~ Letting Go ~
J. M. Dragon
e-mail: J. M. Dragon
The city of Asheville was much like any other thriving populated area boasting that it had recently celebrated its one hundred and sixtieth year. Its inception occurred with the discovery of gold in the surrounding hillsides. Inevitably, the gold ran dry, but unlike other mining towns, Asheville continued to flourish. A wagon train of new settlers had taken a shine to the area and decided to continue where the miners left off. Over time, the nice small town that the settlers choose to begin their new lives became a large thriving metropolis.
One aspect of the original township remained the local newspaper–the Asheville Globe. Although the paper had every modern print technology and a large state readership, it remained a family run business. The ownership of the paper remained in the family of the original owners who produced the first issue in eighteen-seventy five.
Most people equate a newspaper with reporting the news, manipulating the news from time to time, but this story isn’t about the newspaper at least not directly. No, this is about a romance that didn’t make the headlines but the Asheville Globe had its part to play, it all began in earnest when…
* * *
“ Stella? It is you, how have you been? I haven’t seen you since…ages.”
Stella Hawke recognized the friendly voice as someone in her unit during her enlistment in the Army. As the voice and face hit her subconscious, she managed to flash her old army comrade a passable smile. “Good and you Reggie?”
The woman, who was five inches taller than Stella was, came closer flashing hazel eyes that sparkled with pleasure. “I’m pretty good. My dad was so glad to see me back safe and sound that he gave me an easy reporting job with the family newspaper. Life’s going well. What have you been doing? Are you still in the Army?” Reggie scrunched up her face. “I’d never have expected to see you in Ashville. Do you live here now…some coincidence huh?”
Regina Stockton, the only child of the owner of the Asheville Globe, was a personable woman and likeable regardless of her moneyed roots. Stella remembered the woman’s empathy and with a slight shrug said, “Yeah some coincidence.” She sighed then continued, “My grandmother used to live in town. When they diagnosed her with a terminal illness, I decided not to re-enlist. I managed to spend the last couple of months with her before she died six weeks ago. I’ve been doing odd jobs around the place while waiting for probate to sort things out…it was a little messy. You know how it is.”
Reggie smiled, as a little of the brightness faded from her eyes as she took in the barely discernable honey blonde hair that had been shaven to within an inch of existence. Then she noted the bleak expression in Stella's blue eyes. “Yeah, yeah I know. My job at the paper requires that I attend a luncheon where the old, wealthy women of Ashton congregate every three months and have a raffle. This time the prize is Super Bowl tickets. Local dignitaries pay top dollar to attend more to be seen rather than to win the raffle.” Reggie’s eyes brightened. “ Stella, why don’t you come with me so we can catch up properly?”
Stella looked down at her attire. It was functional but hardly presentable for the cream of society. “Thanks for the offer Reggie, but I have a prior appointment at two?” Stella felt the hand rather than saw it appear on her forearm. It held a gentleness that she hadn’t experienced for some time.
Reggie softly entreated, “ Stella if you need a job, or anything, while things get sorted out for you, I’ll do what I can to help. You always were a great organizer I could arrange…”
There was a perceptible wince from Stella as she abruptly withdrew her arm. From deep inside the labyrinth of Stella’s mind, where her normal character resided, she was losing the battle to return to the outside world. “No! Damn it Reggie, I don’t need you or your family's charity. I’m capable of finding my own way in this world and I will!” she exclaimed. “Go to your damn charity luncheon and forget you ever saw me.”
Pain of the refusal mirrored in Reggie’s expressive hazel eyes as her brow furrowed and her lips took a decided downturn. “No problem,” she said with bravado she didn’t have. “Take care of yourself.” Reggie fished a business card out of her purse and placed it in Stella's hand before she turned and left. The three-inch heels she wore clicked on the sidewalk, the effect reminiscent of a stork.
Stella watched her go as her normal personality screamed for her to call Reggie back and accept any morsel of help. Then, the darker voice that now ruled her world, shouted louder drawing the despair of her soul into the blackest corner it could find. She had no appointment only the dim prospect of one that she read about in the local newspaper–as a print assistant at the Ashton Globe. With a heavy sigh, she opened the door Reggie had just come out of and entered the building.
* * *
Regina Stockton felt that her head was going to burst if she had to listen to one more old society matron ask her why a lovely and well brought up woman like her hadn’t been snapped up. Looking around, she felt the constriction of her surroundings and realized that she was looking at her future. Her facial expression betrayed her as she frowned heavily making her high, well defined cheekbones become more prominent.
“Why Regina how wonderful to see you,” Flora Andrews who was the cream of society, gushed. “Your father must be so proud of you?” The woman’s family had arrived on the Mayflower and she made sure everyone knew it. Her glowing brunette hair styled perfectly matched the fake diamante spangled dress she wore. She made it a point to announce, with arrogant pride, that her antique jewelry once belonged to her English ancestors.
Reggie extended her hand and smiled politely. “I’m sure he is Flora. I haven’t seen you for ages…how have you been?”
The older woman gave her a disconcerting stare before responding for the usual sympathy vote. “The usual ailments for my age the old bones creaking and my heart condition isn’t getting any better. I’m glad you didn’t come to any harm with that hair-brained scheme of yours to join the Army in a time of war. If only your mother…”
Reggie held up her hand. “Sorry to cut this short Flora. I see Ian Hemmer just arrived and my dad wants an article on him and why he chose to sell his family heirlooms.” She gave the woman her best fake smile. “We’ll talk later.”
Flora watched the tall young woman walk away and nodded before she gave a satisfied smile. Reggie walked with a sense of confidence that was in total contrast to the klutz that she remembered. When a voice caught her interest, she turned and began conversing with several friends– Reggie, now a fleeting memory.
Two hours and numerous people later, Reggie questioned the wisdom of her job as a society reporter. Sometimes life, at least hers currently, became too trivial. The stark realization of the friends she lost on the battlefield still loomed heavy in her heart. She let her eyes take in the self-important people around her and whispered, “There are times when I’d give my right arm to be a soldier again.”
