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"You make sure you pick me up at quittin' time," Nadine's father said as his truck bounced through the gravel lot of Monroe Sawmill, where he worked. He parked in the shade of the barking shed, twisted his wrist and yanked the key from the ignition of his old Ford pickup. The engine shuddered and died, and he handed the key to his daughter.
"I won't be late," Nadine promised.
Her father winked at her. "That's my gal."
Nadine's fingers curled over the collar of her father's dog, Bonanza, who lunged for the door and whined as George Powell climbed out of the cab and walked toward the office where he'd punch in before taking his shift in one of the open sheds. "Hold on a minute," she told the anxious shepherd. "We'll be home soon."
Thinking of the Powells' rented house caused a hard knot to form in her stomach. Home hadn't been the haven it had once been and the chords of discontent in her parents' marriage had, in the past months, become louder. Sometimes Nadine felt as if she were stranded in the middle of a battlefield with nowhere to turn. Every time she opened her mouth to speak, it was as if she were stepping on a verbal and emotional minefield.
Squinting through the dusty windshield, she tried not to think of life back at the house by the river, concentrating instead on the activity in the yard of the mill. Trailer trucks rolled through huge, chain-link gates, bringing in load after load of branchless fir trees, and a gigantic crane moved the loads to the already monstrous piles in the yard. Still other cranes plucked some of the logs from the river, to stack them into piles to dry.
Men in hard hats shouted and gestured as to the placement of each load. One by one the logs were sorted, their bark peeled, and the naked wood squared off before it was finally sawed into rough-cut lumber, which was stacked according to grade and size. Her father had been a sawmill man all his life and had often told her of the process of taking a single tree from the forest and converting it into lumber, plywood, chipboard, bark dust and, in some cases, paper. George Powell was proud of the fact that he came from a long line of sawmill men. His father had worked in this very mill as had his grandfather. As long as there had been Monroe Sawmill Company in Gold Creek, a Powell had been on the payroll.
From the corner of her eye, Nadine saw a car roll into the lota sleek navy blue convertible. So shiny that the finish looked wet as it glinted in the sunlight, the Mercedes was visibly out of place in an assemblage of old pickups and dusty cars. The sports car looked like a Thoroughbred sorted into a field of plow horses by mistake.
Nadine slid over to the driver's side of the truck and while petting Bonanza, studied the driver as he stretched out of the leather interior. He was tall, but youngprobably not yet twentywith thick coffee-colored hair that had been ruffled in the wind. His eyes were hidden behind mirrored sunglasses and he slung a leather jacket over his shoulder.
Nadine bit her lip. She didn't have to guess who he was. Hayden Garreth Monroe IV, son of the owner of the mill. She'd seen him years before when she was still a student in Gold Creek Elementary. He'd lived here for a short time, the only son of rich parents. His first cousins were the Fitzpatricks who owned the logging company that supplied most of the trees for this milling operation.
"The Monroes and Fitzpatricksthick as thieves," her mother had often said. Between the two families they owned just about everything in Gold Creek.
Nadine remembered Hayden as a twelve-year-old boy, not as an angry young man, but now he appeared furious. His strides were stiff and long, his jaw set, his mouth a thin line of determination. He glared straight ahead, not glancing left or right, and he took the two steps to the sawmill's office as if they were one. He stormed into the small company office and the door slammed shut behind him.
Nadine's breath felt hot and caught in her lungs. She pitied whoever was the object of his obvious wrath. Fury seemed to radiate off him like the heat rising off the ground.
Suddenly she wished she knew more about him, but her memories of the Monroes and their only son, "the prince" as her brother Ben had referred to him, were vague.
She was pretty sure that the Monroes had moved to San Francisco about the time Hayden was ready to start high school and they only returned in the summer, to live in their home on the lake. Though Hayden's father still owned this mill, he had several others, as well. He only traveled to Gold Creek a couple of days a week.
Her father had summed it up at dinner one night. "Some job Monroe has, eh?" There had been a mixture of awe and envy in George Powell's voice. "Garreth takes a company helicopter from his office building in the city, whirs over here, strolls into the office about nine o'clock, glances at the books, signs a few checks and is back in the city in time for his afternoon golf game. Rough life."
