Excerpt – Friends Forever

Chapter 1

Chris Lambert studied the recently planed leg of the dining table he was building. He shifted his stance slightly and slowly cut the fourth leg with his band saw, following the curve he’d drawn on the wood. He turned off the saw and the whine ebbed to a throaty gurgle as he removed his noise-reduction earmuffs and protective glasses.

His workshop sat on a one-acre parcel holding a left-leaning one-car garage practically begging to be replaced, and the 40s-era Craftsman he called home. Despite the age of the buildings, he’d bought the property for the workshop. Then he discovered that the dated house with faded wallpaper and leaky fixtures could be made livable. Which soaked up whatever time he could spare after working all day at the construction site he was managing. He’d upgraded the kitchen and uncovered the carpeted oak floors badly in need of patching before he sanded and sealed them.

Lately, he’d spent most evenings in his workshop, filling orders from people interested in him refurbishing antique and damaged furniture or buying the custom furniture Chris made.

He ran his fingers over the wood and looked up when the overhead lights flashed off and on several times, a signal that someone had opened the door to the outside. His sidelong glance revealed a woman in a red dress and matching stilettos. “Bambi?” Her curvy body in an outfit that was more fitting for a fancy dinner than a late afternoon visit to his dusty work area was a surprise. But her presence generated barely a hint of the lust he’d acted on weeks earlier. Hadn’t he said he didn’t expect to see her again?

“You’ve got sawdust all over you, sweet thing,” she drawled. “And you need a haircut. Want me to take care of that for you? Privately?” She gave him a slow-motion wink and reached for him.

Chris backed up before Bambi, with her bleached blond hair piled high on her head, could brush her blood-red nails through his hair.

The woman had never before shown interest in his construction site, or his shop. And now she was interrupting his concentration on his customer’s table?

“What are you doing here, Bambi?”

Dust motes danced in the air as Chris pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and ran it across his forehead and along his nape, swiping the sweat along the neckline of his T-shirt. She’s right. I do need a cut.

The woman he’d slept with several weeks earlier—a mistake he’d regretted shortly after the fact— pouted. As if her expression would alter Chris’s feelings. “Why are you here?” he repeated. Something had to be amiss. “Don’t come any closer. Your dress might get messed up.”

“We need to talk, honey-pie.”

Words Chris had never associated with a woman who claimed to want nothing more than a no-strings-attached night with him.

“The other day, you said we might go to lunch.” She stepped closer and grasped his arm. “I guess you forgot.” Her lips puffed out again into an expression Chris no longer thought cute. After seeing Bambi’s faux pouts too many times, he felt only irritation.

“Your idea, not mine. And that was weeks ago. Besides, I don’t break for lunch when I’m in the middle of a job. Which I am. Gotta get these legs finished.” He turned away from the band saw and scanned for tiny nicks requiring extra fine sanding before setting all four table legs on his late grandfather’s workbench. Next step after that? Oiling the wood to bring out the grain. “Did you skip out of work early? Going somewhere?”

“I’m meeting the girls for drinks after they get off.” Her pout returned, joined by a hurt-little-girl whine and a lengthy sigh. “I got fired. My boss just doesn’t understand that I need more out of life than work work work. Especially now.” She stamped one foot, raising dust that rose above her ankles before settling onto the floor. “We need to talk.”

He’d heard that before, and didn’t like what it might portend. “Yeah, well. I need to get back to what pays my bills.” Chris plucked his buzzing phone from the workbench, relieved when he recognized the number and pointed. “This call? It’s business.” He raised the phone to his ear. “Mr. MacIntire. Hello!”

Chris turned his back and hunched his shoulders forward, as if doing so provided him a modicum of privacy.

“Yes, sir. Table top’s about ready for a final coat and the legs are ready to be sanded. Right on schedule.” He ran a hand through his hair and a cloud of sawdust drifted past his shoulders. “You want it when? But that’s a week earlier than we agreed.”

Chris squinted at the calendar tacked to the wall above the workbench, its penciled-in date squares denoting several customer deadlines. He took a step closer to the table legs and reached for the nearest one. “Okay. A bonus. I understand. I’ll do my best. Yes, thanks.”

