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It was close to dusk as Lucas maneuvered to the right lane and signaled for the approaching exit from the New Jersey Turnpike. He couldn't help but calculate that, had he continued southbound, he would be in DC in another two hours. Tired from two late performances the night before and a day of business, he was ready to get home. He knew, however, that he couldn't ignore the urgent request in his grandfather's voice when he asked Lucas to stop by their house on his way to DC. His grandfather assured him there was no personal emergency but that there was something important that needed to be discussed.
After paying the toll, Lucas made the rest of the two-mile drive through the Philadelphia suburbs where he'd been raised. He was always surprised by how little they seemed to change. Finally he parked in his grandparent's driveway outside their split-level cape. While he grabbed his duffel bag and saxophone from the trunk, the neighbor's dog, an aging Rottweiler, began to bark loudly as it trotted from the back of the house next door to investigate his arrival. The dog's size and growl made him seem particularly menacing, but Lucas gave a low whistle of greeting to the animal and leaned down to briefly pat its rump. The Rottweiler stopped barking and began to wag the stump of his tail in recognition.
"Good boy, Brody," Lucas said affectionately. "Now go home," he pointed to the neighbor's house.
The dog made another half-hearted bark and then ambled away.
By the time Lucas reached for the front door, it opened and his grandfather stood in the entrance. It struck Lucas as unusual that his grandfather, and not his grandmother, greeted him.
"Granddad," Lucas addressed the older man, shaking his offered hand and affectionately embracing him, towering over the older man by several inches.
Nicholas Scott was nearing eighty-five but was still in remarkably good health. Tall and lean due mostly to the restricted diet because of his diabetes, he shared his grandson's broad shoulders. He had a full head of wavy hair that had yet to go all white. The hazel eyes behind his glasses were only now beginning to show the symptoms of cataracts, but so far Nicholas had refused the surgery to correct the problem.
"Good to see you, son. Glad you made it okay."
Lucas followed him into the house, where a gray longhaired cat approached to rub against his legs, arching its back and purring loudly. Lucas dropped the duffel to the floor, freeing a hand so he could bend to scratch the cat's head.
"It took me longer than I thought. I ran into a little traffic," he explained, leaving his duffel and instrument case in the foyer.
"I figured, but your grandmother and I were anxious. You know how old people get." Nicholas moved into the living room and sat in a worn leather recliner.
Lucas grinned as he followed, taking a seat on the sofa adjacent to his grandfather. "I don't know what old people you're talking about." He glanced toward the kitchen. "Where's Gram?"
"She's upstairs. She'll ... be down in a minute," Nicholas murmured, running his hands up and down the arms of his chair. "How did everything go last night when you played?"
"It was great. The club was packed for both sets, and the audience really got into the music. The club invited the group back for a jazz weekend in September."
"So all those music lessons we forced you to take are paying off. The question is, are you making any money playing that sax of yours?"
Lucas smiled. "I'm doing okay, Nick. I know you and Gram worry about me becoming a starving artist and all that, but it won't happen. I was a lawyer for almost fifteen years, and I was able to sock away enough to carry me for quite a while."
"Gram and I were worried that maybe this whole wanting to be a first-class sax player wasn't a good idea. Thirty-eight seemed a little late to be taking chances with your future."
"I can always go back to litigation, but I don't think it'll come to that"
"Glad to hear that," Nicholas said. He crossed and uncrossed his legs, moving about restlessly.
"I'd been thinking about doing this for a while. I had to try to see if I had it in me to be a first-rate musician. Playing the sax gives me something that law didn't."
"But you're a good attorney, Lucas."
Lucas grinned. "Thanks for saying so, but you're a little biased. There's a part of me that needs what performing gives. I don't know if you can understand that."
"I understand that it makes you happy. That's mostly what we care about." Nicholas cleared his throat. "Have you eaten? We're done with dinner, but your grandmother saved you a plate."
"I'm good. Unless Gram has some of her lemon pound cake," Lucas hinted hopefully.
Nick chuckled. "I'm sure you'll find something in the kitchen."
Lucas finally focused on his grandfather's nervous movements. He seemed distracted and ill at ease. That, along with the fact that his grandmother had not yet appeared to greet him, now had his full attention. Something was wrong.
He bent forward and touched his grandfather on the back of his hand. The restless movement stopped, and he was taken by surprise when his grandfather suddenly grasped his hand tightly. Lucas felt the strength in the aging fingers, but also the intuitive love. Touching his grandfather got the older man's attention, and for a long moment Lucas could look directly into his eyes.
"Is everything okay? It's not Gram, is it?" he asked, a thread of apprehension pulled at his heart.
"No, no," Nicholas was quick to assure his grandson.
Finally, Lucas could hear the sound of footsteps coming down the staircase. He stood up. "Gram?"
"Yes, honey. I'm on my way."
Lucas relaxed when his grandmother responded, her voice a bit raspy with age. Nick also stood up, almost in relief, Lucas observed, as Kay Scott appeared in the living-room entrance carrying what looked like a gift box covered in pink moire silk against her chest.
