The perfect match, p.30
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       The Perfect Match, p.30

         Part #2 of Blue Heron series by Kristan Higgins
 
Page 30

  Author: Kristan Higgins

  “Pops,” she said, “Let’s go down to the cellar. I know there’s stuff we should throw out down there. ”

  “I have to check the vines,” Pops said.

  “Don’t run off, you coward. You said you’d tell me what I could throw away. ”

  “Nothing. There. I made it easy for you. ”

  Goggy reappeared in the kitchen, wearing a different dress and a little scarf, indicating that she was going out. “Hello, boys! Give me a kiss! I never know when I’ll get to kiss a handsome man, and here I have two!”

  Tom obliged. Charlie did, too, and Goggy patted his cheek. Sweet, how she didn’t berate him for his black eyeliner and earrings. If he was a Holland, he’d never hear the end of it.

  “I have a church meeting,” Goggy said. “There’s a huge debate over whether or not to replace the altar cloth. That Cathy Kennedy gets downright vicious sometimes! See you later, dears! Don’t touch anything upstairs, but by all means, get rid of some of your grandfather’s junk. ”

  “It’s not junk, old woman,” Pops retorted. She ignored him and left in a cloud of Jean Naté.

  “I’m here,” came a weary voice. “As ordered. Like I don’t have better things to do on a Saturday. ” Abby came in the back door. “Hi, guys,” she said. “Oh, hey, Charlie. I didn’t know you’d be here. Another slave for my aunt to boss around?”

  Charlie’s face flamed. “I guess,” he mumbled. Ah, adolescence. Honor had been just as awkward around Brogan, come to think of it. Sigh.

  “Let’s get to work,” Honor said. “Rubber gloves are under the sink, and I have plenty of trash bags, and stop glaring at me, Pops. ”

  “This would be a great place to hide a body,” Abby announced as they went down the warped cellar stairs. “Charlie, this place was built in—what, Pops?—1781?”

  “That’s right, sweetheart,” he said. “The first Holland got this land as a reward for fighting against your people, Tom. ”

  “Is that right?” Tom said. “Seems more of a punishment with this weather we’ve been having. ”

  He had a point. The temperature had dropped to twenty last night.

  “Okay,” Honor said. “We can definitely get rid of some of this stuff. ” She reached for a likely candidate.

  “Put that down,” her grandfather said. “I need that. ”

  “Pops, it’s a moldy piece of cushion foam. And it’s torn. ”

  “So? I can wash it and use it for something. ”

  “Like what? When would you need moldy torn cushion foam?”

  “It’s gross, Pops,” Abby said.

  “I’m not going to stand here and watch you make fun of my things,” Pops said. “I have vines to check. Nice to see you, young man,” he said to Charlie. “And you,” he added to Tom. “Marry my granddaughter and make an honest woman out of her. ”

  “Yes, sir. ” Tom shook his hand, and Pops clumped up the old wooden steps.

  “He’s gone. Maybe we can just burn the place down,” Abby said.

  For the next hour, they stuffed bags with Pops’s precious belongings, which included a bent golf club, a broken mirror and newspapers from the 1960s. Abby talked almost nonstop, bless her, and Charlie answered, shyly at first, then with more confidence as their talk turned to music.

  “And what have we here?” Tom asked from the far end of the basement, bending down to examine something. “Hallo. These might be worth something. ” He looked up at Honor and grinned.

  It was a pile of magazines. Men’s magazines, to be specific.

  Tom opened one up. “Miss September, 1972. Not bad. ” He straightened up. “Think we should check eBay and see what these are going for?”

  “Oh, ick. ”

  “Nothing ick about her. She’s lovely. ”

  “Shush. Just toss them. ” Man! There were dozens.

  “Hopefully we don’t read about a priceless collection of Playboys found at the dump later this week. ” He glanced across the cellar at Charlie. “You’re right, though. Best get rid of these before the lad sees them. Hard enough being a pubescent boy without this kind of stimulation. ”

  They shoveled the magazines into a black trash bag, and amid the smell of stone and old paper, Honor caught a hint of Tom’s soap.

  It felt like years since they’d slept together.

  When the Playboys were bagged, Tom stood up and pulled off his gloves. “Honor, do you still want to get married?” he asked, his voice quiet.

  She jerked her gaze to his. “Sure. Yes. ”

  “Because if you don’t, I need to make another plan. ”

  “No. I do. ” She took a deep breath. “Do you?”

  “Yes. ” His face was solemn.

  “Are you sure?”

  “Yeah. Seeing naked women has only lit a fire to get it done. ” He grinned, and Honor’s knees practically buckled. On the one hand, it’d be awfully nice to have a serious conversation with him for more than one or two seconds; on the other, that smile went straight to Down Under.

  “Guys! Look what we found!” Abby said, and the two teenagers came over.

  Tom looked away. “Is it alive?” he asked.

  “Yeah!” Charlie said, holding up his find.

  It was a snake.

  “Snake!” Honor shrieked, leaping behind Tom. “Snake! Snake!”

  Charlie jerked back, and, oh, fungus, he dropped it, the snake was on the floor, wriggling and black and evil. Then it was gone in a hideous, lithe movement, and Honor was climbing onto the garbage bag full of Playboys and crawling onto Tom, clutching his head and awkwardly heaving herself onto him.

  “Bit of a phobia, darling?” he asked gamely, boosting her a bit.

