Stave and Hoop
Bourbonland Short Stories and Novellas #2
Part 3 of 7
“This is going to involve bourbon, isn’t it?”
“How’d you guess?” she asked.
“Being in central Kentucky, it’s always a possibility. But the big clue was the sign that said this exit leads to three different distilleries.”
After only being on the highway for ten minutes, Candace had taken the first exit off the road at Lawrenceburg, going north.
“So can you make another guess where we’re going?”
He smiled. “What do I get if I get it right?”
“You really like playing games, don’t you?”
“You’ve already got that extra date with me,” she said.
“And I’ll take anything else I can get when it comes to you.”
The admission startled her, but the honesty did give her a little thrill. And Ting just kept on grinning.
“Then our stakes will be ice cream. But you have to guess right now. And only one guess.”
They were at the bottom of the exit ramp, and she lingered, knowing there were no cars behind them and that soon he would be able to determine their destination by the road she took.
“Ah… Wild Turkey?” he ventured.
“Wrong. Four Roses.”
“They sell ice cream there? And this late on a Friday night?”
“In the summers their café stays open late on weekend nights to sell sandwiches and treats. We should have plenty of time.”
“I didn’t know they had a café there.”
“Recent thing. The distilleries in Bardstown could learn a thing or two from them. I heard Four Roses got the idea from Old Garnet. They’ve got a large café down there in Bourbon Springs. Food and ice cream are supposed to be incredible. I’ve been wanting to go test their wares myself.”
They were at the distillery in less than five minutes after getting off the Parkway. The parking lot behind the main building and where the new café was located was nearly full, and Candace had to hunt for a few minutes for a spot. After she found one, Ting once again helped her from her vehicle, and they entered the bright yellow building holding hands.
She’d always loved the architecture here. Spanish Mission style, sunflower yellow splashed across the exterior walls everywhere, and terra cotta tiles on the roof. The motif had been extended to the new construction, giving the grounds an elegant, consistent look.
Four Roses had crafted a sweet little sandwich shop and ice cream parlor. The tables had those chairs with wrought iron heart-shaped backs, the seats covered in yellow vinyl to match the booths along the wall to the right. The menu behind the counter was written in a multitude of colored chalk, with food scribbled in red or pink and ice cream in yellow or white. Hand-drawn clusters of roses edged the board. And on every table was an emptied Four Roses Single Barrel bottle, each holding four long-stemmed deep red roses. If it hadn’t been for the smell of freshly baking bread and cookies, she was sure that the scent of the flowers would’ve occupied the entire diner.
They examined the menu as they waited in a long line. As time passed, Candace saw that they were not going to be able to find a seat inside the diner. They’d have to go outside to enjoy their treats.
They both got the same thing: a waffle cone with bourbon-vanilla ice cream, topped with a drizzle of hot bourbon caramel. Ting paid, since he’d lost the bet.
Outside was almost as busy as inside. The picnic tables and benches were fully occupied.
“Guess we’ll have to stand around and eat, unless you want to go back to my car and sit,” Candace suggested.
“And that would be a shame on a night like this. Too lovely.” He stared at her as he finished the sentence ,and a light breeze brushed a strand of hair into her face.
“You just don’t want to get back in the car because that means going back to Bardstown and the end of this.”
“Yes and no.”
She took a lick of her ice cream. The bourbon-vanilla-caramel mixture almost made her moan out loud.
Then the look on Ting’s face told her she had actually done that very thing.
“Sorry, but this is really good. And tell me what you meant with that yes-and-no comment. Teachers don’t like a vague answer.”
“I meant that you were right about my not wanting to go back to Bardstown.”
“But you were wrong about that other part.”
“What other part?”
“Tonight’s not the end of this, Candace.”
To hear him voice her hope took her breath away. She tried to hide that fact with brashness.
“You’re suddenly a mighty bold man, Mr. Tingley. Or should I say chief?”
“Whatever you want call me, Ms. Keane.” He looked over his shoulder across the parking lot. “As I recall, there’s a patio around the far side of the distillery visitors’ center. Care to go over there?”
She peered in the direction he had indicated with a nod of his head, seeing no light coming from that area nor any human activity.
