Shelley called out as soon as she came in the door. “Hey, Lindsey!”
“We’re in the kitchen!” came the reply.
Walking through the living room, she could hear them before she saw them. From the voices, it sounded like the pastor’s wife had a few additional helpers in making lunch. Sure enough, when she came around the corner, there was Megan doing something with fresh green beans, while Josie was hard at work putting a garden salad together. Lindsey, meanwhile, was pressing out hamburger into patties.
“Can I help?”
Megan snickered as her mom glanced over at Shelley and then gestured towards a brown paper bag on the kitchen table. “The Fergusons gave us some sweet corn this morning. You up for some shucking?”
More than willing to do it but wanting to have a little fun with it, Shelley let out a good-natured groan. “Aw, Mom, do I have to?”
Now it was Lindsey’s turn to chuckle. “Oh my goodness, Shel, you sounded just like Megan!”
“What?” her daughter protested. “I do not sound like that!”
The two bantered back and forth, with Shelley tossing in a comment every now and then, while she sat down at the table and began to do her assigned task. As this was going on, though, she noticed something about Josie. She was way too happy for someone currently cutting celery. Having sat behind her in church that morning, Shelley had an inkling as to why, but she was curious what the girl would say.
“So, what’s got you so cheery this morning?” she asked the raven-haired singer.
Caught unaware, Josie’s face started off with an expression of surprise that soon morphed into one of mischievous joy. With a sly grin and a twinkle in her eye, she responded to Shelley’s question. “I just really like salads.”
Shelley shook her head and made a buzzer sound. “Try again.”
“The sermon today was very uplifting?”
“Sean did have a rather insightful take on the Gospel lesson,” she replied, knowing better than to make the buzzer sound again. “But something tells me that’s not the real reason why you can’t stop smiling.”
“Well, she was up really late last night,” Megan tossed in. “Maybe that has something to do with it.”
“We weren’t up that late,” Josie protested, leaving her celery only partially chopped.
Shelley gleefully pounced on the plural pronoun. “We? Oh, that’s right; you and Ren were gone from the party for quite a while.”
“I wonder what they were up to,” Megan teased, wiggling her eyebrows, as she mixed in some bacon bits with the green beans.
“Had to have been good to produce that kind of smile,” Shelley returned with a smirk. “Patty Cake, maybe?”
The younger redhead giggled. “Or Hide and Seek?”
Josie, for her part, shook her head in amusement as they kept going but said nothing – evidently content to finish with the celery and move on to the carrots. Her expression of happiness, however, remained.
Shelley, sensing the need to drop the teasing (mostly due to a serious look from Lindsey), asked the question she’d been thinking. “He finally told you, didn’t he?”
“Told her what?” Megan asked, her eyes switching between Shelley and Josie.
“That he loved me,” came the soft reply.
Dumping the green beans into an aluminum foil pouch for use on the grill and folding it closed, Megan let out an enlightened sigh. “Oh! So that’s why she looked like she’d been sucking on lemons all through church.”
Shelley thought it was funny no one asked Megan who she meant. It got her to thinking, though. “Speaking of Helen, where is she ... or Rennie, for that matter?”
Lindsey spoke up. “They’re meeting with Sean over in his office at the church. Heidi and Grant are with them.”
“Meeting about what?” her daughter asked, clearly confused yet curious.
“Custody and visitation of the girls,” Josie answered, her smile now replaced by a worried expression. “Grant and Heidi are there as witnesses.”
“Helen’s already pulled her divorce petition in Minnesota and it’s going to be a while before Ren can submit one in Tennessee,” Lindsey explained to the other two as she washed her hands in the sink. “He’s got to become a resident first. So they need some sort of temporary arrangement until then.”
“But Dad’s not a judge,” Megan observed, clearly confused, “or even a lawyer.”
Her hands now dry, Lindsey placed the dish towel over the handle of the oven. “No, he’s acting strictly as a mediator and the agreement they come up with is not legally binding,” she conceded, with a shake of her head. “That said, he’s done this before and judges take the agreement into consideration, along with how each side has honored it or not, when it comes before them in divorce court.”
Lindsey looked over at Shelley and nodded her head. “Sean’s also a licensed counselor and occasionally has to do this type of agreement as part of marriage counseling when the couple is no longer living together.”
“In this day and age, that makes sense,” Shelley replied thoughtfully, shucking the last of her sweet corn. “With Darren as a campus pastor, we hardly get any of that.”
“Where is Darren, anyway?” Josie asked.
