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WrittenBy... Jill Lynn Anderson

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ABBOTT AND COSTELNIK
RELATE ON 78
A JOYOUS HEART
SKETCH
SWEET INTERFERENCE
EXCEPTIONAL LIES
WINDSONG

Finished! This is the one I consider my masterpiece. Once lengthy family dramas come into vogue, I'm in!

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Part I

 

Chapter One

 

 

  

            Rose dropped the sterling silver toe rings in the box alongside her car keys and walked through the metal detector. 

            The alarm sounded with an ear-piercing blast.

            “Step back!” the guard shouted.

            Rose studied herself, seeking the item that set off the alarm.

            The guard eyed her up and down.  “You got on one of those brassieres with an underwire?”

            Rose nodded.

            “You’ll have to take the wires out.  This isn’t your ordinary metal detector.  It’s extra-sensitive.”

            “Can I use that ladies’ room down the hall?”

            “No!  It’s for staff only.”    

            “Then where exactly would you like me to go?” Of all the guards Rose encountered in the last few months, this guard was always the most unpleasant. 

            “That’s your problem, but you’re not getting in the visitor’s area until you clear the metal detector.”

            Rose scowled at the guard, and heard a man’s voice behind her. 

            “Jesus Christ. Give the lady a break.  Let her use the staff room.”

            The guard looked at the man, and to Rose’s surprise, actually grinned.  “Hi there, Rudge,” he said.  “How you doing today?”

            Rose rolled her eyes at the guard’s change from nasty to pleasant in front of the man he apparently knew.

            The guard held out a key to Rose. “I’ll allow it this time.”   

Rose snatched the key, and mumbled thanks to the man behind her.

She went to the ladies’ room, took off her bra and returned to the desk, grateful she was wearing a loose, navy t-shirt.  She handed the guard the key, dropped her bra in the box and walked successfully through the metal detector.         

             “I said take the wires out, not take it off.”  The guard’s mouth curled into a lecherous smirk.  “We have a dress code.  No halter tops.  No see-through clothing.  Nothing provocative that might entice the inmates.  I’d say being braless fits into the provocative category.”

            Rose pressed her fingers into her forehead.  “Can I just see my son?  Please.”

            The guard hesitated, but finally closed the box and handed Rose the cardboard tag she’d use to reclaim her items on the way out.   “Name and inmate number?” 

            “Keith Atkins, 100273.”

            Rose sat at one of the small round tables, relieved the lounge was fairly empty for a change.  The man who’d been behind her in line was exiting the room through a door in the back.  A young couple sat to Rose’s left; the girl biting her nails until the inmate pulled her hand from her mouth.  A middle-aged couple sat to Rose’s right, and she sensed by their pinched facial expressions they were mid-argument.           

            The first time Rose had visited she thought she’d have to talk to Keith on a telephone through a glass wall like she’d seen on television shows.   It was such a relief to discover the visitor’s lounge resembled the social hall at the VFW that it took her a couple visits to realize how much she hated the place. She hated the sticky film that always greeted her elbows when she rested them against the red vinyl tabletop.  She hated the antiseptic smell, hated the guards, hated the other visitors.  Mainly, Rose hated her firstborn child was inmate number 100273.

            “Mom.” Keith walked toward her.

            As always, Rose swallowed emotion at the sight of him dressed in the fluorescent yellow prison garb.  

            She forced a smile. “Hi. How are you?”

            He sat down and shrugged.  “The same.  Bored.  Food sucks.”

            “They treatin’ you okay?”

            Keith shrugged again and she watched his gaze travel to the guard.  He touched her leg beneath the table and whispered, “Give this letter to Meredith.”         

“No!” she said.  “You stay away from that girl.  She’s the reason you’re here.”

            “No, she’s not.  Her son-of-a-bitch daddy is the reason I’m here.”

            “Watch your language.”

            Keith rolled his eyes.  “Like I ain’t heard you cuss the same a million times.  Come on, give her the letter.”

            “I said no.”

            Keith’s eyes flooded with disappointment and she changed the subject. “Your dad been to see you?”