She took his hand. “Lead the way.”
The patio was a completely deserted circular pavilion. Around the circumference of the concrete slab were three large gas grills spaced equidistantly from each other. This place must be the spot for special event cookouts—she could almost smell the burgers and steaks. Bourbon barrels cut in half were placed around supporting pillars, petunias spilling from their depths and saturating the air with a sweet, spicy scent that always made her think of her mother. She had planted the flowers the first chance she could after the danger of frost and always in pink.
“Such a happy color,” her mother had insisted. “And the world needs plenty of happy.”
That had been the first time that night Candace had thought of her mother.
She’d gone for hours without dredging up memories. As Candace fixed her eyes on the ebony fringe of the tree line across an open field beyond the pavilion, an unfamiliar mixture of relief and guilt washed over her.
Ting was standing next to a chair he’d pulled out for her from a table.
“Sorry. I just… I like the flowers.”
She took the seat, and Ting pulled up a chair next to her. Then the silence took over; her mood had irrevocably altered.
Yet as more reminiscences of her mother flooded her, she didn’t feel sad. And that had been her standard operating procedure over the past three weeks. Everything was a reminder of the loss. Scents, images, sounds—the world of the past so easily conjured for sadness in the present.
But she’d just passed several pleasant hours without the burden of grief.
And that was thanks to him. He had filled that space for her.
Had he known she needed this? An escape, a diversion? They’d not gone near the subject of her mother’s death over dinner, instead talking about work, the upcoming school year, and his new job in Louisville.
Of course he’d known.
And when the chance had presented itself—a date and a chance to do a good deed wrapped into one, Adam Tingley was not about to resist the call of being The Nice Guy.
His arm rested on the table, and she placed her hand on it. The skin was warm, the muscles oh-so-hard and smooth.
Surprised, he started in his seat, but then smiled. “What did I do?”
“You’ve shown me a wonderful evening. You’ve… taken my mind off things. Nothing has been able to do that for a very long time. Except you.”
He laughed in a self-deprecating, endearing way, and she knew she’d hit him where it hurt—his ego. She’d complimented him and he was uncomfortable with it.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you just told me I was special.”
“I did just say that, Adam.”
The use of his proper name changed something between them. No longer was she in a cocoon of grief or self-important worries about what other people thought.
And all she could see was him sitting next to her, looking at her like he wanted to throw his ice cream away and devour her instead.
His eyes scanned the area, then came back to her.
“Give me your cone.”
“You trusted me up to this point. Keep trusting me to find out.”
She handed it over, the paper wrapping still tightly coiled around the cone.
He rose and took a few steps over to the nearest planter full of cascading petunias. Turning first to smile at her, Ting bent and stuck the sharp tips into the soft potting soil.
“Why’d you do that?” she asked.
He returned to stand before her, holding out his hand.
“I’d like our hands to be free for our first kiss.”
Her hand slipped into his as she came to her feet.
“You are a bold one tonight,” she whispered.
He brushed a thumb across her lips. She shuddered.
“You’ve given me reason to be.”
His hand came to her cheek, and in that split second she tried to recall the last time she’d been kissed.
And then the answer no longer mattered.
He lowered his mouth to hers. He was strong but soft. So eager yet scared.
As she responded, she melted into him, falling against his body, her arms wrapping around his waist as one of his hands gingerly rested on her hip.
Ting pulled away, his fingers sweeping over her cheek.
“Nice for a start,” she said.
And then she felt herself burning up with embarrassment and… What was that other feeling?
Yeah, that was good old-fashioned jump-in-my-pants-and-other-parts lust right there.
“Is that another way of saying you’re abandoning your ice cream?” he asked.
“I’d like another taste of the dessert right in front of me, thank you very much.”
Suddenly she was flat against him, pulled into his body by his strong arms. His mouth, previously so tentative and even respectful, now became demanding, desperate, greedy. He towered over her, moving her back against the chair, bending her over as he kissed her lips, cheeks, neck.
And all Candace could do was wither under the attack.
When he’d finally released her and they fell apart, Candace looked upon him with eyes anew.
The man had made her weak in the knees. Unsteady on her feet. Punch-drunk.
