The House on Sandstone — Part 7 (conclusion)

By KG MacGregor



Chapter 19


Carly shifted on the leather couch, growing more irritated by the minute at Jim Fitzpatrick. Her appointment was for six, and according to his secretary, he’d gone out at five for a quick haircut. It was a quarter to seven, but he’d called to say he was running late. No shit.

Jim was three years younger than Carly and joined the company on the labor team she put together for Estonia. He accompanied her on the second tour in Bolivia, then on to Peru, but got married and requested a job at corporate.

Carly had put in for a job stateside that year too, but she’d been given a hefty raise and shuffled off to Johannesburg instead. She was too important to them in the field, they said, and they didn’t want to lose her experience and know-how.

After two years in Shanghai, she asked again, mindful of an opening that popped up when one of the project managers left the company for a competitor. Again, one of the women on her team–who happened to marry someone at corporate–was hired for the slot, and Carly was given a sizable raise to go to Jerusalem. But that time, she was promised the next opening. Wade Morrow was that opening, due to retire in May when he turned sixty-five. She wanted to be certain that Worldwide Workforce remembered its promise, and that they knew she was still interested.

It galled her that Jim Fitzpatrick was now her boss, and that all of her requests had to go up through him. He had been mediocre at best in the field, and in his current job, he supervised three field projects that he barely understood. The trains ran on time because Carly and her fellow team leaders made it happen.

A handsome man came through the glass door exuberantly, and stretched his hand out to take hers. "Carly! Sorry to keep you waiting."

"Jim. Good to see you again." His breath smelled of alcohol. Running late, my ass.

"So I made us a reservation across the street at Ruth’s Chris. Linda’s going to join us at seven. She’s really looking forward to seeing you again."

Carly fumed inwardly, instantly realizing that she’d been kept waiting simply because Jim’s wife couldn’t make it at six. The women hardly knew each other; this was just Jim and Linda taking advantage of an opportunity to eat out on the company’s nickel. Now, she understood why he had insisted on dinner instead of meeting with her this afternoon.

"I need to talk about some work issues, Jim…personnel matters. I hope that won’t be a problem."

"Nah, shouldn’t be. Linda’s heard it all before."

Fifteen minutes later, they were seated at an elegant table overlooking the Ohio River.

"I just never get tired of this view," Linda sighed. "I love it when Jim has work dinners."

"I’m sure you do." Very sure. "So, Jim…I wanted to talk with you about Wade’s job. I know he’s retiring in May, and I’d like to call in that promise you made before I went to Israel."

Jim paused to order a $90 bottle of wine, without even asking her preference. When the waiter departed, he gave his attention back to Carly. He was ready for this, and had all his arguments lined up. "That would really be a bad time to leave Madrid, Carly. You know the four-month mark is a critical period."

Or the five-month…or the eight-month…. Carly had heard this before. "Damon’s ready to step up. By May, we’ll be interviewing and training already. Those modules are already in place."

"Damon’s not as experienced as you are, though."

"Nobody is! That’s because I’ve been in the field longer than anybody in the company. My performance reviews are good. I get the top ratings. Now I’m ready to move up." I’ve been ready for the last twelve years. "I deserve to move up."

"It’s not that simple, Carly. There are nine field teams out there. A lot of people on those teams are going to apply for Wade’s spot. It’s going to come down to a lot of different factors."

Carly was determined not to lose her cool, but she knew when she was being jerked around. "But I have it in writing from you that I will get top consideration."

"That’s right. You will be considered, and all of your experience is going to be taken into account. But that’s not the only factor."

The waiter interrupted them again to take their order. Carly hadn’t really thought about what she would eat, but when both of her dinner companions ordered the twenty-ounce Porterhouse, she assumed it was probably the most expensive item on the menu, and ordered one for herself. Linda was bored already, and started talking to her husband about a funny noise the mini-van made. After ten minutes of debate, they agreed that she would take it to the shop on Monday. Crisis averted!

"So if experience isn’t the only factor, what else is going to be considered?"

"Well, I know that Bob Schiller asked about it too before he went to Pakistan. It’s hard to get somebody to head up a project in a place like that."

"In other words, Wade’s job has been promised to more than one person."

"Nobody’s been promised anything, Carly. I’m sure you have just as good a shot as anybody else…but I think Bob having been in Pakistan is going to weigh pretty heavy."

The waiter returned to place three sizzling steaks in front of them. Carly looked at the size of the monstrous piece of beef with dismay. She couldn’t eat that much meat in a week!

"Jim, Bob has been with Worldwide for six years. He’s not even thirty years old!"

"Now you know we can’t discriminate by age. That’s against the law."

"Nobody’s asking you to. But you can’t get twenty years work experience when you’re only twenty-nine."

"Look…I wasn’t going to bring this up, but…you got special consideration from the company before. We really–I really went out on a limb to let you hire Alison. And look what that cost us. We paid moving expenses for somebody who didn’t even stay six months. I could have lost my job over that."

"Who’s Alison?" Linda asked, her mouth full of steak.

"She was somebody Carly got involved with…romantically…in South Africa. Carly asked us to hire her on the next job at Shanghai so she could go too."

"You do that a lot, don’t you? Hire people’s husbands or wives," she continued.

"We do it a fair bit. But Alison wasn’t somebody’s wife. I really stuck my neck out on that one, Carly."

"It’s not like I had an option, Jim."

"I know, I know. But I had an option. I could have said no. But I didn’t. All I’m saying is that we can’t give everybody special consideration every time."

Carly felt her stomach sinking with disappointment and frustration. Despite their promises, she knew now that she wouldn’t be offered a stateside job. After twenty-one years with the company, she was going to have to settle for that single bone they’d tossed her almost five years ago. For a few fleeting seconds, she regretted not taking her father up on his offer of the furniture store.

Her appetite was gone, and she hadn’t even had a bite of her steak. Setting her utensils down, she eyed the slab of beef, knowing that it would go home in a doggie bag with the Fitzpatricks if she left it untouched.

"Oh, dear!" Carly put her hand over her forehead and began to sneeze onto her plate. Again…and again…and again…seven times in all. "I don’t know what that is. I feel so sick." Struggling to her feet, she reached around for her purse. "I think I better go on home before this gets worse. I have a long drive. Thank you so much for dinner." She laid her linen napkin atop her plate and left.




"All right, Justine. You take A through K and I’ll get L through Z." Justine took a seat beside Sara McCurry Rice behind a table with boxes of nametags. "And make sure you get everybody’s email address. This’ll be a piece of cake next time if we can just email everybody and not have to send out everything."

A few of their classmates were putting the finishing touches on the decorations at the Kiwanis Club meeting hall, and the band was warming up. The Kiwanis didn’t have a license to sell liquor, but they’d gotten a special permit to serve beer and wine. Sara ordered seven cases of wine coolers, insisting that they’d last longer than regular wine.

