Pages of the past (bellingwood book 9)

PAGES OF

THE PAST

 

 

DIANE GREENWOOD MUIR

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication / use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.

 

 

 

Cover Design Photography: Maxim M. Muir

 

 

 

Copyright © 2015 Diane Greenwood Muir

All rights reserved.

 

Don’t miss all of the books inDiane Greenwood Muir’s

Bellingwood Series

All Roads Lead Home – Bellingwood #1A Big Life in a Small Town – Bellingwood #2Treasure Uncovered – Bellingwood #3Secrets and Revelations – Bellingwood #4Life Between the Lines – Bellingwood #5Room at the Inn – Bellingwood #5.5A Season of Change – Bellingwood #6Tomorrow's Promises – Bellingwood #7Through the Storm – Bellingwood #8A Perfect Honeymoon – Bellingwood #8.5

 

Look for a short story basedon the Biblical Book of Ruth (Kindle only)Abiding Love

 

CONTENTS

CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

THANK YOU FOR READING!

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

"After thirty years of marriage, I don't know what's happening with him," Lydia said. "He keeps telling me it's nothing, but it's been over a month. He mopes around the house and doesn't come to bed until long after I'm asleep. I don't hear from him during the day unless he's responding to a specific question. I don't know what's going on."

"What do you think?" Polly asked. "Surely not..."

"No, no, no," Lydia said, her head snapping up to look Polly in the eye. "Aaron wouldn't do that. At least I don't think he would. For heaven's sake, Polly. I guess I don't know anything right now."

Everything that was bright and cheerful about Lydia Merritt had evaporated in the last month. She'd lost weight and the small amount of makeup she usually wore wasn't enough to cover the dark circles under her eyes.

"Is there anything I can do?" Polly asked. She smiled as little Han tried to jump up on the sofa between the two women. He'd grown, but his cute puppy face still captured her heart. Han and his littermates were settling in to life in Bellingwood after being rescued by Polly and Henry on their honeymoon. Kirk and Khan were having fun out on the farm with Eliseo and Padme was in seventh heaven at the Donovan's. Andrew adored her, Jason was in love with her and even Sylvie talked about her like she was a member of the family.

Polly reached down, picked Han up, and put him on her lap.

Lydia sagged into the sofa beside her and reached out to scratch Han's head. "I don't think so." She looked up again and gave Polly a weak smile. "Unless of course, you could find a dead body or two to kick him back into gear."

"Does he talk to anyone?" Polly asked.

"It's always been me. I listen when work is stressful, when he's annoyed with people in town, or just mad because his deputies make poor decisions. So much has to be kept confidential and he's trusted me with it all." She rubbed her hands on her pants, then went back to wringing them in her lap. "We did that for each other. No one else needs to know how we feel about their idiocy. But now I don't know what to think."

"Is he at least talking to you about regular things?"

"Not unless we're with the kids. He's almost normal when he's with the grandkids, but then we get in the car and he clams up again."

"Lydia. I'm so sorry. I can't believe you've been dealing with this alone for so long."

"It's only been a couple of months. In the beginning, I pressed him pretty hard. He never said anything, so pretty soon all I was doing was nagging." Lydia reached over and took Polly's hand. "I feel like I'm losing my husband and I don't know why."

Tears flowed from her eyes and Polly pulled her in close.

Lydia pulled back and said, "I'm sorry to dump this on you. I wasn't going to and then you asked like you really meant it and I couldn't shut up."

"Have you talked to Beryl and Andy?" Polly was really hoping that someone else had advice for Lydia. She'd known them for just a few years, but if there were two people that were her rock, it was Aaron and Lydia Merritt. To have their lives fall apart meant everything was upside down.

"They know something's up. How could they not? I'm with them every day. Neither of them know what to think. But then, they're more my friends than Aaron's. Beryl thinks she should spy on him, tracking his every movement. Andy wants to host an intervention."

"How far did Beryl get with the spying thing?"

Lydia chuckled and brushed tears from her cheeks. "No further than talking about it. She's terrified that she'd get caught without a good explanation for being where Aaron was. Especially if he was working on a case."

"Could it be a case that's bothering him?"             

"No, that's what doesn't make sense. Aaron has told me about some incredibly delicate cases. He says that having someone listen to him think out loud helps him hear the details and they come together to make sense. I've been through the very worst of what he's dealt with, day in and day out."

Polly shuddered. "I can't believe that hearing about those things doesn't upset you more."

"Oh honey, I learned early in our marriage that Aaron's job was who he was. I could either be part of it or ignore it. I had friends who told their husbands to leave the job at work. That's just baloney. If we're going to be a team, I have to be able to accept every part of him, even the fear of having him out thereandthe gory stories." She winked at Polly. "Because I expect him to accept every part of my life, too. Even the crazy little old ladies."

"If you look ahead six months," Polly started, "do you think things will be back to normal or do you feel like this is going to last longer than that?"

Lydia pursed her lips to one side, pondering the question. "I don't know what to think. Fear tells me this is a new normal or that something horrible is going to happen and our lives will turn upside down. I'd like to think that it's short term and Aaron will pass through it and come out on the other side, but I just don't have any confidence right now."

"I wish I could do something more for you," Polly said, patting Lydia's arm.

"You listened. That's enough. But I wanted you to know why I've been so distant. I felt awful when we didn't come up for the Christmas party and I hid during January. You've probably needed me and I wasn't here."

Polly nodded. "I wondered, but assumed you were busy. I'm glad you said something."

"I should have trusted you earlier, but I've always protected Aaron's reputation, no matter what. He's a wonderful man."

"You're very patient, Lydia Merritt. I'm afraid that by this point, I would have strung him up by his toenails until he talked."

"Maybe that's what I should do, but I'm not ready for extreme measures yet."

"When you are, let me know. I'll be glad to help."

Lydia's phone chimed and she swiped it open. "Oh my goodness, look at the time. I have to be at church in fifteen minutes." She leaned over and hugged Polly. "Thank you for listening and please, don't be angry at Aaron until we know what's going on."

"I'll do my best," Polly said. "But if he doesn't realize that he's hurting you, he's the idiot."

Lydia smiled. "Thank you. I have to believe that it's all going to work out." She reached over and stroked Han's head again. "Maybe I need a dog to keep me company."

"You wouldn't have time for that. You're never home." Polly stood up with Lydia and put the puppy back on the sofa. He stood at the edge and looked down at the floor, then yipped at Polly.

"I know, I know," Polly said. "But you're going to sit there while I say goodbye. I still don't trust you to stay on this side of the door."

"Has he gotten out?"

"He tries to go out the front door whenever it opens," Polly puffed out an indignant laugh. "The only problem is that he's terrified of the steps, so he doesn't get very far. I want to start training him to go up and down steps independently, but right now this is safer for everyone." She opened the front door and walked out with Lydia. "Maybe it's time for us girls to get together. I should call Beryl."

"I'm up for a girl's night out any time," Lydia responded. "Just let me know."

"Now I can put you on the floor, Mr. Cute-ums," Polly said when she was back inside her house. "And you have to be pretty darned cute to inspire Lydia Merritt to consider owning a dog. In all the time I've known her, pets haven't interested her." Polly sat down on the sofa and put Han on the floor, then picked him back up when he whined. Obiwan jumped up and settled in beside her.

"How could a person not have animals?" Polly asked them. Sometimes you're the only sanity I have."

Polly's phone rang and Jeff Lyndsay's face popped up at her.

"Hi there," she said. "Aren't you just downstairs?"

"No, Miss Smart-Aleck, I'm not. If you ever checked your calendar, you'd know I'm in Ames this morning at a gathering of area Bed and Breakfast owners."

"Are you telling them how to make money?"

"I might if they'd listen, but this group is talking about things that don't have much to do with us."

"What's up?"

"I have a favor to ask. I thought Rachel was available, but she has a doctor's appointment and I need you to go over to the hotel."

"Sure, what time?"

"Can you be there by eleven? People are coming in for the weekend."

"I'd be glad to. Anything I need to know?"

"No, everything's on the computer. All you have to do is..."

"I know how to work the system," she said, interrupting him. "Just because I don't pay attention to the calendar doesn't mean I can't do this. I mean, really. How many times have I been over there checking people in and out?"

"Okay, okay. You're right. I feel bad asking you to do this, though."

"One of these days you're going to hire someone to run that place, right?"

"Soon. I promise. Soon. So far, it's not been a lot of trouble, but I do hate putting you out."

"You can just get over that. I own the place and a little work hasn't turned me into mush yet."

"Thanks, Polly. I'll be back in the office this afternoon."

"Then I'll see you later. Be nice to the little old B&B ladies."             

"You have no idea. I'm their favorite. Two of them want me to meet their sons."

Polly sighed with laughter. "You're really something, Jeff Lyndsay. I just love you."

"Will that get me a raise?"

"Only if you're a very good boy."

"What does that mean?"

"Whatever you want it to mean. You know I can be bribed."

"Yeah. That's what worries me."

"Okay, I need to take Obiwan outside if I'm leaving for the hotel. I'll see you later."

Polly took her dogs down the back steps. Obiwan ran for the tree line and sniffed the snow, then ran back to Polly and Han. The puppy was doing better on the leash and paid attention to Obiwan. Having the older dog made house training much easier. She opened the door for Obiwan to go back upstairs and carried Han to her truck. He could spend time at the hotel with her today.

There weren't any cars parked at Sycamore Inn yet, so Polly pulled in behind the caretaker's cottage. Once inside, she hooked Han's leash over a drawer pull behind the counter. Today was going to be busy. The wedding in town must be bringing guests in, many of the last names were identical. She looked up when a burst of cold air came through the front door.

"Hi," she said. "Welcome to Bellingwood."

For the next three hours, Polly checked people in and sent them on to their rooms. Rachel called and offered to come over, but Polly enjoyed meeting people. She was so proud of what they'd done at Sycamore Inn, it was a joy to show it off.

Han had fallen asleep on a blanket she'd brought from the truck, but when he got up and started to pace, Polly figured she had time to take him outside for a walk. They went out the front door, just in case the last guests arrived.

She walked with him across the parking lot, practicing some of the commands he'd been learning, until they stopped at the grassy area under the sign. Han sniffed the pole and the flowers underneath a thin layer of snow. When he finally stopped to piddle, Polly bent down to tell him what a good boy he was.

An old pick-up truck pulled in under the canopy and a man got out.

"Hi there," she called across the lot. "I'm your host. I'll be right over." Han wasn't in any hurry to leave the grass, but before Polly could bend over to pick him up, the man walked to greet her.

"He's pretty young, are you training him?"

"I am," she replied and put out her right hand. "I'm Polly Giller, the owner of Sycamore Inn."

"Nice to meet you, Miss Giller. My name is Albert Cook. I should have a reservation."

"You sure do." Polly bent at the knees and scooped Han into her arms. "If I let him, he'll stay out here nosing around all day. Let's go inside."

She started across the parking lot and heard a thump. Turning, she was surprised to see her guest slumped on the ground.

"Mr. Cook! What happened?" Polly rushed to him and put her hand on his shoulder in order to turn him and see his face. "Oh my god! What?" A small hole in his forehead was seeping blood. It took her a moment to grasp what had happened. This was insane. This was Bellingwood. Her heart started to race and she broke into a cold sweat. Han tried to reach out from her arms to sniff at the man's body and she clutched him even tighter to her.


Page 2

Polly glanced around and realized that she was still exposed. Did the shooter miss? Was she the target or had he gotten the person he intended to kill. She didn't see anyone and didn't hear squealing tires from a getaway car. She ducked behind a parked car and realized that since she had no idea where the gunshot had come from, there was really no safe place. She hunched down as low as possible, holding Han to her chest, and duck-walked to get between two other parked cars.

Polly fumbled in her pockets, trying to get to her phone. Her fingers felt as if they were completely disconnected from her body and she couldn't make them work as they trembled uncontrollably. When she finally got her phone out of her pocket, it fell to the ground underneath a car. She gulped and tried to swallow, then blinked her eyes a couple of times in order to clear her head, leaned on the car door and felt on the ground with one hand for the phone. Her thumb brushed across its slick surface and Polly concentrated on controlling her hand in order to pick it back up.

Han squeaked, telling her that she was holding him too tightly, but that didn't matter. He couldn't be allowed to escape. Polly pressed her face into his neck and took a couple of deep breaths, hoping to think straight, just for a moment.

There was only one person to call. She didn't care what he was dealing with. He was the only one who would know what to do.

"Hello, Polly," Aaron Merritt said. There was no friendly banter, no question about a body.

"Aaron, a man was just killed in front of me." Polly was whispering, desperately trying not to draw any more attention to herself than necessary.

"It's not enough that you find bodies that have been dead for a while, you're bringing me fresh ones?"

"That's not funny." Polly's voice shook with fear. "I don't know if there is still someone with a gun out here or not. I'm hunched down between two cars at Sycamore Inn because someone just shot one of my customers. I have more people that are supposed to check in, my dog is with me, and I'm scared out of my mind."

"Okay. Don't you dare move. Was there more than one shot?"

"Just one, I think. I didn't even hear it. All of a sudden, the man dropped to the ground. I thought maybe he'd just collapsed until I saw the hole in his forehead."

"I'm in town. I'll be right there. Please don't move."

"I don't think I can. I feel like I'm stuck to the pavement."

In less than two minutes, Aaron's SUV drove past where she was crouched. She waited for him to circle the lot and he came back, stopped, and rolled down the window. "Can you climb into the back seat? Stay low."

Polly made her way over and after putting Han on the floor of the vehicle, climbed in and did exactly what he asked. Aaron drove to the back of the caretaker's cottage and pulled in beside Polly's truck.

"Do you know who that is out there?" he asked.

"He said his name was Albert Cook. Can I sit up yet?"

"No, not until we know what's going on here. I've called everyone in. Can you just stay there?"

"Aaron, he was walking right beside me."

"I know, honey. I'm so sorry."

"What is the world coming to when it isn't safe to walk around in Bellingwood?"

Aaron turned in his seat and looked at her. "Polly, this was personal. It's not about Bellingwood or Iowa. If you didn't hear the shot, this was someone who knew what they were doing."

"Like a sniper?"

"I suppose so."

"I watch television shows, you know."

Aaron gave her a weak smile. "I suppose you do. The teams are starting to arrive. You stay here until I send someone for you. We'll fan out through the neighborhoods and find out where the shooter was located. As soon as I know it's safe, you can go home."

"I have a hotel full of people who are here for the wedding this weekend and a few more who will be checking in."

"We'll knock on doors. We want to talk to them anyway. Don't worry." He opened his door and got out. "Please stay put for a few more minutes. I need you to be safe."

"It isn't very comfortable back here."

"It's not meant to be. Stay there, though."

Polly picked Han up and turned on her side, snuggling him against her chest. "This is turning out to be a very strange day, Mr. Han." He licked her face. "The scariest thing? I know that once it starts, I'm in for a couple of weeks of pure insanity. You've never experienced this part of your mama. It gets hectic. That peace and quiet we've had going on for the last several months has finally come to an end."

Stu Decker, one of Aaron's deputies, finally opened the door beside Polly's feet. "Hi there," he said, grinning down at her.

"Can I come out now?"

"Let's go inside. You'll be safer there anyway."

"This is more excitement than I was looking for today, you know," she said.

"It always is with you. All of us down at the station are trying to figure out how you aren't institutionalized with these odd things that happen around you. We're paid to deal with the world's madness and none of us like it very much, but you keep stumbling on it. How are you not paralyzed with fear every day?"

He walked back into the front room with her and waited while she sat down at the desk behind the front counter. The front parking lot was filled with sheriff's cars and even the local police were there. A black van that she recognized from the State Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI) had just pulled in. It did seem strange that she recognized so many people.

"Fear? Fear is the mind killer," she muttered.

"What?"

"Oh nothing. I'm just being flip. I don't know why I'm not scared all the time. Maybe I just don't have time to think about it. I'm always surprised, but once I absorb it, I hug an animal or cry on Henry."

She looked up at Stu. "Henry! If he hears about this from anyone but me, he'll be really upset. Do you mind if I call him?"

"Call your husband and tell him that we're taking care of you. Tell him that he can't come over here, though, okay?"

"I'll try."

Polly dialed Henry's number and before he could speak, she blurted out. "Before anyone else tells you anything. I'm fine. There's been a murder at Sycamore Inn. A sniper shot one of my guests while he and I were walking back to the hotel. I was outside with Han when it happened. Stu wants me to assure you that they're taking care of me and you're not supposed to come over here."

"Stop. What? Slow down and repeat yourself. What in the hell are you talking about? A murder? At Sycamore Inn?"

She took a deep breath and said. "I'm okay. Do we have that clear first?"

"I'm clear. You're okay. That shouldn't even be a question. But I guess that since it's you, I should always be worried. Now, what happened?"

"I went outside with Han. He needed to go to the bathroom. And by the way, he's getting really good at this. We went out to the grassy area under the big sign and he went right away."

"Whatever. I don't care about the damned dog's peeing habits."

She pursed her lips. This wasn't going to be easy. "Anyway, a man pulled in under the canopy. He walked over to greet me. His name was Albert Cook. There were only a few more people who were going to check in, so I was waiting for them to arrive. We talked for a couple of minutes and then went back toward the hotel. I heard a strange thump and turned around. The man had fallen to the ground. I thought maybe he'd just collapsed, but there was a hole in his forehead."

"I can't breathe," Henry said.

"As soon as I realized what happened, I grabbed the dog and got beside a car, then I got in between two other cars and called Aaron. He came along and I got in his back seat and he went to the back of the caretaker's house. Stu came and got me and now I'm inside. The place is full of cops and emergency vehicles. Stu said you aren't supposed to come over here to get me. They'll make sure I get home."

She waited a few moments in silence and said, "Are you there?"

"Barely. So what you're telling me is that there's a sniper in town, he shot a man that was walking beside my wife and I'm supposed to stay away from the scene."

"Pretty much."

"I need a drink. A big drink. With Valium or Novocain or something."

"That's not a good idea."

"I know. I know. I'm just jabbering words because I don't know what to do or say."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry. You didn't do anything wrong. But I'm at a loss."

"Henry?"             

"Yes Polly."

"Go home. Take Obiwan and go for a walk. Go down to the barn. Anything."

"I'll go get Obiwan, but I don't know what I'll do after that. I want to hold on to you and make sure you're all in one piece."

"I promise you that I'm fine."

"Polly, a man was shot right beside you."

"I know that and when you and I are quiet in bed tonight, I'm going to fall completely apart and you're going to have to hold me until I quit freaking out. But there are too many people here right now and I can't lose control."

"Oh honey, I love you."

"I love you too. I'll be home later."

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Although the sun was shining, Polly still didn't feel like getting out of bed. The bedroom door was closed, there were no animals anywhere, and Henry had disappeared.

She smiled to herself and texted him,"Where are you?"Technology was awesome.

"In the living room. Are you awake now?"

"Come hug me."

Once the door opened, two dogs and two cats came running into the room and jumped up onto the bed. Han tried, but he couldn't quite clear the mattress yet. Henry picked him up and dropped him beside Polly.

"How are you feeling this morning?"

"Like I've waded through mud with weights around my waist. I'm sorry I had such a hard time sleeping last night."

"It's to be expected. I can't believe you don't have more of these nights."

After answering questions from the different law enforcement groups at Sycamore Inn, then had come home and done her best to be pleasant and calm around Jessie and Rebecca. When she'd finally relaxed in their bed, she shook and sobbed. Henry held her until she calmed, but Polly spent the rest of the night tossing and turning. Every time she drifted off, her mind would flash back to the image in her mind of the man with a hole in his forehead and she'd wake up again. It wasn't until four thirty that she'd exhausted herself enough to fall into a dreamless sleep.

"What time did you get up?" she asked.

"About seven. Jessie was up and Obiwan decided he'd waited long enough. Everyone has been fed and watered, so you don't need to hurry out of bed."

Polly smiled and reached out to touch his arm. "Thank you. I need to take Rebecca over to Beryl's for her lesson this morning."

"I can do that for you."

"No. I've got it. You and I both know that this is just the beginning of things spinning out of control. I might as well wrap my head around it and buck up. Besides, I want to talk to Beryl."

"What's up?"

"Lydia is stressed because Aaron is upset about something and won't tell her what it is. I think it's time for a party. Or at least an opportunity for us to wallow in ice cream and chocolate sauce."

Henry leaned over and kissed her forehead. "That sounds perfect. I like the way you take care of your emotions."

"It's the same way you take care of my emotions - ice cream and chocolate."

"I know my girl," he said, standing back up. "If you have things to do this morning, I am heading over to the shop. Jessie is already there."

"On a Saturday?"

"Yeah. Someone had to open the place. We've got a load of barn wood coming in today that needs to be sorted."

"You're sorting it?"

"Sure. Some of the guys will be in to help, but I might as well be there if you won't be here."

"Okay. Is Rebecca up?"

"She sure is. She's had breakfast and I believe she's downstairs in her mother's room, sketching the horses."

"So there's no one here?" Polly asked coyly.

He stammered. "Uhhh. Uhhh. This isn't fair."

"I know. I was just teasing. Who knows when she'll come back. I should start my day anyway." Polly pushed the blankets away, swung her legs over the edge of the bed, and stood up. Little Han came scurrying behind her, trying to leap into her arms. She grabbed him up and put him on the floor. "Don't do that, you silly thing. You scare me to death."

Henry walked to her side of the bed and gave her a hug. "Do we have plans tonight?"

"Not that I know of. Why?"

"Just wondering. Let me know when you've figured out what they'll be."

"Why do you say it like that?"

"Because you're about to tear through town today and that means that we'll be busy tonight."

"I don't understand."

"You dealt with another dead person yesterday. You're worried about Lydia. You're talking to Beryl in an hour or so and that will only be the beginning of you coping with all that's coming at you. I've learned to just strap in and enjoy the ride."

Polly pursed her lips and wrinkled her nose at him. "I was kind of thinking we might ask Joss and Nate to bring the babies over."

Henry's eyes lit up. "What if Joss brought the babies over and I spent the evening with Nate in his garage?"

"We might be able to do that for you. I'll call her. Now you get out of here while I shower and get ready. Are you taking Han to the shop?"

"I can. He's getting pretty comfortable over there."

"You told me that he was going to be your dog."

"Come on, you rug rat," Henry said, bending over to pick up the pup. "When are you going to grow to full size? I'm tired of carrying you." He gave Polly another quick kiss and left the room. She pushed the bedroom door shut and went into the bathroom to start the shower.

