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Home to Harmony

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Home to Harmony Dawn Atkins HarperCollins EUR What is this? The '60s? The era of protests, free love and communal living has passed. So when Christine Waters falls for one of the guests at her mother's commune, she wonders if she's stepped into a parallel universe. Sure, Dr. Marcus Bernard's steady logic is a delectable counterpoint to Christine's energetic, do-it-now personality. But is there room in her life for a sizzling romance?Between helping her prickly mother recover and keeping her teenage son from going off the rails, indulging in Marcus seems, well, indulgent. Maybe the magic of that long-ago time still lingers at Harmony House. Because as Christine works to update the place and mend relationships, a vision of her future emerges. One that has more than enough room for a certain doctor. Marcus pressed his lips softly against hers Desire built inside Christine, like a wave slamming again and again. She could feel how much Marcus wanted her, too, could sense his struggle, and she was so aroused she felt like shed levitated. He put his arms around her and pulled her against his chest, inundating her with the delicious smell of cologne mixed with sundried cotton. His fingers pressed into her back, kneading her muscles, starting up a trembling in them both. He broke off the kiss. Christine, he whispered near her ear as if hed been dying for this moment. He pressed her face against his. He kissed the side of her neck, tucking his hand beneath her hair to cradle her head. Oh, she wanted this. Needed it. His arms around her, his desire obvious, his struggle for restraint obvious in the tension and quiver of his every muscle. A white-hot ribbon of desire twisted through her body. She wanted more, much more of him burying his mouth in her neck. I want us to try. Dear Reader, What makes a home a home, a family a family and love love? The question fascinates me. In this story, Christine Waters gets surprising answers to each. This book has special significance to me. Ive worked on it off and on for several years, so Im thrilled to finally see it on the shelves. The journey home to Harmony turned Christines expectations and beliefs about her mother, her father, her son, her lover, even her ex-husband upside down and backward before shed finished sorting it all out. Her struggle with her teen son David was particularly difficult for me to write. What mother hasnt lain awake at night wondering if shes raised her child right? Marcus was such a gift to Christine, helping her see clearly who she was and could be. Christine saved Marcus from the numb isolation hed sunk into due to past tragedies. These two needed each other. I mean needed. As to physical chemistry, Marcus was lighter-fluid and cool water to Christines crackling bonfire, intensifying and soothing in exactly the right way. I was so happy when they earned their happily-ever-after. I hope you enjoy Christine and Marcuss story as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please visit me online at www.dawnatkins.com. Best, Dawn Atkins Home to Harmony Dawn Atkins ABOUT THE AUTHOR Award-winning author Dawn Atkins has written more than twenty novels for Harlequin Books. Known for her funny, poignant romance stories, shes won a Golden Quill Award and has been a several-times RT Book Reviews Reviewers Choice Award finalist. Dawn lives in Arizona with her husband and son. To Wanda Ottewell, who believed in this story from the beginning and understood it better than I ACKNOWLEDGMENTS A world of thanks to Laurie Schnebly Campbell and Laura Emileanne for sharing their therapy expertise. Any errors, distortions or inaccuracies are completely my own. CONTENTS CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER ONE CHRISTINE WATERS PARKED her sturdy Volvo in front of the main building of Harmony House, the commune where shed 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 shed left this place at seventeen, it had been for good. She knew why shed 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. Simple. Easy. 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. Its 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 shed 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 theyd give way in a breeze. This shocked and saddened her, like seeing a lively friend wan and weak in a hospital bed. Shed 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 Davids girlfriend, who shaped his every opinion, approved of communes. Well, la-di-dah. Check out the school bus, David said, indicating the ancient vehicle painted with hippie rainbows and peace signs. I cant 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 Christines 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 mothers 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 rivers edge and theyd 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. Well 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 hed grown in the past year had made him as gangly as Pinocchio, not quite able to work the long limbs hed 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. Shed been so proud of the way shed raised him. Shed been open, direct, affectionate and accepting, and always, always talking things out. So different from the way shed been raised, with all her questions unanswered, Aurora mute or dismissive. From the moment she found herself pregnant shed sworn to be a better mother than Aurora and shed succeeded. Until David slipped into pubertys stew of hormones and hostility. After that, and so much worse, came Brigitte. Two years older and snottier than David, shed 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. Christines anxious heart lurched with sorrow. Watching him drag the bag across the gravel, she made a vow: I will not lose you. What? Whats wrong? he demanded, letting the suit case drop to the dirt. He assumed she was criticizing him. Nothings wrong, she said, managing a smile. Not so far, anyway. Away from Brigitte and drugs, Davids head would clear. Hed get involved in the commune, finish his schoolwork, talk to a counselor and, eventually, to her, and gradually get back on track. That was Christines 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 goats 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. Bogie? She headed over to see, lifting her bag because of the gravel. When he shooed the goat with his hat, Christine saw the gardener wasnt Bogie. Not at all. He was mid-thirties, not mid-sixties, and tanned, not leathery. He was also handsome. Strikingly so. 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. Ladys shy. She tolerates me only because I feed her. The gardener smiled at her so quickly she wasnt sure shed seen it, but when he looked at David his face went tight, as if in unpleasant recognition. Odd. Im 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 interestor maybe that was a trick of sunlight. It hardly mattered. She was not about to reciprocate. Youre Auroras daughter, he said, nodding. She said youd 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. Ive done whatever extra Aurora will allow. He shot her a brief smile. Allow? That sounds like my mother. Bogie asked me to say Im here because he needed help, not her. She smiled, but she felt far from happy. If Bogie hadnt called, she was certain Aurora never would have. That hurt deeply, though Christine told herself it was Auroras way and always would be. People as self-sufficient as your mother often find it difficult to accept help, Marcus said. Self-sufficient, huh? Thats 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 wasnt much for phone calls. E-mail was out, too, since Aurora didnt 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 dont know where well be yet, so, thank you, no. When you do, Im 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 Ill 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 hammered-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. Christines 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 Christines 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. Hed aged so much, though his cancer treatment might have temporarily set him back. Whos Crystal? David asked her. Ill explain later, she murmured. God. Shed 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. Its good to see you, she said. He ended the embrace fast, blushing beneath his tan, and studied her. Youre so pretty, like I expected, but your eyes look tired. Well help you with that for sure. She flushed at his close attention, surprised and warmed by his obvious affection for her. Hed 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. Hed organized the commune, yet hed let the much younger Aurora take charge. Auroras lying down. Let me tell her youre here. Oh, no, let her sleep. Please. Feeling as rattled as she did, she wouldnt mind delaying her first contact with her irascible mother. Shed 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. SoCrystal? Whats that about? David asked. Lord. Aurora changed our names when we got here. She named you Crystal Waters? And she wasnt 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. Shed resisted at first, but her mother had been so excited and happy, shed given in. That is so whack. Youre 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 Christines heart lifted. So far, so good. What about Grandmas name? Aurora sounds made up. It was. Her real names 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. Thats 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 