Tuesday, June 10, 2014

SERIES BLAST: THE UGLY TREE Series by @TamaraLyon [Excerpts + Giveaways]






THE UGLY TREE ~ CANE'S JUSTICE ~ THE ROAD TO JUSTICE
 
THE UGLY TREE
Considering Cane Kallevik’s rocky start, her life has been normal under the watchful eye of Grandma Betty. Freckle-faced, scrawny, and almost sixteen, Cane has ants in her pants. When she’s not running five miles at a crack, she’s riding her bike around the rural farming town of Savage, Illinois and engaging in a secret warfare with her former best friend…read more

Prologue

On the night that I was born, the circle of life sucker punched my family in the face. Grandma Betty stepped up to the plate, and out of her iron will to make lemonade out of lemons, she named me Cane, claiming it was because I was as sweet as sugar.
There are two problems with my name. First, there isn’t really a thing about me that’s sweet. Second, I’ve read the Bible. The spelling of a name doesn’t mean anything, and you can’t convince me otherwise.
Before I had even come out of the womb I had broken the sixth commandment, more than once, and was in dire need of absolution by the time they wiped the birth matter off of me. When I sit in Grace Lutheran Church with Grandma Betty, I’m always on the lookout for
God, but I’ve failed to find Him. Maybe it’s because of what I did that God chooses to ignore me when I’m in church. “Come out, come out wherever you are,” I say to Him, but He keeps on hiding.
Wooden pews and rote prayers don’t offer much comfort, but I’ve found a place that has. Every Sunday evening after Grandma Betty goes to bed, I tie a rope to a limb on the oak tree outside my bedroom window, climb down, and run to the forest preserve on the other side of town. Just inside the split rail fence that borders the back of the property is a daunting hill that overlooks railroad tracks, cornfields, and one turbulent and defiant stream that floods every spring.
A solitary maple punctuates the knoll. Unattractive but brawny, it was struck by lightning on the night I was born, during the storm that ruthlessly destroyed our lives. An inspiring portrait of life and death, only half of the tree lives. It defies death every time it sprouts a leaf, grows a limb, and slowly but steadily inches its way upward, taking its dead half along for the ride.


Part One June 1992


Bygones

“You better get up sweetheart. You have to leave for work in a half hour.” Grandma Betty pulls the cord on the vertical blinds letting in sunlight and showing me that she means business. “It’s a beautiful day,” she chirps.
Groaning I sit up, decide against it, and then collapse back onto my bed. Hopefully she didn’t come armed with a water pistol. It takes a lot to get me going in the morning, and she has resorted to some ingenious tactics lately. My eyes are lined with a brittle crust, sealed shut at the edges. Rubbing it away, I attempt to look outside, but everything is blurry.
“I packed your lunch and put it in your backpack. It’s going to be hot today. I can just smell the sun, can’t you?”
Grandma Betty turns her head and sniffs the air suspiciously. “I swear, the dandelions are sizzling outside, and it’s not even eight-oclock.”
Allow me to introduce my grandmother: the bloodhound. The woman can smell everything; I’ve told her more than once that the police force needs a good tracker. She laughs at this suggestion, but I’m convinced she could solve crimes by following her nose. Toucan Sam doesn’t have a thing on her.
“Don’t expect me home for dinner; I have to work late. Connie called in sick again. I don’t mind,” she says breezily. “We could always use the extra money.”
My grandmother was born to pick up the slack. It’s her nature to run her life and everyone else’s.
By the time I’ve finished shoveling scrambled eggs and Lucky Charms down my throat, Grandma Betty has everything I need lined up in a neat little row by the back door. If I would let her, she would sew name tags on the inside of my clothing, strap an ID bracelet to my wrist, and happily put my hair in pigtails. I put an end to this nonsense in the fourth grade.
“Now remember, tonight you have to swing by the library and return books. I stacked them in the hallway on the table, five of them I think.”
“I know.”
“Dinner shouldn’t be a problem. I whipped up a casserole; it’s in the fridge. There are directions written on top. Preheat the oven and put it in for an hour. Make sure you eat some vegetables, too.”
Her thoughtfulness brings out the worst in me, and I know that I will bake that casserole tonight and then dump the serving I’m supposed to eat in the garbage disposal and grind it up. I should get it over with and tell her that her casseroles suck and that I am tired of her treating me like a baby, but I don’t want to upset her. So, what do I do? I waste her hard work and hurt her feelings without her knowledge.
“Bye, sugar Cane.” Grandma kisses my cheek. Her skin smells of Ivory soap and yarn; it’s silky and cool against mine.
“Bye,” I say in return, stifling a yawn. I scrub my dishes and set them to dry in the drain board.
“You behave yourself today,” she winks at me and wags a finger playfully. Then she’s out the door.
What would it be like if I wasn’t the perfect kid, if those silly warnings I got on a daily basis were given because I was constantly getting into trouble? Being good tires me out, and I’ve been so good for all of my life I’m not even sure how to go about being bad. I don’t know how to find trouble; it eludes me. Do you have to have a membership to be a delinquent?
Well, I’m not completely innocent. There’s always my secretive warfare with Mikayla, my neighbor and nemesis for four years running. When it comes to plotting against her, my imagination takes a nosedive into the deep abyss of evil. If Grandma Betty only knew the things I’ve done.
Slinging my backpack over my shoulder, I head outside. My means of transportation are pathetic given that I am a hop, skip, and two months away from turning sixteen. While most kids my age have graduated to riding in their older friends’ cars or driving their own, I still ride my 1976 royal blue Huffy bicycle, christened Smurfette, due to my childhood obsession with the cartoon, The Smurfs. Complete with a banana seat and frayed wicker basket on the front that’s roomy enough to accommodate my backpack, it’s practical and comfortable. Even though I’m short, five foot three and a quarter, I outgrew the bike years ago. I have the seat up as far as it will go, but it still looks like I bike-jacked a little kid. Since it’s my biggest source of misery, I should wise up and stop riding it. I’ve heard it all.
“Nice dildo seat.”
“She skipped the candy and stole the baby’s bike instead.”
“Watch out, it’s the retard motorcade.”
Or the simple and eloquent, “Nice ride, freak.”
A miser at heart with money piling up in my bank account, I could replace it. But, I’m attached to Smurfette for nostalgic reasons. I can’t let go of things very easily. There’s plenty of proof under my bed at home, a stockpile of items that Grandma Betty, honorary president of the organization police, is just dying to be rid of.
Dumping my backpack in the wicker basket, I maneuver Smurfette onto the road. The streets are deserted this morning, not that I expected a traffic jam. Savage, Illinois, the place I’ve called home my whole life is a bucolic farming town about an hour and forty five minutes northwest of Chicago that hosts a colony of five thousand inhabitants. The only wild thing about Savage is its name, the origin of which no one can agree upon. One theory is that when the land was first settled it was terribly uncooperative and ran rampant with coyotes. Others swear it had something to do with a group of unfriendly Native Americans; this presumption is no longer referenced in this new age of political correctness. I don’t care how this place earned its name, but it would be cool if something major happened to give credence to the name Savage. However, in a town with one stoplight, you can’t raise the bar too high.
Monday through Friday I work at Schaeffer Acres, a prestigious dairy farm, now under the ownership of Samson Schaeffer. Thanks to eighty years of blood, sweat, and tears, this family business is worth millions. Schaeffer Dairy stores are located throughout northern Illinois; they deliver and sell milk and delicious, artery-clogging ice cream to the masses.
At the farm, I don’t necessarily work with the livestock, and that’s just fine with me. Shoveling cow manure, yanking on teats, and scrubbing down the living quarters of those beasts isn’t my idea of a party. I like to think of myself as the resident landscape architect, but, if I’m being honest, I have to admit it’s a fancy name for a groundskeeper. I’m about as low as you can get on the job totem pole.
I’m subjected to a variety of odd jobs that generally include prettying up the place. There’s not much glory in it, but I don’t mind the work.
Manual labor, although tedious at times, is something my agile, wiry body is good at. While most girls my age prefer to have jobs in air-conditioned clothing stores, I can’t be confined. Walls make me claustrophobic, and whenever I’m indoors for too long, I start sprinting through the house, doing jumping jacks, or walking up and down the stairs. During the winter, Grandma Betty gets fed up with my antics and drives me down to the YMCA in Clinton, a large town thirty miles away, and makes me swim laps in the pool to get rid of the “ants in my pants.” I thought I would have outgrown this, Grandma Betty told me I would, but puberty only made the problem worse. A couple of years ago, I joined cross-country and track, and since then, there have been fewer emergency trips to the YMCA.
Given my job at the farm, I’m outside from late spring through early fall, and during these months I rarely have “ants in my pants.” My body and mind are too busy getting drunk off the summer cocktail: mix warm weather, cerulean skies, and one engorged sun, and the combination is heady. Despite my faithful application of thirty plus sunscreen every morning to prevent blistering sunburns, I’m sure that the exposure to all these rays of light will catch up to me in thirty years and make my face as unattractive as a wrung-out dishrag. However, the penetrating warmth of the ultraviolet rays, the way it sometimes feels like someone is holding a magnifying glass against my skin, is a pleasure I can’t deny myself. When I go home at night, I put my nose against my arm and inhale the sweet, burnt odor the sun has left on me and study the small freckles that have pushed their way to the surface and clustered together like miniscule raisins.
While I enjoy my job, the days are made long because of Samson’s wife, Jenny Ryanne. Samson hands me the paycheck every two weeks, but I know who wears the pants in the family and in the dairy business. Samson might as well walk around in his boxers. Jenny Ryanne is the one who decrees my every action. Given the woman’s obese figure, penchant for glittery clothing, and habit of wearing raspberry colored lipstick on oversized, clown lips that look like they’ve been pumped full of collagen, I privately refer to her as Jelly Roll. Really, at some point the woman must have taken lessons from a hemorrhoid; rarely do ten minutes go by before she’s on my butt about something. A perfectionist with the heart of a dictator, no one can please her. She white gloves everything that goes on at the farm. Her obsessive compulsiveness has paid off; last year the Schaeffer homestead had a full spread in Country Life and Farming magazine that spanned seven pages. Every one of those pages is laminated, matted, framed, and hung on the wall in the dining room of the Schaeffer’s immaculate and historic three-story, renovated farm house.
When I bike the three miles to their farm every morning, I study other properties in the area that are comparable in size, and they look like normal farms: peeling paint, crooked siding, a fine grit hanging in the air, dust covering the windows, discarded machinery in foot-high grass, driveways with deep rivets from the spring thaw, and an odor of animal feces and mud. Not the Schaeffer farm; it’s an anomaly. It boasts barns in a deep cherry hue, crisp concrete drives that connect all the buildings, beautiful cedar fencing that is fanatically sealed each summer, surfaces (including the grass) that look like they’re scrubbed nightly. The windows reflect an obscene amount of light, and if I’m not wearing my sunglasses and accidentally look at those shiny panes of glass, my retinas feel like they’re burning. Even the cow manure smells perfumed. I can’t explain it.
Jelly Roll is always on my case, but she doesn’t hound me because I’m lazy. Usually she has to find more work for me to do because I’m too efficient. It’s my theory that she hates me because of history and genetics. She went to high school with my dad and, according to my grandmother, had been shamefully in love with him. My dad was never interested—thank God for that. When my mother came along in college, no one else ever stood a chance. Since Jelly Roll always gets what she wants, I’m sure this is still a sore spot for her. Bygones are never bygones, especially seeing as how I am the carbon copy of my mother, from her dark auburn hair to her hazel eyes. You don’t just inherit looks from your parents; you inherit enemies.
All of Jelly Roll’s bitterness has been transferred to me. She tries to cover it up, but that only makes it uglier. Whenever she looks at me her mouth wiggles its way into this zigzag smirk, and when she manages a smile, it’s a smidge short of a sneer. Some of the things she says to me are downright mean, but she goes about it in a backhanded way. So that if push came to shove and I ever made an objection or an accusation, she could tell me I was reading into things. Yesterday, while I was shoveling mulch into a wheelbarrow, she stood with her arms crossed and flexed her toes on one foot; her flip-flop banged against her calloused heel.
She said, “You’re really thin, it’s a good thing you’ve got those muscles to give you some definition, and a good thing you’ve got that hair to help you look feminine. Your hair is what sets you apart. When you get all the mulch down, I want you to level it out with your hands.”
The translated version: “You look like a skinny boy, and I hate the color of your hair. For your punishment I want you to bend over for hours and get splinters in your hands and knees while you make my landscaping look perfect.”
In a world where there were no consequences, I would have fired back, “You’re so fat, it’s a good thing you wear flip-flops all the time, because I don’t think you could bend over to tie your shoes. Why don’t you get your fat butt down here and spread this mulch yourself.”
Plenty of times I have had to plant the heel of my left foot on the tips of my right toes to stop myself from saying something that would get me fired. They pay ridiculously well for me to jeopardize my position by opening my big mouth.
Despite Jelly Roll’s heartache over my dad, she must have moved on, because she married rich Samson Schaeffer, who just so happened to have been my father’s best friend. How’s that for a twist of fate? She produced what I think is a shameful amount of children given the fact that she isn’t Catholic and we live in a world where over-population is the talk of the times. I go to school with her eight kids, and since she had them consecutively, most separated by only a year or two, they span all of the grade levels. They all have J names. Normally, this kind of stunt would make life insufferable for the kids who would endure endless teasing, but the Schaeffers have money and influence, apparently making them untouchable. From oldest to youngest: Jeremy, Joshua, Jordon, James, Jocelyn Ryanne, Jonathon, Jonas, and the youngest, who loves to show you his boogers and then eat them, Jade.
You would think the Schaeffers have enough help on the farm with the children, but the oldest four boys spend the summer playing baseball, attending basketball camp, riding their four-wheelers, and going on long camping retreats. The only girl, Jocelyn Ryanne, is a miniature Jelly Roll with much less ambition than her older counterpart. She devotes her time to the television where she watches movies on the VCR. When she does move, it’s to the refrigerator to get a Coke or to the freezer for a bowl of Chunky Cow Pie, the bestselling flavor of Schaeffer ice cream. The younger boys play in their tree fort that is a replica of the house and dedicate the rest of their free time to swimming in the super-sized family pool, outfitted with a slide, waterfall, and diving board. Not once have I seen any of the kids help with any chores, at least not for more than a few minutes, lending credence to the silver-spoon theory. I guess that’s why they hired me when I was only eleven.
As I bike down the driveway, I hear the hiss of the air compressor being turned off and the scream of James’ new dirt bike. Jelly Roll, wearing a white cotton shirt that’s sprayed with silver glitter, walks out the side door with a clipboard in her hand. I reach down and adjust my kickstand, tightening the screw that holds it in place with my fingers. Neither of us looks at each other until we have to. I stand slowly.
“Good morning,” I say politely, my fingers finding my back pockets and hanging there.
Jelly Roll never has time for small talk.
“I’ve got quite a few things on here today. Start at the top and make your way down. I expect the grass to be cut diagonally one way and then the other. Be sure to cut it twice, because Samson likes the look of baseball fields. Don’t get sloppy around the trees like you usually do, but don’t hit them either. I had James put air in the riding mower tires. Everything should be ready. There’s extra gas in the barn if you need it. Also, Samson’s nephew is here for the summer. He’s going to be learning the ropes. When you’re ready, he’ll help you dig the trenches out back for the new sprinkler system we’re having installed; you’ll find him in the cow barn.”
“What are we supposed to do with all the dirt we dig up?”
She purses her fat lips and looks at me like I’m speaking a foreign language. “Leave it in a pile, but make sure it’s on the other side of the fence in the field. We can put it back after the system is installed and seed it. If you have time after the trenches are dug, I want you to power wash all the driveways and scrub the mud out of the seams with a brush.”
Jelly Roll hands me the list, I briefly scan it and know I won’t have time to piss my pants let alone power wash the miles of concrete. I suppose I should be thankful that she’s letting me use the power washer and not making me get down on my hands and knees and lick it clean.
“What’s his name?” I ask as she’s walking away.
“Whose name?” she asks impatiently, pinning the clipboard against her meaty thigh.
“Mom, I want to go to the store now!” Jocelyn screeches from the front porch. She swings her mother’s purse from her hand. “Hurry up!”
Jade is standing next to his sister, holding up a prize of a booger for me to inspect. I inwardly sigh, pushing all the air out of my lungs.
“Your nephew’s name,” I clarify.
“Justice,” she answers.
Of course it would have to be a J name. When she’s busy ushering
her children toward their oversized luxury van, I snicker and head toward the equipment barn to retrieve the riding mower.
