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Major John "Bear" Midwinter saw the Hydrangea, Mississippi, city limits sign swiftly approaching and thought the Seventh Circle of Hell might be a better name. His lips twitched with a pale effort at humor.
He supposed it didn't have the same cachet.
Hydrangea sounded picturesque, quaint and homey, and he supposed, to most of the residents who lived hereor ever had, for that matterthat's exactly the kind of town it was. He grimaced.
His fondest memory of Hydrangea, however, was leaving it.
True to its flowery namesake, dozens of multicolored blooms spilled off the bushes along either side of the road and, though he hadn't been near the town square in years, he knew the snowball-size flowers would be planted all around the white gazebo in its center. They'd be hanging from the lampposts in fancy planters, coaxed up trellises and displayed in wreaths on storefront doors. As a boy he'd ridden his bike on the sidewalks, stopped for strawberry milk shakes at Malone's Diner and sweet-talked chocolate stars from Ella Johnston, who ran the candy counter at the dry goods store.
It wasn't that he didn't have any good memories of Hydrangeahe did. But they had been few and far between.
As a U.S. Army Ranger and part of a Special Forces unit that specialized in hand-to-hand combat, Bear knew a thousand different ways to incapacitate, wound or kill an opponent. He could size up an adversary in the blink of an eye then isolate a weakness and use it to his advantage in another blink. He was supremely confident in his abilities. Some men, he'd been taught, were natural warriors and between his sizewhich was notableand inherent skill, he knew he fell into that category. He was good at his job, confident in his ability to carry out his duties for Uncle Sam. He frowned.
But the duty he was facing here was another matter altogether.
Could he competently ready his mother's dance studio and apartment for the impending sale? Certainly. He wasn't a carpenter, but knew his way around a hammer well enough to handle the repairs. The better questionthe one that had been circling the brain drain for weeks nowwas why in the hell had he agreed to do them? What on earth had possessed him to agree to help her? Despite the fact that she was his mother, he certainly didn't owe her anything.
Duty, Bear thought. It was a bitch to shake, deserved or not.
Celeste Midwinter's parenting style had been more Mommy Dearest than June Cleaver. The day he'd walked out her door to go to college had been one of the happiest in his life. Until he'd moved out, there hadn't been a single day in his memory that she hadn't reminded him of how he'd ruined her life, ruined her body, ruined her career. A gifted ballet dancer, his mother had been living in New York, on the verge of stardom when she'd gotten pregnant with him. Her strict Catholic upbringing hadn't prevented her from having premarital sex, but it had kept her from aborting him.
He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she regretted it. He'd heard it from her own lips.
So why was he here? Why wasn't he using his leave to go on a real much-deserved vacation? Why hadn't he booked a trip to the beach? Taken a short cruise? Gone to Jamaica with his friends?
Other than some misguided sense of misplaced dutythere it was again, his downfalland an odd, unexplainable expectation, he didn't have any idea.
He supposed, to some degree, he felt sorry for her. When her dancing career had ended and no help from his father had been forthcomingBear didn't even know the man's name and had certainly never met himCeleste had literally thrown a dart at the map and relocated. Her family had disowned her as a result of the pregnancy, so she'd had no one to turn to, in what he knew had to be a very difficult time. She'd survived. She'd worked hard, built the studio up and into a business that had supported them and for that reason alone, if for no other, he hadn't been able to say no. His mother was hard, and whatever negligible maternal instincts she might have possessed had been poisoned by bitterness. But at the end of the day she was the only family he had.
Who knew? Bear thought. Perhaps they'd be able to repair some of the damage over the next few days. He'd seen her less than half a dozen times over the last dozen years. He was certainly a different person. It was possible that she could be, too. That maybe, with age, had come a heavy dose of wisdom and a little bit of regret.
Bear made the turn onto Main Street, noting the signs for the Fried Festivalwhich elicited a snort and a smileand followed the street to the town square. The place was exactly as he'd remembered it, as though it would forever be locked in a Normal Rockwell time warp. Other than new paint and a couple of new businesses he didn't recognize, the hub of Hydrangea was recognizably the same. He nodded to a couple of men who were busy setting up tablesin preparation for the festival, he imaginedand continued on. He made the circle, slowing as he passed the dance studio, before exiting via Daffodil Street to the back entrance.
