By Carrie Carr
Disclaimers: This story is a work of fiction. The title, characters, and locations all belong to me. None of the towns used actually exist, although I did “borrow” pieces of real towns to make my own <g>. If the thought of two women loving each other gets your knickers in a twist, go find something else. Bits and pieces of this one have been kicking around on my hard drive for a couple of years – I’m hoping you’ll like it. Let me know, one way or the other at firstname.lastname@example.org . I’m also posting chapters on my chat list. Check out my website at www.CarrieLCarr.com for details. I’d like to dedicate this story to the one person who completes me – Jan, you are my heart and soul. Forever and always, my love.
Thanks to the wonderful folks at the Royal Academy of Bards, for hosting my stories, and for giving us all a great place to sit back and relax. You ladies are the best!
Betsy limped slowly to the front door of the gym. Her back had stiffened up overnight, and she was beginning to think she’d done more damage to it than she realized. The insistent knocking hadn’t awakened her, as she always came downstairs early. But she didn’t open up until eight, and some moron was banging on her door at six forty-five in the morning. “All right, hold your horses. I’m coming.” The familiar silhouette caused her to shake her head. She unlocked the door and swung it open. “Why are you beating on the front door? Where’s your key?”
Sam came inside, a bundle of clothes tucked beneath her arm. “I’m sorry, Betsy. I left my key on my nightstand. I slept in my car, but I’ve really got to take a shower.”
“At this time of morning? What did you do, fall in a pile of dog crap? You don’t smell bad to me.” Betsy trailed Sam to the showers. She was surprised when the younger woman began to strip off her shirt. “No, I don’t think that’s it. Do you have a hot date or something?”
“No,” came the indignant answer, muffled by the tee shirt Sam was trying to remove. Her face appeared after the material came off her head. “Not exactly.”
Betsy leaned against the doorway and crossed her arms. “Do tell.” She became amused when Sam’s face sported a dark blush. “Who’s the lucky girl?”
Sam covered her breasts with her arms. “Betsy! I’m trying to get undressed, here.”
“I can see. Nice abs, kiddo.”
“Hey!” Sam quickly turned her back. “Do you mind?”
“Not a bit.” After laughing at her friend, Betsy decided she’d tortured Sam enough. “I’ll go for now. But you’re going to tell me what’s going on before you leave.” She shuffled toward the kitchen to get a cup of coffee.
Ten minutes later, Sam came out of the locker room, her wet hair slicked back against her skull. The usual tank top she wore was covered by an unbuttoned red shirt. Her feet were still bare, but she carried her boots in one hand, while her dirty clothes hung loosely in the other. She dropped the boots, with the roll of clean socks tucked neatly inside, by the small table where Betsy sat. “Sorry I was so grumpy.”
Betsy waved her off. “Don’t apologize. I shouldn’t have been giving you such a hard time.” She studied Sam’s attire. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you wear a real shirt before. You clean up real good.”
“Thanks, I think.” Sam pulled out the other chair and began to put on her boots. “I am meeting someone for breakfast, but it’s not really a date.” She crossed one leg over the other and propped her foot on her knee, making quick work of the laces. “She’s only a friend.”
“Uh-huh. And you got all gussied up for this friend? Heaven help us if you went out on a real date. You’d probably show up in a tuxedo.” Betsy laughed at the look on Sam’s face. “Simmer down. The closest place to rent one is about thirty miles away. You don’t have time.”
Sam chuckled. “I don’t think this town is ready for a woman in a tux.” She tied her other boot and stood. “Do I really look okay?”
Betsy pretended to look her over carefully. She tsked a couple of times and shook her head.
“What?” Sam looked at her crotch. “Is my fly open?” She checked the zipper, which was still closed. Betsy’s laughter made her realize she was being teased. “That’s not nice.”
“I couldn’t resist. You’re too uptight for someone who’s not going out on a date.” Betsy struggled to her feet, groaning at the pressure on her lower back. “Could you do me a favor?”
Sam finished buttoning her shirt and tucked it in. “Of course. What?”
“Come back by after your not-date. I want to talk to you about something.” She brushed an imaginary speck of lint from Sam’s shoulder before handing her the keys. “Lock up when you leave, and let yourself back in. I’m going to lie down in the office for a while.” She lightly tapped Sam’s cheek. “Don’t stress over this, Sam. Any girl would be lucky to share a meal with you.”
“Thanks. Do you need any help getting settled?”
“Nope. But you’ve got to come back and give me all the juicy details. I don’t have much of a social life anymore, so I’ll live vicariously through you. Now hurry up. You don’t want to leave your ‘friend’ wondering where you’re at.”
Janie stared at the café entrance and checked her watch again. It was only seven-twenty, a minute longer than it was the previous time she looked. She kept wondering if she was doing the right thing. Her mind didn’t allow her a moment’s peace the entire night, and she wasn’t certain how she’d make it through the work day on no sleep. Now that it was getting closer to that time, her stomach began doing flips. She was about to get up and leave when the bell over the door jingled.
Sam stepped inside the restaurant, standing still for a moment while she searched the room. When she spotted Janie, she smiled and made her way to the table. “I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”
“No, I just got here,” Janie lied.
“Great.” Sam studied the menu. “Do you have any suggestions?” At Janie’s silence, she looked up. “Janie?”
Janie blinked and shook her head slightly. “I’m sorry. It’s that I’ve never seen you dressed before.”
“What?” Sam dropped the menu.
“I mean, wearing a shirt.” Janie closed her eyes and blushed. “What I meant to say was, every time I’ve been around you, you’re wearing either a tee shirt or a tank top. But you look really nice today.”
“Thanks.” Sam picked up the folded paper and started reading again. She felt a slight thrill at Janie’s words.
Sam raised her eyes. “Huh?”
Janie wanted to crawl under the table. Every time she opened her mouth, she kept saying something stupid. “One of the best things on the menu is the sunrise skillet.” She pointed to a particular spot on the menu.
After reading the description, Sam smiled and waved to the waitress, who had been standing nearby. She placed her order after Janie and sipped her coffee. “Thanks for inviting me this morning.”
“You’re welcome.” Janie raised her glass of iced tea in salute. “Thank you for being so nice to me, even when I didn’t deserve it.”
They made small talk until their meals arrived. After they’d been eating for a while, Janie pointed her fork in Sam’s direction. “I saw you in here yesterday.”
“Yeah?” Sam swallowed another mouthful and wiped her face with her napkin. “Why didn’t you say hello?”
“You were with someone. I didn’t want to intrude.”
Sam had to stop and think for a moment. “You mean Betsy? She wouldn’t have minded.”
“Well, I wasn’t sure.” Janie pushed her food around her plate with her fork. “I didn’t know how things like that worked.”
Janie lowered her voice. “Your things. You know.” She leaned over the table and whispered, “Lesbian stuff.”
Sam didn’t know whether to be offended or amused. But Janie seemed so serious, she decided to keep things simple. “Actually, we’re only friends. She’s not my type.”
“You have a type?” Janie was truly confused. “I thought every woman was your type.”
“Uh, no. Not by a long shot.”
“Is it because she’s so much older? Don’t you like older women? I heard once that all you people do is have sex all the time. Does it really matter what someone looks like?”
The conversation was quickly deteriorating. Sam tossed her napkin over her plate, even though she wasn’t finished. “Why the sudden interest in my love life?” she snapped. “Just because I’m gay, it doesn’t mean I’m some sort of sex maniac. I’m no different from you.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“Look. I have feelings, like you. I want to find someone to settle down and spend the rest of my life with. Just because that someone is a woman, it doesn’t make it any less real.” Sam stood and dug her wallet from her back pocket. She took out several bills and tossed them on the table. “Thanks, anyway. I’ve lost my appetite.”
Janie sat completely still, shocked at the turn of events. She realized most of the people in the room were staring at her. With as much dignity as she could muster, she took more cash from her purse and placed it next to Sam’s. She tucked her bag beneath her arm and left the restaurant, ashamed of ruining the morning with her questions.
For her part, Sam stomped down the sidewalk, struggling to unbutton the shirt while she walked. At the door of the gym, she gave up and tugged it over her head and threw it to the ground. “Stupid piece of shit.” She had to try several times to unlock the door because she was so angry that her hand was shaking. “Goddamn it!”
“Sam? Is that you?” Betsy called from the office.
“Yeah.” Sam followed her voice and was soon standing in the doorway.
Betsy tried to sit up. “What happened?” Her back spasmed and she rested her head on the sofa once more.
Sam hurried into the room and knelt beside the couch. She gently placed her hand on Betsy’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about me. Everything’s fine.” The pain on her friend’s face helped her remember what was important. “I think we should get you to the doctor.”
“As much as I hate to agree with you, I believe you’re right.” Betsy gestured to the desk. “My phone book is in the top drawer. Would you bring it to me, along with my cordless phone?”
The nurse at the doctor’s office was helpful, and before she hung up, Betsy had a nine o’clock appointment. She struggled to a sitting position on the couch. “Thank god it’s not far. I don’t think I can handle driving for long.”
“You won’t have to worry about it. I’ll be glad to take you. Let me get my car. I had to park a block away, but it won’t take me long.”
“You’ll do no such thing. I have a perfectly good car out back, if you don’t mind driving it.”
Sam hadn’t known Betsy for very long, but she knew better than to argue with her. “If you don’t mind me driving it, then sure.”
Betsy allowed Sam to help her to her feet. “Let’s go through the back, it’s closer.”
“No problem.” Sam jogged to the front of the gym and locked the door. She hurried back and assisted Betsy to her car.
There were only two other people in the doctor’s office when they arrived. Sam helped Betsy to a chair before going to the counter to sign her in. She was handed a clipboard which she dutifully took to her friend.
“Good god! Am I supposed to fill out that crap out again? I did that the last time I was here.”
Sam sat next to her. “She said you weren’t in the system. How long has it been?”
Betsy considered the question. “Let’s see. This is August, isn’t it?”
“I think it was nineteen ninety-two.” Betsy sighed as she began to fill out the paperwork. “I don’t know why they can’t look for my file in the back.” She finished and had Sam take the board to the desk. “Now that I’m done, you’re going to tell me how your breakfast went this morning. I wasn’t expecting you back for quite a while.”
Sam stretched her legs out in front of her and crossed them at the ankle. “Not much to say. We ate, then I left.”
“What happened to that nice shirt you had on?”
“I took it off. It wasn’t very comfortable.”
Betsy eyed her carefully. “Uh-huh. Exactly what happened to put your panties in a wad?”
Sam stared at her feet, noticing for the first time how old and scuffed her boots were. “She basically called me a pervert, so I didn’t see any reason to stick around.”
“Well, not in those exact words, no. But that’s what she meant.” Sam crossed her arms over her chest and sighed. “Breakfast was her idea, not mine. I swear I wasn’t coming on to her, or anything.”
Betsy patted her leg. “I’m sure you weren’t, hon. But tell me what she did say. Maybe you misunderstood.”
“It started out okay. Although she thought you were my girlfriend.” Sam laughed at the look on Betsy’s face. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing. I figured you had better taste in women than some old broad like me.” She tapped Sam’s leg again. “Go on.”
Sam sighed. “When I said you weren’t my type, she asked me why. Seems she thinks that all lesbians are sex fiends, who’ll sleep with anyone and everyone.”
Betsy’s laugh caused the other people in the room to look their way. “Boy, does she have the wrong number! You’re the biggest prude I’ve ever met.” She leaned closer and lowered her voice. “I bet you turn out the lights before getting busy.”
“Betsy!” Sam covered her face with her hands. “I can’t believe you said that.”
“It’s true, isn’t it?” Betsy didn’t wait for an answer. “Seriously, I think the gal is misinformed. If she’s lived here for long, she probably hasn’t ever even seen someone who’s gay, much less interacted with them. Did she explain what she meant?”
Sam’s mumble was indecipherable.
“You did give her a chance to explain, didn’t you?” When Sam ducked her head, Betsy slapped her leg. “Shame on you! That poor little thing was probably mortified when you stormed out. You need to call her and apologize.”
“I don’t have her number.”
“That’s no excuse.”
Sam tried to change the subject. “You said earlier you wanted to talk to me about something. I’m hoping it wasn’t my dating habits.”
“No, not that. Although I’m sure I could give you a few tips.” Betsy shifted slightly to get more comfortable. Her lower back felt like it was on fire. “I have a proposition for you, if you’re interested.”
