Authors: Susan Mallery
Tags: #Romance, #Fiction, #Contemporary
As she turned onto her street, she noticed there were more decorations on the various houses and townhomes. Lights on roof lines, and plastic snowmen and Santas on lawns. By contrast, Dante’s place was completely dark and hers only had a few flameless candles in the front windows. Maybe she should find out about getting some lights for the front window and maybe a wreath for her door.
As she walked up to the porch, she glanced next door. Obviously Dante wasn’t home yet. She wondered how late he was going to work and wished they had the kind of relationship where she could simply call and invite him over for dinner. Not that she had anything to eat. Still, they could get takeout. Maybe Chinese.
She went inside and flipped on lights. After hanging up her jacket, she hit the switch for the gas fireplace, then waited for the
as it started up. She wandered into the kitchen, already knowing there was nothing to eat, and wondered why ordering takeout for one didn’t sound as exciting as when it was for two.
Someone rang her doorbell.
Evie felt herself starting to smile as she hurried back to the living room. Dante was home, she thought happily. He’d decided to come over and—
She pulled open the door, then felt her whole body tense as she stared at her mother.
“Hello, Evie,” May said.
“Mom.” She automatically stepped back to allow the other woman in, then wished she hadn’t.
“How are you?” May asked.
“Fine. I just got home from work.”
“The girls are getting ready for their performance?”
Evie nodded, then watched as her mother slipped off her coat and hung it on the back of a chair.
The Stryker brothers all shared similar looks. Dark hair and eyes they’d inherited from both their parents. The brothers were tall, with broad shoulders and muscles. Evie assumed she took after her father—not only with her light coloring, but with her lean build. When the family was together, no one questioned who the brothers belonged to. Strangers had always assumed Evie was someone else’s child. As she’d gotten older, she’d been presumed to be the girlfriend or a neighbor.
“I thought we could talk,” May said, sitting on the sofa and patting the cushion next to her.
Evie tried to figure out a way to say she was too busy, but she couldn’t come up with an excuse. And knowing May, her mother would want to know what was more important than them talking.
Evie sat in a chair across from her mother, rather than next to her, and waited.
May looked around. “You don’t have a lot of furniture.”
“The place came furnished.”
May nodded. “That’s right. Your apartment in Los Angeles was furnished, too.”
“I like to travel light.”
“Eventually you’ll want to settle down.” Her mother looked at her. “I was hoping you’d stay at the ranch a little longer. It was nice having you there.”
Evie drew in a breath. “With me working in town, this is more convenient.” She hoped she would get points for being polite because what she really wanted to say was “Why on earth would I want to live anywhere near you?” But that sounded harsh, even in her own mind.
It wasn’t fair—her mother had been horrible to her for years and years. But Evie was now expected to be reasonable. To understand, maybe even forgive. When was it her turn to be the mean one? Not that she wanted to be mean, but she wanted some kind of payback.
No, that wasn’t right, she thought, shifting on the chair. She honestly wasn’t sure what she wanted, but it wasn’t them pretending all was well.
May drew in a breath. “Fool’s Gold has many holiday traditions. Even more than I remember from when we lived here before. On the fifteenth is the annual Day of Giving. The town welcomes all kinds of charities to come in and talk about what they do. There are booths set up, and people can ask questions. The same day is the Take Home a Pet Adoption.”
Evie wasn’t sure where this was going. Money was always tight in her world, and right now she was saving every extra penny she had. Not that there were very many of them.
“Carina McKenzie started the pet adoption last year, but she’s pregnant now and can’t be on her feet that much. Rina, as everyone calls her, is married to Cameron McKenzie.”
May paused expectantly.
Evie shrugged. “Okay,” she said cautiously. “Should I know who that is?”
May smiled. “Right. Sorry. You have no reason to. Cameron is our local vet.”
Evie thought about all the animals on the ranch. There was everything from goats to horses and even Priscilla, an aging Indian elephant.
“You must want to keep him happy,” she said.