Finished with the shucking, Shelley was now individually wrapping the corn in aluminum foil. “He and the guys are over at the school packing the van so we can leave after lunch.”
“Bella and her family already left right after church,” Josie offered, as she put slices of hardboiled egg on the top of the salad, “but Helen, Heidi, and the girls are waiting to leave until after lunch like you are.”
“Burgers fresh off the grill with green beans, corn on the cob, and salad versus grabbing a quick bite at a McDonalds along the way? That’s not even a real choice.”
“Wait, you’re actually letting them pack your stuff?” Megan chimed in.
Shelley couldn’t help but chuckle. “Of course not! You can’t trust a bunch of guys with that. I packed and loaded all my stuff this morning before church.”
She nodded in reply. “So, when are you guys leaving?” she asked, looking over at Josie.
“Tuesday morning,” the singer answered. “We’ve got a sit down on Monday with Grant about all the contract offers the band’s received. Plus, I wanted to hang around for moral support for Sarah when she meets with her lawyer.”
Megan was confused. “Her lawyer? For what?”
“It’s just preparation should that idiot Charlie try to sue her for putting him in the hospital,” Josie explained, shaking her head in disgust.
“He can do that?” she asked, clearly horrified at the prospect.
“Can he? Yes. But will he?” Lindsey responded to her daughter’s query then shrugged. “Who knows ... hence Sarah meeting with an attorney specializing in civil lawsuits tomorrow.”
“Wow, that sucks.”
“Amen to that!”
About that time, a phone chimed signaling an incoming text. The women looked at around until Lindsey signaled it was hers. “They’re all done,” she explained, laying her phone back down on the counter. “Why don’t you ladies set everything out and I’ll get the burgers on the grill.”
With a nod to the woman of the house, they did just that.
“I don’t recall seeing you in church this morning, young lady.”
Sarah had arrived a bit late at the O’Malley house and had just managed to grab a plate of food and a drink and find a seat away from all the hubbub. She turned in the direction of the voice and grimaced apologetically. “Sorry. I didn’t get to bed until somewhere around four thirty or five this morning.”
Father O’Malley, taking a seat in the lawn chair next to her, gave her a quizzical look. “What had you up so late? The after party broke up before midnight.”
“Ty and I were talking.”
“Oh, so that’s what you kids are calling it these days.”
“What? Hey!” Taken aback by the cynical tease, Sarah sputtered a bit. “We were! ... Talking, I mean!”
“Sure. I believe you,” he retorted with an expressive eye roll.
Sarah was about to go off on him, when she noticed the twinkle in his eye and the hint of a smirk on his face. “You’re terrible!” she exclaimed and punctuated it by tossing a green bean at him.
He laughed. “Guilty as charged,” he admitted before taking a drink of his soda. Glancing back over at her, he changed the subject. “So, have any of our visiting celebrities headed out yet?”
Sarah nodded. “Norah and Yo-Yo headed out a few hours ago to get back up to Chicago. They’ve still got another week of their youth music camp thing and they wanted to get back at a decent time today.” Taking a bite of her burger, she chewed for a bit before finishing her reply. “Since Nashville is only about four hours away, the rest are taking their time and will probably head out early this afternoon sometime.”
“What about you? What are your plans?”
“A few of us – mostly just Ty, me, Josie and Rennie,” she answered, gesturing toward those very people nearby, “will caravan down to Nashville Tuesday morning.”
“Well, if I don’t get a chance later, let me express my gratitude for all you’ve done for our communities in your short stay with us,” Father O’Malley offered to her with a smile and a nod of his head. “What you managed to put together – with a lot of help, I know – was nothing short of remarkable. Thank you, so very much!”
Never sure how to take a compliment, Sarah deflected the well-deserved praise. “It was my pleasure and you’re not kidding about me having a lot of help! The on-stage performers, of course, were fantastic yesterday – all of them – but I’m thinking about all the behind-the-scenes folks who actually made the whole concert possible. The real credit belongs to them.”
The good Father smiled. “That may very well be true, but I happen to know a lot of those folks and they’re all pointing the credit finger back at you. You had the vision and the wherewithal to get them all pulling in the same direction.”
“How about we just agree that there’s plenty of credit to go around?” Sarah replied, still not comfortable with all the acclaim. “Besides, it’s not like I had pure motives,” she admitted, her eyes drifting over to her best friend, who was kneeling down and chatting with Rennie’s oldest, Katie.
