“So you guys came up with that game back in college?”
“Yeah, it actually started as just a way the band could do better with song requests,” Tyler admitted, as they approached the front of the house. “But with Ren, and his ability to memorize, it took on a whole life of its own.”
“Turned it into a drinking game,” he answered with a grin, “and he never lost.”
The country superstar, glancing her way, just rolled his eyes and laughed. “Really, though we almost got him one time. Disco. He hates that stuff.”
“Ugh.” Ty groaned loudly as he walked up the front steps. “I ache all over,” he complained to no one in particular. “After yesterday, I didn’t think it could get any worse.” He groaned again as he gently lowered himself into a wicker chair on the O’Malley’s front porch. “Boy was I wrong!”
Josie just rolled her eyes back at him. “You do know I’m perfectly capable of carrying my own chainsaw around, don’t you?”
“T’was nothing, m’lady,” the country star answered in a faux cockney accent. With a turn, he tipped his head to her and swirled his right hand with a theatric flourish. “Merely endeavoring to assist and protect the muse.”
She couldn’t help but giggle at Ty’s antics but quickly stopped when she realized what he’d said. “What do you mean, ‘muse’?” She asked sharply, suddenly growing concerned.
“He means, my dear, that you are the very embodiment of musical inspiration when it comes to my brother and he wishes to see you kept safe, for that very reason.” Bella’s enchanting voice, with its lovely hint of an Italian accent, announced her arrival. “Though I sincerely doubt Mr. Dawson’s motives are all that pure.”
The screen door swung open, as Rennie’s sister stepped out onto the porch, carrying a tray laden with glasses and a pitcher of iced tea. Immediately behind her was Lindsey with a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Setting their burdens down on the well-worn wooden table, they quickly distributed the beverages and goodies to all those present.
“Oh, that is so good, thank you!” Ty gushed as he held out the rapidly drained glass in his hand. “May I have some more?”
Lindsey smiled at the compliment and stood to pour him another drink. “Why certainly.”
The thought of somehow being Rennie’s muse, however, still struck Josie as being more than a little off. Fingering her own glass as it sat on the table, she turned back toward Ty. “Since when am I his muse?” She asked pointedly, knowing full well that Helen had been the inspiration for his portfolio of sad songs. “Girlfriend? Absolutely. Muse? I don’t think so.”
Tyler laughed and then glanced over at Bella. “Do you remember Heather?” he asked her.
The older woman gasped in recognition, her dark brown eyes dancing with mirth, as they shifted back and forth between Ty and Josie. She was somehow able to stifle a laugh, but even with her hand to her mouth, a few giggles managed to make their way through. The dark haired singer was equally amused, as well, a huge grin plastered across his face.
Josie, however, was not.
“Oh, no, no, honey!” Bella, quickly recovering, shot Ty a pleading look and then gently touched Josie on the shoulder. “This is a good thing.”
She, however, was less than convinced and it must have shown on her face.
“Bella’s right, Josie,” Ty replied. His easy grin, however, quickly morphed into a grimace when he shifted in his chair. “Not to change the subject, but how do you do it, girl? I mean, two days of this and I’m wiped out. You, on the other hand, have been doing way more than me and you look like you could still go a few more hours.”
She shrugged nonchalantly. “Good Cajun genes, I guess.”
Lindsey, who’d been fairly reserved through all of it, finally let loose with a loud laugh. “That and the fact you’re a runner like Rennie.” She leaned over and nudged Bella. “A couple mornings ago, I went out to get the newspaper and who did I find sitting on my porch but her and Ren.” She shook her head in amazement. “It’s just over six miles from their hotel to here and they still had to run back.”
Josie just smiled. “It is nice having a running partner, I must say,” she openly admitted but then grew more serious. Looking over at Ty, she growled. “Now, enough stalling. What’s this about Heather and who is she, anyway?”
“Heather was a girl in the same dorm as Ren and me back in our first year at UT,” Ty looked over at Lindsey, as if to explain, and then back at Josie. “She was stunning, absolutely stunning – a bit like you, by the way – and Ren fell hard.”
Bella noticed Josie’s confused expression and pegged its source correctly. “I’m sure he mentioned how he and Helen were on again, off again?”
“Well, this was one of those off times. She was still in Houston finishing her senior year of high school and their relationship by that time had not survived the distance.”
“Anyway,” Ty continued, “Ren had this thing for Heather but she had no idea who he even was. Let’s face it, she was one of the beautiful people and he was just a shy music nerd.”
“Rennie, shy?” Josie found the characterization of her guy more than a little off.
