Half-Baked, A Better Late Romance

CHAPTER ONE

Halfway across the parking lot, Robbie stopped and pulled at his bowtie. “I hate these things.”

“The tie or the gala?” Maggie straightened her brother’s cheap clip-on tie and had a vivid flashback of decades past to the senior prom where she’d tried to smooth down Robbie’s cowlick. Balding had long since cured that problem.

The prom had also been held at this place, the Rancho Allegro Country Club. It seemed like a lifetime ago, and yet, here she was with her brother—again—in fancy clothes. It was as if she was on a spinning wheel revisiting the same places with the same people over and over again.

“Both,” he growled. “All these pompous posers looking down on the rest of us peons.” He shuddered.

She thought about pointing out that with his generous salary, he was probably richer than most of the people attending the party—not to mention in the world—but since she knew he hadn’t gone into medicine for the money, she pressed her lips together.

“I like your costume,” he said, his gaze flicking over her. “The blue wig should make you look like a smurf or Marge Simpson, but somehow you pull it off.”

Maggie fluttered her wings. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Tessa made it.”

Robbie’s lips tightened and a closed expression like a hood passed over his face.

“Why don’t you like her?”

“I never said I don’t like her.”

“You clam up whenever she’s around.”

He shrugged. “It’s weird you’re friends, that’s all.”

“Why?”

“You’re nothing like each other. You’re you and she’s…she drives a Mercedes.”

“So?”

He shrugged again.

“A Mercedes isn’t a sin-mobile.”

He elbowed her. “Come on, I have to show my face.” As head of the pediatric department, he was right. He looped his arm through hers and led her through the parking lot. “Thanks for being my date tonight.”

They passed the valets milling around the Teslas and Land Cruisers. Because Robbie didn’t believe in valets, they had parked in the neighborhood adjacent to the club. The lights from the party flickered in the distance and a honky-tonk jazz band began to play.

“No problem. I love free food.”

He smirked and shook his head. “I don’t get you.”

“Yes, you do.” She slid him a glance. “If not you, then who?”

“You’re right. I do get you, but I just don’t understand how you can spend all day around food and never get tired of it.”

“Do you get tired of saving people?”

“No, but it’s different.”

“No, it’s not. You save people, I feed them. We’re in the same line of work.”

They passed the valets—young, lean men in button down white shirts and tight black pants—without looking at them. Their parents had taught them that trick—never make eye contact with someone who might expect a tip. Of course, since they hadn’t actually parked in the lot, they didn’t tip the handsome young men, but Maggie felt their questioning glances on her back as she followed Robbie up the stairs.

Originally, The Lodge, as locals called it, had been constructed for hunting back when Rancho Allegro had really been a ranch and coyotes and mountain lions were nearly as plentiful as the bunnies that currently terrorized gardeners. Strange how the gentlest of the creatures were the ones who actually survived urbanization.

In the lobby, several people vied for Robbie’s attention all at once. Maggie, a baker without food, and therefore a nobody, wandered off to peruse the refreshment table, not necessarily because she was hungry, but because she liked looking at beautiful food displays.

She had to stop herself from whistling in admiration. The caterers, men and women dressed in black, moved like perfectly choreographed dancers around the room bearing trays that looked more like portable art than appetizers. Edible art, the phrase came to Maggie’s mind and rested there. Could she try and copy any of this in her bakery?

Her fingers itched for her phone, but she’d left it at home. She wished she could take pictures of this. Who were the caterers? Maybe she should skirt around outside to catch a glimpse of their van. Hopefully, it would have a logo on it.

Her nose wrinkled when she spotted asparagus spears wrapped in a flakey crust and a piece of bacon. She would never understand the compulsion to ruin perfectly good baked goods by partnering them with vegetables.

“What, no donuts?” Tessa, dressed as Florence Nightengale, appeared at her side. “They should have hired Maggie’s muffins.”

Maggie turned and gave her friend a hug. “Maybe next time.” Robbie was right, they were an unlikely pair. Tall and curvy Maggie dominated over pixie-like Tessa. Maggie was a red-headed buzzard while Tessa was as blond as Tinker-bell.

“Really?” Tessa asked.

She nodded. “Robbie said he’d recommend me.”

Tessa smiled and said, “that’s great,” but her gaze darted around the room. Was she looking for Robbie? Or someone else? “The costume looks really good on you.”

“Thanks to you.”

Tessa flushed and straightened Maggie’s wings. “I love making beautiful things even more beautiful.”

“It looks great here, doesn’t it?” Maggie said, glancing around.

“Yes,” Tessa said with a touch of pride. “My dad wondered if they were going to cancel because of yesterday’s earthquake, but the Lodge wasn’t damaged. Thankfully.”

“Any damage at your store?”

“Nothing I couldn’t take care of myself. How about the bakery?”

“A lot of rattling pots and pans, but not much else.”

Tessa bumped her with her hip. “We’re lucky.”

She wished that were true. Maggie’s parents used to say she was their lucky penny, and she’d always felt that way…until Peter got sick. Sometimes she felt like she’d been trying to win her way back into Lady Luck’s good favor ever since.

The band, playing on a soundstage across the patio, began Conga and a line formed.

Tessa took Maggie’s hand. “Want to dance?”

“Sure, but first let me check my purse.”

Tessa winced when she saw Maggie’s old beat-up leather satchel. It matched the costume like paper bag accessorized a tuxedo, but Maggie refused to be embarrassed. She loved her purse—she’d had it for nearly a decade. And yes, it looked like the poor country cousin among all the Coaches and Kate Spades on the shelf, but she didn’t care.

#

Steven strolled into the country club and sought out Tessa. Because of her diminutive size, she was often easy to miss. Most of the guests were wearing masks, but Tessa had told him she’d be wearing a Florence Nightingale costume. He spotted her dancing with a tall, blue-haired yet beautiful butterfly.

Because he was new to Rancho Allegro, he only knew a handful of the guests. His uncle, Tessa father, was the president of the St. John’s hospital chain and had insisted he attend. Even though Steven was probably now worth more than his Uncle Jack, it was still hard to deny Jack anything. The family still kowtowed to the rich uncle…even when there were, now, richer cousins.

As he crossed the patio, something crinkled beneath his shoe. Given the noise—the music, the chatter, the clattering cutlery—he almost missed it. What was it that people said about the sound of falling coins—everybody heard it because people heard what they wanted to hear? A hundred-dollar bill. Steven stooped and picked it up. Someone must have dropped it.

