Identity, page 13
“Can you imagine what would have happened had he not helped?”
“I think about that every day,” she replied, lifting wet, reddened eyes.
“So then what happened?” Liza prodded gently.
“Well,” Shay took a deep breath. “After several weeks of therapy, I got really angry. I stayed with my parents after they released me from the hospital because I was just too afraid. Dee came to visit all the time and with his help and reassurance, I went after Pepper. My mama was getting sicker and even though we tried everything, she passed the following month. I stayed with Daddy a little longer, but he went soon after.”
“I guess everything has a reason. His death gave me the extra resources I needed to hire the best DC prosecuting lawyer around and we brought out the big guns.”
“That must have been so horrible,” Liza said, shaking her head.
“The whole lesbian thing was a nightmare. My lawyer kept trying to disregard it and say Pepper was a stalking lunatic who would no doubt have killed me if she’d had the chance. Her defense attorney was a tough old bird and he may have won in the end, but she kept stepping on his toes and losing her temper in court. They tried to drag my character through the mud, saying I’d led her on and promised undying love and that she was the one thwarted in the relationship. Her behavior in court allowed the jury to quickly make up its mind.”
She sighed. “I was never so relieved in my life. I’m just glad my parents didn’t have to go through it.”
Liza nodded. “The universe just somehow always knows what’s best.”
Shay squeezed Liza’s hand, then rose to look out the window at the darkening afternoon. “The best part is, all the money she makes in prison has to go to pay the dog owners for damages, for losing their livelihoods. I was glad of that. She deserved to pay. With money and jail time.”
Silence descended and settled for a long minute.
“I wonder where they are,” Shay mused, studying the drive.
As if on cue, her cell phone sounded. Shay strode across the room and eyed the glowing screen. She winked at Liza. “Wanna bet they’re lost?”
Liza stood, amazed by the sudden shift in mood. She shook her head in the negative.
“Don, where are you?” Shay asked calmly. She listened intently a few minutes, then smiled. “Yes, we’ll walk down so you can see where to turn,” she said. “Go around slow one more time.”
“Where is he?” Liza quizzed after Shay signed off.
Shay walked to the table beside the door and picked up her keys. “They’ve been driving around the pond, not sure where the driveway is.” She held out her hand to Liza. “Let’s walk down and show them where to turn.”
The ease Shay manifested in switching from the painful topic of Pepper onto the brighter topic of dealing with the imminent guests gave Liza pause. She wondered if Shay was forcing emotions away into neat cubicles and not bringing them out to be dealt with fully. She decided to query her about it as they strode along the drive.
“Shay, how do you think Pepper’s abuse has changed your life?”
Shay bristled and her reply was brusque. “You see how I live. I’m incarcerated in my own home. I even stagger my jogging days so there’ll be no pattern. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get over it.”
Liza dropped her head, pondering Shay’s brittle anger, clearly a protective cloak. “I realize that, and I have one thing to say. I want you to think about this okay?”
Shay paused near the end of the drive and studied the other woman. “Okay.”
“It is not up to Pepper how soon you get your life back. It’s up to you.” She pressed a quick kiss to Shay’s forehead. “That’s all I have to say.”
Shay studied Liza, then smiled slightly and nodded. “Do my eyes look red?”
“You look great. Let’s go find those boys.”
They stepped onto the asphalt of Dooley Drive and, after a few minutes, saw the slow approach of a champagne-colored Toyota Camry.
“That’s them,” Shay whispered excitedly, taking Liza’s arm.
As the car pulled close, the man driving, Don, as Liza learned later, lowered his window.
“Can we say ‘backwoods,’” he said, laughing. “Shay, you need to get in this car and come right back to DC this minute.”
Shay placed her hands on her hips, elbows jutting out like triangle points. “Absolutely not and just for fun, we’re going to make you tour the single, one-room bank here in town.”
“No, no,” Don cried in mock horror, “anything but that!”
Laughing, Shay leaned in for a kiss and quick hug. She studied his face, hers mere inches away. “I am so glad to see you,” she said, her voice low.
He smiled and touched her forehead with his. “You look great, kid. This place must be agreeing with you.”
Shay straightened and motioned Liza close. “Don, this is Liza.”
Don and Liza shook hands, exchanging pleasantries. He was older than she had expected.
“Greg, meet Liza and Shay,” Don said, leaning back so his companion Greg could shake hands.
“Okay,” Don said, “introductions made. Can we get out of this car now?”
Shay laughed and pointed up the sloping drive toward the house. “Right up there, sweetie. We’ll be right behind.”
Shay took Liza’s hand and they followed the rental car in companionable silence.
Don and Greg were both small people, no bigger than Shay, and Liza began to wonder if all DC folk were this size. Maybe a race of fairy people, the Tuatha Dé Danann, had settled there as they had in Ireland. At five foot eight inches, Liza felt like a big-boned giant in their presence. They didn’t seem daunted in the least, however, buoyed as they were by a type of high, ethereal energy.
