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"I'm not going, Ella."
"Yes, you are."
Sighing, Mark disentangled himself from the girl who'd been his one and only for the past couple of yearsever since his twenty-eighth birthday party, which had taken place at the exact same spot by the lake where he and Ella were right then.
Their lake. Really more of a pond a couple of miles outside of Bierly, West Virginia, where both he and Ella had been born and raised.
Gazing out at the water now, Mark couldn't figure out why everything was falling apart before his eyes.
He'd had it all going for him. The promotion to operations shift managermaking him the youngest manager in the history of the gasification plant that supported their small townand the small savings account that was going to build until he didn't have to worry about money anymore.
Nonnie was having a good spell.
And Ella she was nice looking. Content to stay in Bierly her whole life. And faithful to him.
He spun back to herand found her sexy in her work jeans and T-shirt. "You want to get married?"
Ella stared up at him, her blue eyes and blond hair familiar in the dusky light of the setting sun. They were good together. In so many ways.
"What would Nonnie have to say about that?"
Huh? "I just asked you to marry me and you bring up my grandmother?"
But he knew why. Ella and Nonnie Things had never been right between them.
A female territorial thing, he'd figured. He'd also hoped the situation would ease as time went by.
"Where would we live?" Feet in front of her on the blanket they'd spread, Ella wrapped her arms around bent knees.
"My house, of course. It's set up for Nonnie's chair." He'd been born there. Figured he'd die there, too.
And Ella lived in a rented apartment in town. A small, one-room place with a hot plate for a stove.
"Nonnie's house, you mean."
With a sick feeling in his gut, Mark sat down, took her hand and stared straight into her eyes. "I think we'll be good together."
"I want to have a family." She pulled her hand out of his and stood with her back to him.
He stared at her behind. He'd just proposed marriage. A once-in-a-lifetime event. It wasn't going well.
"I'll make a great father."
"I know." Her words were muffled by the breeze and the water that lapped at the shore.
Mark's throat tightened. Ella was a decent woman. The best. He went to her, wrapped his arms around her from behind, pulling her back against him. "I'll do right by you, Ella. I'll be faithful to you until the day I die. I'm a good provider. We have fun together. We can make this work."
She leaned her head against his chest and he relaxed into her. This was home.
The lake beckoned and he thought of the rowboat that he kept stashed in some brush a couple of yards away from where they stood. A couple of yards away from where they'd first made love.
This was the life he'd been born into.
"Do you love me, Mark?"
"Course I do."
"You never say so."
"I'm not much of a talker, you know that."
"You say it to Nonnie."
"She's my grandmother!"
Ella turned to face him, her hands on his chest. "I can't leave this town. It's my home. I love it here."
"I know!" Had he asked her to move? Ever? "I'm not leaving, either."
"I think you will."
He'd have scratched his head if he hadn't been holding her. "Whatever gave you that idea?"
She looked away, off to the trees on their right. And then she took a step back. "Rick Stanfield asked me to a pig roast at his church."
Rick Stanfield was new to townto the plant. An operations field tech. Just like Ella. Like Jimmy had been. "Doesn't he know you're my girl?"
"Yeah, he knows."
"So? What's the problem?"
"I told him I'd go."
"What?" Grabbing her hand, Mark pulled Ella back to him, her hips snug up against his. Reminding her. "You going to invite me, too, Ella? 'Cause we made a vow not to go out single."
"I know. I just think"
"It's the scholarship, isn't it? You've been acting weird ever since I told you about that letter." A fluke. Incredible. The idea that Montford University, the Harvard of the West, would offer him a four-year full ride without his even asking for it. It was completely ludicrous.
"I barely graduated high school, Mark. I'm no good anywhere but here."
"That's crazy talk."
Her blue gaze was direct as she stared straight at him.
"You used to say the same kinds of things. You didn't even graduate high school!" The words weren't unusual; the accusatory tone was.
"I know." He'd never pretended to be something he wasn't. Not even to himself. Especially not to himself. "And I'm not leaving, I keep telling you that."
"You're going to go, Mark. You're going to get some fancy degree, and I won't be good enough for you anymore."
"That's just more crazy talk."
"Is it?" She stared at him.
"Yes!" Rubbing his hips against her, he smiled and then kissed her. A long, wet kiss. "You will always be good enough for me, Ella Holland. Better than me. You're good enough for anyone. But you fit me."
"You said you weren't leaving." Her kiss was fervent as always. Her passion unrestrained. And then she stepped back.
"You didn't say you weren't going to get the degree." She was trying to trap him into saying something he didn't mean.
Because he'd been busy saying she'd always be good enough for him.
"I'm going to the pig roast, Mark."
"I don't believe this."
"Bierly's not a huge place. I want a husband and kids and my choices are limited."
"I just asked you to marry me."
"And live with Nonnie."
Yes. Because that one was not negotiable.
"She doesn't like me."
"Of course she does."
"She doesn't think I'm good enough for you."
"Ella." He grabbed her back, held on, as though by doing so he could hold on to the life she was trying to take away from him. "You are my equal in every way."
