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"If only you'd been born pretty," Tina Greene said as she glanced at her daughter's reflection. "Or with only one flaw. Like a big nose. That we could fix."
"As it is, we must suffer with my moderate unattractiveness," Megan told her mother, going for sarcasm so no one would know how she really felt. Well, most people could guess, but her mother would take the words at face value. To do otherwise would mean giving thought to another person -- something Tina Greene never seemed to do.
"I suppose 'moderate' covers it," Tina murmured as she reached for a brush and eye shadow. "On a good day. If only you were more like your sister. Leanne's only thirteen and she has boys calling here all the time."
Dateless, Megan thought grimly. Eighteen and dateless. "Too bad there's not a recovery center you can send me to. You know, to get over being ugly and not having a boyfriend."
Tina nearly frowned. "Are you being smart with me?"
"No, Mom," Megan said in her most innocent voice.
"There was that one boy. I forget his name. Didn't he end up in prison?"
She refused to answer on the grounds that it was true. Her only boyfriend had been arrested. It wasn't his fault -- at least that's what she'd heard. But then she'd also heard Travis had killed someone. She wasn't sure what was the real story.
"You didn't even go to your prom," Tina said. "I could have set you up with someone, but you'd rather sit home by yourself. Do you know how embarrassing that was for me? My daughter not going to the prom?" Tina turned in her chair. "Do you go out of your way to make my life difficult? Does it bring you joy to make me unhappy?"
Megan stared at her mother. She'd read about a study that said babies were more likely to look at attractive faces than unattractive ones. If that was the case, she probably hadn't slept much as an infant. Her attention would have been riveted on her mother's perfect face.
Through some combination of good genes and great luck, Tina had been born beautiful. Stop-traffic, is-she-really-human beautiful. Dark hair that fell in perfect waves, big green eyes and clear, pale skin that practically glowed. It didn't sound all that amazing in words, but in person, Tina was goddess material.
To this day, guys were constantly staring. Men came on to her every time she went out. As her eighteen-year-old daughter, Megan thought it was gross. And depressing. Worse, her baby sister was nearly as pretty. Megan, instead, was the smart sister.
Smart and funny, she reminded herself. She had substance. That's what her dad said. They were the regular ones in the family. Tina and Leanne were shallow and narcissistic, but they loved them anyway because she and Dad had substance.
"What is that you're holding?" Tina asked, pointing at the blouse on the hanger.
"It looks like something. Did you make that? The color doesn't work at all on you. Yellow? Megan, how many times do I have to explain the purpose of clothing? To enhance what you barely have. Or in your case, make it look like more than it is."
Megan glanced at the yellow thrift-store blouse she'd bought for three dollars and basically taken apart and put back together so that it looked like a sexy Chanel design. At least that had been the plan. It was pretty enough, and the fit was perfect, but something was missing. Maybe if she changed the buttons...
"I worked on this in my design class today."
Tina sighed and returned to face the mirror again. "I swear, I don't understand why your father indulges you the way he does. You can take all the craft classes you want, but don't for a minute think you can make a career out of any of them."
"It's not crafts. It's fashion design."
"Whatever. Be realistic. I don't mean to be cruel, but the truth is you're very unlikely to marry well. You simply don't have that much going for you. You'll have to make your own way. You need skills."
The speech was familiar. A variation on the same theme she'd been hearing for years. Only beautiful women got to marry well. Only beautiful women got to have perfect lives. Lesser mortals simply lived in pain and suffering until they were mercifully put out of their misery by death.
Normally Megan could hear the words and let them wash over her without them touching her at all, but not tonight.
"You're wrong," she said, deliberately inviting trouble. "I have talent, and I mean with more than just eyeliner. My teachers say that -- "
Tina rose and tightened the belt on her silk bathrobe. She might have been forty, but she had a body even Megan had to envy. "Your teachers are delighted to cash the checks for the exorbitant tuition they charge at that ridiculous design school. They're going to say whatever they have to so the money keeps coming. Look at yourself, Megan. You're a disaster. Those jeans are cut all wrong, your T-shirt has stains on it. Your hair looks like something cats slept in. When you look in the mirror, do you see 'designer'? You're much more the secretary type. Accept that and move on."
I hate you.
The words boiled up inside, but years of practice kept them from spilling out. Without saying anything, Megan left her mother's room and returned to her own.
