|Falling for Toni Series:Second Chance Love By Mildred Colvin|
Her nine-year-old daughter dipped under her arm, and Toni closed the door, checking to be sure it locked. She settled the books more securely and began flipping through the mail.
â€œJust one more week of school, and I can go to the store with you.â€ Amber ran down the front steps and turned to skip backward, her long brown braids bouncing, as she chattered.
Toni listened with only half attention. She shuffled through store flyers and bills until an envelope with her name scrawled across it caught her eye. She didnâ€™t get many personal letters, and she didnâ€™t recognize the writing on this one.
She looked in the upper left-hand corner. John Downing? She remembered the name. He was Kyleâ€™s friend. But why would her husbandâ€™s friend write to her? Especially when Kyle had been gone two years now. The name of the man sheâ€™d met only briefly brought unpleasant memories rushing through her mind.
Lost in thought, she stepped automatically while following the sound of Amberâ€™s voice across the yard to the car. Frowning at the letter in her hand, a shiver ran down her back. How silly to feel intrusion from a letter. But thatâ€™s exactly what she felt. Why, after so long a time, would anyone from the past write to her? And of all people, a man she barely knew.
She shrugged. Only one way to find out. Again adjusting the books under her arm, she turned the letter over and pushed her fingernail under the sealed flap when her foot landed on something hard.
Her surprised scream pierced the calm morning as her feet flew out from under her.
Mail and books scattered into the air as she threw her hands up for balance, and lost.
The scream sent adrenaline rushing through Justin Elliottâ€™s body, while his thoughts raced ahead to Toni.
With his mail clutched in one hand and his briefcase in the other, he leapt through a weak spot in the hedge separating their driveways. Another leap caught his foot on the edge of a skateboard, sending it, his mail, and briefcase airborne while he landed in an undignified heap on his face beside the only woman heâ€™d ever truly cared about. He could think of better ways to impress her.
â€œOh, my!â€ Wide eyes with irises the color of milk chocolate stared at him. â€œIâ€™m so sorry. Are you hurt?â€
Justin pulled his light blue tie, now freshly grass-stained, from under his arm so he could sit up. With a quick brush at his white shirt, he grinned at her. â€œSo much for my Superman impersonation, huh? Besides, that question should be mine, unless Iâ€™ve run to the aid of the wrong lady in distress. You did scream, didnâ€™t you?â€
A becoming pink touched her cheeks. â€œI didnâ€™t intend to.â€ She scrambled to her feet. â€œI only scream when I step on skateboards that move.â€
Justin watched her brush off her black slacks before he stood and did the same with his dress pants.
A snort caught his attention. Two little girls beside Toniâ€™s car in identical poses with their hands over their mouths, barely suppressed the giggles that obviously wanted to burst forth. Amber overcame her amusement long enough to look contrite. â€œYou arenâ€™t hurt, are you, Mommy?â€
â€œNo, Iâ€™m not hurt. Physically, anyway.â€ She brushed a lock of dark blonde hair, dangling in front of her forehead, to the side and gave her daughter a raised eyebrow. â€œMy pride may be another matter.â€
Amber ran the short distance to hug her mother. â€œIâ€™m sorry I left my skateboard out. I wonâ€™t ever do that again. I promise.â€
â€œSee that you donâ€™t.â€ Toni hugged her daughter, dropping a kiss on the top of her head. â€œMr. Elliott could have been hurt, too.â€
Justin sharpened his gaze. Why did she call him Mr. Elliott? For her daughterâ€™s benefit? What would Amber think if she knew he and her mother were old friends? Strange how their daughters had become fast friends almost as soon as he and Deanna moved in. They managed to spend several hours together each week in one yard or the other when they werenâ€™t running in and out of the houses. No, strange was Toni allowing Amber to come near him. He wouldnâ€™t complain though. She was a sweet kid.
He glanced at his watch and then at the littered driveway. â€œThe girls are going to be late for school if we donâ€™t get a move on. How about letting Amber ride with Deanna as soon as we sort our mail?â€
â€œMommy, can I, please?â€ Amber looked up at her mother with pleading eyes.
â€œI suppose it would be all right.â€ She started picking up envelopes then looked up at Justin. â€œThat is, if you donâ€™t mind.â€
He grabbed a handful of mail and forced a smile. If she wanted to play the polite game, he could too. â€œNot at all. Iâ€™m going anyway. We should have been carpooling all along. Iâ€™ll take this week, you can have next then weâ€™re done until fall.â€
â€œThat would be so cool, Mommy!â€ Amber and Deanna scampered around picking up the rest of the mail. â€œCan we, please?â€
Toni laughed. â€œI suppose so.â€ She looked up from the letters she was sorting. â€œAre you sure you want a couple of chatterboxes in your car all the way to school?â€
â€œCanâ€™t think of anything Iâ€™d like better.â€ Justin held out the envelopes belonging to her. That was more like the Toni he remembered.
Amber and Deanna shoved some rather rumpled store fliers at their parents before running through the hedge. Justin heard two car doors slam. He picked up his briefcase. â€œGuess Iâ€™d better be on my way, then. By the way, Mr. Elliott sounds too formal. Why donâ€™t you call me Justin? It isnâ€™t as if weâ€™re strangers.â€
An emotion he couldnâ€™t identify flashed through her eyes. Maybe pain, although heâ€™d prefer guilt. â€œFine, Justin. But in front of my daughter, youâ€™re Mr. Elliott.â€ She looked toward his chest. â€œIâ€™m sorry about your tie. Grass stains are hard to get out.â€
He shrugged. â€œHey, donâ€™t worry about it. Iâ€™ve been told teachers can be a little intimidating on test day. The green streaks on my blue tie may be just the thing to ease someoneâ€™s tension.â€
â€œAnd then again, maybe youâ€™d better change your tie.â€ Toni arched an eyebrow toward him.
He wanted to stay and talk, but he needed to leave and get the girls to school on time. Heâ€™d have stepped across the hedge a month ago when he first moved in, but Toni needed time to adjust to him living next door. And that was the best excuse he could think of to cover his fear of rejection. The skateboard had been a good icebreaker. Someday heâ€™d get Toni to talk. He was ready to forgive and forget even if she wasnâ€™t.
â€œThanks again for giving Amber a ride, and thanks for coming to my rescue.â€ Toni opened her car door and set her books and mail inside. â€œI need to get to the store.â€
â€œYeah, maybe we can talk some other time. Sorry itâ€™s taken me so long to be neighborly.â€ Justin turned away with a wave over his shoulder, being careful to avoid the skateboard that had yet to be put away.
He opened the car door and tossed his briefcase on the passenger side. His mail followed, landing between the seats before some slid off into the floor. He started the car, ignoring the mail. None of it was important anyway. He backed out of the driveway while the two girls in back chattered about the end-of-school picnic with their class next week. Shutting out their voices, Justin thought of his new neighbor and a chuckle began deep in his throat. Heâ€™d have to tell Travis about this one. He couldnâ€™t help wondering what his friend would have to say. Heâ€™d already become a good friend in the short time Justin had lived in Pleasant Spring and would likely be interested.
