"So is this how you two plan to behave on tour?" Harold's voice broke through the impromptu sound effects.

"Tour?" Laurel lowered her water pistols. "What tour?"

"If you two can behave long enough, we're going to have a band meeting." Harold pulled a small bit of left over balloon from behind his ear. "Meet me in five minutes in Jenna's room." He wiped the whipped cream from his glasses. "Apparently I need to go get cleaned up a bit."

"I think we are in trouble." BJ clapped a hand over his mouth. "But did you see that? I got him full in the face with that balloon without even knowing it."

"If looks could kill, big man, we'd be dead." Laurel opened the door to their room. They had been chasing one another through the hallway armed with whipped cream filled balloons and water pistols. So far, they were the only two entertained with their antics.

"Ah he can get over it." BJ did not seem concerned. "Guess we should put this stuff up though." He emptied his arsenal onto the bed.

"Yeah I guess." She placed two water pistols, three balloons and a can of whipped cream on her bed. "Well, let's go see what the news is."

"Do we have to? I was having fun. And that one maid, did you see her?"

"Yes I did. I thought you were nursing a broken heart?"

"Are you saying you wouldn't give her a go?" BJ gave her a look full of incredulity. "Come on, she can help me drown my sorrows. It'd just be sex."

"Yeah but aren't you feeling a bit too raw to even think that way?" Laurel paused at the door.

"Lakky, you gotta be kidding me. Before Nicole, you had a new girlfriend or playmate or whatever before the other girl dried her tears. What happened?"

"That was before. Come on before we get into more trouble for being late."

"Just tell me you wouldn't jump at a chance for a piece of that." He insisted as he closed the door behind them. "I know you would. Admit it."

"It's us." Laurel knocked on Jenna's door. "Alright, I would, but only if things were a bit different."

"Different? Hell, Lakky, if they got any bigger, she'd float."

"Do I want to know what you two are talking about?" Jenna asked as she opened the door.

"Nope, you sure don't." The bassist answered as she entered the room. A cleaner Harold was sitting at the small table while Steve lay across one of the beds. "So, what's up, H?"

"Not much, L." The manager sat up straighter. "We need to discuss your first gig."

"What gig? I thought we were just hanging around waiting on the CD to be finished." Steve sat up against the headboard.

"We were, but the company has decided to give you a test gig here in New York before sending you lot on tour."

"Tour? We never signed up for a tour." Laurel protested. "I thought we were going home after the CD." It was not quite true. She had known the label would make them tour, but she wanted to complain anyway. It made it more fun.

"Nope, if the gig goes well, then we've got you scheduled for a tour with a few other artists the label is pushing. Here's a print out of the tour dates, locations and the other bands." He handed them all copy of the information.

"Well that's…that's just plain…well it's bogus." Laurel used the only word she could think of to describe the situation. "I don't want to go on tour."

"Tough nuts there Lakky, we signed a contract." Jenna seemed to be the only band member not upset with the situation.

"I'm working on that contract thing, believe me."

"Just what are the terms of this tour?" BJ sat down on the empty bed.

"Terms of the tour? There are no terms to the tour as such. We go out, play a gig, leave and play another the next night." Jenna turned from her position by the window. "Cheer up, ya'll. This is going to be fun."

"Fun?" Laurel looked at the schedule. "Jenna, I haven't heard of half these places. Granted I wasn't very good in geography, but somehow I get the feeling it'll be like playing Hattiesburg only smaller."

"Yeah, just listen to a few of these dates. Hope Mills, North Carolina; Hot Springs, Arkansas; Knoxville, Tennessee; Laredo, Texas; Glendale, Arizona. Sounds like some real hotspots." BJ crumpled the list in his fist.

"If the first single goes well, and the response on the tour goes well, then you will of course play larger venues. All bands start out under similar circumstances. We can't expect you to sell out arenas when no one has heard you yet." Harold seemed to be getting annoyed with their reactions.

"So what happens if we suck?" Steve asked. "I mean we're already under practiced as a four piece band. We're used to six people on stage. What happens when we fuck everything up?"

"That's what I'd like to know." Laurel was glad someone else asked it first.

