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DUCKS IN A ROW






BY


MICHELLE GARREN FLYE










Copyright 2012 Michelle Garren Flye






This book is dedicated with love to my husband Chris, who has always kept his promises to me, no matter how hard they might be. I love you.


Chapter 1


Cady Summers used to love seeing her husband Neil dress for work. He’d come out of the shower wrapped in a towel, his lean, muscular body gleaming with water. When he pulled his neatly creased trousers over his hips and slipped on his shirt, she’d button it for him while he kissed her with a lust that left them both breathless. Sometimes, when there was time, he’d even forgo breakfast and have her instead, right there on the bathroom sink, and afterward she’d fashion his tie in a perfect Windsor. Once upon a time, she couldn’t get enough of seeing him dressed in the perfect white shirts, ties and khakis.

Now he was usually gone to work before she woke up, and all she could think about was the dry cleaners. Did she drop off his shirts? Did she pick up the last batch? How much did it cost per month? Maybe she should learn to press them herself. And why would he leave on a Sunday morning before she even got up, anyway?

She gathered the dirty clothes he left on the floor, trying not to think that it was only a three-foot trip from the floor to the laundry chute. She bit her tongue to keep from complaining, even to herself. It was only a tiny chore, not too much to ask of her. Neil had other things on his mind. His family law practice took up much of his time. She appreciated the irony that the law practice that kept her and her thirteen-year-old daughter Kelsea living so comfortably in their lovely home very often took away the one thing she would prefer to keep by her side: her husband.

After she made the bed, washed the breakfast dishes and put the clothes into the washer she went out on the deck for a cup of coffee. The house was too quiet without Kelsea, who had spent the night with a friend from school. Cady didn’t expect her daughter home until late afternoon.

Even in January the weather in Eastern North Carolina was often temperate, and Cady could sit on her balcony in a light jacket and watch the waters of Haywood Creek, so much less hurried than the Trent River it branched from, meander past. Cady sipped her coffee and breathed.

“Hey, you on the balcony, don’t you answer your door?” The harsh female voice cut across Cady’s solitude and she blinked down at the woman in her back yard.

“Cam?” She stood and peered over the railing. “What the hell?” She hadn’t seen her twin sister in nearly five years, and she could hardly believe she was standing right there in her yard, dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and a threadbare denim jacket with some bizarre emblem on the back.

“Let me into your tower and I’ll tell you, Rapunzel.” Camryn Taylor stuck her hands in her pockets and grinned at her sister.

Her sister’s mocking tone grated on Cady’s nerves, and she made a private bet with herself about how long it would take for them to start arguing but decided maybe even that would be more interesting than drinking coffee alone. She jerked her head at the front door. “Go around front, and I’ll let you in there.”

Cam waited on the front steps, a gleaming black motorcycle parked next to Cady’s minivan. Cady gave it a look of distaste before turning back to her bemused-looking twin. “So what are you doing here?”

Cam smiled a little tightly and shrugged. “Well, your castle is gorgeous, I have to admit, and I sort of need a place to stay for a while.”

Cady could tell that it was difficult for Cam to ask. She had the air of somebody who wanted to get a disagreeable task over with. She tried to figure out what could have happened over the course of the past few months to make life hard enough to send her twin sister knocking on her door. The last she’d heard, Cam had been in a steady relationship with a man she actually seemed to like. Her two daughters were in their fathers’ custody and Cam rarely saw them, but she’d never been the maternal type anyway and hardly seemed to care.

So why this sudden flight? As Cady studied Cam’s face, irritation gave way to anxiety. What once would have been nearly a mirror image of her own face had changed, warped a little with time. Cam was thinner than Cady, her face more drawn, though still beautiful. The pallor of her complexion suggested recent illness.

“Are you okay?” Cady couldn’t help asking.

“I’m good.” Cam shrugged.

Cady sighed and stepped back from the door. “Come in, have a cup of coffee. You can tell me about it.”

In the kitchen, she poured the coffee, refilling her own cup. Cam refused sugar and creamer, and Cady laughed. “You and dad. He couldn’t drink anything but the blackest coffee.”

“He always said you shouldn’t screw with Juan Valdez’s beans.” Cam smiled, saluting with her cup. “Here’s to you, Dad.”

Both women drank deeply and Cam stared into her mug for several long seconds, swirling the liquid around. “How’s Mom?”

Cady wondered how much that simple question had cost her sister. Cam and their mother had fought bitterly through most of Cam’s life, finally ending with Cam leaving home when she was pregnant with her first child. She’d never returned to the little house in the mountains, even when her father passed away five years before, although she had attended the funeral. Mother and daughter had studiously ignored each other, sandwiching Cady between them as a buffer zone.

“She’s okay. She’s practically taken over the assisted living facility she moved into after Dad died. You know Mom.”

“Not really.” Cam shrugged. “I never did. I knew Dad pretty well, but Mom was a mystery to me. Her and her junior league buddies. I think that’s why I hate the suburbs so much.”

“Well, you must really be getting the creeps here, then.” Cady gestured at her house. “Although there’s not much for Trent Woods to be a suburb of, unless you count New Bern.”

“This isn’t a suburb. It’s a small town. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.”

Cady placed a cinnamon roll and a banana on a plate in front of Cam. “Eat. You need some calories from the look of you.”

Cam stared at the plate of food for a moment, and finally, as if she’d gained strength from the mere sight of it, she raised her head. “I need a place to stay.”

“You mentioned you were in between places.” Cady tried not to sound hesitant. Maybe it would be a chance to reconnect with her sister, maybe it would just be painful. She had an idea what Neil’s opinion would be. He and Cam had not parted on the best of terms the last time she’d visited. “What happened?”

“Same old thing. I screwed up. I just got to a point in my relationship with Stan where I knew I couldn’t go on any longer.” Cam shrugged, taking a bite of the cinnamon roll.

“Cam,” Cady paused and shook her head. “Relationships are work, you know. It’s really hard to stay with one person, but it’s very rewarding when you do.”

