Luck of the Irish
“This might just be the sexiest thing I've ever seen.” Jackie studied the lines and shadows that danced upon the intimate playground. “You're glowing like the embers in the fireplace … I always said you were hot … but right this second, you're on fire.”
Abigail strained in a futile effort to sit up, sucking in a breath through clenched teeth. “You're killing me.”
Jackie leaned back on her heels to get a better view of what she was doing. “I bet I could roast marshmallows down here. Do you think you could last long enough for me to do that?”
Abigail grunted and squirmed.
“Or do you think we ought to put this fire out before somebody gets burned? I wouldn't want to have to call nine-one-one and have them bust in here and ruin our little birthday party.” Jackie inserted the tip of the twisted acrylic phallus and gently twirled the plastic handle in her hand, smiling as the bright red filament at the center of the device slowly disappeared. “Going … going … gone.”
“I wish I could peek in there … and see you all lit up inside.”
Abigail tried to relax her hips to take the toy in deeper.
“What? You don't want it in there?” She slowly withdrew the probe until the red light once again colored the inside of Abigail's thighs. “Oooo … now it's all hot again, lit up nice and red. Let's put the fire out”—in—“and light it up again”—out—“and put it out”—in—“and light it up”—out.
“Happy birthday to you,” Jackie crooned.
“Happy birthday to me,” Abigail groaned in reply, driving her hips forward to match the rhythm of Jackie's strokes.
“I have another present for you, but I'm not sure you can handle it.”
“It can't be better than this present,” Abigail panted.
“Oh, but it is.” Jackie dipped her face forward, allowing her wavy brown hair to tickle Abigail's stomach. She dragged her tongue across the savory slit, which climbed to the ceiling with each upward thrust of Abigail's hips. “But I'd never forgive myself if I blew your head off with too much of a good thing. How would I explain that to the paramedics?”
“The smile on my face would say it all.”
“We'd be the talk of Sumter for sure.” With a flick of her thumb, she activated the bullet that caused the Bumble Beam to vibrate deep inside Abigail's smoldering tunnel. When she drew it out, the buzz grew louder and the red light glowed brighter; the reverse stroke dulled the sound as it dimmed the light. The effect was a spectacular light and sound show, topped only by Abigail's grinding and groaning. “Happy birthday, dear Abigail.”
“Oh … oh … happy birthday … to meeeeeeee!”
Jackie added her thumb to the action, gently massaging the clit until Abigail cried out and collapsed onto the bed, her eyes closed and her mouth agape. Then she turned off the device and withdrew it completely, lowering her head one more time to plant a kiss on the smooth skin beside the blond mound of pubic hair. “I couldn't tell for sure, but I believe you liked that.”
“If we do that again, I may not live to be twenty-eight.” Abigail still hadn't caught her breath. “Let me see that.”
Jackie handed her the toy and smiled with satisfaction. “It's called the Bumble Beam. Can you guess why?”
Abigail examined her birthday gift, playing with the button to turn on the light and vibration. “You done good, Jackie. I think we have a new best friend.”
“It came last week while you were over at Rosemary's. If Joe Dean had any idea what kind of stuff came in those little brown boxes, no telling what he'd do.”
“He'd probably have to go to church every night for a week.”
“I'm sure we aren't the only ones in Sumter getting packages from TheraToys. He's probably seen it all.” Jackie took the toy and set it on the nightstand. “So has it been a nice birthday?”
“The best. But it's not over, lady. I don't believe you've given me my other present.”
“Now what could that be?” Jackie was pretty sure she knew, but she loved it when Abigail asked for what she wanted.
“How much did you enjoy the Bumble Beam?” Abigail stretched her arm toward Jackie's center and swiped a finger through the slickness. “Just as I thought.”
“Watching you come gets me every time.”
“I think you're going to have to let me taste that.” Abigail scooted down a few inches and fluffed up the pillow beneath her neck.
Jackie leaned over to deliver a deep kiss. “I love you, you know. I don't care how old you get.”
“I'll always be younger than you.”
“I'll make sure Beth saves you a spot in the nursing home.”
“I'm saving you a spot right here at the end of my tongue.” Abigail gestured for Jackie to straddle her.
Jackie crawled up the bed on her knees, grasping the headboard as she lowered herself to Abigail's waiting lips. “Is this what you want?”
“Mmmmm,” Abigail mumbled. She snaked her hands beneath Jackie's thighs to cup her bottom, squeezing the cheeks as she pulled them toward her face in rhythm.
Jackie smiled to herself as she noted the position of Abigail's left hand—directly over the heart-shaped tattoo that bore her name in the center. Abigail had protested the tattoo at first. They had been together only a year at the time and she couldn't believe that Jackie had done something so permanent without even talking to her about it. But her fascination with seeing her name on Jackie's butt was unmistakable, no matter what she said.
Closing her eyes, Jackie gave in to the feel of Abigail's eager tongue working her center. She wouldn't last long, especially if—“Oh, yeah!” Three fingers filled her and she ground her hips downward to pull them in. After just a few thrusts, she was teetering on the edge. “Ready or not … here I come!” She gripped the headboard tightly to support herself as she climaxed, barely mindful that suffocating her lover with her vulva would be a regrettable end to their birthday celebration … and also difficult to explain to the paramedics.
Abigail delivered noisy wet kisses to the insides of Jackie's thighs as she pulled away. “Now my birthday is complete. I got everything I wanted.”
Jackie settled beside her and nuzzled her neck. “And I have everything I want every day.”
Their afterglow was cut short by the sound of scratching at the bedroom door.
“That's so creepy,” Abigail said. “It's like they know the moment we finish.”
“I think it's just Wally that knows. Then he calls a meeting and makes an announcement.” Jackie got up and started for the door.
“Wait! Remember what happened to the Hot Rod.”
“Oh, yeah.” Jackie paused to drop the Bumble Beam in the drawer of the nightstand before opening the door to the four waiting dogs. “Not in my spot!”
“Too late.” Abigail pulled the covers over her face as the dogs bounded onto the bed, greeting her as though she had been gone for days.
“Go on. Get down to the foot.”
The two beagles, Mo and Molly, complied, but not Wally. A sizable shepherd mix with floppy ears, he staked his claim to Jackie's space, even dropping his head on her pillow. Sweet Pea, a black and white puffball of questionable breeding, waited quivering by the bed for Jackie to lift her.
“Come on, Sweet Pea. You're the only one that doesn't hog the bed.” She placed her in her favorite spot between her pillow and the nightstand. “Wally, down.”
The mutt's only response was a grunt.
“I get to sleep next to Abigail,” she said sharply, pointing to the rug.
Reluctantly, the dog rose and jumped off the bed, taking up his position on the rug beside her. When Jackie stretched out into her spot, she draped an arm off the bed to scratch his belly until he rolled onto his side.
With the dogs finally settled, the cat parade began. Three felines slinked into the bedroom to take up their watch for the night. Tao, tan and black with Burmese features, perched atop the desk on Abigail's side, ready to pounce should a toe move beneath the blanket. Mango, a big orange tabby, settled at Abigail's feet opposite the beagles, while Clementine, a one-eyed Persian with long white hair, curled up near Abigail's head, resting her paws on the pillow.
“Happy birthday, Abigail. I love you.”
“I love you too, Jackie.”
“Sleep well. You too, Mo … and Molly … and Wally … and Sweet Pea … and Tao … and Clementine … and Mango.”
“And John Boy … and Mary Ellen …”
Abigail stretched out to silence the alarm. Five-thirty came too early most days, thanks to the nocturnal escapades of the animals that lined their bed. She had awakened last night no fewer than a half dozen times to push the beagles over toward Jackie's side, and once to pry Tao's claws from her foot. As always, Jackie slept through the commotion, impervious to the nightly critter shuffling.
“Out.” That was the magic word for all seven animals. For the dogs, it meant their release into the fenced-in back yard. For the cats, it meant getting rid of the dogs long enough to eat in peace.
Abigail stumbled to the back door and opened it, coaxing the timid Sweet Pea to follow the others outside into the cold morning air. Then she continued to the kitchen, where the three felines began singing for their breakfast. She collected their bowls from the counter, shaking her head. “I'm going to start feeding Jackie on the floor with the rest of you. Maybe then she'll take a hint.”
She filled their bowls and set them in three corners of the kitchen floor. Next was her own bowl, from which she plucked a stray cat hair before pouring it full of cereal. She leaned against the counter and ate as the coffee ran through the automatic drip.
Mango finished breakfast first and twined through her legs to brush his coat.
“You do that just to irritate me, don't you, furball? You know I don't like cats.” Despite her words, she set her cereal bowl on the counter and stooped to scratch under his chin. He twisted his head all around to satisfy his itch. “Especially cats that pin me to the bed so I can't move. If I liked you, you probably wouldn't do that.”
Mango followed her into the small bathroom and waited patiently for her to finish her shower so he could lick the tub from top to bottom. His morning routine complete, he then climbed to the highest part of the couch and settled in his favorite spot, a cat-shaped indentation lined with layers of his orange fur.
Abigail blew dry her short, curly black hair and tiptoed back into the bedroom to get dressed. It was hard sometimes not to be irrationally jealous of Jackie, who slept each day until seven. By that time, Abigail would be sewing labels in T-shirts down at the textile plant. It was a job she had held for six years, ever since high school graduation. One of these days—if she ever got through the program at Sumter Community College —she wanted to work in a radiology clinic. The career counselor made it sound like a job she'd really like, and the money was twice what she made at the plant.
“Hey, sweetie.” She sat on the edge of the bed and pulled back Jackie's long blond hair so she could nuzzle her ear. “I gotta go.”
“Where's my kiss?” Jackie turned slightly and presented her puckered lips.
Abigail delivered smooches to both the lips and forehead. “The dogs are out. You want me to let Sweet Pea back in?” The smallest dog seemed to crave more individual attention, but was too shy to assert herself.
“Yeah,” Jackie mumbled as she burrowed back into the blankets.
Abigail grabbed her hooded sweatshirt and pulled it over her head. “I'll call you later. I have to pick up AJ this afternoon. You want to meet us for dinner?” It wasn't necessary to spell out the details— Leon 's, where Abigail's mother worked, was the only place they ever went when they ate out.
As expected, the little dog was waiting for her rescuer on the top step, shivering against the cold February frost. Abigail scooped her up with one hand before the others could rush the door and sent her down the hall toward the bedroom, where she would whimper until Jackie helped her back into bed.
Abigail's car, a nine-year-old faded red Ford Escort with over a hundred and forty thousand miles, was parked behind Jackie's equally ancient black Chevy Silverado pickup. The Escort hated mornings like this, but its run of late had been good—it had started every day this week.
Click … rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.
“Damn it!” She got out and slammed the door.
The dogs gathered at the fence on the side yard so they could observe the commotion. As she stomped toward the house, they began to bark.
“Shush!” They had no close neighbors on either side, but Abigail wasn't in the mood to hear their ruckus. All she wanted was to get to work on time. Howard docked her a whole half hour when she was ten minutes late.
“Jackie?” she shouted from the kitchen. “Jackie, I need another jump.” She reached the bedroom, where Sweet Pea was curled up beside the still-slumbering figure. “Jackie, I need you to get up and give me a jump.”
The long form under the blanket shifted and groaned.
“Please, honey. I'm going to be late.” She pulled back the covers, a cruel but effective technique for waking her naked lover.
“I'm up, I'm up.” Jackie reached for her jeans and pulled them on, not bothering with her cotton thong.
“Here,” Abigail said, handing her a long-sleeved T-shirt. “It's cold out. You'll need your jacket too.”
Jackie shoved her feet into her sneakers and hurriedly tied the laces. “We'll have to push your car back so I can turn around.”
“I know. You'd think we'd be smart enough by this time to back the truck in.”
“You mean I would be smart enough.”
Abigail shrugged. “Yeah, I guess that's what I mean.” She returned to the kitchen, where she waited while Jackie went to the bathroom. “Come on, Jackie!”
“I'm coming!” she said, still zipping her pants as she finally headed for the door. “I can't believe you'd begrudge me a simple pee,” she said, her voice showing obvious irritation at Abigail's impatience.
