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“Courtney,” Annie shouted and hurried over to her as soon as she’d finished paying for her salad. “Come and meet my friends.”

“Sure.” She started to walk away and realized she’d abandoned Andrew. Turning back, holding her tray with both hands, she said, “I’ll talk to you later, all right?”

“Later.” He nodded, sauntering across the room to join a group of seniors.

“He’s going to find someone to give me a ride to school,” Courtney told Annie, nearly bursting with the news.

“Mom said he should,” Annie informed her. So much for that, Courtney thought, squelching her disappointment. Bethanne was responsible for this. Well, it shouldn’t matter. Instead of obsessing about the fact that Andrew hadn’t come up with the idea himself, Courtney should be grateful—and she was. Just not as happy as she’d been before.

“Annie!” a girl called out. “Over here.”

Annie hesitated, and when she turned toward the other girl, Courtney sensed reluctance. Courtney followed her to a table occupied by two heavily made-up girls. They had various body parts pierced and were dressed mostly in black leather. Courtney felt completely out of place; for their part, Annie’s friends eyed her as if she’d descended from outer space.

“This is Courtney,” Annie said, introducing her. “We met over the summer. Tina and Shyla.” Annie gestured first to one and then the other.

“Hi,” Courtney said.

“Hi.” Shyla smiled; Tina didn’t.

“You trying out for the cheerleading squad?” Tina, the girl dressed entirely in black, asked. Her nose was pierced in five places.

That these friends of Annie’s figured Courtney was skinny enough to make the grade was a compliment, but she knew they didn’t mean it that way.

“Not really.”

Annie frowned at the other girls. “Courtney’s my friend. Come on, guys, she’s new here.”

Tina turned her gaze from Courtney and stared at Annie. “We haven’t seen much of you lately.”

“I’ve been busy, you know,” Annie said.

“With Courtney?” Shyla asked.

Annie’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah. What about it?”

“Maybe it’s time you decided who your friends are,” Tina suggested, “because it’s either her kind or us. If you want to be the cheerleader type, just say so.”

“Maybe I do,” Annie muttered. “Come on, Courtney, let’s get out of here.”

Annie marched off, and once again, Courtney followed. She could almost feel the daggers. She didn’t want to get caught alone in the girls’ room with those two anytime soon.

“You were never really one of us, you know,” Tina taunted.

Annie ignored her and led Courtney across the cafeteria.

They found a recently vacated table, where Courtney set down her tray. “Annie, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve outgrown them, anyway.” But she looked more than a little perturbed.

“I don’t want to be—”

She wasn’t allowed to finish before Annie snapped. “Don’t take it personally, all right? This isn’t about you.”

Courtney shrugged, unsure what to say.

Annie frowned as the two of them sat alone at the end of a table. After they’d eaten their salads, Annie took out an apple and munched on that, but they barely exchanged another word.

“I’ll see you later?” Courtney asked when the bell rang.

“I guess.” Annie didn’t sound too enthusiastic about it, though.

When Annie left, Courtney returned her tray to the kitchen area, where she saw two other girls with their heads together, whispering and looking at her. She recognized Shelly and Melanie, Andrew’s supposed girlfriend and her sidekick. She wanted to wave and let them know she realized they were talking about her, but decided it was better, not to mention easier, just to ignore them.

The rest of the afternoon was uneventful. She wasn’t late for any other classes and that, at least, was an improvement. Still, her stomach was in knots when school was over and she headed to the bus line. She hoped the ride situation would work out with that friend of Andrew’s.

As she climbed onto the bus, Courtney saw Annie with the two discontented girls from the cafeteria. They stood in a tight circle talking. No one was smiling.

“You getting on or not?” the guy behind Courtney asked when she paused on the steps.

“Sorry,” she murmured, hurrying into the bus. As she took her seat, she looked out the side window and saw Andrew talking to Melanie. He had his arm around her waist and she was gazing up at him with wide-eyed wonder. It was enough to make Courtney puke. Leaning against the window, she closed her eyes. She’d do her best to get through this year; there was no other alternative.

She had no expectations and apparently no friends.



Elise’s disillusion came soon after school started for her grandsons. She’d expected it all along, knew Maverick wouldn’t be able to stay away from gambling. The entire time he’d been in Seattle she’d been waiting, listening, expecting the worst. If she was surprised by anything, it was that Maverick had held out as long as he did. She learned the truth the day her book club met.

“Your father said he’d be by to drive me to the library this afternoon,” Elise told Aurora after she’d waited as long as she could. Until now, Maverick had always been punctual. She’d known it was a mistake to rely on him, but it had been too hard to resist. Now she had to scurry in order to make the book club meeting.