He glanced around at all the bejeweled people in their fancy costumes. Only one man wasn’t in a costume—although he was wearing a bowtie. Did he think that was costume enough?

In most crowds, someone would be frantically searching for the lost bill, but here, no one seemed to notice. Still, it had to have been an accident. He held it up and slowly turned, hoping someone would take note. Someone did. His cousin Mitch.

“I’ll take that.” Mitch, dressed as a pirate, moved to swipe it from his hand.

Steven tightened his grip on the bill and shoved it into his pocket, away from his cousin’s greed.

“Hey,” Mitch complained. “This is a fund raiser. I’m just trying to raise funds.”

Steven tried not to roll his eyes. “If I can’t find the owner, I’ll give this to someone who needs it.”

“The hospital needs it, you loon.” He waved his saber at the party. “That’s why we’re here.”

“This is a hundred-dollar bill. It cost, what? Three-hundred dollars to get in here? Besides, I already made a generous donation. I’m going to give this to someone else.”

Mitch scowled.

“I’m going to give it to…” Glancing around the room, he debated: a valet? One of the servers? He could wait and donate it to one of the regular charities on his list: the Red Cross, St. Judes Medical Research, or Orange Wood Foster Homes.

But then it would weigh on him and Mitch would harass him. His gaze landed on the coat check. One scruffy leather satchel stood out from the rest. He strode over to the bored-looking girl behind the counter.

“See that purse,” he pointed at the satchel.

“This one?” Surprise for a moment overrode the girl’s bored expression. She obviously didn’t think a man in a Zorro cape would be interested in a scuffed leather satchel. “It belongs to my girlfriend.”

“And now you’re a liar,” Mitch whispered in his ear.

The girl narrowed her lids and tightened her lips. “I can’t give out any of the purses unless you have a ticket.”

Steven hurried to placate her. “I just want you tuck this into it.” He pulled out the bill and showed it to the girl. “Can you do that?”

“You’re a crazy person,” Mitch said.

“Crazy like a fox,” Aunt Miriam said from behind him. Approaching eighty, she looked and acted like someone nearly half her age. Tonight, she was dressed as a flapper. She snaked her arm around his waist and looped the other through Mitch’s arm. “A silver fox! How did two of my favorite boys ever grow to be so old and yet so handsome?”

Mitch flushed. “The same could be said of you, Mom.”

“Hush!” Aunt Miriam she shook her long cigarette holder in Mitch’s face. “I don’t want anyone to know I’m old enough to belong to you.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “You could pretend I’m your date.”

“I could,” Mitch said, pulling away. “But I won’t.” He gave Steven the stink eye. “Let’s ignore her.”

“You can ignore me, but you better not ignore your wife,” Aunt Miriam said, nodding at the approaching Lydia, who was wearing a Queen of Hearts costume.

Mitch audibly groaned, but also grinned.

There were lots of things Steven didn’t admire about his cousin, but he did envy him his long and happy marriage. Mitch had married ten years before him and hopefully would be married for many years after. Lydia had been good for him.

The butterfly he’d noticed earlier approached the coat check and handed the girl her ticket. He watched as the girl handed the butterfly the beat-up purse that now carried his one-hundred dollar bill.

His gaze met the girl’s.

“Your girlfriend, huh?” the girl asked.

Surely, this was a breach of some sort of hired-help etiquette.

Aunt Miriam perked up. “Your girlfriend?”

Mitch grinned. “Yeah, about that, Steven?”

Steven rubbed his chin and decided to go along with it. “There you are,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“For me?” The butterfly put her hand on her chest. Most of her face was covered by a jewel-studded mask, but her lips were full, red and her skin creamy and white. Definitely girlfriend material.

Steven braced his shoulder, determined to carry through with his charade. “I want to introduce you to my Aunt Miriam and cousin Mitch.”

The butterfly blinked and took Mitch’s extended hand. “I’m Grace,” she said.

“Come on, Grace,” Steven said, taking her hand and pulling her toward the dance floor and away from his aunt and laughing cousin.

Grace stumbled after him until they reached the dancing couples. “I don’t know who you are or what you’re thinking,” she began.

He silenced her by putting his finger on her lips. “Just go along with me, please. There’s a hundred-dollar bill in your purse for your trouble.”

Then he kissed her.

#

His warm lips spread a flurry of emotions through Maggie. Should she slap him? Push him away? Scream at him…but…oh…was this what kissing was all about? How long had it been since she’d been kissed like this? Maybe never.

She’d loved Peter. She had loved kissing Peter. But near the end, the kisses had been so mixed up in grief and pain, they’d just as soon make her cry as curl her toes in pleasure…like this one did.

What must this person think of her? What made him think he could just kiss her like this? Maybe he kissed everyone like this. She couldn’t be someone special in his life since he had only just met her…but he hadn’t really met her, had he? It wasn’t as if they’d been properly introduced.

And she’d given him her middle name.

But this kiss, though…

She really should end it. This was exactly the sort of privileged behavior her brother and parents were always spouting off about. Rich people who thought they could do whatever they wanted with little or no regard for who they stepped on…or kissed.

Oh, this kiss. It was like kissing Clark Gable, or Gary Grant, or…Zorro.

He pulled away. She was grateful to see he wore a dazed expression.

Maggie touched her lips. “What was that?”

“That,” he said, “was worthy of an encore.” And he kissed her again.

This time, Maggie, forgetting all about social injustice, leaned in and gave herself into pleasure. It rocked her world. Shook her to the core. Made her legs shake.

It took her a moment to realize that not only was her world rocking, but the lights stringing above her were wildly swinging. The band had stopped playing. Pillars bearing lanterns fell with a crash and glass shattered. The hospitality tent collapsed and one of the curtains fell into an open fire pit.

And still Zorro held her in his arms. In fact, he tightened the embrace, making it more protective than sensual.

The lights went out. Women screamed and men shouted. All around her, panicked people pushed and pulled. Zorro grabbed her hand and pulled her through the chaos. She staggered after him, barely seeing through the smoke and din.

The damp and cold seeped through Maggie’s flimsy shoes as she crossed the lawn. Zorro took her elbow and steered her through the parking lot, passing the valets who had gathered into a tight bunch beneath the now catawampus awning. Here, away from the party, the moonlight shone clearer.

Maggie blinked when she realized it wasn’t Zorro who had led her through the chaos, but her brother.

“Rob! What the heck?”

He stopped and stared at her. “What’s your problem?”

“I don’t have a problem,” she said.

“You sound like you do.” He stepped closer. “Who was that guy you were kissing?”

