Ellen crossed her heart with her hand. "We promise."
"Okay," Jane grinned. This really was fun. She'd never known two old women who lived life like this. Every once in a while her grandmother would show a rowdy side, but not often, and she'd died before Jane was fully grown. She'd be willing to bet that both Ellen and Nellie really would slide into Heaven screaming and yelling, their lives used up with experiences. Just like the two characters in the film she'd seen this evening. Not one moment wasted on wallowing around in self pity or fear.
They both hugged their knees to their chests and listened, eyes aglitter, breath smelling more than a little of Coke and Jack Daniels.
"Once upon a time, there was a poor little orphan girl who ran away from home and ran into a fairy godmother in a bus station," Jane started.
"I'm not a fairy godmother," Nellie declared.
"This is my story. I'll tell it the way I want and you have to listen like good little girls and then go to bed."
"Yes, ma'am," Nellie played into the role.
"Now she was trying to decide where to go next and how far she could get on her last twenty dollars, when this fairy godmother—who was gorgeous, by the way, and not at all like the fat little godmother in the Cinderella story—sat down beside her."
She kept the story going for a good ten minutes and told about the godmother taking the orphan to the pink castle and adopting her. They shopped and ate in fast food joints and had lots of fun.
"And she and her fairy godmother lived happily ever after," Jane ended. "Now go to bed."
"Not until we hear about how the orphan decked the bad witch," Ellen protested.
"She called me a white-trash bitch and my anger got the upper hand. I just proved she was probably right by hitting her," Jane said. "It wasn't ladylike and it wasn't the proper way to act."
"How'd it feel?" Ellen asked.
Jane grinned. "Better than jumping in the swimming pool on a hot day."
"Better than eating chocolate?" Nellie asked.
"Much better. Then she was in the Wal-Mart store and accused us of following her. She'd said that Slade was her territory so I asked her if she'd pissed on all four corners of the store to mark her territory there, too."
Both women doubled up in laughter.
"My momma and granny would put me in the corner for a month if they were still alive," she said.
Nellie wiped at her eyes. "I'd get you out and steal you away. God, I hate that Kristy. She's just after Slade's money."
"And the ranch," Jane said.
"Can't have the ranch. It's not up for grabs. All Luckadeau brides have to sign a paper that says they can never have the ranch. Somewhere way back there in Louisiana history, a Luckadeau must have lost his property to a gold digger. It won't ever happen again."
"Does she know that?" Jane asked.
"Probably not, but it don't matter. It's over, praise the Lord," Ellen said. "And now we'll be good little girls and go to bed. Thanks for a wonderful evening. Want to top it off with a snort of Jack? I'll go get the bottle."
"I had three beers with supper. Better not mix what's left with whiskey or I'll have a worse headache than you two in the morning. Someone has to be sober enough to cook breakfast. Why don't you leave it to me and y'all sleep late?"
"Sounds like a good idea to me," Nellie yawned.
Jane ushered them out the door. "It's a deal, then. I'll cook and you can eat when you get up. Sleep in and I'll hope like hell your heads are pain free."
Slade barely got his door shut before he heard his aunt and grandmother slipping down the hall, giggling the whole way. He'd spent the last hour with his ear pressed to the door, listening to the stories Jane fabricated and the one she told about decking Kristy. Why in the world couldn't he find it in his heart to like the girl?
It was as plain as the nose on his face that his grand mother loved her, his aunt adored her, and it was so damned convenient. She was right there in the house, the next door down from his bedroom. It didn't get any handier than that arrangement. But down deep in his heart there was still a little voice that told him that if he fell in love with Jane he'd lose the independence he'd fought so hard to win after his mother left.
It wouldn't be like loving Kristy. He could give her only the portion of his heart he wanted her to have and keep back the rest of it. She could produce an heir for him and even if she didn't stick around, he'd still have a child. Jane wasn't like that. She'd insist on having it all or none, and Slade wasn't ready to give that much. Besides, how did a man fall in love with an illusion? That's all Jane was… just a wisp of smoke fading fast as it spiraled toward heaven. She had no past and no future and lived only for today and whatever lurked ahead after another month. He had to protect himself from such a woman.