The simple but heartfelt comment made him grin broadly and hold her even closer.
“I think I’m going to like this game we’re playing,” he said.
“Me too. But how long do we get to play it?”
The grin faded, her words cutting through the happiness. “If you want to stop, I’ll understand. I don’t want to put you in a position where you feel uncomfortable or obligated to go on the second date with me.”
She put a hand on the back of his head, relishing the feeling of the short yet smooth hair under her fingertips.
“I’m an adult, and I’ll play this game as long as it’s fun.”
Even though she sensed the endgame was not going to be fun at all.
Ting shook his head. “I can’t do this if it’s eventually going to break your heart.”
She laughed just a little; it was all she could muster.
“Ting, it’s already broken. I just lost my mother. I saw her slowly fade and suffer miserably. I gained hope, lost hope, gained it again only to have it ultimately stolen from me when she died. We thought as late as a week or so before she left us that she was going to make it. Being with you has helped me forget all that horror and pain. You can’t hurt me any more than I’m hurting right now. There’s nothing left in me to break.”
His eyes searched her face and Candace was close to unleashing a torrent of sobs. Desperately wanting him to kiss her again, she closed her eyes in invitation and as a barrier to tears.
Yet instead of feeling the anticipated and much desired brush of his lips against hers, she was swept into a strong, tight hug. Once more that night she melted into him, the warmth of his body and his soul wrapped around her, protecting her, if only until time ran out on their game.
* * *
If not for the meeting with the governor that afternoon, Coraleigh wouldn’t have bothered coming into her capitol annex office at all. But she had left some reports there instead of taking them back to Traveler’s Rest, and she needed to review them before diving into deep education policy discussions with Governor Cassidy and his chief of staff, Gil Humston.
Even though it was a perk of her position, she didn’t care for her physical office. The place was sterile and devoid of anything remotely resembling taste to the point where it felt like a fallout bunker than professional space. She deemed it unnecessary since she had a perfectly respectable office back in Woodford County, cozy yet adequate, and easily located by her constituents since it was in an old house on Main Street.
Uncharacteristically, Coraleigh had kept the front door of the office locked that day, since she didn’t have any administrative support and she needed to focus on digesting the reports. Cassidy was widely known as a charming rogue, to the point of being flirtatious. But that exterior hid his true personality when it came to his governing style: a total policy wonk. The man had an astonishing grasp of the ins and outs of state government, and Coraleigh knew she’d have to be on her toes for this encounter.
Her computer finally booted up and she checked her email. She moved all constituent emails into a special folder; she would respond to those when she had more time, most likely later in the evening at home when she could login remotely. She deleted spam (she didn’t need to jump-start her weight loss, didn’t care for any “free” vacation options, or need help in the bedroom, thanks), made an appointment for lunch next week with her cousin-in-law, Nina Cain, and sent a thank-you to the secretary of state’s office for help with a research request.
Then a reminder popped up:
Oral argument—10 a.m.
Hell. She’d forgotten about that.
It wasn’t her oral argument. If it had been, she wouldn’t have needed to put a reminder in her calendar about it. The stress of such an experience would’ve been the only alarm clock she needed.
She had never argued before the Kentucky Supreme Court but had a feeling that day was coming soon with a few cases she had in the pipeline. Few things could make her feel fear, but the thought of standing before seven robed justices as they picked apart her arguments as she tried to make a case for a client was one of them.
Coraleigh pulled up the court’s website and navigated to “Oral Arguments Calendar” in the right column. Another click on the month took her to the schedule for that week.
The PDF opened, and she scrolled down to that morning’s arguments.
There was only one.
Samson v. Jupiter Communications
Breach of contract. Damages. Discretionary review granted over six months earlier. Appellant got adverse results at the trial court and intermediate appellate level.
She’d read the briefs. Hard to figure out exactly why the supreme court was interested in the case. The players were big—a businessman and a large regional corporation battling over some public relations contract that went awry—but the issues were pretty ordinary.
She suspected the court might’ve granted review due to the parties. As in big campaign donors. Jupiter Communications just happened to be owned by a friend of Gray Vansant, the congressman everyone expected to run for governor when Cassidy termed out, even though Cassidy was only in his first term. People could see the future sometimes even if it was years away and the road leading to it littered with campaign as well as dollar signs.
