Authors: Susan Mallery
Tags: #Romance, #Fiction, #Contemporary
“I’m sure it was difficult to raise four children on your own,” Evie told her. “But we both know that’s not the problem. The problem is you had a one-night stand a few months after your husband died, and I’m the result. The problem is, every time you look at me, you’re reminded of your moment of weakness. You never wanted me, and, growing up, you made sure I knew it. It’s not enough that I don’t even know who my father is. I ended up with a mother who didn’t give a damn.”
May clutched at her throat. “That’s not true.”
“Isn’t it? You blamed me for being born. That’s my big crime. When I was little, you wanted nothing to do with me. You were never there for me. You weren’t overtly mean, but you also weren’t interested. You and my brothers had special things you did together. Rituals and celebrations. Things I wasn’t a part of. It was the four of you as a family and then me on the outside looking in. My brothers did their best with me, but it wasn’t their job to raise me. It was yours and you didn’t bother.”
Evie felt herself starting to shake. She tried to hold it all together but knew she was seconds from a complete meltdown.
“I left home as soon as I could because there was no reason to stay. I never wanted to come back and wouldn’t be here now if you and my brothers hadn’t literally brought me here while I was unconscious after the accident.” She almost blurted out that she wasn’t planning on staying, either, but May didn’t deserve to know her plans. She wouldn’t be a part of her future.
“I was seventeen when I took off, and it was over a year until I heard from you. You never checked on me or wondered where I was or what I was doing.”
“You were at Juilliard,” May whispered.
“Right. For the first six months. Then I left. Did you ever wonder how a seventeen-year-old girl makes it on her own in the world? Did you bother to ask?”
The room blurred, and it took her a minute to realize she was crying.
“So, sure, Mom,” she said, her voice thickening. “I forgive you. You were everything I ever wanted in a parent.”
Then she was running. She went out through the back porch and down the stairs. Somewhere along the path to the goat barn, she stumbled and nearly fell. The only thing that kept her from going down was a pair of strong arms.
Dante pulled her against him and held her tight. He didn’t say anything. He just hung on and let her sob until she had nothing left.
ante was surprised to find Rafe in the office Friday morning. “Why aren’t you home with Heidi?” he asked.
Rafe looked up from his computer. “She’s making cheese and let me know I was getting in her way. Figured I’d get some work done. What about you?”
“Heidi pretty much only has eyes for you.”
Rafe chuckled. “I’m lucky that way.”
Dante walked to his desk and turned on his computer, then poured himself a cup of coffee. They were the only two working that morning. The staff had been given the long weekend off.
“How’s your mom?” Dante asked.
Dante had wondered if May had told anyone what had happened. He’d let Evie cry herself out, then had driven her home. This morning he’d wanted to go check on her, but there’d been no sign she was awake when he’d left.
He’d been forced to walk away, still feeling protective but with nothing to do.
“She and Evie got into it last night,” Dante said and recapped the conversation.
Rafe shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “I wish they wouldn’t talk about the past. There’s nothing that can be done to fix it.”
“Was Evie telling the truth?” Dante asked. “Was she that isolated as a kid?”
“It was complicated,” Rafe admitted. “She was a lot younger, and I think she was a reminder of that one night for my mom. The four of us were used to being together, then Evie came along....” His voice trailed off.
Dante had lost his mother when he’d been fifteen. While he hadn’t been the one to pull the trigger, a case could be made that he was responsible. They’d always been there for each other, and to this day, he would give anything to have her back. He couldn’t comprehend what it would be like to have family and not be close to them.
“She’s your sister,” he began.
“I know.” He sighed. “I was too busy being the man of the family. I figured the rest of them would worry about Evie. But that never happened. She was always an afterthought.” He shook his head. “There’s no excuse.”
Dante had known Rafe a lot of years and trusted him completely. From what he’d seen, May was a sweet, loving person. So how had everyone managed to ignore what was going on with Evie?
“She’s here now,” Rafe continued. “We want to make things up to her.”
