HOME AT LAST
Excerpt from Chapter Two
On Monday, Peg O’ My Heart Cafe and Bakery, on the corner of Main and Oak Haven Road in the old town square of Cordelia, was in its usual state of bedlam. Waitresses flew across its red and black tiles, crockery clanked, the grill sizzled, and conversation mounted as the old-timers settled into the red vinyl booths for a good jaw, just like they did every morning.
Andrew Eppelwaite gave up trying to catch his grandmother’s attention. Tansy stood at the grill, as she had for the last half century, shoulder blades moving like scissors under her thin frame as she alternately flipped pancakes and handed off plates to a couple of buxom twins who gave him a twitch of their apron bows whenever they passed his stool at the counter.
With an inward grin, he touched the brim of his baseball cap, but didn’t otherwise answer the come-on. At thirty, he had about a decade on them both. They were too young to know him—he hadn’t been back except for a few days at a time for over four years—but you could bet their parents did. If No-Account Andy showed up on their doorstep, Mom and Dad would give him the old heave-ho. And they’d be justified. He’d been a hide-the-good-silver and lock-up-your-daughters kind of guy back then. If he hadn’t been lifting a skirt or launching a brawl, he’d been guzzling beer at the Rooster Bar & Grill.
He tossed some change on the counter and eased off the stool, stomping a boot to get too-tight faded jeans back into place over his long legs. He hadn’t had the time, interest—or the money, for that matter—to do much with a wardrobe since he’d gotten out of the hoosegow a few years back. “See you later, Gran,” he called out.
She turned and nodded a birdlike chin. Her near-white sausage curls—a vast improvement over the gold dye job she’d had a few years back—bobbed. “Don’t you go gettin’ yerself up to no good, Andy.” But she cackled as she said the words. What was once a worry was now a joke between them, bless her loyal little heart.
Andy grinned back and sidled over to the cash register. From the stool behind it, the proprietor, Alcea O’Malley Jones, gave him a smile that could make a man’s heart melt. She was a looker—always had been—but of course, from her almost-eleven-years-older perspective, she’d never noticed the lanky kid with the too-long hair who had hung out with her littlest sister Mari.
“Glad to see you’re back, Andy.” Alcea said, reaching out to take the check he laid on the counter. “Tansy’s pretty proud of you.”
“So Gran tells me about, oh, twenty times a day. It’s about time I gave her something to be proud of.”
“Mari’s in town. As of Saturday night.” Alcea handed him his change. “You should look her up.”
He fumbled, and a quarter rolled onto the floor. Blood rushed to his head, and not just because he’d stooped to pick it up. “Might do that.”
He tipped his cap and pushed through the screen door with studied casualness. He wouldn’t mind seeing Mari O’Malley; in fact, he’d like nothing better. But he wasn’t so sure Mari would want to see him. They’d once been best buds, but after a trip into the back of his pickup at sixteen, things had changed. His fault—and something else he could live to regret.
Outside, he squinted at a robin’s egg sky, tugged down his cap against a blustery May wind until just a hint of blond curly hair stuck out underneath, then started toward the east edge of town, walking along the row of brick-fronted shops, taking in the sun-kissed green of the Ozark hills off in the distance. Once was nobody thought he’d amount to much, but just like they’d shaken their heads over him when he was a whelp, now the folks of Cordelia had rallied behind him. You’d think that by landing a job—and not just any job, but one that had taken hard work to pull off—he’d roped in the moon.
Pushing regrets to the back of his brain, enjoying the sunshine, enjoying the feeling of well-being that, except for a couple of blips, was several years old and still too new to be taken for granted—if he was lucky, he would never take it for granted—he passed Rusty’s Hardware and neared Merry-Go-Read, one of the three children’s bookstores Mari’s middle sister Lil had started after she’d flummoxed the town by getting hitched to a country music superstar almost nine years back. Mari had been in college then, only visiting Cordelia now and again, and never once looking him up. Much to his chagrin. She’d...
Like he’d conjured her up, the bookstore door snapped open on a jangle of bells and Mari strode out, nearly knocking him down.
