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"How hard can it be," Mercedes Zamora muttered through chattering teeth as she elbowed her way into the mammoth juniper bush bordering her sidewalk to retrieve her Sunday paper, "to hit the frickin' driveway? Crap!" A flattened branch slapped her in the face; on a growl, she dove back in, thinking she had maybe three seconds before her bare feet fused to the frosty driveway, only to let out a shriek when something furry streaked past her calves and up to the house.
The cat plastered himself to her front door, meowing piteously.
"Hey. Nobody told you to stay out last night," she said as she yanked the paper out of the greenery, swearing again when she discovered her long, morning-ravaged curls and the bush had bonded. She grabbed her hair and tugged. "I feel for you but I can't quitereach you!"
The bush let go, sending her stumbling backwards onto the cement, at which point a low, male, far-too-full-of-himself chuckle from across the street brought the blood chugging through her veins to a grinding halt. Frozen tootsies forgotten, Mercy spun around, wincing from the retina-searing glare of thousands of icicle lights sparkling in the legendary New Mexican sunshine.
Oh, no. No, no, no! This was not happening.
Ten years it had been since she'd laid eyes on Benicio Vargas. And seared retinas notwithstanding, it was way too easy to see that those ten years had taken the shoulders, the grin, the cockiness that had been the twenty-five-year-old Ben to a whole 'nother level.
What effect those years might have had Mercy, however" stunning, she was sure, in her rattiest robe, her hair all junipermangled"she wasn't sure she wanted to contemplate too hard. Not that she was ready to be put down just yet"her skin was still wrinkle-free, her hair the same dark, gleaming brown it had always been, and she could still get into her size five jeans, thanks for asking. But the last time Ben had seen these breasts, they hadn't had their thirtieth birthday yet. Quite.
Not that he'd be seeing them now. She was just sayin'. Ben flashed a smile at her, immediately putting her father's glittering Christmas display to shame. Not to mention his own parents', right next door.
Mercy wasn't sure which was worse"that once upon a time she'd had a brief, ill-advised, but otherwise highly satisfactory fling with the boy next door, or that here she was, rapidly closing in on forty and still living across the street from the lot of them in one of her folks' rental houses. But hey"as long as she was leading her own life, on her own terms, what was the harm in keeping the old nest firmly in her sights?
As opposed to Mr. Hunky across the street, who'd booked it out of the nest and never looked back. Until, apparently, now.
"Lookin' good over there, Mercy," Ben called out, hauling a duffle out of his truck bed, making all sorts of muscles ripple and such. Aiyiyi, could the man fill out a pair of blue jeans or what?
"Thanks," she said, hugging the plastic-wrapped paper to the afore-mentioned breasts. "So. Where the hell have you been all this time?"
Okay, so nuance wasn't her strong suit. "Yeah, about that," Ben said, doing more of the smileflashing thing. If she'd rattled him, he wasn't letting on. Behind her, the cat launched into an aria about how he was starving to death. "I don't suppose this is a good time to apologize for just up and leaving the way I did, huh?"
Huh. Somebody had been spending time in cowboy country. Texas, maybe. Or Oklahoma. "Actually," she called back, "considering you've just confirmed what half the neighborhood probably suspected anyway!" She shrugged. "Go ahead, knock yourself out."
His expression suddenly turned serious. Not what she'd expected. Especially since the seriousness completely vanquished the happy-go-lucky Ben she remembered, leaving in its place thisthis I-can-take-anything-you-dish-out specimen of masculinity that made her think, Yeah, I need this like I need Lyme disease.
"Then I'm sorry, Mercy," he said, the words rumbling over to her on the winter breeze. "I truly am."
She shivered, and he waved, and he turned and went inside his parents' house, and she drifted back up to her own front door, her head ringing as though she'd been clobbered with a cast-iron skillet. And, she realized, in her zeal to get her digs in first, she had no idea why he was back.
Not that she cared.
The cat, who couldn't have cared less, shoved his way inside before she got the door all the way open. Her phone was ringing. Of course. She squinted outside to see her mother standing at the two-story house's kitchen window, her own phone clamped to her ear, gesticulating for Mercy to pick up. There was something seriously wrong with this picture, but she'd have to amass a few more brain cells before she could figure it out.
"Yes, Ma," she said as soon as she picked up her phone. "I know. He's back. Opening a can of cat food right now, in fact. Sliced grill, yum, yum."
After an appropriate pause, Mary Zamora sighed loudly into the phone. "Not your stupid cat, Mercy. Ben."
"Oh, Ben. Yeah, I saw him just now, in fact. Talk about a shock. Got any idea why he's here?"
"To help his father, why else? Because his brother broke his foot the day after Christmas on that skiing trip?" she added, rather than waiting for Mercy to connect the dots.
"Yes, I know Tony's not exactly your favorite person."
"Did I say anything?"
"but since the man is married to your sister, I really wish you'd try a little harder to like him. For 'Nita's sake, at least. Did she tell you, they're adding to the back of the house? And that new wide-screen TV they bought themselves for Christmasnot bad, huh?"
Mercy rolled her eyes. Tony did okay, she supposed, but her mother knew damn well that if it weren't for Anita's second income as a labor and delivery nurse, most of that extra "stuff" wouldn't happen.
"But anyway," Mary Zamora said, "now that Tony can't drive for at least a month, and God knows Luis couldn't possibly handle all those contracts on his own, Ben's come home to fill in."
Something about this wasn't adding up. Three or four years back, Tony had been down with mono for nearly six weeks, and Ben hadn't come home then. So why now? However, having developed a highly tuned survival skill where her mother was concerned, Mercy knew better than to mention her suspicions.
