The House on Sandstone — Part 3

By KG MacGregor



Chapter 7


Carly fumbled in her pocket for her lighter, glad for the chance to get out of the house. It had been almost a week since she'd seen Justine, the promised "I'll call you" never materializing. Stopping in the street, she cupped her hand and lit the Dunhill, drawing the smoke deeply into her lungs.

As if on automatic pilot, she trudged to the top of the hill to look for signs of life at the house on Sandstone. Over the weekend, the Volkswagen had been there, and Carly had glimpsed Justine going in and out a couple of times with both of her kids. That was as good a reason as any for Justine not calling, but she had to admit she was growing a little anxious about it all.

Carly had been beating herself up all week about things getting so far out of hand last Wednesday. Justine had probably had some time to think about it, and maybe she was angry at her for bringing over that bottle of cognac, and then taking advantage of the situation. And the worst part was that Carly kept asking herself if indeed that's what she'd done. But Justine's the one who started it. She said she'd wanted to do that for nearly thirty years. Maybe it was Justine who took advantage.

On and on she went with her circular arguments. Maybe Justine was just self-conscious about it. Maybe she thought Carly would think less of her or something. If that were the case, all she needed was some reassurance.

The snow was gone. In fact, the temperatures had reached the upper sixties over the weekend, though the town of Leland was now completely decorated for Christmas. In the big house on Sandstone, a tree stood in the front window, its lights twinkling in celebration. That had gone up sometime on Saturday when the kids were visiting.

Carly ground out her cigarette with the heel of her brand new Diggers and started down the hill toward the footbridge.

You have to stop stalking this woman, Carly. And she would, just as soon as she went down there and delivered the gift she'd wrapped. It was one of the ornaments she'd bought in Bethlehem just before she came home. She knew at the time that they'd make nice Christmas gifts. They also made a great excuse for getting yourself invited in.

Stepping onto the porch, Carly pulled the wrapped box from her pocket and held it in front of her, thinking it would be best if Justine saw it right away. Nervously, she rang the bell and stepped back to wait. As she expected, the light came on several seconds before the door was opened, robbing her of the chance to witness Justine's initial reaction to her presence.

"Hi. Yeah, it's me." Awkward, huh? "I, uh, waited until it got dark."

"Carly…come on in." Justine stepped back to allow her guest to enter.

"I brought you a present." Carly gestured behind her. "I sometimes walk through that park at night when I sneak off to smoke, and I noticed you have a tree up. It's really pretty from up there."

"Thank you." The redhead led her guest into the living room to get a close up view of the enormous evergreen. "The kids helped me put it up over the weekend."

"You did a great job. This is an ornament, by the way. I didn't want to spoil the surprise, but that's why I came down…on account of you having your tree up. Go ahead and open it."

Justine pulled off the ribbon and carefully broke the taped seal.

"Yeah, I didn't figure you for a ripper, so I was careful to get it just so." That earned her the first smile from Justine, but it was a small one.

"Oh, Carly…it's beautiful!" She held it out and studied the unfamiliar script. "What does it say?"

"It's in Hebrew. It says Bethlehem. That's where I got it."

"You're kidding! So now I have a Christmas ornament from the birthplace of Christ. That's just so…."

"Corny. I know. But I thought it was pretty."

"It is pretty. And it's not corny, it's…very nice. Thank you for thinking of me. This is such a special gift." Justine cleared a prominent position on the tree at eye level to display the ornament. "There."

Both women stood for a minute, looking silently at the shimmering tree.

"So Justine…can we talk?" If either of them got any more nervous, somebody was going to wet their pants. "You know, about last week…and this week…and next week?"

The redhead nodded nervously and gestured toward the sofa.

It's so formal in here. This was the rarely used living room, and while not as elegantly appointed as J2's, it was far less inviting than the den they had been in the other night.

"So how are you feeling about…last week?"

"I'm alright." Her grim tone didn't convince anybody.

"Yeah, me neither."

Justine looked at her in confusion.

"I'm feeling kind of embarrassed about it all too."

The redhead nodded and looked at her folded hands. "I feel like a…slut."

"No, Justine." Carly scooted over on the couch, a move that prompted the redhead to lean back ever so slightly. "You're not a slut. Please don't feel that way. It was just the alcohol, taking away our inhibitions." She wanted to tell Justine that it was more than that for her, but the other woman didn't seem to share that sentiment. "I think maybe we both just needed…to be with somebody."

The blonde waited for a signal that her argument was getting through, but Justine continued to stare at her lap. When she did finally lift her eyes, the look was tentative.

"Maybe so, but it still wasn't right, Carly…at least not for me."

Carly sighed in agreement. "I know. It's not the way I would have chosen for it all to happen…but I won't lie to you. You've always been special to me, Justine. Being close to you like that…it was nice…kind of amazing, actually. I just wish I could remember it all a little better." That was meant to lighten the mood, but when Carly saw the reddening face, she worried that she was only making things worse. "Justine, don't you see? We're all grown up now, and we know who we are. There's nothing to be afraid of anymore. I know we may have rushed things a little, but–"

Justine snorted. "You don't know anything about my fears, Carly. This is Leland, Kentucky we're talking about. We aren't free to choose things like that here."

"So what if it's Leland? I've been all over the world, Justine, and there are lots of places that are tougher than Leland. Hell, I told you, in Shanghai, they would throw you in jail for that kind of thing. But in places like this, all it takes is standing up to people, showing them that you're not afraid of their bigotry. Live your life the way you want to."

Justine shook her head fervently. "You don't get it. I don't give a…damn what people think about me. Even if I did, it's too late to do anything about it. People don't forget juicy gossip."

"So let 'em talk! What's the big deal?"

Abruptly she stood up and whirled to face her startled guest. "The big deal? The big deal is that six years ago, that one little incident–that ‘living my life the way I wanted to' as you call it–cost me both of my kids!"

The blonde woman was shocked both by the rising ire of her friend and by the revelation that a stupid little kiss at a country club–a kiss that got blown way out of proportion–had caused this much trouble for her.

"They took your kids away for that?"

"Nobody took my children! It was much worse than that, a thousand times worse. Trey and Emmy chose to leave because of me…because of that." The blue eyes were filled with angry tears. "So don't think you can just come in here out of the blue and tell me how I should live my life."

Carly sat stunned at the vehement outburst. The redhead immediately turned away from her and wiped her eyes, clearly uncomfortable with the emotional display.

"I'm sorry, Justine. I didn't know."

"No, I should be the one apologizing. I…didn't mean to yell like that. None of what happened was your fault." Justine walked back over and sank down on the couch. "We're working it all out. They both come over now, a lot more than they used to. I just don't want to do anything that's going to change that."

"So that means you can't…." You can't be who you are.

"It means I just don't have a place in my life for that part of me. It's a choice, Carly. I want my children, every minute I can have them. And what we did the other night puts all of that at risk."

Now it all made sense…the underlying sadness, the evasive manner, and the guilt. Justine had lost the dearest thing in her life, all because she'd given in to her desires for a fleeting moment.

"I understand." Carly had no answers for the pain or frustration. "It really must have been terrible for you."

"It was…harder than losing my father. And I'm so glad he wasn't alive to see that." Justine sighed deeply and pushed another tear away. "It didn't happen right away. They lived here with me for two years after the divorce and everything was fine. Then Trey started the ninth grade at Leland High School and discovered that he really liked girls a lot. I tell you, your whole life changes when your kids find out about the hormone thing." Justine managed a small chuckle.

"Yeah, I know mine changed when I found out about it. But then I had to figure out why everything was so convoluted."

"Tell me about it. I'm still trying to figure it all out." Justine pulled a leg up onto the couch and turned sideways to face her guest. She found it surprisingly relaxing to actually confront what had happened the other night. "Anyway, I got called to the school one day because Trey had gotten into a fight and was being suspended. JT and I both had to go talk to the principal, and it turned out that our son went after this other boy because he'd asked Trey how his mom liked his new girlfriend. That's when he asked if he could go live with his father."

