Home » , , , , , » Reflected in Her Eyes: A Short Story Plus Chapter Sampler by Deanna Lynn Sletten

Reflected in Her Eyes: A Short Story Plus Chapter Sampler by Deanna Lynn Sletten

Michael DeCara came home from the Vietnam War a wounded man, both physically and emotionally. He tried putting his life back together, but found civilian life difficult after all he’d experienced in Nam. Raising his young daughter, Vanessa, by himself after his wife left, he found it difficult to commit to one job or one woman for any length of 
Reflected in Her Eyes: A Short Story Plus Chapter Sampler
Reflected in Her Eyes: A Short Story Plus Chapter Sampler by Deanna Lynn Sletten

time. Then he met a young woman who made him feel good about himself again and who fell in love with Vanessa as well. But a life-changing event occurred and he had to choose between his past and the present. He chose to leave without a word to the young woman, believing he was doing what was best for her. Now, years later, she has walked back into his life and he believes they may have a second chance at love–except she hates him and he doesn’t understand why.



Danielle Westerly fell in love when she was only eighteen and her heart was broken when he left her without a word. Her heartache was increased when she made a fateful decision that would alter her future, and she blamed him for her loss. Years later, she is single and has built up a successful career when she accidently runs into the man who was responsible for her past pain. Yet, their chemistry is undeniable. Can Dani give up her anger and let go of the pain of the past and fall in love again with the man she has hated all these years?





Dani and Michael share a journey of heartache, loss and painful memories which threaten to keep them apart. Can they forgive the past and finally find love again?





Sara’s Promise





Do you believe in soul mates?





William Grafton had the perfect life with his lovely wife, Sara, and two wonderful children. But one day his perfect forever was shattered when Sara died suddenly, leaving him alone to raise his children and wonder how he would ever get through life without his soul mate. Five years later, he finds himself looking into a familiar pair of blue-green eyes that remind him of Sara. The woman is the exact opposite of his late wife, yet he finds he is drawn to her. But after a few strange occurrences, he begins to wonder–are these just coincidences or has his Sara come back to him as she once promised in the form of this new woman?





Annie Paxton doesn't believe in soul mates or fate. She had watched her father die of a broken heart after her mother passed away and has since cast away any fairy tale ideas of love. Then she meets the man who has been haunting her dreams and she begins to see love in a whole new light. But her dream man is still tied to his deceased wife, and Annie doesn't know if he will ever be able to break away from his past. As strange occurrences unfold, Annie wonders if William could ever truly love her for herself and not for the traits that remind him of Sara.





Were William and Annie brought together by fate, coincidence, or by Sara keeping her promise?





Destination Wedding





Life is full of surprises…





Claire Martin's life is perfect, or at least she tells herself it is. She owns a successful clothing boutique, has a steady, dependable boyfriend, and a beautiful grown daughter who is about to be married. Sure, Claire's husband of twenty years left her for a younger woman four years ago, but that is all in the past. Now, Claire is looking forward to her daughter's Bahama wedding and spending a week in paradise. The only thing Claire dreads is her ex-husband and his wife will also be on the island. Claire is determined to make the best of it, though. What Claire doesn't realize is ignoring her ex-husband for the week is going to be impossible.





James Martin's life is a mess. His wife of less than four years has made him the most miserable man on earth and now they are in the middle of a messy divorce. He's happy that he can forget her for a week as he goes off to the Bahamas to attend his lovely daughter's wedding. Jim is embarrassed to admit to his daughter and his ex-wife, Claire, that he made the biggest mistake of his life when he left her for another woman, so he makes up a story as to why his new wife didn't come along. When he and Claire are unexpectedly forced upon each other, Jim soon realizes what he's lost and he begins to wonder if he can find a way back into Claire's heart.





Summer of the Loon





Life can change in a heartbeat…





Ali Jenson's life changed forever the moment her mother died. The sixteen-year-old was suddenly swept away from the life she knew in California to live with her estranged grandfather in the deep woods of northern Minnesota. Ali's life has never been easy, but it seems her grandfather is trying his best to make it even more difficult. Her only hope is to get through the summer and her last year of high school so she can return to her old life in California. What she hadn't counted on was slowly becoming attached to the grumpy old man and falling in love for the very first time.





Benjamin Jenson never planned on meeting his granddaughter, let alone having her live with him. He isn't thrilled with the idea of a teenage girl coming into his home or his life. He'd been down that path once before and he didn't want to relive it again. But he is her only living relative and he knew his deceased wife, Lizzie, would have wanted him to give Ali a home. Grudgingly, he figured he could put up with the girl for a year. He never expected Ali to find a way into his heart and make him face painful past memories and his worst fear. The fear of losing yet another person he loves.





Will Ben finally let go of the past and give Ali the one thing she's always dreamed of? A home.





Walking Sam





Love isn’t always a walk in the park…





Ryan Collier has lived a quiet life with his golden retriever, Sam, and two orange tabbies since the death of his wife nearly three years ago. Friends and family are encouraging him to move on and find someone new to share his life with, but Ryan feels he will never find someone he can love as much as his wife. Ryan reluctantly gives in and starts going out on weekends, and soon discovers that women have changed as well as the rules of dating. He’s longing for a fulfilling relationship but the women he meets only want one-night stands. Then, Kristen moves in next door and he’s happy to find they have a lot in common. There’s only one problem—she’s not available.





Kristen Foster craves a peaceful place to call home. With her stressful job as a pediatric oncology nurse and a failed marriage behind her, she doesn’t want any more drama in her life. Then her casual boyfriend—a surgeon—proposes to her. And she finds that the widower next door is a thirty-something, handsome man who seems to have his choice of young women every weekend. His only redeeming quality is his beautiful dog, Sam. But as she gets to know Ryan, Kristen is drawn to him. She finds herself struggling to choose between the dependable surgeon or the man she believes is the neighborhood playboy.





Can Sam’s furry charm bring Ryan and Kristen together?





Walking Sam is a heartwarming story of two people who have to let go of the past in order to see what’s right in front of them.





Kiss a Cowboy (Book One)





Sometimes fate steps in and changes everything…





Andi Stevens drives away from her home to begin a new life with her fiancé in Buffalo, New York. When her car breaks down in Montana, she knocks on the door of a cabin for help. What she finds is Luke Brennan, the most handsome man she's ever met. He takes her up to the main ranch house where his mother welcomes her. Andi quickly falls in love with the ranch and its occupants. And no matter how hard they fight it, she and the brooding cowboy form a bond. Andi finds herself struggling with her promise to marry one man and the attraction she feels for another.





Luke Brennan isn't interested in having his heart broken again. But when a beautiful woman shows up at his door, he is taken by surprise. As hard as he tries to stay away from Andi, he finds himself drawn to her time and time again. But she's engaged to another man. Yet, he finds his heart slowly giving itself away to this woman.





Widow, Virgin, Whore





Three very different women−one house−one devastating diagnosis.





When recently widowed Katherine Samuals purchases a home to share with her son, Christopher, and best friend, Denise Richards, the last thing she expects is to include Denise's outrageous sister, Darla Richards, into the household. But Katherine agrees because she adores Darla's daughter, Chelsea, and feels this is a good opportunity to give the young teen a real home.





Living with Darla is not easy. She parties too much, sleeps around, and speaks her mind without apology. To conservative Katherine and shy Denise, Darla’s behavior is intolerable. Then, Darla is diagnosed with AIDS, and the household is turned upside-down. Katherine finds herself thrown into Darla's life, first as her caregiver, then as her companion as she explores the devastating lives of AIDS sufferers. Katherine's fledgling writing career flourishes as she shares the experiences of Darla's AIDS group in newspaper articles across the country. And Denise finds true love for the first time, but struggles with the inappropriate timing of her personal happiness. Surprisingly, Darla also finds love−real love−in a time when she needs it the most.





As the household struggles with the stress of living with a terminal illness, Katherine, Denise, and Darla learn just how strong their bond of friendship, and sisterhood, is.





If you are a sister or best friend, you will love this story.





Reflected in Her Eyes





A Short Story





Deanna Lynn Sletten





Prologue


Four Years Earlier





Marissa Jamison sat in the dark lounge nervously tapping her fingernail against her wine glass. She was away from home on business, her expense account paying for the luxury hotel and even the drink she was holding. But her mind was far from business this evening. Tonight, she had much more to think about.

Her eye caught his again and she quickly looked away. He sat at the bar across the room, his tall, broad build and sandy blond looks constantly catching her eye. He was perfect, the exact type Marissa had pictured in her mind. Yet, each time their eyes met, she lost her nerve and glanced away. Could she follow through with what she’d set out to do? She wasn’t sure if she had the nerve.

“Hello, I’m Chris. May I join you?”

Marissa looked up into the soft blue eyes of the stranger she’d been staring at. It was too late to back out now. She nodded for him to sit down. “I’m Marissa.” Her voice was calm but her heart was beating rapidly inside her chest. She shifted a bit in the leather chair.

“Hello, Marissa. Are you alone?”

Marissa nodded again, but this time willed herself to look up and search his face. Clear blue eyes, intelligent brow, and a warm smile. He had a kind face, so much like… She pushed the thought from her mind.

“Something wrong?” he asked, seeing the frown that had appeared on her face.

“No.” Marissa smiled, placing her hand on his bare arm. “I was admiring how handsome you are.” He smiled back as his eyes took her in. He looked pleased with her long blond hair, blue eyes, and slender body.

That night, after steady talk and several drinks, Marissa allowed Chris to escort her back to her room, undress her, and make love to her. They spent the night enjoying each other, uninhibitedly, as only strangers could. And in the morning, as Chris slept soundly between the sheets, Marissa placed a note beside his blond head and quietly left the room.





Today





“Daddy’s home, Daddy’s home!” cried three-year-old Katie, running into the bedroom. The little girl twirled twice, her pale blond hair lifting with each spin, then headed out of the room. Marissa smiled as she looked out of the window and watched her husband’s car pull into the driveway. Then she returned back to her packing.

Amid delighted squeals and constant chatter, John entered the room with Katie at his heels and kissed Marissa on the cheek. “Almost finished packing?” he asked as he lifted an excited Katie into his arms.

“I’m done with ours, now I just have Katie’s left.” Marissa was interrupted by Katie’s excited voice.

“Daddy, I can’t wait to go. Do we really get to fly on a big plane? And play on the beach? Mommy bought me a new swimsuit. Let me show you!” She jumped out of John’s arms and ran to her bedroom.

“Well, she’s excited,” he said, laughing. “How about her mother?”

Marissa smiled up at her husband of twelve years. He still looked as handsome as he had when they first met in college fourteen years earlier. He had maintained his athletic build and was still slender and trim and his hair was as blond as the day they met. He had the chiseled face of a male model and bright blue eyes that sparkled at her with pure love, even after all these years. “This vacation was a great idea, I’m glad you suggested it. Especially since I’ll be returning to work when we come home.” Marissa looked thoughtful. “That will seem strange after all the time I’ve had off.”

“I’m glad you stayed home with Katie these past three years. I think it was good for her.”

“It was good for me, too. This trip will be the perfect ending of a special time for me.”

Katie bounded into the room, tangled in the straps of her swimsuit. “See Daddy, see?” Marissa laughed softly as she helped her daughter fix the straps.





To Marissa and John, the plane trip was uneventful but for Katie, everything about it was exciting. They had to change planes to a smaller one that would take them to the island resort’s airport. When finally they landed on the island and arrived at the luxury resort, both parents were worn out, but Katie was ready for the beach.

“Hold on a moment.” John couldn’t help but laugh at Katie’s excited squeals to go for a swim.

Since it was late, the three took a walk along the shore before dinner, promising Katie a full day of sun and swimming tomorrow.

The first two days were heavenly. Sunshine reflecting off ocean waves, castles built out of sugary sand, and splashes and squeals from Katie in one of the two enormous swimming pools at the resort while soaking in the warmth of the tropical sun.

“Enjoying yourself?” John asked Marissa as they laid in the sand along the water’s edge, watching Katie jump small waves.

“Oh, yes. This place is heavenly.”

“Daddy, come in the water with me,” Katie called out to her father. John left Marissa’s side and headed to the water. Marissa laid back on the sand, watching father and daughter play, thankful for all she had. The warmth of the sun and the cool breeze caressed as she fell into a peaceful, drowsy state.

“Marissa?”

She opened her eyes, blinking against the glaring sun and stared at the shadow standing over her. When her vision finally cleared, her eyes grew wide in recognition.

“Is that really you, Marissa?” The figure kneeled in the sand beside her, smiling down at her.

“Chris,” was all Marissa could manage to say in her state of shock.

“I thought I recognized you yesterday when I saw you in the lobby. Imagine, after all this time, seeing each other here. How have you been?”

He was still handsome, maybe even more so with age and his smile was friendly and warm. He had no idea of the extreme tension that was building inside Marissa. “I’m fine,” she stammered.

“You look amazing! I wasn’t too happy with the way you left the last time we met,” Chris told her. “But I’ll forgive you if you have dinner with me tonight.”

Marissa slowly shook her head. “No, I can’t,” she said softly. She couldn’t think, could hardly even speak.

“Mommy, Mommy, we swam out to the big waves. Did you see us?” Katie came running up to where Marissa sat in the sand, John directly behind her. He nodded to Chris who just stood there, staring at Katie. Marissa watched with dread as his face changed slowly from confusion to recognition, then his eyes shifted toward her. In that brief moment, Marissa knew that Chris had figured out her secret.

After a moment’s hesitation, Chris turned his attention to John and extended his hand. “Hello. I’m Christopher Farlow. You must be Marissa’s husband.”

“I’m John.” He shook Chris’ proffered hand. “And this is Katie, our daughter.” John looked down at the wiggling little girl with pride in his eyes. Katie smiled up at Chris with innocent blue eyes.

Chris knelt down in the sand beside Katie. “Hello, Katie. It’s so nice to meet you. Have you and your dad been swimming?”

Marissa stared at Chris beside Katie and almost gasped. The resemblance between the man and child was remarkable. Her heart pounded in her chest. What if John saw what she did? She would lose everything.

“Oh, yes,” Katie answered Chris’ question in an excited voice. “And we found a whole jar full of sea shells too. Do you want to see them?”

“I’d love to.” Katie dug through her pink beach bag for the jar, as Chris glanced over at Marissa with knowing eyes. She, in turn, looked up at John to see what his reaction was to the sudden appearance of this stranger. But John was simply watching Katie as she showed Chris her beautiful treasures. Drops of ocean water dripped from his blond hair to his tan shoulders, forming tiny streams down his chest. John looked as happy and carefree as Katie.

After exclaiming that Katie’s shells were the prettiest he’d ever seen, Chris turned his attention back to John. “You must be wondering who I am,” he said, giving John one of his warmest smiles. “Marissa and I met a few years ago. You can imagine my surprise, running into her here.”

John only nodded. Marissa traveled often for her job before Katie was born so he didn’t think anything of her having met Chris. “Are you here for the week?” he asked.

“Yes, until Saturday.”

“Well, maybe you’d like to join us at our table for dinner tonight. Then you and Marissa can catch up.”

Marissa’s eyes widened in disbelief. How could she possibly sit and eat dinner with her family and this man? She prayed Chris would decline but was horrified to hear him accept.

“That will be nice, thank you. I’ll see you tonight.”

Chris said goodbye to Katie and then stole a wink at Marissa before walking down the beach. Marissa stared at him as he disappeared from view. Sitting down beside her, John rubbed her arm affectionately as Katie bounded upon him with a giggle. Marissa turned to look at her husband, afraid he’d figured it out, afraid he’d look at her accusingly. Instead, all she saw was love in his eyes. Her worse nightmare had just unfolded before her and she had done nothing but sit silently by and watch it happen.





That evening Marissa’s mind raced as she dressed for dinner. What will Chris tell John? Should she tell him first? Could her marriage survive the truth? Had Chris really seen in Katie what she’d hoped he wouldn’t? Her mind was spinning and her palms were sweating; she thought for sure she was going to be sick.

John walked up behind her, smiling at her reflection in the mirror. “Are you okay?” he asked.

She could only manage to nod.

“Are you upset that I invited Chris to join us?”

“No.” She said the word too fast and too loud, making John frown at her reaction. “No,” Marissa repeated in a softer tone. “Why do you ask?”

“You seem a little edgy, that’s all. You’re also very pale. Do you feel okay?”

Marissa gazed at John’s reflection in the mirror and saw only love and concern in his eyes. Her heart swelled with love for this man she’d promised to spend the rest of her life with. “I’m just tired from the sun and fresh ocean air today. Maybe we should eat dinner in the room tonight.”

John smiled and moved closer, placing his arms around her waist and nuzzling her neck. “You look too lovely tonight to hide away in the room. I’m sure you’ll feel better once you’ve had something to eat.”

Katie came running into the bathroom, her dress askew. “Mommy, I need help with my buttons.” Marissa knelt down beside her daughter and began to straighten her dress. John joined them on the floor, encircling the pair with his arms. “I’ll be the envy of all the men tonight because I’ll have the two most beautiful women by my side.”

His words only made Marissa feel worse.





Marissa, John and Katie had just been seated at their table when Chris joined them. He sat in the chair between John and Katie, directly across from Marissa.

“I appreciate you inviting me to join you tonight,” Chris said, making himself comfortable. “Since I’m here alone, I find dinner rather awkward.”

The waiter appeared and took their order. Once he was gone, John addressed Chris. “You mentioned you met Marissa on business. May I ask what business you’re in?”

“Of course.” Chris shot Marissa a quick look before answering. “I’m in the travel business. That’s why I’m on this trip. I have to visit the resorts before I can recommend them to clients.”

“How interesting. How long have you been doing this?”

“For about ten years. I own my own agency just outside of Chicago.”

“And how did you and Marissa meet?” John’s questions were completely innocent; he was only making polite conversation but this particular question made Marissa even more uncomfortable.

“She gave a financial seminar in our area on running a business and I attended. I learned a lot from her. She is very knowledgeable in her profession.” Chris’ answer was believable but Marissa didn’t like the way he’d worded it. However, John seemed to take it at face value so she relaxed a little.

Chris turned and smiled at Katie. “Tell me, Katie, how old are you? I bet you’re four.”

Katie giggled. “No, I’m three,” she said, raising her little hand and displaying three small fingers. “But I’ll be four soon!”

“Well, you’re certainly a well-behaved young lady of three. Perhaps you will save me a dance after dinner?” Chris teased.

Katie giggled again. Marissa noticed Chris studying Kathie’s face and once again grew uncomfortable.

Throughout the meal, John and Chris kept the conversation flowing. Marissa hardly spoke a word, giving most of her attention to Katie. She silently watched both men, looking for the slightest reaction from either of them that something was amiss. Katie, too, had been watching both men intensely. When dessert arrived, Katie spoke up between mouthfuls of vanilla ice cream. “You know what?” she asked Chris.

“What?”

“You look a lot like my daddy.”

John laughed at this but Chris turned his head and looked directly at Marissa. She didn’t like what she saw in his eyes.





Marissa sat in the afternoon breeze under the shade of a swaying palm tree at a table in the corner of the outdoor lounge, reading a book and sipping an elaborate, fruity drink. She tried to push away all thoughts of Chris and the night before. John seemed completely unaware of the tension she’d felt throughout the evening, so she tried to convince herself that she need not worry any longer about Chris. John loved and trusted her; she had to believe in that trust.

Chris appeared and sat down opposite of her. “Hello, Marissa. I see you’re alone.”

Marissa looked up from her book and stared directly at Chris. He had a determined look about him. She had no idea what he was thinking or what he wanted, all she knew was that no matter what he said, she’d meet him head on.

“Where are Katie and your husband?” Chris asked, stressing the word ‘husband’ in a calculating way.

Marissa continued to stare hard at Chris as she answered. “They’re off on a father-daughter picnic the resort scheduled.”

Chris nodded, and then flicked a folded piece of paper across the table to Marissa.

“What’s this?” Marissa didn’t touch the paper, only stared at it.

“Open it and see.”

Slowly, she lifted the folded paper from the table and examined it. It looked worn and faded, like it had been folded and pressed against something heavy for quite some time.

“Go ahead, open it,” Chris said again, his tone flat.

Marissa carefully unfolded the sheet of paper and saw the name of the hotel it came from printed on top. She didn’t have to read the note to know what it said, she recognized it instantly. All her fears from the night before came rushing back to her.

Chris said aloud the words written on the piece of paper in her hand.

“Dear Chris, Thank you for giving me the one thing the man I love is unable to give. I will never forget you. Marissa.”

She turned pale beneath her tan. “I can’t believe you’ve kept this all these years.”

“Yes, I did. I keep it in my wallet. It reminds me that even one-night stands can hurt. I really enjoyed being with you that night, Marissa. I enjoyed our conversation just as much as I did making love to you. I had actually thought I’d found someone I had a connection with. Then, I woke up to find this.”

Marissa watched Chris’ face as he continued speaking. The features she once thought so handsome were suddenly turning hard, angry.

“You know,” he continued, his bright blue eyes piercing hers, “I never understood what those words meant, until last night.”

Marissa drew in a sharp breath. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. All we had was just a one-night thing. We were both lonely and needed someone, that’s all. I know it was wrong, I was already committed to John, but it just happened.”

Chris glared at her. “No, Marissa. What happened between us was much more than just a one-night fling. Last night, I saw the meaning of your words in the note in the eyes of a little girl. Katie is my daughter.”

Marissa’s worst nightmare had just become a reality and she felt a sharp pain pierce her heart. She wanted to run away, take Katie and get as far away from this man as possible. But she couldn’t let Chris see her fear. Regaining her composure with all the strength she could muster, Marissa stood from her chair and glared at the man who could destroy her happy life in an instant. “You’re wrong. Katie is John’s daughter, in every sense of the word.”

“Anyone with half a brain can see whose daughter she really is.” Chris stood and grabbed Marissa’s arm. “Sit down, Marissa. We have a lot to talk about. All the proof I need is in this note, written in your own hand. Even your precious John could read between the lines.”

Marissa sank back into her chair. He was right; she had written her own confession when she’d penned that note. She looked across the table at Chris. He was angry, his eyes flashing. She had to reason with him and somehow make him understand.

Taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly, Marissa searched his eyes for some glimmer of compassion. “You have to understand, Chris. I love John. I’ve loved him since the day I met him. We both wanted a child more than anything. We tried for six years without success. I had several tests done and found that the problem with conceiving didn’t lie with me; it was John. But he refused to believe it. He so desperately wanted a child of his own. So I did the only thing I thought I could do. I did it because I loved John so much. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.” She stopped, not knowing what else to say, but when she looked up again at Chris, she saw that her words hadn’t softened him, but had made him angrier.

“What do you mean, the only thing you could do?” Chris said thought clenched teeth. “You had other options. What about adoption? What about sperm donors? There are plenty of options for having a child that don’t include cheating on your husband!”

Marissa fought the tears that welled up in her eyes. “Those weren’t options for us. We couldn’t afford to adopt, it’s expensive and can take years. And John would never have agreed to a sperm donor. He really believed that we could have a baby of our own. What was I supposed to do? I desperately wanted a child.”

“You used me!”

“We used each other. We enjoyed one night together. I never thought I’d see you again.”

“I don’t give a damn about your reasons,” Chris said. “You still used me. You picked me out of a crowd and used me like some stud in a field and then walked away. Like I wasn’t even human. Well, now it’s time for you to acknowledge that I do exist.”

Fear fell over Marissa’s face. “What are you going to do?”

Chris stared hard at her. “Maybe it’s time Katie knew who her real father is.”

Her eyes grew wide. “You wouldn’t! You can’t! Katie is John’s life. If he finds this out, it will destroy him. Please, Chris, don’t do this,” she pleaded. “Please, don’t tell John.”

Chris stood and snatched up the note that Marissa had dropped on the table. “She’s my daughter, not his. How can you expect me to walk away from my own flesh and blood? She’s a part of me.”

Marissa stood to face him. “You didn’t even know she existed until yesterday. How can you suddenly want a relationship with a little girl you don’t even know? Katie loves John, she’s attached to him. You’re young, Chris, you can have many more children, but Katie is all John and I will ever have. Please, please don’t do this.”

“You should have thought of that four years ago, Marissa. What you did was wrong, now you’ll have to pay.” Chris walked away as Marissa sank back into her chair, tears streaming down her face.





Two days passed and still Chris had not told John what he suspected, but he was everywhere, showing up on the beach, in the dining room, and everywhere else the little family of three went. Chris had every opportunity to tell John. Often, Marissa would see Chris and John with their heads bent close in conversation, yet still he hadn’t told John about Katie.

Ironically, John enjoyed Chris’ company. “We seem to have so much in common,” John had told Marissa one night as they were lying in bed. “It’s funny, we are so much alike.”

Marissa felt like a dry twig waiting to be stepped on and snapped. Chris was playing with her and she knew it. It was only a matter of time before he dropped the bomb. Marissa didn’t know how much longer she could hold out and John was not oblivious to her tension. Numerous times he had asked her what was wrong and each time she had lied to him and answered “nothing.” Even when he held her in his arms she could not push the fear away because she knew that at any moment, she was going to lose this man forever.

Morning broke upon the island resort with a grey sky the morning before their departure. The gentle ocean breeze had changed to windy gusts, causing the waves to break harder than usual against the shore.

Against Marissa’s protests, John gave in to Katie’s ardent pleas to spend their last day on the beach. Reluctantly, Marissa followed them there and settled in a lounge chair placed on the sand. After reiterating words of caution about the high ocean waves to the pair, she watched as John and Katie made their way into the white-capped water.

No sooner had the pair wet their feet, Chris joined them with a Frisbee and began tossing it back and forth against the strong wind to John. Marissa cringed at the site of Chris. She lay back on her chair and closed her eyes, wishing he’d just go away and leave them alone. The sun peeked out occasionally from behind the clouds and the day was quite warm despite the strong winds.

From time to time, Marissa opened her eyes to watch Katie beside John. Over the past week, Katie had become brave in the water, daring to go deeper and deeper, and this worried Marissa. She was not only afraid of the waves knocking the little girl down but also of the undertow which could pull someone so small under in an instant. However, John was with Katie, watching her every move, and Marissa trusted that he would keep their daughter safe.

As Marissa continued to keep her eye on Katie, she noticed that John and Chris were no longer throwing the Frisbee and were head to head in deep conversation. John seemed interested in what Chris was saying and didn’t notice Katie slowly straying from his side. On shore, Marissa was also more interested in what the two men were talking about than on Katie’s whereabouts. This is it, Marissa thought. Chris is telling John her secret. What will she say to her husband? How will their marriage survive her betrayal? Suddenly, a large wave hit the two men, the undertow pulling them down with it. Marissa sat up straight. Katie! Where was Katie? She jumped up and ran toward the shore. “Katie!” she screamed over the rushing wind.

John didn’t hear Marissa scream but only seconds after the wave hit, he realized that Katie was no longer beside him. An instant of sheer terror crossed his face before he dived in after his daughter.





Marissa sat in a chair on the room’s balcony in the tropical night air, looking straight ahead of her, seeing nothing, tears slowly spilling down her cheeks.

“Katie is sound asleep,” John said, joining his wife. He moved a chair closer to hers and sat, taking her hand in his. “Children are amazing,” he said. “Here I am, still shaking from what happened today and she has practically forgotten all about it.” He looked over at his wife and saw the trails of tears running down her cheeks. “Oh, baby, it’s okay now. Please don’t cry. Katie is fine.”

Marissa turned to look at him. “I’ve never been so scared in my life,” she whispered. “I can’t stop thinking what could have happened to Katie if you hadn’t found her in time.”

John wrapped his arms around her and pulled her to him. “Everything is okay now, honey. Nothing happened to her. And by tomorrow night, we’ll be home and this will all be behind us.”

The ocean lapped quietly against the sand under the night sky. The wind had died down and left a beautiful night with a clear sky and stars twinkling brightly above them. It was the perfect romantic setting, but it was all lost on Marissa. Between her fear of almost losing Katie today and of Chris telling John the truth, she couldn’t relax and enjoy the moment. They sat quietly together for a time, both lost in their own thoughts. In that moment, Marissa knew what she had to do. She had to tell John about Chris and her night with him four years ago. He deserved to hear it from her, not from some stranger he met on vacation. It was the right thing to do.

Before Marissa could speak, John broke the silence. “This hasn’t been much of a vacation for you, has it dear?” he asked.

Marissa looked at John, her brow furrowed in question. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve been very preoccupied practically since we arrived. You seem distant. And then we had this scare with Katie today. I’m not sure what to do or say to help you feel better.”

Marissa gazed into her husband’s concerned eyes. She loved this man so much; she could never bear to lose him.

Conjuring all her courage, she spoke, “John, there’s something important I have to tell you. Something that I’m afraid to tell you because I may lose you over it.” She stopped a moment to find her courage, but before she could continue, John interrupted her.

“Is this about Chris?” he asked softly.

She nodded solemnly. “Yes.”

John sighed. “I know this sounds awful, and I don’t want to accuse you of anything, but it just seemed so strange, Chris showing up and suddenly being everywhere we went. And the way he looked at you, and at Katie. Well, I had a feeling that something was going on between the two of you.”

Tears welled in her eyes. “Oh, John, I’m so…”

“No, wait. I’m not finished,” he said. “I don’t know what this is all about and frankly, I don’t care. Whatever happened between you two, if anything happened at all, it was years ago and it’s not important anymore. What’s important is that you and I are together and we have Katie.”

Marissa looked at John, surprised. “But John, what if…?”

He shook his head. “There are no what-ifs. You are my wife and Katie is my daughter. That’s all that matters to me.”

“Do you really mean that?” she asked.

“Yes, I do. With all my heart. As long as you want to share the rest of your life with me, and only me, then the past doesn’t matter.” He stood, pulling her into his arms and holding her close. She held on tightly.

“That’s all I want, too,” she whispered in his ear. “I love you and Katie so much. I don’t ever want to lose either of you.”

He pulled away slightly and gazed down into her eyes. “I love you, too, darling. For ever and ever.”

That night when they slipped into bed together, Marissa felt her heart lighten, the load of her secret now gone. She slept with her body curled against her husband’s, her arms holding him tight. She never wanted to let go of the comfort she felt by his side.





Marissa stood inside the island’s tiny airport building absently watching the plane prepare for take-off. John, with Katie at his heels, had gone to check in the luggage. She was not surprised when a voice came up behind her.

“Marissa?”

She turned to face Chris.

“Here,” he said. “This belongs to you.” He held out the note she had written all those years ago.

She stared at him in disbelief. “I don’t understand.”

“I’m not really a terrible person,” Chris told her. “I was angry at first, and maybe even a little jealous. I was jealous of John for being lucky enough to have both you and Katie. I even tried to hate him, but I couldn’t. He’s too nice of a guy. Hell, I was giving him travel advice for a family vacation right before Katie was swept underwater.” Chris smiled at Marissa. “Anyway, I don’t want this anymore. It’s yours to do with as you please.”

Marissa took the note Chris handed her. “I still don’t understand. What made you change your mind?”

“Yesterday, when we were out in the water and John realized what had happened to Katie, for an instant there was a look of terror on his face so intense, well, I just don’t want to be the one to ever put that look on is face again. It’s so obvious he loves Katie, and you, passionately. I have no right destroying that. You’re a very lucky woman, Marissa.”

She nodded her head in agreement, smiling up at Chris. “I know,” was all she could manage to say.

Chris winked and smiled and then turned on his heel to go. After a moment’s hesitation, he turned back to Marissa. “If you or Katie ever need me, for any reason, well, you know where to find me.”

“Thank you, Chris,” she replied softly. Chris nodded and then turned and walked out of the building.

Slowly, Marissa tore the note into tiny pieces and dropped them into the wastebasket beside her. She was finally free of the fear that had plagued her for the past four years.

Katie came running up to her with John close behind.

“Ready to go home, dear?” he asked.

Marissa lifted Katie into her arms and hugged her tight. “Yes, let’s go home.”





-END-





Memories





Deanna Lynn Sletten





Prologue





Today





Danielle Westerly-DeCara stood stoically clutching the folded American flag to her chest as the minister said his final words over the casket. She neither saw the minister nor heard his words. Her mind only registered the fact that she had to get through this painful day, one moment at a time. The sun in the autumn sky belied the bleakness she felt inside. She was burying the man she loved, and no amount of sympathy or prayer would comfort her today.

Dani lifted her eyes and glanced at the group of people surrounding the gravesite. Her dearest friend, Catherine, stood only a few feet away, next to her husband, Richard. Dani knew Cathy was trying to be strong but tears welled in her eyes. Kevin Lindstrom, a dear family friend and Michael’s closest friend, stood with the other veterans from the Veterans of Foreign Wars in his dress uniform looking serious and sad. Other veteran friends of Michael’s, as well as employees, neighbors, and business associates, huddled around the gravesite, all dressed in black with somber faces.

“Oh, Grandmom.” Dani’s twenty-one-year-old granddaughter, Michelle, came up beside her and slipped her arm around Dani’s waist. Dani did the same, and the two women who loved Michael DeCara the most held onto each other as the last prayers were said.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Amen. Dani heard the words being repeated by the group of family and friends but did not repeat them herself. She and Michelle held each other tighter as the coffin was slowly lowered into the ground. As it was lowered inch by inch, Dani’s heart sank with it.

The minister nodded to Dani and Michelle and the two women stepped forward. Dani bent and picked up a handful of fresh dirt and let it slowly fall through her fingers onto the coffin now resting deep within the earth. Michelle kissed the single red rose she was holding and dropped it into the open space. It landed softly on the center of the coffin. So, this is what it all comes down to after eighteen years of happiness, Dani thought. A prayer, a handful of dirt, and a single rose. One lone tear trickled down her cheek as she reached out to embrace Michelle, and then the two women slowly made their way back to the small crowd of people.

The minister handed Dani a snowy-white handkerchief to wipe the dirt from her hands, then hugged her gently as she thanked him for the lovely service. In turn, she thanked the veteran members from the VFW for participating in the military funeral. She knew that the playing of Taps and the twenty-one-gun salute would have made Michael very proud. She hugged Kevin, thanking him for arranging the military funeral for Michael. Cathy came up to Dani and hugged her friend close, the flag pressed between them. A quiet invitation to come back to the house for lunch circulated around the group as Dani held out her hand to Michelle and they walked slowly back to the limousine with Michelle’s boyfriend, Alex, following close behind.

All Dani wanted to do was go home, draw the shades, and crawl into the bed she and Michael shared for the past eighteen years, but she knew that wouldn’t be possible for several more hours. There was lunch to be served, people to commiserate with, and sympathetic nods and words to endure. It was all well-meaning, but draining nonetheless, and she steeled herself to make it through the rest of this heartbreaking day.

As the limousine made its way through the curving roads of the cemetery, Dani took one last look at the now deserted gravesite on top of the hill. She wouldn’t remember Michael this way, nor the way he looked just before cancer took his last breath. Her memories would always be of him exactly as he was the first time she loved him and the second time they found each other again. She reached for Michelle’s hand and looked into her green eyes, so much like her mother’s, and it brought all those memories flooding back to her.





Chapter One





Eighteen Years Earlier





Danielle Westerly cruised along the Wisconsin Interstate in her royal-blue Grand Am as the radio played softly from the back speakers. The midday sun felt glorious on her arm perched outside the window as the spring breeze whipped at her golden-blond hair. She had chosen to take the extra time to drive instead of fly to Chicago, and as she viewed the lush scenery around her, she was pleased with her decision. Although she had already been driving eight hours, and still had several more to go, she felt happy and carefree sailing along the highway on this beautiful May afternoon.

Dani’s boss had thought her crazy when she said she was going to drive. “That’s too far to go alone,” he’d told her. Dani had shrugged off his protests. At thirty-seven, she was used to doing everything alone, and a drive from Minneapolis to Chicago didn’t seem far to her.

She also appreciated the time away from work, even though the trip was work related. As the sportswear buyer for Chance’s Department Store, one of Minneapolis’ largest department stores, she worked long hours keeping on top of the latest trends, marketing the purchases, consulting with the department managers and salesclerks, setting prices, and everything else her position entailed, that she rarely took time off. And now, since jewelry had been added to her buying activities, she was busier than ever. But she loved her work and all the travel that went with it. After all, it was her entire life.