“Good luck with that.”
“You think she’ll resist?”
“If you were her, how forgiving would you be?”
Rafe sighed. “Yeah, I see your point. I appreciate you looking out for her.” He stared at Dante. “That’s all it is, right? You’re not getting involved?”
Dante knew exactly what his friend was asking. Telling Rafe he thought Evie was sexy as hell, from the way she walked to her hard-won smile, wasn’t a smart move. Instead he settled on the truth.
“You know how I feel about relationships.” In his world, love had deadly consequences. He’d learned the lesson early and had never let it go.
* * *
Thanksgiving wasn’t a school day, so Evie had scheduled her dance classes early. She was done by three and showered, dressed and settled in front of her television by four. She pushed the play button on her remote, cuing up the DVD of the performance, then settled back on her sofa to watch it for the fortieth time.
The story was simple. The Winter King had dozens of daughters. The girls wanted to go free in the world, but he loved them too much to let them go. So his daughters danced to convince him they were ready to leave. At the end, the girls were revealed as beautiful snowflakes and he released them into the world as Christmas snow.
The girls danced in groups. They were mostly divided by age, with the younger performers having more simple choreography. Every student had a few seconds of a solo with the more advanced students having longer in the spotlight. Several styles of dance were represented. Modern, tap, clog and, of course, ballet.
The sets were simple, the lighting basic. The music was a collection of classic holiday songs, leaning heavily on Tchaikovsky. What would the world have done without his beautiful
The biggest problem in her mind was the transitions. They were awkward in some places, nonexistent in others. Sometimes the girls simply walked off the stage, and the next group walked on. Every time she watched that part of the performance, she winced.
Evie made a few notes, then rewound to the clog dancers who opened the show. Some of their steps were similar to tap, she thought. The sounds could echo each other. Slower, then faster. She stood and moved along with the girls on the recording. But as they turned to leave, she kept dancing, going a little more quickly, finding the rhythm of the tap dancers as they moved onto the stage.
She paused the frame and wrote some more, then made a couple of quick drawings to capture the exact poses she imagined. She moved on to the next transition and made changes there. She was just starting the third when someone rang her doorbell.
Her first thought was that it might be her mother. Dread coiled in her stomach. She wasn’t ready to face May, to deal with the family trauma again. Was hiding and ignoring the interruption too cowardly?
Whoever was at the door rang the bell again. Reluctantly, she walked over and opened it.
Relief was instant. Dante stood on her doorstep. He smiled at her.
“You’re home. I didn’t hear any pounding above my head, so I thought maybe you’d finished early. Get your coat.”
He looked good, she thought, studying his amused expression. He wore a leather jacket over jeans and a scarf. He had on boots. She could feel the cold of the rapidly darkening late afternoon.
She put her hands on her hips. “Get my coat? Was that an order? Newsflash. I don’t work for you.”
“Good. Because I don’t take anyone on my staff out.” He sighed. “Seriously, you’re going to be difficult?”
“No. I’m going to ask where we’re going.”
“Didn’t I say ‘out’? I would swear I did.”
She laughed. “Out where?”
“To the center of town. They’re decorating. Neither of us particularly likes the holiday season, so we need to be with people who are less corrupt. It will be good for us.”
“Will it?” She stepped back to allow him inside. “When did you make this discovery?”
“Earlier. So are you coming or what?”
“Give me a second.”
She turned off her TV and the laptop she’d hooked up for the DVDs, then stepped into boots and pulled them on. After shoving her house keys and a few dollars into her jeans pockets, she shrugged on her coat.
Dante stared at her. “Impressive. Less than two minutes.”
“You’ve never had to change costumes during a performance of Swan Lake.”
“That’s true. How perceptive of you.”
They walked outside. She locked the door, then followed him to the sidewalk.
The couple across the street was putting up Christmas lights. Several other townhouses had wreathes on doors and lights twinkling from doors and rooftops.
“We’re really going into town?” she asked.
“Yes. The whole place has transformed.”