  “Where is it? Where is it?” she said, already sticky with sweat. If that thing went over her foot—or in her pants—oh, God! The idea of its hideous, cold, twisting body against her skin made her dry-heave in terror.

  “I forgot you were scared of snakes,” Abby said.

  “Well, it’s gone now,” Charlie muttered, squatting down.

  Tom hoisted her so she was basically piggyback on him. “Settle down, love, you’ve scared it. ”

  “I’ve scared it? Who in their right mind picks up a snake and holds it! What if it’s poisonous?”

  “It was a garter snake,” Charlie said.

  “What if was a poisonous garter snake?”

  “No such thing, darling. ” Tom shifted.

  “Don’t put me down! Please! Get me out of here. ” She tightened her grip around his throat, earning a choking sound. Couldn’t be helped.

  “Here it is,” Charlie said.

  “No! Stop it, Charlie! Please!” She gripped Tom with her legs so hard he wheezed.

  He loosened her chokehold around his neck. “Charlie, get rid of it, mate. ”

  “Do you want to hold it, Honor?” Charlie asked sweetly.

  Honor burst into tears.

  “Oh, man, I’m sorry!” the boy said, looking stricken.

  “No, no, she’s got a phobia. Obviously,” Abby said, putting her hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “Let’s get it out of here, okay?”

  “I’m sorry,” Charlie said, and already resentment was darkening his face.

  “Me, too. Sorry,” Honor said, tears still streaking down her face. “I’m afraid of snakes. ”

  “Yeah. I got that. ”

  Oh, God, this was so embarrassing. She was wrapped awkwardly around Tom and shaking with revulsion, but she wasn’t about to set foot on the floor, either. Not when the place was riddled with nests of vipers, no sir.

  Tom started to put her down.

  “No!” she barked, making him flinch, as her mouth was right next to his ear. “What if there are more? Don’t put me down! Don’t move! Don’t drop me!”

  “All right, settle down. But here, slide around so I can see you,” he said, and he pulled at
her, Honor still gripping him like a jockey, her arms locked around his neck. “Christ, you’re not making this easy, are you?”

  “I can’t! I’m afraid, okay? Sue me. ”

  His shoulders shook. He may have been laughing, the wretch. A few more tries, and he tugged her so that she was facing him. Well, she would be facing him if she could bring herself to, um, face him. Instead, she buried her face in his shoulder, shuddering.

  “There, there, sweetheart,” he whispered. “It’s gone. ”

  He smelled so good. An hour of working in a damp and filthy cellar, and he smelled like soap and rain, and he was warm, and solid, and safe.

  After a minute or two, her breathing returned to normal, and the involuntary tears stopped leaking out of her eyes.

  “Can I put you down now?” he asked.

  She couldn’t stay like this forever. And it was rather, ah, intimate, her legs wrapped around his waist.

  She lowered her feet and stood on his, still afraid to touch the floor. Tom pulled back a little. He cupped her face in his hands and slid his thumbs under her eyes, wiping away the tears. “Better?”

  She nodded.

  He nodded, too, a small smile flashing.

  Then he kissed her forehead. Then her nose. Then her lips.

  And this time, it wasn’t for anyone’s benefit. Just the two of them in this damp old cellar, his mouth so perfect against hers. He tilted her head, his arms like a fortress around her, the best feeling in the entire world. His hair was baby-soft. She’d forgotten that. And he tasted, so, so good.

  “Guys. Gross. ” Honor jumped back at the sound of her niece’s voice. “I mean, sorry you were freaked out, but please. I have to see enough of this at home. ”

  Tom cleared his throat. “Back to work, shall we?” he asked.

  There was no way in hell she was going to stay down here. One snake probably meant a thousand, possibly a million. She shuddered again. “I’ll go upstairs and start on the kitchen,” she said.

  And yet, even with the threat of snakes, she wanted to stay.

  * * *

  BY THE TIME Tom left to take Charlie to the gym and Prudence arrived with her sturdy truck for the dump run, fifteen garbage bags had been filled. Horrifyingly, both cellar and kitchen looked exactly the same. “See you at the wedding dress place?” Pru said.

  “Sounds good. ” Today, the three Holland girls were going with Mrs. Johnson to pick out a wedding dress. Against Mrs. Johnson’s will, it should be noted.

  “We should buy yours while we’re at it,” her sister said.

  “Oh, no. This is Mrs. J. ’s day. ”

  “What are we gonna call her now?” Pru asked. “Mom doesn’t seem right. I swear, I didn’t even know she had a first name till a few weeks ago. ”

  “I have no idea. Listen, I have to run back and shower,” Honor said. “I’ll see you there. ”

  Four hours later, Honor, Faith and Prudence sat in Happily Ever After’s waiting area as the now disheveled and sweaty Gwen, who owned the store, brought Mrs. Johnson the sixteenth dress to try on. The girls had been shown zero, as Mrs. Johnson kept declaring the dresses foolish, hideous or, for some reason, arrogant. Her requirements were many: nothing that made her look whorish (strapless, in her world view), nothing that made her look cheap (which meant no beading or sparkle) and nothing that made her look doddering (no lace). No ball gowns would be tolerated (pretentious). No sheath dresses (nightgowns). Nothing shorter than floor-length (disrepectful), and nothing with a train (pompous).

  “Does anyone have alcohol?” Faith asked. “I could really use a drink right now. ”

  “Or Valium,” Pru added.

  “What are you and Tom planning for your wedding?” Faith asked.
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