Blood Brothers (Chapter Ten)

Chapter Ten

THE HOUSE WHERE CAL HAD GROWN UP WAS, IN his opinion, in a constant state of evolution. Every few years his mother would decide the walls needed "freshening," which meant painting-or often in his mother's vocabulary a new "paint treatment."

There was ragging, there was sponging, there was combing, and a variety of other terms he did his best to tune out.

Naturally, new paint led to new upholstery or window treatments, certainly to new bed linens when she worked her way to bedrooms. Which invariably led to new "arrangements."

He couldn't count the number of times he'd hauled furniture around to match the grafts his mother routinely generated.

His father liked to say that as soon as Frannie had the house the way she wanted, it was time for her to shake it all up again.

At one time, Cal had assumed his mother had fiddled, fooled, painted, sewed, arranged, and re-arranged out of boredom. Although she volunteered, served on various committees, or stuck her oar in countless organizations, she'd never worked outside the home. He'd gone through a period in his late teens and early twenties where he'd imagined her (pitied her) as an unfulfilled, semidesperate housewife.

At one point he, in his worldliness of two college semesters, got her alone and explained his understanding of her sense of repression. She'd laughed so hard she'd had to set down her upholstery tacks and wipe her eyes.

"Honey," she'd said, "there's not a single bone of repression in my entire body. I love color and texture and patterns and flavors. And oh, just all sorts of things. I get to use this house as my studio, my science project, my laboratory, and my showroom. I get to be the director, the designer, the set builder, and the star of the whole show. Now, why would I want to go out and get a job or a career-since we don't need the money-and have somebody else tell me what to do and when to do it?"

She'd crooked her finger so he leaned down to her. And she'd laid a hand on his cheek. "You're such a sweetheart, Caleb. You're going to find out that not everybody wants what society-in whatever its current mood or mode might be-tells them they should want. I consider myself lucky, even privileged, that I was able to make the choice to stay home and raise my children. And I'm lucky to be able to be married to a man who doesn't mind if I use my talents-and I'm damned talented-to disrupt his quiet home with paint samples and fabric swatches every time he turns around. I'm happy. And I love knowing you worried I might not be."

He'd come to see she was exactly right. She did just as she liked, and was terrific at what she did. And, he'd come to see that when it came down to the core, she was the power in the house. His father brought in the money, but his mother handled the finances. His father ran his business, his mother ran the home.

And that was exactly the way they liked it.

So he didn't bother telling her not to fuss over Sunday dinner-just as he hadn't attempted to talk her out of extending the invitation to Quinn, Layla, and Fox. She lived to fuss, and enjoyed putting on elaborate meals for people, even if she didn't know them.

Since Fox volunteered to swing into town and pick up the women, Cal went directly to his parents' house, and went early. It seemed wise to give them some sort of groundwork-and hopefully a few basic tips on how to deal with a woman who intended to write a book on the Hollow, since the town included people, and those people included his family.

Frannie stood at the stove, checking the temperature of her pork tenderloin. Obviously satisfied with that, she crossed to the counter to continue the layers of her famous antipasto squares.

"So, Mom," Cal began as he opened the refrigerator.

"I'm serving wine with dinner, so don't go hunting up any beer."

Chastised, he shut the refrigerator door. "Okay. I just wanted to mention that you shouldn't forget that Quinn's writing a book."

"Have you noticed me forgetting things?"

"No." The woman forgot nothing, which could be a little daunting. "What I mean is, we should all be aware that things we say and do may end up in a book."

"Hmm." Frannie layered pepperoni over provolone. "Do you expect me or your father to say or do something embarrassing over appetizers? Or maybe we'll wait until dessert. Which is apple pie, by the way."

"No, I-You made apple pie?"

She spared him a glance, and a knowing smile. "It's your favorite, isn't it, my baby?"

"Yeah, but maybe you've lost your knack. I should sample a piece before company gets here. Save you any embarrassment if it's lousy pie."

"That didn't work when you were twelve."

"I know, but you always pounded the whole if-you don't-succeed chestnut into my head."

