I guess it would have its compensations.”
“That's more like it.”
“I mean,” she continued, “I have always wanted a Wolf range.”
Maddie looked at her in disbelief. “Keep it up, shortie. One more wisecrack like that and you'll go to bed with no dessert.”
Syd snagged one of the chocolate truffles off its plate at the center of the table. “Too late!”
Maddie gave her a smoldering look. “That wasn't the dessert I was referring to.”
“Oh.” Syd met her eyes and slowly lowered the treat. “Did I say ‘awful'? What I meant to say was ‘awfully tempting.'”
Maddie folded her arms across her chest. “Awfully tempting?”
Syd nodded enthusiastically. “Awfully.”
“How do I know that you aren't just paying lip service to what you think I want to hear?”
“Lip service?” She got up from her chair and moved over to sit on Maddie's lap. “What a splendid idea—you read my mind.” She bent her head and kissed her. “I excel at lip service,” she whispered against her mouth.
“I'll say.” Maddie pulled her closer and allowed Syd to continue with her demonstration.
“Okay,” Maddie breathed, once they separated. “I'm persuaded. How about we carry all of this stuff inside and explore some of your other gifts?”
Syd pecked at her nose before standing up. “Works for me.”
They quickly began collecting plates and glasses, and headed for the house. Syd waited for Maddie to open the sliding door, and as she started to walk past her, Maddie touched her on the arm and shyly asked, “What about the third date? Would that be too soon?”
“It just gets better.” Syd climbed up Maddie's limp form, then pushed herself up on her forearms and kissed along the solid underside of her jaw. “And I don't see how that's even possible.”
Maddie could only moan as she lay there, feeling dazed and weightless. She wanted to lift her arms and wrap them around Syd, but she couldn't remember how to make that happen. Her mind and her body were presently not on speaking terms.
Syd's ability to reduce her to a smoldering heap of gray matter was incredible—and unprecedented. She had never been so responsive before—so willing to surrender control and hand the reins of pleasure over to another person. And she was supposed to be the experienced one—the tried-and-tested Sherpa of Syd's novice expedition. Well, some Tenzing Norgay she turned out to be—she could barely move, much less guide or direct the explorations of the inventive woman on top of her.
On the other hand, she thought, as Syd continued to kiss her way across her chest, I have taken her to the summit. She smiled. A lot of times . With that realization came a few other welcome discoveries. Her hands appeared to be working now. She slipped them over Syd's smooth back and ran them down to grasp her bottom. Motor control appeared to be a cumulative thing. She was able to lift her head now, and she wasted no time putting her lips to good use against Syd's face and neck. Using her greater strength, she urged the smaller woman forward, leaning up to trail her open mouth over her breasts as she pulled her into a sitting position across her abdomen. Syd wound her hands into her hair and began to moan as Maddie continued her heated attentions to her chest. They were both sitting up now, Syd's legs straddling her lap. Maddie raised her head and began kiss her—deep, sensuous kisses that went on and on. When Syd's hips began to move and slide against her, she slowly lowered herself back to the bed. Syd was sprawled out on top of her now—her legs and arms straddling her long body. Maddie continued to kiss her, gliding her lips along her jaw to the side of her face. Her hands moved down to cover her bottom again. Syd's breath was coming in short bursts. Maddie kissed and licked at her ear, sucking the lobe into her mouth. When she finally spoke, her whispered words were like liquid fire. “Ever been mountain climbing?”
She used her hips and her hands to urge the smaller woman forward—up across the plains and peaks of her body toward her waiting mouth.
“ Oh, god, baby .” Syd's muffled cry was the last thing Maddie heard before they surged together and left the known world behind.
They were mostly quiet on the 30-minute drive to the Los Angeles airport the next morning. Celine's Lexus glided through the late morning traffic with the grace of a shark, and Syd was impressed by Maddie's ability to navigate the legendary Southern California highways without breaking a sweat.
“You really aren't fazed by much of anything, are you?” she finally asked, as they merged onto the 105.
Maddie glanced over at her. “What do you mean?”
Syd gestured out the window at the spaghetti-like maze of traffic lanes. “Well, this , for example. It's hardly like your daily commute to work in Jericho.”
Maddie laughed. “You forget that I'm not a stranger here—and that this really isn't as bad as driving in Philadelphia.”
“It isn't?” Syd was surprised.
“Nuh uh. In Philly, you had a large volume of cars moving at roughly the same rates of speed—but the highways had more potholes than pavement. Driving there was like playing beat-the-clock on an obstacle course that had been carpet bombed.”
Syd chuckled and looked out the window at the passing landscape. “This place is such a paradox.”
“Yeah. There are so many contradictions.”
“Well, think about it.” Syd angled in her seat to face Maddie. “I mean, 25 million people are crammed into an area that's mostly desert. Bizarre. There are over 10,000 earthquakes a year—and one day, the entire state will probably split apart and fall into the ocean. Pathological. There are well over a hundred colleges and universities in fewer than a dozen counties, making this one of the richest and best-educated regions of the entire country— and the lifestyle here is one of the most socially liberal and culturally relaxed on the entire planet. And yet….”
“And yet?” Maddie looked at her quizzically.
“And yet—their chief executive is someone called The Governator , and they openly embrace repressive and discriminatory pieces of social legislation that would make someone in Idaho scratch their head.”
“You mean Prop 8?” Maddie asked.
“Yeah. It makes no sense .”
“Welcome to life on the edge of civilization. See why they call it LA-LA Land?”
“I still don't get it.”
“It sounds like you've really spent some time thinking about all of this.”
“Why?” Maddie's tone was teasing. “You suddenly wanna get married to another woman or something?”
“Maaayyybe.” Syd placed a hand on her thigh and gave it a playful squeeze. “If it wasn't for the inconvenient fact that I'm already married. Let's just say that it's a concept I've been paying more attention to lately.” She sighed. “It's so ridiculous. I mean—I could fly into Vegas, pick up a random guy in a casino, get married that same night by someone in an Elvis jumpsuit—and my union would be sanctioned and protected by every major religious denomination and civil government in this country. On the other hand,” she looked at Maddie's strong profile, etched against the backlight of the driver's-side window, “I could take a year getting to know a wonderful and accomplished woman; fall completely in love with her and want to share my life with her in responsible and mature ways—but be barred from any of that by the same laws of god and man that say it's okay to stand up with a stranger in front of Elvis.”
Maddie shook her head. “Maybe Virginia isn't the best place for you to settle, then.”
Syd looked at her archly. “You either, by this definition.”
“True. But according to your exhaustive study, the most liberal state in the union isn't very hospitable, either.”
Syd smiled at her slyly. “Well, there's always Vermont.”
Maddie laughed. “It is cold there—maybe I'd keep better.”
“Afraid you're wearing out, Doctor?”
“Not wearing out so much as wearing down . I've had a bit more, um, activity than I'm used to, lately.”
“Are you complaining?”
Maddie took hold of her hand and placed it back on her thigh. “Does it seem like I'm complaining?”
“Not from my vantage point, no.”
“Yours is the only one that counts.”
Syd gently ran her hand back and forth over the top of Maddie's leg. The denim of her jeans felt warm and soft. “I'm going to miss you so much.”
Syd yawned. “At least I can catch up on my sleep during the flight.”
Maddie smirked at her. “Something been keeping you up at night?”
“You might say that. I feel guilty for how much I've been neglecting poor Jane.”
“Jane? Jane Eyre ?”
Syd shook her head. “Austen. I've moved on. I'm afraid I left poor Elizabeth stranded at Rosings with Lady Catherine.”
“Oh, dear. Well…I suppose she could always amuse herself by admiring the craftsmanship of Her Ladyship's chimneypiece.”
Syd swatted her on the arm. “You are such a scholar—you know that? Do you trot these tidbits out just impress me?”
“That depends…is it working?”
“Then, yes—it's intentional.”
Syd studied her as she slowed down to make the turn into the airport campus. “You are a lot like Mr. Darcy, you know.”
“Oh, yeah. Tall, dark, accomplished, gorgeous—and vain.”
“ Vain? ”
“Oh, lemme guess… you're comfortable with all of those comparisons but the last one?”
Maddie frowned at her.
“I rest my case. Vain.”
Maddie turned into the horseshoe-shaped terminal access area. “ Fine . See if I invite you to come fish at Pemberley.”
Syd leaned across the console and kissed her cheek, then quickly nuzzled her ear. “I don't need to go fishing any more—I've already bagged my prize.” She pecked her cheek again. “And I'm not tossing you back.”
Maddie couldn't hide her smile. “Oh, so that's a hook in my ass? And all this time, I thought I was sitting on a safety pin.”
Syd sighed and sat back against her seat. “You're lucky I love you.”
“I sure am.” They smiled at one another.
Maddie found a parking spot in one of the pullover lanes near Terminal 1. They got out of the car and unloaded her suitcase from the trunk.
“I wish I could come in and wait with you.”
“I know,” Syd said. “But you can't go through security with me, and my flight leaves in an hour.”
Maddie nodded. “Wanna change your mind and stay here with me?”
Syd smiled at her sadly. “You know I do—but I can't.” She took a step forward and laid her hand on Maddie's forearm. “I love you.”
Maddie pulled her into a tight hug. “I love you, too.” She kissed the top of her head before releasing her. “Call me when you get to Charlotte?”
Syd nodded. They stood there starting at each other for a moment, while other passengers came and went, and diesel fumes from an endless line of hotel shuttles filled the air around them. Syd squinted her eyes as she continued to gaze at her. “We are still in California, right?” she asked.
“Yeeesss,” Maddie answered, with a trace of suspicion.
“Then nobody's going to care if I do this.” She reached up and pulled Maddie's head down, kissing her soundly.
Maddie smiled at her. “I sure won't complain.”