Miranda hadnâ€™t arrived by the time Toni got to the store. She parked in the alley behind the building theyâ€™d leased for the enterprise they called Book and Coffee Nook. She pulled the key from the ignition and stared at the brick wall in front of her while her heart, still racing since her fall and even more since Justin landed beside her, slowed.
Heâ€™d bought the house a month ago, but she hadnâ€™t gotten a good look at or known the name of her new neighbor until Amber brought Deanna home a week later and introduced her. Justin Elliott. Why? Lord, why is he here? Couldnâ€™t he have at least stayed on his side of the hedge? Sheâ€™d make sure she didnâ€™t scream again. Then she wouldnâ€™t have to talk to him. With a tremor in her sigh, she opened the car door and gathered her books and mail.
As always when she stepped into the bookstore, Toni felt pride in their accomplishment. Miranda, who had always loved to bake, ran the coffee shop while Toni took care of the bookstore. Together theyâ€™d realize their dreams.
Toni placed her load on the checkout counter that doubled as a display case then riffled through her mail. Now would be the perfect time to see what was in that letter. She glanced at the store ads and the ever-present bills as she set them aside. Taking them up again, she flipped carefully through each piece, but it wasnâ€™t there. The letter from John Downing wasnâ€™t there. Maybe it had become separated from the others in the car.
She met Miranda coming in the back door as she went out.
â€œHey, youâ€™re going the wrong direction.â€ Miranda joked.
â€œI know. I need to look in my car.â€ Toni didnâ€™t take time to explain. That letter was starting to concern her. What could John possibly have to write to her about? Even more important, where had it gone?
Five minutes later she returned to the store minus the letter. Miranda smoothed a red-checked tablecloth over one of her round cafÃ© tables. She looked up. â€œSo, did you find what you went for?â€
â€œNo, but thatâ€™s probably because itâ€™s still in my driveway.â€
Toni laughed. â€œYou have got to hear what my sweet little girl did.â€ While they performed the tasks to open for the day, she told her friend of Justin running to her rescue when she screamed. â€œSo I would assume the letter was under the car, and we didnâ€™t see it. What other explanation is there?â€
Miranda looked thoughtful. â€œI donâ€™t know unless Justin took it by mistake.â€
â€œI suppose, but we sorted everything, and I donâ€™t have any of his mail.â€ She unlocked the door and turned the open sign over to face the street. â€œSpeaking of mail, did you get the open house ads out to all the newspapers?â€
â€œSure did.â€ Miranda smiled. â€œThe local paper and some surrounding towns took the article I wrote as a news item so that didnâ€™t cost. Most others, especially in Springfield, Kansas City, and St. Louis, didnâ€™t consider us newsworthy, so I took out small ads. It cost plenty, but it should be worth it. Weâ€™ll have the biggest open house ever.â€
Toni sighed. â€œI sure hope so. Iâ€™ll gladly toss my red pen for a black one anytime.â€
â€œOh, donâ€™t worry. Weâ€™ll be in the black before you know it,â€ her friend promised.
The bell over the door jingled, and the two women went to work. Toni forgot her letter until late in the afternoon. At a few minutes until three, she ran out to pick Amber up from school. When they got back to the bookstore, Amber headed to the childrenâ€™s section with a couple of Mirandaâ€™s chocolate chip cookies and a glass of milk. She walked through the door of the castle that distinguished the childrenâ€™s books from the rest of the store and sat at the table inside to finish her homework and her snack.
Toni turned to help a customer, knowing she couldnâ€™t have found a better job. Where else could she do something she loved and keep Amber with her while she worked? Well, other than the daycare, but now she was her own boss. Her life might not be perfect, but it was pleasant, and she wouldnâ€™t change anything about it if she could. Unless she could move Justin back to Booneville where heâ€™d grown up. But she refused to think about him and why heâ€™d decided to move next door to her just when things had finally calmed down. After the hardest two years of her life, the future held a promise of blessings to come.
A customer at the end of the day exclaimed when she saw the Colonial bookends in the display case. â€œNow arenâ€™t those just beautiful?â€ The elderly lady looked up at Toni. â€œThey are for sale, arenâ€™t they?â€
â€œYes, of course.â€ Toni opened the back of the case. â€œWould you like to see them better?â€
â€œOh, yes, please.â€
Toni took the pewter lady and her gentleman friend out of the case and set them on the counter. The older woman reached with blue-veined hands and picked up the lady. She set it down after careful examination and turned to the gentleman bookend. After looking it over, she set him beside the lady. â€œIâ€™ll take them.â€
Toni silently rejoiced. The bookends didnâ€™t come cheap and provided a healthy profit for the store. She made the sale and started to wrap them in newspaper. As she slapped the Kansas City paper on the counter, the name John Downing seemed to leap from a small article near the bottom. Without taking time to read the article, Toni pulled the top sheet off and stuffed it under the counter for later.
As soon as she locked the door after the last customer, she pulled the page out and spread it on the counter. As she read the short article, an icy tremor ran down the back of her neck. John Downing had been found shot to death in his home in a northwest Kansas City suburb three days ago apparently during a burglary.
She lifted stricken eyes toward Miranda, but her friend was busy cleaning and putting things away. She couldnâ€™t help her anyway. No one could because she had no clue what this all meant. Only one thing she knew, she had to find that letter.
Toni stared at the printed page that now blended into a blur. John Downing was dead? Did she or did she not just get a letter from him? Three days ago he died. How long did it take for a letter to travel from Chicago to Pleasant Spring? Two days? Three? Surely no more than that under normal circumstances.
She grabbed the mail sheâ€™d stuffed under the counter and looked through it again in a futile attempt to find the elusive letter. She hadnâ€™t imagined it. She knew she hadnâ€™t. If only she had seen the postmark. Then she would know if it had been mailed before or after he died.
As soon as that thought ran through her mind, she ripped the article from the paper and stuffed it in her pocket. How could John have mailed a letter after he died? She really was losing it.
â€œAmber, are you ready to go home?â€ Toni called out as she took the dayâ€™s receipts from the cash register. She counted the bills and coins and wrote the amount on a slip of paper. Leaving just enough for the next dayâ€™s business, she put the rest in a bank carrier and rounded the counter.
Amber came from the kitchen with Miranda following. Miranda eyed the carrier and lifted an identical cash bag. â€œMine wasnâ€™t too bad considering. Howâ€™d you do?â€
Toni smiled. â€œOkay if I can stretch my insurance money a little longer.â€
â€œThat awful, huh?â€
â€œNot really. Iâ€™d say today was one of our better regular days. Of course the open house will put us on the map. Weâ€™d better hire an armored car to drive us to the bank that night.â€
Miranda laughed, her emerald eyes sparkling with humor. â€œNo, instead letâ€™s hire a couple of body guards. Now, that I could live with.â€
â€œWhy would you want someone to guard you?â€ Amber looked from one woman to the other with a puzzled expression.
