The House on Sandstone Part 5
By KG MacGregor
"Grace Hospital, Patient Services. This is Hi, sweetheart. Whats 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 Emmys 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.
"Thats fine with me if its 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, Ill see you at church."
"Good morning. Its 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 hed been hospitalized last year for a hernia. More recently, shed 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.
"Thats right," the kindly old gentleman replied. "My wife and I have something wed like to do, and we werent sure who we needed to talk to about it."
"Well, Ill 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, wasnt it?"
The man and his wife both smiled softly, pleased that she remembered the little boy. "Thats right. They took good care of him, but there just wasnt anything they could do about the leukemia."
"Im 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 dont have a lot, but we wanted to give something to help the hospital with the childrens ward since its the season for giving and all. We thought maybe they might get some new toys for the playroom or something. Whatever yall think is best is okay. We just wanted a way to say thank you."
Justine took the proud mans 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 dont you come upstairs with me? Id like to introduce you to Dr. Jim Henderson. Hes the head of the hospital and hes going to be so pleased that youve 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 wouldnt 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.
"Youre 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 theyd 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.
"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 shouldnt have called you that. I just"
"No, you were right. Well I hate to think Im really a pigheaded bigot, but I sure was acting like one. Ive been going over it and over it in my head, and I got no business judging you like that. You aint just my cousin, Carly. Youre one of my best friends."
"Youre 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 Ive 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 womans gonna make you happier than a man, then so be it."
"Thanks. I want you to be happy too." There wasnt 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 shed have time to run tomorrow, and shed have just paced the house for an hour if shed 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 shed had more time, shed have gotten nervous. Instead, shed 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 thats what shed been doing. In fact, the more she dwelled on thoughts of the two of them together, the more she acceptedand welcomedthe idea. But she didnt 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 shed been denied beforeto touch Carly the way Carly had touched her.
Do it, Justine. Tell her that its what you want. You know it is. Nobody has to know about it . Valerie was rightyou can have this in your life. If youre not willing to take a chance for Carly Griffin, then you might as well give up love for good, because youre not going to feel this way about anybody else.
"How did you ever find this place?"
Carly drove through downtown Louisville, pointing out the womens bar as she headed toward a parking garage. Theyd eaten at Ruby TuesdaysCarlys treat, since shed done the inviting this timeand 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 didnt want to go there. It wouldnt be right to put pressure on her after shed promised that she wouldnt.
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 Justines 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 were a couple and maybe they wont try to fight over you this time." As she spoke, she wrapped her hand around Justines, and was pleased beyond measure when the other woman entwined their fingers. But again, Carly reigned in her emotions, reminding herself that this wasnt actually a date, no matter how good it felt to be out with Justine.
"They can fight all they want. Im 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 Im not a very good dancer, but I was afraid you wouldnt come." Carly wasnt 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 shed look ridiculous trying to imitate something like that.
"I havent been out dancing in years, so Im kind of out of practice myself. But Im willing to give it a try if you are."
That was Carlys cue to toss out her reservations. If she didnt 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 womans hand again.
Assuming a confidence she didnt 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 others 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 Carlys personal space and rested her hands on the shorter womans hips. The blonde returned the gesture, feeling the curve of Justines waist through her tailored shirt. As they moved together to the music, her thighs brushed against Justines 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! Were dancing thats all. Youve done this with virtual strangers and it doesnt 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 lovers ballad began.
The taller woman lowered her head and murmured, "This is nice."
Carly shivered as Justines 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 didnt really want this Thats what shed said.
In an effort to regain control of her senses, Carly leaned back a little, but didnt let go. She studied her companions face, trying to interpret the expression. Justines eyes were closed and her brow furrowed slightly in what seemed to be concentration. Under other circumstances, shed 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 Carlys 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 Id heard it before." She hoped Carly wouldnt ask her any more about the song, because shed completely forgotten what it was.
"Its a popular song, I think. I dont really listen to music very much. Its hard to keep up with stuff when Im 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 wont if you dont want me to." Carly was dying for a cigarette.
"I dont want you to, Carly. Its bad for you, and I care too much about you to see you get sick from it. But if its something you really want to do, I wont 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 dont need one as bad as I thought." Maybe Ill just quit. Ive 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 cant believe I just said I wouldnt 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 jewelrybracelets, a necklace, and dangly earrings dressed up the casual look. It wasnt a typical look for a 43-year-old woman, but Justine pulled it offin 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 someonelaughingand 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, its 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 dont know about the look. Ive never run a marathon, but Id love to try it sometime. The most Ive 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 Carlys waist.