            “About three weeks ago.” 

            “Did he bring Paula?”

            “No. She’s…”  He lowered his gaze.

            Rose sensed his reluctance. “She’s what?”

            “Pregnant again.  Due in November.”

            Rose’s heart thumped.   

            “Dad found me a new lawyer,” Keith said.  “That other lawyer screwed me when he said I’d only get three months if I pled guilty.”        

            “I know.”

            “I need to get out of here. I worry about you. I worry about Valerie.”

            “We’re okay.”

            “What about money though?  Losing my income has to be…”

            “I never did have two nickels to rub together. Was never your job to change that.”            

            “I feel like I’m going crazy sometimes.” He looked at her with pleading eyes.  “Please, Mom, give Meredith the letter.   If I can’t see her, at least let me write to her.”

            “Don’t be stupid.  Haven’t you learned anything?”  

            “How’s being in love stupid?”  

            Rose shook her head.  “You’re too young.” 

            “Am not. We’re getting married when I get out of here.”

            “Over my dead body.”

            “You married Dad when you were younger than me.”         

            “Yeah, look how that turned out.”

            Keith scowled and shook his head. “Is that why you’re so cynical?”

            “No!” Rose choked in disbelief.   “I’m cynical because you’re in prison for getting involved with Meredith in the first place.”

            “Nothing’s going to change the way we feel about each other.”

            Rose sighed in frustration.  “Change the subject.”

            Keith leaned back, stretched his long legs out in front of him.  They sat in sullen silence until Rose finally spoke. “You realize what today is, don’t you?”        

His eyes clouded with sorrow.  She knew hers wore the same dulled look.  He nodded. “Courtney’s birthday.” 

She reached across the table and stroked his forearm, comforted by the sturdy contour of his bones.  That this six foot one inch young man was the same bright-eyed, skinny boy she’d raised never ceased to amaze her.  The shine in his caramel-colored hair still caught the light, but the brightness in his green eyes had diminished these past few months.    

            “How’s Valerie?” he asked.    

            Rose smiled weakly.  “Mad as me because I won’t let her go to Girl Scout camp.  Mad at me because I won’t bring her to see you.”

            “I don’t want her seeing me in here.”

            “I know, but you could write her more often.”

            “I’ll try.” 

            They continued to talk about Valerie, and any subject other than Meredith, until the guard indicated their time was up.  Rose gave Keith the brief, awkward hug the prison allowed before the guard escorted him away.  This was always the hardest part.  The pain that she couldn’t take him with her mixed with guilt at her immense relief that she could now leave.  She visited him once or twice a week, but could never get out fast enough.

            She reclaimed her possessions, shoved the car keys in her shorts’ pocket and slipped the rings on her toes.  She walked outside into the hot Louisiana sun.

            She tossed her bra into the backseat of her car, started the ignition and begged the air conditioner to blow cold air for a change.  It didn’t, and she rolled down the car windows.  She drove out of the parking lot and saw the man who had come to her defense in the visitor’s lounge pulled off to the side of the road; the hood of his car open.  

            She pulled up and opened her door.  “Need help?”  

            He glanced at her from under the hood. “Not unless you’re a tow truck.”

            “Can I give you a ride somewhere?”

            “I’d be grateful.  I live just a few miles away.”

            “No problem.  It’s the least I can do after you helped me with that guard.”

             “That old blowhard.”  He tapped the hood shut.  “Don’t let him get to you.”

            “Name’s Rose Atkins.  You’re Rudge?”

            He shrugged. “Real name’s Quinn.”

            Rose eyed his suit as he walked toward her car. “You a lawyer?”

            “No, a parole officer.”

            “You might want to lose that suit jacket,” she said. “The A/C’s not working too good.”

            He took off his jacket to reveal a well-maintained physique and a leather shoulder strap complete with holstered revolver.  At five foot ten herself, Rose always appreciated the height of others.  Watching him try to fit his long body into the passenger seat normally occupied by her eleven-year-old told Rose he was six foot three. 

            She gestured to the gun.  “Don’t your parolees like you?”   

            He smiled.  “Not all of them.”

