Rosewood - Part 13
(The beginning of the next chapter)
“No, you just go and have fun and don’t worry about anything.” Jo gave her older sister a gentle push between her shoulder blades, trying to propel her forward. “We have this handled.”
Jess braced her feet on the porch floor and half-turned, frowning. She was in a long, drapey gray sweater and black tights, wicked stilettos. Her nails were red and her hair and makeup were flawless. She was taking this romantic getaway thing seriously. But her face was too white, the line of her lips too tight. Now, when it was time to leave, stress had its hooks in her. “Don’t worry? Jo, I’m leaving you in charge of things – ”
“And unless you want to start your trip with a fight, you won’t finish that sentence,” Jo said sweetly, and gave her another nudge. “Go on. Your chariot awaits.”
Jess started walking, still frowning. “This is stupid,” she grumbled. “I do not need to go away to prove anything. Or to work on anything. Or…” She trailed off as Chris stepped into view from behind the loaded Tahoe. Unlike his wife, Chris was relishing the thought of a getaway. He was smiling like a teenager off on his first couple’s weekend away from Mom and Dad’s disapproving eyes. Jo thought it was cute.
“This is for Chris,” she whispered. “For both you guys. The inn’s not worth a damn if you can’t enjoy being married, right?”
Jess sighed; from over her shoulder, Jo watched her return Chris’s smile, helpless against the magnetic pull of it. “Right,” she agreed.
“You ready?” Chris called up.
“Yeah.” Jess turned and pulled Jo into a hug. Against her little sister’s ear, she whispered, “For God’s sakes, Joanna, don’t burn the place down while I’m gone.”
Jo laughed and pushed her back. “For God’s sakes, Jessica,” she parroted in what she thought was a pretty good imitation of her sister, “get laid and don’t come back so crabby.”
Jess snorted and gestured to her stomach. “You think a lack of sex is my problem?”
“You have lots of problems.” She made a shooing motion with her hands. “Get lost.”
Jess started down the porch steps, stilettos rapping against the boards. “Don’t forget that Mr. And Mrs. Davidson want an early wakeup call Wednesday morning. Oh, and I washed a whole bunch of towels – they need folding. And be sure and check on the apple tree – some of them are ready to be picked. And – ”
“Bye, Jess!” she called. “Gooooodbye!”
“She’s going to burn it down,” Jess told Chris as he took her hand and balanced her off the last step onto the slate path that led to the drive. “You watch: there won’t be a Rosewood when we get back.” Her tone was lighter though, almost, if Jo dared to think it, joking.
Chris flashed her a grin and a wink over his wife’s head. “Be good, Jo.”
She gave him a mock salute. “Aren’t I always?”
“No,” both Haleys said in unison, and then snuggled up arm-through-arm and headed for the car, talking in low murmurs Jo couldn’t make out.
Good for them, she thought. They more than deserved it. She smiled, and waved, and called one last goodbye. And then when the Tahoe slipped out of sight down the driveway…the panic started setting in.
She had always been the assistant, the helper, in this inn arrangement they had going. It wasn’t that she didn’t work, or that she didn’t throw herself into the running of the place fully, but Jess had always been the voice of authority and reason. The final say. The place at which the buck stopped. How many times a day did Jo duck into her sister’s office and ask her opinion? How often did she defer a decision to Jess? Even the little things – like what color towels they used that week – were up to Jess.
Not this week.
It was eight on the dot, cool mist seeping up from the dewy grass, the lake steaming, the light a slanted haze sifting through the trees and across the lawn. They were only two weeks away from Thanksgiving, and the nights had become cold, the mornings redolent with their sharp crackle. It was also a Saturday, which was their busiest day of the week.
Here went nothing.
She went back into the kitchen where all four of her charges were eating breakfast. She’d managed bacon, Pop-Tarts filling in the other food groups. Her eyes went to Maddie, who was chewing a soggy corner of Pop-Tart and batting at tears, hiccupping and sniffling and tumbling headfirst into a crying jag.
“Oh, Maddie.” Jo went around the table to her. “Maddie, baby, what’s wrong?”
Tyler added a drizzle of maple syrup to his bacon and sighed. “She’s sad Mom’s leaving.”
Jo propped a hip against the table and smoothed Maddie’s brilliant golden curls. “She’s only gonna be gone a week. She’ll be back soon,” she soothed. “And we’ll have fun while she’s gone, right guys?” She looked at Tyler and her own girls for confirmation.
Willa nodded and crammed a whole strip of bacon in her mouth at once. Avery shrugged. Tyler said, “Sure,” without any enthusiasm. He was at that age at which he was enthusiastic about nothing – save baseball, and, most of the time, spending time with his stepdad.
Maddie looked up with huge, wet green eyes, lip quivering, not at all convinced.
“It’ll be great,” Jo continued. “Uncle Tam’s gonna help Tyler with his pitching, and Aunt Ellie’s gonna come over some days and bring the twins. You like playing with Jane and Lizzy.”
“B-b-but Mama reads me s-stories,” Maddie whimpered. “A-and…”
“I’ll read you stories,” Jo said, sliding an arm across her little shoulders and giving her a squeeze. “I’ll tuck you in every night with a story, just like Mama does. I promise.”
“She’s never spent the night without Mom,” Tyler said with a sigh. “Maddie, don’t cry about it.”
“Mama, is there more bacon?” Will asked.
“No. One more bite and you’ll turn into a pig.”
“You are what you eat,” Tyler told her.
“Will,” Jo sighed. She wasn’t sure if she could trust Maddie to keep from dissolving if she stepped away from her. “Take your plate to the sink and then see if Maddie wants to go into the office and color with you.”
“I don’t want to color.”
“Do me a favor: color.”
The wall-mounted phone – the one that was only used to communicate with the upstairs guest rooms – rang, and she had to step away from the table to answer it. With an eye on Maddie’s shaking shoulders – and Avery sliding out of her chair to go see her cousin – she answered, “Good morning.”
“Good morning, dear, this is Susan Mallory up in room two-oh-seven…”
Jo listened with half an ear. Her sister had numbered all the rooms, even the downstairs living areas, and all second floor rooms started with a two, to “make the inn feel more legitimate” she’d explained. Jo thought it was stupid. She also thought taking up a tray of toast and chamomile tea to Mrs. Mallory sounded ridiculous.
But she said, “Yes, ma’am,” and hung up before she turned sarcastic. To her relief, Maddie’s crying had calmed. “Okay, guys, let’s – ”
Avery had left her orange juice balanced precariously on the edge of the table and it tipped over, plastic cup landing with a sharp clink on the dark hardwood, a fountain of juice erupting and splatting.
Behind her, the phone rang again. Tyler gave her a look that was almost sympathetic in his own pre-teen way.
And so it began.