Authors: Susan May Warren
Tags: #FICTION / Christian / Romance, #FICTION / General
“And wrote the school fight song in shaving cream on the side of the building.”
Trudi put her fingers to her lips. “That wasn’t me, remember?”
“Trudi’s right. I was just trying to have fun. But it didn’t help that I skipped a few classes.”
“You failed gym, sweetie.”
“It was first hour
—it interfered with my donut run.”
She got a laugh out of Jack.
“My reputation preceded me and eventually convicted me. On prom night, the kitchen wing of the country club caught fire. Unfortunately, I’d been seen with a cigarette by the back door near the trash, where it started. The fact is, it was Boone’s
—but a few of his drunken friends pointed the finger at me, and Boone . . . well, he had a scholarship to protect.”
“And it wasn’t like Director Buckam
—would have let his own son take the rap for it anyway.” Trudi
clearly remembered that night as well as PJ. “I’ll never forget the look on your face as they hauled you away in your prom dress.”
“You spent prom night in jail?” Jack looked genuinely sympathetic. “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Yeah, well, I could have used your defense when my mother showed up at 2 a.m. She’d woken our family lawyer, and they went behind closed doors with Director Buckam. The next thing I know, he’s dropping the charges in exchange for a terse agreement that I leave town after graduation.”
“I always wondered why you didn’t fight it, PJ.” Trudi handed a teething ring to Chip.
“Maybe a part of me wanted to leave. I could just imagine the court battle
—it would be, at the very least, ugly. Besides, my mother had already handed over a fat check to the country club director
“I think Roger Buckam just wanted you away from his golden son.” Trudi touched PJ’s arm, something firm and true inside those hazel eyes. PJ leaned into them like a beggar. “But more people knew the truth than you think. Word on the street was that PJ took the rap for someone else. Someone like Boone.”
PJ blinked, breaking her gaze away, looking at the sun now half-gone, an orange shimmer gulped by the hunger of the night.
“Innocent until proven guilty,” Jack said.
“Except in Kellogg.” The words in PJ’s throat scraped it raw, and she swallowed against a fresh, unexpected pain.
“So, PJ and her prom night live in infamy,” Jack said.
Oh, he had no idea. The fire was just the public part of the night’s infernos. PJ drew in the sand.
“I think it takes a lot of guts for her to come back.”
PJ lifted her eyes in time to see Trudi’s wink.
Jack murmured something, pressed a kiss to his wife’s head.
PJ resisted the impulse to fill the silence with words that might diminish everything Trudi had just given her.
“Isn’t that cute,” Trudi said softly, finally. “David is reading to Chip.”
PJ glanced at Davy. He held a book open on his lap while Chip sat in rapt attention. “
The Little Rabbit Who Wanted Red Wings
. I love that story. Always wanted a pair of red wings.”
“I thought the moral of the story was to be who you were created to be,” Jack said.
“Yeah, that too.” PJ leaned back, putting her arm over her eyes.
“You know, if I’d known you were coming back to town, I would have made sure Jack’s cousin was around. He’s single.”
PJ shook her head. “Thanks, Trudi, but the last thing I need in my life at the moment is romance. I have to find a job, not to mention a place to live.”
“And what about Boone?”
What about Boone? So what if he could still turn her to liquid with a look. She refused to be that girl. She was a new creation. Not Boone’s girl. “What about Boone? This isn’t high school anymore.”
“So you’re sticking around after Connie comes home?”
PJ lifted her arm, squaring with Trudi’s gaze. The warmth in her eyes prompted her to shrug, add a smile.
For today, that would have to be enough.
“Can you believe I kept all this junk?” PJ dumped the top drawer of her desk onto the floral bedspread. Out tumbled pencils and paper clips, senior pictures, dried nail polish, an old tube of pink lipstick, a dog-eared book
The Littlest Horse Thieves
, a story she’d always somehow identified with
—and an envelope.
