A woman's heart is an ocean of secrets.
Rose Dawson - Titanic
I stand in the parking lot with my mouth open so long that I'm surprised a fly hasn't staked a for sale sign in it and held an open house.
Boots' deep chuckle and reassuring murmur of, "I'll tell you when we get home – but don't you worry your pretty head about it right now," makes me feel marginally better.
He gets us settled in his truck and puts the radio on low.
"Mizz Bee ... Daddy went shopping for you!" she says loudly in my ear.
"Lizbet … what did I tell you about secrets?"
"Sorry, Daddy – I won't tell her about the new dresses and pants. I promise."
He lets out a groan, and I laugh in spite of my barely digested, faux nuptial news.
"You bought me clothes?"
"Well, the cats out of the bag now thank to little miss flange mouth. They're on the back seat."
I crane my neck to see several large bags that appear to be brimming with clothes scattered across the backseat.
"Boots … you didn't need to do that," I protest.
"I know I didn't have to; I wanted to. Besides, what other choice do you have; you gonna take Polly Pigg up on her offer? Because she ain't exactly a fashionista, as Alice would say. Poor thing bout had a fit when Sears closed their doors last year. Bless her heart."
I shake my head in amazement. This man never fails to surprise me.
"Sides … Alice picked out most of it out before I got there."
"But Daddy … I know you picked some of it out … I saw you looking at the braziers."
"Lord, girl … that mouth of yours gets any bigger you're gonna fall in and never find your way back out."
"Daddy … yes, I know," he says with an exaggerated sigh.
He draws two circles with one hand around his chest and winks.
"In my defense, I didn't want Lillibet here makin you a homemade one out of my socks and whatnots. A mans entitled to have something to call his own, Lord knows. "
Do I even want to know what a whatnot is?
"He got matching unders too … they're prurple."
Uh-huh. With lace all on the hiney."
Boots lets out a groan.
"Can we just play the quiet game until we get to Miss Vicks?"
"I don't think I can, Daddy."
"Well, at least you're honest. "
Despite Elizabeth's disbelief in her ability to remain quiet, she barely says a word the rest of the drive; she's too busy trying to think of names for her dog.
I, on the other hand, can't stop thinking about purple and lace unders.
"I want to call him Reilly. Magnolia Reynold's has a beetle, and she named hers, Reilly."
Boots quickly mouths the word beagle. Despite my nerves about Boots' announcement, I find myself utterly enchanted by this little girl.
"Sorry, Bip … but he's already got a name."
"He does? What is it, Daddy?"
"Bertie? How did you find out?"
"He told me."
"Daddy … dogs can't talk!"
"Well, try tellin him that," jokes Boots, as he pulls in the long drive that leads to Miss Vicks.
Look, there's Mee-maw and Paw-paw pullin in now."
Elizabeth just about waits for the truck to stop before she's unbuckling her seat belt.
"Hey - what did I tell you about your seat belt, Elizabeth Marie?"
"That I'm not allowed to unbuckle it before you've shut the engine off. But – Daddy … Mee-maw has cake!"
"And that cake will wait until I've stopped the engine."
"I'm not gonna remind you Bip. Do that once more, and you'll be staying at home for a week with no visits, do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," she pouts, looking at her lap.
"All right, then. Gimmie some sugar," he says, pointing to his cheek.
She gives his cheek a loud smooch, and he tickles her side, before saying it was safe to go see them now. She's out in a flash, with Bertie in tow.
I turn to Boots and say, "Tell me quick before we head in; why in the world, would you think I'm married?"
Instead of answering, he hands me his phone. I glance at it and see it's the Howie Crier – the campus newsletter that comes out monthly. I scroll down the announcements and spy the headline.
Surprise Wedding Bells!
Mr. James Witherdale (Recruiter for Haworth-Adams) and Dr. Isabella Swan, Ph.D. (English Dept), recently wed in early May.
Mr. Witherdale was slated to replace Dean Bertie this fall. However, the news of their recent nuptials is tinged with some sadness for Ole Howie, as both he and Dr. Swan have tendered their resignations and will not be returning to HAC this fall.
The newlyweds are currently on a cross country honeymoon and have accepted positions at an undisclosed university in Mr. Witherdale's native United Kingdom.
The faculty and students of Haworth-Adams wish them well in their new endeavors.
"I feel like I'm going to throw up."
"Okay, but can I open the window first?"
Boot's snark makes me laugh, and I shake my head with a groan.
