“Did you hear your sister-in-law’s back in town?”
Clay Foster’s receptionist watched for his reaction from her seat across the front counter of his veterinarian clinic.
This was his dead wife’s sister’s first trip home in two years. “She must have blown in for a quick visit.”
“Pfft, so much for making it big,” Sybil commented with a glance at her computer screen.
“Out with it, Sybil. You look too delighted for this to be anything but juicy gossip.” Mercy was a Hollywood success story. Everyone knew it.
Sybil crossed her arms and leaned forward. “She came home with boxes. Lots of boxes.” Sybil’s husband, Bud, worked at the bus depot and shared all the comings and goings of Welcome’s population.
Clay leaned in to glean every nuance of meaning from Sybil’s face. “Out with it,” he repeated.
She licked her lips as if each morsel of gossip was filet mignon. “When Bud asked if he could call her a cab, she said no, she couldn’t afford it.” She hefted a disbelieving sigh and muttered, “Of all the nonsense. So”—she stretched out the word because Sybil loved telling a good story—“Bud called Nate, who showed up half an hour later. Nate didn’t say a word, which, of course, is just like him, and tossed all the boxes into his pickup. Mercy didn’t explain a thing, just looked miserable, Bud said.”
He nodded, at a loss. It still came as a surprise that he was related, if only by marriage, to Mercy Talbot. Welcome High’s golden girl: the blond, beautiful, leggy, and untouchable Mercy Talbot. The Talbot daughter who’d made a real success of her life, unlike the one who’d ruined her life by marrying him, the town hell raiser.
“That Mercy is a real glamour girl. Dilly’s gonna love her. All that prettiness and sunshine wrapped up in one girl.” Sybil sighed as if just knowing Mercy Talbot had somehow blessed her.
At the mention of his daughter, Dilly, Clay frowned. “Mercy won’t be here long,” he said. “Dilly won’t get attached.” Women like Mercy always had an exit strategy and somewhere more important to be.
Mercy Talbot had been as angelically perfect as his wife, Janna, had been hell-bent on personal destruction. Two sisters: impossibly different, forever at odds. He used to wonder if Janna’s darkness was in counterpoint to Mercy’s bright flare. But none of that mattered anymore.
It was Dilly who mattered.
“What child wouldn’t get attached to a beautiful actress?”
A pulse pounded in his temple. He dreaded seeing Dilly’s eyes light up when Mercy played the caring auntie. But she’d barely held Dilly as a baby. He doubted she’d show any interest now.
“I have nothing to worry about,” he told Sybil.
“Still, makes you wonder why she’s back in town.”
He left Sybil to her musings about the reason for Mercy’s return. When he stepped into exam room one, he was relieved to see nine-year-old Josh Camden holding his dog’s collar. Josh’s mother, Shandy, leaned against the wall, jeans tight and low slung, hips jutted. At least with Josh there, he wouldn’t be alone with her.
“Good afternoon, Josh,” he said. He gave Shandy a cursory glance. Her answering smile was come-hither and meant to be hot.
The dog sniffed Clay’s fingers. “Set her on the table, Josh.” Clay rolled her to her back and gently checked the incision on her belly. “She’s perfectly healed like I said last week.” He raised an eyebrow at Shandy, who shifted her hips.
“I don’t gotta lift her up on my bed anymore?” Josh asked.
“She can jump up herself.” He ruffled the boy’s hair.
“Thanks, Clay,” Shandy said. “I wanted to be certain because you never can tell.” She gave him a pout that said she wanted to be sure about his lack of response to her previous invitations. “I’d love to cook you dinner to thank you.” Her eyes held expectation he refused to meet.
He shook his head. “This is Mimzi’s last checkup. She’s been fine for a week now.”
Shandy canted one side of her lip into a defeated smile. He didn’t mean to embarrass her, but she had to see he wasn’t interested. Had never been interested, not when he’d taken what she’d offered all those years ago and not now. Beer and high-school hormones had gotten the best of them back then.
