I Love You, Jilly Sanders, page 21
“I thought you said the money was marked,” Jilly reminded Tage, and he looked at her gratefully.
“That’s right,” Tage said to Mackenzie. “What good is it going to do to bring that money to the police? They’re not going to let us use it!”
Mackenzie shook his head. “I don’t know that it is marked,” he said carefully. “I was looking in the bag when you two came in. I couldn’t see anything.” He shrugged. “Not that I know what to look for. I thought they used some kind of exploding paint or something—I saw that on a television show once—but there wasn’t anything on the money that I could see.”
Jilly’s heart flipped in her chest. Could it be that easy? Could the only victim here be some nameless, faceless insurance company already swimming in money? In the silence she heard the crackling of the fire, and she knew instinctively nothing was ever that easy.
“If you bring this money out, marked or not, everyone is going to know where it came from,” Tage said. “Everybody knows none of us has any money.”
“But if it’s not marked,” Mackenzie said, “nobody is going to be able to prove anything.”
“Maybe not,” Jilly said, “but it’s still going to cost you and Gwen, isn’t it? You wouldn’t want to stay in a town that turned its back on you, would you? And what about Gwen? You have a chance now, to move beyond the crime you committed to try to save Tage, to have a family again. Do you want to risk that?”
Mackenzie stared over at her, his face sallow in the firelight. “What about Cat?” he asked.
Jilly swallowed. “We’ll have to think of something else. We only thought of this first because we thought it would be the easy way out.” She shook her head. “But it’s not. When you want something badly enough, it’s never easy.”
“Come on, Dad,” Tage said. “I want us to be together again. I want a father.”
The smoke swirled up into Jilly’s eyes; they burned and burned. She knew exactly what Tage was saying. She reached down and yanked open the canvas sack. She pulled out a stack of money banded together. With her thumb she flicked open the band and leafed through the twenty-dollar bills. “What’s more important?” she asked. “Saving Gwen or saving Cat?”
She looked up into the faces of the two men who looked so much alike she thought she knew both of their hearts and souls. “People shouldn’t have to choose like that,” she said. She was thinking of her mother now, even though she didn’t want to. “We’ll think of another way to save Cat—one that doesn’t carry such a high price.”
Almost as though she were standing apart, watching herself, she saw her hand move toward the white-orange flames of the fire.
The money slipped in quietly.
The paper caught quickly, sending up brief flares of light, numbers spreading out before fading into ash.
Wordlessly, she reached into the sack and handed Tage and Mackenzie equal stacks of twenty-dollar bills.
“I don’t know if it’s right or wrong to get rid of this money,” she said thoughtfully. “But I don’t think it’s fair to keep paying for the same mistake over and over again, do you?”
Tage shrugged. “That’s a lot of money,” he said. He looked at his father. “We could take the money and move away. You could even bring Gwen and the girls.” He paused. “But we’d be giving up something else, wouldn’t we?” he asked, his voice soft and certain.
Mackenzie hesitated before he reached out and clasped Tage’s shoulder. “You’re right,” he said. “What good is this money going to do us if we lose everything else?”
Jilly waited, holding her breath, but Tage leaned forward and fanned a pile of money into the fire. “Let’s get rid of this once and for all. You’ve done your time, Dad.”
Mackenzie gave a short nod.
Jilly breathed in again, the taste of the smoke riding like a memory on her tongue. She supposed, after all, that there was absolutely nothing in this world that was totally right or totally wrong. Circumstances changed everything.
The three of them sat there and lit up the dark walls of the dark cave with staggered bursts of orangey-white flames. Together they erased sixty-six thousand dollars, and bought themselves something priceless in the bargain.
