Yes, folks, we’re here: the final installment of our summer serial, Dare Me. How did we get here already? If you haven’t read the previous segments, you can start with Chapter One, here.
I’ll be posting tomorrow on the future of Dare Me, but in the meantime, with no further ado, here’s Chapter Seven…. Enjoy!
“Hey!” Abbie popped up in the door of Jack’s office. “Just wanted to drop this off with you. So… everything okay?”
She waved the book in her hand for emphasis, the shiny library binding so new he could hear it crackle. A Founding Father smirked from the front cover, as though to say, “Son, just go with it. I didn’t ask to be brought here either.”
Just another Monday in the office.
His mother had called three times that morning, once to remind him that he was meant to be on niece and nephew duty that night, once to invite him over for Labor Day, as if they didn’t have the same barbecue every year, and once to check if he wanted her to pick up anything for him at the Walmart, because, after all, he might be grown up, but he was still her son, and was he sure he was eating properly?
Then his father had stopped by, ostensibly on the way to the hardware store, although he’d gotten a bit vague when asked what it was he was meant to be buying.
And now here was Abbie with a book he couldn’t remember having put on hold.
Jack smelled a rat. The rat smelled very much like the New York Times Styles section, or more specifically, his ex-wife’s wedding announcement.
What did they expect, that he was going to fling himself in front of the New York-Poughkeepsie train like some Russian woman in a nineteenth century novel? He and Marissa had separated eighteen months ago. The divorce had been final for nearly a year.
And, if he were being honest, everything had been over long before it had been over.
Tell that to his family.
“Thanks, Abbie. You shouldn’t have.”
She perched on the edge of his client chair. “It’s been slow at the library today. You know how it is in August.”
Jack took a slug of his soda. Caffeine. God’s gift to insomniacs. He’d never been a coffee person, but he made up for it by guzzling enough Coke to personally keep the Coca Cola Corporation in business. This was his third can this morning and it wasn’t even making a dent.
He hadn’t slept much last night. There’d been a lot to think about. Marissa’s remarriage had initially headed the list, but that had been bumped down the scale by the woman on the couch in his living room, the movie star—pardon him, pop icon—who didn’t look or dress or act like one.
Except, perhaps, in her inability to recognize a fuse box.
“So….” Abbie leaned forward, hands folded in her lap. “How does it feel to be sharing a house with Philips’ Falls most notorious inhabitant?”
Jack shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “You make it sound like we’re roommates. We don’t share a bathroom. We don’t even share an edifice.” He thought about it. “All we have in common is a yard.”
He remembered that breathless run across the yard last night, slipping and cursing and laughing from the sheer madness of it.
It had been kind of… fun. Bizarre, but fun. His family and friends had been walking on eggshells around him ever since the divorce, watching their tongues, watching him. It was enough to drive a man to violence. Kristy Green, on the other hand, said exactly whatever came into her head. Jack found it refreshing. In an astringent sort of way.
Abbie fiddled with the plastic dust jacket on the library book. “There’s a rumor going around that you spent the night together.”
“We did.” Jack caught sight of Abbie’s horrified face and hastily added, “Not like that! Her power went out. She spent the night on my couch. End of story.”
“Her power went out?”
“You know that old fuse box of Miss Ada’s.” It belatedly occurred to Jack that Abbie probably didn’t. There had been a polite tussle between the two at one point over Miss Ada’s habit of annotating her library books before returning them. After that, Abbie hadn’t been invited over much. “Anyway, she blew a fuse. That was all. Very unexciting.”
Aside from the semi-naked tussle in the upstairs hallway. He could still remember the feel of silk against skin, warm breath in the darkness…
Jack was very glad there was a desk in front of him. A great big, woody desk.
Abbie pushed back her chair. “Fine. Save your story for the tabloids. See if I care.”
Jack pitched his empty can into the blue recycle bin where it landed with a satisfying clink against its brethren. Cash those in, and he’d have enough to pay the rent. “If I see her alien baby, you’ll be the first to know.”
“Alien Elvis baby.” Abbie’s attempt at playfulness sounded forced. “Did you have a chance to ask her about the house?”
“No,” said Jack bluntly. What did she expect him to do, attack a woman when she was half-dressed and dripping wet? Never mind. Jack did his best to suppress that image. It wasn’t going to help his cause. Cutting off what was obviously going to be a follow-up, he said quickly, “Don’t you have teenagers to wrangle?”
Abbie made a face. “Don’t remind me.” But she gathered up her cardigan and her tote bag. “It’s teen day at the library today. If I see one more copy of Twilight I might do something I regret.”