"Why didn't you just say no? I mean, couldn't you talk with him about ignoring that kind of stuff?"

"It wasn't that simple. Nothing's all that simple with teenagers. Trey had started going steady with Melissa Chandler. She's Walton Chandler's daughter. You remember him?"

"The name's familiar. He was a few years ahead of us, right?" As she recalled, the Chandlers were one of Leland's "old money" families; their wealth was rumored to have come from moonshine sales during prohibition.

"That's right. JT handles a lot of his legal business. Anyway, I think Melissa was putting some pressure on him too. A teenager's whole life revolves around his peers, and it was asking a lot of him to put up with that kind of stuff. The first thing I did was tell both of my kids what really happened. Now that's a pretty humiliating conversation to have to have with your fourteen-year-old son and thirteen-year-old daughter. It's bad enough when kids come to realize that their parents actually did the deed, but imagine having to hear from your mom that she got caught feeling up another woman." Justine shuddered visibly at the memory.

"That must have really been something."

"Oh, it was. I never told either of the kids what their father was up to all this time. I mean, it really doesn't make any sense to try to make him look bad…it's not like it's going to make me look any better. Besides, they'll probably hear about it eventually anyway, if they haven't already."

"But even if they do, it won't carry the same stigma as you and Petra."


"So how did they react? When you talked to them, I mean."

"Trey didn't take it very well, even after he found out that it wasn't as bad as what everybody was saying. JT and I both asked him to stay here, but he just couldn't handle it. He'd gotten so he wouldn't even come out of his room, he hardly spoke to me, and then he brought home the worst report card he'd ever had. So as much as I hated to, I let him go."

"And Emmy?"

Justine sighed deeply, and her eyes clouded up with tears again. "After Trey left, I got…kind of depressed." Understatement. "I was so afraid of losing Emmy too that I couldn't bear to let her out of my sight. And I was always…god, this is embarrassing."

"Justine, it's just me here. I'm your friend, and I'm not going to judge you."

"I know…I know, Carly. It's just hard to talk about my mistakes out loud, unless I'm paying somebody seventy-five dollars an hour to listen, anyway. That's a secret, by the way. I can't believe I just told you that too."

"And I didn't even have to give you anything to drink."

"No more plying me with alcohol!"

"No more alcohol," the blonde agreed, crossing her heart with her fingers. This was good, Carly thought. They seemed to have crossed a barrier somehow, and Justine was finally opening up on her own. Carly ached inside to hear of all the things her friend had gone through. It was worse that she'd apparently had to do it all on her own. "And your secrets are safe with me."

"Okay, where was I?"


"Oh, yeah. With Trey gone, I turned all of my attention to my daughter, just what a thirteen-year-old girl wants…not. I nearly smothered her, offering to take her and all of her friends places just so I could go with them. I listened to the same music. I tried to talk like she and her friends did. Believe me, if my mother had done the kinds of things I did to Emmy, I would have run away from home."

"A little too cool, eh?"

"That was about when JT and his wife realized that something was wrong with their little girl, Alexandra. Emmy started going over there a lot more to help J2. She's really just an amazing kid." Justine shook her head in awe of her daughter. "Anyway, Trey had promised when he left that he'd stay here every other weekend, but it was more like one night a month. And I started getting more and more anxious and depressed about it all. Instead of backing off and giving them some space, I started pressing both of them to be here more. So it all came to a head on my birthday. I cooked a special dinner for all three of us because they'd both promised to be here, and then…stuff came up and they both just…forgot. I came apart, Carly."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I flipped out. I called over to JT's and told Emmy to come get her stuff. Told her she could just stay with her father. Then I called Trey on his cell phone and told him he wasn't welcome here anymore either. And then I started throwing things. I broke picture frames…dishes…a lamp. I went up to their rooms and emptied their dresser drawers over the rails. The next day, JT came over sometime in the afternoon and I was still in bed. I think Emmy had probably come by in the morning and found the place in such a wreck. Anyway, JT…took me up to Lexington and put me in the hospital. I stayed there for nine days."

Carly's heart was breaking at the awful story, which her friend related like a confession. But why was she acting like it was all her fault? It was terrible that her own children had been so thoughtless on their mother's birthday, especially knowing how important it was to her.

"And when I got back home, Emmy was…living with her father. They didn't come over for a long time, and when they finally did, I felt like I wouldn't ever be able to make it up to 'em. I was just so…ugly that night. But ever since then, I've been walking back…a step at a time."

"None of that was your fault, Justine. It's awful that you were left on your own like that, especially on your birthday."

"It wouldn't have mattered. It would have happened sooner or later anyway. I was just an emotional mess."

"You seem pretty strong to me now. That's what I see in you, not somebody who's fragile anymore."

Justine shrugged. "I don't know if strong is the right word, Carly. I think the whole town still thinks I'm crazy."

"I don't think you're crazy, Justine."

The redhead sighed. "I appreciate that. But you weren't here. I think I really went off the deep end, and that's what everybody remembers."

"But you've gotten better."

"I'm a lot more disciplined than I used to be, about everything. I joined the Wellness Center at the hospital and I finally lost all that weight I'd been carrying around for fifteen years. I run about eighteen miles a week, and I eat better now. I've been seeing a therapist ever since I got out of the hospital…I'm down to just once a week. And I hardly ever take the medication anymore…unless I have trouble sleeping for a few nights in a row. Then I have to, or I start to get edgy about stuff."

God, this woman's been through hell. "But you're in control of your life now, right? And you're seeing your kids again."

"Yes, and that's why I'm so…worried about…," she hesitated, unable to meet Carly's eye. "It's not just because I'm afraid of losing them. I just…can't go back to that time again. I can't bear to think of losing it like that again." Justine surprised her when she reached out and took her hand. "Can you understand that?"

Yes…no! Answer the lady. "I can see why it would scare you." But I don't want you to pull away.

"I wouldn't survive it again, Carly. I know it."

The women sat in silence in the twinkling lights, the blonde woman trying as hard as she could to think of something to say that would combat the fears. It was terrible that the punishment for such a small indiscretion had been not only the loss of her kids, but the near loss of her sanity. But now that the crisis was past, didn't she deserve to have a life too?

"I want to be your friend, Justine." I want to be your best friend. I want to be the one who knows your secrets, and the one you turn to for support.

"I could really use a friend. But I'm…."

"I won't push the other…." But I won't resist you if you do.

"But it doesn't matter, Carly. People are going to jump to that conclusion about us anyway."

Carly's brow furrowed in confusion…or was it dismay? "So what does that mean?" You can't possibly be thinking what I think you're thinking.

"It just means that I'm scared. I don't want to give people a reason to start wagging their tongues, because the next thing you know, Trey and Emmy are going to hear about it at school."

"So where do we go from here? Does that mean we have to sneak around just to be friends?"

Justine looked as though she might cry from the frustration of it all. She couldn't meet Carly's eye when she answered, ashamed already of her words. "I just…Carly, I just can't risk it."

"So that's it?" She couldn't keep the edge out of her voice. "We just forget about even being friends? What about when we went out to dinner and you said yourself that our friendship was special." Carly had played that over and over in her head, liking very much that Justine Hall thought that about her.

"I'm so sorry."

Carly stood abruptly and pulled her jacket closed. "I can't believe you're doing this again."

The redhead shook her head, the tears finally spilling forth.

"And you know it's wrong, just like it was then. Look at yourself, Justine. You know it's wrong."

Justine turned away to hide her tears, but it didn't matter. Carly had gone.




Valerie peered over her glasses at her client, worried that the fallout from Justine's talk with Carly Griffin yesterday would compound the stress that already surrounded her Christmas holiday. After their phone conversation on Friday, Justine had done exactly what she'd planned to do: tell Carly everything that had happened and how it had turned her life upside down. Justine had been sure that once Carly knew the whole story, she'd understand what was at stake and why they couldn't be friends after all. "So how did it make you feel when she reacted like that?"

