THE BASIC INSTINCT
It felt soooooo good to have a man around the house again!
Cindy's pleasure showed in her contented sigh and the way she stretched her legs. Life hadn't always been so sweet, but ever since she'd killed a man, it couldn't be better!
She glanced at the clock from her comfortable position on the couch. Allen should be home in another hour. If it wasn't for dear, sweet Allen, why, she'd have been her old boyfriend Harley's victim instead of the other way around.
Cindy shivered. She and her old flame started out well enough. She was living alone then, was content to work only for the basic creature comforts. This left time for strolling through the park, or sunning herself at the beach.
Her few acquaintances were usually busy with jobs, families or both. Ginger was embarrassingly zealous over her work with the blind, and Mac had actually joined the police force. She couldn't imagine anything interfering with her own carefree existence until Harley came along.
Cindy first noticed him on the beach. She let him take her delicately boned face in his hands. "Hey, pretty lady. My name's Harley. What's yours?"
A week later Cindy moved in with him. Their relationship started out happily enough, so neither was prepared for their sudden crash to reality.
"I have to get a damn job, Cindy! Can you believe it?" Harley slapped the bills on his shabby desk. "Dad cut off my allowance!"
What could she say? What could he, except he'd take the job? That was the beginning of trouble. Harley's frequent caresses dwindled down to none. Cindy looked for work herself but found nothing with her limited skills. She kept the beach riffraff away from the house, and tried to be supportive.
She didn't notice Harley's jealousy of her carefree life, the life he once lived. The first time he hit her, Cindy was more surprised than hurt. After that, there was no doubt of pain.
Cindy left Harley without even a good-bye, but months of existence with him had taken their toll. Cindy was no longer the streetwise, self-sufficient drifter. She'd become spoiled; dependent on the man who hurt her.
How he laughed when she came crawling back, hungry and cold. Right then she decided to kill him.
At times Cindy didn't think she'd be able to last, but she had Allen to sustain her. Allen was another worker at the store where Harley worked. Sometimes he visited. Harley's only friend would laugh and flirt until she almost forgot her misery.
If only she'd met Allen first! She was young, and a survivor. She'd lick her wounds and outlive her torturer.
Plans for Harley's death constantly occupied her mind. Harley rode the bus, and had to walk the last few blocks home.
The last intersection Harley crossed was a busy one. Harley often impatiently crossed against the light. On this point Cindy planned her strategy.
Day after day she forced her aching, beaten body from the house. Screening herself behind people, she waited, hoping this would be the day. At the end of each evening she headed home, but the next again found her at her post. Cindy had learned patience.
Finally that patience was rewarded. The crosswalk light changed to 'Don't Walk' just as Harley stepped off of curb. Others retreated, but he hurried forward.
Cindy took in a deep gulp of air, then followed. Harley turned and spotted her, but it was too late. Cindy shoved him into moving traffic with every ounce of strength she had. Hatred flashed across Harley's face before a transit bus hit him.
Cindy almost cheered aloud. That huge bus had been a stroke of luck, a sign of vindication. She allowed herself one final victory glance before sneaking away.
She didn't return to Harley's place. That would have tempted fate. Her only regret was Allen. He wouldn't know where to find her, but food and shelter were her priority.
Cindy remembered the irony of eluding police at the scene of the "accident" only to find herself behind bars later for vagrancy and begging! She had no identification--it was at Harley's apartment. What a predicament!
Better to shiver in her windowless prison and keep silent.
A vagrancy penalty beat a murder rap hands down.
Cindy had been locked up for days when Allen appeared--Allen, who had found Cindy's I.D. at Harley's, and who figured out where to find her. She looked up, her eyes wide and moist, and Allen smiled.
The man in uniform unlocked her cage. "Now you take good care of her. She's been through a lot."
"That's over now." Allen drove Cindy home--to his home--their home.
Cindy pricked up her ears at Allen's car in the driveway. She hurried eagerly to the door until she heard another voice. Cindy turned and sat back on the couch.
"Cindy, I'm back!" Allen called. "Don't play coy now, come see your favorite guy!"
"Coy, hell!" swore the woman behind him. "She's jealous. Take it from one female to another."
Allen laughed, and tousled the silky hair of Cindy's head. "She hasn't a mean bone in her body."
The woman regarded Cindy with distaste. "Your precious girl can't stand me. The feeling's mutual."
"But this is Cindy's home."
"I'll be back when you decide between us!"
"Sweetheart, wait!" The slamming door heralded Allen's return to the couch.
Cindy remained quiet. Let Allen see who was the one worth loving.
"She'll come around, Cindy." Allen drew her close. "She just doesn't know you like I do."