“What does that matter?” Father O’Malley asked, drawing her eyes back to him. “To paraphrase Martin Luther: God doesn’t need our good works, our neighbor does.” He gestured over to Josie. “Your intention was to help a neighbor who is near and dear to you, and, in so doing, ended up helping thousands of neighbors you never knew.” Rising from his chair with a huge smile on his face, he reached over and patted her on the knee. “Good job!”
“Now, if you will excuse me,” he continued, with a glance toward the driveway on the side of the house, “I need to go bid farewell to some folks who are now leaving us.”
Sarah mused on what he said towards the end as she watched him go. Looking over at her best friend now talking with Helen’s sister, Heidi – and also seeing Helen herself seemly rounding up the girls and preparing for their own departure – she remembered something else she needed to do. Taking the last bite of her burger and a quick swallow of her drink, she stood and headed over towards them.
Glancing over to the side of the house as she walked, Sarah could see that it was the campus pastor and his wife and their group of college kids from Wisconsin that were preparing to head out. The good Father had joined Rennie who was already there shaking hands and giving out hugs.
“Good to see you finally up and about,” Josie teased as she got closer.
“Now, don’t you start,” Sarah shot back with a smile. “You didn’t get to bed all that much before I did.”
“But I managed to get up this morning, didn’t I?” her friend replied with a self-satisfied smirk.
“Pshht,” she rejoined with a dismissive wave of her hand. “You’re one of those disgusting morning people. You always do that.”
Josie laughed. “And you’re one of those annoying night people who doesn’t really get going until noon at the earliest.”
“And you two are actually going to share an apartment?” Heidi asked, looking at the two of them with amusement.
“I know, crazy, right?” Sarah answered with a giggle. Getting a more serious look on her face, though, she rooted around in her right front jeans pocket and pulled out a flash drive. “Hey, before y’all left, I wanted to give you this,” she said as she handed it to Heidi.
Helen’s sister took it from her but gave her a look of confusion. “Thanks ... but what is it?”
“It’s the rough feed of Ty’s part of the concert from one of the mobile hand held cameras,” Sarah replied. “It’s got a lot of views from backstage and I thought it might be a good replacement for you, since you ran out of memory on your phone.”
“Oh my God, are you serious?” Heidi exclaimed, clearly surprised by the gift. “Oh my ... really?” Sarah nodded yes and was quickly on the receiving end of a boisterous hug. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
Feeling a twinge of pain in her arm, Sarah grimaced and let out a small grunt.
Hearing it, Heidi stepped back and was instantly apologetic. “I am so sorry! Are you okay?”
Before she could reply, a deeper male voice spoke up from behind her. “Hey, now, that’s my girlfriend you’re molesting.”
“It’s nothing,” Sarah responded, shaking her head, and then looking back at Ty. “She just got a little excited.”
“A little excited?” He tossed back, a teasing gleam in his eye. “That’s like saying a ghost chili is a little hot.”
Heidi, for her part, now looked mortified. Sarah reached for her hand with her good one. “He’s not serious and I’m fine. Y’all are going to be heading back to Little Rock pretty soon, aren’t you?”
The other woman nodded her head yes.
“Would you like to get a picture with him before you go?”
Another nod and Sarah was quickly arranging a photo session, though she left the picture taking to Josie, since the girl still had use of both of her hands. Ty, being the goofball he was, decided to ham up the picture. He first swept Heidi up in his arms and cradled her, with her arms around his neck and giggling like crazy. If that wasn’t enough, he then opted to switch her around and toss her over his shoulder in a fireman carry. The shot from the side of Heidi laughing and pounding on his back was a definite keeper.
One look and Sarah knew that it would be on Facebook within the hour. She chuckled.
Setting Heidi down, Ty glanced over at her, clearly curious. “What?”
She had Josie turn the smartphone around so he could see the picture.
As he looked, a secretly amused smile spread across his handsome face. After a moment, Sarah watched as his eyes shifted from the picture to her.
She couldn’t help but start to laugh. The boy was way too transparent. Lifting her damaged arm, Sarah shook her head. “Not a good idea, Ty.”
He just continued to smile.
The loud squeal that pierced the air when Ty hoisted the hussy’s blonde friend into his arms, only served to underscore Helen’s unhappiness. It had been a mistake not to head back to Arkansas right away in the morning. Instead, she sat through a church service within arm’s reach of her husband, with their youngest daughter between them. The distance might as well have been a million miles. He paid her no mind, saving his loving glances for the raven-haired witch sitting with their oldest daughter, Katie, on his other side.