He slid his phone into his pocket. “Damn!”

“Trouble?” Bambi drawled as she slid her hands down the front of her dress, as if to call attention to her ample breasts.

“Nothing I can’t handle. But you need to leave. I’ve got work to do.” Chris picked up another chair leg and examined it. Smooth. Good.

He glanced at her as she wandered around the limited free space in the shop. “Last time we … talked, I said we were done, had our fun. Remember that, Bambi? And you agreed.”

“That was then. This is now,” she whined.

“Not for me.” But he felt a twinge of guilt, even though he’d been crystal clear about his rules. He enjoyed fun dates, even dates that ended in sex. But no commitment. And Bambi hadn’t argued the point.

Chris wasn’t changing his mind, acknowledging to himself that he’d made a mistake ending up in curvy Bambi’s bed a third time. Two times too many, he now concluded. He should have broken it off with her after that first date, when she’d said she was just looking for a good time, a way to forget her last boyfriend.

Chris barely recalled her words. Wasn’t that months ago? His first night with her, the sex had been great. He’d made sure it was good for her, too. Was that why he’d taken her out a second and then a third time?

Chris reached for a can of wood oil and a screw driver to open the container.

What was Bambi saying? Chris half turned in her direction, aware that he’d tuned her out.

“… but you changed your mind? Is that it? I thought you really liked me, Chris.”

He set down the can, determined to send Bambi home so he could get back to work. He’d let her down gently before. Maybe he needed to be more forceful, reminding her that he’d moved on, that he thought she had, too. Not that he was seeing anyone at the moment. In fact, since Bambi, he’d decided to focus on his furniture business even after putting in long hours at the construction site. Weekends, too, when he wasn’t taking baby steps in home improvement.

“I like you just fine, Bambi, but you agreed. No commitment. Remember?” For the first time in months, he debated whether he’d lost his touch as a maximum two-date, one-night-of-sex man.

He’d broken that rule with Bambi. Had sex with her three times. Even though she wasn’t his type. Not that he was sure what that type was. He had yet to meet a woman who was his type, the reason he gave his older brother for sampling as many women as possible. It was his preferred M.O., one he had no intention of changing until he met that elusive right one.

He wiped his hands on a nearby rag and faced Bambi, frowning. “Look, I like you well enough. But if you’re looking for a regular boyfriend, he’s not me.” He paused. “Didn’t you say you wanted to get back with your ex, the one you were mad at when we met?”

“You just wanted to get in my panties,” she accused, her lower lip protruding again.

“Maybe I did. The sex we had was good. Great, even. But I’m not into settling down. Which I told you.”

“Even if—” Her face reddened and she looked as if she was going to burst into tears.

Chris brushed a hand down the front of her dress, ignoring the press of her breasts against his palm. “I got sawdust on you. Which proves you shouldn’t have come here. I have to get back to work.”

Bambi glanced around the building, as if taking in what he’d been working on, the lumber drying in stacks along one wall. “You care more about all this stuff than you do about me.”

Chris mentally counted to ten, wishing she would take his hint. “Like I said, what we did, it was short-term fun, but that’s all. End of story.” Chris waited for a sign that Bambi had heard him, then turned back to the table legs on his workbench.

But instead of leaving, she pressed her chest up against Chris’s backside as he leaned over the work table. Her hands slid past Chris’s chest, the edge of the table preventing her from reaching what she seemed to be seeking below his belt. “But Chris. I need you.”

Chris jerked upright, knocking Bambi backward.

“Oh!” She exclaimed as she lost her footing and landed on her butt in the sawdust covering the floor. “Damn it, Christopher!”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to knock you down.” Chris offered her a hand then leaned down again and snatched up one of her shoes, its four-inch stiletto hanging off the shoe. “Maybe this is why you fell?”

Bambi jerked her arm out of Chris’s grasp, turned and limped out the door. She glanced over her shoulder at him. “I should have listened to Ursula. She warned me, said you almost never do more than one date, but I thought … when we …” Her voice trailed off into a barely discernible squeak. “You led me on, Chris.”