"Hi, Im Jeannie. I bet Im in your seat."
Carly smiled sheepishly. You can have the seat, girlfriend. Ive got this womans arm around me now. "Its nice to meet you."
"Well, Id love to stay and chat, but theres a woman over there by the bar that hasnt 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 dont think I needed to be rescued, but I didnt come here with Jeannie."
"Well, they dont have a pool table, but I could have arm-wrestled her or something."
Justine laughed and tightened her grip. "Theres 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 shes with me.
Justine couldnt remember when shed been so frustrated. It was almost two a.m., and theirs was the only car on the road. "I had a really good time."
Theyd 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. Carlys behavior tonight was so confusing. Theyd 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 Carlys 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 werent interested in a romance. Now she probably thinks youre nuts because you cant figure out what you want. One minute, youre telling her you cant have a relationship; and the next minute, youre running your hands up and down her back; grinding your hips into hers; and whispering in her ear.
And it wasnt like Carly hadnt responded. She did! I could feel her holding my waist, caressing me through my shirt. Or shed run her fingers over my hands and forearms. And then BAM! Shed just stop and pull away.
Carly had feelings for hershed said so! But what if shes changed her mind? Justine felt sick at the thought, and sighed deeply.
"Are you okay?" Carly asked.
"Yeah a little tired, but Im okay. I had a really good time."
Carly locked the kitchen door and leaned against it. Despite the late hour, her senses were aliveexcited and frustrated at the same time. All night long, shed 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 Carlys waist or shoulder at every chance.
Are you trying to kill me, woman?
Carly didnt know what to make of Justines 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 Justines excitement had anything to do with her. But when they got to the clubespecially after that first slow danceCarly began to feel like Justines 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. Shed wanted to just fall back against her chest and burrow into her embrace.
Carly would give almost anything in this world to keep that feelingif Justine Halls heart was attached on the other end. But it wasnt; Justine only wanted to sample the lesbian lifestyle to see if she was comfortable. Even if she was, she didnt want to try this on for real.
Damn! A cigarette sure would taste good right about now.
"Carly?" Nadine navigated the crumpled clothes in the floor, careful not to step on anything. "Carly?" Gently, she shook her daughters 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 didnt 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 doesnt realize is that Im 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 dont 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.
"Its 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?"
"Youre not gonna go back to bed?"
"Nah, Ill go down to Daniels and get a shot of jet fuel. Do you guys need any help today?"
"I dont 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."
"Thats 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?"
"Ill 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 Daniels. 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. "Wheres 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, Im on vacation!" Nonetheless, Carly washed her hands and turned back to the counter. "Anyone here want just regular coffee?"
"Thats my girl!" Daniel grinned from ear to ear. "Theres a button on the cash register that says coffee then you touch size and total."
"Okay, but if youre short at the end of the day, its not my fault." She turned to face her first customer before adding, "And if youre 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.
"Arent 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. Baileys homeroom. Where have you been? I didnt know you were still around here."
"Im just visiting for a little while. I work for a company in Louisville."
"Youve been in Louisville all this time? I get up there for work every now and then. How do you like it?"
"I dont 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?"
"Im 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. Im headed to Spain in about a month."
"Spain? Wow, thats something. Listen, I gotta run. Im 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 youre 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 Ill help him out until he gets somebody else."
"I come in here every day, so Ill see you on Monday. So long."
Carly plugged away at the counter, trying to remember any interactions shed 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 couldnt remember the name.
Adam was really nice today. And despite Sara McCurrys 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 shed 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 stores proprietor was busy cleaning the fireplace.
"Good afternoon. What can I get you?"
"Hi, there. Youre not closing, are you? Im supposed to meet somebody here in a few minutes."
"No, Ill be open for a couple more hours."
"Thats great. I guess Ill 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 didnt know Richie was still around Leland." Justine turned to study this shopkeeper. He wasnt from around here. He had an accent and he wasnt wearing camouflage pants. The latter was a dead giveaway.
"Youre the second person this week whos called him Richie. You must have gone to school with him."
"Yeah, we were in high school together. I hope hes coming to the reunion."
"Hes thinking about it."