Gwen was waiting for them in the doorway when they returned in the first dawn of light. She ran out to throw her arms around Mackenzie. “You don’t have it, do you?” she asked. She reached up and kissed him hard on the chin. “It must have been nerves last night! It dawned on me after I got back here where you would get that money.” She pulled on his arm. “We’ll take it back to the bank; we can’t use it. Or we’ll bury it. Or—”
Mackenzie swept her up into his arms and kissed her on the lips, silencing her. When he stopped, she was staring up into his face, her cheeks glowing pink.
“Never mind,” he told her. “I don’t have the money. I’m going to try to offer up the house for a bail bond.”
“What?” Tage asked.
Mackenzie nodded. “I thought of that on the way home. We all must have been half-crazy yesterday. I’ll put the house up, and if need be, I’ll sell it to pay for Cat’s lawyer. The old house isn’t worth much, but it’s worth enough. We’ll get her home today,” he said.
Relief swamped Jilly. Her headache eased. A gentle breeze blew against the leaves of the trees and they rustled in response.
“If you have to sell the house, I’ll ask Otto if we can stay here, at least for a while. I don’t think he’d mind,” Gwen told Mackenzie.
Jilly’s relief was immediately replaced by guilt, and her temples throbbed. If Mackenzie and Tage lost their house, and Jane Sandra came forward to claim her father, but not her daughter, and they all ended up out on the street . . .
Jilly’s head swam and spots blurred her vision. She looked at Tage and saw the empathy on his face as he looked back. There was nothing she could do about it all now, except hope Jane Sandra never received the letter, or that if she did, she threw it away . . . the same way she’d thrown Jilly away all those years ago . . .
Jilly blinked away tired tears and followed the rest of them into the house. She sat down in the living room and chair and closed her eyes. How could she hope for the one thing she most wanted to happen in her life to not happen?
She must have drifted off because she jerked awake when Tage touched her arm. “Jilly? We’re going into town to see about getting Cat out. I thought you might want to come along.”
“What about Otto?” she asked.
“He’s not up yet. Gwen said she’ll tell him everything he needs to know—and nothing more—when he wakes up.”
Jilly thought about the journal buried under the cushion where she sat. She knew she couldn’t give it to him, not with all his reminders of his love for Cat. He would awaken, disoriented and confused, and only Cat would be able to bring him back to his old happy self.
“We’ve got to bring her home,” Jilly said.
Tage nodded. “We will,” he promised.
The walk into town was bracing, and Jilly’s mind cleared with each step. Her short nap had revived her. “Wait a minute,” she said to Tage and Mackenzie. “There’s no court in town. Where is she?”
“They’ve probably taken her to Mooreville,” Mackenzie said. “That’s the closest town with a police station and all.”
“How are we going to get there?” Tage asked.
“We’ll ask somebody for a ride,” Mackenzie said. “We don’t have any other choice.”
“Ned might give us a ride,” Jilly ventured.
They went there first, and Ned agreed. “Ain’t closed this here store in twenty years, ain’t gonna hurt to do it now,” he said. He had heard all about the ruckus, as he put it, out to Otto’s yesterday, and felt right sorry for poor Cat. He chattered about her all the way into Mooreville, where he dropped them off at the police station.
“You don’t have to wait,” Mackenzie said after he thanked Ned for the ride. “We don’t know how much time this
“Good luck to cha,” Ned said. As he drove away, Jilly heard him whistling happily. She wished she felt the same.
They went into the police station and discovered Cat was being arraigned over at the court house. She’d been assigned a public defender.
They went inside the court house, its hushed silence filling Jilly with a sense of a dread. But her fear lessened when she stepped into the courtroom and saw Cat sitting at a front table, her lawyer speaking energetically to the judge.
“ —a credit to her community, Your Honor,” he said. “She’s lived in Briar
Rose her entire life, and this man has a history of abusing her that every citizen in town will swear to on a stack of Bibles. I don’t see any reason to charge her.”
“She’s already been charged.” This was said by a man at another table. He was sitting down and holding his head in his hands as though he had a headache.
