WEDDING BANDS by Ev Bishop
JO SAT ON THE CHILLY metal bench under the grimy shelter in front of the bus station for as long as she could, kicking up gravel with the scuffed toes of her sneakers and drawing designs on the fogged up glass. Where was he, where was he, where was he?
She doodled her and Callum’s names inside a heart-shaped flourish, then scrawled “True if erased!” beside it.
When she couldn’t hold still any longer, Jo hopped to her feet and paced, not wanting to go inside the building because what if he arrived and thought she was the one who hadn’t shown up? But it was raining harder now, and cold wind blew sheets of water into the shelter. She could care less if she was soaked to the skin usually, but the long bus ride would be uncomfortable if her jeans were soggy. Plus, she had to pee. Really bad.
She considered the cozy interior of the station—well, cozy by comparison to where she was now anyway—once more. Then looked up the street and down it. Callum’s red Honda Civic was still nowhere to be seen. And anyway, he’d said he was going to walk. It was getting darker, but there were streetlights. She could see all too well there was no one walking toward her in any direction. She cracked her knuckles. The movement sparkled under the streetlight, and she looked down at the delicate gold band on her left ring finger. A tiny diamond twinkled up at her. She rubbed it with her thumb and grinned.
“Callum,” she whispered. Then she laughed out loud. “Callum, hurry up!”
It boggled her mind that they were doing this. They were really doing this. They were running away to get married!
But at 9:30, Callum still hadn’t shown up and the bus was supposed to board at 9:48. Jo’s bottom lip had a raw groove in it from her teeth. A slow but steady trickle of people filed past her into the station to buy tickets, ship boxes, and say good-bye to departing family and friends. Jo’s bladder moved past discomfort. It was going to burst. And her heart might too.
She headed into the station and beelined to the washroom. The stall was cramped but clean. She relieved herself without finding any real relief at all. Why hadn’t he come? Where was he?
She made her way to the payphones on the back wall by the vending machines. Her sister Sam said one day people would have miniature phones they’d carry on them at all times to call people whenever they wanted. Jo always thought that was far-fetched. Who on earth had so many people to call that they couldn’t wait till they got home? But tonight, picking up the gummy receiver, she changed her mind. Personal phones weren’t a terrible idea. Maybe Sam was onto something.
Jo inserted her quarter and pressed each digit in Callum’s phone number with utmost care, like she was performing a ritual or charm that would bring them together—or not.
The phone rang once, rang twice—was answered midway through the third ring by a clipped, impatient voice. “Yes?”
Rats. Mr. Archer. Callum’s dad. He hated her.
“Um, hello, Mr. Archer?”
No acknowledgement that yes, it was him. Not even a grunt.
“Is Callum there, please?”
Mr. Archer’s voice warmed suddenly. “Is this you Tracey?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Selene?”
A chuckle interrupted her. “Sorry, sorry. You know how it is for an old dad, trying to keep up with a young buck’s does.”
A young buck’s does? Jo traced a crack in the tile with her toe. What a creep.
“It’s Jo,” she said, “Jo Kendall.”
“Oh, sorry, lad—thought you were a girl for a minute. Must be a poor connection.”
Jo exhaled. Her knuckles were white on the receiver. “We’ve met, Mr. Archer. I’ve been dating Callum all year.”
“Oh, oh . . . ” There was a shuffling sound, then a porcelain clank, like a plate dropped too quickly onto another. “Well, I don’t keep track. He took off with someone in a blue Volkswagen about an hour ago. I just assumed the driver was the girl in his life these days. That’s not you? Not your car?”
Jo bowed her head and mumbled into the mouthpiece, “No, not me. Thanks anyway. We’ll probably all meet up at the same place later.” She hoped she didn’t sound as miserable as she felt. Who wanted to give the horrible man the satisfaction that she’d been ditched?
She hung the phone back in place, but stayed by the booth a moment, heels of her hands pressed into her eyes. What should she do? There was another bus at 5:30 a.m. Should she try to round Callum up? But on foot in the pouring rain in the growing darkness? She had no idea where to even start to look. Green- ridge had a small population, sure, but it was scattered over a huge geographic area. At the very least, she should call Ray. Of course she should! Obviously Callum would’ve called to say he was held up. He wasn’t an asshole.
Breathing easier, she dug for another quarter. “Yeah-lo,” a raspy voice answered.
Jo smiled at the familiar, corny combination of “Yeah and hello” her uncle always used.
“Hey, Uncle Ray. It’s Jo. Has Callum called by any chance?”