The bell on the door rang as JT burst through, huddled in his overcoat. "Sorry Im late." At forty-nine years old, JTs face was lined handsomely and his brown hair was sprinkled with gray.
"Its 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?" Shed always been amazed to see her husband dump so much sugar into his coffee.
"Coffees 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. Somethings going on, all right, but he didnt 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 Brocks idea, though. He just went along with it so the other guys wouldnt get caught."
"Is that all he said?"
Daniel interrupted them for a second to place the drink in front of JT and pick up a ten dollar bill from the table.
"Thanks. If you guys need anything else, give a yell."
Justine dug in her purse and pulled out a five. "Here you go."
"Ill get it, Justine. Its just a coffee."
"Id rather pay for mine, JT," she insisted sternly. Theyd 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. Ive never known him to treat other people like that. If hes just doing that because of his friends, Id 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 its time to start putting some limits on that."
"Wont Trey just go over to one of their houses?"
"Ive been trying to give him more to do at home. But hes a senior. This is a big time for him. Hes 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 hes also about to turn eighteen, and hell be off on his own next year. Id like to think when he leaves for college, hell be ready to be his own man." Justine couldnt 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.
"Im more concerned about his grades. Did he tell you that hes getting a D in physics and Cs in English and calculus?"
Justine was aghast. "JT! Doesnt 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 hasnt inherited your carousing gene."
"I dont mess around anymore, Justine. I just look." He said it almost wistfully.
Justine wasnt sure if JT had straightened up on his own or if hed 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 wasnt a chance in hell shed ever say yes; but she wasnt 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 dont think thats happening again, do you?"
"No, Justine." JTs 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 hadnt been surprised. They were closephysically closeduring the first few years of their marriage, but when it slipped away, it seemed she never really missed it. Hed often wondered if the weight gain had been her way of ending their intimacy. "Treys 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 hes going to bring home bad grades well, maybe its time we reminded him that his little green VWs in my name."
"Im 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 cant 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 its really sweet that Alex and Emmy love each other so much. You know, if its 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.
"Thats nice of you to offer, but Alex doesnt always do so well in new places." Right away, he saw the disappointment in Justines face. "But Ill talk with JustineJ2and see what she says."
Justine nodded and smiled. "So what are yall doing for Christmas?"
"Justines parents are coming down from Frankfort. I guess well just open presents and eat ourselves half to death. How about you?"
"Im supposed to go to my mothers, but if I were to get an invitation from oh, I dont know, Ted Bundy, Id 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 Halls 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 shed make me pay for that?"
"From beyond the grave, knowing Marian."
"Exactly. I think were supposed to eat at six, so Im 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 theyd never even looked at the courts 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, Ive 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 Im offended." He wasnt really. She knew him pretty well. "I was thinking I could find a couple of frozen pizzas."
"Thats 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 Ill do the same. And Ill talk with Justine about letting Alex come over. You sure you want to deal with that? She can be a handful."
"JT, Ive dealt with you. I think I can handle a five-year-old."
"Im sure you can."
Carly dug into her coat pocket and wrapped her fingers around her Dunhills. Just one Its 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 theyd seen each other only last night.
Carly still didnt know what to make of Justines flirtatious behavior at the dance club. All day long, shed 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, whod 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 shouldnt do in Leland, especially if there were consequences for Justines children. So the bottom line was probably that Justine had wanted to feel like a lesbian last night, so shed 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 hosts 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 daughters here," she said in a low voice. "I wasnt 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. "Itll be okay. We can talk about high school and the reunion. Ill 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 dont 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 mothers, as was the shape of her face.
"Hi, Emmy. Its 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 hasnt spent much time in Leland since we all went off to college."
The girls face lit up. "Now I remember you. You delivered our washer the Sharpe house on Lakeside, about two weeks ago."
Carly nodded. "Thats right. Good eye." She was careful not to admit that she recognized Emmy too from that day, or shed 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 dont 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. "Thats not her job, silly. She just helps out with deliveries when shes in town because her family owns Griffin Home Furnishings."
"I was kidding, Mom."
Justine saw Carlys twinkling eyes and realized that her friend was teasing as well. "Oh well, since you two are already such good friends, youll 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 dont we eat in the kitchen?" the teenager said as she passed the dining room. "Its so formal in here."
"Because we have company."
"Carly wont mind. Its friendlier."
