The House on Sandstone – Part 2
By KG MacGregor
"Saturday…Saturday was a good day." In fact, the whole week had been pretty good, Justine realized as she recounted all that had transpired since her last session. "Trey came by at seven-thirty in the morning and we went running up at Prince Lake. We did about eight miles up that logging trail, and we talked about stuff. I think it’s really starting to hit him how much things are going to change next year when he goes off to school."
"Tell me what was good about that, Justine…that time with Trey."
The redhead smiled wistfully as she recalled the feeling. "I just…I don’t know, he was talking about how hard it was going to be to be away from Melissa next year. She’s going to Georgetown, and he’s worried she’ll meet somebody else and not be happy with him anymore. He even said he’d been thinking about going to Georgetown instead, but I think I’ve talked him out of that. JT’ll have a cow if he doesn’t go to UK."
"It’s a big transition for him."
"Yeah…underneath all that bravado, he’s so insecure about that girl. He’s always been worried about what she’d think, ever since they were in the eighth grade. To be honest, I’d like to see him meet somebody else at college. I just hate to see him so serious about somebody at seventeen when he has no idea what else is out there." In Justine’s mind, Melissa Chandler had always held too much sway over her son’s decisions. "Anyway, it was really nice to have him talk to me about stuff like that. It made me feel like his mother."
"You are his mother, Justine." Valerie’s smile seemed to be congratulatory, as though she were extremely pleased with her client’s revelation. "But I know what you mean. You deserve a real pat on the back for that, don’t you think?"
Justine looked at her quizzically.
"You just told me that you went running with your seventeen-year-old son—eight miles. How many mothers can say that?"
It was true. Just three years ago, Justine couldn’t have imagined this kind of lifestyle for herself. She’d envied her friends who had given birth and returned almost instantly to their trim figures. Her first pregnancy had added thirty extra pounds, and Emmy had left her with thirty more. She had tried to get into the fitness club scene…the aerobics, the spinning, the jazzercise. But she’d had no success when her kids were little, and after the divorce, her day-to-day responsibilities had grown to encompass all of her time. Only when her children had gone to live with JT had she finally begun to make the time for herself. In fact, the Wellness Center was part of the plan to put more routine in her daily life, a plan designed to keep her from wallowing in her depression.
"So what else happened this week?" Justine had already been through the Thanksgiving tale with her mother and sister’s family. All in all, that had gone better than expected.
"JT dropped Emmy off on Saturday afternoon and we looked through all the catalogs for Christmas gifts. I took her out to Goody’s and bought her some jeans and a top. I get the feeling she’s having a little trouble with J2, but I don’t think it’s anything serious. She’s just being a teenager, trying to look out for her turf and all."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, Emmy’s always been pretty good about doing her part when it comes to chores and such. But I think she feels like she’s being called on to do a little more than her share around the house because she’s a girl."
"I can see where that would cause a problem."
"Yeah, but she doesn’t want to make waves, because that causes problems for her father. And she doesn’t want to make trouble for Trey, but she’s disappointed in him for not stepping up to help her out."
"So you talked to her about it?"
The redhead shrugged and sighed. "No, mostly I just listened."
Valerie knew how hard it was for the mother to hold her tongue when her daughter talked. One of their problems together had been her overbearing nature, always feeling like she needed to give her daughter advice on everything from how she should dress to who should be her friends. "Did that go okay?"
"I guess. She asked me a couple of questions, and I made a suggestion or two, but I said I had faith in her to handle it. And I told her I’d talk to JT if she wanted me to, but that otherwise, I wouldn’t say anything. And that’s what she wanted…for me not to say anything."
"So it was a good day. You got to spend time with both of the kids." Valerie was pleased to hear that Justine had not only gotten through the holiday without a lot of stress, she’d actually had a pretty fulfilling week. The more time she spent with Trey and Emmy, the happier she was. And with all the activities around the holiday, it looked like Justine hadn’t worried too much about what had been bothering her so much last week—
"And then on Sunday night, I had dinner with Carly."
Valerie cocked her head and looked at her client with interest. Unconsciously, she began rocking in her wooden chair and started a new page in the yellow tablet.
"I called her and asked her to dinner and she said yes and we came up here to Morton’s. We talked…it’s all okay. Carly’s…she’s just a really good person and she made it easy for me to apologize for everything."
That wasn’t enough, Valerie knew. Justine didn’t always accept forgiveness, even when it was sincerely given.
"And then on the way home she told me that she was a lesbian. I told her I’d always wondered and we joked about it…but I couldn’t tell her about me. I started to, but she probably would have made me pull over and let her out of the car once she heard how crazy everything got."
"Justine?" The counselor’s tone was mildly admonishing.
"Sorry." They had agreed that using the word "crazy" to describe circumstances and events in her life was unhealthy. "But I told her I’d tell her all about it …if she plied me with enough wine."
Valerie had to laugh at that. One of Justine’s loudest complaints when she’d begun her therapy was that she’d had to give up her nightly glass or two of wine on account of the risks of interaction with the medication she was taking for her anxiety and depression. Once she’d gotten out of the habit—and once she’d started focusing on exercise and losing weight—she no longer craved it every night, but she’d insisted last week that it belonged on her list of things that might bring her "inner calm."
"We had a really nice time."
The therapist twirled her pencil casually, knowing that Justine would say more.
"She’s…her life’s been so interesting. She’s lived all over the world and seen so much. And she knows about prejudice firsthand, a whole lot more than I do. She had to leave behind someone she loved because of what others might think about it…and she nearly always had to be secretive."
"You know a little something too about the secretive part, don’t you?"
Justine nodded. "But at least I didn’t have to hide the fact that I loved somebody. That must have been awful…to have feelings like that and not even be able to tell people, or to always have to be careful not to show it. I mean what if all that time I’d lived with JT, we’d to try to make people think we were just friends?" Now remembering the last three virtually platonic years of their marriage, it suddenly seemed like a bad example. "On second thought, it probably would have been harder to convince people that we were friends at all."
"So how did it make you feel to be with Carly?"
As expected, the redhead balked at the question until the little voice inside her head reminded her that she was after all in therapy to talk about herself. "It was nice. I like her…I mean…I…like her."
"You mean you…like her."
Justine nodded nervously. "Carly said something…something that sounded like it could have come right out of my mouth. She said that there were some people in your life that you were always going to care about, no matter what happened. Of course, she was talking about Isabel, a woman she used to be in love with. And I came this close…," she gestured with her index finger and thumb, "to telling her that she was one of those people in my life…one of those people who was always going to matter to me."
Valerie touched her foot to the floor, causing her chair to rock again. Falling in love could be good for Justine…or it could send her spiraling out of control.
"See, that’s where the computer store moved to." Perry Jeffries pointed out the grand opening sign to his cousin. "They closed that one out on the bypass when this spot opened up."
"What used to be here? Shoes or something, right?" Carly flicked her ashes out the corner of her window. It was chilly; the forecast was calling for snow flurries starting tonight with an accumulation of up to two inches by morning.
"That’s right. It was one of those casual shoe stores, but they couldn’t do any business after Barber and DB Boots both opened up outlet stores at the plants."