“Good luck tomorrow. I'll call you.” Syd kissed her again quickly, then turned and headed for the entrance to Terminal 1, pulling her small roller bag behind her. She looked back before she entered the security screening area, and saw that Maddie was still standing there, leaning against the back of Celine's car. She took a deep breath and turned the corner—heading for a vacant seat on a long row of metal-framed chairs, where she could sit down and remove her shoes.
Maddie spent several hours at the hospital with her mother, before leaving in the early afternoon to return to Brentwood and make the house ready for her homecoming the next day. Celine had been up and walking without assistance, so it was clear that she would be able to stay in her own bedroom at home, and needed only modest alterations in her bathroom to accommodate her during her convalescence. With Laszlow's assistance, Maddie had arranged for a nurse to make an in-home visit once a day for the first week, and Celine's housekeeper was available to offer additional assistance with grocery shopping and meal preparation. Maddie had planned to remain with Celine through the weekend, but her mother insisted that by the first of the week, she should be able to manage very well on her own. Celine was grateful for Maddie's assistance, but remained adamant that her daughter should not neglect her medical practice for any longer than was necessary.
Wednesday evening, she sat alone on the patio with her glass of wine, listening to Celine's stereo and thinking back over all that had occurred since she got Laszlow's phone call on Friday night. The changes in her life had been extraordinary. She and Syd had crossed the final relationship threshold and explored the physical side of their attraction—with a vengeance. She smiled to herself. Who would have guessed that, once her passion was unleashed, Syd would be such a dervish in the bedroom? Guess I just got lucky , she thought. But, wow—what a turnaround . And a turn-on, as it happened—for Maddie found that she responded to Syd in ways she'd never experienced before. She'd never been so wholly present with another lover—so willing to surrender herself to pleasure. It had to be love. That had to be the difference. For the first time in her life, she knew that she was holding nothing back—keeping nothing in reserve. It was exhilarating—and it was terrifying, but it was a risk she was willing to take. Syd was worth it. Together, they were worth it.
Inside the house, the CD changer whirred as it spooled up another disc. Maddie recognized the opening bars of a Schubert lied, Sei mir gegrüßt . Something about the recording struck her immediately, and she sat up with a start as she realized what it was. The violin and piano parts were seamless—perfectly melded and achingly familiar. Her heart began to race. When had Celine done this? When had she taken those old taped recordings and transferred them to disc?
Then she heard it—like an echo from another time. The voice. Singing in German. German—the language Oma and Opa spoke at home. It was low voice—doleful with a trace of immaturity—but tuneful and full of promise. It was an untrained voice, but it blended beautifully with the simple sentiments of a love lost, and rediscovered. It was her voice—her voice at age 19. They had gone to New York for the Christmas holiday. Opa's 75 th birthday was on the last night of Hanukkah that year, and Oma and Celine planned the family recital as a special gift for him. Maddie had been rehearsing the Schubert song for weeks—the choir director at Stanford had worked privately with her on phrasing and diction.
She remembered that her grandparents' Upper East Side apartment had been full of formally dressed friends and luminaries from the New York music world. Their living room was illuminated by hundreds of candles—the large sterling silver menorah placed prominently on the mantelpiece behind the gleaming Steinway.
She recalled Opa introducing her to the legendary soprano Anna Moffo—elegant in a dark red gown and diamond earrings. The great singer kissed her warmly on both cheeks, and praised her for her moving performance. Maddie could still recall the scent of her perfume. For the rest of the evening, a trace of orange blossom and jasmine stayed with her as she moved through the candlelit rooms, trying to avoid notice.
Even her father came to New York for that special night. She remembered how he stood at the back of the room during her performance—tall and handsome in his black tuxedo, gazing at her with a mixture of pride and sadness. It was one of the last times she ever saw her parents together. She recalled seeing tears in Celine's eyes when her father awkwardly embraced her, before leaving to return to his hotel.
Less than a year later, Josef Heller was dead from a brain aneurysm. Six months after that, on the eve of Shabbat, his widow, Madeleine, slipped on a patch of ice and struck her head on the concrete balustrade that surrounded her terrace. She never regained consciousness. As far as Maddie knew, Celine had not returned to New York since she settled her parent's affairs, and sold their Manhattan apartment. The only reminders of those years were a few paintings, the ornate menorah that now adorned a shelf in Celine's study, and the piano that once had belonged to Oma, then to Celine—and now was a permanent fixture in her own life. And, of course, there was the music. Somehow, Celine had reconnected with the music—the silver thread that once had bound them all together in ways the blood they shared never could.
The Schubert lied ended, and there was a prolonged hiss of dead air before the next selection began. Maddie remembered that colleagues of Opa's from Juilliard had been on hand to record the recital—and guests at the gathering politely withheld their applause so the large reel-to-reel recorder could be stopped several seconds after the last note sounded. In her mind's eye, Maddie could see herself, as she stood there, stone-faced in the bend of the big piano. Celine sat behind her at the keyboard, and Oma was seated with her violin on a low chair to her left. After the room had erupted in dignified but enthusiastic applause, Maddie shyly bowed, and then quickly left the front of the room to take her place at an innocuous location in the audience. Celine and her mother continued to play for the better part of an hour—finding in this performance a perfect harmony and balance they had never managed to achieve in the rest of their relationship.
Maddie never sang again after that night. When she returned to Stanford, she withdrew from the concert choir, citing the rigor of her premed curriculum as her excuse.
And Celine stopped playing the piano. Until two years ago, when everything changed for her. Two years ago. Maddie thought about that. Dad died two years ago . Was there any connection? It was too coincidental. There had to be. She resolved to ask her mother about it tomorrow when they were back at home together.
Home? That was new. She'd never called Celine's house “home” before. She shook her head to clear it. So many things were changing. She couldn't keep up with it all. It was too confusing. On the table next to her wine glass, her cell phone vibrated. She picked it up and opened it.
“This is Stevenson.”
“So what was the penalty for contributing to the obesity of a canine? I forget.”
She smiled into the phone. “Hey, sweetheart. I take it this means you've picked up the package and are safely back at the clubhouse?”
“Well, you might say that. David and Michael were kind enough to bring Pete back out here to save me the extra trip out to the inn.”
“How is he?”
“He's fine—happy and huge . You weren't kidding. I think he's put on a good five pounds!”
“Told ya. Michael doesn't understand that whole concept of moderation.”
“I believe you now. I can see that my blonde shadow and I are in for a few robust walks around the property—starting tomorrow.” She sighed into the phone.
“What is it?”
“Tomorrow. Tomorrow, I'll go to work—then come back here, and you still won't be at home.”
“I know, baby. But it won't be long.” She paused. “Are you okay there by yourself? I know it's selfish of me to ask you to stay there.”
“Selfish? Are you kidding? I love being here—I just miss you.”
“I know. I miss you, too.”
“Are you okay? How was Celine today?”
“She was fine. Better than fine, really. I think I may be able to come home on Monday.”
“Monday?” She could hear the excitement in Syd's voice, and it warmed her heart. “Really? That's wonderful.”
“Ummm hmmm. Know anybody who might be willing to pick me up at the airport?”
“Oh, I think so.” They both were quiet for a moment. “Everything okay, Stretch? You seem subdued.”
“I'm sorry. I've been sitting here listening to some music I didn't know Celine had—an old recording of her, playing with my grandmother in New York.” She omitted disclosing her role in the performance, thinking she would save that revelation for later.
“My god. How did you find that?”
“I didn't have to look—she obviously had been listening to it. It was in her CD player.”
“Wow.” Syd was surprised. “She wasn't kidding about reconnecting with her past, was she?”
Maddie shook her head. “Apparently not.” She sighed. “Anyway—listening to it brought back lots of memories.”
“Maybe you should talk about those with her.”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
“Do you think you should tell her the truth about us?”
Maddie thought about that. “You mean our little song-and-dance in Richmond?”
“I don't see any reason to correct the record, now—do you? I mean—the end result is the same.”
“I agree.” Syd was quiet for a moment. “It might make for an amusing anecdote one day.”
Maddie smiled. “That's certainly true. Talk about putting feet to your prayers.”
“Why, Doctor—who knew you had such a spiritual side?”
“Oh,” Maddie's tone was teasing. “You'd be amazed. I've been praising god a whole lot lately.”
“I know,” Syd quipped. “I've heard you.”
“That you have.” They were quiet again.
“As much as I don't want to,” Syd said, “I need to go so I can try and get some sleep. Tomorrow will be tough enough without being bleary-eyed.”
“I know. Good luck with that. And prepare to be besieged by people wanting details about Celine.”
“No worries—I can handle it. I hope it goes well tomorrow. Call me when you can?”
“Of course. I love you.”
“I love you, too. G'night.”
“Night, baby. Sleep well.”
“In your bed? How could I do otherwise?” She laughed merrily and hung up before Maddie could answer.
The memorial mass for Diego Vaz Peña took place on Thursday morning at the imposing St. Anne Catholic Church on Colorado Avenue in Santa Monica. Diego had been buried on the previous Monday, but his family opted to hold a later, more public service at the home of their largely Spanish-speaking congregation. Maddie sat with other friends and neighbors of the Peña family near the back of the church, which was filled to near capacity with mourners. At the end of the service, she stood, dutifully, in a long line and waited to pay her respects to Diego's family. His mother, Mariel, seemed to recognize her instantly because of her likeness to Celine, and she clamored forward from the receiving line to take Maddie's hands and thank her for being present.
“Gracias por venir. ¿Cómo es tu madre?”
Maddie squeezed her hands warmly. “ Ella es bien. We are so sorry for your loss.”
“Gracias. Que el reloj Virgen por encima de su madre.” She hesitated before continuing, her eyes wet with tears. “She was kind to my son.”