Jack grinned at her. “Like bend a page?” The phone rang, cutting off her retort. “Hang on,” said Jack, and reached for it.
Abbie shook her head. “I’m going!” She did an exaggerated goodbye wave, and slipped back around the door.
Saved by the bell. Or almost.
Abbie stuck her head back around the door. “Ask about the house tonight!”
Jack picked up the receiver. “Vallenti.”
Speak of the devil. Jack hit the speaker button and kicked back in his chair. “Hi, Marissa. Shouldn’t you be off on your honeymoon?”
“We’re having the honeymoon in February,” she said, just a little defensively. “We’re going to Maui.”
Of course. She’d be up for partner in January, wouldn’t she? She wouldn’t want to go away before then.
“For Valentine’s Day?” said Jack. “Nice.”
“I just wanted to thank you for the silver chafing dish. That was very good of you.”
Actually, it had been anything but good of him. It had been one of their wedding presents, given by one of Marissa’s elderly relatives, five hundred years ago. Jack wasn’t quite sure how it had wound up in his possession when they’d split.
Sending it had been… well, let’s just say he hadn’t been feeling exactly warm and fuzzy when he’d shipped it off.
All that same, he was glad she hadn’t recognized it. Sleeping dogs, and all that kind of thing. They’d made their peace, at least officially. She’d invited him to the wedding; he’d declined nicely and sent a gift. All civilized and aboveboard.
“No problem,” he said. “I hope you and Hunter have many happy hours of chafing.”
An uneasy laugh from the other end of the phone. Marissa had never quite gotten his sense of humor. She’d tried to laugh on cue, but it always wound up being slightly off.
She’d hated Spaceballs.
He could hear her sigh, two states and one marriage away. “Jack? Are you still there?”
“Sorry. It’s a bit busy here.” Jack shuffled papers for emphasis. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.
“Of course, it is,” said Marissa, a little too quickly. They’d had this fight before. She’d asked him why he was wasting himself as a small town lawyer; he’d demanded whether she really enjoyed doc review. This time, though, she was trying to please. “Lots of wills and things?”
“They’re dropping like flies over here,” said Jack. “It’s hard to keep up.”
He’d given up trying to explain that his practice was more than basic trust and estate work. Sure, there was a fair amount of that, but Philips’ Falls also had its share of intricate business transactions. It was one of the things he loved about being back here, the range of work he got to do.
“Is this just a social call?” he asked. “Or did you have another reason for calling?”
It wasn’t like Marissa to waste valuable billable hours on personal items. Unless, of course, he was doing her a disservice. There was a peculiar sort of etiquette involved in dealing with a former spouse upon the acquisition of a new one.
“Now that you ask….” Nope. He’d gotten it right the first time. “We’re doing a Changing Face of Lawyering conference at HLS in December. P&M is one of the sponsors.”
P&M, Pharse & Maquerie, LLP, was the prestigious Boston firm at which Marissa was a seventh year associate. She had telecommuted to them the year she theoretically lived in Philips’ Falls.
“That’s great,” said Jack. “Sounds useful.”
It sounded like a load of hot air, but, then, that’s what conferences generally were. People pretended to come for the panels, but they were really there for the open bar and the chance to escape their toddlers.
“I’m one of the co-chairs.”
Either she missed the sarcasm or she chose to ignore it. “We’re doing a panel on Small Law. You know, solo practioners, small firms, that kind of thing. We were hoping you’d be our solo practitioner.”
Jack suspected she was asking him because he was the only solo practitioner she knew. Harvard Law tended to feed into big firms and government agencies, not hang out your own shingle kind of stuff. There was a distinct element of snobbery involved: solo practice was for the bottom feeders, the people who couldn’t get the right kind of job at a real firm.
Go try to explain to Marissa that he was happier as a solo practitioner than he had ever been at a “real” firm.
“Also,” she said tentatively, “this might be a good opportunity for you to meet people. Get back into the game.” Taking his silence for encouragement, she went on, “The market still isn’t great, but firms have started hiring again. With your credentials, you’d have a good shot.”
“Thanks for the thought, but I’m happy where I am.”
“In Philips’ Falls?”
She might as well have said, “In the seventh circle of hell?” It came out with the same inflection.
To Marissa, Philips’ Falls had been the seventh circle of hell. She was an urban creature, through and through, very self-consciously and determinedly so. There was no opera, she had complained. No ballet, no theater, no major art museums. Nothing ever happened in Philips’ Falls.
He was tempted to tell her that a pop star had spent the night on his couch.
But that would be petty.
And, besides, she would never believe him.
“You have other options, Jack.” Marissa was using her persuasive voice. “You don’t have to stay there.”