"Awful…. She had every right to be angry. From where she's standing, it's no different from the way I acted back in high school. You'd think I'd have learned a lesson about that after twenty-six years."

"What lesson is that, Justine?"

"Just that…other people's feelings matter. Carly never did anything to deserve being treated this way. She's been nothing but kind to me. But I was afraid of people finding out about me back then so I pushed her away. And I've felt bad about it for almost thirty years, but now I'm doing it again."

"So if it makes you feel bad, are you still certain it's the right thing to do?" Her client needed to reach a solution that minimized her feelings of guilt.

"Valerie, the stakes are a lot higher this time. Back then, all I had to worry about was whether or not girls like Sara McCurry would still be my friend…or if I'd get a prom date…or if my dad would be disappointed in me. This time, we're talking about my kids…and we're talking about me going bonkers again."

Valerie let the "bonkers" remark slide this time. They needed to focus on getting Justine to a place where she could be comfortable with her children and with herself, a delicate balancing act. "What would Trey and Emmy think of Carly?"

"I think they'd like her just fine…but they'd be suspicious about…you know, whether we were just friends or something else."

"What would make them suspicious?"

"Well…," the redhead blew out a breath. Valerie made her work hard sometimes. The challenge wasn't so much the exploration of her feelings and motivations, but having to put them all into words. Too often, the picture she painted of herself wasn't one she liked very much. "Carly isn't married, obviously, and she sort of…looks like a …."

"Like what, Justine? Like a lesbian?"

"Kinda…," she admitted sheepishly. "I mean, she wears her hair really short–I like it that way, though. I think it makes her look kind of sophisticated. And she doesn't wear makeup or anything, but she doesn't need it like some people. I guess the big thing is that she sort of...carries herself…masculine-like."

"Does that bother you?"

Justine thought hard about the question. "Maybe a little…because that's what made people talk about her back in high school. But I like the way she looks. I think she's attractive."

"Is that what you're afraid Trey and Emmy will notice? That their mother thinks Carly Griffin is attractive?"

That's pretty much it in a nutshell. "Maybe…I think it would bother them a lot."

The counselor glanced at the clock, noting that their time was almost up. It would be a long week for Justine if she didn't leave with a plan for pulling herself up out of this morass of guilt. "And this attraction you feel for Carly…Are you satisfied to let go of it?"

No. "I feel guilty about treating her this way…but at the same time, I don't want to do something that's going to cause trouble for Trey and Emmy."

"Let me ask it a different way. Will you be happy breaking off your friendship with Carly as long as it means that things will continue as they are with your children?"

Justine had all but given up on being happy. She was just trying not to be miserable. "I wish I didn't have to choose."

"Then maybe it's time to stop looking at this as an either/or proposition." Valerie had been working for two years to get to this point with Justine Hall. The woman needed to learn to accept herself. Only then would she lay to rest her guilt. "Why don't you try that idea on for a couple of days, and see if there might be a way to have both."

"But I–"

"Just think about it."

Justine didn't really have to think long. She wanted both, and the first step was letting Carly know.


Chapter 8


Carly scooted forward on the truck's bench seat so she could press the clutch all the way to the floor. The grinding of the gearshift as she moved from second to third was embarrassing!

"Jeez, Carly! You're going to burn the clutch out and drop the transmission right here in the middle of the street," Perry groaned.

"I can't…it's too…" She continued to wrestle with the gear, but by the time she got it into third, she had lost speed and now the truck was sputtering for life.

"We can't pull the seat up any more. My knees are already in the dashboard." He shifted awkwardly to prove his point. "Boy, I would've thought you'd have gotten better at this since high school."

"Jerk! Just for that…" She slammed it back into second and the truck lurched forward, bringing both of his knees up sharply against the glove compartment.

"Ow! You did that on purpose."

"That'll teach you to make fun of my driving." Their banter was familiar. It was exactly like it was twenty-six years ago when Perry had taught his younger cousin to drive the delivery truck. The time spent apart hadn't changed the genuine affection each felt for the other; nor had it taken the edge off their relentless teasing. "You know, they make these with automatic transmissions. I don't see why you had to get the only three-speed on the lot."

"Because it's…more fun to drive," he said defensively. "Who wants a truck that drives itself?"

"Fun to drive? Perry, a Porsche is fun to drive. Hell, even a Volkswagen Beetle is fun to drive. But a furniture delivery truck?"

"Hey, we have to take our pleasures where we find them."

Carly shrugged in defeat. "Can't argue with that. So what are we taking–"

Perry's cell phone interrupted her question and she settled into the drive while he answered it.

"Hello…hi there yourself." His smile gave away the identity of the woman on the other end. "What'd he do?"

Carly tapped his arm and pointed at the upcoming street, eliciting a nod from her cousin.

"I tell you what let's do instead. I'll get a movie or two and bring it over…No, not for Kevin, for us. No reason we should be punished because he's being a jerk. He can just stay in his room."

This time, Perry tapped Carly on the arm and pointed to the house they were looking for.

"Yeah, hon…I think that's a pretty good idea. We just can't let him think he's in charge, you know?"

Carly backed the truck into the drive, coming to a stop right next to the sidewalk that led to the front door.

"Okay…I'll see you at seven…yeah, KFC sounds good to me." Perry snapped his phone shut, his mouth already watering at the thought of crispy fried chicken.

"What are we delivering?"

"Just a mattress and box springs. I can get it by myself if you want to wait in the truck."

"I can help."

Between the two of them, they had the new bedding in place and the old bedding loaded for disposal in under ten minutes. Now they just needed to make a quick trip out to the landfill.

"So it sounded like your Friday night plans got torpedoed," Carly started. She didn't want to be nosy, but Perry had told her all about Debbie and Kevin so she didn't feel like her cousin would mind.

"Yeah, we were all going to go see that new James Bond flick, but Debbie got in from work and Kevin sassed her when she told him to turn off the video game and finish his homework. So instead, we're going to watch a couple of videos while Mr. Attitude sits in his room."

"Why don't you just go to the movies without him? He's thirteen, right? That's old enough to be home by himself." No way would Carly blow off a date on account of a bratty kid.

"Well…," Perry drew the word out. "Kevin's not a very mature thirteen. And when he's in a mood, believe me, you don't want to leave him there by himself. He's liable to burn the house down, or call China for a couple of hours…I wouldn't put anything past him."

"Still, it's not fair that he ruins your time with Debbie."

"Well, see, that's the thing. He's not going to ruin our night, because we're still going to be together and have fun. If we went out and left him at home, next thing you know, he starts acting up every time he doesn't want to go with us."

"Won't he just sulk and make your night miserable?"

"He might. But he's going to have a fit when he comes out of his room and his Play Station's not there. I'm going to keep it at my house for a few days until he shapes up."

That made a lot of sense, Carly thought. Kids needed to learn their place…be seen and not heard…speak when spoken to…all that. She hadn't been around children very much, and frankly, couldn't understand the appeal. "That sounds like a plan. You can't let kids have everything they want. Hey, that means you and Debbie are going to get some time together, doesn't it?" The blonde wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.

"Yeah, a little. But we'll probably let him come out and watch the second movie with us."

"Won't that defeat the purpose? I mean, you're supposed to be punishing him, right?"

"Yeah, but you can't just…I don't know…you can't just be tough all the time. He needs to know that even when he screws up, we still care about him."

"Forgive me, but that doesn't make any sense. I don't know how you're ever going to get him to toe the line if you give in to whatever he wants." Carly noted her cousin's questioning look. "'Course, I don't know anything about kids."

"It's not that he gets everything he wants, Carly. But kids have to get the stuff they need, you know? And if me and Debbie are going to have any kind of future at all, then we need to make him feel good about me being around. The last thing I want is for him to feel like he's being sent to his room because me and her want to be alone, or he's gonna resent the heck out of know what I mean?"

Carly nodded in understanding. When did Perry get to be so smart about kids? "Sure."

They pulled into the landfill and deposited the old mattress and box springs. Perry took over the driving for the trip back to the store.