Elizabeth turned from where she’d decided to dust the dresser, a soiled rag in her hand. “It was your room, PJ. I tried not to interfere.”
PJ opened her mouth, a retort balling on her tongue. Did her mother have some kind of memory loss? What about the time she’d stood over her for an entire weekend like a prison warden and made her sort through every sheet of paper in her desk, try on every T-shirt for size? Her mother had done everything to this room but move in. Even the wall color had been Elizabeth’s choice.
PJ closed her mouth, picked up the envelope, and dumped the contents on the bed. Tiny, slick-backed patterned shapes mounded on the comforter. “My Girl Scout badges.” She picked one up. “Oh, look, my safety award badge.”
Elizabeth reached out for it, and PJ handed it over. Outside, the sun winked at her, beckoning, the breeze warm and sweet through the bedroom window. When her mother had called this morning, PJ had agreed to one hour of cleaning and sorting.
One had run into three, with most of her clothing now boxed up in the give-to-charity pile. She still had to go through the boxes of memorabilia in the closet.
Thankfully she had to pick Davy up from school in an hour. And of course, it was important to be on time.
Her mother ran her thumb over the tiny green triangle, something distant in her eyes.
“I don’t think I ever did all the requirements for this badge.” PJ sorted through the pile. She never did get her sewing badge
—hence why the badges had never been sewn onto her sash.
“Oh, I think so. Remember the car safety instructions? and the family fire exit plan?” Elizabeth smiled, as if reliving the day PJ plotted out the house exits and made them rehearse their escape, complete with waking from a “sound sleep” in their beds. “Remember how your father pretended to snore?”
PJ let that memory seep into her, seeing her father lying on his bed, still in his suit; Connie in her room; PJ, the fire marshal, feigning sleep in her own, one hand on the fire alarm buzzer. When she pushed it, they all came alive
—except her father, who pretended to sleep through the alarm.
If Mrs. Johnson, her troop leader, had only known that they’d
failed miserably, thanks to her father’s playacting and the fact that he grabbed both her and Connie and held them down, tickling them until they all died of asphyxiation, if not giggles.
PJ ran a finger under her eye. “Yeah, he never did take the safety badge seriously.”
“I’d say that probably neither did Mrs. Johnson, the way she acted when you broke the school door.”
“You remember that?” PJ glanced at her mother, who handed back the badge and began wiping out the inside of a dresser drawer.
“Of course. I showed up at school, and there you were, sitting on the steps sobbing, Mrs. Johnson standing over you, screaming.”
“I couldn’t believe that I’d broken the door. We were just playing
—tag, I think
—and I slammed the glass door and tried to hold it shut with my . . . my . . .”
“Your backside.” Elizabeth looked up, something unreadable in her eyes.
“Yeah. After that everyone called me . . .”
PJ stared at her. “You knew?”
Elizabeth pushed in the dresser drawer. Its pewter handles rattled. “I was so angry with Mrs. Johnson for screaming at you. You were simply white with fear. She made it seem like you did it on purpose, when everyone knew perfectly well that Jaycee Cummings and Shelley Mortinsen were chasing you through the building. She and I had it out the next day. I told her she should never have blamed it on you.” She turned back to her work, scrubbing out another drawer.
“I didn’t know you did that, Mom.”
Elizabeth didn’t look at her, simply closed the next drawer.
“Sometimes, someone just needs a champion. Don’t forget those boxes under your bed.”
PJ slipped the badges back into the envelope. “I think I’ll sew these onto a sash after all.”
* * *
PJ ripped the pink slip into tiny squares and dropped it into the trash under the sink. A warning. In
As if she tried to be late.
Did they not know the time it took to wrestle her guilt, oatmeal pot in hand, before she surrendered to a box of Lucky Charms? And the hunt for Davy’s uniform consumed at least half the morning.
Where was the grace?