His heart jumped, but he acted like their first real encounter in fourteen years wasn’t that big a deal. “Whoa. Hang on there, Mar.” He locked onto her arm to keep her from falling.
Mari steadied herself and shrugged out of his grasp. “I swear if I ever get out—” She glanced up. Blue eyes locked on blue, and her jaw dropped. “No-Account Andy.”
He gave her a one-sided grin. “I prefer just plain Andy, but good to see you anyway.” And it was. More than good. Same generous mouth. Same sprinkle of freckles. Same perpetual exasperation. Same...
Looking at her hair, he frowned. “What’s up with the ‘do? Looks like a kid outlined your hair with Magic Marker.”
She flushed as red as her hair, one of her hands flying up to pull at a black tip. “I just haven’t had time to get it cut.” She glanced at his faded jeans, up to his faded plaid shirt, and into his eyes, her color returning to normal, her hand dropping, disdain lurking behind her gaze. “Some of us are busy.”
He started back down the walk, feeling a grin lurking behind his lips. They’d picked up squabbling almost right where they’d left off “Oh, I’ve got places to go, people to see,” he assured her.
They passed the cigar store Indian sitting out front of O’Neill’s Emporium, and the grin surfaced big time. He remembered when the two of them had roped it up and tied it to the belfry of St. Andrew’s Church.
“Yeah, I’ll bet.” She’d fallen in beside him, her steps matching his stride for stride, a long peasant-type dress in some silky material slapping around her calves above cork-heeled shoes two stories tall. With the doo-dads on her ears, she looked the part of an artist. Or, at least, she looked like she wanted to look the part of an artist. That was Mari. Trying to be anything the town wasn’t. In your face. Honest to a fault. Things that had maddened him; things he’d admired. “That’s why you’re headed in the direction of the Rooster?”
“Which is also”—he pointed out—“the direction of Beadler’s Feed.” The Rooster Bar & Grill lay next door to the farmers’ supply store. “You going that way?”
“I’m going that way.” Her voice was grim. “My sister Alcea lives next to Cowboy’s.” Cowboy’s Tow and Service was across from Beadler’s.
“She’s not there. I just saw her at the diner.” It felt good, just swinging along beside Mari.
“I know, but Dak—her husband—is home. And I need to pick up an edition of Mother Goose and Lil says he probably has one. Which she didn’t, although you’d think a children’s bookstore would have a frigging nursery rhyme book, but, nooo, and now I’m hotfooting it down there and will probably spend the next hour searching through shelves—Dak has a ton of damn books and you can bet neither he nor Alcea has put them in any kind of order. Alcea and Dak don’t do order. They say they’re too busy.”
He almost laughed, remembering the mess in Mari’s room, her backpack, and her school locker. Open it up, and chances were that you’d get buried alive. “Why a Mother Goose emergency?”
“Because Mom has it in her head that she needs to know the exact words of Humpty Dumpty—because she and Pop were arguing whether it was ‘couldn’t put him together again’ or ‘couldn’t put him back together again,’ and this after I’d just dropped an egg on the floor and got a royal reaming over how hard she’s always worked to keep those floors clean. Which is nothing compared to the earful I got yesterday after she asked me to weed her garden and I pulled up some—some...” She frowned.
“Perennials?” he offered.
“Yes. What do I know? They look like weeds to me. But it’s not my job to say no to anything she asks me, even if she knows I have a brown thumb. It’s my job—bestowed on me by my two wonderful sisters—to play Steppen Fetchit for the next God-knows-how-long.” She paused for a breath. “And wouldn’t you know Pop’s computer is broken and I don’t have my Mac set up yet, because it would have been a snap to look it up on the Internet.”
Ah, Mari was in fine form. He realized just how much he’d missed her chatter. They passed under the green awning of Sin-Sational Ice Cream where they’d shared many a soda—no romance there, just lack of funds to buy two—and stepped off the curb onto Maple Woods Drive. Beadler’s Feed was on the opposite corner.
He motioned up the street. “Your folks still live up that way?”
“They won’t move out of there until they die.” She threw a black look where he’d gestured. “Which might not be too many hours from now.”