Don talked a lot, wittily. His round head was balding gracefully, and he seemed to have become comfortable with the fact. He did have a thick mustache to compensate, but it was neat and well-trimmed. His large, dark Mediterranean eyes were friendly, and full lips danced across large white teeth as he chattered.
Greg, though just as small, was very different. He had a full thatch of thick, black hair, Asian eyes and a smooth, clean-shaven face. His manner was calmer as well, his movements slower.
“So, Liza, you grow vegetables?” Don said after they settled at the table. “Where’s your base of operations?”
Liza leaned to accept the glass of blush wine Shay passed to her. She nodded a warm thank you, meeting Shay’s gaze to connect momentarily, before answering. “Montgomery. Meadows owns about two hundred acres there just outside the city proper. We have about forty-five regular employees and use some seasonal migrant labor.”
“How in the world does one even start such a business?” Greg asked.
Liza explained the history of the startup as Shay, also listening intently, placed the last few serving dishes of food on the table. Shay took her seat and sipped her wine. When the conversation lagged, she held out one hand to Liza and the other to Don. Don took Greg’s hand and Greg took Liza’s. Shay murmured a small blessing of gratitude and then released the hands.
“Okay, dig in. I hope you like everything.”
Liza gazed hungrily at the food and was amazed at the feast before her. Sliced ham and turkey artfully arranged on a platter was the focal point. Spreading out from that were bowls bearing steaming mashed potatoes, green beans, cooked squash, cornbread stuffing, whole cranberries, asparagus spears dribbled with hollandaise sauce and homemade crescent rolls.
“Wow,” she breathed. “I didn’t realize all those good smells would pan out like this.”
Shay laughed and nudged Liza gently. “Just workin’ my way to your heart, darlin’,” she explained.
Liza laughed and blushed.
Don watched them, a bemused smile adorning his lips. “So, seriously. Who catered?”
“I did it,” Shay retorted. “All by myself. Liza brought the wine and t
“Well, how about that? See what spending some time with food rather than dogs does for you?” He winked at Shay and continued chewing appreciatively. He glanced once at Liza, then cleared his throat. “Speaking of that, do you have any plans?”
“Plans for what?” Shay sliced a piece of turkey and popped it into her mouth.
“More dogs. Will you start training again here?”
Shay saw the way he was perusing Liza and set his mind at ease. “It’s okay, Don, honey. She knows all about it.”
“About what?” Greg asked, helping himself to more asparagus.
Silence entered the room as if a physical being. Liza and Don both waited for Shay to say what she would. She hesitated a long minute.
“A woman stalked me and killed my dogs,” she explained.
“Oh, that,” he exclaimed too quickly, eyes downcast. “It must have been horrible. I hope you sued her ass.”
Liza chuckled hollowly, effectively breaking the tension. “Spoken like a true lawyer, Greg.”
“Well,” Shay began, “she is in jail in North Carolina and shouldn’t be out for two more years. I just hope she has learned her lesson. That’s all I can say.”
Liza and Don both eyed Shay, worried about how calmly she was treating the ongoing, crippling fears they both knew about. Don looked at his plate guiltily.
“Dee was the one who found me,” Shay told Greg. “After it happened. He took me to the hospital and stayed with me. This guy’s a sweetheart. I hope you realize that.” She pointed her fork at him for emphasis.
Greg smiled at Don and his face lit with love and admiration. “I do, girl. You know I do.” The two touched hands in a brief caress as Don turned his attention back to Shay.
“Okay, Shay, this is important,” Don said, clearing his throat. “As much as I like your business at Regional, I need to tell you there are fifteen, fifteen, online banks now that pay more interest than we can. You need to choose one and we’ll move some funds over, okay?”
He turned to Liza. “And you, miss, do you have your funds in a high-yield checking or savings account?”
Shay and Liza looked at one another and laughed.
“You’ll get used to it, honey,” Shay told Liza. “It’s just part of who he is. Money is his life.”
Liza sighed and lifted another roll from the basket. “Hey, I’m all over making more money. I need tons of investment advice because when it comes to that topic, I’m pretty well lost.”
“Most people are,” Don agreed, nodding sagely. “Some of us just understand it, while others don’t. I’ll give you my card and if you ever have any questions you can just call or email me.”
Shay glanced at Liza and a special message of contentment passed between them.
“Thank you, Don. I will definitely take you up on that offer.”
“Oh my gosh, anybody need anything?” Shay asked, as if suddenly remembering that she was the hostess.
“You’ve already made my day, Shay, honey.” Liza sighed. “This is soo good. I’m going to get unbelievably fat if I continue to hang out with you.”
Don and Greg laughed as Shay blushed with delight.
“So, she told you about what happened to her?” Don studied Liza.
Shay had firmly negated Liza’s offer of help loading the dishwasher and shooed her from the kitchen. When Liza persisted, that fragile temper flared so Liza had retreated to the safety of the sofa.
Liza focused on Don, relieved that the subject was out in the open at last. “Yes, she has. We were talking about it before you guys arrived.”