mothers brown eyes slid away without making contact. Its about time you got here. Bogie, get them iced tea. Its 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 dont know. Its light and cool. She smoothed her hair as if to prove how fresh she was. God. Shed automatically defended herself against her mothers 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 mothers weakness. Aurora drilled her with a look. Dont you start the invalid treatment, too. She swung her gaze to David. Nice tat. She meant the ring of yin-yang symbols around Davids heartbreakingly thin upper arm. I think its awful, Christine said. It was a Brigitte idea, along with the eyebrow stud. Its a kids job to rebel, Aurora said. Thats 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 didnt have many, so she made up some of her own. She still loves rules, thats for sure, David said. Im 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, howd you get kicked out of school anyway? He wasnt expelled, Aurora. We talked the principal down to a suspension. As long as David keeps his side of the bargain. Her son colored, not pleased about being reminded. So what kind of hell did you raise? Aurora asked. Back talk? Independent thought? Authority figures in institutions hate people who think for themselves. No shit, he said. Language, Christine warned. It was for fighting, disrespecting teachers andother things. Suspected marijuana possession, which was the part that most worried Christine. He had been using pot, she knew. Stopping was part of their deal. David had promised to finish his schoolwork online and return in the fall with a new attitude. And Christine would do everything in her power to make that happen, including getting David some counseling. Aurora had told her about a therapist in nearby New Mirage, which was a lucky break in such a minuscule town. Christ, kids are kids, Crystal. Theyre not all taking Uzis into social studies class. Aurora Christine shot her mother a look. Theyd discussed this over the phone, since Christine was concerned about her mothers permissive style and the free-to-be atmosphere at Harmony House. Okay, Aurora said. Your mother wants me to remind you to obey the rules. There arent many, but the ones we have we mean. No fighting. No smarting offwell, maybe a little smarting off. No drugs, of course. A fresh start, right? Pull your weight with chores. We all share and care. Thats our motto. Always has been. She nodded at the commune rules posted next to the chore board, where everyone was assigned duties. It looked as though there were only a half-dozen residents at the moment. Are we agreed? Christine said to David. They had to be on the same page if they had any hope of her plan working. Chill, okay? David said. I got it. Well have fun anyway, Aurora pretended to whisper behind her hand. That was typical Aurora. When shed visited, shed let David sip mescal, skip dinner and stay up all night watching vampire movies that gave him nightmares for a week. David, of course, had adored her. Here we go. Bogie set down a plate of creamy cheese and big triangles of pita bread. Sit down, you two, Aurora said, spreading blobs of the cheese onto the pita, then handing them out. Eat, Bogie, she said. Since the radiation, he hardly eats. I do fine, he said. I haveuhmedicine. Christine felt a twinge of worry. Bogie grew a few marijuana plants for medicinal use, since pot was good for pain suppression, nausea and poor appetite. Hed promised to never smoke around David and to keep his half-hidden grow-room locked. In the old days pot had been everywhere at Harmony House, a fact that had annoyed Christine immensely, since it led to so much silly, lazy behavior in the grown-ups. Christine took a bite of the pita. The cheese was lemony and so delicate it melted like butter on her tongue. Mmm, she said, then sipped the rose-hip tea, which tasted fresh and healthy. David grimaced at the tea and barely nibbled the pita. He was a junk-food maniac, so the grow-your-own meals would be an adjustment for him. Shed take him to Parsons Foods in town for a stash of processed sugar and sodium nitrates. She had enough issues with David. Nutrition could wait. Youll love Doctor Mike, David, Aurora said. Hes brilliant. So intuitive. He sees right into you. David shrugged, not enthused about the counseling. The guy would have to be good to get through to him. If you dont like him, weve got Doctor B., Aurora said. Doctor B.? Christine asked. Marcus Barnard. Hes a big shrink in LA. Hes working on a book while hes here. So the man in the garden was a psychiatrist. That certainly explained his cool formality and intense gaze, along with his attempt to interpret Auroras obstinacy for her. Hes a hard worker, too, Bogie said. A good thing since were low on residents right now. Lucyshe runs the clay works operationthinks you should hire part-time kids, Crystal. Crystal doesnt need to mess with any hiring, Aurora grumbled. Ill be back in a week. The heart doctor said six weeks, Bogie said quietly. Were here to work, Aurora, Christine said. Bogie had warned her that her mother might resist help. Youll have your hands full with the animals, the gardens and Bogies greenhouse, Aurora said. Lets just see how it goes. If she had to hog-tie her mother to her bed to make her take it easy, she would. Shed need her A game to manage Aurora, that was clear. Christine was a pro at finessing difficult clients, but here with her mother in the Harmony House kitchen, she felt herself shrinking into her childhood self, like Alice in Wonderland eating the cake that made her very small. If that travel article brings more folks out, well have more hands, Bogie said. There was an article? Christine asked. It was about out-of-the-way travel spots. It said were the oldest continuously inhabited commune in the western U.S. We got a couple of hikers from Tucson due to the story. Harmony House is the oldest? That fact fired up Christines professional instincts. We could market that in ads, up your census, then raise your rates. It was a relief to talk about something she knew how to do. We dont have rates, Aurora said. We ask for a contribution to cover food and laundry services and whatnot. What about your cash flow? Is it predictable? Christines mind was spinning with the key questions shed ask a client. This is a commune, David said. Its about living off what you produce and being sustainable. Its not about cash. Thank you, Brigitte. Even Harmony House needs income. She pointed at the Parsons Foods bag on the counter. I doubt the grocery story lets them barter. They do buy our eggs and goat cheese, Bogie said. David made an impatient sound. Just because your job is getting people to buy crap they dont need, doesnt mean the rest of us want to live that way. He was showing off for Aurora and Bogie, she could tell. It was my evil capitalist job that paid for your cell phone, laptop and Xbox, she said, hoping he would joke back. Whatever, Christine. She winced. Calling her by her first name was another Brigitte brainstorm: Were all peers on this planet. But Christine was not about to object at the moment. She had to pick her battles or theyd be in a never-ending war. Hell, we all start where we are and do what we can, right, Crystal? Aurora said, surprising Christine with her kindness. Maybe her mothers brush with death had softened her a little. Your boss is cool with you taking off the summer? Ive brought projects to do from here. If the commune work tied her up too much, shed have to dip into savings, but that would be fine. Within a year, she intended to leave Vance Advertising and open her own agency. The main thing is for you to get your strength back. Her mother bristled. I am not an Invalid, yeah. Thats what you said. And I mean it, her mother said sharply. Except the emotion that flashed in her eyes wasnt anger. It was fear. A chill climbed Christines spine. Shed never seen Aurora afraid and it made the world tilt on its axis. Aurora was clearly weaker than she wanted to be. Oh, dear. How about we get you settled in now and tomorrow Aurora can show you around the clay works? Bogie said, evidently trying to smooth the moment. That sounds great, Christine said before her mother could object. So Ill stay in my old room and put David in the spare one next door? Christine and Aurora had lived in the old boarding house owners quarters at the back of the building. The spares got furniture at the moment, Bogie said. We could move it if you like. Nonsense, Aurora said. David can pick one of the empty rooms on the far end of the second floor. Once youve picked it, grab a key. She nodded at a rack by the kitchen door. Okay. Cool. Hed be too far away from her, but seeing the delight on Davids face, Christine wouldnt object. We never used to lock a door, Bogie said, shaking his head sadly. People insist these days. Your rooms open, Crystal. I figured youd want to stay there. Outside, David barreled up the stairs to pick out his room. Christine grinned at his eagerness. Of course, dragging buckets of table scraps to the compost heap might chill his excitement, not to mention the lack of cell service or high-speed Internet, but Christine hoped hed be so busy learning and exploring that hed forget all about Brigitte. She caught up with him halfway down the terrace, opening doors. When he reached a faded blue one, Christine got a jolt of electric memory. That was Dylans room, where shed lost her virginity not exactly on purpose. Not that one! she called, then saw that David had opened the door to Marcus Barnard, who was buttoning up a blue