She floundered for an acceptable answer and finally came up with, “I don’t know.”

“And I have a problem with that,” Rob said.

Monday Motivation-The Why and How of Housekeeping

HOW TO ORGANIZE YOUR HOME

Because I’m not great at housekeeping but I love a clean house, I recently took a class on home organization class from guru, Marie Ricks. I loved it much more than I thought I would. These are my notes.

You can find her book on Amazon

Only keep what we truly need and trust that the Lord will give us what we need when we need it. Be patient with the process. If you’re right-handed, begin at the right side of a room. Start at the top and work down.

Set up a plan

                List every room. List closets, cupboards, drawers, and shelves (in each room). Pull everything out and sort items to share, discard, put elsewhere and keep.

               Create A, B, C, and D closets. As are highly visible and accessible and are for usage, not storage. Ds are for storage, usually off-site.

                And each closet has A, B, C and D areas. Don’t put anything on a shelf—use containers for the shelves. Create tabs out of duct tape and stick them on the containers so they’re easy to access.

 You only need one of everything.

Get rid of everything weak and un-useful.

Aks yourself, do I need it?

Can I get by without this?

What if I need it again?

Who can I bless by sharing? (Be overly generous)

Be objective, ruthless, courageous, and don’t look back.

Put what we use most in the most convenient places

When we have less, we can better bond.

Keep enough, give away abundance

Store useful items.

I came across this scripture, and it took on a new meaning:

And now I would that ye should be humble and submissive and gentle; easy to be entreated; full of patience and long-suffering; being temperate in all things; being diligent in keeping the commandments of God at all times; asking for whatsoever things ye stand in need, both spiritual and temporal; always returning thanks unto God for whatsoever things ye do receive. … And now, may the peace of God rest upon you, and upon your houses and lands, and upon your flocks and herds, and all that you possess, your women and your children, according to your faith and good works, from this time forth and forever. Book of Mormon, Alma 7:23-26

You might also like these posts:

How to Clean a Condo

The Corn Kernel Principle

Random Advice on Marriage and Housekeeping

Ten Steps on How to Be Happy

I’m so lucky to be at Brigham Young University’s Education Week! Here are the notes from one of my favorite classes.

Happiness, Justin B Top

Science, Psychology, Saints & Scriptures

You can’t use happiness as a gauge for your righteousness

WHAT IS HAPPINESS?

Emotions fluctuate/sleep/hormones/ health

Happiness is your perspective, a way of thinking, a state of mind ELEVATED PERSPECTIVES that leads to optimism, greater confidence,

To view the world, we all have our own unique world glasses: experiences, social influences, biological factors, genetics, gut bacteria, relationships. But we are not our glasses.

Consumerism is a huge factor in unhappiness.

Community and community celebrations increase happiness.

Happiness factors

50% genetic/biological

40% what you do

10% circumstances

Can you influence your bio? Yes, with sleep, exercise, healthy nutrition.

WE AREN’T GOING TO BE HAPPY IF WE’RE JUST ALONG FOR THE RIDE. WE NEED TO CREATE OUR OWN HAPPINESS

All we have to do is take steps. Be intentional about doing things to make our lives better

TOP TEN FACTORS OF HAPPINESS

  1. Freedom

Some people look at commandments as restrictions, but addictions and sins are the true restrictions.  A BIG PART OF HAPPINESS IS UNDERSTANDING THE CORRELATION BETWEEN SELF CONTROL AND FREEDOMS. Act for themselves and not to be acted upon, 2 Nephi 2:26  Every time we make a choice, it influences the future choices available to us.

  • Choice

Happiness is a choice. Abraham Lincoln, folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. Freedom and choice relationship. When you choose to live a healthy life, you have more freedom to do things. Use choice wisely. Finances, relationships,

TAKE CONTROL AND CHOOSE TO BE HAPPY between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our power to grow. Frankl

You do not find a happy life, you make it—Thomas S. Monson

No one sees the world exactly the same

  • You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step. Emotional hygiene: taking daily steps to emotional steps. Take action. Chase after being good.

Life satisfaction: Ideals vs our behavior. The goal of life’s satisfaction is to get our ideals to match our behavior. The further they are a part, the greater our internal conflict. You can raise your behavior or lower your ideals. You can leave the church, but you can’t leave it alone, Joseph Smith. Unrealistic expectations. Comparisons to others. Acknowledging progress. Are we pushing to be better? Do you recognize God’s hand in your life? Do you give room for the atonement? Direction is more important than speed. Where do we find feelings of self-worth? It has to come from inside ourselves. It can’t be dependent on others. Does being more perfect make us feel closer to God and happier? Be compassionate with yourself

  • Pursuing Meaning choose one’s own way. Find something that gives us roots rather than being a tumble weed blown around by life. Stop and find a sense of joy. Marriage is about making us more like God. It’s a process. What brings joy? And what is the purpose of pain? Embrace pain and its meaning. Don’t try and avoid pain. Stability.
  • Direction and purpose: Where do you want to go and how will you get there? Everyone’s task is unique. We need to create our own path. It’s so easy to get off track. Every step ask yourself, does this line up with my purpose and goals?
  • Spirituality: A personal light that makes everything clearer. How is religion different from spirituality? The goal of religion is to lead us to spirituality. But you can be religious without spirituality and you can be spiritual without being religious. Oddly, being religious without spirituality is mentally dangerous and will cause unhappiness.
  • Live with passion: Flow. Finding the right reason for doing the right things. What makes you feel alive? What fills you emotionally? Find things that fill you, not drain you.
  • Gratitude: Gratitude can transform common days into Thanksgiving. Express gratitude to others. Write letters to people. We can refuse to remain in negative thought.
  • A sense of awe: Be content in whatever state we’re in. Be overwhelmed by the earth and its beauties.  Nature is the best medicine. Celebrate the sacred in your life. Remember the life moments that changed you forever. There’s beauty in everyone’s story.
  • Truth: Man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be. Einstein. Finding truth is a process, it’s getting to better know God. The nearer man approaches perfection the clear are his views and the greater his enjoyments, till he has over come the evils of his life and lost every desire for sin. Joseph Smith What truth really matters?

Truth about me

Relationship with others

My relationship with God

Truth is about peeling away all that doesn’t matter and facing who and what we really are. Identify the distortion of your lenses. 12 Steps of addiction are about identifying truth within ourselves, digging it all up and exposing all the lies.

