Saturday, November 29, 2014


"Whose party is this?" his sister shot back, still smiling, her voice artificially sweet. As if she heard every word ringing through his aching head.
"Well..." The girl glanced at Gretchen, who was too quiet for a moment, then at the other girls in the kitchen. What were they doing in the kitchen, anyway? Had they made such a big mess in the living room they had to retreat in here, where he thought he was safe? "Yours."
"Right. So if I want porcelain birds and silver rings and peach candy sticks for the favors, that's what we're having."
"Silver bells and silver-coated almonds and rhinestone-sparkle netting is what's in this year," Gretchen said with a chuckle and a toss of her head.
"What makes you think I care about what's in this year?" Dinah said.
"As your maid of honor--"
"You're not my maid of honor. There is no maid of honor, there is no best man. This is just a party." She raised her hands to her head, and Drake thought for a moment his sister would yank on her hair. Instead she sank down on the stool at the counter next to his. He handed her his coffee and muffled a chuckle when she took a big gulp of it, glaring over the rim at the wedding party.
"But it's your wedding reception," Gretchen said, her voice soft, her expression calm. "A once-in-a-lifetime experience. It has to be perfect. That's what we want for you. Perfection."
Drake thought if she reached out and patted Dinah's head to soothe her, his sister would do something drastic. Like throw that cup of coffee in her face. He didn't know if he wanted to make the sacrifice. He had stayed up nearly until 1a.m., thinking about the Stacy situation and praying hard. He woke up with a headache and fragments of bad dreams that he couldn't wash out of his mind with coffee. A long, hot shower was next. Maybe a couple miles on the indoor track at the BWU student center after that.
"Yes, it's my wedding reception," Dinah said at last, handing the cup back to Drake with a grimace. That was a good sign, he thought. She wasn't so distracted she didn't notice that it had no cream or sugar. "And Troy and I decided we wanted as little formality as possible."
"You have been this way since we were kids." Gretchen chuckled.
Interestingly, the other girls didn't join in with her this time.
"I swear, you have no sense of... of what's required of someone in your level of society. There are certain expectations, certain duties. Tell her, Drake."
"I'm with Di. I've hated all the fuss and feathers -- remember Mrs. B saying that?" Drake nudged Dinah.
"I wish she was here," his sister sighed. "And Stacy."
"While they both had their uses, they certainly don't have any part in this," Gretchen said. Her sweet, reasonable mask had gone brittle. "People need to learn to stay in their proper places."
         Drake sat up, feeling as if a sliver of a clue had fallen into his hands.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


"You should be there, not that lying little screecher. How come you ain't?" Maggie said, yanking gently on Stacy's arm.
"I tried!" She tried to snap her mouth shut after that burst out, but it was like someone else had taken control of her mouth, prying it open and pulling the words out. "I even called Gretchen, when I realized she was taking over, and I offered to help, to get things, and she just laughed at me."
"What'd you call her for? How come you didn't call Dinah? Ain't it her party? If Gretchen wants to run things, she should have her own wedding."
"Yeah, as if anybody would want to marry her." Stacy stumbled, stepping up onto the sidewalk, and looked around. Somehow, she and Maggie were nearly to her house. How had they walked that fast?
Because her mind was so tangled up in her misery and horrifying visions of Gretchen tricking Drake Ashcroft into taking her to the altar, she hadn't been paying any attention to the snowy, black night, that was how.
"Seems to me, the person you need to talk to is your best friend, not the silly twit who hated your guts before she even met you," Maggie grumbled. "You haven't gone over there or called or anything, have you?"
"No," she admitted grudgingly.
"Why not? What's so hard about it?"
"I've got my pride, too! I may be just the housekeeper's granddaughter, but I have feelings!" Stacy yanked her arm free of Maggie's, but she didn't run away like she wanted. At least she had someone to listen to the hurt rushing up like a geyser. "I should have realized years ago, Dinah was only my friend when nobody else would have her."
"Now that's about the stupidest thing I ever heard, and I been around long enough, I done heard a whole lot of stupid. A couple lifetimes' worth of stupid." She grabbed hold of Stacy's arms just above the elbows and shook her twice.
"Yeah, well, that just about sums up Gretchen and her whole crew."
"And you want to be like them silly twits?" Maggie stared at her, mouth hanging open and her eyes wide.
           A tiny giggle broke out of Stacy, and with it, a hard, sharp plug of something seemed to come loose deep inside. She hiccupped, another giggle escaped, and then turned to tears. Maggie's arms wrapped around her, enveloping her with warmth and peppermint.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


