Impossible Dreams, page 26part #1 of Carolina Series Prequel Series
“Constance can speak properly when she likes. Slang just means she’s comfortable with us.” Maya groped under her pillow and produced a long purple football jersey.
“If comfortable equates lazy,” he grumbled.
The sudden silence on the other side of the door seemed ominous. Axell grabbed his clothes.
“Did I hear Daddy?” a timid voice squeaked.
“Now we’re in for it,” Maya said cheerfully, wriggling into the jersey. “You may be sorry she’s talking again.”
“Women and children should be seen and not heard.” He jerked on his trousers. Only Maya’s admiring glance over her shoulder restored some of his humor. Maybe she was right. Maybe he didn’t notice women when they looked at him. He sure as hell noticed when Maya did it though. It made him wish his pants weren’t so damned tight.
Assured that he was at least decent, Maya opened the bedroom door to a silent Matty sucking his thumb and a wary Constance. “All right, I’m running late,” she admitted. “Why don’t the two of you fix cereal? I’ll be out to help in a few minutes.”
Axell could see Constance straining to peer past Maya as he pulled on his shirt, and dread filled his soul. He didn’t know how to handle these awkward situations.
“Did Daddy sleep with you?” Constance asked, half-accusingly.
“That’s what daddies and mommies do. Now hurry up. Alexa will be hollering for her bottle soon. You can pour your milk, can’t you?”
Not entirely accepting this new arrangement, the kids reluctantly reacted to the command in Maya’s voice. Some people talked to animals. Maya spoke to kids. By the time Constance and Matty hit the kitchen, Axell could hear their giggles.
He looked at her wonderingly and with definite admiration. The jersey emphasized all the right curves and almost matched her purple streak as she turned around. “I can see why you teach school.”
And he could. All this time, he’d thought her teacher act was just something she did for the money because she couldn’t do anything else. He’d known the kids liked her, that the school was clean and decent and had the kind of teacher/student ratio he preferred for Constance. Other than that, he’d thought the school a duplicate of every other school of its kind. He was just beginning to grasp what the kids understood instinctively: that with Maya on board, the Impossible Dream was unique.
He didn’t want it to be that way. He wanted the school to be dispensable. He wanted Maya for Constance. He didn’t care about the other kids.
But Maya did. Maya cared for those kids as much as she cared for her own.
Someone may have murdered for that school. He didn’t want Maya or the kids in their path. How the hell would he talk her into closing?
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Maya slid her arms around his waist and stood on tiptoe to kiss him.
Groaning, he kissed her back, then firmly set her away. “There’s only so much denial I can handle in one day. And I was looking to see if you wore wings and a halo or sported a magic wand. How do you do that?”
“What?” she teased, slipping her hand beneath his unbuttoned shirt and teasing at the curl of hair above his waistband. “You don’t know how sex works?”
“Not with two kids and a whimpering infant underfoot,” he said dryly, removing her hand from temptation. “I think I’ll hire a nanny.”
She snickered and headed for the shower. “You had three of them here last night. Just let me know when you want your peace back.”
An icy breeze washed over Axell as the bathroom door closed between them. She was still thinking of their marriage as a temporary arrangement that would end the minute he tired of it.
She still kept her teacups packed in a box at the school, ready to move at a moment’s notice. Maya didn’t know the meaning of permanence, didn’t share his ability to ride out life’s storms.
The druggies in his restaurant last night were probably the opening volley of the mayor’s new war against his license. What would happen to their marriage if he was forced to trade Maya’s school to protect their livelihood — and maybe even his family’s safety?
I tried sniffing Coke once, but the ice kept bumping my nose.
The chimes tinkled as Maya entered The Curiosity Shoppe. It wasn’t her store anymore, but she needed to clue Cleo in on some of the changes she’d made at the instigation of Axell and Selene. She was rather proud that the place was finally making a small profit. She prayed Cleo would appreciate what they’d done. Her big sister was the only real “home” she’d known growing up. She wanted that connection back — another impossible dream, she supposed.