They’d last forever at my house, Justine thought.

"Well, looky here. If it ain’t David Willis!" Sara was excited to see their first classmate. But then Sara was excited to see everyone.

Justine jumped right in to help the next person, and within half an hour, most of the nametags in her box were gone. She fingered a few until she got to the one she really cared about, looking up just in time to see the blonde woman walk in the door with two men.

Carly looked dazzling! She was wearing a tailored gray pantsuit with a wide-collared white top. A vibrant silk scarf was threaded beneath her lapel.

"Hello. You’re Justine Hall…right?" The blonde woman flashed a killer smile that nearly melted Justine on the spot. "You probably don’t remember me. I’m Carly Griffin…We used to be lab partners in chemistry class."

Justine was caught off-guard by the greeting, until she saw the mischievous smirk that followed the smile. "Why, yes! We did have…chemistry together, now that I think about it. How nice to see you again," she answered back, her voice dripping with syrupy sweetness. Inside, she was reeling at a rush of sensations. She looks like a million dollars!

"Oh, my god! Would you look at who it is? It’s Richie Cortner." Sara was on her feet and around the table for a hug from the artist, who was clearly baffled by the attention from someone who hardly acknowledged his existence in high school.

Justine looked at Richie and back at Carly, not quite understanding the connection. Then she noticed Daniel, the man who ran the new coffee shop.

"This gentleman needs a nametag, please. This is Daniel Youngblood." Carly tugged her friend up to the table.

"Okay." Justine began to write it out. "And Daniel is here with…."

"Me," Carly said, looking back at her friend from the coffee house and his partner.

Justine nodded in understanding, trying not to scowl in Daniel’s direction. Cut it out, numbskull. She just didn’t want to come alone, so she brought a friend.

Carly went into the dance hall with her two friends and staked out a table.

"Okay, girlfriend, fess up!" Daniel leaned across their table and waited expectantly.


"What’s with you and the redhead? ‘We had chemistry together’."

Carly looked to Rich for help, but got the same questioning look.

"Okay…that was Justine Hall, and I’ve had the hots for her ever since eleventh grade."

"That’s probably true for half the kids at Leland High," Rich added.

"You can see why." Carly looked up as her beautiful friend entered the dance hall, where she was immediately approached by a man Carly recognized as Mark Matthews, the boy in their class who was voted–like Justine–Most Likely to Succeed.

"Well, I’d say it was mutual, honey. If looks could kill, you’d be picking up my dead body right about now."

"Why do you say that?"

"When you said ‘He’s with me.’ That woman was not a happy camper."

"Have you got a little history with Justine?" Rich had noticed the interchange between the two women and his curiosity was piqued as well.

"No…not really."

"God, what an awful liar you are! I want to play poker with you sometime." Daniel was starting to wonder if this was the woman his friend had told him about, the one who had some problems with the people in Leland.

Carly knew that her face was giving her away, but she didn’t feel right about sharing something so private about Justine. "So…which one of you guys gets to dance with me first?"

Daniel and Rich understood her cue. The subject of Justine Hall was closed for now.

Justine tried to duck back out to the foyer, but was lured to the dance floor by Mark. There wasn’t a gracious way to decline, and it wouldn’t kill her to be polite.

Everybody in Leland knew the tale of Mark Matthews. Mark was released from federal prison last year after serving time for investor fraud. He’d managed to convince people–a lot of people–that he had the capital to develop a housing tract in the hills of Tennessee. Unfortunately, the land was owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority. But his brand of malfeasance was popular, and he was released early to make room for the next wave of slimy blood-suckers that preyed on the elderly and infirm.

"What are you up to these days, Mark?"

"I hang around the house a lot…you know, with the ankle bracelet and all."

That’s right…house arrest. She suddenly wondered if the police might swoop in and carrying him off in cuffs.

Matthews read her mind. "But my probation officer signed off on this. I’m allowed to have visitors, too, by the way. Maybe you could drop by some time…."

Carly was making her way through the crowd for a beer when she heard her named called.

"Carly! Carly Griffin." It was Sara McCurry. "Look who I found. It’s Tommy Hampton. You know I told you about him being in the army, too. You two are going to have so much to talk about." She beamed with excitement as she deposited the man and left.

"Hi, Tommy."

"Carly, it’s good to see you again." He held out a hand that was soft to the touch, Carly thought…even softer than her own. "I’m embarrassed to say this, but I’m not in the army. Never was, either. I don’t where Sara got that idea."

The blonde woman laughed out loud. "Neither am I. I told Sara that I worked overseas and she just…filled in the rest." That got a hearty laugh from her old classmate. "So what are you doing these days, Tommy?"

"I’ve been working in Frankfort at the National Archives since I got out of college. But I ran into Sara about ten years ago when I was doing a project over at Fort Knox and I must have mentioned it."

"Well, at least she was right about us having something in common. She’s confused about both of us."

Tommy introduced her to his wife, and after a few more friendly words, they went off to dance and Carly continued on her path to the keg. She was genuinely surprised all along the way by the smiles and friendly greetings. It was as though all of the people here had always been her friends. Maybe they just had her confused with someone else.

The song ended and Justine left the dance floor, automatically scanning the floor for her pretty friend. She spotted Carly near the beer keg, caught up in a conversation with Darlene Johnston. Working at the hospital, she saw a lot of Darlene, but they weren’t especially close.

"Carly, hi! Daniel says you’ve been helping him out at the coffee shop. I go by there every day on my way to work."

"That’s right. It’s the best way to service my caffeine addiction. Mainlining."

Darlene laughed amiably. "Listen, how’s Rich doing? I felt so sorry for him the last time he brought his daddy to the hospital."

Carly remembered that both Daniel and Rich had had nothing but kind words to say about Darlene. "He’s…taking it pretty hard. And I think he went on oxygen a few days ago, so it’s even worse."

"The poor guy. He just lost his mother a couple of years ago. I’m so glad he’s got somebody like Daniel to support him through this. So many people just aren’t that lucky."

"Yeah…Daniel’s a really good guy."

"I wish they’d stick around Leland, but Daniel says Rich is pretty set on leaving it all behind when his daddy goes. I guess it’s hard for him here…the memories."

This was the confirmation for Carly’s suspicions. Daniel had dropped a lot of hints, but he hadn’t come right out and said they were moving on…perhaps because he was still hoping to change his partner’s mind about settling in Leland for good.

"You know, they both told me how good it made them feel when you talked to them in the hospital. It really meant a lot to Rich…and he was glad to hear that you were going into Daniel’s shop every day." That was Carly’s subtle way of saying thanks for respecting what these guys had together.