He laced his hands behind his head and shut his eyes but it was a long time before he fell asleep.
Jane was too wound up to sleep. She paced the floor and stared out the window at the bright stars twinkling in a sky that looked like a bed of velvet. In the big cities like Los Angeles or even Houston the stars didn't shine like they did in Texas. And in those places it wasn't so quiet that the sound of crickets and tree frogs could be heard through a closed window, either. Police sirens, ambulances, and road noise were constants. In Ringgold, if a siren went past, every phone line in the western part of Montague County would be busy finding out if someone was hurt or if they got a speeding ticket or just a warning.
It reminded her of ranch life in Greenville as opposed to the corporate life her stepfather, Paul, enjoyed and she had to participate in more often than she wanted. Greenville wasn't such a huge town. Not like Houston, where she flew in and out to take care of oil business. Or Los Angeles, where she had to conduct some of the offshore business. Or even hot, humid Biloxi, where the oil company kept an office.
She was always eager to get back to the peace and quiet of the ranch. So what on earth had made her think she'd be happy in the big city of Chicago with John and his art distribution business? She'd been so close to the forest she couldn't see the trees. He'd been a professional con who'd swept her off her feet and into the clouds of make-believe. Now she had her head on straight and, though she refused to be one of those I'll-never-trust another-man-because-he-did-me-wrong women, she would be careful in the future and weigh the pros and cons before she let her heart overrule her good sense.
Finally she set the alarm and stretched out on the bed. She fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow, only to dream of John holding her under the deep blue waters in Cancun. She awoke five minutes before the alarm went off, her chest aching from holding her breath, and her heart pounding.
JANE HAD BEEN IN SALE BARNS BEFORE, BUT NOTHING AS HUGE as the one on Beau and Milli's ranch. It was as big as a medieval coliseum. Any minute she expected to see the crowd below her clear out, the lions let loose from the far end, and a couple of gladiators, or Christians—oh hell, whatever it was the lions had for supper—tossed out into their midst.
She'd found the way up to the catwalk when she opened the wrong door looking for the restroom. After a quick trip to the bathroom, she'd returned and found a quiet corner in the shadows where she could look down at the party from an eagle's standpoint.
Nellie and Ellen were sitting at a table with four or five other people about their age. They laughed, nodded their heads in agreement, shook them in disagreement, and seemed to be enjoying the evening. Ellen had said on the way to the barn party that she was staying in Ringgold for at least a month on this visit. She was even considering using her savings to buy a small trailer house and parking it somewhere on the ranch.
Slade fit right in among a sea of blond, blue-eyed cowboys. All of the Luckadeaus slipped into the stereo type mold so well that they could have made television commercials. Tight fitting Wranglers, western cut shirts, and boots. Put them on a horse or standing beside a barn with a beer in their hands and the beer company would have to increase production. Or let one of them prop his leg up on a bale of hay and show off a fancy boot and the boot business would have to double their employees.
"They'd have to get rid of the hat hair, though," she said.
It was true. Most of them had a rim around their blond hair where their hats had set just moments before they entered the barn and hung them on a row of hooks on the wall just inside the door. That was a cowboy trademark as much or more than the boots and spurs on working days.
Slade stopped by the table and spoke to Nellie. She said something that made him scan the barn and then he shook his head. Ellen pointed her finger and gave an order and he shrugged. Then he asked a tall, blonde lady to dance with him. The woman wore dark jeans that hugged up to her voluptuous figure, a pink sleeveless western shirt, expensive boots, and big gold hoops in her ears. She and Slade were close to the same height and danced well together.
When that dance ended, Ellen caught him on the edge of the floor and shook her finger some more. He scanned the barn, even looking up at the catwalk. The blonde pulled him back out to the floor and they melted into each other's arms for another slow dance.