"You just keep trying, sweetie. Now, why are you worried about this girl, who I'm told you've been seen out and about with a few times, coming around for dinner?"

"It's not like that." He wasn't sure what it was like. "It's about why she's here at all. We can't forget that, that's all I'm saying."

"I never forget. How could I? We have to live our lives, peel potatoes, get the mail, sneeze, buy new shoes, in spite of it all, maybe because of it all." There was a hint of fierceness in her voice he recognized as sorrow. "And that living includes being able to have a nice company meal on a Sunday."

"I wish it were different."

"I know you do, but it's not." She kept layering, but her eyes lifted to his. "And, Cal, my handsome boy, you can't do more than you do. If anything, there are times I wish you could do less. But…Tell me, do you like this girl? Quinn Black?"

"Sure." Like to get a taste of that top-heavy mouth again, he mused. Then broke off that train of thought quickly since he knew his mother's skill at reading her children's minds.

"Then I intend to give her and the others a comfortable evening and an excellent meal. And, Cal, if you didn't want her here, didn't want her to speak with me or your dad, you wouldn't let her in the door. I wouldn't be able, though my powers are fierce, to shove you aside and open it myself."

He looked at her. Sometimes when he did, it surprised him that this pretty woman with her short, streaked blond hair, her slim build and creative mind could have given birth to him, could have raised him to be a man. He could look and think she was delicate, and then remember she was almost terrifyingly strong.

"I'm not going to let anything hurt you."

"Back at you, doubled. Now get out of my kitchen. I need to finish up the appetizers."

He'd have offered to lend her a hand, but would have earned one of her pitying stares. Not that she didn't allow kitchen help. His father was not only allowed to grill, but encouraged to. And any and all could and were called in as line chefs from time to time.

But when his mother was in full-out company-coming mode, she wanted the kitchen to herself.

He passed through the dining room where, naturally, the table was already set. She'd used festive plates, which meant she wasn't going for elegant or drop-in casual. Tented linen napkins, tea lights in cobalt rounds, inside a centerpiece of winter berries.

Even during the worst time, even during the Seven, he could come here and there would be fresh flowers artfully arranged, furniture free of dust and gleaming with polish, and intriguing little soaps in the dish in the downstairs powder room.

Even hell didn't cause Frannie Hawkins to break stride.

Maybe, Cal thought as he wandered into the living room, that was part of the reason-even the most important reason-he got through it himself. Because whatever else happened, his mother would be maintaining her own brand of order and sanity.

Just as his father would be. They'd given him that, Cal thought. That rock-solid foundation. Nothing, not even a demon from hell had ever shaken it.

He started to go upstairs, hunt down his father who, he suspected, would be in his home office. But saw Fox's truck pull in when he glanced out the window.

He stood where he was, watched Quinn jump out first, cradling a bouquet wrapped in green florist paper. Layla slid out next, holding what looked to be a wine gift bag. His mother, Cal thought, would approve of the offerings. She herself had shelves and bins in her ruthlessly organized workroom that held carefully selected emergency hostess gifts, gift bags, colored tissue paper, and an assortment of bows and ribbons.

When Cal opened the door, Quinn strode straight in. "Hi. I love the house and the yard! Shows where you came by your eye for landscaping. What a great space. Layla, look at these walls. Like an Italian villa."

"It's their latest incarnation," Cal commented.

"It looks like home, but with a kick of style. Like you could curl up on that fabulous sofa and take a snooze, but you'd probably read Southern Homes first."

"Thank you." Frannie stepped out. "That's a lovely compliment. Cal, take everyone's coats, will you? I'm Frannie Hawkins."

"It's so nice to meet you. I'm Quinn. Thanks so much for having us. I hope you like mixed bouquets. I have a hard time deciding on one type of mostly anything."

"They're wonderful, thank you." Frannie accepted the flowers, smiled expectantly at Layla.

"I'm Layla Darnell, thank you for having us in your home. I hope the wine's appropriate."

"I'm sure it is." Frannie took a peek inside the gift bag. "Jim's favorite cabernet. Aren't you clever girls? Cal, go up and tell your father we have company. Hello, Fox."