"He’s such a nice guy. They’re both nice guys, and I’m really happy they have each other. Daniel said you were heading out to Spain soon for your job."

"Yeah, I have to leave in a couple of weeks."

"That sounds so exciting."

"I’m sure it’ll be fun." For the first fifteen minutes or so.

"Listen, I’ll see you in a bit. I have to get this beer to my husband before he runs off in the car to buy his own six-pack." She looked over in the direction of a bored-looking man, sitting at a table alone. "He hates coming to these things."

Carly was joined in the beer line by Rich, who stopped on his way over to say a couple of words to Darlene. Instinctively, she looked around the room for Justine, who stood by the hors d’oeuvres table with Sara.

Sara was bending Justine’s ear. "That Carly Griffin looks like a whole different person. I saw her at the movies the other day and I hardly recognized her. Who in the world would have thought she’d turn out to look that good?"

I did…but then I always thought she looked good. "She does look good. So does Richie." Justine did that just to torment Sara, who’d had a crush on the artist since high school.

"Richie! God, he was the cutest boy in Leland, and now look at him. Hubba hubba! Wonder how come he came in with Carly and that guy from the coffee house? You don’t reckon he and Carly are…? No, couldn’t be. I mean, she looks good, but he could have whoever he wanted."

Justine bristled, but held her temper in check. She watched as Carly and Rich walked back to their table to deposit their beer before taking to the dance floor. What is this with Carly and Rich Cortner? I didn’t even know they knew each other. She didn’t have time to dwell on that question. Tony Belichek suddenly appeared to ask her to dance.

Carly smiled as she caught sight of Justine with Tony. She was a full head taller than he was, and it was obvious that he was trying to get close enough to lay his head on her breasts. Despite his diminutive stature, Tony had never been shy about the ladies. He’d been suspended for ten days for pulling out a plumbing pipe in the boys’ locker room so he could peek through into theirs.

The redhead looked fabulous tonight, Carly thought. She wore a one-piece black pantsuit that zipped up the back. It was sleeveless, and the v-neck showed off Justine’s sculpted shoulders nicely.

That is one gorgeous body….

"Daniel says business has really been good this week, a lot better than he expected for the holiday." Rich’s remark snapped her back from the wonderful place where her mind had begun to wander.

"Yeah, we had a really big crowd today. I wish somebody would answer his ad, though. I’ve got to leave soon, and he’ll go nuts if he doesn’t have some help."

"Yeah, I wish he could get somebody too. He’s worked hard to build that store up."

"It’s a great place. He was saying that he wanted to get a bookshelf in there, and some board games. I think it has a lot of potential to get even bigger."

The music stopped and Carly watched as Justine and Tony separated. Suddenly, the blue eyes met hers and the redhead smiled. Without dropping her gaze, Carly retreated to her table, her own smile growing broader as she realized that Justine was coming over.

"You guys better behave yourselves," Carly warned quietly just before the redhead arrived at their table.

Rich quickly got up and pulled out a chair. "Justine, it’s nice to see you."

"You too, Richie. I love your murals down in the coffee house."

"Thank you."

"Rich has done some wonderful work. I wish you could have seen his last exhibit in Boston." Daniel patted his partner’s forearm and smiled with obvious pride.

In that instant, Justine grasped the nature of the men’s relationship and she couldn’t stop her own knowing smile. "You should both be very proud of how well the coffee house is doing."

"We were just talking about that," Carly interjected. "We were saying that you ought to quit your job and go to work helping out."

"Sure you were. What if you were to quit your job instead, and stay there? Stay in Leland?"

"Don’t think I haven’t thought about it." The playfulness in Carly’s voice belied the seriousness with which she’d been thinking about her job these last few days, and how much she dreaded leaving for Madrid.

"Coffee in the morning…furniture delivery in the afternoon. Sounds like a nice life," Justine cajoled teasingly.

Carly could only nod, not trusting what would come out of her mouth if she were to open it. And what would I do in the evening?

The band broke into its rendition of a 1979 disco tune, and virtually everyone in the room took to the dance floor, including the foursome at the table. Dancing side by side with Rich and Daniel, the women couldn’t help but remember their steamy night at the club in Louisville. And when the music stopped, Justine couldn’t keep from squeezing Carly’s arm, a subconscious thanks for the dance.

When they left the dance floor, the redhead was whisked away to attend to a few details at the sign-in desk, and Carly found herself back at the table with her friends, sad and frustrated at was almost in her grasp. She and Justine were right for each other, if they’d just forget about everybody else and go for it.

"Looks to me like you’re not the only one hung up, Carly."

She looked into Daniel’s eyes and allowed herself a soft smile.

"What are you going to do?"

Carly shook her head solemnly. "I don’t know, Daniel. The ball’s in her court–it always has been."

Two hours later, the crowd began to thin. People promised to keep in touch, and everyone had their reading glasses out jotting down email addresses and phone numbers. Sara and Justine basked in the praise from their classmates, accepting that their success would mean they probably would be tapped to do this again in another five years.

Carly stopped by the table on her way out to offer her congratulations. "It was really nice, Justine. Thanks for encouraging me to come. I had a great time."

"I’m glad you did. And if I didn’t tell you earlier," she lowered her voice so that no one would hear, "you look sensational tonight. I heard a lot of people say so."

The blonde woman gave her a lopsided smile. "You’re the one who turned all the heads in the room, Justine. Just like you always did."

Daniel and Rich waited by the door, and Carly turned to give them the signal that she would be along soon.

"Come home with me," Justine whispered, her eyes smoldering in the dim light. She didn’t know where her courage was coming from, but she had no reservations about the invitation. It was time to show Carly how she felt.

Carly froze, her eyes never leaving the blue ones. She answered with a nod, barely perceptible, even to Justine. "I’ll meet you outside."


Chapter 20


The short ride to the house on Sandstone was quiet, punctuated when Carly took the long slender hand in her own, lacing their fingers. When they entered the darkened home through the kitchen, Justine turned off the porch light, her indication that she had no intentions of either them going back out into the night. She touched the five numbers of her alarm code, knowing that an open door would alert them if Trey should happen to stop by. But Justine didn’t expect that to happen tonight.

Carly stood nervously in the kitchen while Justine locked up, waiting and wondering just how this dance would start. A part of her wanted to return to their last scene in front of the fire, so they’d have a chance to undo that clumsy encounter. She wanted to look inside Justine’s heart to see if it held any promise for their future. Even if it didn’t, she wanted this chance to rewrite the memory of that drunken night.

"Will you come to my bedroom?"

The blonde woman nodded and followed Justine through the house, which was lit only by a soft light in the foyer. When they reached the master suite, her host closed the bedroom door and turned the lock. As Carly stood in the dark, she crossed the room and turned on a bedside lamp.