A voice pierced her preoccupation. “You want to give all this up to be a soldier? Are you mad?” the voice asked.
Reggie turned in astonishment and broke out in a wide grinned. She impulsively jumped forward and hugged the man who spoke to her. “ Chris, how wonderful it is to see you.”
“Wow, if I’d known this was how I could get up close and personal with Reggie Stockton, I’d have taken this road, years ago.”
Reggie cuffed him gently on the shoulder. “ Chris,” she said with her eyes shining. “I didn’t know you attended this kind of function?”
Christopher Adams oozed personality. He was the envy of most men and caught the attention of even more women. He was wealthy, handsome and a wonderful conversationalist–who wouldn’t like him. “I attend only the functions that interest me.”
His indolent tone held something more but Reggie chose to ignore it. Instead, she said, “Ok, I’m game. What’s interesting about seeing the blue rinse wealthy crowd …unless of course you prefer older women?”
He grinned and took a sip from his champagne flute. “Oh, not all attending have a blue rinse.” He reached out and touched her dark golden-flecked brown hair.
Reggie gave him a bright smile as she pulled away from his touch. “I don’t see a lot of the younger set here.”
He gave her a cagey look before shaking his head. “You’re right. It’s mostly the geriatric crowd. Seriously Reggie, how have you been? I haven’t seen you since that welcome home party at your Dad’s place. When was that…eight months ago? What are you doing now other than joining the elderly jet set?”
Reggie chuckled at his last words before a distinct picture of Stella Hawke invaded her mind. Slightly preoccupied by the vision, she went quiet before returning to the conversation. “Fourteen months to be precise, but who’s counting. I heard you were heading for Washington, any truth in that?”
His smile made him arguably more handsome. His expression became incorrigible as he winked at her. “I will be in a couple of months, how about a drink after this for old times?”
“Sorry, I arranged to see a friend later.” She gave him her best smile of regret before asking, “Rain check?”
This time, Chris’s smile was forced. “Sure a rain check it will be. You never told me what you’re doing here anyway?”
“No, I never did. We’ll keep it for the rain check,” she said as a coy expression crossed her face. “It was great to see you again Chris.” She gave him a quick kiss on his cheek and said, “I’ll call,” before moving toward the exit. She had everything she needed for the newspaper, and once she emailed the newsroom, her workday was complete.
As she sank into the leather of the Chevrolet Corvette Z06 that her father gave her when she returned from the Army, her thoughts once again traveled to Stella Hawke. She sighed heavily as she engaged the engine and moments later, the car shot out onto the street. The throaty exhaust became her trademark in the still late afternoon air.
* * *
Stella inserted the key, into the lock of the weathered and battered door to her dreary fifth floor apartment. Entering the tiny hallway, she gazed at the varying shades of brown that once, many years ago, was probably once decorative paint. Marks of age, stains of tobacco and degrees of general degradation faced her. The lights, she switched on to bring a spark into the dreary surroundings, were covered in dust and grime allowing only a fraction of the intensity to shine. She removed the army battle jacket that she treasured and placed it reverently on the only chair in the apartment. Once she sidestepped the threadbare couch, she switched on the TV and heard the sound of a weather girl cheerfully extolling the delights of the next day’s weather–rain. She then made her way to the small kitchen and placed the few items she was able to afford on the counter.
Pulling a tin of baked beans and a loaf of bread out of the shopping bag she began preparing her meal. She emptied the beans into a dish, and then she placed them in the microwave before entering three minutes. While she waited, she removed three slices of bread and slipped them in the toaster. Voila, she had her dinner.
Fifteen minutes later while she washed the dishes, she considered the events of the day. For her, the day was normal except for the run in with Reggie Stockton. To her, the woman was nothing more than a silver-spooned brat who liked to laude her wealth over others. She reached inside the jacket and pulled out the card Reggie had given her. In bold silver writing Reggie’s name glowed, along with her cell phone number and email address along with the newspaper’s address. It was, as it purported to be, a business card with nothing overtly personal.
“I wonder if I called out of the blue would you would be so pleased to hear from me.” Politeness was a trait that Reggie Stockton had in spades. Their time together for three years in the same unit had cemented a bond out of necessity. That wasn’t the case now and she wouldn’t blame any of the old unit for ignoring her completely. Especially after, she placed them all in danger when she went overboard after Darien left her for an insipid lieutenant. The pain the memories invoked of their final mission hit her as hard as any mortar round. A year and a half later, she still felt the pain as if it had only happened the day before. Tears followed and washed her ashen features. She knew that whoever said crying was cathartic was a fool–it only made her feel worse.
An hour later and even more subdued than earlier when she entered her apartment, Stella appraised her life and her surroundings–they matched. The only good thing to come out of a bad situation was that her grandmother had left her a house that she’d finally take possession of the following week. With the will initially tied up in probate, her grandmother’s lawyers demanded she pay an exorbitant rent to have the privilege to stay in the house. She couldn’t afford the fee and found temporary accommodation at the low end of the housing market to wait out the legal niceties. At least the house held happy memories and she hoped that they would reign over the constantly melancholy thoughts baying for attention. As the reflections of the last couple of years constantly invaded her, she found the only deterrent to her pain–alcohol. A half a bottle of scotch would calm her mind for a short while until the ugliness of her life came to the surface again. Allowing the amber liquid to send a fiery trail down her throat she sat back and looked unseeingly at the flickering images on the TV screen.
* * *
Reggie pulled a ragged hand through her hair the tresses seemingly used to the harsh treatment as it fell back into place. One of the luxuries of having bountiful straight hair was that her fashionable style bobbed easily back into place. “I just can’t seem to get this right,” she said in frustration. “Dad needs to find another society reporter I’m just not cut out for it.”
“Cut out for what?” a sultry voice that partially echoed her words asked.
A beaming smile crossed Reggie’s features as she swung her chair around and shook her head at the lithe slim figure of a woman her age leaning against the doorjamb. “Why bless my soul if it isn’t the evil rugrat herself.” Reggie stood up and moments later, gripped the woman in a bear hug and kissed her cheek.