“I could do this by myself if you had just backed into the carport.”
“I heard you the first time.”
Abigail got back in her car, now adding her guilt to all of the other annoyances of the morning. It wasn't Jackie's fault her car wouldn't start. It was the fact that new batteries cost eighty bucks, money they didn't have lying around. They had a savings account of almost eight thousand dollars—started three years ago as their down payment on a house—but had made a pact not to touch it, even for emergencies.
Jackie supplied the push as Abigail steered the car back in neutral. When they were far enough, Abigail released her hood and got out again to wait. Jackie was already in her truck, backing out and turning in the yard so her battery would reach that of the Escort.
“I'm sorry I snapped at you,” Abigail said as they attached the jumper cables.
Jackie shot her an undeserved grin. “It's okay. I know how grumpy you are in the morning.”
“Especially cold mornings.”
“Maybe I can run get you a new battery this weekend. Today's payday, you know.”
“You're good to me, sweetie.”
“I have to be. Nobody else would put up with my zoo.”
There was probably a lot of truth to that statement, Abigail thought. Jackie Miller was a lot of things—sweet, generous, incredibly sexy—but her penchant for collecting pets was sometimes a test of their devotion.
“Okay, give it a crank.”
Abigail got in and started her car on the first try. She revved the engine as Jackie disconnected the cables. With her door still open, she leaned out. “Thanks, baby. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“Sorry I had to get you up.”
“It's okay. The dogs will be happy.”
“See you at dinner.” She closed the door and backed out, waving one last time before she headed off to work.
“You sure are a pretty one, Danny Boy.” Jackie brushed the Irish setter's silky red coat until it shone. She made it her personal mission to present each animal at the shelter in its best possible light. She bathed them, brushed them, and from the moment they arrived, sweet-talked and played with them to improve their dispositions. She felt a personal triumph each time one of her charges found a new home.
But sometimes, nothing she did was enough. The too-scruffy hounds and the skinny cats with attitude were hard to place, but Jackie had learned to console herself with knowing their last days were good ones. These animals would leave the earth looking their best, and all of them would know a loving, human touch.
But that wasn't going to be Danny Boy's fate if Jackie had anything to say about it. “I bet somebody special is looking for you, worrying about where their baby is.” The setter had been at the Sumter County Animal Shelter for eleven days.
“I imagine you're right, Jackie. He's too fine a dog to be a stray.” Oscar Shaw was the shelter's director, and Jackie's boss. He also was sweet on Abigail's mother, Raynelle, and like Jackie and Abigail, a regular at Leon 's.
“I can't figure out why nobody's called or come by looking for him. You'd have to miss a dog like this.” She continued the brushing and the setter relaxed on the large stainless steel table. “I still can't get over how much he looks like my Danny.”
“How old were you when you lost that dog?”
“Thirteen. You should have seen him, Oscar. Jumped right between me and that rattlesnake.” Even after twenty years, the memory of her dog's heroic sacrifice still made her sad. “Saved my life, Mama said.”
“How old do you think this one is?”
“Four or five, maybe. His teeth are pretty clean.”
“It'd be a shame if—”
“That's not going to happen to Danny Boy. I'll betcha somebody comes tomorrow and takes this baby home.” The setter had only three more days at the shelter before his time was up, but there was no way Jackie would let this dog be put down. “And if they don't …”
“Abigail will have your hide if you show up with another one. And then she'll come down here and started whipping on me. That's what she said.”
Jackie laughed. “I know what she said. I'll just have to convince her that Danny Boy here is a keeper.”
“Maybe you ought to let Hank have those two beagles he's been after.”
“Not till he builds a fence. He can't just keep letting his dogs run back and forth across that road. Dogs aren't like groceries that you use up and go get more.”
“I hear you. I keep worrying it'll be one of his kids next time.”
“At least his three-year-old has more sense than a dog when it comes to cars. I'm not about to let him have Mo and Molly till he learns how to take care of them.”
“If everybody learned how to take care of their animals, we'd be out of a job.”
“That would be just fine with me, but we both know it'll never happen.”
Danny Boy's amber eyes followed her as she retrieved his food and water bowls from the pen.
From this central area, Jackie and Oscar had access to all the dogs through small doors at the back of their pens. The room held two large sinks and a tiled shower area for bathing the animals; food bins containing various feline and canine diets; a locked drug cabinet; and the stainless steel table, which they used for grooming, examinations, and the shots of sodium pentobarbital that would ease the animals' final passage should their time at the shelter run out. The front of each pen opened onto a broad hallway where prospective owners could get a good look at pets available for adoption.
“I wish we just had enough room to keep all of these guys until they found a home.”
“The county's not about to build onto this place, though. Roy Lee said we ought to be happy they didn't just close us down.” Roy Lee Turnbuckle was head of the county commission.
“That's because Roy Lee's an asshole.” She scrubbed out the bowls in one sink and set them aside to drain.
Oscar chuckled. “You got that right. If Roy Lee had his way, he'd declare open season on stray dogs and cats.” He opened one of the smaller crates, allowing a cat to run free in the room, impervious to the Irish setter.
“And old people too, probably. Beth Hester says he cuts their budget at the nursing home every time it comes up at the commission meetings.”
“Raynelle heard him talking with his cronies over at the restaurant about the county buying up land so they can build a public golf course. They must be getting tired of driving all the way to Holden County every weekend to play.”
“Yeah, I heard that too. Vernon Ashby said Roy Lee came sniffing around to see if he was ready to sell the farm.”
“You still got your eye on the Ashby farm?”
“You bet. Another couple of years and we might just have enough to make a down payment. Vernon said he'd be ready to sell by then.”
“That's a pretty big farm, Jackie. I bet he's got a hundred acres.”
“A hundred and sixteen,” she corrected. “But if we boarded a few horses and leased some of the pasture, maybe we could swing it. And we'd have enough room to build a no-kill shelter away from the highway, like we talked about.”
“Like you talked about. I still don't get how they work. Seems to me you just keep collecting animals.”
“You do, but when they come in, they get spayed and neutered first thing. That ends the breeding cycle once and for all. Then they get all their shots so they won't be carrying diseases and stuff.”
“But we already do that for the ones that get adopted.”
“I know, but if we do it first, they're ready to go. Audie said we could take them to fairs or to community centers … people wouldn't have to wait three days like they do now. But no-kill means we'd have to work harder to find homes for these guys. We'd need more people like her to go out and give talks in the community and the schools about what it means to be a responsible pet owner, and all the benefits of having a pet. Audie can't do it all by herself.”
Oscar nodded. “We can barely keep up with all we've got to do as it is.”
“We'd have to hire a couple more people … maybe somebody with public speaking experience, or somebody who knew how to raise money.” Jackie's voice escalated in excitement as she talked about her dreams. “And wouldn't it be nice to have a wide-open space where the dogs could get out and run for a change?”
“All of that sounds good, but I still think we'd just be getting more and more strays with nowhere to go.”
“We have to educate people, Oscar. God left us in charge of all the animals of the earth, and one of these days, we're going to be judged on how we've treated them. How much blood's going to be on our hands for all the dogs and cats we've put to sleep?”
“But what we do is more humane than letting them starve or get hit by cars.”
“I know, but how much nicer would it be to find these animals a home where they could make people's lives better too? I know I'd sleep easier at night.”
Oscar usually turned quiet whenever she got up on her no-kill soapbox. She never meant to make him feel guilty for what they had to do, but her rants about their lack of space and resources usually had that effect.
“You know how I am about this, Oscar. I hate it every time we have to put one of them down, but I know it's what we have to do. I just want to change it is all.”
“I hope one day you will, Jackie.”
“And I'm going to start with Danny Boy here.” She filled the setter's bowls and he jumped off the table to follow her across the room. “I'll talk with Abigail about him tonight. Once I tell her how he reminds me of my Danny, she'll understand why I have to save him.”
“Okay, but you be sure to tell her that I tried to talk you out of it.”
Jackie laughed. “I will.”
“What about that little black and white dog? I bet you could find somebody that would take her.”
“She doesn't like kids. They're too rowdy.” She led the shiny setter back into his pen and closed the gate. “She needs a woman, somebody with a sweet voice and a soft lap.”
Oscar chuckled. “I could go for that myself.”
“You and me both, Oscar.”
“Okay, AJ, cross your fingers,” Abigail said as she put the key into the ignition.
Her nephew knew the drill. “I'm crossing my fingers and my arms and my legs and my eyes.”
“Don't cross your eyes. They could get stuck like that.” Abigail had never known anyone whose eyes had actually gotten stuck, but she had heard that admonition all her life and felt obliged to pass it on.
“But it makes us luckier.”
The engine cranked on the first try.
She wasn't about to argue. “How was school today?”
“Fine. Can I have pancakes for supper?”
“That depends. Did you get any gold stars?” The seven-year-old was doing better this year as he repeated first grade.
“I got a red star in my reading group.”
“A red star is good, isn't it?”
“It's not as good as a gold star, but it's better than a blue star.”
“That's great, AJ! You get to have pancakes, then.”
The youngster, whose red, kinky hair and light brown, freckled skin made his racially-mixed heritage obvious to most, strained against his seatbelt to peer over the dashboard as they pulled into the restaurant's parking lot. “I don't see Jackie's truck.”
“She'll be here. She probably had to work a little late because tomorrow's Saturday and she wants all the dogs and cats to look good when people come to the shelter.”
“I wish Mama would let me have a dog.”
“One of these days, maybe. Your mama wants to get a bigger house first.”
“But our house is bigger than your house and you have four dogs. And cats too.”
“Believe me, I know. And our house isn't big enough either.”
The pair got out of the car and walked inside, where Abigail spotted one empty booth at the far end of the restaurant. “Hurry and grab that booth, AJ.” She waved toward her mother as they took their seats.
“But it's Wanda's.” A regular at Leon's, AJ knew the layout and shift schedule by heart. Wanda had all the booths by the window. Raynelle, his grandmother, was responsible for the long row of tables and the handful of counter stools.
“There aren't enough stools at the counter, and all of Grandma's tables are full.” She steered him toward the open booth. “Besides, you like Wanda, right?”
AJ nodded and smiled. Wanda usually brought him a cookie if he ate all his dinner.
Wanda came to their table with three water glasses as soon as they sat down. “Jackie called and said she'd be here by six and for you guys to go ahead and order.”
“Thanks. AJ got a red star in reading and he wants pancakes.”
“Way to go, AJ!” The waitress held up her palm for a slap. “Jackie ordered a cheeseburger and fries already. What do you want, Abigail?”
Jackie and AJ were creatures of habit, but Abigail always studied the menu as if seeing it for the first time—despite the fact that she'd been coming to this restaurant for fifteen years. “How's the chicken stew?”
Wanda scrunched her nose and shook her head, careful not to let Leon , the restaurant's owner and cook, see her disparage the nightly special.
“The meat loaf?”
Wanda's expression remained unchanged.
“Cheeseburger and fries?”
“An excellent choice. AJ, you want bacon or sausage with them pancakes?”
“Sausage … no, bacon … no, sausage.”
“How about I just bring you one of each?” She pulled a few crayons out of her apron and dropped them onto his placemat. “Two sweet teas and a milk, right?”
“That's right. Thanks, Wanda.” Abigail looked up to see her mother charging from the kitchen with a loaded tray. Friday was payday for a lot of people in Sumter County , including Abigail and Jackie, and that made it the restaurant's busiest day. “I think I see a black pickup rolling in.”
AJ whipped around to see Jackie park near the door and get out of her truck. But it was several minutes before she made it to their table, as she stopped and spoke with people along the way.
“I swear, you know everybody in town, Jackie.” Abigail scooted over to make room on the bench.
“Some a little better than others.” Beneath the table, she mischievously snaked a hand toward Abigail's crotch, but Abigail grabbed it just in time. “Hey, AJ!”
“Hey, Jackie. I got a red star in reading and I get pancakes.”
“Good for you!” Like Wanda, she held up a palm for the boy to slap.
