Read Traci On The Spot Online

Authors: Marie Ferrarella

Traci On The Spot (3 page)

“I see things. I have to,” she added deliberately, adding one more log to the fire that was about to catch.

Morgan nodded sagely, as if taking every word as gospel. “That would be the tremendous insight you have into life as a cartoonist, I take it.”

She saw the way he was poking his tongue in his cheek. She could endure a lot, but she didn’t like having her strip ridiculed. “Did you invite me out here to argue with you?”

She was right. There was just something about having her around that turned him into a competitive
adolescent. Something he hadn’t been for quite some time.

“No, I invited you to take a last look around. Truce?” To back up his words, Morgan put his hand out to her.

Jeremiah immediately began barking again. The fur on the animal’s back stood up as straight as it could, given the shortness of his coat. Morgan wondered uneasily if the dog was all bark and no bite. He certainly hoped so, but since it was Traci’s dog, he wasn’t placing any bets yet.

“Truce.”

Traci placed her hand into his. His handshake was firm, warm. But for some reason, she felt as if, somewhere, a bell was ringing, signaling the beginning of another round.

She glanced over her shoulder. “Jeremiah, quiet!” she ordered. The look she gave the dog was far more effective than her words. The dog lowered his head and looked almost contrite.

“Impressive.”

Traci grinned in response. The years melted away and she looked fifteen again, he thought. There was mischief in her eyes.

He opened the door and she began to follow him inside. Morgan placed a restraining hand on her shoulder. He nodded behind her. “Is he coming in, too?”

An amused brow arched. Was he afraid of Jeremiah? “Don’t worry, he’s housebroken.”

“I don’t like the emphasis on the word
broken.

Her smoky laugh surrounded him.

“Trust me.” Traci glanced up at the sky. Since she had arrived, the dark clouds had moved in, blotting out the sun and any blue that had been noticeable. “Besides, it might rain any minute. I don’t want him getting wet” Jeremiah smelled absolutely atrocious when he was wet, but she refrained from mentioning that.

“Maybe he’ll shrink,” Morgan commented.

She looked at Morgan in surprise. “You’ve gotten a sense of humor. Where did you find it?”

He graciously put up with her dig and countered. “I always had it. I had to, spending summers out here with you around.”

She shrugged, finally walking into the house. “You never displayed it before.”

Any other words faded away as she looked around the large front room. It was dusty and unused, and sad because of it. It was a place meant for laughter and long summer nights shared with friends and family. If she tried hard, she could almost see past summers spent here.

Waves of yesterday surrounded her as the scent of wood from the woodpile by the fireplace wafted to her. The house smelled dank and musty.

And wonderful for all that.

She’d forgotten how much she enjoyed coming here. How much she missed it.

It was yesterday again. And yet an eternity seemed to separate her from that carefree, mischievous girl she’d been.

Morgan stood by, silently letting her reacquaint
herself with the room. He’d journeyed down his own memory lane earlier. It was odd how sentimental you could get about a place that hadn’t meant anything to you at the time.

“It hasn’t changed much,” she commented slowly, the words drifting from her lips.

Even the old television set in the corner was there. With rabbit ears, she thought fondly. Reception had always been miserably poor. It had been her main complaint about vacationing here. Tired of her complaints, her mother had urged her to use her imagination to entertain herself rather than an electronic baby-sitter. Traci had complied by finding new ways to get under Morgan’s skin.

“Not down here,” Morgan agreed. He began leading the way out of the room, uneasily keeping one eye on the dog. Jeremiah was investigating the multicolored throw rug in front of the fireplace, sniffing so hard he looked as if he were going to absorb the material through his nose. “They redid the bedrooms a few years back. And the attic seems more crammed—”

Traci looked at Morgan sharply. “The bedrooms? My room? They redecorated my room?”

The possessive note surprised him, but then it shouldn’t have, he thought. She. was always possessive about things she laid her hands on. They spent an entire summer arguing over who got to use the kayak. She usually won.

