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"Please?" The word was simple and dignified. As if it hadn't been preceded by twenty minutes of cajoling.
Even though they were on the phone, Treble James could picture the earnest expression in her half sister's big blue eyes. "Charity, you know I'll make time to visit after the baby is born, but—"
"How would I know that? You've been back home to Joyous all of, let me think, once in the past decade."
Maybe that was because Joyous, Tennessee, had never quite lived up to its name for Treble. Stifling, Tennessee. That would have been appropriate.
"I was there for your wedding," Treble pointed out, keeping a wary eye on the digital clock atop her bedroom nightstand.
"You don't think I'd make the trip for you again?"
"Then make it now," her sister begged. It was unlike Charity to request favors, particularly those that inconvenienced other people. "I'm scared. The books say placenta previa isn't all that uncommon, and my OB says mine isn't a severe case and that panicking is no good for me or the baby…but I'm a first-time mommy. Having my big sister here would make me feel better. Besides, being on bed rest is driving me nuts! Come tell me dirty jokes or something, keep me from killing my poor husband."
Charity doing harm to any living creature was laughable, but to Bill Sumner? They'd been smitten with each other since high school, as evidenced by their marrying shortly after Charity's graduation. It blew Treble's mind that her sister, at twenty-two, was expecting a child and had already been married four years. She hadn't even been old enough to drink champagne at her own wedding! Treble had taken it upon herself to imbibe enough for both of them.
It had been the best way to cope with being in Joyous two weeks after a bad breakup with the boyfriend who was supposed to have been her date. Twenty-nine-year-old Treble's relationship record—in contrast to Bill and Charity's seven years together—was about six months.
"Charity, I don't want to cut you off, but I need to leave for work, so—"
"You know what being pregnant makes you think about? Motherhood. I'm about to have my own little girl, and I wish Mom… Even though you've never been pregnant, you're my closest female relative. It would mean the world to me if you were here right now. Mom would have wanted that, her two girls together."
Treble did a double take, actually staring at the receiver. "I thought you were the good sister. Since when do you use emotional blackmail?"
"Is it working?"
Yes. "I really do have to leave for the station." Charity's softspoken barb had found its mark, though. Despite Treble's cynical shell, she retained weak spots for her late mother and younger sister.
"All right." Charity sighed. "I'm sorry to dump this on you. I know you have a career, a life in Georgia beyond all of us, but I miss you, Treb. And I love you."
"Love you, too, brat." The epithet had become a term of endearment over the years, but this evening it seemed particularly applicable. Didn't her sister know what she was asking? To go to Tennessee early and just wait around for Charity's due date in July…
Few citizens of Joyous would welcome Treble with open arms. More like the sign of the cross. She'd been a somewhat, ah, spirited youth, and folks in small towns had long memories.
Treble hung up, catching sight of herself in the oval mirror on the wall. "Don't give me that look," she chastised her reflection. "You don't want to go back any more than I do."
Talking to herself? Never a good sign. But Treble, a weeknight DJ for an Atlanta pop station, was used to addressing an audience. An audience she'd be late for if she didn't get moving.
Although she would be in-studio tonight and not doing a remote broadcast at one of the clubs she occasionally visited, she stopped long enough to run a brush through the dark ringlets that spilled past her shoulder blades and to apply her favorite dark red lip gloss. Even if her listeners couldn't see her, it helped her get into character for "Trouble J," one of the most popular noncommuting show hosts in the city. While the best airtime was in the mornings and afternoons, when most of the working crowd was stuck in gridlock on I-75, I-85 or the 285 loop around Atlanta, Treble held damn good ratings for her period and liked the late hours that allowed her to sleep in on weekdays and leave her weekend free for a social life. Not, she reflected as she headed toward the parking garage, that she'd had much of one lately.
The last guy to ask her out had been a producer on one of the station's other shows, and she wasn't interested in merging her professional life with her personal life. The producer aside, she'd been subtly discouraging men for several months. She had been busy booking extra personal appearances for her off-hours, making the most of her minor celebrity status. The additional funds deposited into her savings account were the start of a down payment. Maybe it was the almost-thirty part of her, but when spring had bloomed, she'd actually been sorry she didn't have a real house to subject to seasonal cleaning, and a yard to enjoy instead of a railed-in concrete balcony.