Carly chuckled at the synchrony of her cousin’s attire, the reverse of what her dad had worn. Perry had on his Bucks today, but under his jacket he wore a DB t-shirt from the summer softball league. He was average height and built like a brick wall, thanks to over thirty years of moving furniture. His light brown hair was flecked with gray, and he had a neatly trimmed brown and gray beard.
"I need to get some Diggers like Daddy’s—Oh, look! You finally got a coffee house downtown. Leland, Kentucky enters the twenty-first century."
"Yep, we got those four-dollar coffees too. I tell you, we’re getting to be just like New York City. Pretty soon, you won’t be able to tell us apart."
"Maybe we’ll stop in there on the way back in and get one."
"Phfft! I got no use for a four-dollar coffee. They don’t even give free refills." Perry turned the truck out toward Branch Fork, an unincorporated area of Leland County.
"How many stops are we making?"
"Just two. We’ll drop these bunk beds over in Cedar Hills first." Cedar Hills was a newly developed housing tract that appealed especially to young families. Lots of places like this were springing up around the county, a testament to the success of both of the rivaling boot factories, and Leland’s position as a bedroom community for Lexington’s University of Kentucky faculty. "You don’t have to help, you know. I’ve gotten pretty good at doing this on my own, but I appreciate you riding along."
"I don’t mind helping if you need me. I’m not as strong as I used to be, but I can still hold my own." Besides, riding in the panel truck with Perry was just like old times, though both had aged twenty-five years.
"I bet you can."
"So tell me about Debbie. Where’d you meet her?"
Perry’s new girlfriend was a divorced mother who had moved to town to get her son out of the clutches of a gang in Louisville. Carly had already gotten the lowdown on Debbie Claxton from her dad, but she wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth.
"Where do I meet anybody? I delivered a dinette to her apartment."
"Love at first sight?"
Perry laughed sheepishly. "Yeah, pretty much. She was having some trouble getting the cable to work right with the VCR and her son’s video game, so I played with it for awhile. We talked and had a Coke. I stopped by a couple of days later to make sure everything was still working."
"Couldn’t get her out of your head, huh?"
"Something like that. She came down from Louisville because Kevin—that’s her son, he’s thirteen—got expelled from school for having a knife. She either had to put him in private school, which she couldn’t afford, or move to another district."
"What kind of work does she do?"
"She works at Barber Boots. She’s a bookkeeper."
"So is it serious?"
"It could be…it’d be nice if we could get a little more time together with just us. Kevin’s alright—most of the time, anyway—but he stays up till ten every night, so we don’t get much time alone."
"Sounds like you need to get away with each other."
"Yeah, but she doesn’t really know anybody here to look after him. His father’s up in Louisville, and he couldn’t care less."
"You get along with him okay?"
"Mmm…pretty good. They’re a package deal, so I work at it. I don’t think he liked me much at first, but we went fishing a couple of times—just me and him—and that was alright. He knows the score, and it don’t seem to bother him anymore." Perry turned the truck into the subdivision.
"These are pretty nice houses." The new homes were attractive, but on postage stamp-sized lots with high wooden fences sealing the back yards from one another.
"Let’s see…1356…here we go." Perry pulled forward then backed into the two-car driveway. "Two-story. On second thought, I’m glad you’re with me."
Carly chuckled and flung the creaky door open. "I knew you’d appreciate me."
When they’d finished the setup, Carly got back into the truck to wait while her cousin wrapped up the paperwork. As they’d slid the top mattresses into place, she’d felt a twinge in her lower back, a reminder that she was not only a lot older than the last time she hauled furniture, but also dreadfully out of shape. About the only exercise she got these days was what she squeezed in on the weekends, usually a stroll through an open air market or a museum. The demands of her job left her tired at the end of the day, and her idea of relaxation was not getting all sweaty at a gym.
"Okay…just one more stop," Perry said as he hopped into the driver’s seat and picked up the clipboard. "We got a washer going to Lakeside Drive. Can you read that number?"
Carly rolled her eyes and grabbed the clipboard. Her close-up vision wasn’t any better than his, but he didn’t want to have to dig in the glove compartment for his reading glasses. She pulled hers from the pocket of her jacket and studied the invoice. "Six-eighteen. A JT Sharpe, Jr." Shit!
Lakeside Drive was the main corridor into the Lakeside subdivision, a cluster of houses like those on Sandstone where the newly-moneyed families lived. There was no real lake to speak of, but the developers had widened a section of Katie’s Creek to give the landscaping some flair. It would have been prettier without the obtrusive red sign listing all the things one couldn’t do in the water.
The driveway at 618 was cluttered with cars, including a lime green Beetle that immediately brought to mind Justine’s son Trey.
"Great. We’re going to have to bring this across the yard." Perry parked the truck as close as he could and tucked the clipboard under his arm. "You wanna go ring the doorbell while I put it on the dolly? Maybe somebody’ll get the brilliant idea to move all those cars."
"Sure." Carly was hesitant, but intrigued about the chance to get a glimpse into how JT and his new family lived. From the front porch, she could hear raucous laughter and shouting, and was ringing the doorbell for the third time when it was finally opened by a woman of about thirty. "Hi. Griffin Home Furnishings. We have a washer." The new Mrs. Sharpe wasn’t exactly a teenager, but Carly immediately understood why Justine had made the crack about her ex. This lady was petite, with short wavy dark hair and brown eyes. Looking past her into the formal living room, Carly saw five or six teenage boys, a deafening video game their apparent focus. She immediately recognized Trey from the picture she’d seen.
"Thank god! Can you bring it in around back? The laundry room’s got a door to the outside…that way you won’t track in."
Carly bristled at the gibe but agreed nonetheless when Mrs. Sharpe indicated the sidewalk on the other side of the driveway. She was about to return to her cousin when she heard the woman call to someone upstairs.
"Emmy? Can you come down here and take Alexandra? I need to meet these delivery me—people."
If she’d have said men, I would have found a way to track mud from one end of that house to the other.
Perry wheeled the dolly to the edge of the drive, where Carly guided him carefully through the maze of cars. For some reason, she wasn’t at all surprised that no one had come to meet them at the back door. Finally, the woman arrived to let them in.
"Sorry…Emmy! Please come get your sister." A small child of about five stood in the doorway that led into the main part of the house, humming loudly and wearing a pair of adult athletic socks on her hands and forearms. The reason for the strange attire became obvious when she lifted her wrist to her mouth and began to bite, prompting her young mother to reach for her arm. "No, honey. No biting."
Moments later, a jean-clad teen entered and swooped up the child. "You know, Trey was a lot closer, and he’s not busy with his homework." Despite her unconcealed irritation, Emmy made a wide-eyed happy face for her sister.
"Trey’s friends are here."
"Trey’s friends are always here," she grunted, disappearing back into the house with the little girl in her arms.
As Perry disconnected the broken washer, Carly removed the tape and packing from the new one. The whole switch took less than five minutes, and soon they were headed to the county dump where they would unload the discard.
"Did you see that little girl?" Perry asked.
