Forest Grove, Oregon
Special thanks to my sweet husband who has put up with undone dishes and late nights for far too long.
To Liz Adair and Tanya Mills, who were with me in Kanab when I finished the last pages of the first draft in a blaze of writing glory.
To Heather Moore who gave it the first edit and believed in the story enough for me to carry forward.
And, to Mary and the real Paige who showed me the joy of goat milking up close. There is something so loveable about these creatures that this story grew from that joy.
TWENTY MINUTES BEFORE THE GRAND OPENING of the Vancouver Farmers’ Market, Paige Lindon emerged from her rusty hatchback, juggling six large boxes. She dashed past the florist, waved at the jewelry maker, cut through the Teriyaki stand and stopped cold in her tracks. Her booth, a white canopy with cheap aluminum display tables, looked to have been touched by Midas himself, only instead of gold, everything had turned to cedar.
In the center, her friend Joe stood with arms outstretched in a sleeveless tee and shorts, showing off his lean sinewy limbs. His shag cut had grown sun-streaked during the winter months, probably from skiing on Mt. Hood. He was alone. That should have been her first clue. “Hey, babe, what do you think?”
Being called ‘babe’ by him was as surprising as his latest construction project. A mixture of confusion and dread balled in her chest. “Nice? You must have been working on this for weeks.”
“Longer, actually.” He bobbed his head. “And it’s all for you.”
She couldn’t tell if he was referring to the updated booth or himself personally. She scanned the twelve by twelve space. In addition to two planked display tables and a comfy-looking Adirondack chair, Joe had built an entire structure replete with exposed poles and a cedar shingle roof. Off to one corner, a small fountain that looked like an old pump poured water into a rustic wooden bucket. Wow.
She relaxed enough to let herself smile. “It’s beautiful, and you’re incredibly talented.”
“I know.” He grabbed her shoulders and gave her a little shake, not even noticing that he almost caused her to drop her boxes. Then he strutted over to the pump and worked the handle. “Get it? You sell soap, and this is water.” A robust stream of clear liquid rushed from the pump’s mouth, hitting the water below with enough force to create a small tsunami which splashed over the bucket’s sides. “Soap and water. Cool, huh?”
“Yeah. Cool.” She placed her load on one of the tables, impressed by the filled bucket. The closest water spigot was five booths down. With a gift this big, there had to be strings attached. She reached in the pocket of her coveralls to retrieve her wallet. Even though she didn’t have much, she’d learned the hard way not to become indebted to friends. Her new neighbor who had volunteered to milk her goats in the morning was already becoming a problem. “I’m so grateful. Really. But, I’d feel better if I could pay you for all this.”
His brief hug caught her off guard and with good cause. Joe’s girlfriend was as well known for her jealousy as for her parent’s philanthropy. “You can pay me with dinner tonight.”
“Will Julie be okay with that?” Paige had heard they were all but engaged.
By the time she turned around, he had already begun walking toward the market entrance. In the far distance she could see a milling crowd waiting for the barriers to be lifted. She called to him, “Uh, aren’t you going the wrong way? Your booth’s over there.”
“No, I’m windsurfing on the Columbia with some friends.” He jogged back toward her. “You know what they say about all work and no play.”
“Yeah, that you’re going to miss the first day?”
“Nah, it’s all good.” He gave a crooked smile that exposed a single dimple. “I put my phone number on a big sign, so people can call if they’re interested in my stuff.”
Paige could think of so many problems with that plan that she couldn’t even count them, but given how much effort he’d gone to in outfitting her new stall, she chose to be supportive. “That’s one way of doing things.”
Out of the blue an idea seemed to hit him so hard it made him literally jump in the air. “Hey, you could do the same thing. Want to come with? I’ve got an old bikini and an extra wetsuit in the car.”
“I think I better stay here and actually sell something. Gotta pay the bills, you know?” By the look on his face, she knew he didn’t. Son of one of Portland’s elite, Joe had never wanted for anything in his life, and if the gossip around town was at all accurate, Julie’s family had enough money to keep it that way. “But, you have fun.”
He bent over, pecked her on the cheek and lingered before speaking in a practiced suave tone she’d never heard from him before. “I will when I get back.” Her eyes followed him until he was lost in the waiting crowd.
Stunned, Paige dumped the contents of her boxes on one of the cedar tables and started arranging hockey puck-sized disks wrapped in thick paper, making sure the little goat surrounded by purple flowers on each label faced the right direction. Maybe, for someone like Joe, a gift this big was nothing. She could feel the moisture on her cheek where he had planted the kiss and wiped it away.
A woman’s low voice buzzed in her ear. “Since when are you and Joe a thing?”
“Don’t be crazy.” Paige didn’t even have to turn around. “I think his girlfriend would disagree, Elaine.”
“They were the cutest couple ever, matching trust funds and all.” The middle-aged woman clucked her tongue. “But that’s been over for months. At the gym I heard her say that his ‘little obsession’ was too much for her. Funny. Must not have been his woodworking hobby she was referring to.” Elaine lowered her designer sunglasses and raised perfectly shaped eyebrows.
“Me? That’s ridiculous.” Paige sputtered. As long as she’d known him, Joe had some tall blonde in designer clothes under his arm. Most of them were her customers. In fact, that’s how they’d met. She wasn’t blonde or tall, the only designer name she knew was Levi, and she got those from the thrift store. “We’re friends. That’s it. You know he only dates rich girls.”
“Well, you could be one, too.” Elaine clasped her arm with a vice grip and stared into her eyes with an intensity that was new, even if she’d made the offer a dozen times. “Let me buy you out. Seven hundred thousand in your bank account by the end of business today, and that’s only for 51% of your existing formulas. It’s my last offer.” She gestured to the booths around them. “If you want to continue your foray among the little people, fine. We’ll write that into the contract. Come on, what do you say?”
Paige laughed and gently removed her hand. Elaine had known her late Uncle Bill as long as she could remember, only he seemed to endure her more than like her. She was beginning to see why. “Elaine, I’ve told you before, I’m not selling the formulas. I will sell you as much product as you want, although a large order may take a few weeks.”
“What do you think I am? Walmart?” She smoothed her short bleached hair while her harsh features seemed to grow more angular. “I’ve already got a license agreement in the works. Sign it, and we’ll both be rich.”
“If only it were that simple.” Paige knew it couldn’t happen yet. The secret, which she’d never shared, laid as much in the formula as in the milk only her goats could produce. As of now, there was a limited supply, so scaling nationally would be impossible. “Do you need anything else?”
Elaine sidled up next to her and pointed downward with French-tipped nails. “Just curious. How’d you get the back of your pants covered in mud?”
“What?” Paige pulled at the fabric trying to see how bad it was. “It must have happened in the back meadow this morning.”
“And why were you out in a meadow?”
“My new neighbor.” Paige could feel her forehead growing tight, and she had to clear her throat to continue. “She bought the emu farm next door and has been trying to help me out. Lately, she’s been more of a liability than a benefit. It’s like she doesn’t listen to a thing I say.”
“I hear you.” Elaine seemed satisfied. “Some women need a man to tell them what’s what or nothing happens. When I run into those types, I fire them.”
Before she left home that morning, Paige had told Blanche that she wanted to hire someone else. Her neighbor had begged to be given another chance. Something in her undertone gave Paige the feeling that if she hadn’t reconsidered, Blanche might not have spoken to her again. “Putting my foot down could be the beginning of World War III. She lives right next door, and I don’t want to create an enemy.”
“Enemies build character,” Elaine said it as if proud of the fact.
“But she volunteered. I offered to pay her, but she wouldn’t let me. Can you fire someone who’s working for free?” Paige felt trapped all over again. “It makes a difference.”
“It certainly does.” Elaine wagged a finger. “Free help is nothing to complain about.”
“Only this is the third time Blanche let one of the goats out.” Paige plopped down in the cedar chair. “My stock is irreplaceable, and I’m not talking from an emotional perspective.”
Elaine folded her arms across her chest. “Whatever you say, crazy goat lady.”
Paige straightened in her seat. “You do remember I finished my masters in bio-chemical engineering last year. There is significant science behind everything I do.”
“Yeah, abnormal psychology.” Elaine chuckled under her breath. “Go on. Not about the science, about your neighbor.”
“Who keeps losing my goats.” Paige unclenched her fists and tried to calm herself. “So this morning, my prize nanny goes missing. Blanche didn’t even notice! Luckily, the ground was wet enough that I could follow her tracks through the woods to the hidden meadow. If it wasn’t so muddy, I might never have found Petunia.”
“Petunia?” Elaine gave a low chuckle under her breath. “So, you have no emotional investment in this creature, but you give it a name? You need a boyfriend.”
“And you sound like Blanche, but you’re both wrong. What I need is an assistant.” Paige felt certain of it as soon as the words left her mouth. “One who could help milk the goats so Blanche would go home and cover my booth and update my website and…” She thought about her financial situation and leaned back in the chair, more tired than before. “…who would work for next to nothing. I doubt I’ll find any takers.”
“Well, Joe seems to be applying for the position.”
Paige didn’t even hesitate. “No.”
“Why not?” Elaine turned toward the soaps and started picking through them. “He’s adorable and rich. What else could you ask for?”
“He doesn’t have dreams or want to become anything.” Paige got to her feet, straightening up the stacks that her friend had destroyed. “I want someone who knows what they want and is willing to reach for it.”
“Watch out, my dear. You’re reaching too high.” Elaine looked at Paige through the corner of her eye. “The only things I expect from my husband is that he stays out of jail and that his checks cash.”
“I’d rather stay single.”
“And you just might. Oh, Honey Jojoba. This is new.” Elaine tucked the soap in her purse and kept shopping. “You know, one of the perks of being single is that you can pretend to like people and get all sorts of free stuff.”
“What are you talking about?” Paige scrunched up her nose.
“Well, put the moves on Joe, and you could get a handful of five star dinners and maybe even a new barn, if you like cedar.”
Paige recoiled at the thought. “No, I want the opposite. When Joe had a girlfriend, we were great friends. Why can’t it be like that again?”
“It can.” Elaine’s sharp cheekbones seemed to become more defined. “You said you needed to hire help anyway. So what if your new assistant happens to be a young, muscled stallion, and you happen to treat him like your boyfriend? Then, you and Joe would be back to normal.” She tilted her head in a calculated way. “Problem solved.”
Paige shuddered at the thought. “I won’t fake my feelings for anyone.”
“Who said anything about faking it? Didn’t you hear me? I said find someone who’s physically appealing to you.” Elaine licked her thick lips. “He’d only pretend to be your boyfriend anyway. Like when your neighbor’s around. Or here at the market. You could even make public affection a condition of employment.”
Paige took a step away from her customer. “I’m pretty sure I could be sued for that.”
“People can sue you for anything. When it comes right down to it, I say do what you want.” Elaine drew close again. “You know, if you agree to our deal, I’ll have enough money to leave my husband and get a pretend boyfriend, too.” She seemed to almost chuckle. “Not a bad idea.”
“Not happening.” Paige restacked the soaps.
“We’ll see.” The smile on Elaine’s mouth didn’t match the glare in her eye.
Paige was a little surprised there were no other customers around. She pulled out her cellphone to check the time and saw that she’d gotten a text message. A friend from college was planning on dropping by later. Paige grinned at the thought as she confirmed there were still two minutes before the farmers’ market officially opened. “Uh, Elaine, how did you get in?”
“Vendor parking. I figure if I get a ticket, I can afford it.” She stuffed a half dozen more bars in her purse and handed Paige a hundred-dollar bill. “Keep the change.”
For how much soap she took, Paige knew Elaine was getting a discount but let it slide.
“You can thank me for the free advice later. Now don’t you dare make a deal with anyone else before you counter to me. I have a feeling you are going places, Paige Lindon, and I’m not being left behind.”
Elaine retreated as the first wave of customers descended in force, scrambling for their favorite herbal blends and asking details about Paige’s three new formulas. The rush focused all her energies on what she loved, and Paige could feel the stress of the morning drift away. Only one thought continued to itch in the recesses of her mind. She did need to hire someone. And if that someone could keep her new neighbor from taking over her barn and stop her friendship with Joe from turning weird, all the better.
THE NORTHWEST SKY WAS CLEAR FOR A CHANGE, enticing far more visitors to the farmers’ market than Paige ever remembered. By noon the two-day supply of soap she had brought was almost gone. She might have simply left the booth unattended to run home and get more, if it weren’t for Joe’s pump. Somehow every out-of-control kid from toddler to teen had to work the handle and experiment with it.
It wouldn’t have been a problem except that her booth sat right over a part of the sidewalk inlaid with a brass crest of the city which got slippery. Two kids had skinned their knees, and an older woman had stumbled because of it. The girl from the Teriyaki place had lent her a roll of paper towels, and, since then, Paige had spent as much time wiping the ground as talking with customers. The last thing she needed was a lawsuit.
A group of three young mothers entered her canopy with a bevy of kids around them, of course drawn by the water pump. Paige knelt, so she’d be eyelevel with the youngest and showed the towheaded toddler how it worked. He clapped his hands in delight and started to laugh. Naturally, she laughed too and invited all the children to try the device and wash their hands with her soap, accepting that she’d have to clean up the floor later. While she engaged the kids, their mothers walked around the booth, lifting the bars, smelling them and talking among themselves. Paige kept an eye on the women while she passed out paper towels for the kids to dry off with.
“Hempseed and Meadowfoam? I’ve read about these,” one mom said.
Paige approached her. “Yes. It’s a new blend I developed. It softens scar tissue and reduces skin discoloration.”
“No way.” The young mother’s eyes widened. “If this works on my C-section scar, I will go through the moon.”
One of them seemed skeptical. “Sometimes these herbal places make claims . . .”
The children were getting soaked, and the overspray was leaving puddles, but Paige had to explain. “Not many people know goat milk contains beta-caseins that are easily absorbed into the skin. They act as an agent to allow for greater delivery of known healing agents.”
“Sold,” the first woman said. “I’ll take three, and if it works, I know fifteen women that will be here next week.”
Paige ran the woman’s card and was soon waving farewell to the cute little blonde boy who trotted after his mother and retreating friends. Rolling up her sleeves, she grabbed the quickly shrinking roll of paper towels and got on her knees to wipe up. She had barely begun when a cold hand clasped her shoulder.
Startled, she leapt to her feet. When she saw her friend, Austin Ricks, Paige threw her arms around his neck. He still looked fourteen even though she guessed he was only about six years younger than she was. “You came!”
Austin patted her back with the warmth of a robot until she pulled away. “I told you I would visit.” His tone was serious.
How wonderful that he hadn’t changed. Sure, he floundered in most social situations and said whatever was on his mind even if it was entirely tactless, but she adored his lack of guile and his honest heart. “And when you say something, it always happens. I remember.” She handed him some paper towels and got back to her knees. “You can take that side if you want. So, tell me what you’re up to now that you’re a big graduate.”
Austin scrubbed the cement and brass ground so hard his towel felt apart. Okay, so another of his faults was his tendency to be a bit too thorough, but that had saved her GPA the last semester of graduate school. He grabbed a second paper towel while he talked. “I’m still interning for that firm in the city but finish up next month and hope to get hired full-time. Next month, that is.”
An older woman squealed from a distance and dragged her middle-aged companion toward them. “I finally found you! Your booth is so different I didn’t recognize it.” She marched up to Paige. “My daughter’s got this horrible crocodile neck. See it? I keep telling her cream is not enough.”
The daughter reddened. “Mother.”
Paige could see the family resemblance around the nose and cheeks.
Ignoring her grown daughter’s clear embarrassment, the older woman opened her purse. “Your Apricot Almond Oil, that’s what she needs.”
Paige could feel the heat in her cheeks and imagined she had turned almost as red as the daughter. “I’m so sorry. I’ve sold out, but I’ve got five other kinds, two of which might work. Would you like to try some—”
“Sold out?” The older woman snapped her purse shut. “It’s only the first day. That’s like going to school without your homework done.”
“I know.” Paige wished now she had left the booth earlier to restock. “I can have some here in about half an hour as long as Austin doesn’t mind covering for me.”
The obstinate woman looked to her watch. “That would be adequate. We’ve got some other shopping to do and will be back. Half an hour, it is.”
Paige knew that one bad review on her website could be a real setback. If her predictions were correct, she could double output within the year. Once her inventory was up, she’d need every testimonial. A woman as determined as that could push sales either way.
Hoping Austin wouldn’t mind, she turned back to the pump, but he wasn’t there. She combed the walkway and was surprised to see him huddled beside a man she’d never met before. Going up to the pair, she had a strange feeling they were talking about her. “Can I have Austin back for a second?” She shoved her hands in her pockets, waiting for a response. He didn’t move.
Austin looked as though he’d sucked on a lemon. “I must go, Paige.”
“Really?” Her shoulders slumped. “I had hoped you’d cover for me. I’ll only be gone half an hour. Tops.”
“I can do it,” Austin’s friend said.
“And who are you?” Paige guessed they were close to the same age, but something about this guy was off. His teeth were bleached, and his nails impeccable, but his clothes told a completely different story. The plastic snaps on his wrinkled plaid shirt would have groaned if they could, it was stretched so tight. At least he had washboard abs. But, his too short jeans were so worn she could make out the edges of his wallet. She wouldn’t have considered his offer, except for one thing. His arm was around Austin in a protective, kind way, and Austin was beaming at this guy like at an older brother. She remembered Austin’s reaction to meeting her last boyfriend three years ago. He’d never liked the cheat even before she’d realized he was unfaithful. No, Austin was usually right about people. But was his adoration enough of an endorsement to trust a total stranger?
Austin gestured with a stiff hand. “Meet my friend, Sterling Keller. Now I have to go.”
“You’re sure?” It was a long way to come for the short time he had stayed, but there was no use arguing with him. Austin rarely changed his mind. She gave him another hug. “Thanks for coming.”
“You’re most welcome. Sterling will work hard and be very punctual.” Austin smiled as if he had told a joke that only he knew the punchline to. Then he shook Sterling’s hand formally. “Looks like the booth is yours, Mr. Keller.” Without another word, he left.
Standing across from the complete stranger, Paige tried not to stare at his face. Her eyes drifted to his defined pecs and toned thighs, before jolting back to reality. “Okay then.”
As she headed toward her booth, he hustled to walk beside her. Her gaze flitted his direction, and he smiled and tipped his worn Stetson in a way only a true cowboy can. A rush of warmth bubbled through her, pushing laughter from her lungs.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
“Nothing,” She couldn’t help but think how proud Elaine would be of her current predicament, even if it would only last a few hours. “Well, let me give you the run down, so you’ll know what to do while I’m gone.”
Only nine cakes of soap were left. At least he wouldn’t have to sell anything. “On second thought, why don’t you simply tell people I’ll be back soon? Oh, and be careful to keep the kids away from the pump.”
“You don’t like children?”
She turned to face him, not realizing he was standing so close. He smelled of fresh hay and Old Spice like her uncle used to. It took her a second to find her voice. “I adore kids, but the water makes the ground slick, so they might slip and fall.”
Her answer seemed to brighten his pale blue eyes. Their unusual color intrigued her as much as the way he looked at her. As though she was the only person in the world. As if he wanted to listen to anything she had to say.
“If only you were what I needed right now.” The words slipped out unbidden, and she reddened for the second time in less than a half hour. Paige covered her cheeks with her hands and spun away from him, mentally kicking herself. She knew nothing about this guy. That kind of friendliness had got her into this mess with Blanche. You say hi to a stranger, and before you know, it they all but move in with you. Wanting to be as far away from him as possible, she grabbed her purse. “Do what you want. It’ll only be twenty minutes.”
“As long as it takes.” His deep voice rang through her like a bell.
She had walked all the way to her car and still couldn’t wipe the silly grin leavening her cheeks at the thought of him. Yup. No faking feelings here. Elaine would be thrilled.
STERLING WATCHED HER GO and breathed a long sigh of relief. When he had seen Austin at Paige’s booth, he’d thought he was done for. Luckily, she got distracted, and he convinced the intern that his ticket to full-time employment was an introduction. In return, Austin had made Sterling promise two things. To be punctual when she called, and to be nice to her. The first wasn’t a problem since Sterling always fulfilled his commitments. And the second, from what little he’d seen of Paige, would be even easier.
PAIGE’S TIRES SKIDDED TO A STOP against the gravel driveway. She bounded from the car with keys in hand while trying to figure out which wholesale customers would be least bothered by a delay in delivery. With only two batches curing on the kitchen table, she resigned herself to pulling another all-nighter. Her house key was poised to meet the lock when the heavy oak door groaned open on its own.
Could she have forgotten to lock up? She poked her head in and shouted, “Hello?”
She listened. Not a sound. Chills raced up her spine.
Taking half a step forward, she scanned the room and relaxed. It looked the same as she’d left it. A mess. Every surface was either crammed with bottles of crushed herbs and essential oils, stacked with curing soap tins and blankets for wrapping them, or littered with printouts of orders and new recipes. In the kitchen the sink overflowed with crusty muffin tins that she used for soap forms. No way someone would even think about breaking in. They wouldn’t be able to find anything even if they did. She must not have pulled the door all the way shut behind her.
Feeling foolish, she rushed to the end of the hall where a stack of boxes sat ready to be mailed. The sound of packing tape tearing off the first box was a bit painful. All that work would have to be redone, and her invoices would be wrong, but what other choice did she have?
Ripping open another box, she groaned at the thought of tracking their replacement. The format for a simple spreadsheet appeared in her mind. It would save hours of work and should only take a few minutes to create. She rushed to the computer sitting on the arm of her sofa. Before her fingers could touch the keyboard, her heart leapt in her chest. The laptop was open.
She clearly remembered slamming it shut once she heard Blanche out at the barn, right before her shower. In fact, she’d been so excited about the first day of the market and had so little sleep that she’d shut it too hard and worried she might have damaged the case. No doubt about it. Someone had been here.
A second later, a board creaked on the other side of the house. Her head shot up, and she held her breath. Every nerve in her body jolted on alert. All was silent for a full minute. Then a rustling sound came from her bedroom. That was it. Her legs seemed to have a mind of their own as they propelled her out the door.
Pulling out her cellphone, she dialed.
“911. What is your emergency?”
“I think there is someone in my house. I live alone in a rural area. When I got home, my door was open.” She was panting out of fear.
“We’ll send someone out immediately. Stay on the line until they arrive.”
“I will. Should I wait outside?” she asked.
She reworded her concern. “Would it be better if I got in my car and locked the doors?”
Still no reply.
She held her cell out and looked at the screen. It was black. The little red light on the side was blinking. Her battery was dead.
Pocketing the phone, she tapped her foot on the front step and peered through the open doorway. Between school loans and the costs of starting her fledging business, she didn’t have anything left worth taking. The only thing of value she could think of was behind her. The goats!
She sprinted across the gravel driveway to the old barn. Her milking goats were kept in the side paddock which butted against the yard. They rushed forward as soon as they saw her, braying and leaping up against the fence to present their heads for a good scratching, but she knew she couldn’t stop.
Hurrying to the big barn, she slid the wide door to the side and was immediately accosted by the strong smell of disinfectant. It hardly looked like her barn. All the galvanized buckets were neatly stacked in the corner, every surface had been wiped down, and the floor had been scrubbed. Blanche had never been that tidy. It looked as though someone was trying to erase any trace that they had been there. She remembered leaving Petunia bawling in the empty stall, but now the loudest sound she could make out was the whirring of the chest freezer against the back wall.
Dread expanded in her stomach, the closer she drew to the old stalls. The top boards were chewed unevenly from horses long since gone. She could see half of the empty stall floor over the raw wooden gate, and her heart sank. Could her prize nanny really be gone? Throwing open the latch, Paige lunged forward and almost tripped over the sleeping animal. She dropped to her knees and clutched the goat’s long white neck. “You’re safe.”
Petunia lifted her head and bawled in response.
Paige got to her feet so grateful she didn’t even care that her knees were covered in muck. With no time to lose, she left the now noisy goat whining in its pen and marched to the window to check on the rest of the expectant nannies in the back field. When they were all accounted for, she headed to the freezer to double check the milk supply. Large Ziploc bags, looking like sheets of fawn-colored clay, filled almost half of the large chest space.
Somewhere in the barn her fear morphed to indignation. How dare someone try to take what she’d worked so hard for? How dare they come on her property, violate her childhood home and scare her goats? She wouldn’t stand for it.
A sharp pitchfork hung to the left of the barn door, and she grabbed it with both hands. The police would be here soon enough, but until they arrived, she would not cower another minute. Shoulders back and chin up, she crossed the driveway again. Using her weapon, she pushed the front door wide open and scoped the area for any evidence of an intruder. Nothing stood out.
Trying to sound menacing, she shouted, “Whoever is in there, watch out. I’m armed and am not afraid to use it.” She held the pitchfork higher and stepped into the front hall, jabbing at the air as she whipped her head back and forth. By the time she reached the boxes she’d opened, her entire focus was on the hall going to the bedrooms. If anyone was holed up in her house, it would be in there.
“The police will be here any minute, so don’t try anything! I will hurt you,” she warned, feeling less and less confident the longer she was in the house. Her gaze lowered to the boxes and then returned to the back hall. Maybe she should go outside until the police arrived, after all. She took a step back but paused. Wait. If the cops do catch this guy, everything in the house could be considered part of a crime scene. She needed the extra soap for her booth. If she put it in the car now, she’d have it. Then whatever the police did wouldn’t matter.
She leaned the pitchfork against the wall and reached for the boxes. “Don’t move back there,” she added since now she was defenseless.
In response, she heard something crash in her bedroom. The box fell from her hands, replaced by the pitchfork. Screaming like a banshee, she charged down the hall. At the threshold she scanned her bedroom, but the door was only half open, blocking her view. Panting, she leapt forward, twisted to the right and kicked the door back to expose who might be hidden behind it. Nothing. She heard a soft rustling to her back and shivered. Slowly, she adjusted her grip on the pitchfork’s handle and gritted her teeth.
“I warned you,” she shouted as she pivoted on her left foot and launched her weapon like a javelin.
It stuck deep in the middle of her empty mattress.
Air deflated from her lungs as she watched lace curtains from the window above her bed flap in an early spring breeze. Through the open window, she could see dark clouds moving in. She peered across the room at her shelf where a book had fallen over. Just the wind.
Slapping the window shut and locking it, she marched into the kitchen. From the heat in her cheeks, she could guess how much she was blushing. So she’d forgotten to lock the front door and left her bedroom window open, that was possible. She’d only gotten three hours of sleep the night before. And what if she’d been mistaken about the laptop, too. Maybe it was yesterday she slammed it closed. The worst part was she couldn’t even call the police back to tell them it was a false alarm because her phone was dead.
She pressed the palms of her hands against her temples in an effort to stave off the headache she could feel growing behind her eyes. Instead of worrying about an imagined stranger invading her home, she should be worried about the actual stranger watching her booth. She lifted the two boxes of soap and carried them to her car on shaky legs. How could anyone have been here? She laughed to herself. Where would they park? Her road was windy and narrow with no shoulder, and the only other house close to hers belonged to Blanche. Logically, she had nothing to worry about.
She made three more trips to the car before all the boxes were loaded. Her plan was to wait for the police officer, try to explain and then head back to the market. After letting Sterling go, she’d simply pour out the water from the pump and leave the booth unattended for the rest of the afternoon, so she could get her orders mailed. It felt like a failure of sorts but better than the alternative.
On her front steps, she pulled the door shut purposefully and tried to shove the key in the lock but found it difficult. Her hand was shaking, not from the recent fright but from the cold. Glancing up, she could see a thick sheet of clouds pushing out the sun. The afternoon seemed to be taking a chilly turn. Luckily, her favorite red sweater hung in the front hall closet.
She entered the house one last time. The closet was a deep space set under the attic stairs. Her sweater was at the very back. In the dim she could barely make it out among some of Uncle Bill’s old coats, which she couldn’t bear to get rid of. She yanked the red sweater off its hanger.
Dismissing her unease as an echo of previous fear, she pivoted to return to the car. Then she froze. Something had glistened in the dark. In the back corner. Right at eyelevel. Was it the handle of her umbrella on a hook? Her mind would not let her accept what she was seeing. It disappeared and reappeared again. Like a blink. No. It was the reflection of a human eye. Her mouth opened on its own to scream, but a gloved hand clamped across it, stopping any sound from escaping.
Shoving her from behind, the person cleared the closet then let her go. Paige still hadn’t seen the intruder’s face and wanted to run. The open door was right in front of her, but the distant sound of sirens bolstered her courage. She had to turn around.
“Blanche?” Paige was amazed that for her age, the woman was incredibly strong. Paige had assumed the bulk of her was fat, but it was all muscle.
Her neighbor’s gloved hands went up as though Paige was pointing a gun at her. “I’m so sorry. I came in to put milk in your freezer because the barn freezer is full and—”
“That’s a lie.” Paige flared. “I just checked it.”
Blanche lowered her hands as her heavy brow lifted. “Where’s your gun?”
“What? I don’t even own a gun.” Paige couldn’t understand what she was talking about.
“Didn’t you say you were armed?” she said evenly.
“Oh, that.” Paige let out a shuddering breath at the thought of how silly the whole pitchfork thing would have looked. Luckily, it was only Blanche, but she shouldn’t be in the house. This was wrong. “So what are you really doing here?”
Blanche moved toward the kitchen and sank onto one of the stools near the counter. “I suppose it’s time to come clean.” She seemed somewhat contrite. “I heard how popular your soap was and wanted to get the recipe for my emu oil. If I could turn it to soap . . .”
“It’s a whole different process.” How could her neighbor not have known that? The clean barn came to mind. Paige shook her head, not knowing what to believe. “Nothing I’ve done would help you.”
Blanche gave her a flat grin and said, “This is all a simple misunderstanding.”
Something in the inflection didn’t sound sincere. Then Paige noticed her gloves. They weren’t work gloves for milking or doing yardwork or latex gloves for rinsing. They were leather, sleek and black. Like a professional thief would wear.
The siren grew louder. Neither of them had moved, however the atmosphere in the room had shifted somehow. Paige’s heart started to race.
“You mean you weren’t bluffing?” Blanche’s eyes became hooded. “You really called 911? You idiot.”
The air ruptured from Paige’s lungs as Blanche’s elbow met her midsection. The room seemed to tilt in slow motion until the sudden crack of her head against the floor flooded the room in white.
WITH THE WIND KNOCKED OUT OF HER, Paige couldn’t get her bearings. Her back seemed glued to the cool tile. As her eyes came into focus, she could see Blanche through the still open front door, sprinting across the driveway and behind the barn. It took a few tries to get to her feet, and she was still unsteady by the time the sheriff’s car pulled in.
“My neighbor broke into the house and was hiding in the closet.” Paige struggled to catch her breath.
The seasoned deputy put his hand to his gun. His nametag read Dunn. “Was he armed? Did he hurt you?”
“It was a woman, and I don’t think she had a weapon.” Paige put her hand to her side. “But, she knocked me down when she heard you coming and ran back toward her place.” She pointed past the barn.
“Wait, you’re saying she lives to the west? In the old Erikson place.” Deputy Dunn scratched his balding head. “It’s been empty for years.”
“Not anymore. Blanche moved in late October.” Paige said. “She’s been helping me with the morning milking.”
“Blanche, who?” The corners of his nose lifted as though he were smelling something he didn’t like.
She opened her mouth then shut it. She’d never asked. It was always only Blanche. “It should be a matter of public record.”
Dunn ran his hand across his chin, peering the direction she’d pointed. “Got a friend who’s been wantin’ to buy that place and turn it into condos for a coon’s age. He promised me one of ‘em if I greased the wheels, so to speak, but the owners aren’t sellin’.” He looked to her with concern. “It’s possible your perp’s a renter, but more than likely she’s an uninvited guest, if you get my drift. Squatter. Are you up to checking it out?”
“Definitely.” Paige rushed out the door despite the stitch in her side. “It’s faster through here.” She gestured to a path by the barn that dipped through a gulley.
The older officer huffed trying to keep up. “So tell me what we’re up against? Is this woman big and bulky or young and wiry?
“Well,” Paige hesitated. “She’s strong but a little shorter than I am and at least ten years older, maybe more.”
“Did she look homeless?”
“Not at all.” Paige turned to face him. They’d reached the driveway and could see the large home in the distance. “I first met her here. She was driving a silver sedan. It looked almost new. She gave me the impression that she’d recently come into some money, either through retirement or divorce, so she could start fixing the place up.”
From a distance the home looked opulent with Greek pillars holding up a generous front pediment, but as they drew closer, she noticed the pillars were vinyl, and the siding had moss growing in the creases. On the front door a lockbox, the kind realtors use, lay at an angle. Paige hadn’t been this close to the house since she’d met Blanche.
“Not looking good.” Dunn peered in the windows. “Nobody’s lived here in forever.”