“Okay. What is it?”
“First, I’d like to know if you’re going to stay around for a while. You told me when we first met that you liked to travel. I realize you’ll have to be here long enough to pay for that old heap of Margaret Dempsey’s, but I mean, after that. ”
“I don’t know.” She’d thought about staying, but the argument with Janie had shaken her. Although, the constant moving from place to place was beginning to wear on her. “Piperton isn’t such a bad place.”
Betsy nodded knowingly. “That’s true. And you’re welcome to stay with me for as long as you want. I’m not getting any younger, you know. Would you like to manage the gym for me?”
The offer was a surprise. “But you don’t know me that well.”
“Sure I do. I’ve always considered myself a good judge of character, and I like you. If it makes you feel any better, I married my Jack after we’d known each other for only a week. So when I make up my mind about someone, I’m always right.”
A small nurse in mauve scrubs interrupted them. “Mrs. Haley? The doctor will see you now.”
Sam jumped to her feet to help her friend. “Here. Lean on me.”
“I plan to.” Betsy leaned into Sam’s body. “Come back with me?”
“Sure.” Sam looked at the nurse. “If it’s okay.”
The nurse nodded. “Of course. You can stay with your mother.”
Sam started to correct her, when Betsy spoke up. Tweaking Sam was beginning to be one of her favorite pastimes. “She’s a very good daughter, you know. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
Realizing she had lost, Sam silently helped Betsy down the bright hallway. A movement out of the corner of her eye caused Sam to turn her head. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“What?” Betsy looked to see what she was talking about. A petite woman stood at the end of the hall, clutching several file folders to her chest. She appeared as if she was going to bolt at any minute. She was vaguely familiar to Betsy, but she couldn’t place her. “Do you know her?”
“Her,” Sam enunciated slowly. She couldn’t stop staring at Janie. The anger she felt toward the other woman had passed, leaving only resigned sorrow behind. “Come on. Let’s get you into a room and comfortable.”
Betsy held her ground. “I’ll be fine. You go talk to her.” She nudged Sam along. “And don’t come back until you’ve straightened everything out.” She took the nurse’s arm and moved slowly into the room.
Sam tucked her hands into her front pockets, but didn’t move. She tried to control her nerves as Janie stepped closer. She wanted to lash out at her, but the puffiness around Janie’s eyes changed her mind. She realized Janie had been crying and didn’t want to hurt her any more than she already had. “I’m sorry—”
“I’m so sorry—”
They both spoke at the same time but Sam was the first to recover. “I owe you an apology.”
Janie shook her head. “I’m the one who made an ass of herself. I honestly didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“I know. I shouldn’t be so sensitive.” Sam held out her hand. “Truce?” She was relieved when Janie grasped it and held on. “Can we try again? I’d like to buy you dinner.”
“No.” At Sam’s crestfallen expression, Janie rushed to explain. “Let me cook dinner for you. Please.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
Janie squeezed Sam’s hand. “I’d like to. Oh. I forgot. You sing at night.”
“I think I can skip one night. That is, if you haven’t changed your mind.” When someone else came into the hall, Sam pulled her hand back to spare Janie from any embarrassment. She was surprised when it was captured again.
“How about Sunday? It’s usually a quieter night, isn’t it?”
Sam smiled. “Yeah, it is.” She turned when the exam room opened and Betsy’s nurse gestured to her. “I’ve got to go.”
“Sure.” Janie let go of her then tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’ll come by the bar tonight, so we can finish making plans.”
“Great.” Sam started to walk away. “If I’m not there, I’ll be at the gym. It’s over on Sycamore.”
Janie waved to her. “I’ll find you. Go take care of your friend.” She waited until Sam had gone into the room before she went back to work. Her mind filled with menu ideas, hoping she could come up with something Sam would like.
Betsy continued to curse as Sam drove slowly back to the gym. “Damned quack. I don’t know why I bothered.” The doctor had told her she’d have to stay off her feet as much as possible for several weeks. “He wanted an excuse for the big bill he’s going to send. They’re all alike.”
“Don’t worry, Betsy. It’ll be okay.” Sam steered carefully around a pothole. Betsy’s car was an eighty-nine Plymouth Reliant, and the shocks had seen better days. “Is your offer still open?”
“Yeah, you know. Managing the gym, and your undying love?” Sam winced as her arm was slapped. “Hey, no beating on the driver.”
Betsy’s chuckle died and she became more serious. “You’re not offering because of my back, are you?”
“Nah.” Sam parked behind the gym and turned off the engine. “I really am getting tired of traveling so much. Maybe wintering here will give me a chance to recharge.”
“Are you sure it doesn’t have to do with a certain little brown-haired gal? Don’t think I didn’t see that smile you had after you talked to her.”
Sam got out of the car and opened Betsy’s door. “We’re friends. At least I hope so.” She helped the older woman up and walked her slowly inside.
They stood at the foot of the stairs. Betsy shook her head. “I don’t think I can make it.” The back brace her doctor had given her impeded Betsy’s movements. There was no way she’d be able to climb the stairs, at least not for a few days.
“Wait. I’ve got an idea.” Sam hustled to the gym and returned a moment later, pushing Betsy’s rolling office chair.
“Honey, I hate to break it to you, but that chair isn’t going to get me upstairs.”
Sam eased her into the seat. “No, but it’ll get you up front easier. What if I move your bedroom down to your office? We’ve got everything else you’ll need down here.” She wheeled Betsy up front.
“That’s too much trouble.” But Betsy liked the idea. “You can’t move my bed by yourself.”
“I’ll get Ray from the bar to help. He won’t mind.” With the idea firmly entrenched in her mind, Sam left Betsy in the office, and went upstairs to see how hard it would be to move enough of the furniture to make Betsy comfortable.
Harvey Clarke punched the familiar number into the cordless phone. He was sick and tired of his daughter behaving as if what he said didn’t matter. She’d repeatedly ignored his phone calls to her cell. The only avenue left for him was to call her work. While he waited for someone to pick up, he dropped his body into the recliner and kicked off his shoes. He’d always hated the graveyard shift at the hospital, where he worked as a security guard.
With the phone propped on one shoulder, Harvey used his free hand to unclip his belt and loosen the button on his trousers, groaning in relief. He almost dropped the phone when a perky voice came on the line.
“Fourth Street Medical office, how may I direct your call?”
Harvey cleared his throat. “Good afternoon. May I speak to Jane Clarke?” He raised his voice higher than normal, hoping to sound friendlier.
“Of course, sir. Please hold one moment.” The receptionist placed him on hold.
Less than a minute later, the classical music was replaced by Janie’s voice. “This is Jane Clarke. How may I help you?”
“Janie, what the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Harvey scratched at his belly where his slacks had dug into his soft flesh. “I’ve been trying to reach you!”
“I’m sorry, Harvey. But I’ve been busy. What exactly is it you need from me?”
He unbuttoned his shirt to get more comfortable. “Don’t take that tone with me. You know damn good and well what I’m calling for.”
Janie sighed. “If this is about Doug, don’t bother. I’m not changing my mind about him.”
“You sure as shit better change it, girl. Because you’re not getting any younger.”
“We’ve already gone over this, Harvey. I know I’m thirty-seven years old. But that’s no reason for me to stay with a jerk like him. It’s over.”
Harvey kicked the footrest of the recliner down and got to his feet. He stomped into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator door, and took out a can of beer. The phone went back on his shoulder so he could pop the top on the can. “Listen here. I’ve put up with your smartass mouth longer than usual. You’ll do as I say, and that’s final.”
“No, I don’t think so.” Janie’s voice took on a more business-like tone. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work.” She hung up the phone without another word.
With a loud curse, Harvey tossed the cordless phone across the kitchen, getting a jolt of satisfaction when it slammed against the far wall and broke into pieces. “You arrogant little bitch. I’ll have to do something about your attitude.” He drained the beer and went to his bedroom to change clothes.
Although it was not even four o’clock, heavy smoke was already filling the bar. Harvey spotted who he had come to see. He huffed his way to the bar and perched on the next stool. “Hey, Reg.”
The man, thin and balding, turned to Harvey. “Harv. What brings you here?”
“We got to talk.” Harvey pointed at his companion’s glass and raised a finger. Moments later, he was nursing his own brew. He grabbed a handful of greasy peanuts from the closest dish and popped them into his mouth. “Your boy fucked up.” Small bits of food dotted his lips and a stray particle hit the other man’s face.
Reggie Howard took a deep drag from the cigarette hanging from his mouth before wiping at his jaw. “You sure about that? ‘Cause that’s not what I heard.”
“Hell, yes, he did.” Harvey chewed with his mouth open and smacked a few times. “If he hadn’t attacked Janie, they’d probably be engaged by now.”
“If that girl of yours wasn’t so frigid, he wouldn’t have had to take control.” Reggie drained his glass and waved it at the bartender. “My friend’s buying the next one.”
Harvey cursed, but removed his wallet and dropped a twenty dollar bill on the counter. “Start us a tab.”
The bartender, Fred, shrugged his shoulders and took the money. He returned quickly with two more mugs. “Happy hour, guys. Drink up.”
Reggie took several sips before returning to their previous conversation. “Doug would be better off with a gal who’s more receptive. Why should he saddle himself with Janie?”
“You know why. Ten-thousand reasons.” Harvey picked at his nose, before dipping his hand back into the peanuts. “I want grandkids, Reg. Somebody’s got to take care of me when I get old. I don’t want to end up like my ma, stuck off in some old folks home.”
“What about Janie? She’s always been a good girl, as far as that goes. I bet she’ll change your diapers when you can’t keep from shitting yourself.” Reggie’s laugh turned into a rattling cough. He took a drink of his beer and quieted.
Harvey lit his own cigarette and blew the smoke toward Reggie. “That’s what I thought, too. But she’s been too unpredictable for the past year or so. I don’t know what’s wrong with her.”
“It seems like a lot of trouble for grandchildren. I don’t think Doug wants to be tied down.”
“He don’t have to stop seeing all his other women, you know. Hell, it’s a man’s nature to stay active.” Harvey finished the peanuts and thumped the empty container in front of him. “Hey, can we get more?”
Fred grabbed a bowl from the end of the bar and slid it to Harvey. He then turned his back and continued to read the paper.
“Asshole.” Harvey took a final drag from his smoke and ground it out in the overflowing ashtray. He returned his attention to the peanuts and ate as if it were his last meal. “Doug needs to try harder. Janie’s not a strong woman, so it should be easy enough to get her back.”
“But why Doug?”
Harvey lit another cigarette. “Because they have a history. She’s never been one to try new things, and I don’t think I have the patience to wait for her to get attached to another guy. Remember, half the money is yours once they’re married. It was supposed to be for her college fund, but she saved me the trouble and didn’t go. What do you say?”
“Okay, I’ll talk to him. But I’m not guaranteeing anything.” Reggie finished his beer and gestured for another. “Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get down to some serious business.”
Once the clock struck five, Janie couldn’t leave the office fast enough. She gave Laura a wave and hustled out the door. Friday was always her favorite day of the week. Although she didn’t hate her job, it was always a pleasure to leave for the weekend.
Before she knew it, Janie was standing outside of Danny’s. She checked her watch. Ten minutes past five. Sam usually didn’t start singing until after six. Janie flushed when she realized she knew Sam’s schedule so well. She shook off the embarrassing thoughts and walked inside.
She resisted the urge to cough as she was assailed by the low hanging cloud of smoke. A dozen or so people were already seated, and Janie knew from previous experience it would only get worse. She was about to go to the bar when she heard her father’s distinctive laugh. A cross between a braying donkey and a wheezing goat, she cringed as the loud sound rang through the bar. She saw Harvey talking with Doug’s father, Reggie. A nervous flutter began in her stomach. Whenever the two of them got together, it usually meant trouble.
Panicking, Janie turned and hurried out of Danny’s. The last thing she wanted was a confrontation with the two men especially since they’d been drinking. Her mind reeled at the implications. They were most likely plotting to get Doug and her back together.
As she walked home, she thought about her relationship with Doug. They’d been introduced by their fathers who thought they would make a nice couple. At first, Janie enjoyed Doug’s company. He was attentive and charming, and they shared similar tastes in movies and music. Six months into the relationship, a New Year’s Eve party was the catalyst in changing everything. Although she didn’t remember having much to drink, Janie woke the following morning, hung over and in bed with Doug. She hadn’t been a virgin, but still felt unsettled at the circumstances.