“Really?” Cam shot back and gestured in a grandiose manner at their surroundings. “I mean, yeah, I would guess so. You’ve got a big house and your husband has a steady job. Is that what you mean? Or is it that he’s great in bed? At least I assume he is since you’ve been married umpteen million years.”

“It’s not all about that.” Cady ignored her sister’s second question. Where was her reward? Her husband was gone all the time and had been for years, married more to his job than to her. Her daughter had grown up into a young woman, seemingly overnight. She didn’t need her mother as much anymore and Cady felt the loneliness of that intensely, especially without a husband around to share it with her.

“Then what’s it about?” When Cady didn’t reply, Cam’s eyes narrowed. “Is there trouble in paradise? I’m sorry, Sis, I didn’t realize you and Neil were having problems.”

“We’re not…exactly.” Cady turned to put her coffee cup in the sink. She paused, looking out unseeing through the trees to the slow moving waters of the creek. “I mean, we don’t fight or anything. But then, how could we when he’s never here?”

“He’s never here?” Cam’s voice floated to her from behind. “What exactly do you mean?”

“Just that. He comes home for a few hours and he’s either too exhausted to do more than fall asleep on the couch or he has to go back to work. Or he’s off on a business trip gathering depositions or something.” She sighed, turning back to her sister. “I know he loves me, but sometimes I feel like a widow.”

“Well, you’re hardly the first to feel that way.” Cam chewed for a minute. “But if you and Neil are already having problems, I shouldn’t add to it. I’ll find someplace else to go.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Cady fought a sudden sense of rising panic at the thought of not seeing her sister again for another five years. “Where are you going to go?”

“Seriously?” Cam shook her head. “You and I are so different, we’ve never gotten along. Having me here in the middle of things isn’t likely to solve your marital difficulties, either.”

Cady fell silent, thinking. She knew Cam was right. Neil wouldn’t be happy, and she would never be able to get along with her sister for an extended amount of time. But the panic won out. Cam stood right in front of her, in the flesh for the first time in years. If she walked out the door now, it would be like it never happened, like she’d never come home.

“I don’t want you to go.” She straightened her shoulders. “We’ll figure it out, but don’t leave.”

“Cady--” Cam sighed and put her hand on her sister’s. “Okay. I won’t go yet. We’ll see what Neil says.”


****


As she sliced cucumbers for the salad, lost in thought, Cady’s cell phone rang, startling her from her reverie. She smiled when she saw Will Hubbard’s number on the caller ID. Shifting the knife from one hand to the other, she tucked the phone between her chin and shoulder.

“Hey.”

“Hi there.” Will sounded relaxed, although she knew he had to be busy getting ready for the dinner rush. Even on a Sunday evening, his restaurant Hubbard’s Bar & Grille was a favorite dinner destination.

Cady frowned at the phone as she continued to slice vegetables. “Shouldn’t you be working?”

“Certainly. And I would be but I just realized someone didn’t call me with a final headcount for the Historical Society benefit dinner. You know, the one next week that I’m supposed to cater?”

“Oh!” Cady dropped the knife and wiped her hands on a dishtowel before rummaging through her briefcase. “I’m so sorry, Will. It’s been one of those days.” She pulled a file folder from the case and began to flip the pages. “Just a sec, I’ve got it right here.”

“No problem.” He really did sound as if it wasn’t. “What kind of day has it been?”

She smiled at the sincere concern in his voice and pictured him sitting at his desk in the office at Hubbard’s. She’d been there innumerable times to have coffee and plan for a benefit. Will’s family had run Hubbard’s for nearly two decades and under Will’s management it had expanded amazingly. In addition to the restaurant and catering business, Hubbard’s now included a neighboring banquet hall, which could be rented out for functions ranging from wedding receptions to dance parties to fundraising dinners.

Which was what he was calling about now. Cady scanned the paper in front of her that outlined her latest fundraising venture. Neil called her a “professional volunteer”, and she had to admit the title fit. Cady had planned her first event for the historical society three years before and since then she’d been on the top of everybody’s list of favorite volunteer event coordinators. It probably helped that she didn’t like to say no to a good cause.

“Hey, you didn’t answer my question.” Will sounded like he was pretending to be peeved.

“Sorry.” She found the line item for RSVPs on her spreadsheet. “Sixty-eight have replied yes, but I still have fifteen invitations outstanding. I can’t imagine more than half of those will respond yes. Assuming they are all couples or bring a date, let’s say plan for about fourteen more and I’ll get back with you by the middle of next week with the most definite number I can.”

“That’s terrific.” He paused for a moment and she pictured him writing it down. “But you still haven’t answered my other question. What’s made your day so busy you forgot to call me?”

“Oh.” She glanced over her shoulder to make sure Cam wasn’t anywhere around although she knew her sister was upstairs either taking a nap or a shower. Nevertheless, she lowered her voice. “My sister showed up this morning. Literally on my doorstep.”

“Your twin?” Will let out a low whistle. “That must have been a shock.”

“You have no idea.” Cady grinned. “And she was riding a hog.”

“A hog?” Will sounded amused. “A Harley?”

“Harley, Honda, whatever.” Cady snorted. “It’s big, black and parked out front right now. I can’t wait for the neighbors to see it.”

“She’s still there?”

“She needed a place to stay.” Cady felt a little uncomfortable. Should she be telling Will this before she’d even had a chance to talk to Neil? She could have called her husband at any time during the day to give him a heads up, but she’d decided it would be easier to break it to him in person. Of course, the sight of the “hog” parked in his front drive might be a bit of a shock, to say the least.

“What about Neil?” Will might have been reading her mind. “Does he know he’s got a new roommate?”

“Not exactly, but it’s not really my fault.” She knew she sounded defensive. “It’s Sunday and I haven’t seen him since last night.”

“Is he working on a case?”

