Fran jerked to a halt, grimacing. “I don’t have time for this.” Excuse me?
“Mom.” Taf put a hand on Peri’s shoulder. “Go do what you need to do. Take Howard. He can wash up at the jockey showers. I’ll give Peri something of mine to wear. We’ll meet you there in twenty minutes. You can get your guests settled, and then we can talk.”
Shower? Peri’s impulse to walk and keep going faltered. “You have something that might fit me?” she asked, and Taf nodded, eyes bright. “You are a lifesaver. I’ve been wearing this for three days.” She knew that if they got Howard alone he might dish the dirt, but she hadn’t done anything in the last three days that she’d do differently—given the chance.
“Howard?” Fran prompted, and the man took both of Peri’s hands, surprising her.
“You’ll be okay?” he asked, the depth of question in his brown eyes startling.
“Y’all go along, Howie,” Taf drawled cheerfully. “I’ve got this.”
But he didn’t leave until Peri nodded. Somehow it made her feel even more vulnerable.
“I told you to lose that accent, Taf,” Fran said as she and Howard got into one of the golf carts, and Taf frowned.
“I don’t know what they’re worried about,” Peri said drily when Fran told her security to stay with Peri. “They took my jackknife.”
“Come on,” Taf said, her voice tight and accent almost nil as she tugged at Peri’s elbow. “I’ve got something that will go fabulously with your skin tone.”
“I’d be happy with just something to cover my black eye, thanks,” she said distantly, following her up to the permanent decking that the RV was parked against. Taf was still smiling, but the tension between her and her mother was easy to see, old and deep.
The shower was surprisingly decadent for something on wheels, and Peri indulged until the water went cold, appreciating the expensive soap and shampoo. After some talk about the nonfunctionality of the first painted-on dress that Taf had picked out, Peri settled into skintight white jeans and a black blazer with a white silk button-down shirt underneath. There was even a matching derby hat, and taking the glitzy black-and-silver monstrosity in hand, she left the tiny bathroom vestibule and went into the main space.
Taf looked up from her laptop, her face lighting up. “Wow, you look better in that than I ever did. It’s a little casual for the races, but damn, girl! You look good!”
Flushing in pleasure, Peri spun to show it off. “You don’t think the hat is too much?”
“No.” Standing, Taf all but pushed her down into one of the cushy chairs. “Sit.”
Flustered, Peri sat, watching Taf through the mirror as she pinned the hat in place. She’d never had many girlfriends. It was easier to drive potential friends away than have them think she was stupid when she couldn’t remember what they’d done together last week. “Thank you,” Peri said softly, not knowing what to make of the attention. “You’re not going to get in trouble about the pants, are you?” They were Fran’s, seeing as Taf had legs the size of toothpicks.
“What is she going to do? Ground me?” Taf took the hatpin from between her teeth, carefully wedging it to hold the hat on. “Sorry about my mom. She’s intense. Here. Try this on your eye.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Peri said as she popped open the compact and used her finger to dab the makeup around her eye to find it was a good match. “My mom is worse. Bless her heart,” she added in a thick southern drawl to make Taf chuckle. “She wanted me to be a dancer,” she said, not knowing why she was opening up to Taf, except that they both had overbearing, controlling mothers. “I took all the classes, spent my summers at dance camps, blah, blah, blah.”
“My mom just wants me to be married,” Taf said as she closed down her laptop.
Peri laughed at the dry humor she’d put in her voice, but Howard’s crack about the MRS degree now made sense. “You’re one hell of an event organizer,” Peri said as she spun around to find Taf slumped into the cushions. “What did you minor in?”
“Business,” Taf said glumly.
Which was clearly not her first love. “What else did you minor in?” she prompted.
Taf’s eyes flicked up and away. “All kinds of things,” she said, clearly avoiding the issue. “My mom thought it was a waste of time, but I’ve got almost-minors in half a dozen studies.”
So she wouldn’t have to graduate, Peri thought, completely understanding. It was far easier to avoid a domineering mother than to stand up to someone you loved. And Taf did love her mother. “Taf. You can’t live your life on what your mother wants,” she said, and Taf looked up, shocked. “So it’s a hassle standing up to her. So she might cut you off. It’s your life. She already got your first twenty years. Don’t give her your second. By then, it’s too late.”
Her lips pressed, making Peri wonder if she’d gone too far. But then Taf stood and held out a matching shawl. “We’d better get going.”
Yep, she’d gone too far. Peri took the shawl from her, feeling depressed. “Thanks.”
Taf’s pensive silence held all the way up the sawdust-packed path to the track, giving Peri time to stew over the stone-faced guards accompanying them in the golf cart. All around was colorful, early-spring attire, and the men were taking the rare opportunity to flaunt pinstripes and flamboyant colors as much as the women. Big hats, mint juleps, and outrageous ties made Peri think she should have gone with Taf’s first instinct of the short red dress.