The Girl From Yesterday
Big Mama Thorton howled about her Hound Dog and competed with the screaming wind threatening to whip the Longhorns ball cap off the back of Abbie Carmichael's head. The trip from Austin to Abilene was nothing but a series of dusty backroads frequented by jackrabbits, tumbleweed and the occasional highway patrol; and her Mustang convertible ate up the distance with as much ease as its namesake had centuries ago. She had been looking forward to this day for an achingly long time, when she could shed the burdens of both school and scholarship and return to the protective embrace of her family's rough-and-tumble rowdy love. Their mother's death a year ago last July had brought the already close-knit family even closer together, and Abbie longed for the security of her brothers' arms and her sister's apple cobbler and late-night coffee talks. It was a wonder she had even returned to school last fall, but she wasn't about to turn tail and run away-- not after everything that had happened.
The mid-May sun was far too merciless to be driving around with the top down, but the way Abbie figured, it didn't do any good to drive the kind of car she did unless she dropped the top at every single opportunity. Which went along way to explaining her sweaty and disheveled state when she finally pulled into the dusty, suburban drive of her father's house. With adolescent exuberance, she bounded over the driver's side door of the Mustang, banging on the horn repeatedly.
"Damn Legs, you trying to let the whole town know you're here?" The inquisitive head of her middle brother, Bobby, poked out from above the red tip shrubs her mother had planted years ago. Large trimming shears dangled awkwardly from his sixteen-year old hands as he hopped off the ladder and trotted over to greet his older sister. "How you doin?"
Of the five Carmichael children, Bobby was by far the most easy-going and least like his siblings. His dirty blondish-brown hair lacked the distinctiveness of either his mother's white-blond locks or his father's inky black ones, and his eyes were a gentle brown that rarely ever darkened with anger or irritation. Temperamentally, he was most like their mother, sharing with her a love of music and books that his physically-oriented brothers didn't quite understand. Abbie didn't especially understand this passion either; but she knew Bobby's tender nature was rare enough to treasure, so she looked out for him when they were in school together and now wrote him long letters from college describing in intricate detail the library and the endless stacks of books she encountered there. Last summer she had shared with him her tentative desire to join the debate team and perhaps later go to law school-- though she hadn't explained the reason why. He had gazed at her with gleaming eyes and quietly told her that he thought that was the best idea he'd ever heard from her.
Now Bobby's gangly length was wrapped around her own lean one in a ferocious hug, as he let her pick him up and squeeze-- even though he now topped her by a good three inches. "Phew," he grimaced as she dropped him lightly on his feet. "You stink."
Scowling good-naturedly, she replied, "That's because I've been driving damn near five hours just so I could get home in time for supper. Besides, even if I was dunked in a slop bucket, I'd still smell better than you, little bro."
"Not," he retorted.
"Wanna bet?" She snatched the Abliene Avengers ball cap from his head and tousled his short hair. "Here, I brought this for you." She took the Longhorns cap from her own head and handed it to him.
"It's all dirty!" he protested, but nonetheless placed the cap proudly on his head.
"Then give it back." Abbie reached for the cap, but Bobby ducked out of range of her long arms. Tossing the trimming shears to the side of the lawn, he led her into an impromptu game of tag that ended only when Abbie flung herself at his legs, bringing him down in an open field tackle that would have made her football coach father proud. "Gotcha. Gimme that, you ungrateful brat."
"NO...." Bobby squirmed away from her with surprising agility and sprinted to the back of the house, flinging open the screen-porch door and calling triumphantly. "SAFE!" The back porch was the traditional de-militarized zone in the Carmichael household, mostly because all the siblings needed someplace they could be safe from each other's shenanigans. Only the porch and their mother's kitchen table were sacred.
Abbie growled teasingly. "Just you wait," she threatened. Looking around at the unusually tidy surroundings and the fresh flowers on the wicker table, she cocked her head. "What's up? Somebody gettin married?"
"Ben brought somebody home," her little brother announced with a flourish.
"So what?" Because of their father's coaching job and the Carmichael siblings' own gregarious natures, it seemed there was always someone staying the night, the weekend, the week. They hadn't ever warranted fresh flowers.
"It's a girl," he mock-whispered.
Abbie shoved her brother into one of the worn, comfortable chairs. "Get out of here."
"Benjy brought somebody home from Louisiana Tech?"
"Yup," he answered proudly.
"Where are they now?"
"Dad's running summer practice for the walk-ons. Ben and Billy're out helping him."
Abbie rolled her eyes and shook her head. "The old man's gonna give somebody a heat stroke one day. So where is the fair-haired maiden?"
She snorted. "Of course. Since when did Ben ever tolerate anything less?" Ben-- Benjy, to Abbie alone-- was only eleven months younger than the college sophomore, and was blessed just as Abbie was with their father's dark good looks. While on Abbie they combined with her mother's exquisite bone structure to create a breathtaking and oftentimes painful beauty-- Ben remained simply handsome in a traditional, unthreatening sort of way. From the time he was old enough to recognize the opposite sex, Ben had indulged with all the gusto and glee of a young, red-blooded Texan male. Abbie couldn't remember a time when he didn't have some girl-- usually a year or so younger-- hanging off his arm or wearing his letterman's jacket, watching adoringly as he competed for high school glory. It seemed that this particular tradition was carrying over into his college days.
"I dunno, Legs. This one seems different."
"What do you mean?"
He shrugged. "Just different. Come on, let's go get some tea."
Allowing Bobby to tug her through the house into the kitchen, Abbie absorbed the house's immaculate surroundings. "Where's Sare?" she asked.
"In here." A soprano voice called to them from the kitchen. "I think I could hear that road hog of yours from about a mile away. How you've got any hearing left is beyond me."
Sara Elizabeth Carmichael was two years older than Abbie and had assumed the brunt of helping her father raise the youngest siblings, Bobby and Billy, when their mother had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer two years ago. When the surgery and the drugs and the chemotherapy had failed, when the doctors had told the bewildered family that there was nothing more to do, and their now-frail mother had asked to come home-- Sare had been the one to stare into the red-rimmed crying eyes of her siblings and tell them that their mother wasn't dead yet, by God, and to quit acting like she was. Under her eldest daughter's tender care, Beth had lived almost another nine months-- eight months longer than the doctors said she would. Abbie was convinced that her sister's raw stubbornness, coupled with their mother's own formidable will, did far more good than any of the white-coated men with their cold hands and dead eyes.
"EH?" Abbie cupped one hand around her ear. "You say something?"
Sara smirked and slapped her sister on the shoulder. "Smartass."
"Better than a dumbass, like Bobby here." She made to lunge for him, but her sister's reproachful glance stopped Abbie in mid-motion.
Behind Sara's back, Bobby stuck out his tongue.
Arching her brows in an I'm-going-to-get-you-later-glare, Abbie glowered at her brother briefly before leaning over Sara's shoulder. "What are you baking and can I have some?"
"Banana bread and no, it's not done yet. Besides, it's for supper tonight."
"Yeah, what's up with that?" Abbie asked, snatching a couple of slices of banana from the cutting board.
"Abigail Louisa Carmichael, you put your hands on my cooking one more time, I'm gonna chop your fingers off." Sara waved a large knife menacingly in her sibling's direction.
"Ooh, I'm scared. But seriously, Sare. What gives? I know you ain't making dessert and supper just for me. I sorta figured we'd all go out for ribs. Who's this mysterious girl?"
"She's not mysterious. Well, I guess she isn't. Ben called last week and asked Daddy if he could bring somebody home with him for the first two weeks of summer break. Daddy said he didn't see why not, but that he was crazy if he thought they were sleeping in the same bed together."
Abbie's brows rose dramatically. "Don't tell me that my little brother actually had the nerve to ask."
Both Bobby and Sara snorted with laughter. "Not," Bobby replied.
"I think Daddy was just--"
"Cutting him off at the knees as usual?" Abbie finished.
"Laying down the law," her sister corrected mildly.
"I'm sure Ben'll find some dark corner to sneak off or something. He's a resourceful little brat."
"And you're not?" Sare teased, smiling. "I seem to remember a certain Carmichael sister sneaking off to the reservoir after curfew with a certain Justin Longman and getting caught skinny dipping."
"Yeah, and Ben's the one who sicced the old man on me."
"Just because you told Sally that he was catting around on her."
"He was!" Abbie protested. "And she was running around saying they were engaged-to-be-engaged or some shit like that."
"Language..." Sara remonstrated.
Abbie made a face in response before continuing, "Besides, it's not like Justin and I were doing anything."
"Yeah," Bobby smirked. "You're the only one I know who actually goes swimming when she skinny dips."
"Shaddup, brat." Reaching around the smaller form of her sister, Abbie shoved him good-naturedly.
"Not in the kitchen, you two. If you're going to act like wild horses, take it outside." She stopped, sniffing the air delicately. "Better yet, take it upstairs and to the shower. Ya'll smell."
Rolling her eyes and shaking her head, Abbie groaned. "I do not smell."
"Wanna bet?" Sare challenged, echoing her brother. "Upstairs. The others will be back soon and Daddy wants everybody on time for supper. And Abbie, put something nicer than those old ripped up jeans of yours. It's your first night back, and it won't kill you."
The nineteen-year old opened her mouth to protest, but her sister's tone and the entreating warmth in her eyes were a ghostly echo of their mother's unconditional, but firm, devotion. Swallowing hard to choke back the emotion that threatened to pour forth, Abbie nodded her acquiescence. "Sure, Sare," she said softly. "But I'm not wearing a dress," she called over her shoulder, bounding outside to retrieve her bags from the car.
Her bedroom didn't look any different than it had the last time she had been home at Christmas. Track ribbons attesting to her high-school accomplishments covered a large bulletin board along one wall, along with her letter of acceptance from UT and the full-scholarship they had offered her. With a family as large as hers, it had been either go full-scholarship or not at all-- and nobody knew how close she had come to losing it.
All because of a selfish, spoiled boy and a night she never wanted to remember again.
Hugging her arms tightly around her body, Abbie took a deep breath, willing the memories away. They hadn't believed her when she reported the rape. Hadn't believed that this scion of old family money with his endless good looks and style would have had to force himself on a gangly, uncertain college freshman when he could have had anybody. When Abbie told them she was going to the police anyway, they had told her that all students involved in a police investigation-- no matter the capacity-- were referred to the disciplinary committee and that all scholarships were suspended until the investigation was completed. It was slightly more subtle than the rape she had experienced at the hands of Chuck Manchester, but it was rape nonetheless.
