by Becky Harmon
Attorney Jemini Rivers never planned to return to her childhood home in Riverview, the town that bears her family name. Being called back to deal with the house and property left to her after the death of her grandmother brings all the feelings of hurt and betrayal she had spent years pushing aside. She stopped caring about the people and the town long before she even became an adult.
Deputy Steph Williams grew up in Riverview and has given her heart and soul to the people and the town. She wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else. She also gave up on the hope that Jemini would return many, many years ago…or did she?
Deputy Steph Williams unsnapped the holster on her hip as she slid from the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department cruiser. Using her flashlight, she peered into the windows of the empty car, looking for any identification or illegal items. The black Mercedes with Tennessee plates was too nice to have been abandoned, but she didn’t see any obvious signs that it was disabled. The radio at her belt crackled as the dispatcher identified the owner of the vehicle.
“Jemini Rivers.” Steph shook her head, repeating the name through gritted teeth and lamenting her decision to help out a coworker by working uniformed patrol. She wouldn’t have thought that Jemini would have the courage to return to Riverview, but apparently money still spoke to some people. It had been barely two weeks since Dorothy Rivers had passed away, and Steph’s anger at Jemini for never visiting her aging grandmother was stronger than ever. She slapped the roof of the car, reminding herself that it was her responsibility nevertheless to make sure she was not in danger. “Talk about no good deed going unpunished.”
After making sure the Mercedes was secure, she returned to her cruiser. The closest town, Riverview, was several miles away. It seemed unlikely Jemini would have walked in that direction. Steph was fairly sure she knew where she would find her. Clearing the scene with dispatch, she made a U-turn and headed for Lake View Resort. The entrance gate there was secured at dark, but she knew the owner, Cassie Thomas, wouldn’t turn away a stranded traveler especially if she had an empty cabin.
Steph shoved the turn signal a little harder than necessary as she slowed at the entrance to the resort. Her grip on the steering wheel tightened as she thought about coming face-to-face with Jemini Rivers. Each year on Dorothy’s birthday, Steph had begged her to go to dinner or a movie, but Dorothy had always refused. Instead they sat on the porch and waited for her granddaughter to visit. She never came, shattering Dorothy’s heart on more occasions than Steph could count and leaving her to try to ease the disappointment of her neighbor and surrogate grandmother. She pushed her anger and frustration to the back of her mind. Tonight, she needed to do her job. Later she could replay the emotional turmoil of the last twenty years.
* * *
Jemini entered the Lake View Resort office and smiled at the woman behind the counter. Her shoulder-length, light brown hair was pulled away from her face with a barrette on each side. Clad comfortably in casual gray sweatpants and a rumpled blue T-shirt, she looked like she had been settled in for the evening. Jemini felt bad for disturbing her.
“Thank you so much. I wasn’t sure what to do. My cell phone battery was dead, and I didn’t realize I was traveling without the charger until my car died. I wasn’t sure how far I was from town, but I knew it was an easy walk back to your entrance.”
“No problem.” The woman smiled. “I’m Kathleen. We’re happy to help and we have an empty cabin. Just fill this out and we’ll get you settled in. I can call my son, Greg, to pick up your car in the morning. He works at the repair shop in town.”
“That would be great,” Jemini said as she took the pen Kathleen offered and quickly filled in the registration form. She had been relieved to see the speaker box hanging beside the locked gate when she arrived at the entrance to the resort. Although she made several early morning visits to the gym each week, she was fairly sure Riverview was farther than she would have liked to walk in the dark.
Handing Kathleen the form and her credit card, she glanced around the small office. Two large cushioned chairs sat facing each other in the corner, and a Keurig coffeemaker with several racks of refills held the place of honor in the opposite corner. Adorning the walls were beach and forest photos framed in chestnut wood to match the office counter.
“Cassie should be finished with your cabin. Here’s your key.” Kathleen pointed out the window away from the main road. “Your cabin is the second one on the right. Make yourself at home and call us if you need anything.”
“Great! Thanks, again.” She stepped onto the porch and closed the office door behind her. Turning at the sound of an approaching vehicle, she was surprised to find a sheriff’s department cruiser pulling to a stop in front of her.
