Impossible Dreams, page 17part #1 of Carolina Series Prequel Series
“We talked sometimes,” he answered diffidently. “She’s an angry young woman. I hope she’s all right.”
Maya laid the sleeping infant in the car cradle Axell had carried in for her. He’d objected to her coming to the store, but she’d pointed out that if she could stand in line at the courthouse to get a marriage license, she darned well could do the shop books. She couldn’t believe she’d actually agreed to the marriage license. Still, she had time to argue him out of going through with a real wedding.
“If being in prison is all right, then I suppose she’s just dandy,” Maya replied with more sarcasm than she intended. Mr. Pfeiffer had never done anything to harm her. She had no business taking her irritation out on him. She’d tried calling Cleo with the announcement of Alexa’s birth, but Cleo had never returned the call.
“She got that self-destructive streak from your grandmother,” Mr. Pfeiffer continued, as if he’d heard her thoughts. “Back then, it was alcohol, though. We didn’t have drugs.” He hesitated, leaning on his cane more heavily, then glanced at Alexa. “Your daughter?”
The crack about their “grandmother” had nearly stolen Maya’s wits. Unscrambling them wasn’t easy. “You knew our grandmother?”
“Too well,” he admitted wryly in his squeaky voice. “But that’s ancient history. Will you be keeping the school open?”
She wanted to hear ancient history. She had vague memories of a yard and a puppy, but she thought maybe they’d been reinforced from Cleo’s reminiscences. Cleo was three years older than Maya and remembered their parents much more clearly. But whatever memories Maya had of the Carolinas had been printed over with layers and years of other places, other people, and other traumas.
“We just had to close while the creek was up. Selene is looking into asking the Department of Transportation for a bridge through there, but we seem to be at odds with the prevailing establishment.” Maya gestured toward the other chair at her table. “Won’t you have a seat? I can fix some tea, if you like. I’d like to hear about our grandmother.”
“No, I can’t stay. Maybe some other time. My nephew is on the transportation board. He may be part of your problem. I’ll talk to him. I hope the other building’s collapse didn’t hurt anyone. It was tainted and I’m not sorry to se it go, but I worried until I’d heard you’d moved your things here.”
Maya was still on the grandmother remark and only half heard this commonplace condolence. The word “tainted” stuck though. “Why tainted?”
He shuffled uneasily toward the door. “Bought with bad money. Don’t ever sell yourself to the devil for money.” He halted with his hand on the knob. “Tell your sister I asked after her. I hope her little boy is all right.”
“Matty’s doing fine.” Maya hastily got up as the old man turned the knob. “Please, I’d like to talk with you sometime. Could I call on you?”
She caught a glimpse of the old man’s sad smile as he turned away. “They’re putting me in a nursing home this afternoon. Said I can’t take care of myself properly anymore. Can’t say that I ever have, but there’s no sense arguing. I’ll talk to William.”
Maya watched as he gingerly stepped into a battered station wagon waiting at the curb. She caught a glimpse of a woman in a faded cotton dress before the car drove off. He didn’t look back.
Old Man Pfeiffer knew her grandmother. Maybe there were other people in the town who knew her family.
Not that it mattered, she decided with a shrug. She could remember various “Aunt Janes” and “Uncle Bobs” through her growing-up years, as they’d traveled from Tennessee to Arkansas to Texas, usually one step ahead of the child welfare services. Nobody had ever bothered explaining the family tree, so she had no recollection if the aunts and uncles were her mother’s or her father’s relations. She just knew none of them had bothered to fight for two lonely little girls after their parents broke up and they’d ended up cold and hungry and stranded in California.
She didn’t have much faith in family. Love wasn’t something that arose out of blood relations. It was either in a person’s heart or it wasn’t. It was just curious seeing Old Man Pfeiffer inquiring about Cleo. His question about Matty made her wonder if he’d been the one who sent the telegram warning of Cleo’s conviction. Cleo certainly hadn’t had any other friends come forward.
