The House on Sandstone — Part 4

By KG MacGregor



Chapter 10


Carly buttoned the sleeves of the fitted blue shirt and turned sideways to see it from several angles in the dressing room mirrors. It hugged her torso and flared into a bold collar and cuffs. It was decidedly feminine–maybe a little more than she liked–but it went nicely with the tight black pants she’d picked out, and she wouldn’t have to buy new shoes.

It wasn’t a familiar look for Carly, but since her usual attire had drawn that rude remark from Marian Hall, she wasn’t going to suffer that humiliation again…at least not here in Leland, and not in front of Justine. The only nice outfit she’d brought home was the ivory sweater that she’d worn twice already. The rest of her belongings were in storage, ready to be shipped to Madrid. Not that she had a lot of dressy outfits among those things. It just wasn’t her habit to dress up, even for work.

Carly added the blue top to the "buy" pile and reached for the striped sweater. She was alone in the fitting room, since most of the frenzied shoppers in the department store were buying Christmas gifts for others instead of clothes for themselves. Thank goodness for the holiday and the Lexington Mall’s extended hours. This way, she would have something new to wear this afternoon to the movies.

"Ew!" The striped sweater made her boobs look enormous. On the other hand, the striped sweater made her boobs look enormous. With a sly grin, she tossed it into the "buy" pile too. No problem with showing off her assets, especially those that she thought might get Justine’s attention.

The blonde knew she was just playing games in her head when it came to Justine. Her friend’s fears had been real, and Carly wasn’t about to do anything that might cause more anguish than the woman had already been through. But there was something fun about knowing that she could tease a little, and she loved imagining that she could push a button or two in Justine Hall.




"You look nice, sweetheart." Nadine met her daughter in the hallway, surprised at the new look. Carly not only wore brand new clothes, but she also sported just a tad of makeup–some foundation with a hint of eye shadow. With the dark green slacks, striped sweater, and gold hoop earrings, she was much more dressed up than usual. "Is all of this new?"

"Yeah, I wasn’t expecting to go out so much, and I didn’t have a lot of stuff with me."

Nadine knew that was part of it, but the touch of makeup–something she’d seen only once or twice on her daughter before–was for Justine Hall. She was thinking her husband had been right about Carly, that she had feelings for their neighbor on the other side of Stony Ridge. Nothing would make her happier than to see Carly fall in love with someone as nice as Justine.

"What are you girls doing?"

"We’re supposed to see a couple of movies. Maybe we’ll get a bite to eat later."

Nadine chuckled. "Well I won’t bother to wait up this time."

"Mama! Justine and I are just friends." Despite the easy rapport with her mother, Carly blushed. "I told you, we polished off a whole bottle of brandy that night, and I’m not sure I could have made it back over that hill, let alone find the right house. What if I’d stumbled into the Hankins’ house?"

"Lord have mercy! Eugene would have gotten after you with his shotgun."

"No kidding! And then he probably would have mounted my head over his fireplace." Both women laughed at the image, remembering their neighbor’s collection of grotesque hunting trophies.

"So how is Justine?"

"I think she’s doing okay, Mama. You were right, though…she really has had a hard time." Carly pulled her coat from the closet. "I was meaning to ask you…How did you know that?"

Nadine shrugged. "You hear things…and I used to see her picture in the paper all the time, smiling at this or that for the hospital. And now it’s like…well, she lost that job on account of people didn’t want to give money to the hospital anymore. Seemed silly to me."

Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to Carly at all that Justine had lost her job too, on top of all the other stuff that happened. No wonder it all hit her so hard. It hit her everywhere!

"Seems silly to me too, Mama. But I really think she’s doing better now."

"You two have fun tonight. You know, you can ask her over any time. She’ll always be welcome."

Carly smiled at her mother and gave her a quick hug, understanding that she’d just been given approval for anything she wanted to pursue with Justine. It wasn’t something she needed, but it was nice to have it just the same.




Carly had been looking forward to the afternoon, but she was surprised to find herself practically elated at being with Justine again. And the best part was that she got the same impression from Justine. The redhead went on and on about how nice Carly looked, and she was almost sure that she saw Justine admiring her profile in the striped sweater. "Look! They’re also showing Creepy Sleep. Now wouldn’t you rather see that than a mushy romance?"

"No! A horror movie’s the last thing I want to see. My son and all his friends will go see that a half dozen times, and then they’ll talk about all the gory details of how the blood splattered and came out of the woman’s eyes."

"And that doesn’t appeal to you?"

Justine shot her an incredulous look. "Don’t tell me you really like that stuff."

Carly shrugged. "I do appreciate a good scary story, but I’ll admit that slasher movies aren’t my thing either."

The two women entered the theater and waited for a moment while their eyes adjusted to the dim light. The horror flick and the James Bond feature were the major draws, so only a few movie-goers speckled the rows.

"You don’t really hate romantic movies, do you?"

"No, I don’t hate them. But to tell you the truth, I find it kind of hard to relate to them sometimes. They don’t really show…romance as I know it." The blonde regretted her answer as soon as she said it, knowing that Justine would want an explanation. For Carly, the very definition of romance had Justine Hall in it. Fortunately, she was saved by the previews of coming attractions.

Two hours later, the friends emerged from the theater, the taller of the two sniffling into a tissue.

"I’m embarrassing you, aren’t I?"

"Excuse me. Have we met?"

Justine laughed at that comeback. "Tell you what. If you’re still up for that stupid old spy movie, why don’t you go on and get the tickets. I’ll get us some popcorn and pull myself together."

Carly headed back out to join the line at the box office.


She whirled around to find the source of the unfamiliar voice.

"Carly Griffin, I though that was you." A woman stood beside the line, apparently waiting for someone to buy her ticket. She was slender and sharply dressed, and she wore a generous supply of lipstick and blush.


"That’s right! Sara Rice. I was Sara McCurry back in school."

Sara McCurry Rice. That was too much, and Carly had to fight to keep from laughing out loud. Of course, there probably weren’t more than a dozen people in Leland who ever ate Thai or Indian food, so she was probably the only one who got the joke.

"Hello, how are you?"

"I’m good. You look really good, Carly. I hardly recognized you."

A backhanded compliment if I ever heard one. "This really is a surprise. I don’t usually see anyone I know when I’m in town." And why are you being so polite to me all of a sudden?

"Where are you living now? Your mother said you were somewhere overseas. Did you join the army or something?"

Sara was joined by a heavyset man with thinning hair. His cologne nearly knocked Carly over from six feet away.

"No, I–"

"This is my husband, Bob. He’s the president of the Leland County Bank, in case you ever need a loan or anything. Bob, this is Carly…is it still Griffin?"