Maddie felt tears welling in own eyes, and nodded politely before moving on—allowing the innumerable others behind her access to the Peña family. It was remarkable to her that Celine even knew Diego's family. Clearly, there were whole sides to her mother's character and life in Los Angeles that Maddie knew nothing about. She felt awkward about that—awkward and embarrassed. It was time for her to step-up, and try to move beyond the pain of their shared past. On the drive back to UCLA, she resolved to do just that.
Celine was dressed and ready when Maddie arrived at her room shortly after 1:00. Her discharge papers had all been signed, and Celine's few personal belongings had been collected and boxed-up. Laszlow Kramer was there, graciously waiting with Celine until Maddie returned from Santa Monica. A nurse arrived with a wheelchair, and the three of them made their way downstairs to the spacious discharge lobby, where Celine waited with Laszlow while Maddie retrieved her car from the parking lot. Laszlow kissed Celine on the cheek and departed to resume his afternoon office hours, saying he would call her at home that evening. Soon, they were underway.
Celine was mostly quiet during the drive, but she did ask Maddie for details about the memorial service for her lab assistant. She was very gratified that Maddie had opted to attend the service and extend her condolences to Diego's family in such a personal way.
“His mother seems very fond of you,” Maddie commented, glancing over at Celine.
Celine was looking out her window at the passing scenery. “That's more a testament to her character than mine, I'm afraid. I only met her on a couple of occasions when they visited the lab.”
“Well, you obviously made a strong impression on her. She said you were always very kind to her son.”
Celine shrugged. She seemed uncomfortable with the conversation. “He was an exceptional student—I did what I could to assist him in the program.”
“I know. I read the letters you wrote on his behalf to the scholarship committee.” Celine looked at her in surprise. “Copies were in the folder your assistant gave me when I asked her for his personal contact information,” she added.
Celine nodded, but didn't respond, plainly wanting to drop the conversation. Maddie decided to respect her mother's self-effacing posture—at least where her kindness to Diego was concerned.
In twenty minutes, they were turning into her driveway. Maddie unclipped her seatbelt. “Home again.”
Celine looked at her with a small smile on her mostly unlined face. “I can't wait to sit down with a cup of hot tea in my garden.”
“I think that can be arranged.” Maddie got out and helped her mother into the house. “But let's make it a short one—I don't want you to get overtired.”
Celine raised an eyebrow. “Yes, Doctor. I promise to follow orders.”
Maddie laughed. “Sorry. Occupational hazard, you know?”
“Oh, I know.” Celine walked slowly across her living room and ran a hand along the edge of the piano. “It's going to be a while before I can give this a workout,” she said sadly, glancing down at the cast on her left arm. She sighed and shook her head. Her blue eyes met Maddie's. “So tell me—is Syd as good a musician as Phoebe says she is?”
Maddie smiled at her. “Oh, yeah. She's a lot like you.”
“What do you mean?” Celine sounded intrigued.
“She got her artist's certificate at Eastman—but switched her major to Music Ed.”
Celine seemed surprised. “What instrument?”
“Ah. No wonder you gave her Oma's necklace.”
Maddie nodded. “I had other inducements, too.”
“I'm sure you did.” Celine walked over to the large doors that led to her patio. “How about that tea?”
“I'm all over it,” Maddie said, walking toward the kitchen. “Darjeeling or Earl Grey?”
“Surprise me,” Celine said, opening the large door and stepping outside into the sun.
The afternoon light was wonderful. Celine seemed more relaxed than Maddie had seen her in years. She was reclining on an upholstered chaise with her long legs crossed at the ankles. Maddie thought she looked remarkable. If it weren't for the cast on her left arm and the small bandage at her neck, it would be impossible to imagine the ordeal she had just survived.
Maddie sipped from her mug of the hot, fragrant tea. This was one of the few rituals she shared with her mother—they often had tea together in the garden during school breaks or holidays when Maddie was with her in Brentwood. Maddie found the pastime to be quaintly European—a holdover of Celine's from her childhood in Manhattan, growing up with immigrant parents.
She looked over at her mother now, basking in the late afternoon heat. The sun was now at treetop level and the plants along the back wall of the yard were alive with light and color. It was now or never, Maddie thought. She set her mug down on the glass top of the table and tried to make her voice sound calmer than she felt.
“I played the CD last night—the recording from Opa's birthday celebration.”
Celine turned to look at her with a startled expression on her face. “You did?”
Celine looked down at her hands, which were folded across her abdomen. Then she looked back up at Maddie. Her expression was undecipherable. “And?”
“And I was surprised. Surprised that you had it—and even more surprised that you were listening to it.” She shook her head. “I felt so many things—remembered so many things. Things that I hadn't thought about in years.” She met her mother's eyes. “You told us the other day that you bought the piano about two years ago.” Celine nodded slowly. “Did that have anything to do with dad's death?”
Celine closed her eyes and turned her head to the side so Maddie couldn't see her face. “Why would you think that?” She asked, her voice quiet.
“To tell the truth, I don't know what to think. I only know that something seems different. You seem different. I feel different.” She leaned forward. Her heart was pounding. “Celine?” She hesitated. “Mom.” Her mother looked at her with surprise. “Talk to me. For once— please . Talk to me.” She could feel her eyes welling with tears, but she didn't try to staunch them.
“All right.” Her voice was softer than Maddie had ever heard it before. “What do you want to know?”
“Tell me what happened with you and dad. I need to know.”
Celine sighed and leaned her head back against the chaise, never breaking eye contact with her. “Why? It won't change anything.”
Maddie was insistent. She wasn't going to let this moment pass. “You're wrong. It might change everything .”
Silence stretched out between them. Somewhere down the street, a lawnmower roared to life. After what felt like an eternity, Celine spoke again. “I never talked about it—not to anyone.” She met Maddie's eyes. “Especially not to you. I couldn't.”
“Because he begged me not to tell you. He made me promise.” She gave Maddie a smile tinged with sadness. “And I could never refuse him anything.”
Maddie looked at her through a haze of confusion. “I don't understand. Why would he make you promise that? What didn't he want me to know?”
Celine sighed. “He loved you so much. We both did. We didn't want to hurt you.”
“Hurt me? How could anything hurt me more than losing you? Than losing my home?”
“He made me promise, Maddie.” She hesitated. “And I did . I kept my promise—and I lost you. I lost you both .”
Maddie was confused. She had to keep Celine talking. “Dad's gone—but I'm not lost. Not anymore. Please, mom. Please. Just tell me what happened.”
Celine took a deep breath and tried to compose herself. “I never loved anyone like I loved your father. He was the entire world to me. When I met him, I felt that finally— finally I had found someone who loved all of me. Every part. He was so lively—so strong and so sure of himself. I had never known happiness like that. Not ever. Then you came along.” She met Maddie's eyes and smiled at her. Maddie had the sense that she was looking at her mother through a portal to the past. “I realized then what true happiness was. You were perfect—we were so happy together, living our fairytale life in the country.” She smiled at her recollections. “Even Oma began to soften. She actually visited us there, just after you were born.” Her voice trailed off. “We played Brahms duets while you napped upstairs in your crib.”
She sighed and rubbed her hand across her eyes. “Davis was busy getting his practice off the ground. As the years went by, he worked longer and longer hours. He was out of town more and more frequently—attending conferences and serving on state boards. He became a trustee at Penn. Then I got the job with Lilly in Roanoke—and soon, we were passing each other in the hallways at home—practically like strangers.” She looked at Maddie with sadness. “We kept all of this from you as much as we could—we tried to protect you from how much we had grown apart.”
She fell silent again, lost in her memories. “Then one day, I got sick at work—it had been happening a lot, but I hadn't told your father yet. I was pregnant again.”
Maddie was stunned, and stared back at her mother without speaking.
“I drove home from Roanoke early—you were still at school. When I got to the farm, I was surprised to see that your father was at home, and not at the clinic.” She hesitated. “He wasn't alone.” She raised her hand to her forehead. “We didn't even make a scene. When I saw who was there, I had some kind of eerie epiphany—and I knew immediately what was happening. And he knew that I knew.”
Maddie gasped. “Dad had an affair?”
Celine nodded. “It had been going on for some time. Your father was devastated that I found out—and he was terrified that I would tell you.”
Maddie felt like the ground was pitching up beneath her feet. It was incredible. It was impossible. “Who? Who was it?”
Celine looked at her with her heart in her eyes. “It was Arthur Leavitt.”
Maddie was dumbfounded. Uncle Art? Dad? Oh my god . She saw flashes of white behind her eyes. She was afraid she might hyperventilate. “Jesus. Oh, god.”
Celine reached out a hand toward her. “Maddoe—oh, honey…I'm so sorry . We never should have lied to you. We thought it was for your own good. When it became clear to both of us that you were gay, too—I tried to convince your father that it was time to tell you the truth. But he refused—he couldn't face it. I was bound by my promise to him. A promise I stubbornly kept even as it cost me the love of my only child.”
Maddie gazed at her mother with wonder. “What happened to the baby?”
“I lost it. I left Virginia and went back to Manhattan—my parents were characteristically unforgiving. They saw the end of the marriage as my failure. I didn't even tell them I was pregnant until I miscarried in the middle of my second trimester. That's why I didn't see you during those first few months after I left your father. I was stupid—I didn't want him to know about the baby.” She shook her head. “Then I got the teaching position at Johns Hopkins, and sent for you.” She paused. “You know the rest.”
“Oh, my god.” Maddie was beyond stunned. “I feel like my head's gonna explode.” She looked at Celine like she was seeing her for the first time. “I don't know what to say, much less what to think.” She fell silent . Then she met her mother's eyes. “Where do we go from here?”
Celine gazed back at her with an open expression. “Where do you want to go?”