“Actually, yes,” Bella answered, her head bobbing affirmatively. “You’ve just gotten to know him after his playing in nightclubs in college and preaching from the pulpit nearly every Sunday for the last, what, seven years?”
“Okay,” Josie responded with a small nod, recollecting how reserved Rennie could be at times. “I think I can see that.” With a look over at the only male on the porch, she continued. “Now, since this whole thing started with you calling me a ‘muse’, I suppose that’s what she was for him back then?”
“Exactly,” Ty’s smile grew enormous at the recollection, “though what he was writing at the time was pretty awful.”
“He showed some of it to me when he came home during one of his breaks that year,” Bella admitted with a grin and an eye roll, looking first to Lindsey and then Josie. “And it was all I could do not to laugh – or worse, cringe! They were like musical versions of really bad greeting cards, just so syrupy and nauseating.”
“They were that bad?” Lindsey asked curiously.
Josie had been wondering the same thing but then a distraught look swept over her face. “Oh, crap! He didn’t show them to her, did he?”
When they both nodded, Josie’s hands shot to her face as she gasped in horror. “No!”
“Oh, yes!” Ty replied with a chuckle. “But she was a real class act. Heather could have crushed him but, instead, she let him down real easy.”
“Alright, so I’m confused,” Josie admitted, looking askance first at Bella and then Tyler. “What does all this have to do with me as Rennie’s muse?”
“He’s writing love songs again,” Ty answered with an amused yet satisfied expression on his face.
“About me?” She’d known he’d been jotting down notes all the time and doing some writing late into the night, but he’d never mentioned anything like this.
Bella gazed at her quizzically. “You don’t know?”
“No, are they bad?” She cringed at the possibility.
“Actually, my dear,” Bella replied, with an affectionate pat on her arm, “it looks like they could be some of the best things he’s ever written.”
“Seriously?” Josie was stunned.
“So serious, I drove up here a couple days early just to see who it was that inspired him to write such amazing songs,” came Ty’s very serious response. “And to beg him for a chance to record one of them.”
“Wow, I don’t know what to say.” Josie raised her hands to her cheeks as her face began to flush. She was both proud of what Rennie was possibly producing but also a bit embarrassed she knew nothing of it.
“Well, I do,” Lindsey responded softly, looking over at Josie with a sympathetic smile. “I think it’s rather sweet and I look forward to hearing them.”
Josie could only nod, still a bit hurt and confused that Rennie had left her in the dark about this. Oh, she could understand him wanting to get outside opinions of his work – especially after the “Heather” incident – before showing the songs to her. But she was starting to sense a pattern of secrecy that troubled her.
The sound of tires on gravel, however, quickly interrupted her train of thought. Glancing over at the driveway, she could see it was Megan, in her mother’s white minivan, along with Sarah’s sister-in-law, Cindy, in the passenger seat. Erupting from the sliding door once it stopped, however, were two extremely rambunctious dynamos that Josie knew quite well.
“Miss Josie! Miss Josie! Look what I made!”
Josie adored four year old Ethan. He had only two speeds: non-stop and stop. And when it was non-stop, it was usually pretty loud. His twin sister, Evelyn, on the other hand, was absolutely the sweetest little girl ever. But despite that, she could probably give her brother a run for his money once in a while when it came to decibel levels. Chuckling as they ran stomping up the steps, Josie wondered what the two of them had to show her today.
Turns out, they’d been coloring and making macaroni art. She, Bella and Lindsey did well at making all the appropriate noises, as the little guys explained their work.
“So, what’ve y’all been up to today?” Tyler called out to Megan as she closed the driver’s side door.
“I took Cindy, Ethan and Evie with me to our newest daycare and child watch program,” Megan responded, as she and a rather subdued Cindy drew near to the front steps. “It’s for the displaced Hazelton children. Those kids have been through a lot and it was wonderful having these three there, helping out.”
Megan glanced around, taking in the unusually sparse number of people present. “Where is everyone?” she asked.
“Well, I don’t know about everyone,” Lindsey responded, without looking up from the artwork, “but your siblings are around here somewhere. And your dad is out taking communion to some of the shut-ins.” Suddenly, she stopped and shifted her eyes up to her daughter. “Oh, and the Burkes and their crew are still over at the school taking showers and changing clothes. They should be back in a little while.”
“Rodney’s checking baseball scores in the RV and, I believe, a certain sixteen year old daughter of mine,” Bella added, shaking her head, “is currently following around a certain brother of yours like a lovesick puppy.”
Megan laughed. “Knowing Brandon and seeing Gabby, I’m almost positive the feeling is mutual.”
