"You have a message. The nurse took this while I was vacuuming." Melba pushed the paper toward her.

"Ok." Nicole read it. "Oh shit."

"What's up?" Stan asked. "Oh shit." He swore as Nicole handed him the message to read.

"Quit cursing and tell me what it says." Melba told them.

"Our beloved great Aunt Louise is coming for a visit." Nicole sat down on a chair at the table. "Worse is her daughter, the lovely and not so talented Gertrude, is bringing her here. They want to stay at the house for a while. They'll be here." She took the note back from Stan. "In an hour."

"Dear Lord." The housekeeper exclaimed. "I need to double check everything. I don't have a uniform or anything."

"Chill, Melba, chill." Nicole interrupted the housekeeper's panic attack. "Don't worry about a uniform or making this house more spotless. I don't care if you sit in the middle of the forayer wearing cut offs, a tank top and eating a corn dog. This is not their house, and we're not responsible for meeting their perspectives of what life is supposed to be like."

"That's a dangerous attitude, Nicole." Melba told her.

"This is my grandmother's house, not Louise's. We run things according to Adia's desires. If my aunt has a problem with it, she can take Prozac and get over it."

"I like that attitude." Stan cheered.

"You might want to call your mom." She advised her cousin. "Tell her to come over as soon as possible. I'll use the phone in the study and page Phil."

"What are we going to do about that?" Stan asked. Their great aunt did not know the true nature of Jay and Phil's relationship.

"That's up to Jay and Phil. I personally don't care if the old biddy finds out. She's horrible enough already. She'd just be glad to get one more thing to bitch about." Nicole rubbed her temples. "Melba, can I please have a glass of tea and some Tylenol?"

"Of course, dear, here." The housekeeper handed her a bottle of Tylenol. A glass of tea soon joined it.

"Thank you. I'll go page Phil." She took the tea with her.

"Mom will be here in a few minutes. She's glad you took a stance to keep things normal, but she doesn't think it's going to be a pleasant visit." Stan told her when she reentered the kitchen.

"It never is."

"Not with that one." Melba agreed. "I hate to speak ill of someone else's family, but Ms. Louise is not a pleasant person. I better start lunch. What were you two doing up so early anyway?"

"We went Christmas shopping." Nicole explained.

"I wanted help getting something for mom, and we decide to beat the crowds by going this morning." Stan told her. "I like having all my shopping done before Thanksgiving. We always get swamped at the store the day after turkey. Oh, one of the portraits you took has received an offer, Nicole."

"Yeah?" Her Uncle had claimed a print of the riverboat to display behind his counter. Why he wanted it, she did not know. She knew it was not because Denny was proud of her.

"Seriously. I talked to the guy. I told him I'd have to talk to you first, but he loved it. He wants to buy it." He reached into his wallet. "He gave me his card. I thought if you were interested, I could call him and he could meet us at the store."

"That could be very profitable, Nicole. You can make a good living selling your prints." Melba commented.

"Yeah, I guess." Nicole looked at the card. "He's just a business man, why would he want it?"

"Maybe he thinks you're talented. He went on and on about how well the composition of the shot was." He told them. "Should I call him?"

"I don't know. Did you tell Denny about it?" She thought she understood the reasoning now behind her uncle's request. He wanted to broker her art, bypassing his sister's art gallery.

"Nope. Are you kidding me? Denny wanted the print to sell it and keep the money." Stan confirmed her assumption. "Leave it to me. I'll set things up between the two of you directly. Won't even charge you a fee."

"Thanks, cuz." She smiled. "I might do that. I certainly could use the extra cash to buy gifts with and stuff."

"That's what I'm here for. Besides, you're a great photojournalist, but you rock at artistic shots. You should be able to capitalize on that."

"You really think so?"

"I know I do." Melba agreed. "That picture you took of the Warehouse was your granddaddy's favorite." It still hung in his study.

"Did I beat them here?" Kay asked from the door. "I guess so. No one seems too tense. What's my aunt doing coming down here now anyway?" She asked as she entered.

"That's easy. Her sister's dying and she wants to know who's in the will." Stan voiced Nicole's thoughts.