"You know, Per…I think it's pretty cool, this Debbie thing. I mean, it sounds like you must like her an awful lot to work this hard."

"I do, Carly. If things…well, when things settle down with Kevin, and maybe when he gets just a little bit older…I'm gonna…."

"Pop the question?" she asked excitedly. Her cousin blushed so deeply she could see it through his beard. She'd love to see him happy again. He'd been married in his twenties, but it only lasted a couple of years before his wife decided that she needed her mother more than she needed him.

"I really love her."

"Perry, that's great! Now I really can't wait to meet this lady."

"I tell you what. Why don't we go out to the steak house tomorrow night…all four of us?"

Carly hesitated for just a second, realizing that she had no other commitments. She really did want to meet Debbie, and she wanted a look at what this terror Kevin was like. The steak house would be good, because dinner would only last an hour, two at the most. That would get her out of having to stick around too long in case the kids turned out to be a brat.

"Sure. Let's do it. Why don't I meet you guys there at, say…six-thirty?"

"Good deal. Let me talk to Debbie tonight and I can let you know for sure tomorrow." Perry cut through the alley to pull up to the back of the store. "I'm going to head on home. Thanks for your help."

They parked and Perry hopped into his pickup, waving to his cousin as he disappeared down the alley on his way home. She entered Griffin Home Furnishings from the back door and went straight to the office to see if her mom was ready to head home a few minutes early. But the elder Griffin was with a customer. A customer with an achingly familiar voice.

"Which one would you get, Mrs. Griffin? The leather or the fabric?"

"Well, I like the leather one, because a lot of people spill things when they're trying to get used to going up and down. Of course, it's more expensive. But I think your mother would like the leather one more." Nadine looked over her shoulder to see the source of the footsteps. "Carly, look who's here."

Carly wanted to be angry and cold, but the nervous smile on the redhead's face wouldn't let her. Hell, just seeing Justine softened her heart; there wasn't anything Carly could do about it.

"Hey." She ambled over to where they were looking at the automatic lift recliners, the ones Justine had mentioned to her mom the night they'd had dinner in Lexington. "Finding what you need?"

"I think so. I sort of wish I could find one that would stand her up with a little more force," she snickered.

Carly chuckled knowingly, remembering that Justine and her mom had their issues. "Better yet, maybe there's one you can control from across the room…one that sits her down and stands her up whenever you want."

"Now you're talking."

Nadine fought hard to suppress her own laugh. She remembered Marian Hall's temper, and knew the lady could be a pain in the patoot. But as a mother herself, she felt obligated to stick up for the absent woman. "You're both wicked. Carly, I better not hear you talking about me like that."

"Don't worry, Mama." She leaned in close and lowered her voice, but it was still loud enough for Justine to hear. "I'm very careful to keep my scheming ways quiet."

Nadine smacked at her daughter and turned back to her customer. "Do you want me to write this up, or would you like some more time to decide?"

"I'll take this one. Go ahead and write it up and I'll let Mom know how much it is. If it works out, I'll even be there when it's delivered so you won't have to listen to her complain."

The older woman chuckled and disappeared into the office to write up the order, leaving Carly and Justine alone in the showroom. Awkward silence followed as they studied one another for a clue about what had changed since Carly had left the house on Sandstone, angry and frustrated.

"Forgive me…one more time…please." Justine finally found her voice.

"Why should I?" Carly had to put up at least some semblance of a fight.

The redhead sighed deeply. "You shouldn't. I'm such an ass, Carly." She shook her head.

"Okay, you're forgiven."

"I am?"

Carly nodded. No matter how hurt she was, she had no defenses against Justine Hall. It had always been that way. "But I have to warn you, next time, I'm not going to be so easy."

Justine couldn't believe the way her apology had been so readily accepted. But then again, this was Carly Griffin, and she'd always been just about the nicest person Justine had ever known. "I hope there isn't–"

"No, next time, buying a recliner from my mom isn't going to do it. You're going to have to buy a dining set or something. And after that…a whole living room suit. And the time after that–"

"Carly…I promise I'm going to stop…acting crazy one of these days. I've been working on it for awhile–you know, I told you I was seeing a therapist. I know it's hard to believe sometimes, but it really is helping me." She whispered the last part and looked toward the office door. "Anyway, I'm my own worst enemy sometimes when it comes to making mountains out of molehills."

Carly didn't need any explanations. Justine really was forgiven, and she already felt giddy at the thought that they were okay again…whatever okay was. At the very least, they were talking again.

"I really am sorry," she said again sheepishly.

"It's over," Carly assured. "So listen, I need to run my mom home when she finishes with your order. You want to meet for a coffee or something after that? I wouldn't mind trying out the new coffeehouse up the street."

Justine scrunched her face.

"Don't tell me you don't like coffee! Everybody likes coffee."

"No, that's not it. I love coffee. It's just that…well, it's Friday, and I have to go to the Wellness Center and do my workout." She didn't miss the disappointment in Carly's face, and she didn't want Carly to think she was just blowing her off. "But what about tomorrow?"

"I can't. I just made plans to meet my cousin and his new girlfriend for dinner."

Nadine came out of the office with the paperwork for Justine to sign. "We can deliver this tomorrow if there's going to be someone at home."

"If you can give me some idea what time, I'll be there myself."

Carly hadn't decided until right that minute that she would ride along with her cousin on Saturday. "What about afternoon…say around three o'clock?"

"You're going to bring it?"

"Sure. That's what I do for fun when I'm in Leland." Carly grinned.

"Okay. Three o'clock is good."

Nadine disappeared again to take care of the delivery paperwork.

"So…do you have plans for Sunday?" Justine wanted something firm to plan for, and once they'd made a date, she could stop worrying about it…making the date, that is. Then she would start worrying about actually going, obsessing over what to wear, how to act, and what to talk about.

"I hear the new James Bond movie is worth seeing."

A movie is a great idea, Justine concluded. She wouldn't have to worry about a lot of conversation. "Or there's that new romantic comedy with Sandra Whatzername."

"So how about a double feature? You can watch my thrilling spy movie with me and I'll watch your silly comedy with you."

Justine smirked at Carly's assessment of her tastes, but all in all, it sounded like a good plan. "Why don't I check the movie times and call you?"

"So does a double feature mean we have to go to Lexington?" It didn't matter to Carly one whit, but she knew from Perry that the Bond movie was at the theater here in Leland. But if Justine wanted to keep their friendship out of the public eye, it would say a lot about the course she wanted things between them to take.

"Leland has a new eight-screen cinema-plex. We can go there…unless you want to go to Lexington."

"No, Leland is fine. I was just thinking that you know…rather be somewhere else."

Carly understands and she's trying to help. The recognition almost brought tears to her eyes. "No, we're going to stay here in town. It's a movie, for goodness sake. Two friends ought to be able to go to a movie without stirring up a hornet's nest. And besides, it's time I started dealing with…that other stuff, too."

Two friends…That's what Justine wanted. The blonde woman smiled. "So it's a date, then. And you'll call me about the time."

Justine cringed inwardly about the word date, but she wasn't going to make a big deal out of it. "I'll look up the movie times in the paper when I get home and I can tell you when you bring the chair tomorrow."

"That'll work." Carly walked her to the front door and flipped the sign over to say that Griffin Home Furnishings was now closed. "You know, it means a lot to me that you came by today."

"And it means a lot to me that you were so…well, you're always…" Justine stumbled for the words, finally just leaning forward to place a grateful kiss on the startled woman's cheek.




Justine clicked the dial down to 6.2 miles per hour. She usually tried to run at 7.5, a nice clip for her long legs; but she and her son had another date tomorrow morning to do the logging trail, and she wanted to save something for that.

Valerie was right about what running with her son did for her self-esteem. It wasn't just the affirmation that she had lost all that extra weight and gotten into shape. It was the pride she'd picked up in Trey's voice that time she'd heard him tell his friends that they ran together, and that she pushed him harder than any of those guys on the track team did. That probably wasn't true, but it was nice that her son was saying such nice things about her to his friends. In a lot of ways, she felt like the damage from three years ago had been mostly undone…except, of course, that she'd missed having him at home all this time.