Carly stepped out of her shoes and followed Justine to stand beside the king-sized bed. "Are you sure you want this?"


"And…how will you feel about it tomorrow?"

"I’ll want it then too." The truth of her words struck Justine like a thunderbolt. She didn’t want this just for tonight, but for all the nights to come. That’s what it was like to be in love. One small step closed the distance between them, and Justine dropped her head to touch her lips to Carly’s.

Carly slid her mouth against Justine’s, ever so softly…ever so slowly. This was what they had missed the last time, the chance to savor the sensations of touching one another and tasting their closeness. As their kisses grew more intense, she moved into Justine’s embrace, feeling the quickening pace of both their hearts as their bodies came together.

Working together, they freed themselves of their clothes, finally falling into bed to relish the feel of warm skin from head to toe. "God, you feel so good," Justine murmured, hooking both hands beneath Carly’s shoulders as she settled her long body on top. After a slow, deep kiss, she dropped her head beside Carly’s to nuzzle her ear.

Carly’s hands wandered up and down the muscular contours of the taller woman’s back, coming to rest at the top of her buttocks. "Justine…Did you mean what you said? Will you want this tomorrow too?"

Justine rose up and looked seriously into the questioning green eyes, understanding that her flighty behavior after their earlier encounters was responsible for Carly’s doubt. "I will, I promise."

"What is it…that you want?" The blue eyes looked back at her in confusion, and she felt Justine shift her body to the side.

"What are you asking me?"

The blonde almost wished she hadn’t asked the question, but what she most wanted to hear was that Justine wanted her…and not just the intimacy they were about to share. "I’m in love with you, Justine."

"Oh, Carly." She lowered her head to drop a kiss on the blonde woman’s cheek, then on her forehead, and finally on her lips. "That’s what I want tomorrow…for you to love me."

With both hands, Carly clutched the back of her head and pulled her back down for a fiery kiss, which Justine returned with equal passion. She could feel her toes curling as she pushed herself against the strong body on top.

Justine emptied her mind of her will, allowing her hands to roam where they would, marveling at the way Carly’s body responded beneath her. Instinctively, she discovered the touches and sensations that drove the woman higher, and her own arousal peaked as well. "I love you," she whispered, finally sliding her fingers through Carly’s wet center.

"God, Justine…." She opened her eyes to find her partner lost in concentration, savoring her first bold exploration of another woman’s sex. Justine’s eyes were closed, but her mouth was open and her breathing was deep and slow. "That’s so nice."

Justine pushed inside, at once captivated by the way her fingers were encircled in the velvety cocoon. Rhythmically, she slid in and out, adding another digit when Carly opened her legs wider.

"Oh, yes…that’s it…." Carly dug her fingers into the taller woman’s back as she arched off the bed, the rush of heat erupting from her core. She lowered herself to the bed, stroking the sides of her lover’s face. "God…feel what you did to me."

Justine was fascinated by the throbbing sensations, knowing that those happened for her only when she came hard. "That was…so amazing." Eager to discover more, she lowered her head to take a nipple into her mouth, knowing it was just a stop on the way.

"Justine…." Carly pushed her gently to the side, rolling over on top and draping her leg between Justine’s. Her body was too sensitive to endure another touch without rest and recovery. With twinkling eyes, she gently teased her lover. "Should I ask where you learned to do that so well?"

"I have no idea," the redhead answered, smiling timidly. "I just did what I wanted to do."

"It was perfect." Carly leaned forward to deliver a kiss. "It was like you knew exactly what I needed," she whispered. "But I have other needs, too." With excruciating slowness, she trailed her tongue across Justine’s collarbone and chest, stopping for what seemed like ages to taste first one nipple, then the other. When she shifted lower in the bed, she heard her lover’s breathing hitch, a clear sign that Justine knew what Carly intended.

Wordlessly, Justine parted her legs and bent a knee to give Carly access to what they both wanted. When she felt the woman’s tongue stroke the length of her sex for the first time, she shuddered and drew an arm to her forehead in abandon. "Oh, god…that’s so good…so nice." The soft tongue circled her hardened clitoris, then plunged inside her. "Ooh, Carly. I love that…I love you."

Carly wrapped one arm around Justine’s thigh to pull her closer, and with the other hand, slipped two fingers inside. After only a few gentle thrusts, she felt the sudden contraction, and slowed her touches to draw out the orgasm. The moment Justine called out her name was the sweetest, most satisfying experience Carly had ever had.




"Wake up, sleepyhead."

Carly opened one eye to see Justine leaning across the bed, smiling shyly as she tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. She was dressed in a dark blue wool suit with a soft white shell underneath.

"I need to go to church. There’s coffee in the kitchen if you want it."

Carly rolled over, orienting herself to her new surroundings. The bed was soft and warm, and Justine was much more hospitable than she had been the last time they woke up together here. She reached out and brushed her hand against the woman’s forearm. "You look nice."

"Thank you." She tugged the sheet down to reveal the tops of Carly’s naked breasts. "You look nice, too."

The blonde woman smiled. It was almost unfathomable that Justine could be up and about after the long night of lovemaking they’d shared. Over and over, they took turns touching and tasting one another, all the while proclaiming their love.

"Listen, if Trey shows any signs that he’s ready to talk, I may ask him to come back here with me."

"It’s okay…I’ll get dressed and go." She gave Justine her most understanding look. This was a condition she knew and accepted.

"Carly, I…I meant what I said last night…every word. I love you." She squeezed the smaller hand, hoping to reassure her lover of her resolve. "I need to settle this with Trey…but I won’t let him take this away."

"Really, it’s okay. You need to fix things with him." I don’t want anything between us again. "I need to get over the ridge…see if I can slip in the back door without anyone noticing. Like that would ever happen."

Justine kissed her goodbye and walked toward the bedroom door. "You can lock the back door and pull it shut behind you, okay?"

"Okay," Carly answered, her lips still tingling from their morning kiss. "Call me?"

"I will."




Carly turned off her ignition and stared through the windshield at the lake. The path went all the way around, her mom said…a half-mile in all. It was a pretty nice day for the end of December, but she had a little trouble believing that people really enjoyed this kind of thing.

Not to worry, though. Before too long, she would enjoy it too!

From where she was sitting, she could see a handful of others walking or jogging around the path, already started on dropping those holiday pounds.

Nothing to this.

Carly got out and began to jog slowly along the path, reminding herself about why she was out here doing this. Justine liked running; she looked forward to it; and being physically fit was important to her. It was a demarcation of sorts, a line between when she had command of her life and when she did not. Running was a symbol of control. And it gave her a body to die for!

This hurts my foot.

Carly remembered how Justine had smiled at the other runner at the dance club in Louisville. It was obvious that this kind of thing was something she appreciated in other women, too. Justine wanted to run a marathon someday. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could do it together?

