Stave and Hoop

Bourbonland Short Stories and Novellas #2

Part 2 of 7

 

 

So this was what passed for throwing caution to the wind. At least for her.

Black linen pants, turquoise twinset. Pearls. Flats. Hair up in a messy bun (not to be sexy but because she was lazy). Light makeup.

And driving to pick up Ting. For their first date.

No.

Only date.

He was leaving, moving to Louisville, around an hour away. She was happy—a relative term—in Bardstown.

But tonight they would not be in the heart of their old Kentucky home, but traveling northeast to the state capitol for dinner. There was a chance she might be recognized, but doubted it. And she knew her father wasn’t around; she’d checked his calendar. He was on some trade trip to Canada.

Now she was off to pick up her date.

Date.

Hadn’t had one of those in a while. Like about a year. Dealing with her mother’s illness had been all consuming for her and her father. No personal life beyond the core family.

And it looked like it would remain that way for the foreseeable future, tonight being one very brief exception. She just didn’t have the energy to do much more than simply survive. As she had expected, going through her mother’s personal items that afternoon had been draining.

The oncoming school year was something she was looking forward to just to get back into a routine. With her mom gone, she had been left adrift, no structure in her life. Some might find that liberating. She had found it terrifying.

Ting’s house was a small ranch out beyond the eastern edges of the town. His neighborhood was older, which meant that the lawns were bigger and sprawling. Few neighbors. But that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be prying eyes.

She pulled into the driveway and immediately spotted him sitting on his front porch. His arms were splayed across the back of a patio couch, and he had one leg crossed over the other, ankle to knee.

As Candace put her car in park, he popped up from his seat. She immediately took notice of his attire.

Sports coat over a simple white dress shirt. Pressed khakis.

Clean and simple. As she had predicted, perfectly presentable.

“Waiting on me?” she asked as she approached the porch.

Ting had moved to the front step, standing slightly above her. “Didn’t want to risk it that I wouldn’t hear the doorbell when you arrived.”

“How very conscientious.”

She turned and made for her car, but he touched her arm, stopping her.

“Even though you’re the driver, allow me to show off some of my good manners and open your door for you.”

She smiled and pressed her key fob to unlock the vehicle.

After he had done his gentlemanly duty, Ting rounded the car and got in the front passenger seat.

“So where are we headed?” he asked as his seat belt clicked. “I know we’re not going somewhere here in town, but I’ve been racking my brain trying to guess where you might be taking me.”

“I’ll give you three guesses.”

“What do I get if I get it right?”

“So our game has stakes?” she asked.

“Every game has stakes, if only the satisfaction of getting it right.”

“But you seem like the kind of guy who isn’t satisfied with such meager spoils.”

“It depends. Right now I’m just enjoying being with you. That might be enough.”

“I don’t think so. Because you were the one who brought up the idea of stakes.”

“Point made. So what are we playing for?”

“If you guess correctly,” she said slowly, “I’ll buy your dinner. We hadn’t discussed that detail of our outing.”

“Since I did the asking, I always accepted that the bill for dinner would be my responsibility. So I don’t think I can agree to those stakes. Can we do something else?”

She side-eyed him, not sure what to make of his assumption or insistence that he would pay for the meal. Nonetheless, she was not inclined to argue the point.

“Well, what do you suggest?”

“If I get it right, without any hints or clues from you, you’ll agree to go out with me again.”

So he was playing for much higher stakes. Should she call his bluff?

“That presumes, beyond the unlikely situation of your getting it right, that this date will not be a disaster and that you’d want to call me on that bet.”

“I’m willing to take my chances. What about you?”

Could this conversation be any more filled with double meanings?

“Okay. Deal. Three guesses only. And no help. Those are the terms.”

“Got it.”

Candace turned onto the Bluegrass Parkway, the main highway between Lexington and points southwest. She went to the northeast.

That was a clue.

“So we’re not going to Elizabethtown or Louisville,” Ting reasoned, which were in the opposite direction.

“Was that one of your three guesses?” she asked.

“Hardly. Just talking all this out.”

Silence descended as Ting fell into thought, giving her the further chance to study him with short, furtive glances.

There was nothing remarkable about his attire, nothing she had previously overlooked. But as they sat there together in the silent hum of travel, she was again reminded that he was exceptionally handsome man. And she had to wonder why, in his midthirties, someone as nice and well-positioned as a small-town chief of police hadn’t found another to share his life with.

Then again, that kind of thinking presumed that everyone was expected or required to romantically pair up with another. It was that same outlook that fed the cult of the One True Love.

And Candace wasn’t sure she bought into all that.

While it would be nice to find someone who shared her interests as well as captured her heart, she also wasn’t going to delude herself that she was destined for that kind of match. Nor did she believe it was essential to her long-term happiness.

