The House on Sandstone — Part 6

By KG MacGregor



Chapter 16


Justine stretched high on the step-stool to hook the blinking light strand around a nail in the corner of the large day room. Minute by minute, she was growing increasingly annoyed at the conspicuous absence of her son, who had promised to be there over an hour ago. Calls to his cell phone went unanswered, and she was having difficulty concentrating while plotting his demise.

"You shouldn’t be up there, Justine. We can do without the Christmas lights. It’s not worth you breaking your neck." Wendell was struggling himself, trying to guide a load of folding chairs through the door on a cart with an errant front wheel.

"We can’t have a Christmas party without Christmas lights, Wendell. If I could just…get this to…." The instant she got the strand looped around the nail, the nail itself pulled from the wall, sending the lighted string to the floor and shattering several bulbs. "Dang!"

"Come down from there. We’ll have to do something else."

Justine wasn’t ready to give up on her decorating plan, but they were desperately in need of reinforcements. She called the Sharpe home and Trey’s cell phone, but again her efforts were fruitless. Next, she called the most dependable person she knew.

"Carly? It’s Justine." Just hearing the other woman’s voice had a calming effect. "I’m at the nursing home, and we need some help. My soon-to-be-grounded-forever son didn’t show up, and we’ve got to get…That’s right…Carly, you’re a lifesaver. See you in a few."

Fifteen minutes later, Carly arrived with her cousin Perry, and an adolescent boy Justine didn’t recognize. Right away, they pitched in to help with the chairs, lights, and decorations, and in no time, the day room was transformed into a party room.

"Just what we needed–muscles!" The redhead squeezed the bicep of the grinning lad as he carried an armload of folding chairs. "Can you set those up in a semi-circle around the piano?" She showed him what to do and he set to work.

"Kevin, when you’re finished, how about giving me a hand with these speakers?" Perry was trying to mount the speakers from his portable stereo to the wall so they would be out of the way.

Carly was again in awe of how well her cousin was bonding with his soon-to-be fiancée’s son. If Kevin was a troublemaker, he was hiding it pretty well. "Hey, Justine?" She held up the strand of twinkling lights. "I got all these fixed. Where do you want them?"

"Good for you! I need to hook them up there in the corner, but first, I’ve got to put in a bigger nail."

"I can do that."

The taller woman winced. "I don’t think you’ll be able to reach it."

"A dagger!" Carly clutched her chest in mock pain.

"You can hold the ladder for me, though. That’s a good short person job."

"That’s right…twist it, why don’t you?" Nonetheless, Carly took her position at the ladder and immediately began to give thanks for whatever part of her genetic pool had enabled her to enjoy this glorious view of Justine Hall’s rear end. She could vaguely remember getting a peek at its naked state when the phone rang that night they’d passed out on the floor and they got up to stumble into the bedroom. It was fine…mighty fine.

"Oh, Miss Griffin?" When the redhead saw what had her friend so occupied, she almost wished their situations had been reversed, but Justine was infinitely pleased to know that Carly was enjoying the view.

"I’m sorry…What was it you wanted?"

"I said, the nail’s ready. Will you hand me the lights?"

"Sure." Carly tried to pretend that she’d been watching Perry and Kevin, but she knew she’d been caught.

"It’s looking mighty fine, Justine!" Wendell stood in the center of the room with his hands on his hips.

For a moment, Carly feared that the nursing home director had also caught her staring at Justine’s butt…until she realized he was talking about the room.

"We’re almost done, Wendell. Thank goodness Carly and Perry and…."


"…and Kevin got here to help. Emmy said she’d be here at six to warm up. What time are the residents coming in?"

"They’re serving dinner at five, so it’ll take about an hour or so after that to get everyone cleaned up. The families usually get here about six. Will you and your friends be able to stay for the party?"

Justine climbed down from the ladder and dusted her hands on her slacks. "I will, and I think Perry was going to come back to be with his grandmother." She turned to Carly. "That’s Mrs. Coppins, isn’t it?"

"Yeah." Arlene Coppins was her great-aunt.

Wendell continued, "Could I ask one of you to sit with Mrs. Adams tonight? Her daughter called from Cincinnati and they aren’t going to be able to make it on account of the snow."

Carly looked at Justine, only to find a hopeful look on her friend’s face. "I guess I could. I should get home so I can change."

"I have to do that too." Justine looked at her watch and shook her head. She wasn’t going to have time to get in her workout. "If you want to, you can leave your car and ride with me. I’ll bring you back."

"I rode with Perry, so that’ll work out. Let me tell him."

A few minutes later, the two women walked through new fallen snow to the blue Acura. The roads were mostly clear, but with the temperature falling, they would likely turn slick soon after dark.

"You and your cousin really saved the day, Carly. I don’t know what we’d have done without you."

"You’d have figured out something, I bet. The Justine Hall I remember never gave up until she got what she wanted."

"I don’t know about that these days," she said seriously. "Ever since my breakdown, I try not to push people anymore. I hope you didn’t feel like I pushed you into coming over today to help out."

"I didn’t feel pushed at all." I wanted to be with you all day…so I could stare at your gorgeous butt. "This will be fun; it’s a good feeling to do something nice for other people. I probably wouldn’t have thought of it on my own, so I should thank you for including me."

"Carly, you always think about other people. You’ve been that way as long as I’ve known you." She turned the car down Stony Ridge Road. "Heck, you learned those lessons a long time before the rest of us."

"You know what, Justine?" I probably shouldn’t tell her this. "The reason I used to do things for other people was to get them to like me. When I figured out that some people weren’t going to like me no matter what I did, I quit." The Acura pulled up in front of the small Griffin home. "But then I realized that I didn’t like that either, because I didn’t like myself. My friend, Daniel…I think he’s on to something. You know, he said you just have to be the kind of person that you would like, and if other people can’t deal with it, that’s their problem."

The redhead looked at her solemnly, feeling those old pangs of guilt about how she and her friends had treated Carly back in school. "I think Daniel’s on to something too," she said quietly.

Carly sighed, irritated that she’d taken what had started as a compliment and turned it into a condemnation of Justine and her friends. "Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that I liked saving your day, and I’m going to have fun at the party tonight because I like doing nice things…and…because you’re going to be there." Carly raised her voice with excitement as she moved to get out of the car. "So pick me up at a quarter to six, and let’s give my mother a little more to gossip about with my dad."

Justine laughed and shook her head as her silly friend disappeared inside the white frame house. Carly Griffin was exactly as she had once described herself–irresistible.




Justine rolled out of bed, dreading what she needed to do today. JT had called her first thing to say that Trey got in last night after midnight. He told his father that he’d intended to go to the nursing home, but that Melissa had insisted at the last minute that he attend a party at the Chandler’s home in honor of her aunt’s birthday. He seemed sullen, and was clearly surprised that his father had waited up.

Things were about to get pretty ugly for JT Sharpe, the Third.