 

~~~

 

"Mom was good this morning," Rebecca said. "She said she's coming to the Valentine's Day dinner. She promised."

"That's great news," Polly replied.

"If I do some extra things around Sycamore House, can I make some money?"

Polly slowed down as she prepared to turn the corner. "What do you need money for?"

"I want to buy her a nice dress for the party. She's lost so much weight that nothing fits her right."

"We could help you buy that."

"No, I want it to be from me."

Polly slowly nodded her head, and bit her upper lip as she thought. "Let me think about this. We'll certainly find some things for you to do. Do you want to help in the main house or down at the barn?"

"I'll do anything. I found a really pretty dress uptown."

"You did. When did that happen?"

"After school last week. Kayla and I walked to the library after school and there was this yellow dress in the window at Osborn's."

Polly knew exactly which dress Rebecca was talking about. The only problem was that it wasn't anything Sarah Heater would wear - lemon yellow, and sleeveless with a very low cut back. She wasn't sure how they kept it on the mannequin in the window.

"Let's talk to your mother first."

"But I want to surprise her."

"I will think of some things you can do to earn money. You go on in to Beryl's for your lesson and I'll be back for you in an hour." Polly had pulled into the driveway and waited for Rebecca to jump out of the truck.

Beryl came running out of the house and Polly rolled her window down.

"Go on inside, honey," Beryl said. "You can get started. I'll be right there."

"What's up?" Polly asked.

"I wanted to ask how you were doing. Lydia called this morning to tell me about your experience at the hotel yesterday. We're all worried about you."

"Thanks. I think I'm fine. Did she say anything else? About the man who died or anything?"

"You don't know?"

"Know what?"

"Aaron knew him. That's why the guy was in town - to see Aaron."

Polly frowned. "He didn't say a word yesterday."

"He's been kind of quiet about everything lately. I'm worried about our girl." Beryl put her hand on Polly's arm. "What are we going to do?"

"I don't know," Polly said. "But I think it's time for another evening like the old days."

"Tell me about it. I miss you guys. We haven't had a good slumber party in a long time."

Polly laughed, thinking about the only other slumber party she'd attended with these women. It had been the craziest introduction to Bellingwood she could ever have imagined and it had been perfect. "Are we ready for that much excitement?"

"Maybe not." Beryl grinned. "But it's time to plan a party. I'll talk to Andy. Do you have any evenings this week that we should avoid?"

"Nope. Not that I know of."

"We'll plan, you'll come, and we'll tell our girl how much we love her. Maybe that will return a smile to her face."

"Perfect. Thank you."

Beryl pulled her shawl tight. "I'd better get inside before I freeze to death. I'm glad you're holding up. We can't lose you to the insanity of your calling."

"Calling-schmalling. Stop it."

"You're the girl with the bodies. Everyone knows it. We just wait for it to happen." Beryl leaned in and whispered. "You know, people perk up when you come around. They just wait to see if you'll discover anything while they're watching."

"Stop it. That's not true."

Beryl shrugged. "It's kinda true. I always do. I always leave you just a little disappointed."

"Get inside," Polly said, waving her friend away. "I'll be back later for Rebecca."

"We'll be the ones having fun." Beryl turned and danced back toward her front door, then turned and waved while Polly backed out of the driveway. The woman was a complete nut.

Since no one expected her to be anywhere for the next hour, Polly turned and headed toward Joss Mikkels' house. She felt guilty for just showing up with no notice, but laughed an evil laugh and pulled in. She listened at the front door to make sure there was no screaming or crying and knocked softly. When no one came to the door, she backed up and looked in the window to the front room. Joss was sitting forward on the sofa, picking things up from the floor. She glanced up and saw Polly, then jumped to her feet and ran toward the front door.

"What are you doing here?" she asked, before the storm door was even open.

"In the neighborhood. I dropped Rebecca off at Beryl's and thought I'd see what you two were doing tonight."

"Come in." Joss stepped back. "It's cold out there."

"Where are the kiddos?"

"They're downstairs with Nate. Sophie stood up the other day and he thinks Cooper should be doing the same thing. He's decided that help from Dad can't hurt."

"Okay," Polly looked at Joss's face. "How do you feel about that?"

"Him pushing Cooper to keep up with his sister at this age? Oh, I'm thrilled." The sound of sarcasm rang through Joss's words. "But I didn't get any sleep last night, the house is a mess and to be totally honest, if he wants to spend time doing anything at all with those two… fine. We'll have that argument later. All I want to do this morning is pick up and take a nap. Nate's in charge for the next three hours."

Joss dropped back down on the sofa and pointed at one of the rocking chairs. "Sit. Talk to me."

Polly sat down and bent over to pick up a book beside the chair.

Joss leaned forward and took it out of Polly's hand. "I heard about your escapade last night. How are you?"

"I was a complete and utter mess all night long - no sleep, just dreaming about what happened. I don't know why this one bothers me more than others. Maybe it's because I don't have any concept of why it happened. He was standing right beside me and someone shot him. They could have just as easily shot me. Why didn't they? Why him? What if the shooter had missed and hurt me?"

Joss shuddered and shook her head. "Do they know anything yet?"

"Beryl says Aaron knows him. What's that about? Is Aaron the next target? Does he know why the guy was killed? He was so nonchalant when we were going through everything. I had no idea that he knew the guy."

"That is odd. Have you talked to Lydia?"

"Not today."

Joss twitched when one of the babies started to cry, but didn't move.

"You can ignore that?" Polly asked.

"If he needs me, he calls. He's got it."

"So here we are, eight months later. Does this feel normal to you now?"

"You have no idea. It's so normal, I can't imagine any other life. What are you going to do when Jessie has her baby?"

"That's at least a month away," Polly said. "And I don't know. We've talked about what her next steps are going to be. I know that she's been saving money."

"You'll be okay with her moving out?"

"I'm not her mother. I'll be fine with it. In fact, I'm ready for it to happen any time. But, nothing will happen until she's ready. And if that means that she needs to stay with us, I guess that's what it means."


Page 3

"You're a good woman."

"Yeah. Whatever. I committed to this and it's not like she's hard work or anything. She helps out and she's there for the kids when Henry and I want to go somewhere, but she's an adult and really needs to be on her own."

"Has she started looking for an apartment?"

"Not that I know of." Polly gave her head a quick shake. "I shouldn't be like this. I told her that she had a home as long as she needed it and that we'd be there for her when she had the baby. And I've been through all the childbirth classes with her." She rolled her eyes. "I know that you want babies in your life, but after that, nothing at all makes me want to be pregnant and give birth."

Joss laughed out loud. "Hey, I'm fine with someone else bearing my children. I was never one of those girls who thought that the whole pregnancy thing was a glorious experience."

"Jessie is really digging it."

"That's fabulous. If you're going to be pregnant, I think you should enjoy every minute of it."

"She keeps telling me that she's never felt better in all her life. Because she's been so focused on the baby, she eats really healthy and doesn't drink anything that's bad for her. She's been doing yoga and meditation to keep calm. The baby turned her into a different person."

"Wait until that child shows up, live and in person. That will turn her into crazy bat-shit lady in a hurry."

Polly laughed at her friend. "You're hilarious. You aren't that bad. I haven't seen much bat-shit crazy stuff from you in the last few months."

"Uh huh. You might want to get her out of your house sooner rather than later, or you're going to see her crazy side show up when she doesn't get enough sleep and the baby wants one more thing or starts crying even after she's met its needs."

"You're complaining."

Joss sighed. "I am, aren't I. Sorry about that. See. Not enough sleep."

"Because I know how much you love those two."

"More than anything else." Joss glanced at the stairway leading down to Nate and the twins. "It's not that bad and I wouldn't trade my life now for anything."

"But, Jessie needs to make her own life. You're right. We'll see what happens."

"Joss?" Nate's voice came from downstairs. She jumped off the sofa and ran for the top of the steps.

"What do you need?"

"Has Polly asked you about tonight? Henry's on the phone."

Joss turned and looked at Polly. "What's up for tonight?"

"Those boys don't even give a girl a minute. I was going to ask if you wanted to come over this evening. Rebecca and Andrew would love to play with the babies and I'd like to spend time with you. Henry thought maybe he and Nate could work on their cars."

"Why don't you bring your kids over here? That way I can put the babies to bed. I'll cook dinner."

"We'll bring pizza."

"No, I'll cook. Nate and Henry can eat with us and then go out to the garage."

"Joss?" Nate asked.

"We're working out the details, but yes."

"Cool."

Joss came back into the living room and sat down again. "That will motivate me to get moving."

"You'll be cooking for a lot of us. Are you sure?"

"Absolutely. I'll make a lasagna."

"Then let me bring bread and salad. Rebecca and I can work on that this afternoon."

"How's her mom?"

"Okay for now. She told Rebecca that she wants to go to the Valentine's Day dinner, so we're on the hunt for a new dress."

"She won't be able to wear it very often, am I right?"

Polly shook her head. "I guess if she only wears it once and that creates a memory for Rebecca, that's enough."

"You're right. That wasn't very nice of me."

"No, it's fine. It's the truth. Sarah won't like the idea, she'll think it's wasteful, but Rebecca wants to raise the money on her own and pay for the dress."

"I'll pay her and Andrew to keep an eye on the kids tonight."

"You don't have to do that."

"We'll be right here. They can play with them and pay attention to them and make a little money. It would be a start."

"Thank you," Polly said and then gave her friend a grin. "Rebecca wants to buy that yellow dress in Osborn's window downtown."

"That flimsy thing with no shoulders?" Joss chuckled. "Poor Sarah. What are you going to do?"

"I have no idea, but we have to fix this for Sarah." Polly stood up. "I should probably get back to Beryl's."

"Thanks for coming over." Joss stood and bent over to pick toys up from the floor.

"I felt a little guilty about dropping in."

"You should. The place is a mess."

Polly looked around. The toys and blankets that were in the living room were part of a home with active children. There was no mess. "If I didn't have three other people who were relatively clean and neat living in my house, I'd never let anyone come in. This is pristine in comparison to how I lived before Henry married me. Stop worrying."

"It will be better when you come over tonight."

Polly gave her friend a hug and ran back out to her truck. She hoped she hadn't been inside long enough for it to completely cool down. It felt like it was getting colder as the day went on. She was really tired of winter.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Rebecca was standing next to Polly in the kitchen, drying dishes after Sunday breakfast. "Can I ask a question?"

"Of course, sweetie. What's up?" Polly rinsed another plate and put it in the drying rack.

"Well, I have a friend at school..."

Polly's heart jumped into her throat. This was a first. It was an exciting first. She tried desperately hard not to react and plunged her hands back into the suds.

"Can she come home with me tomorrow afternoon?"

"Sure?" Polly had so many questions, she didn't know where to start.

Rebecca stopped and turned to face Polly. "She always goes to the library to wait for her sister to pick her up and they aren't open on Mondays anymore."

That decision had nearly destroyed Joss. But the city had cut back funding and though she was fine with spending more time at home with her babies, she hated its impact on the community. Tomorrow was the first Monday they'd be closed.

"Sure, she can come here. What's her name?"

"Kayla. She's really nice."

Polly remembered Rebecca mentioning that name. "How long have you two been friends?"

"For a while. She's my table partner."

Polly smiled inside. Mrs. Hastings had done her very best to seat Rebecca next to someone who would befriend the girl. It looked like her plan had finally worked.

"I'd be glad to host your friend tomorrow. Maybe we should call her family today so they know where she's going to be. You wouldn't want her sister to go to the library and not find her there."

Rebecca looked at the floor. "We kinda talked about it on Friday and I told Kayla you wouldn't mind."

"You were absolutely right. I don't mind. But I still think that I should talk to her mother."

"She doesn't have a mother. Just a sister."

Polly wrinkled her brow. "Just a sister? No father either?"

"No, something happened to them, so it's just Kayla and Stephanie."

"Do you have Stephanie's phone number? I would like to just talk to her so that I'm sure she knows Kayla will be safe here."

Jessie came into the room from doing laundry. "Stephanie Armstrong? She has a sister named Kayla."

"You know Stephanie?" Rebecca asked.

"Sure. She works at the convenience store. I haven't talked to her in a while, though. Not since I left there."

"Do you have Kayla's phone number, Rebecca?" Polly asked again.

"No. Can't we do it tomorrow and then you can meet Stephanie when she picks Kayla up tomorrow night? Please?"

"That will be fine. Of course."

"Can I show her the donkeys?"

"You know who has to answer that," Polly said.

"I know. Eliseo. But he'll say yes, won't he? And Jason will be down there, so he can show us around."

"We'll see how the day goes tomorrow. If Kayla isn't dressed to go down to the barn, we'd hate to mess up her clothes."

"We won't get dirty. We'll just look."

Polly patted Rebecca's back and turned back to the sink. "Let's wait and see."

Rebecca put another dried plate onto the stack. "Why don't we ever use the dishwasher?"

"Because I like hanging out with you," Polly said, laughing. "Honestly, once I got started today, I couldn't quit."

"That was my question too," Henry said, coming around the corner. "You hand wash a lot of dishes, Polly."

"I never got used to a dishwasher. We didn't have one while I was growing up and my apartment in Boston didn't have one." She shrugged. "I just wash dishes, I guess."

Henry took the towel out of Rebecca's hand. "You go play. I'll deal with the tyrant."

Rebecca smiled and ran out of the kitchen. "Jessie! You wanna play a game?"

"She has a little friend," Polly whispered to Henry.

"Yeah. I know, she looks ready to pop. What do we have, another month?"

"Not Jessie, you dope. Rebecca. She's bringing a friend over after school tomorrow."

He stepped back. "No kidding. Imagine that. And you didn't have to get involved or anything."

Polly flicked suds at him. "Leave me alone. I'm just happy she has someone other than Andrew. He's a wonderful boy, but she needs more friends. So does he, for that matter."

"I spoke too soon. You're about to get involved, I can tell."

"Joss has to close the library on Mondays now. I was thinking that since kids probably went there until their parents picked them up, we should use the classroom and computer room for Monday afternoon homework sessions."

"Yep. I knew it."

Polly elbowed him. "It's a great idea!"

"Talk to Jeff before you do anything rash, will you?" He opened the cupboard doors and put stacks of plates and glasses where they belonged.

"So you didn't say last night. How are things going with those cars? What are they? Woodies?"

"Yes. Woodies. And you already know that. You pay attention to everything."

"Whatever. Anyway, how far are you?"

He put his hand on the counter and looked at her, puzzled. "You do know that this is going to be a very long project, don't you? They aren't going to be ready for you to drive this summer."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. How long are they going to take?"

"It could be a year or more. We have a lot of work to do. The engines are a mess, there's no upholstery, and the bodies were completely rusted out."

"I get it. I'm sorry I asked."

"No, that's not it. I just don't want you getting excited. This kind of restoration is labor intensive and since we don't get to spend a lot of hours doing it, well..."

She scowled. "Am I supposed to feel guilty about not letting you work over there?"

"That works for me. But no, neither of us has a lot of time. It's just something fun to do."

"Okay. Just checking."

He kissed her cheek. "And thanks for acting interested."

"At least you aren't carousing at the bars every other night."

"Who has time for that?"

"I know!"

They walked into the living room to find Rebecca standing behind Jessie, brushing and braiding her hair, the older girl sprawled out on the sofa. She looked terribly uncomfortable. A pile of folded laundry sat on the table in front of her.

"I'll put it away in a minute. This just feels so good," Jessie said. Obiwan was stretched out beside her and Han had curled up on her chest, his head resting on her belly as she stroked him.

"You know I don't care. It looks as if you have the full-on doggie spa thing going on."

Henry went on into their bedroom and pushed the door closed. She heard the television come on. Football. It was his Sunday afternoon escape. He didn't want to go to anyone's house to watch it, he didn't even particularly care to watch it on the big screen in the media room. He just liked to sit in the big, comfy chair with his feet up. More often than not, one of the cats or Han was in his lap, but he preferred being alone.

Polly had taken to napping on Sunday afternoons. She'd discovered that if she relaxed her body, she could consider the sounds of the game as white noise. Henry had tried to talk to her about the teams that were playing, but when both of them discovered that first of all, she didn't care, and secondly, he didn't really want to chat during the games, they gave up and let the other do their thing.

She went in and waited while the two cats darted in the open door. Without saying anything to Henry, who was already seated and watching the television intently, she crossed to her side of the bed, pulled her shoes off and stretched out, nestling her head into the pillow.

 

~~~

 

"I'll see you all later," Polly said as she went down the back steps. She and her friends rarely missed a Sunday evening at Pizzazz downtown. Henry was still watching football, while Rebecca and Jessie were making spaghetti for dinner to take down to eat with Sarah and Evelyn Morrow.

She opened the back door by the garage and waited while Sal Kahane pulled in. She'd texted Polly earlier that she would pick her up. Polly usually walked to the pizza place, it was only a few blocks, but the temperatures were low enough that the wind chill was quite bitter.

Polly darted to Sal's car and jumped in. "Thanks for picking me up."

"Nobody should be walking in this. It's awful."

"No worse than what we dealt with in Boston."

"I know. You're right. I keep thinking that maybe I should move to Hawaii or southern Florida or somewhere warm. I don't know that I'm cut out to be a Canuck."

"We don't live in Canada."

"There is only one state between us."

"A long state! Stop complaining."

Sal laughed. "I'm going to bet you a pizza that before the end of this winter, you're going to tell me at least once that you hate winter. You always complained when we were living together."

"I don't complain anymore. I love living in Iowa." Polly wasn't about to admit that she'd silently been complaining for days.

"Uh huh. We'll see." Sal pulled into a parking space across the street from Pizzazz. There were plenty of spaces in front of the pizza place and she'd gone around the block to get the right angle.

"What are we doing on this side of the street?" Polly asked.

"I want you to look at the empty building right in front of us."

"Okay. Very nice empty building."

"Take a good look at it. Look closely."

Polly rolled her eyes to the side. "It's a building. What about it?"

"Have you taken a good look?"

"As much as possible."

"Fine. We'll talk about it at dinner."

"Tell me." Polly glanced at her friend and saw a wicked gleam in her eyes.

"Nope. You have to wait until everyone is there."

"You're just mean."

Sal backed into the street, then did a sharp turn and pulled into a space directly in front of the restaurant. "I love small towns," she said. "You can do this kind of stuff and everyone expects it. The first time someone turned in front of me to grab a spot on the other side of the street, I nearly collapsed. You'd never get away with that out east. But here, it's just what you do."

"It seems like you've perfected the move."

"Only if there are no cars for three blocks in either direction."

Sylvie pulled in beside them and as they were getting out, Joss pulled in on the other side of her.

"Things are really quiet here tonight," Sal commented.

"Wonder what's up?" Polly asked.

They went inside and saw only two other tables with customers. "This is eerie," Joss said.

As they made their way to their regular table, Bri put drinks down in the center and smiled at them. By the time they'd chosen a seat and grabbed their drinks, she put two baskets of cheese bread down.

"Your pizza is in. It should be out in a few minutes," she said.

"Thanks. You're awesome," Sylvie responded.

They'd tried several different pizzas over the last few months, but each time came back to their regular order - a Pizzazz Classic with everything on it. Bri perfectly timed the pizza's arrival as the first basket of cheese bread was emptied.

"Why is it so quiet tonight?" Sal asked their waitress.

"Dylan thinks it's because of the cold. But we've had colder days than this and the place is full." Bri shrugged. "I got nuttin'."

Polly made a show of drumming her fingers on the table in front of Sal.

"What?" Sal asked.

"You know what. Why did you want me to see that building across the street?"

"I'm going to buy it."

"You're what?" All three of them looked at Sal and then turned to look out the window.

"You're buying a building?" Sylvie asked. "To do what?"

"That's why I want to talk to you three. I need a place to write."

Polly burst out with a laugh. "You can't write at home?"


Page 4

"Yes, I can write at home. But it's so quiet. Sometimes it's deadly quiet. I do my best work in hustle and bustle."

"I doubt that you'll ever find hustle and bustle in Bellingwood," Joss said. "Even downtown, you're doing well to have a little hust ... never any l-e." She spelled the last two letters out.

Sal nodded. "On any given day in any city in the country, creative types make their way to coffee shops, where caffeine and sugar stir their imaginations. They're inspired by everyone else who sits at a table working away at their computers or in their notebooks. It's like a perfect competition. You see other people working and can't help but imagine their projects and it brings out the best in you. I need my coffee shop."

"So, you're going to build a coffee shop?"

"That's what I want to do. I'm meeting Henry tomorrow afternoon to talk about remodeling the place and then..."

Polly frowned. "You're meeting Henry? He didn't say a word."

"That's because I made him promise to keep quiet. I wanted to be the one to tell you. I just found out Friday afternoon that the sale was really going to happen."

"I can't believe he didn't tell me." Polly growled at Sylvie. "And he didn't tell me when you bought your house, either. That man is going to be in serious trouble one of these days for not letting me in on his secrets."

Joss patted Polly's leg. "Shhh. Tell us more about the coffee shop, Sal."

"Henry said that you are genius with interiors, Polly. I want lots of wood like Sycamore House. I don't know. Maybe a coffee bar with cool stools and tables or booths. I don't know any of that stuff. So, can you meet us here at one thirty tomorrow? I want to know what you think."

"Hmm," Polly responded. "Maybe he won't be in trouble after all."

"What are you going to do with the apartments upstairs?" Sylvie asked.

Joss grinned. "Apartments? Are you going to be a landlord, too?"

"There are two apartments," Sal said. "From what I can see, they're not in terrible shape. They need some work. They've been empty a long time, but I think they'd make cute places to live."

"Do you really think you can make money at this?" Polly asked.

"I don't know, but it can't hurt to try. You've become an entrepreneur and you're really good at it." Sal's eyes lit up. "I want to be just like you - renovating and remodeling and making a go of it."

Sylvie sat back and shut her eyes. Her fingers were moving and every once in a while, her tongue crept out and licked her upper lip.

"What are you doing over there, Sylvie?" Polly asked.

"I'm concentrating," was the response.

"Well you look weird doing it."

Sylvie's eyes popped open and she stuck her tongue out at Polly. "If you're going to do this, Sal, you need more than just coffee. You need bakery items, but I don't have the stoves at Sycamore House to do that much baking. I could help you in the beginning when you're just getting started, but if you're successful, things will have to change."

"There is a ton of space in that building. Maybe we put a bakery in later. Oooh, wouldn't that be fun?" Sal was bouncing in her seat when Bri brought the pizza to their table.

"You can't bake," Polly said.

"I know I can't, but Sylvie can. It could be an extension of her catering business."

"It's Sycamore House's catering business," Sylvie interjected quickly.

"We can work that out. Maybe Sycamore House Catering needs two locations. It won't all happen at once. It's going to take some time before we are big enough to do that."

Polly's brain began whirring. This was a great idea. "Do you think that would work, Sylvie?" she asked. "How strange would it be for you to have two locations?"

"It's not the worst idea in the world. There are details that need to be ironed out: personnel, all of the appliances. We haven't done many cakes because I don't have a good place to build them." She looked off into space as she thought about it. "I've had people ask about cakes for special events."

"If we put a bakery in with your coffee shop," Polly said, "that would bring business in for both of us." She took a bite of pizza and then breathed through her mouth to cool it down. "Every single damned time. You'd think I would learn. Pizza cheese is hot!"

Sal waved her hands in front of her. "You guys are turning this into a bigger deal than I planned for. I just wanted a busy place where I could write and get a decent cup of coffee without having to make it myself."

"What did Mark think when you told him?" Polly asked.

"He's the one who found the building. Well, Dylan did. He and Mark's sister, Lisa were over for dinner a few weeks ago and he was complaining about the empty building across the street from this place. It wasn't a half hour later and I was whining about needing a barista of my own. The next thing I knew, Mark and Dylan were talking about how I should bring a coffee shop into Bellingwood. Joe only makes regular and decaf at the diner."

"I didn't even think about that," Sylvie said. "You'd be competition for him."

"Not really. I wouldn't want to serve food." Sal shuddered. "Can't you see me slinging hash with a greasy apron on and a hair net over these pretty locks?"

"Hey!" Sylvie said, laughing.

"Yeah. Like any of your aprons are ever greasy."

"They are after a long day, but I'll give you a break. You totally wouldn't fit in any kitchen I know."

Joss hadn't said much and Sal finally asked her, "What do you think about all of this?"

"I could get a White Chocolate Mocha? In town?" The yearning in her voice made the rest of them giggle. "I love you, Sal. Like the sister I never had. And if you want more than that, I will love you more than that. This is the best idea ever!"

"I guess that's another vote for the coffee shop. Now all I need is to figure out what to call it."

"How about Sal's Joe?" Polly said.

"That's too weird," Sylvie replied. "Maybe Java Sal, though."

"Maybe we don't go any further with this tonight," Sal said. "Think about it, though. You girls are my best bet for a clever name. And anyone who wants to come up tomorrow to walk through the building with me and Henry," she looked at Polly, "and you too, just show up. I don't know what I'm doing. I just know that I want it to happen and I want it bad enough to do something about it."

"I get white chocolate mocha," Joss said dreamily. "I might cry."

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Opening Jeff's office door after a light knock, Polly gave him a sweet smile. "Do you have a minute?"

"Good lord, what do you want now?"

"What do you mean by that?" Polly wanted to be offended, but inside she was laughing.

"I recognize that smile. You want something. Woman, I've given you my blood, sweat and tears. My first born is already promised to that man at the crossroads who was playing the fiddle. I've got nothing else."

"You think you're funny."

"I'm a little funny." He gestured to a chair in front of his desk.

Polly dropped into it and leaned across. "I need to talk to you about lots of things this morning."

"Do any of them include a raise?"

"You must have had a good weekend."

He shrugged and grinned. The running joke on his raise was one they were both quite comfortable with. Jeff was paid very well and they had already negotiated his yearly salary increases along with his bonuses. It seemed the joke was never going to grow old, though.

"It was a good weekend. I had dinner with a friend last night."

Polly perked up. "A friend or agoodfriend?"

"I don't know," he smirked. "But her daughter loves her very much."

"Oh," she said, slumping back down. "I thought it might be a date."

"No. It's just a friend who needed a shoulder to cry on. So we ate expensive steak and I flirted with the waiter. He was adorable. Maybe a bit too young for me, but the flirting was fun."

"You're a nut."

"And you love me. What's happening in Polly-world?"

"Before I stir Sylvie up, I want to know what you think about a coffee shop and bakery coming to downtown Bellingwood."

He sat back and nodded slowly while he thought. "It's not a terrible idea. The Chamber would love to see a business like that. They're always looking to fill those empty buildings. Are you planning to buy and remodel down there?" Jeff glared at her. "Why don't you ever talk to me before you start doing these things?"

"I'm talking to you now and no, it's not just me. Sal is buying the building across from Pizzazz. She wants to put a coffee shop in, but then we were brainstorming and before I knew it, I had an entire bakery to dream about while I slept. We don't have room for additional equipment and supplies here at Sycamore House."

"Yes we do."

"You're not helping."

"Really. If Sylvie wanted to do it here, we could put ovens and racks on that back wall. We'd have to yank the table out, but mixers could sit on the counter back there and..."

Polly waved her hand to stop him. "Sylvie started getting excited about putting a bakery in Sal's building."

"She really wants to work out of two separate kitchens?"

"I think she sees the potential for bringing on more employees. And we really don't have room in this kitchen. Besides, a bakery and coffee shop seem to go together, don't you think?"

"So Sycamore House Bakery downtown?" he asked.

"Sure. It expands our reach and both of those small businesses would be a draw for the other one."

Jeff leaned forward on his desk and rubbed his forehead with both hands. Looking up from under his fingers, he sighed a deep sigh. "Why can't anyone just be satisfied with growing the businesses we already have?"

"You can hardly blame Sylvie. She wants to use the heck out of what she learned. And you and I both know that she doesn't have room here to bake wedding cakes like she wants. Just think of all she could create. And think of all the people she could hire as the bakery grows."

"What if it doesn't?"

Polly curled her nose at him. "Who are you and what did you do with my Jeff? First of all, you'll be promoting the place..."

"I will? Who said I'd do that?"

"Don't make me pull out the boss card on you. And secondly, this is Sylvie. She's amazing in the kitchen. People already ask about her breads and pastries. And that's just what she does on a small scale for wedding receptions."

"So, Sal's buying the building and putting a coffee shop in. I suppose Henry's doing the remodel."

"Well, duh."

"And you want me to tell youwhatabout the idea of a bakery?"

"I want you on board with this. I'm meeting everyone at one thirty, and then Henry and I are going to talk to Steve."

Steve Cook was Polly's financial advisor. His firm had worked with her father and he'd been involved with her decisions since the day she decided to return to Iowa and buy an old schoolhouse. He had yet to say no to her and Polly was hoping that she never presented him with an idea that he thought would fail.

"You know that if you and Sylvie decide this is what you want to do, I'll be behind you all the way."

"Good. I'll let you know."

"What were the rest of the lots of things?"

She was confused for a moment and then said, "Oh! Those. It's mostly about hiring more people. I can't handle all of the bookkeeping that is going on with Sycamore Inn and catering and if the bakery gets busy, it's going to just get worse. And … I think we need a full-time receptionist."

Jeff shut his eyes and shook his head back and forth. "I kept hoping that Sarah would be able to do more, but that poor woman seems to be hanging on by a thread. She comes into the office every once in a while, but after an hour, she's exhausted."

"I know." This was a hard conversation to have. Polly kept having it in her head, but she didn't want to deal with the reality.

"I don't want to have to tell her that we're replacing her."

"I'll talk to her. There will always be something for her to do if she has the energy, right?"

"Of course," Jeff said.

"That's all she needs to know. But I think we need someone else here in the office. And you havegotto hire someone at Sycamore Inn. Rachel can't keep going out there to clean rooms. Especially if Sylvie gets busy with another kitchen."

"Are you yelling at me?" he asked.

"No. I'm just telling you that I think it's time we finally admit we are no longer a four person operation. We need more help."

"Maybe you just need to rescue a few more people."

She laughed. "You're a brat."

"That's where your best employees come from. Am I right?"

He was right. Sort of. And that made Polly a little crazy. If Henry wasn't giving her trouble about rescuing the whole world, Jeff was."

"It's time to look," she said. "Would you put together some job postings?"

"I hate interviewing."

"So do I. Do you remember your interview? I stunk at it and you hired yourself."

He grinned. "I learned that closing line from a friend of mine and to be honest, I couldn't believe it worked. But I also knew that I wanted this job. As much as I might want to tell you that we're getting too many businesses..."

"It's only three and maybe four," she interrupted.

"Anyway, it's the best fun I'm ever going to have in my life, so you do what 'cha gotta do and I'll find people to support you."

"You really will?"

"I'll get on it right away. But don't forget you have to talk to Sarah."

"It might take a day or two, but I'll make sure she's comfortable with whatever happens."

