Felicia's family is...complicated. That's putting it nicely. Now they're flying in from LA all at once to stay with her...just when her brother-in-law, Javier, and Mama aren't even speaking to each other. And the whole church will be there to witness the feud.
Mimi has a lot on her mind with her four energetic kids especially Milo the screamer, with his Pavarotti voice. Then her live-in alcoholic dad starts to mow their lawn at midnight.
Lisa has her hands full with loudmouth Tom Graves and the other troublemakers at Red River Assembly. Then vicious rumors start to fly about the Barton family...and the attacks and threats get increasingly personal.
Jennifer is pushing her adopted daughter, Carys, in a stroller, when she notices a black town car the same car she's seen several times over the past week. Could someone be following her?
The PWs plunge into an unnerving mystery...and discover what "family" really means.
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Tuesday, March 18
"I can't believe it!" Felicia Lopez-Morrison waved as she ricocheted through the tables, heading toward her three friends seated in their usual booth in the back right-hand corner of Lulu's.
"Did you hear the news?" she asked breathlessly, sliding into the seat next to Jennifer, who pushed her leather purse against the wall and scooched over to give Felicia room.
Mimi laughed. "You mean about the scandal?"
"Who hasn't heard?" Jennifer leaned over and gave Felicia a sideways hug.
"When Dave told me, I thought he was kidding," Felicia said. "Kitty hasn't even been in the ground a year."
Lisa nodded. "Well, Norm was probably just lonely. He needed the companionship."
"Then buy a dog," Jennifer suggested. "Of course," she said, getting tickled, "then people would talk about dogs and a Katt living together!"
The other women groaned.
"It would have to be for companionship." Felicia playfully nudged Jennifer in the shoulder. "He just met the woman. He couldn't love her, could he?"
"From what I heard," Mimi said matter-of-factly, "she's more like a girl."
"Ladies!" Lisa smiled but looked a little uncomfortable.
Jennifer knew Lisa was construing this turn as gossipy. Sweet Lisa, Jennifer thought, looking at her friend, seated across the table from her. Always taking the high road. You'd think after three years of us all being friends, we would have picked up some of her good traits.
"Well, well." A loud, brassy voice interrupted Jennifer's thoughts. Their plump, gruff-sounding waitress, Gracie, was standing over their table, pulling out the order pad from the white apron around her ample thighs. "Glad to see little Miss Señora made it today."
Felicia pulled back in mock offense. "Hey, I'm only five minutes late!"
"Yeah, yeah." A slight smile crossed Gracie's face. She jutted her chin out toward Felicia. "I'm likin' you without all the high-and-mighty outfits and shoes and whatnot."
Everyone at the table laughed. Felicia spread her arms in show and bowed her head, as if accepting a standing ovation. Gracie threw back her head and guffawed.
Felicia certainly had changed in the last year since she'd been working from home, Jennifer realized. Her silky black hair, once curled and neatly laying across the top of her shoulders, was now pulled back in a ponytail. And her high-powered business suits and designer shoes had been replaced by a pair of black jeans and a mauve hoodie sweater. Jennifer glanced under the table Well, her boots are still designer, she thought good-naturedly.
"I like you girls." Gracie pulled a pencil from behind her ear. "You're always the highlight of my every-other-Tuesday."
"Well, thank you, Gracie," Mimi said. "And you're ours."
"All right, enough with the chitchat," Gracie said. "Are we all having the regulars?"
"Yes, ma'am," Jennifer and the others chimed in.
Gracie harrumphed. "I don't know why I keep taking out my order pad and pen for you all. Okay, PWs, I'll be back with your drinks."
Jennifer watched Gracie plod off to her next table of customers, several booths toward the front of the café. Jennifer really liked their waitress and knew her three friends did, too. Underneath all Gracie's gruffness lay a heart as big as an ocean. And it was Gracie who had given the women their official group nickname the PWs.
When Jennifer, Mimi, Lisa, and Felicia had started secretly meeting at Lulu's nearly three years before, Gracie had been their waitress. She'd overheard them talking about God and their churches, figured out that they were all pastors' wives, and nicknamed them. She'd gotten a big kick out of the fact that the women all hailing from the southwest Ohio town of Red River would drive forty miles out of their way every other Tuesday to nosh and chat in this little nothing-special dive. Although the PWs never had explained to Gracie that they met that far from home to avoid nosy townsfolk and their church members overhearing their business, their now-seventy-year-old waitress hadn't taken too long to figure out what was going on.
Now Gracie ambled slowly behind the front counter to the rectangular opening between the restaurant and the kitchen. She pounded a bell sitting on the ledge and yelled, "Order in!"