"Yes, it’s still Griffin. Pleased to meet you, Bob." Carly hadn’t wanted to shake his hand, but she couldn’t ignore it when he stuck it out. Now she’d probably smell like that cologne.

"You’re coming to the reunion, aren’t you? It’ll be fun. Tommy Hampton was in the army too, so ya’ll are gonna have a lot to talk about with each other. I think he was a sergeant or something."

"Can’t wait." There never was any point in trying to have a real conversation with Sara McCurry. She was too busy trying to think of what to say next to process what anyone else said.

Carly got the tickets and went back inside, pointing out Justine to the attendant so that the young man would know they both had paid. She joined her friend just in time to pick up one of the sodas. Justine had gotten a large popcorn to share.

"Where in the world did you go? Good lord, you smell just like Bob Rice."

"That’s because I just had the pleasure of smearing his hand all over mine."

"You saw Sara?" The taller woman visibly stiffened.

"Sure did. But don’t worry. I’m sure she’s forgotten it by now, and I think they went into the movie we just came out of."

"What did she say?"

"Gibberish. She thinks I’m in the army."

"The army?"

"Yeah. Think I could rent a uniform to wear to the reunion? I don’t want to confuse her by showing up in street clothes."

"Does that mean you’re going to go to the reunion?" Justine was clearly excited by the prospect.

"I’m thinking about it." The saleslady in Lexington had talked her into trying on a dressy pantsuit that would be nice for a party, and Carly had thought at once of the gathering of her classmates after Christmas. Maybe she would show up after all, if for no other reason than just to be in the same room as Justine.

They shuffled into the growing crowd, finding two seats on the side near the aisle.

"I really hope you do come. It’ll be fun."

"Can I bring my Hennessy’s?"

"As far as I’m concerned, you can pour the whole bottle in the punch bowl. The folks here could use some loosening up."

The previews started up again and they settled in to watch the second feature. When another two hours passed, the two friends exited the theater, both glad for the chance to stretch their legs.

"Now wasn’t that a lot more exciting than the first one? It had everything–explosions and car chases and spy gadgets…even a few scantily clad nubile bodies." Carly lowered her voice for the last part so that only Justine could hear.

"That part was…okay."

"Okay, huh?" She watched the redhead fight back a smile. "Admit it. You liked it."

"I liked it."


"I think the costume designer did an adequate job."

"And the casting director?"

"Satisfactory as well."

Their teasing conversation was interrupted by a loud ruckus near the men’s room. A small crowd had gathered around the entrance, where the female manager was demanding that a group of teenage boys present ticket stubs for the next feature or leave the theater at once.

"What’s your problem? We were just taking a piss. Is that against the law or something?"

The red-faced manager stood her ground, asking again to see his ticket.

"I don’t have to show you nothing," he growled, "bitch."

"That’s one of Trey’s friends," Justine whispered as they drew closer. "Oh, my goodness! That’s my son."

Sure enough, Trey emerged from the men’s room with three other boys. Leading the way, he threw a box of popcorn to the floor, scattering it all around as he shouldered past the woman.

Justine was immediately angry and embarrassed, and she stepped forward to intercept her son. "What’s going on, Trey?"

The boy was clearly startled by his mother’s sudden appearance, and he looked around to see his buddies make a hasty retreat to the exit. "I was…we went to see a movie and then we went to the bathroom."

Justine looked at the manager for confirmation.

"These boys went into the men’s room after the first movie and then slipped into another show without paying. When I saw them all go in again, I asked them to show me their ticket stub."

The son looked away ashamed as his mother tugged him to the side. "Is that true?" she whispered harshly.


"Answer me."

"We just sneaked into a movie. It’s not like we hurt anybody."

"It’s just like stealing, Trey. You know better than that."

Justine looked back over her shoulder, relieved to see that the crowd had moved on. A boy of about fourteen was sweeping up the spilled popcorn, and the manager had moved to stand near the exit, clearly waiting to making certain the young scofflaws left the theater.

"Trey Sharpe, I want you to go apologize to that boy who’s cleaning up your mess. And then I want you to go pay for the movie–"

"I don’t have any more money."

Irritated beyond measure, Justine ripped open her purse and pulled out her wallet, handing her son a ten dollar bill. "You will pay me back for this out of your allowance." She stood and watched as her son did exactly as he’d been told, then followed him out into the rainy December night.

"Great! Now my ride’s gone," he scowled.

Justine was sorely tempted to make her son walk, but she knew he’d just whip out his cell phone when she was gone and have his friends come back for him. They’d all have a good laugh and tease him about his mother catching him, then plot what to do next time to make sure they weren’t caught. That wouldn’t do.

"I’ll take you home." It was then that she remembered Carly, and that they’d come in her car. "Don’t move a muscle," she told her son sternly. Briskly, she walked to where Carly waited in the rain by her rental car.

"I wish I’d thought of that," the blonde woman said when her friend arrived in a huff. "Who knew we could have saved eighteen dollars by hiding in the ladies’ room?"

Justine rolled her eyes. "I’ve never been so humiliated in my life…well…not for a long time. Listen, I need to ask a favor. Could I talk you into dropping this…hoodlum at home?"

"Are you going to cuff him and sit in the back seat with him?"

"If I had handcuffs, I’d clip him to the bumper."

"I’m happy to drop him off, Justine. Go on back over there and I’ll pull up."

She swung the car through the lot and stopped in front of the teenager and his mom. It was obvious that their argument was continuing. Both opened the car doors and climbed in, the youth in the back behind Carly.

"I can’t believe you embarrassed me in front of my friends like that."

"Embarrassed you? How do you think I felt having my friend witness you acting like a jackass? This is Carly, by the way, a friend of mine from high school. Carly, this is my son, Trey. I wish you could have met him under more pleasant circumstances."

No way did Carly want to be in the middle of this. "Hi, Trey. So, uh…where do you live?" She knew exactly where he lived, but thought it best that he not know that.

"Lakeside," he muttered.

The threesome drove without a word through downtown, where Carly turned out toward the subdivision. Uncomfortable with the extended silence, she wanted to ask Trey if Creepy Sleep was any good, but figured that would only get a rise out of Justine. So they continued until they reached Lakeside Drive and Trey pointed to the house where his father lived.

"Excuse me one more minute," Justine said as she got out with her son and closed the door. "Trey, I know you’re angry with me right now. But I hope that when you think about this, you realize that what you did was wrong."

"Mom, the other guys don’t have a lot of money. The reason I didn’t have any was because I bought everybody drinks and stuff. I was just sneaking in with them because otherwise, I’m the geeky friend."

"Trey, that’s wrong and you know it. But I can forgive the sneaking in the movie part a whole lot easier than I can overlook the way you threw that popcorn on the floor. That was just plain mean, and I know you weren’t raised that way."

The boy looked away. "I…I’m sorry."

