When Joleigh-Anna’s beloved cousin, Matt Kelmann, is killed in a senseless dare of Chicken, her fiancé, Dr. Irvyn Woodworth, MD, breaks off their engagement on the day of Matty’s funeral—the day that should have been their wedding day.

Matt and Irvy had been best friends since they were toddlers. Each had pledged to be the other’s best man at his respective wedding. To be a pall bearer at Matty’s funeral instead seems to hit Irvyn hard.

Joleigh understands that. But is grief his only reason for breaking up or is there something else influencing his decision?

Seems it might be something else. For to her dismay, Irvy appears in public with #11 from his mother’s list of eligible women for her only son—from which list Joleigh-Anna’s name is absent. #11 is everything Joleigh is not. Tall, blonde, strikingly beautiful, and wealthy—and totally insincere and shallow!

Joleigh’s loved Irvy since before she could speak his name—“Irby!” She knew him inside and out. His history was with her not this pretender! How could anyone believe such a flake brain would make a good doctor’s wife?

While the general consensus is she ought to forget Irvy and get her own life on track before she ended up like poor Matty, Joleigh is determined to win him back if it kills her!

And . . . maybe it will . . .



Chapter One

Goodbye, Matt



MATT’S LIFE ENDED UNEXPECTEDLY—in a moment of reckless insanity.

Wednesday evening, we were a close-knit, fun-loving fivesome—

Wednesday night . . .

Matt was gone.

It’d been one of the rare occasions we’d gone our separate ways. Generally, we were inseparable—my cousins, Matt and Lannette Kelmann, my twin brother, Jace-Anthony, my fiancé—Matt’s closest friend—Dr. Irvyn Woodworth and I. Only, Matt had recently found a girl he cared about almost as much as cars and racing, and that night they’d parted from us in the parking lot of Overlook Manor, our favorite restaurant for special occasions. He had something to take care of, he said. Wouldn’t take long, and they would meet us later at the house.

“Ours or yours?” Jace had asked.

“Whatever . . . if you’re not at ours, we’ll catch you at yours, okay?”

So, reluctantly, we’d split from him and Krysta.

For me, every night out with Irvy was a special occasion. Yeah, I was crazy in love with him and had been since I was a tiny tot. We were to be getting married this coming Sunday. I wanted to celebrate that every hour of every day! Now, our happy day would have to be postponed. For how long it would be hadn’t been decided as yet. It was just too overwhelming to deal with right now. I was heartsick over it, but I was that over Matty’s death as well.

If only we had insisted we stay together, Matt would be alive now.

Irvy could have curbed Matty’s rash impulse to answer a worthless challenge. Kept him from losing his common sense while he’d been egged on.

The situation had been a lose-lose one, Krysta told us later that night.

“They challenged him to race down-down Hennings Drive to the end. S-said his Subaru was j-junk and they didn’t see how he’d won anything with it. They s-said they wanted to s-see him in action . . . Bet him he couldn’t beat their car . . . I-I don’t know what it was . . . a car. He-he said he didn’t have to p-prove anything to them. So they said-they said he acted all big and brave when he was-was with all-all of you . . . but alone . . . alone . . . he was—he was—nothing but a c-chicken-hearted ass— ” She burst into sobs then and wouldn’t talk anymore.

Thing was, Krysta hadn’t a clue how to handle Matt when he’d been goaded into doing something dumb. She hadn’t been dating him long enough to have developed that skill. Although to be honest, few had it.

So, yeah, had we all been together, Matt would’ve been with us now, and I’d be looking forward to my wedding. Irvy would’ve known how to make him see past a foolish challenge without hurting his pride. He’d been doing it for years.

Like the time Sal Cristiano and his idiot friends challenged Matt to tie a ribbon on the tail of Mr. Henning’s bull, Fritz.

Dashing through the narrow end of the field was one thing. Actually, playing in the field where the beast grazed was another. The only humans he tolerated were the Hennings, and he did that grudgingly.

That never stopped us from crossing the field to get to where we wanted to go, but we always crossed it at that narrow part, so we could be fairly certain of rolling under the fence before we got gored.

Then one day we saw Fritz tear apart dogs with his vicious horns and his well-aimed kicks. These two probably deserved their fate—they’d been up to no good in that field, worrying the cattle and attacking a couple of Mr. Henning’s best cows. Fritz wasn’t satisfied until neither dog moved.

So, when Matt showed every determination to display the color of his courage, even the one who emulated his every move was alarmed. That’d be me. And for every reason I had for why he shouldn’t do it, Matt had two for why he would do it. Not saying they were great reasons but to the kids we were at the time, they sounded like good ones.

Except to Irvy. After we other three had made our attempts to talk sense into Matt, he took over.

“Matt, this oughta be a two-way street here! Challenge one of them back! Make ‘em prove their own courage!” Irvy urged him. “Because, I think that when Fritz impales you on those horns leaving you bloody in the field, so will they! They’ll deny they ever dared you to do it! Why give them the satisfaction of laughing at you like that?”

Matt could take a joke on himself and be the first to laugh. But to be laughed at in a scornful way, that was different. Then he became something close to Fritz’s brother, and you better be booking it to the next county if you were the one mocking him. He’d looked Irvy in the eye, questioned softly, “Laughing at me?”

“Sure! That’s the only reason they dared you! For a laugh! They probably said, “Hey, we got nothing else to do today! Let’s get the brave idiot, Matt Kelmann to tease Henning’s bull and watch him bleed!” So where do they get off challenging you when they’re as yellow as bananas themselves!”

“Yeah! Yeah, they talk big, don’t they? Let’s see if their bravery is as big as their mouths or as puny as their brains!”

At the appointed time, we all met at the upper end of the Henning’s field. Matt challenged Sal. “I’ll tie the ribbon on Fritz’s tail, but you have to go with me and catch the tail so’s I can do it!”

Sal protested, and his buddies started in on Matt; but Matt cut them off, saying, “You said I had to tie the ribbon on the tail, you didn’t say anything about me having to catch it myself. Now—I’m willing! Got the ribbon right here in my hand. Show me your guts!”

Well, they all decided to keep their guts, and we taunted and jeered them so bad they skulked away and left us alone for a long while after. Matt came off looking like Hercules without having to do anything. But if Irvy hadn’t said anything to him, he’d’ve jumped right into that field and either have wound that ribbon on Fritz’s tail or been killed trying.

Since he couldn’t stand to have anyone think his courage was less than True Blue American, his funeral might have taken place long before now. So I know if we’d been with him Wednesday night, only four days ago . . . only four days . . . was like four years . . . I know Irvy would’ve shown him that this new situation was just like the one with the bull.

Very much like it—for it’d been those same guys who’d challenged him this time as well. Or at least, a couple of the same ones. They’d given themselves up to police the next day. We wanted to run right over and demand their blood then and there—but Mom and Aunt Lynore wouldn’t let us. Their hearing was set for the beginning of next month. We’d have our say then. So, we have to curb our impatience and vengeful feelings—and wait. But it’s hard.

Truth is, though, Matt had always been a little hyper-crazy. If he didn’t have something constructive to do, he’d find something else to do. Not necessarily always destructive, but often not within house rules either. Always interesting though! Maybe that’s what I’d admired about him as a tot. Man, he could egg me on to anything, and I’d do it to win his approval, his admiring, “Whoa, you got guts, Little Jo! More than anyone else—even Irvy!”

By the time I’d turned nine, he’d settled into his role in a more companionable way, and we would plan things together instead of him simply daring me to follow.

Irvy and Jace always attempted to put a lid on some of our wilder notions. But other times they’d buckled under our taunts of “Chic-ken!” and “Scaredy cat!” to prove they had the same color guts we had. Lannette copied us with never a whimper. She’d eat worms first before she let anyone challenge her courage! Except for when it had anything to with Fritz.

We got our share of bumps and bruises, plus the occasional broken arm or leg, punctuated by disciplines of every sort. None of which pierced our armor. We’d be back at it soon’s the dust settled, the redness was out of our seat, limbs were healed, and/or the grounding period lifted.