"Stanley Allen, that's not nice to say. It may be true, but it's not nice." Kay scolded her son. "Nicole, I heard Denney claimed a print of yours. I guess he doesn't want to display it at the gallery?"

"I don't really know what he wants with it." Nicole shrugged. She did not wish to speak ill of her uncle in front of his sister. "Some one did offer to buy it though."

"Are you going to let him sell it?"

"No, Mom. Nicole and I are going to cut Denney out of it entirely. I spoke with the guy who wants a copy. I'm going to set him and Nicky up to meet. If she wants to sell it, she can run him another one." Stan looked at her. "You did run that yourself didn't you?"

"Yes I did. I turned one of the old pantries into a dark room." She explained to her aunt. "I can run several more before I run out of paper and chemicals."

"Good. I was going to wait until after the New Year, but Denney beat me to it. I thought we could have a showing of your work." Kay beamed. "It's so well done. We don't have to sell it; I just want people to look at what my niece has done. Your father would be so proud."

"Thank you." She felt the blush creep its way to her face. "That should be them now. Melba, you go tell grandmother. I guess we'll greet our guest."

There were several words Nicole could think of to describe her great aunt. The one that sprang easiest to her mind was formidable. Crabby, insane, self righteous, and bigoted closely followed it. Relatively speaking, Adia was as tame as a kitten compared to her younger sister. Gertrude was a pale reflection of her mother, but one who was still a force to be reckoned with. Nicole was not looking forward to a lengthy visit. In her mind, lengthy was anywhere over five minutes when it came to Louise and Gertrude.

"So those animals finally let her out of the hospital, did they?" Louise asked as she entered the house. "I hate hospitals. Would have come down to see her if she wouldn't have been in there so long."

"Yes ma'am. Grandmother is in her room." Nicole took in the cigarette in the long holder. "There's no smoking back there, Aunt Louise. Grandmother has oxygen tanks." She had not had a cigarette since her visit to the gynecologist. She really wanted one. "Would you like to see your rooms first?" Nicole wisely had Melba ready the two rooms as far from the photographer's own as possible. It was easy to do in a house that large. Nicole's room was upstairs. Her aunt and cousin would stay downstairs.

"As long as they're not upstairs. I don't know what critters you have loose in your attic, but they kept me up all night the last time I was here." Louise stated.

"No ma'am, they're on the ground floor." Nicole assured her.

"Let me take your jacket, Aunt Louise." Stan's disgust was shown on his face as he helped the old lady take off her velour jacket.

"Melba went to inform Mother of your visit." Kay spoke up. "She'll be out in a moment to show you your rooms and ready lunch."

"That's great. Gertrude and I did not stop for lunch. There's not a decent place to eat between here and home." The three rolled their eyes. They knew that was untrue.

"Mother, shouldn't we sit down? You don't want to tire yourself out." Gertrude finally said something.

"Yes, we can rest in the living room." Nicole thought for a moment. "The parlor would be better, I think." They had not moved the furniture back in the living room. It was still as it was on Halloween night. "Stan and I can see to your luggage."

"Yes. Is it out in the car?" Stan asked. He sounded relieved to be out of their presence. Louise wore too much perfume, and Nicole knew it played havoc with his allergies.

"Yes. Here are my keys." Gertrude handed Stan a large ring filled with keys. "It's the middle one."

"We'll take them to your rooms." Nicole preceded her cousin outside. "Dear god, how are we going to get through this?"

"We? I don't live here, remember?" He searched for the middle key. "It's in the middle. Jesus, there's like seventy keys on here. I feel like a bellboy."

"Yeah, well, at least we're out here." She waited patiently by the trunk. "That cigarette is driving me crazy."

"I can imagine. You're doing well with not smoking, though aren't you?"

"Yep. Went cold turkey the day the doctor told me." She watched as he opened the trunk. "At least we can tell which belongs to whom."

"How do you figure that?"

"Louise's has her initials on it." She pointed at the handle. "Damn. They packed for a really extended stay." The suitcase she grabbed was heavy.

"This one might be lighter." Stan traded suitcases with her. "Yeah, this one is heavier."