Justine slipped on her heavyweight fleece and laced up her running shoes. The logging trail would be treacherous today from yesterday’s snow, but the track at the high school would be clear. She wasn’t even going to count laps today; she’d just run until her legs gave out. That’s the kind of outlet she’d need after having it out with her son.

Twenty minutes later, she stood at the foot of Trey’s bed, while JT waited out in the hall.

"Are you going running with me this morning?"

"Mom?" The teenager rolled over, very disoriented at hearing his mother’s voice in his bedroom. "What are you…?"

"I asked if you were going running with me this morning. In other words, are we going to have this conversation here with your father or out on the track with just you and me?"

"If this is about that party, I already told Dad–"

"This is about everything, Trey." JT stepped into the room and took a position beside his ex-wife. "It’s about how you still don’t do your fair share of work around here. It’s about getting a D and two Cs."

"I told you they were singling us out because we’re all athletes. They think we’re just a bunch of dumb jocks."

Justine was starting to understand the pattern. "It’s about how you acted at the movies last weekend, and how you got detention for smarting off in Miss Berkley’s class."

"Emmy has a big mouth."

"And it’s about you blaming everybody else when you’re the one that’s messing up."

"Why is everything my fault? I can’t believe you’d take everybody else’s word for it but you won’t take mine."

"Where were you last night, Trey?" she demanded angrily.

"Everything I do isn’t your business!"

In a flash, JT was on his son, yanking him out of bed in his underwear to stand before both of them. "Which one of your friends are you going to blame that smart mouth on?"

Justine turned away while Trey pulled on his jeans. All three of them were shaking with anger.

"Trey, I was counting on you last night. You promised to be there, and when you didn’t show up, I had to call on other people at the last minute to come and do what you were supposed to do. If they hadn’t dropped what they were doing and come to help, the folks out at the nursing home wouldn’t have had much of a Christmas party."

"But you got it all done, so what’s the big deal?"

Justine knew her son wasn’t dense; he was just being antagonistic. What she didn’t understand was why. "The big deal is that I expected you to come. I went out of my way to arrange for Mr. Kruenke to give you school credit because you asked me to, and then you didn’t even bother to call. I was embarrassed."

"That’s what you said at the movies too, Mom…that I embarrassed you in front of your friend. At least now you know what I felt like when they teased me at school."

His words struck his mother like a slap in the face. Why is he throwing that in my face again after all this time? He had to know how much that would hurt me. Justine whirled and walked out before she said something she could never undo.

JT watched her leave and turned toward his son, his brown eyes pinning the boy in place. "That’s one of the meanest things you’ve ever done, Trey. And I’ve never been more ashamed of you than I am right now."




Carly entered the coffee house through the back door, stopping to hang her coat and scarf in the employee closet. She’d been back here years ago to deliver the beautiful teak desk that still stood in the corner, but it hadn’t been a coffee house then. Before it was Daniel’s, this space had belonged to Rich Cortner’s father, who operated a small office supply store. When a series of strokes left Mr. Cortner disabled, Rich came back to town and sold off the inventory to make room for his partner’s business venture.

Saturday morning was the busiest time of the week. Though she usually only stayed until ten, she thought she would stick around longer today, maybe just to help get through the lunch crowd. When she walked out behind the counter, Daniel was already "in the weeds", his term for being swamped.

"I can help the next person," she announced, tying the long green apron over her jeans and Oxford shirt. For the next two hours, they worked methodically, her taking orders and cash, him making the drinks. They had barely had a chance to say hello, and Carly was startled when she finally noticed Daniel’s bedraggled look.

"Hey, is everything all right?"

"Oh, we had a hard night. Rich’s dad was having trouble breathing and we had to call the paramedics. They hooked him up to oxygen, and it looks like he’s going to need that from now on."

"I’m sorry to hear that."

"Thanks. Rich is taking it pretty hard…you know, seeing his dad take another step down. The man’s only seventy, and up until just a couple of years ago, was still going to work every day."

"It just reminds us how quickly things can happen. I sure am glad my mom and dad have decided to retire, so they can have some time to relax. It’s long overdue."

"So what’s going to happen to the store? You going into the furniture business?"

"Not me. They’re going to turn it over to my cousin, Perry. He’s been planning on it and saving for a long time."

"That’s good…you’ll keep it in the family."

"Yeah, which means Daddy will probably keep going to work every day because it’s all he knows how to do."

Daniel chuckled. "What about your mom?"

"I think she was looking forward to being retired until it sank in that it was going to be permanent, and not just a vacation. She’s starting to think she won’t even have a reason to get out of bed."

"She’ll be surprised how many things she finds to do. Look how many things you found."

No kidding! Between Justine and the delivery truck and the coffee house, this time at home had flown by. It was only three more weeks before she was due to leave for Madrid. That was a depressing thought, but she didn’t have time to dwell on it, as the next wave of coffee drinkers swarmed into the shop.




The lone figure rounded the turn at the far end of the track, determined to push herself to the point of exhaustion, to a place where she could collapse and forget the pain in her legs…and in her heart. Leaning over the chain link fence near where she’d parked her car was JT. She’d seen him pull up and park seven laps ago, but she wasn’t yet ready to stop, not while she could still feel.

Justine picked up her pace, still waiting for a sign that her body was ready to surrender. She’d lost count long ago of how many times she’d circled the quarter-mile track, but an hour and a half at this pace meant she was close to the twelve-mile mark.

She could see her ex-husband huddled in his coat with his collar pulled up. He was freezing, but he obviously planned to wait until she finished…or died.

That’s enough. She slowed to a walk, stretching her arms behind her to begin her cool down. "Walk with me," she shouted as she reached the place where he stood.

JT opened the gate and jogged onto the track. "I don’t know how you do this, Justine. It’s amazing."

"Nah, it’s just conditioning…and craziness."

"It’s not crazy."

"Thank you, Valerie." She’d told him about her therapist’s admonitions.

"I talked with Trey after you left. He didn’t mean what he said."

"Sure he did. What I want to know is why he said it…more specifically, why he said it now."

"I don’t know, Justine. He wanted to hurt you because you were hurting him."

"I was hurting him?"

"That’s what he said. He says that he knows he’s screwing up, that things really are his fault, but he doesn’t know how to stop it. He says that sometimes he feels like things are just out of control. I think all the changes with graduation, and Melissa going off to Georgetown…that stuff’s just getting to him. Anyway, the more we piled on this morning, the more frustrated he got, and he just blurted that out to get you to back off. He didn’t mean anything by it."

"JT, I’m seeing somebody…a woman." She turned back to face him when she realized that he’d stopped in the middle of the track. "But Trey couldn’t possibly know about it for sure, because I haven’t even told her yet."

JT looked at her in confusion.

"That sounded kind of silly, didn’t it?"

The man cocked his head in amusement. "Not for you, Justine."