“He sure did, kiddo. Sounded upset. I took a message. Let me see. . . .”
Jo waited for Ray to rummage through his head for scraps of the conversation, a familiar, confusing mixture of love and irritation swirling in her gut. She prayed he hadn’t hit the bottle too heavy already, or who knew what mixed up, incoherent babble he’d pass on.
But Ray didn’t sound overly tipsy and wasn’t slurring when he said, “Ah, here it is, princess.”
Jo rolled her eyes. Her uncle was the only person in the world who looked at her and saw a princess.
“I wrote it down.”
“Wow, will wonders never cease?” The words slipped out before she could stop them.
Uncle Ray only laughed. “Wait a minute, I thought you said you were Jo? How come you’re sounding like your big sister Sam?”
Jo shifted from one foot to the other. It was 9:39. People streamed out of the small station toward the big Greyhound rumbling outside.
“He said, um . . . ” Jo could practically see Ray squinting at his barely legible scrawl. “He’s sorry, but it’s over. It won’t work—repeated that three times, angry-like. ‘It won’t work—just won’t work.’ Does that make any sense?”
Jo closed her eyes and squeezed the bridge of her nose. It made no sense. It also made perfect sense. She could hardly speak. “Yeah, yeah, it does. Thanks.” “Call me when you get settled back at your mom’s, all right?”
Jo forced a few more words out. “Yes, yes, I will.”
“I love you, baby girl.”
The words coaxed a blurry-eyed smile. Oh, Uncle Ray. “I love you too.” And she did, but like everything in her life, it was so damned complicated. How could you love someone and not really ever be there for them? Never get your shit together? You’d think with her history, Jo would be used to it by now, but she wasn’t. Some day she was going to have a home. A real one. A non-temporary, longer than a summer or a school year place to stay. She and Callum both wanted that—or then again, maybe not. Maybe just she did. She alone. Again.
She swallowed hard and stared up at the ceiling, willing the tide of saltwater in her eyes to recede. She pressed a hand to her sickish-feeling stomach. What was she going to do?
A crackly voice came over the P.A. system and announced last call for eastbound travelers.
Her suitcase was already stowed in the belly of the bus, loaded while she’d sat around waiting. It would be hard to change her mind now, even if she wanted to—and did she want to? Did she want to wander around the small town all summer, facing memories of Callum everywhere? Did she want to have some big high-drama face off with him about the how and why of him calling everything off so randomly and so last minute? No, she just couldn’t. It was too hard. And Ray’s, much as she loved him, wasn’t the place for her anymore. Things were going from bad to worse for him—and she’d just turned eighteen, just graduated. She was too young to settle down to take care of her uncle who was drinking himself to death and refused help. Even through the pain, she knew that.
She took a deep breath, hoisted her backpack, then limped outside as if physically injured. It felt like she was. On her way toward the silver-haired bus driver who stood by the bus door collecting tickets, she passed by the shelter. The blurred words “Callum + Jo, forever. True if erased!” jumped off the glass at her. Out of habit, she lifted her hand to rub the words away, then realized how dumb she was. Her hand returned to her queasy stomach. She boarded the bus.
THE EVENING AIR WAS CRISP but not yet freezing. Jo stopped in her tracks just to inhale. The comforting scent of cedar smoke from the house’s chimney, the salty-sweet smell of smoking salmon, and the earthy fragrance of the changing season thrilled through her. She wanted to pinch herself. It was all really hers—well, theirs. Her sister Samantha would see the light eventually. Imagine living here all year round. It would be like a postcard every season. All the work was worth it. How could Samantha want to get rid of this place? Was she crazy?
The first fallen leaves gleamed gold against the dark lawn and crackled under her boots as she continued toward the old house. The porch light glowed a friendly welcome, though its beam created shadows around her that she wouldn’t have noticed if there’d been no light at all.
Jo climbed the three steps to the home’s wraparound porch, and leaned her trout rod against a wall, well out of the way of the door. She was careful to make sure the pretty—and more importantly, lucky—wedding band lure, a bright beaded thing encrusted with rhinestones, was safely held in one of the rod’s eyes. She tucked her tackle box beside the rod and carried her basket of treasure into the house. Fresh caught Rainbows—even their name was gorgeous. She whispered a prayer of thanks for the beauty and bounty of the area. Her stomach rumbled.
