“Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.
Do not be conceited.”—Romans 12:16
The tires squealed on Owen Jones’s black Jaguar convertible as he turned on Half Moon Drive and again on Barefoot Trace. Some father-son talk that had been! Why had his parents waited until he moved all the way to Florida to be closer to them to start having problems?
The pastrami sandwich he hardly remembered eating now felt like a hot coal in his stomach. He reached in the glove box and took a couple of Tums out of the bottle and popped them into his mouth.
Owen slowed the car and passed by a row of flowering crape myrtle trees, then turned into the driveway of a plantation-style house with white columns framing the front porch. Except for his growing concern over his parents’ marital problems, his life was perfect. It seemed as though he had been handed the dream he would have wished for had he dared to hope for something this good.
After several years of working for a CPA firm in Raleigh, one of his father’s law partners had submitted his name to the president of Global Communications to be considered for the chief financial officer position. The president had contacted him and made the overture, citing Owen’s creative vision and financial acumen as the primary reason for their interest. Three weeks later, the job was his. And making it even more attractive was the fact that Global’s home office was based in Port Smyth, easy driving distance from Seaport, where his parents lived. Had he handpicked a job and a location, it couldn’t have been more ideal. Or so he thought.
He pulled the car into the detached garage and looked in the rearview mirror in time to see Hailey’s white Lexus coming up the drive. He got out and waited for her, his briefcase in one hand, a waiting hug in the other. “Hi, sweetheart.” Owen slid his arm around her shoulder and pressed his lips to hers. “So how’d the interview go?”
Hailey Jones shrugged. “Who knows? They never tell you anything.”
“Think positive. There’s bound to be a position for a good HR person somewhere in this town.”
Hailey arched her eyebrows, her round blue eyes filled with skepticism. “I’m interviewed out. There are qualified people in line for every position. I may never find what I want.”
Owen pulled her closer. “You don’t have to work.”
“What would I do all day in this big house by myself?”
“I don’t know, enjoy it?” The reproving look in her eyes made it clear that he’d better not push it. “Don’t worry. Someone will snatch you up when they realize what an asset you are.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence. Too bad you’re not doing the hiring. I could use someone who’s applicant friendly. I feel like a number.”
“Maybe Brent McAllister would put in a good word for you. I still can’t believe his phone call to Global got my foot in the front door.”
“Me either. It was a real gift.”
Owen unlocked the front door and held it open, then followed her inside. “I’m certainly grateful for getting a break, but it’s not as though I’m unqualified for the job.”
Hailey turned around, blond tresses draping her shoulders, her expression contrite. “I didn’t mean it that way. You’re going to be a fantastic CFO. I’m just feeling insignificant at the moment.”
Owen took her into his arms and held her close. “Then I’ll just have to make you so happy you’ll have no regrets. I didn’t think we’d ever be able to afford a house like this. What a great place to raise a family.”
Hailey wiggled out of his embrace. “Don’t even go there. Right now, I just want to get settled and find where I fit. I have no desire to be dependent, house or no house. Why are you staring at me?”
“You’re so much like my mother,” Owen said, fighting the urge to smile. “I guess we Jones men are irresistibly drawn to women who have a mind of their own.”
“As well you should be. And I consider being compared to Ellen the ultimate compliment.”
He laughed. “Mother can get a bit overzealous.”
“I admire her zeal. She’s articulate and opinionated, yet she’s open to new ideas.”
Owen nodded. “I wish you had known her when she was a newspaper editor. She’s not as revved up now that she’s writing novels.”
“Maybe she’s sounding off through her characters.”
“Speaking of characters, my mother’s collection of friends is about to drive my dad nuts. That’s all he talked about at lunch today—again. Gave me indigestion.”
“I don’t get it. Guy’s out of town as much as he’s in. Why should he care who Ellen’s friends are?”
“Boggles his mind that she’s drawn to the ‘strays,’ as he calls them. He’s embarrassed to be associated with them. Thinks it’s bad for his professional image.”
“They seemed nice to me. Don’t some of them go to your folks’ church?”
“Yes, but he’d just as soon keep a comfortable distance.”
“Well, he’d better get over it. When have you known your mother to be uppity?”
