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Christine Waters parked her sturdy Volvo in front of the main building of Harmony House, the commune where she'd grown up, her heart pinched as tight as her hands on the steering wheel, a spurt of panic overriding her determination.
What the hell was she doing back here? When she'd left this place at seventeen, it had been for good.
She knew why she'd come, of course. She had two good reasons: to give her fifteen-year-old son a fresh start and to help her mother recover from heart surgery.
Except nothing about David, her mother or Harmony House itself was simple or easy. Ever.
David shoved off his ever-present headphones, which shut out the worldespecially herand jumped out of the car, enthusiastic for the first time since Christine had announced they would be here for the summer.
"It's like an old-time hotel," David said, surveying the two-story building surrounded by gardens, the clay works barn and the animal stable.
"It was a boarding house back in the thirties, I think," she said, joining him. In the years she'd been goneeighteen of themthe place had become stooped with age, the yellow paint gone as faint as cream and the different-colored doors were milky pale. The wraparound terraces looked as though they'd give way in a breeze.
This shocked and saddened her, like seeing a lively friend wan and weak in a hospital bed. She'd never liked the place, but it had always seemed bright and vibrant.
"Cool," David said, nodding.
Cool? Christine hid her smile of relief. The one thing in her favor was that David's girlfriend, who shaped his every opinion, approved of communes.
"Check out the school bus," David said, indicating the ancient vehicle painted with hippie rainbows and peace signs.
"I can't believe Bogie still has that monster. Wonder if it even runs." She used to hate when it broke down on the winding road to town. Being late for school had been mortifying, not to mention all the stares at her homemade clothes. Christine was seven when Bogie had talked her mother into moving out of the cozy apartment in Phoenix to the commune in the middle of nowhere. To Christine's young eyes, beyond the bright paint, the place was all mud, stink and chaos.
Now, weary after the four-hour drive from Phoenix, Christine peeled her sweat-drenched tank top off her back. The cooler air in the hills was a relief, at least, though there would be many hot hours in the clay works, as well as tending the gardens, the animals and the kitchen, helping out until her mother and Bogie were back on their feet. Bogie, her mother's old friend and partner in the commune, was recovering from prostate cancer.
Absently, Christine scratched the back of one arm, then examined the itchy red bump. Mosquitoes already? The flying pests bred in stagnant irrigation water or at the nearby river's edge and they'd eaten her alive as a kid.
As if on cue, both her legs began to itch, too. She bent down to scratch them. "Remind me to get bug spray in town."
"No way. Too toxic. Just cover yourself up," David said. He would say that, dressed in his usual flannel shirt over a ratty T-shirt and shapeless cords, all too hot for early May in Arizona.
"We'll see. Grab a suitcase, okay?"
He went for the backseat, crammed with luggage, his too-long straw-colored hair hanging over his face, hiding his gorgeous eyes. Dragging out one of the bigger bags, he stumbled a little. The two inches he'd grown in the past year had made him as gangly as Pinocchio, not quite able to work the long limbs he'd suddenly gotten.
How she missed the old David. They used to be Team Waters against the world, as close as a mother and son could be. She'd been so proud of the way she'd raised him. She'd been open, direct, affectionate and accepting, and always, always talking things out. So different from the way she'd been raised, with all her questions unanswered, Aurora mute or dismissive.
From the moment she found herself pregnant she'd sworn to be a better mother than Aurora and she'd succeeded.
Until David slipped into puberty's stew of hormones and hostility. After that, and so much worse, came Brigitte. Two years older and snottier than David, she'd wrapped him around her sexually active little finger in no time flat.
He was too young. Only fifteen. Too young for sex, for drugs, for dangerous friends, for any of it. Christine's anxious heart lurched with sorrow.
Watching him drag the bag across the gravel, she made a vow: I will not lose you.
"What? What's wrong?" he demanded, letting the suitcase drop to the dirt. He assumed she was criticizing him.
"Nothing's wrong," she said, managing a smile. Not so far, anyway. Away from Brigitte and drugs, David's head would clear. He'd get involved in the commune, finish his schoolwork, talk to a counselor and, eventually, to her, and gradually get back on track.
That was Christine's plan, along with helping Aurora without damaging their fragile relationship.
Oh, and doing some ad agency projects on the side.
She would make this work. She had to.