            The brightness of his smile tugged Rose in and she looked at him closer.  Strong, angular facial bones were complemented by blue-green eyes that held a piercing gaze and enough maturing at the edges to act as the perfect coordinate to the hint of gray in his dark hair.          

            She smoothed a hand over her blonde waves. “Point me in the right direction.”  

            “Keep straight for now.  Were you visiting your husband?”

            “No, I’m divorced.” She stopped at a red light.  “My son.”

            Rose caught him admiring her legs.

            “You’re wearing rings on your toes,” he said, and then looked startled as if he hadn‘t meant to say it out loud.

            Rose wiggled her pink-polished toes inside the sandals. “You like them?  People either think they’re sexy or trashy.  Which do you think?”

            “Combination of both.” He smiled and pointed ahead.  “Your light’s green.”

            She looked at his hand before she hit the gas.  No wedding band.

            “Turn right at the stop sign,” he said.  “Second house on the left.”

            Rose had a sixth sense when it came to men, and wasn’t surprised when he invited her in.  Of course, her hint helped in the process. “Sure is hot for May.”

            “Can I offer you something cold to drink?  Unless there’s somewhere you need to be.”

            “I can come in for one. I don’t have to be at work until five.”

            “Where’s work?” He asked as they walked to his house.

            “I have two jobs.  I work at a custom furniture shop during the day and at a beauty salon a few nights a week.”   

            He unlocked his front door and they stepped inside. “Soda, beer, mixed drink?” 

            “A beer would be great.”

            “Make yourself comfortable.”

            She sat on the couch and heard him in the kitchen preparing the drinks while he talked on the phone canceling appointments because of his car.  His living room wall held a montage of small photos hanging alongside three framed photos of babies.       

            Quinn returned--revolver gone and shirt sleeves rolled up.  He handed Rose her beer and she detected the sweet scent of whisky in his drink.  

            She pointed to the baby photos.  “Your kids?”

            “Yes, but they’re grown now.”  He sat on the other end of the couch.  “My son’s thirty-two and my girls are thirty and twenty-seven.”

            Rose’s lifted her eyebrows in surprise.  She’d estimated him ten years her senior. “You don’t look old enough to have kids that age.”          

            “Fifty-three.”  

            “You look younger. I thought you were in your mid-forties.”

            “Thanks.  Good genes, I guess.”

            “Your kids still live around here?”

            “Two do. One daughter’s in Michigan.”

            “I have a little girl too.” Rose took a long swallow of the beer.  

            “What’s your son in for?”

            “Stupidity,” Rose said.

            Quinn chuckled.  “What does the state call it?”

            Rose shook her head.

            “Come on. I’m a parole officer.  I’ve heard everything.”

            Rose cleared her throat.  “For having sex with a juvenile.”

            She watched to see if he flinched as others would.  He didn’t.

            “How old is he? How old’s the girl?” he asked.

            “He’s eighteen.  She’s sixteen. They don’t call it jailbait for nothing.”

            “She wouldn’t be jailbait in most states unless she was under sixteen, but here it’s seventeen,” Quinn said. “But it’s a misdemeanor.  Should have just got fined.”

            “Oh, he got fined too. Two thousand dollars,” Rose said.  And three years in prison.”

            “What?  It was consensual sex, wasn’t it?”

            “Yes, of course!  She’s his girlfriend.  Prosecutors tried to say that at first.  That he forced her.  But his girl defended him.  Guess I got to give her credit there.”

            “If all the eighteen year olds sleeping with girls sixteen were doing time, there wouldn’t be enough prisons to hold them.  Does he have priors or a juvenile record?”

            “No.” 

            “Then why the prison time?  He should have gotten probation at the most.”  

            “Because he picked the wrong girl is why.  Her dad’s a cop.  Good buddies with the judge.”

            Quinn moved his hand in a swirling motion and the ice cubes in his drink clinked against the glass.  “What’s his name?  State cop?”

            “No, he’s with the Lafayette Sheriff‘s Department.  Name’s Willard Dawson.  He caught Keith and Meredith together naked as the day they were born and beat Keith so bad with a shovel, I had to take him to the emergency room.  Keith’s hand is still messed up.”