Now it’s my whole shin. Maybe I need to slow down a little. It’s just the first day.

Justine was going to be proud of her for this, just like she was that Carly had stopped smoking. She’d have to find a place to run in Madrid. There were probably parks around the city, or places near the university. And when Justine came to visit, they could go together.

How is that going to work? Ow, there goes my knee.

Justine probably got two or three weeks vacation every year. She could come to visit in the summer for a week, and she might even want to bring Emmy. And then she could come back next fall. And Carly would try to come home for a couple of weeks next Christmas. If they planned it right, they could see each other every three months or so. And the time in Madrid would be gone before they knew it.

Justine loved her. Of that, Carly had no doubt. Their lovemaking had been so much more than physical. They talked into the night about how these feelings had been pent up for so long, and how it felt so wonderful to finally be able to set them free. When Carly mentioned having to leave soon, Justine assured her that they would find a way to work it all out. They’d both been searching for this feeling for too long and they weren’t going to let a few thousand miles get in the way of it.

Man! Why does my side always hurt like that when I run?

Since this was her first day, Carly had vowed not to overdo it. Two times around the lake–a mile–was the limit she’d set for herself, but she could probably double that tomorrow, as long as she wasn’t sore. She was now was almost halfway around on her first lap, which meant only a quarter of a mile, and she was rapidly rethinking her plan. Her legs and feet were screaming, and it felt like her guts were going to explode out of her side at any second.

Carly slowed to a walk, panting to catch her breath. This would work…If she walked back to her car from here, that would be a good cool-down exercise.

And what might happen after Madrid? There were lots of possibilities, she realized. Trey and Emmy would both be in college by that time…adults, practically. That would free up Justine to come along with her, as long as she landed her next job in a country that would allow an extended tourist visa. Justine wouldn’t need to work; Carly made plenty of money, and all of her living expenses were paid for by the company.

Maybe she could get on with a project in Australia…or Singapore…or down in the Yucatan. That would be a pretty nice life. It wouldn’t be bad at all to stay in the field if Justine could share all of these places with her.

She got back to her car and plopped down sideways in the driver’s seat, pulling off her left shoe and sock in one motion. A blister had already formed on the top of her big toe.

God, it feels good to be in love!




It was a day of mixed emotions for Justine. Trey was a no-show at church, and that bothered her a lot. He was usually pretty dependable when it came to Sunday mornings, but nothing he did of late made much sense. JT said he’d been gone most of the weekend, and that his friends hadn’t been by at all.

All afternoon, she’d hoped to hear from her son, but it was almost dark and there was no word. It was probably going to take another visit to his bedroom at dawn to get him to talk to her.

But there was also reason to celebrate, and Justine let herself do that today too. The smile that graced her face off and on all day was because of Carly, and she wasn’t going to give that up, no matter who asked or why. Being in love was too special–too rare–to be pushed aside for anything else.

Justine laid a split log diagonally across the two others that surrounded the fire starter. She wasn’t about to waste the evening waiting for Trey. She and Carly had too few opportunities to be together as it was, what with her leaving in a couple of weeks. They were both determined to make the most of their time together, and tonight, that would mean cuddling and talking in front of the fire.

The phone rang as she finished, and her first thought was of her new lover.

"Hello...Trey." Finally. "Of course you can come over. It’s time we talked about some things…." She bristled at her son’s words. "It so happens that I am alone…But I won’t have you dictate to me who comes and goes in my house. Is that clear?"

Her hands were shaking when she returned the phone to its cradle.

"It’s crunch time, Justine. You’ve got to hold your ground."




Carly hurried to her room to pick up her cell phone, smiling at once when she recognized the number. "Hello?"

"Hi, beautiful."

"Mmm…I think you’ve got the wrong number. You meant to dial Justine Hall."

"No, I meant to dial you."

Justine explained that her son was on his way over, and that she would call when he left. Carly started back down the hall, on her way to tell her mom that she might be out "late" again.

But the ringing phone called her back one more time. Carly expected it to be Justine again, but it flashed Daniel’s ID instead. He probably was calling to pump her for details on her evening with Justine.

"Hello…oh, no!" The smile left her face at once. "Daniel, I’m so sorry. Please tell Rich that I’m so sorry."




Justine jumped off the couch in the living room to greet her son, who was coming in the front door. She missed the old days, when you couldn’t sneak up on somebody in a Volkswagen Beetle. Their distinct putter could be heard a block away.

"Trey?" When she entered the foyer, she was surprised and disappointed to see that Melissa had come along.

"Mom." His face was drawn and serious, but he didn’t seem angry.

"Hello, Melissa."

"Hi, Mrs. Hall." The name thing was confusing to everybody, even Justine. Mrs. Hall was her mother, but Miss Hall was that debutante that married JT Sharpe. And the folks in Leland had no use for the word Ms.

"Won’t you both come in? Would you like a Coke or something?"

Trey shook his head and looked at his girlfriend, who also declined. Together, they went into the living room and sat together on the couch, where they avoided meeting her eye.

Justine really didn’t want to have this conversation with Melissa present, but it was clear that Trey did. Obviously, he had shared all the details with her; maybe she was here to back him up.

"Did you want to talk about something, Trey?"

The teenager took his girlfriend’s hand and looked at her. "Melissa’s going to have a baby."

Oh, my…you didn’t just…I don’t think I…Jesus Christ and all the saints! On the outside, Justine sat perfectly still, her face not giving away her emotions. Elsewhere, she was experiencing a full body response. Her stomach dropped; her throat closed; her mouth went dry; her eyes glazed over; and her tongue went numb.

"We found out for sure last week…that Friday when I was supposed to be at the nursing home."

"Have you…told your father?"

Trey shook his head. "We haven’t told anybody."

"Not your parents either, Melissa?"

The young girl shook her head, unable to hold back the tears that now poured down her face. "They’re going to kill me."

Justine got up and hurried to the couch, wrapping both her arms around the crying teenager, resting one hand on her son’s shoulder. "No, they won’t, honey. They’ll be surprised…," blown away, flabbergasted, aged twenty years, "but they love you. It’s going to be okay."

The mother’s words of assurance weren’t enough to stem the tide of tears. "No, they won’t. They’ll make me have an abortion."

"Shhh…It’ll be all right." For Justine, this was all a matter of what Melissa wanted. Everybody could put their two cents in the bucket, but no one but Melissa had the right to decide. "Have you seen a doctor?"

The girl shook her head.

"Are you sure you’re pregnant?"

Melissa nodded. "I missed my period…and we took one of those tests."

She was probably right, Justine thought; but she still needed to see a doctor soon. "I’m going to make an appointment for you to see Dr. Coulter at the hospital tomorrow. I’ll go with you if you want me to, or I’ll just show you where to go."