“When is he not?” Cady sighed. “He’s probably been buried in the firm’s law library looking up some obscure bit of legislation.” She paused, feeling guilty. “I guess I should’ve called him, huh?”

Will’s silence answered her question, but when he answered he sounded noncommittal. “None of my business. Just look out for yourself, okay?”

“Of course. I’ve always been a big believer in number one coming first.”

He snorted and she thought again how much she loved talking to him. He had a way of making her feel better about herself. “I look forward to hearing how he takes the news,” he said. “Give me a call when things settle down.”

As she hung up, she heard the front door open. “Mom?”

Cady smiled, setting her cell phone aside and hurrying to the kitchen door to greet her daughter with a hug. “Hey baby! Did you have a good time? How was it?”

Kelsea Summers shook her walnut colored hair off her shoulders and hugged her mother, but then she stepped back and gave her a puzzled look. “You do know there’s a huge Harley sitting in the driveway, don’t you?”

“Oh.” Cady grinned at a sudden thought. “Did Marie see it?” The thought of her daughter’s best friend’s mother seeing a Harley in her front drive amused her.

“Um, yeah. She asked if we were having work done on the house.”

“Did you tell her it was probably your mother’s?”

Kelsea whirled to look at Cam, who stood on the back stairs. She turned to her mother, then back to Cam. “What? I mean, Aunt Cam?”

Cam grinned. “Hey kiddo. You’re a little taller than the last time I saw you.”

Kelsea laughed. “I was eight the last time you saw me.” She skipped over and threw her arms around her aunt’s neck. “It’s so great to see you.” She stepped back and looked at her mother. “Please tell me the motorcycle is Aunt Cam’s.”

“Well, we were discussing trading it for room and board.” Cady turned back to the stove with a wink.

“Does that mean--?” Kelsea clasped her hands and turned beseechingly to Cam. “Are you staying with us? For a while, I mean?”

Cam smiled. “I guess. But I refuse to give your mother lessons on how to ride a hog.”

“And I was so looking forward to it.” Cady arched an eyebrow at her sister as Kelsea threw her arms around her aunt yet again.

“Oh, I can’t wait. This is so great. You’ll be here for the cheer contest and my recital, too. Oh, you just have to stay for that! It’s only a couple of months away. And then--”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, honey.” Cady felt a little alarmed. “I, um, couldn’t get in touch with your father earlier.”

Cam helped herself to a slice of cucumber from the cutting board. “Probably best to take it one step at a time.”

“Probably so.”

Cady turned at the sound of her husband’s voice. Neil stood just inside the door of the kitchen surveying the scene in front of him with a slight frown that only showed on his forehead. He looked tired and rumpled, and she realized her assumption that he had been researching a case had probably been correct. She felt a surge of guilt and set aside the knife to give her husband a kiss. He embraced her absently.

“I was just telling them I hadn’t been able to get in touch with you to let you know Cam was visiting.” Cady looked appealingly at her husband.

“Really?” Neil patted his front pocket. “Yep. Got my cell phone right there. Didn’t ring all day.”

“You must’ve been on it or something. Maybe out of range.” Even such a tiny lie tasted sour, but Cady couldn’t admit she hadn’t wanted to call him about Cam.

Cam seemed to sense the tension between the two and cleared her throat. “Maybe I should wait outside.”

“No! Come upstairs with me.” Kelsea grabbed Cam’s hand and pulled her up the stairs. “I have a million things to show you.” Her voice chattered away as Cam followed her up the stairs.

Cady waited until she heard Kelsea’s door open and shut. Then she turned to Neil. “Okay, you’re right. I didn’t call. I didn’t want to get into this.”

Neil took a beer from the fridge and uncapped it. “Get into what?” He shrugged. “Your sister is visiting.”

Cady picked up the knife and turned her attention to the lettuce. She began cutting it into thin strips. “Yeah. I’m, um, not sure how long.”

“Great.” Neil nodded. “Last time she visited was five years ago. She alienated your mother and nearly drove you insane with worry. It’s always great to see her.”

“Neil--”

He held up his hand to stop her. He looked tired but resigned. “It’s fine, Cady. She’s your sister.”

Cady nodded. “My twin sister. And I get the feeling she needs help.”

He rolled his eyes and then sighed, giving her a rueful smile. He took another drink of his beer, set it down and slid his arms around her from behind, giving her a squeeze. “Okay, mother hen. I know better than to try to pull you away from a cause.” He kissed her neck. “And I’m sorry. Just a little tired.”

She resisted the temptation to lean into his caress. “Speaking of which, where the hell were you all day? You left this morning before I even got up, then you’re gone all day?”

He took a deep breath and turned away, leaving her feeling bereft and knowing she had only herself to blame. If she missed his touch so much, why did she resist him when he was around? “It’s just a case. I got caught up in it. I’m sorry I was gone so long.”

“On a Sunday.” She nudged him and handed him his beer.

He smiled a little, accepting the bottle. “Yeah, on a Sunday.” He slipped his free arm around her waist, kissing her gently. “Maybe I can make it up to you later?”

“Maybe.” She smiled and turned back to the oven. “In the meantime, let’s get dinner ready. I know you can’t wait to catch up with Cam, and I want to hear about our daughter’s weekend.”

“Right.” He opened the silverware drawer and began setting the table. As he passed her on his way to the cupboard for plates, Cady gave him a thoughtful look. She took things like this for granted. How many husbands set the table without being asked? And it was just one thing, just a tiny thing, in comparison to everything else he did.

So what if she had to deal without him some? His work was important to him, and she needed to understand that.

He finished setting the table and she turned back to the spaghetti sauce, stirring it with a long-handled spoon. As Neil passed, he paused beside her and when she glanced at him, he kissed her. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.” She felt it, too, in that moment, and she swore to herself she’d be better.


