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Every family started with a house, a mother, a father and a passel of squabbling siblings. Brooke Hart had no father, two unsociable brothers who seemed deathly afraid of her and a 1987 Chevy Impala.
As far as families went, it wasn't much, but it was a thousand times better than before. Then there was the mysterious message from an estate lawyer in Tin Cup. They needed to "talk" was all that he said, and apparently lawyers in Texas didn't believe in answering machines and voicemail, because every time she tried to call, no one answered. In her head she had created all sorts of exciting possibilities, and journeyed cross country to see the lawyer, bond with her brothers and find a place to call home, all of which was exciting and expensive, which meant that right now, she was in desperate need of a job. Money was not as necessary as say, love, home and a fat, fluffy cat, but there were times when money was required. One, when you needed to eat, and two, when your threeyearold Shearling boots weren't cutting it anymore.
In New York, the boots had been cute and ordinary and seventyfive percent off at a thrift store. In the smoldering
September heat of Texas, she looked like a freak. An au courant freak, but a freak nonetheless.
As she peered into the grocery store window, she studied an older couple who were the stuff of her dreams. In Brooke Hart's completely sentimental opinion, the spry old codger behind the cash register could have been Every Grandpa Man. A woman shuffled back and forth between the front counter and the storeroom in back. Her cottonygray hair was rolled up in a bun, just like in the movies. The cash register was a relic with clunky keys that Brooke's hands itched to touch. The wooden floor of the grocery was neat, but not neat enough, which was the prime reason she was currently here.
They looked warm, hospitable and in desperate need of young, ablebodied assistance.
The one advantage to living with Brooke's mother, Charlene Hart, was that Brooke knew the three things to absolutely never do when searching for a job.
One. Do not show up drunk, or even a more socially acceptable tipsy. Future employers frowned on blowing .2 in a Breathalyzer.
Two. Do not show up late for an appointment. As Brooke had no appointment, this wasn't a problem.
And the last, but most important rule in jobhunting was to actually show up. Although Brooke believed that deep down her mother was a beautiful spirit with a generous nature and a joyous laugh, Charlene Hart was about as present in life as she was in death, which was to say, not a lot.
Frankly, being familyless sucked, which was why she had been so excited to track down her two brothers. Twentysix years ago, a thenpregnant Charlene Hart had walked out on Frank Hart and their two young sons, Tyler and Austen. Seven months later, Brooke had been born in a homeless shelter in Oak Brook, Illinois. Charlene never spoke of Frank, or her sons. Charlene had rarely spoken of anything grounded in reality, and it wasn't until after she died that Brooke found an article about Tyler Hart on the internet. After feeling so alone for all her life, she had stared at the picture of her brother, with the same faraway look in his dark eyes, and the world felt a little less gray. She knew then. Over and over she had repeated her brother's name, and Brooke realized she wasn't familyless after all.
To better appeal to her brothers, she'd concocted the perfect life. Storybook mother, devoted stepfather, idyllic suburban residence, and a rented fiancée (two hundred bucks an hour, not cheap). But her brothers had clearly never read the Handbook on Quality Family Reunions, and although they'd been polite enough, their shields were up the entire time. If they found out the truth of Brooke's less than storybook existence? A disaster of cataclysmic proportions. Relatives never reacted well when poor relations with no place to call home showed up on their doorstep. They weren't inclined to "like you" or "respect you" or even "want to be around you." Oh, certainly, they might act polite and sympathetic, but homelessness was a definite black mark, so right now, she wasn't going to let them find out.
And then, when the time was right, Brooke would spring the truth on the boys, and work her way into her new family's good graces.
Her first step involved getting a job, paying her way, shouldering her own financial burdens. Second, find out what the lawyer wanted.
Slowly she sucked in a breath, bunching her sweater to hide the green patch beneath the right elbow. In New York, the mismatched patch looked artsy, chicchic, but to two elderly citizens, it might seemfrivolous. Finally satisfied that she looked respectable, Brooke walked through the rickety screen door, catching it before it slammed shut.
The friendly old proprietor gave her a smalltownAmerica smile, and Brooke responded in kind.
"I'm here about the job. I think I'm your girl. I'm energetic, motivated. I have an excellent memory, and my math skills are off the charts."
The man's jovial mouth dwindled. "We didn't advertise for help."
