Finally!

“I’m hangin’ out with Dave after school. We’re meeting up with some of the girls and we’re all gonna grab pizza.” Jacob, my middle child, slurped his orange juice and wiped his mouth with a napkin. Pride filled me (wasn’t so long ago he’d have used his sleeve) as I put a pod in the coffee maker.

“You? And Dave? Hanging out with girls?” Josh, my oldest, spooned up some instant oatmeal but didn’t put the spoon in his mouth. “I thought you said girls were gross?”

Jacob shrugged. “I’m fifteen, not ten.”

“Who’s going to let Chubs out?” I pushed my travel mug under the Keurig and pressed brew as I wiped the water I’d spilled refilling the machine.

“Josh, because I’m going to Tiff’s after school to work on a project.” Jordyn, the baby and only girl, muttered as she nibbled toast.

“Can’t. I’ve got work then I’m going out with the guys. I’ll be home by midnight.” Josh pre-empted my automatic reminder of his curfew.

“Jacob, you’ll have to whip home and let him out.” I added a splash of cream and screwed the lid onto the travel cup.

“No! That’s not fair!” Jacob pushed his cereal to the centre of the table. “Get Jordyn to.”

“It’s your turn. I came home the last two days to let him out. And Josh did it Monday.”

“Yeah, because I had detention!” Jacob muttered.

I heaved a gruntled sigh. “Jacob, Jordyn’s right. You haven’t let Chubs out at all this week. And before you start your crap, I’ll remind you what you just said. You hadn’t let him out because you were in detention. You’re lucky I don’t ground you.”

Jacob pushed away from the table with a loud squeal of chair legs on vinyl floor. He swung his backpack over his shoulder, smacking Jordyn as he did. Without another word, he stormed across the kitchen and slammed the door behind him.

“He’s just mad because Darien is one of the girls, and he’s afraid Dave’ll get her before he can,” Jordyn informed us as she glared at the door. “She’s got a reputation.”

“What sort of reputation?” I demanded, Jacob’s half eaten bowl of cereal shaking in my hand.

Josh grabbed the bowl and kissed my cheek. “You know exactly what Jordyn means. But don’t worry. She gets one whiff of Jacob and even Darien wouldn’t go behind the dumpsters with him. The garbage smells better than my shower-phobic brother.”

“I’ll get Chubs inside and go through the back.” Jordyn grabbed her bag and hugged me. “Are you working late?”

“Not sure. I’ll text the family chat if I am.” I kissed her cheek and watched her long blonde hair swing behind her as she dashed through the house. “Should I be worried? About Jacob?”

“He’s got about as much hope of getting to first base with any girl as he does passing math. In other words, don’t worry about him hangin’ with girls, just worry about him flunking math.” Josh kissed my cheek again before he loped out of the kitchen.

I didn’t have time to waste pondering the problems three teenaged kids presented. I pulled a sweater out of the closet and grabbed my purse. Chubs skidded along the hardwood floors, sliding to land at my feet. “Be a good boy. No snacks. Your bowl is full, your water is fresh, and the toilet is only there for a back-up if you drink the water bowl dry. Just remember, you’re at Jacob’s mercy to go out later, so don’t over hydrate.”

The boxer looked at me with hopeful eyes. I grabbed a treat from the bin by the backdoor and tossed it to him as I went through the house making sure doors and windows were locked. “See you tonight, Chubs. Looks like just you and me. Again.”

I got into the car, waving at Chubs who was watching from the living room window. As I pulled onto the road, I worried again about Jacob and Darien. I honked at each of my children as I passed. Josh and Jordyn waved, but Jacob pretended not to hear me as he trudged along the sidewalk in front of the school. I watched him in my rear-view mirror as he scowled at my bumper. “The joys of children.”

*

“I can’t take the kids this weekend.” Ted, my almost ex-husband, launched into business the instant I answered the phone.

I rolled my eyes. “And why not?”

“I’ve got a hot date.” Ted cleared his throat, but I heard the smugness, the total pleasure he took in rubbing his social life in my face.

“Right or left?” I clenched my fists.

“What?”

“Which hand’s the lucky one this weekend? For your hot date?” I forced my hands to unclench and pounded the keyboard, answering a message from my boss as Ted sputtered in my ear.

“If you must know, it’s Lise. The personal trainer.”

I hit send a little harder than necessary. “Did she lose a bet or something?”

“No. Seems all my hard work working out has paid off. She thinks I’m hot. She asked me out.” Ted couldn’t keep the gloating from his voice, not that I believed he’d tried to.

“Right, sure she did. She lost a bet with someone.”

“Yeah, probably the trainer you used to see. Bet Lise bet him you’d lose ten pounds but then saw you recently and realized she was wrong.”

Usually Ted’s nonsense talk didn’t phase me (much), but the dig about my weight hit home. “Well, thanks for reminding me that you’ve still got enough money for a personal trainer. I’ll mention it to Len, er, Mr. Dunne, my lawyer. Which reminds me, the temporary child support agreement? You forgot to pay last month. And this month’s is late.”

“Seriously? You’re that jealous you’re going to use my gym membership against me in the divorce settlement? We should’ve signed off last year but then you went all postal and demanded more money.”

I smiled at one of the other receptionists as she passed my desk. When she was out of earshot, I blew out an exasperated breath. “Ted, get over yourself. I only went for more money because you were hiding investments from me. I don’t want you back, don’t care who you pay, er, date. I do want what’s half mine, and I want our kids to get more than scraps from their father. Oh, and if you keep bailing on your weekends? I’ll bill you for sitter fees so I still get my me time. You’re not the only one with a social life, you know.”

I was lying through my teeth. Not about caring whether Ted dated or not, but about my own personal life. I only demanded he take the kids for his every-other weekends because it hurt them when he didn’t. My only plans were getting drunk with Sara Saturday night, and the kids had witnessed that enough. Ted pounced on my fib. “You’re dating?”

I spotted Kirk from HR. My tummy did a little swoop, a jig, then cramped when he walked past me, deep in conversation with the big boss, Alicia. Kirk used to ask me out, I always said no. But lately, I’d been thinking I’d say yes if he ever asked again. “Of course I am. Almost the minute you left me.”

“The kids never said.” Ted sounded surprised, irritated.

“Of course they didn’t. I don’t take them out on dates with me. They’re old enough to stay home alone. I tell them I’m going out with Sara or Dot. And I tell them I stayed home, in bed, all weekend while they were with you. They don’t need to know if I was alone or not.”

“I guess I’ve got to talk to my own lawyer.” Ted’s anger sizzled down the line.

I snorted. “Yeah? And what are you going to say? The woman I dumped isn’t pining away for me?”

“I won’t support another man. That’s my house you’re living in.”

I flexed my cramped fingers. I’d bunched them into such a tight fist that I had a small spot of blood blooming on my palm where I’d pierced the skin. “Give it a rest, would you? I got the house, you got the cottage, the boat, and the truck. Or do we need to start all over again? We’re so close to the final signing it would be a shame to add hundreds more billable hours on lawyer fees.”

“Like you’re paying Len.” Ted’s temper was rising, and I took pleasure in it.

“Well of course I pay Len. Just not as much as you pay Judy. I had to endure a whole weekend at a wine tasting thing in Niagara Falls. You know how I feel about wine. Len and I managed to have fun anyhow. Pays to have an ex-boyfriend who also happens to be a lawyer. One who holds a grudge against the guy who stole his girlfriend.” Not necessarily totally true. Len was my ex-boyfriend but we’d broken up just before I started seeing Ted. Mostly because Len had figured out that he and I were attracted to the same men.

“Is that how you pay him? In bed?”

I cursed, slamming the receiver so hard the phone jangled. I wished Ted were there so I could slam the receiver into his balding head.

*

“Dot, hold up.”

Dot held the elevator for me as I rushed down the hall. “Done early?”

I glanced at my watch as Dot pressed M for main floor. “For a change.”

Dot was secretary to Alicia, the head of our company. “Henry wasn’t in today, was he?”

The elevator went down a floor then shuddered to a stop and the doors slid open as I shook my head. Henry, my immediate boss, was vice president of construction. “He was at the new build site. He’s there for the rest of the week, smoothing out some glitches.”

The elevator doors closed after two more people got on. “Business is certainly booming.”

“Definitely. Everything okay?” Dot raised an eyebrow so I elaborated. “I saw Kirk chasing Alicia this afternoon. Just wondered if there was an HR crisis or something.”

Dot’s eyes narrowed as she scanned who was in the elevator. No one paid any attention to us. “I know you think he’s sniffing after her, but he’s not.”

I sighed as I shook my head. “Well, he used to ask me out every day. He hasn’t asked me out in a long time. It’s either he’s found someone, or I’ve finally gained enough weight to tip the scales out of my favour.”

Dot looked me up and down. “Stop putting yourself down, would you?”

The elevator stopped again to let more people cram in. I eyed Dot the way she’d examined me and rolled my eyes. “Says the ninety-eight pounds soaking-wet girl.”

“You’re, er…voluptuous.” Dot nodded her head when she finally found the word.

I snorted so violently the other passengers glanced over curiously. “I think the word you were looking for was voluminous.”

Dot slapped my arm. “Would you stop? Bruce and Frank in accounting are voluminous. You’re just…”

“Fat?” I offered with a wry grin. I knew I wasn’t fat, not like Frank or Bruce, but I’d have to pick out a whole new wardrobe in a bigger size soon if I wasn’t careful. “I’m joking. Not there yet. Just that Ted’s dating a personal trainer, and I’m eating way too much. The kids are never home, even when they’re supposed to be. I end up eating bigger portions, then grazing the snacks they asked me to buy but are never home to eat.”

The elevator doors opened on the ground floor and we followed everyone off. We stopped next to the exit to continue our chat because the wind was howling. “Let’s form a walking group. Either before or after work. Lunch is too hard because everyone has different lunch breaks.”

I shook my head. “I have to get three surly teenagers out the door for school and get home to a poor neglected dog.”

“Hey ladies.”

I froze, saw Dot stifling a laugh at my stricken look. “Kirk, what’s up?”

“Not much, not much. Well, see you around.”

I found my voice. “Uh, bye, Kirk.”

When Kirk was out of the building, I grabbed Dot’s arm. “See? Used to be that he’d stop to chat, then he’d ask me out. When was the last time he asked me out? When I started to gain weight. Fifteen pounds ago, that’s when.”

Dot shook her head. “Kirk’s not like that.”

“Obviously he is.” I felt like I should be hanging with Jordyn, discussing boy woes with a gang of teenagers, not a woman ten years older than me and proud of her never-married status.

“He’s not. But say he was? Why are you so worried about why he’s not asking you out all of a sudden?”

I shrugged. “I’m not.”

Dot eyed me with her usual patient mother stare.

“Fine. Because now that Ted and I are near the end-game of our divorce, I’d started thinking maybe I’d say yes.”

Dot’s kind eyes filled with pity. “That’s what I was afraid of.”

*

Jacob was lying on his bed when I got home, wireless ear buds in his ears, Chubs chewing his bone beside him.

“Hey, I thought you were…” I trailed off at the miserable look Jacob sent me.

I went to the kitchen and started throwing ingredients together to make Jacob’s favourite cheesy ground beef. When everything was going, I texted Ted.

You want to hurt the kids, you tell them. I’m not your messenger so unless you discuss with them be here by five tomorrow for the weekend.

I dropped my phone on the counter. I stirred the ground beef and chopped up some vegetables, grated three different types of cheese. Jacob could eat the cheesy mix, I’d have a nice salad. I was slicing cucumber when my phone vibrated.

It’s fine, Lise is excited to take the kids on a hike. Can they bring the dog, too?

Chubs, the dog Ted had complained bitterly about me getting? No freaking way. Let Lise and Ted get their own pet.

Chubs is my dog. You never wanted him.

I had a huge salad prepared and was adding the rest of the ingredients to the browned beef when Jacob ran down the stairs. “Dave just texted me, we’re going to get pizza. His mom grounded him but then she gave in because he was driving her nuts throwing a ball against the wall all afternoon.”

“I just made your favourite…” I stopped talking because Jacob was already gone.

Jordyn came in just as I turned the burner off. “Oh good, I made…”

“Just here for a sweater. Tiff and I got the project done so now we’re going to the mall. Tiff wants to get her nose pierced, I said I’d go for moral support.”

“I made cheesy beef and a huge salad. Why don’t you and Tiff eat first?” Too much food. Way too much.

Jordyn made a face at the beef. “I don’t eat that. It’s so fattening and greasy.”

“You better not come home with any piercings. You got your ears double pierced, that’s enough holes for a fourteen year old.” I sampled the ground beef mix, agreed with Jordyn, worried I’d just wasted the food.

“As soon as I don’t need parental consent, I’m getting my belly button done.” Jordyn grabbed some sliced cucumbers from my salad, kissed my cheek, and ran upstairs. A minute later, I heard her barreling down the stairs and heading out the back door. Chubs, who’d been barking his fool head off, skidded into the kitchen with his nose twitching.

My phone vibrated again. I welcomed a reason to fight with Ted. I saw Sara’s name and swiped to read her text.

Gotta cancel the weekend. Can I come over now?

Why? And yes.

I ate way too much of the cheesy burger mixture with my salad while I waited. Sara might be dropping in for a minute or staying for hours and bringing drinks. My best friend since high school was unpredictable, usually fun, and always a burst of frenetic energy. I put the leftovers (lots of salad, a little cheesy ground beef) in the fridge, loaded the dishwasher, and let Chubs back outside after slipping him some leftover plain ground beef. I busied myself with chores, trying not to think about how quiet the house was.

“Yoo-hoo, where you at Molly golly?” Sara’s voice carried down the hall as I let Chubs in the back door. The traitorous mutt left me holding a treat as he skidded and slid to the kitchen faster than when I put down a fresh bowl of kibble.

I followed at a more refined pace. “Hey. What’s up?”

“The sky, inflation, you know.” Sara, scratching Chubs all over his body, sniffed the air. “What smells so good?”

“I made a salad and cheesy ground beef.” I held up an empty mug and waited for Sara to nod or shake her head. She nodded, so I started brewing two cups of coffee. “There’s some left, if you want it.”

Sara shook her head. “Nope. Heading to yoga when I leave here, ground beef makes me gassy.”

I rolled my eyes. “Still doing yoga?”

Sara, tall, willowy, perfect Sara, frowned at me. “What’s wrong with that? Takes the stress off, and builds my core, or so I’m told. I just go for the free parking and inner peace.”

We sat at the table, Sara drinking her coffee black and mine with an extra splash of cream. “Why are you canceling our plans for the weekend?”

Sara winced as she gulped her coffee. “Don’t do that when I’m sipping hot liquids.”

I squinted at her, trying to figure out what had her so twitchy. “Ask you a question?”

Sara set her cup down and squared her shoulders. “I’m, uh, going hiking.”

I spilled my coffee when I slammed my cup down. “What?”

Sara’s eyebrows shot up beneath her dark bangs. “Why so angry about country fresh air and a walk in the woods?”

“Are you going with a woman named Lise?” I stared at Sara, afraid to miss any of her tells. If she was avoiding truths, or outright lying, she wrinkled her nose, fiddled with her hair, or her eyes watered as she tried to avoid doing either of those things.

“Um, no? I don’t swing for women named Lise. Nah, I’m going with a man. For the weekend. Camping and hiking. Leaving tomorrow from work actually, and I might even take Monday off.”

Feeling slightly reassured, I wiped the mess I’d made with a napkin. “Sorry. Ted’s going hiking with Lise and the kids this weekend, I thought…”

“I was going to commune in nature with your ex, maybe bury his body somewhere? It’s a thought, but no. Where’s he going, please tell me he’s not going to Algonquin. Because if he is, I might have to rent a grizzly bear suit so I can maul Ted and leave him for dead.”

“Doubtful. There’re bugs in Algonquin, he wouldn’t want to scream like a little girl in front of Lise, have to beg Jordyn to kill a spider for him. Who are you going camping with? Must be serious if you’re taking a day off work and sleeping in the wild.”

“There’re bugs everywhere. You don’t know the half of it. I just dropped a grand on a whole new wardrobe. Hiking boots, all the must-haves for wilderness survival, at least according to the online article I Googled. Get this, I even bought cargo pants. Pockets for bug spray, hunting knife, and one of those collapsible hairbrush/comb/mirror things.”

“Wow. So who has you so smitten you bought stuff you swore you’d never own? Are your hiking shoes at least high heels?” I sipped my coffee and grinned.

“Ha-ha. Nope. Two-hundred-dollar top of the line hiking boots that breathe so my feet won’t sweat. Not sure where the lungs are, but whatever. He’s a guy. I met him a few months ago, he’s called a few times. He asked me if I wanted to go camping, I said only if he had a big enough vehicle. What can I say? He’s hot, and he made camping sound fun.”

I narrowed my eyes. Sara, who told me everything about her life, even the boring details like how many carbs and calories she’d had that day, hadn’t mentioned a hot guy before. “Who is he, and where’d you meet him?”

“I can’t tell you that. Not yet, anyhow. Let’s see how the weekend goes, then I’ll give you the deets. If it’s good, be prepared to kick the kids out for an X-rated telling. If it’s not good? You can help me bury the body, or the camping gear I wasted my money on. I’m really hoping it’s the X-rated version. It’s supposed to get chilly this weekend.” Sara winked, wriggling her eyebrows.

I picked up my cup but didn’t sip as I studied Sara. Something was off. “Why can’t you tell me who he is?”

Sara twisted a lock of hair around her finger. “I just don’t want to jinx it. Don’t get all weird on me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been interested in anything other than work. In anyone but you. That sounded weird. You know what I mean though, right? I mean it’s been a long time since I cared about anyone but you and the kids. But not that way, not the way…”

I’d have laughed but Sara was busy twisting her hair into knots and wrinkling her nose. “Sara?”

“Fine. You know him, that’s why I’m not telling you his name.” Sara straightened in her seat and finished her coffee. “Right, now I better get to yoga. I need to limber up, master downward facing dog for the weekend.”