Seeing that the highway she wanted to continue taking veered off to the left, Dani checked her rearview mirror and moved into the left lane. She noted a van as it passed her on the right and saw a small face look out at her, then a little hand wave as the van took the road to the right.

Dani smiled at the young child’s face until he disappeared from view. Children. She had once wanted children, two, maybe three. But all that was decided for her when she’d made the mistake of falling in love with the wrong man. Because of one bad decision made in her youth, she would never have children of her own. And even though she had accepted that fact many years ago, it still came back to haunt her, especially lately, ever since her friend and coworker, Janette, became pregnant with her first child. Throughout the months, Dani had watched Janette grow large and heard nothing but talk about babies. Janette complained about being fat and clumsy but Dani knew that deep down she was enjoying every precious moment, every kick and wiggle inside her.

Dani was happy for her friend but found herself thinking more and more of what she would never experience, and the thought depressed her. However, Janette had done everything right. She’d finished college, married, built up her career as the coat buyer for Chance’s and now, when everything was perfect, was having a baby. It wasn’t Janette’s fault that Dani had made a fateful decision that changed her future. It was only Dani’s fault. His fault, too.

Dani turned up the volume on the radio in an attempt to keep her mind in the present and on the road ahead and not on the past. “Hotel California” by The Eagles began playing across the airwaves and Dani had to force herself not to snap off the radio. Another reminder of her past. She had once loved this song and The Eagles like she had loved him. Now the music only reminded her of the past and the man that she wished she could forget. After all, what had happened was another lifetime, back when she still lived with her parents in northern California. After leaving home to attend college at the University of Minnesota, then landing the position at Chance’s upon graduation, Dani had decided never to go back. And now that her parents were retired and living in a small resort town in northern Minnesota, she no longer had any reason to go back to California. That was fine with her since it meant no chance of ever seeing him again, not even by accident.

Once again, Dani tried turning her thoughts to the trip at hand. As she drove along, reaching the Illinois border, she thought of Catherine, the friend she was going to see tomorrow in Chicago. It had been two years since she’d last seen her former roommate, so Dani was happy the buyers’ meetings in Chicago had come up. It gave her an excuse to see Cathy and to finally meet Cathy’s new man, Michael, who Dani had heard about through Cathy’s letters. Dani laughed to herself over Cathy’s excited banter on paper. She had always been energetic and cheerful and even her letters could not contain her vivaciousness. In college, Catherine had been the light side to Dani’s serious nature. Whenever Dani became depressed or discouraged, Cathy was there to keep her smiling and laughing. Without Cathy’s upbeat personality, Dani might never have made it through the rigors of college life. The two helped each other through economic courses, impossible professors, and over-eager males. Even now, when things got tense, all Dani needed to do was talk to Cathy and she felt much better.

Since they were both in the retail business, they could relate to each other’s work problems. Cathy was the assistant to the owner of Regal Coats, a premier coat manufacturing company, and it was her boss she’d raved about over the past year. She was in love, thought he might actually be ‘the one’, and couldn’t wait for Dani to meet him.

Night fell as Dani entered the city and found her hotel. It was late by the time she slipped between the bed’s crisp sheets. She had to rise early for an eight o’clock morning meeting and then head over to Cathy’s apartment for lunch. As Dani drifted off to sleep, exhausted from her long drive, Chicago’s lights sparkled below her hotel room window.





***





Miguel DeCara lay crouched beneath the jungle bushes and vines, not quite sure where he was or what direction to go next. He knew for certain that the enemy was up ahead but he had no idea how close or how far—or how many. His comrades were beside him and behind him, but the jungle’s dense brush hid everyone from view.

The smell of smoke and gunpowder assailed his senses as he clutched his M-16 tightly, listening for any movement, any sign. Without warning, all hell broke loose and gunfire flailed around him. He heard the soldier on his right yell out as the bullets hit him and the sound of another body falling in the brush to his left. Screaming and yelling surrounded him as he stood from his hiding place in time to see a Viet Cong come straight at him. Without hesitation, Miguel fired his weapon, killing his enemy. And for only a second, he looked at the dead man before him, thinking how different it would have been had they met somewhere sane like New York or L.A. or even Chicago. Hell, they might have even been friends. But instead, here, they were enemies.

“Fall back!” the commanding officer yelled from behind, and Miguel instantly doubled back in the direction he had come. Shots snapped over his head. To his left a hand grenade went off, making him veer off to the right when suddenly his left foot stepped onto a hidden mine and all he heard was ‘click’.

Michael sat straight up in bed and instinctively reached down to feel his left leg. Yes, it was still there, not completely perfect, or the same as it had once been, but there. Wiping the sweat from his face with the back of his hand, he looked around the dark room for several minutes before assuring himself he was not in Nam, and it was not 1970. He was safe in his own apartment high above the Chicago lights.

Michael checked the clock on his nightstand. Three-thirty a.m. He slid out of bed and walked through the dark apartment, opened the refrigerator door, and drank deeply from a carton of orange juice. In the light of the refrigerator, he smiled to himself, thinking of his daughter, Vanessa, and how she used to say “Gross Dad!” every time he did this. But his daughter was no longer living with him, she was grown-up and married and had a daughter of her own now, and she ran the New York division of Regal Coats.

Michael had raised her by himself after his wife decided she could no longer handle being his wife or a mother. He’d only been home from Vietnam for eight months, trying his best to cope with civilian life and get back to being the husband and father he had been before shipping out. But Diane couldn’t take the nightly screams of anguish he suffered or his constant tenseness or times of distraction. All she knew was he wasn’t the same man she’d married and she didn’t want to get to know this new man, so she left him and Vanessa to fend for themselves and joined a commune in Oregon to ‘find herself’.

Michael juggled the next few years raising Vanessa alone while going through an endless procession of jobs and women, unable to commit to either. He felt so dirty, so unworthy of enjoying life after all the death he’d seen and been a part of in Nam that he was unable to maintain a relationship with any one woman for a long period of time. He knew it was wrong to jump from woman to woman, and he was careful that Vanessa never caught on to his exploits, but he couldn’t stop himself. Like the pot he’d become addicted to in Nam, so was he addicted to women. He’d meet a woman and feel good for the moment, the hour, or the day, then he’d plunge back down and need another and another.

He remembered few faces and names, and the women all reacted much like his wife had to his constant nightmares. It scared them, or baffled them, except for one young woman. When he’d screamed out in fear or pain from a nightmare, she’d held him and rocked him in her arms until he’d calmed down. She’d whisper over and over to him that he was all right, he was home, and she was with him, until he would slowly come out of his nightmare state and back to his senses. She had also been the only one to suggest he go for counseling to help him through his pain. “If not for you,” she’d said gently, “then for Vanessa.” Sweet little six-year-old Vanessa who she had grown to love in the few months she’d known them. But he’d balked at the idea that he needed help. He could handle everything on his own. He didn’t need an eighteen-year-old girl to tell him what he should do.

She had been one of the longest relationships he’d had, and she had been the last of the string of women. After her, his life changed overnight, without warning or preparation. He was forced to change his ways and clean up his act as responsibility was dropped into his lap.

Michael placed the half-empty carton back into the refrigerator, walked to his bedroom, and slipped between the sheets. He had an eight o’clock meeting in the morning and he had promised Catherine he’d be at her place by eleven o’clock for lunch. She was expecting an old college roommate of hers to visit and she wanted Michael to meet her.

He smiled to himself at the thought of Catherine. At forty-four, he was seven years her senior, but he looked much younger than his age. His build was strong from regular workouts, and even though his dark hair and full beard showed a few strands of silver, it only added to his rugged good looks. His deep gray eyes and golden brown skin could not deny his Portuguese heritage, although he had given up his true first name of Miguel for the American version. Women were attracted to him easily, but he’d been out of the market for a long time while he worked hard at the business and raised Vanessa. Only with Vanessa married and gone did he begin to allow himself the pleasure of women in his life again, and along came Catherine, beautiful, softly rounded, energetic yet easy-going. He enjoyed her company, especially in bed, and they had a few interests in common, like racquetball and tennis, along with working in the coat industry. Unfortunately, he wasn’t interested in much more from her than just fun and companionship and lately he’d sensed from her an eagerness to commit. He wasn’t ready for that now, and maybe he never would be.

This time when Michael finally fell to sleep his dreams were not filled with smoke and heat and death, but instead with the face of a young, blond, blue-eyed woman telling him he was okay, everything was going to be fine.





Chapter Two





Dani spent the morning looking over jewelry samples and listening to sales presentations until her head ached. When finally she escaped the dealers with her purchases completed and walked out of the stuffy showroom into the bright morning sunlight, she felt as if she could breathe again.

It was only ten o’clock, and although she wasn’t expected at Cathy’s until eleven, she hurried in the direction of the city train in the hope of arriving early so they could chat. Dani hated driving the busy streets in downtown Chicago, so she had left her car in the hotel parking garage and used the trains instead. While waiting in the crowd to board, a load of people alighted the train and passed through, and a man in a tan trench coat, with briefcase in hand, elbowed into Dani, stopping only long enough to turn and say a quick “excuse me” before hurrying on his way. For a moment, Dani thought she recognized him, but then shook her head. He wouldn’t be here, in a trench coat, on his way to the garment district. There was simply no way. But, as Dani rode along in the crowded train car toward the suburbs of Chicago, she couldn’t help but see that man’s face over and over in her mind.

Catherine Jamison squealed with delight when she saw her old friend.

“Oh Dani, it’s been so long!” she exclaimed as the two hugged in the doorway. Dani took off her light coat and hung it in the hall closet while Cathy talked a blue streak. “How was your drive? Isn’t the weather gorgeous? Oh, I wish you had stayed with me instead of at a hotel. There’s so much to talk about.”

Dani laughed at her friend’s barrage of questions and comments with no chance for her to reply. Cathy looked refined in her red silk blouse and cream trousers, her three-inch heels giving her five-foot, three-inch frame added height. But her bubbly nature defied her appearance, changing her into the college girl Dani remembered so well. Finally, Cathy steered Dani to the plush cream sofa, sat down, and simply asked, “How have you been?”

Dani answered her friend’s questions one by one as the two visited easily in Cathy’s comfortable living room. “I would have loved staying here with you,” Dani told her. “But with my meeting schedule, I thought it best to be at a hotel.”

Cathy nodded. “I understand how buying trips are,” she said. “More meetings and paperwork than there is time.”

“Speaking of which,” Dani raised her eyebrows at Cathy. “Tell me about this new love in your life. All I know is his name is Michael, he owns Regal Coats, and he’s your boss.”

For the first time since Dani arrived, Cathy was quiet, her eyes pensive. Pushing back a strand of her thick auburn hair, she said, “Michael is, well, different. Not in a bad or strange way, he’s just his own kind of person. He’s a great boss to work for and a much respected businessman, and he’s very kind and attentive…” Cathy’s voice trailed off.

“But?” Dani asked.

“Well, sometimes he seems so far away, distant, hard to get close to. And then his mood breaks and he’s warm and loving again.”

“Do you think he’s the one?”

“I don’t know,” Cathy answered. “For a while, I thought we were becoming that close but lately things have been different. Like something is missing. I wonder sometimes if he just doesn’t want to commit to anyone, now or ever.” Cathy sighed. “Guess I can’t blame him though. He’s already been married once and has a grown daughter. He’s even a grandfather.” Cathy made a face and both women laughed, their mood brightening again.

“Not that it matters,” Cathy continued. “I don’t know if I would want to start a family now, at this stage of the game. Children are so much responsibility, and I’m not sure I’d have the patience to raise any now...” Cathy stopped mid-sentence. “Oh Dani, I’m so sorry. Here I am blabbering on about children. I mean of all people, I should know better.”

Dani placed her hand on Cathy’s arm. “It’s okay,” she assured her friend. Cathy was the only person, besides Dani’s parents, who knew about her inability to have children. Dani had confided in her late one night in the dorm room they shared in college after their conversation turned to the future and having children. Cathy understood how much it pained Dani not to be able to have a child of her own, and that’s why she stumbled over her words now.

Dani changed the subject back to Michael. “I’m sure he’s just hesitant about the relationship,” she consoled her friend. “Most men are, you know. I’m sure he’ll change his tune in time.”

Cathy smiled hopefully. “You’re probably right.” Looking at her wristwatch, she gasped. “Oh, oh, it’s getting late. I’d better finish making lunch.” Cathy hurried toward the kitchen with Dani at her heels.

“I couldn’t decide whether to have lunch or brunch. It drove me crazy just thinking about it.” Cathy rolled her eyes, making Dani laugh out loud. “But I decided lunch sounded better. Michael will be here any minute. Will you set the table, Dani? Everything you need is sitting on the sideboard.”

“Of course.” Dani began setting out the place mats and silverware on the oval glass-topped table as Cathy banged and clattered in the kitchen beyond. A centerpiece of fresh flowers rested on the glass, its colors matching the cream and blue tones of the china. As she completed her chore, the door chime rang and she saw Cathy hurry to answer it.

Cathy’s apartment was small, but stylish. Her decorating style was as elegant as the way she dressed. The dining room opened up into the living room and the entryway was beyond that. Dani stole a glance in the gilt-framed mirror above the sideboard, checking her makeup and smoothing her hair. Beyond her, the mirror reflected a man with a trench coat and brief case in hand, leaning over to place a kiss on Cathy’s cheek.

“Dani, Michael’s here. Come meet him,” Cathy called out.

Dani turned and walked across the living room toward the couple. She stopped short as Michael’s face turned in her direction. My God...it can’t be. Her heart pounded in her chest. The room swirled around her in that one instant Dani recognized him. No, this isn’t happening. It’s not him.

Michael walked up to Dani, his hand extended in greeting. “It’s so nice to finally meet you,” he said, unaware of the turmoil brewing inside her. “Cathy has told me so much about you that I feel like...” Michael stopped mid-sentence when he was only inches away from Dani. “Well, I’ll be,” he exclaimed so softly that only Dani heard him.

It was him! Dani’s mind raced between past and present, as her eyes traveled slowly over the man before her. His silk suit was impeccable, and his dark hair was groomed and neatly trimmed, as was his beard. A complete opposite from the shaggy-haired man in blue jeans, sneakers, and T-shirt she once knew. But it was the same man. From his wavy black hair to the tips of his polished leather shoes he was every bit the businessman. But to Dani, he was the past come alive. “Miguel,” she whispered, and only Michael heard and understood.

“Yes,” he said, his steel-gray eyes searching her blue ones intensely. “Danielle, I never thought I’d see you again.” He smiled softly at her, that warm, caring smile she remembered so well, as he reached out to hug her.

Instinctively, she drew back, away from his touch. Slowly, the shock of seeing him again after all these years registered within her. She stood there, eyes narrowed, daring him yet denying him with her eyes to move one step closer. Michael stopped short, a confused expression on his face.

Cathy watched the scene before her, dumbfounded. “Dani, are you all right? What’s wrong?” Looking from Dani to Michael, she asked, “Do you two know each other?”

The concern in Cathy’s voice broke Dani from her reverie. This was no longer her Miguel. This was Cathy’s Michael, the man who had made her friend so happy. What had happened to Dani in the past had nothing to do with Cathy’s life today. With great effort, she forced herself to calm down, a curtain closing off the hatred in her eyes and softening her expression.

“I’m sorry, Cathy,” Dani said, choosing her words carefully. “I was just shocked to see someone I knew from so long ago. Miguel, I mean Michael and I met a long time ago when I still lived in California.”

“Oh.” Cathy gave Michael a puzzled look. “You never mentioned California before.”

“That was another lifetime,” Michael told her. “One I rarely think about anymore.”

Dani glared at Michael. The emotions in the room were strong, and the tension between the two did not go unnoticed by Cathy.

“Well,” Cathy said, glancing from Michael to Dani. “We can talk over lunch. Everything is ready. Michael, please sit down while Dani and I bring the food in from the kitchen.” Cathy quickly headed to the kitchen’s swinging door with Dani close behind. Dani took the farthest path possible around Michael.

“Dani,” Cathy whispered once they were alone. “Are you okay? I mean, really?”

“I’m sorry, Cathy,” Dani said, doing her best to control her emotions. “I didn’t mean to worry you. It was such a shock to see someone from those days, that’s all.” She smiled at her friend. “I’m okay.” Cathy didn’t look convinced, but dropped the subject.

Cathy served a delicious shrimp cocktail followed by a Chef Salad and French bread still warm out of the oven. The food tasted wonderful but Dani hardly noticed. She was too busy trying to ignore her lunch companion, yet at the same time acting pleasant for Cathy’s sake.

Dani listened to the conversation between Michael and Cathy while picking at her food, hardly tasting a bite, trying to ignore the memories that threatened to surface. A faint scent of cologne drifted past her, opening a doorway to the past. He had always worn the same cologne, one that smelled spicy and masculine. It didn’t matter if they were spending a day on the beach, at the playground with Vanessa, or eating burgers at the coffee shop where she waitressed, he wore that masculine, enticing scent. She rarely detected it on any other man but sometimes she’d catch a scent of it in the air on the street or in an elevator and she instinctively looked for him. And now he sat in the same room as she, that same cologne she knew so well drifting toward her.

Dani grew angrier by the minute as the past replayed in her mind. How could she sit here, quietly eating lunch only inches away from the man she’d despised for the past eighteen years? Every fiber of her being wanted to stand up and scream. She wanted to tell him how he’d ruined her life, but he just sat there, smiling, making pleasant conversation in his most eloquent manner, oblivious to Dani and the rage growing inside her.

“So tell me, Dani, since Michael won’t. How did you two meet?”

Cathy’s question brought Dani back to the conversation at hand. Dani sent a frigid look in Michael’s direction before answering her friend.

“I waitressed at a small coffee shop the summer after I graduated high school,” Dani explained without expression. “Michael used to be a regular customer there.” He came there to meet women and ruin their lives, she wanted to say. Instead, she finished in a sharp tone. “Except he used to go by the name, Miguel.” Dani stared hard at Miguel. Let him explain everything, she thought. Her eyes dared him to.

“Yes, Miguel is the name my parents gave me,” he answered calmly. “But when I took over the family business, it was easier to use Michael.”

Michael turned and smiled at Dani. It was a warm smile that made his gray eyes sparkle, but Dani only glared back at him.

Michael ignored her glare. “I remember those days like they were yesterday,” Michael said warmly. Dani? Do you remember crazy Karen? The waitress who used to get her orders all mixed up and then yell at the customers for confusing her? We never could understand how she kept her job there. I wonder what ever happened to her.”

Dani didn’t reply. She only stared at him.

Cathy took a deep breath, her eyes gliding from one friend to the other. Hurriedly, she stood and interjected, “Who’s ready for dessert?”

Dani seized the opportunity to get away and declined, insisting she had to leave.

“I have another meeting at two o’clock,” she explained as she stood up. It was already one o’clock and she was surprised she’d lasted this long. “I really should go if I want to make it back to the merchandise district on time.”

Dani thanked her friend for the delicious meal as she headed for her coat and the door. If she was lucky, she could get out without having to say so much as a goodbye to Miguel. To her horror, he followed.

“I should head back to the office, too,” he told Cathy. “I also have a meeting at two. Everything was wonderful, Cathy. I’ll take a raincheck on that dessert tonight, okay?”

“Do you want me to come, too?” Cathy asked Michael. “For the meeting, I mean.”

“No, there’s no need. Just enjoy the rest of your day off. I’ll be back at six to pick you up for dinner.”

Michael turned to Dani. “If you’ll wait, I’ll go with you to the train. We’re both heading in the same direction.”

No, Dani thought. I don’t want to wait. I want to get as far away from you as possible. Once again a look of contempt shadowed Dani’s face, but Michael seemed not to notice as he slipped on his overcoat and picked up his briefcase. The look did not go unnoticed by Cathy either, and neither did the tension that still embraced the room.

Dani stood politely by as Michael kissed Cathy goodbye on the cheek. Then, once again, Dani thanked her friend for the lovely meal, promised to keep in touch, and was finally out the door.





***





Cathy watched as Dani practically ran ahead of Michael to the elevator before closing her apartment door. It was obvious that Dani did not want to be in Michael’s presence, but the looks that had passed between Dani and Michael had also been very obvious to Cathy. Even with the hatred, the underlying electricity was palpable. Michael’s eyes had sparkled when he’d first recognized Dani. They had been more than just friends, she was sure of it.

Cathy had been questioning her own relationship with Michael for some time. She’d wondered if there was a past person who still held his heart and if that was why he was unwilling to commit. A thought struck her. What if that person was Dani? She decided she would ask him tonight about his past relationship with Dani and about where their own relationship was heading. As much as she cared about him, she knew it was time they came to some sort of understanding. It was time she made him face the future head on.





Chapter Three





“I don’t need your company back to the train,” Dani insisted to Miguel in the elevator on the way down to the lobby. “I’m very capable, thank you.” Before he could reply, the doors opened and she stepped out and hurried through the lobby and into the May sunshine.

Michael did his best to catch up with her, practically breaking into a full run. “Dani,” he called softly when he caught up behind her on the street. “Dani. Can we just talk a minute?” He reached out and touched her on the shoulder. She turned with a violent jerk.

“Don’t touch me!” she hissed, making Michael stop short.

“I’m sorry. I just wanted to talk a minute.” Michael searched Dani’s burning eyes. “There’s something I’d like to explain to you,” he said gently.

But Dani’s stance was unbending, her eyes unyielding. “There’s nothing I want to hear from you. Just stay away from me.” Her voice cracked and she broke into full flight from Michael. She kept running until she was at the first train she saw and stepped aboard without looking back. As she sat, trying to catch her breath, she calmed herself with the thought that she would never have to see Miguel DeCara again.

In the end, Dani was late for her meeting. In her haste to flee Miguel, she had boarded the wrong train and ended up on the opposite side of town before she realized her mistake. She fumed at herself all the way back to the merchandise district and barely paid attention to the presentation delivered by the jewelry distributor.

How stupid I must have looked to him, she thought, when she finally escaped the meeting. No better than the girl who had fell blindly in love with him years ago. Dani took the train to the station nearest her hotel and walked the last few blocks, easing her anger with each brisk step. She hated him for being so calm and controlled while she was agitated and emotional. Stopping at a deli on the corner, she picked up a sandwich and headed straight to the safety of her hotel room where she drowned herself in paperwork over anticipated purchases. She’d already decided to finish up business first thing in the morning and leave the city. There was no way she wanted to run into Miguel again. Her emotions were running high, and she knew she’d be unable to control herself if they met again.





***





Michael sat quietly at his desk, looking over various accounts on the computer monitor before him. The Grandfather clock in the corner chimed six times. The clock had once belonged to his grandfather, who brought it from his homeland of Portugal almost sixty years ago. It was the only piece of furniture Michael had brought with him from New York when he’d left Vanessa in charge there so he could build up the division in Chicago. As a boy, the chimes of the carved, maple clock had annoyed him, but with age, he’d come to appreciate the clock and the time it represented.

Michael swiveled his chair around to survey the view from his twenty-first floor office. An expanse of city bustled with activity below him as his mind struggled to understand what past occurrence had caused such pain today. He tried to conjure up anything that may have inflamed Dani’s hatred of him, but the only memories he had of her were happy ones.

As she’d glared at him over lunch, he’d studied her face. Even with her unpleasant expression, she was still beautiful. Her golden hair had been tied back in a smooth ponytail at the nape of her neck, giving definition to her square jaw line and prominent cheekbones. Her face had become sculpted with age, making her more beautiful than ever. One feature that hadn’t changed was her small ‘ski-nose’, which he used to teasingly call it. Movie stars paid a fortune to have a nose like that, yet she was born with it. In that brief moment he’d studied her, he thought about the donut fights at the restaurant, the way her hair always smelled of honeysuckle, and Sundays on the beach holding hands, sitting in the wet sand while watching Vanessa jump the waves at the water’s edge. God, those were such wonderful times.

He knew he hadn’t been a saint in those days, but he’d never done anything deliberately to hurt her. In fact, he had been very much in love with her. But she’d been so much younger than he, and his life was such a mess then, that he hadn’t allowed himself to give in to that love.

Dani had brought calmness to his and Vanessa’s life back then. She was always there when he needed her, her presence quiet and reassuring. He knew her love for Vanessa had been genuine. Unlike so many other women he’d known who’d only tolerated his daughter’s presence, Dani truly enjoyed being with both him and Vanessa. Yet, when his father died suddenly, he’d left Dani behind without a word because he thought that was best for her. She had been so young and had so much life ahead of her. He hadn’t wanted to get in the way of her having a full life.

As evening settled over the city, Michael was surprised by the flood of memories that enveloped him. Memories he hadn’t thought of in years. All were warm and strong and he wondered how he had ever let them escape from his thoughts. The first time they’d been alone on an ‘official’ date without Vanessa. The time the three of them rode the roller coaster at the wharf and her silky hair blew in the wind, tickling his face. The very first time he’d made love to her. Now, she wouldn’t even speak to him. Why?

Michael finally gave up trying to understand Dani’s anger with him. It was past six, and he was already late picking Catherine up for dinner. For a quick moment, he contemplated canceling his evening with Catherine and seeking out Dani to talk to her, but then he brushed aside that thought as quickly as it came. It was obvious she wanted nothing to do with him. He was better off leaving her alone.

As he left the office, he wondered if Cathy might know why Dani felt such resentment toward him. Yes, he’d ask her. He relaxed a bit for the first time since lunch, thinking how nice it was going to be to spend the evening with Catherine.





***





It was six-thirty by the time Michael made it over to Cathy’s place. He had driven his car so they could go out to dinner, but when he arrived, Cathy suggested ordering something in and staying home for the evening.

Later, snuggling on Cathy’s cushy sofa, full from the egg foo yung, sweet and sour pork, and egg rolls they had consumed, the couple sat in semi-darkness watching Casablanca, a favorite movie of Cathy’s. Michael’s arm lay across Cathy’s shoulders, his hand caressing her arm. He burrowed deeper in the plush sofa, snuggling her neck with his face. He loved the closeness they shared, the comfortable silences, and their nights together.

As he continued to nuzzle her neck, Cathy also sank deeper in the sofa beside him. For a while, they sat there, warm, close, comfortable, until Cathy broke the silence in a quiet voice.

“Michael?”

“Mmmm?”

“Just how close were you and Dani years ago?”

Michael lifted his head and stared at Cathy, surprised by her question. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I could tell by the way you both acted that you were more than just acquaintances. I was just curious as to how close you both were.” Her voice remained soft, not angry or accusing.

Michael assessed her a moment then answered honestly. “Very close. At one time we cared very much about each other.”

“Were you lovers?”

“Yes.”

Cathy turned to face Michael. “Are you still in love with her?”

Once again, she had caught him off guard. He backed up a bit on the couch, taking his arm from around her and stared at her, surprise displayed on his face. “What kind of question is that?”

Cathy maintained her calm, her voice still warm. “I could feel the electricity between you two, and the hostility. I was only wondering if you still had feelings for her.”

“The hostility was on her side. As for the current between us, well, I don’t know. We were once very close, very in tune with each other. Maybe, in a way, you never lose that. There have been too many years between us for me to say we’re still in love.” He answered as honestly as he could. He couldn’t tell from Cathy’s calm expression how she was taking all this.

Another moment of silence passed. On the television, Ilsa recounted to Rick why she had left him in Paris years before. As the two lovers on screen rekindled their love, Cathy felt her own relationship was cooling down.

“Why is Dani so angry with you?”

Michael had neither been watching nor listening to the movie, but had been studying Cathy’s face the entire time. “I was hoping you might be able to tell me. I’m not sure why Dani feels the way she does. You’re her closest friend. Has she ever told you?”

Cathy shook her head and smiled. “Dani is a very private person. We share a lot together, but there are some things she’d never tell even me.”

The two sat back in thoughtful silence, eyes on the television screen. Michael slipped his arm around Cathy once again and she snuggled closer. But once again Cathy broke the silence with her questions.

“Michael?”

His eyes looked at her warily. “Yes.”

“What do you want out of our relationship?”

Michael sighed. So this is what she was working up to. He chose his words carefully before answering her question. “I enjoy our relationship just as it is.”

“So do I,” Cathy said, reaching up to hold the hand he had circled around her shoulder. She faced him. “But we can’t stay like this forever. We either have to move on to the next step, or…” her voice trailed off.

“What step is that?”

“I’d like to be married someday, Michael. Maybe even have children.”

“And you should,” Michael said warmly. “You’re still young. You deserve to have those things.”

Still caressing his hand, Cathy asked softly. “Are those things you want, too?”

The time had come, Michael understood that now. No relationship could stand suspended forever. Choices had to be made, decisions held to. He’d always been honest with Cathy from the very beginning, and he was now. “I really care about you, Cathy. I enjoy spending time with you, I enjoy working with you, and I have a great amount of respect for you. But I can’t see myself settling down to marriage and children again. Not at this stage in my life, maybe never.”

Cathy continued holding his hand, nodding her head in understanding. Deep in her heart, she’d known this would be his answer, but she had never been brave enough to ask before. She really loved Michael, but there was so much more she wanted out of life yet.

Michael continued to hold her. He couldn’t tell what was going through her mind, but he could see the telltale moistness in her eyes. She was making a decision, he knew, but what it was he couldn’t say. “Cathy,” he said, his voice tender. “No matter what happens, I still want to be your friend. I still want to work with you. I really do care about you. I’m sorry I can’t give any more than that.”

The couple sat, holding each other on the couch as the two lovers on screen replayed their historic goodbye. In her heart, Cathy knew that this was also goodbye for her and Michael. The decision was up to her, and although it was going to be difficult, she knew what choice she had to make.





If you enjoyed Dani and Michael’s story and want to read more, it is available online in ebook and paperback editions.





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Sara's Promise





Deanna Lynn Sletten





Chapter One





"Mom, you just don't understand." Fifteen-year-old Sandra Grafton sighed loudly as she pushed aside a stray strand of strawberry blonde hair that had escaped its ponytail. "Everyone, I mean everyone has one."

"Yes, dear, I do understand. But no, you still can't have one," Sara said calmly as she continued preparing dinner. It was past six and her husband was due home any minute from his office in Beaverton. She always tried to have dinner ready for him when he arrived, knowing how hungry he was after his long day of work and his commute between his office and their home in Seaside. She also hoped to have Sandy subdued before he walked through the door.

"You just don't want me to fit in. You want me to be shunned by all my friends," Sandy dramatically accused her mother. "You don't want me to be like everyone else."

Sara turned from the sink where she was filling a pan with water and stared at her teenaged daughter. She wore tight bell-bottomed jeans, platforms, and a form-fitting purple sweater with fringe hanging from the sleeves, along with the color of the day, purple, streaked in her blonde hair. Her face was covered with as much makeup as Sara would allow and from her ears hung long, gold mesh earrings suitable for evening wear only. She was as much a seventies throwback as any of the other teenagers Sara saw coming out of Seaside High School, so fitting in was not a problem. This much Sara would allow, for clothes could be changed and hair could be washed. But she had her limits.

"Not everyone has one, dear," Sara said calmly, returning to filling the pan. "Your friend Brittany doesn't."

"Brittany isn't cool and doesn't hang out with the right people. Do you want me to be uncool like her? Hanging out with the geeks of the school?"

Sara sighed as she headed to the stove and placed the pan of water on the burner. She wasn't agreeing or disagreeing with Sandy, she was just tired of this conversation. "Honey, why don't you let me finish in here? Then I'll make us each a nice mug of hot cocoa and we can talk this over calmly."

Sandy rolled her eyes. "Mom, I'm not three years old anymore. You can't talk me out of it with cocoa."

"Three large marshmallows, just how you like it," Sara said with a wink.

"Mother!"

"Why don't you give Mom a break?" Sammy interrupted as he entered the kitchen looking for a snack. At thirteen, Sammy was as tall as his older sister and slender too, growing so fast Sara could hardly keep him in pants or food. Today he had on tan Dockers that threatened to brush his ankles at any moment and a red polo shirt, clothes he wore when he played his favorite sport, golf. He was the lead player on the middle school team and there was already talk of him playing high school golf a year early. Right now though, he was in search of one thing, food.

"Shut up, club head," Sandy told him angrily. To her, golf was the stupidest game in the world. "This is none of your business."

Sammy shrugged and captured the last chocolate chip cookie from the cookie jar. Giving his mom an "I tried" look, he sauntered back into the living room.

"Sandy, don't call your brother names, and the answer is still no."

Sandy's blue eyes flashed. "I hate you. You're the meanest mother in the world." Turning on her heel, she clomped out of the kitchen and up the stairs, ending her dramatic departure by slamming her bedroom door.

"Why does she hate you today?" William Grafton entered the kitchen loosening his tie and slipping off his suit jacket. Kissing Sara lightly on the cheek, he gave her that knowing smile of a parent who'd walked in on this scene many times before.

"For the same reason she hated me yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. I can put up with purple hair and funky clothes, but I refuse to let her pierce her nose," Sara said lightly. She rarely got angry, especially when it concerned the children. She had an easy way of handling everyone and everything, making it appear she was a pushover, yet usually quietly getting her way in the end.

William smiled at his wife's calm demeanor. In their seventeen years of marriage, he couldn't remember ever seeing her blood-boiling mad, a complete opposite of their daughter who seemed to always be in a rage.

"So, how was your day?" she asked as she started cutting carrots.

"Better than yours I bet," he told her with a mischievous smirk.

Sara stared over at him and rolled her eyes, acknowledging that being with the kids wasn't always easy. She continued watching her husband, appreciating his tousled dark hair and animated brown eyes as he told her about the new house plans he was drawing up for a client. She knew there was much more to tell but he rarely spoke of the larger projects the firm was working on or bidding for. Designing homes was his passion, imaginative and personal spaces like the home he'd built for them here in Seaside. The other projects brought in the big money, but she knew the homes brought him the most personal satisfaction.

The rest of the evening went as it usually did with the family of four eating their evening meal, Sandy sulking in her seat and Sammy discussing his latest golf swing. Later, Sammy left with a friend to hit balls at the driving range before dark and William headed to his den to work on the house plans he'd been discussing earlier. Sandy flew off to her room again after another refusal from her mom to let her pierce her nose, playing her music at an ear-deafening volume and no doubt calling her best friend to rant about the unfairness of evil mothers.

Sara went through her usual routine of cleaning up the evening dishes and wiping down the kitchen to sparkling perfection. She wandered through the house, picking up stray items the kids had left out. She fluffed sofa pillows, folded towels in the laundry room and made sure all was tidy and in its place. Only after she felt everything was perfect did she let herself sit and relax on the deck outside the living room, a cup of herbal tea to keep her company and the view of the Pacific Ocean to calm her.

It had been a perfect March day on the Oregon coast, and even though the air was chilly, it felt good to Sara as she sipped her tea and reflected upon her day. Like all of her days, today had been a busy one, running the kids to and from school, running errands and doing housework. Her days were filled from early morning until late evening, yet sometimes she wondered what she'd accomplished after a long day. Once a week, she volunteered at the middle school library, helping sort and reshelve books. Then there was the local community art center, where she volunteered her time typing up their monthly newsletter, reporting the accomplishments of local artists and writers, and offering information on workshops and grant funds. She didn't attend the workshops. She didn't sell paintings or win contests. She only reported other artists' accomplishments. And sometimes, in a quiet moment like this, she wondered about her life and where she was headed, if anywhere. But then all she had to do was look around her beautiful home, see the smile on her son's flushed face as he recounted his latest golf achievement, or occasionally capture a giggle from her fast-maturing daughter to remember what her life was all about and to remind her it was all worth it.

Later that evening, when all was quiet and both children were tucked away for the night, in the safety of their rooms, Sara walked into her own bedroom and slowly began to undress for bed. The master bedroom suite was spacious with an expanse of windows facing the ocean and a fireplace on the opposite wall. They had the luxury of their own private bathroom and two walk-in closets. The room held a king-size bed covered with a blue striped, down quilt, a heavy, oak dresser and mirror, two fat, blue chairs and ottomans by the brick fireplace, and other miscellaneous pieces of furniture. But what the room boasted was the brilliant sunlight during the day that the wall of windows permitted.

In the far corner stood an easel, an unfinished painting upon it, and a table beside it, holding brushes and paints that hadn't been touched in months. Sara walked over to the painting and examined it, running her hand lightly over the watercolors, the soft blues and tans that were the beginnings of a beach and ocean scene. When had she started this painting? She couldn't remember. When would she finish it? She had no idea.