Her friend Allegra was sitting on the bed, flipping through a magazine. "And?"
Megan tossed the blouse on the floor. "I'm so stupid. No, what's beyond stupid? I got a great verbal score on my SATs. I should know."
Allegra grabbed the blouse and held it to her chest. The buttery yellow shone against her caramel skin. "I love this. You're doing great work."
Megan joined her on the bed and flopped back on the pillow. "Maybe."
"Hey." Her friend poked her in the arm. "What happened to all the excitement? You love design school. You're going to be a great designer and I will be your star model. Let's talk about your collection."
"I'm eighteen and in my first design class. I need to talk about my homework."
"Attack of the Killer Mom?"
"Right to the heart with a quick jab to the creative spirit."
"Want me to call my therapist? I have his home number."
"It's Friday night."
"He's old. Like fifty. What else has he got to do?"
Megan laughed. "I'll be fine."
"Are you sure? Because I can call."
She probably could. Allegra's parents were successful professionals who worried about their only daughter's emotional state. Allegra had been in therapy since she was six. From what Megan could tell, her friend was the most rational, normal, loyal person she knew, but Allegra's parents didn't see it that way.
"I'm beyond fine. I'm in a dimension of goodness that requires me to get up off the bed. We're going to the party."
Allegra groaned and collapsed in a dramatic swoon. Her long, curly hair fell down, covering her face. "No. Please. Anything but that."
"Or we can spend the evening with my mother."
Her friend straightened. "Party it is."
They looked at each other. "We can do this," Megan said.
Allegra nodded. "Oh, sure. I enjoy going places where people will point and stare."
"They don't do that."
Allegra raised her eyebrows. "I've seen them. It's part of my freakishness."
"You're not a freak."
Her friend stood and put her hands on her hips. "Excuse me? How many other girls do you know who are six feet tall and weigh four pounds?"
"You weigh more than that."
But her friend was right -- Allegra was really tall and really thin. And there was something unusual about her face. Huge eyes and wide lips. Cheekbones that seemed on the verge of cutting through skin.
"You have a look," Megan said, meaning it. "One day everyone is going to think you're amazing and want to be just like you."
"Can it be today?"
They'd met in second grade, when Allegra had moved to the neighborhood. She'd been introduced to the class, and a boy had loudly said the new girl was as ugly as Megan and they should sit together. They did, and a friendship had been born. One bound by time and love and exclusion.
"I'll see what I can do," Megan told her. "But we are going to that party."
They'd been invited. At least as much as anyone was ever invited to a big, loud party at the beach. Getting out of the house seemed like the best way to forget how much her mother had hurt her.
Megan felt twisted inside. She knew in her head it was because she'd finished high school and was ready to start college. She was nearly grown up and sometimes, being free and an adult sounded impossibly wonderful. But other times, she wanted to crawl back in bed and hug her teddy bear.
"Come on," she said as much to herself as to Allegra.
She opened her closet and flipped through the clothes Allegra had left behind on her many sleepovers. She paused at a short red skirt, then tossed it over her shoulder.
"That," she announced. "With the tank top you have on."
"I'll be naked."
"You'll be sexy."
"I'll trip and everyone will see my panties."
"Walk slowly and make sure your underwear doesn't have holes."
Megan pulled out the dress she'd finished over the weekend. The sateen cotton had a sheen that made the really dark green look almost black, but when it caught the light, it flashed with color. The dress was simple and fitted, with skinny straps, but the last six inches of the skirt had a really tight pleating that had nearly killed her to get right. It had come out perfect.
"That's so hot," Allegra breathed. "Can you make me one like it?"
Megan flushed with pleasure. "Sure. We'll go buy fabric tomorrow."
They dressed, then tried to decide on makeup. A lot? A little? It was hard to know what to do. Megan made it a point never to listen when her mother tried to teach her.
"Mascara," Allegra said finally. "And lip gloss."
"Right. We'll be fabulous."
Her bedroom door burst open and her baby sister strolled in. "Mom's sick," Leanne announced, plopping on the bed.
"Get out, rodent," Megan told her.
"She has a headache and her heart's beating too fast."
Megan ignored the knot that formed in her own stomach. Her mother not feeling well often meant pain and suffering for everyone in the house.
