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Lori Sullivan wasn't looking for trouble. She swore she wasn't.
Just because her nickname was Naughty, and trouble seemed to follow her wherever she went, didn't mean she wanted any today. On the contrary-for the first time ever, she was looking for some peace and quiet.
No one in her family knew she was back in San Francisco, having just flown in on the red-eye from Chicago. Even though she loved them more than anything else in the world, she just couldn't face them right now. Her six brothers, her twin sister and her mother were the best family a girl could have
and yet, if they found out that she was back in town, they'd not only want to know why she'd walked out on her show halfway through its run, but they also wouldn't back off until they'd wrung every horrible detail out of her.
How did she know that?
Because that was exactly what she'd done to every one of them over the past twenty-five years whenever they'd faced a crisis-personal or otherwise.
So, instead of wheeling her suitcase from the San Francisco Airport baggage claim area over to the taxi station to head home to her apartment, she impulsively headed for the rental-car desk.
"Good morning, how can I help you?" chirped the blonde woman behind the desk.
Lori guessed the two of them had to be around the same age but, by contrast, she felt at least a decade wearier than her. "I need a car."
"Great! Where are you headed and how long do you need it for?"
The woman's smile was so bright, Lori felt her eyes tearing up from the glare. Fortunately, after her bleary-eyed flight across the country, immediately upon landing she'd put on her sunglasses to deal with the blinding sunlight pouring in through her small airplane window. She was glad she was still wearing them as she'd hate for the woman to think she was crying.
No, Lori refused to cry over anything that had happened in Chicago. Or during the year and a half before that.
She wasn't a crier, damn it. Never had been, never would be.
The world would have to do a heck of a lot more than give her a cheating scum of a boyfriend and take away her entire dancing career to make her cry.
She was young. She was healthy. She had her whole life ahead of her.
Somehow, some way, she'd figure out what to do with the next seventy years.
Which brought her back to the woman's questions. Where was she going? And for how long?
Blaming lack of sleep for the fact that all her brain could come up with was blanks, she asked, "Where's your favorite place to go?"
The woman was momentarily surprised by Lori's question, but then her face got all dreamy. "Pescadero."
Lori slipped her sunglasses down her nose so that she could peer at the woman over the frames. "Pescadero?"
Having lived in Northern California her entire life, Lori figured she must have driven through there at some point, but as far as she could recall, Pescadero had been nothing more than a bunch of farms strung together.
The woman nodded happily. "I just love the green rolling hills that seem to go on forever, all those sheep and cows munching away, and the fact that the ocean is at the end of nearly every farm road."
Lori loved living in the city. She loved working in cities, too, especially since her dance career had always been intrinsically tied to the movement all around her. A sleepy farm town was the last place she would ever have thought to choose for an impromptu vacation.
"It sounds perfect. How long can I have the car?"
Again, the woman gave her a slightly strange look before saying, "One month. Longer than that and I'll have to fill out additional paperwork. But it's really more of a day trip. A shortish one, at that. I can't imagine how you could possibly spend a month in Pescadero."
Even though Lori was silently wondering the same thing, she handed over her credit card and signed a dozen forms promising that she wouldn't damage the car. A few minutes later, she was holding the keys and was about to walk away from the rental desk when she turned back.
"Any idea how to get to Pescadero from here?"
An hour and a half later, Lori was wondering if the farmland was ever going to end when she saw a roof. Feeling like a sailor who had been out to sea for months before finally catching sight of land, she put her foot down harder on the gas pedal and sped toward what she could now see was the teeny-tiny Pescadero Main Street.
The car rental lady had been right about the pretty green fields and the cute sheep, but she'd somehow forgotten to mention how quiet the silence was
or how lonesome.
Lori had filled her world with loud music and tall buildings and vibrant people for so long that it was strange to be surrounded by complete quiet. She'd flipped on the car radio at one point, but it had felt akin to turning on a boom box in the middle of a church, so she'd immediately turned it off.