"That’s what I wanted to hear. And I don’t ever want to hear about you sneaking in the movies again. If you and your friends don’t have enough money, you need to find something else to do. And if they insist, then you need to find new friends. Do you understand what I’m saying?"

Trey nodded solemnly.

"Now would you be so kind as to thank my friend Carly for a ride?"

The teenager opened the passenger door and stuck his head inside. "Thanks a lot for the ride. Sorry I was such a pain."

"It’s all right. Maybe we’ll meet again another time."

"Sure. So long."

Justine got in and Carly backed out the driveway.

"I thought you handled that pretty well."

"I still can’t believe my own son did something like that."

"It’s not a big deal. Lots of people sneak in the movies, and I don’t even think they realize it’s the same as stealing."

"I was madder at him for how rude he was to that manager."

"Well, I think you proved your point. And it looked like he was seeing the light by the time you got finished with him. Tough love and all."

"Lord, it took me a year of therapy to get so I’d tell them no when they asked for something. I was scared they wouldn’t come over at all if I didn’t give them everything they wanted."

"That must have been hard."

"It was, but you know, Valerie–that’s my therapist–helped me understand that I can’t ever stop being their mother. No matter what, I’m still supposed to teach them right from wrong, and help them make the right decisions. I just can’t believe that Trey’s nearly eighteen and he’s pulling stuff like that."

"Well, like I said, I think you handled it right. I believe he learned his lesson."

"I hope so, because we aren’t going to have much more opportunity with him. He’ll be gone and on his own before we know it."

"So you want to get something to eat?"

"What did you have in mind?"

Thud! There was something about the way Justine had uttered that simple little question that sent Carly’s thoughts to something very intimate. Shaking her head, she tried to concentrate on the subject at hand. "Um…what are our choices?"

"Pizza…the steak house…fast food…the drug store closes at six on Sundays."

"What about that new coffee house? Maybe we can get a muffin or something."

"Nah, they’re not open at all on Sundays." Justine checked her watch. It was already after eight. "Well, I know a house on Sandstone where we could get a grilled cheese sandwich."




"It was fine, Justine." The redhead congratulated herself as she got ready for bed. "Two friends went to the movies and had a little bite to eat." As she took stock of the day, she was almost overwhelmed at everything that had happened. She and Carly had gone out together where people could see them, and she hadn’t worried the whole time about what others would say. She did, however, catch herself looking around the darkened theater to see if there was anyone she knew, or if they stood out…two women together. That was paranoia, she knew, and she was working on keeping that tamped down.

There had been that one little moment when Carly mentioned running into Sara, but since the local gossip hadn’t really seen them together, she wasn’t going to have to deal with the rumors. Of course, for a worrier like Justine, a close call like that caused almost as much anxiety as if they’d actually run into the woman face to face. "But it didn’t happen," she told herself aloud.

And then there had been the thing with Trey. The irony of that whole scene was that she would have been beside herself with anxiety had she and Carly just run into him under normal circumstances. But the trouble he’d made at the theater had so occupied her emotions that she forgot to be concerned with what her son might think at seeing her out with a woman. And if Trey was bothered by it, he sure hadn’t let on. Of course, he had been more worried about saving his own tail at the time.

And then she and Carly had come back to the house. They hung out in the kitchen and talked about the day, and then Carly had dropped a kiss on her cheek and was gone, just like that. Justine raised her hand to touch the spot where the blonde woman’s lips had been. It hadn’t been like those air kisses she used to trade with her friends. It was firm, and her lips had rested there for a second or two. It was nice.

Valerie was going to be proud of her for having such a good week. She’d been an emotional mess lately, but now she was starting to feel like she was back in control.


Chapter 11


"Morning, Daddy." Carly poured herself a cup of coffee and took a seat opposite her father at the kitchen table. "Who won the game last night?" She was only asking because she’d found him sound asleep in front of the TV when she’d gotten home just before ten.

"I don’t rightly know." He looked up to see the sly grin on his daughter’s face and realized that he was being tweaked. "You must not have had a very good time last night. Your head isn’t in a bucket this morning."

Touché. "As a matter of fact, I had a very good time…and I remember every minute of it," she added with a wry grin.

Nadine joined them at the table. "Your daddy and I talked about the store yesterday."


Lloyd smiled at his wife and took her hand. "We’ve decided that we’ve got better things to do with our time than hang around a furniture store."

"Aw, that’s great news!" Immediately, she got up and gave each of her parents a big hug. "So have you told Perry?"

"Not yet. We thought we’d tell him when we close the store on Christmas Eve. We’ll all come over here for lunch afterwards like we usually do."

"So what’s your timetable?"

"We’ll hand him the keys just as soon as he gets things taken care of at the bank," Lloyd answered. "I might work with him a little bit to help him out, but it’ll be his headache instead of mine."

"And he’ll be signing your paycheck instead of the other way around," Carly added. "Do you have a lawyer that can draw the papers up?"

"I guess I ought to call Aaron Cobb. Shouldn’t be much to it."

"Probably not, but this is a pretty big deal, so you want to make sure all the details are taken care of."

"I’ll give him a call this morning when you and Perry go out. You’re riding on the truck today, aren’t you?"

"Sure." Carly still hadn’t stopped smiling. "I’m really glad you guys are doing this. You’ve worked hard for a long time and you deserve it, both of you."

"And you’re sure you don’t want to run a furniture store?" Lloyd had to ask one more time.


"All right. Well, I ought to get down there and open up. I’ll see ya’ll in a little while."




Perry pulled the truck into the alley behind the store, their morning run finished. They had only one delivery in the afternoon, and both of them would spend the rest of the day in the warehouse taking inventory. He slung his arm around his cousin’s shoulder. "So what do you say we go get a couple of those four dollar coffees?"

"I thought you didn’t want to get hooked on that."

"Consider it a Christmas present."

Carly still hadn’t made it to Leland’s new coffee house. "All right. Let me stick my head in the door and tell Mama."

Ten minutes later, the pair walked into Daniel’s Coffee Stop and joined the line at the counter. "This is a nice place, Perry. I never expected a place like this in Leland."

In the short time it had been open, Daniel’s had already become a trendy gathering place for downtown workers. There were small tables along one wall, where a wooden bench ran from the back of the store to the front. On the opposite wall, a fire roared in a large stone fireplace. In the front by the sidewalk, bay windows on either side of the entrance held tall tables and stools. The floor and wainscoting were knotty pine, and the walls were painted a warm blue, with murals that reminded her of a turn of the century mercantile.

"They do a pretty good business. Debbie likes those cappuccinos."

"Ah, I was wondering how long it would take to bring the conversation back around to Debbie," Carly teased.

"She liked you. She thought you were real nice. I should have set her straight, and told her what a cruel woman you can be."