Bella and Lindsey exchanged a look, with the latter’s face breaking out with a sly smile. “No worries, there,” she responded breezily. “His two younger sisters are keeping a close eye on them for me.”
“Poor guy.” Ty shook his head in mock disgust as the two mothers laughed. Glancing over at Megan, he passed on what he knew. “You’ll have to ask Josie what Ren’s up to, but I know the rest of the guys are still out at the fairgrounds with Sarah, since Manny, Dexter and their roadies showed up with all the equipment this morning.”
“Actually, we just stopped by and saw Ren over at the new office space the state is leasing for the rebuilding effort. Since I see you’ve got the truck, Josie, you’re going to be picking him up later, right?” Megan asked, glancing over at Josie.
Deeply engaged in an alternate conversation with her godchildren, the now somber brunette looked up somewhat distractedly. “What? Oh, yeah,” she nodded, “just as soon as he calls.”
“Pretty heartbreaking, isn’t it?”
Josie saw Cindy motion towards her children’s artwork. She nodded back.
“Nearly every child in that daycare lost something or someone. And the little girl in Evie’s picture there,” she said softly, with tears forming in her eyes, “lost her three year old brother.” Cindy paused. “I don’t know what I’d do if I...” Hand to her mouth, she quickly turned away as her shoulders began to shake.
“Mommy, don’t cry. It’s okay.” With her dark curls ringing her cherubic face, little Evie was immediately at her mother’s side, gently rubbing her leg. “It’s okay, Mommy, it’s okay. He’s with Jesus now.”
In one motion, Cindy swept up her precious daughter and clung to her like a life preserver, tears streaming down her face. Evie, for her part, lovingly patted her mother’s back and continued to say it would be okay.
Josie watched as Lindsey quietly rose from her chair and went to the young mother’s side.
“Nothing at all to be sorry about.” The pastor’s wife kindly dismissed the attempted apology with a sympathetic shake of her head. With a gentle caress, she turned and led the tearful woman, still clinging to her daughter, toward the front door. “It certainly puts things in perspective, though, doesn’t it?” she murmured quietly.
Cindy silently nodded her head as they entered the house.
“Ethan, sweetie,” Lindsey called out, while holding open the screen door. “Why don’t you come inside? I’ve got some cookies and milk for you and your sister.”
Josie smiled through watery eyes as, at the mere mention of cookies, little Ethan’s face lit up like a Christmas tree and he was off like a shot.
Hearing a loud sniff, Josie turned to her right and saw the acclaimed bad boy of country music brush away what looked to be moisture from his eyes. Grinning even wider, she wiped away her own tears and playfully patted him on the knee.
“What?” Ty protested unconvincingly. “Something got in my eye.”
Hearing the sound of tires on gravel yet again, Josie wondered which of the currently absent groups had finally arrived. The vehicle pulling into the drive was not even remotely familiar, however. About to yell to Lindsey that she had visitors, Josie noticed the Minnesota license plate. Sure enough, the driver had short, blonde hair. She didn’t recognize the passenger, though.
Bella rattled off something in Italian. If she had to guess, Josie figured it was pretty close to what was running through her own mind ... and that wasn’t good. Tyler? Well, he quietly muttered in English a few choice epithets that were in line with what she’d been thinking. Thankfully Cindy’s two were no longer outside to hear any of it. That ceased to matter, however, once the preacher’s daughter caught sight of the car.
“Megan Marie O’Malley!” Lindsey’s stern voice carried, clear as a bell, through the screen door from the kitchen.
“Helen Erickson just pulled in the driveway, Mom.”
“Oh, shi ... crap!”
Despite everything, Josie thought to herself, it was good to hear Cindy laugh.
“Well, since you guys are heading out, I think I’ll call it a day as well.”
Rennie glanced back in time to see his boss for one more day come out of the side office with her purse slung over her shoulder. Tugging the door behind her, it closed with a secure, metallic click. With the move to the new offices, the lieutenant governor had dressed far more casually in jeans and a comfortable blouse, with her graying, dark brown hair pulled back neatly in a ponytail.
“I’ll be gone to Chicago for the next two days, and then I’ll be back on Saturday.”
Rennie nodded somewhat absently as she approached.
“Of course, I’ll think of you both when I stop by Hot Doug’s. So, should I have the Frankie ‘Five Angels’ Pentangeli or just stick with the classic ‘Dog’?” she asked teasingly, mostly toward his companion, who’d grown up in Windy City.
Grant groaned behind him. “That is soooo not nice,” he complained as he shook his head.
