Authors: Laramie Briscoe
“What about cops?” Tyler asked as he put his helmet on.
“Rooster called in some favors. They normally sit at the Hart County line, but tonight it’s clear sailing. We’ll have to deal with state boys on our own if they show up, but I’m not expecting anything. We’re starting late enough that we’ll be under the cover of dark in less than fifteen minutes. By the time we hit the interstate, we should be good.”
Should. There was always a question as to whether they would be, and they all knew it, but that was a game they all played.
“So how long have you been seeing Dalton?” Meredith asked Mandy. She’d fixed the two of them some ice cream sundaes, and they were now both settled on the couch.
“Not long,” Mandy admitted as she scrapped some of the chocolate sauce from her bowl. “But I’ve known him as long as I’ve known Layla, which means since mom brought us here. He’s always been a pain in my behind, but I dunno, he did something incredibly nice for me, and I started to see him differently.” She shrugged, her face going pink.
“I’m a sucker for a romantic man. What did he do?” Meredith knew it was none of her business, but thought that maybe if she could get Mandy to talk about it, she wouldn’t be so irritated with him anymore.
“It’s nothing to nobody else probably, but most everybody who knows me knows that I love music and I especially love concerts. There was a Black Friday concert in Nashville in January that I really wanted to go to, but I didn’t have enough money for tickets, and I tried everything to win them off the radio, but I couldn’t. He got me tickets. I don’t know how, I mean it was a New Year’s Eve Show, but he did it. I got to see Reaper and Harmony sing to one another, and it was the best night of my life.”
“Did he go with you?” Meredith was trying to think back, but December and January had been especially busy for her.
“He came with me, and we rode down with Jagger and B. I think Jagger’s how he got them, but he refuses to tell me to this day. He just knew I wanted to go and he made it happen. Nobody had ever done anything like that for me before, and since then I’ve looked at him differently.”
Meredith could understand why. That was something a teenage boy in lust would do. “Have you two gone out since then?”
“Yeah.” She bit her lip. “But they’re never official dates. He never asks me, he just assumes I’m going to be there whenever he wants me to be. A few months ago we started kissing and other stuff.” She said it so quickly, Meredith almost missed it.
“What other things? Do we need to talk to your mom? You are seventeen now.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m good. I’m not stupid; I don’t want to be a teenage mom like my mom was. When I thought things were headed that way, I told mom and she asked me what I wanted to do. I decided to ask B to take me to the doctor. Mom understood, and then she gave me one of Jessica’s books.”
Meredith spit her mouthful of ice cream into her bowl. “She gave you one of Jessica’s books?” She heaved breaths. “What the fuck for?”
“Mom said she wanted me to know what was fake and what not to expect.” She giggled. “I have to say, I’m kinda glad I shouldn’t expect all the stuff that goes on in those books. Some of that was a little intimidating.”
Holy shit. She was going to have find out which book Denise had given Mandy. She knew it had to be one of the sweeter romances Jessica sometimes wrote, but damn. “But you haven’t had sex with him?”
Mandy shook her head, biting her lip again. “I don’t want to have to do that to keep him. I want him to be with me no matter what, and I thought he was okay with that until Drew this afternoon. To know that they talked about me and about that—it hurt. Drew’s my brother; he’s supposed to protect me from that kinda stuff. I do for him. Whenever anyone says anything about him, I’m always there, telling them to stop.”
“It’s different for guys,” Meredith told her gently. “They get so caught up in what their friends think of them. I can guarantee if Dalton had told him the two of you had slept together, Dalton would be sportin’ two black eyes tonight. Guy code is way different than girl code, and way more confusing. Don’t question it, just smile and nod. It doesn’t get easier as you get older.”
“Great.” Mandy sighed. “I’m still not sure I’m ever doing anything right as it is. I thought maybe once I reached twenty, things got easier.”
Meredith laughed loudly. “I hate to break it to you, but as you get older, some things get harder. You’re going to be okay though. You have a good head on your shoulders, and regardless of what Drew did to piss you off, he’s always going to look out for you.”
“It’s not just Drew that pissed me off,” she admitted. “It was Dalton too. I thought I meant more than that. I mean he tells me that all the time when we’re by ourselves. He takes me in his car out to the field off Porter Pike, and we get in the back and talk about how our lives are going to be next year. We had plans, or so I thought. I don’t know what to trust anymore.” There were tears in her eyes, and Meredith wished that she could take the hurt away.
“Here’s what you do. You get a good night’s sleep and tomorrow, if you still aren’t sure what you want to do, call Dalton and talk it all out. Chances are he was showing off in front of Drew and he’s sorry.”