Cornered, Abbie had no choice but to drop the issue, knowing that there was no way her father could help pay for her tuition-- not with their mother's medical bills and the day-to-day expense of raising four other kids-- and quite frankly, she didn't know how she would find the words to explain it to him anyway. For Abbie, it was simply a matter of survival.
Chasing the familiar shame away, she tossed Buddy Guy's "Stone Crazy" into the tape player and turned up the sound loud enough to drown out the roaring shower. Coolish water sluiced over her, drawing the heat effortlessly from her skin and washing off the dirt and grime from the drive. Her showers at school were perfunctory rituals-- jump into the too-cold-or-too-hot-spray, lather, rinse, jump out and dry with a thin towel too small for her long body. Now Abbie luxuriated in the comforting touches of home-- the little bath soaps that Sare kept in the dish next to the tub, the fluffy pastel-colored towels hanging on the rod waiting for her, and the yellow rubber ducky that had been Abbie's when she was a child.
She took the time to wash her shoulder-length hair twice, running her hands through its thickness and feeling the last coils of tension unknot and slip loose from her lower back. It felt so good to be home. Humming with the raunchy bar blues, Abbie flipped the water off and grabbed a towel to absorb the rivulets of water streaming from her skin. She stepped through the doorway connecting her bedroom to the bathroom, biting off a startled yelp as an unfamiliar figure loomed large in her bedroom.
"Holy shit," Abbie gasped. "Where the hell did you come from?"
Spun-gold hair and dark green eyes. Wine-tinted lips and sun-kissed skin. A knowing smile and low-throated chuckle. "Hi. You must be Abbie. I'm Laura Robedeaux."
Abbie stared at her awkwardly abashed brothers in silent bemusement. Laura Robedeaux seemed to have tongue-tied them all-- even Benjy's abrasively loud voice had been quieted to a gently respectful tenor. Since her father rarely engaged in exchanges whose topic didn't involve some sort of athletics-- that left her and Sare to carry the conversational ball. And Sare had even less in common with the tawny-haired stranger than Abbie. Which meant in an household whose occupants normally had to shout each other out to be heard, there wasn't a whole lot of talk over dinner. Thankfully, however, dinner was now over and Laura, Ben, and Abbie had moved out onto the back porch. Bobby had wandered upstairs where he was now ensconced in some book or other, no doubt; and Billy had gone out with some friends to the Dairy Queen.
Laura was a year older than Ben, a sophomore at Louisiana Tech-- like Abbie was at UT. Abbie was surprised to discover she was a political science major with an interest in corporate law. Laura came from a family of lawyers, it seemed, and they were old Louisiana money. "Daddy says we're survivors-- we outlasted the war, the carpetbaggers, and now the government... Personally, I think the Robedeaux are sort of like cockroaches. Just when you think you've killed us all... a new strain pops up..." Laura said, a self-mocking gleam in her eyes. Her parents-- her eyes seemed to say-- may have taken her debutante status seriously, but she didn't.
Abbie liked the rebellious glimmer in Laura's malachite eyes and the teasing note in her voice. It keened to something familiar in the teenager-- a wild streak in Abbie that she thought circumstance and necessity had tamed out of her. Now she smiled at the girl across the table from her. "You're kinda far from home, aren't you? I mean this backwoods is hell and gone from the bright lights of New Orleans."
"Ben invited me," she replied placidly.
"Oh yeah..." Abbie jerked her head in the direction of the kitchen, where Ben had gone to fetch a handful of longnecks and a glass of wine from the bottle that he had picked up on his way into Abilene. Abbie's favorite John Lee Hooker tape played quietly in the background, and a full moon provided all the illumination they needed. "My silver-tongued brother... He does have a way with the ladies."
"Is that a Carmichael family trait?"
Abbie arched a questioning eyebrow. "Now I don't really know, come to think of it. Bobby's never really shown that much interest in girls, and Billy-- well, he's kinda young, but I've caught him sneaking a glance or two at the cheerleaders."
"And you?" The light in Laura's eyes was positively wicked, and Abbie wasn't quite sure what the other girl meant.
Laura's face was a mask of innocence now, and Abbie wondered if the Sol she'd had was going to her head. She made it a practice never to drink during the season, and this was the first beer she'd had in almost six months. "I'm sure you're driving the boys at UT quite to distraction." Her gaze wandered over Abbie's long length with a knowing, practiced air that caused the other girl to shiver in a not-unpleasant way. "You'd probably cause a riot at Tech."
Abbie snorted once, draining the last of her Sol, wondering where the hell her brother was with the beer. "I don't think so. Between classes and practice, I don't even have time to sleep, let alone date." As if she even wanted to after the disaster last spring.
As if anyone would even ask her.
"What do you practice?" Laura asked, seemingly oblivious to her discomfort.
"Track, mostly. The 1600 meters and the 1600 meter relay. Long jump sometimes."
"Basketball. I play sixth man for the Lady Longhorns."
Laura smiled. "Let me guess, you're a power forward. Coach brings you in when she wants a big, intimidating line-up."
"What makes you say that?" she asked, startled that Laura seemed so at ease with the sports strategy. If she'd just talked like this at the dinner table, everybody would have been a hell of a lot more comfortable, and she wondered why the other girl hadn't.
"You've got that belligerent, 'Don't mess with me,' set in your jaw. I bet your elbows are hell when you're rebounding."
Abbie barked out a laugh, knowing that somehow Laura had her nailed. Fortunately she was saved from replying by her brother's fortuitous return from the kitchen. "Took you long enough," she muttered, catching the unopened bottle her brother tossed her and twisting open the top. Leaning across the low wicker table, she grabbed one of the lime slices sitting neatly on a plate and slipped it down the narrow neck of her beer. Laura watched her precise movements with amusement, wincing only when Abbie took a long draw of her beer.
"How can you drink that stuff?" she shuddered.
"This?" Abbie asked, holding up the Sol. "It's cheaper than Jack Daniels."
"Laura hates beer. Won't even kiss me after I've had one," Ben smirked.
Abbie cocked an appraising brow, looking at the Miller lite in her brother's hand. "Then you ain't gettin any tonight, are you, bro?"
Ben only scowled in reply and took another defiant swig of his beer. Laura watched the play between brother and sister and rolled her eyes. "What kind is that?" she asked Abbie. "I don't think I've seen it before."
"It's Mexican," she replied. "Not bad actually. You might like it."
"It's still beer," Ben chimed.
"It's better than that horse piss you're drinking," Abbie remarked acidly. "No wonder she won't kiss you."
"Can we not talk about me like I'm not here?" Laura retorted.
"Sorry, babe," Ben immediately apologized, a contrite frown framing his clean-cut features.
Watching her brother, Abbie bit back a groan of disbelief. She didn't know how long he had known this Laura, but she had house-broken him in record time. Maybe it was love. Bobby maintained that there was something different about this one. While Abbie was almost prepared to agree with her little brother, she wasn't sure what exactly it was that was different about Laura. For now, she reserved her judgement. "Here" she said, the devilish urge to irritate her brother winning out over her more civilized instincts. She slipped her thumb in the neck of the glass-- expertly tipping the bottle up and back several times and trapping both the liquid and the lime within-- until she judged the lime's flavor was evenly distributed. "Try it." She held the bottle out to Laura.
Laura hesitated only a moment, then took the proffered bottle. Her hands were gently warm against the cool glass as they slid across Abbie's fingers. Gamely, she took a long swallow, but couldn't conceal her grimace as she swallowed. "Ugh," she said, handing the bottle back to Abbie. "Remind me to get you some Jack Daniels." Finishing the rest of her glass of wine, Laura stood and stretched, a long and slender silhouette against the night sky. "I know it's indecently early, but the last half of that drive today wore me out. If you'll excuse me, I think I'll go upstairs and get ready for bed." Her eyes found Abbie once more. "You sure you don't mind sharing with me?"
Sara had explained the sleeping arrangements to Abbie shortly after she had discovered the other girl in her bedroom. The Carmichael siblings' bedrooms all ran in a long row-- the boys first, then Sara's and the bathroom that connected it to Abbie's room which was the last one on the hall. Their parents' bedroom was directly across the hall. Sara had explained that there was no way in hell that Daddy was putting Laura in a bedroom by herself, and he wanted her as far away from Ben's bedroom as possible. Which is how Abbie ended up with a roommate.
"Naw, Laura. It's no big deal. It's not like I'm not used to sharing. Besides, that futon is a whole lot more comfortable than my bed in the dorm. I'll be fine."
"I'm not going to kick you out of your own bed," she protested.
"You can share mine," Ben offered his girlfriend with a friendly leer.
"I'll take the futon," Laura insisted, ignoring her boyfriend's interjection.
"Daddy would skin me alive if I let you do that. Just take the bed, please," Abbie implored.
"Yes!" Abbie laughed at the woeful look on Laura's face. "Honest."
Laura still looked doubtful, but Ben rose and put his arm around her, effectively ending the conversation. "Now that that's settled, let me walk you upstairs."
Abbie watched the couple retreat, shaking her head ruefully and taking a long pull off her beer before dropping her head back onto the pillowed cushions of her chair. It felt so good to be back here. Even though Abliene was a pissant town on the slow train to nowhere, she belonged, dammit. She knew everything there was to know about the place-- from who drank too much on the sly to the best places to go when you needed to think. Though she longed to be part of something bigger than this place, she still loved it with every fiber of her being. Her family had been woven into the tapestry of Abliene's history for generations, and her soul would always belong here.
"It's good to have you kids back home." Her father's gruff baritone startled Abbie, and she swiveled her head to see his outline in the porch's doorway. "It's been too damn quiet around here."
Abbie chuckled. "Why do I doubt that, Daddy? Billy's wilder than ever, and I'm sure Bobby and Sare managed to scare up their share of trouble too."
"You and Ben always made twice as much noise as the other three, and that's when you were feelin poorly. Between Bobby and his books and Sara mooning over that Tucker boy-- I even thought about raising some hell just to break the quiet."