Owen put his finger to his chin and looked up, his eyes moving one direction and then the other. “Let’s see…there was that time back in 1985…” He smiled. “Actually, Mom’s always had a range of friends from different backgrounds, and Dad’s never objected before.” He lifted his eyebrow. “But expecting him to share Sunday dinner with a pair of kidnappers, the kidnapped, and the falsely accused is a bit over the top. And then there’s that nosey neighbor lady and the Muslim woman she met out jogging.”
“But they all seemed very nice.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Then tell me the point.”
Owen put his hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “For the first time in his life, Guy Langford Jones is on his way to the top. And if Mom doesn’t care that her choice of friends is tainting his image, it’s liable to split them up.”
“Come on, Owen. Your folks’ marriage is rock solid. They’re mature enough to work through this.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
Guy Jones slammed down the receiver when the answering machine clicked on, lamenting that he couldn’t even connect with a real person at his own home! Ellen was probably out gallivanting somewhere, no doubt being used by of one of her needy friends. A knock on the door stole his attention.
“Will you look at this?” Kinsey Abbot squeezed through the doorway, her arms around a huge basket covered in green cellophane. “Brinkmont Labs sent this gift basket for you. You want it on your credenza?”
“Sure. Here, let me help you with that.”
“We’re all so proud that you pulled off a win on the Brinkmont case,” she said. “The entire office is buzzing.”
“Thanks. But I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“True.” Her smile told him she was only half kidding. “Is Ellen going to drive up to celebrate with us?”
“I’m still trying to reach her.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask—has she heard back from any of the publishers she submitted her novel to?”
“She’s had several rejections. But she’s still got several manuscripts out there.”
“Must be discouraging.”
“Ellen doesn’t have time to be discouraged.”
Kinsey lifted her eyebrows. “Has she started the second novel?”
“Says she’s going to. But at the moment, she’s consumed with writing a Bible study for Billy and Lisa Lewis. I think she’s broken Mother Theresa’s record for the most time spent with the underprivileged.”
Kinsey smiled. “Ellen’s a sweetheart. Most of us wouldn’t make the effort to relate to the mentally challenged.”
“I just don’t understand what they have in common.”
Guy heard a knock at the door and looked up into the face of Brent McAllister.
“Am I invited to the party?” Brent said.
“Sure. My sidekick here just brought me this giant gift basket Brinkmont sent over. Looks like there’s enough coffee and chocolate in there to keep this place buzzing for a long time. Also caviar and crackers and a bottle of champagne. Help yourself.”
Brent extended his hand to Guy. “Congratulations on a job well done. Donna and I are driving down to Seaport for the weekend. What do you say we spend some of that money you earned for the firm and take you and Ellen out on your own turf?”
“Better yet, why don’t you come to our house for dinner? It’ll be quieter and more conducive to conversation.”
“Absolutely. We’d love to have you. How about Saturday night at six? No ties allowed.”
Guy made a note on his desk calendar. “Ellen makes a wonderful pork tenderloin. How’s that sound?”
“You kidding? I’m so used to eating out, a home-cooked meal sounds terrific.”
“Good. I’m looking forward to it. I also want you to see the house.”
Brent chortled. “I guess it’s about time. How long have you been with the firm: fifteen, sixteen months?”
“Sounds about right.”
“Time flies. Seems like only yesterday we added your name on the door.”
Kinsey walked over and stood in the doorway. “If you gentlemen will excuse me, I need to get back to work.”
“Don’t you want some of this chocolate?” Guy said.
“No, I could gain weight just looking at it. But thanks anyway.”
Guy’s eyes followed Kinsey’s trim figure as she left his office and took a seat at her desk.
“You’re staring,” Brent said.
“She’s a cute gal. Smart as a whip.”
“I wondered if you were ever going to notice her attributes.”
Guy caught Brent’s gaze and held it. “My interest in Kinsey is strictly professional. You’re the one who’s on the prowl.”
“Not at the moment. Donna’s working out nicely.”
“I’ve never been good at long-term relationships,” Brent said. “So what?”
“Suit yourself. Just don’t project your lust onto me.”
Brent smiled and shook his head. “Same old Guy. You haven’t changed since law school. Other than you’ve been born again or whatever you call it.”