Cindy watched through the window as she descended the stairs. She noted the unsteadiness of the woman's high heels on rough concrete, and filed it for future reference.
You never know when such information will come in handy.
She snuggled closer to Allen to cheer him up. Her new I.D. jingled against her throat. After a moment he played with her ears, her front paws in his lap.
Cindy wagged her tail contentedly. Distractions notwithstanding, it was soooooo good to have a man around the house.
A COUNTRY KILLIN'
(A Barn Animals Story - No dogs)
The ancient barn was a murderer's paradise, deputy sheriff Duke Harland thought. Between the axes, knives, pitchforks, scythes, and various other farm tools, no wonder Old Man Keller was dead.
"Can't someone calm these horses down?" The new head of the sheriff's department approached Duke. "They're ready to kick the walls down."
Duke rolled his eyes. Bad enough someone had murdered Old Man Keller at his annual family picnic. Even worse that Old Man Keller had thirty relatives, all of whom hated the family patriarch with his stingy, money grubbing ways. But the worst part was having Travis Robinson, city‑slicker, for a new boss. He was downright cantankerous when it came to dealing with farm-dwelling locals--and Duke was a farmer's son.
"The horses don't like the smell of blood," Duke said. "We've got to leave 'em in their stalls, or else they'll trample all the evidence."
Robinson looked at the old man laying on the barn floor. "There's not much evidence except the body. Looks like Keller was hit in the head with that funny‑looking hammer."
Duke sighed. It looked like he was going to have to do all the work on this himself, as usual. By rights he was supposed to have become head sheriff. Robinson must have greased some palms, because he sure couldn't have been promoted on smarts.
Duke pointed to the bloody hammer on the floor. "It's a farrier hammer," he told his boss.
"A what?" Robinson jumped as a yearling colt gently nuzzled his sleeve.
"A blacksmith tool. It's used to hammer nails into horseshoes."
"Oh." Robinson crouched and studied the blood‑stained tool, taking care not to touch it. "We'll have to dust it for fingerprints. I hope we've got some. The lab boys will be here in a few hours."
A few hours? Duke had no intentions of missing his wife's lunch while waiting for Robinson and his new‑fangled methods. She was cooking her specialty for him‑-southern fried chicken. He'd better solve this case himself.
"Let's go check out the other Kellers," Duke suggested. "Maybe we can get one of them to confess."
"There's exactly thirty of them out there!" Robinson said scornfully.
"We'll narrow them down." Duke reached down, and picked up a pail of bran. He poured big handful into his jacket pocket.
"Are you stupid or what?"
Duke blinked at the insult. "No, sir." He poured more bran into his other jacket pocket.
"Will you stop worrying about the animals and come on outside? I can't stand this horse smell much longer."
They went outside to the picnic tables. Duke saw the Keller children begging to eat. The adult members had no appetite, and stood around in hushed silence.
"I don't see any tears." Robinson didn't bother to lower his voice. "Any one of them could be the murderer."
"And why not?" one Keller spat out. "The Old Man had all the money, and all the land. He put us through hell for our miserly portions. I'm glad he's dead!"
Most of the other Kellers responded with nods. Robinson glared first at them, and then at Duke.
"I know this is probably a waste of time with you. But get to work. You have until the lab boys show up, sonny." Robinson's expression plainly showed what he thought Duke's chances were of success.
Sonny? No one called him "sonny" but his granny! At that, Duke had half a mind to let his new boss solve the case himself, but his wife promised to make him his favorite lunch, fried chicken and a fresh‑baked apple cobbler for dessert. He studied the Keller relatives, all thirty of them. The Kellers stared right back. One baby Keller wailed for his dinner. The mother reached for the baby bag to feed him.
"Hold it right there," Duke ordered her. "All you ladies leave your purses and things here on the picnic table. Then take the children out behind the house and stay there till I call you."
"You need a search warrant to check their purses," Robinson insisted, but Duke shook his head.
"I'm not going to search anything."
Robinson was puzzled as they all left. Within minutes only the adult men remained. Duke took a seat at the picnic table, trying to ignore his growling stomach and the Keller picnic fixings. If he skipped his wife's lunch, she might get it into her head to stop fixing them!
"You're going to start with the nine males first? Why?" Robinson asked.
"Why not? All right, you Kellers. Line up inside the house. I want ya'll to come see me, one at a time, every five minutes. Got it?"
The Kellers nodded, and started walking. They were all inside when the mayor drove up, slamming on his brakes and hurrying over. He had another deputy with him, and he didn't look happy.
"What's going on here? Old Man Keller's been murdered and you haven't found the murderer yet?"
"No, Mr. Mayor," Robinson replied nervously. "I'm waiting for the lab boys. In a few hours I'll have this murder weapon checked for prints, and maybe by next week or so..."