A goat's baa drew her attention to a side garden, where a man in a straw hat was pulling weeds, watched over by a black-and-white sheep dog perched on its haunches.
She headed over to see, lifting her bag because of the gravel. When he shooed the goat with his hat, Christine saw the gardener wasn't Bogie. Not at all. He was mid-thirties, not mid-sixties, and tanned, not leathery. He was also handsome.
The goat trotted past her and Christine caught the sour stench that had gotten her labeled "Goat Stink Girl" at New Mirage Elementary. Ah, the good times.
The sheepdog gave an excited woof and galloped at David as if he knew him. Once he got close, though, the dog drew back, turned and shot off toward the cottonwood grove.
"Did we scare your dog?" Christine asked.
"Lady's shy. She tolerates me only because I feed her." The gardener smiled at her so quickly she wasn't sure she'd seen it, but when he looked at David his face went tight, as if in unpleasant recognition. Odd.
"I'm Christine Waters. This is David."
"Marcus Barnard," he said, whipping off a leather glove to shake her hand. He looked her over with cool green eyes that held a glimmer of masculine interest
or maybe that was a trick of sunlight. It hardly mattered. She was not about to reciprocate.
"You're Aurora's daughter," he said, nodding. "She said you'd be coming."
"How is she doing?" Bogie had told her the prognosis was good, but Christine was anxious to see for herself. The news that her mother was ill had hollowed her out. Aurora had always seemed indestructible.
"She seems weak, but managing. I've done whatever extra Aurora will allow." He shot her a brief smile.
"Allow? That sounds like my mother. Bogie asked me to say I'm here because he needed help, not her." She smiled, but she felt far from happy. If Bogie hadn't called, she was certain Aurora never would have. That hurt deeply, though Christine told herself it was Aurora's way and always would be.
"People as self-sufficient as your mother often find it difficult to accept help," Marcus said.
"Self-sufficient, huh? That's one way to put it, I guess." It irked her that this stranger felt the need to explain her mother. Over the years, Christine had tried to bridge the chasm between them, but her mother hated questions and wasn't much for phone calls. E-mail was out, too, since Aurora didn't approve of computers. Christine sent cards and called, but made no headway.
"So how long have you been a guest, Marcus?" She figured him for a short-timer. He carried himself like a business guy dressed for a hike in a neat chambray shirt and newish jeans, not a bit like the grubbier, weather-worn and laid-back commune residents.
"Almost three months, I guess." His eyes were piercing, but cool, lasering in, but warning you away at the same time.
As striking in demeanor as he was in good looks, he seemed wound tight, watchful, and there was a stillness about him
Not a man easy to ignore. That was clear.
"Can I help you with your bags?" he asked.
"We don't know where we'll be yet, so, thank you, no."
"When you do, I'm here." He settled his straw hat onto his head in a firm, deliberate way. Sexy. Definitely sexy. "And good luck in there." He flashed her a smile.
"Can you tell I'll need it?" When she walked away, following David to the porch, she stupidly wondered if Marcus Barnard was watching her go.
At the door to Harmony House, all thoughts of anything but what she faced fled. Christine paused to collect herself. Ready or not, here I come. For better or worse, Christine was home.
Once inside, she was startled by how everything looked the same as she remembered. There was the same ham-mered-tin ceiling, dark carved paneling, marble fireplace and antique furniture. It even smelled the samelike smoke, old wood and mildew. She was swamped with memories, her feelings a jumble of fondness, nostalgia, dread and anxiety.
She followed David down the hall into the big kitchen, which was empty and eerily quiet, unlike the old days when it was always crammed with people cooking, talking, eating or drinking. Christine had loved mealtimes, when everyone was in a good mood, not too high or drunk or argumentative. As a child, Christine had stayed alert to the vibe, braced to scoot when it got ugly. Remembering made her pulse race the way it used to. Ridiculous, really.
The back door opened and Bogie entered with a canvas holder of firewood in his arms. "Bogie." Christine's heart leaped at the sight of him. Bogie had always been kind to Christine, offering a gentle word on her behalf during the daily arguments with Aurora over food, clothes, toys and Christine's free time.
"Crystal!" He dropped the wood into the box by the woodstove and approached her, a grin filling his gaunt face, which was sun-brown and webbed with wrinkles. His ponytail had gone completely gray. He'd aged so much, though his cancer treatment might have temporarily set him back.