Admit wrongs

Ready yourself for change

Seek God’s help

We create stories, we think we understand the truth of things, but often we really don’t. Like the apostles sitting around the table of the last supper, we need to ask, Lord is it I? What can I learn from this? Posture says something about our happiness. Take a receiving posture in life. Happiness is a butterfly—Hawthorne Let yourself be lived by life Lao Tzu. The more you fight against God’s plan for you, the unhappier you’ll be. Trust the journey. Go forward.

Monday Motivation: Mind Management

“We came to earth to learn how to control our bodies and our minds.” Mom Tate

I’m rereading Dennis Deaton’s The Book on Mind Management. I first heard Dr. Deaton speak at BYU’s Education Week. (I LOVE education week- I have a post about education week that you can read somewhere on this blog.) And I’m gearing up to be attending next week!

Anyway—love and highly recommend this book. If you need some motivation, read this book. If you don’t have the time, the money or the wherewithal to read his excellent book, here are a few quotes for your motivational Monday. 

“We alter our destiny by altering our thoughts.” 
“The moment you start thinking differently, your world changes.”
“The power of thought is the power of creation. Thoughts exert direct effect upon your body, your behavior and even the external world around you.”
“You can alter circumstances and events at will by first creating a vision of what you want to have happen and then giving yourself permission to enact it.”
“Moment by moment, thought by thought, you author your own script.”
“The consummate truth of life is that we alter our destiny by altering our thoughts. The mind is our most crucial resource, our crowning asset, our ultimate battle arena. If we will master the power of our minds, we may do or be whatsoever we will.”

I’m not a follower of The Secret, by the way but I am a devoted follower of Him that said, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” And so today, as I start a new week, I’m asking myself—what am I thinking?

What’s going on in your head?

Share a Hunk, Score a Book

Share a picture of your favorite hero (dogs and cats count) and I’ll send you free ecopy of my new release Verity and the Villain.

What’s the best part about writing? Creating new worlds? Plotting twists and turns? Summoning my inner ee cummings? Playing God with a cast of characters of my own creation? Getting to stay at home in my jammies while the rest of the world scurries around me with to-do-lists? Yes, yes, yes and sometimes. But for me, the very best part of writing is hanging with my heroes.

I know. Embarrassing to hear from a (young) grandma. But I find that for me a story really doesn’t find its legs (or chest or whatever) until I have sufficiently fallen for my hero. Hard. It’s not always easy.

Romance writers in my writing group complain that my heroes are too real. They bake bread, cut hair, and raise vegetables. They like children and play with dogs. They’re witty…they have to be witty.

Who are your favorite heroes? Gregory Peck as Atticus Fitch? Clark Gable as Rhett Butler? Cary Grant in North by Northwest? So many men…I have to fall in love with my heroes. Because that’s the very best part of being a writer.

I just noticed something. All of these heroes have my husband’s coloring, height and build. Go figure. Since all of these movies were made before I was born, then it stands to reason that I loved these men even before I met my husband. How sad for my family if I had fallen for a beach blond surfer dude. But I don’t think that would have happened. I think I knew from the very beginning, even as a young girl watching old movies, that I knew exactly what I was looking for.

I think of all the heroes I’ve loved in the books I’ve written. Some of my favorites aren’t even the heroes, per se. One of my very favorite characters is Uncle Mitch in Witch Ways. He’s basically my husband. In fact, some of my favorite Uncle Mitch lines came from my husband.

This is a picture of my husband passing out books at my first signing. The fact that he’s oh so supportive of my writings is just one of the things I love about him.

Book Review–Rhys Bowen’s Murphey’s Law

A glimpse of 1900 Ellis Island and New York City! The historical detail in this book is fascinating. Absolutely loved it. And I loved the book. My only complaint was the characters were rather flat. If Molly had an Ah-ha! moment, I must have missed it. Despite her change of location and all the happy just at the right moment occurrances, she was pretty much the same person when I started the book as when I finished. So, although it wasn’t much of an emotional upheaval, I’ll definitely more of Bowen’s books. I can spot a fellow history geek when I see one.

TUESDAY TEASER GRACEY AND THE GAMBLER

Addison sat on a bench in the Maritime Park, unaware of the flotsam of people passing her by. Barking sea lions jostled and jockeyed for position on the nearby pier, much like the pedestrians around her. A young man sitting at the adjacent sidewalk café unbuckled his belt, pulled down his pants, and squeezed a hypodermic needle into his left buttock, but even this did little more than tickle her attention.

An elderly woman carrying a leather satchel with a large golden lock sat beside Addison. Kicking off her shoes, the woman let out a sigh, propped an ankle on her knee and massaged her toes.

“I can always tell when it’s about to rain,” she said. “Arthritis. I didn’t use to believe in achy joints predicting the weather, just like I used to think that people claimed to have motion sickness just so they could sit in the front seat.” The woman slid Addison a glance from under her lashes, probably to see if Addison was paying attention.

Addison thought about moving to another bench, but that would take energy and gumption—two things she currently lacked.

“You’re probably too young to have arthritis. How about motion sickness?”

Addison pulled herself out of her funk long enough to glance at the elderly woman. She wore a velvet patchwork skirt, a silk blouse, and a string of pearls around her neck. The sharp sea breeze toyed with her silver curls and had turned her pale cheeks pink. She exuded a friendly curiosity that made Addison want to crawl under the bench and roll into a ball. But because it would be rude to say nothing, she squeezed out a syllable. “No.”

“No what?”

Addison took a deep breath and blew it out through her nose. “No, I don’t get motion sickness.”

“That’s good.” The woman smiled as if Addison had just informed her the Giants had won the World Series. “Then maybe you would like to go whale watching.” She fumbled in her satchel and pulled out two glossy blue and red tickets. “I bought them for myself and my grandson, but circumstances have changed and that’s no longer possible.” She paused. “He’s a lawyer,” she added with more exasperation than pride.

Addison opened her mouth to protest, but couldn’t find the words. The mid-spring sun, so often hidden behind clouds in Northern California, warmed her skin. Not even the weather could offer an excuse. After a moment, she came up with, “Isn’t there someone else you’d like to go with?”

“No. Landon is my only family, other than my sister Erma. No one likes her. And all my friends are dead,” she said this without a trace of sadness. “It’s nature’s way of punishing me for hanging around so long—I had to watch all my friends die.”

Addison’s lips twitched. An hour ago, she hadn’t thought she’d ever smile again, and here she was, chatting with a stranger. “Sure. I’ll go whale watching with you. When is it?”

The woman let out a long sigh. “You’re a lovely girl. I used to look like you once—willowy with long red hair. Now, of course, I’m gray and more Monterey pine than willow. I hope this won’t offend you, but I no longer wish to go.”