And yet that’s not why she was interested in the case.
Very few likely took note of the attorneys. But she had the moment she’d seen the oral argument schedule for that month (she was on the email list, being the law nerd she was).
Attorney for Appellee: Clay Maddox London
Seeing him a few weeks earlier at the restaurant had been jarring. They hadn’t laid eyes on each other since Russell’s funeral, and that encounter—if staring at him longingly across a gravel parking lot after her husband’s funeral could be called that—was a moment she wished she could completely erase from memory.
Then she could’ve sworn he had been outside that restaurant that evening, looking across the street and into the windows where she had sat consoling Doug Keane. That poor man. He was completely shattered by the loss of his wife. She couldn’t say quite the same thing about losing Russell. And that made her feel awful. They’d been headed for another break—this time involving lawyers instead of merely harsh words and tears.
She never should’ve married on the rebound. Russell never knew that, of course. He’d thought they’d just gotten together after another temporary falling apart and that this time they’d stay together forever just because they happened to get married.
But what had occurred during that short time Russell had been out of the picture last fall had produced heartache she’d carry for the rest of her life.
And now she was sitting there thinking about actually going to watch the man who could so easily dredge up such painful memories?
Could she do it? Could she sit there and watch as a dispassionate legal observer?
The idea was laughable.
And she didn’t know whether she could hide herself well enough from Clay’s line of sight. The courtroom wasn’t that big. She didn’t want to be a distraction to Clay. Even though she was aware he was a seasoned appellate advocate, she feared her presence could make him lose focus.
Selfishly she still wanted to go.
If only there were a way to see how full the courtroom was before she entered. That way, she could just sneak in the back and—
The idea blossomed in her head, and she was out of her chair.
After locking up the office, she headed outside to cross the street to the capitol. She could’ve used the connecting tunnel between the buildings, but the lovely summer’s day beckoned.
The quickest way into the capitol was straight across, of course, but having a small cushion of time, Coraleigh wandered to the right. A detour through the capitol rose garden on a day like this was required.
It was rare that she got to visit the garden—being too busy was really a poor excuse not to enjoy it. Tea and floribundas erupted in color through neatly aligned rows. Her mother would’ve approved of the display. Athena Boyle loved any kind of rose, and had her own garden behind Traveler’s Rest.
Well, she had in the past. Now confined to the care facility, the only roses her mother enjoyed were the kind brought to her from Traveler’s Rest rather than those in bloom outside.
Coraleigh didn’t linger long and traipsed across the street, taking the mansion side entrance to the capitol. A glance in the direction of the governor’s residence showed her that the roses in the garden fronting the house were also in full bloom.
If only her mother had had the chance to be First Lady. The number of rosebushes would’ve tripled over there.
Inside, she flashed her ID badge at the state troopers holding down the security checkpoint. They waved and greeted her by name. She wasn’t sure who they were, so she stopped, shook their hands, and got their names. They seemed shocked by the attention.
She made her way to the clerk of the supreme court’s office on the second floor.
And directly across from the thick wooden door that was the entrance to the courtroom.
“Hi, Senator Boyle! What’s up?”
“Hi, Mellie,” Coraleigh greeted the deputy clerk. The two had gotten acquainted a few months earlier when Coraleigh needed an answer on a technical issue when filing a brief. “Elise around?”
Mellie shook her head. “Madame Clerk is not here. Court’s about to open.” She pointed to the video monitor on her desk.
“Ah, yes. Court Week. Arguments today. Justice Labrot sitting for the first time?”
She moved to the side of Mellie’s desk and peered at the monitor. The courtroom was reasonably full, which surprised her. She spotted Clay and her heart did a nervous jump; he was at counsel table, back to the gallery, materials spread before him. A legal warrior preparing for engagement.
“He’s already sat on a few but not this one. He’s recused.”
Coraleigh pretended not to know the case and got the info from Mellie. She then announced she’d go and watch the argument as a matter of professional curiosity.
“Have fun,” Mellie said. She thought she caught a bit of an eye roll as she left.
