The House on Sandstone — Part 5

By KG MacGregor



Chapter 13


"Grace Hospital, Patient Services. This is…Hi, sweetheart. What’s up?" Justine spun in her chair to check the clock on the wall. It was unusual for her daughter to call during school hours, but she could tell from Emmy’s cheerful voice that nothing was wrong.

An elderly man and woman walked through her door. The Patient Services Director smiled an acknowledgment and motioned for them to come to the counter.

"That’s fine with me if it’s okay with your father." Saturday afternoon was their usual time together, but Emmy had been invited to go with Kelly and her mom to the Lexington Mall. She wanted to know if she could come by on Sunday instead. "Honey, I need to go. I have people in my office…Okay, I’ll see you at church."

"Good morning. It’s Mr. and Mrs. Oates, right?" Justine had seen these two at Grace Hospital before. Raymond and Ginny Oates ran a small farm in Branch Fork, and he’d been hospitalized last year for a hernia. More recently, she’d seen them when they came in October to visit their grandson, a seven-year-old who died of leukemia. The old couple was dressed in farm clothes; he wore bib overalls and a flannel shirt, she wore a corduroy jumper over a high-necked sweater. Their woolen coats were threadbare in places and their boots worn and dirty.

"That’s right," the kindly old gentleman replied. "My wife and I have something we’d like to do, and we weren’t sure who we needed to talk to about it."

"Well, I’ll help you if I can. If not, then I bet I can find someone who can."

The old man cleared his throat and reached into his pocket, pulling out a crumpled piece of blue paper. "Our grandson was in here last July…he had leukemia."

"I remember that, Mr. Oates. His name was Raymond too, wasn’t it?"

The man and his wife both smiled softly, pleased that she remembered the little boy. "That’s right. They took good care of him, but…there just wasn’t anything they could do about the leukemia."

"I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how hard Christmas is going to be for your family this year."

Tears rolled down Ginny Oates’ cheeks as she nodded sadly.

"We just wanted to let the folks here know how much we appreciated everything they did." Raymond unfolded the blue paper, which proved to be a personal check. "We don’t have a lot, but we wanted to give something to help the hospital with the children’s ward…since it’s the season for giving and all. We thought maybe they might get some new toys for the playroom or something. Whatever ya’ll think is best is okay. We just wanted a way to say thank you."

Justine took the proud man’s check and turned it over. In a shaky hand, Raymond had made the check out to Grace Hospital, in the amount of seventy dollars. The memo line said simply "For little Raymond". Her own eyes filled with tears at the tender gesture.

"Why don’t you come upstairs with me? I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Jim Henderson. He’s the head of the hospital and he’s going to be so pleased that you’ve decided to make this generous gift." Justine knew that the gift should go to Paul Brewer, the man who had taken her place as Director of Development. But Paul was a glad-hander, always schmoozing with the "big money", and he wouldn’t appreciate what a gift like this meant to the givers. Seventy dollars was a lot of money for the Oates family, and they deserved to be treated like the king and queen of Kentucky. Jim would do that.




"You’re not running off to get coffee today?" Nadine was surprised when Carly followed her into the store.

"No, I need to talk with Perry. This has gone on long enough."

Carly stopped just inside the doorway, where her father and cousin were pulling together some of their floor models that they’d sold at a discount yesterday to reduce their year-end inventory. Nadine made eye contact with her husband and tipped her head toward the office, where they disappeared and closed the door.

"Perry, I–"

"No, Carly." He dug his hands into his jacket pocket and looked at the floor. "I need to go first…’cause I have to apologize."

"Me too, Per. I shouldn’t have called you that. I just–"

"No, you were right. Well…I hate to think I’m really a pigheaded bigot, but I sure was acting like one. I’ve been going over it and over it in my head, and I got no business judging you like that. You ain’t just my cousin, Carly. You’re one of my best friends."

"You’re one of my best friends too." Carly walked closer and saw the look of shame on his bearded face. "I know I threw you for a loop, telling you that out of the blue. I should have told you a long time ago, but…I’ve never really had anybody special or anything, and it just never came up."

"Well, I just want you to know that…whatever you wanna do is all right with me. All I want is for you to be happy, and if a woman’s gonna make you happier than a man, then so be it."

"Thanks. I want you to be happy too." There wasn’t really anything else they needed to say. The fence was mended, and from the looks of things, there was a lot of furniture scheduled to go out today.




Justine settled into a comfortable pace, already sweating from her warm-up mile. It had been tempting to blow off her routine today, but she doubted she’d have time to run tomorrow, and she’d have just paced the house for an hour if she’d had the extra time.

Carly had called after lunch, confirming their plans to go to Louisville tonight, and offering Justine one last chance to back out. The redhead tried to sound nonchalant, but inside, she was bubbling with excitement. If she’d had more time, she’d have gotten nervous. Instead, she’d watched the clock all day in anticipation.

I will not drink too much tonight!

In the weeks since she and Carly had been together, Justine had managed to piece together a lot of the details from their drunken night. Every time something flashed in her head, it caused a shudder, a blush, and then a lapse in concentration. Even as she ran, she reached forward to brace herself on the crossbar, her rhythm fluttering just enough to threaten her balance on the rapidly moving belt.

Justine was beginning to accept the fact that her feelings for Carly were past the realm of friendship. Valerie had encouraged her to think about it, and that’s what she’d been doing. In fact, the more she dwelled on thoughts of the two of them together, the more she accepted–and welcomed–the idea. But she didn’t want a repeat of their inebriated frolic. No, if she had another chance to be with Carly, she wanted all of her faculties intact. And next time, she wanted what she’d been denied before–to touch Carly the way Carly had touched her.

Do it, Justine. Tell her that it’s what you want. You know it is. Nobody has to know about it…. Valerie was right–you can have this in your life. If you’re not willing to take a chance for Carly Griffin, then you might as well give up love for good, because you’re not going to feel this way about anybody else.




"How did you ever find this place?"

Carly drove through downtown Louisville, pointing out the women’s bar as she headed toward a parking garage. They’d eaten at Ruby Tuesday’s–Carly’s treat, since she’d done the inviting this time–and at a quarter to ten, were energized for a couple of hours of dancing.

"The concierge at the Marriott told me about it. I usually stay there when I have to be at headquarters for a few days." On the way from the restaurant, Carly had shown her friend the offices of Worldwide Workforce.

What were you thinking, you fool? They were barely out of Leland before the blonde woman realized how difficult the night was going to be. Justine was being so charming and sweet, and Carly was ready to throw out her promises to try to keep things between them at a friendship level. Her natural inclination was to flirt like crazy, but she was fighting it because Justine had made it clear that she didn’t want to go there. It wouldn’t be right to put pressure on her after she’d promised that she wouldn’t.

The women approached the entrance and Carly dug into her hip pocket for her wallet.

"I should get this. You got dinner."

"No, I invited you. No arguments." Casually, Carly placed her hand in the small of Justine’s back, guiding her toward the glass door. Lively music greeted them as they entered, and their eyes struggled to adapt to the dim light.

"This is a lot nicer place than the one in Cincinnati." The redhead smiled broadly in anticipation of their evening.

Carly leaned in to be heard above the din of the music. "If you take my hand, people will think we’re a couple and maybe they won’t try to fight over you this time." As she spoke, she wrapped her hand around Justine’s, and was pleased beyond measure when the other woman entwined their fingers. But again, Carly reigned in her emotions, reminding herself that this wasn’t actually a date, no matter how good it felt to be out with Justine.

"They can fight all they want. I’m leaving with you."