Maya didn’t have Axell’s curiosity however. Life happened in strange ways and one just swam with the flow. She’d ask Cleo next time she wrote.
She studied the stairway behind her. It needed painting and additional lighting to look welcoming. She wanted Cleo to come home to something nice. But when Cleo returned, would she want Maya and Alexa cramping that tiny apartment? Their lifestyles had never been particularly similar. Cleo might have imagination, but she liked managing things, and Maya didn’t like being managed. The friction might jeopardize Cleo’s recovery.
She was making excuses. She could live anywhere, with anyone. She’d proved that for years. She didn’t want to do it anymore. She wanted her own home. Axell said she could have his. Axell was insane.
And she loved him for his insanity.
Crossing her arms on the table and lowering her head to rest on them, Maya quit throwing up smoke screens and stared clearly at the facts. She would lose her school if she ran back to California and friends. She could lose Matty if she stayed here. Axell Holm offered her a chance to keep both.
Axell Holm represented the kind of authority figure she loved to hate. But that very same Axell Holm had cried as he delivered her daughter, had suffered anguish so deep it had nearly bent him double at the thought of hurting Constance, had chosen to keep a child possibly not his own without argument, and had surrendered his own peace of mind in the process. That was the kind of man she hated to love, because it could be dangerous and lifelong.
Her tea cups were the only thing she’d been able to hold onto for a lifetime. Her heart was more fragile than china.
Women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition.
“Axell Holm! Have you lost your mind? Gossip is flying all over town! Surely, you’re not really going to marry that little tart?”
Axell turned away from the new busboy he was teaching to store bar glasses. Thank God Maya didn’t come equipped with a mother. “Sandra,” he replied without attempting to bite back his fury, “if you were a man, I’d pop you one right now. As it is, I’ll just ask you to leave. I won’t deny you access to Constance, but I damned well don’t have to listen to your insults in my own bar.”
Sandra’s carefully lipsticked mouth fell open. Maybe he should have yelled at her long before this. Maybe keeping a careful curb on his temper was a mistake. He hadn’t the patience to study the problem right now. Grabbing Sandra’s elbow, Axell steered her toward the front doors.
“We’ll duke it out in court. Judge Tony has already assured me he has no problem with Maya Alyssum in Constance’s life. His daughter goes to that after-school program too. All the kids think she walks on water.”
“Her sister is a drug addict and convicted felon!” Sandra cried angrily, shaking off his hold on her. “The woman’s had a baby out of wedlock! Who knows what kind of men and diseases...”
Axell caught her elbow again and shoved her out the open doors. “Out, Sandra. Go home and find a life.” He slammed the door after her and shot the bolt. The restaurant wouldn’t open for another hour anyway.
Fury still steaming through his blood, he swung around at the sound of clapping. Axell’s kitchen staff and Headley stood in the far doorway, applauding his bad behavior. He really couldn’t believe this. All his life he’d tried to be a model of mature control, and these morons were cheering his loss of it.
Not Katherine. She shot him a look full of venom and flounced out without a word. Headley shrugged. The chef-watching Katherine’s hips swing in her miniskirt — sighed in regret, and the female staff grinned hugely.
“What the hell are you all staring at?” Axell yelled. “Don’t y
The staff scattered. Headley remained.
“It takes guts to fight the establishment.” Headley wandered back to the bar and helped himself to a bottle of ginger ale from the shelf. “Your father used to smile and keep his thoughts to himself rather than raise a stink, but he got things done. Saw him twist a gun from a madman once, then grin and pat the man on the back. He taught you well.
“You’ll need your fighting gear in shape, though, if you’re planning on running for office with a woman like Maya as wife. She’ll have every old biddy in town clucking with disapproval. The Garden Club will probably repossess your front lawn.”
“Maya would just make a duck pond of the remains.” Axell grabbed a bottle of mineral water, contemplated ripping the cap off with his teeth, but giving it a vicious twist instead. His father hadn’t been any better with women and kids than he was. The old man had worked eighteen-hour days and expected his son to do the same. Axell had once thought his mother had died of loneliness.