Still, for all that her mood wasn't exactly at its best, it was the first sunny day she'd seen in weeks and she was determined to enjoy the warm sun and blue skies. Plus, just as her auto-mechanic-slash-mogul brother Zach had always claimed, there really was something about getting in a car and going for a drive. Granted, she thought as she looked down at her little rental car, he usually did his joyrides in a Ferrari. Besides, he didn't do them alone anymore, now that he and Heather were in love and engaged.
Lori pulled up in front of the Pescadero General Store just as a little girl walked outside carrying a big bag of dog food and wearing a huge smile. A man Lori easily assumed was her grandfather was barely a beat behind her holding a brand-new dog crate. Wearing cowboy boots and well-worn blue jeans, they both fit perfectly into the farm town.
As she got out of the car, Lori saw the girl's puppy. His leash had been tied to a nearby post and when he caught sight of the little girl, the black-and-white dog started wagging its tail so hard its whole body looked like a kite flying in the breeze. The girl immediately dropped the bag of dog food on the ground and picked up the puppy in her arms to give it kisses. The grizzled old farmer said in a gruff voice, "You're going to spoil him," but his eyes were full of love.
For the second time today, Lori felt her eyes begin to tear up. She'd gotten used to the bright sunlight and had flipped her sunglasses up on top of her head a while ago, but now she plopped them back over her eyes.
As she stepped onto the sidewalk, both the man and the girl stopped to look at her, each of them doing a double take. She couldn't figure out what had shocked them so much
not until she finally looked down at herself.
Oh, yeah, this was why. The formfitting, sleeveless, bright-pink top covered in multicolored sequins that ended at midthigh, and nearly opaque tights combined with the glittery heels she'd been dancing in, were a little strange to be wearing in the middle of the day. Not just here, but anywhere, really.
She'd completely forgotten what she was wearing when she'd stormed out of the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, thrown her things into her suitcase, then headed to the airport to catch the next plane to San Francisco. She'd wrapped an oversize scarf around herself on the plane and in the airport, but it was so warm and sunny during her drive that she'd stripped it off and had left it on the passenger seat.
Of course the puppy didn't care what she was wearing, and when she reached for it, he wriggled his furry body toward her. "What a cute puppy," she said to the little girl. "What's his name?"
"That's a great name," Lori said as she smiled and patted the dog, but just as her fingertips stroked the soft fur between the puppy's ears, the girl's grandfather dragged them away.
A moment later, when Lori turned to head for the General Store's front door, the ground felt as though it was moving beneath her. Bracing herself against the wall, Lori realized she hadn't had anything to eat for nearly twenty-four hours. Despite what most people thought dancers' lives were like, she had a healthy appetite and a fast metabolism, and knew she shouldn't have gone so long without eating.
It was just that food hadn't sounded very good for a while now
With renewed purpose, she pushed through the door. Animal feed and farm supplies ran the length of one side of the store. In the middle was a display of knitwear, jeans, cowboy boots and what looked like packages of underwear and socks. The other side of the store had a deli counter, several refrigerated units holding eggs and cheese and milk, plus shelves weighed down with canned food.
She grabbed a bag of chips and walked up to the register. The teenage boy behind the deli counter turned bright red. "Wh-what can I get y-" he swallowed hard and reached up to loosen the neck of his T-shirt "-you."
Even as it occurred to her that maybe she should have gone back to the car for her scarf to wrap around her dance outfit, she enjoyed the appreciation in his eyes. Just because she was done with men didn't mean she didn't still want to be wanted by them. That way she could have the pleasure of kicking them all to the curb-except for sweet teenage boys, of course.
"What's the best sandwich you've got?"
His eyes went wide at her question, as if she'd asked him for the answer to how the earth rotated on its axis rather than just about cold cuts and bread. And boy, was he working hard to keep his eyes on her face rather than letting them drop to her breasts, which were pretty much on full display in her outfit. He was so cute that she wanted to leap across the counter to hug him for making her feel pretty again, at least for a few seconds of adolescent adoration.
"Um, I don't know." He swallowed hard again before turning to scan the list of sandwiches handwritten on the board behind him. "Maybe the Muffuletta?"