She swallowed as she took in the unmowed lawn and weeds pushing through cracks in the sidewalk and driveway. “I’d lost one of my goats and thought it might have wandered over here. She was standing right over there and told me all her plans. But I never saw her inside.” A walk around the side of the house confirmed her suspicions. The top rim of the emu pens sagged like telephone lines after a hurricane, and waist high weeds had taken over the yard.
She’d never felt so foolish. “Why would someone do this? She was at my place almost every day for the last two months.”
Dunn looked as confused as she felt. “I’ve got to admit it’s strange, but if she had money, she was probably aiming to get more of it. Aren’t you Bill Lindon’s niece?”
“Yes.” She blinked back the emptiness at the sound of her uncle’s name.
“Didn’t you get a good insurance payout at his passing?”
She shook her head. “It barely covered the medical bills. Except for the house, I’ve got almost nothing but student loans.”
Dunn’s chin wrinkled. “But she wouldn’t have known that. Could have found your name in the obits to pick you as a target. Should we head back and see what evidence she left behind? We still might find her.” He marched that direction.
Paige wanted to salute him. “Yes, sir.”
As Deputy Dunn slid back the large barn door, he whistled. “Might have known Bill’s niece would keep her establishment ship shape. Carrying on the Lindon tradition?”
“Well…” Paige was about to explain, but Petunia started braying at the sound of their voices. The nanny lifted up on her hind legs as high as she could, so her head was peeking over the top of the stall.
Dunn went to pet the waiting goat. “Looks like she’s going to be a momma soon.”
“A few more weeks.” Paige’s smile dimmed. “She’s carrying the last of King’s seed. He’s the stud I was looking for when I met Blanche. I never found him.”
“Must have been hard to lose so much at once.” Dunn lowered his head for a moment and then raised it, looking more determined. “So who all do you have helping around here? Maybe they could tell me more about Blanche, and we could get to the bottom of this.”
Thinking back over the last months, she was surprised that no one had been there but Blanche. “I’m sorry.”
“Maybe Jim from the farm store saw her when he dropped off feed or the farrier when he clipped the goats’ hooves last or the vet when you had ‘em wormed?”
She usually did all those things herself. “I’d been hoping to hire someone, but for now it’s been just me. That’s why I was so grateful when Blanche offered to cover the morning milking,” Paige said.
Dunn’s brows furrowed. “So you invited her on the premises, and she was still here when you left?”
“In the barn, but never in the house, does that make a difference?”
“It could on the breaking and entering charge.” His face seemed to fall. “Is there a bathroom in the barn?”
“No,” Paige admitted.
“She could use that as a defense for entering the home, and if she’s older, who wouldn’t let her off? Unless she stole something. Let’s see.”
They rushed back to the house, and he took out a handkerchief to turn the knob. His whistle was louder than before. “Ms. Lindon, she did a number on this place.”
Paige could feel the color rising in her cheeks. “No, I’ve have a lot of orders lately. It’s been hard to keep up.” She shuffled through the invoices on the couch, counted the tins on the chairs and checked the packaging on the counters to make certain it was all there. “Nothing is missing.”
Dunn was kneeling in front of the kitchen counter and held up a used piece of packing tape. “There were some boxes here recently.”
Paige blinked. He certainly was good at his job, but she had to confess. “I put those in my car just before I discovered Blanche in the closet. It’s why I came home, to get more inventory for my booth at the market, and then I went to update my records and…” She rushed to her computer to check her bank account. It was as abysmal as ever but untouched. “Another dead end.”
“What about the bedrooms?” he asked.
“Bedrooms? There’s nothing of value in there.”
Dunn was already to the hall. “Receipts, credit cards, checkbook. If she’s an identity thief, it wouldn’t take much. And it could be months before they actually move on it.”
“Okay,” she had heard the book fall in the back room. What if it wasn’t the wind? “My room is to the right.”
The deputy had already made a left. “I don’t think this room was touched.”
She rushed to the threshold. Uncle Bill’s bedspread didn’t have a wrinkle on it. She kept it the same way he had while he was alive. The nightstand was dust-free and the rug freshly vacuumed. If the deputy had opened the closet, he would have found it still filled with her uncle’s pressed clothes. Paige shut the door, feeling more alone than before. “That’s not my room.”
They went the other direction and stopped at the entrance. A pile of dirty clothes filled one corner, and her dresser drawers sat askew, but she could tell Dunn’s attention rested entirely on the pitchfork sticking from her mattress like an overgrown lawn dart.
Concern filled his voice, “Did she throw that at you?”
“No,” her cheeks burned. “I threw it.”
“If you caused this woman injury, even if provoked, you could be held liable.”
“She wasn’t in the room at the time. I only thought she was.” Paige marched through the doorway in an attempt to miss the deputy’s disappointed expression. One look at the top of her dresser, and she knew it was exactly as she’d left it.
“Ms. Lindon, I don’t…”
“Wait a second.” Paige didn’t want to hear what he’d say next. She decided to comb the room herself. There had to be some evidence that Blanche was here. That the woman even existed. The bookshelf was a mess, and her chemistry textbook looked to have tumbled on the floor, which reminded her of the open window. Would any fingerprints have been obliterated when she closed it? She turned to ask the deputy but found him staring at her in a way that made her squirm. She wanted to explain how she’d been working every night into the wee hours, how she’d doubled sales while producing everything alone. She was working harder than ever and yet could never catch up, like she was running up a down escalator that kept going faster and faster. But she stopped herself. It would simply make him more certain that she’d lost her mind. Elaine’s taunt about her being a crazy goat lady echoed through her head.
Her chest felt hollow and her throat tight, but she refused to allow herself to cry. Biting her bottom lip hard enough to distract herself, she pivoted and rushed to the bathroom. Turning the water on full, she splashed her face as much to wash away tears as to pull herself back from her depressing thoughts. The cold water extinguished her burning cheeks. After a minute she turned off the faucet, feeling decidedly better. Reaching for the towel on the rack, she paused. It was folded.
She grabbed the towel, recalling the events of that morning out loud so Dunn could hear them. “I used my new blend of cardamom soap this morning for the first time. It’s supposed to relieve stress, but it wasn’t working. I was so worried about Blanche because I wanted her gone. I’d washed my hair and was drying it with this towel when I heard one of my goats bawling through the window.”
She spoke as much to the police officer as herself. “Then I threw the towel into the bathroom and ran out to the barn.” She rushed to Dunn’s side. “Blanche was milking and had clipped the doe’s ear in the stanchion, don’t you see?”
His face was blank.
She held up the folded towel. “Here’s the evidence. I threw the towel on the bathroom floor. I’m sure of it. Now it’s folded.” Dunn seemed to be processing what she said, and she could feel hope lifting her. “See? She was here. I told you.”
“The bathroom, huh?” Turning, he walked back out to the living area before facing her again. He rubbed his chin while scanning the room once more. “The way I see it, we might want to let this one go,” he said at last.
“What are you talking about?” Paige clutched the towel.
“Well, Ms. Lindon, a woman who no one else has seen, who is older and shorter than you, who was volunteering to milk your goats for free, broke into your house to use the bathroom. Did I leave anything out?”
In the pause that followed Paige accepted how hopeless the situation was. Still, she couldn’t swallow that letting it go was the right thing to do. “If this is officially reported, I suppose that’s good enough. Then if something else happens, I have documentation.”
He nodded. “Alright, but I have a few more questions.”
Paige felt her mind beginning to clear. She took out her cell to check the time and remembered it was dead. She had to get back. “How much longer do you think this will take? You see I left my booth with a stranger and . . .”
The deputy lifted his hands as if stopping traffic. “Wait, you let a stranger milk your goats and another watch your booth? Don’t tell me you took candy from one of them.”
She didn’t respond to his belly laugh except to fold her arms.
Dunn grew serious again. “I’d suggest you hightail it back to your booth, close it for the day and then return here. I can watch the place till you get back. Then get a good night sleep, get your thoughts together and head down to the station for an official statement tomorrow. From the way I see it, you could use the break.”
“No.” Losing two days of work was something she wouldn’t consider. And what if Blanche was looking for her next target right now? Someone else to lie to and steal from? No matter how tired she was, she couldn’t let that happen. There was only one decision. “I want to go to the station now.”
“If you’re sure.” Deputy Dunn headed to his car. “We could do a search of mug shots if she’s in the system and maybe even get a composite drawing. It could take a while.”
“That’s alright,” she said even though she knew it wasn’t, but what other choice did she have?
MURKY WATER SWIRLED DOWN the open storm drain as Sterling walked over to the faucet to rinse out the wooden bucket and fill it again, so the pump would be ready for the next morning. There were still a few vendors closing up their booths. He guessed it was nearly eight, but that was only a guess. In his hurry to get this assignment over with, he’d forgotten his cell on his bed stand. One thing he knew— he was done waiting. Once he replaced the water, he’d catch the bus back home and be finished, whatever the consequences. Unlike the other assignments he’d taken, this didn’t feel right. The sooner he put this whole mess behind him, the better. It was Friday night. Certainly, the buses would run ‘til at least ten.
Without a handle, the full bucket was awkward to carry. He sloshed cold water against his shirt twice before he figured out he had to watch the water’s surface to keep it steady. Unfortunately, that’s why he didn’t notice the man standing by the goat soap booth until he was only a few feet behind his back. Paige was there too. Her face shown in the moonlight. She stared at her visitor with a look that seemed alien to the confident woman he’d met that morning. Neither seemed to notice Sterling in the shadows.
Paige scowled. “I’d say yes to dinner, but tonight isn’t good for me.”
The guy was wearing all black. He took her hand, talking in a deeper voice than sounded natural. “You said we would. I need to talk to you. I want to.”
Paige lowered her eyes. “I know, but I can’t tonight. I’ve got things I need to do.”
The prospective boyfriend took the liberty of running the back of his hand down her cheek. “I’ve missed you.”
She was literally shaking. Was she afraid of him? Whatever it was, she was not having a good time, and Sterling determined not to watch this a second longer. Although protocol would direct he stay put and get more information, human decency took over.
“Sorry, buddy.” Sterling wedged himself between the two of them like it was another day at the office. “She can’t go with you because she’s going to dinner with me.” He knelt and placed the bucket beneath the pump.
Sterling peered over his shoulder to gage her reaction and was a little surprised to see a full, genuine smile flashed his direction. Was it one of relief at getting rid of her unwanted suitor or anticipation of spending time with him? Why did he even care? This was only an assignment. He wasn’t going to get involved.
He let the two of them finish their conversation while he retrieved a roll of greenish paper from a box beneath one table and dumped the remaining handful of soap cakes on the other. Flattening out the long sheet, he began to count the names on the list but stopped when he heard the sigh behind him.
Turning, he found Paige staring at him with an expression not close to the smile he’d seen earlier. “You were here all day and didn’t even try to sell the rest?”
He blinked in an effort to hold back the cutting remarks that were his first reaction, but it was no use. He couldn’t help but speak his mind. “And you didn’t even try to get back here on time? Seven hours is not twenty minutes by anyone’s clock.”
She didn’t apologize. In fact, the opposite. “Then, leave. Just go!” She stood with her pointed finger unmoving. At least her confidence was back.
He’d done what he set out to do and was content. “Fine.”
“Wait.” He hadn’t even taken a step before she recanted. “Do you need me to pay you for your time?”
Sterling couldn’t help but laugh. “You’d pay me when you think I did nothing?” His boss would be interested to know this broke soap maker was so free with her money.
Paige softened. “I mean, you did wait here most of the afternoon, and frankly, you look like you could use some cash.” Nearing the table, she touched the paper he had spread out. “What’s this list you have?”
He lifted the page and straightened his shoulders. “It might be the sales I made this afternoon.”
Her gaze flit to the leftover soaps, and she crossed her arms. He could tell she wasn’t buying it.
“If you had looked more closely at the soap that remained,” he lifted one and held it in front of her nose, “you would have seen that each cake has two little words written below them.”
Paige touched the writing as she read it, “Display only?”
Sterling made a clicking sound with his cheek like one would make to get a horse moving. “I told the women who were interested that their soap would be custom made and ready for pick up tomorrow morning.”
“Really? That’s pretty good.”
Sterling fished a wad of cash from his pocket. “And this is even better.”
She took it but didn’t count the bills or even look at them. She was staring at him, wagging her head in amazement. “You collected money?”
“Only half up front.”
“Now I know why Austin admires you. His instincts have always been stellar.”
“Austin?” He wondered if she was referring to the guy that wanted to take her to dinner.
Her eyes narrowed. “You know, that person who introduced us?”
“Oh, the inter—esting guy we both like so much.” He had almost said the intern.
She laughed. “That’s exactly how I’d describe him. Interesting.” She took the list and fingered the parchment-like texture. “This is different paper.”
He was surprised she’d noticed a detail like that. “Actually, I didn’t have anything to write on, so I asked the florist next to us if I might use some of hers.” He omitted the part that the older woman had charged him a five dollars for it.
Obviously impressed, she put the display soaps back in the box under the table. “If you’re really up for dinner, I know the perfect place, but we’ve got to make it quick. I wasn’t lying to Joe when I said I have something else to do.”
“Lead the way.” As he walked behind the goat girl, he realized how hungry he was.
A New York style deli around the corner had a note in the window that said it stayed open late on the nights of the farmers’ market. The salty smell and sudden warmth from the chilly night made Sterling feel at ease for the first time since he got up that morning. They ordered and sat at a booth in the corner. He meticulously unwrapped his sandwich, folding the paper down to reveal the part he would eat, and rewrapped the rest, so it wouldn’t fall on his clothes. He was determined to take control of the situation, both the one in his hand and the one across the table.
He swallowed before speaking. “Now are you going to tell me what took so long?”
She opened her sandwich, picked it up unwrapped and took a big bite while a bigger chunk of innards fell on the wax paper wrapping. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” she said between chewing.
“Try me.” He still hadn’t touched his sandwich.
She swallowed then put the sandwich down. He thought he saw her eyes mist a little, and her voice was so soft he could barely hear her. “There was a stranger in my house when I got there.”
He wasn’t sure what she meant. “Like an unexpected visitor?”
She clasped her hands together, her eyes glued to them. “An intruder. I had to call the police.”
His lungs deflated. His previous remarks must have stung. “I’m so sorry. Were you hurt?”
“No.” Every muscle in her face seemed to tighten. Her eyes, only slits, still stared at her clenched hands.
He thought he knew that look. “Scared then? I understand.”
“No.” She hadn’t moved.
Her gaze lifted and caught his. He saw fire in her eyes. “Angry. How could someone come into your life, extend a hand of friendship and then totally betray you? What kind of a person does something like that?”
Sterling wasn’t going to touch that question with a ten-foot pole.
She picked up her sandwich, took a huge bite, and kept on talking. “At least Deputy Dunn was on my side. When I went down to the station, his captain had the nerve to question my sanity. At first he wouldn’t believe that Blanche even existed. In the end, he said it didn’t matter because no crime had been committed. No crime. My neighbor breaks into my house, knocks me to the ground, and admits she was trying to steal from me. But, do you know what the biggest crime of all was?” She stared at him, expecting a reply.
He’d barely taken a bite and felt like he was at the dentist’s office when the dentist asks you a question while your mouth is full of cotton. He chewed and swallowed as quickly as he could but had forgotten the question. “What?”
She was in full rant mode. “Lying. That’s the biggest crime. I mean, this woman told me she wanted to help me from the goodness of her heart. When I think of how I let her into my life. I trusted her, and it was all a lie. That’s what hurts the most.”
Not hungry anymore, Sterling put down his sandwich. Wasn’t that what he was doing to her? “I’m sorry.”
“So am I.” Almost calmed down, she took a sip of her soda. “Mostly because I don’t have anyone to milk the goats tomorrow morning. Now I’ll probably have to close down my booth for the rest of the season.”
He felt for her. It was hard to deal with unexpected reversals but part of any business. “Do you need the sales that badly?”
“Not really. My website is generating more traffic than I can keep up with.” She dropped the sandwich back on the table and wiped her mouth with a napkin. “I’m doing the farmers market for me. Day after day alone at the house, sending out orders, mixing new formulas is lonely. I like interacting with my customers and rubbing elbows with the other vendors. Without it, the police chief might be right, I may become a crazy goat lady after all.” She peered at him with a look that reminded him of his sister when she was begging for a compliment.
He laughed. “No arguments here.”
She broke into a grin and sat back. “So, what do you do for a living?”
Sterling paused. “I’m currently looking for opportunities.” That was true in a way. If he had to write a job description of his responsibilities, researching opportunities was as close as anything he could think of.
She pinched the tomato, lettuce and sauce that had fallen from her sandwich with her bare fingers and stuck it in her mouth. “Any way I could hire you?”
“Why would you want to?” After her little rant about lying, he was losing his nerve. Did this girl let just anyone into her life?
“I’m desperate. It’s you or close the booth.” She began folding up the remaining half of her sandwich in the paper wrap. “Was Austin lying about you?”
“No!” Sterling sat forward. “In fact he made me promise to be nice to you.”
“The nicest thing you could do right now is help me out. It would only be for the next two days. Then you never have to see me again.” She bit her lip and held her breath, waiting for his response.
This was not in his plan. He was going to get this initial meet done, report in, then spend the weekend doing what he’d been looking forward to for weeks. Cursing his boss in his mind, he relented. “Okay, but it’s only for this weekend.”
“It’s a deal.” She lifted her hand across the table to shake but still had mayo on her fingers.
He hesitated for only a moment before taking her hand, amazed at the strength and surety of her grip. He hoped she could keep it up through the mess that was sure to come.
“OKAY.” PAIGE SAT TALLER in her chair. “If you’re going to work for me, we’ve got to get a couple of things straight. First, I’ll pay you in cash, but not until the end of the weekend.”
“Huh.” So she wasn’t a total fool. That way he’d have to stay the whole time. Clever girl, he thought to himself. “Go on.”
“The booth opens at seven-thirty sharp and goes until nine on Saturday then half a day Sunday. I’ll need you there the whole time. Now we only have to decide on your wage.” She pursed her lips then clicked her tongue in thought.
“$250 a day?” he suggested. He got twice that per hour for consulting.
“That’s a little steep, but if it’s what you want, fine. I’ll see you in the morning then.” Paige shoved the leftover sandwich in her purse and rose to her feet. She took a step to leave then stopped and cocked her head. “Can I give you a ride to your car? General parking is quite a walk, and it’s getting nippy.”
Adjusting the wrapping on his hoagie and making himself comfortable, Sterling shook his head. “I’m taking the bus.”
“No, you’re not,” Paige said.
Man, she was bossy. “Yes I am,” Sterling said with conviction.
She sat down and stared at him. The gold flecks in her brown eyes seemed to burn. “The busses stopped running an hour ago.”
“There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” His father used to always say that. Odd, he’d successfully not thought about home for years now. No wonder when the man’s favorite phrase reeked of animal cruelty. Rewording his response, he said, “Then I’ll take a cab.”
“Where are you headed?”
He couldn’t tell if she was asking to check up on him or to offer him a ride. “Into the city.” To discourage her he added, “It’s a good hour drive.” It was really little more than half an hour.
She slapped the table with her open palm. “Are you crazy? That would cost you eighty dollars at least. You’re out of work.”
All he wanted to do was change out of his wet shirt, sleep in his own bed and get this girl off his back. “It’s alright. I can handle it.”
She squinted and stared at him for a solid minute. He couldn’t meet her gaze and wasn’t sure why. It felt like guilt, but what did he have to feel guilty about? He was offering the whole weekend to her for a fraction of what he’d normally charge.
Unexpectedly, she put her hand on his. Her skin was like velvet. He hadn’t noticed before. “I’ll tell you what,” she said. “I’ve still got to milk the goats. If you’ll help me, I can be done in half the time. Then I’ll drive you to the city tonight. Deal?”
Waiting for a cab in the sticks would take half an hour at least, so it wouldn’t be that much longer to go with her. Besides, his boss would be happier if he could get a look at the goat girl’s place. “Sounds like a plan.” He chucked the remainder of his dinner in the nearest trash can, and they headed for the door.
As they walked to her car, Sterling realized how right she had been. The temperature had plummeted, and the wet front of his shirt felt like someone had pressed a blue icepack to his chest. Paige was wearing a red sweater and seemed unaffected by the cold.
Upon reaching the hatchback, Sterling hopped into the passenger seat. While she started the ignition, he played with the climate controls on the panel, hoping to blast the car with heat.
“Sorry,” she said as she slid the car into gear and pulled onto the empty road. “My heater’s broken.”
Folding his arms tight across his chest, he sat back. “It is what it is.”
They hadn’t driven far before she flipped her head his direction once and then again. “Are you shivering?” Her face was turned toward him with her eyes still on the road.
He felt he owed her an explanation. “It’s silly. I got my shirt wet.”
“Oh.” She bobbed her chin. “While changing the bucket under the pump. I’ve got half a mind to chuck the whole contraption tomorrow.”
“No!” Sterling said. “How do you think I sold so much? I had women try out the type of soap that would be best for their situation. Brilliant product.”
“Thank you.” She returned her focus to the road.
He could only see her profile, and it was dim in the car, but even with those impeded conditions, he could tell her smile was beautiful.
She took a left. “Okay, I’ll keep the pump. Besides, it would break Joe’s heart if I threw it away.”
He supposed she was talking about the guy in black. “So is he a boyfriend?”
“He wishes he was.” That’s all she said.
Sterling hoped she’d elaborate. Was there something the guy did that bugged her, or was she just not interested in men in general. He had to ask. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Oh nothing.” Her tone was light. “I have other things on my plate right now.”
“I hear you.” Sterling had said those identical words to other women many times lately, but coming from her, they seemed cold. He shivered again.
“We’ve got to get you out of that shirt.” She rotated the wheel and pulled into a rustic turn of the century stone farmhouse facing a red barn with white trim. It reminded him of the scene on a tacky jigsaw puzzle. She cut the engine and opened her door. “You look to be about Uncle Bill’s size. I think it’d be okay if you borrowed some of his clothes.”
Funny, he had assumed she lived alone.
THE PORCH LIGHT ILLUMINATED a little circle around the generous oak door, and Paige stood with her hand on the knob. The deputy’s reaction to the mess made her nervous. She turned to look at Sterling, but her focus fell to his lips. They were almost blue. Oh, well. Why delay the inevitable?
Pushing the door wide, she gestured to the cluttered rooms. “Welcome home, such as it is.”
He stepped in the entry. She closed the door behind him and headed into the living area. Halfway there she realized he wasn’t following her. She turned to find Sterling simply standing in the entryway as if mesmerized. Was he worried he might catch some dreaded disease by venturing in? “I assure you it’s completely biohazard free.”
At last he moved, if only to look at her. “No, it’s great.” His eyes shifted further up the hall. “The living room is painted the same color as the house I grew up in.” With careful steps and his hands clasped behind his back, he walked forward with the reverence of a man walking through a museum.
“Oh.” She hadn’t expected that reaction. “Where did you grow up?”
“Dallas,” he said absently.
She hadn’t detected an accent. “Texas?”
“No, Dallas, Oregon.”
“Never heard of it,” Paige tried to straighten one of the piles of invoices on the counter but seemed to only bend the pages.
“Most people haven’t.” He shrugged. “It’s a small town a little more than an hour south of the city.” He put his hands in his pockets.
“So you’re from the other Dallas.”
“That’s about the size of it,” he said.
Paige slid off her sweater and was about to hang it on the wooden peg inside the closet but couldn’t bring herself to do it. After what happened that afternoon, it would be quite a while before she went into that closet again. She laid her sweater across the back of a chair instead, grateful Sterling was in the room with her. “How nice to be so close to family. I bet you see them often.” She led him toward the back hall.
His pace slowed. “Nope. My mother died ten years ago, and I haven’t been home since.”
From his scowl, she could tell the subject was still tender. “I’m so sorry.” She understood about grief and loneliness.
He interrupted her thoughts. “About that shirt.”
She hurried to the bedrooms. “It’s over here.”
In her uncle’s room she opened the closet to reveal about a dozen button up shirts, each some shade of blue, two light jackets and one white dress shirt with frayed sleeves. It was his spare. Two items were missing. Her uncle’s best shirt and black suit that he was buried in. She could imagine what Uncle Bill would be saying now if he could see her. Just like you to be taking in a stray… but a good one.
While she selected a denim work shirt and corduroy jacket from the closet, she could hear Sterling shifting from one foot to another behind her. What was she doing alone in a room with a strange man who was probably taking off his shirt that very second? She could imagine his muscled chest, but not what was beneath it. What kind of a man didn’t even interact with his family when they lived so close? This was so wrong. How could she trust him? She’d trusted Blanche and look where it got her. Memories of the fear she had felt that afternoon bubbled to the surface, making her mouth feel dry. She pivoted toward Sterling and caught her breath.
He hadn’t even started undoing his buttons.
“I thought you were going to change your shirt,” she said.
He tipped his hat. “I will, once I have some privacy, ma’am. I don’t imagine your uncle would take kindly to me not being a gentleman in his bedroom, if you know what I’m saying.”
“Wow.” Paige blinked. “I know exactly what you’re saying. Meet you in the barn in a few.”
She left the clothes on the bed and ducked out of the room, wondering what was really going on. In her generation, she’d never met a man who behaved that way. There had to be a reasonable explanation for not wanting to take his shirt off. Maybe he had a really hair chest, dark brown fur that continued to his back, or maybe he had a huge tattoo of his last girlfriend in a suggestive pose, or maybe he had man boobs. Assuming he was hiding something was easier to believe than the alternative—that he was just the sort of man she was looking for.
THE SHIRT FIT PERFECTLY, and Sterling was especially grateful for the jacket. Inspecting the room confirmed his first impression. From the upside down horseshoe over the doorway to the old Avon dispenser on the dresser, it was as though Uncle Bill and his father were clones. The jacket was identical to the one his father wore for morning milkings, and his father had at least two of those denim shirts. He slid open the drawers and wanted to chuckle. Yup. Boxers in the top, neatly folded jeans in the middle, and socks in the bottom drawer. Did they attend a school for homegrown Northwest ranchers? Even the bedclothes, a thin, white coverlet with complex quilting and two flannel blankets beneath, reminded him of home. Didn’t they know you could buy a padded comforter at any big box store, eliminating the need for extra blankets? Who even owned extra blankets anymore?
After he put his wet shirt on the hanger to dry, he hooked it on the doorknob and paused to catch another glimpse of the bedroom. Awakened memories that were better left to rot seemed to be toying with him. He tried to remind himself that this was only a favor, and if he played his cards right, he’d go back to his real life in a few days. If he didn’t, he could get lost in a place like this for eternity.
Outside, Sterling was shocked by how dark the night was. In the city, between headlights and streetlights, you could never see the stars. His eyes lifted to the vivid pinpricks of light above him, and he was reminded how small he was. The barn emitted a soft glow across the open yard along with the bleating of noisy goats. Paige had already begun milking. She sat on a short stool with her back to him. He could hear the rhythmic gush of each stream filling the bucket. A caramel colored goat nudged his hand with her nose. He showed the creature his empty palm, and it stuck its tongue out at him in disapproval. “Maaah.”
Paige was watching him. “Come over here, and I’ll show you what I’m doing.”
His boots felt at home against the worn wooden floorboards covered in hay. The smell reminded him of early mornings and late nights all through his boyhood days. He stood behind her shoulder and watched her thumb and forefinger tighten then her index then middle finger like a wave, only to repeat with the other hand. Back and forth. Right and left. On and on until the job was done. No wonder her handshake was so firm. After twelve years, he wondered if he still had the technique down.
Paige swiveled her head to the side, so she could see him out of the corner of her eye. “Would you rather put the milk in bags or get your hands dirty?”
“I’ll give the udders a try.”
“Then go wash up, so we keep her sterile.” She tapped the udder bag. He guessed it was to recover the last of the milk, something if you attempted with a cow was sure to leave you kicked in the head. After he washed, he stood ready to go, and she looked up at him with a questioning look on her face. “Have you ever done this before?”
“I’ve never milked a goat in my life.” Sterling admitted.
She gave him the stool. He sat in it, and she put her hands on his shoulders so she could watch his performance. “I’ll guide you through it.”
He waited for her instruction.
“First, put your thumb and forefinger together at the top of the udder to stop off the milk in the teat.”
He did but before she could say another word, a full stream hit the bucket. He did the same with his other hand.
She punched his upper arm and was gone. He wanted her to be surprised or laugh or something. From her quick exit he wondered if the punch was spurred by amusement or anger. He remembered that in her mind the biggest crime ever was lying, but he hadn’t lied. He called over his shoulder. “I grew up milking cows. Never tried a goat before, but it seems a lateral move.”
Her face was suddenly inches from his own, and she smiled that sort of closed mouth smile that women do when they mean to be polite. “Should have guessed by the boots.”
“What’s wrong with my boots?” He peered at the plain brown leather while finishing off the last few squeezes. “These are classics.”
She ignored him. “All done?” Removing the full milk bucket, she handed him another with clear liquid in two thirds of it.
He sniffed at the contents. It didn’t have a smell but made his nose sting. “What’s this?”
“Teat dip.” She was halfway back to the other wall of the barn. “Dunk her sack and release her from the stanchion.”
He wasn’t feeling nearly as confident as he had a few minutes earlier. “What’s a staunch-thing?”
“Stanchion,” she corrected. “It’s the wooden slats that secure her head. They make them for cows but most experienced milkers don’t need them. Goats do; they’re stubborn.”
Dipping the udder, he held the pail to one side, unsure where to put it. “Maybe they just know what they want and won’t let anyone stop them.”
“Perhaps.” She was back beside him, took the pail and set it on a small table next to him. “Or maybe they are never satisfied with a good thing and have to push for something better all the time.”
He stood to try and free the goat’s head from the wedged slats. “What’s wrong with that?”
She laid her hand on his and this time he was ready, thinking about her soft skin. She directed his fingers to the latch. The goat yanked back its head and leapt from the stand. “That’s what gets them in trouble.”
In the dim barn with her halo of curls, she looked like the subject of an early baroque masterpiece, surrounded by the rustic smells of real life. It shocked him to think that when he got up this morning he had no idea his day would hold this complete shift in everything he was experiencing. To him, this sort of life was in his past.
She brought him to the present with another stiff punch in the arm. “Well, catch her. Charcoal has got to go in that pen, so you know who you’ve finished.”
He directed the goat to the pen, noticing the dusting of grey on its nose, and smiled, guessing the name’s origin. Back at the milking stand, Paige had dumped a scoop of pellets in the trough and clicked the stanchion in place around the next goat waiting to be milked. He watched her return the hand shovel back where she kept the feed and then put the milking bucket right in front of the goat’s teats. “So what is this one’s name? Licorice?” He sat on the stool to start milking but froze when she slid her hand across his back. The unexpected sensation was not unpleasant. He looked up at her.
The delight on her face was plain. “That’s right! Now, you need to wash her first.” From the other side, she took another pail and a rag, scrubbing down the udder.
“Got it.” And he did.
HE MILKED, DIPPED, RELEASED, SCRUBBED and milked again twelve more times. As he let the last goat enter the pen and shut the gate, his hands, arms and lower back ached, more than from any workout at the gym. He made his way to a long counter, which used to be a tool bench where Paige stood with two pitchers, an industrial-sized box of Ziploc bags and a plastic carton. He placed the last pail of milk beside her and watched as she poured it into a pitcher and whisked the milk to ensure the fat content was consistent throughout. Then she filled three plastic bags, closing them and laying them flat in the blue plastic carton.
When she was done, she went to heft the full carton, but he was too fast for her. Only, he wasn’t expecting it to be so heavy. He tried not to show any strain on his face as he carried it to the chest freezer. A puff of frigid air wafted past him as she lifted the lid. Sterling was surprised he hadn’t felt chilled once since he got to the barn, though it was not heated. He began gently placing the contents in the freezer.
“Really?” Paige upended the crate in his hands and let them fall inside. “Hold this.” She handed him back the empty crate and bent deep into the freezer. He admired the ideal view of her mud-covered backside. He hadn’t dated a single woman who would dare be seen with a smudge on her clothing, let alone walk around town filthy. Oddly, it was refreshing.
She threw bag after bag of frozen milk into the crate they’d just emptied. Soon it was had as many bags as it had before he dumped it, but now they were solid ice milk packets. Satisfied, she closed the freezer, retrieved a similarly filled crate for herself, which had been sitting in the corner and headed back to the house. He followed.
She directed him to put the plastic carton on the kitchen floor and went for her keys. “Okay. I keep my promises. Let’s take you home.”
He wondered why he ever wanted to go. “So what’s that for?” He pointed to the frozen goat’s milk.
“To keep other promises.” She opened the front door.
He faced her. “What does that mean?”
“I’ve still got to make soap tonight, or I’ll never meet the orders you made. I don’t want to make a liar out of you to all those new clients, do I?”
He looked at the bags of milk. If each was a gallon, that would be over ten gallons of liquid which he imagined was just a portion of the ingredients. “How much soap is that?”
She tilted her head toward the car. “Only 24 tins. Let’s go.”
