Welcome to What-A-Burger @janewithay
Chapter 9: Whiplash

Welcome to What-A Burger

Whiplash

"I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow."

― Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

"So, Annabelle ... you ever gonna tell us about last night? Because you sure were going on and on about Boot's ass; wasn't she, Ali?"

"Ro …" Alice gives her a look of warning.

"What? She was, and you know it. Why I heard her call it …"

"Rose!"

"What'd I say?"

"You know what. Never mind. Leave Bell alone, K?"

"Pft."

I take a quick look at Rose's pretty pout and feel my cheeks blaze. Apparently, this is better than a midnight confession, and she sits back, cackling, and satisfied.

What exactly had I said?

"He isn't half bad looking, though, is he Annabelle? Especially his a-"

"Oh Rose, shut your mouth and leave poor Bell alone; she's still recovering from her hangover. Bless her heart. Not to mention the shock she's been in ever since she left Massachusetts; poor little thing."

They both nod their heads sympathetically, yet I feel as though they're just getting started.

They are.

"But I am curious; what did you and Miss Vick go on about? The poor thing is still sleeping it off. It's not like her to miss her morning shows; she'll be out of sorts the rest of the day now, just watch and see if she won't. Surely y'all must have discussed something … aside from Boot's hiney, that is." She grins, impishly.

I let out a small groan.

What exactly had we gone on about?

I reach over for the Aleve that's nestled on a lazy Susan in the middle of a large, claw-foot table, and try to stifle another moan, but the sound that comes out of my mouth sounds more like an animal in pain. This only serves to make Rose and Alice cackle all the louder, and I have to force back an even larger groan as I attempt to open the cap. Why must these caps always make one struggle to get them open? I feel bad enough as it is without having to tussle with a damn bottle cap on a drug that is supposed to provide relief.

Dear Doctor Bayer,

You suck.

Love, Bella

Ugh … I am losing whatever literary skills I might have once possessed thanks to the tour de force that has become my life.

"Oh, girl … let me get this for you," a loud voice booms in my ear. I wince at the sound.

I look up to see a rather large, woman of color, whose smiling face reveal teeth so white that I think they must be false ... until I notice the gold cap that is adorning the one in the center of her grin.

"I'm Shelburne Isaiah Cope, though everyone 'round here mostly just calls me Miss Shelly. You must be Miss Annabelle; the girls have been been chewing my ear off about you all morning,"

"Um, yes … it's nice to meet you," I stutter, thanks to another moan, which I attempt to suppress. She seems nice enough, but why on earth does she have to be so loud?

Miss Shelly opens the bottle with a practiced hand and pours two on a pink lace napkin. She then offers me an icy bottle of water, which I gratefully accept as I pop the pills in my mouth. gratefully.

"Thank you," I mumble. A bit of water drips down my chin, and I swipe it away with the back of my hand. I'm a mess.

A hot mess

I remember Jasper used to call Jessica that when she would come in into the office wearing the same clothes that she left the office in the previous Friday.

'Had you a good time, Jess?' Jasper, whose language was impeccable when he taught his multitude of high-brow classes, could sound like he just came out of a barn after a day of milking and shoveling horse dung, depending on his mood and the situation.

'I'm a country boy at heart, Bella, no matter how many degrees I earn.'

'Mmph, it must have been a very good weekend. She's a hot mess. You gonna finish that doughnut, darlin?'

Shit. Jasper!

Um, Alice? Miss Vick said I could use her phone last night," I said stated in a shaky voice. She'd said no such thing, but, Alice doesn't know that.

"I said no such thing, Miss Annabelle-I'm-a-Liar Crow."

I glance up to see Miss Vick standing in the arch of the doorway, one hand on the gleaming, white wooden frame and the other clasping a cane, this one adorned with the head of a rooster atop the staff.

Shit – FOGHORN!

"Oh, sit back down, Crowsie, before you pull something. Shelburne?"

"Yes, Miss V?"

