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Rita Slocum worked to envision every possible reason why she shouldn't quit her job right now, pack it in and call it a day.
Three good reasons came to mind. Liv, Brett and Skeeter, her beautiful children, three amazing gifts from God that had already suffered from their parents' host of bad choices.
Never again would she compromise their happiness.
Crossing the grocery-store parking lot, she inhaled a breath of brisk, clean, North Country spring air, gave herself a quick kick in the behind and brought to mind all she should be grateful for. Her kids. Her faith. Her home.
She fingered the bronze one-year chip she kept tucked in a pants pocket, a valid reminder of three hundred and sixty-five days of good choices, of strengthening values, each day chasing the pervasive shadows of drunkenness further into oblivion.
Stronger now, she refused to be fooled. Once sober, she'd studied her problem and couldn't excuse her share of the blame. It would be easy to slough things off on circumstance and depression, justify that first drink. Then the next and the next and so on.
But Rita recognized her primary responsibility in the whole mess. Sure, her life had tanked emotionally, morally and financially with her late husband's crimes and suicide, but she'd had other choices.
She'd made the wrong ones then. She'd make the right ones now.
Despite the soap opera prevailing in her current job, her kids came first. Their strength. Their faith. Their well-being. No more messing them up.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
Wonderful words, sweet and succinct. Perfect for an alcoholic's soul.
And even though today was bad, a definitive two on a scale of one to ten, most days weren't too awful, and she'd learned a great deal by working in a commercial bakery that supplied fresh bread, cakes, desserts and rolls to grocery-store shoppers.
It wasn't her dream job. No, that option lay dust-riddled alongside her computer, fact sheets for a bakery of her own, a sweetshop that called to passersby from a delectable window showcasing mouthwatering treats.
Rita refused to be cowed by the unlikelihood of that development. For the moment she was working a no-glory job, following orders, obeying company policy on weight, ratio, freshness and back stock of quick-selling items.
It paid the bills and that was reason enough to stay—creditors were ever-present baggage from her former life. Still, her business degree from SUNY Albany prompted her to do more than follow someone else's orders, a quality she should have clung to during her marriage to Tom Slocum.
Settling behind the wheel, she pondered her angst. Not bad enough to grab Kim, her AA sponsor, but she wanted to talk with someone who'd listen and not condemn, commiserate but not feed into her funk. Recovering alcoholics couldn't afford to bask in self-pity, ever.
The tall, broad-chested, sandy-haired woodcrafter with deep gray eyes would listen. He always did. And then he'd set her straight, a trait she could do without some days. The reality of that inspired a smile. Brooks' honesty matched his integrity. Great qualities in a man.
Unless she was the target of said honesty, in which case he could take his calm, confident perceptions and bury them in his ever-present sawdust bucket.
Checking her watch, she steered the car toward Grasse Bend. Plenty of time to stop in before Skeeter's bus dropped her off at home in Potsdam, and she had to drive through Grasse Bend anyway.
She fought the invading flush, turned the air-conditioning to high despite the cool day and let the chilled air bathe her skin, her face. Brooks was a friend, a know-it-all one at that, a guy whose very being screamed "loner," and that's where they'd leave things. No risk, no worry.
"I want to quit. To walk away without a second glance and never look back. Your mission, Brooks Harriman, should you choose to accept it, is to talk me out of it."
Rita's announcement lifted Brooks' head. He glanced from the tiny, green-tipped paintbrush to the etched scroll accenting the antiqued credenza holding center stage in his "clean" room, the area designated for finishing applications, then back to her, appraising. "Hold that thought."
A smile tempted her mouth. She walked forward, more confident than she'd been last summer. Angled light bounced off ash-blond hair. Her cross necklace danced brightly in the slanted spring beam. He sensed her approval of his painstaking work before she walked toward the back of the room to greet his apprentice as he applied tung oil to a deacon's bench.
"Rita." Mick's low voice greeted her while his broad hands worked oil into the receptive oak, the grain leaping to life with his attentions. "How're you doing?"
Filling the etch with forest green, Brooks imagined her grimace. "Frustrated, peeved, disgruntled. Take your pick."
Brooks couldn't resist. "Whiny. Complaining. Petulant."
"I don't recall listing those."
He smiled. "Nevertheless."
"None of the above," she retorted. "And since you're working on something requiring a level of care, I suggest you pay mind to it."
