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Cassie was dreaming again. It was of her old summers; the summers of bare feet, skinned knees, and homemade peach ice cream that dripped down her chin and made her fingers sticky. Aunt Lucinda rang the supper bell, and Cassie and Harriet raced each other past the gazebo toward the back porch, their sun-kissed legs pumping under white sundresses. The jangling of the dream bell seemed so real, Cassie felt she could touch the cold brass and make it stop.
Her fingers touched Andrew's arm instead, his skin warm under her hand, and she jerked awake, the smells of summer grass and Aunt Lucinda's lavender perfume lingering somewhere in the back of her mind. But the jangling continued, filling Cassie with dread.
She held her breath, looking at the glowing numbers on her clock, and listened for the next ring of the telephone. Only bad news came at three in the morning. Births and engagements were always announced in the bright light of day. But bad news came at night, as if the sun were already in mourning.
Andrew stirred briefly, then rolled over, away from her. Rising from the bed, she stumbled across the darkened bedroom and into the living room so as not to awaken him. She hit her little toe on a chair leg and let out an expletive, her choice of words the only thing about her still reminiscent of her background.
"Dangnabit!" she muttered, reaching for the phone and knocking it off the hook. She grappled with it on the floor before finally placing it to her ear. "Hello?"
There was a brief pause, then, "Hi, Cassie. It's me. Harriet."
Cassie's blood stilled as she gripped the receiver tighter. "Harriet," she said, her voice sounding strained andunsure to her ears. "How are you?"
The words were so inadequately stupid that she wanted to bite them back as soon as they left her mouth. It was three a.m., her estranged sister was calling after more than a decade of silence, and she was asking about how she was in the same kind of voice she would ask a coworker if they liked sugar in their coffee.
"It's Daddy. He's dying."
A siren screamed outside in the dark beyond Cassie's window. She reached across the table and flipped on a lamp. "What happened?" The marquise diamond on her left hand sparkled in the dim light. Andrew came and sat next to her, his forehead creased with a question. Cassie put her hand over the receiver and mouthed, "My sister."
"Hang on a second." Harriet's phone clunked as the sound of a baby's crying trickled through the line. It must be Amanda, Harriet's new baby. Cassie knew each child from pictures her father sent. There were five of them, spread evenly over fifteen years of marriage. Each birth announcement from her father had opened the old wounds, scraping away the scabs, making Cassie bleed again.
Harriet came back. "I'm sorry. The baby's been fussy all day."
Cassie swallowed. "What's wrong with Daddy?"
Harriet sounded as if she'd been crying. "He's had a stroke. We didn't think it was so bad, but he says he's dying. And you know he always means what he says. He's in the hospital now, but he wants us to bring him home tomorrow. It was his idea to call you right now in the middle of the night. He says he won't rest in peace until both of his girls are here. He wants you to come home."
Cassie didn't say anything, but listened to the sounds of the phone being put down again and of the fretting baby fading. She glanced over at Andrew, who had put his head back against the sofa and closed his eyes. Her gaze wandered the living room of her Upper West Side apartment. Nothing in the cool, crisp space, with its black-and-white checkerboard of color and harsh angles, resembled the old house in which she had grown up. The house with porch swings, ancient oaks, and screen doors. Just as the woman she had become no longer resembled the girl of twenty who had left the small town of Walton, Georgia, fifteen years before without a backward glance.
Then a man spoke, his words deep and resonant. "Cassie? It's Joe."
She looked away, trying to focus on the abstract splotch of color on the painting behind her sofa, wanting to block out the memories his voice stirred. The memories of moonlit nights, serenading katydids in the gazebo behind the old house, and Aunt Lucinda's gardenias drooping in the heat, spreading their seductive aroma.
"Cassie? Are you there?"
"Yes." Her voice cracked, so she said it again, more firmly this time. "Yes. I'm here."
Andrew sat up and took her hand, his eyes guarded.
Joe spoke again. "Are you coming home?"
The receiver slipped in her sweaty palm. Every day, she handled difficult clients, the bread and butter of the ad agency, but nothing had ever made her as unsettled as the sound of Joe's voice and the mere thought of returning to the place she swore she would never set foot in again.
"I am home," she said, defiant.
"You know what I mean, Cassie." She could barely hear him, he was speaking so low. "Harriet needs you now. More than either one of you imagines. He's her father, too."
She looked over at Andrew. He wore only boxer shorts, his skin pale in the glare of the lamp. She stared at the contours of the muscles on his chest, every ridge etched in her fingers' memory. Cassie had worked for Andrew Wallace for five years and been his lover for three and his fiancée for one. Like her, he was a transplant to New York, all the way from Newport Beach, California.
Cassie reached for his hand resting on his thigh. He jerked awake, an annoyed expression quickly turning into a smile. She squeezed his fingers, feeling the bond between them, the bond that made her regard them as wild hothouse flowers, uprooted from the tropics and moved to an intricately landscaped formal garden. They understood each other, sharing a mutual passion for their work and never talking about how very far from home they both were.
Cassie blinked hard. "I'll come. For Daddy."
Joe sighed into the phone. "Whatever it takes to get you here, Cassie. Just come as soon as you can."
Cassie heard whispering on the other end of the phone, then Harriet spoke again. "Let me know which flight you'll be on and I'll pick you up."
"No." She said it too quickly. She wasn't ready for an hour alone in a car with Harriet. "I mean, I think I'll drive. I'll need a car while I'm down there, and ... I'd like the time to think. If I drive straight through, I can be there by tomorrow night."