 

~~~

 

Polly pulled in beside Henry's truck and jumped out. He was standing with Sal and Sylvie just inside the glass front door. Sylvie pushed it open when Polly approached.

"So what do you all think?" she asked as she walked in. Then she stopped talking and looked. The place was a complete mess. Dressmaker's dummies were scattered around, some on their sides, others still standing erect. It looked creepy. Boxes and bins littered the floor. A pile of filthy old furniture was shoved up against the interior wall and counters and cabinets were piled against a back wall.

"Wow. Did you know about this mess?" she asked Sal.

"Of course. I've been in here a few times. We just need to bring in a dumpster and empty the place."

"We? That includes you?" Polly asked. "Wouldn't that mar your latest manicure?"

"Don't be smart," Sal scolded. "Of course not me. But your husband says it's no big deal."

"Now Polly. You need to look beyond the mess and see the entire space. Just like you did when you began creating Beryl's art studio or the apartment at Sycamore House." Henry took her arm. "Look at the windows and the walls."

"Is that the wall that separates this from the back room?" she asked. "Is that where the bakery could go?"

"It's not a load bearing wall, so it can be moved anywhere. We just need to leave these beams in place." Henry knocked on a steel beam that went from floor to ceiling."

"Can you wrap those with wood?"

"We can do anything."

Polly spun around. "What kind of style are you thinking about, Sal?"

"Hell, I don't know. I just want coffee. You tell me what I want."

"I think it should be comfortable and cozy. Use reclaimed wood and stain it really dark. Hang lamps from the ceiling and sconces from the walls. None of that fluorescent stuff." She pushed some fabric out of the way with her feet and bent over to look at the floor. "What kind of shape is this in, Henry?"

"I haven't had a chance to really look at it yet, but most of the floors in town were laid by the same people and they're generally in really good shape."

"So we clean the floors. Those could be beautiful." Polly paced off a section. "Here would be a dark wood bar - like a dark walnut. Henry's dad could so make this. It would be gorgeous. Put comfortable wooden chairs in front of it. Then, the tables and chairs on the main floor would all be different. We could hit thrift stores and find tons of those things. Different shapes and textures. But I'm sitting in every single chair. I hate uncomfortable chairs at a coffee shop. And bookshelves. Lots of bookshelves. Because books warm the room."

Sal and Sylvie stood back and watched her dream out loud.

"And you need to talk to Jerry about re-wiring this place," Polly said, gesturing at the walls.

"We'd have to do that anyway. Nothing in here is up to code," Henry said.

"Smart wiring. And there should be outlets all along the wall and maybe bring some into the middle of the room somehow. Can you put them in the floor?" she asked Henry.

"Running lines under an existing floor won't be easy."

"If people needed to plug in, they could take a table along the wall. But there need to be tons of outlets. No one should have to worry about whether they have access."

"And you could have coffee pots on a big round table here in the middle of the room. Customers could buy their cup at the counter and for just plain coffee, they can get free refills. Any of the special stuff, that's done by the barista. And tea out here, too. This could really work. You could have specialty coffees and teas every day along with familiar brews."

She looked at the three of them. "Whatever! I'm just saying things out loud. Step in if you want something else."

"It sounds great to me," Sal said. "Do you want to see where the bakery will be?"

"Yes. Have you seen it yet, Sylvie?"

"Not yet."

Polly walked past the area where she'd paced out the bar. "There would be racks of bread right here. Rolls and baguettes. It will smell so awesome. And a glass counter here for pastries and cakes. And we should construct a booth here for you, Sylvie, so you can talk to people who want to place big orders. Tall backs so your conversations don't bother anyone else. We'll install a tablet in the table and network it with your computer. You can be completely high-tech about it all. This would make a really fun office for you."

Sylvie nodded at her, obviously having no clue what Polly was babbling about. She whispered loudly to Sal, "All I'm hearing is bake, bake, high techy-techy." The two laughed while Polly walked through an opening into a large space.

"We need bathrooms," Polly said. "Don't forget the bathrooms."


Page 5

"Do you want an open window to the bakery?" she asked Sylvie. "Because how cool would that be? Customers could watch bread come out of the ovens and see you decorating cakes."

"You're kidding, right?"

"No. I'm not kidding. It would be awesome."

"I don't want them watching me. That would be really intimidating."

Polly was confused. "But people can stand at the counter at Sycamore House and watch you cook."

"We'll talk about this later. If you can give me a good reason why I should show all of Bellingwood how much flour and sugar I pour down my front, maybe I'll let you talk me into that."

"Have you looked online at ovens and mixers and refrigerators and coolers?" Polly asked.

"Not yet," Sylvie gave a little laugh. "We only started talking about this last night. Just because you're making plans doesn't mean I have everything put in place four hours later."

Polly rolled her eyes.

"Are you really going to do the bakery?" Sal asked. "I thought last night we were talking about it happening in the future... maybe. That Sylvie would bake things at Sycamore House until we got bigger."

"If this is going to happen, why shouldn't the whole thing happen at once?"

"Because it's a big investment."

"We'd take on the bakery investment and rent this space from you."

Sal nodded and then shook her head. "That's crazy."

"That's kind of what Jeff said. But I think it can work. If anyone can make it happen, it's Sylvie."

Sylvie took Sal's arm and dramatically wobbled back and forth. "I'm feeling pressure here."

"She's frightening when she starts dreaming, isn't she."

Polly waved them off and wandered back into the front room. "What's this door here?" she asked.

"That leads up to the apartments," Sal said. "Do you want to see them?"

"Do you want me to fix them up?" It was almost as if Polly were daring her to respond.

"Yes? No?" Sal turned to Henry in desperation. "Do I want her to see them?"

"Why don't we focus on this level," he said. "We'll clear out the junk and look at the floor, then take measurements and think about where you want walls. I'll bring Jerry in to look at the electricity and we need to find out where water comes in to the building. There is plenty of foundational work ahead of us before we let Polly loose. But now that she's seen the place, her mind won't turn off until she's created the perfect coffee shop and bakery. Isn't that right, honey?"

"What?" Polly asked. She looked over her shoulder at them.

"What are you thinking about?"

"A little stage."

"A stage?"

"For performers. You know, singer-songwriters, poets, jazz combos."

"Like I told you," Henry said. "Her brain isn't going to leave this alone for a long time now. We've created a monster."

Sal looked over at Polly, "Do you really think this could work?"

"Why not? Once we get it in place, the only thing you have to do is keep the quality high, the place clean and prices reasonable. As long as your customers can count on you being consistent, they'll keep coming back and they'll tell their friends."

"And you think Bellingwood can handle it?"

"I don't know what the population numbers are doing right now, but Bellingwood isn't a back water community, going stale and lifeless. Things are happening here. The boys at the winery are doing well and Sycamore Inn is getting busier. You aren't the only person who is buying empty space. That new boutique that opened up next to the general store is bringing in customers and the screen printing shop by the bank is opening sometime next month."

"They're talking about repaving Washington Street this summer," Henry said, walking across the floor. "The downtown is going to look really nice. Now's the time to start."

"No time like the present, then," Sal said. "You must think I'm the most foolish person you've ever met."

"Why's that?" Polly asked.

"All I wanted was a place to serve me some really good coffee. No one else was going to build it, so I had to."

"Jeff and I talked about it last year and we just couldn't make a decision. We weren't ready to expand beyond Sycamore House, so buying a building downtown didn't make sense. But we also knew that we weren't a good location for a coffee shop. There's no drop-in traffic over there."

"Did I steal your idea?" Sal asked her. "Because I can back off. I haven't signed the papers yet."

"No, I love that someone else is doing it. That lets me off the hook."

"Except for the bakery," Henry said, nodding at Sylvie.

"That's going to be the most amazing part." Polly rubbed her hands together. "Sylvie are you ready to do this? You're going to have to start training more people, you know."

Sylvie gave a little shudder. "This is so much more than I'd ever expected when I told you I was going back to college. I'm in charge and it scares the life out of me."

"Are you going to train my baristas and manage the coffee shop too?" Sal asked with a grin.

"Not on your crazy, coffee-loving life. That's all on you."

Sal turned to Polly. "Will you do it?"

"Nope. You're going to have to get involved."

"I'm spending money. Isn't that enough?" This time she turned to Henry for support.

He backed away. "Don't look at me. I'll take your money, but I'm not getting involved with the business of this place."

"Fine then. I'm going to go flirt with your manager."

"Jeff? Good luck with that."

"He loves me."

"Like I said. Good luck with that."

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Not wanting the kids to walk home in the bitter cold, Polly drove to the school. She watched for them to come out and as Rebecca pulled her scarf around her head, Andrew looked up and saw Polly's truck. They were with a girl whom Polly had seen a few times before. That had to be Rebecca's friend, Kayla. She followed her friends to Polly's truck and Andrew jumped in the front seat.

"I called shotgun," he said. "Don't make me sit in back with the girls, okay?"

The two girls clambered into the back seat and Polly waited for them to all belt in. "Are we ready?" she asked.

"Thanks for getting us, Polly," Rebecca said. "This is Kayla."

Polly turned in her seat and put her hand out. The girl took it in her left hand and looked at Polly in confusion. "Hi," she said.

"I'm glad to meet you, Kayla. How was school today?"

Kayla simply said, "Fine."

Andrew, on the other hand, was wound up. "It was fine, except for that stupid Perry. He got us all in trouble again. Mrs. Hastings told him four times to sit down and quit playing, but he wouldn't. Then he got some of the other boys all riled up and when we went out of the room for lunch, he started a fight."

"Were you in the fight?" Polly asked.

"No!" Andrew was shocked at her question. "But Mrs. Hastings said we were all talking too much today and he really made her mad, so we had to write letters to the principal telling her that we were sorry for misbehaving in the hallway and making too much noise."

"You had to write a letter?" That didn't sound like horrible punishment to Polly, but maybe the kids saw it differently.

"That's the time when I get to read my book," Andrew complained.

"And I get to draw," Rebecca chimed in. "If we get our work done, we get fifteen minutes to do whatever we want at our desk as long as we're quiet."

"I see. And you had your work done?"

"The stuff that we were supposed to hand in today."

"Do you have homework tonight?"

Andrew's sigh was loud and dramatic. "So much! She must have been really mad. We have math and social studies and science and then we're supposed to write a poem."

"That's all due tomorrow?" Polly asked.

Rebecca swatted her hand at Andrew. "No, it's not all due tomorrow. The math is due tomorrow and so is the poem."

"It's a lot of homework," he said. And just like that, his focus shifted. "Is Han there today?"

Polly took a breath so that she could shift with him. "No, he's with Henry. Would you two like to introduce Kayla to Obiwan, though, and take him on a quick walk? He's going to need it."

Andrew nodded at Polly and then turned to say to Kayla, "Han is the brother to my dog. Her name is Padme. You know, from Star Wars? Do you know Star Wars?"

She shook her head.

"You haven't ever seen Star Wars? I've watched it a thousand times!" he said. "Polly, can we watch Star Wars?"

"You know the deal. Homework and then play."

"But we have so much homework! We'll never get to play."

She scowled at him and he sat back in his seat. "Here's the deal," Polly said. "I'll make brownies while you work at the table on your homework. We'll see who finishes first."

"But we have so much," Andrew whined.

"Really? You're whining?"

He grimaced and slumped lower in his seat, then sat up again. "Can we take Kayla down to see the animals?"

Polly's laughter rang through the cab of the truck. "Andrew Donovan, you're wonderful. You'll try anything, won't you? Homework first, then you can decide whether you want to watch Star Wars or go down to the barn."

"Okay," he said sheepishly as Polly pulled into the garage.

"Take your books upstairs and bring Obiwan back down," she said. "Don't stay out too long with him. It's cold."

She waited at the door while the three kids got out of the truck with their backpacks. As they passed in front of her, she put her hand on Kayla's shoulder. The girl flinched at Polly's touch and ducked enough to avoid it. She kept her eyes focused on Rebecca's back and followed her up the steps into the apartment.

Polly grabbed Andrew before he could go up with them.

"What? I'm sorry. I was just excited," he said.

"No, that's not it. You're fine. Do you know Kayla very well?"

He shrugged. "I suppose."

"Does she have very many friends?"

"No. She isn't popular. They call her Trayla Kayla because she lives in the trailer park. They call her other things too but those are really mean."

"Have you ever met her family?"

"She doesn't have parents. She only has a sister. The kids say mean things to her about that, too."

"Okay, thanks. And thanks for being nice to her."

"She's just another kid like me."

"There is no other kid like you," Polly said and pulled him into a hug. "I think you're wonderful."

Andrew grunted and waited limply for her to release him.

"You don't like hugs much, do you?"

"You do it a lot," he said matter-of-factly and headed for the doorway to her apartment.

"I guess I do," Polly retorted and went into the kitchen.

"Thanks for picking up the kids," Sylvie said.

"Rebecca brought a friend home - a Kayla Armstrong. Do you know her?"

Sylvie thought for a moment and said, "I've seen her. She's a little chubby and lives with her older sister?"

"Yeah. I just tried to touch her and she flinched. Do you think there's a problem?"

Sylvie took Polly's hand and led her back to the table. "No, it isn't with the sister. Rumor has it they escaped from an abusive home, that when the sister turned eighteen, she took Kayla and ran because the dad was starting to... you know."

"But the flinching? I'm a woman."

"I heard that he beat them all up too."

"Where do you hear this stuff?" Polly asked. "Do the parents live near here?"

"No," Sylvie's spoke quietly and Polly had to lean in to hear her. "Who knows how much of it is true, but you know how kids talk and sometimes things get out from teachers and other parents."

"It seems to me like those are the people who'd want to keep her safe and not gossip."

"I know. Half of what I told you might not be true."

"Poor thing. Well, it looks as if I've trained Rebecca in the rescue and keeping of people. She's the one who asked to bring Kayla home." Polly saw the three kids running and romping with Obiwan through the back window. "Since they closed the library on Mondays, Joss and I thought about opening the classroom and computer room here for kids to do their homework."

"Who's going to watch them?" Sylvie asked.

"We haven't gotten that far. What do you think, though? Would you consider making snacks if we start this?"

"I'm going to really need that bakery, aren't I?"

"Isn't it just the best idea?"

"You don't do things in a small way, do you?"

"Not if I can help it. Why wouldn't we go for it? I know that I won't have to be involved in the actual work, but if you think it's doable, then why not?"

"It's going to be hard work and early hours. I'm not sure if I'm ready to be working early mornings and then late evenings on the weekends."

"Then you'll have to hire and train good people."

"But until we get busy, it's just going to be me."

"We'll figure it out. And speaking of baking, I told the kids I'd make brownies while they worked on their homework. What are you working on in here this afternoon?"

Sylvie gave Polly a grin and dropped her head. "I'm actually catering a dinner out at Secret Woods tonight and a breakfast meeting in the morning for them."

"What's going on?"

"It's some leadership retreat thingie. I have no idea. They're staying at the Inn. Didn't you know about it?"

"No, but that's not surprising."

"Jeff's been in and out all day. They checked in last night, had breakfast at the Diner this morning and Davey's catered lunch. I'm doing dinner and breakfast tomorrow."

"Do you need anything from me?"

"Nope, it's not a large group, so Rachel and I have it."

"You're amazing," Polly said. "How late do you need Andrew to stay here?"

"Eliseo said he'd take the boys home after Jason's done. They're old enough to be on their own now. At least that's what I've been told by my eldest over and over."

"Okay, well let me know."  Polly went up the steps to her apartment and found the three kids sitting at the table in the dining room. Rebecca and Kayla each had a glass of water beside them and Andrew had poured himself a glass of milk.

"Is it okay we got something to drink?" he asked.

"Of course it is. Thanks for asking, though. Do you need anything else?"

"Just those brownies," he said. "Any time now."

Polly ruffled his hair as she walked past the table. "You'll notice that these two are very comfortable here, Kayla. If there's anything you need - anything at all, be sure to speak up."

She nodded and went back to the work in front of her, whispering to Rebecca about one of the problems.

"It's okay," Rebecca said quietly. "Polly doesn't care if we talk about our work together. Sometimes she even helps us if we have trouble. Don't you."

"If I can figure it out, I do." Polly pulled out the cocoa and other ingredients. "Do you all like nuts in your brownies?"

"I'm allergic," Kayla said.

"Then brownies with no nuts. Smooth brownies, we'll call them. How about frosting?"

"I love frosting." This brought the first smile Polly had seen to Kayla's face.

"Smooth brownies with chocolate chips and chocolate frosting. How about that?"

"They won't be smooth," Andrew said.

"Smart-aleck. So, chunky brownies with chocolate chips and chocolate frosting."

The kids were still working through math problems when Polly put the brownies into the oven. She cleaned up the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door to look for supper ideas. There was some left over pork loin in a container, but not enough for a whole meal. She opened the freezer. There was nothing in there that could be defrosted in time for dinner.

She texted Henry. "I'm a failure as a mom and have no idea what to cook for supper."

"We need to buy a crock pot and try to plan better in the mornings."

"You know I'll never remember to do that."

"I might."             

"Uh huh. I'm tired of pizza and sandwiches. What if we take the girls to Davey's tonight?"

"That's always fine with me. I'll be home about five thirty or six. Okay?"

"Great."

Polly leaned over the peninsula and asked, "What time will your sister be here to pick you up tonight, Kayla?"

"She gets off work at five thirty on Mondays. Is that okay?"

"You bet. I was just checking. How are you guys doing?"

"I'm working on my poem," Andrew announced.

"You finished your math?"

"Yeah. It was no big deal."

How about you girls?" Polly asked. She walked around the peninsula to stand between the two girls and put her hand on Rebecca's shoulder, carefully avoiding Kayla. Bending over to see what they were working on, she said, "You're almost done, too. Right?"

"We only have to do the even numbered problems."

"Do you ever do the odd numbered ones too?"

That stumped Kayla. "Why would we do that?" she asked.

"For practice. To make sure you know what you're doing."

"No," Rebecca announced and firmly set her pencil down on top of her paper. "I'm done. I don't want to do any more."

"Are they right?" Polly asked.

"Isn't that why the teacher grades them, to see if they're right?" Kayla asked.

"Rebecca?" Polly asked again.


Page 6

"Polly says we're supposed to do our very best and sometimes she makes me redo problems if I mess them up."

"Why?"

"Because I'm learning, I guess." Rebecca didn't sound too confident of her reason.

"Because learning is more than just getting a grade," Polly said. "Learning is about the whole process. Let me see your sheet, Rebecca. Yours too, Andrew."

Both kids handed her their work. As far as Polly could tell, Rebecca's was pretty much right. She put Andrew's back in front of him and pointed at number six. "Are you sure about that answer? Check your subtraction."

He peered at his answer and then looked up at Polly. "Thank you. I'd have gotten it wrong."

Kayla's eyes bounced back and forth between the two kids and then she timidly held her paper up. "What about mine?"

Two of her answers had errors in the calculations and Polly put the sheet back down in front of her. "You need to look at your answers for number two and number ten. The others look good." The timer on the oven rang and Polly said, "Rebecca, do you want to get the brownies or help Kayla with her work?"

"I'll get the brownies."

"Hot pads. Don't forget the hot pads."

Rebecca slipped out of her seat and Polly took it and sat down. She leaned back and grabbed a notepad from the corner of the counter behind her.

"Let's work through these numbers and see if you come up with a better answer," Polly said. She turned back around. "Just put that on the cooling rack for a few minutes. I'll cut it."

"Okay," Rebecca said.

Kayla had taken the notepad and was reworking problem number two. Polly saw her eyes light up and she worked through it to the right answer.

"Good," Polly said. "Now try number ten again, using the information you just learned."

"That was easy," Kayla said when she finished the second problem.

"Sometimes you just have to slow down and think it all through. We have plenty of time, so why don't you three take a break. Andrew, do you want to put Star Wars in and I'll bring brownies over? You can watch it for half an hour and then come back and write your poems."

He ran across the room to queue up the movie and dropped into the chair beside the sofa. Obiwan jumped up to join him.

"Come on," he called as familiar music played into the room. "This is the best movie!"

Kayla followed Rebecca and the two girls curled up on the couch. Rebecca took a blanket off the back and threw it over their laps.

"Hit play," she said. "We're ready."

Polly cut brownies and poured milk, then took the treats into the living room and waited until the opening scroll had finished before passing them out.

"This is in space?" Kayla asked.

"Yes, it's awesome!" Andrew declared. "Just watch."

"It's my favorite movie in the world," Polly whispered. "I make him watch it all the time."

"It's my favorite too," he agreed. "But there are six of them and they're all good."

Polly rolled her eyes. Thank goodness he was young enough to appreciate the movies, no matter what. She had decided that complaining about Jar Jar Binks was not necessary around the kids. They didn't know they were supposed to hate the character.

"You should see her office," Rebecca said. "She has Star Wars everywhere."

Kayla nodded, caught up in the plot. When the image of Leia was projected from R2D2 and said, "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope," Kayla's eyes jumped to the dog. The image repeated the phrase and Kayla pointed to the dog.

"Polly is Star Wars crazy," Andrew said. "Keep watching. This is a good part." He directed her eyes back to the screen.

Polly interrupted them after the half hour was up and though there was moaning and complaining, she insisted, and they settled back in to work on their poems. She went into the living room while they worked and opened her laptop. There were so many things spinning in her mind that she wanted to get them into her notes program while they were still fresh.

Ideas about the new bakery and the possibility of an afterschool kids club at Sycamore House gave her lots to think about. The most frustrating thing was the fact that she didn't have enough employees to make it all happen easily.

Jeff would tell her that was the least of her problems. She didn't have any business for the bakery and she was already trying to hire more employees. Heck, she didn't even have a finished building. It wouldn't come together for months. But it was so exciting to think about starting a new project, she could hardly contain herself.

"I'm done," Andrew said, coming out to the living room. "Can I turn the movie back on?"

"What do you think?" she asked.

"Not until everybody is done," he grumped.

"Exactly. Get your book out and read quietly or something."

"I just wanted her to see the whole thing before we have to go home tonight."

"The movie will be here the next time Kayla comes over and I'm sure you'll remember where you left off."

"Okay. Can I go down to my desk?"

"Why do you want to do that?"

"I dunno. Just something to do."

"Where's the book you're going to read?"

"In my backpack."

"The girls won't be that much longer. Why don't you bring your book out here and read with me. You and Obiwan can have the other couch."

"Fine." Andrew slopped his feet across the floor back to the dining room and then came back, dragging the backpack behind him.

"If you scratch the floor because you're being a poop, I'm siccing Henry on you," she said.

He picked the pack up and carried it to the sofa and sat down.

"What's up with you, anyway?" Polly asked.

"Nothing."

"Nothing really? Or nothing you don't want to tell me about it."

"Nothing."

"That's helpful."

He whispered at Polly, "Is she coming here every day?"

That was it! He was jealous of Rebecca's time. Polly wondered if he noticed the crush Rebecca had on his older brother. That would just kill him.

"Who knows how often she'll come here, but wouldn't you rather she had a safe place to go after school than wander around town by herself?"

"I guess. But ... oh nothing."

"I get it, Andrew. But trust me. More friends are more interesting than just one friend. You might find that you really like her."

"I like her fine. She's just a girl, but she doesn't know all the stuff that Rebecca and I do here."

"Then you'll have to teach her."

A knock at the front door of the apartment startled both of them.

"I got it," Andrew said and ran to open the door. Rachel was standing there with a slip of paper in her hand.

"What's up, Rachel?" Polly asked. "Come on in."

"You're supposed to call Kayla's sister at the convenience store. She didn't know how else to get in contact with you." She walked over to hand Polly the piece of paper. "That's her cell phone."

"Did she say anything?"

"No, she just wanted you to call her. She said it was important."

"Okay, thanks for bringing this up to me. When are you heading over to the winery?"

Rachel smiled. "In an hour. I can't wait. I haven't seen the whole place yet. Billy said we could go some Thursday night during the summer. They're going to have musicians and wine tastings and stuff."

"That will be fun. Okay, thanks for this. I'd better find out what she wants."

Polly took out her phone as Rachel pulled the door shut behind her. After dialing the number, she waited for someone to answer.

"It's Stephanie," the girl said.

"Hi, Stephanie, this is Polly Giller over at Sycamore House. You called?"

"Yeah. I'm so, so sorry, but I have to work another shift tonight and I don't know what to do with Kayla. Maybe she could just walk over here and stay while I work?"

"She can stay with us and you can pick her up when you're done. What time will that be?"

"Not until eleven thirty."

"She won't get home until eleven thirty?"

"I know. It's bad, but there isn't anyone else to work here. I have to stay."

"I get that, but wow. Eleven thirty?"

"I don't know what else to do. I'm sorry."

Polly bit her lower lip, trying to think through the evening. They could take Kayla to dinner with them. Maybe she should just offer to let the girl spend the night. At least she would get to sleep at a reasonable hour.

"Would you mind if I ran over to meet you?" Polly asked.

"Sure. But why?"

"Because I'm going to see if you want to let Kayla spend the night with us and I'll take her to school with Rebecca in the morning. But I want you to meet me first."

"I know your husband. He always comes in for ice cream sandwiches."

"Yes. I guess he does. But I'd like to put a face to your name. What do you say to her spending the night so she can get to bed at a normal hour?"

"Sometimes she doesn't go to bed until ten thirty or eleven. Tonight wouldn't be too late."

"I see."

"That's bad, isn't it?"

"No. Don't say that. I'm not trying to give you trouble. Let me come meet you. I'm serious about her spending the night, though. You can pick her up after school tomorrow."

"I have to work until five thirty. She usually goes to the library until I'm done. I've never gone a whole day without seeing her."

Polly took a breath. "Then I'll bring her and Rebecca with me right now. But if she's staying here until after eleven thirty, I can guarantee she'll be asleep. I'll probably be asleep."

"Okay. Come on over. I'm really sorry about this."

"You don't need to apologize. It's okay. We'll work it out. I want to make it easy for you and if you're really uncomfortable with her spending the night here after you meet me, we'll figure out how to fix it for you."

"Thanks. I have a customer." Stephanie Armstrong clicked off and Polly walked into the dining room.

"How are you girls doing on your poems?" she asked.

"We're close," Rebecca said.

"It's time for another break. Put your shoes and coats on. We're going to run over to the convenience store to meet Kayla's sister. She has to work a late shift tonight and Kayla's going to hang out with us for a little longer."

"Yeah!" Rebecca yelled and jumped up. "You'll get to meet Henry and Jessie and see their other dog, Han. And I'll take you down to meet my mom."

Rebecca usually spent a couple of hours in the evenings with her mother. The amount of time was perfect for both of them. She came back upstairs to get ready for bed before her mother completely ran out of energy and before Rebecca had to watch Evelyn Morrow help Sarah through her own evening preparations. Sarah did her best to rest up for the weekends when Rebecca was able to spend a great deal of time in her room. They'd found games they could play together and sometimes Sarah just watched as Rebecca drew all she could see from the large windows in the room.

"You girls get ready to go. Andrew, do you want to come, too?"

"No, that's fine. I'll stay here and read."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. Whatever."

"Boys," Kayla said with feigned disgust.

"Boys," Rebecca huffed.

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Stephanie Armstrong was a nice enough girl. She seemed too young to have the stress of raising a younger sister, but the two interacted well. Kayla hugged Stephanie when she got to the convenience store and after hellos, they were discussing Kayla's day and her homework. Star Wars took a few more moments and then Stephanie asked Kayla to show Rebecca the puzzle magazines.

When the girls were out of earshot, Polly smiled at the young woman and asked about Kayla spending the night again.

"Don't feel like I'm insisting," Polly said. "You just tell me what you'd like to do and I'll help you out."

"I know that I'm keeping you all up late, too," Stephanie replied. "That's not fair. I've never had to do two shifts in a row. Usually I get some time to take her home and make dinner before I have to come back to work, but Brian is out of town and he couldn't cover for me."

"I get it. It's hard to make things work when you're alone. My best friend has two boys and I know how hard it's been for her, trying to go to school and work. Luckily her sons get to hang out at Sycamore House."

Stephanie screwed her lips up and twisted them as she tried to make a decision. "She doesn't have any clothes for tomorrow."

"That's right," Polly agreed. She needed to let the girl figure this out for herself.

"But she does have a key to the house..."

"We could take her there after dinner."

"It's going to be so weird to be alone. We've never been apart at night."

"Stephanie, please. If you want to come get her when you're off work, that will be fine."

"She really likes Rebecca. It could be like a slumber party. She's never done that before."

"Rebecca likes her too and I'm glad they're friends. Rebecca has needed a good friend."

"Really?"

"That's a story I'll tell you some other day. But trust me when I say that they're good for each other. Mrs. Hastings did a great thing when she put them together."

Stephanie nodded. "She's been a good teacher for Kayla. I wasn't sure how my sister would adjust to a new school. It's been a rough year for her."

"I know you don't know me very well, but I really only want to make this as easy as I can for you."

"Everybody in town talks about you. I can't believe I've never met you before. Your husband comes in all the time."

"Tell me he doesn't explain why he's buying all those ice cream bars."

"He just said they're your favorite."

"Yeah. And he buys them for me when I'm stressed out or upset. He's a smart, smart man."

"Well, we stock more since you two got together," Stephanie said with a grin. "At least that's what Brian said."

Polly laughed out loud. "Great. We're changing the economy of the convenience store."

"Yeah. Just don't stop eating them. You'll kill us."

"Not any time soon. Don't tell Henry, though. I quit buying them at the grocery store so he can pick them up whenever he wants to do something nice for me."

"That's funny," she said with a slight smile.

"Just don't say anything. I don't want him to know I'm on to him."

"Okay," Stephanie said.

"Great. He's one of my favorite guys in the world."

"Okay. She can stay with you tonight."

The transition was abrupt, but Polly accepted it. "Do you want me to bring her to you in the morning before school? Is it going to be hard on you two if you don't see each other until later?"

"No, that's okay." She gave a laugh. "I wouldn't hate sleeping in one time, but don't tell her I said that. I never want her to think that she's a problem for me."

"Got it. We'll keep each other's secrets."

"Kayla?" Stephanie called out. They waited until the two girls joined them at the counter.

"Yah what?" Kayla asked.

"What do you think about spending the night with Rebecca since I have to work so late? You could go home and get clothes and your toothbrush and stuff. They'll take you to school and I'll see you after I get off work."

Rebecca was practically vibrating with glee. She waited to see what Kayla's reaction would be before she got too excited. When her friend looked at her with big eyes, the two girls jumped up together and then did a quick high five.

"Awesome!" Rebecca said.

"Give me a hug," Stephanie said and reached out for Kayla who ran into her arms. "And promise to be good."

"I will. I promise. Thank you."

"I love you and I'll see you tomorrow. Okay?"

 