"You got my breakfast toddy ready? I declare, after last evening I need a bracer."

"Mmph … and I declare a bracer is the last thing you need. A harness to keep your ass in the chair is what you need. A bracer … I'm going to call Doc G and see if I can't get me a bracer."

"Shelbourne Isaiah Cope … if you don't get me my toddy now, you're fired, you here? And I mean it this time!"

"Oh pshaw … you've meant it every time, and I haven't gotten my pink slip yet. Now you best sit down before YOU pull something. I've got your prune juice chilling in the ice box. I'll fetch it as soon as I get your sheets out of the washer. They smelled something terrible … what'd you and lil Miss get into last night; your late brother's shine?"

"Oh, shut up and get me my juice before I fire you again."

Alice and Rose break into peals of laughter.

"Alli, I'm going outside to smoke – I feel a lecture coming on, and before we get sucked into it this time, I need some nicotine in my system. You coming or what?" Alice bolts from the table faster than a Jackrabbit.

"Now Miss Vick, you know you don't mean that; what you gonna do if I finally take you serious one of these fine days and pack up my cases and leave you flat? You know Mizz Pratt's been after me for years, and she says she'll pay me double the crumbs you toss my way. Mm-hmm … She sure did. I've got a mind to take her up on that after the way the gals found you and Miss Annabelle all sprawled out on the stairs this morning like a couple of hootchie mamas, I surely do. Mmph – I can't imagine what the Reverend Ben is gonna say about this one – why he'll likely do an entire month of sermons about it. I declare, if I didn't need the extra money to put my baby through Duke and his sister through Wake Forest, I'd have up and quit the lot of you years ago."

"Shelburne! In the first place, I was not sprawled out all over the stairs; I was simply reclining on my granddaddy's divan. Now, as for Miss Crow, I cannot say; she is from up North, so there's no telling where or how those people sleep; Daddy always assumed they hung upside down in their attics like a colony of conniving bats. But I assure you, no one was sprawled," she states, definitively and dismissively, with a small wave of her outstretched hand.

"I'm just sayin …," Shelly says, with a wink as she strolls out of the room sashaying her broad hips and whistling something that sounds a lot like Yankee Doodle Dandy.

**wtwab**

Thirty minutes later, the girls have dressed and left for work. They bid us farewell with promises to check on us later. Miss Shelly has dispensed coffee, juice, muffins and warning about the sins of alcohol and the devil himself. Miss Vick and I are sitting at the table still waiting for the Goody's powder Miss Shelly fixed us each to "kick in."

"Well, now ... isn't this a pretty sight; A Southern Belle and a wild Yankee from Massachusetts all bellied up to the table like a pair of mismatched salt and pepper shakers."

I hear his voice before I see his face and therefore I have time to bury my own in the confines on my arms. I turn my head to the wall and groan; "Ugh … not you ... not now. Not ever."

His laughter only makes the pounding between my brows that much worse.

A sharp kick on my ankle has me practically bolting out of my seat. I glance sharply at Miss Vick to see her fixed gaze on my face.

"I believe you best go out back and check on Mr. Foghorn, Crowsie. That pen I put him in isn't likely to hold; in fact, Boots, I believe you'd better go with her to make some, er, adjustments. I left the toolbox beside Ant Beona's Begonias."

I look at her sharply ... what is she up too now? Is she trying to get Boots and I together to give us some alone time?

"Did you brush your teeth?" She hisses softly, between bites of her bran muffin.

Did I brush my teeth … WHAT?

She raises her brow ever so slightly and gives me a pointed look.

"Boots, I want Shelburne to take Elizabeth downtown this afternoon to go shopping for delicates and unmentionables. I'll expect her here no later than 3:00 o'clock, you hear?"

"Yes, Ma'am," he says with a grin. "I certainly appreciate it; I didn't exactly relish the idea of seeing Miss Pig wax on about brassieres, anyway."