“I think I’m going to have to hold off on making my guesses. The longer we travel, more dining destinations will be eliminated as possibilities.”

“Like what?” she asked. “Or are you just too timid to make any guesses?”

“It’s not fair that you’re taunting me.”

“Maybe bad sportsmanship, but I don’t remember such conduct being prohibited by the rules.”

“That kind of talk makes you sound like a lawyer.”

“I think you just insulted me,” she said, although with a laugh.

“No, just relating an observation.”

She looked sideways at him and caught him doing the same to her.

“I suppose you have plenty of interactions with attorneys. Have to deal with them in prosecutions, right?”

“Yes. But not as much as I used to. When I was just an officer, I had to testify in a lot of cases. As chief, my duties are more administrative.”

“Today’s little foot chase and arrest being the exception. We’ll both be witnesses if that case gets tried.”

“True enough. Just how do you know so much about the law?”

“I don’t. But one of my best friends is a lawyer.”

“From around here?”

“No. Lives in Woodford County. Coraleigh Boyle. You know, the state senator.”

“Yeah, I’ve met her.” The note of disquiet in his voice was clear.

“How?” she asked. “And just so you know before you answer: she is one of my closest friends from college days.”

“When was the last time you spoke with her?”

“Oh… well… other than my mother’s funeral and the few days after, I couldn’t say. And isn’t that awful? Here I am claiming she’s one of my nearest and dearest.”

“I’m sure you’ve been… preoccupied,” he said, treading lightly. “But that gives me courage for what I’m about to say.”

“Be careful. Remember what I said about this date becoming such a disaster that you wouldn’t want a second one.”

“Again, that would mean I’ll guess correctly as to where we’re going.”

“So tell me how you met Corrie.”

“About six months ago, she was representing a kid on a misdemeanor charge in district court. It was one of those rare instances where I did have to testify. I’d caught the kid with a can of spray paint, walking away from freshly painted graffiti behind the cathedral. Charged him with vandalism. He claimed he had just come upon the scene and had picked up the can to throw it away. I didn’t believe him.”

“Corrie got him off the charge, didn’t she?”

“She sure did. Tried it to a jury, and they found him not guilty. Even though it was some misdemeanor juvie case, that was the most intense cross-examination I’ve ever been put through. But no hard feelings.”

“Doesn’t sound like it. Seems like it’s a bit of a sore spot for you.”

“Maybe it is. Because I happen to know the kid had been previously convicted of the same offense.”

“But you never actually saw him using the spray paint?”

“That was the very question that Senator Boyle asked me. My answer is the same: no. And now I’ll repeat what I said before. You sound like a lawyer. You’d make a good one.”

“You also said I’d be a good politician. So stop with compliments. Being a high school history teacher is plenty excitement for me, thanks.”

The miles passed, and they fell into another silence. Not because it felt awkward or contrived but because they had relaxed in each other’s presence.

And as they moved along the gray ribbon of asphalt, the scenery was more than sufficient to distract and even enchant.

Moving northeast, the low hills receded, and the land unfurled into the fields of the Outer Bluegrass. Out this far from the center of the state, the landscape was not the same as that depicted on postcards of perfect thoroughbred horse farms, with stallions roaming on emerald pastures amidst a weave of black plank fencing undulating across fields.

But to her, it was all the more beautiful for its contrasting charms. This more untamed milieu always made her feel comfortable, a signal she was close to home.

They had almost made it to the Kentucky River when she exited the highway and headed due north.

Ting said, “Frankfort. We’re eating in Frankfort.”

“I think I should count that as a guess.”

“No fair. I didn’t even mention a restaurant.”

“You’re really into this fairness business, aren’t you?”

“Who isn’t interested in being fair?”

“Don’t make me out to be the bad guy here,” she said.

“I’d never do such a thing. Especially after you agreed to go out with me. But I note  you didn’t deny we’re going to Frankfort.”

“No comment,” she said.

“Too late for that. I sensed it. I’m a cop, remember? I can read people.”

At this reminder, Candace shifted in her seat. Ting noticed that too.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to creep you out. Can’t help it sometimes. I’m always on alert, I guess.”

“That must get tiring.”

“Sometimes. But having been in law enforcement for so long,  it’s second nature.”

“So you couldn’t stop if you wanted to?” she asked.

“Not sure. Haven’t tried.”

“You’re a tightly wound guy. What do you do to relax?”

“You saw it. I was out for a run this morning. Also like to hike. But reading is good too.”

“Are you an introvert?”

“Of course I am. Surprised you didn’t know that.”

“Why would I know that?”

“You’re one as well—damn. There I go again,” he said.

She laughed. “It’s fine. Besides, we recognize each other, right?”

“I suppose. But mostly I thought you’d know I was an introvert by how long it took me to finally ask you out.”