shirt. Sorry, David said, the moved on to the next room. He didnt realize the room was occupied, she said, watching Marcuss fingers on the buttons. His ring finger had a pale indentation. He was divorced or widowed and not long ago. Hmmm. No problem, he said, tucking in his shirt. Ill get the dolly. Before she could object, he was loping down the terrace. Thanks! she called as he took the stairs down to the yard. Leaning on the terrace rail, she watched him cross to the clay barn, moving with the easy grace of an athlete, strong, but not showy about it. Easy on the eyes. Maybe she shouldnt stare, but, heck, window-shopping didnt cost a dime, did it? CHAPTER TWO MARCUS ROLLED THE clay-spattered dolly toward Christines car, not certain what bothered him more: how much David looked like Nathan or how abruptly hed been caught by Christine. She was pretty, of course, and lively, a coil of energy ready to spring into action. It had to be the contrast to his quiet life. She was like an explosion of confetti, a surprise that made you smile. And when shed burst in on him dressing, hed all but expected her. Hed felt abruptly alert. Awake. Which made him realize hed been numb for a while, since long before the divorce. The sensation almost hurt, like the tingling ache of a sleep-numbed arm regaining circulation. Then there was her son. The last thing Marcus needed was a walking, talking reminder of his stepson. His memories and regrets were difficult enough. He got to the car as Christine staggered beneath the huge suitcase shed dragged from the overhead luggage rack. He lunged to catch it before it hit the gravel. If shed waited But, then, Christine Waters didnt strike him as the kind of woman who waited for much at all. She jumped in with both feet, which at the moment were clad in heeled sandals, not exactly stable on uneven ground. She was dressed for the city in a filmy top, white shorts and flashy jewelry. It was as if she hadnt wanted to admit she was coming to a commune. Her mother was clearly a source of tension, too. What the hell was he doing analyzing the woman anyway? Thats Davids bag, she said, nodding at the one he held, her face flushed from exertion. Lets load his stuff first. Marcus put the bag on the cart and David added an electric guitar case. You play? Marcus asked. David nodded. He had the same long blond hair, scrawny frame, soulful eyes and narrow face as Nathan. Even Lady had been fooled, barreling at him with joy, her owner home at last. His teacher says hes gifted, but he hardly practices, Christine said. Hell have time when were here to Im not gifted, David blurted, glaring at his mother. I didnt practice much until I got into a band, Marcus said to smooth the moment. You play, too? Christine locked gazes with him. Her eyes were an unusual colora soft gray. Acoustic these days, but yes, I play. Maybe you and David could jam. Her face lit up, but her sons fell, clearly mortified. God, Mom. If youre interested, of course. But he was certain the boy would decline. A good thing. Marcus would prefer to keep his distance. David? Answer the man! Easy, Mom, Marcus wanted to warn her. Maybe, whatever, David mumbled, clearly fuming. He yanked the cart forward just as Christine tossed a bag. When it hit the ground, she teetered and Marcus steadied her arm. Balance restored, Christine stepped back, her cheeks pink. He noticed that in the swelter of early summer the woman smelled like spring. Sorry, David muttered, tossing the fallen suitcase onto his load and shoving the cart toward the house. Everything I say pisses him off, she said with a light laugh, though she looked sad and confused. Thats not uncommon with teenagers. Really? So, in your opinion, hes normal? She faced him dead on, standing too close, digging in with her eyes. Aurora told us you were a psychiatrist. Im a partner at a mental health institute near L.A., yes. Until they offered to buy him out, which he expected when he returned. Better for everyone. But youve treated clients, though, right? In the past, yes, but I mean, I wasnt asking for free therapywell, not yet anyway. Another grin. I bet that happens at parties a lot, huh? People hitting you up for advice? At times. Not that there had been any parties after all that had happenedthe controversy over his research, Nathan, his crumbling marriage. Fewer phone calls. A handful of e-mails and cards. Mostly silence. Christine had turned to watch David drag the dolly to the terrace. Hell be seeing a counselor in New Mirage, which I hope will help. Michael Lang? Do you know him? Is he good? I dont know him, no. It surprised him to learn the tiny town had a therapist of any kind. His friend Carlos Montoya, a GP, offered the only medical care, a three-daya-week clinic, with Carlos driving over from Preston. It should help, right? I mean, the counseling? It can, he said. If the therapists style suits the client. Assuming your son wants to be treated. I was afraid youd say that. Davids not exactly into it. He agreed to it to keep from getting expelled. Plus, it was my idea and he hates me lately. She sighed. The transition to adulthood can be difficult, he said, moving to the trunk, wanting to get on with the task. We never used to fight like this, she said, joining him in surveying the load of office equipment, again standing too close. We always talked, you know? About everything. He came to me with his problems, talked about school and friends. Now every conversation is a minefield. One wrong word and he explodes. It can be that way. And so much worse. He leaned in to shift a computer into position. Do you have kids, Marcus? The question startled him and he jerked upward, banging his head on the trunk lid. Not of my own, no. I didnt mean to pry. He realized hed spoken sharply. Its fine. He braced the CPU on the rim of the trunk with his hip so he could rub the knot on his head. Sorry about that. Wait, we need the cart. It sat empty outside the room David had chosen. David, the cart! she called. I swear I taught him better manners. She dashed after it. It was impossible not to watch her run, graceful and quick, even in heels. The sight of her firm curves and long legs in motion set off an unwelcome reaction below the belt. He was human, of course. And a man. No excuse to gawk. He started emptying the trunk. The rattle of wheels told him shed returned and he began stacking items onto the cart. Hes excited about the room, she said, as if hed asked the question. This is just a rough patch, you know? Most parents and their kids survive the teen years, right? Most, yes. But not all. Not all. She stared at him, clearly wondering what he meant. Afraid shed prythe woman seemed to have no boundarieshe put the last item, a fax machine, on top and pushed the cart toward Harmony House. Where to now? Toward the back of the house. Through the courtyard. They walked together, with Christine placing a steadying hand on the stack. I hate that Davids room is so far from mine. Of course, youre next door, so can I count on you to make sure he keeps curfew? He stopped moving and blinked at her. Joking. Im joking, Marcus. Jeez. She laughed, then her smile went rueful. I just wish I could get in his head and make him make better choices. How does David feel hes doing? The question was an automatic one, something hed have said to a client. Fine, of course. Everyone else has the problem, not him. When hes disrespectful at school, its the teachers fault. When he loses his temper, someone else made him. Smoking pot is no big deal, so thats my problem, not his. She shifted to block the cart from moving and faced him. I cant get through to him. I feel so helpless, you know? I do. Marcus had been as close as Nathan would permit him to be, but hed never forgive himself for not doing more, for not intervening somehow, no matter what Elizabeth wanted, no matter what his own training and intellect told him was possible. Christine resumed walking. I cant believe I dumped all that on you. She shook her head and her dark hair shivered over her shoulders. Youre easy to talk to. I dont mind. Not as much as hed expect to. Christine was so direct, so in-your-face. Elizabeth had been intense, but quietly so. Angry, Elizabeth smoldered. Christine would no doubt burst into flames. The idea made him smile. Probably all that listening training, huh? She stopped to scratch her calf. He noticed insect bites on both her legs and her arms. He could mention the salve he had upstairs, but then shed know hed been staring at her body. He sighed. What I really need is a shower, she said, shaking her top as if to fan herself. Hows the water pressure these days? Acceptable. Not strong, but steady. In the old days it was a hopeless trickle. Which made it no picnic trying to wash off the smell of goats. This way. She turned them toward the rear entrance to the courtyard. I can imagine. So you grew up here? I was seven when we came and when I left ten years later, I was all Scarlett OHara about it As God is my witness, Ill never go smelly again! Marcus smiled. She joked about things that he could tell clearly troubled her. And you havent been back since? No. Its been eighteen years. That sounds bad, I know, but Aurora and I have a rocky history. The cart stalled in the grass of the courtyard. Chickens squawked their objection to the interruption. He used force to get it moving again. My whole goal is to help her without getting into heavy battle. She bit her lip, clearly worried. Ill be walking on eggshellsfree-range eggshells. He smiled at her quip. She clearly needs your help, so maybe if you focus on what youre here to do Busy