"Shes right. And that way, Emmy wont have to carry things so far when she cleans up the kitchen." The blonde woman grabbed the teenagers 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 Carlys 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 daughters 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 didnt 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 shed 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. Youre always welcome to stay here, honey. This is your home too." Emmy was lounging on the couch again, her head in her mothers lap. Justine trailed her fingers through her daughters hair. "But you should go call your father and tell him." She nudged her to sit up. "Go on. Its getting late."
When shed 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 wasnt 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 youre 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."
"Dont 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 Carlys coat. "You were great with Emmy tonight."
"Shes a good kid, Justine. I can see why youre so proud of her."
"Thank you. Thank you for everything." Justine leaned in to plant a quick kiss on Carlys cheek.
Carly smiled and squeezed her hand. "Thanks for dinner. Ill see you soon I hope."
"But we still havent had a chance to talk about anything, so I dont know where its all going to go." Justine couldnt 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 mothers sexuality. Heck, teenagers didnt want to confront things like that even if their parents were straight. But Justine was a lot stronger than shed been three years ago, and her children were older and more mature.
"Where do you want it to go, Justine?"
"I I think Id like to well, I know Id like to "
"Explore the sexual part?"
"Definitely that." She nodded quickly and blushed, not looking up. But Ive been thinking about more than that."
Valerie chewed her pencil and waited.
"Ive been wondering about the possibility of having a real relationship with Carly. But shes only going to be here another few weeks, so Im not sure if its 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. "Im not really This isnt 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.
"Youre surprised." Justine read her perfectly.
"Why do you say that?"
"Because you always start to rock whenever I say something you didnt 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 doesnt bother me. If anything, its 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. Theres 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, "Ive started to notice some changes in you, Justine good changes. I get a sense that the things youre experiencing now are significant and that theyll affect you for a long time ."
"Theres a but, isnt there?"
"Yes, Im afraid so. Im 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 Im saying?"
Justine nodded. "I dont even know if she feels the same way."
"If you and Carly keep spending time together, Im sure youll find out eventually."
"Lets just hope its what I want to hear."
"I hope it is too. But if it isnt, I want you to keep something in mind, okay? You are a strong person. Youve been through a lot these last few years, and youve pulled out of it. No matter what she says, or what she feels, it isnt going to change the strong person you are."
The redhead nodded grimly. She didnt want to think much about Carly not returning her feelings. "She came with me today if you want to meet her."
"Shes been outside all this time?" Valeries 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 nightthats become our new thing, talking on the phone late at nightand she said she needed to make one more shopping trip, so we came together and were supposed to go somewhere nice for dinner."
"Justine I dont 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 shes out there now?"
Justine looked at her watch. "Probably. I told her to be back at seven-thirty."
"Well, lets 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 Carlys gloved hand. "Valerie Thomas. Its 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. Ill 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 therapists face.
Oh, yeah, Justine. Id say Carly probably feels the same way.
"Ill get dinner this time because you got it the other night," Justine announced as they opened their menus.
"Nope. You cooked on Saturday, so its my turn again; and when its my turn, we go out. Believe me, you dont want to be forced to eat my cooking."
"Im sure youre not that bad."
"Youd be surprised. In all the places Ive 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 shouldnt 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. "Im used to eating alone. Its nice to have company for a change."
Justine tried not to show her disappointment at Carlys remark. "Well, I hope Im good company." And not just a warm body sitting across the table.
"Im sorry I didnt 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! "Thats 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 didnt want to say what she was really thinkingthat 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. Its elegant, but its 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 Im with you, Carly."
That brought a smile to the blonde womans face. "Me too. I guess its easier to loosen up when were 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, "Dinners ready. Rich is upstairs putting his dad to bed."
"How is he?"
"Not good. Weve had the hospice people in this week. They did an evaluation, and told us it wouldnt 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. "Im so sorry. Is there anything I can do?"
"I dont 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 hed filled out from the skinny boy hed been in school. He had been cute back then, but as a grown man, he was incredibly handsome.
"Carly, its 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 youve 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, Im having fun. Everybodys really nice once they get their coffee, that is. Some of them can be pretty grumpy before that."
Rich laughed. "Yeah, thats what Daniel says."
"Listen, Im really sorry about your dad."
"Thanks. Hes not really aware of much anymore. And hes not in any pain at least not right now."
"You know, when I left Leland, I swore Id never be back. But its been pretty nice to be here after all that time away."
