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"A little to the left. Puuuush. Harder. Keep it coming. That's it. Almost. Yes," Jessie Bouchard cried in triumph. "You're in."
She stepped back and looked skyward at the massive man-made climbing tower that she and her team would be scaling a few hours from now. "What do you think?" she asked her sister Remy, who was standing a few feet away.
"It's definitely phallic."
Jessie ignored the humor in her twin's voice. "I meant does it look plumb? Not the tower itselfthe computer on the truck handles thatI mean the lightning rod thingie we added."
Remy moved closer. "It looks straight. And dangerous. You aren't really going to climb this thing, then jump off the top holding one of those little, bitty ropes, are you?"
"That's the plan," Jessie answered, watching Zane and Eerikthe oldest and youngest members, respectively, of Team Shockwavecrisscrossing each other's paths in an attempt to beat the other to the top.
"Hey, guys, cool it. Shane won't pay us if you break his new toy."
And the money was important. Jessie needed every penny to fund her three-month training hiatus this summer. By the end of August, she planned to be in Japan with her name at the top of the leaderboard of Kamikazethe adrenaline-rush game show she'd lost so spectacularly last year. Her reputation was on the line, along with her career and self-esteem.
"Well, the plan looks downright dumb to me," Remy groused. "But since when have you ever listened to anyone else?"
Jessie turned to look at her. "Nobody is twisting your arm to watch the show, you know. If you hadn't suddenly popped in to check up on me, you never would have known about this."
"I was worried. You stopped answering your phone. And emails. The Bullies figured you were still pouting about Mom's funeral, but I told them something else was going on. Something serious and life-altering. I felt it."
Some people would have taken that kind of woo-woo prophesy from the lips of Remy Bouchard seriously. Not Jessie. She knew all of her twin's secrets. Well, most of them, anyway. And she knew Remy wasn't the semipsychic Dream Girl the citizens of Baylorville, Louisiana, thought she was.
"I told you. I lost my cell phone and sublet my apartment for the summer, so I turned off the landline. And my laptop died. I borrowed a friend's to update my Facebook page, which is how you knew where to find me, right?" Family was great and all, but, seriously, the way they looked over her shoulder could be claustrophobic. "The point is I'm not hiding or pouting or taking crazy risks. Just the opposite, in fact." She pointed at the tower. "This thing is completely safe. A thousand little kids will be climbing it this summer."
Remy's perfectly outlined deep pink lipsher sister knew makeup the way Jessie knew car enginesformed a moue. "What about the lightning rod?"
Jessie gestured to the six-foot pole from which two linesone red, one blackwere partially visible. "That was Zane's idea. He thought our routine lacked pizzazz. He and I are going to jump backward and rappel back and forth, like Tarzan and a really hot Jane," she said, pounding her chest.
Remy crossed her arms. The pinched look on her face was so much like their mother's Jessie felt a shiver pass down her spine. Mom had been gone for nearly ten months, but Jessie thought about her every day. The way she died. The way Jessie let everybody down. Again.
She looked at her watch. "I'm supposed to meet a guy over at the community center in a few minutes. Are you sticking around or what?"
Remy gave her a "well, duh" look. "Of course I'm sticking around. Think I came all this way to ask why you weren't answering your phone? I figured since you're here for the summer, this would be a great chance for us to spend some time together."
Some time? How much? Before Jessie could ask her to elaborate on her plans to stay in the Black Hills, Eerik shot toward them on a skateboard. At nineteen, the guy was part fearless maniac, part laid-back surfer dude. "No killing yourself before the show, Eerik. We need you to play a menacing bad guy."
"No prob, Jess. Just staying loose."
"I hope he remembers his stocking cap," Jessie said, watching him show off. "A blond ponytail isn't very threatening, is it?"
She glanced over her shoulder when Remy didn't answer right away and found her sister's gaze following the fit, sexy, young Brad Pitt-looking kid. Not that Jessie blamed her. Eerik was hot, but Jessie didn't date coworkers. She'd learned that lesson the hard way. Plus, romance was so far off her radar at the moment it was a non-issue. Men were one luxury she couldn't afford.