"Next week? Sheriff Robinson, my wife's a Keller!"
Robinson shot Duke an accusing glance, but Duke shrugged. Everyone knew Mrs. Mayor was a Keller. He couldn't tell Robinson everything.
The Mayor spoke to Duke. "Please, Duke, can you find me that pond scum today? If not, there'll be no peace for me at home."
"I'll give it a try, sir."
"I'd be most grateful."
Duke reached for an empty bowl and filled it with baby cereal, then set it next to the baby bag on the picnic table. "Here comes our first suspect."
An adult Keller came out of the house and joined them.
"Your name and occupation?" Duke asked.
"Bob Keller. I'm a plumber."
"Where were you a half hour ago?"
"In the kitchen, helping the wife with the food."
"I see. You can join the women now. On your way, would you give this to the baby?" Duke handed Bob Keller the bowl.
"Sure." The man walked away, and joined the women and children.
"What kind of interview was that? Mr. Mayor, are we going to sit here and listen to this fool?" Robinson angrily asked.
"At least he's doing something," the mayor said. "Keep on doin' what you're doin', Duke."
Duke did. Seven more Keller men came and went. Each time Duke gave them another bowl filled with cereal, and each one went and rejoined the women.
"That baby's going to get fat with all that food," Robinson complained, but the mayor gave Robinson a look that shut him up.
The very last Keller came outside.
"Your name and occupation?"
"Ted Keller. I worked as a hand on a ranch outside of town, and I didn't kill the Old Man. I was with my brother setting up the picnic tables."
Duke nodded, then handed him the bowl. "Okay, Mr. Keller. Would you take this to the baby, please?"
Ted Keller nodded, and headed straight for the barn.
"There's your man, Mr. Mayor. He killed Old Man Keller," Duke announced.
Robinson stood there with his mouth open, but the Mayor quickly found his voice.
"Well, don't just stand there, Robinson. Go do your duty and arrest him!"
Minutes later a tearful Ted Keller was in handcuffs, the rest of the men, women and children watching. "He never gave us our share! I wanted my money. Was I asking for so much?"
Robinson looked from Ted Keller to Duke in amazement.
"How'd you know?" the Mayor asked as Keller was led to the sheriff's car by the patrolman.
Duke smiled. "Why, Mr. Mayor, it was nothing. All those killin' tools in there, and our murderer picked a farrier hammer to kill Old Man Keller. The Keller women aren't likely to kill someone with that small hammer. They'd use a knife or a scythe. Our murderer passed those by. I guessed he spent a lot of time around horses."
"But how did you know Ted was the one?" Robinson demanded. "How could you tell?"
Duke pulled out a box of baby food from the baby bag and poured some of the dry mixture into yet another bowl. "See this?"
"So? It's baby cereal."
"And this?" Duke removed a fistful of bran from his pocket and added it to the bowl, just like he'd done for all the other bowls.
"It's bran!" The mayor had caught on, and a big smile split his face.
"Sure is," Duke answered. "Bran and baby cereal look alike, but they don't smell alike. A horse man can smell horse bran right away. I filled everyone's bowl with bran, not baby food."
Robinson's jaw dropped as he too finally caught on. "You asked each man to take the bowl to the baby! The--baby horse?"
Duke nodded. "Yep. The one who took the bowl to the baby horse--that's foal in these parts--and not the Keller baby was our man. Sorry, Mrs. Keller," Duke said, addressing the baby's mother. "That's why I wouldn’t let you take the baby bag."
“I wondered why my idiot relatives kept giving me bowls of food.”
“It wasn’t them, it was me. My apologies, ma’am. You can tell the others they’re free to go.”
Mrs. Keller snatched up her baby bag in a huff and headed toward the house as the mayor faced Duke.
"You know, Duke,” the mayor said, “Maybe I was a little hasty passing you up for promotion. You'd make a fine sheriff."
Robinson's face looked awfully white, Duke noticed.
"In fact, I think we need to do a little rearranging. Perhaps you can follow me down to the office?"
"I'd like that, Mr. Mayor, but it'll have to be after lunch. My wife has fried chicken and apple cobbler waitin’ on me."
"Really?" The Mayor licked his lips. "I sure do love a good hot meal," he hinted.
"Sorry, sir, but my wife don't like surprises, and I sure don't aim to cross her. Maybe you can ask for an invite at Sunday church."
Duke didn't wait for any reply as he climbed in his squad car. Solving murders was one thing, but giving his meal to the mayor? Duke drove off.
The new sheriff in town had to draw the line somewhere!
