Copyright © 2011 Summer Devon
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Rachel barged into her sleep. “Swim starts today, Aunt Janey. Hey, get up! It’s past five.”
Janey pushed off the quilt and groaned when her bare feet touched the cold linoleum floor.
She scraped her hair from her eyes and squinted toward her niece. “See? I’m up. I gotta get dressed. Two minutes. Less, I swear.”
“I know you were working late, so I’ll just wait here.”
No point in protesting when young Rachel got that tone.
When Janey found out she had her fourteen-year-old niece full time, her friends with kids all gave her the same piece of advice: pick your fights.
This was not one of them.
She yawned and staggered to her dresser while Rachel watched from the doorway. Janey’s feet still ached from standing around for hours the night before.
She rummaged through the drawers. Damn. Today was laundry day. To be perfectly accurate, two days ago was laundry day.
She yanked on sweat pants with holes in both knees. Her slumbering sheep pajama top would have to do as a shirt. She found the pair of ho-ho-ho Christmas socks and finished off the outfit with her red clogs.
She smiled at Rachel. “Okay, lead me to the car and I’ll be fine.”
Rachel eyed her. “I don’t know if I’d describe you as fine, but Coach says if we’re late the first day we’ll have to do an extra twenty laps.” She held out the Porky the Pig travel mug. “Here. I even made you a cup of coffee.”
Bless the child’s heart. So what if Rachel’s idea of coffee was slightly brown warm water? Janey kissed her niece’s petal-soft round cheek, and took the cup.
Rachel fished around in her swim bag and pulled out a brush. “You might want this too.”
Rachel had easy-to-manage, short, curling locks. Janey had long hair from hell that took a good ten minutes to detangle. To save herself argument, Janey pretended to give herself a quick brush. They walked through the kitchen where she quietly abandoned the coffee. She yanked a rubber band from a doorknob and used it to haul her wild hair into a ponytail.
“Okay, sweetiepie? Am I fit to be seen in your presence?”
“Well, okay, Janey. But listen, you still look kinda demented.”
“Pick your fights.” Janey muttered her mantra.
In the battered old Toyota, Janey hummed a tune. Damn. Gilbert and Sullivan again.
Rachel, that overachiever, had signed up for another special interest—a Gilbert and Sullivan group. They were doing some show about pirates, but Rachel had borrowed every CD of every other operetta from the library. Janey had nothing in particular against Gilbert or Sullivan, except that their damn tunes stuck like peanut butter. The one about the modern major general currently jammed her brain circuits.
As she drove, she glanced at West Farmbrook, Connecticut’s architecture. Genuine New England houses jammed up against their neighbors, a showy and strange mix of McMansions. She enjoyed the hodgepodge of centuries and countries. An Italian villa stood next to an English half-timber, which was next to a hacienda, which was cheek-by-jowl with a pseudo-castle.
At night the houses were lit from below with floodlights as if they were monuments. A display of weird turn-of-twenty-first-century taste. The lights were off now and Janey admired the first beams of the early autumn sun.
Next to her, Rachel sang quietly. Janey grinned at her. By the time they pulled into the parking lot of the indoor pool, both of them were belting out, “I’ve information vegetable, animal and mineral.”
“Honey, remind me to bring the MP3 player tomorrow. Gogol Bordello might wipe away the Gilbert and Sullivan.” Janey waved to Rachel and, with a yawn, staggered over to the grandstands for a nap.
She’d gotten less than three hours of sleep the night before. Beth had promised the catering stint would end by eleven, but the woman had been desperate and would have promised anything to lure Janey into serving for her. Janey suppressed another yawn and once again thanked her lucky stars she had declined Beth’s occasional offers to become a business partner.
As she flopped down on the aluminum grandstand, Janey took a covert sniff at her forearm. She could smell the flambéed bananas she’d helped prepare—what a dumb idea for such a big crowd. She could also still smell the cheap white wine she’d poured down her front and her hands as she’d frantically filled the little plastic cups. A thirsty bunch at last night’s event.
She pulled off her leather biker jacket—actually her ex-boyfriend’s jacket—folded it into a haphazard pillow and lay down on the bleachers humming, “I’m called Little Buttercup.”
Two more hours of rest and then she’d haul Rachel to school, take a shower, and get herself to the temp agency. And fend off calls from Beth for at least two days. Janey needed the rest, and that night she needed to get to the laundromat. The temp agency tended to frown on its workers heading out to office jobs in flannel PJ tops.
She gave one more huge, audible yawn, sucking in the warm, humid, pool-scented air, and fell back asleep.
“Christopher Dunham! Just the man I wanted to see!”
Toph turned from the diverting sight of the woman yawning and falling asleep on the bleachers twenty feet away. With her wild yellow hair pulled back, and wearing what appeared to be pajamas, the woman was as out of place in the spectator area of Mayer Pool as his daughter’s scarlet parrot would be.
He politely rose to his feet and smiled.
Uh oh. What the hell was this woman’s name? Madge? Margie?
“Leslie Walsh,” she reminded him as she shook his hand. “We met at last spring’s meet, remember? I’m so delighted you decided to move to the area.”
Leslie Walsh, somewhere in her late thirties, looked remarkably well put together on the gray and cold Monday morning. Now she fit the typical Mayer Pool spectator/mother, dressed for success in a navy suit. Her makeup was flawless now, though Toph knew the humidity of the pool area meant she’d have to repaint herself. She wasn’t the only one wilting in the heat. Toph had already abandoned his suit jacket and had loosened his tie.
