The Kept Woman(6)

By: Susan Donovan

Sam put her hand over the receiver. "Take her out from under the lamp. I'll be right there."

"You have one week, Ms. Monroe."

Sam sighed. "Yeah. OK. Look, I'm sorry for saying the 'f-word,' but if you could just give me just a little more—"

"One week." Mrs. Brashears hung up, and Sam stood in the middle of the salon kitchen, a barely touched chicken burrito clutched in one fist and the cordless phone in the other, and she let the tears flow.

For two whole minutes, Sam let her shoulders shake and her spine soften, and she cried. Then she hung up the phone, threw away her lunch, blew her nose, and went back into the salon. She strolled through the clary sage-scented rooms color-washed in a Sonoma green, where the sounds of New Age flute and wolf calls floated through Marcia Fishbacher's vision of a southwestern oasis in the heart of downtown Indianapolis. Sam held up her chin, straightened her back, and knew that though everything in her life was falling apart, she'd still be expected to smile and work her soothing magic on her appointment book full of stressed-out clients, giving them that mix of technical skill, artistry, and pampering for which Le Cirque was famous, and for which they were willing to pay obscene amounts of money.

Monte opened the back door to Sam's house without knocking. Her son, Simon, ducked under her arm and ran ahead inside, calling for his best friend, Greg. Monte kicked the door closed with her boot and headed to the dinette set between the tiny kitchen and living room of the Arsenal Street bungalow.

"Dinner is served!" she called out, tossing three large pizza boxes on the table. "Best get in here before I eat it all!"

Lily sauntered into the dining room first, a quizzical look on her pale baby-woman face, followed by Dale, the family's raggedy little mutt. "'Sup, Monte?"

"Hi, sweet pea. How was school today? Where's your mama?"

Lily shrugged her narrow shoulders and ripped open the first pizza box. A straight waterfall of reddish-blond hair covered her face as she peered under the lid. "Did you get a vegetarian?"

"Bottom one." Monte hooked her purse on the back of a chair and threw her leather coat over it, then plopped herself down, looking at Lily in amazement. It seemed like only last week the child had been wearing that pink fleece coverall with bunny ears, riding around, her little cheeks like shiny apples, in that earth-mother backpack thing Sam used for all three kids.

Maybe it was just that Monte could see the changes better in Sam's kids than in her own tall and strong thirteen-year-old, but it seemed time raced by so fast it was a shock to the system.

"So where's your mama?"

"Chasing Dakota. Trying to get him to wear Batman underwear." Lily took the few steps necessary to reach the kitchen cabinets and reached for a stack of plates. Monte checked her out from tip to toe and shook her head—the girl was all long legs and long hair and an all-wrong application of dark brown eyeliner that made her look like a blue-eyed raccoon.

"Should I open a bag of salad?"

"Sure!" Monte hoped her cheerfulness didn't sound too forced. "Let's make this a well-rounded culinary experience!"

Lily smiled a bit, and Monte breathed easier. It wasn't good news when a fourteen-year-old girl couldn't muster up a smile on pizza night. "So? You didn't say. How was your day?"

Lily returned with the plates and shrugged, helping herself to two slices. She was about to say something when Greg and Simon raced in, and the room was suddenly rocking with loud kid voices and laughter and Dale's high-pitched barking and then Sam arrived with Dakota in her arms, the little redheaded angel-boy pressing his cheek against her shoulder, his eyes lighting up at the sight of Monte.

She reached out for Dakota and the baby fell into her lap, wrapped his arms around her neck, and gave her a sloppy toddler kiss.

"Auntie Monte," he cooed, and Montes eyes locked with Sam's in the middle of the chaos, and they smiled at each other. Monte knew exactly what was conveyed in that wordless greeting: Who needs men to have a good time?

By nine o'clock, Dakota was deeply asleep, Sam had rustled the older kids to bed, and Monte had washed the dishes. The two women sprawled out on the couch and shared a bottle of Chardonnay.

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