~~~

 

It had only taken a minimum of chaotic organizing to get everyone ready to go to dinner. By the time Henry and Jessie arrived, homework was completed and the kids were settled in on the sofa watching the end of Star Wars. Jason came up to get Andrew before the movie was over, causing no small amount of consternation for the boy, but knowing Eliseo was waiting, he got his things together and left with his brother.

A flurry of activity occurred as everyone got ready to go. Polly took the dogs out for a quick walk in the back yard. Han was learning to negotiate the stairs, but since she was in a hurry, she picked him up and called for Obiwan to follow.

The hostess at Davey's smiled when they all walked in. She counted heads and said, "Table for five?"

Polly nodded. She automatically reached out to put her hands on Kayla and Rebecca's shoulders in order to move them forward ahead of her, but drew back, remembering Kayla's initial response. "Go ahead girls, follow Mariah." She nodded to Jessie to go ahead and then took Henry's hand.

"There are a lot of females at this table tonight," he said.

"You're good for us all," Polly said. The restaurant was busy and Mariah led them to a large room in the back. Polly waved at Lydia Merritt, trying to catch her friend's attention, but Lydia was staring at her salad, unaware of the activity around her. However, the only large table available was right next to Lydia and Aaron.

Polly slipped in beside them and said, "Looks like you've got company tonight."

Both Lydia and Aaron glanced up from their plates in surprise. Lydia jumped up and hugged Polly. "I wish we'd have known you were coming. You could have joined us."

"We practically are," Polly said.

Aaron had stood with her and shook Henry's hand, then took Polly's. "How are you this evening?" he asked stiffly.

"I'm good. How are things with the case? Rumor has it that you know the man who was killed." Polly sat down and continued. "Why didn't you say something to me? There I was acting all girly and scared and it was someone you knew."

"You were alive and it was too late to do anything for him. Simple priorities," he said.

Polly hadn't seen much of Aaron after he'd escorted her to the back of the caretaker's house and now that she had a chance to look at him, she was shocked at what she saw. He'd lost weight and he looked drawn and exhausted. His eyes were dark and his skin sallow. Gone was the easy laughter that came to his face. His entire demeanor had changed. She didn't know the man standing in front of her and was glad that Lydia had said something earlier so she was at least prepared.

"What's good tonight?" Henry asked. "I'm feeding a crowd."

"I'm sure the kids will find something that interests them," Aaron responded and sat back down.

Lydia took a deep breath and gave Polly a sad smile. "It's just a salad for me tonight. I don't feel much like eating. Benny's your waiter. He'll tell you the specials. I've forgotten what he said. I think there was a chicken strip meal, but I must not have paid much attention."

Polly took her hand, squeezed it, and gave Lydia another hug before the woman re-took her seat. "You two enjoy yourselves and forgive us if our table gets too loud. I think poor Henry is about to find out what it means to take four women out to dinner."

"Enjoy your evening," Aaron said, effectively dismissing her.

Henry held Polly's chair for her and sat down. He took her hand under the table and squeezed it, his eyes asking what he couldn't say out loud. She gave a slight shake of her head and turned to the table.

"Okay girls, what'll it be? Shall we get some appetizers?"

Rebecca nodded furiously and Kayla took a cue from her and asked "What do they have?"

"We like the platter. It has onion rings and fried mushrooms and cauliflower, cheese sticks and a cheesy dip with veggies. How does that sound?"

"Great," Kayla said.

"Jessie? Anything else?"

"No, that's wonderful."

Kayla and Rebecca pulled their menus down in front of them and chattered about the various offerings.

"Should we order off the kids menu?" Rebecca asked.

"Do you see something there you'd like to have?"

"I want chicken strips, if that's okay," Kayla said. "I can share with Rebecca if it's too much."

"Oh no," Rebecca assured her friend. "Polly and Henry will let you order your own meal, won't you, Polly?"

"You bet. If we have that big appetizer platter, maybe I should order off the kid's menu, too."

Polly tried to ignore the uncomfortable silence that had settled between them and the Merritts. It was completely unnatural. Any other time they would have all been laughing and telling stories, mostly to entertain Jessie, Rebecca and Kayla, but tonight Polly and Henry both felt the deathly quiet behind them.

Fortunately, the rest of the table had no idea that things weren't normal. Jessie's baby was wide awake, turning and kicking, so she let Rebecca and Kayla touch her belly. Kayla was in awe and for quite some time, kept watching Jessie, hoping for more movement.

Before they'd gotten through with their appetizers, Lydia placed her hand on Polly's shoulder, bent over and gave her a quick hug.

"It was good to see you tonight," she said. "I hope you have fun with the rest of your evening." She smiled across the table. "It was nice to see you again, Jessie. Be sure to let me know if you need anything."

Jessie nodded and smiled as Lydia left with her husband.

 

~~~

 

"It's that one," Kayla said, leaning forward to point out the front window.

Henry pulled into the driveway of an older model trailer.

"Do you need any help?" Polly asked her, turning the overhead light on in the cab.

"No, I can do it. I just need pajamas and a shirt for tomorrow."

"Don't forget fresh undies and socks," Polly said.

"I would have forgot that."

"And your toothbrush and hairbrush."

"Yeah. Okay."

"And do you have your own shampoo?"

"No, I use Steph's."

"Then you can use Rebecca's. Do you need your own pillow or anything?"

"I don't think so." Kayla sat back. "Maybe you should come in and make sure I don't forget anything. I've never done this before."

"Can I come too?" Rebecca asked.

Kayla was startled by the question and Polly understood right away. "Why don't you and Jessie keep Henry company. We won't be very long. I promise."

The porch light wasn't turned on, so Kayla fumbled with the lock. Once inside, Polly wasn't surprised to see a very spare living room. They had an old sofa with worn spots that someone had attempted to cover with blankets. Two plastic TV trays sat in front of the couch and an old television sat on a rickety stand.

The carpet was vacuumed and things were clean and neat, but the walls were dingy and the curtains hanging in the windows were thin.

Kayla went into the kitchen and dug under the sink before coming up with a plastic grocery bag.

"My room's back here," she said.

Polly followed her and glanced into what had to be Stephanie's room. It contained just a bed with a few knitted blankets piled on top for warmth and crates stacked neatly that held her clothing. A lamp and clock rounded out her possessions.

Kayla's room was just as spare. The blankets were bright and cheery and they'd found a set of sheets that were decorated with clouds and flowers. More crates stacked on their sides held the girl's possessions, from clothing and shoes to books, dolls and a few games and puzzles. A lamp sat on a card table in the corner and two chairs were pushed in neatly.


Page 7

"I didn't want Rebecca to see my room. Hers is pretty. She has so many nice things," Kayla said as she sat down on her bed.

"Oh honey, Rebecca wouldn't mind. You should tell her about your room. I suspect she understands more than you realize."

"Since you're an adult, you have to be nice. My friends aren't very nice when they know how poor I am. But Steph does the best she can and I think she's amazing."

"She is amazing and you two have done very well here." Polly picked up a teddy bear from Kayla's pillow. "Who's this?"

"That's Silver," she said.

"Interesting name."

"She listens to me when I'm upset. Steph told me to tell her everything, even things that I don't want anyone else to know."

"Do you talk to Silver every night?"

"You think it's weird, don't you?" Kayla was trying to decide between a couple of shirts she'd pulled out.

"No. I was being serious. I think it's a great idea." Polly shrugged her right shoulder. "I tell my cats and dogs much more than I tell any of the people around me. Even my husband. When I'm mad at him, they get to hear about it first."

"I'll take this one." She chose a pair of pajamas, then put a blue checked shirt into the bottom of the plastic bag, and pulled out a pair of socks and underwear. "Anything else?"

"You're good with the pants you're wearing?"

"Yeah. Sometimes I wear them a couple of days before we do laundry."

"That's cool. Now, what do you need to take from the bathroom?"

"I'll be right back. My toothbrush and hairbrush, right?"

"That should just about do it."

Kayla ran out of the room and in a flash, was back with the necessary items. She put them in the bag on top of her clothes and grabbed the handles. "I'm ready."

"Do you want to take Silver tonight? It would be okay."

"Can I?"

"Sure. I'll drop Silver and your bag of clothes at Stephanie's work before she picks you up at the library tomorrow."

"I had fun today. Thank you for letting me come over."

"Honey, you can visit any time. Work it out with Stephanie and Rebecca and you're always welcome."

Kayla hesitated as she stepped forward and then stopped. "Thank you."

"Can I hug you?" Polly asked.

The girl rushed in to Polly's open arms, hugged her tight, then held on for a few extra moments."

"Shall we?" Polly gestured to the door when Kayla stepped back. She let the girl walk through and flipped the light off in the room, then followed her to the front of the trailer.

"I want to turn the outside light on for Steph," Kayla said. "I always do that when she comes home late and it's dark."

"That sounds like a good idea. Which one?"

Kayla flipped the living room light off and the outside light on and they pulled the door shut behind them. Polly waited for Kayla to climb up into the back seat, stepped up on the running board and into her own seat.

"Who's that?" Jessie asked, pointing at the teddy bear.

"That's Silver."

"I think Silver should meet my Durango."

"You have a teddy bear?"

"No, Durango is a purple horse. But he sleeps with me every night."

"Really?"

"Oh yeah. I'd be lost without him."

When they got back to Sycamore House, Rebecca took Kayla upstairs to drop her things off and then they ran down to spend time with Sarah.

"I'm totally worn out. I just want to get into sweats and die," Jessie said, once she'd puffed her way up the steps.

"You get comfortable," Polly said. "Henry and I will take care of the animals. If you need anything, just holler."

Polly sat at the top of the steps snuggling with the cats while Henry took the leftovers to the refrigerator. Obiwan and Han had followed him, hoping they might be rewarded for simply being dogs. He came back with Han's leash.

"I don't know why I'm so tired," he said. "But this has been a long day."

Polly nodded. "That was weird at the restaurant tonight with Aaron and Lydia."

"Yeah. What's going on?"

"I have no idea." She shook her head. "But I can't imagine Lydia is going to let this go on much longer."

"Maybe it has to do with the guy who was killed the other night."

Polly wrinkled her forehead and looked back at him as they went out the back door. Henry put Han down on the ground. He tried to surge ahead to follow Obiwan, but had quickly been learning that the leash was stronger than his desire.

"Makes sense to me." Polly mused.

Obiwan had stopped to smell a clump of grass and Han ran over to help him make sure that it was safe.

"How far are you planning to go to rescue Stephanie and Kayla Armstrong?" Henry asked.

"I have no idea what you mean." Polly walked away from him and nudged Obiwan to keep moving. This conversation could only go badly for her.

"I mean... what's the next step in making their life better?"

"We do need more employees. I don't know what Stephanie can do or what she'd want to do, but surely we pay better than the convenience store and our hours are more stable."

"Uh huh."

Polly spun around to see Henry grinning at her.

"You're the one who set Jessie up to work at your business," she said. "Don't you be giving me trouble about this."

"I just tell everyone that I'm in training. You're the master."

"I'm not going to do anything right away, but if something comes up..."

"That'll take about a week, maybe two, I'm guessing."

Polly gave a low whistle and Obiwan ran to her side. "Come with me, big dog. We're going back inside and leave the man and his little dog out here in the cold."

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Polly startled awake at Han's yip. Then she heard a knock at the bedroom door.

"Polly?" Rebecca called quietly.

"Come in, honey," Polly said.

Rebecca opened the door and came in to the bedroom and walked over to Polly's side of the bed.

"What's up?"

"Kayla's upset. She had a bad dream and now she won't stop crying."

Polly's feet were already finding their way out from under the pile of animals on her bed and she put them down on the floor, then swiped open her phone to check the time. It was only eleven fifteen. The girls had gone to bed at eight thirty. She'd heard chattering and laughter until after nine, but after taking the dogs out for one last walk, she checked the room at ten thirty and they were sound asleep.

"Do you need me to do anything?" Henry asked.

"I've got this. No worries." Polly pulled her robe on and went into Rebecca's bedroom.

Kayla was curled into a ball on one side of the bed. She didn't make any noise, but it was obvious that she was upset. Polly flipped the light on and sat down beside the girl. She started to reach out and touch her, but hesitated.

"Honey? Kayla? It's me. Polly. Can you tell me what has you so upset?"

The girl gulped back a sob. "No-o-o-o." she said.

"Will you let me put my arms around you?" Polly took her silence as acquiescence and bent over to hold her. Kayla didn't relax, she held herself tightly as she cried.

"Sweetie, did you get frightened when you woke up in a strange bed?"

"Uh huh."

"Did you have a horrible dream, too?"

"Ye-e-e-es." Kayla's voice hitched as she tried to speak through her tears.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"No-o-o-o."

"Okay then. We'll be quiet for a while until you realize that you're safe and it's all going to be okay." Polly turned to look at a very freaked out Rebecca. "Honey, would you get a small glass of water from the kitchen? And bring tissues back with you, too."

Rebecca seemed thankful to be able to leave the room.

Polly saw the teddy bear lying on the floor and scooped it up with her foot, tossing it behind them onto the bed. With one hand, she stretched to grab it and then pressed it into Kayla's hands, hoping the girl would unclench long enough to be distracted by something she recognized.

The girl clutched the bear, but didn't relax a single muscle and Polly began stroking her back. Then she realized what time it was. Stephanie was still at work.

"Kayla? Honey? Would you like me to call your sister and have her pick you up so that you can sleep in your own bed for the rest of the night?"

That got her attention. The sobbing stopped and Kayla went limp, then sat up beside Polly. "Would you?"

"Of course I would, if that's what you'd like. You don't have to stay here."

Rebecca walked in with a glass of water and tissues. Seeing that Kayla was sitting up, she came around the side of the bed and handed her friend the water first.

Kayla took a sip and said, "Thank you."

"You were scared," Rebecca said. "You had a really bad dream. Did you know you talk in your sleep? I tried to wake you up, but you wouldn't."

"What did I say?" Kayla asked.

"You kept saying 'No. You're hurting her.' That must have been a really bad dream."

The look of shock on Kayla's face startled both Rebecca and Polly. Her hand trembled and water sloshed out on to her pajamas. Polly took the glass from her and brought the teddy bear back up so Kayla could focus on it.

"Give her a tissue, Rebecca," Polly said. "I'm going to call Stephanie. You two relax as much as you can. I'll be right back."

Polly went back into her own bedroom and shut the door.

"Is everything okay?" Henry asked.

"No. That poor thing is scared to death. I'm calling her sister. She should just be getting off work. There's no reason for Kayla to go through any more trauma tonight."

He sat up and reached for a pair of sweatpants to pull over his shorts. "Anything I can do?"

"No, just a second." Polly swiped the call and waited.

"Hello?" She recognized Stephanie's voice.

"Hi, Stephanie. This is Polly Giller."

"Is everything okay?"

"Yes and no. Kayla hasn't hurt herself, but she just woke up from a nightmare and Rebecca came to get me because she was huddled in on herself sobbing. The poor girl is pretty scared and I suspect that she might feel safer if she was in her own bed and at home with you."

"I'm so sorry she did this to you."

"She hasn't done anything to me. I'm sorry that she's frightened. Rebecca is with her right now and we'll get her things packed up. I'm not going to have her change, just put a coat on."

"Tell her I'll be there in ten minutes. I need to close down a few things before I leave. Will that work for you?"

"Sure. Do you know how to get to our back garage door?"

"Yeah. I've seen it."

"Then come around back and we'll be watching for you."

"Thank you so much, Mrs. ..."

"It's just Polly. And I'm glad this happened while you are still at work and can come get her. I'll tell her you're on the way. That will help a bunch."

"Thank you, Polly."

"Thanks for coming over. We'll see you."

"She's coming here to get Kayla," Polly said to Henry. "Would you want to turn lights on in the media room and kitchen?"

"Finally. Something to do," he said. "I was feeling really inadequate."

Polly went back into Rebecca's room and picked up the bag that had held Kayla's clothes. "Stephanie will be here in ten minutes. Your timing was perfect. She hadn't left work yet."

"I'm sorry," Kayla said. "I didn't mean to be a baby."

"You're not a baby," Rebecca insisted. "It's okay to be scared. Right, Polly?"

"Absolutely. The first slumber party I ever went to was when I was in sixth grade and my friend's mom had to call my dad to come get me because I threw up. I wasn't sick. I was just scared."

"Really?" Kayla's eyes brightened and she relaxed her death grip on the bear.

"Really. Dad didn't say anything at all. He just gave me a hug and two weeks later, told me that I could invite my friends AJ and Dev to spend a night at the farm. He took us out to dinner and gave us a ride on the tractor and told us we could stay up all night if we wanted."

"You stayed up all night?" Rebecca asked.

"No. We were asleep by ten thirty. He knew that all we needed to do was get exhausted. But those two girls lived in town and they had sisters and had done sleepovers before. He wanted me to find out that they were fun so I'd get comfortable."

Rebecca patted Kayla's arm and said, "Maybe we can try again sometime,"

"Maybe you can spend the night at Kayla's house one of these days," Polly offered, ignoring the look that Kayla gave her. "Friends figure out how to spend time with each other."

"I've done a lot of sleepovers," Rebecca said. "But most of the time they're at Andrew's house."

Kayla looked at Rebecca in surprise. "You had a sleepover with a boy?"

"I get my own room, but we stay up late making up stories and stuff. It's only on the weekends, though."

"Okay girls, we need to pack Kayla's things. Make sure you get all her school clothes in there and then be sure that everything is in her backpack, too."

Kayla held out her pants. Should I put these on?"

"If they'll go over your pajama pants, you can. Otherwise, you can just wear your pajamas. But put your shoes and socks on. You'd best hurry," Polly said. "Come into the media room when you're ready. Stephanie is coming to the back door."

She left the room and strode across the living room. Henry was in the kitchen. "How do I pack Kayla's leftovers up with more food so Stephanie doesn't think we're just being charitable?" he asked.

"Good heavens, I love you. Let's not worry about that tonight. I have a feeling we might see more of Kayla." Polly hugged him. "I'm glad that Rebecca has a new friend, but it's going to make Andrew jealous. He liked having all of her attention."

"That boy just needs to learn that having two girls pay attention to him is much better than one. All he needs to do is redirect it so that he's in the middle rather than on the outside."

She patted his right pectoral muscle and winked at him. "If I have trouble explaining that to him, I'll send the boy in to learn from the master."

"I ain't no master. I had enough trouble getting one girl to pay attention to me."

"Oh baby, I was paying attention."

"Maybe I wasn't talking about you."

Polly chuckled. He was so much fun. She started to respond when Rebecca and Kayla came into the room. "Are you ready?" she asked, checking the time on her phone. Stephanie was probably already downstairs.

"I have everything and Rebecca said she'd bring me anything else I forgot."

"Then let's go downstairs and see if your sister is here. Rebecca, if you want to head back to your room, I'll be in before I go to bed."

"Okay, but I'm wide awake."

"What does that mean?"

"I don't know."

"I've got this," Henry said.

"Okay. I'll be back."

The dogs were confused with the whole situation, especially when Polly headed for the back door. As Kayla and Polly headed down the steps, the two animals stood at the top, hoping to be called down. Polly looked up and shook her head just before closing the door on them.

She opened the back door and saw a car in the driveway. Kayla ran over to the passenger seat and got in. Polly pushed the door shut and made a motion for her to turn the window down.

Stephanie leaned across her sister. "Thank you again for taking care of her tonight. I'm sorry we woke you up."

"Please don't worry about it," Polly said, resting her hand on the open window. "I hope you'll spend more time with Rebecca, Kayla."

"I will."

"Did you tell her thank you?" Stephanie asked her sister.

Kayla looked up. Her eyes were still red-rimmed from crying, but she had finally relaxed. "Thank you. I'm sorry for waking everybody up."

"It's no problem. I'm glad this worked out and I hope you sleep well tonight." She backed away from the car and pulled her robe around herself while she waved at the car backing out of the driveway. Polly gave a quick shiver as she ran back inside and up the steps.

The dogs weren't sitting at the top of the stairs when she got there and she soon discovered why. They were sitting beside Henry, Jessie and Rebecca at the dining room table.

"We thought we should have snacks since everyone was up," Henry said. "Join us."

"I'm sorry we woke you, Jessie," Polly said.

"It's okay. I had to go to the bathroom anyway." She took a bite of a brownie. "This is good. I'm going to have to work so hard to lose weight after the baby comes."

Rebecca was slowly nibbling at her brownie when Polly sat down beside her.

"You have five more minutes, little girlfriend," Polly said. "Then it's time for all of us to go back to bed."

"She was really scared," Rebecca said.

"Yes, she was and you did exactly the right thing by coming to get me. You were a good friend to her tonight."

"Will she come back sometime?"

"For after school stuff, I hope you invite her to come any time you'd like, but for overnight stays, it might be a while before she wants to try that again. Just keep being her friend. It will get easier for her. Remember how weird it was when you moved in here?"

"I tried to tell her that my room wasn't always like this. She didn't believe me. She told me that her place was a dump and I said that I didn't care because she was my friend."

Polly glanced at Henry. She knew she couldn't fix everybody, but there had to be something she could do about that.

"Just keep telling her that she's your friend. It will get better."


Page 8

 

~~~

 

Polly was in her office the next morning when she looked up to see Lydia walk in the front door. It was quite obvious that she'd been crying, so Polly jumped up and out of her chair and met her friend outside the office.

"Lydia, what's going on?"

"I shouldn't be here, but I need to talk to someone."

"Do you want to go upstairs?"

"Could we?" The poor woman looked like she could fall apart at any moment.

"Would you like coffee or tea or anything?" Polly asked when they entered her apartment.

"Coffee would be nice."

"You sit down. I'll be right out with it." Polly went into the kitchen and quickly texted Jeff that she was upstairs and didn't want to be bothered. She poured out two cups of coffee and went back into the living room, snagging an opened box of tissues with her little finger as she passed by a table.

Sitting in the chair next to where Lydia was seated, Polly handed her the coffee and dropped the tissues on the table in front of them. "What's up?"

"First of all, I'm so sorry about last night. I didn't have the energy to cook supper and thought that if we went out for dinner it might help him relax, but it just made things worse."

"You don't need to apologize for anything. We were worried about you two."

Lydia shook her head. "I don't know what to think. All of these years he has been the most stable man I've ever known and now things are falling apart and ..."

"He's still not talking about it?"

"Not a word. I've quit asking. It only makes it worse. He didn't even want to go over to Dayton to see the grandchildren on Sunday. He's never missed that. I couldn't tell Marilyn what was going on. She has enough stress with those three active little ones. But she knew something was wrong."

Polly reached out and took Lydia's hand.

"He slept in the guest room last night, Polly. Even when we're sick, he doesn't do that."

"This is the first time?"

Lydia nodded. "He didn't say anything, just put his pajamas on and left the room. I shut the door and cried all night long. He was up and out of the house before I went downstairs. I heard him taking a shower at five o'clock. And you know he's never up before seven."

"Maybe it has to do with a case."

"No. It's not that." Lydia shook her head. "I know it's not that." She thought for a moment. "Okay, I don't know for sure since he's not even talking about those anymore either."

"What do you want to do? Do you want to leave the house?"

'No!" Lydia declared. "That's our house and I'm not leaving it because some alien has taken over my husband's body."

"Okay, then what?"

Lydia deflated. "I don't know. I want to tell you that I'll fight for the marriage, but if he wants something else out of life, I guess I want him to be happy."

"Do you mean that?"

Lydia nodded, then she shook her head and then she nodded again. 'I don't know what I mean. I've never had to do this before. We have always been a team. No matter what came at us, whether it was external or internal to the family, we talked until we were on the same page and then presented a united front. All of a sudden, we've been separated for some reason and I don't know what to do next."

"I think the first thing you need to do is figure out what's going on."

"I don't even know where to start. I can't talk to anyone at his office."

"Why not?"

"Because I don't want to screw with his work life. If it isn't about work, they don't need to know that we're having trouble in our marriage. If it is about work, they don't need to know that he isn't coping well with it."

"Do you really believe they don't see this?"

A shrug was Lydia's only response.

"Does he have any family here?"

"Not here. His sister and a brother live in Georgia and another brother is in Birmingham, Alabama."

"He's from down south? How come he doesn't have an accent?"

Lydia smiled. "He'd lost that by the time we met. He always said that us northerners had too much trouble understanding what he was saying and he didn't need that when he was trying to arrest someone. His sisters and brother have thick accents."

"Have you talked to them about this?"

I doubt they'd know anything."

"No friends that he talks to?"

"Just me. And I guess not even that."

"What about Ken Wallers or the guy from the DCI - what was his name, Digger?"

"Darrell … yes, Digger. They're friends, but I've never known Aaron to confide in either of them. Honestly, Polly, that's what I've always been around for. He can't trust people because of confidentiality. He trusts me." She started to weep. "And now he doesn't even have me. I wish I knew how to break through whatever is going on."

"How can I help you?"

"This is enough. I just needed someone to talk to this morning."

Polly didn't dare ask why Lydia was talking to her and not Beryl or Andy. Who knows, maybe she already had and just needed someone else to listen.

"Has Beryl talked to you about getting together?" Polly asked.

"Uh huh. Are you free Thursday night?"

"Absolutely." Even if there was something else, Polly would change her plans for this. "Where are we going?"

"I told Beryl that I didn't want to do any silly artistic stuff if we went to her house, but she was going to talk to Sylvie since we haven't had a chance to christen the new place yet."

"That sounds like fun. You'll love it."

"It's a beautiful home. I was in there several times when the Glau's lived there."

Polly smiled. Of course she had. Lydia had probably been inside every house in Bellingwood. "Sylvie's been working on updating things in the house. The boys' bathroom didn't have a shower, just a cool claw foot tub. Eliseo and Jason changed that out."

"I'm glad she has him. Are they ever going to get together?"

Polly smiled. "I don't know. I wanted her to figure it out before she invested in a house, but I wasn't about to say anything. She was so excited to finally be able to make this happen for her boys."

"Today I'd tell her to hold on to all of the independence she can. When you rely on someone else for more than thirty years and find yourself all alone, it just..." Lydia glanced around the room as if to make sure no one heard. "It sucks."

"You aren't all alone, Lydia. Until you know what's going on with Aaron, you can't make those assumptions."

"I go back and forth between falling apart because he's pulled so far away from me to being absolutely furious and wanting to kick him to the curb. My heart really needs me to either make a decision about which path to take or at least find a happy medium. I don't know how much more of this I can take."

"This is killing me," Polly said. "I want to do something... fix something... even break his neck. I feel helpless." She gulped. "I'm sorry. I know it's not about my feeling helpless. I really can't imagine what you're going through."

"Maybe we should call in an emergency from Sylvie's on Thursday night and tie him up until he talks to us," Lydia said. "Who knows, maybe you guys would get more out of him than I can."

"Do you want me to talk to him?"

That gave Lydia pause, but she shook her head. "No. I don't want him thinking that I'm airing our dirty laundry all over town."

"So he's allowed to mope around like Eeyore, but you aren't allowed to ask for help? That's crap."

"I know. I just won't stop respecting his position."

"But..."

Lydia stopped Polly by lifting her hand. "No. I have to give him the benefit of the doubt."

"No you don't." Polly was furious. "He's been giving you absolutely nothing for over a month now, right? And yet he wants you to act as if nothing is different?"

"I know," Lydia said through an intake of breath. "It's not fair to me, but it's where I am right now. Let me have more time. If it doesn't get any better, I'll find another way to confront him."

"I hope it does get better, but it seems to keep getting worse, right? How far down are you going to let this go before you stop it?"

"Maybe we'll find bottom soon."

"Okay. You do what you have to do and trust me, I will always be here for you."

"But?"

"No buts. Just - I will be here. Even if I think you're making the wrong decision, I still support you. It's your life and your marriage."

"Thank you, sweetie." Lydia checked her watch. "Look at the time. I need to be at the nursing home in a few minutes." She stood up and ran her fingers through her hair, fluffing it up.

"I love you, Lydia. I wish I could do more."

"You've done enough. You gave me back some energy so I can face today. That's all I need. One day at a time."