“I was faithful to Ellen even before I became a Christian.”
“Yes, you were. I’ve always admired that about you. I, on the other hand, refuse to be limited to one woman.” Brent slapped Guy on the back. “Don’t you ever wonder what you’re missing?”
“Don’t you ever regret that your affair with Renee Bateman broke up two marriages and forced Renee to leave the firm? You could have just as easily pursued a single woman who wasn’t a partner.”
Brent shrugged. “Renee’s got her hooks in some wealthy neurosurgeon. My Ex got a big enough settlement to do whatever she wants. You got to take Renee’s place. And I get to play the field. Everybody’s happy.”
Guy stared at Brent, more out of pity than disgust, and decided not to say anything else.
“You mind if I chill that bottle of champagne?” Brent said. “I know you’re not going to drink any of it. But we’re going to toast you anyway before we take you out to Savvy’s tonight.”
Guy smiled and basked for a moment in his achievement. “I love it when cases turn out the way we want.”
“That’s an understatement. This win practically guarantees that Brinkmont will remain a client. You deserve the kudos.”
* * *
Ellen Jones pushed open the kitchen door with her shoulder, a plastic bag of groceries in each hand. She glanced at the clock: 4:57. At least she had made it back before Guy got home from Tallahassee. Where had the day gone? She had planned to get the bills paid and do some writing on her novel, neither of which had gotten done.
She set the groceries on the breakfast bar and began putting the perishables in the refrigerator when she noticed the light blinking on her answering machine. She reached over and pushed the button.
You have four messages:
“Ellen, it’s me. It’s 10:00 A.M. I won! Call my cell.” Beep.
“Honey, it’s noon. I keep hoping to hear from you. Please call my office.” Beep.
“It’s me again. It’s 2:15. I need to talk to you. Call me as soon as you get this.” Beep.
“Ellen, it’s Guy. It’s 4:45. You didn’t answer your cell phone either. Everyone’s taking me to Savvy’s for a victory celebration. I wanted you to drive up so you could join us, but it’s too late now. Anyhow, don’t wait up. I’ll see you when I see you.” Beep.
End of messages.
Ellen sat on a stool at the breakfast bar and rummaged through her purse. She turned on her cell phone and saw that Guy had left her a message. She listened to the message and winced at the irritation in his voice, then scrolled till she found his number and hit the talk button.
“McAllister, Norton, Riley and Jones. How may I direct your call?”
“This is Ellen Jones. May I speak to Guy please?”
Ellen tapped her fingers on the breakfast bar, hoping to get through to Guy and not end up with his secretary as a go-between.
“Ellen, it’s Kinsey. Guy’s meeting with a client. Can I have him call you back?”
Ellen exhaled more loudly than she had intended. “Yes, I need to talk to him as soon as possible.” The doorbell rang. “Please be sure he gets my message.”
Ellen hung up and hurried to the front door and looked through the peephole. Her neighbor Blanche Davis was standing on the porch. Ellen unlocked the door and held it open. “Hi.”
“I saw you drive up and had to come over,” Blanche said. “I’ve hardly seen you this week.”
“It’s been wild. I’m putting away groceries. Why don’t you come out to the kitchen?”
“Thank you, dear.”
Ellen let Blanche inside and then followed her out to the kitchen. “Would you like something cold to drink?”
“No, thanks. It’s nice just being here. I’ve been a little lonesome.”
“You got your hair done,” Ellen said, aware that Blanche’s curls were tighter and bluer than usual.
“I had my girl color it and give me a perm. I always feel so much better when it behaves and I don’t have to fuss with it. When you get to be my age, you go for what’s easy.”
Ellen smiled and slipped a carton of eggs in the refrigerator. “At my age, too. Though my curls are natural and do whatever they want. Especially in this humidity.”
“Is the Bible study you wrote working out?”
“Yes, very well. Billy and Lisa are surprisingly astute spiritually. But they express themselves slowly and I’m sure they’d be frustrated in a group setting.” The phone rang and Ellen reached for the receiver. “Excuse me, Blanche. Hello… ?”
“Ellen, it’s Julie Hamilton. The dairy is serving up banana splits at half price. You and Guy want to go?”