“How do I know him?” My instincts screamed as my brain said no way. A few months ago I’d gone out for drinks with a group from work, an impromptu after work party for a newly outed couple we worked with. I’d invited Sara, and we’d gotten hammered.

“Gotta fly, toodles.” Sara leapt to her feet and headed for the door.

“Do I work with this guy?” My heart sank as I realized that it wasn’t long after the party Kirk had stopped asking me out.

“Later, gator.” Sara slammed the door as she left.

*

“You look like sh-crap.” Jacob stared as I came into the kitchen after letting Chubs out.

I nodded, not bothering to comment. I made my coffee as the kids exchanged shrugs behind my back (I could see their reflections in the window). I knew I looked dreadful, even with extra make-up to cover the circles and bags under my eyes. I hadn’t had a sleepless night like last night since Ted first left us. At least I didn’t have a red, blotchy face because I hadn’t shed any tears. Just worried and wondered what I’d do if Sara came back crooning about being in love. With Kirk.

It had to be Kirk. She’d met him that night, they’d chatted while Dot and I had run interference to keep Alicia from finding out. Workplace romances were frowned upon, and Debbie was especially at risk because she worked in HR and knew Alicia’s feelings. Gossip was that Alicia hated workplace romances because she’d been involved with someone at work; her dad (then head of the company) hit the roof and made them break up. Dot was the only one I knew who’d worked there during that time but she was loyal to her old boss, and Alicia, so she neither confirmed nor denied. But Dot did confirm Alicia’s stance on workplace romances in general, and Debbie ended up finding a job somewhere else a month after we’d found out. Kyle announced their engagement within days of Debbie leaving. Alicia was furious but couldn’t do anything because Debbie didn’t work with us anymore.

It’s not like I was in love with Kirk, I reminded myself as I put the lid on my travel mug. Attracted, yes. I’d met Kirk when I’d first started, the day I signed forms for HR, and had a crush on him ever since. Ted and I were separated. Kirk and I developed a casual friendship, chatting about books, movies, kids. Ted tried to come back; Kirk listened, was a good friend, as I talked about how I wasn’t sure I’d ever look at Ted the same (or even look at him without wanting to scratch his eyes out). The day Ted and I filed for divorce, Dot mentioned it to Kirk, and that afternoon Kirk asked me out for the first time. Thinking he was joking, I said no. He’d ask once a month or so, then weekly. I’d smile, say no, until it was normal for him to ask every time we bumped into one another. Dinner? Dancing? Drinks? Elope to Guadalajara? I’d been flattered, who wouldn’t be? He was gorgeous; chocolate brown eyes with specks of gold, brown hair that turned lighter in the summer. Taller than Ted, fit, and he had great buns.

What had kept me up all night was Sara. She’d been my maid of honour even though she despised Ted. Held her tongue during our rocky marriage. Most amazing of all, she never once said I-told-you-so when Ted abruptly left me for a fling with some woman he met. She listened to me cry, let me decide if we got drunk and Ted bashed or held my own pity parties. And when Ted came back, wanting a second chance, Sara bit her tongue, promised to support whatever choice I made. When I realized my feelings were long dead, we made a game out of our litany of Ted put-downs.

Kirk was perfect for Sara. She was the female version of him, only her hair was darker. He headed up HR, Sara was a career woman, principal of a high school with her sights set on becoming superintendent. Sara never wanted kids of her own, Kirk’s youngest was a year older than Josh. Kirk’s wife had passed away years before I met Kirk. Sara wouldn’t have a flaky ex to deal with.

“Mom!” Jordyn waved her hand vigorously in front of my face.

I blinked several times as I came back to the kitchen from the murky territory I’d been stuck in since Sara had left the night before. “Huh?”

Josh and Jacob exchanged worried glances as Jordyn frowned. “Mom, what’s going on?”

I forced a smile. “I couldn’t sleep last night.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t go hiking with Dad this weekend. I’ll call him, tell him we’re not coming.” Josh pulled his phone out of his pocket.

“Don’t be silly. I’m looking forward to a weekend alone.” I forced a smile as I lied. “I want to hear all the gruesome details about the hike. Just don’t make your dad look too bad, okay?”

Josh snorted as he put the phone back in his pocket. “He doesn’t need us to make himself look bad.”

“Be nice. He asked if you guys could bring Chubs, I’d said no. But if you want to bring him, go ahead. Be good for Chubs to get some fresh air and exercise.” I was apprehensive about letting Chubs go but the kids wouldn’t let anything bad happen.

“Really? That’d be awesome!” Jacob high-fived Jordyn as Josh grinned. “I gotta go, don’t want detention for the third time this week, especially because Dad gets so ticked if he has to wait.”

“I’ll let Chubs in and go through the back.” Jordyn grabbed her bag and skipped out of the kitchen.

“You might want to remake your coffee. You forgot to put the pod in before you hit brew.” Josh kissed my cheek. “Just tell me one thing. Is whatever kept you up all night got anything to do with Dad and this Lisa?”

I dumped my creamy water, looking at Josh’s reflection in the window. “Lise. And no, nothing to do with either of them. Keep a good eye on Chubs, won’t you?”

“It was Chubs that kept you awake?” Josh’s blue eyes widened in surprise. I jumped at the excuse.

“Yeah. You know your dad doesn’t care for animals but Chubs pines for you guys when you’re gone. I figured this is perfect, he’ll get a good long walk and won’t be so lonely.” I’d take Chubs on hikes if I had someone to hike with, but the past few months the only exercise I got was wandering the empty house. “I haven’t got time to pack his kibble or bowls. Take a bag of treats, too. Oh, and don’t forget the poop bags.”

Josh hugged me. “Text the family chat, you know I”ll forget half of it but Jordyn will make sure we get everything.”

*

I survived the day, even caught my second (or was it fifth?) wind. Aided by a lunch-time nap in my car and a steady stream of mud-like coffee from the break room, I was sure my eyes wouldn’t close until Monday, maybe Tuesday. I met up with Dot waiting for the elevator. “You got plans?”

Dot scrutinized my face. “Not really. Don’t you have kids and a dog to get home to?”

I shook my head as we stepped into the elevator. “Nope. Kids and dog are with Ted this weekend.”

“Hold the elevator.”

I frowned as I put my hand out automatically to stop the doors from closing. Kirk ran in and grinned. “Thanks. I’m running late.”

Poor Sara. “Never good to start the weekend late.”

Kirk nodded his agreement before turning to Dot. “I put that letter on your desk, can you give it to Alicia on Monday?”

Dot nodded briskly. “Of course.”

One of the other employees started talking to Kirk so I resumed my conversation with Dot. “Want to grab a drink or something?”

“Last time we grabbed a drink, we shared a cab and had to take the bus to work.” Dot shook her head with a snort of laughter.

“Dinner? I was going to grab bar food because I skipped lunch to sleep, but we could go to a restaurant.” I didn’t want to, but I wanted to go home to an empty house even less.

Dot considered as the elevator stopped to let more people on. “I need a drink. Let’s just go to Sunny’s. We can share a cab home, then again in the morning to get our cars.”

The elevator doors opened and Kirk pushed past everyone. “Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m late, gotta go.”

I didn’t watch to see him get in his vehicle, didn’t want to see the tent and whatever other camping gear he’d filled his car with. The SUV could hold lots, perfect for Sara’s new wardrobe. “Come on. I’m starving.”

*

“Are you sure you don’t want a second drink?” Dot leaned across the table waving her beer bottle at me. “I’m well on my way to plastered.”

I shook my head as I picked up my glass of pop. “I’m still awake, but if I have any more, I’ll be out cold and you’ll have to roll me out.”

“You never told me why you’re so tired. Did Josh stay out all night or something?” Dot snagged a wing from the platter and tore a chunk off.

“Nah, he was home at 11:57. I told you, I just couldn’t sleep.” I crunched into a celery stick I’d dipped in blue cheese.

“I call bull on that. You’ve got that haunted, sad look. You had it when you came to work for us. You’d almost lost the sad but then you took Ted back briefly and the look didn’t go away completely until you demanded a divorce.” Dot sucked the last of the chicken off the bone and dropped it into the bucket. “Is it because Ted’s dating?”

Dot was drunk, but I knew from experience that even drunk, Dot kept confidences if you asked her to. I glanced around the bar, saw several people from work engaged in chatter, not paying attention to us. I leaned in, looking into Dot’s eyes. “Between us?”

Dot did the same perusal of the bar and tables nearest to us as she nodded her head. “You know I’m no snitch.”

“Sara’s seeing someone. She’s gone away with them this weekend.” I selected the sauciest wing I could find tore a chunk off. My coffee buzz was wearing off, and I felt exhaustion creeping in.

Dot frowned as she licked her fingers. “And you realized you’re in love with her?”

I dropped the chicken bone and it rolled off the table. “What?”

Dot shook her head. “Of course not. Never mind. Carry on.”

I inhaled, catching the scent of the wings, the booze around us, the perfume and cologne in the air. “Sara tells me everything, at least I thought she did. But she’s been talking to this guy for months and never mentioned him. She drops by last night to tell me that she can’t come over tomorrow because, get this, she’s going away hiking.”

“With Ted?” Dot’s jaw dropped and I saw her fillings in her bottom teeth.

“Camping and hiking. Ted wouldn’t go camping unless there was a winterized cottage involved.” I rolled my eyes at the ludicrous statement, then remembered my reaction the night before. “I had the same thought at first. But no, she spent a fortune on new clothes to go to Algonquin for the weekend. In September. She hates to be cold. She might take Monday off. That’s serious.”

Dot put her elbow on the table and rested her head against her palm. “Wow. Sara’s a principal, isn’t she? School’s back. Sounds serious.”

“I know, right? That’s what I’m thinking. And the way she made it sound? They’ve been talking for months but I got the impression this was their first date. I think she’s going to sleep with him!”

Dot’s brows furrowed and she leaned even closer across the table. “And you’re worried she’s with a crazy guy who, what? Is going to kill her and leave her for the cougars?”

I shook my head as I tucked my long hair behind my ears. “No! But great, thanks. Now I’ll have that thought to keep me up tonight.”

Dot sat up, dropping her arm to her side. “Then what?”

“What if she gets married? I mean, she kept this from me for months then just decides to take off? This is so unlike her.” I pictured Kirk and Sara, trudging in the Algonquin wild.

“You married Ted and had three kids with him. I’m sure your friendship would survive if Sara got married.” Dot waved a hand as she sipped her beer.

“You think so? I think it’d be weird. Like hey guys, I know I’m in love with you but you don’t mind if I squeeze between the two of you to watch TV, do you?” I picked up another wing and pulled the meat away from the bone.

Dot’s almost empty bottle slid from her hand. It hit the table, splashing me with beer before falling to the floor. “You are into her.”

I daubed my clothes, puzzling over Dot’s words, as Dot dove to grab the bottle. “What are you on about?”

Dot set the unbroken bottle on the table and stared at me. “I’m tipsy, but unless you’re pining for Sara, you’ve left an important detail out.”

I frowned, stifling a yawn. “No I haven’t.”

“You’re not into Sara, so who would you be in love with?”

I coughed and a bit of chicken shot out of my mouth and landed on the tablecloth. “What?”

“You said…” Dot stared at me, her eyes darting from one of mine to the other.

I realized my error. “Crap. Okay, she’s camping with Kirk. That’s who she’s been talking to for months. She met him when Kyle and Debbie got busted at work and we had that party. Funny, that’s around when Kirk stopped asking me out.”

Dot waved her empty frantically at a passing waitress. When the waitress nodded, Dot leaned towards me again. “Sara told you she’s in love with Kirk?”

I nodded. “And I can’t even be mad at her, it’s not like I ever told Sara about Kirk. She knew I was friends with some guy at work, that he’d flirt and ask me out, but I never said who. She told me I should say yes, but that was the end of it. Then Kirk stopped asking, and she stopped telling me to say yes. But then she didn’t know it was Kirk who was asking. Unless…maybe Kirk told her?”

Dot was stuck trying to work out everything I’d said. “Sara told you? She said ‘I’m going camping with Kirk and I think I love him’?”

I thought about what Dot was asking, worked out the particulars. My sleep deprived mind made me feel drunk. “Well, no, she never said his name. She just dropped hints about who he was. She didn’t deny he worked with us. She left so fast when I figured that much out.”

Dot’s face relaxed and I saw a twinkle in her eyes. “You put two and two together? Figured it all out, did you?”

“Yeah. Makes sense. And they’d be perfect together. He’s hot, she’s gorgeous.”

“And your reason for assuming is?” Dot took the beer the waitress set down and sipped.

“Man, you’re dumb when you’re drunk. I told you. Sara met Kirk. Right here, in this bar. You and I were running around trying to make sure Alicia didn’t catch Kyle and Debbie. Sara kept talking to the guy she met – had to be Kirk – and didn’t tell me. Probably because she knew Alicia didn’t like coworkers dating and was worried that being my best friend might get me in trouble?” I frowned, that part didn’t make sense, but whatever. “Anyhow, she had feelings. He had feelings. Kirk stopped asking me out. Heck, he pretty much stopped talking to me altogether. When was the last time he lingered at my desk, or sat with us at lunch? Hasn’t lent me a book in ages. He barely looks at me.”

Dot drummed her fingers on the tabletop, staring at me. “That doesn’t mean he’s fallen for Sara.”

Exasperated, I tore off a bite of carrot and crunched. “It’s either Sara or because I’m fat. The past few months I’ve been gaining weight. I actually had to buy bigger underwear. Been medium ever since I had Jordyn, but now I’m large. And I had to undo the button on my pants after my beer and second wing.”

“Let’s go with weight. If Kirk’s not talking to you because you put on a couple of pounds –”

“A couple? Try almost fifteen.”

“Fine. A bit of weight, then. If a guy loses interest because you’re not skinny? Not worth worrying about.”

“That’s what all the skinny women say.” I licked sauce off my thumb. “In a perfect world the guy loves the girl no matter what she looks like. But look at Ted. He kept making comments like ‘are you really going to eat that’ or ‘are you sure a second helping is wise’? Then he left me.”

Dot’s eyes flashed. “Good riddance.”

I bit savagely into another wing. “I agree. But one thing to leave a spouse over weight gain. Kirk just lost interest because of it. If we’d gone out, if I’d just said yes, then he’d be a jerk for dumping me. No longer asking me out because of it? Understandable, don’t you think?”

“Dot, hey Dot.” I glanced up to see one of the other secretaries rushing towards our table. “What’s going on?”

Dot waved her bottle of beer. “Just having wings and beer. What’s going on with you, Melanie?”

Melanie studied me for a second then seemed to decide whatever she had to say could be said in front of me. “I just got a text from Murray. He says there’s a big fight going on in the president’s office. What’s up with Alicia?”

Dot’s surprise seemed to please Melanie. “Ooh, I know something you don’t for once.”

Dot pulled her phone out and frantically tapped the screen. Melanie shrugged, grabbed a wing. “She’ll find out and fill us in.”

Dot was an untapped vein of information. I’d been friends with her since the day I’d started and I’d yet to figure out how to get her to spill. “She’ll find out, but she won’t tell.”

Melanie licked her fingers. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ll go back to texting Murray. He’ll keep me caught up.”

“I gotta go,” Dot muttered, stuffing more chicken into her mouth and dropping the bone into the can. “Can you pay, I’ll pay you back tomorrow.”

“You going into the office?” I eyed the few wings left and decided I’d had enough. “I’ll come with you.”

Dot shook her head. “Better not. Alicia’s upset, one word answers with punctuation.”

“I’ll wait downstairs. You’ll need a lift home. I can run you back tomorrow for your car.”

Dot’s phone went off again. She grabbed another wing, chugged some beer, and slung her purse over her shoulder. “Okay, but if I’ll be awhile, I’ll text you.”

I ate a couple more wings as I waited for the tab, finishing Dot’s beer as well. Melanie had a group around her and figured they were getting reports from Murray, the gossipy security guy. I was so tired I didn’t bother to go over, just paid and left.

The sun was setting as I walked back to work. The lobby chairs were in front of the security desk and I didn’t feel like talking to anyone so I texted Dot that I’d wait in my car. I put the key in the ignition but decided it wasn’t so cold that I needed to start the engine. I turned the key so my phone would charge while the radio played and reclined my seat as I got into the good tunes.

I woke with a start; someone’s hand was jerking my shoulder and roughly shaking me. “Wha?”

“She’s conscious. Bring over the breathalyzer.”

I blinked against the bright light in my eyes. “What’s going on?”

“Here.” Someone – a woman — muttered.

Before I was fully alert, whoever was shining the light in my face was growling at me. “Blow into this.”

My heart pounded and I felt cold sweat bead my forehead. Something was at my mouth, but I couldn’t see what because of the blinding light. I turned my head away; the hand that had shaken me reached in and pulled me back. “I said, blow into this. I can smell the booze from here, but I need you to blow.”

Automatically, still struggling to make sense of anything, I did as I was told. The beam of light lowered, and I realized a very large police officer was standing beside my car, holding the machine I was blowing into. “Says point-zero-one.”

“Do it again.” A woman’s voice barked. “She’s obviously loaded. You can smell the beer from here.”

“Take a deep breath, and blow.” The officer didn’t sound quite as angry as he had, but I wasn’t about to risk annoying the beast by asking any questions. I blew as hard as I could, for as long as I could.

“Same.” The officer pulled the breathalyzer away. “Mind stepping out of the vehicle?”

“I only smell like beer because my friend spilled hers on me.” My confusion escalated as I did as the officer asked. When I was upright after a clumsy first attempt, the female officer patted me down, shoved her hands into my pockets. “I, er, don’t even know your name. I don’t usually go this far on a first date.”

The officer shook her head, no trace of a smile at my lame attempt at a joke. “Stay here.”