Polly walked with her to the front door, then down the steps to the main door of Sycamore House. She stood and watched as Lydia crossed the parking lot to her Jeep, got in and drove away. Aaron Merritt's easy life was forfeit now. The first time he crossed Polly's path and was alone, she was ready to take him to the ground and pummel him until he told her what was going on. How could he do this to his wife?

She chuckled. Pummeling Aaron wouldn't be an easy task, but he'd best hope he didn't have a reason to be at Sycamore House. Avoiding Polly might be the best decision he could make right now.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

As Polly tried to sneak her legs out from under the animals, Henry's breathing changed. She went still, hoping he'd drift back to sleep.

"What time is it?" he asked, his voice raspy from sleep.

"It's five thirty. Don't get up. I just feel like going down to the barn. It's been a couple of weeks and I need some horse hair and hay on my clothes."

"Okay." He rolled to his other side and tucked the blankets under his chin.

She slipped into her jeans and a flannel shirt, pulled a sweatshirt over that and picked up her boots. "Come on, Obiwan. You're with me." She'd tried taking Han down to the barn a few times, but neither he nor the horses were any too happy with that. Obiwan stood beside her as she opened the door and darted into the living room.

Polly went down the front steps with him and took a breath. It was quiet this early in the morning. Once they got outside, she took a deep breath in the crisp air and swiped her phone's flashlight on to make sure there was nothing on the path. Obiwan raced to the fence and waited for her to catch up.

Lights were already on inside the barn and she wondered what it would take for her to beat Eliseo down here in the mornings. It used to be enough to arrive at six thirty.

She pushed the door open and Obiwan followed her inside. "Hello?" she called out.

"Good morning!" Eliseo's voice called out from somewhere in the back.

Tom and Huck must have been with him, because both donkeys came out to greet her. "Hello you gorgeous young men. How are you this morning?" Tom nosed at her pocket, hoping for a treat. "Oh no you don't, you beggar. Stay out of my pocket."

Eliseo came out of the donkey's stall. "What are you doing down here so early?"

"I missed my animals and since things move so fast in the mornings, the only time I have is before everyone gets up."

He nodded. "I get that. I have two at home that love mornings."

"I'm here to work. Can I just start in Daisy's stall?"

The horse heard her name and snorted. Polly stepped up and rubbed her head. "Yes, pretty girl, I'm talking about you. Are you ready for me?" 

Polly walked over to Demi's stall. She could usually find Hansel and Gretel sleeping with him. He was the most patient of all the horses and let them sleep on top of him, around him, anywhere they wanted. Sure enough, the two cats were snuggled in. He didn't move anything except his head when he saw Polly.

"You are amazing," she said. "Do those cats really deserve your good will?"

Eliseo came down the center alley with the wheelbarrow and rakes. "Do you really want to do this?"

"Hey," she said, laughing. "It hasn't been that long."

"It's been a while and you certainly don'tneedto help this morning. Jason will be here at six."

"When do I start paying him for the work he does?"

Eliseo handed her a rake and opened Daisy's stall. "Not any time soon. We can talk about it this summer, but for now, he's just fine."

"Are you paying him?" Polly asked, lifting muck out of the stall.

"His mom and I worked out an allowance so he has spending money. He works on the farm and helps in the barn. He's fine."

"Has he said anything about saving for a truck or a car?"

"He isn't even fifteen years old yet. He can't drive for another year. There's plenty of time."

"Okay, I won't push anymore. But..."

"We've got this, Polly. Don't worry."

She went back to work, muttering to herself. Daisy goosed her in the back and Polly spun and said to the horse, "What? Do you want to tell me what to do, too?"

The horse pushed at her again. "What?" Polly asked.

Eliseo walked in with a bucket of grain. "She wants her breakfast. You're doing things out of order."

Polly laughed at him. "You're right. I forgot. I guess it has been too long since I've spent any time down here.

He patted Daisy's neck. "That's okay. We'll forgive you. Do you want to stir Demi and the cats?"

"Those three are awfully lazy in the mornings."

"You have no idea. He lets them do anything they want. I caught Hansel crawling up his neck the other day to use his head as a launching point for the beam up there. None of the other horses would tolerate that behavior, but Demi just puts up with it."

"He's my boy," Polly said. She opened his stall door and the cats leaped up from their nest and scattered. Tom had been waiting for the door to open and stood in the doorway as Demi came to his feet. Once the horse was up, Tom brushed past Demi's legs. He stood, waiting in front of the grain trough.

"What are you doing?" Polly asked.

"Demi is so easy going that the donkeys think they can eat his food."

She grinned and put her hand on top of Tom's head. "That's not fair."

"Nope. We don't let them get away with it, but they don't stop trying." Eliseo snapped a lead rope on Tom's halter and gave it a tug. When the donkey refused to move, Eliseo grinned. "It's usually a contest.

"Who wins?"

"Who do you think?"

"My money is on the donkey, but you're no slouch."

"No donkey will ever get the best of me, no matter how hard they try. However, it usually takes bribery."

"I'm here." Jason's voice rang throughout the barn. Tom lifted his head and started out of the stall to see who was speaking.

"Or a distraction," Eliseo said. He followed the donkey out and handed the lead to Jason. "Deal with him until Demi eats."

"Got it," Jason said. "What are you doing down here this morning, Polly?"

"Just spending time with my equine friends," she said. "I need to do this more often so it isn't such a surprise."

Eliseo came back with another bucket of grain and poured it into Demi's trough. The horse nudged Gretel out of the way after she jumped in to see if anything interesting showed up.

"I'll take care of the cats, too," Jason said. "Come on, Hansel and Gretel. You know where your breakfast is." He clicked his teeth and the two cats ran ahead of him to the feed room.

"It's a regular party down here in the mornings, isn't it," Polly said to Eliseo.

"We like watching them wake up. They each have their routines."

"And I've messed with them this morning. Sorry about that."

"It's no big deal and they all love you."

"Tell me what to do and I'll do it. Don't let me get away with opening doors and getting in your way, okay?"

"Stop it. You're fine. Here. Start mucking Demi's stall. Jason and I will take care of Nan and Nat. Then we're almost done."

Polly went to work and was headed back up to the house before the sun had started to rise. Obiwan followed and when she got upstairs, Henry was in the kitchen.

"I'm going to take a quick shower. Would you feed Obiwan?" she asked.

"Food is already down and coffee is brewing. What do you want for breakfast?"

"I can do that. This will only take a minute."

He looked at the counter, then back at her. "I could start something."

"You wanna start something in here?" she asked, winking at him and nodding toward the bedroom.

"Of course, but you have a couple of girls who are going to be waking up in a few minutes."

"Well, that's no fun." Polly stopped in the door to their bedroom. "I was going to make French toast. You made coffee... that will help.

 

~~~

 

Polly was in her office later that morning when Rachel came storming in. The girl started to slam the door, but thought better of it and turned to Polly, "Can I close this?"

"Sure. What's up?"

Rachel plopped down into a chair and flipped her hair. It was jet black with hot pink tips today. "I'm going to break up with him. He's an idiot."

"Billy?"

"Yes. Him and that freakishly idiotic friend of his. They're joined at the hip and he can't make a stupid decision without talking to Doug."

"What decision do you want him to make?"

"We're all in our early twenties."

"You're twenty."

"Close enough. Anyway, I don't see why they think it's a bad idea for me to move in."

Polly sat back, a little surprised. "Move in? Above the garage?"

"Sure. I don't take up much room. I'm there all the time anyway."

"What was his reason?"             

"He said it wouldn't be fair to Doug and they didn't have room."

Polly pursed her lips, trying hard not to allow a laugh to escape. "Have you talked to your mom?"

"No, not yet. But she'll be fine with it."

"Really? You're twenty."

"She was twenty when she had me."

"Uh huh, and you're exactly the same person as she was back then?"

"What do you mean by that?"

"I mean, you've made all of the same exact decisions that she made through your childhood and teenage years?"

Rachel didn't understand yet. "No. But what does that matter?"

"Because you two aren't the same twenty-year-olds.  You're two very different people and you should be talking to her about these big decisions."

"But that doesn't let Billy off the hook." She huffed and slammed her arms across each other on her chest. "Maybe I should just break up with him."

"Do you want to break up with him?"

"No, but I'd like to separate him from the idiot who lives with him sometimes."

"I get that, but those two have been friends for a long time."

"Maybe they should just get married then."

Polly put her hands down on her desk and leaned forward. "Okay. When did this whole moving in conversation happen?"

"Last night and this morning."

"You spent the night with him."

"Sure. I do all the time."

"And he told you that he wasn't ready for you to move in."

"Pretty much."

"Did he tell you that he didn't love you?"

"No."

"Did he say anything about breaking up?"

"No." Rachel started unclenching her fists, coming to grips with reality. "I pushed too hard, didn't I?"

"Maybe a little. These two guys have just figured out what it means to live on their own away from their moms. They're having a ball and by the way, they're including you in the fun."

"It's not so much fun anymore," Rachel said. "They quit playing video games with their buddies."

"Why did they do that?" Polly asked. "They had fun."

"I think it's my fault." Rachel's voice got quieter. "I told Billy he was like a kid with all the 'dudes' and the games."

"But you played those games with them."

"I know. I miss it too. But now that I'm working all the time I need more sleep. I can't do those all nighters like we used to do and I work on Friday and Saturday nights. Those are the best nights to game because no one has to work the next day or go to school."

Polly smiled. "So how mad at Doug are you really?"

"I don't know. He really doesn't want to grow up and I think he's holding Billy back."

"From doing what?"

"Going out on his own."

"But it was those two who went out on their own together and that was only last year."

"But Billy has grown up so much."

"Oh Rachel, I'm going to ask you a crazy, crazy question."

"What?" Rachel set her jaw.

"What made you fall for Billy in the first place?"

"I dunno. He was funny and did crazy things. He always made me laugh. He wasn't afraid of anything. If people laughed at him because he was a geek, he just blew it off." She dropped her head.

"All of the things that you've been training out of him this last year? All of the things that Doug is still doing?"

"But I love Billy more now that he's acting like an adult."


Page 9

"Is that really true or do you kinda miss the Billy who dressed up in a robe and painted a light saber? I know I miss that boy."

"But he can't be that way for the rest of his life. He has to grow up sometime."

Polly slowly shook her head back and forth. "I don't think so. He's responsible. He goes to work and does a good job every day. He pays his bills. I know that he spends time with his parents. He enjoys his friends. He loves you and apparently will do anything to make you happy. He's kind and good to his dog and he's wonderful with Andrew and Rebecca. Tell me how growing up will make him a better person."

"But..."

"No buts. You fell in love with an amazing young man. Let him be that person until he chooses to do something differently. If he isn't ready to have your girly stuff in his apartment, let that be okay. He wants you there. Learn to fall in love with his best friend, because I'll tell you right now, if you separate those two boys, you'll be the one who pays in the long run. He'll let you get away with it, but someday down the road, it will come back to haunt you."

"Why am I the one who has to change everything?"

"Because you're the one thinking about it and asking the deep questions. This matters to you right now and this is the time when you can do the right thing."

"Crap."

Polly laughed. "What did you think I was going to tell you when you came in here?"

"I don't know, but I didn't think that I was going to be the one who was wrong. How do you make Henry fall in line all the time?"

"What?" Polly looked at her in shock. "Henry falls in line?"

"Everyone talks about how perfect he is. He never does anything wrong. He's always doing stuff for you. I heard someone say that he was whipped."

"Henry Sturtz whipped. That's a good one. It's occurred to no one that he does what he wants to do? If I ask for help, he does what he can to be there, but that goes both ways."

"Nobody else would bring puppies home from their honeymoon. He did that for you."

"Tell me another man out there who would have ignored those puppies, leaving them in the street to die."

"Well..."

"Henry does the right thing. And you'll notice he never apologizes for it either. He thinks about the things he's going to do and then he does them. People don't have enough on their own plates if they're worrying about my husband."

Rachel put her hands up defensively. "It wasn't me. I was just trying to figure out how you get him to be so nice to you."

"Mostly I don't ask him to do things I know he doesn't want to do. And if I am going to ask him to do something like that I make sure there's a darned good reason for it. If I asked him to drive off a bridge, he'd tell me I was nuts, but if I asked him to run the car into the river because the trunk was on fire, he'd figure out a way to get us both to safety and then send the car into the water. He's not a stupid man and I'm not a stupid woman. We listen and we talk and we respect the other person's ability to make good decisions."

"Maybe that's what I need to do."

"What's that?"

"Let Billy make good decisions."

"If he isn't ready for you to move in, you have to respect that."

"You're right. I'm just so ready to get our lives started. He isn't."

"He will be someday and if you let him get there on his own, it will make it easier."

"What if it takes ten years?"

Polly chuckled. "Okay. That might be a bit much, but I doubt Billy takes that long. He's only been out of his parent's house for a year. Let him have this."

"What am I going to do with Doug?"

"You might find him a girl to date. That's always a good distraction. And why don't you be the one to work with Doug to set up a game night. Do it on a Friday night after one of your early wedding rehearsal dinners. Make great food and invite their friends. Let him know that you aren't trying to separate him from his best friend. Encourage their fun."

"Maybe we could do it this Friday night." Rachel jumped up. "Thanks for talking me down, Polly."

"Where's Sylvie this morning? Don't you usually talk to her?"

"She had a delivery coming to the house. I think she's getting new living room furniture."

"She's what?"

Rachel shrugged. "I don't know. She didn't say much yesterday, just that she was going to be late."

"Huh. That's weird. She didn't tell me about it."

"Maybe she wants to surprise you and I wasn't supposed to say anything."

"No, she'd have told you."

"I'd better get back to work. Thanks again."

"No problem."

Polly watched her leave, took out her phone and dialed.

"Good morning, sweetums. Miss me already?" Henry said.

"Of course I do."

"So why are you calling?"

"I just found out that you are the perfect husband. People talk about it in town, you know."

"I didn't know that. Who let the cat out of the bag?"

"Apparently you do everything I want you to do, so you're whipped or something."

"Hmmm," he said. "I think you were doing everything I wanted you to do last night and I certainly don't remember whips."

"Stop it," she giggled, a flush rising through her face.

"So I guess that I've lost all my man points in town, eh?"

"Yep and I've taken them from you."

"Does this bother you?"

"A little. But on the other hand, as I was talking to Rachel about it, I realized how amazing you were and how much I love you. You're so danged smart and reasonable."

"There. That's the right way to look at it. Smart and reasonable. And completely smitten, by the way."

"Still?"

"I told you last year that there would never be a time I wasn't completely in love with you."

"Me too, Henry. Me too. I really am the luckiest woman in town."

"And don't you forget it. So was that the reason for your call or do you need something else, because I'm in a room full of men in hard hats and..."

"You're not!" Polly felt her entire body flush all over again.

Henry laughed out loud. "No. I'm not, but they are in the next room and I need to get back to work."

"Oh my," she breathed. "Scared me to death. No. The real reason I called was to tell you that I love you because you are amazing."

"I love you too."

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

"So what was that about?" Jeff asked, poking his head in Polly's door after Rachel left.

"Nothing," Polly said with a shrug. "What's up?"

"Are you going to be here for a while? I just got a confirmation on an interview and she has some time before heading to her job at ten thirty. She'll be here in fifteen minutes."

"Nothing like giving a girl a warning."

"If you're busy, I can do this. No worries. We'd talked yesterday and I called her this morning and she had time right now."

"I'm kidding. Of course I'm available. I'll finish up what I'm doing here and meet you in the conference room, right?"

"Thanks." He left her office and Polly turned back to her computer. She looked at the screen and back at the pile of bills on her desk. Then she lifted her upper lip in a snarl. She hated this part of the job. Jeff had all the fun. He got to deposit funds. She had to make it go away.

Little by little the pile was whittled down and the stack of checks in her printer grew.

"Polly?" Jeff asked from her door.

"She's here? I didn't see anyone come in."

"You must have been concentrating. She came in the front door."

Polly took a notepad and pencil and followed him into the conference room, then grinned when she saw Stephanie Armstrong seated at the table.

"I didn't know it was you," Polly said.

"I saw the ad come up and thought I'd take a shot. You don't have to give me an interview just because you know me, though."

"Oh no. Jeff is the one who put this together. He had no idea we'd met before. You're good."

"How do you know each other?" Jeff asked.

"Stephanie's sister is in Rebecca's class at school and spent the evening with us on Monday."

"Okay." He gestured to a chair and Polly sat down. He sat and leaned forward. "Do you have a resume?" he asked.

Stephanie handed him a manila folder. "I'm sorry. I don't have the job at the convenience store on there. This came up so fast and I didn't have time to get to the library and update my resume."

"No problem," he said, opening the folder. After a quick glance, he pushed it to Polly. "Tell me what interests you about this position?"

Polly put her hand on his forearm. "Which position are you talking about here today?"

He looked at her and pursed his lips. "I don't know. Either one."

"I can do anything," Stephanie jumped in. "You'll see that I worked a hotel front desk when I lived in Ohio. I did everything and that was when I was still in high school. I know that I'm not a manager at the convenience store, but I do most of the office work. I prepare the orders and check things in, stock shelves, clean, get deposits ready, schedule employees."

"What does your manager do?" Jeff asked.

She shrugged. "I don't ask anymore. He's a nice guy, but ..." she let the rest of the sentence trail off.

"Would you like to work here in the office as my assistant or out at the Inn?"

"Either position would be great. If I worked here, would it be regular hours? I only ask because of my sister. Polly took care of things the other night when I couldn't take her home. I'd like to have a little independence to make sure that she's safe after school."

Jeff nodded and Polly glanced up when she saw Sylvie come into the office.

"You two go on," she said. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

She shut the door behind her when she left the conference room. "Hey, Sylvie, what's up?"

"I'm sorry to bother you. Nothing really. I just wanted to let you know where I was. Are you interviewing?"

"Yeah. Jeff and I finally caved. We have to hire someone at the Inn and he's looking for someone else to work in the office here."

"That's cool. Who's the girl?"

"Stephanie Armstrong. Her sister Kayla is in Rebecca and Andrew's class."

"Oh, her!" Sylvie said, a grin taking over her face. "Andrew was so jealous of her, he sputtered and fumed the last two nights. He's still not over it."

"Poor boy. But he's the one who showed her Star Wars."

"But then she wanted to do girly things with Rebecca and he hated that. He's terrified that Rebecca won't want to be his friend anymore."

"Like that could happen. Those two are inseparable. I wish I'd had a friend like that when I was in elementary school. So, Rachel told me you ordered some new furniture."

"She did, did she? I was going to surprise you with it tomorrow night. There was no way I wanted you to come to my house and sit on that dingy old stuff we brought over from the apartment. It's all moved down to the basement. Jason and Andrew are going to love having a place to hang out."

"I can't believe you did that for us. You're a crazy girl. We don't care what it looks like."

"I care. It's the first time in my life I can afford to dress up my house and I want it to look nice for my inaugural party."

"I can't wait to see it. What did you buy?"

"Not telling. You have to come over and experience it."

"Have you planned the menu? Will you tell me what to bring?"

Sylvie scowled. "I'm a chef. You will bring nothing. How embarrassing would that be?"

"We have to bring something. That's the plan for these parties. Beryl and Andy won't let you get away with that."

"They already have. I know how to be firm."

"And Lydia?"

"She caved in just moments. There's something really wrong with her. Have you seen her lately? Her eyes are dark and she looks like she's going to cry at the drop of a hat. Is something going on with one of her kids..." Sylvie's face grew grim. "Or one of her grandkids? That would destroy her."

"No, that's not it. Maybe she'll talk about it tomorrow night."

"So... payback for me not telling you about the furniture?"

Polly chuckled. "No. She's just so private that until she talks about it, I don't want to be a gossip."

"You're a good person. Better than me." Sylvie took Polly's arm. "And I'll let you get away with it because you shamed me."

"Sorry?"

"Yeah. No." Sylvie took a breath as if she were steeling herself. "I'd better get to work. I'm sure Rachel is wondering where I've gotten to."

Jeff stepped out of the conference room as Sylvie left. He shut the door. "Got a minute, Polly?"

"Sure. Your office?"

"Okay."

They sat down in the chairs and he said. "I like her. She's smart and willing to learn and the price is right..."

"You don't have to sell me," Polly said. "If you want to hire her, I'm all for it. She's a nice girl. Henry says she's pleasant and decent to customers. He sees her when he's buying ice cream to keep me tranquil, I guess."

"Then my next question is where should we put her?"

"Where do we need her the worst?"

"It's really six of one, half dozen of the other," Jeff put his hands out and lifted each as if they were a balanced scale.

Polly sat back in the chair. "I don't want to tell you what to do," she said.

"Do you have an idea?"

She sat forward again. "Okay, hear me out and don't get all 'Polly's a busy-body' on me, okay?"

"Whatever. You are who you are. Pointing out the obvious seems like a waste of time."

"Jerk."

"Yes, boss. I am."

She laughed. "I was thinking that she and Kayla live in a really dingy trailer. They have no money to make it nice. Barely any money to buy furniture. We could take some of the furniture from my Dad's house to the caretaker's cottage and they could live there."

He thought for a moment and then shook his head. "I only hesitate because with the people that are in and out of there, I can't guarantee they'll be totally safe. I'd really like to put a married couple in there."

"Sexist much?"

"I know. It's horrible," he said. "But they're right on the highway and who knows what kind of creeps would show up in the middle of the night."

"Turn the vacancy light off."

"But still. Creeps. She's so young and if her younger sister is there with her. It's just too scary for me to do that to her."

"Then you've already made your decision."

"I know we don't help her living situation right away, but I'm going to pay better than the convenience store, so she'll make more money and other than special events, she'll have normal hours. And maybe..." He looked at Polly.

"Maybe what?"

"Maybe her sister could come here with Rebecca and Andrew after school. She'd have a better place to be and could leave with Stephanie at five."

"You're so smart. You should tell me what you're thinking before I start babbling."

Jeff grinned at her. "It's so much more fun when you babble. I'm going to offer her the job. Did you talk to Sarah Heater?"

"I think she's relieved that we aren't counting on her. It's settled. Go hire yourself an assistant."

He stood up and patted Polly's shoulder as he walked past her to go talk to Stephanie again. "Thanks."

 

~~~

 

When Polly's stomach rumbled a third time, she turned her monitor off and pushed back from her desk. The stomach wasn't going to feed itself. Sylvie and Rachel were serving a lunch meeting in the auditorium and she didn't want to bother them today. The last thing she wanted was to have to forage for food upstairs.

"Hey," she said, poking her head in Jeff's office. "I'm going to the diner for some food. You want anything?"

"Nah. I'm good." He held up an apple.

"Are you dieting again?"

"Go eat your lunch and leave me alone."

She shook her head. "You're a good looking man. Don't be silly."

"Dating, you know."

"If he doesn't love you for who you are right now, he isn't worth it."

"Easy for you to say, you svelte wench, you. And you're happily married, too."

"Maybe you should get a big dog that needs a lot of walks. You'd be surprised at how many calories you can use up."

He seemed to ponder the possibility and then laughed. "No, I think I'll just suffer and feel sorry for myself."

"I'm having a pork tenderloin," she said, tauntingly.

"Now you're a nasty wench. Get out before I throw this apple at you."

"Okay, you're sure you don't want me to bring anything back for you?"

Jeff gripped the arms of his chair dramatically and threw his head back. "Begone! You are my devil!"

Polly laughed at him as she walked out of the office.

Once she got in the truck, she texted Henry."I'm heading to the diner for lunch. Do you want me to bring you anything?"

"That would be great!"he texted back."Can we call in an order and have you bring it to the shop?"

"Sure. I'll be over after a while."

"Thank you. You're the best wife I've ever had."

"Uh huh. That could be an interesting conversation."

He sent back a heart emoji and she drove out and headed downtown.

Lucy smiled at her when she went in. "Are you here to stay?"

"No, Henry is going to call in an order for takeout. Could you add a pork tenderloin with fries to that for me?"

"Sure, honey. Have a seat. I'll get you a Dew."

"Thank you." Polly looked around the diner and saw Aaron Merritt sitting by himself in a corner. "Lucy?"

"Yeah, hon."

"I'm going to talk to the Sheriff. Skip the Dew."

"I can bring it to you over there."

"Nah. I'll only be a few minutes. Wave at me when the food's done."

"Got it." Lucy swung around with a pot of coffee and headed for a table filled with young men.

Aaron hadn't looked up to see her coming and was shocked when Polly sat down across from him. "Hi, Polly," he said.


Page 10

"How are you today?" she asked.

"Fine."

"Any news on that murder? It seems to me that a sniper in Bellingwood wouldn't be that difficult to find."

"Unless he was in and out."

"I suppose. So, nothing?"

"We're investigating. I'm just not at liberty to talk about it."             

"I see." She screwed up all her courage and finally blurted out. "You're not at liberty to talk to anyone about anything these days. What's going on with you, Aaron?"

He raised tired eyes to look at her. "Nothing."

"That's a flat-out lie," she said, lowering her voice. "You're a wreck. Your body is screaming that there's something wrong. Do you think no one notices?"

"Polly, this is none of your business."

"You can tell yourself that, but you're my friend and Lydia is one of my best friends. Do you have any idea what you're doing to her? Shit, Aaron. Are you seeing someone else?"

The shock on his face told Polly that she'd missed the mark. She was so grateful for that, she immediately felt weak all over.

"Why would you even think that?" he asked.

"Because you are a completely different person than the man I've known for the last two years. And your poor wife doesn't have a clue what's going on. You two have never kept secrets from each other. Of course we're going to think that's the reason."

"Lydia doesn't think that," he said.

"She's not saying it, but trust me when I tell you that there isn't a woman alive who doesn't worry about it when their husbands behave like you've been behaving this last month."

"I would never betray her."

Polly reached out. Her heart hurt so badly for him she wanted to cry. She touched his arm. "I wish you would talk to someone. Whatever is going on is destroying you and Lydia. She doesn't laugh, she doesn't play, she's numb."

He put his arm down on the table and Polly slid her hand back so that she was holding his fingers. "Aaron, I love you. So much, but you can't keep this up."

"I..." he sat there, shaking his head. "I can't talk about it."

"When I saw you here, I wanted to come over and give you a piece of my mind," Polly said. "But you look like a dog who has been abandoned by its owner and left to fend for itself in the middle of winter. I want to fix this for you."

"There's nothing for you to fix." He was shaking his head again. "It can't be fixed."

"Then you have to get out of your funk and put it behind you. You can't live like this. You're killing yourself."

"Maybe," he said and pulled his hand out from under hers.

"Aaron..."

"No, I'm not suicidal. Don't read anything into that. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."

"You have to talk to someone. Isn't there anyone you trust?"

"Not with this. Please stop pressing, Polly. I can't talk about it and even now I've probably said too much."

"Do you love your wife?"

"Of course I do."

"Then tell her that. At least make sure that she's on your side, no matter what comes at you. The two of you have spent a lifetime creating a foundation that's solid. Don't start kicking at it because of something you can't control."

Both of them saw Lucy give a quick wave to Polly and point at three plastic sacks beside the register.

Aaron spoke first, "That's your order. Thank you for taking time."

"Aaron, you're scaring us all. If nothing else, find a way back to your wife."

"It won't be..." he started to speak and then stopped.

Polly stood up and in a moment of complete insanity, she bent over him and hugged his neck, then whispered into his ear. "We love you, you old fool and we need you to come back to life. If you won't let us help and you won't talk to us, get over your damned self and figure it out on your own. You don't live on an island."

He patted her arm and gave her a weak smile. "I hear you," he said. "Take care."

Polly walked away from the table and when she reached the register, realized that she was gritting her teeth. She paid for the meals and carried the bags to her truck.

Once she was belted in and the doors were shut, Polly slammed the palms of her hands on the steering wheel. "Damn him all to hell."

She took a deep breath, checked her mirrors, backed out of the space and headed for Henry's shop. The smell of sawdust and a hug from the man she loved might help her get past this moment of fury.