“Did you have to work late?” Abigail asked.
“No, I got dog poop all over my jeans and had to go home and change.”
“Pew!” AJ pinched his nose.
“And I let the dogs out and fed the cats and cleaned out the litter box.”
“And washed your hands?” Abigail added hopefully.
“And washed my hands.” Jackie picked up a crayon and flipped her placemat over to the seek-a-word puzzle on the back. “If you get a chance tomorrow, you should come down to the shelter and have a look at that Irish setter I told you about. I can't get over how much he looks like Danny.”
“Don't even think about it, Jackie. You're not bringing home another dog.”
“Nah, I won't have to bring Danny Boy home. He's beautiful. Somebody's bound to take him home tomorrow. He's really sweet and he likes the cats.”
“Cut it out! I know when you're working me. It always starts like this, all innocent and conversational. The next thing I know, you're standing in the door with another one.”
Jackie sighed. “Danny Boy's got a home somewhere. He must be lost or something.”
“Maybe they'll find him tomorrow. Did you get his picture in the paper?”
“Not this week. They said they didn't have a photographer to send out, so they ran last week's picture again.”
“That little terrier?”
“Yeah. We”—she looked at AJ, who was engrossed in the picture he was coloring—“you know … last Monday.”
“Good thing nobody showed up to claim him.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Did you like my picture?” AJ asked suddenly.
Jackie and Abigail exchanged quizzical looks.
“Oh, the one for Abigail's birthday! We put it up on our refrigerator. It looks good with the ones from Christmas.”
“It was very nice of you to remember my birthday,” Abigail said.
“Mama reminded me,” he explained. “Did Jackie get you a present?”
The women exchanged embarrassed looks.
“Uh, yes … she did. She got me a … a lamp.”
“What kind of lamp?”
“Kind of like a flashlight,” Jackie answered hurriedly. “So did you get bacon or sausage with your pancakes?”
“Wanda said she was going to bring me one of each.”
Raynelle rushed over with a bus pan to clear the table next to them. She looked much older than her forty-four years, her lean face lined by a lifetime of hard work and doing without. Her left eye was fixed and unseeing, a lifelong reminder of what could happen if you married the wrong man. “Hey, sweetie pie. I heard you got a red star.”
“That's good. Your mama will be proud of you, just like I am.” Raynelle hastily dumped the dirty plates and glasses into the pan. “I'll come back and talk to ya'll when I get a minute.”
“Here comes Wanda with your pancakes,” Jackie said. “Can I have two of them?”
“There's only three!”
“Can I have one?”
“ Jack-ie ,” she mocked. “You sound just like Abigail did last night.” A swift kick to her ankle reminded her they had changed that subject already. “Ouch!”
“Here's your dinner,” Wanda said, setting the plates on the table. “If you need anything else, get up and get it yourself. I got all I can handle.”
AJ doused his stack of pancakes with syrup in the same manner as Jackie poured ketchup on her fries. Abigail was more methodical, carefully cutting her cheeseburger in quarters to make it more manageable and gently dabbing mustard with the tip of her knife.
As they prepared to eat, two men in their early twenties took the empty table next to them. From the corner of her eye, Jackie caught one of them pointing to AJ and laughing.
“Something funny?” She glared across the aisle at the one who was pointing.
“Nope,” he answered, but grinned back at his friend and mumbled something they couldn't quite hear.
“Ignore them, Jackie,” Abigail said.
“Assholes,” Jackie muttered.
AJ's eyes got big.
“And watch your mouth or Rosemary'll wash it out with bleach.”
“Sorry. How are those pancakes, AJ?”
“That good, huh?”
He nodded and smiled just as the two men next to them burst out laughing.
Jackie slammed her fist on the table.
“Forget it, Jackie.”
“No!” She stood up and took two strides toward the neighboring table. “People ought to be able to go out to eat without getting harassed by a couple of idiots.”
“We ain't harassing nobody … just wondering where that boy got his kinky red hair.”
“He got the red part from his mama and the kinky part from his daddy. Is that what you wanted to know?” She took another step toward their table. “You might have heard about his daddy—Antoine Pearson … Sergeant Antoine Pearson. There's a plaque down at the courthouse with his name on it. 'Course, you probably can't read, can you?”
She could see the tips of the young man's ears turning red.
“Jackie, come sit down,” Abigail begged again. Everyone around them had stopped eating to listen to the exchange.
“If you could, you'd know that his daddy was a hero, and that he died last year over in Iraq saving two people in his unit. Either one of you ever do something like that?” She looked from one to the other and back. “I didn't think so. It doesn't take much courage to go around showing off that stupid rebel flag on your hat like you're better than somebody else. You're no better than anybody … in fact, jerks like you are about the lowest there is.”
She spun around and returned to her table as the other diners continued to gawk. The two young men, clearly embarrassed by the dressing-down, stared at the floor for a minute before turning back to their table. Neither realized that Raynelle was standing beside them waiting to take their order.
“Can I get you boys something to eat? Or should I go over there and see if my grandson wants another glass of milk?”
“I … we just … I'm sorry, Raynelle,” the troublemaker said, removing the offensive cap and dropping it in the chair next to him. He looked back over at the boy who had prompted his earlier laughter. “I didn't know he was your grandson.”
She took his menu and smacked him on the head. “It shouldn't matter whose grandson he is. You know better than to act like that. You just be glad it was Jackie over there and not AJ's mama. If Rosemary had heard that, I'd be mopping your guts off the floor by now.”
“Sorry.” He directed his apology this time to AJ, Jackie, and Abigail.
“Now how about I fix you boys an iced tea to go and you come back another day?”
They nodded and stood, hanging their heads as they walked between the tables to the cash register near the door.
“What's so funny about my hair?” AJ asked, rubbing his head.
“Nothing, except it's got pancake syrup in it now, silly,” Abigail answered, reaching over to wipe a glob of the sticky goo from his crown. “Come on, let's go wash it out.”
Jackie stood up to let her out and sat back down just as Raynelle dropped into the booth across from her.
“That was good, you standing up for Antoine like that.”
“I can't stand those redneck assholes.”
“They're never going to change, Jackie. They straighten up when you box their ears, but it runs too deep to last very long.”
Jackie chuckled. “You're pretty good at that ear-boxing, Raynelle. I'm just glad it wasn't mine for a change.”
“You haven't done anything stupid lately, at least not anything I've heard about.”
“Then you better wish me luck on the Irish setter we've got down at the shelter. His time's up on Monday and I'm not about to let him go down.”
Raynelle shook her head. “What are you going to do with another dog, Jackie? Abigail's gonna walk right out that door.”
“No, she won't. But she'll be madder than a shaved cat for a while, so you better get used to seeing my face at the counter.”
“You've got a good heart, Jackie. But Abigail's right. You two are going to have to start being smart about your money, or you're gonna wind up just like me—old and wore out, with nothing but a rundown double-wide to show for it.” She nodded her head in the direction of the bathroom to indicate the return of Abigail and AJ. “I want better than that for my girls—and that means you too.”
Jackie nodded sheepishly. “I know. We'll get there, Raynelle.”
“I've got to get back to work,” Raynelle announced as she stood, clearing the way for AJ to slide back into the booth. As she walked away, she turned and said one more time, “I'm proud of you, AJ.”
“What did you and Mama talk about?”
Jackie shrugged, unable to hide her now-sullen mood, but not yet ready to bring up the subject of Danny Boy again. “Rednecks.”
“You ready to go?”
“Sure.” Jackie turned over the check and looked at the total. Then she pulled a twenty from her wallet and set both under the saltshaker.
“Don't you want change? That's a four-dollar tip,” Abigail whispered.
“It's for Wanda. She's working hard. She deserves it.”
“You work hard too, Jackie. You can't just go giving your money away like that.” Abigail dug two-fifty in change from the bottom of her purse and dropped it on the table. “Every little bit helps,” she added, handing the twenty and the check to Jackie as they walked toward the cash register.
“I need to stop off at the Kwik-Mart for some milk. Do we need anything else?”
Abigail shook her head. “No, but don't buy a big one. I'll go to the grocery tomorrow, and I can get a whole gallon for what the Kwik-Mart gets for a quart.”
“I'll be home by seven.”
“I know,” Abigail said. Jackie hardly ever missed Jeopardy!
Jackie pulled up to the gas pump at the Kwik-Mart, waving at the clerk inside as she got out of the truck. As she filled her tank, she pondered Abigail's observation about convenience store prices. What she didn't understand was why gas was cheaper here than over at the service station, but everything else was more expensive. And did it make sense to drive all over town to get the best price if you always ended up here putting the money you saved into your gas tank?
When the pump stopped, she hung up the nozzle and headed inside. “Hey, Robin.”
“Hey, Jackie.” The clerk was watching three teenagers who were clustered in the comic book section. “Ya'll are supposed to buy them books before you read 'em. Now pick one and bring it over here or get on out.”
Jackie grabbed a quart of milk from the cooler and headed back toward the counter, where the boys were pooling their change for a single book. “You short?”
One of the boys nodded grimly. “About fifty cents.”
Jackie looked at the cover price. “ Two twenty-five ! I can't believe these things cost that much. I remember when they weren't even a buck apiece.” She dug into her pocket for some change. “Here you go.”
“No problem. Just do something nice for somebody and we'll be even.”
The boys grinned and headed out.
“Is that all you need, Jackie?” Robin took the milk carton and scanned it with her barcode reader.
“Yeah, I guess.” Her eye caught the lottery machine. “What's the Powerball up to this week?”
“Somebody won it so it's back to ten million.”
“I could use ten million.”
“Couldn't we all? That's a dollar ninety.”
Jackie pulled out three wadded singles from her front pocket. “Here's another buck. Might as well throw in a ticket.” Just like that, she had squandered the dollar and a half Abigail had taken out of Wanda's tip.
“Here you go. Good luck.”
“Thanks.” Jackie shoved the ticket into her wallet and headed home. If she got there before Abigail, she could take the dogs out and straighten up the house a little. That might help her case if Danny Boy didn't find a home tomorrow.
Rosemary trudged into the small living room of her tidy three-bedroom house and plopped down on the sofa, unconsciously assuming the same slouch as Abigail. The two were unmistakably sisters and, though a year apart, almost identical except for Rosemary's bright red hair. “I hate ‘girls night out,' Abigail. I don't know why I go. All they want to do is get picked up.”
“Ah, the mating ritual. If it's any consolation, it's worse with lesbians because everybody in the room has been with everybody else.”
“That would suck.”
“Did you at least have fun at dinner?” Abigail had jumped at her older sister's request to keep her nephew while she went out with some girls from work. Rosemary had hardly socialized at all since Antoine died, and it was nice to see her do something with her friends again.
“It was all right. Marlene's funny as hell anyway, and watching her drink three glasses of wine just about makes it all worthwhile.” Rosemary leaned back and rubbed her eyes. “I just wish I felt more like … I don't know … I don't care about meeting anybody right now.”
“It's only been what? A year and a half? That's not all that long, Rosie.”
“It seems like a lifetime to me,” she said sadly.
“I know. But we're all here for you, whatever you need.”
She chuckled. “AJ told me Jackie got up and yelled at some assholes at the restaurant.”
“Did he actually use the word assholes?”
“Sorry about that.”
“They were just a couple of rednecks.”
“AJ said she told them about Antoine.”
“Yeah, she pinned their ears back pretty good. Then Mama came over and smacked them with a menu. They apologized and left.”
“It never stops, does it?” Rosemary sighed and threw one of the couch pillows across the room.
Abigail didn't have any words of comfort for what was obviously a fact of life—at least a fact of Rosemary and AJ's life. Most people in Sumter, or anywhere else in Tennessee , couldn't accept a white woman marrying a black man, and they had nothing but pity and contempt for a child of mixed race. It didn't matter what sort of person Antoine was, that he had loved his family dearly, or that he gave his life for his country.
“Some days I feel like just picking up and moving back to California , where people won't stare at AJ like he's got some sort of disease.”
“You can't take AJ away again unless you have room for all of us to come live with you.”