A clock in the shape of an apple hung from the kitchen wall. “But it’s after nine. You won’t be back until eleven.”
“You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
He could see a shadow below each of her eyes, and she was a little paler than before. A single curl swayed in front of her eyes. He almost reached up to tuck the lock of hair back in place, so it wouldn’t block an inch of her perfect face. “Can I help? I’ve never made soap before. For real this time.”
That brought a grin to her lips, and in return, one to his own. She shut the door and headed back into the house. “If you’re sure your up to it.”
When he had first seen the kitchen, it seemed lived in, not dirty. Like his house growing up during canning season. Now, as he inspected it more closely, he realized that it was immaculate. There was not a speck of dust or grime in the corners, and the floor was so clean it could have been recently installed if it weren’t for the fact it was ancient linoleum, yellowed in the corners.
From a drawer she retrieved two black rubber aprons with bright yellow gloves. “I would have washed up last night, but I was beat, so we’ve got to do that first.” Producing a mop from the pantry, she shoved it into his hands. You can do the floor while I take on the tins.”
After the kitchen and dishes were scoured, she got Sterling busy wrapping the cakes made last night at the oak dinette while she donned goggles and began her work. The soap cakes were round, the size of a flattened muffin, each embossed on the top to distinguish its variety. The molds were double wide muffin tins that she probably bought from a specialty store. He did some math. Each tin yielded 24 soap cakes, and she had one dozen tins of completed soap. That was 288 items. The round wrapping paper was specially folded six times and then a label glued on the top. Though the result was appealing, Sterling wondered if it was the best use of her time, especially if she wanted to expand. The process had to be streamlined.
A few hours later, she finished mixing up the batches ready to be cooked, but he wasn’t quite done wrapping the newly cured soap cakes. Paige sat next to him to help with the last two tins and got her first one done in record time. It took three more bars before he got down her technique, and it became a wrapping race. By the last one, they were neck and neck. When he slapped on his last sticker, he threw his hands in the air as though he was in a rodeo. “Done!”
Her hands were already in her lap with the completed soap before her. “I think it was a tie.” There was a definite smirk on her face.
Against the wall leaned a number of new flat boxes. She took a large one, stretched it wide, taped it open and began laying the wrapped soap inside. “Let me pack this, and we’ll be ready to go. Are you sure you can make it to the booth by seven thirty in the morning? That won’t leave you much time for sleep.”
He looked to the apple clock. “It’s two o’clock.”
She gave a wan smile. “That’s an hour earlier than I finished last night, and we made a double batch.”
The mound of new soap on the table was impressive. He couldn’t even imagine doing twice that amount. “You mixed up 576 new bars tonight? You’re an ambitious woman.”
“I’m not feeling very ambitious right now.” She grabbed her purse from the back of her chair. “We better go this minute if you want me to take you. I can finish this later.”
He got up. “You rest. I’ll do it.” He started putting the soap cakes in the box, suddenly realizing that he’d been sitting this whole time, while she’d been on her feet mixing. Same with the milking. She must be exhausted. To think he ever considered her irresponsible or a little lax embarrassed him. She was the first person he’d met who worked harder than he did, except for maybe his boss.
Again Paige touched him, laying her palm on his forearm. Even that rough skin could sense the softness of hers. “There is always more work to be done. I promise it will wait quite happily until I’m ready to do it.”
He suddenly knew the answer. “Let me stay the night. I’ll sleep on your couch. Then you won’t need to waste those two hours of driving. Neither one of us can afford it if we want to be fresh for tomorrow.”
She glanced at the order forms smothering the sofa and shook her head. “I’ve got a perfectly good bed in the other room. You can sleep there.”
“Won’t Uncle Bill mind?” Sterling asked. “When is he due to return?”
Her eyes closed, and he wondered for a second if she had fallen asleep in her chair. When she did answer, her voice was thin. “I won’t see him for a long time.”
They both headed to the hall. At the juncture where the hall split, she paused. “Today started out pretty awful. Thank you for making it end on a good note.”
He wanted to tell her so many things. How he didn’t want to take this assignment at all, but it had become the best thing he’d done for as long as he could remember. How it made him reconsider the things he thought were dead in his life. Instead, he reached out and took her in his arms. His hands resting against the back of her denim coveralls, the smell of fresh soap, the way her head fit right against the turn of his neck felt like he could stay there forever. He closed his eyes, bathed in the warmth of her so close, hoping she wouldn’t pull away. She didn’t. It would be so easy to be this person, but Sterling knew it wasn’t who he was anymore.
He released her as quickly as he came to himself. “We best be off to bed. It’ll be an early morning.”
LATER, PAIGE LAY IN BED. Tears slid down her temples, lodging in her ears. Uncle Bill was gone, and she had let a stranger sleep in his bed. It was a foolish thing to do, she knew it, but he’d been such a help. Like some heavenly gift sent when she was at the end of her rope. Maybe Uncle Bill somehow directed him here, if that were possible.
Or maybe she was doing the same thing she’d done with Blanche. She closed her eyes and could feel the area around her mouth where her neighbor’s hand had clamped over it. She rubbed her mouth hard with the back of her hand, trying to wipe away the memory. Was Blanche only an identity thief or something more?
She was still out there, and there was nothing to stop her from coming back and invading her home or worse. No matter how illogical it was, for how much she now knew Blanche was someone she couldn’t trust, she knew Sterling was someone she could. She felt safe with him. That became clear the moment she noticed his cowboy boots. Sturdy, unadorned and broken in with good, hard work. Boots like that didn’t lie.
PAIGE’S NOSE TWITCHED. She sniffed and opened one eye. It was bright outside. Pushing herself up to a sitting position, she rubbed her eyes, blinked and sniffed again. Bacon. Eggs. Toast. How?
She got up, wearing her clothes from yesterday, and padded into the kitchen. Sterling had his back to her at the stove. The tins from last night had been cleaned and put away. The kitchen sparkled. To her right, the invoices on the couch had been straightened in neat piles, and the dinette was cleared off and set like a real eating place with a table cloth, plates and silverware.
“Wow!” she said.
He rotated to face the now cleared center counter. The boxes were stacked by the front door. He threw the spatula in the sink. “I was going to come and wake you in a minute. Hungry?”
Paige was about to say, “Heck, yeah” when she looked at the clock and said just plain “Heck!” Running to the front door, she took her sweater from the hook, but Sterling was headed to the table. “Um, it’s seven. We’ve got to milk the goats.”
He set a skillet with the most beautiful omelet she’d ever seen in it, pulled out her chair and waited for her to sit. “Already done. I did the milking an hour ago.”
Dumbfounded, she realized he had showered and shaved, too. His light hair was brushed back. His jawline sharp and clean. He wore Uncle Bill’s shirt from last night and his jeans but was barefoot. She sat, amazed at the amount of work he’d accomplished. “Did you sleep at all last night?”
“Enough.” He served her half of the golden eggs, put the other half on his plate and placed the skillet on a hot pad, right next to a mason jar filled with fresh daffodils.
She smiled when she saw them. “Those are pretty.”
“Oh,” he said after taking his first bite. “I wouldn’t have found them if you hadn’t had an escapee this morning. I saw her high-tailing it into the forest as I stepped out the door.”
Paige nodded as she chewed. “Was she light grey and very pregnant?”
“Spot on.” He leaned forward. “I’ve been feeling a little like the king in the fairytale Rumpelstiltskin, trying to guess the goats’ names. For her, I was thinking Dust Cloud or Tornado.”
“Not even close.” She sat back, impressed.
“What about . . .” He put his hand to his chin and stared at Paige, as though his gaze could extract the truth from her brain. “Daffodil? She sure loves to eat them.”
Her mouth fell open. “Close. It’s Petunia and—”
“Oh, we are late.” He shot to his feet. “Can you get ready in ten minutes?”
“Of course.” She laughed, thinking how many times she’d gotten ready in a third of that time. She headed to the bathroom and heard him whistle behind her.
“You are one amazing lady.” He carried the plates to the sink and turned on the water. “It used to take my sister an hour to shower and get made up.”
Oh great. She had only planned on brushing her teeth and changing her shirt since she’d slept in it. Now he expected her to shower and put on makeup, too? She supposed she could look on it as a challenge. Determined to show him, she rushed to the bathroom and slammed the door.
STERLING WASHED THE LAST OF THE DISHES and loaded the boxes ready to be shipped in the back of the Honda along with the new soap for the day’s inventory. The apple clock read seven-twenty-tw0, and he was getting nervous. Then Paige emerged from the hall.
The first thing he noticed was her fitted jeans. He’d only seen her in baggy overalls. Her coral jacket would be appropriate in any business environment, and she wore heels. Dressed like that she would fit in anywhere. “You’re beautiful.”
She ducked her head, grabbed the keys and hurried out the door. He wondered if he’d offended her.
The ride was quiet. His palms were sweating, and he felt like he was in high school all over again, interested in a girl but unsure she felt the same way. Shifting in his seat, he blamed his state of mind on only two hours of sleep. He turned to his professional training to get his bearings. His real problem was that he lacked established goals. Normally, every decision he made was based on a solid plan. The bigger picture dictated that by noon tomorrow he’d go back to his own career and probably never see Paige Lindon again. The thought didn’t make him happy, but then neither did fifteen hour workdays or half of the little jobs he was asked to do. Still, they were necessary if he was to achieve what he wanted. He had to keep his eye on the prize. When that was done, he could slow down. Who knows, if Paige was still available, they might even date then.
Feeling more himself, Sterling focused on the original request that had brought him here, to find out more about the business. Time to get to work. “So,” he asked Paige, “are most of these mail orders to individuals?”
She seemed startled by the question. “No, not really. I targeted the Northwest high end spas and specialty boutiques. Building on good references, I’ve got enough retailers to keep me busy. My only individual sales are at the farmers’ market.”
“Northwest . . . does that include Northern California?”
She shook her head. “I’m only in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.”
“So how much do these weekends increase your bottom line?”
She peeked over her shoulder before taking a left into the parking lot. “If you look at opportunity costs, I’m losing money. I already told you that’s not why I do it.”
“You lose money to spend a weekend stressed out, on your feet and accosted by idiots?” His question sounded sharper than he intended. Another result of his sleep deprivation, he supposed.
She turned off the ignition and faced him. “These are my friends. What I do is far more a passion than a business, anyway. Many of these customers have been with me from the beginning. They’re the reason I’m where I am today.”
“And where are you today?” He tried to sound reasonable though he doubted her answer would be.
“If you only knew.” She lowered her head. “I still have thousands of dollars I owe in school loans, an equity loan I used to buy equipment, and let’s not even talk about taxes next month. But I’m working as hard as I can. I don’t know what else I can do.”
“Get a real job.” He knew he was being harsh, but he had to call it the way he saw it. “For how much time and effort you are committing, you could excel in any field you chose. Instead, you do all this work for a crappy car and a house that’s as old as my grandmother. I don’t get it.”
“You don’t have to.” She opened her car door and slammed it behind her.
He climbed out of his seat and went to the back of the car to lift the heavy box of soap, but she already had it and was bustling across the parking lot. He locked up and took his time walking to the canopy. He wanted to punch something. Seeing her killing herself, working so hard for so little, wasn’t even logical. How could he endure watching her crash and burn another day when she should be so much more?
PAIGE DROPPED THE BIG BOX OF SOAP on the display counter and kicked the cedar chair. It didn’t budge, but it nearly broke her foot. She’d forgotten she was wearing heels and not sneakers. Where did Sterling get off anyway? When he complimented her after getting ready for the day, she was sincerely flattered. No one had talked to her like that but Joe, and he didn’t count. Due to complete brain fog, she had clammed up. It was the first time she could see herself actually liking someone that liked her back, and it terrified her. At least until after their most recent conversation in the car. Where did he get off judging her? She was doing fine, and she could keep this booth if she wanted it.
To be honest with herself, she didn’t only want to do this, she needed to. Otherwise, she’d never see anyone. She couldn’t imagine spending day in and day out, milking and mailing endlessly. She couldn’t spend her life completely alone.
A bull horn sounded, kicking her into action. Like the starting line of a race, the barrier at the north entrance was removed, and shoppers sprinted forward. For many it was a form of entertainment, and they had no intention of spending more than a few dollars, but for others it was a serious way of life, collecting treasures that couldn’t be had anywhere else. Four young woman bustled up to Paige all at the same time, each holding a pale green, torn paper with Sterling’s writing on it. Their receipts.
She delivered their promised product while collecting the other half of their money and was a little surprised that Sterling hadn’t arrived yet. If he didn’t work, she wasn’t going to pay him. Then she recalled all he’d done the night before and knew she’d pay him no matter what. In truth, she was more worried than mad. Did he decide to leave? She supposed he had every right to.
A familiar woman neared, and Paige broke into an uncomfortable grin. “Julie!” As Joe’s heiress approached, Paige could feel her cheeks flaming. Although she had nothing to feel guilty about, the new cedar booth said it all.
Julie’s long silky hair, short jumpsuit and designer hippie bag all reflected her impeccable taste. Like Elaine, she had propositioned Paige multiple times to have her wealthy father bankroll her expansion. And like she always did with Elaine, Paige had declined. She knew she had to take things to the next level, but it wasn’t until Sterling had said, “Where are you now?” that she had gotten a vision of where she wanted to go.
If she could build a small core of employees that she could trust as the next crop of goats came due, and if the new animals had the higher fat and enzyme counts she hoped for, she could take her business to the next level within a year. Renewed hope that it might really happen infused her. Whether it was having Sterling there or getting enough sleep for the first time in months, she wasn’t sure. But deep in her heart, she hoped Sterling would be one of those people. By next year, she might be at a place to partner with Elaine or Julie or both, so keeping her current client happy was a priority.
Julie placed her hands on Paige’s shoulders and held her at arm’s length, so she could inspect her. “What have you done to yourself?”
Wracking her brain, Paige wondered what she was talking about. She hadn’t gained weight or cut her hair. “What do you mean?”
“You look gorgeous. It must be your new man.” She nudged Paige with her elbow and started fishing around in her bag.
“I don’t have a new man. Did Joe say something to you?” She thought about the whole dinner invitation debacle from last night.
“Joe? He’s so yesterday.” She gave out three titters of fake laughter and stopped. Tucking in her chin, Julie stared down Paige like she would an errant child. “Why did I have to hear that you’d begun to take personal orders from a friend? She said this cowboy actually washed her hands for her with your new flavors. Brilliant marketing ploy, by the way, like a mash up of Bodyworks and Chippendales. Can’t you see it becoming the new thing at the mall?” She sat in the Adirondack chair, leaned back and pulled out her cellphone. “Tell him I’m ready.”
Paige was sure Julie must have been mistaken. On the other side of the main drag, there was a masseuse tent. Maybe that’s what her friend was talking about. She was about to deny the entire thing when she caught sight of Sterling perusing the jewelry canopy across the way. “I’ll get him.”
Julie was busy texting. “I’m not going anywhere.”
With each step more doubt crept in. Could that be how he had gotten all those sales? By being a shameless flirt? Her eyes bore into the young jewelry maker giggling at Sterling across the way. Was that what he was doing right now with the female vendor? She stopped, trying to put things in perspective. He’d never really flirted with her at all. He’d only been a perfect gentleman and a hard worker. But, she couldn’t help thinking, what if he was smart enough to figure out those were the qualities she was looking for. Fancy words and flexing muscles only pushed her away.
“Hey,” she interrupted him and could have sworn he looked like he’d been caught doing something inappropriate. “You’ve got someone at the tent waiting for you.”
Sterling seemed alarmed. “For me? But no one knows I’m here.”
“Well, apparently your secret is getting around. When did you plan on telling me?”
He took Paige’s arm and guided her off to a corner. “I wanted to wait until I got more information but certainly at the end of this I would share my results. It’s only fair.”
“Results.” Paige bit her bottom lip, trying to figure out what he was talking about. “From washing women’s hands?”
“What? Uh, yeah,” Sterling let out a long breath. “I was trying out new sales techniques.”
“I’ve got to see this.” Paige followed him back to the booth, actually wishing just the opposite.
STERLING WANTED TO RUN AWAY. It was cowardly, but this whole situation was coming down around his ears, and sometimes the best course of action was to cut your losses and not look back. Isn’t that what he’d done with his family? He might have done it here, too, if Paige’s eyes hadn’t met his. There was something in them that seemed vulnerable, even hurt. It couldn’t be the little tiff they had in the car. He was only trying to protect her. Nope, it had to be Julie. She must have told her something. What were the chances the spoiled heiress would be right here right now?
Could his secretary have told her where he was? No, Dotty didn’t have a clue he was here. This was a secret favor for Elaine. Then it hit him.
Julie was here because Paige’s soaps were that good. For a girl that bought filet mignon for her schnauzer, going for a drive in the country to purchase an overpriced specialty beauty bar only available at certain times of year made total sense. Julie was right in Paige’s target market. Why should he be surprised?
Paige folded her arms as she stood before him, giving him the same glare his sister used to when she heard a particular rumor about him at school. He was a goner. Might as well just ‘fess up’ and get it over with. “I can explain.”
He wished she was still wearing overalls. It would be easier to disappoint her in those. “I’m waiting,” she said.
“I never planned on that sort of approach.” He lifted his palms. “It just happened.”
She pointed back to her booth. “How does washing women’s hands for them just happen? And now Julie’s expecting the same treatment.”
Relieved, he let out a sigh that carried half a laugh. “Is that all she’s expecting?”
Paige placed her hands on her hips. “No, what about a full strip tease act?”
Sterling wouldn’t put it past her. “Really?”
“Of course not.” Paige grew serious. “I don’t think we’re on the same page when it comes to what I’m doing here. My soap cakes don’t need gimmicks to sell. The formulas are based on proven scientific methods. I’ve spent years tweaking them. They really help people. Did you even know I have a degree in bio-chemistry?”
“Wait, I heard it was in business.”
“That’s my undergrad and not the point.” She shook her head. A spiraled tendril escaped her hair tie and framed one cheek. “I’m trying to build something here. To make a difference.”
He laid his hand over hers and lowered his tone. “Paige. One girl had soapy hands and didn’t want to touch the pump. I helped her get the water going. That’s it, I swear.”
Her eyes squinted, and he could tell she wasn’t convinced. “That’s not what Julie said.”
“I’m telling the truth,” Sterling said.
She rubbed her forehead. “Well, whatever you did to Julie’s friend yesterday, she wants the same treatment.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
Paige wagged her chin. “She adores my products, and I may need her father’s help when I want to expand. This would be a huge favor.”
If he said no, the chances of Julie letting his real identity slip would be huge. While washing her hands, maybe he could figure out a way to keep this whole thing under wraps. At least until the end of the weekend, for Paige’s benefit. “I suppose this once wouldn’t hurt.”
Julie had her rhinestone-covered cell inches from her nose and didn’t lower it until he was standing right in front of her. The shock on her face was priceless. He could see all the way to her tonsils, her mouth was that far open. She gawked from him to Paige and back to him. “Oh, this is too much.” Then she turned to Paige. “So you two are a thing? Paige, I never knew we had such similar tastes in men.”
“No, it’s only business,” Paige said.
Julie winked Sterling’s direction. “I know about that type of business. I can see it all over him. So where did you two meet?”
“Here, actually.” He offered, hoping to circumvent the conversation.
“That’s kind of romantic, and I love the duds. Are those real cowboy boots?” She seemed to be relishing every minute of this.
Sterling was having the opposite reaction. “Yup, sure ‘nuff,” he said with a drawl.
“Cute.” Apparently losing interest, Julie dropped her bag on the floor and dumped her cell inside it. “I’m ready for you to wash my hands now, lover boy.” She wiggled in her seat and smiled with artificially whitened teeth.
Sterling could hardly believe the minefield around him was intact. Paige still didn’t know he was anything more than a day worker, but one wrong move, and it could explode in his face. He walked over to the pump and grasped the handle. “Do you know what kind you’d prefer?”
She bit her lip suggestively. “Oatmeal Shea Butter, please.”
Grabbing one of the bars, he unwrapped it and returned to the pump. Julie was smiling at him like she had something wicked in mind. He pumped the water, which flowed clear. “If you would come right over here and wet your hands, we can begin.”
Julie didn’t move. “No, I think you should wash my feet instead.” She kicked off her beaded flip flops and strummed her pedicured toes against the cement.
He glanced at Paige who seemed to be pleading at him with her eyes then back at Julie who was reveling in his discomfort.
“Let’s do this.” He knelt at her feet and realized he didn’t have the equipment to fulfill her request. In his periphery he caught sight of a large metal bowl at the florist next to him. The older woman was not there. Instead, a pleasant blonde in her mid-twenties gave him a tiny wave.
“I’ll be right back,” he said.
He leapt up and asked the girl if he could borrow her bowl. Without asking why, she agreed. He filled it at the pump and set the cool water at Julie’s feet. She clapped her hands in glee and said to Paige, “I can’t believe he’s going to go through with it. You’ve got him wrapped around your little finger.”
Sterling gently placed her foot in the water and lifted it. Julie whispered in his ear. “Does she even know who you really are?”
He tried to return her conspirator’s expression. “Not half of it.”
Satisfied, Julie sat back to enjoy her foot massage and called to Paige. “You better watch out for this one. He’s a real heartbreaker.”
“I can see that.” Paige’s answer didn’t have the gusto of her wealthy friend.
Julie laughed. “Well, when you’re done with him, send him my way. I don’t mind taking your leftovers.”
Being spoken of like you were a slab of meat did nothing to improve his opinion of the wealthy girl before him. Right now Sterling was glad he’d never called her back, and the next time they spoke, he’d have no problem telling her what he thought.
Clearing his mind as to whom the appendage belonged to, he focused on the job at hand and rubbed the soap along the top of her foot, producing an excited giggle from the heiress. Bending his knee, he lodged her foot against his thigh, so he could lather the soap. That’s when he noticed that this soap was like nothing he had ever felt before. It lathered thick and foamy with the consistency of old fashioned shaving cream. The fragrance was sweet, soothing and earthy. He rinsed the foot and could immediately tell the difference. The skin was supple but not oily. This stuff was incredible.
He started on the other foot, working the soap up to a deeper lather, then rinsing and lathering again with less water to see how the product would respond. Less water produced less bubbles but had a more luxurious feel while you worked it, and when you washed it off, left the same velvety texture.
About a dozen people were watching him. He’d been so drawn to the soap he hadn’t seen them there. As Julie slid her sandals back on, he sat on his heels and shook his head. The soap was miraculous and worth every penny. Yesterday he had only encouraged the woman to use it. He’d never touched it himself. Sterling caught Paige’s attention. “I hadn’t realized.”
Her look was cold. “Neither had I.”
Sterling wanted to talk to her, to find out what was going on, but another woman sat in the chair. He was curious to try a different variety so he allowed it. He spent the rest of the morning on his knees. Women lined up around the block to have their feet washed. If milking goats for twenty minutes had left his hands and back sore, it was nothing compared to three hours of this.
It was nearly eleven when a large foot was stuck in his face, its sensible black shoe still on. He looked up. It was the old florist woman next door. The one from yesterday. She must have arrived at her booth, realized they were using her bowl and wanted it back. He had never been so grateful in his life. He lifted the aluminum container while she wedged her large figure in the white chair.
“Oh no you don’t. I expect fair payment.” She jabbed a finger toward her foot.
He filled the bowl and consigned himself to the job, even untying and removing her shoes. When he was done, he raised his eyes to check her mood. She gave out a satisfied sigh and got to her feet. He tried to give her back the bowl again, but she wouldn’t take it and turned to Paige. “You can rent it for the price of one of those soap things.”
Paige handed her a round soap cake. “I hope you enjoy it.”
The woman actually smiled back. “I’d enjoy it more if he came with it.” She tapped Paige with her elbow and laughed with a harsh crackly cough.
The next customer had already taken her place, and Sterling was almost out of patience. He walked to the pump, feeling little more than a slave and wondered why he was putting up with it all. As he lifted the handle and pumped it three times. No water came. Then Paige’s hand settled against his own.
“You don’t need to do this anymore,” she said.
He gave her a half smile. “Couldn’t if I wanted to. We’re out of water.”
She turned to her customers. “Sorry, we’re taking a break for lunch. No more feet washing for now. Thank you all.” There was a chorus of disappointed moans from those waiting.
Paige packed up the display shelves, and Sterling was shocked how little product she had left. She turned to him. “What do you say we go get lunch and mail those boxes?”
He was a little surprised. “You’re closing the booth?”
She nodded. “With the water gone, there’s no reason not to. I think we could both use a break.”
PAIGE WAS ASHAMED OF HERSELF. What had gotten into her? When she saw Sterling washing Julie’s feet, she almost throttled them both right there. He was so tender with her. His hands were incredible, strong and gentle at the same time. She knew Julie was interested in him, but it almost seemed that he felt the same way. And what if he did? She was the one with a schoolyard crush. That’s all it was. She had to get over this if she wanted to offer him a permanent position, which she did. He was fabulous with the goats and incredible with the customers. But after the way she had behaved that morning, what were the chances he would want to work with her?
As they drove, she peeked sideways to the passenger seat. His eyes were closed, and there was no expression on his face. He obviously didn’t want to talk to her. Who could blame him? She was a hypocrite. Accusing him of selling her soap by flirting and then forcing him to do just that. She imagined having a display at a big department store with foot washers. It would be tacky and tasteless. Her soap was better than that. When Lindon Beauty Cakes got into department stores, they should reflect the quality of her family name. But, that was years away. First she had to hire some help.
At the post office Paige realized they hadn’t spoken a word in the car. She broke the ice. “You can stay here, if you want. I’ll take care of it.” As she stepped from the vehicle, she hoped he’d be a gentleman and at least help with the front door while she balanced the heavy boxes and carried them inside, but she could see through the windshield that he hadn’t moved.
Getting the orders in the mail felt like a huge weight off her shoulders. Back at the Honda she hopped in the driver’s seat and turned the key. The sound of the engine coming to life nearly made Sterling leap from his seat. She laughed.
He ran a hand over his face and gave three wide blinks. “Sorry, I guess I’m more tired than I thought.”
She should have realized he’d been asleep. “No wonder. I never should have started that washing thing.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I have officially been cured of my foot fetish.” He closed his eyes.
She wanted to let him rest, but she couldn’t. Something still annoyed her about the day. Certainly, she hadn’t behaved well, but from the way Julie and Sterling were talking, it was like they knew each other. Julie was insulated in a world of high fashion and elite friends. He said he was out of work, and judging by his clothes didn’t come from money. The two didn’t compute.
Paige turned left and pulled into a parking slot in front of a little Thai place. She swiveled his direction and tried to sound firm but not accusatory. “How do you know Julie?”
STERLING DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY. Could he out and out lie to her? He knew he couldn’t, but he couldn’t tell the truth either. What would happen if he ripped off the scab right now and confessed everything? You see, my boss set me up with Julie a few weeks ago. That’s the same boss who told me to investigate your business for a possible takeover even though I don’t think there is any legal way to purchase a sole proprietorship like this against your will, but she could find a one. That’s what she does. Oh, and by the way, I’m not a poor unemployed hick but make over 300k a year and hope to quadruple that with my next deal which I am getting because I’m lying to you right now.
Her next question was louder. “Did she grow up in Dallas too? Is that how you know her?”
He bobbled his head and opened the car door. “Huh.” The gesture was meant to put her off, but Paige took it as assent.
A bright grin spread across her face. “I bet she was a wild teenager.”
“Yeah.” He couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t lie to her. As they met on the sidewalk, he took her arm. “Paige, I dated her once but just once.”
Only a trace of her smile remained. “That’s okay.”
“Truth is, I’d rather be right where I am than anywhere else in the world.” He meant it. Every word. He watched as her empty smile widened and seemed to fill every part of her.
Lunch flew by. They recanted the events of the last two days as though those were the only days that mattered.
She laughed as she recalled their meeting. “I couldn’t believe how much Austin admired you. What’s up with that?”
“I admire him more. He’s obviously a great judge of character.” He raised his glass to her, and she met it.
“I know he is.” She took a sip and set the cup down. “That’s the only reason I trusted you.”
A tinge of guilt skittered across the back of his mind. He’d have to give Austin a good position if Earth Tech came through.
She pointed to Sterling with her chopsticks. “You got me good when you pretended you couldn’t milk, too.”
He took a slurp of curry. “I hadn’t done it for twelve years, so I didn’t want to disappoint.”
“You haven’t disappointed me at all. Quite the opposite.” She grew serious. “I want you to consider staying on full time. You won’t get rich, but you’ll have enough for your own apartment and can earn more as we grow. You’ve got such a good nose for business, I know you’d be an incredible asset.”
That was the understatement of the century. He’d never heard of his Stanford doctorate referred to as a nose for business, but it was nice to hear the compliment all the same. “Let’s take this one step at a time.”
The light in her face dimmed. “If that’s what you want.”
He grasped her hand across the table. “I’m yours for twenty-four hours. Use me well.”
“I will,” was all she said. She lowered her eyes and began eating her lunch.
He could tell she was disappointed, but that’s all he had to give. He scanned her corkscrew curls, sparkling eyes and genuine smile. Though she may not be great investment material, she certainly was intriguing, and Sterling planned on enjoying getting to know her with every minute he had left.
WITH A FULL STOMACH, Sterling couldn’t keep his eyes open. As they drove back to the market, twice she asked him questions that he thought he had answered but never did. He kept drifting out.
Pulling into the parking lot, she didn’t cut the engine. “You’ve got a driver’s license, right?”
“Of course,” Sterling said.
“Why don’t you go to my house and take a nap? You didn’t get that much sleep last night. I can cover the afternoon by myself.”
“No.” He sat forward. “I’m alright. I can do it.”
“Sterling, I’d rather have you sleep this afternoon and milk the goats at six. You can come by this evening when you’re done. We still need to finish the next batch of soap after the day is over. I’d rather you help me with that.”
He could see the logic in her plan but didn’t want them to be apart. “Who will wash all those women’s feet?”
She laughed. “I think that’s a service we can suspend indefinitely.”
“Fair enough.” He got out and walked around the car.
His hand rested on the top edge of the driver’s door as it opened. She stood right into his arms and looked in his eyes. He lowered his head, so they were almost nose to nose and smiled. She didn’t look away.
A soft breeze brushed a stray curl free. He lifted his hand and slid it across her forehead and behind her ear. Inches closer, and they would be kissing. The thought thrilled him. She bit her lip, and he knew she must be thinking the same thing. But there was too much at stake. No matter how pleasant it would be, he had to wait. Tomorrow he could kiss her goodbye and have all the benefits without any of the downside. It’d be one great kiss, too.
“What are you thinking?” she asked. “You suddenly looked so happy.”
“How grateful I am for running into Austin.” Even with his course of action decided, it took more willpower than he thought he possessed to take a step backward and let her pass.
She took three strides from the car then looked back. “I’m glad you ran into Austin, too.”
He watched her until she was lost in the meandering crowd. This was turning out to be a great weekend after all.
It was a struggle to stay awake long enough to get home. Once he pulled into the driveway, he threw the car in park and almost staggered to the bedroom. He was out before he even knew it and slept as deeply as he could remember. He woke at five in the evening and went to do the milking. He finished, took a shower and went into the bedroom with his jeans on but nothing else. The shirt he had borrowed from her Uncle Bill was no longer smelling fresh, and he hated to borrow another without asking. In his state of indecision, he laid back on the bed and only closed his eyes for a second, but it was long enough for sleep to reclaim him.
CLOSING TIME WAS FAST APPROACHING, and Paige was getting nervous. She had expected Sterling to be back over an hour ago. The nearer it got to nine, the more she had to analyze the reality of what she had done. Even if he was adorable and a hard worker, she didn’t know anything about him. In fact, the only thing he’d shared about himself was that ten or twelve years ago he’d lived with his family and hadn’t seen them since. They must have done something awful. She wondered if that was how he became a drifter, going from dead end job to no job at all.
Yet a part of her couldn’t believe that. He was so intelligent and had great teeth. Even his nails looked groomed. But the whole bus things in the deli made it pretty clear he was homeless. Paige shook her head and accepted the possibility that he stole the car. At least there was no product in the back, and the car was getting old. With what they had sold that weekend, he’d easily made enough to cover the cost of the dented beater. She’d call it payment for his time and wouldn’t report it to the police. Given the whole Blanche thing, they might not believe her anyway.
La’Dawn, the jewelry vendor, pulled a string, and a curtain of beads rattled into place, not really blocking anything but probably making the girl feel better. It was Paige’s cue that quitting time had arrived. She began packing up her boxes and planned on calling a cab. She’d give him another half an hour just to be sure. If he actually had left, it was probably because of what happened when she was getting out of the car. The way he lingered made her think he was going to kiss her. Maybe she scared him off. Being that near him, smelling the musky scent of him, was sheer heaven. She closed her eyes to relive the moment and took a deep breath.
“Thinking about me, I hope?” Joe’s voice invaded her dreams, and she opened her eyes to find him in front of her.
