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The boy scrambled up and over the fence just as Callie McCarran opened the back door. Sun glinted off his short, silvery-blond hair before he dropped out of sight into the vacant lot next door.
"Hey," Callie called, but it was too late. The kid couldn't be more than seven or eight, but he was a quick little guy. It was the second time she'd seen him in the yard in the two days she'd been back in town, which seemed odd, since there was nothing of interest back here.…But then she noticed the baseball-size hole in the porch screen, which was quite possibly related to the baseball lying under the wicker chair.
Callie bent down to get it.
"I found your ball," she called. Nothing. Shaking her head, she went out into the overgrown grass and set it on the empty birdbath.
"It's on the birdbath," she yelled, in case the kid was crouching on the other side of the fence. "I'm going in the house now." She walked a few steps, then added, "And I'm not mad about the hole." The entire porch needed to be rescreened before she could sell the house, so no big deal.
Callie went back into the classic 1980s kitchen, complete with country-blue ruffled curtains at the windows and cow-decorated canisters on the cream-colored countertops. She poured a glass of tap water and drank it all without setting the glass down. She'd cried a lot during the past few days and no matter how much water she drank, she felt dehydrated. But she had held up during the memorial service, thank goodness, because if she had broken down, the good townspeople would have added "hypocrite" to her list of epithets. They were already treating her like a leper.
Okay, leper was probably too strong of a word. People had been pleasant enough, offering the obligatory condolences, but she'd been aware of the undercurrents, the why-the-hell-weren't-you-there-for-your-foster-mother-in-her-time-of-need undercurrents. And no one spent much time talking to her. A few murmured words, then off to join other more legitimate mourners standing in small groups near the buffet. Following the service, Callie had spent most of the time alone beside the podium, waiting for the moment when she could leave. Grace's accountant had stood with her for a while, but Callie had a feeling that was only because she was paying him, or rather the estate was paying him, to take care of the final bills. Even he eventually drifted away.
Damn it, I would have been there for Grace, if I'd known how sick she was.
She hadn't known…and she hadn't exactly tried to find out, either. Instead she had stayed with her once-in-a-lifetime trip through Kazakhstan. Attached to a geologic field tour, she'd been chronicling the economic growth and environmental pitfalls since foreign companies had been allowed to mine there.
She was still quite angry with Grace for not telling her she was terminal. That while treating her for a chronic stomach disorder, the doctor had discovered an inoperable malignant growth. But really, Callie hadn't wanted to know the truth.
She'd been afraid to know.
The worst part was that she'd ignored the biggest red flag of all: Grace had asked her to come back to Wesley when she returned to the States. She hadn't been home in twelve years, and in hindsight, Callie could see that Grace wouldn't have made such a request without one hell of a good reason—such as being in the process of dying.
Callie refilled the glass and walked to the back door, peering through the window. The ball was still perched on the birdbath. She wondered if the kid would come back or if this was the last she'd see of him. If he did come and get the ball, she hoped he'd play with it somewhere else.
Not that she'd be here.
But then again, maybe she would. For the first time in a long time, Callie felt no desire to move on. No need to find the next city to explore, the next story to write…maybe because she hadn't written anything except her contracted Kazakhstan article since receiving news of Grace's death.
Callie pressed the cool glass to her cheek. This was the second time she'd suffered such a loss, and it wasn't any easier than the first. Just different.
Her father had disappeared when she was six, leaving her with Grace, his distant cousin and only relative. A business trip. Except he'd never returned. Now she'd lost the only other parent she'd even known.
She set the glass in the sink and went to her old bedroom, now a guest room, and pulled her dark blue knit dress over her head and tossed it on the bed. None of her clothes wrinkled. She traveled too much to buy anything that couldn't be crumpled into a ball and shoved into a suitcase. She traveled with only a carry-on bag whenever possible, because she hated dealing with extra baggage. No extra belongings, no extra people. Just the bare minimum.
But Grace hadn't been extra baggage.
Callie sank down onto the bed and stared at the wall opposite. She should have made more of an effort. Should have, should have, should have…
The room had been pale green when she'd lived here. She'd wanted lavender, a color Grace could not abide.
Callie had begged, but the room had remained green, because Grace said there was no way she was having that much lavender in her house.
Now the walls were apricot.
Nothing. It meant that it had been time to paint and Grace had chosen a different color.
Restless, Callie got up and paced back into the living room in her underwear. It was hot and no one was likely to stop by to visit the ungrateful foster child.
A magazine lay folded back on itself on the maple end table next to Grace's blue velvet recliner. Her slippers were on the floor next to the chair. Grace was everywhere and nowhere.
And the house was so freaking quiet.
Callie had to get out. Regain her equilibrium so she could deal with stuff that two weeks ago she had no idea she'd be dealing with.
A few minutes later, dressed in cropped khaki pants, flip-flops and a light pink T-shirt, she all but bolted down the walk. There weren't many places to go in Wesley, Nevada, but she'd find somewhere.
"Callie!" Alice Krenshaw was standing on her porch next door, still wearing the black muumuulike dress she'd worn to the memorial, a copper watering can in her plump hand. "Are you all right?" she asked, probably out of a sense of duty, because she hadn't been friendly at the funeral.
"Fine," Callie called back, not slowing her pace. Maybe later she'd talk to Alice, but right now she didn't want to talk to anyone. She saw her shake her head as Callie got into her borrowed Neon, read the disapproval in the gesture.