"Everybody’ll find out!"

"No, they won’t. Just come to my office and we’ll go upstairs the back way. And I promise you that no one there will say anything."

Melissa nodded and tried to smile.

"Have you two…thought about what you want to do?"

"We want to get married," Trey answered without hesitation.


"Yes, we love each other and that’s what we want." She squeezed her boyfriend’s hand and gave him an almost desperate look.

"And I’ll get a job. I can go to college later…get a scholarship or something. But we’ll need money for the baby."

"Trey, I’d like to call your father and ask him to come over. Is that okay?"

"What do you think Dad’s going to say?"

"I don’t know, honey. But he loves you as much as I do, and that’s more than you can imagine."

"Even now?"

Justine smiled at her son. "I think there’s a hormone or something that…makes a mother love her children more…right when they need it the most."

Trey looked like he might cry too. He and Melissa had been so stressed out for the past ten days that they had hardly slept or ate. "Thanks, Mom."

Justine phoned her ex-husband from the kitchen. "Trey’s here. I need you to come over…Right now…Drop it. You need to come right now."

An hour later, they had it all sorted out…subject to Walton and Millie Chandler’s input. Both of the kids were going to finish high school, no matter what. In August, Trey would start college at UK as planned, but he would continue to live in Leland and drive the forty minutes each way to class. JT would pay his tuition and fees as planned, and they would live with Justine.

Melissa’s plans for college were on hold for now; but JT and Justine promised to help with that down the road if necessary.

Next week, JT and Trey would start work on Justine’s basement, turning what had been the kids’ rec room into an efficiency apartment. A job after school was a good idea for Trey, they agreed, more befitting a married man and father-to-be than video games with his friends. That might help convince Melissa’s parents that the kids were serious about this, and deserved all the help they could get.

The last hurdle for now would be getting Walton and Millie to sign off on the marriage of their minor daughter. If they refused, it would only be symbolic, since Melissa would turn eighteen in early March and would then be able to marry on her own. Justine and JT would give their approval right away to Trey, who was three weeks shy of adulthood.

"Are you sure you don’t want your mother to come with you tomorrow?" If it were Emmy, Justine knew she would want to be there for her daughter.

Melissa shook her head. She was terrified of her mother. "Will you go with me?"

"Of course."

JT addressed his son. "You need to be with Melissa when she tells her parents. And don’t be surprised if they get pretty upset. This isn’t what they planned for her, and they’re probably going to say that it’s all your fault."

"It is all my fault. I should have…been more careful."

"It’s not just your fault, Trey," Melissa said.

"But I…I want to show your mom and dad that I can take care of you, and…this isn’t a very good start."

Justine had probably never been more proud of her son that she was right that minute. It was going to be a tough row for them to hoe, but she and JT would lend them all the help they could. All four of them walked to the door together, and the kids put on their coats. "We’ll all get through this. Call me first thing tomorrow at work, and I’ll tell you what time to come in."

When the door closed behind the kids, Justine turned and pounded her forehead against her ex-husband’s chest. "Oh, my god, JT!"

"Oh, my god, Justine!"


Chapter 21


"This row of buttons is for the size. We’re pretty simple here…we use common words, like small, medium, and large." Nadine Griffin had volunteered to come in and work with her daughter in the coffee house for the next few days while Daniel helped Rich over the loss of his father. Carly was showing her how to operate the cash register.

"Why do I have to punch in what they give me? I’m not stupid. I know how to make change."

"All the new cash registers do it, Mama. No one thinks you’re stupid."

The back door opened and the vendor entered with fresh pastries and biscottis, which Nadine began to put away.

Carly checked her supplies in the cooler under the counter, running back to the stockroom to get a few extra things. On her third trip, she laid the store key on the counter. "Will you take these and go unlock the door?"

"There’s somebody now."

Darlene Johnston was peering through the glass door, and hurried in out of the cold as soon as it was open. "Good morning." Immediately, she noticed that Daniel wasn’t there. "Oh, no. It happened?"

"Yesterday afternoon."

"That’s so sad. So you’re going to run the store?"

"Yeah, for a couple of days."

Darlene gave her order to Carly and paid Nadine. "Hey, you know what? People think so much of Daniel. I’m going to put a few dollars in this mug…Do you have a pen I can use?" Darlene scratched out a note explaining that Daniel had a death in the family, and that this was a flower fund. "I’ll pick this up tomorrow and send some flowers from everybody at the coffee house."

"That’s really nice, Darlene." Carly continued to be amazed at the way this town had changed…because the people in it had changed.

The first couple of hours were kind of slow, since most of the downtown stores and offices didn’t open until nine. Daniel said he did a lot of ordering of supplies in the morning. This was something she couldn’t do, but Daniel said he would come by to take care of it when he got a chance.

"So I thought you were going to go out last night," Nadine said, a hint of teasing in her voice.

"Something came up for Justine…and one of her kids." Carly was floored by the news when Justine called, but she had to admit selfishly that she was glad their embrace in the hallway hadn’t been the big issue after all. "And since I had to get up so early…." I didn’t think I should sleep over. God, it was embarrassing talking to your mother about these things!

Fortunately for Carly, the morning rush started, and she didn’t have to answer any more pointed questions about her love life…though she hadn’t exactly confessed to having a love life, per se. Her mama and daddy knew that she’d stayed over at Justine’s a couple of times, and that they’d spent a lot of time together. But other than a few words here and there, she hadn’t told them that she was in love. It would be nice to share something like that with her folks. They never met Isabel…and they never liked Alison. News that she and Justine were in love would make both of them very happy, especially if it meant she’d be coming back to Leland every chance she could.




Justine stood at Melissa’s shoulder holding her hand while Dr. Brian Coulter performed the pelvic exam. All the tests confirmed her status, and Dr. Coulter set her due date at the end of July.

When they returned to Justine’s office, Melissa could barely contain her tears.

"Sweetheart, listen." Her future mother-in-law guided her to a chair in the file room and handed her a cold drink of water from the office cooler. "You and Trey want this baby. Right?"

The teenager nodded.

"Then it’s time to be happy. It’s going to start growing soon, and your body’s going to change a lot. And we all want a healthy baby, so you’re going to have to take good care of yourself. If you and Trey are staying at my house, I’ll make sure you eat right, and you have to get plenty of rest after school. But it’s a happy time, Melissa."

In the span of twenty-four hours, Justine had gone from wishing her son would break up with this girl to total acceptance of her as part of the family. Melissa Chandler was the girl–the young woman–that her son wanted to marry, and she would be the mother of his child. That put Justine squarely on her side.




"What are you up to, Grandma?"

Justine groaned into the phone. "I am much too young for this…or maybe I’m too old for this."

"How did it go today?"