Amazingly, our parents had not only kept full heads of naturally hued hair plus their youthful looks, but also their sense of humor. Probably was what got them through it all.

Luckily for us, they never demanded we pack our bags and leave! Really, no one could’ve asked for more understanding, loving parents!

The rest of our relatives bet against us ever reaching our eighteenth birthdays. Except maybe in a wheelchair. Or more likely as a complete vegetable on life support.

They all lost their bets for Jace, Lannette and I made it to our twenty-fourth in great shape, while Matt and Irvy had achieved their twenty-eighth a few months ago. So, Matt would be missing the big 3-0, (the magic year we were all supposed to grow real brains and settle down for good), by a year and two months. Now the bet was we’d all perish before we knew better.

Well, so we didn’t all have the same sort of brains! Who does? Matt and Irvy’d gone to school together from kindergarten on—his father favoring sending him to public schools rather than private as his mother had wanted.

While Irvy excelled in everything he did, Matt hadn’t taken school too seriously. Since he couldn’t sit still for long, he’d considered studying a waste of time and was the class cut-up for all his school years. Pretty much graduated by the skin of his teeth.

Right along he’d hung around Dad and Uncle Mitch’s auto repair shop, learning all he could about cars. Soon as he graduated, he began working as a member of a pit crew, going often to the races and betting on them too.

Then he discovered rally racing.

Entered the annual dash to the top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and was hooked after that. He took a course at one of the rally schools and then became a co-driver for a few races. However, Matt being Matt, co-driving was far too tame to him. He wanted to be behind the wheel tooling along the mountainous passes, dirt roads, tracks and trails of the grueling courses. But he wanted a navigator he could depend on; someone who could read the route book and the terrain.

Didn’t need too much encouragement from him for me to go and get my license. Nine times a year, we were a team on those rally courses that only a mad man would consider navigating. We acquired a Super Beetle and a Subaru for our meets and were climbing steadily up our levels. If I have to say it myself, we were a great team!

To do him credit, anything to do with cars and racing, Matt was great at. Once I became his co-driver, he and Dad initiated me under the hood and body of the cars, too. When we ran into problems, was a great feeling to know I’d been able to help get it going again.

Lately, we’d begun to take my little brother Jarrett-Andrew with us. He loved chatting with the drivers and their co-drivers, enjoyed mingling with the racing crowd, watching the action from the safety of Dad’s arms or Irvy’s shoulder. Just a couple weeks ago, Jarrett announced his intention of becoming Matt’s co-driver and assistant mechanic when he grew up.

“Hey, buddy, that’s great! I’m waiting for you, okay? You grow up quick, all right! Be four today, but tomorrow I need you to be twenty-eight!”

Okay!” Jarrett had answered all excited and determined to make it so. “Cuz when Irby marries Joleigh, you need a new nav’gater, huh, Matt? Okay! I eat some more Cheerios and I be bigger tomorrow! You gonna let me drive too, huh!”

“You bet! When you’re big enough, you’ll be driving these babies with me, buddy!” And Matt’d shaken hands with Jarrett just as if he’d been an adult. He hadn’t just been pacifying a toddler either. Matt passed his enthusiasm onto anyone who’d stand still long enough to listen, whatever their age.

Some said rally racing was pretty much like camping with a race car—but I don’t know . . . it was more than that to us. No other camping trip I ever went on featured the thrills of racing against time and terrain at high speed!

Road, rally, drag . . . I love it all. Matt even backed me to win the Powderpuff demolition derby at the fairgrounds a few times. Wearing my own colors, I recently astonished everyone by winning a couple drag racing competitions in his dragster.

Mom took pictures of my big event and had them enlarged and framed for the living room to spite The Club—the exclusive clutch of aunts and older cousins who predicted the worst doom for us. I swear they met weekly to discuss the issue. Or, no, probably daily!

Their meddling and their strictures never dulled the twinkle in Matt’s eyes and his good-humored grin had rarely faded. Moreover, anyone could count on him to listen to a sackful of troubles as well as celebrate good times. No matter how busy he was, he’d take time to let us spill our guts or cry our hearts out.

He might tell us what he thought about the situation but more often he’d get us to figure out the solution ourselves. He’d drape an arm about our shoulders, give us a quick hug, and he’d say, “Look, you gotta do what you gotta do! But, what is it you want to do? Maybe that’s what you gotta do! Y’ see? You figure that out and you’ll be as happy as me!”

Strangely, we did see. Guess it made sense to Uncle Mitch too. He didn’t ever once try to talk Matt out of his racing dreams. Talked to him about it with all the animation Matt himself displayed. Always came with us to meets and never held back from backing Matt when he needed it. Matt paid back the debt. Matt always paid back his debts.

Except for the last one.

Just ten days ago, Irvy’d gone in with him on a Porsche for some road races we’d hoped to enter. Wouldn’t ever be tried out on any race now. I wanted to, but Mom cried when I said it, so I let it go. Was the first time she ever wished I’d just be a girl. So now, Irvy and Uncle Mitch would probably find a buyer for the car. Maybe for all the cars.

Not that Irvy seemed to care about the money. Could be he’d opt to just keep the Porsche himself. I sort of hoped he would. Of course, I’d gone with them the day they bought that car. The one I’d liked the best of the three we’d test driven that afternoon was the one Matt and I drove home in.

Somehow, I had to find a way around Mom’s objections. She’d never had any before Matt’s accident. As treacherous as the rally courses were, she’d never held me back.

Okay, sure, I’m impulsive, too. But just because I’m the tomboy type and can’t always sit still for longer’n two minutes doesn’t mean I’m totally brainless. Never had to kill myself to get awesome grades. Just read the material over, did a few exercises in whatever lesson it was to prove to my teachers and my parents I really knew what it was all about—that’s it. Graduated at the top of my class.

Didn’t follow Irvy into med school or go into law or anything like what was expected of me—by The Club’s Standards. Instead, I’d chosen to squander my talents working at a recreation center with disadvantaged kids and spending time with the lonely elderly at Seaton Hall. Of course, my most shocking mistake had been to join Matt in his dream of rally racing—whizzing down pea gravel roads, flying up and down hills and around hairpin turns, maybe ending up in a swamp because I hadn’t read the route book quite accurately.

What really bugged me was that while it was reckoned that I was wasting my time at the Center—probably influencing these tender young lives to a spirit of rebelliousness—these same discriminating members of The Club judged Jace-Anthony to be a wholesome role model for the kids there! Their only lament about him was his lack of a teaching degree.

“He ought to become a real teacher! Since he likes to teach swimming and athletics to disadvantaged kids, he ought to become a coach or something of the sort! Someone should suggest it to him. He’s a sensible lad, he’d listen!”

Well, the sensible lad still could be persuaded by a cry of, “Chic-ken!”

Just as Matt had.

So now here we were assembled at Franklin Funeral Hall with all the members of The Club and other family members and friends to weep his tragic passing.

Except for my cousin Craig Stanley and his family, and my Uncle David Kelmann and his family. But they had a good reason not to be here. Well, David and Marsha did—one of their four girls has a serious heart condition. No clue what was up with Craig and Audra.

Jaimee’s condition is such that extreme emotion can make her ill. Which is exactly what happened last Sunday. She collapsed and was now in the hospital, following surgery, making a slow recovery. We all were praying that she would suffer no relapses and start to make quicker progress.

Because it would suck if we ended up burying both Matt and Jaimee.

Our family seemed to be experiencing more than our share of sad times. Just a month ago one of my cousins on my mother’s side, Lawron Merriwether, had lost control of his truck during a heavy rainstorm and had ended up at the bottom of a steep drop off. His father, Mom’s oldest brother, Kevin, exactly a month before that, had his tractor roll over on him.

So, three deaths in as many months was horrible enough. Didn’t need it to become four.

Unlike The Club, though, David and Marsha had envied Matt’s energy. Appreciated his genuine concern for little Jaimee. He used to take time to go with me to entertain her and her sisters. So, them, we could forgive for not being here with us. For my brothers and me and Lannette, they’re our second favorite aunt and uncle.