She answered his smart remark with a punch in the arm. "It’s Carly Griffin. Her family owns the furniture store. We went to high school together, and I’ve had a crush on her about as long as I can remember, even when I was married to you." She added that last part just to tweak him for all the running around he’d done while they were together. "But I told her everything that happened, and that we couldn’t see each other, because I didn’t want to risk having something come between me and my kids again."

"So…are you seeing each other or aren’t you?"

"Sort of, but it’s complicated. She’s playing it cool because she doesn’t want to cause me any problems, and I’m playing it cool because…well, because I’m a chicken."

"What are you afraid of?"

"What am I afraid of? JT, where have you been for the last three years?"

"Justine, I think the kids might be past all that. If you’ve met somebody you like, you shouldn’t have to hold back on account of them."

"That’s easy for you to say, JT. You ran around on me for ten years, and the kids never once held that against you." As soon as she said it, she felt terrible. There never had really been any hard feelings between them, and the last thing she wanted was to hurt him. "I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. None of this is your fault."

"It’s okay." He looked away, trying to act as though her remark hadn’t bothered him. It was true that he’d never been taken to task by the children for his part in their divorce.

"I guess I just did to you what Trey did to me."

"Justine…it wasn’t fair the way everything happened. You were a great mother, and you still are."

She nudged his arm with her shoulder, right where she’d punched him earlier. "You’re a great dad, JT. And you’ve been a good friend to me, too. I don’t know what I’d have done without you."

After all the things they’d been through together–losing their first baby, raising two wonderful children, their infidelities, and Justine’s breakdown–JT felt like he owed her his friendship. She probably knew him better than anybody, and she’d always accepted him and forgiven him his lapses. Nothing would make him happier–nor alleviate his guilt more–than to see her fall in love with someone who would love her back. "So where do you think things are going with this woman…Carly?"

She started walking again to loosen her stiffening calves. "I don’t know. She works overseas, and she won’t be here much longer. But if we could find a way to have something…I’d like that."

"Do you want me to talk to the kids? I think they’d handle it okay. Both of them are a lot more mature than they were back then."

"I don’t know, JT. Like I said, Carly’s leaving soon. It might be better just not to say anything." No sense rocking the boat. "Heck, it might not even amount to anything. Why put everybody through something that’s not going anywhere?"

"Well, let me know if I can help. But don’t give up on the idea just because you’re worried about how they’ll react."

As they finished the cool down lap, she hooked her arm in her ex-husband’s and walked him to his car. "Thanks for coming to find me."

"I was worried about you. I imagine Trey will come around in a couple of days."

"Yeah, well…he hurt my feelings."

"I know." He laid his free hand on hers. "Make him grovel."

"You know I won’t do that. But he needs to start paying more attention to how he makes people feel. Folks remember that kind of thing about somebody."

"Sometimes I think that Emmy got the sensitivity for both of them."

"I know what you mean. By the way, did she say anything to you about staying with me this week?"

"No, she didn’t mention it. But I’m not surprised…that she didn’t say anything, I mean. We haven’t exactly been the Brady Bunch at the dinner table this week."

"Yeah, she told me things were kind of…tense at home."

"Did she say anything else?"

"She said you and J2 were fighting about something, but she didn’t know what it was." Justine could see that the man was anxious to hear what she knew. "JT, you know I don’t pry into your business with your wife. But it was bothering Emmy, and I wanted to make sure it didn’t have anything to do with her or Trey."

"It doesn’t."

"Fine." And you better not be poking another paralegal.

JT stared out over the track to avoid making eye contact with his ex. "It’s really personal, Justine."

"I said it was fine."

"Justine wants me to have a vasectomy so she can quit taking the pill."

The redhead couldn’t get her hands to her ears fast enough to keep from hearing that. "La la la la…this isn’t my business, JT."

"I know she’s right, but it’s–"

"Please don’t tell me this. This is between you and your wife."

"But who else am I going to talk to? You already know how shallow I am…and you can imagine how I feel about having somebody get that close to me with scissors." He winced as the image filled his head.

Justine shook her head and sighed. JT wasn’t going to like what she had to say about it. "Do you two want to have any more children?"

"No. The doctors think the autism is genetic, and we don’t want to risk that."

And you’re nearly fifty years old, Stud. "Then stop being such a baby. Do it for Justine and show her how much you love her."

"You’re supposed to be on my side!"

"Sorry, but I’m with J2 on this one. And you know she’s right."

JT’s shoulders slumped in defeat. "Damn."

"And we never had this conversation. Understand?"

"Oh, definitely." A vasectomy was nothing compared to what J2 would do to him if she learned that his former wife had been the one to sway him on this. He got into his Mercedes and closed the door, rolling down the window to say goodbye. "Oh, by the way…Justine said it was okay for Alex to come over sometime with Emmy, if you’re still sure you want to do that."

"Great. We’ll do it after the holidays, okay?"

"Sure. And good luck with your friend. I hope that works out the way you want it to."

"Thanks." Justine smiled as she watched him pull away. JT Sharpe was a pretty good guy…for a snake.


Chapter 17


"Okay, then you open the air valve by turning this knob." Daniel buried the steamer into a stainless steel pitcher of cold milk. "When it starts to froth, you know it’s hot enough. Leave it in another few seconds and you’ll get more foam."

Carly was bored with the cash register. She wanted to learn how to make the coffees, since Daniel seemed to be having more fun. "Don’t they make thermometers that you can stick in the pitcher?"

"Yeah, but that would be cheating. Do you want to be a coffee artist or a robot?"

"Well, since you put it that way…."

Daniel finished the coffee order and handed it to the waiting customer. The wave of customers they’d just served was probably their last rush for the day. "Here you go. Why don’t you make one of the coffees you like? Start with the espresso."

Carly walked through the process slowly, measuring and packing the coffee, and positioning the cup beneath the spout. As the water streamed through the press, she filled the pitcher with milk. "Okay, I just open the air valve…." The milk made a whirring sound until it began to froth, at which point the whir changed to a whoosh.

"Don’t forget to–"

Oops! Too late. She removed the pitcher before closing the valve and sprayed milk all over herself and everything within five feet. Lucky for Daniel that he was out of range.

"That’s okay. Everybody does that the first time. But nobody does it after they have to clean up the mess."

"Gotcha!" She finished making her coffee and began to wipe down the machine and the counters. "Did anybody call about the ad in the paper?"

"Yeah, but so far, it’s just school kids, and they want to work in the afternoon and on weekends. The hours aren’t convenient for most people. I’ve had a couple of moms call, but they don’t want to work on Saturdays. I might have to hire two people just to cover all six days."

"At the rate your business is growing, you might have to hire two people anyway."

"From your lips to my financial planner’s ears."

"You’re gonna get rich, I tell you."

"Well, somebody is…."

There he goes again. Why does he keep–?

"Hey, Carly!" Perry burst through the door, his smile as wide as his face.

"How are you doing, Per?"