"You're smarter than I am, Mark. We both know that. You explain things to me all the time."
"At work, yes. That's my job."
"And about finances and world things. You watch the news and documentaries and I like to watch reality shows."
"Difference between girls and guys, is all."
"Nonnie wants you to take that scholarship offer."
"You talked to her?"
"No, but I know."
"I'm not going to Shelter Valley." Because Ella was wrong. He wasn't smart. And he most certainly was not a book learner. "I haven't read a book since before I quit high school."
"But you read stuff on the internet all the time."
A guy had to know about the world around him if he was going to keep his family safe. If he was going to provide.
"Marry me, Ella. Please." He hadn't meant to ask yet. Hadn't really even thought about it. But if marriage was what it took to keep things as they were
She shook her head. "I can't, Mark. I can't sit here and wait for you while you go off across the country and get even smarter on me. I can't take the chance that you won't be back. Besides, I want a family now. Another two years and I'll be thirty years old, Mark. And you ain't ready. Even without the scholarship. You've said so often enough. You want to save first. And if you go get this degreethat would be another four years at least."
"We've got time, Ella. Heck, people have kids into their forties nowadays."
"I don't want to be an older mother. I want kids now, while I'm still young enough for them to think I'm cool."
That was so Ella, wanting her kids to think she was cool. Ella's mother had been sixteen when she'd had her and the two had been more like friends than mother and daughter.
"Even if I went and got the degree, you'd only be thirty-two when I get back. That's plenty young enough."
Her gaze narrowed and he was pretty sure he saw the beginnings of tears there. But Ella wasn't a crier.
"So you're thinking about going?"
"No! I keep telling you, I'm not going." He'd never make it in college. And had nothing to learn there, either. He was a working man. And he was climbing the ladder just fine. He'd just been talking about the age thing. There was no need to rush kids.
"Even if you came back, you'd be different. I'd bore you in no time."
"You don't bore me, Ella." His boredom was a product of an overactive mind. One that had to be kept busy. He'd never been good at sitting around.
"Maybe I just don't want to live my life with someone who's smarter than me, you ever think of that?"
She had him there. Because he did think of thatabout himself being the stupid one. Or he used to. Before Ella. A high school dropout, Mark had dropped out of the dating scene, too. He hadn't liked how he'd felt hanging out with girls who were more educated than he was.
"Do you love me, Ella?"
She lifted her chin, in spite of the tears on her cheeks. "You know I do."
"And you need to know that even if I went, I'd be back for you."
"I'm going to the pig roast, Mark."
It might be summer, but in the mountains of Colorado the evenings were still chilly.
Addy had a cup of tea. Dressed in her favorite jeans, the short ones that she could wear with flip-flops rather than two-inch heels, she hugged the warm rose-embossed china with both hands, legs curled beneath her, and stared at the photo on the living room wall.
The woman in the picture was beautiful. With long dark hair falling softly around high cheekbones and a rounded chin, Ann Keller had always had a kind word for everyone. In most of Addy's memories, Ann was smiling, her brown eyes glistening with love like they were in that picture.
Except for the times when she hadn't been. Those had mostly involved Addy's father. And only toward the end.
Shuddering, she looked away, toward the backyard oasis she'd built behind her small, one-bedroom, one-bath house. The landscaping and yard art, all carefully chosen in greens and blues and yellows, surrounded a pond with a waterfall that ran 24/7, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.
Rock, paper, scissors. She used to play the game with Ely. Paper covered rock, scissors cut paper, rock pounded scissors.
And water killed fire.
No, that wasn't part of the game. Fire had come later.
She listened for the water, a sound that soothed, and glanced back at the photo. Addy was there, tooa pixieish five-year-old with a big gummy grin and missing front teeth. Her straight blond hair was up in a ponytail. She'd loved that red polka-dot sundress. Maybe because of the red patent leather shoes she'd had to go with itDorothy's shoes, she'd told her mother the day they'd bought them. Maybe she'd loved them so much because her mother had had a dress and sandals that matched. Or maybe because she could still remember the shopping trip, the day that they'd picked out the attire. It had just been her and Mom that day and they'd played Princess and Queen while they'd tried on lots of different outfits. Addy and her brother, Elijah, were going to be in a publicity photo with their mother, who'd just been signed to her own cooking show. Two years older than she was, Elijah had been gung ho about the photobut not about tagging along to buy clothes. He'd opted out of the shopping excursion.
But her big brother had been just as excited as Addy had been the morning the three of them had gotten readyshe and Mom in their dresses and Ely in his new suit and red tieand then piled into the car and taken off for the studio in Phoenix, ready to embark on a great adventure.
After the pictures, Mom had taken them to a nice restaurant and eaten hamburgers and French fries with themeven though she much preferred the fancier foods she'd become known for. And then they'd changed clothes in the lush bathroom just off the dining room, and headed to the zoo.
It had been a great day. Perfect. The best ever.
It had also been the last day Ann and Ely spent on earth.