As far as Sloane Russo’s family was concerned, if you were over eighteen, you were either happily married or dead, with no in-between. The distinct lack of a ring on her finger suggested she looked pretty damned fine, considering she’d been a corpse for nearly fourteen years. Not that it made a difference to her mother.
“Ma, do we need to have this discussion right now? I’m only in New York overnight, and I’ve got to get ready to meet with Belinda.” Sloane riffled through the bright tangle of clothes in her suitcase, searching in vain for her black push-up bra. It was God’s cruelest joke that she’d been gifted with the impossibly long legs of a runway model yet no bust to speak of, as if she was the living embodiment of
close, but no cigar
Wasn’t that just the story of her life?
Her mother crossed her arms over her modest pink blouse as she scowled from the doorframe of Sloane’s childhood bedroom. “I don’t understand why you insist on meeting with that woman. You only have one night before you go back to Pine Mountain. What about going to a nice dinner with Joey Romano? He always asks after you.”
Sloane swallowed a laugh. “You’re talking about a guy who tried to get me to eat paste in the second grade.”
“You and that crazy imagination.” Her mother tsked, but no way was Sloane letting her creative streak take the blame for this one.
“I remember it like it was last week. He put it on a lunch tray and told me it was mashed potatoes. Said it would stick to my ribs.” At least Sloane hadn’t been thick enough to fall for it. Poor Frannie Bascom hadn’t been so lucky, and the nickname Paste Face had stuck with her for years.
Her mother changed tactics. “That was decades ago! You can’t at least call him to say hello?”
“It’s probably not a good idea for me to date someone from Brooklyn.” Sloane dodged the subject with well-practiced grace, although her mother put the screws to her on such a regular basis, there was no chance the topic was dead. She yanked her lingerie bag from the depths of her suitcase with a victorious flourish. Hello, instant cleavage.
“What’s wrong with dating someone from the neighborhood?” Her mother’s tone matched her expression in both intensity and temperature.
“Nothing, except I don’t exactly live here right now.”
Another sore subject, if her mother’s frown was any indication. “Don’t remind me. You’re still back here enough to at least give it a try.”
Sloane’s hands flew over the sweaters and silk as she continued to rummage. “But that’s only to visit. I just don’t think it would work out.”
As expected, her mother refused to be deterred. “Your father and I knew each other in grammar school. Even then, I realized he was something special.”
“I know, Ma.” Of course she did. The love-at-first-sight story was Russo family legend. But as sweet as it was, it certainly didn’t translate to her marrying Joey Romano. After all, she hadn’t been kidding about the paste.
“It’s only dinner, Sloane Marie. And Joey is such a nice boy. Why do you have to be so difficult?”
Sloane’s grip tightened over the lipstick-red sweater dress in her grasp. “I’m not being difficult. I’ve already got plans.” Her hands kicked back into gear, just as fast and twice as purposeful. “To answer your earlier question, I’m meeting with Belinda because she’s my editor. She wants to talk about the proposal for my next book. Once she gives me her feedback, I can start writing, which I’ll probably do tonight. So I wouldn’t be able to go out with Joey, even if he’d asked.”
Sloane let the sentence hang, hammering home the unspoken
which he didn’t
. Honestly, her mother’s matchmaking was getting out of hand. So she’d rather see the world than settle down with a nice boy from the neighborhood like her sisters. In the grand scheme of things, there were worse things Sloane could be than capricious.
“Oh, no, you don’t! You’re not wasting a perfectly good chance to go out on a date. Who knows what the men are like all the way out in that tiny town you’ve landed in, or how long you’ll even stay there? You move like the wind, never too long in one place. Pretty soon it’s going to be too late for you to find a good Catholic boy.” Her mother wagged a thin finger at her, but two could play at the stubborn game. Sloane put her hands on her nonexistent hips and forced a smile over her mouth.
“Living in different places makes me well-rounded, Ma. And Carly needed me in Pine Mountain. I’m happy staying there for now.”