“Technically, it wasn’t your room, it was-”

“My room, Counselor,” Traci interjected. “It was always my room in the summer.” She was
already heading for the stairs, eager to see it. “I don’t care what it was the rest of the time. Can I see it?”

“Sure. This way.” Hurrying, Morgan got in front of her. Jeremiah, he noted gratefully, had decided to rest on top of the rug he had all but inhaled. He felt along the wall for the light switch. “I had the electricity turned on so I could show the house to its best advantage.”

Quickening her step, she passed Morgan and reached the stairs first. She laid a hand on the banister, Columbus claiming the new land for the queen. “You don’t have to show me.”

He raised his hand, making a show of backing off. “Sorry, habit.”

Foot planted on the first step, Traci turned and looked at him, amused. “You’re a tour guide on the side?”

“No, I’m used to being polite.” The staircase was steep and narrow. It wasn’t meant to accommodate two. He joined her, anyway, standing stubbornly on the first step. The fit was tight. “Something you probably are unfamiliar with.”

There it was again, that tingling sensation as if a thousand fireflies were holding a convention along her skin. It came when he was brushed up against her. Traci struggled hard to ignore it. “When it comes to you, yes.”

He looked down into her face and marveled at the blueness of her eyes. Had they always been that intense? “Does it give you pleasure, bickering with me every chance you get?”

“Infinite pleasure.” It wasn’t easy, remembering the train of her thought. The tracks were leading toward some very unfamiliar ground. “And this is the first chance I’ve gotten in years, remember?”

“Yeah.” The word stretched out as the smile took hold of his lips and spread. “Maybe we should have done this more often.”

She didn’t care for the arrhythmic beating of her heart.

“You’re the one who went off to college with Cynthia,” she said the name in a singsong tone, “and got too busy to come back to the lake.” That sounded too much like an accusation, she thought, but it was too late to take it back. Any protest would have him thinking things that weren’t true.

With a huff, she pushed past Morgan and walked up the stairs ahead of him.

“You weren’t far behind,” he countered. “Valedictorian.”

Surprised, she turned and looked at him again. “I never wrote you that.”

“Didn’t have to.” He urged her on with a motion of his hand. He was in no hurry to have his systems scrambled again. “My mother made sure I got word.” He didn’t add that, at times, he prodded his mother for information in what he told himself was just idle curiosity.

“Mothers.” The single word spoke volumes. “They can be a network all their own.”

“Yeah, they can.” At the landing, he followed
her down the hall to her room. It was the last one in a row and the first to get the morning light.

Morgan allowed her to open the door, seeing as how she thought of the room as her own. “Speaking of which, does she ever take offense?”

Traci stopped just short of the threshold. “Who?”

“Your mother.”

Turning around, she looked at him, perplexed. “Take offense to what?”

Morgan remembered a recent cartoon that had been less than flattering. “At the way you portray her sometimes in the strip.”

Traci waved that aside. “That’s not my mother. That’s a composite.”

That might be what she told others, but he knew better. And he knew her mother, or had. “Is that what you tell her?”

Traci couldn’t help the grin that slipped out. “Yeah.”

Morgan nodded solemnly, but his eyes were glinting. “And she buys it?”

“Pretty much.” Traci grew serious. “Besides, it’s all in fun and the traits are exaggerated.”

Morgan folded his arms before him as he leaned against the wall, studying her. He could always tell when she was lying. “But it is your life.”

“Hey, writers always draw on what they know.” She played the words back in her head when he grinned at her. “No pun intended.”

He felt as if he’d been watching her life for the past three years. For the most part, it had been amusing. Like Traci. But now, something senous was about to take place. Something he’d found himself not quite ready or willing to accept. “So, are congratulations in order?”

He’d acquired an unnerving way of skipping around conversations since she’d last spoken to him. “What do you mean?”