From that time onward, Doug seemed to think they should make love every time they had dinner at her apartment. She often went along to keep the peace, although the act didn’t bring her much pleasure. Never in love with him, Janie stayed with Doug because it was expected, and her father constantly badgered her to settle down.
Janie was almost home when she remembered why she went to the bar to begin with. She hurried up the stairs to her apartment. Barely inside, she tossed her purse on the sofa and looked up the phone number to Danny’s in the phone book. She dialed and was relieved when Sam was the one who answered. “Sam? This is Janie.”
“Hey.” Sam spoke loudly into the phone. “It’s hard to hear you. Let me put you on hold for a minute and I’ll pick up in the office.”
The phone clicked and Janie waited apprehensively. She almost hung up, but Sam was back on the line before she could follow through.
“Sorry about that. What’s up? I thought you were going to come by tonight.”
Janie paced around her living room, trying to come up with the right words. “I was. I mean, I did. But when I got there, my father was sitting at the bar. And I didn’t—”
“You didn’t want him to see you talking with me,” Sam finished for her.
“No. That’s not it. Well, not exactly.” Janie became flustered. “You don’t understand.”
“Yeah, I do. It’s okay. Being seen with me would probably cause you trouble, anyway.” Sam cleared her throat. “See you around.”
“Wait! Please don’t hang up.” Janie heard the hurt in Sam’s voice and hated being the one who caused it. “I honestly want to see you. I promised you dinner, didn’t I?”
Sam sighed wearily. “Yeah, but you don’t have to. It’s not that big of a deal.”
“It is to me.” Janie came to a decision. She was tired of doing what was expected of her and wanted to take control of her life. “Do you take a break anytime during the night?”
“Yeah. Usually about half an hour, a couple of hours into the set. Why?”
“Can we meet then?”
“I guess. But wouldn’t it be easier to talk now?” The confusion was evident in Sam’s voice. “I mean, we’re already talking.”
Janie laughed. “Yes, we are. But I’d like to be able to spend a few minutes talking in person.”
“Okay. Do you want to come in around eight?” At Janie’s silence, Sam continued, “I’ve got a better idea. Let’s meet out back, by my car. It’s quieter.”
“That would be great. I’ll see you then.” Janie waited until Sam hung up before she held the cell phone to her chest and smiled. It didn’t occur to her that seeing Sam was exciting her more than going out with Doug ever did.
Hot, sweaty and tired, all Doug wanted was to down several cold beers before going home for the evening. He trudged into Danny’s and sat at the bar before he realized who was beside him. “Hey, Pop.”
Reggie twisted his stool around. “Doug. We was just talking about you.” He gestured to the bartender. “Bring another round, and get my son a brew.” He slapped Doug on the back, causing dust to float around them. “Damn, boy. You’re filthy.”
Doug picked up his beer the moment it was placed in front of him. “No shit. I work for a living.” He swallowed half the glass before setting it down. “Damn, that’s good.”
Harvey leaned over the bar so he could see past Reggie. “Have you made up with Janie yet?”
“Hell, no. That little bitch doesn’t want anything to do with me, Harv. I think you’re going to have to find someone else to take her off your hands.” Doug drained his mug and waved it at Fred, who filled another one and traded with him. “Thanks, man.” A peanut hit him on the neck, compliments of Harvey. “What the hell was that for?”
“That’s my daughter you’re talking about.”
“So? I’ve heard you call her worse.” Doug slid another dish of peanuts toward himself and gathered a handful. “What are you two old farts up to, anyway? Did the old folk’s home run you off, and you’re trolling the bars for babes?” He snickered at his own joke.
Reggie cuffed him on the side of the head. “Watch it, boy. We’re here trying to straighten out the mess you made.”
Doug rubbed his head. “That hurt.” It took a minute for his father’s words to set in. “What did I do?”
“Screwed up a sure thing, that’s what.”
Harvey got off his barstool and moved to the other side of Doug. “All you had to do was keep Jane happy until you were married. But you fucked that up.”
“It’s not my fault your daughter is a frigid bitch.” Doug flinched when Harvey whacked him on the shoulder. “Would you two quit beating up on me?”
“Listen, boy,” Reggie snarled, “Harv wants grandkids, and you’re his best bet. Five thousand bucks is a lot of money for what he’s asking.” He didn’t bother to mention the five thousand he’d take for his own trouble.
Doug nursed his beer. “I don’t see why it has to be me, though.”
While the three of them had been arguing, Sam sat at the piano and begun to play. Her voice drifted over the growing crowd, which rewarded her with polite applause.
Reggie stared at the singer for a moment before returning his attention to his son. “You’ve already ordered some new mowers. How the hell do you plan on paying for them without Harv’s money?”
“I’ll find a way. That’s what credit is for.” Doug lowered his voice so only Reggie could hear. “Pop, I don’t want to be tied down to Janie. She’s been acting all uppity for a while, now. And I sure as hell don’t want to be a father.”
“Nobody’s asking you to play daddy. Knock her up, divorce her and leave. Taking care of the brat will be Harv’s problem, not yours.”
The whole idea sounded wrong to Doug, but Reggie was right. He did need the money. And Janie wasn’t so bad to be around. Especially when she’d had a few drinks. He could always go to someone else for good sex. “All right. But how am I supposed to get her back? She pretty much told me to fuck off.”
Harvey dug a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet. “Go buy her some flowers. Women seem to like that sort of thing.”
Reggie added his own advice. “Apologize. Hell, grovel if you have to. If you play your cards right, you might even get laid.”
Doug took the money and crammed it into his pocket. “I’m not going to hold my breath,” he muttered.
“That’s my boy.” Reggie thumped him on the back. “Go on home and get cleaned up. You got a woman to work on.”
“Not tonight, I’m tired.” But Doug pushed away from the bar and stood. “A nice hot shower would feel good, though.”
Harvey stood also. “I’ll walk you out. I need to get a couple of hours sleep before I go into work.” He looked at Reggie. “You coming?”
“Not quite yet. I’m going to need more fortification if I’m going home to my wife.” Reggie lit another cigarette. “Doug, don’t waste too much time. The sooner you get her back, the better it’ll be.”
“I know. But I’ve got a date tomorrow night. I’ll go see her Sunday.”
“Fair enough.” Reggie went back to his drink, while the other two left.
Janie paced beside Sam’s car. In the hours since she’d spoken to the singer, she couldn’t get her out of her mind. She didn’t know what about Sam intrigued her so. Maybe it was the way she dressed. Or maybe it was the fact she never cared what anyone else thought. Janie had never met anyone quite like her. She looked at her watch for the third time in five minutes. It was still five minutes to eight, and she’d already been waiting for ten minutes.
The back door to the bar opened. Sam grinned when she saw Janie. “Hey.”
“Hi.” Now that they were together, Janie felt shy. “Thanks for meeting me. I know you’re busy.”
“No biggie. I doubt the drunks will even know if I’m gone.” Sam rested against the Olds and tucked her hands into her front pockets. “So, we still on for dinner Sunday?”
Janie nodded and crossed her arms beneath her breasts. “If you’re still interested. I’m not a great cook, but I know my way around a kitchen.”
“A home-cooked meal will be a treat.” Sam scuffed her toe on the gravel. “And, if you don’t mind me saying, so would getting the chance to spend some time with you.”
“Even after the way I’ve acted?”
Sam looked at the ground. “You were only asking questions. I shouldn’t have gone off on you. I’m sorry.”
“Apology accepted, if you’ll accept mine.” Janie held out her hand. She was pleased when Sam accepted her offer. The rough feel of Sam’s hand surprised her. “You’re not only a musician, are you?”
“No, I do a little of everything. For instance, I’m helping out at Betsy’s gym for a while. And you’ve seen me at the grocery store. Between that and my tips at the bar, I’ve got it pretty well.” Since Janie seemed to be comfortable holding hands, Sam didn’t attempt to let go. “What is it you do at the doctor’s office? If you don’t mind me asking.”
Janie lowered their hands but kept her grip. “Mostly filing. Although I’ve been doing a lot more insurance forms lately. It’s not very important, but the pay’s not bad.”
Yelling from the front of the alley caused them to break apart. Both laughed self-consciously, but Janie was the first to regain her equilibrium. “Well, I guess I’d better let you get back to work.” She turned to leave, but stopped. “I almost forgot. Do you have any food allergies, or things you don’t like to eat?”
“Nope. That’s one thing living on the road does. It keeps you from getting too picky.” Sam took Janie’s hand again. “I’m sure whatever you’ll make will be wonderful.”
In front of the bar, Reggie swayed slightly as he glared at Fred. “Y’know, I’m a paying customer. You ain’t got no right to cut me off. And I want my damned keys back.”
Fred shook his head. “Sorry. But I told you I’d be glad to call you a ride.”
“I don’t need no fucking ride, just my fucking keys!”
“Goddamn it.” Reggie dug into his shirt pocket for his cigarettes. He managed to remove one from the package and light it, although it took him several passes of the lighter. “How the fuck am I supposed to get to work tomorrow? Walk?”
“Have someone bring you by. Ray usually gets here around seven.” Fred ignored the curses from Reggie and returned to the bar.
“Stupid asshole.” Reggie glared at the closed door for a moment. He lived about half a mile away, so he knew it wouldn’t take long to get home. Especially if he traveled through the alleys.
Behind the building, Janie squeezed Sam’s hand before letting go. “Guess I’d better let you get back to work. I’ll see you Sunday?”
“Yep. Six o’clock, right?”
“Uh-huh.” Janie started down the alley. “Bye.”
Sam exhaled and rested against the car again as Janie walked away. She was looking forward to Sunday.
Janie was halfway down the alley when someone approached. When she saw who it was, her nerves went into overdrive. “Hi, Reggie.”
He pulled up. “Janie. What are you doing here?”
“I was on my way home. Do you need a ride?” The last thing she wanted was to be cooped up in a car with Doug’s father, but her sense of decency outweighed her discomfort.
“Nah. A long walk gives me more time before I have to face Sue.” He stumbled away, muttering under his breath.
Janie spared him a final glance before hurrying out of the alley. The old man had always made her nervous.
Reggie noticed someone standing next to a car at the end of the alley. “Hey, don’t I know you?”
Sam shook her head and pushed away from the Oldsmobile. “I don’t think so.” She ran her hands through her hair as she walked past him and noticed the heavy scent of beer. “You probably saw me inside. I sing.”
“Oh, yeah.” Reggie frowned as he tried to make sense of his jumbled thoughts. He quickly gave up trying, instead turning and going on his way. He was certain he’d remember tomorrow.
Sunday didn’t start well for Sam. Since Betsy’s injury, she’d been spending nights at the gym, sleeping on the lumpy guest bed. They’d originally considered moving Betsy’s bed to the downstairs office, but Sam and Ray decided it would be easier to carry the older woman up to the apartment instead.
Sam clinched her jaw to stop a yawn as she scrambled eggs for Betsy’s breakfast. Three and a half hours of sleep hadn’t been enough. She felt as if she’d barely closed her eyes when the alarm went off. She’d stayed late at the bar the night before, not by choice. Ted had dropped two trays of mugs, and it had taken over an hour to get all the glass cleaned up.
Essentially working three jobs, four if you counted helping out in the bar, was beginning to wear on Sam. None of them were particularly difficult, but the time consumed left little time for anything else. Such as sleeping.
She spooned the eggs onto a plate and added a small helping of melon chunks. Betsy’s small appetite belied her sturdy build, and it didn’t take much food to satisfy her. Sam placed the plate, along with a cup of coffee, on a tray and carried it to her friend’s room.
“Dammit, Sam! I told you yesterday to quit waiting on me.” But Betsy sat up gingerly and straightened her covers to accommodate the tray. She happily dug into the meal with gusto. “Did you get any sleep at all?”
“Yes, I did. And you’re welcome, by the way.” Sam sat at the foot of the bed and watched her friend move the eggs around with her fork. “Stop bellyaching and finish it up before it gets cold.”
Betsy popped a piece of melon into her mouth. “Fruit’s supposed to be cold, kid.”
“Smartass.” Sam lay across the bed and propped her head on her upraised hand. “You’d starve if it wasn’t for me.”
“Nah. I’d live off peanut butter crackers and warm cokes.”
Betsy scooped up a forkful of eggs. “Don’t knock it ‘til you tried it. I can only imagine what your diet consists of when you’re on the road.”