"This isn't much lighter." Nicole could barely lift it. She was glad it had wheels. "It's back to the battle front."

"Do we have to go back in?" Stan whined.

"I'm afraid so. Where's Jessie? She should be sunk in misery too." Nicole thought it was more than fair. Stan's sister always seemed to miss the more irritating sides of family life.

"That's what I'd like to know. Guess we'll find out next week."

"What's next week?" Nicole could not remember.


"And those two will be here? Great. This is just great." She wheeled the suitcase to the porch. "I guess it's too late to move back to Hattiesburg?"

"I'm afraid so. Let's go face the mob." Stan opened the door.

"I'm right behind you."


And this is how you remind me of what I really am

It's not like you to say sorry

I was waiting on a different story

Laurel and BJ walked through the deserted hallway. It seemed as if the other residents at the hotel were sleeping. The bassist could not wait to join them. She was exhausted. The band had gone for coffee at Harold's request to discuss their performance. At least it was a good meeting. He seemed pleased with the way they were progressing. Laurel was not the only one moving on stage anymore. Steve finally unglued his feet from the wood and moved. To make the news a bit better, Harold reprimanded Jenna for being the only wooden musician on tour. It was a happy memory she planned on cherishing as she went to sleep.

"Oh my god, there's blue gecko's bassist." The voice sounded familiar. The bassist turned to see a sight she never thought she would behold again. Sharon Jenkins was striding down the hallway in her direction.

"What the fuck do you want?" Laurel's voice was more animal than human. She practically growled the words.

"I was in the area. Thought I'd drop by and say hi." The smile on Sharon's face faltered.

"You said hi. Now leave."

"Now that's not the way you greet an old friend, Laurie." Laurel turned around at the name. She had not been called that in years. Not since the night after the car accident. 

"That's no longer my name and you are not a friend." 

"You should be a little more civil to me. After all, think of all the things I could tell the press." Those were not intelligent words. Laurel once vowed disembowelment on sight if she ever saw Sharon again. She wished she had a sword or some other sharp object. 

"Real smart there, Sharon. Think of all the things I could tell them about you." The bassist gave her evil grin. They were at an impasse. 

"Implicating me would implicate you as well." Sharon twirled a strand of her own blonde locks around a finger. "Shame you had to cut all that wonderful hair off." 

"It was a relief. Now why are you here?" At that moment, Laurel felt older and more tired than she ever had before. 

"I saw the concert tonight. Couldn't pass up the opportunity to talk to you again." 

"Sure you couldn't. I haven't seen you since that night. Why are you here now?" BJ stood staring between the two. "Don't you have anything better to do?" She asked him. 

"I was going to suggest that the two of you take this conversation somewhere a little more private." He seemed to ignore her tone. She was glad. She did not want to take it out on him. 

"That might be a good idea. I've been dreaming of the opportunity to scream at you." She directed her words back to Sharon. The blonde just smirked. "After you." The bassist held the door to her room open. "BJ?" 

"I'll bum around downstairs for a bit." He smiled. "Don't kill her." 

"I won't. I'll meet you downstairs when this is over. I get the feeling I may need a stiff drink." 

"Alright. If you need help, yell for Larry. If I don't see you in an hour I'm coming back ok?" 

"Ok. Thanks, BJ." She watched him walk down the hallway before entering the room. This emotional storm had the strength of years behind it. "Well?" Sharon was calmly sitting on one of the beds. 

"Well what? I knew you were in the band and thought I'd come by and say hi. You've changed a lot, but you still can play." 

"I'm not the same person you tried to kill." 

"That was never proven."  Her voice faltered a little. Laurel wondered if Sharon knew how many times she had lied about that evening. She never told anyone the name of the other person in the car, not even Nicole.

"Excuse me? Never proven? I wasn't that stoned. You grabbed the wheel and ran us off the road. The only thing that kept us both from dying was that I managed to slow the car down some."

"All of that was not my fault." Sharon actually appeared to be contrite.

"Oh yeah? Are you telling me it's my fault? You grabbed the steering wheel as I was driving us home, and that is my fault?" She was indignant.