Rosemary laughed and got up to retrieve the pillow, fluffed it, and placed it neatly on the couch. “You and Jackie would like San Diego . People are open and accepting.”
“It's not all that bad for us here. All the people we care about are okay with who we are, and we don't give a shit about the ones who aren't. It isn't anybody else's business.”
“I don't give a shit about those people either, Abigail. But it's different with a little kid. I can't stand to see how they look at him and turn up their noses.”
“What would you do if you could do anything?” She and her sister had played this game since they were little girls.
“I'd buy a house over in Burnsville and put AJ in the Christian Academy .” The quickness with which she delivered her answer told Abigail that she had been thinking about it for quite some time.
“That sounds like a workable dream.” For both of them, real dreams had to be within reach, things they could make happen. All the others were silly and a waste of time. “What would it take for you to do that?”
Rosemary shook her head. “I don't want to move to a dump, and that's all I'd get in Burnsville if I sold this place. And I'd need a better job at the bank to pay his tuition.”
“Don't you still have some money from the government?”
“That's for AJ's college. I'm not going to touch it.”
“Yeah, that's how we are about our savings. I've put about a thousand dollars in there in the last three years.”
“That's the money for your house, right?”
Abigail nodded. “But at the rate we're going, it'll be an old folks' home.”
“So what would you do?”
“If I could do anything?”
“I'd quit work and go to school full-time so I could get a job in radiology.”
“What's stopping you?”
“You're kidding, right? About a thousand dollars a month in bills coming out of twelve hundred in take-home pay.”
“But you and Jackie pool your money, don't you?”
“Yeah, but she has her truck payment—”
“On that old bucket of bolts?”
“It's new to Jackie. She's only had it a year and she had to finance it for three. And in case you forgot, we have a whole house full of dogs and cats that cost more to feed than we do, and Jackie brings home less than I do.”
“You need to get rid of those animals.”
“Tell me about it. I'm going to talk with Jackie this weekend and see how she feels about us tightening our belt for a couple of years, maybe taking on a part-time job. It would help a lot if we could get rid of some of the zoo.”
“Look, Abigail … you know I like Jackie. But if you guys are going to stay together, you're going to have to put your foot down about those dogs and cats or you two aren't ever going to have anything but a houseful of cats and dogs. That's no way to live.”
“I know, I know, I know. I just need to talk to her about it is all.” Abigail stood up and reached for her coat. “We had a good time with AJ. You call me anytime you want to do something and I'll pick him up. And if I can't, Jackie will.”
“Thanks, kiddo. Good luck talking with Jackie.”
Jackie worked at the shelter alone on Saturdays, tending animals, cleaning cages, and greeting those who came in looking for a new pet. All in all, it had been a pretty good day, though the icy rain had cut the usual number of visitors in half. Two small dogs, a rat terrier and a poodle mix, were spoken for, along with six of the seven new kittens.
But it hadn't been a good day for Danny Boy. Mindful of his impending deadline, Jackie had pushed him out there to all four of the families that had come by hoping to adopt a new dog. Sure, he was a beautiful animal, everyone had agreed. But he was too large for an apartment, too old for the kids who were looking for a puppy, too long-haired for the woman with the nice house …
In the pit of her stomach, Jackie was starting to dread what she knew was going to be a tough sell at home. It was her own fault—she would admit that. She hadn't followed through as promised with finding homes for Sweet Pea, the beagles, or any of the cats. It wasn't that she hadn't looked, or even that she wanted to keep the animals for herself. It was that she had gotten to know each one, and now she was determined to find not just a home, but the perfect home. And she had already begun to feel felt that way about Danny Boy.
Abigail heaved a sigh of relief the moment she spotted Jackie's truck pulling into the front yard so she wouldn't block the gas truck in the driveway. They met at the kitchen door.
“Boy, am I glad to see you. I didn't have enough to pay for this.”
“What's up? What's the gas company doing here?”
“I tried to call you at the shelter, but you'd left already. We're empty. The house started getting cold this afternoon and I played around with the thermostat. Then I went to heat up some water and the stove wouldn't light.”
“How can we be empty already? We just filled up a couple of months ago.”
“That's what I thought too, but they said it was October the last time they were out here. I guess we just lost track.”
“How much are we getting?
“A full tank.”
“But it's almost March. It won't be cold that much longer,” Jackie argued.
“I know. But they won't give us a partial tank. It's all or nothing.” She grabbed her checkbook and studied the ledger. “He said it would be about three hundred dollars. Can you cover half?”
Jackie sighed. “I guess. But there goes your new battery.”
“It's more than just my battery. It's grocery money for the next two weeks,” Abigail snarled, not bothering to hiding her frustration.
“It's okay, babe. I happen to like peanut butter.”
Abigail pulled away from Jackie's outstretched arm. She was in no mood to be comforted. “I get so tired of this. Every time we take one step forward, we get knocked two steps back. We never have anything left over.”
“We're getting there. We've got … what? … eight thousand in the bank.”
“Yeah, exactly what we had three months ago, because neither of us has had an extra nickel to add to it since then.” She bit her tongue to keep from pointing out that Jackie had contributed nothing beyond the seven thousand from when her mother died. She had no savings plan at all.
“We'll get by, Abigail. We always do.” Jackie fished her checkbook from the kitchen drawer. “Besides, once we win the Powerball, we'll have an extra ten million dollars.”
“Please don't tell me you're throwing your money away on lotto tickets.”
“Just one. I got it last night when I stopped for the milk.”
“Jackie! We're never going to get out of this hole if you keep flushing money down the toilet. That lottery's a scam. It's like a tax on poor people.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Because the only people that ever play are the ones who can't afford it. They tell you it's for education, but you don't see any millionaires contributing their share.”
“Makes sense to me. They don't need the money as much as poor people,” Jackie answered. “The way I look at it, somebody has to win. It might as well be us.”
“Yeah, that's what the other twenty million people say too.”
“Well, you never know.” Jackie looked over Abigail's shoulder into the back yard. “Where are the dogs?”
“In the bedroom. I couldn't deal with them right now with this guy here.”
Jackie strode down the hallway and opened the door, freeing the frenzied pack, which set off a cacophony of barking from one end of the small house to the other.
“Jackie! I said I didn't want to deal with them. Couldn't you just leave them in there?”
“I'll let them out in the yard.”
“You can't. He's back there filling the tank.” Abigail could feel her anger rising, and the pressures of the moment were too much for her to hold it in check. “I used to think you didn't listen when I told you something bothered me, but now it's like you listen but you don't even care what I think.”
“Of course I care. I just don't see what the big deal is.”
“That's the point, Jackie. You never do. As long as everything is just the way you—” Abigail suddenly noticed the gas man standing at the open back door.
“Excuse me,” he said meekly, clearly embarrassed at being witness to their argument. He held out a bill. “I topped it off. It comes to three-twelve.”
Abigail quickly scribbled her check. “One-fifty-six, Jackie.”
“I can do math,” she grumbled, picking up the pen as soon as Abigail put it down. She ripped out the check when she finished and stormed past the serviceman into the backyard with all the dogs in pursuit.
Abigail paid the man and showed him to the door. No sooner did he leave than Mango appeared from under the couch and began weaving through her legs. “You better watch out, furball. I'm on the warpath and I'm not taking any prisoners.”
She folded her arms and leaned over the sink to look out into the backyard, where Jackie was throwing a tennis ball for Wally to chase, a game the mutt could play endlessly. Even from this distance, Abigail could see the scowl on Jackie's face, an obvious remnant of their quarrel. It wasn't at all how she had hoped their weekend would go. They needed to be able to talk with arguing if they were going to make any real headway on solving their financial problems for the long haul, and she needed Jackie's support in a big way if she was going to cut her work hours and go back to school full-time.
What bothered her even more than that was the realization that this was their fourth spat in less than a week. And it almost always came back to one thing—money, or rather, their lack of money. It didn't seem right to Abigail that two people who loved each other like they did would quarrel so much. Their finances kept them on edge and made it hard to enjoy the simple things that had drawn them together, the long walks, the heartfelt talks into the night, even the beautiful lovemaking.
Out in the back yard, Jackie too was regretting her part in souring their weekend. Abigail had been in a rotten mood for weeks, it seemed, impatient and easily flustered. And on top of the usual dog problems—which were often at the center of their arguments—Abigail was accusing her of not caring about her feelings, and nothing could be further from the truth. Until she found out what was really underneath it all and made it right, things weren't looking good at all for Danny Boy.
Mindlessly, and for what seemed like the fiftieth time, she threw the slobbery tennis ball the length of the yard. Wally usually managed to snatch it from the air on the first bounce, and it was only a matter of seconds before he placed it at her feet for another toss.
Mo and Molly frolicked in the brown grass, acting every bit like the brother and sister they were, climbing over one another, teeth bared in playful growls. Sweet Pea darted from Jackie to the door and back, needing both motherly attention and a path to escape the bigger dogs. Each time she drew close to Jackie, Wally roared back with the ball, sending her scurrying to the step.
“Last time, Wally.” Jackie threw the ball high in the air and clapped as the mutt caught it on the fly. “'Atta boy!” Abruptly, she turned away, her signal that the game was done.
The dog barked in vain for another toss, but Jackie shushed him by merely holding up a finger. “No more.” Wally knew it was a hopeless cause when the finger went up and he quickly left her side to join the beagles, seemingly trying his best to act as though it was what he wanted to do anyway.
“Come here, Sweet Pea. You need a little loving, too.”
The little dog quickly ran over and Jackie stooped to scratch her ears. From the corner of her eye, she could see Abigail watching them from the window. “I screwed up, Sweet Pea. Abigail's mad at us, and I can't say as I blame her.”
The dog responded to the sad voice as if it were a scolding.
“It's not your fault, little girl. It's mine.” She looked up to the window as Abigail walked away. “I'm going to have to go back in there and make up. And it better be good, too … in case I have to come home Monday with a new big brother for you.”
Standing as tall as she could to gather her courage, Jackie started slowly through the back door, leaving all but Sweet Pea in the yard. In her first act of contrition, she hung her jacket on the hook behind the door. Abigail probably wouldn't notice it in its proper place, but she was sure notice it if it were slung over one of the kitchen chairs or balled up on the couch.
“Abigail?” She stopped in the bathroom to wash the tennis ball slime from her hands then followed Sweet Pea to the bedroom, where Abigail was spreading fresh yellow sheets. “Let me help.”
They made the bed in silence. Jackie searched Abigail's face for signs of anger, but found none. That gave her confidence to plow ahead, hoping her apology wouldn't simply set the argument in motion again.
“I'm really sorry, babe.”
They exchanged tentative smiles.
“I know the dogs are driving you nuts.”
“I'm already nuts, Jackie.” She gave a small laugh.
“And I'm nuts about you … and I do care when something bothers you.” She crawled on her knees across the bed and held out her arms. “Even if I do stupid things that make you think I don't.”
“I know you care.” Abigail met her halfway and allowed herself to be folded into Jackie's embrace. “It just hurt my feelings a little bit.”
“What if I kissed all your feelings and made them better?” Jackie started with the soft spot just beneath Abigail's ear, her on-off switch for heating things up. With her lips slightly parted, she made a gentle suction then released it to flick her tongue over the lobe, making sure that her breath blew hotly into Abigail's ear.
“My ear's … feeling better … already,” Abigail murmured.
“And what about your neck?” She ducked beneath Abigail's chin to nibble on her throat, made more accessible when Abigail let her head fall back. “Did its feeling get hurt too?”
“Some … but not a lot.”
Jackie grabbed the bottom of Abigail's long-sleeved T-shirt and tugged it upward over her head. “And these?” She slipped her fingertips beneath the lace trim of Abigail's camisole, gently touching her nipples, which were already growing stiff from the attention.
“Oh, those were hurt pretty bad.”
The camisole followed the T-shirt, giving Jackie access to soft, round breasts. “I'm so sorry,” she murmured kissing first one, then the other. “I'll do anything to make up for the pain I've caused you both.”
Abigail looked down as Jackie's tongue circled her eager nipple. “They're kind of pouting. It may take a while for them to feel better.”