"I'm not going to our high school reunion, and that's final!" Sarah Collins crumpled up the invitation for emphasis. "High school reunions are for hopeless romantics and late-night TV. At best they're a bore. At worst they're a disaster."
"But Sarah, it wouldn't be any fun without you!" protested her sister, the former Miss Noelle Collins, now happily married and very pregnant. "In high school we did everything together!"
Sarah sighed. She truly loved her year-older sister, but she was not giving in on this. "You know I only came back here because your baby's due in a couple of weeks. I've told you a million times I wasn't going to our ten-year reunion."
Noelle plucked nervously at the oversize maternity top she wore. "I know you weren't very happy in high school, but..."
"What overweight girl with crooked teeth and a bad complexion would be?" Sarah interrupted. She doubted if her year-older sister would ever understand the humiliation she went through. But then, Noelle was always drop-dead gorgeous who carried the proud title of "popular". Sarah was just the wallflower sister who Noelle lovingly, generously, included in everything.
"But you look so great now! Don't you want to show everyone how well you turned out?" Noelle asked.
"No. I'm sure the student body isn't interested in my orthodontia work, or in the endocrinologist who discovered my thyroid problem," Sarah said dryly. "I have no intention of parading myself around a bunch of people who were cruel to me at a time when I needed understanding."
Noelle bit her lip and tried again. "I'm sure they've all grown past that now. If you come to the reunion, I promise I wouldn't try and fix you up with anyone."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "Right. You promise me that every time I come home for Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or summer holidays. Yet each time you dangle some eligible man at me. Sis, the reason I moved away from here was so I wouldn't marry some local boy and get stuck in this one-horse town!"
"At least if you had stayed, you'd be teaching in a safe place! I read the newspapers," Noelle flung out. "I know what those big city schools are like. Some day you're going to get hurt!"
Sarah sighed. This was an old argument, and unfortunately, a valid one. Sarah's teaching job in an urban high school could get a bit hair-raising. But she refused to rehash old ground.
"My living in the city isn't the point, Noelle. I'm not here to party. I'm here to help you out when the baby comes. Heaven knows how long Joe will be able to stay home."
Probably not long, Sarah thought to herself. Truck drivers had to drive to make money, and unfortunately Joe's trips were usually long hauls.
"You go tonight with him," Sarah said in her most soothing voice. "The two of you will have a good time. You don't need me. I'll stay home and do your ironing."
Noelle burst into tears. "Joe called earlier. His rig broke down at the state line. He won't be home until tomorrow."
Sarah silently cursed Joe, his rig, and his contractors. She knew exactly what was coming next.
"I can't go alone!" Noelle wailed. "Not like this! My belly won't even fit behind the steering wheel!" Her blotchy, puffy cheeks turned even blotchier. "Please, Sarah, won't you drive me?"
Sarah knew when she was beaten. She reached for the tissue box and gently wiped her twin's face. "If it's that important to you, of course I'll go."
Noelle sniffed. "Really?"
"Yes, but on one condition."
"I'll go with you, but not as your sister. I want to go in disguise."
Noelle's eyes opened wide. "You can't be serious!"
"I most certainly am," Sarah continued. "Since Mom and Dad moved to Florida, you're the only one around this town who knows my face."
"If you weren't so darn unsociable, others would, too," Noelle grumbled.
"But they don't. So tonight I'll be your sister's good friend from--say--New York City."
"Sarah, are you crazy?"
"Not Sarah. You can call me Serena."
"Let's make it Serena Davenport. Yes, I like the sound of that. It's very cosmopolitan. And I think I'll be--" Sarah drummed her fingers on the coffee table and considered. "A New York diamond seller. That sounds impressive."
"But Sarah Collins, high school teacher, would impress them even more!"
Sarah would have hugged her sister for her staunch loyalty if eight and a half months of baby wasn't in the way. She settled for tenderly patting Noelle's shoulder.
"Thanks, sis. But I'm just not up to listening to ugly-duckling-turned-swan comments all night. That would be too humiliating. I'll play Sarah's best friend, you visit with your friends, and we'll both get through the evening with a minimum of hassle."
A little smile played around Sarah's lips. "Who knows? Maybe I'll even enjoy myself."
The evening was soon upon them. Sarah put the finishing touches to Noelle's hair, then stood her in front of the mirror.
"You look fantastic," Sarah assured her.
"Right. Like a beached whale in sequins." Noelle pulled a face at the mirror, then turned away. "You're the one who looks gorgeous, Sarah."
"That's Serena," Sarah absently corrected. "For an old maid school marm, I fix up okay," she conceded. The mirror showed a vision in aquamarine, her eyes alive and sparkling, curled hair cascading over her back like a waterfall.