Sam gave her a superior look. “Fresh fruit, bottled water,” she grinned, “and peanut butter crackers.” She grimaced when a piece of fruit bounced off her forehead. “Yuck.”
“So,” Betsy smiled cheekily, “tell me about your date tonight.”
“It’s not a date.”
“Uh-huh. Right. You’ll probably try to sell me a bridge, next.”
With a heavy sigh, Sam flopped onto her back and stared at the ceiling. “Honestly, I don’t know what it is. She’s confusing the hell out of me. Are all straight women so hard to figure out?”
“You’re asking me?” Betsy finished off the fruit and wiped her mouth with a napkin. “Just because my clients are women it doesn’t mean I know what makes them tick. But if women are half as difficult to understand as men, you’re in a world of hurt.”
“Gee, thanks.” Sam rolled over and faced her. “One minute she’s all nice and friendly, then the next she’s accusing me of being some sort of perverted sex fiend.”
Betsy pushed the tray away. “Sounds to me like she’s confused.”
“She’s not the only one.”
“Hush.” Betsy tapped her chin with the tip of her finger while she considered Sam’s predicament. “What do you want from her?”
“Nothing! I’m not looking to convert her to the dark side, or anything like that.”
“I know, hon. But what are you hoping for? A friend? A girlfriend?” Betsy chuckled as a naughty thought crossed her mind. “Someone to do the nasty with in the backseat of your car?”
“Betsy!” Sam blushed heavily. “I’d never—”
The older woman laughed at the look on Sam’s face. “I’m sorry. You’re so easy to get.”
Sam wiped her hand down her face in an attempt to calm herself. “I really would like to be her friend. I don’t have too many of those, and I don’t think she does, either.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Nodding thoughtfully, Betsy tried to get to the heart of the matter. “What would you do if she wants more than friendship?”
A blank look covered Sam’s face. She’d never thought of that before. “I don’t know. I guess it depended on how long I’ll be here.” She turned deadly serious. “I’ve never had a relationship only for sex. I’m not made that way.”
“Good for you.” Betsy held out her hand and waited until Sam took it. “Don’t ever change, Sam. And as for how long you’ll stay, I’d still like you to consider being my manager.”
“But I don’t know anything about running a gym.”
“You’ve done pretty well so far. Besides, if you do, I can take a vacation. I haven’t had one of those in forever.”
Sam nodding in agreement. “All right. You’ve got a deal. Will I still be able to work part-time at the bar? The tips are getting better.” She had no problem quitting the grocery store. It didn’t amount to enough money anyway.
“Sure. Play your cards right, and I’ll even show up and cheer you on.”
“Cool.” Sam rolled to her feet. “I’ve got a lot to do before tonight. Leave the tray on the bed and I’ll be back for it later, okay?” She stopped at the doorway. “Should I take something to Janie? Wine, flowers, candy?”
Betsy laughed at the flummoxed look on Sam’s face. “Quit worrying so much. It’s not a date, remember?”
“Try a small bouquet of flowers. Those are always nice.”
Sam grinned. “Yeah. I can do that.” She saluted Betsy and sauntered out of the room, singing under her breath.
Janie looked at herself in the mirror. On a lark, she’d gone to the beauty salon Saturday afternoon. Her brown hair, which had hung limply past her shoulders, now barely touched them. Bangs covered her forehead, and the dark, drab color was presently highlighted with streaks of blonde, giving her a more youthful appearance. She applied a minute amount of lipstick and stepped out of the bathroom.
On her way through the living room, the smell wafting from the oven caused her to smile. She had fretted over the menu all day Saturday until something Sam had said gave her an idea. One of Janie’s specialties was meatloaf. It was also something that was better cooked at home than in a restaurant. She only hoped Sam would think the same. Janie made another pass through the apartment, looking for anything out of place. She’d cleaned until late Saturday night, now the furniture gleamed and the wood floors shined.
She was putting the finishing touches on the table setting when there was a knock on the door. Janie nervously fingered her hair as she hastened to the door. She took a deep breath and turned the handle.
Sam stood uncertainly, a small spray of wildflowers in one hand. Her jeans were pressed, her boots shined, and the powder blue shirt contrasted nicely with her tan. She noticed Janie’s new hairstyle. “You look fantastic.”
“Really?” Janie fluffed her hair self-consciously. “I…I thought a change would be nice.”
“It looks great on you.” Sam held the flowers out to Janie. “I wasn’t sure what to bring. I hope these are okay.”
“They’re beautiful.” Janie took the bouquet. “Come in. Dinner should be ready in about ten minutes.”
“Great.” Sam followed her inside and surveyed the apartment. It was open and clean, and she could get a good read of Janie’s personality from the pictures and knick knacks which were spread about. “You’ve got a great place.”
Janie gestured to the living area. “Thank you. Make yourself comfortable. I’m going to put these in water.” She left the room, her nose stuck in the flowers.
Sam wandered around the room, checking out the photographs. Many were of a younger Janie, usually in the company of an older woman. She noticed with some satisfaction that not one picture of Doug could be seen. A particular shot caught her eye, and she picked up the frame and studied it.
“I was a dorky kid,” Janie explained as she came into the room. She went to stand by Sam. “Maybe someday I’ll grow out of it.”
“Actually, I was thinking how cute you were.” Sam replaced the picture and turned to Janie. “And you grew into a beautiful woman.”
Janie blushed. Hardly.” She fussed with her new dress. Much brighter than most of her clothes, the pale yellow picked up the new highlights in her hair. “I’m average, at best.”
Sam shook her head. “We don’t know each other very well, but I know one thing for certain. You are the most beautiful soul I’ve ever met.” She touched Janie’s cheek. “Don’t base your self-worth on the small-minded people in this town.” Suddenly realizing how close they were, she stepped back and quickly changed the subject. “It smells good in here.”
Even after they moved apart, Janie could still feel Sam’s touch on her face. She led the way to the sofa, where they each took a corner. She turned and tucked one sandaled foot beneath her. “I hope you’ll like it. Meatloaf is one of the things I can make well.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” Sam shifted so she could look at Janie. “Thank you again for dinner.”
“Don’t thank me until you taste it,” Janie joked. “Harvey, I mean, my father always complained my cooking was too bland.” She didn’t add how he always covered his food with hot sauce, no matter what he was eating.
The urge to touch Janie again was driving Sam crazy. She jiggled one leg nervously. “You call him by his first name?”
“I have since I was a teenager.” Janie felt she needed to explain. “We don’t get along. He’s never been much of a father to me.”
“I’m sorry.” Sam motioned to the pictures. “Is that your mom?”
Janie finally smiled. “No, my grandmother. My mother left us when I was fifteen.” At the pitying look Sam gave her, Janie hurried to explain. “My Nana is great. She’s always been there for me. I don’t know how someone as sweet as she is could have a son like Harvey.” She played with the hem of her dress. “What about your family?”
“My mother was a teenage drug addict. She left after I was born and my grandmother raised me. To this day, I have no idea where she went, or if she’s even alive.” Sam propped her left ankle on her right knee to get more comfortable. “Gran did the best she could, even though she wasn’t in the greatest health.”
“I’m sure she’s very proud of you.”
Sam’s eyes dropped to Janie’s hands. “She died ten years ago. That’s when I took off on my own.” She cleared her throat and forced a smile onto her face. “Sorry about getting so maudlin.”
“Don’t apologize. The only way we’re going to get to know each other is to talk. And it’s nice to have a friend to talk to.”
“Is that what we are?”
Janie nodded. “I’d like to think so.” She held out her hand.
“Me too.” Sam took her hand, but startled when a buzzer went off in the kitchen.
“Oops. Dinner’s ready.” Janie regretfully let go of Sam and stood. “Why don’t you come sit at the table?”
Sam got to her feet and followed Janie. “Do you need any help?” She looked at the table. The wood was a dark cherry and the chairs were solid with spindly legs. It was covered with a blue satin tablecloth, and was set with white china. She was almost afraid to touch anything.
“Nope.” Janie pushed her toward a chair. “Get comfortable, and I’ll bring everything out.” She hustled to the kitchen and returned quickly with a salad, then left to get the rest of the meal.
Still standing, Sam watched as Janie brought each dish. In addition to the salad, there was a bowl of green beans, another of mashed potatoes, and finally the meatloaf. Sam waited until Janie was finished, then pulled out her chair for her.
“Thank you.” Janie couldn’t remember the last time someone was so chivalrous. Doug had stopped treating her like a lady after they’d slept together the first time. She placed the cloth napkin in her lap and watched Sam gingerly sit. “Don’t worry, the chairs are a lot sturdier than they look. Nana gave them to me. She’d kept the set in storage until I moved out of Harvey’s.”
“It’s nice.” Sam mimicked Janie’s actions and waited to see what she’d do next. She felt completely out of her element. “Where’s your grandmother now?”
Janie served them each helpings of food while she spoke. “She lives in the Spring Gardens nursing home. I visit several times a week.”
“I bet it’s great having her so close by.” Sam waited until Janie picked up her fork before doing the same. She realized she was being watched. “What?”
“You can eat, you know,” Janie teased gently.
Sam took a forkful of meatloaf and placed it in her mouth. The flavors hit her tongue and she was unable to hold back the moan. “Oh, my god. This is fantastic.” She quickly took several more bites.
“I’m glad you like it.” Janie started eating as well, although at a much slower pace.
They were silent as they ate, both using the meal as an excuse to contemplate the evening so far. The only sound was the clink of silverware against plates, and the occasional sip of tea.
Sam wiped her mouth before taking another drink. She was glad Janie hadn’t served wine. As much time as she spent in a bar, the last thing she wanted was alcohol. She sneaked a glance at her hostess. Sam hadn’t exaggerated when she complimented Janie on her appearance. The new hairstyle was perfect for her, and apparently gave her a newfound confidence. Her eyes sparkled beneath her new wireframe glasses. “You really look beautiful tonight.”
“Damn.” Sam covered her face with her hand. “Did I say that out loud?”
Janie’s smile covered her face. “I’m afraid you did. But thank you.”
With an embarrassed shrug, Sam picked up her glass. “And you cooked a fantastic meal.”
“Thank you again.” Janie was about to offer dessert when there was a knock on the door. “I’ll be right back.”
From her vantage point, Sam could see the door. She was as surprised as her host when Janie opened the door.
Janie fought the urge to slam the door closed. “Doug? What are you doing here?”
He thrust a large bouquet of roses in her face. “These are for you.” Using his shoulder, he pushed the door open wider. “I thought we could—” Seeing Sam at the table, he threw the flowers on the floor. “What the fuck is she doing here?”
“Having dinner.” Janie’s hand shook where she held the doorknob.
For her part, Sam wasn’t sure what to do. She was afraid if she stood, he’d think she was confronting him. The last thing she wanted was to start a fight in Janie’s apartment. The terrified look on Janie’s face changed her mind. She got to her feet and held out her hand. “Hi, I’m Sam.”
Doug clenched his fists, ignoring her offer. “I know who the hell you are. You’re that queer that sings at Danny’s. How do you know my fiancée?”
“Your what?” Janie’s ire came to the top. Having Sam with her gave her confidence, and she took his arm and tried to lead him to the door. “I broke up with you, Doug. And I’ve never been engaged to you.” She started to pull him away. “Now I’d like for you to leave.”
“But she’s a dyke! You’re not safe, Janie.”
Janie tugged him along. “She’s my friend, Doug. Go home.”
He was so in shock that he never realized when she guided him out of the apartment, until the door slammed in his face. “Hey!” The deadbolt locked into place. “Well, fuck!”
Inside, Janie turned to Sam. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.” Sam met her halfway across the room. When Janie began to cry, she pulled her into her arms and held her. “It’s okay.”
“Why can’t he leave me alone? It’s not as if he loves me.” Janie sniffled but didn’t try to move away. She felt safe for the first time in a long time, and was in no hurry to draw away.
Somehow they gravitated to the sofa, where Janie continued to huddle in Sam’s embrace. They sat quietly for a while, until Janie broke the silence. “Can I ask you a question?”
“How, um, when did you know that you were, uh, gay?” Janie kept her head on Sam’s chest, afraid to look her in the eyes.
“I think I’ve always known. I mean, when I was younger, I didn’t have a name for how I felt. But I’ve always been attracted to girls. Guys were who I hung out with, but I never felt anything but friendship for them.”