hands are happy hands? She grinned. Is that your professional advice? It works. He paused. Frankly, a psychology practice built around folk wisdom is as sound as any other. So, a stitch in time saves ninepeople who live in glass houses shouldnt throw stonesan apple a day keeps the doctor away? Like that? All valid, depending on the issue. Interesting, Doctor B. She tapped her lips. Got one for David? Straighten up and fly right maybe? Too directive perhaps. Also very military-schoolish. Then how about a parenting one for me? Hmm. Maybe a watched pot never boils. Nice try. Patience is not one of my virtues. Something to work on then. You shrinks, always with the assignments. She sighed. So how much do I owe you for the session? No charge. Consider it part of the bell service at Harmony House. He held the door for her to step into the hallway. He realized he was enjoying talking with her. Other than lunches in town with Carlos, he didnt have many lighthearted social contacts, so this waspleasant. And she smelled like spring. STEPPING INTO THE COOL hallway of the owners quarters, Christines smile felt easy for the first time since shed arrived. Joking around with Marcus had been fun. Hed been taken aback at first. She came on strong, she knew, loud and chatty and nosy, while Marcus was quiet and self-contained, a still pool happy to remain ripple free. Hed joked back, though. The wooden floor creaked in a familiar way as they walked past the tiny kitchen, Auroras bedroomits door closedthe bathroom, the spare room, then Christines old room. This is it, she said, turning the cracked ceramic knob, her heart doing a peculiar hip-hop. The room would be different, of course, after eighteen years. Countless residents had stayed here, shed bet. But when she stepped inside, she saw it was exactly the same as when shed left it. Oh, my God. Nothings changed. Its verypink, Marcus said, pulling the cart inside. Bogie painted it for me. It was my princess room, like what I figured Susan Parsons would have. She was the most popular girl at school. Susan from Parsons Foods? Shes married to the mayor, I believe. She was queen back then, so of course shed marry the mayor. She ruled the girls who mocked Christine and the other commune kids. Christine ran her hand over the pink polyester bedspread with the ruffles shed sewn herself. I made this, you know. She touched the sagging canopy netting attached to four broom handles. It looked ridiculous, as did the papier-m?ch French Proven?al frame around the bureau mirror and the pink fur-padded stool shed made. This was my haven. Aurora called me Rapunzel and made fun of me for expecting a prince to save me. Is that what you wanted? Not really, but that didnt matter to Aurora. Fairy tales were sexistthe girls passive chattel to be bought or rescued. Pretty heavy rhetoric for a seven-year-old to absorb. All I wanted was our cute apartment, my little Catholic school with the neat plaid uniforms and the strict nuns. Everything squared-off, peaceful, predictable. What brought you here? Bogie talked Aurora into it. Theyd been friends years before and ran into each other and he got her all fired up. But you not so much? God, no. There were power-outs constantly. No TV. No privacy. People moving in and out. Not to mention no water pressure. Youre getting it, yeah. Shed been babbling, but it helped ease how strange she felt being here again. She liked how Marcus honed in on her while she talked, really listened, as if the details were vital to him. Everything okay? Bogie stood in the doorway. My rooms the same, she said, still amazed. Thats Aurora. She sits in here and thinks about you. Youre kidding. She always laughed at my princess stuff. Were sure glad to have you home again, Crystal, Bogie said. The affection in his gray eyes tugged at her. He sounded as though she was here to stay. That made her stomach jump. Just for the summer, she wanted to remind him, but couldnt, not with that happy look on his face. Well, Ill let you get settled. He ducked his gaze, then retreated. That was Bogies way, to slip off, disappear, as if he wasnt worthy of peoples time or attention. How sad. She would spend as much time with him as she could, she decided. Marcus helped her off-load the bags and equipment. The office stuff looks ridiculous in here, huh? she said, looking around at the desk, computer and printer. Actually, the only phone is in the kitchen. Ill have to set up in that alcove if I want to be online at all. The drugstore in New Mirage has computer terminals at the back where the post office is. Its DSL. Thats what I use. I wonder how hard it would be to get DSL out here. Of course, Aurora thinks computers are a plot to destroy our minds. Should we move the equipment to the alcove? he asked. Ive kept you too long already. Thanks for the help, Marcus. And for listening to me jabber. It was my pleasure. Oh, I doubt that, she said, studying him. I make you jumpy, dont I? You keep backing away. No. He looked surprised at her words, then seemed to ponder them. I havent had much social interaction lately. And you prefer it that way? He didnt answer, but she was curious. Why? Because of the book youre writing? Aurora mentioned that, too? Whats it about? Psychiatry? He nodded. So hows it going? Itsgoing. But distress flared in his eyes and he eased toward the door. Ill see you at supper then, he said and was gone. So he didnt want to talk about that, either. What was the deal with him and kids? None of my own, no. Stepkids then maybe? Why not say so? The man had a lot on his mind, evidently. She wondered why hed quit seeing clients. Maybe one too many female patients hitting on him. Didnt every woman crave a man who knew her inside-out, but stayed all the same? Marcus Barnard was a mystery, that was certain. At another place, another time, she might want to solve it. DAVID STUMBLED INTO the Harmony House kitchen, so frustrated he wanted to smash a mason jar or one of those big pottery plates. His legs ached and he was dying of thirst from climbing hill after hill looking for a cell signal to call Brigitte. Hed failed. No bars. No signal. No Brigitte. Howd the exploring go? his mother asked, all eager and excited. Like he was out having fun, not sweating his balls off for no good reason. What did you see? I cant get a cell signal! He tossed his phone to the floor, instantly sorry he had. If he broke it, Christine wouldnt replace another one. Why did he get so mad? Just use the house phone, his grandmother said, pointing at a squat black one so old it had finger holes. Get permission first, his mother just had to add, looking up from her laptop. Toll calls add up fast. And were not made of money. That was always the next line. Did you know there was no cell service here? he asked. We can live a few weeks without mobile phones and broadband connections, she said, holding out a glass of water. Wait. You mean theres no Internet? That would kill him. Dial-up only and we dont want to tie up the phone a lot. Dial-ups too slow. Drink the water. You look dehydrated. Youre not one of those computer addicts, are you, David? his grandmother said, sewing a hole in some overalls. Thats no way to relate to the world. May I please use your phone, Grandma, he said, ignoring her jab, being so polite it hurt his throat. Anytime you want, she said. And call me Aurora, for Gods sake. You can call Brigitte once a day, but keep it brief, his mother said. One call a day with the love of his life? No texts, no phone photos, barely e-mail? He was so mad he might explode. Shaking, he dialed Brigittes number one digit at a time, rattle, rattle, rattle. It took forever. This was what they meant by dialing a phone. He carried the handset around the corner into the little den for privacy. Brigitte should be between classes right now. He had to talk to her. Had to. He listened for a ring, his heart racing, but the call went straight to her voice mail. Her phone was off. Davids insides seemed to empty out. He squeezed his eyes shut and forced himself to calm down. Hanging up, he headed straight for his room. At least he had a room to escape to. He hated that he was here. His mother had used Grandma Waterss surgery as an excuse to drag him away from Brigitte. Brigitte. Her name was a wail in his head. Up the stairs, he saw Lady was sitting outside his door. Was she waiting for him? He slowed as he approached to keep from scaring her, then crouched and held out his hand. She took a gingerly sniff. You lonely, girl? Me, too. The dog watched him, rigid and wary, but her tail made one flop onto the wood. A yes that warmed his heart. I should warn you that she howls at night. He turned to look at Marcus Barnard, whod come up behind him. I wouldnt blame you if you wanted a different room. Its all right. David knew how the dog felt. Hed howl, too, if they wouldnt put him in a mental hospital for it. Already, he had to see a shrink. Why is she so sad? She misses her owner. Where is he? He died. About a year ago. Wow. Looking again into Ladys sad eyes, he felt his own sorrow well up and his eyes start to water. Sorry, girl. Marcus cleared his throat. She could use a friend and she seems to like you. Yeah? Would she come into his room? He opened his door and stepped inside. Want in, girl? Lady shivered, whined and stepped toward him, then back. She sat again. Davids heart sank. Give her time. Marcus acted so calm, like nothing could shock him. He was a psychiatrist, so maybe nothing did. Yeah. Sure. Thanks. He closed the door, leaving Lady outside. Maybe she thought he needed guarding. Inside his room, David felt worse. Hed