"Watch where you're going, a-hole," Jessie heard someone shout. She turned in time to see Zane stiff-arm Eerik, sending the younger man stumbling.
Eerik rebounded with the grace and nimbleness of a highly trained Parkour athlete, executing a backflip to land on his feet. The average person would have been on their butt on the ground. He spun around, fists raised. Before Jessie could voice her protest, Marsh, the third member of their team, dashed between the two men. "Take it down a notch, guys. We have a show in forty minutes."
Zane, who at the moment looked very much like the Special Forces commando he claimed to have been, flipped them both off and stormed away. Marsh looked at her, hands out in a what-the-heck motion.
Jessie had no idea what was going on with Zane. He'd been more short-tempered than usual the past few days. A veteran stuntman and co-captain of Team Shockwave, their eight-member competitive Parkour/ Freerunning team, Zane brought strength and cunning to the mix. But his team name was Inzanity, which, lately, seemed a little too apropos.
"Come on," she said, changing direction. "I need some water before my meeting. There's a cooler in Yota."
Her impossible-to-miss, 1971 turquoise Toyota Land Cruiser was parked midway between the post office, where the show would originate, and the tower. In Parkour, athletes incorporated existing landmarks, like light poles, walls, parking meters, even cars in their routines. Yota was used to playing the foil for Jessie and her troupe.
She opened the rear doors and reached for her cooler. She smiled when she saw Remy lovingly pat the car's dusty fender. They'd bought the car together shortly after graduating from high school. Jessie had replaced the engine twice, but she had no plans to trade it in on a newer model. She loved the boxy old thing like a member of the family.
The vehicle lacked an authentic tailgate and Jessie had removed the rear seats years earlier to allow for more cargo space, but Remy didn't let that stop her from making herself comfortable. She turned and hopped backward to sit on the threshold, adjusting the fall of her gauzy purple-and-blue cotton skirt. As usual, she looked pretty and feminine.
Jessie stripped off her sweaty black T-shirt and grabbed the green, sleeveless blouse she'd worn the night before. Not too wrinkled, she decided, buttoning it partway. Her bright orange tank with the built-in workout bra didn't clash too badly, she decided, checking out her reflection in the passenger-side mirror.
Remy tilted her head to scrutinize Jessie's outfit but didn't comment. Instead, she asked, "Who did you say you were meeting?"
"Cade Garrity. His sister, Kat, is friends with Libby Lindstrom. Cooper Lindstrom's wife," Jessie added meaningfully. She knew her sister wasn't a big fan of television, but she didn't live under a rock, either. Sentinel Passtime was a legitimate TV hit and a stunt double's dream. Jessie loved this annual trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota to film on location. Since they already had the permit to film scenes in this part of town, Shane, the director, had decided to give the stunt demonstration as a thank-you to the locals for so generously sharing space with Hollywood types.
"I asked Libby if she knew of any rentals in the area. Kat said her brother had a placea ranch somewhere north of here. It sounds perfect. So I emailed him last week."
Remy frowned. "If you wanted to do your training someplace other than L.A., you could have come home."
Jessie heard something not-quite-Remy in her sister's voice. Grievance? Complaint? Remy was the one person Jessie could always count on to be in her corner. She never complained about Jessie's choices or lifestyle. Obviously that had changed.
"Okay. Out with it. What's going on?"
"I lost my job."
"At Shadybrook? No way. You're the best thing those old people ever saw."
"Budget cuts. They lost their funding for my program and didn't want to raise their rates."
Jessie gave her a one-arm hug. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay. I needed a change. Plus, I figured I'd find you to deliver this in person." Remy settled her oversize carpetbag of a purse on her lap and pulled out an envelope, which she handed to Jessie.
"What is it?"
"Open it and see."
She let the envelope rest in the palm of her hand a moment. Thin. Cheap, ordinary paper. Nothing specialexcept for her name written in her mother's hand. Jessie.
Her throat tightened, making it hard to swallow. "Where'd you find this?"
"In her desk in the kitchen. You know Mama. One desk wasn't enough, ten were too many."