****


Kelsea kept them all amused through dinner with a vivacious account of her night. She and Sabrina, her best friend, had been to a movie Kelsea had been dying to see, and it had lived up to her expectations. As she listened, Cady remembered a time when she and Neil would have taken advantage of having a night to themselves. That didn’t happen anymore. She squelched the feeling of resentment the realization brought with it, stealing a look at Neil. He listened to Kelsea with an absent smile, asking questions and laughing at the appropriate times, but Cady wondered if he really heard her. Realizing her own mind had wandered, she turned her attention back to her daughter. In a pause, she impulsively reached across the table to take her daughter’s hand. “We need to see a movie together. Maybe next week.”

“Sure.” Kelsea grinned at her mother. “That’d be fun, Mom.” She stood, gathering her plate and silverware. “I should get my homework done, though.”

“You should.” Neil smiled at his daughter. “Back to school tomorrow, young lady.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Kelsea kissed him and Cady, then startled them all by going around the table to kiss Cam on the cheek as well. “I’m glad you’re here, Aunt Cam.”

Cam shot Cady and Neil a quick glance, then smiled at her niece. “Thanks. Yeah. Me too.”

The three adults listened in silence as Kelsea dropped her dishes in the sink and skipped up to her room. Neil picked up his nearly empty wine glass, swirling the contents with a thoughtful expression while Cady tried to figure out if she should remain in her seat or get up to clear the table.

“Are you all settled in, Cam?” Neil’s tone was civil though not overly friendly. Cady decided it was the best she could hope for.

“Sure.” Cam nodded. To Cady, her sister looked uncertain. “Thanks for letting me stay.”

“Well, any sister of my wife’s.” Neil downed the last of the wine and set the glass aside.

Cam sighed, looking resigned. “Listen, I won’t be here long enough to piss you off this time, Neil.”

“Really?” Neil raised his eyebrows. “Is that a challenge?”

“God, you think you’re so perfect, huh? Well, listen--”

“Stop it.” Cady stood, fearing her sister was about to say something about their earlier conversation about her less-than-perfect marriage. “We’re all tired. Let’s get the kitchen cleaned up and go to bed.”

Neil rose without another word and left the room. Cady watched him go with a mix of emotions. Relief that he had decided to back away from the fight, irritation that he’d started it in the first place and disappointment that he’d just leave without a word. Once upon a time he wouldn’t have left the room without a glance at her, but now she might as well be a piece of furniture. He didn’t have to acknowledge her to be sure she’d be there when he came back.

With a sigh and a frown, she turned back to the table but Cam had already started clearing it. She nodded down the hall. “You need to go talk to your husband.”

Cady could hear him in the bedroom upstairs, probably getting ready for bed. She considered insisting on helping Cam with the dishes, but decided her sister was right. For better or worse, she needed to have it out with her husband now.


****


Cam watched her sister leave knowing she had a fight on her hands and it was her fault. She glanced around at the dirty dishes still on the table and knew she should begin loading them into the dishwasher, but she had something to do first and she needed her strength to do it. Cam glanced at the clock on her cell phone. Six o’clock. Stan would be done with work, probably at the bar having a drink with some of the boys. She bit her lip and decided it was time. She needed to let him know she wasn’t home and wouldn’t be coming back.

He answered on the second ring, laughter in his voice and the sound of a jukebox in the background. “Hey, baby, where are you? It’s payday and we’re celebrating. Come on down.”

“I’m not there.” She wondered what it was about him that made her so tongue-tied, even now. Nearly a year after they’d met and begun dating, the sound of his voice could melt her knees, short out her brain and make it almost impossible to speak a complete sentence.

He laughed. “I know you’re not here, babe. I’m trying to fix that. C’mon down, I want you.”

I want you. The words echoed in her heart. “No, you don’t get it, Stan. I’m not there and I’m not coming back. I’m here now and I don’t want to see you again.” She closed her eyes with the effort of saying the last words. How could she sound so heartless and indecipherable at the same time?

After a moment of listening to the jukebox play, in which she pictured him sitting at a table with a beer in front of him, his chair tilted back and his long legs splayed in front of him, he finally spoke. “Hold on a sec.”

She heard voices and a door slamming and then silence. She knew he was standing in the middle of the dirt and gravel parking lot of the little dive bar he loved in Brunswick, Georgia. She knew he was holding his cell phone against his ear, searching for a way to reply to her. “Cam, what’s going on?”

“I can’t do this anymore. I can’t keep pretending I can be your little wife.”

“Did I ask you to be my wife?”

“You know what I mean. I’m sick of the whole thing. I had to get away.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m at my sister’s in North Carolina.”

After a moment’s silence, he burst out laughing. “You don’t want to be my wife, but you run away to suburban hell? Are you serious? I’ve heard you talk about your sister and her husband and how uptight they are. Cam, are you feeling all right?”

“Cut it out.”

“No, seriously, check and see if you have a fever. I’m really worried about you, babe.”

“Cut…it…out! I’m serious. I’m not going to stay here permanently. Just ‘til I figure out what to do next.”

“I’ll fucking tell you what to do next. Come home. Come home now. I don’t want to live without you, and I’m pretty sure you don’t mean any of these things you’re saying. Come home and tell me what’s really wrong.”

If only she could. But it would ruin everything and she’d just end up back here without him, anyway. At least this way she could do it on her own terms.

“Cam?” His voice was stern. “Come home.”

“I’m sorry.” She closed her eyes again. She hadn’t meant to say that. She hadn’t meant to apologize, as if she had anything to really be sorry for, even if she did. “I can’t.”

She hung up and thought about him standing alone in the parking lot. He’d cuss, he might throw the phone and break it, and then he’d go inside and get drunk. Stinking drunk. Maybe he’d sleep with that little barmaid that’d been flirting with him for a while. Cam tried not to care.



Chapter 2


Cady closed the bedroom door behind her and turned to face Neil, who was still fully dressed and looked like he’d been waiting for her. He spread his hands, reading her mind. “I’m sorry.”

She raised her eyebrows, still angry. “Really? Because it looked to me like you did that on purpose.”

He shrugged. “I’d like to say she started it, but it wouldn’t be true. She rubs me the wrong way.”