The attractive woman who stepped from the cruiser was even more surprising, stopping Jemini in her tracks. Blond hair pulled back in a tight ponytail revealed high cheekbones and expressive blue eyes. As she stepped into the light spilling out from the office, her eyes settled on Jemini and their coldness penetrated her to the core. Jemini kept her voice friendly, even though it was hard not to feel wary at the reaction she was getting.
“Good evening, Deputy.”
“Yes, I am. Is something wrong?”
Startled by the flash of anger in the deputy’s eyes, she forced herself to wait for a response to her question, her mind racing to find an explanation for the hostility. She knew she hadn’t done anything wrong, not that that was always enough nowadays.
The deputy’s voice cracked as she spoke. “I found your car.”
“O-kay.” Jemini broke the word into several syllables, almost making it a question. She wasn’t sure if she should continue talking, but it seemed like the deputy was waiting for an explanation. “The engine died. I had to leave it. I’ve already arranged for it to be towed first thing in the morning.”
“But why are you here?” the deputy demanded.
“What?” Frowning, she took a step closer to the uniformed woman. Could she possibly not have heard her explanation? “My car broke down. I’ll have it towed in the morning.”
The hum of a golf cart interrupted their conversation as it pulled to a stop in front them. The woman driving it was dressed comfortably, like Kathleen inside, wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt. The only inconsistency was her left foot resting loosely on the edge of the cart, which was covered in brown work boots. Her dark hair hung just above her shoulders, moving when she did. It was parted on the side and fell across her eyes as she studied them.
“Hi. I’m Cassie,” the woman said with a soft friendly voice, giving the deputy a strange look before asking. “Is everything okay?”
Jemini was relieved to see the harshness fade from the deputy’s face as her gaze focused on Cassie. She left the officer to answer the question. She wasn’t sure if everything was okay or not.
“Sure, everything’s fine,” the deputy said gruffly.
Cassie still seemed unsure; she gave the deputy a frown. “Hang out for a minute. I’m going to run Ms. Rivers over to her cabin and then I’ll be right back.”
Jemini studied the deputy’s face to see if she would stop her from leaving. When there was no movement, she quickly climbed into the golf cart. Leaving this woman’s presence seemed like a good idea, especially since she didn’t know what she had done to get her so riled up.
As soon as the cart pulled to a stop, Jemini stepped out. Turning, she pulled her briefcase and overnight bag from behind the seat and slowly met Cassie’s curious gaze.
“Thank you for the ride and the room,” she said. She hoped she didn’t sound dismissive, but she really wanted to be alone. She was confused by the unpleasant interaction with the deputy, and she didn’t expect Cassie to be able to clear things up.
“You’re welcome,” Cassie said hesitantly. “Is everything okay?”
“I got the feeling I interrupted something. Did Steph upset you?”
“Steph?” Jemini’s heart stopped. Stephanie? It couldn’t be.
Stephanie Williams. “Oh, right,” Jemini spoke quickly, covering her shock. “She was just asking about my car.”
She turned away from Cassie and climbed the stairs to the cabin. She couldn’t think with Cassie’s inquisitive stare on her. Although thinking was the last thing she wanted to do at the moment. She’d barely arrived in Riverview, and she was already coming face-to-face with her past. Based on the reception she had received from Stephanie it was not going to be a pleasant homecoming.
Remembering her manners, she turned after unlocking the door. “Thank you again. Good night.” Without waiting for a response, she closed the door and rested her head against it. Coming here had definitely been a mistake. With or without her car, she was leaving Riverview tomorrow.
* * *
Resting her head in her hands, Steph closed her eyes. This wasn’t the way she had imagined a meeting going between her and Jemini. She knew their childhood friendship was a thing of the past, but she would never have guessed that she would have trouble forming a sentence in her presence. After all, for twenty years she had been imagining all the things she would say to Jemini if she ever had the chance.
No, things certainly had not gone the way she had planned. She had definitely not been prepared for the beautiful woman she had found herself standing face-to-face with. Jemini wasn’t the horrible monster she had always imagined she would be. The blue suit she wore looked freshly pressed despite the late hour and had been cut to mold the curves of her body. Short dark hair framed her face, setting off deep brown eyes that were several shades darker than her mocha skin.
