Read an Excerpt
By Toni Sheridan
Pelican Ventures, LLCCopyright © 2012 Ev Bishop
All rights reserved.
Candice shoved the car into park, turned off the engine, and rested her face against her hands. When she finally raised her head, she took a long look at the house. Outlined in sparkling white lights, it glowed against the twilight sky — such a cold blue, like the color itself should snap with the chill.
Anyone else would call the homemade wreath on the cranberry door and the planters stuffed with Cedar and red-berried Mountain Ash branches picturesque. Anyone else was not her. Anyone else didn't recognize it as a prettily disguised jail.
With that cheerful thought, Candice crunched and cracked her way across the frozen driveway to the back door.
She walked into chaos. Jackets and footwear, enough to shod an army, lay everywhere. She added her purse to the smallest mountain, but hung up her red jacket. On a hanger. Imagine. Perhaps she should do a how-to-put-away-clothes tutorial for her cleaning-challenged siblings.
"I'm home," she called in almost a whisper, but the volume didn't matter. The whole place seemed primed for her return. The blare was instant and demanding.
"Did you get my H4 pencil? If I don't get one, my drafting teacher is going to fail my butt." Matthew. She practically didn't bother to correct his language anymore — or rather, she tried to focus on the mountains, not the molehills. "Butt" was pretty tame. She tossed him a package and nodded when he — miracle of miracles — said thanks.
"What's for dinner? I've got to be at work in fifteen minutes."
"You could've made yourself something to eat."
"There is nothing to eat!"
"There are eggs, cheese."
Michael made a face that clearly said she was trying to starve him. "I'll eat at work. Can I get a ride?"
She groaned. "Where's Jane?"
"I don't know."
"OK. Give me five minutes and —"
"I'm going to be late!"
"Two then, two — I have to pee."
"I'll be in the car." The door slammed behind Michael, and she ran to the bathroom, relieved in more ways than one to find it empty. She had him dropped off at the gym in record time and was home again. Take two.
"Candy!" The word was an explosion rather than a nickname, but it made her smile. A tiny stream of energy dripped through her as her little sister Kaylie flying-tackle hugged her.
"Hiya, babycakes," she said. "How was your day?"
"Great!" The word came out sounding like grrrr-eight and a little bit more energy flowed through Candice. Her twin brothers, Michael and Matthew, were so busy it was draining. But Kaylie? At ten years old, she was pure sparkly fun — at least for now. Puberty would hit inevitably though.
"Want to help me make dinner?"
"Yes!" Yeh-ess. Kaylie pretended to think. "Can we have pierogies and brussels sprouts?"
"Brussels sprouts, again?" Candice teased.
"Yes, again. I love those baby cabbage things!"
Amazingly, the kitchen wasn't a complete toxic waste site. Candice gave the counter a wipe and then pulled butter and bacon from the fridge.
"OK, squirt, go get the veggies and a bag of pierogies."
Once their dinner was simmering, Candice ducked upstairs and slid into velour sleep pants and a matching hoodie. Her siblings called it her "cat suit" and other far less flattering things, but Candice didn't care. Finally, she pulled her hair into a loose ponytail.
Kaylie had set the table and even poured milk for everyone.
Candice smiled. "Dinner's ready. Come and get it!" She turned to grab the sour cream and ran straight into someone's hard chest. Someone male. Someone entirely unfamiliar. He smelled freakishly good, like spices and sunshine — and then she looked up. Into the face of what was possibly the best looking man she'd ever seen. Tousled dark hair, a day or two of rough stubble, and amused hazel eyes in a face with one of those deep-tanned and healthy-looking skin types.
Just great — exactly what she needed right now. Another one of Jane's imbecilic treats-of-the-week.
She pushed past the man without a word, ignoring the little voice inside that muttered she was being rude. Of course she was being impolite; she was furious. Sometimes Jane really wasn't the role model Candice wanted for Kaylie.
"Jane!" she hollered. No answer.
"She's home. I don't know why she isn't responding," the man said — oh so helpfully — and followed her into the minuscule kitchen. Even better. Now the big lummox would be in her way while she tried to pull food off the burners.
"I'm Dean. Dean Harlowe," he said. "Can I help you with anything?"
"No, Dean Harlowe, you can't." She drained the pot filled with brussels sprouts then banged it onto the burner and clanked its lid back in place.
He took a step back and his friendly, amused expression turned to something closer to concern. "Is everything OK?"
"No, I mean, yes. Yes, I'm fine. Thank you." Arrrrggghhh! Just because Jane was an idiot, Candice shouldn't stoop to rudeness. It wasn't the guy's fault that Jane drove her nuts. "I ... here, if you really don't mind helping, you can take these out."
She passed him a ceramic bowl of steaming pierogies smothered in chunks of bacon and fried onions. Then she thought of her velour pants and the size of her derriere. Suddenly the comfort food seemed like a neon sign: This is the sister who's given up on herself. This is the sister who's not like the other.