Where did that woman come from, anyway? She couldn't be a Luckadeau. Girl relatives didn't press up against boy cousins like that. They didn't whisper in their ear and nibble on the lobe just slightly. They sure didn't twirl the hair on their dancing partner's neck. One thing for sure, kin or not, she was a blatant hussy.
Beau and Milli took the floor on the next song and in less than ten seconds everyone had stopped dancing and formed a circle around them. They danced as if they'd taken lessons together for years, never missing a beat or a step. It was so smooth that it bordered on artistically beautiful. Hells bells, they would have won if they'd ever been on that
Dancing with the Stars
Jane was so taken with watching the performance that she didn't hear Slade approaching until he sat down beside her.
"You startled me," she said.
"They're about to panic down there. They're afraid you've bolted again," he said.
"Just staying out of the way. They only brought me because—"
"They asked you to join us because they like you, Jane. God knows—and He's the only one who knows—why, but they do. Unconditionally. They don't have to know your past or what you're going to do tomorrow. They like you today. Kind of like that movie we watched the other night."
"Living for today," she said.
"I can't do it. Unconditional like that," he said.
"Tell them I'm not going to bolt. I'm just watching from up here and—"
"And they'll cut down a pecan tree, build a cross, and crucify me right outside the barn door. Oh, no, honey, you're coming down to the dance floor, and I've been commissioned to dance with you."
"So you don't want to but in order to keep peace you will?"
"Don't fight with me tonight, Jane. Just consider it a nice gesture for two old ladies who like you. Kind of like telling them a bedtime story when they were tipsy."
"How'd you know about that?"
"Birdie told me."
He stood up and held out his hand.
She took it, amazed at the heat it produced. There had been a warm fuzzy feeling in her heart when John held her hand as they crossed a street or when he kissed her. But nothing like the boiling steam Slade's touch provoked.
She tried to shake off the feeling. She refused to be out of control ever again. She'd proven that when she left Mississippi, and she'd prove it again when she was twenty-five and could go back and fire her stepfather. She wouldn't allow herself to be physically attracted to Slade. She'd fight it forever because he'd just said he could never love unconditionally and that's what she intended to demand from any man before she fell for him.
He led her down the stairs and out to the middle of the dance floor. She felt out of place in her sundress and sandals when the rest of the women wore starched jeans and western cut shirts. The female singer did a fine job of singing "This Side of Good-bye" by Highway 101.
Before long the crowd had stopped dancing and circled Slade and Jane like they'd done when Beau and Milli danced. Jane kept the appropriate distance from him and followed his lead, knowing instinctively each step he'd make. The singer talked about heading out on the open road and seeing neons flashing vacancies. She talked about miles behind her and all the reasons fading into her memories this side of good-bye. Jane could relate to almost every word, especially the ones about reaching out again.
When the song ended with a fading guitar run Slade dipped her low, her circular dress tail sweeping the dirt floor. Everyone clapped and whistled.
"More, more," Beau yelled.
The singer started up another Highway 101 song in basically the same tempo. "The Bed You Made For Me" had another message for Jane's heart as she enjoyed another dance with Slade. The singer asked if he'd told the other woman that she was sleeping in the bed he'd made for her. She thought about Ramona for less than a minute before tossing the memory out into the darkness along with those of John. Jane had made a big mistake in judgment. That didn't mean she'd do it again. Life was meant to be lived and she wasn't going to miss another moment—or dance.
When the song ended, the male singer picked up the mike and started, "The Dance" by Garth, a slow waltz, and Slade didn't miss a beat. He drew her a little closer and kept dancing. At least until the blonde tapped Jane on the shoulder and cut in. She stepped back gracefully only to find herself in the arms of another cowboy, who hugged her close and told her his name was Kevin. He wasn't nearly as smooth as Slade and twice he stepped on her toes, but he kept her laughing the whole time with his humor.