“I never attributed the lack of an invitation to your being an introvert, Ting. I thought it was you simply being a cautious man with a high-profile job in a small town. You’re the police chief. I’m the daughter of the former mayor, now the lieutenant governor. You two didn’t have the best relationship. Deciding you didn’t need certain complications in life was a mature decision.”

“You make me sound reasonable rather than cowardly.”

“Watch it. You’re lumping me in with the cowards.”

She kept her eyes on the road but could tell his head was turned to her. Maybe mouth open too.

“I refuse to believe you’re a coward, Candace.”

“And I refuse to believe the same of you.”

He reached for her hand and held it on top of his thigh.

“Hard to drive that way,” she said. “Might need that hand.”

He released it. “Sorry.”

“That didn’t mean I didn’t like holding your hand. Just so you know.”

“Thanks for the clarification.”

“You’re the one sounding like a lawyer now. And… since we are getting close to our destination, it is time for those guesses,” she said.

“Frankfort… Frankfort… not too familiar with that town,” he muttered to himself.

“You have to guess. Or you forfeit.”

“Not going to do that.” He paused. “Well, the only place I know that takes reservations is Melucci’s. Went there once after I testified before a legislative subcommittee with other local law enforcement about the need for jail reform. Across from the Old Capitol.”

A long pause. She didn’t look at him but smiled.

“Don’t take me anywhere fancy next time. I don’t want to buy a new dress.”

“Wait… you mean I got it?”

“Yep. In one.”

“And you’re really agreeing to go out with me again?”

“I made the bet in good faith, and I’ll keep my word,” she said.

Ting scratched his chin. “So you do play fair.”

“It seems you have discovered the truth about me.”

“Then if you’re that honorable, will you do me another honor?”

She briefly glanced at him. “Another honor?”

“The first was going out with me tonight,” he explained.

“Please. But what is this other honor?”

“Buy that dress. Or at least wear your best one. Because I do want to take you to a fancy place.”

Unwillingly, the image of the last time she had worn her best dress popped into her head.

Her navy-blue silk sheath. She’d gotten it a few years earlier to wear to a friend’s wedding. Made her look great but was comfortable, and was easy to accessorize. The perfect dress-up dress.

Except she’d worn it to her mother’s funeral.

Maybe she should burn the thing.

“I think I might buy a new one. Not for you, mind you,” she added quickly. “But I do need something. My best dress—well, it’s… got a stain on it I can’t get out.”

The stain of painful memory.

“We don’t have to do fancy—“

“No, that’s fine. I’d like to dress up for dinner.”

Traffic picked up a little as they approached the capital, and conversation dwindled as Candace had to navigate only marginally familiar roads. And then there was the incessant road construction from which the town always seemed to be suffering. Lanes closed, signs up and blinking warnings, orange barrels and cones stretching for miles.

And not one worker in sight.

As they wound into the heart of the small city, chatter focused on the weather and complaints about the construction. She wanted to ask him more about his move, but reasoned dinner would provide that opportunity and kept her curiosity locked up for the moment.

Parking was plentiful near the restaurant, although confined to parallel spots. She expertly managed to slip into a curb space between two other vehicles.

Ting was out of the car in an instant, walking to her side, opening her door.

This was nice.

While it had been quite some time since she’d had a date—or even any kind of steady boyfriend (and that had been at least two years ago, come to think of it), those other guys were…

What, exactly?

How was Ting different?

He held out his hand to help her from the car.

She took it, and he gently pulled her to her feet.

Ting then made sure she got to the sidewalk first and, keeping her between himself and the street, offered her his arm.

She took it.

Ah, yes.

Ting was a gentleman.

They were about a block away from the restaurant. Across the street, Broadway, which was split by railroad tracks, was the Old Capitol grounds. Behind them was the Kentucky History Center, where she brought her class of seniors every spring on a much anticipated field trip.

And since her father had become lieutenant governor, they also got to stop at the capitol across the river for a special reception. In the past, he had welcomed students to his mayor’s office, but she had to admit being able to have a private tour of the building and going up into the dome was a nice perk.

They approached the restaurant, first passing a large window where a private party appeared to be living it up. A titter of laughter resonated through the glass pane as they passed.

The tiny reception area inside the restaurant provided a complete view of the entire space except for part of the bar to the far right and that private room they had passed. The place was packed, and Candace wondered where their table might be.

She gave her name, and the hostess frowned as she looked at her tablet computer.

“I don’t think we’re quite ready for you yet, Ms. Keane. I’m so sorry. If you could please wait.”

And off she went before Candace could answer.

“That doesn’t bode well,” Candace muttered.

“Maybe they just have to get the table cleared.”

“I hope so because I was looking forward to the hot brown here.”

“What about the hot brown at the Tavern?” Ting was referring to the dish as offered by the Old Talbott Tavern, a Bardstown landmark.

