Impossible Dreams, page 3part #1 of Carolina Series Prequel Series
“I live out there,” he reminded her dryly. “I’m well aware of what’s happening. I just don’t agree that we must allow wall-to-wall housing from the city outward. I thought the whole point of the town zoning laws was to prevent Wadeville from becoming just another suburb of Charlotte. We’re a rural town and we should acknowledge that.”
“It’s part of our Southern charm,” she said waspishly. “We could all take to wearing straw hats and muddy boots.”
Since he could remember when his father owned the local grill on this corner and the patrons who’d worn just that, Axell didn’t comment. He’d learned more about human nature and running a business while polishing the counter downstairs than he’d ever learned at the university. Unfortunately, he’d never had his father’s talent for being one of the “good old boys.”
He dismissed that thought and applied his knowledge of human nature to the current situation. “Let me guess: Pfieffer is in ill health, doesn’t have a will, and the whole family is counting the dollars that property could add to the coffers.”
Katherine shot him a hooded look. “I doubt there would be enough to trickle down to me, if that’s what you’re aiming at. No, I’m looking for the connection between me and the mayor, and the Pfieffer property has to be it.”
“Not to mention that the governor and probably half the department of transportation likes looking at gorgeous blondes,” he added dryly. “You really don’t want to hear the reaction of the city council when you show up for one of our meetings wearing a miniskirt.”
“Holm, you have ice water for blood.” She swung on her high heel and started for the door. “Headley is downstairs, said he’d like to talk to you when you get a chance. Shall I send him up?”
Vaguely perplexed by her reaction but not particularly concerned, Axell nodded. One of these days he’d calculate the pattern that guided female emotion. Until then, he just accepted that he would seldom understand what set them off.
He’d straightened out an order with his New York wine merchant and decided on the best bid for new restaurant linen by the time Headley ambled upstairs. Axell liked taking care of material details. It was people like Headley he had difficulty keeping in line.
Spreading his gray suit-jacketed arms across the back of the leather sofa, the newspaper reporter swung his gaze around the room in fascination. “So, this is the lion’s lair, is it? Far cry from the old days.”
“We all have our little rebellions,” Axell replied mildly. His father’s office had been windowless, stuffy, and cluttered with files that hadn’t been opened since his first year of business.
Headley had almost single-handedly made Holm’s Grill a success. Three decades ago, before the law allowed liquor sales by the drink, the reporter had adopted a seat at the corner of the restaurant counter where he could pull the flask of bourbon from his coat pocket and view the comings and goings of the town from the front window. A decade later, when the liquor law changed and the new mahogany bar was installed, Headley was their first customer. Every neighborhood bar needed at least one eccentric character to meet and greet regular patrons, and to provide a stability they could count on in their ever-changing worlds, and Headley was Holm’s.
The front window and the tavern had long ago fallen beneath the treads of a bulldozer, but Headley lingered on, fifty pounds heavier than his youthful self, his full head of hair now a distinguished white. His nose for gossip hadn’t deteriorated a bit.
“I can see that.” The reporter focused his sharp blue gaze in Axell’s direction. “Did you know the ABC board is investigating your liquor license?”
Oh, shit. Axell rolled his eyes skyward as he remembered the altercation the police had to break up last month. A perfectly harmless catfight between two country-club matrons over a man not worth either of their time had deteriorated into a brawl among the other patrons after a particularly drunken evening of race-car watching in the bar. On top of the robbery in the parking lot the month before, he could see the train of the law enforcement mind, especially if egged on by a concerned citizen, like the mayor. If they took his license, he’d be ruined. The mayor’s campaign against him seemed to be taking a particularly nasty turn. Should he reconsider his vote against the parking lot access?
“Was there some reason I ever agreed to serve on the town council?” he asked of the ceiling.
“Besides your civic duty?” Headley inquired with a touch of irony. “How about that zoning change you wanted to stop that seedy hotel down your way from reopening?”
“Yeah, the one the mayor owns.” Axell sighed and returned his gaze to Headley. “Maybe I should run for mayor next time.”
Headley whistled in appreciation. “Good idea. Hometown boy makes good with squeaky-clean record. Marry that ice maiden you keep as hostess, parade her to church on your arm with your little girl, and you’re a shoo-in.”
Headley had all but the marriage part right. Axell had learned the hard way that marriage wreaked a havoc in his life that he wasn’t properly qualified to cope with, and no amount of civic duty would reconcile him to making that mistake again.
Besides, his daughter hated Katherine and would sooner accompany a salamander to church.
Remembering the light in his daughter’s eyes as she mentioned her after-school teacher, Axell grimaced and rubbed his hand over his face. He had some recollection of the prior owner of that junk shop being arrested on drug charges. Had the gypsy woman mentioned something about a sister?
Maybe he better investigate his daughter’s after-school teacher a little further. The astrology mumbo-jumbo was bad enough. He didn’t need Constance becoming enraptured with drug dealers.
He dropped his head in his hands. His life would become a fishbowl if he ran for mayor. Constance had enough problems without that kind of scrutiny.
They’d both have worse problems if he lost his alcohol license and his business.