I watched the two officers search my car. I tried to figure out what was wrong, what had happened to illicit a rough encounter with police. I’d paid the tab, the receipt was in my purse to prove it. Nothing exciting happened when I’d walked back to my car. Obviously I’d fallen asleep, I had no clue what time it was. Could be nine or three in the morning. But surely if it was that late I’d have seen Dot, or she would have texted…the fight? Who was involved, what had happened? Was Dot okay? Alicia? The security team? Was that why the cops were here?

“Dot okay? Alicia? Murray?” The words flew out of my mouth before I could properly form the questions. I took a deep- breath as the officers slammed my doors. “Did something happen upstairs? Is that why you’re here?”

“Molly? What’s going on?” Dot raced across the parking lot. Relief flooded me.

“I don’t know. I thought you, Alicia…” I blinked back tears, relieved yet even more confused.

“We got a call about a drunk passed out in her car. Didn’t you leave Sunny’s a little while ago?” The large officer passed me the wallet I hadn’t given him. Was he allowed to go through my purse? My face flushed as I realized the condoms Sara had given me as a joke, the ones her school handed out for free, were still in the bottom of my purse from last year.

“What, did you start pounding them back after I left?” Dot asked, her surprise evident.

“No, of course not. I had the one beer when we got there, then I finished yours while I waited for the waitress to bring my change.” I fumbled in the coin slot, pulled out the receipt. “See?”

The officer eyed the receipt, his expression changing from sheepish to smug. Before he could say anything, Dot spoke up. “In case you were wondering, I drank four and a half of the beers on there. Wanna give me a breathalyzer?”

“Why were you passed out? You didn’t even stir when we banged on the window.” The female officer put her cuffs back on her belt.

Bolstered by the thought I wasn’t about to be arrested, I smiled at her first, then at the taller officer. “I didn’t sleep last night. My friend and I were going to have a couple of drinks, some wings, but then I realized I’d be passed out cold if I drank so I switched to pop. She had to go back to work for something, and I waited in my car. Apparently my sleepless night caught up to me and I passed out anyhow.”

“Is there something wrong, officers? You okay, Molly? Dot?”

My breath caught in my lungs, froze, when I heard Kirk’s voice. Dot was gesturing frantically at her face, and I blinked in confusion. She leaned in and whispered, “Wipe your mouth, you’ve got spit and sauce all over.”

I swiped frantically at my face until Dot nodded her approval. “We’re fine, Kirk. Just a misunderstanding. What are you doing here, I thought you were –”

I broke off when Dot kicked my ankle. “Officers, you don’t seem to have any reason to hang around. You can give me a breathalyzer, I’m not sure I’d blow over at this point but I wasn’t planning on driving anyhow, so…”

The officers got into their cruiser without another word and I wondered who’d called them. Dot raised her eyebrows, tilted her head ever so slightly in Kirk’s direction, winked. She seemed to be trying to tell me something but I was clueless. I blinked stupidly at Dot, wondering what she was trying to tell me. “We, er, Kirk and I, were upstairs in Alicia’s office when Murray told us you were passed out in your car.”

“Murray, the security guy? He was talking to –”

“Yes, Murray in security. So, er, you’re okay? We thought you were sick, injured. I knew you weren’t drunk because, well, you weren’t drinking.”

I nodded my head, glancing at Kirk who was staring at me. “Is everything okay? I was waiting for you, guess I fell asleep.”

“Yeah, but I think I’m going to be here for another hour or so. You go on, get out of here. I’ll let you know if I need a ride in the morning.” Dot pulled my head down roughly, I resisted for a second thinking ‘oh no, she’s going to kiss me’. Then I realized she was pretending to hug me and I bent my head so she could whisper. “Say yes this time.”

I straightened, glancing at Kirk. “Right. Well, maybe see you tomorrow.”

Dot jogged back to the entrance and buzzed for security. I was suddenly aware that Kirk and I were alone, and that I was a mess. “Definitely not my best look.”

Kirk grinned. “The sauce in your hair adds a certain something.”

I grinned as my cheeks warmed. We stood there for a few more seconds, until I figured I’d better get moving. “Well, have a good night.”

“Yep. You too.” Kirk’s smile slipped as he started backing away from me.

Ask me out. Ask me out. I fumbled with my door, waiting hopefully for him to say something more, but he didn’t. I slid into the drivers seat and turned the key. I paused as the car clicked. What? I tried again. “No, you idiot.”

I’d fallen asleep with my phone plugged in, the radio on, and the key turned in the ignition to power the charger. I heard Kirk’s SUV crunching along the gravel and he honked. I opened my door, waved, but he didn’t notice.

I kicked my tire and regretted it when my toes hurt. I dropped back into the seat, texted Dot.

Can you come boost me?

Before I could even put the phone down, Dot answered.

God, yr pathetic. Fine, u r gorgeous. Do him. L8R.

Frustration had my fingers flying over the screen.

I mean boost car, battery dead, nothing to do with Kirk

I didn’t bother to look away, knowing Dot would respond fast.

What? Where Kirk?

I hated texting at the best of times, but after the night I’d had, I wanted to fling my phone.

Idk. Home.

Driving to Algonquin? How should I know.

B there asap.

I tossed my phone and popped the hood. Dot better know how to boost a car because I couldn’t remember how. I wasn’t even sure I had booster cables. Too bad I didn’t catch the officer’s name; I could’ve called and asked if he’d noticed any in his thorough search of my car. I searched my trunk myself, thinking I might get lucky. I heard Dot’s car as I struggled to feel beneath Jacob’s skateboard and Jordyn’s sleepover bag we’d forgotten to bring in the house on Sunday.

“Hey, need a boost?”

I hit my head on the trunk lid as I backed up at the sound of Kirk’s voice. Rubbing the sore spot, I gaped at him. “What? How?”

Kirk, to his credit, contained his smile behind his hand, but his eyes twinkled. “Dot texted me.”

Ticked, still seeing stars from the head bump, I slammed the trunk lid. “You shouldn’t text and drive.”

Kirk nodded. “True, but I have a Bluetooth stereo and voiceover. Read the message out loud, though took me a second to figure out what she meant because she texts like an illiterate monkey.”

“That’s good, and accurate. Have you got cables? I couldn’t find any.”

Kirk shook his head. “Normally, yes, but I emptied the truck earlier, and there’s not even a box of Kleenex.”

Then why had he come back? He could’ve told Dot he couldn’t help and kept on going. “Okay, thanks anyhow.”

“Want a lift?” Kirk offered.

I was about to say no but at this point I just wanted to get home. The day had been a write-off, I was still totally confused about whether Sara was in Algonquin with some guy I worked with not Kirk, or if Sara and Kirk’s trip to Algonquin had been postponed. “Sure.”

Kirk’s eyes widened in surprise, but he recovered and I heard the lock click. “Hop in.”

I locked my car and went around the front of the SUV. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” Kirk turned the SUV around and drove to the exit.

Feeling awkward, I kept darting glances at his profile as he waited for a break in traffic. “I, er, live over –”

“I know where eyou live.” Kirk pulled onto the street.

I raised my eyebrows, staring at him. “You do?”

Kirk nodded. “I brought some papers to you when you were sick, remember?”

“Oh yeah. I forgot.” I’d told him I was contagious and to leave the papers between the screen door and the big door because my nose was red and raw from blowing and I was too embarrassed to see him.

After a minute of awkward silence, we ended up talking the way we used to. Books, movies, politics (we were on the same page). Life in general. Too soon, he was pulling into my driveway. I sat there a second too long and realized he was waiting for me to get out. Feeling even worse, I grabbed my purse. “Well, thanks.”

“No problem.”

I still didn’t move. I wanted to know if he was in love with Sara. If he thought I was fat. I couldn’t ask, could I? I shook my head as I put my hand on the handle. “Why don’t you ever ask me out anymore?”

I cringed as I said the words, felt my face flame. “Never mind. See you Monday.”

“I’m not sure you will.” Kirk didn’t sound happy, I felt more confused. Was he with Sara and didn’t want to say? But he didn’t sound like a man in love, he sounded miserable.

I raised an eyebrow, but no proper response came to mind. “Oh?”

“Long story.” Kirk shrugged.

I looked up at my empty house. “Want to come in for coffee? You can tell me what’s going on.”

Kirk leaned over without warning, and I felt his lips on mine. I moaned as I leaned into him, forgetting everything but what I was feeling. I put a hand to my chest as if to keep my heart inside my body as Kirk pulled back. He pulled his key out of the ignition.

“Guess you’re coming in?”

Kirk grinned. “I headed HR and yet I harassed you daily to go out with me. On top of that, Alicia made everyone in HR sign contracts that we wouldn’t date anyone who worked in the company. As of five o’clock today, I no longer work there, but I swore I wouldn’t ask you again because you obviously weren’t interested. Figured if you were, you’d ask me. An invitation into the house for coffee is close enough.”


Eternal Light

The long grass danced in the breeze. She watched and waited, waited and watched. Hoped that sometime soon she’d be found. The birds rose up from the trees in the distance, turned the sky black with their flight. She rose up, wondering what had disturbed them. She heard rumbling, a groaning and grinding roar. Behind the new houses, the rumbling got louder. Leaves in nearby trees shook, floated to the ground even though they were still green. Could it be? Could the dawn of this glorious new day be the day she was found? The longest game of hide and seek ever, she thought with a wry grin.

The machines rolled into sight, the same ones she’d been watching for months building all the new houses near her hiding place. Trucks and men gathered, shouting to one another. She didn’t care what they said, none of it concerned her. She watched, patiently, as they moved into position. The vehicle with the big bucket, the one that dug up the earth and deposited the dirt into huge trucks finally appeared. She wished she could control it, guide it to wear it needed to be.

The sun blazed high in the sky, she watched the men remove their hardhats and swipe sweaty brows. Now she listened, now she cared what they said.

“We’ll start excavation tomorrow, maybe day after.”

She shrugged, figuring tomorrow or the day after were better than the years she’d been waiting.

*

A week later, she watched as the big machine finally started to dig. Not where she needed them to dig, but close. She watched, listened to the birds, tentative in their perches as though they knew their safe place was in danger. She hadn’t left the area for months, waiting forever for them to work their way to where she rested. She got tired of watching them work, yearned to drift away, just for an hour, or a day. She didn’t have any concept of time, only knew the changing of day to night, summer to fall.

“Bones! Stop! We got bones!”

*

Several days to nights later, she was riding with her bones in a vehicle. She refused to leave, afraid she’d miss something. Finally, she’d been found. Now, she needed to know why. She knew who, when, all the boring details the police would eventually figure out themselves. She wished she could save them the weeks of work, the forensic stuff, but she couldn’t. She could take them straight to the who, she’d be with them when they figured it out. Would ride with them when they confronted him, maybe learn the whys. That’s all she wanted to know. What came after she learned them? She had no idea.

*

“I think I’ve got her!”

She clapped as Detective Thomas Erickson shouted from his chair behind the computer. Tom kept slapping his hand on the surface of his desk, his smile wide and made him even more handsome.

“You got her? Who is she?” Tom’s partner, Eleanor, dashed into the office they shared.

Tom swivelled the screen for Eleanor. “Margaret Aikens.”

Eleanor clapped Tom on the back. Margaret beamed at the two of them, they’d been working cold cases for a long time together, and had managed to figure out who she was a lot faster than Margaret had thought possible. Finally, she could leave her bones, stop visiting that dark lab where forensic people did disgusting things to her remains. She no longer cared what happened to them. Only what happened next.

*

“Quick recap then. Margaret left her parents house at about five o’clock on September twenty-seventh, fifty-eight years ago. It was a Saturday, and she’d been invited to her friend Louise’s house for dinner. She never arrived. Louise was surprised when Mr. and Mrs. Aikens woke her family at midnight, wondering where their daughter was. They called the police more than seven hours after the last time anyone saw Margaret alive. That’s where Detective George Lawson comes in. We have his reports, his notes, and you can tell he took young Margaret’s disappearance very seriously because of the incredible details.”

Margaret nodded her head vigorously. She’d spent hours and hours with George, whispering the name he was looking for over and over. Of course, George hadn’t listened, preferring to do things the hard way.

“I’ve got a name that comes up several times. Arch Benton. George wrote his name with an almost angry force.” Tom held up a piece of paper from the old file, showing Eleanor. “See? The pen ripped the paper on this one.”

“Who was Arch Benton?” Eleanor took the paper. Margaret watched the woman’s eyes fly across the page, back and forth like a pendulum.

“That’s the thing. There’s no clear indication. Just his name mentioned, over and over by family and friends. No clear accusation, no sort of feeling for who he was. The fact that his name came up so often? Leads me to believe George had to tread very carefully around the name, the man. We need to figure out who this Arch Benton was, and why George seems to have interviewed everyone from the most distant relative to those closest to Margaret, but never interviewed Arch.”

Margaret closed her eyes, a serene smile spreading over her face. George had been listening.

*

“Your not going to believe this, Tom. I’ve found him.”

Margaret heard Eleanor’s voice shriek over the phone as Tom answered. She’d been drifting between Tom’s house and Eleanor’s, now she wished she’d stayed a little longer at Eleanor’s. She clapped her hands. Eleanor had succeeded where even Margaret had failed. Try as she might, she’d never been able to locate him. She’d spent time with her parents, had even been at her brother’s bedside when he’d died. That had been hard, meeting her brother as he entered her world, calling her name from the world he was leaving, calling her name as he drifted through the world she was in now. He’d passed into a bright, beautiful light, his hand outstretched for hers, and she’d managed, barely, to resist reaching for him before he was gone, and with him the light.

“Where? Don’t leave me hanging, El.” Tom put his coffee down and sat back. Margaret had to stay close to hear what Eleanor said next.

“An LTC about forty minutes outside the city. A ritzy Long Term Care place.”

“So our guy has money. How old is he? Figure Margaret would’ve been seventy-five if she’d lived.”

“From the little I’ve been able to dig up, looks like he’s eighty. And he no longer goes by Arch Benton.”

Tom got to his feet and paced, making it hard for Margaret to keep an ear on the phone. “How’d you find out? What’s his name?”

“You got time now, or should we wait until we’re on the clock tomorrow to discuss it?”

Tom blew out a breath. “Give me a bit of it tonight. Maybe I’ll be able to sleep.”

“Tidy little package then. His father was that big shot lawyer, the one George mentioned when writing out info about Arch. Seems Arch’s daddy paid big bucks to quietly change his son’s name, had all records of it sealed. Arch Benton disappeared without a trace five years after Margaret disappeared, yet we had no idea how or why. Seems he never left the city. He just became Richard Robertson. His mother’s maiden name and his own middle name. Now why would a perfectly innocent acquaintance of the Aikens’ family change his name and go underground? He lived off trust funds left to Richard Robertson by his father, but as far as I can tell, the Benton’s never mentioned their son again publicly. The five years after Margaret’s disappearance until Richard’s appearance in the world, like he dropped out of the sky, there was little mention of him other than George’s notes. We can safely assume that Benton Sr. was the reason George never interviewed Arch. George’s notes are so careful to elude but never outright say anything about suspicion regarding Arch.”

Tom’s free hand clenched into a fist. “We need to find out if any other women disappeared before Robertson showed up. And if there were any after where Robertson’s name was mentioned in passing. That’s going to take a year to sift through.”

“I’ll run a search using the key names in the cold case archives. It’s not much, but it’s a start.”

Margaret wished she could use a computer, she’d help them search. Anything to get them going to see Arch before the guy died first.

*

Eleanor slammed the door behind her as she entered the office. Margaret came through the door right behind her, just as angry.

“What?” Tom looked up from his computer, apprehension etched on his face.

“We got nothin’. According to the chief, anyhow. He agrees that Arch slash Richard is suspicious. There was no DNA found on the remains that weren’t Margaret’s. At least not enough to matter. The missing homeless women were random and sporadic. Their bodies were never found so we can’t prove they didn’t just simply move somewhere else, died as Jane Does the way they’d lived. Nothing even remotely close to linking Arch to them. No reports from anyone mentioning Arch slash Richard had frequented their area. No DNA to trace because we haven’t got anything to get a DNA sample from. Random bodies found had matching DNA after the eighties, but without a suspect, they’re cold cases too. Even if we worked all of them, we’d never be able to find a link to Arch slash Richard.”

“Just call him Arch. This slash business grates on my nerves.” Tom blew out a frustrated breath. “What else did the chief say? You seem a little too upset considering we expected him to say that.”

Eleanor punched a stack of folders on the filing cabinet. Papers rained down to the ground. “I called the LTC, seems dear Mr. Robertson’s not in good health.”

Tom threw his pen. “How long?”

“Anytime. Though the woman I spoke to let slip that they’re surprised he hasn’t gone downhill faster. Sort of hinted he’s dying in slow motion.”

Margaret wished she could punch like Eleanor, throw things like Tom. She’d waited all these years, searched for whispers of Arch to find him, find out why, only to be denied the chance? “Please, go see him anyways. Let me get my answers before it’s too late.”

Margaret knew it was futile, no one had heard her since her brother in his own passing.

“Here’s what we’re going to do.” Tom gestured for Eleanor to come closer.

*

Margaret floated on air all the way up the interlock path, following Eleanor and Tom. This place was like nothing she’d ever seen alive, and unlike anything she’d paid attention to in death.

“You’re sure this is a Long Term Care place? Looks more like a movie stars mansion.” Tom pressed the buzzer at the door. “Ready, Betty?”

“As I’ll ever be, Fred.” Eleanor smoothed her blouse and patted her hair.

The door swung open and a fresh faced young woman smiled at them. “Mr. and Mrs. Stone?”

“That’s us.” Tom smiled at the woman as he gestured for Eleanor to go ahead of him. They stepped into the large foyer and followed the woman to a desk.

“Normally, I’d have to ask for your IDs and confirm you should be allowed in, but due to the circumstances…” The young woman smiled sadly.

“Thank you so much,” Eleanor whispered. Margaret almost believed the tears were real except she’d seen Tom pinch her.

“Mr. Robertson’s been here for so long and never had any visitors. Never spoke of any family. We wondered…” The young woman trailed off again as they made their way to a sweeping circular staircase.