“Oh, it doesn’t hold a candle, of course. But—”

She was stopped short by a very familiar woman with chin-length black hair, emerging in the main restaurant area from that party room in the back.

The two locked eyes at once, the familiar drawn to the familiar.

“Candace?”

“Corrie?”

Coraleigh Boyle, the very woman they had briefly discussed on the trip up, wove her way amongst the tables to the reception area. The two friends embraced eagerly.

“What are you doing here?” Candace asked.

“Dinner with an assortment of state officials,” she replied, pointing over her shoulder. “It’s like a buffet of elected folks. Why don’t you two join us? Your dad’s back there—”

What?

“Yeah. Just a small dinner with a few legislators and cabinet members. Governor’s not there, of course. I think your dad asked me here because he was feeling sorry for me. And it’s true I’ve been a bit of a hermit since… well, lately.”

Corrie had become a widow only a handful of months earlier.

“I thought my dad was in Canada,” Candace said, looking up at Ting.

“Nope, he was there last week,” Corrie informed them. “He’s been in there telling us all about his trip. I… ah… came out to get a bourbon at the bar.”

“He’s been talking your ear off, that’s what. No wonder you want to escape,” said Candace.

“So come to the bar with me—both of you—”

“Oh, sorry. This is Ting—I mean Adam Tingley.” Candace placed a hand on Ting’s shoulder.

“Senator.” Ting extended his hand, and Corrie took it.

“Chief! I remember you!”

“I should think so since you tore me to shreds.”

“Not from my point of view. You were cool, calm, and collected. Not to mention the local law enforcement star since you were the chief. Thought you had that jury in the palm of your hand.”

“That was you, senator.”

“So you two up here on a date? Want to join us?”

“Ah, no—I mean about joining you. But thanks. Didn’t know my dad was back from Canada,” Candace said, speaking rapidly. “I don’t really want to… um…”

“I get it. Just wanted a quiet place to go. Bit of privacy.” Corrie nodded, and her bobbed, dark hair bounced around her face.

“Not going to get it here,” Ting said.

“Do you mind if we go elsewhere?” Candace asked him.

“Not at all. As long as you still say I won that bet.”

“What bet?” Corrie asked.

“You won it,” Candace said to Ting, ignoring Corrie for the moment. “But where to go now? I’m not that familiar with Frankfort.”

Corrie opened her mouth and got out, “What about P—”

The initial eagerness in Corrie’s eyes died as she focused on something behind Candace.

Turning, she saw that a man had just entered the establishment. He was vaguely familiar—and her brain told her that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Tall, dark-haired, and thin yet with a certain muscularity about him, the newcomer swept his ebony eyes to Corrie. He held her gaze for a few moments, then stalked away to the bar.

“Who was…?”

“You should go to Versailles,” Corrie interrupted.

“Versailles?” Candace asked.

Corrie blinked several times and focused on Candace and Ting. “Absolutely. We have a great restaurant there called Poston’s. It’s in a converted train station, and they saved as much of the original fixtures and surfaces as possible. The hardwood floors are original, and they even have an old blackboard that the station used to note the departure and arrival times of trains. Great steaks and even a decent hot brown.”

“Only decent?” Ting asked.

“I mean, it doesn’t measure up to the one at The Brown Hotel, or certainly not at the Tavern,” Corrie said with a nod to them. “But it is awfully good.”

“I think I’m sold.” Ting looked to Candace for agreement.

“If Corrie recommends it, we can’t go wrong.” Candace pressed her lips together, struggling with whether or how to say the next thing. “Do you mind not telling my dad that you saw us? I hate to ask that, but I’m just not in the mood for questions should he learn that the two of us,” she said, gesturing to Ting and herself, “were out and about.”

Corrie’s eyes darted to the bar and back. The man who had entered was sitting there and looking over his shoulder in their direction.

“Don’t worry. I won’t tell. We’re all entitled to keep certain things to ourselves.”

After a fleeting hug and quick goodbyes, Candace and Ting departed. As they crossed Broadway and the train tracks that split the street, Candace realized that when they left, Corrie had not proceeded to the bar to get her drink.

“Tell me why we’re crossing the street instead of walking directly back to your car?” he asked.

“Because I don’t want to pass that window again and risk my dad seeing us, that’s why.”

Candace stepped up onto the curb, and they found themselves directly in front of the Old Capitol, the limestone building bathed in bright light and glowing like a pearl in the broadening twilight. “Besides, it’s a nice night. An extra bit of a walk won’t kill us.”

“Indeed it won’t.” Ting took her hand.

With a smile, she said, “Making the best of things, I see.”

“I have to take these chances while I can.”