"Ouch." His smile turned into a grin. "There's coffee in the pot."
Rita Slocum only drank tea. He knew it, but offered coffee anyway. It was an old game from her early days in AA, when he'd squire her for old-fashioned one-on-one. Bad enough to be a single mother with a drinking problem, but a single mother with a drinking problem in the North Country, well…
That was tough. There were no secrets in the small towns littering Route 11. But she'd made it so far and today's crisis wasn't serious or she'd have called Kim to talk it out, fight the temptation, view her choices and choose.
Her presence pushed Brooks to hurry. He dismissed the urge. Fluid green followed his strokes, filling the angles and curves. Short minutes later, he sat back, satisfied. "Done."
"I love it."
He'd sensed her approach, the scent of baked apples and cinnamon teasing his nose, tweaking awareness. He looked up. "How's your tea?" His eyes swept the foam cup, the telltale tag hanging outside.
"Wonderful. Soothing. Sweet."
He'd stocked up on various brands for when she required a sounding board. Her hair swung forward as she examined the piece, the fruity scent light and flirtatious, a delightful combination. Her sky-blue eyes twinkled. "I'm not even going to ask what something like that goes for," she quipped, admiring.
Brooks nodded. The German-style dresser was dear. "This wouldn't blend with your things anyway, would it?"
"At some point in time, when the term 'discretionary funds' reenters my vocabulary, my things will change," she promised.
She pressed her lips thin, musing. "For the moment, I'm content with the scuffed-up remnants of raising three kids."
Brooks envisioned Brett's soccer ball thumping against the finished sideboard. Drawers stuffed with disjointed game pieces. Skeeter using it as a support for her gymnastic maneuvers. Olivia…
At fifteen, Liv was probably the only one besides Rita who would treat the stylish cabinet with any level of respect. He bit back a sigh inspired by his thoughts and his early morning wake-up call. "In your particular case, I think refurbishing should stay on the back burner for a decade. Maybe two."
"For years those kids weren't allowed to live in their own house. Be creative," she told him. "Tom wasn't comfortable with disorder."
Brooks stiffened at the mention of Rita's late husband, a man who'd engineered a well-disguised Ponzi scheme that bilked money from innocent investors, then killed himself rather than face charges, leaving Rita more baggage than anyone should have to handle. Ever.
Rita didn't notice his reaction. As her finger traced the sweep of the beautiful sideboard, she lifted her shoulders. "With Brett and Liv both teenagers, they'll be gone before you know it. Plenty of time for change coming."
Brooks wiped his hands on a tack rag, stood and moved to the sink to wash up, weighing her words. Rita had learned to embrace change out of necessity, a brave move for a woman alone, a single mother to boot.
Whereas he'd run fast and hard, disappearing into oblivion when the going got tough. Polar opposites to the max.
He stretched his shoulders, rolling the joints to ease the stiffening that accompanied detail work. "So. What are we quitting?"
"Mindless work a trained monkey could do," Rita groused.
"Trained monkeys are scarce hereabouts." He poured coffee, eyed the density, scowled and added cream. "We could import some."
"There's little imagination or thought that goes into industrial baking," Rita expounded, leaning against a sturdy, unfinished logged bedstead. Her blue jeans, thin and baggy, were standard wear in the bakery. "Every cake is like every other, don't even think you can special order a combination that isn't in the book because you can't, and the custard filling tastes like chemical waste."
"Because there are no alternatives," she spouted, eyes flashing. "If the cheesecake cracks, they dummy it with extra topping and sell it anyway, at full price." Her voice rose. "And the crème horns? The filling comes in a box. You measure out x, add y and z and voilà! White crème filling."
"There's another way?" She ignored the humor in his tone. Didn't note the lift to his brow, the hint of a smile.
"The right way. The way it should be done, would be done if I were running the place." Arching a dark brow that contrasted with her light hair and eyes, she played her trump card. "To top it all off? Add insult to injury?"
He fought a grin and nodded, the gesture inviting her to continue.
"The cannoli filling comes from a can."
The earnestness of her expression made him lose constraint. He grinned. "Who'd have thought?"
Uh-oh. The grin made her huffy. She set her tea on his workbench with an uncharacteristic thump. "Never mind, Brooks. I shouldn't have come."
"Why did you?"
"I…" His question caught her off guard. She fingered the collar of her knit shirt, nonplussed, her gaze searching his.