"Daydreaming?" William asked as he quietly entered the room. Sara turned, startled at first, then gave him one of those smiles, the kind that made her whole face light up and her blue-green eyes sparkle. In truth, William had been watching her from the doorway for a while, standing there only in her sweater. He admired how her long legs still curved in all the right places, and how her slender arms and hands still moved with the grace of a dancer. At thirty-six, her blonde hair still shined bright from the touch of the sun, and not a trace of age had etched itself upon her face. She was as beautiful as the day he'd met her in college, when she was only eighteen and full of joy, hope and promise. And although her classic features and tall, slender body had always made men take a second glance, it was her brilliant blue-green eyes that held William's attraction. They had attracted him to her all those years ago, and they still captivated him.

Sara continued to smile at him as she headed to her closet and stepped inside, slipping the heavy sweater off and replacing it with a satin nightgown. She walked again past the painting to the dresser mirror to brush her hair. This time she ignored the half-finished watercolor painting as if it were of no importance.

William came up behind her and placed a soft kiss on the nape of her neck. Looking at her reflection in the mirror, he asked gently, "When will you finish it?"

Sara shrugged. "When I have time," she said casually, although inside she felt a tug at her heart. She had no idea where that time would come from.

"When you make the time, you mean," William said softly, as if reading her thoughts. He kissed her again then headed into the bathroom to get ready for bed, as Sara pulled back the comforter and sheets. But again, she found her eyes, then herself, drifting back to the painting in the corner. Most days, she found it easy to ignore the fact that she wasn't painting, wasn't creating illusions of colors floating on canvas. She could busy herself with everything else that came with the job of wife and mother. But tonight, it seemed to haunt her, this need to create, to use her God-given talents, the ones that didn't include minivans, washing machines, or computers.

She sighed as she looked at the brochures piled on the paint table, brochures telling of upcoming painting workshops, contests, and fellowships. They were there to include in the monthly newsletter, but they were also there to remind her of what she was missing out on.

She had been good once, more than good, accomplished, and she could revive her talents as easily as she could whip up a batch of cookies. At the young age of eighteen, her first year of college, she'd already won several awards for her paintings and even had one circulated in a national art show, showing at art galleries across the country. Her teachers saw her talent and nurtured her in the two years she attended school. But by then, she'd met William, an architecture major, who was two years ahead of her in school. When he graduated, they married, and she left school behind but not her painting. As he began his career designing homes, she continued painting, winning more contests and awards. But then Sandra was born, and two years later, Samuel, and Sara found her time filled with diapers, feedings, playgroups, and all else motherhood entailed. Then William and his partner started their own firm and his hours became long, so Sara threw herself completely into the kids. They built their dream house, which Sara helped design and completely decorated from top to bottom. And the years went on, with each passing year Sara telling herself she would find more time for painting as the children grew older. But each year she found her time became more precious as she ran the kids around and attended their various activities. The only painting she'd completed in all those years was the one of their house, the one that hung proudly over the mantel in the living room. Others were started but usually sat, like the one in the corner now, until they were put away in a closet when she could no longer bear to look at the unfinished canvases. Maybe this one would join them, she thought sadly, as she continued to study it. Maybe that was where they all belonged.

William came back into the room, wearing flannel pajama bottoms and a T-shirt, catching Sara's eye as she turned from the painting once more. Both smiled, and she padded across the soft carpet to crawl into bed beside him. Taking a tube of cucumber-melon hand lotion out of the nightstand drawer, she squeezed a bead of lotion into her palm before dropping it back into the drawer. Slowly, she started rubbing the lotion into her hands and arms.

William smiled at her as he watched her nightly routine of rubbing into her hands and arms. "You really should make time for yourself to paint again. The kids don't need you half as much as you think."

Sara looked up at him, the man she'd spent almost half her life with, the man she knew she'd spend forever with. His wavy black hair was damp from the shower, curling gently at his temples and neck. He wore it longer than fashion dictated these days, and she liked it on him that way. She always had. She placed her hand on his chest and snuggled up next to him. He felt warm and smelled of soap and shampoo. He felt good.

"They still need me more than they think, even at their ages," she said into his chest.

William wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "From what I heard today, they don't appreciate you as much as they should," he said gently, adding softly, "None of us do."

Sara smiled appreciatively. It was rare for William to acknowledge all that she did. She knew he appreciated it all and depended upon her completely. He worked long hours at his business, as well as putting in several more hours each night at home, and her being available to the kids twenty-four hours a day made it easier for him. He never had to worry about being home at a certain time, who'd feed the kids, who'd pick up the dry cleaning or who'd fill the refrigerator with groceries. It was all done, magically, quietly, completely, by Sara. Holidays, birthdays, vacations, everything was planned by her and her alone. And she loved doing it. But it did make it feel all the more worthwhile when he acknowledged the work she put into family and home.

"You know, you've spoiled us all," William continued, pulling her even closer. "We would be completely lost without you."

Sara pulled away and looked up at him, her expression serious. "Then it's a good thing none of you will ever know what that's like," she said with certainty.

He smiled. "How can you be so sure?"

"I just know," Sara said. "Even if something happened to me, I'd still find a way to be here for you and the kids. That's how strong our bond is."

William looked at her, half-amused, half-skeptical, making Sara laugh softly.

"Oh, Billy," she said, calling him by the nickname of long ago that only she still used. "I've told you a thousand times, we're soul mates. We were together before we met, we'll be together long after we're gone. And even if we cannot be together for a time, I'll find a way to make sure you and the kids are happy and cared for, one way or another."

It was William's turn to laugh, not unkindly. He loved her artistic ways in everything she did. Especially in the way she viewed love and life.

"You are forever the romantic," he told her, kissing her gently on the forehead. "And I hope you're right."

Sara raised her lips to his, and they kissed, soft and sweet at first, then turning warm and passionate. Soon they were naked in each other's arms with a passion that only years of loving one person can bring, and Sara once again showed him just how sweet forever could be.





Chapter Two





March 8th





It started as a dull ache in the middle of her abdomen, enough pain to wake Sara up earlier than usual but not enough for her to worry about. As she showered and dressed, the pain increased slightly, but she brushed it off as monthly cramps, took two pain relievers and went about her morning routine.

After William left for work, and Sara dropped the kids off at school, the pain sharpened and spread to her lower right side, and she felt warm. Still, she thought nothing of it as she headed over to the art center and worked on the newsletter. But the pain wouldn't go away. It only increased. By late morning, she was flushed and nauseous, so she decided to go home and rest before she had to pick the kids up from school. Surely a nap would help her feel better.

By early afternoon, the pain still persisted. Lying down helped a little but not enough to feel better, even after more pain medicine. Thinking she must have caught a flu bug, Sara phoned William's office, hoping he could come home early and pick up the children from school. But she was only able to reach his secretary who explained he was in meetings and couldn't be disturbed. Sara hung up, disappointed, even though she really hadn't expected him to be able to help. She'd always done everything for the kids and the house herself, never asking him for help, even when she was sick or worn out. But today, she felt stranded, alone, and it upset her. Even though she knew he loved his family and loved her, not being able to depend upon him for emergencies saddened her.

Angry with herself for even thinking this way, she pushed her feelings aside, blaming the way she felt for the cause of her anger, not William. Determined not to let this get the best of her, she forced herself to get up and drive to pick up the kids.

But the pain continued to increase and by the time both children were in the van, she was flushed, perspiration damp on her brow.

"Are you okay, Mom?" Sammy asked from where he sat in the middle seat. Even through her pain, Sara smiled. Sammy was the sensitive one. It was so like him to be the one to notice how quiet she was and notice the strain on her face.

"I'll be okay, honey," she managed as she maneuvered through the traffic at the high school. Sammy didn't look convinced, but he stayed quiet.

Sandy, however, had no concern for anyone but herself. She started in right away about wanting her nose pierced, bringing a sharp reaction from her mother.

"Not today, Sandy. I mean it," Sara warned her in no uncertain terms.

Sandy sat back, stunned that her mother would talk to her so sharply. But instead of noticing her mother looked ill, she only sulked in her seat all the way home.

Once home, Sandy flew off to her friend's house down the road with no concern for her mother, but Sammy hung back, asking if there was anything he could help her with.

Sara was touched by his concern but assured him she'd be better if she just rested awhile. He went off to his bedroom to do homework, and Sara collapsed on the sofa, wondering how she'd make dinner with the way she felt.

The pain grew inside her until Sara felt like her whole stomach was on fire. It burned, and her fever increased. She felt like she had to vomit, but she didn't have the strength to leave the sofa, so she just lay there, hoping it would stop. There was so much pressure building inside her, she felt like she couldn't stand it another moment. Then, suddenly it was as if an explosion went off inside her and slowly the pain lessened. Her fevered body cooled, and the nauseous feeling went away. She couldn't believe the pain could cease so quickly and thought that maybe the pain killers had finally worked. But whatever it was, she was thankful it was gone.

She rose, slowly at first, still not convinced the pain was entirely gone, but she felt fine, except for feeling exhausted from her long afternoon. She prepared dinner and Sandy came home from Brittany's house, and William came home from work. They all ate dinner like they did every evening. No one noticed how pale Sara was, or the dark circles under her eyes. They just ate and traded stories as usual.

During dinner, Sara felt the pressure in her side begin to grow again, but she said nothing. As she loaded the dishwasher, William came into the kitchen to tell her that he and Sammy were going to the driving range to hit a few balls. He didn't notice how flushed she looked as they rushed out the kitchen door. Only Sammy looked her over twice before reluctantly following his dad.

Sandy tried one more time to get her mom to agree to allow her to get her nose pierced, but Sara raised her hand in warning and shook her head.

"Not tonight," Sara told her. Angry, Sandy stormed up to her room, the words "I hate you" rushing down the stairs at Sara before Sandy slammed her door. But by now, Sara didn't care. She put the last of the dishes in the dishwasher and practically crawled to the living room sofa, and dropped onto it. The pain had become unbearable again, even worse than it had been before, and she felt completely drained. She was pale with bright spots of red on her cheeks, and her breathing had become increasingly labored.

This was how Sammy found her when they came home, curled up on the couch, her blue-green eyes glassy in her stark white face. William had gone directly into his den to work, but Sammy wanted to see if his mom was feeling better. Seeing her this way frightened him, and he ran directly to his father's den.

"Mom's really sick. You have to come," he said, his eyes wide with fear.

William looked up from his drawing board, frowning in confusion. Sara was fine at dinnertime, surely Sammy was exaggerating. "I'm sure your mother's fine," he said calmly. "She's probably just tired."

But Sammy wouldn't listen to his dad's excuses. "She's been sick all day, and she's really sick now," he insisted. "Come on!"

William had no choice but to follow his son into the living room, and when he got there, the site of Sara's pale, limp form unnerved him.

"Sara?" he asked gently, crouching down beside the sofa. She turned to him but said nothing. He placed a hand on her forehead and pressed lightly. She was burning up. Panic swelled inside him.

"I hurt," Sara said weakly, but the pain was so overwhelming, even talking was excruciating.

William had never seen his wife so sick before. For one long minute he wavered, debating what to do. Sara took care of them, not the other way around. When Sandy had her tonsils out at age six, it was Sara who'd sat beside her hospital bed all night. When Sammy fell off the swing set when he was three and lay unconscious, it was Sara who had calmly rushed him to the emergency room. She handled all the colds, flus, and illnesses. She was the one who doled out the medications, kept the children's shots current, and handled all doctor, dentist, and orthodontist appointments. He felt completely lost.

Sara closed her eyes and winced as the pain continued to envelope her. Her breathing was erratic now with short, gasping intakes of air. Seeing the pain etched on her face finally made William fly into action.

"Get your sister," he told Sammy as calmly as possible. "We're taking your mom to the hospital."

William drove to the hospital as fast as he dared, with both children silent in the backseat, and Sara reclined moaning softly in the front seat. He'd wrapped her in a blanket, even though her body had been radiating a fiery heat of its own.

Once there, the emergency room nurse took one look at Sara in William's arms and quickly showed them to a room where he could lay her down. Doctors came immediately to examine her, while William filled out insurance forms in the waiting room, and Sammy and Sandy waited nervously beside him. The three had just re-entered the emergency ward, when they saw Sara being wheeled out of her room on a gurney toward the elevators.

"We believe it's her appendix," the doctor in charge told William. "We must get her into surgery immediately. I've already informed the surgeon on duty."

William and the children stood, stunned for a moment, staring at the stout, gray-haired doctor standing in front of them. He tried to smile and reassure them. "Appendicitis is very common," he said calmly. "The doctors here treat several cases each month. Your wife is in capable hands."

At this, William relaxed a bit, letting his sensible side take over. Of course, appendectomies were as common as taking tonsils out. There was nothing to worry about. He nodded his understanding to the doctor, then calmly stepped over to Sara's gurney.

"Everything will be fine," he told her, placing his hand on hers. "They'll take good care of you."

But Sara was anything but calm. Her eyes were wide with terror. "No, Billy, don't let them take me," she pleaded, grabbing his arm so fiercely he winced. "I can't leave you and the kids. You need me. I don't want to go."

William knew there was nothing to panic about. She was safe in the hospital with competent doctors to care for her. "Everything will be all right, honey," he said, bending down to kiss her forehead. "Everything will be fine. Trust me."

They wheeled Sara down the hall and through double doors marked "Hospital Personnel Only". William stood calmly as she disappeared, even though her eyes pleaded with him the entire way. Unnerved by her fear, but careful to hide his feelings, he turned to the children standing wide-eyed and frightened behind him.

"She'll be fine," he reassured them as he placed an arm around each and led them back to the waiting room. "All we can do now is wait."





Chapter Three





When Sara opened her eyes, the first thing she saw were the colors, ribbons of watercolors, blue, green, pink, yellow, every color of the rainbow floating above her. The golden light beyond intensified their shades from pastel to a brilliant bright, an explosion of color so perfect and beautiful, she couldn't take her eyes from them. The golden light was so radiant, as if looking into a perfect sun. She should have needed to shade her eyes against it, but she didn't need to. She could look upon it without even blinking.

The wavering colors called to her, dancing high above her, glistening in the perfect light. She wanted to join the colors, become a part of them, fuse with them. The warm glow that illuminated the colors smiled at her. She found herself happily rising up to them, ready to embrace their beauty and become as one with the colors, as if becoming a part of one of her own canvases. But these colors, and the light beyond, were unlike any canvas she'd ever painted. They were absolutely perfect. They were ethereal.

As Sara rose toward the beckoning beauty of the ribbons of colors, she turned only briefly to look upon the scene playing out below her. Men and women were scurrying about, concentrating all their energy upon a pale figure lying motionless on a table. Panic filled the room as one man called out orders, and another pressed firmly on the chest of the figure, pumping rhythmically, consecutively, calling out numbers as he did. The intense scene below her was in complete contrast to the calm, loving feeling above her, so Sara distanced herself from the one and rose toward the other.

She floated, higher and higher, until the colors surrounded her and made her one of their own. Twirling, drifting, spinning, Sara reveled in the soft, powdery feel of them, becoming one with the colors. She raised her arms and brushed through the colors as if swimming, watching with delight as the colors separated, mixed, gelled, then fell back into place. It was like being a part of a beautiful painting, Sara felt free, a release of all that had ever held her down, as the golden light continued to smile down upon her and warm her from within.

Sara continued to rise, every fear, emotion, and pain falling away from her like unwanted weight. She felt lighter and lighter, airy, like the ribbons of color. Air, sun and mists of color reflected upon her, through her, within her.

The radiant light beyond drew closer. The makings of a face seemed to appear in its glow. "Welcome home, Sara," the lighted face said in a tone so warm and loving, unlike anything she'd ever heard before. It seemed like she felt the words rather than heard them.

Sara smiled, feeling light and breezy, the colors continuing to follow her, surrounding her as she rose even higher. No matter how she moved, the ribbons of color stayed with her. They were her friends, her family, her one true love.

Suddenly, panic swelled inside Sara. She stopped floating up and turned her face down toward where she'd come. Her love, her family, they were not here in the midst of the colors or in the smile of the golden face. They were back there, from where she had floated up.

"There's nothing down there for you now, Sara," the golden rays told her kindly. "Up is where you want to go now. This is where you belong."

But Sara could only look down. Through the mist of colors, she could make out the form of a face, no, three faces, three familiar faces. "My family, they need me," Sara said.

But the lighted face above only smiled at her. "We're your family now, Sara. We need you now. Come to us."

Sara turned toward the golden face, once again feeling the warmth of its smile. She wanted to continue to follow it, bask in its loving warmth forever. Yet, something held her back. Again, she glanced below, and caught the pained expression on a face that she loved. Her heart ached for the pain she saw in his face. A gasping sound came from behind that face, and she saw two more faces with glistening tears on their cheeks. A sudden urge made her want to hug them, hold them tight, and wipe away their tears. She had to go back. She had to erase the pain from those faces she loved so much. The golden face would have to wait. The others needed her more.

"I can't go with you," Sara told the face above her. "I have to go back. I'm needed down there, not here."

"I'm sorry, Sara, but it's too late. You can't go back now," the image of golden light told her.

Sara refused to listen. Her need to return became urgent. She tried to drift down from the colors and away from the face, but their pull was too strong. Frustration overwhelmed her as her need to go back grew. The ribbons of color began to fade, their beautiful shades turning to a dull gray before disappearing into the mist. The once brilliant light of the face above dimmed, as if it, too, would fade away. The warmth that had drawn Sara up into the colors began to slip away. Coolness surrounded her as the mist grew thicker, heavier, like rain. This frightened Sara as she looked up into the translucent face. Was she the cause of this transformation or was the face of light unhappy? The face looked at her sadly, its features wavering in and out of focus. Sara feared the face would leave her, as the colors had, and she'd be all alone.

"Please," she begged the face as it continued to look sadly at her. "I must go back. I must be with the ones I love. Please help me." Tears formed in her eyes, spilling one by one onto her cheeks before dropping off to become as one with the mist.

The face didn't brighten but didn't look angry either as it continued to study Sara with its wavering features. The face appeared to be sad.

"There is a way..." the fading golden light said softly, sounding unsure of whether to continue.

Sara lifted her eyes in anticipation and hope. She saw the mist grow lighter. "Please, will you help me?" she begged. She didn't care what it took to send her back or what she had to do. She just knew she had to go.

The face looked thoughtful. "Sometimes, others come before it is their time and, because they are unhappy down there, they do not wish to return. If you can encourage a soul to go back, you can go with her for a time, but you will have to return when your work is finished. It must be a soul whose destiny is to follow your path. You cannot change fate, only encourage it."

Sara's eyes grew bright with hope, her tears forgotten. As her hope brightened, so did the face's light grow brighter.

"But remember, Sara, there are no guarantees. A part of you will be immersed in another person, be connected to their life, and you may not remember who you were before or anyone you knew from your own past. I cannot promise you will ever see your family again."

The face studied Sara carefully, but she only smiled, a smile that brought back the deep, radiating warmth once more from the luminous face. Her smile was so sincere, so real, that it brought back the ribbons of color, making the gray disappear.

"Oh, but I'm not worried," Sara said, knowing, feeling all would be right again. "My love and I are soul mates. My children and I are bonded forever. I will find them again. I'll make sure they are taken care of. Then, and only then, will I be able to join you."

The golden face, once again a brilliant light from Sara's happiness, nodded in understanding. Without another word between them, Sara began her descent, slowly, happily, through the ribbons of watercolors. Back down to where she belonged. Back down to those she loved. And peace once more filled her entire being.





***





William saw the gray-haired doctor come through the doors and was immediately on his feet. The children stood, too, anxious for news. They'd been waiting for two hours, sitting on the plastic chairs and scratchy sofa, watching the television high above without hearing a word. William had repeatedly assured the children not to worry. The operation was routine, Sara would breeze through it perfectly. But like the children, he was anxious to hear from the doctor that all had gone well, that Sara was doing fine and would be home any day.

The doctor's face looked drawn. His eyes had dark circles under them. As he approached them, no smile of reassurance appeared on his face as it had only two hours before.

"Mr. Grafton," he said quietly as he stopped in front of William, the children standing directly behind their father. "I..." he hesitated, looking into their eager faces. Taking a deep breath, he began again. "I'm sorry. The surgeons did everything possible, but your wife didn't pull through."

William only stared, stunned by the doctor's words. His face wrinkled in a confused frown. "I don't understand..."

"I'm so sorry. Appendectomies are usually routine, but your wife's appendix ruptured several hours before she was brought in. Infection had spread into her bloodstream, and her heart stopped. The doctors tried to revive her but to no avail. She was so weak. Her body just couldn't fight it." The doctor reached out and placed a hand on William's arm. "They tried everything, I assure you. Again, I'm so sorry."

William continued to stare blankly ahead of him, his mind trying to comprehend what the doctor had said. Behind him, Sandy gasped and fell into a chair, crying softly. Sammy, too, had tears in his eyes as he sat beside his sister and placed his arms around her. But William couldn't move. All he could do was stare straight ahead, past the doctor, to the double doors where just beyond he had lost his forever.





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Destination Wedding


A Novel





Deanna Lynn Sletten





Chapter One





Claire Martin discreetly glanced at her watch with one eye as she watched her customer with the other turn this way and that in front of the three-way mirror. Claire had to be out of the shop in five minutes or else she'd be late meeting with her daughter, and she didn't want to be late. Today was important.

Claire smiled and nodded at the woman in front of her, agreeing that the long-waisted sweater did make her look thinner and the dark, skinny jeans were perfect with it. Claire didn't want to be rude. After all, this lady was a regular customer at Claire's clothing store, the Belle Boutique, and regular customers were important for business. But she did wish the woman would hurry up and pick an outfit.

Claire absently pushed a stray strand of her sandy blond hair behind her ear and then began twirling the charm bracelet on her wrist around and around. She glanced at herself in the floor-to-ceiling mirror to check her appearance. Her hair was still neatly in place and her makeup still fresh looking. She plucked off a stray strand of string that had somehow come to rest on her sleeve. Perfect.

Finally, the customer decided that she loved the outfit she had on, and Claire politely excused herself and said that Ariana would ring up her purchases.

Claire rushed to the back room and into her office, slipped off her pumps, and pulled on a pair of knee-high, leather boots over her leggings. Today, she was dressed warmly despite the fact that it should already be spring outside. Unfortunately, spring in Minnesota could come as early as March or as late as May, and this year it chose the latter. Wearing a sweater dress and leggings in April seemed ridiculous, but not when the temperature was in the forties outside and snow was still on the ground. Grabbing her red, wool coat off the back of the office chair, Claire walked swiftly through the store and up to the front counter where her Assistant Manager, Ariana Flores, stood behind the register.

"Did she buy the sweater and jeans?" Claire asked, noting that the customer was no longer in the store.

"Yes. And the dress and brown trousers, too. I rounded it all up nicely with a set of bangle bracelets and earrings," Ariana said.

Claire smiled at Ariana as she slipped on her coat. Ariana had been working for her for almost five years and Claire didn't know what she'd do without her. Ariana was in her mid-forties, just as Claire was, but where Claire was tall with light skin, hair, and eyes, Ariana was the exact opposite. Ariana's Hispanic heritage shined through with a golden-brown complexion, big, brown eyes, and straight black hair that she usually put up in a twist. She was shorter than Claire, which she made up for by wearing very high heels. And Ariana always dressed with a vibrant style, showing off the clothes they sold in the most flattering way. Most of all, though, Ariana was loyal and a good friend who sometimes teased the very serious Claire mercilessly when she felt like it.

"Wonderful," Claire said. "I should hand all my customers over to you so you can add accessories to their purchases."

Ariana shrugged. "It's what we do. By the way, Steven-not-Steve called again to remind you that you are having dinner with him tonight."

Claire held back the chuckle that threatened to escape her lips. Steven Sievers, the man she was dating, did not like being called Steve, and had bluntly reminded Ariana of that the one time she called him Steve. Ever since then, Ariana referred to him as Steven-not-Steve.

"Why in the world does he think I'll forget? I've never forgotten before."

Ariana waggled her eyebrows. "Maybe he doesn't want you to forget because he's hoping for a little nookie tonight."

Claire rolled her eyes. "You've been reading too many of those Fifty Shades type books. They're tarnishing your good sense."

Ariana laughed. "You'd better go or your daughter will be angry with you."

Claire waved goodbye and hurried out the door into the dreary, gray day. She picked her way across the parking lot that separated the strip mall where her boutique was located from another long strip of shops. Claire's boutique was just one of many in the Ann Arbor Shopping Center in the town of Maple Grove. Everything from clothing, jewelry, and shoe stores to pet supplies and craft stores filled the strategically arranged buildings with restaurants and hotels sprinkled here and there. It was a busy place to say the least, and the perfect spot for Claire's business.

The parking lot was splattered with muddy, mushy snow that was melting away and leaving dirty puddles in its wake. Claire stopped at the busy intersection that separated one shopping area from another and waited for the traffic signal to change so she could cross. She pulled her coat tightly around her against the chilly breeze. One thing was for certain, she was looking forward to leaving town for a week and getting away from this awful weather.

After crossing the intersection, Claire walked down another strip of shops until she came to her destination. Stepping inside Marissa's Bridal Shop, Claire almost ran into her daughter, Amanda, and her daughter's best friend, Kaylie Thompson, in the entryway.

"Am I late, Mandy?" Claire asked, out of breath from her trek across the shopping compound.

Mandy shook her head, her hair swishing back and forth from the movement. "No, we just got here."

Claire hugged both Mandy and Kaylie in turn. The girls had been best friends since middle school, and Claire felt like a second mother to Kaylie. The two girls were the exact opposites in size and looks. While Mandy was tall and lean with chestnut brown hair cut into a sensible bob and had dark blue eyes, Kaylie was shorter and petite with long, straight, blond hair and light blue eyes. But their personalities had always meshed well and they had been the best of friends for so long that they might as well have been sisters.

Claire looked around the bridal boutique with raised brows. "Is it just us or will Janice be joining us?" she asked Mandy. Janice Fisher was Mandy's soon to be mother-in-law.

"Janice said she'd rather be pleasantly surprised on the day of the wedding," Mandy replied with a sarcastic emphasis on the word pleasantly. She shrugged. "So, yes, it's just us."

Claire nodded, but what she really wanted to do was say something scathing about Janice. She held her tongue instead. While Mandy might have to occasionally put up with her in-laws at family events, she wasn't marrying them. Mandy was marrying Craig, and he was a wonderful young man. Trying to sound generous, Claire offered, "I suppose it isn't as much fun being the mother of the groom instead of the bride. She probably feels left out no matter how many things we invite her to. Don't give it much thought."

Mandy nodded. Just then the owner of the shop, Marissa, came swooping down upon them in a whirl of energy, gave hugs all around, and then led the small group to the mirrored dressing rooms so Mandy and Kaylie could try on their dresses.

Kaylie went first so they could save the most anticipated dress for last. The strapless, aquamarine, short satin dress she'd chosen fit her to a tee and was the perfect color for a beach wedding. After the three women exclaimed admiration for the dress, it was Mandy's turn to try on her wedding gown. Marissa went in the room with Mandy to help her slip into the dress while Claire and Kaylie waited excitedly out in the mirrored display area.

Finally, Marissa came out through the curtain with a grin on her face and her hands clasped tightly in front of her as if in silent applause. "Here she is," Marissa announced. "The future Mrs. Craig Fisher."

Mandy swept through the curtain in a vision of satin, lace, and ruffles amidst gasps from Claire and Kaylie. She glided over to the pedestal in front of the three-way mirror and stepped up on it, then turned to face her mother with a small smile on her face.

Claire stood with her hands over her mouth, taken aback at the sight of the lovely princess standing before her. She had seen the dress on Mandy countless times, before alterations and without the veil and shoes. But today, with the entire ensemble on, her Mandy, her little girl now grown up was a beautiful sight to behold.

"Well, Mom? What do you think?" Mandy asked.

"It's absolutely breathtaking," Claire said. "It's just… perfect." And it was. Mandy had chosen a gown that was both simple, yet elegant, and that suited her no-nonsense personality. It was a creamy white strapless dress fitted at the bust and waist then billowing out to a full skirt with a small, flowing train. The skirt was made up of layers of short ruffles which gave it a frothy look, like the foam on the ocean as the waves hit the beach. The veil hung over Mandy's bare shoulders and was trimmed in a delicate application of beads. It was a sophisticated, beautiful gown and was perfect for a ceremony on a sandy beach—Mandy's dream wedding. Looking at her normally serious daughter dressed like an angel in white, Claire suddenly wondered where the years had gone. Twenty-four years. Years of smiles, laughter, and tears. Years of baby dolls, trikes, kissing booboos, and starting Kindergarten. Those years had morphed into prom dresses, shaggy boyfriends, and college dorm rooms. A first apartment, a first job, and then engagement. And now, after everything, marriage. Time had passed too quickly.

"It's gorgeous!" Kaylie exclaimed after she finally found her voice. "You look like a princess."

Mandy smiled at Kaylie, and then her mother. "This is it," she said. "In three days we'll be off to the Caribbean and within the week, I'll be married. It's incredible, isn't it?"

Claire nodded, afraid to speak in case she choked on the tears she was holding back.

"I can't wait until Dad sees my dress. Won't he be surprised?" Mandy asked.

All the delightful memories that had been embracing Claire that very moment dropped to the floor at the mention of Mandy's father. Claire had been actively trying to forget that one detail—Jim, and his new, younger wife, would be at the wedding, too.





***





The wedding gown was carefully bagged as was Kaylie's dress and all the accessories. Claire paid the balance along with buying all the extras like a box to store the dress in after the wedding. The three women waved goodbye to Marissa and walked out into the gloomy day in the fading, late afternoon light.

Kaylie hugged Claire and Mandy goodbye and ran off to her little sports car, carefully avoiding the larger of the muddy puddles in the parking lot. Claire helped Mandy to her car where they carefully hung the bagged gown on the hook in the back seat and laid out all the other purchases.

"So, have you heard from your father lately?" Claire asked, trying to sound indifferent, but failing miserably. Please say he isn't coming and bringing that annoying wife of his. Please, please, please.

Mandy stared at her mother a moment before answering. "I just talked to him this morning. And yes, he's still planning on coming, Mom. Dad wouldn't miss my wedding day." Mandy threw her mother a sly grin. "Remember, I can read your mind."

Claire had the good grace to look sheepish. Jim wouldn't miss his daughter's wedding; she knew that better than anyone. But it didn't stop Claire from wishing she didn't have to spend an entire week on an island with her ex-husband and the woman he'd left her for.

Mandy leaned forward and pulled Claire into a hug. "I know this isn't going to be easy, Mom, but I couldn't get married without both of you there. Please, for my sake, try to make it work?"

Claire hugged her daughter tightly before slowly pulling away. "Of course, I'll make it work. I'm always polite to him and that woman. I didn't say one mean thing to her or him at the engagement party, remember?" I wanted to spill red wine all over her skimpy, tight yellow dress, but I refrained.

Mandy rewarded Claire with one of her serious stares, the kind that reminded Claire so much of her ex-husband. Mandy had Jim's thick, wavy, chestnut brown hair and his deep blue eyes, a lethal combination that attracted people easily. But where her father had an outgoing, easy nature about him, always ready with a rakish grin, Mandy was more serious and reserved, like her mother. Yet, Claire couldn't help but always be reminded of Jim every time she looked at her daughter.

"Mom, that woman has a name. It's Diane. And I know you're trying. It's just for a week. I promise you will barely even see them while we're there."

Claire nodded, realizing that this was probably true. After all, even though it was a small island, there were plenty of places she could be that he wasn't. And miles of beach. She looked forward to walking a lot on the warm beaches and enjoying the sun and ocean breezes.

"It's too bad Steven isn't coming with you," Mandy said, interrupting Claire's thoughts. "You're going to be the only person there who isn't part of a couple."

Claire bit her lip. Yes, it would have been nice to have had someone along to share the romantic trip with, but she wasn't going to let that ruin her good time. There were plenty of other people she loved coming along like her brother, Glen, and sister-in-law, Lisa, Kaylie, the best man's wife Angela, and of course Mandy. Claire would have plenty of fun enjoying the entire wedding party despite Jim being there.

"Earth to Mom," Mandy said, waving her hand in front of Claire's face.

Claire snapped out of her stupor. "Sorry. I was just thinking how much fun we'll all have on the island, even though Steven won't be along." She looked at her watch. "Speaking of which, I'd better get going or I'll be late. I'm meeting Steven for dinner tonight and I have to go back to the shop first, then home to change."

Mandy drove Claire over to the boutique and they hugged goodbye. The next time they'd see each other would be at the airport on Monday. They both had plenty to do before taking off for an entire week.





Chapter Two





James Martin sat on the crowded commuter flight from Minneapolis to Chicago, still fuming at his boss for making him take this trip. It was late Friday afternoon, and instead of being on a plane he should be heading home to pack and get ready for his flight on Monday to Paradise for his daughter's wedding.

Earlier in the day, when his boss had told him there were problems needing his expertise in the Chicago offices of the office supply company he worked for, Jim couldn't believe his ears. His boss knew Jim was heading off for a week to the Bahamas for his daughter's wedding. Jim didn’t really dare to say no, though. He'd been working at this company since before college graduation, but he knew that no job in this economy was safe. If his boss thought he was capable of fixing problems in Chicago, then he'd better go. He wasn't happy about it, that was for certain.

Jim ran his hand through his hair and down the back of his neck. The flight hadn't even taken off yet and he was already tired of sitting. He was tense, stressed, and downright mad. Now, instead of leaving from home with the rest of the wedding party on Monday morning, he'd be flying out of Chicago. He hoped he'd packed everything he needed for the Bahamas. He hoped Mandy wouldn't be upset with him for having to change his flight. Ugg, life was complicated.

Jim's cell phone buzzed in his pocket and he winced when he saw who it was, but he answered it because he knew she would continue calling until he did.

"Hello, Diane."

"Where are you?"

"I'm fine. How are you?" Jim said, sarcastically.

"I don't care how you are, I asked you where you were," Diane's voice screeched over the phone.

Jim sighed. "I'm on a flight to Chicago for the weekend. The boss wanted me to straighten out a few problems in that location. If you had just asked around the office, you'd know where I was."

"I'm not going to ask random people in our office where my soon-to-be ex-husband is," Diane hissed through the line. "You promised me we'd go through the divorce papers before you left for the wedding. I want to get this over with."

No one wanted to get this marriage over with faster than Jim. "I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do. We'll talk about this when I get back." When he heard no response, Jim figured she'd hung up on him. He pictured her angrily slamming down the receiver as if it had been an old land-line phone. Lucky for him, all she could do was push a button to cut off the call.

The flight attendant walked by slowly checking to make sure everyone was belted in before take-off. She smiled down at Jim through glossy, red lips and winked one expertly painted eye. Jim rolled his eyes. The woman was young and lovely, and had been flirting with him since he boarded. This happened to him a lot. Even at the age of forty-six, he maintained himself well with workouts several times a week and there was only a hint of grey highlighting his hair. But he wasn't interested. He'd already made that mistake once, going after a younger woman. Now that younger woman was making his life a living hell. He certainly wasn't going to make that mistake again.

Jim rested his head on the back of his seat and closed his eyes, trying to block out his surroundings. He forced himself to think of sugar sand beaches that stretched on for miles, blue-green water foaming white, and an icy Pina Colada in his hand. Instead, his mind wandered to the blond hair, blue eyes, and soft oval face of his first wife, Claire. His college sweetheart, his wife of twenty years, and the mother of his only child. He wondered how she was handling the last minute stresses of the wedding. He hadn't seen her since the engagement party last fall, and had only spoken to her once since then to set the budget for the wedding. Even though Jim had said he'd cover the entire expense, Claire had refused to drop the whole bill on him. She was stubborn, self-sufficient, and proud, and had insisted on paying for a portion of their daughter's wedding. For some strange reason, Jim had found that appealing. No matter what had transpired between them four years ago when he'd left her for Diane, she'd still held her own and taken care of herself. He wished Diane had turned out to be half the woman Claire was.

Jim wondered if Claire still hated him for leaving her. She'd always been polite when they had to be together, although it was a stilted form of politeness. She'd never made a scene when Diane was around, either. Maybe, just maybe, he'd be able to return to her good graces during their vacation on the island. It would be nice to be, if nothing else, at least friends again.