Toni joined Mirandaâ€™s laughter and slipped her arm around her daughter. With a gentle squeeze and a smile, she told her, â€œIn about ten years youâ€™ll understand Miranda better.â€
â€œDonâ€™t you wish?â€ Miranda tousled Amberâ€™s dark bangs. â€œGive this girl less than half that time, and sheâ€™ll know the score. Kidâ€™s mature earlier these days, Toni.â€
â€œI suppose.â€ Toni didnâ€™t like to think about Amber growing up. When she looked back over the last nine years, they seemed like yesterday. How had time gotten away from her so quickly? She wanted to enjoy every minute she had with her daughter. Now she smiled and with another quick hug, said, â€œLetâ€™s go home. We can pick up something at the deli on the way.â€
Miranda held her hand out. â€œIâ€™m going by the bank if you want me to make your deposit.â€
Toni handed the carrier to her. â€œSure. Thanks, Miranda.â€
The windshield wipers kept up a steady rhythm as Toni drove through the rain. She parked as close as she could to the door. But by the time she and Amber ran into the store, made their selection, and ran back out, they were both soaked.
As she pulled into the driveway at home, Toni watched the sweep of her headlights, searching desperately for a white rectangle that might be the missing letter. Amber jumped from the car with the bag of food as soon as the engine stopped and ran to the porch. Toni couldnâ€™t resist the urge to look one more time along the side of the driveway. The letter had to be there. Somewhere.
â€œMommy, come on. Iâ€™m cold.â€
â€œAll right. Just a second.â€ Toni bent slightly as if that would help her see. Cold rain soaked through her shirt, but she was already wet. She stepped to the passenger side of the car. No white envelope, not even a scrap of paper appeared.
â€œMommy, itâ€™s raining.â€ Amberâ€™s voice carried to her from the porch. â€œYouâ€™re getting soaked, and that means youâ€™ll get sick. Come on. Now.â€
Toni smiled at the imperious tone in her daughterâ€™s voice. Did she feel like the adult with her mother out playing in the cold rain? She sighed. Maybe Amber was right. Obviously, no lost mail or anything else lay in her driveway. When the rain stopped, sheâ€™d give the area a thorough search. She turned toward Amber and throwing her hands out as if she liked being wet and chilly, she ran to the porch.
Grabbing Amber in a quick, wet hug, she said, â€œIâ€™m sorry, baby. I guess that letter is driving me crazy.â€
â€œWhat letter?â€ Amber squirmed away.
Toni unlocked the door and let Amber go in first. Boots, Amberâ€™s large gray and white cat, met them at the door. â€œThe one I got in the mail this morning from John Downing. Itâ€™s disappeared so if you see a hiding letter will you bring it to me right away?â€
Amber shrugged and walked toward the kitchen as if the matter was unimportant. She spoke over her shoulder. â€œSure. Do you want turkey or ham?â€
Toni called after her. â€œSet the bag on the table. We both need dry clothes first.â€
In thirty minutes, they fed Boots, ate, and cleaned up their dinner mess then went into the family room. Amber turned on the TV, flipping through channels until she found cartoons. She grabbed a pillow from the corner of the couch and tossed it on the floor then lay on her tummy hugging the pillow under her chin while Boots rubbed against her shoulder purring. Toni took the second pillow from the other end of the couch and plumped it up before putting it back. She snuggled against the pillow with her feet tucked under her then took the newspaper clipping from the end table where sheâ€™d laid it to dry after changing clothes.
She couldnâ€™t remember ever being so mystified. Why did John write to her, and where had his letter gone? Did it have anything to do with his death? Or, did his death have something to do with the letter? She shook her head. Now she was double-talking and nothing made sense. The only thing for certain was if she never found the letter, she would always wonder.
She tried to watch the cartoon that had Amberâ€™s total attention, but couldnâ€™t stay focused. Her mind continually returned to finding her missing letter and getting some answers. When two characters on the screen ran into each other, knocking the dishes they carried all over the room, she thought of Justin and their similar accident. Theyâ€™d sorted their mail, but as Miranda suggested, could he have taken one of hers without knowing?
Toni jumped from the couch startling Amber. â€œIâ€™m going to run next door. Maybe Mr. Elliott has my letter.â€
â€œHe wouldnâ€™t take your letter, Mom.â€ Amber frowned. â€œHeâ€™s a nice man.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t mean he took it on purpose. Maybe it got mixed up in his mail, and he didnâ€™t notice.â€ She headed toward the door. â€œI wonâ€™t be long. Will you be all right?â€
â€œSure.â€ Amberâ€™s attention had already turned back to the TV.
Toni paid little attention to the fact the rain had stopped as she ran down the walk and around the hedge to the house next door. She rang the bell and rubbed her upper arms in a nervous gesture while she waited.
Justin opened the door and stepped back, his blue eyes brightening as he smiled. â€œHey, come on in out of the rain or has it stopped?â€
â€œItâ€™s stopped.â€ Toni stepped inside unsure now that she was there. Deanna said her mother had died when she was little, and although Justin had always seemed neat and clean, some men didnâ€™t do housework. Kyle never had. But Justinâ€™s living room appeared to be as well cared for as her own.
Deanna looked up from a book. â€œIs Amber here?â€
â€œNo, sheâ€™s watching TV.â€
â€œOh.â€ Deanna lowered her head to her book again as if Toni made a habit of popping in.
Justin closed the door and grinned at her. â€œAfter my foiled rescue attempt this morning, I was afraid you might not want to see me again.â€
Toni sucked in a breath, unsure how she felt but well aware of him. â€œYou were very gallant.â€
â€œJust not very graceful.â€ He chuckled, running fingers through short light brown hair.
â€œHow could you be after I set the stage for you?â€ Toni watched the creases deepen beside his twinkling blue eyes and almost forgot her mission. Heâ€™d always affected her in ways that stole her reasoning ability.
