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Jennifer Stern was a logical, sensible woman. And, she told herself, logical, sensible women didn't stand on chairs, screaming.
No matter how much they wanted to.
"Do you see it?" Deb Barber asked, from her position on one of the chairs.
"I can't see anything," Jennifer said, her own logical, sensible, stupid feet firmly planted on the floor. She had to yell in order to be heard over the cacophony of spraying water.
A geyser licked across the ceiling from the broken faucet then splashed onto the floor, creating a lake in the middle of the kitchen.
And while she couldn't see the snake, she knew it was somewhere between her and the water shut-off valve.
"It's just a garter snake," she said, inching around the fridge. "Right?" This is why she lived in cities. Cities with plumbers. Cities that didn't have snakes just roaming through kitchens.
"I have no idea," Deb answered, crouching and resting her hot pink wrist-casts on the back of the wooden chair. "All I know is it was big. A big snake in the middle of the kitchen."
Jennifer ducked under the geyser and stepped gingerly over the lake, with one eye out for visiting reptiles.
When she'd agreed to help out for two weeks at Serenity House while her friends Samantha and J.D. went on a much-needed vacation she had not agreed to this.
"Tell me if you see it," Jennifer said, feeling vulnerable as she ducked under the counter and cranked off the water supply.
It was probably just a garter snake. Or, even more likely, a figment of Deb's imagination.
"I didn't make it up," Deb said, her voice loud in the sudden quiet. "I swear I saw a snake."
"I never said you didn't," Jennifer said quickly, wondering if Deb wasn'tjust a little psychic. She wouldn't be all that surprised. If Deb could sprout wings and fly, Jennifer wouldn't even blink.
Officially, Deb was in charge of Serenity since Sam and J.D. left. But a bad fall resulting in two broken wrists made doing anything required in the day-to-day running of a small community center pretty much impossible.
Which is why Jennifer was here. Deb was the brains, Jennifer was the wrists.
"Hey, wow, Mom, look."
At the sound of her son Spencer's voice, she jumped and smacked her head scrambling out from under the sink. "Spence, be careful there's a—"
Her eleven-year-old son, red curls catching the late afternoon sun, stood in the doorway to the kitchen holding a small, twisting green snake.
"Oh, dear lord," Deb breathed. "Honey, you need to put that thing down."
"Why?" Spence asked, glancing at Deb. "It's just a garter."
Daisy, Serenity's giant guard dog and Spence's constant companion when he was at the shelter, barked once as if to second that assessment.
"You're not scared of a garter, are you, Daisy?" Spence asked, dangling the snake over the half-rottweiler, half-whatever-lived-under-the-Munsters'-stairs beast. Daisy's tail didn't even twitch.
Jennifer collapsed against the counter because her knees were gone. And because she was so glad her son was a young biologist and knew he wasn't holding a cottonmouth, and because Deb looked absolutely ridiculous on the kitchen chair with her hot pink wrist-casts and ebony dreadlocks, Jennifer did something she hadn't done in ages. She laughed.
She laughed so hard she wiped her eyes.
She laughed so hard she kind of had to go to the bathroom.
"Mom?" Spence's blue-grey eyes were wide with wonder and a little fear. It had been so long, she realized, so long since he'd seen her happy like this. So long that uncontrolled laughter was scary. Oh, Spence, she thought, a sadness gripping her so hard it hurt, have I been that grim? "You all right?"
"I'm fine, honey," she reassured him quickly. "Deb thought it was a giant king cobra coming to eat all of us."
Spence's serious face cracked open and his laughter, not as rare as hers but sweet all the same, spilled over the kitchen and made her laugh harder until they were gripping their knees to stay upright.
"Jennifer? Spence?" Deb asked, looking at her as if she'd grown two heads. "You having some kind of fit?"
"Stop it," Jennifer cried.
"I mean, if it was someone else, I'd think you were laughing. But since in the whole year I've known you I've never seen you so much as giggle—"
"I laugh," she protested. "Spence? Don't I laugh?"
"Not like this you don't."
There hadn't been anything worth laughing about. Not in years. In fact, at some point two years ago, she'd been fairly convinced she'd never laugh again. Never feel joy again.
But here it was. Different than before, harder, sharper, almost painful. But everything was different than before.
Her. Spencer. Life.
But laughing again felt good. Like sex.
Though she was not counting on its return anytime soon.
"I'm going to take the snake outside," Spence said and was out the front door in flash, the screen slamming home behind him and Daisy.
A humid Carolina breeze trickled through that screen, making everything just a little stickier.
"When's the air conditioner going to be fixed?" Jennifer asked. Had she known there were going to be snakes, broken faucets and no air conditioner she definitely would have said no—no matter how much she loved Sam and J.D.