“Your engagement. To the doctor.”

“Dentist,” she corrected. “And I’m not.”

“Oh?” he asked a tad too innocently. “I thought he gave you a ring.”

She wondered if he had picked that up from the strip, or if her mother had told his. “He did. I just haven’t given him an answer yet”

That was interesting, he thought. Very interesting. “I see.”

She had no idea what he thought he “saw,” but she knew what she wanted to see. Her room.

“I doubt it.” Turning her back on him, Traci opened the door and stepped into the small guest room.

3

“Y
ou got rid of the bureau.”

Traci went straight toward the new piece of furniture that stood in its stead and looked at it as if it were an intruder. If she tried hard, she could visualize the old one—a honey-colored triplechested
bureau that gave the room a crammed, homey quality. Coupled with her double bed, it had turned the place into her own tiny kingdom when she had been growing up. The new bureau was sleeker and took up far less space.

She hated it on principle.

Morgan followed her into the room and shrugged casually. “It was old.”

That was the beauty of it, but she doubted if Morgan could understand. Sighing over the loss, Traci ran her fingertip along the dark wood.

“It had a dent in it, right here.” She rested her finger on the uppermost corner closest to him. “Where you chipped your tooth.”

He remembered the incident vividly. His manhood had been shaken that day. Thin and wiry, two years younger, Traci had easily gotten the best of him. He’d persuaded his parents to buy him his first set of weights that autumn.

“Where
you
chipped my front tooth,” he corrected. He knocked against the side in a rapid tattoo. “Somehow, my parents didn’t think refurbishing the bureau was a high priority.” The bureau was fairly falling apart when they had finally gotten rid of it.

Traci shifted her attention from the bureau to Morgan. She’d completely forgotten about his chipped tooth until this moment.

“Let me see,” she said suddenly, catching him off guard.

As he stared at her, Traci placed her thumb on the edge of his chin and pulled down lightly with
the familiarity of a maiden aunt or annoying sibling. Or the girl he had partially grown up with.

She nodded at the gleaming white crown. If she hadn’t known which one was chipped, she wouldn’t have been able to guess which was the false tooth.

“Nice job.”

Morgan pulled his head back. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a thoroughbred whose teeth you can check out”

The choice of words tickled her. “Thoroughbred?” Traci echoed. “If I was passing out labels, I would have said an old firehouse plug.”

She crossed to the bed. By the way it sagged slightly in the middle she could tell it was the same one she’d slept on all those hot summer nights. If Morgan hadn’t been in the room, she would have jumped on it for old times’ sake. “Firehouse plug?” He laughed. Who talked like that anymore? “You’re dating yourself.”

She glanced at him, bemused at the way he was watching her. Was he expecting her to do something weird? “I’m dating my research.”

With Traci, it was always difficult to tell if she was being flippant or sincere. He had a fifty-fifty chance of guessing right “Is that how you met?”

The view from her window was as stirring as she remembered. But the lake looked as if it was going to be blotted out at any minute by the dark clouds that were rolling over it with the intensity of an oncoming express train.

“Who?” she asked, preoccupied.

“You and the dentist?”

She turned around slowly and looked at Morgan. It took her a moment to make sense of his words. She couldn’t read his expression. What was he up to?

“No, and his name is Daniel. I meant I was giving a date
to
my research.” She touched the curtains. They were the same. Light, filmy. They suited the room, and now, ultimately, her. They hadn’t when she was younger. She’d been a tomboy through and through when they’d first begun to take their vacations here and had jeered at the curtains and blue eyelet comforter. “I’m watching old cartoons—”

He could see her, Morgan thought. Sitting curled up on the sofa with a bowl of popcorn in her lap, fascinated by silly little animated characters doing absurd, impossible things in the space of seven minutes. It was a scene directly out of his past, one he’d ridiculed countless times.

Now it just made him feel oddly nostalgic.

“Aren’t you afraid they’re above you?”