“Oh, I’m hurt. Evil rugrat indeed,” she remarked good-naturedly at the old college nickname. Despite the vice like clasp around her body, she gave her old friend the best once over she could. “My, my Reggie when did you become so muscled. Though I have to concede you look marvelous.” Angelique Grant smiled as she disengaged from the hug that she hoped hadn’t crushed a rib or two.
“When did you get back Angie? I thought you’d retired to that villa in the Mediterranean with that handsome Italian you wrote me about?” Reggie cast her own eye over her old friend and had to admit age wasn’t getting the better of her. Angelique looked much as she had the last time they saw each other; when she and Darien told her they were joining the Army.
With a little girl pout of her full lips, Angelique moved into the small office and swung her left hand up under Reggie’s chin and said, “Why darling I’m engaged…just not to Carlos. I’m here to arrange my wedding. The date is eight months away. My mother and father would disown me if I didn’t have it here,” she said with a radiant expression that transmitted her excitement.
“That’s wonderful Angie. Who’s the lucky man? I can’t wait to meet him.”
A tinkle of laughter accompanied Angelique’s reply. “His name is Ralph Caruthers and he’s English and an archaeologist. If I’d scoured the universe, I couldn’t have found a person so different from me. He’s ten years older, studious to the point of boredom and… I can’t live without him,” she said with a bright smile. “Isn't that love in a nutshell.”
Reggie digested the information with a wry smile–Angelique was always the epitome of a party animal and to end up with someone she called boring that was a major departure from her old lifestyle. “He bores you and you’re going to marry him anyway. How on earth did that happen and where did you meet?”
There was silence in the room for a few moments as Angelique considered the question carefully before she answered. “Rome, of course Reggie, I was having coffee at a favorite café Carlos and I frequented and the poor man was pick pocketed on the sidewalk beside my table. He was in such a fluster…he had that little boy lost features and the cutest glasses that reminded me of jam jar bottoms. I offered him coffee to settle his nerves as he waited for the police to arrive and take his statement. I fell in love at first sight Reggie. It was the most frightening yet wonderful thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.” Angelique’s face matched her voice as they both conveyed the awe she felt when she first met her fiancé.
Reggie smiled warmly as a distant memory flashed in her mind. It was of a time she experienced the same feelings, but she didn’t have the same fairytale ending her friend had. “I’m glad you’re happy Angie,” she said as she placed her hand over her friend’s hand. “Hey, how about I treat you to dinner tonight and we can catch up,” she asked. “Unless you have other plans,” she added with a shrug.
Angelique grinned. “Actually that’s why I’m here. I was going to ask you the same thing. I saw your father at the club last night he told me you worked here now. He’s proud of you Reggie for taking up the reins of the family business.”
With a shrug Reggie muttered, “Hardly the reins, but yeah I know. Look, how does seven this evening sound? I’m stuck here struggling to meet a story deadline…not that I’d admit that to anyone but my closest friends,” she said with a wiggle of her eyebrows. “Right now, I haven’t a subject worth reporting so I need to find something fast.”
“Oh poor you Reggie. You’ll find the answer…you always do. Seven sounds great to me, shall we meet at the restaurant or…”
Reggie grinned before she interrupted her friend. “I’ll pick you up Angie. You’ll love the new car my dad bought me.”
The slim woman stood up and headed for the door until she stopped and turned back to her friend. “Hmm…you do remember that I hate speed.” Waving a well-manicured hand, she said, “Bye Reggie, see you later,” as she left the tiny office.
Reggie watched as her friend disappeared and smiled. Angie was always a good tonic for her. Then, a sudden thought occurred to her and she scribbled down a few notes. It wasn’t long before she had the first draft of her story. As she typed the last period, she smiled and said to the computer screen, “All I need now is Angie’s permission.”
* * *
Satisfied with the article, Reggie contemplated on how she’d approach Angie when the phone rang. She cleared her throat and picked up the phone. “Hi, this is Reggie Stockton.” In less than two minutes, she was taking the elevator down to the bowels of the building where the pressroom resided.
As the doors of the elevator slid open, she heard raised voices and frowned. It was the time when the majority of the workers in the area took their lunch break so hearing loud voices intrigued her. She gathered pace and headed towards the press foreman’s office. As she drew closer, she could see him arguing with a person who, with their back turned, was indistinguishable. As she moved closer, she heard a portion of the fracas.
“You need to calm down and go home. We can’t resolve this in your present condition.”
The harsh, angry, slurred reply sent a jolt through Reggie–the voice was vaguely familiar.
“I’m not in any condition! I’m fit to work! Who says otherwise…them?” the voice said. Reggie saw a finger pointed in the general direction of a couple of bystanders that she initially didn’t notice.
With a deep breath, Reggie walked directly behind the other person in the altercation. She didn’t need the person to turn; the voice etched in her memory forever–Stella Hawke.
“Hi Frank, you said you thought I might be able to resolve a problem you have?” she said quietly waiting for the other woman to turn–she didn’t.
Frank Smith nodded and waved her towards the woman in front of him. “I hope so Reggie. Your card slipped out of Hawke’s jacket when we tried to help her. I figured if she had your card you might be a…friend.”
Hardly, the word screamed at her but she remained silent and moved to the press foreman’s side. “Ok Frank, I’ll deal with this,” she said giving the man a fond smile. “Thanks for contacting me. Ms. Hawke and I do know each other.”
Frank shrugged and eyed the woman who appeared to have friends in high places. He was acquainted with the daughter of the newspaper’s owner and considered her to be an even-tempered, fair woman. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be a good career move to cross her if Hawke was an important friend. The fact that Reggie moved in certain female circles and that didn’t sit right with a lot of people didn’t bother him. He did speculate whether Hawke fit into that category–probably. “You can use my office Reggie.” As the man left, he patted his pocket and sighed in relief that he hadn’t left his cigarettes behind.
