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Authors: Kaye Dacus

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BOOK: The Art of Romance
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Next, she opened the middle cabinet. Back behind the multiple canisters of all different kinds of flour, she felt around for the Box. She and Sassy had agreed to keep it hidden behind the flour, because if Caylor didn’t see it, she wouldn’t want what was in it. At least not every day.

The Box wasn’t there. Caylor pulled the flour bins out. Nope. No Box.

“Looking for this?”

Caylor jumped at her grandmother’s soft voice, which coincided with the beeping of the microwave. Sassy held an opaque plastic storage bin, slightly larger than a shoe box, in both hands.

“I knew you had a deadline tomorrow, so when Trina, Lindy, and I stopped at Kroger on the way home from coffee this morning, I hit the Christmas candy aisle.”

Caylor grinned. “Sass, I knew there was a reason I love you.” Before Caylor pulled her mug out of the microwave, she grabbed the brushed stainless-steel kettle off the stove, filled it with fresh water, and put it back on over high heat. Then she fixed her own hot chocolate.

Sassy sat down at the end of the 1950s chrome and Formica table and popped the lid off the Box. Still stirring her drink, Caylor took the chair to her right and examined the booty. All kinds of miniature candy bars wrapped up in green, red, silver, and gold foil wrappers, mixed in with Hanukkah geld, a sentimental favorite Sassy got every year in honor of her Jewish grandmother. But Caylor dug through the stash, knocking at least a quarter of the candy out, until she came to what she knew her grandmother would have put on the very bottom—the chocolate-covered peanut butter Christmas trees.

“I only got a dozen of them,” Sassy warned.

“For the twelve days of Christmas?” The kettle shrilled, and Caylor put the still-wrapped candy down beside her cup and got up to fix a cup of instant decaf coffee for her grandmother. “What flavor creamer?” Caylor opened the cabinet above the coffeepot only she used in the mornings.

Sassy squinted and moved her glasses around. “Belgian chocolate toffee.”

Shaking her head at their similarities in taste, Caylor pulled down the canister of flavored powdered creamer and stirred two heaping spoonfuls into the double-strong instant coffee. Ever since she’d turned Sassy on to espresso-based lattes and cappuccinos, she’d insisted on having her coffee at home extra strong, extra creamy, extra sweet, and extra flavored.

Sassy took the purple mug with both hands, blew across the surface twice, and took a sip. “Ahh…hits the spot. I wish the restaurant would decide to serve something other than plain coffee.”

“Did y’all try somewhere new today?”

Sassy gave her an incredulous look. “Do you and your friends ever try somewhere new when you get together?”

“So you went to the Pfunky Griddle.”

“They have the best banana, chocolate chip, raisin, and walnut five-grain pancakes around. And with peanut butter on top, then drizzled with honey…” She kissed the tips of her fingers like an Italian. “Delicious.”

Caylor wrinkled her nose at the combination her grandmother concocted at the make-it-yourself pancake restaurant. “Sassy, you know you aren’t supposed to be overdoing it on the sugars and refined carbs.”

She raised one thin eyebrow. “Look who’s talking.”

Caylor stopped with her teeth half sunk into the chocolate-covered peanut butter tree. She finished the bite, let the salty-sweetness saturate her mouth a moment, and swallowed. “Hey, now, I do this only on rare occasions—and I’m not the one with the blood-sugar issues.”

“I know. You’ve been so disciplined about keeping away from it. I’m proud of you. How much weight have you lost?”

“About twenty pounds. I’m fitting back into all of my size 14s now.” Though that had less to do with discipline and more to do with the fact that—between teaching, participation in the university’s drama productions, and trying to get her latest book finished—the only time she wasn’t running ninety-to-nothing to get her work finished was during the very few hours of sleep she got each night. Who had time to eat with a schedule like that? Of course, the healthier selections they’d started offering in the cafeteria at school helped considerably, too.

“Good for you. Now what do you want me to make for you to take to Zarah’s Christmas party tomorrow night?”

“You don’t have to do that. I can pick something up at the grocery store on my way.”