"Well, I should be surprised, but I'm not, really. He said he was going to tell everyone that we eloped; I guess he made good on that threat."
"I don't know … I guess so people wouldn't be looking for me."
"Do you think he put this tidbit in the newsletter himself or …"
I don't know. He threatened to tell Jessica we eloped. Said she was a stupid romantic and would automatically believe it to be true.
"And would she?"
"I don't know. Maybe. Probably."
"Hmm. Do you think you could trust her enough to maybe give her a call?"
"I'm just not comfortable reaching out to anyone there until I've talked to Jasper. James is dangerous, Boots. He's killed before … he won't have any problem killing again."
"Well, you're gonna have to do something, Bella. You can't let this crazy sonofabitch hurt anyone else."
"I know, Boots. I do. I just don't know how to go about it. Did you find anything else – what about Jasper? Is there any mention of him?" I scroll down the page, but spot nothing.
"I didn't see anything, Bella. But I didn't look too hard, either. I promised I wouldn't until we had a chance to talk, remember?"
"Daddy … ya'll need to come on! Mizz Vick says so – says, to tell the crow that she's been waiting for simply ages to get the scuttlebutt. And her and Mee-maw and Mizz Shelly have got the table all set up, and it's so pretty! But we might move the whole dang thing outside cuz it's nice out. And Ant Ali jus called, and they're on the way as soon as the grease cools, and Ant Ro puts on her party face."
"If we ever get hitched and have kids, can they please all be boys? Lord."
He grabs my hand and pulls me inside.
My mouth puts out a sold sign. The flies are picking out kitchen curtains.
"Oh, don't worry; I won't ask until your divorce from Jimmy comes through. Now come on before Daddy eats all the drumsticks; they're my favorite part."
Supper at Miss Vicks is an interesting, albeit, eccentric, affair. Because the air had cooled, somewhat (I still can't get used to the extreme humidity!), it was decided to dine al fresco. We carry china, cutlery, and ice-filled, crystal goblets to the south veranda. A large round table sits in the center of the room, flanked by chairs of every size, shape, and period in which they were crafted.
"Now Mizz Bell – you go on and sit right here next to Mizz Esme, while I bring in the ham." I smile at Shelly; she has the nicest way about her; it's as if her whole being is that of comfort, love, and smiles. She makes me feel better by simply being in her very presence. I've not met many who have that ability.
'A sunny disposition,' as Aunt Margaret would say.
Didn't you feel that way about James?
My inner voice never fails to make itself known. I shrug inwardly and tell it to shut-the-hell-up. There … I must be channeling Jasper.
"I like your dress, Bella. Green is very becoming to you," says Esme, as she takes a seat to my left.
"Oh, um … thank you. Alice picked it out … "
"Nope, not me; Boots picked that one out all by his lonesome," states Alice, popping a buttery biscuit in her mouth.
I look over at Boots, but he simply nudges my knee and smiles down into his glass of sweet tea. I notice the tips of his ears are pink.
"Well, that's everything," announces Carlisle, as he sets a huge platter of fried chicken on the table.
I reach out to put my napkin on my lap when Boots stops my hand and gently takes it in his. I notice his nails are spotless, and that makes me admire him even more.
He has manners, I think to myself. Even if he only takes them out for family dinners.
Esme reaches for my other, and I look up to see everyone holding hands.
"Let us all bow our heads and pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you for the food we are about to receive and for the blessings of family and friends. Amen."
"Short, sweet, and now we'll eat," says Miss Vick. I struggle not to laugh, but she catches me anyway. Her wrinkled hand sweeps over her chopsticks as if to give fair warning.
"Oh, put that claw of yours down and pick up your fork and eat," chastises Shelly.
"Oh, poo … stop telling me what I can and cannot do, Shelburne. And quit hovering over me like a helicopter. I declare you're worse than my own mama was, and that's a fact."
"Well, if I was your mama, I'd be taking out those fool chopsticks and poking you until you learned some manners."
"Oh, you two … just stop. You're scaring Bip," Boots said, passing me the pea salad.
"I ain't scared, Daddy."
"So, Bella– Boots tells us that you're an English professor?"
"Well, that's wonderful! Tell me, where do you teach?"
"Um … at a small private men's college in Western Massachusetts."
"Well, that must be challenging. And you're so young! Do you enjoy teaching young men?"
"Yes, I do. They're trying at times, but they're fun, too. They certainly keep the faculty on their toes," I admitted with a chuckle.