Coraleigh checked the time on the clock jutting out from the wall above the courtroom entrance.
Two minutes. The justices were about to go on the bench. Now or never.
She grabbed the brass doorknob, the state seal deeply engraved on the surface, and entered. Staying close to the back wall, she kept her head down but eyes to the front of the chamber. When she took a seat in the most remote corner under a window, Clay turned as someone reached over the bar and tapped him on the shoulder.
And in that moment, his eyes strayed to the corner, his face tensed—
The small forest of people stood along the benches, and every head whipped to the front of the courtroom. The clerk, Elise McNabb, had just entered, the justices following.
Elise opened court with the standard admonishment and prayer, concluding with the command that all be seated.
Chief Justice Helen Nolan addressed the attorneys.
“Ms. Minton, Mr. London,” she said, causing both to rise immediately. “As you are aware, Justice Labrot has recused on this matter since he was Mr. London’s law partner until his recent appointment to the court. He will take no part in the resolution of this matter. Now that we have that on the record, we shall proceed. Ms. Minton, as counsel for appellant, you have fifteen minutes. How much time do you wish to reserve?”
The argument began.
As good an attorney Elizabeth Minton was, and Coraleigh knew of her reputation although not the woman personally, it was clear from the first question that her client was not in a good spot.
And that the case itself—the facts, the issues—was monstrously dull.
Good faith, bad faith. Breach and notice. Damages. All those law school terms were tossed about as legal word salad, leaving her decidedly peckish for something more substantively interesting.
So Coraleigh tuned out and focused on Clay.
She could see his back and sometimes his profile as he studied his adversary, then looked down to scribble a note.
He was so familiar, so engaged in the moment.
“Ms. Minton, your time is up.” The chief justice looked to Clay. “Mr. London, you may proceed.”
Clay went to the podium without a look behind him. He placed a thin three-ring binder of notes on the lectern before him, addressed the court, and launched into his argument.
Coraleigh had never seen Clay in court. She had never practiced against him or had any dealings with him as counsel in any matter.
So to see him in his element, using his wits and words and in full command of his considerable legal talents, was a gift.
He was respectful yet forceful. When the questions inevitably came from the bench, he expertly answered or deflected them. Where Elizabeth Minton’s presentation had been professional but ponderous, Clay’s performance was more akin to a well-trained and flexible dancer, moving deftly from topic to topic as his examiners peppered him with questions designed to throw him off track.
Like that would ever work on him.
He even had the most cantankerous jurist, Justice Knott, a hardened former prosecutor from eastern Kentucky, laughing as he admitted one of the weaknesses in his case.
“You realize, Mr. London, that should this court be divided due to the recusal of your former colleague, the decision of the court of appeals will stand? Your client will prevail?” Justice Knott asked.
“Indeed I am, your honor.”
“So I guess it’s fair to say that if those circumstances come to pass, you will be most pleased to celebrate your law partner’s success?”
“I am most aggrieved that I have lost such an excellent law partner, but happy that this court has the benefit of the best legal mind of his generation in Kentucky.”
“By that logic, Mr. London, you have just excluded yourself from that lofty pedestal,” chief justice said, looking over her glasses at him. Several justices laughed.
“Well, I should. I have no illusions that, even though I was in the same firm as Justice Labrot for far too short a time, I will ever be in the same league when it comes to his brilliance. And if he should unexpectedly retire from judicial and legal endeavors, much to the detriment of all, I still would never approach being worthy of his mantle. For what it’s worth, the only other lawyer who could possibly give Leo a run for his money–excuse me Justice Labrot. Old habits die hard.” The justices laughed at this correction. “Anyway, the only other lawyer of my generation who could come close to challenging your new colleague in terms of skills, brains, hard work, and compassion is sitting in this courtroom. But I digress.”
The justices scanned the room in some confusion. Heads in the gallery swiveled, including her own, but found no obvious candidate to match Clay’s description.
Then Coraleigh realized Clay had meant her.
As Clay resumed his argument, she hunched into her seat, futilely attempting to make herself invisible and disappear into the corner of the courtroom.