“Whatever it takes.” Jackie leaned sideways, guiding Abigail to lie on her back, her face never leaving the valley between Abigail's breasts. “Can't have their feelings hurt.”
Abigail wrapped her arms around Jackie's shoulders and pulled her closer. “I have a bunch of places that hurt a little.”
“Don't worry, Abigail. I'm going to find them all.” She cupped a breast and brought it to her lips. With her free hand, she worked the button and zipper on Abigail's jeans. When she got them open, she squeezed her hand inside, quickly finding a wellspring of excitement. She coated her fingers with the slickness, which she then used to paint a line across Abigail's stomach to the neglected breast. “I love the way you smell,” she said, inhaling deeply to savor the scent.
“You get me so hot,” Abigail panted, her hips squirming already as she sought contact.
Jackie lapped up the moisture that ringed the nipple before following the trail back to its source. Now impatient to have it all at once, she sat up and pushed the jeans and panties lower until Abigail kicked them off and opened her legs in shameless invitation. Jackie quickly shed her own clothes and plowed head first into the throbbing flesh, her body curled so that her knees were next to Abigail's head.
“Is this helping your feelings?” she mumbled between laps.
“It's a little better … I'll be … ohhhh”—Jackie's stiffened tongue was teasing her clit—“I'll be all better if I come.”
“Oh, you're definitely going to come.” Jackie stopped her actions and reached into the drawer of the nightstand to retrieve a bright blue, V-shaped stimulator.
“Mmmmm … does this mean you're going to play too?”
If they got the angle just right, they could make love face to face, with Jackie inserting the smaller end of the dildo into herself as Abigail took the larger end. But she had something else in mind for today. “Unh-uh … this is just for you.”
“I've always said you spoiled me.”
Jackie made quick work of coating the flexible silicone toy with lubricant and bending it so that ends were closer together. “I just want to make sure we fix all those places that got their feelings hurt.”
Abigail's physical response to the preparations was instantaneous, and Jackie used a fingertip to spread the wetness that seeped from her core over her swollen lips and puckered anus. Then she gently inserted the smaller end bare millimeters past the tightly-rimmed orifice. “You like?”
She could see Abigail concentrate on calming her body, fighting the instinct to resist the probe. Younger than Jackie by six years and far less experienced when it came to sexual matters, it had taken her awhile to open up to experimentation with toys and new sensations. But over time, they had built the sort of trust that erased all the boundaries.
Jackie slid the larger end inside Abigail's vagina and began to slowly pump both ends of the probe in tandem. “These two parts should be feeling better soon.”
“Oh, they are.”
“Have I missed any places that got their feelings hurt?”
“I don't think I have any more places … and if I do, I'm not sure I care about them.”
“We mustn't leave anything neglected,” Jackie said, lowering her head one last time to swirl her tongue around the throbbing clit.
“Ohhhh …” Abigail's whole body shuddered. “Are you going to let me come now? 'Cause I really want to.” She rocked her hips up and down to match the rhythm of the toy.
Jackie answered by sucking the clit between her lips and grazing it gently with her teeth. That was all it took, and she nearly lost a handful of hair when the climax roared through Abigail like a pounding wave.
Her signal that the first one was finished —there was always another tucked away in there—was Abigail pulling on her leg. Jackie complied, swinging her knee over to straddle Abigail's face. Again, she went to work with her hands and mouth, running her tongue over the still-swollen lips and rocking the dildo up and down to stimulate first one orifice, then the other. It was all she could do to concentrate when Abigail zeroed in on her clit. She stopped her motions when her own climax began, but resumed at a fever-pitch as she glided down from her release.
From where she lay, now spent, Jackie could see the toy twitch as Abigail was racked with aftershocks. When they finally ceased, she eased the probes from their respective hollows and set the toy at the foot of the bed.
“Come up here and hold me,” Abigail whispered.
Jackie twisted around and lay alongside her, wrapping both an arm and a leg around her nude form. “Have we chased away all the things that hurt?”
“I love you.”
Jackie took notice of the serious tenor of her voice. “I love you too, Abigail—more than anything in my life. I'm really sorry I hurt your feelings.”
Abigail stretched up and kissed her nose. “I overreacted. I was just having a bad day. But I'll take the make-up sex any time.”
“Do you know”—Jackie propped up on her elbow so she could look Abigail in the eye—“how lucky I feel that I'm the one who gets to be with you like this? Meeting you was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“For me too.”
Again, they kissed, and Jackie relaxed inside with the knowledge that everything was once again okay in their world. She turned over and reached for her clothes. “Now could I interest you in a peanut butter sandwich?”
“Of all the places in this house you could sit, why does it have to be right here?”
Mango was in his usual position atop the couch, but his front paws rested on Abigail's shoulder as she worked through her biology assignment. It was the only science course required in her program, and she had a high B average.
“You know I don't like cats,” she continued, flipping through her lab notes to fill in the answers to the questions in her workbook. “Why can't you be more like Tao or Clementine?”
For the most part, the black Siamese shunned human contact, but could easily be enticed to play. His preferred perch was the top of the entertainment center, from where he had a perfect view of the whole house—and all of the dogs. Clementine usually curled up in one the kitchen chairs, tucked beneath the table and out of sight.
Mango took the admonition in stride, gently kneading Abigail's shoulder in response to her voice.
Suddenly, Molly bounded into the room with Mo in hot pursuit of the object she carried between her teeth. Instantly, Abigail recognized one of her sneakers. “Drop it, Molly!” She leaped off the couch, which Molly and Mo took to mean that the chase was on. The beagles circled the coffee table twice, scattering papers and tipping over a water glass.
“Jackie! Come get these dogs!” Her bellow startled Molly into releasing her prize, which by now was shredded at the toe.
Jackie walked through the living room to the kitchen and opened the back door. “Out!”
Mo and Molly took off, as did Wally, who had been sound asleep with Jackie in the bedroom.
“Sorry, babe.” Jackie grabbed a kitchen towel to mop up the water.
“Why did you let Molly get my shoe?”
“I didn't see her. I fell asleep.”
Abigail sighed and sank again to the couch, gathering her strewn papers into neat stacks again.
“Are you going to have to work all day?” Jackie asked, nodding her head toward the textbook.
“I need to finish writing up all the lab results in my workbook. We have to turn them in week after next.”
“That's plenty of time. You ought to take a break and relax. Sunday's almost gone and before you know it, we're back in the grind and you haven't even had a weekend.”
“I know, but this is easier if I do it while it's still fresh in my head. I'm afraid if I put it off, I'll forget it all.”
Jackie sat down in the recliner and raised the footstool. “It's bad enough that we don't have enough money. We don't give ourselves enough time to relax together either.”
“I know, it sucks. But the semester's almost over.”
“Which just means there's another semester right around the corner. You've been taking classes as long as I've known you. It's like it's never going to end.”
Abigail couldn't resist the segue, especially since it was Jackie who had opened the door. “It feels that way to me too sometimes. I've been thinking it might be easier if I cut back to a part-time shift at work and went full-time to school. I could get it over with and be finished in a year. Then I could get a real job for a lot more money and we wouldn't have to worry about being broke all the time.”
Jackie shook her head. “If you went to school full-time, we'd have even less time together. Sunday's the only day we're both at home and you're always doing stuff for school.”
The conversation wasn't starting out quite how Abigail had hoped, but she didn't want to be heavy-handed and make demands. It was important that Jackie see how much better things would be if they made the investment of time and money now. “I was just thinking that one year at full speed would be better than dragging it out like this for another three years.”
“But what you're talking about is a whole year of never being home, and when you are home, you're worrying about tests and papers. You're already swamped with that stuff, Abigail. Money isn't worth killing yourself, even for just a year. What happened to Mom could happen to anyone … just like that!” She snapped her fingers.
“But your mother was sixty-eight years old.”
“That's not the point I'm trying to make. All I'm saying is that lives can change in the blink of an eye, and we need to enjoy the time we have. I don't want you to have to bury your nose in a book for a whole year. There's a lot more to living than just making money.”
“But we're stressed all the time, Jackie! There isn't a day that goes by that we don't feel a pinch somewhere. Either my car won't start … or another bill comes. Don't you get tired of that?”
“Yes, and that's exactly what I'm talking about. Somehow, we've made the almighty dollar the center our lives. That's what we have to change. What's really important to me”—Jackie tapped her chest and got down on one knee in front of Abigail—“is how I feel about you.”
Abigail could feel her hopes about going back to school slipping away, but she was oddly calmed by Jackie's perspective.
“Here's what I think we should do,” Jackie continued. “I promised Oscar I'd be there tomorrow, but starting next week, I'm not going in anymore on Mondays. That's supposed to be my day off. Instead, I'm going to stay home and do cleaning, go to the laundry mat and grocery … all that stuff you usually do on Saturday.”
“What—” Abigail's head filled with a dozen images, most of them comical.
“Which means that you have all day Saturday while I'm at the shelter to work on your school stuff, and we have Sunday to be together.”
Abigail smiled, her heart swelling with love for her well-meaning partner. “Honey”—she shook her head—“you're so sweet to offer to do all that. And I …”
“And you what?”
She blew out a deep breath, hoping she could find a way to say this without hurting Jackie's feelings. “You're really good at a lot of things, honey. You do a great job on the yard, and you can fix just about anything that breaks. But I don't think it's such a good idea for you to be in charge of the laundry. We can't afford—”
“Do you have to start every single sentence with, ‘We can't afford'?”
“I'm sorry,” Abigail said quietly, not altogether surprised at Jackie's surge of irritation. It was probably frustration caused by having to spend the whole day by herself. It really was a lot to ask week after week. Maybe Jackie was right about what they needed in their lives—but not about doing the laundry. Maybe they did need to quit worrying about money so much and start enjoying the life they had. Their hard work would pay off one day. “Tell ya what, babe. From now on I'll try to get my school stuff done before Sunday so we can spend the day together.”
Jackie grabbed both of Abigail's hands with excitement. “We can do so many fun things, like go on picnics or overnight camping trips … or even just stay home and play with our toys.” She arched her arched her eyebrows suggestively and grinned.
“You've got yourself a deal.” Abigail delivered a peck on the lips. “But it starts next week. I need to get this finished.”
“Then I'll keep the dogs out of your hair for the rest of the day.” Jackie practically skipped out the back door, as though celebrating a new lease on life.
Abigail sighed and looked down at her jumble of papers. Things hadn't gone quite the way she had originally hoped, but she had to admit that staying the course—that is, continuing to take only one class at a time in pursuit of her degree—took some of the pressure off, and it would definitely be better for their finances to keep working. Jackie was right about them needing more time together, time that they could set their worries aside and enjoy each other. Abigail was feeling better about things already.
So was Mango, who sat up and scratched, sending a shower of orange fur through the air.
“Those kittens didn't last any time at all!” Oscar was looking over the report for Saturday, his regular day off. “I think it's amazing how you always get people to take two.”
Jackie chuckled. “Audie taught me that trick.”
“You ought to think about selling cars or something. You'd be rich!”
“Money isn't everything, Oscar. Abigail and I were talking about that just yesterday. We both need to quit working so hard and try to have a little fun once in a while. Which reminds me, after this week, I'm going to start taking my day off on Monday so I can do some of the stuff around the house. That'll give me and Abigail some free time on Sunday.”
“That'll do you good, Jackie. Mondays aren't the best day to be here anyway. I can get Edgar to help me.” It was the day they put down the animals that had exceeded their stay.
“Well, I was wondering if you'd think about changing the … you know”—Jackie couldn't stand to speak of it—“over to Tuesday.”
“Why? We can handle it. You don't have to be here. I know how hard it is for you to do that sometimes.”
“It's hard for you too, though, and Edgar doesn't like holding the cats. At least if I'm here, I can make sure their last few minutes are calm and that they aren't scared or anything.”
Oscar nodded in agreement. “I'll admit it's easier with you than him. I'm all right with switching to Tuesdays from now on. But Edgar's supposed to pick up this afternoon, so we'll have to take care of business today as usual.”