As expected, Sassy looked thoroughly scandalized. Caylor hid her grin.

“No granddaughter of mine will go from this house taking food the likes of that.” She stood and opened all three pantry doors, then moved back to lean against the table beside Caylor so she could see the contents of all three cabinets at the same time.

Caylor turned in her chair. “I told her I’d bring dessert.”

“Excellent. Dessert’s my middle name. Write this down.”

Caylor finished off her confectionary tree and crossed the kitchen to pull the small magnetic whiteboard off the side of the fridge. She pushed the Box back and set the whiteboard on the table before resuming her seat.

Sassy mumbled to herself, pointing at things in the pantry. “Okay. Ready?”

“Ready.” Caylor hovered the dry-erase pen over the clean, white surface.

“Corn syrup. Confectioners’ sugar. Dark brown sugar. Oleo. Peppermint extract. Chunky peanut butter. Bittersweet and semisweet chocolate. Butterscotch. Walnuts and pecans—”

“Sassy, there will only be twelve people there. We’re not feeding an army.”

“Quiet. I’ve got friends and parties to go to also, you know. Keep writing.”

Caylor chuckled and decreased the size of her handwriting to be able to fit the continual stream of ingredients onto the board. When Sassy lost her driver’s license shortly after Papa passed away, Caylor had agreed to move in and become her grandmother’s companion and primary source of transportation. It had been a difficult decision—Caylor so enjoyed sharing a house with her two best friends, Zarah Mitchell and Flannery McNeill. But in the five years since then, Caylor had come to depend on Sassy as much as Sassy depended on her.

Which was why Caylor had resigned herself to the idea she would never marry—at least, not for a very long time. If she did, who would take care of Sassy?

Dylan Bradley picked at the dried blue paint on the knuckles of his left hand. He hoped this wouldn’t take long—if the canvas dried too much before he could get back to it, the painting would be ruined.

“We’re happy you decided to move back to Nashville, to let us and your parents help you get back on your feet. But while you’re living in the guesthouse, there are some ground rules we wanted to cover.”

Rules, rules, rules. That was all anybody ever wanted to talk to him about. What good were rules when all they did was keep people from pursuing what made them happy?

Though he currently sat at his grandparents’ kitchen table, the tense atmosphere created by being in the same room with a retired university president and a retired judge reminded him forcibly of the meeting he’d had just over a week ago with the president of the art college where he taught. Used to teach. It was easy enough for him to think of this as a Christmas break just like every other Christmas break—except he was here in Nashville instead of enjoying the gala art scene in Philadelphia.

Not the way he’d expected his Friday morning to go. Dylan feigned attention as his grandmother reviewed the “agreement” they expected him to sign and abide by in exchange for living rent-free in the converted carriage house behind their large Victorian home. Paying utilities. Blah, blah. Respect the historical integrity of the building. Blah, blah, blah. Find some kind of paying work. Blah, blah, blah, blah. No women spending the night.

Dylan’s face burned. He’d never felt comfortable with the level to which his relationship with Rhonda had progressed—though it had been an eye-opening lesson on living outside of the rules; but he’d hoped his grandparents hadn’t figured it out. In vain, obviously.

“And you are to attend church every Sunday. You can go to church with us, or you can find another church that you prefer.” Perty gazed at him expectantly over the rim of her fashionable, aqua-framed reading glasses.

He should’ve known—his parents had freaked out two years ago when he admitted to them he no longer attended church regularly. Why wouldn’t he expect the same from his grandparents? “And if I choose to go somewhere else, how will you know?”

“Dylan, dear, we’re not doing this to make you feel like a child.” Perty reached over and wrapped her small hand around his larger one. “We’re hoping that by asking you to start attending church again, you’ll regain some of the self-respect you’ve lost over the last couple of years.”

The last couple of years? Ha. If his grandparents or parents ever learned what he’d really done to put himself through college and supplement his teaching income the first year or two, they would know he had no self-respect to rebuild.

“We would like for you, as an adult, to determine the best way to show us you’re willing to abide by this agreement.” Gramps should have been wearing his black judge’s robe, as Dylan could not imagine his voice had sounded much different fifteen or twenty years ago when he passed sentences in civil court cases.