She glanced back to the restaurant. “I can’t believe we actually ran into her after talking about her. Then again, I shouldn’t be that surprised. Corrie’s already well known in the capital. And a dinner at the best restaurant in town with other officials is exactly the kind of place she’d be. I should’ve expected to run into someone in this town.”

“And did you see who else we ran into or at least saw?”

“Are you referring to that man who came in when we were talking to Corrie?”

“Yes. That was Clay London.”

That’s why he looked familiar!”

And that also explained Corrie’s reaction and why she didn’t proceed to the bar to get her drink. Running into that particular former friend naturally had put her off.

“You know him?” Ting asked.

“Only by reputation through Corrie.”

“I’ve met him a few times. Gray introduced me to him at Fancy Farm last year.”

Fancy Farm was a huge political picnic in far western Kentucky, a tradition in the Commonwealth’s politics.

“He didn’t seem to recognize you.”

“That’s because the only thing he was looking at was her.”

When they arrived at her car, Ting asked, “Would you like me to drive?”

She was tired, so she handed over her keys with appreciation. Ting did his gentlemanly duty again and helped her into the car, and then they were off again.

Once in the warm confines of the car, the claim of sleep was too much to resist. She nodded off, only to awake when they arrived at the restaurant in Versailles.

And she was all apologies.

“How rude was that?” she asked as they walked in together.

“Not at all. And better for me to drive us here than someone sleepy.”

Inside, it was just as Corrie had described. They sat in the bar, replete with televisions broadcasting baseball games.

Neither of them had anything alcoholic to drink, although she was craving a good bourbon. And the temptation was great: an entire wall of bourbons, some rare, was at the back of the bar, several bottles on prominent display.

Taking Corrie’s advice, they both ordered steaks and were not disappointed. Candace was ravenous; the nerves and tiredness had really done a number on her.

But if she was a bit of a wreck, Ting was the opposite. Or good at hiding it. Perhaps he felt a certain confidence knowing that he was going to get at least one more date out of their deal.

And what exactly was their deal?

Two dates and then… it was over?

That had to be the plan. That was the only plan.

Even though she wished circumstances were different.

“Dessert?” he asked. “They have a bourbon-chocolate cake.”

“Oh, not sure…”

She wasn’t thinking about the cake. She was thinking about him.

And how she would truly miss him.

He’d been a fixture in the community for years. First as an officer, then as chief.

And maybe he’d been a fixture in her mind as well, as though she expected him to always be there.

But why?

Why would she care? Why would she miss him beyond—

“Candace?”

His face seemed to be right in front of hers, even though he was across the small table. The look of calm concern, the light blue eyes…

“What?”

“Would you like to get dessert? That cake looks good.” He passed her the small laminated dessert menu, complete with a huge color picture of bourbon-chocolate cake—bourbon courtesy of Wild Turkey.

“Oh my, that’s far too much.”

“We could split it.”

The trace of eagerness in his voice was endearing. He wanted to extend this encounter. So did she.

But she had a better idea than cake. “Let’s get out of here. Go for a walk somewhere. Get some ice cream or sorbet.”

“I like that. But I don’t know this area. Where could we go?”

“Hmm. It’s not exactly romantic, but I have an idea.”

“Anywhere with you tonight is romantic.”

The long look caused the heat to rise up from her chest. And a distinct flush crept across Ting’s otherwise pale features.

He broke first, looking for the waitress, who was nearby. After restroom trips and paying the bill, they were back on the road, this time with her behind the wheel.

She drove straight through town and then hopped back on the Bluegrass Parkway. The same road that would take them home.

“Don’t tell me we’re headed back to Bardstown just yet,” he said, clearly disappointed.

“I’m not about to tell you that. We’re off to get ice cream. You’ll like it. Trust me.”

* * *

Either by accident or design, he could not keep away from Coraleigh Boyle.

And the damn thing was that Clay didn’t know whether that was a good thing or bad thing.

Since she had told him more or less to get the hell out of her life, he had now seen her four times.

The first had been that conference where she waltzed away with that idiot right in front of him. He wanted to think she hadn’t seen him. Because if she had, that little display with Russell just days after she’d ended their affair would’ve been nothing short of cruel. And he didn’t like to think she was  capable of cruelty.

The second time was when he had made a complete and utter ass of himself by getting far too drunk at the former chief justice’s retirement party. True, he’d had his reasons for imbibing too much. First, that had been the first and only time he had seen Corrie out with her husband. So he drank to numb himself. The second, and more charitable reason for his inebriation, was that his basketball team had just won an important victory.

But the truth of it had been seeing Corrie there and married—and so obviously unhappy—had been far too much for him to bear sober. And that was saying something, given his abilities to master his emotions.

The third time had been her husband’s funeral. He wasn’t sure what had possessed him to go; his presence there was, he knew, not expected or welcomed. But he knew she had to be in pain. That was a call he could not resist. When he’d seen her there outside the church, talking with family and friends, it had taken every bit of resolve he possessed not to go to her and hold her and not let her go.