"Well, I should say not; they're called unmentionables for a reason, Edward," she says, with a look that brooks no argument and chastises at the same time. I stifle a chuckle into my napkin.

"You ought to get down on your knees every night and thank the good Lord, or the fates, or whatever you currently believe, that you were blessed to have so many women who are willing to do these kinds of feminine tasks for Elizabeth. Bless her heart."

"Yes, Ma'am, I am, and I do – especially the part about not having to buy Beth a bra, er, an unmentionable, or whatever.

Well, I guess I'll go out back and check on that birds' pen before I head down to the shop for a few hours." He looks at the kitchen clock and sighs; "Damn … it's getting late … Jake's probably already throwing two fits; I told him I'd be in directly, but I had some calls to make, and I had to drive to Charlotte to pick up a part for Mizz Thelma's Delta 88."

"Oh, my - is Thelma really still driving that old thing? I declare that car has been prowling these roads for the past forty years if it's been a day. And that poor thing is as blind as a bat, too; why she nearly took down the sign last year at The What-A-Burger according to your daddy. Seems like it's high time the state of North Carolina revisits that license they dispense to anyone with a computer and a credit card. Which reminds me; I've got to get my own renewed next month."

I look at her in surprise. "But I thought you said you were …"

"A shut-in? I am, but that doesn't mean I am surrendering my right to drive, Miss Crow."

She stands at her place and waits patiently, like a queen, for Boots to hand her the cane that is sitting by the doorway.

"Shelly! I believe I'll have my tea on the front porch. Mind you put a drop of Pap's tonic in it ... I feel a bit peckish this morning, I swanny."

He watches her round the corner and twirls around to face me. "Well, quit dawdling, and go brush your teeth already; I don't have all day. I need you to hand me my ... tools," he says with a straight face.

What on earth …

He winks and saunters out of her kitchen with a small grin.

Okay. I finally figured out what happened.

I'm dead.

Yes, that's right; I'm dead. Either James killed me when I was back at Jasper's farm trying to escape from him, or he managed to get me when I fled. Or maybe I had an accident along the way? Doesn't matter; the only possible explanation for this absurdity that is now my life has got to mean one thing – I died, and this is Southern-fried hell.

I am stunned out of my sudden realization by a sharp pain in my side.

"Ouch!"

I turn, startled, to see a chopstick in the delicate, blue-veined hand of Miss Vick. She aims it at me and jabs the air uses it to punctuate her words

"You heard the man; quit dawdling and go get ready. Boot's doesn't have all day to be kept waiting by the likes of you, Miss-My-Pretend-Name-Is-Annabelle-Crow-But-You-Can-Call-Me-Bell."

"I thought you were sitting on the front porch having your tea," I swear I saw her leave the room, yet here she is by my side, poking me with her chopsticks and assaulting me with her innuendo.

"This house has many surprises, my girl. You'd do well to remember that in the future; it was built by some of the most cunning and conniving craftsmen in the south and that is saying a mouthful. There are twists and turns at every corner; why you never know where or with whom you'll wind up. Besides, did you honestly think I was going to leave the two of you alone in my breakfast room? Why, my great-great grandfather hand carved this old table himself; he certainly wouldn't appreciate it being used for anything apart for meals."

I stand there with my mouth agape; her implication is obvious and completely inappropriate, why I would never –

"Oh, go take care of your dental needs, Crow's feet; your mouth's already open. There are clothes hanging in the closet that ought to fit you, thanks to Rose. I swear if that girl doesn't quit eating everything in sight, you'll have a whole new wardrobe come fall."

Fall?

Do these people think I'm settling in here? I stand there looking at her in shock.

"I believe I'll let that thought hang in the air while you attempt to process it, for now. As for myself, well, I'm going upstairs to draw my bath; I declare, I'm just covered in bullshit."