Hell, maybe he ought to close the school.
Except — for the first time in two years — Constance was talking again, and the blamed schoolteacher was the reason.
If — a two letter word for futility.
“Look, girl, if Axell Holm offered to help us, we’d be fools to turn him away. Do you want the school to close?”
Maya huddled the phone receiver against her ear and stroked Matty’s hair. He’d had a nightmare, and she’d carried him into the big water bed with her a little while ago. He’d fallen directly to sleep once he was beside her, so she couldn’t complain. His learning disabilities caused some frustration — mostly for her because she blamed Cleo for the stress that caused his lack of attention — but for the most part, he was the soul of sweetness. Matty seldom gave her reason for complaint.
Life, on the other hand, was a real roller coaster ride.
She stared up at the cracked ceiling of her sister’s shop apartment. The tiny salary the school partnership paid was the only shoestring keeping her off welfare. Cleo’s shop was in such financial ruin, it scarcely earned enough to cover outstanding debts, although the free apartment was a boon. No, she couldn’t afford to see the school close.
“Why can’t you talk to him? You know more about this town and running a business than I do. He’s a Virgo, Selene. We don’t even speak the same language.”
“Honey, I hate to tell you, but you don’t talk the same language as anybody around here. I don’t know what they taught you out there in California, but it flat out has nothing to do with the Carolinas. You want to make it in this town, you’d better learn to talk the talk.”
If. Maya closed her eyes and wrinkled her nose. That was a mighty big if. She and Cleo had spent the better part of their lives drifting from town to town, house to house, like tumbleweeds, never knowing the meaning of roots. Unlike the Axell Holms of this world, they had no place to call their own and no reason to stay anywhere.
She’d always figured wherever she slept was home. Glancing down at the sleeping five-year-old beside her
Grimacing, she dropped back to reality. “All right. I’ll talk to him, but I think he’s looking for a compromise, and I’m warning you now, Selene, I don’t do compromise. If you’re going to make me swim upstream, baby, I swim hard.”
Selene sighed into the phone. “Heaven forbid I should understand what that means. If you’re going to be a partner in this business, you have to do what’s best for all. I’m holding you to that.”
Maya wrinkled her nose as she hung up the phone a few minutes later. Her Pisces nature really preferred going with the flow over swimming upstream, but she had others to think of besides herself now. For Matty and the baby, she’d jump waterfalls and dams. Talking to a stuck-up yuppie couldn’t be that difficult.
“Axell, dear, I know you try, but it’s quite obvious Constance is unhappy. You have your hands full running a business” — the word quivered with disapproval — “and with the town council, and besides, you’re a man. You can’t possibly understand the needs of a little girl. She needs a mother.”
His mother-in-law patted the gray silk cushion beside her, offering him a seat, but Axell preferred his distance. He was certain Sandra was a very nice woman. He’d never seen evidence otherwise, although admittedly, since she’d moved to Texas, he hadn’t seen much of her at all. That she’d traveled all the way back here to have this confrontation aroused his suspicions.
“You haven’t worried about Constance in the last two years. What brings you back here now?” He didn’t mean to sound impolite, but he hadn’t the patience to work around to her motives. He’d had his fill of game playing with Angela.
“I’ve always worried about her,” Sandra protested, tapping her beringed fingers on the cushion. “I had just hoped she’d recover from Angela’s death by now.” She hesitated, obviously looking for the right words for her next attack.
Axell supplied them for her. “But obviously my cold, uncaring nature isn’t what Constance needs.” Fighting the guilt and pain that washed over him every time he thought of his late wife, Axell braced his hand on the marble mantel Angela had chosen when they’d built this palace. “Angela made the complaint more than once. I haven’t forgotten.”
“Angela loved you,” Sandra said placatingly. “But you were so busy all the time...”
Damn, but it was as if the last two years hadn’t happened, and he was slammed right back into one of those ever-running arguments Angela had hit him with every night when he came home. He didn’t need this. Angela was dead. She’d died two years ago driving too fast on a rain-slick highway. She’d been furious with him at the time. He hadn’t understood her fury then any more than he did now. He just knew the guilt she’d left behind.
“Look, Sandra, Constance is my daughter. She’s lost one parent. I’ll be damned if she’ll lose another. I know you mean well...”
Beneath her professionally styled blond coif, Sandra frowned. “Axell, I’m prepared to get tough about this. Constance is my only grandchild. I’ll never have another. I want what’s best for her, and I can provide it. She’s not happy here; anyone can see that. I don’t see that’s there any room for argument.”
Axell clenched his fists. He wasn’t a man who lost control of his emotions. If his late wife were to be believed, he didn’t have emotions.
“I don’t know who you’ve been talking to, but they cannot possibly know everything that goes on in this household. I’ve found her a very good after-school program, and she’s opening up nicely. Her teacher says she’s quite talented.” He didn’t need to mention that the teacher was a space cadet.
Sandra looked disbelieving. “When even your neighbors notice a child’s unhappiness, there has to be something wrong. We could just do this on a trial basis.”