Carly laughed and chucked her cousin’s arm. "I liked her too. I thought you guys made a really nice couple."

"What did you think of Kevin?"

"He’s an all right kid. He really looks up to you."

"Oh yeah? How can you tell?"

"Well, he ordered the exact same thing you did; he even got his steak cooked the same way. And just about every story he told started with ‘Perry and me’ this and ‘Perry and me’ that."

"He was good yesterday. I know he was just trying to get his mom to tell me to bring the Play Station back, but I guess that was the idea all along."

They stepped up to the counter and gave their order to a man about Carly’s age. This was Daniel himself, according to his nametag, and it was obvious to Carly that he wasn’t from Leland. The first clue was a gold stud earring, not exactly a popular fashion among Kentucky men. The second clue was his Boston accent, which Carly recognized from one of the men she had worked with in Jerusalem. And if she had to bet, she’d lay odds that Daniel was gay.

So how does a gay man from Boston end up running a coffee house in Leland, Kentucky?

"You want to sit over by the window?" Perry pointed to one of the tall round tables.


"So you really liked Debbie?"

"I was a little concerned when her eyes turned yellow and those long teeth came out. But other than that, yeah, I thought she was pretty nice."

Perry rolled his eyes. "A person just can’t have a serious conversation with you, can they?"

Carly leaned against the back of her stool and folded her arms. "Okay, I’ll be serious. I think Debbie’s a great girl, and I thought the two of you both looked like you belong together. And I don’t know what you’re waiting for, you big chicken shit."

That brought a fat grin to her cousin’s face. "So you think I should go ahead and ask her?"

"Yes." Especially since you’re going to be a business owner soon. "I think you ought to give the lady a ring for Christmas."

Perry blushed and nodded. "Yeah, I think so too."

Carly lifted her ceramic mug in a toast. "Congratulations, Perry. I really mean that."

"Thanks." He drank the last of his regular coffee. "Being in love is just about the nicest feeling in the world. I wish you could find somebody and settle down, Carly."

Though they were as close as siblings, she had never talked to Perry about her sexual orientation. As much as she liked her cousin, she’d kept her private life to herself because he hadn’t seemed very open-minded about that sort of thing. It wasn’t anything specific; she just had a feeling that he wouldn’t be very accepting. The last thing she wanted was a rift in the family. It was enough for her that her parents knew; it just wasn’t anyone else’s business. "Eh, love will come along if it’s meant to."

"Yeah, but you can do things to hurry it along. I’ve got a friend I go fishing with who’s a really nice guy. He’s a little bit younger than you, but–"

"Oh, no. Thanks, but no thanks."

"I know, you’re probably more interested in a guy who’s been to college, or somebody who’s traveled a lot like you have."

"Actually, Perry…." What the hell. Just tell him. "I’m really not all that interested in guys."

"Yeah, but–" All of sudden, he got an inkling of what she meant. "You mean…?"

"I like women, Per. I’ve just always been like that."

"Naw! No way, Carly. You’re pulling my leg."

"Really, Perry. I’m serious. Mama and Daddy know. I told them about twelve years ago, but I’ve just never told anybody else."

"That’s not right…I mean, I believe you think you are…like that, but I don’t think so. I’ve known you for thirty years, Carly."

She nodded in agreement. "I know it probably seems weird, but I figured it out a long time ago. And I just never told people because I figured most of them wouldn’t like it very much."

The bearded man had grown agitated with the conversation. "You’re not like that, though. You just haven’t met the right guy…a guy that treats you right and…knows what to do, and all."

Carly sighed. She was deeply disappointed in her cousin’s reaction, and more than a little irritated at his response. "Do you have any idea what a ridiculous cliché that is? Every lesbian on earth hears that she hasn’t met the right guy yet…like he can come along with his little ‘magic wand’ and make her fall in love with it. It’s insulting."

"Well, have you…" he lowered his voice, "Have you ever had a man…you know?"

"That’s none of your goddamn business." Carly had had enough of this. "You can accept it or not, Perry, but it’s not going to change. I happen to like who I am."

Perry shook his head adamantly. "I just don’t think you are, Carly. I think you’re wrong."

"And I think you’re a pigheaded bigot."

The two stared coldly at one another for a good thirty seconds before the man finally got down from his high stool.

"I’m gonna head on back to the store. I can handle the next run by myself."




"I know, Mrs. Harper. It looks like a four-dollar aspirin on your bill. But there’s a whole lot of other stuff behind that. We have to cover the cost of having a nurse on duty all the time to administer medicine. We can’t just have people deciding for themselves what pills to take, and a lot of people would forget to take stuff if we didn’t have the nurses there to remind them." The Four Dollar Aspirin was Grace Hospital’s most common complaint.

"That’s right. So we have to spread out the cost to all the patients who get medicine. If something should go wrong, you always want to have a highly trained nurse right there to deal with the emergency."

Justine smiled her greeting to the man who stepped up to the counter. She held up a finger to let him know that she’d be just another minute.

"I’m so glad you understand, Mrs. Harper. We’re really lucky that so many of the patients like you are intelligent enough to see that they aren’t just paying for something little like an aspirin, but for the security of having a top-notch hospital right in their own community…You’re welcome. Thank you for calling, and merry Christmas."

"Hi, Justine."

"Hi, Wendell. What can I do for you?" Wendell Kruenke was the director of the Grace Long Term Care Center, known by everyone in Leland as "the nursing home".

"I was wondering if you might be able to help me out next Friday night–not this week, but the next. We’re having a little Christmas party for the residents and I need somebody to play the piano. I remember once that you did that for us."

"Oh, I don’t know, Wendell. I haven’t played in years."

"That doesn’t matter, Justine. Heck, half of the residents don’t hear all that well, and the rest of us sing so badly that we’ll drown you out."

"I tell you what. Let me ask my daughter if she can help out. She can play a lot better than I can. But if she can’t do it, I will."

"That’d be just great. This is something everybody looks forward to. All the families come, and we sing carols and have refreshments. The kids from the day care do a little Christmas program."

"That sounds so nice. Do you need any other help? My son needs a community service credit to graduate, and he asked me if there was anything up here at the hospital he might do."

"We could definitely use some help decorating. Is there any chance he could come that afternoon?"

"I’ll ask him, and I’ll try to be there too, if things aren’t too busy here."

"And I hope you can all stay for the party. We need a few people to sit with the ones who don’t have any family there. Would you be willing to do that?"

"Oh, I know I could. And after Trey helps with the decorating, I bet he can too."

"Boy, I sure am glad I stopped in here. I had a long list of favors to ask, and you just took care of most of them."

"I’m glad to help. And it’s a good thing for the kids to do…you know, helping out others that are less fortunate."

"Then I’ll see you a week from Friday."

"Okay, see you then."