She purposely ignored him. Idly, she opened the nightstand drawer. A spider skittered away, vainly seeking sanctuary. She shut the drawer again. Traci didn’t know what she expected to find, maybe a memento from years gone by.

“To see what made some of them special and gave them longevity,” she finished, her teeth clenched. “You are as irntating as ever.”

He laughed at the expression on her face. His answer held no malice. “Right back at you.”

“‘Right back at you’?” she repeated incredulously. “A Harvard graduate and that’s the best you can do?” Traci shook her head. “Boy, they must have really lowered their standards for you.”

They both knew that he’d been an honor student in high school. His studiousness was one of the things she’d used as ammunition when she teased him.

“It was Yale,” he corrected patiently, “and the standards were quite high.” His eyes washed over her. He wondered if this Daniel character knew what he was letting himself in for. And if he deserved her. “It seems that every time I’m with you, I regress.”

She couldn’t resist reaching up and mussing his too-perfect hair. “Or loosen up.”

Morgan ran both hands through his hair, attempting to smooth it back down. “Trust me, no one wants to be that loose.”

Made no difference to her. “Have it your own way. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

Traci ran her hand over the new bureau again. It felt too sleek to her, too benign and devoid of character. The old one had had nicks and scrapes awarded by time all over its surface. Some of the nicks, of course, had been awarded by her.

She smiled to herself, remembering, feeling the room’s ambience. For a moment, Traci closed her eyes, letting it all return to her. She’d been five when they had started coming out here. Or maybe even four, she wasn’t sure.

Standing in her old bedroom now, feeling the years all melting away, it was as if nothing had really changed. But of course it had. She’d grown up and so had Morgan. An awful lot.

He watched the way her lashes, so much darker than her hair, swept along the swell of her cheeks, resting there like silken kittens reposing on a satiny cushion.

And wouldn’t she laugh if he voiced that thought aloud, he thought to himself. Traci was far too earthy to stand still for sentiments like that.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Her eyes remained closed. “Remembering.” And then they fluttered open and she turned them on him. “Whatever happened to her?”

“Who?” Morgan was thoroughly convinced that there were short circuits throughout the entire surface of her brain. How else could she possibly think her disjointed statements made any sense?

“Miss Shallow of 1985.” When Morgan still didn’t seem to comprehend, Traci batted her lashes at him coquettishly. “Cynthia.”

He really didn’t feel like discussing Cynthia any further. She was a mistake he wanted to leave buried in his past. A mistake that had made him hesitant to put his heart up on the block again.

“She found someone else. With more money.” He stood with his hand on the knob, impatience creasing his brow. “Are you done in here?”

He wasn’t impatient with her, Traci thought, but with the subject. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that.

“Not yet.” She paused. Though she didn’t often admit it, even to herself, there was a small, soft spot in her heart when it came to Morgan. After all, he was rather like the big brother she’d never had and, while they might fight constantly, she didn’t like the idea of anyone else hurting him, no matter what she might profess verbally to the contrary.

Traci placed her hand on his arm. It felt hard to the touch. She ran the tip of her tongue along her upper lip before she managed to force the words out. “I’m sorry.”

She was, he thought. He could see it in her eyes. The last thing in the world he wanted was pity, especially hers. That wasn’t what they were all about, he and Traci. It added a dimension he didn’t want.

“About what?” he asked a little too innocently. “You’ve got so much to be sorry about, you’re going to have to narrow that down a little for me.”

She stiffened, dropping her hand. That’s what she got for being nice to Morgan. “I was going to say about Cynthia, but—”

He relented. There was no point in closing off this new avenue between them. It just might lead somewhere. “You were?”

Too late to take her words back now, she thought. “Yes.” The admission came grudgingly.

Morgan studied her face, trying to ascertain a reason for this change in attitude. He failed.

“Why?”

She shrugged. She’d never cared for having to explain herself. And feelings were a great deal harder to explain than anything else. “I don’t like seeing people get hurt.”