In general, though, everyone’s hectic life allowed for attendance at funerals. Occasionally, a wedding—rarely, a birth. But always, always a funeral. Nothing makes people regret hurtful words and actions—things left undone or unsaid—than does a funeral. Or recall all the words of wisdom they’d imparted to the deceased—which, of course, had gone unheeded for the most part and look what happened because of it!

What a field day they were having just now! Since Matty had been a sort of racing hero to quite a few in our little town, Uncle Mitch and Aunt Lynore had spoken for two viewing times. So while, Lannette and I wished they’d all leave, there was yet another hour of this evening’s session before we could kiss them all good bye. Some of them, we wanted to just plain kiss off!

Like Uncle Todd Merriwether—who didn’t seem to me to be all that loaded with common sense himself. He’d dropped out of school at thirteen and at fifty-two was still trying to discover what he wanted to be when he grew up. But there he was, crying about Matt’s shortcomings.

“Why hadn’t that kid done something better with his life? Such a waste! Which is what he did with his time in school! We all knew this was bound to happen sometime! He was just too wild!”

“At his age—letting some idiots challenge him to a drag race down that godforsaken road! And taking his girlfriend along besides!” Uncle Buck, Dad’s oldest brother, threw up a hand in bewilderment. “Out there on the other side of the island! No ambulance could’ve gotten to him in time even if Krysta had been able to call for one sooner!”

“Heard he staked that restored ‘67 Nova of his in the deal and not the Subaru he was driving at the time!” Cousin Teddy Merriwether informed. Teddy was Uncle Jedd and Aunt Nedra’s eldest. We’d long ago secretly bestowed the nickname ‘Turdy’ on him and used it still. He bored on, “Didn’t he realize he couldn’t drive the thing dead? Noble of him to show ‘em all the true color of bravery!” He gave a derisive snicker. “Gushing Red!”

Lannette groaned and looked ready to puke. She sent him a black look which he caught since he was looking right over at us. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of acknowledging I’d heard it. Turdy’s a jerk.

How glad I was that Krysta wasn’t there to hear all this. Maybe I’d need a counselor too if I’d had to witness anything so horrifying. Be left alone with a dying person . . . having to decide between staying with him and finding help. For her cell phone had quit on her well before that.

No one seemed to give a moment’s consideration as to how Matty must have been feeling about then. Had he known he was dying? Had he thought of us? Or had he been in too much pain to think at all? Or just plain out of it—which seemed likely. While Krysta had been unable to tell us more precise details, she’d been coaxed into relating to the police one or two more, which had been headlines for the papers next day.

Like, the race hadn’t been a fair one . . . It’d been a set up.

 Guess talking about it again and again just wasn’t in her—right now at any rate. I’m not sure if I hoped that one day she’d be able to or not. I’d like to think he hadn’t suffered too horribly.

Didn’t have any trouble hoping the guys who’d set him up were suffering in jail though.

“How could anybody let someone bleed to death practically all by himself in the dead of night?” Aunt Becky, Uncle Todd’s wife, demanded wrathfully. “That poor girl! Scared to death, I’ll bet!”

Actually, it’d been about eleven o’clock. But under the circumstances, it might as well have been the dead of night.

Answered Aunt Nedra, the Sweet and Gentle. “Well, you know that bunch! Matt’s had trouble with them before. They were always trying to get him to do dangerous things of one sort or another. The police say they apparently began mocking his racing accomplishments and when they challenged him he lost his head and accepted.”

“Well, that was Matt!” observed my cousin Wendy. “Maybe if it’d happened in winter he wouldn’t’ve bled to death.”

“Maybe so, but he’d’ve been alive now if he could’ve curbed his impulsiveness!” put in Great Grandpa Kelmann, who carried a cane for appearances only—being in better shape than most of his great grandsons. “But you can’t tell kids anything! They know it all! Ha! I did at his age! Yessir! I gave my old pop and my mother a scare every once a week! Still, I never thought he’d do anything like this! Not here on the Island, at any rate!”

“Well, then, no wonder Matty was a hellion, Poppa Louis! In any case, no one should hold anything against Mitch and Lynore!” Aunt Nedra pointed out. “Matty was of age, after all!”

“One of us should’ve stepped in and took a hand with that kid! Slapped up Mitch and Lynore and made them see the storm coming!” Aunt Dorene uttered with deep-seated conviction. “Probably isn’t going to end with him!”

“Oh, lord, like she cares so deeply!” Lannette uttered disparagingly—but not so’s anyone but I could hear her, of course.

Aunt Dorene, Mom’s oldest sister and Crown Princess of The Club had the annoying habit of proclaiming, “Don’t any of you call on me to baby-sit! I’m not single to be anybody’s Mary Poppins!”

As if anyone would really want to leave their defenseless children in her care. That her world revolved solely around herself is the only thing all of us cousins agreed on. Even Turdy, even though, he’s just like her.

Still, I was fair. “Well, she did take us to The Newport Creamery!”

Lannette gave me a sour look. “Yeah, right. Once when we were about ten! What about all those times she planned family outings but left our families out! Even now she does it!”

“That’s why they’re called family ‘outings’,” I informed her.

She cracked an involuntary laugh despite her grief. “Don’t, Joleigh! Don’t get me started. I won’t be able to stop!”

“Oh, heinous! Think what they’d say then! How dare you laugh like an idiot at your brother’s wake?” I altered my voice. “But—it’s just like Mitch and Lynore to let her stick with Joleigh-Anna at a time like—”

Jo-leigh!” Lannette cut off my imitation of Aunt Willa and bit her lips hard to keep from losing it altogether.

Was nerves, you know. She’d break into giggles if a tiger was about to rip her to shreds. Which pretty much described the members of The Club.

This affliction had gotten her into trouble at school, oh, tons of times. She’d been blamed for things even when she’d been no where near the scene of the crime. Just because she laughed.

The worst was when she got blamed for a fire in the girls’ restroom trash basket. Somebody had tossed a butt in there, and it burst into flames just after Lannette had left. So since it was she who’d been last seen coming out of there . . .

Caused the whole school to have to be evacuated and everything.

Once we’d been allowed back to class, she’d been summoned to the Mr. Logan’s office. So, mortified she’d been about being accused, she just doubled over in guffaws, the tears streaming down her face. No one would believe her when she said she didn’t smoke.

First time for everything had been Mr. Logan’s response to that. He’d called me down to the office, I’m really not sure why. Didn’t believe me either. Even when I demanded they sniff her over. Nothing cigarette smoky about her! Then, one of the firemen walked in. I thought Lannette was going to die at that point.

Good thing Aunt Lynore and Uncle Mitch came when they did. She’d needed the bathroom again by that time, and couldn’t get anyone to let her go. She had fits of the giggles for three days after Mr. Logan suspended her. It all got sorted out—eventually.

I couldn’t imagine that it’d be any prettier if she broke up like that tonight! But I couldn’t help myself. The snide remarks just burst out without asking my permission.

“If that boy’d been my kid,” boomed Aunt Willa, Dad’s oldest sister and Empress of The Club, “I’d’ve curbed his wild ways! He’d be alive now!”

“Yes, chaining him to the cellar walls until he was sixty-five would keep him safe!”

“I’m gonna kill you!”

“No, no! If you kill me, you’ll only start them on the theory that you did it so Irvy could be yours at last! Shame on you but—perfectly understandable!”

She sucked in a gasp not quite choking back the giggle, clasped her hand to her mouth, and turned to inspect the huge bouquet of peach roses right beside her. Noticing some of my uncles and one pair of our grandparents watching us, I swung around too, threw my arm around her.

Behind us, Aunt Wanda, the Grand Duchess of The Club and Aunt Willa’s twin, declared self-righteously, “I hope JuliAnna and Jorden learn something from this experience!”

“Oh, I’m sure they have! I know I have—haven’t you?”

“Because, you know, if they’re not careful, that little Jarrett is going to be another Matthew Martin Kelmann!”

“What an honor that would be!” I chirped at the same instant my aunt charged, “What a shame that would be!”

“Joleigh! Quit!”

Recognizing she was in serious distress, I relented. “I’m sorry! Look, you want to move someplace else?”