Clay had his regrets about his behavior that night by the lake, while her memories seemed warm and cozy. She was friendly, but she’d been friendlier since her divorce. And now that Clay had been alone for two years, she’d found numerous ways to make her approach.
He followed them out to the reception area. Shandy strode out of the clinic, head held high. Josh ran behind his mother with Mimzi’s leash tight in his hand. “Thanks a bunch, Dr. Foster.” He stopped at the door, turned and gave him a wave. “See ya.”
“See ya, Josh.”
Maybe he should have left town after Janna wrapped her car around that tree, but he’d needed to stay in Welcome for Dilly’s sake. His daughter needed a woman’s hand, and Janna’s mother, Hope, had dedicated herself to Dilly. Janna would have laughed her ass off if she’d known that all she had to do was die for Hope to care.
Once Shandy and Josh left, he turned to the reception desk to hand off Mimzi’s file. Sybil looked past him toward the clinic’s entrance. A glimmer of anticipation glowed in her eyes.
He glanced over his shoulder to see what had caught her interest.
His mother-in-law, Hope Talbot, walked in leading her Yorkie. It made sense that he’d see her today, now that Bud and Sybil had told the whole town about Mercy coming home. This visit would be about damage control and putting Sybil in her place.
These two had a long history of sniping. “Hope, it’s nice to see you,” he said mildly. “Is there a problem with Humphrey?” The dog looked as happy as ever as he wiggled a greeting.
“He’s fine.” Hope sighed with dramatic effect while she pulled her credit card from her wallet. The Yorkie sat at heel. Hope liked to keep her pet, her husband, and now his daughter firmly in hand.
On a regular basis, Clay reminded himself to be grateful.
“I just recalled that I neglected to pay for Humphrey’s food the other day.” But her eyes shot glass shards toward his receptionist.
Sybil rolled her eyes. Great, he’d have to referee. The pulse in his temple picked up.
Last time Hope had come in, she’d been frustrated with Dilly and had taken it out in trade: one twenty-pound bag of food for having to deal with Dilly’s temper for an hour. You’d think a little girl would wear herself out, but not his. No. She could wind herself up for longer and longer as if each tantrum increased her stamina.
At three and a bit, Dilly was capable of marathons.
He waved away Hope’s credit card. “No need. I’m sorry I was in surgery the last time you were here.” He’d been unable to step away to coax his daughter out of her temper. He was never sure who angered Hope more, Dilly or him. “There’s no way I’ll take payment for the dog food.”
“I insist. I won’t have people say I take advantage of you because we’re family.”
She hated admitting they were related. He was a Foster, after all. “I hear Mercy’s here for a visit,” he offered in an effort to soften her. Janna used to tell him Mercy was Hope’s angel while painting herself as a devil child.
His mother-in-law tilted her head down as if to shush him. “She’s here incognito.” She slanted Sybil a glance. Sybil yanked open a drawer in her desk to pretend the conversation was none of her business. “I expect your discretion.” She gave him a pointed look and with a stiff nod, included Sybil.
Sybil refilled the stapler without looking up.
Hope leaned toward him. “Mercy’s waiting on a big part. This is something that will show the world just how talented she is. But it’s hush-hush.”
Clay nodded like he gave a shit and Sybil cleared her throat. He didn’t care what Mercy was doing. She’d be gone soon, and in the meantime, he’d keep an eye on Dilly for signs of bedazzlement with her aunt.
“How long is she here for?”
“I can’t say.”
“Most people know how long their visit is.”
Hope pursed her lips as if he’d pushed too hard. She turned to Sybil behind the counter. “Her agent’s sure her big break is just around the corner,” she whispered loud enough for the whole waiting room to hear. “Don’t tell anyone.”
“I won’t breathe a word,” Sybil vowed, dust dry.
“If the paparazzi find her here”—Hope went on—“we’ll never get a minute’s rest.”
Hiding out in her hometown would do nothing for Mercy Talbot’s career, Clay thought. If you wanted something, you went for it. You didn’t hide and expect success to come knocking.