            “I think I’ve met Dawson.  Stocky build, handle-bar mustache?”

            Rose nodded.  “The charges I pressed against him got laughed out of court.  Corrupt fucking system you work for.  My son didn’t deserve what he got.  He’s a good kid basically.  He didn’t know he was doing anything wrong.  He thinks he’s in love.” Rose rolled her eyes. 

            “And you don’t think that’s possible for someone so young?”

            “I ain’t sure it’s possible for anyone.”

            “A cynic, huh?”

            “That’s the second time I’ve been called that today. Guess I am. But mainly I think Keith’s being stupid.  Of course, it’s no surprise.  Stupidity runs in my family.”

            He laughed.

            “You think I’m kidding?” Rose chided.  “I’m not.  I’ll give you an example. Guess what my maiden name was?”

            He shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Petal? Thorn?” He chuckled.

            “Yes!  Well, it’s Thoren.  T-h-o-r-E-n.  When I was nine I asked my mom why she named me Rose and she said, ‘because it’s a pretty name.’  And I said, ‘But it don’t go right with the last name.’ She just stared at me with this blank expression. She didn’t get it.  She never realized she named me rose thorn.   That, Mr. Parole Officer, is stupidity.”

            He laughed heartily and she smiled.

            “You have a pretty smile,” he said.  

            “Thanks, but don’t have much to smile about.”        

            “Because of your son or something more?”

            She shrugged. “Just tough.”

            “Tough or bitter? There’s a difference.”

            “Don’t feel like talking about it,” she said. “In fact, don’t feel like talking at all.”

            Rose knew she was being forward, but need propelled her across the couch.  She needed strong arms around her today.  And from what she could see his arms looked plenty strong.   She slid next to him.  “I might be bitter, but I taste real sweet.  Want a taste?” 

            His expression was one of shock, but he laced a finger around one of her belt loops, tugged her forward and kissed her.  

            “Tastes real sweet,” he said. 

            “Have another.” She lifted her face to his and when their lips met she stroked his leg. 

            He broke their kiss and smiled.  “I notice you’re not wearing a bra. Could be enticing, you know.”

            When he kissed her again, he slid his hands under her t-shirt and Rose knew she’d found what she was looking for--mindless sensation to obliterate tortured memories.

            She tongued his earlobe and whispered.  “Got a bed?”

            He kissed her with a rough abandon that quickened her pulse before leading her into the bedroom. 

            They had raw, feverish sex the first time and slow, good-for-the-complexion sex the second.  

            She lay with him afterwards in awkward silence.  He had her breaths coming in rasps, but as pleasure subsided, shame crept in.   She tried to reassure herself it wasn’t another one-night stand.  After all, it wasn’t night.  It was three thirty in the afternoon. 

            Three thirty!  She had to get going.  She had to pick up Valerie from Girl Scouts.

            “I need…” she started, but stopped when she looked at his face.  What she first thought was perspiration shining beneath his eyes was on closer inspection tears.

            With tenderness filling her, she reached out to touch his cheek just as she heard a noise outside the room.  Someone else was in the house. 

            Quinn jumped and scrambled off the bed.

            And Rose knew immediately.  “Goddamnit. You’re married.” 

He nodded.

She flew off the bed and dressed quickly. “Is it your wife?” she whispered. 

            “No,” he said at the same time the other person in the house spoke.

            “Dad, you here?”

            Quinn spoke in a hushed voice. “My son.”

            “Dad?” she heard again.

            “Hold on,” Quinn called out and then whispered to Rose.  “Please, just stay quiet and I’ll get rid of him.  Then I can explain.”

            “For Christ’s sake.  Save your breath.” 

            Rose walked to the bedroom window and pushed aside the curtains.  She gasped in alarm when a cat hissed at her and jumped off the window sill.   She opened the window and looked below.  About eight feet.   She threw one leg over the window sill, twisted her body over the ledge and jumped. 

            She hit the ground and stumbled, but stayed upright.  

            She rushed to her car, looking left and right to assure no one was around. 