“What are you doing here?” a raspy voice asked from the dark interior. “Isn’t it enough you’ve got my kid, you want my store too?”
Well, so much for prayer. Maya was beginning to remember why she and Cleo hadn’t parted on the best of terms. “You wanted me to leave Matty with Social Services?”
She probably ought to just turn around and leave. She didn’t have the stamina for Cleo’s anger this morning. Axell had left her limp and so confused she didn’t know whether she was coming or going. She had to be doing one or the other. She’d never stayed still in her life.
“That’s not what that legal paper you sent was all about. You want my kid.” Cleo emerged from the back of the shop, coffee cup in hand. She looked as if she hadn’t slept all night. Her short hair stood on end, and her T-shirt looked as if she’d wrung it out and put it on wet. She was so thin, the shirt outlined her rib cage.
Maya searched for some sign of drugs, but Cleo’s eyes were clear and snapping. “That’s a legal maneuver. Axell’s lawyer says if we have guardianship, then Social Services can’t do anything if we let you take care of Matty as much as you like. Otherwise, you can’t have Matty until the social worker says you can.”
“Where’s my teapot?” Cleo reached for her pockets as if hunting for a cigarette, cursed, then shoved her hands in her jeans waistband.
Maya didn’t need an explanation. Cleo had always smoked, for as long as she could remember. Cutting out cigarettes and drugs both must be driving her crazy. “It’s at the school. We almost lost everything when the other building collapsed, so I packed it up and stored it somewhere safe. I’ll get it for you.”
Cleo dropped into the wicker chair and curled her legs under her, not looking at Maya. “I want my life back. You’ve got my kid, my store, my damned teapot. Hell, you’ve got my town. You married Wadeville’s golden boy. What am I supposed to do, crawl off in a hole somewhere and let you have it all?”
This was the point where Maya was supposed to slink off into the sunset and let everyone do their own thing. She didn’t have answers. Never had. But she’d made some decisions that got in her this position, and she didn’t see any immediate way out.
Maya dropped into the other chair. “Why did you move to Wadeville?” Maya kicked herself, but the question was out there and she couldn’t think of a better one.
Cleo shrugged and rested her head against the high back of the chair. “When I left the Creep, I had to go somewhere. I thought maybe I could make it in our hometown, find our roots. I should have known better.”
The Creep, Cleo’s husband, the one who’d hooked her on drugs. Maya knew all that from garbled phone conversations over the years. But the Creep hadn’t been in Wadeville. Whatever Cleo had done here, she had done to herself.
“I kind of like it here.” Maya was surprised to hear herself say that. She didn’t like places. They changed too often. But she’d had her first opportunity of building her dream here. The people of Wadeville had offered her more opportunities than anywhere else. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be a real family, raise our kids in a real town?” she asked with a tinge of hope.
“It ain’t gonna happen.” Cleo said callously. “I can’t keep this place running. The only job I qualify for is waitressing. The rent around here is too expensive to live on tips. Old Man Pfeiffer cut me a break on the oth
“Pfeiffer? Mr. Pfeiffer owned the other building? I paid the rent to some corporation.” There was a topic she could sink her teeth into without disturbing old arguments.
“Yeah, but he must have owned it. I think the old goat owns all kinds of stuff around here. He says he’s our grandfather, isn’t that a hoot? He has more relatives than Adam has apples, owns half these doddering buildings, and he wants to own us too.”
“Grandfather?” Maya couldn’t take that in. They had aunts and uncles and cousins all over creation, she knew that. But the blood between them had been damned thin. She didn’t remember any grandfathers. He’d said he knew their grandmother. Did that fit?
“He’s dead, you know,” Maya continued. “He owned the property the school is on, and now Axell says the court will sell it since he didn’t leave a will.”