Samson is on the opposite side of the barn. He waves to me, and I wave back. This is the usual sum of our communication. Appropriately named, Samson is a giant of a man with hands the size of dinner plates. When he waves, I swear I can feel a breeze. Six feet, six inches and solid muscle from years of physical labor, he’s a force to be reckoned with. If not for his infectious grin and chipped front tooth, two qualities that make him accessible, he would be intimidating. When I first started working here, I deluded myself into believing that we would forge a strong friendship and have long, heart-to-heart conversations about my father. I’ve since learned that Samson rarely speaks, probably because he’s married to a tyrant who won’t keep her trap shut. Even though Samson has never said a word about my father to me, I think he wants to. There have been times when I’ve caught him looking at me, his expression one of disbelieving grief, the kind of look you would have if you were standing over a casket or seeing the ghost of someone you loved. It makes the hairs on the back of my neck prickle and fills me with a hollow sadness.
I hop on the riding mower and power up the engine, driving out of the barn slowly. Although I don’t really enjoy sitting for three and half hours, the typical time it takes to cut the two acres of manicured Schaeffer lawn, it gives me time to do the three things I love most: listen to music on my Walkman, study my Trivial Pursuit cards, and scheme against Mikayla.
Once I get the first pass cut and make sure the lines are straight, I relax and pull out the stack of Trivial Pursuit cards from the back pocket of my jeans. I devote hours to memorizing absurd facts. While I love fiction, nonfiction bores me to tears, and I consider trivia games my stab at higher education. Today, I’m sticking with my strong suit, the art and literature category.
What is the literary term for a play on words?
Pun. Jelly Roll anyone?
What did the old woman in the shoe give her children to eat?
Broth. Grandma Betty’s favorite ingredient; she adds chicken broth to everything, including her casseroles.
Who wore the coat of many colors?
Joseph. Duh. That’s Sunday school fodder. If I didn’t know that, it’s unlikely that I would be allowed through the church doors.
What magazine paid Ernest Hemingway $15 a word to write
a bullfighting article?
I have no clue. I flip the card over. Sports Illustrated. I didn’t even know that magazine had been around that long. As for Hemingway, I don’t know what all the fuss is about. Literature elitists would stone me to death for saying this, but I think his writing is mediocre and most likely produced under the influence.
Don’t drink and write, Ernest, but he went ahead and did it anyway.
Who was Helen of Troy’s Trojan lover?
Paris. I know many of the famous lovers in literature and history: Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Cyrano and Roxane, Tristan and Isolde. Anything memorable has to do with love.
What word is used in Hawaii as both a greeting and a farewell?
Aloha.
I’m totally kicking butt today!
When I’m finished cutting the grass one way and then the other, I meander over to the livestock barn to meet this Justice boy. During my three hour tour on the mower I’ve already made a pile of assumptions. I expect that he’s my age or younger, and since he’s related to this family, he’s spoiled, rude, and arrogant. If he’s like the older Schaeffer boys, he actively participates in flatulence contests, rating on both sound and smell. Or maybe he’s more like the miniature Jelly Roll, so fat he can barely move, and his parents sent him to the farm instead of fat camp.
I round the corner, and he’s standing there, towering over me at six feet. I’m not one of those girls who swoon over guys. The walls in my room aren’t plastered with handsome men but instead feature famous quotations, pictures of nature, and one R.E.M. poster. Yet, here I am depleted of oxygen like an asthmatic and in danger of keeling over.
When I look at him more closely, I think of those Stetson ads on television, the ones that feature the cowboy up on the stallion. He could be straight from the Wild West; then again, a costume change, a shave, some hair gel, and he could be a ringer for a young Superman. He possesses all the superhero qualities: the strong jaw, the piercingly blue bedroom eyes, and even the cleft in the chin. However, his imperfections, the slightly crooked nose and stubble that is sparse in some places and thick in others and dimples that appear to be slightly uneven, are the things that make him breathtakingly beautiful. I need a shovel to scoop my jaw off the ground.
“You must be the illustrious Cane.” He extends his hand. “Nice to meet you,” he adds.
As I put my hand in his, I can feel my pulse everywhere, in the tips of my toes, in my lower abdomen just under the waistband of my jeans, and in the base of my neck.
“Hi…um, so I guess we have to dig a trench for a new sprinkling system?”
“That’s the plan.” Justice turns and loads shovels and spades into a tractor cart. “It’s in one of the fields near the rear of the property. I’ve already outlined the area with some landscaping paint. Are you up for this? I could do it myself.”
“It’s not a problem.” For once, Jelly Roll has done me a favor, and right now, I love her.
“Why don’t you hop in back, and I’ll drive us out there.”
I want to suggest that I could ride up front with him, that we could make room on the seat, but I don’t.
“Sure.” Feeling my disappointment in my shoulders, I climb in back and hold on to the metal sides of the cart. I don’t know how to interpret Justice’s expressions. When he smiled at me before he turned around, his lips were rigid. Was it a smile or a grimace? Is he annoyed? I wonder if I’m something he has to put up with, and I can’t handle this thought. I don’t want to be the kid, but in his eyes, that’s what I am, isn’t it?
During the bumpy drive to the back field, I assess myself and try to see what Justice must see, a scrawny girl with long, messy auburn hair whose pale skin is dotted with a million freckles. Move over stars in the sky, I’ve got constellations right on my body. While I love to think that people notice my almond-shaped eyes that can go from gray to olive to cobalt depending on my mood or oddly enough on the weather, they’re probably overlooked because of those annoying brown spots.
At one time I had appreciated my freckles. In grade school they served as a form of entertainment; my friends and I used them to play connect the dots. With a little ink and some ingenuity, we were able to make all kinds of shapes and objects. Our game irritated the teachers. What could they do, take our pens and pencils away, erase my freckles?
After Justice turns off the tractor, we unload all the materials in the type of silence that as it goes on is harder to break. I would like to think that this uncomfortable feeling is sexual tension, but let’s get real. He probably wouldn’t touch me with a ten-foot pole. Justice is probably worried that I’ll slow him down, so he’s trying to think of a way to get rid of me and do this himself. Actually, this is my only advantage right now, my only weapon. If there’s one thing I can do, it’s amaze boys with my strength. I’m determined to impress Justice, and that means I can’t focus on his now shirtless, tanned body and those horrifyingly delectable muscles. The boys in school, even the athletic ones, don’t have the kind of muscles that Justice has, which leads me to believe that he isn’t a teenager and so far out of my league I would need to be shot out of a cannon to reach him.
Thanks to my superhuman strength, I do succeed in getting noticed.
“To be honest, I thought you were going to slow me down out here,” Justice pauses and leans on the end of the spade.
Hah! I was right.
“But, it looks like I’m the one slowing you down. You’re strong,” he falters on this comment.
“Don’t you want to add the ‘for a girl’ part?”
He laughs and yanks the spade out of the ground. “I wasn’t going to say that.”
“I’ve heard it before.”
“I don’t know what I was expecting, but I’m impressed.”
A small victory. I grin smugly. “I’m used to this kind of thing. I’ve been working here for four years.”
“It shows.”
“Yeah, my biceps are bigger than yours.” Even though this is a complete exaggeration, I stop and flex my muscles for him.
He raises an eyebrow skeptically. “I think something is wrong with your vision.”
Thankfully my face is already pink from the hot sun, so I don’t think he notices my startling blush. My face turns red on a dime, and the color refuses to stay in the lines like a normal person. It spreads all the way up into my hairline, keeps going, and lands on the nape of my neck. At least my hair covers that part.
“What are your stats?”
“What?” I toss a large mound of dirt onto the pile, and half of it slips off the shovel and lands in the plush, weed-free grass. Crap. I wouldn’t put it past Jelly Roll to make me use tweezers to clean up all the loose soil.
“You know, name, age, occupation, background, hobbies. That sort of thing. Get that out of the way and small talk isn’t necessary anymore. Future discussions will actually mean something since they won’t be steeped in formalities.”
The best thing about Justice is that he isn’t like any other boy I have ever met. For one thing, he has a vocabulary; he knows how to say more than ‘cool’, ‘dude’, ‘whatever’, or ‘yeah, sure.’ Since he is already making reference to future discussions, I allow myself to hope that he’s interested in speaking to me after today.
“Oh, stats.” I scrunch up my nose and push the shovel into the earth, then jump on it with all of my ninety-nine pounds trying to get it in further. While doing this, I consider lying about my age, but I’m pretty sure my nearly flat chest and Huffy bicycle would make it impossible for me to tell him that I’m eighteen. Inwardly, I curse myself for wearing my sports bra and not getting rid of Smurfette four years ago. “I’m Cane, but you already know that. I’m almost sixteen.”
“Almost?” he asks, amused. “In two months.” “Oh.” He smiles.
God, I should have just rounded up. That’s like saying I’m fifteen and a half, something that only a kid would do. I’m such an idiot. “Background? I’m not really sure I have one. I’ve lived in the area my whole life. I spend way too much time reading, probably because we don’t have cable. I enjoy trivia games, sports, and being outdoors.”
In a nutshell, I’m lame. I should have told him I was a teen model and that I frequently traveled to exotic locations for photo shoots but that I’ve decided to take time off to write my autobiography.
“What kind of trivia games?”
“Mostly Trivial Pursuit. I love to memorize facts that no one else knows.”
Justice considers this for a moment. “Huh,” he says. “Is that what you were doing earlier, on the mower? I saw some cards in your hands. You were pretty focused on studying them.”
I couldn’t believe he had been watching me! Had I done anything embarrassing? Had I scratched my armpit? Had I half-stood and picked the underwear out of my butt? I did that sometimes. In my defense, my butt got hot and sweaty sitting on that vinyl seat after an hour. “Um, yeah, I just like to bring them with me for distraction.”
“What kind of sports do you like?”
“I’m on the track and cross-country teams in school. I also play volleyball and basketball, but not professionally.”
Justice laughs and quickly appraises me. I blush fiercely, again, and turn away, because this time he probably does notice.
“You’re a good runner?” he asks.
“The best. Well, not the best. There’s this one girl with legs that are about as tall as I am. Her name is Shannon. She’s the best. I’m in slot number two.”
“That isn’t bad.”
I scoff. “No one ever remembers second place. It’s the blue ribbons that mean something.”
“I don’t know if I would necessarily agree with that.”
Justice and I have dug about twenty feet, maybe more, and my arms are aching. I forcefully suck in my cheeks, something I do whenever I am in pain. Although the guppy look isn’t attractive, the only alternative is taking a break, and I’m not stopping until he does. “What are your stats?” I need to know as much information about him as I can.
“Justice Price, twenty-one, full time college student.”
Five years and a couple of months isn’t a gap, just an inconvenience! I inwardly celebrate.
“I grew up just north of Clinton, in Hampton. I’m a sports junkie, basketball in particular, and I played varsity ball all four years in high school. I’m sensitive to the second best thing since I was second best on the basketball team, and I would like to think that people remember me.”
“Where do you go to college?”
“U of I. I’m majoring in history and business, two opposite ends of the spectrum, but I want to keep my options open for career moves just in case the family business doesn’t stick. I’m getting my feet wet this summer, and Samson was nice enough to let me live here for free, not to mention he doubled the wage I was making as a bank teller.”
“You worked in a bank?” I couldn’t picture Justice counting money all day; I could see him in a newsroom as a hunky reporter, but that’s my Superman fantasy getting the best of me. “I can’t stand being cooped up inside. I wouldn’t have lasted a day in that bank.”
Justice lowers his voice. “I lasted a week. It was just too quiet in that place. I can’t tell you how many times I had the uncontrollable urge to scream.”
I laugh and pull my hair back at the same time, fixing it into a pony tail with a rubber band that I had around my wrist. “I don’t blame you. I hate being inside too, which is why I’ve worked here for so long.”
Justice pushes his dark eyebrows together, and his ocean blue eyes meet mine. “Four years here, huh?” He whistles. “I’m surprised you keep coming back for more. She’s not the easiest person to work for, is she?”
He glances in the distance.
The humor fades as I see Jelly Roll driving across the field on her pink golf cart. The unevenness of the terrain makes every ounce of her fat jiggle. Even from the considerable distance I can tell she isn’t happy about something. Her lips appear broken at the edges.
“Oh, God,” I mutter under my breath.
“Hell hath no fury,” Justice intones quietly.
Sensing impending doom, we keep our eyes focused on the dirt we are shoveling. She yells at me before the engine of the golf cart has been shut off and then leaps out of the golf cart, a surprisingly nimble move for her.
“What are you doing, Cane? This is absolutely the wrong depth, and the line is supposed to run east, west, not north, south. You have overheard me talking about the plans for this sprinkler system, you should know better.”
Never mind that Justice took charge of this project and had drawn the lines earlier. But, I’m not about to throw a sexy man under the bus.
“I’m sorry.”
Justice steps in front me.
“Aunt Jenny, it’s my fault. I painted these lines. Cane was just following my directions.”
He’s defending me! I hide my smile by wiping my mouth against my forearm.
Jelly Roll adjusts the strap of her swimming suit cover-up, that incidentally doesn’t cover enough. “That doesn’t mean she couldn’t have spoken up.” She sighs and straightens her sunglasses that are coated with a thick layer of sparkles just like her swimsuit underneath.
Barf, does she ever look disgusting. Wearing that outfit exposes a generous amount of skin. She looks like a bejeweled, roasted marshmallow.
“You’re going to have to fill this back in. You’ll have to get some grass seed too. Cane can show you where to find it. I want the line to run that way, parallel to the fence,” she points at the fence with her sausage finger. “About two feet in front of it. Don’t forget to water the seed after you are done. It’s going to take some work to get a hose out here. I’ll see what Samson can do about that.”
When she gets back in her cart and stomps on the gas, Justice sighs and remarks, “That’s the reason why I’m shocked that you’ve lasted this long. I don’t think the woman does anything but critique all day long. Kudos to you for being able to put up with her. I’m only one day in, and I’m fed up with it.”
“It helps if you call her Jelly Roll. Trust me, it makes you feel better about the situation you’re in.”
Justice laughs when I explain the derivative of the name, and for the remainder of the day he refers to his aunt as Jelly Roll and snickers every time he says it.
Being around Justice feels normal and natural, but in an elevated, thrilling way. It takes some concentrated effort to forget how handsome he is, but when I succeed, it’s like I’m hanging out with my best friend. I don’t feel weird or awkward like I do around the boys at school. We spend four hours together, minus a thirty minute lunch break, and the whole time I’m fishing for information. I’ve learned his favorite things, besides basketball, are water skiing and kayaking, but he hasn’t done either in far too long. His mom, Samson’s sister, is a pediatric nurse who isn’t too involved with the family business, but he doesn’t mention a thing about his father. I assume he isn’t in the picture.
The juiciest material I got was that he recently ended a long-term relationship with a girl at school. He said he was glad for the break from all the drama. He was hoping that this summer would give him an opportunity to get his head on straight.
Personally, I don’t think it’s crooked at all; he seems fine to me. His situation is my providence. He’s out here alone, single, and possibly wounded from a break-up. I have a chance, even if it is a snowball’s chance in hell.
Throughout the day I’m witty, appropriately sarcastic, and sometimes flirtatious, not that I am an expert on this. Who knows; I’m probably making an ass of myself with my body language and giggles. When I run out of things to discuss, I test his knowledge of sports with my trivia questions and stump him when I ask him what sport FISA governs, which is auto racing. He claims that he doesn’t know anything about that sport and that he doesn’t particularly like cars. This is another attractive quality about him, considering the guys in high school make owning a sports car their number one priority in life.
At the end of the day, after we’ve put all the tools away and stand chugging water from our thermoses, I decide that I’m going to ask him to hang out with me. If I want to be an equal, I have to be confident but casual.
“Um,” I say and rock onto my toes. “What are you doing tonight?”
“Beyond dinner, I have no idea. Samson invited me to the bar to meet some of his buddies. I might go.”
“I’m going swimming, and I was wondering if you wanted to join me.”
“Oh,” he says, his voice dipping low. He sets his water bottle down slowly and stares at the cedar fence that borders the oak tree on the corner of the property.
I follow his gaze to where I have dumped Smurfette, the bike that is currently defiling my reputation and subtracting years instead of adding them. I’ve spent all day building a bridge between us, and now I’m witnessing its destruction.
“Um. I’m not sure.”
A few displaced crickets chirp in the barn behind us.
Justice rotates his foot and glances at the mud that is caked on the bottom of his boot. He smacks his heel down hard on the grass and it falls out of the treads.
“Are you going to swim here?” He glances over his shoulder at the Schaeffer’s pristine, resort-like pool. Jade is sitting on the edge of the diving board, and for once his fingers are nowhere near his nose. Someone should take a picture.
“No way. I don’t even think Jelly Roll would allow it. I go out to the gravel pit, off of County N; it’s just past the forest preserve. There’s a pond on the west side, and you don’t have to worry about seaweed because it’s deep. I’ll probably get there about ten tonight. If you want, you can join me.”
I don’t give him the opportunity to say anything more. “Aloha.” I pick up my backpack and head toward the road.
Aloha?
What the hell was that? There’s a loose wire between my mouth and brain, and I wish I could hire someone to fix it. Thankfully, by the time I make it to the oak tree, Justice has gone somewhere. Embarrassed, I climb on Smurfette and furiously pedal home, trying to outrun my childhood. I don’t know if I’m fast enough or if I can ever catch up to Justice, but maybe I won’t have to. If he would turn around and meet me halfway, we could be together.  