Jim's eyes suddenly popped open when he remembered about Steven, the man Claire had been dating for the past two years. Steven Sievers, real estate broker and owner of a branch of Century 21 Real Estate. Stiff, stuck-up, stick-up-his-ass Steven. Jim couldn't stand the guy, much less understand what Claire saw in him.

As the plane finally took off for O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Jim pushed aside all thoughts of Diane, Steven, and even his boss and concentrated on looking forward to Monday and moonlit nights on sandy beaches with the peaceful sound of ocean waves breaking against the shore.





***





Claire sat across from Steven in a cozy booth in the back corner of the elegant steak and seafood restaurant. The lights in the room were muted and candles illuminated the tables. The setting felt intimate and private, like they were nestled in a cocoon away from the rest of the world.

In the two years they'd been dating, Claire only remembered coming to this restaurant once before. It had been on their first date, and at the time, Claire had assumed Steven was trying to impress her with the fancy decor and high prices. Tonight, however, she was confused. It wasn't her birthday and it wasn't Valentine's Day, the only two instances she could think of when he would go out of his way to bring her here. She watched Steven intently as the waiter poured their wine, wondering what he was thinking and why they were at this particular restaurant tonight.

Claire watched as Steven tasted the wine, nodded to the waiter, and then turned his smile toward her. Steven was a handsome man in his own way. He was tall, over six foot, and lean, although maybe a tad too thin by some standards. His dark blond hair was always kept short and neat, and while his hazel eyes rarely sparkled with delight, or for any other reason, they were kind. Steven didn't have the easy nature or cavalier grin that came so easily to her ex-husband, and that was fine. Claire didn't mind the fact that women didn't look twice at Steven. In fact, she was relieved they didn't. She'd already been married to a man who turned heads for years, probably still did, so it was actually a relief to not have to worry about that with Steven. While some might say that Steven was rather stiff and unemotional, she thought of him more as stable, hardworking, and dependable. Stable and dependable sounded good to Claire.

"So, how was the dress fitting today?" Steven asked, bringing Claire out of her thoughts.

Claire liked the fact that Steven listened to her and always asked about her day. Some would say it was the salesman in him that made him remember details, but Claire chose to believe he was a thoughtful person instead.

"The fitting went beautifully. Mandy looked like a dream. It's going to be a fairytale wedding."

"Of course, it will. Everything you touch is done to perfection."

Claire smiled and took a sip of her wine. "Thank you. I only wish you were coming along. The island is so beautiful, and it would be a lovely romantic getaway."

Steven nodded, and looked at Claire seriously. "It would be nice, but spring is such a busy time of the year for real estate sales. Plus," he paused. "This is more of a family event, and I think it will be better for you to be there with your family without me distracting you."

Claire hesitated before she replied. She'd tried numerous times to argue the point with him that he was considered a part of the family since they'd been dating for so long. Mandy would have been happy for Steven to come along. But Steven didn't argue. He could calmly talk circles around you, but he'd never get into a heated or emotional discussion. He had his own ideas about certain things and he stuck to them.

"Still, it would have been nice. You are considered family, too," Claire said quietly.

Instead of brushing this off, Steven surprised her by taking her hand and looking deeply into her eyes. "I'm pleased you think of me that way because I'd like to become a part of your family very soon." He reached into his sports coat pocket and pulled out a small, red velvet box, opened it, and placed it on the table between them. "Claire. Will you marry me?"

Claire's eyes grew wide and her hand rose up to her throat. She stared at the simple, one-caret solitaire diamond set in a white gold band which had tiny diamonds encased in it. She swallowed hard, blinked, and then looked up at Steven to see if he was serious. He was.

"Marry me, Claire," he said, smiling at her, seeming to enjoy her complete surprise.

Claire grabbed her wrist where her charm bracelet usually hung, then remembered she'd taken it off tonight. She grasped her other wrist where her watch sat, and began twirling it around and around. Marriage? Was this for real? Was he serious?

"I…I can't believe this," she said, finally finding her voice. "I'd have never suspected this in a million years."

Steven reached over and took the ring out of the box. He reached for Claire's hand and slipped it onto her ring finger. It fit perfectly. "Please say you'll marry me, Claire. I know you have your reservations about marrying again, but I think we'd make a good couple. We are so much alike, and we both have no illusions about love and marriage. We can make each other happy as we grow old. Marry me, Claire."

Claire stared down at the ring around her finger. She couldn't breathe. The intimate area around her lost its appeal and suddenly felt claustrophobic. Marriage, a second time around, scared the living bejeezus out of her, and she wasn’t sure if she could choke out an answer, be it yes or no.

Steven sat back in his chair and stared at Claire. "You're scaring me, Claire. Just breathe. It's okay," he said calmly.

Claire closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She exhaled, letting out all the fear she'd let build up inside her. When she opened her eyes, she felt better, but the ring still felt heavy on her finger. Too heavy. Almost like a block of cement meant to drown her in a body of water.

Finally, she found her senses and her voice. "It's very beautiful, Steven," Claire said, trying to smile up at him. "It's perfect, actually. And you certainly surprised me. I had no idea you were going to propose."

Steven smiled proudly, sitting forward in his chair again.

"But I never pictured myself getting married again. I can't even imagine it. I'm sorry."

Steven's expression deflated a little, but he didn't give up. "I know we've talked about this before and you said you thought you'd never marry again. But our marriage would be different from your first. We're both older, we're both sensible, and I have no designs on leaving you for a younger woman. I think we'd make a good partnership. We each can fill in what the other person is lacking. We'd be the perfect match."

Claire sat there, allowing Steven's words to wash over her. A good partnership. The perfect match. But what about love? What about passion? He'd managed to propose to her, and lay out his life plan with her without ever using the word love.

"This is just all so sudden…"Claire began, not sure where she was headed. But Steven interrupted her.

"I know. I realize that it is. And the timing isn't perfect, I understand. I know how preoccupied you are with the upcoming trip and wedding. I only wanted you to know my intentions before you left for the Bahamas. I wanted you to know how I feel, and that I want our relationship to continue to grow. I'm serious about us, Claire, and I need you to know that."

Claire looked down at the ring still strangling her finger. She had the terrible urge to shake it off. But why? Steven was a good man. He was hardworking and stable. What was it about this ring that made her feel like she was wearing a noose?

"I just need some time to think about it, Steven," she finally said. "You're right. I do have a lot on my mind with my daughter's wedding and the trip. And this was such a surprise. Would it hurt your feelings terribly if I think it over?"

Steven smiled sweetly at her. "No, it won't hurt my feelings. I knew going into this that there was the possibility you might say no, so the fact that you want to think about it gives me hope. Take all the time you need. I know you'll make the right decision."

Claire wondered if he thought the right decision meant the best decision for her, or for him.

She started to slip the ring off her finger to hand it back to Steven, but he shook his head.

"Wear it awhile. Get used to feeling it on your finger. Hopefully, the ring will help you make your decision." Steven picked up the velvet ring box from the table, closed it, and handed it to Claire. She wasn't sure what to do, so she left the ring on throughout dinner to make Steven happy, but all the while she wondered, did it make her happy, too?

Much later, as Claire lay in her bed beside a soundly sleeping Steven, she picked up her left hand and looked at the ring glinting in the darkness. After bringing Claire home, Steven had asked to stay, and made love to her as a way to celebrate the marriage proposal that he was sure she was going to eventually accept. Their lovemaking was nice, always had been, but it lacked the spark, warmth, and passion that Claire would have liked to feel. Or maybe it lacked a deep love commitment. Did Claire actually love Steven? Did she love him enough to promise to spend the rest of her life with him? Or was love even necessary at their ages when stability and honesty were much more important? She didn't know.

Love, passion, and a deep connection were all things that Claire had already experienced in her married life the first time around, and where did that get her? She'd ended up alone when that passion had faded and Jim had left her. Maybe love and butterflies in the stomach and passion was overrated. Maybe what she had with Steven was mature and realistic. Maybe, just maybe, when she returned from her daughter's wedding in the Bahamas, she'd be ready to say yes.





Chapter Three





Monday morning found Claire in a state of panic as she arrived at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport by cab. It was only six o'clock a.m. and the airport was fairly quiet, the first flights of the day just starting to take off. As Claire stepped out of the cab and retrieved her carry-on bag and suitcase from the driver, she prayed she'd packed everything she needed. If she hadn't, it was too late now.

Claire stepped through the automatic doors and began looking around for the others in her group. When her eyes fell upon her soon-to-be son-in-law, Craig, one of the tallest in the group, she sighed with relief, and headed over their way.

Soon, the entire group was gathered together and the checking of the bags commenced. Each person was bringing a carry-on with their wedding clothes in it so if their luggage was lost, at least the wedding would go off without a hitch. Somehow, Mandy had stuffed her beautiful wedding gown into her small carry-on, and Claire hoped and prayed it would make the flight with as few wrinkles as possible.

It wasn't until after everyone had checked their larger bags that Claire had a chance to look around at their group and assess who was there. She knew Mandy and Craig were here, and then there was Craig's parents, Janice and Carl, standing stiffly at the edge of the group. Kaylie and her boyfriend, Mark Carlson, and the best man Cameron Anderson and his wife Angela were all standing with Mandy and Craig. There were nine of them in all, counting Claire.

Claire frowned. She had been dreading seeing Jim and his wife, but as she looked around, she noted that they were missing from the group. She hurried over to Mandy and pulled her aside.

"Have you seen your father?" Claire asked. "He isn't here yet."

"Oh, with all that was going on I forgot to tell you," Mandy said. "I got a call from Dad on Saturday. He was in Chicago for work and he had to change his flight. He's flying out of Chicago this morning and meeting us in Miami."

"Oh. Diane, too?" Claire asked.

Mandy nodded. "I'm guessing she's with him. He didn't say otherwise and he didn’t say we should expect her here."

As the group headed over to go through security, Claire let out a sigh of relief. At least she wouldn't have to sit and watch Jim and Diane throughout the three-and-a-half-hour flight to Miami being all lovey-dovey and cuddly. The thought of it made her stomach sick.

Everything went smoothly and the group landed in Miami on time. Once there, though, they had to run, quite literally, to catch the small plane to Marsh Harbour on the Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. There, they met up with Claire's brother and sister-in-law, Glen and Lisa Goodwin, who'd just flown to Miami from San Diego.

"Uncle Glen! Aunt Lisa!" Mandy called with delight when she saw them at the gate. "I'm so happy you're coming along."

Glen smiled as he hugged his niece. "I wouldn't miss my only niece's wedding. You know that." He winked over to Claire. "Especially when it's in the Bahamas."

Hugs and introductions were dispersed all around and then they were hurried outside on the tarmac to board the tiny plane. Again, Claire hadn't seen Jim or Diane. Maybe his plane from Chicago was late. Maybe they'd have to come on a later flight to the Bahamas. Claire secretly hoped so.

The group squeezed down the tiny aisle of the plane and found their seats. All the carry-ons were given to the attendant since there were no overhead compartments. Claire was the only person in the group who had to sit with a stranger since everyone else had come in pairs. Mandy and Craig sat in the seats in front of her, Glen and Lisa were behind her, and Kaylie and Mark were across the aisle from her. An elderly gentleman with a white beard and wearing tropical colored clothing sat in the window seat beside Claire. She smiled over at him when she sat down.

Mandy was just taking her seat when Claire saw her smile and wave at someone at the back of the plane.

"Dad made it," Mandy said to Claire. "He's in the back."

Claire forced herself not to turn around and look.

The flight took off and everyone settled in. The aisle was too narrow and the ceiling too short to get up and walk around comfortably, so everyone stayed seated for the hour-long flight.

After a time, Claire's curiosity got the better of her and she turned slightly to catch a glimpse of Jim in the back of the plane. He sat on the aisle, like her, so she could see he was dressed casually in khaki pants and a green polo shirt. His hair was cut perfectly, long enough to show off the waves, but short enough not to look shaggy. And he was already tan. Claire wondered how a man who worked indoors and lived in Minnesota could be tan in the winter. Obviously, he went to a tanning salon. It was probably Diane's idea. Claire couldn't get a view of Diane in the window seat beside Jim. Claire was certain Diane would be dressed brightly in a tight outfit and have a golden tan of her own. After all, she was only thirty years old. Jim had married her when she was a mere twenty-six and he was forty-one. It was obscene.

Jim raised his hand and waved at Claire, making her turn around hastily. Her face burned red. She hadn't realized she'd been staring at him for so long. Claire grabbed her charm bracelet and began twirling it around her wrist. She felt stupid for being so obsessed with her ex-husband. In truth, she shouldn't give a fig about him or that woman he married. But being around them still made her so nervous, she tended to act like an idiot.

Four years ago when Jim left her for Diane, it had taken Claire by utter surprise. She'd literally been the wife who was the last to know her husband was having an affair. She'd thought their marriage was fine. They'd been together for twenty years, raised a daughter, and both had interesting careers that they enjoyed. At the time, Claire's boutique was still getting off the ground, but making a small profit and growing. Sure, Claire had spent many hours there, sometimes all day and into the evenings to save on employee expenses when she was first starting out. Often, Mandy worked there, too, after school and on weekends. But Jim had been working a lot of overtime, too, so Claire hadn't felt bad about it. They were building their lives like couples do, or so she thought. She had no idea that Jim had decided to build his life elsewhere, with someone else.

For Claire, the day Jim told her he was leaving her seemed just like yesterday. It was still fresh in her mind and her heart. How could someone who vowed to love you forever suddenly want to leave? Maybe that was why she was still nervous around him and Diane. And now, she'd be spending the next seven days on an island with the two people who she least wanted to spend time with.

As the rest of the wedding party chatted around her, Claire closed her eyes and focused on staying calm. "I can do this, I can do this, I can do this," she chanted softly to herself.

"Mom."

Claire's eyes flew open. Mandy had turned in her seat and stared directly at her.

"What are you doing?" Mandy asked, frowning. "Are you okay?"

Claire stopped rocking in her seat and sat up straight. She hadn't even realized she'd been doing it. "I'm fine, dear. Sorry," she said, sheepishly.

Mandy pursed her lips. "Mom, you have to get ahold of yourself. You're scaring that poor gentleman beside you." With that, Mandy turned around in her seat again.

Claire grimaced. She looked over at her seatmate. "Sorry," she told him.

The elderly man smiled. "No worries," he said. "Are you afraid of flying?"

Claire shook her head. "No. Flying is fine. More like afraid of spending the next week with my ex-husband and his new wife." Claire tipped her head in the direction of the back of the plane and the elderly gentleman turned and looked at Jim through the separation between their seats.

"Oh, I get it. Do you want me to kiss you passionately and make him jealous?" he asked with a sly grin.

Her hands flew over her mouth as Claire stifled a laugh. "No, thank you," she said through her smile. "But it was a kind offer."

The man winked and turned back toward the window.

Claire took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The old man's silly offer had helped her relax. But, inside her head, she was still chanting, I can do this, I can do this.





***





From his seat at the back of the plane, Jim could watch everyone in the wedding party. He'd purposely boarded the plane early so he could get on without any questions from Mandy. Soon enough, he'd have to explain why Diane wasn't with him. He just wasn't sure yet what he was going to say.

To admit to his daughter that he'd failed at his second marriage after leaving her mother for Diane left a lump in his throat. What an idiot he'd been. The grass hadn't been greener on the other side. In fact, it had been brown, prickly, and downright nasty. When he'd left Claire to start a new life with Diane, he'd thought it would be a life full of love, laughter, and carefree fun. Boy, had he been wrong. The minute he'd said "I do," Diane ran over him like a steam shovel. She wanted a brand-new house, brand new furniture to fill it with, and expensive vacations. She wanted to change the way he dressed, the way he cut his hair, the way he ate, and even the way he walked. What the hell was wrong with the way he walked? Diane became a living nightmare. And the fact that they worked in the same office and that he was her superior didn't help matters. She thought she could reign over him at work like she did at home. But the worst part of all, she'd done everything she could to keep him away from his only child. That had hit Jim hard. When Mandy began planning the wedding, Diane flat-out refused to go on the island vacation and attend the wedding. They fought over it endlessly. He literally had to bribe her to agree to go to the engagement party by giving her a ridiculously expensive diamond necklace. It was all too much for Jim. When Diane refused to go to the wedding during their umpteenth argument six months ago, it was the final straw for Jim. He gave her an ultimatum. Go to the wedding with him, or leave. She chose to leave, thank God. As bad as it sounded, he'd actually been relieved.

Jim looked up in time to see Claire staring back at him. He gave her a small smile and a wave, which made her turn around instantly. Jim sighed. He'd really screwed up his life the day he'd left Claire. True, their marriage had been faltering and it had seemed like their work life had become more important than their relationship. Looking back, however, he realized that it had been his fault completely since he'd let himself become distracted with a younger woman at work while Claire had stayed true.

Jim watched the back of Claire's head as she seemed to be rocking in her seat and chanting something. Then he saw Mandy turn around in her seat and say something to her mother. Jim wondered what Claire had been doing. She seemed nervous. He'd secretly watched her as she'd boarded the plane with the rest of the group and was amazed at how young and vibrant she looked. She'd grown out her sandy blond hair a little and she looked like she'd lost a little weight. Not that Claire had ever been overweight; she'd always looked neat and trim. But today, she looked amazing in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Since the day they met in college, Claire had always been a smart, confident woman who knew what direction she was heading. Jim had always envied that about her. But today, she looked nervous, almost vulnerable. He wondered if she was, or if it was just his imagination.

As the plane landed in Marsh Harbour, James decided he'd keep his divorce to himself for as long as he was able. There was no sense dumping that information onto a fun family vacation and Mandy's special day. He'd make up an excuse for Diane's absence. He was pretty sure that no one was going to miss her anyway. He sure as hell knew he wasn't going to.





Can’t wait to read more of Claire and Jim’s story? It is available at online retailers in both ebook and paperback formats.





Summer of the Loon





Deanna Lynn Sletten





Chapter One





Alison Jenson tucked a stray strand of dark brown hair behind her ear as she wriggled again to try to get comfortable in the narrow airplane seat. She was happy she had a window seat. The airplane from Minneapolis, MN to Duluth was small—only fifty seats in all—with a very narrow aisle, meaning she'd have had a person on either side of her. Sitting by the window meant she could pretend to be busy looking down at the landscape below and not have to make small talk with the older gentleman sitting next to her.

Ali rubbed her sweaty palms over her jean-clad legs as she stared out the window. All she saw below were trees and lakes. Very few towns popped up between Minneapolis and Duluth once they'd left the Metro area. Until about fifteen minutes ago, she was able to distract herself from her destination by texting her best friend, Megan, back in California. But then her phone service was cut off suddenly and she lost contact with her last tie to her old life. Ali already missed Megan and her other friends in California, she already missed her high school in Torrance, and she missed the warm sun and sandy beaches. Most of all, she missed her mom.

The small airplane banked, and Ali saw that they were already making their descent into Duluth. She'd never been to this part of the country before and had no idea what to expect. When her plane had landed in Minneapolis, she'd been delighted to see how large the airport was. During her two-hour delay, she'd wandered the shops and enjoyed a caramel cappuccino and a cookie in a Starbucks. Her phone had informed her that it was fifty-seven degrees outside, which she thought was cold, but apparently it was normal for the middle of May in Minneapolis. Ali had no idea how cold it would be farther north and hoped she'd dressed warm enough in her jeans, UGG boots, and zippered hoodie over a T-shirt.

The plane landed smoothly on the tarmac, and Ali reached down under the seat in front of her to retrieve her laptop backpack. Looking out the window once more, she was surprised to see how small the airport was. She wondered if he was in the terminal, waiting for her. She wondered what he looked like, and how she'd recognize him. She wondered if he was as nervous as she was.

Ali stood, slung her backpack over her shoulder, and followed the other passengers out of the plane and up the ramp into the terminal. This was it. At only sixteen years old, her former life was behind her, and she was walking toward her new life, meeting her estranged grandfather for the very first time.





***





Benjamin Jenson stood in the airport terminal behind the crowd of people waiting for the passengers from Minneapolis to disembark. His tall frame allowed him to see easily over the crowd, so he stood in the very back so he could spot his granddaughter before she saw him. He knew he had an advantage. Even though he hadn't seen a photograph of his granddaughter since she was five years old, he knew there'd be no mistaking his Jennifer's child. She'd have Jen's vibrant blue eyes and creamy skin, she'd be tall and slender, and she'd probably have that same stubborn set to her jaw that he remembered so well from his little Jen.

Ben straightened the collar of his blue, plaid, flannel shirt and ran his hand through his salt and pepper hair. At sixty years old, he was in good shape and looked much younger than his age. Years of physical labor working outside had helped to keep his body lean and strong, although being exposed to the elements had etched creases in his face, especially in the corners of his dark blue eyes when he smiled, which he rarely did. He hadn't had much to smile about over the past seventeen years, and most of the people who knew him understood without being told that he was a man of few words. He was a hardworking man, and an honest one, which was all that really mattered in the tough country of the north woods.

Ben wasn't happy at the prospect of having a teenage girl he didn't even know moving in with him. The news of his daughter's untimely death had jolted him severely and brought back a range of emotions that he thought he'd buried deep down inside long ago. Pain, heartbreak, anger, resentment, and guilt had all filtered through the crevices of the locked door to his heart, feelings he thought he'd never have to deal with again. But then, the realization that he was his granddaughter's only living relative and he was responsible for her helped to push those feelings aside, all of them except resentment. Why should he be responsible for this girl he didn't know? Ben had grumbled this to himself several times over the past few weeks since he'd found out about Jennifer's death. The last thing he needed was some spoiled city girl from California to come and muck up his life, the life he'd so carefully put back together since the death of his wife, Lizzie.

Because Lizzie would want me to, was the answer he'd hear in his head every time he grumbled.

Ben was snapped out of his thoughts when he heard a woman in front of him squeal with delight at the sight of one of the first passengers filing into the waiting area. Soon, more people followed, and Ben studied each face before moving on to the next. Ben's expression turned into a scowl. Damn. What if she'd missed her flight from Minneapolis? The next flight wasn't due until this evening, and they still had a two-and-a-half-hour drive back to the cabin. He wouldn't put it past the girl to have missed it. He crossed his arms and continued to wait, all the while convincing himself that it was going to be a long day of waiting.





***





Ali saw her grandfather immediately as she passed through the doorway into the waiting area. He was easy to recognize, standing there at the back of the crowd, scowling. He was taller than she'd imagined, and looked younger, too, but there was no mistaking that this man was her relative. The dark hair and intense blue eyes, so much like her own, gave him away, but the strong set to his square jaw was a dead giveaway. It reminded her of her mother when she was stubborn. As she stared at him, Ali saw her grandfather's eyes settle upon her, and recognition filled his gaze. She felt his eyes as intensely as if he'd actually touched her. It was a strange feeling, seeing him for the first time, yet feeling his presence as if she knew him. Straightening her back, Ali lifted her backpack up higher on her shoulder and strode purposefully through the crowd of people toward her grandfather's stern eyes.

Ali stopped only inches from him and stared up at him with questioning eyes. She didn't smile, and neither did he.

"Alison?" he asked, staring down at her.

Ali nodded. She didn't know what else to do. As everyone else around them hugged each other in greeting, they just stood there and stared at each other. Finally, feeling as if she should do something, Ali raised her hand and extended it to him. "It's nice to finally meet you, Grandfather."

Ben frowned down at her and stared at her offered hand as if contemplating whether or not to shake it. Finally, he grasped it in his own large, rough hand, gave it a squeeze, and quickly let it go.

"Well, I see you made your flight," Ben said, his face still stern. "We have a long drive ahead of us. I assume you have more bags." He nodded toward the bag on her shoulder.

Ali merely stared at him. She hadn't expected him to be thrilled that she was here, but she'd hoped he'd show some warmth toward his only grandchild. Her mother had been so affectionate and loving. How in the world had she come from this cold, hard person in front of her?

"I have one other bag," Ali finally answered.

"Only one?" Ben raised his brows.

"Only one."

"Hmmm." Ben turned on his heel and waved for Ali to follow. She did. They made their way to the baggage claim area behind the line of other passengers who had come off her flight.

Ali saw her large, black bag on the carousal and immediately headed over to lift it off. Seeing her struggle with the heavy bag, Ben came up beside her and lifted it easily out of her hands and onto the floor in one smooth motion.

Ali cut her eyes to him. "Thanks," she said through pursed lips as she took ahold of the handle and pulled it away from him.

"Let me carry that for you," Ben offered.

"I can take care of it myself," Ali said.

Ben stared at her for only a second. "Fine. The truck is this way." He turned and walked away with Ali on his heels.

Her grandfather led her outside to a parking lot filled with oversized pickup trucks and SUVs. It was a sunny day, although the air was cool. Ali was glad she'd worn her sweatshirt. When she'd left California, it was eighty-three degrees. Here, it was more like fifty degrees.

They stopped at an extended cab, navy blue, Dodge Ram truck that looked fairly new. Ben took Ali's large bag from her and easily hoisted it up into the back seat of the truck, then walked around to the driver's side and stepped up behind the wheel. The truck was so high off the ground, Ali found she had to literally pull herself up into the cab.

Not a word passed between the two in the pickup as Ben maneuvered his way out of Duluth and headed northwest. Ali had no idea where he lived. She knew he lived on a lake and had owned and operated a resort named Willow Lake Lodge, but that was about all her mother had told her over the years. Ali watched as the road turned from four lanes to two and the landscape turned from homes and businesses to trees. There was nothing for miles and miles except trees.

After riding for a while without her grandfather saying a word to her, Ali pulled her phone out of her pocket and checked for a signal. She had two bars. She quickly texted Megan to tell her she had arrived safely and was with her grandfather.

"That thing won't do you much good once we get closer to home," Ben said into the silent cab.

Ben's sudden words startled Ali, and she looked up at him with wide eyes. His voice was deep and gruff, which didn't make him sound any friendlier.

"There's spotty cell service in Auburn, the town near where we live, but none out at the cabin. It won't be worth the money you pay to have it there," Ben said.

Ali looked down at her phone. It was at one bar now. "I was just texting my friend back home to let her know I made it here," she said. "Her mother wanted to make sure I was safe."

Ben nodded as he continued staring straight ahead at the road. "Is your friend's mother the woman I spoke to? The one you were staying with these past few weeks?"

"Yes," Ali said. "That was Megan's mom, Amy."

"Nice woman," Ben said, the gruffness in his voice softening a little. "It was kind of her to take you in like that."

Ali's heart quickened at his words and she bit the inside of her cheek to stop herself from hurling a nasty retort. Ali had known Megan and her family since the school had moved Ali ahead a year into second grade, and Megan became her best friend. Megan's mother was like a second mother to Ali. Of course they took her in after her mother died. Amy had even offered to allow her to live with them over the next year so Ali could spend her senior year of high school in the same school and not have to transfer. But then Ali's grandfather had agreed to take her in, and there was nothing she or Amy could do about it since he was her only living relative.

Ali felt her grandfather's eyes on her and turned to see him staring at her. She felt compelled to say something. "I've known Megan's family for a long time. They were happy to help."

Ben's eyes narrowed slightly and he nodded toward Ali's phone. "Well, don't expect me to pay for you to have that thing while you're living here. It's too expensive to pay for something that can't be used most of the time."

Ali pocketed her phone and turned her head to look out the side window. She didn't expect the old man to pay for anything for her. She could take care of herself.

The miles dragged on as the silence in the truck grew thicker. Ali wanted to attach her headphones on her phone and block out the silence with music, except her battery was low and her charger was packed in her big bag. So, she sat there as they passed tree after tree, broken up by an occasional body of water or a field of cows or horses. Ali had never seen so much unoccupied land in her life, let alone so many pine trees. Where did all the people live? Occasionally, they'd drive through a small town, or at least a place that had a sign stating there was a town, but all Ali saw was a rundown gas station and maybe a church and a couple of houses. It felt like they were driving to the last place on earth.

Ben pulled over at a small gas station and restaurant in a tiny town about an hour and a half out of Duluth. The parking lot was filled with trucks pulling boats on trailers. It seemed full for such a small town.

"Hungry?" he asked.

Ali shrugged. The little restaurant looked fairly clean, but it was nothing like what she was used to.

"Well, we either eat supper here or else go hungry. We're going to miss supper at the lodge, so we may as well get a bite here," Ben said.

Ali followed him inside and was surprised at how many people were there. Ali and Ben sat at a table by the front window, and after looking at the meager menu, both ordered cheeseburgers and fries.

Ali looked around her. The place was filled mostly with men, and they were all dressed much like her grandfather was, in jeans, T-shirts, and flannel shirts or sweatshirts, and work boots. Many had caps on their heads. She wondered what they were all doing up here in the middle of nowhere.

"Fishing opener was last weekend," Ben said, as if to answer Ali's thoughts.

Ali looked up, startled. "What?"

"The fishing opener. It's practically a holiday up here. All these men are staying at local resorts and fishing."

Ali frowned, trying to understand. "What do you mean by fishing opener? Don't you fish all year around here?"

Ben shook his head. "The season goes roughly from May to February, depending upon the type of fish you're looking to catch. Opening is a big deal. The ice has gone out on the lakes and everyone is raring to get their boats out on the water. It's basically the beginning of the summer season, and it's a good moneymaker for resorts."

Ali nodded even though she really didn't understand much about fishing. Her grandfather seemed happy to be talking about something he enjoyed though, so she listened as they ate their meal and he talked about fish like walleye, northern pike, and crappies. He said he knew every good fishing hole on Willow Lake where his house and the resort was, and he was a fishing guide to tourists who came up to the lodge.

"They never leave empty-handed," he said proudly. Ali knew about malls, crowded parks and beaches, and sunny days all year round, but she didn't know one thing about northern Minnesota, trees, or fishing.

Ali and Ben hopped back into the truck and rambled on down the road as the sun traveled low in the west. Ben seemed a little less stern after telling Ali what he knew about fishing, and there seemed to be less tension in the air between them. Ali checked her phone, and just as her grandfather had said, there was no tower service. She sighed and returned the phone to her pocket.

"If you need to make a call, we can stop in town a moment before heading out to the cabin," Ben offered.

Ali turned and looked at him, surprised by his kind offer. "No, that's okay. I'm sure they got my message."

Ben nodded and kept driving. He broke the silence again. "I'm sorry about your mother," he said, his tone gentle.

Ali had been strong all this time. From the moment she'd been told by the lawyer she was going to live with her grandfather, throughout packing up the small apartment she shared with her mother, and even through the goodbyes to her friends in California and the long flight here. She'd expected a grouchy old man, just as her mother had described him over the years, and he hadn't disappointed her. But hearing him say this, in a soft, caring voice, was the final tipping point that unnerved her to her core. She narrowed her eyes at him. "Not sorry enough to make it to the funeral, though." The harsh words came out of Ali's mouth so quickly, even she was stunned by them.

Ben sat quiet a moment, definitely not the reaction Ali expected. Finally, he said, "I didn't really think I'd be welcome there. Figured it was best to stay away."

Ali turned away as her eyes filled and two tears trailed down her cheeks. Welcome to Minnesota, she thought as those incessant trees continued to pass by and the sun sank into darkness.





Chapter Two





They arrived at the house in darkness with only the half moon and the headlights illuminating their way. Ali had never in her life seen so dark a night sky. Without the illumination of streetlights, building lights, and car lights, it was pitch black in all directions. To top it off, the house had no lights on to welcome them.

"Wait here a minute," Ben said, then stepped out of the pickup with a flashlight and headed into the garage. After a few minutes, Ali heard an engine begin to hum and the garage lights came to life. Her grandfather came back to the truck. "Had to start up the generator," he told her.

Ali had no idea what a generator was.

Ben came around to Ali's side, opened up the back door, and pulled out her suitcase. He lifted the heavy bag easily and walked into the two-stall garage that was attached to the house. Ali wasn't sure what to do, so she picked up her backpack and followed him.

Ben opened a door in the garage that led into the dark kitchen. He set Ali's bag down and clicked on the light, then proceeded farther into the house and turned on another light in the living room.

Ali stood in the small kitchen and looked around her. The walls were split, smooth, honey-colored logs. The kitchen was small but efficient, with an oven and broiler built into the wall ahead of her and the gas burners embedded in the counter on her left. The refrigerator stood by the door behind her, where they'd entered. All the appliances were stainless steel, which surprised Ali because they seemed to be quite new. There was a double sink to her left with a small window over it and counters on either side. The cupboards were also stained a soft honey color and gleamed to a polished perfection in the light. Ali noticed there was no dishwasher or microwave in the kitchen. Over the burners was a pass-through window with a ledge, and she saw that her grandfather was watching her through the opening.

Ali walked into the next room, which held a large, oak dining table and eight chairs. The open room continued straight on to a living room where a large sofa and two reclining rockers sat with a coffee table separating them. All along the wall to her left were windows. Ali walked on the polished hardwood floors to one of the large windows and looked out. With so little moon above, and no outdoor lights, she couldn't see a thing. To her right, down below, there was a light on in the window of a building.

"That's the lodge down there," Ben said. "Straight ahead of you, down the hill, is the lake. That's why it looks so dark. Wait until the full moon, then you'll be able to see it at night."

Ali nodded. She suddenly felt very tired, as if it had been years since she left California instead of hours.

Her grandfather lifted his arm and pointed to a smaller room off the living room. "Through there is the door to the bathroom. It's the only one we have. My room is through the door by the kitchen where we entered."

"Is there somewhere I can plug in my phone? And my laptop?" Ali asked, looking around. She noticed there was no television in the living room. What did he do for fun around here?

"You can plug them in upstairs in your room, but it won't do you much good tonight. I turn the generator off at nine every night. I get up early, so I go to bed early. There's an oil lamp in your room if you need light after nine."

Ali just stared at him. She wasn't used to having the electricity turned off each night. "Don't you have power out here?"

"They ran power down to the lodge a few years ago, but I didn't bother to have it hooked up here. Don't need it. I have the generator for all my needs. I don't have television or internet connected here, either. If you want to watch T.V. or use a computer, you'll have to go down to the lodge. And like I said, your cell phone is useless out here. There's a phone down at the lodge, though, if you need to make a call."

Ali blinked and stared at the old man as she absorbed his words. No television, no internet, and no phone, and only a generator for power. She hadn't realized people in the United States still lived like this. Like it was the 1800s or something. And the worst part was that her grandfather looked smug about the fact that he didn't have any conveniences. Like he was showing her a thing or two. Ali sighed.

"I'll show you where your room is," Ben said. "Follow me."

Ben walked back toward the kitchen and Ali frowned. She hadn't seen a staircase anywhere in the kitchen when she came in.

"You coming?" Ben asked gruffly.

Ali sighed again and followed him to the kitchen.

"My room is here." Ben pointed to a door by the refrigerator that Ali hadn't noticed when she walked in. Then he lifted her suitcase and headed back out into the garage. He took a left and flicked on another overhead light. That was when she saw the staircase. It was on the side wall of the garage. Her mouth dropped open as she watched him start up the wooden stairs. The entrance to her room was in the garage? Could it get any worse?

Ali reluctantly followed her grandfather up the stairs and through the lightweight door that had a small window on the top half covered with a curtain. What greeted her was a long, open room the size of the full length of the house. The roof peaked, and slanted down. They were in the attic.

"I hope this is okay," Ben said as he clicked on the overhead light and set the suitcase down on the arms of a big, plaid upholstered chair.

Ali looked around. There was a window on one end of the room, over the bed, and two dormers with large windows to her left at the front of the house. The bed was queen size with a white, wooden headboard and footboard and had a patchwork quilt covering it. A white chest sat at the foot of the bed with a red pillow on top of it so it could be used as a bench. There was a nightstand beside the bed with a small electric lamp and an old-fashioned oil lamp sitting on it, and a white, six-drawer dresser with a mirror on top to the left of the bed. Sitting in one dormer nook was an oak desk and chair. Cherry red curtains were over all of the windows and matched the red patches in the quilt. To the right of the bed was a long bar hanging from the ceiling holding empty hangers on it. Ali supposed this was to be her closet. As she looked around, she thought it wasn't too bad of a room after all.

Her grandfather cleared his throat. "There are power sockets by the desk and dresser, if you want to charge your things. You'll have to wait until morning though, since it's almost bedtime. You should go use the bathroom downstairs, too, before I turn the generator off. You'll want to be sure to keep this door shut tight at night so you don't let any critters in."

Ali's eyes grew wide. "Critters? What type of critters?"