Eleanor launched into the story she’d given that morning. “My mother always told me my grandfather was dead. Until right before she died, I had no reason to doubt her. Then my mother, on her deathbed, confessed that her father was still alive, that she’d run away to marry my father and never came back. My grandfather tried to find her but she refused to see him. I just want to meet him, you know? My mother wasn’t very kind, but you said my grandfather is?”

“Oh yes, he’s very likeable. Quiet, but always polite. Until you called, I always wondered why I sensed a sadness in him. Now I know.”

“You didn’t tell him I was coming, did you? I’m not sure I’ll tell him who I am. Might be too painful to dredge all that up when he’s so weak already. This is selfish of me, I know.” Eleanor gripped Tom’s hand and Margaret rolled her eyes behind them.

“No, we’ll let you decide if you want to share or not.” The woman led them along a long hallway. The carpet beneath their feet looked lush and rich to Margaret, and she wished she could feel if it were soft. The woman knocked lightly and opened the door. Margaret soared in, froze. The sounds in the room were so loud after the muffled hall. Beeps and whirs and rattling sounds, loud and intimidating.

Margaret drifted to the figure in the bed, hooked up to machines, with tubes running from his arms to bags hanging beside the bed. “Arch.”

Margaret couldn’t reconcile this miserable creature with the memory she’d carried in her mind. “Arch, this isn’t fair, this isn’t how it was supposed to be. You were supposed to be young, alive. Going down in a hail of bullets or something.”

“Mary, you can monitor everything from outside the room for five minutes, okay? Give Mr. and Mrs. Stone some privacy.”

Margaret had almost forgotten Eleanor and Tom were there. She watched as a nurse nodded, followed the young woman out of the room. When the door closed softly behind them, Tom approached the bed with Eleanor beside him.

“Mr. Robertson?”

Margaret worried he was already dead, that the machines keeping him alive had somehow missed that he was gone. But then Arch opened his eyes, the brown almost blue with age like Margaret’s grandmother’s had been.

“I understand you can’t talk to us, but we’ve been assured you can see and hear us.” Tom pulled a paper from the inside of his jacket. “Arch, do you recognize her?”

The man’s eyes widened in surprise at the use of the name. Margaret heard the beeps increase their pace, worried the nurse would come back and shoo Tom and Eleanor out. When the beeps slowed again, Tom held the picture close to Arch’s face. Margaret saw his eyes widen, saw the recognition. She wanted to curse, to scream, to cry. This wreck of a man wouldn’t be able to answer the question she’d waited fifty-eight years for. The question that burned brighter than the white light she’d turned from.

“Arch, you know what happened to Margaret, don’t you? Just nod your head.” Tom kept the picture in the man’s line of vision, and Arch never looked away.

“I hear death bed confessions are good for the soul, old man. If ever a soul needed to score points, it’s yours, here and now.” Eleanor spoke softly, almost gently, but the glint in her eyes made Margaret smile.

Arch glanced at the table behind them, back at them, then at the table again. When Tom and Eleanor continued to watch him, he raised a skinny arm and pulled the mask from his face. “Book.”

Tom didn’t seem to understand the whispered word, but Eleanor and Margaret did. Both spun to look at the table. An old, worn book lay on the table along with a cross and some rosary beads. Margaret read the faded cover, but didn’t understand because the words weren’t in English. Eleanor grabbed the book and lifted it so Arch could see. “This book?”

Arch blinked, his head moving slightly in assent. Eleanor and Tom opened the book together. Margaret stood behind them, reading over their shoulders.

“The writing is so faded.” Eleanor complained, flipping pages. “We’ll never be able to read it.”

“Let me see.” Tom took the book and squinted. “I can make out some of the words.”

“Read it out loud.” Eleanor and Margaret watched Arch as Tom began to read aloud.

“Dad always said there wasn’t a murder that didn’t leave traces. Bragged it was his job to find the traces before the prosecutors, suppress them. I wanted to know the lengths he’d go to. She was easy, Margaret Aiken. Stupid girl got into my car when I offered her a drive. At first, she didn’t seem to mind that I’d driven past her friend’s house. I was going to let her out at the next street when she didn’t react, but then she started to cry. That’s when I got excited. She begged me to stop, to let her go. I kept driving to the hunting cabin. We got there and she stopped crying. Stopped begging. Seemed to accept her fate. I got bored. Killed her, watched her die. When she was dead, I was so angry. She’d died so fast. She should have begged, fought me. But she didn’t. She just muttered her prayers the whole time. And then, she went blank. Such a disappointment. I should’ve let her out of the car, found someone else. I buried her in a field, left. Was home before anyone even knew she was missing. I waited forever for someone to question me. To mention seeing me with her, lots had seen me. I finally told Dad. Cost him a fortune to get people to change their stories, to lie. The cop suspected me, but he couldn’t get enough to charge me. Dad wouldn’t let him question me, said there was no way he’d let his son be bothered by police, that as the best lawyer in the city he’d be a laughingstock if he let him question me. Dad told me how stupid I’d been, picking a sweet girl like Margaret. Said if I had half a brain, I’d have gone for a girl no one would miss. So I did. Dad was right, no one ever suspected me when a prostitute disappeared, or a homeless woman. I didn’t have to work so hard to hide their bodies, but I put in a bit of effort. Weighed them down in the lake, buried them in dumpsters headed for landfills. Just left their carcasses in forests. After Margaret, Dad didn’t trust me. Kept watch. But when he found me with the body of a homeless woman, he made me change my name and I was moved out of the spotlight Dad’s fame cast. Every chance I got, and there weren’t many, I went out to find another. But none of them brought the same sort of feeling Margaret had. Because as disappointing as she’d been, it was a challenge to make her beg again. But she didn’t beg. Didn’t cry. The others were weak, begged until there was no more breath.”

Margaret looked from the book to Arch. She’d waited fifty-eight years to find out she’d only died because she’d cried? He hadn’t picked her, loved her, stalked her. She’d been walking down the street and was a convenient target. So random. Not special, not for any great reason she might be able to reconcile her cruel fate with.

“You killed her just to see if you could get away with it?” Tom stared at Arch, his disbelief mirrored on Eleanor’s face.

“She was only seventeen. She had her whole life ahead of her.” Eleanor whispered, and Margaret thought she might actually be sad, not acting.

Tom flipped the page. “When Dad died, I lost my inspiration. I never killed again after that. I guess because I knew there’d be no one as good as him to save me from jail. But man, what a run. If I had it to do over again? I would’ve done more. Been more. Done it better. But my one regret, the one that’ll haunt me until the day I die? That I didn’t take longer to kill Margaret. I think, if I had tortured her more, had more time, I could have made her beg.”

“You sick SOB.” Eleanor spat the words. “This is your dying day, and after hearing that? I hope you have an eternity to rot, dwelling on all your regrets. No, I hope you relive everything, only the girls don’t die, that they turn on you. I hope when you take your last breath, you see them happy, knowing they’re in a better place, a place you’ll never go.”

Tom lifted the cross and rosary beads. “Are these for show?”

Arch smiled. Margaret saw the faint upturn of his lips, the laughter in his rheumy eyes. He gave them the thumbs up.

Eleanor shuddered. “Evil. Sick. I wouldn’t have begged you for my life either.”

The humour faded from Arch’s features as Tom grabbed Eleanor’s hand. “I’d love to arrest him, but we’re not supposed to be here. We’ll get his DNA postmortem. But we won’t tell the world what a monster he was, why give him that fame? We’ll close the case quietly, match him to as many other cold cases as we can, and let him rot in his destiny without any fame.”

Margaret watched them leave. She had no need to follow them. She’d wait until Arch died. Then she’d figure out what to do. How to find the light she’d turned from.

The nurse and the young woman entered the room. “He’s still hanging in there?”

“Had a little spike when that couple were here, but otherwise the same as he’s been for hours. Stubborn. You’d think at this point he’d be glad to leave the pain behind. Such a sweet guy. Do you believe in Heaven, Mary?”

“I do.” Mary adjusted something on one of the drips. “Surely Mr. Robertson would be thrilled to meet his maker.”

“Mr. Robertson, it’s okay. You can let go.” The young woman patted his hand and left the room.

Margaret had been watching Arch during the exchange. She knew why he was clinging to life. Fear.

Margaret wanted quiet. She didn’t dare leave the room, not for a minute, in case she missed it. She wanted to be there, see him off. Would he go to the light? She wasn’t sure what happened to someone if they weren’t going on, into the light. She shivered involuntarily as a thought flickered. What if he were stuck here, where Margaret was, forever? And because she’d turned away from the light, she could never go on? Had her need for answers cost her eternity in Heaven? One thing she knew; if she were stuck in the same place as Arch, she wouldn’t beg for anything. She couldn’t imagine torturing him the way he’d tortured her, but she wouldn’t let him hurt her.

The machines made different sounds. Margaret waited as the nurse got up to check the bags dripping into the needles in Arch’s arms. He stiffened in the bed, and Margaret kept watch. Finally, finally something happened.

She watched Arch leave the old man. She rose up with him, waiting to see. Arch turned to her, his eyes widening. “Margaret!”

The room filled with light. Margaret felt something she hadn’t felt before. Heat. The light had a flickering quality to it; instinctively she moved away. Arch tried to follow, but the light reached out, caught him. Screaming, Arch held out his arms to her. Margaret couldn’t have touched him if she wanted to. The heat stifled, choked. Margaret watched as flames engulfed him, and with the fading scent of acrid smoke, Arch and the flames were gone.

“Who was Margaret?” Mary whispered, closing Arch’s eyes on the bed below. “God rest you both.”

Margaret looked up, to Heaven. “I’m ready. I hope I can find my way to the light.”

And as fast as the flickering light had come for Arch, the brilliant, blinding pure white light came for her. And this time Margaret went into it.

Out of the Ash Soars Hope

The house was so empty, so funeral-parlour quiet. My steps echoed as I wandered through, looking for – what? Forgotten shards of a life together crumbled into bits? Signs that this was a dream? There was no fog, no distorting images, only the fog in my head and the blurred vision from my tears. The squeaky floorboards grated my scraped raw soul.

“Are you coming?” Jody, my sister (and sometimes friend, mostly foe), called from the front door.

“Just go, I’ll be there in a sec.” I opened the cellar door with half a mind to go down and check no boxes or broken bits of my heart were left behind.

“You’ve been through the house twenty times already. Let’s go. I’ve got stuff to do.”

I slammed the cellar door, grief quickly becoming anger. “Fine.”

Jody waited until I’d crossed the deck before closing the door on my life. I could break windows, force my way in if I wanted, but for what? The house was a barren wasteland of what once was. “Hurry up; I swear, if you went any slower you’d be going backwards.”

Jody brushed past me and slid into the driver’s seat of her pick-up truck, loaded down with the last of my possessions. The small garden lining the front of the deck, mostly weeds for the past few years, was full of dead leaves. Not a single bloom in sight, no sign of cheer or hope.

I climbed into the truck. Before I’d even reached for my seatbelt, Jody was reversing. “Where are you going to keep your crap? I haven’t got room.”

“Dad said I could keep some in the garage.” I didn’t bother with the seatbelt. Jody was racing out of town like there was a fire to get to; if I was lucky we’d crash, and I’d burn.

“Yeah, because he doesn’t have enough junk.” Jody rolled her eyes as she swerved around a car in her path.

Our father was a hoarder. Not an exaggeration, either. A legit, defined the word, bona-fide hoarder. “Not my first choice, but –”

Jody shrugged as she slammed on her brakes for a red light. “How long do plan on staying with me?”

Translation – how long will your sorry butt be a burden. “Not long.”

“You know I’ll ride your behind ’til you actually get out, don’t you?” We’d just left town and I knew Jody hated this light because it stopped her from standing on the gas and putting miles between her and my town. Not my town anymore, I corrected myself.

I nodded, leaning my forehead against the glass and staring out the window at the countryside. My sister and my mother had fought, actually screamed and almost come to blows, over who had to take me in. Jody lost.

Jody put her hand on the centre of the steering wheel, the horn shrieking louder than a cat whose tail was pinned beneath an attacking coyote. The driver of the car she was honking at flipped her the bird but finally moved. “Most people have friends to take them in.”

My eyes burned but there were no tears left to spill. Friends? I’d thought I’d had some, but turns out doing favours for people doesn’t make you a friend. I tuned Jody out as I tried to figure out what to do next. Get out of Jody’s hair as soon as I could was top of the list, and I hadn’t even officially moved in yet. The truck bounced over a pothole and my forehead smacked the glass.

Jody snorted. “Pathetic. Look, I’ll get the boys to take the boxes and stuff to the garage, better there than Dad’s. Rick’ll bring your clothes into your room.”

I glanced at Jody, searching for the angle. “Why?”

Jody blew out a breath, her dark hair rising off her forehead. “Because anything else right now would be like kicking a kitten.”

*

I lay on the sofa, staring at the water-stained ceiling tiles. The thump-thump-thump of rap, mixed with the twang of country music was a constant, never-ending din in my sister’s basement. The only thing missing was the wailing of heavy metal. Each male in Jody’s house had a different music taste, and each played to win the contest of who listens to crap the loudest. I’d been staying in her tiny make-shift room for a week, and about all I’d figured out in life was that I could tell who was home by the noise.

“Ash, get up!” Jody banged something on the pipes outside my room.

I groaned, rolling myself to sitting position. “What?”

When Jody didn’t answer, I got to my feet. My body protested, aches on pains on stiff muscles screamed with each step. I flung back the shower curtain Rick had hung so I’d have privacy. I heard Jody in the laundry area and followed the sound of running water.

“What?” I repeated my question as Jody shoved dark clothes into the washer and reached for more.

I was about to repeat myself when Jody paused in the act of pulling men’s boxers from a pair of black jeans. “Doug called. He’s dropping by.”

I hated the flash of hope that winked through the darkness in my heart, like someone taking a picture with the flash on in a tunnel. “When?”

Jody’s blue eyes, so like my own, so like our father’s, filled with anger. “An hour or so. You’re pathetic. You’re happy, aren’t you?”

Happy? What was that? Nothing I knew, at least not for a long time. “Hardly.”

Jody put a pair of pants into the machine and slammed the lid. Grabbing the basket of clean clothes from the top of the dryer, she shoved past me. “Do yourself a favour and get mad. This pathetic wounded little mouse routine is getting old, and fast.”

Ignoring Jody, I scrounged up some respectable clothes and went into the tiny washroom beside the laundry room. With the washing machine running the water barely got warm, or else someone had used all the hot water already. I got out and wrapped a towel around me as I tried to comb my hair. The tangles from neglect were as tangled as my emotions. Doug, coming here, to see me? Why was I nervous, excited? I should be furious, like Jody said. Even Rick and the boys said I should get spiteful, soak Doug for more.

My clothes were loose. Not like I couldn’t afford to lose a few pounds, at least according to Doug. I didn’t bother with make-up because the mirror down here was cracked and hard to see in. Besides, I knew Jody would throw a fit if she saw blush on my cheeks, lipstick on my lips, scream that I was gussying myself up for trash.

I slid my socked feet into a pair of Jody’s running shoes (all my footwear were either ripped or slippers) and climbed the steep stairs to the main floor. The music was down to country and barely audible. Either the boys were out and Rick didn’t need to compete, or Jody was home alone and tired of loud. I knew better than to ask Jody if I could make a pot of coffee for when Doug came, so I searched for tea bags in case he wanted something to drink.

“Don’t bother. He’s not coming in.” Jody slammed the cupboard door where I was looking, almost catching my fingers.

“I could make it and bring it outside,” I said, reaching to open the door again.

Jody shook her head. “Said he just needed to ask you something, or whatever. I wasn’t listening, really.”

“Ask me what?” I stared at Jody, biting my lip.

Jody shrugged as she grabbed an apple from the bowl. “How would I know? Why would I care?”

I opened my mouth but closed it when I heard the roar of Doug’s pride and joy coming up the drive. “He’s here.”

Jody rolled her eyes. “Obviously.”

I smoothed my long hair and wiped my hands on my pants. “How do I –”

Jody glared at me. “I’d only answer that if I thought you were aiming to make him regret life choices, but since I know better, I’ll leave it as pathetic.”

I heard the blast of classic rock music as he opened the car door. I swallowed the bile rising as I opened the screen door to step outside. “Hey.”

My husband of twenty-three years stood by his shiny car, staring up at me. He was forty-seven years old (five years older than me), handsome as sin, and got better with age, like whisky. Or so Doug said, at least. I could see the paunch hanging over his jeans, the grey at his temples, but they didn’t bother me. I’d fallen in love at first sight, never imagined such a virile and sexy guy could ever look twice at mousy me.

I went down the uneven porch steps, wanting to run into his arms and kiss him. Instead, I stood awkwardly a few feet away. He still hadn’t spoken a word, so I repeated my greeting. “Hey.”

“You need a haircut.” Doug frowned and seemed to reconsider his words. “Sorry.”

Bolstered by the foreign apology, I took a deep breath. “I know. I shouldn’t have skipped my appointment last month with Rhoda.”

“None of my business,” Doug shrugged, and I saw him look into the front seat of his car. I followed his gaze, spotted Crystal. Any hope I’d had caught fire inside me and I felt rage ignite from the flames.

“You brought her? To my sister’s house?” I squared my shoulders, fury fanning the flames. “You’re pathetic. Nearly fifty and you’re running around with a little girl.”

Doug raised his eyebrows at my tone, my words. “What?”

“You’re a sad and pathetic old man trying to feel young by running around with kids.” I pushed my sleeves up and kicked the gravel so that little stones hit his shins.

“Calm down, Ashley. Geez, you’re acting like a lunatic.”

“What do you want, Doug?” I spat his name.

Doug looked unsure what to say because of my temper. I guess he’d expected another puddle of oozing devastation. “I reconsidered – not about us, but about the settlement. I’m not bein’ fair, really. If you wanna sign right now, we can be divorced in thirty days, I won’t contest the last offer.”