Nadine had never thought much about the Monroes. They, like the Fitzpatricks, were rich. The rest of the town wasn't. That's just the way things had always been and always would be as far as she could see.
Her fingers, clenched tightly around Bonanza's collar, slowly uncoiled. The dog licked her face, but she barely noticed. She spied her father walking from the office to the main gate of the work yard. He waved before entering one of the sheds. Nadine rammed the pickup into reverse, backed up, then shoved the gearshift into first. The truck lunged forward and started to roll toward the road.
"Hey!" A male voice boomed through the opened windows.
Glancing in the rearview mirror, she slammed on the brakes. Her heart did a silly little flip when she saw Hayden, the prince himself, jogging to catch up with herprobably to tell her that the tailgate of the truck had dropped open again.
In a choking cloud of dust, he opened the door to the passenger side of the Ford and Bonanza growled. "Can you give me a ride into?" His voice stopped abruptly and Nadine realized he thought she was one of the mill workers. He obviously hadn't expected a girl behind the wheel of the banged-up old pickup.
She glanced at the Mercedes. "Isn't that your car?"
His eyebrows knotted. "Look, I just need a lift. I'm Hayden Monroe." He flipped up his sunglasses and extended a hand.
"Nadine Powell." Self-consciously she reached across Bonanza and shook his hand. His fingers clasped her palm in a strong grip that caused her heart to pound a little.
"Ben and kevin's little sister," he said, releasing her hand.
For some inexplicable reason, she didn't like to be thought of as a kid. Not by this boy. "That's right."
"Are you going into town?"
She wasn't, but something inside her couldn't admit it because she knew if she told him the truth he would slam the door of the truck right then and there. She lifted a shoulder. "Uh
sure, climb in. I, uh, just have to stop by the houseit's on the wayand tell my mom what I'm doing."
"If this is a problem"
"No! Hop in," she said with a smile. She glanced guiltily through the grimy back window and silently prayed that her father wasn't witnessing Hayden sliding into the cab. As the door clicked shut, Bonanza growled again, but reluctantly gave up his seat, inching closer to her. Nadine let out the clutch. With a stomach-jolting lurch, they bounced out of the lot. She only hoped her mother would understand and let her drive Hayden to Gold Creek. These days, Mom wasn't very understanding
. Sometimes she wasn't even rational. And though Dad blamed his wife's moodiness on her "monthly curse" or the strain of raising three headstrong teenagers, Nadine knew differently. She'd overheard enough of her parents' arguments to realize that the problems in their family ran much deeper than her mother's menstrual cycle.
So how would Donna react to her only daughter's request? Nadine's hands felt suddenly sweaty. She could just drive Hayden into town, show up late at home and take the consequences, but she didn't want to risk any more trouble.
"I just have to drop off the dog at the house," she explained, casting him a glance.
"I'm not in a hurry." But the tension in his body claimed otherwise. From the first moment she'd seen him screech into the sawmill yard, he'd looked like a caged tiger ready to pounce. His muscles were coiled, his face strained. He snapped his sunglasses back over his eyes.
"Trouble with your car?" she asked.
"You could say that." He stared out the window, his lips compressed together as Nadine turned onto the main road into town.
it's a beautiful car."
He flashed her an unreadable look through his sunglasses. "I told my old man to sell it."
"Butit looked brand-new." The Mercedes didn't even have license plates yet.
"I'd kill for a car like that," she said, trying to ease the tension that seemed to thicken between them.
His lips twitched a little. "Would you?" Quickly his head was turned and his attention was focused completely on her. Her hair. Her eyes. Her neck. Nothing seemed to escape his scrutiny and she was suddenly self-conscious of her faded cutoffs and hand-me-down blouse. Holding her chin proudly, she felt sweat collect along her backbone. Her pulse began to throb as he stared at her with an intensity that made her want to squirm.
"I You know what I mean."
"Well, my old man didn't ask me to 'kill' for it, but close enough. ." He rubbed the tight muscles in one of his shoulders.
"What do you mean?"
"You ever met The Third?"