“She’s my twin sister. Do I rub you the wrong way?”

Neil tossed his jacket onto the bed. “Let’s not be ridiculous, Cady.”

“Ridiculous? Maybe. But then, too, you’ve got to look at it from my point of view, Neil.” She strode over to the dresser and tossed her watch and her earrings into the jewelry box he’d given her as an anniversary present five years before. For a moment, she paused, looking at the velvet-covered nooks and crannies designed to hold precious things. Then she slammed the lid and whirled to glare at her husband. “Maybe I do rub you the wrong way. Maybe that’s why you’re gone all the time. Maybe you look at me and see all the ways I’ve failed you over the years.”

“Failed me?” He looked stricken, and she knew her words were close enough to the truth to hurt him.

“Failed you. Failed myself. I couldn’t ever give you the son you wanted. I’ve never had a real job, not since we got married, anyway. Hell, I’m not even much of a housekeeper. If we didn’t have a maid once a week we’d be living in squalor.” She waved her hand in a despairing flap and leaned on the dresser, surprised at the way her own anger had betrayed her.

“Is that really what you believe I think of you?” He couldn’t hide the stunned look on his face. Abruptly he reached for her and pulled her against him. At first she resisted, but then she let herself rest against him. She’d always loved the way he felt when he held her, his chest and arms so strong and gentle. He stroked her hair and she drew away to look at him. She wanted him to say she was everything to him and she couldn’t be more wrong and he loved her with all his heart. Instead, he tilted her chin up with one hand and kissed her.

Startled as she was by the kiss, it evoked an immediate response from her. He hadn’t kissed her like this in months, and she couldn’t deny, even to herself, how much she wanted him. Even when he hadn’t been too exhausted to make love to her over the past few weeks, he’d done it an abstracted way, as if more through habit than desire. Not so now. He wanted her and the knowledge excited her as much as if it were the first time they’d made love instead of the umpteenth time in a fifteen-year-old marriage.

He moved his hand from her chin to the nape of her neck, slowing the pace and steering them toward the bed. She reached for his tie, aching to feel his skin against her fingers. She managed to loosen it and he tugged it off, tossing it aside as she sank onto the bed. He followed, kneeling in front of her and reaching for the buttons on his shirt. She surprised them both by reaching down after he’d undone the top three and pulling his shirt tail-first over his head. He laughed and tossed the inside-out bundle into a pile in the corner, then lowered himself onto her as she struggled with his belt buckle. As soon as she had loosened it, he kicked the pants off and set about getting rid of her sweater and jeans before covering her body with his again.

The feel of his skin against hers intoxicated her to such an extent she barely heard the buzz of his cell phone on the bedside table. She almost didn’t notice when he reached out for the phone and when she did she thought maybe he intended to silence it. Surely he wouldn’t answer it, not with the only thing between them the thin barriers of their underwear.

But he did. Even as she kissed his neck and reached for the waistband of his boxers, even with his hand at the small of her bare back still applying pressure as if to pull her closer and his knee against her damp crotch, he answered it.

“This is Neil.”

She froze at the sound of his cool professional voice. “Shit.” She wanted to hit him. How could he do this just when things felt right between them again? Angry, she shoved him off of her and stood, crossing to the bathroom without glancing over her shoulder. She could hear his voice outside, evidently undisturbed by her abrupt departure. Maybe he’d even welcomed it. Much easier to continue his business call if she weren’t distracting him. She stared at her reflection in the large mirror over her sink. She had some gray hair, and things shook more now than they had twenty years ago, but overall she was in good shape for a woman nearer to forty than thirty. And he’d wanted her. How could he just turn that off so quickly? She couldn’t. Her breasts and groin still yearned for his touch, for the completion of what they’d begun. And worse, her heart ached. She didn’t like to admit it, but more than her pride had been hurt by his actions.

She hadn’t noticed he’d stopped talking until he knocked softly on the door. “Sweetheart?”

“What?”

“Can I come in?”

“No.” She turned on the shower and stripped off her panties and bra. “I’m taking a shower.”

“I’ll wash your back.” He sounded amused and she hated him with a passionate surge that startled her.

“Go away.” She didn’t want to admit to him how much he’d hurt her. “You had your chance. I’ll see what the vibrating shower head can do for me now.” And she stepped in, closing the door with a sharp snap and letting the water beat over her head and mix with the tears that coursed over her face.

She’d regained an icy self-control by the time she had dressed. She pulled on a t-shirt and sweats so he wouldn’t get the idea he might still have a chance, but she paused to put on a little clear lip gloss so her lips looked fuller and more kissable in an attempt to let him know what he had missed.

He sat on the bed, his shoulders hunched in such a tired way her first reaction was one of concern, but when he lifted his head she realized he’d gotten dressed again. And not in the rumpled shirt she’d pulled off him. That still lay in the corner. He wore another dress shirt and tie and a neatly pressed pair of khakis. Cady thought about the dry cleaners and her heart hardened in her chest.

“Why did you leave?” He asked the question as if her actions didn’t make any sense at all.

“Why did you answer the damn phone?” She glared at him.

He sighed. “Cady, we’ve been over this before. You know I don’t have a job with normal hours. I have to make some sacrifices.”

“Right.” She nodded and bit back what she really wanted to say. If he had to make sacrifices, how come she felt like the one who was deprived? “Is that where you’re going now? Back to work?”

“I have to.” He looked uncomfortable. “I should have already left.”

“So go.” She picked up a magazine and settled onto the bed. “I’m fine. The shower was earth-shattering.” She stole a look at him and saw a tiny smile curve his lips. Why was she letting him off the hook?

He sat next to her, leaned over and kissed her tenderly. “I wish you hadn’t left.” He pushed a lock of her hair back from her face. “I love you.”

She sighed. “I love you too.” She kissed him briefly. “Now, go on. Save the world or whatever. I’ll be here when you get back.”

