AWAKENING MACBETH is a serialized novel of romantic suspense with a paranormal twist. Episodes are released on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Begin Part 32
“. . . Thank you all very much for making the university’s tenth annual symposium on music and politics such an enjoyable and informative day,” Brodie said into the microphone. “Please join us for the cocktail hour Dean Slocum is hosting in the garden. And on that note–pun intended–we are adjourned.”
There was a ripple of laughter. From his seat in the audience, Joe winked at her. His bright blonde hair and starched white shirt stood out amid the sea of seersucker and khaki suits, the summer uniforms of the successful southern academic.
They’d carried on a virtual conversation for most of the day, the communication flowing silently between Brodie on the stage and Joe in the audience. Unexpected humor at a speaker’s witticism, appreciation for certain musical spots, support for Brodie’s students, disdain for a particularly pompous academic–they’d shared it all.
Brodie smiled and raised her hand in a farewell gesture and stepped away from the podium. Applause swelled inside the auditorium.
As the audience trickled out of the big auditorium Brodie went backstage and hugged her waiting grad students. They’d all made short but well-received presentations. She picked up the purse she’d left in the backstage office, crossed the empty stage, and went up the aisle to the lobby.
Joe was waiting for her, tall and broad against the wall with a shaft of sunlight from the window playing across his body. Brodie’s mouth went dry at the sight of him.
“You did very well, Sassy,” he said and gave her that sideways smile.
“Thank you, sir.” Brodie started to shrug out of her jacket and Joe’s big hands were suddenly on her shoulders, helping ease it away. Their movements brought them close and Brodie couldn’t help smiling back at him, loving the way the corners of the blue eyes crinkled and how his teeth shone white inside the trim beard. “But be honest,” she said. “How bored were you?”
“Not at all,” Joe said. “The opening and closing remarks were riveting.”
“Of course.” Brodie gave a laugh.
Joe flipped her jacket over his arm like a waiter with a towel. “The rest is a little blurry,” he admitted. “Especially when that hefty lady was talking about Hitler and Wagner. But that was your fault.”
“Me?” Brodie slipped the handle of her purse over her shoulder. “What did I do?”
“You had your legs crossed.” Joe looked down at her in mock seriousness. “I got so distracted when you started bobbing your foot, I never heard how the story ended.”
“Glenn Miller joined up and we won,” said Brodie. She touched his arm and turned him toward the exit, sure that tonight would be the night she’d really get to know Joe Birnam. He’d obviously put last night behind him. “Can you stand a couple of minutes at the cocktail party?”
“Only if I get to take you out to dinner afterwards.” Joe’s fingers trailed down the inside of her wrist. “I think I’m looking at a woman who needs a drink, a solid meal, and the chance to put her feet up.”
“That would be so great,” Brodie said fervently as their fingers met. “How about a quiet place with fantastic steaks and a beer list as long as your arm?”
“I’d like that.” Joe kept smiling and for a moment Brodie thought he was going to kiss her but then a noisy bunch of students came out of the auditorium and the moment slid away.
“Ten minutes, I promise,” Brodie said softly.
They held hands as they crossed to the garden. A steel drum band was playing next to the skirted bar, giving the reception a Caribbean feel. Howard Slocum was standing with his wife just inside the gate.
“Brodie,” he boomed as Brodie and Joe walked up. “A wonderful day.”
“Thank-you, Dean,” Brodie said. “May I introduce Joe Birnam.”
Slocum shook Joe’s hand, introduced his wife Grace, then focused on Brodie again. “What a golden touch you have. I said to Gracie, whatever Brodie does turns to success.”
“What a kind thing to say, Dean,” Brodie said. “But I have to say that it really was my students who–.”
Out of nowhere, Stanton swept down on them, resplendent in a pale blue seersucker suit, lemon yellow shirt, polka-dot bow tie, and white suede bucks.