“What if he wasn’t showing off, and what if he’s not sorry?” Mandy asked.
“Then make him sweat it out.” Meredith grinned. “Make him work for it. Maybe you need some flowers or a box of chocolate. When did he do that for you last?”
“He got me a rose on Valentine’s Day.”
“Then don’t you think it’s time he did something else to prove he still likes you? I think I’d put a little worm in his ear, let him know that you may forgive, but you don’t forget.”
Forgive but don’t forget. Those were words they could all live by.
wo weeks later and Meredith had moved on to the yearly budget for CRISIS. Their fiscal year ran from September to September, and she liked to have it done by the middle of August. They were a week away from August storming in like a lion, and she knew she couldn’t put it off anymore. Deciding what to pay and what to solicit donations for was always a hard decision. Even though Heaven Hill gave them quite a bit of capital to do things with, it was never enough for a nonprofit. Taking care of women and children was expensive. Especially when all of them had needs and some of them had never had adequate medical care. She sighed, throwing her laptop to the coffee table.
“You okay?” Tyler asked, his eyebrow raised.
This should have been a nice Saturday afternoon for them. Addie was taking a nap, and the house was completely still for a few hours.
She rubbed at a headache that was beginning to form in the middle of her forehead. “There’s never enough money for the things I want to do at CRISIS. I don’t want to have to have to ask those women to pay to stay there, but I’m running out of ideas. Food prices are soaring, along with utilities. It doesn’t help that we’re housing more women and children than we ever have. It feels like I’m fighting a losing battle.”
Tyler got up from where he sat and went over to the couch, motioning her to move so he could lie beside her. She did, and the two of them scrunched closely together. Meredith sighed, resting her head against his strong chest. “You’ve got to give yourself a break,” he whispered as he stroked her hair. “You can’t save everybody.”
She knew what he was saying. She couldn’t, and if she thought she did, she’d never make it to Christmas, but this was something she’d struggled with the entire time she’d been director. It hurt to know there were small families who would slip through the cracks and there wasn’t anything she’d be able to do about it. “I know, but I want to.”
“You have a good heart, Mer. I can’t tell you how proud I am of you.” He pulled back so that his brown eyes could look into hers. “You’ve grown so much from the young, cocky girl I met. You’re the most unselfish, giving person I know.”
“I’m trying to be.” She buried her face in his chest and breathed in the scent that was only him. It helped calm her down like nothing else in the world.
“Listen to me.” His tone was strong. “You are. You’re not trying to be, but you have to give yourself permission to fall. You can only do so much, and I’ve noticed the last week you have dark circles under your eyes, you aren’t eating like you normally do, and you’re not whiney, but you’re taking things more to heart.”
“I know.” She nodded. She’d caught herself crying the other day at some stupid commercial. She’d never done that before. It wasn’t something she’d wanted to admit to anyone, so she chalked it up to being tired and rundown. “I need to take a few days off,” she admitted. “I’m getting burnt out.”
“When can you do this? Maybe I can take a few days off, and we can take Addie to Gatlinburg. We haven’t been there in a while.”
Gatlinburg was one of her favorite places in the world, and it held a special place in both of their hearts. “We could do it this coming weekend,” she said excitedly. There happened to be an over-abundance of volunteers for the weekend before school started.
“Okay.” He ran a large hand down her arm, clasping their hands together. “Let me talk to Liam and make sure it’s okay. As long as he’s good with it, I’ll get it worked out. I think we both need a little bit of a break, and it would be our first family vacation.”
Neither one of them could miss the wistfulness in his voice. He’d never had one of those before. She wasn’t even sure that he’d ever had a vacation before he’d taken her to Gatlinburg all those years ago, but she knew this wasn’t the time to ask. “I love you.” She threw her arms around his neck. “You know exactly what I need, normally before I do.”
“I’m just doing my job.”
She knew it was more than that. He always had her best interest at heart, no matter what was going on in his life. For someone who’d had no family growing up, he instinctively knew how to be a good husband and father. If truth was known, she’d worried about that when Addie had been brought to them, but he continued to amaze her every day. Reaching up, she kissed him softly on the lips. “Thank you.”
He moved on the couch so that he was more comfortable. “What do you say that while Addie takes her nap, we take one of our own?”
That was the best idea she’d heard in a long time. Reaching up on the back of the couch, she grabbed the blanket she kept there and threw it over the both of them.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” He chuckled, wrapping her up with his arms.
“Definite yes, and I have to admit this is my favorite place right here.”
“Mine too,” he whispered before placing a soft kiss on her forehead. “Mine too.”