Though savvy Realtors had come in and developed trendy studio apartments above many of the businesses around the square, his mother had done it out of necessity. She hadn't been able to afford both the business and a house, so she'd outfitted the studio first, then renovated the upstairs living quarters as money had permitted. The result had been an artist's den of sorts, with walls that didn't go all the way to the ceiling and lots of vintage treasures mined from yard sales and the Salvation Army. It had suited her, though, Bear thought now, but the place had always made him feel like a mismatched accessory.
He pulled up next to his mother's car and noted the open trunk with a sense of dread, then slid out from behind the wheel. Seconds later his mother dragged an enormous suitcase onto the balcony and waved impatiently at him.
"Finally," she said with a heavy dose of exasperation. "I was afraid I was going to miss you altogether."
Miss him? The dread bloomed into disbelief.
She started down the steps, awkwardly hauling the suitcase behind her. Impeccably dressed as always, she wore a blue linen pantsuit, ballet flats and a jaunty little beret. Pearl studs glowed from her ears and a small gold crucifix, the one she always wore, was nestled against her chest. "My flight leaves in three hours. It's international, which means I have to be there two hours early and it's a forty-five-minute drive. You know how I detest being late," she said, finally arriving at the bottom of the stairs. She stopped and looked up at him, then gestured to the bag. "Can you be a darling and pop this in the trunk for me?"
An international flight? She was leaving? Now?
He felt a disbelieving smile slide over his lips and gave himself a mental shake. This was his mother. Of course, she was leaving. So much for a new start, Bear thought as he stowed her bag and closed the lid.
"Where are you going?" he asked, his tone as conversational as if he was merely inquiring about the weather.
"To Paris," she said. "It's a retirement gift to myself." She glanced back at the house and studio. "I can't bear the idea of being around while you finish everything up. I've spent thirty-one years of my life here," she said. "I know this chapter is closing, but it's still tough, still going to take some getting used to."
And what better way to get used to it than by going to Paris? Bear thought. Especially when he'd be there to make sure that the repairs the new owner requested were done.
The brief brush with nostalgia complete, his mother released a resolute sigh. "The Salvation Army is coming to pick up the rest of the stuff left inside on Saturday afternoon," she said, "but if you find anything you think I might have put in by mistake, you can send it to my new address."
"You bought the house on Lilac Street?" She'd emailed a picture to him last month to see what he thought. The caption had read A Real Front Porch!
His mother pulled a piece of paper from her purse and handed it to him. "No," she said. "I bought a place in Charleston. A quaint little craftsman near the water."
He wouldn't give her the benefit of his surprise. "Charleston?"
She smiled at him as though she were merely sharing news with a passing acquaintance and not her son. "I'm going to sip mint juleps and join hoity-toity book clubs, go to estate sales and try my hand at painting. It's my turn," she said, as though her entire life hadn't been her turn. He could feel the old familiar irritation taking hold and redoubled his efforts to keep it in check. "I've left a list of the contracted repairs upstairs," she told him. "Please confer with Veda as you do them and make sure that everything is to her liking." She grimaced. "Naturally, I can't afford for the sale to fall through now."
And with the money she was saving on hiring a contractor, she could no doubt afford her trip to Paris. Sheesh. He was such a fool.
Veda? Why did that name sound familiar? He had a sudden memory of long golden hair and determined green eyes, skinned knees and a tattered tutu. Something in his chest gave a little squeeze and his heart inexplicably skipped a beat. Tiny Dancer? Tiny Dancer was the former student who had bought the studio? How old had she been when he left? Bear wondered. Twelve? Thirteen? She'd been young, he knew that. And so, so small. His nickname for her hadn't been the least bit original, but she'd gotten a kick out of it. He remembered his mother being exceptionally hard on Veda and when he'd asked her about it, she'd said she was only hard on the ones who had promise.
So what had happened to the promising young ballerina? Bear wondered. A husband and family most likely and, for whatever reason, the thought depressed him.
His mother glanced at her watch, then winced dramatically. "Goodness, I'd better get going. You have my cell phone number if you need me." She offered her cheek for a kiss, then smiled up at him. "We'll have a proper visit next time, yes? You would have been much too busy to be good company this time."
Yes, busy helping her. He gritted his teeth at his own stupidity. If there was a moron award, he would no doubt get it.
Rather than wait for his reply, she slid into her car and backed into the street, waving breezily as she pulled away.
A bark of dry laughter erupted from his throat before he could stop it.
And that, ladies and gentleman, was his mother.