Janie raised her head. “Was it hard? Growing up?”
“Not any harder than for you, I guess. At least until high school. That was a bit rough.” Sam chuckled disparagingly. “A girl dressed like me wasn’t exactly well-received.”
Sam sighed. “The usual. I was called names, pushed around, and teased. Got into my share of fights, too. Gran wasn’t too happy about that.”
“I’m sorry.” Janie snuggled down and hugged Sam. “I wasn’t much better when we first met.”
“Well, it turned out okay.” Sam rested her chin on the top of Janie’s head. “You’re probably going to get a lot of flack from him tomorrow.”
“I don’t care.” And, to her own surprise, Janie found that she didn’t. Her worst fear had happened, and she survived. She was looking forward to having Sam as a friend.
Sam closed the door carefully, trying not to make a sound. She tiptoed into the living room carrying her boots, picking her way around the furniture in the dark. She was almost to the sofa when the light flicked on.
Standing at the door to the hall was Betsy, leaning on a cane. “Coming in a bit late, seeing as how you weren’t on a date.” She took note of the boots Sam held in one hand. “Curfew was one o’clock,” she teased, pointing to the clock over the bookcase. “It’s almost two.”
“Curfew?” Sam plopped on the couch and dropped her boots. “Have you been mixing your pain pills?”
Betsy shuffled to sit next to her. “Nah. Just having some fun with you.” She made a point to look Sam over carefully.
“What are you doing?”
“Making sure your clothes are right-side out.”
Sam edged away from her. “Of course they are. Why wouldn’t they be?”
“Seeing’s how late you got home, I thought maybe you overslept and dressed in a hurry.”
Betsy swatted Sam’s shoulder. “Never mind.”
It finally dawned on Sam as to what she was insinuating. “For god’s sake, Betsy. It was only dinner.”
“Dinner that lasted until almost breakfast, I might add. What exactly were you doing all evening?”
“Talking.” At her friend’s disbelieving look, Sam hastened to add, “Honestly, that’s all.” She leaned against the back of the sofa. “She’s a nice person.”
Betsy wasn’t convinced. “And there was no hanky panky going on? Not even a smidgen?”
“No.” Sam reconsidered. “Unless you count,” she paused, “no, you’re probably not interested.” She tried to stand but was hauled down by her belt.
“Wait a cotton-pickin’ minute, kid. I want all the details.” When Sam kept silent, Betsy wasn’t above pleading. “Come on, Sam. I’m an old woman. Don’t tease.”
Sam laughed and settled down again. “Teach you to pick on me. Seriously, though, we only talked. Well, and hugged.” Her grin turned cocky. “The cuddling on the couch was nice, too.” While Betsy sat with her mouth hanging open, Sam took the opportunity to jump up and race to the bathroom to change for bed. “Ha!”
“You brat!” Betsy struggled to stand and moved slowly toward her bedroom. She paused at the bathroom door. “You will tell me all about it over breakfast.”
“Maybe,” Sam sang through the door. She laughed louder when Betsy rapped the door with her cane. “Goodnight, Betsy.”
Betsy hobbled down the hallway. “Good morning, Sam,” she yelled, chuckling herself.
After undressing, Sam stepped out of the bathroom and moved quietly toward the guest room. She snuggled under the clean sheets. Even the discomfort of the old bed couldn’t wipe the smile off her face.
She linked her hands beneath her head and stared at the ceiling. The evening had gone better than she could have ever hoped. Janie was a marvelous cook, although the food paled in comparison to the hostess herself. The new hairstyle, along with the yellow sundress, made Janie glow. Sam had always thought she was attractive, but the new look made her realize what a lovely woman she truly was.
Sam sighed. Even Doug’s interruption didn’t ruin the night. After they’d moved to the couch, they spent several hours enjoying each other’s company. They talked more about Sam’s sexuality, Janie asking quite a few good questions that Sam was more than happy to answer. She felt as if they’d cemented their friendship. Anything else was pure wishing on her part, but Sam couldn’t help it. She felt more comfortable with Janie than she had anyone else in her life.
Closing her eyes, Sam wondered what the next few weeks would bring.
Unable to sleep, Janie found herself in the kitchen, washing the dinner dishes. She had planned on leaving them until morning, considering the late hour. But once she was in bed, her mind kept whirling over the evening and she was unable to nod off.
As apprehensive as she had been before Sam arrived, she hadn’t expected to enjoy herself so much. But Sam had surprised her. She was warm, witty, and even though seven years her junior, very easy to talk to. Their conversations ranged from silly to serious.
Janie ran the scrub sponge over a plate then rinsed it in hot water. She looked at the china dish and remembered how complimentary Sam had been on her cooking. She hated to keep comparing her to Doug, but it was hard not to. His only comments during meals at her apartment had been innuendos about sex. It was nice to spend a meal with someone who had no hidden motives. Being able to have intelligent conversation was a treat.
The only blemish had been Doug’s unexpected arrival. She had been terrified of a confrontation. Doug’s temper, which had always been fiery, had recently become violent. It was another reason she’d finally decided to break away from him. But Sam had handled things well, and she had surprised herself by throwing Doug out. She knew there would be hell to pay later, but she didn’t care.
What happened afterward still made her smile. The tender way Sam held her, touched Janie deeply in places she didn’t know existed. She wiped her hands on a dishtowel and sighed. She could almost feel Sam’s arms around her, almost hear the beat of her heart. It was one of the nicest evenings she’d ever had, and she couldn’t wait to repeat the experience.
Humming to herself, Janie left the kitchen and headed to her bedroom. She knew what her dreams would hold.
There was a decided spring in Sam’s step as she brought Betsy her breakfast. “Good morning, I hope you like omelets. I was feeling creative.” She situated the tray and sat on the edge of the bed.
“You’re certainly chipper for someone who stayed out half the night.” Betsy tucked the napkin under her chin and concentrated on her plate. “What did you put in this, anyway?”
“It’s a surprise.” Sam pointedly ignored Betsy’s first remark. Nothing could ruin her good mood, even her friend’s teasing.
Betsy poked at the eggs with her fork. “Looks like you cleaned out my refrigerator.”
“Someone had to. Things were beginning to crawl to the front and jump.” Sam snagged a piece of fruit and popped it into her mouth.
“Stop stealing food off an invalid’s plate. It’s not nice.” But Betsy started on the omelet, humming contentedly as she ate. “Not bad.”
“Thanks.” Sam pulled her socked feet on the bed and put her arms around her upraised knees. “What’s on our agenda today?”
Betsy swallowed and sipped on her coffee. “I’d like to write up a business contract for you. I’d rather get it done sooner, than later. Besides, I can’t do much else.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Sam started to get up, but changed her mind. “Can I ask you something?”
“Do you think, I mean, could it be possible,” Sam struggled for the right words. She exhaled heavily and impatiently brushed her hand through her hair. “Damn.”
Betsy continued to eat, knowing Sam would eventually get around to saying what was on her mind.
“Ugh.” Sam looked into her friend’s eyes, which twinkled with amusement. “It’s about Janie. Last night was,” she sighed, “amazing. I mean, we didn’t do anything, except eat and talk, but we got along so well. Am I making any sense?”
“It sounds like you had a nice time.” Betsy tried to be careful with her words. “I take it she’s more comfortable with you being a lesbian?”
“She seems to be. But I guess I won’t really know until we see each other in public.” Sam propped her chin on her knees. “Am I reading too much into last night?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t there.” Betsy pushed the tray away and sat up straighter. “You didn’t make out on the couch, did you?”
Sam’s mouth dropped open and her eyes got wide. “Of course not!” Her face pinkened. “We did kind of snuggle, though.”
“It wasn’t what you think. Janie’s ex-boyfriend showed up and upset her. I was only trying to make her feel better.” Sam turned thoughtful. “We spent the rest of the evening on the sofa. She could have moved away any time, but she didn’t. Do you think that means something?”
Betsy patted Sam’s foot. “I think it means she felt comfortable with her new friend. Don’t read any more into it. I’d hate to see you get hurt.”
Tired of the conversation, Sam got off the bed. “Don’t worry, I’m pretty tough.” She took Betsy’s tray. “I’m going to get the dishes cleaned up then I’ll start on the showers downstairs.”
“Okay, hon. Don’t wear yourself out.” Betsy waited until Sam was almost out of the room. “And you’re about as tough as a wet paper towel. Be careful.”
“Yes, mom.” Sam edged out of the room, barely dodging the pillow Betsy flung at her.
Three hours later, Sam put the vacuum away. After she’d mopped the gym, she’d come upstairs and did some light housework, much to Betsy’s surprise. The older woman had asked Sam to help her make it downstairs, where she could keep an eye on the customers.
Betsy’s voice rang through the intercom from the gym. “Sam, could you help me with something, please?”
With a tired sigh, Sam trudged down the stairs to see what her friend needed. She pulled up short when she saw who stood at the counter with Betsy. “Janie?”
“Hi. I was telling Betsy how I wanted to rejoin her program, or maybe something else.” The pink tinge to Janie’s cheeks gave her away. “I was on my lunch break, and remembered you talking about the gym.”
Sam glanced at Betsy, who looked like the cat who swallowed the canary. “That’s great. Although I don’t know what—”
“I was telling Janie how I’m planning on starting up an aerobics class. One of the gals who comes in on Saturdays says she used to teach one before she moved here.”
“Really? Funny, you haven’t mentioned it to me before.” Sam had a sneaking suspicion Betsy was trying to play matchmaker. “When are these alleged classes beginning?”
Betsy shook her finger at her. “Don’t get smart with me, kid.” She turned to Janie. “As soon as I call Pamela and give her the okay, we should be able to start. Maybe you’d like to pass the word around.”
“Of course. The women at work are always talking about losing weight. This would be perfect.” Janie looked at Sam. “Do you work out?”
“Ha.” Betsy winked at Sam. “That one doesn’t have time to exercise, or so she tells me.”
Sam crossed her arms over her chest. “You keep me too busy, you mean.” She directed her next comments to Janie. “If you don’t mind me saying, you don’t look like you need to work out, either.”
Janie gave her an embarrassed smile. “I’d actually like to put on some muscle. I hate feeling so run down and tired all the time.”
“You came to the right place, then,” Betsy assured her. “As a matter of fact, since you’ll be my first aerobics customer, I’ll give you the gym membership for free. All I ask is that you tell your friends.”
“You don’t have to do that. I can pay.”
Betsy patted her hand, which was resting on the counter. “Pay the aerobics instructor her fee. We’re good.”
Janie didn’t look convinced, but she kept silent. She switched her attention to Sam, who still appeared peeved. “You don’t mind me coming in from time to time, do you?”
“Of course not. It’ll be nice to see more of you.” Sam heard the words and realized how it sounded. “I mean, nice to see you here.” She tried to ignore Betsy’s chortling. Her friend was getting too much enjoyment out of her discomfort. “Have you had lunch? I was about to run out and get ours, and I could grab yours, too.” She shook her head at herself. “Your lunch, I mean.”
Betsy howled. “My god, Sam. I didn’t know a person could turn that particular shade of red.” She popped open the cash drawer and took out a twenty dollar bill. “Here. Fetch us all some hamburgers, if you don’t mind.”
Sam glared at her as she took the money. “Yes, ma’am. So, Janie, what would you like?”
“I, um,” Janie appeared at a loss. She hadn’t planned on having lunch today. “You don’t have to—”
“Burger and fries it is.” Sam started out the door. “Mustard or mayo?”
Janie grinned. “However you like it will be fine. I’m easy.”
Betsy was about to say something, but Sam’s warning finger caused her to cover her mouth with one hand. She waited until Sam left before bursting into laughter, confusing Janie.
The gym’s office had been the perfect place for the trio’s impromptu picnic. Betsy had commandeered the chair behind the desk while Sam and Janie were each parked in folding chairs across from her.
Betsy watched the two interact, doing her best not to smirk. She wondered if they had any idea how cute they were. Seeing them together, she could plainly see the mutual attraction. Whether they would ever do something about it, she didn’t know. But it couldn’t hurt to give them a tiny nudge in the right direction. She finished chewing a potato chip before speaking. “Janie, how long have you lived in Piperton?”
Janie appeared startled at the question, but quickly regained her composure. “All my life. I’ve never even traveled out of town.”
