Firefly Lane Page 18


She flinched at the unexpected use of her nickname. It was a forcible reminder that Chad knew Tully, too.

"Sit down," Tully said. "I'll go get a waitress." She was on her feet and gone before Kate could stop her.

Kate looked at Chad; he eyed her back, smiling as if at some secret. "This is an interesting place," she said to make conversation.

"It's like a tavern without beer," he said. "The kind of place where you can change who you are."

"I thought change started from within."

"Sometimes. Sometimes it's forced upon you."

His words caused something to darken his eyes, an emotion of some kind. She was reminded of his backstory suddenly, the bright career he'd lost. "They'd fire you—the university—if they found out about you and Tully, wouldn't they?"

He drew his leg back, sat up straighter. "So that's how you want to play it. Good. I like direct. Yes. I'd lose this career, too."

"Are you some kind of risk junkie?"

"No."

"Have you slept with your students before?"

He laughed. "Hardly."

"So, why?"

He glanced sideways, at Tully, who was at the crowded coffee bar, trying to order. "You, of all people, shouldn't have to ask that. Why is she your best friend?"

"She's special."

"Indeed."

"But what about her career? She'd be ruined if word got out that she was with you. They'd say she slept her way to a degree."

"Good for you, Katie. You should be looking out for her. She needs that. She's . . . fragile, our Tully."

Kate didn't know which upset her more—his description of Tully as fragile or the way he said our Tully. "She's a steamroller. I don't call her Tropical Storm Tully for nothing."

"That's on the outside. For show."

Kate sat back, surprised. "You actually care about her."

"More's the pity, I imagine. What will you tell her?"

"About what?"

"You came here to find a way to convince her not to see me anymore, didn't you? You can certainly say I'm too old. Or the prof angle is always a winner. Just so you know, I drink too much, too."

"You want me to tell her those things?"

He looked at her. "No. I don't want you to tell her those things."

Behind them, a young man with wild hair and ratty-looking pants stepped up to the microphone. He introduced himself as Kenny Gore-lick, then began playing a saxophone. His music was wildly romantic and jazzy; for a few moments the talk in the place died down. Kate felt swept up in the music, transported by it. Gradually, though, it became background music and she looked at Chad. He was studying her intently. She knew how much it meant to him, this conversation, and how much Tully meant to him. That turned the tables neatly; she was surprised by the suddenness of the switch. Now, sitting here, she was worried that Tully would ruin this man, who frankly looked as if he didn't have the stamina to take another hit like that. Before she could answer the question he'd posed, Tully was back, dragging a purple-haired waitress with her.

"So," she said, frowning and a little breathless, "are you friends yet?"

Chad was the first to look up. "We're friends."

"Excellent," Tully said, sitting on his lap. "Now who wants apple pie?"

Chad dropped them off two blocks from the sorority house, on a dark street lined with aging boardinghouses that were filled with the kind of students who paid no attention to what sorority girls did.

"It was nice to meet you," Kate said as she got out of the car. She stood on the sidewalk, waiting for Tully to quit making out with him.

Finally, Tully got out of the car and waved goodbye as Chad's black Ford Mustang drove away.

"Well?" she demanded suddenly, turning to Kate. "He's handsome, isn't he?"

Kate nodded. "He sure is."

"And cool, right?"

"Definitely cool." She started to walk away, but Tully grabbed her sleeve, stopped her, and spun her around.

"Did you like him?"

"Of course I liked him. He's got a great sense of humor."

"But?"

Kate bit her lip, stalling for time. She didn't want to hurt Tully's feeling or piss her off, but what kind of friend would she be if she lied? The truth was, she had liked Chad and she believed he truly cared about Tully; it was also true that she had a bad feeling about their relationship and meeting him had only made it worse.

"Come on, Katie, you're scaring me."

"I wasn't going to say anything, Tully, but since you're forcing me . . . I don't think you should be going out with him." Once her opinion broke through the dam, she couldn't stop. "I mean, he's thirty-one years old. He has an ex-wife and a four-year-old daughter he never sees. You can't be seen publicly with him or he'll get fired. What kind of relationship is that? You're missing your college years."

Tully took a step back. "Missing my college years? You mean going to dances in Tahitian costumes and shotgunning beer? Or dating guys like the nerds you seem to choose—most of them are only slightly smarter than a pet rock."

"Maybe we should just agree to disagree . . ."

"You think I'm with him for my career, don't you? To what—get better grades or a spot at the station?"

"Aren't you? Just a little bit?" Kate knew instantly she shouldn't have said it. "I'm sorry," she said, reaching for her friend. "I didn't mean it."

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Tully wrenched free. "Of course you meant it. Miss Perfect with the best family and the flawless grades. I don't even know why you hang around with me: I'm such a slut career hound."

