Stephanie Yates isn't really sure she's ready to leave her hometown and see the world, but there's not much she can do about it now: her friends have sent her on her way! And her first stop is a village in the breathtaking mountains of Peru, where Daniel Lincoln, her lifelong crush, is setting up medical clinics.
Stephanie thought she could hide her feelings for the hotshot doctor no problem, but Daniel has changed. And spending time with this strong, caring man helps her imagine a new life for herself, and for Daniel. That is, if he can start seeing her as more than just a friend
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"So he reached across the table and took my hand" Stephanie dropped into her normal spot on the couch with a huff "and told me how much he appreciated my help with Stacy. He never would've patched things up with her without my friendship'"
"That's Brian's loss," Rebecca said. She eased down beside Stephanie and fluffed her ruffled apron over the sundress she'd worn to celebrate the last day of school. Rebecca offered Stephanie a plate of chocolate chip cookies. "You did the right thing. It's not bad to be such a good friend."
"But he was my date" Stephanie took a cookie in each hand and glumly bit into one of them. "The dating service was supposed to change this talent I have for converting every romantic possibility into another guy who values my advice'" She'd signed up believing she needed to broaden her horizons, get out of Holly Heights. Apparently her skill had nothing to do with the city limits.
"Some people can add ridiculously large sums in their heads. Others can play concertos without sheet music. You can make a friend out of anyone. That's handy, right? People depend on you." Rebecca nodded encouragingly as she passed the plate to Jen, the third of the Holy Horrors. Rebecca's older brother had given them that name the first summer they'd dogged his footsteps.
Stephanie took a bite of the cookie in her left hand to stop herself from rolling her eyes in response.
Jen snorted. Of the three of them, she was most likely to call it like she saw it and let the chips fall where they may. "You should take a film crew on your next date. Then we can evaluate your skills, do some careful study of how you keep doing this."
"Great idea. Wish we'd thought of it years ago. We could even do an educational video for people like me." If there were any others who managed to convert chemistry to camaraderie with a hardly perceptible fizzle.
"Enough of Brian and his baggage." Jen shook her head, her dark hair swinging thanks to the asymmetrical bob. "He was safe. So was the last guy What was his name? Andrew? And the one before him and the one before that. It's like they're all beige. Not a single one stands out. I'm starting to think that's why you like them."
That was hard to argue with. "Safe is good. Boring but good." Her mother might not have said it in exactly the same way, but there was no doubt where Stephanie had picked up that philosophy.
"We aren't going to challenge you there," Rebecca said. "What Holly Heights lacks in excitement, it certainly makes up for in predictability." She pointed at each of them in their usual spots in her living room. Jen was sprawled across an armchair wiggling one foot with nervous energy, and Stephanie was curled up on the couch. With a cookie in each hand. "But it doesn't seem like safe makes you happy lately."
"I thought searching outside Holly Heights would work. Here there's no mystery, none of that anticipation. Maybe I need to try I don't know rodeo clowns or stuntmen or " She couldn't even think of a third crazy example. How depressing.
But she could easily imagine her mother's wrinkled brow if she ever managed to track down a stuntman and bring him home to dinner.
"Forget him. Forget that. Focus on what you want out of life and go after it." Jen waved a hand. "If we're done with Brian, let's move on. I have news."
Her bright eyes darted over to Rebecca, who smiled and clapped. Stephanie wondered whether she was the only one in the room who didn't know whatever it was because she'd launched into her dating woes.
As she finished her first cookie, Stephanie agreed. "Of course. You're right. I'm being overdramatic. Men aren't the answer. Living the life I want is. All I have to do is figure out how." And wait until everyone who knows me has moved away so I don't kill them with the shock of refusing to run the Christmas parade or the hack-to-school supplies drive.
Yates men and women were known for their civic pride and unwavering service to Holly Heights. Admitting that she'd rather have a root canal than shovel up the road apples after the parade horses passed by would seem completely out of character. Bringing a rodeo clown to dinner might necessitate an intervention.
Jen patted her leg. "Cheer up. It's the last day of school. Got our lottery ticket right here. You were voted Favorite Teacher at Holly Heights for the third year in a row."
"No, I tied for Favorite Teacher. Again. How is that even possible? How can a vote like this turn into a tie for three years in a row?" She and Rebecca turned to Jen. "You're the math teacher. Got any idea how that might happen?"
