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Glory Parsons's gloved hands tightened on the steering wheel when the familiar green-and-white sign came into view. Pearl River, Oregon. Population: 6710.
All it would take was one U-turn, and she could be headed back toward Portland. She'd find another job, and she still had her apartment. Maybe she and Alan could work things out
She swallowed hard. She would be in Pearl River three weeks at the outside, then she could join her friend Sally in San Francisco, get a new job and start her life all over again. As for Alan, she hoped his teeth would fall out.
The feed store was festooned in lights and sparkling green garlands for Christmas, like the five-and-dime and the bookstore and the newspaper office. The street was thick with muddy slush, but fat puffs of new snow were falling.
Glory passed the diner and smiled to see the cheap plastic Santa and reindeer perched on the tar-paper roof. She touched her horn once, in a preliminary greeting to her mother, and drove on.
The cemetery was on the other side of town, overlooking the river. Glory parked outside the gates, behind a green police car, and made her way up the curving driveway. She left her purse in the car, carrying a bouquet of holly she'd picked along the roadside earlier in the day.
A crisp breeze riffled the drifting snowflakes and Glory's chin-length silver-gold hair. She pulled up the collar of her long woolen coat, royal blue to match her eyes, and made her way carefully along a slippery walk.
Dylan's grave lay beneath a white blanket of snow, and Glory's throat thickened when she came to stand beside it. "Hi, handsome," she said hoarsely, stooping to put the holly into the metal vase at the base of his headstone. Her eyes filled with tears, and she wedged both hands deep into her coat pockets and sniffled. "You had your nerve, dying at twenty-two. Don't you know a girl needs her big brother?"
She dusted snow from the face of the stone, uncovering Dylan's name and the dates of his birth and death. He'd perished in an explosion soon after joining the air force, and Glory didn't want anyone to forget he'd lived, even for the space of an afternoon snowfall.
She drew a deep breath and dried her eyes with the back of one hand. "I swore I'd never come back here," she went on miserably, "even to see you. But Mama's getting married, so I had to come to her wedding." She took a tissue from her pocket and dabbed at her nose. "I got myself hooked up with a real jerk back in Portland, Dylan. If you'd been around, you probably would have punched him in the mouth. He pretended to love me, and then he stole my promotion right out from under me."
She paused to look up at the cloudy sky. The bare limbs of maple and elm trees seemed to splinter it.
"I quit my job and had my furniture put in storage," Glory confided to her brother, gazing at the marble headstone again. "And after Christmas and Mama's wedding, I'm going to San Francisco to make a life for myself. I don't know when I'll be back to see you again."
A swishing sound in the slush alerted Glory to someone's approach. She looked up, and her blue eyes went wide.
He was standing on the other side of Dylan's grave, dressed in the standard green-and-brown uniform of the sheriff's department. He wore no hat, and his badge, pinned to his jacket, gleamed in the thin winter light. Like Glory, he was twenty-eight years old.
His caramel eyes moved over her frame then swept back to her face. "What are you doing here?" he asked, as though he'd caught her in a bank vault after-hours.
Glory had known she couldn't come back to Pearl River without encountering Jesseshe just hadn't expected it to happen this soon. Her temper flared, along with an old ache in a corner of her heart she'd long since closed off, and she gestured toward Dylan's headstone. "What do you think I'm doing here?" she retorted. "I came to see my brother."
Jesse hooked his thumbs through the loops on his trousers, and his brazen brown eyes narrowed slightly. "It's been eight years since the funeral. You were really anxious to get back."
Eight years since the funeral, eight years since Glory had laid eyes on Jesse Bainbridge.
Pride forced Glory to retaliate. She took in his uniform and then said, "I see you've been promoted to sheriff. Did your grandfather buy the election?"
His jawline tightened for a moment, but then he grinned in that wicked way that had broken so many hearts in high school. "Why not? He bought you, didn't he?" Like everyone else in Pearl River, Jesse probably believed old Seth Bainbridge had paid her to leave town; Glory was fairly certain he'd never learned about the baby.
Without waiting for a reply, Jesse settled his hat on his head and walked away.
Glory barely resisted the urge to scoop up a handful of snow and hurl it at his back. Only the awareness of where she was kept her from doing just that.
When Jesse was out of earshot, Glory put her hands on her hips and told Dylan, "He really burns me up. I don't know why you liked him so much."
You liked him, too, she heard Dylan's voice say, way down deep in her heart. You had his baby, Glory.