“Where?” Lannette demanded with an emphatic gesture that swept the whole room. “We’re sardines in here already!” Then her eyes filled up again, and she ended, “I’m not moving! We cared about Matt; they didn’t!”

We’d been standing close by Matt’s casket since we’d first arrived for the second round. A little to the side though, so we could be as out of the way as possible when others came up to pay their respects. Every spare spot in the room was occupied. We could go outside, but that’s where the smokers of the family were congregated. Didn’t want to be out there. The air was bad enough right where we were.

Aunt Willa proceeded to sully it some more. “It’s a wonder their hair isn’t pure white! Mother’s was at thirty-five because of Buck and Jorden and Mitchell! But then, nothing these kids have ever done has ever fazed their parents! Such monsters they were back then! Why, they were always hiding on Tina, picking on her, and making her cry!”

“She wasn’t the only one, Aunt Willa!” piped up Wendy, one of Uncle Todd’s daughters. “They spared none of us!”

“Well, that was the fun of it!” Lannette uttered darkly. “Besides—Tina was bad. Still is! Wendy . . .” She wiggled her hand. “Depends!”

“Personally,” I opined, not able to let it alone, “I think our dads did Gram a favor! She looks much prettier with snow-white hair, don’t you think? I think—”

A pair of hands settled, one upon Lannette’s shoulder and one upon mine, at once startling us, yet making us stand very still. “You’re going to give everyone the wrong impression, girls!” Gramma Kate Kelmann whispered in our ears.

Oh . . . busted! She’s always been good about sneaking up on people—hearing what you didn’t want her to! “Ah, Gram, they already have that!”

“Then change it. You’ve the power to do that!”

“Oh, sure! Assuming we did do that, what good would it do? They don’t have the power to see you’re not bald!”

Lannette snickered, and Gramma Kate gave her a playful shove. Then she patted my shoulder, saying, “Well, someday I’ll point that out to them! Although they are aware there were moments when I had wanted to rip my hair out! Some of this is true, you know! Behave, both of you! Remember where you are!”

She moved away, and I said to Lannette, “Like we can forget?”

“Jorden and Mitchell were just like them though—always teasing us to tears!” Aunt Willa bored on. She slapped a hand to her cheek and then made a gesture. “They weren’t teasing when they ran off with Lynore and JuliAnna—remember Wanda? I bet you my best sweater they’d have children from Hell! Allying themselves with that family, how could it be otherwise! Although, as I say, Jace has managed to turn out fairly well.”

She gazed off to her left where our parents stood in a receiving line. “Lynore looks positively near collapse! Poor dear, I’ll be so glad when this is over for her!”

As if it’d be all better tomorrow; like it all could be healed with just a hug, a kiss, and a bandage.

“What do you mean that family?” Aunt Dorene looked ready to do some battle over the issue. “You talking just Lynore and JuliAnna, or are you saying if I were to get married, my kids would be Children from Hell—me being a Merriwether?”

“Don’t you open those lips!” Lannette hurriedly warned me just as I began to. She was already in a fair way to busting a gut having an excellent idea of what I’d meant to say. Killed me to spare her but I did.

Aunt Willa reached out to lay a hand on Dorene’s arm. “Oh, my dear, you’re so unlike them both that I forget you’re related!” in a tone that left one wondering how she really meant that. Then in altogether a different one, she said, “I can’t imagine why you’re taking offense. You agree with us!”

“Well, Auntie dear, you oughta recognize two faces when you see ‘em—you wear more than one yourself!”

Lannette dug her fingers into my ribs making me jump and give a little startled cry. Out of the corner of my eye, I witnessed the look our aunts cast us. At once, we both swung around to face Matt’s coffin again.

Which cast us back into our sad despair. Like fingers of icy mountain air, it was. And it touched my brain, numbing it. My heart squeezed with pain and cried for mercy—but none was granted it.

Seeing him lying there . . . knowing he’d never be with us again . . .

For a minute, I wanted to faint, but I fought it, breathing in deeply, struggling to stay with it. That’d be the last thing Lannette needed. She’d go to pieces and collapse herself. Wasn’t what our parents needed to deal with right now. And then, of course, there’d be The Club.

So, I clung to the corner edge of the coffin to keep myself upright. Fingering the frame of the photo of our last win at Mt. Washington, I tried to focus my mind on it and the events of that day.

From it, my gaze wandered to other mementos. Photos of his favorite cars were arranged on tables among the bouquets nearby, pictures of the two of us in the Super Beetle after the Cherokee Trail race propped at his waist and a model of a 911 Porsche in his hands. The car he’d just bought with Irvy’s help.

Krysta’s parents had come earlier, and they’d tucked a picture of her and Matt down beside him. Such a waste! He and Krysta had seemed so right for each other.

When Lannette began dating Dante DiSilva, another friend of Matt and Irvy’s, we joked about having a triple wedding. Only Jace remained unattached. I think that’s another reason why The Club held him in such esteem. Such a chaste young man! Lannette and I, however, hadn’t lost much sleep over knowing they believed we never had been. Although from time to time, we wondered if it was fair of us to be making liars of them all.

Lannette moved closer. Reaching out, she touched Matt. Her fingers suddenly grasped the fabric of his suit, and she gave him a rough little shake. Rough as if it would bring him back, little because she knew it wouldn’t. Too, there was a good deal of resentment in her eyes—resentment that he’d done something so idiotically senseless. Something that’d left her brotherless.

I couldn’t touch him. If I touched him, I’d lose it quicker than hipless Aunt Wanda loses her flowered bikini in the thundering waves at the beach every year! Which would start that chain reaction mentioned earlier . . .

As guests arrived, they trekked up to say goodbye in their individual manner, hugged us warmly, uttering a few words of condolence. They’d then made their way down the mourning line, commiserating with the family. Some stayed with them; others went off to join another group elsewhere.

Still others simply weren’t very good at this sort of thing. After the obligatory hug and a mumbled “Sorry for your loss!” they fled the funeral home. I wished I could. My whole being felt as tense as a giant coiled spring. One that wanted to let loose and bounce all over the place. I just wanted this to be over. Wanted to be alone to sort it all out.

Or, no—no, I wanted Matt to get up out of there and laugh his face off, like it was all a big joke. Wanted him to tell everyone just what he thought of them. Shock ‘em all worse than he’d ever shocked ‘em before! We’d yak at him for having scared us so bad, but then we’d praise his awesome audacity and go celebrate it with a pizza.

It’d be the prank of the century! Totally worthy of him!

Ah, but his roguish laugh we’d only hear on family movies from now on. An echo in memory.

I had just made this miserably sad observation to Lannette when jumbo arms separated us, clamping us in a smothering, perfumed embrace.

“Well, Joleigh-Anna, Lannette,” Aunt Willa said in her habitual disapproving, pet patronizing tone, “if you’ve learned something by this unfortunate incident, his death won’t be completely for nothing! He had his whole life ahead of him! So very sad! Such a pretty young lady he’d found for himself too!” Heaving one of her gusty sighs, she tightened her hold on us for an instant. About broke our ribs. “But he’s in a better place now, so I suppose we shouldn’t speak harshly of him.”

As if she’d ever actually stop!

I must’ve worn a look that revealed my feelings in a more comical way then I knew, for Lannette met my gaze across Aunt Willa’s ample bosom and immediately hid her face in it—succumbed to the giggles again. Aunt Willa clucked in her mock sympathetic way, begging her not to cry so hard.

Her clumsy consolations to Lannette finally got to be more than I could listen to without squirming. I was ready to scream, “Shut up! Will you just shut up! Yes, he’s dead, but nothing’s ever going to make us miss him less!”

I’d’ve liked to have said it and more, but I bit it all back—out of respect for my parents and Aunt Lynore and Uncle Mitch—and Matt’s memory. Yapping off would only make them sigh all the more at how thoroughly Matt had corrupted me, and how badly my parents had failed in their duty in bringing me up better.

So, I extricated myself from her hold . . . only to be instantly embraced by Aunt Wanda’s bony arms. No bosom at all to cushion sorrows. And her prosaic utterances didn’t make up for it either. Logic doesn’t help at such an emotional time. Plenty of people don’t realize that . . . nor ever know how much salt they’ve rubbed into a wound because they don’t.