"Sounds good." She put down the chips on the counter as he started to ring her up. "I'll also take the strongest cup of coffee you can brew."
Who knew how much longer she'd be out driving these farm roads before she found a place to stay for the night? She did have the rental car for an entire month, after all.
He took her money with a shaking hand and when she asked, "Could you tell me where the bathroom is?" he dropped it all on the floor, then hit his head on the open register drawer when he went to pick it up.
Clearly not trusting himself to speak this time, he simply knelt on the floor and pointed toward the back of the building with a shaky hand. Lori figured it was a good idea to give him a break while he made her sandwich; she'd hate for him to slice off the tip of a finger with the meat cutter just because she was standing too close in barely there spandex and glitter.
After quickly taking care of business, she looked at herself in the mirror and would have laughed if she hadn't been so horrified by the mess she found in the reflection. With quick and efficient professionalism she fixed her hair and makeup. She'd always subscribed to the idea that if you looked good, you felt good, but today she had a feeling mascara and lip gloss weren't going to fix much of anything.
After leaving the bathroom, she took a few moments to look around a little bit. On second glance, the General Store was pretty cute inside, a little farm "superstore" with groceries and clothes and chicken feed, clearly all of equal importance to the people who lived here. One table had a Local Authors sign on it and she stopped to scan the books of poetry, novels and a couple of non-fiction tomes on farming techniques. The books gave her a sense of the community that this store supported, likely made up of farmers and their families who had been here for generations.
She'd been part of the dancing community for so long she hadn't ever looked for any other world to belong to. Especially not when Sullivan family events with her mother and seven siblings were frequent enough to take up any free time she had.
But now, even the thought of dancing made her sick to her stomach. Her ex had wooed her with dancing. and then betrayed her with it. Once upon a time, she'd danced for herself, for the pure joy it had given her. Until these past few months, when she'd been little more than Victor's puppet, dancing to try to please him. By the time she realized that nothing pleased him, she'd forgotten how to dance for any other reason. And now, it felt as if there was a dead, numb zone inside her where her heart used to be.
She supposed she'd find another community to belong to in time.
Lori was just about to head back to the deli counter to pick up her sandwich when she noticed a large board filled with flyers. She'd always been interested in strangers' lives and devoured biographies as fast as her librarian sister, Sophie, could give them to her. Looking at a community posting board was such a perfect window into lives she'd never live. And the truth was that as she'd driven the short Main Street, she'd been surprised by how cute the town was. The storefronts dripped with old Western charm and she'd even passed a farm stand that looked like a picture out of a magazine.
In the middle of the board was a piece of white paper with the words Farmhand Needed in a strong, clearly masculine hand. Not for one second of her life had she ever thought about living or working on a farm. For her entire life, she'd known exactly what she was and what she would be: a dancer.
Only, since she wasn't going to dance anymore, why not try something completely different, something that could very well turn out to be her second calling?
Maybe if she had gotten more than a dozen hours of sleep all week, she might have taken a clearer, more coolheaded look at the decision she was making.
Because she wasn't looking for trouble. She swore she wasn't.
The thing was, for the first time in a very long time, Lori felt a stirring of excitement. Of anticipation.
And a thrill that felt a little bit like fear.
She'd always liked the scary rides at the amusement park, and had been the one to drag her siblings to horror movies. But what could possibly be scary about working as a farmhand?
Especially when she'd already decided she was going to be the best damn farmhand the world had ever seen. Not to try to please anyone else, but to please herself, and to know that at the end of a long day on the farm, she'd done good work that she could be proud of.
Lori ripped the ad off the board and put it down in front of the deli boy. She was impulsive, but she wasn't stupid, so she asked him, "Do you know the guy who posted this? Is he a nice man?"
The boy nodded. "Sure, Grayson is nice."
Lori liked the sound of that name. Grayson. Probably some old farmer like the grandfather she'd seen on the sidewalk-someone who'd been married for fifty years and needed extra help with his chickens and cows. She had no idea what that help would entail, but she'd always been a fast learner.
She grinned and asked, "Can you tell me how to get to his farm?"