She was only a little shorter than her husband and still carried herself with an erect, elegant grace. Her hair was tastefully colored an ash blond, not out of style with her age, and it was generally agreed that she looked far younger than her eighty years.
"Let me take that," Lucas said, relieving his grandmother of the box and placing it on the coffee table. She held her arms open, and he wrapped her in a hug, kissing the top of her head.
Kay seated herself next to her grandson, patting his arm and exchanging a quick glance with her husband. "I know you're wondering what this is all about," she began.
"I was a little worried," Lucas agreed. "I can't remember you ever calling me on my cell phone before," Lucas said.
"I hate them myself," Kay scoffed. "But this is one of those times when I have to say I'm glad you carry one."
Surprised, Lucas looked closely at his grandfather. He seemed to have withdrawn somewhat into his own thoughts and was content to let his wife explain the summons that had led to this detour.
"Gram," Lucas began, more confused than ever.
She looped her arm through his. It was shaking slightly. "Everyone's fine, Lucas. Your father's okay, and your aunt and uncle and cousins and their kids. Everyone's fine, I promise. It's your mother," Kay said clearly.
Lucas experienced an immediate reaction in his gut, a roiling in his stomach and a tightening of every muscle in his body. He felt his grandmother squeeze his arm protectively as she watched him closely while he, trying to register her ominous opening, turned his attention to the photographs that were carefully arranged on a console table.
The photographs were of himself, his father, his grandparents, his cousins, and his friends. He examined in particular his younger self, aware, as always, of the stark difference between himself and the rest of the family. They had light brown, blond, or in a few cases, auburn hair. They had gray, green, or blue eyes. They all had white skin. But he was different. The color of his eyes were virtually the only thing that marked him as a Scott. Lucas's hair was almost black, coarse but with a slight wave. His nose was long but slightly wider, his lips fuller, and his face more sculptured. More than anything, it was his skin color that set him apart. Light mocha, it was a cross between that of his white father and his black mother. He didn't remember anything about her.
"Julia," Lucas said awkwardly. "What about her?"
His grandfather cleared his throat and sat forward in his chair. "We got a call—"
"From Julia?" Lucas asked, not with surprise but as a point of information.
"From your father," Nicholas corrected.
His grandmother tightened her grasp on his arm. "Brad called to say he'd heard from an attorney down in DC. Lucas, your mother passed away this morning."
Lucas continued to stare at his grandmother because he didn't know what else to do. A shock wave rippled through his body. He felt a tingling in his hands and feet, a ringing sensation in his ears. Then nothing.
He could see his grandmother's eyes begin to fill with tears, and that surprised him more. He accepted that the news was sad, but there was no need for his grandmother to get upset. He wasn't going to. He couldn't.
"Julia died at her home in Highland Beach. I'm so sorry, Lucas," she whispered, her chin trembling.
"I'm alright." Lucas placed his arm around her shoulders.
"We wanted you to hear the news from us or your father, and not your mother's attorney," Nick explained.
Lucas closed his eyes, trying to block out an unexpected looping of images in his head. "Why didn't Dad call me himself?"
"Brad took the news very hard," Kay said softly.
"Did he?" Lucas asked blankly.
"I don't think he ever got over your mother. The breakup ... and everything that happened after."
Lucas wasn't listening. He was trying to stop the rapid-fire playback of his memories. They were few and very blurred.
"What happened?" he asked.
"Your father would never tell us what caused the split, but I know—"
Lucas shook his head. "No. I mean, what happened to Julia? How did she die?"
Kay look bewildered. "We don't know exactly. We were only told that she'd been ill for about six months. Brad probably knows but I ... I don't think I want to ask him just yet."
"The attorney asked that you call him," Nick said.
"Why should I talk with her lawyer?" His sharp tone drew both his grandparents' focus. "What difference is it going to make now?"
"I believe he said there are some legal issues to clear up. Maybe Julia left you a message. Maybe ... she knew she was dying and didn't want to leave things unsettled," Nick suggested.
"Oh, I hope so," Kay said fervently.
"She's about thirty years too late," Lucas said coldly.
"Lucas, you were a little boy. There's so much that happened, so much you don't know and don't understand about Julia. You have to talk to the lawyer. Please promise that you'll go." Kay asked earnestly.
Lucas stood up abruptly. "I don't know."
His grandfather got up from his recliner to stand next to Lucas. "Son, you need to understand that what happened years ago wasn't only your mother's fault. Things got ... complicated. All of us were guilty. We all did what we thought was the right thing for you at the time. Brad, me, and your Gram. Even your mother, though you might not believe that
"Now, I assured the lawyer that you'd get in touch with him tomorrow when you get back to DC," Nicholas said, with a stern directive that had always worked on his grandson when he was a teenager. "Stay here tonight. You can finish your trip home in the morning after you've had some sleep and have had some time to take all this in."