But . . . for all those reasons I hadn’t told Aunt Willa to shut up, I tolerated Aunt Wanda’s show of affection as well. Or whatever it was. They were family after all.

Although, this blood is thicker than water stuff seemed like double talk to me. When I’m thirsty, give me a drink of water! I had friends who’d be there for me quicker than most of my relatives. No questions. No finger pointing.

At length, they released us and linking arms, they refocused on those in the receiving line. I glanced over at Aunt Lynore and my mom, feeling exquisite pity for them to have to endure a second round with those two. But then an acquaintance of theirs snagged my aunts’ notice and engaged them in some chatter that presently had nothing to do with Matt or any of us, so Mom and Aunt Lynore gained a decent break.

“Good grief,” I heard Turdy utter to Wendy and his clingy girlfriend, “Behold—The Whale and The Eel! Those two look more like twins!” Meaning Lannette and me.

“A whole lot prettier, too!” murmured Uncle Jedd, not censoring him for saying anything so disrespectful, nor Wendy for laughing.

“Ooo, a compliment!” I uttered to Lannette. “I’m gonna faint!”

But whatever they wanted to say about my aunts’ physical looks, The Whale and the Eel were as identical as they could be on the inside! They saw things out of the same eyes—even though one pair’s hazel and the other’s mud brown! Had tongues as sharp as butcher knives too and hearts about as indifferent as a dreary November day! Okay, maybe not toward everyone, but those they particularly disapproved of.

I said so to Lannette and concluded, “Looks don’t mean a thing! They’re twins no question!”

“Joleigh—Gramma Kate’s looking at you!”

“Ah, so what? Everyone tolerates them and each other just for appearances! Makes me nuts!”

My uncles, Ralph Stark and Aldo Stanley stood away from us all, not putting any limits on their busybody spouses. They weren’t the ones wearing the pants in their families, that’s for sure! Uncle Ralph, a tall beanpole type, claimed Aunt Willa as his while Uncle Aldo, somewhat stouter, had married Wanda. We always joked about how they’d’ve made great cartoon characters, the four of ‘em!

Uncle Aldo caught my eye, and he gave me a smile and a little wink. Uncle Ralph smiled too and might have come over to chat a second had not Frankie, Tina’s husband, joined them.

How nice Frankie got along with his in-laws—more or less. He even called Aunt Willa, Ma.

I’m sure I couldn’t hear myself calling Mrs. Woodworth anything but Mrs. Woodworth. No warm feelings were ever likely to flow between us. Just a wary apprehension on my part and a cool tolerance on hers.

One of the smaller groups disbanded, giving me a better view of those who made up the receiving line. Aunt Lynore’s teal blue pantsuit emphasized her pallor. She seemed so very frail just then. Her gaze seemed to be intent on Jace and Irvy who remained apart from the rest of us.

Jace sat in stunned, angry silence, acting like the whole world was to blame for Matt’s death. Irvy stood by Jace’s seat not trying to engage him in any conversation—just being there for him. While Irvy didn’t display quite the same attitude, he did give the impression of wanting to be left alone.

Couldn’t blame either one. Weren’t many here who knew how to be tactful and truly comforting to us.

Aunt Lynore abruptly swung around to grab my mother and weep upon the shoulder of Mom’s lime green blouse. Mom spoke soothingly to her, letting her freely soak it.

Catching my glance, she sent me an encouraging smile which I answered with a rueful one. Her gaze then searched out Jace and Irvy’s corner. It appeared to me that Mom’s sadness seemed to deepen, get sort of wistful when she watched Irvy. Kind of the same way Aunt Lynore’s had just now.

I supposed they probably were recalling the very first time Irvy showed up at Aunt Lynore’s front door. Uncle Mitch told that story a lot.

Irvy’d only been two years old when he snuck out of his house and trotted cross lots to ask if Matt could come out and play. When they asked him how he’d known Matt lived there, he’d answered matter of factly, “I see a boy playing when we go by his house. I say, he’s my friend! I go find him, that’s all.” As for how he’d known how to find him, well, that’s still a mystery. Even if you asked him now, he’d just shrug and say, “Just did, that’s all.”

Dr. Woodworth, Sr. phoned my aunt and invited the whole family to dinner—not necessarily with Mrs. Woodworth’s blessing. Irvy’s dad ended up admiring Matt’s spunk—was actually proud his own son had shown some. Thought Irvy should get dirty like a real boy ought to and that Matt was just the one he ought to do it with. Moreover, he had been favorably impressed with Aunt Lynore and Uncle Mitch. Figured if they could handle their hyper son at a stranger’s house without losing their cool, they were quite worthy of watching over his son too. He arranged for the boys to get together so Irvy wouldn’t be tempted to walk the streets and neighborhood backyards alone anymore.

Mrs. Woodworth hadn’t wanted the hassle of looking out for Matt, so Irvy always went to Aunt Lynore’s. Or sometimes the two mothers would meet at the rec center playground, so Mrs. Woodworth had some assurance her precious son wasn’t being bullied or led into criminal mischief by Matty. Guess her attitude toward my aunt was pretty much the way it was toward me—cool but civil. Her wall of reserve never came down.

Mom would have the same memories as Aunt Lynore for they’ve always been really close. They genuinely loved kids, and they’d often sat for each other—even for all the trouble we’d all cause sometimes. Both had stood up to Mrs. Woodworth in our defense—Matt’s and mine—oh, countless times. Which was never an enviable task.

The Club’s charges, allegations, accusations, and biased opinions you could ignore—more or less. Mrs. Woodworth’s unnerving stare and cool hauteur was something else altogether.

Mom’s glance came back to Matt lying as if he were napping in the casket. She bit trembling lips, but her tears flowed anyway, and she hugged Aunt Lynore tighter.

Uncle Mitch and Dad maintained stoic fronts beside them, giving out tight smiles and firm handshakes. But I’d seen Uncle Mitch sob earlier at home. There was a lost kind of look in his eyes. And he couldn’t gaze at the body in the coffin for longer than an instant or two. I guess that’s how Dad would look if it were Jace or Jarrett or me.

My aunts’ friend, finally through bending their ears, waved a general goodbye to all gathered there and left. Aunt Willa and Aunt Wanda converged upon the mourning line. My grandparents Merriwether left it. Guess once was enough for them!

“Ah, Lynore, honey—JuliAnna, dear! How are you two holding up? Must be comforting for you, Lynore, that so many of Matt’s friends have shown up tonight! He was well liked, wasn’t he, dear?” As if it were some kind of miracle.

However, as if their true feelings about Matt didn’t matter, Aunt Lynore surrendered to their insincere embraces, accepting their further condolences at face value. Not only theirs but anyone else’s besides whatever their opinion of Matt was. Pretty forgiving of her!

This hypocritical routine was pretty much the same at every funeral. Soon’s the last respects duty was performed and the line traversed, these meddling judges of the family assembled to begin diatribes or reassembled to continue where they’d left off.

Wasn’t anything different about tonight.

Aunt Becky sighed, saying, “Oh, but I feel so sorry for Lynore and Mitch! Their only boy!”

As if Matty had had a dozen sisters instead of just Lannette.

“Next it’s going to be Jorden and JuliAnna’s only girl ending up dead in some unfortunate manner! Well—unless something happens to poor little Jaimee Shaine first!” proclaimed Aunt Willa, edging back in between her and Wendy. “Lord A ’mighty, that Joleigh-Anna and Matt should’ve been brother and sister—and Lannette and Jace! Hard to think of Jace and Joleigh as twins!”

“Oh, please . . .!” Lannette moaned. “Listen to who’s making the comparison!”

Guess Gramma Lylah Merriwether felt the same way. I heard her mutter to someone in her group, “I’ve been often thankful for the miracle that made sure my children would be Merriwether blue eyed redheads! None of ‘em too fat nor bony—nor ill-tempered!”

I glanced back in time to see her sweep a telling glance the length of my imperfectly shaped, disagreeable Kelmann aunts. Somehow, she forgot that skinny Uncle Todd and chubby Aunt Dorene were the dark haired, disagreeable flaws in the Merriwether perfection.