"What do you think was wrong with her?"
"I don’t know…maybe she was autistic or something." The low opinion she’d had at first of the seemingly spoiled suburban mother had been mitigated by the obvious challenges this woman faced with caring for a child with special needs. People like that needed all the support they could get.
Carly picked up the clipboard and slipped on her glasses. At the bottom of the paperwork, the customer had signed her receipt: Justine Sharpe.
Justine squinted to read the closed-captioning on the TV news channel. A story about a bombing in Jerusalem had captured her attention, and she was unaware that she’d already completed her four-mile run. That’s right where Carly was!
From the corner of her eye, she saw a heavyset woman take a seat on the window ledge, apparently waiting for the next open treadmill.
"Here you go. That’s a great top, Frances. The lines really show off how much you’ve slimmed down." Her compliment was rewarded with a shy smile from the older woman, who had joined the Wellness Center soon after double-bypass surgery. One thing Justine had learned early on in her quest for fitness was how important it was to get encouragement from others.
Wiping her face and neck with a towel, the redhead hopped off and took a long pull on her water bottle. Dutifully, she completed her two circuits on the weight machines and began stretching to cool down. It was ten after six, and that gave her plenty of time to get home and shower, find something nice to wear…even fix her hair a little. Carly wouldn’t be there until eight.
Justine was faithful with her workout regimen, not allowing anything to interfere, even dinner plans with Carly Griffin. When she’d first adopted this routine, she’d given herself permission to miss a few workouts for one reason or another, and she found right away how easily she could fall out of the habit. No, she needed the rigid commitment, not just for the fitness benefits, but to avoid the guilt that always ensued when she skipped it.
Still sweating when she walked through the glass doors toward the parking lot, she pulled her collar up against the chill. A light dusting of snow covered her windshield, though it hadn’t yet begun to stick to the ground or the street.
An hour and a half later, Justine stood in her bathroom, applying the final touches of mascara and blush. She’d dressed tonight in her favorite jeans, the ones that hugged her hips and showed off her flat tummy. A tight-fitting red sweater completed her outfit, a look Emmy had said made her appear younger than her forty-three years. Nothing wrong with that.
After much discussion, she’d left things with Valerie that "liking" Carly that way probably wasn’t a good idea. There were too many complications…not the least of which was the fact that the woman was going to be leaving the country again in just a few weeks. Besides, her relationship with Emmy and Trey was the best it had been in over three years and she wasn’t about to rock that boat.
So why am I standing here in front of the mirror primping?
Next, she did a quick tour around the house, just in case her guest wanted to look around. Justine was kind of a neat freak—emphasis on the freak part, according to Emmy. Everything had a place, and within those places—the drawers, the cabinets, the closets—order was the rule. She’d cut the kids some slack to get them to visit more often, fighting herself not to go into their rooms to tidy up. Their compromise was to limit food to the kitchen and den, and to place their dirty laundry in the bathroom hamper. Justine topped that off by keeping their doors closed when they weren’t there.
Passing through her own bedroom one last time, she crouched down to look under the bed. She was practically compulsive about storing her vibrator on the top shelf of the closet, but she’d gradually given herself permission not to get up and do that every time before she went to sleep. Still, it would be awfully embarrassing to have her company find it poking out from under the bed because she’d forgotten to put it away.
Justine hadn’t been this nervous since that night in Cincinnati at the lesbian bar almost two years ago. Back in the kitchen, she reached into the cabinet and took down two plates for their pizza, and two wine glasses. A corked bottle of California red sat in the pantry, and it seemed like a good idea to take the edge off with…oh, a half a glass or so before her guest arrived.
"I didn’t hear your car." The redhead had practically jumped out of her skin when the doorbell rang just as she was peeking out the beveled window that lined the front door.
"That’s because I walked." Carly turned and pointed to the footbridge across the street. "That path leads right up to the park, and our house is just a few doors down."
The redhead shook her head in amazement. She’d never been all that good with spatial relations, but it was just ridiculous that she hadn’t realized the proximity of the Griffins’ house.
"I guess I forgot that went up to Stony Ridge. The county just built that path a few years ago so people could take their kids over to the park. ’Course, my kids were too big for playgrounds by then."
Carly presented her hostess with a bottle of red wine. "I hope you don’t mind. I ordered the pizza before I walked out and they’re supposed to deliver it here."
"That’s fine. Let me get a corkscrew. We can eat in the dining room…or in the kitchen…or if you want, we can eat on the floor in front of the fire. It’s cold outside."
"Tell me about it! They’re calling for two inches of snow tonight." The flurries were just starting to stick.
"Then let’s sit in front of the fire."
When they’d opened and poured the wine, the women went into the den and Justine pulled the coffee table back, dropping several pillows from the couch onto the floor.
"This is very nice, Justine. You have a beautiful home."
"Would you like to see the rest of it?"
Carly followed her from room to room, impressed with the warmth and simplicity of the décor. Oak baseboards, window frames and wainscoting contrasted against the dark carpet to give the whole house a homey feel, but without the usual knick knacks that personalized an abode. Like JT’s home, this one was smartly furnished, though the second Mrs. Sharpe seemed to have more formal tastes.
"I’d show you the upstairs, but that’s the kids’ rooms and my office, and I wouldn’t dare open the door to any of them."
The guest laughed knowingly as she followed Justine to the basement, a recreation room that opened through sliding glass doors into the back yard. "This is where the kids spend most of their time."
They climbed the steps again and wound through a hallway to the back of the house.
"And this is the master suite."
Carly shivered as she recognized her own fascination with the room. This is where Justine sleeps…right there in that bed. The king-sized bed was covered in a rich comforter set of dark teal and gold; mirrored closets lined the far wall; and bedside lamps cast the room in a soft inviting glow. Inviting?
Her prurient thoughts were vaporized by the sound of the doorbell.
"That’s our pizza. Let me get it," Justine insisted.
"No! It’s my treat. You bought dinner the other night." Carly was already pulling the cash from her hip pocket.
"Okay, but you go on in the den. I’ll get it and bring it in with some plates." Justine snatched the bills from her hand and took off for the foyer.
Well that was weird.
Moments later, the redhead deposited the pizza box on the coffee table, dashing back into the kitchen for the plates and the bottle of wine. She had polished off her first glass…her second glass actually, if you counted the one she drank before Carly had arrived.
The pizza was tasty, and just as they’d expected, Carly ate the cheesy side while Justine avoided the extra fat and calories. Conversation was casual…Justine talking a little about her job, and Carly recounting her earlier back pain from lifting the mattress.
"You should be more careful. Back pain’s nothing to fool around with." A part of Justine was tempted to offer a backrub, but that was just asking for trouble.
"Oh, and you’d never guess who we delivered a washer to today."
Carly was amused to notice that her hostess was mildly tipsy. From what Justine had said the other night, that might make this evening’s conversations more revealing than when they’d gone to dinner.
"We took it to a Justine Sharpe on Lakeside Drive."
The redhead scrunched her lips dismissively. "J2."
"Yeah, I get it now. The other night you said it was a long story."
