In honor of the fact that Still Waters is now available on Kindle, here is a free chapter, which has never before published online. Hope you enjoy!
“Well, I don’t understand what the problem is, that’s all,” Stella complained amiably, leaning up against the back porch. Jenna was kneeling on a pad, pulling weeds from her flowerbed. She was very intent on her work. The rich smell of dark brown earth filled the air.
Stella crossed her ankles as she searched her sweater for a cigarette. “He’s an eligible bachelor, isn’t he? I mean, from what I could tell he can make intelligent conversation and he looks like he bathes on a regular basis, so what’s the big deal? Ah, eureka!”
She pulled her last cigarette from deep in her pocket and brushed the lint off it, then she looked over at her friend for some sort of reaction to what she’d said. There was none, which was typical.
Nearby, Rose and Christopher were playing cowboys and Indians. Christopher was the sheriff, of course, and Rose was a very patient squaw, with a feather tucked neatly into her braids. She’d been caught and was now sitting down obligingly so she could be tied to a tree. Fritz, who had been worn out playing the horse, was lying on his side in the dirt, long tongue lolling happily.
Stella put the cigarette between her lips and struck a match. “Max took me to the drive-in last night.”
“Oh really?” Jenna smiled. “And how was it?”
“Well, it was fine.” Stella could feel herself blushing. “I mean, you know – it was like when we were kids, or something. At least, that’s how it was during the cartoons. But then the movie started, and it was all over for me.”
Jenna looked up. “Why? What were you watching?”
“Rebel Without a Cause. Have you seen it?”
“Well, I hadn’t – until last night, that is. Rose saw it last year with some friends, and she’s been mooning over James Dean ever since.”
“That’s hardly surprising,” Jenna said. “But why did it ruin your night out with Max?”
“Are you kidding? It makes all parents look like neurotic head cases. And those crazy teenagers playing chicken, running around till all hours of the night, terrorizing innocent people? It scared the life out of me. You know, Rose is only a few years younger than that Judy character that Natalie Wood plays. I can’t imagine what kind of weird ideas my daughter might have in her head after watching that picture.”
Jenna looked across the yard, at the twelve-year-old girl who was playing with her son. “I don’t think you need to worry about that with Rose.”
“No, probably not – or at least, not yet,” Stella said. She flicked some ash off the end of her cigarette, contemplating the glowing tip. “Is it too late for me to put her in a convent?”
Jenna smiled gently. “I’m afraid so.”
“Ah, well. Where were we? Oh, that’s right – the dinner party.” They had been discussing an upcoming get-together that Stella was planning. Stella needed an extra man – and who doesn’t? she’d joked – to fill out the numbers, and she’d wanted to invite Adam. Jenna had tried to tell her that the notion of having equal numbers was getting antiquated, but Stella was having none of that.
She picked up where she’d left off. “I think I’ve figured out what you’re worried about – Adam chews with his mouth open, is that it?”
Jenna rolled her eyes. “He’s only just started his new job. Kitty tells me he’s been working until all hours, so why burden the man with social obligations? Let him get settled before you start parading him around.”
“Oh come on, where’s the burden? I’m a fantastic cook, and we all know it. He’ll have a nice meal and a few drinks, meet some interesting people and – oh.” Stella stopped short. Her eyes were thoughtful. “That’s it, isn’t it? You don’t want him to meet interesting people. You want to keep him for yourself.”
Jenna gave her friend a don’t-be-ridiculous look. “Stella, please. Adam is like a brother to me.”
“Uh-huh. Well, I’ve got news for you, sweetie. I have a brother – two, in fact – and neither of them ever looked at me the way I saw Adam looking at you the birthday party other day. He’s stuck on you. And you’re a little stuck on him, too, unless I miss my guess.”
Now Jenna’s expression turned nearly vicious. “Adam was my husband’s best friend, Stella. What you’re saying is not only absurd, it’s insulting.”