"I brought you something, too." He grabbed her, lowered her into a stylish dip, and kissed both her cheeks. "What's cooking, sweetheart?"

As she had since he'd been a boy, Frannie ruffled his hair. "You won't have long to wait to find out. Quinn and Layla, you make yourselves comfortable. Fox, you come with me. I want to put these flowers in water."

"Is there anything we can do to help?"

"Not a thing."

When Cal came down with his father, Fox was doing his version of snooty French waiter as he served appetizers. The women were laughing, candles were lit, and his mother carried in her grandmother's best crystal vase with Quinn's flowers a colorful filling.

Sometimes, Cal mused, all really was right with the world.

H ALFWAY THROUGH THE MEAL, WHERE THE CONVERSATION stayed in what Cal considered safe territories, Quinn set down her fork, shook her head. "Mrs. Hawkins, this is the most amazing meal, and I have to ask. Did you study? Did you have a career as a gourmet chef at some point or did we just hit you on a really lucky day?"

"I took a few classes."

"Frannie's taken a lot of 'a few classes,'" Jim said. "In all kinds of things. But she's just got a natural talent for cooking and gardening and decorating. What you see around here, it's all her doing. Painted the walls, made the curtains-sorry, window treatments," he corrected with a twinkle at his wife.

"Get out. You did all the faux and fancy paintwork? Yourself?"

"I enjoy it."

"Found that sideboard there years back at some flea market, had me haul it home." Jim gestured toward the gleaming mahogany sideboard. "A few weeks later, she has me haul it in here. Thought she was pulling a fast one, had snuck out and bought something from an antique store."

"Martha Stewart eats your dust," Quinn decided. "I mean that as a compliment."

"I'll take it."

"I'm useless at all of that. I can barely paint my own nails. How about you?" Quinn asked Layla.

"I can't sew, but I like to paint. Walls. I've done some ragging that turned out pretty well."

"The only ragging I've done successfully was on my ex-fianc��."

"You were engaged?" Frannie asked.

"I thought I was. But our definition of same differed widely."

"It can be difficult to blend careers and personal lives."

"Oh, I don't know. People do it all the time-with varying degrees of success, sure, but they do. I think it just has to be the right people. The trick, or the first of probably many tricks, is recognizing the right person. Wasn't it like that for you? Didn't you have to recognize each other?"

"I knew the first time I saw Frannie. There she is." Jim beamed down the table at his wife. "Frannie now, she was a little more shortsighted."

"A little more practical," Frannie corrected, "seeing as we were eight and ten at the time. Plus I enjoyed having you moon over and chase after me. Yes, you're right." Frannie looked back at Quinn. "You have to see each other, and see in each other something that makes you want to take the chance, that makes you believe you can dig down for the long haul."

"And sometimes you think you see something," Quinn commented, "but it was just a-let's say-trompe l'oeil."

ONE THING QUINN KNEW HOW TO DO WAS FINAGLE. Frannie Hawkins wasn't an easy mark, but Quinn managed to charm her way into the kitchen to help put together dessert and coffee.

"I love kitchens. I'm kind of a pathetic cook, but I love all the gadgets and tools, all the shiny surfaces."

"I imagine with your work, you eat out a lot."

"Actually, I eat in most of the time or call for takeout. I implemented a lifestyle change-nutrition-wise-a couple of years ago. Determined to eat healthier, depend less on fast or nuke-it-out-of-a-box food. I make a really good salad these days. That's a start. Oh God, oh God, that's apple pie. Homemade apple pie. I'm going to have to do double duty in the gym as penance for the huge piece I'm going to ask for."

Her enjoyment obvious, Frannie shot her a wicked smile. "À la mode, with vanilla bean ice cream?"

"Yes, but only to show my impeccable manners." Quinn hesitated a moment, then jumped in. "I'm going to ask you, and if you want this off-limits while I'm enjoying your hospitality, just tell me to back off. Is it hard for you to nurture this normal life, to hold your family, yourself, your home together when you know all of it will be threatened?"