"Now why didn't you ever feel that way when you took a belt to us when Benjy and I'd screw something up?" She and Benjy had been two peas in a pod in many ways. Only eleven months younger than Abbie, Ben had attached himself to his elder sibling almost instantly. Their father had always said that Abbie and Ben were supposed to have been twins, but it took the boy almost a year to make up his mind.
He had been playing catch up ever since.
Certainly the siblings looked enough alike to be twins-- both favoring their father's dark good looks and athletic build. They had a love of the out-of-doors and rough-and tumble-personalities that commanded attention wherever they went. As children, they had been ringleaders of a pack of troublemakers that were always into something, but whereas Abbie always seemed to have a sense of how to temper her mischief, Ben rushed headlong into whatever thrill was offered.
"You know, if I had known then it wouldn't have done any good, I probably wouldn't have," her father replied, seating himself in the chair Laura had only recently vacated and gesturing at the two unopened beers at Abbie's feet. "Can I have one of those or are you saving them all for yourself?"
Wordlessly she tossed him a Sol and smiled easily at him in the darkness. They settled into a companionable silence that neither felt inclined to break. Buck Carmichael was a god in many respects in this small Texas town. His football teams had won twenty-six district titles and the state championship three times. His athletes won scholarships to schools all over the country, and he had coached five eventual All-American football players. He was a man who didn't necessarily trust what someone said-- he judged people by their bodies-- the tilt of their jaw, the set of their shoulders, the light in their eyes.
And everything in his daughter's body right now said that there was something wrong.
He had first seen it last summer, when she had come home from college. True, everyone's world had been turned upside down as the cancer ate away at the last of his wife's spirit; but they had all seen this coming for a long time. Instead, he was disturbed by the lack of vibrancy in Abbie's step, the wary alertness in her gaze, and the almost broken slump in her spine that she brought with her from Austin. She had seemed a little better at Christmas, but looking now at Abbie's slouched length, he realized that whatever had happened-- she had only grown more adept at coping with it; the root pain was still present.
Though he longed to demand what was wrong, to fix whatever it was the way he always had when she was a child-- he knew that this grown woman who was still his daughter wouldn't allow it. She had always come to him, in her own way and in her own time. When she was ten and had fallen out of the tree, she had walked all the way to the football field to find him to take her to the doctor. When she was sixteen, Buck had been the one to whom she had come when Justin Longman had wanted to "go all the way." When she was eighteen, she had proudly brought him her acceptance letter and scholarship award to UT. He respected his daughter's independence, and it wasn't in him to crowd that.
"Got any plans for the summer?" he asked abruptly.
"Talked to Timmy and them out at Scooters, they've been short-handed since Tore busted up his arm. I can pick up three, maybe four nights a week out there tending bar."
"That's gonna keep you out awful late."
"I need the money for next year," Abbie replied. "Sides, I don't sleep much at night anyway."
It was an opening of sorts, but Buck knew he wasn't dexterous enough to tease a confession out of his eldest daughter. So instead, he settled for the mundane, hoping to keep her talking. "What'cha need the money for? Thought your scholarship covered just about everything?"
"Books are expensive. And..." she hesitated, not sure how her father would take her next words. "I need some new clothes and stuff. Dresses and things."
Buck regarded her with fond amusement. "You got yourself a boyfriend?" he teased.
"No!" she replied quickly. "I... I joined the debate team last winter, Daddy. The coach says I'm really good. Gone from novice to open in six months." She couldn't keep the pride from her voice. Moving up that quickly was like going from second string JV quarterback to starter for the varsity in less than a season with all the attendant bumps, bruises, and genuine terror that it entailed. In debate, Abbie found something she truly loved, engaging her mind on an abstract philosophical or legal point and then making it real for her judges-- turning the word into flesh with her voice, gestures, and movements.
"I'm still running," she assured him quickly. "And playing ball. But this is just something different. Coach says maybe I could get a scholarship to law school."
She laughed uncertainly. "Well, I do have to do something for the rest of my life. It seemed like a good way to help people."
"All the lawyers I know are just interested in money."
"That's because you don't know any real lawyers," she retorted. "Just the ones that the oil companies hire to hustle folks out of their land. I was thinking about becoming a prosecutor. You know, put the bad guys in jail?"
"Like Dinky Sizemore in the county attorney's office?"
"Sorta, only maybe someplace bigger." Abbie chose her words carefully, knowing that her father and his father before him and been born and raised in this town and had never seen the need to leave it for any extended period of time. "Someplace like Fort Worth or Houston maybe."
"That's an awful lot of studying," he commented.
"I think I'm up to it. I've always pulled good grades." At UT she had to. Even though Title IX had guaranteed equal opportunities for women in athletics on paper, in reality her scholarship was much more tenuous than even the tiniest one given to a male football athlete. All of the women's programs had minimum GPA requirements that most of the men's programs didn't have-- mostly so the school wouldn't have an excuse to pull the scholarships, but also because most of her coaches were genuinely concerned about their players graduating from college with a substantial degree. No woman athlete at the University of Texas would go on to a lucrative professional career, no matter how extraordinary her talents.
"Now I'm not saying you haven't..."
"Then what are you saying, Daddy?" It was as close to a disrespectful tone as he had ever heard in his daughter's voice, but Buck detected something else in it-- an adult edge that indicated Abbie had left her childhood far behind.
"Nothing bad. It's just... well, this is kinda comin from out of the blue, Abbie. You haven't ever talked about this before. I was just sorta wondering where it had all come from."
How could she explain to him what had ignited her desire to become not a lawyer-- but a prosecutor, someone who held the power of justice in her hands? She hadn't told her father-- or anyone in her family, for that matter-- about the attack. Although the rational part of her mind dismissed the possibility, a nagging fear that they wouldn't believe her lurked in the back of her brain.
Buck Carmichael had raised his daughter to be as capable of any man. Abbie was strong and lean, with finely delineated muscles in her arms and legs that powered her to a state record in the 1600 meters. She had bloodied her brothers' noses enough times-- why hadn't she done the same to Chuck Manchester? Why had the bruises been hers and not his? How could she explain to her father the paralyzing terror of feeling one of Chuck's hands as he pushed her face down into the mattress while the other slid insidiously up her thighs? She hadn't screamed, only whispered the single word "no" over and over again and turned her face away whenever he tried to kiss her; hadn't fought really except at the last, when the realization of what he was doing to her had finally set in and the stickiness of his satisfaction was trapped between her legs.
That had been where the bruises had come from, when he had flipped her over and slapped her into silence once more, pulling her skirt back down over her waist and tugging her shirt together before shoving her out of his dorm room door. She had made her away across campus in a kind of dazed, protective fog. Her roommate had been spending the night at her boyfriend's, and Abbie had never missed the loud Dallas girl's voice so much in her life. She had turned the shower on as hot as the creaky pipes would allow and stood under it until her skin was chafed and sore, rubbing frantically at the places his hands had touched.
How could she explain her complicity-- her silence during the attack-- to herself, let alone her father?
No wonder no one had believed her.
Abbie knew the silence that had fallen between her and her father wasn't a natural one like the others had been so many times before. But she acted as if it were, as if there were nothing more on her mind than enjoying the pleasant night air around them. There were no words for the conflict raging now in her belly, and she couldn't even begin to pretend that there were.
"Think I'm going to head on up now," Buck said at length, when it was obvious that nothing more would be pried from Abbie's lips tonight.
"'Kay, Daddy. Sleep well."
"Don't stay up too late," he cautioned.
"I won't." She managed a smile for him. It lasted until his tall form disappeared up the stairs, leaving her alone in her contemplation of her future and the things to come.
"I don't think I've ever seen a family so devoted to football," Laura's amused contralto carried over Abbie's shoulder as she leaned in the refrigerator, searching vainly for the bottle of orange juice that she knew had to be tucked back there. "All sports, come to think of it."
"Well, when your Daddy's paycheck depends on them, the box scores take on a whole new significance," she replied absently. "Aha! Gotcha, you little sucker." Emerging from the depths of the fridge, she held the plastic bottle triumphantly aloft before cracking the seal and drinking deeply. "God, that's good," she muttered to herself, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
Laura's bemused smile caught her eye as the blond college student leaned against the kitchen table and studied her. Abbie offered a sheepish shrug by way of apology. "Sorry. I must've left my manners outside. I'll just go pick them up."
"Abbie, it's your house. Relax. And it's not like I haven't ever drunk out of the milk carton before."
"You wild child."
"I have my moments," Laura admitted with an arch smile. "So why are you all sweaty? And at such an ungodly hour?" she asked with a sweeping gesture that made Abbie acutely aware of the unraveling state of her cutoff blue jeans and the Harley Davidson tank-top she had thrown on to take her morning run. Her track clothes were still packed up, and she hadn't wanted to wake Laura by rummaging about in the pre-dawn darkness. "Don't tell me you went to the morning practice too?"
"Naw." Abbie shook her head and grinned rakishly. "Daddy won't let me practice when Benjy does anymore. Pisses him off that my arm is better than his. Throws his concentration all off and fucks up the whole practice. Excuse my language. Don't know why the damn boy cares, I mean, he's a wide receiver for Christ's sake. He's not supposed to throw." She regarded the other woman curiously. "Why aren't you there?"
Laura snorted and crossed the kitchen until she was beside Abbie. Her hair smelled of apple blossoms and honey, reminding the runner once again of her own dishevelment. "I played the adoring girlfriend for all the high school jocks yesterday. I told him I wasn't doing it two days in a row, he was on his own." She took the bottle from Abbie's hand and lifted an inquiring brow. "Show me where the glasses are?"
Wordlessly, Abbie reached around Laura's slender figure to the cupboard behind her head. She retrieved two white plastic stadium cups, so worn with age that their teal blue Abliene Avenger mascots had almost worn off.
Laura snickered as she regarded her companion. "Have anything without a sports logo in there?"
"I've got some glasses with Ronald McDonald characters." Abbie smiled and offered her two different glasses. "99 cents with a Happy Meal. You want Grimace or the Hamburgler?
After pouring the juice into the proffered glasses, Laura took her Hamburgler glass, seated herself comfortably at the large kitchen table, and watched Abbie as she began to rummage through the plates of breakfast leftovers Sare had wrapped up and put on the stove. Discovering a plate of bacon, Abbie chortled delightedly, snagging the plate for herself and joining Laura at the table. "Want some?" she asked.
"No thanks, I don't eat breakfast."