Jo whistled for Hoover, but the dog didn’t come. He was probably still by the river, roaming about. She crossed her fingers that he hadn’t found something disgusting to roll in—his favorite trick—and whistled again. Still nothing. Used to his selective hearing and even more selective obedience, she happily transi- tioned to thoughts of side dishes. Asparagus and oven-roasted baby potatoes? Rice pilaf and broccoli rabe? Mmmm.
She kicked off her rubber boots and left them where they fell. Yes, they blocked the door, but wasn’t that one of the luxuries of living alone? The time would come soon enough when she had to worry about appearances and keeping everything just so. She imagined a houseful of paying guests and smiled.
She left her old black and red checked flannel jacket on. She’d get the fish frying before she cleaned up.
Halfway down the darkened hall toward the kitchen, Jo’s stomach tightened. There was a light on—and she knew she’d turned them all off.
“Hello?” she called, and felt stupid when she realized she’d clutched the buck knife attached to her belt. What was she going to do? Stab an intruder?
“Hello,” she said again, louder.
The voice that answered almost stopped her heart. “Jo, is that you, finally? I’ve been waiting all night. Where were you?”
Jo relaxed her grip on the knife handle reluctantly. If there was someone she actually wouldn’t mind stabbing it would be—
“Come on, don’t you have a kiss for your sis?”
—Yep, her “sis.” Samantha.
Jo flipped a switch, and another feeble bulb lit up.It didn’t do much to brighten the wood panel hall, but would keep Jo from colliding with Sam—or colliding literally, anyway. That was the first of many things Samantha complained about regarding the cabin they’d inherited from their uncle: its “archaic” lighting.
Samantha’s high heels clacked across the hardwood floor in the living room, then moved into the kitchen. Jo cringed, envisioning the dints she was probably leaving in her wake.
“Good grief, Jo. It’s a tomb in here. How do you stand it?”
Had she called it or what? “Every bulb doesn’t have to glare. I like soft—”
“What’s in the basket?”
How Jo wished she could disappear into one of the bedrooms, any one of them, no matter how cluttered or unfinished. But as she knew from a lifetime of experience, it wouldn’t help. Samantha would be there, in her face, until she tired of chewing at whatever she was after this time—and since “this time” involved money, she wouldn’t drop the bone till the cash was in hand.
“Trout,” Jo admitted miserably, all fantasies of a candlelit dinner for one dashed to hell.
Jo shrugged. If only that opinion meant Samantha was planning to eat elsewhere—but Jo knew better than that. She headed for the counter beneath the big window that had a gorgeous mountain view, and dumped her catch into one of the stainless steel sinks. “Dot’s doing Italian specials all week.”
“Pasta? Like I’d eat pasta. Goes straight to your belly.”
Jo patted her own “belly” with affection, not caring if she got fish slime on her shirt. It was due for a wash. “Well, I’m making potatoes.”
Samantha followed her, keeping a safe three-foot distance from any potential food mess. She gave Jo a quick once over and frowned.
“What are you wearing? You stink like fresh air and you look like a lumberjack. And tonight of all nights!”
“What do you mean ‘tonight’? What’s so special about tonight?”
Jo scrubbed her hands and started peeling potatoes. Samantha sighed dramatically. “I was hoping you’d look human when you met my lawyer, but thankfully I’ve already warned him about you.”
“Your what? Here, now, what?”
Samantha flourished one hand. “Callum, we’re ready for you.” A shadow moved in the dining room.
Jo was so angry she could hardly see.
And then she was so startled she almost sliced her thumb with the potato peeler. She put it down. Callum? As in Callum Archer? Her old Callum? No . . . the first name was a coincidence. Had to be. A tall man walked out of the living room and extended his hand.
“Callum Archer,” Samantha said and Jo’s brain swam. “Josephine—or Jo, as she’s sometimes called—my sister.”
Jo tried to give the hand gripping hers a firm shake, but as she met his piercing aqua blue eyes— eyes she’d never forget—she started to freak out. An irrational observation hit her: the man, Sam’s lawyer, her old Callum, had strong sexy-rough hands for a guy working a desk job. Her stomach churned. Breathe, she commanded herself. Breathe. It was absolutely no comfort at all that he looked as shocked as she felt.
“Hello Callum,” she said, hoping desperately for a dry, casual tone. “It’s been a long time.” And it had been. Fifteen years, four months. Not that she’d counted. . . .
“Jo? I’ll be damned.” And Callum did look like he’d just been damned. All the blood drained from his already fair skin, making his blue eyes burn even brighter and his black hair seem all the blacker. “You look exactly the same,” he said.
“When it’s half dark, perhaps,” Jo said wryly. “But thanks.” So he was still a flatterer. That much hadn’t changed.