If Hope decided to manage Mercy’s career again, he could kiss Hope’s help with Dilly goodbye. Janna had often said that she and Dilly were poor substitutes for Mercy.
Janna’s warning sounded in his head. If Mercy ever comes back to Welcome for good, my mother will ditch Dilly like yesterday’s news.
Hope took care of Dilly day-to-day and saw that she went to all her classes. He was no kind of father to guide a girl through dance, singing and comportment lessons. If Dilly kept up her tantrums and crying jags, Hope might happily walk away from her daily care, especially if Mercy needed her. Dread thickened his blood. Hope sometimes created her own truth, and Mercy coming home in the dead of night on a bus was not in line with Hope’s version of Mercy’s life.
But it was Sybil who asked Hope for clarification. “Mercy showed up at the bus depot instead of in a limo like she usually does because she’s in hiding?”
Hope clicked her tongue. “We don’t want her tracked down and followed. She came in disguise. She visits as often as she can.”
But could Sybil leave it at that? No. She had to poke the dragon. “Of course she visits regularly. Last time was two years ago, at the time of Janna’s tragic accident.” She used Hope’s favorite phrase to describe Janna’s drunk-driving death.
Spite burned the air and guilt squeezed his lungs.
“Sybil, you’re out of line,” he ground out between clenched teeth. She’d brought up how Janna died and the length of time between Mercy’s visits.
“Take my credit card.” Hope’s brittle voice tore around the edges. Sybil looked guilty and contrite. She actually reached out to pat Hope’s shoulder in silent apology.
Hope shook her off.
Clay took the credit card out of her hand. With a shake of his head, he dropped it into her open purse. “I’ll be over to get Dilly as soon as I can. It’ll be nice to catch up with Mercy,” he said as kindly as he could.
Thirty minutes later, he had a free moment to head to the front desk. As soon as he walked into the momentarily empty reception area, Sybil looked up from her keyboard. “You here to tell me off?”
“You stayed on at the clinic when I took over just to torment people.”
“Whom do I torment?” she demanded, although her eyes looked chastened.
“Hope Talbot for one, me for another.”
“Hope and I go way back, Clay. There’re years of snark between us. We wouldn’t know what to do if the other wasn’t around to needle,” she said. “She knows I didn’t mean to be hateful. That woman just gets to me with her high-and-mighty tone.” Avid curiosity returned to her gaze. “I wonder why Mercy’s really here?”
“And for how long?” His gut clenched. Dilly couldn’t resist a beautiful, exciting actress, and if Mercy left without a backward glance, his daughter might never get over it.
He’d just gotten the pieces of his life back in order and now everything could be tossed to the wind, including his child’s heart.
“And Clay, I’m awful sorry I mentioned Janna’s accident. I didn’t mean—”
He stalked out before she could finish. He knew exactly what she meant. Janna had run out of another argument and driven to her death in a white-hot rage.
And it was his fault.
Mercy Talbot sat at the sandwich bar in her parents’ kitchen and flipped through the local paper. Nothing much had changed. The sports pages were full of high-school team news, a beer-league baseball team wanted a catcher and someone was complaining in the letters to the editor section about dogs barking. She sighed, happy not to be scouring Variety Magazine looking for hints of work.
“Hello,” her dad said and hung up his jacket by the side-door entrance. From there you could go out to the backyard, where Mercy had spent most of the afternoon weeding flowerbeds. “Your mom not home yet?”
“She had errands.” She flipped one more page to find the classifieds had shrunk to one-tenth their former size. They’d become irrelevant, like her. People placed ads online these days. Newspapers, like her, were yesterday’s news. Even Variety was strictly online now.
“She kept Dilly with her?”
Mercy shrugged. “I guess.” She’d avoided the child by sinking into a tubful of bubbles after weeding. She didn’t need the reminder of her sister’s death. Her passing hung like a pall after two years.
Nate Talbot stood in the kitchen, his large hands resting on the other edge of the counter. His nails were blunt, square, and clean.
Mercy recalled the comfort of holding her dad’s hand as a child while her sister, Janna, tugged and squirmed to be released. “Thank God for your mother,” he said. “I don’t know who’d be taking care of Dilly if not for her.”