It was time she found a home of her own—a paradoxically domestic wish for a woman who would be on the air from seventhirty to midnight playing rock songs interspersed with risqué commentary. Well, risqué within proper FCC guidelines, of course. No matter how grown up she was or where she moved, there was always someone who'd disapprove of her.
And in Joyous, Tennessee? Possibly hundreds of someones. So what? Outside of ratings, she never cared what strangers thought. Witness "Trusty," the eyesore of a car parked among other residents" vehicles. If cars were status symbols, what did the hatchback say about her? That you take risks. It had been used when she purchased it during college, and couldn't possibly have much life left in it. Still, now that it was paid off, she wanted to get her financing approved for a house before taking on new monthly bills.
But her rebellious attitude and antistatus-symbol car aside, opinions in Joyous would carry more weight than most. Maybe she was sensitive because some of the criticism from the town's citizens would be deserved. After all, she had been something of a hellion, sneaking out to meet Rich Danner her sophomore year, trying to use a fake ID to get into Duke's bar and "borrowing" her stepfather's car to attend a rock concert two counties over after Harrison had refused to let her go with friends. The fall of her junior year, there had also been that period of indiscriminate and outrageous flirting. Everyone had heard about Rich dumping her before he left for college. She'd tried to hide her broken heart with drawled comments and suggestive smiles directed at any boy in range—even a cute chemistry teacher.
Despite the exaggerated gossip, she hadn't meant to cause breakups between other classmates or steal anyone's boyfriend. She certainly hadn't planned for anything to ever happen with the chemistry teacher, no matter what the nervous guidance counselor had told Harrison in a meeting about Treble's "acting out" for attention. The memory of Harrison Breckfield's icy condemnation as he'd walked Treble to his car was enough to make her shiver even now. Harrison didn't believe his wife's death was any excuse for misbehavior. He'd pointed out savagely that Charity had lost a mother, too, yet continued to be a perfectly respectable daughter. Even if Treble had known how to articulate her unspoken insecurities, pride probably would have kept her from asking if Harrison had ever loved Treble, the born troublemaker, as he did his own child.
He had been the adult in the situation. Couldn't he have reached out to his stepdaughter just once and assured her of her place in his home? Still, were bitter memories of Harrison not being there for Treble a valid reason not to be there for Charity now?
ON SATURDAY, Treble's only scheduled appearance was at a mall grand opening midafternoon. Let's just hope I don't blow the small stipend I'm getting on cute shoes before I even leave the premises. Ah, retail therapy. Thank God for clearance sales and outlet stores.
A coworker from the station had recently invited her to do some outlet shopping near the Georgia-Tennessee border—Treble's enjoyment over her finds had been marred by the guilt of being less than an hour and a half from the pregnant sister she hadn't seen in four years. Treble knew she'd been a disappointment as a daughter, but did that mean she was doomed to be a bad sister, too?
Stop it. She refused to spend a sunny June morning cooped up in her apartment, agonizing over Charity's recent request. At the very least, Treble could agonize by the pool.
After loading this morning's juice cup and cereal bowl into the dishwasher, Treble changed into a fuchsia-striped bikini.
"You're so lucky," Charity had said back when she'd been selecting bridesmaid dresses. "You can pull off any color. I have to stay within three main hues or look so washed out I scare people."
Untrue. Charity looked like an angel, a beautifully blond vision of their mother. Petite, fine-boned with flawless porcelain skin. Treble took after her biological father, the first of many men who'd been unable to commit to her. When she'd tracked him down after leaving Joyous, she'd been surprised at how handsome he still was. But the dimpled persona and rich drawl were just superficial niceties.
Treble had inherited his height, dark hair, bold features and almond eyes. And his tendency to run away? No, her leaving Joyous had been best for everyone, not an act of cowardice. Trouble J was audacious and unafraid.
She packed a tote bag bearing the station's call letters with a towel, SPF protection, a black pen and a Sudoku book—one of the assistants at the station got her hooked on the puzzles—then hurried toward the front door. Fresh air would do her a world of good.