Peas in a Pod

Mikayla and I were born on the same night, August 19th, 1976. I think God was trying to make nice by giving me someone to take my brother’s place. Although I don’t remember the occasion, we met when the grass over my family’s graves was beginning to thicken under the September sun.
A young couple with an infant had just moved into the grand, brick Georgian across the street from Grandma Betty. Being the socialite and neighborhood ambassador, Grandma Betty carried me in one arm and a plate of brownies in another and went over and rang their doorbell.
Annette, Mikayla’s mom, answered the door with a wailing infant in her arms. Tearfully happy for the visit, she invited Grandma Betty into the house where they spent over an hour swapping condensed life stories. Annette had grown up on the west coast; a true California girl who loved the ocean, sun, and sand more than anything on earth, she had never expected to leave. Desperately homesick, there wasn’t a thing she could do about it because her husband, Mitch Atwood, a pilot, had been hired by a major airline in Chicago, and his career was finally taking off, literally and figuratively. He was often gone, and Annette said it was lonely and difficult to adjust, especially with a newborn.
Although Grandma Betty hadn’t been transplanted to another part of the country like Annette, her life had been uprooted and thrown into the wood chipper. Grandma Betty shared what had happened in our family, leaving out the gory details that she doesn’t like to think about, the same ones that I obsess over. Their shared desperation and grief sealed the deal; fast friends were made.
It’s no surprise that when I was three months old and Grandma Betty had to return to her management position at Hometown Drugs that she didn’t have to pound the pavement to find a reliable babysitter for me. Annette jumped at the chance; she wanted Mikayla and me to grow up together.
I really don’t have any childhood moments that don’t include Mikayla. In fact, my very first memory, the first time I was even aware that I was a living, breathing creature we were sitting side-by-side, staring into the long mirror that was propped up in the corner of Annette’s bedroom. I believe my experience was unique, in that I didn’t just realize that I existed, that I was an arrangement of fascinating and beautiful things like limbs, eyes, hair, ears, lips, and teeth, but I was also acutely aware that the presence beside me was entirely separate. There were two reflections, not one.
How could this be? Weren’t we the same person? I had assumed up until that moment, in that spongy, pre-cognizant phase of my life, that Mikayla and I had been the same person. The mirror snapped my theory in half. Upon discovering this, I burst into tears, because not only was it my first memory of being alive, but also my first memory of being alone.
Separate we were, but rarely were we apart. Grandma Betty and I became part of the Atwood family. They became everything that was taken away from me, and so I raised them up on a pedestal and made them my ideal. In them, I had a mother, a father, and a sister. What more did I need?
On many occasions when I was out with Annette, people assumed that she was my mother; sometimes they even told me I was beautiful just like her. When this happened, Annette never rushed to explain the history behind our relationship or deny ownership. She would simply bend down and plant a delicate kiss on my scalp. During those moments, I realized that I had become as much a part of Annette’s heart as she had become of mine.
Naturally, our socializing went above and beyond the daycare arrangement. The lawn in front of both of our houses was worn in spots from our footprints. We didn’t just share impromptu dinners, summer days swimming in the town pool, and nights spent around a bonfire roasting marshmallows and reducing life to the bare bones with stories and anecdotes, but we shared the important things that stick to your ribs and heart, the kinds of things that stay with you forever. Every milestone, every accomplishment was made with Mikayla by my side.
Mikayla and I learned our letters together and sang each other the alphabet song so frequently it would be ringing in my ears at night when Grandma tucked me into bed. When Annette gave birth to Mikayla’s baby brother, Gabriel, Mitch drove both of us to the hospital. Pressing our faces against the nursery window, we stared at her little brother and secretly told each other we didn’t think he was that great. When it was time for preschool to start, we clung to Annette’s legs, Mikayla on the right, me on the left, and cried until the teacher had to pry us both off as Annette escaped. The following year we held hands as we waited for the kindergarten bus to arrive, our matching Strawberry Shortcake backpacks overflowing with school supplies. In first grade we both lost our first tooth on the same day, and Grandma Betty picked me up from Mikayla’s house after work and said to Annette, “These two are certainly peas in a pod, aren’t they?”
“I think they’re more than that,” Annette said, smiling and carefully putting my tooth in a small plastic bag to take home.
Our friendship went beyond the ordinary, and if I could try to put into words what it was like, I would say that our spirits were sewn together. I never really felt like a whole person unless Mikayla was by my side. Others took notice of our connection as well, especially when strange things happened for which there was no logical or scientific explanation.
The first time was when we were nine-years-old. Mikayla stayed home sick with strep throat. I visited her after school, holding onto a couple of text books and a story that I knew would make her laugh. Mrs. Parttyde, also known as Mrs. Farttyde, had been the substitute. The woman never had a chance; I mean, with a name like that, she was bound to be phonetically destroyed by a bunch of third graders who believed bodily functions to be the ultimate source of humor. That day her nickname grew legendary when Jason, the chubby and gregarious class clown, inflated a whoopee cushion and discretely hid it under a cardigan on Farttyde’s chair. When she lowered her ample bottom to the chair and the sound erupted beneath her, the class nearly fell on the floor with laughter. Mikayla had the same reaction when I told her the story.
Nothing had gone wrong at our visit to suggest that something awful would happen to her that night, but at two the next morning, I woke up clutching my throat and a horrible fear flattened my stomach like a pancake. When I ran down the hallway to wake Grandma Betty my legs could barely support me.
“Wake up, wake up! Something’s wrong with Mikayla!”
Grandma Betty reached for the lamp. “Honey, did you have a dream? Are you sick?”
“It’s not a dream. I’m not sick! Something is wrong with Mikayla!”
“I know honey, she’s sick, but I’m sure she’s better now. Go back to bed.”
“You don’t understand! You’ve got to call their house now!”
Grandma sighed and swung her legs over the side of her bed. She sat there with her head lowered to her chest and rubbed her face with both her hands. “Cane,” she said softly, her tone reassuring and flimsy, a sign that she wasn’t really getting the message.
If I had to, I would run across the street. I just knew Mikayla couldn’t breathe; my own windpipe constricted in response.
“We don’t have time! Something is really wrong.”
“Okay, okay,” she said sleepily and picked up the old rotary phone on her nightstand and dialed the numbers. Luckily, they answered.
The sound of sirens filled our neighborhood mere minutes after that call. Mikayla had suffered a nearly fatal reaction to the antibiotics the doctor prescribed. Her temperature had spiked, her throat had started to swell shut, and in her feverish stupor, she hadn’t been able to wake her parents. She spent a day in the hospital recovering, and not only did she receive balloons and flowers from everyone, but I did as well.
For days afterward, Grandma Betty, Annette, and Mitch walked around with goose bumps, rehashing the unusual chain of events. None of them could quite believe my clairvoyance. They chalked it up to divine intervention. They said it was a one time thing.
 Only it wasn’t. Mikayla and I became a medium for each other’s trials and tribulations. I was sitting in church when I just knew that her golden retriever, Salem, whom we both loved more than anything in the world, had been run over by a car. Grandma Betty couldn’t figure out why I had started crying and took me out of the sanctuary. When I told her what had happened, she took me home without a word. We buried Salem in the Atwood’s backyard that night.
It wasn’t always life and death. Mikayla had been visiting her grandmother in California when she told her mom that she wanted to go home because I had the chicken pox and was feeling lonely. Annette did some fact checking with Grandma Betty, and sure enough, I had just come down with the chicken pox and was lonely. The Atwoods didn’t cut their vacation short, but I did receive several care packages
that included gifts from Disney Land, Venice Beach, and Hollywood.
Mikayla and I accepted what we knew to be true, that our souls were conjoined twins, seamlessly sewn together. The adults in our lives, however, had a hard time coming to terms.
When I broke my arm falling out of a tree, an event that Mikayla had known about hours before I showed up at the Atwood’s door wearing a cast, they were still trying to sweep things under the rug.
“It’s a fluke,” Mitch said. “Kids are like that. They can sense things. They’ll grow out of it.”
“I’m sure they will,” added Grandma Betty. “It’s a shame, though, that they’re going to lose that connection.”
“I’ll be glad when they outgrow it. Anytime one of them is upset, I automatically assume something horrible has happened.” Annette picked up a thin, black marker and signed my cast, her signature said, “To my second beautiful daughter, Cane. I love you.”