            Fucking married. 

            She started the engine, hit the gas too hard, and the car sputtered and stalled.  She turned the ignition again and looked down at her foot pumping the gas pedal. 

            “Damnit!”  She’d lost one of her toe rings. 

***

            “Good God,” Quinn muttered as he watched her car sputter up the street. He couldn’t believe she jumped.           

            “Dad, where’re you at?” 

            Quinn walked out of the bedroom, shirt unbuttoned.  “Right here.”

“What happened?  You ok?” Mitch asked.

            “Of course.” Quinn swallowed.  “Why?  Don’t I look ok?”

            “I saw your car on the side of the highway.”

            “Oh, that.” Quinn barely contained his sigh of relief. “Broke down.” 

“Do you have company? There’s a blue Chevy parked out front.” 

            “No.” Quinn glanced away from him. “Probably someone visiting the neighbors.  Aren’t you off work earlier than usual?”

            “Summer schedule started.  I was on my way home when I spotted your car.” 

            Quinn nodded. “Damn fuel pump again.”

            “Were you planning to go to the hospice tonight?” Mitch asked.

            “I was.

            “I’ll drive you.  I haven’t gotten up there to see her for awhile.  Any change?”

            It took all Quinn’s restraint not to shout, but instead to talk in a normal tone. “No.  Still unresponsive.”

             “She doesn’t even look like Mom anymore.” Mitch frowned.  “What time do you want to go?”

            “Whenever you’re ready.”

            “All right.  I’m going to run home, change clothes.  About six?”

            Quinn nodded.

            “You sure you’re ok?  You look, I don’t know…” Mitch shook his head.

            Guilty, Quinn thought.  I look guilty.  “Just tired.  And hot.  I was just about to hit the shower.  It’ll help.”

            “Ok.  Later.” Mitch started toward the door, but turned back.  “Hey, almost forgot.  Can I borrow your reciprocating saw again?”

            “Go ahead.  It’s in the garage.”

            Finally, Quinn was alone. His limbs were tingling from the physical pleasure followed so rapidly by the anxiety Mitch’s sudden appearance produced.  He walked into the bedroom and looked at the rumpled bed.  He grabbed the sheets, gave them a shake and heard something metallic hit the dresser.  A coin?  No.  Her toe ring.   

            So she had been real.  It all happened so fast, the experience already had a surreal quality. But he felt rejuvenated.  Wonderful.  Happy to be alive.  

            And with that thought, hollowness gripped his stomach.  He shouldn’t have done it. It was wrong.  He didn’t regret being with another woman as much as he regretted knowing Emma would understand if she knew. And it was that very understanding that smothered Quinn with sorrow.  If Emma would miraculously awaken and be healed, she’d forgive his infidelity.  But Emma was never going to wake.  Was never going to heal.  Following three strokes within four months, she lapsed into a coma.  The doctors assured him she would either slip into death or awaken and begin a long recovery within the next few days.  That was twenty-one months ago.   

            Only the small portion of her brain that kept her breathing still functioned.  What kept her alive was a feeding tube Quinn refused to have removed until his children accepted what he finally had.  Emma was gone. There would be no miracle.

            Quinn understood his dual feelings of wonder and remorse about being with another woman was part of the grieving process.  A step in getting on with his life.  He and Emma had even talked about this possibility following her first stroke.  She insisted if anything more happened, he was to live his life to its fullest.  He promised he would.   And if lineage meant anything, his life was nowhere close to being over. His parents were upstate still farming the land on which Quinn had been raised and his grandparents had thrived into their mid-nineties. 

            While Emma would understand his intimacy with another woman, Quinn wasn’t sure she would approve of someone like Rose.   She would think Rose cheap and tawdry.  Or did he think it?  Oh, he thought her pretty enough.  Her long legs, shapely behind and seductive laugh more than compensated for her smallish bust, but actions speaking louder than words, she fit her appearance--a dirty blonde.

            Rose.  Wild rose.  She certainly wasn’t shy.  Certainly held nothing back.  At least not physically.  After twenty-four years of parole work, Quinn could read people with quick accuracy.  More than her son was troubling her. 