"In the event that you do not improve, you will be released from your obligations. However, if I suspect sabotage, you will be sued for the money the company has already invested in you. This is not a cheap hotel, I'll have you know." Harold divided his attention between Laurel and BJ. "Is that perfectly clear?"

"Yeah, but I think that little bio you have on me failed to mention two things." Laurel stood in front of him. "I handle my responsibilities, and I don't take well to threats. Understand me?"

"Perfectly. Now, we have a rehearsal time set up back at the studio. Gather your instruments and meet me downstairs in ten." He placed his files back into his attaché. "Once you give this a chance, I believe you'll change your tune. After all, you were in the band before it got a contract so obviously all four of you enjoy playing music."

"Grrr." Laurel could not contain her reaction any longer. Fortunately, he was too far down the hall to hear her by the time she released the growl.

"Calm down, Laurel. It's not the end of the world. In fact, after this we'll be famous." Jenna announced.

"You and Steve will be famous. BJ and I will just be the drummer and the bassist."

"I'm sure your looks and charming personality will bring plenty of groupies to your door."

"Jenna, can you be any more sarcastic? The rest of us had lives and stuff you know. We're not all tied into this as much as you are." Steve got up from the bed. "I'm going to call the shop and tell them not to hold my job and then grab my axe. I'll meet ya'll downstairs."

"Sounds like a plan. Good thing I was work for hire." BJ commented as Steve left the room. "Come on, kiddo, let's go get our stuff."



"Promise me something. If we do go on tour." Laurel used her card to unlock the door. "Don't make me room with Jenna."

"Oh, I promise. I'll talk to Harold and see if you and me can't continue to room together and if we can stick those two into another room. I hate to do that to Steve, but someone's gotta do it and it ain't gonna be me."


"Anytime, Laurel. Anytime."


Nicole stirred the contents of the boiler and waited for it to thicken. The contents had yet to congeal, and the photographer was worried they never would. She was just grateful that the old house had gas stoves. She only cooked on an electric stove at Sheryl or Danny's house. The resulting meals were always partially cooked as a result. She did not do it often enough to learn the time difference.

"Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches?" Danny asked as he entered the kitchen with the critic.

"Comfort food." Nicole replied as she stirred the finally thickened soup. She had been introduced to the meal several years ago at Sheryl's house. The critic's mom may not have worked, but raising seven children did not give her much time for more complicated meals.

"I thought Melba taught you more intricate cuisine than that." Sheryl teased. Melba had been and still was Adia's housekeeper. She taught Nicole how to cook when the photographer had been a child.

"I did, but she insists on eating soup from a can and preprocessed cheese slices." The old woman said from the kitchen table. Her black hair was completely grey, but the three friends could easily picture happier, or at least less complicated, times when they were all younger.

"It's simple, easy and filling." Nicole's explanation was short. She suddenly had a desire for the more simple things in life. It was a reaction to leading a complicated life. "Grab a bowl and a plate. There's plenty for everyone." The photographer did not cringe when she used her grandmother's silver ladle to fill her bowl.

"Adia would kill you if she knew you were using that." Melba handed the deejay and the critic a bowl and plate each. "But, I won't tell her if you wash it."

"I'll wash it." Nicole promised.

"What time are we going to the hospital?" Danny asked.

"We?" Nicole was startled. She placed her food on the small kitchen table and sat down. "I wasn't aware you two were going with me."

"Of course we're going." Sheryl protested as she joined her friend at the table. "We came down here with you just for this. Why else do you think we're here? The tomato soup?"

"Of course. Didn't you know that condensed soup was a real crowd bringer?" Danny joked as he joined the others at the table. "You are cooking dinner tonight aren't you?" He asked Melba.

"Yes I am. But I for one am glad for a change of pace. Watch how you treat my Nicky or I'll make sure I burn your portion of dinner." Melba waved her spoon at him in warning.

"That's not a threat. I like burned, I mean blackened food." Danny grinned. Nicole shook her head. It was always hard to get the last word in with him.

"Smartass." Sheryl muttered.

"Watch your language young lady, or I shall burn your food as well." Melba threatened.