"Maybe not, but when opportunity knocks, I say, open the door and use a doorstop so that it can't close behind you."
Behind her, she heard the door creak open, as if the very fates were on her side. Her spirits rose because she knew that this small grocery story in Tin Cup, Texas, was fate. Emboldened, Brooke pressed on. "When I saw this adorable place, I knew it was my perfect opportunity. Why don't you give me a try?"
The old man yelled to the back: "Gladys! Did you advertise for help? I told you not to do that. I can handle the store." Then he turned his attention to Brooke. "She thinks I can't do a galldarned thing anymore."
From behind her, an arm reached around, plunking a can of peas on the wooden counter. The proprietor glanced at the peas, avoided Brooke's eyes, and she knew the door of opportunity was slamming on her posterior. She could feel it.
Hastily she placed her own competent hand on the counter. "My brothers will vouch for me. Austen and Tyler. I'm one of the Harts," she announced. It was a line she had clung to like a good luck charm.
At the man's confused look, she chuckled at her own misstep, hoping he wouldn't notice the shakiness in her voice. "Dr. Tyler Hart and Austen Hart. They were raised here. I believe Austen is now a very respectable member of the community. Tyler is a worldfamous surgeon."
She liked knowing her oldest brother was in the medical profession. Everybody loved doctors.
The man scratched at the stubble on his cheek. "Wasn't that older boy locked up for cooking meth?"
Patiently Brooke shook her head. If the man messed up this often, she would be a boon to his establishment. "No, you must have him confused with someone else."
A discreet cough sounded from behind her, and once again the proprietor yelled to the back. "Gladys! Which one of the Hart boys ended up at the State Pen?"
Astounding. The man seemed intent on sullying her family's good reputation. Brooke rushed to correct him, but then Gladys appeared with four cartons of eggs stacked in her arms. "There's no need to yell, Henry. I'm not deaf," she said, and then gave Brooke a neighborly smile. "He thinks I'm ready to be put out to pasture." She noticed the can of peas. "This yours?"
"It's mine," interrupted the customer behind her.
Not wanting to seem pushy, Brooke smiled apologetically. Gladys placed the eggs on the counter and then peered at Brooke over silver spectacles. "What are you here for?"
"The job," Brooke announced.
"We don't need any help," Gladys replied, patting Brooke on the cheek like any grandmother would. Her hands were wrinkled, yet still soft and smelled of vanilla. "Are you looking for work?" she asked. Soft hands, soft heart.
Recognizing this was her chance, Brooke licked dry lips and then broke into her speech. "I'm Brooke Hart. I'm new in town. I don't want to be an imposition on my family. Not a freeloader. Not me. Everybody needs to carry their own weight, and by the way, I can carry a good bit of weight." She patted her own capable biceps. "Whatever you need. Flour. Produce. Milk. And I'm very careful on eggs. People never seem to respect the more fragile merchandise, don't you think?"
Gladys looked her over, the warm eyes cooling. "You look a little thin. You should be eating better."
The hand behind her shoved the peas forward, sliding the eggs close to the edge. Smartly, Brooke moved the carton out of harms way.
"I plan to eat better. It's priority number two on my listright after I find a job. I'm really excited to be here in Tin Cup, and I want to fit in. I want to help out. Perhaps we could try something on a temporary basis." She flashed her best "I'm your girl" smile. "You won't regret it."
"You're one of the Harts?" asked the old man, still seeming confused.
"Didn't think there was a girl. Old Frank hated girls." From the look on Gladys's face, Gladys was no fan of Frank Hart, either.
"I never actually met my father," Brooke explained, not wanting people to believe she was cut from the same rapscallion cloth. "My mother and I moved when I was in utero."
"Smartest thing she ever did, leaving the rest of them," said Henry.
Brooke blinked, not exactly following all this, but she needed a job, and she sensed that Mr. Green Peas was getting impatient. "I really need a job. My brother Austen will vouch for me."
Gladys's gray brows rose to an astounding height. "Nothing but trouble, that one. Stole from Zeke " Then she sighed. "He's doing good things now, with the railroad and all, but I don't know."
"That was a long time ago." Henry chimed in, apparently more forgiving.
"It's getting even longer," complained the man behind her.