“No, I didn’t.” Was she going to keep eating into his work time? Chris unclamped his jaw. “Go home, Bambi. Or do you want me to drive you, since your shoe is wrecked?”

She shook her head and walked away, her gait lopsided. “I can drive myself home,” she fumed. “Even if I have to do it barefooted,” she declared, then yelped when her bare foot encountered something in the driveway that caused her to take two hops. She leaned against her car and pulled off the remaining shoe, then slid behind the wheel. “This isn’t the last you’ve seen of me, Christopher Lambert,” she declared, her angry squint emphasizing her words.

Just because I broke your shoe? “Want me to pay to fix your shoe?”

“Don’t bother!” Bambi slammed her car door and backed out of his driveway, clipping the neighbor’s hedge as she did so.

Under his breath, Chris mumbled, “And good riddance to you, too.” But he wondered what she meant that she might be back. He hadn’t wanted to hurt her, but he breathed a relieved sigh at having escaped an encounter that could have become testier.

Unlike his three older siblings, commitment wasn’t his gig. Not like Fletcher, married again after the death of his first wife and baby daughter. Not like Deb, either, who’d married Fletcher’s law partner, Todd Prescott, eighteen months ago. Even his two-minutes-older twin, Elaine, was engaged. Had been for almost four years. What was holding her and Norm back from setting a date?

Chris glanced at his watch. Two hours. He’d work on the table legs, take a quick break for dinner and then come back to clean up. Tomorrow, after work at the jobsite, he’d apply a final seal to another project, the last step before delivering that piece of furniture to its owner.

Chris resumed his work on the table legs.

Ten minutes later, his phone interrupted him. He debated letting it go to voice mail until he saw who was calling. Ah, my bestie, a woman I’ll always talk to.

“Hey, Teddy. What’s up?”

“Do me a favor?” She coughed.

“Sure. What do you need?”

“That fireplace surround. The owners are coming over this weekend.”

Teddy Jameson blew her nose. After her raspy voice sounded.

“And you’re worried about all the drywall dust. I’ll stop over and run a cloth over your masterpiece.”

“Would you, Chris? I—” Teddy coughed again.

“Soon as I get these table legs sanded. Want me to stop by, maybe make you a hot toddy? My mom swears by them. Later, Teddy.” Before she could reply, he slid his phone into his pocket.

Unlike Bambi, Teddy was a long-time friend, just not a girlfriend. A pal, more like a guy. All through school. Part of his construction crew, too. In the past six months, she’d also begun using a corner of his workshop for her stained-glass work.

“I don’t need much space, but I can’t do it at home,” she’d explained when he’d asked why she was looking for space downtown. “I insist on paying rent. What I’d be doing at any other place.”

“You don’t have to, but if you insist.” Chris had grinned as he removed stacks of wood along the far wall, shoving the pieces he’d selected for future furniture projects into the rafters of the old building. “You’re welcome to this space. Look! You’ll even have a window so you can check the glass colors even if the lights go out. I need that electrician back here to check on that switch.”

“You’re a peach, Chris.” Teddy had playfully punched him on the shoulder. Like a guy.

Since using that space, she’d sold several stained-glass windows and a collection of holiday ornaments. Teddy wanted to build her work into a fulltime business along with carving wood sculptures and other specialty pieces, like that fireplace surround she’d been working on. Until she could make a living at it, she was using her construction skills on Chris’s crew to pay the bills.

Ironic that they’d both started as house painters and worked their way up in the trades, eventually handling larger projects. Chris now ran his own construction crew. Teddy had gained her skills while putting herself through college, something Chris hadn’t known about until she came home to take responsibility for Yancy, her kid brother.

She’d contracted out with several different construction crews as a painter and layer of tile. She was conscientious and careful, did a better job supervising new guys, especially on the painting crews, than other people Chris had hired. And her tile work, on floors, and on back splashes, was first-rate and creative. After Chris had shown pictures of her work to the owner of the custom home he was building, that man had hired her to create the fancy fireplace surround his wife wanted. Chris was certain completion of that job would generate more carving work for Teddy.