Outside, the warmth embraced her. Though the sun would be punishing in large doses, she looked forward to stretching out for a little while like a relaxed feline basking in the rays. Treble had barely situated herself in a poolside lounge chair when she heard her name called. She peered over the top of her sunglasses at the smiling Latina woman in a one-piece suit coming through the gate.
"Hey, Alana." Treble waved, then waited for her friend to come closer so that they weren't yelling over the commotion of kids splashing in the pool.
Alana Torres was a fellow tenant and friend. Sometimes Treble got the woman passes into clubs where Treble was broadcasting. Both of them were fans of high-octane action films, and they went to a lot of movies together when they were mutually between boyfriends. The curvy bank teller, however, had been seeing an airline pilot since February.
"Haven't seen much of you lately," Treble said as her friend dragged a chair closer across the concrete. "But seeing you now, you look incredible. Muy caliente."
The woman lowered her dark eyes but smiled proudly. "Thanks. I haven't entirely adjusted to the new haircut." Since they'd known each other, Alana had worn her thick black hair long, but had had about six inches taken off recently. "It's sophisticated." Treble put her hands behind her and lifted her own hair off her neck. "And probably a lot cooler."
"My high school reunion is this month. I know it's shallow, but I'm determined to look hot. Chubby girl's prerogative."
"I doubt you were ever as chubby as you felt, and you've already lost—what, fifteen pounds?"
"Promise me you won't drop so much that you turn bony, okay?" Alana laughed as she opened her sunblock. The citrus scent was strong, but preferable to the chlorine from the water. "Yeah, that's likely to happen, given the way I'm addicted to the bakery across the street from the bank. Whoever invented soup in a loaf of bread was a diabolical genius."
To Alana, baked goods equaled what cute shoes were to Treble—an irresistible vice.
Glancing around, Alana lowered her voice. "Thank goodness Greg has such stamina and creativity when it comes to helping me burn calories."
"You mean his suggestions are more fun than jogging?" Treble grinned. "No, seriously, I'm asking. It's been so long that I barely remember what it's like to…burn calories."
Alana returned her smile. "Your listeners would never believe you. I heard some of the advice you gave your callers last night and, girl, where do you get those naughty ideas?"
"Repressed sexual energy. It leads to a rich fantasy life."
"You had a great show. I know you tease that your main concern is boosting the ratings, but I think you enjoy helping people. You're a generous soul."
Yeah, so generous she wasn't even bothering to examine her schedule for the possibility of lending physical and moral support to her only sibling. Treble heaved a sigh.
"Don't tell me work's not going well?" Alana asked, misinterpreting her friend's brief frown.
"It's not the radio thing, it's… You know the expression "you can't go home again'? Let's just say I always clung to that as kind of a guarantee."
"Someone I really care about wants me to take a few weeks out of my life and go home. I think I'd rather have my show canceled."
Alana winced. "That awful?" "Hard to say. I've managed to avoid finding out for the past four years and was tipsy for part of my last long weekend there." Her behavior had fuelled the fires of gossip.
While she wasn't proud that she'd had too much to drink at Charity's wedding, she didn't feel she should have to apologize, either. The person with the real right to be annoyed was the bride, who had been so starry-eyed over Bill anyway, she wouldn't have noticed if Treble had set herself on fire at the rehearsal dinner. In fact, one of the underaged bridesmaids had downed four glasses of champagne at the reception and thrown up in a topiary, garnering nothing but an off-color joke and some pitying "Guess she learned the hard way" comments. Treble, on the other hand, had been a legally drinking adult who neither table-danced nor drove anywhere while under the influence. Couldn't a girl nurse a broken heart with a few festive libations without, the next day, her stepfather acting as though an intervention was in order? It was as if he held her to a high standard of behavior, then watched her, waiting for her to screw up.
Harrison had financed the open bar in the first place! Why was it no one minded when weathered, old farmhand Bobby Charles Picoult got buzzed on draft beer and started loudly guffawing at the same anecdotes he'd been telling since Treble first moved to Joyous as a girl? Because Bobby Charles is local color. You're an outsider. Even though Treble had moved to Joyous right before kindergarten, by the time she'd left, she'd felt completely out of place. She doubted anyone besides her sister had been sorry to see her go. Even poor Charity had probably been relieved at the decrease in tension at home.