Abbie shuddered good-naturedly. "Dunno how you can do that. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."
"For an athlete, you're not eating too well."
"Doesn't really matter. I run it off-- can't keep any weight on me to save my life. This fall, Coach was threatening to put me on one of the diets they use to bulk up the linebackers because it all kept dropping off." Conveniently not mentioning that upon her return to school, she hadn't been able to eat, sleep, or concentrate on anything. She just kept seeing Chuck Manchester everywhere she went-- when in reality he was nowhere near the campus, but was instead on an internship with a prestigious Dallas law firm. Her muscles had always been more sinew than mass; but with the weight loss and sleeplessness, Abbie was on the verge of doing serious damage to herself. Only when her coach pulled her off the anchor of the 4x400 and dropped her from the long jump, did she admit to herself that she needed to talk to someone about what had happened the previous spring.
Used to counseling high-strung athletes with competition anxiety, fear of injury, and the odd eating disorder or two; the athletic department's sport psychologist had been shocked when Abbie came to him about the rape. The man had rallied, however, calling the Austin rape crisis center for help in guiding the young woman to deal with the aftermath of the assault. Eventually Abbie learned to sleep again, eat, and even enjoy an occasional evening out with her teammates. But the fundamental core of her pain-- the simultaneous rapes of her body and her character-- remained untouched.
"Now there's a problem I'd like to have." Laura's wry comment returned Abbie from the quietly dark place she had gone. "I feel about ten pounds heavier just watching you eating that bacon."
"Then I'll make sure to enjoy an extra piece just for you."
"Please do. So, you were going to tell me what got you all hot and bothered this morning?"
Something about the teasing comment warmed the blood rushing to Abbie's face. "Oh, that. I was running."
"Har har... Nah, it's just something I do every morning. Not much else to do around here. I don't go into work until about five or so."
"And here I was going to ask you to show me the sights of downtown Abliene."
"Well, we can always go to the Dairy Queen. And Sare left me a list of stuff I'm supposed to pick up for her from the Winn Dixie. Will that do?"
"I guess it will have to. Lead the way."
"Why don't we take my car?" Laura asked, gesturing at the trim Honda Accord parked neatly in the shade.
"What's the fun of that?" Feeling looser than she had in all the months since her mother had died, Abbie shot a reckless grin at her companion. The pair had chatted amiably while Abbie showered and got ready for their morning's errands. And though years of locker rooms all across the state of Texas had inured her to most conventional forms of modesty, Abbie had found herself curiously shy beneath the cool gaze of her brother's girlfriend as she padded across her own bedroom. Laura, however, hadn't seemed to notice and continued their conversation, oblivious to the length of Abbie's tan legs and the gently smooth expanse of her torso.
"Air conditioning?" she offered weakly.
"Air conditioning's for sissies."
"I think I qualify."
"My Mustang has air conditioning."
"Your Mustang doesn't have a roof."
"My point, exactly." Triumph glittered darkly in Abbie's eyes as Laura signaled her surrender with a resigned shake of her head.
"You kill me, you're answering to my Daddy."
The combined roar of the wind and the caterwauling on the cassette player made conversation impossible, so Laura sank into the sun-warmed vinyl of the twenty-year old car and concentrated on the play of light on Abbie's face and the song on the radio. It took her a minute to decipher the drawling lyrics cuddled amidst the banjo and slide guitar, but when she did, she sat up in surprise.
Motherless children have a hard time when their mother's dead. Wandering round from door to door... They don't have no place to go. Motherless children have a hard time when their mother's dead.
"God, that's depressing."
From behind mirrored sunglasses, Abbie cocked a dark brow. "What do you mean?"
"Well..." she gestured lamely. "I mean, doesn't that hit a little close to home?"
Abbie chuckled. "That song's about six times as old as I am. Every blues player from here to Natchez County's covered it. I even think Robert Johnson did a version of it years ago."
"Who's Robert Johnson?"
The question was innocent enough. Or so Laura thought. That is, until Abbie pulled the car off the dusty stretch of road where the speedometer had been pushing seventy like it had been a walk in the park.
"You sure you're from Louisiana?"
"Reasonably so, why?"
"You've never heard the story about Robert Johnson and the crossroads?"
"They said he met the devil there-- sold him his soul to play the blues like nobody else ever had."
"You don't get out much, do you?"
"Not to the places you frequent." Then Laura smiled slowly. It was an elegant, languid drawl of a smile. A smile that said so little, but promised so much. It's brilliance made Abbie break out into a cold sweat. "But I have a feeling that's going to change."
Laura quickly realized that picking up a few things at the Winn-Dixie wasn't as easy as it sounded, not by half. In fact, what Abbie called "a few things" resembled more to Laura a supply truck feeding a small, third-world army.
"How on earth are we going to eat all this?" she finally asked after watching Abbie toss the better part of 50 pounds of potatoes into their already weighty shopping cart.
"Weren't you paying attention at dinner? Mealtime at my house is only slightly less dangerous than at the city zoo."
"Ya'll are a robust crew," Laura admitted.
"How do you think we got that way? Gardenburgers?" Abbie replied blithely while chucking a few gallons of orange juice and milk into the cart.
"Tell me, Legs, you have a quick comeback for everything?"
"Only for softballs and beaners."
Strolling down the aisle, Laura took a moment to study the features of the young woman beside her. They were exquisite, no doubt, but lined in a way that her siblings-- and even her father-- seemed to have escaped. "I'll grant you Carmichaels one thing-- you're fast on the draw."
"Part of the family charm." Abbie cocked a sardonic brow. "But you know all about that-- what with you a-courtin Brother Ben." Reaching the toy aisle, she expertly navigated around two toddlers bickering over who got the pop gun and made for a newly opened checkout lane that had no waiting.
"Ben is charming, no doubt about that," Laura remarked, helping Abbie unload the cart onto the black conveyor belt. "And not too hard to look at either."
"But..." Abbie prodded.
"But... if Ben were a car, he'd be a fun weekend rental and not something I'd invest in long term."
"Nobody ever said my family was known for their depth of character," Abbie replied sardonically, the cool humor concealing a knife's edge of true hurt.
Sensing correctly she'd wounded the other girl, Laura placed a lightly restraining hand on Abbie's arm, the muscles beneath her grip rippling quietly in response. "I said him, Abbie. Not your family." She paused. "Not you."
"There's not much difference between Ben and me."
"You're wrong about that."
"You sound awfully sure about that for someone who's only known me a day and a half."
Laura hesitated, silently weighing the effect of her next words. "I know Ben doesn't have nightmares."
The eyes Abbie Carmichael turned on her were darker and bleaker than anything Laura had ever seen. A chill ran through her skin, sinking deep into her bones and settling there, despite the day's heat.
"You don't know what you're talking about," she said coldly.
"One twenty five sixty seven," the young man at the register interjected before Laura could reply. "How you doing, Legs? Heard you were back in town."
Turning her attention from the altercation brewing between herself and Ben's girlfriend, Abbie focused on the earnest, slightly plump features of the sixteen-year old across from her. Her eyes narrowed in recollection and her face relaxed. "You're Tater Dolan's little brother right? Jimmy?"
He dipped his head in acknowledgement, face flaming red in delight. "Yeah-- Tater just got back from USC. I expect you'll be seeing him around."
"That's good. Tell him to come out to Scooter's one night. I'll buy him a beer."
"You tending bar out there this summer?"
"Figured I might as well earn my keep. It'll get me out of Daddy's hair."
"That's so cool. My daddy won't even let me go down there and shoot pool."
"Reckon your Daddy knows best."
"But all the cool people hang there," he protested.
Abbie grinned wryly. "They do, do they?"
"Yeah! You and Tater. Dwayne and TE McAllen. Becky Lewis and Dee Dee Fields." He shook his head with all the vehemence and disappointment of a disaffected youth. "All the cool people have graduated. All we've got is stupid Shea Michaels, and not even Coach Carmichael can make his arm worth anything. If we ever have a losing season, it'll be Shea's fault. And the track team..." He rolled his eyes dramatically. "You can just forget about it. They're nothing without you, Legs. I saw you break the state record your senior year-- that was so cool."
Laura watched in mild bemusement as the starstuck youth rattled on, forcing Abbie to bag her own groceries. He heaped accolade upon accolade on her high school accomplishments until Abbie placed the last of the brown paper sacks in the grocery cart and handed him one of Buck Carmichael's checks. "Well, it was good seeing you again, Jimmy," she remarked, leaving his Rapture incomplete. "You be sure to tell Tater I said hey." She sketched a small wave and headed out the door, not looking back to see if Laura was following.
Wordlessly she tossed the bags into the Mustang's small backseat, rearranging them so they all fit into the confined space without crushing anything.
"Abbie..." Laura began. "I'm..."
"Don't worry about it." She pushed the apology away. "Look-- I gotta go to the Red Dot and pick up some more beer. You wanna wait here or walk across the street with me?"
The question was obviously rhetorical as she began walking away before completing her own question. Laura hurried to catch up. "Uh... Abbie... aren't you underage?"
The young woman only snorted dismissively and strode into the store without another word.
The jangling cowbell called more attention to the two girls than Laura would have normally liked, but considering every eye had been watching their approach from the Winn Dixie parking lot already, she figured that a cowbell didn't much matter one way or the other.
Laura would have called it a chorus if they had been in anything close to resembling a harmony. As it was, the greeting was proffered by six men who could have been aged anywhere from fifty to one hundred and fifty. They were all leaning, sitting, or propping on various items-- liquor cartons mostly-- surrounding the counter.
"How you doing, boys? Dot-- how you?" Abbie singled out a rail-thin man behind the counter whose face was a worn testament to all the years he'd spent in places other than a liquor store.
"Complaining don't get me nowhere, so I might as well say I'm fine. Tot said she thought she heard that Go-car of yours tearing up the road yesterday. You just get in?"
"Yessir," Abbie answered, strolling through the aisles and picking up a couple of cases of long necks. "Austin to Abliene is a pretty far piece. Bout wore me out."
The men chuckled as a group, and one of them offered. "The day I see anything wear you out-- especially when it involves that Go-Car of yours-- will be the day I can die, 'cause I will have seen it all."
And before Laura knew it, they were all off in a patter of questions that was more a conversation than anything, revealing more about Abbie's life here in Abliene than she could have ever dreamed.