He returned to examining the table legs. Time to sand, he decided, and picked up his noise reduction earphones after flipping the switch so that he could listen to music while he sanded. Maybe he’d grab a burger. Then he’d head for the house under construction and check Teddy’s fireplace. And he’d drop by and let her know how it looked, so she wouldn’t worry about what the judge and his wife were likely to see in her absence.

~ ~ ~

“You look sick, kid.” Chris grinned at Teddy as she huddled under two blankets on the couch of her tiny two-bedroom bungalow.

Chris sniffed. “Whatever Yancy’s cooking smells good.”

“Soup,” she croaked. Teddy’s long red hair, usually captured in a braid that she pinned under her hat, flopped over her shoulders. “Not that hungry. I could use some ice to suck on.”

Chris nodded at Teddy’s lanky seventeen-year-old brother. “How ya doing, Yance? Has she been cranky like this all day? Good thing it’s the weekend and you can take care of her. Make sure she doesn’t do anything except rest.”

“I tried to get her to go to the doctor, but she wouldn’t. Maybe you can talk her into it.” The teen ran first one hand and then the other through his dark auburn hair then pulled it into a man bun and tightened the rubber band holding it in place near his nape.

Yancy handed Chris a glass filled with ice cubes and water. “She’s been sucking on these all day, in between complaints.”

“Maybe I can put her in a better mood.”

Chris sat down next to Teddy. “Let me look at your throat.”

Teddy shook her head. “You’re as bad as Yancy. Tell him he shouldn’t have skipped school on Friday. I don’t need him hanging around telling me what to do.” But she sounded more like a whipped puppy than the always-on-the-job big sister who’d assumed custody of Yancy after their mother’s death almost a year earlier.

“Suck and chill, Ted.” Chris retreated to the kitchen. “Mind if I taste that soup, Yance?” He reached for a bowl and glanced at the boy as he buttered a piece of toast. “Teddy says you stayed home from school yesterday.”

“So?” Teenage attitude coated the word.

“How’re you going to graduate if you don’t show up?”

“I didn’t like how weak she was. Barely made it to the couch before practically falling down. She hasn’t been much better today, either.” The boy crunched on the toast and reached for another piece.

Chris finished slurping up the soup. “You made this? From scratch?”

Yancy frowned. “Of course, from scratch. You think Teddy would let me open up a can of crap?”

Chris chuckled. “Stay in school, kid. If you can make soup this good, I’ll bet you could become a chef at a fancy restaurant. You should talk to Lexi, my sister-in-law. She’s a baker. Just graduated from the Culinary Academy. Partners with Monet Durham now.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Lexi’s cool. Makes fabulous desserts. She could tell you all about the Academy, but I’m guessing they only take people who’ve graduated high school. Which means you should stop skipping school, especially your senior year.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Yancy frowned.

“Think past your nose, kid. You want a future where you can have some of the finer things? Like a place to live, and I don’t mean mooching off your sister. Maybe even a nice ride? You have to finish high school. Maybe even go to college or the tech school or a place like the Culinary Academy.”

“You didn’t go to college and you’re doing okay,” Yancy argued.

“No, but I apprenticed. Maybe you could do that, too.”

Chris walked back into the living room. The glass of ice cubes was empty and Teddy’s eyes were closed. She was breathing out of her mouth, and her cheeks looked more like pale marble than their usual healthy patina. Her pale lashes, usually darkened by mascara, reminded Chris of untrimmed brushes as they lay against her skin, hiding the dark blue eyes that flashed with lightning sparks whenever she argued with him.

He reached for Teddy’s hand. Her fingers were cool. At his touch, they curled slightly. “Hey, Ted.” After a pause, “Calling Theodora. Is Theodora Jameson in here?”

Use of her full name seemed to rouse her. “Don’t call me that.” Teddy opened one eye to stare balefully at him.

“Come on. We’re going to the doctor.”

She groaned under her breath.