Cleo’s head shot up. “Dead? Well, shit, that cinches it. He gave me some cock-and-bull story about how he’d met our grandmother before he married, but he didn’t do right by her and he was going to make it all up to us now that his wife was gone and he could admit what he’d done. I figured the old goat was just lonely and wanted someone to talk to. He has nieces and nephews and cousins who never visited unless they wanted something. I kinda felt sorry for him.”
“So did I, but he definitely had a muddy aura. Maybe that’s why he gave us such a good deal on the school. We could never have afforded it without his help.” Maya dug her fingers into her hair and tried to sort it all out, but she didn’t have much confidence in ancient history — although with the names their mother had given them, she supposed she should at least show some interest.
“Muddy aura.” Cleo snorted. “You’re as crazy as I am.” She shifted uncomfortably. “But he wasn’t above muddy deals. It’s probably good that he’s gone.” She sank into glum thought.
Maya didn’t want to hear about muddy deals. She didn’t want to know what Cleo had done in her former life. But for Matty’s sake, she had to know. “He didn’t get you mixed up in anything, did he?”
Cleo spiked her hair worse than it was. “Anything I did, I did to myself. Pfeiffer might have blamed himself, but it wasn’t his fault.”
“Cleo?” Maya asked uncertainly when she didn’t continue.
Cleo sighed. “He let some slimeballs use some of his old buildings. I know dealers when I see them. When things got bad, I sought them out, not vice versa. But if Pfeiffer’s gone, they’ll have moved on. You don’t have to worry. I’m clean, and I’m staying that way.”
Maya nodded in relief. “That’s hard to believe of that nice old man. Maybe he didn’t know they were dealing.”
Cleo grunted in disbelief but didn’t argue. “Your turn to spill. Since you were already knocked up when you came out here, how the hell did you get Superman to marry you?”
Superman. Maya smiled. “I was thinking in terms of Norse gods myself. Thor, maybe? It’s a long story. You really don’t want to hear it. But Axell’s good with lawyers. Do you think if we could prove Mr. Pfeiffer was our grandfather, we might get part of his estate?” She wasn’t really interested for herself, but for Cleo... It might give her a reason for hanging out a while longer.
“If a collapsed building and a run-down old house is the extent of it, we wouldn’t get enough to pay the lawyers.” Cleo sipped her coffee and stared around at the sparkling shop inventory. “I kind of liked the place dusty and moldy. It had a certain flavor to it.”
“Yeah, it was called Eau de Rat. It made a profit last month,” Maya offered tentatively. “Axell said with all the new growth around here, this town would be seeing a lot of new business, that with the right planning, your shop could be a major asset.”
“If I stay off dope and out of the clutches of idiots,” Cleo answered gloomily. “It’s not that easy. I owe a lot of favors.” She sat up and glared at Maya. “I want Matty back.”
“You want to run,” Maya accused her. “I’ll be damned if I let you do that to him.”
“He’s my kid.”
“He’s your responsibility. There’s a difference.” Maya dug her fingers into the chair arms. She’d never learned to stand up for herself or anyone else, but Cleo was her sister. If she couldn’t stand up to her, she couldn’t help anybody.
“You don’t understand. Nobody understands. It’s just better if I leave.” Cleo slumped back in the chair and glared at the glass counter.
“You can’t leave. You’re on probation. You’ve got to stick it out and fight whatever it is you’re running from. You’ve got family behind you now. It can work. We’re not alone anymore.”
“Oh, yeah, and Beaver and his mom will bake cookies and serve lemonade.” Cleo struggled silently with her inner demons for a minute more, then narrowed her eyes and turned her glare back to Maya. “I’ll do whatever it takes to get Matty.”
All right. Step One. That’s all she could handle right now. “Talk to Social Services. See if they’ll give him over to you. If they won’t, we’ll talk about alternatives.” Maya got up. “I’ll finish up those shoe paintings. You talk to the system.”
Miraculously, Cleo seemed to accept this order of things. She wandered off to clean up while Maya took her usual place behind the counter. It had been a very confusing few days. She needed the security of her paint and brushes.