I close my mouth and dash back upstairs to the room I've been appointed. It's large and sunny with an enormous armoire flanked by two windows. There's a fireplace in the center of the room with a portrait of a rather, roguish-looking, Confederate soldier, just above the mantle. His hair is a dark bronze and his eyes appear to be a murky green, although it's hard to tell from my vantage point. I walk over to it and peer up, and he … he looks as if he is smirking back at me.

Oh, Jesus.

I'd know that smirk anywhere; I've had it directed at my eyes and my lips.

Lips?

I hurry and brush my teeth.

**Wtwab**

Ten minutes later, I'm hurrying towards the rear of the house when I practically skid to a sudden halt.

What am I doing?

I am a twenty-nine-year-old, educated woman; a college professor. I live a quiet life, surrounded by books and like-minded individuals in a world of academia. Granted, I made a huge error in judgment when it came to James Witherdale, but that doesn't mean I have to lose myself in the process, does it?

No.

No, what I need to do is simply rest for a day or two, gather my wits, get in touch with Jasper, and head back to Massachusetts where I belong.

I stand in my tracks for a minute, bouncing on the balls of my feet. It's as if my head knows I should turn back and head to the house but my feet won't cooperate.

What are you doing? I ask myself again.

"What are you doing?"

See, I can't even have a single moment to take a pause to gather my thoughts, let alone my wits in this place. I've always been a person who is composed and controlled. I may be romantic when it comes to my preference in literature, but when it comes to my personal life, I use reason and logic.

Yes ... and you see where that got you; James Witherdale, anyone? Maybe you should just surrender your need for logic and reasoning and go along for the ride, Darlin. You never know where life will lead you if you don't let go of the reins every once in awhile.

But I did … I let go of the reins when I met James.

Nah … you handed him the GD reins, and he took control.

Perfect. Now on top of the insanity that is my life I have Jasper's phantom voice in my ear; and worse, I'm answering it back.

"I've been waiting in this damn heat for hours; thought you'd never get out here," Jasper's voice whispers.

I feel soft lips, and rough stubble graze my jaw and look up into a pair of verdant green eyes that widen marginally at my confusion. Yeah … that's not Jasper. I shiver where I stand and wait.

"Come with me."

"No."

We stand there and look at each other.

He quirks an eyebrow.

I square my shoulders.

He frowns.

I huff.

"Lord … you sure are a stubborn little thing." He stares down at me for a fraction of a second, his eyes narrowing, and there it is … the smirk. And before I have even a millimeter of a moment to process that beyond-irritating expression, he does something that until now I've only read about in books.

He squats down, grabs me behind my knees, hoists me up over his shoulder, and carries me off into the sunset.

Okay, so not the sunset; the sun is shining far too brightly for that particular time of day, but no matter. My heart flutters like a young girl who discovers her grandmother's secret stash of bodice rippers hidden in the attic corner on a rainy afternoon.

But all too soon those flutters are replaced with an electric current that starts in my hairline and ends in my toes.

Fear.

I stiffen like a dress shirt that's been starched one too many times.

My fingers dig into the soft cotton of his t-shirt, and I feel the breath leave my chest as it pines out of my mouth in one long, stutter.

'Hey – hey, now; are you okay?" He asks as he puts me gently down on the ground.

My throat constricts, and I half turn away from him, fearing that I'm about to be sick.

His calloused hand moves towards my face, and he smooths my hair off my brow and tucks it, unexpectedly, behind my ear.

"Jesus, fuck – who did this to you?" He asks as he trails one long finger from my cheekbone to my jaw. "I noticed last night, you were bruised up, but I figured it was from me, from the grease on my hands. This isn't grease."

"No."

"Did Whitlock do this to you?" he asks, leveling his eyes.

"What – how did you- no- no Jasper would never – I … Did Miss Vick tell you? I croak.

"Naw – nobody told me shit. I checked the registration this morning. That's why I brought you out here – I wanted to know who the hell Jasper Whitlock is, and what you're doing with his truck so many states away from home. You steal it or something?

"No! I would never … Jasper, he's-he's my friend. My best friend. We-we work together. Jasper – he knows I've got his truck and Foghorn."