May laughed. “Exactly. So when Rina started to freak out about the pet adoption, I told her I would help. I thought it was something we could do together.”
At first Evie thought her mother meant “together,” as in “with Rina.” It took her a second to process the hopeful stare and realize May wanted her only daughter to help.
“I know, I know,” her mother said quickly. “You’re very busy with the dance. I understand that. Rina is going to arrange all the advertising and get the word out about the adoption. I’m handling the pet end. Going to see the animals at the shelter, arranging for grooming, setting up for the event and handling the actual adoptions. It’s only one Saturday. We could have fun.”
May paused, her expression hopeful.
Evie opened her mouth, then closed it. Everything about the situation was unfair, she thought with mild annoyance. If she said no, she was the bad guy. If she said yes, she would get stuck doing something she didn’t want to do.
“It wouldn’t be much time,” her mother added.
Evie drew in a breath. “Sure,” she said slowly, knowing if she didn’t agree, the guilt would keep her awake that night.
May beamed at her. “Wonderful. I’ll handle all the details, I promise. We only have a couple of weeks until the adoption and I want it to go well.”
May bounced to her feet. Evie instinctively stood as well, then found herself pulled into her mother’s embrace. They stood there for a second, hugging. Evie couldn’t remember the last time that had happened, but she told herself to simply relax and accept the gesture in the spirit in which it was meant.
For a second, she allowed herself to feel the longing she’d lived with as a kid. Shut out of her family, always the outsider. Never fitting in or knowing how to belong. Back then, having her mom hug her would have meant the world. Now it was simply awkward.
She thought about what Dante had told her—that now some of the responsibility was hers. That if she wanted things to be better, she was going to have to be a part of the solution. But as she stood there, uncomfortable and unsure, she realized she didn’t have a clue as to how to change anything. Nor did she know if she was really willing to risk her heart one more time.
vie was dressed and hovering by the front door fifteen minutes before Dante was due to arrive. It was barely seven and well below freezing. But the skies were clear, so there still wasn’t any snow.
This morning was the work party for her sets and she was nervous about everything getting done. While the sets were simple and the dancers the focus of the performances, the backdrops provided context and mood. No one would expect perfection from an amateur show, but she was determined to get as close to professional as possible.
She opened the front door when she saw him walking up the front steps. He smiled when he saw her.
“You look nervous,” he said.
“What if we don’t get everything done? I’m trying not to freak out, and it’s difficult.”
He leaned in and kissed her cheek. “Have a little faith.”
“I have great faith in you,” she told him. “It’s myself and everyone else who causes me doubt. I’ve barely held a paintbrush.”
“Now you’ll be able to practice.”
She grabbed her jacket and followed him outside. Instead of his sleek German import, a large pickup truck was parked in his driveway.
“Compliments of your sister-in-law,” he said.
She slid onto the seat and stared at him. “You borrowed Heidi’s truck?”
He shrugged. “I knew if I asked one of your brothers to trade with me, he would probably drive my car. Heidi won’t.”
She grinned. “Are you sure about that? She has a bit of a wild streak. What if she takes one of her goats for a joyride?”
“Now you’re just messing with me. Come on. We need to get our supplies and be at the warehouse before our workers show up.”
Ten minutes later Dante was backing toward the loading dock of the Fool’s Gold hardware store. Two teenagers were ready with stacks of paint, brushes, tarps, glue and bags filled with Evie wasn’t sure what. Dante went over his master list, and Evie signed the purchase order. The store would bill Dominique, the dance studio’s owner, directly.
By quarter to eight, they’d stopped for coffee and were on their way to the warehouse. Evie told herself that whatever work they got done would be enough and that she shouldn’t be disappointed if no one showed up to help. People had busy lives, and it wasn’t as if she had a bunch of friends in town. Sure, Charlie and Patience had offered to make a few calls, but would that make a difference? Patience would be there, Evie knew, but Charlie had to work at the fire station. Still, with one or two parents and her brothers, they could make some serious progress.