“Well, if Irvyn Woodworth knows what’s good for himself,” declared Aunt Wanda who either hadn’t heard my grandmother at all, although she stood right behind her, or else she pretended she hadn’t, “he ought to listen to his mother—marry someone else! If he allies himself with Joleigh-Anna, his patients’ll suffer horribly! Does she intend to keep racing without Matt now? Well, Irvyn’ll have to go with her to make sure she doesn’t injure herself! Although— I think I could have accepted Matt’s death better if he had died in one of his precious rally cars! Or any of the others! But a stupid dare, for God’s sakes! Did you ever—?”

“Look at it this way, thanks to Matt’s foolishness, Irvyn’s gotten a break!” Tina left the group she’d been in to come join the one her mother reigned at. “Maybe he will reconsider marriage with her!”

“Here we go,” uttered Lannette, her eyes glinting angrily through her tears. “Like broken records they are!”

“Not as if we weren’t expecting it,” I reminded her. She dismissed that thought with a sniff.

Aunt Willa replied with conviction to Tina, “He should! He’s always given in to Joleigh! Whatever she wants, he gives her! He was as much a party to her crimes as Matt was! Did he ever tell her not to go off on these dangerous races with Matt? No! He gave her his blessing and that was that!

“Who’d trust a man like that with their health and welfare? I doubt I could! Although his father was a saint when he was alive, and his Uncle Lloyd is! But,” on a sorrowful sigh, “that’s a different generation! In any case, all this has put off their plans for tomorrow, hasn’t it? Might be the best thing that’s happened in that case!”

Tina poked her huge pregnant body even further into the center of things and stated confidently, “Well, in any case, my child will never grow up to be like any of them! We won’t allow it! We’re going right by the book! Aren’t we, Frankie?”

Frankie glanced over from beside Uncle Ralph and shrugged. “If that’s what you want to do.”

“There’s a baby to pity!” I muttered.

“Oh, she’s just saying that because she’s still holding grudges against us for all the pranks we pulled on her—and for Irvy telling her he’d never trade you for a pumpkin like her back then! Such a crybaby! She hasn’t lost that whining pouty voice after all this time either, has she?”

“Nope, and now that she’s pregnant, her pumpkin body is even more round and—well . . . pumpkiny!” I eyed Tina critically, and recited in a sing song tone, “Jelly, Jelly, Pumpkin Belly; fell in cow flop, now she’s really smelly!”

The old rhyme conjured up the hilarious events of that day.

Oh, God . . . so funny watching Tina try to impress Irvy . . . picking him wildflowers in the meadow. Some of the cows were out in that field, and one of them looked just like Fritz being one of his daughters. She took an interest in Tina’s flower gathering and ambled over to check it out. Well, we couldn’t resist.

“Run! Run! Fritz is after you! Run! Quick!”

Tina turned as white as the daisy petals, and she took off without looking back. Didn’t look where she was going either. She slipped and slid for five minutes in the biggest cow pie out there trying to keep her balance and get out of it. When she looked over her shoulder and saw the cow trotting up to her, She’d screamed, lost her footing altogether, and plop! Right into the putrid pile!

Covered in ripely fresh poo, she lay there petrified while the cow munched wildflowers right out of her hand. We’d rolled on the ground, sides splitting, tears streaming from laughter. Don’t think she talked to us for six months after that!

Lannette, gasping on a guffaw, slapped her hand over her mouth again. Which attracted all kinds of embarrassing attention. Had to bite my own lips to keep from losing it myself.

“You idiot!” she flung at me. Sucking in her cheeks, she tried not to look as if she were in hysterics. Didn’t appear to help much. “Oh, man, that was sooo funny! She was sooo mad! Such a killjoy she was then!”

“Gonna carry it into motherhood too!” Then, striking a pose, I mimicked Tina’s signature statement. “My mother says you guys are going to end up in jail someday!” Lannette doubled over in a fresh peal of laughter. I held her steady. “I’ll go by the heart when I have kids. Forget the book!”

“M-me too!” she managed to get out between giggles. “But y-you’re gonna p-pay for this, Joleigh-Anna!”

Aunt Nedra sent us a look of mild reproof mingled with deep sympathy. In her soft-spoken way, she took it upon herself to explain our behavior to anyone interested—or not.

“It’s nerves, you know! They don’t mean anything disrespectful! This is just so hard for everyone, and it’s not the time to be talking like this, Willa! Matty’s gone, and it’s a loss to all of us! Maybe if we’d just been a little more understanding! You know, we never asked him to stay with us, Jedd. Tedd and Freddy got along with him rather well. If we’d just put ourselves out more . . .”

Uncle Jedd agreed. “We ought to get together more with everyone. Have a picnic or something once a year. Do something to keep in touch!”

“Dad—we have been getting together once a year. Someone’s accommodated us for the past eight! Actually, Matt makes the second—no, third—for this year! Good enough for me!” proclaimed Turdy, half in jest, half not.

“Theodore!” Aunt Nedra reproved as if he were ten. “Now that’s just plain rude! A family get together would be a wonderful idea!”

Turdy, contrary to his mother’s belief, had never liked Matt and had merely tolerated the rest of us. “What would we do at it? Sit around gabbing about the good old days? I’ve got a life, Ma! Why should I spend it at a dull boring family reunion or whatever? Got other things I’d rather be doing!”

He pulled his latest love closer to his side and waggled his brows at her suggestively. She giggled and snuggled even closer to him.

Can’t imagine what she saw in him. Such a self-centered sleazeball! The type who’d offer to trade five pennies for a quarter with a toddler—like Jarrett—convincing the kid he had the better deal since he had more coins. Plus, this girl was much younger than he was. Younger than me, even! Must’ve gotten hooked on his looks. Was the only thing he had going for him.

“We all have a life, Tedd,” retorted Freddy curtly. “Unlike you and dear Aunt Dorene, some of us want more people in it than just ourselves! Matt had a life! I should have put myself more into it when I had the chance! Too late now, huh? Too late for Lawron too! You know, we really never knew much of anything that was going on in his life. We didn’t even know he was going to get married last month. None of us were invited! Why would we be? We never did go down and visit after they moved to West Virginia! Except for their funerals!”

Thinking of someone else whose life he hadn’t paid much attention to, he added, “Wish it wasn’t so late. I’d drive up to Providence . . . see Jaimee.”

Freddy walked away from them before anyone could reply to any of it. He flung a glance Jace’s way, went over to grasp his hand, then Irvy’s, said a few words of sympathy and regret, and then came to hug us girls and gruffly say, “I’m really sorry, guys! I wish—” He couldn’t finish. He let us go and without another glance at Matt or anyone else, he strode out of the building.

I’ve always liked Freddy okay. He’d never been anything like Tina or Turdy—always wanted to join in when he and his family came to visit. But his mother’s overprotective ways nearly always put a damper on things.

Aunt Nedra rarely said no outright but she’d take hours to bang it into his head on how to look out for dangers and not to do this, that, or the other thing or to do this, that, or the other—until we got sick of waiting for him and went off without him.

If her lectures hadn’t ripped the heart from him, he’d try to find us. More often though, we’d come back and find him bored to tears, kicking rocks around the driveway or sitting on the porch steps, his chin in his hands, looking sadly glum.

Guess we should’ve just snuck him off with us without asking anyone’s permission for it. So what if Turdy or Tina told on us. They’d done that all the time anyway. For all her stupid lectures, though, Aunt Nedra’d never been as disapproving as most of our other aunts had been. Just too darned careful!

Come to think of it, she hadn’t been as critical as much as Mrs. Woodworth had been on the occasions she’d happened to find out what we’d been up to.

But Dr. Woodworth hadn’t ever lost sleep over our antics nor had he believed we kids would turn to a life of crime because of a few pranks or risky ventures. Said it was just plain youthful silliness that growing up would cure. He’d bound up our cuts and set our broken bones, and then sent us out into the world for more.