"What sort of classes do you teach; literature?"
I described the various classes and a bit of my lesson plans and syllabus. She seemed extremely interested, and dare I say, impressed?
I shrug it off – yes, I suppose on paper it sounds impressive, but from where I sit, in a new dress that my mechanic lover selected and purchased just for me, those impressions feel exaggerated and slightly empty. I may have elected to choose a life of academia, but was I really living until now?
Still, I have no qualms about my profession; I was born to teach. I love my life's work, and it did give me purpose and pride. Not many achieve a Ph.D. before they're thirty. Still … my life was nothing but academics. Except for Jasper, I had few friends and no female companionship since my aunt died.
I reach for the now tepid tea and glance at Boots. He gives me a smile, but it looks false and a bit strained.
What's wrong? I ask him in my head. Naturally, he doesn't respond (he's not a mind reader, after all), but he does seem to grasp my confusion because he squeezes my hand reassuringly.
"Perhaps you might be able to help us out at our little school, Bella."
I look up in surprise as Carlisle smiles at me.
"It's not much – we only teach a few classes during the summer months. But we're down to five boys who come twice a week for counseling and remedial English. They're a tad wild, but I expect they'd take a shine to you."
"Yes … that sounds like …"
"Something for her to think about," says Boots.
After that, it's all "please pass the butter," and "I swanny this is the most tender ham I've had in years," and "Don't you dare reach out for that drumstick, Daddy; it's got my initials carved into the bone."
Later, when everyone declares they're stuffed fuller than a tick, and the sun has begun to set, conversations flow as freely as Shelly's famous mint tea.
"Well, Crowsie, … I must admit - you've been missed," says Miss Vick, wiping her lips delicately with a starched linen.
"Yes, indeed; Foghorn has been most forlorn since your rapid departure the other evening. You remember – when you disgraced yourself by running all over town in nothing but my good towel? I hope you at least have the decency to return it – laundered, folded, and framed."
"I … what? Framed?"
"Yes, it'll go in the hall of shame, which I'll show you presently; it's a tribute to all the women who have disgraced this household. You should be honored. I'll hang it next to Rosalie's, forged Beauty School diploma and Esme's crotchless panties. Those were found in the back of my sedan nearly thirty years ago. I made her launder them, too, naturally."
Carlisle looks at Esme and winks. She simply shrugs a delicate shoulder and smiles at Miss Vick with affection.
"Now then … please go see to your cock. I swanny he's as limp as a noodle: bless his heart."
"I wanna go see the cock, too!"
Boots rolls his eyes and gives a rather pointed look to Miss Vick, who only raises one delicate brow in return.
"Now, Bip, you and Mee-maw have to take Bertie for a walk, remember?"
"That's right, Daddy. Mee-maw, you and Paw-paw have to both go. I want to walk him up and down Main Street and have everyone see him!"
"Ya'll go on and look at the cock then; Ali and I will help Shelly clear – but don't be too long – there's Angel cake with strawberries and cream."
"Of course, your mind would go to the next serving, Ro."
"Oh, shut your pie hole, Ali."
"Too bad you don't take your own advice," mutters Ali.
Rose shoots her the finger, before picking up the platter of leftover chicken. She picks up a fallen piece of crust and pops it her mouth.
"I believe I'll sit on the front porch for a bit. I hope you girls left a Pall mall or two for me. It's a night for vices."
"It's always a night for vice, according to you. Psh … it's a night for sleeping, is what it is," announces Shelly. "I've got your bed turned down and waiting for you to climb right in."
"I am not going to bed at seven o'clock – have you lost your mind? My show's going to be on any moment."
"Mmph. Bunch a Hootchie Mamas running round in nuthin but their religion, getting some poor ole dumbass so stirred he don't know whether to shit himself or go blind."
"Precisely. That's why I love it."
"And that's why we love you, Aunt Victoria," says Carlisle.
"You ready?" asks Boots.
"You best check your teeth, Crowsie. There's nothing more distasteful to a gentleman than attempting to kiss a woman with chicken nestled between her teeth."
My hand flies up to my mouth in horror.
"Leave it. I'll have it as a snack for later."
Shelly and Miss Vick laugh so hard that they lean into each other for support.
We walk, hand in hand, outdoors. It's a lovely evening – almost twilight. The stars are just beginning to make themselves known, and the moon, although no longer full, is peeping out over the weeping cherry.