He seemed a poor consolation prize. “Oh, hey.”
“I’m exhausted.” He must have taken her lack of enthusiasm as fatigue. “Joe, do you have extra room in your car?”
“Could you give me a ride home? My car’s with a friend.”
If his grin had been any wider, her might have hurt himself. Her took her hand, not even asking for details and Paige wondered what she’d gotten herself into.
AS JOE PULLED UP TO HER HOUSE, she let out an audible sigh of relief. “He’s here.”
She sensed jealousy in his tone and realized he’d expected to be invited in. She better set him straight. “Joe, we need to talk”
He cut the engine, stretched out his elbows and put his arm around the back of her seat. “Finally.”
She clutched the offending appendage and directed it back to his side of the car. “I know you have feelings for me. And, I have to admit, I love you like the brother I never had. It’s only—”
He leaned back. “I don’t know whether to zero in on the love part or the brother part.”
She brought up a knee and shifted in her seat, so she was facing him, but it kept him on his side of the car. “Ever since Uncle Bill got sick, you’ve been there for me. I’ll always be grateful. You’re so good and kind and . . . pure.”
“Pure? Paige, the things I want to do with you are anything but pure.” He gripped the steering wheel.
“Joe, you’re so handsome.” She could feel him deflating. “Any girl would be lucky to have you.”
“But not you,” he said. He was quiet for a long time. When he spoke, he wouldn’t look her direction. “You know, you saved me from making the worst decision of my life. Julie wanted me to quit the farmers’ market once we married. I almost agreed, and then it hit me, the only reason I loved it so much was because of you. Of all the girls I dated, none have really been my friend. The thought of us as a couple blew my mind. I’d marry you right now, if you’d say yes.”
“I’m sorry.” Paige had guessed as much.
He turned to her then. “You have nothing to feel sorry about. It was all in my head. I should be apologizing to you for pushing you into something you didn’t want.”
Paige knew it wasn’t fair for him to think that. “Joe, you’ve been there for me when no one else was. When I needed help, you were the only one I considered calling. I hope it can still be that way.”
He shook his head. “If I’m around you, I’ll want to date you.” He studied her, a bit of hope still left in his eyes. “Is that stupid?”
“No.” She appreciated his honesty. “That’s the same conclusion I came to.”
“And hence cowboy man runs defense for our dinner last night.”
She was happy he was finally getting it but sad too. She’d miss him.
His voice broke into her thoughts. “Could I ask one last thing, and then I swear I’ll never bring it up again.”
“Anything,” she said without reservation.
“Can I have one kiss? I’ve dreamed of it the whole time I was building your booth, maybe longer.” He ran the back of his hand across her cheek. “Please?”
Her chest tightened, and it was hard to breathe. She wanted to say no and run from the car, but it seemed such a small request. He’d done so much for her, and they’d been friends for so long that she dipped her chin in assent.
That tiny movement was enough for him. He moved closer and slid his arms around her, pulling her near him. It was awkward, and the gearshift pressed against her hip. As he leaned in, she wanted to turn her head but thought it would be unkind. His lips pressed against hers. In response her mouth clenched tight. Moist and reaching for more, his lips pulled at hers and slathered around her face, while his hands slid up and down her back as though he was applying suntan lotion through her shirt. She endured it for what was probably less than a minute, but it felt like an eternity. Paige was on the verge of shoving him away when at last he gave up and retreated.
Seconds later, she had the door open and stepped from the car, feeling like she wanted to vomit. She had nothing to say.
He tried to catch her eyes. “Good bye, Paige. I’ll always love you.”
She slammed the door and focused on her Wellingtons until she heard the car rev and peel out onto the street. Spitting in the grass, she turned to the house. Not one light was on. The sight was a relief. Sterling must still be sleeping after working so hard all night long and that morning. She worried that entering the house might wake him. Besides, how could she face him after what just happened in the car?
The solution was simple. She headed to the barn to check whether the goats had been milked but found them all quiet and happy. She counted. They were all there, too. Lifting the freezer lid, she noticed he was getting a higher yield than she had for the last few weeks. It must be his milking technique. When Blanche milked the goats, it was horrible, like she was working a stress ball. But Sterling’s hands were so gentle yet strong that he rivaled even her ability. Secretly, she wondered if the goats preferred him to her. The subject of rivals made her also wonder how kissing Sterling would compare to Joe.
She laughed at the thought as she slid a blue plastic crate from the pile in the corner while allowing her mind to wander. It wouldn’t be difficult for Sterling to come out ahead there, too. She started throwing frozen gallons in the crate. All he’d have to do was not kiss like a fish or dig her hip into the gearshift. Letting the freezer lid drop with a thud, she knew it was more than that. Could her feelings for Sterling be what made kissing Joe so unpleasant?
Unsure of herself, Paige carried the bagged ice milk back to the house. She’d only cook half a batch tonight, and let Sterling sleep. Flipping the interior lights on, she carefully laid her burden on the counter so as not to make too much noise. She wasn’t ready to face Sterling tonight, but tomorrow would be a different matter. She might even flirt a little.
IN THE OTHER ROOM STERLING LAY ON THE BED, staring at the ceiling. How stupid could he be? Of course someone as accomplished and creative as Paige would be spoken for. He thought of how familiar Joe had been with her, touching her face when they spoke. Did Paige look on him as some charity case? Or worse, had he only imagined her interest in him? Paige told Julie their relationship was just business. It had been a while since he’d found someone who interested him. Could he be that out of touch?
Her car keys were still in his hand, and he chucked them on the bedside table. He had almost made it to the door when Joe’s car drove up. From the front window he could see what was happening since the vehicle’s interior was backlighted by the floodlights from the barn and the house was dark. At first she seemed to resist his advances, but he must have worn her down. Even in the dark, it was pretty clear the lip lock was a mutual decision.
Though it surprised him to see her with Joe like that, the bigger surprise was his own reaction. He was seriously upset. Probably because he’d dreamed about that goodbye kiss, which would have been a lot better than the peck Joe dished out. Or could it be more? He hadn’t realized his feelings for her had gone so deep. He cleared his throat and rolled over on his side. Maybe he should be thanking the hick for saving him from himself. He didn’t need any of this. He had a life, and it was time to get back to it.
SUNDAY MORNING THERE was no breakfast.
Paige awoke while Sterling was working in the barn and helped bag the last of the milk, but he didn’t say a thing. She figured he was embarrassed about leaving her to fend for herself the night before. She didn’t want to make him feel worse, so she kept quiet.
At the farmers’ market there was a steady stream of customers. Sterling went back to washing feet, even though she told him he didn’t have to, while she collected the money. The half day was over before she knew it. As the market officials closed the gates, she turned to Sterling, who was wiping up the area around the pump.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
“No. I’ve got to get back. It’s been an educational weekend for me.” His words were clipped.
“I understand.” But she didn’t. She thought he had liked her, at least a little, but he was pushing her away. There was nothing else she could do. Or was there? “Sterling, is there any water left in the pump?”
He stood. “A little. I’ll empty it out.”
“Wait. You know, I’ve seen you wash all those other women’s feet today, but you haven’t done mine. Would you mind?” She sat in the cedar chair, wondering if she were being too brazen.
“I think I would…” Sterling bent over near her. “…mind.” He lifted the bucket and carried it off to empty without another word.
She could feel her eyes start to mist and stood. It really was over. At the counter she counted out the money. Once she paid him, he’d be gone, and right now that couldn’t be soon enough.
She put an even thousand in the envelope and handed it to him on his return. “If you ever need work, you can always find it with me.”
He gave her a wry grin. “Not likely.” Turning on heel, he strode away.
Paige put a hand to her stomach. Perhaps it was hunger. She hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s lunch, but her insides felt empty.
BACK IN HIS HIGH END LOFT in the center of downtown, Sterling Keller took extra time getting ready that morning. Every hair was styled and sprayed in place. His European-cut suit with a skinny tie was appropriately fashion forward. Finally, he slipped on classic wingtips. In the living room, a large paper bag held his old clothes. He should have burned them a decade ago like he’d planned. Before leaving for work, he went to the kitchen with the bundle under his arm, shoved it in the trash compactor and turned the knob. The hum of the motor brought a satisfied smirk to his freshly shaven face. It wasn’t quite burning, but there were fire laws after all.
Speeding to work, he had one thing on his mind, getting the final numbers for his next project. All that stood in his way was presenting his most recent findings. Once that was done, he’d never think of this weekend again. It was over. Another nail in the coffin of his past that he would never reopen.
The elevator doors slid wide with a ping, and a large modern clock on the wall had both hands pointing at the six. No one would be in for another hour. He had spent most of Sunday afternoon and night typing a detailed report about the little goat girl. Although anyone else in the world would have let him simply email it to them, his boss wanted only one hard copy to be made and delivered directly to her. Every scrap of documentation his boss touched was held to the same standard and meticulously tracked so that her interests were protected, per the advice of her lawyers, Bob Evans and Bob Little. The office dubbed them the Bobsie Twins, but they were anything but comical. Although their methods were a little extreme, his boss swore that she had avoided more than one frivolous lawsuit because of it.
As Sterling walked past his secretary’s desk, he was a little surprised the older redhead was already there and wearing a Cheshire cat grin. “You’ve got an important visitor. Been waiting for almost half an hour.”
He could guess who it was. She sure didn’t waste any time, did she? After having her feet washed, Julie was obviously escalating her efforts. Phone calls weren’t enough anymore. Throwing open the door, he was ready to tell her exactly what he thought of her. Given his current mood, he looked forward to it.
“Hey, Mr. Keller.” Austin sat on the red kidney-bean-shaped sofa, the only bit of color in the room. “I’m ready to start working for you.”
Sterling paused, trying to remember why the intern would be there.
Austin took a tentative step toward him. “You promised me a position after introducing you to Paige.”
Sterling continued to his desk and sat. Opening his briefcase, he took out his report and scanned the pages one last time. “Give me a week, and I’ll have your assignment ready.” He’d check with their sanitation division.
The intern hung his head, and Sterling let the kid show himself out. He had almost shut the door when Sterling called him back as an afterthought. “I’m expecting another document today. A private survey of three recycling facilities?” Once again the hard copy policy annoyed him, and he wished they could use digital copies like every other business in the twenty-first century.
Austin grinned. “Check your inbox.”
Sterling gestured to the mahogany box on his desk, which contained a handful of single page office memos he’d never bothered to read. “No folder in sight.”
“Not that one.” The intern was at his side, bending over his computer, typing on his keyboard. “There.” He pointed at the screen.
It was a computer application Sterling hadn’t seen before. To the right of what looked like an inbox icon, a set of parentheses had a two in it. He clicked, and sure enough, the digital copy was there. A chuckle ruptured from deep in his chest. “What app is this?”
Austin stood a little taller. “It’s my thesis. I’ve created a hyper-secure interoffice server that records every document within Erickson Holdings. Not only can you retrieve your documents, you can track where they are physically and electronically—here.” He clicked a few more keys, and the screen lit up with little squares moving constantly back and forth around a spreadsheet.
Once the cursor lit over a square, a text box appeared with the details of the document and its location. Sterling played with the application for a few minutes, becoming more amazed by the second. “You did this?”
Austin hung his head. “It’s the reason your document was delayed on Friday. That’s when we went live. But it’s still no excuse.”
“I think it is.” Sterling rose to his feet and shook the intern’s hand as an equal. “By end of business today, I’ll have a better idea of where I stand with my next assignment, and I promise you’ll be my right hand man.”
Austin smiled with the look of a sports fan whose team won the playoffs. “Thanks, Mr. Keller.”
Walking back around his desk, Sterling opened the survey doc and sat down. “No, thank you, Austin. I should have believed every word Paige said about you.”
The mention of Paige stopped the boy in his tracks. “She says nice things about everyone. I’m glad you got to meet her.” Austin opened the door and walked past a stunned Dotty. Apparently, she wasn’t expecting him to be so chipper.
The intern’s last words played across his mind. He thought of Paige’s dark curls, olive complexion and bright mind with a little regret. “So am I.”
HALF AN HOUR LATER, he was ready to face his boss. The survey he’d reviewed was more than he’d ever expected. Technology recycling was the untapped wave of the future, and with enough capital upfront to ensure they came in top of share, they could easily maintain the prime spot and make more money than his dad ever dreamed of. He pressed the button on his phone again. “Dotty, are you sure she still hasn’t come in?”
His secretary’s voice was strained. “I told you three times that you should get up and wait at her office. Stop acting like that annoying girl you’ve been trying to avoid, will ya?”
He got to his feet and began pacing between his desk and the sofa Austin had been sitting on. His boss hated to be pressured into anything, preferring to be the initiator of any conversation. He was the same way. But if the intern could do it, why couldn’t he?
Sweeping the Lindon report into his hand, he strode down the hall. Once his boss gave him back the prospectus, he’d be ready to make a move on Earth Tech.
“It’s about time,” Dotty said as he passed. He’d inherited her from a retired partner, and she’d never steered him wrong. Although no longer the true beauty she’d evidently been twenty years ago, Dotty was still sharp as a tack and knew more secrets about his associates than Sterling would ever dream of. It had gotten him out of more than one tight spot, and he knew she wouldn’t let him forget it.
THE EXECUTIVE OFFICES WERE AROUND a blind corner, opening to a wide bay of cubicles. At the end of the hall, double doors led to a plush waiting room which led to the president’s office. The secretary wasn’t there, but he could see through the thin window to the left of her door that his boss was.
Sterling moved forward to knock, but she saw him first. “Open it.”
Elaine Erickson didn’t stand. She wore a fuchsia pantsuit and a dour expression. Across from her sat a man whose watch was the only interesting thing about him. It was a Hublot knockoff. Anyone that knew anything about quality wouldn’t trust him as far as they could throw him, and anyone that didn’t shouldn’t be playing in this league.
The vapid fellow was about to introduce himself, but Elaine took charge. “This is Ryan Scott of Emu Bliss. He claims that Bill Lindon used his formula for soap without permission.”
Sterling couldn’t imagine the man he was looking at having anything to do with something as lowly as soap. “You’re talking about Paige Lindon’s uncle?”
“Deceased uncle,” Elaine clarified.
Taking the arm of the closest chair, Sterling sat. “I didn’t realize he had passed. Was it recent?”
Elaine steepled her fingers. “Yes, that’s what brought this issue to our attention. Bill’s obituary outlined his accomplishments and mentioned the soap.”
The other man didn’t respond, content to let Elaine do his talking for him. Sterling wanted to punch him in the mouth for some reason but decided the best tactic would be to ignore him all together.
Sterling knew lawsuits like this seldom went to court. They were usually the result of some slick Willy looking for a quick buck. Evidence was fabricated all the time to syphon profits off a skyrocketing product, but with Paige’s limited resources, Lindon Beauty Cakes had years before it would get to that level. “I don’t see what he hopes to get out of the operation. It’s barely solvent. Her production is so low she can’t even keep a booth at the flea market stocked.”
“That’s because it’s in such demand she can barely meet her orders.” Elaine got to her feet and walked around her ample desk with a printout in hand. “I thought you investigated her this weekend.”
Sterling clutched his report but suddenly didn’t want to relinquish it. “I did.”
Sitting on the edge of the desk in front of him, Elaine handed him the page. “Frankly, I expected more from you. This is extrapolated from the information we’ve been able to obtain. Do you know her wholesale price is $30 per bar?”
Sterling followed the numbers on the page with his finger. “I assumed that was retail, but yes.”
Elaine glanced at Ryan before going on. “And she currently has fourteen producing does that yield forty bars per day each.”
Licorice, Concrete, Cinnamon and the others came to mind. Sterling nodded. “Yes, that’s about right.”
Elaine continued. “Do the math. That works out to 566 bars per day. Over 500k of product per month at thirty a bar.”
“Six million per annum?” Sterling read the figures over again. It didn’t make sense. “Have you seen her house? Her car?”
Moving back to her leather chair with a look of triumph, Elaine explained, “Of course, that’s only her potential gross. Given her uncle’s funeral and other setbacks, her production is down. It also looks as though most of her retailers are new relationships. Once she’s hired a few employees, that girl’s prepped to break open an entirely new niche market.”
Again, Sterling found himself admiring Paige’s business acumen, but a few things did not compute. “So what does this have to do with you?” He turned his chair to look at the man beside him. The snake averted his gaze.
His boss answered for the man again. “Her success is a direct result of Ryan’s scientists. He has the documentation to prove it. If he takes this to court, she’ll lose everything.”
Sterling couldn’t stay sitting down. Jumping to his feet, he clutched the arms of Ryan’s wingback and jammed his face within inches of the creep. “So what do you want?”
Again, Ryan didn’t react. Sterling could tell the guy was pretty confident he’d already won.
At last Ryan opened his mouth, but his words were directed to Sterling’s boss. “You can call off your dog now.”
She didn’t have to. Sterling knew he’d crossed a line, but this whole thing still didn’t make sense. He withdrew to a corner to cool down, and Ryan got to his feet.
“My lawyers will be in touch,” he said to the room in general before exiting.
Now he’d get some answers. Sterling sat in front of Elaine who was reading through three single page documents on her desk. He waited. When she met his eyes, he said, “So what is your part in all this? Why are you even involved?”
“It’s somewhat confidential.” She dropped the pages into her top drawer. “I was a close friend of her uncle, and am watching out for Paige’s interests.”
He wasn’t buying it. “Where’s the Bobsie twins? I can’t believe you’d even talked to that character without them present.”
“Evans and Little are in Vancouver, as we speak, explaining the situation to Miss Lindon. She should be arriving within the hour.” Elaine’s gaze returned to her desk, meaning he was excused, which was fine with Sterling because he was speechless.
As he wandered down the empty hall to his own office, Sterling was reeling. He remembered Paige telling him about the worst offense that could ever be committed in her view. Lying. And she was about to find out that he was perhaps the worst criminal she had ever known.
As he rounded the corner to his office, it took everything he had not to lunge himself at the man leaning over Dotty’s desk. Sterling’s jaw clenched so tight he could hear his teeth grind against each other.
Ryan hung over the counter surrounding Dotty’s desk. “I’m divorced now. Come on, Dotty-kins. It’ll be like old times.”
Dotty stood and leaned toward him suggestively. “Not old enough, sweetie.” With both hands she shoved at his chest, causing him to tip backwards and have to catch his balance.
Sterling took that moment to advance, trying not to laugh too hard. “Dotty, I think we’ve got some work to do. If you don’t mind?”
She grabbed a pad and pencil. Sterling hadn’t seen her respond that quickly since the day he took her on. “I think we’re done here,” Dotty said to Ryan.
He gave her a wink as he walked away. “Not by a long shot, babe.”
PAIGE WAS MILKING WHEN a black SUV rolled up her driveway. She thought it was a lost sightseer until two men got out of the car with their dark suits and solemn faces.
She stood at the door of the barn in her Wellington boots, rubbing Petunia behind one ear, as Bob Evans and Bob Little told her how everything she had ever worked for could be gone. Previously, she had spent the morning wondering how Petunia had escaped again. What they were saying seemed to make that concern trivial. She couldn’t believe that they were accusing her uncle of doing something so dishonest. It made no sense.
When they suggested she come with them, they didn’t need to ask twice. “You bet I’m coming. We’re going to straighten this out because it’s the biggest pile of goat poop I’ve ever heard of.”
They waited while she changed into the navy blue pant suit she had bought for graduation last winter. Paige pinned her hair up and brought out her makeup kit, spending more time than usual. She left feeling prepared for anything they could throw at her.
The two lawyers encouraged her to ride with them. She didn’t argue but got in her own car anyway and started the ignition. After letting them worry for a minute or two, she rolled down the window and agreed to follow them.
They exited the freeway on Couch and Burnside and passed a huge sign touting the world’s largest bookstore which took up a whole city block. They drove by a gold Chinese lion and a donut shop with a line that reached around the corner. Though she lived less than an hour north of Portland, she had spent very little time in the city. Once, while gawking at the interesting architecture and even more interesting inhabitants, she missed a light. When she pulled through the intersection, the SUV was waiting. At last, they entered a basement parking facility where a well-dressed valet opened her door.
She exited and resisted handing him the key. The concern that she might be held prisoner here crossed her mind. She knew she was being childish, and at last dropped her crowded key ring into his open palm. The lawyers’ faces reminded her of funeral attendants, not letting a single emotion slip. She refused to let them get to her and smiled lightly as she marched through the glass doors they held open for her.
The lobby was remarkable. Marble floors and gold curtains randomly divided the spacious room into cozy chatting areas. The elevator was almost the size of her bedroom, and she wasn’t surprised when the two funeral directors, for that is what she had convinced herself they really were, hit the button for the top floor. What shocked her was who was waiting for her when those doors opened.
It took her eyes a minute to adjust to his stylish attire, but once she caught his gaze she was certain. “Sterling?”
His fingers latched around her upper arm. “I’m borrowing her for a minute, boys.” He all but dragged her around the corner to the handicapped bathroom and locked the door, so they were trapped inside. “Listen, we only have a second.”
Her mind felt numb. “Why should I believe anything you say? From what I’m seeing, I assume you aren’t jobless and homeless?”
“I may be after this stunt.” Sterling loosened his tie as a soft rapping came at the door. “Please, they’ve probably gone to get the key. I want you to know something isn’t right here. I don’t know what it is, but you’ve got to trust me, as crazy as that sounds.”
“I already did that. Look where it’s got me.” She thought about how comfortable their conversation at the Thai restaurant had been, and then for no reason he’d withdrawn and finally left. He must have gotten some vital piece of information he was looking for and didn’t need her anymore. He was probably part of this whole charade. No, she wasn’t falling for it again.
“I’m not lying now, Paige.” He drew closer to her. “You’ve got something special, and I want to be part of it.” His pale eyes met hers, and she wanted to melt, but she refused. She wouldn’t be pulled in and duped again.
Turning the bolt herself, she opened the door as one of the Bobs was bending to insert the key, further evidence that Sterling knew his part and was playing it full tilt.
Sterling clasped her hand. “I’m not leaving again. I’m going to help you.”
No, she reminded herself. She’d already given him a chance, and he’d blown it. Yanking free from his grasp, she started to say something, but her voice cracked. She swallowed and could feel her eyes grow moist. “Haven’t you done enough?”
He didn’t try to touch her again. The two Bobs each stood on one side of her like bodyguards. They walked three abreast to a lush reception area. As they went, she gulped deep breaths to gain her composure. Sterling hung back a few feet, but from the determination on his face, she knew he’d fight anyone who tried to stop him. Though still angry at him for his deception, she was grateful for his presence. It didn’t make her feel quite so alone.
Moments later her friend Elaine entered the room. Paige was shocked. She had no idea what Elaine did for a living, but she never expected her to be a high-powered business woman. Elaine dismissed the lawyers and welcomed Paige into her office. “Sterling, you come too.”
Paige hoped to finally to get more information. Shaking the woman’s extended hand, she entered the door with Sterling behind her and sat in the chair closest to the floor to ceiling window. Peering to the right, she looked down at the street below and understood why people said the pedestrians looked like ants. It made her queasy.
When everyone was situated, Elaine stared at her for a solid minute, scanning her clothes, her face, her hair.
Paige felt self-conscious for the first time around this woman she had known for years and realized she really didn’t know her at all. She straightened the lapels of her jacket. “What is this all about?” she said as firmly as she was able.
Elaine broke into a large grin as if Paige was a toddler taking her first step and turned to address Sterling, “Did you see how she took charge? I like that.”
Sterling appeared as confused as she was, and Paige began to wonder if Elaine had lost her mind. “I’m assuming those are your lawyers, and you’re suing me for something?”
The older woman smiled. “You know your Uncle Bill and I have been friends for years, but what I haven’t told you is that I’m also executor of his will.”
“Uncle Bill didn’t have a will.” Paige hadn’t heard of any such thing.
“Yes, he did. It was written before you were born, but I assure you, it’s completely legal.”
Paige folded her arms. She couldn’t come to a conclusion about Elaine just yet. “What does the will say?”
“It’s not so much what it contains,” Elaine said, “as what it means to you. At the time he wrote it, I was his employer and insisted all my employees have one. He owned very little, and since we were on good terms, he left everything to me.”
Paige shook her head so hard that tendrils fell from her bun. “That’s not what Uncle Bill would have wanted. We built the goat farm together. Fifty-fifty he always said.”
“I’ve been trying to buy into your business to avoid all this,” Elaine explained. “Fifty-fifty, that’s my proposal, not only of your assets but of your liabilities.”
Sterling rose to his feet. “What are you saying, Elaine?”
The woman took a deep breath and sat straighter in her chair, if that was even possible. “Paige, I’m a very wealthy woman. I’ve built a significant empire. When I saw the notice of Bill Lindon’s death and remembered about the will, I had planned not to bring it to light at all. Then I was approached by a man claiming rights to your soap formulas.”
“What claim?” Paige grew wary.
Elaine lifted a page from her desk. “Does this look familiar?”
Paige reached across the cherry wood surface and took the yellowed paper. At a glance, she knew what it was. “It’s our first recipe. I remember because the milk is used only to dissolve the lye. Uncle Bill and I figured out that with increased fat content, it could replace a portion of the oil, too.”
“Think.” Elaine’s voice was deep. “Did Bill suggest it or you?”
“It wasn’t like a single conversation. We toyed with the idea for almost a year and started researching breeds to make it happen.” That was a great time. It was right after Uncle Bill went into remission the first time. They had travelled the Orient and much of Europe.
Elaine lifted a pink half sheet of paper from the file in front of her and deposited it before Paige. “Does this look familiar?”
Her hands trembled as Paige realized what she was seeing. “It’s a receipt for our trip to China.”
“Read the bottom corner.” Elaine said flatly.
Paige’s throat wasn’t working. She had to clear it before she could say, “Paid for by Emu Bliss.”
Elaine rose from her chair. “Emu Bliss was considering using goat milk as an additive for their personal care products. They paid your uncle to research the subject, but he told them he couldn’t find a goat species that would work, and his contract ended.”
“That’s not good,” Sterling said.
Paige wasn’t certain Sterling meant to say that out loud—it sounded so genuine—but she couldn’t agree more. “I went to school and got a degree in bio-chemistry to finish developing the formulas. It’s a patented process. That’s got to count for something.” Paige threw the slip of paper back on the table.
“Don’t you see?” Elaine stuck the offending document in a folder and closed it. “EG’s chemists may have done the same thing if your uncle had shared his findings with them.”
Paige didn’t want to believe it, but both Sterling and Elaine were in unison on this, and the evidence was certainly damning. “What can I do?”
“Our first priority is to keep it out of court. You could lose everything and owe a ridiculous amount on attorney fees,” Elaine said.
“I don’t have much to pay for anything right now.” Paige swallowed. “I have spent everything on medical bills.”
“Oh, I’ve done a terrible job of explaining all this.” Elaine lowered her eyes. “You see, once I filed the will with the court, I was apprised of your uncle’s account with the hospital and paid the bill in full. They agreed to reimburse what you’ve paid so far to your accounts. It may already be there.”
Paige recalled her original vow, not to believe anything until she knew it for herself. She took out her cell and tapped the screen. It took a few minutes, but when her balance lit up, her mouth fell open. It was all there. She’d never seen six figures in her bank account before. “How is that possible?”
Elaine smiled. “Most of your banking was done with joint accounts, and I have Bill’s power of attorney. If you don’t contest it, I will act in Bill’s behalf for his portion of your assets. Sterling, tell her what that means.”
Paige turned to Sterling, who seemed as dazed as she was. He was sizing up Elaine, almost staring her down even. Finally, he turned to Paige. “Elaine is willing to fight for you. Paige, she’s never lost. I don’t know why she’s doing this, but she is.”
“That’s my Sterling,” the older woman laughed. “Honest to a fault. I’ll tell you why I’m doing it. It’s time I pay something back. Bill Lindon was a roofer when I started flipping houses. I’d never be where I am today if it weren’t for him, but this isn’t a free ride. I’ll expect something from you, Paige Lindon.”
Paige cringed. From the woman’s determined stare, she wouldn’t be surprised if Elaine required her firstborn child.
Then Elaine’s eyes widened, and she almost smiled. “I expect you to make your business as big a success as it can be, and I believe you can do it. I’ve already given Sterling a run-down of next year’s projections from what little information we could gather. He’ll share that with you in due time, but for now I’ve got three things I need you to do.”
Pushing back her leather throne slightly, Elaine removed three papers from her desk drawer. Paige noted from across the desk that they weren’t long pages of extensive writing. Instead, each one held about a paragraph with two empty lines beneath.
Elaine got to her feet. “Here’s what I’m proposing. I’ve had the president of Emu Bliss in my office most of the morning. He’s agreed to work with us as long as you are willing to keep the goats in a neutral holding area until this is settled.”
“No.” Paige gripped the leather arms of her chair until her knuckles whitened. “If they aren’t milked every twelve hours, their production will decrease.”
“None of us wants that.” Elaine sounded like she meant it. “We’ll hire professional milkers and have a vet oversee them. I even have chemists on hand to mix your product according to your specifications. Orders will be met, and the money put in escrow until an equitable settlement can be reached.”
Paige was listening. “How much time are we looking at?”
“All I need is one week.”
Elaine laid the first page in front of Paige. “Here is his signature. Now I need yours.”
Paige glanced over the signature which was nothing more than a big “R” with scribbles behind it. Then she began reading. The words seemed so clear it was as though Elaine had been reciting from it. Even the week duration to settle the case was there. If it took longer, the prosecution would lose all rights to sue for restitution. She liked the sound of that and picked up the proffered pen. As she bent to sign, the ballpoint was snatched from her.
Sterling was standing over her. “Are you sure you don’t want a lawyer to look it over?”
Normally, Sterling’s warning would make sense, but the woman in front of her had put hundreds of thousands of dollars in her bank account. Everything Elaine said seemed reasonable, and there was that single week clause. What could happen in a week? “I’m following my gut.” Paige took the pen back.
He knelt beside her so that he could look in her eyes. “You did that when you met me, remember?’
Her face warmed and the feelings she had been keeping at bay crept out of the corners of her mind and back to center stage. “I’d do it again.”
“Funny. So would I.”
She signed and passed it back to Elaine who gave her the next one. “This gives Erickson Holdings power of attorney on your behalf,” she said. “Since I’m already representing a portion of Bill’s assets, it simply clarifies that the decisions I make in negotiations will be final pursuant to your written wishes. There are lines to delineate your desires, and I’ll take it from there.”
This was harder, but if she got to choose the conditions, it would be better than if she were to try to go it alone. Paige thought it through and soon began writing. She could only come up with a few. First, that all products would be subject to her inspection for quality before being sold. She didn’t want this hiccup to ruin her reputation. Second, that the goats would remain in her control for all major decisions such as breeding and treatment. Last, that the Lindon name would continue on the brand since Uncle Bill often told her that one of her most important jobs was to bring honor to the Lindon family name, and she was determined to do it. Feeling confident, she signed and passed the page back to Elaine.
Paige could have sworn she saw a tear edge Elaine’s eye as the older woman read the additions then said, “You’re an impressive young lady.” Elaine passed her the final document.
Feeling a little calmer, Paige lifted the paper and couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “This is a statement of employment. You want to hire me?”
Sterling had returned to his seat but was not looking comfortable. “What’s going on here?”
Elaine put her hand on her heart as if offended and turned to Paige. “I told you I wanted you to do something for me, and is it really so much to ask? One week of your time, and I’m paying you. I’ve seen your college transcript, Paige. It was stellar. You’re completely capable of the task I have in mind.”
One week. She read every word twice. It was clearly only employment for one week. “What’s the job?”
“Assisting Sterling. He’s taking a trip to Dallas to approach a small business, not much bigger than yours, about a buyout. Sterling is planning to take them national. I think working with him could give you an education in how to create a phased plan for expansion, which I hope you would repeat with your own business later.”
“Dallas?” Paige asked. She wondered which, the one in Texas or Oregon. If it was Dallas, Oregon, she could meet Sterling’s family and figure out why he hadn’t seen them in so long, or maybe that was a lie too.
Sterling shook his head. “Earth Tech is located in Texas.”
“Oh, I’ve never been.” Well, a trip to Texas for a week with Sterling wasn’t the worst thing in the world that could happen. Her eyes were drawn to an underlined number in the center of the text and she did a double take. “Twenty-five thousand dollars for one week? That’s too much,” she said to Elaine.
Elaine didn’t actually smile, but the wrinkles around her eyes deepened. “Let me decide when it’s too much, dear.”
Between the money she’d be paid for this week of work and the reimbursed medical bills, Paige was reeling. She’d always had to worry about making ends meet, and the load from her shoulders felt as if it had been physically lifted. She signed and handed the paper and pen back.
Elaine laid the papers in an open basket behind her. “Excuse me for a moment.” She lifted the receiver to her ear and turned her back to the pair.
“This is unbelievable,” Paige whispered to Sterling while Elaine was busy with her phone call. Paige’s mouth wanted to smile and frown at the same time, so it just widened.