Steph remembered those eyes. Even as a child they could stop adults in their tracks. Steph had jokingly referred to it as her “lawyer look.” It was the look Jemini said she planned to use on opposing counsel when she became a famous attorney. Though Elaine Jones, a civil rights activist, was the hero Jemini’s mother had chosen for her to follow, it was really actress Phylicia Rashad, from an 80s television sitcom, who taught Jemini her look. Seeing Jemini now, Steph had no problem believing Jemini must have fulfilled her dream.
In a flash, her anger was back, roaring in her ears. She fought the urge to go after Jemini and demand answers. She was so alive and vibrant and Dorothy was gone. It felt so unfair. Taking a deep breath, she stretched her legs out in front of her body. She watched the headlights on the golf cart as it came back toward her and she knew she had two choices: confess her feelings to the driver or leave. Cassie Thomas had already read more in her face than she would have liked to reveal. A one-time girlfriend, Cassie was now her best friend.
“All right, spill it,” Cassie said with a nudge as she dropped down beside her on the steps.
“Let’s start with the look on your face and what it has to do with that woman.”
Steph shrugged and stood. “I should get back to work.”
“Wait a minute.” Cassie stood too. “We haven’t talked in weeks and you’re not going to blow me off. What’s going on with you? Do you know that woman?”
“No, I don’t know her. Not really anyway.”
“What’s that mean?”
“She’s Dorothy’s granddaughter.”
Cassie sank back down onto the steps. “Oh, wow.”
“Yeah.” Steph dropped beside her with a sigh. “Wow is right.”
“What’s she doing here?”
“I asked her the same question, but she didn’t answer. I guess she’s here for the reading of the will.”
“That’s tomorrow afternoon, right?”
“Yeah, at three.”
They sat in silence as the frogs around the nearby lake chirped their nightly tune. Her frustration faded with each moment that passed. She didn’t know how long it would take to get over her sadness at the loss of Dorothy, but she did know seeing Jemini again wasn’t helping.
After a while, Cassie spoke softly, “Did you know she was so beautiful?”
Steph shook her head. “She’s always been an ogre in my mind. Maybe with a few horns.”
“And several extra eyes.”
Their laughter died as the door opened behind them. Kathleen stepped onto the porch and handed each of them a mug of tea. “Hey, Steph,” she said as she ran her hand through the hair on Cassie’s head.
Cassie stood. “Are you going to bed?”
“I am.” Kathleen leaned in for a kiss. “Good night, Steph. It’s good to see you. Come by on Friday for the cookout if you can.”
Steph watched the sappy look Cassie gave Kathleen as she disappeared back inside. She had never seen her this happy. The emptiness she felt at that realization surprised her. Two children, Greg and Chase, and a girlfriend had given Cassie an instant family. She didn’t want her life to be as complicated as Cassie’s had become as a result. She had always liked being alone, but lately…
Cassie took a sip of her tea before speaking. “You should come Friday night.”
“I’ll think about it.” Steph crossed to her cruiser and poured the tea into her travel mug. “You should get inside before Kathleen goes to bed without you.”
Cassie smiled. “Yeah, I’m pretty lucky.”
“Thrown into family life? I’m not sure I’d call that lucky.”
She ducked her head, feeling her ears heat with embarrassment. The words she’d uttered sounded harsh, even to her own ears. She did believe Cassie was lucky to have Kathleen. But that didn’t mean her own life was missing something. She hated the maxim that everyone needed someone to complete them. She didn’t. Well, she was pretty sure she didn’t.
“Greg stays at a friend’s in town most nights, so only Chase is here. It’s been so perfect I have to believe it was meant to be.”
“Just keep telling yourself that,” Steph joked, making sure her quip sounded light this time and ignoring the twinge of loneliness she felt at the thought of returning to her own empty house.
Cassie smiled. “So, we’ll see you Friday night then.”
Handing her empty mug to Cassie, Steph rolled her eyes. “I’ll call you.”
* * *
Cassie watched Steph’s cruiser disappear down the driveway before stepping inside and turning out the lights. She locked the front door and climbed the stairs. In the glow from the hallway nightlight she gently pushed open Chase’s bedroom door and stepped inside. His thin frame was barely visible under the covers. He had grown so much in the last nine months, it was impossible to keep any weight on him. She brushed the hair out of his eyes and kissed his forehead. She gave a whispered thanks for his health and happiness before closing his door enough to block out most of the light from the hallway.