"Really? I felt that way about it too when I left, but its 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 its changed. The jobs are good and people are prosperous. They have parks and a community center, an adult theater group." Rich saw his guests eyebrows go up. "Not that kind of adult theater."
They all laughed.
"But its still kind of conservative," she added.
"Yeah, but so is the rest of Kentucky and a lot of other places. But it doesnt feel so oppressive anymore. Have you been to the drug store downtown?"
Carly shook her head.
"Theres a gay flag sticker in the window, right there beside the one for United Way."
"Seriously. I couldnt believe it," Daniel added. "Im going to put one in my window too."
"Youre not worried about getting a rock thrown through it?" she asked.
"Not really. Most people dont know what it means, and by the time they figure it out, theyll realize that theyve been in and out of the store a hundred times and it didnt kill them. But if somebody does throw a rock, Id like to think that there would be people here that would speak out about it."
"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 McCurrys 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. Youd have thought we were best friends."
"Thats 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 didnt bat an eye, and the next thing I know, shes asking him all about the coffee shop."
Daniel nodded to confirm his partners story. "And now she comes in every morning at six oclock 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, shes just pulled back. Shes afraid to even have a life."
Rich shook his head. "You cant let people do that to you because if you give them that kind of power, theyll use it. But if you just go ahead and live your life like its no big deal, guess what? Its no big deal. Its not like were the only gay people in town."
"True." Justine said there was group of lesbians that played in the sports leagues around town, but that wasnt her thing. "But if people were more visible, there would be more opposition, dont you think?"
"Nobodys saying your friend has to stage a one-woman parade down Main Street. But she ought to be able to have a life. Its not like shes going to be stoned to death," Rich argued.
"Hes 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 dont know that were going to be the ones doing that, but I think it can be done. Let me put it this way I dont 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 werent really as bad as Justine thought they were. Sure, there were a lot of guys like Perry who werent ever really going to understand gays and lesbians, and they probably wouldnt accept them. But people like Rich and Daniel werent asking to be deacons at church or to sit on the school boardall 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 couldnt help but eavesdrop when she and her daughter were cooped up in the office together.
"What can I say? Im a popular dinner companion." Carly snorted as she hung up the phone. "You know, I bet Ive gone out to dinner more times in the last week than I did in all my high school years combined."
"Whats 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, Id set the table with hammers and chainsaws."
"Lord help us but Ill do the cooking if you want to ask her over sometime."
"Okay, Ill run it by her and see what she says." Carly looked at the wall clock anxiously, then back at her mother.
"I guess youre 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.
"Im falling in love with you, Carly. Its like you touch parts of me that no ones 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 Ill just die if I cant 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.
"Im falling in love with you, Carly," she started again. "I know I said I couldnt do something that might come between me and my kids, but I cant stand the thought of you coming through my life again like this and me not grabbing onto the best chance Ill ever have to be happy and whole."
She groaned aloud. "Thats pretty dramatic, Justine. Why dont 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. Theyd have a casual, quiet dinner, after which theyd relax in front of the fire. Theyd sit close and Justine would reach out, pushing back a lock of hair or trailing her fingers across Carlys cheek. Something would spark and they would kiss. There would be no need for words her lips on Carlys 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. Whats this?"
"Its half of an apple pie. Mama says its to thank you for feeding me so much, but I think she also wanted it out of the house so she wouldnt be tempted by it. Its very good."
"I bet its wonderful. But she doesnt 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 elses house to eat, what would you do?"
Justine nodded in understanding. "Send food."
"Dinner smells great."
"I hope youre hungry. Ive 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. Carlys here for dinner Yes, honey, Im sure shed 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 brothers going to drop her off on his way over to his friends house."
"You dont sound very happy about that."
"Its not that." But she couldnt 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 dont mind. I like Emmy. Im 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! Its bad enough that I cant just talk to them about everything and have it be okay. Im 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 shes doing."
"Okay, but Ill do whatever you want. I know you dont want your kids to get the wrong impression, so Ill 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 didnt seem to be a selfish bone in this womans 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 Carlys fresh fragrance. "Hey!" She leaned back and looked at the blonde woman in surprise.
"You dont ." She sniffed again. "You dont smell like smoke. Usually, I can pick up a trace of cigarettes, but not today."
"Youre just now noticing that? Ill have you know I havent had a cigarette since Saturday afternoon."