"Gary said it would take him a few hours, when he got here. Should be cool by tomorrow."
"Thank God." She sighed and took in the broken faucet, the giant lake and the water-splashed ceiling, and wondered where to start the clean-up efforts. She'd been here two days and already she had to wonder how Sam did this every day. It seemed like all she and Deb were doing was putting out fires. Snakes. Broken pipes. Hungry kids. Nutrition classes. Parenting classes. Book groups.
Deb ducked into the community center office/supply closet, tried to grab two big mops and ended up knocking both of them to the ground.
"Stupid casts," she muttered.
"Hey, I'm supposed to be doing that stuff," Jennifer said, and rushed in to get the mops and a big stack of towels. Being incapacitated wasn't easy on anyone but it was particularly rough on Deb, who was used to doing on her own since she ran away from home and right to Serenity House four years ago.
Deb was far, far older than her twenty-two years.
"What do you think about the pipes?" Jennifer asked, laying the white and green towels across the big puddle.
"Even if my wrists weren't busted," Deb said, "I wouldn't be able to fix that faucet. Sam's been holding those pipes together with string and hope for too long now."
"Figures it would fall apart when she was gone."
"Well—" Deb arched a plucked black eyebrow "—maybe with her gone we can actually get them fixed. Serenity House has a private benefactor who as far as I am concerned, doesn't do nearly enough benefacting."
Jennifer paused while mopping. "You're not suggesting we call—" dramatically, she looked left then right "—the mysterious number?" she whispered. When Sam left she'd given Deb and Jennifer this phone number that was only to be used in the case of extreme financial or legal disaster. At the time Jennifer had thought Sam was joking, but J.D. quickly shook his head, indicating the number wasn't something Sam joked about.
Deb tried to look stern, imitating Sam. "We don't make fun of the number."
"Has she ever called the number?" Jennifer asked.
"A few times." Deb kicked a towel over one part of the lake. "Once when there were some legal issues after that estranged husband broke in to the shelter and kidnapped his wife and child. And then other times when she wanted to build the classrooms onto the shelter and get computers. When the roof caved in." She shrugged. "That's it."
"Did the benefactor give you the money?"
"Right away," Deb said, like she couldn't believe it. "It was like he was waiting around for the chance to send money. Sam left a message and within two hours a banker was on the phone wondering where to wire the money."
"Right, wow." Deb was getting worked up. "And when we called with those legal problems, a lawyer contacted us right away and the whole thing just disappeared."
"Does she know who this benefactor is?"
And that, Jennifer thought, was the really wild thing about it. Money just arrived. Legal trouble got fixed. No obligations. No thank-you notes. Nothing. Like magic Sam called this number, left a message and her troubles vanished.
Who wouldn't call that number?
What Jennifer would have done for a number like that two years ago.
Though, she thought with the stabbing pain that had only gotten bearable in the past year, money wouldn't have saved her husband.
She heaved an armful of wet towels into the sink and turned around to look at Deb.
"Do we call this magic number?" she asked.
Deb sighed. "Not yet. Things need to get a lot worse."
After the kitchen disaster was handled, Jennifer went searching for her son, and found him in the garden with Shonny, Deb's three-year-old, and Daisy, who was rolling delightedly in the tomato plants. J.D. had started the garden at the beginning of the summer and had left Spencer in charge of all weeds while he was gone. It was a task her son took very seriously.
"Not that one," Spencer cried, as Shonny pulled out a young carrot by its leafy green top. "No!" he yelled when Shonny started to put it in his mouth.
She stood in the shadow of Serenity House and felt a breathless ache in her chest. A sense of distance far greater than the few feet of lawn that separated her from her son.
Her little boy was growing up. Growing away.
DNA, passing time, Doug dying, Sam and J.D.—they were all caverns between her and her Spence.
But more importantly, what had united them two years ago in ways that DNA could never touch were the wounds left on both of them by Doug's death. And Spence's were healing.
And hers well, hers she was ignoring. Unable to look under the bandages.
She'd changed her life so she wouldn't have to look under those bandages.
"What's up, Spence?" She stepped out of the shadows toward the boys.
"Shonny's eating dirt."
"Kids will do that," she said, crouching down beside the boys. She smiled into the beaming dirty face of Shonny and wiped some of the dirt from his lips.
"He's pulling out vegetables, not weeds," Spence complained.
"You have to be patient," she told her son and revisited the wish that she and Doug had had a chance to adopt more children before he died. Spencer was in sore need of a little brother. "He's a lot younger than you."
"Three," Shonny chimed in.
"See." She looked at Spence. "He's only three."
"Fine." Spence sighed, long suffering.