The thing about a connection is that it can never be outgrown or broken. Relationships, however, can. The relationship I thought I could count on the most fell apart. It happened so quick that if I had closed my eyes, I might have missed it. There’s misfortune and heartbreak in what happened, but if Mikayla and I could somehow stop hating each other and peel back the layers between us, we would find that we had been right next to each other all along, like two peas in a pod. 

CANE’S JUSTICE
In this sequel to the award-winning book The Ugly Tree, Cane has always known that the handsome and sweet Justice Price was the one. So, when he pops the question and offers her everything she’s ever wanted and more, she readily accepts. But when Cane discovers a secret about Justice, she panics. Insisting she needs time to think things through, she leaves for the summer, breaking Justice’s heart as well as her own… read more

P R O L O G U E

August 25th, 1998

I pound on the console, threatening and cajoling the car. “Don’t you dare quit on me! I know you can do it! We’re almost there!”
The check engine light defiantly flickers in my face one last time, and then the engine perishes. I rock all one hundred and five pounds of me forward and backward like a madwoman, hoping the momentum will keep the car moving; but this object in motion doesn’t care about Newton’s Law, because it’s not going to stay in motion. Maneuvering the vehicle onto the shoulder, I stomp on the brake and throw it in PARK.
Now what?
I don’t have a cell phone. I’m stranded two miles from the church, and the ceremony has already started. The cherry on top of my day? A wicked thunderstorm is brewing. Impressive stacks of robust clouds stretch across the sky like a defensive line. Poised and ready to tackle, they’re throwing off bolts of lightning as a warning.
About the only thing I have going for me is that the car has conveniently managed to break down next to a horse farm. Galloping through the doors of Grace Lutheran Church on a white steed would make quite a statement. However, my equestrian experience is limited, and I’m fairly certain the owners would frown on me jumping their fence and thieving one of their mighty stallions.
All I know is that I have to get there in time to take the pastor up on his invitation to speak now, because there’s no way that I can forever hold my peace. Not in this instance. I don’t have it in me.





C H A P T E R  O N E

Three Months Earlier – June, 1998
The apple-green walls of my apartment bedroom are riddled with holes that remain from push pins and nails. All my treasured photographs, framed movie posters, and semester schedules have been boxed up or tossed recklessly in the recycle bin. The map of my college life has been tightly creased, folded up, and packed away.
Now that the pomp and circumstance are history and the tassel has been hung on Justice’s rearview mirror, the culmination of my four years at Northern Illinois University in the middle of Farmland USA seems irrelevant. Have I accomplished anything at all?
I can’t say for sure. I easily recall many titles of books that I’ve read and studied: The Canterbury Tales, Beloved, Pride and Prejudice, Iliad, Beowulf, The Invisible Man, The Bluest Eye, Dante’s Inferno. Yet, it’s superficial recollection. I only see the image of a cover and an author’s name. The stories themselves have gone missing. Afflicted with posttraumatic graduation amnesia, I’m panicked that I haven’t learned a thing and won’t be able to prove to myself or anyone else that I have educated worth. Tragically, the stories I do remember are the braincandy romances filled with smut that I would never admit to liking let alone reading. Four years of tuition and I couldn’t pass a quiz about Shakespeare. But give me one about any of Danielle Steel’s or Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s books, and I would ace it.
Yesterday, Frank gave me a silver compass that had belonged to his mother as a graduation gift. Featured in a glass display case in his office, I’d admired it for years.
I told him the gift was too much, that I couldn’t take it, but he said, “I insist. You love it, and you should have it. It belongs to you now. It will come in handy someday.”
He’d spoken as if I would need it in the future, but I need it now. I pull it out of my front pocket and flip it open, hoping that it will give me a sense of direction.
The magnetic needle rotates right, pulling north hard and fast, and points directly at the fist-shaped hole in my wall that’s barely visible thanks to a patch job. I shuffle over to the spot and push my fist against it, hoping against hope that it won’t line up, but it’s a perfect match.
The bruises and swelling along the bony ridge of knuckles had long ago faded as had the pink scars from the stitches. The wall, my hand, and my relationship with Justice — they had all been repaired licketysplit.
See, it’s as good as new, my roommate, Caprice, had said after helping me mud, sand, and paint the spot seven months earlier. The truth is that nothing is ever as good as new. The damage is merely disguised underneath a thin layer, out of sight but never out of mind.
“Sugar Cane, where have you gone to?” Grandma Betty shouts from the living room.
“Bedroom,” I answer. I slip the compass into my pocket and spin myself south. She doesn’t know about the wall or what had happened between Justice and me to prompt such an act of rage.
“Are you sure you have everything?” She pops her head in the room.
“I’m sure,” I respond wearily and plop down on the floor, sitting cross-legged.
Dubious, she furrows her brow.
“I’m positive,” I say more forcefully, but I still haven’t convinced her.
“We’ll see about that.” Nervous as a sparrow, my grandmother darts from room to room checking for anything I might have forgotten and critically eyeing the floors to make sure everything’s spick-andspan the way she likes it.
At last she lands in my bedroom and runs a hand down the north wall, right near the patch, causing my diaphragm to seize up. I don’t want her to notice it, because her inquisitions are insufferable. With the wiliness of an attorney cross-examining a defendant, Grandma Betty always gets the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Thankfully, she doesn’t notice. Her thumbnail works on a spot of tape I had missed. When she finishes with that, she bends over and pinches a stray piece of lint from the carpet. “Maybe I should have Frank bring the vacuum up from the car. We should give it a onceover.”
“I’ve already gotten my portion of the security deposit back. We’re good to go.”
Flicking the piece of lint into her purse, she folds her arms and inspects the ceiling, looking for a stray spiderweb. “Still, how you leave a place says something about you, and I want to make sure everything is spotless.”
“And what does this place say about me?” I ask Grandma Betty, batting my eyelashes. “Does it say that I’m a fabulously beautiful woman with a college degree?”
Focused solely on making sure I leave the apartment in better condition than when I rented it three years ago, her smile is tolerant at best. “If the walls could talk — it just might say that.”
“Doubtful,” I mumble under my breath as she scurries out of the room once again. I’m afraid of what these walls would say about me. They’d seen the good, but they’d also seen the bad and the ugly.
She returns to my bedroom and folds her arms. “Did you empty all the closets? The shower? How about the kitchen cupboards?”
We’ve triple-checked; I know for a fact there isn’t anything left. The last of the boxes had been thrown in the trunk of Frank’s beefy Lincoln thirty minutes ago.
Let’s get the show on the road, he’d said three times before realizing that Grandma Betty and I weren’t ready to take the show anywhere just yet. He’d left us alone and went out to the car to reload his Nikon camera and make sure my new video camera, another of my graduation gifts, had full power.
“It’s all taken care of.” I give her a sunrise kind of smile even though
my patience expired long ago. “And when it comes time to unpack, I’ll know exactly what’s in each box thanks to your label gun. You would be proud of how organized everything is.”
“I love that gadget! It has so many options compared to the old one you gave me so long ago. And since Frank and I have been packing like crazy, I’ve had to replace the cartridge four times.”
Grandma Betty and my step-grandfather, Frank, sold their house in Savage, a rural farm town in the middle of nowhere northern Illinois, and are flying south to St. Petersburg, Florida, with no plans to migrate back. Frank says he wants his golden years to be somewhere golden, where he only has to worry about the salt in the water and not the buckets of salt he has to dump on his long driveway in the harsh northern winters.
I don’t want them to leave. Although I’ll miss Frank, I can live without him, but I’m not sure how to survive without Grandma Betty. The only family I’ve ever known, she’s been the anchor in my life.
Without her, I fear I’ll get lost at sea.
“Are you ready for the big move?” I ask her.
“As ready as I’ll ever be, but honestly, it’s going to be so hard leaving. Have you changed your mind? A few months of relaxing might do you some good.”
She wants me to stay in their new beachfront condo for the summer, but I’ve declined the invitation. “My internship starts a week from Monday. I can’t.”
“Oh, Sugar Cane, please think about it. Ocean, sand, and sun! Frank could take us out in the new boat every day. I heard they have the best snorkeling only a little ways from our place. You could run along the beach-wouldn’t that be divine! You wouldn’t even have to wear shoes. Samson won’t mind if you don’t start right away. You know he’ll hold the job until you get back!”
“I know.” Samson Schaeffer, a longtime family friend who will become genuine family once I marry his nephew Justice Price, owns the prestigious Schaeffer Dairy, a company worth millions. Given my longstanding history with the Schaeffers and the fact that I’ve worked on the farm from the time I was eleven, Samson has generously carved out a position for me in the marketing department, where I’ll be in charge of ad campaigns, press releases, and developing and implementing other marketing strategies. A well-paid and auspicious offer, over which my fellow English majors salivated, I want to start immediately.
“Tell me you’ll at least think about it. You don’t have to make up your mind today.”
“I have thought about it, but I just can’t. I want to get started with my life,” I say stridently. I have to keep focus. It feels like the rug is being pulled out from under me, and I’m on my hands and knees holding on to the fringed edges of that rug for dear life. If I go to Florida and loaf around, I’ll lose what little grip I have.
Adjusting one of her clip-on earrings, Grandma Betty shakes her head and smiles wistfully as she looks at me. “How did we get to this place? You’re all grown-up, a lovely young woman who has her whole life ahead of her. And me? I’m a wrinkly old retiree who will spend her days knitting, crocheting, collecting seashells, and going to Friday night bingo with Frank.”
I click my tongue. “Come on now. You’re going to be a rich beach bum. You look the part.” She does look like the quintessential Florida senior resident. Her snow-white hair, perfectly curled and sprayed into place, makes her cornflower blue eyes pop. She prefers to dress her petite top-heavy body in pantsuits. Her shoes, handbag, and even her lipstick and eye shadow must coordinate with whatever she’s wearing. By coordinate, I mean match. She dunks herself in a vat of the same color. Today she’s wearing a silky lavender getup and has rounded out the look with lavender pumps, lavender eye shadow, and plum lipstick. Even her blush has a purple hue. I call it her purple people eater look, which she doesn’t appreciate.
She’s aghast at my suggesting that she looks the part. “Have you seen how old some of those people are? I don’t look a thing like them!”
“You look better than them! You’ll have the most amazing life down there. Martinis on the beach. Beautiful sunrises. Fresh seafood. I’m going to visit all the time.” Part of me wants to move with her, but just as she had let me go, I have to let her go. She can’t be a mother forever; she deserves her freedom as I deserve mine.
Teary-eyed, she tightens her mouth until her chin dimples from the effort. After sobbing at my graduation ceremony, and disgracing herself and me, her words not mine, she’s vowed not to shed one more tear. “You better,” she says resolutely.
“I will. I promise. For the record — you aren’t wrinkly.”
Chuckling, she pats my hand. “Don’t lie. I am a tad wrinkly and worse for the wear. I ran into Samson the other day at the drugstore. We talked about how fast the time has gone — how it seems like only yesterday you were sixteen years old. He said something that stuck with me. He said that whatever age you are is how fast you move through life. I’m going a whopping seventy miles an hour! Before I know it, I’ll be a toothless, doddering old woman, and you’ll be married to Justice with children of your own. I’ll be a great-grandmother.” Her eyes scan the undressed walls and take in the empty closet. “I’m not ready, but I know you are. You’ve always moved through life at full speed ahead. I admire that in you.”
Too much of a good thing usually backfires, and because I always travel at full throttle, I sometimes can’t avoid running into brick walls at a hundred miles an hour.
“What about your cap and gown? Are you sure you have those? I don’t want to leave those behind! We can put the cap next to your diploma in a shadow box. Wouldn’t that be lovely! You could hang it on the wall in your new place.”
“Justice packed them. They’re in his truck.”
“Oh good. If we have time, we should stop at that hobby store on the way out of town and see if they have any display cases. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could find some artwork for your walls? And I still want to give you that couch, you know, the plaid one in Frank’s den, it will be darling in the living room of your new place. I’ll crochet some blankets to match and then —”
I half-listen as Grandma Betty makes plans for my new apartment. This coming Monday, I’m signing a lease on a two-bedroom unit in my hometown of Savage, Illinois. What Grandma Betty doesn’t know is that Justice recently ditched his apartment and is planning on moving in with me; a Christian traditionalist, she won’t think that’s darling at all.
The place I’ll be renting is in the same building where my newlywed parents had lived. It seems dangerously circular. Am I tempting fate by repeating history? By following closely in their footsteps, will tragedy find me as it had found them?
“How does that sound to you?” she asks.
“Fabulous,” I respond, not knowing what I’ve agreed to.
Easing myself off the ground, I walk over to the open window and place my fingertips against the screen. I survey the back lot of the apartment building. It’s a mass exodus. Half the students in the building, including me, just graduated. Everyone is in such a hurry to leave, and all of them seem relaxed and confident in the direction they’re heading. I can’t say the same for myself.
Frank must have tired of waiting for us. I hear the front door of the apartment open and then close. The shift in pressure pulls in air from outside, bringing the sweet perfume of late-blooming lilacs. The smell reminds me of childhood springs, when Mikayla, my best friend since infancy, and I would sit beneath Grandma Betty’s blooming lilac bushes and play with our Barbie dolls, creating fantasy families. Mikayla, who grew up with a pilot father who not only flew across the country but from one woman to the next and a mother who cared more about appearances than relationships, needed the fantasy lives more than I ever did.
Grandma Betty inhales deeply. “Would you smell that? Isn’t it divine? Lilacs smell of heaven itself. I do hope they grow in Florida. I can’t imagine living without that scent in the spring.”
Frank strides into the room. He’s a stocky man with short gray hair, watery brown eyes, and a compact mustache that nearly hides his thin lips. His friendly face reminds me of a worn baseball glove; it’s creased in all the right places. Unlike Grandma Betty who matches to a fault, Frank, who’s a little zany, prefers to spice up his wardrobe with socks that don’t match (he says this is a great conversation starter), loud ties, and plaid golf pants. Today he’s sporting a bright green tie that’s covered in miniature lightning bolts and green and white plaid pants. “How are my two ladies doing?”
“We’re just about ready.” Grandma Betty hoists her shiny, lavender purse onto her shoulder and looks at me. “What do you think?”
As soon as I turn around from my station near the window, Frank, ever the prepared photographer, snaps a photo of me. In the last two days, he’s taken enough pictures of me to fill an album. He lowers the camera and adjusts the lens.
“I’m not happy with how this is focusing,” he grumbles. “Everything blurs at the edges.”
Grandma Betty laughs. “It’s because you aren’t wearing your glasses again! They’re in your front pocket.”
Grinning self-consciously, he pulls them out, gives them a shake, and then slides them into place. “Ah, much better. It’s amazing how the world looks with a new set of eyes.”
“I need a new set of eyes — things are looking kind of fuzzy right about now.”
Grandma Betty slides her arm around my shoulder and kisses my cheek. Frank captures the moment on film.
She peers into my face. “Your eyes do look a little bloodshot. You can’t see straight because you’re exhausted! Finals. Graduation. The parties with your friends. The moving. Why, I’ve only been here for a few days, and I’m pooped. You have to be dead on your feet,and last night I heard you tossing and turning in your bed at the hotel!” she exclaims. “You can give your eyes a rest and nap on the way home.”
Lack of sleep has nothing to do with my poor eyesight. My life’s moving so fast that nothing is coming into focus. Maybe I need to blindfold myself — maybe then it would be easier.
“Yes, a snooze will do you good. You’ve run yourself ragged these past few days, and so has Justice,” says Frank. “Speaking of which, I hope he’s made it back safely.”
Justice left a few hours ago, his pickup truck filled to the gills with miscellaneous furniture and boxes. I tried to talk him into putting some of the boxes in Frank’s car so that I could ride with him, but he adamantly insisted I ride back with Grandma Betty and Frank.
“Bless that young man’s heart,” Grandma Betty says, taking my hand in hers and squeezing. “I have a feeling someone will be getting a ring soon.”
I smile. My happily-ever-after with Justice. That’s all I’ve wanted from the moment I first saw him six years ago when I was fifteen and he was twenty-one. Only hours after that initial meeting, a tornado devastated my town, my house, and my life. Grandma Betty, critically injured during the storm, was taken by helicopter to a hospital and nearly died. She was in a coma for more than two months. Justice stayed by my side through it all, driving me to the hospital daily, talking with me for hours, and spending time with me when I’m sure he had better things to do. I fell in love with him, a man who not only looked like a superhero with his dark hair, aquamarine eyes, dimples, and muscular physique, but acted like one as well.
Our love story officially began when I turned eighteen. I’ve always known that I would get my fairy-tale ending. Yet now that I’m so close to having it, I’m spooked. They don’t have any articles in Seventeen magazine, which embarrassingly enough I still faithfully read, that deal with female-based commitment issues. It’s always the other way around. But lately, when I hear the word proposal or engagement, I have the urge to put on my running shoes and head for the hills. It doesn’t make any sense, because I love him. I adore him. I’m not sure I can live without him.
Or can I?
“He should be home by now,” I remark.
“Speaking of home, we need to get the show on the road.” Frank taps the face of his gold Seiko watch. “Justice, Samson, and the whole gang are going to meet us at Sorrento’s. We don’t want to be late. If we leave now, we’ll make it with only a few minutes to spare.”
“Do you think I could have a minute alone?” I shrug. “It’s hard to leave.”
“Of course, Sugar Cane,” says Grandma Betty. “We’ll wait for you in the car.”
“Take your time,” Frank insists and then adds, “but hurry up!”
I proffer a wry smile. “Very funny. I won’t be long.”
When they’ve gone, I explore each room, lightly dragging my hands along the textured walls, because I don’t want to just remember the things that happened here, I want to feel them. The matters of the heart are tied to all the senses — even touch.
And as I run my palms across the vertical and horizontal planes of the apartment, so much comes rushing back: Trouncing my friends in late-night Trivial Pursuit games. Fitness competitions with my best friend and roommate, Caprice, which included everything from pushups and sit-ups to sprints around the collegiate track and even armwrestling contests. Celebrating the end of track and field season by running the infamous naked mile on a chilly spring night where I had a distinct advantage over Caprice and my other big-breasted friends. Having midnight dance parties in the dead of winter with all the windows open.  Picking up the phone and having Justice tell me that his estranged father had died in the very same way that my parents had been killed — he was struck by a drunk driver. Sitting on the bathroom countertop with my legs drawn up to my chest with a pregnancy stick balanced on the crest of my knees. Offering Jocelyn Ryanne Schaeffer, Samson Schaeffer’s daughter, a month of reprieve last summer from her overbearing mother and seven siblings. Splitting a six-pack of beer with Mikayla when she came to see me last fall and lying through my teeth when the subject of her mother’s affair came up. Thinking suicidal and homicidal thoughts when Justice told me he wanted me to have my senior year free and clear because he wanted me to experience life without him.
I’m leaving behind much more than I’ve wrapped and placed in a labeled box. My wild, sweet mess of youth is inside these rooms and around campus. This is where I rode the roller coaster of late adolescence into my early twenties, sometimes strapped in and other times barely hanging on. The memories will come with me, but much more will remain here.
I turn off all the lights, place the keys on the counter, and walk out the door of my personal time capsule.
“About time. I think the summer semester is almost over,” Frank jokes as I climb into the backseat of the car.
“Don’t give her a hard time,” admonishes Grandma Betty.
“Here.” Frank hands me my new video camera. I flip the power switch and point it at the back of Grandma Betty’s head.
She swivels around and frowns when she sees the camera pointed at her face. “You aren’t recording again, are you? You’re getting to be as bad as Frank with all those gadgets.”
“I am recording. You’ll be on film for all of time. No pressure, though. Just be yourself.”
“Oh schlop!” she exclaims, this being her rather demure version of the word shit. “Turn it off.”
Frank’s brown eyes find mine in the rearview mirror, and he gives me a thumbs-up. “Get a close-up of her.”
“Working on it,” I tell him as I push the zoom button.
Grandma Betty huffs in protest. “No! I don’t want a close-up.”
“It’s not that close.”
“Well, how close is it? I don’t have my lipstick on.” She selfconsciously covers her mouth.
“You don’t need any. You’re as lovely as ever.”
“I’m your grandmother — you have to say that.”
“She’s right, though, you are as lovely as ever,” Frank chimes in.
“Stop,” she orders. She turns back around and buckles her seat belt.
“Come on. Be a sport. I want to record this moment,” I tell her.
Frank starts the car and eases away from the curb.
“Why would you want to do that?” she asks impatiently.
“Because now that I’ve graduated college, I want to know what you wish for me and my future.”
Looking over her shoulder, she gives me her don’t you already know the answer to that smile. “All I’ve ever wanted for you is to be happy, and I know that you are.”
I flip off the power button and tuck the camera against my chest. Staring out the window, I watch the squat profile of my apartment building shrink and then disappear. I feel many things, but not one thing that comes close to happy.
*****
Five miles from Sorrento’s, I wake and stretch, curling my spine forward into the shape of a C.
Grandma Betty leans on the armrest. “You’ve had a wonderful nap.
Feel better?”
“I feel worse than roadkill.”
“Fresh air will cure that.” She rolls down the front window. Her permed curls, held in place by a sticky layer of Aqua Net, barely vibrate in the breeze. “This weather is divine. The May sunshine brings out the loveliest smells.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I grab the small handle attached to the ceiling and pull myself upright. “All I smell is cow shit.”
Frank’s laugh sounds like a bubble popping. “Me, too!”
“Come on, you two.” Smiling serenely, Grandma Betty inhales. “There’s more than that. Can’t you smell the warm asphalt and the blooming ninebark bushes over there?” She points to someone’s front yard. “And I also smell a hint of Scotts fertilizer, speaking of which” — she turns to Frank — “we should donate all our extra bags to the church. We can’t be bothered to pack those.”
“Sure, we can do that.”
A smile of pure pleasure erupts on her face. “Freshly cut grass. There’s nothing like it in the world.”
Whereas I’m more in tune with my sense of touch, Grandma Betty has canine-like ability when it comes to her sense of smell. If she ever goes blind, she’ll be able to navigate the world with her heightened olfactory sense. I roll down my window and stick my head into the fragrant wind. The force of the air snarls my long auburn tresses. Slinking back into the car, I pat Grandma Betty on the shoulder. “Nope, can’t smell anything but manure.”
“You’re only paying attention to the obvious. You have to learn to appreciate the subtleties. Take your time with it.” “Says the Zen-sniffing master,” I quip.
“Almost there!” Frank announces grandly.
Sorrento’s, all stucco and arches, looms in the distance. An Italian mecca of fine dining, it’s oddly located off a rural highway with cornfields as its only neighbors. Despite the bizarre setting, it’s the most popular restaurant in Savage and Clinton, the larger neighboring town. The parking lot is crammed full of cars. I recognize Justice’s truck and the Schaeffers’ family van.
As Frank pulls into the entrance that’s punctuated with a fountain, I spot Mikayla’s conspicuous yellow Corvette.
“Is that Mikayla’s car?”
“That it is,” Frank says with a grin.
Mikayla has been living in Chicago, working as a catalogue and runway model. According the Chicago modeling agent who snatched her up right after senior year while she’d been dining at Navy Pier with one of her boyfriends, she’s the perfect combination of Kate Moss and Niki Taylor. I’d always known that someday she’d be profiting off her long legs, translucent blue eyes, high cheekbones, and perfectly symmetrical face. I’d talked to her earlier in the week and she’d said her schedule was impossible and that she wouldn’t be able to make it.
“She wanted to surprise you,” says Grandma Betty.
I smile. “That’s her style.”
Mikayla doesn’t plan; she lives life in a pulling-a-rabbit-out-ofa-hat mode. She loves surprising me most of all. She never calls; she simply shows up at my door. And she’s always bringing me gifts. She’s given me: designer clothing, a Tiffany necklace, shoes with brand names I can’t even pronounce, stacks of Seventeen magazines and Vogue (her favorite), cosmetics (she always wanted me to try a new look), smutty romance books, mittens that were ten sizes too big but I wore anyway since she’d knitted them herself, a case of microwave popcorn (I’m addicted to the stuff), and sometimes, upon returning from a particularly lucrative photo shoot, hundred-dollar bills.
Her hectic schedule and jet-setting lifestyle usually mean thousands of miles separate us. But when I truly need her, she takes planes, buses, and cars to be with me. When I thought I was pregnant two years ago and scared out of my mind, I’d called her hotel in France, where she was working the runway for a fashion show, and told her that I was three weeks late.
“Have you told Justice?” she asked.
“Not yet. Before I say anything to him, I want to be sure.”
Twenty-four hours later, she was at my door, jet-lagged beyond all recognition, her sleek blond hair a frizzy mess.
Stunned, I couldn’t believe she’d flown across the world to be with me. “What are you doing here?”
She shrugged off her coat and kicked the door shut. “You needed me.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“I could hear it in your voice.”
“But your job!”
“Blood or not, you’re family. Family comes first. I told them it was an emergency and here I am.” She handed me a paper bag. Inside, was a gallon of triple chocolate ice cream and fifteen home pregnancy tests.
Before I’d recovered from the shock of her being there, she dragged me into the bathroom and opened the first test. She took my hand and pressed the plastic stick into my palm. “Pee on it and get it over with,” she commanded.
I pulled down my pants and sat on the toilet. My bladder didn’t cooperate. I couldn’t go through with it. “I know that you came all the way here, but I want to wait for Justice. I want him to be here when I do this.”
She nodded. “Fair enough. But we don’t have to wait for him to eat ice cream, do we?”
Together, we polished off the gallon of triple chocolate and fell into a sugar coma sleep, which is where Justice found us when he showed up later that night.
“How exciting is this? I can hardly wait.” Grandma Betty pulls her pick out of her purse and gives her curls a fluff. Lowering the vanity mirror, she swipes on more plum-colored lipstick and then carefully blots her lips with a tissue.
Scooting over, I appraise myself in the rearview mirror. As usual, I’m so far from pulled together, I look undone. After spending too much time outdoors running, my freckles have come out in full force against my milky white skin, and although I keep trying, no amount of makeup can subdue them. These freckles, along with my petite Tinker Bell face, make me look much younger than my twenty-one years. My best feature is my almond-shaped hazel eyes. They’re glorified mood rings and change colors several times a day, depending on my state of mind. Presently they are a matte, boring gray. I work my hands through my long hair and at the same time slip my feet into highheeled sandals. When I pull my skirt into place, I sigh in frustration; my knobby knees, ankles, and lower legs, despite a careful shave this morning, glisten with patches of fine blond hairs that I can never see when in the shower.
Frank parks the car. “Why don’t we bring in your new camera? I think it would be nice to video the evening, don’t you?” “A brilliant idea.” I pick it up off the seat.
“You have too much in your hands. Why don’t I carry it for you?” Frank asks solicitously.
His offer is polite but unnecessary; I hold nothing but my purse in one hand and the camera in the other.
“Yes, Sugar Cane. Give it to Frank.” Grandma Betty rolls her lips together as she tries to squelch a sly smile.
Something fishy is going on. There are quite a few cars here. Maybe it isn’t just the Schaeffers, Justice, and Mikayla. A surprise party, perhaps? I can play along.
“Okay.” I place the camera in Frank’s hands.
“I want to get the door for my ladies.” Frank hurries ahead and opens the door for us.
We step into the dimly lit restaurant that’s strung with thousands of tiny white lights. The air is so heavily infused with the aroma of marinara sauce, garlic, and freshly baked bread that I can already taste it on my tongue. Instrumental Italian music whispers from the wallmounted speakers. The atmosphere is drowsy and relaxed.
Resting her hands on my shoulders, Grandma Betty steers me toward the hostess table manned by a rough-looking Italian man with meatballs for cheeks.
“Good evening! How can I help you?” “Kallevik party,” Frank announces.
“Ah, yes! So, here at last, eh? And did you have a pleasant trip?” Meatball Cheeks gives me a curious smile.
Grandma Betty is about to say something, but I beat her to it. “Yes.
We smelled the most lovely cow manure on the way here!”
His curious smile is replaced with a jovial laugh that shakes his entire body. Frank, who appreciates my humor, laughs as well, but Grandma Betty isn’t as easy to win over.
She gives me an only you would say that sigh.
“Right this way!”
He leads us to a back room and nods in the direction of the closed double doors and then backs away. Frank and Grandma Betty hang behind me. I hear the beep of the camera as Frank pushes the record button.
Now, I’m sure that something is up. I’ll play along. Placing my hands on the door pulls, I form my mouth into a mystified smile — the perfect expression to wear when everyone jumps up and shouts, Surprise!
I open the doors. The room is empty except for him. He’s wearing a tuxedo. I have that pins-and-needles feeling all over. My heart beats faster and faster. A wicked trembling starts in my toes and works its way up until my hairy knees knock against each other.
He smiles, making those two dimples that I love so much appear.
“You’re finally here,” he says nervously.
I walk toward him only somewhat aware of Frank moving closer with the video camera.
He takes my hands in his and then gets down on one knee. He slips the diamond ring on my finger — my mother’s ring.
“The timing wasn’t right when we met, was it? And even though some things have gone wrong these past six years, so much more has gone right. You make me crazy. You make me sane. You make me laugh harder than anyone can. You make me want to be the best person that I can be. You are the love of my life, Cane. I don’t know how to live without you. I want you by my side for all of time. Will you marry me?”
The fairy-tale proposal. The one that I’ve always wanted from him.
It’s finally happened, I think, and then my next thought is, Not yet.
In the fraction of a second before I answer, I have a flashback.
I’m a feisty sixteen-year-old girl kneeling in the damp grass on a summer night, and Justice, twenty-one at the time, kneels in front of me. We’re separated by a span of years that requires separation and patience.
“I love you,” I say, knowing that it isn’t enough — not yet.
I splay my hand and press it over his heart. Through his crisp white dress shirt, I feel the rapid push of his heart against my palm. He moves his hand up to mine and gently takes hold of my wrist. Words aren’t exchanged. No promises are made or sealed with a kiss, but I swear we are both thinking, until death do us part.
Until death do us part. He’s offering me that very thing and waiting for an answer.
Before I know it, before I’m aware my mouth has opened and my lips are moving, I answer with a zealous, “Yes!”
When Justice sweeps me off my feet and spins me around, all my friends and family, who have snuck up behind Grandma Betty and Frank and have been standing in the doorway watching and waiting, spill into the room with whoops and hollers. My stomach does a rapid series of somersaults.
By the time he sets me on my feet and seals the deal with a leisurely, less-than-PG kiss — we’re talking French all the way — and Frank zooms in for the close-up and then pans the crowd, capturing raw reactions, I know that I’ve managed to hit another brick wall.
I should have given him a different answer.