She stepped into the bedroom she shared with Kathleen and smiled as Kathleen glanced up from her book.
“Steph okay?” Kathleen asked.
“I guess. She’s in for a rough couple of days though.”
“Things weren’t rough already?”
She pulled her shirt over her head and tossed her remaining clothes into the laundry basket. Lifting the covers, she slid naked into the bed. Kathleen closed her book and laid it on the nightstand before switching off the lamp.
“What’s going on?” Kathleen asked as she rolled on her side, resting her hand in the middle of Cassie’s chest.
“Jemini is Dorothy’s granddaughter.”
“Why did she come now? Doesn’t she know she missed the funeral?”
“Steph asked but didn’t get an answer. It’s probably been twenty years or more since they’ve had any contact.” She sighed and kissed the top of Kathleen’s head. “Jemini’s mother took her away when she was a kid and she hasn’t been back since.”
“Do you know why?”
“No. Steph never knew. Dorothy wouldn’t talk about it. Every year Dorothy would send Jemini an invitation to visit and Steph would wait with her, but Jemini never showed. It broke Steph’s heart, but Dorothy wouldn’t stop sending the invitations or waiting. She believed one day Jemini would come home to Riverview.”
“That’s so sad.”
“It is, but Steph isn’t sad anymore. Now she’s angry. At the funeral, she said she would throw Jemini in jail if she ever showed up in Riverview.”
“Well, that didn’t happen.”
Kathleen snuggled closer into Cassie’s body. “Chase wants to go horseback riding tomorrow.”
“Chase wants to go horseback riding every day.”
“Yes, but tomorrow is your day to take him.”
“Okay, but I’m going to need pancakes for breakfast.”
Kathleen laughed. “Why are you telling me? You can make pancakes on your own.”
She tightened her arms around Kathleen, her hands sliding across the smooth, familiar skin. “I’ll make them, but you have to eat with us too.”
“I’ll have some eggs, but I can’t eat the way you guys do or I’ll gain forty pounds overnight.”
She groaned. “Let’s stop talking about food. I could eat a pancake right now, and for the record you’re beautiful with or without forty pounds of pancakes.”
Kathleen slid her hand across Cassie’s breast. “I can distract you from food.”
She pushed the covers away, giving Kathleen space to straddle her stomach. “Yes, please do.” She lifted her head and met her lips.
Jemini pulled her only clean suit from the hanger. She hadn’t packed for more than an overnight stay and she hoped her broken-down car wouldn’t ruin that plan. Thankfully, the steam from the shower had helped to disperse the few remaining wrinkles in her beige pants and jacket. Her shirt was a different story, though. She located an iron in the closet and plugged it in.
Everything about the cabin had been perfect, and staying here was certainly more private than the room she had booked at The Riverview Inn would have been. Lake View Resort was definitely more pleasant than Dorothy’s empty house could possibly have been as well. Not that she had even considered staying there, though the attorney had offered that option when he called to tell her about the reading of the will. She didn’t need a crystal ball to understand what that invitation meant, but she couldn’t figure out why Dorothy would leave anything to a granddaughter she had cast away. Apparently Dorothy hadn’t been aware that Jemini had followed in her mother’s footsteps, choosing an openly lesbian lifestyle instead of living a lie. No doubt she would have been banned from Dorothy’s house forever just as her mother had been. Now that she knew Stephanie was still in town and, for all Jemini knew, that she still lived in the caretaker’s cottage next door, she had no intention of setting foot in or near Dorothy’s house.
For the last twenty years, she had avoided any reminiscing, cursing anything that reminded her of happier times in Riverview. But last night she had laid awake for hours thinking about Stephanie. The breathtaking deputy who had stepped out of the car was nothing like the angry woman Stephanie had morphed into seconds later. She had trouble even connecting the two images. Stephanie was beautiful, but that flash of hatred was not what Jemini had expected. Was Stephanie angry because she left Riverview or because she never returned? Did that mean she didn’t know why Jemini’s mother had been banned from Dorothy’s house? Maybe she did know and, now as an adult, she agreed with Dorothy’s cruel words.
