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The ferryboat blasted its horn and slowly motored into the Halo Island harbor. "Music to my ears." Georgia Garwood, known to her friends as G.G., beamed at Tina Morrell. "I can't wait to get home."
It was the first time since her hip replacement surgery nearly two weeks ago that G.G. truly had smiled. And after a ninety-minute drive from Seattle to Anacortes, followed by a forty-five-minute ferry ride, all of it spent sitting inside Tina's car, it was a pleasure to see.
Tina reached across the bucket seats to touch G.G.'s gnarled hand. "You're a real trooper. I only hope that if I ever need hip surgery, I'll be as good a patient."
"You've been wonderful to me." G.G. squeezed Tina's fingers, then gingerly settled back into her seat. "I know the surgeon and physical therapists say I need help for another week, but what do they know?You really don't have to stay with me. If I need anything, I'll just ask one of the neighbors."
Any of the residents on Huckleberry Hill Road, actually a block-long cul-de-sac, would gladly lend a hand, Tina knew. But she refused to relinquish her responsibility. "After all you've done for me, I'm happy to finally have the chance to do something for you."
"I appreciate that, but this job promotion is important." G.G.'s gray eyes grew worried. "You should be in Seattle, fighting for it."
She was right about that. Competition for creative director, a position second only to the CEO of the marketing and advertising firm she worked for, was fierce. Though Tina's only real adversary was Kendra Eubanks, a coworker who would stop at nothing to get what she wanted. Interviews were to start in two and a half weeks, right after Thanksgiving, and staying on top of things and keeping a vigilant eye on Kendra was crucial. Doing that from the island would be difficult. On the positive side, with the office closed the week of Thanksgiving, Tina was missing only nine work days. Which wasn't so bad, especially with June, her trusted assistant, keeping an eye on things.
"Mr. Sperling always says family comes first, and this is his chance to prove that. Besides, I have to use up what's left of my vacation time before Christmas. It'll all work out," she said, hoping she'd be right. "June and I will touch base every day, and with the Internet and e-mail, I can tele-commute." But vacation or not, with this promotion at stake she wasn't about to leave her work duties to anyone else. "So don't waste your worries on me."
G.G. didn't look convinced, so Tina continued. "You know I haven't been home in early November in years." She usually visited later on in the month, at Thanksgiving, and then came back for Christmas. "Being home now means fresh apple cider from Lindeman's Orchards." She smacked her lips.
"It is the tail end of the season, so you're lucky. There'll be a big jug at the potluck tonight, and I " G.G. broke off, wincing.
Tina bit her lip. "Maybe you should take a pain pill now."
She reached into the backseat and grabbed G.G.'s prescription container and a bottle of water. "Just let me open this."
"No, thank you." G.G. made a dismissive gesture toward the pills. "Those things make me feel as if my head were wrapped in cotton. I don't like that, not one bit. What I need is to lie down. You realize that since I can't climb the stairs, you'll have to make up the daybed in the den."
"That's no problem."
Abruptly, the hum of the ferry's motor cut off.
"All passengers and vehicles may now depart," announced a male voice over the public address system.
Finally. "In ten minutes, you'll be stretched out on the daybed," Tina said.
G.G. gave a terse nod, her pinched face a sure sign of pain. "How about an aspirin? That might help, and it won't make you feel woozy."
As Tina rooted through her purse, the dozen or so cars and trucks around them roared to life. Because tourist season was over now, the ferry was only half-full, which would cut the exit time. Thank goodness. Tired herself, Tina yawned as she pulled forward.
"You need a nap, too," G.G. said. "Between working twelve hours a day and visiting me at the hospital and rehab center every evening, you're worn out. And way too thin. I just wish I could cook for you."
"I'll be doing the cooking, thank you very much. And I wish you'd stop worrying about me."
Following the other vehicles, Tina drove down the ramp, then turned onto the aptly named Treeline Road.