“But you look nothing like a Monterey pine. They’re all twisted and weather-beaten.”

“My point.”

“It’s silly to compare yourself to a tree. Why not a cat?”

“I’m allergic.” The woman winked at her. “Would you like to go whale watching or not?”

“Are you sure?” Addison took the proffered tickets and saw they were for tomorrow morning. She had thought to leave before then, but she’d already paid for the vacation rental for the weekend, so she might as well stay. “Would you like me to buy them off you?”

“Not with money.”

“Oh.” Addison’s suspicion hackles rose. She didn’t like making deals with strangers.

“You can tell me a story. I collect stories, you know.”

“Really? So do I!” Addison perked up, but then remembered her sadness. “Or at least I did.”

“Once a writer, always a writer.”

“No…I am a writer, just not a very good one.”

The woman quirked an eyebrow.

“Not a successful one,” Addison amended, thinking of her collection of rejection letters from agents and editors. “And I own a bookstore, so I collect stories there, too. Or I did.”

“What happened?”

“The economy,” a sick anger burned in her belly, “and the ugly tide of self-publishing. I leased out my bookstore last week. Soon it’ll be a massage parlor.”

The woman chuckled.

“I’m glad someone can laugh about it.” Addison tucked a loose curl behind her ear.

“Well, you have to admit, a bookstore and a massage parlor are both in the same business.”

“How’s that?”

“They’re both used to manipulate moods.” The woman gazed at her with watery blue eyes.

“I suppose.”

“Is that it?” the woman asked, her gaze growing more intense.

“Is what it?” Addison squirmed beneath the woman’s scrutiny.

“Is your failing bookstore the reason you look like someone drowned your cat and poisoned your dog?”

Addison thought about confessing her mistake to this woman, but she wasn’t ready to admit it, not even to herself.

The woman patted Addison’s cheek with a hand of bones and papery thin skin. “It’s okay to be sad. Here, I have something that will cheer you.” She pushed her satchel toward Addison.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a story. I’ve been carrying it around, wondering what to do with it. I didn’t feel I could leave until I found the right person to take care of it for me, but you are that person. I want you to have it.”

Addison opened up the satchel and peeked inside at the hundreds of typewritten pages. “You don’t think your grandson will want it?”

“No, he only reads nonfiction.” She wrinkled her nose as if she could smell fried liver and onions.

Addison smiled. “Thank you. This is…so kind.”

The woman slipped her feet back into her shoes. “No, thank you. It’s nice to see a story you love reach a happy ending. Now, how about you? You owe me a story.”

“You don’t want to hear my stories.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Well, why would you? No one else does…”

The woman contemplated her. “Perhaps you’re right. How’s this? In payment for those tickets, you need to make sure that this weekend has a happy ending.”

Addison thought about the disappointing beginning of her weekend and bit her lower lip. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I can promise that.”

The woman leaned forward to peer into Addison’s face. “Will you try?”

“Huh. Sure. I’ll try.”

The woman pulled herself to her feet. “Goodbye, my dear. Promise me you’ll take good care of my story and write a happy ending for this weekend.”

“I promise,” Addison said, although she had no idea how to do that, or what the woman was asking of her. As the woman tottered away, Addison glanced around and spotted a bookstore. Because she’d learned long ago that her only hope for a happy ending lay between the pages of a novel, she headed for the familiar warmth of a shop full of books.

After buying a blueberry muffin and a cup of tea at the counter, Addison found a plump upholstered chair near the window, pulled out the manuscript, and began to read.

Gracey and the Gambler

By Geneva Leigh

Wanted: A nice, plump, healthy, good-natured looking domestic and affectionate lady to correspond with. Object: matrimony. She must be a believer in God and immortality. She must not be a gadabout or given to scandal, but willing to endeavor to create a happy home.

The Arizona Sentinel, 1875

Poke was playing her song! White-hot anger, as mind-altering as any potion or aphrodisiac, flashed through Gracey. Clarisse, a virginal vision clothed in white lace, opened her mouth to sing, and Gracey grabbed the closest weapon she could find, an occupied wig stand, and headed for the stage.

Clarisse’s high C turned to a squeak and her blond curls bobbed when she saw Gracey flying up the stairs wielding the wooden head.

“That’s my song, you little strumpet!” Gracey took center stage and swung at Clarisse.

The wig hit Clarisse in the face, but she brushed it away as if it were a large, hairy spider. Clarisse straightened her dress and picked up her tune, leaving Poke, the pianist, a few stunned beats behind.

With the wig stand braced in front of her like a battering ram, Gracey charged. Clarisse jumped away, and Gracey landed in the curtains. Clarisse climbed onto the piano bench, jostling Poke, who lifted his hands from the keyboard and flashed Gracey a startled although amused look. Clarisse, balancing beside the pianist, nudged him with her tiny shoe. “Please continue, sir. This audition is not over.”

“Oh, yes it is!” Gracey dropped the wig stand, which bounced around her feet as she lunged for Clarisse.

“Now, Miss Clarisse, you know I can’t let you climb on the piano.” Poke, struggling not to laugh, reached for but missed Clarisse.

Clarisse inched across the lid of the upright piano as Gracey scrambled onto the bench and, using Poke’s shoulder as a toehold, tried to join the music-thieving Clarisse on the top. Poke grabbed Gracey and hauled her to center stage. She kicked Poke’s legs and tried to pry his grip from her waist.

“Can’t you see she’s a complete nutter, Ivan?” Clarisse said from her perch on top of the piano. “We simply cannot have her in the troupe.”

Gracey wriggled for a better look at Poke’s good-natured face. “I wrote that song. It’s mine. She stole it!”

“I didn’t steal it. Besides, how can one steal a song?” Clarisse asked. “I simply heard it, learned it—”

“Through the paper-thin walls while I wrote it. Do you want to know what I heard through the walls?” Gracey smacked her lips, making kissing noises. “If you get a spot in the troupe, we will all know why!”

Clarisse gasped in outrage, and Ivan, the director, laughed from his place in the dark auditorium.

“I got my position in the troupe because of my gifts and talent!” Clarisse said.

So, Clarisse already had a role. Little wonder. “And your willingness to share your…gifts and talents.” Gracey wiggled, but Poke wouldn’t let her go.

“Would you like to sing, Miss Ryan?” Ivan’s disembodied voice spoke from the theater seats. Because of the dark house and the flickering gas lights lining the stage, Gracey couldn’t see Ivan and wished she could. She longed to read his expression.

