Bethanne sat down on the sofa, plucking a tissue from her purse. “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry and look at me. I haven’t said a word and I’m already an emotional wreck.”
Elise sat across from her. “Start at the beginning. Tell me exactly what happened.”
Bethanne bit her trembling lower lip. “I—I’ve been to six banks now, and each one rejected my loan application.” While Elise listened, Bethanne reviewed the first five banks and the rejections, which were all because she was considered a poor loan risk.
“Then I talked to Lydia, and she mentioned a neighborhood bank that gave her a loan recently. She told me there were things about her history that made her look like a poor risk, too. On paper, anyway. But you and I both know that Lydia’s a fabulous businessperson. She has more financial sense in her little finger than I do in my entire body. But I’m willing to learn.”
“Of course you can learn,” Elise assured her. She couldn’t remember ever seeing Bethanne this upset—not even when she’d first talked about the divorce. “Did you apply with this bank Lydia recommended?” she asked.
Bethanne nodded. “At Lydia’s insistence, I used her as a reference.” She stopped talking long enough to blow her nose. “I just heard back from them yesterday afternoon. After a lot of debate, they decided to refuse me the loan. Elise,” she cried, “I don’t know what to do.”
If Elise had the money herself, she’d lend it to her. In some ways, she felt responsible; she’d been the one to suggest the party business and she was proud of Bethanne’s success.
“How can I help?” she asked.
Bethanne took a moment to collect herself. “Just by listening to me,” she whispered, unable to keep the emotion out of her voice. “I…I admire you so much and I’m so grateful I met you.”
“Me?” Elise blushed at the praise. All she’d ever done was encourage Bethanne. Elise had been a single mother herself, and knew the hardships that entailed.
“Oh, Elise, you’re such a good friend.”
Now it was her turn to tear up. Naturally, she’d had friends through the years, but she’d come to realize that those relationships were superficial. There was no real grief in leaving them behind. Somehow, it was different with the knitting group. Her reserve had slowly begun to dissolve; she even found herself talking about Maverick. Of course, she hadn’t shared the fact that they were sleeping together—that was far too intimate a detail—but she wouldn’t be surprised if her friends had guessed. Until this summer she’d hardly ever mentioned his name.
“I found out something wonderful about Lydia,” Bethanne said. “One time she told me she didn’t owe a single penny to anyone. She was proud of that. All the yarn in her store’s paid for and—until she got this loan—she was pretty well debt-free.”
Elise nodded; she approved of doing business on a pay-as-you-go basis. Far too many young people got caught in the credit trap. It was too easy to use a credit card and pay later. Except that the debt always grew so much faster than anyone seemed to expect. She’d seen it with her own daughter and son-in-law, warned them as gently as she could and then shut up.
“I didn’t want to ask Lydia why she needed a loan. But later Margaret pulled me aside and said Lydia had given the money to her.”
Elise couldn’t hide her surprise. Not at the fact that Lydia had given her sister money, but that Margaret would freely volunteer this information.
“I think she felt sorry for me and wanted to encourage me and I think—I think she wanted me to know what a wonderful sister she has,” Bethanne said.
“Margaret needed the money?”
Bethanne nodded. “She told me her husband’s been out of work for the last six months and they’d gotten behind on their house payments.”
“God bless Lydia,” Elise whispered.
“And she’s hurting so badly,” Bethanne added.
“And now her mother’s in a nursing home.”
“It’s come to that?” The last Elise heard, Margaret and Lydia were researching assisted living facilities.
“She shouldn’t be there more than a week or two,” Bethanne said, “but it’s expensive, even as an interim solution.”
“This doesn’t seem to be a good time economically for any of us, does it?”
“I just hope I can survive for the next few months.”
“You’re going to be fine,” Elise told her. “This business is just too promising to be ignored for long.”
“Do you really think so?”
“I know so.”
Bethanne stared down at the carpet, then sighed deeply. “I so badly want to believe you.”
“Did you get someone to help you with the bookkeeping?” Elise asked, moving on to practical matters.
The younger woman nodded. “Paul’s been going over everything with me.”
The doorbell sounded and before Elise could answer, Maverick strolled into the room, looking about as debonair as she’d ever seen him. Her heart skipped a beat. His gaze went from Elise to Bethanne and back again.
“I can come another time,” he said.
An automatic protest rose in her throat, but she needn’t have worried.
“No, please don’t. I should go,” Bethanne insisted. “I came because I had to talk to a friend. All I really needed was for Elise to tell me I’m not a failure.”