"You gone help your Daddy with Summer Practice? That damn QB needs some help."
"He needs something."
"He needs a damn boot up his ass. Pardoning my language, Miss--" One of the men tipped his Cowboys ball cap in Laura's direction-- the first acknowledgement of her presence in the store.
"That the Michaels kid?" Abbie asked, sitting the beer up on the counter and leaning beside it.
"You mean Shea 'Twinkle Toes Tinkerbell' Michaels? That'd be the one."
"Boy oughtta be wearing a tutu."
"Boy oughtta be wearing a dress the way he sashshays up to the line."
"Legs can take a hit better than he can," one of them observed.
"Legs can take a hit better than most of those other boys," Dot corrected. "I don't know what old Buck's gonna do with this one, though."
"I'm sure Daddy will think of something," Abbie echoed her earlier comment to Jimmy Dolan. "He usually does. Worse comes to worse, he can just hand the ball off all day. Wouldn't be the first time the Avengers won on the ground. Doesn't Tweeter Jones have a little brother supposed to be good in the backfield?"
"Them Jones boys always did have good hands," Dot recollected.
Abbie only smiled, then leaned back to Laura. "That fancy wine of yours holding up okay?"
Distracted by the conversation and startled by the sudden swing of six additional pairs of eyes towards her, Laura fumbled for a reply. "Sure."
"You need anything else?"
Laura glanced at the lean figure of the girl opposite her, and a lazy brow arched at the sight. "As a matter of fact...." She forced her attention away from Abbie and smiled at Dot. "Where would the Jack Daniels be located?"
They drove back to the house in silence, which was just as well because between the howling wind and the radio, Laura decided she wouldn't have been able to hear a thing anyway.
Abbie parked the car neatly under one of the three shady elm trees on the lawn, taking the time to lock the top securely in place and rolling up the windows. "Storm's coming," she offered by way of explanation, pointing at the gray-green thunderhead racing towards them. The sun cowered on their far right, and it didn't look like it was going to hold out much longer.
"Where'd that come from?" she asked, helping Abbie carry in bag after bag. She noticed that not only did Abbie carry two bags for every one of Laura's, but that she handed Laura the lighter bags-- the ones with the eggs and bread.
"You know, I can carry more than this," she complained mildly.
Abbie shot her a wicked grin. "I'm sure you can, but this way if the eggs get broken and the bread gets squashed, Sare can't try and take it out of my hide. You're the guest."
They worked in smooth tandem putting up the groceries, with Abbie pointing out where everything belonged. The house was quiet except for their sounds, and to Laura, it felt oddly muted. Except for that first dinner, the house had reverberated with noise since her arrival; and in its absence, she didn't quite know what to do with it. "Where is everybody?"
"Sare's at work-- she does something at Red's State Farm office. Bobby's most likely at the library, although you never know-- he could be upstairs. Either way, he's got his nose in some book. Daddy and Ben're at summer practice or shooting the shit in the athletic office. And Billy-- well, Billy's your wildcard, but if I had to lay money down, I'd say he's out at the reservoir or the landing strip. That's if he's not down the road a piece trying to sneak into the skin clubs with Benjy's ID."
"So Billy's the hellraiser in the family?"
Abbie's expression was deadpan. "We're all hellraisers in this family. 'Cept for Bobby."
"Sare's been known to lead a few jock strap raids through the boys' locker room. Mama being sick for so long, though, it kinda settled her down."
Working while she talked, Abbie stuffed longnecks into the refrigerator; and Laura pulled the Jack Daniels from its brown bag and put in on the pantry shelf, next to several six packs of Coke in glass bottles.
"You might not want to do that," Abbie remarked, watching her.
"Well, Daddy's kinda funny. He doesn't care about beer or wine... but he's not too crazy about harder stuff."
"Gotcha." Laura retrieved the bottle. "I'll just keep it in the room."
"Just tell Benjy to pour a little out of those six-ounce Cokes over there and then top it off with Jack."
"I didn't buy it for Ben."
Abbie looked at her quizzically.
"I bought it for you."
She absorbed that information for a few minutes before sliding the bottle out of Laura's hands. "Then by all means, let's open it."
They settled themselves on the screened in porch, Coke bottles in hand, to watch the approaching storm. Abbie didn't bother to turn on any music because, as she told Laura, the storm was just going to knock the power out anyway.
"You sound confident of that."
"Storms like this happen near every day. It'll knock a line or two down somewhere, the electric company will get it back up in about an hour or so, and everybody will have to come home and reset their VCRs."
"What time do you have to be at work?"
"Bout six-- I've got a couple hours to enjoy my soda pop."
Laura grinned. "You don't mind the company?"
Abbie shrugged. "We seem to be getting along so far." Her face sobered. "And I have to admit, that surprises me."
Around then, the sunlight rapidly faded, surrendering to the unstoppable momentum of the thunderhead. The wind picked up, blowing snatches of humid breeze at them through the screened-in porch. Laura's short-sleeved linen blouse and white cotton shorts clung to her damply. Across from her, Abbie was in much the same condition, but she seemed to the other girl to wear the sweat and the steam like another layer of skin, no more or less uncomfortable than anything else she was currently wearing.
Abbie sighed deeply, a heavy noise too weary for someone of her years, and rested her head on the back of the couch.
"Abbie..." Laura's voice was soft, tentative.
"Yeah?" She didn't raise her head.
"About earlier..." Resolutely ignoring the tension she saw ripple through Abbie's shoulders, she pressed on. "Last night in your sleep, you kept tossing and turning. Mumbling."
"So what? It was just a dream."
"You kept saying, 'No,' over and over again."
"You were crying in your sleep. Not loud, but I could hear you..."
The storm joined them at that moment, thrashing and roiling around them. The spray from the rain mercifully sluiced against her overheated skin.
"Drop it," Abbie warned.
"I tried to wake you, but you just pushed me away. I thought about getting Sara or your father..." Black eyes snapped angrily at her before she continued. "But I figured you had a reason for not telling them if something was bothering you."
"I told you. It was just a dream." The denial was swift. Hard.
"I know dreams, Abbie. And that wasn't just anything." She put her drink on the table separating them. "Somebody hurt you, didn't they?"
"You don't know what you're talking about."
Then Laura was beside her, holding Abbie's face in her hands. "Yes, I do."
Somehow it was hours later, and Abbie was curled along the length of the couch, her head resting on Laura's legs, the other girl's fingers running softly through her hair. She had cried tears she had never cried before-- mourning for the things that had been ruthlessly stripped away from her-- until her eyes were swollen and her throat raw from gasping for breath. She had railed against Chuck Manchester and the men who had backed him up-- who had made her feel like some kind of trash only good for a quick toss and a few dollars to shut her up.
Even at eighteen, Abbie had known she wasn't going to marry some good ole boy, raise a few kids and watch everyone get older and fatter as the years and the barbecues went by.
The people she had grown up around had seemed to sense that, had treated her differently than they had most other girls her age. They still did. But even if Chuck Manchester and the University of Texas administration hadn't stripped her of any illusions she might have had about her place in life-- she had always known that she couldn't trade on her high school glory for the rest of her life. Some men around her had managed to pull that off-- she suspected her brother Ben would be one of them someday-- but though she broke the Abliene mold for women once, her hometown was far too traditional to tolerate her doing it again.
That knowledge, coupled with a brutal night in a dorm room, had turned Abbie's eyes towards the law. It was her way out of West Texas and off the convenient trash heap the administration had tossed her upon.
All this she shared with Laura, who cried with her and pulled her close in a comforting embrace laced with a security she hadn't believed she would ever feel again.
"I've gotta get ready for work," she finally murmured, loath to change her position. Not only that-- but Sare was sure to be home soon, and Abbie was wasn't too certain how she would react to the picture she and her brother's girlfriend currently made.
Laura released her with a drowsy smile. "If you have to."
"Won't look good if I lay out my first day at work."
"Mind if I come see you later?"
Abbie couldn't help the smile that leapt to her face. Something had happened to her this afternoon-- she had reached outside for the first time in her life the tight-knit circle of family, and had found someone there. Laura's simple question reinforced the feeling-- she wasn't alone any longer. "I expect you'll have to," she replied, her voice light. "Ben and the boys'll be there. You're gonna have to play adoring girlfriend for the lettermen's jacket crowd."
"I'll escape and sit and the bar with you."
"That will go over gangbusters with Little Bro."
"He hates it when you call him that."
Abbie grinned wolfishly. "I know."
Once on the road to Scooter's, Abbie allowed herself to ruminate about the woman to whom she had just unburdened her secrets. Laura's hands had stroked her face, cool and smooth despite the sultry humidity that marked the storm's passing. She hadn't said much during Abbie's confession, but the few words she had spoken-- "I believe you"-- resonated with Abbie in a way that nothing else in the endless months since the rape ever had.
Scooter's hadn't changed since she'd been there last Christmas. In fact, Scooter's hadn't changed significantly over twenty years and a couple of generations of Cooper family owners. Her job this summer was simple enough-- open beers, hand them out, take the money, make change.
There were five brands-- Bud, Bud Light, Sol, Miller, and Heineken for the sissies. Bud was on draft. Scooter's also kept a supply of tequila on hand for the ladies who liked the occasional Margarita-- but it had to be on the rocks. That frozen drinks invited faggots was the gospel according to Scooter's.
Abbie arrived for work wearing a denim shirt with the sleeves cut out, old 501s so stained that a few more wouldn't matter, and black shitkickers. Some of the old boys liked to get rowdy long about the fourth or fifth Bud-- and Abbie aimed to stomp out any trouble early on. Her hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail both to keep the long strands out of her face and because the damn place got hotter than hell-- even with the doors open. Scooter's didn't have an air conditioner-- the theory being that hot people drank more. Of course, it really didn't hurt that folks didn't have much of a choice in bars-- Scooter's was about the only place within thirty miles to drink sociably where everybody had their clothes on.
The older kids liked the place because the Scooter-in-charge-- AKA the bartender-- would usually let them shoot pool and drink underage. The general wisdom around town was that if someone was old enough to graduate high school, join the Army, and fornicate legally-- then a Bud here and there wasn't going to hurt nobody.