C H A P T E R  T W O

“Love you,” he whispers in my ear.
My euphoria is sullied with trepidation, but I don’t want Justice to know that I’m anything but sure. I love him too much to hurt him, and I won’t ruin this for either of us. Haven’t we been working up to this point for years? I give him a glowing smile. “You look dashing.”
He grins. “For effect. I had to go all-out. It’s not like you get the chance to propose more than once.” “How long have you been planning this?”
“For months. And you like the ring?” he asks.
“How could I not? It’s my mother’s.”
“When I told Grandma Betty what I was planning on doing, she gave it to me. She said you should have it.”
I hold it aloft, admiring the sparkling square diamond set in gold. I smile up at him. “If only I would have known you were going to propose, I might have done a better job at shaving my legs.”
He runs a hand down my waist and presses himself close. “I love you — hairy legs and all.”
“Good, I’ll stop shaving immediately. I’m going native.”
“Oh! Isn’t this thrilling!” Grandma Betty kisses Justice and then me on the cheek. “She’s getting married!” she trills, loud enough so that the hundred guests in the room, who include all ten of the Schaeffers, employees from Schaeffer Dairy, Justice’s friends, and many of my friends as well, can hear her.
“Where’s your mom?” I ask him, scanning the room.
“She didn’t make it back from her trip in time,” he explains.
Sara, his mother and Samson’s sister, had taken a year off from her career as a nurse and for the past six months had been backpacking across Europe.
“When will she be home?”
He grins and raises his brows. “She said she’ll be sure to make it in time for the wedding.”
I’m about to ask him if he’s already set a date for our wedding when his buddies steal him from my side and drag him over to the bar to celebrate. He’s razzed for wearing a tuxedo, slapped on the back, punched in the shoulder, and handed a shot glass. He downs the glass of amber liquid. When he finishes, he looks across the room.
Our eyes meet. His expression, the way he smiles with only half his mouth, says, This is the way it was supposed to turn out.
Waiters bring in champagne, wine, and appetizers. Dozens of conversations start at once. I stealthily drink one, two, three flutes in a row, hoping to slow things down, but it has the opposite effect.
The phrase “speed of light” comes to mind as I’m bombarded by a series of well-wishers, including Jocelyn Ryanne, Samson’s seventeenyear-old daughter, a blue-eyed brunette with puffy, heart-shaped lips and round cheeks who tries to hide her acne by styling her long hair so that it falls all over her face. She throws her arms around me with gusto, causing me to lose my balance. Teetering on my heels, I nearly fall backward, but she grabs my hands and saves me. We laugh at the near mishap.
“I’ve missed you so much! Now that you’re finished with college we can spend so much time together. I’m just so happy you’re finally home and here to stay.” She lowers her voice and leans in to whisper in my ear. “Mom has been driving me crazy, and ever since I stayed with you last summer, she’s been on my case about how I shouldn’t put you on a pedestal. She’s been making nasty remarks about you and about how you’re a bad influence.” Jocelyn sneaks a look at her mother, Jenny Ryanne, who stands across the room with her arms crossed and a scowl lurking under the surface of her ribbon-like smile that could come untied at the slightest provocation.
Sighing, Jocelyn’s eyes skate back to me. “Seriously, I’m ready to move out for the summer. My mother is a neurotic head case. Worse than usual lately.”
I nod sympathetically. Jenny Ryanne, whom I had long ago nicknamed Jelly Roll because of her round figure and fondness for wearing glittery clothing, isn’t my biggest fan. She never has been. An unhappy, hostile woman with a squishy, marshmallow face and body to match, she isn’t satisfied with herself or anyone else. She has a talent for driving people up walls and keeping them there by honking her horn. “You can spend the night at my apartment as often as you like,”
I offer.
“Do you mean it?”
“It’s a two bedroom, and I plan on having you as a guest all the time.”
Her face lights up. “I’m going to be in the wedding, right?” she asks.
“Of course you are.”
“Because I’ll have lost the rest of the weight by then, I promise.”
“You’re beautiful just as you are.”
“Yeah. Well, maybe.” Jocelyn nibbles on her thumbnail. “It’s just that I want to be super-duper skinny like you.”
She’s always struggled with her weight, and two years ago, because of my influence and encouragement, she revamped her diet and started running and lifting weights. To date, she’s lost almost eighty pounds. Instead of celebrating this, she’s prone to criticizing herself. “Don’t try to be me. Be you. Be healthy, not skinny.”
“Yeah, okay,” she says without making eye contact and then wanders off to find something to drink.
I glance over and finally spot Mikayla. She’s standing by the bar with her arms wrapped loosely around Jeremy Schaffer, the eldest of the Schaeffer siblings. He’d been in our high school graduating class. From her animated expression and dynamic hand movements, I know she’s telling a story. Mikayla, gorgeous and charming, was born an enchantress, and all the men in the group, including Justice, have fallen under her spell. If I didn’t love her so much and trust her implicitly, I would be threatened by her dangerous talent. She looks up and winks at me, and then she continues making the men eat out of the palm of her hand.
Samson Schaeffer, a man as large as Paul Bunyan with a jawline reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger and cheeks that remind me of Theodore the Chipmunk, comes over and gives me a hug. “All grown up, graduated, and now you’re going to marry my nephew, the best guy
I know.”
“I’m one lucky girl.”
“And he’s one lucky guy,” he replies.
Grandma Betty and Frank, who are nearby, turn at the sound of Samson’s voice and come over to join in our conversation. After hugs and handshakes, Samson suggests having the wedding at the farm.
“Wouldn’t Jenny Ryanne love that!” I exclaim.
Though Samson knows his wife and I don’t get along and has even had to break up fights between us over the years, he misses the slap of sarcasm in my statement. Possibly it has something to do with the sixteen-ounce beer he holds in his hand. Grandma Betty, however, never misses a thing; she gives me the stink eye.
Frank agrees that the farm would be a prudent choice but that a destination wedding might be the way to go. “After all, we’ll be living in Florida. We could have the ceremony and the reception right on the beach. Nothing beats the Atlantic as a backdrop. Now that would be classy.”
 “I like both ideas! Either one would be spectacular,” gushes Grandma Betty. “If we have it on the farm we could do it this summer, but if it’s in Florida, it would have to be in the fall — it will have cooled off by then. What do you think, Sugar Cane? Which option sounds better to you?”
A rolling, bubbly kind of laugh comes out of my mouth. I don’t know what to say because I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that my enthusiastic yes may have been a bit premature.
Thankfully, Mikayla chooses that moment to crash our small group. She throws her arms around me.
When she releases me, she flaunts her million-dollar smile, or in her case, her three-thousand-dollar smile, since that’s her average earning for a photo shoot.
“Just like that you’re getting married,” she says. “We’ve all been waiting for this day.” 
“I bet you knew it was coming, didn’t you?”
“Since I have frequent lunch dates with your fiancĂ©, yes, I knew it was coming.”
Justice oversees the financial growth and management division of the Schaeffer Dairy business, and although his office is at the company headquarters in Clinton, he frequents Chicago to meet with investors and financial strategists. He occasionally meets up with Mikayla to have lunch. “You couldn’t have told me?”
“And spoil the fun? I wouldn’t do that to you.”
Something about the way she says this makes my scalp tingle. With a deft hand, she snatches two glasses of wine from a waiter’s tray and hands me one.
“I’m trying not to have anything to drink.”
She guffaws. “Please. Don’t bother playing the role of Saint Cane. You can’t get anything past me.” She raises her brow and narrows her eyes knowingly. “You’ve fallen off the sobriety train already. I saw you slam three flutes of champagne.”
“Think anyone else did?”
“Obviously not Grandma Betty or you would have heard about it.”
“I just don’t want to have too much to drink tonight.”
“You might want to rethink that. It’s going to be a long night.” Her eyes wander over to the bar, and she smiles at Justice before looking back to me. She takes a long draught of wine, pulls me close, and murmurs in my ear, “Wait until you see what’s going to happen next.”
“What do you mean happen next? What else could there possibly be?”
As soon as the question’s out of my mouth, Frank points the video camera at Mikayla and me.
“Just wait and see,” she says before turning her face toward the camera and giving away one of her three-thousand-dollar smiles for free.
*****
While at my college apartment this afternoon I had pondered the idea of a blindfold. With my eyes covered, I figured I wouldn’t have to watch life whizzing by me.
As luck would have it, I don’t have to blindfold myself. Justice has done it for me. Before we left the restaurant, he tied a black bandana around my eyes and set me in his truck, and now we’re driving to an undisclosed location.
“You should have left your tux on. It was getting me hot and bothered.” As the party was winding down, he’d changed into jeans, a flannel shirt, and work boots.
“Now you tell me?” He laughs. “A tux isn’t that practical for where we’re headed.”
“Can you be more specific?”
He laughs. “You’re not getting a thing out of me. It’s a surprise.”
“I’ve had enough surprises tonight. Speaking of which, I was surprised not to see Caprice at the party.”
“I sent her an invitation but never heard back.”
“Huh. That’s weird. Did you try calling her?”
“No, I guess I should have, but I’ve had a lot on my mind lately.” Join the club.
The blindfold thing is starting to freak me out. Having no vision is terrifying. All motion and no orientation. I have the disconcerting sense of rocketing violently through the night. “Can I take this thing off?”
“You’re so impatient. We’re almost there. Promise.”
“That’s what you said ten minutes ago. I’ve got the spins, and this thing isn’t helping.” I tug at the outer edges of the bandana. “I swear I’m going to blow chunks all over the dashboard.”
“Make sure to stick your head out the window.”
“I would if I knew where the window was.”
“It’s to your right, and you aren’t that drunk and disoriented.”
“Did you see me try to walk to the car? It wasn’t so much in a line as in a zigzag.” For effect, I moan loudly. “Seriously. I’m going to puke.”
“Don’t be such a drama queen.” He laughs. “Two minutes, and we’ll be there.”
“Why am I blindfolded?”
“Because it’s suspenseful and fun.” I hear him push a button. The cassette tape ejects.
“No more Bon Jovi. I’m so over that album,” I tell him.
“Radio, then?” He turns to a pop rock station out of Chicago, and Gwen Stefani sings, “I really feel I’m losing my best friend, I can’t believe this could be the end.”
In a dreadful falsetto, Justice sings along, and I join in, more so to drown out the sound of his voice than to entertain myself.
When it finishes, I turn in his direction and give him an evil smile.
“Are you sure you’re not going to join the church choir with Samson?”
“You know,” he muses. “I like you blindfolded.”
“Seeing as how half my face is covered, I’m not sure I should take that as a compliment. Are you implying that I have a gross face and you like it better when it’s hidden?”
“I love your gross face.”
“Now that I think about it” — I swing my head in his direction —
“you look a whole lot better with this thing on.”
The truck comes to a stop. I hear the click of his seat belt being released, and then he shuts off the ignition. He reaches across me and unbuckles my seat belt.
He slides his hand up my leg and between my thighs, working his way up farther. The lack of vision heightens every sensation.
“I would like to do so many things to you right now.” His whisper has the rumble of gravel and the sensation of a feather.
I shiver. “You have my permission to do every one of those things.
And the blindfold? I changed my mind. I like it — leave it on.”
“Has to be later, because we have an audience.”
“An audience? Why?” I reach up to rip off the black bandana that he tied around my head twenty minutes ago, but he grabs my hands and pins them to my sides.
“Hey! Come on! I want to see what’s going on. What audience are you talking about? What do you have planned?”
“Stay put.” The door groans and squeaks as he opens it. He jumps out of the vehicle, slams his door shut, causing me to startle, and comes around to the passenger side.
When he opens the door, I reach out and feel the hard line of his shoulders. “Are you backward?” I ask.
“Climb on my back.”
“A piggyback ride?”
“Hop on.”
I climb onto his back. He walks forward, and then I feel the angle shift as he begins ascending a hill. I start to slide, and he tightens his hold under my butt.
I cling to him. “This is kind of fun, but I feel like a preschooler.”
“The best part of this situation? Easy access. I like the fact that you’re wearing a skirt right now.” He pinches one of my butt cheeks.
I squeal and squirm, and he laughs, tightening his grip on me.
“Put me down!” I yelp.
“I would, but you said you couldn’t walk in a straight line.”
“She can’t! Her blood alcohol level is way past the legal limit.”
Mikayla’s here? I turn my head toward the sound of her voice. “Like your level is below the limit?” I shout in her direction.
Her drunken laughter rings through the night. I hear her running over to us. “I never said it was. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could short out a breathalyzer machine right now.”
“You told me that Jeremy was giving you a ride back to the hotel.”
“He did. We stopped there so I could change clothes,” she responds. “Isn’t that that right, Jeremy?”
There’s something cozy about the way she says Jeremy’s name. I wonder what else they did at the hotel. Could Jeremy Schaeffer be her next potential victim? Mikayla shoots cupid arrows for fun, toys with her impaled victims, and when she has them right where she wants them, she yanks out the arrow along with their heart.
Justice walks ten more feet.
“You’ll tell me what’s going on, won’t you?” I direct my question at Mikayla.
“Even if I told you, you wouldn’t believe it. Hell, I don’t believe it.
You’ve got to see this for yourself.”
Although I can’t see anything through the fabric, not even a faint shadow or outline, I sense a crowd around me and beyond me.
There’s an eruption of tittering, punctuated by howls of laughter. Next to me, the metallic pop of a can being opened and the telltale fizz of carbonation. In the distance, the smell of smoke and the sound of a crackling fire set against the backdrop of hushed conversations.
Justice carries me farther. By the cautious way he maneuvers I know that he’s making his way through a maze of trees. A low-hanging branch sweeps across my face. Finally, he sets me down.
“Ready for this?” His voice vibrates with excitement.
He unties the bandana. It rolls down the front of my chest and falls to the ground. My vision adjusts gradually.
Justice takes my hand in his. “What do you think?”
I see Frank and Grandma Betty first. Frank stands directly in front of me and has the video camera pointed at my face; Grandma Betty stands at his side, cheeks puffed up and wearing a gigantic smile. The entire crowd from Sorrento’s and at least twenty more additional friends and acquaintances stand around the wooded area watching me and waiting for a reaction.
Flustered by the attention and unsure of exactly what I’m supposed to react to, I paste a fake smile on my face and turn toward Justice. “An engagement party?”
“Take a closer look,” encourages Frank from behind the lens. The camera swivels away from me. I follow the movement.
My gaze lands on a large, rectangular concrete hole and a flat concrete slab on the side. I’m not slow on the uptake; I’m at a dead stop. Is this a gift or something?
Seeing my perplexed expression, Justice explains. “Remember when we were in Chicago last summer, near the lake? We were driving through this neighborhood, and you made me stop because you saw that two-story Craftsman house with the wide front porch. You stood on the sidewalk in front of it, and I took your picture. You told me that you wanted to build that exact house someday. I’m building it for you, for us. This is our house.”
Stupefied, I shake my head. My hands find their way to my mouth. Reeling from shock, I take a giant step backward. Fall back, fall back, my mind screams. Retreat! Run for the hills! “Our house?” I ask.
“No walls yet, only the foundation. But with Samson’s help it will be finished by late summer, early fall.”
I spot the black bandana lying on the trodden grass; it’s within reach. I want to pluck it from the ground and tie it back into place. Instead, I lunge for Justice’s arms. A loud and bizarre, garbled sound escapes my lips. I’m not sure if it has the ring of horror or delight, but it lights the crowd’s fuse and causes them to explode with excitement. They whistle and cheer as they had done earlier in the evening.
My suction cup embrace is more about necessity than affection. Maybe I succeeded in pulling the wool over the crowd’s eyes, but I can’t fool Justice. His radar, finely tuned to my moods and actions, detects trouble.
“What’s wrong? You don’t love it?” he whispers the questions in my ear.
My sinus cavities thicken with snot, and my eyes burn. Tears are at the ready. I relax my hold on him. “I don’t even know what to say.”
“Cane, what’s —”
Before he can complete his sentence, Mikayla ambushes us. She snakes her arms around my waist and rips me away from Justice. She jumps up and down in excitement. “Ha! Can you believe it!”
“Speech! Speech! Speech!” someone starts to chant. Others join in.
Grandma Betty smiles ferociously and sidles up to me. I know by the way she’s rapidly blinking and puckering her lips that she’s seconds away from blubbering. I could say the same for myself.
“Oh honey, what do you think? Isn’t this something?” she marvels.
Craving my reaction, the crowd gradually falls silent.
Justice is craving a reaction as well. His eyes find mine, and in that brief look I can’t hide what I’ve been feeling all night. I’m not ready. Maybe it isn’t too soon, it has been six years after all, but it’s too much. My visible panic prompts him to push his lips together in a smile that hints at disappointment.
I hear the electronic whirring of the camera as it zooms in for a close-up.
“Say something already,” Mikayla murmurs insistently in my ear and then shoves me.
I lurch forward, stumble, and then steady myself. I’m on display
in front of everyone I know and many others I don’t. A fire starts on the top of my chest and works its way up, leaving a blazing trail. I’m mortified not by what’s happening at this moment in time, but rather by my reaction to it all. Where, oh where are my gratefulness and my dignity? Where, oh where could they have gone?
Clearing my throat, I run one hand down the side of my long hair, resisting the urge to braid, a nervous gesture that would give me away to all those who loved me. I smile, but my mouth quivers like barely set gelatin. I hate making spontaneous speeches, especially under duress.
In my peripheral vision, I see Justice take a promising step toward me. Will he swoop in and rescue me from this awkward situation? Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a chance to intervene, because Jelly Roll, who stands not ten feet behind the video camera, crosses her arms and tips her generous body forward. “Come on now, what do you have to say for yourself?”
Her tone may be jovial, but her body language is overtly confrontational. I’m not going to let her rattle me.
“I’m the luckiest girl in the world. Thank you all so much for coming tonight.”
A round of applause ensues, and just like that I’m off the hook. Now that I’ve finally spoken, everyone feels free to indulge their hedonistic party desires. The crowd splits apart, and things get exponentially louder. Someone cranks up the music. Conversational volume rises. Sharp laughter punctures the night.
“That about sums it up, ladies and gentlemen!” Satisfied with his handy-dandy camera work, Frank smiles and snaps the lens cap back into place.
He hands the camera back to me. “Why don’t you hold on to this, Cane. I’m going to go find Samson so I can talk to him about the house!
Wish I could be around for this project from start to finish.” Grandma Betty rushes over and hugs me.
“Did you know about this?” I ask her.
“Not at all! I kind of wondered why Justice would be having a party out in the middle of the woods. Samson filled us in when we got here. This is simply over the top, isn’t it? Honey, it does my heart a world of good to know that I’m leaving you in such good hands. Justice will take such good care of you — he has already been doing that for years.”
After planting a kiss on my cheek, she leaves me to go find Frank and Samson.
With no idea as to where Justice has gone to, I look around, feeling disastrously confused about everything. Mikayla comes over and snatches the camera away from me. “I’m your official videographer for the night. I’m going to document this whole evening for you so that in sixty years you can show everyone at the nursing home the video of your engagement party.”
Tucking the camera under one arm, she sets her empty beer can on the ground and promptly squashes it with her foot, kicking it to the side. Squinting thoughtfully at me, she asks, “What’s with you?”
“Nothing is with me.”
“You’re freaked out. Your mouth is practically hanging open, and your eyes are all glazed over.”
“It’s a lot to take in. That’s all.”
“You can’t tell me you didn’t know this was coming. This is what you’ve always wanted and now you have it. Well, aside from the house thing, which is a little insane. And this party? Did you see how many people are here? There are so many kids from our graduating class it’s like a flipping high school reunion.” She pries off the lens cap, hits the record button, and sashays away, already garnering the attention of every male within a thirty-foot radius.
Justice magically reappears; I wrap my arms around his waist and lean my head against his chest. I breathe in his spicy cologne and the familiar smell of his skin, recently burned by the sun. So deep is my exhaustion that if I close my eyes, I would be asleep in an instant.
I snuggle closer to him. “I’m not sure how I can thank you for what you’ve done for me tonight. The engagement, the party, the house.” “I can think of some ways,” he says flirtatiously.
I glance up at him. “No way do I deserve this kind of treatment.”
“You deserve the world, and I want to give it to you.”
I frown and give a quick, nervous shake of my head. I don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve him.
“What’s going on with you tonight?” he whispers in my ear. “You aren’t yourself.”
“Who am I then?”
“Come on. Tell me what’s wrong so I can fix it.”
For once, I’m going to think things through instead of giving him a knee-jerk reaction that would leave both of us down for the count. As an almost twenty-two-year-old woman, I need to start checking myself, because I have a proven track record of wrecking myself.
For instance, freshman year of college I told off the arrogant and pedantic classic American literature professor, Dr. Heath, after he bullied a shy classmate of mine, reducing her to tears when she’d answered one his questions incorrectly.
Placing my hand on the poor girl’s shoulder, I’d stood up, stared down Heath, and with as much eloquence as I could muster said, “You’re a dickless, chauvinistic Neanderthal who berates others to hide your own idiocy.”
The lecture hall applauded me; Dr. Heath ejected me. Turns out verbally abusing a professor, no matter how warranted, is frowned upon. After a stern talking-to from the English department, I received an incomplete in the class. Dr. Heath received tenure the next semester. Life is never logical and rarely fair.
Though I’m not very logical either. One November Saturday night, sophomore year of college, I couldn’t sleep and decided that going for a run at one thirty in the morning around DeKalb  was a brilliant idea. I narrowly avoided being mugged by a thug who’d been lurking in the shadows. He’d chased me two blocks and then vanished when I ducked into a gas station and called Caprice from the pay phone. She was furious, but not as furious as Justice would have been had I told him.
I also wreck myself when it comes to wagers. I’m a sucker for any phrase that begins with I bet you can’t. As soon as someone tells me I can’t, I’m not resting until I prove that I can. When Mikayla mentioned that it was physically impossible to stay awake for forty-eight hours straight, I made it my mission to do just that. Cut to thirty-six hours in, when I ended up in the emergency room because my heart became a rocket ship after ingesting too many caffeine pills.
Four months after my caffeine overdose, my heart nearly stopped again when, without thinking, I signed up for the Polar Bear Plunge fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Eighteen degrees outside, and I thought it would be a great idea to cannonball into Lake Michigan. Twice. Not such a great idea, according to the EMT who had to cut off my swimsuit and wrap me in a warming blanket so that I didn’t die from hypothermia.  
The list goes on.
I speak before I think and act before I’m sure that’s what I want to do or am able to do. More than once, I’ve relied on level-headed, capable Justice to fix things, like the time he had to play lifeguard and pull me into the boat after I nearly drowned while attempting to swim across Lake Geneva in Wisconsin on a day when the water was so choppy it felt like I was getting punched in the face every time I tried to move forward.
Tonight, I’m going to turn over a new leaf and think things through. Instead of spilling my guts, which would only prompt Justice to get out the cleaning supplies, I calmly and sweetly ask him to show me our house.
He walks me around the foundation, circling to the rear where the walkout basement will exit. We walk inside the structure. He gestures enthusiastically, showing me the location of the living room, kitchen, office, and bedrooms. He explains how the second floor will be supported and where the staircases will be located. He also wants a few hidden passageways — or doors disguised as bookcases — to make things interesting.
Frank, Samson, Jelly Roll, and Grandma Betty soon join us. Frank and Samson discuss the best local electricians and plumbers to hire and where to get decent flooring and fixtures for a bargain price. Grandma Betty, who adores decorating and selecting wall colors, is ready to run home and get her Sherwin-Williams fan deck of paint colors.
Everyone in the group is enthusiastic and positive, with the exception of Jelly Roll, who loves to cast a pall over everything.
“You have some pretty high-end finishes planned. Cedar shakes as siding! Do you know what the upkeep on something like that will be? Constant sealing every year, and if you pay someone else to do it, you better believe you’ll be paying top dollar. Not to mention it will be a losing battle. The sap from these trees will ruin it all. And that slate you have planned for the walkway and porch? What an expensive waste. Totally unnecessary investment. Trust me, that will be chipping and flaking off so fast you’ll be left with nothing after a few years.”
Samson tries to minimize his wife’s negativity. “It will all work out fine in the end. Justice knows what he’s doing, and we can help with some of the upkeep.”
Yanking the hem of her sparkly, bedazzled shirt down over her gut, she screws up her nose. “We have enough going on at the farm and business; we can’t be running over here helping out. They’ll have to learn how to handle it on their own. Constant headaches are guaranteed, and they are so young, especially you, Cane. You’ll be in way over your head.” She sneaks a look at me and covers up her stinging insult with a ringing laugh.
Jelly Roll cheers for herself to succeed and all others to fail, but she cheers the loudest for my failure. I’m about to make a witty retort, something to the effect that the only thing giving me a headache is her, when Grandma Betty says, “I have faith in them. They’ll handle it effortlessly! These are two of the smartest kids I know.”
She looks at Justice. “You can bet we’ll be coming up to visit all the time! Especially during the summer months when Florida is too hot to handle.”
Frank laughs and gives Justice a jolly slap on the back in a consoling way. “Hope there’s a mother-in-law suite in those plans?”
“Finished walk-out basement, complete with a bedroom and attached bath. You’re welcome to visit whenever you like.”
“Be careful what you say, young man.” Frank grins. “You might come to regret that invite.”
“He won’t regret it one bit!” Grandma Betty places her hand over her heart. “I promise to keep my visits short and sweet, though they might be frequent.”
Shortly after the tour, Grandma Betty and Frank say their goodbyes. After they’ve gone, Justice and I stand alone by the foundation. He talks in detail about the finishes: carpet versus hardwood floors, tile versus laminate, gold fixtures versus antique bronze fixtures. When he inquires about what I want, I throw my two cents in but don’t offer anything more than that. Talk about role reversal. Usually I’m the one who can’t shut up.
I gaze down in the vast, smooth square that will soon be sectioned off with wood and drywall.
“It’s huge,” I remark. I feel a squeezing tightness in my chest, a swell of anxiety that leaves me shaky. I ease myself onto the ground and dangle my legs over the ledge of concrete.
“Oh, come on, it’s not that big.”
“If four thousand square feet isn’t huge, then I guess we have different definitions of big. It could house a family of elephants.”
“How about we keep it simple and get a dog, maybe a chocolate lab or golden retriever.”
“Yes, but an elephant is infinitely more interesting, a total conversation starter.”
He sits down next to me. “We’ll never have to move. That’s the point. No starter home.”