The two worked their way through the crowded room, finding a couple of tall stools at a counter that wrapped its way around the perimeter of wall. The music was invigorating, as were the lively couples that packed the dance floor.

"I probably should have told you that I’m not a very good dancer, but I was afraid you wouldn’t come." Carly wasn’t an awful dancer, but she was usually self-conscious about her style when she saw younger women dancing suggestively. It looked hot when they did it, but she was pretty sure she’d look ridiculous trying to imitate something like that.

"I haven’t been out dancing in years, so I’m kind of out of practice myself. But I’m willing to give it a try if you are."

That was Carly’s cue to toss out her reservations. If she didn’t dance with Justine tonight, someone else probably would. And she might have to hurt somebody if that happened. She tossed their coats over the bar stools and took the taller woman’s hand again.

Assuming a confidence she didn’t really feel, Carly led Justine onto the floor and turned to face her dance partner. The women easily picked up the beat of the unfamiliar tune and soon worked their way to the center of the floor. For one song after another, they stayed out there, at times touching hands, but mostly dancing face to face to watch the other’s body sway in rhythm to the music. As a techno song wound down, Carly was about to steer them back to their seats for a breather when a popular tune rejuvenated the crowd. En masse, couples herded onto the dance floor, packing all of the dancers close together.

Justine moved into Carly’s personal space and rested her hands on the shorter woman’s hips. The blonde returned the gesture, feeling the curve of Justine’s waist through her tailored shirt. As they moved together to the music, her thighs brushed against Justine’s and she was glad that the dim light concealed the flush she felt. Already warm from dancing, this new physical closeness raised her body temperature even further as she thrilled at the contact.

Chill! We’re dancing…that’s all. You’ve done this with virtual strangers and it doesn’t mean a thing. For what seemed like the hundredth time tonight, Carly reeled in her racy thoughts. Justine was by far the most beautiful woman in the place, and she could feel dozens of eyes on them. Possessively, she pulled her partner closer as the dance tune ended and a slow lover’s ballad began.

The taller woman lowered her head and murmured, "This is nice."

Carly shivered as Justine’s warm breath tickled her ear, making her want to lose herself in the embrace. But it was no use pretending that any of this was real. Justine didn’t really want this…That’s what she’d said.

In an effort to regain control of her senses, Carly leaned back a little, but didn’t let go. She studied her companion’s face, trying to interpret the expression. Justine’s eyes were closed and her brow furrowed slightly in what seemed to be concentration. Under other circumstances, she’d have said it was a dreamy look.

She was startled when Justine suddenly opened her eyes, her face breaking into a warm smile as the music stopped.

"Where did you go just now?"

"I was…." Justine was caught completely off guard with the question. She had been focused on the gliding sensation of Carly’s hips, imagining some other things they could do that would produce that same movement. "I was just listening to the music and trying to think where I’d heard it before." She hoped Carly wouldn’t ask her any more about the song, because she’d completely forgotten what it was.

"It’s a popular song, I think. I don’t really listen to music very much. It’s hard to keep up with stuff when I’m out of the country." Carly led them to their stools, noticing that a lot of the women were heading out to a large patio to smoke. "Would you mind if I…?" She gestured toward the door.

"You want to go out in the freezing cold to indulge in your nicotine habit?"

"I won’t if you don’t want me to." Carly was dying for a cigarette.

"I don’t want you to, Carly. It’s bad for you, and I care too much about you to see you get sick from it. But if it’s something you really want to do, I won’t nag you about it anymore."

Huh? "Never again?" Alison berated her every single time she lit up for almost two years straight.

"No, you have to make your own decision about something like that. You just asked me if I minded, and I told you the truth."

"Okay…well, maybe I don’t need one as bad as I thought." Maybe I’ll just quit. I’ve been meaning to anyway. "You want a beer or something?"


Carly grinned and headed toward the bar. Damn, how am I going to drink a beer and not have a cigarette? I can’t believe I just said I wouldn’t smoke.

As she waited for her order, she turned back to look at her date…er, companion. Justine looked gorgeous tonight…absolutely gorgeous. She had on tight black hip huggers with a wide leather belt and a fitted white shirt. The shirtsleeves were rolled to three-quarter length, and her jewelry–bracelets, a necklace, and dangly earrings dressed up the casual look. It wasn’t a typical look for a 43-year-old woman, but Justine pulled it off–in spades!

Dropping a ten on the bar to cover their beers and a tip, Carly turned back toward their spot on the far wall. She could see Justine talking with someone–laughing–and she picked up her pace to return to their seats. As she got closer, the other person came into view. She was an attractive woman, mid to late thirties, and her long blonde hair was pulled into a braid that went down the center of her back. Carly slipped in behind them just in time to pick up the conversation.

"Yeah, I ran the Chicago Marathon last year. I tell you, it’s true what they say about hitting the wall." The interloper sipped her beer. "But I could just tell you were a runner. You have that look."

Justine shrugged. "I don’t know about the look. I’ve never run a marathon, but I’d love to try it sometime. The most I’ve ever been able to manage was about twelve miles. It took me two days to get over that."

In addition to giving up cigarettes forever, Carly decided right on the spot that she would take up running as well. It was never too late to adopt a healthy lifestyle.

"Can I buy you a drink?" the woman asked.

"Here you go, sweetheart." Carly jumped between them and handed Justine an icy bottle. She was immensely relieved when the redhead smiled.

"We were just talking about running." Justine wrapped an arm around Carly’s waist.

"Hi, I’m Jeannie. I bet I’m in your seat."

Carly smiled sheepishly. You can have the seat, girlfriend. I’ve got this woman’s arm around me now. "It’s nice to meet you."

"Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but there’s a woman over there by the bar that hasn’t shot me down yet."

All three women laughed amiably, and Jeannie took her leave.

"Sorry if I interrupted anything. I thought you might want to be rescued, since you had such a hard time in Cincy."

"I don’t think I needed to be rescued, but I didn’t come here with Jeannie."

"Well, they don’t have a pool table, but I could have arm-wrestled her or something."

Justine laughed and tightened her grip. "There’s no contest tonight, Carly."

Carly felt her knees go weak.

The redhead took a long pull of her beer and set the bottle on the counter. "You up for more dancing?"

"Sure." Looky, ladies…she’s with me.




Justine couldn’t remember when she’d been so frustrated. It was almost two a.m., and theirs was the only car on the road. "I had a really good time."

"Me too."

They’d both said that about three times, and the redhead was devoid of all trivial conversation topics. The only thing she really wanted to talk about was why Carly had rebuffed her flirtations over and over again. Carly’s behavior tonight was so confusing. They’d danced close to each other, and even held hands when they were back at their seats, but she was beginning to think it had all been for show on Carly’s part so the other women would leave her alone. Twice, Justine had pulled her into an amorous embrace on the dance floor, only to have Carly go stiff and pull back.

You told her you weren’t interested in a romance. Now she probably thinks you’re nuts because you can’t figure out what you want. One minute, you’re telling her you can’t have a relationship; and the next minute, you’re running your hands up and down her back; grinding your hips into hers; and whispering in her ear.

And it wasn’t like Carly hadn’t responded. She did! I could feel her holding my waist, caressing me through my shirt. Or she’d run her fingers over my hands and forearms. And then BAM! She’d just stop and pull away.

Carly had feelings for her–she’d said so! But what if she’s changed her mind? Justine felt sick at the thought, and sighed deeply.

"Are you okay?" Carly asked.

"Yeah…a little tired, but I’m okay. I had a really good time."

"Me too."