Justine told Carly a little about Melissa’s visit to the hospital, and about the kids’ plan to tell the Chandlers this evening. "I’m sort of expecting a call in a little while."

"Okay…I’ll let you go. I need to get to bed early anyway." Carly chuckled. "Mama’s already asleep."

"Carly, you’re a good person to help Daniel out like this."

"I’ve actually had a lot of fun down there…I mean, not this time, with Rich’s dad dying. But I’ve enjoyed helping out. Everybody who comes in is really nice. Makes me wish I didn’t have to leave in a couple of weeks. I’m really going to miss that."

"And I’m going to miss you!"

Carly sighed. "I’ll miss you too, Justine."

"You know, this craziness is going to settle down in a couple of days, and when it does, I have plans for you."

"Oh, yeah? Do any of them involve…chocolate sauce?"

Justine laughed heartily. "I’m thinking the whole banana split, honey!"




This night, Justine was called to the Sharpe home, where she walked into the kitchen to find J2 holding an icepack to Trey’s swollen eye. JT was storming around the room, shouting into the phone.

"And if you ever lay another hand on my son, I’ll see to it that he’s driving that car of yours." JT was a good enough litigator to make that guarantee.

Justine kissed her son’s forehead and held out her hand for the phone.

"Walton? Justine Hall. Would you mind putting Millie on the phone for me?" She looked back over at her son’s shiner and shook her head. "Hello, Millie. It’s Justine Hall. How’s Melissa feeling this evening?" Justine wanted to remind the other mother that she had a job, and that was taking care of her daughter. "It’s just that I was a little worried about her earlier today. You remember how overwhelming all this can be even in the best of circumstances…No, it isn’t the way we would have preferred, either, but it’s what we got. And it’s all about them now, not us. They love each other, and I think we ought to do everything we can to help them be happy."

The family watched, impressed with the way Justine was handling Melissa’s angry mother.

"You really don’t have any cards to play here, Millie…It doesn’t matter. She’ll be eighteen in three months and they’ll do it then." Justine rolled her eyes as she listened to Millie’s indignant rant about what might happen if Melissa went against their wishes. "Look, if you want to risk losing your daughter for good, that’s up to you. But don’t you worry about Melissa. JT and I are going to stand by both of them, and if Melissa needs a mother through any of this, she’ll have me." That did it.

Trey was on his feet to stand by his mother.

"I’m thinking New Year’s Eve at the Methodist Church…seven o’clock. Does that work for you and Walton?" Without looking up, she reached out an arm and pulled her son close. "I’ll call Reverend Scott here in a minute and let you know."

She hung up the phone and looked around at everyone. "So…ya’ll doing anything on Wednesday night?"




Trey walked his mom back out to her car, still smarting from his black eye, but calm inside for the first time in nearly two weeks.

"I really appreciate all of this, Mom. I’m sorry I’ve been such a…well, I’m sorry I’ve let you and Dad down."

"Honey, you get to start over with a clean slate right now. It’s not going to be easy, but you have to be a man now. And it’s not what your dad and I think that matters anymore."

"I know."

Justine opened her car door, then closed it without getting in. She’d probably never have more leverage over her son than she had right this second, and she wasn’t ashamed to use it. "Trey, we need to talk about something else…my friend, Carly."

The teenager looked away uncomfortably. He had sort of hoped all that would just go away.

Justine tipped his chin so that he’d look her in the eye. "We’re in love with each other, and she’s going to be a part of my life."

"That’s one of the things Mr. Chandler was talking about," he said meekly. "He said he didn’t want his daughter marrying into something like that."

Something like that…That arrogant snob! "Trey…I really don’t expect you to be able to understand why I am the way I am. To tell you the truth, I’ve had a little trouble with it myself, but I know that it’s what’s right for me. I hope you can come through for me on this. Carly Griffin is important to me, and that’s something that I need, just like your father needs J2…and you need Melissa."

The boy drew a deep breath of resignation.

"And besides, I’d like to think that Melissa could do a lot worse than marrying into the Sharpes and Halls. And in twenty years, when he sees what a happy life his daughter’s had, Walton Chandler’s going to know that too."

Trey enveloped his mother in a tight hug. Considering all the support she was giving for what he wanted, he was going to do his best to return it. Like she said, it was time to stop being a boy, and start being a man.




Justine pinned the boutonniere onto Trey’s lapel and brushed away a piece of lint that really wasn’t there. Her son was very handsome in the three-piece black suit his father had bought him yesterday. The three of them were waiting in an ante room until the minister gave the signal that they were ready to begin.

"Just so you know, I’m probably going to cry."

JT reached into his pocket and handed his ex-wife a handkerchief.

Trey laughed. "Nobody will even notice, because I’ll probably wet my pants."

That got them all laughing, and the tension dissolved, if just for a moment.

"I meant to tell you earlier…You remember that I mentioned my friend Carly?"

The teenager nodded, trying his best to appear casual.

"Well, her mama and daddy used to own the furniture shop, but they sold it to her cousin last week. Turns out he needs some help on the delivery truck. After school and Saturdays would work out pretty well for him, if you want to do that…."

Trey’s face lit up. "Heck, yeah! And what about in the summer? And after I start at UK? I bet I could work it out with my classes."

"Good, I’ll let him know, and you can go by there next week."

"Why wait until then? I’ll call him on Friday." Trey was eager to get started on this "being a man" thing.

"I think you’re going to be a little busy until Sunday, son." JT pulled a packet of documents from inside his coat and stuffed it inside Trey’s. "That’s for the Gratz Park Inn in Lexington. They’re expecting you and Melissa later tonight."

"Awwww," Justine started to cry at JT’s sweet gesture.

"Cut it out, Mom. We haven’t even had the wedding yet."

"And speaking of weddings…." JT opened the door a crack. "I think it’s show time."

It was just a small gathering. Emmy had gotten back in town earlier in the day, and was predictably shocked at all that had happened in her absence. She sat next to her mom at the end of the pew, and JT, J2 and Alex filled out the row.

On the other side of the aisle sat the Hatfields…er, the Chandler family. That consisted of Melissa’s parents, her older brother and his wife and two children, and an older sister, who was in college.

True to her word, Justine cried, especially when she caught Millie Chandler actually smiling during the brief ceremony. When it was all official, they headed to the fellowship hall for a small cake that Millie had procured on short notice.

Everyone posed for snapshots, and soon, the happy newlyweds were on their way. That’s when Justine noticed the sad look on her daughter’s face.

"What is it, honey?" They were walking out to the car, where Emmy would head home with her dad, and Justine would meet Carly at home to ring in the New Year.

Emmy shrugged her shoulders and looked away.

"Is it something I can help with?"

Emmy sniffed, a sure sign the floodgates were about to open.

Justine stopped and took both her daughter’s shoulders in her hands. "What is it?"

