Best Friends in the Show Me State

 

Chapter 1

“Here’s the permission slip for Friday’s field trip.” Marlowe Glass handed the paper through the back of the pickup and over the kids and seats that were strapped there.

Her best friend, Clark Hudson, grabbed it and stuck it in his mouth, freeing both hands to shift the booster seat so he could buckle his son’s seatbelt.

Marlowe was thankful Clark could take Kylie, her niece/adopted daughter, to school with his son in the mornings, so Marlowe could go to work, but, seriously? He had the permission slip in his mouth.

She lifted a brow, which Clark did not notice, at the paper now protruding from his mouth, and rolled her eyes. She should have waited until he had buckled Huck.

Her eyes shifted to Kylie, already buckled in her seat and waiting primly, her brown hair neatly pulled back in curly brown pigtails – the same color as Marlowe’s shoulder length curly hair, and the color she shared with her mom, Marlowe’s sister. Kylie’s were hands folded in her lap, her big brown eyes watching “Uncle” Clark finish buckling his son.

“Make sure Uncle Clark holds the cupcakes levelly and doesn’t bump them,” Marlowe said, adjusting the cupcake holder on the floor under Kylie’s feet.

“I will,” Kylie said seriously.

“Do I get a cupcake?” Huck asked as the belt clicked into place. His hair was a white blond – the same color Clark’s had been as a child, although it had darkened to a golden brown as he’d gotten older. They shared the same light blue eyes, too.

“Today during Kylie’s birthday party, you can have one,” Marlowe said as she set Kylie’s backpack that contained her snack and an extra shirt in case she got a little icing on it, beside the cupcakes. It should act as a buffer in case Clark took the “shortcut” through the field roads trying to beat the bus. They were late enough this morning that he might feel like he had to.

“But you sat two on the front seat. I thought that was one for me and one for the kids to split.” Clark’s swirled brown eyes met hers across the kids and seats.

This time, she made sure he noticed her raised brow. “If the kids eat a cupcake on the way to school in the back of your pickup, Huck, especially, will have icing on him from his forehead to the tips of his sneakers.” She smiled at Huck, just so he didn’t think she thought that was necessarily a personality flaw on his part. To add an exclamation point to her smile, she said, “Because Huck is a boy, he will also manage to get icing on every exposed and unexposed surface, including his underwear.” As she figured he would, Huck howled with laughter as only a five-year-old boy could. Even Kylie smiled.

The word “underwear” did it every time for a boy that age.

Still, it was the truth. Every parent knew that cupcake icing multiplied in the hands of a child. Even more so if the parent was not looking—and Clark should be driving and would definitely not be looking.

“There’s not that much icing on a half a cupcake,” Clark said with his own raised brow. She’d never been able to intimidate him, which was probably why they’d gotten along so well since they’d both been in diapers—his dirty, loose, and sagging on the ground, hers perfectly pinned and covered with not a speck of dirt on it.

“Clark. Your child is five. Surely you know by now that when you cut a cupcake in half the icing quadruples.”

Both of Clark’s brows shot up, like he seriously hadn’t known it and was, far from being perturbed, actually intrigued.

“Really? The icing’s the best part.”

She blew a breath out—only partly in mock consternation—and put a hand up. “NO. Do not try this at home. OR on the way to delivering your child to school. I promise it will not be pretty.”

“The icing is pink. The only way it isn’t going to be pretty is if I don’t get at least some of it in my stomach.” Clark threw Huck’s bookbag on the floor. It was only partially zipped, and Marlowe was pretty sure that was a three-day-old apple core that threatened to tumble out on top of what looked like dirty gym shorts and possibly a small ball of dog hair. Only…they didn’t have a dog.

While Marlowe was still trying to figure out how to not strain the bonds of their best-friendship by mentioning the possibility of child services impounding the backpack, Clark reached up and across the console to snag one of the cupcakes.

“How about if I eat the icing and just give Huck the bottom?” he asked, a little grin making the dimple at the corner of his mouth pop.

“No! I want the icing!” Huck reached for the cupcake.

“Can’t argue with logic like that,” Clark said.

“Put that back! You can’t give him a cupcake. He’ll have it all over him, and you can’t eat it in front of him, because that’s just rude.”

“Rude is a personality flaw,” Clark intoned in the voice that parents everywhere use to impart timeless wisdom to their children. He split the cupcake in two. “Dirt washes off.” He handed one half of the cupcake to Huck, who grabbed it eagerly, knowing, most probably, that he needed to act fast since Marlowe had been in his life from the day he was born and she was quite likely to rip the cupcake out of his hands in order to keep him clean.