Poke didn’t seem in the least perturbed about holding her. Of course, he was built like an ox. He was not solely the troupe’s accompanist but also the “man at large” responsible for assembling and disassembling the heavy settings.

“Set her down,” Ivan said. “Let’s hear her.”

Clarisse put her balled fists on her hips. “I think we have heard quite enough from her!”

Poke chuckled and set Gracey down. Gracey flashed Clarisse a warning glance. Gracey worried that Clarisse might stomp the piano keys or kick at Poke, who was settling onto his bench, acting as if having a blond tart atop his piano was de rigueur.

“You wrote this song?” Ivan said. “Then let’s hear it.”

“Ivan,” Clarisse’s tone turned silky soft, reminding Gracey of Clarisse’s many “private auditions,” when Ivan had undoubtedly seen and heard more than a song…or two.

“I’ve heard you, Clarisse. I know what you can do,” Ivan said, confirming Gracey’s suspicions that Clarisse had only gone through the formality of the audition for the prime purpose of discouraging Gracey from joining the traveling troupe and escaping dreary Seattle.

Poke played the opening bars while Gracey stared into the lights. Blood pounded in her head and zinged through her veins. Every nerve tingled, and goosebumps rose on her arms. The Rose Arbor Traveling Troupe was her ticket back to New York City, and she wasn’t about to let a trollop like Clarisse steal it from her.

Gracey came in right on cue, her voice steelier than her spine and almost as strong as her resolve.

***

“Quite the show you put on tonight,” a voice sounded from the center of her dressing room and sent the sensation of crawling worms down Gracey’s back. She took a deep breath and threw a robe over her chemise. Boris Kidrick, a heavy drinker, tobacco chewer, and black licorice sucker, carried his own unique odor—a stink Gracey easily recognized and did her best to avoid. She wondered when he had come in        because she hadn’t heard the door over the clatter of the dancers and the tinkling piano rising through the floorboards. Gracey poked her head over the screen to see Boris leering at her.

“I try to entertain.” She kept her voice light. Her earlier outburst had left her tired and drained. She didn’t want another sparring match.

Her glance fell on the fire tools beside the mantel. She considered caning Boris and finishing him off. She’d be doing the world a favor, and then the world would be in her debt. She really would like to be in a position to call in favors, instead of the awkward, semi-clothed position in which she currently found herself.

“And I could use a little entertainment.” He licked his lips. “How much for a private show?”

The door flew open, and Matilda breezed in, but she stopped short when she spotted Boris standing bull-like amid the overflowing costume trunks and crates of props. Matilda took a step toward the screen, as if to protect Gracey, and glared at Boris.

“Mr. Kidrick, you must know men aren’t allowed in the dressing room!” Matilda crossed her arms and drew herself up to her impressive full height, towering over the squatty man.

Boris chuckled. “I now own this room and that fancy stage you’re so fond of parading on.”

Surprise replaced Matilda’s haughty expression, and Boris rubbed his hands together. “Didn’t know that, did ya?” He chuckled at Matilda’s sagging shoulders. “Good things are coming my way,” he said, an unpleasant glint in his eye. “We will be having that show I mentioned. If not tonight—then soon. Maybe on this stage or maybe someplace quieter. You may not know it yet, but when I bought this theater, I bought you too.”

He winked at Gracey, who ducked behind the screen and tightened the belt on her robe. She waited for the sound of the door closing before she peeked out.

“He’s gone.” Matilda crossed the room, dropping clothing on her way to the dressing table. She sat before the mirror and rubbed her face with cream, leaving her stage makeup in runny smears. In the harsh light, she looked all of her forty years plus some.

“I didn’t know Mr. Taylor had sold the theater,” Gracey said, settling down on the bench beside the older woman.

Matilda shrugged and frowned. “I heard Kidrick came into some money.”

“Any chance he’ll lose it—and the theater?” Gracey’s glance met Matilda’s in the glass.

“It’s inevitable. But until then, we have to live with him.” Matilda scrubbed at her worn and tired face. Once she had been beautiful. Under the stage lights, she still moved like royalty. But here, in the quiet dressing room, after a long night of trying to carry a loveliness she could no longer claim, Matilda appeared faded beside Gracey’s pink skin and blue eyes. Gracey, feeling apologetic for her youth, twisted her hair into a long, thick braid.

Matilda patted Gracey’s hand. “Don’t worry, pet, you’ll be on your way to New York long before we get a new lock for the dressing room door.”

“Why do men like Boris consider actress synonymous with harlot?”

Matilda twitched a boney shoulder.

“King David liked to sing and dance. No one thought he was immoral.” Gracey’s voice faltered. “Until Bathsheba came out on the roof… Maybe he’s not the best example—but he did sing and dance.”

Matilda laughed. “There are plenty of noble and worthy performers.”

“Tell that to my father, my mother, my grandmother and my cousins.” Gracey swallowed. “Tell that to men like Boris.”

“Your father and mother—although they might not have meant to—have hurt you far worse than the likes of Boris Kidrick.”

Gracey had learned a lot from Matilda since she had joined the Rose Arbor troupe, but that particular lesson she had learned months earlier when her parents had shipped her to her grandmother’s ranch seven long, bumpy, jaw-jarring and teeth-rattling miles from Godforsaken Seattle. Had they really expected her to stay on a ranch surrounded by acres of pastures of horses, cattle and cow pies? Did they really think she would learn to behave like her hick grandmother and shovel out stables?

As if reading her mind, Matilda said, “I don’t know why you’re so anxious to return to their company.”

Gracey leaned against her friend. “I don’t want to go to New York to see my parents!”

Matilda’s lips curved into a smile. “You want to be on the New York stage.”

“Of course!”

“Do you imagine that you will sing and dance right beneath your family’s nose and they will never notice?”

“I am an actress—and a wizard with makeup and design. They will never recognize me.” She straightened her spine and pride tinged her voice. “I’ve been right under my grandmother’s nose for weeks, and she hasn’t found me!”

“Not for want of trying.” Matilda lifted an eyebrow. “Your family has already summoned a posse to look for you.”

“Here. But they won’t think to look in their own backyard!”

Skepticism clouded Matilda’s expression. “If they are as influential and prominent as you say—”

Gracey lifted her chin. “No one can stop a shooting star.”

Matilda smiled and wiped off her face cream. “Laws, child, have you no fear of heights?”