"Im trying," the blonde said with trepidation. "You said you didnt want me to, and my mothers been after me to quit too." The vow to start running too hadnt 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 Im 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 didnt 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.
"Thats Emmy." Justine hurried to the front door, stepping onto the porch in time to shout a reminder to her son. "Dont forget, we have to be at the nursing home at three oclock tomorrow to decorate." He waved from the drivers seat and backed out of the driveway just as Emmy pushed into the house.
"Hes impossible, Mom!"
"What? Whats he done?"
"He wouldnt 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 youre coming with me, you better get in the car, or Im leaving without you. Hes such a brat!"
"Its 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? Hes just so full of himself. I bet he didnt tell you that he and Dickie Underwood got in trouble for smarting off to Miss Berkley."
"No, he didnt tell me, but Im sure I would have heard about it eventually. You shouldnt be telling on him, though." Miss Berkley taught physics, where Trey was on a par to get a D this semester.
"I know. But its all over school cause Dickie said she couldnt get laid for free."
"Thats awful! What did Trey do?" Justine knew she shouldnt be pumping her daughter for information about her son, but she couldnt resist.
"He didnt say anything, but he was laughing, and he high-fived Dickie. Treys got detention for a whole week after we get back from vacation. Dickie got suspended."
Justines 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?"
"Dont you have school tomorrow?"
"Just for half a day. I already have clothes here, and I brought my book bag."
"Its 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, its snowing."
"I heard were supposed to get three to five inches tonight," Justine said.
"Maybe there wont 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 hadnt even left, and already, Carly couldnt wait to see Justine again. This was nuts.
"I promised Wendell Kruenke Id help with the Christmas party out at the nursing home. The kidsll be there too."
"I think Perrys planning to go to that. His grandmothers a resident out there."
"Ill be sure to say hello. Emmys playing the piano and were 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 Ill see you over the weekend."
"Goodnight, Carly," Emmy offered. "Dont bust your tail on that hill."
"Oh, youd like that, wouldnt you? I bet youd laugh your tail off."
Justine couldnt resist jumping into the wordplay, but she made a show of covering her daughters 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 girls upstairs room. Justine called her again and she appeared on the landing.
"Are you going to tell me whats going on?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean is there a reason you dont want to be at your fathers 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 youre staying here because you want to be with me, or if youre staying here because you dont want to be there." Justine knew that her daughter was especially sensitive to other peoples 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, Ill 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 shouldnt say anything," the teenager mumbled, her bottom lip quivering.
Justine wrapped her arm around her daughters 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. Its part of all relationships. Some people even say its healthy to fight every now and then."
"Shes hardly talking to Dad, and even when she does, you can tell that shes mad at him for something."
"Whatever it is, Im sure theyll work it out. They love each other and they both love you." Justine didnt want to be in the middle of this, but she needed to be sure that whatever they were fighting about didnt involve Emmy or Trey. "Do you know what the problem is?"
Emmy shook her head. "They dont 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 doesnt know what it is either. He never hears anything because hes always wearing those stupid headphones."
Justine was relieved to hear that Trey didnt know anything about it. That meant that it probably wasnt about him, even though his recent behavior certainly warranted some concern.
Alex! What if theyre fighting because of my suggestion to have Alex come over with Emmy sometime? JT said she probably wouldnt want to do that. God, I hope I didnt 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 dont think theyre 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 hadnt gotten upset with her for butting in.
"I dont think shed get upset, Mom. I just think shed call every ten minutes to see if Alex was okay. Theyve lined up a helper to come over a couple times a week starting in January."
"Well, honey if it aint you and it aint me then I guess we ought to stay out of their business. Theyll work it out. Okay?"
The teen nodded grimly.
"You want to stay over here next week when youre out of school?"
"Are you kidding? Id 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? Its kind of well, you dont have to answer it if you dont 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 couldnt read the look on her mothers face, so she tried to clarify. "Its weird sometimes to think that shes closer to my age than she is to Dads."
Justine could feel her heart rate slow to its natural rhythm. "I like J2 just fine. We probably wont ever be close friends or anything, but I think shes been good for your father. And I especially appreciate that shes made a nice home for you and your brother."
"You dont 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 its nice that you and Dad are still good friends. Most of my friends parents who are divorced hate each other."
"Well, we werent meant to stay together, but well 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: Dont worry about your teenagers peer group. They deserve each other. Part 6
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