She didn’t add that her mother was spot-on about the dating pool in the Blue Ridge. But Sloane had moved to the mountains to support her best friend through a horrible divorce and a career transformation. Lack of man candy aside, Sloane wasn’t bending the truth when she said she enjoyed living there.
For the moment, at least.
“Five places in ten years isn’t well-rounded,
. You need to settle down.”
“It’s only been four places.” Sloane pulled another dress from her timeworn and travel-battered suitcase, smoothing her fingers over the herringbone-print fabric in approval as she shook it out. “Europe doesn’t count.”
“You spent almost five months there,” her mother argued, and Sloane had to bite her lip to keep from smiling in admission.
“What can I say? It’s not every day you find room at hostels in Madrid, Venice,
Châteauroux. It made for a nice trip.”
So nice, in fact, she’d written her first published book during those months. Being abroad had not only sparked her to study creative writing upon her return, but the research she’d done in the gorgeous locales had given her enough fodder to write two more bestsellers while she earned her master’s degree. Not to mention spring-boarding her into the only career she’d ever had that didn’t feel like a nine-to-five grind.
And Sloane had dabbled in more of those than she cared to count.
Using the details from whatever town she’d landed in as she toured Europe worked like a well-traveled charm, and had launched her quickly through the romance-writer ranks. She planned on changing things up for her latest series and writing about small-town heroes, although she’d fudged around with the exact details in her proposal. Still, once Belinda gave her the green light today, she’d be fine, and her muse would come out of hiding to get the ball rolling again. After all, Belinda had loved her European Bachelors series, and The Men of the Mountains books were going to be just as hot. As soon as she got started, anyway.
Her mother uttered an indelicate
and she crossed the faded carpet to start folding Sloane’s castoffs with military precision.
“What’s so great about this Belinda, anyway? You can write anything you want. But you insist on
books.” She paused, crossing herself and muttering a quick prayer in Italian. “You know what Mrs. Delvecchio calls them?
Sloane bit back the rude noise welling up in her throat and unearthed a sweater from her suitcase with a snap sharp enough to test the delicate fabric. “Please. Tina Delvecchio used to swipe books from her mother’s collection all the time. Mrs. D has no room to talk.” Half the girls in Sloane’s eighth-grade class had learned the logistics of French kissing from Mrs. Delvecchio’s pilfered “bodice rippers.”
“And you don’t even use one of those . . . what are they called? Ah! Pen names! Anybody in the world could just get on the computer and see what you do. Don’t you want to have a respectable job like your sisters?”
“They’re both stay-at-home moms.” Oh, hell. This conversation needed a handbasket, stat.
A look of triumph settled over her mother’s stern features as she arranged the last of Sloane’s garments into a ruler-straight row. “Exactly. You’re nearly thirty-two. Your eggs might already be too dried up for making babies.”
Sloane let out a belly laugh that burst through the tension brewing between her shoulders. “Guess it’s a good thing I don’t want any, then.”
Try as she might, no way could she envision herself as the maternal type. Her one attempt at domesticity ended up with a cactus so dehydrated, it defied recognition. To fathom taking care of a kid was like asking her to sprout wings and fly.
Both were utterly crazy, and neither one was going to happen. Plus, why would she pin herself to one place when there was still so much of the world left to see? And more importantly, more books to write.
“Look, I appreciate your concern for my, um, eggs, but really . . . I’m not like Angela and Rosie.” Sloane kept her smile, but crossed her arms over her non-chest so her mother would still know she meant business.
Again. Lord, this conversation was practically scripted, complete with Sloane’s refusal to acquiesce and her mother’s resulting chagrin.
Her mother paused, but her frown didn’t lose any steam in the silence. “I only want you to be happy. You don’t want to be single forever, do you?”
“Not necessarily.” After all, you couldn’t really do what she did for a living and not believe in some form of happily ever after. “But the right guy hasn’t come along yet.”
“Mr. Right could be just under your nose! You might find him, if only you’d stop moving long enough to take a look.”
“Just because I do things differently than everybody else doesn’t mean I want to end up alone. I write romance novels for a reason.”
