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Nothing marred a triumphant homecoming like the secret, certain knowledge of failure. But if modeling in New York City had taught Deirdre Cash anything, it was how to put on a good face, no matter what fresh chaos was breaking out around her.
She stood on the porch at her parents’ Montana ranch home, shivering—or rather, hyperventilating—in the frigid spring air while pretending to take an important call.
The screen door clanged open. “Is everything okay, DeeDee?” Mom, worried, as usual. Light, laughter, and warmth spilled out from behind the kitchen door. “Supper is waiting.”
Joanie Cash-Henley was never happier than when feeding her family, and DeeDee’s return had sent her into a cooking, cleaning, and caregiving frenzy.
DeeDee pasted on a smile and held her hand over the phone. “Everything’s great, Mom. Be right there.”
She loved her family with all her heart, but she’d rather they believe she was here because of crowd and camera fatigue instead of no callbacks and eviction. “I have to go, Jon,” she said, even though there was no one on the line.
Jon wasn’t speaking to her.
Her former agent, ex-lover, and worst mistake—though to be fair, there were a lot of contenders for that title—had dumped her three weeks ago, citing cosmetic surgery and a personality transplant as the only way to resurrect DeeDee’s languishing career.
DeeDee had responded by suggesting Jon perform an anatomically impossible act—only to later realize she’d proved his last point.
No heartbreak on either side; they’d been beneficial to each other for a time, but now they weren’t. So, what did a selfish, spoiled ex-model with few discernible skills and even fewer friends do when her bridge to the future lay in smoking ruins?
She went home. Where, as the saying went, they had to take you in.
“It’s cold out, honey,” her mom said. “I’ll get you a sweater.”
“It’s okay. I’m coming in now.”
Her mom took her arm, giving it a gentle tug as she led her inside. “You’re so thin. You need a good meal.”
“Occupational hazard. I’m fine.”
DeeDee took her place at the table and pasted on her happy-daughter smile, hoping no one would notice anything amiss. Why would they? She’d used the same smile the last time she was home and everyone bought it, even though she’d been dying inside.
“Norman, isn’t it wonderful to have all our girls home again?” She took Norm’s hand and gave it a squeeze on top of the table. Mom never did distinguish between DeeDee, Maddie, and Norm’s own daughter Cynthia.
“I can’t thank you enough for coming home, DeeDee.” Cynthia’s eyes glistened as she raised her glass of water. Four months into her surprise pregnancy, DeeDee’s stepsister waffled between glowing and green. “I don’t know what I’d do if you hadn’t stepped in to save the day.”
Yes, unemployment had come at the perfect time. DeeDee could salvage Cynthia’s event-planning business and her own pride, all at the same time. Score.
“Happy to be here,” she said, glancing around the table. “And a fashion-show fundraiser—how could I resist?”
Truth. Just not the whole truth.
“Took you long enough.” Maddie, DeeDee’s twin, had nagged her to death about returning to Marietta. “I knew you’d come to your senses eventually.”
“It’s great to finally meet you, DeeDee.” Mick, the man seated next to Maddie, gave her a teasing grin. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
“I bet.” DeeDee arched a look between the two of them. Mick’s naturally scruffy-jawed appearance was the sort of thing stylists worked endlessly to recreate. She didn’t wish misery on anyone, but Maddie already had a career and an apartment… not to mention the good personality. How was it fair that she got a great guy, too?
Between Maddie and Mick, and Cynthia and her fiancé Chad, there was enough romance in the room to put a girl off her food.
And to remind DeeDee that she was now the only unattached daughter.
The third wheel.
The seventh person at a table for six.
The last lone banana on the rack that no one picked.
Men stared at DeeDee all the time. But never, not once, had one looked at her the way the men at this table did their women.
“Everything smells great, Mom,” DeeDee said, trying to shift the conversation.
She’d left Montana by choice and in the pursuit of better things. In the meantime, her family’s lives had gone on without her. If she felt left out, left behind, well, what did she expect?
