Christmas Season, 1978
Jeannie Adams shoved a dress hanger along the clothing rack in the big Knoxville dress shop. “Sour grapes. I know that’s what you’re thinking—I can see it in your eyes.” She shot a look at her best friend. “You think I’m being silly about this, but you know what? I don’t care. I don’t care what anybody thinks! The whole thing is just plain wrong.”
Dorothy Robbins McClain smiled. “You’ve never cared what anybody thought, Jeannie. Why would you start now?” She picked up a hanger and held an emerald green dress at arm’s length, shook her head at the tiny waistline, and replaced it onto the rack. “Why go to the dinner at all? Or if you go, just wear whatever you want. How about jeans and a sweatshirt? It’s not like you’re trying to impress anybody.”
Jeannie slid another look at her friend, and let out a quick breath. “I know what you’re doing, you know. You’re trying to bait me. Stop that. I thought you’d be on my side.”
Dorothy shook her head. “I don’t understand why there are still sides at all, after so many years. Eli comes to town, everybody makes a big deal about him, and then he leaves. So what?”
Jeannie’s face started to heat. “So what? So everything. You graduated summa cum laude, for gosh sakes. And I was second in the class. Eli was only third. He had that rotten grade in chemistry.” She smiled, remembering how good it had felt to razz him about the bad chem grade. She hadn’t missed a single opportunity during senior year.
“This isn’t about grade point average, Jeannie. It’s about—”
“It’s about power. Plain and simple. The McClains—”
Dorothy held up a hand to stop her. “Whoops. Don’t go there. Remember, I’m one of the McClains now.”
“No you’re not. You only married into the clan. That doesn’t count. You’re still basically a normal person.”
Dorothy laughed. “Gee. Thanks for that.”
“You know what I mean. Eli had everything he ever wanted, growing up. Now he’s rich and famous. So the school board is making a big deal of him; he’ll come to town and lord it over everybody, then disappear again. The school board makes some money for scholarships, because the whole population feels like they have to go to this stupid thing. All the women buy new dresses, the men have to shine their shoes and wear a suit. Everyone pays an outrageous price for a ticket to the catered dinner, then sit through Eli giving a speech.” She cringed. “He never was that good in speech class.”
“Jeannie.” Dorothy turned to her friend and gently held her arms. “You need to put high school into the past. We’ve been out since seventy-one. A lot has changed.”
“Some things have changed. You’re married and have a good job. You contribute to the community. A lot of us are doing our own little part in keeping Legend alive, as well as we can. It stinks to invite somebody from outside for this honor dinner. We ought to be honoring you. Eli is a singer, of all things.”
Dorothy patted her pregnant tummy. “Honestly, I couldn’t care less about being honored. I’ve got enough going on as it is. Life is good.”
Sometimes when Dorothy said things like that, Jeannie got irritated with her best friend. Sure, she was married and crazy in love with her husband Charles. But it had been a rude awakening for her to find out early in their marriage that Charles had a son in Southern California. He had fathered the child with a girl he loved; she hadn’t told him she was pregnant and just disappeared from his life. After she died in a car wreck, her parents contacted Charles, and he had immediately done the right thing—brought baby Joe to Legend, gave him the McClain name. From the way Dorothy treated him, you’d have thought she was his natural mother. It really was beautiful. Joe was six now, and David a year old. Charles and Dorothy were expecting their third child, and Dorothy never once complained about morning sickness, fatigue, balancing her job as a pharmacist with home life—any of it.
Sometimes it was tiring to have Mrs. Perfect as your best friend.
What Jeannie didn’t say, of course, was that while life was evolving for Dorothy, and fame was shining on Eli, nothing had changed for her. She had never left Legend. Her mom had been ill, and Jeannie had been willing to stay close to home and help her dad and siblings, instead of heading off to college like most of her friends.
When Mom improved, Jeannie had time, but no inclination, to go to a college campus on her own. Instead she entered the family business. She’d taken some grief about it at first, but before long people realized she was good at what she did, and cared about her customers. Now that so much time had passed, any excitement she’d had about the future was gone—completely. She was doomed to live in Legend, Tennessee for the rest of her life. Looked like she might do it as an old maid, too. But Eli McClain—that jerk—had left everything and everybody behind in his rush to make his mark on the world. And all of Legend would turn out to congratulate him for it. It just was not fair.
The fact that all this was happening right at Christmastime somehow made it even worse. The department store’s loudspeakers were playing Christmas songs, everything here in the city, and everything in Legend, was decorated for the holidays. Jeannie loved Christmas, but Eli’s coming to town was going to ruin it for her.
It figured. Eli always ruined everything.
Eli McClain drove his expensive sports car around a curve in the crazy mountain road and saw it. Legend, Tennessee spread out below him like a perfect diorama. He pulled onto the wide gravel overlook he’d frequented as a kid when he had a date with a pretty girl. The cold December temperature didn’t keep him from rolling down the window glass and getting a first breath of clean, crisp mountain air. The pine smell was almost intoxicating.