That might be true enough, but he wasn’t “people.” He was Morgan. Someone she had taken delight in teasing and torturing. She was throwing away a perfect opportunity to crow and say “I told you so” in every way available to her. It wasn’t like her.

“I would have thought the idea would have made you overjoyed, seeing it was me.”

For a moment, she stood and looked at him, seeing both the boy she’d known and the man she merely assumed she knew. Maybe they both deserved the truth. Although they both probably wouldn’t understand. Men rarely did. She’d learned that one the hard way.

“No, I can rag on you all I want, but that doesn’t mean I want to see your heart pierced with a lance. She really didn’t deserve you, you know.” Traci bit her lip. The last sentence had just slipped out.

His eyes narrowed. She couldn’t have surprised him more than if she’d announced that she was harboring a secret crush on him all these years.

“Are you being nice or is there a hidden barb in there that I’m missing?”

She let out a long sigh.
Cast ye pearls before swine…
“I’m being nice,” she snapped. And then her sense of humor returned. “Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.”

Something small and warm stirred within him. “I won’t.”

Ushering her out of the room, Morgan closed the door behind them. Even so, he could hear the wind picking up, mourning low like a choir beginning to rehearse a rousing spiritual. He hoped the storm would hold off until the night.

“Want some coffee?” he offered. “I just put some up before you arrived.”

“I’d love some. There’s a real chill in the air.” Almost reflexively, she ran her hands up and down her arms. The thin sweater she was wearing wasn’t nearly warm enough to ward off the cool turn of the weather. “It was always so hot whenever we were out here.”

He followed her down the stairs, enjoying the gentle sway of her hips. She had certainly filled out since he last saw her. Something about being a late bloomer stuck in his mind. It was a phrase his mother liked to use. He’d never understood it until now.

“That’s because you just spent summers here,” he reminded her.

Traci stopped at the landing and turned toward him. “Did you ever come out any other time?” It had never occurred to her that he might have.

He nodded. “A couple.” The look in her eyes told him she wanted details, so he stopped to consider. “Once for Thanksgiving. And then once over the Christmas holidays.” That time he remembered more vividly. It was actually the last time he’d been here, until this month. “Mother
and Dad were in Europe that year.” A thin, humorless smile curved his mouth. “One final hurrah before tightening their belts.”

Once in the kitchen, Traci crossed to the cupboard where the dishes had always been kept. It surprised her to find only a few pieces left. But then, of course there wouldn’t be many. No one stayed here anymore.

She took down two mugs, rinsed them out and then set them on the counter beside the coffeemaker.

“And you were here alone?”

He might have known she’d probe. “No, not quite alone.”

“Oh.” Something in his voice had alerted her. “Cynthia?” She knew the answer to that would be yes before he said anything. She just didn’t know why it bothered her so much.

It was easier answering Traci with his back to her. “Yes. That was when I asked her to marry me.”

“You actually—” She hadn’t known that it had gone that far. Maybe because she’d refused to think about Morgan and Cynthia together in any more intimate a situation than sitting beside each other on the dock. Traci realized that her mouth had dropped open. “Well, your bad taste was your business, I guess. I take it she turned you down.”

That must have stung. Compassion stirred again within her.

He took two spoons out of the drawer and then
shoved it closed a little harder than he intended. Feelings long dead resurfaced and did a little war dance within him.

“Not at first.” Morgan turned around. “At first she said yes. It was when she was planning our life together in very lavish terms that I told her about Dad and what the stock market had done to his investments.”

Traci knew that the Brighams’ financial woes had begun in October. That left a gap of two months.

“You hadn’t told her until then?”

He slowly shook his head. Morgan remembered rehearsing in the mirror the way he would break the news to Cynthia. Stupid way for a man to behave. He’d never felt that unsure of himself again. “It wasn’t something you wanted to take out an ad about.”

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