            But why the hell was an eighteen-year-old sentenced to three years for having consensual sex with his girlfriend?  It was a misdemeanor.  Felons were serving less time.

            “Corrupt fucking system you work for. My son didn’t deserve what he got.  He’s a good kid basically.”

            If Quinn had a dollar for every mother who said her kid didn’t deserve what he got, he would be a very rich man.  There had to something more to the story than Rose was telling.  Otherwise, something indeed smelled foul.              

***

            Valerie pressed her fingers together and recited the oath. “On my honor, I will try to serve my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout law.”

            “All right.  Has everyone turned in their permission slips for Camp Willobee?” Mrs. Andrews asked.  “Valerie, I don’t think I have yours.”

            “I ain’t going.”  Despite her disappointment, Valerie held her chin high until Jessica and Katy Lou snickered.

            “Girls, now that’s not nice,” Mrs. Andrews scolded.

            “So what, Katy Lou!” Valerie said.  “I still got three more badges on my sash than you.  And before you get back from Camp Willobee, I’ll have another.”

            “Which badge are you going to work toward?”  Mrs. Andrews asked.

            “My history badge.”

            “Do you understand all three requirements?”

            “I think.” Valerie opened the Girl Scout handbook.  “First, I have to write down my family history.”       

            “That’s right.  Remember to include family photos.”

            “Then I’m supposed to visit an old house and find out when it was built and stuff.   Mrs. Jenkins from the library helped me figure it out.  I’m going to ride my bicycle to visit one of those old houses on Featherton Lane.”

      Featherton Lane?  Valerie, that’s over fifteen miles. Does your mom let you ride that far?”

            “Sure she does.” Valerie cringed, waiting for Mrs. Andrews to call her a big old liar.  But all Mrs. Andrews did was remind her to be careful. 

            Valerie’s mom would murder her if she knew she planned to ride her bike on the highway.  But Valerie didn’t care.  She was mad at her mom anyway.

            Valerie couldn’t believe she was the only Girl Scout not going to Camp Willobee. Plus, she wasn’t even going to visit Grandma and Grandpa in Florida like they planned this summer on accounta Keith being in jail.  Her mom didn’t want them to know Keith was under arrest and she said Valerie would tell if she saw them. Valerie swore she wouldn’t, but her mom said she had a big mouth and would.  So, no Florida for her.  No Disney World either. 

            Sometimes Valerie cried because Keith was in jail.  Katy Lou said it was because he stuck his thing in Meredith, but Valerie didn’t think so.  That’s how you make babies.  It ain’t why you got thrown in jail. 

            Valerie thought it would be nice if Meredith had a baby.  Valerie liked Meredith on accounta she always gave her licorice.  Valerie sure didn’t like Meredith’s daddy though.  He beat up Keith so bad, her mom had to take him to the hospital.

            That’s why when Keith first went to jail Valerie thought he died, like Courtney, and she just wasn’t being told the truth.   But then Keith talked to her on the telephone and she knew he hadn’t died.      

            Anytime she asked why Keith was in jail, her mom and dad said she was too young to understand.  She wished she was older like Courtney had been.   She wished she was as pretty too.

            Lots of times when Valerie was at the beauty parlor, she put on the long gold wig and pretended she was Courtney.  Courtney had gold hair like Mom’s, but she and Keith got light brown hair like their dad’s.   The hairdressers told Valerie she was lucky to have pretty hazel eyes and nice arched eyebrows like her mom’s.  But Valerie didn’t feel lucky.  She’d rather have golden hair than nice eyebrows. 

            Valerie liked being at the beauty salon while her mom cut and colored the ladies’ hair.  If Valerie got the broom out of the closet and swept the little pieces of hair off the floor, Lottie gave her a dollar at the end of the night.   Her mom had even opened her a savings account, and she now had thirty seven dollars.  And as she heard the telltale sound of her mom’s horn blaring outside, she knew she’d earn another tonight. 

            “Let’s go!” her mom hollered.