Kay lifted the box she'd brought with her and held it out to Lucas. "I've been saving this for you since you were in high school."
"What's in it?" Lucas asked, staring at the box but not making any move to take it from her.
"Some things that ... belonged to Julia."
"I don't want it."
She held the box out again. "Please, Lucas."
It was the plaintive tone of her voice that caused him to reluctantly take it, not any curiosity about what was inside.
"And you'll go see the lawyer tomorrow?" his grandfather asked.
Despite his private objections, Lucas nodded. "I'll call him when I get home."
The look of relief on his grandparents' face was palpable. They trusted that he'd keep his word, and now he had to.
"I'm going to take my stuff upstairs," he said quietly, staring at the box in his hand.
"Yes, that's a good idea." Kay reached up to cup her cool hands around Lucas's face. He was forced to bend his 6'1" frame to accommodate her kiss on his cheek. "Come back down when you're ready. I'll make fresh coffee, and you can have some carrot cake. I know it's one of your favorites."
Lucas tried to smile at his grandmother's offer. He said no more as he got his duffel bag, lifted his sax case, and headed up the stairs. His grandparents stood transfixed listening until they heard the quiet closing of his bedroom door. There were no other sounds to be heard.
Kay started toward the staircase. "I think I'll go and make sure he's okay."
Her husband gently grabbed her arm. "Leave him alone, Kay. It's time to step back and let Lucas get through this by himself. Maybe he's right when he says it's too late."
Her expression was deeply troubled and fearful. "Did we do the right thing?"
He shrugged helplessly. "I don't know."
It was late the following morning when the sudden ringing of his cell phone woke Lucas up from a sound sleep. The regular phone would have been easier to ignore, but his cell phone was meant as a shortcut to reach him when all else failed. He groaned in protest when he looked at the digital clock and noted that he'd only gotten two hours of rest since arriving back in DC. He blindly searched for the phone, checked caller ID, and flipped it open.
"Hello, Jen," he croaked, sounding like he'd been dead to the world just moments before.
"Where are you?"
Lucas closed his eyes but tried to stay awake. "I'm in bed."
"I tried calling you at 7:30 this morning. Why didn't you answer the phone?"
"I only got home a couple of hours ago," Lucas explained. He lay on his back, sprawled in the middle of his bed. "I turned the ringer off so I could sleep." He yawned expansively.
"I thought you were due home last night, Sunday. What happened?"
Lucas's eyes struggled open and he stared at the ceiling. They burned from lack of sleep, but he was awake now. Jennifer Cameron had been one of his best friends since they attended law school together at Yale. But that didn't necessarily mean she had the right to know every single thing about his personal life. He didn't particularly want to reveal the news he'd received about his mother. That would mean having to deal with it himself, and he wasn't ready.
"Nothing happened in New York. The gig was good. I made a stop at my grandparent's house and ... I decided to stay the night, that's all."
But that wasn't all. He had to call Julia's lawyer. He needed to call his father. He had to find a way to reconcile the fact that his mother was dead with the fact that he didn't know how he felt about it. He rubbed his hand across his rough whiskers, trying to subdue the turmoil in the pit of his stomach.
"What's so urgent that you have to track me down this early, Jen?"
"Only a former attorney would call ten o'clock on a Monday morning early. I've already done half a day's work. One of the partners dumped a case on me. It's not what I usually handle. I think he's trying to get back at me for a complaint I voiced about having to take work home at night—"
Exasperation crept into his voice. "Jen, how many times have I told you you have to pick your battles? Is it worth going to the mat over a few extra hours after five? So you're a little late to dinner or getting to the gym. The partners only remember the people who put in the time and don't complain."
"I know, Lucas, don't get angry with me. It just made me mad that Brian, who's my age and thinks he been personally anointed by God, is the one rubbing this stuff in my face."
Lucas propped his pillows into an elevated position for his head. He tried to listen and follow the urgency of Jennifer Cameron's grievance, but they didn't hold a candle to what he had had to deal with the night before.
"Listen to me. You have to learn how to play this. This Brian guy is just trying to put you in your place. A, you're a woman, so he has to be careful about harassment, and I'm not talking the sexual kind. B, you're white so he can't get you on that bias. He's either threatened by you, or he's trying to embarrass you. You have to figure out which and why, and deal with it. You can get back at the firm by billing for the overtime; that's standard. They're only going to pass the charge along to the client. You know that."
"You make it sound so easy," she complained.
Lucas yawned again, suddenly spotting the pink fabric box which he'd left on his dresser when he'd gotten home earlier. It reminded him of everything that was on his mind. He didn't have time to hold Jennifer's hand. "It is easy. You're dealing with civil law, not life-or-death criminal cases," he said a bit impatiently. "Pace yourself. And lighten up. What you probably need is a date. Someone to take your mind off the office politics. You take it too seriously."
Excerpted from Southern Comfort by Sandra Kitt. Copyright © 2004 Sandra Kitt. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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