As she pressed the hot iron to the wrinkles in her shirt, she remembered the day her mother told her they were leaving Riverview. She had been playing outside with Stephanie, who had returned to her own house to get lunch. When she came inside for her own lunch, her mother had their bags packed and her grandmother was nowhere in sight. As she helped her mother carry their suitcases to the car, she fired nonstop questions that only a child would be brave enough to ask. Why couldn’t she say good-bye to her grandmother and Stephanie? When would she see them again? Where were they going? How long would they be gone? Why were they leaving? The years had not lessened the pain she had felt at losing her grandmother, but learning why it had happened had made it easier to never return.
She finished dressing and packed her few belongings. She didn’t plan on checking out of the cabin yet, but she could always do it over the phone as long as she didn’t leave anything behind. She stepped onto the porch and closed the door behind her. The coolness of the air-conditioned room faded quickly in the morning humidity. One more reason to dislike being back in Florida. The woman who had checked her in the night before stopped as she passed the cabin.
“Good morning, Ms. Rivers.”
“Good morning. Kathleen, right?” She was thankful the name had come quickly to her mind.
“Right.” Kathleen smiled. “I’m taking my morning walk. Would you like to join me? Greg just called to say it’ll be about fifteen minutes before he gets here with your rental car.”
Jemini had never been a fan of one-on-one conversations. Small social interactions made her palms sweat. She preferred to speak in courtrooms where her script was already written, like an actor performing in front of her audience. She was unable to think of a reason not to walk with Kathleen, however, and she didn’t want to be rude. She left her bags on the porch and joined her in the driveway. They crossed to the sidewalk that circled the lake and immediately fell into a relaxed pace.
The lake and surrounding pastures were quiet and peaceful. The only sounds were the chirping of birds and the splashing of water on the lake. The large fountain in its center pushed the water away, causing ripples to cascade to the shoreline on all sides. The path around the water was wide enough for the two of them to walk side by side. Park benches and old-fashioned light posts lined the walkway and she wondered why she hadn’t noticed them last night. She could imagine how pretty it was in the dark. As they passed the empty swimming area, she could see the floating dock anchored not too far from the sandy beach.
“It’s so peaceful here,” she said, breaking the comfortable silence that had developed between them.
Kathleen chuckled. “I thought that too when I first visited. Wait until everyone wakes up and things pick up. No large families, though, this week, so you won’t have the screaming of children to enjoy. Are you visiting or passing through?”
This was what Jemini hated most about one-on-one conversations. She resisted the urge to be short with her answer. “I have business in Riverview.”
“What business are you in?”
“I’m an attorney, but my business here is personal not professional.”
She braced herself for the normal follow-up question but was pleasantly surprised when Kathleen veered in another direction.
“Will you be staying until Friday?”
“I’m not sure. It depends on what happens at my meeting this afternoon.” She cringed as she remembered the dead battery on her phone. “And if I can find a charger for my phone. It’s bad enough being away from my office, but I can’t be unreachable.”
Kathleen nodded. “You’re welcome to use our phone in the office, and if you decide to stay until Friday, you’ll have to come to our cookout. Most of our other guests will attend and sometimes a few friends wander by. In fact, Cassie said she invited Steph. She’s the deputy you met last night.”
Jemini could feel Kathleen’s eyes on her and she fought to keep the heat from her face. Stephanie again. After last night’s reception, she was fairly sure a friend of Stephanie’s was not going to be friend of hers. She had really enjoyed the walk and conversation, but she should probably leave before her real reason for being in Riverview was revealed.
“I don’t think I’ll still be here on Friday, but thank you for the invitation.”
She was glad Kathleen didn’t force conversation to fill the silence between them. With only the occasional sounds from the awakening guests, she was able to appreciate the beauty of the lake and the tree-lined pasture. She considered for a moment the idea that she might want to stay another night. Disappearing into the forest on one of the many trails seemed like a great way to spend the day. The low heels she wore rubbed her feet, reminding her she wasn’t really dressed for a day of relaxation.
As they rounded the end of the lake again and headed back toward the office, a black Toyota Camry pulled to a stop in front of them. A tall, lanky teenager climbed from behind the wheel. His jeans were faded and marked with a few permanent grease stains as was the T-shirt that hung from his shoulders. The smile on his face was huge as he stepped toward them.
“Hey, Greg.” Kathleen gave him a quick hug before turning to Jemini. “This is Ms. Rivers.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am.” Greg shook her hand and then handed her the key to the Camry.
“Likewise,” she said, passing him the key to her Mercedes.