"Got something to show you." He fished a small box out of his pocket. "Tell me what you think."

Carly opened the box to find a small diamond solitaire, set in gold. "Wow! For me?"

Perry shook his head and sighed. "You drive me crazy! It’s for Debbie."

"Well, I think she’s gonna love it."

"You don’t think it’s too little, do you?"

"Naw, it’s perfect. You can get her a nice wide band to go with it. It’ll look great!" It was obvious to Carly that her opinion mattered a lot. "So when are you going to ask her?"

"I was thinking I’d do it on Christmas Eve…you know, after Kevin goes to bed."

"That’ll be sweet. Can I be there too? I’ll hide behind the couch."

"I don’t care if everybody’s there. All that matters to me is whether or not she says yes."

"Perry, Perry, Perry. Have a little faith, man. What woman wouldn’t want you? Take a shower; shave that scraggly beard off…."

"My beard’s not scraggly!"

"She’s going to say yes. She practically swoons whenever she looks at you." Carly turned to her friend. "Hey, Daniel, think you can manage?"

"Yeah, thanks for staying so long today. I’m going to figure out how to pay you, even if I can’t get you to take any money." All he had budgeted was minimum wage, and that was insulting to a person like Carly. She’d already told him she was just doing it as a favor.

Carly turned back to her cousin. "So I’m done here. You got any more deliveries today?"

"Are you kidding? You should see the business they’re doing down at the store. I’ve probably got two runs this afternoon, and full days on Monday and Tuesday."

"Well, let’s go." She dropped her apron in the bin and grabbed her coat, stopping at she reached the front door. "Hold on a sec, Per." Turning back, she took just a moment to give Daniel her best wishes for Rich’s father. "You guys hang in there this weekend, and call me if you need anything."

On her way out, Carly added Daniel to the growing list of things that had made this trip home different from her earlier visits…better. To a lot of people, going in to work six days a week at a coffee house without even getting paid might seem like a pretty stupid thing for somebody to do during a vacation, but Carly was having fun. In just the few days she’d been helping out, she’d run into dozens of people she had known from school, or from the years of delivering furniture all over Leland County. And they had all been nice, genuinely nice.

For the first time since she’d left this town twenty-five years ago, Carly reconsidered her long-held belief that there was nothing for her here in Leland. She’d been content to see her family when they traveled the world to be with her on vacation; but on her brief visits home, she rarely left the house or the store. This time, though, her old beliefs and her new feelings seemed out of whack.

And it wasn’t at all unpleasant.




"Mom?" Emmy knocked again on the bathroom door. She could hear the jets running in the hot tub.

Justine sank deep into the pulsating water, the pile of bubbles growing higher from the powerful jets. Her legs, hips and back were screaming for relief from her punishing run. What were you thinking, Justine?


"What? Come on in."

Emmy tentatively opened the door a crack. Seeing her mother submerged beneath the bubbles, she entered the steamy bathroom. "Are you going to fix dinner?"

Justine was so exhausted from her day that she hadn’t even thought about eating. And of course she’d have to fix dinner–Emmy’s friend Kelly was here for the day and it wouldn’t do to ask the girls to fend for themselves.

"Yes, honey…I’ll fix something." What’s in the freezer? Frozen stuff. "Why don’t you have a look in the freezer and see if there’s something you want? I’ll go to the store if I need to."

"Okay. Will you call Carly and see if she’ll come over too?"

"You want Carly to come to dinner?"

"Yeah. See, you know that report I had to do on China?"


"Kelly has to do one on Peru, and Carly said the other night that she lived there too."

"Ah." Thank you, Kelly. "Why don’t you call her? Her number’s in the book under her daddy’s name…Lloyd Griffin, on Stony Ridge Road." Or you could just dial *6 on the memory dial.




Justine sat mesmerized in front of the fire as Carly told the girls yet another funny story about her misadventures of living abroad. Kelly had gotten all the material she needed for her report on Peru, but Carly went on to add tales of how she’d butchered the language and made a fool of herself over the local customs.

"By the time I got to Johannesburg, I was afraid to leave my apartment."

"But at least you spoke the same language."

"That’s a matter of opinion. If you ask them, the English we speak in Kentucky is another language entirely. And there’s nothing worse than hearing your accent mocked by a foreigner."

Justine studied her friend, noticing again the lines around her eyes that crinkled when she laughed. She had those wrinkles too, but she’d always thought them unsightly. They sure weren’t unsightly on Carly. Nothing was.

"Are you going to get an apartment in Madrid?"

Emmy hadn’t meant to throw a wet blanket on their conversation, but her mention of Madrid deflated Carly’s good mood. The labor coordinator was due to leave again soon, and she wasn’t ready. Now that she’d gotten a taste of it, Carly envied the daily routines that most people in Leland seemed to take for granted. All she had to look forward to for the next two years was change…and solitude. And the latter was what she dreaded most.

"I don’t know what I’ll do in Madrid. We usually all start out living in a hotel, but if the city seems friendly and comfortable after a couple of months, I’ll probably find an apartment or something."

"Maybe we’ll come visit you," Emmy offered. "Wouldn’t that be fun, Mom?"

"Huh?" Justine hadn’t heard her daughter’s question. She’d been lost in thought about how lonely she’d be after Carly left…and how empty her heart would feel.

"I said we should go to Madrid to visit Carly."

"An excellent idea," the blonde woman added.

"Hmmm…I don’t know about that. The way you two pick on me, I don’t know if I want to subject myself to being stranded in a foreign country just so you’ll both have something to laugh at."

"Would we do that?" Emmy and Carly struck their usual innocent pose, causing both Justine and Kelly to laugh in agreement.

Carly looked at her watch and pulled herself up from the floor. "I guess I should go. I have to sleep late tomorrow, and I want to get an early start."

Emmy and Kelly stood too. "Mom, is it okay if I stay at Kelly’s house tonight? I’ll be in church tomorrow." They had Kelly’s mother’s car.

"Are your–"

"My parents are home."

That was exactly the question on Justine’s lips. "You can both stay here if you want."

"Yeah, but if we do that, we won’t get to drive by Dale Farlowe’s house." Kelly gave away her friend’s most carefully guarded secret.

"Kelly!" Emmy was mortified.

"Dale Farlowe, eh? That’s Daryl’s brother, isn’t?" Justine placed him as one of the boys on the football team.

"Yes, and he’s Emmy’s chemistry partner."

Justine and Carly traded a look of understanding. They knew all about falling for one’s chemistry partner.

"And this driving by Dale Farlowe’s house…you want to tell me about that part?"

"It’s nothing, Mom." Emmy turned back to her friend with an exasperated look. "I can’t believe you told my mother about that. I’m going to tell your dad about you and Dickie Underwood after the basketball game."

"Never mind, Mrs. Hall. I made all that up about Dale Farlowe."