Ben looked at her seriously. "Well, there's chipmunks and squirrels. Then there's skunks and raccoons, they really like to dig around in people's things. I'd advise you not to have food up here at night, either. Bears can smell food from far away."

"Bears?" Ali squealed. "Bears can get up those stairs and in this room?"

"Bears are climbers; of course they can get up a flight of stairs. Of course, I wouldn't worry too much about them. I almost always close the garage door at night so critters don't get into the garbage. I'm sure you won't have a problem, just keep your door shut tight and stay up here at night."

Oh, great. Not only do I not have lights at night, but now I might get a visit from a bear. I've officially landed in hell. As Ali contemplated the fact that animals might end up in her bed, she noticed a tug at the corner of her grandfather's mouth and a twinkle in his eyes. Ali narrowed her eyes. He's enjoying this. He wants to scare me, just for the fun of it.

"We eat breakfast early, especially now that there are guests staying at the resort. I'll wake you in time to go down to the lodge with me. Jo and her son are nice people, you'll like them."

"Jo?" Ali asked.

"Yeah. Short for Josephine. She and her husband bought the resort from me a few years ago and now I help out around there. Her husband died awhile back. She's a good person." Ben looked around the room a moment, his eyes landing on the red curtains. "Jo helped me get this room ready for you. She made the curtains. The quilt used to be your mother's. My Lizzie, your grandmother, made it."

Ali noticed her grandfather's voice softened when he said "my Lizzie". Maybe he wasn't such a mean old man after all. She reached down and touched the corner of the quilt, rubbing the material between her thumb and forefinger. The fabric was soft from years of washing.

"It’s a nice quilt," she told him.

Ben raised his gaze to look into Ali's blue eyes. He nodded curtly, and turned to leave. "Come and use the bathroom before lights out," he reminded her, then let the door bang behind him as he left the room.

Later, after Ali had unpacked a few things she needed, and used the bathroom, she pulled back the old timeworn quilt on her bed and slipped between the soft sheets. The sheets were new, as were the pillows and the blanket under the quilt, but the quilt was from another time. A time when her mother had been young and carefree, before her life changed course. Ali ran her hand over the soft fabric, and thought about her mother and how she'd slept under this quilt that her own mother had lovingly made for her. The quilt was made from yellow cotton, denim blues, red calico, pink corduroy, and white cotton that had turned creamy with age. Ali wondered if it had been made from clothes her mother had worn as a child and outgrown. She wondered if her mother had been happy as a child, lying under this quilt. Suddenly, the light beside her bed went out, and the hum of the generator grew silent. Ali sighed. Nine o'clock. She lay back and listened to the nighttime sounds of the woods in the distance as tears streamed down her cheeks.





***





Long after he'd turned the generator off, Ben sat in his chair in the living room with only the golden light of the oil lamp. Usually, he was sound asleep only minutes after the lights were out, but not tonight. After his granddaughter headed back up to her bedroom, and he closed the garage door and locked it, and after he turned off the generator, he found he wasn't sleepy.

Ben rocked back and forth in his chair, watching the shadows on the walls around him as the flame flickered in the lamp. Outside, the frogs croaked in a nearby swamp, and an old hoot owl called out into the night. Usually, these sounds of the night lulled him to sleep, but not tonight. Tonight, he was worried he'd made a mistake, having his granddaughter move out here and live with him. As much a mistake for him as for her.

Ali was used to living in the city with access to television, cell phones, and that blasted internet everyone seemed to need these days. What the hell would she do out here, in the middle of the woods?

Ben couldn't help but smirk when he thought about how frightened she'd looked when he'd told her to watch out for critters coming up to her room, especially bears. He'd only been kidding. Of course he'd make sure she was safe up there. But she didn't understand his sense of humor yet, and how serious he could look when he was pulling a person's leg. Then again, how would she know if he was kidding? She didn't know him from Adam.

The moment he'd seen her at the airport, he was surprised to find that she didn't have her mother's square jaw, although she sure could tighten it stubbornly when she wanted to, just like his little Jen had. No, her face was a soft oval, like his Lizzie's. And those eyes. They were the same vibrant blue as her mother's, the same blue as his. She was a striking girl, with her long, dark hair and light skin, standing tall and lean. All he could think was that he'd have his hands full keeping the boys away from her.

Ben ran his hands through his thick hair and stood, staring out the window into the dark night. Ali's comment earlier in the truck reverberated in his head. He'd been trying to be nice, saying he was sorry for her mother's passing. And he was. After all, she'd been his daughter. But when Ali had said, 'Not sorry enough to make it to the funeral,' it had shook Ben to his core. He had wanted to go to the funeral. He'd wanted to fly out immediately after hearing his daughter had died and hold Ali in his arms and grieve with her. But deep down, he knew he wouldn't have been welcome there. Nor should he have been.

Below, down at the lodge, the light in the kitchen still burned. Jo would still be up, baking fresh bread for the morning and doing about a hundred other chores necessary for running a resort. She ran it just as smoothly as he and his Lizzie had years before, always baking and cooking delicious meals for the guests and providing the perfect north woods experience for each and every person who came to stay. Ben helped as much as he could, cutting firewood, cleaning the outdoor areas, keeping the boats in working order, and so many other small chores in addition to taking guests out on fishing and hunting trips. Chase, her son, helped out, too. He was a hardworking boy, and Ben had enjoyed watching him grow up. But raising a boy was so much different than a girl. Ben knew this from experience. Having Ali here was going to be a handful, for sure.

Ben finally went to bed and lay there for some time before sleep eventually fell over him. His last thoughts were of his Lizzie, as they always were each night, and how much he missed her gentle guidance, even if he hadn't always listened to her.





Chapter Three





Ali awoke with a start in the dark room. Slivers of sunlight seeped in through the red curtains, leaving an orange tint across her bed. Lying on her stomach, arms above her head, Ali lifted her head a little and squinted at the small battery powered alarm clock she'd placed on her nightstand. Five forty-five a.m. She closed her eyes and dropped her head back on the pillow.

"Ali, wake up. It's time for breakfast."

Ali's eyes shot open and she quickly rolled over in bed to see where the gruff voice had come from. Standing over her was a dark shadow. It took her a moment to come to her senses and realize it was her grandfather.

Ali fell back again on the bed, holding her hand over her pumping heart. "Geez, you scared me half to death," she told the looming shadow.

"You sleep like the dead," he said. "Been trying to wake you for over five minutes. It's time to get up for breakfast. If you aren't downstairs in ten minutes, I'm going without you." Ben turned and stomped out of the room. Ali heard his heavy boots retreat down the stairs.

Ali groaned. Who in the world eats at dawn? I'm not even awake, let alone hungry. She shook her head to try to wake up and finally rolled over enough to pull herself up and out of the bed. Standing there in the semi-dark room, she remembered that there was internet down at the lodge, and her tired face brightened a little. She pulled the string on the light hanging from the ceiling, and the room filled with light. Excited that the generator was running, Ali plugged in her phone and hoped he wouldn't turn it off when they headed down to the lodge for breakfast. Then she dressed hurriedly, ran the brush through her long, straight hair, grabbed her laptop bag, and headed down the stairs. She caught up to her grandfather, who was standing on the cement slab outside the garage, waiting for her.

"Well, it's about time. Almost left without you. Let's go."

Ali turned to follow her grandfather down the hill when suddenly she stopped. Her eyes touched the scenery, and she involuntarily drew in a breath. The scene spread out before her was breathtaking, like a painting or photograph of the most serene place on earth. Dew glistened on the grass all around her, and the crisp, morning air gently caressed her cheeks. Down the hill lay the lake, peaceful and still. It looked like a small cove, with land protecting it on both sides, but then opening up to many more coves over miles of acres. Directly across the lake from the house stood a tall, rocky cliff, where pine trees and moss jutted out of the rock. Down the gravel road, to the right, sat the resort on a point of land that spread out like a peninsula into the crystal blue water. A forest of trees, blue sky, and deep blue water surrounded Ali, and she couldn't help but be amazed at the spectacular beauty of it.

"It's so beautiful," she said, her voice a reverent whisper.

Ben stopped and glanced at her in surprise. He looked in the direction of the lake where Ali was staring, and finally nodded. "Yes, it is," he agreed.

Suddenly, a tremulous wail sounded from high above as a shadow swooped across Ali, making her duck involuntarily. The shadow continued on, finally landing on the still water with a splash and then gracefully swimming forward, leaving a trail in its wake. It called again, a long wail that echoed off the water and the cliff.

"What was that?" Ali exclaimed, still ducking and looking up into the sky for more wailing creatures.

Ben chuckled, which made Ali draw up to stand tall again, embarrassed.

"It's a loon, silly," Ben said. "Haven't you ever heard a loon before?"

On the water, the loon called out again, a long, laughing wail as if making fun of Ali too.

"No," Ali said, crossly. "I lived near the coast. I'm used to seagulls and pigeons, not crazy birds that laugh at you."

Ben sobered at Ali's tone and spoke in a kinder voice. "He's calling to his mate to let her know where he is. We have a couple of pairs of loons nesting around the lakeshore, in separate coves. One parent goes off to feed while the other guards the nest. You can practically set your watch to their feeding times. Around six every morning, one or another will fly over the house and then the next one will fly over about nine. Then about nine at night, they head back to their nests. You'll hear them almost every time they fly over the house."

"If they live on the lake, why do they fly over the house?" Ali asked, interested now in these strange birds.

"They feed on different lakes in the area, and there are loons nesting on each of the lakes. About a mile behind the house, there's a smaller lake, more like a pond, I'd say. There are loons nesting there. And about two miles north of here, there's another larger lake. This lake has eight coves and covers miles of area, so the loons fly from cove to cove."

"Oh." Ali tried to absorb everything her grandfather told her.

"Come on. We're late for breakfast," Ben said, leading the way down the gravel road to the resort.

Ali followed him, but kept her eyes on the sky in search of loons so they wouldn't scare her a second time.

Ben led Ali down to the rustic, log lodge and through a squeaky screen door that led into a screened-in porch facing the lake. Through there, he opened a heavier door that led them into the kitchen. They were greeted by the aroma of freshly flipped flapjacks, scrambled eggs, bacon, blueberry muffins, and rich, black coffee. Ali's stomach, which just moments before didn't feel hungry, was suddenly growling, reacting to the delicious smells.

Standing at the oversized stove, flipping bacon and flapjacks, was a short woman with long, strawberry blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail. She wore jeans and a plain T-shirt under her white apron, and sensible sneakers. As Ali and Ben entered the kitchen, the woman turned from her work and smiled wide.

"Ali. You're finally here!" the woman exclaimed, running over and pulling Ali into a warm embrace. Ali froze a moment, not knowing quite what to do. But the woman held her so tight that Ali couldn't help but give in and return her hug.

Pulling away, the woman smiled up at Ali, her pale, blue eyes twinkling. "My, aren't you the prettiest girl I've ever seen. And look how tall you are. I've been waiting for this moment the minute your grandfather told me you were coming. Finally. Another female in the house. I won't be outnumbered by men anymore."

Ali watched as Ben shook his head and walked over to the stove to take the flapjacks off and check on the bacon. The woman winked at Ali, then clapped her hands over her mouth.

"Oh, my goodness, " she exclaimed. "How silly of me. I'm gushing all over you and you don't even know who I am. I'm Jo, short for Josephine, but everyone just calls me Jo. I own this old lodge, which means I'm the chief cook and bottle washer." Jo smiled again, and it was such a warm, sweet smile that Ali couldn't help but smile back.

"It's nice to meet you," Ali said. Jo had freshly scrubbed, pale skin with a dash of freckles that ran across her cheeks and nose. She looked no more than fifteen years old, although Ali knew she had to be older. Jo's friendliness was so contagious, Ali couldn't help but be drawn in by Jo's fresh-faced looks and genuine smile.

A door swung open behind Jo and in walked a young man carrying an empty platter. "We need more flapjacks," he said in a deep voice. "Those men are eating faster than I can bring them food."

Ali looked up into deep blue eyes that immediately reminded her of the lake outside.

"Honey, come meet Ben's granddaughter, Ali," Jo said, waving the young man over. "Ali, this is my son, Chase. He's graduating high school this year, so you two are really close in age. I hope you both will be good friends."

"Hello," Chase said, smiling down at Ali.

Ali smiled back, but didn’t say a word. Chase's long, lean body was several inches taller than hers, and he had sun-bleached blonde hair that curled at the nape of his neck. He had a golden tan and his smile was as infectious as Jo's.

"Are you all just going to stand there gawking at each other or are you going to help me with breakfast?" Ben said, pulling the platter out of Chase's hands. Ben turned back to the stove, grunting in disgust, and began filling the platter with flapjacks.

Ali blushed a deep red.

"Don't get your flannel shirt tied in a knot," Jo said to Ben, winking once more at Ali before heading back over to the stove.

Chase quickly picked up a basket of muffins and headed back out the swinging door.

"Ali, go ahead and grab a plate and fill it with whatever you want to eat. There's cold milk in the fridge, or juice if you want it. Just make yourself at home," Jo said. She picked up the fresh platter of bacon and scrambled eggs and headed out to the dining room.

Ali stood there, uncomfortable about not helping out when everyone else was working.

Ben walked over, grabbed an empty plate, and began filling it from the platter of eggs, flapjacks, and bacon that had been left on the table in the kitchen. "If you don't help yourself around here, you'll starve," he said.

Ali sighed, picked up a plate, and began placing food on it.

As Ali ate her breakfast in silence alongside her grandfather, she looked around the kitchen. It was a large, square room, big enough to contain commercial grade appliances, generous counter space, and a large oak table with two long bench seats that could easily seat eight people. There was nothing fancy about this room. Everything was plain and utilitarian, yet the honey colored log interior, red and white checked table cloth, gleaming pans hanging over the butcher block island, and cheery red and white curtains in the window over the sink made it feel very cozy. But it was Jo's friendly smile as she ran to and from the kitchen to serve the guests that filled the room with warmth.

Ali wasn't used to eating such a big breakfast, so she was finished by the time Jo and Chase came in and sat down to eat. As the two latecomers filled their plates with food, Ali took her dishes to the sink and rinsed them, then stacked them into the dishwasher tray that sat on the stainless steel counter beside the commercial grade dishwasher.

"Now Ali, you don't have to work your first day here," Jo said from her seat at the table. "Come over and sit and tell me all about yourself."

Ali reluctantly returned to the table and sat on the bench across from Jo and her grandfather, who was finishing up his mug of coffee. Chase sat just a foot away from Ali, seemingly concentrating on his food.

"How was your flight here?" Jo asked, giving her full attention to Ali.

Ali answered all her questions about her flight, the friends she'd left behind, whether or not she enjoyed school, and if she'd left a boyfriend behind. Jo asked the last question with a wink, and Ali saw her grandfather roll his eyes when he heard it.

"No boyfriend," Ali answered, embarrassed. "I was too busy with school and other things."

"Good," Ben said, getting up and walking over to the sink to rinse his mug. "I don't need some lovesick boy coming out to visit you."

Ali stared at him but didn't say a word.

"Don't listen to him. He's just an old grouch," Jo said.

Ali saw a small smile appear on Chase's face.

"Humph. I'm taking a few of the guests out fishing," Ben said. "You coming along, Chase?"

Chase shook his head. "I have to run to town for Mom later."

Ben nodded, then pointed his finger at Ali. "Stay out of trouble while I'm gone," he said, then he was out the door.

Ali's eyes followed him as he left the room. She sighed. Ali hated that he treated her like she was three years old. She stood and headed over to the sink and began rinsing and stacking the dishes that Chase and Jo were bringing in from the outer room. Before Jo came back into the kitchen a second time, Ali had already started a load in the dishwasher and was stacking a tray for a second load.

"You know how to use that dishwasher?" Jo asked, surprised. It wasn't a regular dishwasher, but the heavy-duty type found in restaurant kitchens. It washed dishes quickly so several loads were done in a matter of minutes.

Ali shrugged. "I've used a similar one before," she said, as she continued rinsing and stacking dishes.

Jo cocked her head and quietly watched the young girl with interest.

Once the dishes were washed and the kitchen was in order again, Ali picked up her laptop bag. "My grandfather said you have Internet here in the lodge," she said, hopefully. "Would it be okay if I signed onto it?"

"Oh, I'm sorry honey," Jo said. "We do have Internet, but it's dial-up and very slow. It's hooked up to that dinosaur of a computer we have out in the main room. You're welcome to use it, but if you're anything like Chase, it'll frustrate you."

Ali's face dropped. "Oh."

"Chase always goes to the coffeehouse in town to use their Internet when he has homework to do. They have wireless. All the kids go there."

"There's a coffeehouse in town?" Ali asked, surprised. She hadn't seen much of Auburn, the nearest town, when they drove through last night. She'd assumed there wouldn't be much there except for a gas station.

Jo smiled. "Yep. Chase is going to town to run a few errands for me in a bit. Why don’t you go with him? He can drop you off so you can use your computer. I bet you want to talk to your friends."

Ali nodded. "Are you sure it'll be okay with my grandfather if I go into town?"

Jo waved her hand through the air. "Don't worry about Ben. If I say you can go, then you can go."

Ali decided she really liked Jo.

Jo drew closer to Ali, her expression serious. "I hope I don't upset you by saying this, dear, but I am so sorry about you losing your mother. Jen was a nice girl, and beautiful, too."

Ali looked up with interest. "You knew my mother?"

Jo nodded. "Oh, yes. Of course, I was years older than she was. I've been working at this lodge since I was sixteen, and I worked for Ben's parents first, then Ben and Lizzie until my husband and I bought it. Jen was as cute as a button from the day she was born, and you never saw parents who doted on their daughter as much as Ben and Lizzie did. Why, Jen used to shadow her father everywhere he went. She had no desire to learn about cooking or cleaning, she wanted to fish and hunt with her father. And he let her. Every morning, come rain or shine, you'd see those two out in the boat at five a.m. with their lines in the water. They were quite a pair."

Ali frowned as she tried to picture her grandfather doting on her mother. She had trouble imagining it.

"Oh, dear. I'm so sorry if I made you feel sad. I didn't mean to go on and on," Jo said.

"No, it's okay. I like hearing about my mother. I really don't know too much about her life when she lived here."

Jo walked over and gave Ali a big hug. "Well, you just come talk to me anytime about anything you want to know. I'll be happy to tell you about your mother, your grandmother, and anyone else you're curious about. Okay?"

Ali nodded. It felt good to have an ally here in this place that seemed so foreign to her.





Can Ali and Ben fix their strained relationship? Summer of the Loon is available at online retailers in ebook and paperback formats.





Walking Sam





Deanna Lynn Sletten





Chapter One





Ryan Collier awoke in the darkened bedroom to the feel of warm breath hitting his face. He was lying on his side, and even though he tried to look at the clock on the nightstand, something blocked his view.

Then that something licked his face.

“Oh, Sam!” he groaned, rolling over and wiping the slobber off with the back of his hand.

He heard the happy swish of Sam’s tail on the hardwood floor.

“Okay, girl. Just give me a minute,” Ryan said, closing his eyes. Then the alarm clock came to life, telling him it was time to start another day.

Ryan sighed and rolled over to turn off the blaring beeping and switch on the lamp. At six a.m., it was still dark outside and the sun wouldn’t show itself for at least another hour.

Sitting up, Ryan pushed his wavy brown hair out of his eyes. He was in desperate need of a haircut. His wife, Amanda, would have told him he needed a haircut weeks ago, and she would have been right. But she wasn’t here to remind him anymore—she hadn’t been for nearly three years.

A nudge at his other hand told him to hurry and get up. He smiled down at Sam. “Sorry, girl. I’ll feed you in a minute.”

Sam only smiled back.

After hitting the bathroom, Ryan walked downstairs with Sam leading the way. He went down the hall to the back door and unlatched Sam’s doggie door so she could go outside, then he walked to the kitchen and turned on the light. Two orange-striped tabbies sat on the floor by their placemat, patiently awaiting their breakfast.

“Yeah, guys. Give me a second, okay?”

Ryan started the coffeemaker and then turned to feeding the cats and the dog. He scooped canned food into each of their bowls as all three animals looked up at him expectantly. Seeing Sam, he couldn’t help but smile. She was always so happy and had that big silly golden retriever grin on her face.

He put Sam’s bowl down on one side of the tiled floor and set down the two for the cats on their placemat. “There you go, Punkin and Spice.” He no longer felt silly saying the name Punkin out loud, even though he was a grown man of thirty-eight. His wife had named all the animals and he was used to it. Just like he was used to having a female dog named Sam. Five years ago, when they’d gone to pick out a puppy from the litter of golden retrievers, Amanda had her heart set on naming the dog Sam. But it was a female puppy that had picked her, and Amanda fell in love with her instantly. “What about the name Sam?” he’d asked Amanda.

“We’ll call her Samantha. Sam for short,” she’d said.

All these years later, he was still explaining to people why they had a female dog named Sam.

It made him smile.

Ryan left the animals to their breakfast and walked from the kitchen through the living room to go upstairs. Passing the oak hutch, he quickly glanced at one of the many framed photos of his wife he had scattered around the house. Brushing his fingertips softly across her lovely face, he sighed, and then ran upstairs to get ready for work.

Thirty minutes later, Ryan was back downstairs, dressed for work. He never wore a full-fledged suit—just dress pants, a button-down shirt, and a tie—but he always looked professional and handsome. He was a little over six feet tall and he kept in good shape by working out at the company gym several nights a week. He’d found that staying late to work out helped make the nights go faster so he had less time at home to think about being alone. After ten blissful years of marriage to his soulmate, it was difficult to come home to an empty house.

He quickly poured a mug of coffee and made toast, eating it standing at the counter. He could have sat at the large island or at the dining room table in the roomy, airy kitchen, but he chose neither. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d taken the time to sit at the table. What was the point?

The sun was making its way up by the time he gathered his coat, briefcase, and gym bag. He poured another cup of coffee into a to-go mug and snapped the lid tight.

“See you guys tonight,” Ryan said aloud to the animals. The cats were already sitting on the window seat in the living room, cleaning themselves. Ryan’s last glimpse of Sam was of her sitting at attention in the kitchen, watching him as he walked out the side door to the driveway.

The March air was crisp, and snow still lined the driveway where he’d pushed it aside while shoveling. In Minnesota winters dragged on, even as far south as Minneapolis. He walked to this compact SUV and slipped his things into the passenger seat. Then he stood a moment and stared out at the stillness around him. He liked the early morning in his neighborhood before everyone was fully awake and cars started making their way up and down the quiet street. He lived in an older neighborhood in South Minneapolis, about an eight-minute walk from Lake Harriet. It was a post-WWII neighborhood filled mostly with Craftsman-style homes, postage-stamp front lawns, and towering old oaks and maples lining the streets. Each house had a driveway and a one-stall garage in-between the next house. But Ryan didn’t use the garage for his car. His wife’s Mustang still sat, unused, inside theirs. He hadn’t had the heart yet to either drive it, or sell it.

When he and Amanda began searching for a house, she fell in love with the neighborhood’s charm. She hadn’t wanted one of the new cookie-cutter style houses being built in the newer suburbs. As an interior decorator, she saw potential in the cottage house immediately. She also loved the thought of living in a neighborhood where so many people had planted roots for generations. It felt like home to her.

Ryan glanced over at the For Sale sign on the neighbor’s front yard to the right. The Finleys finally gave in after living in the neighborhood for over forty years and moved to Florida full-time this past winter. They had been wonderful neighbors, kind and friendly, and Ryan missed having them next door. He hoped the house would sell soon for their sake. Hopefully, a nice family or elderly couple would move in.

Ryan slid into his car and pulled out of the driveway and onto the street. Noticing that Ruth Davis’s newspaper was on her lawn, he parked in front of her house a moment, retrieved it, and then set it close to her door so she could reach it. She got along fine in her wheelchair, but he figured her morning would be better if the paper was easy to retrieve. He got back into his car and headed for the highway.

Ryan’s base office was in a high-rise building in downtown Minneapolis just a short distance from the Nicollet Mall. It wasn’t too far of a drive if he didn’t get stuck in traffic, but he always gave himself at least a thirty-minute leeway in the morning. He’d go to the office, collect his paperwork, then head off to the first of his two appointments. He was a computer systems salesman, and he sold large systems to businesses and hospitals. Today, he was meeting with the board of a grocery store chain about a new computer register system, and in the afternoon, he’d be meeting with the president of a bank to discuss their needs. It was going to be a busy day.





***





Kristen Foster walked through the home with the real estate agent, carefully assessing every nook and cranny. It was nine in the morning, and this was the first house of the day. She’d spent the last two months looking for the perfect home in a quiet-yet-affordable neighborhood. So far, she was really liking this one.

“Do you know much about this neighborhood?” Kristen asked as she studied the living room.

“It’s a quiet, older neighborhood,” Greg Carlton said. “The Finleys lived here for over forty years and raised their family in this house. They’ve moved to Florida full-time now. There’s a nice elderly lady next door who is in a wheelchair, and an older man, a widower, next door. You can’t get much quieter than that.”

Kristen liked quiet. Her work was stressful, and she wanted to come home to peaceful surroundings. She walked all around the main floor, and then headed upstairs to where the two bedrooms and a bathroom were. “Everything looks so new in here. They must have remodeled recently.”

“Oh, yes, they did. Most of it was done in the past five years. The floors are the original oak, but the tile in both bathrooms is new as are the fixtures. The kitchen is completely updated. Their neighbor was an interior decorator, and she helped them fix it up for when they decided to sell.”

Kristen nodded as she pushed a loose strand of auburn hair back behind her ear. She was wearing her scrubs and had her thick hair pulled up because she had to go to work at the hospital at noon. She’d squeezed in this morning’s showing because the house and the price had been too good to pass up a look at.

She loved the old Craftsman-style homes. Even though the master bedroom walls slanted on each end, it was large and they had added a walk-in closet and small master bath. The dormer window was charming, and there was a large window facing the little fenced-in backyard. She glanced out that window and could see into the neighbor’s backyard, too. A golden retriever was sunning itself on the small lawn. Kristen smiled. She loved dogs. Gabbie would love a picture of this one.

Everything about this home was charming and Kristen found herself falling in love with it quickly. Finally! She was tired of living in the cramped apartment she’d moved into after her divorce two years before. She was thirty-two years old and had a good job as a pediatric oncology nurse, so it was time she found a permanent home. She’d just been too busy working nights and weekends to actually hunt for one. Now that her work schedule had changed to a five-day workweek with weekends off, she could start picking up the pieces of her life.

They walked out the kitchen back door that led to the driveway and down to the one-stall garage. There was a row of bushes that separated her driveway from the neighbor’s. An opening in the bushes showed that these neighbors had passed through to each other’s homes often. They inspected the garage and the backyard. Everything looked good. As they walked back up the driveway to the house, Kristen glanced over and saw the dog squeeze through a doggie door and disappear into the house.

“Well, what do you think?” Greg asked. “Does this one suit your needs?”

Kristen glanced around the kitchen once more. She loved the homey feel of it, the big eating area with the large front windows, and the cozy living room with the brick fireplace. The large, outdoor front porch was an added bonus. She could picture herself sitting in a rocker, watching the sunset in the evening. It was perfect.

“I love it. Let’s put in an offer,” she said, smiling wide.

“Wonderful.” Greg stood at the island and wrote up the paperwork for her to sign. Kristen walked around the house again as she waited. The living room held a built-in hutch, and the big front window had a window seat. It was all so lovely and cozy. She couldn’t wait to sit in front of a fire after a long day at work and relax. And best of all, summers here would be perfect. She liked that it was only a short walk to Lake Harriet, where she could get her exercise walking by the beautiful lake.

“Just sign here,” Greg said as she re-entered the kitchen.

Kristen didn’t even hesitate. She knew that no matter how much she’d have to pay, this was the home for her.





Chapter Two





Ryan ran steadily on the treadmill, his eyes trained on the television on the wall playing the local nightly news. He’d been running for ten minutes and had ten more to go.

“You should come out with me tomorrow night,” Jon said, walking casually on the treadmill beside Ryan. “It’s time you get yourself out there. You can’t spend every night exercising and every weekend home alone. It’s not healthy.”

Ryan snorted as he glanced over at his friend. Jonathan Miles was also a computer system salesman at his company and their desks were close to each other’s. They were friends by default, but Ryan didn’t mind. Although, he grew tired of Jon constantly telling him it was time to go out and enjoy life. “It’s unhealthy to exercise every night?”

“You know what I mean. You can’t keep spending every night alone. It’ll addle your brain. You need companionship. You need female attention. You need a good drunken night out.”

Ryan slid his gaze over to Jon. “Are you going to actually exercise on that machine or just stroll?”

“I’m doing fine. I don’t want to wear myself out. I need to save my energy for the ladies.”

Ryan laughed. Jon was forty years old and had never been married. He was self-admittedly of average height, average looking, and a little overweight, but he still thought he was a ladies’ man. “I don’t want to take all the women away from you, pal. You can have them all.”

Jon shook his head. “What would it hurt to go out for a drink or two? We’ll go to one downtown bar, have one drink, and call it a night. If a girl comes on to you, great. If not, you’re free and clear to go.”

Ryan slowed down to a fast walk to finish off his run. He grabbed the towel off the bar and wrapped it around his neck. “Jon, I’m not ready to go looking for women. I loved my wife. End of subject.”

Jon stopped walking and stared at Ryan, his brown eyes softening. “I know you loved Amanda. Hey, I loved Amanda. She was amazing. But she’s been gone for almost three years now, man. You need to start thinking about the rest of your life. I mean, don’t you miss sex? Don’t you miss being with a woman?”

Ryan sighed and stepped off the treadmill. He went to a bench and sat down. There were only two other people in the company’s exercise room, and they were at the other end, using the weights. “Yes, Jon. I miss having a woman around. I miss companionship and closeness, and of course, sex. But I’m not looking to go running around having one-night stands. If I ever get together with a woman again, I want a relationship. A real relationship.”

“How do you expect to find a woman to have a relationship with just sitting around the house with a dog? Look at you. You’re too young to waste your nights away. The girls in the clubs would go crazy over you. You’re the right age, you still have all your hair and teeth, and you have a great job. You’d be the catch of the day.”

“All my hair and teeth? You’re crazy, man. I don’t want a woman who’s looking for a guy just because he has good hair and teeth and a great job. I want a woman who’s looking for a man to share her life with. I’m sure I won’t find that in a bar.”

“You’ll never know unless you try. Friday night. Come on. You can do this. One drink and you can be out of there.”

Ryan shook his head. Jon was wearing him down. “One drink. Tomorrow night. That’s it, and then I’m going home.”

Jon laughed and slapped him on the back. “See? That wasn’t so hard. You just wait and see. The girls will be flocking to you. You’ll have to beat them off with a stick.”

Ryan rolled his eyes and headed off to the locker room. What have I gotten myself into?





***





Friday night Ryan looked around him in amazement. They were in a bar downtown that was overflowing with people, and it was only eight o’clock. He’d showered and changed into jeans and a nice shirt in the locker room at work, and he and Jon had grabbed a burger at a place on the Nicollet Mall. Then they’d walked a couple of blocks to a bar where the music was too loud and the people were packed in like sardines.

“Two gin and tonics,” Jon called to the bartender as they stood there, smashed up against the bar.

Ryan assessed the crowd. When Jon had said “girls,” he wasn’t kidding. They all looked barely out of high school. He’d be surprised if there was a woman here over the age of twenty-five.

“Here.” Jon handed him his drink. “Let’s find a place to sit near the cute girls.”

Ryan thought that might be impossible. There was nowhere to sit in the entire place.

They pushed and squeezed their way away from the loud music and toward the back of the room where there were overstuffed couches and chairs. Many girls recognized Jon and hollered out to him or ran their hands over him as he passed. Ryan could tell that Jon was in his element. Jon liked nothing better than being the center of attention. But for Ryan, all this commotion was the last thing on earth that he enjoyed.

They found a spot to stand near a high-top table beside the couches. A pretty blonde was already hanging on Jon and he acted like this happened every day. Maybe in Jon’s world it did.

“You are definitely new here,” a female voice said from beside Ryan. He turned and gazed down into thickly kohl-lined eyes that were the lightest blue he’d ever seen.

“How can you tell?” he asked, taking a step back because she was standing so close.

“You look all uptight, like this isn’t your thing. Let me guess, you’re newly divorced and just getting back into the dating scene.”

Ryan shook his head. “No, not divorced. But yes, I’m new at this.”

The girl shrugged. “Funny, I’m usually spot on.” She raised her hand. “I’m Nichole.”

Ryan slowly shook it. He noticed she wore several silver rings. “Hi Nichole. I’m Ryan.”

“There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?” She grinned up at him.

Ryan couldn’t help but smile back. Nichole had on a thick coat of makeup—so much so that he couldn’t tell if she was twenty or forty. Her long, straight, black hair hung down past her shoulders and there was a hot pink stripe down one side. She wore tight jeans and a black top that scooped low, but wasn’t too revealing. Her heels must have given her at least four additional inches, but she was still only reached as high as his shoulder.

“So, you come here a lot?” Ryan asked. He had to lean over and practically yell in her ear because the music had elevated by several decibels.

Nichole shrugged again. “Here, there, all around. Want to dance?”

Ryan’s brows raised. “Do people actually dance to this stuff?”

Nichole laughed. “Don’t worry. We can dance slow.” She took his hand and led him through the crushing crowd onto what appeared to be a dance floor. She stopped and stood in front of him, placing her hands on his shoulders.

It took Ryan a moment to realize she’d been serious about dancing slow. He placed his arms around her waist and they began moving to the loud, lively beat. People all around them were dancing wildly, slowly, or just standing still, crushed together. There didn’t seem to be any protocol on how to dance to this song.

As they swayed to the music, Ryan had to admit that it felt good to feel a woman in his arms again. He closed his eyes and thought about his wife and how they’d danced together so perfectly. He felt Nichole move closer and rest her head on his shoulder—just like Amanda used to do. All at once, his heart constricted. This wasn’t his wife. What in the hell was he doing here?

Pulling away, he saw Nichole look up at him with questioning eyes.

“I have to go,” Ryan said, knowing how rude he sounded but not being able to stop himself. “I’m not ready for this.”

Nichole cocked her head. “It’s just a dance,” she said calmly. Then she smiled and her blue eyes shined. She reached down and took his right hand, facing it palm up. “Here. This is for when you are ready.” She took a pen and wrote a phone number on his hand.

Ryan blinked. Did she really do that?

“See you around, Ryan,” she said, giving him a playful wink before disappearing into the crowd.

It took him a full minute to come to his senses and then he made a beeline for the front door. Once out in the crisp evening air, Ryan took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.

He pulled out his phone and texted Jon that he was leaving. Then he walked back to his office building, got into his car, and drove home.

Sam and the cats greeted him at the kitchen door when he arrived home. He fed them and made sure their water bowls were filled. Walking into the dark living room, he dropped onto the sofa and lay back, staring out the big picture window into the clear night sky. He saw the half-moon as it lit a thin silver path through the inky sky. Stars winked all around it. Sam came over and laid down on the floor beside the sofa, seemingly content to just be near Ryan. He ran his hand through her silky fur, leaving it to rest there a while.

“I just don’t know how I can ever find another woman like her,” he told Sam. “There is no way I can even try. Amanda was everything—beautiful, sweet, kind, hardworking, and talented. Do they even make women like that anymore?” He thought about the hot-pink strand in Nichole’s hair. Amanda had soft blond hair that always looked inviting to the touch. Would she have ever even considered putting such a bizarre stripe in her hair? Probably not. Amanda had been a classic beauty in every way. But that didn’t make Nichole’s hair wrong, just different.

He slowly raised his right hand and looked at the phone number written there. The last time a girl had done that, he’d been in high school. It was silly. Childish. Yet, Nichole had done it so casually, with a wink, that it hadn’t seemed so strange after all.

Ryan sighed and lifted himself off of the sofa. “I’m too old for this stuff, Sam,” he said, evoking a small smile from her. “But it was nice to dance again, even to that atrocious music. Maybe Jon is right—maybe I need to go out more and rejoin life.” He walked to the kitchen and turned off the light, then headed upstairs with Sam at his heels.

“Maybe I’ll give it another try next week,” he said aloud as he crawled into bed. “Who knows? There might be a woman out there looking for the same thing I am.”

Sam curled up on her pillow on the floor and Punkin and Spice found their favorite spots at the foot of the bed. It wasn’t long before they were all sound asleep.