"Wait!" Kate called out, but Tully was already gone, running down the dark street.

CHAPTER TEN

Tully ran all the way to the bus stop on Forty-fifth. "Bitch," she muttered, wiping her eyes.

When the bus came, she paid her fare and climbed aboard, muttering, "Bitch," twice more as she found a seat and sat down.

How could Kate have said those things to her?

"Bitch," she said again, but this time the word leaked out, sounding forlorn.

The bus stopped less than a block from Chad's house. She rushed up the sidewalk toward the small Craftsman-style home and knocked on the door.

He answered almost instantly, dressed in a pair of old gray sweats and a Rolling Stones T-shirt. She could tell by the way he smiled at her that he had expected her. "Hey, Tully."

"Take me to bed," she whispered throatily, pushing her hands up underneath his shirt.

They made their fumbling, kissing way through the house and to the small bedroom in the back. She stayed close to him, locked in his arms, kissing him deeply. She didn't look at him, couldn't, but it didn't matter. By the time they fell onto the bed, they were both naked and greedy.

Tully lost herself and her pain in the pleasure of his hands and mouth, and when it was over and they lay there, entwined, she tried not to think of anything except how good he made her feel.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

She stared up at the plain, high-pitched ceiling that had become as familiar to her as her own dreams. "What do you mean?"

"Come on, Tully."

She rolled on to her side and stared at him, propping her head into her hand.

He touched her face in a gentle caress. "You and Kate fought about me, and I know how much her opinion means to you."

The words surprised her, though they shouldn't have. In the time they'd been sleeping together, she'd somehow begun to reveal pieces of herself to him. It had begun accidentally, a comment here or there after sex or while they were drinking, and somehow grown from there. She felt safe in his bed, free from judgment or censure. They were lovers who didn't love each other, and that made talking easier. Still, she saw now that he'd listened to all of her babble and let the words form a picture. The knowledge of that made her feel less lonely all of a sudden, and even though it scared her, she couldn't help being comforted by it.

"She thinks it's wrong."

"It is wrong, Tully. We both know that."

"I don't care," she said fiercely, wiping her eyes. "She's my best friend. She's supposed to support me no matter what." Her voice broke on the last words, the promise they'd made to each other all those years ago.

"She's right, Tully. You should listen to her."

She heard something in his voice, a barely-there quaver that made her look deeply into his eyes. In them, she saw a sadness that confused her. "How can you say that?"

"I'm falling in love with you, Tully, and I wish I weren't." He smiled sadly. "Don't look so scared. I know you don't believe in it."

The truth of that settled heavily on her, made her feel old suddenly. "Maybe someday I will." She wanted to believe that, at least.

"I hope so." He kissed her gently on the lips. "And now, what are you going to do about Kate?"

"She won't talk to me, Mom." Kate leaned back against the cushioned wall of the tiny cubby known as the phone room. She'd had to wait almost an hour for her turn on this Sunday afternoon.

"I know. I just hung up with her."

Of course Tully would call first. Kate didn't know why that irritated her. She heard the telltale lighting of a cigarette through the phone lines. "What did she tell you?"

"That you don't like her boyfriend."

"That's all?" Kate had to be careful. If Mom found out Chad's age, she'd blow a gasket and Tully would really be pissed if she thought Kate had turned Mom against her.

"Is there more?"

"No," she said quickly. "He's all wrong for her, Mom."

"Your vast experience with men tells you this?"

"She didn't go to the last dance because he didn't want to. She's missing out on college life."

"Did you really think Tully would be your average sorority girl? Come on, Katie. She's . . . dramatic. Full of dreams. It wouldn't hurt you to have a little of that fire, by the way."

Kate rolled her eyes. Always there was the subtle—and not so subtle—pressure to be like Tully. "We're not talking about my future. Focus, Mom."

"I'm just saying—"

"I heard you. So what do I do? She is avoiding me completely. I was trying to be a good friend."

"Sometimes being a good friend means saying nothing."

"I'm just supposed to watch her make a mistake?"

"Sometimes, yes. And then you stand by to pick up the pieces. Tully's such a big personality; it's easy to forget her background and how easily she can be hurt."

"So what do I do?"

"Only you can answer that. My days of being your Jiminy Cricket are long past."

"No more life-is speeches, huh? Great. Just when I could have used one."

Through the phone line came the hiss of exhaled smoke. "I do know that she's going to be in the editing room at KVTS at one o'clock."

"You're sure?"

"That's what she said."

"Thanks, Mom. I love you."

"Love you, too."

Kate hung up and hurried back to her room, where she dressed quickly and put on a little makeup: concealer, mostly, to cover the zits that had broken out across her forehead since their fight.

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