â€œI assume you didnâ€™t come over to rehash our morningâ€™s adventure, but youâ€™re still welcome. Would you like to sit down?â€ He motioned toward a blue velvet upholstered chair that matched the blue background on the flowered couch. â€œHow about a cup of tea?â€
â€œOh, no, I canâ€™t stay. I left Amber alone.â€ Toni clutched her fingers in front of her. â€œI just wanted to check and see if any of my mail got mixed up with yours.â€
When his raised eyebrows seemed to question her sanity, she hurried to explain. â€œI mean, I know it did. But do you still have any? Of mine, I mean.â€
He shook his head. â€œNo, I donâ€™t believe so.â€
She sighed. From the look in his eyes, he didnâ€™t understand. â€œItâ€™s a letter. A certain letter Iâ€™m missing. The address was hand written to me.â€ When he didnâ€™t answer, she added. â€œToni Duncan.â€
â€œYes, I remember your name, Toni.â€ His smirk suggested he remembered even more. A lot more. Then he turned to pick up a briefcase sitting by the door. â€œI donâ€™t have your mail, though.â€
He opened the briefcase and took out a handful of unopened envelopes. â€œI havenâ€™t opened mine yet, although I did glance through. Your letter wasnâ€™t with them.â€
She flipped through the stack of mail he handed her. At the last envelope, her breath came out in a rush of disappointment. â€œIt isnâ€™t here.â€
She peeked toward the open briefcase. â€œMaybe it got separated from the others.â€
He grinned, and shaking his head, opened the case wider, tilting it so she could see.
Her arm accidentally brushed against his.
â€œSorry to disappoint you, Mrs. Duncan.â€ His grin disappeared as his voice deepened.
The change in his attitude brought shivers racing along her nerves. She stared into his eyes, now appraising her in a way she hadnâ€™t seen for a long time. Oh, Justin, what happened to us? She turned abruptly toward the door and spoke in the coldest voice she could muster. â€œIâ€™m sorry to take up your time.â€
Intending to run home and never speak to him again, she opened the door, only stopping at the sound of his voice. â€œToni, donâ€™t.â€
She turned back allowing the hurt and anger that shouldâ€™ve healed years ago to speak for her. â€œI didnâ€™t. You did.â€
He opened his mouth, the pain in his eyes surely matching her own, but she cut him off before he could speak. â€œIf you do find my letter, would you get it to me as soon as possible?â€
â€œYes, of course.â€ Justin held the door for her as she hurried through.
A stiff breeze flew with her as she ran home. The rain had brought a chill to the air, and she shivered while inside her heart pounded, warming her face. She ran up on the porch and reached for the door as a car turned into her driveway and stopped.
Holding the storm door open to block the wind, she watched her brother-in-law climb from his new Lincoln. Heâ€™d mentioned stay overnight when he was at the store. But why would he come over so late? Of course, he hadnâ€™t come to see her. He and Amber were as close as any uncle and niece could be. Amber adored her Uncle Philip, and he clearly thought as much of her. No doubt he just wanted a little more time with her.
â€œHi, what are you doing out so late?â€ Toni greeted him as he stepped on the porch. She held the door wider for him to take.
â€œHi, yourself.â€ Philip covered her hand on the door. â€œI got lonesome in that hotel, and itâ€™s not all that late. What better time to check on my favorite niece and her lovely mother? She hasnâ€™t gone to bed yet, has she?â€
Toni laughed and slipped her hand from under his. She was right. Heâ€™d come to see Amber. â€œNo, itâ€™s only eight oâ€™clock. This isnâ€™t a school night, so she gets to stay up until at least ten.â€
â€œI wonâ€™t stay long tonight, but Iâ€™ll be back tomorrow before heading home. Iâ€™d have been here sooner, but brought some work with me and wanted to get it out of the way. I guess you know how that is.â€
Toni smiled and nodded. She knew Philip referred to Kyleâ€™s year in training for the position of head of Duncan Enterprises, the company the brothersâ€™ grandfather had started almost sixty years ago. Kyle had been dedicated to his work and had often stayed late at the office. Until his death sheâ€™d thought work was all he did, now she wondered how many of his late nights had been spent in extra activities.
When she didnâ€™t respond to Philipâ€™s reminder, he opened the door wider. â€œAre we going in?â€
â€œOf course. Iâ€™m sorry.â€ She swept past him then waited while he closed the door before leading the way to the family room. â€œAmber will be glad to see you as always.â€
â€œI enjoy seeing her, too, but I hope she isnâ€™t the only one whoâ€™s glad Iâ€™m here.â€ He stopped outside the door where Amber still lay on the floor staring at the television screen. His gaze compelled Toni to look at him. He touched her shoulder with a gentle whisper of invitation as his eyes lowered a fraction.
Her heart lunged in fear or excitement; she wasnâ€™t sure which. Sheâ€™d always liked Philip. Unlike his brother, he had been the quiet one, thoughtful, and polite. Life with him would be a far sight different than it had been with Kyle. Her eyes widened and she turned away. â€œOf course, Iâ€™m glad to see you, Philip.â€
What had she been thinking? Settling down with another man was the last thing she wanted to do. Marriage with Kyle had taught her that.
â€œIâ€™m glad.â€ Philip stepped around her into the family room and brought his hands together in a soft clap. â€œHey, thereâ€™s my favorite girl.â€
Amber squealed when she saw her uncle and scrambled to her feet. He held his arms out and she ran into them for a hug. â€œI didnâ€™t know you were here, Uncle Philip.â€
â€œJust got here, sweetheart.â€
â€œWhereâ€™s Thunder?â€ Amber looked toward the door as if she expected to see her uncleâ€™s large German shepherd waiting for a hug.
Philip looked toward the couch. â€œI left Thunder at home. Looks like itâ€™s a good thing since you have a cat.â€
â€œThatâ€™s Boots.â€ Amber led the way to the couch where Boots lay watching them. â€œMom said I could have a pet when we moved to the country.â€
Boots let Amber rub his fur, but when Philip sat beside him, the large gray and white cat jumped down and walked out of the room with his head and tail held high. Philip laughed with Amber. â€œThatâ€™s the way with cats. Theyâ€™re particular who they like.â€
â€œWell, I like you, Uncle Philip.â€ Amber filled him in on school and her friends. He listened patiently for several minutes then held up a hand. â€œHey, slow down, Amber girl. Let me visit with your mom, too, okay?â€
â€œSure.â€ Amber shrugged and crossed her arms, looking from one adult to the other while Philip asked about their life in Pleasant Spring. â€œHowâ€™s the store getting on? If you need anything, you only have to ask. You know that, donâ€™t you?â€
â€œYes, I know, but weâ€™re doing fine.â€ She would have to be desperate to take money from him. Why couldnâ€™t he understand her desire to make her own way? â€œWeâ€™re having open house in a few weeks. Maybe you could come and see how weâ€™re doing then.â€
â€œYes, Iâ€™d love to. Iâ€™ll have my secretary write it in my calendar so I wonâ€™t forget.â€ His grin was open and accepting. Heâ€™d never tried to talk her out of opening the store, but still, she wondered if he approved. Kyle certainly wouldnâ€™t have.
They talked about her store for a few minutes then their conversation turned to people they both knew and recent events in Chicago where Duncan Financial Services main office was located and where he and Kyle both had kept a summer house on the lake.
â€œYou remember those dances the yacht club has every spring?â€ Philip sat with one arm around Amber while she watched her cartoons with the volume turned down.