"Have fun tonight?" The scratchy voice came out of the darkness, startling Stacy as she stepped out of the lobby doors of the Mission two hours later.
She exhaled loudly as Maggie stepped into the spill of light and winked at her. Tonight, the town's resident character wore a camouflage-patterned parka that hung on her like a tent, hiding her hands and going almost to her calves. Her purple scarf, hot pink leggings, and orange rubber boots were all in neon shades so bright, they seemed to glow with a light of their own.
"I swear, you get more fun out of scaring people than the sixth-grade boys in my class at church." Stacy glanced over her shoulder as the light cut in half. Paul Hunter waved to her, lifting his hand from the panel of master light switches in the lobby. The Mission was shutting down for the night. "Yeah, I had fun."
"You don't get near enough fun, from where I'm sitting." Maggie tipped her head in the direction of the sidewalk and fell into step with Stacy as she headed for the crosswalk.
"I don't--" She sighed. One thing she had learned a long time ago: never try to lie to her grandmother or to Maggie. They both had built-in lie detectors. "I'm too busy most of the time to miss it. The rest of the time, I'm too tired to care."
"Yeah, that's what you keep telling yourself." She looped her arm through Stacy's and they fell into step together. "Big noisy doings over at the Ashcrofts' place. How come you ain't there?"
"Because I was here tonight. You can't be two places at once." She was mostly pleased with the nearly flippant, carefree tone of her voice. Mostly. Stacy would have tried to toss her head, but it was hard when she had two scarves wrapped around her neck and her coat was so bulky she felt she had to turn her whole body to see in any direction other than forward.
"Don't you go lyin' to old Maggie. You shoulda been making those fancy froo-froo things with the nuts and the nets and plastic wedding bells."
"That's not what Dinah was--" She sighed.
Hearing about Gretchen's designs for the party favors for the reception had been the icing on the already painful, choking cake that landed on her, when she overheard that conversation at the store. Stacy had nearly shouted that no, Dinah wouldn't dare use what Gretchen wanted to use. She had known better. Dinah wanted something different.
But that was the problem -- Dinah had changed, and she did seem to want something different now. In friends and wedding reception decorations.
In eighth grade, Stacy and Dinah had designed their own party favors for their weddings. Dinah's favorite flavor was peach, so she had decided she would have little white porcelain doves and silver rings tied to peach candy sticks with "miles" of white ribbon. Stacy wasn't sure why she was so disappointed to think of Dinah not using that design. Everything else had changed since those fun days of dreaming, why not that, too?
           Maybe, she decided a moment later, she should be grateful. The thought of Gretchen making those party favors that Stacy had helped Dinah create all those years ago would have been unbearable.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