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

There was no one left in the house by the time Polly left for Sylvie's. Jessie was out with friends, Henry was heading to his shop, and Rebecca was spending the evening with her mother. Sarah Heater was feeling good enough that when Rebecca asked if she could spend the night, Sarah was overjoyed to be able to say yes. The girl paid close attention to her mother's health and seemed to know when it would be okay to even ask.

Polly offered to arrive at Sylvie's early in order to help her friend get ready for the evening, but Sylvie refused, saying that she wanted it to be a surprise for everyone and no one was to show up before six thirty - she wouldn't let them in. Polly pulled into the driveway right at six thirty and was still the first to arrive. She sat in her truck and waited... not long, before Lydia's Jeep pulled in behind her. Andy, Beryl and Lydia got out and Polly jumped down from her truck to meet them.

"What do you think Sylvie's up to?" Andy asked. "She was pretty insistent we all come together."

"I think she's going to meet us at the door dressed in nothing but Saran Wrap," Beryl said.

Lydia shook her head. "Why in the world would she do that?"

"Because it's fun!"

"Don't you dare tell me that you ever did anything as crazy as answering the door dressed in nothing but plastic wrap."

Beryl sashayed up the sidewalk and up the front steps to the porch. "Okay, I won't, but it certainly surprises vacuum cleaner salesmen."

Andy gulped. "You aren't serious."

"Oh for the love," Beryl said, cackling madly. "Of course I'm not. You know me better than that."

"None of us really know what you might do," Polly said. "You're wild."

"I'm not all that wild. I just like people to think I am."

"You're plenty wild for Bellingwood," Lydia said, reaching up to ring the doorbell. "No one is ever sure what you'll do or say."

Sylvie opened the door and held it as the four women walked into the foyer. "May I take your coats?" she asked.

Polly shrugged her jacket off and started forward.

"Oh no you don't," Sylvie said. "You can wait."

"You're no fun."

"That's what my boys tell me every day. If I can take it from them, trust me, you're easy." She hung coats and jackets in the closet and then said, "Okay. I'm just beginning to decorate, so I don't have things on the walls or my knick knacks out yet. All you're seeing is the furniture I've been looking at and finally just bought. Okay?"

The other four nodded and Sylvie stepped forward and into the living room.

"Oh my," Polly said. "That's not at all what I expected."

"Do you like it?" Sylvie asked.

"It's gorgeous! How did you do this so quickly?" Polly turned to Lydia, Beryl and Andy, who were fanning out across the room.

"Once I found the right pieces, it was just a matter of filling in."

"You've done a beautiful job, dear," Lydia said. "This looks very comfortable."

"Beryl?" Sylvie turned to her friend. "I know it's not blasting with color, but..."

"You shouldn't apologize. This is very nicely done. You used a specific palette and fleshed it out with textures. Girl, this is beautiful."

"I wanted furniture that the boys would feel comfortable in, and I wanted it to be easy to accent."

Andy picked up a pillow and stroked it. "So many different looks here and then the coffee table. I would never have seen these together."

"Is it comfortable?" Polly asked.

"Sit! I'll be right back."

"You aren't bringing food out here. What if we spill?" Polly was horrified.

"Please. I have two young boys. They've already climbed across everything."

Polly sat down on the edge of the overstuffed gray sofa. It was filled with pillows in black, white and various shades of gray. At one end, a darker gray settee stood apart, creating a corner in which she'd placed a rustic end table which matched the rustic barn board plank coffee table. Two wing chairs, one in a gray plaid and the other in very different hues of gray stripes finished the seating arrangement, another end table between them.

Sylvie had lit small white candles, adding a warm glow to the room.

She came back in, carrying a tray filled with crackers and baked Brie covered in raspberry sauce. Sylvie placed it on the table and said, "Wine all around?"

They nodded and made themselves comfortable and she returned to the kitchen.

"Are you sure we can't help?" Lydia called out.

"No. I want you to relax and then I'll show you the rest of the house." Sylvie poked her head back out, holding a bottle of wine while she twisted the corkscrew into it. "I haven't bought the dining room set yet, so we're eating in the kitchen, but I think you'll like it out there."

They sat and looked at the Brie, no one willing to say anything. Then Sylvie called out, "Polly? Could you come here?"

Polly jumped up and ran into the kitchen. "What do you need?"

"I was so nervous about showing you the new living room furniture that I seem to have lost my mind. Could you take these plates and napkins out?"

"Sure," Polly said, giggling. "How about a knife or two. And can you manage the wine glasses?"

"Hush. You're laughing at me."

"A little bit. It's just us."

"It's the first time I've been able to host an evening and I wanted to make it nice."

"It is nice. You've done a beautiful job with your living room and you have confidence in your food, right?"

"Well, yes."

"Then relax. It's just us."

"Okay, then. Just a second."

Sylvie reached down into the back of a cupboard and brought out a big wooden tray. "Put the plates and things on here. The glasses will fit, too. You can carry the wine and I'll take this."

"This is beautiful. Why haven't you used it before?"

"Because I forgot I had it until we moved."

"It would look great on that coffee table."

"Do you think I should just leave it there and put decorative things in it."

"You should do whatever you think looks nice. Now come on. We need to get wine in all of us, don't you think?" Polly grabbed two bottles of wine and followed Sylvie back into the living room.

"Now we're talking," Beryl said and stood up. "Tell me how I can help you."

Sylvie put the tray down and passed out small plates. "Sorry about that."

"Don't worry," Lydia said. "You're fine."

"I was so flustered at having you here." Sylvie handed the cork screw to Polly, who opened the second bottle and began pouring. "I've been running since I walked in the door after work. Thank goodness I put the meal together during the day today."

"Where are the boys?" Andy asked.             

"Eliseo took them. And he took the dog. He thought that the three of them should do obedience training, so every Thursday evening, they go down to Ames."

"I wouldn't have thought he needed obedience training," Lydia said.

Sylvie smiled. "Of course he doesn't, but the first time he watched Andrew try to walk with Padme on the leash, he knew he had to fix it. They have a great time. The boys get McDonalds or whatever they can talk him into eating for supper and if the class goes well, he treats them to ice cream."

"When are you going to figure this out, girl?" Beryl asked quietly.

"Figure what out?"

"That the two of you should be together."

"Don't start. We're just friends."

"And those kisses haven't meant anything?"

"Kisses. As in plural?"

"You're telling me that you've only kissed once."

Sylvie's entire body flushed red.

"You've kissed more than once!" Beryl exclaimed. "I knew it. Methinks thou doth protest too much."

"Fill me back up," Sylvie said, holding her empty wine glass out to Polly. "I won't make it through the entire evening if I'm not a little loose. Not with this woman in my house."

Beryl shrugged. "At least it's out there on the table. It isn't like we haven't all been wondering if you're going to finally let him in your bedroom."

Sylvie's mouth dropped open and the other three flipped their faces toward Beryl, in shock.

"What?" she asked. "Are we supposed to be prudes now?"

Lydia was the first to speak. "I think our bedrooms should be off limits."

Beryl finished her wine and held it out to Polly. "Whatever. Just because you haven't been getting any for the last couple of months."

Lydia put her glass down on the table and reached for her purse, then pulled out a tissue. She dabbed at her eyes and turned away.

"Oh, honey, I'm sorry," Beryl said. "I didn't mean to make you cry."

"No, it's okay. Just leave me alone for a few minutes. Talk about anything else, but leave me alone."

"I have the biggest mouth." Beryl scowled at Andy. "Why don't you throw things at me before I get myself in trouble?"

"Because sometimes you surprise the heck out of me. I wasn't expecting you to start down this path tonight. Poor Sylvie. She wants to be independent and you have to give her trouble. When was the last time you entertained a man in your bedroom?"

Andy started to laugh out loud and snorted through her nose. "I can't believe I just said that. We're giving Beryl trouble for her big mouth and I went too far." She slapped her knee. "I crack myself up."

"Well?" Sylvie asked.

Andy was confused. "Well what?"

"Not you. Beryl. When was the last time you had sex?"

"We're out of wine here," Polly said quietly. "I'm going to need more really soon."

Sylvie jumped up and ran out to the kitchen and returned with two more bottles. "Who is coming to get you all if you're too drunk to drive?"

Lydia finished the wine in her glass and set it firmly down in front of Polly. "I'm spending the night right here on this sofa if I'm too drunk to drive. Screw it. This is my night to have fun." She turned to Beryl. "And just so you know, it hasn't been two months. So there."

Beryl shook her head slowly back and forth. "Nope, not talking about that one anymore." She pushed the glass in front of Polly who was still trying to unscrew the cork. "Lord, Sylvie, next time buy the cheap crap with tops that unscrew. It's so much easier."

"You've neatly avoided the question, old lady," Andy said.

"I didn't hear no damned question."

"You've had sex! With who?"

Polly quickly filled Lydia's glass and then her own. Things were spinning out of control and all she could think was how glad she was that none of this conversation was about her. She was going to sit here quietly and not make eye contact as long as possible.

Lydia took a long drink, winked at Polly and then took another. "This is good stuff," she said. "Fill me back up."

"Ladies, don't you think we should have some food before we finish off these bottles?" Sylvie asked.

Beryl scooped up a hunk of cooling cheese with a cracker and handed it to Lydia. "Eat that and then have another. You don't need to be out of control tonight."

Lydia's eyes flashed. "What if I do? I never get to be out of control. I'm always good ole Lydia. I make sure everyone else is taken care of. I drive you all over, hell, I drive half the old ladies in town all over the place. I get up early and make breakfast. Does anyone care? No! I run all of the meetings that no one else wants to handle. Do I get a thank you? No! If the pastor needs something done, he calls me. If anybody in town needs something taken care of, they call me. I never get to be out of control. And now, damn it, I want to be out of control tonight. Won't you let me?"

"She swore," Beryl stage-whispered. "I think she's serious."

"Of course I am. Do I have to be in control when I'm with my best friends?"

They all shook their heads no.

"Good. Then fill up my glass. And if I pass out, don't bother calling Aaron, because he won't even know that I'm missing." She looked at each of them. "And I don't want to talk about it, so don't ask."


Page 11

"Got it," Beryl said. "No talking about the big ole elephant in the room. Because no one here is even thinking about him. Am I right?"

More silence as everyone nodded in agreement.

Lydia curled her upper lip. "Well, unless that elephant is shitting on your shoes, I don't want to think about him."

"More swearing." Beryl picked up an empty wine bottle. "Sylvie, do you have enough of this stuff to get us through the night?"

"Ummm, not sure."

"Better start chilling whatever you have left."

"It already is. But dinner will be ready in just a few minutes."

"Oh, thank god!" Beryl exclaimed. "This deteriorated much more quickly than I expected and we need to get her back to normal."

"Me? Normal? This is as normal as you get tonight," Lydia said. She unbuttoned the sweater that she'd been wearing over her blouse, pulled it off her arms and flung it across the room. "If I can't be a little wild and crazy with you girls, what good is my life? My kids don't need me, my husband doesn't want me, and the world just uses me. Drunk is a good place for me to be."

They sat in stunned silence.

"That's right," she said, her tone getting angrier and angrier. "I'm tired of being happy and nice. I want someone to take care of me and it would be nice if I could at least count on a few of you to do that."

"Honey, we'll do whatever it is that you want. If you want to come stay with me for a few days and let me cook for you and do your laundry, just say the word." Beryl moved over to sit beside Lydia on the couch.

"I can pick up some of the errands you run for the old ladies in town," Andy offered.

Sylvie jumped in. "And I'm glad to call Pastor Boehm and offer to help with some of his tasks."

They all looked at Polly.

"I'll do whatever. I could go find a dead body and when Aaron showed up, push him in the creek or something."

Lydia started to laugh. "That sounds perfect." She patted Beryl's knee. "I know that if I need to come stay with you, I'm welcome. Thank you. If I get too drunk tonight, I just might do that. As for the rest of it, I..." She shook her head and looked at the floor. "I do like my life and wouldn't live it any other way. Sometimes I just get tired of it."

"That's what we're here for," Andy said. "You can fall apart on us any time and we won't..."

Polly held up her glass as she interrupted, "We probably won't even remember it tomorrow."

A bell dinged in the kitchen and Sylvie jumped up again. "I have to check on dinner."

"We'll all help. None of us are individually worth much right now, but maybe as a team we can get the meal on the table," Polly said. She looked down at the cheese and crackers and stuck her finger in the melted Brie, scooped some up and popped it into her mouth. "What?" she asked, looking around. "It's not like the rest of you were diving into it."

Lydia buzzed her lips. It didn't work. "They're numb," she said, starting to giggle. "Look, I can't make a raspberry." She tried it again.

Polly put her finger in the raspberry sauce and rubbed it on Lydia's lips. "It's raspberry. Does it help?"

Lydia attempted another buzz of her lips. "Have I lost my mojo? Will I be able to give my babies raspberries? Oh, what have I done?" She finished the third glass of wine and held it out to Polly. "Here, take this. I don't want to drop the glass, but I want it full by the time I sit down at the table."

She grabbed Beryl's arm. "Where the hell's the table? I need to sit down. Polly's bringing me more wine. And by the way, you had sex?"

When they got into the kitchen, Sylvie had pulled a large casserole dish out of the oven. She was reaching in for a second when Lydia slapped her bottom.

"What?" Sylvie asked.

"It was just so cute, sticking out there. I'm sorry. Should I have not done that?"

"Put her in a seat right now," Sylvie commanded Beryl, pointing at the table in the small sunroom just off the kitchen.

"She's right. It is a cute bottom. I'll bet Eliseo thinks so too."

"When did we revert to junior high? Now get going. Are any of you sober enough to help me put these dishes on the table?"

"I haven't finished a single glass," Andy said. "Let me help."

Polly stood in the middle of the kitchen holding two wine bottles and two glasses. "Lydia wants more wine. Should I let her?"

Andy nodded. "Let her do whatever she wants tonight. She hasn't tied one on in years … decades. Just keep filling her glass."

"Okay!" Polly took the glass and the bottles over to the table, filled Lydia's and put it down in front of the woman. "You're kind of a lightweight," she said. "Three glasses of wine and you're soused."

"This is good stuff," Lydia said. "What is it?"

Sylvie came over with a hot dish and set it down on a trivet. "It's Secret Woods, of course. Whenever I cater for them, they offer me a bottle of wine. That's why I don't know how much I have here. I just keep bringing it home."

"Eliseo should make you a wine cellar," Beryl said.

"Poof," Lydia interrupted, flicking her hands at Sylvie. "You're a wine cellar."

Sylvie and Andy continued bringing food to the table until Polly stood up. "I feel guilty, I should help."

"No, that's it," Sylvie said. "The bread was the last thing." She uncovered the first dish, revealing a baked cheesy dish. "Spaghetti squash with ricotta and spinach."

Andy drew the foil back from the dish in front of her and Sylvie said, "I'm sorry. More wine. Chicken stuffed with goat cheese and asparagus." She gestured to a gravy boat. "With wine sauce. And cheesy mashed potatoes and am I forgetting anything?"

"Lordie, I hope not. You're going to kill my buzz with this food," Lydia said. "Sit down."

"Oh! I have a salad. It's in the refrigerator."

Lydia laughed. "I don't want no stinking salad. Serve that to skinny wenches who have a husband who will have sex with them. Polly? You want salad."

"That's okay," Polly said.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Beryl said, grinning at her. "You'll just go home and work off everything you eat. You two must be awfully quiet to be having first year married sex with people living in your house."

"I knew this conversation was going to get to me," Polly said. "So really. You aren't going to tell us who you've been having sex with?"

"You're having sex with someone?" Lydia asked, draining her fourth glass of wine. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I'm not!" Beryl protested.

Andy shrugged a shoulder, "After all of that and now is when you deny it? I think you're the one who is protesting too much."

"How did this turn on me? I was fine with it being about Sylvie and Eliseo."

"Well, I wasn't. I'm the cook and provider of alcohol tonight," Sylvie said. "Deal with it. And tell us about your sex life."

"I'm not talking. Now pass that chicken over here. We need to put food in your mouths and stop them all from babbling."

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Polly's head hurt. A lot. And she couldn't figure out why it was so dark. Then she moved her feet. No animals were tucked in, restricting her movement. Where was she?

Then it came back to her. Sort of. Her phone had to be here somewhere. Polly patted around her body and ran out of bed. No. Sofa. She was asleep on Sylvie's new sofa. Good heavens, she hoped she hadn't been drooling on one of those new pillows. She turned over on her side and her cheek rubbed on a smooth ... yes, that was a pillow case. She was still drunk and she didn't feel good. What time was it?

A moan alerted her to the fact that there was someone else in the room. She remembered now. They'd inflated a blow-up bed and Beryl was sleeping on it. Lydia and Andy were upstairs in Jason and Andrew's rooms.

Last night would have been embarrassing if it hadn't been so terribly funny. They'd laughed and polished off several more bottles of wine before Eliseo and the boys arrived. He walked in and saw what was happening and sent the boys up to their rooms to pack for a night and for school the next day. He moved those boys in and out so quickly, they didn't have time to ask questions, even though Polly was sure they would have plenty.

While the boys were packing, he made phone calls. His first was to Henry. Polly shut her eyes again. No wait. She hadn't opened them yet. They felt like they were stuck together. Henry had actually come by on his way home from the shop. He'd asked if she wanted him to drive her home, but they weren't finished with their evening yet and if she remembered right, she'd actually gotten down on her knees in front of him and begged for him to let her stay a while longer.

Oh good heavens, she'd begged him! She hadn't been this drunk since college.

When Eliseo called Aaron, Lydia started to cry. The poor man didn't know what to think of it and oh, good heavens again. Polly had gotten on the phone with Aaron, telling him that there was no dead body, but he was killing his wife. Eliseo grabbed the phone back and made each of the women promise that they wouldn't try to go anywhere. The last call was to Len, who was quite confused with the entire situation. Andy just didn't drink all that much.

The truth was, none of them really drank all that much, but easy access to bottles and bottles of wine, a good meal, and the fact that they really hadn't spent time as a group together in months was a recipe for disaster. Lydia's problems with her husband were the tipping point and to avoid really talking about it, they just kept pouring until Sylvie passed out... at the kitchen table. Andy had barely gotten the plate out from under Sylvie's face. She'd been leaning on her hands, they were all laughing, and then she was gone.

The rest of the evening had been chaos as the women looked for sheets for the sofa. Sylvie had come awake enough to tell them where the air bed was.

Beryl ended up dragging it down the steps and flopped down on the floor with it, starting to blow it up herself. Fortunately, Lydia found the foot pump and they took turns inflating the bed.

Polly tried to open one eye. A street light was shining into the room, but her eye didn't want to stay open. She tried opening the other eye, but since it was pressed into the pillow, she failed and started to giggle.

"Shut up, whoever you are," Beryl said.

"It's me. Polly."

"Shut up, Polly."

"What time is it?"

"Damned if I know. We're too old for this."

"Uh huh. Where's my phone?"

"You were all worried about it last night. You kept trying to call Henry to tell him to take care of the animals. And then you had to call him to tell him that you loved him. And then you had to call him to remind him to take Rebecca to school. We finally had to take it away from you."

"Where is it?"

You cried when we wouldn't let you have it. Pat the table in front of you. It has to be right there. You threatened to post pictures of all of us on Insty-book or whatever it is that you youngsters use."

Polly felt for the table and began to pat the top of it until her hand landed on something that felt familiar. It was her phone. She swiped it open and shut her eyes tightly against the bright light.

"Turn it off!" Beryl moaned. "Why would you do that?"

"Because I want to know what time it is."

Polly opened her eyes to a squint and peered at the phone's screen. "It's four fourteen."

"Okay, so it's four fourteen. What does that mean to you?"

"Nothing."

"We don't have to be awake. Shut that thing off, shut your eyes and leave me alone."

"I have to pee."

"You're in your mid-thirties, you don't have to pee. I have to pee." There was rustling as Beryl moved on the air bed. "Damn it, why aren't you in this bed on the floor. How are these old legs supposed to haul me up in time so I don't wet my pants? Why didn't you wake me up earlier?"

"Do you need a hand? I think I can help."

"No. Leave me alone." There was a thud. "Crap. I'm on the floor."

"Do you need help now?"

"I need some light. Can you turn that damned phone back on?"

Polly swiped her phone open again and found the flashlight app, then shone it around the room. The place was a complete mess. She finally found Beryl on the opposite side of the air bed. "Are you okay?"

"Get yourself over here and help me up. This is ridiculous."

"I can't believe you fell out of bed." Polly was trying not to laugh. Her head really hurt.

"I can't believe I didn't wet myself. Will you get over here now?"

"Are you hurt?"

"No. I'm not hurt, but there isn't a limb on my body that is capable of independent movement right now. This is why I don't drink."

"I feel like I might still be drunk."

"Ya think? We stopped four or five hours ago and at that point none of us could remember how much we'd had."

Polly bent down and tried to reach under Beryl's armpits to lift her up."

"What in the hell are you doing?" Beryl cried out. "You weirdo. Just give me your hand."

"I didn't know how broken you were."

"Not that broken. And you're going to make me laugh. We don't want me laughing right now. Trust me on that." She took Polly's proffered hand and lifted herself to a standing position. "Look at that. Steady as a ... nope, not steady at all. Let's find that bathroom."

"It's right through here." Polly shone her flashlight ahead of them so they could walk, and turned the light on in the bathroom.

Beryl weaved backwards and then forward into the room. "That's too bright. They should make drunk woman lighting levels. Stay here. If I don't come back, break the door down."

"Don't lock the door. I don't want to wake everyone upstairs," Polly said.

Beryl leaned backwards and yelled, "Hey, upstairs drunks. We're up and peeing. Do you want to join us?"

"Beryl!"

"Well, if you hadn't gotten me up I might have wet the bed. Wouldn't it be embarrassing if someone wet a bed upstairs?"

"No one is wetting any beds. Now go do your thing."

"Think she's got aspirin in here? And water? I should probably rehydrate. We should both rehydrate. Imagine that. Tomorrow morning when we all get up, you and I will be just fine and they'll all be hung over."

"Go to the bathroom."

"Right." Beryl leaned into Polly. "I really gotta pee."

"This is the right place. And will you hurry? Because me too."

Beryl went into the bathroom and shut the door, then started singing"Old black water, keep on rollin,' Mississippi moon, won't you keep on shinin' on me."

"What is she doing?" Polly jumped a foot to the side when Lydia asked the question right beside her.

"She's peeing. You scared me to death. What are you doing down here?"

"I have to go to the bathroom and Andy is using the toilet upstairs."

"Well, I'm next."

"Well, if it rains, I don't care, don't make no difference to me."

"You're not helping, Beryl. Stop singing that song. It has too much water in it." Polly said.

The singing stopped and was replaced by a hideous giggle. "I wanted to help. Here, I'm washing my hands now." The faucet turned on and Beryl opened the door. "Lydia. Are you down here to play with us too?"

Lydia grabbed Beryl's arm and pulled her out of the bathroom. "Get out. There's a line!" She winked at Polly and slipped past them and shut the door behind her.

"Hey!" Polly said. "Not fair."

"I might be old, but I'm wily," Lydia said. "You're too trusting."

"What is going on down here?" Sylvie asked, standing on the bottom step. Andy was right behind her.

"We're sorry," Beryl said. "Did we wake you up? It's Polly's fault."

Lydia opened the bathroom door. The faucet was still running and Polly grabbed her hand, tugged her out, ran in and shut the door.

"It's not my fault," she called out. "I just wanted to know what time it was."

"It's four thirty," Sylvie said. "Is everyone as messed up as I am?"

Polly remembered to wash her hands and turned off the faucet and then went back into the hallway where everyone was standing. "Were you all waiting for me? That's so nice."

"Is anybody hungry?" Andy asked.

Lydia nodded. "I could eat."

"I kind of remember cleaning things up in the kitchen," Sylvie said. "But I'm afraid to look." She flipped on the light in the hallway and they wandered into the kitchen.

Food had been put away and plates had been stacked in the sink. "See, we weren't so bad," Andy said.

"You're the one who made us do this," Beryl accused. "You wouldn't let us go to sleep until we picked up. And there was Sylvie sleeping on the table."

Sylvie shook her head. "I got hammered. I have never, ever done that before."

"Do you have eggs?" Lydia opened the refrigerator and then quickly closed the door. "Okay, that wine sauce wasn't covered and it's making me ill."

Polly was arranging the wine bottles on the counter. "There are eleven empty bottles here," she said and pointed around the room at each of them. "There are five of us."

"We're old enough to know better." Lydia was opening cupboard doors.

"What do you need?" Sylvie asked.

"Glasses. I need water. And do you have aspirin?"

"Polly the aspirin is in the bathroom cupboard. Can you get it?"

Polly nodded and left the room. She came back with a bottle, trying to get it open. "This is child proof. Since you all are older than me, one of you should open it."

Andy finally took the bottle and popped the top off. The five of them stood in the kitchen, leaning on counters while they each took a couple of aspirin and slugged down a full glass of water. Beryl was filling hers again when Lydia started to laugh.

"What's so funny?" Polly asked.

"Look at us. Just look at us. If anyone else in the entire world saw us right now, they wouldn't believe it. We got smashed last night and then kicked Sylvie's boys out of their own beds on a school night so we could have a drunken slumber party. Who does this?"

"Apparently we do," Sylvie said. "I don't know how I'm going to explain this to Jason and Andrew, though."

Polly nodded. "It would have been fun listening to Eliseo try to explain it. He was so funny when he saw us. The poor man paced back and forth, wanting desperately to get out of here with the boys and trying to figure out how to take care of us." She and Lydia were laughing hard at this point.

"You begged Henry!" Beryl said. "The look on his face was priceless!" She started laughing so hard, she squatted down on her knees and then sprawled her legs in front of her on the floor. The rest of them sat with her as they howled with laughter.

"I'm so glad I peed," Andy said, causing another round of uncontrollable laughing.

"I don't want to go home," Lydia said in the middle of it.

Everyone turned to look at her.

"I've had such a wonderful night. I haven't been this relaxed in a long time. Thank you for taking care of me." Her face screwed up and tears began flowing from her eyes. "This has just been the worst new year and I don't know when it's going to get better."


Page 12

Beryl scooted close to her on one side and Sylvie slid over to sit on her other side. Andy and Polly both moved in so they were all touching her.

"I don't know what to do anymore," she said through her tears. "I'm tired of fighting. I just want to know if it's worth it."

"It is, honey. It is," Beryl said. "Whatever he's going through, he'll figure it out and then things will go back to normal. I promise."

"But what if they don't? What if he just pulls so far away from me we can't ever find our way back again?"

"That isn't going to happen sweetie," Polly said. "We'll wear him down."

They sat in a huddle on Sylvie's kitchen floor while Lydia cried. When she was finished, she patted Sylvie's knee. "Maybe we need more sleep."

"No food?" Beryl asked.

"Are you really hungry?"

"No, but if you were going to cook, I was going to eat." Beryl held her hand out to Polly. "Will you pull me up again? I can't believe I'm back on the floor."

Polly stood up and helped Beryl stand, then one by one they were all upright.

"Let's try to get some more sleep," Andy said. "We'll help you clean in the morning, Sylvie."

"I want those empty bottles gone before Jason and Andrew see them. It's bad enough that they think I was drinking. I don't want them to know how bad it really was."

Beryl picked two of them up. "I'm going to have a chat with those boys at the winery. If they're going to make such good wine, they can't be giving it to you for free. That's called feeding an addiction."

"I believe they thought I'd use them as gifts or maybe I might spread their use out across, oh, I don't know, a year or so," Sylvie said. "Who would have thought we could drink that much."

"Everybody scoot," Lydia said, making shooing motions. "Back to your beds. Whoever wakes up first starts the coffee and deals with that wine sauce in the refrigerator."

When Polly and Beryl were alone in the living room again, Polly sat down on the air bed.

"What are you doing? That's my bed."

"Only because I didn't know what I was doing. You take the sofa. It's comfortable and I won't have to worry about you falling on your butt in the morning."

"You're a sweet girl, Polly Giller. No matter what they say about you downtown."

"What do they say?"