Toni nodded, remembering she had never liked going to them, but Kyle insisted her presence helped his image. Sheâ€™d never understood how his drinking too much and dancing with someone elseâ€™s wife while she looked on helped his business. But she had dutifully attended year after year.
Philip mentioned several mutual acquaintances heâ€™d seen at the latest dance. Then he asked, â€œDo you remember John Downing?â€
Her heart jumped as she nodded.
â€œHe asked why you werenâ€™t at the dance, and I told him youâ€™d moved away. He seemed surprised, but said to tell you he wished you the best. He was certainly a good friend to Kyle.â€
â€œYes, he was.â€ Toniâ€™s voice grew soft. â€œI read in the paper he was shot to death in his own home just last week.â€
â€œWhat?â€ Philip seemed surprised.
â€œYou hadnâ€™t heard?â€
â€œNo, I hadnâ€™t. Do you still have the paper it was in?â€
â€œYes.â€ She took the clipping from the table where sheâ€™d tossed it on her way to see Justin earlier. â€œI ran across it just today and tore it out.â€
Philip took the scrap of paper and quickly read the article. He looked up with a troubled expression on his face. â€œI donâ€™t know what to say. This is terrible.â€
â€œMommy, isnâ€™t that the man you got that letter from?â€ Amber spoke up.
â€œYes, it is.â€
Amber looked up at her uncle. â€œMommy got a letter today, but now we canâ€™t find it.â€
Philip frowned as he turned to Toni. â€œAt least you got to read it, didnâ€™t you?â€
She shook her head. â€œNo, I lost it before I read it. Do you have any idea why he would write to me?â€
Philipâ€™s expression cleared as he gave a little laugh. â€œI wouldnâ€™t worry about it. He probably just wanted to keep in touch because of Kyle.â€
Toni shrugged. â€œIt really has me curious, but Iâ€™m sure it will turn up eventually. Things usually do.â€
â€œIâ€™d be glad to help you look for it.â€
Surely he wasnâ€™t serious. Again she shook her head. â€œNo, that wonâ€™t be necessary. Iâ€™ve already looked everywhere I could think. Iâ€™m sure Iâ€™ll run across it before long. It probably fell behind something.â€
Philip stood. â€œI need to go. Let you girls get to bed. Iâ€™ll be by about noon tomorrow to take you to lunch. Shall I pick you up here or at your store?â€
â€œAt the store probably.â€ Toni might have taken exception for not being asked, but this was Philip. He expected to take them out at least once when he stopped by for a visit.
â€œGreat, Iâ€™ll be there.â€ He turned to kiss Amber and share a hug. â€œNight, sweetheart. See you in the morning.â€
â€œOkay, Uncle Philip.â€ Amber plopped back on the floor while Toni walked Philip to the door.
He stopped before going outside. â€œLike I said, I sure wouldnâ€™t worry about the letter. It couldnâ€™t have been important.â€
Toni nodded in agreement, but surely the missing letter held more than a casual greeting.
Philip turned from Toniâ€™s open front door and tested first the knob then the bolt locks. He closed then tugged on the door before moving to the nearest window. Brushing the curtain aside, he checked the lock and tried to raise the glass.
â€œWhat are you doing?â€ Toni crossed her arms and resisted the urge to tap her toe.
He looked over his shoulder. â€œIâ€™m concerned about you two lovely ladies living here alone so far from family. If anything happened to you â€¦â€ He shook his head. â€œNo, I donâ€™t even want to think about that. Iâ€™m checking your locks.â€
â€œI can help you, Uncle Philip.â€ Amber ran from the family room to his side.
â€œWe are perfectly fine here.â€ Toni protested. â€œThis is a quiet neighborhood and a much smaller town than Kansas City.â€
â€œYou should have stayed in Chicago since youâ€™ve refused toâ€”â€ He glanced at Amber then moved to another window. â€œWhere Dad and Mom could help you out.â€
â€œI donâ€™t need your parentsâ€™ help.â€ Toni knew her in-laws hadnâ€™t wanted her to move, but she also knew she couldnâ€™t stay and allow them to take over her life. Kyleâ€™s parents were wonderful people, but she needed to make her own way. She couldnâ€™t rely on anyone else.
â€œMaybe not.â€ Philip answered. â€œBut weâ€™re all the family you and Amber have, Toni. Iâ€™m just saying it would have been easier to check on you if you had stayed in the city.â€
â€œYouâ€™re not getting it.â€ She spoke slow and distinct. â€œYou donâ€™t have to check up on us.â€
He grinned over his shoulder as he moved to the last window in the living room. â€œI know that. But as you can see, Iâ€™m here, and Iâ€™ll be back. Donâ€™t you know Iâ€™m not doing this because I think you canâ€™t take care of yourself? Iâ€™m doing it because I care.â€
â€œOh, Philip.â€ Toni made a sound of annoyance and turned away. The man confused her. Let him check every window and door in the house if he wanted to. She had better things to do. He wasnâ€™t making any sense, anyway. If heâ€™d been so worried, why hadnâ€™t he checked her locks before now? Okay, so he did when they first moved into the house, but he hadnâ€™t since then. Why now? Maybe he thought sheâ€™d opened some since itâ€™d gotten warmer even though it wasnâ€™t that warm yet. She shook her head, went back to the family room, and flipped through the TV channels until she found an old romantic comedy playing. She plucked Amberâ€™s pillow from the floor and settled it back into place at the end of the couch before cuddling against it to watch the rest of the movie. Boots jumped up beside her and snuggled against her leg, purring softly.
She could hear Amberâ€™s chatter and Philipâ€™s deeper voice as they talked and laughed. At least Amber enjoyed his company. Toni tried to block out their voices as they moved through the house. Then she heard Amberâ€™s high- pitched squeal coming from the kitchen. Curiosity got the better of her so she pushed Boots aside and went to see what was going on.
â€œAre you saying you wonâ€™t go into the basement with me?â€ Philip stood with the door leading down into their basement open while he waited for Amber.
â€œNo, itâ€™s scary down there.â€ Amber backed away, her dark eyes wide in mock fear.
â€œThereâ€™s nothing in the basement that will hurt you, sweetheart.â€ Philip reasoned with her.
â€œYeah, sure.â€ Amber obviously didnâ€™t believe him. â€œNothing but mice and snakes and ...â€
â€œCreepy shadows in the corners?â€ He made claws of his fingers and lunged toward her, laughing when she squealed and moved away. â€œFine, you stay upstairs while I go brave all those creepy crawly things that go bump in the night.â€
â€œPhilip, youâ€™ll have her afraid to go to bed if you donâ€™t stop.â€ Toni stepped the rest of the way into the room.
â€œWho, me?â€ He turned at the sound of her voice. â€œI tried to convince her that a mouse or two wouldnâ€™t hurt her.â€
â€œYeah, Iâ€™ll bet.â€
â€œHonest.â€ With that parting word, and a roguish smile, Philip headed down the stairs, closing the door behind him.