Felicia unfolded her paper napkin and laid it on her lap. "I just can't believe it," she mused, shaking her head. "Norm Katt remarried. To a woman half his age."
"Whom he just met," Mimi reminded everyone.
Jennifer pulled her eyes from watching the cook grab their order ticket and start to read it. Gracie had interrupted a very important news-sharing moment, and Jennifer didn't want to miss any of it.
"And did you hear her name?" Mimi asked.
"Allison." Lisa shook her head, looking as if she were trying to suppress a laugh. "Ally."
As if in a chorus, the women said, "Ally Katt."
"Does the man never learn?" Felicia laughed. "First, he marries Kitty. And now Ally."
"Oh, if they have children!" Jennifer said. "They could name one Fraidy."
Felicia nodded. "Twins, of course, would be named Siamese and Tiger."
"Of course." Jennifer smiled.
"You all are so terrible!" Lisa pushed back her thick, reddish-brown-highlighted hair and fluffed it.
Mimi sighed and patted Lisa on the arm. "Oh, we all know it's just in fun. We really don't mean anything by it, do we, ladies? But you do have to admit, it is funny."
Lisa rolled her eyes and shook her head as if to say, "You silly kids." "Has anybody seen her?"
"Not that I know of I mean, except for their church," Jennifer said. "I guess Norm and his new bride came back to town only a couple weeks ago."
"Well," Mimi said, "that kid's got a tough act to follow. As much as Kitty drove us all crazy, her church adored her. Wonder how they'll take to a new pastor's wife?"
"I don't know," Lisa said. "But they'll definitely talk. I hope she knows what she's gotten herself into."
"Did any of us know that when we married pastors?" Mimi asked.
Lisa smiled. "I guess not."
"I sure didn't!" Jennifer said, thinking back to when she and Sam had married, twelve years ago. She had been attending the church as a relatively new Christian when Sam arrived on the scene as pastor. "Being a church member and being a pastor's wife are two entirely different things."
"I didn't marry a pastor," Felicia said. "If you recall, I married a businessman who decided several years into his career that he was called to be a pastor. I didn't get that vote."
Gracie walked toward them, carrying a tray of drinks. She set it down on the edge of their table. "I'm getting too old for this. Can you believe they still make me carry my own trays? And my shoulder all messed up from that fall back in December?"
Gracie had taken a tumble on some ice outside Lulu's one evening after work a few months back and hurt her shoulder and hip.
"Is that still bothering you, Gracie?" Felicia asked.
"I still go to therapy for it, but you know those doctors. You can't trust 'em." She handed Mimi a glass of milk and passed Lisa an iced tea. Felicia grabbed the remaining two glasses, each filled with Diet Coke, and handed one to Jennifer.
"Hey!" Gracie said. "You trying to deprive me of my hard-earned tip?"
"Sorry!" Felicia joked. "But you know I'm working from home now. I need all the money I can get."
"Well, you'd better find a better table. These girls are tighter than a duck's behind with their money." She pulled four straws out of her right apron pocket and plopped them in the center of the table.
"I'll be back." She winked, then pulled up the tray against her chest and trudged away.
"Can you believe it's been a year since Kitty died?" Lisa tore the paper off her straw and crumpled it.
"I know," Jennifer said. "I kind of miss her. All the snarky comments about how insignificant our churches were compared to hers. The patronizing tone. The condescending looks."
"I'm serious!" Lisa said. "It was tragic."
"I know." Jennifer sipped her soda. "Believe me, I wish she hadn't died. It wasn't a piece of cake for me going through that miscarriage and being considered a murder suspect in her death all in the same weekend." There I go again, making everything about me, she told herself and inwardly winced.
Felicia rubbed Jennifer's back. That's sweet, Jennifer thought, realizing her friends remembered how difficult that time in her life had been. She'd wanted that baby so badly. And to suffer a miscarriage, have an all-out argument with Kitty, threaten her, then have her up and fall down a ravine and break her neck...It had been devastating.
"Let's be honest." Mimi dabbed a trace of milk at the corner of her mouth. "We didn't like her. But she didn't deserve what happened to her. Life has been calmer and more sane and relaxing since she's been "
"It was a year ago yesterday," Felicia said. "St. Patrick's Day weekend. At the pastors' wives' retreat."
"That reminds me!" Mimi brightened and reached under the table. She pulled up her large purse/diaper bag and dug into its depths. In her hands appeared two shamrock-and-cross-covered eggs that were the brightest kelly green Jennifer had ever seen. She laid them on the table and reached back in, producing one more. "From Megan. She wanted me to make sure to give these to you. We combined two holidays in one St. Patrick's Day and Easter, since that's this weekend."