"Look at the trees," G.G. said. "They'd barely started to change color when I left for my surgery. Aren't they lovely?"
The vivid yellow and red leaves were beautiful. "They are," Tina said. No doubt she'd rake G.G.'s backyard at least once or twice before she headed back to Seattle.
"While you're here, you ought to take a walk through the woods. You're too pale, and the fresh air will put the roses back in your cheeks. Help you relax some, too."
"I'll try to do that." Though between telecommuting and cooking, cleaning, driving G.G. to physical therapy and dealing with anything else that came up, Tina doubted she'd have much spare time.
Not that she minded packing every minute with chores. Better that than free time to second-guess herself and wonder if
No. Lips compressed, she signaled and then turned away from the water toward Huckleberry Hill Road, which was two and a half miles inland and smack-dab in the center of the island.
"By the way, if you need a fax machine while you're here, Ryan Chasethat nice single father I told you about, who moved into Seda Booker's place a few months ago said you're welcome to borrow his."
Wondering just why G.G. had mentioned her possible need for a fax to the man across the streetwas she trying to matchmake?Tina raised her eyebrows. With the promotion at stake, she couldn't be.
"I know you want me to start dating again," she said. After a bad breakup two years ago, Tina had given up dating to focus on her work. At least, that was the excuse she used. The truth was, she had no interest in getting hurt again. Besides, at her age, thirty-three, most of the men she met were either married, looking for fun on the side, divorced and bitter or gay. "And I will. But right now I need to focus on getting the promotion."
She glanced at G.G. to make sure she was listening. "As for Ryan Chase, I wouldn't want to impose on a man I don't even know. If I need a fax machine, I'll drive over to that mailboxes place and use theirs."
"That's expensive, and the store is only open from nine to five. What if you need to send something earlier or later, and what if someone wants to fax you? Using Ryan's machine will cost you nothing except the long-distance phone charges, and you don't have to drive anyplace. So convenient."
G.G. was way too invested in thisshe definitely was matchmaking. Which made no sense at all, given that Tina's marketing and advertising firm was in Seattle. And G.G. expected her to run the business one day.
"I'll keep that in mind," she murmured, hoping the older woman would drop the matter.
No such luck. "Maggie Chase is so cute!" G.G. was practically gushing now. "She reminds me of you at that agefull of spit and spunk. A real handful, but lovable all the same."
Tina smirked. Oh, she'd been a handful, all right. Not as bad in G.G.'s kindergarten class as later on. A thirteen-year-old girl, orphaned, scared and alone. But G.G. had taken Tina into her home and raised her as her own, and she and the other neighbors had stuck with Tina through everything. She owed all that she was today to them.
"You were such a good kindergarten teacher," she told G.G.
"Wasn't I? Sometimes I wish I hadn't retired. But at seventy-five, I just don't have the energy to deal with twenty children all at once."
"Maybe not, but you're still a dynamo."
"I was better before this hip trouble. Norma Feather-stonedid I mention she's pregnant at last? Four months alonghas been taking care of Maggie after kindergarten since I left town for my surgery. I suppose she'll keep on until this new hip works the way it should."
"You don't need to watch anyone after school. If you'd just let me help with monthly expenses "
"I don't need help." G.G.'s mouth tightened as she raised her chin. "I manage quite well on social security and my teacher's pension. Besides, I need something to do, and Maggie lights up the house. And her daddy Well, you'll see for yourself how special he is." She shot Tina a sly look. "He and Maggie are coming to the potluck."
"Of course they are." Tina was sure G.G. saw her roll her eyes at this.
They were almost home now. "Have I mentioned that he manages the Halo Island Bank?"
"Yes, and you also told me he started a bank in L.A., sold it for tons of money and moved here." Tina wondered just what G.G. had told Ryan Chase about her. Well, she'd no doubt find out.