Of course the latter wasn't necessarily a bad thing. So there. Candice plucked a pierogi from the bowl and bit into it.
"It smells wonderful." Dean said. "I'm starved."
An embarrassing bit of butter dribbled down Candice's chin. She moved to grab a napkin to keep herself from snapping, "She invited you for dinner, too, did she?"
Finally, the family sat at the table and linked hands. Candice glanced around at her siblings — her family, plus Dean — and took a deep breath. In the end it came down to this: the work and stress involved with being a social worker, the evenings of running around and dinner prep, dishes, homework, and bath and story time for Kaylie, were worth it every time they gathered at the table and ate together as a family.
"Do you want to pray, Matt?"
There was a second of hesitation, then, "Sure. Lord, thank you for this food and for all the good things in our lives. Please help it to snow again soon."
It wasn't the deepest, most thoughtful prayer in the world, but Candice figured God probably appreciated Matt's sincerity.
A few minutes of quiet passed as plates were filled and everybody took their first hungry mouthfuls. Eventually conversation started again, including the one Candice had been dreading, Jane's simpering introduction of Dean. Apparently he was a nurse at the hospital where Jane worked. Well, good for him. The upper-body strength was probably helpful in the profession.
"Dean's great, but we're not dating," Jane crooned more than once. Candice refrained from saying that she wasn't an idiot and neither were their younger siblings. Jane could call her relationships whatever she wanted. It didn't change anything.
"Is there any dessert?"
Candice looked at Kaylie in surprise, then down at her own plate. Yes, they'd already finished their meals. She wondered where she'd zoned. "There's pineapple and strawberries in the fridge if you want them."
Matthew rushed to get the fruit, and Candice was reminded of his younger days and how she used to refer to him affectionately as a fruit bat.
"I wanted ice cream," Kaylie said.
"Not tonight, sweetie."
Jane sat back in her chair. "Do you have plans tonight, Candy?"
"Wait. Your name is Candy and your last name's —" Dean's eyes widened.
Candice grimaced and felt her cheeks flame.
"Yeah, Cane. Candy Cane!" Kaylie exclaimed. "Isn't that perfect?"
"Perfect if you're a stripper." Jane laughed.
At least that was one thing Candice and Jane agreed on. What on earth had her mother been thinking? It was wrong to think ill of the dead, but seriously —
"What's a stripper again?" asked Kaylie.
"No," Candice interrupted and spoke to Dean. "I go by Candice, and my last name's actually Cane-Bryant." If she said her name smoothly enough, with a stop after Candice and no break between the hyphenated last name, people almost never made the corny Christmas connection. It was only her silly family that gave her away.
"How's the Bryant come in?" Dean asked.
"She uses a blend of our mom's and our father's names."
"Oh, I wondered if it was a married name."
"No, she dodged that bullet," Jane answered again before Candice could say a thing. "She came close once, but after Mom died — and Candy changed from sister to mama of the Addams family here — the loser bailed."
The big meal that had been so comforting twisted like snakes in Candice's belly.
"Rough." Dean studied her. "Are you all right?"
"No, no, I'm not. Can you guys do the dishes?"
"Sorry, Janie. I trump your plans. I'm going to be sick." Candice rushed from the room just in time, heart thumping, sweating, but free to be miserable all on her own.CHAPTER 2
Dean stepped onto the porch and Jane shut the door behind them. Immediately the icy, penetrating air obliterated the warm delusion he'd been operating under. He was no closer to asking Candice out than he'd been all those weeks ago when he first saw her. And she was still just as oblivious to his existence.
He stuck his hands under his arms for heat. "This wasn't a good idea, Jane."
Wearing nothing but a T-shirt and jeans, she bounced foot to foot as they headed to the driveway.
"What do you mean? It went fabulously, dahling, fabulously."
He rolled his eyes at her put-on accent. "If fabulous is her not exchanging more than two sentences with me all night and glaring at me like my intrusion wrecked the whole evening."
"And really, she's right. Just showing up when she'd gone to all that work to make a nice dinner is kind of ignorant."
"Nonsense. She cooks like that all the time, and there's always enough to feed fifty people, not five. I told you — she's shy around men. Uses snarkiness as her cover."
"Yep," Jane said, sounding proud. "That's Candy, successful at whatever she attempts."
They reached his car and stopped by the driver's side door. She walloped his shoulder. "Chin up, sport. You've gotta trust me."
"I don't know ..." Man, when had he become so indecisive and insecure? About the time he'd first seen Candy — Candice — in action, he supposed. He opened the Mustang's door and leaned in to start the old girl and let her warm up for a bit.
"Trust me," Jane repeated. "I know she's interested."
Dean straightened up so quickly he bumped his head on the doorframe. "You think? Why?"
"Like you noted, she exchanged two sentences with you. That's more than she ever gives the guys I bring home."
Jane's tinkling laugh was like bells in the winter air. Dean had to smile. "Well, OK. If you're sure."
"I'm sure. Now get lost. I need to sleep a few hours before our shift starts."