"Foghorn?"

"Yes."

"The rooster?"

"Yes."

"Are you in trouble?"

"Yes."

"Break the law?"

"No … I –I don't think so."

"You wanna talk about it?"

"No – Miss Vick – she knows," I whisper.

"Okay."

"Okay?"

He looks at me and his eyes soften. "Yeah ... okay. If Miss Vick knows, then, I guess it's all right for now as long as you don't bring trouble here." He turns my face in his filthy hand, oh-so-gently, and lifts it up to meet his gaze.

"Are you gonna bring trouble here?"

"I hope not."

"Liar," he murmurs, as his cherry-stained lips capture mine in a playful, almost, but not quite a bite, kiss. And just as he's about to pull back, my hands, with a will of their own, pull him forward. I press my lips firmly against his, and he lets out this little gasp of surprise, followed by frustration, and ultimately, surrender.

We kiss and kiss and kiss, and then we kiss some more. Long, deep, hot, wet, open-mouthed and toe-curling kisses under an umbrella of Disney pink blossoms and Crayola blue skies.

The sound of our breathing is punctuated with bird songs, train whistles and the muffled noises of dishes clanging from the house.

When we finally stop … to catch breaths and collect our wits (if we have any left) we stand there, toe to toe and eye to eye, saying nothing.

We wait.

Finally, he gives into the silence, shakes his head as if to clear it, and smacks his lips, then grins.

"Mmm … minty-fresh," he teases.

"I – just brushed them.

"Well, go on and alert the American Dental Association," he chuckles.

I blush.

"You're blushing."

"Yes, well … I'm, ah …" I look down at the ground as if my lost wits are just lying there waiting to be scooped up and put back inside my head.

Finding nothing, I look up to meet his gaze.

"What are we doing?"

"I dunno ... you tell me, and we'll both know."

"I just –"

"Yeah. Me too."

"Listen …" we both say at the same time. I laugh a little, and he pulls out his smirk.

"You first …" we say, again, at the same time.

"I'm only here for a few days ...

"I'm not interested in getting mixed up with …" Our words bleed together and hang, unfinished, in the air.

We stand there and just sort of look at each other - expecting each other to finish, but we don't.

"Look," he says, finally breaking the silence. "I fixed your rooster's - Foghorn's, pen. It's nice and tight, and it should hold him for the night. Course, he's likely to pitch a fit since he's probably been spoiled by your fancy purse and all, but …"

"Thank you,"

"Yeah … whatever," he says, scratching the back of his ear. It looks pink and a little hot, like maybe he's embarrassed?

"Listen, I've gotta get down to the shop, but I need you to do a favor for me. You think you can manage that?"

"Um …"

"It's not that big of a deal. Well, it is, but if you can't do it, just say so.

"What?"

"Well, it's about that damn dog Elizabeth was all fired up about last night. Seems, my dad found him behind the Burger, and he needs to go to the vet's this morning and get checked out. I'd do it, but I don't have time. You don't have to drive; they're right around the corner.

"I'm …" Afraid of dogs. I have been ever since Happy bit me back in the fifth grade. I rub my scar absently searching for the right words.

I don't need them.

"Huh … who'd a thought it …?"

"What?"

"You're scared of dogs."

"No … I'm not … I'm just …"

"Skittish?"

I bite my lip.

Skittish?

"A little," I finally admit.

"Dog bite?" he asks, finally, lifting my wrist to inspect the scar.

I nod my head in agreement.

"Well, just take a look at this little fellow; he's real docile. If you're still scared I'll get Shelly to take him; she's not a fan of dogs either, but she'll do it if I ask."

Of that I have no doubt; seems he only has to walk into a room around here and these women fall all over him.