He grinned at her and pointed to her flannel pajama bottoms. They sported puppy dogs and kittens. “Want me to help you get dressed or can you do it yourself? Unless you want to go in your PJs.” He made a show of glancing at the wall clock. “I’ll give you five minutes. Have a wad of stuff to finish tonight and time’s a’wastin.’” The phrase Teddy and Yancy’s late grandfather had used so often was sure to spur her to action. Too bad Mrs. Jameson had died and forced Teddy to quit school to keep Yancy out of foster care.

“I’ll change.” Teddy struggled to sit up and finally, reluctantly, accepted Chris’s hand to stand. She grabbed the top blanket off the couch and wrapped it around her shoulders. “No help needed.” She walked unsteadily past Yancy toward her bedroom.

Chris flopped onto the couch cushions that held the warmth of Teddy’s body. He glanced toward the kitchen, pleased to see that Yancy was wiping down the stove top. The dishes, previously piled in the sink, now formed a sparkling pyramid on the counter, under a draped dish towel.

Minutes later, Teddy emerged from her room in a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans that had seen better days. She’d shoved her feet into a pair of Uggs and shivered as she returned to the living room.

“Where’s your jacket?”

She pointed to the side of the living room window.

Chris opened the door of a tiny closet and pulled out a high school letter jacket. It reminded him of Teddy’s years on the girls’ basketball team. By ninth grade, she was taller than the rest of the girls and many of the boys. By their senior year, she could look directly into six-foot Chris’s eyes. She’d earned a spot on the girl’s team during tryouts by scoring more three-pointers, more jump shots, and more free-throw points than even the captain of the boy’s team. That kid’s nose had remained stubbornly out of joint for half the season when Teddy’s scoring highs were pointed out at an all-school assembly touting the girl’s team’s winning record that year.

“You still have this jacket?” he asked. “After all the shit you put up with in high school?”

“You seem to forget they left me alone after you tackled Nels. That crybaby.”

Chris nodded. “You’re right. Forgot about that little scene outside the locker room.”

Teddy rewarded him with a wry grin. “Come on. Let’s get this over with.” She grabbed her purse.

An hour later, Chris parked in front of Teddy’s little house and helped her out of his truck. “Who knew medicine could be so expensive? Good thing the doctor gave you some freebies.”

“One reason I didn’t want to go in the first place.” She coughed into her sleeve.

“At least the doc said that shot he gave you would kill the germs eating up the back of your throat.”

“Not an image I want to think about, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Now that you’re home, you should try Yancy’s soup. It was really good. Like the doc said, to keep up your strength. Fight those germs.”

“I do feel hungry now,” she admitted. “Sorry I was so grouchy before.”

“Hey, gotta keep you alive so you’ll keep paying rent,” he countered with a grin. He tromped up the porch steps and banged on the door. When Yancy let them in, Chris watched the boy bring a steaming bowl of soup to the table.

“Points for you, Yance. Make sure she takes her pills, too. Before she goes to bed. No later than ten.”

“I can take care of myself,” Teddy assured him. “Besides, I want Yance to pick up some of my wood projects. Even sick, I can finish those eagles I’m carving for the mayor’s office.”

“As long as you rest, too.”

~ ~ ~

Chris wiped his arm across his face, glad he’d worn a sweatband. His crew had turned up the heat in the custom house to aid in drying the mudded-up drywall. He turned up the music in his boom box, determined to finish rubbing the sculpted design Teddy had created in the family room fireplace surround. If the homeowners stopped by and saw the newly cleaned wood, he knew they’d be pleased.

“Chris!” His sister, Debra, called out, her voice overwhelming the sound of symphonic music wafting through the house. “Todd. Here he is!”

Debra’s husband grinned and waved at Chris as he entered the front door. “Hope we aren’t disturbing you. Deb wanted to check out what you’re working on.”

Debra and Todd stopped next to the fireplace where Chris was crouched.

“Because you’re interested in something like this?” He stood up and pointed to the frieze and the pattern that continued down the extra wide legs of the surround.

Debra nodded. “You said you thought my fireplace could use a carved surround. But Teddy never came over to talk to us.”