Addison

Addison put down the manuscript. It was silly…but compelling. The opening advertisement made her ill. So many women through so many generations saw marriage as the end-all. Her mother had taught her, “A man is not a financial plan.” And yet, Addison had still fallen for it. It was like she was programmed to see a man as an answer to her problems. When would she finally grasp that a man wasn’t the answer, but, in her case, the problem?

Addison braced her shoulders. She had to solve her own problems now. But a tricky little voice in the back of her head whispered that even after Paul’s death she still wasn’t standing on her own financial feet. The life insurance policy would always eclipse anything she could ever hope to earn at the bookshop. It had been tempting to continue on at the store, watching it lose money every month, but common sense and Mr. Patel had prevailed. She had tried to make a go of a business, and she’d failed. Just like she’d failed her marriage. Even if she hadn’t known it.

She glanced around the Books and Bun Bookshop. What made this place successful? Who says it is? the voice in her head asked. All the people? But how many are actually buying anything?

Addison sank back in the club chair and took note of her fellow bookstore patrons. The elderly man with his glasses perched on the end of his nose had a pile of historical novels on the ottoman in front of him. In the children’s section, a mother with a toddler on her lap flipped through a picture book. Two chairs over, a nail-biting woman sat lost in a romance. Dozens of people were parked at the tables, hiding behind laptops. She couldn’t see the checkout counter from where she sat and, of course, she had no way of knowing the store’s financials, but if no one was actually buying anything, the store had to be suffering.

It was just like the self-publishing tidal wave. If everyone was going to give away books, how would any book business survive?

“Addison? What are you doing here?”

James.

Too late to hide. She smiled up into his blue eyes. How could she have been so mistaken? Had she completely misread him? Had all those lunches and long conversations been nothing more than a pleasant way to spend the time?

“Checking out the competition?” he asked.

She swallowed. “A bookstore in Shell Falls could hardly compete with a shop in Frisco.” Especially if the Shell Falls shop closed its doors.

“That’s true.” He nodded. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find you in here. But why didn’t you tell me you were coming to San Francisco?”

Not knowing what to say, she gave him a weak shrug. She’d wanted to surprise him. But he’d been the one to surprise her when she’d spotted him kissing that blonde on the pier. The girl looked like a teenager with an incredibly poor sense of color coordination—bumble-bee stockings, a red and white striped mini-skirt, a purple hoodie.

“You’re a long way from home.” She heard the questions in his tone, but she didn’t feel the need to provide any answers.

Cary Grant handsome, James usually caused her to melt whenever he came into her shop, but now when she looked at him, she couldn’t help seeing the Barbie hanging on his arm. Even if the blonde wasn’t there physically, in Addison’s head, she was.

“Even bookstore owners need a vacation,” she told him.

“How long are you in town?”

She had thought about leaving as soon as she’d seen him and Barbie-Bimbo in action, but now she decided she wasn’t going to let him run her off like a dog with a tail between her legs. “I’m here for the weekend.”

Trying to mask his surprise, he glanced at his watch. “That’s great. I have a commitment tonight.”

I bet you do, she thought.

“But how about tomorrow? Are you available?”

“No. I have plans.” It gave her a little surge of power to say that, and like candy sprinkles on top of a cupcake, the disappointed look on his face only added to her pleasure.

“Sunday then?”

“I’m sorry, James,” Addison said, picking up the manuscript.

“Well, I can see you’re busy,” he said. “Maybe we can meet up next time I’m in Shell Falls?”

“Mmm,” she murmured. She started reading and refused to watch him walk away.

CHRISTIAN

Christian Roberts sat at the gaming table, coins on his left side and a flask on his right. A pair of kings, accompanied by a six, a four and a whatchamacallit, swam in and out of his vision. He tried holding the cards a little further away and willed his eyes to focus on the whatchamacallit. Was it a queen—or that other card that he couldn’t remember the name of—or was it another king? He hoped it was another king. He held his cards away from his chest but after half a second he slapped them face down on the table. He didn’t trust his friends not to look—not even his partner.

And he was pretty sure these men weren’t even friends. Not really. They tolerated him because he had a steady stream of gold…and whiskey…and he liked a good game. A game with kings. He didn’t mind the whatchamacallits, not when they came in pairs. One by its lonesome couldn’t do much. He picked up his hand and tried to steady his gaze while a mammoth man pounded on the piano.

Christian threw the musician a frustrated glance. Maybe he could focus on the game if that brute would stop filling the room with that awful sound. He looked at the men sharing his table, trying to read them. No one else seemed to mind the racket coming from the corner.

“You in?” Percy, on his left, asked.

He was definitely inside because the piano was inside. Never really ever seen a piano outside—unless it was on its way from one place to another. And yep, there were bottles lining shelves behind the bar. A wooden floor. A stamped brass ceiling. Four walls. Definitely inside. He nodded.

“Well?” Reynolds, on his right, prompted.

Aw. The game. He was supposed to ante up. What did that mean? Funny expression, sounded like “auntie up.” Christian tried to imagine how his Aunt Mable would respond if someone tried to ante up her. He snorted. His attention flicked over the men surrounding him, all looking so grim and serious. He doubted any of them even had an aunt.

“What’s so funny?” Kidrick demanded.

Percy and Reynolds were good chaps, if poor poker players, but he despised Kidrick. A pity Percy and Reynolds didn’t have Kidrick’s business sense and card savvy. Why should a louse like Kidrick own half the town and win at cards? Christian imagined Aunt Mable anteing up Kidrick with a wooden spoon. He chuckled low and deep.

“Idiotic French,” Kidrick muttered.

“I say now—” Bad form cussing his nationality. Well, his mother’s nationality. His eyes welled as he thought of his mother. He blinked away his tears because, while he wasn’t sure whether the brutes at his table had aunts, he was very sure they never cried. At least not over a pair of kings. Or a trio of kings. He still couldn’t tell, but he did push in his entire pile of coins.

“You sure, Roberts?” Percy lifted an eyebrow.

Christian shrugged. “What have I got to lose? Kidrick here has already won the theater.” He laid his cards down. From the reaction, he guessed it was a trio of kings. Percy stood so suddenly his chair fell over. Kidrick brought his fist down on the table, making all the coins jump.

Christian smiled as he scooped the pot into his bag, then stood and swagger-staggered toward the door.

“Hey! Roberts,” Reynolds called after him. “You can’t leave.”

“Get back here.” Kidrick pushed after Christian and grabbed him by the elbow.

Christian looked at Kidrick’s hand and then at his face. Kidrick cocked back his arm for a punch that would land in Christian’s gut if he didn’t block it. Christian grabbed Kidrick around the neck and held him in midair, considering what to do with him, before tossing him out into the street. Kidrick landed in the arms of a well-built man who also didn’t desire his company. Within seconds Kidrick and the well-built man were throwing punches.