She stood and Elise led her to the front door. Before Bethanne left, they hugged. “Call me anytime, understand?”
Bethanne nodded. “Thank you so much for listening.”
“Anytime,” she repeated.
“I’ll see you Tuesday.” And then Bethanne was gone.
Elise turned to find Maverick standing in the foyer watching her.
“Is everything all right?” he asked.
“She’s been rejected for six bank loans and is about to give up.”
He frowned. “You’ve been very good to her.”
Elise dismissed his words. “She’s been wonderful to me.”
Maverick slowly advanced toward her. “You’re one hell of a woman, Elise Beaumont.” He slipped his arms around her waist and brought her close with a gentleness that melted her worries.
He kissed her and whispered promises that made her knees weak.
“Come home with me,” he pleaded. “You won’t be sorry.”
She refused with an adamant “No.”
“Elise, I need you with me.”
“I can’t.” The minute she was in his apartment he’d find a way to convince her to move in. She loved him. Despite his flaws and weakness, she loved him.
But she still wasn’t sure she could trust him.
The second-period bell rang, and the high school erupted into chaos as students poured out of their classrooms. Courtney thought she knew her way around the building. During the orientation session, she’d paid close attention to where her classes were scheduled, but now she felt hopelessly lost.
The one bright spot in the day, she hoped, would be Honors English, because she knew Andrew Hamlin was in the class. Not that she expected him to speak to her or anything. But at least he’d be a familiar face.
The bell rang again, and the halls were suddenly deserted. Courtney pressed her books to her chest and looked around, completely disoriented. Eventually the hall monitor found her and pointed her in the right direction. Knowing she was already late, she ran down one corridor and then another to Honors English.
The class had already begun when she opened the door and attempted to slip inside unnoticed. That would’ve been asking too much, she realized, when she discovered the entire class watching her.
“Sorry,” she mumbled at the teacher. “I got lost.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to find your way tomorrow?” Mr. Hazelton asked sternly.
She nodded, kept her head lowered and found an empty seat as far back in the room as she could. Once she was settled, she searched the class for Andrew and saw that he was three rows to the left of her, near the front.
Forty-five minutes later, the bell rang and Courtney checked her schedule to confirm that this was her lunch hour. She dreaded going into the cafeteria. In Chicago, she would’ve been eating with her friends, laughing and exchanging gossip. Here, she’d stand out like a searchlight in fog. The new kid. Friendless and alone.
She dawdled until the classroom was empty, then gathered up her things and headed out. To her astonishment, Andrew was waiting by the door.
“How’s it going?” he asked. His books were tucked close to his side; Courtney immediately noticed how tanned he was—and how cute.
“About as well as can be expected,” she told him. It seemed everyone was moving in the same direction, and Courtney followed the flow. So did Andrew. She stopped at her locker long enough to drop off her books. She was gratified that Andrew chose to wait for her again. “I certainly know how to make a grand entrance, don’t I?” she said wryly.
Andrew grinned, which made him even more appealing, and Courtney forced herself to glance away. “I haven’t seen Annie yet.”
“She was looking for you earlier.”
That was encouraging.
“How’d you get to school?”
It was embarrassing to admit she’d taken the bus. Her grandmother had needed her car and besides, Courtney had never driven it. All summer she’d used her bicycle for transportation and it’d worked out great. But things were different now. Only nerds rode bicycles to school. So it was either walk or take the bus. Given those choices, she’d opted for the school bus but had been the only senior on board.
“The bus,” she whispered.
“I’d offer to drive you, but I have to come in early because of football.”
He’d do that for her?
“Mom dropped Annie off,” he explained.
“I can’t ask my grandmother to do that.”
He nodded in agreement. “Let me work on it. I know a guy who doesn’t live that far from you. If you were to offer Mike gas money, he’d probably be willing to pick you up.”
Courtney smiled delightedly, relieved and a little astonished at her good fortune. This was a perfect solution and she’d pay whatever his friend wanted. Not only would she avoid the humiliation of the bus, she’d have an opportunity to make a friend.
As they entered the cafeteria, she expected Andrew to join his friends. Instead, he got in the lunch line behind her.
“You’re looking great, by the way,” he said.
She’d worked hard this summer and it felt so good to have him, of all people, notice how much weight she’d lost. “Thanks. You are, too.”
“It’s football,” he explained. “I bulk up every year.” He slid his tray behind her as they advanced in the line. “I’ll talk to Mike and get back to you tonight.”
She chose a chef’s salad with low-fat dressing and skipped the soda, selecting bottled water instead. If there was an award for righteousness, she should receive it.