"Get out of here!" Megan snapped. "This is my room." The room Leanne loved to snoop in.
Leanne glared at her. "I hate you."
"Back at you."
"I'm gonna tell Mom."
An old, tired threat. "About what?"
Leanne flipped her long, blond hair over her shoulder and narrowed her big blue eyes. "There's always something."
The thirteen-year-old left. Allegra stood and smoothed the front of her skirt. "I'm glad I don't have a sister."
"I wish I didn't," Megan said honestly. "She's so annoying. She snoops in here all the time, trying to find out what I'm doing. Then she runs to Mom and rats me out."
"Being an only child is a pain, too, though," Allegra said.
Megan rolled her eyes. "Oh, right. Because your parents buy you everything you want."
Allegra's perfect lips twitched. "They're concerned."
"They're using their credit cards to pay off guilt."
Allegra's parents, both successful doctors, worried they were gone too much. Attempts to heal came in the form of clothes, shoes, and, since Allegra turned sixteen two years ago, cars.
"I'll trade anytime," Megan muttered as she brushed her hair. "You can have my rodent sister, my beautiful mother, and my room with a view of the neighbor's trash can."
"What about your dad and your car?"
"No, you can't have either of them." Megan knew it wasn't totally cool to get along with her dad, but she couldn't help it. They were practically best friends. And the car had been a graduation present.
"Looks like you're stuck with your life," Allegra said.
"But you can share mine."
"Good to know."
Megan applied another coat of mascara, then stood in front of her mirror. Allegra joined her.
They were both tall and thin with long hair. Megan wrestled with pale skin and freckles, red hair that liked to frizz, and breasts that were smaller than her thirteen-year-old sister's. Allegra was similarly built but had been spared the freckles.
"We are perfect," Allegra said. "We are confident. We are going to talk to boys at the party and they will talk back."
"Go us," Megan said. She held up her hand. Her friend did the same and they slapped fingers back and forth three times.
They nearly made it down the hall before her mother called, "Megan? I need to see you."
Megan froze. It was nearly eight. Now that she was out of high school, her curfew had been extended to midnight, which was embarrassingly early for a girl her age. So they didn't have much time at the party. As it was, she was going to drive herself because Allegra didn't have to be home until three in the morning. Dealing with her mother could take a couple of hours.
But she knew she couldn't just walk away, so she sucked in a breath and headed toward the back bedroom.
"Yes?" she said as she stood in the doorway.
The large room was dim, the only light coming from the television. Her mother had moved from the vanity to the bed. Her makeup perfect, her hair tumbling artfully, Tina lay on top of the covers, her silk robe draped over her body. She held one hand to her forehead and winced.
"I have a headache. Could you get me some ice in a washcloth and make some tea? My stomach's not right. It's stress, of course. You know how the doctor warns me against stress. And maybe you could heat up some soup."
Ten minutes ago her mother had been healthy enough to insult and complain. Megan knew this latest "illness" was a form of punishment.
"I'm going out," she said, doing her best not to whine. Whining only made things worse. "Can't Leanne help?"
Her mother nearly frowned. Not that she would -- wrinkles were bad. "Megan, your sister is just a little girl. You have to be the responsible one. We've talked about this."
Meaning Leanne was her favorite and excluded from the caretaking.
"I was going out," she repeated quietly, hoping for a miracle.
"I don't see how that's possible tonight," her mother told her. "Megan, you know I don't do this on purpose. Why are you acting like this? You're being selfish. If you knew my pain and suffering...but I pray you never do."
"Because I'll need all my strength to support myself?" Megan asked before she could stop herself.
Behind her Allegra groaned. "You're going to pay for that," her friend murmured.
The lecture was coming. Megan could feel it. Some of it she'd brought on herself and some was just the way things were.
She backed out of the room. "You should go," she told Allegra. "She won't let me out tonight."
"I can wait. I'm not going to the party without you."
"Seriously? Alone? I'm going home." Her friend hesitated. "Or we could go together. Megan, you don't have to stay. You could move out. She always does this to you."
Technically, maybe. She was eighteen. But go where? Do what? She wasn't trained to do anything. She wanted to continue her design class and go to college. Her mother or Leanne would simply flounce out, determined to have her own way. Consequences were for other people. As much as Megan wanted to be like that, she couldn't helping thinking about what would happen after she flounced.