Why the hell had she taken the risk to be there? Even though not all the justices had spotted her, she was sure that the chief justice had noted her presence.
“Mr. London, your time has expired. Thank you.” The chief justice nodded to him, and with a quick thank-you, Clay retook his seat. Elizabeth Minton once again went to the lectern and finished her argument.
“Thank you, counsel,” the chief justice said, cutting off Elizabeth in midsentence. “The court will take all this under advisement and issue a ruling.”
The justices rose as one, causing everyone else in the courtroom to rise a millisecond later.
“The Supreme Court of Kentucky is now in recess,” the clerk announced as though that wasn’t obvious to all.
The court snaked out the door behind and to the right of the bench, Elise following. Once the door shut and all signs of black robes were gone, a visible wave of relaxation rippled through those remaining in the courtroom.
Coraleigh immediately retook her seat, seeking the camouflage of bodies between herself and Clay.
Nonetheless, she was able to snatch peeks of him as he shook hands and chatted jovially with Elizabeth Minton.
There was the very picture of professionalism and collegiality: two lawyers who had just gone to battle before the highest judicial authority in the state, zealously holding forth for their clients, yet now engaged in the pleasant chatter that flowed not only between professionals but mature adults. It was this image that the public had difficulty understanding, believing that attorneys who so behaved were colluding against their clients’ interests. In fact, it was the mark of excellence in the practice of law. People should want attorneys who got along rather than those who practiced Ramboesque and scorched-earth style. Those lawyers made the profession look bad and tended not to get as good results for their clients as a more pleasant and calm demeanor did.
That was Clay in a nutshell. Smooth. Self-possessed. In control.
Except when it came to how they interacted personally.
No, the friction, passion, and energy between them had never allowed for pleasantness and comfort. Experience and the expectations of others had created a much more perilous landscape between them.
A landscape that was now barren and silent.
The crowd began to disperse, seeping through the one courtroom entrance through which she had entered around an hour earlier. It appeared that the parties had not attended the argument, as Coraleigh could not spot anyone sitting behind the bar behind the massive counsel tables with whom the attorneys had intimately conversed at the conclusion of arguments.
Elizabeth was gone.
But Clay remained.
A young man in an ill-fitting suit appeared at counsel table beside Clay and helped him pack up his materials. The man had every mark of a law clerk, or perhaps a very green associate. But Clay did not delegate the entire task to his fresh-faced assistant, instead pulling his own weight to pitch in to get his materials in order. Not every attorney would do that, and a flush of admiration—no, it was another feeling—bloomed in her chest.
By the time Clay was packed up and ready to go, the courtroom was empty of observers and there wasn’t anyone between herself and Clay to even partially obscure her from his view.
The clerk or associate took charge of Clay’s two stuffed and cumbersome rolling briefcases. Clay nodded to the guy, placed a hand on his shoulder, and dismissed him.
When the kid was gone, Clay and Coraleigh were the only ones left in the courtroom.
Yet they weren’t alone.
The courtroom video monitors were on in the clerk’s office. And from what she knew of the court’s interior workings in their conference room behind the courtroom, there were monitors back there as well.
“To have an audience,” Clay began, his voice shocking her as he stared straight ahead and not at her, “is always a compliment. But to have an audience of those one respects is an honor.” He turned, looking directly at her. “And it is an honor I will never deserve.”
A tense smile was visible on those painfully familiar features, his head bowed.
Then he straightened, turned away, and strode quickly from the courtroom.
Once alone, Coraleigh struggled with why she had come, why she had stayed, and what she was feeling.
She blinked, the entire courtroom snapping into focus as through a lens.
The reasons, the feeling—it was all right here in front of her in exquisite, painful relief.
She was alone.
As well as lonely.
And yet it felt as though the world was watching her in her not-so-splendid isolation.
A thing on a pedestal, admired, talked about, observed, just like a bust of a long-ago justice that graced the back of the courtroom.
Coraleigh didn’t bother wondering whether Clay was outside in the hall waiting for her.
Her heart knew he wasn’t.
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.
Exclusive preorder link for Stave and Hoop. The novella will be released on Amazon, Barnes and Noble/Nook, kobo, and GooglePlay on May 16 (no preorders).