“ Stella, let’s go inside,” Reggie said as she held open the office door. When she realized that the office was much larger than hers was, she felt a smile threatening to appear.
When Stella heard Reggie speak behind her, she felt some of her bravado shrink. There was no way she’d let the woman know the effect she had on her. She belligerently said, “I don’t need to go inside and I certainly don’t need your help!” It took all Stella’s reserves to enunciate each word coherently.
Reggie blew out a breath that ruffled the bangs on her forehead. “Ok, if you want everyone to know your business that’s up to you. Why does Frank need you to leave?” She moved closer to Stella and the woman’s breath told its own story. For Reggie, the reek of alcohol ranked alongside bad body odor in her book.
Casting her slightly glazed eyes around the area, Stella noticed a few people reentering the building after their break. With a toss of her head, barely moving the downy dressing of honey blonde hair that was growing she said, “I’m leaving.”
“Fine, let me arrange a ride home for you?” Reggie reached out and placed a gentle grip on Stella’s sinewy forearm.
“I can drive! What is it with you people?” She pointedly stared at the hand holding hers as she crashed forward.
Reggie considered herself fairly placid and even tempered, but at that moment, she wanted to punch Stella in the jaw. Perhaps then, the woman would come to her senses. “ Stella when did you last have a drink?”
“What difference does it make to you?” Stella spit out a reply angrily. “It’s my personal business not yours,”
“You know I once thought you were one of the most intelligent and commanding women I’d ever met in my life. I even thought I wanted to emulate you.” Reggie let out a little snort then continued. “I thank God that I didn’t! I can live without stupidity.”
Although Reggie spoke quietly and never raised her voice, the essence of her censure was like a cold bucket of water over Stella’s head. For a moment, she felt ashamed. Stella tried to find the woman she once was, the one who possessed control and common sense. The alcohol that numbed the pain and her senses, but it made who she was, a fleeting memory. It also allowed her to wallow in the guilt she constantly placed upon her shoulders “I’ll walk.” Her unsteady movements toward the exit caused her to fall against the door for a split second before she straightened her body and raised her head. She made another slight stumble before she was gone and the door she opened swung for a few seconds before it finally clicked shut.
Reggie, with a resigned look, watched the final closing of the door–she let Stella go. She met Frank as he was walking back into the building and asked, “How long has Ms. Hawke worked here?”
“You didn’t know she wor…,” he started to say. “Three months. She’s a product of one of those getting people back to work schemes your father likes to implement every year.” When he saw Reggie’s eyes encouraging him on he said, “We do ok normally.” He shook his head and sighed. “She’s a sad case.”
Reggie had known this man since she was five years old and her father brought her to the newspaper building for the first time. She knew he was as solid as a rock and gave everyone a fair shot. His conclusion puzzled her. “Why do you say sad Frank?
“I employed her at the open day. She gave all the right vibes. For the first few weeks, she was a great reel operator. I was optimistic that in another couple of months I’d move her up to the pressroom. Haven’t worked with that caliber of worker for some time.” He winked at her then continued. “Then, a couple of weeks ago she appeared to lose it…when she arrived today she was even weirder than normal. Then one of the guys who works with her saw her drinking from a hip flask…you know the rest.”
Reggie pulled at her lower lip in concentration. “I don’t want you to dismiss her Frank.”
Frank rolled his eyes. “ Reggie, the others know she’s as drunk as a skunk…I have to dismiss her.” As he looked at her pleading expression, he shook his head and said, “Your dad won’t like it if he finds out.”
“We can say she takes medication for depression and it was a reaction to that? I’ll deal with my father if it comes to that.” On a roll, Reggie had the instinctive feeling that the lies she was telling had a basis in fact. “ Frank, she needs a chance…this might be the only one she has left.”
“You always did know how to put on the charm when you needed it. For you, I’ll give her a second chance but you have to promise me that she can’t do this again.” He smiled at her and pointed to the clock.
“Thanks Frank and yes, I’m out of here. I know it is deadline time.” Reggie grinned and began to leave the office when Frank called her back.
“You’d better give her this when you see her next.” He casually threw Stella’s jacket at her before returning his attention back at the job at hand.
As Reggie waited for the elevator, she wondered just how she could return the jacket to Stella. Making a decision, she pressed the button for the executive suite instead.
* * *
Stella languished in the old rocker on the back porch of the house her grandmother left her. As an only child, cosseted from day one, she’d been extremely close to her grandmother. Her summers spent with the woman until she was eighteen. As she lived out of state, the rest of the year she relied heavily on her grandmother as a confident and friend. She had very few friends among the children who lived nearby or went to school with her.
Her eyes began to clear as the effects of the alcohol she consumed earlier in the day were receding. Her gaze took in the whitewashed picket fence, which she’d demonically renewed along with the exterior of the house after her honorable discharge from the Army. She hoped it would be cathartic–it wasn’t. The lawn was neat as a pin and the tree house in the middle branches looked still habitable after a twenty-five year span. Unsteadily, she pulled herself out of the rocker and padded barefoot through the mosquito hammered screen door that had seen much better days and entered the small but completely functional kitchen. Opening the refrigerator, to select a root beer from the door cavity before turning her silent thoughts to how she was fucking up her life. There really wasn’t any other word in the English language more appropriate to what she was doing, and had been doing, for the past eighteen months.
Taking a swig from the bottle, she wiped the froth from her upper lip and scowled while she made her way back to the rocker. “Why didn’t they just fire me so I could go back to being a deadbeat? Why the hell did he have to call Stockton? That bitch didn’t need to be so solicitous either. Darien told me to watch out for that one because she will get her hooks in and never let go.” Tears welled up as she spoke her ex-lover’s name. The anger replaced the pain of the loss as she ground out, “You we’re the only woman I’ve ever loved Darien. Why did you leave me for that goddamn officer?” With her mind confused with her yesterdays along with her sight obscured by tears, she failed to hear steps onto her porch. When she heard a voice she recognized she looked up.