"It's very hard." Frannie turned to her pies while the coffee brewed. "Just as it's very necessary. I wanted Cal to go, and if he had I would have convinced Jim to leave. I could do that, I could turn my back on it all. But Cal couldn't. And I'm so proud of him for staying, for not giving up."

"Will you tell me what happened when he came home that morning, the morning of his tenth birthday?"

"I was in the yard." Frannie walked over to the window that faced the back. She could see it all, every detail. How green the grass was, how blue the sky. Her hydrangeas were headed up and beginning to pop, her delphiniums towering spears of exotic blue.

Deadheading her roses, and some of the coreopsis that had bloomed off. She could even hear the busy snip, snip of her shears, and the hum of the neighbor's-it had been the Petersons, Jack and Lois, then-lawn mower. She remembered, too, she'd been thinking about Cal, and his birthday party. She'd had his cake in the oven.

A double-chocolate sour cream cake, she remembered. She'd intended to do a white frosting to simulate the ice planet from one of the Star Wars movies. Cal had loved Star Wars for years and years. She'd had the little action figures to arrange on it, the ten candles all ready in the kitchen.

Had she heard him or sensed him-probably some of both-but she'd looked around as he'd come barreling up on his bike, pale, filthy, sweaty. Her first thought had been accident, there'd been an accident. And she'd been on her feet and rushing to him before she'd noticed he wasn't wearing his glasses.

"The part of me that registered that was ready to give him a good tongue-lashing. But the rest of me was still running when he climbed off his bike, and ran to me. He ran to me and he grabbed on so tight. He was shaking-my little boy-shaking like a leaf. I went down on my knees, pulling him back so I could check for blood or broken bones."

What is it, what happened, are you hurt? All of that, Frannie remembered had flooded out of her, so fast it was like one word. In the woods, he'd said. Mom. Mom. In the woods.

"There was that part of me again, the part that thought what were you doing in the woods, Caleb Hawkins? It all came pouring out of him, how he and Fox and Gage planned this adventure, what they'd done, where they'd gone. And that same part was coldly devising the punishment to fit the crime, even while the rest of me was terrified, and relieved, so pitifully relieved I was holding my dirty, sweaty boy. Then he told me the rest."

"You believed him?"

"I didn't want to. I wanted to believe he'd had a nightmare, which he richly deserved, that he'd stuffed himself on sweets and junk food and had a nightmare. Even, that someone had gone after them in the woods. But I couldn't look at his face and believe that. I couldn't believe the easy that, the fixable that. And then, of course, there were his eyes. He could see a bee hovering over the delphiniums across the yard. And under the dirt and sweat, there wasn't a bruise on him. The nine-year-old I'd sent off the day before had scraped knees and bruised shins. The one who came back to me hadn't a mark on him, but for the thin white scar across his wrist he hadn't had when he left."

"Even with that, a lot of adults, even mothers, wouldn't have believed a kid who came home with a story like that."

"I won't say Cal never lied to me, because obviously he did. He had. But I knew he wasn't lying. I knew he was telling me the truth, all the truth he knew."

"What did you do?"

"I took him inside, told him to clean up, change his clothes. I called his father, and got his sisters home. I burned his birthday cake-completely forgot about it, never heard the timer. Might've burned the house down if Cal himself hadn't smelled the burning. So he never got his ice planet or his ten candles. I hate remembering that. I burned his cake and he never got to blow out his birthday candles. Isn't that silly?"

"No, ma'am. No," Quinn said with feeling when Frannie looked at her, "it's not."

"He was never really, not wholly, a little boy again." Frannie sighed. "We went straight over to the O'Dells, because Fox and Gage were already there. We had what I guess you could call our first summit meeting."

"What did-"

"We need to take in the dessert and coffee. Can you handle that tray?"

Understanding the subject was closed for now, Quinn stepped over. "Sure. It looks terrific, Mrs. Hawkins."

In between moans and tears of joy over the pie, Quinn aimed her charm at Jim Hawkins. Cal, she was sure, had been dodging and weaving, avoiding and evading her since their hike to the Pagan Stone.

"Mr. Hawkins, you've lived in the Hollow all your life."

"Born and raised. Hawkinses have been here since the town was a couple of stone cabins."