“I noticed a few Christmas decorations being put up this morning,” she admitted, “but nothing that earth-shattering.”
He took her hand in his. “You walked home the back way, didn’t you? Through the residential part of town.”
His fingers were warm and strong next to hers. His skin smooth without being too soft. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d held hands with a guy. This was nice, she told herself. She and Dante weren’t dating—she wasn’t that stupid. She knew better than to fall for her brother’s business partner. But some gentle flirting, a little handsome male company, wasn’t going to hurt anyone.
“You’d be amazed what this town can do in a day,” he told her.
“You sound impressed.”
“You will be, too. How’s the dance prep coming? I heard the clog dancers earlier.”
She laughed. “Sorry about that. I don’t know how to make it quiet.”
“I’m getting used to the noise and they’re getting better.”
“How can you tell?”
“They’re more rhythmic.”
“That’s true. At least most of the students are studying ballet. It’s quieter.”
“Unless they fall.”
She winced, remembering the mass tumble during her two o’clock class. “You heard that?”
“It registered as a minor earthquake. The local seismology office called to see if we were okay.”
She shoved him in the arm. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“They didn’t do it on your head.”
“Smug lawyer type,” she grumbled. “They’re learning. It doesn’t always go well.”
“I didn’t say it had to stop. I’m looking forward to seeing the performance.”
“You’ll be intimately familiar with the music.” She glanced at him. “Will you really come see the show? Won’t you be off visiting family?”
“There’s just me.”
“What about your dad?”
“I never knew him.”
“I didn’t know mine, either. But you probably guessed that from the slight altercation you witnessed yesterday.”
He drew her close and kissed her cheek. “It sucks.”
The blunt assessment was oddly comforting. “It does,” she admitted. “Hey, I don’t know anything about you.”
“I like being mysterious. Sort of a James Bond of the lawyer set.”
She laughed. “Hardly. So tell me something interesting.”
“That’s too much pressure. Ask me a question.”
“Have you ever been arrested?”
She stopped on the sidewalk and stared at him. “Seriously?”
“More than once.”
“You went to jail?”
“I served time.”
“No way. You can’t have a criminal record and be a lawyer.”
“Pretty and smart,” he told her. “That makes you irresistible. Okay, you’re right. I was a juvenile. My records were expunged.”
“What did you do?”
His normally open expression tightened. “Bad stuff. I was in a gang.”
Evie tried to imagine the well-dressed, smooth man next to her as a kid in a gang. Her imagination wasn’t that good. Before she could figure out what else to ask, he tugged her along and they turned a corner, entering one of the main streets of Fool’s Gold.
Just yesterday the stores and windows had featured turkeys and pumpkins. Any lights had been orange, and garlands had been made of leaves. In the space of a few hours, the transformation to the Christmas holidays had begun.
Baskets of holiday greens with shiny silver and red decorations hung from the lampposts. The windows were now covered with painted holiday displays—pictures of wrapped packages or snowmen, a few nutcrackers. Morgan’s Books had stacks of popular children’s books on tables and a sign promising Santa would be coming to read
’Twas the Night Before Christmas
next Saturday, after the town Christmas tree lighting.
Up ahead, in the main square, a large crane was being attached to the biggest live Christmas tree Evie had ever seen in real life. It had to be twenty feet tall.
“But it was Thanksgiving yesterday,” she said, feeling as if she was going to see snow and Dickens carolers any second.
“Tell me about it,” Dante told her. “There’s more.”
He led her toward the center of town, past the tree on the flatbed. Booths had been set up selling everything from hot chocolate to pizza slices.
“Because nothing says the holidays like pepperoni?” she asked.
Dante grinned. “Come on. I’ll buy you a slice.”
They got pizza and soda and walked over to watch the tree being secured by thick chains before being raised into place. The scent of pine filled the air. The pizza was hot and gooey and more calories than Evie usually allowed herself in a day.
She wasn’t a professional dancer anymore, she reminded herself. Or a cheerleader. She could afford to have a BMI over twenty.