thought it would be cool to have his own place, like in a hotel, but it smelled dusty and neglected and the bed was creaky-ancient and he didnt have any of his posters. This wasnt his place. It was a beat-up cell in a nowhere prison. He didnt even have Internet. To calm down, he fished a joint from his small stash, then the bag of Cheetos hed brought from home. He meant to eat only organic from the commune like he and Brigitte had discussed, but that goat cheese had tasted like ass. He took a giant hit, then flopped onto the bed. From the ice chest hed put beside his bed he popped a can of Dr Pepper. He would quit junk food once he felt better. He wanted back to Phoenix now. Brigitte was going to a bunch of parties this weekend. Hed miss the whole summer with her. In August, she was doing a backpack-hitchhike deal, heading to Seattle, then across the country. By Thanksgiving, shed be in Europe. If he didnt lose his nerve, hed go with her, screw school. It was all a fascist factory of mind control anyway. He took another toke, holding it in a long time, but the pot didnt erase how raw he felt inside. He should run. Hitch a ride to the pathetic town and take the bus home. If a bus even came to New Mirage. If he knew how to drive, hed borrow the Volvo, or one of the communes pickups or, hell, maybe that school bus of Bogies painted with hippie crap. Brigitte would love how retro it was. But he didnt know how to drive because Christine said no permit until his grades went up. She killed every hope every time. David studied the smoke curling up from the spliff. His mom would go nuts if she knew hed brought weed. Everything freaked her out. She always had her eye on him, making him nuts with questions: Where are you going? Who will be there? Hows school? Do you like your English teacher? Are you using drugs? Promise me this, swear that, agree to x, never do y. His thoughts smeared and echoed. The bud was doing its trick. Good. He needed the world to blur. He took a long swallow of soda and a handful of the cheesy curls, which now tasted creamy and tangy and melted amazingly on his tongue. Christine didnt know anything that went on inside him. Whenever he tried to say something real to her, she went pale and scared or red and mad. At times like this, loaded, he thought about his father. If he only knew where he was. Christine refused to find him. She claimed he would disappoint David, hurt him, that he had a terrible temper, that he was a flake and a jerk. David didnt believe that. His dad would relate to him. He would know that smoking a little dope was no big deal. David wasnt a druggie, he wasnt using like his mother claimed. Like he was on meth or heroin. Hed done mushrooms a couple times, Ecstasy once and a kid at a party had some Vicodin, but that was just recreation. And he didnt do booze. Too harsh. He didnt need drugs. All he needed was Brigitte. His mother hated her because she was older, because she had ideas of her own. So unfair. Thinking that sent the red flood into his head and he wanted to break somethinga wall, a door, a window. It scared him when he got this angry. His mother said that was how his father was. Even if it was true, he probably had good ways to handle it he could teach David. Brigitte could always talk him down. Brigitte was his steady center. Brigitte was his life. He had to get to her. So much burned inside him. He wrote stuffpoetry, mostly, like Brigitte, but also song lyrics. He should practice guitar. Once he got better he could compose. Except it took so long to get better. So, so long And hed be here so, so long. He remembered Christine asking Marcus if he would jam with David, like David was a needy geek. He loved his mom, but she wanted to stroke his hair and read him bedtime stories like he was still five and scared of the dark. He couldnt take her anymore. And he hated being mean to her. Shed be sad when he left with Brigitte, but she should get it. Shed left home when she was a teenager, too. Knock, knock. Can we talk? Christine again. He put on his headphones for her own good. If he opened the door hed just hurt her again. CHAPTER THREE THE NEXT MORNING, when Christine opened her eyes and saw gauze over her bed, she shot bolt upright. Where am I? Then her mosquito bites kicked in, itching madly, and it all came back to her. She flopped back onto the creaky, saggy mattress of her childhood bed. Her cheek itched with a new bite. So did both elbows. Damn. Mosquito repellant and calamine lotion were going on her grocery list, no matter what David thought. We said breakfast, not lunch, Aurora grumbled when Christine met her in the kitchen for their visit to the clay works barn. Its only seven-thirty, Aurora, she said on a sigh. Well, lets go then, Aurora huffed. Christine grabbed a slice of fruit bread and joined her mother, who was walking so slowly it seemed painful. Worry tightened Christines chest. Twice, she reached to support her, but gave up, knowing her mother would slap her hand away. The barn that housed Harmony House Clay Works was cool and dim and smelled of moist earth. Sunlight slanting in from windows lit wide swaths of thick dust in the air. A crew of four young men shifted items from potters wheels to shelves that already held drying pots, bowls and bells. Hey there. A woman in a red-paisley do-rag left the clay she was kneading, wiped her hands on her overalls and came close. You must be Crystal, she said, holding out a callused hand. Im Lucy. Pleased to meecha. Happy to meet you, too. Lucy runs the show when Im not here, Aurora said. Shell tell you what she needs you to do. Lucy? Mostly youll handle the orders. Also make sure I got crew and clay. Help us load and carry when were in a bind and such. Ill show you the books. Lucy led Aurora and Christine to a makeshift table at the rear of the barnplywood resting on sawhorses with beat-up bar stools for chairs. On top were a ledger, a small invoice pad, an index-card box and a clay-grimy calculator. Not much of an office, Christine thought with dismay. Is the income steady? She flipped through the handwritten ledger. About half the year, Lucy said. Trouble is we turn down jobs when it gets too busy. We get backed up, Aurora said, shrugging. No big thing. Thats a shame, Christine said, hating the idea of inefficiency or lost profits. Maybe this was an area she could help. Do you have a Web site? No. And no computers, Aurora said. Were not a factory, Crystal. Ive been telling her we could do a lot better with a Web site, Lucy said, her eyes lit with energy. Thats absolutely true, Christine said. Aurora snorted. Take this order for wind chimes. Lucy motioned at a cardboard box full of ceramic bells. This guy has a gift shop in Sedona. He looked for our Web site but no luck. He stuck to it and tried the phone book, but who knows how many sales we lose that way? The kiln only holds so many pieces, Aurora said. Not if we add more shelves, Lucy insisted. And what about the crew? Huh? We hire more when we need them, Lucy said. This was obviously an argument theyd had before. Maybe I could help with that, Christine said, not wanting Aurora to get upset. I can probably get the design guy at my agency to put up a simple Web site for free. If we buy a cheap computer, you could see how it would work. Lets just get through a week or so, Aurora grumbled, shooting her a look. Bogies not up to much in the gardens and someone should supervise the animalsfeeding, milking, collecting eggs. Plus, you have your own work, dont you? If I can help your business, I want to. Auroras dismissal of her ideas hurt, but she refused to let that show. Were fine as we are, Crystal. Behind Aurora, Lucy shook her head. No, were not. We were fine before you came, well be fine after youre gone. Because you are goingright? Before she could answer, the plea in her mothers question stopped her cold. Her mother wanted her to stay? Christine felt her jaw drop. That made no sense. Aurora was as uncomfortable around Christine as Christine was around her. Theyd be lucky to survive the summer without tearing into each other and Aurora wanted her to stay? She must be more frightened than Christine realized. Her heart squeezed at the thought. How about this? Before I leave, Ill be certain any change is dialed in tight. What do you say? I dont know. Her mothers pride surely would keep her from admitting she needed help. Marketing is my profession, Aurora, she said gently. Im good at it. Why not let me see what I can do for you? Aurora heaved a sigh. No changes without approval from me or Lucy. We cant have a bunch of crazy stuff disrupting our operation. Of course not, she said, irritated by her mothers insult. Crazy stuff. Really. Enough already. She wanted to say so, but then she remembered what Marcus had said. Focus on the work. He was right. The important thing was that there were improvements she could make here. And Aurora was feeling weak and out of control in the place she usually ran. I wont do anything you dont approve of, Aurora, she said. As long as were clear, then all right. Behind Aurora, Lucy did a yes fist pump, which made Christine smile. Aurora lowered herself onto one of the benches, her breathing shaky. Was she too tired? Lucy can show me the operation from here, Christine said. Maybe you need to head back inside. To bed, to rest. Please. Aurora waved off the idea. You ever throw a pot, Crystal? Throw a? Work with clay. Create something with your own two hands. Her mothers eyes were bright now, and full of mischief. You want to see the operation, you gotta get your hands dirty. Okaaay I didnt start in until after