“Women!” he growled in frustration, throwing back a gulp of water. “Why the devil am I doing this to myself?”
“Because you need a challenge?” Headley asked dryly.
That could very well be. Axell slumped on a barstool. Some men climbed the Himalayas. Others sailed around the world in forty-foot boats. Axell Holm married purple-haired gypsies. It made some kind of crazy sense. What else would one do in Wadeville, North Carolina for a challenge?
“All right, Headley, if I’m gonna do this, you’re gonna help me.” Axell slammed the bottle down decisively. “Dig out the dirt on that new shopping development. Our mealy-mouthed mayor is up to his ass in it somehow. Two can play at this game.”
“Not if one plays fair and the other doesn’t,” Headley warned. “Politics is an evil business and you’re going to get your hands burned before this is all over.”
Axell glared at the reporter. “Who said I’m playing fair?”
Headley grinned. “That’s right. You’ve got our own Miss Alyssum on your side. That’s definitely stacking the deck.”
He walked out, cackling. Axell took another swig of his water. Maya wasn’t capable of stacking decks. That would take planning. Maya would simply knock the whole card pile on the floor, kick it under the counter, and bring out her tarot deck.
For some idiot reason, that turned him on so fiercely, he had to swing around and face the bar to hide his arousal.
Damn, but he hoped he wasn’t thinking with the part in his pants instead of his head. He’d been down that road before, and it was a dead end. He’d damned well better be certain of what he was doing before he did it this time.
“You’re marrying Axell Holm!” Selene repeated, probably for about the third or fourth time, Maya figured. “You’re going to live in that brick yuppie house in the middle of yuppie burbs and tool around in a Beamer? You’re a cop-out, Maya Alyssum, a real cop-out. I can’t believe you’re doing this!”
Glumly, Maya couldn’t believe she was doing it either — hadn’t even realized she’d decided to do it — but the news was all over town. All the parents dropping their kids off at school this afternoon had made it a point to personally stop by the office and congratulate her.
“Well, I probably won’t be driving the Beamer after Axell finds out I came back here,” she admitted, leaning over to check that Alexa was still sleeping quietly in a curled up little ball. “After we dropped off the kids and went back to town, he gave me the keys so I could go home and nap.” Home. She couldn’t believe she’d said that. That mansion in the country, home? No way.
Selene wrapped her fingers in her glossy long braids and yanked. “Listen to you! You’ll be going to garden parties and PTA meetings and doing lunch with the mayor’s mother.” She stopped and thought about that. “Maybe that won’t be half bad...”
“Get your head right down off that cloud now,” Maya warned. “I don’t do parties and lunches. My place is here with these kids, and don’t you forget it. This school is my dream. We’re going to go full time, sell our concept to banks and factories in a few years, take it nationwide after that. Kids deserve love and attention and can learn a damned sight more than teachers have time to teach in school, and I’m going to see they get every opportunity. If I have to marry Axell Holm to get it, then I’ll marry him.”
Selene collapsed in the desk chair and stared at her shrewdly. “You’re not marrying him to keep this school. I can keep this school together. This is my vision too, and I’m not about to let those kids down. Maybe if I’d had a teacher like you, I’d have stayed in school.” She narrowed her eyes. “You’re marrying him because of Alexa, and Matty, and probably Constance. You’ve got shit for brains, girl.”
“Well, no one ever said I was the brightest bulb in the chandelier.” Maya tucked the blanket more firmly around Alexa’s feet. “Old Man Pfeiffer stopped by the shop this morning. He said he knew my grandmother and Cleo. Do you know anything about that?”
“Why the hell would I know what the old goat knows? Everyone says he went crazy as a coot after his wife died.” She frowned at her own thoughts. “If old Mayor Arnold knew what a good deal we got on this lease, he’d have the heirs claiming Pfeiffer insane. The mayor sure is pretty, but he’s got more devious brains than I do.”