He left and she flipped through the magazine blindly for a minute before tossing it aside and closing her eyes. “Shit.” He meant it, of course. He would have finished what they started, and she wouldn’t be left alone with blood pulsing in inopportune spots. He would even have made certain she was satisfied. But all this would have been done with the knowledge that he would be leaving, that something else had already taken his attention from her. And he didn’t even understand how that could hurt her.

A light tap on the door made her sit up straighter. Was it Cam or Kelsea? She really didn’t want to see anyone right then, but she called out, “Come in.”

Cam poked her head into the room. “All clear? I saw his car leave.”

Cady sighed. “Yeah, he’s gone.”

“Well, you look refreshed.” Cam bounced over to the bed and flopped down on it. “Man, I miss makeup sex.”

“Me too.” Cady fought the urge to kick her sister.

“What? You mean you didn’t?” Her sister raised herself on her elbows, looking concerned. “I thought you guys made up. It got quiet up here. You didn’t throw him out did you?”

“No, I didn’t throw him out.” Cady felt the tears resurge into her throat. “Go away, Cam. I’m tired.”

Cam seemed not to hear. She flipped over on her back and stared at the ceiling. “Well, that’s good. That you didn’t throw him out, I mean. I think you’d miss him.”

“Fuck.” Cady got up and went over to the dresser, pulling a tissue from the box and blowing her nose. “Goddamnit, Cam, would you please just leave me alone? I’m tired and I don’t even know if my husband loves me anymore and I just want to feel sorry for myself and cry and go to sleep. I don’t need you for any of that!” She dissolved into tears and sank back onto the bed, her hands over her face. She felt Cam get off the bed and heard the door shut and for a moment she thought her sister had actually left her. Then Cam put her arm around her shoulders and pulled her into an embrace.

Cam had always been the stronger of the two of them. When they were kids and Cam fell and skinned her knee, she’d just get up and go on. It was Cady who would wail until her mother came running, usually to scold Cam for some imagined endangerment of her sister. And yet, through it all, Cam had remained protective and loving, until they grew up and their lives diverged.

Cady leaned on her sister’s arm, sniffling. “I’m sorry, I’m such a wuss.”

“What’s going on with you two? I thought you had the perfect marriage. You did the last time I was here.” Cam’s voice sounded acerbic.

Cady sat up, resenting her sister’s tone. “The last time you were here was five years ago.”

“Yeah, I remember.” Cam frowned. “And Neil hated me then.”

Cady dabbed her eyes thinking that Neil’s feelings about Cam probably stemmed from his job. How many mothers had he seen fight for their children when Cam had just given hers up? She decided not to get into that aspect of her sister’s life, however. “To be fair, you did smoke pot in the guest bath.”

“It wasn’t pot. I was just smoking. You guys were so uptight about it I figured if I smoked in the bathroom you’d never know. But anyway, he hated me.” Cam stood and walked over to the bureau, peering at herself in the mirror. “So what’s Mr. Perfect done to piss you off?”

“He answered the phone.”

“Are you kidding me?” Cam stared at her in the reflection. “Seriously? All this because he answered the phone?”

“He answered it when we were--” Cady stopped. She wasn’t sure if she really wanted to get into her sex life with Cam.

But realization had already dawned on Cam’s face and she swung around. “Oh! You mean you were…” She snickered, trying to hide her smile behind her hand. “Sorry. Just got a really funny picture.”

“Jeez, Cam, thanks for the sympathy. Nothing quite compares with sisterly love.” Cady sighed. How could she explain to her sister, the woman with the worst track record ever as far as men were concerned, that she felt alone even when her husband was with her? How could she tell her that Neil was a wonderful father, a perfect husband, a great provider…but he was gone so often and she felt alone and needy and while she hated herself for it, she couldn’t seem to stop. Her sister wouldn’t understand any of that. Cam had never given her heart and soul to anyone else, even her kids.

Cam sat on the bed again, still grinning a little, but she sounded repentant. “No, I’m sorry, Cady. Really. I’m sure it hurt your feelings, and nobody likes to be left in the middle of makeup sex.”

“He didn’t leave. I did.” Cady sniffed and lay back on the pillows, punching them with a bit more force than strictly necessary for plumping.

Cam stared. “You left? What do you mean?”

“I figured if answering the phone was so damn important I’d take my shower.” The words sounded petty, but Cady remembered the hurt when he’d answered the phone as if he had nothing better going on at the moment.

“And when you got out of the shower he was gone?”

Why did you leave?… I have to make some sacrifices… I wish you hadn’t left.

“No. He was sitting right here waiting for me, but he was all dressed and ready to go, so I told him to go, all right? I know he’s got a demanding job and he doesn’t need me making it any harder for him, but damn it, did he have to answer the goddamn phone right then?” She hit the bed for emphasis, then put her arms over face and sobbed. “God, I’m such a fucking selfish person, but it’s like he’s never here anymore, you know? And I don’t know. Maybe it’s my problem, not his. Maybe I’m going through a midlife crisis.”

“You’re thirty-seven.” Cady felt her sister’s weight shift as she also lay back on the bed. “That’s hardly middle age.”

“It could be!” Cady shrugged and dropped her arms to her sides, feeling empty and tired after her temper tantrum. “Seventy’s pretty old. I could die then.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Cam’s voice sounded sharp.

Both women fell silent. Cady thought about all the ways she’d failed Neil over the years, beginning with her inability to have more children. Had that been when he’d become so devoted to work? Maybe he’d sublimated his paternity into his job. She heaved a sigh. “I wish--”

“What?” Cam turned her head on the pillow. When Cady remained silent, she said, “You tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine.”

Cady turned her head to look at her sister. For a moment she remembered when they’d been kids sleeping in twin beds and telling each other their secrets and dreams. She smiled a little. “Yeah, well, it’s not a big secret. I wish we’d had another baby.”

Cam stared at her for a second. Then she jerked to a sitting position, facing a little away from her sister. “Why? Do you think it would’ve made a big difference? In your marriage or your life?”