“It seems that way,” Sterling whispered back. “I don’t get her motivation. It doesn’t make sense.”
Paige’s eyes grew wide. “Maybe she’s being kind to an old friend.”
He leaned nearer to her, so he wouldn’t be overheard. “Elaine doesn’t have friends.”
“Uncle Bill could charm the skin off a snake. They could have been more than friends; I guess,” she suggested.
Elaine spun her chair toward the two, finishing her phone conversation while meeting each of their gazes. “Yes, both of them. One forty,” she said and hung up. Without even pausing, she redirected her words to the two in the room. “Sorry about the interruption. I’d like to be the first to welcome you to Erickson’s Holdings, Paige. Perhaps you could spend the rest of the morning with Sterling, and he can update you on the Earth Tech deal.”
“I’d rather go home first,” Paige said. She knew her rights, and nothing she’d signed could force her to stay. “In fact, pursuant to my stipulated conditions, I’d like to oversee the goat’s new facility and their treatment during the move before I start with Sterling.”
“Oh.” Elaine hedged. “In all the excitement, I may have jumped too soon.”
Sterling got to his feet and leaned over her desk. “What are you talking about, Elaine?”
“That was one of my partners. He’s heard that someone else is putting an offer on Earth Tech. If you don’t move immediately, it will be gone. Didn’t you hear me on the phone? I booked both of your flights for the early afternoon. It will be a push, but I think we’ll have just enough time to get everything done we need to here.” Her chin wrinkled in concern. “I could cancel.”
Sterling sat down and looked at the floor. Paige could see this meant a lot to him. There might be a solution that would work. “Could I get a friend of mine to oversee the goats on my behalf? I know you’re trying to be fair, Elaine, but if someone who knows me could keep an eye out for them, it would make me feel more comfortable.”
Sterling straightened. “Who do you have in mind?”
Paige bit her lip. “He’s a mutual friend. He introduced us.”
Paige put her hand on his. “You don’t know him like I do, Sterling. He’s a genius.”
Sterling smiled. “I didn’t until this morning. We work together.”
“Oh.” Paige wondered if there might be some conflict of interest and then remembered who Austin was. No, she wouldn’t have to worry about him. He wasn’t capable of lying.
“Austin, it is.” Elaine stood and walked to the door. “I’ll contact him immediately and give him an overview before I send him your way. Meanwhile, Sterling, why don’t you take our newest employee to your office and brief her on your research?” Elaine lifted a manila envelope from a lamp table next to the door. “And here are those final numbers you’ve been anxious for. I think you’ll be pleased.”
Elaine turned the door handle and waited for Sterling and Paige to come to her.
Before leaving, Paige paused then hugged her new boss. “I can’t tell you how much your help means to me. It’s wonderful to know there are still good people out there willing to make things right.”
Elaine grinned. “My secretary has some final details to cover with you.”
Satisfied, Paige hurried out the door.
STERLING HUNG BACK. He fingered the envelope in his hand. He could have bought everything Elaine said as true, except the push to get to Dallas. A phone call could suspend a competitor’s offer as easily as a face to face visit. A few days here or there shouldn’t make that much of a difference.
The bigger question in his mind was why hadn’t he stood up to Elaine and given Paige that extra time? His conscience seemed to be butting against the inside of his chest like one of Paige’s goat. He knew his answer. Due to his incognito weekend, he was already on thin ice and didn’t want to risk Paige changing her mind. He hoped Elaine’s reason was that straightforward but doubted it. No, they were both being used.
He really didn’t mind being a pawn in one of Elaine’s chess games because she always won. As long as he was on her team, he had complete confidence he’d come out ahead. What he did mind was that he couldn’t understand why she was making these most recent moves. He was missing something. Something big.
The best he could do was to keep his eyes open and play along. Hopefully, things would clear up as the game progressed, and when she decided to sacrifice a pawn, he really hoped it wouldn’t be him.
Elaine took his hand. “Take good care of her, Sterling. I want you to put her needs even before your own.”
He noticed she didn’t say before her needs. Nothing came before what Elaine wanted. Now he was certain she wasn’t on the up and up. “How benevolent of you.” He gave Elaine a mock bow.
She laughed out loud. “Sterling, you know me better than that.”
STERLING LED PAIGE TO HIS OFFICE. As they rounded the corridor, he saw Dotty’s flaming red hair bob above the edge of her high desk. “And who do we have here?” she said.
His heartbeat hitched for a second which unnerved him. Somehow it mattered to him what Dotty thought of Paige. He had felt the same way in high school when he introduced his first girlfriend to his mother. He put an arm around Paige. “Dotty, this is who I spent the weekend with. Her name is Paige, and she’s a bio-chemist.”
Dotty focus returned to her desk. “What you do on the weekend is none of my business.”
Paige stepped forward. “It’s not what it sounds like. I’ve been hired temporarily and will be working with Sterling and you, I assume.” She looked to Sterling who nodded in assent. “I’m Paige Lindon.”
“Lindon? That sounds familiar.” Dotty got to her feet. Her form-fitting dress was flattering despite her age.
“I’ve lived in the area most of my life,” Paige offered.
Dotty inspected Paige, head to toe, not unlike airport security. “Good for you, but that’s not it.” Then she stared at Sterling.
“Is anything wrong?” He’d never seen her so closed lipped about her opinion.
Dotty wouldn’t look his direction. “Nothing. Nothing. Welcome to you, Ms. Lindon. If you need anything, I’m sure Sterling will help you.” She went back behind her desk and began clacking at her computer, ensuring that any conversation was ended between them.
He’d talk to Dotty later about what was going on. She was so temperamental. She could take a disliking to someone for the smallest reason like how they pronounced the word ‘syrup’ or whether their clothes fit properly. Looking at Paige in her sharp navy suit, he knew that wouldn’t be his secretary’s excuse this time. The jacket accentuated Paige’s thin waist beautifully and the pants her long legs.
He shrugged it off and showed Paige into his office. After placing a stack of several studies and an overview of the industry on the sofa, Sterling bid Paige to sit. As she began reading, he took the prospectus he’d been waiting for to his desk and at last opened the cover. Sterling hadn’t finished the first sentence before Paige interrupted him.
“Did you notice Earth Tech exceeds the comparable companies in rebuilds but has a twenty percent greater cost in their bio recycling? Do you know why there’s a difference?” she asked.
Sterling was surprised he hadn’t noticed it earlier. “No, but good catch. That’s a great question to ask, and since you’re the chemist, I’d expect you to take that segment of the interview.” He continued to read but looked forward to her insights. She found three more detailed questions that Sterling had overlooked.
A couple of hours later, Sterling had made two important discoveries. First, [_Earth Tech _]was better than he could have dreamed. Their numbers from last year were rock solid, and the company was poised to skyrocket. Second, the same was true of Paige. Better than he could have dreamed. He knew she was committed, kind and a hard worker, but he hadn’t realized what a great mind she had. He sat at his desk and watched her on the sofa, still combing through the last of the paperwork, jotting notes on a pad beside her. Now that she knew who he really was, he wondered if he could tell her how he really felt as well.
He cleared his throat to get her attention. “Paige, you’re going to be a great asset to this project.”
She grinned at his words but continued focusing on the file in her hand. He clenched his hand around his pen and jabbed the instrument in his pocket. Putting off women for so long had left him out of practice. He got to his feet, feeling more nervous than he could remember. “I mean, I want you to know—”
A knock on the door saved him from going further. It was Austin.
Paige gave the intern a hardy embrace. “I’m so glad you could come.”
Austin gave a stiff bow. “I’ve been told you could use my services and am here to ask for details.”
“Yes.” Paige began. “Did Ms. Erickson tell you the news? I’m working with Sterling this week while my goats are moved, and some things are decided. This will only be temporary, and I know it will be terribly inconvenient, but I need you for one week.”
“I was about to be reassigned anyway.” Austin raised his hand like a kindergartener. “Can I use my tracking system, do you remember it?”
Laughing, Paige patted his arm. “On everything but the goats. I don’t think they’d like microdots stuck to their foreheads.”
Sterling walked to the door. “Why don’t I let you two have some privacy? If you need anything, help yourself.”
He could hear Paige and Austin begin to go over the details of the move, but a few things were still bothering him that he hadn’t covered with Elaine. Most of all, why was she doing this? He hoped that as the office gossip, Dotty might have a clue, especially since she wasn’t her normal personable self when meeting Paige.
Stepping out the door, he was a little surprised to find her desk empty and strolled around the hall to the main area of the office. It was a little after ten, and the work day was in full swing. Sterling felt sorry for the associates stationed right in front of Elaine’s office because it wasn’t only their responsibility to look busy at all times but also to pretend they didn’t notice the goings on in her personal area. Even from where he was standing, he could tell something was up. The voices of two women having a very heated interaction were twice the volume of the music piped through the speakers.
Sterling neared but tried to stay out of either woman’s line of vision by putting his back against the wall next to the entrance of Elaine’s office area.
Sterling hesitated in his hiding place then decided to proceed and nearly ran into Dotty. Streaks of mascara were streaming down her cheeks as she rounded the corner. She didn’t even look surprised, just shook her finger and said, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay away from that witch. Stay away!” Then she ran off.
With how upset she was, Sterling decided not to follow her yet. He also didn’t plan on heeding her advice.
Elaine was almost to her door when Sterling caught her. “We’ve got to talk.”
“In here.” She opened her door and locked it. “That conversation should never have happened.”
Sterling stared at her. Elaine was shaking and poured herself a drink. In all the years he’d worked for her, he had never seen Elaine so much as break a sweat, even in the most intense of negotiations. To see her so frazzled left him worried. “What can I do?”
“There you go again.” She sat in her large leather chair and leaned back. “Why does being a Boy Scout come so naturally to you?”
He didn’t answer and knew Elaine didn’t expect him to. She finished her drink while he ironically remembered his father’s anger at his refusal to go to scout camp in favor of football camp.
Elaine put her empty glass on her desk. “You might as well know that Dotty and Paige’s uncle used to be intimate.”
Sterling waited. “Then why is she so upset?”
“She thinks I broke them up,” Elaine said, “but I was only helping him.”
“How?” he asked.
Elaine ran her hand across the edge of her desk as she spoke. “I already told you how I began my career by flipping houses. Bill was my roofing supplier, and Dotty was his assistant of sorts.”
“How’d she come to work for you?” Now he was interested. He knew Dotty had been with the firm longer than he had, but she’d never filled him in on the details.
Elaine sat up straight in her chair. “When Bill’s brother died in a car accident, he wanted to spend more time with his little niece. That’s when he agreed to sell me his company. Dotty came with it. It was my first corporate acquisition.” He could hear the pride in her voice during that last bit.
“How old was Paige then?”
“Five or six. I never met her before today.” Elaine got to her feet. “And I can’t imagine why Dotty is so upset. You try to do a favor for an old friend, and this is the thanks you get.”
Sterling wanted to hear Dotty’s side of things. “Don’t judge her too harshly.”
Elaine let out a dry laugh. “I won’t if you take whatever she says with a grain of salt.”
“Deal.” He shook Elaine’s hands and headed around the corner, feeling more unsettled than when he had arrived.
His pace quickened with each stride until by the time he was near his own office, he was at a jog. He stopped short as his brain registered Dotty talking to Paige. He blinked. Paige was hugging Dotty who had wiped some of her dripping makeup off but still had the telltale red nose and bloodshot eyes. Paige looked up to Sterling and called to him. “Apparently, your secretary had a real scare. Her grandson was left behind on a fieldtrip. They found him, but she’s got to go pick him up. Can you imagine?”
A soft cough at his elbow told him that Elaine had followed.
With her purse slung over her shoulder, Dotty marched by the two of them. As she passed between Sterling and Elaine, she said under her breath, “This is not over.” Then she kept on going to the elevators.
Innocent of anything out of the ordinary, Paige approached them. “Don’t we need to get ready for our flight? I’ve got to at least go home and pack.”
Elaine was first to answer. “Not enough time. You’ve got to be at the airport in two hours.”
Although Sterling was excited to get on his way, Elaine seemed over anxious. There it was again, that hitch that made him know something was up. They could travel later that afternoon or even take the red eye and still get to Texas in plenty of time.
Touching his arm as if to inform him, Elaine continued, “I’ll include a wardrobe budget in your expense accounts, Sterling. Your hotel’s right next to the Galleria, and you can help Paige find appropriate attire. You might as well enjoy the largest shopping mall in the Texas while you’re there.” She quickly changed the subject. “Paige, do you think Austin here is set?”
Hanging back behind the open door, Austin stepped into the hallway at the sound of his name. “Everything is under control, ma’am.” He bowed stiffly, and Sterling understood why his first impression of the boy was that he wasn’t very bright.
“Well done.” Elaine seemed in her element. “Now, Paige and Austin, if you’ll come with me, I’ve got the milkers and vet ready downstairs. They’ll need to get your input, and then we’ll just have time to train the two chemists who will mix the soap. Of course, we may need to contact you later, but I’d really prefer we take care of all of the details now.”
Gesturing for Paige to proceed ahead of them, Elaine met Sterling’s eyes one last time. She smiled and whispered. “I’m hoping this takes the full week. Don’t feel you have to hurry back. There’s lots to keep you busy in Dallas.” Though he’d seen her manipulate people dozens of times, this was different. He felt like one of the victims, not one of the players.
WITHIN THE HOUR, Paige and Sterling were being driven by limo to the airport. Paige kept up a running monologue about how much confidence she had in the professionals that would take care of her goats and in Austin who had seemed to anticipate her every concern. Sterling’s mind barely followed along. He tried to piece together what was going on. Elaine had already told Paige her uncle was an old acquaintance. After Sterling had accosted her, Elaine hadn’t really told him much more than that. Her bait and switch routine was flawless. He was more focused on Dotty than Paige the entire conversation. No, it was quite clear something didn’t smell right, but all he had were suspicions.
Paige laid her hand on his, and he again felt her velvet skin. “Sterling, Earth Tech really does seem amazing, almost too good to be true.”
Sterling thought the same thing about her. Joe’s kiss didn’t matter anymore. She was in his world now, and he hoped she’d never go back. This time he wouldn’t blow it. He could clean up any mess Elaine got Paige into later.
“I don’t think anything is too good for either of us,” he said with confidence. All he needed was time to win her over, and this week in Texas should be just long enough.
THE LATE SPRING TEXAS AIR was already so humid it clung around Paige’s armpits and in the skin beneath her nose. Though in the low eighties, it felt at least ten degrees warmer. After deboarding, they were met by a chauffeur holding a handwritten sign which read, “Lindon and Keller.” Once they pulled away from the airport, her nose was glued to the window.
Unlike the Northwest where every view was punctuated and obstructed by green forests, Dallas was wide and flat. Buildings were everywhere, but the streets were wide enough that it didn’t feel crowded in. While the landscape was somewhat bland, the skyscape captured her. Each large cloud seemed to be molded by some divine modern artist, begging for an interpretation to his masterpiece. She couldn’t help but comment on it. “Sterling doesn’t that one look like an elephant on a unicycle.”
He laughed for the first time since they had left. “I guess it does.”
In all the excitement of the flight and the flurry of speed reading hundreds of papers in preparation for her first assignment, Paige hadn’t considered how oddly Sterling was behaving. Did he still felt guilty for lying to her? She might as well deal with the elephant in the car instead of the one in the sky. She turned to him. “Okay, Sterling, spill it. What’s wrong?”
He peered out the window. “Nothing, really.”
She took his hand in both of hers. “Okay, so I might have been really upset when this first all happened, but I think it’s all worked out for the best. Our first encounter may have been bumpy, but I get that Elaine probably told you to check me out and not tell me who you were. I’m not mad anymore.”
He stared at her hands and wouldn’t meet her eyes.
She could tell he was struggling deeply with something and wracked her brain for what it might be. “And I’m sorry about that whole feet washing thing. It only started because you made me a little jealous.”
That brought a smile to his lips. “Jealous, of whom?”
“Who do you think?” She was happy to finally see light in his pale eyes. “Of Julie and her friend. They just seem to be more in your league.”
He gave her half a smile. “Uh, you thought I was homeless and jobless then.”
“Who you are has nothing to do with what you do for a living. You know that, right?”
He never answered her question. Instead, they were coming up on the Galleria Mall, and he pointed to her window. “We’re here.”
The driver maneuvered into the porte-cochere of the Westin, and a uniformed valet opened her car door. While the driver retrieved Sterling’s bag from the trunk, Paige entered the opulent lobby and couldn’t help but gasp. In the center of the room, a glass vase, the size of a water tower for a small town, sat on a marble table. It was at least twice her height and filled with wax flowers that looked so authentic she wanted to touch them to make certain they weren’t real. Huge paintings covered the walls. One was an oil of a simple pear that followed the contours of a woman’s bare buttocks and another of a wilted rose that seemed to reflect not just the flower but a missed opportunity at love. There were dozens of other paintings she would have loved to enjoy, but she noticed Sterling was at the desk and strolled over to him to see if he needed her for anything.
He turned to meet her. “Everything’s set. Do you want to go to the room first and freshen up or hit the mall?”
Paige put her hands on her hips. “You’d really ask that? How much luggage do I have? Think about it.”
Sliding the room keys into his wallet, he motioned to the back end of the lobby which opened to a wide hallway. “The mall it is.”
Proceeding down the corridor at the back of the hotel, they came to a massive ice skating rink, three stories high at the center of the mall. Each floor was exposed, and she could see scores of unique stores selling clothes, imports and jewelry.
The chill was refreshing and reminded Paige of early mornings back home. She leaned against the glass partition dividing the skaters from the shoppers. “I wonder how the goats are doing.”
“You could call Austin.” Sterling held out his cell.
Paige considered it for a moment before she wagged her head. “Nope. It will only stress him out. I know he’s doing an awesome job.”
“From what I know of Austin, you’re right on both counts.” He stuck the phone in his shirt pocket. “Nordstrom’s first?”
The side of the rink near the hotel was almost empty, but she wasn’t ready to leave and become part of the bustling crowd quite yet. “Do you ever get tired of the fast lane and want a quieter, smaller life?”
Sterling quick answer hardly resembled the humble cowboy she’d gotten to know. “Compared to your life, mine is quieter and much less hectic.”
“Maybe.” She nodded deeply. “But, I don’t know, it seems a little cold.”
He took her arm. “That’s only because your standing next to the skating rink.”
THEY SPENT THE REST OF THE AFTERNOON skimming over the nicer department stores. Paige had assumed all men hated shopping, but Sterling thrived on it. He had a great eye when it came to classic styling, and within a relatively short amount of time, they had picked out three pant suits that looked exquisite on her. He even found accessories, a chunky necklace and earrings of the same copper hue as a silk blouse and a chignon pin that tamed her curls unlike anything she had ever tried.
By seven o’clock, their arms were overflowing with tissue-lined shopping bags, but they weren’t done. At least one of them wasn’t. Paige turned to him. “I’ve got a suggestion to make. Why don’t you head back to the hotel with all of this and decide where you want to meet for dinner while I get a few things by myself?”
His arms were loaded with bags, but he had one hand open. “Let me go with you. I can carry more.”
“No, there are some things I’d like some privacy for, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh,” he reddened. “I’ll put these in your room. Should we meet at eight? There’s a five-star restaurant in the hotel.”
She had spent more on clothes than she’d ever spent in her life. The bill was upwards of eight hundred dollars, and with the proposed dinner the total would be over a thousand for sure. She was going into spending shock, even if it wasn’t her money. “Eight o’clock works, but how about we try the little bar and grill that I saw on the first floor?”
She could see a dimple on his left cheek; he was smiling so big. “I’ll meet you there.”
As Sterling left, juggling the output of her shopping spree, Paige felt her cheeks bubble up in an involuntary grin as well. He was such a gentleman, and to see the way Elaine trusted him and Austin admired him made her feel confident he was a man of honor. While she and Sterling were both employed for Elaine, she would keep things appropriately civil, but after this week, she wouldn’t be against seeing more of him. A lot more.
At the lingerie area, she got stockings and underthings then was off to the makeup counter for essentials. As she headed back to the common area of the mall, something caught Paige’s eye. In a specialty store window, a dress unlike anything she’d ever seen sparkled at her. Deep blue with crystal’s scattered across the shoulders, it looked like a night sky. With no air conditioning in her house, Uncle Bill would often let her sleep in the back meadow on summer nights. The dress reminded her of lying on her back under the stars, hearing the bleating goats in the background. How odd that such an elegant dress would speak to her of home.
THOUGH HE LOVED EVERY MINUTE WITH HER, Sterling was relieved when Paige had him bring her things to the hotel. For some reason he felt he was keeping a secret from her, but he wasn’t really. For now, he didn’t know anything of Elaine’s plan. Was it so farfetched that Elaine was just doing a favor in memory of an old friend? Yes. Though every bell was ringing in his head that something was seriously wrong, without evidence he really had nothing to share.
The answer was sitting in his pocket. He lifted out his cell phone and dialed Dotty’s number. She’d know something. It rang four times before going to voicemail.
Her sassy voice chimed over the airwaves. “You know what to do.” Beep.
“It’s Sterling. Your boss. Please tell me what’s going on.” He hung up.
Unsatisfied, he took his time arranging each of Paige’s purchases in the closet and laid the jewelry and hair accessories in her drawers. They had adjoining rooms, and he unlocked the doors between them. That done, he headed to the bar and grill a little early. Every minute with Paige seemed precious, and he hated to waste any of it. Down a wide corridor he saw her ahead at a large window display. He slowed then snuck up, standing not six inches behind her without her knowing.
She was gazing at a sapphire gown in a specialty store. The bodice had crystals scattered tastefully across the top. “You should get it,” he whispered in her ear.
She jumped and put a hand to her chest. “Oh, it’s you.” Her voice sounded shaky.
“Sorry. I saw you and—” He was surprised he’d scared her so badly. Her hands were still trembling. “That’s a stunning dress. Are you going to try it on?”
She shook her head back and forth. “Why? I’d never use it on the trip.”
“You never know,” he said, taking her by the arm toward the store’s entrance. “We might end up taking our client out to for a congratulatory dinner. We won’t have time to stop and get a formal if you need it later. I brought my tux.”
The sales woman was on top of the situation and carried a dress her size out to them immediately. Paige touched the tag. “It’s as much as I’ve spent today. That’s crazy.”
“But it’s here already, and I’d love to see it on you,” he urged.
She hesitated only a moment. “I suppose.”
While she changed, Sterling kept fidgeting. As she stepped from the dressing room, he smiled so big he thought his cheeks would burst. The cap sleeves and fitted bodice led to a straight cut skirt that had the look of a movie star from the thirties. He could imagine her with her hair up and a few loose ringlets cascading down her back. “Beautiful.”
She reddened. “It makes me feel elegant. At least.”
“I vote we buy it.”
She retreated for the dressing room. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“In that dress, anyone would sign a deal for you.”
A light chuckle drifted from out of her changing area. “You make it sound like I’m for sale, not the dress.”
“Not at all. Look, we can return the dress if you find you don’t need it. Better to be safe than sorry, right?”
“If you’re sure.” She threw back the curtain with the dress draped over her arm.
“I am.” He took it from her before she could change her mind and handed over the dress and his credit card to the clerk.
As they walked to the bar and grill, Sterling was determined that no matter what happened with Earth Tech, they would dance together with her in that dress.
THEIR DINNER AT THE BAR AND GRILL flew by. Nothing was mentioned about Elaine, the office or their strange first meeting. Instead, the time was filled with laughter over favorite movies, pet peeves and embarrassing moments. They knew so little about each other that once they began sharing, the conversation flowed.
A surly server cleared their table and his throat. “Closing time.”
Paige peered around the dim dining hall and was shocked that it had gone from a bustling cacophony to a barren desert without her having noticed. Sterling left a hefty tip before they headed back to their rooms. She didn’t want to say goodnight and toyed with the idea of continuing their conversation in one of their rooms. She stifled a yawn at the same time the elevator opened. Sterling placed his hand on the small of her back to guide her forward. As they approached her room, he only pulled his hand away to take out her key.
He ran her keycard, opened the door and placed the card in her hand while propping the door wide with his back. A sudden thought scared her. Did he do this for many girls? What sort of man was he? Though she had asked a number of questions about his family, he deftly avoided giving her any information. What possible reason could he have for not seeing them for so many years? Was he raised in an abusive home? What skeletons was he hiding?
Sterling tried to catch her eye, but she looked down. “I suppose you’re quite worn out,” he said.
She nodded. “It’s been a long day.”
“Tomorrow then.” He paused.
With him so near in the tight doorway, she could feel his warm breath on her neck. She feared if she did lift her eyes, she’d let him kiss her. She remembered the last time this had happened as she got out of the car at the farmers’ market. He’d made his lack of interest so clear shortly after that, how could she even think he felt the same way? She shook her head slightly at herself for how silly she’d been.
He must have noticed because he asked, “What’s that about?”
Then she did look up. “Nothing. Really.” She could see confusion in his eyes, and she realized how naïve she was. Sterling was her coworker and had done nothing to make her think it was anything more. Time to act professionally, she thought.
Putting out her hand to shake his, she said, “I’m really looking forward to seeing how you approach Earth Tech. It could be extremely useful for my own enterprise, like Elaine said. Thank you for everything.”
He took her hand and simply held it. “It does look to be an interesting week. I hope we become a great team.”
Her chest tightened as he entered her room.
She stammered, not sure what to say or feel, as he went to a door she had assumed was a closet and turned the handle. It was an adjoining room.
“I’m right in here if you need anything. It’s locked from my side, so I can’t get in unless you open it, but all you have to do is turn the handle.”
Paige tried to discern any innuendo in his tone. There was none. He seemed to be simply informing her that he was there. Without another word he went into his own room, closed the door and was gone.
Once inside her hotel room, Paige expected to see the bed covered with shopping bags, but there weren’t any. They weren’t on the dresser either. In the closet she found her purchased outfits hung neatly in a row. She opened the drawers and found carefully laid out accessories. Thinking of Sterling alone in her room made her a bit uncomfortable. She couldn’t decide if it was sweet or a little creepy. It brought back the feeling of Blanche lurking in her closet. How strange that someone would lie to become part of her life like that. If the police didn’t find her, maybe she’d hire a private investigator.
So much had changed since that wild day. Although she knew she couldn’t have stayed on her current path forever, it still felt a bit unreal to be whisked off a thousand miles away and surrounded by luxury instead of working endless hours on her little farm back home. This week was a gift to get her moving forward, and she’d accept it as such. She’d learn all she could and then roll up her sleeves with her soap business and make it all it could be. She really was on the cusp of making all her dreams come true.
Lifting out the midnight blue dress from the bag, Paige held it up to her and gazed in the full length mirror. She’d never owned anything so elegant in her life. Though she would never tell him, it was the way Sterling looked at her when she tried it on that made her agree to buy it. His gaze had made her feel beautiful, but it threw her off a little bit to see him in a suit. When she thought of him, he was always in jeans and a Stetson. But that was just a masquerade. Who was the real Sterling? She couldn’t get involved until she found out.
After hanging up the dress, Paige changed into her new nightgown. A lavender silk that reminded her of petunias. She wondered how the goat was doing as she went to the bathroom to brush her teeth and finish getting ready for bed.
IN THE DARK A HAND CLAMPED over her mouth, and Paige tried to scream but couldn’t. She pushed the man dressed in black away from her. He held on tight. She kicked him and tried to scream louder, but his hand covered her mouth. Lashing out with all her strength, she at last broke free and screamed as loud as she could. The sound shocked her, and her eyes popped open.
It took a moment to adjust to her surroundings. Where was she? The glow of a distant streetlamp brightened the room enough to make out the dresser and closet, and she remembered. She was at the hotel, not the farm. She was safe.
A knock at the door made her jump.
She thought to ignore it until it came again, more insistent. Then she realized it wasn’t from the hall but the adjoining room. From beneath the door, she could see his light was on. Embarrassed, she rose from bed.
Cracking the door, she met Sterling’s worried expression. “Are you alright?”
She put a hand to her cheek. “Bad dream. Nothing really.”
He was only wearing shorts, and her eyes drifted to his muscular torso. He touched her arm. “I’m right here.”
Her breathing grew shallow. “I know.”
“You’re sure you’re alright?” He drew closer to her, and she became more aware of how little he had on.
Steadying herself, she reached out and took the edge of the door in hand. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.” She began to close the door, a little concerned that if she didn’t do it then she might not ever want to.
“I know you will,” he said right before she closed the door completely.
Paige rushed to the bathroom and splashed her flaming cheeks with cold water. As she dabbed them dry with a towel, she wondered if they were that flushed while she was talking to him. Did he think she was a foolish little goat farmer with no brain at all? That’s how she was acting. Determined to be the quintessential businesswoman the next day, Paige headed for bed.
As she closed her eyes, the sight of Sterling’s smooth chest flashed across her mind. She thought of the time Sterling was in Uncle Bill’s room and wouldn’t change until she left. At the time she thought he had something to hide. Was it possible to be more wrong about anything? His abs could have been used to sell exercise equipment or sports drinks or been put on a magazine cover to sell anything really, and she’d buy it. As soon as she realized she was obsessing over him, she tried to stop herself. She was being shallow. Still, she couldn’t get the visual out of her mind. Great. Now she’d never sleep.
THE MORNING CAME TOO SOON. Paige was grateful that she had bought a good concealer because she could count on a few fingers the number of hours of sound sleep she’d gotten. She straightened her hair and put it up with the chignon pin. In her ivory pant suit with the copper bracelet and matching sandals, she knew she looked professional and tried to feel it. As she entered the dining room, Sterling waved to her.
He mentioned nothing about their midnight encounter at breakfast, which was a bit of a relief, and began reviewing their plan of attack over scrambled eggs. “The key is to gain the client’s confidence while revealing as little about your intentions as possible,” he said.
“Wait.” Paige tried to reconcile what he was saying with how she normally interacted with her clients. “I thought people were more apt to share information with you after you told them something about yourself.”
“A common misconception.” He laid down his fork. “Most people are self-centered and don’t care a bit about your business. All they want is for someone to listen to them and meet their needs. If they know you’ll listen and think you have the resources they want, you’re in. It’s not complicated. At that point you can find out almost anything you want about a target.”
“Oh, like you did with me,” she said, wondering if that’s all she was, a target.
“Yes, in a way.” It was like he was talking about how to tie your shoe or bake a cake, not about people’s lives. “That’s a great example, actually. You needed help with your booth, and I was there. What did you know about me then?”
“Nothing,” she said.
“Exactly and you let me sleep under your roof that same night. Think about it. It works.” He picked up his fork and took another bite without even realizing her discomfort.
Was that all he had done? Obviously, the technique worked because Blanche had done the same thing, but somehow it seemed underhanded to her. Like you weren’t really starting a relationship, only using people. Still, maybe that’s what business was all about. She sat up in her seat, wondering if every principle Sterling taught would be as hard to swallow.
After an extended breakfast where Sterling nearly drowned her with his harsh philosophies of how to manipulate situations to his benefit, Paige was reeling. “Why can’t you simply be honest and come to a deal where both parties equally profit from the transaction?”
“That’s not reality.” His face grew stern. “Someone always wins, and if you’re smart, it’s you.”
“Everything isn’t a competition. Sometimes people can help each other out and both be better for it.” She folded her arms. “Like what you and Elaine are doing with me, right?”
Before he could answer, a bellhop interrupted them to say that their limo had arrived. As they headed up the Tollway, Sterling didn’t speak again. He spent his time reviewing his notes and checking his tablet. She stared at him in his business suit, feeling like she didn’t belong. What seemed heartless to her, may just be typical professional behavior. As they exited and approached an old industrial area, she determined she would give Sterling’s advice a try. At least for one day.
The driver pulled up to a corrugated square building that looked to be constructed about the same year as her farmhouse. It must have been a junkyard or lumber mill at one time because the back acres were surrounded by a massive chain link fence with plastic strips concealing what was inside. All she could see through the padlocked gate were a few backhoes and mountains of what looked like black wood chips or mulch for a garden.
“Ready?” Sterling was at the front door. She hurried to his side, butterflies doing backflips in her stomach.
Standing at the dented metal door made her leery. Maybe the paperwork she’d read had been fixed because if you were to judge a book by its cover, Earth Tech looked anything but prosperous. “And you’re sure we’re at the right address?”
He pointed to a small silver sign with a holographic globe and the letters TECH across it. “Yes, ma’am.”
As he lifted his fist to knock, she could tell he was nervous too and was reminded how important this deal was to him. She stood a little taller and straightened her jacket as the door opened to a young man who looked about her age. Paige immediately thought he could have been Austin’s brother. He was a bit taller and had a wider smile with full lips, but that same intensity that her friend had was definitely there. Without him even speaking, she could see the clear honesty in his eyes.
His name came to mind. “Kiyo?” She had read all about him. He was top in his class at Texas Tech and an innovator in process design.