There’s a doughy lump in my throat that’s expanding. I try to swallow it. “I know, but five bedrooms?
“For our three kids and one extra for guests.”
A diamond ring, a house, a lab, and now kids? Sure, we’ve talked about all of this before: the house, dog, kids, and even the guest bedroom. We’ve had six years to hash out the details of what we want our life to be like and have discussed hot button issues like religion, politics, finances, and even sex. Given that we’re both fairly right-wing Christians with a similar upbringing who believe a penny saved is a penny earned and view family, love, and loyalty as the bedrock of a fulfilling existence, we’ve never had a major disagreement. And any minor disagreements were swept away by communication and hot sex.
That’s not to say we’re two peas in a pod. Our personalities and proclivities are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Tranquil Justice, whose feathers are never ruffled, appreciates simplicity from the food he eats (plain vanilla ice cream and no condiments ever), to the way he dresses (he owns five pairs of the same Levi’s and twelve different colors of the same Gap T-shirt), to the way he interacts with others. He shies away from confrontation at all costs, keeps his opinions to himself unless goaded and provoked, usually by me, and errs on the side of practicality. An athlete at heart, he loves to run, jump, and play ball. Even when he’s not exercising he has a baseball or basketball in his hands or nearby. However, he also has the patience to sit perfectly still for long periods of time, like when he fishes with Jeremy for eight hours straight.
I, on the other hand, am more like a hurricane in both temperament and in the way I approach life. The mere thought of idleness, or being trapped on a boat staring into a calm lake for hours with a pole in my hand, makes my skin crawl. My feathers are usually sticking straight up in the air, stuck on backward, or sometimes falling out. I don’t own one thing from the Gap. I frequent secondhand and vintage stores and go for a bohemian look, buying fun and colorful clothing that may or may not match. My favorite outfit, a flowing, cotton, sequined skirt and tight navy polka-dot shirt, was purchased out of a trunk in Venice Beach, California. I prefer messy food (never plain vanilla, the more flavors and condiments the better), throw a welcome mat down when it comes to confrontation, and relish my gigantic soap box.
Our relationship is a delightful balance of harmony and passion. We’re alike in the ways that matter and different enough to create a spark and keep us both on our toes. Obviously, we want the same things out of our relationship and life. But Justice is sprinting toward our future, and I’m not sure I’m ready to start the race.
Those feathers of mine are falling out right now. “Three kids, as in right now?
“Mrs. Justice Price, I want to have our family young so we can enjoy it. My goal is to get you barefoot and pregnant as soon as possible.”
I blanch at his statement. Mrs. Justice Price? That sounds like a fifty-year-old woman. I’m twenty-one! And what if I want to keep my name?
“Are you serious?” I ask breathlessly. “Because I know we’ve talked about it but-”
“Not right this second. Maybe a year or so after the wedding.”
Again, we’ve talked about this timeline, and I remember thinking it would be a fantastic idea. We both agreed the earlier the better, but the earlier is almost here. Now I’m thinking the later the better might make more sense. In less than two years I could be pregnant? A mother? The notion that I will have to be responsible for someone else, an infant, strikes me as ludicrous. I can’t take care of a baby! I can barely take care of myself.
“Um, what about the lease I’m supposed to sign?”
“We’ll sign a six-month lease instead of a year. We’ll still need somewhere to stay while this place is being built.”
“Yeah, okay.” I don’t want a new apartment or a fancy dream house. What I want right now is to return to my college apartment bedroom with the apple-green walls that are riddled with holes, patches, and memories. I long for another month, another semester, another year. Maybe I can get my graduate degree, maybe I can put my nose in a book and leave it there for a while and worry about research papers, studying, and exams as opposed to wedding reception venues, cabinet and tile selections for the house, and bouncing babies that are going to spring from my womb. The piece of dough in my windpipe must have a load of yeast in it, because it’s narrowing my airway. I push my hand against my throat trying to offset the pressure. “This is . . .” I can’t finish the sentence.
He turns and looks at me. “It’s what?”
I let all the air out of my lungs and tentatively try on a smile. “Unbelievable,” I respond, masking my horror with amazement. I can’t say much more without opening a can of worms, and for tonight, even though they are squiggling like mad trying to get out, I’m going to hold the lid down tightly.
“Cane.”
The way he says my name is an invitation to speak. I look over at him. He knows something is up. I can dump my load of insecurities and uncertainties later, but I’m not about to bury either of us tonight.
Get a grip, Cane.
Scrambling to my feet, I dust off the back of my skirt. “We’re being rude. We’ve been ignoring our friends for the last hour.”
He gives me a quizzical look as I hold out my hand to him and help him up.
We both look down at the expanse of the foundation one last time and then at each other. Hand in hand, we walk toward the bonfire. As we make our way closer to the circle of our friends, Jocelyn approaches holding my video camera aloft.
“Hey guys! Hope you don’t mind, Cane, but Mikayla gave the camera to me. She said she was having a hard time dual tasking.”
I glance over at Mikayla. She’s doing a silly kind of lap dance for Jeremy Schaeffer, who’s sitting on a lawn chair looking immensely pleased by her attention. I turn back toward Jocelyn. “Meaning she couldn’t hold her beer, dance for your brother, and also wield a camera at the same time.”
“Bingo,” she says laughing. “I’m going to keep recording unless you want it back.”
“Go ahead and have fun with it. You can’t be catching anything that interesting.”
She waggles her brows and looks around. Many of our friends have coupled up. New romances are blossoming all over the place.
“You would be surprised,” she says.
“I’m going to go get a beer,” announces Justice. “Want anything?” he asks me.
“I’m good.”
He meanders off toward his friends and the row of coolers. I mill about for the next hour or so, trying to talk to everyone. When I tire of mingling, I sit down on a large blanket near the fire. Mikayla, who spies me by myself, abandons her position near Jeremy and saunters over.
Taking a swig of beer, she belches loudly. Only Mikayla can make bodily functions sexy. A few of the guys look over and give her a thumbs-up. Holding one hand out to the side, she bows and then sits down across from me.
“You and Jeremy should get a room.”
“Haven’t decided yet, but he’s hot.”
I shiver. “Yuck. I’ve known him so long — I see him as a brother.”
“I don’t.”
“Clearly. It was a lovely lap dance. Where did you learn those moves?”
“I’ve been to a few strip clubs in Chicago, a few in Vegas. Even one in Paris. I’ve picked up some skills.” She takes another drink of beer.
“What’s Justice’s problem?”
“He doesn’t have a problem.”
“It looks like he swallowed a screwdriver.” She glances at him over her shoulder. “You guys sat by yourself for an awfully long time. What were you talking about?”
There’s a frantic edge to her question that doesn’t jive with her drunkenness. “Countertops, paint colors, tile versus hardwood floors, and then of course the three or four babies I will birth. Apparently he wants to place a domestic goddess crown on my head and host a coronation.”
She looks furtively in his direction and leans closer. Her eyes, glassy from her inebriated state, have a hard time focusing on me. “And that’s it, right?”
What is she getting at? Her skittish tone sets off a warning bell inside my head. Is there something else coming? What more could he possibly give me? A new car? A trip around the world? “We also talked about retirement funds and where our kids are going to go to college. In case you’re wondering, they’ll all be getting into Harvard on full scholarship.”
She howls with laughter. “Retirement funds? Knowing your fanaticism with saving money that doesn’t surprise me.”
“I thought the Harvard thing was funnier.”
“No, the retirement thing is, because knowing you, you probably did discuss this. I know what a tight wad you are. I bet you and Justice have already hired a financial planner.”
No financial planner yet, but I do have a strong IRA and retirement account started. I love getting the statements and watching the numbers multiply. Money doesn’t grow on trees, but it does on paper. Still, I’m not going to give her the satisfaction of admitting that I’m already preparing for my golden years.
My time alone with Mikayla is short-lived, because she’s hotter than the fire. Like moths to a flame, the men fly closer. Jeremy ambles over and sits next to her, and others hang around the periphery of the blanket, trying to act slick and cool and interesting all at once. All the machismo makes me want to gag.
I inch over to make room for three guys who take up residence next to her. When I look up, I happen to catch Justice’s eye. He’s standing on the opposite side of the fire chatting it up with one of his college buddies, and I nod slightly with my head toward Mikayla and her evergrowing harem of men as if to say, would you get a load of this?
I’m about to let Mikayla have the group all to herself and go over to Justice when she yelps with delight. She jumps up and launches herself at Mike Branzel, throwing her arms and legs around him.
My heart shoots up into my throat, and I nearly choke on it. The last time I saw the jerk was at the end of my sophomore year when he graduated and left for Kentucky to attend college. He knows the secret I’ve been keeping from Mikayla for years. And I know this because of what he said to me six years ago when he confronted me in the hallway right after Mikayla’s mom, Annette, gave birth to her baby boy. “I appreciate a girl who knows how to keep her mouth shut. Let’s make sure it stays that way,” he said.
What is he doing here?
Mikayla puckers up and kisses every part of Mike’s face. Clearly reveling in this kind of greeting, he’s smiling.
“How’s my cover girl doin’?” he asks.
Apparently, a degree isn’t the only thing he picked up in Kentucky. What an annoying drawl.
“Mikey — what in the hell are you doing here? It’s been ages and ages! I haven’t seen you since your graduation party!” she says.
“I’m finally back, honey. Figured six years was way too long to be away. Had to come back to Savage, Ill-I-No-Is to see how ya’ll was doin’!”
He grins as she unwinds herself from his body and slides back to the ground. “And it looks like you’re doin’ mighty fine, sweetheart. Heard through the grapevine that this party was going on and figured I’d drop on by if that’s okay with you, Cane.”
I give him a snappy smile. For obvious reasons, I do mind. “The jury’s still out.”
“Heard you’re getting married.”
I hold up my hand and showed him the ring. “This is my engagement party.”
“You knocked up or something?”
I point to my concave stomach. “Observant, aren’t you? Eight months along.”
“You always were a sassy thing.”
“Funny, but I don’t remember you talking to me at all in high school. So, um, I’m trying to figure out why you’re here exactly?”
He feigns a wounded look. “I’m not welcome?”
“Actually, it would be great if you —”
“It’s so nice of you to drop by,” Mikayla interrupts. She shoots me a how-can-you-be-so-rude look and loops her arm through Mike’s.
Apparently, she’s decided that Jeremy is out and instead she’ll be shooting arrows at Mikey tonight.
“Why don’t we go get something cold to drink,” suggests Mikayla.
“I am mighty thirsty,” Mike responds.
“Then why don’t you go get yourself a mighty beer, Mikey.”
Mike and Mikayla ignore my comment and waltz off like long-lost lovers. In the meantime, Justice meanders over.
“Who was that?”
Mike Branzel. You need to ask him to leave.”
“Why?”
“You don’t remember who he is and what he said to me?” “No clue,” he remarks.
Incredulous, I scowl. “You honestly don’t remember that name?”
“No bells are going off.”
I grab on to his arm and whisper frantically into his ear. “He’s two years older than me — a senior when we were sophomores, and he happened to be one of Nate’s closest friends. Remember? He cornered me after Annette had the baby and told me to keep my mouth shut. He knows about Nate and Annette.”
“So what if he does?”
I look at him like’s he lost his mind. How could he be so dense! “What if Mikayla brings Nate’s name up? What if she asks Mike about him? What then?”
He shrugs. “You’re making this out to be much worse than it is. She’s not going to ask about Nate. That was high school stuff. Don’t worry. It will be fine.”
“Maybe,” I concede, though I’m not entirely convinced.
He sits and lounges on the blanket. “Come sit next to me.”
I sit and someone hands me a beer. It tastes bitter and tangy, and my stomach doesn’t want any more fizz than it already has. I’m too keyed up about Mike being here. I offer it to Justice.
“Come on, ask the guy to leave. Pretty, pretty please?” I wheedle.
Justice furrows his brow. “Why?”
“For obvious reasons, and because he wasn’t invited and because I don’t want him here,” I say petulantly, slipping into I’m a baby mode. “I would do it, but Mikayla would be pissed.”
“I can’t just tell the guy to get lost.”
“Oh yes, you can. I have this feeling he’s going to cause trouble.” Frankly, it isn’t really Mike that’s the problem — it’s his association with Nate, Mikayla’s former high school boyfriend, that makes him a dangerous addition to this party.
Nate had been the most popular boy in school, the handsome, rich, Mustang-driving quarterback with reptilian green eyes. He had done so many evil and twisted things back when we were in high school that there was enough material for at least a week’s worth of Jerry Springer episodes. Unfortunately, Mikayla had worshiped Nate. They had dated for a year or more, but what she hadn’t known, and would never know if I could help it, was that he had been having sex with her mother. I was the one who had found out about the sordid affair and confronted Annette, but the damage had already been done. A little less than nine months later, she had given birth to a baby boy with reptilian green eyes.
Rumor was that an out-of-town construction worker that frequented Savage Suds, the local bar and grill, had knocked her up. Annette, knowing in this case the truth was more dangerous than fiction, corroborated this gossip, divorced her husband, and hightailed it to California shortly after the baby was born and before anyone had a chance to wonder why her baby boy had the same eyes as the high school’s star quarterback.
Also in self-preservation mode, Nate kept his mouth shut about the ordeal. He told only one person, his football teammate and best friend, Mike Branzel.
I’ve been carrying this grenade of a secret around for years and by some miracle have managed to keep the safety pin securely in place even though the subject has come up on more than one occasion, including this past fall when she’d visited.
“Please, ask him to leave, pretty please,” I implore in a sugarcoated, suggestive voice that implies he’ll get a cherry on top and more.
Just as I make my request, Mikayla and Mike reappear. And, Justice, being the consummate, non-confrontational gentleman that he is, rises and introduces himself. Then, to top it off, he says, “Why don’t you have a seat.”
An introduction and an invite when I want him to boot Mikey’s ass out of the party? I shoot him an I’m-going-to-strangle-you look, and he smiles innocently at me, dimples popping and goodwill radiating. Sometimes, I wish he were a little meaner, a little rougher around the edges, a little more willing to see the bad in people and not always the good. He shrugs his shoulders.
Come on, he doesn’t seem like that bad of a guy, his face says.
Only, Mike is that bad of a guy. He was best friends with Nate, which says more than enough about his character.
Mike, who stands behind Mikayla, accepts Justice’s invitation. “Don’t mind if I do.”
Mike then bear-hugs Mikayla, picking her up clear off the ground; and then as a unit, they sit down on the blanket.
I roll my eyes. Obviously, Mike’s here to stay. Spectacular. And to top things off, Justice, who thinks this is no big deal, has wandered off with Jeremy to get a beer. With the way their heads are pressed together, I know they’re talking dairy business per usual.
Mikayla, who isn’t thrilled with being confined to Mike’s lap, wiggles her way free. When he reaches out with his meaty football player hand to grab her butt, she reacts with catlike swiftness, swatting him away.
“Play nice, Mikey,” she warns flirtatiously, looking over her shoulder.
She crawls over next to me, so that we now we’re both facing the enemy.
“I play, ma’am, but I’m rarely nice.” He makes a biting motion, his teeth clinking together.
Unimpressed, Mikayla coolly regards her manicured nails for a moment before finally saying, “I seem to remember that. You and Nate had a lot in common.”
Oh no, this is not a safe direction. Dangerous, slippery slopes ahead.
Mike guffaws shrilly. “Not too much in common. Don’t go puttin’ me in the same category as him.”
Jocelyn, who stands on the opposite side of the fire, shouts, “Hey, Cane, I’m getting some great footage!”
Distracted, I smile and wave. “Awesome,” I yell back, missing some comment that Mike made about Nate, something about him being the biggest playboy there ever was.
“Come on now, Nate wasn’t that bad,” simpers Mikayla. “From what I remember about the hallway behind the boy’s locker room and the illicit activities that went on there after the football games” — she gives him a level stare — “I would dare say that you were worse.”
Mike looks at Mikayla with his eyelids a fraction too low and says, “I have excellent recall of those illicit activities, and if memory serves, weren’t you involved in one of them?”
“Who the hell wants to talk about high school?” I ask, trying to derail them. “It was ages ago.”
“Wasn’t that long ago, honey pie. Only been six years since I graduated.”
Tilting my head, I give him a way to go smile. “You’re so great at subtraction!” I commend mockingly. “Math major?”
“Guess nothin’s changed. You still have that sarcastic mouth.”
I need to steer them away from the subject of Nate so I keep flapping my sarcastic jaw. “But so much has changed. Your accent, for instance. It’s a little much. I feel like I should fetch you some sweet tea, a rockin’ chair, and a piece of straw to put in your mouth. Maybe a corncob pipe as a backup accessory.”
Mikayla snorts. “A corncob pipe? Not sure if he could pull off that look.”
Mikey, who is well on his way to being plastered, takes affront to my jeers. “I know it’s your party and all,” he says, “but you aren’t being nice.”
Lowering my chin, I give him an impressively innocent smile. “Don’t you know? I’m not a nice person.” I throw his mock term of endearment back in his face and add, “Honey pie.
Annoyed with me, he sniffs angrily and finishes off his beer. “I’ve gathered.”
Mikayla, who still sits beside me, leans back on her elbows, and Mike, who seems magnetically drawn to her, compensates for the distance by leaning toward her.
She pegs Mikey with a curious stare. “I lost touch with Nate after high school, what with his family moving away and him going to FSU. You keep in touch with him, right? What’s he been doing with himself?”
Mike chortles. “Seriously? I thought for sure after what happened you would have written him off. You honestly want to know what he’s been up to?”
Slippery apprehension squirms around in my stomach. That grenade safety pin is in jeopardy. “No, she doesn’t want to know.” I grab Mikayla’s hand, intending to get her the hell away from there. “Come on, I want to show you my house!”
“Not now, Cane.” She wrenches her hand free and gives Mike a level stare. “Yes, I want to know! Why wouldn’t I?”
“Come on, Mikayla, come with me!”
Mike regards me with annoyance, and Mikayla gives me a you’re being so annoying look.
“Because,” he half-snorts, half-laughs, “I would have thought the whole fiasco of Nate messing around with your mom would have left a bad taste in your mouth. I’m not sure how anyone could ever get over that. I mean, if my mom screwed around with one of my friends and got knocked up, I think I would kill the bastard.”
“Wait —” Mikayla flips her hair over her shoulder and sits upright. “What did you just say?”
Ka-boom. The grenade just discharged, and I didn’t even have time to duck and cover. Shrapnel and carnage all over the place. “He said nothing!”
Unfortunately, my comment goes unnoticed, because at the same time I speak, so does Mike. “You’re not telling me that you don’t know . . . I mean, by now, darlin’ I was sure that you would. Hell, thought it would be kind of obvious.”
“You’re kidding me with this!” she bellows. “Cane, come on? This asshole is making this up, right?”
Good old Mikey has backed me into a corner. I can barely look at Mikayla.
“Right?” she screeches again and scrambles to her feet.
Mikey, who has been following her every move like they’re in a synchronized dance of sorts, stands as well.
This is one dance I don’t want to be a part of, but what choice do I have? I stand.
While Mikayla’s waiting for my tongue to come loose, Mike says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. First off, I thought for sure that by now you would know about it. I mean, man, Nate showed me a picture of the kid about six months after he was born. It was kind of obvious.” “Asshole!” she shouts piercingly.
Her voice, a crack of thunder, carries through the night. Immediately, the party goes deathly silent. A storm is brewing, and we’re at the center. Justice snaps to attention. Our eyes meet, and even before I open my mouth to tell him to please help, he’s on his way.
“Listen, Mickey D,” Mike says, using Mikayla’s underground nickname from high school that was a playful twist on her name and reference to her breast size. “You were always a little cock tease, shaking that ass and those tits, but your follow-through wasn’t so hot. Maybe your mom was an easier target.”
“Is there a problem here?” Justice asks forcefully, inserting himself into the quarrel.
His interference, though welcome, is a fraction of a second too late, at least for Mike.
Mikayla’s fist comes out of nowhere and thwacks Mike across the cheek. The impressive right hook knocks him off balance. He recovers from his shock faster than I think possible, perhaps because he’s used to getting hit by women. The punch washes all that glossy southern boy charm away, leaving behind his true, shadowy character. Scowling, he shifts his jaw first one way and then the other.
“Get the hell out of my party, you loser!” I shout.
“Listen, you little bitch, I’ve had enough of your mouth,” he says, snarling and stepping toward me in a menacing way.
Adrenaline courses through me. Fight-or-flight kicks in, and if he comes at me, he’s not even going to live to regret it, because he’s going to be dead.
Before he can lay a hand on me or I can lay a hand on him, Justice and Jeremy rush in, grabbing his arms and pulling him backward.
“Don’t you dare touch her,” Justice growls menacingly.
“The truth hurts!” Mike shouts at Mikayla. “Sorry to break the news, honey pie, but hey, don’t shoot the messenger.”
“Leave it be!” yells Justice. “You’ve done enough.”
Let go of me!” Mike tries in vain to shake them off, but more of Justice’s friends step in to help restrain him and haul him back to his vehicle.
The dramatic scene prompts dozens of wildfire dialogues around us, and word of what has happened and of what was revealed burns through the crowd in mere seconds.
In the distance, I hear a skirmish, cursing, shouting, and finally the roar of an engine.
Mikayla, who’s holding her fist against her stomach and looking like she either wants to pass out or start another fight, visibly trembles.
Wanting her to know that I’m on her side, I reach out to place my hand on her shoulder. She jerks away from me.
By this time, Jeremy and Justice have run back to where we’re standing.
“We should call it a night,” suggests Justice.
“I can take you back to the hotel, Mikayla,” Jeremy offers gallantly. “Or to wherever you want to go.”
She scoffs. “No way. I’m. Not. Going. Anywhere.” She glares at me, her eyes flinty and unforgiving, her body rigid with fury. “It’s true then, isn’t it? I can see it in your face that you knew. You knew, and you didn’t tell me! And we just talked about it this last fall! What the hell?
I have a flashback to last October. I’d been plowing my way through a rather dull classic novel, highlighting passages, scribbling notes in the margin, and trying not to drown in a puddle of my own drool, when Mikayla, whom I hadn’t seen in six months, showed up at the door with a six-pack tucked under her arm.
She plucked the highlighter from where it was perched on my ear.
“You take this school thing much too seriously,” she said as I threw my arms around her neck from sheer joy.
We were each two beers in when she told me that her youngest brother, Seth, had been asking questions about his father.
“Seth has a right to know. I thought by now my mom would have come clean about who she had an affair with. Everyone thought it was that guy from Savage Suds, that construction worker, but I don’t buy it. She’s never mentioned him, never tried to go after him for child support or anything. It can’t be him, but the question is: who was it and why is she keeping it from Seth and everybody else? You’re home more often than I am. Have you heard any rumors over the years? Do have any idea who she was having an affair with?” she asked.
Without hesitating, I lied. “I have no idea. I haven’t heard a thing.” “How long have you known?” Mikayla screams now.
Justice tentatively proposes a solution. “Why don’t you and Cane get a good night’s rest and then you can sit down and talk things out in the morning.”
Mikayla, furious and determined, stares him down. “I’m getting to the bottom of this, now.
Justice gives me an uh-oh look, and it’s obvious that he’s finally acknowledging those slippery slopes. Only now, there’s an avalanche, and I’m about to be buried alive.
He claps his hands once and makes a loud announcement. “Party’s over. Thanks for coming out, but I think everyone should call it a night.”
There’s murmuring, feet shuffling, and palpable unease, but no one makes a move. It’s a train wreck. The crowd had witnessed the impact and now they want to gawk at the bloodbath.
Get a clue, people! Go home! I would shout this, but my tongue, which feels like it’s coated with superglue, is stuck to the roof of my mouth.
Jeremy, Justice’s right-hand man, walks over and shuts off the music, hoping to make the message louder and clearer, but it backfires. Without the buffer of noise, the crowd’s attention to our escalating drama is more conspicuous.
Mikayla’s glower cracks at the edges, leaving room for her vulnerability and hurt to poke through.
I throw a help me look at Justice, but he can’t save me from this. No one can. I dug my own grave years ago when I kept quiet, and now I’m about to be rolled into it. I only hope Mikayla won’t pick up the shovel and start burying me alive.
Say something, damn it!” she yells. “I want to know how long you’ve known. I want to know why you’ve never said anything to me!”
My stomach turns into a hardened pit, and bile rises in the back of my throat. “I caught them in high school at the forest preserve, the summer of the tornado. I wanted to protect you.”
Her eyes bug out, and she covers her mouth with her hands.
“I’m so sorry. It wasn’t a secret that I wanted to keep, but honestly, I didn’t know how to tell you. I mean, I just couldn’t do it, not with all the junk you had to go through.” Mikayla’s life had been so turbulent at that time. She’d suffered through screaming matches between her parents and their rancorous divorce. While she was trying to adjust to her family’s demise and shouldering the embarrassment of her mother’s affair, her mother took off for California with the baby without explanation, deserting Mikayla and her younger brother. I hadn’t wanted to add to her misery.
“Cane’s intentions were pure. She wanted to protect you from this,” Justice says.
Mikayla’s expression reminds me of Mike’s after she’d cold-cocked him. Just as he had recovered quickly, she does as well.
Her eyes harden at the edges. “I can’t believe you did this to me! That has to be the worst thing —”
I didn’t do anything to you!” I interrupt. “Your mother did, and let’s not forget about Nate. Put the blame on them,” I say pleadingly,
“not me.”
She throws her head back and laughs mirthlessly before looking me in the eye again. “A true friend would have said something to me. We’ve been friends from the day we were born, Cane. You never should have kept this from me. You lied to me.”
“Only to protect you.” Mikayla and alcohol aren’t a great combination; the more she imbibes, the uglier and more volatile she becomes. “Why don’t we talk about this tomorrow, in private?”
She throws her hands up in the air. “Since everything’s coming out in the open now, why the hell not. Friends tell friends everything, right? No more secrets, no more hiding things and pretending they didn’t happen, no more protecting anyone from anything. Why not —” “Mikayla, don’t,” warns Justice.
I notice Justice’s strained face and the way his fingers curl into his palms.
His nostrils flare. “Don’t do this, Mikayla. Don’t.
Wanting an explanation, I look at him, but he’s too busy staring down Mikalya. They seem to be a having an argument without saying a word. The hairs on the back of my neck rise, and a shiver skates its way down my spine, paralyzing me as it goes.
What is going on?
“Oh Justice,” Mikayla remarks in a maliciously, teasing tone. “It’s already been done.”
Justice finally looks away from her to me. “Cane, let’s get out of here.”
I want to flee with him and run away from all of this. But I don’t have the chance.
Mikayla smiles with a malevolence I’ve only seen her use on enemies. “Your knight in shining armor, your forever love, your soonto-be husband and father of your future children, why don’t you ask him what happened three weeks ago after we had lunch together?”