He takes my hand and leads me around the back of a large, faded, red barn. There, in a small fenced pen is a tiny, black dog – no bigger than a small cat. He has a thatch of white on top of his head and a long beard that almost reaches his paws. I stifle a grin; there's something about this animal that reminds me of Dean Berty from Old Howie. When he spies Boots, his curly tail thumps happily in the dirt, shrouding him in a cloud of gray dust. I chuckle, in spite of myself. He's darling!

"So … you wanna check him out, maybe hold him or something?" he asks, toeing the ground with the well-worn point of his work boot.

"Okay," I say cautiously. If there's one thing I've learned recently, it's that looks can be deceiving.

"Come here, boy!" he calls, and then, whistles. The little dog bounds up to him and Boots bends down and picks him up over the pen. The dog squirms in his arms and licks him happily under his chin. Boots giggles and pushes the pup's mouth away from his face.

He giggled.

I roll my eyes mentally at my thought; what is wrong with me? This man is definitely getting to me, and I have no idea why. There is nothing about him that I should find attractive; he's uncouth, uneducated …

Under your skin …

I let out a huff. Okay, yes … he is attractive, I suppose. If you like tall men with swampy green eyes and Southern drawls who pin you up against cars and walls and kiss you until you're …. well, you know.

And I am not that girl.

Besides, he spits.

He lets out a deep chuckle when the dog attempts to climb up his shoulder and nuzzles his ear. His face is shining in the morning sun, and the rays glint and dance in his hair, surrounding both him and the dog in an aura of pure gold.

Okay, so maybe I am that girl.

He hands me the dog, and although my hands tremble a bit, I can't stop the laughter from bubbling in my throat as he wrestles in my arms to get closer to my face and manages to give me a quick lick just under my jaw.

Boots takes him from my arms and settles him on the grass, clipping a leash onto his collar. He hands me the lead.

"I think it's safe to say you'll be fine with this here fella. Just bring him down to the vet's around two and get him his shots. Elizabeth will be here then to go shopping with Miss Shelly, and I don't want her seeing the dog until she gets back; I'd like to surprise her, I guess. I dunno …"

And my heart thuds.

Stop it. This man and his daughter and their little dog are not for you. You are a college professor on the lam, remember? Even as you stand here swooning over this odious yet gorgeous auto-mechanic … James Witherdale is very likely rounding the corner, just waiting to make good on his threat.

At this thought, I look over my shoulder, worriedly. As my eyes scan the horizon for a pair of Windex-blue, they meet a set of muddy green. His eyes narrow and he frowns. I watch him walk away, and a tremendous feeling of loneliness sweeps over me.

He didn't even say goodbye.

He gets about six-feet away from me, stops, and pulls out a cell phone that appears to be almost as antiquated as mine. I watch as he punches in some numbers and then speaks.

"Hey, bro … yeah, how's it going? Yeah, yeah ... no ... yeah, I'm good. Yup, got the part but it's getting kinda late to address that today, so … uh-huh. Nah … Well, good. Okay, look … think you can handle that job on your own? Oh, Pete's there?" He laughs. "Yeah … just tell him to keep his paws off my Cheerwine and Mee-Maw's red velvet cake; I'm planning on that for a midnight snack. Anyway, I got tied up with something over at Miss Vicks … naw … nothing like that … just a little situation I gotta address, that's all. Right. K … thanks, man … appreciate it. Later." He snaps the phone shut and thrusts it in his back pocket.

"Let's go."

"What?"

"I'm taking the day off. Jay's got it covered; Pete's there.

"Pete?"

"Cousin."

"Oh."

"But … what about my truck?"

"What about it?"

"Well, that part you ordered … how long is it going to take for it to get here and how much is it going to be? I told you yesterday, I don't have the money, but if you just let me use your computer I can look for Jasper's family, get his cell number, call him and …

"Okay, just hush."

"Excuse me?"

"Just shut up. God, you Yankees talk a lot … damn … y'all could chew the ear off a brass monkey, I swear. I always did wonder how y'all managed to win the war; none of y'all got a lick of common sense and the damn heat ought to have been enough to kill ya'll, Lord knows … But, now I know. Y'all just ran your yaps so damn much that y'all either bored us to death or we ended up begging y'all to send us home to Jesus just so we didn't have to hear y'all talk anymore."