“I, for one, am ready to dig in,” Norm said, holding out his hands to the person on either side of him. Everyone linked hands and bowed their heads while he said grace. Maddie caught DeeDee’s eye across the table. Despite her mood, DeeDee had to stifle a giggle.
Some things, at least, never changed.
“Eat up, everyone.” Mom pressed the bread basket into DeeDee’s hand. “I made all your favorites, just the way you like. Lasagna with lots of cheese and spinach, garlic bread, and Caesar salad.”
DeeDee passed the basket to Maddie. “Mom, I haven’t eaten pasta or bread in months.”
“I thought as much,” she said. “You can’t get good home cooking like this in New York City.”
“Make sure to leave room for dessert.” Norm looked pleased, like he was announcing a special surprise. “I bought a gallon of rocky road ice cream, to celebrate.”
“Ice cream,” Cynthia murmured, putting down her fork. Her lips had gone white.
“Is she going to…?” DeeDee looked at Chad, feeling her own stomach turn over. She’d always been a sympathetic puker.
“I’m okay.” Cynthia swallowed. Reaching a shaking hand for her water glass, she brought it to her mouth, took a tiny sip, and swallowed.
“Norman,” her mom said, oblivious to the other end of the table, “I baked lemon-meringue pie and DeeDee’s favorite chocolate cheesecake. You didn’t have to get ice cream, too.”
“All I’ve got is my face and my figure,” DeeDee said, one eye on Cynthia. “Fatten me up too much and I’ll be living in your basement for the rest of my life.”
“You’ve got more than that going for you.” Cynthia burped delicately. “Oops. Excuse me.”
“Speaking of chocolate.” Maddie pushed her chair back and grabbed a package from the buffet. “I brought some of Sage’s salted-caramel chocolates, too. She says hi and welcome back, DeeDee.”
The famous Copper Mountain Chocolates. When would the torture end?
“Since when are you pals with Sage Carrigan?” she asked. Due to their popularity with the male population, the Cash twins had never been overburdened with female friends.
“Most people are pretty great when you take time to get to know them,” Maddie said. “You’ll see.”
Maybe. Maybe not. DeeDee had never seen the point in investing in relationships she wouldn’t be around long enough to enjoy.
“I’ve got frozen yogurt for you anyway, Norman,” her mom added. “Last thing you need is pie.”
“Like hell, woman.” Norm sent a wink DeeDee’s way. Maddie, Cynthia, and Mom started talking at once then, about Norm’s diet and exercise, his cardiologist’s recommendations, and how they each believed the other was pushing the man they all loved into an early grave.
DeeDee’s throat tightened as she returned Norm’s smile. Though he’d come late into their lives, the gentle man was the only father she and Maddie had ever known. She couldn’t bear it that they’d nearly lost him, that she hadn’t been here when it had happened, or that she’d clung to blissful ignorance rather than face the fact that she didn’t have the gonads to deal with pain.
Panic bubbled up in her chest.
She grabbed for the salad bowl and helped herself to an enormous serving of greens, sans croutons.
The garlic bread, dripping with herbed butter, smelled amazing, and the edge pieces of lasagna had extra cheese, bubbled and crispy from the oven. She scraped the cheese off a small inside piece as she watched everyone else enjoy the feast.
How nice it must be to not worry about every calorie that passed your lips.
And then it was time for dessert. The final gauntlet.
“People keep asking what magazines you were in,” her mom said as she handed around plates. “I looked and looked, but I never saw you in them.”
It was the question DeeDee dreaded the most. “I wasn’t doing that kind of modeling, Mom. It’s a huge industry. There’s a lot more than magazines.”
“Tell us about your average day,” Chad urged.
Now there was a face—and a personality—that New York would love. Chad could have a career doing orthodontia ads with that smile of his. He wasn’t just being polite, either. He was a genuinely nice guy—for a cowboy.
“It’s pretty boring to outsiders.” DeeDee squirmed. There wasn’t much she loved more than attention. So why did her back itch like she’d contracted poison oak? “Hair and makeup. Changing outfits a million times. Sitting around while you wait for the stage manager and the photographer to quit feuding, or for the light to cooperate. That sort of thing.”