"I met your grandmother, and she seems to know town history."

"Nobody knows more."

"People say you're the one who knows real estate, business, local politics."

"I guess I do."

"Then you may be able to point me in the right direction." She slid a look at Cal, then beamed back at his father. "I'm looking to rent a house, something in town or close to it. Nothing fancy, but I'd like room. I have a friend coming in soon, and I've nearly talked Layla into staying longer. I think we'd be more comfortable, and it would be more efficient, for the three of us to have a house instead of using the hotel."

"How long are you looking for?"

"Six months." She saw it register on his face, just as she noticed the frown form on Cal's. "I'm going to stay through July, Mr. Hawkins, and I'm hoping to find a house that would accommodate three women-potentially three-" she said with a glance at Layla.

"I guess you've thought that over."

"I have. I'm going to write this book, and part of the angle I'm after is the fact that the town remains, the people-a lot of them-stay. They stay and they make apple pie and have people over to Sunday dinner. They bowl, and they shop. They fight and they make love. They live. If I'm going to do this right, I want to be here, before, during, and after. So I'd like to rent a house."

Jim scooped up some pie, chased it with coffee. "It happens I know a place on High Street, just a block off Main. It's old, main part went up before the Civil War. It's got four bedrooms, three baths. Nice porches, front and back. Had a new roof on her two years ago. Kitchen's eat-in size, though there's a little dining room off it. Appliances aren't fancy, but they've only got five years on them. Just been painted. Tenants moved out just a month ago."

"It sounds perfect. You seem to know it well."

"Should. We own it. Cal, you should take Quinn by. Maybe run her and Layla over there on the way home. You know where the keys are."

"Yeah," he said when Quinn gave him a big, bright smile. "I know where the keys are."

AS IT MADE THE MOST SENSE, QUINN HITCHED A ride with Cal, and left Fox and Layla to follow. She stretched out her legs, let out a sigh.

"Let me start off by saying your parents are terrific, and you're lucky to have grown up in such a warm, inviting home."

"I agree."

"Your dad's got that Ward Cleaver meets Jimmy Stewart thing going. I could've eaten him up like your mother's-Martha Stewart meets Grace Kelly by way of Julia Child-apple pie."

His lips twitched. "They'd both like those descriptions."

"You knew about the High Street house."

"Yeah, I did."

"You knew about the High Street house, and avoided telling me about it."

"That's right. You found out about it, too, before dinner, which is why you did the end-run around me to my father."

"Correct." She tapped her finger on his shoulder. "I figured he'd point me there. He likes me. Did you avoid telling me because you're not comfortable with what I might write about Hawkins Hollow?"

"Some of that. More, I was hoping you'd change your mind and leave. Because I like you, too."

"You like me, so you want me gone?"

"I like you, Quinn, so I want you safe." He looked at her again, longer. "But some of the things you said about the Hollow over apple pie echoed pretty closely some of the things my mother said to me today. It all but eliminates any discomfort with what you may decide to write. But it makes me like you more, and that's a problem."

"You had to know, after what happened to us in the woods, I wouldn't be leaving."

"I guess I did." He pulled off into a short, steep driveway.

"Is this the house? It is perfect! Look at the stonework, and the big porch, the windows have shutters."

They were painted a deep blue that stood out well against the gray stone. The little front yard was bisected by a trio of concrete steps and the narrow walkway. A trim tree Quinn thought might be a dogwood highlighted the left square of front yard.

As Fox's truck pulled in behind, Quinn popped out to stand, hands on hips. "Pretty damned adorable. Don't you think, Layla?"

"Yes, but-"

"No buts, not yet. Let's take a look inside." She cocked her head at Cal. "Okay, landlord?"

As they trooped up to the porch, Cal took out the keys he'd grabbed off their hook from his father's home office. The ring was clearly labeled with the High Street address.

The fact that the door opened without a creak told Quinn the landlords were vigilant in the maintenance department.

The door opened straight into the living area that stood twice as long as it was wide, with the steps to the second floor a couple of strides in on the left. The wood floors showed wear, but were spotlessly clean. The air was chilly and carried the light sting of fresh paint.