Wendy just laughed. “I’ll probably be too distracted to think of you tomorrow night, when I go out with my son, Mark, and his family to Lou Malnati’s, what with all that sausage and cheese and pepperoni...”
“You are absolutely unredeemable,” Grant told her with an amused chuckle.
Rennie, however, was unfazed. While he heard the playful banter, it really only swept over the surface of his thoughts. His mind, troubled by the unanticipated confrontation with Helen that soon awaited him, instead was filled with a jumbled mix of thoughts and memories.
The warmth of an open palm on his cheek brought him back around.
“You don’t deserve this but it’s the hand that’s been dealt you, Ren.” The words came softly, so seemingly out of character for a woman thought by most to be just a hardened political operator. Rennie, however, knew different. Beneath the shell, it turned out they had a lot in common.
The older woman stepped in close and lightly kissed him on the same cheek where her hand had been. “Just don’t bottle it all up inside, okay? Otherwise you’ll turn into a bitter old crone like me.”
Rennie smiled finally and shook his head at her. “Can’t have that now, can we?” He leaned down and returned the kiss to her cheek. “Any advice?”
Her eyes narrowed slightly. Taking a step back, she gazed at him intently for a couple moments, as if judging his sincerity. Seemingly satisfied, she smiled sympathetically.
“Just two things: First, you know your wife’s line of bullshit well enough by now. Listen – and I mean really listen – for anything new, anything that might signal a genuine change. Second, remember what we talked about. No point in putting everyone through all this crap again, especially your two little girls, if nothing’s really changed.”
“How’d you get so smart?”
“An asshole of an ex-husband, as if you didn’t know. Anyway, I’d better get going if I expect to get in at a decent time.” Looking up at Rennie she gently patted him one last time on the cheek. “Just don’t make the same mistake I did, okay?”
He smiled and nodded. “Okay.”
“Now, keep an eye on him and when I get back on Saturday,” she charged, staring straight at Grant, “I want a decision from you. Are we clear?”
“Good.” With that, she waved and was out the door.
Coming to a stop in front of the café, Sarah was surprised to see Grant’s dark blue Lexus parked there. With all his fundraising done and the disbursement duties turned over to a local accounting firm, she’d seen little of him lately. Instead, he’d been spending the last few days, along with Rennie, helping Ms Capriati and her team set up the new offices.
Letting out a long exhale, the harried blonde tried to will all her frustrations out with it. Why she let her boss Charlie get to her, she didn’t know. Thankfully, she was “on vacation” and he could only annoy her from a distance. What a twit! She wondered if Bella would have any suggestions.
Glancing at her watch, she noted she was a bit early for her own meeting. So, with satchel in hand, she got out of her own grey Miata, fully intent on discovering why Grant was here and not there. Once inside, however, she was surprised yet again. This time, it was finding Tonto not only without the Lone Ranger but with a rather attractive brunette, instead, seated in quiet conversation at a table near the door. Her eyes caught his as she approached.
“Fancy meeting you here,” she smirked, her eyes darting between him and his companion.
“Likewise,” he countered with likely his best poker face. “How’s the setup going out at the park?”
“Only a few minor setbacks so far,” she admitted with a nod. “Thankfully, Ty’s crew really knows what they’re doing. Everything should be all assembled by noon tomorrow and then they’ll start the sound checks.”
Unable to restrain her curiosity any longer, she stepped closer and extended her right hand to the woman seated at the table. “Hi, I’m Sarah Gaines. And you are?”
The brunette took it with a wan smile. “Heidi Eggers,” she replied but said nothing more.
Sensing a mystery, Sarah grabbed the nearest chair and quickly sat down. “Okay, Grant, what gives? And don’t bother trying any of that say-a-bunch-of-words-without-actually-saying-anything lawyer crap on me, either. What’s going on?”
Without so much as a sound, the older black man gestured behind Sarah and to her right. Glancing over her shoulder, she noticed a separate alcove of tables and chairs currently roped off. It was the lone couple, obviously deep in conversation and seated at one of those tables, however, that caught her attention. Just who was the pretty blonde chick with Rennie?
Suddenly, she knew. Swinging back around, she gazed questioningly at Grant. “Oh good Lord, is that... ?”
He simply nodded.
“What’s she doing here?”
“My idiot sister is here hoping against hope that her estranged husband will take her back.”
Sarah snorted at the other woman’s statement and muttered absently. “Like that’s going to happen.” Realizing what she’d just blurted out, she gasped and quickly covered her mouth. More than a tad embarrassed, she glanced over at Heidi. “I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
She was relieved when the other woman casually waved it off.
“Don’t worry about it,” she replied. “I pretty much told her the same thing.”