"You're gorgeous," Noelle repeated. "You'll knock 'em dead at the reunion. Tonight you'll be the belle of the ball, and I'll be the wallflower."
"You could never be a wallflower," Sarah said, giving her sister a quick hug. "Come on or we'll be late."
"I'm coming," Noelle's eyes twinkled, "Serena."
"Look at this crowd," Sarah said as they drove into a full parking lot. "There's no way I can find a parking space close to the door. Why don't I drop you off in front?"
"I'll wait for you there. But hurry. I can feel my ankles swelling in these shoes already."
"Will do." Sarah dropped off her sister, found a spot way in the back to park, and began the walk up to the school gymnasium.
"Quite a crowd, isn't it?"
Sarah turned at the masculine voice to her right. There was something distinctively familiar about that voice, and she strained to see the owner in the dark.
"So it appears," she replied, curiously waiting for the man to catch up.
"Maybe we should keep each other company on the long hike in?" he suggested as he got closer. He held out his hand, and smiled. "I'm Dominic Vincenza. My friends call me Nick."
Sarah stiffened with recognition. Nick was here? She remembered her high school crush on him. If the black hair and warm brown eyes weren't enough to melt any female's heart, there was the added attraction of his being student body president, captain of the science club and basketball team, and the boy voted, "Most likely to succeed."
"Hello, Nick. I'm--Serena Davenport."
Nick frowned. "I'm sorry, but I don't recall the name."
"Oh, I'm here as a guest." Sarah allowed Nick to tuck her arm within his and escort her though the traffic in the parking lot. He always was the charmer, even as a teenager, and he'd certainly come into his prime now. "I'm with the former Noelle Collins. Her husband couldn't be here tonight, so I'm taking his place."
"Is Sarah here?" Nick asked eagerly.
"Sarah?" What an odd question. "No, she's out of town."
Was it her imagination, or did Nick's face fall? Sarah gave him a strange look.
"Too bad," was all Nick would say under her scrutiny. "So, you're a friend of the family?"
"Yes. Sarah and I meet in New York at this fabulous designer's party. I'm a diamond merchant, you know," she said with flair.
Nick was unimpressed. "How's Sarah doing? I heard she was working in some run-down school or something."
Sarah felt a sudden flash of anger. Not only had Noelle been spreading her gloom-and-doom stories, but she was again being ignored. She might as well have her crooked teeth and oversize dresses back again.
"Sarah's doing just fine," she said curtly. "Oh, there's my--" She almost said 'sister'. "Friend. I'd better get her inside and find her a chair. Perhaps I'll see you later."
Her dismissal was polite, but obvious. With a nod of his head, they went inside and split in different directions.
"Was that Nick?" Noelle asked as Sarah caught up with her twin.
"In the flesh. And he wasn't impressed by Serena at all," Sarah couldn't help but say. She smiled, trying to make a joke out of it. "Can you believe it? No matter who I am, the wallflower still remains. It's high school all over again."
"I told you to be yourself," Noelle said firmly. "Come on. Let's find the refreshments. I'm starving--must be the baby."
"You're always starving," Sarah laughed, feeling much better. "And don't give me that line about eating for two. Come on, I'll try to clear you a path through this mob."
The gym was packed with people. Suits and cocktail dresses had replaced tuxedos and prom dresses, but other than that, everything looked the same to Sarah. The old scoreboard was still cracked, the decorations seemed garish and strange, and the smell of the locker rooms still wafted out among the perfumed and after-shaved crowd.
Sarah and Noelle found a spot among the bleachers with their punch and pretzels. Noelle was immediately surrounded by her old gang who politely greeted "Serena", then turned back to Noelle to discuss the past, the present, and the future of the baby-to-be.
Some things never change, Sarah sighed to herself as she was excluded from the conversation. It appeared Serena wasn't any more interesting than Sarah was. After making certain that Noelle was okay and had a refill of the non-alcoholic punch, she decided to walk around.
"I'm going to mingle a bit. I'll be back in fifteen minutes to check on you, okay?"
Noelle nodded happily. "Bring more food on your way back, please."
"Will do." I might as well be useful.
Sarah wandered past the dancing couples and tried to pick out the ones she remembered. There were the usual pairs who'd remained together from her high school days, and of course many more new matches. Sarah sighted the buxom blonde who never forgave Sarah's sister for stealing away the head cheerleader spot. She hadn't had the nerve to get even with Noelle herself, but she revenged herself by making Sarah's life miserable in gym class.
Sarah smiled to herself. It all seemed so petty now, and so very long ago.
"What a lovely smile. What were you thinking about, Serena?"
Sarah pivoted around to find Nick watching her with an amused expression on his face. How had he found her among all these people?
"I was thinking about Sarah, and what she'd say if she were here," she answered honestly.