Still inside the bar, Christian watched the fistfight and felt a smidgeon of remorse. He had started it, but dem if he’d back up Kidrick. His gaze went to the stars shining through the window. He had to get away from the tavern’s smoke and stench. He paused at the open door. But first—

Christian raised a hand, which stopped the calls of his poker-mates. He heard their collective sigh as he turned to face the room, followed by their groans as Christian sat at the piano, bumping hips with the brute at the keyboard.

“’Scuse me,” Christian mumbled.

The pianist reluctantly relinquished his seat as Christian poised his fingers over the keyboard and began Dickson’s “Land of Long Ago.”

For a moment the laughter hushed and it seemed as if only music filled the night as the piano cast a spell over the crowded, smoke-filled room.

Christian stopped playing as abruptly as he had begun and pushed away from the instrument and out the door, stepping over the inert Kidrick on his way to anywhere else.

***

Gracey literally danced when she heard the news. Her feet skipped, her toes pointed, and her knees wanted to drop to the ground in worshipful thanksgiving.

“You won’t regret this!” she promised Ivan, stopping mid-dance to hug him.

The craggy-faced man smiled while the blond beauty behind him mouthed, “Oh, yes, he will.”

Gracey wasn’t about to let Clarisse piddle in her pot of pure happiness. She had an all-expense paid ticket out of Seattle. Her family would never think to follow the Rose Arbor troupe across the country. Think of all the cities she would see! On her way here, she had traveled by rail accompanied by the stiff, self-righteous cousin who never let her leave the confines of the sleeper car. But the troupe would go from city to city and perform on the very best stages!

“Not so fast!” Ivan warned. “You have to prove you can do this.” He handed her a sheaf of music. “Come up with a dance.”

Gracey studied the music, noting the eighth notes and basic time signature. Because she was familiar with the popular ballad and its message, she knew choreographing a dance would be fairly simple. Behind Ivan, Clarisse smirked, making Gracey wonder what sort of dance Clarisse had used for her audition.

“I want to see it tomorrow morning,” Ivan warned.

“I’ll be ready.” Gracey wasn’t worried, but she would need to practice, preferably with Poke, and absolutely far from Clarisse’s spying eyes. Gracey couldn’t let that woman sabotage this opportunity. She would need to come up with the dance on her own and then practice with Poke’s accompaniment once…or maybe twice.

“We leave in a couple of days,” Ivan told her. “You can bring one trunk.”

“I wouldn’t care if I could only bring dancing shoes!”

“That would be interesting,” Ivan said.

“We’re not that kind of show,” Clarisse said, coming behind Ivan and laying a hand on his shoulder. “I told you—she’s not star material.”

“We’re taking a chance on you,” Ivan told Gracey, ignoring Clarisse. “It’s going to be a lot of hard work and a lot of travel. You will, no doubt, find the troupe demanding and challenging. That’s why I want to see if you can come up with an original dance overnight.”

“I love challenges!” Gracey flashed Ivan a smile. She pushed through the backstage door and found herself in an alley. She needed to practice far from Clarisse…some spacious, private place where Clarisse would never look. Her gaze landed on the outhouses and the clearing beyond them. She wrinkled her nose as she drew closer to the small but smelly clearing, far from windows and prying eyes.

***

Christian exited the outhouse and caught a sudden chill. A skin-pricking sensation said he wasn’t alone. Animals. Possibly a red fox, raccoon, skunk, opossum. He tightened his grip on his bag of gold, wondering if Kidrick had followed.

“Hey-ho?” he called out. Night birds answered. Something skittered in a nearby thicket, and a twig snapped. He watched moonlight flicker through the boughs of a pine tree then heard footfalls.

What was dancing in the moonlight? A fairy? Her dark hair had come loose and swirled around her spinning shoulders. Such a creature belonged deep in the woods, or in a valley of wildflowers, or on a gilded throne—she did not belong in a dusty clearing behind the privy with alley cats for an audience. Her dance-warmed skin glowed beneath the stars, and her body moved to no music that he could hear. Unable to stop himself, he stepped closer, as if drawn by a magnet.

“Mon dieu. Qu’est-ce que tu es?”

Startled, she stopped and stared at him. “You’re French.”

Christian shook his head. “No, I am drunk.”

She studied him as if assessing his potential danger.

Christian tried to look harmless, which wasn’t difficult, because he was basically harmless.

Except when he was angry.

And he had left Kidrick for dead in the street. Christian twisted his lips and decided Kidrick didn’t count.

“Do you always speak French when drunk?”

Christian shrugged. He was better with questions when he was sober. “I asked my question first.”

“Well, it was a silly question—anyone can see what I am.”

He stepped closer and peered at her. With all that dark hair and her dark red lips, she looked like his mother. “Are you French?”

“No. Are you?”

“Partly.” He paused. “Don’t let me stop you.” He waved a hand at her. “Carry on.”

She scowled. “I’m not going to dance if you’re going to watch.”

“Why not?” He motioned toward the theater. “I assume you came from the playhouse, where you presumably dance for hundreds on the stage, so why would you not dance for one, here?”

Her arms dangled. “I no longer feel like dancing. You killed my mood.” She jabbed a finger in his face. “But I’m not going to let you spoil my happiness!”

“I would be devastated if you did.” He tilted his head to one side, smiling. “Do you always dance when you are happy?”

“Of course not. Although I haven’t been this happy for a long time, so it’s hard to know.”

“Why are you so happy?” An unpleasant thought occurred to him. “Are you in love?”

She shook her head.

“Good. I’m glad. Love can make you do regrettable things.”

“Have you been in love?”

Christian didn’t want to talk about love. He wanted to watch this girl dance. “Will you dance for me?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Will you dance with me?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“I’m very rich.”

She laughed, and the noise delighted him. He didn’t want her to stop, but after a few moments, she did.

“Why should that matter?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Demmed if I know, but it usually seems to. Will you dance with me?” he asked again.

She shook her head.

“Can I walk you home?”

“Yes,” she said, smiling up at him. She took his hand and led him the ten yards to the theater’s back door.

“You live here?”

She dropped his hand and pointed to the sky. “On the third floor.”

“Why are you so happy?”

She took a deep breath and told him of her plans to join the Rose Arbor Traveling Troupe.

“That’s not happy; that’s sad.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Because this might be the only chance I’ll ever have to do this,” he said, taking her in his arms and kissing her.

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