She picked up Davy’s half-eaten hamburger and slid it into the disposal. He grinned at her, the frosting from an oatmeal cookie wedged in his teeth.
Roughage. That’s what she would call it.
She rinsed off the dish and slid it into the dishwasher, drying her hands before her finger hovered over the blinking red light of the answering machine.
It was probably a message for Connie. From her office.
It could, however, be Boone, making good on his threat.
Or maybe it
Connie, calling from a beach in Mexico.
Except what if it was Boone, leaving a little verbal bomb to terrorize her night? She hadn’t heard a word from him since yesterday, and she’d routed the urge to call him when Boris met her this morning armed with a towel and a bucket of water. She’d have to check some of her translations on her list of rules.
In the next room, under the soft twilight hues turning the office crimson, Boris sat at Connie’s computer, surfing. He’d bargained away his religious freedom for an hour on Connie’s computer.
She turned away from the answering machine. “How about some milk, little man?”
Davy nodded and she poured a cup and handed it over. He made a mustache.
She stared hard at the blinking light, gulped a breath, and pressed.
“Hey, PJ, it’s Joe, down at Sunsets Supper Club. Yeah, we have an opening. Come by tomorrow morning, and we’ll see if your old uniform still fits.” Joe’s message ended on a hard laugh, and PJ hit Delete before it could turn over to the time/date stamp.
Last night’s survey of her George Washingtons trumped the pride that wanted to waggle its impertinent head.
Besides, maybe she
still fit into the uniform.
She slid onto a stool next to Davy. “You have a field trip tomorrow.”
“I don’t like field trips. They make us be quiet.”
“I couldn’t agree more, kid. But the good news is that you won’t have to be quiet at the museum. Ask lots and lots and lots of questions. Really, lots.”
The phone jangled. PJ’s hand hovered over it only a moment before she picked it up. Just conjuring him in her mind didn’t mean she had the ability to make Boone materialize on the other end. “Hello?”
“Hello, this is Fellows Academy. We’re looking for David Morton.”
She wanted to bang her head against the ash cupboards.
“Davy’s, uh . . . occupied.” And four. Did they not have that fact somewhere in their records?
“Can you tell him he has a book overdue?”
“What’s the title?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am; I’m not allowed to tell you.”
“What?” She handed Davy a napkin.
So maybe her tone had been a bit strident. She lowered her voice. “How am I supposed to know what book to bring back if you’re not allowed to tell me the title?”
“It’s David’s book.”
—you do know this, right?” She put her hand over the mouthpiece. “Davy, did you know you have a book out from the library?”
Davy slid down from the high-top stool at the counter and stuck out his tongue.
Apparently it was time to institute Connie’s rule about manners.
“He doesn’t know where it is. You’ll have to clue me in so I can search for it.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am; those are our rules.”
For a long beat, she just rolled the words around in her head. “What? I’m sorry. . . . I don’t understand.” PJ retrieved Davy’s lunch box and began to clean it out. “Really, just tell me the name of the book; I’ll find it.”
PJ listened as, in the next room, Boris let out a stream of Russian. She had the dark urge to hand him the phone.
“Let me get this straight. I, as his guardian, am not allowed to know what my four-year-old is checking out of the library?”
“It’s a privacy issue.”
“You mean to tell me he could be checking out books about nuclear weapons, or even
—” PJ lowered her voice
—“other books, and you wouldn’t tell me?”
“I’m sorry, Mrs.
“Who do you think is going to
for Davy’s overdue book? Is he going to cough it up out of his milk money?”
Out of her peripheral vision, PJ spotted Davy climbing the stool again, his eyes darting to her, as if she might not see him inching his way to the oatmeal cookie box. She swiped the box off the counter. “What kind of school is this? The kid is four years old!”
Davy settled down on the counter, his legs crossed, arms folded, waging a sit-in. “I want a cookie,” he said, his little blue eyes fierce. Yeah, well, she wanted a job, a tan, an insight into Boone’s brain, a house like Connie’s, and perhaps even world peace.