I stared at him, open mouthed. He’d fought anything my lawyer asked of him, the smallest pittance I hadn’t even asked for. My lawyer, frustrated at my lack of demands, had made his own. “You want me to sign? You’re willing to give me half of everything?”

Doug’s eyes widened in surprise. “No, of course not. I just thought we could sign off on what your lawyer proposed last time. You know, half my pension and what you put into buying the house.”

The words my lawyer had uttered, over and over, during my apathy, came to me now. “No, Doug. I’m thinking we need to forget mediation and go full throttle on the divorce. I want half of everything. Half of your pension, half of your bank accounts, and half of what you sold my house for. Half your fancy car. You can have the trunk, I just want the motor. Oh, and I want alimony until I find a job that pays a decent wage. You know, because minimum wage is nothing. I gave up everything for you. Now I want you to give up everything for me.”

I started backing away when what I really wanted to do was charge him, punch, hit, maim him. Doug had never seen me mad, and he underestimated my rage. “Well now, that might be a problem, Ashley. Crystal’s pregnant.”

Hysterical laughter bubbled from my gut. “Guess you’re really in it now, aren’t you? Your lawyer fees just doubled since I don’t have a job – because of you – I’ll be demanding you pay for my lawyer, too.”

Doug rearranged his features into the mask he’d worn whenever he wanted to get me to agree to something I didn’t like. How had I never noticed how weak chinned he was? How utterly unattractive? “Babe, come on, be reasonable. You don’t want a child to be born into misery, do you?”

I glanced at the nasty young woman in the front seat, the one who’d known full well she was messing with a married man, my married man. Then I locked gazes with Doug. “I’m thinking you underestimate me, Doug.”

I spun on my heel, darted up the steps. Jody met me at the door. Her high five stung my palm, but I grinned. “Welcome back, Ash.”

“Thanks. Now get the boys to set me up a proper bed downstairs, because that lumpy sofa is gonna kill me.”

*

“I’m riding shotgun with Auntie Ash,” Clint, my oldest nephew, shouted as he ran out of the house.

“I was gonna let you drive!” Jody shouted after him.

Clint skidded on the gravel, his gaze swinging from my brand-new Jeep to his mother’s dusty pick-up truck. His indecision cost him; Brent tore past his older brother and hopped into the Jeep. Clint snatched the keys from Jody’s hand and climbed in.

I led the way down Jody and Rick’s rutted driveway, waving at Rick who was cutting the grass as I passed. “You get to pick alternative rock or eighties and nineties pop music. Or silence.”

Brent, the heavy metal lover, shrugged and started pressing preset buttons for the radio. I slapped his hand when he reached for the volume button. “No louder.”

“You’re really going to move out?” Brent asked, strumming his thigh to the music.

“Yeah. Maybe next month, if your mom agrees with me that this is the one.” I glanced in the rearview and grinned. Jody’s face was pale in the passenger seat, and Clint, new to driving, was being left in my dust. I adjusted my speed so that I wasn’t too far ahead of them.

“I can’t believe you’ve never owned a car before.” Brent stared at me as if hoping to catch me admitting I’d lied.

“Never. Only time I was allowed to drive was when Uncle Doug was drinking, drunk enough to admit he shouldn’t drive.” And then I’d been scared to death, because Doug shouted warnings every minute, scared I’d scratch his baby.

“Do I still have to call him that?” Brent asked with a scowl. “I never liked him much.”

I wondered if the aches would ever stop. I’d resigned myself to life without him, but there were still the lingering feelings that reached out to slap me now and then. “No, you don’t have to call him uncle.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of Doug. Can I call him Uncle Dung?”

I grinned at my nephew, the spitting image of Jody. I supposed of me, too, since Jody and I looked so much alike. “How about just call him Dung?”

“Can I call his new wife Dung-for-brains?” Brent considered as I snorted a laugh. “And the kid Baby Dung?”

“Maybe leave the kid out of it.” I was jealous yet still protective of the unborn baby that symbolized everything I’d lost. Doug kept promising next year, next year we’d start our family. But then he’d say stuff like we needed a bigger house, or work was too busy to think about a family — work he couldn’t have done if I hadn’t worked my tail off to support us both while he went to trade school (which he’d failed twice – once in plumbing, and then his first attempt when he switched to electrician). He’d finally ended up passing, become a master electrician, and we’d been in debt up the wazoo from student loans. Yet Doug had convinced me to quit my job because he was humiliated when his boss told the other guys I was one of the maids working for the service his wife hired. Doug wanted me home, anyhow. I’d taken over all household chores, even cut the grass and shoveled the driveway. We lived in town, within walking distance to everything, so Doug hadn’t seen the need to get me a car.

I’d been divorced for a few weeks and still trying to wrap my head around Doug’s deceptions. The only household chore Doug handled was the banking. He gave me a cash allowance every month and I kept receipts to show what I’d spent money on. He’d complain about the mortgage payments, the household bills, said we barely made ends meet. I’d offer to go back to work, but he’d say no, I wasn’t qualified to do anything outside the minimum wage bracket so what was the point? I should be grateful he supported me. Even his stupid car — I’d had no idea how much he’d spent on it, what it was worth. He’d even lied to me about how much he’d sold our little house for, offered me the money I’d put in on the downpayment and twenty thousand extra. My lawyer had laughed bitterly, even Doug’s lawyer had tried to hide his face in shame for what I was offered for settlement. When the secrets Doug had kept were fully exposed, I’d felt like I’d won the lottery. Best of all was that I’d finally felt absolved of guilt for keeping my own secrets for years.

“Auntie Ash?” Brent cleared his throat.

I glanced at Brent, jerked from my thoughts by his voice. “Sorry?”

“Uh, just that I think we’re almost there.” Brent smiled sheepishly at me and I realized he was right.

I parked in front of the building. Clint parked behind me and I flashed him the thumb’s up when he’d finished a perfect parallel park. Grabbing my purse, I slid out of the Jeep. “Good job.”

Jody, looking green, glared at me. “Don’t encourage him.”

“This is why I prefer driving with Dad. You’re like this hysterical girl or something. Too fast, too slow, too close to the ditch, you almost hit that car passing.”

I hadn’t seen anything wrong with Clint’s driving, at least not when I’d been paying attention. “Tell you what, when we leave, you can drive the Jeep home.”

“Good thing it’s got an off-road feature, you’ll need it with him,” Jody muttered in my ear as we approached the store front.

I pulled the door open, my eyes adjusting to the dim interior. The scent of stale grease and grime wrinkled my nose. “Laurie? You here?”

My realtor, a woman I’d gone to school with, came out of the back. “Ash, hey. Jody? I haven’t seen you in ages!”

Jody was swept up in a flowery scented hug and I realized my mistake. Jody hadn’t gotten along with many of the girls in our high school, and the girlier the girl, the less she’d tolerated them. Laurie had been the girliest of them all. Freeing herself from Laurie’s clutches, Jody took two steps back, her forced smile making her look constipated. “Hey, Laurie.”

“Did you use John when you bought the farm?” Laurie’s shrewd gaze pierced Jody. “Happy there? If you’re thinking of selling, I know –”

“Didn’t buy, just transferred ownership from Rick’s parents. Not selling. I’m here to scrutinize for my sister.” Jody shot me a look that spurred me into action.

“Okay, so. Laurie? Mind if I take the tour alone? I mean, alone with my sister and the boys. I want their honest opinion, but don’t want them being, er…”

“She doesn’t want you to influence us.” Brent thrust his chest out proudly. “She values our opinion and there’s nothin’ in it for us.”

Laurie covered her irritation with polished poise. “Right, well, go on then.”

Jody gave the agent a wide berth as we made our way to the back of the store. “You could’ve warned me.”

“I wasn’t thinking. It’s so weird, being back here. Whenever we came to visit, Doug never went through town. Not a lot of Brock peeps where we lived. Now, come on.”

“Show us the living area, first.” Jody averted her gaze from the filthy mess in the back. “Because if you start here, we’re gonna have to say no.”

“I can only show you the one empty apartment. It’ll be mine, but the other one is rented. A single mother with a teenage girl.” I opened the door at the back and revealed a hidden set of stairs. “There’s an outside entrance too, I can seal this one off if I ever decide to move and rent it out.”

“Who’s the girl?” Clint asked as we trudged up the narrow steps.

“I don’t know her name. The mom’s name is Beth Martin, if that helps.” I reached the small landing and put my hand on the knob. I took a deep breath and opened the door, letting the boys and Jody go in first.

“Bright, good space,” Jody mumbled as she went to the double windows where the living room would be. “Good view of the river below. You got a balcony?”

I snorted. “You’re looking at it.”

Brent peered out. “I just see the fire escape.”

Clint opened the window and climbed out. “Oh, er. Hi, Mandy.”

I stood behind Brent and peeked, wondering who Mandy was. I realized Clint had caught Beth’s daughter on their fire escape. Brent snorted. “Clint’s gonna be here a lot.”

“That’s the Mandy? The one Clint’s been raving about for months?” I took a better look at the girl. “She’s cute.”

Jody pulled us over to the kitchen. “Don’t embarrass him.”

“Yeah, Aunt Ash. He’s good at embarrassing himself, he doesn’t need our help.” Brent snickered. “Look, he keeps fixing his hair.”

Jody opened the oven, ran the water in the sink. “Cleaner than downstairs at least.”

“It’s small, I know, but –” I bit my lip as Jody searched the cupboards and small pantry.

“Mom! There’s two bedrooms, come see,” Brent called from the other end of the apartment. “We can spy on Clint.”

“Get out of there,” Jody yelled. “Where’s the bathroom?”

I pointed to the door between the two bedrooms. The bigger bedroom faced the riverside of the building and the other faced the street. The bathroom had no window. “It’s small.”

Jody ran the tap in the sink, the tub, flushed the toilet. She turned the shower on. “At least the plumbing seems decent. Good water pressure.”

“There’s an inline water heater downstairs. Each tenant pays a portion of the water and gas bills. Each unit has their own hook up and metre for hydro.” I bit my lip as Jody continued her inspection, checking closets, bedrooms, ceilings in all the rooms. “The roof is fairly new. Previous owner before the one selling did a lot of upgrades and fixing up in the past ten years or so.”

“Yeah, and current owner is some city slicker guy. Only owned it a few months. Why’s he selling?”

“He owes back taxes or something.” I averted my gaze, heard Jody’s snort. I huffed out a breath as I stared at her smug face. “Fine, obviously you know the whole story.”

Jody grinned. “Yep. The greasy spoon downstairs was a front for a drug ring. You forget the power of Brock’s gossip and news flow.”

I hunched my shoulders. “You don’t think I should buy it?”

Jody shook her head and my heart sank. “I didn’t say that.”

I blinked. “What?”

“I think, for once, you’re being really smart, little sister. I’ve heard Beth Martin’s had a rough go, she’s working hard to get ahead after a bad marriage. She’s determined to make it, and she’s got a decent job at the coffee shop so you’re guaranteed her rent. The little odds and ends store downstairs is fairly new and no one knew if it’d last but it’s holding it’s own, so you got that rent, too.”

Feeling more confident, I nodded. “Glad you think it’s a good idea. I already bought it.”

Jody gaped at me. “What?”

“I’m just here for the keys, to sign some final papers. This is mine, all mine.” I threw my hands out as I spun in circles. “I’ve run the numbers. The place is cheap because of the whole drug guy desperate to sell. The renters will cover bills and property taxes.”

“How will you eat, Auntie Ash?” Brent came out of the big bedroom, obviously bored of spying on Clint and Mandy. “That’s what Dad said, when he and Mom were talking this morning, that you’re smart except that you’ll have to go to the food bank unless you rent the downstairs quick.”

“That’s the other part. I want to open a business.”

*

Excitement and nervous energy kept me moving. Opening day, ribbon cutting with the mayor, photographer from the small Brock news outlet. Half the town would show up because everyone wanted to have first-hand gossip to spread, didn’t want to hear from anyone else what they’d missed. Jury was out on how I’d be received.

“Man, it smells great in here.” Rick stopped by the apartment door and sniffed. “Jody, why doesn’t our kitchen ever smell so good?”

Jody stuck her head out from behind the cabinet she was inspecting. “Careful, or you’ll never smell food cooking in our kitchen again.”

“Ms. Anders?”

I wiped the spotless work surface for something to do. I had slow cookers running, ovens going, stove tops with bubbling pots.

“Ms. Anders?”

“Yo, Auntie Ash. I think Mandy’s talking to you.” Brent snorted as he nudged me.

I glanced up, caught off guard. “What? Oh, sorry, Mandy. It’s been a lifetime since I’ve been Ashley Anders, I guess. What’s up?”

“The health department just finished their final check.”

I swallowed around the lump forming in my throat. I felt like I was walking to the firing squad with each step I took. “Did you, er, get a feeling?”

Mandy shook her head. “I’m sorry. That guy is cranky, hard to tell.”

“It’s fine, Ash. Go on.” Rick patted my shoulder as Jody gave me the thumbs up. Even Clint managed to keep his eyes off Mandy as he nudged me through the door.

The old guy with the clipboard was writing away when I entered the main part. I didn’t want to interrupt so I went to the desk and fiddled with pamphlets.

“Okay, Ms. Anders.” He tore off some papers from his clipboard. “Well done.”

I blinked. “Pardon?”

He smirked as he held the papers, waving them. “Go on, take them.”

I wiped my sweaty hands on my apron before grabbing the papers. My hands shook and I almost dropped them in my haste to read. The papers fluttered and I finally gave up trying to steady them. “I passed?”

“With flying colours. You know your stuff, and I like the extra temperature gauges for cooked foods, freezers, everything. I’d say you’ve gone way overboard, above and beyond, but in my line of work I don’t believe there’s any such thing as too many safety precautions. I know the fire chief gave you an outstanding evaluation, too, for all the CO2 detectors, the smoke detectors.”

Jody joined us, clapping. “I’ll let you have that I told you so.”

I grinned at my sister who’d scoffed at all the extra precautions I’d invested in. “I passed. I can open.”

“I want to be happy for you but I was kind of hoping you’d fail so we’d have to eat everything.” Rick put his arm around Jody and winced when she elbowed his ribs. “Kidding. I was kidding.”

“I’ll get out of here after I hang your certicate.” The old guy shuffled over to the wall I’d shown him. I had all my food handler certificates, my business license, everything hanging in place of pride behind the computer – the computer that I’d enter sales into, the computer I’d crash-coursed how to run a business.

“There’s a bit of a crowd out there. I think I’ll let myself out through the back.” The old guy shook my hand and shuffled into the off-limits cooking area.

“Okay, you still want to speak to the reporter for the local paper? She’d asked for an interview before the official opening, and you’re running out of time. I can tell her you’ll call her later, if you want?” Jody stood on tiptoe to see into the crowd. “She’s there, near the corner.”

“I’d rather get it over with.” I swallowed as Rick knocked on the glass near where Liz stood. She nodded her understanding as he gestured to the back.

“What am I supposed to say?” I gripped Jody’s arm as Brent raced around to let her in. “I don’t even remember her from school.”

“You wouldn’t. She went to school with Doug. Next county over.”

I groaned, feeling my shoulders sag. “Seriously? Why didn’t you tell me? Why’s she working for Brock news?”

“She lives here now, dummy.” Jody rolled her eyes. “Mom set the whole thing up and Liz agreed to leave Doug out of the article.”

“Mrs. Hague?” Liz came into the store area, her face all business.

“Ms. Anders. But you can call me Ash.” I shook her hand as I gestured to a small table. “We can sit down if you’d like.”

“It’s fine. My photographer is taking pictures in the back, guarded by your nephew. He’ll come out here, take a couple of you and the store, then we’ll be on our way.”

I relaxed. “Oh, good. I thought you wanted an interview.”

Liz grinned, pulling out a recorder. “I’m going to record our conversation and pick any relevant bits out for the article. So, Mama’s Little Helper, huh?”

I eyed the device, swallowed. “Yep.”

“Relax, okay? Tell me about your business.”

When I didn’t speak, Jody jumped in. “I’m sure our mother told you everything.”

“Yes, she told me that Ash knew how hard it was for working parents to put decent meals on the table, get chores done.”

“That’s right. Ash is brilliant, honestly.” I gaped at Jody, shocked to my core at the praise.

Liz kept glancing at me but I didn’t have anything to add. “So then, in a nutshell, you sell homecooked meals for families?”

Jody nodded, but I frowned. “It’s more than that.”

“How?”

“Being a housewife for years, I got bored of meat and potatoes. I started watching cooking shows on TV. Started preparing a variety of healthy meals for my husband, figuring one day I’d be cooking for a family of my own. My husband didn’t like leftovers, so I started giving my neighbour our left overs. She worked two jobs, and rarely had time to cook for herself.”

Liz nodded. “I can understand that.”

“When she moved away, I was stuck. I’d have a fridge full of leftovers, no matter how hard I tried to buy only enough for the two of us.” I remembered running plates of food next door when a young family moved in, how appreciative they were. “I’d help out neighbours, sometimes they’d offer to pay me to cook for them, provided the food even.”

“You started a business?” Liz asked.

“No, not really. Just helping out others.” I shrugged. “But I’d listen to them, heard the woes. How hard to find time to cook decent meals, how hard it was to get all the chores done.”

“And you figured you could help?” Liz smiled. “Mama’s little helper. I get it now.”

“But it’s more than just food. I’ve made a deal with the laundromat down the street. Parents can bring their laundry here, and pick it up the next day, folded and ironed. Joint effort, the laundromat will wash and dry when they’re not busy, I’ll iron and fold. My nephews and some of their friends, are willing to cut grass, shovel snow, as needed. I’ve got a whole list of babysitters with references I can give them, help take the leg work out of finding someone.”

“Wow.” Liz’s face lit up. “Where were you when my kids were little?”

Dreaming of a family of my own. I shook my head, pushing the negative thoughts away. “Practicing for the future.”

