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Fresh starts don't come easy
No one understands that more than Jane Slater—as in the notorious Slaters of Pinyon Ridge, Colorado. She's carved out a good life far from the town where few forgive and nobody forgets, and isn't interested in going back. Until her best friend's dying wish that she care for her family gives Jane no choice. Sweet little Daisy and her daddy, Kyle ...
Fresh starts don't come easy
No one understands that more than Jane Slater—as in the notorious Slaters of Pinyon Ridge, Colorado. She's carved out a good life far from the town where few forgive and nobody forgets, and isn't interested in going back. Until her best friend's dying wish that she care for her family gives Jane no choice. Sweet little Daisy and her daddy, Kyle Everson, need Jane's help.
As mayor, Kyle's all about perfection, so Jane knows the last thing he wants is her interference especially if he were to discover everything she's hiding. Figure in that pesky flare of attraction between them, and it's obvious that sticking around is a big risk. Because the harder Jane works to fix Kyle's family, the more she wants to be a part of it .
Late for a funeral.
So much for Jane Slater's plan to be invisible among the crowd of mourners at Pinyon Ridge Community Church. An overturned semitrailer on I-70 had delayed her out of Denver, and now she was prowling the foyer of the stupidly hexagonal church, trying to find a way in. To the funeral of the woman who'd once been her best—and only—friend.
A surge of pain, grief mixed with anger, swamped Jane. She stopped still, her hand pressed to her heart. Melissa was gone. Having beaten cancer in her early twenties, she was dead at thirty-one years of age, courtesy of a date who'd driven home after a few drinks too many.
If you were here right now, Lissa, I'd slap you silly for getting into that car. Jane wobbled on her high heels, which she'd chosen to project authority and confidence. She took a deep, steadying breath. She was the last person who should judge someone for their bad decisions. Besides, right now, she needed to focus on finding a way into this damn place.
The church was a new addition to the outskirts of town, seemingly built to accommodate hordes of the faithful. Each side of the enormous hexagon had a set of double doors from the outside, and a matching set of double doors into the sanctuary from the foyer that ran around the entire building. Jane had dashed in from the crowded parking lot, through the entry nearest her car. With all those inner doors closed, it was impossible to tell which were at the back of the church. So far, she'd tried two of them, both locked.
Inside, the muffled rendition of "Amazing Grace" had been going on for some time. Once the singing stopped, her tardy arrival would be far more conspicuous. What else would you expect from a Slater?
Jane headed for the next set of doors. Please, let these ones open. She pushed on the right-hand door it gave an inch or two. Thank you. The volume of the singing rose and words came clearly through the opening: " tha-an when we-ee first begun." Yikes. If she wasn't mistaken, those were the closing words of the hymn.
Jane pushed the door wide and stepped through.
And found herself at the front of the church, eyeballing a polished wooden casket and what must be about five hundred people. Five hundred pairs of eyes focused on her.
A ripple of interest ran through the congregation, still standing from the hymn, as people craned to see the intruder. The ripple swelled as some of them identified her.
Drawing on the skill she'd honed in her teens, Jane blanked them from her mind. But she couldn't ignore the glare of Kyle Everson standing in the front row. Hostility radiated from those eyes that she knew to be a dark, bitter brown. Next to him.. Jane's gaze shied away from the fair-haired little girl whose hand he held.
Move, Jane, before you make even more of a scene. She'd blown her discreet entry, but if she could just slip to the back and find anonymity in the crowd It had been so long since she'd spent any time in Pinyon Ridge, surely half these people had no idea who she was.
"Jane Slater, is that you?" said a voice to her left, loud and clear.
From the pulpit.
The minister stepped out from behind his Plexiglas lectern. "Folks, why don't you all sit down, while I welcome back an old friend."
Unlikely as it seemed, he did look familiar.
"Gabe? Gabe Everson?" she whispered.
He grinned. Yep, she'd know that smile, a blend of angelic and impish, anywhere. As he pulled her into a friendly hug, she just had time to register the name badge that said Pastor Gabe.
"Welcome home," he murmured.
Gabe, younger brother of the glaring Kyle, had taken her to senior prom about a thousand years ago. Not because he was interested in her intellect. And now he was a minister?
In the front row, Kyle's taut stance transmitted impatience. She knew what he was thinking. Jane Slater, last in a long line of Slater screwups.
He couldn't be more wrong.
But she wasn't here to correct Kyle's perception of her, even if that were possible. Or anyone else's, for that matter. She'd learned long ago that she wouldn't find acceptance in Pinyon Ridge. She was here for Lissa.
She pulled out of Gabe's purely platonic embrace. "I'm late," she whispered, and the mic on his lapel conveyed that news flash to the entire audience. Duh.
She heard a couple of snickers.