“Most children go to daycare,” she said.
Her dad ignored her comment and pulled a box of macaroni dinner out of a cupboard. “But this is your mom’s bridge night, so. . . .” He set the box on the counter and gave her his patented I’m-a-helpless-male look.
“Fine by me. I’m not into healthy eating,” she said with a smirk. Her dad was the best mac-and-cheese maker on the planet, bar none.
“Fine auntie you are, letting your niece eat this stuff,” he teased, dragging out a saucepan.
“Are you kidding? I’ve lived on mac and cheese many times. Beans, too.”
“It never got that bad, did it?” he asked over the sound of water running into the pan.
She saw no point in sharing the truth now. “Of course not, most times I ate at work. That’s one of the perks of waitressing and a major reason Hollywood hopefuls wait tables. You’re guaranteed one decent meal a day.”
He opened the fridge and pulled out a couple of hot dogs. “And I figured all those starlets were skinny by choice.”
“Most of them are.” She tucked her fist under her chin and set aside the paper. “I won’t miss worrying about my weight.” Or the light lines that had begun at the corners of her eyes.
“You never told Mom how bad it got.” His brown eyes, so different from hers, looked concerned. “You never told me.”
“I’m a failure, not an idiot.” Although sometimes she wondered if she was both.
He frowned but said nothing.
“If I’d told Mom how fast things were going downhill, she’d have been directing my life all over again. When Dilly came she was needed here. Besides, you missed Mom when she was back and forth with me.”
He grunted in agreement. “Dilly changed everything. Being a grandmother meant a second chance with Janna. But when Janna died . . .” He trailed off and collected his thoughts. “I’m not sure how any of us would manage without your mother. Clay can’t be mother and father and town vet all at the same time.” Her dad shook his head in sympathy.
The sympathy surprised her because, during the years of her sister’s marriage, contact between the families had been sparse and difficult. Hope had never approved of Clay because of his family and thought less of Janna for marrying him, which suited Janna just fine. She reveled in rebellion, in all its forms.
Dilly’s birth had brought change to everyone but Janna. Hope had blossomed with pride in the baby, Nate and Clay had warmed toward each other and Mercy had taken the reins of her career.
If her indie film role in Roger’s Lie had paid better, she wouldn’t be here now. But she’d loved the pivotal role and felt proud of her work. Small comfort, but that was all she had. And maybe the new role Esme had mentioned would pan out. Not likely, though. After all, it wasn’t her agent who’d told her about it. He was too busy with actual working actors to give a damn about her hopes and dreams.
“I’m sure Clay’s doing the best he can. He must appreciate the help.” She needed to get off the topic of her niece and brother-in-law. Of course, he needed help raising a child. Given his background, and his parents, Hope helping out was likely keeping child services at bay. “I didn’t tell you about how bad things got because you had enough to worry about.”
He nodded but got busy with the classic comfort food. She warmed with nostalgia as she watched him. He was grayer, heavier in the jowls, but rock steady, like usual. “You made this meal taste special. I never did know how.”
He grinned and looked years younger as he hit the broil feature on the oven. “It’s all in the dogs, honey. It’s all in the dogs.”
She laughed. “I’ll remember that.” She stood and got out plates and cups. “Plastic for Dilly?” She held up the cartoon-character tumbler that she remembered. “Why did you keep this thing?”
“Your mom kept a box in the garage. Odds and ends.”
“And what is with my room?” She was a cliché in this house: the adult child with a teenager’s room. Trophies and tiaras from pageant triumphs lined the walls: a shrine to her early success. She’d had hope and potential. Her heart had been full of happy ambition and youthful eagerness. “Why are all my trophies still on the shelves?”
He held up his palms in a don’t-blame-me gesture. “Your mom won’t let them go and my garage is full of my gear.”
“Sorry I had to stuff all my boxes in your garage, but it won’t be crowded for long. I’ll find my own place soon.” Please, God, it wouldn’t take long, because she couldn’t afford a storage unit. She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and set it on the counter beside the folded newspaper.