Dante pulled into the storage warehouse parking lot. She saw there were already about ten or fifteen cars and trucks there.
As she climbed out of the truck, Patience hurried toward her, her long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail.
“’Morning,” she said cheerfully. “I’m just organizing the work parties now. The sets have already been pulled out and grouped together by scene. I was waiting to hear what you think about how we’re going to do this.”
Not sure she would have an opinion, Evie followed her inside the large building.
Instead of the sets being stacked together in the cramped storage locker, they were spread out in the long, open hallway of the warehouse. Sure enough, they had been clustered together by scene and in chronological order. She could look at them and see the flow of the show.
More surprising was the setup. Long tables stood at one end. Heaters were plugged in the whole length of the hall. Lights blazed overhead. But the most amazing part of all was the people waiting. There had to be at least twenty adults and several of her dance students. As Evie blinked in astonishment, two more families arrived, including Melissa and Abby Sutton. They were accompanied by a boy, who was probably their brother, and their parents. Rafe, Shane and Clay were also there, smiling at her with an annoying combination of pride and smugness.
“Surprised?” Clay asked.
“Yes,” she admitted.
“Good. We decided you needed more surprises in your life.”
“By eight-thirty we won’t be able to move in here,” Patience told her. “But, hey, the more hands, the better, right? This way, we’ll get it all done by noon.”
Evie opened her mouth, then closed it. Her throat was tight, and she had the horrifying thought that she might actually start to cry. She’d been hoping for a couple of parents to show up. Not a flood of assistance from people she didn’t even know.
“I, um,” she began, then waved her arms, not sure what to say.
Dante took one of her hands in his and squeezed her fingers. “I’m the professional here,” he told her. “Why don’t you let me organize everyone into groups? You can supervise.”
“Thank you,” she said, vowing to bake him a cake or something later. Okay, maybe baking wasn’t the best way to show her appreciation, but she would come up with a plan.
“Stryker brothers,” he called. “Come with me to unload the truck. Everyone else, pick a set and go stand by it. Make sure you divide yourselves evenly.”
Five other guys went with Dante and her brothers. By the time they’d returned, there were at least twenty more people there to help. The hallway was loud and crowded. While a few people had collected by sets, most were just laughing and talking. They’d moved from controlled chaos to a party.
“How do you want to handle this?” Dante asked. He had a paint can in each hand.
Patience stood with her clipboard but didn’t look as if she was going to take charge. Evie knew she was ultimately responsible for the project. What was that old saying? An embarrassment of riches. She needed to get over it, she told herself.
She walked over to a folding chair and climbed onto the seat. Her injured leg protested slightly, but she ignored the twinge and waited as people turned toward her and grew quiet.
Everyone was staring at her, she thought, feeling herself flush. She knew less than a third of the adults in the room. The only time she’d ever been anything close to a leader was while she was teaching. Still, the performance was her responsibility, and that made the sets her problem.
“I’d like to thank everyone for taking time out of your Saturday to come here and help. I know the holidays are especially busy, so your generosity is all the more appreciated. For those of you who arrived in the past fifteen minutes, we’re asking everyone to gather around the set you want to work on.”
She pointed to the chronological beginning of the story. “I’ll walk down the line and tell you what I would like done. The supplies will be on those tables at the end. We may have to share cans of paint and brushes.”
“I brought tools,” a man called. “Three toolboxes, nails, screws, extra lumber.”
“Thank you.” Evie smiled at the crowd. “You’re all fantastic for coming out here today. I hope you’ll enjoy our performance.”
“We always love the show,” a woman said.
Everyone applauded and Evie stepped down.
She walked over to the first set. Patience walked with her.
“I’ll take notes,” the other woman said. “So we can keep track of what’s going to be done.”
One of the men standing by the first set, a good-looking blond guy with an easy smile, pointed to the back of the tall trees.
“The supports are all busted,” he said. “We should replace them while we’re painting. It won’t take long and Ethan is here to give us novices advice.”