"I'll be fine," Megan said. "I'll see you tomorrow."
But before Allegra could go, the automatic garage door opener hummed into life. Allegra grabbed her hands.
Megan grinned and raced toward the kitchen. She kicked off her high heels and flung herself into her father's arms.
"You're back! I didn't think you'd be back until late."
Her father caught her and hugged her hard. "How could I leave my best girl any longer than I had to?" He released her, then looked her up and down. "That's some dress. Did you make it?"
Megan spun in a circle. "Every stitch. Isn't it great?"
Her father kissed her forehead. "You look nice. Hey, Allegra. So you girls are going to a party?"
Megan hesitated. "We were. Mom's not feeling well. She wants me to stay home."
For a second her father looked away. Megan often wondered why he stayed married to a woman as horrible as her mother. A woman who demanded and expected, who never said thank you or talked about anyone but herself. But she knew the answer. She could see the light in his eyes when he looked at his wife, heard the pride in his voice when he walked into a room with her on his arm and introduced her as his.
Her mother was her father's greatest flaw.
He glanced toward the back of the house, then lowered his voice. "Get out of here, kid. I'll take care of things with your mom. Be home by one."
Megan blinked at him. "My curfew is midnight."
He shrugged. "It's summer. Promise you won't get wild."
"Oh, Dad, you know I won't. I have sewing to do this weekend. I'm not going to waste my time getting drunk and then feel sick all day. That's just dumb."
Her dad grinned. "How did I get so lucky with my oldest daughter?"
"How did I get so lucky with my dad?"
The familiar exchange made them both laugh. He pointed to the door. "Get out of here before you have to heat soup and run around with ice."
Megan grabbed her shoes. "Love you, Dad."
"Love you, too, Megan. See you in the morning."
The party was in Santa Monica, in a house less than a block from the beach. Megan and Allegra had to park three streets over. The night was warm and clear. They followed the sound of music to the well-lit house, where the crowd had already spilled onto the lawn.
"The police will be here by eleven," Megan told her friend, knowing the extra hour of curfew wasn't going to matter tonight.
"Maybe the neighbors are cool."
Megan winced at the loud blast of music. "No one over thirty is that cool."
They went inside and did a slow sweep of the house, checking out who they knew and who they wanted to get to know. Not that they would actually talk to anyone but each other. Megan had never mastered the art of the party, as her mother called it. Small talk with strangers made her nervous. But they were there and it was fun and that was enough.
Allegra was on cute boy alert, pointing out possible crushworthy prospects. Megan looked but wasn't all that interested. She wanted to work on a pair of tailored pants over the weekend. Once she got them perfect, she could make a pattern, then work with a pinstriped fabric she'd bought weeks ago. The stripes made for a challenge, but if she pulled it off she could --
Megan turned to glance where Allegra pointed and came to a stop when she saw a tall guy standing by the window.
"I can't believe it," Allegra said. "How long has it been? Two years?"
Nineteen months, Megan thought as her breath caught in her throat. Give her a minute and she could have actually figured out the number of days. Maybe to the hour. She still remembered everything about the last time she'd seen him. It had been a Tuesday. She'd been standing in front of the school when the police had taken him away.
The moment had been crazy and blurry, like something out of a movie. She remembered thinking that bad stuff never happened on Tuesdays. It was a stupid day. Not like Monday or Friday.
He hadn't said anything when they put the handcuffs on him. He'd stared into her eyes, then looked at her mouth like he wanted to kiss her. He hadn't said he loved her or asked her to wait or anything. He'd been silent and then he'd been gone.
She'd hoped to hear from him. A letter, a phone call. There'd been nothing. And she hadn't known if it was okay to get in touch with him. In the end, she'd done nothing. But she'd always wondered.
Now she stood in the center of the party, not hearing the noise or feeling the crush of the crowd. She was totally alone, like in a bubble, where there were only her memories and the fact that Travis Hunter was back.
"Megan?" Allegra's voice came from a long way away.
Megan couldn't seem to answer as she stared at the only guy who could make her forget her dream of being a designer. It was crazy -- they'd only gone out for a few months. They'd barely known each other. She'd been sixteen and he'd been her only boyfriend. He'd been her world, and when he'd disappeared from it, she'd wanted to die.