Her smile, sharp and curved, is reminiscent of a sickle. She takes a step closer. “Why don’t you ask him why he so willingly made out with me?”

 
THE ROAD TO JUSTICE 
In this sequel to the award-winning book The Ugly Tree, Cane has always known that the handsome and sweet Justice Price was the one. So, when he pops the question and offers her everything she’s ever wanted and more, she readily accepts. But when Cane discovers a secret about Justice, she panics. Insisting she needs time to think things through, she leaves for the summer, breaking Justice’s heart as well as her own… read more


C H A P T E R  O N E


Late September 1998
N

ot that I have a watch, clock, or anything else to tell me what time it is, but I’m guessing it has to be near midnight, because the programming quality has tanked. Lounging on my sleeping bag and cramming ketchup-riddled microwave popcorn into my mouth, I channel-surf. Since I’ve managed to misplace the remote to my barely nineteen-inch television, circa 1988, and am too lazy to get up every time I want to change the channel, I’m using my big toe. Had I taken Grandma Betty’s advice and used Velcro to adhere the remote to the side of the television like she’s told me to do multiple times, I wouldn’t be in this predicament. My toe accidentally grazes the power button. The screen makes an electric snapping noise and goes black.
Spectacular. I’m going to have to get off my butt.
Setting my snack aside, I army-crawl over to the television, push the power button, and change the channel the old-fashioned way. I land on an infomercial where a slick con artist named Lester Stanford tells me that I can make millions buying real estate even if I have poor credit and no money. Apparently intelligence is not a prerequisite. Easing myself backward, I resume eating as Lester promises that I can quadruple my wealth in a matter of weeks. If I mail him $59.99, he’ll send me a booklet and CD that will explain the simple process, and I’ll be well on my way.
Sold! Let me get out my checkbook and run to the post office to overnight the money!
Who actually believes this crap?
Extending my big toe, I’m about to ax Lester and his empty promises when I hear a musical chirping. With surprising toe dexterity, I mute the television.
What is that? It sounds like a small bird trapped in a closet. Oh, wait! It’s my new cell phone. Only I have no idea where it is. Leaping up, I spill my popcorn all over the top of the television. A few kernels with ketchup stick to the screen, one landing right on Lester’s head. From this angle, it looks like he shot his brains out.
Racing around my new apartment and hurdling over stacks of boxes, I discover my phone in the bathtub. I must have left it there when I was hanging my new frog shower curtain.
Bending down, I grab it and answer on the last ring. “Did you survive the trip?” I ask breathlessly.
My best friend, Caprice, emits something of a growl. “Holy. Shitty. Balls. That was the longest drive known to mankind. The longest. Do you know how many miles it is from Colorado to Illinois? Too many.”
“You could have spared yourself the misery. My suitcase isn’t that big—you could have brought it on a plane.” I’d spent the summer out in Briar, Colorado, with Caprice, helping her build her cleaning company, Maid Hot, the Hooters of the cleaning industry, where the maids are required to wear bikinis. In my haste to start my new marketing job at Schaeffer Dairy back in my hometown of Savage, Illinois, I inadvertently left behind a suitcase filled with the majority of my business clothes. Because I’m excessively thrifty and only buy things when they’re on clearance or in a second-hand store, I’ve been rotating three dress shirts and two skirts for the past two weeks.
“Obviously that would have been easier, but I didn’t want the hassle or expense of renting a car once I got here. Never mind that I don’t know how long I’m going to be stuck in Chicago dealing with my family. My cousin’s upcoming wedding? Absolute nightmare. Turns out there are dozens of events planned. Since I’m the oldest, I’ll be expected at all the showers, parties, fittings, all that shit. Besides, if I’d flown, I wouldn’t have been able to bring your present.”
Caprice has been mysterious about the housewarming gift she’s bringing me. “You don’t have Nikeo stashed in the trunk, do you?” I ask half jokingly. It’s occurred to me that Nikeo, her handsome and antagonistic cousin, might also be attending the wedding. Nikeo and I’d had a summer fling that flung my life into the gutter. Two months later, I’m still trying to crawl out.
“Don’t panic, I left him back in Briar. Although what I brought you does resemble him,” she says enigmatically.
“Come on, you have to tell me what it is.”
“No hints. It’s a surprise. Did you get everything moved in?”
“Justice and Samson are bringing the furniture tomorrow, but all the boxes are here. Lots of unpacking to do.”
“I can help when I get there.”
“You won’t have to. Grandma Betty will be here in the morning, and she won’t let us go to bed until everything is cleaned, unpacked, arranged, and put away. She abides by the a-place-for-everything-and-everything-inits-place rule.”
“My kind of lady. Maid Hot could use a woman like her. Think she would wear a bikini?”
“Hot pink isn’t her color.”
Caprice laughs. “Too bad. I bet she would be popular with the senior set.”
Fist planted over my mouth, I stifle a yawn and sit on the edge of the tub. “So when are you getting here?”
“Tuesday night, and I can’t stay long. Probably just a night.”
“I wish I didn’t have to work—”
“I wish you would ditch your job and come back to Colorado with me,” she interrupts.
Ever since I left Colorado, she’s been hounding me to return. “Not possible. I signed a six-month lease on this place. The job at Schaeffer Dairy is going well. Not to mention that Justice is here. I need to be where he is.”
“And how are things with him? Good?”
Good? Try the antonym of that. Because of what happened with Nikeo, my relationship with the love of my life, Justice Price, isn’t on the rocks, it’s buried beneath the rubble. Our interactions, once loving and playful, have become frosty and formal. I would prefer to spend every second together, moving forward and planning our future. Instead we have scheduled dates, every Wednesday and the occasional Friday night. This was his brilliant idea. It feels like we’re a couple on the verge of divorce, trying to give it another go and acting all fake and upbeat. It’s thoroughly depressing, especially since I’m doing everything in my power to make it work.
In the four weeks since our pseudo-breakup, when he said we needed
to slow things down and put our future into an indefinite holding pattern, I’ve sent him flowers, surprised him with the fancy fishing rod he’s been wanting for two years—obscenely expensive, by the way, and not even on clearance—written him a two-page love poem, and treated him to a candlelit picnic in the woods.
The picnic was memorable but not exactly successful. Justice was about to kiss me when one of the pillar candles somehow tipped over, rolled down an incline, and landed under a pine tree. The brittle dead branches at the bottom burst into flames, an event that seemed more like an omen than an unfortunate accident. Once we were sure there wouldn’t be a forest fire and Smokey the Bear wouldn’t put us on any Wanted posters, we packed it up and packed it in.
Justice, though politely appreciative of my wooing, hasn’t been over the moon about it. I fear it’s only a matter of time before he signs his walking papers. Worst of all? I’m positive he has his eyes on someone else, and I’m hoping that’s all he has on her at the moment.
Clamping the phone between my ear and shoulder, I ease myself backward into the claw-foot tub. My legs dangle out over the edge as I weave small sections of my hair into scalp-hurting braids. “We’re making progress,” I respond generically, sparing her the less-than-stellar details.
After twenty minutes of conversational nonsense, I disconnect but stay planted in the bathtub, gazing up at the plaster ceiling and running my hands over my half-plaited head until I doze off. When I wake up, my bony butt has gone completely numb, and my neck feels broken. Sore and groggy, I climb out of the tub and shuffle into the living room.
Collapsing onto my sleeping bag and mound of pillows, I stare dumbly at the ketchup-and-popcorn-garnished television. It’s quite a mess, and I can’t make out what new infomercial is airing. I should clean it properly before it dries and gets crusty, but I don’t have the energy to find the paper towels and cleaning supplies. They could be in any one of the boxes strewn around the room.
My eyes are drawn to the lower half of the screen, where an advertisement for a psychic hotline scrolls by.
The purple words emit a smoky haze. “Our certified psychics will tell you everything you need to know about your life. We have the answers you seek. Find out your destiny. Only $1.99 for the first minute. Call 1-888-550-
5000 right now!”
I didn’t like what Lester was selling, but this concept appeals to me. My life would be so much simpler if I knew what was going to happen. I don’t even have to mail a check and wait for a booklet and CD that will explain everything; I can charge $1.99 to my credit card and hear everything I need to know straight from a psychic’s mouth. Instant gratification—the one thing Americans can agree on. I bet Lester would be rolling in even more dough if he set up a hotline.
Where is my wallet?
Thirty minutes later it’s nowhere to be found, and I’m entering fullblown panic mode. Then I remember the last time I had it: when I came home from work, carrying a gallon of Schaeffer Dairy Cow Pie ice cream. I yank open the freezer door, and there’s my wallet, sitting right on top of the ice cream. Perfectly illogical, just like the rest of my life right now.
Now that I have my credit card, I’ve forgotten the stupid phone number. I sit, eyes glued to the television, another ten minutes before the advertisement comes on again. Cell phone at the ready, I punch in the numbers, read the operator my credit card number, and impatiently wait to be connected to psychic extraordinaire Rhonda Riddle. I’m already skeptical. The name suggests a stripper more than a psychic.
“Hello, this is Rhonda Riddle,” drones a nasal voice. “Thank you for calling. What’s your name?”
“Cane Kallevik.”
“Ohhh! That’s a pretty name. How old are you, sweetheart?”
“I turned twenty-two on August fifteenth.”
“Such a young thing! A Leo, which means that you are enthusiastic, faithful, and loving.”
Enthusiastic and loving? Maybe. Faithful? Up to a point. “I don’t know about that.”
“The stars tell me that you are all those things,” she states emphatically.
“What would you like to know about your destiny?”
What don’t I want to know? If she could hand over a detailed outline of the next year of my life, that would be ideal, but it boils down to one thing. “I want to know if I’ll end up with Justice.”
“End up with justice? Something happened to you. Someone hurt you. I’m sensing an assault, a robbery, a horrible crime, a murder.”
“Go fish,” I mumble under my breath. I’m quickly losing faith in Rhonda’s ability. “I’m not talking about justice as in legal justice, I’m talking about the man I love, Justice Price.”
“Is he a lawyer? Because it would be perfect if he was. The price of justice? Justice Price! Get it!”
I would have done better to flush two bucks down the toilet and spare myself the humiliation of this call. I flick my credit card at the television. It knocks off one of the kernels. I wait to see if she’ll say anything else.
“You’re deeply upset right now. You love Justice. You want to know what’s going to happen with him.”
Not exactly intuitive, since I’ve spoon-fed her this information. “Rhonda, can we cut the crap? You and I both know that you aren’t psychic.”
“I am,” she insists, employing a mystical tone of voice.
Give me a break. She doesn’t have a psychic bone in her body, but I desperately need someone impartial to hear my story and give me feedback. Since I don’t feel like cruising any more channels looking for a therapy hotline, though I’m positive I could find one, I’ll settle for the nonpsychic.
“Here’s the deal, Rhonda. Four months ago I graduated from college, and when I came home, Justice popped the question in front of a hundred friends and family. I said yes. After that he drove me to my surprise party, where he proceeded to show me the dream house he was building for us. Then at this very same party, in a very public and humiliating way, Mikayla, my best friend from childhood, found out the secret I’d been keeping from her for years: while we were still in high school, Mikayla’s mother cheated on her father, not with a man her own age but with Mikayla’s boyfriend. To make matters worse, she got pregnant and had his love child. Mikayla was furious at me for keeping this from her, and then she dropped her own bomb. She told me she was in love with Justice, and that she’d made out with him!
“It was all too much. Graduating college? Getting married? Building a dream house? Finding out Justice and Mikayla had kissed, and that she loved him? I needed time to process everything. I took off for the summer, met this guy named Nikeo, and fell for him. Things got complicated between us—more than complicated, actually—but in the end I knew it was Justice I loved and wanted to be with.
“Just when I figured this out, I got this cryptic message that said Mik and J were getting married! I assumed that it referred to Mikayla and Justice. I rushed home to stop the wedding and ended up crashing the end of the ceremony. But it wasn’t Mikayla and Justice, it was Mikayla and Justice’s cousin Jeremy. I felt like the biggest jerk. I was hoping that Justice would be ready to move forward with our relationship, but then he told me that he needed time to think things through.
“To make things more problematic, I’m working at Schaeffer Dairy for
the owner, Samson Schaeffer, who just so happens to be Justice’s uncle, and Justice also works for the company. And so does Samson’s son Jeremy, who’s now Mikayla’s husband. One big happy family. It’s been a bit awkward and tangled, to say the least.”
After that verbal purge, I need a gin and tonic, heavy on the gin, light on tonic. Unfortunately, the only liquid I have in this apartment comes from the tap.
Rhonda lets out a low whistle and abandons the mystical tone of voice.
“Wow, it’s like a storyline from General Hospital or The Young and the Restless.”
“Not a soap opera, just my life.” I snatch a kernel off the top of the television, throw it in the air, and catch it with my mouth. “So, what’s going to happen?”
“Sweetheart, I have absolutely no idea, but I’m dying to find out! I’ll give you my home number. I want you to call me back!”