***





Ryan got up early the next morning, bundled up, called to Sam, and then went for a brisk walk through the neighborhood. He felt guilty that he hadn’t kept up with Sam’s walks over the past months. She needed the exercise to keep her fit. Amanda used to walk at least three miles a day with Sam at her side. On weekends, Ryan would go with them. They’d head to Lake Harriet and walk the paths there before heading home. Winters were always more difficult to get outside, but spring through fall, his wife walked Sam like clockwork.

Unfortunately, Ryan hadn’t been able to get into the habit after Amanda died.

After their walk, Ryan headed out to do the shopping and pick up dog and cat food. He put it all away when he got home, and was just about to lay down on the sofa for a nap when he remembered he should call his parents.

His mother, Marla, picked up on the second ring.

“Hi, Mom,” Ryan said, sounding more upbeat than he felt. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine, dear,” Marla said in a quiet voice. “Your father and I just came home from having coffee with a few friends. How are you, sweetie? Working hard, I suppose?”

Ryan told her about his week and the new systems account he’d acquired and that he and Sam had been out walking. He left out Friday night’s adventure. He knew his mother would agree it was time for him to get out again, but she’d also adored Amanda. It was a double-edged sword.

“I’m glad all is well with you, dear. I’m going to lie down awhile. I’ll let you talk to your dad now,” Marla said, her voice growing weaker.

“Okay, Mom. Be sure to call me if anything changes.”

“We will, dear. Here’s your dad.”

James came on the phone with his usual deep, cheerful voice. “Hi, son. How’s it going?”

They talked a minute before Ryan got right down to the reason he’d called. “How is Mom doing, really?” he asked seriously.

James’s voice lowered. “She’s hanging in there. You know how strong she is. She had her weekly chemo on Tuesday, and it was rough for a few days, but now she feels better. She had a good time visiting with old friends today.”

Ryan sighed. His mother had been battling cancer for three years. It had started out in the breast but then spread to other parts of her body. No sooner would the doctors think she was in the clear that a new spot appeared. The latest had hit her ovaries. She’d gone through one operation already, a mastectomy, and now a full hysterectomy. His mother had always been healthy and in good physical shape, but after three years of treatments and at the age of sixty-two, Ryan worried that her strength would soon give out.

“She never complains. How does she do it? She takes it all in stride,” Ryan said.

“That’s your mother,” James said. “She’s thankful to still be here with us, and especially that she can enjoy your sister’s kids. Those two little girls keep her spirits up.”

Ryan knew that was true. His sister, Stacy, had two adorable little girls, ages three and five. Since Stacy and her husband lived close to his parents, they were over there often. His mother loved children. She’d taught grade school for years and then high school English until the cancer became too much and she’d had to take an early retirement at age sixty. Two years later, she was still fighting, but he knew having family around kept her strong.

“I wish I lived closer,” Ryan said. “I feel like I’m missing so much precious time.”

“Son, you love your job and you do come home often. We love seeing you, but don’t beat yourself up about it. We all have to continue our lives as normal. Your mother wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Ryan knew that was true, but he dreaded not being there in case things changed quickly. After talking a few more minutes, he finally said goodbye. He decided he needed to go home at least for a weekend soon to see everyone. He suddenly felt very alone.





Chapter Three





For the next four weeks, Ryan forced himself to go out on Friday nights with Jon even though he didn’t really enjoy it. But he was becoming more comfortable talking to women—well, girls—out in the bars and dancing with them. Everyone seemed so young to him, and he didn’t have much in common with most of the girls. He was living an adult life and they were all still party girls. At least it took his mind off of being alone.

The girls he met readily gave him their phone numbers after only minutes of talking to him. That completely stunned him. Didn’t they know how dangerous that was? He never called any of them—he’d feel ridiculous. He kept hoping that some night, somewhere, he’d meet a woman closer to his own age who was more serious about her life. Of course, he knew that was near impossible because a woman like that wouldn’t be hanging out in a bar waiting for Mr. Right.

He didn’t run into Nichole again until the fourth Friday night he was out. She showed up at his table out of the blue, smiled at him, and extended her hand in an invitation to dance. This time, her dark hair had a bright blue stripe in it, and her makeup was a little less overdone. She wore a clingy, black sparkly dress and high-heeled sandals. He wondered how she didn’t freeze outside with such a short dress and open shoes. It was April, and the snow was gone now, but the night temps were still chilly.

He accepted her hand and they walked out onto the crowded dance floor and once again danced slowly to a loud, head-banging song.

“So, are you comfortable yet?” she asked him, her eyes twinkling. He couldn’t tell if she was teasing him or if the band’s spotlights made them sparkle.

“Comfortable dancing with you?”

“Just comfortable overall. You were wound pretty tightly the last time I saw you. You look more relaxed now.”

Ryan smiled. “I guess practice does make perfect. I’ve been out every Friday night since I last met you. I’m getting used to it.”

“Were you looking for me?” she asked, her brows raised.

Ryan considered this. Had he been? Actually, he’d thought about her a few times, and wondered if he’d see her again, but that was about it. He’d long ago washed off her phone number from his hand and hadn’t copied it down. He knew he wouldn’t use it.

“I did wonder if I’d see you again,” he replied honestly.

“So, why didn’t you call?”

Ryan shrugged. “I guess I didn’t know if you seriously wanted me to. We hardly knew each other.”

Nichole gave him a sly grin and shook her head side-to-side very slowly. “I don’t give out my number if I’m not serious. You looked like a good guy. Safe. Nice. I trust my judgement.”

The song ended and Ryan led her back to his table where they ordered drinks. He was a little curious about this young woman who seemed so confident. Women he’d known when he was younger had been less brazen, less brave. Self-assurance was a trait most people gained with age. But Nichole oozed with confidence, yet without a trace of arrogance.

Her wine and his drink came. Jon was over by the bar talking with a girl who looked bored. This gave Ryan a chance to talk privately with Nichole.

“What do you do for a living?” he asked.

Nichole sipped her wine. “I work in an herbal medicine shop just a few blocks from here.”

“Herbal medicine. That sounds interesting. Is that what you went to college for?”

Nichole gave a small laugh. “No, you don’t really go to college for that. But I did go to college for a couple of years and I enjoyed chemistry and biology. My parents hoped I’d be a doctor or nurse practitioner someday, but that wasn’t for me. But I’ve always been interested in natural medicines, so, that’s where I work.”

Her eyes slowly gazed around the room before refocusing on him. She smiled and reached up a hand, caressing it along his freshly shaven jawline. “What about you? What do you do?”

Ryan blinked, taken aback by her touch. “Um, I sell computer and register systems to big businesses,” he said. “My office isn’t too far from here, either.”

Nichole smiled. Her pale blue eyes studied him. He felt a cool chill run up his spine. Not a bad feeling, just a strange one. Something he hadn’t felt in a long time.

“Can I ask how old you are?” he blurted out before he could stop himself. Then he felt the heat of embarrassment rise up to his face.

“I’m twenty-five,” she said without a moment’s hesitation. “How old are you?”

Ryan sighed. “A lot older than that. Thirty-eight.”

Nichole shrugged. “It’s just a number. Do you want to dance again?”

Ryan only hesitated a moment. “Sure.” He led her back to the dance floor.

An hour later, they were still dancing and talking at intervals. Neither of them was drinking much. He told her about his deceased wife, and that was why he’d been uncomfortable that first night out. She seemed to take it all in stride.

“That’s what’s different about you,” she told him. “So many bitter divorced men come in here trying to prove something. You were in a happy relationship. You have a different aura because of that.”

Ryan wasn’t sure he had any type of aura but he was glad that he wasn’t bitter.

Jon eventually came back to the table with a girl who looked three sheets to the wind. But then, Jon looked that way, too. “Hey, you found someone. Great!” he said. He put out his hand to Nichole. “I’m Jon. You’re cute.”

Nichole looked like she wanted to roll her eyes. “I’m Nichole. Thanks.”

Jon then went into a monologue about his and Ryan’s jobs and how much money they made. Ryan wanted to get out of there quickly.

“Do you want to go somewhere quieter? Maybe for a bite to eat or coffee?” he asked Nichole.

“I could use a ride home,” she said. “I never drive when I go out.”

Ryan thought this was both strange and smart. What if she couldn’t get a ride? Would she take a cab? The bus? Walk? “I can do that,” he said. He told Jon they were leaving, and then cringed when Jon gave him a head nod and thumbs up. “I’m taking her home,” he said into Jon’s ear, then turned to Nichole and followed her out of the noisy club.

Stepping out into the crisp air, Ryan took a deep, refreshing breath. He looked over at Nichole, who didn’t have a jacket to wear. “Here,” he said, slipping off his jacket and handing it to her. “I don’t want you to get chilled.”

Nichole looked at the jacket with humor in her eyes. “Quite the gentleman,” she said, but she put it on.

They walked down the block, passing other couples who were darting between the different bars along the street. Ryan turned to Nichole. “Doesn’t it scare you, taking the bus this late at night or walking around here alone?”

“No. I do it all the time. It’s relatively safe.”

“I guess so,” he said. The police did patrol the area well, but still, the thought of this young woman roaming around alone at night made him cringe.

They made it to his car and he pulled out of the underground parking lot. “So, which way?” he asked.

She stared over at him. “Which way do you live?”

“Um, I thought we were taking you home.”

Nichole shrugged. “I’m in no hurry. Let’s go to your place for a while.”

Ryan turned the car and headed for the highway. He wasn’t sure what to think. Maybe it’s all innocent. Maybe she just wants to hang out.

“What’s that worried frown for?” Nichole asked, touching his arm lightly. “I thought it would be fun to see your house.”

Ryan took a deep breath and let it out slowly, relaxing his face muscles. “Better?”

Nichole laughed. “Better. You look handsome when you’re not frowning.”

Minutes later, Ryan pulled into his narrow driveway and stopped near the kitchen door. He turned off the car and lights, and everything was still. It was past midnight, and the entire neighborhood was asleep, or so it seemed. If not for the streetlights, it would’ve been dark up and down the street.

He walked with Nichole up the three small steps of the cement porch and unlocked the door. Turning on the inside light as they walked inside, they were greeted by three pairs of shiny eyes staring at them.

“Whoa, what’s this?” Nichole asked, taking a step back when Sam came rushing over to greet her. The cats whined and slipped through Ryan’s legs, nearly tripping him as he stepped forward to push Sam off of Nichole.

“Down Sam! Get down!” he commanded. But it was useless. Sam had always listened to Amanda, but sometimes turned a deaf ear to him.

Nichole sidestepped Sam’s attempts at attention and moved over closer to the kitchen table.

“Sorry,” Ryan said. “Sam loves everyone. Let me feed these guys and they’ll calm down. You can sit in the living room if you like.”

Nichole walked past the animals and out into the living room.

“Great job, guys,” Ryan whispered as he quickly scooped canned food into their bowls.

“Would you like some wine?” he called out into the living room, hoping it would make up for being mobbed by furry creatures.

“Sure,” she replied.

Ryan poured two glasses of red wine and walked out into the living room. Nichole was standing near the built-in hutch, staring at pictures of Amanda.

“Here you go. Sorry about the animals,” he said again, handing her a glass.

Nichole accepted it, took a sip, and gestured toward the photos. “Your wife was very beautiful.”

Ryan glanced over at them. “Thanks. She was. And she was a sweet person, too.”

Nichole nodded and then drifted over toward the sofa. “You may want to put a few of those pictures away, though, if you’re going to bring other women here. It might freak some of them out.”

Ryan stopped mid-step behind her and frowned. Did she really say that? It wasn’t like he’d invited her here.

“This is a cute house,” she said. “Artsy, but very classy.”

“Thanks,” he answered, recovering from her last remark. He was about to say his wife had decorated, but he stopped himself. Talking about Amanda wasn’t going to go over any better than having pictures of her all around.

Nichole turned and walked up close to Ryan. Setting down her glass, she reached up and slowly brushed her hand through his wavy hair as she gazed into his eyes. “You really are handsome,” she said softly. Then she slipped her hand around the back of his neck and pulled his lips down to hers.

Ryan’s heart involuntarily beat faster. Nichole touched his lips softly with hers and slowly ran her tongue along his lips. He set his glass down and slid his arms around her, pulling her closer. They kissed deeply, and Ryan’s body reacted as it hadn’t in three years.

Sam walked into the room, her nails clicking on the hardwood floors, and sat down next to them. Nichole slid her eyes toward the dog a moment, and then looked back up into Ryan’s.

“Is the bedroom upstairs?” she asked.

Ryan swallowed hard. “Don’t you want to talk a little? We barely know each other.”

Nichole smiled and kissed him again. “I’ll send you my bio,” she teased. “And I’ll friend you on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.” She kissed him again. “And if you really want to get to know me, you can read my blog. It’s all about herbal medicine.” Again, she kissed him deeply.

Ryan would have had to be dead not to feel the deep need growing inside him.

Pulling away, Nichole took his hand and led him toward the stairs. Ryan didn’t resist. They walked up to the bedroom with Sam at their heels.

“Uh, maybe the dog could go elsewhere?” Nichole asked, sliding her hand down the front of his shirt.

Ryan reacted quickly. “Go on out, girl,” he said, pushing Sam out the bedroom door before closing it. When he turned around, Nichole was right there. She’d already kicked off her heels and began unbuttoning his shirt. Somewhere, in the deep recesses of his mind, Ryan knew he should say no. He barely knew her. She was so much younger than he was. They had no real connection. But his body couldn’t refuse. It had been too long since he’d held a woman close, and he craved it deeply. So he let his mind go blank and his body take over as he basked in the pure physical joy of warm bodies mingling together in passion.





***





Kristen stood at the dormer window in the master bedroom of her new home, staring out into the early morning darkness. It was six a.m. on the second Saturday in April, and she was finally moving in. She’d been anxious to start working on the house, so she came over late last night and began unpacking boxes in the kitchen. Then she’d slept on a blow-up mattress in her bedroom. Her sister, Heather, and Heather’s boyfriend, Doug, were coming over today with a trailer to help her move all the larger items. She hoped Doug would bring a friend along, too, because so much of the furniture was heavy and awkward to carry.

But now, she stood there, staring at the streetlights leaving round puddles of light on the quiet street. She was so used to getting up early for work that it had been hard to sleep any later. She figured she’d work on the kitchen some more, and by the time she had most of it put away, the others would arrive.

She was about to turn away when movement caught her eye. A taxi had pulled up in front of the house next door, and Kristen watched as a young girl in a skin-tight dress and tall heels walked out of the house and slipped into the back. The girl had long, dark hair with a bright blue stripe running through it. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-two or twenty-three years old.

“Old widower my foot,” Kristen said aloud to the empty room. “More like a dirty old man.”

She shook her head and headed down to the kitchen where she made a cup of coffee and ate one of the doughnuts she’d bought for Heather and Doug. She’d come to the house several times over the past couple of weeks, getting a feel for it and planning where she’d put her furniture when she moved in. In all those times, she’d never once seen the “widower” around. She’d seen the golden retriever often as it made its way in and out of its doggie door into the small, fenced-in backyard. She’d thought that the guy couldn’t be too bad if he owned such a cute dog. But now, seeing the girl leave in the early morning hours told her more about her neighbor than she wanted to know.

“They always go younger,” she complained aloud. “In this guy’s case, really young.”

The whole thing disgusted her.

Luckily, Kristen had met Ruth Davis who lived on the other side of her and she liked her immediately. Ruth was in a wheelchair but got around easily. Kristen hoped to get to know her better. But as for the man next door—she could care less if she ever met him.





Can Sam’s furry charm bring Kristen and Ryan together? Walking Sam is available in both ebook and paperback formats.





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Kiss a Cowboy


Kiss a Cowboy Series Book One





Deanna Lynn Sletten





Chapter One





Andi Stevens drove along highway I-90 East in Montana on a warm, July afternoon, marveling at the lush, mountain scenery all around her. She'd left her hometown of Seattle, Washington, that morning with a small portion of her life packed into her 2001 Ford Escape and the rest of her things waiting to be shipped to her destination, Buffalo, NY, where her fiancé awaited her arrival.

The first few hours of driving, Andi had seen mostly fields of dry grass in the eastern part of Washington, but since driving through the beautiful town of Couer d'Alene, Idaho, the terrain had change to mountain roads and pine trees for as far as the eye could see. Even now, miles from Couer d'Alene, the road continued to rise and fall and the landscape was filled with greenery so beautiful, it took her breath away. Andi wished she could stop by the side of the road and sketch the beauty all around her, but she knew that wasn't a smart idea since she was traveling alone. Her fiancé, Derek Hensley, would have been horrified if he'd known she'd even thought of it. So, Andi had to satisfy herself with a few quick photos taken from safe, populated, roadside stops instead.

Andi sighed as she thought about leaving her younger sister, Carly, behind this morning. True, Carly was twenty-four years old, was a college graduate, and had a good job managing the art gallery where Andi sold her paintings and sketches. She was capable of taking care of herself now. But after years of caring for Carly, it was hard for Andi to say goodbye. The two girls had been inseparable since the day Carly was born and four-year-old Andi had claimed her baby sister as her own. They'd become even closer after the tragic death of their parents in a car accident when Andi was eighteen and Carly was only fourteen. From that time on, Andi had become Carly's main guardian and caretaker, and although they'd had their ups and downs, their relationship was steadfast.

Andi knew Carly had tried being brave when she said goodbye that morning. "Your future is with Derek now," Carly had said. "It's your time to be happy. I'll be fine." Carly had been putting up a front to make her feel better about leaving. Yet, Carly was right. Andi's future lie ahead of her in Buffalo, where Derek had been sent by the national bank chain he worked for to become a manager and to eventually work his way to a Manhattan, New York, branch. At thirty-years old, he was a rising star in his company, and he had the ambition and ability to go as far as he wanted. Andi marveled every day at the fact that this intelligent, hard-working man wanted her, a simple artist, by his side as he rose to the top of the banking industry. Derek and she had been dating seriously for almost three years when he announced to her that not only was he getting a promotion, but he wanted her to share his life with him. Andi had been dumbstruck. She'd always thought of herself as a Seattle girl, so she was uneasy about moving to New York. But Derek was a good man and she would have been crazy to say no to his proposal. So, here she was, in the mountains of Montana, driving toward her future.

Of course, Derek hadn't been thrilled by her form of transportation to Buffalo. In fact, he'd told her she was crazy to want to drive across country in her old Ford when she could just ship her things and fly out with him. Andi had insisted, though. She wanted to keep her car. She wanted her most cherished possessions with her on her journey, and most of all, she wanted to see the country between the two cities. While she'd traveled up and down the west coast from Seattle to San Diego over her lifetime, she'd never been east, and that was something she wanted to experience. Derek did not believe in car travel. He was always in too much of a hurry and flew everywhere he went. Andi knew this would be her only chance to see this part of the country before she became immersed in Derek's up and coming lifestyle.

As Andi's car began climbing yet another incline on the mountain road, it felt like the vehicle was struggling. Andi held her breath until she reached the top and began the descent. Driving across country in an old car probably wasn't such a smart idea, but Andi loved her car and she hadn't wanted to give it up just yet. Derek told her that as soon as she came to Buffalo, he wanted her to trade it in for a new car. Andi knew that eventually, she had to give her old beater up, just not yet. After all she'd been through since the death of her parents, she'd had very few things to depend upon. One was Carly, the other was her car. And now, of course, steadfast, reliable Derek.

Andi glanced at the dashboard clock as she entered the town of Superior. It was a little after seven o'clock in evening. For a moment, she wondered if she should stop for the night, then decided against it. The larger town of Missoula was only another hour away and she felt she could easily make it there and find a nice motel before sunset. With that in mind, she breezed through the small town and continued on, looking forward to a good meal and a nice warm bed once she reached her destination.





***





Luke Brennan pulled his pick-up truck beside his log cabin home, parked, and stepped out. He stood a moment, gazing out to the west, watching the sun slowly drop behind the mountain. He lifted his dusty, black cowboy hat off his head and ran his hand through his wavy, dark hair. He both loved and hated this time of day. Work was done and his belly was full from a warm supper served at the main house. He was tired and should be looking forward to falling into his bed for a good night's sleep, but instead, he always hesitated for a moment before entering his home. Alone.

With a sigh, Luke turned on the heel of his boot and walked up the steps of the front porch. He thought for a moment about starting up the generator for lights, but then decided against it. He'd only be awake for a short time and maybe read a book. He preferred the light of the old oil lamp to the brightness of electric lights. The soft glow of the oil lamp made him feel less alone in the empty cabin.

At only thirty-two years old, Luke was an old soul who preferred the past to the present.

The cabin was growing dark inside as Luke entered. He slipped off his boots and set them beside the bench by the door and then hung his hat by the others on one of the hooks. Slipping off his flannel shirt, he shook it out and hung it beside his hat before walking into the living room and lighting an oil lamp.

The lamp came to life, leaving a soft glow on the walls and furniture in the room. Walking through the living room, past the island, and into the kitchen, Luke opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of beer. It was still cold, even though he hadn't run the generator since this morning. Cold enough for him. He opened the bottle, took a swig, and then set it on the counter before walking to the back of the house where the two bedrooms and bathroom were located.

It had been a hot July day, even in this mountain terrain. He'd worked all day cleaning out the horse barn and laying clean straw on the floor, so he knew he smelled of sweat and manure. He went into the bathroom and stripped off his T-shirt, ran what was left of the water into the sink, and cleaned off as best he could. Tomorrow, he'd turn on the generator and take a hot shower. Tonight, he was too tired, and there was no one around who'd know the difference anyway.

Luke dried off and went into his bedroom to retrieve a clean T-shirt, then walked back out into the living room. He reclaimed his bottle of beer, picked up the mystery book he was reading from the oversized, walnut coffee table, and stretched out on the soft, leather sofa next to where the lamp was lit. He figured he'd drink his beer, read a few pages of his book, and relax before heading off to bed.





***





The sun was fading as Andi drove up yet another incline on the mountain road when suddenly her car started acting strange. No matter how far down she pushed on the gas pedal, the car lost power. Andi's heart raced. She looked at the column to make sure the car hadn't somehow fallen out of drive, but it was right there, set on the big D. The car continued to slow, and when Andi hit the gas, all it did was rev the engine, but not go faster. As the car started to crawl up to the top of the incline, Andi pulled it over to the side of the four-lane highway. Finally, it came to a complete stop.

"Oh, my God. Now what?" Andi said aloud. She put the car in park and turned it off. Then she turned it on again and the engine came to life. Hopeful, she shoved the gear into drive and pressed on the gas pedal. Nothing. The engine just revved noisily, but the car didn't move.

Andi picked up her cell phone and turned it on. There was only one bar for reception. She pulled her wallet from her purse for her roadside assistance card and tried calling with that one bar. The call wouldn't go through.

"Crap."

Andi locked her doors, turned on the hazard lights, and sat there, assessing her situation. Even though I-90 was a main interstate, she had seen few cars pass her over the last hour. She'd driven by a gas station/bar/restaurant about a mile or two back, but that was all she'd seen for miles. There was no way she was going to walk down the highway alone, back to the gas station.

Andi sat another moment, thinking that maybe a local sheriff or highway patrol might drive by and find her. But daylight was fading fast and if none came soon, she'd have to spend the night in the car. That thought didn't settle well with her. What if a stranger came by and offered to help? Could she trust a stranger around here? Her big-city girl upbringing said no. What was she going to do?

Andi started scanning the land around her to see if there was any sign of life other than the cattle and horses grazing in the fields. Her eyes caught sight of a small light in the distance. She saw the outline of a house, or maybe it was a cabin, she couldn't tell. It wasn't lit up too brightly, but there was a light on in the window. She looked past that and saw an even bigger shadow in the distance that looked like a larger home with lights on in several windows. Andi took a deep breath, trying to decide what she should do. She needed to get to a phone, and she needed to do it before the sun went completely down. Her choices were limited. Trust a stranger driving by or a stranger in a house. Neither one sounded safe, but she had no choice.

Grabbing her keys, phone, fleece jacket, and purse, Andi stepped out of the car and locked it before walking over to the side of the road. The air was cooling fast and she felt chilled after being in the warm car, so she slipped on her jacket. Pushing her thick, dark red hair away from her face, she stood there, deciding how far to go. The cabin was the closest, so that was the obvious choice. As she began her trek down the side of the road toward the cabin's driveway, she prayed that the person inside the cabin was trustworthy and that he—or she—had a landline phone.

It took Andi longer to walk to the cabin than she'd first thought and the sun was almost down when she stepped up on to the wooden porch and knocked softly on the door. When no one answered, she knocked louder, hoping someone was home. There was a Dodge pick-up truck in the driveway and a soft light in the window, so someone must be there. Just as she raised her hand to pound on the door one last time, it swung open and a man filled the doorframe.

Andi took a step back in surprise. The man was tall, well over six feet, with long, jean-clad legs and a white T-shirt stretching over a muscular chest. His arms were bare, showing off sculptured biceps and forearms. He stared at her, looking confused, as if she'd awoken him from a deep sleep. What stunned Andi the most was his square, chiseled face and deep blue eyes. His face, hair, and body were so perfect, he looked like a male model from a Calvin Klein underwear commercial. Andi felt the heat of a blush rise on her face at that thought as she stood there, mute, before him.

Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome ran his hand through his hair and shook his head, seemingly to clear it before those blue eyes zeroed in on Andi. "Who are you?" he asked, his voice deeply male.

Andi blinked. Never had she been so startled by a person before. He just seemed too perfect looking to be out here in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. She swallowed hard, then tried to stand as tall as her five foot, seven inch frame would allow. Her green eyes met his. "I'm sorry to bother you," she said. "My car broke down on the highway and your house was the closest. There's no cell service here, so I couldn't call for help. May I use your phone?"

The male model frowned at her, as if trying to understand what she was saying. Andi glanced around him and saw that the cabin was lit only by an oil lamp. She wondered if he even had electricity. Crap. I picked a house with no power and probably no phone.

"Where's your car?" the man asked her, looking past her toward the highway. It was too dark now to see the highway or the car.

Andi pointed in the direction of the road. "Out there. It just died. I didn't know what to do."

The man shook his head, turned, and started pulling on a pair of western boots. He slipped on a flannel shirt that had been hanging by the door and placed a hat on his head. Andi just stood there, watching him, wondering if he'd let her in to use the phone or not. Without a word, Mr. Perfect turned and walked to the back of the house. Andi's eyes followed him, wondering where he'd gone. She surveyed the room he'd just walked through. The floors were a light, shiny oak and there was a large, river rock fireplace on the wall in front of a leather sofa. Beyond that she saw a kitchen, but it was too dark to see it clearly. The cabin looked clean, though, and very cozy. She told herself that he couldn't be too bad of a person if he lived in a place like this. At least she hoped that was true.

He strode back into the living room and blew out the oil lamp. For a second, Andi stood in complete darkness, but then he turned on a flashlight he had in his hand.

"Come along," he said, walking out the door and closing it behind him. He strode right past her and down the porch steps, his boot heels clicking on the wood.

Andi was startled. "Where are we going?"

The cowboy stopped and turned to look at her, practically shining the flashlight in her eyes. "You need a phone, don't you? I don't have one. I'll take you to the main house." He turned and headed to the truck she'd seen in the driveway earlier.

Andi hesitated. She needed help, but should she get into a truck with a complete stranger? He hadn't been friendly, which didn't help to raise her opinion of him. He may be good looking, but that didn't mean he wasn't a serial killer.

"You coming?" the cowboy asked from the driver's side of the truck.

Andi closed her eyes. Please let this be safe. Please let this be safe. She finally made one foot step in front of the other, walked over to the pick-up, and climbed in.

Hot Cowboy turned over the engine and put the truck in drive. With the headlights on, Andi saw that his driveway snaked all the way up to the other house. She supposed he was a ranch hand and the ranch owners lived in the bigger house. As the truck crushed gravel under its tires, Andi sat there in silence, wondering if he'd ever speak. He didn't.

"I appreciate you taking me to a phone," Andi said, trying to sound normal despite her heart pounding in her chest. "My name is Andi, by the way."

The cowboy just kept driving, looking straight ahead.

Andi bit her lip. "I didn't catch your name," she said, trying hard to be friendly.

"That's because I didn't tell you it," the cowboy said, not even looking in her direction.

Andi's mouth dropped open. She couldn't believe how rude he was. A sharp retort about unfriendly cowboys came to mind, but she held her tongue. After all, she'd probably awoken him and now he was going out of his way to drive her to a phone. It was best if she just stayed quiet.





Chapter Two





A short time later, the truck pulled up to the back of a house and stopped. Andi peered at it in the dark. It looked like an old farm house, two stories high, but was quite large. There were lights on in three of the windows. Andi hoped they were actual electric lights, not oil lamps.

Without a word, the cowboy stepped out of the truck and walked with long strides up to the door. Andi quickly hopped out and followed. When a security motion light popped on, she sighed with relief. Real lights.

A brick porch with three steps led up to the door. Andi followed the cowboy up the steps and entered a mudroom. A row of boots stood beside a bench and jackets and cowboy hats lined the walls. The cowboy wiped his boots on the rug in the doorway and headed into the next room.

Andi followed Hot Cowboy as they walked into the kitchen. Immediately, the delicious aroma of freshly fried chicken and warm bread hit her nostrils and she suddenly remembered how hungry she was. There was another aroma as well, but she couldn't place it. It smelled sweet. Some kind of berry, she thought.

The cowboy didn't even turn to look at Andi. He pointed to an old, tan telephone hanging on the kitchen wall and said, "There's the phone." Then he walked through another doorway, hollering, "Ma! You have company."

Andi was taken aback. Ma? So, his mother lived in the main house. She looked around her. The kitchen was from another time, yet it looked cute and cozy. On her left, there was a long, oak table along one wall with a bench seat on one side and beautifully, carved oak chairs on the other and at each end. A round, lazy Susan sat in the middle holding salt and pepper shakers upon it. To her right were the stove, refrigerator, and a long, butcher block countertop with cabinet space underneath. Farther down on the wall past the doorway the cowboy had exited through was more counter space, cabinets, and a huge farm-style sink. The floors were polished oak and plush rugs sat in front of the sink and counters. A staircase rose up along the back wall of the kitchen with an oak handrail held up by spiral posts. Even though the appliances looked fairly new, the ambiance in the kitchen still made Andi think of days gone by.

Andi walked over to the phone that hung on the wall by the doorway and set her purse on the counter. She dug out her roadway assistance card and was about to call when she heard a female voice say, "Well, my, my. What a pretty thing you are."

Andi looked up into the face of a middle-aged woman. Her dark blond hair was pulled back with a butterfly clip, and her hazel blue eyes were bright and twinkling. She wore a dark blue T-shirt over a pair of worn jeans and had a pair of soft, leather moccasins on her feet. She was almost as tall as Andi, and when she smiled at Andi, her face looked kind and welcoming. Behind her trailed a black and white dog that stopped and sat beside the woman, looking up quizzically at Andi.

"Luke said you showed up on his doorstep. How lucky was he?" the woman said, grinning.

Andi stared at her, not quite sure what to say. She was trying to process everything. Luke must be Hot Cowboy, and her son. Well, at least now he had a name.

"Oh, my goodness. Where are my manners?" the older woman said. "I'm Ginny. Virginia Brennan, but just call me Ginny. Luke says your name is Andi."

Andi nodded. So, the cowboy, er, Luke, had heard her name. Andi offered her hand in greeting. "I'm Andi Stevens," she said, shaking Ginny's hand.

"Well, it's sure nice to meet you, Andi," Ginny said.

Andi reached down to let the dog sniff her hand before petting it behind the ears. "Who's this?" she asked.

Ginny smiled. "This is Bree. She's our cattle dog, but much to Luke's annoyance, I baby her in the house. She's my nightly protector."

Andi squatted down to pet Bree. "She's beautiful. Is she a Border Collie?"

"Australian Shepherd. They're great for herding cattle."

Andi nodded and stood.

"Now, you go ahead and call whoever you need to and I'll get you something to drink," Ginny said. "Do you like iced tea? I just made up a fresh pitcher."

Before Andi could respond, Ginny was already at the refrigerator with Bree at her heels, pulling out the pitcher of tea. Andi smiled. Actually, a glass of iced tea sounded pretty good.

Andi set about calling roadside assistance. She answered all their questions, but when they asked her exactly where she was, she hesitated. "Do you have an address here?" she asked Ginny, who'd set down a glass of tea for her on the counter.

"Just tell them you're in front of the Brennan Ranch. Carl will be the one they send to tow your car, and he knows exactly where we are," Ginny said.

Andi repeated what Ginny had said to the assistance operator, hoping it was enough information for them to find her car. The operator said to stay by the phone and they'd have the tow-truck driver call her before he headed her way.

Andi hung up and stood there a moment, wondering what she should do. She took a sip of her tea. It was delicious. Before she could say anything to Ginny, she heard footsteps on the staircase and a young man appeared and stared openly at her. He was almost as tall as Luke, but was more slender. His hair was sandy blond and a bit shaggy, but he had those amazing blue eyes like Luke's. He stood there in a white T-shirt and jeans, looking at her as if she was an oddity.

"Colt, don't just stand there staring at our guest. Come meet Andi. Her car broke down out on the highway and she's using our phone," Ginny said.

Colt quickly stopped staring and walked slowly to the bottom of the staircase with his eyes lowered. He just stood at the bottom and said shyly. "Hi, Andi."

Andi smiled at him. He was younger than she, probably more her sister's age, and he was adorable.

"Colt is my youngest son," Ginny said. "He works the ranch with Luke."

"Colt?" Andi asked, wondering if she'd really heard right. How much more western could you get than that?

Ginny laughed. "Goodness, gracious, I can imagine how that sounds. Colt is his nickname, but that's not what I named my son. His name is Cole, but when he was just a little thing, Luke started calling him Colt, and it stuck."

Andi smiled, a bit relieved. She had almost felt like she'd stepped into an episode of Bonanza. "Nice to meet you, Colt," Andi said.

Colt nodded and looked like he was trying not to stare at her.

The doorway between the kitchen and the living area filled with the tall, muscular Luke. He stood there, leaning against the doorframe with his arms crossed. "So, are they sending help?"

Andi just stared at him a moment. It was the first time he'd actually addressed her. Clearing her throat, she finally answered. "They said I'd get a call back from the tow-truck company, so I should stay by the phone."

"Well, then, come sit down and relax, Andi," Ginny told her, pointing to the kitchen table. "It may take a while. It's late, and we all know how slow Carl can be."

Andi picked up her glass of tea and set it on the table before pulling out a chair and sitting down. Ginny sat across from her. All the while, Andi felt Luke's eyes on her. She wasn't sure if it was his stare or just being in a stranger's home that made her feel uncomfortable.

Bree immediately came over and sat beside Andi, so she began stroking the dog's silky fur.

"Bree, go lie down," Luke commanded.

The dog stared at her owner, considering whether to obey or not.

"She's fine," Andi insisted. "I love dogs."

Luke narrowed his eyes for just a second, turned on his heel, and headed back into the other room.

Ginny shook her head. "Don't mind Luke. He can be a bit prickly at times. Colt, come on over and sit. You don't have to stand there all night staring at this pretty girl from across the room."

Colt's face reddened, but he made his way over to the other end of the table and sat down.

Ginny stood again and walked toward the refrigerator. "I bet you haven't eaten supper yet," she said to Andi. "We have plenty of leftovers. Let me heat some up for you."

"Oh, please don't bother," Andi told her. "I don't want to put you to any trouble."

"No trouble at all, dear. There's some delicious fried chicken left and I'll heat up some of my homemade bread. I made much more than I should have tonight. Randy usually eats with us, but he went into town tonight, so there's plenty left."

Andi watched as Ginny moved about the kitchen. She made up a plate of chicken, covered it, and set it in the microwave to heat. Then she sliced up some bread from a new loaf and heated that after the chicken was warm. She brought it all to the table and then went to get plates and silverware. Before Andi knew it, there was food in front of her and it smelled so delicious, she just couldn't resist.

"Is Randy your son, too?" Andi asked, wondering just how many cowboys lived here.

"No, he's our ranch hand, but he's been around our family for so long, I think of him like a son." Ginny handed Colt a plate, too. "You might as well eat again too, dear."

Colt waited for Andi to select a piece of chicken and some bread before he put some on his plate. Andi figured that at his age, he could probably eat all the time and it would never show.