Samantha’s eagle sharp gaze darted to Callum, then speared Jo. “So what—you guys know each other?”
Jo raised her eyebrows and shook her head. “Uh, no. I wouldn’t say that really. Used to. A bit. Kind of.”
“Kind of,” Callum repeated with a bitter note in his voice that Jo didn’t understand—and that pissed her off. What the hell did he have to be bitter about?
There was a moment of uneasy silence, then Callum had the nerve to laugh. “Sisters. Wow.” Jo hated the sexy, low timber of his voice and his easy confidence. “Here I’d just assumed the Josephine Kendall everyone in town was talking about, and that you went on about, was some aunt or something. I didn’t link Jo to Josephine at all.”
“Well, it’s a terrible name, but it’s better than Jo,” Samantha said.
“She doesn’t really strike me as the next thing to a bag lady,” Callum said, his head tilting as he studied Jo.
The next thing to a bag lady? What on earth had Sam been telling people?
Samantha sounded as affronted as Jo felt. “Have you taken a good look at her?”
Callum was still gripping Jo’s hand and she yanked away, suddenly conscious of her muddy jeans, old man’s shirt, and leaf and branch strewn hair. Shit. She was making an excellent first impression as a business professional, able to single-handedly turn the old cabin and overgrown property into a successful bed-and-breakfast, wasn’t she? She could practically hear Samantha’s victory chant.
She tried to fight the heat rising to her cheeks but failed, imagining how the room looked from his eyes. Breakfast and lunch dishes piled messily by the sink. A mishmash of junk littering the floor by the dishwasher. . . . She’d meant to box it up for Goodwill, but the beautiful fall afternoon had called to her. And what kind of ignoramus shows up unannounced and basically breaks into someone’s house anyway?
“I’m not sure what my sister told you, or why either of you thought an impromptu, unscheduled appointment would be at all appropriate or beneficial”—she glared at Samantha for a moment—“but it’s neither of those things. It’s a Friday night, and I have plans. We can set up a time next week to meet at your office to discuss the estate and terms of my uncle’s will, or, if you’re from out of town, we can conference call.”
Oh-so-confident Callum looked startled, and Jo made a couple more observations, all equally irritating. Time had been more than kind to him. While she’d found him gorgeous, like a rock god or something, back in the day—his tall, lanky frame had filled out with age. He looked more like a professional athlete than what her mind conjured for a lawyer. His icy blue eyes were still penetrating—and stood out spectacularly against his shock of silky raven hair— but he had just the start of crinkling laugh lines that softened his intensity. And he smelled good. Like fresh baked cookies, vanilla, cinnamon—
Callum’s voice, sharp and irritated, cut through the buttery attraction melting through Jo. “You didn’t arrange this? We just surprised her?” he said to Samantha.
Samantha waved her hand dismissively, and Jo wished she could lop one of those constantly gesturing hands right off. “She would’ve stalled indefinitely. And she doesn’t really have plans. She’s having dinner by herself.”
Like it’s a capital crime or something, Jo thought.
Callum cleared his throat. “Sounds nice, actually. I’m sorry for the misunderstanding—sorry we disturbed you.”
Jo didn’t lie and say it was fine. She herded them to the door.
“I don’t know why you’re being like this. We need to talk, get this figured out, decide what works best for everyone.”
“We have talked, Samantha. We disagree on what ‘works best’ means. Your lawyer may call me next week, anytime Monday through Friday between nine and five. I’ll consult my schedule and we can set an appointment.”
“Your schedule?” Samantha mocked.
Callum placed a hand low on Samantha’s back and guided her toward the door. “She’s right, Samantha. This wasn’t the right way to proceed.”
“And just so you’re aware. If you break into my house again, I’ll call the cops and press charges.”
Callum turned back from the door. “I’m not sure it’s so simple as ‘your’ house, Jo—but again, my apologies for the intrusion. It was a misunderstanding. I’ll be in touch.”
“Let’s just go, Samantha.”
“Yes, go, Samantha. Take your slimy lawyer’s advice. That’s what you’re paying him for right?”
Jo leaned against the mudroom’s wall after they left and closed her eyes. Why had she been so rude? Yes, even after all these years, the very thought of Callum was a slicing barb—but that was no excuse. They’d been kids. She needed to let him off the hook. For her own sake, not just his.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Curious about what happens next? I hope so. 🙂 Snap up Wedding Bands this Tuesday—and spread the news: for a limited time, it’ll be available for a low kick-off the River’s Sigh B & B series sale price!