"You be careful. The roads aren't safe for a woman driving alone."
"Really, Harriet. I can take care of myself."
Harriet breathed into the receiver. "I know, Cassie. You always have."
Cassie waited a moment, then said, "Tell Daddy ... tell him I'm coming."
They said good-bye, and Cassie hung up, staring into space for a long moment. Finally, Andrew stirred next to her, and she pulled her hand away. "I've got to go back to Walton. Daddy's sick and wants me there now. He may be dying."
Andrew looked down at his carefully manicured hands and drew in a deep breath. "I'm sorry." He looked up. "I can't come with you, you know."
Cassie regarded him calmly. "I know. That's fine. I think it's better you stayed, anyway. Walton's not your kind of town. You'd be screaming to leave after five minutes."
He set his mouth in a straight line. "It's not that. It's just that one of us needs to stay behind to see to business. You know the BankNorth campaign is scheduled to hit next month, and we've got lots of work to do."
She touched his shoulder. "Really, Andrew. You don't need to explain. I understand."
He nodded, looking down and breaking their gaze.
Cassie rubbed her face as if trying to erase old images. "It's so hard to believe. I just spoke to him on the phone last Sunday. He was telling me yet again that it was time to come home." She smiled at the darkness outside the window. "He said the most peculiar thing."
Andrew flipped off the lamp, then stood, pulling her into his arms. "What did he say this time?"
Cassie nestled into the soft spot below his collarbone, wrinkling her nose at the tang of stale cologne. "He said that Georgia dirt would always stick to the soles of my shoes regardless of how many elocution lessons I took."
Andrew snorted softly. "The old judge never gives up trying to argue his case, does he?"
Cassie shook her head. "No, he doesn't." She closed her eyes, knowing her Italian pumps would never have the patience for the clinging red clay of Georgia.
They stood in their embrace in front of the large plateglass window. The never-ending traffic below pulsed and vibrated like an electronic serpent, moving with the city's energy. Cassie lifted her chin and stared out at the glittering city skyline, the hulking outlines of the surrounding buildings like the bruises on her memory.
Without being conscious of it, she lifted her hand to the frail gold chain on her neck and placed her fingers around the four small charms that hung from it. The gold was cool to the touch, but it comforted her soul, just as it had many times since her mother had given it to her.
Andrew's voice was muffled. "You're nervous."
Cassie looked up at him. "I am not. Why would you say that?"
His smile lacked mirth. "Because you always play with that silly necklace whenever you're nervous. It's one of your bad habits."
She pulled away. "I'm not nervous. Just ... thoughtful."
Cassie dropped her hand, and Andrew bent to kiss her neck, his lips warm and lingering on her skin. He lifted his head. "How long do you think you'll be gone?"
She felt a prickle of annoyance. "I don't know, Andrew. My father's sick and may be dying. I'll go for as long as he needs me."
He rubbed his fingers through highlighted hair. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to sound callous. It's just that I've got an office to run, and I need to make plans." He sent her a dim smile. "And don't forget I'm here if you need anything."
Placing her hands on his chest, she fixed him with a steadying gaze. "Actually, there is something. I'm going to drive. And I was wondering if I could borrow your car."
She could see the internal struggle in his eyes from the glow of the lights outside.
He dropped his arms from her shoulders. "My car? You want to drive my car?" He gave an exaggerated groan. "I was afraid you were going to ask me that."
Nobody she knew in the city needed or wanted a car, but Andrew had a house in Connecticut complete with horse barn and garage.
His shoulders slumped slightly. "Couldn't you rent one?"
She took a deep breath, wondering if he would be as protective of her as his wife as he was his car. "I want something safe, reliable--and fast. You know I'll take good care of it." Trying to add some levity, she said, "And it is insured, right?"
"Very funny, Cassandra. But what if it breaks down? I don't know if I want a redneck grease monkey under her hood. Those people barely know how to speak English, much less understand the intricacies of a German performance car."
Cassie put her hands on her hips, reminding herself of Aunt Lucinda. She quickly dropped them. "Just because they have accents doesn't mean they're ignorant, Andrew. Most of the boys I grew up with could rebuild your car from a junk pile and it would perform better than it does now." Cassie chewed on her lip, wondering why she had jumped to the defense of Southerners. It wasn't as if she were one anymore. She had rid herself of her accent along with her long hair and penchant for fried foods, although she still couldn't bring herself to wear white shoes after Labor Day or before Easter.
Andrew sighed. "All right. You can borrow my car. But you have to promise me you'll take care of it and have it waxed at least once."
She pulled him closer and kissed him. "Thank you. I promise I'll take care of it."
Several hours later, in the predawn morning, they took the earliest train to Greenwich, Connecticut, and took his car out of long-term parking. Andrew loaded her luggage into the small trunk of the Mercedes and spent twenty minutes going over things she could and couldn't do with his car.
When there was nothing left to be said, he took her in his arms and kissed her deeply, his hands sliding down her back in the practiced way he knew she liked. "I'll miss you," he murmured into her neck. "And I hope things go well for your father. Call me and let me know how things are going."
"Thanks, and I will." She brushed his lips with hers. "I'll miss you, too," she said as she pulled away and sat in the front seat.
She shut the door, put the car in gear, and sent him a brave smile. She couldn't shake the feeling that this parting was somehow permanent. Swallowing the thick lump in her throat, she shouted, "I'll call you," then pulled away.
Her glance in the rearview mirror revealed Andrew standing in the parking lot, staring after his car until it rounded a corner and he disappeared from sight.