Justine didn’t believe that for a second, but she helped her daughter gather up her things. "You may stay the night with Kelly. And you may drive by Dale’s house…but you may not stop. You may drive very slowly, though."

The daughter rolled her eyes in embarrassment, knowing that her mom would want to know all about this crush on her lab partner. She would have told her eventually, though.

"Thanks for all your help, Carly. You want us to drop you off?"

"Nah, I’ll drag these old bones over the hill. If I don’t make it, I’m sure they’ll find my body in the spring thaw."

"I bet we smell you a long time before spring," Emmy quipped.

"Not with all that perfume you’ll be wearing for Dale!"

Emmy groaned again and hurried out the front door to join Kelly on the porch, slamming the door behind her. As they pulled out, the lime green Volkswagen belonging to Trey took their spot in the driveway.

Inside, Justine and Carly were finally enjoying a private moment, standing in the darkened foyer. Carly no longer wanted to leave, and it was almost as though she could feel an invitation from Justine. She just didn’t know what the invitation was for.

"I don’t like to think about you having to go to Madrid."

"Me neither." Carly took a step closer to the redhead and held out her arms, her eyes never leaving Justine’s. Not hesitating, the redhead walked into the embrace, wrapping her own long arms around Carly’s waist and pulling her closer. The intensity of the moment left little doubt as to what was going to happen next.

Or what might have happened next.

"Mom?" Trey stood in the open doorway, his face a mask of anger. "What are you doing?"

Carly and Justine separated as though the other were aflame.

"Trey, it isn’t–"

Carly made a quick exit to the kitchen, not sure if she should wait or leave through the back door. There was no telling how ugly the scene in the foyer was going to get, but she didn’t want to listen to Justine’s denial. It isn’t…. It isn’t what? The sick feeling in her stomach answered her question, and out she went into the night.

But that wasn’t the conversation taking place between mother and son.

"I can’t deal with this," the youngster groused, unable to meet his mother’s eye. "Why are you doing this?"

"Honey, I’m not doing anything." Immediately, she regretted her dishonesty. Justine put her hand on her son’s arm, willing him to look at her. "At least I’m not doing anything wrong."

"How can you say that? You know what people are going to say." The embarrassment of what had happened in school three years ago was not forgotten; and it would be even worse now.

"Trey…I know what they’ll say. But I just can’t live my life for all of those narrow-minded people. I know it’s not what you want–"

"You can’t do this to me, Mom."

"Please try to understand this, son. I’m not doing this to hurt you."

"But it does…more than you know."

Justine could see that the anguish on her son’s face was real. But it was time to ask him to rise above what he wanted for himself. All he needed was a little push, a word of encouragement.

"Please, Trey."

The pressure was more than the teenager could stand; his mother was asking for too much. Without another word, he walked back out the front door.

Justine slumped against the wall, her feet giving way as she slid to the floor. What have I done?




The redhead squirmed uncomfortably in the pew, feeling the eyes of the congregation on the back of her head. Everyone in the place had to be wondering why her son chose to sit by himself on the opposite side of the aisle instead of in his usual seat at his mother’s side.

"What’s with Trey?" Emmy whispered. She knew that her brother had gone to the house last night, but presumed it was to apologize for missing the party on Friday night.

"He’s angry with me."

"How come?"

Justine reached for the hymnal and opened to the proper page, her silence a signal that her daughter’s question would go unanswered. Throughout the service, the mother stole glances in her son’s direction, catching his eye only once before he hurriedly looked away.

As they sang their closing hymn, Justine prepared to catch Trey on his way out so she could ask him to come to the house and talk. He hadn’t actually seen anything, and with Carly leaving in just a few weeks, there really wasn’t any sense in pushing this right now. Trey would have to deal with it eventually, but why not put it off for as long as she could?

So if Trey would hear her out, she could explain it all away. Emmy would back up her claim that Carly was only a friend. Crisis over.

"Mom, can we go for a walk today?"

In the split second that she turned to hear her daughter’s request, Trey slipped out along the outside aisle. Justine sighed, knowing he would be long gone before she got through the crowd waiting to shake the minister’s hand.

"Sure, honey."




The blonde woman ducked beneath a pine branch and gave it a good shake. The sun never hit this spot, so the snow and ice that had accumulated over the last week still clung to her favorite perch. Instead of climbing the branches, she had to settle for leaning against the sticky trunk. If someone knew to look for her, she was out in the open. But she couldn’t resist the urge to watch the house below. She needed a vivid reminder–proof positive–that there wasn’t anything down there for her. All of her ideas about having something with Justine Hall were silly, stupid pipe dreams. Justine had spelled it out for her in plain English–she just hadn’t listened.

Carly fingered the Dunhills in her pocket, wanting one right now more than anytime since she’d set them aside a couple of weeks ago. If not for the fact that she’d disappoint her mother terribly, she’d chuck the whole idea of quitting and light up right here in Stony Ridge Park. There was no point in not smoking to please Justine.

They’d been so close to sharing a kiss last night, and it wasn’t just some lust-filled moment. No, for those scant few seconds, Carly thought she had seen inside Justine’s heart, and that what was there mirrored what was inside her own.

And just like that, it was gone. Justine wasn’t going to give herself permission to share her heart with someone…at least not someone like Carly. And if Carly couldn’t give her heart to Justine…well, then…she might as well smoke.

She pulled a cigarette from the pack, passing it underneath her nose to inhale the inviting tobacco scent. When she wrapped her lips around the filter, the temptation grew too great and she pulled out her lighter. Flick...flick…. It sparked but wouldn’t catch.

The dark blue Acura suddenly appeared on Sandstone and pulled into the carport below. Carly watched as Justine and Emmy climbed out of the car, both wearing dresses and long, heavy coats. Obviously, they had been to church this morning. She watched as they walked up the steps to the kitchen door, the same door that Carly had used last night to make her escape.

Justine held the door as her daughter went inside. Then she turned instinctively and met the eyes that watched her from so far away.

Carly shivered as the woman lifted her hand slightly in a wave that only the two of them could see. She pocketed her lighter and pulled the cigarette from her lips, snapping it in two.

What is that woman doing to me? Carly smiled to herself, knowing that Justine had her permission to do anything she wanted.




With Emmy behind the wheel, mother and daughter parked at the trailhead where Justine and Trey usually ran on Saturdays.

"It’s pretty out here," the teenager noted. Running wasn’t her thing at all, but Emmy would admit to being just a little bit jealous that her brother got to spend this special time with their mom and she didn’t.

"It is nice. You’ve never been out here before?"

"I’ve been to the lake, but I didn’t know about this trail until Trey told me about it." The teenager buttoned her jacket all the way to the top and turned up her collar. "It’s cold."

"Not when you’re running," her mother joked. "I know, you hate to run." She was glad to have this time with Emmy, even more so because it had been her daughter’s idea. Justine couldn’t shake the feeling that Emmy wanted to talk about something, Dale Farlowe perhaps. "You got something on your mind, honey?"

