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"I'm fine," I said, shaking her off. "I'm going into the kitchen and get a glass of water."

"Okie-doke," she said, her voice overly cheery. I watched her cross the room and place her hand on Marshall's arm. That's when I turned away.

"What is it?" I muttered. "Do I just misread the world? Are my picker genes so bad that I find loser men on every street corner?"

I wandered into the kitchen, reached for a glass, and turned on the tap. It would all be in the paper tomorrow, how my alcoholic ex-husband got his gun stolen while he ate breakfast with a known criminal. How Vernell's rival shot Nosmo King and made it look like Vernell was the murderer and how Vernell was too blind drunk to know or even remember.

But what wouldn't be in the paper was how big a fool I'd been, traipsing all over trying to prove Vernell an innocent man, falling for a cop who only felt sorry for me, and bumbling in on a police investigation that might've eventually led to Vernell's release anyway.

I drained my glass dry and placed it carefully in the sink, looked over at the back door, and then back into the living room. Weathers was blocked from view by other police officers and crime scene technicians. I checked my watch and found it closing in on one a.m.

Mama used to quote her own passage from Proverbs when I was a young girl. "Like a gold ring in a pig's snout is a beautiful woman without good sense." Well, what kind of sense did it make for me to hang around mooning up after Marshall Weathers, or anyone else for that matter?

"Bye," I whispered, as I walked to the back door, unlocked it, and let myself out into a narrow hallway that led to the service elevator. In three minutes I had left the building, skirted the police vehicles, and driven out of the parking lot on my way to High Point Road and the Golden Stallion.

As soon as I hit Elm Street I started to have regrets. What was I doing running away? I remembered the way Marshall had kissed me on the steps at the Stallion Club and felt stupid all over again. Was that the kiss of someone who feels pity? No, it couldn't be.

Just as quickly I remembered the way Tony Carlucci had kissed me, and the things he'd said about me and about Marshall Weathers. Where was the truth in all of this? Was I just scared? Or was Carlucci wrong and Weathers right?

I was so confused. The VW seemed to find its own way back to the club while I steered on autopilot. I pulled into the parking lot, weaving my way around pickups and vans, until I reached the spot where the employees parked. I guided my car into a slot right next to Jack's restored Karmen Ghia, put on the brake, and leaned back against my headrest.

I closed my eyes and tried to envision the old home place as it had been years ago when I was a child and life was so much simpler.

"I thought you said I'd know when it was right, Mama," I whispered, and felt a tear slide down my cheek. "Why aren't you here to help me?"

The passenger-side door opened, startling me, and I looked over to see Harmonica Jack sliding into the seat beside me.

"Hey," he said, reaching over and wiping the tear away with his index finger. "What's so terrible you gotta sit out here in your car crying?"

I couldn't answer him. The tears choked my voice, and before I could say much of anything, I was sobbing on his shoulder, and he was wrapping his arm around me and chuckling to himself.

"Why are you laughing at me?" I muttered, my voice muffled by his warm flannel shirt.

"Maggie, you are such a bundle of nerves and energy. It just amuses me, that's all." He handed me a handkerchief from his pocket and sat with me while I snuffled to a stop. He didn't say another word until I finally sat up, blew my nose, and looked at him.

"I hate men," I said.

Jack threw back his head and laughed. "No, you don't. That's your whole problem, Magpie, you don't hate them at all. You just put too much stock in 'em and not enough in yourself."

Jack looked away then, out the window at the few customers who straggled out looking for their cars.

I wanted to say something, something that would come right to the heart of things, something that would make it all right between us, but I didn't have the first clue.

"Thank you for being here," I said, finally.

He looked back at me and smiled. "Maggie, it's just not our time. That's not to say there won't be a time, or that I'm not just as much here for you as I always am. It's just not now for us, you know? And you don't need to feel bad about it or explain it or apologize for it. Some things are the way they are. Let it go, Magpie. Breathe."

I stretched out my hand and he slipped his into mine and we sat there, breathing, for a long time, until I knew we could sit there no longer.

"Sheila's due here any minute," I said.

"Mummm…" he said, deep into his relaxed state of New Age meditation. He sighed. "Guess we should go inside then."

I reached over and opened my door. The cold night air blew in and brought Jack back to the present reality.

"Okay, let's go."

We walked in through the back door with five minutes to spare, but it didn't really matter, because at that exact moment Tony Carlucci, Sheila, and Marshall Weathers all arrived at the front door, their eyes locking on me like homing pigeons sensing their home roost.

"Jeez," Jack whistled softly. "Better you than me."

I stood there, watching and waiting, as they walked toward me. My heart was in my throat, my mouth was dry, and my palms were starting to sweat. It was decision time, and there was no doubt about that.

"You ready?" Tony asked.

"Maggie, I need to talk to you," Marshall said. "Why did you leave?"

"Mama!" Sheila said. "What's going on?"

"Breathe," I heard Jack saying in my head. "You're terrified, aren't you?" I heard Tony ask. And then Marshalclass="underline" "Don't think I'm walking away from you."

My heart pounded louder and louder, filling my head, and rushing through my ears.

I stepped up to them, stretched out my hand and reached for my daughter, pulling her close to me.

"It's late," I said. "Really, really late, and I need to sleep." I looked at Tony and Marshall, and then over at Jack, who stood just behind me, listening.

"Mama always said a tired mind makes for foolish decisions. So how about you call me sometime tomorrow morning, late, and we'll talk."

Tony and Marshall stared at each other, frowning.

"Who, Maggie?" Tony asked. "Who do you want to call?"

I looked at them and smiled.

I turned around, gripping Sheila's hand, and walked out the door, my heart fairly bursting with the uncertainty and tension of it all. What if no one called me? What if they thought I was just too far above my raisings to deserve a call from either one?

We made it all the way to the car and halfway out of the parking lot before Sheila decided to put in her two cents' worth.

"Mama," she said, "do you, like, get what you just did back there?"

"Sheila," I said, "I think, like, totally. I, like, totally get it."

"Awesome." she sighed. "Damn, I wish I could do that with the guys I know! That is, like, so totally evolved."

I turned onto High Point Road and headed home.

"Whatever," I said.

I made it home, so tired I could barely remove my clothes before my head hit the pillow, and I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep that seemed to go on and on and on-right up until the bright sunlight of late morning streamed through the curtains of my bedroom window and the phone began to ring.