"Well, there he is … and Mizz Vicks right; he looks like a deflated pecker if ever I saw one."
"Oh, my goodness … I thought I was going to spit my tea out – is she always like this?"
"She never disappoints, that's for sure."
"I imagine not."
We approach the pen, and Boots lifts the gate to allow entrance. As soon as he spies me, he starts clucking and crowing and making a ruckus. His beady black eyes look at me intently, as if to say: "You left me here with all these crazies? Thanks."
I reach out and attempt to pet him, but true to form, he simply turns his back to me and struts over to his grain, ignoring me completely.
"Well, how do you like that? First, he misses me, and then he turns his back on me," I laugh.
I look up when I don't hear Boots laugh in return.
"What is it? I saw your face at dinner. You seem … I don't know – upset?"
"Naw, I'm not upset." He pinches the bridge of his nose; I've noticed he does that when he's mulling over something.
Rather than ask him again, I exit the pen and walk over to the arbor. There's a white wooden swing for two. It sits on a slated platform with a canopy of wisteria and creeping roses. I step up and take a seat, just breathing in the heavy scent.
Moments later, Boots joins me on the swing, just as I expected he would.
"Do you really think you could be happy here?"
"You mean at Miss Vicks? Yes – I."
"No, Bella. Not at Miss Vicks. Here. In North Carolina. In Masenville. With … with me."
"Look … I'm crazy about you. You've gotta know that by now. But you? I'm not so sure if you'd truly be happy with a guy like me … at least not for the long haul. I mean ... listening to you tonight … talking to Mama about your classes and lesson plans. You – you're amazing. You're so smart … educated. I know we've got chemistry … but …"
"Just ... shut up."
He opens his mouth to refute, but I swallow his words with a kiss.
Long moments later, we break apart, trying to catch our breaths. Boots barks out a short laugh.
"Damn, is that how you're always gonna shut me up?"
"It worked, didn't it?"
"Yeah. But –"
This time I reach over and pinch his lips together, similar to the way he did to me all those days ago.
"Shh. Listen to me, okay?"
He nods. I remove my fingers from his lips and bring both hands up to cup his face.
His whiskers feel rough against my hands, and I relish the differences between us.
"Boots, I know I haven't got my head in the right place right now. I know that I'm a hot mess, as Ali would say, and did just a few hours ago. But even if my life is in turmoil – even if I don't know what the hell I'm going to do about James or Jasper or my job … none of that really matters. Because I know where my heart is."
"And where's that?"
He slants his mouth over mine and kisses me. It's sweet, perfect, and not nearly enough. I let out a small moan just to prove my point, and it seems to ignite him.
Startled, we break apart.
Alice looks at us with a grin.
"Sorry to interrupt, but Elizabeth wants to know if she's staying overnight or …"
"Uh … I dunno … I figured we'd see how it goes," he says, smoothing the front of his shirt. I may or may not have grabbed it while we were kissing.
"Well, by the looks of it, I'd say things were going as planned."
"Mary Alice –"
"I know … shut the hell up."
We all laugh for an awkward second. I get up and start across the yard expecting him to follow. He does, but not before I see him give Ali a big hug and hear him murmur a quiet, "Thank you."
I'm not sure what it is he's thanking her for, but I love to see him be tender. He's gruff and certainly rough around the edges, but I rather love that about him.
Face it, girl, you just love him.
And I do.
I know it flies in the face of everything I've ever been taught, read, or seen about love, but those things don't change anything. I know it's only been a week, but I love him. I know he's not perfect. I understand we're quite different on paper.
But I love him all the same.
"Hey … wait up … your pants on fire or something?" Boots calls.
"Pft, I'll bet her pants are on fire the way you two were goin at it," Rose shouts from the porch. She's puffing a cigarette and the smoke fans over her head like a delicate cloud.
We walk over to the Volvo, and Boots cages me with his arms against the steel of the door.
"You sure you wanna stay here with these crazy loons? Because I'll tell you what – after reading that shit from that shit-ass James, I sure would sleep a whole lot easier if you were lying next to me."
"I know … but I already told Rose …"
"She won't give two craps."
"But what about Elizabeth?"
"Aw, hell … she'd love it; she's been chafing at the bit to ask you to sleep over again, all afternoon."
"Yes, I mean … I think it might be safer for everyone if I'm with you. At least for now," I admit.
"Well, shit - I thought we were gonna have a big argument, and I'd spend half the night trying to talk you into it."