"Yeah…I wanted to ask you about Carly."

Justine’s stomach dropped as though she’d topped a Ferris wheel. Not you too. "What about Carly?"

"Well, about you and Carly."

Her worst fears now realized, Justine drew a ragged breath. "I thought you might want to talk about Dale Farlowe."

Emmy wouldn’t be derailed. "Is Carly just a regular friend? Or do you like her more than that?"

"Honey, did Trey say something about Carly and me? Because he’s got the wrong idea–"

"What’s Trey got to do with anything?"

Justine dug her hands into her pockets and stared at the ground as they walked deeper into the woods. "Emmy, I don’t think this is the kind of conversation I should be having with you."

"Why not? Are there things I shouldn’t talk about with you? Things like boyfriends or dating…or sex?"

"Of course not. You know you can talk to me about anything. I’ll always listen, and I’ll try to help you work through stuff however I can. And I won’t give you any advice unless you ask for it."

"Well this ought to work both ways then. You should be able to talk to me about stuff too. Otherwise, I’m going to feel like I can’t bring things to you that are personal."

Justine stopped in her tracks and stared incredulously at her too-smart daughter. Starting up again, she shook her head in resignation. "Emmy, you’re pushing me into a corner here, and I don’t like it at all."

"Why can’t you just answer my question? Are you a lesbian?"

"Honey!" Justine felt the walls closing in, like her whole life was starting to unravel again. Sometime between the near-kiss last night and this morning in church, she’d come to the conclusion that JT was wrong about the kids being ready to accept something like that. "Look, no matter what I feel about Carly–or anybody–I’m not going to do something that’s going to come between all of us like it did last time. I don’t want to go through that again, and I’m not going to put you and Trey through it."

The teenager groaned in exasperation. "Put us through what? I don’t see what the big deal is. Just tell me how you feel about Carly."

Justine could feel her façade–the one in which she portrayed Carly Griffin as just a friend–crumbling with each pointed question from her daughter. "Okay, I…like Carly. I think she’s interesting…and she’s very kind. We were friends a long time ago, and it’s been really nice seeing her again, and spending time with her." All of that was true.

"But do you like her as more than a friend?"

"I told you, Emmy. I’m not going to pursue something with Carly that would cause problems for you or your brother."

The girl sighed deeply, frustrated at the way her mom kept dancing around the question. "Look, Mom…I can’t speak for Trey…except to say that he can be the most selfish, stuck-up…jerk in the world. But if you’re happy with somebody, it isn’t going to cause a problem for me…no matter who it is."

Justine was bowled over by her daughter’s words. Did she just say what I think she said? "Even if it’s another woman who makes me happy?"

"If it’s somebody as nice as Carly, then it’s okay with me."

The discomfort she’d been feeling with the vein of the conservation dissipated, and Justine found herself simply in awe of how a 16-year-old could be so mature. She and JT had always known that this child was special, but up until right now, she had no idea of the compassion and insight her daughter was capable of. "Honey, come here." She stopped in the path and held out her arms.

"Now we’re going to be all mushy, aren’t we?" She stepped into her mother’s arms and returned the hug.

"Yes. We’re going to be mushy." Justine hugged her daughter tightly, her eyes rapidly filling with tears. "Have I ever told you what a wonderful person I think you are?"

When they finally broke, they hooked arms and continued down the trail. The enormity of this breakthrough wasn’t lost on Justine, but winning Emmy’s support didn’t solve the problem of Trey.


Chapter 18


Carly ground the gears on the old truck, this time just to watch her cousin flinch. With her head out the window in the rain, she watched the corner of the building as she backed the truck into its spot behind the store.

Perry did the first run by himself while Carly helped at the coffee house, but she’d come on board to help finish up, knowing that her mom would have their Christmas Eve lunch on the table by one o’clock. It was a big day for Griffin Home Furnishings, and the big lug beside her still had no idea of their plan to turn over the store.

"Looks like Lloyd’s already locked up," Perry observed.

"Have you told them about your big plans for tonight?"

"No, I haven’t told anybody but you. What if she says no?"

"She’s not going to say no." Carly had told him that no fewer than a dozen times in the last week. She climbed into Perry’s pickup and waited while he double-checked the lock on the back door. A bag of wrapped presents sat in the floorboard.

Last night when they closed the store, Lloyd and Nadine went to the offices of Cobb, Finkle & Sharpe to sign all the papers they’d need to sell the store to Perry. All that waited was Perry’s signature and the bank’s official okay on his loan.

Perry pulled into the sparse traffic on Main Street, catching the stoplight…the only stoplight in downtown Leland. A blue Acura–Justine Hall’s car–turned the corner in front of them just as the light changed, and Perry drew up behind her as they both followed the main road out of downtown.

Carly hadn’t seen Justine since Saturday night, but they’d talked on the phone a couple of times. Emmy was staying over there this week, so there really wasn’t any comfortable way they could talk about what happened with Trey. But Justine seemed to be okay, and if she was worried about anything, she didn’t show it. But that didn’t mean they were going to just pick up where they left off. Having Trey walk in like that was probably a wake-up call for Justine that they were slipping into risky territory. If she’d managed to convince her son that nothing was going on…then she’d probably convinced herself of the same thing.

"That’s Justine Hall, isn’t it?" Perry observed.

"Yeah…guess she’s going home early too."

"That’s one pretty lady. Did you ever see her when she got really fat?"

"I saw her when she was heavier. I thought she was pretty then too."

"You’re right, even then she was good-looking. Some people have it, don’t you think?"

"Justine Hall has it…She’s always had it."

Perry got the strangest inkling at he recalled the delivery to Marian Hall’s home. He hadn’t known about Carly’s preference for women at the time, but now that he did, it made him look at it all in a different light. There was just something about the way his cousin responded to Justine that he hadn’t seen in her dealings with other people. And if the rumors about Justine were true…. He was about to probe when he spotted the blue Chevy Lumina in the Griffins’ driveway. "Is that Debbie’s car?"

"Yeah, Mama invited her. Kevin should be here too."

"Why didn’t somebody tell me?"

"Duh…maybe they wanted it to be a surprise."

"Why would anybody want to surprise me? It’s not my birthday or anything."

"Why don’t you quit asking so many questions and get on in the house?"

The wonderful aroma of freshly baked ham filled the house, and Carly rushed in to announce their arrival. The Griffins had gathered in the living room with their guests, all of the paperwork for the transfer stacked on the coffee table.

Perry greeted his girlfriend and her son excitedly before he realized that all eyes were on him. "What’s going on?"

"Have a seat, son," Lloyd said, picking up the folder off the table. "Ever since Carly was fourteen years old and took to riding in the delivery truck with you, I’ve been thinking about what I was going to say when this day finally got here. I wanted to look her in the eye and tell her how glad I was to pass on thirty-five years of hard work down at the store, and that I hoped she was going to enjoy it as much as me and her mama did."