Brodie froze in utter astonishment as Stanton ignored Joe, edged by Dean Slocum, and put his hand on the small of her back as he kissed her cheek.
“Darling, the symposium was wonderful,” he said effusively. “Dean, didn’t you think the agenda this year was the best we’ve ever had?”
“Uh, Stanton,” Brodie started but her brain was screaming no, no, this can’t be happening.
“I’m so proud of you, darling.” Stanton took his hand off Brodie’s back in order to shake hands vigorously with Dean Slocum. “Howard, it was so good for you to host this little gathering.”
“Yes, very kind for you to do this for the department.” Jackson Hull had followed in Stanton’s wake and was now part of the group. He was wearing a rumpled khaki suit and the smell of old cigarettes hung in the air around him like cheap cologne.
“My favorite event of the year,” Dean Slocum enthused.
Joe’s face had registered a brief twist of surprise when Stanton first appeared, but now the captain of the football team could have been a professional poker player. Brodie saw his expressionless face and her brain came to a grinding halt. She felt like an idiot, not knowing what to do, what to say, how to avoid a scene.
“Our Dr. Macbeth is really making a name for the university, isn’t she?” Stanton cocked his head, radiating that insincere sincerity she knew so well. He turned his high beams onto Dean Slocum. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the symposium resulted in some significant new alumni donations.”
“Confidentially.” Dean Slocum leaned forward conspiratorially. “That’s already happened. Why do you think this is my favorite event of the year?”
Stanton and Hull laughed dutifully. “Maybe this is a good time to reconsider my proposal for a journalism studio for the department,” Stanton said.
Brodie felt the air rush out of her as she realized why Stanton had shown up. Why he was calling her darling in front of the dean.
“Inter-departmental activities are always popular with alumni,” Hull pointed out, fumbling a cigarette package out of the pocket of his khaki suit. His eyes were small and brown behind the horn-rimmed glasses.
“How much do you think it would cost?” Dean Slocum asked.
Joe eased away from the group, his face still expressionless.
“Dean, we have to be going,” Brodie said but Slocum wasn’t paying attention.
Stanton had turned on his television commentator’s voice and his audience was hooked. He started spewing figures to a rapt Dean Slocum.
“Where’d you get Paul Bunyan, Macbeth?” Hull asked, obviously amused at her discomfiture. His eyes darted between Brodie, Joe, and Stanton as he sucked on his cigarette.
“Dean, I have to go,” Brodie tried again as Joe disappeared into the crowd.
“Darling, mea culpa,” Stanton said, with a sly grin that dared her to discredit him. “I won’t be able to make dinner tonight. You go on without me. I have a million phone calls to make.”
His audacity was unbelievable. Brodie’s brain was inert with embarrassment. “Yes, well,” she said lamely. “Good night.”
She walked across the grass, her heels digging in at every step. Joe was at the bar but didn’t have a drink in hand. “Ready to go?” he said.
They were quiet in the Volvo on the way to the Hardware Store, a downtown Charlottesville landmark. The two-storey restaurant had once been a real hardware store. The antique tool bins and signs had survived a careful restoration and the reminiscent décor was part of the restaurant’s considerable charm. Brodie and Joe were shown to a table on the mezzanine overlooking the first floor.
They ordered beer and steaks and made stilted small talk, mostly about what Joe had seen during a stroll around the campus during one of the breaks. Brodie didn’t know she knew so much trivia about Jeffersonian architecture. She picked at her salad and ate a few mouthfuls of ribeye, her stomach tight with nerves.
When they got back to the house they went into the kitchen and let Mouse in. The dog went straight to Joe and flopped on her back to get her stomach rubbed. Joe bent awkwardly and stroked the dog’s fur. “I think we need to talk, Brodie,” he said.
“Yes, of course, yes,” Brodie heard herself gabble. She needed some liquid courage. “Let’s go in the den.”
“Sure,” Joe said. Mouse followed them out of the kitchen.