Just as she knew better than to mention her hunch that all was not well in Tony-and-Anita land. Seriously not well. But her parents would be crushed if Anita's marriage went pffft, especially since they hadn't completely recovered from Mercy's oldest sister Carmen's divorce two years ago. The two families had been tighter'n'ticks for more than thirty-five years, from practically the moment the Zamoras had moved next door. Two of their children marrying had only further cemented an already insoluble bond.
Since Anita hadn't confided in Mercy, all she had was that hunch. Still, the Zamora women, of which there were many, all shared a finely-honed instinct for zeroing in on problems of the heart. And right now, Mercy's instinct was saying yet another fairy-tale ending bites the dust.
"He looks pretty good, don't you think?"
Mercy jerked. Okay, so one check mark in the why-livingacross-from-the-parentals-is-a-bad-idea box. Clearly, four weddings (and one messy, nasty divorce) hadn't been enough to put her mother off the scent. Until Mercy was married as well, the world"and all the unattached, straight males who roamed its surface in blissful ignorance that they were marked men"was not a safe place.
"Don't suppose there's much point in denying it."
"No, there isn't. And you're not seeing anyone at the moment, are you?"
"Ma, I've been working nearly nonstop at the store, you know that. I've barely seen myself in the past two years. But to head you off at the pass"fuggedaboutit. Me and Bennot gonna happen."
No need to mention that she and Ben had already happened. Not that she had any complaints on that score. In fact, if she remembered correctly.
And she would open the rusty gate to that path, why? "Mercedes," her mother said. "You may have been able to stave off the ravages of time up until now."
"but it's all going to catch up with you, believe me. A woman your agehow can I put this? You can't afford to be too particular."
Because obviously a woman of Mercy's advanced years should be rapidly approaching desperate. Brother.
"Actually," Mercy said, "I can't afford not to be. And believe me, some thirty-five-year-old guy who's still blowing where the breeze takes him, who hasn't even been home since the last millennium, doesn't even make the running." The odd stirring of the old blood notwithstanding.
"So what are you saying? You're just going to give up, be an old maid?"
Mercy laughed. "Honestly, Ma"that term went out with poodle skirts. Besides, you know I'm happy with things the way they are. Business is great, a dozen nieces and nephews more than feed my kid fix, and I actually like living alone. Well, as alone as I can be with you guys across the street and Anita and them two blocks away. There's no big empty hole in my life I need to fill up."
"But think how much more financially stable you'd be, married."
Mercy pinched the bridge of her nose. "Which I suppose is your way of saying you could be getting twice as much for this house as I'm paying you."
"Now you know your father and I are only too happy to help out where we can. But, honey, it has been six years"."
Yeah, Mercy's teeter on the edge of poverty while she and her two partners got their business up and running hadn't exactly left her parents feeling too secure about her ability to take care of herself.
"I know it's been a struggle," she said quietly. "But we're doing okay now. In fact, I can start paying you more for the house, if you want. So I'm over the worst. And it was my struggle. You should be proud, you know?"
"I am, mija. I am. 'Nita with her nursing degree, and Carmen getting that good job with the state. And now you, with your own business No mother could be prouder of her girls, believe me. It's just that it kills me seeing you alone. And I worry that well, you know. That if you wait too long, you'll lose out."
"Geez, Ma, did Papito sneak something into your coffee this morning? Look, for the last time." Although she seriously doubted it would be "I like being alone. And I'm not lonely. Okay?" At her mother's obviously uncomprehending silence, she added, more gently, "So, yes, maybe back in the day, when everybody else was falling in love and getting married and having babies, I felt a little left out that it wasn't happening for me. But I'm not that person anymore. And at this point, if I were to consider marriage, it would have to be to somebody who's going to bring something pretty major to the table, you know? Somebodywell, perfect."
"Nobody's perfect, Mercy," her mother said shortly. "God knows your father's not. But I love him anyway. And I thank God every day for sending him to me."
"But don't you see, Ma? Pa is perfect. For you. Okay, so maybe you had to whip him into shape a bit," she said with a laugh, and her mother snorted, "but the basics were already all in place. And besides, you were both so young, you had the time and energy and patience on your side. I don't. I'd rather stay single than expend all that energy on either ignoring a man's faults or trying to fix them. So the older I get, the less I'm willing to settle for anything less than the best. And I can tell you right now, BenVargas doesn't even make the short list."
And at that moment, the man himself came back outside to get something out of his truck, and Mercy let out a heartfelt sigh at the unfairness of it all.
"Well," her mother said, clearly watching Ben as well,
"When you put it that way - no, I don't suppose he does."
"Thank you. So does that mean you're off my case?"
"For now. But damn, the man's got a great backside." Mercy hooted with laughter. "No arguments there," she said as the clear winter sun highlighted a jawline much more defined than she remembered. And since when did she have a thing for wind-scrambled hair? And"she leaned over to get a better look"beard haze? "But butt or no butt," she said, still staring, "as soon as Tony's back in the saddle, so's Ben. Riding off into the sunset."
Her mother chuckled. "What?" "You're watching him, too, aren't you?" Mercy jerked back upright. "Of course not, don't be silly." "Uh-huh. So maybe you're the one who needs to remember he's not going to be around long."
With her luck, Mercy thought after she hung up, her mother would live to a hundred. Which meant she had another forty years of this to go.
And wasn't that a comforting thought?
Seated at the tiny table wedged into one corner of his parents'kitchen, Ben tried to drum up the requisite enthusiasm for the heavy ceramic plate heaped with spicy chorizo, golden hash browns and steaming scrambled eggs laced with green chile his mother clunked in front of him.
"If you've been driving most of the night," Juanita Vargas said over the whimpering of a trio of overfed, quivering Chihuahuas at her feet, "you should take a nap after you eat. I'll make sure your father keeps the volume down on the TV when he gets back from his golf game."