Hmm … obviously, you don't know what those kisses do to me., Bootsie.
I think I'll keep it that way for now.
"All right. I'm gonna leave ole Bip here and head back to the house to pick up a few things. She's got a hankering to stay here all weekend, so …"
"You go on and pack an overnight valise for yourself, Edward. I want to talk to Crowsie, and it might take a goodish while. Ya'll can all spend the night here, and then, if you're so inclined, you can take Isabella back to your den of inequity tomorrow. I declare, ya'll don't have to make any decisions tonight. You've got your whole lives spread out before you like jam on a biscuit; savor it."
We look up to see the back of Miss Vicks head from where she sits on the front porch. She doesn't bother to turn around, but merely fans the smoke away with one hand as her other dramatically brandishes a long cigarette mid-air.
Boots shakes his head and smirks.
"She's right, you know."
"What?" He looks at me, confused.
"We don't have to make any decisions this evening. Besides, I was truly looking forward to you courting me."
"Oh, you were, were you? Well, I can still court you from home."
"You bet your sweet –"
"Edward! What on earth are you dragging your heels for? Give Isabella a proper kiss on the cheek and skedaddle before I get Papa's musket and give you some inspiration. Lord. Youth really is wasted on the young, and I am far too old to sit here wasting what precious time I have left, while you two fools try to figure your lives out. If I wanted to watch that type of fluff and nonsense, I'd put on the Hallmark Channel."
"Yes, Ma'am." He leans over and gives me a light kiss on the cheek, just as Miss Vick suggests. And then, just to prove himself, gives me a hard pinch on my rear end.
"That's just a lil something for me to kiss better tonight," he whispers in my ear.
"All right, I'll be back in an hour. Ya'll stay smart."
"We'll see about that. You comin over here, Crowsie, or do I have to make my way down these here steps and fetch you myself? Mind you, I haven't stepped one foot off this porch in five decades, so it might turn ugly faster than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking competition, but I can certainly try."
I watch as Boots backs out of the driveway giving me a small wave as he turns onto Main Street. I let out a sigh and walk up the steps to where Miss Vick sits, puffing like Bette Davis.
"I swan, you move slower than a Sunday afternoon."
I hasten my steps and sit in the wicker rocker. It's quiet, save for the sounds of crickets and the creak of our chairs.
"Where is everyone?"
"Oh, they decided to wait on the cake until tomorrow; it's Shelburne's birthday, and her children will be coming over to celebrate. Last I heard they were all driving down to the creamery in Troutville. I certainly hope they remember to get me a brown mule. I fancy a root beer float once in a blue moon. Don't you?"
"I do." Renee was never a good cook – honestly – I can't recall a single meal that didn't come out of a can or the freezer. But she did make a wicked root beer float. My throat constricts at the memory. I miss my mother; I think to myself. I haven't missed her since the day she dropped me off for a week at Aunt Margaret's and never returned.
We sit and rock in silence.
"I had a baby fifty-years ago, on this very night."
My mouth pops open for the third time today. But before I can utter a single word, she pushes a lit cigarette between my lips and tells me to take a drag.
"Here … you smoke this; I'll light a fresh one."
"I … I don't smoke …" I protest, coughing.
"Well, you will, after I finish telling my story."
B/N: This here is Boots. Mizz J sends her apologies for takin so dang long to update this here feature. I guess there's so much shit goin on in the world she couldn't help but get hung up on it. Said she had to clear her head and get back in the game.
Well-hell … I don't know what's goin on but I do know she ain't getting any younger, so I done gave her a pep-talk and basically told her to get her ass away from the boob-tube and get those fingers clackin. I ain't fixin to spend another 2-3 years waitin for her to get her mind back – she ain't got much left of it to begin with, and that's the truth. Bless her heart.
Anyway, I think she listened to ole Boots for once in her life, cuz she wrote this in record time, and she's already got the next installment in the hopper. All I can say is ... ya'll best hold on tight - it's gonna be a humdinger. Might want to grab hold of some shine for this one. Lord.
Ya'll stay smart now,
A/N: I suck at review replies. I am so sorry. I have loved each and every one, truly! But things have been crazy these days, and staying focused long enough to write anything, is a challenge.
This story is is in it's final arc. As Boots says, "Hold on tight!"
BIG thanks to my fic-sis Fran, for her quick turnaround and awesome beta skills. Love you, Sis!
And a special thanks to all my readers, who have waited patiently for me to get my ass in gear.