"If this is an attempt to raise my spirits, it is not working." The photographer did not want to admit that she was enjoying their bickering. "We should hurry up and get to the hospital. I want to see if it's as serious as Phil said this morning."

"It is as serious." Melba told her. "Mrs. Herbert has not been well for quite some time."

"Then why did they wait so long to call me?"

"That I have no answer for, you'll just have to ask you uncle or your grandmother this afternoon."

"Come on, Melba, what's going on? I mean I'm supposed to be disowned, but get called back here and told to stay at the house. What's up?" Nicole trusted the older woman to tell her the truth. Melba had been a rock of strength and support for the photographer during her turbulent teen years.

"I promised not to tell you. It was the only way they would let you stay here. I requested that part, but everyone feels it should come from family." Nicole could tell by the housekeeper's face that Melba had already said more than she intended. "Now, no more questions or it will be blackened fried chicken for dinner."

"Alright." The photographer knew that it was fruitless to continue the conversation. Melba would not tell her any more, and the housekeeper would reiterate her point by burning dinner. She had done so before, of course she always made up for the ruined dinner with an excellent dessert.

"You know, this place hasn't changed any, but did the table get smaller?" Danny changed the topic of conversation.

"No it didn't. You just got larger." Melba laughed. "I swear you kids still think you should see everything from knee high. You keep forgetting that although you don't feel like an adult, you're a damn sight taller than you used to be."

"That is true. For most of us anyway." Danny smirked at Sheryl's reaction to his comment. The critic had not grown an inch since she was a sophomore in high school.

"You're just abnormally tall, even for a guy." She pointed out. Danny stood a little over 6'5" barefoot.

"He's not that tall, I mean he's not like NBA player tall." Nicole defended him. "But I do know someone who may wish he was a bit shorter."

"True." Sheryl laughed. Aaron was barely an inch taller than Nicole.

"I take it this means Danny found a short man?" The housekeeper asked. "Well, don't just nod, tell me about him."

"Well, he's not that short." For once, Danny seemed uncomfortable.

"He's about an inch taller than I am, so I'm guessing he's 5'9" or so." Nicole took over the description for her friend. She was surprised at his change in mood, but decided to question him later. "He is a journalist and works for the county paper."

"He adores our dear friend here, and is absolutely cute himself." Sheryl finished. "Though why Cowboy here isn't bragging on Aaron himself, I have no clue."

"I just, well I'm not sure either. I just didn't know that Nicole's family knew."

"Child, everyone knows about you except for Mrs. Herbert. She just doesn't want to see it because she likes you." Melba pointed out. "Just like all of us know about Nicole, and most are still wondering about Sheryl."

"That's the first time I've ever seen you concerned about being out." Sheryl commented.

"It must be catching. Since Aaron's still mostly in." He shrugged it off. "That took some getting used to."

"I imagine it did. Now, my nephew is mostly out, but he's scared to tell his mama. She knows, but she's waiting on him to tell her." The housekeeper assured him. "Like that's going to happen. Those two will out stubborn themselves to death."

"Now that sounds familiar." Sheryl stopped at a warning look from Nicole.

"Shouldn't we be getting to the hospital?" The photographer gathered her bowl and plate together.

"I'll wash those, you all go on and see what the fuss is about. I'll have dinner ready for you when you get home. It'll be nice to have someone here that appreciates a good meal again."

"Long as it ain't burned." Danny laughed as he stacked his dishes in the sink.

"Go on now, or I'll give you burned." Melba threatened him with the soup ladle.

"Yes ma'am." He backed away but still kept grinning.

"Bye, Melba. Thanks." Nicole waved at the housekeeper as she left. "Well, here it goes."

"Don't worry. We're with you." Sheryl wrapped a supporting arm around the photographer's shoulders as they walked through the house.

"Who me, worry?"

"Uh huh. I'll drive." Danny grabbed the keys to Nicole's car from the table by the door.

"Now I'm worried."

"Me too." Sheryl agreed.