Justine watched the nursing home director leave, already feeling good about her offer to help. That kind of thing put you in just the right mood for Christmas. Now, she just had to get the reinforcements lined up. She dialed the number at JT’s.

Emmy quickly agreed to help out by playing the piano, and promised to practice at home. Trey was more slippery, but Justine reminded him that he needed the credit for school, and they had already talked about him doing a project. This would probably meet that requirement, and Wendell would be more than happy to write a report for Trey’s guidance counselor. Reluctantly, he promised to be there at three to help her decorate, and to stay through the evening to keep one of the residents company during the party.




"You know you’re going to be up until Thursday." Daniel slid into the empty seat where Carly sat drinking a triple shot of espresso. The lunch crowd had cleared out, and the owner was making the rounds to pick up the empties and wipe off the tables.

She smiled gently and nodded. "You’re probably right."

"That’s the problem with the Bible Belt. There’s nowhere to go to get a shot of Jack Daniels in the middle of the day."

That’s only one of the problems with the Bible Belt. "You have a really nice place here, Daniel. I’d have never guessed a real coffee house would have caught on so well in a place like Leland."

"Well I’d like to think it’s because we’re more than just a coffee house."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah, we’re a…community house. We’re a place to gather and talk about the important things that affect our lives. And we also just happen to have the best coffee in Kentucky."

"I have to agree with that." She finished her cup and set it back down. "I’m Carly Griffin. My mom and dad run Griffin Home Furnishings down the street."

"Daniel Youngblood. I moved here from Boston last summer. Pleased to meet you."

"What brings you all the way to Leland? Are you settling here, or is this part of your coffee empire?"

"Now that’s what I like. Somebody who’s not afraid to think big."

"Hey, Kentucky Fried Chicken started about fifty miles from here, and I’ve eaten that Original Recipe all over the world." She told him about her job, and explained that she was visiting Leland for a couple of months before her next post in Madrid.

"Can I get you another? How about a decaf?"

"Nah, I know when to quit. I’ve probably already burned a hole through my stomach anyway."

"Don’t let that get out. It would be bad for business. I’d offer you a muffin to soak up the acid, but we’re sold out."

Carly liked this man. Leland could use an influx of new people and businesses to drag it out of the Dark Ages. "So really, how did you end up here, Daniel?"

"I…came down with a friend of mine. His mother died a couple of years ago, and now his father’s going down. He wanted to come back here and be with him, and take care of him for awhile."

Yeah, Daniel was gay. "Quite a change from Boston, isn’t it?"

"You know, I thought so at first. But the longer I stay here, the more I think that people are just people, no matter where they are."

"But what about that Bible Belt thing? There’s more to that than just not being able to get a drink in a bar. I mean, people aren’t as accepting here if you’re…different. At least that’s been my experience."

A subtle look of understanding crossed the man’s face. They were now on the same wavelength, Carly was certain.

"Well, you’re right about that. But for the most part, I think people feel better about themselves when they like people, and when they treat other folks well. And I try to do things with that in mind."

"So what about your friend? What kind of work does he do?"

"He’s an artist, a painter."

"Oh yeah? What does he work in?"

"What does he work on is a better question. He uses oils, water colors, acrylics…everything. But he paints on different surfaces, like newspaper, corkboard, wood. He did the murals, in fact."

"Wow, he’s good."

"Well, yeah…until you go pull out your favorite jockey shorts and they’ve been painted with…Never mind, that’s far too personal." Daniel laughed and blushed a bit.

"Yeah, usually when a guy starts talking about his jockey shorts, it’s time to hit the road. So, I guess your friend is from Leland?"

"Yes, he is. Rich Cortner. Do you know him?"

"Richie Cortner? Sure, I know him. We went to high school together. In fact, Richie was in my class."

"Richie? Oh, that’s good. I’m going to enjoy calling him that."

"Yeah, I remember Richie. He drew all the cartoons for the school newspaper. He was good even back then."

"Rich is very good. He’s had six showings in Boston, and he did a west coast exhibit a couple of years ago. We really liked it out there. That might be where we go when we leave here."

"It’s nice out there. And Californians love their coffee." Carly appreciated at once that Daniel had lapsed into casual conversation; he was, clearly comfortable talking with her about his plans for the future with Rich Cortner.

"They sure do. That’s when I first decided I was going to open a coffee house. No more suit and tie for me."

"What did you do before?"

"Would you believe I used to be a corporate lawyer? Acquisitions. It was dog eat dog, and at the end of the day, I felt like a bone. But this…this is fun."

"You’ve done a really good job here."

"Thanks." He stood up to continue his cleanup. "So now that we’re best friends, I hope I’m going to get to see more of you."

"Yeah, I’ll be back. This is going to wear off on Thursday, right?"

"Right. But if you want to try out the homemade muffins, you’re going to have to get here before ten."

"I’ll try. Say, is Richie–I mean Rich–planning on coming to the reunion? It’s our twenty-fifth, you know, and it’s two days after Christmas."

"He hasn’t mentioned anything about it, but to tell you the truth, I don’t think he has a lot of friends from high school."

"Yeah, I can relate to that. But I think it’s time to go back and shake ’em all up a little."

"You’re a brave one, girlfriend."

"We’ll see." Carly pulled on her jacket and headed for the door. "So tell Rich I said hi. I hope I get a chance to see him."

"I hope you do too. I’ll tell him about the reunion. Maybe the three of us can get together for dinner or something while you’re here."

"That would be fun. So long."

Only an hour ago, Carly was miserable about the way Perry had acted, and she’d been quick to blame not just her cousin but the whole mindset of a place like Leland. The town was pretty well insulated from gays and lesbians because most of the ones who had grown up here–the Richie Cortners and the Carly Griffins–had found it easier to live their lives somewhere else. Those who couldn’t–the Justine Halls–suffered the wrath of the small minds in town.

But meeting Daniel Youngblood had given her something to think about. Was it possible that the folks in town could accept him for who he was? Did people really want to feel good about the way they treated others, or did they need to put others down in order to feel superior? Carly had always thought the latter was true, but what if Daniel was right?


Chapter 12


"I could get spoiled by having you at home, you know." Nadine clutched her purse as she readied to exit the car. "It’s been nice not having to go in with your daddy every day at the crack of dawn."

"Well just think, Mama. Pretty soon, you won’t have to go in at all."

"I bet I won’t know to do with myself. So what are you going to do today?"

"I think I’ll head over to Daniel’s for coffee. I’ll be in a little later. You want me to bring you anything?"

"Lord, no! You’re not getting me hooked on those things."

"You sound just like Perry." Carly hadn’t seen much of her cousin for three days, both of them going out of their way to avoid being in the store at the same time since their argument on Monday. The more she thought about the way he’d responded, the more hurt she was. People who loved you weren’t supposed to just forget that all of a sudden like it didn’t matter.