"Come dance with me, and tell me all about it."
Before she could refuse, his arms were around her, and they were swirling in time to the old tunes. "About Sarah--are you two really good friends?"
Serena smiled, her eyes twinkling. "I like to think so."
"Wish she could have been here tonight," Nick said. "Not that you aren't the loveliest dancing partner a man could want," he quickly added.
"But?" Serena urged, curious as to where this conversation was heading.
Nick shrugged. "I made a special trip back here. I was hoping to see all my old friends."
"I know for a fact that you and Sarah were never close," Sarah said decisively.
Nick actually stopped dancing, his large hands still on her waist. "She told you that?"
"I-- She said she didn't have many friends in high school. Certainly never any boyfriends."
"Did she tell you I asked her out? More than once?"
"It's true. I wanted to be her steady guy, but she'd never go out with me."
Sarah stared at him, her mouth parted in amazement. "You can't be serious."
"I was damn serious."
"But Sarah said you were big man on campus! Maybe she never thought you were serious. She was only the head cheerleader's ugly duckling younger sister."
Nick's eyes flashed dangerously. "Sarah was never ugly."
Something in her shocked face must have registered with him, because after a moment he pulled her back into his arms and started dancing once more. When he spoke again it was in his usual, charming voice.
"So what would Sarah would say if she was here tonight? You never did tell me."
Sarah swallowed hard. She should go back to Noelle. At the very least, she should insultingly protest Nick's obsession with "one" woman while dancing with "another". Sarah did neither. Instead, she found herself answering his question.
"If Sarah were here, she'd probably be remembering all the indignities she suffered," she said slowly, missing Nick's flash of anger as she looked over the dance floor. "And then she'd remember how long ago those were. She'd remind herself that all those slings and arrows made her the understanding high-school teacher she is today. Her past helps her identify with the troubled young students in her own classroom."
Nick seemed to hang on every word. "Sarah's a high-school teacher, then? I thought maybe elementary."
"Not for a long time." This time the smile she gave him was Sarah's, not Serena's phony act. "Sarah may not have been a popular teenager, but she's a popular teacher. Better yet, she's an effective teacher, and that counts for a lot in her book."
Sarah saw Nick nod with satisfaction--and pleasure. And then, "Is she happy?" he asked in a hoarse voice. "Has she found someone to make her laugh?"
"I--" No. No, I haven't. This time, Sarah flashed Nick a brittle, Serena smile. "She's not married, if that's what you mean. As for the rest, why don't you ask her sister?" Sarah checked her watch, noticing that the fifteen minutes were almost up. "Speaking of Noelle, I really should be getting back to her."
"Noelle will be fine. Look at all those friends with her. I think another dance is in order, don't you?"
The gym lights dimmed, and the music switched to a slower, more seductive number. Sarah searched for Noelle with a quick assessing look from across the gym. Noelle seemed happily settled in, so she let Nick lead her into the next dance.
"Where does Sarah live?" was his next question.
"In New York. I thought you knew that," Sarah replied.
"I know the state. I don't know the address. Perhaps you'd give it to me? Or her phone number?"
Sarah blinked. "You want Sarah's phone number?"
"Yes. I've tried to get it from her sister, but no luck. Noelle's been most uncooperative--seems she doesn't want any ties to her old home town. Maybe you'd help me out?"
Sarah didn't know how to respond to the longing in his voice. "I--I think I'd have to ask Sarah's permission, first. She--uh--"
"She's never mentioned me to you? Not even in passing?"
Sarah searched for a way to end this dance, and her lies. "I'm sure she remembers you quite well. Sarah and I don't talk about her school days much. She lives in the present. That's why she isn't here tonight."
Nick's expression was sharp. "I thought with her sister ready to deliver, she'd be in town for certain. They were always close."
Sarah was suddenly glad of the low lights. They hid her guilty, flushed face. She wished she'd never taken on the Serena persona--wished she'd never lied to this man--and now it was too late to do anything about it without making fools of them both.
"Next time I see her, I'll tell her you said hello," Sarah managed to reply.
Nick gave her a warm, approving glance. "You're a nice lady, Serena. And a tactful one. You haven't asked one probing question yet. No wonder Sarah likes you."
Sarah felt even guiltier as Nick held her just a little closer, and remained silent.
"I'll tell you what any other woman would have asked by now. I was crazy in love with Sarah Collins. And--" he took in a deep breath, "That's why I came here tonight. To see if I could exorcise old ghosts, and get on with my life. I'm almost thirty years old--too old to be mooning over a teenage dream girl."
A curious sense of disappointment swept over Sarah. Still she let Nick talk.