"Don't remind me!" Glory snapped, folding her arms. "I was barely eighteen, and my hormones were out of control!"
She thought she heard Dylan's laughter in the chilly winter breeze, and in spite of the unpleasant encounter with Jesse Bainbridge a few minutes before, she smiled.
"I love you, Dylan," she said, touching the headstone again. Then, with her hands in her pockets, she turned and made her way down the walk to the driveway and the towering wrought-iron gates.
It was time to face Pearl River, something she hadn't done since Dylan's funeral, and she was reluctant for more than one reason.
Glory's sports car, the one great extravagance in her life, started with a comforting roar, and she drove slowly back into town, telling herself to take things one moment at a time. Before she knew it, Christmas and the New Year's wedding would be over, and she could get on with her life.
She parked in front of Delphine's Diner just before an orange snowplow came past, flinging a picturesque fan of slush at the sidewalk. Glancing up at the life-size plastic Santa and reindeer, Glory remembered Dylan sliding around on the roof to put them in place for Christmases past, deliberately clowning because he knew his mother and sister were afraid he'd fall.
The little bell over the door jingled when Glory went inside. Her mother, as slender and active as ever, lit up brighter than the Santa over their heads when she saw her daughter.
"Glory," she whispered with a choked sob of pleasure. And then she was hurrying across the brown-and-white linoleum floor, with its swirls of fresh wax, to embrace her.
The hug brought a lump to Glory's throat and quick tears to her eyes. "Hello, Mama."
"It's about time you got here," boomed a male voice from one of the stools at the counter. Harold Seemer, the good-natured plumbing contractor who had finally persuaded Delphine to marry him after a five-year courtship, beamed at his future stepdaughter. "We were about to send the sheriff's patrol out after you."
Glory tried not to react visibly to the indirect mention of Jesse. She didn't want thoughts of him interfering with her visit. "Hi, Harold," she said, giving the well-fed balding man a hug. He and Delphine had visited her in Portland on several occasions, and she'd become very fond of him.
"You look skinny," Delphine commented, narrowing her green eyes as Glory took off her coat and hung it on one of the chrome hooks beside the door.
Glory laughed. "Thanks, Mama. I've been dieting for two months to make up for all the food you're going to force me to eat."
Harold finished his coffee and replaced the beige china cup in its saucer, with a clink. "Well, I've got to get back to work. I'll leave you two to catch up on everything."
When he was gone, Glory took a stool at the counter, sighed, and pushed back her hair. "No customers," she commented, looking around at the six Formica-topped tables. The chrome legs of the chairs glistened, and so did the red vinyl seats.
Delphine shrugged and, stepping behind the counter, poured a cup of coffee to set in front of her daughter. "The lunch crowd's been and gone. Things'll be quiet until dinnertime."
Glory reached for her cup and saucer and pulled them toward her, feeling the steam caress her face and taking comfort in the familiar aroma, but she didn't drink. "I saw Jesse," she said, and her voice was shaky.
"Did you, now?" Delphine's voice was light as the feathery snow falling past the window with its neon We Serve Pepsi-Cola sign. "How did that happen?"
"I stopped by the cemetery to leave some holly for Dylan, and he was there." Glory raised her eyes, watched her mother's face pale slightly at the mention of her lost son. But Delphine recovered her composure rapidly, like always. She was nothing if not a survivor.
"Jesse's brother, Gresham, is buried there, along with his sister-in-law, Sandy, and his folks. Must be some special day to him, or something."
Glory recalled the plane crash that had taken the lives of Gresham Bainbridge, promising young state senator, and his pretty wife, Sandy. The tragedy had been big news in Oregon. "They left a child behind, didn't they?" Glory asked, because thinking about the Bain-bridges' misfortune was better than remembering her own and Delphine's.
Delphine busied herself rinsing out a glass pot and starting a new batch of decaffeinated coffee brewing. "A little girl," she said quietly. After a few more moments, she turned to face her daughter, leaning against the spotless counter, her shrewd eyes invitingeven demandingconfidences. "Tell me about this Alan man. What did he do that made you uproot yourself like that?"
Glory ran her tongue over her lips and fiddled with a paper napkin. She still hadn't touched her coffee. "He was a rat, Mama," she answered after a long time. "He cozied up to all my clients while I was away taking a training course in Chicago, and when I came home, the board had given him the promotion they promised me."
"So you just threw your resignation in their faces, cleared out your desk and left?" Delphine put the question in a nonchallenging way, but it still made Glory's cheeks flame.