"Is there something going on with you and Perry?" It wasn’t hard to notice that the two were steering clear of one another.

Carly sighed and turned off the engine. "He was wanting to fix me up with one of his fishing buddies, so I finally told him…that I didn’t like guys that way. He thinks it’s because I just haven’t met the right one yet."

"Sounds like your daddy and me. Didn’t you just tell him it didn’t work that way?"

"Yeah…but he’s pretty sure that he’s right and I’m wrong…and he made me so mad when he kept saying it that I called him a bigot…a pigheaded bigot, to be specific. That’s when he said that he didn’t need any more help on the truck."

Nadine knew that her daughter was hurting, and like any mother, she wanted to help. "You want me or your daddy to talk to him?"

"Nah, no sense in dragging you guys into the middle of this. Besides, I want him to be able to accept it because it’s me, not because of you. And if he can’t, then he’s not the person I always thought he was."

"Honey, you know who Perry is. He’s just never had to deal with this kind of thing before. He loves you, and when he thinks about it, that’s going to be a whole lot more important than whatever he thinks about…homosexuals." Despite her steadfast acceptance of her daughter’s sexual orientation, Nadine had never grown completely comfortable with the terminology.

"I hope you’re right, Mama. It’s one thing to have strangers look down on you. It’s different when it’s people you care about."

"Perry isn’t going to look down on you, sweetheart. He just needs to try it on, and turn it over in his head a few times. Your daddy and I had to do that too. You remember how that was."

Carly had been thinking about that these last few days, the way they had both been hopeful that she was just going through a phase. Despite her insistence that it wasn’t the case, they weren’t ready to believe it. It was only after they saw how much their denial upset her that they all sat down to talk about it some more. Carly explained that she’d felt that way as long as she could remember, and that it had taken her a long time to quit trying so hard to feel things that just weren’t there. She didn’t choose to be this way; it was just who she was.

"Yeah…well, I wish he’d hurry up. This is a drag."

"Mmmm…men are a little slower on the uptake. You’d know that if you’d lived around one as long as I have."

Carly chuckled. "Yet another reason to like women, huh?"

"I can see where it would have some advantages."




Justine struggled to balance the heavy shoebox as she fumbled in her skirt pocket for the key to her office. There was an unwritten rule that said if your right hand was free, the key was in your left pocket, and vice versa.

"Let me give you a hand with that, Justine." Dr. Jim Henderson, the hospital’s chief administrator, suddenly appeared out of nowhere to take the box from under her arm. "Goodness gracious! Are these all suggestions? We can’t be doing that many things wrong."

"That’s exactly what they are, Jim. But just because somebody makes a suggestion doesn’t mean it’s a complaint. Some of these are compliments." When she took over as director of patient services, Justine placed several suggestion boxes at strategic locations throughout the hospital, thinking that if she could identify small issues early on, they wouldn’t escalate into bigger problems. The hospital’s lawyers–Cobb, Finger & Sharpe–thought it was a great idea.

"What do you do with all of those? I know you bring some of them up at the staff meetings, but I had no idea you got that many."

"I enter them into a database. Sometimes, people will say how nice one of the nurses was, and I’ll make a couple of copies and send one to personnel and the other to the nurse."

"And what about when they complain about somebody?"

"Well now those…You know how it is, Jim. Some people just like to complain about stuff. Remember when my mother was here?"

"How could I forget?" Marian Hall had driven them all crazy when she’d broken her hip.

"If I get a few complaints about the same person, I’ll sometimes go let that person know. But if it keeps happening, I figure a supervisor ought to look into it and I send it over to personnel."

Dr. Henderson smiled in appreciation. He considered Justine Hall to be one of his most valuable employees. She was a team player, and she understood people. She’d been a fabulous fundraiser before that unfortunate incident at the country club, and when she’d come to him a year later saying she just wasn’t having much success anymore, he had refused her resignation, talking her into taking this job instead. He never once regretted his decision. "You know, Justine…you really are doing a great job in this position. That’s why I stopped by. I wanted to let you know that I submitted a request for a five percent raise for you next year."

"Five percent! Jim, that’s very generous. But I thought three percent was going to be the max."

"It is…but I have some discretion, and you’ve saved the hospital so much money with your ideas…and in a couple of cases, you even headed off a lawsuit. I thought it was time we thanked you for that."

"Thank you very much, Jim."

"No, thank you, Justine. You’ve made a real difference here."

She knew that. From the very first day she’d taken over this post, she had made it her mission to keep problems from reaching the second floor…specifically, to keep them from reaching Dr. Jim Henderson. It was hard work, and the rewards weren’t as public and prestigious as they’d been in her old position, but Justine was grateful for the anchor this job had given her over the last five years.

Dr. Henderson left her office just as the phone rang.

"Grace Hospital, Patient Services…Hi, JT." She dumped the contents of the box onto her desk as she booted up her computer. "No, I think that’s fine. In fact, I think it would do her good to get out with her friends for a week." Emmy wanted permission to go with the youth group from church on a skiing trip to West Virginia the week after Christmas. "But it’s not the same thing at all. Trey wanted to go without a chaperone. This is a church thing…." She listened as JT related their son’s outburst at what he thought was favoritism, since he hadn’t been allowed to go away for a skiing weekend with his friends.

"JT, do you think something’s bothering Trey? Lately, he’s been so…I don’t know what, just…unreasonable." She was willing to bet that her son hadn’t mentioned the incident at the theater to his father. "Why don’t you have a talk with him and…No, I think it’s more than senioritis. I just can’t put my finger on it." She tucked the phone under her chin and clicked the icons to bring up her suggestion database. "Okay, let me know what he says, and…maybe you and I ought to get together on Saturday and talk about the kids…No, you know, there’s a coffee shop downtown now…Daniel’s, that’s it. Why don’t you talk with Trey first and let me know what works for you."

Justine knew that she’d have to tell JT about what happened at the movie theater. If the shoe had been on the other foot, she’d want to know about it. She also wanted to hear how Emmy was doing…really doing. And she had a proposition that JT and J2 might like.




Daniel’s was packed mid-morning when Carly finally made it into the shop. A quick check of the display case confirmed that the wonderful homemade muffins were nearly gone.

"There aren’t any clean tables," a woman whined to her friend. "I don’t know how they’re going to stay in business if they don’t keep the place straightened up."

Carly shuffled to the front of the line and found Daniel working steadily at the cash register, serving the pastries, and filling orders for American coffee. His helper, a pregnant woman of about twenty, was swamped with orders for lattes and cappuccinos.

"Good morning, Daniel." Stretching across the counter, she grabbed a wet towel. "I’ll wipe down these tables."

"You’re hired! The pay’s crappy, though." The customers at the front of the line laughed.