“I’m sorry to disturb you at home Stella, but you left this behind and I know…”
Reggie didn’t have time to finish her sentence. Stella, with a tornado on her tail or so it appeared, jumped out of the rocker and snatched the one possession she cherished in the world. As she hugged the jacket close to her chest, there was an awkward silence.
For her part, Reggie didn’t know what to do or even say next. Then, with a deep breath, she said, “I noticed Darien’s name on the jacket and I figured…well in the circumstances.” she said with a slight shrug. “Look, this is stupid Stella. It’s been almost two years and you need to move on…she certainly did.”
Stella listened and her jaw dropped before biting out a strangled reply. “How can you know what I feel or how I should behave? She wasn’t your lover!” she spat out in anger. “Get off my porch and stay the hell out of my life!”
“That’s true I don’t know you…at least not emotionally. Did you forget that Darien was my best friend?” Reggie felt her own emotional trauma from her friend’s disappearance in her life, creeping up inside her chest as it tightened.
Cold blue eyes caught Reggie’s sympathetic hazel ones as Stella bitterly retorted, “Not much of a best friend. You barely acknowledged us as a couple. Maybe it was you that instigate her moving on by implying that I wasn’t good enough for her.”
Affronted by the accusation, Reggie quietly replied, “I never implied any such thing nor would I ever do that. Darien was always in charge of her own life. She didn’t need advice from anyone.”
“It’s not the same! You didn’t love her like I did so how could you ever understand losing what we had.” Blowing out a breath, Stella sank back in the old rocker.
Although the sting of the words hurt, Reggie used all her inner strength to prevent it from showing. “How can you know what I feel or how I should behave Stella?”
In a low voice Stella muttered, “ Darien told me what you were like. You have no backbone when it comes to the important things in life. You let other people decide.”
As her emotions fed off Stella’s dark mood, Reggie responded in kind. “ Darien had no room to judge me or comment on my life. There’s such a thing as the glasshouses syndrome you know. Perhaps you’re too full of your own woes to see that she didn’t consider your relationship exclusive. For god sakes woman, she left you for Saunders without a care. Let it go Stella and get on with your life. Don’t throw it away on someone like Darien,” Reggie pleaded. “If she knew what you were doing to yourself she’d be laughing at the absurdity.”
There was a deathly silence with the only sound of the crickets and the occasion buzzing of winged insects. Neither woman moved until Reggie found herself pressed, in a remarkably strong hold from such a short and wiry body, against the wall of the house. Cold blue eyes focused on her as an icy blast tickled her ear and she wondered if she was going to get frostbite. “And you called her your best friend…some friend. If you ever say anything like that again I’ll kill you.”
Reggie felt a constriction in her throat when she saw the feral expression in the woman’s eyes. “Is that a threat?”
“No, it’s a promise.” Stella let her go. Without a backward glance, she entered the house and locked the door behind her.
Remaining against the wall for a few seconds longer, Reggie shook her head. “That went well. Dad would be proud of my social interaction.” Smoothing down her skirt and blouse in an automatic gesture she gave the locked door another look and then, with a shake of her head, she left the porch for her car.
Stella watched Reggie leave and looked at the photo of her grandmother on the lower shelf of the china cabinet. “Let it go she said. How the hell can she know what it feels like? I'd like to teach her a thing or two about love. Damn it Gran, I miss you.” She sobbed as she picked up the photo and hugged it to her chest. Then she reran the conversation with Reggie and paused in her constant self-flagellation. Glancing at the photo again, a soothing breeze seemed to wash over her as she whispered to the empty room, “ Reggie's a lot like you Gran. She's looking out for me and all I do is to keep rejecting her. She made me see sense the morning Darien left me. Why she cared, I’ll never know…we were hardly friends. I threatened to kill her back then too and still she keeps coming back for more. Maybe it is time to move on. I thought there was no one left to care–maybe I was wrong.” She replaced the picture and headed for a shower. She knew if she was going to keep her job she needed to be on her best behavior when she got there the next day and for all the days to follow. Strangely enough, it was the most important thing in her world at that moment.
* * *
The aroma of sausages, steaks along with a pig roasting on a spit, welcomed the guests of the annual company BBQ for the newspaper employees. The weather had even cooperated to the extent that the dress was light and casual with the beer and any other imaginable beverage flowing freely. People chatted amongst themselves the atmosphere was one of friendly camaraderie.
John Stockton wiped the supposed sweat off his brow has he moved sausages around on the large grill as he battled one more quip about his terrible cooking. He smiled good naturedly at the jokes and passed them off with clever parries of his own.
“ Frank, how many this time?” John chuckled as the heavyset man held out his plastic plate for another pork delight.
“Only two this time,” he said rolling his eyes. “I don’t know about your wife, but mine always sends me to get the food at parties…she tells me that it’s good for me.” Frank laughed as he gave his wife an indulgent smile.
John laughed at the comment and nodded his head. “Must be one of those female things I guess.”
Frank scoped out the festive group. “Good turnout John. What did you do to bribe the weatherman?”
“Yeah, yeah Susan said that very thing when we got up this morning.”
“Where is the delightful Susan,” he asked as he scanned the area. “Ah, there she is with Reggie.” His eyes rested on the of two women, one tall the other more diminutive except for the large protrusion of her belly indicating she was in the later stages of pregnancy. “They look like they’re in an intense conversation.”
John gave his attention to the two most important women in his world, his wife and daughter. “Yeah the original conspirators. I’ve been really lucky that Reggie accepted Susan so readily–especially now.”
Frank nodded then quietly asked, “Does Reggie ever see her mother?”
Shaking his head John returned his gaze to the sausages. “She hasn’t said. Last time they saw each other Reggie was sixteen and it didn’t go well. I know where she was stationed for her Army training it was within a hundred miles of the artist commune her mother runs. She never mentioned if she went to see her.”
The tone of the voice indicated the conversation on that subject was exhausted and Frank understood perfectly. Before she married John, Reggie’s mother, Charlene Rogers, was a woman on a path no one could follow–it was too intense. The woman sucked John in and spit him out just like everyone else who came into Charlene's orbit. The only lasting thing to come out of that relationship had been Reggie.