you left, you know. It took a while to develop my style. Better late than never for you. Her mother pushed to her feet, arms trembling, and led Christine to a half-dozen pedal-powered potter wheels and motioned Christine onto a clay-splattered stool. Now sit. In for a penny, in for a pound, Christine thought, sitting. Shed have to share that with Marcus, when she told him his advice had worked. BUT I CANT do MY homework, David whined as Christine drove him into New Mirage for his first appointment with Dr. Mike. Dial-ups too slow. It freezes all the time. You dont need the Internet once youve downloaded the assignments. Look, do you want to be a junior when school starts or not? She gritted her teeth and twisted her hands on the steering wheel. Losing her temper wouldnt help a bit. You made a deal, David. Im sick of the deal. Lets go home. I hate it here. Its boring and stupid. Theres nothing to do. Theres plenty to do. Youre just not doing any of it. Hed been assigned to work in the garden with Marcus and help Bogie in the greenhouse, but he was constantly wandering off. Sullen with her, full of complaints, he stayed mostly in his room, except when he talked to Brigitte, and he was sneaking in extra calls, Christine was certain. David showed no improvement, but at least Christine had made progress at the clay works in the past week. The agencys designer was putting together the Web site using digital shots Christine had sent of Auroras most beautiful pieces and Christine had been contacting previous clients about new orders, as well as generating new business with cold calls to tourist boutiques around the state. Maybe boosting the communes income made Christine a slave to the capitalist overlords, but she didnt care. Aurora and Bogie must have huge medical bills to handle. This was a way Christine could help. Aurora came out to the barn each morning to issue opinions, question everything and generally slow things down. The first two days, Christine steamed with annoyance, barely holding her tongue. But she gradually saw this was Auroras way to hang on to the place a little. She looked so relieved when Christine would suggest Aurora head back to handle things in the house, which was code for lying down. Christine had downloaded heart surgery postoperative instructions and read them out loud to Aurora, over her strenuous objections. She was supposed to rest every day, take breaks between activities, avoid stairs, not cross her legs, not lift anything over five pounds and not drive. The good news was that if she followed the rules, in six to eight weeks, shed be back to normal, with decades of life ahead of her, which relieved Christine immensely. Christine parked in front of Dr. Mikes office, which used to be a Laundromat, crossing her fingers that this visit would change things. Dr. Mike wore an Indian tunic and flowing pants, and his office smelled of patchouli and was ringed with shelves of crystals, stoppered bottles of herbal remedies and books on alternative medicine. Okay, so not traditional therapy, but if the man helped David, Christine didnt care if he used a Ouija board and danced under a full moon. Leaving David in his hands, Christine headed to Parsons Foods to pick up a few things. She saw that Susan Parsons was filling in at the register again and she reminded Christine of the dinner at her house Saturday night. On her second day, Christine and Marcus had gone on a grocery run together and Susan had insisted they both come to supper and bring David to meet her twin sixteen-year-old sons. To get David friends, Christine would endure a night of Susan showing off her husbandshed mentioned that he was the mayor at least five times before the groceries got baggedand her, no doubt, perfect princess home. Back at Dr. Mikes office, Christine wrote a check and walked a smiling David out to the car. Her hopes soared. Maybe this would help. In the car, she asked, So how was it? He looked into my eyes and told me my nutrition is bad. He what? Christines hopes dropped like stones. Didnt you talk about your problems? I dont have any problems. He said my irises were muddy, which means my bowels are blocked. Just great. He gave me some breathing exercises to clear my heart chakra. He demonstrated, huffing while patting his stomach. Then we talked about the Phoenix Coyotes. He likes hockey. Dammit, Aurora. Dr. Mike was no more capable of counseling David than he was of doing Auroras heart surgery. Youre not going back there. Why not? Itll get the principal off your back. More roughage is not going to help us here. Well have to find someone in Preston. Which meant a two-hour round-trip. Come on. He said hed hypnotize me next time. David was clearly loving this. Christine shook her head. Now what? NOT THAT PLATTER, the swirled glaze one, Aurora ordered Christine, whose only wish was to keep the couscous as moist as her own skin in this boiling-hot kitchen. She and Marcus had kitchen duty, instructed by Bogie and Aurora, who were supposedly resting, though Bogie had been up and down seasoning things and Aurora had been barking commands. If youd keep the trays in the same place, it would be easier, Christine said, forcing herself not to snap at her mother. She was dying to say, Go lie down, for Petes sake. Here you go. Marcus handed Christine the tray. It was one of her mothers surreal creations in green, blue and turquoise. And the serving utensil and leftover pita shes about to tell you about. He winked. Saving you time. Thanks, she said, vividly aware of how close he stood. After a week of seeing Marcus, mostly at meals, Christine could no longer deny how attracted she was. Whenever he was near, she felt a low electric hum start up inside. It was delicious. She wasnt going to do anything about it, it was justfun. She rarely dated, but when she did she kept it casual and mostly physical. She had David and engrossing work, of course. Plus shed been burned the few times shed gotten serious by charmers who let her downlike Davids father, Skipor pursued her relentlessly until she fell for them, then disappeared or went cold on her. Not good. Her judgment when it came to relationships plain reeked. Short-term hookups were fine for now. Maybe some day, when she got smarter, less emotional or developed better mating instincts, shed go for more, the whole picket-fence deal. Marcus felt the attraction, too, she could tell. It was thrilling to get a man as restrained as Marcus all charged up. She liked making him laugh, too. And talking to him. She realized she didnt spend much relaxed social time with men, so this was a nice change. It was all good fun. She enjoyed the tease and retreat and he seemed to, too. She had too much on her hands with David, her mother and her work to even think about sex. Well, she could think about it. But that was it. Marcus seemed equally reluctant, pulling back from any accidental contact, when they brushed hips in the entry to the dining room or tangled fingers over the dishes they washed. Marcus had the goulash pot in both hands and gestured for her to pass in front of him. She did, then glanced over her shoulder to catch him watching her backside. She got that roller-coaster dip in her stomach. Watch your step, she said, nodding at the bump in the floorboard, but she was grinning and he cleared his throat. This was such a kick. At the entrance to the dining room, Christine paused to admire the rough-wood table holding the ceramic plates in her mothers singular style, the pewter flatware and Mason jar water glasses. Bogie had let David choose the cuttings for the bouquet of fragrant herbs, river bamboo and exotic amaryllis in the center of the table. There were ten people at the table tonight. Aurora and Bogie emerged with the salad and bread and Christine handed the couscous to the wife of the hiking couple, Lisa Manwell, who loaded up, then passed to Carl, a scary guy with the smeared ink of a prison tattoo. Aurora said he was a teddy bear and Bogie declared him a wizard of a mechanic who kept the school bus purring. If he didnt murder them all in their sleep, Christine would be grateful. The good karma here is too strong for anything negative, Aurora had told her. Lord. No wonder her mother liked Dr. Mike. Enjoy the bounty of the earth through our hands, Aurora said, head down. May we all find here what we need. Carl mumbled an amen. Silently, Christine put in her own request: Please bring David back. Make us a family again. The commune food was grainy and dense, made with whole grains, lentils and beans, with Middle Eastern spices, fresh and healthy and there was always plenty. It had taken Christine forever to get the dirt off the tender lettuce and celery Marcus had picked for the salad that afternoon. So youre in high school? The question for David came from Gretchen, across the table, a pretty twenty-something poet on retreat. Beside her were two college students, Mitch and Louis, researching sustainable living for a college project. Ill be a junior, David answered, his face aflame, but schools bullshit. David! Christine said, embarrassed by the swear word. The Manwells exchanged disapproving glances. Creativity can suffer in school, for sure, Gretchen said. Thats what my girlfriend says. She writes poetry. Also political pieces. Shes really good. Christines heart clutched at his wistful tone and love-sick look. A week hadnt eased his feelings for Brigitte at all. Do you drive? Gretchen asked him. Not yet. He glared at Christine. Learning to drive had been a sore subject. Shed said no permit without a B average. Hell, you can learn while youre here, Aurora