“Honestly?” Her mother nodded. “I have no idea. I need some time to absorb all of this.” Celine nodded again, slowly, and lowered her gaze. Maddie watched her for a moment without speaking.
Celine raised her eyes.
“Thank you for telling me. I know it wasn't easy to do.”
Celine's eyes filled with tears. “I'm sorry, Maddoe. I'm so very sorry.”
Maddie nodded. Her throat felt thick. “I am, too. For everything .” She rose from her seat and moved over to sit on the edge of her mother's chaise. She took hold of her hand and leaned over to kiss her gently on the forehead. “Don't worry. We'll figure it all out—we've got lots of time, now. Lots of time.” Celine squeezed her hand and gave her a watery smile. Maddie pulled her into a gentle hug.
Over her mother's shoulder, Maddie could see the white sage plants, shining like beacons in the late afternoon sun.
The rest of that evening, Maddie and Celine were understandably shy of each other. They both were emotionally drained, and seemed to agree in nonverbal ways, that enough had been said for now. But Maddie was aware of a difference in the quality of the silence they shared: if it wasn't exactly companionable, it wasn't hostile, either. For once, they were not antagonists. They were more like two exotic fish that had been plucked from separate tanks in a pet store, and then dropped together into the same small bowl. And tonight, they were cautiously swimming around one other in wide circles until their new environment became familiar—and they understood how to relate to it, and to each other.
They ate a light supper from the food that Maddie had picked up the previous evening, and then Celine retired for the night. Maddie helped her get settled in her room, and then sat with her for a few minutes, perched on the side of her bed. She couldn't recall ever having done that before—at least, not in Brentwood. She rarely entered her mother's bedroom during the years she lived here. It had seemed like an alien place to her—cold and inaccessible, much like her mother's interior life. As she looked around the spacious room now, she realized that her perception had been inaccurate.
This room, unlike the other rooms in the house, was decorated in a richer palette—shades of dark green and gold, with bolder patterns on the upholstered chairs that sat near the large windows overlooking her garden. There were stacks of books and sheet music piled on the table between the chairs, and many framed photographs—some of Oma and Opa, and several of herself, with and without Celine, taken at different signature events in her life. There was even a photo of her with David from her med school graduation ceremony—and that one confused her. Celine had not attended the event, so who had sent her the picture? Dad? David? She remembered that Uncle Art had driven up from Charlottesville to be there. She wondered now if that had been the reason for Celine's absence.
There would be time to ask her mother about that tomorrow. She shifted her gaze away from the photos.
Even the artwork in this room was different—a stark contrast to the Bauhaus paintings that made up the rest of Celine's collection. Maddie saw her mother's treasured Cassatt drypoint etching hanging on the wall opposite the bed. She had forgotten about that picture. The hand-tinted watercolor of a young girl in a bonnet had always hung over the fireplace in the parlor of the Virginia house, and it had been one of the few things Celine had taken with her when she left. Maddie remembered the day her mother held her at eye-level with the picture, and taught her that the Impressionist painter was actually an American from Pennsylvania. Her full name, Celine explained as Maddie traced a stubby finger over the delicate lines beneath the glass, was Mary Stevenson Cassatt—and she actually was a distant relative of Maddie's father. The Stevensons and the Cassatts had been among the more prominent families in Allegheny County, and Maddie's great-grandfather had moved to Virginia in 1880 as a manager for the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad—establishing rail service to mines along the Appalachian Coal Basin that stretched from Pittsburgh to Knoxville. Mary Cassatt's father had been one of the investors who helped fund the railroad expansion—and her brother, A.J., went on to achieve great prominence as president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The lives of the two families intersected again when, more than a century later, Celine acquired the etching at an estate auction in Philadelphia. She was shocked when she read the provenance of the picture, and realized that it once had belonged to relatives of Davis's in Pittsburgh.
“What are you looking at so intently?” Celine asked.
Maddie was startled by the sound of her voice. She looked at her mother, feeling slightly guilty—like she'd been caught eavesdropping.
“Oh. I'm sorry. I was thinking about the Cassatt etching. I'd actually forgotten about it until right now.” She gave her mother a small smile. “I was remembering when you showed it to me for the first time.”
Celine looked over at the picture. “I think about that day a lot.”
“You do?” Maddie was surprised.
She nodded. “Of course I do—it reminds me of a happier time.”
Maddie shook her head. “How did we get so far away from that?”
“That was my fault. I was stubborn and proud—and I made bad decisions that I clung to even after I knew they were wrong.” She met Maddie's eyes. “I can never forgive myself for how cold I was—for how much I held you at arm's length. I knew how devoted you were to your father—and how angry you were at me for taking you away from him.” She dropped her gaze. “I loved you so much, and I couldn't face the pain in your eyes.” She smiled sadly. “So I did what I've always done—I just went away. Emotionally withdrew. I submerged myself in work and I ignored the hurt—mine and yours.” She looked at Maddie. “That's what I learned from my parents—so those were the reflexive behaviors I resorted to when my own life unraveled.”
It was unusual for Celine to be so expansive—especially about anything this personal. Maddie didn't really know what response to make—and she didn't want to do or say anything to disrupt her mother's narrative—so she remained silent. After a moment, Celine continued.
“I don't want you to think that I'm excusing my behavior—or that I'm blaming my parents for the choices I made. I'm not. I know what I did, and what responsibility I bear for the choices I made. Coming to terms with that has been more painful than you can imagine.”
Maddie looked at her with wonder. “What changed?”
Celine sighed. “I did. Your father's death, happening the way it did—so sudden and unexpected—shook me to the core. I was unprepared for the emotion it unleashed. I couldn't contain it—it overwhelmed me. Suddenly, I was confronting everything I'd ever lost—my marriage, my parents,” she hesitated, “you.” She looked down at the bedspread. “I nearly had a breakdown. I took a three-month sabbatical and went into therapy. Laszlow managed my lab and worked with my grad students. I don't know what I would have done without him.”
Maddie tentatively touched her hand. “Why didn't you call me?”
Celine met her eyes. “I couldn't. I knew what you were dealing with, and I had nothing to offer you. I was a mess . Finally, about six months ago, I knew I was ready to see you—to try and make amends. That's when the conference opportunity came up. I was fairly certain you would be there since the venue was so close to Jericho—so when the organizers approached me about speaking, I agreed immediately.”
Maddie sighed. “But when we met that day after your speech, you seemed so angry and distant.”
Celine laughed bitterly. “What was it you said the other day—about old habits dying hard?” She shook her head. “And it was more frustration than anger. I was already terrified about seeing you, and then Gina showed up.”
Maddie raised a hand to her forehead. “Oh, god.” She looked at Celine apologetically. “Yeah, I'm certain that little performance didn't help much.”
“No, it didn't.” She regarded Maddie quietly for a moment. “What on earth were you thinking?”
Maddie shrugged. “I haven't had the best relationship track record, either.”
“Until now?” Her mother asked.
Maddie nodded. “Until now.”
They sat quietly for a while. The only sound in the room was the monotonous tick of Celine's bedside clock. Celine moved her hand so it rested on top of Maddie's. “About your father—are you all right?”
Maddie looked back at her for a moment, and then shrugged. “Honestly? I don't really know. I'm shocked, of course. But I'm more distressed than anything. Why on earth would he never tell me he was gay—especially once he knew about me ?” She shook her head. “I always thought we were so close. But now I find out that I never really knew him at all.”
Celine squeezed her hand. “That's not true. You did know him. You just didn't know this one thing about him.” Her blue eyes were fixed on Maddie's. “You know better than anyone that being gay doesn't define you—think how many times you've said those words to me, and how frustrated you've been when other people couldn't see past that aspect of your own character. Don't do the same thing now to your father. This reaction is what he feared most about telling you—and it's why he kept it a secret.”
Maddie shook her head slowly. “I still don't understand it.”
“Give yourself time to understand it. This isn't like some new element on the periodic table that you can just review and memorize. You're going to have to live with this for a while before you understand how it fits in with the rest of what you know.”
“God.” Maddie looked back at her mother with amazement.
“What is it?” Celine asked.
“I forgot what these little instructional chats with you were like.” She smiled. “You could've saved me a fortune in shrink bills.”
Celine patted the top of her hand. “I don't know about that—maybe we could've qualified for some kind of family discount.”
Maddie chortled. “Yeah. Imagine if we could've bundled Oma in, too?”
Celine gasped. “Oh, good lord. She could've put a porch on Freud's house all by herself.”
Maddie laughed merrily. The cell phone in her front pocket began to buzz, and she quickly placed her hand over it. Celine noticed.
“I'm sorry,” Maddie apologized. “It's probably Syd.”
“It's fine. Go on ahead and talk with her—I'm fading fast.” She smiled. “Tell her I said hello.”
Maddie leaned forward and kissed her mother on the forehead. “I will. Call if you need anything?”
Celine nodded. “Count on it. Goodnight, Maddoe.”
Maddie smiled. Celine's use of her childhood nickname warmed her heart. “Goodnight, mom.”
Maddie sat outside on the patio with a glass of wine, smiling as the sound of Syd's voice filled her ear. She had decided to wait until she got home to share Celine's stunning revelation about her father. Just now, Syd was in the middle of a story about how David had managed to twist his ankle during a drunken encounter with a vacuum cleaner hose.
“Do I want to know what he was doing with the hose when this happened?” Maddie asked.
“I really don't think you do,” Syd replied.
Maddie closed her eyes. “God. I really need to knock some sense into that boy.”
Syd laughed. “Well, I told him that was likely to be your reaction when you saw him limping around.”
“It didn't faze him a bit. He told me there were more old drunks than old doctors.”
Maddie sighed. “That sounds about right.”
“Then he looked me over and told me how relaxed I seemed.”