Toni and Amber turned back to the family room and resumed watching Toniâ€™s movie. As the credits rolled, Philip stuck his head in the room.
â€œIâ€™m all done. You should be safe now.â€
â€œThank you, Philip.â€ Toni walked past him and led the way to the front door hoping he would follow. â€œI appreciate you stopping to see about us. You know youâ€™re always welcome, but please understand it wasnâ€™t necessary. Weâ€™re fine here.â€
â€œAre you handing me my coat and hat and telling me to hit the road?â€ His smile suggested he knew she wasnâ€™t happy with him, but he didnâ€™t care.
She laughed. â€œSomething like that. Itâ€™s past Amberâ€™s bedtime, and Iâ€™m tired too. Itâ€™s been a long day.â€
â€œBut youâ€™ll let me come back tomorrow, wonâ€™t you?â€ He tilted his head and let his lower lip protrude a bit reminding her of a naughty little boy asking for something he didnâ€™t deserve.
She laughed. â€œSure, if you promise you wonâ€™t worry about us.â€
He shook his head. â€œLike I can do that and be honest.â€
â€œFine.â€ She opened the door as a gentle hint. â€œCome back whenever you want.â€
He grinned and kissed her on the cheek then turned to Amber. â€œBetter give your old uncle enough sugar to last a while. Your mom may bar me from the house at any time.â€
Amber practically fell into his arms and squeezed his waist as tight as she could. He held her close and dropped a kiss on her forehead. Then with another grin and a wave, he left.
School ended for the summer giving Amber freedom to go with Toni to the bookstore. As they left one evening after work, Amber climbed into the car and asked, â€œMommy, can I please play softball this summer? Deannaâ€™s going to. Her dadâ€™s the coach.â€
Toni thought of Justin and winced. Theyâ€™d carpooled to and from school as promised, but rarely spoke. Other than that, she hadnâ€™t seen him except in passing since the night she barged into his house asking if he had her mail. As she thought back to that night, she had to concede itâ€™d been a stupid thing to go running next door. Why couldnâ€™t she have left well enough alone? If she wasnâ€™t careful, he might believe she was trying to use any excuse to get close to him. Sheâ€™d do well to avoid Justin as much as possible. â€œDonâ€™t we have enough to do without adding softball?â€
Amber crossed her arms and stuck her lower lip out. â€œNo, besides you promised I could play outside now that we donâ€™t live in an apartment.â€
â€œI meant in the yard. And you still can.â€
â€œPlease, Mommy.â€ Amber begged. â€œIt wonâ€™t cost anything because itâ€™s at the city park and we get T-shirts from some sponsor like a business or something.â€
Amber surprisingly said no more about softball until after they ate dinner that night. When the last dish had been washed and put away, she looked up. â€œWhy donâ€™t I run next door and get the stuff from Deannaâ€™s father?â€
â€œWhat stuff might that be?â€ Toni turned to look at Amberâ€™s overly innocent expression.
She shrugged. â€œOh, you know, for softball.â€
â€œAnd why would we want that?â€
Amber gave a long-suffering sigh. â€œMo-om.â€ She made at least two syllables out of the word. â€œSo you can read about it and sign me up.â€
Toni hid a smile. â€œOh, I see.â€ She paused as if she were thinking. â€œTell you what. You go get the stuff, and Iâ€™ll think about signing you up.â€
Amber almost tripped over her feet getting to the door.
Within ten minutes she was back. With Justin and Deanna. Toni did her best to ignore Justin which meant she hoped her pounding heart didnâ€™t sound as loud to anyone else as it did to her.
â€œHello, Deanna.â€ She smiled at the little blonde-haired girl whose wide blue eyes gave her a china-doll appearance. Toni knew better. Deanna was as much of a tomboy as Amber.
Justin cleared his throat. Toni glanced at him as a smile began in the corners of his mouth while her stomach added flip flops to her noisy heart. He handed her several papers stapled together. â€œAmber tells me you need convinced that softball is a suitable activity for her.â€
Toni glared at her daughter. â€œI donâ€™t know if I would go as far as that. I just need some info on whatâ€™s expected of us. This is a busy time for me at the store. Our open house will be this next Saturday so thereâ€™s no way she could be at a game then.â€
â€œIf thatâ€™s your only concern, weâ€™re in the clear.â€ Why did the man have to be so good on the eyes? â€œWe practice on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Most of our games will be on Friday evening about seven oâ€™clock. If thereâ€™s a change from that, youâ€™ll be notified in plenty of time.â€ Oh, he was good at pretending he didnâ€™t know the affect he had on her while he stood entirely too close and pointed at the papers in her hand. â€œIâ€™ve given you the health form, an application, and a schedule of practices and games. If you have any questions, let me know.â€
Toni nodded and glanced through the papers. She could barely focus, but didnâ€™t see anything on the application that concerned her. â€œDoes she need to see a doctor?â€
Justin shook his head. â€œNo, that isnâ€™t necessary. Weâ€™ll take your word sheâ€™s able to play. If sheâ€™s been playing during recess at school, she shouldnâ€™t have a problem with us.â€
â€œAll right.â€ Toni took the pen Justin held out being careful to avoid his fingers. As quickly as possible, she scrawled her name on the forms. When she handed them back, his smile appeared warm and friendly. Heâ€™d apparently forgotten their last meeting. Probably their past as well. For some reason that annoyed her. Well, she could play this game too.
She forced a smile to match the one on his face. â€œYou and Deanna will have to stop by Book and Coffee Nook Saturday for our open house. Weâ€™ll have gifts to hand out with each purchase, and Miranda is planning some really scrumptious cakes to go with her coffee.â€
â€œSounds like fun. Weâ€™ll try to be there.â€ Justin touched Deannaâ€™s shoulder. â€œWeâ€™d better get home now. Iâ€™m glad youâ€™re letting Amber play. Her first practice is this Thursday.â€
â€œAll right.â€ Toni walked him to the door while Amber and Deanna ran ahead. She held the door for him and fought the urge to ask him to stay. â€œIâ€™ll look for you Saturday.â€
He nodded. â€œShouldnâ€™t be a problem, as far as I know now. But first, Iâ€™ll see you and Amber Thursday at six.â€
On Thursday at noon, Justin left Deanna playing in the castle with Amber at the bookstore and entered Daveâ€™s CafÃ© on the square in downtown Pleasant Spring. He glanced past full tables of diners until he spotted his friend and fellow school teacher in a back booth. Sliding into the bench opposite, he took the menu Travis Harris offered and opened it.
â€œThis place was standing room only when I got here,â€ Travis said.
Justin glanced at the busy cafÃ© and nodded. â€œStill looks that way.â€
â€œYep, you should count your blessings to have a friend like me save you a table.â€
Justin gave a distracted smile and nod of assent at Travisâ€™s attempt at humor. He tried to concentrate on the choices for lunch and decided the special, lasagna with green beans, sounded good enough.