"He's not at all snobby about the money. You'd never know he's wealthy. And he can cook, too. He's bringing his homemade brownies to the potluck tonight."
G.G. shifted carefully, her face etched with discomfort. She needed to rest.
"I know this dinner has been on the calendar for a long time," Tina said. "But couldn't people wait a few weeks? Or maybe you could switch with the Rosses and ask them to host tonight instead?"
The question earned her a dirty look, as if she'd suggested stealing food from the grocery store.
"It's their turn to host the Christmas potluck, and they're so looking forward to that," G.G. said. "I couldn't ask them to switch. Tonight will be fine, especially with you here to help."
Fifty feet ahead, the perky white-and-blue Huckleberry Hill Road sign greeted them. Tina eased off the accelerator, and though there wasn't another car in sight, she signaled.
"Everyone is looking forward to seeing you," G.G. continued. "We're all crossing our fingers that you get the promotion."
For all their sakes, Tina hoped so, too. Not only had G.G. and most of the neighbors looked after her from the time she'd been orphaned, but they'd pooled their money and paid her college and graduate school tuitiondespite the fact that several of them had children of their own. In return, they assumed she would climb the corporate ladder and make them proud. She wasn't about to let them down.
Even if she didn't love her work anymore. She had no idea why or when advertising had ceased to be her life, but the magic was gone. Well, they never would know.
A stress headache threatened. Tina massaged the back of her neck.
"What's the matter, Tina?"
"Nothing at all." She forced a bright smile. "It's been a long day. Are you sure you're up to all that socializing tonight?"
"If I'm not, I'll just go to bed and they can party without me." G.G. started to laugh, but broke off, wincing.
The people Tina had grown up with filled the living room and dining room of G.G.'s modest bungalow. Not one of them was a blood relative, but they were family all the same. Tina greeted them with smiles and hugs. After nearly a year away from the island, being surrounded by people who loved her felt remarkably good.
As laughter and conversation buzzed through the room Tina piled food onto G.G.'s plate from the platters that filled the dining room table.
If she craned her neck she could see G.G. seated in the black captain's chair in the corner of the living room. When aspirin and rest hadn't relieved her pain, she'd at last given in and swallowed one of the prescription pills. If she felt cotton-headed she wasn't acting like it. Holding court with half a dozen neighbors, she seemed her usual lively, witty self.
"You've lost weight, Tina," said Sidney Pletcher, a widower who lived down the block. "You're too scrawny."
"Gee, thanks." Tina cast a bemused eye at the portly seventy-eight-year-old man. With his snowy beard, he could've passed for Santa Claus, only he was way too grumpy. Except at Christmas, when he dressed the part and handed out candy. She turned to Rose Thorne, ten years younger than Sidney and another neighbor. "Do you think I'm too thin?"
Chin in hand, Rose, who was trim by nature and a weaver by trade, studied her from top to bottom. "Maybe a little, although when you work hard sometimes you don't have time to eat right. I know that's true of me when I'm working on a project. But scrawny? No."
Tina high-fived her. "Thank you, Rose."
"You could stand to put on a few pounds, too," Sidney told Rose.
Rose pursed her lips and aimed a pointed look at his belly. "Well, you should lose some."
"I'm not fat." Sidney sucked in his gut. "And you're not my doctor."
"Never said I was. But if I were you, I'd get my eyes checked. Because you definitely are overweight."
They bickered like an old married couple, just as they had for years. Yet they'd toured Europe together and spent a great deal of time at each other's houses. What they did there was none of Tina's business. She knew only that they cared about each other. Even if at the moment their matching glares were hot enough to reheat the coffee.
After a moment, Sidney turned to Tina. "It's too bad G.G. can't cook for you while you're here. You'd gain weight in no time. But scrawny or not, I'm real proud of you. My own kids should be so successful. Someday you'll be running that ad company you work for, and I can say I knew you when."
"Won't that be wonderful?" Rose agreed.