Brodie flicked on the overhead light and the dark green den walls glowed. She put in a Brad Paisley CD, then poured them each a stiff Famous Grouse.
Joe sat on the sofa with his glass and looked at the ornate chess set on the coffee table. Brodie settled into the maple rocking chair and flicked on the desk lamp. It brightened the room considerably. Mouse yawned and collapsed into a heap on the floor by Joe.
“Napoleon or Wellington?” Joe asked.
“Napoleon,” Brodie said. The set was a reminder of the latest book from her father’s shelves, a retelling of the battle of Waterloo.
They played silently for a few minutes. Brodie tried to block out the tension in the room by focusing on Joe’s strategy but she couldn’t do it. Everything had gone horribly awry between them, thanks to Stanton, and she didn’t know how to fix it.
Joe took one of her bishops and Brodie stared at the board. Joe could checkmate her in two moves. She moved her queen to defend the king, trying to set up a gambit. It wasn’t much. Joe was a very good chess player and would probably figure it out in a move or two.
But instead of taking his turn, Joe got up and turned off Brad in mid-guitar solo. He came back to the sofa and the old leather creaked under his weight. As he sat facing her, it was obvious that one knee was intact and that the other was a metal joint.
“Did I ever tell you about my marriage?” Joe asked.
“Not really,” Brodie said, surprised at the subject.
Joe sipped some Scotch then studied the glass with its half inch of amber fluid. It was a heavy Waterford tumbler but looked small in his big dexterous hand. “I was stationed in San Diego,” he said. “She was the hostess in a restaurant. We lasted all of a year. I shipped out to the Gulf and she ran off with another guy. I signed the divorce papers in Kuwait.”
“I’m sorry,” Brodie said. Somehow it felt like her fault.
“I won’t ever be that other guy, Brodie,” Joe said.
“What?” Brodie asked blankly. Then his meaning caught and she straightened up in the chair. “Is that what you think? That I’m still seeing Stanton?”
“You sure about that?”
“Then why didn’t he seem to know?” Joe moved a pawn.
“He only showed up to pitch his idea about some television studio he wants the university to build,” Brodie said dismissively. She used her knight to jump the pawn in an attempt to threaten Joe’s bishop. “He knew the dean was going to be there.”
“You didn’t answer my question.” Joe took her knight with his rook.
“There’s nothing to discuss.” Brodie moved her last remaining bishop and made a show of studying the board.
“But if you say it’s over, why didn’t he know?” Joe asked, making a visible effort to keep his voice even. “And come to think of it, why didn’t anybody else know, either?”
“Stanton and I are just professional colleagues at this point,” Brodie insisted. She looked up from the chessboard. “We haven’t talked since before I went to Edinburgh.”
“You haven’t spoken to him since you got back,” Joe said.
“No,” Brodie said. “Nothing. No contact.” Surely that would show she wasn’t a two-timer.
“Then how does he know you’re not at that crossroads anymore?”
Brodie blinked, trapped by Joe’s logic. God, she’d been an idiot. She should have called Stanton, made things final, not left herself so vulnerable.
“So tell me if I’m wrong here,” Joe said. He leaned back. “I don’t think you’re lying to me but I do think that you avoided telling this jerk how you felt. Maybe you thought it would be messy. Didn’t introduce me to him because it would have been embarrassing. Sat for an uncomfortable hour in that restaurant looking at your plate hoping I wouldn’t bring it up and it would all go away.”
He looked so smug Brodie wanted to throw the chessboard at him. Joe had seen right through her and the feeling was intensely uncomfortable. She pursed her lips and stared at the chess pieces.
Joe reached across the table and the tips of his fingers caught Brodie under the chin so she had to look at him. “Fidelity and honesty are big issues for me,” he said softly. “I won’t be jerked around.”
Mouse lifted her head and looked at them.