Carly locked the kitchen door and leaned against it. Despite the late hour, her senses were alive–excited and frustrated at the same time. All night long, she’d battled to keep her feelings in check; and at times, it was like Justine was intentionally tormenting her. The smiles, the suggestive way they danced, and the proprietary way Justine had draped her arm around Carly’s waist or shoulder at every chance.

Are you trying to kill me, woman?

Carly didn’t know what to make of Justine’s demeanor tonight. When they first set out on the hour-long drive to Louisville, Justine was definitely excited, but Carly attributed that to the fact that they were going out to a lesbian dance club. She never once imagined that Justine’s excitement had anything to do with her. But when they got to the club–especially after that first slow dance–Carly began to feel like Justine’s focus was more on her than on their environs. Even when they stopped dancing to watch the other couples interact, Justine sat behind her on a stool and pulled her close. She’d wanted to just fall back against her chest and burrow into her embrace.

Carly would give almost anything in this world to keep that feeling–if Justine Hall’s heart was attached on the other end. But it wasn’t; Justine only wanted to sample the lesbian lifestyle…to see if she was comfortable. Even if she was, she didn’t want to try this on for real.

Damn! A cigarette sure would taste good right about now.


Chapter 14


"Carly?" Nadine navigated the crumpled clothes in the floor, careful not to step on anything. "Carly?" Gently, she shook her daughter’s shoulder.

Sleepily, the blonde woman raised her head to see who was making so much noise in the middle of the night. "Mama?"

"Honey, can you get up and take me in to the store? I guess your daddy didn’t realize how late it was when you got home, and he went on without me about an hour ago."

Carly suppressed a groan. "What he doesn’t realize is that I’m old now and it takes me days to recover from being out half the night."

"You can come home and go back to bed if you want to. We don’t have many deliveries today."

"What time is it?" Carly sat up and swung her legs out from under the heavy blankets. Her parents kept the heat turned down at night, so the house was always cold in the morning.

"It’s almost eight."

The blonde rubbed her hands vigorously through her hair, pushing it every which way. "Can you wait for me to take a shower?"

"You’re not gonna go back to bed?"

"Nah, I’ll go down to Daniel’s and get a shot of jet fuel. Do you guys need any help today?"

"I don’t think so. But if you want to, we could go to Lexington to the mall this afternoon. I need to get your daddy some socks and a few shirts he can wear when he retires."

"That’s right. All his shirts have ‘Griffin Home Furnishings’ on the pocket."

Carly stood and grabbed her robe. "Give me fifteen minutes. Okay?"

"You want breakfast?"

"I’ll grab something at the coffee house."

Twenty minutes later, Carly was dressed in jeans and ready to go, her hair still damp from the shower. They parked behind the store and the blonde woman headed up the street to Daniel’s. Her friend worked frantically behind the counter to serve the weekend crowd, apparently by himself today. She hurried to the front to see how she could help.

"Carly! I need your help."

She scooted behind the counter and waited for instructions. "Where’s Nolene?"

"Her doctor put her to bed for the rest of her pregnancy. I need a new helper. You interested?" As he talked, he started to work on the espressos and lattes.

"Hey, I’m on vacation!" Nonetheless, Carly washed her hands and turned back to the counter. "Anyone here want just regular coffee?"

"That’s my girl!" Daniel grinned from ear to ear. "There’s a button on the cash register that says coffee…then you touch size…and total."

"Okay, but if you’re short at the end of the day, it’s not my fault." She turned to face her first customer before adding, "And if you’re over, I get half."

Patiently, he walked her through the amount tendered process and in no time, the pair was clearing out orders in tandem.

"What can I get for you?" At the counter was a man dressed in khakis and a long sleeved polo shirt. He looked fleetingly familiar.

"Aren’t you Carly Griffin?"

"I sure am."

"Adam Nixon. We went to high school together."

"Oh, yeah! Adam…we had physics together…and trig…and–"

"And Mr. Bailey’s homeroom. Where have you been? I didn’t know you were still around here."

"I’m just visiting for a little while. I work for a company in Louisville."

"You’ve been in Louisville all this time? I get up there for work every now and then. How do you like it?"

"I don’t actually live there. They send me overseas to work on projects."

"No kidding…Oh, I just want a large coffee. Leave some room for cream, please. Are you coming to the reunion?"

"I think so." Carly handed Adam the coffee and took his money. He stood to the side to allow the next person to step up.

"So what kind of work do you do overseas?"

"I’m a labor coordinator. I help companies that want to set up operations in other countries. I recruit and train their workforce."

"That sounds cool. So have you lived…like, everywhere?"

"Pretty much. South America, South Africa, the Middle East, Asia. I’m headed to Spain in about a month."

"Spain? Wow, that’s something. Listen, I gotta run. I’m supposed to be getting a Christmas tree today. But I want to hear all about those places the next time I see you. Are you working here while you’re in town?"

Carly looked over at the harried owner and smiled. "That depends on whether or not poor Daniel can find someone to work for him. I guess I’ll help him out until he gets somebody else."

"I come in here every day, so I’ll see you on Monday. So long."

Carly plugged away at the counter, trying to remember any interactions she’d had with Adam Nixon back in high school. He played sports, so that meant he was probably considered popular. He dated one of those girls that ran around with Justine and Sara, but she couldn’t remember the name.

Adam was really nice today. And despite Sara McCurry’s usual air-headed manner, even she had been nice to Carly last week at the movies. Maybe the brats from high school really had grown up in the twenty-five years she’d been gone.




Justine swung into the coffee house, her eyes immediately drawn to the murals on the walls. The lunch crowd was gone, and the store’s proprietor was busy cleaning the fireplace.

"Good afternoon. What can I get you?"

"Hi, there. You’re not closing, are you? I’m supposed to meet somebody here in a few minutes."

"No, I’ll be open for a couple more hours."

"That’s great. I guess I’ll have…a latte…decaf…with skim milk."

"Coming up. Go ahead and have a seat."

Instead, Justine walked along the wall studying the mural. "This is very good. Was it done by somebody local?"

"Yes, in fact it was. Rich Cortner."

"Richie? I didn’t know Richie was still around Leland." Justine turned to study this shopkeeper. He wasn’t from around here. He had an accent and he wasn’t wearing camouflage pants. The latter was a dead giveaway.

"You’re the second person this week who’s called him Richie. You must have gone to school with him."

"Yeah, we were in high school together. I hope he’s coming to the reunion."

"He’s thinking about it."

The bell on the door rang as JT burst through, huddled in his overcoat. "Sorry I’m late." At forty-nine years old, JT’s face was lined handsomely and his brown hair was sprinkled with gray.

"It’s okay. I just got here."

Daniel deposited the latte on the table where Justine had draped her coat. "Can I get you something?"

"Sure. Double espresso…five sugars."

"You getting ready for a pole vault or something?" She’d always been amazed to see her husband dump so much sugar into his coffee.

"Coffee’s just a sugar-delivery system." He removed his coat and folded it over a chair. "I talked with Trey. I see what you mean about his attitude. Something’s going on, all right, but he didn’t say anything."

"Did he tell you about seeing me at the movies last week?"

"You mean about getting caught trying to sneak in? Yeah, he mentioned that. He said it was Brock’s idea, though. He just went along with it so the other guys wouldn’t get caught."

"Is that all he said?"

"Pretty much."

Daniel interrupted them for a second to place the drink in front of JT and pick up a ten dollar bill from the table.

"Keep it."

"Thanks. If you guys need anything else, give a yell."

Justine dug in her purse and pulled out a five. "Here you go."

"I’ll get it, Justine. It’s just a coffee."

"I’d rather pay for mine, JT," she insisted sternly. They’d had this conversation before, and she was determined to assert her independence from this man.

"So is there more about the movie?"

