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Come on, Gwen, what better way to start off the New Year? This is a perfect job for you!" Candace Windsor says with more enthusiasm than I'm feeling. She tucks a strand of long blond hair behind her ear and smiles.
Lauren Cantrell sits beside Candace, nodding and stirring her coffee. "It would be so much fun to have you living in Bliss Village, Gwen. We could go shopping together, out for coffee — it would be great."
"And with me living in Nevada and both of you here, the three of us could get together more often than once a year," Candace adds.
Sitting near the fireplace, I feel warm and toasty, despite the fact I see snowflakes falling outside the window. Pine logs perfume the air, an aroma with which I've become familiar in my annual treks to California's Bliss Village. The three of us have been meeting in this town every year since college graduation. Now that Lauren and Garrett Cantrell are married, we meet here at their bed-and-breakfast. This year I took some extra time off before Christmas break so I could be with them and still make it home in time for Christmas Day.
The whole idea makes my dizzy. I mean, I'm all for adventure and fun, but leave Tumbleweed, Arizona? My home for almost thirty-two years?
"Besides, with your parents traveling six months out of the year, you'll be bored stiff if you stay at home by yourself," Candace continues.
I hadn't seen that one coming. She's got a point. My parents retired at the end of the last school year and purchased a motor home in the fall, but I never dreamed they would use it for anything other than occasional vacations. Since I've dated most of the eligible bachelors in Tumbleweed, my parents have given up hope of ever having grandkids to bounce on their knees. By the time I get married, my parents will have knee replacements.
How many times has Mom reminded me that my biological clock is ticking and time is running out? As much as that comment annoys me, the thought of not hearing it for the next six months makes me sad. Before my mood dives south, though, I look up to see my two best friends staring at me with hopeful eyes.
I can do this, can't I? I mean, so what if I have to leave my familiar surroundings; life is all about stretching and growing, right? The twinge of excitement sparks and soon the thrill of a new experience sends a rush of adrenaline through my veins. "I have to admit the idea appeals to me." I think for a moment. "But what about my teaching position in Tumbleweed?"
Candace waves her hand in the air. "Arizona's educational system can do without you for a semester. Take a sabbatical. Didn't you say you went into teaching to please your parents? It's time to find out what Gwen wants for her life."
I will miss my church friends, but most of them are married, so it's not as though they need me. And Candace has given me something to think about. I don't really know what I want to do with my life. This seems the perfect opportunity to find out. Okay, I'm getting excited here. "This is all so — so —"
"Perfect?" Candace grins again. "Gwen, you know you are a party waiting to happen."
I feel a smidgen of pride with her comment. I've always enjoyed it that people think that about me.
"You love adventure, challenges. What's that you always say —"
"You can do anything you set your mind to, if you want it badly enough," Lauren says.
"That's it," Candace shouts, with a snap of her fingers. I reach a hand up to fidget with my hoop earring, causing my colored bracelets to clink against one another.
"I imagine your brother will have something to say about this," I point out. "After all, this is his ski resort."
Candace waves her index finger in the air. "Ah, but I'm co-owner. Besides, I know he still needs a cook, and if you fill the job, that's one less thing he has to worry about. You'd be perfect. You already have experience from working at that restaurant in Tumbleweed during the weekends."
Lauren grabs my hand. "Did I tell you he'd be coming for dinner tonight?"
My heart blips. My gum grinds to a halt. Party animal that I am, I still get all twisted up inside when it comes to men. I'm racking my brain to remember what Candace's brother looked like. He was never around for our get-togethers. I have seen snapshots of him and Candace, but it's been so long. If only I could place him....
Lauren and Candace laugh together. "Oh, come on. I know Mitch has a past, but he isn't that bad," Candace teases.
"A past?" I gulp here.
"Well, with women. He's been a little, let's just say, indecisive at times," Candace says.
"As in leaves a trail of broken hearts?" I ask.
"Yes — but that's in the past. Mitch has really changed." Of course his sister would want to believe the best. Not that it matters to me if he's a player. After all, we're merely talking about me working for him.
The doorbell rings. "Oh, that must be him now," Candace says, already rising to answer it.
It could be me, but this seems to be happening too fast. These two already have me moved. Can I do this? My adventurous side says, "Yes, do it!" My cautious side says, "Hold on, don't move too fast. Think this through." Yes, I love adventure. Yes, I was complaining that I went into teaching because my parents made a living working in education. Yes, I want to try something new, but move to Bliss Village? Leave my safety bubble behind? I don't know. It's taking a huge risk, and, well, I haven't taken many risks lately.
Okay, try none.
Candace and a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark blond hair walk into the room and come toward me. He could be the star of any action movie on the screen today. I want to ask for his autograph.
"Gwen, this is my brother, Mitch."
All reason leaves my brain the moment we lock eyes. I'm thinking the adventurous side of me will win out.
"Mitch, Gwen Sandler."