Because even though part of him did want to comfort her, the needy and vulgar part of him told him she was free. Unattached. His to claim.

But he’d walked away that April day. April was indeed the cruelest month.

And now, tonight, the fourth time. All he’d wanted was a decent bourbon at the best bourbon bar in Frankfort. He needed one—or maybe more—after a long and grueling trial down the street.

He hadn’t gotten the results his client wanted, but it was probably the best outcome he could’ve reasonably expected. It was a minor miracle that he’d gotten the change of venue out of Louisville; that really had been the thing that had saved the client from a more serious homicide conviction. Manslaughter was nothing to sneeze at, of course, but it sure as hell beat a murder rap. And Clay had no doubt that if the matter had been tried in that city along the river, the client would be looking at number of years in prison rather than a handful. Local people tend to hold local folks accountable—and be damned hard on them.

And he also had no doubt that if that damned detective hadn’t lied through his teeth on the stand, his client would’ve had a shot at acquittal. That asshole had made up stuff that just didn’t make sense when it came to some of the facts surrounding the case. Even though Clay had crossed him hard and thought he had thoroughly impeached him, the jury sided with the detective. That was always a risk with any witness. Sometimes to show them for the liar they were—or at least to reveal a faulty or inconsistent memory—the lawyer ended up looking like the bad guy instead of the liar on the stand.

There were too many stories about that detective; he didn’t have the best record. Complaints of brutality. Improper use of equipment. Insubordination. But having a relative on the Louisville city council probably went a long way toward shielding the guy from serious disciplinary action.

Another good thing about not having to try the case in Louisville was that he didn’t have to stay there. He hated the town now. Too many memories.

Living there with his ex-wife had been pleasant enough until the end of the relationship. Finding her cheating on him in his very own home rather did taint his whole outlook about the former marital residence (they had sold as soon as they could, because he wasn’t going to keep the damn house) and, by extension, the town.

And the London family house in Louisville didn’t hold any happy family recollections for him. Even though his mother owned the home, his father tended to inhabit it, staying away from Heddenfield. So Clay avoided that residence. Time spent away from his father was time well spent.

So an overnight at a downtown bed-and-breakfast in historic Frankfort was a reasonable solution, even a bit of an indulgence. It allowed him to go out and get a good dinner and, as he was doing at that very moment, treat himself to some damn fine bourbon.

His mood, while a bit on the dour side, had not been truly bad, despite the long and rather unsuccessful day.

Until he’d laid eyes on Corrie.

It was stupid, but he felt abandoned by her, and God did that ever hurt.

In truth, she owed him nothing. But their final break had been so brutal. He’d been torturing himself over the past months, wondering whether but for the miscarriage if the relationship would’ve continued.

But how could they have done that? Even though they’d been successful at keeping their affair a secret, their time together during those all-too-short weeks late last year had made him realize he was more in love with her than ever.

But he’d been too stupid to see until the very end that she was right there with him.

And that’s what ultimately pushed her away.

The possibility that they could’ve had a child together but had no plan beyond hooking up from time to time?

And his failure to tell her that he loved her despite having every chance to do so?

When Corrie had considered those facts, regardless of her own feelings, no wonder she dumped him. She was a rational woman who, while passionate, would always be led by her head rather than her heart.

And good for her.

But not so good for him.

The bartender kept eyeing him. Only natural since he was on his third bourbon. He was going to have to give it up soon that he wasn’t driving. As for now, he would have to sit politely and quietly and not give any indication of just how drunk he was.

Because he was sloshed. He hadn’t eaten and was tired—both brain and body. Bad combo.

He’d only planned on having one, maybe two. Then when he’d seen Corrie, the amount of brown water suddenly required to get through the evening had increased considerably.

It was a pattern and a dangerous one. Whenever he found himself dwelling on her—which was far too often—the first chance he got to be alone with a bottle of bourbon saw him indulging. It was a bad practice, and he began to fear that the weakness was in his genes. Addiction had a genetic quality one could not always outrun.

Rather like one’s troubles.

“Garnet on the rocks.”

The familiar voice, so unexpected, snapped Clay out of his self-pity.

“Mr. Humston, good to see you tonight.” Clay extended his hand to Gil, his former law partner, now the chief of staff to Governor Cassidy.

“Wha—Clay?” Gil blinked a few times then offered his hand to Clay, and they shook. “What the hell are you doing here? Spying on us?”

Clay brought his glass to his mouth and looked straight ahead. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” For once, this was true.

“I just happen to be back there at a small dinner party with the lieutenant governor and a bunch of other self-important people. Can you tell me that your presence here is mere coincidence?”