            Valerie got in the car and folded her arms across her chest. “Everybody’s going to Camp Willobee except me.”

            “Seat belt,” her mom said.

            “I got thirty seven dollars.  All I need is…” She stopped and tried to subtract in her head.

            “Seat belt!”

            Valerie snapped on her seat belt lickity split.  Her mom meant business.     

            They got to the parking lot and rushed up the three steps into the beauty shop.

            “You’re late,” Lottie scolded.

            “I know.  Sorry.”

            “You know that’s one thing I can’t tolerate.”

            Rose nodded.  Lottie was lenient about most things, and especially understanding in allowing her to bring Valerie to work with her, but tardiness always rattled her.  

            “It would be one thing if I didn’t know you had the day off from your other job.”

            “Won’t happen again,” Rose said. 

            “Hmph. Yes, it will.” 

            Rose prepared her work station next to Lottie’s. 

            “Why’s she wearing such a scowl today?” Lottie asked, as Valerie stomped into the back room of the shop and slammed the door behind her.

            “She’s mad because I won’t let her go to Girl Scout camp.”            

            “Why?” Lottie asked.

            “I just said.  She’s mad because…”

            “No,” Lottie interrupted.  “I mean why won’t you let her go?”

            “Money.  I swear I’ll scream if she says one more time ‘It’s only one hundred thirty dollars.’ Only!”

            Lottie shook her head.  “Isn’t Denny paying his child support?”

            “Not the full amount.”           

            “Do you say anything to him?”

            “Not really. I believe him when he says he really doesn’t have it to send.  Besides, he hired a new lawyer for Keith.”

            “Did you go see him this morning?  How’s he doing?”

            “Moody.  Miserable.  Each time I see him I notice his personality changing.”

            “Been how long now?”

            “One hundred thirteen days.”

            “I saw Meredith last week, and she looks rather miserable herself.  Works at that new K-mart.”

            “I don’t care how she is.”

            “Oh, Rose, you liked Meredith fine before all this happened.”

“Well, that was then and this is now.” Rose walked to the front of the shop. “You can come back now, Annie.”

            “Hiya Rose,” Annie said.

             Rose pumped the foot pedal to adjust the height of the chair.

            “You look pretty tonight,” Annie said.

            Rose waved her hand in dismissal. “Oh, I do not.”

            Annie turned to Lottie.  “Lottie, doesn’t Rose look good tonight?  She’s got a glow about her.”

            Lottie studied Rose’s face and her eyes widened.  “You had sex!”

            “I did not.”

            “Liar,” Lottie said. “I can tell by how your cheekbones get all shiny.  No wonder you were late.”  

            Annie laughed.  “Do tell, Rose.  Who was he?”

            Rose shrugged.

            “Spit it out,” Lottie said.

            Rose sighed, knew with their love for gossip they wouldn’t let it go.  “Just some parole officer I met at the prison today.”

            “My word, Rose!” Lottie scolded. “Another cheap fling?”

            “Flings are all I have time for.”

            “That’s not true.” Lottie shook her frosted head of hair in obvious disapproval.  “It’s the way you want it and it’s not moral.”

            “Are you going to see him again?” Annie asked.

            “I don’t think so,” Rose said, without elaborating.  She wasn’t about to tell them he’d conveniently forgot to mention he was married.  

            “Think about what you’re teaching Valerie,” Lottie continued.

            “She doesn’t know.”

            “Don’t underestimate her.  And, for that matter, what’d you teach Keith?”

              Rose was taken aback.  It probably wouldn’t hurt so much if she hadn’t already wondered that a million times.   

             “Sorry, Rose.  I shouldn’t have said that.  But you’re the one who vowed to change after that.” 

            “I have changed.  It was just a bad day…the date...never mind.” 

            “Know what your problem is?” Lottie asked.

            “No, but I’m sure you’re about to tell me.”

            “Problem is you don’t think much of yourself.  You somehow got it in your head you’re not worthy of a man’s love.  And it isn’t true, Rose.  You’re a good woman.  Just a little sharp around the edges.”

            “Thorns, Lottie,” Rose said. “They’re called thorns.”

 

  

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