The lobby was empty when they reached it. Drake glanced in the nurse's room when they passed. Whatever the damage had been, the little boy wasn't there anymore. He was about to ask who the boy was, and why he wouldn't let anybody but Max help him, then he heard her voice.
"Stacy, there you are," Max said. Her voice came from the old library room. "Drake Ashcroft is here somewhere, looking for you."
"Why?" Stacy's voice cracked. From the clearness of their voices, Drake guessed they were standing in the doorway. He and Tony came around the corner, and he saw he was right. They had their backs to the door. He could also see just past them, to two long tables set up in the open area of the library and children working away on a mixed assortment of different sizes and styles of computers.
"Didn't say. But that reminds me, do you need a ride for the party tomorrow night? Tony and I can pick you up on the way."
"Not going." Stacy shrugged, glanced briefly at Max, and turned to look at her students again.
"Why not?" Max voiced Drake's question.
He was glad she said it, because there was a thick tightness in his throat and he couldn't decide if he was going to shout, or he couldn't speak at all.
"Didn't get invited."
"Huh? But you and Dinah were best friends all through school."
"That was school. People grow apart."
"Well, we're invited mostly because of the university connection, although we've always been friends with the Ashcrofts, church and all that. I can't imagine why you wouldn't be invited. I mean, with your grandmother--"
"My grandmother was just the housekeeper. That was made quite clear to me -- look, the kids are almost finished with this part -- if you see Drake, tell him I'm too busy, okay?"
"Okay." Max's frown was clear, her head turned to watch Stacy cross the room to her students.
"That's weird," Tony muttered.
"Tell me about it." Drake clutched the blue-wrapped box closer to his chest. He wasn't sure what he thought about this new revelation. It certainly explained why his mother hadn't received the RSVP from Stacy yet -- Stacy never got the invitation. There was always the chance that Stacy was just hurt enough to lie. It was easier to say she wasn't invited, he supposed, than to admit that she was so hurt by Dinah's treatment of her that she didn't even want to come to her party.
But what about Mom and Dad and me? Drake wondered. The dropping sensation in his chest was almost laughable. Didn't Stacy want to at least see them? Or had she written off the whole family because Dinah had been cruel to her?
Besides, he might have been gone for too long, and not seen Stacy in all that time, but he couldn't imagine her changing so much that she would lie like that. If Stacy said she didn't get an invitation, then she didn't.
          But he could do something about that.

Friday, November 21, 2014


"So, you call him Carlo?" Drake marveled at the idea of his friend, whom he had known as long as he had known the entire Randolph family, was on first-name basis with Hollywood legend and statesman, Carlo Vincente. It was on par with being friends with Charlton Heston, if he were still alive, and being allowed to call him Chuck, or having long, cozy talks with Maureen O'Hara over tea and cookies.
"I don't want to even get into how long it took for Max to figure out what to call him. Her brothers -- the Vincente brothers, anyway -- told her she should call him 'Pop,' but that's just too casual, too close. There were a few times, I thought she'd be afraid to even talk to him, because she didn't know what to say. Then they had a long talk, and she settled on just using his name." He pushed the back door open and they both winced at the hard gust of cold air that slapped their faces.
"Wow. I can't imagine how hard it must have been for her. It's hard seeing anybody but Mr. Randolph as her father."
"Like Max puts it, Joel is her dad. Carlo is her father. And he's such a great guy. You could almost wish her stepmother would be nasty about some things, but..." He shrugged and gestured over at a car parked four spaces down from the brightly illuminated doorway. "I keep telling her Joel won't mind if she has him and Carlo both walk her down the aisle, but Max is afraid of hurting both of them by asking, or not having anyone."
"Elope. Definitely."
"I wish. But Miss Emily and Jeannette -- that's Max's stepmother -- they're having a great time planning the wedding, all the fuss. And we're hearing a lot of griping about your sister depriving the town gossips of the wedding of the century. Between the world finding out Miss Emily is here and the accident last spring and Joel being at the U and everything else--" He laughed as he unlocked the car, opened the door, reached into the back seat, and pulled out a box that looked approximately ten inches on each side. "If we elope, we better not come back to town at all."
"Then Di owes you two, right?"
"It's getting the payback that's the problem." He settled the box in Drake's hands and slammed the car door shut.
            They chatted about mutual friends as they made their way back into the building and down the hall to the lobby area again. Drake was pleased when he mentioned he wanted to do an internship in the area, hopefully at Tabor Christian, after he finished with seminary, and Tony showed excitement about the idea.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