Cady looked at the ceiling. “I don’t know. I mean, we have Kelsea, and Neil loves her of course, but she’s getting older and she doesn’t need us nearly as much. Maybe it would be easier if we had another one or two coming along after her. And even if it didn’t make a difference to Neil and his work, at least I’d feel like there was a reason for me being here.”

Cam nodded, sitting very still so only her head moved a little. “You’re a good mom.” Her voice sounded strange.

“Thanks.” Cady sat up, her concern shifting from herself to her sister. “Are you okay? I know you’ve had your own problems where kids and men are concerned. Is everything all right?”

“I wouldn’t say all right, exactly.” Cam turned her head to look at her twin. “I’m pregnant.”

“Again?” Cady regretted the word as soon as she said it. “God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way.” She put a hand on her sister’s shoulder and frowned, noticing again how thin Cam was.

Cam smiled mirthlessly, her hand on her only slightly rounded stomach. “It’s okay. That was my first reaction, too.”

Cady bit her lip. “What are you going to do?” She knew the answer. Cam, in spite of all her other faults as a mother, would never have an abortion.

“I don’t really know.” Her sister sighed, her head falling forward so her hair hung around her face in a protective curtain.

“Shit.” Cady sat frozen for a moment. She thought she knew what Neil’s reaction would be to the news, but whether or not she deserved her fate, Cam was her sister. Cady stroked Cam’s hair. “What about the father?”

Cam groaned. “What about him? He’s out of the picture, just like all the other men I’ve been with.”

Cady took a deep breath. “Have you thought about adoption?”

Adoption. The word hung in the air between the two sisters like a magic talisman. It made sense to Cady. She wanted a baby. Cam didn’t. Who knew what would happen to this child if she didn’t take it? Cam’s other two children lived with their fathers, both of whom made decent livings, had married and had stable lives. Could that possibly happen a third time in Cam’s crazy life?

“No.” Cam’s answer fell like a knife, slicing through Cady’s momentary hope. Cam looked her sister in the eye. “I know I’ve never been much of a mother, and I can see why you’d suggest it. You guys have so much to give a child. But it’s like this is my last chance at the mother thing. And Stan…well, he’s no father, but he’d never let me give up this baby. I know it.” She fell silent for a moment, then added, “If you want me to leave, I will.”

Cady sighed. “Of course not. I’m your sister, and you need help.” Her shoulders slumped. “You’re going to stay here as long as you need to--after the baby’s born even. Even if I can only be his aunt and your sister.”

Cam sighed with relief and flopped back onto the bed. “Great. Wonderful. Well, unless somebody offers me something better, I reckon you’ve got yourself a deal. But how will you square this with Neil?”

Cady felt her lips thin with her determination. “My better half will just have to resign himself. It’s not like he’s here that much, anyway.” She squeezed Cam’s hand and smiled when her sister squeezed back.



Chapter 3


Shouts and running feet outside her door awakened Cam the next morning. “Shit.” She rolled over and checked the alarm clock. Nine o’clock. She sat up and groaned. Okay, maybe nine o’clock wasn’t all that early, but still. She heard more squeals and yelps from outside her door, and, deciding she needed to make sure the family wasn’t being murdered, stood and pulled on a pair of jeans. Not much chance of any more sleep anyway. She pulled a brush through her hair, washed her face and opened her door.

Kelsea stood in the hall with a teenage boy. They jumped and turned when the door opened, looking guilty. “Hey Aunt Cam.” Kelsea waved brightly.

“Hey Kelsea.” Cam wondered briefly if her sister knew Kelsea had developed an interest in teenage boys. The interest was probably still pretty innocent, though, especially since the boy still had more acne than facial hair. She smothered a yawn as she noticed more yells and thumps from downstairs. “What’s up?”

“Mom’s coffee group. School’s out for a teacher workday, so it’s kind of a free-for-all. Sorry if we woke you.”

“If?” Cam raised her eyebrows and turned toward the stairs. “At least there’ll be coffee.”

At the bottom of the stairs, a little blonde-haired baby with chubby cheeks grinned up at her before starting the climb. Cam paused and frowned. “Are you supposed to go up there?” The baby continued upward and she shrugged. “Guess so.” She pushed through the swinging door and paused, confronted by a phalanx of curious and unfamiliar faces. She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Hey, you guys know the house has been invaded?”

“Sorry.” Cady grinned from the other side of the kitchen counter. “Want some coffee?”

“Only if it’s hot and black. Oh, and there’s a munchkin on the stairs.”

One of the women glanced down and gasped. “Oh no. Eric!” She jumped for the swinging door and they heard her scolding the baby in the hallway.

“Tracy’s always losing track of her kids.” A plump redhead smiled from the bar and held out her hand. “My name’s Abby and you must be Cam. We’ve heard a lot about you this morning.”

Cam accepted the cup of coffee as the doorbell rang, precipitating a crescendo of yells for “MOM, THERE’S SOMEBODY AT THE DOOR!” These were followed by Kelsea calling, “I’ll get it.”

“Wow, they’re noisy little fuckers, aren’t they?” Cam sipped her coffee and turned back to find the other women staring at her. Cady widened her eyes impressively and Cam realized she’d said something wrong. “Well, they are.” She shrugged her shoulders defensively.

“I guess we’re just not used to hearing the f-word tossed around indiscriminately.” A woman with perfect, shoulder-length black hair smiled through very white teeth.

“Shit, did I say ‘fuckers’?” Cam covered her mouth. “I meant buggers. At least I didn’t say motherfuckers, right?”

Cady began to giggle and Abby snorted with laughter, but the other women turned back to their original conversations with a cliquish rustle. Cam felt a rush of irritation that was prevented from becoming anything more by Kelsea bouncing into the room. “Hey, there’s some guy at the front door asking for Aunt Cam.”

Cam’s hand jerked in shock and she splashed a little black coffee onto the counter. “You’re kidding me.”