She meant it well, he reminded himself. She meant it well. No matter how incredibly insulting and patronizing it sounded. He knew she still felt guilty about him.
Somehow, that pissed him off more than any amount of pure indifference.
“Thanks, Marissa. Best to Hunter and the folks at P&M.” He punched “end call” before he gave in to the temptation to hurl the phone. Not a good idea right next to a large, plate glass window.
The phone rang again, instantly. Christ. Wouldn’t she just let it go?
“What?” Jack snapped.
“Jack?” It was his sister-in-law, Jeannie. “Is this a bad time?”
“Sorry, Jeannie. I thought you were someone else.” He didn’t say who. His parents would go ballistic if they knew he was still speaking to Marissa. Correction: his mother would go ballistic. “What’s up?”
“I just wanted to check that you’re still on for munchkin duty tomorrow night.”
Jack could hear a child’s plaintive howl in the background. Not his niece or nephew, although they could howl with the best of them. From the sound of it, someone was just about to get a shot. A nurse’s soothing voice kicked in, murmuring nonsense words.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” he said. “Daisy owes me a tic tac toe grudge match.”
“Thanks,” said his sister-in-law, before adding, with studied casualness, “By the way, we have a new nurse here at the office. She’s a real sweetie. I was just thinking—”
“Oh, no,” Jack said. “No set-ups.”
After the divorce, his mother had done her best to herd every eligible female between the age of eighteen and forty into his path, just “to get back into practice”, she had said, as though he’d been blowing off piano lessons. He didn’t need practice. He just needed to be left alone.
Tell that to his mother.
To make it worse, they all fell into a very specific category: cookie-baking, child-rearing, bruise-bandaging, nurturing types. It wasn’t that Jack had anything against nursery school teachers or bakers or nurses; it was that he knew exactly what his mother was doing. She was looking for the antithesis of Marissa. She was looking for someone who would stay home and take care of Jack, someone who would make sure dinner was warm in the oven and his boxers didn’t have holes in the butt.
Just once, he wished someone would set him up with a flame-thrower or a stock car driver.
Or a pop icon.
“Actually, it’s less about you,” said Jeannie. “I’m worried about Abbie.”
He’d missed a beat here. “How did Abbie get into this?”
“Yes, I’ll be there in a moment,” said Jeannie, to someone else, possibly the real sweetie. “Sorry, Jack. Where was I?”
“Abbie. Don’t tell me you’re planning to set her up with the nurse? I don’t think she swings that way.”
“Yeah, yeah. So Sam and I were talking about the whole you and Abbie thing, and he thinks—”
Sam was a quarterback turned cop. Jack deeply doubted that he had an opinion about Jack’s personal life. “You mean you think.”
“Same difference,” said Jeannie. “Anyway, the point is, you need to do something about Abbie. It’s not nice leading her on like that.”
“She’s my friend.”
“Uh-huh,” said Jeannie. “Maybe from your point of view. But is it friendly to be her friend?”
Jack stared at the speaker of the phone. “Have you been exploring your own medicine cabinet?”
“What I mean is, if she has feelings for you, it’s kinder—it’s friendlier—to let her know you’re not interested straight out. Otherwise, you risk hurting her feelings.”
“And it won’t hurt her feelings to tell her out of the blue that I have zero interest in”—Jack scrounged for a suitably non-locker room phrase—“the horizontal tango.”
Jeannie sighed. “You’re the only one who would construe it as out of the blue. She’s all but chiseled your names into a tree. With a blow torch.” More noises from the background. “Just think about it, okay? I’ve got to go. I have a biter at two-thirty.”
“Maud Heilbut’s youngest. Teeth like a steel clamp. The kid is in training to be Hannibal Lector.”
Jack choked on a laugh. “Good luck.”
“Think about that nurse,” ordered Jeannie, and hung up.
He’d won the sister-in-law lottery. Sam had been with the Poughkeepsie police department; Jeannie had been doing her residency there. They had met in the ER over a gut-shot, doped up drug dealer and the rest was history. It wasn’t precisely what Jack would call a “meet cute”, but it seemed to have worked for them. Of course, these were both people who considered festering wounds light entertainment.
His mother said every peg found its pair, which Jack was pretty sure was a misquote, even though the point was clear. Sometimes he wondered about that. His parents had started dating in high school. Sam had met Jeannie when he was in his late twenties and Jeannie was just on the other side of thirty. Six years ago, Jack had thought Marissa was the one. Now, in hindsight, he could see all the warning signals along the way, all the times they’d misheard or misinterpreted one another.