Laurel carefully slid the unusual pendant onto the thin silver chain. The gold clashed horribly with the silver, but the bassist did not care. She latched the chain around her neck and tucked it under her shirt. It was her last tie to the photographer and she did not want to lose it. As it was, it was the gift that had never been given. Every time she had thought to give it to the photographer, something had caused her to delay it. Things might have been different otherwise. However, Laurel could not bring herself to part with the ring. In fact, she had carried the black box it had been packaged in with her since Mardi Gras. She was hoping that it would become her talisman to a certain extent. For the first time in her life, Laurel Ann Kendrick was suffering from stage fright.

"Yo! Lakky! Come on, we're on in a few." BJ hollered from the stage.

"Alright." Laurel waved him off and tossed the little black box into a garbage can. She walked across the stage and took up her bass. It felt strange being on stage without Beth and Charles. They had not even waited to see the sights, but had gotten flights home right after they were fired.

The stage was larger than they were accustomed to at home. Laurel felt the band looked too small with only the four of them. BJ's drum set was behind and in the center, as always in a concert venue. Jenna was in the center with Laurel on stage right and Steve on the left. The bassist thought they looked like amateurs. The older bands were still on the buses or goofing off outside the arena. They had all been here before, but from what the bassist noticed of the headliner, they had forgotten that.

True to his word, Harold rushed the CD into production and scheduled their first tour shortly after their test concert in New York. Already demos were being sent out to the larger radio stations. Their first song was to be released within two weeks of the CD's completion. They had gone from a group of friends that literally practiced in a garage and played gigs for pocket money, to the opening band on a nation wide tour. Laurel understood now how so many musicians used drugs or went crazy. Her head was still spinning from the quickness of it all. After that first test concert, they were literally told to pack, put on a bus and hauled one thousand miles to catch up to the tour. It was almost mind blowing.

Finally, she was given the cue she had been waiting for and was able to start playing. The low, pulsing notes she played worked their way through the large amplifiers and quieted the crowd. The curtains parted and the crowd's cheers were so loud that the bassist almost skipped a note in response. She had never played before so many people. At least, it sounded as if the place was packed. The house lights were off and she could not see into the audience. For a small club, it was twice as large as any venue they played in Hattiesburg.

Steve struck the opening guitar chord and held it for a long count. Then they all started in on the opening number. Laurel held the bass line, blocking out the crowd noise. She was glad they had at least rehearsed as a four-person band. She was forced to count out the song instead of listening to the others. Jenna suddenly went off on some musical tangent. It was what caused them to almost fall apart during their very first song.

"Damn it, listen to the song!" Laurel almost yelled. She did not want to shout, but she definitely wanted to be heard by the rest of the band. "Now, can we play this again the right way?"

"Sorry, folks." Jenna stepped up to the microphone. "The coffee hasn't hit yet. Shall we give it another go?"

Laurel rolled her eyes at the false accent Jenna attempted to use. Shaking her head, the bassist counted off and started the song from the top. She was almost embarrassed, but secretly hoped that Harold would be mad enough to send them home. However, the second time was the charm. Jenna actually listened to her band mates and they were able to make it through the song. The audience actually listened this time. Laurel could see the first five rows from where she was standing. They at least seemed to enjoy the performance.

The rest of the performance went off with out a glitch, much to Laurel's dismay. She had meant only to record the CD as contracted, but had gotten fast-talked into accompanying the band on tour. She was glad her newly acquired lawyer was looking into it for her. Dealing with Jenna and Harold already gave her a massive headache. Actually, so were the crowd noise and the strobe lights. Laurel felt bad for anyone who suffered from seizures. The lights were enough to make her head turn around several times. She was glad she did not eat soup as a general rule, especially green soup.

"Thank you, and keep an eye out for our CD. We're blue gecko." Jenna yelled into the microphone. The audience's applause was lukewarm.

"Well, least that is over." BJ jumped out of the way. A roadie was intent of setting a record for dismantling a drum set. "Can we go back to the hotel now?"

"Nope, we're going for coffee and then we're going to discuss stage presence." Jenna was still hyper.

"Why on earth would we want to do that?" Laurel asked. She wanted nothing more than a bottle of water and a soft, flat space.