Nate glanced at it. “No calls today?” When she shook her head, he shrugged. “Their loss, honey.” Honey meant something when Dad said it, unlike people in Hollywood who wielded the word like venom. She gave an inward shudder at the memory of her last humiliating day before she left that hellhole.
She didn’t want to call her agent to see about the indie role his receptionist had told her about, but still, hope burned. She had to learn to extinguish that flame with a dose of reality. She would never garner the success she’d dreamt of and never be the star her mother expected her to be.
And that was Mercy Talbot’s pathetic new reality. Last year, when she’d snagged a pivotal role in Roger’s Lie, a cheaply made indie flick, she’d had reason to hope, but now her career had tumbleweeds blowing through it.
They lapsed into silence while her dad busied himself with the mac and cheese. She searched for another topic of conversation but came up empty. She’d done that a lot lately, come up empty.
“Enough about me,” she said with a sigh. “How is Clay with Dilly?”
“He’s good. Better than he thinks he is.”
“And Mom? Is she okay with Clay?”
Nate slanted her a sidelong glance. “She steps carefully. Dilly’s everything to your mother and she’s keeping her concerns to herself.”
For once. After seeing how Clay clutched Dilly to his chest at Janna’s funeral, she had no doubt Clay was doing his best.
“Your mom takes Dilly to all the classes you took.” If Nate had noticed that Mercy had avoided Dilly earlier, he hid his disappointment.
“Mom said that sometimes she gets stubborn about going.” She remembered lots of children who hadn’t liked dance class. They came, they tried, and they left. Their moms hadn’t pushed but found something else their children enjoyed. Looking back, Mercy was glad she’d liked the discipline dance required. It had made life easier when she was a child. “Maybe Mom should lighten up on Dilly for a while.”
“Might as well ask a fish not to swim.”
A trickle of sympathy for Dilly made Mercy shift in her seat. “Nothing’s changed then.” Her mom could be a bulldog when it came to dance classes. She changed topics because sympathy for Dilly wouldn’t count a whit with her mom. “Not much has changed in the paper here either.” She tapped the thin edition. “Even these complaints. I swear I read this letter whining about dogs barking once a week back in school.”
“That must be the neighbors out by the rescue operation that Clay’s involved with. There’s some opposition to it.”
“Clay Foster’s running a rescue?” The irony made her chuckle. “Bad-ass Clay Foster is saving animals for free?” The man her sister had claimed was cold and unfeeling? A savior? She found it hard to believe. “How did this come about?”
“He got involved a couple of years ago when a dogfighting ring was busted near here.”
“Poor things. But aren’t dogs used like that ruined? What breed were they?”
“Mostly pit bulls. But once people heard about the place they started dropping off all kinds of dogs. Karen Bowler’s overrun out there.” He shook his head in sympathy.
She drew back in surprise, a visceral response to the breed. “Isn’t he afraid for Dilly with those dogs?”
“He says he’s not. Your mother won’t allow Dilly anywhere near the kennels. We don’t tell her she goes with Clay sometimes.” He tapped the side of his nose in his familiar secret-from-Mom gesture. What Hope didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
“Two years,” she muttered. Janna hadn’t mentioned them building a new home. It must have come about after her accident.
“He jumped on the idea to keep busy. As if raising Dilly and taking over a vet clinic wasn’t enough to keep his mind occupied. He’s a good vet. Doesn’t overcharge and never tries to upsell. I guess he needed more distraction. It’s not good for a man with a child to raise to wallow in the past.”
“He handed Dilly off to Mom.”
“He didn’t feel equipped to do everything on his own, and your mother, well, she needed Dilly. And Janna had dropped her off here plenty of times. Dilly was used to being here.”
She nodded. Maybe Clay saw himself in the dogs: battered, bruised and unwanted. Maybe the dogs were easier to deal with than facing life without his wife. She’d bet Dilly’s dance classes started after Janna died. There’s no way her sister would have agreed.