She was taking a big chance getting close to Carly Griffin again, but she'd thought about it a lot–okay, obsessed about it–and she felt sure that her new friendship could be easily rationalized.

If either one of her children had a problem with Carly, she'd say that the woman was a high school friend, home only for a short while. Heck, Christmas was such a busy time for everybody, they might not even know that their mom was spending a lot of time with someone. And if they did notice, she'd say…that they didn't get to see each other a lot because of Carly's job, so they wanted to spend as much time together as possible.

It wouldn't be like the thing with Petra, because that wasn't going to happen again. The night she'd spent with Carly was a mistake. They were both drunk and things got out of hand.

Justine reddened as thoughts of that night rushed to the surface. She was still fuzzy on all the details, but bits and pieces came back at the oddest moments. Like now, she had a sudden flash of pulling one of Carly's hard, pink nipples into her mouth. And she remembered what it felt like when the woman had slipped inside her…and how frustrated she'd been that she hadn't had the chance to reciprocate.

The runner nearly stumbled off her treadmill as her concentration wandered. Getting a grip on the vivid images that invaded her head, she remembered her resolve. What she and Carly had shared that night wasn't real; they were drunk.

Even Carly had admitted that they lost control that night. Of course, she said other things too–that she'd enjoyed it and that she'd always wanted to be with her that way. Though Justine didn't want to dwell on it, she too had felt more than just drunken lust that night, and the aftereffects of pushing Carly away had left her feeling like she'd given up more than a friend. But after they talked a few days later and she explained everything that had happened, Carly said she understood. She was willing to keep things on a friendship level, and that was something else that Justine could feel good about.

For several years now, the redhead hadn't enjoyed a close friendship with any of her old classmates, or the mothers in her own neighborhood with whom she'd shared the child-rearing experience. After the incident at the country club, even her three best friends–Charlene, Vicki, and Sharon–began to decline her invitations. It was Char who spelled it out for her. No one wanted to become fodder for the rumor mill; no one wanted to run the risk of being linked to Justine Hall "that way".

In the short while she'd been seeing Carly, Justine realized how much she missed the companionship of her women friends. And if she were honest with herself, she missed that other kind of companionship, too. But that didn't really matter. It wasn't like she and Carly were headed for that kind of relationship. What they'd done was just…physical.

Pre-programmed for the desired distance, the treadmill began to slow automatically.

Wow, those four miles sure went fast! Now, she'd do the weights and some cool-down stretches. And then a quiet night at home was just what she needed. She'd build a fire, get a book, and go to bed early. No more worrying.

Thank you, Carly Griffin.




"I'll get the dishes tonight, Mama. Go on in and read your paper."

The Griffins were probably the only family on Stony Ridge Road that got the New York Times every day. Nadine loved the crossword puzzle, but the main reason they subscribed was for the international news coverage. Their interest in world events had grown dramatically when Carly started working abroad. Not only were they interested in keeping up with happenings where she lived, they also followed news from all the places they'd visited with their daughter. Almost every year, the Griffins turned the furniture store over to Perry for two weeks and traveled abroad. Outside of Carly, they had probably visited more places in the world than anyone else in Leland, Kentucky.

"What are you going to do tonight, Daddy?"

"I don't know…see what's on TV, I guess."

"Don't let him fool you, honey. He knows what's on TV every night on every single channel. It's like living with a TV Guide." Nadine didn't share her husband's interest in the tube, but didn't begrudge it either. It's what gave them each their private time.

"Could I talk you into taking a little walk with me after I get the kitchen cleaned up?" Carly needed to talk with her father about a couple of things that had been on her mind.

"Are you going to give me one of those fancy cigarettes?"

"Lloyd Griffin! You'd better not let me catch you smoking one of those nasty things. You'll be sleeping on the couch." She meant it.

Lloyd chuckled. He'd given up smoking almost twenty years ago, but he still rejoiced in tormenting his wife with the possibility of taking it up again.

"I'm sorry, Daddy, but there's your answer. You may not have one of my fancy cigarettes. But maybe we'll have a brandy together when we get back."

Nadine snorted and turned toward her daughter with a menacing look. "It's taken me forty-six years to get him just the way I like him, and you come in and ruin all my hard work. I'm warning you–if he gets a taste for brandy and cigarettes, he's going with you to Madrid."

That got a laugh from both Carly and her father. In the time they'd been joking in the kitchen, she'd gotten the dishes stowed in the dishwasher and the counters and table wiped down. Only minutes after that, father and daughter stepped out into the chilly December night, where Carly reached at once for her Dunhill Lights and lighter.

"You're going to have to give up that habit one of these days real soon, Carly. You know it isn't good for you."

"I know. I only have about five or six a day, though."

"My doctor said that even one was bad for me, and that my lungs wouldn't heal until I quit smoking completely."

The woman sighed, not wanting to get into a debate like this with her dad. She had other things on her mind.

"Have you and Mama set a timetable for having Perry take over the store?"

"Well, we haven't exactly picked a date to walk out the door, but I'd guess it's going to be in another year or so."

"Why not now? You and Mama are both sixty-eight, and I'm worried about her heart. Aren't you?"

"Of course I am. But she says she's fine to work, and I don't want to tell her what to do…as if I could," he chuckled. "You know, I always hoped we could pass the store on to you, Carly."

"Oh, no you don't. Perry's been working there for thirty-one years. He knows the business through and through. And he likes it."

"I thought you liked it too. You've always worked down there when you come home, and you act like you're on vacation. Why would you do that if you didn't like it?"

"Because I like being with you and Mama when I'm home, and that's where you are. And I like riding with Perry. It gives us a chance to talk and catch up with each other. Besides, if I didn't come down to the store, what else would I do by myself all day?"

Lloyd shrugged, tugging up the collar of his barn jacket. "I know, sweetheart. I'm just trying to figure out what it would take to get you to come back to Leland. But I know you have a job you like, and–"

"Actually, that's not really true anymore, Daddy." Carly took a deep drag and stubbed out her cigarette on the pavement, pocketing the butt for when she reached the trashcan at the park. "To tell you the truth, I've gotten kind of tired of moving around so much. I guess the novelty's worn off. It's not an adventure anymore; it's…it's hard. I get more homesick now, and all the people I used to like working with are either back in Louisville at corporate or they went to work for somebody else. All the new guys are right out of college…kids. Sometimes, I feel more like a babysitter than a supervisor."

"Sounds like you need a change, Carly. You sure you don't want to run a furniture store. I can get you a real good deal on one."

The blonde woman laughed at her dad's persistence. "I'm really sorry, Daddy. It's just not something I want to do. But Perry does, and that's what we were talking about, not me."

"Your cousin's ready whenever we are. He says he's saved a lot of money and he's talked to the bank, so I don't think he's going to have any problem when the time comes."

"But that's my point, Daddy. I just wish you and Mama would quit putting this off. It's time for ya'll to let go of all that responsibility, especially with Mama's heart thing."

"What would we do all day?"

"Heck, you could go fishing. You could take up golf or something." Her dad made a face at the mention of what he thought was a silly game. "Or you could buy a Winnebago and see the country."

"Can you seriously see your mother and me driving around the country, cooped up together in a box on wheels all day and all night?"

Carly thought seriously about it for a second, knowing her parents' need for private time. Maybe if they each had their own, or if they took turns…. "Okay, no. But maybe you could work part-time for Perry. Or you could volunteer. You could start a vegetable garden. There are dozens of things you can do to stay busy."

Lloyd turned over the possibilities in his head. "If you don't want the store, Carly, how come you're so interested in us giving it up?"

The daughter's eyes clouded with tears. "Because I'm worried about Mama. I know what she says about feeling all right, but I can see a change. You're with her all the time and you can't see the difference like I can. You guys were just in Jerusalem last May, and I can't believe how much she's gone down since then."

"What do you mean? What is it you see?"

"Daddy, she looks so tired. She's moving slower now, and…."