"Not to worry." Gabe patted her shoulder. "Having seen Melissa walk into church late every Sunday for the past six months, I'm certain she wouldn't judge. Go sit next to Kyle." He pointed, unnecessarily. "That's where Lissa's best friend should be. Alongside Lissa's husband and daughter."
Ex-husband, Jane mentally corrected. Was Kyle Everson, mayor of Pinyon Ridge and pillar of society, technically a widower, even though the divorce had been final for, what, three years? Whatever his status, he was the last person she wanted to sit with—proximity to him always made her feel as if guilt were seeping through her pores. Kyle was too smart not to pick up on her discomfort, which was one of the reasons Jane and Lissa had grown apart.
But she wasn't about to argue in the middle of Lissa's funeral. Even if Kyle's wary expression said he wouldn't be surprised if she did exactly that.
He nodded a stiff greeting. Jane perched next to him on the gray vinyl-upholstered seat, avoiding his eyes, trying to avoid the curious gaze of the little girl. Daisy. Melissa's daughter.
Why weren't Lissa's parents seated here at the front?
"It's fashionable to talk of funerals as a celebration of life." Gabe began to speak, his voice clear and warm. "But let us not forget that we are mourning today, too. Mourning the loss of a mother, daughter, friend, who left us far too soon."
Jane's embarrassment and resentment fell away as she turned her thoughts to the friend who'd been such a large part of her life. Mostly a good part. And though in a way she'd lost Lissa years ago, and "best friend" was very much a historical term, tears sprang to her eyes.
Jane fumbled in her purse for a tissue, aware of Kyle's skeptical, sidelong glance. Jerk. He'd never thought she was good enough to be Lissa's friend, always thought she must have some sleazy hidden agenda. He hadn't changed a bit. As she blew her nose, she sensed Daisy's continued stare. The girl was leaning forward slightly, the better to see Jane.
Feeling besieged by the past, Jane pressed back into her seat and drew in a deep, calming breath. The scent of lilies wafted over her. She forced her focus onto Gabe's words, something about Lissa's happy childhood.
This service would last, what, an hour? She could pay her respects and be back in Denver by two, since she'd be going against the Friday exodus from the city.
The minute this ends, I'm out of here.
Being the ex-husband of the deceased made a funeral about as awkward as it could be. Standing outside the church next to the hearse, as the mourners filed past to pay their respects, Kyle accepted another "I'm so sorry for your loss," paired with a gaze that didn't quite meet his eyes.
"Daisy and I appreciate your sympathy," he said firmly, and the latest well-wisher looked reassured.
No matter that he and Lissa had divorced, they'd been a family, to some degree or other, for eight years. Honoring that was the last thing he would do for her.
Daisy's fingers were clammy in his. He'd instructed her to stay with him, to greet people. It was the right thing, but he was aware of his mother-in-law's scrutiny. Barb Peters, Lissa's mom, stood a little away from the crowd—her husband, Hal, had been in a wheelchair since his stroke a few months ago and didn't like being front and center. Barb was multitasking: in addition to monitoring her granddaughter's state of mind, she was accepting condolences, talking at a rapid clip so people wouldn't try addressing Hal, whose words slurred too badly for him to be understood.
Kyle's brother, Gabe, stood next to Barb. He murmured something close to her ear as he gave her shoulders a comforting squeeze. Barb visibly relaxed, and smiled for the first time today. What had Gabe said? Kyle still couldn't understand how he'd morphed almost overnight from self-centered kid brother to irritatingly wise pastor.
The last few people were coming out of the church now. Kyle scanned their faces. No sign of her. Jane Slater. Hopefully, she'd slipped out through a side door and was on her way back to Denver.
"Kyle, Kyle, Kyle, this is a sad day." Roger Hurst, Lissa's lawyer, stepped up to shake his hand.
"Daisy and I appreciate your sympathy," Kyle said.
Hurst looked gratified, as if he had no idea he was the latest in a long line to hear that response. He was as far from a shark as a lawyer could get; Kyle himself had been the one to make sure Lissa received her fair share in their divorce settlement.
The attorney rubbed one side of his nose. "How are you coping with being a full-time dad?"
Kyle felt heat in his face, though there'd been no accusation in the words. "Daisy's been with her grandmother since " His daughter's refusal to be parted from Barb this past week had shocked him. He reminded himself again that Daisy knew her grandmother better than she knew him, so it was natural for her to cling to Barb. But they couldn't go on that way. "She'll come home with me tonight."
"Of course," Roger said, sympathetic. "Kyle, are you aware of the contents of Melissa's will?"
Something in the man's tone made Kyle pause. Are you still trying to manipulate me, Lissa? "Under Colorado law I automatically have full custody of Daisy," he said. He'd checked that already. Guardianship of their daughter was surely the only aspect of Lissa's will that could be relevant to him.
"True." But Hurst looked uncertain. "Where did Jane Slater get to?" he asked, surveying the crowd.