Gladys shook her kindly head. "We're not looking to hire anybody, and you being a stranger and all. No references, except for your brother "
"I'm new in town," Brooke repeated in a small voice, feeling the door of opportunity about to hit her in both her posterior and her face, as well. Doors of opportunity could sometimes be painful.
"I'll vouch for her."
At first, Brooke was sure she had misheard. It had happened before. But no, not this time. Brooke turned, profoundly grateful that the goodness of smalltown America was not overrated. She'd lived in Atlantic City, Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis and six freezing weeks in St. Paul. She'd dreamed of a little town with bakeries and cobblestone streets and handpainted signs and people who smiled at you when you walked past. She'd prayed for a little town, and finally she was about to live in one. "Thank you," she told the man behind her.
He was tall, in his midthirties, with chestnut brown hair badly in need of a cut. There wasn't a lot of smalltown goodness emanating from the rigid lines of his face. A black patch covered his left eye and he had a thin scar along his left cheek. In fact, he looked anything but friendly, but Brooke didn't believe in judging a book by its cover, so her smile was genuine and warm.
"You know her, Captain?" Gladys asked.
Mr. Green Peas nodded curtly. "It seems like forever."
"It's about time you're making some friends in town. We were worried when you moved out to the old farmstead, not knowing a soul in town and all. I'll tell Sonya, she'll be happy to hear that."
Not sure who Sonya was, but sensing that Captain's opinion counted with these two, Brooke faced the couple. "Please, give me a job," she urged. "You won't regret it."
From somewhere in the tiny grocery, Brooke could hear a relentless pounding. A rapidfire thump that seemed oddly out of place in the sleepy locale.
Gladys and Henry didn't hear the loud noise.
No one did.
Because, duh, it was her own heart.
She told herself it didn't matter if she didn't land this job with this homespun couple. It didn't matter if her brothers didn't welcome her with open arms. It didn't matter if the lawyer had made a mistake.
She told herself that none of it mattered.
All her life Brooke had told herself that none of it mattered, but it always did.
Her hands grasped the counter, locking on the small tin can. "What do you say?"
Gladys patted her cheek for a second time. Soft, warm and sorrowful.
"I'm sorry, honey. We just can't."
As rejections went, it was very pleasant, but Brooke's heart still crawled somewhere below the floor. They had been so friendly, the store was so cute with its handpainted Hinkle's Grocery sign over the door. She'd been so sure. Realizing that there was nothing left for her in this place, Brooke walked out the door, opportunity slamming her in the butt.
Her first day in Tin Cup. No job, no lawyer, an uneasy brother who didn't know she was here, andshe glanced down at the can of peas still stuck in her handshe'd just shoplifted a can of peas. Brooke fished in her jeans pocket for some cash, brought out two crumbled dollars, an old Metro Card and a lintcovered peppermintslightly used.
Two dollars. It was her last two dollars, until she found a job, of course. All she had to do was go back inside, slap the money on the counter and leave as if she didn't care. As if they hadn't shouted down her best "Pick me!" plea.
Brooke turned away from the store with its cute homespun sign and restashed her money. Better to be branded a thief than a reject. It wasn't the most honorable decision, but Brooke had more pride than many would expect from a homeless woman that lived out of her car.
Once she was gainfully employed, she'd pay back Gladys and Henry. They'd understand.
And was that really, truly how she wanted to kick off her new life in her new home? As some lightfingered Lulu, which apparently all the Harts were supposed to be, anyway?
After taking another peek through the window, she sighed. No, she wasn't going to be a lightfingered Lulu, no matter how tempting it might be. And especially not for a can of peas.
In the distance a frecklefaced little girl on a skateboard careened down the sidewalk. Eagerly, Brooke waved her down, hoping to recruit an unwitting accomplice so that Brooke Hart wouldn't be another unflattering mug shot on the Post Office wall.
"Hello," she said, when the little girl skidded to a stop and then Brooke held out her hand. "Can you give this to Gladys? Tell her it's for the peas."
The girl examined the proffered money, then Brooke, innocent eyes alight with purpose. "You going to tip me for the delivery?"
Yes, the entrepreneurial spirit was strong in this one. Who knew that honesty was such a huge pain in the butt? And expensive, too. After jamming her hand in her pocket, Brooke pulled out her last seventeen cents. Reluctantly, she handed it to the kid, who stood there, apparently expecting more.