"That you're a sweet girl, of course. Turn off that light, would you? I'd probably crack my shin on this heavy table if I had to do it."

Polly flipped off the overhead light and swiped her phone open and to the flashlight app as she made her way back to the air bed. She put her head on the pillow and closed the phone.

"What are we going to do about our girl?" Beryl asked quietly.

"I don't know. I talked to Aaron the other day at the diner. He was trapped and I sat down with him."

"What did he say?"

"That he couldn't talk about it. He's as miserable as Lydia. I wanted to be mad at him, but Beryl, he's a wreck."

"He should be. What a jerk. How could you treat that wonderful woman so badly and not be a wreck?"

"There's something else going on."

"It better not be another woman."

"I don't think so. He was upset that I would even think that."

"Good. I'd take a shotgun to his nuts if he did that."

Polly chuckled. She was sure that if Beryl got angry enough, that might actually happen.

"Don't think I wouldn't."

"I know."

"I love that man, but he's gone too far this time."

"It's pretty bad, but I'd like to get the whole story before I start calling for tar and feathers."

"If only he would tell someone what that story is."

"You're right."

"Of course I'm right. Now quit talking to me and go to sleep. Lydia will probably be down here at six thirty in the morning making all sorts of noise."

"Good night, Beryl."

"Good night, sweet Polly. You know I love you, right?"

Polly smiled to herself. Every night she went to sleep after exchanging those words with Henry. She couldn't imagine not hearing them. But Beryl didn't get to hear them every night.

"I love you too, Beryl. You're a wonderful woman."

"Now, shhh."

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

"Up you go, sweetums."

Polly knew it was Henry's voice and struggled to come awake.

"Would you like some lunch?" he asked.

"Huh? What time is it?"

"It's two o'clock. I thought you might want to take time to eat and take a shower before the kids showed up after school."

"I've slept a lot today."

"Yeah. Nice work if you can get it."

"Is Sylvie downstairs? I can't believe we did that to her. And she's the only one of us that has to work today."

"She's here. She looks pretty rugged, but at least she's upright."

Polly pulled her legs out from between two cats and sat up on the edge of the bed. "I'm pathetic."

"Yes. Yes you are."

"We are never going to speak of last night again, deal?"

"No you don't. You can't make me do that. I've never been quite that entertained."

"You want entertainment, you should have been there for the rest of the night."

"That might have been too much for my poor, innocent ears."

"Yeah. Whatever." Polly stood up and when she wobbled, Henry grabbed her arm.

"Are you going to be okay?"

"I just need a shower. What did you bring me for food?"

"Ice cream."

"That sounds good. Anything else?"

"I asked Lucy at the diner what would make a good hangover meal..."

"You did not." Polly put her hand on the door frame into the bathroom and turned to glare at him.

"She said you needed to rehydrate."

"Oh, good heavens, you did."

"There's a big salad out here for you."

Polly went in to the bathroom and turned on the shower. "That sounds wonderful. I'll get cleaned up. Did you see Stephanie when you went to the convenience store to get ice cream?"

"No, she's not there any longer. I thought you knew that."

"I figured she had two weeks."

"Honey, she's downstairs working."

Polly poked her head out of the bathroom. "She's what?"

"Downstairs. They let her go when she told them she was quitting, so Jeff brought her right in."

"Wow. I have one bad night and the world changes around me. Are you leaving to go back to work or do you get to stay?"

"I wanted to make sure you were alive, but I have to go back. While you're in the shower, I'll take the dogs outside."

"Thank you." Polly stepped into the shower, stood under the hot water and moaned. "Yeah. That's the good stuff," she said. After the hot water loosened her muscles, she scrubbed herself clean and stepped back out.

They had gotten up at seven thirty to Lydia poking around in the kitchen. No one could believe she was so alert. Even worse than Lydia was Andy, who came downstairs a few minutes later, completely fresh and alive. She'd had the least to drink and said that she didn't get hangovers very often. That hadn't gone over well with Beryl, who could barely move. She'd stuck her hand out for a mug of coffee and then flopped into one of the kitchen chairs and watched while Lydia and Andy cleaned the kitchen.

When Sylvie came down, they made toast and had cereal, and then the five women tore through the house, cleaning and organizing as fast as they could.

Polly was home by nine thirty, took the dogs outside and called Henry to let him know where she was. As soon as that call was finished, she crawled into bed and fell back to sleep. She felt much better now - ready to take on the world.

Henry came back in with Han and Obiwan, who ran over to Polly to see if there was anything she wanted to share with them from her salad.

"Ken Wallers is downstairs in the office," Henry said.

"I wonder what's up."

"He was talking to Jeff and Stephanie."

"Oh no. There couldn't be something wrong with her on the first day of work, could there? Hopefully this doesn't have anything to do with the convenience store."

"I don't know."

"Do you think I should check it out?"

"It's your business. If the police show up, you should probably know why."

"You're right. If I hadn't been sleeping, I'd have been downstairs anyway." She jumped up from the table and glanced back and forth from the dogs to the salad. "Yeah. I don't trust you two." She put the salad in the refrigerator and gave Henry a kiss. "Are you heading back to work?"

"I think so. Will you call and tell me what's going on?"

"Absolutely." She kissed him again, this time much more slowly. "You know. I missed you last night."

"I missed you too. It was strange being in bed by myself with all those animals."

"Thank you for taking care of me today."

"This? This was no big deal. But I do want the rest of the stories from last night. Promise?"

Polly thought back to the fun they'd had. "I promise. Beryl fell out of bed. It was awesome. You'll laugh and laugh."

He headed for the back door and Polly went out their front door and down the steps. No one was in the front office when she turned the corner, but she went in and checked Jeff's office. The conference room door was closed and she softly tapped on it and then opened it.

Jeff was sitting beside Stephanie, whose eyes were red from crying. Ken Wallers was across the table.

"What's going on?" Polly asked.

Ken gestured to the seat next to him, "Come in and sit down, Polly."

"Is Stephanie okay? Is she in trouble?"

"She isn't in any trouble," Jeff said, patting the girl's hand. "But she's not okay either."

"This is a terrible way to start a new job," Stephanie said, trying to stop her tears. "I'm so sorry."

"Will someone tell me what has happened?"

Ken said plainly, "Stephanie's mother has been killed."

"Oh, honey, I'm so sorry!" Polly said. "Do you need to go home for the funeral?"

Stephanie gulped back sobs. "No. I'm not going back there. Ever."

Polly looked at her and then at Ken. "You said she had been killed. Do they know who did it?"

Ken glanced over at Stephanie as if for permission and when she nodded, he said. "Stephanie's father."

"Oh," Polly's voice broke and she jumped up out of her chair and ran around the table to gather Stephanie into her arms. "I hope he dies a terrible death in prison. He deserves it."

"What do you mean?"

"He's why I left and came here with Kayla. We ran away. But Mom told us to go. She made us leave."

Polly was certain she didn't want to hear the rest of this story. It was going to be appalling. "Do you want to talk about it?"

The girl fell into Polly's arms, sobbing and shaking her head.

"What do we need to do?" Polly asked Ken.

"Nothing right now. It was very clearly murder at his hand," he said. "Neighbors heard screaming and yelling and called the police. When they arrived, he was still sitting over her, the knife in his hand. He said that she had attacked him and tried to play it off as self-defense, but he has a long history of abuse. He's been arrested several times for battery and the police came into that home quite often."

He said quietly, "Records show that you called several times when you were younger and then again just before you left."

"He raped me over and over," Stephanie said quietly, her face still buried in Polly's chest. "I tried to call the police in the beginning, but Mom couldn't handle it. Then I tried to call when he was starting to look at Kayla. That's when I told Mom that we were leaving and I wasn't telling her where we were going so he wouldn't come looking for us."

"They never filed a missing persons report on you," Ken said.

"How did you find out about this?" Polly asked him. "I would have thought that local news, wherever it was, wouldn't have made it this far."

"One person knew," Stephanie said. "But after I called to tell her that we were here in Bellingwood and safe, we never talked again. I didn't tell her what my address was or give her my phone number. I didn't want her to have to lie."

"Who was that?"

"A neighbor a couple of doors down - Mrs. Jennings. She was probably the one that called the police. She knew that he hit Mom but I never told her what he was doing to me."

"I suspect she knew," Ken said. "She talked to the police department last night and told them where you were. She thought you'd want to know that he was finally in jail and if you wanted to come home, you could."

"I'm never going back there."

"Is there anything in the house that you want?" Polly asked.

"No." Stephanie spat the word out. "He owned everything in that house and always made sure we knew it."

Ken spoke up. "Someone from that police force might need to talk to you. Especially if your father insists that he killed her in self-defense."

"Did they see how big he is and how little she is? Even if she did try to kill him because she'd had enough, he could have controlled her until the cops got there. He just lost control all over again and this time it went too far. I was always worried that he'd kill her someday, but I was afraid I'd still be in the house and then I would never be able to get away. And I wasn't leaving without Kayla."

"Oh, Stephanie," Polly said again.

Stephanie started to cry again. "Mom sacrificed her life so me and Kayla could get out of there. She knew he'd hurt her bad when we left, but she told us to go anyway. She gave me some money and told me that I was supposed to find a small town. Not a big town or a city. But a small town because people would take care of us."

"How long have you been here?" Polly asked

"Just after that big tornado last summer. We lived in a wrecked home until I had enough money to rent that trailer."

"And no one knew?"

"One lady knows. She helps us with food sometimes and she got some clothes so Kayla could start school. Then I told her that I didn't want any more help. I had to do this by myself. I wasn't ever going to rely on anyone again."

"Who is it that knows?" Polly was sure she knew already, but needed confirmation.

"Her name is Andy something."

Polly sat back, a bemused look on her face. "Andy Specek?"

"Yeah. That's her. She came into the convenience store, so I got to know her. One day she saw me at the grocery store. I didn't have enough money and she paid for our food, then she asked me some questions and I ended up telling her everything. She's so nice. Did you know she was a teacher? She was the first person to even care that I was here."

"She is a wonderful person," Polly said. "She's one of my best friends and her husband works for Henry."

"That's right," Stephanie said. "I remember her telling me that."

Ken stood up. "I'm very sorry to have had to tell you this today, Stephanie." She nodded and he walked to the door. "I'll be in touch if we need anything else. Otherwise, you're in good hands here. Polly and Jeff are good people." He grinned at Polly and left.

"Is this too weird?" Stephanie asked. "Are you sure you want me to stay here now?"

Jeff finally spoke up. "What do you mean?"

"Are you sure you want me around?"

He took a deep breath and let it out in something that sounded like a growl. "Stephanie. All I can do is be thankful that you were here today and not anywhere else when you found out about this. When you come to work at Sycamore House, you become part of a big family. We watch out for each other and when things like this come up, we have a tendency to step in and make sure you're safe while you deal with it."

"How are you going to tell Kayla?" Polly asked.

"She's coming here after school with Rebecca. Is that okay? I know that we didn't talk about it first."

"Of course it's okay."

"I can't believe Mom is dead," Stephanie said. "It's my fault."

Jeff took her hand. "It's not your fault. It's your father's fault."

"She made us leave. We talked about it the last night he raped me. When he was done, he went in to her room and beat her up. He told her that she was worthless and he would rather be dead than have sex with her and that it was a good thing she'd had two girls. We were the only reason he stayed."


Page 13

Polly and Jeff looked at each other. Neither of them had any idea what to say, so they just held on to Stephanie while she talked.

"When he went to work the next morning, I told her that we were all leaving. I had a car because I worked on the other side of town. I'd already picked out Bellingwood. I loved the name of the town and I remember watching old episodes of MASH. Radar loved his family in Iowa so much, I thought it had to be a good place.

"Mom said she couldn't leave, but I had to. She called the school and told them that Kayla had a family emergency and I was picking her up."

Stephanie sobbed into Polly's shoulder again, then straightened up. "I really did beg her to come with us. I didn't want to leave the house. I knew he'd hurt her, but she told me that if she left with us, he'd never stop looking. And if he tried to file a missing person's report on me and Kayla, she'd call the police and cancel it. When I tried to tell her where we were going, she shushed me. She didn't want to know, just in case the beating got so bad she blurted it out. We cried a long time, but she told me that it was the only courageous thing she would ever be able to do. She hadn't been able to protect me, but the two of us could protect Kayla."

Polly didn't know why these people kept coming into her life, but she was glad she had resources to help when they did. She took a breath and asked, "Do you want anyone with you when you talk to Kayla or would you like to be alone with her?"

"I can't believe I told you so much," Stephanie said and turned to Jeff. "I'm so sorry. I'm really a good employee. I don't like dragging my personal life into things."

"Please don't," he said. "No one is exempt from bad things in their lives. You shouldn't have to apologize when they show up in your face. This doesn't change my opinion of you at all." He thought about what he'd just said. "I take that back. Ithaschanged my opinion of you. You're amazing. You are the courage that your mother wanted to have. You've not only made a safe home for your sister, but you also kept her in school and held down a job."

"I'm glad to be here. We were at the end," Stephanie said. "If it weren't cold out, they'd have turned our heat off by now. Hopefully with the extra money I'm making, we'll finally catch up."

Polly realized that was an easy fix. She wondered how many others were in the same situation. Jeff didn't want her offering to take away Stephanie's independence, but she could at least do something about their desperate financial situation.

She heard noise in the main foyer and poked her head out of the conference room door. Rebecca, Kayla and Andrew were coming into the office.

"Hi kids," she said, closing the door behind her. "How was school today?"

"Is Stephanie here?" Kayla asked. "She said I could come over because she started working here today. I drew a picture at school to congratulate her."

"That's wonderful. She's in the other room right now and I think she wants to talk to you. Andrew and Rebecca, would you go upstairs and take the animals outside? Henry did a while ago, but I'm sure they're waiting for you to show up. You know how much they love you."

"Did you see Jerry Smith's black eye today?" Andrew asked Rebecca as they left the main office.

"Yeah. What happened?" she asked.

Polly missed the rest of the conversation when they got too far away. She wondered what happened, too.

She knocked on the conference room door and opened it slightly, enough to peek in. "Kayla's here. Do you want us in there or not?"

"Can Jeff stay?"

"Absolutely. I'll be in my office if you need me." Polly pushed the door open and Kayla started through it.

When she saw her sister's red face and puffy eyes, she stopped. "What happened?" she asked. "Are you fired or do we have to move? What?"

Stephanie patted the chair beside her. "No. I'm fine and we can stay. Come here and sit beside me. I need to talk to you."

Kayla looked up at Polly and hesitantly entered the room. Polly pulled the door shut and went into her own office and sat down. Those girls had a lot to deal with right now and she was thrilled that Stephanie preferred Jeff's presence to hers. Those two would be working together every day and the sooner she trusted him, the better.

There was still enough time to call the local electric company. The only information they would give Polly was how much Stephanie was behind. It was less than two hundred dollars. Polly asked about others who were in that much trouble and after the representative gave her recommendations, she took care of those and asked that it all remain anonymous. At least it was a start.

The next call was to Henry. He answered on the first ring. "Is everything okay?"

"I love you, Henry."

"I love you too. What's going on?"

"Everything is okay. At least it's all okay here in Bellingwood. Stephanie and Kayla's father killed their mother last night. He's an abuser and he raped Stephanie. She ran away with Kayla before he could start on her sister."

"No," he gasped. "Those poor girls."

"I know. But do you want to know the best part?"

"There's a best part?"

"Okay. It is for me. I was in there as a soft shoulder to cry on when she talked about it, but she wanted Jeff with her when she talked to Kayla. He's doing the rescue, not me. He knows that I'll do whatever he needs me to do, but he's got this."

"You're a funny girl."

"What do you mean?"

"Most people would have to be involved because they couldn't let a rescue like this happen without their input. Not you. You are just as happy to have someone else take care of it and back them up when they need it. You're an amazing woman, Polly Giller."

"You're a crazy man. I want to help her, but she wants him and I'm perfectly happy to let him. I have enough other things to deal with."

"Like I said, you're amazing."

She was embarrassed. "Stop it. Anyway, I wanted you to know what was going on and I especially wanted you to know how much I love you. I appreciate that you are honorable and have integrity and would never consider hurting another human being, much less your daughter or your wife."

"The thought of that makes me shudder," he said. "I am always amazed at humanity's capacity for harm. We can come up with the most horrendous things to do to each other."

Polly interrupted. "But then I think of you and realize that we have an even greater capacity for love. You teach me that every day."

"So... ice cream sandwiches tonight?"

She laughed. "Stephanie isn't working up there anymore. You're going to have to... oh, and that's the other crazy thing."

"What?"

"Andy knows all about her. When she started telling me about this lady in town who had helped her with groceries and got her going, I just figured it was Lydia. No! It was Andy."

"Hmm," Henry said. "I didn't put that all together. Len said something last summer about a young girl that Andy was helping. He was building a set of steps. That must have been the steps that went up into the trailer."

"We have the best people in our lives, don't we," Polly said, her throat clenching as she tried to hold back tears.

"We really do. Okay. I'm going back to work and I'll be home with plenty of ice cream bars. It sounds like we might have to pass them around."

"I love you, Henry."

"Love you too, sweetums."

"Goofball."

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

"Taking a break from your regular job?"

Polly was surprised to see Stu Decker walk into her office.

"Hey Stu," she said as she stood and shook his hand. "What are you doing here? And no, I haven't found any more bodies."

"For which we're grateful. We have enough going on right now."

"How can I help you?"

"Jeff said he would make a copy of the information he was given by Albert Cook, the guy who was killed last week."

"When did you ask him for it?"

"This morning."

"Okay," she said with a chuckle. "That just tells me where I need to look for it. He's in the conference room right now."

"I'm sorry. I should have let him know for sure when I was coming."

"It's no big deal. Let's look out on Stephanie's desk first."

"I should have just had him email it to us, but I knew I'd be in town this afternoon."

"Really, not a problem. Let me check."

Polly went out to the main office and found a neat stack of folders on one corner of the desk. She flipped through them until she pulled out a manila envelope tagged with Stu's name.

"I think this is it," she said, handing him the envelope.

He opened it and pulled out two sheets of paper. "Thanks. That's it. How are you doing after everything that happened last weekend? I know you've found bodies before, but this was intense."

Polly sat back down at her desk. "Honestly, I haven't had time to think about it much this week. I was a mess Saturday night, but then, just like it always does, life took over and I lost control of everything."

He smiled at her. "You do tend to run on the edge up here."

"Hey!" It was only a weak protest, but Polly didn't think it was fair to let that one go. She leaned forward. "I have a question."

"Shoot."

"How's Aaron doing?"

Stu peered at her, trying to uncover her motives. "This case really has him worked up. He knew the guy, you know. They were supposed to get together this week."

"Okay, but where does he know this guy from?"

"Sorry, I figured you already knew that. It was when he was living in Atlanta. This guy was on the force with Aaron."

"Aaron was on the police force in Atlanta? I had no idea."

"Yeah. That's where he grew up."

"And he moved to Iowa? I wonder why?"

"I don't know. He never talks about it. Something happened with a case, I think."

"And you don't think it's all connected?"

"It's not." Stu sounded really certain of that.

"So, Aaron's been acting like a jerk for a month or so, one of his old co-workers comes to Bellingwood and is killed by a sniper, you tell me that he left that place because of a case, and you aren't asking questions as to how these things might be related?"

Stu shook his head and smiled patronizingly at her. "We've asked all the questions. There's nothing there."

"Really. Nothing there. And who says that there's nothing there? Aaron?"

"Yes, but the Iowa DCI has been involved in the investigation too and they aren't finding any connections."

"Who's the lead? Aaron's buddy, Digger? Those two go way back."

Stu sat up straight, his jaw grew stiff. "I don't know what you are insinuating, but I don't like it. Aaron Merritt is not involved in this murder. I thought you were his friend."

"Don't get all defensive," Polly said. "I'm not the only person who is going to ask questions. Have you come any closer to finding out who the shooter is?"

Stu didn't relax and Polly knew she'd crossed a line. "Look, Stu," she said. "Aaron and Lydia are my friends and you know that as well as anyone, but something is going on. If it were anyone else, you'd be all over it."

"But it's not anyone else. It's Aaron. He has more integrity and honor than anyone I've ever met in my life. He's not involved in this man's death."

"And that's all you're investigating - this Albert Cook's death?"

"What do you mean?"

"What if he was killed because of something that happened when they were both in Atlanta? What if there's some connection?"

"If anything comes up while we're investigating the shooting, we'll make sure there aren't any loose ends, but right now, there's nothing else."

"Every good crime show would have you checking into the cases those two men worked together when they were in Atlanta."

"But we aren't a crime show and Polly, we're in Iowa. How exactly would you want us to go through those records?"

"They aren't digital?"

"Who knows? It was thirty years ago. I don't know if they've gotten scanned into the system. And I'm not going to start bringing things up that don't have any bearing on this case."

"I think you're being stubborn. How could they not have something to do with this case?"

"You don't think that Albert Cook could have just been in town to visit Aaron. Maybe to spend time with an old friend?"

"Well, no." she said.

"If you must know, we have emails going back about six months between those two men, setting up a time for them to get together. Albert's wife died last summer, his kids are all across the country, he was retired and he reached out to Aaron. I guess he was like Aaron's mentor. Polly, we've asked all these questions."

"Okay, but still, there's something odd going on with Aaron. And it just can't be this random."

"Yes it can. Spend time in my shoes and you'd be surprised at how random things can really be sometimes."

"And I'm guessing you don't want to admit how often random circumstances usually end up being connected."

He grinned. "You've got me there. Some of your cases have been really out there."

"That's what I mean."

"Don't try to make more out of this for Aaron than it already is. He's pretty upset that his old friend came into town and was killed."

"So, I'm asking again. You've got nothing on who did it?"

"It's probably someone from out of state."

"Well, duh. It's not like we have a state filled with highly trained snipers. I don't know anyone who is."

Stu took a breath and looked at her. "Aaron is."

"The one man in town who is a sniper and it's my friend," she said. "You really aren't making this easy on me."

"That's not my job," Stu said, glaring at her, "My job is to follow an investigation and that's what I've been doing all week long. But it wasn't Aaron. Don't ask me to explain how we know, but we do."

"I don't mean to sound like I'm accusing him of the murder."

Stu looked at her skeptically.

"That's not it at all," she said. "Aaron wouldn't kill someone like that. Especially not in his home town. He's not that stupid. But I just can't believe that this whole thing doesn't have some connecting point."

"Anything's possible, but there's nothing there." Stu stood up. "Don't bother Aaron with this. He's got enough on his plate. If you start doing your investigating thing..."

"What, it might make him even more distant and morose?" she asked.

"Just leave it alone. We're handling it."

"Aaron's bad mood is rubbing off on you."

"Let us do our job, Polly. This one time. Just let us do our job." He spun and walked away before she could say anything else.

Polly smacked her fist down on her desk. This was the second time she'd gotten frustrated with these men.

Rebecca and Andrew came running into her office and jumped into the chairs in front of her desk. They both started talking at once.

Andrew: "Eliseo asked us..."

Rebecca: "Can I..."

The two kids looked at each other and giggled. "You go," Rebecca said.

"No, you go," Andrew repeated.

"One of you, go," Polly said.

Rebecca put her hand over her mouth and pointed at Andrew.

"I'm going," he said. "Eliseo said that since it was such a warm day, we could go for a wagon ride. Can we? We're going to take hot dogs and chips and stuff for s'mores and make a fire. Can we?"

"Of course you can," Polly responded. "That sounds like a blast. Who's going?"

"Me and Rebecca and Jason for sure. He said that if Kayla was here, she could go and there was room for Stephanie and Jessie too, but she's probably working."

"I don't know how much she'd like climbing in and out of that wagon," Polly said. "She's pretty pregnant."

"Do you and Henry want to come?" Rebecca asked.

A flash of something went across Andrew's face.

When Polly said, "No. I think it would be more fun if it was just you kids with Eliseo," his face brightened up again. That was it. He just wanted to play without much adult intervention tonight. That made sense. And she was thrilled that he wanted to do something with the horses and with Eliseo. Any opportunity to get both of the kids playing outside was one she'd grab.

"Have you asked your mom, Andrew?"

"She said it was okay. She'll let us do anything with Eliseo. And she won't be done working until late anyway."

"Then, yes. Rebecca, you make sure you have your warm clothes on. I know it has been a nice day, but it could get cold."

"He's going to put blankets in the back for us."

"Warm clothes," Polly said again. "And mittens and a hat."

The conference room door opened and Stephanie and Kayla came out, both looking drawn and defeated.

"Do you guys want to go on a wagon ride tonight?" Andrew asked, jumping out of his seat when he saw them.

"Maybe not tonight," Jeff said. "But another time."

Kayla perked up, but then she remembered that she was supposed to be sad and her shoulders drooped again.

"Just a second guys. I need to ask Jeff something."

Polly stepped into the outer office after he had ushered Kayla and Stephanie into his office and shut the door.

"What's up?" he asked.

"Can you ask Kayla again if she'd like to go?"

"She's been through a lot this afternoon. The girls want to go home and rest."

"Okay. She just seemed to perk up at doing this."

"I know. But Stephanie needs her as much as anything."

Polly nodded and said, "You're right. I'll ask Eliseo to do this again soon. Maybe she can go that time. They are staying in town, aren't they?"

"Oh yes. Neither of them want anything to do with their old home."

"I can't thank you enough for being with them this afternoon. That was over and above for you."

"No problem. You've been training me for the last couple of years. It was my turn to take care of people."

"You were exactly the right person to be in their lives."

"Yeah. I know. Gay man. Can't be much safer than that, can you?"

Polly felt the laugh begin in her belly. "You are such a nut. But, you're right. And Stephanie picked right up on that."

"She held on to you while she sobbed."

"Because I walked into it and held her. She never really let go of you. I hope that you'll be able to deal with this and maintain a good working relationship with her without her falling in love with you."

Jeff leaned in and whispered. "I've dealt with girls who've had ridiculous crushes on me before. Gay men are always safe for girls who need love. They move on when they finally manage their emotional baggage. We become great friends after they realize there will be nothing more."

"Someday I'll tell you about my gay crush."

He stepped back. "You too?"

"You have no idea. I had no idea. Sal tells me I was blind as a bat - that it was obvious to everyone but me. But I'd fallen in love with him and was not going to be denied."

"This is a story I want to hear someday."

"When we're drinking wine... a lot of wine." Yep, she might have a problem. The thought of wine should have put her off after last night, but no, she was ready to do it again. Maybe not tonight, but someday.


Page 14

"I want to get the girls out of here. Can you manage..." he nodded toward her office.

"Oh yeah. Sorry." Polly stuck her head in the doorway. "Kids, why don't you go upstairs and get ready for your wagon ride. Kayla and Stephanie won't be going tonight."

Rebecca pulled Andrew out of his chair and ran for the steps. As they went upstairs, Polly heard them chattering away at each other.

"Thanks," Jeff said. "It always amazes me how kids can just move on. When did we lose that?"

"I think it was junior high. Everything becomes so much more important. And by high school, the angst is enough to kill you."

"That's why I was in drama club. We emoted all over the stage so we could..." He grinned. "No, I was still filled with angst and drama."

Polly went back into her office as Jeff escorted Stephanie and Kayla outside and to Stephanie's car. He handed something to Stephanie as she opened her car door. The girl tried to push his hand back, but he pushed forward and she bowed her head and nodded.

She pulled her phone out and texted Henry."Don't bring ice cream. No one will be here but you and me."

"Do you want to go out or stay in tonight?"

The idea of sitting in her own living room with no one around but her husband and her animals was rather appealing."Stay in?"

"I hoped you would say that. Do you want to cook or have me pick something up?"

There wasn't anything in the refrigerator upstairs worthwhile. She needed to make a grocery store run this weekend. "Pick up?"

"Call an order in to Davey's. Put candles on the table. Wine? ;)"

The smiley winkey face cracked her up."How about no wine?"

"I thought so. You'll never make a good alcoholic with that attitude."

"Whatever. See you later."

She didn't have it in her to do busy work in the office and besides, the work day was nearly over. People had been streaming in since she'd come down the stairs, preparing for the evening. She was done.