The photographer came in, snapping a couple of photos. “What’s in here?”

I glanced at the fridge. “Oh, those are sides, like pasta salads and things. You can buy tubs of them, or small serving sizes for lunches. The containers everything is in are microwaveable, dishwasher safe. You pay a deposit on them, and if you want to keep them, they’re yours, but if you bring them back, rinsed out, you get your deposit back. We’ve got industrial dishwashers to wash and sterilize so they can be reused. The precooked meals that can go in the oven to warm have higher deposits because they’re sturdier dishes for the oven. Basically the deposit covers my cost for them, and is refundable when returned.”

“All homecooked meals, all healthy?” Liz shook her head, amazed.

“Yes. And if you want something but we don’t have it, we’ll make sure we get it. Oh, and we also have prepackaged slow cooker meals. All the ingredients needed, with cooking instructions, so you can come home to a freshly cooked meal. We also have order forms, to order a week at a time, ready for pick up. Every day we cook fresh food, various meals, that we’ll freeze if not sold. The theory being that sometimes people end up working late and don’t want to have to grab fast food or preservative laden freezer meals from the grocery store. Call and find out what’s being cooked and fresh that day, or order a frozen choice. If really time crunched, we’ll deliver.”

“Ash? It’s opening time.” Jody went to the door, flipped the sign to open.

I swiped my hands down my sides, smoothing my clothes and wiping the sudden moisture on my palms.

“Lose the apron, Ms. Anders.” Mandy tugged the tie at my back.

“Thanks. I knew I’d hired you for a reason.” I grinned as Mandy tucked the apron under the counter.

I went to the door, unlocked it. The mayor was there, and most of the town by the looks of it. Liz and her photographer slid out beside me.

“Ready?”

I nodded, reaching for Jody’s hand. The mayor beamed at me and the Chamber of Commerce president nodded. They said a few words, none of which I could hear over the pounding of my heart and the murmurs from the crowd. Then it was done, and my little store was packed.

“Do you smell that?”

“I’m suddenly starving.”

“There’s laundry service? I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

I gaped at Jody, listening to the remarks. “Jody, is it just me, or do they sound positive?”

“More than positive. I just heard someone shouting about how you even do holiday meals, they’ll never have to cook another turkey.”

I shook hands, nodded, watched containers fly out of fridges and freezers. Mandy and Clint were running the cash, Brent helping keep the traffic flowing. Rick brought out stock from the freezers in the back when supplies ran low. Jody kept checking on the food cooking, selling almost everything I’d planned to freeze.

By closing time, I was wiped. When the last of the people left, I staggered to the small table and dropped. “What just happened?”

“Mom! Come see!” Clint hollered from the computer.

I watched Jody rush over, prepared myself for a nightmare. Jody swore. “If you’re going to tell me that the system didn’t work, can you just lie to me instead? I don’t want anything to ruin my mood.”

Jody shook her head. “Remember you’re projected totals? You had the minimum you needed to make every day, then you had your fantasy total?”

I stifled a yawn. “Yeah. What about them?”

“What if I told you you’d hit your fantasy?” Jody grinned.

I blinked, stretched. “Not bad at all.”

Jody frowned. “Your fantasy for the month, dummy. You sold your dream goal for the month in a half day.”

I stared at Jody, then scanned the room. “What are you all standing around for? Do you know how much we’ve got to cook to replace what was sold?”

“I’m out of here. I’ve got cows to milk,” Rick snorted as he bent over to kiss my head.

“You need to go through the resumes.” Jody shook her head. “I’ve got enough to do at home, I can’t keep helping you cook.”

“What resumes?” My heart was pounding. A solid week, I’d been cooking for a solid week to make enough food, round the clock, and now? I had to start over.

“These.” Mandy brought me a few pages. “I put them in order, who looked like good candidates. The top one? She’s my old family studies teacher. She retired but she’s bored. That’s what she said, anyhow. Said she never had you in her class, though.”

“I never took it. Never had any interest in cooking.” I laughed as I thumbed through the pages. “I’ll start calling once I get the ovens going.”

“Already cleaned the slow cookers and pans, so you’re set. My mom’s coming down when she’s out of the shower, said she’d give you hand prepping.”

“She’s hired. Tell her to quit the coffee shop. I’ll hire the teacher, your mom, and what’s-his-name, the retired chef guy.” I yawned, pushing myself to my feet.

“I guess now wouldn’t be a good time to discuss expansion plans?” Clint glanced at his mom, then back at me.

I squinted. “What expansion plans?”

“I kept a list of suggestions on the computer. Like housecleaning, errand runners, stuff like that.”

My bones ached. “I’ll stick to meals for now.”

“Right, I’m sure you will,’ Jody scoffed.

“Go home, or start peeling potatoes. And I need someone to get me thirty kilos of ground beef since I won’t be able to get another delivery from my supplier until Monday.” I grabbed the apron Mandy had stashed earlier, paused. “Print out the list. I’ll take a peek when I’ve got the ovens roaring.”

I heard someone rapping the glass, heard Jody curse. I spun around, spotted Doug standing on the other side of the door. I sighed, marched over to the door. The silence behind me grew as I put my hand out. Doug smoothed his hair, his grin lighting his face. I returned his smile, felt it from the depths of my soul. I reached out, flipped the sign to closed, and turned the slats on the blinds, blocking the interior from view.

“Almost forgot. Good thing Doug reminded me.”

Communication Errors and Crossed Wires

Panic filled me as I weaved through the throng of people. I’d slept in, was dangerously close to missing my flight. I dodged weary travelers, tripped over luggage (and the owners) sitting on the floor under corridor windows. Luckily, my best friend had offered to bring my luggage; all I had was my overstuffed carry-on and my purse, both of which were slamming painfully against my hips as I scrambled through the terminal.

“Ma’am, you need to get in line for security.” A guard stopped me as I was about to pass through the final hurdle.

“But – but –” I studied his stern face, panting. “I’ve passed through –”

“Line up starts there.” He pointed at the end of an incredibly long line. My heart sank. I’d never get through in time.

“Please? I’m late. I’m getting married, I can’t miss my flight.” The tears I forced for sympathy blurred my vision as I grabbed hold of his blue shirt front. I saw no trace of compassion in his eyes.

“Guess if it was that important to ya, ya’d have been on time. Now get in line.”

Head down, I approached the line. “Anyone willing to let a desperate woman cut in front?”

Each face I passed looked away when we made eye contact. Desperation and need to get through before my plane took off called for desperate measures. “I’ll pay twenty bucks, twenty bucks for a spot in line. I’m getting married, I need to get on my plane.”

One woman looked thoughtful but her man shook his head, seizing her arm and moving so close to the people ahead of them I hoped they got slapped with a restraining order. “Fifty! I’ll pay fifty, just please, help a desperate bride-to-be out.”

“Over here.”

I spun in a half circle, spotted a tall man waving. Giddy relief filled me as I made a beeline to him, sticking my tongue out at the couple as I went.

Grumblings and mutterings flowed like a wave down the long line. Any other time, I’d be ashamed. Not today. “Thanks. Can I e-transfer you? I don’t know how much cash I’ve got.”

“And how many more bribes you’ll have to pay?” The man, in his mid-thirties, grinned. “I’m Finn.”

I took his large hand and shook. “I’m Tal. Actually, my name is Tallulah, but for obvious reasons I prefer Tal.”

Something flickered in his incredible eyes (were they blue? Green? Captivating, anyhow), and I noticed he tried to hide a smirk. I had no idea why I’d blurted my name like that. Tallulah was reserved for official government forms and banking details. “Yeah, I know. My dad got to name me. My mom was drugged up because of complications and so high when he got her to sign I should be glad he didn’t add lollipop as my middle name. That’s what my mom was craving while she was high. She agreed to sign anything as long as Dad gave her lollipops.”

I wanted to kick myself for babbling, but something about him unnerved me. We moved ahead, getting closer to the final security check. I hoped it was the last one at least. I had minutes…

“What is your middle name?” Finn shifted so I was ahead of him.

“Oh. We don’t know each other well enough.” My cheeks warmed as I blushed.

“I’ll waive the fifty bucks if you tell me.”

Since my bank account was perilously close to double digits, I caved. “Marigold.”

Finn snorted, covered his mouth. “I’m sorry.”

“Was it worth fifty bucks?” I grinned, putting my bag and my purse on the counter as we shuffled closer. I freed my passport and ticket.

“Tallulah Marigold. I feel like I owe you money now.” Finn shook his head again.

“That’s why I’m anxious to get married. My last name is Ingalls, my married name will stop me from being TMI.”

“TMI? Ah, Too Much Information. Gotcha.” Finn recovered while I went to the miserable looking security people. My bags went through as I went to the metal detectors.

“One sec.” The large woman behind the desk hit buttons on her keyboard, frowning. “Errol, open the bag.”

“There’s nothing –” I broke off as Errol opened my carry-on. The cranky woman gestured at the wedding gift still wrapped in the bag.

“Open it. Might be a gun.”

“But…no! No gun! It’s a wedding gift from my coworkers.” I had no idea what the girls at work got me, but I had a feeling I didn’t want it opened in the middle of the airport with a thousand people craning their necks to see what the hold up was. I’d almost left it at home but drunk me packed it for something to do on the plane.

Errol ripped the flowery wrapping paper off the rectangular box. The miserable witch chuckled as Errol showed her the contents of the plain brown box. “What? What is it?”

The hag shook her head, rolling her eyes. “I’m sure you don’t know.”

I stared at the phallic device Errol had taken out of the box to show me, confusion warring with dawning horror. “Oh. My. God. No! Seriously? Is that –?”

I heard the laughter first, then the whispers. Like the complaints when I’d cut in line, only now there were titters, giggles, and cat calls. “Throw it out. I don’t want it.”

“You sure? Says it’s state of the art, heavy duty, top of the line pleasure.” Errol read from the large cardboard tag dangling from the base before stuffing it back in the box. I moaned, shaking my head frantically as Errol tried to put the cursed thing back in my bag.

“No, please. Sell it, donate it, take it home to your wife. Give it to –” I stared at the crusty woman across from me, saw the warning in her eyes. If anyone needed a dose of pleasure…I thought better of my suggestion. “Your, uh, next single woman passing through. I’m getting married, can we hurry this up?”

My face was so hot it burned and I was shaking. I could still hear Finn’s chuckles beside me but I refused to look at him. The witch had a heart after all; with barely a smile, she waved me through. The metal detectors didn’t go off (yay!). I grabbed my toyless bag and my purse, glanced at the overhead signs and jogged toward my boarding area.

I made a wrong turn, back tracked. My heart raced and sweat beaded my brow. Every time I spied a plane taxiing down the runway, I was sure it was mine. Resigned, I decided to find my gate and confirm what I knew in my heart already. Then I’d see if I could get a refund, find another airline with another flight later. I staggered into the waiting area I should’ve been in long before. The area was packed but I scanned the crowd as I tried to think what to do next. My jaw dropped when I recognized Joy’s shaggy brown mop of hair, her wire framed glasses, as she stared at her phone. I darted around people, not looking above shoulder height in case I saw anyone from the security check.

“Is there a delay? Shouldn’t you have at least boarded by now? Or were you being a good friend, not going because I wasn’t there?” Joy moved her bag from the chair beside her without looking up. I flopped gratefully (but not gracefully) beside her.

Joy, my best friend of twenty-seven years, raised an eyebrow as she finally looked at me. “What are you talking about? Delay? I got here early, haven’t heard anything about a delay.”

“Were you listening to your audio book and missed the boarding call?” I didn’t see her blasted headphones but why else was she still sitting here? I pulled my phone out and showed Joy the time. “I slept in. We missed the plane.”

Joy frowned as she glanced at her own phone. “You idiot.”

I bristled at her tone. “What?”

“Did you change your time settings last night? I knew I shouldn’t have left you, you were already buzzing.”

“No I wasn’t.” I squared my shoulders defiantly even as the memory crept in. Plastered by the end of the night, I’d decided to be proactive and change my time so I wouldn’t have to when I got to Alberta.

“You set your time two hours ahead.” Joy grabbed my phone and started tapping the screen. “First of all, he’s two hours behind. And second, your phone will update as we cross time zones.”

I groaned. “Karen and I tried to figure it out, like if it was eleven for Hank and not me, it’d be one for him, or whatever the logic was. Okay, fine. I was drunk.”

Joy tossed me my phone. “I reset your settings.”

I leaned against my seat, the hangover I’d woken up with kicking in (the adrenaline rush seeing the time had postponed the worst of it as I’d leapt into action). I dozed until Joy elbowed me.

“Get off me, you’re drooling on my shoulder.”

I wiped my mouth and stretched, feeling slightly better. The waiting area was even more crowded, and the drone of voices from excited travelers were like little hammers hitting my skull. I winced when I spied the couple I’d tried to bribe to let me through. “At least I didn’t pay.”

Joy looked up from her phone. “Hmm?”

I explained, as plainly as I could, the adventure of the morning (omitting the part about the gift).

“How much were you supposed to pay?”

“I offered fifty, but I got off easy. Just told him my name.” I snickered.

“You scarred some hillbilly hick from the prairies?” Joy shook her head, grinning.

“Hank doesn’t live in the prairies, dummy.” I grinned at Joy, waggling my eyebrows as I pictured Finn. “The guy definitely wasn’t a hick, and for all I know he was going to Texas.”

“Alberta is part of the prairies, and it’s Canada’s Texas.” Joy rolled her eyes at me. “That’s why I agreed to come with you. I love Alberta. And fine, not a hillbilly. Oil worker maybe.”

“Hank’s not a farmer. He’s a cattle guy. Rancher? And the guy in line was too put together to be a hick farmer or oil worker.” I shrugged, thinking of Finn’s button down shirt and expensive running shoes. “Hank might be a bit hick, for now anyhow. I figure we’ll try the cow thing, then come back here to civilization and he can get a real job. Plus, there’s cows here. He can have a hobby farm.”

Joy put her phone in her pocket, staring at me with that look she used to give me when I argued with the teacher. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am. You know why Hank wanted to marry me. I agreed, because, well…John.” I was about to launch into a tirade about why Ontario was so much better than Alberta, about my reasons for this crazy wedding, when our flight was announced. “Saved by the bell – rather, boarding call.”

Joy picked up her carry-on bag and purse, still staring at me. I slung my purse over my right shoulder, my carry-on over my left, and we followed the rest of the sheep to the boarding gate. The couple smirked when they saw me but didn’t say anything. I wasn’t in the mood to explain more to Joy. She was already ticking me off.

“Thanks again for bringing my luggage. Did you have any trouble getting through?” I asked after a few minutes of uncomfortable silence.

“No.” Joy kept her gaze on her phone.

I replayed our conversation in my head, wondering what had set her off. Hank was a rancher, I hadn’t realized Alberta was part of the prairies but I’d conceded when she obviously knew more than me. Someone kept clearing their throat and giving little coughs behind me but I refused to turn around because I had a sinking feeling they’d witnessed the whole fiasco earlier.

When we didn’t appear to be moving anytime soon, I huffed out an impatient breath. “Why’d they announce it if we’re just supposed to stand here?”

Joy harrumphed but didn’t say anything else. Deciding to make a last ditch effort to fix things before enduring a four hour flight in angry silence, I sighed. “What’s wrong?”

Joy cricked her neck when she whipped her head around to stare at me. Massaging her neck, she glowered. “You know how I feel about all this. The only thing I support you on is going there to meet Hank. I can’t believe you committed to marrying him simply because he needs a wife, but you did — and now you’re saying you plan to manipulate him into giving everything up to move here?”

I ran my fingers through my hair, smoothing out the tangles. “We’ve been through this a million times. Hank needs a wife, yes, and he’s okay looking. John’s dead, and you said it yourself – I’m still here. I’m ready, finally, to move on.”

“You were ready to move on long before John –” Joy’s face was set in the usual annoyance John’s name evoked, but to her credit, she struggled to compose herself. “Anyhow, that’s neither here nor there. Hank’s what concerns me. You seem to think you’ll supply the wife end of the deal but then you want to change him completely. You saw what he said, raising cattle is in his blood. What are you going to do if there’s no attraction? You swore you cared about him, but honestly? I don’t believe you. I think you’re just lazy –”

“Lazy?” My mouth opened and closed in disbelief.

“Yes, lazy. You want the husband but lack the ambition to actually go out and look for one.”

I pulled my ticket from the side pocket of my purse as we finally started to move ahead. “I’ve been talking to Hank for months.”

“Online. Not even video chats, just emails.” Joy rolled her eyes as she extracted her ticket. “You don’t know if you’ve got any, what’s your word? Chemistry?”

Fury flashed, hot and bright. “You make no sense. None. When I first met John, I told you we were meant to be, the chemistry was intense. You’re the one who said chemistry isn’t all there is to a relationship. Asked me if I could talk to him, be friends with him, because that’s what was most important.”

“Exactly!” Joy’s voice rose several octaves and the couple from the security line turned around nervously. “You had chemistry, but nothing else, and look where that got you. And I never said chemistry wasn’t important, but you needed more than just –”

“Is there a problem here?” A flight attendant wrung his hands nervously as his beady eyes darted from Joy’s miserable face to mine.

“No, no problem. I’m sorry,” Joy apologized, pink spots shining high on her cheeks. I noticed she was apologizing to him, not me.

“Can you get her suitcase? She won’t be flying with us today.” I brushed past Joy to hand my ticket to another attendant.

“I’m afraid that’s not possible.” Beady-eye guy continued wringing his hands.

I snatched my ticket from the woman who was eyeing me nervously. “Fine. Never mind.”

I stormed across the weird tunnel leading out of the airport and into the plane, my stomping causing vibrations. I glared at the ticket in my hand, looking for my seat number.

“Halfway down the row, in the middle.” Yet another flight attendant, this one model pretty and annoyingly happy, gestured when she glanced down at my ticket.