“ Reggie has turned out to be a credit to you John. You must be proud of her. I know when I asked her to deal with a delicate subject matter for me she handled it better than I could ever hope.”
“She did? Great. That means there’s hope she’ll take over from me yet,” John said with fatherly pride. “I wish she believed it though.”
Frank nodded before he asked, “Can we chat sometime Monday about a promotion I’d like to recommend?”
“We sure can Frank. I hope it’s about that assistant I’ve been hounding you to get for the last five years.” John grinned as a couple of people gathered in line behind Frank.
“Just might be John,” Frank said grinning. Then he left the line to join his wife, two children and their families.
Under his breath, John muttered, “About time. He’s not getting any younger and he needs a future replacement.” His eyes tracked to his daughter who had her face turned toward the tree line where several small groups were sitting out of the sun’s heat. He turned his attention back to his task and grinned at the next person in line. “What can I get for you Derek?”
The timid man said, “My girlfriend sent me….”
* * *
Susan Stockton heaved her bulging body onto the comfortable seat her husband had made sure was available for her. As she settled in the chair, she smiled up at her stepdaughter. “Ok Reggie what’s caught your attention?”
Reggie swung her gaze to the woman who was only ten years older than she was and quietly smiled. “Oh checking out who’s here. I see many familiar faces. You know I’ve known some of the guys almost all my life.”
“I know your father said he used to take you to the paper when your …anyway you were pretty young.” Susan refrained from continuing her original thought.
Moving a little to avoid the middle leg of the bench, Reggie slouched slightly as she wondered about what Susan didn’t say. “You can ask me about my mother Susan. It isn’t as if she’s dead or anything,” she said with a shrug. “We’re just estranged…I think that’s the polite term.”
The bleak note in Reggie’s voice gave off its own warning bells. Placing a warm comforting hand on her stepdaughter’s hand, she said, “You know if ever you want to talk about her, your father and I are here for you. I know that I’m no substitute for your mother and you might not want to…”
Reggie caught the genuine concern in Susan’s brown eyes and smiled warmly. “I know and thanks. But, talking to Dad about her makes him uncomfortable. She did kind of run off one dark night and left him with a baby barely weeks old to care for. I used to talk with Darien about it, but she's not here anymore. I’d rather not burden you with the self doubts I have. Besides, it was a long time ago and my mother isn’t a part of my life…I came to terms with that long ago.”
Susan considered the comment carefully before squeezing the hand that she still held. “ Reggie, do you want to have your mother in your life? It isn’t always about what she wants?”
“It isn’t?” Knowing eyes wise beyond her years gazed at Susan’s quiet expression. “I think it was all about her. She never wanted me then…and I know she doesn’t want me now.”
“And how do you know that?” Susan had an idea since five years earlier, John, who was so worried about Reggie being near her mother, blurted out his concerns. It happened in the office and was how their love affair began.
Reggie shrugged then turned her eyes to the tree line again. “She told me when I saw her four years ago. I’m glad I saw her then. She didn’t like my lifestyle and I won’t change whom I am to win her approval. We did come to an understanding though.”
A twinkle appeared in Susan’s eyes. “Good for you Reggie. Now I’m starving and your father isn’t here so would you mind…?”
Reggie laughed, silently glad that Susan hadn’t asked for any more details, which caught the attention of several people passing by. When she looked up, she saw someone she didn’t expect to see. Her emotions started churning as blue eyes caught hers off guard. “Hello Stella. I’m glad you could make it.”
Stella nodded at the woman while the others in her party stood in silence intrigued as to how Hawke knew the boss’s daughter. “Thanks, it’s a good day for it.” Her eyes moved to her friends and she shrugged. “I have to go.”
“Hey Stella, if you want to catch up with Ms. Stockton,” a young man tried to say before a glacial look stopped him.
“We haven’t eaten yet. We’re going to check out what’s on offer.” Stella pursed her lips then muttered, “See you around Ms. Stockton,” before continuing toward the cooking area.
Susan watched the brief interchange with interest and saw Reggie wince at the offhand manner of the woman. “Why don’t you go and get in line after them Reggie? The baby and I could eat a whole pig right now.”
Preoccupied with watching Stella move away, Reggie didn’t hear Susan. “I can’t believe it…she looks good…really good,” she said in awe.
Susan chuckled softly, reached across the table and tugged on Reggie’s forearm. “If she looks that good why not go after her.”
Reggie shook her head. “Sorry Susan…what did you say?”
Shaking her head, Susan smiled before placing a hand on her stomach. “The baby and I are hungry.”
Reggie got up from the table and nodded. “I’ll be right back,” she said before her long legs ate up the dirt as she moved towards the food.
Susan watched her for a few minutes then looked down at her bulging stomach. “Your sister appears preoccupied little one. I can’t wait to hear what your father has to say about this mystery woman called Stella.” A smile crossed her lips as numerous scenarios went through her head.
“Hey Susan, John wants to know if you needed anything?” her husband’s personal assistant, Janie Brinkman, asked with a bright smile.
“Not right now Janie, thank you for asking. John is sure to have a break soon. You can ask him to bring something over, he’ll know what.”
* * *
Reggie stood within ten feet of Stella but didn't have the courage to approach her. They were in a queue for the food and she didn't want anyone to think that she was using her unique privilege as daughter of the owner to push forward. Pulling at her bottom lip, she contemplated her feet then pushed back the hair straying into her eyes. When a voice she recognized called her name, she let a tight smile form on her lips.
“Hi Elaine, how's it going?”
A tall woman, with short blonde hair, dressed in a skimpy t-shirt and shorts smiled sweetly. Her eyes cast an approving glance over Reggie before she gave her a saucy wink. “I’m great and I don't need to ask how you’re doing. That short series on the romance of Angie and Ralph was the stuff of magic.” The woman scanned the crowd then asked, “Is she here yet?”