He didn’t want to risk losing the cupcake.

It didn’t even surprise Marlowe, although it did make her heart cramp up in that yummy, good way that only Clark could instigate, that Clark leaned across the seat and offered the rest of the cupcake to Kylie.

If Kylie’s eyes could lick their lips, tongues would have been out. But her little hands squeezed together, still on her lap, and her face turned to her aunt/mother.

It was times like this that Marlowe felt she was letting her late sister, Elanor, down. When Elanor and her husband and their mother had died in the car crash, Marlowe had not hesitated to take Kylie and raise and love her as her own daughter. She’d filed the papers and adopted her.

She wanted to raise Kylie perfectly, as her sister would have done.

Which meant no sugar for breakfast, no cupcakes in the car, and most definitely not allowing her little charge, who had become a daughter, to go to school with icing on her face.

But Clark’s dimple flashed, and he blinked twice. Slowly. Her eyes shifted to see Kylie looking up at her—no pleading on her face, but resigned acceptance.

She nodded. “You can have it.” She had to stop short of saying she didn’t care if she got icing on her face or not.

Kylie’s face broke out into a grin, and yes, there was a little surprise on it, too.

“Thank you!” she said, reaching for the half cupcake Clark held out.

“You keep doing stuff like that, and I’ll quit thinking you’re a stick-in-the-mud.” Clark grabbed the other cupcake she’d put on the front seat. “You splitting this with me?”

“Of course.” If only to keep him from getting the whole thing since he’d gotten her to allow Kylie to eat one before school. “If the kids get in trouble for being hyper in school, I’m telling Mrs. Barton to talk to you.” They had an agreement with the school—Marlowe was the one who was called if either Kylie or Huck needed anything during the day, since Clark was often in the field or occupied on the farm. Marlowe worked for the feed mill Clark’s family owned, so she could get off and be at the school in five minutes. She took a small bite of the cupcake. It was pretty good, if she did say so herself.

“They’re gonna be fine. Aren’t ya, kids?” Clark ruffled Huck’s hair while shoving the entire half of cupcake in his mouth.

Huck nodded, florescent pink icing lining his mouth and dotting his John Deere green T-shirt.

Clark held his fist out for Kylie, and she bumped it with hers. At least she only had a couple of little spots of icing on her lips.

Marlowe took another nibble and backed out, but didn’t shut the door. If she remembered correctly, she had some wet wipes in the glove box. A parent got addicted to those things when their kid was little and stockpiled them everywhere.

Maybe not every parent, she thought, throwing a glance at Clark who was making a show of licking his fingers.

“When was the last time you washed your hands?” she asked him, grabbing the wet wipes out of the glove box and slamming it shut. She set her half of the cupcake, which was mostly uneaten, on the seat.

“I’m washing ’em now,” Clark said, his tongue going out and licking the next finger.

Huck grinned, showing the gap where his front two teeth were missing. “Me too.”

Marlowe held one finger up. “Just wait, Kylie. I have wipes.” She pushed out of the seat and hurried around the open door, leaning in to wipe her child. “You didn’t get very much icing on you at all. Thanks for being careful.”

She said it low, because she didn’t want to make Huck feel bad, although the little guy probably didn’t realize he had pink on the ribbing of his shirt, some on his arm, and somehow a bit on his shoe. The smeared, pink fingerprints on the leg of his pants were not a mystery, though. Like any kid, he’d wiped his fingers on his leg before he started to “wash” them.

She was never going to be able to get all that off him.

Taking Kylie’s hand in hers, she used the wet wipe to get the sticky off.

Clark spit in his hand.

“Wait!” Marlowe said. “Here.” She handed him a wet wipe, pretty sure he’d been going to use his fingers and spit to clean his son’s face off. She supposed that would work, if they were out in the woods maybe. But the kid was going to school.

Huck didn’t seem to care.

“You haven’t forgotten Cub Scouts after school today, right?” Clark said as he grabbed the wet wipe from her hand.

“No.” She never forgot anything. She had to give Clark credit; he didn’t usually forget anything either. But it didn’t hurt to remind him. “Tomorrow, remember you have to leave half an hour early, because Kylie has baton practice before school.”

“I got it. We’re tossing the sticks around tomorrow morning.” He held his fist out again, and Kylie bumped it, smiling as she did so.

Marlowe’s heart did that squeezing thing again. She could not have hoped for a better best friend. Kylie loved Clark, even if he was a lot different than they were. And she and Huck got along just great. In fact, Marlowe might say that they were best friends too.