Perry looked over at Carly, suddenly getting a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"Now you can’t push Carly into something–she’s just too hardheaded. So I’ve been nudging her for about the last five or six years, and she’s finally given me her answer."

The young man looked up and eyed his cousin, who was already smiling in anticipation of the announcement that would mean the end of his dreams.

"And she said…no thanks. I couldn’t twist her arm to save my life, and she says she ain’t ever gonna change her mind. So, Perry…." He held out the packet of papers. "If you’re still interested in taking on this headache, it’s yours…all the stuff we talked about."

Perry sat stunned, reeling from the emotional swing of the last thirty seconds, when he thought he was losing everything to learning that he was finally being given what he’d waited for ever since he went to work for his uncle. When he turned to see how excited his girlfriend was for him, his emotions went on overload. Without even answering the offer, he dropped to a knee before Debbie and fished the ring box from his pocket. "Marry me?"

The woman was clearly shocked at this turn of events, so much that her mouth dropped open to answer, but nothing came out. After what seemed an eternity to the man on his knee, she nodded vigorously and wrapped her arms around his neck. Perry responded with a passionate kiss that caused everyone in the room to blush.

"This is so embarrassing!" Kevin covered his face, but he couldn’t hide his smile.

Perry stood up and pulled the boy into a hug. "I hope this is okay with you, buddy. I can’t wait for us to be a family."

Thirteen-year-old boys didn’t do the hugging thing very well, but his face said everything that needed to be said. "Are we gonna live in your house?" He hoped so, because Perry had a lot more room than they had in the apartment.

"If that’s what your mama wants, then that’s where we’ll live. Debbie, right now, I’m the happiest man in the whole world." He turned back to his uncle and aunt. "And I can’t say thanks enough for all you two have done for me. I’m gonna take good care of that store. I hope to make you proud."

Carly jumped into the celebration. "Don’t worry about that. I think Daddy’s planning on showing up for work every day. Just don’t make him haul that furniture anymore, or I’ll have to come back here and kick your butt."

"I won’t let him do that. Ol’ Kevin here’s gonna be fourteen this summer. I’ll put him to work."


"Hey, Kevin. Let’s go in the kitchen and I’ll tell you all about what it’s like to ride on the truck," Carly offered.

Lloyd and Nadine took their daughter’s cue and slipped into the other room as well, giving the newly-engaged couple a moment of privacy.

"It’ll be fun moving furniture. I can pick up our couch all by myself," Kevin boasted.

Carly chuckled, remembering the boy’s excited recounting of his video game exploits. He could talk a blue streak, but from what she saw, he wasn’t a bad kid at all. She was glad that he was going to have a guy like Perry in his life; and she was even happier that her cousin was getting what he wanted too.

During lunch, they told stories about their experiences at the furniture store over the years, including a couple of tales about some of their more difficult customers…like Marian Hall.

Perry added a story of Carly’s high school days. "I remember one time when we were taking this big dresser up the steps at Mrs. Corning’s house. She was the librarian at the high school, so she knew both of us. Anyway, she’s talking to Carly and asking her all these questions about school and Carly’s grunting and heaving and trying to answer. Then this little yappy dog starts down the steps and he’s nipping at her feet…."

"I was scared to death I was going to drop that dresser and flatten the little pest."

"But Mrs. Corning can’t see her dog from the bottom of the steps and she’s still jabbering on and asking all these questions and Carly finally yells out, ‘Will you leave me alone, you stupid ol’ fleabag!’ I tell you, I thought that woman was going to throw a clot!"

"See what you have to look forward to, Kevin," Carly teased.

Lloyd chimed in with the story of the time when Carly was fifteen and they delivered a mattress to the Hobson residence. Old Mr. Hobson didn’t realize that his wife had shown them in, and he walked out of the master bathroom without a stitch of clothes.

"It was not a pretty sight," Carly recalled dismally. "Gave me nightmares for weeks."

Today’s gathering was probably the biggest celebration they’d ever had.

Perry and Debbie were still riding high from their engagement, and Perry was on cloud nine over the news about the store. Kevin was equally excited, but it was hard to tell if that was from getting a new step-dad or the looming possibility of getting to work on the delivery truck.

Lloyd and Nadine found themselves surprisingly relieved to be out of the furniture business, at least as owners. Lloyd especially was glad to see his wife so happy about giving it up, finally realizing what a burden it must have been for her. He would be forever grateful to his daughter for the push.

Carly was happy for everyone…except perhaps herself. Despite the joy around her–or maybe because of it–she was feeling glum. She was leaving soon and life in Leland was going to go on without her. It was unlikely she would make it back for what Perry and Debbie were saying would be a March wedding. And she wouldn’t be around to see how her mom and dad adapted to life outside the furniture store.

The last time she was home for any length of time–almost four years ago–she’d been ready to go when her vacation was up. At times, it felt like the whole town was smothering her and she just had to break free. Now she realized that it probably wasn’t the town at all, but her own refusal to be a part of it. This time, she’d let go of that grudge she’d been carrying, that chip on her shoulder; and people like Justine, Perry, Rich and Daniel, and even some of her old classmates showed her what Leland was capable of.

But what was any of it worth with Justine holding her at arm’s length? Carly knew that was the real source of her melancholy. It was almost like she could taste what being happy was like, but it was just out of reach. She didn’t want to leave Leland if there was a chance she could be with Justine…and she didn’t want to stay if there wasn’t.




Justine pulled into the carport, still fighting the tears that had threatened to fall all night. Christmas dinner at her mother’s had been the usual elaborate affair–a fat turkey, the good china, extravagant gifts for everyone, and songs around the piano. It was like every other year, except for the empty place at the table. Trey hadn’t called at all, not even to arrange to pick up his gifts. JT said the boy had hardly been at home all week; he was spending his days and evenings with Melissa. He came home after midnight, and left before anyone got up. Even when he was there, he’d been in a quiet mood…somber and distracted.

There had to be a way to reach him, a way to reassure him. Trey’s life was good; he just needed to see that. His future was secure at the university, and if he went on to law school as he planned, there would be a job waiting at his father’s firm. Unlike a lot of kids his age, he didn’t have to worry about money or having the right things. And he had a girlfriend who was crazy about him. Surely, the idea that his mom might be having a quiet relationship with another woman wasn’t enough to bring down his whole world!

Lugging the gifts from her family, she unlocked the back door and pushed into the kitchen, dreading how quiet the house would be without Emmy there. In the short time her daughter had been staying with her, she’d grown used to having her around. It was fun to cook together, and to talk into the night in front of the fire. After their revealing conversation on Sunday afternoon, there was a new intimacy between them. She still hadn’t shared much about her feelings for Carly, but it was now a given between them that the feelings were there. And Justine had even heard a little about Dale Farlowe.