"Look, we were both hurt and you were knocked out right?"

"I guess so." Laurel struggled to remember the exact details. "I have no idea. I hit my head on the steering wheel. I didn't wake up until the next morning when the State Police were standing above my bed."

"I called my father from some guy's car phone. Somehow he managed to meet us at the accident. All I know is that I went to bed that night at home. I woke up the next morning at Pleasant Oaks."

"He took you to Pleasant Oaks? And somehow you didn't remember to tell him that I was in trouble?" A light went off in her head. Sharon had not deserted her. She had been forced into rehab.

"Laurie, I tried. I really did. He said your parents would take care of it. I didn't know anything until I got out of there. I am so sorry." She seemed on the brink of tears. "My father never told me. I heard about it from a few friends a year later. Dad sent me away to finish school." Sharon was a year younger. "When I came back the next summer, you were already living in Hattiesburg. He threatened to cut me off if I contacted you."

"I was disowned. I managed to make it." Despite her bitterness, she sympathized. Sharon's father was a hard man. At least now she understood why her old friend had pulled a runner. That had hurt more than anything. Laurel had believed, in fact had been told, that Sharon wanted nothing to do with her. It was why she so easily fell for Nicole's ploy. Also, she was almost jealous. Her parents always chose to ignore the problems.

"You had Mandy. Laurie, I didn't have anyone. What else was I to do? I was only seventeen."

"Do you know what all I was charged with? The only reason I got off so light, if you can call it that, is because the judge owed my father. Your father set me up and tried to send me to prison for fifteen years." She started pacing. It was the only way she could think.

"I know. He told me last year."

"Did you tell him you were the reason we ran off the road?" At her nod, she continued. "Why did you do that? That's the only thing I want to know." Slowly, a hole in her heart was healing. It was about time.

"I don't know. I really don't. I've thought about it for a long time. I had nightmares for a few years about it. I've talked to three different therapists. I still can't figure out why I did it."

"I still have nightmares about it." Laurel admitted. Each time the dream changed, but the theme was always the same. Headlights reflecting off a dark road, the squeal of tires on wet pavement, a tree she was unable to avoid, hands gripping hers keeping them on course, and then inky blackness with a shooting pain in her head. Lately, the hands belonged to the photographer. Sharon had long ago disappeared from the nightmare in the same way she had disappeared from the bassist's life.

"If there were anyway to take it back, I would. I did the only thing I could to make it up to you. Here." Sharon reached into her purse and pulled out an envelope.

"What's this?" Laurel's curiosity got the better of her. She opened the flat, brown envelope and pulled out the papers nestled within it. One caught her eye. It was an affidavit signed by both Sharon and her father. It told the true story of what had happened that evening. The second was more important. It was a letter from their Senator. Any and all record of the accident and Laurel's subsequent legal problems had been expunged. It could not change the past, but it would make the future easier. She was no longer in possession of a criminal past. "How did you manage this?"

"I used the emotional strong arm. The Senator owes my father his job. I figured it was time I used the family's connections for good. Your parents were delivered a copy as well. If they read it, they now know exactly what happened."

"Why?" Laurel felt her knees go weak. She sank down onto BJ's bed.

"I should have said something sooner. I should have done this when I found out what happened. I should have at least tried to contact you. I can't change anything about what happened, but at least now it's on record that you didn't attempt to rape me, you didn't attempt to kill me, and you weren't the one in possession of drugs. That was my marijuana."

"That wouldn't have made a difference anyway." Laurel's reason quickly returned. "What did my parents say?"

"I don't know. Daddy talked to them. I made him tell them the whole story."

"I doubt they believed him." Her parents had been more upset over the publicity than anything. "I was lucky I got off as light as I did."

"I know. I talked to Judge Spencer. He said he disallowed half of the evidence because he knew my father. He also knew where I was since his wife works out there. He wanted to throw it all out, but he couldn't because we were stoned, intoxicated, and you did have that stuff in your trunk. What was it again?"

"I don't even remember. Some sort of alcohol we had stolen from somewhere."

"I know I have no right to ask this, but can we at least become friends again?" Sharon looked hopeful. "I really do miss you, Laurie."