"It is not 'done,' to bring a present to the wedding," Tony said in a mocking elegant voice. "Or so those in the know keep telling us. You have no idea what a pain it is, having everybody in the church and half the town telling us what we have to do for our wedding."
"I keep telling him we should elope," Max added.
"If Di could get away with getting married privately, why not?" Drake offered.
"I plan on asking her for some details tomorrow." She looked around the lobby, which was empty of everyone but them. "Wow, it's finally over. If you could wait a few seconds, I'll run out to the car and get the present."
"Sure. You don't happen to know where Stacy Belmont is working tonight, are you?"
"Stacy?" Tony glanced down at the row of clipboards on the table, each one holding a signup sheet for a class. "Computers. Just around the--"
"Max?" Todd Montgomery skidded down the hall from the right end of the school, holding a little boy with dark curls, blue jeans, and a Browns sweatshirt. No other details were visible because he and Todd held a wad of wet, red-streaked paper towels to his face. "He won't let anybody else help him."
"BJ?" Max let out a sympathetic groan and held out her arms. The trembling little boy lowered the wad of towels enough for his big, dark, tear-filled eyes to be visible. He nearly threw himself out of Todd's arms and into hers. "What'd you do now, shorty? Uh -- Drake -- this might--"
"I'll take care of it," Tony said. He watched her hurry down the hall a few steps to a room clearly marked "Nurse."
"I'll walk out with you," Drake offered. "Lots of excitement," he commented, after Tony had retrieved his coat and they headed down the gym hallway to the parking lot door.
"But fun. Max and I volunteer a day or two every week. Most of our work is done, now that registration is over. We have work for the wedding as an excuse." He chuckled. "I'd rather be here, honestly."
"Wedding phobia?"
"I don't mind, for me. Max is tearing herself apart and doesn't even realize it yet. She's great coordinating things behind stage, the more opening night disasters to circumvent, the better. But put her in center stage, forget it. Especially when she's thinking of having both her dads walk her down the aisle."
"I guess that means she's getting along good with her father and his family?"
           "We all get along good. The gossip rags would love it if there was a lot of in-fighting and name-calling and jealousy -- and hints that Carlo and Miss Emily are going to dump their current wife and husband and get back together -- but... we're one big, happy family. So far, anyway. You never know how all the wedding pressure will change things."

Monday, November 17, 2014


"Can I -- Drake!" Tony Martin stood up from the registration table and held out a hand. "You're not here for classes, are you? Or did they get you to tag-team with Pastor Doug?"
"I'm just in town for a few days for Di's reception." Drake stepped up to the table and shook hands with Tony. "Hey, I hear you and Max have set a date, but you've managed to keep the media from finding out. How did you manage that?"
"Shock and awe." He grinned and leaned back against the wall instead of settling down at the registration table again.
"Excuse me?"
"If you're bored enough while you're in town, check out the gossip rags in the supermarket. Every single one has a different date for our wedding, and a different place. Audrey started it, telling some whoppers to a spy in the kitchen where she works. Now, even if the real date and location pops out, nobody will believe it."
"That sounds like a great story, once the whole thing gets resolved. You're not going to put it in a book, are you?" he teased.
"Maybe in about ten years, when we're able to laugh at the insanity." Tony mimed wiping sweat off his forehead.
"We'll see you at the reception tomorrow night, right?"
"You bet. Can't wait to see Dinah and meet Troy. I just hope Max doesn't get any ideas from the party," he said, glancing around with exaggerated fear.
"I heard that!" a semi-familiar female voice called. A moment later, Max Randolph peered around the corner, coming from what was the library when this was the Eloise Elementary School.
"You were supposed to." He gestured at Drake. "Look who's back in town."
"Drake!" She hurried around the registration table to hug him. "Perfect timing."
"For what?" Drake looked back and forth between her and Tony.
"We're planning on dropping off Di's present on our way home tonight, but if you could take it with you, that'd save us one more errand."
"Can't you just bring it with you tomorrow night?"
            A chill shot through him when he realized that was something else that had been nagging him since seeing Stacy's present for Dinah yesterday morning. Why couldn't Stacy just bring it to the reception?