“I thought you all got along.” As a kid, he’d envied Mari her family. He’d had Gran, but nobody else except for an absent sister. His mood momentarily dipped at the thought of Anna.
They stepped up on the opposite curb.
“We do get along.” Mari sounded unconvinced. She drew a deep breath as they paused on the corner. “But Mom just had bypass surgery. The doctor warned us she might have some emotional issues—or some temporary personality changes. I guess it does that to some people.”
“Gran told me about the surgery.” Without thinking, he brushed a short lock of hair back from her forehead like he used to do, but she didn’t react. If she was harboring any long-held yearnings where he was concerned, she certainly hid it well. He let his hand fall. “So she’s not herself.”
“No. She’s short-tempered, and has all these unreasonable demands, and Pop’s not used to dealing with her like that, and me...” Her gaze flew up to his, and he could see the worry behind her frustration. “I’m just not used to seeing her like this, Andy. She needs help with everything, and she looks so pale and so small.”
The intervening years had just fallen away. She was just as confiding, and he was just as willing to listen.
“It’ll get better, Mar.”
“I hope so.” She looked around as though just remembering where they were. Her gaze fell on his truck. “Omigod, you still have that old thing?”
He laughed. “Hard to believe, isn’t it?”
They scraped over the graveled parking lot to his Ford pickup, sitting next to a pallet stacked with bags of sand and black soil. Once a shade of apple red, the truck was now an oxidized pink where it wasn’t pure rust. She peeked into the bed, apparently not seeing the assortment of shovels and spades and gardening tools, but only the past, because when she turned around, her face matched the truck.
And when their eyes locked, he knew they were both reliving the same scene. Moonlight. Tanned hands on milk-white skin. A lot of fumbling and cursing and grunting.
He refused to let the number of times he’d thought about that night show in his face, and grinned at her instead. “I had bruises on my knees for a week. Always wondered what it had done to your backside.”
“Gee, how chivalrous.” Mari punched his arm. Hard enough that he wanted to wince, but he didn’t. “My backside was just fine, thanks.”
He lowered the gate, stooped to pick up a bag, settled it into the bed, and went after another. She watched him. When he glanced up, her gaze was full of speculation.
“This all yours?” She motioned at the bags and tools. When he nodded, she nodded, too. “Doing some work for old Erik, are you?”
Erik Olausson owned a lawn business. In high school, even after, the old Swede had handed Andy some odd jobs knowing Andy would be good for them until the next paycheck. Which Andy drank away before he got back to work.
He started to answer her, but as usual she already thought she had it all figured out and was off on a run. He let her go, hoping for an opportunity to rein her in later.
“You don’t suppose you have time to do some work over at the folks’ house, do you?” she asked. When his brows drew together, she added, “I’d ask Erik, but Mom already said she doesn’t want to spend the money on—”
She broke off, but hardly looked abashed at the gaffe she’d been about to make. He knew her—her brain was just spinning with how to weasel what she wanted out of him in a politically correct way.
“—on someone’s professional help?” he asked mildly, heaving another bag up.
“Well, yes. But they’d pay you... something. I think.”
Behind her, a Mercedes pulled up in front of the Rooster. He glanced over, then at his watch.
Mari snorted, apparently misinterpreting the gesture as a need for libation. He didn’t wonder at it. Time was, he’d be knocking back brews before noon.
“Seamus doesn’t open up the bar until eleven.” Her tone held derision.
He hid another grin. Let her have her delusions for now. “I have an appointment at the Rooster.” He bent for another bag.
“With who? Jim Beam?” She didn’t wait for an answer, but rushed on. “So, will you? Help out Mom? It would mean a lot to her to know her gardens were taken care of, and by someone who knows at least something about what he’s doing. Puh-lease?”
He straightened and looked down at her. She raised her eyes, looking miffed at having to do so. At almost five-ten, she was no shrimp and she’d liked looking over everyone’s heads. She’d always hated that he’d grown to six-foot-four by the time they were fifteen.
“Since when have I ever said no to anything you ever asked?” He gave a pointed nod at the pickup bed.
Her face fired up again, and memories wafted between them.