"You know…I couldn’t believe that old slime ball. I was sitting there with the lawyers signing papers, and I got to something that said…I’d return to the use of my maiden name…and I said ‘Uh-unh, JT.’ I didn’t care nothing about his stupid name, but my kids are Sharpes. I wasn’t going to have my name be different, so I crossed it out." She smirked with annoyance as she told the tale. "And his lawyer got him on the cell phone and next thing I know, he’s throwing in another twenty thousand dollars, and I wanna know why he thinks his name’s so special. So I made his lawyer hand me the phone. That’s when he told me about…her. I didn’t care, but it’s kind of tacky to go getting your girlfriend in the family way when you’re still married to somebody else."
"What a jerk!"
"Nah, it turned out alright. I made him put up twenty thousand for each of the kids in a CD. And when he and J2 got married, I forwarded all my old junk mail to her." Justine snickered as she tipped her glass and drained it.
"Then I guess it’s handy that he just happens to like women named Justine."
"I guess…but his first wife was a Pamela. She’s the one that put him through law school."
"Wow, he really is a slime ball."
"Yeah, but he’s not so bad if you aren’t married to him."
Despite the words, Carly heard the melancholy in her friend’s voice. She wanted to ask about Trey and Emmy, and to say that she had see them today too, but she sensed that their absence in this home was probably the source of Justine’s sadness. "I should have gotten another bottle of wine," she said as she poured the last few drops into her hostess’s empty glass. Carly found herself taken in completely by the redhead’s glowing cheeks.
"I may have a teensy bit more…There might just be an open bottle in the pantry." Okay, she knew for a fact that there was an open bottle in the pantry, but it seemed more dignified to be coy about it. And after three and a half glasses, her words were slightly slurred.
"Do you like cognac?"
"I can’t say as I’ve ever had the pleasure of…imbibing in cognac." Justine’s tone was exceedingly formal.
"It’s a special brandy…a nice after dinner drink. Goes good with a cigarette."
"A cigarette! Don’t tell me you smoke cigarettes." Justine crinkled her nose.
"I do. Isabel used to say that it made me very…sexy."
The word hung in the air as both women found themselves locked into a spontaneous stare down.
"And what does cognac do?"
"Cognac…makes me relax."
Relaxing is good. Although Justine had to admit, she wasn’t nearly as nervous as she’d been before Carly had arrived. There was that anxious moment when the pizza man came. Thank goodness she’d headed that off. What if that delivery boy had seen her here? What if she’d answered my door? It would be all over town tomorrow.
"What do you say I run back over the hill to Stony Ridge…have a cigarette or two…and come back with a bottle of Hennessy’s Very…Special…Old…Pale cognac?"
Justine hung on every word, mesmerized by the pink lips from which they flowed. Her own mouth opened to answer, but nothing came out.
The redhead could only nod.
"So…I’ll be right back…and when I get here, we’ll decide if you’ve had enough wine to tell me any secrets…deal?"
Justine scowled. Yep, she’d had enough wine to talk…and probably too much to know when to shut up. But Carly’s been so nice…. "Okay, deal."
Her guest was gone for about twenty minutes, during which Justine found it incredibly important to comb her hair and reapply a light coat of lip gloss. There was no need for the blush—the wine was doing wonders for her color, but her eyes had taken on a glassy shine. I better go easy on that cognac.
Carly returned with her bottle of Hennessy’s and two brandy snifters, the smoky aroma of her Dunhill faintly present. Justine helped her out of her snow-covered jacket and hung it on a hook behind the door, leading her back into the kitchen.
"Cognac is nice when it’s slightly warm. That’s why the glass is made this way, so you can hold the bottom of it." She filled both glasses with warm water, then wiped them dry.
"Fascinating." Justine was beginning to find cognac quite sexy.
Carly handed her a glass and led them back to the now roaring fire. "This is kind of strong at first, so you’ll want to sip it."
"Mmmm…it’s nice. But you’re right about it being strong."
"It just kind of creeps into your bones and turns you into jelly." Carly settled back against the pillows on the floor, stretching her legs out in front of the fire. Justine sat across from her, resting her back against a stuffed leather chair, their legs now side by side.
God, she’s sexy! Justine wanted to creep all over Carly’s bones right now. The blonde woman looked so…so…irresistible sitting there with her hair damp and askew from the light snow, her tight black jeans, and that pullover. Too bad she hadn’t worn something to show off a little of that cleavage. Justine had peeked at that cleavage back when they were in high school, and for a fleeting second, she remembered squeezing—
"So tell me what you’ve been doing for twenty-five years. How has life treated you, my friend?"
A typical flippant response came to mind, but since Carly’s voice was so sincere, it made Justine want to open up a little. She hadn’t talked much about important things with anyone other than Valerie. "Not so good sometimes. I’m…things are a little better than they were, but…." She shrugged, the words trailing off.
"Do you want to tell me about it? You don’t have to if you don’t want to." The blonde woman reached over and laid her hand on Justine’s knee. "I just want to know how you’re doing, and how I can be your friend."
Justine blew out a resigned breath through closed lips, the accompanying raspberry almost comical. "There really isn’t all that much to tell. I moved back home when I finished up at Georgetown and went to work at the hospital." Georgetown was Georgetown College, a small liberal arts college about fifty miles from Leland. "When I first started there, I was in charge of raising money for the foundation…you know, for new equipment and all. And I met JT." She chuckled softly. "He was handsome, and funny…. He’d been at Cobb & Finger for a couple of years."
"That’s a law firm, right?"
"Yeah. Now it’s Cobb, Finger & Sharpe. Anyway, we got married and I got pregnant pretty soon after that. But then I miscarried after fourteen weeks. That was a really sad time for us. I don’t think I realized until then just how much I wanted to be a mom." Even after twenty years, the memory of that loss was enough to evoke fresh tears. Justine wiped her eyes, smearing her mascara at the corners. "But then Trey came along, and he was healthy, and Emmy was born eighteen months later. I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as I was when they were little. JT doted on both of ’em. We built this house and settled in…it all should have been just perfect."
Justine hated to sound so pathetic, but after hearing about Carly’s exciting life, her own seemed so dismal.
"So what happened?"
The redhead laughed cynically and shook her head. "What didn’t happen? Let’s see…to start with, I swelled up like a blimp when I was pregnant with Trey. And after I had him, all that extra weight just stayed there and then I got even bigger with Emmy. I looked awful. I’d show you a picture but I sat here one night and burned every dang one of them."
"I can’t imagine you not being beautiful, Justine…no matter what." Carly remembered that glimpse she’d gotten of Justine from afar when she was pregnant with her second child.
"Aw, you’re so sweet to say that, but I sure didn’t feel beautiful." She smiled at her guest, reminded once again that Carly had always treated her with special kindness. "And I heard about it from everybody…my mom, my sister…even the kids said their friends teased them about their mother being so fat."
Carly’s heart went out at that. It must have been terrible to feel like her own children were against her. "What about JT?"