“You can see by her statement this is nothing more than a clear-cut case of self-defense,” Cat’s lawyer spit back. “Your Honor,” he asked, his tone wheedling, “why are we wasting the court’s precious time with this matter?”
The judge looked stern. “Good question. Do you have an answer Mr. Landrein?”
The man holding his head looked up at the judge. “Standard procedure?” he said.
“Look, Landrein,” the judge said, “is the state going to charge this lady with a crime or not? Or am I going to charge you with contempt of my court?”
Jilly held hands with Tage, their fingers braided together tightly, and she held her breath.
Mr. Landrein found the energy to stand up. “I believe we will not charge her at this time, Your Honor. But we’d like to reserve the right to bring charges if further evidence—”
The judge slammed his gavel down. “If further evidence is uncovered, you’ll have an entirely separate case, won’t you?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Case dismissed.” He stood up and swept out of the room, his robe flapping out behind him.
“What?” Jilly asked. Mackenzie and Tage were standing, and she saw Cat coming toward them, and she realized how close they came to bringing disaster upon themselves. If they had rushed ahead . . . if they hadn’t stopped to think things through . . .
“Hello,” Cat said casually, as though coming to court to hear whether or not she was being charged with murder was an everyday occurrence. But she reached out to hug Jilly to her breast. “Don’t squeeze, honey,” she whispered. “I still can’t breathe too well.”
Jilly hugged her as though she were fragile as a butterfly. “Are you coming home now?” she asked.
“She sure is,” her lawyer said. “Let me know if you need my services, Ms. Catella. You have my card.”
“Thank you,” she said. She grasped Tage’s and Mackenzie’s hands with hers and shook them both. “Let’s go home,” she said. She dropped their hands, and then wrapped her arm around Jilly’s shoulder as they all walked out of the courtroom.
Mackenzie hailed a taxi, and they all climbed inside.
“I’m so glad you’re coming home, Cat,” Jilly whispered, leaning into the front seat where Cat sat with the driver.
“Me, too, honey,” Cat said. “You didn’t give Otto his journal yet, did you?”
“No,” Jilly said. “We’re all waiting for you to get home to him.”
Cat smiled. “Thank you,” she said softly.
Jilly sat back and stared out the window. She was squeezed in between Mackenzie and Tage; they’d given Cat the front so she’d have more room.
Cat knew about love, Jilly thought. She instinctively put those she loved ahead of herself—did so without thought, without rancor. As though that kind of love was as natural as fresh air and pure water, when Jilly knew it was really about as likely as finding diamonds scattered across the backyard.
Could people learn to love that way, she wondered, or was it just a gift bestowed upon the lucky?
She couldn’t think of an answer that didn’t make her feel small and child-like.
It seemed like no time at all had passed before they were rushing past Digg’s and the diner and Ned’s Mobil mini-mart, and heading the last couple miles toward home.
“Those baby girls didn’t get hurt last night, did they?” Cat asked Mackenzie. “Everything happened so quickly. I made Gwen run upstairs to hide with the girls as soon as I knew Reuben was the person banging on the front door.”
“They’re fine,” he assured her. “Everyone is doing fine, and they’ll be doing
a lot better when you step inside.”
“You’re a sweet-talker,” Cat said, but she smiled nonetheless.
“I’ve got a surprise for you all when we get home,” Mackenzie said.
“I can’t imagine what that might be,” Cat said. She laughed lightly.
Jilly wanted to laugh, too. Obviously, Mackenzie and Gwen were going to announce their intentions to become a real family. Things really were going to be okay. She felt lightheaded at the speed with which they were bringing Cat home, felt delighted at the thought of Shye and Ariana having a mother and a father. They’d all been through so much she could hardly believe their luck had changed.
Cat’s luck, she amended hastily. Or Gwen’s, or maybe Mackenzie’s. She didn’t want to jinx anything by mentioning her own luck.
“Is that your surprise?” Cat asked as they pulled into the driveway.