"Carys will like this." Jennifer picked one up and set it on top of her purse.
"I wonder what she looks like?" Felicia took another of the eggs and placed it by her drink.
"Who?" Lisa asked.
"Norm's new wife."
"I wonder if she'll come to the next pastors' wives' meeting at New Life next month?"
"I already called and invited her. She's coming." Lisa tore open a packet of sugar and dumped it into her tea.
The table fell silent as Jennifer, Mimi, and Felicia all stared openmouthed at their friend.
"What?" Lisa asked.
She really doesn't know why we're shocked, Jennifer realized.
"You've been holding out on us, girlfriend!" Mimi said.
"Spill it," Felicia said.
"What? There's nothing to tell, really." Lisa fidgeted a little in her seat. "I called her last Friday. We didn't talk that long. I just congratulated her on her wedding, welcomed her to Red River and to being a pastor's wife, then invited her to next month's meeting." She looked around the table. "Okay. She did sound young...and very perky. And...she giggled a lot."
Jennifer, Felicia, and Mimi eyed one another knowingly. Yep, Jennifer thought, this is going to be a fun meeting next month. How in the world did Norm go from hard-edged, superior Kitty to an early-twenties cheerleader?
"Wonder what Kitty would think?" Felicia asked.
Lisa shrugged. "I'd hope she'd be glad that Norm found someone who loves him and is going to take care of him."
Before Jennifer could say anything, Gracie arrived with their food.
"All right, PWs, quit your yakking and help me unload this thing." Gracie pulled the first plate off the tray and handed it to Mimi. Mimi looked at the tuna melt and strip of cantaloupe and passed it on to Lisa. Jennifer's was next, with her chicken strips and fries. Then Felicia took her Caesar salad. Last was Mimi's hamburger.
They got their food situated, passing the ketchup and salt, then Felicia offered grace.
Mimi shoved a fry in her mouth and savored it. "I love Milo, but I gotta tell you, it's nice to eat a full meal without messy little fingers grabbing something on my plate."
Felicia poured the dressing over her salad. "I know what that's like. Oh, the peace and quiet and adult conversation!"
Jennifer smiled as she thought of eleven-month-old Carys doing that same thing. But her thoughts drifted back to Kitty and the week following her death. Jennifer had been considered although not officially a murder suspect and had had to endure detectives following her around, treating her like a criminal, until they determined Kitty's death had been an accident.
"Remember last year when those detectives were following me around?" Jennifer asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
With their mouths all full, the others could only nod and say, "Mmm-hmmm."
"Well, it's happening again. At least I think it is."
"What?" Mimi half choked and plopped her burger onto her plate. She pounded on her chest with her fist as if trying to move the meat down her esophagus. "Detectives are following you around?"
"I don't know who it is. But I keep seeing this black town car everywhere I go. Just glimpses of it, really. But..." Jennifer knew the whole thing sounded crazy. And verbalizing it made it sound even more outlandish. Maybe I'm just making this up. "Never mind. It's...probably nothing." She tried to laugh it off. "Just my overactive imagination. You know, with all the sleep deprivation and everything."
"Oh, yeah, I can relate," Mimi said. But she tilted her head toward Jennifer. "You okay? I mean, if somebody is following you..."
"Why would somebody follow you?" Felicia asked.
"That's just it." Jennifer swirled her chicken strip in her barbecue sauce. "I don't know. I can't think of one plausible explanation."
"Maybe it's a church member trying to dig up dirt on you." Felicia smiled and patted Jennifer's arm.
Jennifer laughed. "No, that would be Lisa with that problem."
Lisa lifted her napkin to hide her face, then let it droop to just below her eyes. Wide-eyed, she looked around the diner frantically. They all laughed, but Jennifer knew Lisa was trying to put up a good front. Lisa had lost fifteen pounds in the last six months, and the sparkle in her hazel eyes had lost its shine. Poor Lisa, Jennifer thought. God, take care of this situation at her church. They don't deserve this. They're good people.
"What's going on with your church?" Jennifer asked, partly to take the focus from herself, and partly because she hadn't heard an update in a while.
Lisa dropped the napkin back to her lap and shrugged. "Same old, same old. At least Joel is still the pastor though I don't know for how much longer. He's meeting with the head troublemaker next week to confront him."
That's not going to be easy. Although Jennifer and Sam had had their share of church member issues, they'd never gone through major conflict, as Lisa and her husband, Joel, were now. She ached for them.
Lisa continued. "I just wish...you know, if these people are so upset, why do they cause such trouble? Why not just leave? Why make it into a huge power struggle?"