"This is going to sound horrible, but I can't. We have too much wrong between us." The words hurt, but it was a good pain. It was the healing pain of a soul becoming whole again. "I wish things could have been different, but I can't go back to that life. I haven't seen my parents since I was released. I haven't talked to my parents since I was released from parole. I've left the Coast, I have a life I've created, and somewhere out there I have someone who holds my heart in her hands."

"Have you met this person or are you still looking?" Sharon asked.

"I've met her. We're temporarily broken up."

"How can you be temporarily broken up?" She laughed.

"Easily. We had some problems that tore us apart. I believed that love could handle it all, Nicole didn't believe in us as strongly as she should have. I never did tell her everything about my legal troubles. Oh I told her about the accident, how I spent six months in prison, and how I was on parole for almost two years, but I never told her about your involvement. And I didn't tell her all of that until after she found out about it. She's a photojournalist." Laurel explained. She glanced at the clock. "Look, I thank you for this. It helps a lot. Just seeing you and finding out why what happened, happened helps. But I can't take the time to keep in contact with you now. It's healing, but it's not healed yet."

"I guess that's more than I deserve. This talk is more than I expected anyway. I had visions of being beaten to death with your bass." Sharon's laugh was rueful.

"Nah, I wouldn't beat you to death with the bass. It might hurt the bass." Laurel smiled for the first time since Sharon appeared.

"Some things have not changed. I'll see you around, maybe. Take good care of yourself, Laurie." Sharon walked to the door. She looked as if she wanted to hug the bassist, but Laurel shook her head. She did not feel strong enough.

"Take it easy, Shar." She waited until she could not hear footsteps in the hallway. She was running out of time. BJ would be getting antsy if she did not join him soon.

Laurel made sure she had her wallet. She wanted something to drink, but not necessarily an alcoholic beverage. The lounge was still open. With that thought in mind, she made her way downstairs. She felt relieved but stressed. More than anything, she wanted to talk to Nicole. She felt ready to relive the entire time, but only in her lover's arms.

"There you are. I was just about to come up and see if you were ok." BJ met her at the elevator. "You alright?"

"I will be."

"Want to talk about it over a beer?"

"Yeah. We can do that." Laurel followed him to the lounge. It was dark and filled with smoke. It was just the way she liked it.

"So, who was that?" He asked as he sat down at a small table. "Two light beers please." The waitress was too busy for conversation.

"The first girl I ever loved." She lit a cigarette. "She was in the car the night this happened." She pulled her bangs back knowing he could see the scar even in the dim light.

"I take it she didn't get into trouble?"

"Nope. Her daddy fixed it so I would swing and she would walk. The cops never even knew she had been in the car. However." She stopped for a long drink of beer. "She pulled some strings and had my record expunged. According to the United States legal system, I've never been in trouble with the law."

"There's something I never understood. How did you only get six months then parole?"

"Well, I wasn't in prison, prison during those six months. I was in a halfway house/rehab center. The parole was called probation, but you knew that. I only got off so light because my lawyer played up the first time scenario, and the judge accepted the plea. My loving parents paid for it all. Unfortunately, they couldn't get me off completely. It also kept me from enrolling in college on time."

"Yeah, but you made up for it. I think you took at least one class every summer. Change of subject?" He looked. Apparently he was as tired of the subject as she was.

"Yeah. The past is the past. Let's leave it there and move on. You know me, I like to live in the present." She grinned. That was true as well. It was the reason she never told Nicole all of her past history. "That chick over there is checking you out."

"Which one?"

"The one over there in the light green dress. I think I'll go back upstairs and let you work your mojo. Later." She snubbed out her cigarette as she stood to leave. "Have a good night."

"Thanks, Lakky."

"Night, big man." As she left, she looked back. The woman in the green dress was walking over to his table. The room would be hers tonight. Well, Muggster's too.


Nicole sighed, counted to ten, took a deep breath and recited what she could remember of Hamlet's soliloquy. Nothing seemed to help. Her great aunt's voice buzzed through her brain like a dying fly at a window. She, of course, was constantly reminded to call her aunt too, every time Nicole forgot the honorific title, Gertrude would scold her. The only people Nicole consistently called aunt and uncle were Denney and his wife. The rest of her more immediate family relaxed those titles.