“Yeah. He said he was happy that you had apparently not lost your touch.”
Maddie chuckled. “It's hard for me know what to say to that.”
“ Tell me about it.” Syd exhaled. “I had a few moments of insane jealousy wondering just who he was using as a basis for comparison.”
“Oh, honey—I feel your pain on that one.”
“You do?” Syd sounded confused.
“Hell yes! Remember the night you had dinner with Jeff? I drove myself nuts thinking about you being out with him.”
Syd was quiet for a moment. “You had nothing to worry about.”
“No. I was already way past gone on you—I know that, now.”
Maddie smiled into the phone. “So, on a scale of one to ten….”
“You'd be about a ten thousand. Relax, Doctor—you've definitely not lost your touch.”
“God, I miss you.”
“I miss you, too. When are you gonna come home and remind me of just how extraordinary you are?”
“I was thinking I'd stay through the weekend and come back on Monday—that's if mom continues to do as well as she is, now.”
There was silence on the line. After a few moments, Maddie wondered if their call had dropped. “Are you still there?”
“Yeah.” Syd sounded confused. “I'm sorry. I thought I heard…. Maddie—did you just say ‘mom?'”
“Oh.” Maddie was embarrassed. “I guess I did.” She hesitated. “I have some things to share with you when I get back. We've—managed to make some peace with each other.”
“Apparently. Are you okay?”
Maddie nodded. “I am. Better than okay, actually. We had some difficult conversations. I learned some things I didn't know about her—about both of my parents, actually. It's going to take me some time to work through it all—but, for now, at least, we're in a better place than we've been since I was a child.”
“Oh, baby—I'm so happy to hear that.”
Maddie smiled, feeling an uncustomary surge of giddiness. “I'm pretty happy about it, too.”
“I don't doubt that a bit.” Maddie could tell that Syd was smiling. “I like Celine.”
“She likes you, too.”
“It sounds like we're going to have lots to talk about when you get back.”
“Well, lemme put it this way,” Maddie deadpanned. “I don't plan on doing much talking for the first few hours.”
“Oh, really?” Syd asked, sweetly. “Does that mean you've developed some new ability to remain silent?”
Maddie gasped. “That's between me and my god.”
“I know,” Syd drawled. “Remember? I've overheard a few of your so-called ‘private' exchanges.”
“Smartass. You're just begging for it, now.”
“In fact, I wasn't—but I'd be happy to start begging if it would help get you home any sooner.”
“Be patient. I'll make it worth the wait.”
“Smooth talker. Oh!” Syd's voice changed timbre. “I forgot to tell you that Lizzy came by the library today.”
Maddie was intrigued. “She did?”
“Yeah. She was next in line for the newest Chelsea Cain novel.”
“Really?” Maddie was amused. “Should I be concerned that my new nurse is reading books about a serial killer?”
Syd laughed. “Look at the bright side: it might negate the need for a public option in health care reform.”
“Hmmm. Murder the infirm? Now there's a creative strategy. Would we have to torture them all first, too?”
“Isn't that why we have Medicare Part D?” Syd asked, sweetly.
Maddie laughed. “I think that you and Lizzy could be a dangerous combination.”
“Well hold on to your hat, then, because we're going to be seeing a lot more of each other.”
“Uh huh. You apparently didn't realize that your new assistant plays a mean flute. Phoebe's already coerced her into joining the orchestra.”
Maddie was incredulous. “God. That woman can really sniff them out.”
“No kidding. My lazy Sunday afternoons are now a thing of the past.”
“Whatever will I do to fill the lonely hours?”
Syd laughed. “You might consider making some headway on all those broken toaster ovens in the barn. It looks like the back room at Black & Decker out there.”
“Yadda, yadda, yadda.” Maddie sighed. “I knew that having you move in was going to be a mistake.”
There was silence on the line. “Okay. Let's take these in order, shall we? First: mistake? Second: when did I move-in?”
“Um. Well. ‘Mistake' might be an overstatement. I was really going for dramatic effect, there.”
“Uh huh. And the moving-in part?”
“You can't blame a girl for trying. I mean…you like being there, don't you?”
“Maddie, a gnat with a lobotomy would like being here.”
“Was that a yes?”
Syd sighed. “You're making me crazy. You know that?”
“Crazy can be good.”
“So can cautious. I don't want us to screw this up—it's too important.”
“I don't want us to screw it up, either. And one thing I've learned in the last week is that I'm not going to waste any more time.”
“Baby, we've only been— us —for two weeks.” Her voice softened. “I don't think we're wasting any time.”
“I agree. But I think we've been ‘us' ever since that day we met on the river road.”
There was silence again. “I do, too.” Syd's voice was low and earnest. “I'm not going anyplace. You have no worries.”
“So, you're saying I've got squatter's rights?”
Syd snorted. “Now there's a phrase that's taken on a whole new meaning for me.”
Maddie gasped. “Well, I never.”
“Oh, really? Just wait until you get home—I'll make sure you always. ”
Maddie sighed happily. “From your mouth to god's ear.”
Any plans Maddie had for catching up on her sleep during the long flight back to Charlotte from Los Angeles were short-circuited by an inquisitive five-year-old “UM.” The United flight attendant responsible for the little boy asked Maddie if she would mind having the unaccompanied minor seated next to her in business class, since that section was near the front galley of the aircraft, and she would have an easier time keeping an eye on him. Maddie was poised to decline until she made the mistake of glancing at the tiny passenger, as he stood there gawking up at her.
“You're really tall,” he said. “My daddy is tall, too. He's in the Army. My name is Henry. I'm five.”
Maddie smiled at him as he stood there clutching the flight attendant's hand. He was wearing a lightweight denim jacket with a bright blue “I'm Flying Solo” sticker over the breast pocket. She looked up at the harried flight attendant and sighed.
“Sure. I'd be happy to sit next to Henry.”
The blonde woman smiled gratefully and winked at Maddie. “ Thank you . Once we get underway, I'll be back by to take your beverage order—ask for anything you want. It's on the house.”
She got Henry settled in the seat beside Maddie and stowed his tiny suitcase in the overhead bin. She handed Maddie a plastic bag containing several comics and coloring books.
“I'll be back to check on you shortly, Henry,” she said, before she disappeared down the aisle toward the rear of the aircraft.
“What's your name?” Henry asked, turning his small body in the seat to face her.
“How old are you?”
Maddie chuckled. “I'm 34.”
Henry looked confused. “I'm older than you, cause I'm a five.”
“Well, a five is a bigger number than a three—but I'm a three and a four. If you add those together, they're bigger than five.”
Henry appeared unconvinced.
Maddie decided to change the subject. “Who are you going to see in Charlotte?”
“My grandma. My daddy went to Afostan.”
“Afghanistan?” Maddie asked. Henry nodded. “Where's your mommy?”
“I don't have a mommy.” His round blue eyes searched her face. “Do you have a mommy?”
“Yes, I do.” Maddie wanted to hug him. “I was just visiting her. I'm going home now.”
“Where do you live?”
“I live on a farm in Virginia.”
“It's not too far from where we're going on this airplane. Where does your grandma live?”
“Can Place. She makes socks.”
He means Kannapolis, Maddie thought. She must work in a textile mill . “Have you visited your grandma before?”
He shook his head.
“Are you going to stay with your grandma while your daddy is away?”
He nodded. “I'm going to a new school.”
She smiled at him. “Kannapolis is very pretty. I hope you'll like it there.”
“Is it close to your farm?” he asked.
“It's not too far away. Maybe a few hours.”
“Are you a farmer? Do you have animals?”
“I have a dog. But, no, I'm not a farmer.”
“What do you do?”
“I'm a doctor.”
Henry's eyes grew wide. “You are?”
Maddie nodded. “Yep.”
Henry tilted his head at an angle as he regarded her. His dark hair curled over the tops of his ears. “Why do you have a farm if you don't have animals?”
“It was my daddy's. I live there now.”
He seemed to accept that explanation. “Can I come play with your dog?”
Maddie smiled at him. “I don't know. We'd have to ask your grandma about that.”
“She won't care. She doesn't like kids.”
“Why do you say that?”
“My daddy told me that when he left. He told me to be very good and not to bug her.”
“Oh.” Maddie felt a surge of sadness as she regarded the earnest little boy. “I'm sure your grandma will like you a lot, Henry.”
“I think so. I like you.”
“I like you, too.” He looked down at her purse, poking out from beneath her seat. “Do you have a picture of your dog?”
“I don't have one with me. But I'll tell you what—once they tell us that we are allowed get the crayons out, I'll describe him to you, and you can draw a picture of him.”
He brightened up. “I like to draw.”
“It's a deal, then.”
Henry continued to look at her. “You're really pretty.”
Maddie smiled at his sweetness. “Thank you, Henry. I think you're very handsome, too.”
“Are you married?”
She smiled. “No. I'm not married.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?” he asked.
Maddie was stunned by his question. “Why do you ask that?”
He shrugged. “My daddy had a girlfriend, but she left.”
“Oh. Well.” She thought about it. “Yes, I do have a girlfriend.”
“What's her name?” he asked.
Maddie smiled at him. “Syd.”
“That's a boy's name!” he laughed at her.
“You're right—it usually is a boy's name. Her real name is Margaret, but Syd is her nickname. Do you have a nickname?”
He nodded. “Daddy calls me Sport.” He frowned. “His girlfriend called me Henrietta—I didn't like that very much.”
“I can see why. That's not a very good nickname for a little boy.”
The plane started to taxi down the runway for takeoff. She could see Henry tense as they picked up speed. His fingers plucked nervously at his seatbelt.
“Are you afraid?” she asked him.
“It's okay—sometimes I get a little scared, too. But we're really very safe. Would you like to hold my hand?”