“My, that is something, isn’t it? Why, by the time I was your age I’d lived in four different states. My Jack was a wanderer at heart. We never had a truly permanent residence until we moved here, but I wouldn’t change a minute of it.” Betsy nibbled on another chip. “Have you ever thought about traveling? What if your husband was transferred somewhere else?”
“That’s never going to be a factor. I’ve had my fill of men for a while. Although it does sound exciting to see more of the country.”
Sam finished her soda and set the can down on the desk with a thump. “Travel isn’t as exciting as you might think.”
“Oh? And you’ve spent all those years on the road because?” Betsy couldn’t wait to hear Sam’s explanation.
“Never found a reason to stay anywhere,” Sam admitted quietly, her eyes never leaving Janie.
The revelation gave Janie hope, although she wasn’t certain why she was so intent on Sam’s staying. “What would be a good reason?”
It was if they were the only two people in the room. Sam’s answer was for Janie, in more way than one. “Friends,” her voice softened, “family.”
“Oh.” Janie reached for her hand, but the bell over the front door rang, breaking the moment.
Betsy cursed and began to rise. “No one shows up all day, but they interrupt our lunch.”
Janie stood. “I’ve got to run anyway. Do you want me to see what they need?”
“No, that’s all right. It’s probably Pamela. She usually comes in on Mondays, and I might as well see if I can work up a deal with her.” Betsy came around the desk and surprised Janie with a hug. “Come by anytime. The back door’s always unlocked.”
Sam’s embarrassment over her earlier confession was apparent on her face. She searched her mind for something to say. “I’m glad you came by.”
“Me too.” Janie followed her instincts and gently grasped Sam’s forearm. “I enjoyed last night.”
“So did I.” Sam’s eyes closed when Janie’s hand slid down to hold hers. “Janie, I—”
“Shh.” Janie kissed her on the cheek and moved away. “I’ll try to come by the bar tonight.” She squeezed Sam’s hand before leaving.
Hot, stale air circulated around the repair shop courtesy of an ancient industrial floor fan. The wrench Reggie was using on the lawnmower engine slipped and caused his knuckles to scrape against the metal. He cursed and brought the injury to his mouth and sucked on it to clean the wound.
“That’s disgusting, Pop.” Doug handed his father a filthy shop rag. “At least use something more sanitary.”
Reggie glared at his son as he snatched the cloth out of his hand. “What’s crawled up your ass today? I figure you’d be in a better mood after getting Janie back.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Before Doug could turn away, his father’s greasy hand stopped him. “Watch it. I’ve still got to mow the park today.”
“A little dirt never hurt anyone. Did you go see her?”
The pout that crossed Doug’s face was his answer. He headed for the office adjacent to the shop. Even though he spent his workday in the sun, his favorite place was at his desk in front of the air conditioner. When Reggie followed him inside and closed the door, he scowled. “Would you leave me the fuck alone?”
With a tired grunt, Reggie sprawled in the ratty chair. “Not until you tell me what happened.”
“She’s not interested, okay? Leave it at that.”
Doug looked in the center drawer of the desk and brought out a paperclip, which he opened and began to clean his nails with. “I showed up, gave her the flowers, and she told me in no uncertain terms we were done. End of story.”
“And you gave up?”
“Look, old man, she had someone else there, all right? Even I know when to let it go.” Doug dropped the clip on the desk and slammed his hands on the top. “You and Harvey can figure out something else. I’m done.”
“I never figured I raised a quitter.”
Furious, Doug leapt to his feet and his chair slammed back against the wall. “Damn it! She’s made her decision. Leave her alone.”
Reggie stood, put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “You’ve turned into a whiny-assed piece of shit.”
“Fuck you.” Doug shoved by his father and stormed out of the office. Eager to get away from Reggie’s interrogation, he decided to start his afternoon mowing immediately, the midday heat be damned.
Janie didn’t make it by Danny’s Monday night, but it didn’t keep Sam from putting on a good show. Her music reflected her mood. Every song was upbeat and the few people in the bar seemed to enjoy the evening. Many sang along to several tunes and by the end of the night Sam’s tip jar was full. She played two encores before finally giving her voice a rest. She thanked the audience and headed for the bar, where Ray had a glass of ice water waiting. “Thanks.”
“Sure.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s barely ten. Are you calling it a night?”
“I think so. I’ve got some things to take care of at the gym before morning, unless you need me to hang around here and help.”
Ray acknowledged a customer two stools away and filled a mug with draft beer. He exchanged the drink with the cash left on the bar and looked around the room. “No sense in you staying. Crowd’s starting to break up.” Mondays were notoriously slow, and he was thankful for the people Sam’s music brought in. He waved to a couple leaving. “Y’all be careful heading home.”
Sam finished her water. “I can come in early tomorrow and take care of the floors, if you want.”
“That’d be great. Fred’s off and I’d appreciate all the help I can get. Are you still sleeping in your car out back?”
“No, only if I’m too tired to go home.” She caught her slip. It was too soon for her to consider Betsy’s place hers. “I mean, I don’t want to wake Betsy by coming in at all hours. Why? Do you need me to move it?”
“No, it’s fine where it’s at. I’m only worried about you being back there alone.”
She picked up a tray of dirty glasses. “I’ve been sleeping in my car for years, in places a lot worse than here. Haven’t had anything happen to me yet.” Sam shifted the tray to make it easier to carry. “I’ll do these before I leave.” Considering the conversation over, she took the tray to the kitchen. The small room was still clean from earlier, so it didn’t take her long to get everything washed and put away.
A short time later she went through the back door, hearing the metallic snick of the lock as it closed. A moment too late, she saw a silhouette in the darkness leaning against her car. It was too big to be Janie and Sam began to get nervous at the realization of who it was.
“It’s about time you got here,” Doug called out. “I saw you head to the back fifteen minutes ago.”
Sam suddenly regretted not accepting a door key from Ray weeks ago. She hadn’t wanted the added responsibility, since at the time she didn’t think she’d be staying for long. She noticed Doug’s muscled arms and inwardly cringed. Sam knew she was no match for him. His work outdoors kept him lean and strong. She quickly figured the distance between him and the mouth of the alley. He was too close, and running in her heavy boots was out of the question. Her only chance was to reason with him. “Yeah, sorry about that. I had to do a few dishes before leaving.” She edged closer to the alleyway. “What can I do for you?”
He pushed off the car and started toward her. “I never thought I’d see Janie spending time with someone like you.”
“She’s not like you.” He continued closer, causing her to change direction. “Janie’s a gentle woman who’s lived here all her life, and she’s very trusting.”
Sam held out her hands to keep him back. “Yes, I know. She was the first person outside the bar to even speak to me.”
“That’s how she is.”
As Doug moved within a step of her, Sam backed up too quickly and her boots slipped on the gravel, causing her to fall onto her back. “I don’t know what you think is going on, but we barely know each other.”
He bent and took a firm hold of her upper arms. “I don’t believe you.” Even as Sam struggled, he had no trouble lifting her to her feet. “Janie’s not the type to make friends easily.” His face was inches from hers. “I’d hate to see her get hurt.”
“I understand,” she managed to say through her fear. “But I swear to you—”
“Would you shut the fuck up?” He shook her. “I’m trying to make a point here.”
She didn’t seem to listen. “It was only dinner, nothing else.” Sam squirmed until she was able to get out of his grip then stumbled away. With distance between them, she found her normal attitude returning. “Janie’s a grown woman and I don’t see why she can’t choose her own friends.”
“That’s what I was talking about.” Doug scratched his head. “This isn’t going right.”
Sam rubbed her left arm, where his fingers had dug in particularly hard. “Why are you here?”
He tucked his hands into his front pockets. “Last night, when I saw you sitting at her table, it was more than I could take. I always thought we’d be together for a long time. Maybe settle down and get married. Hell, even her old man wants us together.”
“What about what Janie wants? Isn’t that important?”
“Yeah. You know, I didn’t sleep at all last night. I kept thinking about you and her.”
Even though Sam could say the same thing, she didn’t think it was wise to admit it to him. But she felt a need to explain. “We didn’t—”
Doug cut her off. “For the past few years, she was a good friend. But I can tell she hasn’t been happy.” He looked embarrassed. “What I’m trying to say is, I’m sorry.”
It was the last thing Sam thought she’d ever hear from him. “What?”
“I’ve been acting like an ass lately. Our fathers have been putting a lot of pressure on me. I’ve done some things I’m not proud of and I gotta live with that. As soon as Janie will talk to me, I plan on apologizing to her too.” He held out his hand. “If she wants to have you as a friend, I’ve got no say in the matter.” His face grew even more serious as their hands clasped. “But if you do anything to hurt her, I’ll kill you.” Doug released her hand and stared at Sam for a long moment, as if trying to see why Janie would have anything to do with someone like her. He shook his head, turned and walked away, leaving a stunned Sam behind.
Sam exhaled shakily as her knees threatened to collapse beneath her. “Damn.”
The door to the clinic opened and Janie stepped onto the sidewalk. She was followed by a gray haired, middle-aged man, who locked the door and pocketed the keys. His blue suit coat was draped over one arm, and his red tie was loosened. They began to walk toward the small parking lot to the west, their shoes thudding softly into the quiet evening.
“Thank you for staying tonight, Janie. I didn’t feel comfortable being alone with Ms. Taylor.” Dr. Richmond placed one hand on the small of her back without thought, guiding Janie around a pothole.
The office computer system had crashed around nine o’clock that morning, and it took the technician they’d called well into the evening to get it back online. During the course of the day, the woman constantly flirted with the doctor, who was in charge of the clinic. For the sake of propriety, he’d asked for volunteers to stay after work. Janie had agreed, since the other women were either married, or found excuses to leave.
Janie surreptitiously checked her watch. It was ten-fifteen, probably too late to catch Sam at the bar. “It wasn’t a problem, Ted. I would have hated to try and explain to your wife why you stayed late at work with a woman you didn’t know.”
“I was thinking the exact same thing.” He chuckled, knowing what his wife would have to say on the subject. “Speaking of Sharon, she was asking the other day when you’d be coming back over for dinner.” He stopped next to a white Lexus sedan. “I think she wants to set you up with her cousin.”
The thought of a blind date was not appealing to Janie. “She heard about Doug and I breaking up, didn’t she?”
“Possibly.” He tossed his coat into the back seat. “But don’t let that deter you. We’d love to have you.” Ted looked around the parking lot, which was completely vacant. “Where’s your car?”
“I walk to work when the weather’s nice.” Janie glanced at her watch again. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“You had plans, didn’t you?”
She shrugged. “No, not really. I was going to see a friend after work, but the plans weren’t set in stone.”
“Still, I feel bad. Is there some way I can make it up to you? At least let me drive you home.” He stepped around the car and opened the passenger door. “Please?”
There was no good reason to refuse, yet Janie hung back. She thought about stopping by the gym, to see if Sam had gone home. “Thank you, but—”
“If you don’t agree, I’ll follow you home,” he threatened with a smile on his face. “I’d hate to look like a stalker.”
“It’s really not necessary. I’ve been walking home for years,” she argued, even as she climbed into the car. As she sunk into the soft leather seat, Janie couldn’t help but release a sigh.
Ted hurried around the car and got behind the wheel. “Thank you for humoring me. Sharon would never let me hear the end of it, you know.”
Peering through the side window, Janie relaxed. She’d call Sam first thing in the morning. “No, thank you. It would be silly to walk alone this late at night.”
They shamelessly gossiped about the others in the office during the drive. Dr. Richmond’s wife spent a lot of time at the clinic, unofficially managing the office. She knew all the sordid details where the ladies were involved, and delighted in sharing with her husband. If Sharon didn’t have to take care of her elderly mother, she would most likely be there full time.
It wasn’t long before Ted parked in front of Janie’s building. As she stepped from the car, he leaned across the seat to be heard. “Thanks again for your help. Since you were there so late, why not take tomorrow off? Let the others clean up the files for a change.”
Janie almost declined, then reconsidered. It would be the perfect opportunity to spend more time with Sam. She felt bad when she hadn’t been able to call and tell her she wouldn’t be at Danny’s tonight. Maybe she could make it up to her by cooking lunch. “Thank you, Ted. I’d enjoy having a free day.”
“Great. I’ll see you Wednesday, then. Goodnight.” He drove off after she closed the door and went inside the building.