“That’s why I knew you’d be the perfect one to help with the fundraiser.” Cynthia’s face was the color of seafoam. She shook her head at the plate that was offered to her.
“How’s the cheesecake?” her mom asked.
DeeDee forked a small piece into her mouth. The crunchy cookie crush contrasted with the smooth cream cheese, which made the bittersweet dark chocolate layer even more intense. She groaned. “Even better than I remembered.”
“To think we have a real, live celebrity in our family,” Norm said to Cynthia. “Tell us more, DeeDee.”
Cynthia shoved her chair back and ran from the table, fingers pressed to her mouth.
“Is she like this all the time?” DeeDee asked.
“Comes and goes.” Chad got up to follow his fiancée. “But mostly, yeah. You see why she needs you. Carry on.”
She’d rather not. The conversation, not to mention Cynthia’s nausea, was making her stomach hurt. DeeDee toyed with her dessert, buying time.
She had plenty of stories to entertain them with. It had been so much fun, at first. Eccentric designers, flamboyant photographers, bigger-than-life characters, narcissism galore, ambition and egos everywhere, everything bright, sparkly, and pretty.
But how quickly the glamour had faded. Those first few weeks of excitement turned first to routine, then to boredom, then to anxiety as she spent more and more time waiting around, listening to the other girls complain about their high-rent condos, hearing about parties she wasn’t invited to, boyfriends they didn’t appreciate, food they wanted but couldn’t have, and drugs they weren’t supposed to have but often did.
Suddenly, DeeDee needed to get out of there. She pushed back her chair abruptly.
“This has been wonderful, Mom, but I’m wiped.” She needed to get some air, to not have any more questions thrown at her, or mine fields unknowingly tripped. Her stomach twisted again, another ulcer, probably.
“But you haven’t finished your cheesecake.” Disappointment creased her mom’s forehead.
“I’ll take it to go. Mick, Maddie, do you mind? Jet lag and all.” DeeDee gave a great, huge yawn that wasn’t entirely an act.
“Don’t forget Sage’s caramels.” Mom pressed the package into DeeDee’s hand. The copper ribbon was undone, releasing the rich, buttery caramel scent, underscored by cocoa. “Get some rest, honey. Love you. See you soon, right?”
“You bet, Mom. Love you, too. Thanks for everything.”
“You leaving already?” Cynthia reappeared, Chad at her side.
“Yup, sorry, exhausted. I’ll talk to you about the show tomorrow, okay, Cyn?”
While Maddie and Mick gathered their things, DeeDee escaped to the porch once more. She bent over slightly, her hands on her thighs, and sucked the cool evening air into her lungs. She’d forgotten how great fresh air tasted.
She’d forgotten how great a lot of things tasted.
It was better that way.
“You okay, DeeDee?” Mick asked as he walked to his pickup truck.
DeeDee had hitched a ride with Mick and Maddie, and now he drove them back to Maddie’s apartment in town. DeeDee suspected she was cramping their style by bunking with her twin, but honestly, that was too bad for them. DeeDee would go mad if she had to stay in her old room at the ranch with their parents.
Besides, Maddie spent half her time at Mick’s place, a rat-infested fishing lodge or something, out on the lake. It wasn’t like he and Maddie would have to make out in the truck like teenagers.
“Here are the keys,” Maddie said when they arrived at her apartment complex. “Go ahead. I’m going to say goodnight to Mick.”
They were going to make out in the truck like teenagers.
DeeDee grimaced. “I hope you’ve got wine.”
Maddie tossed her the Copper Mountain Chocolates. “Better.”
Chocolate she shouldn’t eat. Stories she wouldn’t tell. Regrets she couldn’t escape.
“I don’t wanna have oatmeal.”
Isaac Litton plopped a ladle-full into a bowl and set it in front of his brother. Their place still wasn’t properly unpacked yet, and a pile of boxes sat on the table next to Mark’s bowl. “Oatmeal is good for you.”