"Sarah influenced me in so many ways. She had such dignity about her. She never cried, never hurt people back. And she was never jealous of anyone, not even her own sister." Nick smiled. "Quite a woman."
Me? Are you talking about me?
"Did you know Sarah was a candy striper at the local hospital?"
"My mom worked there. She told me all the patients were crazy about Sarah. I wanted to volunteer, too. I would have had to quit the basketball team, but I didn't care. My father talked me out of it." Nick paused. "I've never forgiven myself for that. If I'd worked with Sarah at the hospital, she might have noticed me. I desperately wanted to get to know her better."
Notice him? Dominic Vincenza, the boy most likely to succeed, wanted ME to notice him? Why didn't he say something? For an awful moment Sarah thought she was going to cry, but she managed to pull herself together.
"But you didn't--get to know her."
"No." Nick sighed. "I still wanted to be like her. She was a special lady. So I did the next best thing. I went to medical school."
Sarah froze in his arms. "You became a doctor? Because of Sarah?"
Nick smiled. "Sure did. I specialize in pediatrics. I figured that way I could take care of my own kids when Sarah and I had them." The smile faded. "I never had the kids or Sarah, but I was hoping tonight--"
His voice broke off brusquely. Sarah couldn't take it any more. She reached for his shoulders and gently pushed herself out of his arms.
"I don't think you should be telling me all this," she said in a choked voice. "It's none of my business."
"Serena, wait, I'm didn't mean--" Nick tried to stop her, but Sarah hurried away from him. The crowd on the dance floor was heavy, though, and Nick reached for her right arm just as another woman grabbed her left.
"Serena, Noelle's sick!" the other woman cried. "She wants you!"
Sarah gasped, and immediately pushed her way through dancing couples, ignoring their protests, ignoring Nick behind her.
"Noelle, what is it?" Sarah cried as she shoved aside the concerned bystanders clustered around her sister.
"Sarah!" Noelle gasped. Her face was white and sweaty, and she was crying. "I'm having contractions! Joe's not here, and this wasn't supposed to happen for two weeks. Oh, God, Sarah, I'm scared."
Sarah immediately helped her sister to the hardwood floor, and rested her sister's head in her lap. "Shhh. It's all right. I'm right here. Has anyone called an ambulance?"
"I have," someone called out.
"Good." She took one of her sister's hands, and stroked her twin's hair. "See, sweetheart? An ambulance is on the way."
"But what about my baby?" Noelle wailed. "Sarah, I'm early!"
"A few weeks won't matter. Your baby will be fine." She looked up to see Nick watching them both, an unfathomable expression in his dark eyes. "And Noelle, you're in luck. Guess who's here? Nick Vincenza, and he's a doctor."
"Nicky? A doctor?"
"That's right, Sis. Tell her, Nick. Tell her the baby will be fine."
"A few weeks early is nothing to worry about," Nick said to Noelle, although his eyes kept flicking back to Sarah. "I'll stay with you until the ambulance gets here, okay?"
"I want Joe," Noelle sobbed as Nick knelt beside them. "Where's Joe? Sarah--" Noelle closed her eyes in embarrassment. "Sarah, my water just broke!"
"It's okay. It's perfectly normal."
"I don't want to have my baby here! Sarah, you won't leave me?"
"I'm right here. I'll stay with you all the way to the hospital." Sarah continued to stroke her sister's forehead. "Then I'll track down Joe for you."
Noelle called out Sarah's name over and over again until the ambulance arrived. Sarah didn't dare look at Nick, who stayed at their sides until she and Noelle were in the ambulance, leaving Nick behind. She had to concentrate on keeping a badly frightened Noelle calm.
Somehow she managed to do just that--all through the frantic ride in the ambulance to the hospital, where the E.R. doctor delivered Noelle's nephew just a few scant minutes after her arrival in the emergency room.
"It's unusual for labor to be so quick for a first baby," the E.R. doctor said. "But mother and child are doing fine."
They did even better after Sarah managed to get Joe on the phone to speak to his wife.
"Thank-you so much, Sis," a sleepy but radiant Noelle told her after the call. "And please thank Nick for me, too. I'm glad he was there until the ambulance showed up." Noelle smiled. "Maybe I'll name the baby after him, since it's a boy." She drifted off to sleep.
Sarah leaned over and kissed her sister on the cheek. Then she went out front. There was no cab at the taxi stand. Too bad. She'd have to catch a bus back to the high school to pick up her car. There was no way she was going back inside the gym.
Even the miracle of birth couldn't erase the look of betrayal she'd seen in Nick's face when he'd learned Serena's real name. The last thing she wanted to do was face him. She'd take the bus straight home. She could pick up the car and take some things to Noelle and baby tomorrow.