Without knowing what she was going to say, she walked up to him. He must have sensed her, because he turned just as she reached him. They stared at each other.
His eyes were still dark and looking into them made her want to get lost forever. She didn't think she was breathing, but that was okay, because being close to Travis was enough. His hair was long and shaggy, the way she loved it. The earring was new and made him look like a pirate. He wore a T-shirt over jeans, and stubble covered his chin. Her mother had once described a man as looking like a fallen angel. At the time Megan had thought the description was stupid, but now she got it. Travis was her fallen angel, and if being with him meant going to hell, then she was ready to walk through fire.
Unless he'd forgotten about her.
"Megan," he said, his voice low and thick. The sound of it had always made her tremble.
"Travis. When'd you get back?"
One corner of his mouth lifted in his trademark almost-smile. "Out. When did I get out. That's what you mean."
He was angry -- she saw that right away. She didn't think it was at her, but maybe it was. Why? Because he thought she was going to pretend nothing had changed? Everything had. They'd both grown up. Him more than her, she would guess.
"When did you get out of jail?" she asked, refusing to let him bait her. "When did you leave prison and come back here?"
He sipped his drink. "A couple of months ago."
Months? And he'd never called or tried to see her?
The flash of pain was as bright as it was intense. She'd missed him, mourned him, wondered if she'd lost the only boyfriend she would ever have. Which made her feel stupid. Like she'd been the only one in their relationship who cared.
"How are you?" she asked, refusing to let him know any of this bothered her. She had plenty of training for that.
"I'm great. A new man. Reformed. I was a model prisoner. They gave me a plaque. Want to see it?"
Was he trying to hurt her or was that just a happy accident? "Did you bring it?" she asked.
He shrugged. "You got me. I left it at home."
"Maybe next time."
She stared into his eyes, hoping to see something -- a hint that she mattered, that he'd thought of her at least once, that he was happy to see her. There was nothing. Then a tall, pretty blonde with huge boobs walked up and slid her arm around Travis's waist.
"I'm back," the blonde said, smiling up at him.
"I see." Travis drew her close, possessively. "Heather, this is Megan."
Heather gave her an absent smile. "Hi."
Megan felt beyond insignificant. Her cheeks burned and she wanted to die. Worse, she thought she might throw up. Of course Travis was with someone else. That's what guys like him did. They went out with pretty girls and probably had sex.
She was no one. An awkward, unpopular, ugly person who couldn't possibly be happy because happiness was saved for the perfect.
"Good to see you," Travis said in obvious dismissal.
She nodded, then walked away, her whole body aching. The dress she'd been so happy to wear seemed stupid. Her shoes pinched her toes and she didn't think she was ever going to be able to smile again.
She pushed through the crowd and made her way to the bar, where she asked for a rum and Coke, then took her drink outside. The stars were bright. She could smell the ocean, although she couldn't hear it over the sounds of the party.
Someone joined her on the deck.
"Okay, I asked around and her name is Heather. She's a total ho," Allegra said. "Nobody dates her, they just sleep with her. He's been back two months, working at his mom's business, staying out of trouble. There have been a lot of girls. One night, maybe two, then he moves on."
Megan gulped half her drink, nearly choking as she swallowed. Best friends told you what you needed to know, even when you didn't want to hear it, she reminded herself. Allegra had her back. Now if only someone could protect her heart.
"He's not in love with any of them. Megan, you know that, right? He was in prison. The man is entitled to a little action after that."
"I understand," Megan whispered, hoping she didn't sound as broken as she felt. "It's not like we ever..."
She would have, if he'd asked. But there hadn't been time. She'd just been falling for him when he was taken away.
"I hear he has a wicked tattoo on his back," Allegra said. "A tiger."
"It doesn't matter," Megan said fiercely. "He doesn't matter. So we dated and then he was gone. It's fine."
"He didn't leave you. There's no closure. You need closure."
Megan looked at her friend. "What?"
"I know about this stuff. You need the ritual of ending things and then you'll be fine."
"How am I supposed to do that?"
Allegra thought for a second. "I have no idea."
Megan started to laugh. Allegra joined in. They linked arms and went back to the party.
Travis watched Megan make her way to the bar for the second time that night. She wasn't much of a drinker -- at least she hadn't been. Maybe she lived to party now. Who the hell was he to worry about her?