said. He doesnt have a permit, Christine said. Who cares? I care. Its illegal. We rarely see a deputy, so whod write the ticket? Aurora waved away the issue like a gnat over her plate. Aurora I might as well learn. Ive got nothing else to do. Now isnt the time to talk about this, she said quietly. Its never the time with you, David blurted. Hed been in a bad mood since his call to Brigitte. He looked around, clearly aware of how rude hed sounded, jerked to his feet, knocking off his knife and loudly scraping his chair before he stomped away. Teenagers, Christine finally said into the awkward silence. Heads nodded. Forks clicked, water glasses clinked. Kids are so out of control these days, Lisa Manwell said. Its shameful. My sisters teens rule the house. Christine bit her tongue to keep from suggesting Lisa try a stroll in her sisters Free Spirits before she criticized her. Since Socrates, adults have thought kids ran wild and parents were lax, Aurora said, winking at Christine. Thats how you know youre old, when you start saying, kids today. Lisa sniffed at the insult. Davids a good kid, Aurora said. Thank you. Christine was touched by her mothers kindness. Aurora really was trying to do what theyd agreedsupport Christines parenting of David. Hes at loose ends out here in the country, she said. So let him drive, Crystal. Wheres the harm? Lord. So much for Auroras good intentions. How about if I get the dessert? Christine said, happy to escape to the kitchen. Marcus stood and began gathering plates. Taking a knife from the cupboard to slice the cinnamon carrot bread, she noticed the phone was missing its handset. The cord stretched around the corner into her office alcove. David sat on the floor there, knees up, back to her, his voice low and fervent. Ive got to see you. Im so alone here. Christines such ashes so Exactly. Controlling. I hate her. Christines cheeks stung, as if shed been slapped. He didnt really mean that, but it still hurt. She tried to back away without being seen, but when he saw her, she knew she had to say something about the rule. You already called today. You need to hang up. He covered the phone and gave her a desperate look. This is all I have. Do you want me to go psycho? He said into the phone, Yeah, shes making me hang up. Im sorry. Bye. He jerked to his feet, charged around the corner and slammed down the receiver. Are you happy? You made my life a complete hell. Marcus was slicing the bread, so hed heard. Im simply asking you to keep your word, David. No, youre not. You hate Brigitte and you want to break us up. You can cut me off from everyone I care about, but you cant change me. Ill never be your perfect son with straight As and straight friends, on the student freaking council. Thats not what I want and you know it. His eyes flashed with a hatred that scared her. I dont have to stay here, you know. I can leave. That wouldnt solve anything. This was the first time hed threatened to run away and it terrified her. If I found my father it would. What? Skip was the last thing David needed at the moment. Angry, flaky and mean, Skip would break Davids heart for sure. Just because you wont look for him, doesnt mean I cant. Skips bad credit history meant he never had a listed number, thank God, but still Thats not what you want, David, she said as kindly as she could manage. You dont know what I want. He brushed past her, pausing when he noticed Marcus holding the tray of bread, then barreled out the back door. She wanted to go after him, but she knew better. David needed to cool off before they talked. Talked. Right. It had become a pointless exercise. He stonewalled every question. Christine fought despair. I can take over, she said to Marcus, putting her hands beneath the tray, enjoying the comfort of his warm fingers for an instant. She liked that his face showed neither pity nor embarrassment over the outburst. Together they served the dessert and when it was over started on the dishes, since cooking means cleanup was a commune rule. She tried to stay cheerful, but Davids anger was wearing her down. Shed begun to become discouraged. Im sorry you heard that fight, she said, glancing at Marcus. Living with his father would be a disaster for David. The grass always seems greener More folk-saying therapy? She couldnt quite smile. You probably think its bad that I wont let him see his father, but if you knew Skip You dont need to justify yourself to me, Christine. He would break Davids heart. She scrubbed fiercely at the plate she was cleaning, then plopped it into the rinsing sink so hard that water splashed Marcuss face. Sorry, sorry. She brushed away the drops from his smooth cheek. Im fine, Christine, he said, low and reassuring, catching her hand in his. The touch felt so good, she just stood there letting him hold her hand and look into her eyes, sending calm all the way through her. She blew out a breath, then went back to the dishes, more gently this time. Skip calls now and then, drunk or stoned, wanting to connect with David. I used to set up a day and time for him, but he always bailed. Thank God I never told David in advance. The man is an overgrown child, so distractible, with a scary temper She wiped a blob of lentils from a plate. Lately, I just let the machine take his calls. A month before, hed left her his most recent number and address. She paused for Marcus to comment, but he kept rinsing and stacking, allowing her to fill the silence if she chose. Even if Skip did show up, hed throw out pie-in-the-sky promises, then break them. David is too vulnerable now. She stopped washing and turned to him. Dont you think waiting until hes eighteen is better? Hell have more maturity to put the hurt in perspective and by then hell be done hating me. She managed a half smile. Are you asking for my professional opinion again? Would you give it to me? In an emergency? Im in no position to give advice, he said. A shadow crossed his face and she realized her request disturbed him more than he had let on. Want to hand me those? he said, indicating the dishes shed let pile up while she talked. She wanted to ask him about that, but he was sending out leave-it-alone signals like mad, so she stuck to the dishes, glancing at him now and then. He had such a strong facestraight nose, solid jaw and a great mouth, sensual and masculine. His hair brushed his collar, as if hed been too busy for a haircut and he smelled of a lime aftershave with a hint of sandalwood. His presence calmed her, as well as the slow, sure movements of his strong hands. He was so quiet. If I didnt talk, would you ever break the silence? she finally said. Excuse me? He stopped rinsing and looked at her. You hardly ever talk, she said. When I need to, I do. So is it that after all those years of listening to people bitch and moan, youve had enough? His mouth twitched. Shed amused him. That felt like a prize. Meanwhile, I hate silence. I say whatever comes into my head. Im probably annoying the hell out of you, huh? No. I enjoy you. Kitchen duty is flying by. Thats flattering. Im more amusing than greasy plates. He laughed, looking almost boyish. I didnt mean it quite like that, no. You have a great laugh, she said. You should do it more. He pondered that. You think Im too serious? At times, I guess. But I like how you are, Marcus. She touched his forearm and felt another, stronger frisson of desire. Youresoothing. I soothe you? He lifted an eyebrow, looking wry. Thats not exactly flattering, either. Well, you have other effects on me, too, she said softly, moving closer. The opposite of soothing. I see. Heat sparked in his eyes, but only for an instant. Then his eyes went sad, almost haunted, and she sucked in a breath. Something awful had happened to Marcus. She wondered if shed ever find out what it was. CHAPTER FOUR MARCUS LEFT THE KITCHEN as soon as the dishes were done, saying he needed to work on his book, but he was clearly avoiding more sexual byplay or, perhaps, thoughts of the old hurt hed remembered. Possibly his ex-wife? What if he withdrew altogether? Christine would hate that. He provided the only spice and spark to her time at Harmony House. Dammit. For all its thrills, sex could be such a pain. If she lost Marcuss friendship because of her stupid libido What did he think about her anyway? Men were a puzzle to her. Maybe because shed never really known her father and had only Harmony Houses hippies and drifters as examples of manhood. There was Bogie, of course, who was sweet, but mostly a ghost in her life. Her first sex with Dylan had confused and kind of scared her. After that came Skip, a smooth operator whod promised much and given little, then one, two, three more screwups before she finally learned her lessonhold back her heart, stick with short-term fun and friendship. She didnt blame her past or anything. Shed screwed up all on her own. But she wished to hell she was better with men. Christine closed the last cupboard and sighed. Time to try to talk with David. Outside the front door, the porch smelled of sun-scorched wood, reminding her of summer, returning wet and shivery from a swim in the river to dig into a slice of watermelon warm from the garden, spitting seeds at the other kids, letting the juice run down her chin, not caring about being neat at all. The porch, with its rockers, wooden swing and cable spool tables had always been a popular hangout for talk, cards, music or watching people play Frisbee or dance in the yard. Nice night. Auroras voice, from a rocking chair, startled her out of her reverie. Yes, it is. Where you headed? her mother asked, sipping