She was barely inside the apartment before she kicked off her shoes. They skittered across the wood floor and ended up beneath her coffee table. Janie ignored the urge to pick them up, instead stubbornly striding past them on her way to her bedroom. After getting out of her work clothes, she went into the kitchen and opened her refrigerator. She wasn’t hungry, since Dr. Richmond had pizza delivered to the office for dinner. But a snack sounded good, so she grabbed an orange.
On her way back to the bedroom, she heard a knock at her door. She set the orange on the kitchen table hoping it was Sam. Janie didn’t bother to see who it was, instead swinging the door open with a smile.
Doug mirrored her smile. “Hi, Janie.”
“What are you doing here?” Belatedly she realized she was clad only in a cotton nightgown. She crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s late.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. But I was driving by and saw your light on, and I wanted to talk to you.” Unlike his last visit, Doug seemed content to stand in the hall. “I promise it won’t take long.”
Against her better judgment, Janie stepped back and motioned him in. After she closed the door, she gestured to the sofa. “Have a seat. I’ll be right back.” She hurried into the bedroom, returning momentarily clad in a heavy robe.
He looked uncomfortable on the sofa, sitting on the edge with his hands hanging off his knees. At Janie’s return, he looked at his feet. “I saw your friend tonight.”
“Sam?” Janie sat on the chair opposite, placing as much distance between them as possible. “Is she okay?”
“I guess.” He raised his head and looked her in the eyes. “I met her out behind the bar.” He seemed genuinely sad. “What do you see in her?”
The question sparked a nervous fear in the pit of Janie’s stomach. Could he read her mind? “What do you mean? We barely know each other.”
“That’s what she told me, too. But I didn’t believe her.” He stood and began to pace. “Is she the reason you don’t want to see me anymore?”
“Of course not,” Janie vehemently denied. “I think you know things were getting bad between us for a long time.”
Doug rubbed his knuckles, seemingly not listening. “I’ve seen them on television and the movies, but never thought to see one here.” He continued to walk back and forth across the room.
The more the agitated Doug paced around the room, the more nervous Janie became. “Please sit down, Doug. You said you came here to talk?”
He rubbed the top of his head but did as she asked. “I thought you loved me.”
Did she? Janie looked into her heart. “I cared for you, Doug. But I honestly don’t think I ever loved you. At least not like I should have.”
“We had some good times, though, didn’t we?”
“Yes, we did. At least in the beginning.” Janie became more comfortable with the conversation. “But things deteriorated after we started sleeping together.”
Doug sighed. “I thought you wanted it.”
“You never asked.”
“Yeah, but after New Year’s—”
Janie adjusted the folds of her robe. “I don’t remember much about that night.” It still bothered her, waking up beside him with no memory.
“To tell you the truth, neither do I,” he admitted. “But you never said anything, so I thought you were okay with it.”
“I know, and that’s my fault. I thought it would be easier to go along than to fight about it.” She felt guilty about leading him on. “I should have never let it get that far.”
He flopped against the back of the sofa. “We were going to get married.”
“No.” Janie noticed the dejected set of his shoulders. “What’s the big deal, Doug? It’s not like you were faithful to me.”
She laughed ruefully. “In a town this size, everyone knew.”
“I’m sorry.” He sat up again and scooted to the edge of his seat. “I’m sorry for a lot of things, Janie. That’s what I came here to say.” Doug got to his feet and knelt in front of her. He didn’t miss the way she flinched as he touched her knees. “I was a sorry bastard, and I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me someday.” He raised one of her hands and kissed it. “I did love you.” He stood and gave her a sad little smile. “I’ll see you around.”
Janie stared at the closed door minutes after he’d left. Just when she thought she had people figured out, something like this came out of the blue. She’d have to ask Sam tomorrow about what Doug had said to her.
The annoying ring of her cell phone woke Janie from a sound sleep. She peered blearily at her alarm clock and wondered who was calling her at seven-thirty in the morning. She flipped the phone open as she sat up in bed. “Hello?”
“Miss Clarke? This is Helen at Spring Gardens.”
The woman’s caring tone jolted Janie into full wakefulness. “Is it my grandmother? Is she okay? What’s wrong?”
“She’s fine, physically. But we’re worried about her emotional well-being.”
Janie was tempted to crawl through the phone and shake the woman, unless she began to give better answers. “Could you please tell me why you called?”
The woman became snippy. “Of course. As I was trying to say, there was a bit of trouble last night—”
“Please, Miss Clarke. If you’ll allow me to continue.” The woman sighed dramatically. “Mr. Clarke came by to see her last night, and—”
“Harvey? What did he want?” Janie swung her legs over the side of the bed and put her feet into her slippers. She had a feeling she was going to need a pot of coffee to get through the day.
“I’m not certain, and Mrs. Clarke wouldn’t say. But they had quite an argument. Even the residents in the media room heard them.”
Janie filled the coffee maker with water. “Dammit. He never visits unless he wants something. Are you sure she’s all right?”
“She wasn’t harmed, if that’s what you mean. But after he left, she stayed in her room and didn’t come out for dinner. She won’t speak to anyone, and hasn’t joined us for breakfast, either.”
“I’ll be there in half an hour. Thanks for calling.” Janie closed her phone and stared at the coffee pot, which now percolated noisily. With her grandmother’s well being at the forefront of her mind, she completely forgot about contacting Sam.
Within twenty minutes, Janie was showered, dressed, and on her way to Spring Gardens. Her mind whirled. She couldn’t figure out why Harvey had gone to visit her grandmother. He’d never even bothered sending her a card on her birthday, and holidays were no different. She wondered if he’d found out about his mother’s “nest egg”. Lucille paid her own way at the home. She wasn’t wealthy, but due to smart investments, she had been able to stretch her husband’s insurance benefits for years.
After parking, Janie took her usual trek down the hallway, only to find her grandmother’s door closed. Lucille lived for company, and normally enjoyed watching the passersby. With a frown, Janie tapped on the door. When there was no answer, she knocked louder.
“Go ‘way! How many times do I have to tell you busybodies to leave me alone!” Lucille’s voice rang out quite clearly. She sounded perturbed, but otherwise fine.
Janie ignored her and opened the door slowly. She peeked around at her grandmother, who was situated in her wheelchair, staring out the window. “Nana?”
The mechanical whine of the chair echoed in the room as Lucille spun around. “Janie. I didn’t want them to bother you.” She met Janie halfway and embraced her.
“It’s no bother, and you know it. The woman on the phone told me you had a pretty good fight with Harvey.”
“To put it mildly.” Lucille wheeled toward the bed and moved the brightly colored afghan blanket out of the way. “Might as well get comfortable, since you’re here.” She waited until Janie was settled before explaining the previous night’s activities. It suddenly occurred to her that something was different about her granddaughter. “You’ve changed your hair. And got new glasses.”
Feeling her face heat, Janie studied her lap. “Yes, on Saturday.”
“You look wonderful.” Lucille couldn’t get over how much younger Janie looked. She tried to shove her remaining questions down deep. “So, about yesterday. Your father demanded I talk some sense into you. He’s under the notion you’re going to die an old maid, and he’ll be left alone in his doddering years.” The twinkle returned to her eyes. “I told him, in no uncertain terms, that you could have a dozen children, and he’d still be alone.” She laughed at her own joke. “That’s when he got all pissy and started yelling. I couldn’t let him have all the fun, so I yelled back.”
Janie rolled her eyes. She could only imagine the ruckus they caused. No wonder the nurse who called her was so upset. “If you enjoyed yourself so much, why are you hiding in your room?”
“I’m not hiding. I was tired of all these little snot-nosed do-gooders fawning all over me. I figured if I laid low for a while, they’d go back to pestering someone else.”
“Okay.” Janie picked at the afghan. “If Harvey’s so worried about me, why did he talk to you?”
“I asked him that very same thing.”
Lucille wagged her finger at Janie. “Don’t get sassy. He seems to think I’d, and I quote, ‘talk some sense into you’. Like you don’t have a brain of your own.”
The last thing Janie wanted was her grandmother in the middle of her ongoing feud with Harvey. “As much as I hate to admit it, he does have a point. You’re one of the few people I trust anymore.” She began to gnaw on a hangnail, but stopped when Lucille snapped her fingers at her. The bad childhood habit always reappeared when she was nervous. “But nothing anyone can say will make me go back to Doug.”
“He hurt you that badly?”
Janie wasn’t going to tell her about the night Doug came to her apartment and attacked her. It was in the past, and all it would do was upset Lucille. “No, it wasn’t hurt. I finally realized we were only together to keep our fathers happy. I never loved him.”
“So you’ve told me before.” Lucille decided to test a theory she’d come up with. “How’s it going with your new friend?” Her granddaughter’s blush told her more than she wanted to know.
“Her name’s Sam.” Janie looked into her grandmother’s eyes. “We’ve become pretty good friends.”
Uncomfortable, but trying hard not to show it, Lucille tried to sound upbeat. “That’s wonderful. Tell me more about her. Last time you were here, all you did was describe what she looked like.”
“Well, she’s very sweet. As a matter of fact, she’s helping Betsy at the gym when she’s not singing at the bar.”
Janie nodded enthusiastically. “Yes. She’s probably old enough to be Sam’s mother, and she’s really nice. They’re starting aerobics classes next week, and I’m going to join.”
“Really?” Lucille had never heard of Janie wanting to join anything. This was an interesting revelation. She wondered how much was this new woman’s influence.
“I can’t wait. A couple of women from work will be there also. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
“Will Sam be running the class?” Janie’s snort of laughter surprised her. “What?”
Janie had a hard time picturing her friend in workout leotards. “Nana, I don’t think Sam is the aerobics kind.”
It was on the tip of Lucille’s tongue to ask what kind this woman was, but she prudently kept silent.
“She came over for dinner the other night, and we had a really nice time. Although when Doug showed up, I thought things were going to get nasty.”
“What happened? Did they get into a fight?”
“No, although I was afraid they would. Doug was pretty obnoxious, but Sam didn’t let him goad her into anything.” Visions of ending the evening together on the sofa passed through Janie’s mind. “And afterward, well, it all worked out.”
Lucille rested her hand on Janie’s knee. “I’m glad. She sounds like a very good friend.”
“She is.” Janie suddenly remembered what she originally planned for the day. “I was going to see about cooking her lunch today.”
“Shouldn’t you be at work?”
Janie shook her head. “I worked late last night, so Dr. Richmond gave me today off.” She squeezed her grandmother’s hand. “Would you like to come home with me for the day? I’d love for you to meet Sam.”
Lucille wasn’t quite ready for that. “No, not today. I’ve got to try to smooth things over with the staff, or they’ll tiptoe around me all week. Maybe another time.”
“All right.” Janie stood and kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll hold you to it.”
Janie was on her way to find Sam when her cell phone rang. She glanced at the readout and wasn’t surprised to hear Andrea’s voice, realizing the opportunity for a day off was too good to be true.
Andrea sounded frantic. “Janie, thank god! Where are you?”
“I’m in my car. Why?”
“The shit has really hit the fan around here. We can’t find the records you were supposed to enter yesterday.”
“Of course you couldn’t find them. The computers were down all day, remember?” Janie stopped at a red light and drummed her fingertips on the steering wheel.
“Yes, I remember. But you were here all evening. What were you doing?”
Janie sighed. “I was waiting for the computers to come back up.”
“Did it take all night?” Andrea’s voice turned sly. “Or were you enjoying Dr. Richmond’s company?”
“He’s married, for god’s sake!” Janie wanted to strangle the annoying woman.
Andrea giggled. “Like that matters. Are you coming to work today?”
“No. Dr. Richmond gave me the day off.”
“And you said nothing happened,” Andrea teased.
Slowly losing patience, Janie ground out her next words. “That’s exactly what I said, Andrea.”
“Well, that’s not fair. I’m not about to enter all these files by myself.”
“You don’t have to. Leave them and I’ll take care of them tomorrow.” Once the light was green, Janie started through it. She couldn’t believe how childish Andrea was being. “I’ve got to go.” She hung up the phone and tossed it on the seat beside her. “Of all the stupid—” she had to swerve as a car tried to back out of a parking space in front of her. “Watch it, jerk!”
She’d barely made it a block before the phone rang again. Flipping it open, she growled, “What?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Sam apologized quietly. “I didn’t mean to bother you.” She hung up the phone, much to Janie’s dismay.
Janie cursed and checked the log on the phone. Sam had called from Danny’s, so at least now she knew where Sam was.