Jilly looked out the passenger window and saw a green Ford parked close to the house. She literally felt the blood drain from her face.
She didn’t have to remind herself she’d never had good luck; she knew in her bones who that car belonged to.
The taxi dropped them off at the end of the driveway. Tage, Mackenzie, and Cat speculated on who the vehicle belonged to, but Jilly found herself swallowing the words of explanation that rose up sour as soap bubbles in her throat. Conflicting emotions scattered logic to the winds: she didn’t want this to be Jane Sandra—not now when things were going okay, yet more than anything in the world she wanted her mother.
“There’s only one way to find out who it is,” Cat said. She made her way into the house, her breathing labored, her back slightly bent. It would take her some time to recover from Reuben’s parting gift, but she never had to worry about him beating her again.
Despite the early morning spring wind, Jilly felt sweat gather across her upper lip. She swiped it off with a nervous hand as she followed the others into the house.
The first thing she saw was the woman sitting on the settee Gwen and she had carried out of the attic and recovered in the last days of late summer, a few months after she’d arrived here. They’d used a periwinkle-striped blanket, lining up the stripes vertically, its softness providing comfort for whoever sat on it.
The woman had dark reddish hair swept back from her face and held in place with a yellow scrunchie. She wore a white t-shirt that made her round eyes, a shade lighter than Tage’s dark brown ones, stand out, and a pair of sky-colored jeans. The structure of her face resembled a heart, a widow’s peak emphasizing the shape. There was nothing about her that resembled Jilly in any way whatsoever.
The thought made Jilly’s breathing go shallow. She tore her eyes away from the woman and looked at Otto. He was sitting in the easy chair, his face gray as it was the first time she’d met him. Clearly he knew who the woman was, but he didn’t look joyous—he looked devastated, as though he stared at a ghost. There was nothing in the woman that resembled him, either, Jilly noticed.
Gwen had stood up when they entered the living room, and she was pointing out each person to Otto and repeating their names. “And that’s Cat,” she said. “I didn’t tell you about her—but maybe she can explain.” Gwen was wringing her hands together nervously. Mackenzie crossed the room to stand beside her, putting his arm around her waist for emotional support.
Cat’s smile as she looked at Otto was beautiful. “Jilly,”
“Otto’s sitting on it,” she said automatically. Otto looked at her like she’d lost her mind. “I mean it’s under the chair cushion.”
“Uh—Gwen?” Tage said. He jerked his head toward the woman still sitting in silence on the settee.
“Cripes!” Gwen exclaimed. “I’m sorry! Everyone, this is Jane Sandra, Otto’s daughter. She arrived here early this morning.” She gazed in mute appeal at Jilly, as though she expected her to do something to fix the awkward situation.
Jilly couldn’t have spoken if someone was trying to rip her tongue out with a pair of needle-nosed pliers.
“I tried to explain to her—with Otto here—about Otto’s memory problem, and who we all are—and—and—”
Cat took charge. She hauled Otto up to his feet and bent to retrieve the journal from beneath the chair cushion. Otto looked at her blankly, no sign of recognition changing his expression. “Why don’t we go make tea?” she suggested. She didn’t give Otto a chance to answer; she just held his arm and steered him into the kitchen.
An awkward tension filled the room and stretched out until Jilly thought she could feel the minutes ticking off behind her eyes.
Jane Sandra linked her hands around her knee and bit the inside of her lip. “You must be Jilly,” she said.
Jilly felt hypnotized by her straightforward gaze. She wasn’t ready for this—wasn’t ready for the truth—no matter which truth was revealed. “Excuse me,” she gulped. “I better see if Cat needs any help.”
She rushed into the kitchen but pulled up short. Otto sat at the kitchen table, his journal spread open in front of him on the table, tears coursing stream-like down his cheeks, falling onto the white pages. Cat stood over him, rubbing his shoulder. Neither of them saw Jilly.