What was Leslie Walsh again? Real estate broker? Maybe. But he’d just bought a new house, so that wasn’t what she wanted from him. Lawyer? If so, she was out of luck. He wasn’t interested in replacing Mickey, no matter how annoying the man could be.
Leslie chattered about her son and his record-breaking summer swim team at camp. She asked Toph about his own darling daughter Cynthia. And told him that she thought Cynthia might be in the same grade as her daughter.
Toph smiled and nodded as Leslie talked about the stress of raising girls. He was just wondering if she was merely being friendly and didn’t actually plan to ask for a thing, when she at last got to the favor.
“Now my oldest daughter is a beauty. A real beauty.”
Ah. Leslie’s smile appeared a little forced.
He took a guess. “And you were wondering if she had a possible career in modeling?”
“You’re a mind reader!” She had the grace to blush.
Toph smiled. Again. His face already hurt and it wasn’t even six in the morning. “You might even be able to send her round this afternoon. I believe my associate is holding auditions, but you’d better check. I’ll give you his number.”
Associate sounded vaguely sinister, but probably better than ex-wife’s ex-boyfriend. Toph pulled out a business card and scribbled Jack’s address on the card.
“But I thought it was your agency?”
“Just carries my name.” Ex-wife’s name, actually. “I have no background in the modeling industry.” He gave her another polite, bland smile. He had no interest in the modeling profession. And he had no interest in models either. Not after Bea.
Leslie Walsh thanked him profusely and tucked the card into her purse.
Toph waved a hand at the bleachers where the blonde woman slept. He lied, “That woman over there looks familiar but I’ve forgotten her name. Do you know her?”
Leslie frowned at the bleachers for a few moments. Her eyes widened suddenly. “She came in with Rachel Carmody, didn’t she? Oh my God! God! I just realized! That must be poor Rachel’s mother. Rachel is the dearest girl. No money, but a darling, and very hardworking. That has to be the mother… Hmm.”
Toph knew he only had to wait to find out more details. The story was obviously too delicious not to share. Leslie Walsh’s voice dropped low. “Until now we’ve never seen the mother at anything. She never shows at practices or events. Last year Rachel was super involved—glee club, theater, everything—but she had to ask for rides everywhere. I know the mother is never, ever there. Never. She’s a single mother, as in never married. I’ve heard she’s been in jail. Shoplifting or maybe something with drugs? Oh my. Anyone can see she’s a wreck.”
He had actually thought she looked unconventional and appealing, along the lines of one of Cynthia’s more amusing stuffed animals. Cute. Now the odd clothes she wore seemed unwholesome and even corrupt.
He squinted over the woman. “At least she appears to be making an effort now.” Sounded lame even to him.
Leslie Walsh shook her head. “Rachel deserves better. If I had the time, I’d invite her over. Make sure she at least got to eat good meals, for heaven’s sake. But Biddy doesn’t seem to like Rachel.”
Toph said, “So Rachel is in the same grade as Cynthia?”
“Yes. I suppose.” Leslie looked at her watch. “Must go. It’s lovely to see you again. I’m putting together a list of swim team parents and you’ll be on there. Everyone will know how to reach you.” She waved a playful finger at him then turned and trotted away, slipping a bit on the damp floor.
Toph watched Leslie’s rear end and wondered about her profession. Banker? Doctor? Too bad people didn’t have to belong to a guild and wear some symbol of their profession. Doctors would have little Caduceus symbols. Realtors would have houses plastered on their suits.
Train wrecks like Rachel’s mother… Well. Unlike every other parent waiting by the side of the pool, she wore clothing that revealed her trade—or lack thereof.
The coach’s shrill whistle brought him back to earth.
Rachel’s mother sat straight up. She shouted. “Yeah, yeah, okay, I’m here.” She blinked and peered around. For a second she looked into Toph’s eyes. The woman blushed and grinned at him. He gave her a tight smile and a nod then turned back to the swimmers.
Maybe they used whistles to wake them up in prison, he thought with a small stab of pity. With her slightly freckled face and friendly smile she sure didn’t look like a felon or drug addict. But as Toph had learned long ago, a person’s appearance showed squat about her nature.
He glanced impatiently at his watch. Leslie Walsh was right. Practice would go late. Didn’t the coach understand parents led busy lives? He had to get Cynthia back to Bea’s house, and get himself downtown in time for an eight o’clock meeting with Jack.
Rachel’s mother had lain back down again on the aluminum bench. She curled into a small ball and appeared to be singing to herself.
He inched closer and was startled to hear her quietly singing a word perfect version of When I, Good Friends, Was Call’d to the Bar. Hadn’t he recently read an article about inmates’ productions in prison? Really though, it struck him as almost cruel to have the prisoners do a version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial By Jury.
He gave a small sniff. Over the stench of the pool’s chlorine he caught the whiff of wine and maybe even brandy on the woman.
Poor Rachel Carmody. He looked out over the lanes filled with churning water and splashing swimmers and wondered which she was. He’d have to ask Cynthia about her. Now that he’d settled in the area to be near his daughter, Toph supposed he had responsibilities above and beyond work and Cynthia.
There was the role he’d already begun to play in this new community. Yessir, solid citizen Dunham. He slipped into a community as effortlessly as his daughter sliced through the water in that first lane. Easy for him to sit through board meetings and make terrible speeches at fund-raising dinners. Though lately even pulling up the memory of one of those dinners could smother a person with boredom. Or maybe that was the thick clammy air of the pool.
And the people demanding attention—Bea and Jack and the others… Okay. Maybe he had enough responsibilities. But still, he’d ask Cynthia about Rachel.