Of course Sloane believed in happily ever after. Hers just involved a beach in Cabo San Lucas instead of a white picket fence in the ’burbs, that’s all. Until she got sick of the beach, anyway, and then she’d find it in another gorgeous locale.
Her mother crossed herself again, the fragility of her hand at odds with the strength and speed of the motion it performed. “Don’t remind me. I should have known you’d give me fits over this. You don’t do anything the regular way. You didn’t even come into the world like most people.”
A grin poked at the corners of Sloane’s mouth at the reminder. “You’re not really going to give me grief about how I was born again, are you?”
Ignoring the question, her mother barreled on. “Both of your sisters were born right on their due dates. Like clockwork.”
“Mmm hmm. Just like the doctor said.” Her smile picked up momentum as her mother continued, gesturing with her hands to emphasize the words.
“Looking back, you were never like them, not even in my belly. Your papa swore it was because you were a boy, the way you tumbled around. You were always kicking, always moving. So eager to get out and do your own thing.” Her mother’s expression flirted with a smile for an instant, before shifting into the knowing brow raise Sloane was so accustomed to. “But never in my wildest dreams did I think you’d be brash enough to be born in the back of a cab on Atlantic Avenue.”
Ah, the pièce de résistance. Personally, it was Sloane’s favorite part of the story. “See? The conventional route just isn’t in my nature.” She tossed a glance over her shoulder, calculating the trip to Manhattan with a grimace. “And as much as I’d love to rehash my offbeat childhood and have a discussion with you about the decrepit state of my eggs, I really do have a lunchtime meeting to get to. You might not like it, Ma, but Belinda’s my editor. My job is important to me.”
Her mother pursed her lips, her frown clearly suggesting the conversation wasn’t a done deal. “Fine. At least promise you’ll call Joey. A nice dinner out never hurt a girl. Not even one who marches to her own drummer.”
She made a face, flipping a swath of too-long bangs out of her eyes as she glossed over the request. “Gotta get ready, or I’m going to be late.”
Sloane served her mother one last smile before nudging her out of the sun-filled bedroom and shutting the door. Flinging the contents of her suitcase around in earnest, she managed to get ready in record time. Fifteen minutes and two wardrobe changes later, Sloane smoothed her hands down her black and cream wrap dress, forgoing traditional pumps in favor of a pair of purple suede boots. At least her drummer had good fashion sense.
She hooked the clasps on her lucky fleur-de-lis earrings and breezed out the door, biting back a shudder at the frigid air sneaking past her coat to swirl under her dress. With her boots keeping steady time on the bleached gray pavement, her mother’s words made a repeat performance in her brain.
You don’t want to be single forever, do you?
She headed down the stairs toward the subway, the question tumbling to the tune of the staccato
clack clack clack
of the incoming train. Just because she wasn’t conventional didn’t mean she was dead inside—of course the idea of being a permanent party of one was unappealing. But equally unappealing was the thought of marrying a nice, steady man with a nice, steady income so they could raise a handful of nice, steady children. Not that there was anything wrong with settling down in a traditional sense, per se. Both of her sisters were thrilled to the teeth to live like that, and Sloane was thrilled for them.
But deep down, she knew that for her, settling down would be . . . well, settling for less.
A lump of dread roughly the size of a hippopotamus parked itself directly over Gavin Carmichael’s sternum and refused to budge. He pressed the phone firmly to his ear, willing his composure to hold fast.
“I see. And how many times has my sister missed English class, exactly?” His dread morphed quickly into anger, but it didn’t lose any intensity with the transformation. He took a deep breath, determined to bolster his resolve and deal with this calmly.
“Her attendance record says six,” clipped the vice principal. “I assume she hasn’t been ill, then.”
“No.” He raked a hand through his hair, counting to three before continuing so his irritation wouldn’t show. “Thank you for being concerned enough to call. The absences are all unexcused, so please feel free to administer whatever punishment Bree has earned according to school policy. She’ll also receive punishment here at home, of course.”