The bartender delivered Gil’s drink, the glass making that soothing thud on the wooden surface of the bar. The recipient nodded his thanks and immediately took a long appreciative sip.

“That’s exactly what I’m telling you. Had a trial here in town and I’m done.” Clay eyed his companion and frowned. “So just how did you escape the goings-on back there? It sounds like the kind of gathering where you wouldn’t want to miss a moment of anything.”

“I’m here because I have to be, not because I want to be.”

“So you mean to tell me the governor’s back there?” Clay asked.

Gil sipped and took his time before he answered. “Although the governor was supposed to be here tonight, he sent his regrets—and the lieutenant governor and me—at the last moment.”

“I do hope nothing is wrong. Is he away with family?”

“The first lady and the kids are at the beach. He… took some time off.”

Lots more was going on there than Gil could say, and the man was angry and itching to say more. But Clay wasn’t going to put his friend on the spot and ask too much.

“I think I must take issue with your description of your dining companions as self-important. Because when I entered this establishment, I glimpsed Senator Boyle. I wouldn’t lump her in with the majority of narcissistic politicians, unless she has undergone a significant personality change recently.”

“I didn’t mean to include her in such a motley crew. But just how would you know about her personality and whether it recently changed? No love lost between you two, right?”

Clay threw back the remainder of his third bourbon. “All too true. But one need not be personally acquainted with the good senator to have heard of her angelic disposition and altruistic tendencies.”

“Spoken like a true cynic.”

“So who else is back there?”

“Let’s see. In addition to Senator Boyle, the lieutenant governor, the chief justice and Leo Labrot—”

“Leo’s back there? Haven’t seen him since he got sworn in. Man’s a ghost now that he’s on the bench.”

“He’s only been a justice for a few weeks.”

“And why is he here tonight?”

“Chief justice’s invitation. She wanted him to get used to a bit of the life in Frankfort. His first Court Week isn’t for two more weeks.” Gil pulled out his phone. “I bet he’d like to sneak away for a bit.”

As Gil tapped away, Clay ordered his fourth bourbon—and a hamburger. Time to get something in his stomach besides Kentucky ambrosia or else risk his gut burning up on him. And also so the bartender wouldn’t cut him off.

About a minute later, another familiar face appeared in the bar. Clay rose from his barstool onto unsteady legs.

“Mr. Justice Labrot,” he said, extending his hand and trying not to weave on his feet. “An honor to see you.”

The two men shook hands.

“Still so strange to hear myself called that. So what are you up to, London?” He looked Clay up and down. “A little worse for wear tonight?”

Clay explained that he’d had a trial that day, and Leo remembered the case, Leo having been his law partner only a few weeks ago.

Clay and Gil persuaded Leo to join them at the bar whereupon the justice immediately ordered a bourbon.

Clay swung his head in the direction from which Leo had come. “Conversation back there getting a bit boring for you this late into the dinner hour?”

“Let’s just say I needed a break,” Leo said, loosening his tie. “You won’t hear me say a bad word about the chief justice or Senator Boyle.”

His bourbon was delivered, and Leo took to it surprisingly quickly.

That dinner back there in the private dining room was more tiresome than the polite Leo Labrot would admit.

Clay’s hamburger arrived, and he dove in, ravenous for a big chunk of protein. He was usually a fairly light eater but whenever work really stressed him, he found himself going for the caveman kinds of food. Steaks. Burgers. Bourbon.

“And Senator Boyle,” Leo said, shaking his head. “She’s back there being all solicitous and sympathetic to the lieutenant governor. I guess they are in an exclusive and sad club, both of them having lost spouses so recently.”

“You could throw in Garner to that club as well,” Gil said.

“Not sure he belongs anymore. He got married last month,” Leo revealed.

“What the hell?” Gil said. “He lost his wife only in October or November, right? But you’re telling me he’s already found someone new?”

“Not someone new. Someone old. Well, not exactly old but from the past,” Leo said.

“You mean to tell me he and Nina Cain got back together?” Clay asked.

Leo nodded. “Yep. And you’ve just proven you know everyone’s business, London. Even those you don’t like.”

“Especially those. But since when did I have to prove or disprove the extent of my trivial knowledge about anyone?”

“To maintain that reputation of knowing something about everyone, no matter how trivial,” Gil answered instead.

Leo took a sip of his bourbon as he laughed at Gil’s spot-on assessment. “They got married in a field or something a few weeks back. Just family from what I heard. It all sounds kind of crazy, but I’ve met Nina and she’s great. I’m happy for them. Nice to know people get a second chance to get it right.” Gil suddenly finished his bourbon and asked for a second as Clay choked on a bite of his burger. Leo, standing between them, patted Clay on the back. “But I can’t even avail myself of second chances, seeing as how I live like a monk more or less. At least lately.”