Maya worried at a loose strand of her hair. “Mr. Pfeiffer said something about his nephew on the transportation board being part of our road problem out here.”
Selene jotted a note. “I’ll look into it. I didn’t know there was a Pfeiffer on the board, but it could be his wife’s side.”
Satisfied she wouldn’t get any more from Selene, Maya lifted the infant seat and headed for the door. She could hear the shouts of the children enjoying story time in the schoolroom. The substitute teacher was working out just fine. Maybe they could hire her full time for the summer session.
She felt guilty leaving Constance and Matty in the substitute’s hands, but despite her brave words, she did need the rest. And she probably ought to stop by a grocery store. She couldn’t feed the kids bean soup every night as if they were living on food stamps.
Or maybe she could. She still didn’t have any money.
Maya bounced her forehead off the steering wheel as she cursed her helplessness. She was driving a damned BMW, living in a mansion, and she still didn’t have enough money in her pocket to buy beans.
She was very definitely not cut out for this life.
Axell entered the house through the garage door carrying plastic sacks of groceries, and almost smiled at the sonorous chanting of monks blaring through his expensive sound system. No one had played the damned stereo in months, maybe years. He wasn’t even certain he remembered how it worked. Leave it to Maya to figure it out.
His smile slipped as he entered the empty kitchen. He didn’t expect supper on the table. Maya had called with the grocery list so he knew she didn’t have anything to prepare. He’d just expected the kids or the cat or something to be in here to greet him.
All right, so he wasn’t the center of anyone’s universe. Leaving the groceries on the table, he wandered into the family room, but they hadn’t even turned the lights on. If Maya wasn’t in the kitchen or family room, was she still in bed? He’d never seen her so much as glance in any other room of the house.
With a shiver of trepidation, Axell turned down the hall in the direction of Maya’s bedroom. Maybe the kids were playing in their rooms. He didn’t think Matty had slept in the one he’d been assigned yet, but his toys were beginning to gather in there. The blare of the speakers prevented Axell from hearing the direction of any voices.
A panicky shriek pierced the monks’ calm intonations, and Axell broke into a run.
He didn’t have to run far. He skidded to a halt outside the formal dining room. The once formal dining room.
He counted heads first. The apparent source of the shriek was Constance, who must have dropped a jar of p
Garbed in loose blue-jean overalls over a bright orange T-shirt, she bent to kiss Constance’s head and hug her as she climbed down from her precarious perch on a stool dragged in from the kitchen. The green paint had apparently hit the overalls as much as the sheeting, or Maya had been painting her clothes again.
She was supposed to be resting. Axell’s gaze traveled over the rest of the explosion of chaos that had once been his elegant dining room. The heavy formal draperies lay in crumpled heaps across the center of the polished mahogany table. Sunshine flooded the room through the bay windows and the French doors leading onto the deck, reflecting off the crystal of the chandelier and illuminating the cut glass in the display case without need of electricity. His gaze returned to the window. The once neutral ivory wall was now grass green, with what appeared to be a white trellis with purple flowering vines spilling across the green. A lionlike creature crouched in an emerald jungle in the corner.
“This time, it’s deliberate, isn’t it?” he asked evenly, finally stepping into the room.
Constance shrieked again. From utter silence to shrieks. Maybe he should have been grateful for what he had. As Muldoon purred and wrapped cat hair around his ankles, Axell tried to temper his reaction. He’d promised the house would be hers. Could he live with the result?
Maya tapped his daughter on the head to hush her, then turned her brilliant smile in his direction. Axell felt as if she’d swept his feet out from under him. For a smile like that, he’d live in her damned jungle.
“Well, most of it was deliberate,” she admitted. “These are the only colors I could find at the school. I’ve got goop that will take any paint off the carpet, but most of it’s on the plastic. What do you think?” She gestured at the rampant vine encaging the lion.
PATRICIA RICE SERIES:
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