She started the engine and pulled out onto the street, having no idea where she was going. For the first time…ever…she wasn't entirely sure that being accountable to no one but herself was a good thing.
Right now Callie wouldn't mind leaning on someone, and there was only one person in town who might agree to prop her up, but she had fences to mend there first. A minor repair, she hoped. After all, twelve years had passed, and surely by now Nate would have come to the conclusion that what she'd done had been for the best.
"Did you hear me, Mr. Marcenek?"
Nathan Marcenek took off his glasses and rubbed a hand over his eyes, his vision blurry from staring at a computer screen for too long. When he focused on Joy Wong, the receptionist for the Wesley Star newspaper, she blinked at him expectantly.
"Callie's here?" He hadn't seen this one coming. In fact, he'd been surprised to hear she'd come back for the service, since she hadn't set foot in Wesley since abruptly leaving town, and him, the day after high school graduation. Even Grace's illness hadn't brought her home.
"Send her in," Nathan said, wishing he'd had the foresight to hide a flask of whisky in his desk drawer for occasions such as these. He had a feeling he might want a stiff belt after this unexpected meeting was over.
Joy nodded and disappeared into the hall. He heard her say, "First door on the left," and then a moment later the woman he could have quite happily gone the rest of his life without seeing again walked into his office. And if anything, she was more striking than he remembered.
Her dark blond hair was shorter than it'd been in high school, curving along her shoulders instead of falling down her back, and the freckles over her nose had faded. But her eyes were the same. Closer to aqua than blue; her gaze direct and candid. Or so it seemed. Nathan had learned the hard way that Callie was a master at hiding things.
"Hi, Nate," she said, her voice husky.
"Callie." He stood, his leg protesting the movement less than usual. Adrenaline mixed with testosterone was amazing stuff. "It's been a while," he said, uttering the understatement of the year. He sat back down without offering his hand or cheek, or whatever one offered to an ex-friend/girlfriend who'd proved to be less than trustworthy, and gestured to the chairs on the other side of the desk.
Callie appeared unfazed by his lack of warmth. She would have been a fool if she had expected him to welcome her with open arms and Callie was anything but a fool.
She took a seat on the only chair that didn't have papers or books stacked on it, and set her small leather backpack on the tiled floor next to her feet. When she focused on him again, her expression was more businesslike, as if she'd changed tactics, which instantly put him on edge. Tactics meant a mission, and Nathan wasn't going to be involved with any Callie missions.
"I was surprised to hear you were editing the Star," she said as she folded her hands in her lap, obviously more comfortable with this reunion than he was. "The last I'd heard you were working as a reporter in Seattle."
So she knew something about his career. Nathan waited, wondering if she was also aware that he'd been injured on that particular job. Rather spectacularly injured, in fact. The story had gone national, but the incident had been followed almost immediately by a huge government scandal that had stolen the headlines for weeks.
Callie waited for his reply to her small-talk opening, and after a few seconds he began to relax. She didn't know. There would be no token murmurs of sympathy. No suspicions that he'd tried to live in the fast lane and had gotten the snot knocked out of him. Callie was the last person he wanted to know about that, since honestly, the way she'd dumped him without ever looking back had been part of the reason he'd tried to be less boring.
"I took this job fourteen months ago."
"Where were you before that?"
"Here and there. How about you?" he asked, trying to figure out what was going on. Surely she wasn't here cashing in on old-friend status? If so, she was bordering on delusional. Friends were people you could trust. Friends didn't do what she'd done. "Where've you been working?"
The better question would have been where hadn't she been working? Callie never stayed in one place long. He hadn't consciously followed her career—pretty much the opposite, in fact—but Grace had been proud of the foster daughter who never came to visit, and made sure everyone knew where Callie was working.
"Same places as you," she replied. "Here and there. Funny we didn't meet." She didn't exactly smile, but the dimple appeared near the corner of her mouth. Even now it charmed the hell out of him, which in turn ticked him off.
"Yeah." The polite game was over. He didn't smile back, but instead held her gaze, waiting for her to explain the reason for her visit as he absently rubbed the muscles of his right thigh.
Callie sat in stubborn silence on the other side of his desk, studying him. He wondered how he was stacking up to the guy she'd dumped after graduation. Finally, he gave in and said, "I'm sorry about Grace."
"Thank you. It was a shock."
Nathan didn't try to hold back the snort. The culmination of a terminal cancer diagnosis had been a shock? That pissed him off. "She'd been sick for a long time," he pointed out none too gently. "Where were you?"
The color left her cheeks, but her eyes flashed. "I didn't know about the cancer, all right?"
He guessed he shouldn't have been surprised, although he found it hard to believe that none of Grace's friends had tried to contact her. "Did you try to find out?"
"She told me she was doing fine, that they'd just changed her treatments. I thought I had time to finish the project I was working on." Callie cleared her throat, the first indication that perhaps she wasn't as cool and collected as she wanted him to believe. "If I'd had any idea how serious it was, I would have been here."
Nathan wondered. He took off his reading glasses, holding them by the bow. "So," he said briskly, making the change of topic sound like a brushoff, "once the estate is settled, where are you heading off to?"
His jaw tightened. He didn't want her in town, didn't want to be around her. Didn't like being reminded of those days when he'd gone through hell wondering why she'd left. Why she wouldn't take his calls. Not the best of times for a kid who was struggling with self-image issues, issues his dad wasn't exactly helping him with.
"You're keeping the house?" His voice was amazingly cool considering what his blood pressure was doing.