"I haven't seen her in a while." It wouldn't surprise Kyle if Lissa had left something to Jane. Her pearls, maybe. The ones Kyle had bought for their first anniversary. He'd have liked Daisy to have them, but he wouldn't quibble. "You could write Jane a letter," Kyle suggested. "Barb will have her address in Denver."
"I'd rather find her now." The lawyer dived into the throng with surprising speed. Kyle turned to the next mourner, old Betty Gray, who wore an Everson for Mayor button. Ugh. No doubt Betty meant to be supportive, but the last thing Kyle wanted to think about right now was his faltering reelection campaign.
Five minutes later, Roger Hurst returned. "I caught Jane getting into her car," he said, triumphant. "She'll meet us at my office in fifteen minutes. Along with Barb. Hal's a bit drained, so Barb will take him home first."
Kyle wished Jane had been faster in her escape. Today was hard enough without having to worry about what she was up to. He didn't trust the woman, plain and simple.
He crouched down to Daisy. "I need to go to a meeting. You can hang out with Grandpa for a while, okay?"
She didn't complain; she never did.
Grandpa was Kyle's father, Charles Everson. Recently retired chief of police, elder of the church—the Episcopalians, not "this modern crowd," as he called Gabe's congregation—and the kind of dad every kid should have.
Kyle found his father in the crowd and handed Daisy over with a promise to join the mourners for refreshments at his dad's house as soon as he could.
Just as soon as he could get through the reading of Lissa's will and deal with whatever curveball she'd thrown him.
Roger Hurst's office was in the heart of Pinyon Ridge's historic center, tucked between one of the many outdoor stores lining the main street that catered to hikers in summer and skiers in winter, and the Eating Post cafe on the corner. Micki Barton, the cafe's owner, waved through the window as Kyle passed. She'd been a couple of years ahead of him in high school, and they were good friends, just as their parents had been. Micki had attended Lissa's funeral, then hurried back to the cafe so Margaret, her employee, could attend the wake.
In the lawyer's office at the back of the narrow building, Barb was already seated on a maroon leather couch. Her brave smile reminded Kyle of Lissa when he'd first met her, near the end of her chemo. He'd fallen in love with that smile.
Though he hadn't loved Lissa in years, they'd remained on good terms, committed to maintaining a positive relationship as Daisy's parents. He would miss her. Why didn't you refuse to get in that car, Lissa?
The air in the office felt stale, too hot. Kyle loosened the knot of his tie and unbuttoned his collar. He was about to sit down when Jane came in.
"Jane, dear, I didn't get to talk to you at the church." Barb stood and hugged her.
Almost immediately, Jane pulled away. "I'm sorry I made such a public entrance." Though she sounded apologetic, there was also an edge of confidence in her voice he hadn't heard before. But then, he hadn't seen her in, what, five years? He wasn't sure when Lissa had last seen her—maybe that trip to Denver with Daisy. Daisy would have been two.
Jane looked entirely respectable in her black jacket, cream-colored blouse and slim skirt ending just above the knee. Kyle's gaze dropped lower, down shapely calves to her high-heeled shoes with a peep of scarlet-tipped toes. He jerked his eyes up.
"No problem, dear," Barb said. "I'm just glad you could get here. We're having a private burial for Melissa later—you'll stay, won't you?"
"Where's Hal?" Jane asked. "I didn't see either of you at the church."
"Oh, dear." Barbara blinked, hard. "I assumed Lissa would have." Her voice quavered.
"Hal had a stroke, a few months ago," Kyle said. "Surely Lissa told you?"
"We haven't been in touch for a while."
Really? He'd assumed they'd at least continued emailing— Kyle had more than once been tempted to sneak a peek at those emails Lissa used to delete immediately upon replying. "Why not?" he asked. "What happened?" Which, come to think of it, was the same question he'd asked last time they spoke.
He wasn't about to get an answer this time, either, it seemed.
"I'm so sorry about Hal," Jane said to Barb. "How's he doing?"
"Not great," Barb admitted. "We sat at the back of the church—it's the best place for his wheelchair. He's very self-conscious, poor dear."
Roger Hurst cleared his throat. "Folks, I have Melissa's will here." The single sheet of white paper he held immediately caught their attention; they settled into their seats.
Hurst began to read aloud. "'I, Melissa Eve Everson '"
Kyle let the standard jargon wash over him. It took less than a minute for Roger to reach the meat of the will. Besides leaving her pearls to her mother—not to Jane, then—Melissa had bequeathed all of her money and material possessions to Daisy, with Kyle to serve as trustee until Daisy turned twenty-one. No problem there, though Kyle felt twenty-five would be a better age for Daisy to come into her inheritance.
Roger paused. "The next section pertains to guardianship of Daisy," he said.
Barb sat straight. Jane glanced at her watch.
Posted December 19, 2013