With a sigh, she headed for the bus stop. She didn't get two steps. At the curb, leaning against his car door, was Nick.
Sarah bit her lip. Time to face the music.
Nick spoke first. "How's your sister?" he asked, his voice quiet in the night.
"Mother and son are good. The baby is gorgeous. She might even name him after you."
"There's no need. You were more help to her than I was. What about her husband?"
"On his way home. Both parents send their thanks."
Nick nodded. "Glad I could help." And then, "Why, Sarah? Why the deception?"
Sarah threw out her hands, palms up. "Because I was tired of always being the ugly duckling. Because I didn't want to be reminded of those days by everyone's well-meaning comparisons between the 'old' me and the 'new' me. I'm the same person I always was, just in a different package. But no one would understand that. They'd only notice how much weight I lost, or who my dentist was, or how nicely my face had cleared up."
His eyes were accusing. "I wouldn't," he said.
"Others would." Sarah's voice wavered. "I couldn't go through all that... but Joe couldn't make the dance. Noelle really wanted to come. I couldn't let her come alone."
Nick uncrossed his arms from his chest, but he continued to lean against her car door. "Did you enjoy yourself tonight, Sarah? Did you have a good laugh at my expense?" His voice grated harshly in the still air, but behind that edge was the barest trace of pain. "Will you go back to all your fancy city friends and tell them what a fool you made of your old classmate?"
"No. No!" Sarah insisted. "Nick, I never knew how you felt about me! For heaven's sake, you were the only person in the whole high school who talked to me tonight! I never expected you to tell me--what you did."
"You should have known I'd show up."
She shook her head. "How could I? I haven't kept track of you. I haven't kept track of anyone."
He abruptly looked away into the darkness.
"I never go to these things. God, how I hate this place. Nothing good in my life has ever happened here. Even my nephew nearly makes his appearance among old bleachers and smelly lockers. Can you believe it? Whoever said time marches on was never at this school," Sarah said bitterly. "Nothing ever changes."
"You're wrong. It can change if you want it to change." If only I could believe that... Then she was her normal practical self again. "Nick, I didn't believe in fairy tales when I was seventeen, and that was years ago. I'm sorry I lied. I meant no harm. Truly, I didn't."
"Now what? The party ends?"
"It doesn't matter. Nothing about that school matters."
"It does to me."
"Because it was the only place I had you in my life."
Sarah pulled bus money out of her purse with shaking fingers. "Take my advice. Put the past behind you. I'm not the same person I was then."
"No, you're even better."
Sarah's eyes opened wide. "Don't be ridiculous."
"I'm not. Why did you come tonight?"
"My sister asked me."
"No other reason?"
She shook her head.
"You came to a place you hated so much you wouldn't even use your real name--all because your sister asked you?"
"Don't give me a halo for that."
"Sarah, you're the most loyal, unselfish woman I know. You always were. You're also the most blind. If the kids in your classroom can love you for yourself, don't you think others can, too? Like me?"
Sarah tried to draw a breath through her tight throat. She thought of all the times Nick had been kind to her--sitting next to her in the lunchroom, saying hello to her in the halls, helping her with Spanish homework in study period. Could she have been so very wrong? And for all these years?
"You fell in love with someone you knew a lifetime ago, Nick. Some young kid."
There was a long, long silence. Then she felt Nick's hand tentatively reach out and touch her shoulder. "The grown woman is even more impressive."
"Yes. I've been going to every single one of these damn reunions for the past ten years hoping to see you," he admitted.
"Ten years?" Sarah whispered.
"I've suffered through ten, miserable, boring reunions." His lips gently brushed her forehead. "The least you could do is look me in the eyes."
Sarah did. The love she saw took her breath away.
"Can't we start over, Sarah? I'll take it as slow as you want. Just give me a chance. Give us a chance. Is that such a terrible thing to ask?"
"No," she said suddenly. "It's not terrible at all. It's kind of sweet. Like you."
He must have liked what he saw in her smile, because he kissed her again, this time full on the lips. Sarah's breath caught in her throat.
"You and I need to talk. We have a lot of catching up to do."
Sarah let him hold her, feeling a little shy, yet at the same time happy and hopeful. Not at all like the old Sarah. "I'd like that."
He exhaled on a slow sigh. "You don't know how long I've been waiting for an invitation." The strain seemed to melt from his face. "Hop in and let me drive you home."
"You don't want to go back to the school?" she asked.
"Back? I've waited years to get you all to myself. Do you mind?"
"Oh, I don't know." Sarah smiled, the brilliant smile of a woman grown. The joy in her heart was a strange feeling, but she welcomed it. She reached for Nick's hand.
"Maybe reunions aren't such a bad idea after all..."