The small brick fireplace delighted her.

"Could use your mother's eye in the paint department," Quinn commented.

"Rental properties get eggshell, through and through. It's the Hawkins's way. Tenants want to play around with that, it's their deal."

"Reasonable. I want to start at the top, work down. Layla, do you want to go up and fight over who gets which bedroom?"

"No." Cal thought there was mutiny, as well as frustration on her face. "I have a bedroom. In New York."

"You're not in New York," Quinn said simply, then dashed up the steps.

"She's not listening to me," Layla muttered. "I don't seem to be listening to me either about going back."

"We're here." Fox gave a shrug. "Might as well poke around. I really dig empty houses."

"I'll be up." Cal started up the stairs.

He found her in one of the bedrooms, one that faced the tiny backyard. She stood at the long, narrow window, the fingertips of her right hand pressed to the glass. "I thought I'd go for one of the rooms facing the street, catch the who's going where when and with who. I usually go for that. Just have to know what's going on. But this is the one for me. I bet, in the daylight, you can stand here, see backyards, other houses, and wow, right on to the mountains."

"Do you always make up your mind so fast?"

"Yeah, usually. Even when I surprise myself like now. Bathroom's nice, too." She turned enough to gesture to the door on the side of the room. "And since it's girls, if any of us share that one, it won't be too weird having it link up the two bedrooms on this side."

"You're sure everyone will fall in line."

Now she turned to him, fully. "Confidence is the first step to getting what you want, or need. But we'll say I'm hoping Layla and Cyb will agree it's efficient, practical, and would be more comfortable to share the house for a few months than to bunk at the hotel. Especially considering the fact that both Layla and I are pretty well put off of the dining room there after Slugfest."

"You don't have any furniture."

"Flea markets. We'll pick up the essentials. Cal, I've stayed in less stellar accommodations and done it for one thing. A story. This is more. Somehow or other I'm connected to this story, this place. I can't turn that off and walk away."

He wished she could, and knew if she could his feelings for her wouldn't be as strong or as complex. "Okay, but let's agree, here and now, that if you change your mind and do just that, no explanations needed."

"That's a deal. Now, let's talk rent. What's this place going to run us?"

"You pay the utilities-heat, electric, phone, cable."

"Naturally. And?"

"That's it."

"What do you mean, that's it?"

"I'm not going to charge you rent, not when you're staying here, at least in part, because of me. My family, my friends, my town. We're not going to make a profit off that."

"Straight arrow, aren't you, Caleb?"

"About most."

"I'll make a profit-she says optimistically-from the book I intend to write."

"If we get through July and you write a book, you'll have earned it."

"Well, you drive a hard bargain, but it looks like we have a deal." She stepped forward, offered a hand.

He took it, then cupped his other at the back of her neck. Surprise danced in her eyes, but she didn't resist as he eased her toward him.

He moved slow, the closing together of bodies, the meeting of lips, the testing slide of tongues. There was no explosion of need as there had been in that moment in the clearing. No sudden, almost painful shock of desire. Instead, it was a long and gradual glide from interest to pleasure to ache while her head went light and her blood warmed. It seemed everything inside her went quiet so that she heard, very clearly, the low hum in her own throat as he changed the angle of the kiss.

He felt her give, degree by degree, even as he felt the hand he held in his go lax. The tension that had dogged him throughout the day drained away, so there was only the moment, the quiet, endless moment.

Even when he drew back, that inner stillness held. And she opened her eyes, met his.

"That was just you and me."

"Yeah." He stroked his fingers over the back of her neck. "Just you and me."

"I want to say that I have a policy against becoming romantically, intimately, or sexually-just to cover all my bases-involved with anyone directly associated with a story I'm researching."

"That's probably smart."

"I am smart. I also want to say I'm going to negate that policy in this particular case."

He smiled. "Damn right you are."

"Cocky. Well, mixed with the straight arrow, I have to like it. Unfortunately, I should get back to the hotel. I have a lot of…things. Details to see to before I can move in here."

"Sure. I can wait."

He kept her hand in his, switching off the light as he led her out.