Stella looked back at her, unfazed. She was used to Jenna’s moods. Her gaze became sympathetic. “You’ve really got it bad, don’t you?”
Jenna began gathering up her gardening tools. “I’m not having this conversation with you. Now or ever. I’m marrying Frank, in case you hadn’t heard.”
“Uh-huh,” Stella said again. “And when is that blessed event to take place, exactly?”
Ooh. That was a sore subject, and Stella knew it. Jenna got to her feet without a word and pulled off her gardening gloves.
She opened her mouth to call Christopher, but instead she gave a soft little, “Oh.”
Stella turned to see what had caught Jenna’s attention, but she could see nothing except a fuzzy gray squirrel hopping gracefully across the grass, which wasn’t exactly an odd sight around here. Then Stella realized that Christopher was also watching the squirrel. The little boy’s eyes lit up and he turned his head, meeting his mother’s gaze excitedly.
“That’s him,” Jenna said softly. “Go ahead.”
Christopher raced up the back steps, pushing past the adults. “Excuse me, Aunt Stella,” he whispered hurriedly, before he disappeared into the kitchen.
Stella looked at her friend questioningly. Jenna smiled slightly and shook her head. “Just watch,” she said.
As soon as Christopher had started across the yard, the squirrel had followed him, its long furry body arching elegantly with each jump. Now he hopped up on the railing and stood on his hind legs, staring expectantly at the back door.
When Christopher came out, the squirrel retreated to a safe distance. The little boy hunkered down, his arm extended in offering, and the squirrel came forward, hesitantly at first, then with more confidence. He paused a few feet from Christopher, tail twitching. His black eyes glittered as he inched forward cautiously. He reached out one paw, with its perfectly-formed fingers covered in fine gray fuzz, and snatched the nut that Christopher was offering him. He hopped back up onto the railing and began to neatly devour his afternoon snack.
Christopher watched, enchanted, then turned and beamed at Jenna. She returned his sunny smile with such love that Stella felt her own heart lurch.
“So, what’s with feeding the tree rats?” Stella asked, covering her emotion with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
“That squirrel’s been coming around for while, and we’ve been giving him nuts and crackers and so forth. Last week he actually took one from my hand. Christopher adores him, as you can see, but he’s been afraid to feed the squirrel by himself – until today.”
“Well, it seems that I’m witnessing a momentous occasion,” Stella said. “I’m honored.” And she was.
Jenna reached out and squeezed her arm. Her eyes were shining. “I’m thinking of taking Christopher to the Phillips Gallery in DC.”
Stella laughed, assuming she was joking. Then she saw Jenna’s face. “You’re taking a five-year-old boy to an art museum?” She didn’t try to hide the derision in her voice. “Why would you do a thing like that?”
“We’re going to see Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party,” Jenna said defensively. “Lucien took me when I was a child, and I loved it.”
“Sweetie, I’m sure that was a very special day between you and your dad. But unless Renoir painted some cowboys into that picture, Christopher’s not going to give a squirrel’s furry patoot about it. He’ll be bored to death.”
“I was going to take him to the park afterwards and buy him a hot dog.”
“Well, now you’re thinking!”
Jenna turned a cold look on her. “You know, I don’t really appreciate your constant criticism.”
That caught Stella off guard. She hadn’t said anything particularly cutting, had she? She slipped an arm around Jenna’s waist, feeling her friend stiffen. “What? We’ve been friends for ten years and I can’t give you a hug once in a while? Come on, this is my way of apologizing for my mouth. It has a life of its own, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
A small smile appeared on Jenna’s face. “Not only have I noticed, I usually like it. Usually.”
“Point taken.” Stella withdrew her arm, glad to have the amity between them restored. Sometimes Jenna reminded her of a wild thing, like that squirrel. You might think it was your friend, but don’t try to pick it up and cuddle it, or it was likely to bite. She decided to press her luck. “And what about Adam?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Jenna said. “Everything will work out.”
But the look of forced cheer on her face wouldn’t have fooled anyone, least of all Stella.
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