The old joke helped ease the tension. Jessie had had a turbulent relationship with her mother for most of her life, and one point of contention was Marlene Bouchard's penchant for buying estate-sale furniture she didn't need, couldn't afford and didn't have space for in her Louisiana shotgun-style home.
Jessie ripped open the envelope and quickly scanned the one-page missive. Without conscious thought, she gently rubbed the tender spot on the side of her forehead. The stitches were gone but the pain lingered. "You got one, too, I assume?"
"We all did."
Jessie reached for her duffel bag. She found the plastic vial of prescription pain pills the doctor had given her. She didn't like to take them before a job, but one wouldn't hurt, she figured. She choked it down with a swig of water.
"So, what changes? She'd already told everybody how she wanted her will handled. Now we have it in writing. Big deal. I still don't want anythingincluding my half of the house. You know that. You didn't have to come all this way to hear me say so in person."
Remy blew out a huff of exasperation. "That's exactly why I had to come. To talk some sense into you. Just because you don't want your share of Mama's estate doesn't mean you might not have kids someday who would treasure a small piece of their grandmother's past. I refuse to let you give away your inheritance simply because you feel guilty."
Jessie heaved the duffel deep into the car and turned her back on her sister. "I don't want to talk about this. Not now."
"No problem. Like I said, I think I'll stick around for a while. We can be roomies. Like when we lived in Nashville."
"What about the house? Aren't you afraid the Bullies will make off with all those so-called treasures you think I deserve?" The Bullies was the pet name the twins had for their three older sisters.
Remy gave her head a shake, making her white-blond hair shimmer in the intense noon sunlight. "They've already taken everything they want. I told them when I left I might not come back right away, depending on your plans. Luckily, since Mama's house is paid for, I can help you out with rent and it won't feel as if I'm paying double. How big is this place?"
This sort of spur-of-the-moment planning was more her than Remy. "I don't know all the details. That's what I'm here to find out. This Cade guy said he was willing to trade part of the rent for a few hours of child care during the week."
"Child care? You?"
Jessie spun on one heel. "See? You're as bad as the Bullies. You all assume certain truths about me that aren't based on any actual facts."
Remy put up her hands defensively. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize you actually liked kids. You have to admit you've never had much to do with our nieces and nephews."
"That would have meant spending time with their parents. I've learned that I can get along with my older sisters just fine if I keep a few states between us. Which is another reason I want no part of Mom's house."
"Not now, Rem. I gotta go. This ranch sounds perfect. Out of the way. Practically off the grid." A bonus given the mess she'd left in L.A. "So, stay here. I'll feel him out about renting to two tenants. If he doesn't have a problem with the idea, I'll mention that you're in town and thinking about staying. Okay?"
"I could kick in more rent."
Jessie thought about Cade Garrity's initial reply to her query: briefalmost terseas if he were doing something he wasn't totally happy about. "I don't think he's doing this for the money. His main focus seemed to be his daughter. She's twelve. He said he wanted someone to pick her up at the bus stop and supervise her after-school time until he got home."
"A teen. Good luck with that," Remy said, with a slight smirk.
"Hey, for your information, last year I coached two Girlz On Fire gymnastics teams. A couple of the girls came very close to placing at the district level. Not bad for our first try." First, and probably the last, Jessie thought.
She pushed the memory away. What was happening with Girlz on Fire was out of her hands at the moment. Maybe someday, after the dust had settled, she might be able to resurrect the pieces of the dream, but that was going to take a lot more money than she currently had. Another reason to win Kamikaze's million-dollar prize.
She looked at her watch. "Damn. I have to run. I only have a few minutes to talk to him before the show starts. Stay put. I'll be right back."
She jogged across the street even though there was no cross traffic at the moment. In fact, the street was completely empty thanks to the bright yellow Do Not Cross tape that Marsh and Eerik had put up early that morning before they started filming.
Spectators were starting to collect along the sidewalks and storefronts. She probably should have scheduled this meeting for later, but she had to admit she'd wanted to show off a bit for Cade Garrity.