"Well, honey, you just said it yourself. We're not young anymore. That stuff happens to people when they get older. I don't get around as well as I used to, and if I have to move something heavy, it wears me out."

"Then don't do it anymore!" It was that simple, as far as Carly was concerned. What worried her most, though, wasn't that her mom had slowed a step. It was her overall demeanor. "Mama doesn't seem…very happy this time. I think she's worried, and I think she needs something to take the pressure off. But she's not going to give it up unless you do."

Lloyd scuffed his feet on the pavement, angry that he hadn't seen for himself his wife's decline. If what Carly was saying was really true–and he couldn't deny that Nadine had been spending more time by herself, a sure sign that she was worried about something–then maybe it was time to let Perry take the reins. "And you're sure you don't have any interest in running a furniture store?"

"Not even a little bit."

Her father sighed heavily. "Okay, I'll talk to her. If she's ready, we'll call it quits."

Carly's heart swelled with love and admiration for her father. Lloyd Griffin was lots of wonderful things, but right this minute, he was the man who loved her mother more than anything else in the world, and that made him Carly's hero. She slipped her hand into his calloused one and squeezed hard. "Thanks, Daddy."

They had finally reached the park, and she tossed the Dunhill butt in the trash. She'd have another on the way back, knowing that would trigger another scolding.

"So is anything else on your mind?"

"Nothing as important as that."

"So what's up with you and Justine Hall?"

Carly was stunned that her father would bring up the subject of Justine. "Nothing, really. It's nice to see her again."

"She's a nice lady." Lloyd and Nadine knew about their daughter's orientation, but she'd never talked much about the women in her life. It was probably hard for her to even have a girlfriend, what with her moving around so much. But he'd been interested in the fact that Carly was spending time this visit with Justine, especially after she'd stayed out all night last week. "You remember Horace Ingle?"

"The school bus driver?"

"That's him, but he hasn't driven a bus for…twenty years or more."

"What about him?"

"Just that I always think of him when I think of Justine. Horace was a friend of her daddy's, Dr. Hall. Not like a social friend or anything, but Horace taught Gordon how to turn wood, and those two men got so they'd spend their nearly all their Saturdays together in Horace's workshop. Anyway, when Gordon got killed, Horace came to the funeral home. Justine was the only one in her family who talked to him. Everybody else acted like he wasn't good enough to be there, but she hugged old Horace and cried with him…took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes. I tell you, it dang near made me cry to see it."

Carly relished the story of her friend, the one who didn't seem to mind having a friend who lived past Stony Ridge.

"And then there was that time Perry and me took two or three rooms full of furniture over to that big house of hers. When we got done bringing it all in, she asked us to move it around a little for her, but then she called us into the kitchen and gave us both a big old piece of cake that she'd made. I mean, we just sat there at her kitchen table like old friends, talking and laughing about stuff. I tell you, there aren't many people in town who'd treat workmen like that."

"Justine's always been nice to people."

"Well, I think the thing about Perry and me was because she knew I was your daddy. But that thing with Horace…it was real touching."

Yeah, it sure was.

"So…did your mama tell you about Justine getting involved with that woman?"

"Yes, and so did Justine." Carly knew where her father was headed with this. "It wasn't like everybody said, though. People turned it into a big scandal because they like to gossip."

"But is she…you know?"

"Are you asking me if she's like me, Daddy?"


"It's kind of hard to say. Things are pretty complicated for her. She's got a couple of teenagers that got the Dickens teased out of them at school on account of that thing with that doctor's wife. She doesn't want anything like that to happen again."

"That's a shame. She's too nice a woman to be by herself."

Carly couldn't agree more. "We're going to the movies on Sunday. But I don't think we'll be more than just friends, Daddy. I know you like Leland, but it can be a pretty small minded place, and Justine has to live here. I don't care what people think about me, but I don't want to cause her any trouble."

That was too bad, Lloyd thought. He rather liked the idea of his daughter finding somebody as nice as Justine Hall. Anything that would keep her coming back home to Leland was all right with him.


Chapter 9


"Uh-oh, this is that crazy lady's house," Perry groaned as he pulled in front of white-columned home on Main Street.

"She's not crazy. She's just mean. I have that on her daughter's authority," Carly offered. She was pleased to see the blue Acura in the driveway.

"You mean Justine or Mary Beth?"

"Justine. I think Mary Beth's the favored daughter. Justine has fallen from grace."

"On account of kissing that woman?"

God, did "all over town" literally mean all over town? "Nah, I think it was more that Justine was her father's favorite."

"Well, she's my favorite too. I don't care what she did. She's always been nice to me. I tell you, I took a bedroom suit out to Mary Beth and Bucky's once, and I thought that woman was gonna tear me a new one for bringing the wrong footboard. I mean, I apologized and told her I'd go back to the store and get it right then, but she still let me have it."

"Sounds like she takes after her mother."

"Well, then I ain't looking forward to this one bit."

Carly chuckled. "Justine said she'd meet us here. If we have to put up with her mom, at least one person will be nice to us."

Perry pulled the truck into the drive and they both got out.

"Go on and ring the doorbell. I'll bring it up on the dolly."

Carly headed to the front door. She'd never been to this house before, not even when she and Justine were friends in high school. From what she knew now about the Halls–Marian and Mary Beth, anyway–she suspected that kids from Stony Ridge wouldn't have been made to feel very welcome here.

Before she could ring the bell, the door was opened by Justine, whose smile lit up the whole house.

"Hi, Carly."

"Hi, yourself." The blonde woman couldn't help but appreciate the redhead's casual look. She had on those jeans she'd worn the night they'd eaten pizza at Justine's house, but this time, she wore a royal blue sweater that made her eyes shine like stars. "We brought your electric chair," she whispered.

"Good. Now did your mother say if she spilled something liquid and then pressed a button…?"

"You're evil."

Justine dropped her jaw and laid a hand across her chest feigning innocence. "Moi?"

Perry joined them on the wide concrete porch with the recliner. "Have you decided where you want this?"

"Don't bring that ugly chair in here!" Mrs. Hall yelled from beyond the entry.

"Can you put it up on the roof?" Justine whispered.

Carly and Perry both had to turn away to conceal their laughter.

"Mom, I told you, this chair is exactly what you need. It takes all the work out of standing up and it helps you sit without landing so hard."

"But it doesn't go with anything."

"It's leather, Mom. It goes with everything. We can put it in the family room in front of the TV. The only other thing in there is the couch, and it's got brown in it, just like the chair."

"I don't need that. I'm not some…old woman."

"I know, but that's not why you need it. See, this is gonna make your legs and hips feel stronger, and people at the club are gonna say, ‘Look at that Marian Hall. Where does she get all that energy?' Isn't that what you want, Mom?" Justine shot a look back at Carly and Perry and rolled her eyes, causing both of them to have to turn their heads again to hide their giggles.

Marian shuffled into the foyer to get her first look at her new chair. She was secretly thrilled at the prospect of not having to struggle anymore to sit or stand. They'd ruined her hip with that replacement, she was convinced. Never mind that she'd broken the joint cleanly when she'd twisted getting out of her old recliner.

"Well, you might as well go ahead and have them put it in there. I'll probably have to pay for it anyway now that they've brought it out here. I don't know why you do business with Griffins."

Carly bristled. If Marian Hall said one word about her mom or dad, she wasn't going to be responsible for her actions.

"We do business with Griffins because they're honest and decent people, and they have the best selection of furniture in Leland." Justine motioned Perry and Carly down the hall to the family room, mouthing a silent apology for her mother's nonsense. "Mom, do you remember me talking about running into a friend of mine from high school, Carly Griffin?"

"Is she one of those Griffins?"

"Yes, she is. And this is Carly right here." The redhead motioned for her friend to step forward.

"Hello, Mrs. Hall. You have a lovely home."

Marian already knew that. "Are you a…why, I didn't realize you were a woman! I thought you were both men." She turned to look at Perry. "He's a man. He's got a beard."