"Not JT so much, but then he wasn’t paying all that much attention to me by that time anyway. Right after Emmy was born, I found out from Aaron Cobb’s wife that he was having an affair with some paralegal at work. She was about twenty…and JT was thirty-four. I lit into him, but the truth of the matter is that I really didn’t care, at least not all that much. I mean, nobody wants their husband running around with somebody else in front of the whole town, but I didn’t feel like being much of a lover myself when I looked the way I did."
Carly took the empty snifters and poured another inch of the amber liquid into the bottom. The guilt she felt about getting her friend drunk was offset by her satisfaction that Justine was finally loosening up.
"So that’s how it was…for most of the fourteen years we were married. I went back to work when Emmy started school. Things started to look up there. We got a big campaign going to build the new wing. We were throwing parties at the country club, and people were getting behind it. I have to hand it to JT. He might have been a snake, but he was always right there with me when I needed him to be, coming to all the parties and helping to make sure his important clients were there."
Justine closed her eyes and sipped her cognac. The next part of her story was going to be hard to tell. It was this that had cost her practically everything that was dear in her life. Everyone in Leland had passed judgment, but something told her that Carly Griffin wouldn’t.
"And then I…then I met Petra Yager."
This was undoubtedly the woman Carly’s mother had heard about.
"Petra was married to a surgeon who was doing a rotation here from the med school at UK. They were originally from Germany, but he was hoping to be able to stay in this country. They were a popular addition to the fundraising parties, on account of being from somewhere else and all, and one day Petra offered to help me out with one of the parties. So after that, we started spending a whole lot of time together, talking about fundraising ideas, and working on projects and such." The redhead took another sip of brandy and blew out a loud breath before continuing. "Petra was just about the most beguiling woman I’d ever met. She was exotic and captivating…and so, so sensuous. And she just found me fascinating. I knew—we know these things about ourselves—" she slurred, shaking her finger as though to admonish her guest, "that I was flat out playing with fire. But I couldn’t stop…I didn’t want to stop. So there we were one night at that party at the country club…must have been two hundred guests…and Petra just looked so…sexy! She had on a…," Justine shook her head in confusion, her words coming slower and slower, "I don’t remember…but like I said, she was really sexy."
Carly couldn’t have moved if she’d wanted to. Her friend had leaned forward and practically pinned her against her pillows as she spoke, her voice a loud whisper as though the walls had ears. From the dreamy expression on Justine’s face, it was apparent that she had taken herself back to that night.
"I went in the kitchen to get the awards we were gonna give out, and she followed me. I’d been looking at her all night, and she’d been looking at me…like she could just…eat me up. ‘Mein schatz.’ That’s what she said. It means sweetheart or something…I looked it up. And then she kisssssed me."
"Kissed you?" Carly became vaguely aware that she was…aroused. And she was jealous as hell.
"Kisssssed me. And you know exactly what I did when she did that." It was not a question.
"What did you do?"
"I—it was a blue dress with spaghetti straps, I remember now—I put my hand on her breast…and I squeezed it." Justine made a gripping motion with her free hand, using her other to raise her glass once again. Squinting as she leaned forward again, she added, "Just like that time I grabbed yours. It’s like the nerves are all…connected." Because they are.
Carly’s mouth had gone dry as she found herself sitting up, now only inches from Justine’s lips and that searching hand. In about two seconds, they were going to have a very similar experience. Nearly breathless, she asked, "And then what happened?"
"And then JT walked in with Sara McCurry and Aaron Cobb."
And tonight, six years later—and without even being present—the threesome had managed to shatter what might have been another electric moment for Justine. Instead, the blonde woman’s jaw dropped in disbelief as she slumped backward onto the pillows. "You mean Sara McCurry from high school?"
"The same. You remember the three ways to spread gossip? Telephone, telegraph…."
Justine’s slow, emphatic nod underscored her inebriated state. "And by the next day, everybody in town had heard about it…’cept by that time, the story had us with half our clothes off rolling around on the floor, and some people were even swearing up and down that they’d seen pictures."
"What’d you do?"
"I stayed in bed for a week with the blinds closed and the phone off the hook."
"JT laughed his hind end off. But Aaron Cobb was his law partner, and after a while, Aaron thought all that gossip might be bad for business…what with one of the partner’s wives practically scandalizing the whole community. So after a month or so…JT said he thought we ought to go ahead and get divorced. There weren’t any hard feelings or anything. Heck, we got along better after all that than we did before. I guess the pressure was off, and it gave him an excuse to move on without looking like the sleaze bucket he was." The redhead polished off the last of her cognac and clumsily set the glass on the coffee table.
"And what happened to Petra?"
"Petra!" The accompanying laugh was decidedly insincere. "Petra was sent back to Germany to live until her husband got his green card. They couldn’t afford to be seen as undesirables."
Carly knew from her experience with Isabel what it was like to be forcibly separated from someone she cared about. "That must have been awful for both of you."
"Nah." Justine waved a hand in front of her face. "It’s not like we were in love or anything…more like in lust. I mean, she was nice and all, but it was …purely physical."
"And all you did was kiss?"
"I grabbed her breast!" Justine was indignant that Carly would overlook such an important detail.
"You really like that, don’t you?" Now it was Carly who was whispering. She had pulled herself up to a sitting position, again only inches from the redhead’s face.
"No, I love that!"
"What do you love about it?"
"I love the way…it fits in my hand." Reaching out, she covered Carly’s breast and gave it a gentle squeeze, not taking her eyes from her next goal, the pink, pleading lips. "I love how it makes me feel…to be able to do that."
Justine crushed those lips with her own, pushing Carly back into the pillows as she crawled over to completely cover the other woman’s body.
Oh my god! Twenty-six years of lustful longings were finally rewarded when Justine’s long tongue invaded her mouth. Carly would have responded in kind, but she was too busy trying to get her twisted leg out from underneath her before the other woman’s weight snapped it in two.
"Unh!" She finally wriggled it free, only to have Justine draw back.
Carly cut her off by pulling her forcefully back down for a second searing kiss. No, no, Justine. Please don’t ever be sorry for this. The luscious lips were every bit as nice as she remembered and then some. This was the horizontal version of what had happened in the chemistry closet, but this time around it was two women who knew what they wanted. This wasn’t practice…it wasn’t exploration…it was desire, and it was pouring out of both of them. Every nerve in Carly’s body came to life when she felt the taller woman’s thigh settle at the apex of her legs and she couldn’t stop herself from surging upward.
"God, Carly…you’re just as hot as I remember. I’ve wanted to do this for almost thirty years." Justine thrust her hand beneath the pullover in search of that breast in its naked form.
Carly matched her move by tugging at the bottom of the red sweater. Justine leaned back and pulled it off in one fluid motion, tossing it onto the couch. "I hope you don’t mind a few stretch marks," she mumbled. "Now you."
A red bra! Carly was so captivated by the sexy sight that she forgot that she’d been given a command. Her impatient hostess pushed her top all the way up with both hands and buried her face into that elusive cleavage, unaware that she had covered Carly’s face with her sweater in order to gain access to the prize. Carly was flailing frantically to get her arms out of the tightly-cuffed sleeves so that she could pull the sweater from where it had gathered around her head.