Jackie cleared off the stainless steel table so they could get this horrible part of the week over with.
“Have you and Abigail decided what you're going to do with Danny Boy?”
“I'm taking him home with me today.”
“Whew!” Oscar made as if to mop his brow. “I am sure am glad she—”
“Abigail doesn't know yet. I know she'll be all right with it, but probably not at first.”
“So you'll be in the dog house tomorrow?”
“Yeah, but I know Abigail. The animals get on her nerves sometimes, but she loves them as much as I do.”
He followed her out to the customer counter, where she picked up the tablet of preprinted adoption forms and began to fill one out. “Just practice saying this with me a couple of times. ‘Oscar tried to talk me out of it.' Got that?”
“Oscar tried to talk me out of it.”
“That's right. ‘He said I shouldn't do it without you saying it was okay.'”
“He said not to do unless you said it was okay.”
Oscar nodded. “And one more. ‘Tell your mom you think Oscar Shaw is one of the handsomest men in all of Sumter County .'”
Jackie laughed so hard she snorted. “You're the biggest chicken I ever saw. Everybody at Leon 's knows you're sweet on Raynelle. If she didn't like the idea, she would have said so by now.”
“I'll get there one of these days. I'm just taking my time.”
“Uh-huh.” Finished with the adoption form, she pulled a folded check from her wallet and wrote in the required amount, forty-nine dollars, knowing full well that she couldn't cover it.
“Romance isn't something you ought to rush. It's better if you let it simmer for a while … taste it like a stew every now and then until it's just right.” Oscar closed his eyes and rubbed his stomach.
“Sure it ain't Leon you're in love with?”
Thoughts of the greasy-spoon cook snapped him right out of his daydream. “You know what I mean. You and Abigail took your time getting to know each other.”
“Yeah, but at least I eventually got around to asking her out.”
“I'll get there one of these days.”
“Let's just hope it's before somebody new comes into Leon 's and sweeps Raynelle off her feet.” Jackie could see that her remark, which was only halfway serious, had unnerved him. “A woman doesn't want to be kept waiting too long, Oscar. Raynelle's a good one, and she needs somebody nice like you. But you better speak up for her before somebody else does.” She tore off the adoption form and clipped her check to the upper corner. “I'd, uh … I'd appreciate it if this got lost in the shuffle for a couple of weeks. Think we can do that?”
“Sure.” Oscar opened his file drawer and dropped it in the back so that it slipped beneath the folders to the bottom. “Remind me about it one of these days.”
Jackie checked her watch as she pulled her truck into the side yard so she wouldn't block the Escort, which was backed into the carport. She had waited till the last minute to leave the shelter, knowing the cover of darkness would buy her a little time to talk with Abigail before bringing the Irish setter into the house.
As soon as she killed the engine, all four dogs ran to the fence and began to bark.
“See your new friends, Danny Boy?”
The setter stood up on all fours in the front seat, excited by both the dogs and Jackie's voice.
Jackie got out and went around to the other side, the side farthest from the house, where Abigail couldn't see her scoot the new arrival into the back yard. The other dogs greeted the newcomer with enthusiasm, sniffing and barking in invitation to play. “This'll go a whole lot better if I can explain things to Abigail first. If you have any questions, just ask Wally. He's in charge when I'm not around.”
She dreaded what she knew would be a heated confrontation once she went inside. Abigail had every right to be angry about her bringing home another dog. She wished right now that she could turn back the calendar just a little, long enough to find the right homes for Sweet Pea, the beagles, and the cats. Abigail was right that she hadn't kept her promise to do that. That was definitely going to make it tougher to sell more promises today.
Things would calm down in a couple of days—but they would be long days for Jackie. Abigail wouldn't talk much, and would probably sleep on her side, turned away. On about the third night, she would come closer in their bed and they would snuggle, kiss a little, and eventually make love. Their love affirmed, the matter would then be mostly closed, but it would probably come again when one of the dogs misbehaved.
Jackie paused at the back door, figuring this would be a great day to take the time to wipe her feet. The fewer things she did to upset Abigail, the better.
“Hi, honey.” she called. “Abigail?”
She walked through the kitchen to find Abigail sitting on the couch, a mass of crumpled and torn papers in her lap. Her eyes and nose were red from crying.
“What—honey, what happened?”
“Those damn animals happened, Jackie.” Her voice was a mix of anger and frustration.
“But how did they …?” She followed Abigail's eyes to the top of the entertainment center.
“Apparently, Tao didn't appreciate me leaving my lab book in his space. So he pushed it off, and of course, the dogs couldn't just let it lie there on the floor.” She waved the wad of paper at Jackie as if accusing her of conspiracy. “So thanks to them, I have to get a whole new lab book—forty dollars that I don't have—and I have exactly one week to redo a whole semester's worth of work. I was hoping for an A and now I'll be lucky if I get a C.”
Jackie started picking up the strewn papers, her mind racing with ideas for how to fix this mess. “That's it. I don't care what we said about emergencies—we're going to take some money out of our savings account and get you a new book. And we might as well get enough for a new battery … and groceries for the next couple of weeks.” A little extra money would go a long way to solve a lot of their immediate problems. She just hoped Abigail wouldn't want a pound of flesh as well.
“And where am I going to find the time to do all this again? This took me days, Jackie.”
“I can help. It's all here.” She continued to gather up the ripped pieces of papers, straightening the creases and spreading them on the coffee table like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. “All we have to do is”—she read the notes on one of the pages and looked at Abigail in horror. “You dissected a cat?”
“Give me that!” Abigail snatched the papers from her hand. “I can't take this anymore, Jackie.”
“I know, I know.” She reached out to pull Abigail into an embrace, which she fought at first before going limp in Jackie's arms.
“I mean it, it's not just today—it's all the time.” She turned her face away from Jackie's and continued, almost as if talking to herself. “They wake me up a hundred times a night moving around on the bed. The house is filthy. They track dirt in, and there's cat hair on everything.”
“I'll run the vacuum every day, Abigail. And starting tomorrow, I'll get to work on finding—”
“I've heard all that before.” Abigail pulled away and slumped onto the couch. “What's going to be different about this time?”
Her word choice made it clear that it wasn't a rhetorical question. She wanted to know specifics.
“Well, I'll get Oscar to help me tomorrow. We'll take some pictures and print up some flyers. I'll take enough money out to run some ads in the paper.”
Seemingly satisfied with the proposed plan, Abigail nodded in resignation. “I hate having to spend our hard-earned money that way, but it'll be better in the long run because of what we'll save on food and cat litter.”
Jackie nodded in agreement. She would have agreed to practically anything right this second.
“And we have to draw the line, Jackie—you can't bring home any more stray animals. I know you hate it when—” She stopped short, and Jackie could see the wheels turning. “Today's Monday.”
The dogs, in yet another display of their uncanny sense of timing, picked that moment to stir up a fuss in the back yard. The new arrival's deep bark was especially distinct.
Abigail jumped up and started for the back door. “Please tell me you didn't.”
Jackie grabbed her by the arm. “I had to, Abigail. I told you about him … about how much he reminded me of Danny. I couldn't let him be put down.”
“So you brought him home, after I specifically said no!” Abigail's face was almost purple with rage. “That's exactly what I was talking about the other night, Jackie. You always hear me loud and clear. You just don't give a damn what I say or how I feel. It's all about you … and all about these dogs and cats. Fine, you can have each other!”
She grabbed her coat from the closet and stormed toward the door.
“Abigail!” Jackie followed her to the door, but it was too late to stop her. As Abigail got into her car, Jackie crossed her fingers that it wouldn't start.
But this time it did.
Abigail sat at Rosemary's kitchen table peeling the label from the bottle of her second beer.
“I couldn't believe it, Rosie. After all the times I've told her that it felt like the animals were taking over, she goes and brings another dog home. We can hardly afford to put food on our own table and we're paying almost fifty dollars a week to feed seven other mouths—now eight.”
Rosemary put her finger over her lips and gestured down the hallway, where AJ had already gone to bed. “You should have put your foot down last year when she brought home that one-eyed cat.”
Abigail waved her hand in the air dismissively. “Clementine isn't the problem, except when she gets into it with the dogs for taking over the bed.”
Rosemary shuddered. “I don't see how you can stand to sleep with all those animals. If I had a dog or a cat, it wouldn't even come in the house.”
“You can't tell Jackie that. She treats those animals better than a lot of folks treat other people.” Abigail helped herself to an uncharacteristic third beer from her sister's refrigerator. “But I've had it this time. Out they go.”
“You ought to stay over here a few nights. That'll get her attention.”
Abigail shook her head. “No, I have to go back home so I can stay on her case. She needs to know I mean business.”
“Abigail, listen to me. Moving out is how you get Jackie to know you're serious. It's not up to you to make her do this. She already knows how you feel about it, and if she really cares about you, you shouldn't have to ride herd on her.”
Abigail frowned at the brutal assessment. “She cares.”
“Maybe, but she's not doing a very good job of showing it. And I think all those animals are just the tip of the iceberg.” The dryer buzzed in the laundry room and Rosemary got up to get the clothes.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean weren't you telling me just the other night that you two were broke all the time? And you want to go back to school and get a better job, but what about Jackie? Is she going to work her whole life at the dog pound for minimum wage?”
“She makes more than that,” Abigail argued, unable to conceal her defensive streak. “And we talked about that the other night. There's more important”—she waved her hand in the air as if to grab the right word—“stuff than money.”
“The only people who ever say that are the ones who don't have any.” Rosemary pulled out the clothes that were likely to wrinkle and draped them over the back of one of the chairs. Then she set the basket on the floor so she could sit and look her sister in the eye. “You know I like Jackie, but—”
“You always say that right before you say something mean about her.”
Rosemary sighed. “I do like her. But she's not my little sister, and you are. I'm always going to want what's best for you. And I don't want to sit by and watch you do what Mama did.”
“Jackie would never lay a hand on me.”
“I know. That's not what I meant. But Mama let life pass her by while she waited for Chuck to get his shit together. And things just got worse instead of better.”
Abigail shook her head vehemently. “Jackie doesn't have a mean bone in her body. How can you even talk about her and Chuck in the same breath?”
“Chuck wasn't always a bad guy. We used to like him when we were little. Remember that?”
“But he never had any ambition, and when he finally realized he wasn't ever going to amount to anything, he took it out on Mama to make himself feel like a man.”
“Jackie's not like that, though.”
“I know. But you and Jackie are right where Mama and Chuck were before all hell broke loose—spinning your wheels. Is that what you want out of life?”
“Of course not.”
“All I'm saying is that now might be a good time for you to step back and ask yourself where you're going and how you're going to get there. If you want to make something of yourself, you can't just sit by and wait for things to happen, and you can't let Jackie and all those animals drag you down. You've got a chance to make something of yourself by finishing school.”
“You seem to be forgetting that Jackie and I happen to love each other. What good does it do me to make something of myself”—she used her fingers to draw imaginary quote marks around her sister's words—“if we're not together?”
“There's nothing that says you can't be together, but don't let that stop you from doing what's best for you. If you want to go back to school like you said, do it. Save your money and move in here and help me with AJ. You said it would only take another year if you went full-time, and you and Jackie can keep seeing each other. Maybe that'll light a fire under her and she'll start being more responsible. Who knows? In another year or so, you might both have your feet on the ground. Wouldn't that be better than three or four more years of being behind the eight ball?”
Abigail shook her head. “I can't just move out, Rosie. That would hurt her so bad.”
“Then tell her it's for both of you. Get her on board too.”
Abigail blew out a resigned breath that caused her bangs to fly upward.
“Besides, that's your third beer, so you're not driving home tonight anyway.”
“Crap. I've got to be at work at six-thirty. I'll have to go home in the morning and change.”
“You can wear something of mine.”
Abigail pushed herself up from the table and looked at the phone. “I guess I should call her. I don't want her to worry.”
“Go on to bed. I'll call her. I don't want her trying to talk you into coming home tonight. I'll just tell her you're staying here and that you don't want to talk to her right now. She'll know you're really mad this time.”
Abigail nodded. “'Kay.”