“I’m sure he has a perfectly good explanation,” her daughter said, ever eager to defend her father.

Still the niggling doubts had begun to form. Maverick mysteriously disappeared for several hours once a week. He swore he hadn’t been gambling, but he hadn’t felt inclined to enlighten her as to where he spent his time, either. She hadn’t pressed him; she knew it was because she was afraid of what she’d find out.

Elise had other worries, too. Aurora had been acting differently toward Maverick. She hadn’t been able to put her finger on exactly how the father-daughter relationship had changed, but it had. She’d noticed it a few weeks ago—whispered conversations, intercepted glances, a sense of confidences shared. Elise felt excluded, although she tried not to.

Aurora offered to drive her, but Elise declined. “I’ll take the bus. It’s not a problem,” Elise murmured. Her daughter was right about Maverick. He probably did have a credible excuse, only Elise supposed that was exactly what it would be. An excuse. A lie…

“I’m sure Dad’ll be there to pick you up,” Aurora said as she walked Elise to the front door.

She nodded, but she suspected otherwise. During the bus trip, she tried—unsuccessfully—to forget her fears. She got off automatically and transferred to the second bus. After all these years of traveling by Metro, Elise knew the schedules as well as her own address.

She arrived late, and the meeting itself was a blur. By the time the group broke up, she knew it had been pointless to attend. She hadn’t been able to concentrate, and contributed little to the discussion.

Her doubts and suspicions regarding Maverick were simply impossible to ignore. She knew his history, and yet she’d so badly wanted to believe him that she’d played a dangerous game of pretend. Loving him again had come so easy—too easy.

On the short walk to the bus stop, she passed a number of card rooms. She passed them whenever she took this route but had never before felt even the slightest inclination to glance inside. But now the need to find Maverick consumed her. She wanted to burst into these places, slamming open the doors, hoping to catch him in his lie. But through sheer willpower, she resisted. That was a degrading thing she’d done early in their marriage, dragging their infant daughter into bowling alleys and taverns, looking for Maverick. Praying she’d find him before he lost the money they needed for rent.

The memories bombarded her, and when she stepped off the bus late that afternoon, she was emotionally exhausted. She wasn’t surprised to see Maverick’s car parked in front of the house. She made a decision then: she couldn’t do this anymore.

He didn’t meet her eyes when she walked in the door, which was another sure sign he’d been up to no good.

“Hello,” she said stiffly.

“Elise.” He cast a look toward their daughter, who promptly left the room. “I figure you and I should talk. I apologize for not being here to take you to your readers’ group.” He paused for a few seconds. “I’m sorry.”

“Yes, I knew you probably would be,” she said, setting her purse on the small table in the hallway. Her throat was dry as she walked into the kitchen and took a pitcher of iced tea from the refrigerator. Hand trembling, she reached for a glass.

“I’m hoping we can talk about this,” he said, standing not more than two feet behind her. When she glanced around, she saw that he’d folded his hands like a repentant child.

She shrugged as if it was of no importance. Compared to missing their daughter’s childhood—missing their entire marriage, for that matter—this was minor.

“You were counting on me,” he said.

“The bus was fine.”

“Come on, Elise.” He held out his hands. “I hate it when you’re angry with me. I’m not a grade-school child who’s come to you about an overdue book. I’m your husband.”

“Ex-husband,” she reminded him.

“All right, so we’re divorced, but—”

“You were gambling this afternoon.” It wasn’t a question. She knew, and she suspected that was where he’d been every week, although he’d denied it.

“Would you listen for once?” he demanded.

“No. There’s nothing more to be said. You made your choice all those years ago, and you’ve made the same choice again. Gambling is more important than me, than our marriage, more important than anything. I’m not surprised. Why should I be? It’s only history repeating itself.” Putting down the glass after a single swallow, she walked through the hallway to her room.

Maverick followed her, leaping back as she shut the door. Despite her anger, Elise hadn’t intended to slam it in his face. She leaned her shoulder against it, feeling too weak to stand without support.

Maverick paced outside in the hallway; she could hear the sound of his footsteps. “All I ask is that you listen. Please, honey, just listen.”

She closed her eyes. He hadn’t called her honey since before the divorce.

“I love you, Elise. I know you don’t believe that, and I don’t blame you, but it’s true.”

The declaration was all too familiar. Unable to stop herself, she jerked open the door. “I do believe you love me,” she said with great calm, “but you love cards more.” She watched Maverick’s face twist with pain and feared it was a reflection of her own. Unable to look at him, she gently closed the door.