Justine was oblivious to Carly’s predicament, drawing the breasts together so that she might feel them on both sides of her face. The blonde woman was proving every bit as irresistible as she had playfully implied. Justine pushed the wire-rimmed bra up as well, freeing the beautiful breasts but worsening her captive’s plight.
This was about as clumsy an experience as Carly could remember, but what did she expect? She herself was half drunk, and Justine surely wasn’t accustomed to the ass-kicking qualities of Hennessy’s VSOP. They probably shouldn’t even be doing this, but which one of them was going to stop? It sure as hell isn’t going to be me.
Finally, Carly freed her hands and pulled the sweater from her head. The first thing she saw was the redhead’s mouth closing over one of her nipples as long fingers pinched the other. Instinctively, she lifted up to unhook her bra, which by this time was rolled up as high as it could go, the underwires digging into the soft tissue of her armpits. She twisted and grimaced, unable to reach the clasp.
Justine quickly complied, tossing the bra aside as she returned to suckle a breast. "God, this is nice."
I can’t believe we’re doing this. I bet this is where the word ‘titillation’ comes from. Carly wove her hands through the thick red hair, guiding the lips from one breast to the other. Just when she thought she’d go crazy with the frenzied state of her nipples, she felt the redhead’s hand slipping under her waistband.
"Wait!" Carly needed a little more control here, or she was going to climax in about fifteen seconds and that would be all she wrote. Awkwardly, she tried to sit up, which caused Justine to lose her balance and roll backward onto the floor, where she banged her elbow on the corner of the couch.
"Sorry…I just…," the blonde continued to struggle, "…you were driving me crazy."
"Good, that’s what I was going for." Justine was breathless, and had already started to pucker her lips in anticipation of returning to her feast.
But Carly wasn’t ready to concede her fate. She too wanted access to what she knew would be a gorgeous body, and besides, she had this little…inconvenience.
"I want to see you."
Without a moment’s hesitation, Justine lost the red bra and kicked off her shoes. In no time, her jeans were off and added to the growing pile of clothes. Carly too had unfastened her jeans, and was still considering her options when the eager redhead started tugging them down her thighs.
"Wait!" This time, her command had no effect, and the result was a tangle of jeans hopelessly stuck over Carly’s zippered half-boots. The more she struggled, the tighter they got, until Justine freed them with a mighty yank, nearly pulling the blonde woman’s feet off in the process.
The fire crackled only a few feet away, but it wasn’t giving off nearly as much heat as the frolicking pair on the floor. Both women now were down to their panties and socks, and once again, the redhead crawled to lie directly on top, her tongue already searching for the hot mouth as her hands roamed up and down the smooth warm skin.
"You’re so hot, Carly." Justine reached again to the other woman’s waist, but she was thwarted once more when Carly grabbed her wrist firmly.
"No…I have my period."
The redhead’s first reaction was confusion, then colossal disappointment. No! "I don’t care."
"I care. I don’t…it’s…personal."
Justine groaned in frustration.
"But I can still touch you," Carly added hopefully, sliding to the side to allow the redhead to lie back on the pillows. "Let me show you how good I can make you feel."
Carly shifted onto her side and began to trail her fingertips over Justine’s nude torso. Her first good look at the woman’s breasts made her want to attack them with the same fervor her own had received, but she held back, fighting hard with the cognac in order to savor the experience. When she finally closed her lips over a rigid nipple, she got a delightful surprise.
"Oh, God…that feels so good."
Justine’s eyes were closed and she’d raised her arms above her head in complete supplication. Her open mouth gave the appearance of unbridled bliss.
Carly moved to straddle her, and using both hands now, stroked the shapely woman’s sides from her hips to her elbows and back. She marveled at the deceptive softness of the sculpted muscles. But most of all, she liked the sounds—the moans, the hisses, and the barely intelligible words—her touches evoked.
Carly slipped her fingers under the waistband of the red panties, pushing them down to reveal a full, reddish-brown bush. I can’t believe I’m doing this!
Justine raised her hips to allow the panties to be discarded, and instinctively opened her legs to receive whatever else her lover had in mind.
"Take me, Carly."
Oh, my god! In her twenty-six years of fantasizing about Justine Hall, she’d never imagined a body so inviting, a smell so sweet, or woman so wanting. Carly slipped her fingers into the wet folds and was immediately rewarded.
"Oh, yessss…I love that! Go inside."
Carly did, sliding two fingers inside the warm wetness.
"More…fill me up." Justine’s hips had begun to undulate in the rhythm of her lover’s strokes. "That’s it…now fuck me."
Oh, god…that almost did it right there. Her own hips were rocking reflexively against a pillow, but Carly shifted so that her center made contact with Justine’s well-toned thigh. In and out she pumped her hand, her own moans now mixing with those of her lover.
"You’re so good, Carly. That’s so nice…I love your hand inside me…fucking me…it makes me wanna come so bad." Justine had thrown one arm over her face. Her hips climbed higher to deepen the thrusts. "Oh god that’s so good, Carly…oh god that’s good…oh god…oh!"
And with that, both Carly and Justine exploded in a million pieces.
A long arm snaked from beneath the blanket, slapping aimlessly in the direction of whatever contraption was making that ungodly noise. A dark head followed as a hand finally made contact with the snooze alarm.
Justine felt as though she’d been trampled by horses, most of which had galloped on through her mouth. With colossal effort, she dragged herself to a sitting position, swinging her feet from underneath the covers to find the floor. Staring back at her from the mirrored closet was a beast of a woman. Even from here, she could see streaked mascara and matted hair, and the red eyes glowed like something out of a horror movie. She was nude, except for the dark blue socks. She hadn’t slept a whole night in the nude since before her first child was born.
She had no recollection whatsoever of going to bed the night before. In fact, her last clear memory was…she and Carly were talking about…no, she and Carly were…. Images of beautiful naked breasts suddenly filled the space behind her eyes, accompanied soon after by a vague recollection of…. "Oh, my."
To her horror, a pile of something beneath the covers behind her shifted. Still focused on the mirror, Justine leaned slowly to the side to discover that something lay beyond her in the bed. That something was a someone. And if her memory served her correctly, that someone was Carly Griffin.
And with that realization, Justine was going to throw up.
Her stomach roiled as she stood, a hand going up at once to prevent her head from falling backward off her neck. Gingerly, she stumbled to the bathroom and closed the door.
"You’ve really done it now, Justine," she groaned into the mirror as she took stock of her puffy face. She turned on the water in the shower, adding an extra twist to the hot valve in hopes that the steam and heat would clear her head and cleanse her wicked soul.
"What did you think you were doing?" she asked herself as she stepped under the near scalding spray. Bit by bit, the water and soap restored her senses, only serving to illuminate her growing guilt. After all these years of wishing she and Carly had just gone ahead and done it all, they finally had. If that had happened back in high school, all the questions that had dogged her would have been answered with crystal clarity. There would have been no JT in her life…but also no Trey and no Emmy. It was way too late to be second-guessing all that. She’d chosen the kids then, and she was choosing them again now. She didn’t have a place in her life for Carly Griffin. There was a price to pay in Leland for such things.