He nodded again. Maddie took his tiny hand in hers and held it as the plane rolled faster and faster and the buildings along the runway flew past their tiny window. When the nose lifted up and they left the ground, she felt Henry squeeze her fingers. He jerked when he heard the loud rumble of the landing gear retracting.
“It's okay, Henry,” Maddie said. “That's just the sound of the airplane wheels being put away.”
He looked at her with luminous eyes. “Why do they put the wheels away?” His curiosity was plainly overcoming his fear.”
“Because they don't need the wheels when we aren't on the ground. In the air, they use the wings to fly—just like birds.”
“Oh. Do you like birds?”
“Yes, I do. I like to hear them sing early in the morning.”
“Do you have birds on your farm?”
Maddie nodded. “I sure do—lots of them. My dog likes to chase them.”
“I wish I had a dog. The army won't let daddy have one, and they make grandma sneeze.”
“Well, maybe when your daddy is out of the army you can have one? I never had one, either, until I moved back to Virginia. Pete was my father's dog.”
“Pete?” He giggled.
“That's his name. Pete. He's a big, yellow dog.”
There was a bong in the cabin, and the flight attendant announced that the Captain had approved the use of seatback tray tables and electronic devices. She also stated that they would shortly be beginning their beverage and breakfast service.
“Are you hungry?” Maddie asked Henry.
“Well, let's eat some breakfast, and then we can draw some pictures of Pete.”
They each had waffles with hot maple syrup. Henry had apple juice, and Maddie had a large mimosa with her coffee, thanks to her grateful flight attendant. After they had finished eating and their breakfast trays had been collected, Maddie got out the crayons and paper and helped Henry draw pictures of Pete—and pictures of the birds at her farm. Henry proudly signed his name in large block letters at the bottom of each drawing, and gave several of them to Maddie to keep. She carefully tucked them inside her briefcase, after promising to show them to Pete, and to her girlfriend with the funny name.
After an hour or so, Henry began to yawn and Maddie noticed his eyes were drooping.
“Are you sleepy?” she asked.
He nodded. “I had to get up in the dark.”
“Do you want to lie down across the seat and take a little nap?”
He nodded. Maddie pushed the call button and asked the flight attendant for a pillow and blanket. She tucked their center armrest up to give him more space, and was surprised when he immediately stretched out across the seat and laid his head on her lap. He was sound asleep in minutes. She smiled through her amazement. Reminds me of someone else I know , she thought, tucking the blanket in around him. Reclining her own seatback, she closed her eyes and decided to try and catch a few winks herself—but she guessed that sleep would elude her. Her mind was too active, and too full from the events of the last week.
Henry whimpered in his sleep, and Maddie rubbed a calming hand up and down his arm. In moments, he quieted down. She looked down at his small form with an affection that surprised her. God. I'm so fickle. How do I break the news to Syd that I've lost my heart to a five-year-old stranger I met on the airplane ride home?
Henry's apparent resiliency and unaffected innocence moved her. Here he was, facing an uncertain future without a mother, and a father on the other side of the globe—and still he was able to fall sleep on the lap of a stranger. She shook her dark head in wonder as she thought back over her own early childhood years—doted on by both parents in a fairytale-like environment, surrounded by every possible advantage. And for so many years, after the end of her parents' marriage, she thought of herself as a victim—a loner and an outcast. Looking down at Henry's sleeping form now, she realized with sadness that nothing had been further from the truth. Her mother had not rejected her—she had withdrawn from her own pain and loss in an ill-fated attempt to insulate Maddie from a truth her father believed she was too young to understand. As the years passed, that mistake became a deception, and even the revelation of Maddie's own sexual orientation was not enough to shake her father's resolve. She knew with certainty that she would mourn that loss now—that loss of her father's faith and trust—in the same way she would mourn his untimely death.
She ran her fingers through Henry's long, curly hair.
But life ebbed and flowed. The universe took things away, and gave things back. She smiled as she thought about her final few minutes with her mother that morning. Laszlow had graciously offered to drive her to the airport for her impossibly early departure. She wanted Celine to stay in bed, but her mother stubbornly insisted on getting up to see her off. She stood in the breezeway next to her while Laszlow stowed her bags in the trunk of his old Peugeot sedan. They were mostly silent—both aware of the awkwardness that still lingered between them. Celine was fully dressed in slacks and a loose-fitting cotton shirt that was large enough to accommodate the cast on her left arm. Finally, she turned to face Maddie. She was only a few inches shorter than her tall daughter, and their eyes were nearly level.
“Call me when you get to Charlotte?” she asked, almost shyly.
“Of course,” Maddie replied, with a small smile.
“I can't thank you enough for being here. It means more to me than you'll ever know.”
Maddie searched her mother's blue eyes. “Me, too.” She stepped forward and embraced Celine, being careful not to jostle the arm that was supported by a bright blue sling. She closed her eyes as she recognized the tangerine and sandalwood scent of her mother's beloved Farouche perfume. It was something she remembered from her childhood—from a happier time, when she lived with both of her parents in Virginia.
“I love you, mom.” Her throat felt thick.
She felt Celine's free arm tighten behind her back. “I love you, too, Maddoe.”
Then she was gone. But they had promised to keep in better contact—and they had talked about seeing each other again in the summer. Celine had even hinted at possibly coming back to the farm for a visit—a suggestion that shocked and pleased Maddie.
Who knew? Maybe she would make some headway on those toaster ovens so the barn would be clear of clutter when Celine came back. Syd would be amazed. Syd . She smiled to herself as she thought about going home to Syd. Right now, life was awfully good. She glanced down at Henry, now drooling on her trouser leg. I wish I could say the same for you, little man. I wish I could spare you what looks like a rough road ahead . Tugging the blanket up around his small shoulders, she leaned back and closed her own eyes, drowsiness finally winning out over conscious thought.
Passing by the two passengers sleeping in row seven, the lead flight attendant shook her head and smiled. With their dark hair and blue eyes, they looked like they belonged together. She congratulated herself once again for correctly tagging the right person to watch over her UM. Half the passengers on board were now dozing, and they had a good tail wind—the rest of this flight was shaping up to be a breeze.
In the busy Charlotte-Douglas Airport terminal, Maddie waited with Henry and the United gate agent until Ada Lawrence, Henry's grandmother, arrived. All around them, other passengers were noisily reunited with friends and family members, before bustling off toward waiting cars or the lower level baggage claim area. Over the throng of people, Maddie could see the taller form of Michael Robertson making his way toward them. She waved him over with a smile.
“Henry, I'd like you to meet a very good friend of mine,” she said, as Michael approached them. Maddie could see the surprise and confusion on his face as he realized that she was standing there with a United Airlines employee and a child. She stepped forward and warmly embraced Michael, before gesturing to her small companion.
“Michael, I'd like you to meet my new friend, Henry Lawrence. Henry kept me company on the long ride from California—and we're waiting here for his grandmother to arrive.”
Michael raised an eyebrow before kneeling in front of Henry and extending his hand. “Hello, Henry. It's a pleasure to meet you.”
Henry pressed a bit closer against Maddie's leg, but gamely held out his own hand to shake with Michael. “Hello. Did you know that Maddie is a doctor?”
Michael chuckled. “Yes, I did know that. In fact, Maddie is my doctor—and she's given me lots of shots.”
Henry's eyes grew wide. He looked up at Maddie. “You have?”
Maddie sighed. “Yes—but not nearly as many as he deserved.”
Maddie gestured to the smiling United gate agent. “Michael, this is Denise—she's waiting with Henry, too.”
Michael shook hands with her. “Hi, Denise. These two give you any trouble?”
“Not so far.” Denise laughed. She looked past Michael toward the escalators. “I think this might be Mrs. Lawrence.” They all looked toward the advancing woman with interest and anticipation. When she saw Henry, she waved and made a beeline for them.
“Is this your grandma, Henry?” Denise asked.
He nodded—but Maddie noted that he didn't seem particularly excited. He remained closely pressed against her leg, clutching his bag of coloring books and crayons.
Ada Lawrence was a medium-sized woman who appeared to be in her early sixties. She had graying, dark hair and watery blue eyes—and she appeared to be more tired than anything. Maddie noticed a slight limp in her gait as she approached them, and suspected that she might be suffering from sciatica or fibromyalgia —not uncommon maladies for people who made a living standing in one position for long periods of time. She was nearly breathless by the time she reached them.
“I'm Ada Lawrence, and this is my grandson, Henry,” she said. “I'm sorry I'm late—I couldn't find a parking space out front and had to go into the big lot.” She bent over and reached out a hand toward Henry. “Hello, honey. Do you remember me?”
Henry nodded, and shyly stepped forward to allow the older woman to hug him. Then he quickly retreated to stand next to Maddie. Ada looked up at Maddie with confusion, then over toward the United agent.
“Mrs. Lawrence, I'm Denise Wilson. Henry has been a model passenger.” She gestured toward Maddie. “This is Dr. Stevenson—she kept Henry company on the flight from L.A.”
Ada looked back at Maddie. “ Dr. Stevenson?” She quickly looked down at the little boy. “Are you sick?”
Maddie spoke up quickly. “Oh, no—he's fine. I just happened to have the good fortune to be seated next to your grandson.” She lifted her hand and gently rubbed the top of his head. “We became fast friends.” She extended her hand toward Mrs. Lawrence. “It's a pleasure to meet you.”
Ada slowly held out her hand. Maddie noticed how warm it felt and how puffy her fingers looked. Carpal tunnel or diabetes , she thought. Her heart went out to the woman as she thought about what she was taking on. Mrs. Lawrence looked pallid and fatigued as she stood there. She wondered if there was a Mr. Lawrence—Henry had not mentioned a grandfather.
“Mrs. Lawrence,” Maddie said, gesturing to Michael. “This is my good friend, Michael Robertson.” Michael nodded and smiled at her.