He’d been a totally cool guy! Course, I would think that . . . he’d been looking forward to the day Irvy’d propose to me. To his wife’s despair, I was his dream for his only son. Made me promise him the second dance at our wedding. But he’d died, unexpectedly, just after Irvy graduated medical school. That’d been hard and thinking of him made me miss him suddenly as much as Matt and the lump in my throat grew bigger. A few more tears of regret trickled down.

Mrs. Woodworth had come earlier to pay her respects but hadn’t stayed beyond the time it took to do it. Seeing me in the same room with Irvy simply stabbed her with many regrets. Maybe she didn’t exactly show it, but I imagine she was relieved Matt would no longer be an influence in Irvy’s life.

One of her dreams come true.

Matt’s other buddies didn’t linger. They felt uncomfortable in the presence of so much disapproval. Except Tippy Waldron and his new wife, Colleen. Tippy didn’t listen to anyone’s drivel. As a matter of fact, he treated them as if they weren’t even there.

“Such a stinkin’ shock!” uttered Tippy in his dramatic manner. “Man, he was on his way to making it big, him and Jo! Had a shot at the Nationals this year! Can’t think of anyone else I’d want to team with besides him! Except Joleigh!”

He put one long muscular arm across our shoulders, and his other about Colleen.

Tippy helped us keep the cars in the best racing form, being a part of Matty’s pit crew. Plus, he’d co-drive on the occasions I couldn’t. He was a dependable, friendly guy.

“Here, don’t cry, Lannette! He’d hate to see you like this! I hate to see you like this! Dante should be here with you! Seems like he could’ve found someone else to take over that goat call! I mean, if he says he loves you, Lannette, he should be here with you! Where’s Krysta?”

“Tippy, Krysta’s a wreck and couldn’t face it. And as for Dante, how could he turn his back on his neighbor’s goat?” Lannette asked him. “The poor thing was badly mauled. He said he’d be here if he could be. I’ve got Joleigh—and now that you and Colleen are here, I’m fine. Oh, and look! Thomi and her sisters just came in! So, yeah, we’re fine!”

We’ve been friends with the Tollefsons from the time they moved to Kingsdale and opened up their riding center there. Mom loved to ride; so as soon as it opened, she’d brought us over to check it out.

So impressed had she been by everything about DreamWynd Equestrian Center and Nick and Anetra, the owners, we never went anywhere else. Became friends and eventually bought our own horses which we board there.

Mrs. Woodworth had nearly fainted when she’d found out her precious son was hanging around a family that once had been a part of a small circus. Only God knew what dangerous practices Irvy would learn from them! Like riding a galloping horse bareback—standing up and jumping through a ring of fire!

Actually, Irvy got pretty good at it, and a lot of other tricks.

“Yeah, well, Stephan could have gone in his place!” Tippy shot a sharp accusing glance over at Thomi talking with Aunt Lynore—as if she ought to have made sure he had. “His family’s a snooty bunch too! How’d they take the news he’d hired Dante to partner with him? They faint?”

Tippy gave a derisive snort, and as Thomi and her sisters made their way over to us, he demanded, “Why do you want to get mixed up with those Deverills, Thomasyna? Bet they were hoping he’d dump you last night! You and your mind-boggling switches with—with—” He waved his hands at her and her sisters, Halleigh and Lyndsay, wiggling his fingers as he did. “—your carbon copies, your clones? You’d all drive me to drink—no, drive me over a cliff more like! Oh, well, Jaimee’ll be happy to hear you starred in her play after all! Did make an entertaining end to the performance, I must say! We were in the third row, center. Great seats!”

“Glad you enjoyed it, Tiptoes!” She grinned at his scowl of her audacious use of a nickname few got away with calling him. “Fortunately, for you, none of us has ever wanted to challenge Colleen’s place in your heart!”

Thomi exchanged a grin with Colleen and drew Lannette away from him, giving her a quick hug. “Dante and Stephan went together on that goat call. I would have gone in his place, but I’m supposed to be resting now. Dante told us to give his love to you and Joleigh. Stephan sends his as well.”

Lannette received that news with seeming indifference, making Thomi shake her and say, “Look, whatever you think, Lannette, Dante cares about you. Believe him when he says so!”

“Yes, look who’s talking! Don’t you be like Thomasyna, Lannette!” Halleigh advised feelingly. “Take too long coming to your senses and he’ll find someone else. You want that?”

Lannette bit her lip. She didn’t want that but didn’t want to admit it. Halleigh smiled, shook her head slightly and reached out to tap Lannette’s arm. “I hope you’ve enjoyed all those custom-made cards he’s given you! He’s been my best customer lately! I can draw you in my sleep!”

“He’s asked Rikki to come up with a love song for you two, just so you know!” Lyndsay disclosed. “Bet he’s getting ready to ask you!”

“Oh, God! A love song? She didn’t say she would, did she?” Lannette clasped Lyndsay’s arm, her gaze begging her to say she hadn’t.

The amused gleam in Lyndsay’s emerald eyes said Rikki had indeed agreed.

While Lannette cared about Dante, she wasn’t quite sure she felt the same way he did. In high school, he’d promised to team up with Matty and learn mechanics as Tippy had. But once he graduated, he’d decided he’d rather doctor animals than cars, and had gone to Cornell for that instead. Don’t think Lannette ever forgave him for that—don’t think she was forgiving him now—whatever she said to Tippy.

They’d been casually dating for some time now. Dante patiently giving her time to either fall madly in love with him or tell him to hit the road. Seemed like she didn’t want to do either one.

Me, I’d be thrilled if Irvy asked Rikki Tollefson to compose a love song for me. That’d be so cool and soooooo romantic. He had commissioned Halleigh to create one of her exclusive cards for me from time to time, and we’d been to the Littleton Little Theater to see Thomi perform in plays—when she wasn’t off making a film someplace. Of course, then we’d go see her latest movie.

A song especially composed for us would be the ultimate prize—next to him actually saying “I love you!” that is! I mean, I knew he did—but it’d be the whipped cream and cherry on a hot fudge sundae if he would say the words too!

I’m afraid that my jealousy of Dante’s earnest romanticisms made me want to blubber some more. But then it occurred to me that I could ask Rikki to write a song for Irvy.

Unfortunately, she didn’t happen to be with her family today, so I would have to wait to make such an arrangement.

Tippy let go Colleen’s hand to rap my cheek smartly. “Come on, Little Jo! Puffy eyes do not become you! All of you, c’mon, let’s remember the good times!”

Colleen slipped her hand back into Tippy’s. “How can they, Tippy? Joleigh and Irvy were supposed to get married tomorrow, remember? Matt was supposed to be Irvy’s best man!”

Tippy smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand. “Aaah! That’s right! That is harsh!” And he hugged me, kissing the top of my red hair. “Know what? I’m gonna get Irvy over here. You need him! I’d never let Colleen go through something like this alone! Not that I feel Jace should be deserted—but you know . . . you’re a woman! They should both be with you girls!”

And with Colleen clasped to his side, he went off to tell my brother and my fiancé what he thought of their thoughtlessness in leaving us all alone. Guess he felt our friends weren’t strong enough to help bear our sorrows.

I knew that Colleen hadn’t meant to stir up any hurt as Aunt Willa had earlier. Not sure how I let Aunt Willa’s dig get by me. Hadn’t wanted to think about it, I guess. I’d spent the last three days trying not to think about tomorrow. So close to being with Irvy forever. This was something else that no doubt his mother was thanking her lucky stars for—the postponement of our wedding!

Whoa! Wouldn’t she hate it if Irvy did ever ask Rikki for a love song for me!

In any case, instead of Matt standing at Irvy’s side as his best man, Irvy would make up one of the pallbearers at Matt’s funeral tomorrow afternoon. Discussing new plans just hadn’t fit into any conversation. It was all pretty much left up in the air.

Tippy had a slight problem dislodging Irvy from Jace’s side but he hit an even bigger wall with my brother who scowled and hunched away from him. Irvy glanced across, gave in to my imploring gaze, and came over. Thomi, Halleigh, and Lyndsay moved to make room for him.

Taking me into a light embrace, he explained, “It’s not that he doesn’t want to be with you, it’s just he doesn’t know how to handle his grief. He really needs to let it out, but he can’t. Not yet. He just needs someone to stay with him without expecting anything from him . . . I don’t know—maybe I do, too.” Irvy took one arm away and included Lannette in our comfort hug.