"None. I'd suspect someone was tampering with the vote, but this is a popularity contest and not a real election." Jen smoothed her hair behind her ear as she stretched forward to pour wine into three glasses. "Haven't you won enough popularity contestsClass President, Best Dressed and Miss Congeniality? Even Rebecca, the most supportive person in history, is getting tired of clapping."
Rebecca was sending death glares at Jen, despite her Suzy Homemaker apron with its cheery sunflowers. But then Rebecca smiled sweetly and patted Stephanie's hand. "Ignore her. Jealousy. I'll clap for you until my hands fall off."
Jen snorted and they all three laughed. Stephanie had to admit Jen had a point. She could let this contest go. Tying was almost as good as winning.
Said the eternal best friend.
Even in her own mind she was the spunky sidekick instead of the star of the show.
"Switch places with me." Stephanie stood up and tugged Jen's hand.
"What? Why? This is my spot. I like my spot." Jen grumbled and moved over to sprawl on the couch. "Ugh. How uncomfortable."
Rebecca poked Jen. "Get a grip. A change in outlook could do you hoth some good."
Stephanie pretended to whistle innocently as Rebecca raised an eyebrow at her. The message was loud and clear.
Stephanie stared up at the unfamiliar patch of ceiling over Jen's usual chair. Nothing was any clearer on this side of the room. "A good job, a nice family, the best friends in the worldwhy can't I be happy with that?" Most of the people in Holly Heights chose to live there because of its easy distance to Austin and the benefits of small-town community. Her mother was content. Even Jen and Rebecca were cheerfully anticipating the summer.
"You're bringing me down. We are officially on vacation, and this is going to be a summer like no other." Rebecca clapped her hands but stopped and fiddled with her apron when Jen gave her the warning look.
Jen slid their lottery ticket across the coffee table. "There's always next year for Favorite Teacher. Eventually Ms. Diaz will set aside her periodic table and retire so all you have to do is outlast her. Things are looking up for us." She picked up her wineglass and raised it. With her sleek haircut, layers of thrift-store chic, tall boots and the rakish tilt of her chin to accompany her raised glass, Jen was a cross between a fashion model and a swashbuckler prepared to take on the world.
Actually, the description fit Jen pretty well. "We need a toast." Jen waited patiently for the other two to raise their glasses. "To possibilities, taking chances and a long summer."
"And to friends who remind us what's important," Rebecca added.
"Vacation!" Stephanie said. They clinked glasses and each one took a sip of good wine.
Rebecca picked up the ticket and closed one eye to read the print. Did she need glasses? Yes. Would she wear them? No. "You changed the numbers."
"I did," Jen answered in a singsong voice. "I let the machine pick this time. Roll the dice. Trust the universe. Et cetera and so forth. What could it hurt?"
"Have you checked the winning numbers yet?" Stephanie shoved the seductive plate of cookies farther away while she wondered what was up with Jen. She never did a singsong anything.
"If we're winners, what will you spend your share on?" Jen crossed one long leg over the other. The secondhand boots she'd rescued looked fabulous on her bouncing foot. "Other than paying off student loans and buying a car with windows that completely roll up, which seems to be the height of my imagination." Jen closed her eyes and moaned as she bit into a cookie. "I'd definitely pay Rebecca to make these for me every single day."
"That would make it easier for me to give everything away. I could live in your guesthouse, clean your pool and make cookies every day. Sounds like a plan to me." Rebecca stretched her arms wide, her blond curls and blue eyes shining like that of the perfect animated princess. Stephanie was glad to know Rebecca had some of her own imperfections. They never would have been friends this long without them. "Imagine all the good millions could do."
Jen shook her head. "Even playing make-believe you have to save the world. It must be genetic." Stephanie's stomach knotted at the threat of changing the topic to Rebecca's brother, Daniel. She did not want to go there. She definitely would need more cookies if they did.
Rebecca held up a hand. "Well, how about this? I would buy myself a gourmet kitchen.
Cooking on my mother's old stove is nostalgic, but I wouldn't mind six burners. Ooh, and a commercial refrigerator, one with the deep freezer drawer." Stephanie and Jen exchanged a knowing look as Rebecca dreamed of appliances. "And granite coun-tertops on a big island." The hushed tone she used suggested it was a life goal, not simply a practical upgrade.
Stephanie tried to guess how many times they'd sat in the same places through the years and discussed all the important issues. Rebecca's house had been their gathering spot as girls and nothing much had changed, even though her parents had retired and moved to a sunny beach and her brother was off saving the world one patient at a time. This place was home. It was easy to dream crazy dreams here.