“Jo thinks it might be the fuel pump, which would be an easy fix, but we’ll know more when we get it back to the shop.”
“I have a meeting at three, but I’ll come by after that.”
“Great. We’ll see you then.” He turned to Kathleen. “I better catch up with Jo before she leaves me. She’ll have the car loaded on the truck by now.” He gave a wave and took off at a jog.
Jemini looked at Greg’s disappearing form and back to Kathleen. “I can give him a ride.”
Kathleen laughed. “He’s fine.”
The office door opened and Cassie stepped out flanked by two black, curly-haired dogs. “Was that Greg?”
“Yes, and he’s already gone.”
Cassie smiled. “I swear he never stops moving.”
A small boy dressed in jeans and cowboy boots stepped out of the office behind Cassie. “Did I miss Greg?”
Cassie ruffled his hair. “I’m sorry, Chase. I missed him too. Maybe after our ride we can swing into town and visit him for a minute.”
“Cool and then we can get ice cream.” He didn’t wait for a response but called both dogs and headed for the barn. “Dillon and I will get the horses ready,” he called over his shoulder.
Jemini felt like the outsider she was as she watched the two women share a look and then begin to laugh.
“I guess I better join him or he might leave without me. It was nice meeting you, Ms. Rivers.”
Kathleen turned to Jemini. “I’m sorry if we were distracted by Chase. Cassie just bought him new boots and they seem to have a built-in swagger.”
Jemini chuckled. “How old is he?”
“He just turned ten.”
“He acts older and much more confident than most ten-year-olds.”
“Thank you.” Kathleen’s face flushed with pride. “He was forced to grow up faster than most kids, but now he gets to be a kid again.”
She wanted to ask Kathleen to explain what she meant, but she was reminded of the day she had in front of her. She wasn’t here to make friends, even if she did find these two women intriguing. They were locals and she already knew they were Stephanie’s friends. What was she thinking anyway? She was leaving today. “I guess I should try to find a phone charger.”
“There’s an electronics store beside the diner on Main Street. You can’t miss it.”
“Great! I’m sure I’ll find it then. Thanks.”
She pulled the door of the Camry shut, relieved to finally be alone. She liked Kathleen and Cassie but was a little intimidated by their friendliness and their relationship. She didn’t know a lot of couples that were making it work. Most women she knew were focused on their professions and any women in their life took a backseat. Swinging by the porch of her cabin, she grabbed her overnight bag and the briefcase holding her laptop and headed into Riverview.
* * *
Steph rolled over and groaned as she caught a glimpse of the alarm clock on her nightstand. It wasn’t even nine a.m. She had barely gotten three hours of sleep. When her shift ended at three, she had come straight home, but she hadn’t been able to get Jemini out of her mind long enough to fall asleep. She was too awake to fall back to sleep now, and she knew there was no chance she would be able to catch a nap before her shift at five.
Tomorrow was her last day on this rotation, thank goodness. She would return then to her regular shift. That meant working whenever there was a case, but at least she could take a day off if she needed it.
She poured herself some coffee and stepped outside on the back deck. She couldn’t stop herself from glancing toward the main house even though she knew Dorothy wouldn’t be waiting. Dorothy had always seemed to know when she would be stepping outside with her coffee. That was one more thing Dorothy would never be able to explain now. That and the full story on why Jemini left. She always regretted not pushing her for that, but in the back of her mind, she realized, she had always thought Jemini would come back and explain everything.
Maybe she should give Jemini a chance to tell her side of the story. Her stomach churned at the thought. It was too late for Jemini to make things right. Dorothy was dead and that could not be undone no matter what she had to say.
She dumped her remaining coffee down the sink and changed into her running clothes. As had been her practice for the last week, she stopped at the main house and checked on Ms. Agnes before following the trail into the woods. Agnes Boone was in her seventies and spent most days in her rocking chair on the porch. Still vibrant enough to care for herself, she and Dorothy had shared their meals every day for over ten years. Dorothy had happily remodeled her home, making space downstairs for Agnes and upstairs for Kim and her son Brandon. Money or maybe loneliness had driven Agnes from her home and the same with Kim and Brandon. Kim was working hard to provide for her son when she lost her second job. Like Dorothy, Steph had enjoyed having a kid around again. One that wasn’t her responsibility, that is. At ten, he was a handful of questions and energy, but he brought a youthful vibrancy back into the house. She would check on them this evening after they returned from work and school.