She and Clark didn’t really talk about it, never had, but Kylie and Huck reminded her a lot of Clark and her when they were little. They even lived in the same houses.

But Marlowe’s mother had died. And she never really lived with her dad and didn’t even know where he was.

Clark’s parents had moved into a big mansion they’d built outside of town. They deserved it. They worked hard all their lives and had scrimped and saved for their sons, building the feed mill business in town.

All of his brothers had moved to their own places, and Clark had bought the old farmhouse.

“Don’t forget tomorrow’s hat day for the whole kindergarten,” Clark reminded her. “If Kylie needs a cowboy hat to borrow, she can come over and have her pick.”

“Like any of your old cowboy hats would fit her.”

“Mom ordered me one off the Internet, and it fits me just fine. We’ve had it for several weeks now, and I can’t wait to wear it to school.”

“Several weeks?” Clark grinned. “That sounds just like your mom.” He looked across the seat, his dimple flashing.

Marlowe smiled back, of course she did. They might be as different as two people could be, but they’d learned to live with each other. Or at least respect, and sometimes even enjoy, each other’s differences.

She didn’t know where she would be if it hadn’t been for Clark after her mom and sister had died. With Huck and Kylie, they’d struggled through diapers and bottles and birthday parties together, since it hadn’t been long after that when Clark’s wife had left him.

“Here’s another one.” She handed another wet wipe over.

“Don’t need it. I think I got it all.” Clark looked Huck over.

Pink icing was smeared pretty much from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. Marlowe just smiled and shook her head.

“If you had time, I’d suggest you go change. But you’re pushing it now.”

“I’ll take a shortcut through the fields. We’ll be there in plenty of time.”

“Uncle Clark almost always has us there just in time for the bell to ring as we’re walking up the sidewalk.” Kylie was again sitting primly, her hands folded in her lap.

Marlowe’s lips pulled back in a smile. “As you’re walking up the sidewalk?” Technically, that was late.

She supposed she couldn’t complain though. Since he took the kids to school, she could make it to work on time and get off in time to pick them up. If he didn’t do that, she would have to be late and leave early. His parents owned the feed store, and they probably wouldn’t dock her pay, but she wouldn’t feel right about doing it without a pay cut.

“Okay, I haven’t forgotten about your boys’ night out tonight. I’ll have the kids home as soon as Huck’s practice is over, and you’re bringing supper from the diner, correct?”

“Yep. Already have it ordered. And it’s not a boys’ night out. That’s what girls do. This is a single dad support group meeting.”

Marlowe laughed outright at that. It was nothing but a bunch of guys getting together and spending the evening yakking and eating junk food. Sometimes they played pool, too. Once in a while in the summer, they went fishing. And they did it once a month.

“Really?” She had to give him a hard time. “I’m pretty sure there are other people that show up who aren’t single dads.”

“You’ve never been there, so you can’t say.”

“Well, you can call it what it is or call it what you want.”

“Speaking of calling what it is, I’ll be watching the kids tomorrow night when you go for your gossip session at Donna’s diner.” He grinned and winked before stepping back and slamming the door shut.

Marlowe gasped, pretty much in mock outrage, though she was a little annoyed. “It’s not a gossip session,” she called, in a louder voice than necessary, as he opened the driver’s door and slid in the seat. “We try out new recipes and make meals for shut-ins. It’s a ladies’ benefit society. Just because they have pretty much gone extinct across the country doesn’t mean you can’t call it what it is.”

She heard the snob in her voice and tried to modulate it. She had a tendency to get like that.

Bending down, careful to put an easy, sweet smile on her face, she said to Kylie, “I love you, sweetie. I hope you have a great birthday party at school today.” She kissed Kylie’s forehead. “And you have a good day too.” She held out her fist for Huck, and he smacked it with his.

“If there are any cupcakes left, can we have them?” Huck asked, eyeing the container on the floor under Kylie’s feet.

“How about we talk about that on the way home, okay?”

She’d have to think of something. She didn’t really want pink icing all over the back seat of her car.

But having cupcakes as an after-school snack wouldn’t hurt them once in a while, and she was almost okay with it—if she could contain the mess.

She backed out, her hand on the door. Before she closed it, she called up to Clark, “Take it easy on the turns. Don’t forget about the cupcakes.”

“Oh, I’m definitely not forgetting about the cupcakes. And if there’s any left, I think Huck ought to have to split them with me, since I only got a half of one.” Clark smirked before sticking something in his mouth that looked suspiciously like the rest of the cupcake she’d left on the front seat.