Jackie's stomach did a little flip when she saw the Escort in its usual spot backed into the carport. There wasn't a moment all day that she hadn't worried about coming home to an empty house. They had argued in the past, but it had never gotten so bad that one of them had to leave, even to cool off. To Jackie, that was the sign she had really gone too far this time.
She didn't blame Abigail one bit for being angry at her. But tonight, she had good news. Hank Fuller was finally having a backyard fence installed. The impetus wasn't the dogs, but as Oscar had feared, a near tragedy involving Hank's three-year-old son. And as soon as that fence went up tomorrow afternoon, Mo and Molly would have a new home.
She parked in the worn grass beside the driveway and went to the back fence, where she was greeted at once by all five dogs. Danny Boy seemed to be fitting in just fine. He was content to let Wally be the alpha dog, and exceedingly tolerant of the beagles' efforts to rile him into rough play. And like the other dogs, he pretty much ignored Sweet Pea.
She reached through the gap at the gate to pet the excited beagles. “You guys want to go live with Hank? He's got three little kids and a great big yard.”
Eager to share her news, she bounded up the steps and through the kitchen door. The sight that greeted her hit her like a spear in the heart. Three cardboard boxes sat in the kitchen, filled to overflowing with Abigail's books, toiletries, and other personal items. Hanging clothes were draped over the kitchen chairs, and Abigail was coming from the bedroom with a trash bag filled with clothes from her drawers.
“Abigail?” Tears rushed to Jackie's eyes as she took in the scene. “What are you doing?”
Abigail dropped the bag and rushed to her, holding up both hands. “It's just for a little while, Jackie.”
“Because I need to.” She took both of Jackie's hands and pulled her toward the couch. “Come sit with me.”
“I don't want to sit. I want you to put your stuff back where it belongs,” she pleaded.
Abigail continued to guide her across the room, holding onto her until they sat face to face on the couch. “I'm going to go stay with Rosemary for a while. I just need to have a little time away so I can finish up the semester without having to worry about the dogs … or the house—all of that.”
“I can do a better job with the dogs, I promise.” Jackie could hear the desperation in her own voice and tried to tamp it down. “It's not so cold anymore, so there's no reason they can't stay outside during the day. And I can start feeding them out there so it won't make such a mess.”
“Jackie, we've had this talk before, almost word for word. And for a few days, maybe even for a couple of weeks, things will be better. But little by little, it eventually goes back to the way it was.” She tilted Jackie's chin with her fingertips so they were looking into each other's eyes. “I love you too much to keep fighting about everything. It's not good for us.”
“Can't you stay?” Jackie begged, her tears streaming unchecked. “I'm sorry I didn't do more. I didn't know how much it bothered you.”
“I'm not going to Rosemary's to punish you. I'm going because I just need to concentrate on me for a while.” She patted her chest. “She and I talked last night and—”
“I always knew Rosemary didn't like me.”
“She does like you, Jackie. But I'm her little sister and she's looking out for me. That's why she's letting me stay with her, so I can focus on the things I have to do right now for school without having to worry about anything else.”
“So … how long will you be gone?”
Abigail sucked in a deep breath between her teeth as Jackie steeled for the worst. “I really want to finish school, like I was telling you the other night. It's not just so I can get a job. It's because I really want to work in radiology. It's interesting and I'd get to work with a lot of smart people. Doing something like that is my dream, just like you buying the Ashby farm is your dream. But none of our dreams are going to come true all by themselves.”
“I know that. That's why we're saving, so we can do those things.”
“Get real, Jackie. We're hardly saving anything. We have seven thousand dollars from your mother, and a meager thousand that we've added to it in three years. At that rate, we'll be fifty years old before we can afford our own house, and it won't be the Ashby farm. It'll be some little shack like this one with holes in the porch.”
Jackie sighed miserably, the truth of Abigail's words hitting home.
“If we're going to do better than that, we're both going to have to get better jobs. Rosemary says I can stay with her and help with AJ. That means I can have my degree in a year and when I get—”
“I probably won't stay there the whole time—but I'm going to have to cut back on my work hours and I won't be bringing home enough to pay half the bills.”
“I can't pay for all this on just my paycheck.”
“But if you didn't have all the animals, you wouldn't need this house. You could live over in Mountain Village for half of what we pay here, and all the utilities are included.”
“I can't get rid of Wally. He's all I have left of Mom. She told me to look after him.”
“They'll let you have one pet, Jackie.”
“But we have a yard here.”
“So you and Wally will have to take walks. He'll like that, and so will you. Besides, it's just for a while, a year at the most. Then we might be able to get our own house.”
“So if I get rid of all the other dogs and cats, why can't we move to Mountain Village together? You could save just as much money living with me as you could with Rosemary.”
Abigail sighed, the frustration evident on her face. “Because I need some time away … to think about stuff.”
Jackie's stomach lurched. “Do you still love me?”
“Yes, I love you with all my heart. And that's why we have to do this now—because I want to love you forever, and I don't want to keep fighting about everything. But we have to get our lives back on track, both of us, and start making our own luck. I can't keep living hand to mouth like this.”
“You know I'll do whatever you need me to do.”
“It's what we need.” Abigail squeezed Jackie's hands. “It's for both of us, so we can be together someday and enjoy each other without worrying all the time.”
Jackie pushed the tears from her cheeks and returned her hands to Abigail's. “So you promise you're not leaving me for good?”
“No way. I'm not that easy to get rid of.”
“You know I'm going to go crazy without you here.”
“It's all going to be okay, sweetie. I promise it's just for a little while.” Abigail smiled at her, and stood up to grasp her trash bag full of clothes. “I need to get back to Rosemary's before AJ goes to bed. Will you help me put all this in the car?”
Jackie nodded dismally and picked up one of the boxes. After two more trips to the car, they had everything packed.
“I think that's everything,” Abigail said.
Jackie stood by the car door with her hands in her pockets, shivering in the night breeze. The dogs clamored for attention at the gate. “Don't get too comfortable over there. Mo and Molly will be gone before the weekend. That's two down, five to go.” Jackie gave her a meager smile, the best she could manage under the circumstances. “Please don't go, Abigail.”
Abigail answered with a soft kiss to Jackie's lips, then got into the car. “I love you. Don't forget that.”
Once again, Jackie found herself hoping the car wouldn't start.
But once again, it did.
By the dusty clock on the dash of the pickup, it was seven thirty, an hour earlier than Jackie usually started work. Abigail had called her for a jump at six-fifteen, and after driving over to Rosemary's, she decided she would try to get an early start on her day. She figured Oscar would let her leave at four so she could run by the bank for funds. She wanted to give Abigail money for her lab book before class at six, and pick up a battery for the Escort.
Jackie yawned and rolled her neck to loosen up. She had tossed and turned all night, waking herself from a fitful sleep each time she reached to the empty side of the bed. Whatever it took, she would find homes for all the dogs and cats, and even get a second job if she had to. Nothing was worth losing Abigail.
“Hey! You're in early.”
“G'morning, Oscar.” She collected the litter pan and food bowls and set them aside so she could wipe out the crate. “I had to get up and jump that old Escort again this morning so I figured I might as well come on in to work.”
“So Abigail came back home, I take it?”
Jackie shook her head. “Not unless you want to count coming by to get her stuff.”
“She's staying with her sister for a while. Says she needs to be away from everything so she can concentrate on finishing up her school stuff. Did you know they dissected cats in that lab of hers?”
Oscar looked away too late, his face not hiding his guilt.
“Edgar takes a few out there at the first of the semester. They say it helps the students understand all the organs better when they can see them up close.”
“Hmmpff! You can learn a lot more useful stuff from a cat that's living and breathing.”
“So what's up with Abigail? Ya'll aren't going to break up, are you?”
“No! She just needs a little time away. I've been … kind of a jerk lately.”
“Now that's hard to imagine. I know we all have our bad days, but the only time I ever see you get riled up is when somebody mistreats one of these animals.”
“No, she's right, Oscar. I haven't been paying attention to things at home like I should. You know it must be bad if she has to leave to get me to notice.”
“But she's coming back?”
“She says she is. But I don't know what to think.”
“What do you mean?”
“Something's been really eating at her lately. She thinks it's because we don't ever have enough money, but I don't know if that's really the problem. I'm worried that it might be something more serious than that.”
“I don't know, Oscar. What if she's not in love with me anymore?” Jackie's lower lip quivered as she said the dreaded words aloud.
“Aw, you don't really think that, do you?”
“I don't know what to think. But all I've got to go on is what she says.”
“So what happens now?”
“The first thing is I have to find new homes for two more dogs and three cats.”
“Well at least it's something you're pretty good at.”
“Yeah, I figure it's a good chance to try out some of the things I'd want to do if we had a no-kill shelter.” She pulled a folded piece of paper from her pocket. “I wrote down some ideas last night for how to get the word out. The first thing I want to do is take pictures of Danny Boy and Sweet Pea and all the cats. Can I borrow your digital camera?”
“Sure, I'll bring it in tomorrow. You hear any more about Hank and them beagles?”
“He should have his fence up by this afternoon, so Mo and Molly are practically out the door. The cats are going to be tougher to place because everybody wants kittens.”
“That little black one's not very old, is he? He's like a kitten.”
Jackie scratched her chin as she thought about it. “Tao's about two. Maybe I should take a picture of him playing with stuff.”
“And make sure when you take that Persian's picture, you don't get that ugly eye.”
She thought about his advice, but it just didn't sit right. “No, you know what I need to do, Oscar?” Jackie turned her paper over and started to write down her new ideas. “I need to tell people what happened to Clementine, how a bunch of boys playing around with a BB gun shot her eye out and left her for dead. And I need to tell them what a fighter Mango was, how all the other kittens in his litter died when they were pitched out on the side of the road.”
“That's it, tell their stories.”
“All these animals have stories, Oscar. That's what we can do to get folks to connect.” She walked out to the customer counter and rummaged in the file drawer.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for the phone book. I need to call the radio station.”
After thirty minutes of hammering out the details with the station manager, it was all set. Starting next week, she and Oscar would do two-minute interviews over the phone three times a week to tell the stories of some of the animals available for adoption.
“You're not getting me on the radio,” Oscar whined.
“But I'm not going to be here on Mondays anymore, not unless you can figure out how to get Roy Lee to pay me overtime.”
“Pfft! Fat chance of that.”
“That's what I thought. Besides, you'll be good at this because you sound like a grandpa on the phone. Folks will like that.”
“But what'll I say? That's less than a week away.” Oscar was clearly panicked.
“Why don't you start with this one right here?” She picked up the feral cat and grinned. “Tell about how Edgar found him eating out of the dumpster by the grocery, and that he looked like one great big set of eyes before we fattened him up. Say that he'll set a good example for people's kids because he likes vegetables.” As she talked about the cat and stroked his slender neck, he nipped at her twice before turning his head so that she scratched him just right. “And then say that with just a little attention, he could be somebody's sweetheart.”
“Damn right I am! So don't forget come next Monday to wear your best shirt, and maybe a tie.”
Mindlessly, Oscar nodded. “Right, I'll get a—wait a minute. People won't be able to see me on the radio.”
Jackie shook her head and smiled. “Boy, nothing gets by you, Oscar.”
The front door creaked and then slammed with the force of the wind, depositing a bearded young man in a flannel shirt and down vest at their counter. They rarely got walk-ins during the week, especially first thing in the morning, and Jackie noted right off that the man looked haggard and worn out. “Can I help you with something?”
“I'm looking for a dog … my dog. He was in my car when it got stolen a month ago in Atlanta . The cops found it last week up in Bowling Green but there was no sign of Casey.” His story was rote, as if he had told it dozens of times. “I've hit nearly every shelter in Tennessee looking for him, thinking maybe they put him out on the side of the road or something. He's an—”
“Irish setter?” Jackie finished hopefully.
His eyes suddenly came to life. “You have him? You have Casey?”
Oscar slapped his hand on the young man's back. “Talk about the luck of the Irish!”
Jackie figured she probably had some Irish blood running through her veins too, because this man might have just saved her love life.