She tried to settle into the rhythmic sound of her shoes hitting the soft ground. Normally running was her key to relax, but today her mind wouldn’t clear. Jemini Rivers was back in town and more beautiful than she could have imagined. She couldn’t remember much about Jemini’s appearance as a kid other than her eyes. She remembered, though, that Jemini didn’t mind touching bugs or relocating spiders from their clubhouse and that she was always the one to put the bait on their hooks when they went fishing. Granted there weren’t any fish in the small stream so neither had had to touch a fish, but she knew if there had been it would have been Jemini who did so.
She slowed her pace as she approached the portion of the trail that crossed the main road. Hearing the hum of a slow-moving vehicle, she stopped, jogging in place. The trail wasn’t visible from the road and she didn’t want to surprise the passing driver. A mid-sized black sedan passed. She didn’t get a good look at it, but she thought it might have turned onto Rivers Pass. Since she and Dorothy were the only ones who owned property on that road, she considered turning around. She wasn’t even halfway to her usual turnaround point, though, and she really needed to burn off her extra energy, so she decided to continue her run. Anyone who needed to see her would have to wait or come back.
* * *
Jemini hit the brakes hard as she turned the Toyota onto Rivers Pass. She hadn’t bothered to get directions to Dorothy’s house before leaving Chattanooga. She had been sure she wasn’t going to come here, but when she left Lake View earlier, she had felt a strange pull to see her childhood home. She didn’t know if she could find it by memory or if she would even be disappointed if she couldn’t. As she remembered her earlier conviction to never step in or near Dorothy’s house, the sick feeling that had plagued her since the attorney’s call about the will returned. The feeling she hated more than anything else in her life. The one that told her she might be making a mistake.
Apparently she remembered more than she thought or maybe the roads hadn’t changed much in twenty years because she had driven straight to the dirt lane which led to Dorothy’s house. The road seemed longer and the house bigger, but the flashback of memories were clear. She pulled to a stop in front of the two-story white plantation house and braced her hands on the steering wheel. The huge front porch that wrapped around both sides of the house still held Dorothy’s rocking chairs. She closed her eyes, letting the pictures and sounds flood her mind, hearing Stephanie’s squeals as they had raced around the house playing hide-and-seek. Stephanie’s fear of bugs had kept her out of most hiding places, and finding her before she could return to base had never been a problem.
Stephanie. Steph. The anguish she had felt the day her mom took her away consumed her again and she fought back a sob. She didn’t know what Stephanie had been told when her best friend left and never came back. She was sure, though, that Stephanie didn’t understand that while Dorothy might have just passed away, for her that loss was twenty years old.
As a teenager, Jemini had rehearsed the words she’d say when she was old enough to return on her own. When her mother finally explained the real reason they had left, though, Jemini was old enough to know she would never be able to return.
She rubbed the moisture from her face. She didn’t allow herself to cry, especially not over memories, but she could still remember what it felt like to be pulled onto Dorothy’s broad lap. How everything was instantly better the second she was wrapped in her loving arms. Skinned knees, bee stings, and a variety of other kid ailments always brought snuggles and cookies. To this day, she avoided baking anything sweet in order to avoid being reminded of Dorothy and the love she had felt.
Movement behind the curtain in a downstairs window caught Jemini’s eye and she quickly wiped her eyes. Who was inside Dorothy’s house? Was it Stephanie? Her pulse raced at the chance to see her again, but she knew at the moment she wasn’t strong enough to face her. She needed the few hours until the reading of the will to tend to the brokenness inside her. Throwing the car in reverse, she turned around and headed for Riverview.
* * *
Steph glanced onto the porch encircling the plantation house. Agnes sat in her favorite rocking chair. Steph hesitated, waiting for Dorothy to join them, before remembering that Dorothy’s memory would be the only thing joining them ever again. The two elderly women would never rock together again while Dorothy waited for whatever needed to be removed from the oven. She searched Agnes’s face for signs of the pain she must be feeling.
“Everything okay?” she asked, hesitating in front of Dorothy’s chair and then dropping onto the porch steps.
“Oh, child. Come up here with me. Dorothy would want you to sit in her chair.”