"Because" Mimi leaned over until her shoulder was touching Lisa's "and you should know this better than any of us, Miss Assemblies of God, this is called spiritual warfare. The enemy doesn't want the church to be vibrant and powerful in the community. He'd rather take down a church from the inside out than have it succeed."
"Oh, sure, look at it from a spiritual perspective, why don't you?" Felicia smiled gently.
"It's hard to do that, though, isn't it?" Jennifer asked. "Especially when the hurt is so deep."
"Well, sweetie, you know you're in our prayers." Mimi wrapped her arm around Lisa and squeezed.
Lisa just nodded and looked down. Jennifer could tell her friend was embarrassed, because she'd quickly wiped at her eyes.
"How are things in your life?" Jennifer asked Felicia, trying to take some of the pressure off Lisa.
"Actually, can't complain right now." Felicia swirled around some more dressing in her salad but didn't look anyone in the eyes. "My clients are happy. I mean, there are challenges working at home. Mostly because everybody thinks that since I'm home, I'm, you know, sitting around watching Dr. Phil and just waiting for someone to put me to good use."
"Oh, yes." Mimi laughed. "Been there. Everybody thinks that we live to serve, huh? Okay, well, we do, actually at least that's what my kids tell me but still!" She laughed again.
"So that's been a bit of a challenge. But other than that, things are...good." Felicia held up crossed fingers. "Enjoy the peace while I can, right?"
Jennifer waited to see if Felicia would say any more. She got the sense something else was going on with Felicia but knew her friend would speak up when the time was right.
Lisa must have thought the same, because she turned to Mimi. "And how about you? How's Dad doing?"
"Awwk." Mimi rolled her eyes. "As ornery as ever. One of the conditions for Dad staying with us is that he's supposed to attend his AA meetings. He's still attending, but he's also still drinking. He does it on the sly, as if he thinks we don't notice. I don't know what to do, honestly. We can't kick him out; he's got no place else to go."
"Where's your mom?" Felicia asked.
"She's down in Kentucky, staying with her sister. She's definitely not interested in taking him back. And I don't blame her. Life with my father has never been easy. But when he ran off to California with that woman...I can't say I'd take him back either, if he were my husband."
"So instead," Jennifer said, feeling a little bitter, "you, the daughter, have to take him in and parent him."
Mimi half chuckled. "Yep. My sister made it clear she wasn't interested. So I'm it."
"Doesn't that tick you off?" Jennifer said.
"Sometimes, yes. But you know, I'm the responsible one." She tucked her short, blond hair behind her ears, something she did whenever she was stressed or frustrated about something. "Plus, Mark and I have been trying to look at it from a spiritual perspective. He's my dad and he needs the Lord."
Just like my mother. Jennifer tried to push the thought aside.
"Is he going to church with you yet?" Felicia asked.
"No, that's one thing he refuses to do. But we keep working on him. It's really cute to see Megan reprimanding him about not attending."
Jennifer could picture Mimi's precocious six-year-old giving her grandfather a lecture about loving Jesus and getting saved.
Gracie reappeared and dropped the check on the table. "Here's your parting gift, ladies. Hope you have a good week and those preacher husbands of yours treat you all right."
"Hey, how's your sister doing, Gracie?" Lisa asked as Gracie started to turn away.
Gracie grimaced and a shadow crossed her face. Jennifer knew Gracie's sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago and had gone through surgery and chemo.
"Not good. She just went to the doc last week. It's back, and vicious."
"I thought she had it beat," Jennifer said.
"We thought so, too, but when she went in for a checkup, they found it. It's in her bones and I don't know where all."
"Oh, Gracie, we're so sorry." Mimi touched Gracie's hand. Gracie squeezed it and held on.
"Oh, Gracie," Jennifer murmured.
"That's terrible," said Lisa.
Felicia just shook her head, her face concerned.
"I'm flying down to Florida next week to be with her," Gracie said. "So I guess I won't see you next time."
"We'll be praying for your sister and for you," Lisa said.
Gracie nodded and let go of Mimi's hand. "I know you will. If God hears anybody, I know it's you four women. Pray hard, will ya? Maybe he'll take pity on an old, crotchety woman and her sister." She winked, then turned and walked slowly away.
Jennifer and the others looked at one another but didn't say anything for a moment.
"I had no idea." Felicia's eyes followed Gracie as she tended to her other customers on the opposite side of the restaurant.
"She didn't let on at all that something was up," Mimi said, looking amazed by how well Gracie had covered up her pain.
"Maybe we should pray for her and her sister right now," Lisa suggested.
Jennifer and the others agreed. There was no better time and place to pray.
Katt's in the Cradle © 2009 by Ginger Kolbaba and Christy Scannell