"I'm going back upstairs," she said to Jeff, stopping in front of his office. "Thanks again for taking care of things."

"No thanks necessary."

"You were awesome."

"My head hurts."

She chuckled. "Of course it does. That's what happens when you get all involved with people. They make your head hurt."

"I have to be here tonight. But what I want to do is go home and go to sleep."

"Ummm... I don't know how to help?"

"Maybe Sylvie has some aspirin. Or wine." He gave her an evil grin.

"Yeah. You go ask her for wine and see what she says."

"You guys really tied one on from everything I've heard."

"What did you hear?"

"Nothing much. Just that you tied one on. I haven't gone near Sylvie today. She's been like a bear with a thorn in its paw."

"That's a lion with the thorn."

"Whatever. She's not friendly. I hope it was all worth it."

"It was so worth it, but I don't think any of us ever want to do that again."

He waved her away. "I'll quit complaining. You go away and I'll talk to you later."

Polly went upstairs and opened her front door to chaos on the floor.

"I don't know what to wear," Rebecca said. "This coat is too hot and should I wear my ski pants?"

"You nut. I don't think it will bethatcold tonight. Here, let me help." They finally got Rebecca appropriately dressed, much to Andrew's delight.

"Took long enough," he said.

"You'd better not complain about getting cold," Polly said. "Or I'll never let you live it down."

"Mom has my stuff downstairs."

"Good. What time did Eliseo say you'd be coming back?"

"By eight. You don't have to worry about me, though. He's taking Jason and me to our house."

"And I'm going to sleep in Mom's room tonight, if that's okay," Rebecca said.

"Really? No kids in my house tonight? What am I going to do with that? I'll miss you."

"Well..." Rebecca started.

"Oh honey, I'm kidding." Polly hugged her. "Spend time with your Mom and I'll see you in the morning."

"When we go to Beryl's house?"

"Any time in the morning is fine. Just come upstairs whenever you want. If we're not up, you can occupy yourself."

"Can we go now?" an exasperated Andrew asked, tugging at Rebecca's arm.

Rebecca rolled her eyes at Polly. "He gets so impatient."

"Have fun," Polly said, holding the door open for them. She watched them run down the steps and then closed the door.

"We have the house to ourselves tonight," she said to Obiwan. He followed her out into the kitchen. "Henry said candles. I can do that."

Jessie came in through Henry's office door as Polly was setting the candles up. "Romantic dinner tonight?" she asked.

"The kids are all going out on a wagon ride and I figured you were working the reception."

"Absolutely. This extra money is all going into my apartment fund. I'm going to be able to afford to put the first and last month down with no problem. And I'm also saving for a bed and things. You've really helped me by letting me live here."

"You might as well get the best start you can with this new baby. It's going to be pretty crazy for a while."

"I wish I could find a roommate. It would make it so much easier."

"What about one of your friends?"

Jessie shook her head. "They've all got their own stuff going on. Boyfriends, girlfriends. And some of them I would never live with. They're psycho."

"I get that," Polly said. "Something will come up."

"I was kind of thinking that we might stay here for a month, but not much longer. I'll have enough money to buy a couple of things. Especially if I check out some of the thrift stores."

"Henry's building a crib for the baby."

"I know. That's so awesome. It will be really special." Jessie's eyes filled. "You two have been so great. I don't know what I'd do without you."

"I'm glad we can be part of it, sweetie. You've been a great help with the kids and I know that Marie thinks you are doing a wonderful job working there."

Jessie brushed the tears from her eyes. "I cry all the time. It's so stupid. I need to change my clothes for working in the kitchen. I'll see you later tonight. Have fun with Henry."

"Thanks." Polly went back into the kitchen, checked the time and made the call to Davey's to order supper.

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

Sanity by pizza. Polly dropped into her regular chair at Pizzazz.

An unfamiliar waitress approached the table and asked Polly what she wanted to drink. The question confused her so much that she looked up in surprise and said, "I don't know."

"Okay. I'll come back in a while. Will there be others joining you?"

Polly shook her head to clear the cobwebs and then put her hand out to stop the girl. "I'm sorry. I know what I want. Where's Bri?"

"She took the night off," the girl said, chomping loudly on a piece of gum. "Something about a baseball game or football or I don't know what. So do you know what you want?"

"Yeah. We're here every Sunday night and Bri just takes care of it, so I'm afraid I lost my mind for a minute. There will be four of us." Polly paused to take a breath and the girl cut in.

"I'll be back with menus."

Polly opened her mouth to say, "No wait," but the girl was already three tables away, heading for the front of the restaurant.

Sal and Joss came in the front door and waved to Polly before wending their way through the tables.

"Where are the drinks?" Sal asked. "They're always here."

Polly rolled her eyes. "New waitress. Bri is at some baseball football thing."

"Really!" she said with a laugh. "Interesting rules."

"She's bringing us menus. Heads up!" Polly grinned across the table as the girl dropped menus in front of Sal and Joss.

"Four, you said?"

"Honey-chile," Sal said, her voice dripping with Southern charm. "We don' need menus. You mus' have us confused with northenuhs who read."

"You don't read?"

"Only if someone makes it worth my while and honey, you ain't gonna be the one to do that."

"Uh."

At that, Sal snapped the other menus up from the table and put them in a stack. "We're regulars here every Sunday evening and our order is pretty simple. I'm guessing your cook knows exactly what to do and I wouldn't be surprised if it was already in the oven."

"Okay. Can I take your drink orders then?"

Sal was on it. "Two diet cokes, a regular coke and an iced tea. There should be an order of cheese bread and I have no idea what pizza we order every week. It just comes out. I'm sorry. I don't mean to be snippy. It was just surprising to have to think about this."

"I'll ask Sonny. He probably knows." She picked up the menus and scooted away just as Sylvie sat down.

"New girl? Where's Bri? She's never gone." Sylvie said, pulling off her scarf and coat.

"Bri's at some baseball football thing. We forgot what pizza we order."

Sylvie laughed. "I have no idea. How did you fix it?"

"We hope Sonny remembers," Joss said. She leaned over toward Sylvie. "Would you like me to order a glass or two of wine for you?"

Polly laughed. "How did you hear about that?"

"What? What does she know?" Sal asked.

"These two got blasted Thursday night and couldn't make it home. I hear there were shenanigans."

"No shenanigans," Polly said. "But yes, I will admit to the drunk on my butt thing. A girl can't get away with anything in this town. Does everyone know?"

Sylvie shook her head. "Enough. I heard about it all weekend and they were still teasing me about it this morning at church."

"How come I never get invited to these parties?" Sal was indignant.

"It wasn't going to be that kind of a party," Polly said. "We were just going to have dinner at Sylvie's house. Then it got out of hand. Sylvie's a wonderful host."

"Henry told Nate you were down on your knees begging to spend the night."

"I seem to remember abasing myself," Polly said. "If it had been anyone but Henry and my friends I would have been embarrassed. Now it's just a silly story."

"That sounds like fun," Sal said. "If I remember right, getting Polly drunk is hilarious."

"Okay, I'm a little goofy, but you're the one who throws herself on strange men when she's drinking." Polly looked at the other two. "And I mean that literally. Not just once, but at least five different times. Sal gets happy drunk and flings herself into the laps of strange men. Whether their girlfriends or wives are with them or not. I pulled her out of several bars before she got thwopped with a purse."

"That's why I don't drink any longer," Sal said.

"It's a good thing."

The waitress brought their drinks and a basket of cheese bread. "Your pizza will be out in a few minutes. Sonny knew right away what your order was. It was already in the oven. Sorry about that."

"No problem," Joss said. "Thanks."

"I usually work the lunch hour during the week. I don't know any of these night things."

"Really. We're fine. You're okay. Ignore our crazy lady." Joss looked at Sal, who put her hands up in a 'who me?' gesture.

"I wish Bri would have left me a note about you. I would have read it and known."

Joss nodded.

"It's really confusing to come into someone else's shift and figure out what they usually do."

"I'm sure it is," Joss said.

"Do you need any more napkins or anything? Lemon wedge for your tea? Did I bring enough straws?"

"We're fine, honey," Sal said. "We'll let you know if we need anything. Thanks, though."

She hesitated at the table a moment too long and finally broke and moved away.

"What did you do to her, Sal?" Sylvie asked. "Did you break her?"

"I don't know. I was a little flippant, but..."

"So," Polly interrupted. "Have you signed papers for the building across the street? I haven't heard anything else about it. Are we moving ahead?"

Sal took a deep breath. "I'm scared to death. I keep putting it off, hoping that it will just happen without any intervention on my part."

"That's effective."

"Can you take care of it?"

"I'm sorry, what?" Polly put her drink down to turn her full gaze on Sal. "Are you serious?"

"Maybe. Kinda. I have the financing worked out, but I'm paralyzed at the thought of pulling the trigger. I'm driving Mark crazy. I call him all day long when I'm thinking about it. Then I avoid it at night by writing. I'm not sleeping at all."

"What do you need me to do?"

"I need you to put the papers in front of me and make me sign them. Then I need you to design the place with Henry and make him start working on it. I need you to do everything. I'll just pay the bills."

"When did you get this pathetic?"

"When I moved out here and had to make big decisions by myself. You won't believe it, but Daddy always took care of things. When I decided where I wanted to go to college, he took care of the paperwork and all I had to do was go. When I got my first job, Daddy made sure I had the paperwork for that, too. I just went where they told me and once I was there, I knew what to do."

"How in the world did you ever make it out to Bellingwood?" Joss asked, incredulous at the thought.

"Daddy helped me find a moving company. I paid the bills and they packed everything up and brought it out."

"You are so accomplished and smart and articulate and..." Sylvie started. "I would never have thought this about you."

Sal scowled. "There are a few things that terrify me. If Polly hadn't been here already, I would never have considered coming. She's the one who gave me courage to do what I did in college."

"You did a lot without me," Polly protested.

"All of that was stuff that built on things I'd already done. It's the big, wild decisions that incapacitate me. I'm so afraid that I might be making a huge mistake."

"But you won't know unless you try," Polly said.

"I know that! Why do you think I want you to help me get this started? It's a great idea, but I need you to push me off the starting block."

Polly gave her a gentle shove.

"Yes. Exactly. So now that I've admitted my darkest secret to you, will you help me?"

"I guess so," Polly said with a laugh. "When do you want me to start?"

"Tomorrow morning? I'll come to you with all of the paperwork. My lawyer has already looked at it. Changes are made, things are approved. I just need someone that I trust to force me to do it. And then, help me start the rest of the process."

"I will absolutely be that person for you. But what about Mark? Why aren't you asking him to help?"

"Maybe I'm not ready to let him see my foibles yet."

"Now's as good a time as any," Joss said.

"Not on this. He said he supports me, but I..." Sal stopped, pursed her lips and looked around the table. "I want him to be proud of what I've done. He's made such an impact in Bellingwood. Everybody loves him. I don't want to take anything away from that."

Polly put her hand on Sal's back and rubbed. "You nut. Don't you realize that you are this mysterious East coast woman who came in and swept their favorite pretty boy off his feet? Women are jealous, men are curious, and kids just gawk at you when you walk past in your four inch red stilettos. You have totally added to Mark's mystique just by being here. When the rumors start that you're buying a building downtown to put a coffee shop in simply because you want a place to write, that's going to rock their little worlds."

"Exactly how are those rumors going to start?" Sal asked.

With a wicked glint in her eyes, Sylvie said, "We're going to start them. A little here, a little there and you're going to have to buy a blond wig and big sunglasses."

Joss and Sylvie began moving things around the table and Polly realized that the waitress was standing behind her with their pizza.

She put it down and brandished a spatula. "Who can I serve first?" she asked.

"Oh, hand that to me, dear," Sal said. "We take care of ourselves." She took it from the very surprised girl's hands and slid slices of pizza onto each of the plates.

"Can I refill your drinks?" She looked down at their full glasses. "Oh, I guess not. If there is anything else I can do for you…"

"We've got this," Polly said. "No worries. You're doing fine."

The waitress hovered for a few more moments, unsure as to what to do next and finally flitted away to another table.

"If she's sticking around on Sunday evenings, we're going to have to re-train her," Sal said.

Sylvie waggled her finger. "You be nice."

"I'm being nice. I'm just saying. She needs to take a few cues from the customers. If they don't want her hovering helpfully, go away."

"So," Joss said. "A coffee shop and what else?"

Sal pointed at Sylvie. "A bakery. Maybe. Are you two still on board with that?"

"I think so," Sylvie said with a sigh.

"Absolutely," Polly said. "That's how you have to handle those questions from now on, Sal. With full assurance. It's going to be a coffee shop and bakery and it's going to be awesome. Once we get the paperwork finished and we figure out what it's going to look like on the inside, we are going to need a name. We want to draw attention while it's being built out and we're going to have to ask Jeff to get involved. He knows everyone in town."

"And you all thought I was just being a scaredy-cat," Sal said. "I know this girl. Once she gets started on a project, she's unstoppable."

Their waitress silently slipped in beside Sylvie and replaced her empty glass with a fresh one, scanned the table and moved away.

"See," Sal whispered. "She figured it out. Maybe I'll steal her for the coffee shop."

Sylvie shook her head. "You're weird. You don't even know her name."

"Shoot me now," Joss said under her breath.

"What?" Sal asked.

"Short lady coming in the front door. The bane of my existence. I promise you, if she sees me, she will come right to the table and the first thing out of her mouth will be something wrong with what I'm doing at the library."

"Good evening, Mrs. Mikkels," the woman said. "I see you are out with friends."

"Hello, Lorna. How are you this evening? Do you know Polly Giller from Sycamore House?"


Page 15

"I know of you, Miss Giller. Are you planning to do something with that land behind your hotel? It is quite overgrown."

Polly stood up and put her hand out. "Lorna?"

"Lorna Bender. This is my husband." She stood as if waiting for an answer and ignored Polly's hand.

Her husband, who was only a few inches taller than she, but bent at the shoulders, nodded and took Polly's hand to shake it.

"Well?" she asked again.

"We don't actually own that land," Polly said, returning to her seat. "It's part of the winery."

"Then nothing will ever happen with it," the woman said in disgust. "Those three don't know what the meaning of real work is."

"Are you out for the evening or picking up pizza to take home?" Joss asked.

"Floyd, get a table. Not too close to the front door though, it's cold." Lorna turned back to Joss. "I was in the library yesterday afternoon and had to ask three children to not play in the reading lounge. I thought your assistants knew better than to allow that."

"Were they playing or reading books?" Joss asked.

"It doesn't matter. There is a room for children. If they take up all of the chairs, where will other people sit?"

"Was someone unable to find a seat?"

"Not while I was there, but it shouldn't happen in the first place."

"Some of the older children like to be able to read in a quiet place. The staff knows to keep an eye on them. I think there are plenty of comfortable places to sit in that room. We've never had a problem."

"I'll be bringing it up at the next board meeting, then. We need to institute a policy ensuring that children know their place. If you aren't going to take care of it, someone will."

"Mrs. Bender. You hired me toensure…"  Joss put extra emphasis on the woman's word, "that the library is a place where all of the people in Bellingwood feel safe and comfortable. The children are part of Bellingwood and in many cases they bring their parents in rather than the other way around. I am not about to institute a policy that will make it more difficult for them to read."

"We'll see," the woman said. "I need to make sure Floyd places our order correctly. I will be in Tuesday afternoon to discuss this again."

"I look forward to seeing you then," Joss said. She waited until the woman turned her back and then drew her hands into claws and raised her upper lip.

Polly chuckled. "It seems like you have her well in hand."

"For goodness' sake," Joss said, exhaling loudly. "I don't know why she thinks that she has the run of the place. She and her husband donated money to the foundation, but it's no more than many other people. For some reason, she believes that entitles her to complain about everything and demand that we adhere to her outdated opinions. Would you believe that she insisted we not use her money to bring computers into the library? And movies. She complains about movies. Apparently, we are only supposed to provide books and should be pickier about who we provide them to."

"Speaking of computers and kids, what do you think will happen to kids who went to the library on Mondays?" Polly asked.

"If I didn't have to think about utilities, I'd open the place anyway. But people like Mrs. Bender would find a way to shut me down. I don't know what else to do. The kids loved having a place to come read and we have some great after school activities. Her group calls us overpaid babysitters, but it's an opportunity to build more readers. Drives me nuts."

"What if we opened up Sycamore House on Mondays? If the kids need a place to go, we could add more books to the lounge. Maybe bring older kids in to help with homework in the classroom and open the computer room."

"That sounds fabulous, Polly," Sal said. "I'd come in and help with that."

Polly turned her body toward Sal. "You'd what?"

"I'd help."

"We're pretty slow on Mondays in the kitchen," Sylvie offered. "Rachel and I could come up with healthy snacks. If we did it just one day a week, it would be something different for the kids. Andrew would love this."

"Now I just need someone to be in charge of it," Polly said. "And depending on how many kids are interested, more volunteers."

"I'd be interested," came a timid voice from behind her.

Polly looked up as the waitress replaced her empty glass with another drink.

"In volunteering after school on Mondays?"

"Sure. Or working there. I finish my teaching degree in May at Iowa State and I don't have classes on Mondays. I work here until two, but then I'm free."

"What's your name?" Sal asked.

"Melissa Bradford."

"Any relationship to Lisa Bradford, my mailperson?" Polly asked.

The girl smiled. "That's my mom."

"Isn't that a small world. I tell you what. Why don't you think about it tonight and come by tomorrow. Do you have time in the morning before you have to be here?"

"Sure. I don't have to be here until ten thirty."

"Can you come by at nine?"

"Okay."

"Look the place over and then think about what types of things you might do with a whole bunch of kids. Think about plans for a small group - say five or ten, and then consider what might happen if you had thirty or forty kids show up. All ages. If you come up with something interesting and creative, maybe we can create an internship for you. If there's enough interest, maybe it can be a paid internship."

"Really?"

"Why not."

"Thanks." She held the bill in her hand, hesitating as to whether she wanted to put it down.

"Don't even think about it," Polly said, taking it from her. "You haven't got another job yet. We're all working women here. We've got it."

"Thank you. I'll be back in a while. No hurry."

"Well, well, well," Sal said. "I thought about hiring her at the coffee shop and Polly beat me to it."

"It might not even work out. But at least she's interested." Polly looked at Joss who was quietly laughing. "What are you laughing at?"

"I keep hearing your friends say that you try to solve every problem Bellingwood has. They weren't kidding."

"Shut up. I have this huge facility and my dream is that it is filled every waking hour of the day. If I have to bring kids in to make noise and fill it up, then that's where I'll start."

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

Polly sent a text to Lydia, while waiting for Melissa Bradford to arrive. "Do you have time for lunch today?"

Jeff hadn't been at all surprised when Polly sat down across from him in his office to talk about opening the classroom area up to kids in the afternoons. He promised to start on insurance and licensing questions right away. Not only would this be good for the kids, but it would be an opportunity to expose a much larger group of people to Sycamore House. Within an hour, he'd already scheduled a meeting with Joss and the principal at the elementary school. Closing the library on Mondays had upset many routines and the school was scrambling to provide a safe place for their children.

"I'd love to, but can't get away until one o'clock,"Lydia texted back.

"That's perfect. Where?"

"Can we find some place a little less noisy than the diner?"

Polly grinned. The diner was packed every day for lunch. While that was great for business, they desperately needed a few more restaurants in town. She'd heard rumors that there might be a Mexican restaurant and maybe a Chinese buffet opening in the next several months and hoped either of those would be true.

"Come here. Either we'll do takeout from Sylvie's kitchen or we can make sandwiches upstairs."

"Thank you. I'd love to. See you later dear."Lydia texted just like she spoke. She couldn't help herself.

Melissa Bradford came bouncing in the front door and Polly got up to meet her in the main foyer.

"Good morning," she said with a smile.

Polly gestured to the lounge and classroom area. "Let me show you around."

"I've been here for a couple of wedding receptions," Melissa said. "And last night I asked Mom to describe things so I knew what you had."

She followed Polly into the lounge and then into the other three rooms. "Can we have access to the auditorium too?" she asked.

"Sure," Polly said. "Especially if the kids need to have something active to do."

"That's what I was thinking. We can play games to exercise their big muscles because they'll have been sitting all day."

"That makes sense."

"I'm excited about this opportunity, Miss Giller. There are so many things we can do, whether there are only two kids or two hundred."

"Two hundred kids?"

"You could, you know."

"That would be a lot of children. I don't know if we're ready for that."

"Most of the kids have someplace to go, but if they started having fun here, you never know."

"Let's hope that doesn't happen for a while."

"I was thinking that we could ask for volunteers and solicit some of the businesses. They could give us supplies and maybe even donate money since you're donating the building. Right?"

"Right. It would be great if this became self-sustaining. But Jeff is the one who would help you with that. He knows everyone in town."

"Dad said that the hardware store would be a supporter and Mom thought that the General Store would do it too. She's friends with Tim's wife."

"Follow me. Jeff Lyndsay would like to meet you. It sounds like you've got great ideas." Polly took Melissa into the main office.

"Hi Stephanie," Melissa said, stopping at the desk. "I didn't know you worked here now."

Stephanie smiled at the two of them. "I started last Friday."

"This has to be way better hours."

"It is. Better money, too."

"I'll bet."

Polly looked back and forth between the two girls. "You know each other?"

"She was my coffee supplier," Melissa said. "The first place I go when I get back in town after class."

"He's free," Stephanie said, nodding at Jeff's office.

Polly aimed Melissa that way and realized that she was going to have to get used to having someone else manage interactions with Jeff. Things were growing and getting busier and she was going to have to act more like an owner than she was used to.

"Jeff, this is Melissa Bradford and she has great ideas about the Monday afternoon program for kids."

He stood and put out his hand and then gestured to the seat in front of his desk. "Are you staying, Polly?"

"Do you need me?"

"I think I've got it."

Polly ducked out of his office and back into hers. She'd been awake on and off through the night dreaming up plans for Sal's coffee shop and wanted to start sketching things.

She was head down and focused on her work when she heard Stephanie say, "Just a second, I'll check with her."

"Miss Giller?"

"It's Polly. Please."

"There's someone to see you. Are you available?"

Lydia poked her head in the door and smiled.

"Is it one o'clock already? I haven't been paying attention to the time. Wow, how did that happen?"

"No honey, it's only eleven. You're okay."

"Stephanie Armstrong, this is Lydia Merritt, one of my closest friends."

"Nice to meet you, dear. Are you working here now?"

"Yes ma'am," Stephanie said. "Excuse me." She slipped back out and Lydia closed the door.

"I'm sorry to be here so early, but one of my ladies forgot to tell me that her daughter was spending the week, so I don't have to drive her around. I wanted to see if you would rather go to Boone or Ames for lunch."

"Ames?" Polly brightened up. "Bagels? Can we do bagels?"

"Of course we can. Are you sure I'm not intruding?"

Polly looked down at her sketch pad. "This? I was working on some ideas for a building up town that Sal is buying. She wants to put a coffee shop in."

Lydia tried to look at the sketches upside down. "That's a wonderful idea. Can I see what you've done?"

"It won't make much sense yet. I'm still trying to map out the space. We might put a bakery in the back."

"Would Sylvie take that on, too?"

"We're still talking about it. She says she can do it with some additional help here. It will take time for things to get really busy, so we can grow into it."

"I wouldn't count on it taking very long. Bring your pad. I'll drive and you can tell me all about it."

Polly grabbed her jacket and thought about Obiwan and Han. They'd be okay if she got back in a couple of hours.

"I'm going out to lunch with Lydia," she told Stephanie. "Call if you need me."

Stephanie nodded.

"Are you sure I'm not bothering you?" Lydia asked as they walked out to her Jeep.

"You aren't at all."

Lydia moved things out of the front seat to make room.

"How are things at home?" Polly asked, once they were on the road.

"He's trying to come back, but something is really upsetting him. I just wish he'd talk to me about it."

"He hasn't said anything about the man who was killed? That he knew him when they lived in Atlanta?"

Lydia visibly flinched. "He knew the man from Atlanta?"

"Yeah. What does that mean?"

"I have no idea, but why wouldn't he tell me? Damn it, Polly. Things are so out of control. I don't understand this."

"He never told you who his mentor was? I got that out of Stu Decker."

"Sure. He talked about him years ago, when we were first going out. But it was no big deal. We haven't talked about those days in years. Even when we're with his family, no one talks about the days he was on the police force. I just assumed it wasn't important. He was only a rookie."

"I don't want to turn into a conspiracy theorist or anything," Polly said. "But I'm just not buying that this isn't all connected. Aaron didn't tell you that Albert Cook was coming to Bellingwood? Stu says there are emails between the two of them going back about six months."

"Why does he know that?"

"Because they want to investigate everything. But I don't buy it. How can this not all be connected?"

Lydia drove past the Iowa State University stadium. "You know more than I do. No one in Aaron's office talks to me now unless they're looking for him."

"I might have trapped Stu. He thought he was asking me questions about the shooting."

"You're an evil woman, Polly Giller."

"He got really defensive when he thought I was accusing Aaron of killing that Albert Cook."

"I would have too. Aaron would never kill anyone like that."

"But did you know that Aaron is a trained sniper?" Polly asked.

"Sure. He's very good." Lydia gripped the steering wheel. "Oh." She came to a stop at the light. "You don't think."

"See. No, I don't think that at all. But it really pissed Stu off when I brought it up. He knows that I love you and that I consider Aaron a friend. Why would he react to me asking questions? I'd never accuse Aaron of that."

"Because everything has been out of control lately," Lydia said as she turned the vehicle onto Lincoln Way. "There's no way they don't know that something is wrong with Aaron. He can't hide it."

"Stu told me that the DCI is involved and found nothing. It just doesn't make sense to me."

"Digger has been here as long as Aaron. They go way back."

"You don't think he'd cover things up."

"Oh, dear, I don't know what to think any longer."

Polly sat in silence until Lydia parked behind the restaurant. "Lydia?" she asked once the Jeep was turned off.

"Yes dear?"

"How long are you going to allow this to go on?"

"I don't know what you mean. I'm not allowing anything."

"Yes you are," Polly said, turning in her seat to face Lydia. "You are the strongest woman I know. You deal with things right up front. You face everything with courage. But not this. You're lying down and playing dead."

"What should I do? This is Aaron. I either trust him or I don't. And when I stop trusting him, we're done."

"Maybe he needs you to do something other than blindly follow along. That doesn't eliminate trust, does it?"

"Okay. What would you have me do?"

"I'm not sure. I believe that Stu and everybody else is hiding something. Maybe it's for our own good, but you and I both know that secrets never work out well for anyone. I think this has something to do with Atlanta."

Lydia pulled her phone out and fiddled with it, passing it back and forth between her hands. "How hungry are you?"

"I'm fine."

She backed out of the parking space and drove back out onto Lincoln Way, headed to Duff and turned north.

"Where are we going?"

"I need someplace quiet. There's a park on the north side of town. It's time to get some answers. If we have to drive through McDonalds because we're in a hurry, we'll eat hamburgers."

"Okay. How are you getting answers?"

"I'm going to make a phone call. If she doesn't answer, I'll call her brother. And if he doesn't answer, I will call the other brother."

"Aaron's siblings?"

"Yes. I'm absolutely certain that his sister knows what's going on. She's older than him and there was always something between the two of them. Something I couldn't know. But it all happened long before I was part of the family and as long as it didn't crawl out and bite me, I didn't figure that I needed to worry about it."

Lydia pulled into the park and drove until she found a place to park facing the South Skunk River. The river was frozen, but still beautiful.

"Sit still," she said. "We'll see how this goes."

She scrolled through her contacts and finally pressed a few buttons and then put the phone to her ear and waited.

"Helen?" she finally said. "Yes. It's me. Lydia."

She listened. "Oh, the kids are all good and the grandkids are adorable. Things are fine. But Helen, I have a different problem. It's Aaron."

A pause. "No, no, no, he's healthy. Nothing like that. But I need to ask a huge favor of you."

Polly could hear the voice speaking in the background, but it was too muffled to distinguish words.

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