“We also think getting involved in church will help you meet people your age who can help you settle in to your new life here more quickly,” Perty added.

And, no doubt, act as good influences on him. “Okay.”

“Okay? As in okay to the entire agreement, or okay you understand this part of it?”

“Okay as in let’s sign the agreement.” What was the point in arguing or trying to negotiate? He didn’t have a job; he didn’t want to cash in his 401(k); and just paying utilities, groceries, and gas would start dwindling his savings account pretty quickly.

As instructed by Gramps, Dylan initialed and dated the bottom corner of each page of both copies of the agreement before signing and dating the last page of both beside his grandparents’ signatures. Perty collated the pages and stapled each copy.

What, no notary public? No case number and surety just in case he broke the agreement?

All right. This over-the-top cynicism was starting to get to him. He put down the pen and flexed his left hand against a sensation of his skin’s being too tight and not stretching correctly. He looked down. Blue. He needed to get back to his painting.

“Is that everything?” Dylan drummed his thumb against his thigh.

Gramps raised his eyebrows, but before he could speak, Perty reached over and squeezed his arm.

“I suppose,” Perty said, her blue eyes twinkling, “it would be too much to ask you to cut your hair.”

Dylan reached up and touched the bush of curls held back from his face with an elastic band around the crown of his head. He’d started growing it out when Rhonda mentioned how much better she thought certain male celebrities looked with long hair.

“Don’t worry. We don’t want to put too many unreasonable demands on you.” Perty handed him his copy of the agreement. “Oh, but that reminds me, if you have your curriculum vitae ready, I can pass it along to Sassy Evans’s granddaughter who teaches at James Robertson University. Caylor says they’re always looking for adjuncts, especially in the art department.”

Perty’s suggestion surprised him. As an alumna, former professor, and the first female president of JRU, Perty could have simply made a phone call to one of her many contacts at the college and ensured Dylan the choice of any course he wished to teach.

“Maybe I should take it out myself tomorrow.” Last thing he wanted was to have everyone at the college believing he’d gotten the job simply because of his grandmother’s connection to the school. He was tired of taking handouts.

Perty reached around to the kitchen breakfast bar behind her and grabbed a notepad from one of the open shelves below. She scrawled something and handed the top sheet to Dylan. “This is Caylor’s office number. Give her a call, and I’m sure she’d be happy to give you a tour of the campus and introduce you around.”

I’m not a child, Perty. I can figure out how to get around a college campus on my own, thanks
. He didn’t even want to know why his grandmother had this woman’s office phone number memorized. He tucked the note into his shirt pocket—where he’d probably forget about it until his next load of laundry came out with little bits of paper all over it.

He looked at them with raised brows. He shouldn’t have to ask his question again.
I’ve eaten all my brussels sprouts. May I please be dismissed?
Actually, he liked brussels sprouts, especially the way they made them at the little German restaurant and
near the art school. Oh how he would miss hanging out there with his graduate students after studio on Thursday and Friday evenings.

“If you don’t have any questions for us”—Perty looked at Gramps then back at Dylan—“you can go do whatever it is that we took you from earlier. And you know you’re welcome to join us for lunch at noon.”

He graced them with a single nod of his head and left the table—only to turn back after two steps and snatch his copy of the agreement to take with him. If he was going to have to depend on his grandparents’ charity for his temporary living arrangements until he could figure out where he wanted to go from here, at least he had the carriage house—set back about fifty feet from the museum-like Victorian he’d always hated visiting as a child, from being told not to touch anything. Back then, the upstairs of the carriage house had been nothing more than a big open space where he and his younger brothers could run around to their hearts’ content in bad weather. Now it boasted an apartment any of those hoity-toity patrons of the art school would have been jealous of. Almost nine hundred square feet, granite and stainless kitchen, wood floors throughout, and big, airy rooms. An apartment like this in Philly would have been far out of his price range. Thus his primary reason for ignoring his conscience and moving in with Rhonda.

BOOK: The Art of Romance
5.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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