Inhaling deeply, eyes closed, Eli went back a few years to the day he left Legend. His mom and dad had been giving him a rough time for saying he’d never return, but Eli hadn’t cared. He hadn’t cared about much of anything, or anyone.
It was his future that concerned him. Legend was his past, and best forgotten. He’d done a good job of that, too. College had been okay, but he’d chucked it after a couple of years. A summertime job in a Nashville recording studio doing back-up vocals got him noticed by the right people, and he was on his way. His McClain looks, charm, and self-assurance had garnered some important contacts, and before long he was on a fast track to fame.
Since leaving Legend, Eli had made the most of what he had. Take no prisoners was his personal mantra, and it had served him well. To the tune of a very nice bank account, features in national magazines, and important friends pretty much everywhere. Not to mention a long line of beautiful, brokenhearted women.
It was no surprise that the school board in Legend had chosen him as this year’s distinguished alumni. He was distinguished. But it had taken him a while to decide whether or not to make the trip to accept the honor. After being gone all these years, he hated to ruin a perfect record by returning to the little burg. Finally the school board had told him he could choose the time the event would occur, and he decided to go for it.
Set it at Christmastime when Legend was at its most festive. This timing would gain him some brownie points with his family for being home at the holidays. Should help ensure an even bigger crowd for the event, too. No doubt the powers that be had advertised in Knoxville and maybe even Gatlinburg. Wire services might have picked it up, as well. The scholarship fund would gain a ton of money, and Eli would make an unforgettable impression on the extremely impressionable people of his hometown.
His parents were thrilled about the whole thing—Eli’s time in Legend would be full of family. He was the fifth of six kids, but also had innumerable cousins, aunts, and uncles. Most of them still lived in Legend or the surrounding county and were fine, upstanding, if boring, citizens. Eli figured he would have gone crazy if he’d had to stay in Legend.
By the time high school graduation rolled around, he was more than ready to cut and run. In fact, he’d had his shined-up, souped-up car packed and ready to leave as soon as the ceremony was finished. He’d signed up for college classes that summer, and had a couple of jobs lined up so he could pay his own way through school. Nothing would keep him from making a bee-line out of town.
Nothing, that is, except Jeannie Adams. She had been a thorn in his side all through school, but senior year was the worst. Of all the things about Legend that Eli was glad to leave behind, Jeannie was the biggest. It was amazing serendipity that just as Eli was rounding a corner on his final walk through a deserted back hall of Legend High after the commencement ceremony, he’d met Jeannie.
Startled, she stared at him momentarily, all wide-eyed. Her face was pink because it had been hot in the gym with those stupid graduation gowns on. She was still zipped into the ugly gown, and was wearing the ridiculous mortar board, being too much of a ninny to throw it up in celebration like a lot of the kids had done.
Black bobby pins secured the mortar board into her auburn hair. Her National Honor Society cowl was a little askew, probably from hugging her nerdy girlfriends, and the sash that showed she had the second highest GPA was hanging crooked. Without a moment’s thought, Eli grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her a big kiss on the mouth. She melted against him for a minute, then started to pull back. Eli released her and strode away. Before he went out the door he called back to her, “See ya, Jeannie Adams. Have a nice life.”
There had been times over the last few years that he’d replayed that scene in his mind. He had heard someone talk about life’s defining moments being those that you can remember vividly even years later. He wondered why that would be one of his defining moments, but it sure seemed to be. Probably because it was the last thing he remembered prior to leaving town. It was definitely not because it involved Jeannie Adams, whom he had dubbed Obnoxo-Brain when she overcame his GPA due to a lousy chemistry grade.
Still, Eli couldn’t help wondering if he might run into Jeannie while he was in town. She was probably fat and had a half dozen kids. It would serve her right, after what she’d done to him years ago.
One of his cousins had started teasing him about being hot for Jeannie, and Eli had gone into a tirade about what a crazy idea it was—then spent a sleepless night thinking about her in an entirely different way. Somehow everything he knew about chemistry went out of his brain—except the kind of chemistry between a guy and a girl. He had flunked the test big time, and blamed Jeannie for it.
Yeah, she’d always been a problem for him. He hoped she had a big wart on her nose along with being fat. Who would have married her, anyway? Eli felt the hairs on his neck rise.
Shaking his head to get the teenage Jeannie out of his mind, Eli started the powerful engine again. It purred just the way it was supposed to.
You could depend on cars. As long as you took good care of them, they’d take care of you. Women, though—women were just the opposite. If you took care of them, they’d expect more and more. Eli had successfully kept women happy in the short-term, and was careful never to stay around for the long-term. Worked great. Checking his mirrors, he pulled back onto the winding road and headed toward his parents’ house. Might as well get the first wave of hero worship taken care of.
-End of Excerpt-
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