Ducking into the dimness, Abbie waited a moment to let eyes adjust to the change, nodded at Tore, who lifted his casted arm in greeting, and traded places with the day-Scooter. Stuffing a dish rag in her back pocket and waving off his offer of an apron, she went to work trading lukewarm beers for ice cold new ones and hosing down some dry ice cubes with a fresh batch of margarita mix and Cuervo Gold.
She told a few UT stories about some memorable basketball road trips and some dorm hijinks where they'd ended up dressing a couple of linebackers in nightgowns and fuzzy robes to get them past a downstairs monitor who wasn't fooled for a minute.
Everyone was smiling, laughing, and-- Abbie noted with satisfaction-- filling up the tip jar. All the while, she kept one eye on the door. Telling herself she wasn't waiting for Laura.
They didn't get there until about 9:30-- when the husbands avoiding their wives until the kids were in bed and the wives avoiding their husbands until they had fallen asleep in the Lazy Boy were all thinking about heading home. Some to the correct spouse. Some not.
As soon as the football crowd started drifting in, she spied the dark head of her brother at the center of it. When the crowd parted, she couldn't miss the sight of his arm looped possessively around Laura. Abbie turned away quickly, not quite sure she was so rattled, except that Ben was treating the woman who knew all of her secrets as something that was unquestionably his.
And after all, wasn't she?
A tiny voice deep inside muttered darkly something she wasn't sure she wanted to hear.
She was gratified to see Laura slip out from under Ben's arm and cross the sawdust-strewn hardwood floor towards her.
"You made it," Abbie remarked, her words low and even despite the sudden clenching of her stomach.
"You forgot this," Laura replied and discreetly handed her the Jack Daniels, that slow smile flickering everywhere across her face-- drawing Abbie's attention to her eyes, her lips.
"You afraid I'm gonna get thirsty in a bar?"
"Benjy said that they only served beer down here. We needed something to drink."
Abbie didn't miss the we, or the reckless gleam in the jade of Laura's eyes. "I'm on duty."
"I've always had the most fun at bars where the staff was as drunk as I was by the end of the evening."
"Is that your plan for tonight?"
Laura shrugged and glanced at the football players clustered around three tables they'd pushed end-to-end. "You were right about me having to play the adoring girlfriend. I consider that hazardous duty." She tapped the liquor bottle between them. "And I consider this hazardous duty pay."
Once the football heroes had shown their girlfriends off to each other, they really didn't have much use for the girls. Which was why Laura was now exiled to a table full of ex-cheerleaders who were trading stories about trading boyfriends throughout the four years at high school until they reached their current configuration. The dating waters, Laura quickly learned, were rather shallow-- and she herself was viewed as something of a poacher, although none of them would be so catty to her face. She sort of wished they would, however, just so she could assure them all that she had every intention of throwing Ben back into the pool.
Instead, her eyes were drawn to a slender, tanned shape moving confidently behind the bar; and she found herself abandoning even the pretense of following the conversation and just allowed herself to enjoy the sight of Abbie Carmichael in motion. She couldn't identify quite what was pulling her so inexorably towards her boyfriend's sister, but the draw was unmistakable. Abbie maintained there wasn't much difference between her and her little brother-- perhaps so, to a casual observer. Both had stunning good looks and an easy charm beguiling to those around them-- but whereas Ben seemed content to coast along on that surface, something about Abbie begged a closer look.
Learning about the rape hadn't shocked Laura-- just about every dorm of every university housed a woman who could tell a similar story, and Louisiana Tech was no different-- but the aftermath and the university's callous treatment of Abbie had. It brought home to Laura just how much shelter her family's money bought her, and she had no doubt that had Chuck Manchester happened to her instead of Abbie, that son-of-a-bitch's ass would be rotting in the darkest, deepest prison the Louisiana courts could find.
What Abbie had revealed to Laura this afternoon had gone a long way to explaining the wariness in those umber eyes and the resilience in the set of her shoulders, but it had fallen short in explaining the fascination that the Texan was coming to hold for her. Over the course of the evening, she had consoled herself that she wasn't alone, watching the football studs trip over their tongues-- and in one poor guy's case, his own two feet-- whenever Abbie came over to clear the table and bring them another round of beers. Even the girls had treated Abbie with an odd sort of giggling flirtation that made Laura feel at once uneasy and strangely possessive. Abruptly, she turned to her tablemates. "I'm going to get another drink. You guys want anything?"
Four sets of eyes blinked at her and four sets of lips delicately sipped their margaritas.
"We'll just wait till Legs comes back around."
Laura rolled her eyes. "Whatever."
Shaking her head with irritation and ignoring her boyfriend's questioning glance, she moved to the bar. "Doesn't anybody use their real names around here?" she asked rhetorically.
Abbie cocked a curious brow in response and pried the cap off another Coke bottle.
"I'm serious!" Laura glared at the amusement beginning the dance around Abbie's mouth. "I've met a Tater, a Tweeter, a DJ, a 250-pound linebacker named Tiny-- and you're Legs." She surrendered her empty glass and received a full one in return. "I have a feeling that if I stick around here much longer, they'll start calling me 'Blondie' or something."
"Naw, they'll call you something that rhymes with rich," Abbie offered cheerfully.
Laura did a double-take. "I cannot believe you just said that."
"Like you were thinking ya'll were all gonna be friends?" Abbie wagged a disapproving finger. "Those girls are so mad they can't see straight."
"Surely they didn't think he wasn't going to date at college."
"They don't give a damn about that. What gets them is that he brought somebody home. Kinda like kissing and telling. Everybody does it, but nobody brags about it to their mammas."
"Those girls aren't interested in mothering Ben."
"Same principle," Abbie shrugged. "Speaking of bragging-- if you and Benjy have done the deed, you better get over there and tell him to keep his mouth shut about it-- because once my little bro's had a few beers, his mouth opens wider than Dee Dee's legs on prom night, if you know what I mean."
The non sequitur threw Laura; and she didn't whether to be touched that Abbie might actually care, or irritated at the blithe way it was assumed she and Ben had been intimate. Furthermore, she didn't know why it possibly mattered what Abbie thought about her.
Except it did.
"You're worried about my reputation?"
Abbie made a noncommittal gesture with the Coke bottle and wouldn't meet the other girl's eyes. "Folks around here don't have much else to do besides talk. I didn't think you'd much like being a part of that."
A warm pulse flared in Laura's belly. "Thanks for looking out for me."
"Don't worry about it." Absently she mixed another drink. "You want this?"
Laura held up her still-untouched glass. "You just gave me one."
"Oh. Guess you'll just have to save it for later, then."
"Why don't you have it?"
A crooked smile. "I'm working."
Laura cast a glance down the bar at the few hard-timers stoically drinking their Bud and then back at the rowdy tables full of football players and their segregated girlfriends. "I'm pretty sure everybody's well on their way to being toast. I don't think anyone will notice."
"I'm positive." Her voice softened of its own volition. "Have a drink with me."
Abbie ducked her head. "Yes, ma'am."
They clinked their glasses together in silent toast, and Laura considered the play of neon lights over Abbie's face. She was minoring in art history at her mother's insistence, and she could easily think of a dozen artists who would have bled to paint features as cleanly defined as the ones in front of her now. Laura had no artistic ability herself, but still her fingers itched to trace the paths of those lines of Abbie Carmichael's face, to mold red clay in the shape of the smooth muscles of her arms, to diagram the inner workings of her blood, her organs, her heart. Abbie's body was animal perfection, and the mind behind it was far more complex than it's owner would have anyone believe. Whenever Laura looked around this small Texas town, she didn't see change-- but when she looked in Abbie's eyes, she saw nothing else.
"Whatch you looking so serious about?" The teasing contralto slipped easily through the slight alcohol buzz in Laura's ears and swirled around her hearing.
"I've never slept with Ben, you know."
Abbie blinked in surprise-- whether from the revelation or the act of confession itself, Laura didn't know. She blew a low whistle. "Benjy must be more serious than I thought if he hasn't put the moves on you yet. Congratulations."
Laura shook her head. "I didn't say he hadn't any moves on me. I said I hadn't slept with him."
"Remember when I said that if Ben were a car, he'd be a fun weekend rental?" She leaned forward, so their arms were almost touching.
Abbie winced at the metaphor. "Yeah...."
"Well, I consider sex part of buying the car. You know what I mean?"
"But..." Abbie rubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand, as if the smoky bar were getting to her. "Then why'd you come home with him?"
An organized chant interrupted any reply Laura might have made:
"Beer beer beer beer beer beer beer...."
Two hours later, the hard timers had surrendered the bar completely to the football crowd, and if anything, Abbie realized wearily, the damn place was just getting more crowded. Not to mention hotter. Her shirt clung damply to her body, while her jeans felt like insulated rubber wrapped around her legs. The tiny fan Tore had so thoughtfully provided his bartenders was broken, and from the looks of it-- had been for quite some time. Tater had come by as promised-- and Abbie had bought him a beer, also as promised. Beer would get Tater to do just about anything, and the lure of unlimited Budweiser had persuaded him to get the jukebox going and a little impromptu dancing started.
Meanwhile, Abbie was hoping to God she could remember where Doc Turner's house was in case someone had a heat stroke.
"Come on, Ben. Dance with me." Laura's playful voice wasn't loud, but Abbie's ears were seemingly tuned to her pitch, for she found her gaze drifting towards her brother's girlfriend whenever she heard the sound.
Ben only ducked his head and slouched a little lower in his chair. "Nah, not right now."
The dance floor wasn't crowded-- there were about three couples and a few girls dancing together-- but it was full enough that nobody would feel conspicuous. Of course, Abbie thought sardonically, knowing Ben-- that was probably what he was waiting for: an empty dance floor and all eyes on him.
"Benjy saves his dancing for pass patterns and sidelines," she called out.
That got a roar of laughter from the Ben's table and a scowl from her brother.
Laura considered the pair for a moment, her eyes dancing from one to the other. She shrugged and left Ben to his posing. Abbie simply leaned against the bar and watched the lithe figure approach.
"What about you?" Laura's voice was quiet against the din of the bar, her smile full of invitation.
An tremor shot through Abbie's body, familiar as the surge of adrenaline that coursed through her before each and every race. Only now there was no starter's gun, no race, no finish line.
There was only the most verdant pair of eyes she'd ever seen, lush with answers she hadn't even known the questions for. Downing the shot she had been preparing to drop into Tater's boilermaker, she was relieved to see her hands weren't trembling.