“Is Clay seeing anyone?” she asked. A new wife may want some say in how a stepdaughter was raised. Hope would hate being usurped in a role she relished.
“As far as I can tell Clay keeps to himself.” He reached into the fridge and pulled out a jug of iced tea and held it up in offer.
“Yes, please, I’m parched.” She waited while Nate poured two glasses.
If Clay was on his own, that’s how he wanted it. He’d always been attractive and had girls fluttering around him in school. But once Janna had set her sights on him, she’d made sure no other girls had had a chance.
“He and his sister, Elle, were united against the world. She was loud and mouthy while he was quiet and stern, but they had each other's backs.” There’d been fights and suspensions as they’d defended each other as far back as grade school. Eventually, nobody messed with the Fosters.
Nate shook his head and slid the hot dogs under the broiler. “Elle Foster left town about the time Janna and Clay got married. I’d say Clay Foster’s happier with animals than he is with people.”
One brisk knock on the side door startled them both. “Hey there,” came a low male voice as Clay stepped into the kitchen.
“You’re here earlier than usual,” Nate said. “I’m just getting her snack ready.”
“Mac and cheese, I see.”
Clay was as attractive as ever: commanding, intense, and bad-boy handsome. He was thinner than she remembered, but then she’d never studied him. Much. There was something dangerous and exciting about Clay Foster, and she’d preferred not to think about that. Today he wore clean pressed khakis, a vivid-red polo shirt topped by a worn leather jacket and stood with his hands on his hips, knees, and feet braced. “The Punk not here yet?”
Nate offered his hand as if it were rare to have his son-in-law in his home. Maybe he waited outside most of the time. “Clay,” he greeted him with a nod. “Hope had an errand on the way home. They’ll be here any minute.”
“Nate.” He shook hands with Nate and ducked his head at her, but not before an assessing glance. His intent focus was one of the few things she recalled about the teenager he’d been. That and the town’s negative reaction to the Fosters. “Mercy, I heard you were back. Staying long?”
His tone was coolly objective, but his eyes said he was keenly interested in her response. Unfortunately, she didn’t have an answer for him.
“You’re asking the unknowable.” She shrugged off the question. The question that she’d avoided all day by hiding inside her daddy’s house waiting for the phone to ring. Pathetic.
He peered directly into her eyes when she hedged and suddenly she knew he wanted her gone. A spark of pique crackled and made her sit straighter. Why should he care how long she stayed?
She wasn’t doing anything that might affect him. The pique burned down to curiosity just as quickly as it had sparked. She didn’t much care what Clay wanted.
She glanced at her hands where they rested on top of the newspaper. “My dad makes the best mac and cheese in the world. It’s his best dish, and it got me through a lot.”
“Through a lot?” he echoed in a tone that dismissed the idea that she’d had her share of troubles.
She nodded. The disappointments in the pageant world could be tough on a kid. But considering his childhood, she decided against saying so. “Sometimes nothing’s better than Dad’s mac and cheese,” she said vaguely, not wanting to dwell on past failures when she had a big whopper of a failure to deal with now. “Mom and Dilly should be here any minute,” she repeated her dad’s earlier comment and drummed her fingers on the top page of the paper.
From Clay’s hesitation to take a seat and Nate’s deference, these social moments must be rare, though the men should feel a bond through her niece. “Oh, I just remembered that I found something,” Nate said into the silence and rushed off to a back room.
Alone with her brother-in-law for the first time ever, she was at a loss. The last time she’d seen him had been at Janna’s funeral. He’d withdrawn and walked to the front of the chapel, where he’d held a sleeping Dilly in his arms as he stared down at the casket. He’d been deathly pale, unshaven, and visibly shaken.
Her mother had blamed it on a bender, but now Mercy wasn’t sure. There hadn’t been a hint of the wild life Clay used to live since before Dilly was born. He’d put all that behind him when fatherhood had come calling.
Janna was the one who hadn’t settled into parenthood. Two years had given Mercy the distance she needed to see the truth.