"Because you have no stage presence, and we need to work on that." Harold appeared from behind them. "Come on, let's find an open coffee shop."

"Yeah, sure, whatever." Laurel grumbled. She was sorry she quit her day job.

"What luck. There's one right over there." Jenna pointed. She was practically bouncing on her toes.

"Great." BJ groaned. He was massaging his right hand.

"What happened?" Laurel asked as the others bent their heads to the rain and walked across the parking lot to the restaurant.

"A stick broke. I think I have a splinter that tried to pierce my palm." He flexed it experimentally. "Can't see for shit though."

"Well, I'll help you get it out later. Let's catch up before they decide we're paying." Laurel quickened her pace.

"I'm coming." He answered.

Fortunately, the restaurant was not far away. Unfortunately, it was across the highway from the club. Laurel was glad she always wore the same pair of construction boots during a concert. They had great grip even on wet surfaces, and they were heavy enough to keep her from lifting her feet too far off the ground. Other members of the band were not so fortunate. Steve slipped a little, but did not fall as they crossed the road. However, Jenna's stylish tennis shoes did not have a lot of traction.

"God damn it!" Jenna separated the phrase in her frustration.

"Here, let me help." Harold's assistance almost caused him to land beside her. BJ was quick enough to save their manager that embarrassment though.

"Thanks." Harold straightened his suit jacket. "Are you ok?"

"No, I think I busted my knee." Jenna limped to the curb.

"Well, we can check it inside." Steve chivalrously offered his arm but was rebuffed. "Too bad she didn't bust her ass. She would have bounced to safety then." He muttered as she limped out of hearing range.

"Really." Laurel was struggling to keep from laughing. The sight of Jenna sprawled indignantly on the highway would be a happy memory for the bassist. "Let's get this over with."

"And soon. I'm exhausted and I have a wooden stake in my palm." BJ complained as they entered the establishment. Jenna and Harold had already claimed a table in the back.

"Coffee for everyone?" The manager asked as they seated themselves around the table. He was greeted with a chorus of affirmatives. "Very well then, we need to discuss your stage presence or lack thereof." He waved over a waitress and placed the order.

"Are you saying we're too stiff?" Laurel asked.

"In a way, yes I am. Now first off, Lakky, most of this is not meant for you. Believe it or not, you have incredible presence on stage. Matter of fact, I believe more people watched you than the rest of the band. That is as good as it is bad. We want people to watch the entire band, so we need to get Jenna and Steve to move around a bit."

"I move." Jenna protested.

"I know I don't." Steve accepted the criticism.

"Neither of you do. Jenna, you look like a cardboard cut out on stage. If I were just seeing you all for the first time, I would have watched Lakky and no one else. It would appear to me as if she were the real leader of the band. Thank you." He was polite as the waitress sat five cups of coffee on the table. "Since you claim that's not the case, Jenna, I suggest you do something about it. Loosen up a bit. No one likes to watch four people just standing around playing. You'll put the audience to sleep no matter how good your music is. That fake British accent has to go, and please for God's sake, listen to your band mates."

"So you just wanted to humiliate me over coffee in front of them, is that right?" Jenna did not seem to handle the criticism well.

"No, this is to all of you. You are a band. You are one on that stage. Act like it or you won't exist for much longer. You'll fall apart. I've seen it happen too many times to count. You must get the audience in the energy, but first you have to possess that energy. Work on it. If I need to, I will sign you up for aerobics, dance lessons, karate, whatever."

"Oh, I wanna take karate." Laurel was almost eager for that.

"Why do I get the feeling teaching you a better way to hit people would be bad?" Jenna commented.

"I haven't hit you. Yet."

"Ladies, please. Do not turn on one another. Remember it takes the four of you to make this work. Now, I'm going to ask for general comments. You all tell me what you think was good and what was bad about this concert. We'll see what we need to improve and what needs to be tossed." Harold downed his coffee. "Get comfortable. We're going to be here for a while."

"That explains the coffee." Steve commented mildly.

"That it does. Now, who goes first?" No one said a word. "We're not leaving here until this has been discussed."

"Alright. I'll go." BJ sounded resigned to the situation.