“I’m not. He’s really good looking, too.” Kelsea grinned, her tone teasing. “Is he your boyfriend?”

Cam stared at her for a second, then stood slowly, exchanging a quick look with Cady. “I don’t have a boyfriend, sweetie.”

She marched resolutely to the door. Stanley stood on the doorstep, just as she’d known he would be. He looked amazingly good and familiar against the suburban backdrop. She had a wild desire to rush into his arms and beg him to take her away from all this. She grinned at the thought and he looked confused.

“Hey, Stan.” She motioned over her shoulder. “I’d invite you in, but I’m afraid we’re at capacity now.”

“Hey.” He glanced past her and she turned to see Cady lingering.

Cady approached, looking at her sister. “Everything okay?” She raised her eyebrows.

Cam wondered what her sister thought of Stan. Well over six feet, his sheer size could be frightening, and considering the long line of junkies, jerks and all around assholes she’d dated in the past, Cady might well be a little judgmental of Cam’s latest boyfriend.

And the father of her baby.

“Everything’s fine.” Cam turned to Stan. “Cady, this is Stan. Stan, my sister.”

Stan held out his peculiarly large hand, engulfing Cady’s tiny ladylike appendage. “Great to meet you.”

Cady smiled and it seemed genuine. Cam wondered if her sister had already seen past Stan’s intimidating façade to his true gentle nature. For most people all it took was a few words or a single touch.

Cam remembered his touch well.

“What are you doing here, Stan?” She focused her attention on him. “Did you follow me?”

“What the hell did you expect me to do, Cam?” He frowned at her. “I wake up yesterday and you’re gone. Then you call me with all that cockamamie crap about staying here for a while and how you don’t love me and don’t want to see me. You sounded half crazed.”

Cam folded her arms across her chest to keep from reaching for him. “Be serious, please. What about your job?”

He shrugged as if it didn’t matter, but she knew it did. “Well, I’ve probably been fired by now. I didn’t actually have any sick days. But who cares? I’ll deal with it. I just want to know why you left. What did I do?”

Cam glanced at Cady who still hesitated by the open door. “I think we’re going to go around to the dock.”

Cady blinked as if she were just waking up. “Oh, sure. Just close the gate so none of the kids follow you. Can I get you a cup of coffee, Stan?”

“Sure.” He glanced at Cam and appeared to reconsider. “I mean, maybe when we’re done.”

Cam led him to the backyard. Several kids swarmed around the old play set, but to Cam’s relief, they ignored the adults walking past. She felt numb, unable to process what was happening. Why was Stanley here? How had he found her? And was he really worried about her?

Stan held the gate for her and closed it behind them. Their footsteps sounded hollow and loud on the dry wood of the dock. The tall grass and the trees on the far bank were a soft golden color reflected in still waters of the creek. The sun shone brightly in a perfectly blue sky, but when the wind picked up, Cam shivered, wishing she’d brought a jacket. She turned to face Stan. “So what are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here? I thought everything was fine, then you snuck out on me. Aren’t you happy?”

“I’m never happy, Stan. You ought to know that.” Cam turned away again, folding her arms over her chest. “I’m visiting my sister.”

“For how long?” He sounded implacable.

“Until. I don’t know. What does it matter?”

“It matters because I love you. I want to know you’re coming back.”

Cam tried to harden her heart. She had no real desire to listen to him because then she might want to take him up on his offer. She couldn’t tell him about the baby. Stan was different from the other men she’d dated in more ways than one, but to Cam the most important one was that he had ambitions. He had a plan for his life. He’d already taken several night classes at a community college, and his plan to start his own construction and remodeling business was taking shape. Cam could close her eyes there on the dock in her sister’s backyard and remember the nights she’d lain in his arms at night in the warmth of his bed listening to him outline his plans.

She had no intention of disrupting those plans with a baby. Cam turned, opening her mouth to tell him to go home, but he caught her around the waist, bending his head to kiss her, his lips gently demanding and familiar. Without even meaning to, she leaned into him, her arms winding around his neck. For that moment as their lips met and parted and met again, she thought about a future with him and their baby. A mix of emotions, led by fear, electrified her, and she took her arms from his neck, pushing him almost violently away.

“Stop! God, Stanley, can’t you take a hint? I don’t want you. I don’t want any of this. I’ve never wanted to settle down and none of that has changed.”

He stood, imperturbable, with the sunlight sparkling off the water behind him. When she finished speaking, he stuck his hands in his pockets and shrugged. “I’ll tell you what I know, Cam.” As usual, his voice had the timber of a well-educated man caught in the body of a construction worker. “I’m a man of simple tastes. I want the woman I love in the home we’ve made together. And I love you.”

She bit back the obvious reply that wanted to escape her lips: I love you, too. She felt extremely tired and scared and too old to be doing any of this. She sighed. “Go home, Stanley. I can’t deal with this.”

“Can’t deal with what?” He caught her arm as she started to turn away. “Tell me what you can’t deal with! Damn it all, Cam, I only want to help you.”

You!” She glared at him. “You. That’s it. You’re enough, aren’t you? If you love me, go away, for God’s sake.” She jerked her arm free and stomped across the dock, trying not to imagine it disintegrating behind her, taking him away with it forever.


****


Cady couldn’t wait to get her guests out of the house. Cam had not reappeared in the kitchen and she’d seen Stanley’s truck drive away so she assumed Cam had either gone with him or snuck upstairs. If she’d gone with Stanley, most likely Cady wouldn’t see her for another five years. Maybe that was best, but the thought brought a surge of emptiness with it.

She hurried up the stairs after the last of her coffee group rounded up their brood and left. Kelsea had retired to her room to study for a math test, and Cady couldn’t contain her anxiety any longer. She knocked quietly on the door.

“Come in.” Cam sounded tired. Relieved to hear her voice, Cady pushed the door open and found her sister lying on the bed.

“Hey, are you okay?” She crossed the room to Cam’s side. “You look horrible.”


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