Justine went on to tell him how their son behaved. "I was just very surprised. I’ve never known him to treat other people like that. If he’s just doing that because of his friends, I’d rather he got some new friends."

"Did you see who the other boys were?"

"There was Josh Roberts…and Daryl Farlowe…and one other boy besides Brock."

"That was probably Dickie Underwood. Those guys are over at the house nearly every day playing video games. Maybe it’s time to start putting some limits on that."

"Won’t Trey just go over to one of their houses?"

"I’ve been trying to give him more to do at home. But he’s a senior. This is a big time for him. He’s got track and the Key Club. And Melissa." JT grimaced. He liked the girl almost as much as Justine did, and that was just barely.

"But he’s also about to turn eighteen, and he’ll be off on his own next year. I’d like to think when he leaves for college, he’ll be ready to be his own man." Justine couldn’t help but remember how she floundered in college without her friends around. She knew from experience how bad it was to let your peer group rule your life.

"I’m more concerned about his grades. Did he tell you that he’s getting a D in physics and C’s in English and calculus?"

Justine was aghast. "JT! Doesn’t he know that UK can rescind his acceptance if his GPA falls?"

"He told me not to sweat it; he said all the kids were getting bad grades and the principal would do something about it after everybody complained."

Two young women entered the store, obviously fresh from their workout. Both were dressed in exercise tights with heavy fleece tops and cross trainers.

"Well, I can see where that might be the case if it was just one teacher, but three? I find that pretty hard to–" Her ex-husband had twisted in his chair to gaze at the ladies’ shapely behinds as they walked by. "JT Sharpe, shame on you! I hope your son hasn’t inherited your carousing gene."

"I don’t mess around anymore, Justine. I just look." He said it almost wistfully.

Justine wasn’t sure if JT had straightened up on his own or if he’d been read the riot act by his law partners or his wife. In any case, after Alex was diagnosed as autistic, JT gave up his wandering ways. She was pretty sure that he only flirted with her because he knew there wasn’t a chance in hell she’d ever say yes; but she wasn’t going to test that theory by calling his bluff.

"How about wiping the drool off your chin and finishing this conversation?"

JT obediently turned back around, folding his hands and giving her an indulgent look.

"The last time Trey got bad grades was…back when he was having trouble with the boys teasing him. You don’t think that’s happening again, do you?"

"No, Justine." JT’s tone was reassuring, and he added to its sincerity by placing his hand on top of hers. More than anyone, he knew the anguish his ex-wife had endured. Despite their divorce, he loved her as the mother of his children, and he hated how badly she had been hurt. When she finally told him a couple of years ago that she was pretty sure she was a lesbian, he hadn’t been surprised. They were close–physically close–during the first few years of their marriage, but when it slipped away, it seemed she never really missed it. He’d often wondered if the weight gain had been her way of ending their intimacy. "Trey’s proud of you. Every time he walks by me, he pokes me in the stomach and says I need to come running with you guys on the weekends."

The redhead blushed, enormously pleased to hear that her son admired her efforts at being fit. Dropping the weight and taking up running had turned her life around. And of course, there was the therapy.

"So there must be something else going on. I tell you, we need to keep an eye on him, and if he’s going to bring home bad grades…well, maybe it’s time we reminded him that his little green VW’s in my name."

"I’m with you on this, Justine."

"Good." That was all of the unpleasant business. Now for the good stuff. "Is Emmy doing okay now?"

"Yeah. We got a helper for Alex…She starts on Monday. We really had no idea Emmy was feeling so much pressure about her sister."

"Emmy keeps things inside. She worries so much about disappointing people. I just can’t understand that, JT…how she got to be so sensitive."

"Maybe we doted on her brother too much…Who knows? But she sure is a special kid. And Alex loves her to pieces."

"We did not dote on Trey! But I think it’s really sweet that Alex and Emmy love each other so much. You know, if it’s all right with you and J2, Alex is welcome to come over with Emmy anytime." Justine thought if she could lend a hand, then that too would take some of the burden from what her daughter saw as her duty to her sister…not to mention that she also might see more of Emmy that way.

"That’s nice of you to offer, but Alex doesn’t always do so well in new places." Right away, he saw the disappointment in Justine’s face. "But I’ll talk with Justine–J2–and see what she says."

Justine nodded and smiled. "So what are ya’ll doing for Christmas?"

"Justine’s parents are coming down from Frankfort. I guess we’ll just open presents and eat ourselves half to death. How about you?"

"I’m supposed to go to my mother’s, but if I were to get an invitation from…oh, I don’t know, Ted Bundy, I’d probably consider it."

JT laughed in sympathy. The best part of being divorced from Justine Hall was that his presence was no longer required at Marian Hall’s ritual holiday dinners. The matriarch had taken a strong liking to his new wife, though, and had made it clear that they were always welcome in her home.

"You can always tell her no, you know."

"Do you have any idea how long she’d make me pay for that?"

"From beyond the grave, knowing Marian."

"Exactly. I think we’re supposed to eat at six, so I’m going to ask Trey and Emmy to come for that. Does that work all right for you?" They had a formal custody agreement that spelled out who was where for which holidays right down to the hour, but they’d never even looked at the court’s calendar. Instead, they always coordinated their plans so that the kids could take part in everything.

"Yeah, that works." JT stood up and reached for his coat. "Listen, I’ve got to run. Justine wanted me to go by the grocery and pick up something for dinner."

Justine tried not to laugh out loud. "Hot dogs or hamburgers?"

"Hey, I think I’m offended." He wasn’t really. She knew him pretty well. "I was thinking I could find a couple of frozen pizzas."

"That’s the JT Sharpe I know and love."

Her simple statement brought a soft smile to his face. "I love you, too. So keep me posted on Trey and Emmy, and I’ll do the same. And I’ll talk with Justine about letting Alex come over. You sure you want to deal with that? She can be a handful."

"JT, I’ve dealt with you. I think I can handle a five-year-old."

"I’m sure you can."




Carly dug into her coat pocket and wrapped her fingers around her Dunhills. Just one…It’s not like you promised not to or anything. She was taking the familiar walk through the park over the trail atop Stony Ridge. Justine had called only an hour ago to ask her over for a casual dinner, a surprise invitation given that they’d seen each other only last night.

Carly still didn’t know what to make of Justine’s flirtatious behavior at the dance club. All day long, she’d been trying to put their night out in its proper perspective. The dance club in Louisville must have seemed like a candy store to someone like Justine, who’d been hungry to taste the lesbian nightlife. And when in Rome…well, you do as the lesbians do. Holding hands, dancing close, standing with their arms around each other were all things they shouldn’t do in Leland, especially if there were consequences for Justine’s children. So the bottom line was probably that Justine had wanted to feel like a lesbian last night, so she’d acted like one. Obviously, the redhead had no idea of the torturous effects her behavior had on Carly.

When she crested the hill above the park, she was surprised to see a car pulling out of the driveway, a silver Mercedes, and a man was driving. Is that JT? She waited at the top of the hill until it turned the corner away from Sandstone, then made her way down and across the street to the porch.

As soon as she saw her host’s panicked face, Carly knew something was amiss. Justine held the door and motioned her inside, stepping close as she helped the blonde with her coat.

"My daughter’s here," she said in a low voice. "I wasn’t expecting her, but her friend got sick and JT just dropped her off."

"Do you…want to take a rain check or something?" That would be awkward, having to go back home and see if her mom and dad have saved any leftovers.

"No, I had the table set, so she knows I was expecting somebody."

"Okay." Carly tried to think of some way to set her friend at ease. "It’ll be okay. We can talk about high school and the reunion. I’ll be careful about what I say."