Carly went first to the two women who had complained about the dirty tables, seeing to it that they had a clean place to sit. She continued around the room, collecting discarded newspapers and ceramic cups. When she had a full load, she handed it off to the owner and went back for more. Fifteen minutes later, the chaos was back under control.

"Thanks, girlfriend. You saved our butts. Name your reward–it’s on the house."

"No way! I’d rather see you guys make a profit. That way, I know you’re going to be here the next time I get back to Leland."

"We’ll have to see about that," he answered cryptically.

"I’m going to head on out, Daniel," his employee called as she took off her apron. She came in early six days a week and helped through the morning rush. The rest of the time, Daniel ran the shop on his own.

"Thanks, Nolene. I’ll see you tomorrow." The owner finished wiping down the counter and turned to his favorite customer, who had dropped by every morning since they first talked on Monday. "You want the usual?"

"Of course." The morning rush had cleaned out the muffin display.

"What size?"

"You have to ask?"

Daniel chuckled and selected the largest cup. "I saved you a cranberry muffin. It’s in the back." Carly helped herself while he made her latte. Moments later, he was joining his new friend at the table by the bay window. "I meant to tell you, Rich said to say hello. I wish you could have seen his face when I called him Richie."

"Well, if his memory’s any good, he could just call me Carl and we’d be even."

"He told me they used to give you a pretty hard time in high school. He was surprised you’d even consider going to the reunion."

"I haven’t made up my mind for sure. I really don’t have many good memories of that time, but I’d sort of like to show people that I rose above it all, and that I wasn’t the loser they thought I was. Maybe a few of them have grown up and turned into nicer people." She took a drink of her latte and looked into her new friend’s kind brown eyes. "That’s probably asking a lot of people here, I guess."

Daniel shrugged. "But that’s usually how you get something–by asking for it. Sometimes you just have to confront people’s fears and prejudices and force the issue. I don’t mean get in their face or anything–especially in a town like this. But you can’t take on all the shame they want you to wear."

"You make it sound a lot easier than it is, though. I know a woman here who’s been through hell. She faces these people every day, and she’s one of the nicest people I know. But they still judge her."

The store owner nodded grimly. "And sometimes, it doesn’t matter what you do. But at the end of the day, the face looking back at you in the mirror is the one you have to answer to. I’m just not willing to give those people that kind of power over me."

"Have you and Rich had any trouble since you’ve been here?"

"Not really. I had a bunch of high school kids come in here one day and unscrew all the caps on the condiments. They sat there laughing at people when they went to use stuff. I figured it was just teenage mischief until I went over and told them to hit the road. They made sure to yell ‘faggot’ a couple of times on their way out."

Carly couldn’t help but wonder if that group of teens had been Trey Sharpe and his friends. The scenario Daniel described was eerily similar to what had happened at the theater.

"But that was all. There were a bunch of people in here when it happened. If it bothered anybody, I never heard about it. It sure hasn’t hurt business."

"I can see that."

A new wave of customers walked in and Daniel got up to hurry behind the counter before she could ask him why he’d been so noncommittal about the store being here the next time she came back to Leland. Carly finished her coffee and checked her watch. Perry would be out on his run by now. That meant she’d have the warehouse to herself to work on the inventory. She took her large mug back to the counter. "See you later, Daniel. Have a good one."

Stepping out onto the sidewalk, Carly drew in a deep breath of winter air. What Daniel had said about having the courage to show your true self to people sure rang true, but it was hard to tell people who had known her for so long that they didn’t really know her at all. By hiding for so long, she’d made herself a prisoner.




"You aren’t planning on getting me drunk again, are you?" Justine opened her door to find her shivering friend holding another bottle of what she now referred to as Very Evil Old Pale cognac.

"I’ll try to show a little restraint," Carly promised feebly. "Thanks for inviting me over." They had touched base a couple of times since Sunday just to check in, but as the afternoon passed without a resolution to the problem with Perry, Carly was feeling down in the dumps and wanted to talk with somebody.

"I got a set of those brandy glasses at the mall in Lexington. I’ll get us a couple. You go on in the den and make yourself at home."

Carly found a warm fire crackling, and the couch had been pulled closer to the hearth. A paperback novel lay on the end table, its back folded open to mark the page. The blonde woman took a seat at the far end of the couch, setting the bottle by the hearth to warm.

"I heated these glasses like you showed me last time." Justine produced two snifters and sat down on the couch midway between where Carly sat and the other end. "So what’s going on? You sounded so down on the phone."

Carly poured the cognac and told the story of Perry, and how she’d decided today that she would apologize to him first, but he saw her coming and took off.

Justine was stirred by the sadness in Carly’s voice, and when she reached out her arms to offer comfort, the blonde woman dissolved into unexpected tears in her embrace. She’d never seen Carly this vulnerable, and she tightened her grip to pull her even closer. "I’m so sorry. I know how it must hurt."

"How can somebody who’s supposed to love you all of a sudden not want you to be happy?"

"Perry wants you to be happy. He just wants you to be happy with a man, ’cause that’s what he’s comfortable with. He doesn’t understand."

"But he shouldn’t have acted like that. Nothing I said mattered."

"He just didn’t want to hear it, Carly. And I guess he thought if he raised those doubts, you might really consider it."

"That’s stupid."

"Of course it is."

Carly disentangled from the long arms and sat up, wiping away the remnants of her tears. "Sorry, I didn’t mean to blubber all over you."

"That’s all right. Friends do that for each other." Guiltily, Justine admitted to herself that she’d been glad to have Carly in her arms, for whatever reason. It felt nice to hold her close like that; under other circumstances, it might have been more than just a comforting embrace.

Carly reached for the bottle and popped the cork off the top. "I know I said I wouldn’t get you drunk, but I think I’m going to have one more. You gonna join me?"

Justine sighed. "You know, I promised God I’d never drink this stuff again if he let me survive the last time."

"It’s not the same bottle."

The redhead chuckled and held out her glass. "If I ask for more of this, you have to tell me no. I have to go to work tomorrow."

"It’s a deal." Carly poured their drinks and settled back onto the couch. "What do you think I ought to do about Perry?"

"I think you’ll feel better if you talk to him."

"I just can’t believe he thinks I could be happy if I found the right guy."

"I think my kids are probably the same way about me."

"Did you ever talk to them about it? I know you told them about Petra, but have you ever told them that you might…like women?"

"Are you kidding? I didn’t even tell myself that until about a year ago. I wanted to believe that it was just Petra…that it was because it was taboo, and that’s what made it so exciting."

"What happened to change your mind?"

Justine sighed. "Valerie’s helped me see a lot of stuff in therapy. She asks a lot of hard questions. And then she encouraged me to…go out and meet some other women."