He took a deep gulp of cold scotch. Moisture glistened on the glass as light found it. Liza knew he was wrestling with his loyalty to Shay. Wondering how much he should say. And, as could be predicted, loyalty won out.
“So you understand my concern for her well-being.” His gaze found hers and locked fiercely. “I need you to be careful with her. She’s more precious and much more fragile than you realize.”
Liza glanced away from his intensity, her eyes settling on Shay, who was in the kitchen with Greg, oblivious to Liza’s interest. They were intently discussing a china plate Greg was turning in his hands.
Liza turned back to Don. “You know, we haven’t known each other very long but I have to say, there’s no one more precious to me than Shay,” she stated firmly. “I’ll do everything in my power to protect her and make her life a happy one. You don’t need to worry.”
Don eyed Liza a long time as if judging her merit. She stared back evenly. Finally, he nodded, clearly impressed by her dedication. “It looks like I might not have to.”
He clasped her hand briefly, letting go when Shay and Greg entered the room.
“Dishwasher’s all loaded and fine china washed,” Shay said cheerily, taking a seat in the armchair across from Liza.
“This looks way too serious,” Greg intoned, seating himself next to Don on the sofa and pressing close, eyes bright. He slipped off his loafers and tucked his feet under his body as he perched next to Don. “What’s all this about?”
Shay smiled, but her eyes were worried as they passed rapidly from Liza to Don and back again.
Don laughed, trying to put Shay at ease. “Relax, you two. Nothing too earth-shattering. Liza was just singing Shay’s praises.”
He addressed Shay. “I think she’s smitten with you.”
Shay turned to Liza as she settled more comfortably into the armchair. “Oh, really. Is there something you want to tell me, El?”
Liza chuckled, embarrassed. She lifted her glass and held its coolness to her lips.
Shay was thrust forcefully back to the early morning hours when Liza had wakened her by decorating her body with ice cubes and proceeding to lick the spaces in between until each cube had melted into a puddle of lukewarm water. The coolness of the ice and the wet heat of Liza’s tongue had torn at Shay’s senses like hurricane winds. She realized suddenly that she wasn’t breathing and that her body ached for Liza.
She took a deep, shuddering breath. “Well, I guess not.”
Liza smiled and Don cleared his throat. Clearly, he had sensed the sensual energy between the two women. “So, what’s this about a homeless party tonight?”
Relieved by the change of subject, Liza explained about Ro and Kim and the work they’d been doing for Maypearl.
“That’s admirable,” he said when she finished. “You don’t see a lot of that type of dedication these days, especially among young people.”
“Hey, the young are often the very first to step up,” Shay countered. “Although I have to admit I haven’t been as involved as I’d like.”
“Ummhmm,” Don said with a raised eyebrow. “My point.”
“Are we invited?” Greg asked. “I’d love to go just to see what they’re doing.”
“Absolutely,” Liza said. “We’re always looking for helping hands. Tonight is the first night they serve Thanksgiving dinner. They serve it every day now until actual Turkey Day.”
“Doesn’t that use a lot of resources? That’s...” he paused to calculate, “nine dinners.”
“True,” Liza agreed, “but they always have a truckload of turkeys donated by Doc King, so they might as well use them.”
“Don’t forget the vegetables you donate,” Shay reminded her. “El is real big into donations,” she told Greg.
“Meadows is, you mean. Everything I do, I do through them. I may be changing that in the future, though.”
Shay tilted her head to one side. “What do you mean?”
Liza blushed, reluctant to brag about her green thumb. “Well, I’ve got a little garden behind the house and it’s doing well. Really well. I think my future donations, at least locally, can come from there. Needs to come from there.”
“What are you growing?” Greg asked curiously. “Isn’t it too hot to grow stuff here?”
“Oh no, it’s very te
“She must grow everything. Carol, over at the local animal shelter, told me that her donations help keep the homeless shelter operating under budget and the animal shelter too. Carol says they wouldn’t make it without her help.”
“Meadows’ help,” Liza reminded her gently. She checked her watch. “Well, if we’re going to help out, we’d better go now. It’s getting late and they’ll be serving soon.”
After several minutes of gathering essential items, the four waited while Shay securely locked the house. Walking to the cars, Don laughed. “Well, it’s easy to see which car we’ll be taking.”
Shay laughed and slipped her arm through Liza’s. “Well, we could go in the Bug. Anyone have a shoehorn?”
“Or you guys could ride on the back of my pickup,” Liza offered, trying to be serious.
“Just get in,” Don said, opening the back door of the Camry.
An inordinate number of cars and trucks filled the asphalt parking lot of Recognition Baptist, and Liza wondered if there was a service inside. She wouldn’t have been surprised. Recognition was the only Baptist church between Maypearl and Fairhope and had a busy, active congregation.
“Do we need to be quiet?” Greg asked in a whisper as they paused outside the church.
“No, we’re not going through the church. The mission is this way,” Liza directed, leading the others around to the basement entrance along the northern side of the church. A bank of spicy-scented holy basil on one side and sweet jasmine on the other welcomed them inside.
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