Denise held out a clipboard. “If you'll just show me some photo I.D. and sign this release form, you can be on your way.”
After Ada had complied, and Denise had thanked her walked off, she turned to face Henry. “Come on, honey—we need to get going. Gramma has to work tonight.” She looked up and met Maddie's eyes. “Thank you so much for taking care of him on the trip. I really appreciate it.”
Maddie smiled at her. “It was my pleasure.” She dug into the pocket of her jacket to retrieve the card she had placed there earlier while Henry was sleeping on the plane. “This is my contact information—please don't hesitate to call me if you ever need anything.” She paused. “I mean that sincerely.” She smiled down at the little boy as Ada slowly took the card from her. “I'd love to keep in touch with Henry.”
She knelt next to him and placed her hands on his small shoulders. “I really liked meeting you, Henry. Thank you for my drawings. I'll be sure to show them to Pete.”
Henry threw his arms around her neck and hugged her. “Can I come and see you on your farm?”
Maddie looked up at Ada as she held him. “We'll see what your gramma thinks about that—and if it's okay with her, I promise to come and get you for a visit.” She released him and kissed his forehead. “You be a good boy now. I'll call to check on you, okay?”
When she stood up, she noticed that Mrs. Lawrence was rummaging in her purse for something. Finally, she pulled out a pen and something that looked like a pay stub. Tearing off a piece of the paper, she wrote down a name and phone number.
“This is my home number,” she said, handing the paper to Maddie. “I work second shift, so you can usually catch me in the mornings. My neighbor, Elise Manning will keep Henry at her house until I get home at 11:00.” She gave Maddie a small smile. “Call whenever you want to—I know he'd like hearing from you.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Lawrence. Take care.”
She nodded. “Come on, Henry. We need to go now.” She took hold of his hand and they turned to leave the busy terminal. As they were walking away, Henry looked back at her and waved. “Bye, Maddie.”
She waved back at him. “Bye, Henry.” Her shoulders drooped as she watched them walk away, and she leaned into Michael. “Jesus.”
“No kidding,” he said, wrapping an arm around her. “You're a goner . Who knew you had such maternal instincts?”
“Yeah, yeah. So sue me.” She laughed. “Syd's gonna freak.”
“Why do you say that?”
Maddie chuckled. “She thinks we need to wait at least a month before we start a family.”
Michael laughed heartily as he squeezed her shoulder and turned her toward the street exit. “Come on. Let's get you home so you can confess your sins in person.”
Maddie knew that Syd wouldn't be home from orchestra practice until at least 4:00. She intentionally didn't tell her that she was arriving home a day earlier than they had discussed, wanting to surprise her. After Michael dropped her off, she hurried inside, having just enough time to unpack, change clothes, and reunite with Pete before Syd returned from rehearsal.
Upstairs, she noticed that Syd had, in fact, been sleeping in the front guest room down the hall, instead of staying in her larger, master suite. She noted that Pete's dog bed had been moved to that room, too. I can fix that in short order , she thought, smiling to herself.
Back downstairs, she put on a pot of coffee and nosed around inside the refrigerator to see if Syd had any intriguing leftovers. She was famished from the long day, and had skipped lunch on the plane, opting instead for a protein bar and some juice. She hoped that she'd be able to prevail upon Syd to cook something for her—even if it was only a couple of scrambled eggs.
Everything in the kitchen was neat and tidy—just like the bedroom upstairs. Except for the few personal items in evidence—a Jane Austen novel on the nightstand, some cosmetics on a shelf in the guest bathroom, a coffee mug in the sink, an extra jacket on a peg near the back door—there was really nothing to suggest that anyone else had even been living in the house. Still, it felt different to Maddie. It felt warmer—more complete. She liked it. She liked coming home to that feeling. It was going to be difficult to have Syd go back to her tiny apartment in town.
Maybe they could talk about that tonight. She smiled to herself as she shut the refrigerator door. Pete started up from his prone position on the floor and darted over to the back door with his tail wagging. Then Maddie heard the crunch of car tires on the gravel outside. She walked toward the door to the porch and patted the big dog on the head. “I'm right there with ya, big guy. If I had a tail, I'd be wagging it, too.” She pulled open the door and let Pete out, leaning against the doorframe and watching while Syd parked her car.
She could see the surprise on Syd's face when she saw Pete bounding toward her from the porch—clearly not understanding how he got outside. Then, recognition must have dawned on her, and she looked anxiously toward the house, seeing Maddie for the first time. Her face broke into such a heartfelt smile, that Maddie felt her knees go weak. Smiling to herself, she pushed away from the doorframe, and walked down the steps to meet her halfway.
Syd flew into her outstretched arms, muttering, “Oh my god—you're back . I can't believe it.”
Maddie hugged her close. “Surprised?”
Syd turned her face into Maddie's neck and took a long, deep breath. “Ecstatic.” She planted a string of tiny kisses up her neck and along her jaw line, ending at her mouth. “I missed you so much,” she murmured against her lips.
Maddie tugged her even closer and kissed her back. When they drew apart, Syd looked at her with shining eyes and laid the palm of her hand against the side of her face. “Why didn't you tell me you were coming back today? I'd have met you at the airport.”
Maddie turned her head and kissed the palm of her hand. “And miss this greeting? Are you kidding me?”
Syd chuckled at her. “Oh, honey—you'd have received this greeting even if we'd been standing in the middle of Billy Graham Parkway.”
Maddie raised an eyebrow. “Somebody is feeling a whole lot of confidence.”
“Nuh uh. Somebody is feeling a whole lot in love.”
They kissed again. “I certainly share that sentiment.”
Syd smiled up at her. “How about we go inside and continue getting reacquainted? I want to hear about your flight—and I want to hear about Celine.”
Maddie released her, but kept hold of her hand. “Good idea. Can I help you carry anything?”
“Nope—just let me get my violin.” They walked together back to the car, and Syd retrieved her violin case and some sheet music from the front seat.
Inside, Maddie walked over to the coffeepot and took a cup out of the cupboard. “Want a cup? I made a pot to try and make myself wake up.” She smiled at her slyly. “I thought I might need the extra stamina.”
Syd looked at her archly. “Oh, really? Worried that someone might try and keep you awake later?”
“No—I'm counting on it.”
“Hmmm. How about something to eat while we're at it? Are you hungry?”
“Famished. I was hoping you'd offer.”
“I guess it's pretty presumptuous of me to offer to feed you in your own kitchen.”
“Are you kidding? I fantasized about having you cook for me all the way home from Charlotte.”
“Well, I can think of a few other fantasies I'd rather inspire—but I won't complain.” As Maddie chuckled, she began pulling items from the refrigerator. “Who picked you up, anyway?”
“Ahh. That explains it.”
Maddie leaned back against the kitchen counter and looked at her quizzically. “Explains what?”
“Why David was flitting around during rehearsal like the cat that swallowed the canary. I should've known that something was up.” She turned around to retrieve a couple of utensils from the center island, and Maddie grabbed her by the arm and hauled her over to where she was standing.
“I think I need a little appetizer,” she said, lowering her head and kissing her.
Syd wound both arms around her neck and sank into the embrace. “God, I missed you.”
“I missed you, too.” She kissed the tip of Syd's nose. “I love you.”
“I love you, too. As much as I've enjoyed being here, it's been hell without you.”
“Yeah, about that….” Maddie released her and picked up her coffee mug. “I've been thinking.”
Syd walked back toward the stove and took a large frying pan down from its hook. “That can't be good news.”
“Humor me. At least hear me out.”
“I'm all ears.”
Maddie's eyes traveled up and down her shapely frame. “It truly pleases me to say that you aren't.”
Syd shook her head. “Perv.”
“Oh, you ain't seen nothin' yet.”
Syd laughed. “So. What's your idea?”
“A-hem. Well. Why not just consider staying on here with me? Think of the money you could save the county?” Her blue eyes were hopeful.
“Nice try, Stretch. But, you're nuts—it's way too soon.”
“Why do you say that?”
Syd looked at her incredulously. “Why? Because we've only ever spent one night together here—and, even then, we weren't really together . We have no idea how we'd be if we were here full time.”
Maddie shrugged. “Why not find out?”
“I agree that we should find out—but I think we need to do that in a more gradual way.” When Maddie began to scowl, Syd spoke more softly. “Baby, I love you—I know that. And I'm not going anyplace. But we need time to learn what being us is going to be like before we tempt fate by moving in together.” She paused. “You know I'm right.”
Maddie exhaled and nodded slowly. “Yeah. I do. I'm just selfish, and I don't want to be away from you now.”
“I know. And you won't be—I promise. But I'm not even divorced yet. I at least need time to get that behind me. And we need to figure out what the public implications of living together would be for each of us. Are you ready to take on that whole scenario?”
Maddie looked at her intently. “Yeah. I think I am. How about you?”
“Me?” Syd chuckled. “Well, now that I've told my parents, there isn't much more for me to worry about. I mean, my grant money runs out in less than a year, so I don't have to worry too much about what the county supervisors would think about having a big ole lesbian running their library.”
Maddie laughed. “In my experience, the less of an issue we make it, the easier it is for everyone else to accept it.”
“Or ignore it,” Syd added.
“That, too. As Celine was quick to remind me—it doesn't define who we are.”
“She said that?”
“Uh huh. But it was in quite a different context.”
Syd was now sautéing chicken breasts in some olive oil and herbs. “Really? What kind of context?”
Maddie sighed. “We had a couple of pretty intense—and revealing—conversations about what caused her to leave my father. It was eye-opening for me—and cathartic, I think, for her.”
“What did she tell you?”
“She told me that she came home from work sick one day, and found my father here with someone else. It turns out he'd been having a long-term affair.”
“Oh, my god.”