And she definitely felt defensive. "What should I have done, Mama? Stayed and brought Alan pencils and files in my teeth? I worked night and day for four years to earn that job!"
Delphine shrugged, leaning on the counter again. "I think maybe you just wanted out of the relationship and that was the best excuse that occurred to you. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that you've never gotten over Jesse Bainbridge."
Glory's hands shook as she picked up the coffee and took an angry gulp. It burned her tongue and the roof of her mouth. "Well, I have!" she sputtered moments later. It still hurt that Jesse hadn't come for her at the unwed-mothers' home in Portland and brought her home to have their baby, even though she knew the scenario was woven of pure fantasy. Jesse couldn't have come for her because he hadn't known she was pregnant. "It was nothing but a childish high-school infatuation in the first place."
Delphine's eyes took on a sad look. "It was more than that," she insisted softly, resting one well-manicured hand on Glory's arm.
Glory pulled away, went to the jukebox and busied herself studying the titles of the songs imprisoned inside. They were all old tunes she couldn't bear to hear when her feelings were so raw.
She turned to the window instead.
Mr. Kribner came out of the drugstore across the street and hung an evergreen wreath on his front door.
"Merry Christmas," Glory muttered, wishing she'd never left Portland. She could have made some excuse for the holidays, then dashed into town for the wedding and out again after the reception.
Her mother's hands gripped her elbows firmly. "You're tired, sweetheart, and I'll bet you didn't have any lunch. Let me fix you something, and then you can go upstairs and rest a while."
Glory nodded, even though she had no appetite and hadn't really rested for days. She didn't want Delphine to worry about her, especially during this happy time, with the wedding and the holidays coming up.
"Harvey Baker was just in the other day," Delphine called sunnily from the kitchen, as Glory stood hugging herself and watching the snow swirl lazily past the diner windows. When it got dark, the Pepsi sign would make a pink glow on the white ground. "He's looking for an assistant over at the bank, you know. Allie Cord-man left to take a job in Seattle."
"Smart girl," Glory murmured. Pearl River was a nowhere town, with nothing to offer. Anybody who deliberately made his home here ought to have his head examined.
Delphine hummed in the kitchen, happy with her world, and for one difficult moment Glory envied her profoundly. She wondered what it was like to be in love with a man she could trust and depend on, and to be loved by him in return.
Presently, Glory's favorite luncha clubhouse sandwich with potato saladappeared on the counter, along with a tall diet cola with extra ice.
Glory would have sworn she wasn't hungry, but her stomach grumbled as she got back onto the stool and pulled a fresh napkin from the holder. "Thanks, Mama," she said.
Delphine was busy wiping the already immaculate counter. "There's an old-movie festival at the Rialto tonight," she told Glory cheerfully. "Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life and Cary Grant in The Bishop's Wife."
A poignant sensation of nostalgia came over Glory. "Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant." She sighed. "They don't make men like that anymore."
Delphine's green eyes twinkled, and she flashed her diamond engagement ring. "Don't be too sure," she said coyly, and Glory laughed.
"Mama, you're hopeless!" But she couldn't help thinking, as she ate her sandwich and tangy potato salad, that it would be nice to have a handsome angel turn up in her life, the way Cary Grant had appeared in Loretta Young's.
Two teenage boys came in, raising a great ruckus lest they go unnoticed, and plunked quarters into the jukebox. A lively old Christmas rock tune filled the diner, and they piled into chairs at one of the tables.
Suddenly wanting to relive her after-school waitress days in that very diner, Glory abandoned her sandwich and reached for a pencil and an order pad.
"What'll it be, guys?" she asked.
The young men ran appreciative eyes over her trim blue jeans and gray cashmere sweater.
"Will you marry me?" asked the one with braces.
Glory laughed. "Sure. Just bring a note from your mother."
The other boy hooted at that, and the first one blushed. The name on the sleeve of his letterman's jacket was Tony.
"I want a cheeseburger, a vanilla shake and an order of curly fries," he said, but the look in his eyes told Glory he had bigger things in mind than food.
Glory was writing the order down when the bell over the door jingled. She looked up to see Jesse dusting snow off his shoulders onto Delphine's clean floor.
His gaze skirting Glory as though she'd suddenly turned invisible, he greeted the boys by name and took a place at the counter. "Hi, Delphine," he said, as the woman poured his coffee. "How's my best girl?"
Glory concentrated fiercely on the second boy's order, and when she'd gotten it, she marched into the kitchen and started cooking. She had to keep herself busyand distracteduntil Jesse finished his coffee and left the diner.