Several people in line turned in anticipation. With a chuckle, Reggie threw up her hands and said, “No, the star of that piece won’t be here today. She's leaving for Italy tomorrow so I hardly think she has time to make a starring appearance.”
Elaine moved closer to Reggie and in a loud whisper said, “ Reggie, we all know she'll do anything for you. Bet you never even thought to ask.” She lightly chucked Reggie’s shoulder before adding so others could hear, “Here, take my cell and call her…she'll be here in a shot if you ask.”
Reggie really didn’t want to have the conversation and felt uncomfortable by the scrutiny of those around her. She tried to pull away from Elaine. “She's my friend and doesn't need that kind of attention. Haven’t you ever seen that Bridzilla program on TV? We wouldn’t want her turning into a nightmare in a wedding dress would we?” She gave an amused smiled mainly aimed at the enrapt listeners who chuckled.
Elaine undaunted by Reggie’s attempt at levity at her expense, responded immediately. “ Reggie, Reggie, you’re the girl who has everything and yet you can't produce a little thing like that for the fans of your column. Bet your dad would be annoyed if he knew.”
At the mention of her father, Reggie felt her blood boil. She opened her mouth to give a caustic reply but stopped when another voice intervened.
“Why don't you just leave Ms. Stockton alone? It's supposed to be a day off from gathering news or didn't you read the memo?”
Elaine felt her lips curl at the intrusion and gave the woman who was several people ahead of them a hard glance. “I wasn't talking to you!” she exclaimed before cocking her head and raising her eyebrows in question. “Ms.?”
Reggie was stunned and didn't know what to say as she watched in fascination. The woman who had championed her, left her position in the line, moved alongside her and glared at Elaine.
“Hawke, Stella Hawke. Hawke with an ‘e’ for your information. Anything else you want to know?”
Elaine hadn't encountered a menacing voice like that before and backed off slightly. Then, she regained her composure and arrogantly said, “I haven't seen you in the office…are you a guest?”
Reggie's expression took on that of horror and annoyance when Stella moved aggressively forward. She stood as close she could to Elaine without actually throwing a punch. “I work in the,” she began with a growl only to be interrupted.
“ Stella is a personal friend of mine from my army days.” She fixed her gaze on Elaine. “Why don't you go ahead of the line and get your meal Elaine. I'm sure no one will mind.” Reggie gave an apologetic smile to the others in the front of them.
Elaine grimaced. “Sure, whatever…I hate waiting in line anyway. I'll see you around...both of you.” After giving Stella a hard stare, she proceeded to the front of the line.
Reggie drew in a deep breath and exhaled it seconds later. “Thanks,” she said before virtually jumping when she heard Stella’s words.
“Why, do you let someone like her walk all over you? For god's sake, what happened to that backbone you had a couple of years ago…or even three months ago when you came to my house?”
“She isn't important.” Reggie regretted her impulsive words when she saw an enquiring light in Stella's intelligent eyes.
With a snort, Stella ground out, “And I was? Do you honestly expect me to believe that?”
Uncomfortable again, Reggie frowned. “I don't expect anything from you Stella. I'm glad that you're here and that you've decided to live your life again. If you want me to quantify my involvement in your life shall we call it a helping hand to an old comrade in arms?”
“Is that all?” Stella said quietly.
Reggie shook her head and in a strangled reply said, “Yes,” so softly that Stella had to strain to hear the word. Then Reggie quickly left the line and walked rapidly toward her stepmother. When she saw Susan and her father happily eating their meal at the bench she changed direction. “I guess I’m too late again. Isn’t that the story of my life,” she added as she headed for a secluded spot on the tree line.
* * *
Stella watched Reggie’s flight and shook her head. For a few moments, she debated what to do then said, “Guys I’ll catch up with you later.” Without hearing the reply, she headed toward the tree line. A few minutes later, she found who she was looking for–Reggie. She was leaning against a tree with her head hanging low.
“You damn well better not be crying. I hate people who cry,” Stella muttered. “ Reggie, are you ok?”
Startled by the voice and the person standing near her, Reggie nodded. She resolutely refused to lift her head and look Stella in the eye.
“Look I know it’s none of my business but that woman upset you and…well we are supposed to be having a good time. Even the boss’s daughter is allowed some fun.” Stella didn’t understand why she was there or why she thought she should apologize. “Sorry if I put my boot in when it wasn’t wanted.”
The silence between them loomed heavy in the air until Stella blew out a breath and turned to leave. When she heard Reggie speak, she stopped.
“My backbone is firmly attached Sergeant.”
Stella smiled slowly and then turned to face Reggie with a bland expression. “Is that so? Glad to hear it soldier.”
Reggie let a slight smile fill the corners of her mouth. “Thank you for reminding me. I guess I should have just told her to get lost the moment she came up to me.”
“Yeah but something tells me she wouldn’t have listened.” Stella grinned before shuffling her feet and kicking at the dirt.
“Your championing me was unexpected,” Reggie said. “The people who overheard might give you a hard time or at least tease you about it,” she pointed out soberly.
Placing a finger to her chest Stella shook her head. “Me? Hardly. You of all people know that I'm not a knight in shining armor. I can squelch any rumors if that’s worrying you?” Stella waited for the answer as her heartbeat felt like it stopped in anticipation.
Reggie felt her smile stiffen as she tried to come up with a nonplus reply. “I wasn’t and I’m sure you can.” She lifted a shoulder. “I guess I owe you,” she said with a sigh. “Earlier, when you passed by my table I wanted to tell that you you’re looking good. I take it things must be going well for you.”
“They are,” Stella said with a nod. “You owe me nothing Reggie. In fact, I’d say we’re equal on that front. You ensured that I didn’t lose my job in the print room.” Stella blew out a breath and then continued. “Look we have differing views over… Darien. Maybe if we agree not to mention her when we’re together we could start again,” she said with a shrug. “What harm could it do…especially since we work for the same company?”
Reggie grinned and held out her hand. “Deal.”