Which really didn’t feel all that much of a comfort really. I saw my friends exchange a glance among themselves but whatever they were thinking, they kept it to themselves. Tippy and Colleen stayed with Jace. Not speaking, just providing a silent solace for him as Irvy had.

Okay, I understood Jace’s trouble. I did, really. But I needed the warmth of a hug to console me and someone’s ear to listen to the memories I wanted to live on forever. Thought that’s what brothers, especially twin brothers—and fiancés—were for. Thought that’s what they’d need from me too.

I needed to feel Irvy’s solid protection enveloping me. Wanted to feel his love for me. I felt lost without Matt but without Jace, and definitely without Irvy, I’d be missing without a trace! I’d loved Irvyn since before I blurted my first word. “Irby!”

We’d shared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with him, and he’d shared the cookies his mother would bake—or rather had her chef bake. You know, so she wouldn’t appear to be slighting. Irvy’d known best—thanks to his Dad—how to care for cuts and broken limbs until help arrived. How and when to treat us both like the girls we were—which Matt and Jace never seemed to learn. Seemed totally natural to me now that he’d drape an arm about my cousin and talk as gently to her as he would to me.

“I can’t take any more of this!” uttered Lannette suddenly, ignoring everything Irvy had just said to her. “I can’t listen to them yak about Matt and us anymore! Although it’d make me sicker if they were crying over him the way they did over Uncle Kevin back in May and then over Lawron last month. Like they were their best buddies! No one even liked Uncle Kevin! I mean, Turdy should’ve been his son!”

She swept a disgusted gesture at The Club and those who’d since joined their group. “No one’s going to want to follow through on any plan to keep in touch! It’s all talk! They said all this at Uncle Kevin’s funeral and at Lawron’s! God, you have to wonder why they bothered to travel to West Virginia for either of ‘em! Why are they here now? Nobody ever wanted Matt around—he was too wild—too crazy! Too hyper! Not serious enough for any of the Snoot Club! Irvy, tell my parents I want to go home!”

He didn’t, but instead led our select little group away to a small alcove closed off from the left side of the room by a lattice partition by which potted trees and great vases of flowers had been placed.

Lannette dropped onto the sofa, propped her head in her hands, and let her grief spill yet again. I’m not sure what Tippy said but Jace came over and sat with her. But unlike the rest of us including our friends, his own tears he kept inside.

Aunt Nedra slipped into our group to offer some of her gentle, coaxing words of comfort which only grated Lannette’s nerves and mine and set Jace’s jaw in a grimmer line. Frankly, we were tired of hearing that Matt was now in a better place in any tone of voice.

Why would God need to call people of any age to become angels? How many did he need after all if he already had myriads? Besides—how could she be so sure that’s where he was when the rest of The Club felt positive he was rotting and burning in Hell! Or was he the first person to be residing in two places at once?

I didn’t think he was in either place, frankly. Dead is dead. No roses in winter.

Not many of our relatives had planned to show up for our wedding tomorrow. At the time, I hadn’t cared. Simply and only cared about being Irvy’s forever and sharing that day with what family did come and with our friends—all of which I knew would be there for us.

Now, however, a burning desire to celebrate the duo anniversary of my parents and of my favorite aunt and uncle in a huge way swelled within me—okay, yeah, and now my wedding . . . whenever it finally took place.

How any of it would come about actually, I had no more a clue than I had three months ago. I only knew a profound determination to get everyone together to celebrate something positive and happy!

You know—like LIFE.

This keen notion suddenly got cut off when a small body hurled itself at my knees. Irvy kept me standing; I’d’ve fallen for sure, otherwise! “Jarrett! Where’d you come from? You’re supposed to be with the Marshals! How’d you get here?”

“I sneaked out,” he declared stoutly. “And I d’ wanna go back. Why’s Matty sleepin’ in that funny bed, Joleigh? How come he sleepin’ when all the other buddies are here?” All the other buddies was his four-year-old way of saying everybody. “How come he d’ wanna play with me? Make him get up, Joleigh! Make him!”

Oh, geez . . .! We’d already tried to explain to him that Matt wouldn’t be playing with any of us anymore. But he hadn’t gotten the message very well . . . or at all. I picked him up, hugging him tightly, and tried again to make him understand.

“Jarrett, look—everybody’s here because Matty’s not ever getting out of that funny looking bed. They’re here to say good-bye to him even though he can’t hear any of us. Remember when Nikki died—you remember? The car hit her, and we all said good-bye to her when we buried her under the tree behind our house?”

Thomi ruffled his red curls. “We all came for that, remember, bud? You had us sing doggy songs for her.”

He pouted; he remembered. And it set off his mourning in great shape. He yanked the collar of my blouse, his tears breaking like a sudden cloudburst. “I didn’t want her to die! She was my dog! I got no dog now! I got no Matty now! Make him get up! Make him!”

“Ah, Jarrett . . .” I hugged him closer, tried to calm him with soft words and kisses. It didn’t work, and in the end, I just cried with him.

“Yup, this is how Jaimee would be if she were here,” Lannette uttered, her own tears gathering again. “How she is going to be when she finds out . . .”

No one had told her yet. She’d thrown way too horrible a fit when she’d thought Thomi had broken her promise to her to perform in the benefit play that, this year, was for her. That’s what had put her in the hospital, in fact. Didn’t matter to a seven-year-old that Thomi had had medical reasons of her own for having to give up the play. All she knew or cared about was her favorite had bailed on her.

So, we were all certain she’d be that emotional, or possibly worse, when she finally learned of Matty’s death.

Thomi, reading my thoughts, put an arm around me. “They’ll tell her when they feel they can. But just as they said to me, it might not matter how she finds it out. We’ll all help her through it, okay? Don’t think about it now.”

She held out a hand to Lannette who left her spot on the sofa to come receive her hug. In a second, Halleigh and Lyndsay moved to make it a group hug. Feeling the love, Jarrett wrapped one arm about Thomi’s neck. Laid his head against hers for a few moments.

Made me doubly grateful that they’d come when they had.

In my shocked and inconsolable state, Wednesday night—or, really Thursday morning in the wee hours, I’d called over to Cliff Top to give them the news. Woke them up. Even so, Thomi and Halleigh insisted on coming right over to the house to share our grief. Stayed for hours with us. I hoped they would stay right up to the last second of this ordeal with us. We needed this kind of support badly at this moment!

“You know you can call us anytime, doesn’t matter when. Don’t stay home either! All of us are here for you both. For Jace and your parents too.” Thomi glanced over at Irvy, saying, “And you, Irvy! You too!”

He smiled at that but made no reply. Was really beginning to bother me—his quiet sadness . . . his unnatural silence.

“M-meee, tooo, Thomi?”

“Of course, Jarrett Bud. You too! We’d never leave you out!”

“O-ookay!” He hugged her again and kissed her cheek. Then, tucking his hands down between himself and me, he sobbed into my neck some more.

Uncle Ralph, on his way to his first attempt at dragging Aunt Willa away, saw Jarrett’s misery and came over to us. “What’s the trouble, little man?”

“I want my Matty,” declared Jarrett-Andrew, defiant through his tears. He raised his head with new hope. “Get him up, Uncle Ralph! Make him laugh! I wanna ride in the Soup Beetle!”

“Little man, if I could, I would. But listen, how would it be if I took you out on my boat sometime, eh? We could do a little fishing.”

Jarrett brightened a little. Until he remembered that Matt couldn’t go with him. It set off his howls afresh. Looked like one of us would have to take him out of here. He’d probably only get worse.

Was a nice gesture on Uncle Ralph’s part to offer to take him fishing though. Trouble was sometime could be anytime. Generally, like tomorrow, it never came.

Be wonderful if I could change that for once . . . somehow .


How will Joleigh-Anna finally resolve her issues with Irvy and her relatives?  Get the whole story from your favorite book retailer. Click the link below to purchase from Barnes and Nobel, Apple, Nook Rokuten, Scribd and others.

UBL: Joleigh-Anna or, Resurrecting His Heart