Standing beside the car, Jack pulled Karrie close and wrapped his arms around her. "It's going to be okay."
After staying rigid for a minute, she slumped against him and rested her head on his shoulder.
"It's just ..." she inhaled, "been a ..." another deep breath "lousy week. Losing Grammy Lou and now this."
He rubbed his hands up and down her back.
"I know it's silly to get this upset over a stupid appetizer, but I wanted it to be good. I wanted to be something other than the 'bad Brady girl' always screwing up.”
"I'll let you in on a secret. I always admired you."
She moved back a step and looked up at him. "Huh?"
"You always did whatever you wanted. I never did."
"You didn't need to because your family cared about you." Bitterness crept into her voice.
If only she knew the truth. "Not so much. They cared about everyone else's opinion before they thought about me." He felt her shiver. "We better get moving. It's not far. Let's go to your camp. It's first on the loop."
"I'm so sorry. Now you have to walk even more on your sore ankle."
"It's not your fault. Besides, the aspirin has worked. I'm lots better." Although the aspirin had dulled the pain, it still hurt. He struggled to keep the limping to a bare minimum.
"It is my fault. I drove us into the ditch."
"Are we seriously going to play yes it is, no it isn't?"
A small smile crept across her face. "No, I guess not."
They retrieved the groceries from the back seat and headed down the road. Jack kept his arm around her shoulder, not because he needed it for support, but because he liked having her close. Walking through the snow, he matched his stride to hers.
"Back to what you said." Karrie shoved her empty hand into her jacket pocket.
"What was that?"
"That you approved of the things I did."
He grinned. "Envied is a better word."
"You always seemed to do what you wanted. And I never did."
"Yeah, right. Like the stunt I pulled one day when I changed seats every time Mrs. Meserve turned her back."
"See, I thought that was kinda cool."
"But I really admired you the time you broke the rule when you stood up in class and announced you'd been accepted to college."
"That was a stupid rule."
"I agree, but I never broke the rules. Never did anything I wanted to."
"Like what? What didn't you do?"
"I didn't want to play football. I really sucked and was a bench-warmer for four years.” He clenched his jaw. "I still let them tie me in knots."
"I want to get into engineering and I know Mother will pitch a fit. She'll see me as being a construction worker."
Her shoulders tensed. "Parents don't understand lots of things. About being teased about your name. About having a favorite kid. About ignoring the other one. About what you want to do."
"Are you talking about me or you?" He squeezed her and smiled so she'd know he was teasing - partially. The truth was…he wanted her to tell him why she always tried to be the bad girl.
She turned toward him, her face lifted so she could look directly at him. "So maybe it's time for you to be you."
Guess she caught his veiled attempt to be humorous at his own expense. He shrugged as he tried to slough off his issues. At the same time he sank under the spell of her blue eyes. She knows me--in only a few hours she's figured me out a lot better than my family ever could.
* * *
Climbing the back stairs to Birch Haven, sheltered from the falling snow, Karrie stomped the snow off her boots while Jack scuffed his on the mat. In spite of his reassurances, his foot must still be bothering him. She could tell by the way he rubbed his injured foot gentler against the mat.
Pushing open the kitchen door, she saw a cat jump down from the counter and streak into the living room, bushy tail streaming.
"You were right." Hustling to catch the escaping feline, Karrie spotted it halfway upstairs.
"Careful," Jack cautioned. "Don't scare her any more than she already is."
Karrie stopped in the middle of the living room.
"I'll stand guard down here at the bottom of the stairs."
"Great. There was a small piece of salmon left." She snagged the salmon out of the trash.
Jack turned to let her pass as she headed upstairs.
"Here, kitty, kitty." She kept her voice soft and walked quietly into the first bedroom and checked under the bed.
"Not in here." Back in the hall, she entered the other bedroom.
There, sitting in the middle of the bed was a beautiful smoke-colored Maine Coon Cat, all tufted ears and long coat, calmly washing her face with her paws. "Here, kitty." Karrie offered the morsel of salmon.
With a wave of her tail and a chirping meow, the cat took the fish. Karrie reached out and stroked the soft fur, which immediately turned on the purring machine. "Ah ha. I've found her."
Karrie gently picked up the cat, who didn't protest at all. With her firmly under one arm, Karrie went down the stairs.
Jack stepped aside. "Looks like she's someone's pet."
Jack settled on the couch and pulled a hassock closer. "Sorry, but I need to put my foot up."
"You poor thing. I've been dragging you around."
"Not a big deal."
"I'll get you a couple more aspirin." She hustled into the bathroom. Returning, she handed him the pills. "You sit still. I'm going to light a fire to warm it up a bit more and then I'll work on the snacks.”
Karrie crumpled paper, added some kindling, a couple of logs and lit the fire. In no time a cloud of stinking smoke puffed from the fireplace. "This can't be happening," she wailed.
Jack limped into the kitchen and returned with a broom.
"I don't think you can beat it out with that."
"Not my plan." He poked the broom handle up the chimney and wiggled it around , holding his shirt over his nose and mouth. Without warning, a dehydrated possum body fell into the fire, spraying sparks and ashes over the brick hearth.
The cat hissed and sprinted for the safety of the bedrooms.
Karrie screeched, jumped back, then rifled fingers through her hair, stopping just short of snatching fistfuls from her scalp. "This day just keeps getting better and better."