"Mom! Of course, she's a woman." Justine was embarrassed beyond measure at her mother's spitefulness, especially when she saw her friend's reddening face.

"So where do you want this?" the blonde asked, all business now.

"Put it in that corner by the lamp. There's a plug over there." Justine led the way, still mortified by her mother's rudeness.

Perry and Carly lifted the chair off the dolly and positioned it by the lamp, careful not to scuff the floor. Perry explained how the controls worked and Marian tried it out, delighted to have her very own automatic recliner. She would be the envy of her friends.

Carly picked up the loose wrapping and started back out to the truck with Justine in pursuit.

"Carly, I am so sorry. I just don't know why she has to be so mean."

"That's okay. I guess it's confusing for old people…you know, to see women wear their hair short and dress like men. They didn't do that in their day."

"You're being far too kind to her. I wear shirts and jeans sometimes too, and so does my daughter."

"Nobody's ever going to mistake you for a man, Justine. Not with a face as pretty as yours."

The redhead blushed at the compliment, but she still hated what had prompted it. "Carly, look…for what it's worth, I think you're as cute as you can be. I mean that. I wouldn't say it if I didn't."

Now they were both blushing, and they needed a way out of this conversation.

"So do you still want to go to the movie tomorrow?"

"Of course I do. The one I want to see starts at two-thirty. Then if we feel like seeing another, that stupid old spy movie is at five."

Carly smiled at the gentle gibe. "So what if I pick you up at two?"

"I'll be ready."




Carly pulled her compact rental car into the crowded lot at Steer Masters, squeezing between a pickup truck and a Cadillac that was parked over the line. Perry's truck was parked close to the door, so they must have gone inside to wait, she figured. Saturday night was a busy night at the steak restaurant, and the line would be long.

She was nervous about meeting Perry's new girlfriend. She wanted to make a good impression, especially since it looked like Debbie and her son might be joining her extended family one day. That meant seeing them at holidays, and maybe even at the store if Perry took it over.

Tonight, Carly wore her nicest clothes, the same outfit she'd worn the night she and Justine had gone to Lexington for dinner. The jade pendant seemed a little out of place for the local steakhouse, but the ivory pullover looked dressy enough without it.

When she and Perry had finished their deliveries today, Carly went home and stood in front of the mirror for twenty minutes, looking at the image Marian Hall had thought was a man. For the first time since high school, she was self-conscious about her appearance, and that made her angry. She'd never given a damn about what other people thought of the way she looked, but that remark from Justine's mother hit a nerve. It was one thing to be mistaken for a teenage boy, but something altogether different to be mistaken for a man.

"Look at you! Don't you clean up well?" Perry met her just inside the door. "If I'd known you were going to get all spiffed up, I'd have worn my tuxedo."

Carly jabbed an elbow in her cousin's ribs. Now she felt embarrassed for being overdressed.

Perry noticed his cousin's reddening face and realized his mistake. "You look nice, Carly. I hope you didn't let that crazy woman's nonsense bother you today."

"Don't be silly. I just wanted to look good when I met your future wife."

"Shhh. Don't go saying that out loud. What if she says no?"

"She isn't going to say no, you goof. You're a catch…even if you are a smart aleck."

Perry led her through the crowd to a woman who waited with a young boy on a wooden bench. "Debbie, I want you to meet my cousin, who just happens to be one of my favorite people. This is Carly Griffin."

Carly stuck out her hand. "It's nice to meet you. Perry talks about you all the time. I mean, all the time!"

The three adults laughed.

"And this is Kevin." Perry gestured to the boy, who sat sulking next to his mother, obviously wishing he were anywhere else but here.

"Hi, Kevin. I hear you're a master at videogames."

"Not anymore, I ain't," he scowled.

Oops. She'd forgotten that his Play Station was on vacation at Perry's for now. Not a good start at all.

"Shall we get in line?" Perry broke the tension, and Carly surged ahead to put some distance between herself and the surly lad. The four of them studied the menu on the wall, each ordering a steak with a baked potato. Carly carried the tray with her iced tea and silverware to a freshly wiped booth at the back of the restaurant, where she was joined first by Debbie.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought up the videogame. Perry told me that he took the Play Station over to his house last night."

"Oh, don't worry about it. Kevin's just in one of his moods. He'll get over it."

Just then, Perry and Kevin joined them, the son sliding in next to his mother.

"Do you play videogames?" the boy asked. It was apparent that he'd gotten a scolding from his mother's boyfriend about his rude remark.

"No, I'm afraid not. I just don't have the eye-hand coordination it takes to be good at it. I usually put my quarter in and before I can even figure out what the object of the game is, everything fizzles out and it flashes ‘Game Over'."

Kevin laughed at her pitiful assessment. "Not me. I can pick up any game and get the high score in just a few tries." As they waited for their steaks, he regaled them with his video heroics.

Carly caught on that this was important to the kid and that he was trying hard to impress her. Though she had almost no idea what he was talking about most of the time, she fed him the intermittent "wow" or "that's really something" to demonstrate that she was suitably amazed.

"Perry tells me that you work for a company that sends you all over the world." Debbie took the lead in the conversation when their food arrived and Kevin began to eat in earnest.

"Yeah, I just got back from Israel, and next month, I'm off to Madrid."

"Is that in Germany?" the boy mumbled with his mouth full.

"No, it's in Spain. You're probably thinking of Munich."

"Yeah, I get those two confused."

"It sounds exciting to travel like that. You must think we're a bunch of hicks here in Leland."

"Oh, no. I grew up here. I think Perry's a hick, but everyone else is pretty normal." That brought an appreciative laugh from everyone, especially Kevin. Since Perry was the person they all had in common, he was fair game. "I invited Perry to come visit me when I was living in Shanghai, but I think he got worried that he wouldn't be able to find anything to eat."

"I didn't want to eat no cats, or eyeballs, or raw fish. I can get raw fish right out of the Barren River."

"Eww, I can't believe you're talking about that when I'm trying to eat my steak." Debbie struggled to cut her sirloin. "And speaking of steak, I think they cooked mine too long. It was supposed to be medium but it's just as tough as it can be."

"Here, honey. Why don't we trade? Mine's done just the way you like it." Perry showed her the juicy pink center cut, which she eagerly accepted.

Carly knew it was true love right then. Her cousin couldn't stand meat that was overcooked, and here he was trading a perfectly good steak for a hunk of shoe leather. Only a man in love would do that.

Throughout dinner, Carly wove in and out of the conversation, realizing that she genuinely liked Debbie and even Kevin. But mostly, she just enjoyed seeing the simple dynamic of two people in love. The best part was the laughter, and Carly was really glad to see that the thirteen-year-old was a big part of it. It was obvious that the youngster looked up to Perry, even if the laws of adolescence held that grownups weren't supposed to be cool.

Carly was willing to bet her last dime that Perry and Debbie would be married within a year if her parents turned over the store. And after seeing the three of them together today, that idea made her immensely happy.




Another nice Saturday, Justine thought as she stepped from her bath. Thanks to her kids' efforts to spend more time with her, it had easily become her favorite day of the week. This one had been almost perfect.

She'd started out by going on an eight-mile run with Trey, during which they talked about the things he wanted to accomplish before finishing high school. The honor roll, another letter in track, a community service project at the hospital that Justine would help to arrange…these were his goals, and the mother couldn't help but be proud.

Though she would have preferred more time with Trey alone, he called two of his friends to join them for breakfast at the drug store counter. That pretty much killed the rest of their serious conversation, but it was nice to get an affirmation that he wasn't ashamed to be seen with her. And it was also nice that Trey and his friends had finally outgrown their need for public burping contests.

Right after breakfast, she drove over to JT's and picked up Emmy, who had a surprise request for the day. She wanted to practice driving.

Unlike most teens, who counted the hours until they turned sixteen, Emmy hadn't shown much interest in getting her license, though she had her learner's permit. As they drove along the back roads toward Frankfort, Justine learned why her daughter had been reluctant to enter this phase of independence.