One by one they each highlighted the good parts and the bad points from their different perspectives. Harold wrote each suggestion down on a notepad he always seemed to carry with him. It took them five cups of coffee and ten pages of notes before he seemed satisfied with their participation. By the time they made it back to the bus, everyone else had gone. The concert was over and everyone was back at the hotel. Laurel could not wait to join them, though she knew it would be sometime before the coffee let her sleep. That was what the laptop was for since Harold had confiscated the water pistols.


The waiting room was sparsely populated. In the week since she returned to New Orleans, Nicole had talked to most of the people there. Two were elderly women waiting for news of their brother's condition, one was an old man slowly watching his wife die, and another was a young woman too scared and too young to be widowed. She empathized with them all. Every time a doctor appeared, they all cringed. So far, she had seen the after effects of one death, and it looked as if she would see at least one more before her grandmother was released.

Adia was placed in the ICU because of her age. At least, that is what the doctors kept telling the family and their reluctant patient. Nicole, however, knew the truth. The cancer was spread too far to contain. She had to bully the doctor, but he finally broke down and told her the truth. So far, the only person she had told was her Aunt Kay. Together, they decided to keep the truth from Adia. It would only weaken the old woman's resolve and speed up the process.

"Why don't you go home and let Melba feed you?" Kay asked as she returned from the cafeteria.

"Why? I'll just sit there and wonder. Might as well do it here where at least I can do something."

"Something? Honey, all you've done here is wear a track in the floor from your pacing. You could return to Hattiesburg you know."

"I know, but I'm not going to. Mozart's here. There's nothing else for me there now." Nicole took the cup her aunt offered. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. You should at least go back and pick up clothes, check your mail and messages, get out of the hospital." Kay suggested.

"I was going to call Sheryl and have her do all that for me. I've decided to move back into the house to help out. Grandma wants to come home, and I want to be there when they let her." She took a sip of the pale brown liquid. "I hate hospital coffee."

"Don't we all?" Kay gave her niece a half smile. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Yes I am. I'll call the phone company and get the phone disconnected. I'll get one of those things from the post office and have the mail forwarded here; Sheryl can pack some stuff and get everything else turned off for me. We've already planned for that if it came to it, and it looks as if it's coming to it."

"This isn't something your grandmother talked you into is it?"

"No, I haven't mentioned it to her yet. She apologized, well in her way she did, for what happened between us, and we've both kinda put it past us. She doesn't have enough time left for that to bog either of us down. I'm moving back here because I want to." She did not mention that she really did not have anything tying her to Hattiesburg since Laurel went to New York. "I need to be here for this." Something in her told her it was the right thing to do. For once, she was following that inner voice.

"Alright, at least go make all the calls you need to. Oh, I heard that the paper is looking for part timers and freelance photographers. One of the local magazines is too. You may want to look into that if you plan on staying."

"Thanks, Aunt Kay. I guess I will go back to the house, though I won't be able to reach Sheryl until tonight. She's supposed to come down this weekend. I'll have her bring my portfolio too." Since Nicole no longer worked at the paper, the critic had her weekends free again. The photographer knew that Sheryl planned on spending every one in New Orleans while Nicole stayed there. It was another sign of how strong their friendship was, for Nicole would do the same for her friend if the situation were reversed.

"Get some rest before we're visiting you in here, ok?"

"Ok. I'll see you later." With reluctance, she turned and walked back down the hall to the elevators. "At least I don't have to donate blood this time." She muttered as she waited on the elevator to reach her floor. The first and only time she donated blood, she almost passed out. It was not a pleasant experience. Stan had the same reaction, but his was from anemia. Jay, Phil and Laurel had forced her to see a doctor to make sure she was not anemic as well. She was not; her body just reacted badly to having blood removed.

The University Medical Center was farther away from the house than it was the Warehouse, but Nicole did not mind the drive. She liked driving down St. Charles and seeing the old trees lining the road. The part she did hate was the roundabout, especially when a streetcar was in motion. She was grateful it was mid afternoon. It was too early for rush hour and too late for lunchtime traffic so there were barely any cars on the road.