C H A P T E R  T W O


G

randma Betty, punctual to a fault, pounds on the door at ten in the morning. “Cane! Cane! Open up. Are you awake? It’s me!
I’m here!” she trills excitedly.
When I open the door, she drops her suitcases at her feet and gives me the biggest hug. When she finally lets me go, she holds me at arm’s length. “No more hotel living! It’s your first place! You must be so happy.”
I’m not sure if I’m overcaffeinated (I drank six cups of coffee, and I should really be more mindful of how much I ingest; once I ended in the emergency room from caffeine overload), or overtired (I barely got five hours of sleep and then decided to tackle the day with a six-mile interval run), but as soon as she says this, I burst into tears. Fat, gulping, unattractive sobs. The kind of crying that’s unacceptable for a twenty-twoyear-old independent career woman.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” I squeak during my outburst, but clearly I’m not. My face probably looks like a terrifying Picasso rendering. Snot trickles out of my nostrils. Tears fly every which way. My lips have gone all Muppetlike. And my lungs are huffing and puffing, only there’s nothing to blow down. My long auburn hair, still wet from my shower, sticks to my freckled face. Not wanting to risk being seen by the cute, geeky guy that lives next door, who I spotted carrying a large coffee this morning as I was leaving for my run, I slink backward.
“Sugar Cane!” Grandma guides me over to the only chair in the apartment and sits me down. She peels my hair off my cheeks, holds her hands on my shoulders as if to steady me, and gives me delicate kisses on the faint cross-shaped birthmark on my forehead. “It’ll be okay, sugar. It’ll be okay. I know it will.”
I’ve cried so violently and purged so many emotions that it feels as if the only thing left is my skeleton. Grandma opens her purse and pulls out her ever-present package of tissues, stowed in a plastic container. She yanks out a handful and gives it to me. I pat my swollen face and attempt to blow my nose, but it feels like I’ve got concrete in my sinuses. Nothing’s coming out. I sprinkle the used tissues on the floor.
She kneels in front of me and pats my knees. “Feel better?”
“You look beautiful,” I tell her. “You’ve gotten tan. It makes your eyes stand out.” I’ve missed everything about Grandma, from her cute face to her predictable wardrobe. She owns hundreds of sensible belted pantsuits in many styles and colors. Claiming they disguise her big bosom and accentuate her small waist, she wears them constantly. Today she’s sporting a ribbed cashmere suit that I haven’t seen before. It’s a deep rose color, and it contrasts nicely with her cornflower-blue eyes. Since she takes color schemes seriously and will go to any length to match, her blush, eye shadow, lipstick, handbag—even her shoes—are all some variation on pink.
“Oh, honey. I’ve been waiting for that for weeks now.”
“For me to say you’re beautiful?”
“No—I’ve been waiting for you to break down and have a good cry. I’ve been wondering when it was going to happen. You’ve been bottling it all up inside for weeks, and it was bound to come out sooner or later. I’m just glad I was here when it did.”
“This is all so hard. I want Justice back. I want to marry him. I want to be living in the house that he’s building for us.”
She nods sympathetically. “I know you do, but it will take time. He asked for space, and you need to give it to him.”
“It doesn’t feel like he wants space. It feels like he’s only interested in punishing me for what happened between Nikeo and me.”
Crisis or not, Grandma Betty can’t stand messes. She reaches down and gathers the used tissues. “Do you think that when you told Justice you needed space and left for three months, he might have felt like you were punishing him for what happened between him and Mikayla? Which you and I both know was nothing. I mean, look at her now. She’s married to Jeremy.”
Leaning my head back, I indulge in a sigh-slash-groan. “I’m not in the mood for a game of devil’s advocate.”
“How about we start the day over again, shall we?” she asks.
“Good idea.” I stand up and reach out my hand, and Grandma Betty takes it. I help her off her knees. “Welcome to my new apartment.”
Stuffing the tissues into her coat pocket, she looks approvingly at the living area and kitchen. “The hardwood floors are beautiful, and the woodwork is stunning. So are the copper ceiling tiles in the kitchen. I love the original detail.”
“There’s even a claw-foot tub.”
Her cheeks stiffen and rise upward. Blinking back tears, she presses a hand over her heart. “Oh, honey. Being back in this building? It’s quite something. Your dad and mom sure loved this place. I remember how proud they were of it. I came for dinner the week they moved in and helped your mom roll out dough for an apple pie she was making while that adorable son of mine couldn’t unstick his nose from the newspaper. He was reading an article about the Cubs and griping about their horrible season.” She tucks her lower lip under her upper teeth and shakes her head. “Funny what you remember. It’s always the small things.”
When they were first married, my parents had rented a third-floor apartment in this very building, which had been an old sewing factory back in the 1800s. Six years ago, after a major tornado ravaged downtown Savage while I was in high school, there had been a major and necessary remodel. Instead of keeping retail and office space on the first two floors, all levels were converted into apartments. There are six apartments total, and I’m in the two-bedroom unit on the first floor. “Is it hard being here?” I ask her.
She frowns thoughtfully. “Not hard. Strange. And, also in a way, wonderful. If your mom and dad were alive, they’d be tickled that you were living in the same place where they started out.”
She surveys the room. Her furrowed brow and the determined set of her chin are dead giveaways. She’s done with nostalgia; she wants to attack this mess and establish order.
“We’ve got a lot to do,” she remarks. “We’re going to be busy.”
“Frank doesn’t mind that you’re here, does he? I know that you had to push back your trip to New England.”
“I’m not leaving one second sooner than I have to!” She pinches my cheek. “I’ve missed you. I haven’t seen you in more than three months!”
Grandma Betty and my step-grandfather, Frank, moved to Florida this past June, trading a house that overlooked amber waves of grain for a condo overlooking Pacific blue. “It feels like longer,” I muse.
“I know, which is why I’m staying until Tuesday morning. Besides, we only pushed back our trip by a few days. We’ll still get to see all the glorious fall colors. Living in St. Petersburg is lovely, but I do miss the change of the seasons. By the way, I’m desperate for you to visit. Frank is too. He wants you to bring the video camera so that you can go through all the footage from Colorado. He thought that maybe you would want to make a highlight video or something.” She chuckles. “Although I have no clue how he would go about doing that! I don’t understand that blasted equipment at all, much less his fascination with it!”
A technology and gadget aficionado, Frank gave me a video camera for a graduation gift. Every time we speak on the phone, he’s eager to discuss what I’ve been filming. “I’ll make it down to visit soon. Promise.”
“You better.” Grandma Betty unzips her coat, the same rose hue as her pantsuit, and tosses it onto the chair. “When’s the furniture arriving?”
“Samson and Justice will be here after lunch.”
“That doesn’t leave us much time. Let’s get started! We need to clear the area before the big stuff gets here.”
Grandma Betty, who would have made an excellent drill sergeant, barks out orders, and I follow them. We organize the boxes into piles, carry them to the appropriate rooms, and begin the tedious unpacking process. 
While we sort through my belongings, Grandma Betty peppers me with questions.
“Has your schedule at work still been reasonable?”
“Yeah, usually nine to five, but Samson’s really relaxed about it. He doesn’t mind if I take off early some days. As long as I make headway on the projects.”
“And the website you’re helping design? How’s that coming along?” she asks.
“It should be up and running by next week. Just a few things to tweak. We’re waiting for the photographer to finish up with all the different ice cream flavors so we can link those with the descriptions. The more visual, the better. Samson is excited about the idea of people being able to order products and gift cards online, and customers having twenty-four-hour access.”
“Frank is so excited about this whole internet thing. He drives me crazy talking about it! He can’t wait to see what you’ve been working on. I was thinking, how about a visit at the end of October, maybe close to Halloween? Does that work for you?”
She nails me with a make-a-decision look that I know all too well. If I don’t commit, she’s not going to be happy. “Sure. I’ll talk to Samson on Monday and see what days I can get off.”
Pleased with this, Grandma Betty gives me the biggest smile I’ve seen since I walked across the stage at graduation. “And how are things with Jocelyn? Have you spoken to her yet?”
“No. I sent her a birthday present last week. I’ve stopped by the house twice, but Jenny Ryanne wouldn’t even answer the door.”
My history with the Schaeffer family is complex. I’ve been working for them since I was eleven. Samson, my father’s childhood best friend, adores me. His wife Jenny Ryanne despises me. I befriended their only daughter, Jocelyn, when she was eleven and I was sixteen, and we’ve had a sisterly relationship for years. Needing to get away from family drama, Jocelyn came out to Colorado this past summer and stayed with me for a few weeks. She happened to catch me kissing Nikeo. It wasn’t the kissing that bothered her so much as the fact that I was cheating on her older cousin, Justice. This devastated her, not only because she adored Justice and wanted me to marry him but also because she had recently discovered that Jenny Ryanne had been cheating on her father. Instead of hating her cheating mother, she hated cheating Cane, and she broadcast my indiscretion to everyone back home, including Justice. I don’t blame her at all. I’ve been trying to reach out to her for weeks so that we can patch things up, but she hasn’t responded.
“She’ll come around,” Grandma assures me. “It’s just going to take time.”
That seems to be a recurring theme in my life lately. I don’t have time for time. Let’s get on with everything already. Enough of this limbo crap. I punch the top of a box; the tape busts open, and so does the ridge of one of my knuckles.
Grandma gives me the stink eye. “You could have used the scissors.
There on the floor. Right next to you,” she adds pointedly.
From the second I was born, she’s been telling me to slow down and take my time. But those ants in my pants she’s always accused me of having haven’t slowed down over the years. They’ve multiplied. And they aren’t run-of-the-mill friendly ants. The way I always feel, this burning inside me, I’m convinced that they’re fire ants. “Punching is faster.”
“And more dangerous. If you don’t slow down, you’re really going to hurt yourself.”
Too late. The damage has already been done. If I hadn’t bolted for the Rocky Mountains this past June, I’d be sitting on the back deck of my new house looking through bridal magazines and playing footsy—or something more provocative—under the table with Justice. Instead, I’m playing the role of a semi-single girl (if that’s even a label) in farm city USA, setting up her new apartment.
This unpacking business is taking forever, because everything I do, Grandma Betty undoes. I stack my favorite romance novels in a pile in the corner, and she rifles through them, organizes them alphabetically, and then places them against the opposite wall. I remove all the towels from a box, fold them, and put them in the linen closet. I leave to get another box, and when I return, Grandma Betty is refolding the towels in thirds, the way she prefers, and putting them on a different shelf. “See,” she says, pointing. “This makes more sense. They’re at a better height for grab and go.”
I love her to pieces, but she’s already driving me crazy. Grab and go sounds good right about now. I grab my wallet, which is no longer in the freezer but logically sitting on the kitchen counter next to my keys, and head out the door to pick up lunch at Savage Suds Bar and Grill, less than a block down the street. By the time I return with the food, the big Schaeffer Dairy truck loaded with my furniture is parked on the curb, and Justice is pulling up in his own truck.
I wave at Samson. Justice parks and hops out of his pickup. He smiles at me. “Ready to get started?”
 Even after all these years, my heart still flutters at the sight of him. He’s your classic superman: tall and lean, strong jaw, gorgeous eyes under a pair of perfectly arched brows, a pair of the most delectable dimples, and a kissable mouth. He’s wearing worn jeans and a faded gray sweatshirt that makes his aquamarine eyes more noticeable. He has a sprinkling of dark stubble on his face. “Guess so.”
He kisses me chastely on the cheek. I’m dying for a real kiss. Some tongue. Some heat. Some passion. But this is all I get. Maybe if the pine tree hadn’t burst into flames last week . . . 
“Grandma Betty make it okay?” he asks.
“Yes, and she’s making herself right at home. This will be her place in no time at all.”
He smiles. “I wouldn’t expect anything less. Want me to carry the food upstairs for you?”
“That’s okay.” I smile back at him. “I’ve got it. You and Samson have done too much for me already.”
Even though I initially hired movers, Justice insisted I cancel, saying that he and Samson were happy to help. They’ve spent the morning at my storage unit, breaking their backs loading all the hand-me-down furniture that Frank and Grandma Betty gave me when they moved to Florida.
“Thank you again, by the way.” I go up on my tiptoes, intending to show him my appreciation, but he turns suddenly and walks toward the back of the Schaeffer truck.
Deliberate avoidance? I’m not sure. Justice unlocks the latch and rolls it up, revealing cargo space that’s filled to the gills. I didn’t realize how much stuff was in that unit.
Samson, who’s been talking on his cell phone, turns it off and shoves it into the front pocket of his flannel shirt. He climbs out of the truck. “How’s the new place looking?”
“A mess at the moment, but Grandma Betty’s straightening it out for me. Thanks so much for helping today.” I give his arm an affectionate squeeze.
“No problem, kiddo.”
“How’s Jocelyn?” I ask. “Did she like the gift?” I got her a gift certificate to an athletic store, remembering that this summer she’d been eyeing a pair of pricey running shoes.
“She loved the gift. It was too generous of you.”
“I’d like to try to stop by again. Do you think Jenny would mind that?”
He takes off his well-worn Cubs hat and folds the bill. He lowers his head, and his eyes skirt to the side. “I don’t know what she’ll do.” He turns and reaches for the dolly that Justice hands him.
Grandma Betty, who has spotted Justice and Samson through my bedroom window, rushes out and smooches Justice so many times it’s embarrassing, and then makes a similar fuss over Samson. When she’s finished loving on them, they start the tedious unloading process. I offer to help, but they tell me to go inside and enjoy my lunch. I try to do as I’m told, but as a rule, I’m not a good spectator or listener. While Grandma Betty munches on her turkey club and uses my cell phone to call Frank and check in with him, I help Samson and Justice carry in chairs, dressers, tables, box springs, and mattresses.
We make fast work of the truck and soon come to the last piece of furniture, the one that I love the most: an antique armoire. It was Grandma Betty’s wedding gift to my parents, and when they died, Grandma Betty stored it in the downstairs office, promising that someday it would be mine.
It’s solid oak with hand-carved detailing, and it weighs a ton. Justice frees it from the protective blankets, and Samson chuckles. “I helped your parents move this into the very same building years ago.” He looks at me. “I’m glad you live on the first floor and not the third.”
It takes the three of us to wrestle the unwieldy antique off the truck. We make it into the building and to my door—but that’s as far as we get.
We set it down and try to figure out how to get it inside.
“They’ve narrowed the doorways,” remarks Samson. “This might be tricky.”
The three of us pick up the bulky piece and maneuver it through the doorway, failing once, then again. On the third attempt we make it through.
“Where’s it going?” Justice inquires breathlessly.
“The big wall.”
While I have faith in my muscles, Grandma Betty doesn’t. She hovers and frets as Samson, Justice, and I shuffle sideways and situate the armoire against the wall. “Careful now, Cane! You’ll get squashed! I’ll be taking you to the hospital before this day is over.”
“I’m not going to get squashed. See?” I step back and admire the effect. Angled in the corner of the living area, the armoire makes an amazing focal point.
“As beautiful as I remember.” Samson takes off his hat and wipes his brow with his shirtsleeve. “Suppose I should be going. Jenny Ryanne wants me to do some work at the house this afternoon.”
Grandma Betty and I thank him profusely. After he leaves, Justice carries in some smaller items from his pickup truck while Grandma Betty and I put the legs on the kitchen table.
“This is the last of it.” Justice places a piece of my metal bed frame on the couch. “I can help set everything up if you want.”
Justice always goes the extra mile to make things easier for me, and I’m trying to spare him the trip lately. I’m out to prove that I’m an asset, not just a pain in the ass. “No. I’ll take care of it. I’ll do it.”
“Yes, don’t you worry, we can manage,” says Grandma, who’s begun scouring every surface in the kitchen. 
“You sure?”
“Yes. But you could stay if you want, hang out.”
His eyes dart away from me. I follow his line of vision. He’s looking out the window at his truck. “Um, I have some things to take care of at the office.”
“It’s Saturday.”
“I have to go over a financial plan for the new Aurora branch this weekend.”
“Do you really have to go in?”
“Yes, I really have to go in.” He walks over to Grandma Betty and gives her a hug good-bye.
“You’ll be back later, won’t you? We want to treat you to dinner,” she says.
“Wish I could, but I’m busy tonight. Can I take a rain check?” Busy doing what exactly?
“I’m holding you to that, young man.”
“I’ll walk you out,” I offer. “Be right back,” I tell Grandma Betty, who’s sitting on the floor in front of the dishwasher.
She holds a sponge up in the air, letting me know that she’s heard. “Take your time. I’ll be scrubbing.”
Justice and I walk out to his truck.
He tweaks the end of his nose. “She’s going overboard with the bleach. I don’t have any nose hairs left,” he says, immediately following up with, “I should get going.”
In a hurry to leave, which seems to be his modus operandi lately, he bends down and pecks me on the cheek.
Not so fast, buddy. Before he can open his door, I place my hand against it, lean into it, and cross my ankles, making it clear that I’m not letting him go anywhere. “Can we talk for a second?”
He tucks his keys into his palm and inhales through his bleach-burned nostrils. “Sure.”
“I called a psychic last night. I saw the ad on TV, and I called,” I announce, like it’s something to be proud of. Only now that I’ve said it aloud in the light of day, I’m embarrassed. Mortified, actually.
A pragmatist to the core, Justice smiles dubiously. His adorable dimples appear. “Are you being serious? Please tell me that you didn’t do that.”
“I did.”
He looks genuinely perplexed. “Why?”
“Because Lester didn’t win me over with his get-rich-quick scheme, so I went with something cheaper and more appealing.”
He gives me a have-you-lost-your-mind look. “What are you talking about?”
“I was watching infomercials last night,” I explain. “Lester was selling how to get rich in real estate, and that’s when I saw the ad for the psychic number. She was nice, not much of a psychic, but I might call her again. She gave me her home number.”
“Come on—she did not give you her home number. It’s probably a scam.”
“It isn’t a scam, and yes, she honestly did give me her number.”
“You’re not going to call her back, are you?”
My desperation is impressive enough that I’m contemplating it, but I’m not going to tell him that. I clear my throat and respond to his earlier question. “I called because I wanted to know what’s going to happen with us.”
He runs his hand through his fresh crew cut. “You do realize how nuts you sound?”
“No one ever said I was normal.”
“You’ve been pushing me hard, Cane. Please don’t. It’s only been four weeks.”
I’ll admit that I have been pushing, but that’s what I do. It’s who I am. Why nudge when you can shove? Why take time to find scissors when you can punch? “I’m not pushing. I’m just making conversation.”
He raises his shoulders, holds them for a second, and then drops them. “That’s not what you’re doing.”
“Then give me something to go on, something to let me know this is going to turn out well.”
“You need to be patient.”
“I don’t have the patient gene. It’s missing.” “Tell me about it,” he grumbles.
“I thought by now you would have figured things out. I mean, the house is close to being done. I only signed a six-month lease, so when that lease is up . . . I’m trying to plan ahead.”
He settles his eyes on my face but remains mute.
I focus my eyes over his shoulder and stare at the heartbreaking cobalt sky. “Why are you going in to work today?” I ask. “And why can’t you have dinner with us tonight?”
He gives me another one of those ridiculous cheek kisses. “The apartment looks awesome,” he says. “I can help you move furniture around later if you want.”
I stare him down in a way that lets him know he still hasn’t answered my question. I reluctantly back away from his truck, even though I want to push him, this time in the literal sense.
I give a verbal shove, just a small one. “Justice. Come on.”
“I already told you why,” he says as he climbs into his truck. “I have a meeting.”
He said he had to go over the financial plan—he didn’t say anything about a meeting. He drives away with a cursory wave out the window. His truck roars down the street, smoke curling out of the exhaust pipe.

I should have pushed him while I had the chance. Not only did he not tell me what he was doing tonight, but this meeting of his? I bet anything it’s with her, the one he has his eyes on. 

See more series info & more books by Tamara Lyon



The Ugly Tree playlist:

 “The One I Love” R.E.M.

“Blister In The Sun” Violent Femmes

“Smells like teen spirit” nirvana

“End Of The World As We Know It” R.E.M.

“Born To Be My Baby” Bon Jovi

“whole lotta love” led zeppelin

“I’ll Be There For You” Bon Jovi

“With or without you” u2

“Love will keep us alive” the Eagles

“Only you” the platters

Cane’s justice playlist:

 “don’t speak” no doubt

“i shot the sheriff” eric clapton

“crash into me” dmb

“sweet home alabama” lynyrd skynyrd

“better man” pearl jam

“good riddance” green day

“wish you were here” pink floyd

“if tomorrow never comes” garth brooks

The Road to justice playlist:

 “Dream on” aerosmith

“margaritaville” jimmy buffett

“Don’t drink the water” dmb

“hit me baby one more time” britney spears

“u can’t touch this” m.c. hammer

“baby got back” sir mix-a-lot

“good vibrations” marky mark

“satellite” dmb

“i’ve got you under my skin” frank sinatra

“free fallin” tom petty

“it ain’t over ‘til it’s over” lenny kravitz

“at last” etta james
 


In April of 2000, Tamara Lyon left her position in the corporate world to raise her son and pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a published author. Three years later when her husband entered medical school, she started a successful cleaning business to support her family and continued to hone her writing skills.
Her 2009 debut novel, “Fixing Forever Broken”, won the prestigious IPPY Bronze Medal in the romance category. “The Ugly Tree”, released in 2010, was a finalist for several awards, including the prestigious Eric Hoffer Award. Fans adored “The Ugly Tree” and demanded more, and Lyon obliged. The sequel, “Cane’s Justice”, came out in 2013, and the final book, “The Road to Justice”, was released soon after. She’s currently working on a comedic romance titled, “Post-Traumatic Brazilian Wax Syndrome”.
An avid runner and fitness fanatic, Lyon rarely listens to music during workouts, instead using the time to hash out plots and characters. When she’s not exercising or writing, she tours the country as a motivational speaker, dabbles in interior design, and cheers for her son, a junior national champion cyclist. She makes her home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin with her husband, son, and counter surfing and adorable golden retriever, Macy.





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