Brodie pulled back, torn between acute embarrassment and the thrill of Joe’s touch. “What do you want me to say?” she huffed. “That I’m sorry I didn’t introduce you? Well, I am. I’m sorry. And I’m sorry he was insufferably rude to you and I didn’t say anything.”
“Okay. Thank you.” Joe nodded.
Mouse laid her chin on her front paws again and watched Joe. Brodie folded her arms. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him use his queen to take her bishop and put her king into check.
“Checkmate,” Joe said.
“Fine,” Brodie said.
Mouse made a grumpy sound and rolled onto her back. She wriggled against the carpet, leaving dog hair everywhere.
“You know,” Joe said. “This isn’t about whether or not you introduced me to your asshole ex-boyfriend. It’s that if you live your life never telling people how you feel, how is anyone ever going to know where they stand with you?”
“Are you accusing me of being dishonest?” Brodie exclaimed.
“Do you think it’s honest not to tell people how you feel?” Joe shot back.
“I was brought up to be discreet,” Brodie countered.
“I noticed that last night,” Joe said. “I told you how I felt and you were nicely discreet.”
Brodie drank the last of her Famous Grouse and felt her nerves fray. The tension in the room swelled, magnified by the dark walls and heavy tartan draperies.
“Look, Sassy.” Joe began lining up the chess pieces as if for a new game. “You’ve got a lot of stuff bottled up in there. Every time you clam up you add more until the bottle’s got more than it can hold.” His eyes were intense and immediate. “Get in there, get it out. Get mad now and then. I know you’re tough, but avoiding real life is eating you alive.” He paused. “And isn’t that what happened to your dad?”
Brodie put her empty glass on the table and clenched her fists. What right did Joe Birnam have to lecture her like this? It wasn’t like she was some kid.
Joe got up to refill their glasses. His limp was very pronounced as Mouse followed him to the table by the window and suddenly Brodie was twelve again and it was the worst day ever. Her father had come to pick her up at Kay’s house in Edinburgh at the end of the summer and announced coldly that Brodie would not be going to middle school in Charlottesville with her friends but would instead be going to boarding school. It had felt as if he was banishing her, cutting her out of his life. Brodie had protested tearfully and Kay had tried to ask why but it had been like talking to a wall. “Macbeths don’t cry,” Wallace Macbeth had said tersely and a week later Brodie had watched her father and Mrs. Weir drive away from the Madeira School. And didn’t cry.
Joe put the refilled glass in front of her. “You need to learn how to speak from the heart, Sassy,” he said as he settled once more onto the sofa with Mouse at his feet. “If you don’t you’re going to miss out on a lot.”
Brodie raised her glass to her lips and sipped, stung by the truth in what he was saying but also seething inside. Who the hell did Joe Birnam think he was?
“If I didn’t care I wouldn’t say anything,” Joe said as if he’d read her mind. “Maybe everyone else in your life has let you get away with it. Maybe everything was all right until your dad died. But you’re hurting now and I can’t just watch you do this to yourself.”
He put the last pawn in place on the board. The two miniature armies faced each other again, ready for battle.
Brodie kept her eyes on the glass in her hand. “Last night you said I gave you space,” she said tightly. “Maybe you should learn to do the same thing.”
The room got very quiet.
“Well.” Joe tossed down some scotch. “So she can get mad.”
Brodie reached out and turned off the desk lamp. The room shifted into gray night, spared total darkness by the dim overhead light.
Joe put his empty glass on the table and stood up. “As the song goes, the whiskey ain’t working any more.”
Brodie tightened her jaw as he walked away.
Joe stopped in the doorway, his back to Brodie. “For the record,” he said without turning around. “If I ever see that asshole again I’m going to pull his head off and beat the shit out of him with it. And if I make a scene, so much the better.”
He left, Mouse at his heels.
When she heard the door to Mrs. Weir’s room close, Brodie swept her hand across the chessboard, furiously knocking the carefully placed pieces to the floor. End Part 32
The Hardware Store restaurant in Charlottesville, VA
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