"As I was saying, dear, you really should get everything appraised. I'm sure Denney would be able to do that for you." Louise's voice finally shattered Nicole's resolve to block it out.

"I don't think we need to be concerned about that yet. Grandmother still lives." She counted to ten in French. It did not help either.

"Yes, I know, but there are certain things Adia has promised others who would want to know what they're worth." A cigarette was stuffed into the long holder.

"I would appreciate it if you did not smoke in the kitchen. Grandmother's food is prepared here, and she does not want to taste smoke in her food. I also think that when the time comes, people should be grateful they were left anything at all." Nicole stood. "You may smoke in the parlor, but nowhere else in this house."

"That's rather rude. It's also rather presumptuous." Gertrude jumped at the chance to belittle the photographer.

"I really don't see how it is. I live here, you don't."

"You know, I've been meaning to ask you about that. It can't have been your grandmother's failing health that returned you to New Orleans. Did you finally fail in Hattiesburg?" Gertrude asked. She had always been jealous of the Herbert grandchildren. Her children were not as educated, successful or talented.

"No, I did not. I came home to help." Nicole clasped her shaking hands on the back of the chair. She really wanted to place them around Gertrude's throat.

"That's not what we heard, was it dear?" Louise patted her daughter's hand.

"No, Mother. We were told it was because of your girlfriend. Sherrie or whatever her name is." Gertrude looked smug. Nicole would have bet Denney supplied them with that incorrect information.

"Actually, my name is Sheryl, and Nicky and I are doing fine, aren't we honey?" Sheryl chose the right moment to make her entrance. Nicole had not even heard her come in the house.

"Yes we are, sweetie." Struggling to keep a straight face, Nicole wrapped her arms around her old friend. "I didn't hear you get back. How was work?"

"Oh, it was the same. I hate not being there with you." The critic poured it on a bit thick. She once won an award for melodramatics in high school.

"Well, maybe soon you'll be down here for good." Nicole fought the urge to laugh. She decided to give her relatives a real shock. She pulled the critic in for a nice stage kiss. It looked real from a distance.

"In your grandmother's house. Nicole Herbert, you should be ashamed of yourself." Louise yelled. Her daughter looked as if she were about to swallow her tongue.

"Oh, I'm sorry." Nicole did not sound apologetic. "Sheryl, this is my Aunt Louise and her daughter Gertrude. Aunt Louise, Gert, this is Sheryl. I believe you have met before, but the circumstances were a bit different then."

"I'll say they were." Gertrude finally regained her voice.

"I'm so pleased to met you again. Did Nicky tell you she just sold a print for three hundred dollars? I'm so proud of my little love muffin." Miraculously, Sheryl managed to keep the laughter from her voice. Nicole could tell by the way her friend's eyes crinkled the critic really wanted to laugh.

"No, dear heart, I haven't told them yet." She smirked. "I'm glad you're home."

"Are you two at it again?" Melba asked as she entered. Nicole had seen the housekeeper's shadow by the door and wondered when she would make an appearance. Melba disliked the pair as much as the photographer did. "Won't you at least go somewhere private?"

"I'm sorry, Melba, were we upsetting you?" Nicole asked sweetly.

"You were just making me miss my husband, that's all." The housekeeper turned to Louis and Gertrude. "Is there something I can get for you ladies?"

"Bourbon." Louise demanded. "No ice."

"Yes ma'am. And you Miss Gertrude?"

"A mint julep, if you have any ready made." Gertrude answered.

"I don't usually keep them made, but I'll make one just for you. Nicole, Sheryl?"

"Ice tea for me, but I'll get it." Sheryl answered. "Sweetie?"

"The same please." Nicole sat back down. This encounter was about to get more interesting. She wondered how far she could push her great aunt before Louise ended her visit. Stan was helping the plan, but he was at work. Sheryl's impromptu routine would definitely speed things up.