I’d never been on a plane before. Movies and TV shows made them seem bigger somehow, or else this was a smaller plane. I regretted switching airlines to make sure Joy and I got seats together. I struggled to put my bag in the overhead bin and took great pleasure when I realized how much more difficult it would be for Joy, who was two inches shorter. I’d selected the window seat for Joy in a fit of generosity since she was coming with me and would be returning alone. In a snit, I took the window.

I tucked my purse under my seat, and stared mutinously out the window while waiting for Joy, sneaking peeks every minute or two to see if she boarded. Maybe she’d decided to go home? My initial reaction was spitefully glad, but as I watched more strangers enter, I started to regret our fight. Was Joy right? Was I being stupid? Lazy? She had no idea how hard it was to trust a man, to look at him and wonder if he spoke truths or lies. How could she throw John in my face? I supposed Hank could’ve been writing lies, but somehow, I didn’t think so. He’d been honest about the women he spoke to, about his intentions and reasons for them. More honest than he probably should’ve been, and definitely more honest than I’d been. Joy just didn’t get it. I quickly averted my gaze from the entrance when I heard Joy’s voice, stared out the window with a determined nonchalance.

“Thanks again.” Joy, probably simpering to the flight attendant to ingratiate herself to get better service. I hated that about Joy. Her whole honey catching mosquitoes or whatever her saying was. Who wanted to catch bugs anyhow?

Up and down the aisle people were putting their bags into overhead bins. I kept staring out the window, waiting for Joy to sit so I could ignore her better.

“Excuse me, but I think you’re in my seat.”

I jerked my head up. Finn was staring at me, his greenish-bluish eyes twinkling. “Hardly.”

Joy’s head popped up over the seat ahead of me. “I’m supposed to have the window seat.”

My face burned for what felt like the hundredth time. “You’re supposed to be sitting here, yes.”

“I switched.” Joy disappeared behind the seat again and I was tempted to kick it.

Finn sat next to me. “I’m good with the aisle.”

I folded my arms over my chest, taking deep breaths and holding them, exhaling like I’d been taught for inner peace. The top of Joy’s head in front of me was blocking the calm. “Why’d you switch with her?”

Joy popped up again. “Because he’s a gentleman, and because he was scared I’d slap you silly.”

Joy ducked down again before she could see the finger gesture I flipped her. “Defending me? Or protecting her? Because at this point it’s a coin-flip who’d give the better beating.”

Finn leaned close. “After the morning you’ve had, my money’s on you, Tallulah.”

I clenched my jaw as I stared out the window. My mind worked overtime second guessing everything I’d ever done, but especially the last few months. I was about to get married. To a man I’d only seen pictures of. When Finn nudged me, I scowled at him until I realized he was only trying to tell me to put my seatbelt on.

My fingers tightened on the arm rest as the plane started to roll. “I changed my mind. I want off. Can you move so I can get up?”

Finn put his hand over mine, squeezing. “Sorry, it’s a little late for that.”

A voice came over the intercom, I couldn’t understand anything said. “Words, words, words. More words. Words in French.”

“What? What’d they say?” My panic mounted as the intercom clicked off. “Are we going to crash?”

Finn, to his credit, didn’t laugh aloud even though I saw laughter in his eyes. “No, we’re just lining up for take-off.”

The plane stopped rolling. “I can get off now?”

“Uh, no. You’ve never flown before, have you?”

My tummy lurched when the plane moved. “No, but I have been up the CN Tower.”

“This is, er, a little different.” Finn’s sparkling eyes were glued to my face. “Just watch me, not out there. You’ll be fine.”

I did as he said until I felt the plane picking up speed. I tore my gaze from his, watching out the window as the pavement fell away. I guess we left it but I didn’t feel like we’d gone up. “It’s like the ground dropped.”

“Once we’re at full altitude you won’t really notice we’re moving.” Finn patted my hand before releasing it. I wished he’d put it back.

The buildings were below us, becoming tiny pin pricks that faded away as we soared higher, into fluffy clouds. “So, what, we just sit here for four hours?”

Finn sighed, closing the book he’d just opened (I recognized the mystery, had even recommended it to Hank). “I think they put on a movie.”

“What movie? A comedy?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never flown this airline before.” Finn looked resigned to his fate. I knew I was the annoying nervous flyer, but just now I didn’t care. He could blame Joy, it was his fault for swapping seats anyhow.

“What’s your middle name? And is your full name something weird, like Phineas?” I latched on to the thought; it was only fair, he knew mine.

Finn grinned. “Nothing as fancy as yours, I assure you. I’m Finn Alexander Ryan. I’m thirty-four years old, I work in education, never been married but came close once. I had a dog but he died a year ago and I haven’t had the time or energy to get another. I have an aversion to cows, but I like to eat beef.”

I narrowed my eyes. “What did Joy tell you about me?”

Finn snickered. “Nothing about your life. I was sitting behind you in the waiting area, then in line behind you for boarding.”

“That was you coughing?”

“Yeah, I was trying to get your attention. So, why don’t you talk it through? If you don’t mind me saying so, you kinda sounded like you needed to talk to someone unbiased.”

“You don’t want to hear the boring details of my life.” Out of nowhere, I felt tears burn my eyes. “Read the book, it’s much better than my story.”

Finn glanced at the paperback on his thigh. “Nah. I can read anytime. We’ve got four hours to kill.”

I should’ve been nicer to Joy, then I wouldn’t be tempted to talk. “Fine, but just remember, you asked for it.”

Finn nodded, patting my hand. The plane lurched and I gripped his fingers. “It’s just turbulence, it’s okay.”

“All the same,” I smiled apologetically as I kept his hand hostage. “Okay, where to start? John? When I met Joy in kindergarten?”

“Junior or Senior?” Finn grinned.

“Just kindergarten. Where we lived, they didn’t do the whole junior and senior. You started when you were five. We were on the same bus, sat together the first day, and were best friends by the time we came home. Been best friends ever since.”

“Okay, that’s Joy covered. Who’s John?”

I cringed. “My biggest mistake. My first and only love.”

Finn looked like he wanted to say something, but when he kept quiet, I opened the floodgates. “We met when I was twenty-six. Made all my exes seem irrelevant somehow. He was good-looking, charismatic. Kind of like you.”

“I get the feeling I shouldn’t take that as a compliment.” Finn laughed, but his hand twitched in mine.

“No, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by that. Just that you’ve been good to me, you’ve got personality, I kinda feel like I connect to you –” I stopped talking and bit my lip, feeling flustered. “Just scratch that part. Where was I? Oh yeah, so he was this great guy, I fell hard and fast.He told me all these things, how he was a freelance photographer, showed me pictures he’d taken from exotic places.”

“Sounds like a great guy so far,” Finn commented when I paused to gather my thoughts.

I gave a derisive snort. “Doesn’t he? By the time I was head over heels, the gold-plating around him started to tarnish. He’d asked me to marry him, but a year later was still refusing to discuss dates. He’d disappear for weeks, tell me he had to work.”

I glanced at Finn, saw his attention still focused on me. What was it about this guy that had me rambling? “He’d stay at my place when he was in town. Joy started to ask questions that I couldn’t answer.”

“Like what?” Finn reclined his seat slightly but kept his hand in mine.

“Why didn’t I ever go to his place? How could he afford to fly all over the place yet never showed me his published work.” I laughed bitterly. “All thoughts I’d been having but hadn’t asked because John didn’t like to be questioned.”

“And you put up with that?” Finn’s eyebrows rose, disappeared beneath the fringe of dark hair.

I glanced out the window into the bright blue sky. When I reclined my seat to match Finn’s, I shrugged. “I guess, in hindsight, I was starting to suspect something was very wrong. He never liked to be asked anything, but instead of changing the subject, he started to get angry, which only made me push harder. The first time he lost it, he put his fist through the wall in my apartment.”

Finn’s hand gripped mine tighter. “That the only thing he punched?”

I peeked at the back of Joy’s seat, saw the headband from headphones over the her head. “At first, yes.”

“What does that mean?” Finn gripped the armrest on the aisle side so hard his knuckles turned white. He shook his head before the stewardess pushing a drink trolly even opened her mouth.

“Let’s just say once he started to unravel, he came apart fast. All at once, I became a stastic, a victim of domestic violence. And with the violence came the truth of who and what he was. He’d been dealing drugs for years. He couldn’t keep up the act anymore, he’d started using what he’d sold to countless other addicts.” I felt such shame, such humiliation. “I didn’t see it, didn’t know. How stupid and foolish, huh?”

“No. When you love someone, you forgive things. Sounds like he was very good at lying, cheating, manipulating.” Finn, tension radiating from him, loosened his grip on my hand immediately when he saw me wince at his tight hold.

“He was the best.” I laughed at the lack of humour in the words.

“Obviously you broke up with him.” Finn’s jaw clenched and unclenched, I felt his anger, but unlike with John, I didn’t recoil because instinctively I knew the rage wasn’t at me, but for me.

“You’d think, wouldn’t you? I stayed. Tried to help him, tried to get him clean.” I tried to pull my hand away, but now it was Finn holding on tight. “He’d fly into rages, hit me sometimes, apologize always.”

“Your friends didn’t try to intervene? Your family?”

“Everyone was busy with life. I was happy for them, didn’t want to be a burden. Made excuses why I couldn’t meet. My parents winter in Florida, live in a trailer every summer. Busy snowbirds, home and away. We’d talk on the phone, but that was normal. Joy was the only one who noticed.”

“What did she do?”

“She tried everything she could. Didn’t I know better, wasn’t I worth more? What kind of friend was I, letting her down all the time because of John? All angles.”

“And?”

“We eventually drifted apart. What could she do, really? One day, I reached out. I was done. I packed up whatever I had left of value. Joy picked me up and I went to stay with her.”

“Why do I feel like there’s more?” Finn stroked the back of my hand with his thumb.

“I wish that was it. But one day, John met me at work, asked if we could talk. Asked me for help.” I tried to smile but couldn’t. “I fell for his lies. Always had. Saw glimpses of the John I’d fallen for. I went with him, got in some decrepit van. We sat in the back, talking. I saw him take something so I tried to leave but the doors wouldn’t open. He popped more pills, snorted something, screaming at me to shut up, stop crying. He hit me, grabbed my purse, took my money. That’s when I found out how completely he’d played me. He was laughing at my gullibility. The pictures he took? Stock photos from some free site. When he’d go away on shoots? Nah, he was hooking up with one of his many other girlfriends. Never brought me home because he had a wife and kid. I was breaking, and he just laughed in my face. Then, when I thought he was going to really hurt me, he stopped. This weird look came into his eyes, and he lay down on the bench seat like he’d passed out.”

“He hadn’t?” Finn spoke softly, his free hand reaching out to wipe my tears.

“I just left him there. Grabbed my purse, my money, crawled over him and fled. I called 911 when I was far enough away, thinking police would arrest him, that maybe if he went to jail he’d get help. I hadn’t loved him in a long time, but I did care about him. That night, at Joy’s, I saw the news. A man had been found dead of an overdose. What if I’d called sooner?”

Finn put his hands on my cheeks, leaning across the seat to stare into my eyes. “It’s not your fault.”

I nodded, closing my eyes. “I know. Logically…the science and facts are that he was dead before he hit the bench seat. But the heart? It doesn’t listen to facts, to police or coroner reports.”

“I’m sorry.” Finn’s simple words went deep.

“Me too.”

Finn and I sat in silence for a long time. I had no concept of time, of anything except trying to get my head out of the past. The ache, the guilt, still lived inside no matter how much time passed. Finn bent down, putting his book away and digging around inside the laptop bag he’d brought. I went back to staring out the window, figuring he had work to do.

“I, uh, brought you this.”

I glanced down at the brown box Finn held out. I stared, stunned. After the emotional barfing I’d done, I erupted into a fit of giggles that hurt my side and had the passengers around us staring. “That’s not mine.”

Finn stuffed the box back into his bag. “I beg to differ. Errol sends his regards, wishes you luck with it.”

I slapped his arm, still giggling. “How’d you do that? I just ripped my soul to pieces, and in one fell swoop you put me back together.”

Finn blew on his knuckles, dusted them off on his shoulder. “It’s a talent. Besides, I told you I work in education. I’m a high school teacher, and when you’ve had to deal with hysterical teenagers caught up in love triangles, well, your story seems a bit boring.”

I pulled my phone free, read the time. “We’ve only been here two hours? Feels like longer.”

“Twilight zone.” Finn hummed the notes from the TV show. “We’re in Alberta, silly. Four hours become two with the time change.”

Instead of feeling relief, dread filled my belly. “We’re landing soon?”

Finn nodded, checking his watch. “About fifteen minutes. Why don’t you sound happy?”

I peeked over the seat, saw Joy was asleep with her head resting on a pillow propped by the window. “Truth? Until about a half hour after we met, I was headed here without really thinking.”

Finn frowned, staring at me with those beautiful eyes. “You’re coming here to get married, aren’t you?”

All my convictions, to myself and everyone else, about how I was doing the right thing seemed to have been left on the ground at Pearson airport. “Oh, God. I’m marrying a man I’ve never met.”

“But you love him, right? I overheard you telling Joy about the emails. You must’ve fallen in love with the guy who wrote them.”

I put my head between my knees, trying to breathe. I felt Finn rubbing my back at the same time he reached over me to grab a paper bag from the mesh pocket on the back of Joy’s seat. “Here, breathe into this.”

I sat up, pinned Finn’s arm behind me. I breathed into the bag until I felt better. “Thanks.”

“Looks like my work here isn’t done after all.” Finn winked, extricating his arm from behind me and holding my hand again.

“I’m in trouble. Big trouble.” I put the bag to my face again and breathed a few more times.

“How?”

“I promised him – Hank. He’s been looking for a wife for a year now. His parents are retiring, giving their kids this huge ranch they run, but only the kids that are married and want the ranch. Hank’s older brother is the only one of the seven of them with a spouse. Hank and his brother are the only ones who want the ranch, his other brothers and sisters only want money, don’t have any interest in working the land. Hank’s got until the end of the year to be married or his married brother’s name is the only one on the title, and his parents give the six others a cash payout.”

Finn shrugged. “I get his angle, what do you get out of it?”

“Promise you won’t judge?” I studied him for a second then laughed. “Never mind. After what you’ve seen today, you’ll be glad to never see me again. Nothing else I say can make me seem worse.”

Finn studied me the way I’d studied him. “I might’ve thought you a bit, er, scattered this morning at the airport, but I figured frantic bride-to-be and forgave that. After what you shared with me? There’s nothing but awe and respect here.”

“Uh huh. You’re well versed in nice things to say to hysterical females. Guess that’s why you’re a high school teacher.”

“Don’t put yourself down. You survived, and you got out. Not many do. But you still had enough heart to try to help. That’s commendable.”

“Certifiable. That’s the correct word. Look at me, a college drop out correcting a high school teacher. That used to drive Joy nuts, when I’d argue with the teacher, or correct them.”

“That’s what makes you an excellent school secretary, being good at standing up to teachers.” Finn grinned. “Now tell me what’s in it for you, getting married.”

I paused. “How’d you –”

“What?” Finn frowned.

Deciding I must’ve said what I did when I was trying to explain the gift at the security desk, I let it go. “In a nutshell?It’s about having a husband without risk.”

“What does that mean?” Finn’s perplexed tone and the funny way he squinted made me smile.

“I started trolling dating sites with my friends, as a joke. Not to make fun of desperate people but to make fun of the narcissists. So many self-absorbed people who had profiles that screamed idiot. Like one guy, he actually wrote that any woman he selected should feel honoured that he found her worthy of him.”

The intercom interrupted. “We’ll be landing in a few moments, folks, The temperature is a comfortable fifteen degrees, and the wind is low. Fasten your seatbelts, thank you for flying with us, and enjoy the wonderful city of Calgary.”

I didn’t do well with French so I tuned the rest out.

“We’re pressed for time.” Finn finished buckling his seatbelt and automatically reached for my hand. “Jump to Hank.”

“One of our friends decided to join. She’d had no luck finding a guy, and was getting desperate. Joy and I encouraged her, but then she’d talk about the losers she met, how they all seemed to want to hook up casually. She mentioned this one, that seemed promising except he was in Alberta.”

“Hank?” Finn guessed.

“Yep. She gave me his email address when she decided to pass because she wasn’t interested in moving. I started out talking to him about why he was looking for a fast marriage. By then, I’d pretty much decided that if I wanted to get married, I’d have to be like those guys who mail-order brides, only I’d be mail-ordering a man.” I felt my cheeks warm but took a deep breath. “Then this guy, this rancher, started going on about his passion for the ranch, confiding that he just didn’t have time to date, all that stuff. And I started thinking, ‘hey, Alberta is a million miles from the bad memories’. We had some stuff in common, too, which was another selling point. At least I’d like him enough. Always seemed to know what to write to cheer me up when I was blue. He’s not much of a talker, doesn’t like the phone, so we mostly communicated via emails. It’s weird though, sometimes he was chatty, funny, other times business-like.”

“Did you tell him about John?”

“Kinda. I just told him that I was with a guy for a couple of years, but he passed away and I wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. Figured I’d either tell him or I wouldn’t, I’d decide once we were married.”

“What about love?” Finn stared at me so intently I had to blink and look away.

“Love never entered into the conversation. We were both in this for our own reasons. Him to get half of the ranch he loves, me to avoid falling in love with another frog masquerading as a prince.” I realized how cold that sounded. “Sometimes, in some of his longer letters, I’d think ‘I could really fall for him’. He’s a busy guy, maybe in person, in time, I’d see the guy who wrote the chattier messages, fall for him.”

“And you quit your job? To live here?”

I swallowed hard, feeling even hotter under the collar. “Um, well. Not exactly.”

“Tallulah Marigold Ingalls, did you lie to your fiancé?” Finn, eyes wide, stared at me incredulously.

“I’ll tell you the truth if you promise never to call me that again. Hank doesn’t even know about the Marigold.” I laughed, squeezing his hand. “I’m on a week’s vacation. I’m going to tell Hank that I couldn’t just quit, that I have to go back until at least the Christmas holidays. I’m hoping that I can get a leave of absence for a year, come back. Convince Hank that Ontario is the place he wants to be. Even if he wants a farm, we can figure that out, I can commute.”