“Mrs. Morton, this is the director of Fellows Academy. What seems to be the problem?” Despite her crisp memory of appearing on the Fellows stoop in her pajamas, PJ didn’t appreciate the derision in the director’s tone . . . in her
Oh no. The voice matched the visual picture of the stout woman who sentried the door every morning. Ms. Nicholson. Perfect. She schooled her voice, extricating from it everything she felt. “Thank you for your help. I’m trying to locate my nephew’s library book.”
No, PJ, don’t
“I have a problem with your entire school. Just tell me the name of his book, and I’ll bring it in.”
Silence, and in it PJ heard Connie’s pleading:
“Please, PJ, this is important.”
But behind that, she saw Davy, his uniform rumpled from yet another round of hide-and-seek (this morning she’d found it wadded in a truck under the bed). Nearly a week into summer and the kid hadn’t a bit of a tan, not one decent stubbed toe.
“Perhaps tomorrow, if you can make it on
, we could have a chat in my office
“Sometimes, someone just needs a champion.”
“Davy is a little kid. He should be at the beach, swimming or chasing frogs or burying his aunt in the sand, not spending his summer doing math problems. He won’t be there tomorrow . . . or ever, until you reveal to me the title of this contraband book he’s been hiding!”
“I’m sorry, but that won’t be possible.”
The words formed in her throat, like the roll of a wave on the ocean crashing to shore, disseminating sand castles and dragging back to the cold depths all the pieces of shell, now broken and lost. She could hear a faint
Knew she should close her mouth before her words swept her out on a riptide to a place of no return.
But she’d never been proficient at
“It’s schools like yours that make people believe they’re more or . . . or
than they are. I wouldn’t send Davy back there if you fell at my feet and begged!”
“Which we most certainly will not do. Call me when you find the book.”
PJ stared at the phone, her heartbeat pelleting her throat.
Davy stood on the counter and, with a look she couldn’t place, began to peel off his uniform.
* * *
Trudi’s day care, Peppermint Fence, encapsulated PJ’s wildest five-year-old daydreams. The backyard, through the black chain-link fence, declared a moratorium on tidiness, with toys strewn from one side to the other. A jungle gym pinnacled the center of the yard, complete with safety netting, two towers, a sandbox, a swing set, and a sprinkler tree under which a group of youngsters frolicked as PJ pulled up.
For a long moment, she wished she could whip off her dress pants and white cotton blouse
—she knew her old Shrimp Shack uniform would come in handy
—and join them in abandon. Maybe she’d forget that she’d managed to evict Davy from his five-star school in the space of three days.
“We’ve already filled David’s spot.”
The words dug into PJ’s brain and lodged there like a pike, dissecting her hopes of a victorious stint as Davy’s caretaker.
Who was she trying to kid? She hadn’t a prayer of competing with Connie. And after tearing apart Davy’s room, searching even between the mattresses for the renegade library book, she simply hadn’t possessed the internal fortitude to call her mother and ask her to watch Davy while she interviewed at Sunsets. Between the expulsion from school and her old high
school job prospect, PJ wasn’t sure where to start that priceless conversation.
Besides, at least here at Peppermint Fence, Davy would have fun, albeit illiterate fun. Connie would return to a fat, happy, academically stunted son.
Trudi stepped out from the shade, carrying a tray of what looked like Dixie cups and graham crackers, looking very motherly in a pair of Bermuda shorts and a pink sleeveless T-shirt. She set the tray on a little tykes-size table and turned, as if she could sense PJ in the parking lot, deliberating.
No doubt a skill Trudi had honed long ago.
“What are you doing here?” She said it in a welcome tone, one filled with surprise. It mustered PJ’s courage to slide out of the car and open the door for her uniformed little future tycoon in the backseat. She should have brought him a change of clothes, but she’d dressed him with hope. And apparently, naiveté.