â€œOkay, spill it.â€ Travis took the menu and gave Justin a direct look. â€œWe havenâ€™t been friends long, but I know somethingâ€™s bothering you.â€
A slow grin spread across Justinâ€™s face. â€œNothingâ€™s bothering me. Iâ€™m just trying to figure something out.â€
His grin widened. â€œNope.â€
â€œAh.â€ Travisâ€™s eyebrows lifted and his grin matched Justinâ€™s. â€œI think Iâ€™m getting the picture.â€
Justin laughed as the waitress appeared at their booth. â€œLetâ€™s give her our orders then Iâ€™ll tell you before your imagination gets out of hand.â€
When the waitress left, Justin asked, â€œDo you remember the neighbor I told you about?â€
Travis grinned. â€œYou have to mean the lady in distress of a skateboard. Toni, right?â€
Justin laughed. â€œThe same.â€ His expression grew serious then. â€œDid I mention going to the same college she did? Maybe running in the same crowd? Dating? Howâ€™s your imagination doing now?â€
â€œOh, boy!â€ Travis shook his head, his gaze never leaving Justinâ€™s face. â€œIâ€™m seeing a serious relationship that went downhill sometime in the past.â€
â€œYouâ€™re good at this.â€ Justin took a drink of water. He wanted advice without telling too much. â€œToni isâ€¦â€ He paused to find the right words. â€œSheâ€™s smart, very attractive, and fun to talk to.â€
â€œUh oh.â€ Travis looked into his eyes. â€œSounds like you havenâ€™t gotten over whatever it was you had.â€
Justin took a deep breath and let it out in a rush. â€œYeah, I havenâ€™t, but Iâ€™m afraid she has. She married my best friend at college. At least, I thought we were friends. When we both tried for her hand, I wasnâ€™t so sure.â€
Travisâ€™s eyebrows lifted. â€œAnd he won?â€
â€œNo, I won, but then I blew it.â€
â€œOh?â€ Curiosity shone from Travisâ€™s eyes, but their lunch arrived at that moment. As soon as the waitress left, he leaned forward and looked Justin in the eyes. â€œIf you donâ€™t want to tell me everything, I understand, but youâ€™ve really got my curiosity stirred.â€
Justin shrugged. â€œItâ€™s simple. I married someone else.â€
Eight hours later, Toni sat next to Justin in a back booth at Pizza Hut. She still wasnâ€™t sure why sheâ€™d allowed Amber and Deanna to maneuver her into this position. Or why sheâ€™d agreed to come along. After their softball practice, the two girls had insisted they needed pizza. Justin hadnâ€™t seemed too keen on the idea either. Toni figured they both should learn to say no. If sheâ€™d known she would be practically squished against the man sheâ€™d never forgotten who still made her heart pound with no more than a look, she would have put her foot down.
â€œDid you ever find your letter?â€ Justinâ€™s voice, so close beside her, took every other thought from her head.
She turned and looked into his eyes but couldnâ€™t think. â€œMy letter?â€
â€œYes, the letter you lost.â€ His eyebrows lifted, and he took a bite of cheese pizza. How could he look so good while he chewed?
â€œOh,â€ Heat rose in her cheeks. â€œOh, yes, of course. No, I didnâ€™t find it.â€
When he stared at her, she tried to explain. â€œIâ€™ve been so busy getting ready for the open house. I havenâ€™t had time to think about much else. Iâ€™d almost forgotten the letter. I assume it still hasnâ€™t turned up with yours?â€
His lips twitched before he swallowed. â€œNo, it hasnâ€™t.â€
She turned away. It was better when she didnâ€™t look at him. â€œIâ€™ve looked everywhere. I sorted the mail I got that day a dozen times. I looked at every square inch of the driveway and even in the hedge in case it got stuck in there. Iâ€™ve gone through my house and the bookstore. I looked in the alley behind the store, thinking I might have dropped it. I donâ€™t understand how a letter could disappear so completely.â€
When he didnâ€™t speak, she chanced a glance his way.
Justinâ€™s skeptical expression angered her, but that was better than drooling over him. She turned away again, nibbling at her pizza. Eating with him was a huge mistake. He shouldâ€™ve stayed wherever he lived with his wife. Obviously, he didnâ€™t remember what heâ€™d done to her. Of course not. He probably thought marrying someone else when he was practically engaged to her was all right. Heat vibrated from her cheeks while her blood pressure spiked.
Amber laid her unfinished slice of pizza back on her plate while she and Deanna worked a puzzle in a book. Good, sheâ€™d satisfied her hunger, and they could leave. â€œAmber, itâ€™s time to go.â€
She ignored Amberâ€™s complaint, took the newspaper clipping from her purse, and handed it to Justin. â€œI found this in the Chicago paper the morning the letter came. The man who was shot was the one who wrote to me.â€
Justin read the article then handed it back to her with a frown. â€œIâ€™m sorry. I assume John Downing was a friend of yours?â€
â€œNo, I barely knew him. He was Kyleâ€™s friend.â€
â€œI see.â€ Yet the confusion in his eyes said he didnâ€™t. â€œI hope you find your letter soon.â€
Toni scooted from the bench and stood. â€œAmber, itâ€™s time to go home.â€
Obviously sheâ€™d wasted her time talking to Justin. He probably thought she was crazy. Why not? It didnâ€™t matter because she didnâ€™t intend to waste any more time in his company.
She grabbed Amberâ€™s hand, giving her barely enough time to tell Deanna bye. By the time her car headed toward home, sheâ€™d decided she would make one more thorough search for the letter, and when she found it sheâ€™d shove it in Justin Elliottâ€™s face.
â€œGood morning.â€ Toni greeted an older couple as they came through the door. â€œPlease feel free to browse. Iâ€™ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.â€ She motioned toward the area on the far side of the building. â€œYou might enjoy visiting the coffee shop. There are cookies, petit fours, and Iâ€™m not sure what all to choose from. Miranda will be glad to help you with your choice of coffee as well. She has a good selection of delicious coffees and teas.â€
â€œThank you.â€ The woman gave her a sweet smile. â€œWeâ€™ll look around then.â€
â€œAnd check out those sweets too.â€ Her husband placed his hand beside his mouth as if to keep his wife from hearing.
She simply glanced at him and shook her head. â€œYes, Iâ€™m sure weâ€™ll have to have some refreshments before leaving. You have a cute waitress.â€
Toniâ€™s smile widened. â€œYes, thatâ€™s Amber, my daughter. Working keeps her out of trouble, especially since sheâ€™s having a great time.â€
â€œOh, I imagine.â€ The woman took her husbandâ€™s arm, leaving Toni to watch them walk away.