“She’s sick. That’s why I’m here, to spiff this up for when the owners come by.” He ran a soft cloth over the wood then backed away. “What do you think?”

Todd leaned closer. “She’s a real artist. And we’re happy to pay her usual rate, if she’s willing to do the work. But no rush.”

“We collaborated on another design that might work as an inset for a table top or maybe a door. After we add pictures to the website, Teddy’s betting it’ll bring in more business for both of us. The owner of this place wants front door panels, too. Teddy was going to start them next week.”

Deb grinned. “So, she’s doing more carving? Stained-glass work, too?”

“Only between regular construction jobs.”

Todd laughed. “Back to the carving. Except for the door panels, all the customizing Teddy’s doing here is interior work?”

“Yep. And only for this house. The rest of these places”—he motioned down the street at two other structures in varying stages of completion—“and those lots on the other side, too, will look pretty much like the others when they’re finished. All about the same size, same number of beds and baths, that sort of thing, even though the exteriors will vary along with the paint colors required by the neighborhood association. You know, cedar roofs, no exceeding of the established height limits, no fences except in the back yard. Yada yada.” He glanced at his sister.

“Teddy’s sketch of the front door panels is at my shop if you want to check them out.”

Todd glanced at Debra. “What do you think? Should we consider a new door? New panels anyway?”

“I’d like to see what she’s planning for this house. Have you had dinner yet, Chris? Or do you have a hot date, since it’s Saturday?”

“Just came from Teddy’s where I grabbed a bowl of soup before I took her to the doctor, but I could still eat something.” He glanced sidelong at Debra. “Who’s cooking?”

Todd chuckled. “That would be me.”

“Then I’m in.” Chris avoided a playful swat from his sister. “Not that I won’t eat whatever you fix, sis, but Todd’s meals are more my style.”

Deb gave him a wry smile. “I’m getting better. Haven’t burned anything in at least a month.”

Todd leaned over and kissed her. “She’s right. We were planning to sit down around eight. Does that give you enough time to get cleaned up?”

Chris nodded. “Sure.” He returned to wiping down the fireplace surround. “See you in an hour.”

He watched as his brother-in-law and sister departed, hand-in-hand. Chris imagined how his custom furnishings might look in this family room. He’d use wood complementing the moldings, the doors and their framing. But this place wasn’t his home. He didn’t need a five-bedroom place with three and a half baths. He was happily single. Free of the encumbrances of other people. Free to date anyone, work anywhere. And build his furniture business into a success where he could choose between contracts and not have to squeeze it in between construction work.

Thank you, Teddy, he thought. Who’d have guessed when he offered to share his workshop space that he’d also gain an expert in websites? Teddy was a whiz at slapping pictures on the web and generating inquiries Chris had never expected to receive.

He’d missed her when she’d left Pacific Knoll for college, surprising everyone who’d known the red-haired rebel back in the day. He suspected circumstances had settled her down, made her take things seriously. Because now she was responsible for Yancy.

Chris gave the fireplace mantel a final swipe before shutting the front door. He tromped across the dusty yard to his truck. Gotta email these pictures to Teddy. Proof he’d cleaned off her carving. After that, he’d jump in the shower and head over to his sister’s place.

~ ~ ~

Chris grabbed two six-packs of beer and walked toward the side yard of his sister’s home. Todd, bundled against the late-January cold, waved from the patio where he was turning what smelled like steaks on the grill.

“Looks like I made it just in time. Want a beer?”

Todd handed a covered bowl to Chris. “Potatoes are done. If you’ll take them inside, I’ll trade you for one of those beers.”

Chris entered the kitchen and handed the bowl to his sister. “Todd says the steaks are almost done.”

Debra nodded. “He insisted on trying out the new grill. What do you think of how I added more garden space around the patio you helped him pour?”

“Looks good. Especially with those big pots on the corners. They should look nice full of flowers come spring. Too bad it’s not warm enough yet to eat outside.”

“I’m hoping it will be after school’s out. My second year as assistant principal, aka disciplinarian, has been exhausting and I still have months to go before we say good-bye to the seniors.”