“You’ve got me at a disadvantage.” He took her hand.
“This is Paige Lindon,” Sterling said. “And I’m the one who spoke with you over the phone.”
Kiyo seemed reluctant to release her hand and turned to Sterling, giving him a half bow. “Welcome. I think you’ll be impressed.” He motioned for Sterling to go ahead. “If you’ll continue to the doors at the back of the office area—” then he faced Paige and smiled, “I can’t wait to get started.”
The reserved way in which Sterling walked forward left Paige wondering what was wrong. Maybe he saw something she didn’t. She vowed to be especially alert so as not to miss anything important and would heed Sterling’s instructions implicitly. That meant making Kiyo comfortable and letting him know she would listen to his every word. As Sterling went on ahead, she walked beside the young entrepreneur, studying him. He wore comfortable jeans and a tee shirt, and had a warm complexion. He sensed her staring and caught her eye. They matched fresh smiles. Though he had the intelligence of her friend back home, he had a confidence that she’d rarely seen before, and she liked it.
Kiyo lifted his hands. “So here’s the brains of the outfit.” The shabby lobby was crowded with dented desks stacked with papers, torn leather chairs and cracked plaster walls.
“Nice,” she said genuinely.
Despite the mess, Kiyo seemed proud of everything around him. She could understand that. It reminded her more or less of her own home, and she felt bad about her original reaction at the front door minutes before. Her mind flashed to the deputy’s response when he had first seen her house and the difference in Sterling’s reaction. Surely, Sterling would understand that a crowded office meant potential, which is what he was hoping for. Her gaze met Sterling’s scowl which deepened the lines on his forehead. Why couldn’t he tell that this was the sign of someone with more work than they could handle? Someone who was poised to grow.
There were no other employees in sight, and she began to wonder if Kiyo had hiring issues like hers. “So do you run most of this single-handedly?”
“No, the rest of the crew is in there.” Kiyo pointed to the stainless steel doors where Sterling waited. “Except for Steve who does the books. He’s with another interested party.”
Sterling’s face puckered. “The other party is here?”
“We’ve made our desire to partner with someone an open matter. You know, first come first served.” Kiyo bent closer to Paige. She could feel his excitement. “We currently have five large corporations in the wings ready to sign, but we can’t meet the demand.”
She laughed. “I hear you. I have the same problem.”
“You’re not a vulture like him?” Kiyo pointed to Sterling who obviously wasn’t amused by the comment.
“No, my uncle and I formulated a beauty bar using goat milk. He passed away, but I’ve been keeping it going.” She grew embarrassed once the words were out. She wasn’t supposed to share anything personal. “It’s nothing really.”
Kiyo touched her chin with the tip of his index finger and lifted her face to his. “If your skin is any indication, I’d say it is a real breakthrough.”
Paige couldn’t remember anyone being so free with a compliment, and the way he said it made her believe it was what he really thought. He hadn’t simply said it to flatter her, she could tell. Instead of shying away, she met his eyes. “Thank you.”
“Now what?” Sterling cleared his throat.
Kiyo rubbed his hands together. “We all change into bunny suits.”
Sterling raised one brow. “Sounds kinky.”
What was up with Sterling? Paige was almost embarrassed by him. “Bunny suits are worn to enter a clean room. At the university, I did some work with genomes and had to use one.”
The left corner of Kiyo’s mouth raised slightly. “Graduate work, Paige?”
“Yes, actually.” She wanted him to know her credentials and that she deserved to be there. “My undergrad’s in business, but my masters is in bio-chem.”
“You may be just what this company needs.” Kiyo chuckled under his breath.
Paige assumed that Sterling would be proud of her for gaining the client’s confidence like he had told her. Instead, Sterling had a surly look on his face, but as Kiyo opened the door to the changing area, both their expressions changed.
All surfaces were made of white vinyl which sparkled in the piercing halogen light. Shelves held plastic wrapped packages with labels below them, clearly marking the contents. It was so much like her college lab, she felt she had gone back in time.
“Any special instructions?” she asked.
Kiyo pointed to a bay of lockers. “You can put your belongings in there.”
Flashing a smile at both men, Paige said, “Great,” before heading to the lockers. She removed her bracelet and jacket, storing them in the locker and turned to retrieve her sterile overclothing. In the corner of her eye she saw Sterling had his shirt half unbuttoned.
She put her hand on his. “No. You only have to remove your watch, belt and jacket.”
Behind her, she could hear Kiyo’s muffled laughter. Sterling tried to laugh too, but it seemed forced. She felt sorry for him.
Turning to Kiyo, she tried to alleviate the tension in the room. “He’s at a little of a disadvantage in that we’ve done this before. He hasn’t.”
As they continued donning double gloves, hair caps, their full suits with hoods, goggles and boots, Paige stayed closer to Sterling, and he seemed to grow more comfortable. By the time they were done, the only difference between the three of them was their height. They looked like crepe paper snowmen. At last they were ready to enter the clean room.
The doors opened, and the first thing Paige noticed was the bright green table. “What’s up with that color?”
Kiyo was at her side. “Most electronic components are black, silver or white. In order to not lose the smaller parts, we found this was the best color.”
“Clever.” She surveyed the five non-descript workers, each focused on the different computer parts with tweezers. There were different canisters before them holding tiny chips and circuits. “What are they doing?”
Kiyo lifted the largest container carefully. “These are still functioning parts that will be used to refurbish the least damaged computers we take in. The other components are separated by the precious and semiprecious metals we’ll reduce out of them.”
Sterling perked up. “Precious metals?”
“Yes,” Kiyo said. “We get aluminum, mercury, silver, platinum and gold.”
“Gold?” Paige had never heard of such a thing.
Kiyo turned to her. “The pins in many CPU’s are gold. We liquefy them with an acid process that allows us to utilize the metal.”
“I’d love to see that.” Her chemistry training was kicking in. “Hydrochloric acid?”
His smile was the only part of him exposed by the suit. “Right, mixed with . . .”
She wracked her brain to fill in the blank. “Nitro- something.”
“Nitric Acid. Very good.” Kiyo set a hand on her shoulder. “If you like this, you’ll love the next room.” He guided Paige to the door, and she hoped that Sterling was enjoying this as much as she was.
The minute the swinging doors opened, she smelled what was going on. “Batteries!”
Kiyo took center stage between two workers smashing lithium batteries and dropping the pieces in a large vat. “We neutralize the acid with a base mixture and can sell the lithium back to manufacturers. We have processes in place to harvest almost every byproduct from most electronics. You may have noticed the plastic in the backyard, which we shave into pellets for various commercial purposes as well.”
Sterling had been very quiet. Paige turned to him. “What do you think?”
He addressed Kiyo seriously. “So, this neutralizing solution is made with a base like Paige’s soap? Do you use lye as well?”
Both Paige and Kiyo started to laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
Paige looked to Kiyo. “Should you tell him or should I?”
“Go right ahead.”
If Kiyo was testing her, she’d pass. “Lye and battery acid can be used to create a bomb. Add cold medicine and you get Meth. No, he’d have to use a much milder base than I use for my soap.” She sniffed the vat. “Could it really be . . . it’s so simple. Any additives?”
Kiyo shook his head with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy.
“Soda,” Paige said. “But how?”
“It was a challenge.” Kiyo pointed to a monitor behind the vat. “We adjust alkaline levels automatically to be the most time and cost effective, and, of course, the greenest.”
Paige could see the liquid in the vat roiling and bubbling as an employee dropped a fresh batch of battery parts in the mixture. Sterling stepped up beside her.
“What kind of soda pop do you use?” he said seriously.
She almost burst out giggling, but Sterling’s exposed frown stopped her. “It’s sodium bicarbonate. You know, baking soda,” she said.
Kiyo tapped the arm of the worker who was taking his next load of batteries to be crushed. “Why don’t you take Mr. Keller back to the office and show him our latest reports? He might also be pleased to see our current projections.” Looking at Paige, Kiyo said, “I’m sure your beautiful associate can give you a complete rundown of the remainder of our tour.”
“Thank you.” Sterling left without another word.
Paige was beginning to feel a little guilty about having such a wonderful time, but then she wondered if this was part of Sterling’s plan so that he could check out their numbers without interference.
All concern shot out the window with Kiyo’s next question. “Do you care to see the two other battery rooms?”
“Zinc and Nickel, right?” she answered.
“You’ve done your homework.” His grin was framed by his hood, and she couldn’t remember feeling so connected intellectually to someone in a long time. He spoke her language.
As he led her down the hall, she asked, “Are you still planning to show me that liquefied gold?”
“Of course,” he said. “I’ll show you everything.”
STERLING HAD HAD ENOUGH. He ripped the white bunny suit from his body and yanked on his suit coat. Logically, he guessed she was only trying to do what he had instructed her, to make the client take her into his confidence. But did she have to be so good at it? And why did she need to make him look like such a fool in the process? Perhaps he was a fool. In fact, he knew he was when it came to Paige. She threw him off. For example, right now he should be panting like a thirsty dog to get his hands on [_Earth Tech’s _]current financials, but he couldn’t care less. He’d give it all up right now if he could run back, grab Paige’s hand and pull her away from that smooth computer geek.
It had all started in the front office. Sterling paused at the metal door leading there. She had said something about her soap, and Kiyo told Paige her skin was flawless. Not that her skin wasn’t, but what right did he have to be so familiar, and why had she responded so openly? She never did that with him.
He thought about last night when he heard her scream. If she hadn’t opened the door, he would have broken it down. He had looked in her eyes, so filled with fear, and wanted to comfort her, to put his arms around her, but she wouldn’t let him. She all but pushed him out. Then this Kiyo character comes over, and she just invites him into her life? She even told him about her uncle’s death. He had to find that out from Elaine.
The broad man who Kiyo had sent to direct him back to the office stuck his head through the door. “Coming? They’re waiting for you.”
Sterling nodded. There was no use even thinking about Paige and him right now since there was nothing he could do until later. Perhaps tonight, he could take Paige out to dinner. There was a little jazz place downtown. They’d dance. His mind was filled with the sight of her in his arms wearing that deep blue dress. He’d get through whatever he had to do this afternoon in order to make that moment happen tonight.
He pushed the door wide, expecting to find the middle-aged man from the battery room, and was met by two others, only one of whom he recognized.
“Fancy meeting you here.” Julie removed her sunglasses and smacked her chewing gum. “Want to wash my feet again?”
Sterling tapped his foot. “So you’re the other buyer. Who told you about this deal?”
Sliding her glasses back on, Julie lifted her chin. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“That’s why I asked,” Sterling said.
She came up to him, inches away and touched his nose with her bright orange fingernail. “I’ll tell you if you agree to work together. I don’t want us to be enemies. In fact, just the opposite.”
He weighed the idea for only a minute. The difference between Julie’s flirtation and Paige’s sincerity was extreme, but he could play along with the prima donna. It was more important for the deal to work out than for him to have a good time. He gave a practiced smile. “How right you are. No use in duplicating our efforts. I’m here to please.”
A slow grin spread across Julie’s glossed lips. “Those are the words I like to hear, lover boy.”
An older man with a shock of white hair had cleared a spot at one of the desks and set a number of folders down with two chairs beside it. Sterling assumed this was Steve, thanked him and got to work.
Julie scooted her chair close to Sterling, draped her arm around his back and watched. He doubted her eyes were even scanning the pages, but, given her father’s wealth and her temperament, he imagined the reason she was there had little to do with the bottom line. Her decision would be made based solely on whim, not data.
If only she’d turn her charms on Kiyo, maybe Paige wouldn’t be so interested in him. At least Sterling could ask. “So what did you think of the boy genius?”
She ran a manicured finger across her bottom lip. “I’ll tell you if you go to the water garden with me.”
“Water garden?” Sterling diverted his attention from the report in front of him. She had him intrigued. The front yard had been nothing but weeds, and the back looked like a modified junkyard. “Where is it?”
Julie pulled her chair closer and put a hand on his thigh. “Hidden.”
He smiled at her and mimicked her tone. “Where?”
She sat back and smiled. “It’s really quite beautiful, and the last place Kiyo took me on my tour.”
So Kiyo would take Paige there, too. With how close they were getting, Sterling would rather be there when they arrived. As an added benefit, he could convince Julie that this was not that appealing of an investment. If Julie was the only other interested party, he was quite certain he’d get the deal.
“You lead the way,” he said.
Julie leapt to her feet with a squeal and took his hand. They walked out the front door, through the now open gate and toward the back area. Beyond the piles of black plastic shavings, a little path made of those shavings curled around new plantings, each with a plaque below it. One read Bigtooth Maple, another Golden Rain Tree and a third Soapberry. As he stared at the sapling, Julie leaned her body against his back and put her chin on his shoulder. “That’s Paige’s bush. Don’t you think?”
“She’s here, you know,” he said, still facing forward.
Julie smacked her gum in his ear. “I know way more than you do.”
Sterling straightened and moved away from her, a little irked. “Do you know it’s a tree, not a bush?”
He could see she was miffed too, but he didn’t want to make her angry. Taking her hand, he attempted to smile but only managed to stop frowning. “Now, where is this fountain?”
Satisfied, Julie enlaced her fingers with his, as though she’d never let go. “Right through here.” She guided him past a row of evergreens and there, in the center of a ring of tile, was a rising wave of electronic parts welded together like a swell of the sea. Water trickled down from inside it. Sterling barely got to see the thing before Julie wrenched his arm, pulling him toward an empty bench. He sat, wishing it was another girl beside him.
THE MURMUR OF CASCADING WATER was soothing, and the garden well cared for. Sterling hoped he might be able to get his bearings in the quiet around him, but it was shattered by Julie’s annoying cackle.
“What are you thinking?” She cocked her head and batted her lashes.
He wondered if she had practiced that particular gesture in the mirror. It was all fair because he had practiced the answer he’d give her. She really didn’t want to know what he was thinking at all. She wanted to say something herself. All he had to do was parrot her sentiment. It was successful ninety percent of the time. “You first.”
“I think that you should have answered my phone calls long before now.” She stared at him, opening her eyes so wide he could almost see the white all around them.
He focused on the water feature then put his head down as though he felt terribly guilty. “Sorry. I’ve been busy prepping for this project. It’s very important to me.”
Julie swiveled in her seat. “Is that why you were hanging out with Paige?” She grasped his forearm with her inch-long neon talons. “Now that makes sense. I could not swallow that the two of you were romantic.”
He pulled back. “What do you mean?”
“You’re shallow like me.” She snuggled up next to him. “We’re two of a kind. We use people to get what we want, so we don’t ever have to get our hands dirty, you know? Like this Keno guy.”
“Kiyo. And no, I don’t have any idea what you mean.” He didn’t look at himself that way.
“Well.” She sat back and put her hand to her chin. “He’s built this whole big techy thing, and because we have money, we’ll make millions off him. I mean, we aren’t really going to do anything except give him money. The big joke is the money isn’t even ours. Mine’s my daddy’s, and yours belongs to Elaine, right?”
Sterling wasn’t buying it. “I’ve spent hours researching and will consult on every level.”
“Exactly. But he’s the one that will do everything, not you.” She tapped his knee. “I mean, look at Paige. She mixes up those beauty bars using her own recipes. She actually makes something that changes the world. Now, I’m telling you, if she was going to sell the formula to that, I’d buy it yesterday and make millions.”
“Six million, actually,” Sterling said, remembering what Elaine had told him when they first spoke of Paige’s business.
“You’ve got to check your stats.” Julie dug in her large designer bag for her cell and scrolled through her texts. “More like six billion, and that’s only the natural skincare product gross. Her bars are so good she could compete against mainstream products and triple that.”
He stared at her. He’d never studied that segment of the market. Could the numbers really be that big?
“Not so dumb, now. Am I?” She popped the lid off a tube of lipstick, exposing the bright orange color of her nails, and slathered it across her unnaturally plump lips.
“I never thought you were dumb,” Sterling lied.
“Of course you did. I wanted you to.” She tilted her head again and dumped the lipstick back in her purse. “I don’t care that my daddy wants me to flirt with that weirdo, Keno. I’ve never met anyone so boring in my life. And who would want to buy an ugly lab thingy that smashes up cellphones and puts them in 7up.” She pushed out her lips in a round pout.
“It’s not that kind of soda,” he said, aware that he had thought the same thing initially. The most painful part of her diatribe was that he couldn’t fault a word out of her mouth. In fact, the only good thing out of this conversation was that it looked like she wasn’t really interested in Earth Tech. Relieved, he stood. “Should we head back?”
She got to her feet. “Not yet.” Julie’s grin widened, as she called loudly. “Oops, I think we’ve been caught.”
A familiar female voice said, “Julie?”
Sterling craned his neck and saw the injured expression in Paige’s eyes. Kiyo stood beside her with a definite smirk on his face. “We were discussing what a great opportunity this is. Julie is as impressed as I am.” He took two strides toward the pair, leaving Julie chuckling behind him. “So is this fountain all made out of recycled computer parts, too?”
When Kiyo answered, he spoke more to Paige than to either of his other guests. “As I was saying, we recycle or reuse one hundred percent of what we bring in. It makes us a little more expensive but this,” he held splayed hands up to the fountain, “is how we plan to show our customers our appreciation.”
Paige seemed to have recovered well enough and was hanging on the computer geek’s every word. “It’s brilliant.”
Kiyo took her arm and drew her closer to the water. “We’ve contacted a number of artists who want to be part of what we are trying to do here. For each corporation who recycles at least four tons of equipment with us, they will receive a complimentary water feature custom made to reflect their personal corporate mission.”
Paige stared at the unique wave of black and silver with fresh water gushing out the top. “I get it. You’re creating the new wave of recycling.” She smiled at Kiyo first and then at Sterling, but her smile seemed to deflate.
Julie wedged herself between them. “It’s brilliant.”
Paige’s attention returned to Kiyo. “How many have you made so far?”
“Six, and five more are slated over the next two years. With the expansion, it’s likely there’ll be one of these in every major city in the country, perhaps the world.” Kiyo bit his lip and sounded as if he might break into tears. “That’s our hope anyway.”
Julie patted them both on the forearms with open palms to accentuate her recent manicure. “Look at the two of you like peas in a pod. How touching.” Her voice didn’t sound as though she was touched at all. “I vote we make dinner plans and can discuss it all night long.”
“Dinner?” Sterling clenched his jaw. “It’s only three o’clock.”
Julie didn’t even acknowledge that Sterling was there and returned her full attention to Kiyo. “Come on, isn’t there anything fun to do around here? It’ll be like a double date.”
Kiyo’s brows lifted. “There is a benefit that includes a full dinner tonight. I was going to pass on going, but if you’re willing, it’s for a good cause.”
Julie’s face fell. “It better not be for a political hack or people starving in some country nobody’s heard of.”
“No, I’m a Best Friends supporter. We help rescue mistreated animals.”
Paige seemed impressed. “Wow, tell me more about it. I love all kinds of animals.”
Kiyo told her about his favorite charity, located in Kanab, Utah, and serving cats, dogs, horses and even goats across the nation. He detailed the staff and all they had done to stop dog fights and other abuses and help rehabilitate the animals, so they could live out happy lives.
“What do you do if you know abuse is happening but can’t prove it?” she asked.
Kiyo’s voice lowered. “There have been a few times when very brave people have felt compelled to remove an animal without proper authority.”
“I assume if they’re caught they’re sent to jail?” Sterling was becoming impatient with this detour from his plan.
“Rarely,” Kiyo answered. “As long as they can get to a judge with the evidence first and get an injunction, they’re fine. Otherwise, it can be heavy prison time.”
Paige looked to Sterling as if asking permission. “I’d like to go.”
Still wary of the whole thing, Sterling asked, “Where is it?”
“Southfork,” Kiyo said.
“Southfork Ranch?” Julie squealed in delight. “Like the TV show?”
Kiyo nodded. “I’m sure I can still get tickets, but it’s a black tie affair. Will that be a problem?”
“With Dallas shopping?” Julie had already linked arms with Paige and was dragging her away. “We’ll get ready together and meet you boys at six-ish?”
Kiyo looked like he’d just won the lottery. “Great. Where do you want me to pick you up?”
Paige volunteered the information. “Our hotel is at the Galleria Mall. We could meet in the lobby.”
Sterling felt like the computer wave had bowled him over. “Then it’s all settled?”
Watching both girls trot off together, he found himself left alone with the computer geek. Could Julie really be that foolish, leaving him to cap the deal right under her nose? This couldn’t be going better if he’d planned it himself. If Sterling played his cards right, he could reach both goals at the same time. Before the night’s end, he’d have his deal with Kiyo, and then, after that was through, he’d have his dance with Paige.
ALL BUT DRAGGING PAIGE UP THE PATH, Julie rounded the corner. On the main road, a limousine twice the size of the one Paige had arrived in was waiting for them. The back seat had two benches that faced each other. Paige sat across from Julie, whose back was to the driver.
Once they were on the Tollway, Julie opened a small cooler to her left. “What do you want to drink?”
Julie handed her an expensive type of bottled water and grabbed a wine cooler for herself. Kicking off her shoes, she sat back and took a long swig. “Paige, what are you doing here?”
Not sure how much she should disclose, Paige took a sip of her water and thought about it. “I’m helping Sterling.”
Sitting forward, Julie put her drink down. “Helping him do what?”
All of his breakfast strategies came to mind. “Helping him get what he wants, maybe?”
“What about what you want?” Julie’s dark eyes met hers without flinching. “He doesn’t have your back, I swear it. Sterling Keller only cares about number one.”
“Didn’t you hear Kiyo?” Paige wouldn’t believe it. “He can’t expand without more capital, and what he’s doing is important. I think this is a great opportunity for both of them.”
“Yeah, an opportunity to get screwed.” Julie leaned back. “The computer geek needs a loan, that’s it. He’s already got a full customer base and a working model. Sterling will talk that little boy into selling most of his equity when he’s got nothing to offer in return, and the geek is stupid enough to let him.”
Paige was expecting to balk at anything out of the girl’s mouth, but Julie was making sense. “Then why don’t we go back and warn Kiyo. This isn’t right.” She peered out the rear window of the limo, but they were already on the Tollway.
“Because I’m more worried about you,” Julie said. “You’ve got yourself tangled up with some pretty nasty people right now.”
Clarity dawned on Paige for the first time since she sat in Elaine’s office. Her eyes shot to the time readout on the radio. She’d been gone less than twenty-four hours. Would the goats already be gone? At least Austin was there, but the thought of him dealing with everything alone filled her with guilt. She knew from experience that carrying burdens single handedly sucked. She should be home, helping him. Besides, even if everything Elaine told her was true, the only thing she was learning from this trip that might benefit her in the long run was that she was too trusting, and she should have learned that from Blanche.
Paige huffed in frustration. “I’d leave right now, but I don’t have a ticket.”
Julie yanked her phone out of her purse. “Done.” After making a quick call, Julie dropped her phone on the seat beside her, so she could give Paige her full attention. “You leave in less than an hour. Do you need anything from the hotel before you go?”
“No.” Paige felt the ground shaking beneath her and not simply because she was in a car. It had all seemed like a fairytale, the beautiful clothes, the handsome prince, but the magic was wearing off, and what was left behind felt ugly.
“Did you really think Sterling was your friend, Paige?” Julie stretched her arms across the back of the seat and folded her legs. “Elaine paid him to convince you she was on your side. Looks like he did it, too. The reason she whisked you away was so she could steal your formula and make a mint. That’s why I came.”
“You’re wrong.” Paige felt like someone had just sucker punched her in the stomach.
“Am I?” She lifted her brows ever so slightly and paused for emphasis. “Neither one of us cares about Earth Tech. You’ve always been the prize.”
Reviewing the strange circumstances of how she met Sterling, Paige began to wonder if there wasn’t some validity to what Julie was saying. That sort of manipulation certainly fell in line with what Sterling had taught her. Heck, he had all but confessed to it during breakfast. Another thing that had never really sat right with her was Elaine being so overgenerous. All that money in her bank account had blinded her. That, and Sterling’s muscled chest.
Her head was hurting, and she felt like a conspiracy nut. Whatever Sterling and Elaine were up to, she’d get to the bottom of it, but it would be a lot easier if she didn’t have Sterling distracting her. “Can you keep Sterling here for the next day or so? At least until I can get this figured out.”
“Sure thing.” Lifting her frost covered bottle as if in a toast, Julie said, “It’s all under control.”
At the airport, Paige hugged Julie. “You didn’t have to do this, but I’m so grateful you did. I never realized what a great person you were.”
Julie laughed. “Neither did I.”
AT A TRAVEL SHOP IN THE AIRPORT, Paige bought a tee shirt, a pair of black yoga pants and flip-flops. She rushed to a bathroom and changed in the stall, dumping the new pant suit in the trash bin. Though it was a wasteful thing to do, there were too many memories connected to it, and she couldn’t bear to keep it. Jamming her head under the faucet, she awakened her curls and her ability to think logically with the cold water.
What had been going through her head? Sterling had warned her to get a lawyer before signing anything, but she had felt like this was so right. In actuality, she had been so weary of the responsibilities of the farm that it had felt good to have a break. The money had blinded her a little, too. The situation she was in was her own fault. She wouldn’t blame him.
Luckily, she didn’t have long to wait for the flight, which boarded within an hour, leaving Dallas far behind her. She was on the ground before seven that evening. With no carryon or bag of any kind, she sprinted to the pickup area and hailed a taxi. She told the driver if he would hurry, she’d include a larger tip. She hadn’t realized she was taking her life in her hands by the request, but seventeen white-knuckled minutes later, she sat in her own driveway handing him four twenties.
The lights in the house were on, drawing her there first. Oddly, the front door wouldn’t open more than four inches, so she held her breath and squeezed through the crack. Large moving boxes stamped confidential were stacked by the door. It must have been the last load because there were only six left. The house didn’t look like it was hers. The dinette sparkled like it had been freshly oiled. The kitchen counters were empty and sleek. Her chintz sofa even had a decorative pillow propped on one side that she had lost months ago. A muffled beep from the bedrooms put her on alert.
Running to the kitchen, she pulled open a drawer, hoping to get a weapon of some kind, but the drawers were cleared of everything. Even the no-stick liners. Defeated and emptyhanded, she headed down the hall and stood at the entryway to her bedroom.
Her dresser drawers were open, and Austin was tagging her clothes. A slinky camisole she rarely wore hung from his hand. Her privacy felt officially invaded.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” She snatched the lingerie back and shoved it in the drawer, slamming it shut with her hip.
Austin was speechless. “You said to be thorough.” He held a device that carried a distinct similarity to one of those handheld scanners clerks use at the grocery store.
“You don’t need to dot my underwear!”
“Sorry. They wouldn’t let me do much of anything else.” Austin looked as dejected as a wet puppy, and Paige immediately felt contrite. If she was going to find out anything, getting Austin centered enough to talk to her was the answer. She led him out of her room, down the hall and to the chintz sofa where they both sat.
“Tell me what’s going on.”
Burying his head in his hands, Austin almost whimpered. “I failed you.”
“No, I think I did that.” She never realized how sheltered her life had been up to now. The thought that Elaine would blatantly lie to her face hadn’t even occurred to her. “Can you recall any details?” Paige asked.
Austin stared at her, his brows askew. “Paige, it’s me. All I remember are the details. Right after you left, Elaine asked me to write down all the instructions you gave me, which was only logical. I complied, but don’t you see?”
“What?” she said.
“She didn’t need me anymore. I didn’t realize it, but at that point I was obsolete!”
He was panting, and Paige patted his arm. “Why don’t you start at the beginning?”
“At seven a.m. sharp we began in the barn. I had a whole set of workers, but you told me not to dot the goats, remember?” Austin waited for her to respond.
“What I didn’t know was that they had a crew of people here in the house packing up all your gear at the same time. None of it got recorded. Not one item. When I realized what was going on, I rushed in here and began correcting the people in the house. Meanwhile, the staff in the barn left with the trailer of livestock and my notes. They never informed me where they were headed. As I was chasing down the livestock, the house items were taken away. All except that last load by the door. No one would listen to me, and I wasn’t sure what to do.” He looked on the verge of tears. Paige was tempted to hug him but resisted. He really didn’t like being touched.
“It’s not your fault.”
“I know.” He grew agitated. “It’s Elaine’s, but when I went to the office to talk to her, the security guard kicked me out. I’m supposed to be manager over the goat project, and she canned me before I even got my first paycheck. Is that even legal?”
Paige didn’t know that much about the law, but something occurred to her that hadn’t before. Even though she had been so particular in writing the details of her rights about the care and treatment of her goats and knowing the location they were held during the lawsuit, by giving Elaine the power of attorney, couldn’t all those documents became defunct? Elaine could change any stipulation she wanted like Austin’s involvement. “I think it is.”
The couch jiggled a little, and Paige noticed Austin’s hands trembling. She knew this was too much for him. “Why don’t you stay in Uncle Bill’s room tonight, and we can figure this out in the morning? We’re both exhausted.”
That was all it took. Austin stood, walked down the hall and slammed the bedroom door. Poor Austin. At least she’d brought this on herself. He was simply trying to help her and was probably the only person who was. Whatever she did, she’d have to make things up to him in the end.
With her mind so jumbled, she felt restless and wandered out to the barn. Glancing over the empty stalls wiped clean brought an ache to her heart. The property looked ready to sell. The strangest part was not hearing the constant bleat of goats in the background. It had become part of the texture of the farm and her life. Without it, she hardly felt home.
Walking back to the farmhouse, she looked up and saw the night sky. It was an identical color to that sapphire dress. The stars twinkled like the crystals, and she let her mind wander to what would never be. She’d hoped to dance in Sterling’s arms wearing it, feeling safe and loved and understood.
A lone goat cry sounded in the night, and she wondered if she had only imagined that, too. Like people with severed arms who felt pain after the limb was gone, was she only hearing a phantom song of the herd that had been part of her life since she was little? She meandered toward the house, hoping sleep would shut off her mind from all the troubles around her. She laid awake most of the night, haunted by what wasn’t there.
BY THE TIME THE SUN ROSE over the Dallas skyline, Sterling was at five thousand feet. He’d believed Julie when she said Paige had decided to rest instead of joining them for the benefit. In fact, he’d been relieved to hear it. She’d seemed a bit too close to both Julie and Kiyo for his liking.
At dinner Julie turned to Kiyo and dropped a bomb. She told him that Sterling was merely trying to steal all he’d built and that she could offer him a low interest loan that would keep his equity in tact. Sterling knew Kiyo would need help with locations, marketing and streamlining processes through the expansion, but she wouldn’t let him get a word in without taking it personally. An hour later she’d called him a liar to his face twice and by Kiyo’s concerned expression, it was clear there was only one option. Sterling had to get Paige. She could explain his side of the story and no one would doubt her credibility. There was something about her that was so honest. To find that sort of integrity with intelligence to boot was rare. He excused himself, drove too fast to the hotel, and knocked on her door. In less than a minute, he knew he’d been had. Paige was gone. He wondered briefly if Julie had lied to Paige to convince her to go, or worse, if she told her the truth about him. Either way, it was the first time in Sterling’s memory someone had outplayed him, and he was determined to have it be the last. He had to stop Elaine.
Trying every means he could think of, he attempted to contact his boss. He left her emails, texts and phone messages, but it was pretty clear she had no plans of returning them. He’d shut out other employees the same way to push a deal through and recognized what was going on. In a few days, when Elaine had all her ducks in a row, she’d give some excuse about how busy she’d been and pretend that it was an oversight. By then, what she was working on would be irreversible. So, in this game he had been a pawn. He couldn’t be angry. It was about time that this happened, actually.
His father used to say ‘it rained seas’ which meant that even if you couldn’t feel the consequences of your actions at the time, they were piling up and would get you in the end. Sterling supposed this was the day he would drown in them.
By eleven that morning, he rounded the corner and pulled into Paige’s driveway. He wasn’t certain of the greeting he’d get. Two vehicle were already there. One was her dented Honda, but the other, also a lowly beater car, didn’t ring any bells. He rapped at the door and waited with his hands shoved in his pockets, ready to eat crow. He didn’t have any new information to offer, but there had to be some way he could make up for not warning her earlier. He knew Elaine, and this was no surprise. What was surprising is who answered the door when he knocked.
The intern’s eyes were lined in red. “You jerk.”
Sterling didn’t see the right hook coming. Austin connected fist to jaw, and Sterling went down.
STERLING WOKE SURROUNDED by large packing boxes. He thought maybe he’d been dumped in a warehouse until he noticed the yellow walls and white trim. “Paige?”
Austin squatted beside him, holding what looked like a gun. “She’s not here, Benedict Arnold. You promised you wouldn’t hurt her.”
Sitting up, Sterling tried to scoot away and put as much distance between them as possible. “I didn’t mean to. Elaine fooled me as much as she did you.”
The intern seemed to be weighing whether he believed him. “I want you out of here before she gets back.”
“Are you sure she’s okay?” Sterling asked, rubbing his jaw.