"Oh yeah?" For some reason, it hadn’t occurred to Carly at all that Justine might have been with other women. The very idea made her irrationally jealous.

"Yeah, she thought I ought to go out to a club or something and see how I felt being around that sort of thing. So I went up to Cincinnati one weekend to a lesbian bar. It was a disaster." Justine wasn’t so sure she wanted to tell this story. "But you didn’t come over here to hear about all that. We need to figure out how to fix things with your cousin."

"I’m going to talk to him again, like you said. I need to apologize for what I said…maybe try again to make him see that I’ve already worked through all the doubts. I really am happy with who I am."

"Well you should be. I think you’re a wonderful person, Carly Griffin. You’re just about the nicest person I know." Nice didn’t begin to describe what Justine was feeling right now about the blonde woman. She didn’t know if the cognac was again to blame, but being with Carly and talking like this felt great.

"I feel the same way about you, you know." Carly was keenly aware that her emotions were creeping toward the danger zone, the place where her feelings wandered beyond the boundaries of just friendship. Justine was so beautiful…But her friend had made it clear that she wasn’t interested in that kind of relationship; she wasn’t going to risk alienating her kids again. Carly needed to move this back to safer territory before she gave herself away and ruined everything. "So am I going to get to hear about what happened in Cincinnati?"

Justine visibly shuddered. "I’ve tried to purge it from my memory, but it’s no use. I doubt I’ll ever set foot in another lesbian bar."

"Now I know I have to hear it."

"I don’t think I was ever so nervous in my life. I found this site on the internet that listed the clubs and all in the Cincinnati area. This one was just for women, so I decided I’d go see what it was about. When I found the place, I sat in the parking lot for over an hour trying to get up the nerve to go in. It was in a strip mall, and it had the neon beer lights in the window. There were all kinds of women going in there…some of them were kind of pretty, but they were a lot younger than I was. I sure wasn’t looking for anything like that."

"What were you looking for?"

"Nothing in particular…I just wanted to see how it felt to be around a group of women like that. I thought maybe it’d be nice to talk with somebody."

"So did you meet anyone?"

"Not exactly. I went in and looked around. They had a little dance floor, but there wasn’t anybody dancing. Most of the people were gathered around the pool tables in the back. So I went up and sat at the bar. Before I knew it, this woman was leaning over me, offering to buy me a drink. She was…not my type, so–"

"Wait–wait–wait–wait! What do you mean ‘not your type’?"

"She was…kind of…" Justine searched her vocabulary for the right word. "She came on really strong."


"Yeah, forceful…you know, a little too sure of herself. I was put off by it. It was a lot like getting hit on by a man. I guess I expected something a little more graceful from a woman."

"No kidding. So what did you do? Did you tell her to beat it?"

"No, it got worse, if you can believe it. I was looking around trying to figure out how I was gonna get my tail out of there–alone–and the next thing I know, this other woman comes over and the two of them get into it about whose new girlfriend I am."

"God, you must have felt like a cavewoman."

"Something like that. Anyway, they decided to settle it by shooting pool, and I excused myself to the ladies’ room. The bartender had seen the whole thing and she was kind enough to show me the back door. So I slipped into the alley and had to walk all the way around the building to get back to my car."

Carly laughed. She would love to have a night out with Justine. And she’d make damn sure that everybody in the joint knew that this lovely lady was hers. "Would you ever go back?"

"Not on a double dare!"

"What if you went with me?"

"Well, now that…Are you asking me out?"

"Maybe. Depends on whether you’d go or not."

Justine and Carly gazed at one another for a long moment. Carly’s eyes were playful, and the redhead was hesitant to answer, not wanting to seem overly eager in case the offer wasn’t serious.

"Or we could go somewhere else," the blonde continued. "I know a place in Louisville where they have a DJ. It’s a nice crowd…or at least it was a couple of years ago when I went."

Carly was indeed serious, and Justine felt her mouth moving well before her brain fully processed the question. "Okay." I can’t believe I just said that. She would fret about it later, but going out dancing with Carly was definitely something she wanted to do.

"How about tomorrow night?"

"Okay." It’s got to be the cognac.

"Why don’t we drive up and have dinner somewhere? We can go to the club about ten or so. That’s when the action picks up."

"Okay." There must be at least a million other words in the English language, Justine. Is that the only one you’re going to use?

Carly couldn’t believe the turn of events. She’d come over tonight to vent about her cousin, and little by little, her conversation with Justine had grown deeper and more revealing. In her wildest dreams, she wouldn’t have guessed that the night would have culminated in a date to go dancing.

Setting her empty glass on the end table, she stood and reached for her coat on the chair. "I guess I should be getting on home. Forty-two years old and my mother still waits up for me."

"Hah! I’ll trade you mothers any day."

"No thanks."

Justine handed her the Hennessy’s bottle and walked her to the door. "I’m glad you came over, Carly. It makes me feel good that you’re comfortable enough with me to talk about things on your mind. I hope we don’t ever lose that again."

The sincerity in Justine’s voice gripped Carly’s heart, and she reached out to take the woman’s hand. "We’re not going to lose it, Justine. I promise." The redhead pulled her closer and for the briefest moment as their eyes locked, Carly thought they might kiss. Instead, Justine wrapped her in a strong hug. When she felt the long arms go limp, she stepped away and smiled.

"I’ll call you tomorrow to firm things up. Thanks for letting me cry on your shoulder."

"Anytime." Anytime at all.




"Now don’t be acting like you don’t really want to go. At least your mouth had the guts to speak up, even if your brain flew right up the chimney." As was her practice, Justine deconstructed her evening as she got ready for bed. The relaxing effect of the cognac was keeping her anxiety at bay for the most part, but she needed to work through it in her head so it wouldn’t come crashing down on her tomorrow.

She really wanted to go.

The idea of dancing with Carly brought a surprising smile to her face. Justine had tried for days to let her feelings about the blonde woman settle into friendship–a familiar friendship, but friendship nonetheless. But every time she saw Carly, something stirred inside her that took her to another place, a place that made her body hum and her heart race.

"Why are you holding back like this, Justine? You’re not going to have a better chance to be close to somebody you care about and not have to worry that your whole world’s going to fall apart."

Carly was safe. She understood why Justine had to be discreet. And she was leaving Leland in less than a month. They could enjoy one another without any strings attached.

"But that’s not fair to Carly. That’s just using her."

But it’s not using her if you have feelings for her. And Justine definitely had feelings for her.

The redhead finished washing her face and tossed her clothes into the hamper. When she returned to her bedroom, she didn’t hesitate, walking straight to the closet to take down the trusty shoebox.

"You like her. So deal with it."



And now…Justine Hall will speak on the subject of self-gratification. Let’s all give her a BIG HAND! Hehehehehehe Part 5

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