“Not yet, Ms. Agnes. I just can’t do it yet.” She rubbed her face to clear the memories. “Is everything okay? Did you need something?”
Already lost again in her own thoughts, Agnes continued to rock.
Steph watched her. Agnes was only a year or so younger than Dorothy. She couldn’t help to wonder if she would soon have to say good-bye to her too.
Agnes finally spoke. “There was a car earlier.”
“It pulled up to the house and then just sat there. I hurried inside when I heard it and then was afraid to go back out when they didn’t show themselves. I watched from inside the house until they left.”
“That’s always the best idea when you aren’t sure who’s out there. Could you tell what kind of car it was?”
“It was black.”
Steph nodded. Apparently that was an adequate description as far as Agnes was concerned. “Did it have two or four doors?”
“It had four. I’m sure ’cause I remember thinking it looked like Kim’s car, except it was black.”
Steph remembered the black sedan she had passed on the road, which had indeed looked like Kim’s Honda Accord. Now she wished she had turned around and returned. She didn’t like that Agnes had been worried or that someone had been snooping around.
“I’ll keep an eye out for it. Try not to worry for now. It was probably a solicitor and they didn’t think anyone was at home.”
Agnes nodded, her chair creaking with each push of her feet.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with me to the reading of the will this afternoon?” Steph asked.
“No. No, Dorothy told me everything she needed me to know before she died. I can’t imagine her written wishes will surprise me.”
Steph hesitated and then took the plunge. She wished she was as confident as Agnes about knowing everything Dorothy wanted her to know. Maybe Agnes knew something about Jemini that would make things clearer. “Jemini is in town.”
There was a subtle delay in Agnes’s rocking before it returned to its normal pace.
Steph watched her face, but her expression remained the same. “Do you think Dorothy left the house to her?”
Agnes’s eyes met hers and she nodded.
The angry fire she had been pushing away burned through her again and she jumped to her feet. “Why would Dorothy do that to us?”
“She wanted to bring Jemini home.”
“This is not her home!”
Agnes shrugged. “Dorothy would tell you to listen to your heart. You know what to do.”
This was the worst thing that could happen as far as she was concerned. Agnes seemed resigned to whatever the outcome of new ownership might bring, but Steph was going to put a stop to it all. She would fight.
“I need to shower, but I’ll be around for another hour or so if you need anything or the car returns.” She tried to keep her voice from being harsh. It wasn’t Agnes’s fault they were in this situation.
Agnes gazed off the porch at something only she could see as the chair continued its soothing pace.
Steph followed the path back to her cottage, looking around at the beautiful blooming flowers. Steph’s father had been Dorothy’s caretaker. When he passed away, her mom had continued his landscaping duties, assisted by Steph, who had moved back to the cottage to help out. She had purchased the cottage from Dorothy after her mother died. Her parents had always been fine with the rental arrangement, but Dorothy had understood that Steph needed something more permanent. She had spent countless hours keeping the yard as her parents had designed it—with the supervision, of course, of Dorothy, who had eagerly played the role of Steph’s grandmother, especially after Jemini had left. Steph wished her parents were here to tell her what they could of Dorothy’s secrets. She missed them all very much and couldn’t remember ever feeling so alone.
As she climbed the two steps leading to her small porch, she glanced back at Dorothy’s beautiful house. Dorothy had never complained about outliving her husband and her son or both of Steph’s parents. In fact, she could never remember Dorothy complaining about anything. No matter the situation, Dorothy’s glass was always half-full, never half-empty. Over the years, she and Dorothy had talked about everything—well, everything except why Jemini and her mother had left that day. She had tried to get Dorothy to explain what happened but eventually had given up.
Stomping through her kitchen, she realized she was angrier now than before her run. When Dorothy’s attorney, Gerald Cross, had explained to her that he wouldn’t be able to do an official reading of the will until all involved parties were notified, she had felt sick. Dorothy didn’t have any family other than Jemini and her mother; Gerald had to be referring to them. Given the way they had left and all the years that had passed, she had been confident that neither of them would appear. She’d been wrong obviously. She wasn’t surprised Dorothy had discussed her wishes with Agnes, but she wished she could have had a chance to plead her case against Dorothy leaving everything to Jemini. What would Agnes and Kim do if Jemini sold the house? She had to convince Jemini that it was the wrong thing to do.