Suddenly looking worried, Austin stood and began to pace. “I think so. She said something about going to the meadow, but I don’t know where that is. She’s been gone a long time.”
Sterling could now see what he thought was a gun was more like a toy pistol. “Should I go look for her?”
An open box sat on the counter, half unpacked with spatulas, measuring cups and muffin tins. Austin looked at it and at Sterling. “I can’t go. They could be here any minute to pick up the last of these boxes. They must be dotted.” Austin’s computer was on the counter, too.
Sterling saw the familiar spreadsheet with blinking icons for each item and suddenly realized the weapon Austin held probably had to do with his microdots. Sterling would have liked to stay and watch the process, but he was worried about Paige. “May I go find her now?” he asked.
Austin narrowed his eyes. “I guess, but then you have to leave.”
Squeezing out the front door, Sterling remembered his jaunt into the back meadow to catch that escaping goat and headed up the little path. He didn’t even make it to the clearing.
Paige’s call sounded frantic. “Austin, is that you?”
“Not exactly,” Sterling answered.
Suddenly she was there. She came up to him, standing close. He could see the echo of shed tears on her cheeks, but her tone sounded downright chipper. “Wow, it didn’t take you long to get here.”
He was expecting vengeance, wrath or righteous indignation. “Are you okay?”
“Let’s talk about that at the house.” She took his hand in hers with a gentle smile.
This was weird. Normally, he’d follow Paige anywhere, but as she tugged on his hand to go the way he’d come, he knew something was back there in the meadow, and he just couldn’t let it go. “What don’t you want me to see?”
“Why would you think that?” Her voice was too high.
He’d told enough doozies in his day that he knew a bold face lie when he heard it. “Mind if I have a look at the daffodils?”
She was about to come up with another excuse, but the bleat of a goat was unmistakable.
“You got them back?” He strode to the meadow to find the escaper, Petunia, pregnant as ever and happily munching on flowers.
Paige rushed over to the nanny, knelt in the thick grass and placed her forehead against the goat’s. Her voice carried the sort of hopelessness that no person ever should feel. “Now that you found us, I’ll have to return her.”
“Why?” Sterling sat on the ground beside her. “She’s yours, isn’t she?”
“I don’t know anymore.” Paige sunk to the ground and pulled her knees to her chest, looking up to the Northwest sky threatening rain. “Did you know what they were doing?”
“Elaine blindsided me too. I swear it.” Sterling said. “I’m done with her.”
“I wish I could believe you, but I’m so tired of being disappointed.” She half turned his direction. “What Elaine did is more than stealing. It feels like kidnapping.”
Sterling caught her gaze. “I’m here to help. Whatever you say, I’ll do it.”
“But there’s nothing to do. I don’t even know where they are.”
He could see the muscles in her neck constrict a few times, and he realized she was fighting back tears. “We’ll figure this out together. It will be alright.”
“How can you know that?” One stray tear broke free from her lashes.
Brushing the tear away with his thumb, he knew he’d do anything to help her. It didn’t matter what it cost him. “You’re not alone.”
She hugged him with both arms. It shocked him at first. Her face buried in the crook of his neck, his hand resting in her silken curls. As she pulled away, he didn’t want to let her go.
“I’d do anything to make it up to you. Do you know that?”
She was silent for a long time. Then she looked towards Petunia who was happily chewing on fresh blossoms, stems hanging from the corners of her mouth. “You know, she’s my favorite. She shouldn’t be, but I admire her drive to get what she wants. Still, I can’t trust her. Every time I do, we both end up in trouble.” She looked at him. “You’re the same way. I can’t trust you, Sterling.”
“You’re right.” He’d come clean. “I was selfish and wanted to spend time with you in Dallas. I figured I could fix whatever mess Elaine made later. You’ve got to let me try.”
She let out a huff of air as she got to her feet, and Sterling was worried he’d lost her.
“This is my proposal.” Her voice sounded firm. “From here on out, we’ll be a team. Mostly because I don’t see anyone else volunteering for the position, but there are provisions. First, you can never lie to me. Not even about the small stuff. Is there anything you have to confess before we continue?”
“Nothing that comes to mind.” It was a bold-face lie, and he knew it. He wanted to confess that he was crazy about her, but he was not going to blow this relationship by taking it too fast. This was the kind of girl you took home to your family, that you raised a family with.
She seemed satisfied but wasn’t finished. “Second, I’m not like you. I see you making snap decisions and convincing others to go along like you did with Austin when we first met and what you taught me in Dallas. If we’re going to work together, I can’t have you pushing me into things before I’m ready. My no means no. You have to respect that.”
“I do. I mean, I will.” He stood and noticed the knees of his dress slacks were wet. As he brushed them off, he said, “Shall we shake on it? But if you don’t want to, I respect that.”
When he lifted his chin, she was smiling at him. “I can agree to that.”
As he took her hand, a rustling sound came from the meadow’s entrance.
Austin was panting as he burst through the opening, his open laptop cradled in his arms. “They’re here!” His whisper was as loud as most people’s full voice. “I ran when I heard the truck pull up because I didn’t want them to see me or guess what I did.”
Paige cocked her head. “What did you do?”
“I micro-dotted the boxes. Sterling saw me.” Austin pointed at him as though it was his fault.
Sterling had an idea. “How far do those dots transmit?”
“About two miles,” Austin said. “One of the first companies I prototyped had multiple facilities three miles apart. I could never get them to transmit that far on an independent ionic power source.”
In the distance, Sterling heard the rumble of a diesel engine and the grinding of gears. “Well, then we’d better be on our way.”
He headed toward the path, but she didn’t move. “What do you have planned, Sterling?”
Austin grinned. “He’s going to follow them, aren’t you?”
“We are,” Sterling said.
“No, I can’t leave Petunia.” Paige folded her arms.
Sterling peered over his shoulder at the grazing goat. “She doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere.”
“But she could.” Paige knelt by the nanny and ran her hand down her side. “I can’t put her in the barn. They’d find her, and I can’t call someone to help because I don’t want to involve anyone else.”
“Fine.” Sterling envisioned their window of opportunity shrinking. If they didn’t get going, there may not be another chance. “You stay with her. We’ll find your herd. Trust us.”
The two trotted off. Paige watched them until they were out of sight. “If only I could.”
STERLING LEAPT INTO HIS LEXUS, and Austin took the passenger seat. They peeled out and sped down the road. Austin’s eyes were glued to his laptop. His directions were sudden with no room for error.
“Left,” he shouted as the turn came into view.
Sterling missed it, made a U turn, and sailed down the road. As they got into town, the directions became less distinct and less frequent. Austin seemed mesmerized by his computer screen as Sterling drove straight into the city. There must be some mistake.
After going around the same block three times, Sterling had to ask, “Have we totally lost them?”
“No, the signature for the boxes is right there in the center of these buildings.” They were passing two older high rises, graffiti covered with broken windows, when Austin cried out, “There!”
Screeching to a halt so fast that the car behind almost back-ended them, Sterling waved the vehicle on and put the car in reverse. An alley barely wide as a single lane was only recognizable by the flattened curb. Backing slowly in, Sterling wasn’t certain what he would find. The pavement opened to a central loading dock. There, parked against a raised platform, was a nondescript white van.
Austin seemed hopeful. “Isn’t this clever? Who would think of hiding goats in the city?”
“I don’t think the animals are here,” Sterling climbed out his door. “I’ll see what I can find out. Don’t leave the car.”
Austin sat lower in his seat. “Won’t argue with that.”
Vaulting onto the loading dock, Sterling headed for the only open doorway. He wasn’t certain what he’d do if he met up with someone, but letting his fist do the talking wasn’t out of the question. If Austin could do it, why couldn’t he?
Two men were arguing down a hall, so he chose that direction. Their voices drew nearer. Sterling ducked into a closet.
“Chuck had better nix the meat, or he’s in for it,” a deep voice said. Sterling wondered if they were referring to the goats but had no idea.
“He will. Bet he’ll have it done in an hour, tops,” a younger man reassured.
“I hate these all night security gigs. They’re the worst,” the other man said. “Good thing my shift is over at eleven. He better be back by then.”
Sterling remembered that one of Elaine’s companies was a security guard contractor that she had used for her construction sites.
Their voices were fading. “Well, Chuck’s got to run to check on the livestock first, but I think he’ll make it.” A light flicked on further ahead, and Sterling continued down the hall and peered around a doorway. He could see the edges of unloaded boxes, about a dozen of them.
The younger man spoke again. “I hope he brings two this time. One pizza for three people is crazy.”
The older man’s reply was drowned out by a car’s ignition. Not worrying about whether he was caught, Sterling sprinted back to the van but was too late. By the time he got there, the white van was gone. Vaulting off the four-foot platform, he jumped in his driver’s seat and threw the car in gear, as Austin frantically buckled his seatbelt. They raced down the tiny alleyway and onto the main road. The first light was red. Sterling slammed on the brakes and craned his head down each adjoining street. The van was gone.
“That way,” Austin said.
He pointed back the way they had come.
The kid was such an idiot. Sterling wanted to shake him. “The boxes are in the warehouse. You only tracked the boxes, but the goats are somewhere else. That’s where the van is going next.”
The intern resembled a bobble-head doll. “I know, but you need to make a U-ey.”
“You know nothing.” Sterling gritted his teeth. “Paige has lost everything. It’s all our fault. Don’t you get it?”
“I do.” Austin seemed unaffected by his anger. “While you were in the warehouse, I micro-dotted the truck.”
“You what?” Sterling gripped the steering wheel.
“See?” Austin held up his laser gun lookalike.
Sterling chuckled, whipped the car around and floored it.
IT HAD BEEN LESS THAN AN HOUR since they left Paige and Petunia in the meadow, and Sterling found himself driving up the same street as the farmhouse again.
He was frustrated. “This can’t be right.”
“It is.” Austin’s attention never wavered from the flashing squares on his screen. “Right over there about two hundred feet.”
The driveway was directly past Paige’s. As they drove by, Sterling got a glimpse of a big white house with pillars in front but no cars or trucks. The house looked abandoned.
Sterling continued to the end of the road and headed back toward the farm. Austin closed his laptop. “We can take them. I punched you out.”
“Maybe,” Sterling rubbed his jaw thinking about it. “But there’s no reason to tell them we’re here, if they are really there at all.”
Austin almost had him convinced.
ALARMED AT THE CRUNCH OF TIRES on gravel, Paige pulled Petunia behind one of the tall pines to hide. As the motor was cut, she didn’t dare poke her head around the tree trunk for fear of being discovered. Petunia nudged at her thigh, wanting to return to the daffodils, but Paige held her collar tight. A plastic tag that had been stapled to the nylon strap bit into Paige’s hand. She let go of the collar, and Petunia bolted for the meadow.
Hearing heavy footsteps, Paige realized she had been discovered. This wasn’t the end. She’d do all in her power to stop these swindlers from profiting off her hard work. Raising her fists, she determined to teach them a lesson they’d never forget. Two men were approaching in street clothes. Paige didn’t know what to expect from Elaine’s lackeys, but she had thought they’d be burlier. It took her a second before her brain let her shift from demonizing the two to recognizing them.
“Sterling, Austin, what are you doing here?”
Sterling ran a hand through his hair. “We’re not sure.”
“I am.” Austin hurried to Paige’s side. “The goats are next door behind the white house.”
“Why do you think so?” Paige had been there only two days ago. There was no way the goats could be there.
Austin puffed out his chest. “Because my dot led us there.”
She turned to Sterling for a second opinion. His expression said it all. He put a hand on Austin’s shoulder. “I don’t know if the dot malfunctioned or if they found us out and left it there as a joke, but it doesn’t look good.”
“We’ve got to at least check it out.” Austin sounded like a whiny teenager.
Paige almost agreed with Sterling and then thought how Deputy Dunn had given her the benefit of the doubt when there was so little evidence. “Of course, we’ll check it out. Won’t we, Sterling?”
She placed a hand on Sterling’s arm to stop him from protesting further.
He saw the blood on her hand. Lifting it, he inspected the cut on her palm. “What happened?”
The concern in his eyes over the small wound was endearing. “It was nothing. I scraped myself on a tag or something put on Petunia’s collar.”
“On my tag,” Austin clarified. “I put one on all the goats. That is number 257.”
Petunia had wandered back near them, and Paige bent over and checked the tag. He was right.
Austin clapped his hands together once. “That proves it.”
“Proves what?” Sterling said.
Austin stood strong. “I loaded 257 on the truck myself, latched all the does in and recounted them. She was taken away on the truck with the others.”
Paige tried to wrap her head around what she was hearing. “You’re certain?”
He dropped his chin with such force, his hair fell into his eyes. “Yes.”
Sterling double checked the tag and peered at Austin before finally speaking. “So what you’re saying is this goat escaped after it was taken? From the new location where it was being held?”
“I suppose I owe you an apology.” Sterling put out his hand.
Paige could hardly believe what Austin was saying. “You really think my goats are next door? But why wouldn’t I be able to hear them?” Her feet had begun to move almost on their own accord. Hope rose in her heart as she ran across the small gulley on the other side of the barn. She didn’t care who saw her. She just wanted them back.
The front yard hadn’t changed at all, and she didn’t bother going near the house but went straight to the back. The sagging fences were untouched but that didn’t mean much. She trotted across the front of the house again and over toward the garage. Austin and Sterling were following her but were still a ways behind, trying to be more cautious.
“Back here!” she called to the Sterling and Austin as she rounded the corner. They flanked her and peered across the way.
As her view expanded, her hope shrank. Blackberry bushes had claimed the area west of the garage, creating a sea of thorns impassable by man or beast.
“They’re not here.” She refused to cry. Not in front of them. She knew they had both tried so hard on her behalf.
Sterling put his arm around her. “We’ll find them somehow. We’ll keep searching.”
“And I know where to start.” Austin had his cell phone out. The same readout that was on his computer flashed on his cell. “You do know that this is the last house on the street, right?”
“Yes.” Paige said.
He didn’t stay to explain but sprinted down the driveway toward the main road and turned right. They ran after him. Paige was getting winded, and by the time they hit the end of the road, Austin was a good quarter mile down a small dirt road to the right.
The intern pivoted and pointed with both hands to the left like a one of those ground controllers who direct airplanes into gates. “See? It’s new.”
Sure enough, a road had been cut through the thick brush. The fresh blacktop still looked wet. A low rattle alerted them to a coming vehicle. Paige flashed her eyes over her shoulder and back up the road, but no one was there. The nose of a large truck emerged from the woods on the new road, and Austin screamed, “Hide!”
He dove into a drainage ditch parallel to the asphalt, and the next thing Paige knew, Sterling’s arm was around her, pulling her down into the muck. The ditch wasn’t empty. Her hands bit against rocks as she lay face down in a position like she was doing push-ups, but in a few inches of water. Sterling had his arm across her back. Since the ditch wasn’t wide enough for both of them, his body lay on top of her, but surprisingly it didn’t weigh her down.
She tried to focus on his warm breath by her ear instead of the little creatures she could imagine crawling around her as the empty livestock truck rolled slowly by. It seemed an eternity before it was gone, and they could climb out of the two-foot depression. The front of Paige’s shirt was soaked, and her black pants had a stripe of mud down the center of each leg. But after wiping herself down with her palms, she was none the worse for wear. Sterling was clean except for one knee where his black slacks had been torn clear through. The exposed skin looked scraped up. His elbow wasn’t in great shape either. He’d obviously been bearing his own weight, and she was grateful.
Austin came up to them, amazingly dry with an “I-told-you-so” expression on his face. “I could see a metal building about a half mile down there. They’ve probably got the goats inside.”
Paige beamed at him. “You did it, Austin. Thank you.” A four-inch long banana slug was creeping up his shoulder and would soon be on the boy’s neck. “Don’t move,” Paige said.
“What?” Austin glanced at his shirt and saw nothing.
She gently removed the creature and put it back in the brush. When she turned back to the men, Austin was almost green. “That was on me?”
“It can’t hurt you.” Paige assured him, but Austin shuddered.
Sterling grabbed them both. “We have more company.”
They couldn’t all three jump in the ditch again. Besides, there wasn’t time to hide. A white van with no writing on the sides pulled out of the new driveway. The driver waved at them as he went by. He was wearing a security guard uniform.
Sterling waved back. “That’s good ol’ Chuck going for pizza.”
Austin seemed to be returning to his normal color. “Let’s call the police, and then I’m going to shower.”
Though Detective Dunn had been kind, the police chief’s statement echoed in Paige’s mind. “No crime has been committed. I gave Elaine power of attorney.”
“Only for five more days.” Sterling said. “Why don’t you two go back to the house and get cleaned up? I’ll see what we’re up against.”
Paige caught Sterling by the sleeve. ‘Are you sure it’s safe?”
He touched her cheek. “I’ll be fine. The security guard just left.”
“Uh, Paige.” Austin’s voice seemed terrified.
Was someone coming? Had something happened to the goats? She turned and saw a squished slug on the outside of his forearm. He couldn’t touch it. “Look, slug slime. I’ve got to shower.” His face seemed pale, and he was shaking.
Paige felt she should go for Austin’s sake. He’d begun dancing in place, shaking his arm to free it of the goo. “Sterling, don’t do anything foolish.”
He pecked her cheek. “You know me better than that.”
As she walked back to the farmhouse, she was haunted by his reply. She hoped she knew him, but did she really?
MAKING HIS WAY THROUGH THE UNDERBRUSH beside the new road to the metal building was no easy task. Sterling’s shins felt like pin cushions from the brambles and stickers, but he didn’t want to risk being seen. Once he reached his destination, another hurdle presented itself. There were no windows that he could see on the ground floor. A gnarled apple tree’s top branches brushed one upper window at the middle of the south side of the building. Sterling wrestled his way up the tree, hooking a leg over each branch and slipping as much as climbing in his business shoes.
At last, hugging the branch with all four limbs, he peered into the window. The goats were grazing off a thick layer of scattered hay and held in pens of chicken wire with metal posts stuck straight through the dirt floor. The entire building was a single room except for what looked to be an office to the rear. The back door opened, and Sterling had two realizations. First, that he had overlooked a window on the main floor at the back of the building that led right into the office and would have allowed him to accomplish what he wanted without climbing a tree, and second, that it looked as though Ryan, the guy suing Paige, was the only person around. Though he could easily take him, Sterling had a better idea.
It would be at least five hours before the goats needed to be milked again, and by then, they would be in a place where no one would think to find them. He lowered his head against the rough branch, wondering if he could go through with it. Standing up to Elaine was nothing. Committing what may well be a felony didn’t bother him. Trying to help Paige was awesome. But facing his father after all this time made him sweat. If his dad kicked him out of the house for doing something completely legal, what made Sterling think his dad would accept him with stolen goods?
Sterling began his descent from the tree. It didn’t matter what his father said. After getting up before the sun and working late into the night from the time he was old enough to read until the day he left home, he deserved to be there. His dad could bend for five days, and if he had a problem with that, it would be the last five days they would ever see each other.
After his feet hit solid ground again, Sterling ran to the farmhouse. There was no way he was going through the underbrush again. He was done hiding. It was time to face both his past and his future. He’d fix what Elaine was destroying and perhaps mend himself in the process. Once he got to the main road, he whipped out his cell phone. The best way to get a mule to do what you wanted was with a carrot, and Sterling had one specific carrot in mind that should keep Ryan under control. He dialed in the numbers and waited.
“Dotty? What are you doing for the next hour or so?”
His secretary paused before replying. “Are we still on speaking terms?”
Sterling laughed. “We will be if you come out to the Lindon goat farm. I’ve got a little job I need you to do for me.”
After finishing his conversation with Dotty, Sterling headed straight for his Lexus and was driving away at break neck speed. He scanned the sleek dashboard and leather seats, wondering if he’d ever own such a nice car again. After this stunt, he may be blackballed for life, but Paige was worth it. He’d have no regrets.
IN THE FARMHOUSE THE SHOWER had been running so long that steam had seeped out of the bathroom and was fogging Paige’s bedroom window. She wondered if Austin was scalding his skin because of that overgrown slug. How many times would she traumatize that poor boy when it was entirely her own fault she was in this predicament? And what about Sterling? He could lose everything for her. Paige lifted the receiver to call the police and file a report whether they believed her or not.
The sound of a diesel engine and grinding gears ignited righteous vengeance. What more could these people take from her? Slamming the phone in its cradle, Paige rushed to the front door and threw it open, expecting another white full-sized van. Instead, it was a large orange and silver U-haul truck with Sterling in the driver’s seat.
As she walked toward the window of his vehicle, a little red Miata pulled up right next to Sterling and would have hit her if she’d been moving at a quicker pace. Sterling’s red-headed secretary got out of her car. She had a long white riding scarf draped around her neck. “Out of my way, baby girl. I’m on a mission.”
Sterling opened his door and came up to both of them with a smile. “Actually, Dotty, the mission is for Paige. I need you to distract your friend while we do something you might not approve of.”
Glaring from Paige to Sterling, Dotty folded her arms across her ample chest. “There are very few things I don’t approve of.”
“True.” Sterling chuckled. Then he got serious. “You should know that there’s a good possibility neither of us will have a job by tomorrow, but I’ll get a good severance package I’ll split with you.”
Dotty’s expression didn’t change. “And I’ve got some beachfront property in Arizona to sell ya.”
“You’ve always suggested I should cut ties with Elaine and move on to better things.” He put an arm around Paige.
“But she’s got nothing.” Dotty’s nostrils flared. “Look around you.”
Sterling seemed surprised by Dotty’s reluctance. “Some things are more important than money.”
“Not in your line of work.” The older woman snapped back.
Paige backed away a little as Dotty got more heated. Wedging herself between them, Dotty shoved a finger at Sterling. “You want to give up everything you’ve built over the last ten years for a pretty face.” She peered at Paige. “And she isn’t even that pretty. Is that what’s going through your head?”
Sterling rubbed his forehead. “Dotty, can we discuss this alone?”
Dotty bristled and stepped to the side, so she could address both of them. “No, I think little Heidi here should know what she’s doing. She’s just like her uncle. He tried to stand up to Elaine, and look where it got him. He never got another contract job. Now you’re going to poison Sterling, too? Not on my watch. Sterling is the only upright part of Erickson Holdings. While I sit around playing Spider Solitaire all day, he works his buns off to make this world a better place. The companies he funds hire people at a time when there’s not enough jobs to go around. You want to kill all that for a few laughs?”
“You don’t understand,” Sterling practically shouted. Paige had never heard him so angry. “Elaine has targeted Paige for no good reason. This time she’s has gone too far.”
“Elaine always goes too far. That’s why she’s rich.” Dotty’s tone rose with each word. “Why suddenly the conscience now? Don’t think this is anything more than hormones. Sterling, you’ll regret it in the morning. I know. I almost did the same thing at your age and regretted it my whole life.”
Sterling’s chest heaved. “Dotty, I’m not you. I’m your boss. Either do what I ask, or you’re fired. That’s your choice.”
Riddled with guilt, Paige couldn’t let them lose everything because of her. The cost was too high. She had to stop this. “Sterling, she’s right. It’s too much to ask of you. We’ll let the authorities take care of it. I’ll call Deputy Dunn, and what happens, happens.”
Dotty whipped her head Paige’s direction with such force it seemed as if she’d been slapped. “Are you insane? Elaine will crush you like a bug on a windshield if you let the system get a hold of this. Sterling is your only chance. You should be willing to do whatever he asks and then some, not wimp out.” Then she faced Sterling. “See what I mean? This girl is not good enough for you.”
Sterling slammed his fist against the hood of the truck. The loud bang quieted Dotty enough for him to get a word in edgewise. “What do you think? I’m going to marry her tomorrow? This is the right thing to do. That’s all. If you’re not with me, then drive away. That will be the end of it.”
Paige had a bad taste in her mouth. At this point, she wouldn’t mind if they both drove away. She’d take her chances with Elaine. Paige turned toward the front door to go call the sheriff after all.
She was mid-stride when Dotty said, “Well, I might as well stay since I’m here anyway.”
“That’s more like it.” Sterling said.
The front door opened and a very pink Austin, his hair still wet, stood on the threshold. “So what’s the plan, boss?” he asked Sterling.
“It’s a go.” His voice sounded excited.
Still feeling unsure and a little abused, Paige didn’t turn toward Sterling or Dotty. Paige could still call this off and was tempted to. Then she felt Sterling’s strong hands around her.
He touched her chin and lifted it to meet his. “Are you okay with this?” His voice was so tender it melted her. “It’s up to you.”
Paige glanced at Dotty, who obviously did not find the embrace amusing, and then over to Austin, who evidently found it clearly uncomfortable. Returning her focus to Sterling, she said, “Let’s give it a try.”
In that instant, Sterling let go of her. “Can you prepare the truck for transporting the goats while I give Austin and Dotty their assignments?”
“Wait. We’re moving goats in the U-haul?” Paige had to admit the size looked about right, but it would be a bear to clean out when the job was done. While Sterling went off a little way and was whispering with Dotty, Paige turned to Austin. “Do you think we can really get away with stealing the goats?”
He gave a curt nod. “If anyone can do it, Sterling can.”
There was that confidence again. It was Austin’s admiration of Sterling that had gotten her in this mess in the first place. Dotty felt the same way though. Fine, she’d trust him with her business and let him clean up this mess with Elaine, but that was it. After what he’d said to Dotty, it was clear his intentions were only short-term. She wondered if they had stayed in those adjoining rooms the entire week, what might have happened. No, she had to be careful. Though her feelings for him were strong, she also was quite certain he’d break her heart if she let him.
Sterling could hardly believe it when Dotty drove up ten minutes after she had left. Once she cut the engine she called, “The milking crew arrived early. Cool your jets, people. They won’t be done until after seven tonight. Then it’s an all clear.”
Sterling rushed to her side. “How did Ryan react to your showing up?”
She buffed her nails from the driver’s seat as she answered. “The lug can’t wait for our evening alone together. His ex-wife did a number on him, and he’s desperate for positive feminine attention. I told him I felt so badly that our last interaction wasn’t satisfying for him and that the guilt forced me to search him out. He lapped it up like honey. What a patsy.”
“This could work to our advantage,” Sterling said. “We’ll be harder to track at night.”
Paige walked over from the barn with a wheelbarrow full of fresh hay for the back of the truck. “You think Elaine will have us followed?”
“If she knew we were back in town. Remember, she thinks we’re still in Dallas, Texas,” Sterling said.
“Well, it is your hometown.” Dotty got out of her car and leaned against the convertible. “You know that’s why she sent you there, right?”
“She didn’t send me there. I found Earth Tech on my own.” He remembered reading about them in a local paper, but couldn’t recall how he came across it.
Dotty lifted her nose and turned away from him. “You think what you want, and I’ll pretend I never saw that article on the printer in Elaine’s office three weeks before you brought it up.”
The only good part of what he was hearing was that Elaine might not figure out where they were going.
Dotty seemed to be getting bored with the conversation and turned to Paige. “You got a couch and television, goat girl?”
“Yes, Austin’s in the house; he can show you,” Paige said.
“Don’t bother me until quarter to seven.” Dotty headed for the house, and Sterling was relieved she was gone. He wanted to spend some time alone with Paige, to talk about what happened in Dallas, but she spoke first.
“Sterling, do you have any idea where we’re taking the goats? Joe’s got a place on Mt. Hood. I know he’s got the room, and he wouldn’t mind.” She had been spreading hay in the back of the truck and had a stalk of straw in her hair.
He reached up to remove it, but she backed away. “Is something wrong?” he asked. The last he knew they were getting along well.
Paige let out a puff of air. “Let me think. My herd has been stolen beneath my nose, I’m on the verge of committing a felony, and I have no idea where you’re planning to take us. I’d say there’s a lot wrong and not much right. Wouldn’t you?”
Sterling wanted to hold her hand, but they were folded tight in front of her. “I know where we’re going to go, but it’s complicated. How about if I help you prepare the truck then we can talk about it?” He hadn’t shared why he left home all those years ago with anyone and wasn’t looking forward to the prospect.
Austin slammed the front door and marched their direction. “I can’t wait here until seven. Your secretary is verifiably insane.”
“I get that a lot.” Sterling laughed. “Why don’t I take you home to pack some clothes? We’ll be gone for five days.”
“Great.” Austin stretched his neck and rotated his shoulders. “I’ll get some more micro-dots at my apartment, just in case. Do you want to drive?” He fished his keys out of his pocket.
Sterling snatched them up. “Sorry, Paige. We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
“Don’t hurry on my account,” she said, returning to hay duty.
He knew he was chickening out of telling her the truth, but he would have lots of time later. He only hoped she wouldn’t think less of him when she found out.
STERLING AND AUSTIN RETURNED with no time to spare. The plan wasn’t complicated, in fact just the opposite. A simple grab and go. While Ryan was off flirting with Dotty, Paige and Sterling would load the goats. Meanwhile, Austin would find any paperwork from his original packing extravaganza, so they’d have documentation in case they went to court. If all went well, fifteen minutes, and they would hightail it out of there.
Dotty left first, asking for half an hour alone with Ryan before they arrived. With five minutes to go, Sterling climbed in the U-haul, expecting Paige to sit next to him. Instead, she held the door open, so Austin would sit in the middle. As they crept up the new road at the back of the former emu farm, there was only one car parked beside the red Miata. Sterling backed in near the double doors at the east side of the building. He cut the engine and waited.
Once they were certain they hadn’t been spotted, the trio bolted from the rental. Sterling grabbed a stick off the ground to drive the goats, the way he had with the cows back home. As soon as the goats saw him, they scattered. He was getting nowhere then noticed five goats were already in the truck and seven more were on Paige’s heels, following her up the ramp.
“Are you magic, like the goat piper or something?” he asked.
“No.” She held up a bag of brown wafers. “Goat cookies. Try them.”
She tossed one his direction, and he held it up. Sure enough, the goats almost stampeded toward him.
With the goats safely in the U-haul, Paige got behind the wheel. She’d promised to drive away if there was any trouble while Sterling went back for Austin and Dotty. Both were in the office.
Opening the door, he had a shock. Ryan was hogtied with Dotty’s long riding scarf and lying on the floor. Muffled grunts came from his stuffed mouth.
“I told you to distract him,” Sterling said.
“He is distracted.” Dotty gave an innocent-looking pout. “He’s trying so hard to get out of those knots that he didn’t even notice the goats were gone.”
Meanwhile, Austin shuffled through all the papers on the desk. “They aren’t here.”
“What?” Dotty asked.
Austin’s hands were shaking. “My notes. The list of goats and all the supplies.”
“Oh.” Dotty tapped a finger against her pursed lips.
Sterling knew that look. “Do you know where they are, Dotty?”
She knelt beside Ryan and reached in his mouth with her fingers, withdrawing a wad of scrunched up papers she had used as a gag. Immediately, the bound man began spewing profanities.
Dotty kicked him with her stilettos. “What’s your problem, Ryan? You said I could do anything I wanted to you. Didn’t ya?”
The inner struggle between Austin’s disgust at the spittle-covered pages and his sense of obligation to flatten the documents was amusing, but Sterling knew he couldn’t watch. It was time to go.
He pecked Dotty’s cheek. “What are you going to do about Ryan?”
“Blanche, his ex, was a lot rougher than me.” Dotty waved her hand. “I may play with him a little longer, but there’ll be no permanent damage. He’ll tell everyone it was a dozen ninjas or something. We’ll be fine. What about you? Where are you going?”
“It’s best if you don’t know.” Sterling turned to go.
Dotty’s hand clamped around his arm. “I mean it. Don’t give up everything for her. You’ll hate her if you do.” Her eyes pled with him, but Sterling couldn’t imagine ever hating Paige.
He put his hand over Dotty’s. She had been the closest thing he had to a mother since he lost his own. “Truth is, I’m getting a lot more than I’m giving.”
“You always see the best in people. It’ll hurt you in the end.” Dotty let him go.
Hurrying to the truck, Sterling found Austin and Paige already inside. He leapt into his seat, and they pulled onto the highway. It was only seven thirty, the goats were milked, and Sterling steeled himself for the hardest part of the trip.
MOST OF THE RIDE WAS SILENT. Austin fell fast asleep early on. Paige assumed Sterling kept quiet because he was worried about waking him. They stopped to get a bite to eat at eight o’clock then topped off the tank a half hour later even though it was less than half empty. When they re-entered the truck, Paige sat next to Sterling, and Austin nodded off again.
“So?” she whispered.
“We made it.” He didn’t say anything else. Paige watched shadows play across his drawn face. He seemed lost in thought. When a green mileage sign said they were five miles from Dallas, Oregon, it all made sense. In fact, she was a little relieved. Now she’d see who Sterling really was. His family must be horrible to have hurt him so badly. His left hand clutched the wheel, so she slipped her arm through his right, trying to be supportive.
Sterling smiled. “What’s that for?”
Paige leaned her head against his shoulder. “I’m grateful for what you’re doing. This must be hard.”