Maybe she was right. Maybe Constance did need a mother figure. She was only eight, but Axell recognized that little girls wanted someone to paint their fingernails and braid their hair and hear their secrets, and he was no damned good at it. Even if she’d been a tomboy who loved climbing trees and fishing, he wouldn’t be of much use. He’d spent his life between books and the bar. The only time he’d ever been fishing was at Boy Scout camp as a kid. He’d fallen in the lake and never bothered again. The principles of fishing were as illogical as women, and he didn’t have the patience for either.
Damn Angela for dying and leaving him helpless.
Hating the feeling of inadequacy, Axell rubbed his hand over his face and nodded. “Give me time to think about it. I want to talk to Constance first. How long do you plan to stay? I can arrange someone to come in and fix meals...”
Sandra rose from the couch. “I’ll be staying with Elizabeth Arnold. I wouldn’t wish to put you out, dear. Whatever do you do for meals when I’m not here?”
Elizabeth Arnold, the mayor’s mother. The last piece of puzzle plunked in place. Axell gritted his teeth and forced a polite smile. “We eat at the bar.”
He really shouldn’t have said that. Sandra’s artfully made-up face dropped two inches. People never knew when he was kidding. The bar’s opening twenty years ago had been so scandalous, everyone still referred to it as such, even though he’d expanded into the biggest restaurant in the county. Suddenly anxious to be rid of her, Axell didn’t bother erasing her impression of Constance snacking on peanuts while whirling on bar stools.
As soon as his mother-in-law scurried into the night, Axell switched off the lights and walked upstairs.
His heart plummeted as he saw the spectral blur of a white nightgown darting into Constance’s bedroom. The click of the door lock fastening echoed down the hall.
She’d heard everything. And he had no words to explain.
“Well, did you talk with him?” Selene hissed as Maya entered the school in the company of a trio of chirping new arrivals.
“No, I haven’t,” Maya hissed back, removing school backpacks and tucking them into their appropriate lockers.
As the children raced to the workroom, she straightened with a hand to her aching back. “Cleo’s social worker arrived to check on Matty’s environment and to verify I’m not passed out on drugs or otherwise behaving down to her opinion of me. It’s not the very best time of my life to get pregnant.”
It had been downright stupid, as a matter of fact. She’d known better than to trust Stephen. Next time, she was taking the pill. Next time? She’d be old and gray before she trusted another man that way again.
Selene clucked sympathetically. “You had no way of knowing your sister would get put away. Did you tell the worker pretty stories?”
Maya brightened. “I did. Stephen is now a respectable musician who travels a lot in his line of work. His income is sometimes erratic, but we’re expecting a large royalty check soon, only I don’t think Matty’s ready to move from his familiar environment yet. Did I do good?”
“You did good, girl. I can tell you spent time in the system. Did she buy that?”
Maya shrugged and jerked a ribbon from her jumper pocket to tie back her tangle of curls. “She’s not happy that Matty doesn’t have a male authority figure, and she thinks I should put my teaching certificate to more respectable use. I might know the system, but I never fit in it, I’m afraid.”
“That’s all right. We’ve got a good thing here and we’ll make a mint when we franchise it in a few years. You just hold on till then.”
Maya whistled the refrain from “The Impossible Dream” in reply and wandered back to the children.
A few hours later, sitting at the kitchen table with Matty muttering about Big Macs while grudgingly chomping a soy burger, Maya stared at her list of figures and sighed inwardly. She could never break even. Not in a thousand million years. She’d never b
“Maya, can I have new sneakers?” Matty asked through a mouth full of burger.
She didn’t bother to correct his grammar. “Can” was actually the operative word here. Considering their budget, new sneakers weren’t within the realm of possibility. “What’s wrong with the old ones?” she asked absently, running the numbers through her old college hand calculator again. Maybe she hadn’t hit the right keys.
“They got holes in the bottom. Miss Kidd says I need new ones. Dick got some with lights on them.”
Maya heard the plea and resisted the usual lecture on how poor people couldn’t buy what other kids had. She’d heard those lectures from countless foster parents growing up. The speech might be logical but it didn’t fulfill a child’s need to belong. Besides, they weren’t poor. She refused to adopt that mentality. Maybe the wolf was at the door, but she had an education, doggone it. She’d made certain of that. Nobody could take away those degrees. She could make a living and put food on the table. And sneakers on Matty’s feet.
Ashamed she hadn’t noticed the condition of his shoes, Maya ruffled his straight dark hair. “We’ll go to the store after kindergarten tomorrow. Want me to paint smiley faces on your old ones? I bet Dick doesn’t have smiley faces.”
Matty gave her one of his rare shy smiles. “Can I have dragons instead? Shelly has smiley faces.”
“Fire-breathing dragons coming up,” she agreed. She might not be good with numbers, but she could wield a mean paint brush.
She tucked the memory of Matty’s smile into her aching heart as she watched him toddle off to bed. Once upon a time, her practical older sister had been the only buffer between an imaginative little girl and a harsh, cold world of strangers. How could the sister she’d known turn to the escape of drugs and leave her beautiful little boy behind?
PATRICIA RICE SERIES:
Other author's books:
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