Justine visibly relaxed, a faint look of shame crossing her face. "Thank you." In a louder voice, she said, "Why don’t you come in the den and meet my daughter?"

Carly pushed her hands into her pockets shyly and followed Justine into the den. The teenager was stretched out on the couch, her long legs draped over the back. The TV was on the country music channel.

"Emmy? I want you to meet a friend of mine from high school. This is Carly Griffin. Carly, this is my daughter, Emmy Sharpe."

Both women waited nervously as the tall teenager stood up and came around the couch. Carly was amazed at how much Emmy looked like her mother, especially the way Justine had looked in high school. Her hair was a little lighter, but her blue eyes were perfect replicas of her mother’s, as was the shape of her face.

"Hi, Emmy. It’s nice to meet you."

"Yeah, same here…You look familiar."

"Probably the wanted poster in the post office."

Emmy smiled, but her mind was stuck on placing this new person.

"Carly has a very fascinating job that takes her all over the world. She hasn’t spent much time in Leland since we all went off to college."

The girl’s face lit up. "Now I remember you. You delivered our washer…the Sharpe house on Lakeside, about two weeks ago."

Carly nodded. "That’s right. Good eye." She was careful not to admit that she recognized Emmy too from that day, or she’d probably have to explain why.

"That is a really fascinating job. Do you deliver washers all over the world?"

Carly smirked. She appreciated a smart aleck. "Well, we don’t just do washers. We do other appliances too, and sometimes bedding."

Justine sighed, not grasping that her daughter and friend were on the same playful wavelength. "That’s not her job, silly. She just helps out with deliveries when she’s in town because her family owns Griffin Home Furnishings."

"I was kidding, Mom."

Justine saw Carly’s twinkling eyes and realized that her friend was teasing as well. "Oh…well, since you two are already such good friends, you’ll excuse me to get dinner on the table."

"Do you need any help?" Carly and Emmy offered their services in tandem.

Justine had set the dining room table for herself and Carly. "Emmy, set another place for yourself, and–"

"Why don’t we eat in the kitchen?" the teenager said as she passed the dining room. "It’s so formal in here."

"Because we have company."

"Carly won’t mind. It’s…friendlier."

"She’s right. And that way, Emmy won’t have to carry things so far when she cleans up the kitchen." The blonde woman grabbed the teenager’s shirt as she went by and pulled her backward, stepping in front to lead the way into the kitchen.

"And we should use the everyday dishes, because Carly’s not used to eating off the nice stuff."

Justine whirled around and looked at the two as if they were from Mars. Both stopped dead in their tracks and pasted sweet smiles on their faces, batting their eyelashes innocently. "Emmy, set the table. Carly, open the wine." She watched as her daughter’s eyebrows arched. "Two glasses." Eyebrows down.

Dinner was a continuation of the playful exchange, but Carly and Emmy soon allied in making Justine the object of their mischief. She didn’t care, though. She was delighted to see two of her favorite people clearly enjoying one another. The three joined forces to load the dishwasher and retreated to the den, where Carly answered a barrage of questions about all the places where she’d lived and worked.

"Mom, is it all right with you if I stay the night?"

Justine was surprised by the request, but pleasantly so. "Of course. You’re always welcome to stay here, honey. This is your home too." Emmy was lounging on the couch again, her head in her mother’s lap. Justine trailed her fingers through her daughter’s hair. "But you should go call your father and tell him." She nudged her to sit up. "Go on. It’s getting late."

When she’d first planned this night, Justine hoped to have the chance to talk to Carly about how she was feeling. Instead, they had enjoyed a relaxing evening with Emmy, and after the first few minutes, there wasn’t even any anxiety about what her daughter might think about her mom having a friend over for dinner.

"I should head on home. We have a couple of refrigerators to drop off in Bangkok tomorrow…and we need to beat the traffic."

"You think you’re so funny." Emmy swatted at the blonde woman as she walked by.

"Let me know if you want to drop out of school or anything. I can get you work riding on the truck."

"Don’t encourage her," Justine chided, standing up to walk Carly to the door. Emmy disappeared into the kitchen to make her call as they stopped in the foyer for Carly’s coat. "You were great with Emmy tonight."

"She’s a good kid, Justine. I can see why you’re so proud of her."

"Thank you. Thank you for everything." Justine leaned in to plant a quick kiss on Carly’s cheek.

Carly smiled and squeezed her hand. "Thanks for dinner. I’ll see you soon…I hope."

"Definitely." Definitely.


Chapter 15


"But we still haven’t had a chance to talk about anything, so I don’t know where it’s all going to go." Justine couldn’t suppress the smile as she told Valerie about her week. Her night out with Carly at the club was a major event, and the dinner on Saturday night with her daughter and friend had left her feeling on top of the world.

Valerie was pleased…proud, in fact. After three years of sessions, Justine Hall was suddenly knocking down one wall after another, thanks to her emerging feelings for Carly Griffin. There was still Trey, and Justine would undoubtedly face a few problems eventually when the kids had to deal with the issue of their mother’s sexuality. Heck, teenagers didn’t want to confront things like that even if their parents were straight. But Justine was a lot stronger than she’d been three years ago, and her children were older and more mature.

"Where do you want it to go, Justine?"

"I…I think I’d like to…well, I know I’d like to…"

"Explore the sexual part?"

"Definitely that." She nodded quickly and blushed, not looking up. But I’ve been thinking about…more than that."

Valerie chewed her pencil and waited.

"I’ve been wondering about…the possibility of having…a real relationship with Carly. But she’s only going to be here another few weeks, so I’m not sure if it’s realistic to even think about something like that."

"Are you looking to experiment here…try things out maybe?"

Justine blew out a breath of mild frustration. "I’m not…really…This isn’t about wanting to try something anymore. I think I might be falling in love with Carly."

Unconsciously, the therapist pushed against the floor with her toe, causing her chair to rock softly.

"You’re surprised." Justine read her perfectly.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because you always start to rock whenever I say something you didn’t expect."

Valerie rested her foot on the floor, bringing the chair to an abrupt halt. "Always?"

"Pretty much." She could see the concern this revelation brought, and gave a reassuring smile, not unlike the thousands Valerie had given her through the course of her therapy. "It doesn’t bother me. If anything, it’s nice to know that I can still shake you up after all this time."

The therapist shook her head to dismiss the thought. She would have to squelch that habit. "How do you feel about falling in love, Justine?"

"Like everybody else, I guess. There’s no other feeling like it. I just…want to be with her all the time, day and night. I want to know everything there is to know about her. And I want her to feel the same way about me."

Valerie folded her tablet and set it on the table with her pencil. "You know, over these last couple of weeks…," since you first ran into Carly, "I’ve started to notice some changes in you, Justine… good changes. I get a sense that the things you’re experiencing now are significant…and that they’ll affect you for a long time…."

"There’s a but, isn’t there?"

"Yes, I’m afraid so. I’m not telling you that you should slam on the brakes or try to control your feelings in any way…but I want you to be cautious. I think it would be unwise to rush into anything without thinking it through. Do you understand what I’m saying?"

Justine nodded. "I don’t even know if she feels the same way."

"If you and Carly keep spending time together, I’m sure you’ll find out eventually."

"Let’s just hope it’s what I want to hear."

"I hope it is too. But if it isn’t, I want you to keep something in mind, okay? You are a strong person. You’ve been through a lot these last few years, and you’ve pulled out of it. No matter what she says, or what she feels, it isn’t going to change the strong person you are."

The redhead nodded grimly. She didn’t want to think much about Carly not returning her feelings. "She came with me today…if you want to meet her."