Andi buttered her slice of bread and took a bite. She sighed. "This is heavenly," she told Ginny, who smiled wide at the compliment. After that first bite, Andi forgot about being shy and dug right in. The chicken was perfect—crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside—and Andi couldn't eat enough of the bread and butter. Normally, she never touched bread at home, but this was like eating dessert, it was so delicious.

Ginny sat across from Andi again. "Now tell me, dear. Why is a pretty thing like you out driving alone in the middle of nowhere? Are you visiting family around here?"

Andi swallowed yet another bite of chicken and wiped her lips with a napkin. "I'm driving across country to Buffalo, New York. I'm from Seattle. I left there this morning. I figured I could make it to Missoula by nightfall, and that was when my car broke down."

Ginny's eyes grew wide. "You drove all that way alone today? And you're heading out to Buffalo? My goodness, dear. Well, it's a good thing you broke down here and not somewhere dangerous."

Andi grinned. Ginny did sound like a mother.

"What's waiting for you in Buffalo?" Ginny asked kindly. "A new job?"

Andi shook her head. "Actually, my fiancé is waiting for me there. He just transferred to Buffalo for his job at a bank and we're both moving there."

Andi saw Ginny glance down at her ring finger, which was bare. Derek hadn't gotten around to buying her an engagement ring yet. He'd said he'd buy one when she came out to Buffalo.

"He's not a very smart man, letting you drive across country all alone," Luke said from the doorway. He stood there again, this time with his hands in his pockets.

Andi noticed that every pose he made looked like a modeling shot, he was that handsome. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to be as pleasant as he was good looking.

"It wasn't his choice," Andi said defensively. "I decided I wanted to travel across country."

"Luke, be nice, will you?" Ginny told her son.

The phone rang, startling Andi, although no one else seemed disturbed by the screeching ring. Ginny walked over and answered it.

"Hi, Carl. Yep. It's out in front of our place on the highway. Oh, really? That's terrible. Hmmm. Let me tell her. Hold on a moment." Ginny put her hand over the receiver and addressed Andi. "Carl and the other tow-truck driver were just called out to an accident near Superior right before he got the call for you. They have to pick up two cars and the passengers and take them to Missoula. He won't be back here for another two to four hours, and then it's another hour drive again to Missoula."

Andi sat there, trying to figure out what to do. It was already past nine o'clock. "Is there another tow-truck driver I could call?"

"I'm sure one from Missoula could come out here and get it, but you still wouldn't get there until after midnight and you'd have to find a place to stay the night," Ginny said. "Carl said he could pick up your car early tomorrow morning if you'd be willing to stay the night here."

"I couldn't impose on you like that," Andi said. "Is there a hotel around here where I can stay?"

Ginny smiled. "Oh, honey, you don't want to stay at one of the old mom and pop motels around here when I have a nice room right here. You're more than welcome to stay the night."

Andi glanced over at the doorway and caught Luke's eye. His steady gaze didn't give anything away. She looked back at Ginny. She seemed like a nice person and Andi felt it would be safe to stay here. But still, she hesitated. "I don't know."

Ginny pulled her hand away from the receiver. "Carl, why don't you just go home after this haul and get some sleep. Tomorrow will be fine. We'll have the car in the driveway, waiting for you. Yep. Night, Carl."

After Ginny hung up, she walked over to Andi. "No sense in arguing. I'm happy to have you here and I'll feel better about it if you weren’t out in some hotel without your car."

Andi nodded. She really didn't have a choice. "Thank you. That's very kind of you," she said softly.

"Don't think anything of it," Ginny said. She turned to Luke. "Hon, you and Colt go and pull Andi's car into the driveway so it's off that busy road and it's safe."

Luke stepped through the door and headed toward the back porch, not even glancing in Andi's direction. He didn't look happy. "Come on, Colt," he bellowed. Colt darted out of his seat and followed behind.

Andi jumped out of her seat and followed them to the mudroom where Colt was already pulling on a pair of boots. "I have my things in the back of the car," she said to Luke's back. "My suitcase and my painting supplies. Can I get those before they take my car tomorrow?"

Luke turned and looked down at her, his eyes focused deeply on hers. "I'll get it all out for you and bring it back up to the house."

Andi stood there, wringing her hands. "I don't want to be a bother, but my camera is in the back seat and there's a painting wrapped up in the back. Can you bring those, too? I don't want anything to happen to them."

"I'll get everything," Luke assured her. He put out his hand.

Andi frowned at his open palm. Was she supposed to shake it? Give him five?

"Your keys. I need your keys," Luke said.

"Oh." Andi ran back to her purse to retrieve her keys. She handed them over to him.

Without another word, Luke turned and walked out the door with Colt on his heels.

Andi returned to the kitchen, a worried frown on her face.

"Don't worry, hon. Luke will get everything," Ginny said. "So, you're an artist?"

Andi nodded.

"Well, that is exciting. Is there anyone else you want to call tonight? Family? Your fiancé? Let them know where you are and that you're safe."

Andi thought about it a moment. She would feel better if someone knew she was here. She didn't think it was a good idea to call Derek and tell him because he'd flip out. Plus, his time zone was two hours ahead, so it was after eleven in Buffalo and she knew how much he valued his sleep. No, she'd call him tomorrow after she found out what was wrong with her car. Hopefully, it could be fixed right away and she would already be on her way. She decided to call her sister to let her know where she was.

The phone rang three times before her sister finally answered. Andi heard loud music in the background and wondered where on earth her sister was on a Wednesday night.

"Hello?" Carly asked tentatively.

"Carly? It's Andi."

"Oh, Andi," Carly said, sounding relieved. "I didn't recognize the number. I tried calling you a few times, but you never called me back. Where are you?"

"My car broke down outside of Missoula," Andi told her.

"Missoula? Where the heck is that?"

"Montana," Andi answered. "I'm in the western part of Montana, in the mountains. My cell doesn't work here, so I'm calling from a ranch house near where the car broke down."

The music in the background grew quieter and Andi figured that Carly had walked farther away from it so she could hear her better. "You're what? You're at someone's ranch house somewhere in Montana?"

"Yeah. I'm at the Brennan Ranch, about forty miles from Missoula. I just wanted to let you know where I was and give you this number in case you needed to call me."

"Whoo-whee! An actual ranch? Are there any hot cowboys there?"

Andi sighed. Her sister was wild and man-crazy. Andi should have known she'd turn the conversation around to men. "Actually, yes, there are," she said wryly.

"Wow. Lucky you. Stuck at a ranch full of cowboys and here I am with a bunch of nerds in a Seattle bar. You have all the luck."

"Carly, breaking down isn't lucky. Hopefully, I can get it fixed tomorrow and be on my way. And by the way, why are you out at a bar on a Wednesday night? You mean to tell me that the very first day I leave, you go out partying with friends?"

"Oh, stop being such an old bore," Carly said. "It was two-for-one Margarita night and I came out with a couple of the girls from the gallery. But I'm glad you called to let me know where you are. Are you okay there?"

Andi smiled into the phone. Her sister did care about her, and that made her feel good. "Yes, I'm okay. The Brennans seem like nice people. Just keep this number close in case you need to call me or if I call you again, okay? I'll let you know what happens tomorrow."

"Okay, Big Sis. Enjoy the ranch, and be sure to kiss a cowboy for me," Carly said, giggling, before she hung up.

Andi rolled her eyes as she hung up the phone. Her sister was too wild for her own good. Uninvited, the chiseled face and steely blue eyes of Luke Brennan came to mind. Andi shook her head to remove the image. Kiss a cowboy. Yeah, like that was going to happen.





Chapter Three





Luke strode outside and across the way to the tool shed where he retrieved a tow chain and then headed back to his pick-up where Colt waited for him. He hopped in behind the wheel, turned the truck around, and headed out to the dark highway.

"That Andi, she sure is pretty, isn't she?" Colt said into the quiet truck cab.

"Hmm hmm," Luke replied.

"Did you see all that silky red hair of hers? Isn't it pretty?"

"Yep. Kind of hard to miss it, Colt," Luke said evenly.

"And her eyes," Colt said, dreamily. "They were green. Did you see how green her eyes were?"

"Can't say that I really noticed," Luke said. He stopped the truck at the end of the driveway and looked to the left. There was a shadow of a car down the way. Luke heaved a heavy sigh. He'd have to drive down the wrong side of the road to get to it, otherwise it meant driving a mile or so out of his way just to get to a turnaround. He slowly turned left on the edge of the highway and began driving toward the car.

"How can you say you didn't notice Andi's green eyes?" Colt asked. "You looked right at her."

"I wasn't paying much attention," Luke told him.

"You'd have to be dead not to notice her," Colt said, shaking his head. "She's the prettiest thing I've seen around here in a very long time. Do you think she's a real redhead? She had really pretty skin, a little tan, not pale with freckles like most redheads have."

Luke turned and frowned at Colt. "Why in the world does it matter?"

Colt shrugged. "I don't know. Just saying. She sure is pretty, though. And she seems really nice, too."

"She's also engaged and is only going to be at the house for a very short time, so don't get all tied into a knot over her, okay?"

Colt stared hard at his brother. "You know, Luke, you sure know how to squeeze the fun out of everything. Can't you just enjoy the fact that a pretty girl is at our ranch for even a short time?"

Luke had pulled up by the car by now and he did a quick U-turn in the road and backed the truck up to the front of the car. He put the truck in park, then turned and looked at his brother. "For all you know, Colt, she dyes her hair red, wears green contacts, and tans in a tanning booth. She could have mousy brown hair, dull blue eyes, and pasty skin when she doesn’t get herself all fixed up."

"You are one sour pickle; you know that Luke?"

"Hmm hmm," Luke replied. He picked up a spotlight that was lying on the floor by Colt's feet and stepped out of the cab.

Colt hopped out and grabbed the tow chain out of the back of the truck.

"Let's hook it up first and pull it home. We'll unload everything in the driveway. I don't want to be out on this highway very long in the dark," Luke said.

While Luke and Colt hooked the chain to the two vehicles, Luke thought about the moment he'd opened his door to see Andi standing there, looking startled. He'd fallen asleep on the sofa while reading his book, and he hadn't been fully awake when he'd opened the door. In fact, he'd thought he was dreaming.

Luke had felt lonelier than he had in a long time that night as he'd watched the sun slowly sink behind the mountain. Usually, he didn't allow himself the luxury of feeling sad and lonely. Life was hard, and so was he. He could handle it. But every once in a while, he let the past envelope him and he'd remember how nice it was to have someone by his side, only to feel even more empty when he had to go to bed alone. Luke was a tough, proud man, but even the toughest man needed someone soft beside him at the end of a long day.

All those feelings had been bottled up inside him tonight when he'd fallen asleep, and then there stood Andi, with her tall, slender body, long, red hair, and big green eyes. In that one instant while he felt he was still between sleep and waking, he thought he was looking at a dream come alive.

"All hooked up on my end," Colt said. "Throw me the keys and I'll ride in Andi's car while you pull it."

Luke pulled the keys out of his pocket and looked at them a moment. There was a door fob, two car keys, and what looked like a house key on the ring. Also hanging from the ring was a gold heart with a photo in it of Andi and another girl making silly faces in one of those photo machines, and a small, stuffed frog hanging on a chain. Luke grinned at the photo, then at the frog. Girls. He tossed the keys to Colt.

"Boy, this sure is an old car," Colt said, getting in and turning on the engine. The car started just fine, but when he pushed down on the gas, it didn't move.

Luke came to stand beside the car a moment, listening to the engine rev. "Bet it's the transmission," he said. "What do you think?"

Colt nodded. "Probably. That won't be cheap."

Luke thought the same thing. "Well, let's get this pulled into the driveway so we can go home to bed. Sunrise will be here fast."





***





Andi awoke the next morning to the aroma of fresh coffee, pancakes, and bacon making its way up the stairs and into her bedroom. She looked at her phone. It was only six o'clock a.m. Andi sighed. They started work early on a ranch.

Last night after her phone conversation with Carly, Ginny had taken her up to the guest bedroom and had shown her where the towels were stored and where the bathroom was. Soon afterwards, Ginny had brought up Andi's suitcase and had told her that the boys had brought in all her other things and left them downstairs. Andi had thanked Ginny profusely for being so nice and letting her stay, but the older woman had only waved her appreciation aside.

"If I had a daughter like you, I'd hope that someone would be just as nice to her," Ginny had said kindly.

Andi knew in that very instant that she really liked Ginny.

It was past midnight by the time Andi had settled into the cozy, country room. The house had been silent by then and she knew Colt and Ginny were already asleep. To her surprise, she was more exhausted than she'd thought and she'd fallen into a deep sleep almost immediately.

Now, with daylight streaming through the small window, Andi took a good look around. The room was painted a creamy white and the window was trimmed in oak and decorated with blue, calico curtains. On the bed was a soft quilt made up of a blue and white star pattern, and an antique, oak dresser stood on the other wall with a lace doily runner sitting upon it. The gleaming oak floor was covered in part by a large, cotton rag rug, also in blue and white. The room was as country as could be and even though Andi was a city girl, she loved it.

The aroma coming up from the kitchen beckoned as Andi's stomach growled. She couldn't resist it any longer. She slipped out of bed and rummaged through her suitcase for necessities and clean clothes, and then she stepped out into the hallway and walked the short distance to the small bathroom. Hurriedly, Andi showered and dressed, pulling her thick hair back into a ponytail. After putting her things back in her room, Andi went downstairs.

"Good morning, Andi," Ginny said with a big smile. "I hope we didn't wake you. I didn't expect you'd be up this early."

Andi saw Bree lying on her dog pillow by the staircase. She bent down and scratched the dog behind the ears before turning to Ginny. "Good morning. Breakfast smelled wonderful. I couldn't resist."

"Aren't you a sweetie?" Ginny said. "All these boys here ever do is grunt a hello in the morning and stuff their faces before running back out. I'll take your compliments any day of the week."

Andi looked up and saw Colt sitting at the table with a full plate in front of him and another man sitting across from him who she assumed must be Randy. Luke wasn't there.

"Mrs. B, you know I always love your cooking, even though I don't always say so," the man across from Colt said. He smiled up at Andi and nodded.

"Oh, Randy, I know you do," Ginny said. "I'm just teasing. An empty plate is a compliment as well." Ginny turned to Andi. "This is Randy Olson. He's our full-time ranch hand. He just lives a ways up the road from here. He and Luke were in the same grade in school and have known each other forever. He's just like one of my boys."

"Nice to meet you, Randy," Andi said.

Randy stood, wiped his hand on his jeans, and offered it to Andi. "Nice meeting you, too," he said. "Sorry about your car."

"Thanks," Andi said as she watched Randy sit down and finish eating. He seemed like a nice guy. He wasn't quite as tall as Luke, but he was slender and muscular. He had brown hair and eyes and was tan from working outdoors. Rugged was the word that came to mind. Luke was rugged, too, but he was also so damned perfect looking, it was hard not thinking of him as Hot Cowboy.

"Go ahead and sit and dig right in, Andi," Ginny said. "I'm coming to eat in a minute."

Andi sat down on the bench seat near Colt and smiled over at him. "Morning, Colt," she said. He grinned up at her and said a shy "Morning, Andi," before turning back to concentrate on his food. Andi thought his shyness was cute.

Ginny came over and set a cup of hot coffee in front of Andi, then sat down across from her. Andi started filling her plate.

Randy stood with his plate in hand and walked over to the sink. "Thank you, Mrs. B," he said. He nodded to Andi and headed out of the kitchen.

"Do you want syrup or strawberry jam on your pancakes, Andi?" Ginny asked, moving both the syrup bottle and a Ball jar of preserves over in front of her.

Andi looked at both. "You sure make this hard to choose," she said.

"Mom makes the best strawberry jam in the county," Colt piped up. "Probably the whole state. She's won blue ribbons at the fair every year for it. And for her raspberry jam and peach preserves, too."

Andi smiled over at Colt. "Then that decides it. I have to try the jam." She spooned out some strawberry jam and spread it over the pancake on her plate. The sweet smell wafted up to her, and her eyes lit up with recognition. "That's what I smelled last night," Andi said. "When I came in, I smelled something sweet. It must have been your jam."

Ginny nodded. "Oh, yes, I'm sure it was. I was canning fresh jam all day yesterday. I did both raspberry and strawberry. I'm sure the kitchen air was filled with it."

Andi took a bite of her pancake and jam. She sighed with delight. Not too sweet, yet rich and delicious. "Oh, Ginny, this is wonderful. I can see why you win blue ribbons."

"Told ya," Colt said with a grin. He got up and put his plate away. "I'm heading out to the horse barn. Give me a holler if you need a ride to town later," he said, glancing at Andi.

"Thanks, Colt," Andi said as she watched him walk out the door.

Ginny shook her head and chuckled. "That boy sure has a crush on you."

"He's a cutie. But I think he's more my sister's age," Andi told her. She picked up a slice of bacon and took a bite. It was crispy and just melted in her mouth.

"What's your sister like?" Ginny asked.

"Her name is Carly. She and I are total opposites, but she's a sweet girl. She's four years younger than me and has long, straight blond hair and blue eyes. She's smart and a hard worker, but she also likes to party a lot, too, and she's man-crazy. But she has a good heart."

"What about your parents? They must be worried about you driving so far from home," Ginny said.

Andi stopped eating. "Our parents died in a car accident about ten years ago," she said softly. "It's just Carly and me."

Ginny's face creased with concern. "Oh, I'm so sorry, dear. Why, you must have been quite young when they died. Did you live with other relatives?"

Andi shook her head. "No, there was no one else. I had just turned eighteen before they died, and Carly was fourteen. It was up to me to take care of Carly after that. We did okay, though. I got through college and then put Carly through. She has a good job now, and we own a nice townhouse. We did the best we could, considering." Andi thought back through the past ten years. It had been difficult at first, but they'd made it. Now she hoped Carly would someday find a dependable person to spend the rest of her life with, like Andi had found with Derek. Of course, that was if Carly ever got over her wild ways.

"Where's Luke?" Andi asked, changing the subject. "Did he already eat breakfast?"

Ginny's face softened and she nodded. "Yep. He's always the first one up and ready to eat. Oh, I should have told you right away. Carl came to pick up your car this morning and Luke went down to talk to him. He's taking it to the Ford dealership garage for you. He said that they would call you as soon as they find out what's wrong with it, or you can call to check on it later today."

"Wow. He sure got here early to pick it up," Andi said in amazement.

"Well, Carl figured you'd be anxious to have it looked at and he felt bad he couldn't pick it up last night. I told the boys to stay close to the house today in case you need a ride into Missoula."

"Thank you, Ginny," Andi said warmly. "How in the world will I ever be able to repay you for all you've done for me?"

Ginny reached over and patted her hand. "Don't even think twice about it. I'm happy to help you." Ginny stood and started taking plates to the sink. "By the way, Luke brought in your stuff from the car. It's in the sitting room." She pointed through the doorway Luke had stood in last night.

"Sitting room?" Andi asked as she stood and helped clear the table.

Ginny laughed. "Sorry. I must sound like someone from another century. This house was built way back when the Brennans homesteaded this land in the mid-1860s and in those days, the main room was called a sitting room. The name has just stuck, I guess. Of course, it's a lot larger now than it was in those days, but that's what we still call it."

"That's nice," Andi said. Even though Seattle was filled with history, she'd always lived a more modern lifestyle. It was nice to hear that some people stayed in their family home for years, even centuries. Actually, it was pretty amazing.

Andi helped Ginny clean up the breakfast dishes, and then she went into the sitting room to find her things. The room was much larger than she'd originally expected. It was built on the front of the house and had a tall ceiling with exposed beams. On one side was a huge river rock fireplace, a bigger version of the one she'd seen in Luke's cabin, and there were large windows on either side of it. The room was wide open and there was a main staircase against the far wall. There was a large entry door, and outside of that was a screened-in porch that ran the length of the front part of the house. Over by the staircase was a door that led to yet another room.

The sitting room was outfitted with two big, brown leather sofas facing each other, a heavy, square walnut table in-between them, and a big, fluffy rug underneath on the polished oak floors. A large, brown leather chair and ottoman and a smaller oak rocker sat by the fireplace. A little oak table and chairs sat in front of one of the big windows. Andi thought it made a cute breakfast nook. Luke had set her things on the table and leaned her wrapped painting against one of the wooden chairs. She walked over to the table. Her cases with her oil paints and drawing pencils were stacked on the table and her camera sat beside them. Her laptop computer bag was also on the table. Everything looked to be in good shape.

Ginny came into the sitting room. "You have to excuse a nosy old lady, but is that one of your paintings?" she asked, pointing to the large, rectangular object.

Andi smiled. "Yes, it is. It's my favorite and I didn’t trust having it shipped to Buffalo." She glanced over at Ginny. "Do you want to see it?"

Ginny nodded. "But only if it's easy to unwrap and rewrap. I don't want anything happening to it here."

"It's no problem," Andi assured her. She began untying the string around it. "I've wrapped so many paintings over the years that it's pretty easy." She slipped the string from around it and then carefully began unwrapping the heavy, brown paper so as not to tear it. Finally, it was completely exposed.

Ginny gasped with delight when she saw it. The painting was large, twenty-four by thirty-six in size, and had a heavy, oak frame. It looked so real that the colors seemed to jump off the canvas.

Before Andi could say a word, a voice came hollering from the kitchen.

"Hey, where is everyone?"

Ginny and Andi turned to see Luke fill the doorway. He wore a white T-shirt tucked into his form-fitting Levi's jeans and had a short-sleeved, blue plaid, cotton shirt over it, but it was left unbuttoned. His hat was in his hand and his boots clicked on the wood floor. Andi noticed that his shirt brought out the intensity of his blue eyes.

"What's going on in here?" Luke asked, coming to stand between his mother and Andi.

"Andi was showing me her painting," Ginny said. "Look, isn't it beautiful?"

Luke glanced down at the painting propped up against a chair.

"It's the Lone Cypress near Monterey, California," Andi explained.

"I know what it is," Luke shot back at her.

Andi was taken aback. She hadn't meant anything by it. She'd just wanted to explain what it was.

"Oh, be nice, Luke," Ginny said. "I've never seen the Lone Cypress in person, but I've seen plenty of photos," she told Andi. "And you sure did capture the beauty of it."

"Thank you," Andi said. "Most people think of this tree as being lonely, but I see it more as a part of its entire surroundings. The tan and white rock against the blue Pacific Ocean makes the perfect backdrop for the deep green of the tree. I also love the white foam below as the ocean hits the boulders near the shore. There's so much going on around the tree that I just love it."

Luke stood there, silent, examining the painting. Andi stole a quick glance at him. His face seemed to be in turmoil. She wondered what he was thinking.

"You sure are a talented young lady," Ginny said in awe. "Do you sell your paintings?"

"Yes, I do, but not this one. I have prints made up in various sizes for each of my paintings and I sell those. I also have a deal with a greeting card company. They use two of my images for items like blank cards, coffee mugs, coasters, placemats, and other novelties sold in gift shops. Since I generally paint seascapes and landscapes along the coast, my images work well for tourist shops. I have done a couple of paintings of downtown Seattle and San Francisco, too, but I prefer the open countryside."

"Luke went to college in Sacramento," Ginny said. "I suppose you got a chance to see this in person, huh Luke?"

His mother's words seemed to pull Luke out of his trance. "Yeah, I saw it once," he said brusquely. He turned to Andi. "So, what's going on today? Am I driving you into Missoula, or what?"

Andi frowned. Why was Luke being such a jerk to her? "I haven't heard from the Ford garage yet," she told him.

Ginny spoke up. "There's no sense in Andi going anywhere until she hears about her car. Just go on back to work, Luke. We'll call you if we need you."

"I can't hang around here all day waiting," Luke said. "I have work to do."

"Colt offered nicely to drive me into town," Andi said, staring hard at Luke. "I'll ask him so I won't be a bother to you."

Luke stared at Andi a moment, then turned on his heel and headed to the kitchen doorway. He stopped there and turned around again. "If anyone drives you into town, it'll be me, not Colt. I'll be back behind the barn, chopping wood. Holler when you're ready to go." He turned again and disappeared through the door.

Andi sighed. He was just so damned obstinate.

Ginny patted Andi's arm. "Don't let Luke get your goat," she said. "He's actually a very nice man, he just gets ornery. The past hasn't been very kind to him. Here, let me help you wrap up your painting again."

As Andi and Ginny carefully wrapped up the Lone Cypress, Andi wondered what in Luke's past had turned him into such a beast.





Will Andi and Luke ever see eye to eye? Kiss a Cowboy is available in both ebook and paperback formats.





And don’t miss the other books in the series:





A Kiss for Colt

(Book Two)





Kissing Carly

(Book Three)





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Widow, Virgin, Whore





Deanna Lynn Sletten





Author’s Note





This book was originally published in 2000 when there was still little known on how to properly treat people who were HIV positive or who had full-blown AIDS. Since then, many medical advances have been made in the treatment of AIDS. Tolerance for people with AIDS as well as people in the gay community was very low and not as open and accepted as it is today. Please keep this in mind as you read this book. The good news – we as a society are making great strides in learning to accept all lifestyles and, hopefully, we will see an end to AIDS in the near future.





Chapter One





“Well, what do you think?” Katherine Samuals spun in a complete circle, arms raised, her voice echoing in the empty room.

“I love it,” Denise Richards replied, watching her friend complete her circle. “But this is going to take a lot of work. Are you sure you're up to it?”

Katherine slowly surveyed the room around her, pleased by what she saw. The work didn't bother her. It would be a fresh start, a new challenge. The house she lived in now held too many memories. This would be an ideal way to begin making new ones.

“I’ve always wanted a Victorian house like this to fix up," Katherine said, beaming. "I don’t care how much work it is. All it really needs is some paint and a new finish on these floors.” Her heels clicked on the oak floorboards as she walked across the room to the bay window that viewed Puget Sound. “Any amount of work is worth this view. It’s beautiful, don’t you think?”

From the center of the room Denise smiled, delighted at her friend's enthusiasm. It had been a long time since she'd seen Katherine this excited.

“Yes, it is. And this house will be beautiful when it’s fixed up.”

Katherine turned and faced Denise. “The only question left is whether you want to live here, too? You can have your choice of any of the four bedrooms upstairs. I don’t care which room I have, and Chris isn’t choosy either, he likes them all. The only room I want is the upstairs turret room. It’s going to make a great office.” Katherine stopped speaking, eager to hear her friend’s reply. Her ability to afford this house rested upon whether Denise wanted to share the expenses with her. “Well, what do you think?” she asked, hopeful, holding her breath in anticipation.

Denise gave her friend a small smile. “I would love living here. This beats an apartment any day. But are you sure we can stand each other, living together twenty-four hours a day?” she teased.

Katherine let out a relieved sigh, and walked over and placed her arm around her friend's shoulders. They made a striking pair together, Katherine tall and lean, her rich brown hair falling straight to her shoulders, her classic features warmed by sparkling brown eyes, and Denise, slightly shorter and shapelier, her auburn hair long and thick, her blue eyes bright within her olive complexion. So different, yet both beautiful in their own way.

“We’ve been putting up with each other since the sixth grade. I don't think living in the same house together will change anything,” Katherine said with a smile.

They both laughed and Katherine pivoted on her heel once more, excited that Denise had agreed to move in.

“I can’t wait to get started," Katherine said. "I want to paint Chris' room before school starts, and refinish the floors, and paint the kitchen cupboards, and...”

“There is one thing, Kathy,” Denise interrupted, hesitantly. “I was wondering. What are your plans for the apartment over the garage?”

Katherine shrugged. “I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about that yet. Why? Did you want that room for yourself?”

Denise shook her head. “No, no. I’ll be happy with one of the bedrooms upstairs.” She hesitated again, biting her lip. “Actually, I was thinking of Darla.”

“Your sister?” Katherine scrunched her nose in distaste.

Denise nodded. "She has to change apartments again. She can’t afford the one she’s in now, and, well, when she heard you might be buying this big house, she asked if I’d talk you into letting her rent from you.”

The spark in Katherine’s brown eyes dulled at the mention of Darla. “There’s no way your sister and I can live under the same roof. She hates me, and I’m not that thrilled with her, either.”

“She doesn’t really hate you. She’s mean to everyone, even me,” Denise said matter-of-factly.

“It’s more than that. She’s crazy! And raunchy, rude, mouthy, and trashy. For Pete’s sake, Denise, she has orange hair and wears silver platform shoes!” Katherine shook her head. “No. There’s no way I could live with her. One of us would end up killing the other!” She waived her hand in the air as if fanning away an undesirable smell, then turned toward the window again.

Denise knew from the onset this wouldn't be easy. Taking a deep breath, she pressed on. “That’s why I thought the apartment over the garage would work. It has its own bathroom and entrance from the outside, so it won't feel like she's actually living with us. We’d have to share the kitchen, but since she doesn’t cook, we won’t see her in there much either.” Seeing Katherine square her shoulders, unyielding, Denise dealt another reason from her deck of arguments. “And it would mean more rent money to help pay for the house,” she added softly.

Katherine pondered this as she slowly studied the house she so desperately wanted to own. She loved the sunken living room, where they now stood, that stretched out into the dining room before ending at the swinging oak door leading into the kitchen. She stared at the louvered doors that closed off the pass-through from kitchen to dining room that she already planned to paint white and add round, ceramic knobs to. The kitchen was small, but serviceable, with enough space to add a table and chairs where they could sit for breakfast every morning. She turned to view the foyer that held the beginning of the oak staircase leading up to the bedrooms above. She could picture an umbrella stand by the door, a parson's bench by the staircase, and a blue woven rug on the entryway floor. And the view. She completed her circle and stepped closer to the window showcasing the view of the beach, and bay beyond. The house sat high above Puget Sound, the planked front porch overlooking the water and tread-worn wooden steps that led down to the beach. A place to set white wicker chairs with striped cushions and perhaps hang a wooden swing. Yes, she wanted to own it all, despite its need of stain, paint, and good old-fashioned elbow grease. And extra rent money could help make it all happen.

Sitting down on the bare window seat, she faced her friend, still not completely sold on the idea of including Darla in the plan. “But she brings home anything in pants. And sleeps with it!” She visibly shuddered at the thought of all the men Darla had slept with. It disgusted her.

Denise lowered her eyes to the floor, her burgundy wire-framed glasses catching the sunlight and glinting in Katherine’s eyes for a split second. She played her trump card. “You’re right. It was a crazy idea. Actually, I was only thinking of Chelsea when I suggested it.”

The mention of Chelsea touched a raw nerve in Katherine. She was a sweet, twelve-year-old girl, the same age as her own son, who didn’t deserve a mother like Darla. Chelsea had moved from apartment to apartment with her mom, never being able to settle in one for long. If anyone deserved a decent home, it was Chelsea.

Denise eyed Katherine and saw her resolve dwindle from the slump of her shoulders. Her own timid nature was no match against Kathy’s strong will, but after twenty-four years of friendship, she knew how to appeal to Kathy’s heart. She ventured forward. “Chelsea’s been a latch-key kid since Kindergarten. I thought, since you work at home most of the time, it might be a nice change for her to come home to a place where someone is waiting for her. And she and Chris get along so well. They’re practically like brother and sister. It would give her a real sense of family. I think she needs that.”

Katherine stared down at her shoes on the bare, wooden floor and thought this over. Outside, a single gull bellowed as it made its way over the house to the beach below. The faint smell of salt air drifted in through the open front door. She inhaled deeply, wanting to experience the scents and sounds of beach life fully. The serenity of water lapping upon the shore was something she craved after a year of hectic and heartbreaking decisions. And she knew, deep in her heart, that this was the place where she could find the sense of peace she craved. Sharing it with family and friends might also be exactly what she needed.

Feeling good about her decision, Katherine stood. “You’re right. Chelsea deserves some sort of family life and we’re the ones who can give her that.” She gave Denise a faint smile as she crossed the distance between them. “We’ll give it a try.”

Denise reached up and hugged her long-time friend. “Thanks, Kathy. It will work out, I’m sure of it.”

Katherine nodded, but her face tightened. She wagged a finger at Denise. “But if Darla does one thing to annoy me, she’s out. Deal?”

“Deal. But we get to keep Chelsea, right?”

“Absolutely.” They hugged again. Denise was relieved at the outcome, and Katherine was already forming a plan in her mind to include Chelsea, and of course, Darla, into the household. Chelsea and Chris would start middle School in September together, perhaps making the transition in schools easier, she reasoned. Yes, it just might work.

Feeling lighthearted again, Katherine and Denise headed toward the front door where the real estate woman was waiting for an answer. “Let’s go buy a house,” Katherine said, and the two friends headed out the door with arms linked.





***





Two weeks later, Katherine was up to her armpits in paint, stain, varnish, and wallpaper. She was able to begin work on the house immediately after signing the papers, so she took a week off from her job at the King County Journal and flung herself into fixing up her dream home.

The first thing she did was recruit Chris' and Chelsea’s services in painting their bedrooms. Chelsea was not only thrilled with the prospect of living with her favorite aunts and Chris, but also being able to decorate a room of her own. “I’ve never lived in a house before,” the excited teen told Katherine, her blue eyes sparkling. She had her aunt’s thick, auburn hair and deep blue eyes laced with dark, full lashes and brows. She was often mistaken as Denise’s daughter. The only feature that resembled her mother was her high, prominent cheek bones. She was going to be a beauty, there was no doubt. But like her aunt, she chose not to flaunt it as her mother did.

The kids picked out the colors and fabrics for their rooms. Chelsea chose to paint hers in a rose and cream stripe with pink floral curtains for her window. Chris decided on a sea mist green for the walls and wanted to boarder the room with white shelving to place his seashell and rock collections on. His room would reflect him, a no-nonsense kid, neat, orderly, with a place for everything. His appearance reflected this too, his sandy blonde hair neat but not fussy, his clothing clean but not overly stylish. At age twelve, he was tall and already in the lanky stage of his teen years. But he wasn’t at all clumsy. He was very athletic and participated in several sports.

Katherine helped both kids get started with paint rollers and brushes, then began her own work downstairs. She hired a man to sand down the living room, dining room, and entryway floors, then refinished them herself before painting the walls cream. She hung lace curtains in the bay window, and added a thick blue and white striped cushion on the seat. She then turned her attention to wallpapering the tiny bathroom upstairs. Her goal was to make the place livable before moving in, and then worry about any major fix-ups afterward.

Denise came in the evenings to lend a hand. Unlike Katherine, she couldn’t take time off from her job at the Community Hospital near downtown Seattle where she worked as the records clerk in the Pediatric/Maternity Ward. Policy required six weeks notice for vacation time, so she had to be content with helping out on nights and weekends.

Katherine insisted Denise take the master bedroom with the small bay window that overlooked Puget Sound. Katherine had a great view from the turret room that she was going to use as an office, so the bedroom on the side of the house was fine for her needs. After much protest, Denise gave in and set out to decorate her room to her own style much as the kids had done. Everyone’s tastes blended to combine rooms that complimented without clashing. The cream wallpaper with soft pink sprig roses that Katherine placed in the upstairs hallway was the perfect link between the rooms, the oak molding being the common thread that joined them all together. Looking at the rooms, one would think from their common tastes that they had all come from the same family. That is until Darla finally made her appearance.

It was the second weekend since they had begun work on the house. The day was warm and dry, so Katherine recruited the kids to paint the front porch dove gray while Denise supervised and painted the front door white. Katherine was in the kitchen, scrubbing the tile countertops, when Darla entered through the back door in all her tight pant, silver shoe glory.

“Oh my God, a Victorian house!” she stated aloud, a cigarette dangling from the corner of her glossy red mouth. "I should have known you’d own a tight-ass house.” She leveled her gaze on Katherine, waiting for a reaction.

Katherine squared her shoulders and turned to face that gaze. “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.”

“What?” Darla gave mock surprise, raising a splayed hand to her abundant breasts. “And miss out on this experiment of sisterly love and friendship? Why, I wouldn’t dream of leaving.” She took off her sunglasses and placed them on top of her too-stiff, orange hair. “Now, where am I supposed to park my ass?”

All the way to hell, Katherine wanted to say, but instead she pointed up the stairway on the opposite side of the kitchen. “Your room is up there. You can get to it from the outside too. The stairway is on the other side of the garage.”

“Much obliged, Miss Kate,” Darla said mockingly, making Katherine bristle. She hated being called Kate or Katie, and Darla knew it.