Neither Jen nor Rebecca seemed to want to change that, even with the world of possibilities a lottery win could bring.
"You'd never leave this place," Jen said.
Stephanie stiffened but relaxed as she realized Jen was talking to Rebecca.
"No, but I would remodel it to within an inch of its life. Hire a handsome contractor, buy top-of-the-line everything and know I was the luckiest woman in the world. I love this place, but it could be upgraded." Rebecca picked up a cookie and waved it. "We all know the food's just as good now coming from my cramped out-of-date kitchen, but it sure would be fun to have expensive toys."
"Okay, so I'm paying off bills and hiring staff. Bex is giving it all away, either in the form of checks or to-go plates from her fancy kitchen. What are you going to do, Steph?" Jen asked.
"I would " Her voice trailed off. Jen and Rebecca knew her better than anyone. Why was she afraid to be honest with them? For some reason it was hard to confess she wanted something else, something different than what she had. "I would travel. Go to Paris. See the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and get out of Holly Heights for a while."
Jen pursed her lips. "I could see that. Be back in time to hand out the syllabus on the first day, but rack up some travel miles before that. Maybe, after all the bills were paid, I'd get a passport and join you."
Stephanie wasn't so sure she'd report back to work the first day of school if she had any other way to pay the bills. Lately, it seemed as if every day was the same.
"Would you come back?" Rebecca asked, the look in her eyes serious as she studied Stephanie's face. "To Holly Heights?"
"What? Of course she would. She practically runs the place, thanks to her forefathers and general popularity. How does she even have time to date, what with all the civic duty?" Jen propped her boots on the table. "Where else could you go to get the royal treatment?"
Nowhere. She couldn't go anywhere else in the world and find people who remembered her winning the spelling bee in fourth grade or her mother's prizewinning cherry pie or her grandfather's years of service as the county judge or how helpful she was or sweet or funny or boring. Jen was right. She was popular in Holly Heights, but sometimes she wanted to try meeting people without her history waving behind her.
Likable was fine, but maybe she could be interesting somewhere else.
"The town would fall apart if the last Yates moved away." Jen sighed. "And so would we."
"No need to worry. This is home." And it was. Rebecca and Jen were family. The Yateses were big believers in family.
"Doesn't mean you can't see the world," Rebecca said. "You know, with your imaginary lottery winnings. You've planned a thousand trips with your collection of travel guides and coffee table books. The money could mean you stop planning and start going."
Sure. New, lucky, rich Stephanie could be adventurous. That would be interesting.
And if the freedom she'd been dreaming of didn't make her happy, she'd have to assume there was something wrong with her, not her hometown.
She needed to dream bigger.
"You're right. So, instead of taking a trip I've planned a million times, I'd put on a blindfold and throw a dart at the map. I'd aim for Paris, but how exciting would it be to pack a bag, get on a plane and go see someplace you've never thought of?" She leaned her head back and imagined herself deplaning from a private jet. Somehow she was dressed like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's because why not.
When she realized how quiet the other two had gotten, she opened her eyes to see them both watching her closely. "What?"
"You, go somewhere without careful planning, the required shots and an insurance policy against acts of God? That sounds wrong." Jen stood up, topped off the wineglasses and added, "But I like it. Let's do it."
Annoyed all over again at how impossible it was to try something new without everyone reminding her that it was out of character, Stephanie said, "Do what? Just win the lottery?"
"I'm pretty sure the darts are still in Daniel's closet. We need a map." Rebecca stood up, shook out the skirt of her sundress and disappeared down the hallway.
Jen walked into the kitchen and came back with a dish towel. "Not a real blindfold but it should work. No peeking." She paused in front of Stephanie, grabbed her hand and started to pull her off the couch. "We'll go ahead with the dart in case we win and you need to jump on a plane quickly. You like to be prepared."
Giving in to Jen's demands, Stephanie eased up off the couch and smoothed down her Holly Heights High School T-shirt over her hips. "You act like you don't trust me." She yanked on her ponytail to tighten it and then waved her hands. "Wait, you act like we're actually going to win the lottery." Either one was a crazy thought.
Rebecca trotted back into the living room with a giant map poster and a dart. "I'm not sure all these countries still exist, but Paris should be there." She yanked open a closet door and taped up the poster. "Remember when we had a dartboard here? Daniel smoked us every time we played."
Stephanie crossed her arms over her chest and said nothing. She didn't have to. Jen and Rebecca both turned to stare at her.