Her lip quivering and her eyes looking away, Emmy finally said what was on her mind. "It’s just that…Trey gets everything…even when he screws up."

Justine was confused about what it was that Emmy resented. It wasn’t like her daughter to be selfish. Surely, she understood that these were special circumstances. "What is it that’s bothering you about this?"

"I wanted to move back to your house, Mom. I’ve been trying to do everything right…and not cause any trouble or anything. And now, he goes and does this, and he’s the one that gets to move back, not me." Her tears were coming full force now, and she was angry and frustrated that she had even brought it up. She knew it made her look like a spoiled brat.

"You wanted to live with me?"

Emmy nodded, still not looking up.

"Honey, why didn’t you say so?"

"’Cause you told me to leave…and go stay with Dad."

Justine couldn’t believe she was hearing this. "Sweetheart, I told you that three years ago, when I was crazy as a bed bug! And I’ve regretted it ever since. But my door’s always been open for you. I thought you knew that…I told you it was your home too."

"I know, but…I didn’t think you wanted me to stay there all the time."

"Honey!" Justine wrapped her daughter up in her arms. "Nothing would make me happier than to have both you and Trey back at home."

"You mean it?"

"I sure do. As far as I’m concerned, we can start moving your things tomorrow. But you’re going to have to get your driver’s license, so you can go over and see Alex and J2. They’re going to miss you something fierce."




Justine kissed the inside of Carly’s thigh and crawled up to lay beside her lover, who was flushed from her climax and gasping for breath.

"Have I told you lately how much I appreciate your tongular dexterity?"

The redhead chuckled and nuzzled her neck. "There’s no such word as tongular."

"I don’t think any of those sounds I was making were real words." The women were savoring what might be their last night alone in the house, since Emmy was planning to move back home soon. "I love you…Grandma."

That earned her a pinch…which led to a tickle fest…which spawned a wrestling match…which resulted in Justine being pinned to the bed…where Carly slipped her tongue in Justine’s ear…which started the whole cycle of lovemaking all over again.

"How did I ever live without this?" Justine panted.

"It wasn’t really living."

"You can say that again."

"It wasn’t really living."

Justine was tempted to deliver another pinch, but her body couldn’t take another round right this minute. "It wasn’t living, Carly. My whole life was just getting from one day to the next. Now all of a sudden, I feel like I have everything. I have you. I have my kids. I never used to think I could have both of those things, and I wasn’t even sure I could get just one of them."

Carly rolled onto her side and draped her arm across Justine’s waist. "You always had me, Justine. You just didn’t know it."

The redhead smiled and pulled her close.

"I mean it. I’ve been in love with you nearly all my life."

"Oh, Carly. My life would have been so different if I’d just been honest with myself back in high school. You lit a fire in me back then…and it never did go all the way out."

"I know. It was the same way for me." She laid her head on Justine’s shoulder, thinking about how that little flame would rise up all those times she climbed that hill to look down on this house.

"I can’t wait to see the look on Valerie’s face when I tell her that I don’t think I’m going to need any more therapy."

Carly chuckled. "Maybe you should wait until you get past being part of the diaper brigade again."

"Boy, this is going to be one crazy house. I bet you’re glad you’re going to miss that part."

Carly didn’t have an answer for that. At least, she didn’t have a funny retort. The truth was, she really was going to miss that part. She’d been thinking over the last few days about what her cousin Perry had said about marrying a woman who already had a child. He said it was all a package deal, and that loving Debbie meant loving Kevin too.

She already liked Emmy, and in time, she thought she might even make some headway with Trey. Hooking him up with Perry at the furniture store was a good start.

But what she realized when she started thinking about having a life with Justine was that Justine needed all of it to be happy. And Carly didn’t want to be on the outside of things; she wanted to be part of Justine’s family too.




Carly slipped in the back door of the coffee shop, trading her coat for an apron. Already, the shop was abuzz, and Daniel was swamped.

"Where do you want me to start?"

"I need whole milk and soy from the back."

She went back into the cooler and emerged with the supplies, shifting over to the cash register to start taking orders. In thirty minutes, they had everything under control.

"Mom was kind of bummed about not coming in today. I think she really liked it."

"Tell her again how much I appreciate that. And you too."

"It was no problem. How’s Rich?"

Daniel nodded grimly. "He’s…doing all right, considering. He said to tell you thanks for coming to the funeral, by the way. Oh, and the flowers!"

"That was Darlene Johnston’s idea. Practically everybody that came in on Monday put money in the jar."

"They were beautiful. And that really meant a lot."

"It just goes to show you. People around here like you. It’s not just the coffee house, either. They like you."

"I like them, too. I’m going to miss this place."

Carly knew this was coming. "So you’ve decided for sure."

"Yeah, Rich wants to head on out to the west coast. He’s trying to get the house ready for sale, and I’m going to need to find a buyer for the store."

"What kind of time are you looking at?"

"I don’t know. But the way Rich is feeling, he wishes he could turn it all over to a real estate agent and leave tomorrow."




An unfamiliar green Corolla pulled into the driveway on Sandstone just as Justine was getting out of her car with two grocery bags.


"Hi, there. So whaddya think?" She took one of the bags and led her lover over to see her new wheels.

"Where’s your rental car?"

"I turned it in. Bought this one just this afternoon. Wanna smell the inside?"

Justine obligingly stuck her head in the new car, which still sported its window sticker from a dealer in Louisville. "You went to Louisville today?"

"Yep. I’ve been lots of places. I’ve been to the coffee house, the bank, your ex-husband’s office, back to the coffee house, Worldwide headquarters, the airport rental office, the Toyota dealership…and now here."

"Wow! And here I thought I wore you out last night. I do believe you’re holding out on me."

Carly grinned and followed Justine into the kitchen. "I quit my job." She lunged to catch the bag of groceries that dropped automatically from the redhead’s arms. "And I bought the coffee house from Daniel." For cash.

"And Madrid?"

"Maybe we’ll get there one of these days and see if it’s as pretty as everybody says. They have one of the best art museums in the world, you know." Carly heaved the grocery bags onto the counter and turned back around, just in time to feel her feet leave the floor as she was swooped up and twirled around the kitchen.

"And you’re going to stay in Leland and watch me be a grandmother?"

"I’m going to stay in Leland and watch you be a great-grandmother."

Justine hugged her tightly. "Carly Griffin, do you have any idea what you’re getting into?"

"Yeah…I’m getting into being really happy for the first time in my life."

"And I’m going to see to it that you stay that way."

And standing there in the kitchen, Justine dipped her head to kiss the woman she loved. A rush of emotions filled her heart and overloaded her senses. And without even thinking, she raised her hand to cover Carly’s breast, just as she’d done twenty-six years ago in the chemistry closet.


The End

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