“That’s a polite way of saying you’re a law nerd,” Gil said out of the side of his mouth without turning his head.

“And he has reached the ultimate law nerd level. A justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court.” He raised his glass to Leo. Gil’s second bourbon was delivered at that moment, and the two clinked glasses in front of Leo’s face before imbibing.

“How much have you two had?” Leo asked, looking from friend to friend.

“Not enough,” they said in unison.

“Wrong answer,” Leo said.

“I can’t wait to hear you tell me that from the bench as I stand in the well of the court someday,” Clay said.

“Don’t need to be a psychic to know that’s in our future.”

“I’ll likely be hearing it in a few more weeks but from your colleagues and not you. I’ve got an argument at the court. You’re recused, of course, since it was a firm case.”

“I’m sure I’ll get my chance to embarrass you sooner or later,” Leo said.

Clay straightened his spine, trying his best to don a mask of indignation. “I am perfectly capable of embarrassing myself without any assistance, thank you very much. As conclusive proof of that factual assertion, I point to my abhorrent behavior at the former chief justice’s retirement party.” Leo laughed, but it was an uneasy face of amusement.

Clay ate and listened as Leo and Gil chatted, learning that Leo had yet to pick his new office in the capitol and that Gil was going on a family vacation in a few weeks. He sounded miserable at the prospect, and Clay could guess why.

Because Clay and Gil weren’t just former law partners. They’d been related by marriage until recently. Clay’s ex-wife  was sister to Gil’s wife, Leslie. She had struggled with substance abuse for a number of years. That had been an open secret in the firm. His former in-laws, the Rowans, had tried to cover it up and cover for their daughter for years.

Gil had given his wife plenty of second chances, from what Clay knew.

Second chances. How many of those had he had with Corrie?

And then that damned urge for bourbon consumed him again. Dare he get another—

“Clay?”

He turned to see Leo staring at him.

“What?”

“Just saying I have to get back to the party. Unfortunately.”

Once more with the handshaking and good wishes and all that crap that passed for warmth between professional men. He liked Leo and Gil. But he didn’t know them that well beyond the professional world, although he’d likely count them among his best friends. And that was a rather pathetic commentary on his quality of life.

Clay gripped the new justice on the shoulder. “Good luck, Leo. You’re going to be a great addition to the court. But do me a favor.”

“And what might that be?”

“Stop living like a damned monk and just live.”

To his great credit, Leo was not offended and laughed heartily. “It’s not as though my social horizons are about to expand. In fact, they’ve shrunken considerably.”

“Then get more creative about where you look,” Clay advised.

“And what about you?”

“Me?”

“Sitting here drinking with two buddies after a trial on a Friday night? Surely you have better things to do with your time,” Leo said.

“I most certainly do not. Being with friends is an honor I would never denigrate. Besides, my lifetime allotment of romance has been expended.”

“I doubt that. But if that is true, you’ve just saved yourself a lot of heartbreak as well,” concluded Leo.

If only that were true.

Leo and Gil returned to the other room, leaving him completely alone the bar. How odd for a Friday night, but he relished the solitude. To a certain degree.

He finished his burger and the only other drink he requested was a glass of water. The bartender gave it to him with an air of relief.

Outside, it was humid yet comfortable, a light breeze sweeping away the weighted stickiness of the summer air. At that time of year, the light in the sky simply would not die until after ten o’clock; it was a few hours until the sun surrendered completely to the horizon.

And what did he have to look forward to?

Going back to the B & B and crashing? Watching some mindless television or playing with his phone until sleep claimed him?

Fun times.

As he had no other place to go except to sleep in a lonely room, he found the grounds of the Old Capitol beckoning him, and he responded. Once across the street, he turned back to look at the restaurant. The windows glowed along the darkening streetscape and he could see several empty tables in the main dining room. Dinner was winding down.

Except in that back room where Leo and Gil had returned. The party continued there.

He strolled away from the main entrance to the Old Capitol grounds to get a better peek into the window, hoping that—

She was there.

Corrie was sitting right next to the window, giving him the best view he could hope for in the twilight. Across from her was Lieutenant Governor Keane, looking hunched and tired as a new widower had every right to be. His head was bowed as he spoke, and Corrie nodded as she listened. When he stopped, she said something.

And the man laughed.

So she was an angel. She could relieve the grieving of their sorrow, if only for a passing moment. That quality had the touch of the divine.

Her head turned, and she stared out the window into dimness.

Had she seen him? It wasn’t so dark that it was impossible.

Clay knew he’d been spotted as the voyeur he was when her gaze lingered in his direction.

Walking away from the scene and out of her line of sight, he headed for his solitary room, comforted and tortured by the vision of her, wondering when he might again glimpse her to reignite such wonderful agony.

 

Copyright (c) 2017 Jennifer Bramseth. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotation in a book review.

 

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