I open my mouth to protest, but he leans forward and pins them shut with his fingers.

"You said you're in trouble right?" I try to speak, but he pinches my lips back closed.

"Just nod."

I nod.

"And you claim somebody went and stole your purse?"

I nod.

"And you ain't got more than twenty-odd bucks or so left to your name?"

Okay, so I've got twice that much, but since he's still pinching my lips together, I just nod and shrug.

"Well, all right. Here's the deal. You ain't got a truck right now, and from the looks of it, that thing is gonna be out of commission for the rest of the spring and most of the summer too. Now, I've got people out searching for parts, but it's going to take awhile to locate them and even longer to install them. I'm busy 24/7. I've got a kid to take care of, a business to run and other obligations that don't include the likes of a beat up Chevy and a loud-mouthed-opinionated-girl-from-Massachusetts-who-looks-like-pure-T-trouble-with-a-capital-T even if she does know how to get my own motor running."

I jerk myself away from him and stumble back.

"I'm not going anywhere with you," I choke out.

"Oh, is that a fact?"

"Yes. You stand there and have the audacity to tell me that I am a loud-mouthed opinionated Yankee who talks too much when you've used more words - incorrectly, I might add - than Mr. Webster has in his entire dictionary. You're rude, uncouth, vulgar, rough, coarse, and … you-you spit," I sputter.

"I spit?"

"Yes, you spit. You spat so much yesterday I'm surprised you have enough saliva left to spit a word out, let alone a flood of verbiage and insults."

"Verbiage?"

"Yes. It's when …"

"I know what it means, little Miss Know-it-all … shit, you Yanks think y'all are so damn smart."

His face looks positively thunderous, and mine, I'm sure, looks exactly the same. We're at an impasse and neither of us want to surrender. Angry tears begin to pool in my eyes and I squint fiercely to stave them off. He looks at me and his face softens.

And that's all it takes.

"I'm sorry."

"S'all right.

I bite my lip.

He scratches the back of his ear and gives me a small, almost sheepish, grin.

"So … I spit?"

"Yes."

"Huh. Well, that's on account of those damn cherry lozenges I suck on all the time since I gave up the cancer sticks, I guess."

"Well, it's disgusting."

He frowns.

"Then I'll start smoking again, okay?"

"No, it's not okay. What? Just … stop." I hold out my hand to gesture him from going any further, in a manner similar to one that I would use on my pupils.

This is seriously the strangest conversation I have experienced in my entire life. My head is reeling, and I feel like I'm going to pass out.

"You gonna pass out?"

"Probably."

"Why?"

"Because … you - you people are literally driving me insane, which, given the circumstances that brought me here, is to be expected, I suppose. Regardless, I can't even concentrate long enough to think, let alone come up with a solution to the dilemma I'm in right now -"

"Then don't."

"Pardon me?"

"Oh you heard me; I said, then don't. Give them up for a bit. Take a vacation from them; don't worry … they ain't going nowhere fast, I promise. But what's the point of getting yourself all worked up over them right now?"

I'm about to answer him why it's impossible for me to do that, when the dog, tired of being ignored, starts barking, loudly. We look up to see Miss Shelly, carrying a large basket, of what appears to be sheets, striding towards us.

"All right, you two … that's enough. Lord knows you two have been bickering back and forth so long that poor ole Miss Vick is liable to get whiplash from standing there watching y'all from her windowsill. Not to mention that she's probably gonna poke her own eyeball out with one of those chopsticks she favors, just lobbing that head of hers back and forth, bless her heart.

We look up just in time to see a billowy, lace curtain come to an abrupt close.

"Mm-hm. Y'all didn't honestly believe for one minute that she was watching Jerry Springer when she could see the real thing being played out in her own backyard, did you?