They acted so comfortable with each other as if theyâ€™d been married since they were young. What would it be like to marry and stay with someone until you were old and gray? Sheâ€™d probably never know. Shaking off the melancholy mood those thoughts brought, she turned as the door opened and greeted the next customers.
Toni was ringing up a nice sale of several books when the bell on the door jangled again. She looked up as Philip walked in. How nice! Pleased to see heâ€™d made the effort to drive down from Kansas City again so soon for their open house, she sent a smile his way. As soon as her customers left with their books, she walked around the counter. â€œHello, Iâ€™m surprised you were able to get away. If youâ€™re interested in a book, there are some legal thrillers on the shelf near where Amber is standing. Although I canâ€™t imagine why, I know you like them.â€
He chuckled. â€œWe each have our own taste in books. I happen to know you read romances and canâ€™t understand why youâ€™d waste your time that way.â€
â€œWaste of time?â€ She stuck up her nose. â€œAs if.â€ She laughed. â€œOh, go find a thriller. I have other customers to greet.â€
â€œIn that case, I believe Iâ€™ll grab a book then find your cutest waitress to bring me some coffee. If itâ€™s all right, that is.â€
â€œOf course. Amber will be thrilled.â€ Toni turned away as he walked off. Sometimes Philip got on her nerves, but for the most part sheâ€™d always liked him. Amber adored her uncle. Too bad Kyle and Philip never got along. Being half-brothers shouldâ€™ve given them a connection they didnâ€™t seem to have. It was sibling rivalry more than likely.
She hurried to the cash register to ring up another sale. She shouldâ€™ve hired a bubbly teenager to greet customers as they came in. Surely one of the girls in the youth group at church wouldâ€™ve liked to earn some extra money. Sheâ€™d keep that in mind if she ever had another promotional day.
As Toni finished, she noticed Philip move to a table and sit down. Amber immediately spotted him and squealed before running to give him a hug.
Outgoing customers passed another group coming in. Sheâ€™d never expected such a big turnout. Surely her shelves would be cleaned off at dayâ€™s end. She chuckled at the thought then went forward to speak to the newcomers. â€œWell, hello, Christi.â€ She bent and patted the little girl on the shoulder. â€œIâ€™m so glad you came to my bookstore. Who are these tall people standing behind you?â€
The four-year-old girl twisted to look up at her parents then turned back to Toni and giggled. â€œThatâ€™s my mommy and daddy. You know them.â€
Toni gave Hope and Wes Knight a grin. â€œOh, thatâ€™s right. I do know them.â€ She stood. â€œWelcome to my bookstore. If you need help finding any special books, I can do that. The childrenâ€™s section isnâ€™t hard to find. Itâ€™s that big castle over there.â€
She watched Christiâ€™s eyes grow big as she stared at the castle, which most children headed for first. â€œThen we have a coffee shop in back with a choice of sweets.â€
â€œI believe youâ€™ve thought of everything.â€ Hope smiled her approval. â€œI love the castle. Itâ€™s open and looks like itâ€™s easy to see from anywhere in your store.â€
â€œOh, yes. We made sure of that.â€ Toni grinned. â€œI didnâ€™t work with kids for two years for nothing. Some of them you wouldnâ€™t want out of your sight.â€
â€œTrue.â€ Wes spoke up. â€œSadly, some adults are the same way.â€
Toni nodded. â€œI guess they havenâ€™t grown up.â€
â€œMommy, please, can I go to the castle?â€ Christiâ€™s dark red hair bounced just as she did.
â€œYes, of course. Walk, so you donâ€™t run into anyone. And be very good.â€ A sweet smile brightened Hopeâ€™s face as she watched her daughter. â€œIâ€™m probably over protective, but for a while I thought Iâ€™d never have her back with me. And I donâ€™t know why I brought that up. It isnâ€™t something I want to talk about.â€
â€œIâ€™m so thankful you have her now.â€ Toni watched Christi stand in hesitation before going into the castle.
â€œMe, too.â€ Wes touched Hopeâ€™s arm. â€œHey, Iâ€™m going to browse.â€ He turned to Toni. â€œIâ€™ve been wanting to come in and see what you have here, but never found the time.â€
â€œThatâ€™s why weâ€™re having this big shindig.â€ Toni smiled. â€œTo force people like you to take time.â€
â€œIt worked.â€ He grinned and left.
â€œMaybe you can point me toward the recipe books.â€ Hope watched him before turning to Toni. â€œI need some new ideas for dinners.â€
â€œMmm, sounds good. You should find something perfect in the second shelf from the far wall. Have fun looking.â€ From the corner of her eye, Toni noticed Philip with his arm around Amberâ€™s shoulders walking toward her.
â€œOh, I will.â€ Hope wiggled her fingers in a parting wave as she moved away.
Toni turned to the two approaching. Since Kyleâ€™s death, Philip had taken over the Kansas City office. To keep distance from his parents possibly. Toni had never understood the dynamics of the Duncan family, but sensed there had been some friction between the two boys and their father. Especially during the last couple of years before Kyleâ€™s accident.
â€œMom, weâ€™re going for ice cream. Please say yes.â€ Amber pulled away from her uncle and ran toward Toni. â€œUncle Philip has Thunder out in the car, so weâ€™re taking him to the park. He really needs to get out and play, you know.â€
Toni looked from Amberâ€™s pleading face to Philipâ€™s grin. â€œYou donâ€™t mind, do you? I promise I wonâ€™t keep her long.â€ Philip patted Amberâ€™s head. â€œIâ€™ve already seen what a good waitress she is, so I know youâ€™ll want her back.â€
â€œOf course, I want her back.â€ Toni smiled at Amber. â€œI suppose your dog does need some time in the grass. Go ahead, but see if you can be back in about an hour.â€
â€œOkay, weâ€™ll do.â€ Philip tapped Amberâ€™s shoulder. â€œLetâ€™s go, short stuff.â€
â€œHey, Iâ€™m not short.â€ Amber took off for the door without a backward glance.
Philip grinned and followed.
â€œAw, Amberâ€™s leaving.â€ Deannaâ€™s outcry had Justin looking as a sports car drove off with Amber in the passenger seat. A large dog sat in back with its head resting on the front seat.
Justin couldnâ€™t tell who was driving, but slowed his steps. â€œMust be family. So does that mean youâ€™d rather not go to the bookstore?â€
â€œNope.â€ Deanna skipped ahead. â€œI still want to see what Amberâ€™s mom has in her store.â€ She stopped and turned, her brows drawn together. â€œDonâ€™t you?â€
Truthfully, he wasnâ€™t all that interested in books at the moment. Despite being drawn to Toni, she made him nervous. A reaction fueled by his insecurity because he couldnâ€™t forget their past probably.
Justin blinked bringing Deanna into focus. Oh yeah, sheâ€™d asked him something. He glanced toward the store, trying to think. Something about books. â€œUh, yeah, sure.â€
* * *