Maya glanced up as the door chimes rang. The shop had just opened for the day and nobody came in at ten in the morning. If it was Axell, she didn’t know if she was ready to speak to him. They had some issues they needed to sort out, and not the way they had done it last night. Making love was a lot more dangerous to her equilibrium than she had imagined.
Her eyes widened as Katherine and the mayor walked in. They stared around as if they’d never been inside a store before. She bit back a grin as they ran into the bumper sticker rack. Nobody could get by that rack without looking and chuckling, even these two starched-up yuppies.
Ralph Arnold brought a sticker saying FORGET WORLD PEACE — VISUALIZE USING YOUR TURN SIGNAL to the counter. “Maybe we could put one of these on every car in town,” he said dryly, laying it down and reaching for his wallet.
Maya shrugged and waved away his money. “It’s on the house.” She studied the man on the other side of the counter, looking for the devious aura that would nail him as up to no good, but she could see nothing more than his narrow-minded conservatism. At least, they agreed on the poor driving habits of the local townspeople. “Maybe I could sell you a crystal ball? They’re supposed to be real handy in telling the future.”
The mayor looked at her suspiciously, but Katherine sauntered up and distracted him. She was wearing red, as usual, but a little more modestly tailored for a change. The skirt only rode half way up her thighs.
“Pfeiffer’s heirs want to sell the school property.” Katherine dived right into the issue at hand. “We thought we could offer alternative properties to expedite the sale.”
Axell had taught her one or two things over these last months, and one of them was to beware wiggling bait. Maya gestured toward her high-backed chairs. “Have a seat, if you like. Dazzle me with your knowledge. But remember, the house and the lease are in the court’s hands, and there isn’t a lawyer or judge in the state that will break my lease. I’ve got three years.”
She watched the mayor’s complexion turn purple and Katherine’s eyes narrow to slits. Maya settled on her stool behind the counter and picked up her paintbrush.
“I thought Axell had explained to you that we need that property now. We can get a judgment from the court allowing the road to go through there while the estate is pending. We just need your release.”
“Axell explains lots of things to me. I don’t remember him telling me I had to move or sign anything. Actually, if I remember correctly, someone mentioned that if anyone wanted me out of there early, they’d have to buy off my lease.”
Selene had actually mentioned that. Maya
“Axell promised!” Katherine all but shouted. “He said if we scratched his back, he’d scratch ours. He’s supposed to help you find a new place.”
Well, that was an entirely new perspective. Add one more issue to discuss with Mr. Axell Holm. But Maya was accustomed to keeping her mouth shut in the presence of civil servants. She smiled patiently. “So, scratch your own itches. They have nothing to do with mine. I have a lease and the school stays. There’s an old depleted tobacco field just down the way. Why don’t you buy it if you have to have a new road?”
“It’s two miles out of the way!” the mayor argued. “It would cost a fortune to run that road through there. The Pfeiffer property will save the state hundreds of thousands. If you won’t cooperate, we’ll have to proceed with the land condemnation.”
Maya shrugged. “Aside from the cost of building a bridge over the flood zone, moving the school should make you real popular with the parents of my students. They like the school where it is. And the ladies of the Garden Club are planning a fall tour of the landscaping. They’ve been working hard at it. Apparently, Pfeiffer has some plants in there that date back to the settling of the colony. Come to think of it, the Historic Society might get interested. There aren’t many sites like that left.”
“It’s just a damned piece of land!” Arnold exploded. “You can’t deprive the public of their right of access or the heirs to their rightful inheritance. We’ll take it to court. Axell will be damned sorry he let you get into this.”
Probably, but Axell would be damned sorry about a lot of things, and the Pfeiffer property was the least of them. Maya shrugged. “Whatever. I’ll give you a good price on the crystal ball.”
“There’s no point arguing with her,” Katherine pointed out, taking the mayor’s arm. “She’ll be reading your cards next.”
“Remember the Fool in yours?” Maya called out as they hurried toward the door. “Keep him in mind when you think of me!”
PATRICIA RICE SERIES:
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