Chris gave his sister a bemused stare. “You don’t look all that tired. I’m betting the kids who end up in your office would say they got it worse.”

“Leave it to you to take their side,” she scoffed, and glanced up when Todd entered, the steaks sizzling on a platter.

Over dinner, Chris answered Todd’s questions about his furniture business and his goal of gradually easing out of general contracting jobs to focus exclusively on furniture. “I got a taste of what I can make when I did all those pieces last year for that guy Fletcher knows, the one who was willing to pay top dollar.”

“I heard he was very happy with your work,” Debra added.

Chris nodded. “If only I had more clients like him. Things really slowed down over the winter. And haven’t picked back up again, although with the new construction, I’m staying busy.”

“I checked out your website,” Debra enthused. “I hope you’re giving Teddy free rent at the shop. She deserves it for how she’s improved your online presence.”

“I offered, but she insisted on paying,” Chris countered. “Yancy skipped school yesterday. Is he doing that a lot?”

Debra frowned. “Several times this past month, which has me worried. After Teddy came home last year, Yancy seemed to be doing okay. Now he’s reverted to what he was doing right before his mother died. I left her a message.” She set down her fork and reached for her phone to thumb in a quick note. “Since she’s been sick, I’ll call her again.”

“What’d he do, other than skip, that you need to talk about with her?”

“Confidential, bro. And you know better than to ask.”

“You’re getting uppity now that you’re assistant principal,” Chris hooted. “Okay, I won’t ask. I’m guessing he’s like she was in high school. In and out of trouble, at least when she wasn’t wiping the basketball court with other teams.” He raised an arm as if to deflect a blow. “Just sayin’, sis. And he had an excuse yesterday. He was taking care of Teddy.”

“You’ve known them a long time?” Todd asked.

“Teddy and I have been friends forever. Her grandfather signed her up for soccer when we were in first grade. She was the only one who begged to be goalie. In middle school, no one else wanted her for a lab partner in science, or chemistry in high school. She was smarter’n me in those classes, so I took advantage.”

“And you stood up for her when those boys on the basketball team weren’t so nice,” Debra added.

“They didn’t like looking bad. But since I had a tomboy sister” —Chris pointed to Deb and smirked— “I didn’t mind that she was so good. Now that she’s back home, it’s worked out great that she needed shop space. And I can use the rent she’s paying.”

“Doesn’t that make things crowded?” Todd asked.

“A little, but she doesn’t take up much space and she’s rarely there when I am.”

“Probably a good thing, since I don’t recall she’s into classical music,” Debra said. “Isn’t she more a country music fan?”

Chris scowled. “I’m working on her to use ear buds. That way, she can listen to what she likes, and I can chill out with what I enjoy.”

Todd added, “And she carves. I’d think someone doing that would want to be soothed by beautiful music, not blasted by guitar riffs.”

“You don’t know Teddy. Her taste in music fits perfectly with her temper. And hair—fire-engine red.” Chris pushed his plate away. “But I don’t call her Tomato Head anymore. She threatened to make me into a girl the last time I called her that.”

“In high school?” Todd asked.

“I think it was middle school.” Chris grinned. “Teddy’s not at all like me, is she, sis? She’s fiery, while I’m calm, easy-going.”

Debra snorted. “Yeah, right.”

“I need soothing music to help me chill.”

“You mean bring out the artist in you,” Debra added. “That’s how Mom would explain it.”

“Another beer, Todd?” Chris stood up to retrieve two cans from the refrigerator. He tossed one to his brother-in-law and was about to pull the pop-top when his cell rang.

Caller ID told him it was Yancy.

“Yo, what’s up, kid?”

“Chris, you better get over here. Your shop’s on fire!”

“Jesus! I’ve got finished pieces in there.” Chris jumped to his feet and clicked off his phone.

“Deb, call the fire department,” he shouted over his shoulder. “My shop’s burning. Tell them to hurry.”

Todd ran after him, toward the front door. “I’m coming, too.”

Chris dove into his truck, started it up and hit the accelerator before Todd had closed the passenger door.