Her mouth formed an “O,” but she decided to let him off the hook. She put a hand on her hip. “I made enough for you to take to your guys’ gossip session tonight. They’re at home on my counter. You can get them when you bring supper over.”

“Hey, seriously, it looks like there’s going to be some storms tonight. If you don’t mind, I think it’d be better if you watch the kids at my house.”

Her eyes had snapped to his as soon as he started talking about the weather. She never really paid too much attention to it, because Clark always did. And he would take care of her, she knew.

They each had their areas. The weather was his. She made sure the kids got to their dentist appointments and doctors’ appointments, and she kept both of their shot records too.

Clark was a farmer, along with his family owning the feed mill, so the weather was definitely his area.

His eyes were serious; the swirled brown had deepened and darkened. She loved his easy laugh and his easier-going personality. But she also loved that he knew how to be responsible. This was one of those times. She only needed a second to look at his face to know that he was dead serious.

Sometimes the storms didn’t materialize, but it could be deadly to assume that they weren’t going to.

“Okay. I’ll bring them to my house, we’ll get changed, and then we’ll pack up some stuff and head over to yours. If you’re as late as you were last month, you might have a girl sleeping over again.”

“That’s fine. We have a couple spare rooms, and she can take her pick.”

“Yay!” Kylie shouted from the back. “I want Chandler’s old room. He’s got dinosaur bones in it.”

Marlowe had forgotten about that. Chandler was so good looking, and such a successful movie actor, that she kinda forgot he had a brain sometimes.

“It’s yours, kid.” He looked back at Marlowe. “And you’re welcome to stay on the couch again if you want. Or I can try to be earlier.”

“No,” she said immediately. He hardly ever got out, just this once-a-month gathering. She certainly didn’t want him to cut short the one evening that he actually took off each month. When things got busy in the spring and fall, he might not even make it. “You can be as late as you want. I’ll bring a few clothes and plan on sleeping on the couch.”

“We’ll just be in the back room of the feed mill. It’s only a mile away. I’ll keep an eye on the weather, so you don’t have to worry about it.”

She gave him a smile, and he grinned at her. They both knew, of all the things she worried about, she didn’t worry about the weather. She supposed she should. Cowboy Crossing was located front and center in tornado alley, being as it was in Missouri.

Everyone in Missouri paid attention to the weather come springtime.

“Okay. You want me to admit that you have me spoiled. I admit it. I don’t worry about the weather.”

“You’re the only person in Missouri who doesn’t. Especially this time of year.”

“Fine.” She slapped the roof of the car. “You want me to admit it. I don’t have a problem with that. That’s because you do it for me.”

“Relax, Low Beam. You don’t have to get all huffy about it.”

She rolled her eyes at her nickname. She couldn’t even remember how he gave it to her. But she had one for him, and she broke it out. “I am relaxed, Gable. You’re the one that was trying to rub it in, and we both know why I don’t pay attention to the weather.”

He grinned at her use of his nickname. They both knew how he got it, although neither one of them probably remembered exactly where or when she’d first seen Gone with the Wind and started calling him Clark Gable instead of Clark Hudson. Eventually, she had shortened it to just Gable, only using it when he called her Low Beam.

His eyes were smiling, but there was a little bit of a cloud in there, and she knew he was probably worried about her.

Watching the weather stressed her. Which was why she didn’t do it. He was one of the few who knew it. They never really talked about it anyway. She’d actually never told him; he’d just seen her have a panic attack once as she’d walked through the room where he had been watching the weather. From that point on, he made a point of making sure that she knew he’d watch it for her, and he let her know if she needed to know anything.

She didn’t worry about the weather exactly; there was just something about watching people talk about it on TV, especially bad weather coming, that scared her.

Half the time, the weather people were wrong anyway. No point in being scared unnecessarily.

Clark could handle it.

“Keep an eye on your cell phone. The weather is not supposed to come until this evening sometime after supper. If it comes at all.”

“Can we stand outside and watch the lightning, Dad?” Huck asked.

Clark’s guilty look clashed with her accusing one. She crossed her arms over her chest, and she knew her look was saying, yeah, that’s real safe.

She didn’t say anything, though, because she didn’t want to scare Huck.

“Okay, you guys be safe.” She tapped her hand on the roof of his pickup once more, blew an air kiss to Kylie, and waved at Huck before shutting the door.

Clark didn’t waste any time before driving away. She watched him go, knowing, although he was very different than her and wouldn’t be as careful as she, her child could be in no better hands.