So how did you know? How did you know which one was the right one? How did you know which one was going to stick?
Looking out the window, down towards the library, he thought about what Jeannie had said, about Abbie.
It was true that they had spent a significant amount of time together since Marissa had left. They’d gone to movies together; rented videos together; gone boating together. When Abbie had moved out of her old place into a new condo by the river, he’d hauled her boxes for her. And, of course, there was the standing Wednesday Night Dinner. Usually at Abbie’s. Almost always home-cooked.
As a summation for the prosecution, it sounded pretty convincing.
He didn’t have much to offer in his own defense, other than that it hadn’t occurred to him that Abbie might have thought it meant something more. Which, frankly, sounded pretty weak, even if it was entirely true.
It would be so convenient if he could make himself fall in love with Abbie. His parents liked her, his niece and nephew liked her, hell, even the garbage man liked her. She might not make him see sparks, but she was part of his life, and had been since junior high. She knew him, she knew his world. She’d never hurt him—but she’d never challenge him either. She’d never make him stand up for himself, never call him on a bad decision, never mouth off just for the heck of it.
Out of the blue, he caught himself thinking about Kristy Green, or Dare, or whatever she called herself, standing there dripping in his living room, telling him it usually took at least a drink for a guy to get her home.
The child star protection program. Jack snorted. Nice idea.
She didn’t look like his idea of a Hollywood princess. She was too lush, too alive, too—well, too. She was all curves and sass. He liked the sass. He really liked the curves.
Whoa. Jack called himself to an abrupt halt before anyone walking down Main Street could catch him drooling like some star-struck adolescent who’d stumbled across his favorite centerfold.
Thanks to Abbie, he was going to have to head over there tonight and try to make a case for why her house shouldn’t be her house.
Jack resisted the urge to bury his head in the pile of papers on his desk. Or just pull down the shades and say he’d gone home. He’d told Abbie time and again that the PFHS idea had serious issues, but this was her baby. She craved that house like a vampire craved blood. With the house, according to Abbie, they could expand their outreach programs, set up a proper archive, pair with other historical societies, do outreach to high schools, even have a living history program. She’d ignored all Jack’s prudent warnings about the cost of bringing the hosue up to code.
Thanks Miss Ada, Abbie, and the movie star, he had a massive old mess on his hands. To placate Abbie, he at least needed to put the PFHS suggestion to Kristy Dare—and wasn’t that just going to be fun.
Jeannie was right. He needed to get a life of his own.
Jack picked up the phone and hit speed dial.
“Doctor Vallenti’s office,” said a pleasant voice on the other end, with just the faintest hint of a Southern drawl.
Jack wondered if that was the nurse in question. And if the whole magnolia thing would get annoying on a long-term basis. “This is Doctor Vallenti’s brother-in-law.”
“I’m afraid Doctor Vallenti is with a patient right now….”
“I know. The biter.” From the background, he could hear a child’s sharp cry of indignation. “Can you just give her a message for me? Tell her I’ve reconsidered her proposition.”
* * *
The phone was ringing when Kristy got into the house.
Naturally, Aunt Ada had no caller ID. Kristy snatched up the receiver, prepared to be rude to telemarketers. “Hello?”
“Buon giorno, bella!” the voice at the other end of the line caroled.
Kristy dropped the box of fuses on the hall table. “Emma. Where are you calling from?”
“Skype!” Emma’s voice was crackly, but she still sounded like Emma. Her prep school accent was just this side of faux English. When Kristy had first met her, she’d thought it was pretentious until she realized that Emma didn’t even know she was doing it. “Isn’t it great? Much cheaper than calling you on your cell. How’s Nowheresville?”
“That’s Nowhere Falls to you,” said Kristy, hugging the cord to her chest. She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed Emma until she heard her voice. The one person in the worlds she could count on to always be on her team. “It’s… interesting.”
“Interesting how?” Kristy could hear a clackety-clack in the background. Emma was addicted to Text Twist. She could beat the computer with only a fraction of her brain engaged. She was probably slaughtering syllables even now.
Wrapping the cord around her finger, Kristy wandered towards the right-hand parlor. The shrubs planted around the house had grown out of control. Exuberant shoots of yew blocked the lower half of the window. “Let’s see…. The town is Mayberry, the house is like something out of Edgar Allen Poe, and I had a hot night last night with the local lawyer.”
The clacking abruptly stopped. “You what? Kristy!” Emma’s voice was filled with horrified delight. “But you just got there!”
Kristy grinned. “My power went out. Actually, my power is still out.” She should really do something about that. This no air conditioning thing was going to get old fast. “The local lawyer took pity on me. I slept on his sofa. The night was hot. End of story.”