"Sure," she said, startling herself.
They moved into the dance floor with a lazy two-step, Laura's body much smaller and more compact than Sara's-- the only other girl she had ever danced with. When they were teenagers, Sara had coerced Abbie into spending a rainy afternoon practicing every step that the older girl might possibly be asked to dance at her first spring formal. Abbie hadn't done much leading since, but her body remembered-- the same way it remembered the form of a long jump or the extra stretch at the finish line-- effortlessly, gracefully. She smiled as Laura looked up at her in surprise. "I'm not stepping on your feet, am I?"
"Not at all."
One hand on the small of her back, the other linked loosely with Laura's, she guided them around the sawdust-strewn floor, grinning at the ease of their bodies moving together and resolutely ignoring the number of eyes beginning to follow them.
"You ready?" she asked, a teasing lilt in her usually husky drawl.
"Wha--?" Before Laura could get the question out, Abbie spun her gently around, her fingers never letting go until the other girl was safely returned to their embrace. Her head falling back in laughter, Laura couldn't stop the loose laugh that burbled out of her throat.
The music changed to some unidentifiable band's version of the Tennessee Waltz, and Abbie changed the sweep of their dance without missing a step.
"You're good," she murmured, her feet moving automatically into the cotillion standard. "I must've danced this a million times," she mused, as if unaware of the dark gaze upon her.
"We're not real original down in these parts. We try to stick to the things we know."
"I wouldn't say that."
"Because it's never felt like this before."
Their eyes met and held long moments-- moments that must have seemed an eternity to those watching them; for before Abbie knew it, Ben was standing by their side, a sardonic question framing his brows.
"Mind if I have my girlfriend back?"
Things wound up quickly after that. The energy had shifted somehow, turned edgy and not a bit mean. She had surrendered Laura to her brother without a fight, or even a comment; and when Laura looked like she was going to protest, Abbie turned on her heel and returned to the bar before the other girl could say a word.
Now it was just her and Tater, nursing the boilermaker whose preparation she had interrupted to dance with Laura.
Tater was so nicknamed because of both his love for that particular food and his uncanny resemblance to it. He was large and round, a burly brown from long summers helping his father work the nearby oil fields. Long ago, he had bleached his stubby hair a white blond after a long, drunken night with Abbie where they had confessed their deepest secrets to each other. Abbie's was that she wanted to get the hell out of Abliene and never come back-- heresy in these parts. Tater's was that he was madly in love with the Avenger's starting wide receiver, Tweeter Jones.
Abbie had originally planned to go to Stanford-- had, in fact, received the same free ride that the University of Texas had offered. Tater and Tweeter were going to the nearby, relatively speaking, University of Southern California, and the three had planned their California adventure with an unrestrained glee. Then Tater and Tweeter had broken up over a shortstop named Dreyfus, and Abbie's mother had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Of the three, only Tater went to California-- Tweeter took the ride UGA offered him, and Abbie stayed in Texas at UT.
Now, it seemed, they were all back where they started. Tater and Tweeter had been making subtle eyes at each other all night, and Abbie-- well, she was standing on the sidelines, just like always.
"Where the hell did Tweeter go?" She flipped the outside lights to Scooter's off with a certain satisfaction, but left the door open in a vain attempt to let some of the heat out. "I saw him a minute ago."
"He's in the can."
"You don't mind us hanging out?"
"Hell, Tater, I'd be insulted if you didn't." She cracked a wry smile. "But I don't want to get in the way of any rebudding romances."
"Shut the fuck up." Tater pushed half-heartedly at Abbie's slender form as she returned to her place behind the bar and pulled up a stool.
"Sue me for having eyes."
Tater giggled, an uncharacteristically feminine sound coming from such a large man. "He does look good, doesn't he?"
Abbie shook her head and poured herself another drink. "I can only get into trouble if I answer that question. Me, I'm keeping my mouth shut."
"You're good at that."
"Lucky for you."
"Lucky for that girl of your brother's."
Abbie's eyes pivoted as if on a swivel and pinned Tater into place. "What are you talking about?"
Tweeter chose that moment to serendipitously return to the bar. "Everbody done gone?"
"Kicked the last of them out a few minutes ago."
Tweeter cocked his head. "You mind us hanging out?"
"Not at all. Only advantage to having a key around here. You get to decide when last call is."
"Have I missed it?"
"Hell no, whatch you want?"
Tweeter glanced at Tater's boilermaker and then at the bottle of Jack Daniels in Abbie's hand. "When Scooter's start serving that?"
"It was a donation," Abbie replied.
"From a fan," Tater chimed in.
"Shut the hell up, Spud."
Tweeter leaned over the bar, pulled out a Heineken. "I think I missed something."
Abbie glared at Tater, but he only smiled charmingly back at her. "I'm referring to the lovely Ms. Louisiana Tech."
"Benjy's new girl?"
"The one and only."
"She doesn't look like much of a Jack drinker."
"But our Legs here is."
Tweeter's blue eyes goggled from his ex-boyfriend to Abbie and back again. "Get out of here. Goddammit!!!! I knew it!!!! Whoooooooo-hooooooooo!!!!" He let out a rebel yell worthy of Rhett Butler. "Thank-fucking-god!!!!!!" He high-fived Tater and then offered his hand to Abbie. "Welcome to the family, Legs."
Abbie stared blandly at him, though her heart was thundering and a roar filled her ears that would have deafened even her Mustang. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Tweeter blinked. Once. Twice. "I've missed something again, right?"
"We were just getting to that when you came in," Tater informed him.
"Ah. I see. Whoops." He peered at Abbie's features again. "Pour yourself another drink, sweetheart. You're not drunk enough yet."
"I'm not drunk at all."
"My point exactly."
Laura was beginning to wish they had never left the bar.
"I hope you enjoyed yourself," Ben said petulantly, when they returned to his father's house. Those were the first words he had spoken to her since he had cut in on Abbie while they were on the dance floor, and the silent treatment was beginning to drive Laura nuts.
"What are you talking about?" she asked rhetorically, watching Ben pull a beer from the refrigerator and wishing she hadn't left the Jack Daniels with Abbie. Wine at a time like this just didn't do the trick.
Ben only snorted derisively in response to the question.
"Are you talking about me and Abbie?" Wanting to hear him say it as much as she wanted to put her mouth around the words me and Abbie.
"You trying to make everyone laugh at me?" Ben's shoulders hunched as he put the beer down and stuffed his hands tightly in his jeans pockets.
Suddenly he seemed more vulnerable than he ever had to her, the cocky facade ripped away to reveal a frightened young man underneath. It was a moving sight, and if something hadn't already spoken to Laura's heart, she might have felt something of the pull he felt now towards her. "Lots of girls were dancing together, Ben," she said, not what she had intended at all. "Nobody cared. Nobody noticed." She could have pointed out that had he stopped posing and playing to the crowd, the dance with Abbie would have never happened; but she didn't have the heart to be so cruel. There was entreaty in her voice, meant to curtail the argument she felt brewing, but Ben misinterpreted it. Moved closer so that she was in his arms.
"I care about you so much, Laura."
"I know you care about me too. You're so different from all the town girls. You've been places and done things. And I know that I haven't done too much, but Laura-- I can. I know it. With somebody like you..."
"Benjy stop." Unthinkingly, she used his sister's nickname and placed her fingers over his lips. "It's just not going to be like that for us." Not sure how to tell him that yes, he did belong here; and in a way that she-- that Abbie-- never would.
"What do you mean?"
"I like you...." she groped for words. "And we have fun... but... You know it's not something forever."
"Then..." He looked at her blankly, through the alcohol haze. "Why did you come home with me?"
To meet your sister... her thoughts cruelly supplied, but that answer wouldn't do. Not by a long shot. "Ben..." she said helplessly.
But his joie de vivre seemed to recover itself, for he shrugged both her plea and her arms off. "Whatever." He grinned. "But we're having fun, right?"
She looked uncertainly into his eyes. "Right."
"Then goodnight." He kissed her quickly on the cheek and disappeared into the inky darkness up the stairs.
Laura rubbed weary hands over her face, not sure of where the conversation had taken her, or if she even really wanted to know. Shaking her head in surrender, she grabbed the bottle of wine from the fridge and one of the plastic cups that served as the Carmichael family wine glasses and retreated up the stairs herself.
Abbie's room only served to intensify the confusion cascading from her body and soul. Ben wasn't what she wanted, she had known that going in. He was fun, a diversion, a way to keep from having to return to the constraining propriety of her family's home. She had expected to spend two distracting weeks with Ben and his family, and then go back to whatever her life had to offer.
She hadn't expected Abbie Carmichael.
The sheets smelled like summer, like heat, like the cool skin of the woman she had held in her arms so briefly tonight. Abbie's body had been slender, but astonishingly solid when she placed her arms around her. Abbie was muscle and sinew and bone-- nothing flighty or slight about her all-- and Laura had known instinctively that there was something forever about the way Abbie held her.
Laura slipped out of her jeans and smoky shirt and buried her nose in the wind-dried freshness. It was so like Abbie-- even though her mind knew Sara had washed and dried the sheets days ago. She wondered what Abbie had dreamed of as a girl, before the pain of losing both her mother and her virginity unwillingly had brought the shadows to her eyes.
Had she dreamed of a boy? Of his thickset hands and muscular body moving over her? Had she tasted kisses in these sheets, or only imagined them? She wondered what kind of fantasies Abbie might have had-- or if she'd had any at all, in this practical town with its realistic expectations and total lack of imagination.
She'd watched Abbie dance with boys with names like Tater and Sack and Shroom, but none of them had seemed to suit her. Only Tweeter Jones with his slender hips and small physique had seemed to complement her own rangy body, but even that had looked wrong somehow to her eyes.
Maybe it was her eyes that had been the problem-- not wanting to see Abbie with anybody at all. Not wanting to imagine that anybody else might fit as snugly in those long arms as she had... not wanting...
Not wanting to imagine wanting at all...
Laura's hands now roved her own body, pushing the blanket and sheets away, inviting the moonlight streaming through the open windows to caress her the way she had refused Ben.
The way she wanted....
No. Not to think about that at all.