"You’ll feel better after you get something in your stomach." Nadine set a plate of country ham and eggs in front of her daughter.
"No thanks, Mama." Carly made a face and pushed the plate toward her father’s chair. Right away, her dad took a seat and popped the runny yolks with his fork.
"Mmmm…runny yellows, just like I like ’em. Nadine, we got any of that cottage cheese left?" He dipped his toast into the center of the egg and raised the dripping crust to his mouth.
Carly grimaced at the combination. She’d never known her father to eat such things at breakfast.
"I was going to throw that cottage cheese out. It’s got a little mold on the top, but I can scrape it off if you want me to."
"Naw, that’s alright. Just bring me some ketchup."
"You want a beer?"
"Sure. That’d go good."
Nadine plucked a cold one from the refrigerator and set it in front of her husband.
My father is having a beer with breakfast? Carly was ready to gag when she finally realized her parents’ game.
"Oh, you guys are hilarious." She grabbed her coffee cup and walked out, trying in vain to tune out their knee-slapping laughter.
She’d tried to slip in unnoticed just after dawn, but her mother met her at the back door, unable to resist pointing out that she looked like something the cat dragged in. Carly astutely observed that they didn’t have a cat, but her mother replied that she didn’t want one if they were going to drag in things like that.
There was no sympathy for the younger Griffin. Instead, her parents had conspired to make her morning even more miserable than it already was.
And there was no denying that it was a miserable morning. She’d awakened in Justine’s bed dressed only in her panties and socks with no idea on earth about how she’d gotten there. She had vague memories of some of the things they’d done on the floor in front of the fire. Two vivid reminders of their exuberant frolic were the rug burns on her knees.
I finally had sex with Justine Hall and I barely remember it.
But the worst part had been the demeanor of the woman who had been her passionate lover only hours earlier. Without the cognac, Justine obviously didn’t find her all that attractive, and she’d been very anxious for Carly to leave before the neighbors were out and about. They’d shared an awkward hug at the door, but Justine hadn’t even met her eye, and the smile that Carly had enjoyed of late was gone.
Justine was being very careful to hold her head as still as possible. She feared that even the slightest movement would cause her brains to fall out, and that the sight of them on the floor would make her throw up.
The redhead had never been much of a drinker. She’d always appreciated the relaxing qualities of a glass or two of wine, but a handful of dreadful hangovers in college taught her the value of avoiding having too much to drink. And if those hangovers in college had been dreadful, the one she was having right now might kill her outright.
"Good morning, Mr. Newton. What can I do for you?" Harold Newton ran the local fish market, the odor of his clothes an unfortunate reminder of that.
"I was in here on Saturday to get my hand sewed up. I nearly hacked it off with the electric saw when I was cutting some frozen salmon steaks."
Justine looked away as Harold began to remove his bandage. "If you’re having a problem with your wound, you’ll need to go back to the emergency room. I’m sure they can help you."
"Well, I aim to do that, but I wanted to make sure that they don’t mess up and bill me twice for this, ’cause I figure I already paid for it once, and if they didn’t do it right, I shouldn’t have to pay again. When somebody brings back a fish and it’s slimy or diseased, I don’t make ’em buy a new fish."
The thought of slimy fish threatened to push Justine over the edge. "Mr. Newton, it’s very important that you get your injury taken care of first. Sometimes, a wound can get worse if it’s allowed to get wet or dirty—"
"Well, I have to work for a living. And see, that’s what started it. On Monday, it got all red and the skin around it turned yellow…you know, crusty."
Justine really didn’t need to hear this.
"And then by Tuesday, it started leaking a little runny blood. Hurt like a son of a gun."
The redhead’s stomach lurched in agony at the mental image Harold described.
"And it oozed all day yesterday," he finished unwrapping it and laid it directly in front of Justine. "Then this morning, I got up and there was this big ole pus ball."
Oh, no. "Mr. Newton, you’re gonna have to…" she pushed up from her desk and began walking backward to the file room, "…go on down to the…," she raised her hand to her mouth and mumbled the last of her message, "emergency room."
Now racing around the corner, she stuck her head in the trash can and tossed the acids in her stomach. Why on God’s green earth did Harold Newton have to pick today of all days to come in here with the nastiest infection Justine had ever seen?
After the night she’d had, she deserved her body’s revolt. Life was all about balance. If you’re going to eat chocolate, there’s going to be a consequence, whether it be extra pounds or extra miles on the treadmill. And the going rate for half a bottle of cognac seemed to be a stomach lining. But the jury was still out on what she’d have to pay for her roll on the floor with Carly Griffin.
Peeking around the door frame, Justine was immensely relieved to find that Mr. Newton had apparently taken his "big ole pus ball" down to the emergency room. She returned to her desk and rummaged in the drawer for an antacid.
What am I gonna do about Carly? She felt awful about the way she’d practically thrown the woman out this morning. And the irony of it was that she’d wanted her to go before the neighbors got up, but when the people on her street left for work this morning, they were bound to notice the tracks in the snow. The footprints led one-way from her front door right up the hill to Stony Ridge, so anybody with half a brain cell could put together the fact that she’d had company overnight. And if they happened to have a whole brain cell, they’d remember who Justine knew that lived over on Stony Ridge. Heck, by four o’clock this afternoon, the whole town would know that Carly Griffin had slept over, and somebody would be saying that they had seen the pictures.
"Calm down, Justine," she told herself, grateful to be getting a break from the usual stream of patient complaints. At least that part of her day was going okay…but there was still that balance thing, and that meant she’d probably get slammed as soon as the snow let up.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the phone.
"Good morning, Patient Services. This is Justine Hall. May I help you?"
"Emmy? Is everything alright?" It was highly unusual to be getting a call from her daughter in the middle of a school day.
"What is it? Are you at school?"
"No, they canceled school on account of the snow. I’m at home with Alex."
"Just the two of you?" Emmy was about the only one other than J2 who could handle the little girl’s special demands.
"Yeah, J2 had to run out and get some medicine for Alex’s hand. That’s why I’m calling. She should’ve been back by now. Dad’s in court." Both Emmy and her brother had taken to using the moniker their mother had coined. Their stepmother took it in stride, except for a time or two when it slipped out of JT’s mouth.
"Well, honey, I’m sure she probably just stopped to run a few errands. Are you and Alexandra okay?"
"She’s really agitated. I think her hand hurts a lot. She got to it last night and it was bleeding all over the place this morning."
"Did you get the bleeding stopped?"
"Yeah, and it’s wrapped up nice and tight. But I think it hurts her. She’s crying and waving it around. I just wish J2 would get home with the medicine."
Justine heard the worry in her daughter’s voice. It wasn’t fair to ask a sixteen-year-old to take that on without some help. She didn’t fault J2, though; it wasn’t like her at all just to dump this on her stepdaughter. There had to be an explanation. "Alright, honey, here’s what I want you to do. Call down to the drugstore and see if J2 picked up the medicine. Then call me back on my cell phone. If she hasn’t gotten it, I’ll go by and pick it up and bring it on over."
"Thanks, Mom. I knew I could count on you."