"Who's Crystal?" David asked her.
"I'll explain later," she murmured. God. She'd forgotten about the name thing.
Bogie shifted his weight from side to side, lifted then dropped his arms, as if not knowing whether or not to give her a hug. She decided for him, throwing her arms around him. He was skin and bones. "It's good to see you," she said.
He ended the embrace fast, blushing beneath his tan, and studied her. "You're so pretty, like I expected, but your eyes look tired. We'll help you with that for sure."
She flushed at his close attention, surprised and warmed by his obvious affection for her. He'd always been in the background here. "Bogie, this is my son, David."
"Nice to meet you, young man," Bogie said, ducking his head. So humble. He'd organized the commune, yet he'd let the much younger Aurora take charge. "Aurora's lying down. Let me tell her you're here."
"Oh, no, let her sleep. Please." Feeling as rattled as she did, she wouldn't mind delaying her first contact with her irascible mother.
"She'd never forgive me." Bogie thudded down the wooden floor of the back hall.
Christine was dripping with sweat, ridiculously nervous. Her mother needed her help and she was here to give it. Maybe it would be as simple as it sounded.
Crystal? What's that about?" David asked.
"Lord. Aurora changed our names when we got here."
"She named you Crystal Waters?"
"And she wasn't joking, either. She wanted it to be a spiritual rebirth, like a baptism. I was to be sharp and true and sweet as the truth." She'd resisted at first, but her mother had been so excited and happy, she'd given in.
"That is so whack."
"You're telling me." Seeing David so amused, she told more of the story. "Picture the whole second grade laughing their heads off when I got introduced that first day."
"That would be harsh for sure." He smiled his old smile and Christine's heart lifted. So far, so good. "What about Grandma's name? Aurora sounds made up."
"It was. Her real name's Marie. Aurora means dawn. She wanted to experience daybreak as a bright new woman" The words had stayed with Christine. When her mother had been that happy, Christine had felt swept away on a merry current. When she turned sad or angry, the trip became a churning tumble over sharp rocks. Probably how all kids felt.
"That's so trippy," David said, just as Aurora tromped in from the hall, Bogie on her heels.
"I can get out of bed on my own, dammit. Quit treating me like an invalid, Bogart."
Christine sucked in a breath at how small and frail her mother looked. Aurora had always seemed larger than life and tough as an Amazon warrior, even once Christine became an adult. When David was five, Aurora had come to Phoenix for a short, awkward visit and seemed as substantial and strong as ever.
Christine hid her alarm with a smile. "Aurora, hi."
As always, her mother's brown eyes slid away without making contact. "It's about time you got here. Bogie, get them iced tea. It's rose hip," she said to Christine.
"No need to fuss. We snacked the whole trip." But Bogie was already in the fridge.
"You look wrung out to me," Aurora insisted. "What are you doing in a silk top out here?"
"I don't know. It's light and cool." She smoothed her hair as if to prove how fresh she was. God. She'd automatically defended herself against her mother's tossed-off criticism.
"Look at you, David, tall as hell." Aurora started to move forwardto hug him perhaps?but instead sank into a chair, breathing heavily.
"Should you be resting?" Christine asked, alarmed at her mother's weakness.
Aurora drilled her with a look. "Don't you start the invalid treatment, too." She swung her gaze to David. "Nice tat." She meant the ring of yin-yang symbols around David's heartbreakingly thin upper arm.
"I think it's awful," Christine said. It was a Brigitte idea, along with the eyebrow stud.
"It's a kid's job to rebel," Aurora said. "That's how they individuate. You rebelled by conforming." She turned to David. "Your mother loved to iron. Can you imagine that around here?" She winked at him. "She brushed her hair a hundred strokes, flossed her teeth every night, followed every rule. We didn't have many, so she made up some of her own."
"She still loves rules, that's for sure," David said.
"I'm not that bad, am I?" If being the butt of a joke or two helped David get comfortable here, Christine would dance around the room with boxer shorts on her head.
"Get the herbed goat cheese and some pita, Bogart," Aurora said gruffly. Bogie had already set out four mason jars of iced tea. "So, David, how'd you get kicked out of school anyway?"
"He wasn't expelled, Aurora. We talked the principal down to a suspension. As long as David keeps his side of the bargain."