Watching them together during this lunch at the O’Malleys was no better. Oh, there was nothing flagrant about their behavior together, but Helen had eyes and she could see. A palpable ache radiated from her gut. The food that smelled so good earlier quickly became so much ash in her mouth. And the outwardly-friendly backyard barbeque took on the morbid pallor of a soon-to-be-executed criminal’s last meal.
Her eyes now drifted over to her husband, who was bidding goodbye to the Burkes and their crew. She had started to round up the girls to get ready to leave, but he interrupted that. Instead, he called his daughters over so they could say goodbye, as well. She let out a sigh as she watched him take hold of Katie and Lena’s hands. The three of them were there and she was here, separated, just like in her dream. Well, more nightmare, really. She had not slept well, and what little sleep she did have was troubled. Of course, having those two women come traipsing in, one then the other, during the wee hours of the morning didn’t help either.
Helen managed to catch her sister’s eye and motioned that she was ready to leave. Heidi, still engaged with Ty and company, nodded back and appeared to be saying her goodbyes.
An overwhelming sadness gripped her as she walked over toward her husband. There was a finality to this moment that shook her to her core. She had done him wrong, time and again, and it seemed like there was nothing she could do to make it right. Every decision she made only proved to make a bad situation worse. It was past time she made some right ones.
Drawing near, Andy turned and their eyes met.
“We need to get going,” she told him, each word feeling like lead as they left her mouth.
He nodded and then knelt down to speak with the girls, who were now starting to get teary eyed. Helen felt herself getting the same way. “I will see you in just two weeks, okay?” he told them, wiping the tears from their cheeks. Too sad to speak, they nodded but then threw their arms around their dad’s neck and shoulders and began to cry. The emotion in his voice as he told them how much he loved them was palpable and moved her to tears, yet again.
Helen felt a hand on her shoulder. Turning her own tear-stained face, she saw that it was Lindsey with some Kleenex. With a thankful smile, she took them and mopped up the moisture on her cheeks. Following that, the two women shared a heart-felt hug.
“You ever need to talk...” the pastor’s wife murmured to her.
“I’d like that,” Helen whispered before stepping back.
Making use of the tissue again, she glanced over, only to see Andy and Heidi getting the girls situated in the car. He stood and turned toward her, his eyes watery from unshed tears. She stepped toward him, her whole body expressing her unspoken plea. He nodded ever so slightly and she stepped into his embrace. Her face rested against his chest as her ears picked up the rhythmic beating of his heart.
It took every ounce of strength she possessed not to fall apart in that moment, as the tears streamed down and a sob escaped her lips. This was it. With a deep shudder, she somehow managed to step back out of his arms. Wiping her eyes yet again, she gave him a teary smile. “The girls and I will be there in two weeks,” she assured him, her voice quivering.
He nodded, his own cheeks now on the damp side. “I’ll have some places for you to look at,” he told her.
Unable to say any more, she nodded back. Reaching for the passenger side door, she opened it and sat down. In moments, Heidi had the car backed out onto the street and they all waved one last time.
Minutes passed and the miles flew by. Before long they were on the Interstate, headed back to her parents’ home in Little Rock. Sniffles and sobs emanated from the back seat for a while, but were eventually replaced by girl chatter and then, finally, the sounds of sleeping.
“I’m proud of you.”
The words came out of the blue. Helen snapped out of her reverie of staring out the side window but not really seeing anything, and turned to look at her sister.
Heidi smiled over at her. “You made a good step today, telling him the three of y’all would be moving to Nashville.”
“I’ve caused enough pain,” Helen admitted, turning to look back out the window. “He and the girls need each other.”
“And it doesn’t hurt that you’ll still get to see him.”
Helen let out a snort. “Oh, that’ll hurt all right.” She stopped for a moment and then shrugged her shoulders. “But I guess that will be my penance.”
Josie heard the café door open and smiled when she turned and saw Sarah, followed quickly by Ty, come in. It had been a busy Monday morning for them all. Josie and Rennie had spent the last couple hours with Grant, learning more than they ever wanted to know about recording contracts; while Sarah headed off to meet with her lawyer and someone else from the local district attorney’s office.
She waved them over. They had all chosen to meet at the Steigers’ Crossroads Café for lunch and to swap stories. Grant and Anisha had come with her and Ren, and they were now waiting on Megan and the other Hatchery Road band members to finally show.
“So, how did it go?” she asked her friend, as she drew closer.