"Yeah, yeah, whiner."
He'd meant to watch Jane to make sure she made it up the icy walkway safely to the door, but a silhouette in the window caught his eye. Candice was swinging Kaylie around in wide circles. Suddenly they both toppled out of view, as if they'd collapsed, dizzy from their fun.
He knew how they felt. Elated. Kind of nauseous. What was he doing falling for some woman who didn't know he existed? Last night, he'd dreamed that he and his daughter went Christmas shopping for Candy. It was official; he was losing his mind. He slammed his door and revved the gas as he pushed into reverse. And taking part in Jane's harebrained plan? Plain idiotic.CHAPTER 3
The grocery checkout line was twelve carts deep. The two express lanes were worse. Most people looked as though they'd taken "fifteen items maximum" as a suggestion, not a rule. Candice stayed where she was. A month 'til Christmas and the stores were already chaotic.
As she stood waiting with her small basket of milk, eggs, bread, and frozen pizza meant to hold them over to her "real" shopping later in the weekend, she perused the droves of people milling about, shopping, laughing, fretting. It was nice to stand still — a waste of time, obviously, when she had so many things to do — but kind of an enforced break. She sipped the Eggnog Latte she'd splurged on and felt decadent as she people-watched, playing a game she hadn't in a long while: Who was that person, and what were they up to?
She began near the front of the line next to hers. The round-faced woman with two small sticky-uppy ponytails and skateboarding t-shirt was feeling old for her age and trying to compete with a certain snowboarding, partying group of twenty-somethings. Maybe her husband flirted too much with someone from that set? T-shirt woman smiled at an old, disheveled, slightly smelly man.
"If that's all you're buying, you don't want to get stuck behind my monster order. Sneak in front of me," T-shirt woman said.
Candice changed her mind. The woman's husband adored her because she was a genuinely sweet, low-key kind of person.
A skin-and-bones teenager, hiding behind a sheath of long, flat-ironed hair, slouched like she was trying to hide the contents of her basket. Condoms? A pregnancy test? No, Candice bet it was junk food and a contradictory magazine. The girl pulled out a poinsettia, a liter of Rice Dream, a bag of chips, about six chocolate bars — and a fitness magazine. Bingo!
Candice's line shifted and she moved forward. A couple, both tall and dark in navy pea coats, caught her attention. They were going through an assortment of Christmas cards and novelties at the end of one of the aisles. The man laughed, snatched something the woman was holding, held it up over their heads, then stooped and kissed her. Oh, mistletoe. Candice looked away. There's a kind of anonymity you expect in a crowded public place, and she'd broken the rule, intruded.
Finally at the end of the checkout table, she put her meager items onto the conveyor belt, still thinking about the couple's kiss, feeling kind of lonely — or maybe she was just hungry. It had been a long time since lunch. Anyway, Andy used to kiss her in public, and where had that gotten her? Nowhere good. Public displays of affection meant nothing. You could never tell anything from the outside looking in. Heck, you usually couldn't tell from the inside looking out. She would've said she and Andy would make it.
She spotted Dean over by the service counter and forgot all about Andy.
"Paper or plastic?" the cashier asked.
Candice blushed. "Sorry. Plastic, please." Her glance returned to Dean, and she wondered idly what he was shopping for. Though she told herself she didn't really care, curiosity drove her actions, and she craned her neck a little to see if Jane was there, too.
"Four cents a bag."
"I'm sorry. Pardon?"
"The bags, ma'am — they're four cents each."
"Yes, that's fine."
Someone jostled her from behind, and her stupid high-heeled dress boots slipped a bit on the wet tile. She bumped into the teller's counter but managed to regain her balance.
"Oh, sorry — are you OK?" a masculine voice asked, only to be interrupted.
"Why can't you be more careful?" a female voice shrilled. "I told you to stop fooling around! You're worse than the kids."
Candice mumbled, "It's OK, really," but the squabblers didn't hear her. She picked up her bag and left. That was more like the season all right: frayed nerves, stress. She wondered if this would be the couple's last Christmas together and if the woman would ever wrack her brain trying to figure out when everything started to go wrong and recall this day.
As she headed to the glass exit doors, she glanced back toward the checkout where Dean had been standing. But he — and Jane? — were gone.
Good grief. What do you care where Jane's latest boyfriend shops?
The evening air had cooled enough to change the freezing rain to heavy flakes of snow, the kind that turns the dark world white and magical in minutes.
Excerpted from The Present by Toni Sheridan. Copyright © 2012 Ev Bishop. Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I can just imagine the insanity in this house, being torn in every which direction. And just when you start to give up hope, the love that ties them all together shines through. What a wonderful story of the importance of the love of family - and the perfect season to let this message shine!
Read this tender book, your heart will feel better - mine did! Toni Sheridan's The Present has a special authentic voice - a voice that understands and portrays how human beings think and relate. It is a book that helps hearts to feel better. Thank you Toni Sheridan, write more!