His skin was damp under her hand and his curls felt like wire filament and she was suddenly desperately hungry for those days when she couldn't leave the room without him wondering where she was.
"Do you want to go swimming or something?" she asked, despite the deadlines looming over her shoulder. As a freelance magazine writer, there were always deadlines looming over her shoulder. "With me?"
"Nah," Spence said and her heart fell. "I want to help out in the garden."
"Do you need some help?" she asked, diligently trying to be a part of her son's life in a way he didn't seem to want.
He was getting older, needing her less, while she seemed to need him more.
Spence scratched on itch on his cheek with his shoulder. "J.D. left me in charge," he said, looking at her from the corner of his eye, telling her in his own language that this was something he wanted to do on his own.
And she could respect that.
She just didn't have to like it.
"All right." She stood, not wanting to beg. "I need to do a little work." Her knees popped, making her feel far older than her thirty-seven years. "I've got a deadline by five tonight. So, if you need me I'll be up in Sam's old apartment—"
"Jennifer?" Deb's voice rang out from around the side of the house. "There's something on the news you're going to want to see."
Good God, she thought, what now?
"Former First Lady Annabelle Greer lost her battle with cancer last week in her home in New Hampshire." The newscaster's words took the strength right out of Jennifer's legs and she collapsed onto the couch. "Today is her memorial service."
She barely felt Deb's presence at her side.
Jennifer barely felt anything. She was numb with shock.
"First Lady Annie, as she was known by the millions of children who read the books she wrote while her husband was in office, leaves behind her husband, son and a grieving nation," said the blonde anchor with the perfect hair, shaking her head sadly.
And me, Jennifer thought. She leaves behind me.
"First Lady Annie and her New Horizons Foundation were instrumental in changing our country's educational system and the programs started during the Greer administration ten years ago have been credited for the spike in literacy numbers over the past decade. In her home state of North Carolina, literacy numbers have doubled."
Dry cold facts, she thought. Not even a hint at the beautiful, complicated woman who had died. Not a hint of Jennifer's hero. Her husband's godmother.
They showed a famous picture of her before the Greers were in the White House. It was after the release of her first book and Annie wore a pair of big, round, Jackie-O sunglasses and the high-necked mandarin suits that she had made so popular.
Jennifer sighed. The woman had been the picture of grace. Of elegance.
"In recent years, the only dark spot on the family's legacy has been Ian Greer." A shot of Annabelle's handsome son with a dark-haired actress—wearing less than a washcloth—on his arm, filled the screen. The blond man practically glittered, he was so handsome—the spitting image of his father. "Ian has become a regular in the tabloids—"
Angry, Jennifer reached forward and smacked the power button on the TV.
"The woman is an icon and all they can talk about is her son's social life?" she asked, so disgusted she was actually shaking.
"It's the way the media works. You know that," Deb said, her big brown eyes sympathetic behind her glasses.
"It's not the way I worked," she insisted, furious on Annabelle's behalf. "The last serious story about Annabelle and her husband was mine. Ever since then it's been nothing but tabloid garbage. The story is Annabelle, not her—" her voice broke "—son."
"The boy's gone wild."
"Boy!" she cried. "The guy is my age and he's acting like a teenager." Jennifer shook her head, wondering how much her son's behavior must have wounded the intensely private Annabelle. "So disrespectful. Remember last year when he showed up drunk at the White House when his father was getting that medal for public service."
"Oh, I know. The whole thing was being televised and he showed up with that actress who doesn't wear underwear."
"It's just so gross," she said, baffled that a woman like Annabelle could have a son like Ian.
Posted January 9, 2009
Former reporter Jennifer Stern was doing her friends Sam and JD a favor while they went on vacation. She is the wrists while Deb Barber the brains as they run the Serenity House women's center after the latter broke her two wrists. However, she did not expect to deal with a flood caused by a broken faucet turning the kitchen into a geyser or a killer snake in the kitchen that her eleven years old son Spencer picks up saying it is a harmless garter.<BR/><BR/>Other catastrophes occur too. However, the widow is stunned to learn the secret benefactor of Serenity House is jet setter Ian Greer, the son of a former president. She and much of the world know Ian as a philanderer. As they become acquainted, Jennifer realizes Ian is nothing like his hedonistic image; instead he cares about everyone at Serenity House, especially her.<BR/><BR/>Even with an offspring of a former PROTUS as a co-star, THE STORY BETWEEN THEM is a well written contemporary romance in which the audience will accept the relationship between him and Jennifer as plausible. The story line provides readers with insight into how the media shapes and maintains an image but does so inside the romance between Jennifer and Ian. Fans will enjoy this fine tale as Molly O'Keefe provides an engaging contemporary.<BR/><BR/>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 28, 2011
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