Now if I were y'all, I believe I'd take advantage of the beautiful day God granted us. Go on and take this here little man down to the pet doctor and then, when y'all are finished I'll have a basket ready. Miss Vick says y'all should head down to the lake and clear your heads. Well, that's not all she said, but I'm not repeating the rest; I've got my bible study tonight.

I've also got to get my washing hung before Miss Lizbeth gets here," she says, as she readies the wash for hanging.

"Y'all be smart now, and get," she says, through a mouthful of clothespins. We watch as she cracks the sheets, expertly in the Carolina sun and begins hanging them on the line in military precision.

'Give them up for a bit. Take a vacation from them; don't worry … they ain't going nowhere fast, I promise.'

His words circle around my head, all languid and slow ... just like his drawl. And I'm tempted to take heed. I want to … oh, how I want to.

Boots' eyes meet mine

I shrug

He smirks

I swallow

He grabs my hand

My heart does this weird, skip, beat, thud

And …

We get.

A/N: So ... Hi. (Insert nervous laughter - here) Um, yeah. So, it's been, what ... 20 months as the crow flies? (Ooh a little pun. You know ... the crow thing. Okay. So, dumb. I'm off my game. It's been awhile.)

I know I should have done a recap. Yup. But frankly, after an almost two year hiatus, I figured most readers have

One: Abandoned the fic

Two: Forgotten the plot

Three: Confused it with something else

So basically just do what I did. Re-read it. I mean ... I didn't know who these people were or what they were about either. I was like ... why is this bitch so dumb? Oh. that's right.

All kidding aside ...

GOD, I MISSED YOU GUYS!

I hope you enjoyed this chapter; I have missed this story so much! It feels so good to be back, it really does. And the best part is ... the next chapter is pretty much finished and I am going to make every effort to update on a regular basis. I'll shoot for every two weeks. I can't promise, but that's my game plan.

Thank-you to my fic-sis, Fran who corrected my many mistakes and made it prettier than a Carolina mornin.

See you soon!

Jayne xo

PS: I am actually heading to North Carolina tomorrow. I haven't been back there in a year. I think it's fitting that I get to go to a Twi-fic-meet-up right where this story all began. I might even treat myself to a Witch Doctor. Don't know what that is?

You will. ;)

Anonymous reviews have been disabled. Login to review. 1. Chapter 1: Prologue 1583 1 0 2. Chapter 2: Shrinking Violet 4096 0 0 3. Chapter 3: Mud Season 4731 0 0 4. Chapter 4: The Lying and the Lam part 1 2932 0 0 5. Chapter 5: The Lying and the Lam part 2 3782 0 0 6. Chapter 6: Over the Rainbow 3762 0 0 7. Chapter 7: Home Training 5736 0 0 8. Chapter 8: A Rose for Miss Vick 5118 0 0 9. Chapter 9: Whiplash 5851 0 0 10. Chapter 10: Boiling Springs 5848 0 0 11. Chapter 11: Boiling Mad 6381 0 0 12. Chapter 12: Down the Drain 7220 0 0 13. When the Cat's Away, Boots will Play 4793 0 0 14. Chapter 14: Safe Haven 8215 0 0 15. Chapter 15: Order Up! 3135 0 0 16. Chapter 16: The Witch Doctor 3261 0 0 17. Chapter 17: Fly Trap 4274 0 0 18. Chapter 18: Bless Her Heart 4101 0 0 19. Chapter 19: Transitions 5236 0 0 20. Chapter 20: L'air du Temps 4169 0 0 21. Chapter 21: Of Testosterone and Kismet 5864 0 0 22. Chapter 22: Outfoxing the Fox 6570 0 0 23. Chapter 23: Pas de Trois 3979 0 0 24. Chapter 24 Pas de Trois part two 2522 0 0 25. Chapter 25: Blood Typing 4940 0 0 26. Chapter 26: Wedding Bella 3724 0 0 27. Chapter 27: Epilogue 3641 0 0