"She’s been outside all this time?" Valerie’s office was over her garage in a residential neighborhood. If Carly was waiting in the car, she was probably freezing!

"No, she needed to run over to the mall and pick up some presents. We talked last night–that’s become our new thing, talking on the phone late at night–and she said she needed to make one more shopping trip, so we came together and we’re supposed to go somewhere nice for dinner."

"Justine…I don’t know how to break this to you, but…it sounds to me like Carly feels the same way."

The redhead let a hopeful smile escape.

By now, the therapist was intrigued enough to accept the invitation. "Do you think she’s out there now?"

Justine looked at her watch. "Probably. I told her to be back at seven-thirty."

"Well, let’s go."

The two stood up and put on their coats. The temperature had been up and down over the last week; right now, it was below freezing and threatening to snow.

"There she is." Justine spotted the rental car at the curb. When they reached it, she opened the passenger door and leaned in. "You wanna meet Valerie?"

"Sure." Carly hopped out and came around.

The counselor reached from her pocket to shake Carly’s gloved hand. "Valerie Thomas. It’s really nice to meet you."

"Carly Griffin. Nice to meet you too."

"Did you find what you were looking for?" Justine asked.

"Sure did. My Christmas shopping is officially finished."

"I envy you," Valerie interjected. "Justine, I hope you have a really nice holiday. Thank you very much for the leather folder. I’ll probably be using that when you come back after the New Year."

Without reservation, Justine enveloped her therapist in a strong hug. "Merry Christmas, Valerie."

"You too, Justine."

Carly held the door while the redhead got in and got settled. When the door clicked shut, she turned back to Valerie and extended her hand once again, this time removing her glove. With her back to Justine, she mouthed a silent "thank you", bringing a knowing smile to the therapist’s face.

Oh, yeah, Justine. I’d say Carly probably feels the same way.




"I’ll get dinner this time because you got it the other night," Justine announced as they opened their menus.

"Nope. You cooked on Saturday, so it’s my turn again; and when it’s my turn, we go out. Believe me, you don’t want to be forced to eat my cooking."

"I’m sure you’re not that bad."

"You’d be surprised. In all the places I’ve lived, the only time I had a real kitchen was with Isabel, and she was the cook. All the rest of the time, I made do with a hot plate or eating out."

"Then maybe we shouldn’t eat out so much. We should have gone back to my house so you could have another home-cooked meal." And a fireplace…and pillows on the floor. After talking about it with Valerie, Justine was emboldened to push forward and find out if Carly shared her feelings.

"I like going out with you." The blonde said it casually, without even looking up from her menu. "I’m used to eating alone. It’s nice to have company for a change."

Justine tried not to show her disappointment at Carly’s remark. "Well, I hope I’m good company." And not just a warm body sitting across the table.

"I’m sorry…I didn’t mean that the way it came out." Carly dropped her menu and gave her friend a warm look. "What I meant to say was–"


Arghhhh! "That’s mine."

The waiter deposited their drinks and took their order, but by the time he left, the personal tenet of their conversation was lost.

Carly didn’t want to say what she was really thinking–that she would rather be out with Justine Hall than with any other person in the world. That would just lead to an uncomfortable moment for both of them. "I like this place. It’s elegant, but it’s also kind of relaxed."

Justine, on the other hand, was dying to hear what exactly Carly had meant to say, but when it was clear that her friend had moved on, she decided instead to go ahead and say what she had rehearsed at home. Unknowingly, Carly had just provided the perfect segue. Here goes. "I find it easy to be relaxed when I’m with you, Carly."

That brought a smile to the blonde woman’s face. "Me too. I guess it’s easier to loosen up when we’re not in Leland. I remember one time when Isabel and I went to Buenos Aires. All the restaurants and clubs were so festive…a couple of women in love just faded into the background. It was nice to be able to relax and not worry who was going to walk in and see us holding hands or whatever."


"It was just the opposite in Shanghai, though. Alison and I had to be careful all the time. I remember once when we…."

Alison. If one wanted to kill all hope for a romantic moment, trotting out the old girlfriends would do the trick.




Carly peered at the lighted porches, looking for 415 Hinkle Lane. She was pretty sure she remembered which house belonged to Rich Cortner, but the neighborhood had changed a lot in twenty-five years. The number above the door confirmed that her memory was correct and she pulled into the driveway behind a battered pickup truck and a brand new Mini Cooper with Massachusetts plates.

The front door opened and Daniel came out to wave her in. Taking her coat, he explained, "Dinner’s ready. Rich is upstairs putting his dad to bed."

"How is he?"

"Not good. We’ve had the hospice people in this week. They did an evaluation, and told us it wouldn’t be long…maybe a couple of weeks or so."

That would be after Christmas; but Carly hated to think about someone losing a loved one during the holidays. "I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?"

"I don’t think so. It means a lot to Rich to have you come over."

Just then, the artist rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairs and headed into the kitchen. Carly recognized him easily, though he’d filled out from the skinny boy he’d been in school. He had been cute back then, but as a grown man, he was incredibly handsome.

"Carly, it’s good to see you again."

"You too, Rich."

The two shared a light hug and got reacquainted while Daniel put the finishing touches on their dinner.

"Daniel says you’ve been a lifesaver down at the shop." Carly had helped out every morning this week, coming in at eight and staying until ten.

"You know, I’m having fun. Everybody’s really nice…once they get their coffee, that is. Some of them can be pretty grumpy before that."

Rich laughed. "Yeah, that’s what Daniel says."

"Listen, I’m really sorry about your dad."

"Thanks. He’s not really aware of much anymore. And he’s not in any pain…at least not right now."

"That’s good."

"You know, when I left Leland, I swore I’d never be back. But it’s been pretty nice to be here after all that time away."

"Really? I felt that way about it too when I left, but it’s always good to come home and spend some time with my folks."

Daniel brought in the plates and the three of them took their places at the dining room table.

"I was expecting things to be like always, but it’s changed. The jobs are good and people are prosperous. They have parks and a community center, an adult theater group." Rich saw his guest’s eyebrows go up. "Not that kind of adult theater."

They all laughed.

"But it’s still kind of conservative," she added.

"Yeah, but so is the rest of Kentucky…and a lot of other places. But it doesn’t feel so…oppressive anymore. Have you been to the drug store downtown?"

Carly shook her head.

"There’s a gay flag sticker in the window, right there beside the one for United Way."

"You lie."

"Seriously. I couldn’t believe it," Daniel added. "I’m going to put one in my window too."

"You’re not worried about getting a rock thrown through it?" she asked.

"Not really. Most people don’t know what it means, and by the time they figure it out, they’ll realize that they’ve been in and out of the store a hundred times and it didn’t kill them. But if somebody does throw a rock, I’d like to think that there would be people here that would speak out about it."

"In Leland?"

"Tell her the other thing, Rich."

"When we first got here, we were at the hospital waiting for Dad to be released. The nurse on his floor was Darlene Johnston. You remember her?"

"Yeah…she was a cheerleader." And she was one of the uppity girls from Sara McCurry’s clique.

"She recognized me, and came over to where we were sitting and started talking to us. She went on about how glad she was to see me again. The girl never said six words to me for twelve years of school."

"Sounds like the other day when I ran into Sara McCurry. You’d have thought we were best friends."

"That’s what it was like. And then I introduced her to Daniel, and I thought, what the hell, so I said he was my partner. She didn’t bat an eye, and the next thing I know, she’s asking him all about the coffee shop."

Daniel nodded to confirm his partner’s story. "And now she comes in every morning at six o’clock on her way to work, and she always asks how Rich and his dad are doing."