Mick hid a chuckle beneath a cough.
Brooks met her look, unflinching, rock solid. "Reet?"
The telltale blush traveled her throat, her cheeks. She turned toward the door. He stilled her with a gentle hand on her arm. "Open your own place. You've talked of it often enough."
"You don't know that."
"I do," she corrected him. "I've done my homework on this. I've scoped out costs versus income, possible locations, equipment requirements, licenses, refurbishing. The start-up costs are prohibitive and no lending institution worth its salt is going to front a loan to a drunk with a pile of bills, three kids and no money."
"What have you got to lose by filling out the applications, trying every angle?"
"Besides my self-respect and my sobriety?" She stared beyond his shoulder, gnawed her lip and drew her gaze back to his. "Rejection scares me. A lot."
Her admission didn't surprise Brooks. Rita's lack of self-esteem was a big part of what had pushed her into the alcoholic abyss that almost tore apart her family. Thankfully her sister-in-law Sarah had stepped in to take charge of the kids before Rita sought recovery the previous spring. Otherwise they'd have been wrenched apart and put in foster homes, another family gone bad.
But that hadn't happened. Instead the kids had spent the summer working on Sarah's sheep farm while Rita faced her demons and won.
God's hand at work. Brooks might never step foot into a church, but he recognized God's might and power in this particular situation. And despite his nonattendance, Brooks knew his beliefs to be as strong and ardent as most churchgoers, probably more than some. He served one God, one Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth. He just handled it a bit differently from everyone else on the planet.
Singular. Unfettered. Independent.
He prayed one-on-one, lived alone and ran his own business with no one to answer to.
Ordered. Structured. Organized to the max.
The loner profile worked for him, offering a shield of protection that he'd erected nearly a dozen years back. So far, so good. But not so easy when Rita came around. Something about her heightened his senses, awakening possibilities he'd buried long ago.
But he hadn't served as a Delta commander in the army for nothing. Brooks was adept at identifying and administrating, the sorting techniques intrinsic to success in battle. How weird was it that he needed those skills around Rita?
He dipped his chin and gave her arm an encouraging squeeze. "Things are different now. You're stronger. You've had over a year without a lapse of sobriety, you've taken a job that's helped strengthen your résumé when you do apply for bakery funding and I expect you've learned a thing or two about commercial baking in the process."
"A lot, actually."
"Then put that knowledge to good use. Draw up a prospectus."
"I already did," she admitted.
Brooks grinned. "Good girl. Now fill out some applications. Give it a shot. You've got a lot of people behind you, believing in you. You can do this."
Could she, Rita wondered? At that moment her answer was yes, Brooks' words bolstering her confidence.
Brooks Harriman didn't blow sunshine carelessly. Not now, not ever. He shot straight from the hip, his analysis unjaded and unbiased. That honesty won him respect in their tight-knit community, a precious commodity in the North County. In an area that courted winter seven months of the year, stoicism was held in high regard.
But tiny spring leaves dappled the afternoon sun with dancing shadow, their Kelly-green newness refreshing. Rita clutched her tea with one hand while the other fingered the one-year chip in her pocket. "You really think I can do this?"
His expression defined confidence. "I know you can do this. And I'll be glad to help with any and all refurbishing when you get approval and pick a site."
"There's a really sweet store available in Canton," Rita told him. The admission brought heat to her cheeks, as if she'd done something wrong in checking things out, having the audacity to believe in herself.
She gave herself an inward shake, burying the insecurities that challenged her faith in God and herself.
Change the things you can….
The words buoyed her in their simplicity.
Maybe she could do this.
Brooks leaned in, the scent of wood shavings and oil-based paint tickling her nose, playing havoc with her thoughts. "Coffee tonight, after Brett's game?"
Brett's travel team had a game in Canton tonight, and while Brooks wasn't a big fan of Skeeter's gymnastics performances and the accompanying histrionics, he enjoyed watching Brett's soccer matches.
His teasing tone inspired a smile and a softer response. "I can't. I've got to get Brett and Skeeter home. Spring games on school nights are always a killer."
"Oh. Of course." Brooks replied as if he understood the time frame, but he didn't. Not really. Kid bedtimes were something he'd never had to deal with, thanks to his brother.
She walked to the door, sure-footed, more poised and confident than she'd been last summer. Back then a confrontation like this would have sent her into duck-and-cover mode. Not anymore.