"I know this is really selfish, Mom, but I'm afraid that when I get my license…," her chin quivered and her eyes began to mist.

"What is it, honey?"

"I'm worried that Dad and J2 are going to ask me to do even more stuff for Alex." Ashamed of her admission, the teenager couldn't hold back the tears.

"Alex?" Justine anxiously looked ahead on the country road. "Honey, pull over up there."

Emmy turned the Acura into the gravel parking lot of the Hope Eternal Baptist Church and put the car in park, engaging the emergency brake like she'd been taught in her driver's education class. "I love her, Mom. Really, I do. But they never ask Trey to help with her. It's always me, and if I start driving, they'll probably want me to start taking her places, and–"

"Emmy, listen to me. I know you love your sister, and she loves you too. I can see it on her face whenever you're there."

"I know I should–"

"Sweetheart, listen." It nearly broke Justine's heart to see her daughter so torn with guilt. From her own sessions with Valerie, she understood how it could rule your life, but she also knew a little about how to fight it. "Alex is going to need a lot of help in her life, and I won't tell you that you shouldn't help out whenever you can. But she isn't your primary responsibility. At your age, you should be learning to be responsible for yourself."

Justine rustled through her purse to produce a tissue.

"But J2 can't handle it all herself. It's too hard. Alex can't be left alone…ever!"

"I know that. But what you already do to help J2 is enough, maybe even more than they have a right to ask of you."

"They don't ever ask Trey for anything. He just gets to hang out with his friends or go off whenever he wants to."

The mother was ashamed to hear that her son was shirking his duties at home. "Emmy, tell me this, honey. Are you more upset because your father and J2 are asking you to do too much, or because they aren't asking Trey to help?"

"Both…I mean, I wouldn't have to do so much if Trey helped out a little. Kelly came over so I could help her with algebra and Trey wouldn't even watch Alex for a little while. And then J2 says, ‘Oh, your brother isn't as good with her as you are.' So just because Trey doesn't even try, they push it off on me."

Justine hated to see her sixteen-year-old daughter saddled with so much responsibility at home, especially at a time when she should be more concerned with having fun and enjoying her high school years. And though she usually bit her tongue when Emmy came to her with problems, this time she felt that she had to speak up.

"Have you talked to your father about this?"

The teenager shook her head.

"Then I think I should."

"No! Can't you just tell Trey that he has to start helping out?"

"It's not that simple, Emmy. If your father and J2 aren't after him to help out more, I have to wonder why. I can't just jump in the middle of things when it comes to taking care of Alex. She isn't my child."

"But Dad's going to be disappointed. He's going to think I don't love Alex."

"No, he isn't. He knows better than that."

The tears were coming harder now. "Mom, please don't tell Dad. I wouldn't have said anything if I'd known you were going to tell him."

Damn! "Sweetheart, listen to me." Justine reached over and took her daughter's hand. "Most of the time, the talks we have stay between you and me. And believe me, I feel very lucky that you and I can talk about so many things. But this kind of thing is different. This is where I have to be the mother, and I have to do what's best for you. You are my responsibility, and I won't have you feeling like this if there's anything I can do about it. Can you understand that?"

Emmy sniffled and nodded without looking up from her lap.

"Your father makes good money. He can afford to hire someone to help out with Alex. Now that doesn't mean you won't have to jump in from time to time to lend a hand, but you shouldn't feel like you have to be on call every day. It's not fair to expect you to give up things you have every right to enjoy. And you know what? I bet your father and J2 don't realize how much they've come to depend on you and what you're missing out on. And as soon as they do, they'll make it right."

"You don't think they know?"

Justine could see the look of relief on her daughter's face as she contemplated this new perspective.

"No, honey. They'd never put you in this kind of position if they knew what it was doing to you. And they know you love your little sister. Anybody with eyes can see that."

"When will you talk to him?"

"We'll set something up today. I don't want you to worry about this anymore."

"Thanks, Mom." Emmy leaned across the seat to embrace her mother.

As usual, the simple gesture triggered a surge of emotion in the older woman, and she clung to her daughter as if her life depended on it.


When the two returned from their drive, Justine was able to have a word with both JT and J2, especially since Emmy offered to take Alex into the other room to play. As she suspected, they weren't at all aware of the burden that was falling to the teenager, and they promised to see about getting some professional help at home. As for Trey, that too was as Justine imagined. Her son had been left with the responsibility of taking care of his little sister on a few occasions, but hadn't proven himself dependable. They couldn't afford to take a chance on Alex's care, so they'd fallen out of the habit of asking him for help. However, now that JT's eyes were opened to how his daughter felt about her brother having less responsibility, he promised to even things out at home.

Getting that resolved for Emmy gave Justine a real sense of accomplishment today. She still needed to talk with her son about stepping up for Alex. Even though the disabled child wasn't hers, she wanted her son to be the kind of young man who would do the right thing.

Wrapping the terry robe around her, Justine sat down at the vanity and turned on the Hollywood lights. This was her Saturday night self-indulgence routine. First, she looked hard at her hairline to see if it was time to call Wanda. Being a redhead required vigilance. She could last another week, but she wanted to be sure and get in before Christmas so she'd look nice at the reunion.

Next was the facial, a muddy green cream that she spread all over her face and left until it cracked, cleaning and tightening the pores to keep the wrinkles at bay. While she was waiting for the mixture to dry, she gave her hands a paraffin treatment to keep them soft and young-looking. These extravagances–the hair salon, the facial, and the occasional manicure and pedicure–were gifts she started giving herself when she began to lose weight and firm up. Looking good did a lot for her self-esteem.

Treating herself at home to these little luxuries had another very important benefit. It took her mind off the fact that here she was–alone again on a Saturday night. And since she was trying so hard to focus on relaxing things, she turned her thoughts back to how well her day had gone.

Any day that Justine did right by her kids was a good day, and this one certainly qualified. If that had been all there was to this Saturday, it would have been enough. But she'd had another high point–seeing Carly Griffin.

Justine caught herself smiling as she thought of the blonde woman. Regardless of her mother's rude remark, she'd thought Carly looked great today. She had on jeans that showed off her rear nicely…and a work shirt that was opened at the top to reveal just a little of that wonderful cleavage. Justine's thoughts wandered to that cleavage, which she'd seen up close and personal…. "Now get hold of yourself, Justine. Carly Griffin is just a friend."

Her ablutions completed, she turned off the lights at the vanity and walked back through the house one more time to make sure the doors were locked and the fire had burned down. When she reached her bed, she folded back the covers and stood for a moment while her mind rationalized her desires. It was Saturday, a night for relaxation, for decadence. She walked over to the closet and reached high to the back of the top shelf, pulling down the shoebox that held her vibrator. She hadn't used it for several weeks, but tonight, she wanted a release.

On her way back to the bed, she stopped to pull a gown from the top drawer. On second thought…. She dropped it back into the drawer and removed the terry robe, tossing it onto the end of the bed as she turned out the light and climbed nude into bed.

With one knee bent, she made a tent of her comforter, allowing her to move the vibrator easily underneath the covers. She turned it on to its lowest setting and began to dance its head around the apex of her thighs. Steadily, her breaths grew deeper as she darted it across her sensitive center.

Carly Griffin had touched her there…yes, right there! She remembered it vividly now. She'd been so wet, and so open. Carly had taken her…deep and hard.

She pinched her nipple, the one Carly had wrapped in her lips as she stroked her in and out.

Justine clicked the button to the highest setting, but this didn't come close to what Carly had done for her…with her fingers deep inside…so deep inside. "Come on Eveready, don't fail me now," she pleaded, pressing the vibrator hard right onto her clitoris. From deep within, she felt it building as her buttocks tightened. Then like a rocket, she ignited and thundered upward off the bed, exploding in a sudden burst of fire that left her nerve endings screaming in retreat.

Somehow, she had the wherewithal to turn the vibrator off.

"Look what you do to me, woman, and you're not even here."


"That one'll burn your clit off." — Samantha, on Sex in the City, advising a customer in Sharper Image. On to Part 4.

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