Saturday, November 15, 2014


 Footsteps on the polished marble stairs caught his attention and he stepped back to look upwards. Sure enough, his father hurried down, tugging on his gloves, a frown of concentration on his face. Making a silent bet with himself, Drake waited at the foot of the stairs. His father looked right at him, nodded a greeting, and headed for the door.
Devon Ashcroft turned, his frown deepening, to shatter a moment later with a chuckle. He easily admitted his bad habit of being so deep in thought he lost track of the outside world. His ability to laugh at himself defused any frustration his friends and associates usually felt. That, and his constant efforts to improve.
The door on the opposite side of the lobby opened and a young woman with long, straight bronze hair stepped out, shrugging into a full-length navy coat, holding a piece of paper between her lips, and juggling a purse and an accordion folder full of papers. Her phone rang. Drake stared, smiling, as he merged his last clear memory of Stacy with this three-years-older young woman. His certainty of her identity was confirmed as she yanked the paper from her mouth and brought the phone up to her ear with the other hand, and spoke.
"Just a second," he said, when his father gestured at the door.
Then Stacy headed for the door as she listened to the person on the other end, and didn't show any sign of seeing them. Drake focused on her as he and his father followed her outside and down the steps.
"Stacy?" he called, when she finished the phone call with a promise to call the other person back in an hour, and put the phone back in her purse. "It's Drake. Drake Ashcroft," he added, with a funny little dropping sensation of disappointment when she frowned at him, her expression clearly saying she didn't recognize him. She hadn't changed enough to be noticeable or confusing since the last time they had spoken -- how could he have?
"Oh -- hi." Her eyes widened in what he could have sworn was panic, though she managed a wobbly smile. "I guess you're back in town for the party. Well, duh, of course." Stacy offered a laugh.
"Come to lunch with us," his father offered. Drake came near to hugging him in that moment, when his tongue seemed stapled to the roof of his mouth.
"Can't. A dozen errands, and I have to cut my lunch short to take care of another emergency for Dr. Filmore. Thanks." She waved and hurried away. A little too fast for the coating of icy snow on the sidewalk.
"When can we get together?" Drake called. "You know, talk, catch up?"
"I'll call you when I check my schedule, okay?" She waved, not even looking back at him, and picked up speed.
          "Something is definitely wrong," Drake muttered. Fortunately, his father didn't hear him, so he didn't have to explain.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


"I don't know what that girl is drinking at this time of the morning," Mrs. Ashcroft said with a chuckling sigh, looking out over Drake's shoulder. They both stood in the open front door, watching six girls cram into Gretchen's BMW.
"Huh?" Drake had laughed and glanced at his mother. That little frown, the triple lines between her eyebrows, threatening to draw a little line down her nose, worried him. He should have come home a week earlier, to help her with all the work involved in the party.
Stacy should have been there, helping. He wouldn't have put it past Gretchen to have done or said something nasty, to keep her from participating in all the preparations.
"There are no assigned seats, and no bridal party table," his mother said, raising her hand to wave as Gretchen slapped the horn with a brief blatt. "I don't know where the girl gets those ideas."
"Better check with the caterer to make sure none of your instructions got changed," he said, and closed the door. "I wouldn't put it past Gretchen to call them and overrule everything you told them last week."
"Hmm, yes. I thought for a while that girl had changed, that she had finally grown up." Mrs. Ashcroft shook her head. "Good idea."
"You wouldn't have these problems if Stacy was helping out."
"Yes, well, Stacy isn't talking to your sister for some reason." She paused, her foot on the bottom step, heading upstairs. "I should really call her, find out what happened."
"Dinah dropped her. That's what happened." Drake offered a smile and shook his head. "It'll all work out. Stacy'll come to the party tomorrow night and she and Dinah will hug and laugh about the whole stupid misunderstanding and everything'll be fine."