But tonight, Emmy was back at her dad’s, getting ready to head out tomorrow with her church group to the ski slopes in West Virginia. The big house on Sandstone was lonely again, and the New Year would bring more of the same.

And if all that weren’t enough, Carly Griffin would soon be gone.




Carly stepped out onto the porch and drew in a deep breath of cold air. Christmas Day at the Griffin house was a quiet affair. They’d opened gifts together last night and slept in, enjoying a big breakfast together about ten.

All day, Carly had pored over her feelings for Justine Hall, unable to shake the belief that her old friend was the key to what happened next in Carly’s life. One thing was increasingly clear: Carly didn’t want to spend the next two years in Madrid, no matter what. She had a dinner appointment with her boss in Louisville tomorrow to talk about a permanent transfer to corporate. Heck, if she lived in Louisville, she and Justine could see each other on the weekends. Maybe that could lead to something down the road; the kids weren’t going to be around forever. And if she lived in Louisville, she could come back to town often enough to keep up with everybody.

Normally, this was the time of night when Carly would creep up the ridge to peek down at Justine’s house. But she’d been up there twice already today and the blue car was gone.

"Carly?" That was her mom at the front door. "Your cell phone’s ringing."

She jumped up and stumbled down the hall, but was too late to catch it. The missed number that showed up made her heart skip a beat, and she quickly redialed.

"Hey, it’s Carly…I was out on the porch." She sat down on her bed and started to unbutton her leather jacket.

"Sneaking a cigarette?" Justine teased.

"No, I was not smoking! I’ll have you know that I’ve been smoke-free for twelve days, two hours…and forty minutes. Not that I’m counting or anything." She flopped back onto the bed, happy just to hear her friend’s voice.

"That’s great. I’m really proud of you."

"Yeah, yeah. So are Mama and Daddy. Except if I stay here much longer, I’m going to eat them out of house and home."

"Well, when the cupboards are bare over there, you just come on down and I’ll feed you."

"Right, I’ll just waddle over the ridge."

They kept the conversation light, both content with knowing that their friendship was still on solid ground. Carly had almost expected Justine to push her away again, but that hadn’t really happened. They hadn’t seen each other since Saturday night, but that was understandable, since Emmy was staying over there.

"So…did you get things worked out with Trey?"

Justine sighed heavily. "No. I haven’t seen him since Saturday. He didn’t even show up at my mother’s house today to open presents. He must…really be mad at me right now."

"I’m really sorry. I know how much that hurts you...." Carly remembered that Justine’s greatest fear wasn’t losing Trey and Emmy, but losing control of herself again. "But it’ll be okay this time, Justine. You’re a lot stronger now…and you can always tell him that he got the wrong idea. All he saw was two friends sharing a hug." Three seconds later would have been a different story altogether.

"I know. That’s what I’ve been telling myself. I’m sure he’ll come around eventually to talk…probably with a list of things I can do and can’t do. He just isn’t capable of dealing with that kind of stuff, and if I try to push it on him, he’ll just get that much more stubborn." Her voice was full of frustration.

"You can’t really blame him, Justine. Those are the rules for living in a place like this." The optimism Carly had begun to feel for Leland had slipped some since Saturday night. In twenty-five years, the attitudes here hadn’t really changed at all. Kids like Trey might grow up over time and learn to behave themselves in public, but the changes were barely skin-deep. "Kids aren’t ever going to learn to accept people who are different because their parents don’t. And it’s not just gays…It’s the people who don’t have money, or the ones who just don’t know how to dress or who aren’t jocks."

"But I don’t want my own son to be like that! He wasn’t raised by his friends and their parents. He was raised by me!" Justine was surprised by the anger in her voice, anger not at Trey for how he felt, but anger at herself as she realized that she’d let him get away with it. "I can teach him not to lie or steal, and not to mouth off to his teachers. But I can’t teach him the most fundamental things he needs to know to be a good person…that you have to respect everybody." She was up and pacing the den now, the picture getting clearer on what she had to do. "You’re absolutely right, Carly. This isn’t Trey’s fault at all. It’s mine."

"Yours?" Carly hadn’t meant to send that message. Justine didn’t need to add guilt to what she was already feeling.

"Yes, mine! Who else’s would it be? I should have beat it into his head when he was little, but JT and I both thought that we were teaching him more by letting him pick his own friends. I didn’t know my son was going to turn into such a little snob."

Justine was so adamant and forceful that Carly grew nervous about where she was going with all this. If she went on a tirade like the night they didn’t come to her birthday dinner, she might do more harm than good. "Listen…calm down okay? You need to think all this through. You don’t want to say or do something that you’re going to regret later."

"I know…I know." Justine realized that she sounded like she was about to go off half-cocked. "But I really do have to talk to him about all this. I’ve been so worried about how the other kids would act that I didn’t stop to think about what I was saying about myself. I need to quit acting like I’m doing something so awful."

Carly was relieved to hear the voice of reason return, but she was still worried that Justine wasn’t seeing it all the way through. "And what about Emmy, Justine? You were just telling me that you feel really close to her again. You don’t want to risk that."

"Emmy’s okay with everything. We talked about it on Sunday." Justine hedged on saying exactly what her daughter had asked. "She asked me point blank if I was a lesbian. I couldn’t lie to her. And you know what she told me? She said it was okay, that she wanted me to be happy."


"It’s amazing sometimes to think that those two grew up in the same house, huh?"

Carly relaxed. "So what are you going to do?"

"I need to find a way to talk to my son, so I can tell him what I expect of him. JT will back me on this. But Trey needs to understand that he’s not going to act like this without consequences."

"Wow," Carly said again. In light of all Justine had gone through over the past few years, this was a huge step. "I’m really proud of you for this, Justine."

Her voice went soft. "Well, I want to raise my kids to be good people. It’s time I stepped up and did my job."

"You really are a great mother, you know."

"Thank you…that means a lot." It was time to lighten this conversation. "So, are you going to the reunion Saturday night?"

"You know, I think I will. But don’t let me get drunk and start talking to Sara McCurry. I’m afraid of what I might say."

"You and me both. I just hope her husband doesn’t ask me to dance. I don’t want to smell like him all night."

The two women eased into their friendly banter, talking about all of their old classmates, and trying to guess what everyone was doing now. After more than an hour, Carly’s phone beeped its warning.

"My battery’s dying. I guess I should go."

"Okay…merry Christmas, Carly."

"It is, Justine. Talking to you tonight really made my day. I’ve really missed you this week." Thinking back to how she’d felt when she was sitting on the porch, Carly realized the truth of her words.

"I’ve missed you too. You want to come for dinner tomorrow?"

"I can’t. I have to go to Louisville tomorrow. I’m having dinner with my boss."

"Then I guess I’ll see you Saturday night?"

"I’ll be there." Carly smiled into the phone. "Merry Christmas, Justine."



Yes, I too am thinking that it is time for these women to have sex again. Part 7 (conclusion)

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