That simple statement brought an unwelcome rush of tears to Justine’s still-red eyes. "You can always count on me, honey."
Justine left a message for Dr. Henderson that she had an emergency and posted a sign on the door directing inquiries to the administration offices on the second floor. She reached the parking lot to find another inch and a half of snow on the ground, with it still coming down. They were going to get socked with this early winter storm.
Her Acura handled well in the snow, but just to be safe, she pulled off the road right away when her cell phone chirped. "Hello?"
"Mom? I did what you said. Trudy said J2 picked up the medicine over an hour ago, and that she was in a hurry to get it and get home."
Justine heard the shake in her daughter’s voice. "Don’t worry, Emmy. The roads are a mess out here…she may have gotten stuck or something. I’m going to head over to the drugstore and see if I see her car somewhere. You keep this phone on, you hear?"
"Okay. Call me if you find her."
"I can’t get her to stop crying."
"Okay, honey. If I don’t find J2, I’ll come on over and sit with you until she gets home. Either way, it won’t be much longer, okay?"
"Okay. Thanks, Mom."
"You’re welcome. You’re always welcome."
The redhead reached the drugstore and looked about for J2’s white minivan. Only a few cars were parked on the street in front, none familiar. Heading out of downtown in the direction of Lakeside, Justine maneuvered carefully to avoid a minor accident, noting with relief that neither of the cars involved was someone she knew. As she drove further from downtown, the roads got slicker from lack of traffic; and sure enough, she finally came upon the vehicle she’d been searching for. From the looks of things, J2 had slipped off the shoulder while rounding a curve. The van was hopelessly stuck in the ditch.
Justine activated her emergency flashers and pulled to the edge of the road, careful not to go over too far, lest she wind up in the ditch herself. With a quick peek inside, she determined that J2 had abandoned the vehicle, probably to continue homeward on foot. Returning to her car, she resumed her search.
Around the next curve, she saw a small figure plodding in the snow up ahead. Justine tooted the horn as she began to slow down, realizing for certain that this woman was J2, and that she wasn’t at all dressed to be out walking in this kind of weather.
"Get in," she said through the now-open passenger window, pulling alongside the shivering woman.
J2 didn’t have to be asked twice. Hurriedly, she opened the door and slid into the bucket seat.
Justine rolled up the window and turned the heater on full blast.
"What in the world are you doing out in this weather in that flimsy jacket? And where are your gloves?"
J2 wanted to be irritated at the motherly questions, but the woman had a point. "I hadn’t planned on being gone that long. I was just running to the drugstore and back."
"Are you alright? You weren’t hurt or anything, were you?"
J2 shook her head. "No, I’m fine. I appreciate you stopping. What are you doing out this way?"
"Emmy called me at work. She was worried, and she said Alexandra was crying."
"Poor little thing." J2 looked as if she was going to cry, too. "Thanks for coming all the way out here, Justine. That was a nice thing to do."
"It was nothing. I know you’d have done the same thing if Emmy had called you and needed something."
The pair drove on in awkward silence until they reached the big house on Lakeside Drive. Justine pulled into the drive, expecting just to drop her passenger and head back to work.
"Do you want…to come in for coffee or something?"
"I don’t want to be any trouble. It sounds like you’ve already got your hands full today without having to play hostess too. But I wouldn’t mind saying hi to Emmy."
J2 nodded. "Sure."
Justine was no stranger to her ex-husband’s home. She’d been here lots of times before Trey started driving to drop the kids off to visit their dad…and then later to pick them up to come visit her. For the most part, the adults involved got along pretty well. There weren’t any childish jealousies to deal with, despite J2’s involvement with JT while he and Justine were still living together as man and wife. Justine herself had admitted that she didn’t understand JT at all; so if that was the line he was feeding his mistress, who was she to argue?
"Look who’s here, Alex! Who’s that?" Emmy met them at the front door with her sister in her arms. She was clearly relieved to see the reinforcements arrive.
J2 scooped her small daughter up and disappeared into the bathroom to apply the medicine.
"Thanks, Mom." The teenager gave her mother a welcome hug.
"It was no problem. You did the right thing to call." She explained how she had found the van on the side of the road and its driver walking home.
"So what’d you do last night?"
The question startled Justine so much that she couldn’t answer.
"I called about ten-thirty to tell you to look outside at the snow, but nobody answered."
"I…I must have been in the shower or something." Now she remembered. The ringing phone had awakened them and they’d stumbled into the bedroom to finish their night of sleep.
"I thought you always showered in the morning."
"Yes, I meant bath…sometimes I take a bath at night to relax…you know, after running."
"But…you have a phone in the bedroom. Didn’t you hear it ring?"
"Obviously not." Justine’s voice was sharper than she’d intended. "I guess it was when I was running the water or something. I had the door closed to keep the bathroom warm."
"Oh, I guess that makes sense. Boy, it sure is tough trying to keep up with all you grownups. I tell myself I have to cut the apron strings, but I worry every time you guys go out there on your own."
"You’re such a nut, Emmy Sharpe." Justine pulled her daughter into another hug and kissed her forehead. "So where’s your brother today?"
"He took off early. As soon as they announced that school was closed, he headed over to Josh’s to play video games. He said he didn’t want to wait too late to go in case the roads got worse."
"Josh Roberts. You know, he lives about six houses down from yours."
The implications of that little tidbit washed over Justine and her hands started to shake. "Do you know what time he left?"
"It was a little before seven, I think."
Oh, god, that was close. Carly left about seven-thirty. That meant Trey hadn’t seen her; nor had he seen the footprints.
"I was going to ask him to drop me off at your house, but when Alex got up crying, I decided to stick around here in case J2 needed any help. Good thing, huh?"
"Yeah…that worked out really well." Justine considered fainting. Had it not been for that poor little girl in there with the bleeding hand, her daughter would have walked in on her and Carly. That possibility was almost more than she could stand. "Listen, I’ve gotta go. Love you."
"Love you too, Mom."
Justine backed out of the driveway and barreled down the street, the Acura fishtailing across a slick patch of ice. When she reached the entrance to the subdivision, she pulled over onto the shoulder and groped in her bag for her cell phone. Hands shaking furiously, she dialed the number.
"Valerie Thomas," the voice answered.
"I need to see you."
"Yes. Valerie, please let me come."
"Justine, we’re supposed to get eight to ten inches of snow today. I don’t think you should be out driving to Lexington in that."
"Valerie, I don’t care. I just…I have to talk."
"Okay, we can talk. But I don’t want you driving. Are you in your car right now?"
"Then I want you to go home. When you get there, fix yourself some hot cider or tea, and get a fire going. Then I want you to call me."
That was better than nothing, Justine conceded. Besides, it really was stupid to be out driving in this stuff if you didn’t have to be. "Okay, about a half hour from now?"
"I’ll be waiting. Be careful, Justine. No matter what’s going on, you need to concentrate on the road."
"Right." Justine made a quick check in the vanity mirror to see how much she’d aged in the last ten minutes.
Here’s a tip on raising kids: The Gypsies won’t take them if they haven’t had their shots. <g> Part 3
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