Carly shrugged. "I guess people can change."

"Daniel said you knew somebody in town who had some trouble."

"Yeah, but she has a couple of teenagers, and I guess the rumors got around the high school and they gave her kids a hard time about it. And she lost her job. Now, she’s just pulled back. She’s afraid to even have a life."

Rich shook his head. "You can’t let people do that to you…because if you give them that kind of power, they’ll use it. But if you just go ahead and live your life like it’s no big deal, guess what? It’s no big deal. It’s not like we’re the only gay people in town."

"True." Justine said there was group of lesbians that played in the sports leagues around town, but that wasn’t her thing. "But if people were more visible, there would be more opposition, don’t you think?"

"Nobody’s saying your friend has to stage a one-woman parade down Main Street. But she ought to be able to have a life. It’s not like she’s going to be stoned to death," Rich argued.

"He’s right. They probably whisper about the two sissy boys who live on Hinkle, but we can deal with that."

"So you guys are going to drag Leland into the Age of Enlightenment, eh?"

Rich cast a sidelong look at his partner. "I don’t know that we’re going to be the ones doing that, but I think it can be done. Let me put it this way…I don’t think Leland, Kentucky is the armpit I used to think it was. I can see why people like my parents liked living here all these years."

Carly would have given anything to have Justine with her tonight so she could hear from Rich how the people in town had changed. Maybe things weren’t really as bad as Justine thought they were. Sure, there were a lot of guys like Perry who weren’t ever really going to understand gays and lesbians, and they probably wouldn’t accept them. But people like Rich and Daniel weren’t asking to be deacons at church or to sit on the school board–all they wanted was to make a living and be able to come home at the end of the day to someone they loved.

If they could have that, Justine could have it too.




"Again?" Nadine couldn’t help but eavesdrop when she and her daughter were cooped up in the office together.

"What can I say? I’m a popular dinner companion." Carly snorted as she hung up the phone. "You know, I bet I’ve gone out to dinner more times in the last week than I did in all my high school years combined."

"What’s turned you into such a social butterfly?"

"Mostly Justine. That was her just now. She fixed a pork roast in the crock pot and offered to share."

"When are you going to ask her over to have dinner with us?"

"Oh right, I can see it now. Instead of knives and forks, I’d set the table with hammers and chainsaws."

"Lord help us… but I’ll do the cooking if you want to ask her over sometime."

"Okay, I’ll run it by her and see what she says." Carly looked at the wall clock anxiously, then back at her mother.

"I guess you’re about ready to close up and go home then."

"I need to take a shower."

"And put on something pretty with a little makeup."

Carly blushed. It was humiliating to be forty-two years old and have your mother teasing you about going out on a date. "She makes me wanna do crazy things, Mama."

"Then do crazy things, Carly." Fall in love good and hard, and stay here in Leland with us.




"I’m falling in love with you, Carly. It’s like you touch parts of me that no one’s ever touched before. I know you have to leave soon, but I want to be with you and share this for as long as we can." Justine pulled the red sweater up over her head and tossed it onto the bed. "My whole body comes alive just from being in the same room with you, and I feel like I’ll just die if I can’t touch you."

She folded the sweater and placed it back inside the drawer, selecting the black v-neck instead. For a moment, she was tempted to lose the bra, but she knew better than to underestimate the power of black lace.

"I’m falling in love with you, Carly," she started again. "I know I said I couldn’t do something that might come between me and my kids, but I can’t stand the thought of you coming through my life again like this and me not grabbing onto the best chance I’ll ever have to be happy and whole."

She groaned aloud. "That’s pretty dramatic, Justine. Why don’t you just get a chain and a padlock and wrap it around her when she walks in the door?"

Justine was growing frustrated at her inability to move forward with Carly. There were moments when they talked on Tuesday night at dinner that she thought the other woman might feel the same way. But every time Carly got close to revealing herself, she would make a joke or abruptly change the subject.

All of that was going to change tonight. They’d have a casual, quiet dinner, after which they’d relax in front of the fire. They’d sit close…and Justine would reach out, pushing back a lock of hair or trailing her fingers across Carly’s cheek. Something would spark and they would kiss. There would be no need for words…her lips on Carly’s would say it all….

The sudden sound of the doorbell brought her back from her dreamy state, and she hurried to greet the object of her imagination, checking her look in the hall mirror one last time as she went by. As always, the first sight of Carly Griffin made her heart jump.

"Hi." Carly presented a covered plate.

"Hi yourself. What’s this?"

"It’s half of an apple pie. Mama says it’s to thank you for feeding me so much, but I think she also wanted it out of the house so she wouldn’t be tempted by it. It’s very good."

"I bet it’s wonderful. But she doesn’t have to thank me for feeding you. Heck, you hardly eat enough to keep a bird alive." She handed the pie back to her friend as she hung up her jacket.

"You know how moms are. If your kids were always going to somebody else’s house to eat, what would you do?"

Justine nodded in understanding. "Send food."

"Dinner smells great."

"I hope you’re hungry. I’ve got–"


"Excuse me just a second." Carly followed her through the house with the pie as Justine took the call in the kitchen. "Hello…You mean now?" It has to be a cosmic conspiracy! "I have company. Carly’s here for dinner…Yes, honey, I’m sure she’d do that." She looked pleadingly at her guest. "Okay, see you in a few minutes."

"Was that Emmy?"

"Yeah, she was calling from the car. Her brother’s going to drop her off on his way over to his friend’s house."

"You don’t sound very happy about that."

"It’s not that." But she couldn’t hide the disappointment in her voice. "I was just looking forward to being with you tonight…so we could talk. Instead, you get to help entertain my daughter again."

"I don’t mind. I like Emmy. I’m just worried that it might be a problem for you…you know, for me to be here again. I can just eat and run if you want. Heck, I can even tell her I have a date or something."

"No! It’s bad enough that I can’t just talk to them about everything and have it be okay. I’m not going to ask you to lie too. Besides, she was glad you were going to be here because she wants to ask you some questions about China for a report she’s doing."

"Okay, but I’ll do whatever you want. I know you don’t want your kids to get the wrong impression, so I’ll play it however you think is best."

If there had been any doubt before about whether or not Justine was falling in love with Carly, it was answered now for sure. There didn’t seem to be a selfish bone in this woman’s body. Carly always put her own needs aside, at least where Justine was concerned. That realization made the redhead reach out for a hug, which her friend stepped into eagerly.

"You are so sweet." Justine inhaled deeply to draw in Carly’s fresh fragrance. "Hey!" She leaned back and looked at the blonde woman in surprise.


"You don’t…." She sniffed again. "You don’t smell like smoke. Usually, I can pick up a trace of cigarettes, but not today."

"You’re just now noticing that? I’ll have you know I haven’t had a cigarette since Saturday afternoon."

"You’re quitting?"

"I’m trying," the blonde said with trepidation. "You said you didn’t want me to, and my mother’s been after me to quit too." The vow to start running too hadn’t taken shape as planned, but Carly rationalized her lack of resolve to not having the proper shoes. Not smoking was the least she could do, and her mom said it was the best Christmas present she could have received.

Oh, yeah…I’m definitely in love. "Carly, I am so proud of you. You deserve a special treat. Whatever you want, just name it!"

The very thought of how Justine might reward her caused Carly to blush, a reaction that didn’t go unnoticed by the hostess. A horn in the driveway bought Carly the reprieve she needed to gather her wits before she said exactly what she wanted from her beautiful friend.

"That’s Emmy." Justine hurried to the front door, stepping onto the porch in time to shout a reminder to her son. "Don’t forget, we have to be at the nursing home at three o’clock tomorrow to decorate." He waved from the driver’s seat and backed out of the driveway just as Emmy pushed into the house.