Within minutes, Janie wheeled into a parking space not far from the bar’s entrance. It was still too early for them to be open, but she tried the handle anyway. It was locked. She rattled the knob in irritation. “Dammit! Won’t one thing go right today?” Not to be deterred, she went to the back of the building and rapped on the delivery door.
It seemed like forever before the door opened and Ray appeared. “Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for Sam. She called from here a few minutes ago.”
“Oh, yeah. She left.”
Janie felt like crying. “Do you know where she went?”
“Nope. She didn’t say.”
“If you happen to talk to her or see her, could you please ask her to call Janie again? It’s important.”
Ray shrugged. “Yeah, sure. No prob.” He closed the door.
Staring at the cracked wood, Janie felt like kicking the door in frustration. She turned and noticed Sam’s car parked nearby. She walked over and looked inside, not surprised to find it empty. “So much for that idea.”
Determined to find Sam, she went back to her own car. She decided to try the gym. It took her less than five minutes to get there. She parked illegally out front and hurried inside.
Betsy was at the counter. “Well, hello there.”
Janie flashed her a fond smile. “Hi. Is Sam around?”
“No, I haven’t seen her. I thought she was at Danny’s.” Betsy came out from behind the counter.
“I came from the bar, and she’s not there, either.” Tears of frustration welled in Janie’s eyes but didn’t fall. “Do you have any idea where she might be?”
“I’m sorry, no. What’s the matter?”
Janie lowered her eyes in shame. “I thought she was someone else when she called and I snapped at her. She hung up before I could apologize.” She raised her head. “Please, if you see her, let her know I’m trying to find her.”
“Sure, no problem. Hey, it’s about lunchtime. Want to go upstairs with me? I was going to have a sandwich.”
“No, I can’t.” Janie was flustered. “I really have to find Sam.”
Betsy gave Janie a much-needed hug. “You do that. I’ll have her call you if she comes in.”
“Thanks.” Janie turned and left as quickly as she came.
Refusing to give up, Janie continued to search for Sam. “Where are you?” Her phone rang and she quickly answered it. “Sam?”
“No, this is Andrea.” She paused. “Who’s Sam?”
“Never mind. What do you want?”
“Jane, we need you to come in. Dr. Retzburg is on a tear and we’ve got to get the files in order ASAP.”
Janie exhaled heavily. “I can’t. I’m not dressed for work, and I have some other things to take care of.”
“I don’t care how you’re dressed. This is an emergency,” Andrea stressed.
“Fine. I’ll be there in ten minutes.” Janie wanted to pound her head on the steering wheel in frustration. Things were not going her way.
Sam had found the darkest, quietest corner of the library and was trying to read the newspaper to take her mind off Janie. She didn’t know what she did to incur Janie’s wrath and her heart crumbled at the thought.
She was afraid something like this would happen. Especially when she hadn’t heard from Janie since Monday afternoon. Trying to be friends was one thing, but wanting something more was pure foolishness. To get more comfortable, she pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs. She angrily wiped a tear from her cheek.
The newspaper fell to the floor, its pages fanning out beneath her chair. Sam propped her chin on her knees and stared into space. She couldn’t figure out what exactly went wrong. Everything seemed fine when Janie left the gym after lunch.
Her eyes closed and she fought off the urge to cry. This was precisely the reason she never got too close to anyone, never stayed in one place very long. It hurt too much. The last meaningful relationship she had was four years ago, in Austin. She thought she’d found a kindred spirit. Nora was a grad student she’d met in a bar near the university and they’d hit it off immediately. She’d spent almost six months with her, so sure in the relationship she’d considered finding a permanent job and residence. But Nora’s girlfriend, whom she’d forgotten to mention, returned from a year’s studying in California. Nora dumped Sam without so much as an apology or goodbye, and Sam took the fastest highway out of Austin.
Now, here she was, in almost the same situation. At least she and Janie hadn’t gotten physical, other than the one night of cuddling. The thought made more tears run down her cheeks. The loss of Janie as a friend hurt more than anything.
Sam’s watched beeped and she glanced at the time. She needed to get back to the bar and ready things for the evening. With a heavy heart, she gathered up the scattered newspaper and left the library.
Janie’s afternoon didn’t go any better than her morning. After she arrived at work, she was inundated with file requests. Many of the files had been lost when the computer crashed, so she spent the majority of her day re-entering the data. It was almost five-thirty when Dr. Richmond came by her desk.
“Janie? I thought you were taking today off?” He noticed the large pile of folders stacked in her out-box.
“I was. But Andrea called me. She was going nuts, screaming about lost histories and demanding doctors. I thought it would be easier to come in today and get a start on things.”
He loosened his tie. “She does have a tendency to panic at the drop of a hat,” he agreed. “But it’s past quitting time, so find a stopping place and go home. The paperwork won’t go anywhere.”
Fifteen minutes later, she followed his advice. Her car was one of the last in the parking lot so it wasn’t hard to find. Before she could drive off, her cell rang. She quickly snatched it up, hoping it was Sam. “Hello?”
“Hey, girl. What are you doing tonight?” Sandra sounded well on her way to being drunk, and it wasn’t even six o’clock.
“I’m leaving work, why?”
The phone was muffled and Sandra could be heard saying something to someone else. She was soon back, giggling. “Meet me at the bar. I have someone you’ve got to meet.”
Janie wasn’t in the mood to socialize. All she wanted was to find Sam, but maybe she could do both. “Which bar?”
“The one you like to hang out at.” Sandra lowered her tone. “You know, the one with the lesbian singer.”
“Okay. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes. But you have to buy the first round.”
Sandra giggled again. “I already have. And the second, and the third, and the—”
“I get the point. Bye.” Janie closed her phone. She was glad she hadn’t changed from her casual clothes to go to work. Not only were they more comfortable, but it saved her having to go home first.
The closest parking space was a block away. Janie grumbled as she got out of her car, thinking she might as well have gone home and walked. Once inside she had no trouble finding Sandra.
The blonde was at a table close to the piano, and she wasn’t alone. Her laughter could be heard over Sam’s singing. “Play something happier, will you? This shit is boring,” she yelled, laughing at something her companion said.
Janie walked to the table and sat in an empty chair. She tried to make eye contact with Sam, but the singer stared at the piano keys while she sang a depressing ballad.
“Janie! I’m so glad you’re here,” Sandra loudly exclaimed. “Whatcha drinking?”
“I think I’ll get a coke.” Janie started to stand, but the man sitting close to Sandra got to his feet first.
“I’ll take care of it.” He was tall, muscular and his dark hair and eyes went well with his deep tan. He held out his hand and waited until Janie took it. “I’m Terry Humphrey. Sandra’s told me all about you, Janie.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Terry. Have you known Sandra long?”
He winked. “Long enough.” Turning his attention to Sandra, he chucked her under the chin with his index finger. “How about you, babe? Want another?”
Janie interrupted Sandra’s answer. “Maybe she’d be better off with a cup of coffee,” she suggested.
Sandra waved her hands, one which held a lit cigarette. The ashes scattered across the table. “Hell, no! We’re cebrabating. Ain’t we, Terry?”
“Sure are, sweet thing. Another beer coming up.” He gave Janie a sly smile before going to the bar.
Once they were alone, Janie leaned across the table so she wouldn’t be overheard. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough? You can barely sit up.”
“I’m fine, Jay.” Sandra pointed toward the bar. “Isn’t he cute?”
“I suppose. Where did you meet him?”
“Saturday, at the flea market.” Sandra took a deep drag from her cigarette. “He was selling the saddles he makes. And god, is he good in bed! Whew!” She fanned her face with her free hand. “I think he’s the one, Jay.”
The admission surprised Janie. She knew Sandra was a free spirit and fell in “like” at the drop of a hat, but she’d never heard her talk like this before. “How can you be sure? You haven’t even known him a week.”
“Honey, we haven’t been apart since we met. He’s perfect.” She grinned lasciviously. “And he’s hung like a stallion.”
“Sandra!” Janie looked around. “I can’t believe you said that.”
Terry returned and placed the drinks on the table. “Here you go, ladies.” He swung his leg over his chair and sat. When Sam started another sad number, he yelled to voice his displeasure. “Come on! We’re trying to party here,” he yelled.
Sam looked up long enough to see Janie at the table. Her voice faltered, but she quickly found her place and continued.
Sandra didn’t want to feel left out. “Yeah, what he said. We want some dancing music!” Her voice carried clearly over the piano.
Ashamed and embarrassed, Janie could do nothing but sit by while her companions heckled Sam. She could feel the eyes of the other patrons on them and tapped Sandra’s arms to quiet her.
“Hey, butch! The ladies want some decent music,” Terry added.
Sam jabbed the keys on the final notes and stood. “I’m done.” She fled the room, ignoring the requests that rang out behind her.
Janie had heard enough. “You two deserve each other.” She grabbed her purse and angrily got up from the table. She didn’t know who she was more upset with – Sandra and her boyfriend, or herself. She knew she should have said something while they harassed Sam. She only hoped she could catch up to her and explain.
Someone else watched Janie leave and decided to follow. He made sure no one noticed as he slipped out behind her.
Once outside, Janie heard a scuffling in the alley and followed the sound. “Sam?” When she saw Sam rest her arms over the top of the car and lay her head down, Janie moved closer. She touched Sam’s shoulder and turned her around. The tears on the other woman’s face broke her heart. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Sam tried to pull away. “It’s pretty much what I expected.”
“What do you mean?”
Sam broke free and leaned her hip against the car. “I thought we were friends. But you’re worse than the rest of them. At least they have the guts to be jerks to my face.”
You have no idea what you do to me, do you? Sometimes you act as if I have the plague, and other times,” she ran her hand through her hair, trying to think of how to put her feelings into words. “Other times you seem to be attracted to me. These mixed signals are driving me nuts.”
“What do you want from me?” Janie paced back and forth, the glare of the nearby light pole casting her shadow against the car. “I’m not like you. I have to live here.”
Sam pushed off from where she had stood against the fender. She wanted to grab Janie and shake some sense into her. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. These people don’t own you.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.”
“I don’t need this. You’ve obviously changed your mind about being friends. Again.” With a heavy sigh, Sam turned and started to walk to the other side of the car. Janie’s hand on her arm stopped her. “What?”
“Don’t leave me.” Janie tightened her grip. “Please.” When Sam’s eyes locked with hers, she felt lightheaded from an overpowering emotion. “In such a short time you’ve brought more into my life than I could ever imagine. I don’t know what will happen to me if you go.”
The plea melted something in Sam’s heart. There was no way she’d be able to walk away from the feeling that being in Janie’s presence evoked. But she was too proud to be pulled back and forth. “Do you want a relationship with me?”
“I…I’m not sure. I mean, I know I feel something for you. My god, Sam. I can’t even close my eyes without seeing you.” Janie tugged on Sam’s arm to bring her closer. “But I’ve been taught all my life that what I’m feeling for you is wrong. It’s hard to reverse that kind of thinking.” Her eyes darted around to make certain they were alone in the alley. “Please be patient with me.”
“Believe it or not, this is new to me, too.” Sam pulled Janie into her arms and kissed the side of her head. “I’d wait for you forever, if I knew I had a chance.”
Janie’s arms tightened around Sam’s waist. “You have more than a chance. I do care about you. It’s just hard.”
Sam had heard the same excuses before from other women. She hoped it was different this time. Tears of frustration fell from her eyes.
“Oh, honey.” Janie cupped Sam’s face in her hands and tenderly wiped the tears away with her thumbs. Her heart broke at the pain she caused.
The light touch on her face felt so good, Sam couldn’t help but lean into it and close her eyes. Soft breath against her skin, followed by the slightest touch of Janie’s lips against hers, surprised Sam so much she almost fell. When a tongue tentatively touched her lower lip, Sam moaned. She opened her mouth and staggered against the car when their tongues danced together for the first time.
Janie’s eyes grew large as she realized what she had done. She stumbled away back several steps. “Oh, my god. I can’t believe I did that.” She looked around nervously. “I shouldn’t have—”
“Why not? There’s nothing wrong with a simple kiss.” Sam moved toward her. “I certainly don’t regret it.”
“No.” Janie held her hands out in front of her. “This is wrong.” She turned and ran out of the alley, leaving a confused Sam behind.
In the shadows, Reggie gripped the lid of the trash can he hid behind. He could feel the metal bending beneath his fingers, and he vowed to protect Janie from the singer, no matter what.
To be continued in Part III
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