Abigail's tires bounced through the potholes as she rolled along the dirt driveway, their last load of gravel long since ground into the earth. All day she'd been thinking about Jackie, how she'd come out at the crack of dawn in her flannel PJs and sweatshirt to jumpstart her car, shivering and bleary-eyed. Without one word of complaint, she'd gone about her business and sent her off on her way, calling after her that she wouldn't pick up that battery after all if it meant they'd get to see each other every morning. It was typical Jackie, always finding a silver lining even in the worst of circumstances. It just wasn't in her nature to get bent out of shape over things like unpaid bills, cat fur on the furniture or dirty paw prints on her pillowcase. The only time Jackie ever lost it was when she hurt, like the day her mother died or the other night when Abigail had packed her things and gone to her sister's house.
She never wanted to see that look on Jackie's face again, especially not when she was the cause. It was clear her words of reason about getting away just for a while hadn't been much comfort, and she wanted to try again to set Jackie's mind to rest.
It was odd to found the house dark at eight o'clock, with no sign of the pickup. Her headlights caught Wally and Sweet Pea behind the chain link fence, but no Mo or Molly, and no gorgeous Irish setter. She parked off to the side in case Jackie returned, and left the engine running, not wanting to push her luck on getting the Escort to start twice in a row.
The moment she entered the side door she knew things were different. For one thing, the kitchen was tidy, with dishes stacked in the drainer and a fresh trash bag in the can. A large tray of dry cat chow sat in the corner alongside a water bowl, which could only mean one thing—the dogs no longer had the run of the house. Her wonder continued in the living room, which was neat as a pin. Tao looked down from his perch and swished his tail, but Mango never stirred from his nest on the couch. A quick look under the kitchen table left Abigail baffled. Where was Clementine?
And where was Jackie? She hardly ever missed Jeopardy! at seven.
More surprises awaited her in the bedroom, where the laundry sat folded in a basket on the made-up bed. If she hadn't known better, she'd have sworn someone else had moved in. Maybe Jackie really was serious about turning over a new leaf.
She locked the door behind her and drove out the winding state road to her mother's home, taking her chances this time by turning off the ignition. The wooden porch, which Antoine had built the summer before shipping out with his unit for a third tour in Iraq, was sturdier than the tin can to which it was attached. Every time the wind picked up, she imagined the double-wide living up its name as a mobile home.
After two short raps on the aluminum door she let herself in, bracing as always for the stench of stale cigarette smoke. “Mama?”
Raynelle emerged from the hallway, already wearing her bathrobe and slippers, her all-day attire on her only day off. “What are you doing out? Rosemary run you off with one of her lectures on bettering yourself?”
Abigail snorted. Their mother knew them both so well. “I haven't been home yet. I went over to the college library to work on putting my lab book back together.”
“Yeah, I heard about that.”
Raynelle lit a long thin cigarette, drew a deep breath and exhaled a plume of fine white smoke. “Jackie came by this afternoon to do laundry and I fixed her a big plate of chicken 'n dumplings. We sat down to watch the news and she ate like she was starving to death. Then all of a sudden she jumped up and said she had to go, jabbering something about the luck of the Irish.”
“Luck of the Irish? What do you reckon she meant by that?”
“I don't know, but she ran off all excited. I folded her laundry and took it over to the house. Did ya'll get a maid?” Raynelle settled into her recliner and pulled the lever to elevate her feet. “By the way, when I die I want you and Rosemary to make sure I get buried in this chair. You got that?”
“Sure, Mama.” From the corner of her eye Abigail saw movement underneath the dining room table, a long white tail like Clementine's. “What in the world?”
“Jackie brought me a little something. Said she thought about me every time she looked at that cat on account of both of us having an eye put out by somebody with a mean streak. I told her I didn't need a cat, but she said that wasn't the point, that this cat needed me 'cause I could show her how to bounce back.”
Abigail felt a lump in her throat as her eyes misted.
“You got something special with that girl, Abigail. Don't you go throwing it away. If money gets too tight, you both pack up and move into that back bedroom.”
“And do what with the Sumter Zoo, Mama? The last thing you need is for Jackie to be bringing a new dog or cat home every night. Something's got to give.”
“You,” her mother said, pointing a finger and leaving a swirling trail of smoke. “You're the one that's got to give. Everybody's got their vices, Abigail. Some people drink too much, some are lazy and good for nothing, and the worst ones can put you in the hospital. The only thing Jackie's got is a big heart for animals and a low tolerance for rednecks. Would you love her like you do if she wasn't like that?”
No, she realized, shaking her head. And if Jackie surrendered those poor creatures to their ominous fate, a little piece of her would die with them, and Abigail couldn't bear that. “I love her like she is, Mama. I just don't know how to handle all the chaos, and I can't stand to feel like we're running backwards on payday.”
“That's your vice, Abigail. You always see your glass as half empty. Being happy ain't getting what you want. It's wanting what you already got. Quit pining for something perfect, 'cause I'm here to tell ya, there ain't no such thing.” She ground out her cigarette and folded her arms across her chest, harrumphing for good measure. “Now get on home and fix this before something happens and it breaks for good.”
Jackie could hardly contain herself when she saw the familiar red Escort backed into the carport. She hadn't allowed herself to think—not even for one second—that Abigail wouldn't come back one day, but seeing her here tonight meant she'd never have to wonder why. It was because they loved each other.
The first thing she noticed in the kitchen was the cat bowls back on the kitchen counter, which meant Abigail had given Wally and Sweet Pea the run of the house. That was confirmed by the sound of toenails clacking on the hardwood floor as both dogs barreled toward her.
“No!” she said firmly, raising a finger to stop the well-trained Wally in his tracks and sending the timid Sweet Pea to her side with submission. She dropped to one knee and petted both simultaneously, shushing their excited yips and growls.
Abigail appeared in the hallway dressed in floral boxers and a tank top, a sure sign she planned to stay for the night. “I'm sorry I left, Jackie.”
“I'm sorry I made you feel like you had to do that to get my attention. I care about your feelings, Abigail, more than anything else in the world.”
“And you care about all these animals. That's who you are, and that's who I love.”
She rose and caught her lover in an embrace, and they simply held each other for what felt like ten minutes before she finally spoke. “We're going to see some big changes around here, sweetheart. No more animals unless we both agree.”
Abigail broke abruptly and gripped her forearms. “What happened to Danny Boy? Please tell me you didn't—”
Jackie cut her off with the story of the joyous reunion between Casey and his dad. “And Mo and Molly have their own big fenced-in yard at Hank Fuller's now with lots of kids. Then there's Clementine. You won't believe where she ended up.”
“You're right. I've seen it myself and I still don't believe it. My mother always said cats were good for one thing—oven mitts. Wait'll she finds outs Clementine thinks she's a pillow.”
“I didn't tell her that part.” She looked at her watch. “But I'd say she probably knows it by now. Fortunately I made our ‘No Returns' policy quite clear.”
Abigail took her hand and pulled her down the hall to their bedroom, where boxes and bags of her belongings were stacked haphazardly around the room. “I'll put all this away tomorrow, but tonight I just want to love you up one side and down the other and then fall asleep in your arms.”
Jackie kicked the door shut and fell entwined onto the bed. “And one other thing that's gonna change, Abigail. We'll get us a house … a nice big one with lots of land for the dogs to run. I promise you.”
“I know, baby. But until we do, I'll be happy just to be wherever you are.” Her deft fingers worked loose the fly on Jackie's jeans and in no time she was claiming her slick, hot prize. “Trust me, parts of me are very happy just to be where parts of you are.”
Abigail stumbled over their strewn clothes to the bedroom door, and in the split second before both dogs scrambled to their feet, she glimpsed Sweet Pea lounging peacefully against Wally's neck. Now that the hyper beagles were gone, maybe the little dog wouldn't feel so intimidated, especially since Wally was the canine version of a teddy bear. No reason at all they couldn't keep both dogs.
In the living room, Mango was content in his spot on the couch, but Tao glared down from the top of the entertainment center. “Don't look so pissed. It was just for one night, you spoiled rotten baby.” Both cats came running to the kitchen when she rattled their chow bag, their night alone at least momentarily forgiven.
As the coffee brewed, Jackie shuffled into the kitchen and dropped her sleepy head on Abigail's shoulder. “It sucks you have to go to work so early. I think you should quit and go back to school full-time. Or do whatever else you want. Take some time off and think about it.”
It was no use bringing up the impracticalities of that, but it was sweet for Jackie to suggest it because it showed she really had been listening after all and obviously cared about what she wanted. “It's okay. We'll get there eventually.” And if they didn't, so what? Her mom was right that being happy with each other was what mattered most.
By the time Abigail was ready to leave, Jackie had already washed their breakfast dishes and swept up after the cats. But that wasn't the only thing about her that seemed peculiar this morning. She seemed to be smiling a lot, like she had something up her sleeve. As long as it wasn't another dog or cat …
“Hope my car starts today.”
“Something tells me it will.”
Abigail stepped out on the porch and her jaw dropped. There in the carport sat a brand spanking new torch red Mustang convertible. Jackie's hand snaked over her shoulder from behind dangling the keys.
She wanted to scream, but didn't dare because her first words were sure to be “We can't afford…” Still, the last thing in the world either of them needed was a five-hundred-dollar-a-month car payment. “I can't believe you went and traded the truck on this. I don't see how we're … ever going to … haul off the trash in something this nice.”
“I didn't trade my truck on this. I traded my truck for a vista blue Ford Ranger with shift-on-the-fly four wheel drive. This here baby's yours.”
“I … I don't know what to say.” Except that they'd both have to work three jobs each to pay for new cars. Maybe Jackie didn't understand her after all.
“Huh?” What on earth? “Two-nineteen. That's my birthday.”
“And that's how old I am.”
“Twelve … twenty-one … thirty.”
And now Jackie's birthday and age. She had clearly lost her mind.
Jackie bounced off the porch to open the car door for her. “Now when you get to work, you should put in your two-week notice. We're going to be busy getting the Ashby farm all set to move into.”
“Honey, I don't know what's going on. How are we going to …” No, she wasn't going to harp about money again. “I'm a little … confused.”
“That's because I haven't given you the last two numbers. Ten.”
Ten. What was ten? She shook her head.
Ten. Million. Ten million. Ten million? Their birthdays, their ages and ten million. That didn't make any sense unless … unless. Her mouth started moving but nothing came out. Jackie was grinning wildly and holding up an official-looking letter from the Tennessee Lottery Commission.
“We did it, baby. Ten million dollars … six if I take it all in one lump sum, but I thought I'd take a half million dollars for the next twenty years, since that way I won't blow through it doing one stupid thing after another.”
Ten. Million. Dollars. “Jackie, you're rich.”
“Not just me, Abigail. Us. We can quit worrying about scraping up money to pay the gas bill or how we're going to get somewhere in a car that won't start. The guy at the lottery said it really wasn't all that much money, but you and me … we won't have to struggle anymore. You can go back to school and do whatever makes you happy. And we can help your mama, and Rosemary and AJ too.”
“What about you, Jackie? A new truck, a new farm. And then what?”
“It takes more than just things to make people really happy, Abigail. You have to do what you love, and feel good about yourself every day when you get out of bed.” Her eyes lit up and she started talking fast, like she was dreaming out loud. “I want to get Oscar to help me fix up a nice big kennel out on the farm, just something for the overflow so more of the animals can find a good home. I know I shouldn't have brought Danny Boy home like that, but I wish you'd seen how happy they were when he finally saw his daddy again. What if I'd had to tell that guy he was a day late? It makes me sick to my stomach just to think about it.”
Her mother was right about Jackie. She had the biggest heart in all of Tennessee .
“We're millionaires, Abigail.”
She threw her arms around Jackie's neck and kissed her over and over, not caring one iota that she was going to be late for work. “I was already a millionaire, sweetheart. I just didn't know it.”
If you'd like to read more about life in Jackie & Abigail's neck of the Tennessee woods, you'll find the story of Beth Hester & Audie Pippin in Sumter Point . More info at my website, www.kgmacgregor.com . Happy Valentine's Day!