iced tea, the ice cubes rattling gently in her glass. To check on David. We had an argument. Id leave him be if I were you. Christine bit back a sharp response. Aurora had hardly been Parent of the Year and now she was dishing out advice? Christine forced down her spike of outrage and sank into the fabric hammock for a moment. Now was as good a time as any to update Aurora on the clay works. Organizing her thoughts, she ran her hands over the colorful braids that formed the hammock. I recognize this cloth. Wheres it from? It used to be my bedspread. Bogie made the hammock. He can make you one if you like. He does that for people. Maybe we could sell them. Handcrafted at a commune? I bet the gift shops where were placing our ceramics would buy tons. Her mother chuckled. You are a slave to profit. Davids right. She was in a good mood at least. We all have our gifts. Christine fingered the familiar cloth, lost in memory for a moment. Shed loved her mothers bed, the smell of vanilla and patchouli, the orange light through the Indian-print curtains on the window. I liked your waterbedthe way it jiggled. You used to tell me stories sometimes. When Aurora allowed it, Christine would cuddle up to her, toying with her mothers thick braid while Aurora talked and talked. You and your endless questions, Aurora said. You were relentless. They were mostly about my father, she said, remembering vividly. You would never tell me much about him. It wasnt relevant. She locked gazes with Christine. Do you tell David all about Skip? Skip is a train wreck. My father was a good man. A police officer who died in the line of duty when Christine was three. I told you he loved you. That should have been enough. I wanted to know everything. She remembered the gold buttons on his blue uniform, and the smell of leather and aftershave. You didnt even save a picture. Aurora shrugged. That was that. End of topic. Christine felt a stab of the helpless feeling she used to get over Auroras stubborn silenceswanting so much to know about her father and having Aurora lock him away and toss the key. At least Christine had grown out of that pointless pain. All she wanted now was to keep this fragile peace with her mother until it was time to leave. They were too different, her mother too shut down for them to ever be close, which had been her old stupid fantasy. You went ahead and bought that computer, didnt you? Aurora said gruffly. It was a good price, so, yes. But you didnt clear it with me. We agreed It was the one you chose, Aurora, with the features you liked, remember? Her mother had pored over the catalog Christine had searched out on her laptop. Tomorrow I want to show you the draft of the Web site. Also the PayPal account. PayPal? This is the first Ive heard of that, she snapped, eyes sparking in the dim light of the porch. You wanted something easy to manage, remember? Lucy and I worked out the details. If you dont like it well change it. Her mother rocked angrily for a few seconds. Christine took a slow breath and blew it out. Why did this bother her so much? She never got testy with clients when they second-guessed her. Only Aurora made her temper flare. Also, I can get agency rates for some advertising at key venues that I know will generate more orders. If thats all right, Id like to set that up. I told you before were not an assembly line. Calm, calm, calm. Lucy had asked her to push this issue with Aurora, so Christine would do her best. Lucy and I worked out a plan. By enhancing the kiln, adding a second shift, plus some on-call part-timers, itll be easy. No worries for you or pressure. In your condition, you need low stress, so You let me worry about my condition. Her mother glared at her. You could stand to lower your stress, too. You act like if you hold still for one minute the world will stop turning. Christine closed her eyes to collect herself. She tried to rise above, but her mothers digs and grumbles stung like sandpaper on a sunburn. Its your show, Aurora. If you dont want ads, we wont buy ads. But Lucy is getting frustrated. If you dont watch it, youll lose her. Her mother stopped rocking and seemed to consider that. Just be sure you stick around until every kink is worked out, like you said you would. There was that underlying plea again: Please stay. The request felt like a weight on Christines chest, making it hard to breathe. She couldnt stay. No way. David hated it here, for one thing. He had school and she had plans to open her own agency. She had a life in Phoenix. Here was an awkward limbo. She comforted herself with the thought that Aurora must be feeling weak still. As soon as she was herself again, shed probably pack Christines bags herself. Ill stay until you boot me out. Hows that? she said, using the cheery voice of a nurse with a grumpy patient. See that you do, Aurora said, as if shed won a fight. And do something with your room before you go. Paint it, replace that god-awful furniture with stuff from the spare room. That pink-and-gingham mess depresses the hell out of me. Great. Another mean zing to Christines heart. So much for Bogies claim that Aurora meditated about Christine in the room shed kept the same all these years. The man lived in a sunny-side-up haze. Well, I like my old room, Christine said just to be stubborn. Its darling. It makes me think of fairy tales. She grinned. Good God, her mother groused, looking off across the yard in the dark to where mesquite trees were silhouetted by moonlight. Was she smiling? Maybe. Mission accomplished, more or less, so Christine rose from the hammock to go to David. You do need to cut David some slack, Aurora said. Anger spiked in Christine. Do not yell. Stay calm. Excuse me, Aurora, but you have no idea what Ive been through with him this last year. I see what I see. Christine made herself count to tentwice. You promised to back me up with him. I am backing you up. I told him to follow the rules. And urged him to drive a car without a license. Aurora shrugged. Its summer vacation. Hes away from his friends. Give him a break. A break? I had to beg the principal not to expel him. Hes got schoolwork he has to do if theres any hope he can rescue enough credits to be a junior. Plus, we agreed to therapy. Real therapy, not crackpot tips from Doctor Mike, who got his doctorate from Wacko State University. Doctor Mike is a great guy. Hes a joke. Now I have to find someone in Preston. Anything else I did wrong? Since you asked, I dont like David in such a faraway room. The last thing he needs is more freedom. You werent much older when you left home, you know. You think that was a good thing? It was the loneliest shed ever felt. It was what you wanted. Her mother rocked back and forth. She so much wanted to yell, but she kept her voice level. I was a kid. I didnt know what I wanted. Aurora hadnt even tried to stop her. Christine had hung back for a good hour before buying her bus ticket, secretly hoping Aurora would come to get her. But Aurora had let her go. Just like that. I will not leave my son to struggle on his own. Like I did you? Aurora said. Christine was startled to see hurt flicker in her mothers brown eyes. It was your life, Crystal. Holding you back would have made me a hypocrite after all I preached about choice and self-determination. Sorry, but I was your daughter, not a political statement, she said fiercely. Bitter hurt rose from deep within her. Maybe Aurora loved her, but it wasnt any love Christine recognizedthen or now. Aurora didnt speak for a long moment and when she did, her tone was softer. All I know is that my folks tried to lock me in and it made me desperate to escape. I did, but I had a weak moment when I found I was pregnant. The best thing they ever did was not let me back in. It made me stronger. Thats what leaving did for you. It made you independent. Not even close. Christine had been lost and scared and lonely until shed latched on to Skip, a life raft in rough waters, shed thoughtuntil he dumped her into the deep again. But that was old news. Shed learned and grown, so what was the point in rehashing it? What mattered now was David. Davids growing up too fast. He needs to catch up with himself. Its the nature of kids to break away. Its the nature of kids to change their minds on a dime. Her mother sighed. You were always so sure you were right. You had these pictures in your head of home, family, work, life, and nothing ever measured up. You wore me out. The feelings mutual. But saying so would not help. All I ask is that you dont undercut my authority with my son and Aurora bent forward and coughed, holding on to her chest, her face tight with pain. Are you all right? Panic surged inside Christine. Shed let her anger show and it had upset her ill mother. Can I get you water? A pain pill? She felt sick. Shed picked a fight with a fragile woman, not the hard-as-nails, blunt mother shed grown up with. Shame on her. Stop that. My stitches burn when I cough, thats all. I didnt mean to agitate you. Im here to help and I said stop it, dammit. Im not dying. Im fine. Better than ever. Aurora pushed up from her chair and stomped toward the door. Reaching it, she hesitated, then turned around. Hell, thats not how I meant that to go. She lifted a hand as if to reach out to Christine, then dropped it. Sojustgood night then, she said, disappearing without waiting for Christines response. . . , (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926402&lfrom=390579938) . Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, , , , PayPal, WebMoney, ., QIWI , .
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