“This guy is counting on you to be his wife so he can keep his ranch. You really think he’ll say sure, let’s give Ontario a shot?”

“Now you sound like Joy. I swear, she should marry Hank. She’s the one who calls Alberta Canada’s Texas. She reads all these romance novels about Texas ranchers, but I know she’s thinking Alberta when she reads them.”

“I do so.” Joy’s voice drifted back to us and I laughed. “How much did you hear?”

“The Canada’s Texas stuff. All true, by the way.” Joy tried to peek over her seat but with the seatbelt on she couldn’t manage it. “We’re landing. I’m so excited. I was just listening to an audio book and now you have to know I’ll be staying with you next year for the Calgary Stampede. Maybe I’ll find me my own rancher.”

I winked at Finn and felt a swoop in my belly. At first, I thought it was because he winked back, but then I realized we were preparing to land. I clutched his hand tight as I watched the ground getting closer.

“What if the wheels don’t come out?” I squealed, leaning over to see better.

“We’re fine, you’re fine.” Finn chuckled beside me. “You’ll be fine, probably. Maybe.”

I shot him a dirty look but then the plane bounced and I bit my lip. I realized we were on the ground, and slowing down. “How long does it take to drive here? I’m thinking if I’m going to be a commuter wife, I’m going to have to get a better car.”

Finn laughed but made no comment. When the plane stopped, I unbuckled my seatbelt before the light went off. “I’m so cramped from sitting, I need to stand up.”

“Won’t be long.” Finn pulled his laptop bag free.

“How do you know?” I grabbed my purse.

“I do this flight fairly often.” Finn shrugged.

Before I could ask what kinid of business a high school teacher could possibly have in Calgary, we got clearance to leave the plane. As much as I wanted to stretch my legs, I wasn’t excited to face what lay ahead. “I’m not ready.”

“Come on,” Joy called, getting her carry on down.

“No.”

Finn grabbed his bag and mine, tossed mine onto the seat he’d just vacated. “Let’s go. We’re holding up the line.”

Joy nodded. “We have to go get our luggage, you’ve still got a few minutes to be the stereotypical bride with cold feet.”

Finn slung my bag over his shoulder with his and I followed them off the plane. Each step felt incredible physically, but made my nerves skitter.

We went to the baggage claim just as the suitcases shot down the chute. Joy was closest, so she grabbed mine and waited patiently for hers. I watched Finn as he reached between Joy and I to grab his.

“Murphy?” I felt something akin to dread wash over me as I blinked up at Finn.

Finn pulled me out of the way of the passengers still waiting for their bags. “What’s that?”

“Your tag, it says Murphy. But you said your last name was Ryan.”

“No I didn’t. My middle names are Alexander Ryan.” Finn seemed resigned, but before I could ask more questions, Joy bounced over to us with her suitcase.

Deciding Murphy was a common name, I followed Joy. As we neared the main doors, I tugged on my bag he still had. “You probably have somewhere to be.”

Finn kept my bag on his shoulder as he wheeled his suitcase beside me. When I stopped walking, Joy kept going but Finn stopped, too. “Come on, we’re going to be in the way.”

“Tal, let’s go!” Joy shouted from the doors. “I think that’s Hank. Come on!”

Finn wheeled his suitcase to join Joy. He had my bag, and my best friend, but I suddenly wanted to turn around and get back on the plane. “What the –?”

Joy abandoned her suitcase and came over to grab mine. “God, he’s a real rancher. He’s got cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat. Come see! You are so lucky.”

Lucky wasn’t exactly the word I’d use. Livid, maybe. “Did you know Finn’s last name was Murphy?”

Joy blinked, still tugging me along. “What? Come on.”

Hoping I was wrong, I finally stopped dragging my heels. I kept darting glances at Finn, but he wasn’t looking at me. We went through the door, and sure enough, I spotted Hank. The pictures hadn’t done him justice, he was rugged, handsome, and pure rancher. And I felt nothing. He had a luggage cart and was leaning on the handle with one boot on the lower shelf.

Awkward didn’t describe the feeling. I smiled at the man, but he might as well have been a stranger. Wait, he was a stranger. A stranger destined to be my husband. I opened my mouth, but no words came out.

“I see you met already?” Hank clapped a hand on Finn’s shoulder, and all my suspicions were confirmed in a red haze of rage.

“Excuse us, would you? I need a moment with your lovely brother.” I grit my teeth and tried to smile at Hank but feared I must’ve looked rabid or violent, or both. The words didn’t come close to describing how I felt as I gripped Finn’s arm and yanked. When we were in a quiet corner, I glared at Finn. “Murphy. You’re the city-slicker brother.”

Finn perched on the edge of a window ledge. “Busted.”

“You knew the whole time who I was?” Fury warred with humiliation, humiliation was winning, but coming up from the rear was devastation.

Finn hung his head. “I saw you, frantically trying to get through security and I recognized you from the pictures you sent Hank. Then you confirmed it with Tallulah.”

Betrayal reared its ugly head. “So you planned this whole thing? To sit with me and get the whole sordid story of my life out of me? Did Hank tell you to?”

Finn ran his hands through his hair, shaking his head. “I wanted to tell you. Then I overheard you talking to your friend, figured I’d bide my time. Then you and Joy fought, and I saw my chance to sit with you. I had every intention of telling you.”

“Right. Hard to find a minute on a four hour flight to say ‘by the way, I’m going to be your brother-in-law’.” I snorted, feeling dangerously close to losing my head completely.

“By the time you’d finished telling me about what a jerk John was, what you’d been through, I –” Finn blew out a breath. “When you said I reminded you of him –”

“Little did I know you were as manipulative as him.” I finished the sentence for him.

Finn grabbed my hand as I started to back away. “You might as well hear the whole thing.”

I pulled my hand free. “Whole thing?”

“Hank, he’s not much of a talker. On the phone, or on the computer. He prefers face-to-face.”

I clutched my belly as I bent over, dangerously close to throwing up the bit of water I’d drank that morning. Finn had waved the pretty stewardess off whenever she’d brought the cart around; now I wished I’d had multiple drinks so I could spew them on his fancy running shoes. “No.”

“Some of the emails were Hank. But as you got chattier, he asked me to step in. Not because he didn’t care, but because he didn’t know what to say.”

I stood up straight, staring into his eyes. “I should’ve known. How come I didn’t figure it out?”

Finn came to stand in front of me, putting his hands on my shoulders. Shock kept me from slugging him. “I’m sorry.”

I couldn’t help it, I burst into laughter. “Right.”

Finn’s concerned gaze never left my face. “I wasn’t going to come. I was going to make excuses, that I couldn’t take time off during the school year. Not really an excuse, you know that, working for the board yourself. I’m flying back on Monday, like Joy. I can’t wait to leave, Joy wants to stay but thinks she’ll be in the way. That’s what we were talking about.”

“I bet you can take the same plane back today.”

“I will, if that’s what you want. But hear me out, please? I know I don’t deserve it, but just listen.”

I stared at him as my thoughts raced. Part of me wanted to walk away just to defy him, the other part wanted, demanded, to understand. I glanced over at Joy and Hank. They were laughing at something and seemed happy enough. “Fine. Talk.”

“At first, I agreed to handle the chattier messages because I was curious. Who marries a stranger? I even wondered if you were some sort of gold digger since Hank’s going to be part owner of one of Alberta’s best ranches.”

“I never knew until he, or was it you, mentioned money after the marriage arrangements had already been made.”

“Believe me, I didn’t take long to see that you weren’t interested in money. I knew something had happened, something had you jumping at the opportunity to marry Hank. You made it sound like your boyfriend died, that you lost him tragically and were struggling with the loss.”

“Maybe I did, maybe I wanted it to be true. Much better to have loved and lost them in an accident than the ugly truth.”

“Yeah, well, by the time you’d made your plans with Hank – and yes, those were from him – I’d realized I probably shouldn’t come for the wedding.”

“Why, because you’d slip up and I’d find out?” I snorted, rolling my eyes. “You were right.”

“No. I didn’t want to come because a part of me was falling in love with you. You laugh at yourself, you make me laugh at myself. Or laugh at Hank, I guess. But it was getting so hard to keep emailing you because I wanted to say ‘forget the flight, meet me for coffee instead’.”

Not believing him, I shrugged. “Yet here you are.”

“Yet here I am. I’m not proud of it, but I had to see you. Had to know if the feelings you stirred up were just because it’s easier to feel when someone’s faceless. But then you were frantic, begging for help, and I realized – nope, it’s you.”

“I’d read your emails, then look at Hank’s picture, so confused. I didn’t feel anything when I looked at the picture, so figured the feelings were just reactions to words typed out and put no faith in feeling.”

“But you were still going to marry him.”

“Partly because I’d hoped that the email feelings would merge with the man when we met.” I bit my lip. “But from the moment you flagged me down, I felt more for you than I did for the man in the pictures.”

Finn’s troubled eyes brightened. “You felt it too?”

I heard Joy’s laughter, heard Hank’s responding bark. “So what if I do…did? I’m marrying your brother, that’s what I came here to do. I’m not marrying him then being a cliché, the woman who cheats on her husband with his brother.” I snorted out a laugh. “That’s not who I am.”

“It’s not who I am either.”

“Good, so we agree? We’ll forget this nonsense and you’ll be there for your brother when he marries me? He told me you were always his favourite.”

Finn looked sheepish. “I wrote that. Hank’s got no favourites unless they’re cows.”

I turned my attention to Hank. “He seems to be enjoying himself with Joy.”

“I’ve never seen him so animated. Kinda weird.” Finn shrugged. “But I don’t think I’ll be at the church. Maybe I’ll slip in for the reception, slap him on the shoulder and slip out again.”

Joy glanced over at us and I saw her stricken expression when she caught us watching them. I pondered her reaction, confusion and delight colliding. “She’s smitten.”

“What?” Finn blinked down at me.

“She’s attracted to Hank.”

Finn gaped at me. “I was just thinking the same about Hank.”

“I’ve got a confession of my own. Joy was one of the women Hank was talking to. I guess you know how he’d keep me updated on who he was talking to? I figured out Joy was one of them, talking to Hank behind my back. I kinda told Hank that she was a lush. He knew her as CowboyFan123. Joy just wanted the romantic side, never mentioned anything about Hank to me, and I was ticked she’d tried to weasel her way in and steal him. That’s part of why I begged her to come – partly to get her to finally confess she’d tried to poach him, and partly because I thought maybe she’d meet a better cowboy at the wedding so I could stop feeling guilty for saying she was a drunk. Wanted her to meet someone who’d make her smile the way she is right now.”

Finn’s eyes lit up. “Joy’s CowboyFan? Hank used to talk about her. Never asked me to do his emailing with her. I wondered why she’d disappeared from the list of contacts before they even exchanged pictures. Hank hates drunks since one of his ranch hands was killed by a drunk driver. Is Joy a drinker?”

“She had one glass of wine last night and left in a cab, the most I’ve seen her drink since we were teens. I’m a lush compared to her, and last night was my first night out drinking since before John.”

“So what are you going to do?”

I considered for a second, then smiled at Finn. “Watch.”

I sidled up to Joy and leaned in close. “Hey, CowboyFan.”

Joy’s smile slid slightly, but she didn’t bat an eyelash. “Don’t worry, I’m not poaching.”

“I wish you would.” I spoke through my smile, quiet enough only she could hear. Hank and Finn were slapping each other’s backs, and I wondered if Finn was whispering to Hank.

Joy grabbed my hand and whirled us around. “What are you mumbling?”

“I know about you and Hank. And I give you my blessing.”

Joy shook her head. “It was a stupid fight, tensions were high. We said stupid stuff, no biggie.”

I leaned in close. “I’m mad as heck at Finn, but he’s the brother I’m interested in. Turns out we’ve been emailing for months, only I thought I was talking to Hank.”

“You never said how you felt about Hank, that’s what ticked me off the most. You should be marrying him because you’re in love, not because you don’t want to fall in love with anyone. He deserves that.”

“Did you just hear the words I said? I think I am in love. Just not with Hank.”

Joy’s eyes widened. “No, you can’t do this to him.”

I took a deep breath and dove into the pile of manure I’d made. “I told Hank I knew CowboyFan123, and that she was a lush. I knew he’d cut you from the running because he hates drunks.”

Joy’s temper flared and I took a step back in case she decided to swing. “I am not a lush.”

The few people loitering around us turned to look. So did Hank and Finn. “Part of me was mad that you were trying to poach, knowing what I was up to but keeping your communications secret. I’m sorry that I didn’t realize how you felt about him, if I had, I’d have told him the truth. But you never said a word, and kept encouraging me.”

“He doesn’t know I’m CowboyFan123, does he?” Joy bit her lip, her cheeks pink. “You’re supposed to marry him tomorrow, you told me he desperately needs a wife by December. You can’t ruin his life now.”

“Don’t you worry about him, okay?” I shot her a sly grin as I took a deep breath and prepared to raise my voice. “CowboyFan123, your secret’s safe with me. I’ll never tell Hank I lied to him about you.”

I’d been watching Hank with Finn, watched how Hank’s eyes kept returning to Joy, not me. His brow creased as I made my little announcement. “What? Finn, did you hear what she said?”

The electric jolt I felt as I approached Hank had nothing to do with him and everything to do with Finn putting his arm around me. I glanced at Joy, took a deep breath as I dove deeper into the stink.

“Hank, I’m sorry. I lied. Joy here? I found out she’d been talking to you and I was mad that she wasn’t telling me about you while I was telling her everything. So, er, I lied to you.” I took a deep breath, clutching Finn’s hand for courage. “Joy’s not a lush. And I think she didn’t tell me about talking to you because she felt guilty, but at the same time was falling for you. She’s rode my butt for weeks about how you deserve someone who wants what you want, someone who puts your needs at least equal to theirs. She didn’t talk to me the whole trip here because I’d said I’d convince you to give up the ranch and move to Ontario.”

Hank finally looked at me fully. “I’d never move to Ontario.”

“Joy wouldn’t want you to.” I turned my attention to Joy. “You said it yourself, you want to live here. Want a rancher of your own.”

Joy’s face was redder than I’d ever seen it. She wouldn’t look at Hank. “Shut up.”

I reached for Hank’s hand with one hand as I grabbed Joy’s with my other. “How long do you think it’ll take to decide if you want to get married to each other? Hank, I think, is an easy guess, but Joy? You might need some time. Only it’s September, so you kinda gotta figure that out in four months.”

I released their hands, smiling to myself when I saw their fingers clasp. “Joy can work from anywhere, so I guess I’ll take her ticket and fly back instead. Leave you two to talk.”

I snatched the papers hanging out of Joy’s bag, found her return flight ticket. “You guys go on, get out of here. I’ll take Joy’s hotel room.”

I wheeled my suitcase away from the three of them, feeling sad and happy. Angry, as Finn caught up to me. “You don’t want your bag?”

I snatched my carry-on. “See you around.”

“Want a ride? I’m staying at the same motel as you, and I rented a car.”

I faltered. The plan had been for me to get Hank to drop Joy off on our way to the ranch. I had no idea where the motel was. “How’d you know…never mind, I told you when you were pretending to be Hank. Why’d you rent a motel room? Your parents have their own house on the property.”

“I didn’t want to be around you and Hank anymore than I had to. Plus, I was hoping to get a chance to talk to Joy, find out if I should just forget you or try to steal you from my big brother.”

I stopped walking and the people approaching had to manoeuvre around us. “You what?”

Finn sighed. “Now I don’t have to steal you, just woo you.”

Butterflies tried to take flight in my belly, but my stomach growled. I stared into Finn’s eyes, thinking. “Fine. But start wooing with lunch. I’m starving.”

“Let’s get the car so we can ditch the baggage. Then I’ll take you for the best hamburgers in the world.”

I squinted before nodding. “Fine. Where’re these burgers?”

“About half an hour or so from here. At my mom’s. I’ll call, let her know we’re on our way, tell her I’m bringing her future daughter-in-law.”

I stopped in my tracks outside the rental place. “Not marrying Hank, remember?”

Finn held the door, winking at me. “Ah, but I’m still her son. She just wants us all married, she really won’t care which one of her kids you hook up with.”

“Not even if I go for Mary or Lydia?”

Finn shrugged. “Probably not. But you’re not their type. They like more boring partners, like accountants. They’re both engaged, but refuse to get married until at least January because of the stupid ‘have to get married by December 31st‘ thing. Always were rebels.”

“But you’re taking me home to meet your mom, want me to marry you? Does that mean you want the ranch too?”

“Did you hear me say that? I couldn’t even type that when I was pretending to be Hank. I hated the ranch. Hated the smell most of all. I’m happy in Ontario.”

I watched as Finn filled out forms and showed his license, paid for the rental car. I had no idea what my future held, but for the first time in years, I felt genuine hope.

When Finn came back to me, I put my hand out to stop him from grabbing his suitcase. “If you ever lie to me again, hide things from me, I’ll feed you to the cows.”

Finn nodded, gave me a soft, sweet kiss. All my senses went into overdrive. My heart sighed. When he pulled away, his twinkling eyes met mine. “Deal. But you should know something. If you want to feed me to any farm animals if I hurt you – and I won’t, which is why I’m telling you this – you need a pig farm. Cows don’t eat people.”

I let him take my suitcase as I followed him out to the parking lot. “Pigs, huh? Well, so long as you don’t lie to me, I won’t have to make friends with any pig farmers.”

Finn put our bags in the trunk of the rental car. When he closed the lid, he pulled me into his arms. “I think I love you.”

“I think I love you, too. And the best part? I’d accepted being Tallulah Marigold Murphy. Now I won’t have to worry about a different name.”

Finn laughed until his lips met mine, then all thought fled, and only feelings remained. Good, sweet, genuine feelings, of hope, of tomorrow, of love and life.