Sarah gave a bit of a grimace and shrugged her shoulders. “Some good, some bad,” she replied as she sat down in the chair Ty pulled out for her.
“Oh no,” Josie murmured. “Do I want to want to hear this?”
Sarah shrugged again. “They’re giving Charlie a plea deal: Fourth degree assault with no jail time, six months probation, and a $10,000 fine.”
“Well, she did mess him up pretty good,” Ty added in with a bit of a chuckle.
Sarah glanced over at him and rolled her eyes. Looking back at Josie, she continued. “Oh, and it looks like he’s probably going to try to sue me.”
Incredulous, the raven-haired singer just shook her head. “So, what’s the good news?”
“Franklin Gibbs, my lawyer, thinks we can get him to drop it if we threaten him with a sexual harassment lawsuit.”
“You don’t seem convinced.”
“I don’t know,” Sarah said with a shrug. “They guy was a creep and all but I don’t think he ever sexually harassed me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s not like grabbed my boobs or dropped his drawers and told me to play with his pecker. He was just an asshole.”
“An asshole I’d like to meet in a dark alley and pound into the ground,” Ty growled, earning him a warm smile and a pat on the thigh by Sarah.
“Easy there, tiger,” she told him. “No need to have you spend any time behind bars.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” came a quip from Rennie, who had just returned from the men’s room.
“Ain’t that the truth!” the country superstar remarked with a laugh. “It’s been a while, though.”
It was at this point that Anisha, who was sitting immediately across from Josie, decided to jump in. “Sarah, how many times did this Charlie go out of his way to be near you and ask you out on a date?”
The blonde stopped and appeared to ponder the question. “Oh, man, I don’t know. Maybe two, three, four times a week?”
“And how long did that go on?”
Anisha shared a look with her husband Grant, who was sitting next to her, and then turned back to Sarah. “How often did he invade your personal space and do things like caress your arm or rub your shoulders?”
“After a while, it was like nearly every time I saw him.”
“And would you say that behavior was welcome or unwelcome?”
“Unwelcome, absolutely!” Sarah insisted.
“Did you ever tell him that?” the former prosecutor asked, continuing her interrogation.
“Not straight out,” she admitted, “but I turned him down every time he asked and, after a while, I always tried to keep a desk or table between us when I had to talk with him.”
Josie could see Ty getting angry.
“Shit, why didn’t you ever turn him in for crap like that?” he asked her, clearly baffled. “Why put up with that?”
“Because I really like what I do and I like getting paid,” Josie’s best friend told him openly. “He was a company vice president and I’m a glorified gopher. Who were they going to believe?”
“You. I would have believed you,” Ty declared vehemently.
Sarah smiled at him. “Well, you probably would have been the only one, but thank you,” she said, leaning up and giving him a brief kiss on the lips.
Grant’s wife, however, continued with her questions. “When you turned down his repeated attempts for a date, how did he respond?”
“He became difficult to deal with,” the blonde replied, looking over at Anisha. “He was forever micromanaging my assignments and belittling my work. I was just glad other departments kept borrowing me for their projects, that way I could avoid him a good chunk of the time.”
“So, would you say he interfered with your work performance and created a hostile work environment for you, simply because you would not have a romantic relationship with him?”
“Absolutely!” Sarah insisted but then a look of realization appeared on her face. “Holy crap! It actually was sexual harassment, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Judge Anisha Thomas replied, nodding her head. “And I would have believed you, too.”
“You’ve convinced me,” Grant chimed in next to her.
Josie watched as he friend sat there a bit stunned. With her elbows on the table, she rested her chin in her hands and scanned the faces gathered around the table. Eventually, though, she lowered her hands and sat back up in her chair. “What do you think I should do?” she asked, looking over at the Thomases.
The couple exchanged another look, with Anisha answering the question. “Are there people at Stone Mountain that can corroborate parts of your account?”
Sarah nodded. “Yeah, Franklin asked the same thing and said we would have another lawyer in Nashville ... depose them?” She had paused momentarily at the end, clearly uncertain about the legal term she was trying to use.
It was Grant’s turn to nod. “My office in Memphis can take care of that. If you wish, I’ll talk with Franklin and set that up.”
“As for what you should do,” Anisha added, jumping back in, “it all depends on what you want. If you’d just as soon have this all go away, you can pursue a sexual harassment suit strictly as leverage. That way, when he drops his lawsuit, you can drop yours and just walk away.”
“That’s pretty much what Franklin described, but he did say there was a more hardball approach we could take.”
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