His hazel eyes twinkle, and I realize I'm gaping. I snap my mouth shut and manage a smile. His strong hand dwarfs my own and sends sparks clear through me. This man needs a cook?
Just call me Betty Crocker.
My time with Candace and Lauren quickly drew to an end. Christmas is over, and I'm home packing to move to Bliss Village before the realization of what I'm doing can hit me.
"Gwen, are you sure you want to do this? I mean, if you're doing this because Dad and I are traveling..."
My top drawer gets stuck on something in the back. I yank out a stray yellow sock and shove the drawer closed. The cinnamon candle on the dresser flickers and sputters a moment. Have I mentioned I'm totally into cinnamon? I love the smell and taste of this priceless spice. It conjures up warm fuzzies in me. I think it's because it reminds me of Christmas. And, of course, not only does Christmas have great spiritual significance, but it also translates into social gatherings, food and fun.
I take a whiff of my favorite scent and turn to my mom. "No, Mom. I'm glad for you and Dad. I really am. This is good for me. I needed a little push from the nest." I smile outwardly but grimace inwardly. How pathetic is it that I'm thirty-two years old and still living at home?
Mom bites her lower lip, a gesture she does when she's unsure about something. "Well, if you're certain this is what you want to do..."
I walk over to the opened box and stuff my remaining socks to the side. My heart squeezes at the sight of Mom sitting on the bright blue-and-yellow comforters on my bed surrounded by fluffy matching pillows and shams. I look around the room. I've always loved the cheery yellow walls. I'll miss her, and I'll miss my room. But I'm ready for this.
I think. "Mom, it's not the end of the world. I'm moving to Bliss Village, California, not Alaska." I take the last two sweaters from my dresser, one cherry red, the other dazzling purple with sparkles all over it, and add them to the nearly full box.
With downcast eyes, Mom nods. We're both struggling here. "We'll keep in touch, and of course we'll be back in Tumbleweed during the winter months," she says.
I'm pretty sure I hear a sniffle, but Mom hides it well. She thinks a moment, and panic sharpens her eyes. "Oh, no! I'll never see those grandchildren now."
Mom can be a bit, well, dramatic at times. "Mom, in case you haven't noticed, there are no grandchildren. I'm not married, remember?" I wiggle my diamond-free left hand in her direction.
She stiffens and hikes her nose in the air. "It's only a matter of time."
I stare at her. My mom sometimes lives in a dream world, populated by dozens of grandchildren. Since my brother Spencer and I are both still single, she has to stay in her dream world to enjoy the grandkids. "I'm afraid I've exhausted my resources in Tumbleweed, Mom."
She brightens. "Is that why you're leaving? Do you know something I don't?" That's where I get my positive nature. Mom never loses hope that my perfect soul mate lurks right around the next corner.
The vision of Mitch Windsor hits me then quickly fades. "Nope. No man on the horizon. I'm simply spreading my wings." I fling my arms open wide and twirl once, causing my hair to lift with the breeze and my dangly earrings to dance.
Mom chuckles in spite of herself, yet concern shadows her face. I sit on the bed beside her and grab her hand. "Look, Mom, I've enjoyed being a teacher up to now, but honestly, I went into teaching because you and Dad wanted me to. It's not really what I want to do."
She hikes her nose a bit. "Well, education has provided a good living for our family."
"Oh, I know," I jump in eagerly. "And I'm thankful for that. I really am." I try to ease into the next comment.
"Only I'm not convinced it's what I'm supposed to do with my life."
"But a cook in a ski lodge, Gwen? I should think you got your fill of cooking for a crowd working down at the Oasis Restaurant. I never understood why you used up your weekends working there. No wonder you've never found Mr. Right. You haven't had the time. And what about your college training?"
I know Mom's emotions are bouncing around the same as mine. We don't know whether to be excited about the future or cry about the past.
"It's not wasted. Education is never wasted," I say, parroting her familiar words. I get up, close the bulging box and pull packing tape across the top, sealing it shut.
"I'll be doing something I truly enjoy." I smile.
Mom quirks an eyebrow. "We should have sent you to a three-month cooking school. It would have saved us some money."
My bubble refuses to burst. "I promise I'll make you proud, Mom." Maybe I shouldn't go that far, but, well, I'm beginning to feel good about this decision. It feels right. "Candace has gone out of her way to get me this job with her brother. He's trying something new. I'm trying something new. This is a good thing."
Mom keeps staring a hole through me with those dark eyes. "I think Herbert likes you, Gwen," Mom says, making a last-ditch effort to keep me here.
I cringe at her reference to the owner of Tumble-weed's only bookstore. Herbert Caudell is thirty-nine years old, wears polyester pants and lives with his mother. I hold my breath. Wait. I'm thirty-two, and I live with my mother. That thought rocks my world for a moment. But I don't do polyester. I release my breath.
My pet iguana leaves his habitat and saunters onto the bed. Mom shoots straight up to a standing position and turns to him with a frown. "Well, he's one thing I won't miss.