“So, uh, how’ve you been?” She slid over to the next stool to let him see he was welcome to sit. She wasn’t sure he’d take a seat otherwise.
“Busy. Took over Doc Rimmel’s clinic when he retired.”
“I see you keep the letters to the editor hopping mad.” She tapped a chipped fingernail on the paper. She pulled her hand back. She’d noticed the chip earlier but hadn’t bothered to repair the polish. “The dogs?”
“Oh, yeah.” He slid onto the stool next to her but kept his back straight and his hands on his knees. “But those kennels were there for years before the new house was built. The Bowlers bred prize poodles before the rescue started up. Dogs have been there as long as I can remember.”
Nate returned carrying a carved wooden chest Mercy recognized. “Janna hid that under her bed,” she said when she saw it. “I hope whatever’s in there isn’t what I recall.”
Her father shook his head. “Before she hid her pot, she kept these in here,” and he opened the lid to show Clay.
“Formula One race cars?” He lifted one out that was vintage racing green. Retro.”
“She loved them,” Nate said with a voice full of nostalgia. “Ran them around the house all the time.”
Clay spun the tiny wheels and pursed his lips admiringly. “Nice. They’d still take some corners.”
“Dilly might like them,” Nate said as he closed the lid and held the box out for Clay to take.
Clay’s laugh was dry but warm. “She’ll love them. Thanks, Nate.” He took the box and set it on the floor. When he straightened again, he drummed his fingers on the counter.
The kitchen warmed with the scent of broiling hot dogs. Nate bent to check them in the oven. “Mom will have Dilly here any minute now,” Dad said again. A lot of minutes had gone by since Clay’s arrival, but who was counting?
Mercy slipped the newspaper under her arm and retreated to the living room and hoped it was far enough. She loved her mother, but this return home had made Hope prickly as hell and it just plain hurt to look at her niece. It was cowardly to avoid the child, but Mercy needed to ease into it. Her happy voice and smiles sent spears of loss through her. Dilly sounded like Janna.
But there was no escape because Clay followed her, making her feel more of a coward. What effect did his stern expression have on a young girl?
He took temporary ownership of her dad’s lounger while she settled on the sofa. She picked up the remote control to aim at the TV. In that breathless moment between hitting the on button and when the picture appeared, the silence grew chill. Didn’t he see she wanted to be left alone?
A game show lit the screen and the sound blared but that didn’t stop Clay. No sirree. “You didn’t answer my question. How long will you be here?”
She shrugged, flipped channels, and lowered the sound a few levels.
He leaned in close and slid his hand over hers to take the remote. His unguarded focus caught her and the remote slipped from her fingers into his. “I need to know because your mom’s time with Dilly is good for her. With you here, Hope might—”
“What?” she cut him off, afraid of where this was going. “Ignore her motherless granddaughter?” A knot tightened in her chest. “Is that what Janna told you?” she lowered her voice but couldn’t keep the ice out of it. “That our mother is capable of that?”
Clay looked over his shoulder toward the kitchen where Nate was busy stirring macaroni noodles. When he turned back to face her, his features firmed into sharp angles. “She told me about how you got all Hope’s attention. She said if you ever came back, Hope would do it all over again.” His hands flexed on the lounger arms. “Dilly needs her and I don’t want you taking Hope’s time.”
“Bullshit. Janna never wanted anyone watching what she was up to. Because Janna’s main concern was not getting caught.” She’d never wanted their mother’s attention. Janna had rebelled against whatever attention she got. Frustration rose as Mercy remembered the arguments and strife that filled their home during the worst of Janna’s teen years. “Of course my sister put her own twisted spin on our home life.”
“Bud down at the bus depot is married to my receptionist. You remember Bud and Sybil?”
Bud. Shit. At her nod, he went on. “Sybil tells me you arrived with all your goods in boxes. Far cry from the way you used to come to town.”
“So? What of it?” She hadn’t lied or put on airs. She didn’t recall saying a word to good old Bud. She’d sat on the bench and waited for Nate to come get her. Oh, wait, she had to ask Bud to call him because she couldn’t waste money on a cab.