Except she didn't look all that different and she'd come with Allegra and not a guy. Was she still into clothes? He would bet that dress she had on was one she'd made.
He remembered a long night when she'd snuck out and met him. His plan had been to get laid, but she'd talked about her dreams and the work she'd done in art class, something about clay and glaze. He hadn't been listening to the words, he'd been lost in the sound of her voice. Then she'd drawn him and the trees in the park and he'd learned that he liked watching her talk and sketch more than he liked screwing anybody else.
"Are you Travis?"
He looked at the kid asking the question. He was maybe fifteen, skinny, and looked like he got beat up on a regular basis.
The kid looked both excited and terrified. "Is it true? Did you kill someone?"
The truth was Travis had broken up a fight. Some bully had been beating the crap out of a kid as small as the guy in front of him. Travis had stepped in, taken a hit, then decided to teach the bully a lesson. Unfortunately for him, the bully's mother was on the city council and Travis had ended up getting charged and doing time.
At seventeen, he'd been sentenced as an adult -- politics-as-usual at work.
Until he'd been taken away in handcuffs, he'd never believed his old man's claim that no good deed goes unpunished. He'd learned it the hard way.
But no one wanted to know that. No one wanted to know about what it was really like to be stuck in jail, to have to watch your back so you didn't become some asshole's bitch. They didn't know it was lonely and boring and that he'd vowed to himself he would never be that stupid again, never end up there, never be like his old man.
He finished his beer and handed the empty bottle to the kid in front of him. "I killed him," he lied. "He deserved it." Then he walked out.
He dug in his pocket for his keys. Coming here had been a mistake. Hanging out with people who used to be his friends only reminded him that he didn't fit in anymore, and seeing Megan again had been the worst of it.
Did she have to be so damn beautiful?
He'd nearly made it to his motorcycle when he saw someone sitting on the curb, next to it. It was dark and she was in shadow, but he recognized everything about her.
"Where's your date?" Megan asked.
"She wasn't my date."
"Just some girl you're sleeping with?"
"Why the questions?" he asked, wishing she would go away so he could leave. "What do you want?"
"Allegra says I need closure."
"Allegra needs to stop seeing so many therapists."
She picked up the plastic cup she'd put on the curb, then stood and handed it to him. "Can you toss this? I don't know why I got it. I don't even drink." She sighed.
He poured out the drink and dropped the cup to the grass. She was everything he'd missed while he'd been locked up and exactly what he knew he couldn't have now that he was out. He'd done his best to avoid her. And here she was, looking at him like he was still someone who mattered.
"Go home," he told her.
"Oh, I will. But I wanted to talk to you first."
She meant torture him. Because that's what being around her was. Torture. It would have been easier if she ripped off his skin and staked him out in the sun.
"I don't want to talk," he said. "I don't talk anymore."
"Because you're big and bad and tough?"
He felt himself start to smile and turned his head so she wouldn't see. "That's me."
"Let's go walk on the beach," she said. "The fog's coming in and my hair will frizz, but I don't care if you don't."
She reached for his hand. He pulled back.
"I'm not interested in talking," he growled. "And I'm not interested in you."
A lie, but the right thing to say. He'd promised himself that, too. That he would do the right thing. Be a man he could be proud of.
Tears immediately filled her eyes. She raised her chin.
"I didn't know what to do. I didn't know if I should write or call your mom. I didn't know what you wanted. So I waited to hear from you. I checked the mail every day for a year. I gave up a year of my life for you, Travis. I waited. Then one day I realized you didn't care. You'd probably never cared. But I never forgot you."
She brushed away the tears on her cheeks. "I shouldn't be telling you this. My mother always says never tell a boy what you're thinking. Leave him guessing. But I missed you and I wanted you to know. There it is. All of it. You can laugh at me, or do whatever it is you want to. Say it and then we'll be done."
It was like she was naked before him and he didn't know what to do. She'd waited? For him? Her?
He didn't believe it but knew she wouldn't lie. So now what? Say what he wanted, what was true? Or do the right thing?
He shrugged. "I didn't think about you, babe. Sorry you had to waste your time."
Her expression froze, pain etched in her features. Her eyes widened as fresh tears spilled onto her cheeks.
"Bastard," she whispered.
"You got that right." Copyright © 2009 by Susan Macias Redmond