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


 "We should have called ahead," Dinah said, as Drake rang the doorbell of the Belmont house for the third time. The soft chimes could be clearly heard, despite the muffling sensation that came from the thickly falling snowflakes that seemed to wrap a white curtain around the world, beyond the pool of light from the front porch lantern.
"Do you know her cell phone?" he asked.
"I don't even know if she has one."
"What is wrong with you, Di?"
"Wrong with me?" She glared at him for a fierce three seconds, before turning and stomping down off the front porch steps and down the slate path to the sidewalk.
"I thought Stacy was your best friend."
"She is -- was -- we drifted apart, okay?" She stopped abruptly and turned, waiting for him to catch up to her. "And why should you care so much? If Stacy was so important to you, how come you didn't keep in contact with her?"
"I've asked myself that a few dozen times since I got in this morning." He hooked her arm with his and tugged her close, so their hips bumped a few times as they headed down the sidewalk, until they got their rhythm matched up. "The thing is, I was just used to hearing from you and Mom and Dad how Stacy was doing, what she was up to... I didn't even realize I needed to hear about her, until there was silence."
"Needed?" She bumped his hip deliberately. "Be careful, big brother. Somebody would think..." She sighed.
"Think what?" He wanted to hear it from her. It was easier than voicing something he wasn't quite sure about himself. Especially since he hadn't talked to Stacy in what seemed like years.
"If it wasn't for Troy, I could almost wish I had never moved to Virginia. Everything is so different, and I'm starting to think that Stacy not being here, my not knowing every part of her life is more than just a symptom."
"Yeah, well, never thought you'd be best buds with Gretchen, of all people. I mean, come on, Di, when did that Tammy Fae wannabe turn into a good friend?"
"She's not that bad." Dinah chuckled and leaned over a little to rest her head against his shoulder as they strolled through the snowy dark quiet. "Especially since she cut down the makeup by about ten pounds a week."
"Ouch. Don't let her hear you say that. She might start using a trowel again."
"Especially since you're home. If she hadn't been so silent on the topic of you in the last year, I'd think the only reason she's being so helpful is to get in good with you."
          "That twit could never get in good with me. Not even if she joined a convent and gave Mother Theresa a run for her money." Drake frowned, hearing a faint echo of the sour, sharp tone of his voice.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


In between discussing the computer classes Stacy taught at the Mission, the plans for finally renovating one of the rooms there into a coffee house, and expanded hours for the childcare offerings, they finally teased an answer out of Rene to explain the presence of the baby shower catalogs. Hannah and Xander had only been married since November, but Hannah had been feeling odd too many mornings in a row for it to be simply a bout with the flu. Especially when she was full of energy and rosy-cheeked only an hour or so later. It was too soon to tell yet, and Rene hadn't managed to tease a confession or hint out of her former roommate, but she dearly hoped Hannah was pregnant.
"Isn't it kind of soon? I mean, sure, I've heard about lots of babies born exactly nine months after the wedding night, but..." Stacy shrugged. "If it were me, I'd want to wait a year or two, just to get used to being married."
"Sounds like you've given it a lot of thought," Bekka said with a smirk.
"And you haven't?" Rene challenged. "Fess up -- what have you and Shane decided? How soon can we start planning a baby shower for you two?"
"Well, we did discuss getting a sidecar for his bike -- if we ever needed one." Her cheeks darkened and her hand shook a little bit as she spooned up another helping of the broccoli slaw, belying the casual shrug and tone of her voice. "But yeah, we're thinking we want to enjoy just being a couple before we add on a baby and all that gear and responsibility. I mean, can you see me as a mother?"
"The question," Rene said softly, "is if you can see yourself as a mother. I think Shane would be an incredible father. He's so sweet and wise and thoughtful. A little girl would have him wrapped around her pinky before she could even sit up."
"Yeah," Bekka whispered, eyes glistening before they went dreamy and distant. "I know."
To have a baby, Stacy thought with bitterness that shocked her, she would need to have a father for that baby, first. Despite letting friends at church and work set her up on blind dates, no one who made her want a second try. She had never even considered asking a guy out when the Singles group at church had Sadie Hawkins parties.
Straighten up, you nit, she silently scolded herself. Just because everyone else is getting married, that doesn't mean you should, or that you even need to.
              The funny thing was, a fragment of last night's dreams flashed into her mind. She had seen herself walking down the aisle at Dinah's wedding, and Drake stepped up when she reached the end of the aisle and offered his arm. She had felt blissfully happy when she looped her arm through his. And when she looked down at her dress, she couldn't tell if it was the dark sapphire tea-length skirts of the bridesmaids dress she and Dinah had chosen when they were twelve years old... or if it was a white satin sheath trimmed in silver lace, with silver lace slippers -- which she had seen in a bridal magazine just a month or so ago.