Stella clasped the strong hand in hers and marveled that Reggie had kept up her athletic appearance. “Do you want company?”
“Company would be good.” Reggie looked back towards the cooking area where others were enjoying the day. “What about your friends?”
Waving a hand Stella chuckled. “By now they’ll be literally pigging out, pardon the pun, and have forgotten all about me.”
“I hardly think that’s possible,” Reggie felt her cheeks grow red.
Stella gave her a long thoughtful look and then smiled. “Thanks, but it’s the truth. To be honest, they took pity on me and persuaded me to come today. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the print room they have a pool to see who can thaw me out first.”
Reggie sat on the ground and contemplated the blades of grass and then picked up a stalk and began dissecting it. “Do you remember the pools we had when we were on tours? Smelly Johnston won most of them if I recall. I swear he rigged them.”
In a reflective voice Stella replied, “Yeah, he did didn’t he? Pity we can’t ask him how he did it. Who knows, he might have given us the key to winning the lottery.”
A lump caught in Reggie’s throat as she realized that the mention of one of their old comrades brought back good and bad memories. That particular tour of duty had been hard. The body count was the worse they’d ever had–Johnson was a casualty. “Yeah he might. Did you ever know why that was his nickname?”
A snicker escaped Stella’s lips. “Oh sure. He used to chew on garlic as if it was gum. We had to put a stop to that of course.”
Reggie looked puzzled. “You did…why? I know he can’t have been the best buddy to be around but…”
“You always did…do look at the bright side of things Reggie. That’s why we nicknamed you bright eyes.” The memory brought a smile to Stella’s face. It was one of the less painful ones involving Darien.
Taken aback at the admission, Reggie furrowed her brow. “I never heard that used?”
“You wouldn’t. It was a private joke I had with Darien.” When she saw the crestfallen look on Reggie’s face she said, “Sorry.”
Reggie felt deflated at the word joke. “I guess it was true. I’ve always gone around with rose colored glasses. My dad calls me something similar,” she said with a sigh. “We had a nickname for you too.”
“Ok, give…what did you nickname me? I can tell you that I know most of them, iron knickers comes to mind.”
Reggie giggled at the term. “I heard that one when I first joined the unit.” She wriggled her eyebrows. “Not sure how you got it and I’m sure you won’t tell me either.”
With a shake of her finger, Stella said, “Spill Reggie or I might have to pull rank.” Stella moved closer and hunched down opposite the woman. “I can be deadly you know.”
There was an expectant feeling in the air between them as Reggie drew in a short breath, “I know, but that was then this is now?” she said as her voice dropped to a low timbre.
“You think?” Stella grinned devilishly and moved like lightening to place her hands threatening close to her throat in a choking action.
Reggie saw the movement and the possible action and ducked her head only to bring it up with Stella virtually on top of her.
For a brief moment, they gazed into each other’s eyes, and then Reggie breathlessly as a giggle bubbled up, said, “Hawkeye,”
Stella shook her head and laughed. Neither woman noticed someone approaching until a voice filtered into their giggles.
“ Reggie, Susan asked me to come over and check that you’d eaten but I can see that you have and are otherwise preoccupied.” An amused voice sounded above the two women on the grassy mound.
Scrambling up and smoothing down her shirt, Reggie spluttered, “Dad, I haven’t that is…”
John Stockton grinned. “Laughter is an essential food too Sparky.”
Stella heard the nickname it brought a twinkle to her usually dour expression. Then she too dragged herself off the grass and stood beside Reggie. She discreetly checked out the man who owned the newspaper. He was as tall as his daughter was but had a slight plumpness and his hair was receding badly. His eyes though, reflected a gentleness and genuine happiness shining through as he looked at his daughter.
Reggie felt embarrassment wash over her. “Dad…did you have to use that name? I’m all grown up now.”
He chuckled along with the woman standing next to his daughter. His eyes took in the woman who he was sure was having trouble stifling more giggles. “You’re never too old for your parent Sparky. What’s happened to the good-manners I taught you…are you going to introduce me to your friend?”
With a shake of her head, Reggie turned to Stella with a look of apology. “ Stella Hawke, this is my dad, John Stockton.”
Stella gave a friendly smile as she held out her hand and felt a vigorous shake. “Pleased to meet you Mr. Stockton.”
The man chuckled. “No titles here Stella, just plain old John will do. How are you enjoying working in the press room?”
Stunned that the owner would know her name and associate it with the correct job, her face must have wow written all over it. “Great, the work is good. Frank’s a great guy.”
John nodded. “ Frank’s a fair man. You’ll learn a lot from him.” His attention turned to his daughter and he grinned. “Want to join us for something a little more substantial to eat. I can recommend the sausages.”
Reggie grinned. “Dad’s in charge of the sausage sacrifice today. I’m not sure Dad…”
Stella interceded. “You go Reggie we’ll catch up another time. I need to find the guys I came with. It was a pleasure to meet you John.”
“Good to meet you Stella. I’m sure we’ll see each other again soon. I’ll save a sausage for you Reggie.” He gave his daughter’s shoulder a gentle squeeze and left them alone.
“Why don’t you come and eat too…your friends, have probably already eaten.” Reggie didn’t want the magic of the association with Stella to end. It reminded her so much of how she remembered Stella before Darien poisoned her outlook on life.
There was a short silence as Stella contemplated the offer. “No, you go ahead Reggie. It would be rude not to go back to the guys I came with.”
“Sure, of course sorry. I …well I guess we can catch up some other time,” Reggie replied despondently.
“Yeah, yeah we can. Have a great rest of the day and don’t forget that backbone.” Stella smiled and turned to leave only to feel a hand on her arm stopping her.
Reggie sucked in a deep breath and exhaled her courage. “Will you have dinner with me sometime?”
Stella gave her a long look before answering. “Ok. You know where I am, call me,” she said before waving her hand and leaving to look for her friends.
“She said yes?” A beaming smile broke on Reggie’s face as she spoke to the tree then felt herself float rather than walk back to the bench where her family gave her an indulgent look but refrained from asking questions.