Mark stuck out his plump lower lip and crossed his arms. He was twenty-four, but glared at Isaac with the stubbornness of a toddler.
“I don’t have time to argue, Mark.” The expensive companion their mother had hired for him three years ago had catered to the boy’s sweet tooth, and Isaac was having a heck of a time breaking him of the habit.
“Can I have brown sugar?”
“You can have raisins.”
“I want brown sugar and cimmanin.”
The long tongue characteristically seen in people with Down syndrome gave Mark a speech impediment that was simultaneously endearing and annoying. Isaac hated it when things Mark couldn’t help made him the object of ridicule. Mark himself never seemed to notice, which made it even worse to Isaac’s way of thinking.
“Raisins are sweet enough. Here’s your milk. You’ll be late for work if you don’t eat.”
“Don’ wanna go to work.”
“Mark, we’ve been over this. You’re still adjusting. You’ll like it once you get used to it.”
Mark didn’t like the May Bell Care Home day program, but he had to do something while Isaac was working. The coordinator, Mrs. Hatcher, was a new addition since Isaac had first checked the place out several months ago. While she wasn’t exactly warm and cuddly, she was organized and reliable, so Isaac had peace of mind knowing that for five hours, four days a week, Mark couldn’t wander off or get hurt.
Isaac refused to put him in an institution. Except for a few periods of respite care in a group home, Mark had spent his life with their mother. Now, newly married to a decent guy who wanted to show her the world, she deserved some freedom, and Isaac was happy for her.
When Mom had hesitantly approached him, teary with new love and dreadful guilt over her special-needs son, Isaac immediately decided to adjust his lifestyle to accommodate Mark. He would strike out on his own. He’d reached the point in his career where he could manage his clients’ investment portfolios from anywhere, and eighty-hour workweeks in a huge firm weren’t doing him any favors.
Being able to work from home, while enjoying a quieter, slower life, had seemed like the perfect way to start getting to know his brother again. While driving through Montana on business several years ago, Isaac had stayed a few nights at a bed and breakfast in Marietta, and the little town had stuck in his mind. Real estate was reasonable, the people were friendly, and the air was fresh and clean.
Maybe he’d take up horseback riding again. Start some hobbies with Mark. Get involved in the community.
It had sounded so simple, so romantic. So doable.
Three weeks after the move, Isaac was still reeling from the hard landing of reality.
“Why can’t I stay home with you, Isaac?” Mark pushed a spoon through his oatmeal. Routine was vital to his well-being. Unfortunately, they’d yet to establish one.
“We’ve been through this, Mark. I’ve got to work. And so do you. Your work is at the May Bell Care Home.”
His phone buzzed and Isaac grabbed it off the counter, noting with dismay that the caller, a longtime investor looking to expand his holdings, was a half hour early.
“Isaac Litton,” he said, pulling a paper towel off the roll and handing it to Mark.
“I want brown sugar,” Mark said.
Isaac gestured at Mark to eat his breakfast. He’d planned the call for after his brother was safely on the bus, but some things couldn’t be helped. He went downstairs to his office to take the call in relative quiet.
The client had just begun outlining the details of his inquiry when a thump sounded upstairs.
“Excuse me one moment,” Isaac said, pressing the mute button. “Mark? Are you okay?”
He took the stairs two at a time, to find his brother on the floor in front of the refrigerator, crying and holding his ankle.
“What happened, buddy? Are you okay?”
Mark only had a few minutes before the bus was due to arrive. A knock sounded downstairs at the door. Was it the bus driver already? Was everyone early today, or was Isaac just late?
“I’ll be right there,” he called down the stairs, hoping his voice carried to the screen door. A moment later, the landline in his office rang.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“I wanted brown sugar,” Mark sobbed. “I wanted to get it all by myself, so you’d be proud.”
The landline continued to ring. Combined with the beeping of his cell phone and Mark’s snuffling wails, it made him want to yank his hair out.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Not at all.
End of Excerpt