"He’s impossible, Mom!"

"What? What’s he done?"

"He wouldn’t even give me a half a minute to call you from the house to see if it was okay to come over. He just said, ‘If you’re coming with me, you better get in the car, or I’m leaving without you.’ He’s such a brat!"

"It’s okay. I told you that this is your house too. You can come over anytime you want."

"I know, but why does he have to act like that? He’s just so full of himself. I bet he didn’t tell you that he and Dickie Underwood got in trouble for smarting off to Miss Berkley."

"No, he didn’t tell me, but I’m sure I would have heard about it eventually. You shouldn’t be telling on him, though." Miss Berkley taught physics, where Trey was on a par to get a D this semester.

"I know. But it’s all over school ’cause Dickie said she couldn’t get laid for free."

"That’s awful! What did Trey do?" Justine knew she shouldn’t be pumping her daughter for information about her son, but she couldn’t resist.

"He didn’t say anything, but he was laughing, and he high-fived Dickie. Trey’s got detention for a whole week after we get back from vacation. Dickie got suspended."

Justine’s blood was boiling. "Does your father know about this?"

"No, Dad was in Frankfort all day. This just happened fifth period."

The mother sighed and shook her head. "They should have called me." The two walked into the kitchen.

"Hi, Carly." The teen went right to the cabinet and took down three plates. "This must be your lucky day. You get to have dinner with me again."

"Oh yes, thank you Lord Jesus for answering my prayers."

A lively dinner followed, and once again, the teasing repartee between Carly and Emmy kept Justine entertained. When the kitchen was clean, all three settled in the den to talk. As promised, Carly told them all about Shanghai, providing as many details of her daily life and the local culture as she could remember, while Emmy took notes for her report.

"Can I stay again tonight, Mom?"

"Don’t you have school tomorrow?"

"Just for half a day. I already have clothes here, and I brought my book bag."

"It’s okay with me, but you need to call your dad again. Was Trey supposed to pick you up?"

"Not unless I called him."

Carly stood up to take her leave, looking out the window to the back yard. "Look, it’s snowing."

"I heard we’re supposed to get three to five inches tonight," Justine said.

"Maybe there won’t be any school tomorrow!" Emmy shouted from the kitchen.

The hostess walked her guest to the front door and helped her into her leather jacket. "Are you working at the coffee house tomorrow?"

"Just a little while in the morning. You doing anything tomorrow night?" She hadn’t even left, and already, Carly couldn’t wait to see Justine again. This was nuts.

"I promised Wendell Kruenke I’d help with the Christmas party out at the nursing home. The kids’ll be there too."

"I think Perry’s planning to go to that. His grandmother’s a resident out there."

"I’ll be sure to say hello. Emmy’s playing the piano and we’re going to sing Christmas carols."

"That sounds nice." Carly wanted a hug, but the teenager emerged from the kitchen to say goodnight, and the opportunity was lost. "Maybe I’ll see you over the weekend."

"Goodnight, Carly," Emmy offered. "Don’t bust your…tail…on that hill."

"Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? I bet you’d laugh your…tail…off."

Justine couldn’t resist jumping into the wordplay, but she made a show of covering her daughter’s ears. "You two are behaving like a couple of…asses."

Carly laughed and stepped off the porch into the powdery snow. "Thanks again for dinner."

"Tell your mom thanks for the pie." Justine watched from the doorway as her friend carefully picked her way up the hill. When Carly disappeared over the ridge, she went in search of her daughter. "Emmy?"

The light was on in the girl’s upstairs room. Justine called her again and she appeared on the landing.

"Are you going to tell me what’s going on?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean is there a reason you don’t want to be at your father’s house?"

"You said I could stay…that this was my home too."

"It is, and you know I love it when you stay here. What I want to know is if you’re staying here because you want to be with me, or if you’re staying here because you don’t want to be there." Justine knew that her daughter was especially sensitive to other people’s stress, and she had a feeling something was amiss at home.

Emmy started to speak and then stopped, a sure sign to her mother that she was trying to think of a way out of this conversation.

"Come down here, please."


"Never mind, I’ll come up." By the time she reached the top of the stairs, Emmy was near tears, her shoulders slumped in defeat. "What is it, honey?"

"I shouldn’t say anything," the teenager mumbled, her bottom lip quivering.

Justine wrapped her arm around her daughter’s shoulder and steered her into the bedroom, where they sat side by side on the bed.

"Dad and J2 are fighting."

Now the mother understood why her child was reluctant to speak. Not carrying tales between the two households was an unwritten rule.

"Honey, married couples do that. It’s part of all relationships. Some people even say it’s healthy to fight every now and then."

"She’s hardly talking to Dad, and even when she does, you can tell that she’s mad at him for something."

"Whatever it is, I’m sure they’ll work it out. They love each other…and they both love you." Justine didn’t want to be in the middle of this, but she needed to be sure that whatever they were fighting about didn’t involve Emmy or Trey. "Do you know what the problem is?"

Emmy shook her head. "They don’t talk about it in front of us, but I can hear them arguing at night."

"Have you talked about it with Trey?"

"Yeah, but he doesn’t know what it is either. He never hears anything because he’s always wearing those stupid headphones."

Justine was relieved to hear that Trey didn’t know anything about it. That meant that it probably wasn’t about him, even though his recent behavior certainly warranted some concern.

Alex! What if they’re fighting because of my suggestion to have Alex come over with Emmy sometime? JT said she probably wouldn’t want to do that. God, I hope I didn’t cause all this trouble.

"Honey…do you think this has anything to do with your little sister?"

"I doubt it. Dad usually goes along with whatever J2 says when it comes to Alex." But as she considered the possibility, she became alarmed. "Oh no! You don’t think they’re fighting because of me, do you?"

"No!" Justine went on to explain that she offered to have them both come over to give JT and J2 a break, and that she hoped J2 hadn’t gotten upset with her for butting in.

"I don’t think she’d get upset, Mom. I just…think she’d call every ten minutes to see if Alex was okay. They’ve lined up a helper to come over a couple times a week starting in January."

"Well, honey…if it ain’t you…and it ain’t me…then I guess we ought to stay out of their business. They’ll work it out. Okay?"

The teen nodded grimly.

"You want to stay over here next week when you’re out of school?"

"Can I?"

"Are you kidding? I’d love that. Just clear it with your father." As far as Justine was concerned, she could stay there every night. Of course, that might cramp her plans for Carly Griffin.

"Can I ask you a question? It’s kind of…well, you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to."

Panic gripped her stomach and she held her breath, fearing the worst. What am I going to say?

"Do you like J2?" Emmy couldn’t read the look on her mother’s face, so she tried to clarify. "It’s weird sometimes to think that she’s closer to my age than she is to Dad’s."

Justine could feel her heart rate slow to its natural rhythm. "I like J2 just fine. We probably won’t ever be close friends or anything, but I think she’s been good for your father. And I especially appreciate that she’s made a nice home for you and your brother."

"You don’t…hold it against her for marrying Dad?"

The mother held up her thumb and forefinger so that they barely touched. "Not even this much." She laughed at that, and her daughter followed suit.

"I think it’s nice that you and Dad are still good friends. Most of my friends’ parents who are divorced hate each other."

"Well, we weren’t meant to stay together, but we’ll always have you and Trey to remind us that there was a time that we did something right."

As they shared a loving hug, Justine basked in knowing that this was the kind of moment that mothers lived for.



Another child-rearing note: Don’t worry about your teenager’s peer group. They deserve each other. Part 6

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