"Nicky tells me you're staying for a while?" Sheryl sat a glass of tea in front of the photographer. "It must be so nice to be able to visit an ill loved one. I know I would be at my sister's side all the time if she needed me."

"Well, we haven't planned on the length of our visit. With these things, one can never tell." Louise answered.

"Yes, we do have our own families and Thanksgiving is in four days." Gertrude set up the excuse.

"Yes, we really should think about getting back soon. We don't want to impose, and we always have a large feast at my house on Thanksgiving." Louise took the thread of the conversation back. She looked grateful for her daughter's cue.

"Yes, we know how that is. We're having a rather large one this year as well. I believe all my cousins will be here, Jay and Phil, Kay and Robert, Denney and his family. It will be nice to have the whole family here." Nicole answered.

"Oh, Melba, this tea is wonderful." Sheryl complimented.

"Why thank you, Sheryl." The housekeeper beamed. Adia's sister and niece had not complimented her once during their visit.

"Shouldn't you refer to her as 'Miss'?" Louise asked.

"I shouldn't think so." Nicole answered for the housekeeper. "She's changed both our diapers. That's creates a rather unique relationship."

"Yes, but a servant should always be polite." Louise advised.

"So should guests. I'm sure Emily Post would ban critiquing someone else's housekeeper. Melba is a friend as well as a paid employee. She is not considered by anyone in this household, including my grandmother, as a servant." Nicole stood. "Sweetie, would you like to tell me all about your day in private?"

"I've been waiting for you to suggest that." Sheryl wagged her eyebrows. "Excuse us ladies, but absence does make the lust grow stronger."

"We'll see you for dinner." Nicole told them as she took Sheryl's hand and led the critic out of the room.

"Oh god that was great." As soon as the door to Nicole's room was firmly closed, they collapsed against it.

"When did you get here?" The photographer asked.

"I was standing in the hall for most of the conversation. I remembered how ornery those two are and wanted to stage a grand entrance." Sheryl wiped tears from her eyes.

"You couldn't have planned it better." Nicole caught her breath. "If grandmother weren't ill, we would be in so much trouble."

"No, trouble will be this." The critic banged Nicole's headboard against the wall and let out a loud, low moan. "That's trouble." She added when they heard a glass break down stairs. Nicole's room was right above the kitchen.

"We're so evil. You're so evil."

"Thank you. It's a gift." Sheryl bowed. "I didn't see you try to stop me though."

"You think I'd stop you when you're on a roll?" Nicole asked. "Please. I know better."

"Aren't you glad I insisted we take that acting class in high school?"

"Very. I'm surprised I didn't blow it by laughing." She collapsed on her bed. "Why is it I can't stand half the people I'm related to?"

"My little brother used to say that you can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your family. He was five." She added in explanation. "I don't think anyone likes most of their family. Blood binds families. Hearts bind friends."

"That's true. The family members I like are also friends." She nodded to herself. "It makes sense."

"So did you talk to Danny?"

"Yes. He's supposed to be here tomorrow. We're meeting them at the Warehouse tomorrow night after he tells his mother the good news."

"I can't think of two better grandparents." Sheryl commented. Danny's parents considered Nicole and Sheryl as their own children.

"Me either. You know, the words were barely out of my mouth before he volunteered for the job. He said it would make his mother happy and he'd feel honored. He also offered service in case I ever want another. Aaron did too."

"That was sweet of them. Then again, they are very special people."

"That they are. By the way, speaking of sweet, where did the phrase 'love muffin' come from?" She sat up and looked at her friend.

"It just seemed too sickening not to use." The critic laughed. "I thought you were going to lose it then. You should have seen your face."

"I can imagine. I just wish we had their reaction on video. Seeing Gertrude almost swallow her tongue was priceless." Nicole laughed again.

"That it was. How long do you think we should stay up here?"

"Hours. We should jog in place or something before we go back down there."

"How about a nice hot shower instead?"

"That'll work too. I'll let you go first."

"You're too kind. How's a nap sound?" Sheryl yawned.


"Good. Wake me when it's over."

"Ok. Night." Being evil felt wonderful Nicole decided, as she got comfortable. It really felt wonderful.

To Be Continued

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