“Well, that’s too good to pass up. Count me in, but Guy won’t be home from Tallahassee till late.” Ellen turned and looked over her shoulder. “I’ll bet Blanche would like to go.”
“Great, ask her. Why don’t we pick you up at seven?”
“Wonderful. See you then.” Ellen hung up the phone and turned to Blanche. “Do you like banana splits?”
“Oh, my, yes.”
“The Hamiltons invited us to go out for half-price banana splits, unless you’ve got other plans.”
“No, I’d love to go.”
“Have you had dinner?”
Blanche shook her head. “I don’t give much thought to it when it’s just me.”
“Why don’t we go out for dinner? My treat. The Hamiltons aren’t picking us up till seven.”
“It’s awfully nice of you, but I don’t want to overdo my welcome.”
Ellen tried not to smile. Since when?
* * *
Guy walked his new clients to the door and engaged in a few moments of small talk before sending them on their way. He turned to go back to his office when Kinsey stopped him.
“Ellen called forty-five minutes ago. She sounded disappointed she missed you.”
As well she should be! “Thanks, I’ll call her back.”
“Everyone’s ready to go when you are. We’ve reserved the back room at Savvy’s.” Kinsey arched her eyebrows. “Brent’s got the chef cooking up some culinary masterpiece.”
“Great. I’ll just be a minute.” Guy walked into his office and picked up the phone and dialed. He hung up when the answering machine went on, and then dialed Ellen’s cell number.
“Ellen! Where have you been all day?”
“Exactly where I told you I’d be: at my Wednesday Bible study till noon; then out to lunch with the ladies in my group. After that I worked with Billy and Lisa. Then went to the bank, the cleaners, the pharmacy, the tailor to pick up your suit, and the grocery store. I didn’t get your messages till almost five. I’m just sick that it’s too late to drive up there.”
“I left a message on your cell phone, too.”
“You hardly ever call me on the cell so I didn’t think to check it for messages.”
“That’s the problem lately—you don’t think. At least not about me!”
A few moments of steely silence told him he’d made his point.
“Hold on,” Ellen said. “I’m going outside.”
It sounded as though she had put her hand over the receiver. A minute later she started talking again.
“There’s no need to get huffy with me,” Ellen said. “It’s not as though I missed your calls on purpose. I had a busy day.”
“What was all that noise I heard before? Where are you?”
“I’m having dinner at Gordy’s with Blanche.”
“Great. I just won the biggest case of my life and have been invited to Savvy’s for a victory celebration, and my wife’s down at the local crab shack breaking bread with the neighborhood gossip.”
“Cutting Blanche down is beneath you. And you know I would’ve gladly driven to Tallahassee on such short notice had I gotten the messages in time. But I don’t like being taken for granted. I have a right to expect adequate notice when you want me to change what I have planned.”
“How much notice do you need, Ellen-a week? Two? You were more flexible when you were editor of the Daily News! I suppose next you’ll be wanting to hire a secretary to manage your busy schedule!”
“Are you finished?”
“No, I’m just getting started! But I need to go; everyone’s waiting. I can’t tell you how let down and embarrassed I am that you’re not here. Do you know what kind of message that sends?”
“Will you calm down and let me get a word in?” Ellen exhaled into the receiver. “I couldn’t be happier that you won the Brinkmont case or sorrier that I didn’t think to check my phone for messages. I’m as disappointed as you are that I can’t be there.”
“Yeah, I can tell. You’re so broken up over it you’re already having dinner with one of your quirky friends.”
“Guy, what do you expect me to do, deny myself food as a punishment for—
“Since when does it matter what I expect? You’re going to do whatever you want anyhow!” Guy slammed down the phone.
He stood leaning with his palms flat on his desk, his heart racing. At least she got that message. He heard a gentle knock and was aware of Brent standing in the doorway.
“Everyone’s ready. Is Ellen going to meet us over there?”
“No, I talked her out of it. She’s been tied up all day, trying to negotiate a book deal. I convinced her to stay close to the phone.”
“That’s exciting. Which publisher is she talking to?”
Guy manufactured a smile and hoped it didn’t look phony. “You know, I got so excited I forgot to ask her.”