Darla turned and stepped out the door, hollering, “Okay, boys. It’s the stairs by the garage. You be careful with my stuff, ya hear?”

“Okay, boys?” Katherine mouthed, and looked out the kitchen window in time to see Darla sashay on three-inch heels over to two men standing on the back of a U-Haul Truck. “Oh, great, she brought her Johns along.” She watched long enough to see them unload a leopard chaise lounge before turning her back to the window and raising her eyes to heaven. “What did I get myself into?”





Chapter Two





Summer ended and the newly formed household settled into the daily routine of family life. Chelsea and Chris started middle school, and both were doing well and enjoying it. Chris was involved in basketball after school, and Chelsea joined the Orchestra, choosing the violin, much to her mother’s chagrin. Days were quiet as the adults went off to work and the kids to school, but evenings bustled with activity as everyone returned. Voices filled the rooms, along with the sounds of a basketball pounding against the floorboards and the whining strings of a violin.

Although Katherine enjoyed the family atmosphere of the evenings, she cherished her quiet days working in the turret room. As a staff writer for the King Country Journal, she did most of her writing at home and only went into the office to drop off her work. Her 'beat' consisted mainly of local school board and city council meetings, with an occasional special interest article. It paid the bills, but she longed to write more interesting pieces. But since she had only been with the paper a year-and-a-half, she was given all the work no one else wanted.

Katherine loved her turret room office. She left the windows bare and positioned her desk so she could view Puget Sound as she typed on her computer. The western sky touching pale blue water energized her, allowing her to dream of selling the fiction novel she’d already completed and long to continue writing others. If she was ever going to become a novelist, she knew this was the room, and view, that would inspire her.

Fall brought to Puget Sound the beauty of lush amber and golden colors in the surrounding landscapes. Crisp mornings were filled with the scent of damp pines touched by salt air, and cool evenings brought pink and orange sunsets, reminding the residents of the house that winter was nearing. As dusk settled in one evening, Katherine lit the fireplace in the living room and settled on the plump sofa to watch the evening news as Denise came in from the kitchen to join her. Both women were usually home in the evening, as were the kids. Darla, on the other hand, was rarely around. She worked as a hair and makeup stylist at KSPS, the local Public Television Station, working alternating day shifts until five o’clock and night shifts until eleven o’clock. On the nights she didn’t work late, she went out with friends or her current boyfriend until all hours of the night. Katherine and Denise never knew her schedule from one day to the next, nor did they miss her presence.

Denise settled on the sofa beside Katherine. "I love the way our furniture blends," she commented, her eyes scanning the room.

Katherine nodded as she looked around appreciatively. She was also pleased with the effect of her furniture mixed with Denise's. Her own bold stripes complemented Denise's floral prints, giving the room a soft, comfortable country look. It was as if they'd picked out their furniture with this house, and living together, in mind.

"We always did have the same taste," Katherine commented. "Remember in high school when we used to go shopping separately and end up with the exact same clothes?"

Denise laughed. “We decided we'd better shop together so we wouldn’t look like twins at school.”

Katherine smiled at the memory, and they sat in comfortable silence for a while. After a few minutes, Denise asked, “Do you miss your old house, Kathy?” She thought that if she were Kathy, she would miss it. She'd been there the day Kathy and Andrew moved in, and had helped clean out the kitchen cupboards and put everything inside them. She'd been with Kathy for many of her firsts. She was there when Kathy and Andrew first met, when they were all juniors at Washington State University. He was tall and slender, with a handsomely carved face and wavy blonde hair. He was also athletic, like Chris, excelling in every sport he played. She stood by Katherine's side as her maid-of-honor at their wedding as tears of joy for their happiness spilled down her cheeks. She was first to arrive at the hospital after Chris was born, and the first to share in the new parents' excitement over their new baby boy. And she'd stood beside her best friend as they laid Andrew to rest, the most heartbreaking moment of Katherine’s life. Denise had shared in their every special moment, always welcome as part of their family as if she were more a sister than a friend, enjoying family life vicariously through them. And she never begrudged Katherine any of it. She always believed that someday she'd have a husband and family of her own. And at thirty-six, she still believed it could happen, though she grew doubtful at times. But to have had it, and lost it in so short of time like Katherine had, it sometimes made Denise wonder if love was worth the pain it caused. Although Katherine was too strong to admit it hurt, Denise knew she'd suffered greatly from losing Andrew. That was why she wondered now if leaving the house was painful, too.

Katherine sat, thoughtful for several moments. The house had sold on its first Open House, and she remembered how she'd cried after signing the papers. But she knew the change would be good for her, and she was feeling better about it every day. “I don't miss it as much as I thought I would,” she finally answered. "We lived there a long time. Chris grew up in that house. Yet, making this change wasn't as difficult as I'd expected."

“How’s Chris handling the move?” Denise wanted to know. She was just as much an aunt to Chris as she was to Chelsea.

“He's doing okay. He said he didn’t mind moving, and he likes this house and his new room. You know, I think it was almost a relief for both of us to leave that house. There were too many memories there. Ever since Andrew died, everything from the garden outside to the new dishwasher he installed in the kitchen reminded us of him.”

Denise placed her hand on Katherine’s arm. “It's been a long year, hasn’t it?”

Katherine nodded. “Yes, it has.” She stared into the fire. “Everything changed so fast after his car accident last summer. Sometimes it feels as if our fourteen years together never really existed. They’re more like a dream.”

“Sharing a house with Darla could end up like a nightmare,” she teased, bringing a smile to Katherine's lips. “Has she been a pain in the ass yet?”

Katherine laughed. It was rare for Denise to swear, only Darla could bring it out in her. But then, Darla had the knack of bringing out the worst in everyone. “Actually, I haven’t seen that much of her. She’s never home.”

“Lucky for us. I know Chelsea loves living here. This has been so good for her.”

“She’s a great kid. I can’t imagine how she ever got stuck with a mom like Darla.”

“How’d I ever get stuck with a sister like Darla?”

Katherine chuckled. “By the way, who’s Darla’s current boyfriend? Is she still seeing Joey?” For years, Katherine and Denise had a private joke about Darla's 'boyfriend-of-the-month club'. That was about as often as she changed men.

“Joey was two months and two boyfriends ago.” Denise wrinkled her nose in disgust. “I don’t know what her current boyfriend’s name is. It’s not worth remembering their names unless they’ve hung around for more than six weeks.”

Outside, a car door slammed and footsteps rattled on the stairs leading up to Darla’s apartment. Katherine looked at her watch. “Wow, she’s home early. It’s only eleven.”

“Yeah, she probably ran out of money for drinks.”

Katherine shook her head. “How did you two end up so different?”

“I don’t know. I guess our mom just raised me right and totally screwed up with Darla.”

They both laughed out loud.





***





Upstairs, Chelsea passed Chris' room on her way back from the bathroom. His light was on and the door was slightly ajar, so she peeked her head in. “Hi. You still up?”

Chris was stretched out on his bed, an open notebook in front of him. He looked up as Chelsea stepped in. “Yeah. I had some homework to finish.”

“What are you working on?”

“That family tree stuff. I had to get some information from my mom earlier so I could finish.”

Chelsea stepped over to Chris' dresser and fingered a smooth stone displayed there. “I had to get all my family information from Aunt Denise. My mom isn’t really into that stuff.”

Chris nodded his understanding.

“I really like your room. You have the coolest rocks and shells. What’s this one?”

Chris rose and sat on the end of his bed. “That’s an amethyst. Pretty, huh?”

“Yeah.” Chelsea continued around his room, touching the many rocks and shells. “My mom doesn’t believe in collecting anything. Except boyfriends.” She laughed a little.

Chris only nodded again. “What did your mom think of your room?”

“She said it was so sweet it made her want to puke. But I don’t care, I like it anyway.” She picked up a heavy stone that was cut in half, revealing brilliant purple clusters inside. “What’s this one?”

Chris came to stand beside her. He was a full head taller than her. “That’s a surprise coconut. It’s a plain rock on the outside, but when you open it, there's purple or white quartz inside.”

“Cool. Where did you get this?”

“My dad got it for me when he was in Arizona on a business trip.”

“Oh.” She set the stone down carefully and continued gravitating around the room. “It must seem weird not having your dad around anymore.”

Chris shrugged, averting his eyes. “Sometimes it seems like he’s been gone forever.” He sat back down on the bed. “But you know what it’s like, not having a dad around.”

Chelsea shook her head. “No, it’s different for me. I never knew my dad. You can’t miss someone you never met.” She stopped a moment, looking out Chris' window at the beach below. “I miss your dad. He was pretty cool. Remember when he took us to the beach to fly kites? That was fun.”

Chris smiled, remembering. Outside, they heard a car door slam and both kids looked in its direction, knowing it was her mother coming home.

“Well, guess I’d better go to bed.” Chelsea padded to the door. “Goodnight.”

Chris nodded to her as she left the room.





***





Katherine was the first one downstairs the next morning. The coffeemaker sent a soothing aroma throughout the house and she inhaled deeply with anticipation as she pushed through the kitchen's swinging door.

“Who the hell are you?” Katherine shrieked as she stared at a strange man pouring coffee into her favorite mug. He looked rumpled, one shirttail hanging out of his slacks and his black, greasy hair sticking up in places. His pockmarked cheeks flushed red from Katherine’s startling entrance.

“I…I…Darla said I could come down and have some coffee.”

Katherine’s initial fear turned into full-blown anger. “Darla said you could come down!” she screamed.

“Yeah, I did. So?” Darla stood at the bottom of the stairs, her short, red nightie barely covering her voluptuous breasts. The glossy red, high-heeled slippers and painted smirk on her face were too much for Katherine.

“How dare you bring a strange man into my house.” Katherine shouted over the man’s head. “This isn’t some brothel where you can bring in scum off the street.”

Darla merely laughed.

Katherine fumed. “Get out of here!” she spat at the man, her eyes spitting fire. “And give me that mug.” She snatched the coffee mug out of his hand and threw it in the sink. It shattered against the white porcelain.

“What’s all the yelling about in here?” Denise wandered onto the scene still in her pajamas, yawning. When she saw the strange man standing next to Katherine, her eyes widened. “Who’s he?”

“He's your sister’s latest fuck,” Katherine spat out.

Denise looked from him to Darla, and back at him again. Her face puckered in disgust. “Ewww,” was all she could manage to say.

The greasy haired stranger was so startled he couldn’t get out of the room fast enough. “ I...I better leave,” he stuttered as he tried to tuck in his loose shirttail with trembling hands. “B...B...Bye, Darla.” In a split second, he was out the door.

Darla stood in her spot on the stairs and let out a loud, shrill laugh. “You sure scared the hell out of him.”

Katherine wasn’t amused. “Don’t you ever bring a strange man into this house again. Do you understand? Ever!”

“I didn’t realize this was an all-girls dorm,” Darla said, mockingly.

“This isn't a joke,” Katherine shot back. “We have kids in this house. What if one of them had found him down here?”

“So what if they had?”

“What the hell is wrong with you? God, Darla, he's a scum bag. I can’t believe you let that thing in your bed, let alone in my house.”

“What difference does it make? One man is just the same as the next.”

“You are such a whore.” Katherine stood her ground by the sink as silence embraced the room.

Denise sat quietly at the kitchen table, her eyes darting between the two women, waiting for someone to say the next word.

Painted hazel eyes sparked with plain brown ones. Slowly, Darla's arched brow rose higher as indifference spread over her face. “So what if I am. At least I know how to have fun. Maybe you two wouldn’t be so uptight if you got some once in a while.”

“Shut up, Darla,” Katherine warned between clenched teeth.

“No, I mean it,” Darla continued, haughtily. “You’ve been the faithful widow long enough. A little roll in the sack would be good for you. Might just calm those nerves.”

“I said, shut up, Darla.”

“And as for my little virgin sister here, any sex would be better than no sex. Thirty-six is getting a little old to be saving herself.”

“I’m not a virgin,” Denise said softly, staring at the table.

“Leave her alone, Darla,” Katherine warned.

“Oh, please. She never dates, let alone has sex. She’s afraid she might actually enjoy it.”

“I’m not a virgin,” Denise said a little louder.

Darla laughed her wicked cackle again.

“I said, leave her alone!” Katherine exploded. “Just shut up! I’ve had enough.” She stepped up to the table and stood protectively beside Denise. “Don’t ever bring another man here again. I mean it.”

Darla gave her a smirk, then headed back upstairs.

Katherine sank into the chair next to Denise, still shaking from anger. “I could kill her,” she said aloud.

“I’m not a virgin,” Denise said quietly, one more time.

Katherine looked over at her friend who had been taunted by her sister for thirty-six years. Her heart went out to her. “I know,” she told her, patting her arm.





***





Katherine managed to hold back her anger as she fed the kids breakfast and herded them out the door for school. But she fumed all over again when she saw her broken coffee mug in the sink, and again when she saw the disheartened look on Denise’s face as she left for work. Poor Denise, who lived inconspicuously in her outrageous sister’s shadow. Katherine knew that part of the reason Denise didn’t go out or date much was because she didn’t want to be considered a slut like her sister. Yet, she was bullied by her sister because of it.

Katherine tried to put the morning’s events out of her mind as she drove to the Journal’s office. The streets of Ballard were quiet, as usual, with no one rushing about as in their parent city of Seattle. Parents drove their children to school, and local shopkeepers headed to work in the same leisurely fashion they had for over one hundred years. The suburb was rich in local history. Settled by sturdy Norse and Swedish ancestors, it retained its thick Nordic heritage as some of the old-timers' retained their accents. There were a million stories to be told in this one quiet town, and Katherine wanted to be the one to tell them. She planned to speak with the editor about assigning her more important pieces, and even suggest a few of her own. She was tired of the board meetings and mindless pieces. She wanted to expand her writing. And she needed all her wits about her if she was going to talk to her editor, Earl.

Earl Reeves sat behind his cluttered desk, the phone grasped tightly in one hand and the other hand clumsily typing on the computer keyboard as Katherine approached him. He was the epitome of the overworked, underpaid, newspaper editor, with the paunch to prove he’d spent too many years behind a desk. Katherine noticed the stained coffee mug, half-full, surrounded by dried up coffee spots from being slammed down on the desk once too often. If the coffee and cigarettes didn’t eventually kill this man, the stress would.

As Earl slammed down the phone, Katherine took a deep breath to strengthen her resolve. “Do you have a minute, Earl?”

“A minute's all I got,” he replied brusquely. “I have to find a reporter to send up to the Mayor's office and get his version of why the sewer system went haywire in town. What’cha want?”

Katherine jumped at the chance before her. “Send me, Earl. I can go.”

Earl shook his head. “I’ll send Rob. He knows the beat at the Mayor’s office.”

Katherine looked up at the story board behind Earl. “Rob’s at the Chittenden Locks on a story,” she told him. “I’m not doing anything. I can go right now.”

“No, Katherine. Not this time.” Earl was firm.

“Then when, Earl? When will it be a good time to send me on stories besides board meetings? I’m ready to move on to other things.”

“You’re not ready yet. Maybe in a couple of months.”

“A couple of months?” Katherine asked, exasperated. “I’ve been here a year-and-a-half. I’ve only done a couple of profiles and interviews in that time period. I want to do more, Earl. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t.”

Earl stared hard at Katherine. “Okay, Kathy. The truth is, your writing is flat. It’s okay for board meetings and the like, but for actual articles or stories, it lacks style.”

Katherine’s face dropped at his complete honesty. She’d graduated from the University of Washington with a 3.9 grade point average in journalism. All of her teachers had told her she had the potential to be a great writer. And here sat her editor, telling her she couldn’t write worth a damn.

“How am I supposed to acquire any style by writing up board meetings?” she finally asked.

Earl heaved a heavy sigh. “Listen, Kathy. You’re a good writer. I wouldn’t have hired you or kept you on if you weren’t. You’re just lacking the right touch, okay? Maybe it will come to you in time. Or, maybe you should take a refresher course at the college to get yourself revved up. But until I see some change, I can’t send you on other stories.”

Katherine didn’t know whether to be angry and quit or break down in tears. She didn’t do either. “Okay, Earl. I’ll see what I can do,” she said in a defeated tone and walked out of the office.





***





Katherine thought about Earl's words all the way home. Once there, she went straight up to her office, turned on her computer, and stared at the screen for a long time. Flat. How could he say her writing was flat? It wasn't like she was an amateur at journalism, but Earl treated her like one. True, she'd never held a job at a real newspaper before, but special interest articles had always been her specialty. She had interned at a local regional parenting magazine out of college, staying on as a feature editor for over a year. After Chris was born, she free-lanced for regional parenting publications across the country. Although she'd never broken into the high-scale glossy magazines, she'd written many informative articles on family life and parenting that editors had complimented her on. But she'd become frustrated with freelancing because the pay was low and the editors usually wanted her to change articles until they lost their entire meaning or purpose. That's when she'd decided to start her novel. But the years passed quickly and then Andrew's accident changed everything. She'd been thrilled when the job at the Journal had come along, but now, once again, she was at a stalemate.

The screen saver popped on breaking into Katherine's thoughts and she stood and stared out the window at the beach, and water below. She did this all afternoon, staring from screen to beach, beach to screen, not writing a single word. When she heard the kids come home from school, she snapped off the computer and headed downstairs, thanking God for the diversion.

Later that evening, Katherine sat in the living room bay window watching the sun stretch long rays over the water as it settled in for the night. She had greeted the kids, given them snacks, supervised their homework, and prepared dinner. Those were things she did well. Not like writing, which she obviously knew nothing about. As she sat there, wallowing in self-pity, Denise came in from the kitchen.

“Here, I picked up the mail earlier.” Denise walked across the room and handed several envelopes to Katherine. She sifted through them finding nothing interesting, only the electric bill, her Visa bill, and a contest entry to win one-million dollars. The only one that stood out was a large manila envelope addressed by her own typewriter. Oh, great, Katherine thought, another rejection.

Denise had wondered about Katherine's moody silence all evening, but now the crestfallen look on her face as she stared at the large envelope worried her. “What’s the matter?” she asked softly.

"Oh, nothing, just the usual." Katherine felt the thickness of the envelope, noting that the sample pages had been returned. Not always a sign of rejection, but most likely one. “Just another letter telling me my manuscript isn’t right for them.”

“You don’t know that for sure. Why don’t you open it?”

Katherine slid out of the window seat, walked over to the couch, and plopped down, the mail falling into her lap. “I don’t think I have the strength,” she said wearily. “I don’t need any more bad news today.”

“Come on, it might be good news. Open it up,” Denise urged.

Katherine dumped the other letters beside her, opened the envelope, and peeked inside at the cover letter. “While your idea is intriguing, I’m afraid it is not for us. Best wishes placing your manuscript elsewhere,” she read aloud. She tossed the envelope on the coffee table in front of her. “Just like I said, another rejection.”

Denise sat down beside her feeling awful that she'd told her to open it. “Sorry.”

“I think I’ll get a job at K-Mart,” Katherine announced, still staring at the envelope on the table. “How do you think I’d do selling women’s underwear?”

“Lousy. You're not a sales clerk, you're a writer, Kathy. And a good one at that. I know you’ll sell your book. It just takes time.”

“I’ve been trying to sell it for two years. How much more time do you think it will take?” Katherine looked up dismally at her friend. “I just have to face it, the book stinks. The trouble is, I’ve been over it a hundred times and I can’t figure out what’s wrong with it.”

“Your characters are probably dull and your writing is flat.” Darla’s voice popped up from behind them.

Denise spun her head around. “How long have you been standing there?”

“Long enough to hear Katie complain about her life. And personally, I think her idea about K-Mart sounds great.”

“Why don’t you let people know when you’re in the room?” Denise asked, annoyed. She hated the way Darla always snuck around, poking her nose in where it didn’t belong.

“Because you two stop talking when I’m around and I miss all the good stuff.” Darla clomped over to the couch in her platform sandals and leaned on the back. Her skirt was up to her crotch and she had on black fishnet stockings. She was chomping on a wad of gum.

“What would you know about Kathy’s writing, anyway? You’ve never read her book,” Denise said defensively.

“I read the newspaper. I see her articles. The few she’s done were boring and flat. There’s no life to them. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.”

“Shut up, Darla. Can’t you see Kathy’s upset? She doesn’t need advice about writing from a hair stylist.” Denise was unusually defensive. She rarely took a stand against her sister unless she was defending Kathy. It went both ways. It was a pattern that had followed them since junior high school. Kathy defended Denise against Darla, Denise defended Kathy. Neither one ever took Darla’s side.

“Well, I was just giving my opinion,” Darla told her, clomping back toward the stairs.

Katherine turned and spoke for the first time since Darla entered. “If you’re so smart and know the problem, then what’s the solution?” she asked, her voice filled with contempt.

Darla didn’t even blink at Katherine’s tone. “You need to get out and live life a little before you can write about it. Feel something. Experience new people and new places. You’ve been the little housewife too long to remember what living is really like. That’s what’s missing in your writing, real life.”

Katherine rolled her eyes. “So, in other words, if I hang out in bars with jerks and act like a whore, like you, then my writing will come alive. No thank you!”

Darla shrugged, an amused look on her painted face. “You asked, I answered. I’m going up to see Chelsea. I want to borrow one of her skirts for tomorrow. Nightie-night girls.” Her heels on the wooden stairs echoed throughout the house.

Denise turned to Katherine. “Maybe a house will fall on her someday,” she said hopefully.

Katherine shook her head and smiled. “No, we’re not that lucky.”

“Don’t pay any attention to her. She doesn’t know the first thing about writing.”

Katherine sighed. “No, I hate to admit it, but she’s right. My writing is flat. It’s dull, boring and lifeless. My editor said the exact same thing this morning. I lack style.”

Denise stared at her, dumbfounded.

“And you know what the worst part is?” Katherine continued. “That someone like Darla can see it. If she sees it, then I must really stink. I really should consider that K-Mart idea.”

Denise experienced one of her rare, strong moments. “No. I won’t believe it. You’re a good writer and you will succeed someday. You’re not a quitter, you never have been. You’ll find a way to prove everyone wrong.” She sat tall and straight, completely believing in what she said.

Katherine smiled appreciatively at her friend, wishing Denise could be this self-assured when she was dealing with her sister. "If you say so," she told her. Denise looked satisfied.





Chapter Three





Winter advanced on Seattle with the caution of a new lover, gently caressing the city with rain that could, at times, become ardent as it fell. Occasionally, the sun appeared through the clouds, and the waters of Puget Sound winked up at the family above as they continued their daily lives.

As predicted by Denise, Katherine didn’t give up writing nor find a new career at K-Mart. She continued going to, and writing about, the boring details of the school board and city council meetings. Occasionally, Earl would toss her a bone by assigning a story about a new class addition or sewer line in town, but nothing exciting. Katherine kept her mind off her menial writing by attending Chris' basketball games, driving the two kids to various activities or friend’s houses, and scrutinizing her manuscript for changes.

Darla continued her nightly routine of bar hopping and who knows what else. Katherine never asked. There was no sign of another man coming up to Darla’s room since the last incident, so if Darla continued bed hopping, she was doing it elsewhere. That suited Katherine just fine.

On a clear, sunny Sunday in November, Denise’s parents came over for dinner and to see how the house was shaping up. Katherine loved Marcia and Dan Richards as if they were her own parents. As a teenager, she'd spent many days and nights at the Richards' home. Her own parents had been too busy with their careers as college professors to spend time with her. At that time, her father was the head of the Mathematics Department and her mother worked in the English Department at the University of Washington. They worked long hours and felt their jobs were much more important than being with Katherine. No matter what Katherine did or excelled at, it didn’t seem to interest her parents. Like good parents should, they'd provided her with a nice home to live in, everything she could possibly need or want, and a college education, but gave nothing of themselves. They'd both been mortified when Katherine decided to stay home after Chris was born, claiming she was wasting her education. They felt she wasn't doing anything important, or making a contribution. To them, success was defined by a person's position at work, not by the type of person that you were. So when they moved to upstate New York to work at a university there, Katherine didn't mind. It was only the occasional phone call from her mother that irritated her. "So, are you writing anything important yet?" she'd always ask. Katherine never really had an answer. Obviously, they had different definitions of the word important.

The Richards were different. They were down-to-earth family people who were always ready to lend a helpful hand or a warm hug. They were attentive and interested in everything the girls did, just as they were interested now in the house they all shared.

“This place is beautiful,” Marcia Richards declared after a tour of the house. “And I just love the view of the Sound.”

“How’d you like my room, Grandma?” Chelsea plopped down beside Marcia on the sofa, and the older woman placed a loving arm around her. She was every inch the grandmother, softly plump with short, graying hair and a warm smile.

“I love your room. And I hear you painted it all by yourself.”

“Sure did. And Chris did his own room, too. Did you see his rocks and seashells?”

Marcia draped her other arm around Chris who had slipped in beside her. To her, Chris was as much her grandchild as Chelsea. “Yes, I did. And you did a great job on your room, too, Chris.” The young teen smiled appreciatively.

“I see you still need to replace the bathroom countertop,” Dan piped up. “I can have it on in a jiffy, if you'd like.”

“Dad, we didn’t invite you here to work,” Denise objected. Dan was always ready to tackle any house project.

“No sense arguing with your father,” Marcia interjected. “Might as well let him do it. He will anyway.”

Katherine smiled to herself as she watched Denise shake her head at her father. She loved it when everyone was together like this. This was what family was all about. The only one missing was Darla, but no one asked why. It was assumed by all that she was sleeping off her Saturday night.

“Tell me where the new countertop is and I’ll get my toolbox from the car,” Dan said, unyielding to Denise’s protests.

Katherine laughed. “It’s in the garage, behind the door,” she told him. When Denise gave her a sharp look, she shrugged her shoulders. “We might as well let him do it. I don’t want to, do you?”

Denise sighed. “Okay, Dad, you win. But be done by dinnertime.”

“Come on, Chris. You can be my assistant.” Dan headed toward the back door.

“Hey, I want to help, too.” Chelsea took off after them and soon the three women were alone in the living room.

“So, how is this living arrangement working out for you girls?” Marcia asked.

Katherine and Denise smiled slyly at each other, both understanding exactly what she meant. “You mean, how is living with Darla, don’t you Mom?” Denise asked.

Marcia simply smiled.

“It's been interesting,” Katherine offered.

Marcia chuckled warmly. “I’m sure it has been. You three girls are all so very different. And Darla, well, she can be difficult.”

“In other words, a pain-in-the-ass, right Mom?” Denise gave her mom a mischievous look.

“That, too,” Marcia agreed. She knew exactly what her daughter was like, and although she didn't always approve of her lifestyle, she accepted it just the same. “This is good for Chelsea, though. She’s happy here with all of you around. She used to be such a lonely child, living with Darla, and whoever else might happen along for the moment. I’m glad you're all together. I worry less about her now.”

“Chelsea is a sweet girl,” Katherine said. “She deserves better than she’s had.” They all silently nodded agreement to this.

“Well,” Marcia pulled herself up from the sofa. “What are you girls cooking in there? It smells wonderful. Let’s go take a look.” They walked into the kitchen together, smiling and happy, talking about chicken and mashed potatoes and how much rain had fallen, and everything else families talk about that doesn’t really matter, yet matters so very much.





***





The table was set, the chicken was golden, and Marcia was just finishing the gravy when Darla made her appearance at the bottom of the back stairs.

“Hi, Mom. I thought I smelled something good cooking down here.” She strutted over in gold flats to stand beside her mother, who gave her a hello kiss on the cheek. Her jeans were too tight and her sweater was too small, but what stood out most was that she’d changed her hair color again.

Marcia’s eyebrows rose at the sight of her, but she pretended not to notice. “Your sister and Kathy did the cooking, dear. I’m just making the gravy.”

Darla leaned against the counter and lit a cigarette, drawing in deeply before spewing the smoke out into the air. “Yeah, Katie never has been very good at gravy, have you Katie?” she said between puffs.

Katherine’s jaw tightened, but she didn’t look up from the vegetable tray she was filling. “It’s Katherine, not Katie,” she said bluntly.

Darla shrugged. “It’s good enough for Hepburn, it should be good enough for you.”

Denise appeared through the swinging door. “Oh, you’re up,” she said, then let out a small gasp that made Katherine turn to look at Darla.

“What have you done to your hair?” Katherine asked, wide-eyed.

Darla continued puffing on her cigarette, unshaken by their reaction. “I tried to color it auburn, but it turned out too red. So I made it darker.”

“It’s so...black!” Denise stared in shock.

“It makes you look pale, dear,” Marcia added.

“No, that’s just from this cold I’ve had. It’s really running me down.”

“Maybe if you didn’t smoke so much, you’d feel better,” Katherine suggested snidely.

Darla merely shrugged.

Denise just shook her head, used to her sister's craziness, and picked up the vegetable platter. “I’m going to call Dad and the kids down for dinner.” She turned and disappeared out the door again.

Katherine picked up the basket of rolls and Marcia followed behind with the bowl of gravy. Darla pulled out a bottle of white wine from the refrigerator. “I’ll bring the wine,” she offered, swinging the bottle by the neck and walking behind the procession of women into the dining room.

They all filled their plates with plump pieces of chicken, creamy potatoes, and Marcia's rich gravy as the room filled with their chatter. Dan told amusing stories about the people at the telephone company where he worked as a foreman. Marcia talked about the cake decorating class she was teaching, and the kids each took turns telling stories about their teachers and classmates. Darla animatedly recalled the time the newscaster at KSPS had lost his hairpiece five minutes before broadcast and she had to fill in his bald spot with a can of brown spray paint. Everyone broke out in uncontrollable laughter.

They made plans to have Thanksgiving at the Richards’ house with the decision that Denise and Katherine would bring sweet potatoes and dessert. As they finished eating, and Darla invited herself to one more glass of wine, Chelsea spoke up.

“Don’t forget about my orchestra concert on December second, Grandma. You and Grandpa have to come.”

“Don’t worry, dear. I have my calendar marked. I’m looking forward to it.”

Darla pushed back from the table and lit a cigarette. “I can’t believe you kids are ready for a concert after barely three months. I swear, you’ll all sound like a bunch of whining cats in heat.”

Denise fingered her necklace. “She’s been practicing really hard, Darla.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve heard her all the way up in my room.”

Chelsea sat up straight and stared hard at her mother. “You promised to come, remember?” she said pointedly.

Darla drew in deeply on her cigarette, then let the smoke out slowly. “I know I did. I’ll be there.”

Chelsea sat back, satisfied.

“Both of you kids are growing up so fast,” Marcia gushed. “Chris, you're taller than I am now. And Chelsea dear, you’re getting more beautiful every day.”

“You’ll be a heartbreaker for sure,” Dan put in.

“Yeah, just like your mother, eh Chelsea? You may look a lot like your Aunt Denise, but you’ll have my boobs for sure.”

“Mother!” Chelsea blurted out, horrified.

“Well, it’s true. You already have quite a set on you.”

Chelsea turned scarlet and everyone at the table sat, dumbfounded.

“Oh, don’t be a bunch of prudes. We’re all family here.” Darla saw Chelsea’s eyes dart quickly to Chris, who was fidgeting with his napkin. “I’m sure Chris has noticed, haven’t you Chris? After all, you’re close to being a man, and that’s what men notice first.”

Chelsea threw her napkin on the table and flew out of the room and up the stairs. Chris mumbled a quick “excuse me” and did the same.

All the adults at the table stared at one another. Katherine's eyes burned with disgust. “Darla, how could you?”

Darla only laughed and continued puffing on her cigarette. “Kids are so sensitive at that age,” she told them.





***





“Come on, everyone. We’ll be late.” Chelsea stood impatiently at the bottom of the stairs. She fidgeted with her sweater sleeves and moved her violin case twice. Katherine was the first one down.

“Chelsea, you look beautiful,” she exclaimed, giving the young teen a hug. “I love that dress.”

Chelsea smiled, pleased. She’d picked out the black floral dress and crochet sweater specifically for the concert, and had also bought new black heels. Her mother had balked at the price until Chelsea reminded her that she would be able to borrow the clothes. That settled it right away.

Chris came down next, looking stiff in a shirt and dress pants.

“Wow, look at you.” Chelsea beamed at him.

“It’s nothing,” he said, his face growing hot.

“It is to me. Thanks,” Chelsea said softly.

“Well, your first concert, and solo, is special,” Katherine said. “Are you nervous yet?”

“I’m shaking. I hope I stop or I’ll drop my violin on stage for sure.”

Denise came running down the stairs, buttoning the cuff of her sleeve. “Sorry I’m late. I couldn’t get my hair to do anything.” She stopped and took a long look at Chelsea. “Oh my, you look so pretty. I love the way you pulled your hair up. It’s gorgeous.”

Chelsea smiled with pleasure. She loved all the attention, but she was still nervous about being late. “Where’s Mom? I told her this morning we had to leave early.”

“Early for what?” Darla flounced into the front hall wearing red stiletto heels and a silver mini-skirt.

“Mom! You can’t wear that to the concert.”

“Concert? Oh, is that tonight? I can’t make it, honey. I made other plans.”

Chelsea’s face fell. “You promised you’d come.”

“Well, I forgot. So sue me. Carcia’s turning thirty and we’re all going down to The Bait House to celebrate. I told her I’d be there. I can’t just not show up.”

Katherine glared at Darla. “You can party with your friends any time,” she said evenly. “Your daughter’s concert is special.”

“So is turning thirty for the first time. I must have turned thirty four or five times before moving up to the next number.” Darla laughed, but no one joined in. “Oh, come on, it’s no big deal. I’m sure you’ll have plenty of concerts coming up. I’ll come to the next one.”

“Darla,” Katherine began, but Chelsea stopped her.

“Never mind, Aunt Kathy. It doesn’t matter if she doesn't come. Let’s just go.”

Darla looked haughtily at Katherine. “See? It’s no big deal. Chelsea understands. I’ll see you all later, maybe,” she told the group and strutted out. Katherine wanted to kick her butt. Instead, she told everyone to hop in the van and they took off for the middle school.

The concert was lovely, in spite of Darla’s absence, or maybe because of it. Chelsea played her solo, a country folk tune, perfectly and received a nice round of applause. When she stepped off stage after the concert, Marcia gushed over her, and Denise also complemented her emphatically. Both women were used to filling in the holes that Darla so often left empty.

Everyone began leaving the auditorium and the kids headed up the aisle with the elder Richards. As Denise turned to follow, she was bumped into. “Oh, I’m sorry!” she said automatically, and her eyes lifted to a familiar face. She blushed deep red. “Dr. Harris. I...I didn’t see you.”

“Actually, it was my fault. I’m sorry. I wasn’t watching where I was going." He smiled appreciatively at her. "You look nice tonight, Denise.”

“Thank you.” Denise fingered the gold chain at her neck, staring up at the tall, dark haired man in front of her.

“Hi, Gary. How are you tonight?” Katherine spoke up from behind Denise.

“Just fine, thank you. Is your son in the orchestra, Katherine?”

“No, Denise’s niece is. We came to hear her play her solo.”

“You two know each other?” Denise stared from one to the other, surprised at their familiarity.

“Sure. Gary is on the school board. How long has it been, Gary? Two years now?”

“About that.”

Denise looked confused. “I didn’t know you had children.”

Gary laughed warmly. “I don’t. But I am interested in the education system here.”

“Oh.” Denise continued twisting her necklace.

“My niece was in the concert tonight, too,” he told them. “She was the blonde in the green dress.”

Both women nodded.

“Well, I guess I’d better be going. See you around the hospital, Denise. Bye, Katherine.” Katherine said goodbye while Denise continued to silently stare at him as he made his way up the aisle. Slowly, they followed.

“So, Dr. Harris thought you looked nice tonight, huh?” Katherine teased from behind her.

“Oh, stop.”

“Good-looking, single, and a doctor to-boot. He'd be a great catch, don’t you think?”

“Kathy!”

“Denise, you’re blushing.”

“And you sound just like Darla.”

“Ouch. Sorry. I was only teasing.” Katherine followed Denise the rest of the way out of the building. When they got outside, she noted that the Richards and the kids were already by the car. “This way,” she told Denise. But Denise wasn’t looking toward the car. Her eyes were watching Dr. Harris as he got into his own.





Do you want to find out how life turns out for Denise, Darla, and Katherine?

Widow, Virgin, Whore is available in both ebook and paperback formats.

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