There was a heartfelt groan from the other end. “Don’t do that to me. Let me guess, he’s ninety-five and doddering?”
Only Emma would use a word like “doddering” and do it completely unselfconsciously. Kristy felt a sudden wave of love for her friend. Emma had no idea just how much she had done to turn Kristy’s world around, just by being herself.
“I’d say closer to thirty-five.” Kristy remembered that well-washed T-shirt last night. It had left very little to the imagination. “And surprisingly built. Oh, and he lives in my backyard.”
There was a pause from the other end. “I know I’m going to regret asking… but why do you have a lawyer in your backyard?”
“Because I didn’t want a garden gnome?”
This was an old argument. “I don’t see what you have against garden gnomes,” said Emma reproachfully.
“Those pointy little hats and those nasty, beady little eyes… Ugh,” said Kristy. “They’re creepy.”
Kristy smiled coyly at her reflection in the window. “A little too iconic—don’t you think?”
“You’re not going Alannis on me, are you?”
“Hmph,” said Emma. “I miss you, sweetie. When are you coming to visit me?”
When she could afford the plane ticket. “I have to get this place cleared out. Really, you wouldn’t believe it, it’s like a repository for the junk of the ages. The Lost Ark is probably buried here somewhere.”
“If you find any Ghirlandaios, send them my way.”
“Isn’t that a kind of chocolate?”
“Very funny,” said Emma indulgently.
Kristy wrinkled her nose at the phone. Who was joking? Oh, well, she’d look it up later. One of the things she loved about Emma was that Emma always assumed that Kristy knew what she was talking about. Emma might have solid gold plated academic credentials, but she’d never once looked down her nose at Kristy for her GED.
Emma was still speaking, her voice tinny through internet and phone. “Do you think you can get away as far as Boston? I have to be there for a week in December for AAAH.”
“For what?” It sounded like someone had just stuck a tongue depressor down Emma’s throat.
“A-A-A-H. The American Association of Art Historians.”
“Things that make you go ‘aaah’?”
Emma thought about it. “Sometimes, it’s more like things that make you go agh. But I like it.”
That was an understatement. Emma loved her job. Kristy just wished she could find something that called to her half as much. She’d deluded herself, at one point, into believing that acting was her vocation, but the cruel, hard truth was that she’d really never been that good. She’d bought into her own hype at the time, believing she was owed the adulation, that she deserved to be greeted by screaming fans. With hindsight, she knew better. Anything she’d achieved she’d done on a minimum of talent and a maximum of attitude.
Not that that was very helpful in terms of figuring out what to do next.
Dropping her voice, Emma asked, “How’s your mother?”
“Pretty much the same,” said Kristy. “You know.”
Unlike most people, Emma did know. Not just because Kristy had told her, but because her brother, Christian, had suffered from a cocktail of psychological disorders, distorted and magnified by his more than recreational drug habit.
That was how Kristy had met Emma, during Emma’s visits to the rehab facility so cunningly designed to resemble an upscale resort. Kristy had been bored, cranky and restless, furious with the judge for flinging her in there with the real addicts, furious with her father for disowning her, furious with her mother for being such a mess, furious with all the doctors who agreed that her issues with alcohol were less addiction and more attention-seeking, but who still wouldn’t sign the forms to let her out. Emma’s friendship had been a lifeline. She was the one who’d got Kristy hooked on old gothics and Regencies, introducing her to a world wider than the cover of US Weekly. Unlike the orderlies, she’d found Kristy’s snarky sense of humor funny.
Emma’s friendship had been a lifeline for Kristy, in rehab, but even more so after they’d finally let her out, finding her way shakily back on her feet in a world so different from the one she had known before. Her old friends had abandoned her along with the good times; clubbing no longer appealed. Trying to find her legs again, she’d felt as wobbly as one of those little fawns in Bambi.
“So,” Emma said, “December?”
“Why don’t we play it by ear,” Kristy suggested. “December’s a long way away.”
“Is something wrong?” Emma sounded worried. “Are okay for money?”
She had bills to pay, a house with dodgy fuses, and, if the real estate agents were right, no prospect of selling it anytime soon. Well, screw them. She’d put on a coat of paint and she’d find someone who wanted the house, even if she had to go out and flag down prospective buyers herself.
“Everything’s fine,” Kristy lied. “No worries. This place is a gold mine waiting to happen. But I should go deal with the fuse box before it gets too late.”
All the way from Italy, she heard the concern in Emma’s voice. “You’re fixing your own fuse box?”
“So little faith,” said Kristy, and went to see if she could set her house on fire.