“Yeah—but that's not the real kicker. It was with another man.” She paused. “With Uncle Art, actually.”
Syd's jaw dropped. “Oh, sweetheart.”
“Yeah. I was pretty stunned, as you can imagine. Still am.” She shook her head. “Celine said that dad made her promise never to tell me. She also never told me that she was pregnant when she left us—she never told dad, either. She miscarried while she was in New York with her parents. That's why I never saw her during those first few months after they separated.”
“Jesus.” Syd transferred the chicken to a platter and took the pan off the heat. She turned to face Maddie. “Are you okay?”
Maddie nodded. “I am, now. But when she told me, I felt like I had been dropped head first into an alternative universe. Everything looked familiar, but nothing made any sense. Now, that I've had a few days to live with this information, it's exactly the opposite: nothing looks familiar and everything makes sense.” She sighed. “It's really a paradox.”
“I can only imagine.”
Maddie reached out a hand and touched Syd on the arm. “I hope you understand that I wanted to wait until I could tell you this in person?”
“Of course I do.” She covered Maddie's hand with one of her own. “What are you gonna do?”
Maddie shrugged. “I don't know. I need to talk with Art. And I want to ask David if he ever suspected anything during the time he lived here with dad.”
“Would that make any difference to you?”
Maddie thought about that before answering. “I suppose not. But I'd still like to know.” She slowly shook her head. “God, Syd. All those years, I thought my mother was shutting me out—and all she was doing was keeping my father's secrets.” She sighed. “She admits now that it was a mistake—that she never should have agreed.” She looked up and met Syd's eyes. “It was when dad died that everything started unraveling for her. She nearly had a breakdown—had to take a sabbatical. That's why she came to Richmond. She wanted to see me—wanted to try and make a start at repairing some of the damage.” She leaned forward and kissed Syd softly on the cheek. “So it turns out that your instincts on that score were right on the money.”
Syd let out a long breath. “How are you now? With Celine?”
Maddie smiled. “Good. Better than good, actually. I mean, we're still like strangers in some ways—but we're both determined to reclaim what we lost so many years ago. I can't tell you what that means to me—to have this chance at getting my mother back. I'm practically giddy whenever I really let myself think about it.”
Syd smiled at her. “I can certainly understand that.”
Maddie set her coffee mug down in the sink, and rubbed her palms together. “I think I'm ready for a little glass of something cold. How about you? Like some wine? Something white to go with that awesome-smelling chicken?”
Syd nodded. “Sure. I need a little splash of it anyway, to deglaze the pan.” She returned the pan to the stove and began to reheat it.
Maddie walked over to the wine fridge and pulled out a bottle of pinot grigio. “Why does ‘deglazing' always sound like you're about to scrape paint off a window?”
Syd chuckled. “Trust me—with cookware other than this, that can be an apt description.”
Maddie popped the cork with a flourish. “See? Another reason to move in—ready access to great pots.”
“Sweetie, I don't need any more incentives to make me want to move in with you. What I need is more strength to resist the temptation.”
Maddie handed her the open bottle. “Resistance is futile. I play to win.”
“We've had this conversation, Doctor. You've already won. You just need to relax and wait a while before claiming your door prize.”
Maddie sighed. “Delayed gratification?”
“Damn. I never should have bailed on those 12 steps.”
There was a loud hiss as Syd added a hefty splash of wine to the pan. “You're such a nut job.”
“Have I ever told you how much I love your use of scientific terminology?”
“Shut up and pour me a glass of this.” She handed the bottle back to Maddie.
“Anything else I can do to help?” Maddie asked, getting two wine glasses out of the sideboard.
“Yeah. You can set the table and feed Pete. There's a big can of green beans in the fridge. I've been giving him a couple of tablespoons of those with his food to make up for the reduction in volume.”
“Really? How much are you feeding him?”
“A cup and a half per meal. He doesn't like it—but the beans help bulk it out a bit.”
Maddie looked down at her dog, whose brown eyes were gazing up at her forlornly. “Sorry, buddy. Dodge City has a new sheriff. It's bigger than both of us.”
Maddie didn't have any trouble convincing Syd to move down the hall and spend the night with her in the master suite. The greatest challenge she encountered was navigating the back flight of stairs after dinner—a task made more complicated by the fact that Syd had climbed halfway up her body and initiated a passionate assault that didn't promise to end anytime soon. The reality was that Maddie's bed was closest to the stairs, and it was there they landed in a tangled heap of arms and legs. In retrospect, Maddie doubted whether she would have had the stamina to make it any further—her head was reeling and her knees were weak from exhaustion and pent-up passion. With her last few scraps of conscious thought, she realized that finally being here—in her own bedroom, with Syd in her arms—was the fulfillment of her greatest fantasy.
Later, as the two of them lay wrapped-up together under the big Amish quilt, Maddie felt a calm and contentment that she hadn't known for decades—not since she was a child, and slept beneath all those pictures of airplanes in the room down the hall—safe, and surrounded by the love of two adoring parents. Her dreams then were whimsical and fantastic. She'd imagine herself performing daredevil feats of aerobatics—high above the earth—without danger and without fear. It never occurred to her to think that girls didn't do those things—to consider that society or her parents would disapprove or discourage her. So she believed that she could do it all. Could do anything . She lived in a world of limitless possibilities.
Sighing, she thought about Henry, and wondered how he was faring during his first night in Kannapolis. What would his dreams be like tonight?
Syd tightened her arms and tugged her closer. “What are you thinking about?
“Actually, I was thinking about Henry.”
Syd lifted her head from Maddie's shoulder. “Henry? Who on earth is Henry?”
“Henry is a guy I met on the flight back from L.A. He made quite an impression on me—I can't get him off my mind.”
“Oh, really? Should I be worried?”
Maddie ran a warm palm down Syd's back and over the naked swell of her hip. “Do you think you need to be worried?”
“Not when you put it like that.”
“Good. Besides—Henry is five years-old.”
“Uh huh. He was flying across country solo, and the head flight attendant asked if I would keep him company.”
Syd smiled into her neck. “You're such a softie.”
“Nah. I just have an affinity for short people.”
“I'll say.” Syd pinched her on the butt. “Perv.”
Maddie smiled. “You know, that's a title that seems to get shifted around a lot.”
“Don't blame me—it ain't the bait, it's the fishing hole.”
Maddie laughed. “You've been living in the South too long.”
“Well, I think my tenure here is likely to be even longer, so it's in my best interest to adapt to the local folkways.”
Maddie smiled and kissed her on the forehead. “You're off to one helluva start.”
“Flatterer. Now quit stalling and tell me more about this little Henry person.”
Maddie was silent for a moment. “I don't know—there was just something so sweet and compelling about him. He was traveling from California to North Carolina to live with his grandmother while he father serves out a tour of duty in Afghanistan. No mother in the picture—I don't know the details of that. He was so small—but so serene. Taking everything in stride—like none of what was happening to him was at all difficult or unusual. It was like he didn't expect anything from life—so he wasn't disappointed. It just really got to me.”
“I can see why.”
“I stayed with him at the airport until his grandmother arrived to pick him up. She was certainly nice enough—but it was pretty clear that taking care of a five year-old wasn't going to be easy for her. She works in a textile mill in Kannapolis—and, as far as I can tell, she's either single or a widow.”
“It sounds like you made a real connection with them.”
Maddie nodded. “I think so. It's odd. I gave her my contact information, and I got theirs.” She turned her head to face Syd. “I'd really like to see him again—see how he's doing. Is that weird?”
“Not at all. And it's not surprising, either. You have great maternal instincts.”
Maddie was incredulous. “I do? You're the second person who's said that to me.”
“Yes, you do. I noticed it first with the Sanchez children.” She chuckled. “You aren't so shabby with teenagers, either.”
Maddie groaned. “That hardly counts. There's nothing maternal about my effect on Roma Jean.”
“Well, maybe not from her vantage point.” Syd was quiet for a moment. “Do you want kids?”
“Me? I've never really thought about it. Do you?”
“Oh, yeah. I'd love to have about a dozen.”
Maddie felt her stomach lurch. A dozen ? “Really?”
Syd laughed at her. “No, nimrod—not really.” She thought about it. “A couple, maybe?”
“Wow. I guess if it's too soon for us to consider living together, then it's too soon for us to talk about stating a family?”
“You might say that. Besides, we're not talking about starting a family—we're talking about the idea of having children, in general.”
“Is there a difference?”
Syd shifted her head and nuzzled her ear. “There won't be if you knock me up.”
Maddie felt a shiver run across her body. “Now there's an interesting idea.”
“So tell me more about Henry.”
“There isn't much more to tell. He's chatty and charming. He likes animals and drawing pictures. He even sent a few back with me for you and Pete.”
“Yeah.” She laughed quietly. “He asked me if I had a girlfriend.”
“No. It was so sweet and reflexive—like it never occurred to him that it might seem odd to ask a woman that question.”
“How did you answer?”
“I said yes.” She tugged her closer. “Because I do.”
“You got that right.”
“He's a real cutie, Syd.”
“What does he look like?”
“Dark hair. Blue eyes.”
“Ahh. Just my type.”
“Would you be up for a road trip to Kannapolis sometime to meet him? See how he's doing?”
“Of course.” She paused. “Should I ask David to extend the rental period on the U-Haul?”
Maddie snorted. “You think you have me all figured-out, don't you?”
“Um hmm. Just about.”
“Okay, smartass. What am I thinking about right now?”
Syd slid her hand up Maddie's bare abdomen and rested her palm on a warm bit of real estate. “Let me guess.” She began to lick up the side of her neck. “Is this at all close?”
Maddie sighed and closed her eyes, before rolling onto her back and pulling Syd on top of her. “It sucks to be so transparent.”
Continued in Part IX
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