Her skin was slicksweat with a kind of longing that had no name, at least not in circles where she was conversant with the language. But she imagined things now, things that had no words, no need of language and vocabulary beyond that of Do you... and Yes... and Will you... and Please now... She felt her own hair, heavy and hanging down from her arched neck, her fingers seeking out hardened nipples and wet center, thighs open and wide and only one name escaping from her lips in a blessed whisper that no one could hear.
Over and over and over again.
Then her eyes were open and her breath gasping and there was someone else in a room sodden and sweet with the scent of her own sex and want and need.
"Oh Christ..." She convulsed with shame and hunger, watching that body close around its own hands involuntarily. Then Abbie was beside her-- unwilling and unable to stand still in the face of something keening so powerfully to her own need.
A mouth was on hers, devouring and tender at the same time. Fumbling with tenderness and unexplored sensations. She knew those lips, knew them from the way she had watched them for the last two days. From the way she had imagined taking that tongue down her own throat.
Hands were pushing at her shirt, tearing at buttons and moving fabric out of the way, and then she was naked and revealed to Laura in a way that she had never dreamed of wanting someone to ever see her again.
It was out of her mouth before she had time to stop it, before she had time to recover her bravado and in that space when she could only remember being stripped of her clothing in front of the leering demanding eyes of someone who would take what she hadn't wanted to give.
"Oh Jesus, Abbie, I'm sorry." Arms were around her without hesitation, cradling her closing and uncaring of the heat between them. "Shit, I wasn't thinking. Are you okay?"
"Look at me," Abbie asked softly, wanting to see the green eyes that had held her own earlier in the evening. Wanting that reassurance, than tenderness and confidence that rested between them when she had laid her burden down.
"I'm right here." And those eyes were there, promising the same things that Abbie hadn't known were possible.
"I don't know what I'm doing," she confessed unsteadily.
A hastily smothered laugh, chuffed out of Laura's chest. "That makes two of us."
An uncertain smile. White teeth lit by gleaming moonlight. "And here I thought it was you."
Arms tight around her own. "It might very well be."
"We could split the difference..."
"And call it us."
She brought Laura's hands to her mouth, inhaling the scents she found there, wanting to taste its source, but lacking the courage to try. Fingers danced across her lips, inside her mouth and she was tasting the sea-green wetness only person alive who knew all her secrets.
Who said it? Abbie didn't know. Her own throat was tight with desire, her heart thundering to beat its way out of her body, her back prickling with an energy whose source was unknown. Whether demand from her or demanded of her, Abbie complied; her mouth finding Laura's, lips parting in both acquiescence and exploration, body sinking into the curves of the woman underneath her.
Her hips were churning, tight with frantic need, and her body was falling away, her legs opening and her breasts aching with heretofore unnoticed sensitivity as Laura traversed the lines of her desire.
"Show me..." a voice urged.
And Laura's mouth was between her legs, her own hands were hastening Laura's descent, tangled in her hair, that fine-spun blond goldeness, a treasure unlike anything she had ever known. Green eyes, dark in the moonlight were fixed upon her, and Abbie didn't know which intimacy was more unbearable-- the mouth on her or the eyes watching its effect. She could finally stand the intensity no longer and gave herself up to the craving with hastily silenced cries.
Exhaustion and the dawning sun found them only hours later, sweaty and sated. Abbie regarded Laura with a smile of astonishment and wonder, the pain and fear of the last months stroked out of her by the woman in her arms.. "Can I love you?" she murmured.
"You damn well better try," came the sleepy, satisfied response.
It had all been a dream, Abbie considered later-- it must have been, for all too soon all she could hear was her sister's strangled voice, whispering, "Holy mother of god..." and her brother's less restrained screams of rage as he pulled her from the bed and Laura's arms.
Fortunately, both girls had thrown shirts on before surrendering completely to sleep, but the tangle of limbs and sheets had left no doubt about the nature of their rest. Abbie hadn't fought when Ben had punched her hard in the stomach and then caught her with a strong uppercut as she doubled over. Only when she saw his attention switch to Laura, did she move to stop him. "No, Ben... Don't do this," she gasp through bloody lips.
"Shut the fuck up."
"Ben." A fist swung wildly at her again, but this time she ducked, matching the blow with one of her own. "I'm not going to let you hurt her."
Laura was shouting at them both now, other voices too, Sara's, Bobby's, maybe Billy's too. She didn't know. Her entire being was focused on keeping him away from Laura, keeping him away from hurting her. Blood she could deal with, as long as it was hers. She hurled herself into his midsection, felt a satisfying whuff of surprise from him as he flew backwards. "I'm not going to fight you, Ben."
"Then you're going to get the shit kicked out of you."
And he was hitting her again, each blow full of rage and uncomprehending pain. She took as many as she could, weaved out of the way of a few of them, till her own vision was too bloody to tell what was real and what was imagined. Laura was on Ben's back, pulling vainly at him; and he shoved her unthinkingly into the wall, brushing her off as casually as swatting a fly.
"Fuck no, Ben..." And she threw two sharp jabs to his face, bones shattering in her hand, pain unrecognized.
They were on the floor now, punching blindly, Abbie concerned with nothing more than keeping him away from Laura, Ben wanting only to beat out the fury of seeing his sister taking once more what should have been his.
A loud shout, and then Ben was lifted from Abbie by the scruff of his neck, as though his almost two-hundred pound frame were nothing.
"What in the holy hell is going on here?" Their father's voice, stern and unrelenting, demanding the truth and nothing else.
Ben ducked his head, but his eyes remained unwaveringly on Abbie and filled with bile and a hatred that made her stomach recoil. Abbie only set her jaw, trying as inconspicuously as possible to wipe the blood from her eyes.
"I'm waiting." Her father's brown eyes bore full into Abbie, unrelenting in their demand.
The three other Carmichael siblings only glanced at each other with foreboding. While traditionally they stuck together, preferring by mutual agreement to work out their own squabbles rather than face their father's belt, none of them had ever faced anything like this before. Sara's own eyes were filled with shock and horror at what she had witnessed, seeing her sister in the other woman's arms. Billy was convulsed with the heat of the brawl between his brother and sister-- a rage having nothing to do with either of them or what he had seen filling his young soul. And Bobby-- his face wore nothing but sorrow as he watched his sister, his other emotions inscrutable to her hazy vision.
Abbie felt their silence only as condemnation, her own uncertainties and secrets filling the void where their voices were normally. Her eyes drifted to Laura, who was woozily pulling herself to her feet-- she was at her lover's side in a moment, tenderly helping Laura to her feet.
"Ben, you take up beating your girlfriends?" Buck Carmichael's question filled the eerie quiet.
"Then you mind explaining why your girlfriend's damn near unconscious and your sister's nose looks plumb near broke?"
"Why don't you ask her?" Ben's own words were garbled, his jaw already swelling from Abbie's blows.
Buck shrugged, his eyes swinging to his daughter; and in that instant he saw it all-- the protective embrace of Abbie's arms, the shocked pain in Laura's expression, the undeniable intimacy of their bodies touching. "Dear lord..." he muttered as if to himself.
"The minute my back was turned, Daddy. That's what she is." The voice was Ben's, the hatred in it making him unrecognizable. Abbie didn't know if he was referring to her or Laura, but her brother's all encompassing gaze said everything. "Fucking whores."
"Shut up, Ben," Bobby's voice, shrill and childlike in the early morning air.
"Get them out of here, Sara," Buck commanded, waving them away with his hands. He waited until his younger sons and other daughter had left the room before regarding the two children he said should have always been twins. "What am I seeing here?"
"Whores," Ben spat.
Abbie's muscles clenched with the suppressed desire to lash out at her brother.
"Abbie..." her father's voice was pleading with her, asking to give him anything, any excuse other than the truth.
"I..." she hesitated. "I don't know, Daddy." Laura looked like she had been struck and involuntarily drew away from her embrace, but Abbie only held on tighter. "I don't know what you're seeing, but I know what is."
"I care for her." Not willing to use the word love in Ben's presence, whether because of her own uncertainty or her unwillingness to hurt him further, she didn't know.
Buck's face turned ashen beneath years spent squinting at the sun. "Your brother's girl."
"Mr. Carmichael..." Laura spoke up, but Buck waved her silent.
"With all do respect, missy, shut the hell up." His jaw firmed as he stared hard at his daughter. His wife had always teased him that Abbie was supposed to have been his firstborn son, that he had raised her to be so. He denied it, but the coach in him had been unable to resist the athletic gifts that god had granted his second-oldest. Abbie had been faster, smarter, and more coordinated than ninety percent of the kids he had coached over his twenty-five years in sports. And that included his eldest son.
Ben had never forgiven either of them for his favoritism, and looking at his son's anguished face as Abbie held his girl in her arms, Buck couldn't really blame him.
Everyone in the room, including Bobby who had snuck back in when no one was looking, blanched at the statement.
"Get your things, Abigail, and get out." Buck's voice was firm and quiet, even though inside his heart was breaking. This was what the fruits of his labor had brought him: a daughter that would betray her brother and a son that wanted to kill his sister. He couldn't save both of them, but maybe he could make some of the wrongs of his past right.
"Daddy..." Abbie's eyes were alight with unshed tears and raw emotion. In nineteen years, he had yet to see his daughter cry-- even when her arm was broken, even when her muscles were pulled, even when her mother was dead.
His jaw hardened. "You have an hour. I don't care where you go or what you do. But I don't ever want to see you again. Do you understand me?"
Eyes that were mirrors, twins even, reflected back at each other, and Abbie ducked her head, unwilling to meet the shame and pain of her own eyes. "Yessir."
It was the only thing left to say.
They had tried, God knows they could say that.
Laura took Abbie back to Louisiana with her, and though they spent the summer together falling deeper into each other, deeper into their feelings and need, it was painfully apparent to Abbie that she didn't belong in Laura's world.
Her own shame a guilt drove a deeper wedge between them, completing the work that their class differences had begun; and when summer was over, she returned to the University of Texas, to debate and an eventual law degree at Tulane.
When Laura had called to say she was getting married, all Abbie could say was "Don't send me an invitation."
Laura had obliged, and Abbie had done her best to think of the beautiful girl with the blond hair, green eyes, and tender smile as nothing more than a particularly vivid dream.
But in her dreams, it wasn't Laura's hair, or her eyes, or her smell that brought tears to Abbie's sleeping eyes.
It was her voice, murmuring softly in the darkness, whispering tenderness and sweetness, saying, above all...
"I believe you..."