She eased the car onto the old driveway and pulled up as far as she dared. The garage was slightly off to the side and she did not want to block it. That of course was from years of habit and not necessity. Inside the garage were three cars and none of them were driven any longer. After her grandfather died, her grandmother hired a car and driver. One thing Adia could not do was drive. She had never gotten her license. Nicole always wondered about that, but never asked to find out the reasoning behind it.

"Nicole is that you?" Melba called out when she opened the door.

"Yes ma'am." Nicole tossed her keys on the table beside the door. She still used the front door despite living at the house again. The rest of the family used the side door or the kitchen door.

"Well, come on back here and get something to eat. I know you didn't eat anything at the cafeteria at the hospital."

"No ma'am. I didn't." She followed the housekeeper's voice to the kitchen.

"Well, this isn't soup from a can, but I think you'll like it." Melba sat a plate of leftover roast and potatoes in front of her. "You would have liked it last night, but you didn't eat with us. You didn't eat at all did you?"

"Yeah, I grabbed something." Nicole wilted under the housekeeper's stern stare. "No, I didn't."

"Nicky, what's wrong? You've been moping around here when you haven't been at that hospital. Something is up with you, wanna talk about it?"

"Not really. Matter of fact, I'm sick of thinking about it." She was. The day before she had caught herself surfing the net looking for any information on blue gecko instead of checking her email.

"So when are you going back home?" The housekeeper joined her at the table with two glasses of ice tea.

"I am home. I'm moving back here to help out."

"Really? What brought this on?"

"I don't know. It just seems like I ought to you know?" She could not describe the emotional pull New Orleans had over her. Though she was emotionally bruised and battered and wanted something stable and familiar around her, Nicole knew that there was so much more to it. She had not yet figured out why, but she knew this was the place she was supposed to be.

"Yeah I know. I knew that the moment my husband decided we were moving down here from Lake Charles, but when I'm hurting, like I was when I lost him, I want family around me. Is that why?"

"There's more to it than that, but I'm not sure what it is. It's weird and I can't describe it, but it feels right to be here." Nicole cut into the roast with her fork. She was envious of Melba's talent with roast. She never could get it that tender. "This is good."

"It was better last night. You make sure you eat all of that. We don't need you to get yourself sick over some girl."

"Laurel isn't just some girl though." Even the bassist's name caused her pain. She chocked down another piece of roast. "Got any ketchup?"

"Good lord girl, must you put that stuff on everything?" The housekeeper grumbled as she got up to get the bottle of ketchup from the refrigerator.

"I don't put it on everything." Nicole protested. "I was going to use it for the potatoes. Potatoes require ketchup. It's a rule."

"Uh huh. So, she wasn't just some girl. True love?" Melba handed her the bottle and reclaimed her seat. "I guess it had to be for you to defy your grandmother like you did. Honey, I went through several men before I settled on my husband. It may sound trite, but there are other people out there. Ya'll aren't together anymore. Give it your grief and then get over it. You have to move on before you're able to meet other people."

"I know." The photographer knew it was not that simple, but she did not want to argue with the housekeeper. Melba was right to a certain extent, but Nicole knew what was wrong about that statement. There was no one else like Laurel. There never would be again.

"Now finish up your lunch. We're having catfish for dinner, and you will eat that too."

"I would if I ate catfish. It tastes like sand."

"Tut. I'll see what else I've got in there." Melba pointed to the refrigerator. "I almost forgot you were a picky eater."

"I'm not a picky eater. I just don't eat what I don't like."

"Or you cover it up so you can't taste it." She stretched as she stood. "Go on now and eat. I have a few things I have to do before I start dinner. What do you have planned?"

"I have a few phone calls to make, but other than that, nothing really." Nicole laughed softly as Melba grimaced at the ketchup covered potato. "Do what you need to do. I'll entertain myself unless you need help."

"Nope, I don't need any help. You just make yourself at home." The housekeeper called out as she disappeared down the hall.

"I'll try. I really will try." She told herself softly. Now that Melba was out of the room, she was free to dip her roast into the ketchup. It added to the flavor.

Part 14

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