"Hayden Garreth Monroe 'The Third.'"
She shook her head. "Not really. But I've seen him a couple of times. At company picnics."
"oh, right." Nodding, he turned his gaze back to the dusty windshield. "I even went to a couple of those. A long time ago. Anyway, then you know that my father can bewell, let's just call him 'persuasive' for lack of a better word. Whatever The Third wants, he usually gets. One way or another."
"What's that got to do with your car?"
"It comes with a pricenot in dollars and cents, but a price nonetheless, and I'm not willing to pay."
"Oh." She wanted to ask more, to find out what he was really thinking, but he fell into brooding silence again and she knew by the sudden censure in his expression that the subject was closed.
The pickup cruised by dry, stubble-filled fields of grass and wildflowers, and Nadine turned onto a county road that wound upward through the hills to the little house by the river. Never before had she been embarrassed of where she lived, but suddenly, with this rich boy in the pickup, she was self-conscious. It was bad enough that he'd had to share the tattered seat of a banged-up twenty-year-old truck with a smelly dog, after riding in the sleek leather interior of a new sports car, but now Hayden would see the sagging front porch, rusted gutters and weed-choked yard.
She pulled up to the carport and said, "I'll just be a minute
." Then, remembering her manners, she added, "Would you like to come in and meet my mom?"
He hesitated, but his polite upbringing got the better of him. "Sure."
As Bonanza streaked across the dry grass, startling robins in the bushes, Nadine led Hayden up the steps to the back porch and through the screen door. "Mom?" she called, as they entered the kitchen.
A pan of apple crisp was cooling on the stove and the small room was filled with the scents of tart apples and cinnamon. Hayden took off his sunglasses, and Nadine was witness to intense blue eyes the shade of the sky just before dusk. Her heart nearly skipped a beat and her voice sounded a little weak and breathless when she pulled her gaze away and again called for her mother. "Are you home?"
"Be right down," Donna shouted from the top of the stairs. Quick footsteps sounded on the bare boards. "What took you so long? Ben's got the car and I've got groceries to buy and" Donna, with a basket of laundry balanced on her hip, not a trace of her usual makeup and her hair tied back in a careless ponytail, rounded the corner and stopped short at the sight of her daughter and the boy.
Nadine said quickly, "I'll pick up whatever you need at the market. I have to go into town anyway. I promised Hayden." She motioned toward him. "This is"
"Hayden Monroe?" her mother guessed, extending her free hand while still managing to hold on to the laundry. She forced a smile that seemed as plastic as the basket she was carrying.
"That's right." He shook her hand firmly.
"This is my mom, Donna Powell."
"Nice to meet you," he said, and her mother's lips tightened at the corners as she drew back her hand.
Nadine was mortified. Her mother was usually warm and happy to meet any of her friends, but despite her smile, Donna Powell exuded a frostiness she usually reserved for her husband.
"You should offer your friend something to drink," she said, her suddenly cold gaze moving to her daughter. "And, yes, you can get the groceries. The list is on the bulletin board and there's a twenty in my purse. ." She glanced back at Hayden again, opened her mouth to say something, then changed her mind. "Don't be long, though. I need the eggs for the meat loaf." She set the laundry on the table and tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear before walking crisply to the kitchen closet where she kept her handbag. From within the folds of her wallet, she pulled out some money and handed the bill to her daughter.
"I'll come right back!" Nadine was grateful to be leaving. She grabbed a couple of cans of Coke from the refrigerator, then snagged the grocery list as they headed outside. Hayden said goodbye to her mother and paused in the yard to scratch Bonanza behind the ears before he yanked open the passenger side of the pickup and settled into the seat.
Nadine was so nervous, she could barely start the engine. "You'll have to excuse my mom. Usually she's a lot friendlier
but, we, uh, surprised her and"
"She was fine," he said. Again his blue eyes stared at her, and this time, without the sunglasses, they seemed to pierce right to her soul. She wondered what he thought of their tiny house by the river. Was he laughing at a cottage that must appear to him a symbol of abject poverty? He seemed comfortable enough in the truck, and yet she suspected he was used to riding in BMWs, Ferraris and limousines.