He didn’t answer, but she could see his jaw clench in the dim glow of a passing headlight. He’d tell her when he was ready. For all he was doing for her, she could wait.
It was close to ten by the time they pulled onto a road leading to a white farmhouse with a green tin roof and matching shutters. A barn ten times the size of hers loomed across the open yard. She leapt out the same door as Sterling, leaving a sleeping Austin behind them.
“This is perfect!” she said. Balancing on the bottom rail of the gate by the barn, Paige lifted herself up, so she could peer further into the dim enclosed stalls inside. “Hey, I thought dairy barns usually had cement floors, so you could hose out the manure. This has a dirt one.”
Sterling’s smile seemed strained. “The milking barn’s around the corner. This was for horses but hasn’t been used since I was fifteen.”
In the warm moonlight she could see open fields and smell the newly tilled earth. “It’s lovely here.” She couldn’t imagine what compelled him to leave and wanted to ask, but he was staring somewhere behind her left shoulder as if he’d seen a ghost.
Paige heard a metallic click and whirled around to see an old man in boots holding a shotgun aimed right toward them.
“Dad?” was all Sterling said.
Paige watched the man lower his weapon. He seemed to be digesting the word in his mind. He uncocked the gun and set it against a nearby tree before sprinting toward Sterling and clutching him as if he were a man drowning.
The man’s shoulders were convulsing, and as he turned slightly, she caught the glitter of fresh tears on his cheeks in the moonlight. He was sobbing.
“Oh, my boy,” the old man said. “I thought I’d never see you again, but you’re here right when I needed you.”
The timbre of his voice reminded her so much of Uncle Bill that Paige had to swallow her own tears. It hurt to think she’d never have such a reunion and that Sterling had pushed away someone who obviously loved him so deeply. Sterling’s eyes were closed. At first, he seemed stiff. Then it was as if something in him melted, and he embraced his father back with equal fervor.
Paige stepped away to give them privacy. As she did, she tripped on a small stone and caught herself, but it was enough to end the moment.
Father and son pulled apart. The older man wiped his face with the back of his hand and spoke as though this were an ordinary day. “So is this your wife?”
“No.” Sterling motioned for Paige to join them. “Just a friend. Nothing more.”
Paige remained silent. Hurt but silent.
The truck door opened, and a sleepy Austin emerged.
Sterling’s dad lit up in excitement. “And is this your boy?”
“No, no.” Sterling patted his dad’s shoulder. “Austin’s a friend, too. I work with him. Look, Dad, I’m in trouble. Because of me, Paige lost her goats, and we stole them back. I only need to board them here for five days, and then we’ll be out of your hair.”
His dad looked as if he hadn’t heard him.
Sterling began to repeat himself. “I was stupid and made Paige lose her herd. . .”
“I got it the first time.” His dad’s voice was suddenly gruff. “Well, put ‘em in there. Anything else can wait till morning.”
PAIGE HURRIED TO THE TRUCK, pulled down the ramp and led the goats into the barn. They were nervous and clingy from the ride, so it was easy. Even Petunia followed without complaint. Sterling slammed the back door of the truck shut and parked the U-haul, so it couldn’t be seen from the road. In the barn Austin held his wrinkled papers to make certain each animal was accounted for.
As Paige walked back toward the house, she was met by Sterling’s dad watching from the kitchen door. He nodded her direction. “The way a woman treats God’s creatures is a good indicator of how she’ll treat her future children. You pass, young lady.”
“Thank you.” Obviously, Sterling’s dad had never talked to Dotty or he may have a totally different attitude about her. When Sterling came up behind her, she was a little surprised he put his arm around her waist.
He spoke to his dad. “All right. We’re all bushed. Where do you want to put us?”
His dad stroked his chin. “Well, you and your friend will have to bunk together.”
Sterling’s grip tightened, and Paige’s eyes popped wide open. “Excuse me?”
Sterling’s dad continued. “And the young lady will take Linda’s room.”
Relief flooded across her and she asked, “Who’s Linda?”
Sterling whispered in her ear. “My older sister. We’re only fourteen months apart.”
Paige liked the idea of Sterling having a sister and even liked his father so far. As Sterling walked away to get their bags, she wondered again why he would ever leave. By the time he got back, Austin was still nowhere in sight. A light was on in the barn.
Sterling was about to head that way when Paige stopped him. “Let me. You can take the bags upstairs. We’ll be right there.”
Father and son were left together. Paige hoped they’d talk while they had the time alone. She hurried across the wide driveway, amazed how much it reminded her of her own farmhouse, except bigger. At the barn Austin was still trying to count the herd. His hands and face were smudged with muck. “They removed the collars. I’ve counted four times but can’t get it right.”
She leapt up on the fence and swung one leg over the top, straddling it. “Let’s finish in the morning.”
He shook his head. “No, something’s wrong.” He started all over again.
She swung her other leg over and hopped into the stall. “They’ll still be here when you wake up. Come on.”
Austin shifted his focus. “Wait, are you the boss or is Sterling?”
The question took her by surprise. “Well, since they’re my goats, I’d say I am.”
“Then, as my boss, are you demanding I retire for the night?” Austin looked very serious, and she tried her hardest not to smile. This was why she liked him. He was so black and white. You knew where you stood with Austin. Unlike Sterling who said one thing and did another.
“Yup. It’s time to retire.”
“Very well.” Austin folded up his papers without argument and strode from the barn. “I’ll be back at first light.”
Paige had to rush to catch up to him and found Sterling standing at the back door waiting. The lights in the kitchen were on, and as she stepped through the threshold, she couldn’t believe her eyes. The yellow walls were a replica of her own house back home. Now she understood Sterling’s first reaction when he came into the farmhouse. It had nothing to do with her.
Suddenly, more tired than before, she trailed behind the boys, up the stairs and straight down the hall to a little room. Sterling pulled a string. The naked bulb exposed a full-sized brass bed beneath a large window in a gabled room. The walls were covered with thick cedar paneling, and the window was framed in pink ruffles. Paige bade the men goodnight and shut the door, so exhausted she could barely stand.
She yanked on the string to turn out the light and flopped down on the mattress fully clothed. Through the window, the vivid stars demanded her attention. The sky was that deep blue black that looked like velvet. No more like silk. She smiled to herself. It really looked just like that dress still hanging in the closet in that Texas hotel. Paige remembered her quick departure, thinking she’d lost Sterling forever and right after discovering she’d lost the herd. What a dark time.
The first pinprick of light emerged when she found Austin still at the house and then Petunia in the meadow. The next was when Sterling found her. Without any one of them, she’d never have found the herd or had a place to keep them. All she had to do now was keep her head on straight for the next four days, and the whole deal would be defunct. Then they could all go back to their lives. Well, sort of. Sterling and Austin would both be unemployed, unless she hired them.
The idea made her tingle. Austin was such a hard worker, and Sterling could steer her through the steps of expansion with his eyes closed. Of course, he would have to make some adjustments to his business strategies, but she could work with him on that. Together, they could make Lindon Beauty Cakes everything she had envisioned. Remembering his reunion with his dad gave her hope. If he was willing to swallow his pride and come home for her, he could change.
Paige tucked her hands behind her head and stared at the dark ceiling above her bed. Only one thing still bothered her. Sterling still hadn’t told her why he left. She thought of his advice yesterday morning, to disclose as little as possible. At least no one could accuse him of being a hypocrite. But she wondered what his father had done or was it his mother or sister? Who had hurt him so badly?
Above her, a circle of eerie green light seemed to be pushing through the paneling.
She blinked and blinked again, but it was still there. Someone must have taken a glow stick, broken it open and written above the bed. The chemicals looked to have soaked into the wood paneling years ago, leaving the message there longer than intended. A heart surrounded a single name. DARRYL. Was that one of Linda’s old boyfriends? Funny, no one who didn’t sleep in the room would even know it was there.
IT WAS STILL DARK WHEN THE SOUND of bleating goats woke her. They were either afraid or in trouble. Paige took the stairs two at a time and raced across the yard, the laces of her sneakers untied. The garage door was open with no car inside. The U-haul was still hidden to the side of the barn where it had been parked yesterday. The eastern horizon was growing lighter, hinting the promise of a new day.
Hurdling the barrier at the entrance of the barn, Paige stood among the goats and scanned their backs. They were so restless. Something wasn’t right. Then Austin’s head popped up from the center of the herd.
He got off his hands and knees, and rose to his feet. “You said I could resume at first light.”
“More like first pale.” She supposed that a sliver of the population may consider this morning. “Since I’m up anyway, can I help you?”
“As a matter of fact…” Austin held out the wrinkled papers that seemed to be his lifeline. “. . . that would be most appreciated. You see, after reviewing my written descriptions in more detail, I have come to a shocking conclusion.”
Paige found a five-gallon bucket in the corner, turned it and sat on it. Beside the bucket, six stacks of apple crates reached to the rafters. “What?” she said half-heartedly.
“One goat in this barn is not yours. We stole it outright. At least the others were your property previously. We’d be given legal lenience, but stealing a goat that doesn’t belong to you changes our actions from an undecided dispute over ownership to grand larceny.” Austin had droplets of sweat running down his cheeks though the morning was chilly. “Do you see my concern?”
“Yes.” Paige got to her feet and scanned the goats. One had a cropped white coat and stood about four inches taller than the rest. She serpentined through the herd’s close knit bodies to get to him. His horns were clipped, and he was shorn, but his roman nose and clear eyes were unmistakable. She dropped to her knees and hugged him. “King, it’s you!”
Austin stared at her like she’d lost her mind.
“He’s mine alright.” She laughed and hugged the buck again. “The reason this goat’s not on your list is because I lost him months ago.” She thought of bringing up Blanche but didn’t want to have to explain. “I looked everywhere and asked the neighbors, but no one said they’d seen him.”
“Him?” She heard a deep voice behind her.
Turning, she found Sterling leaning against the gate. His hair was wet from a recent shower, and he looked right at home with his flannel shirt and jeans. She smiled and led the buck over to him. “This is King. He’s a Xinjiang/Saanen mix I thought I lost last fall, but it looks like he was stolen. Could Elaine have done this?”
“I’d bet on it.” He patted the goat’s head and caught Austin’s eye. “You get what this means?”
Austin nodded. “Hard evidence.”
He clasped Paige’s shoulder. “You might beat Elaine yet.”
The first ridge of the sun edged over the horizon, waking the clouds in deep lavender. Paige couldn’t remember feeling so happy, but the rumble of an approaching car broke the spell. All three went to high alert. Austin stood beside her, while Sterling jogged to the entrance of the driveway. He called to them, “It’s my dad’s pickup.”
Paige hadn’t realized she’d been carrying so much fear until that moment. It was a real possibility they could all wind up behind bars.
Sterling’s dad pulled into the garage and emerged holding a paper grocery bag. “You’re all up? I’d hoped to catch you still sleeping like city folk.”
“Dad, did you tell anyone we were here?”
“Well, I ran into an old girlfriend of yours but told her you were taken.” He winked in Paige’s direction, and she couldn’t help but smile.
Sterling’s voice grew louder. “Did you say anything about the goats?”
His dad looked like he wanted to spit. “How much of a fool do you think I am? I heard what you told me, that they were absconded.” He trotted away, and Sterling stared after him.
“Uncle Bill’s the same way,” Paige said. “Gets offended if you look at him wrong.”
Sterling kicked the ground. “Sometimes I think it’s his favorite emotion.”
“He may need time to adjust,” Paige offered.
Sterling wouldn’t look at her. “You don’t think twelve years is enough?”
She knew there was nothing she could say to that, so she changed the subject. “Since we’re all here, why don’t we start milking? I’ve got a bucket.” She grabbed the one that she had sat on earlier. “Do you think your dad has Ziploc bags or should we pick them up at the local market?”
“I doubt it,” Sterling said. “Dad doesn’t have anything that’s disposable. But my mom loved to can. Can we put it in quart jars?”
Austin piped in. “Each doe gives about three quarts per day. Your mother better have a lot of jars.”
“Well, she used to have hundreds.”
Sterling led them to a pantry off the kitchen. Floor to ceiling shelves ran the entire length of the room covered with empty canning jars. The other side had filled ones and some commercially canned goods.
“This will definitely cover it,” Paige said, pinching four jars together with each hand and turning to go. Sterling’s eyes were glued to the full jars.
“What’s wrong?” she could see his pinched forehead.
When he spoke, his tone was low and rough. “Ten years she’s been gone, and look how much is left. I wonder if he refuses to eat from the jars because he wants to pretend she’s still here.”
The ache he felt seemed visceral, and Paige was quite certain that whatever caused him to leave home wasn’t as difficult as losing his mother. That’s what probably kept him away. Paige waited a moment out of respect until Sterling turned and grabbed his own jars. Only then did Austin do the same.
They began milking, but with the single five-gallon bucket and making multiple runs back to the pantry, it was a slow process. By the time they finished and headed toward the house, Paige was famished. She smelled bacon and eggs cooking.
She stepped in the kitchen and caught sight of the set table. “It smells wonderful. Thank you, Mr. Keller.”
“Don’t thank me for smelling it.” Sterling’s dad held a spatula. “Let’s eat.”
Everyone sat but Sterling. “Dad, what’s this?” He picked up the milk carton in the middle of the table.
“If you don’t know by now, I did a rotten job of raising ya.” His dad chuckled.
“No.” Sterling stared at his dad. “Why didn’t you get milk from the dairy?”
His father lowered his eyes. “Dairy’s gone. Years now. But that’s a discussion for another time. Sit and eat. It’s gettin’ cold.”
The way he said it, Paige guessed that time would never come. A farmers’ business is his own accord. Uncle Bill was the same way. Sterling couldn’t seem to accept it. He held his tongue, but after two bites wiped his mouth, dropped his napkin on his plate, and got up to leave.
He’d barely walked out of the room before he rushed back in. “The sheriff’s car just pulled up. Stay where you are.”
They were all on their feet at the window before Sterling was halfway across the area between the house and the barn. Brown with gold lettering, the sheriff’s sedan parked next to a cottonwood which obscured Paige’s view of the driver. The door opened, and she could see Sterling facing the officer, but all she could make out were the lawman’s shoes. He looked to be of small build. They talked for a long time, and Paige started to worry.
“Are they okay?” she asked Sterling’s dad.
“Who knows? Misty is one who can hold a grudge.” His dad seemed thoroughly amused, and Paige realized if she moved to the other side of him, she could probably see everything. She did and was shocked to find the person in the uniform was a gorgeous blonde with a mane that rivaled most supermodels. Misty, as Mr. Keller had called her, threw her arms around Sterling’s neck and kissed him full on the mouth. Sterling had a hand on either of her hips. Paige was done watching.
She marched out the door and directly toward the two. Sterling saw her coming. She wanted to wipe that smile off his face, but he seemed pleased she was there. “Paige, Misty wanted to meet you.”
“I bet she did,” Paige said.
For an officer of the law, Misty didn’t seem very observant. She didn’t even pick up on the fact that Paige was fuming. Instead, the girl mirrored Sterling’s pleasant expression. “Anyone that could get Sterling back where he belongs is a friend of mine. How’ dee do? I’m Misty.”
Paige blinked. “And the sheriff?”
She flipped her hair back, exposing the badge pinned to her right shoulder. “Only a deputy.” Misty’s smile seemed to fade a bit. “Nope, the sheriff’s a whole different matter, God help us all.”
As if to cover her frustration, Misty put on a fresh smile. “Sterling’s dad told me you brought your stock out here while your barn’s getting fumigated. If you’re having issues with a fungus or disease, you probably need to register with the agricultural extension. I’m responsible for animal control, too.”
“No, it was just rats.” Paige glared at Sterling who wore the trace of someone else’s lipstick.
“That sounds fine.” Misty turned back to Sterling. “You going to be at the Pit this Friday? Everyone will be dying to see you.”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” The way he said it made Paige quite sure this was the old girlfriend his dad had mentioned.
As Misty pulled away, Paige was sure of one thing. Sterling had not left Dallas to get away from a girlfriend. There were obviously still active feelings on both sides of the fence, and she didn’t have any desire to get in the middle of them.
REMNANTS OF A MASSIVE GRIN PLAYED across Sterling’s face. “Well, that was a close one.”
“I have to agree,” Paige said. “You two seemed very close.”
He laughed at that. “Nah, she always wanted more than I could give her.”
Paige reached out and wiped off his bottom lip with her thumb, showing him the pink smear left behind. “Well, at least you gave her something.”
“It’s not like that.” Sterling caught her eyes then peered toward the house.
Neither Austin nor Sterling’s dad had ventured out when she did. She could see both their faces watching through the big picture window, apparently fascinated by their discussion. She blushed.
“Hey,” Sterling said. “Can I show you something?” He took her hand tight in his own and headed out the driveway.
Paige’s sneakers scuffed against the gravel as she slowed once they reached the highway. “Where are we going?”
“You’ll see.” Sterling looked both ways and tugged her across the road with him. A cattle gate on the other side had a padlock on it. Sterling ran forward to twist the center dial.
The lock opened. “How did you know the combination?”
Sterling shook his head. “Nothing ever changes in a place like this. That’s part of why I left.”
Paige was dying to hear the other part.
After a quarter mile the pines thinned, opening to a meadow. Clusters of daffodils and crocuses were nestled in patches where the sun could peek through the thick canopy of leaves overhead. A large fallen log two and a half feet in diameter looked worn from people using it as a bench. Sterling sat in the grass with his back against it and invited her to do the same. As she reclined beside him, Sterling lifted his arm and pulled her close. She allowed it but wasn’t comfortable with either the position or her current feelings for the man. “Sterling, we need to talk.”
“That’s what we’re here for.” His gaze was directed to the clear sky where an eagle glided in circles above them. “Do you know what this meadow is called?”
“No idea,” she said, catching sight of the bird swooping down on its prey.
“Make-out meadow. This is where teenage boys come with their girls. Dad calls it spooning.” Sterling was staring at her.
She stared back but not for the same reason. “How many times did you come here with Misty? No, don’t tell me.” Kneeling up, she faced him. “This was a bad idea.”
“No, it’s the best idea I’ve had in a long time.” He took her hand, firmly this time. “Paige, I haven’t let anyone in my life since I dated Misty when I was eighteen. For how much I messed up, I never felt I could.”
She tried to open her mind to what he was telling her, but the image of him kissing Misty clouded everything else. “What changed?”
“You.” The way he looked at her was so much like the time she had bought that dress in Dallas. It made her feel beautiful. He continued, “I’ve never met anyone whose life was driven by this sense of making the world better. It’s like you don’t care about money or what people think. You just do what you know you should.”
Could she let herself get sucked into this again? “Two days ago in Texas you didn’t tell me Elaine was pulling something when you knew she was. Yesterday you told Dotty you’d never marry me. You kissed Misty on the mouth just a couple of minutes ago. What am I supposed to believe?”
“Hey, she kissed me, and the rest is, well, inexcusable.” He ran his thumb gently back and forth across the top of her knuckles, staring at her hand. “It won’t happen again. Give me one more chance. I want you in my life. No, I need you.”
“I don’t know.” Paige suddenly realized how true those words were. “I don’t know anything about your past. Why did you leave here? Your dad seems great. You had a gorgeous girlfriend. What happened?” She dropped her hands and met his eyes. What she saw there was pain.
He lowered his head. “For so long I thought I was in the right about this mess. I was so angry that I never considered my dad’s side of things. It was my senior year of high school. I’d already been accepted to Stanford. So when Dad and I butted heads, I took off. Went to college early.”
Paige couldn’t swallow his explanation. “Then why didn’t you come back for all those years?”
“It took me two years to cool off. I’d bought my airplane ticket for summer break, but then my mom died before I got home.” He swallowed. “I guess I blamed Dad for the years I missed with her. It was stupid.”
She wanted to tell him it would be alright, but she knew from losing her parents and now her uncle that it never would be. Sitting back against the log, she turned toward him and rested her head against his chest. “I’m sorry.” There was nothing else she could say.
“So was I, until a few days ago,” he whispered. “When I saw your house, it was like coming home. In Texas, you reminded me about what was really important. I’ve never left a deal on the table before, and now I don’t even regret it.” He lifted her chin. “Because of you, I’ve found that person I used to be. Paige, you brought me back.”
Her heartbeat quickened. As he closed in to kiss her, she froze, not sure what to do. She thought of Joe’s kiss in the car and felt the same awkward stiffness. His lips met hers, and she expected to hate it, to feel ill.
He didn’t force her, only brushed his lips against hers, then pulled away. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” she said. It felt like she was floating.
As he knelt up in the grass, her heart raced. He held her tight and kissed her again so sweetly that she felt safe. She broke out in a broad grin in the middle of his third kiss. He sat back and cocked his head with an equally big smile.
If she had a lick of sense in her head, she’d get up and run, but Paige nuzzled up beside Sterling and let her concerns drift away.
He held her tight. “Paige, I swear, I’d do anything for you.”
“Don’t let Dotty hear you say that.” She tapped his chest.
“Please don’t judge her too harshly. She tries to look out for me and sometimes gets a bit overzealous. It’s well meaning.”
“If you say so.” Paige sat away from him, trying to get her bearings. This was crazy. It didn’t even make sense, but she found herself staring at his lips, hoping he’d kiss her again.
“What are you thinking?” He waited for her answer.
It would be so easy to let herself get swept into being part of his life. She couldn’t think clearly with him so close. “I think we should go back.”
“Okay.” He hopped to his feet and put out a hand to help her up.
As she stood, he held her. “I just need one for the road.” He ran one hand through her hair, the other rested on the small of her back. She didn’t resist.
He kissed her as if he cherished her. It wasn’t hungry and selfish but soft and inviting like he wanted her to taste what she could look forward to if she was willing to give him a chance.
When he pulled away, she knew she would.
THE NEXT MORNING PAIGE STOOD on the back porch where the extra refrigerator was kept. When she opened the dented appliance, she was hard pressed to find space for the last jars they’d filled from the morning milking. Every one of the four shelves was packed to capacity. The kitchen fridge was full, too. They had even found Tupperware containers to fit in the fruit and meat drawers. She packed the jars in as tightly as she could and barely got the door to latch.
Sterling rounded the corner of the house. “Austin says he’s working on a new milking station for you. I wonder if he’ll build an automatic one for goats like the kind we used on the dairy.”
“Shows what you know.” Paige laughed. “Austin is a programmer and electrical engineer. I don’t think he even knows how to use a screwdriver. In our last project in school I did all the physical circuitry work, though I had little idea what I was doing. He’s brilliant, but he’s Austin.”
“Huh.” He cocked his head. “That explains why he asked me what I was doing today.”
“And what did you tell him?” said Paige.
He moved closer to her, placing his palms on the fridge door and trapping her between muscular arms. “I said I was doing what you wanted. Do you know what you want me to do?”
“Yup.” She pecked his cheek, unsure of herself. Their relationship was still new and fragile. “We’ve got to make soap. There’s no more room.”
“We could dump it out, at least until you get back home. No one would be the wiser,” he said.
“Are you kidding?” Paige ducked under his arm, stepped off the covered cement slab and began pacing in the grass. “I’m going to be so far behind on my orders next week, it isn’t even funny. Then I’ve got the farmers’ market to worry about. It’s a five-month commitment.”
Sterling sat on a bench by the back of the house and rested his ankle on his opposite knee. “Do you want to know my professional opinion?”
She stopped and pivoted his direction. “Please tell me.”
Apparently, Sterling missed the sarcasm dripping from each word. His voice was even. Unemotional. Flat. “Your production methods are rife with inefficiencies, and you need to separate your business operations from your manufacturing facility if you’re going to expand. You may have to drop a few orders and lose some sales during your transition period, but you’ll make them up in the long run.”
“Do you hear what you’re saying?” Paige was livid. “They aren’t sales, they are people. People that I’ve made a commitment to. I could never agree to fill an order and then not do it. It’s a matter of honor.”
Sterling laughed. “That’s fine when it comes to your personal life, but business is business. To succeed you’ve got to grow up a little.”
“Growing up, that’s what you call it?” She took a step toward him. “I won’t make promises I don’t keep, and I’ll never hide my true intentions. If that’s growing up, I’ll stay young forever, thank you very much.”
He rubbed his chin calmly. “Let me put it this way. How many of your customers would sacrifice anything for you? Think of Julie. Once your back was turned, she did everything she could do to discredit you. You have to look out for number one, or you’ll be eaten alive out there.”
“Not everyone’s like Julie.” Paige wanted to scream. He wasn’t even listening to her. “You’re not. You risked everything for me.”
“Because you were a good investment.” Sterling’s voice was still calm. “Lindon Beauty Cakes is a business, nothing more. You have to take the emotion out of it.”
“No.” Tears had formed in her eyes, but she wouldn’t let herself cry. “This is Uncle Bill’s legacy, and I plan on honoring it in a way that would make him proud. I’m going to do everything in my power to meet my orders. My word is my bond.” She couldn’t look at him and rushed toward the kitchen. As she let the back door slam behind her, she nearly ran into Sterling’s dad. He tipped his hat to her and walked outside. She barreled up the stairs and sat on her bed, panting she was so angry.
Some of what he said did make sense, but where did he get the concept that loyalty and honor were qualities that could be put on and taken off like a pair of jeans. Then it hit her. Of course, Sterling had abandoned all those ideals when he left for college without ever looking back. He probably broke his mother’s heart, and if he’d stayed in contact, his family might not have lost the dairy. How could she trust someone like that?
Suddenly, she wanted to be home in her own messy room with the pile of dirty clothes in the corner. She wanted her old muffin tins and round wrappers and even the overcrowded barn. She wanted Uncle Bill to be there to put his arms around her and tell her everything would be alright. But, she knew that would never happen, and there was a good chance that nothing would ever be the same again. If only she’d never met Sterling. Without his prodding, would she have believed Elaine in the first place? She tried to hate him, to blame him for everything, but she couldn’t. Her heart was a traitor. If she could have loved Joe, life would have stayed simple, but now it was falling apart.
STILL ON THE BACK PORCH, Sterling sat stunned. All he had tried to do was give her a little advice. He had clients lining the streets who’d pay thousands for what he was offering Paige for free.
“That girl has a point.” His dad was standing in front of him.
Sterling planted both feet on the ground and put his elbows on his knees to balance his reeling head. “If she does, I can’t see it.”
His dad sat beside him. “No surprise there.”
Sterling whipped his head up. “Really? You think you understand a conversation that wasn’t even meant for you?”
His dad plucked a foxtail from the grass and bit the end. “Yup.”
“Then enlighten me.” He knew his tone was condescending, but what could an uneducated farmer teach him about anything? Even if he was his father, it didn’t make him smart.
His dad looked out over the open fields behind the house. “This land has been in our family since the day Queen Victoria married Prince Albert. Six generations and over a hundred and fifty years later it’s going to be just another plot of land. I don’t blame you, boy, I blame your attitude. It’s folks like that girl there that keep this world alive. Don’t lose her, or you’ll lose the best part of yourself.” He stood then and walked back in the house.
The chasm that separated him from his father was still there. No big surprise, nothing ever seemed to change here. Sterling got to his feet and resigned himself to helping Austin for the rest of the day. He still couldn’t understand why Paige wouldn’t accept his advice. He’d made total sense. As he walked toward the barn, his cellphone buzzed in his pocket. The odd thing was that he hadn’t had service since he got home. They were in a dead zone around the farm, and it was just as well.
Pulling it out, he noticed half a bar of reception. One step to the left or right and he had no bars. He walked forward to the end of the driveway and found one place he could get a full bar. There was a text message from Dotty which read:
“Elaine knows you left Dallas. She doesn’t care about the goats, but is furious you didn’t sign a contract with ET. Naughty boy.”
Sterling laughed to himself, envisioning his angry boss and delighting in it. He hit the call button and heard it ring once before dropping. He tried again. The same thing happened. He looked up at the barn and over at the half hidden U-haul. There was no reason to keep it there, and if someone saw it, they might ask questions. He didn’t want to return it locally because they might be found out. No, he could kill two birds with one stone by returning the truck and talking to Dotty. That was the only way he’d get to the bottom of this mess anyway.
LESS THAN TWO HOURS LATER Sterling was back in his Lexus. He’d changed his clothes to sports pants and a white cotton shirt. He still wore his boots. Dotty’s townhouse was on the south side of the city. He pulled up in front and rapped on the front door.
He didn’t wait long. She threw open the door and placed a hand on each hip. “Well, the prodigal son returns.”
“Hi, Dotty.” He didn’t want her to know how true her words were. “Got your text.”
“I sent it like two days ago.” He entered, and she closed the door behind him. “Where did you take off to? Outer Mongolia?”
“Almost.” He sat on her pink ruffled sofa and scanned the room. A vase of fresh roses sat on the center of the glass dinette in the adjacent room. “Do you have a new admirer I should know about?”
“Not really. Those are from Ryan. He’s as mad at Elaine as we are. Now that the goats are gone, she’s given him the cold shoulder. He’s looking for an in, nothing more.” She sat across from him on a floral Queen Anne wingback. “I’ve got some theories on why Elaine began this whole thing. Want to hear them?”
“I think I already know. Guess who was waiting for me in Dallas?”
She stood, averting his gaze. “If this conversation is going to last more than three minutes, I’m getting a drink. Want one?”
“Ice water,” he called to her as she walked to the kitchen. “And it was Julie. She got there before us.”
Dotty stuck her head through the doorway. “Really? What a surprise.”
“You know, someone must have told her I was on my way there, and I can’t imagine Elaine doing it.” Sterling set his ankle on his bent knee, exposing his boots.
The tinkling of ice against glass preceded Dotty’s return. She handed him the full tumbler without meeting his eyes. “It could have been that Keno guy who runs the place. Maybe he’s sweet on her. She’s not bad looking and loaded, you know.”
He shook his head and stared her down. “You are as bad as Elaine.”
She smacked her cup on the end table, spilling on her homemade doily. “Say that again, and I’ll cut out your tongue with a spoon. I mean it.” Though her tone told him just the opposite.
“Well, that solves one mystery anyway.” He leaned back into the soft sofa. “And I think Julie solved another. She did some research which I’ve confirmed. Paige’s little goat milk soap business has the potential to grow into a six-billion-dollar industry.”
“And I have the potential to be a supermodel.” Dotty laughed and sat down. “But that’s not happening.”
Twenty years earlier, she might have been right, but now her hair was colored, and little crow’s feet had invaded the area around her eyes when she smiled. Sterling could see her point. “Dotty, you don’t get why Paige’s soap cakes are such a gold mine because you haven’t tried them. They’re amazing.” He could tell she was zoning out. “Here, I brought you a present.”
Those words got her to perk up. She took the small gift bag. “A present for me?” On opening it, her face fell. “Oh, it’s soap.” She dropped three new soap cakes on the table with a thud. “Sterling, I’ll never understand why you’re risking everything for this little nobody.”
“Try the soap for a week, and then we’ll talk.” He stood. “Anything else you want to share?”
“Just that Elaine’s not going to give you up without a fight. She told me that she expects you back in the office once the power of attorney’s over. She gets you. Can’t say I do.” Dotty folded her arms across her chest.
“Really?” Elaine wasn’t after him for this? That wasn’t like her.
Dotty’s expression softened. “You’re a hard person to replace. Neither one of us wants to lose you.” Her voice grew stronger. “Sterling, go to Elaine right now. She’ll give you everything. She’ll let you have total control of this whole screwed up mess. You can even sell the goats back to Paige for a dollar. Just don’t stay on this fool’s errand, or you’ll lose everything.”
He knelt, so he could speak to her at eye level. “Dotty, I can’t. I’m not done yet. There are things I’ve got to do that have nothing to do with business. It’s not just about Paige. It’s about me. I’ve got to fix some things before I can move forward. Do you understand?”
She seemed calmer. “Not a bit, but you’ll do what you’re going to do no matter what I say. If you didn’t, I wouldn’t respect you.”
“I’m glad we understand each other.” Standing, he leaned back on his heels. “See you Monday?”
Dotty gave half a laugh and walked to the door to open it for him. “Will I?”
Sterling stepped onto the front stoop. “That’s the plan.”
She shrugged. “Tell your father hello for me.”
He tried not to flinch. “He’s in Texas.”
“Yeah, right.” Dotty tilted her head. “Since when did you start lying to me? It was probably when you put on those cowboy boots.”
For the first time since he met her, Sterling was afraid of the woman in front of him. “Dotty, don’t tell her. I need more time. Give me three days.”
“To do what?” Her eyes narrowed.
“I don’t know for sure, but I’m not finished. I need this. Please.” He clutched her hand.
She pulled away. “Fine. You get this figured out, or it will be both our hides.”
Sterling was beginning to believe he might actually pull this off. “Fair enough. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. Just get your act together.”
“I will.” He walked down the two steps to the sidewalk and around his car to the driver’s door. He bit his lip to hold back the grin on his lips. “You’re a doll, Dotty.” He waved to her as he got in the car.
“That’s what they all say…” She watched him go. “…Right before they leave me.”
A SOFT KNOCK ON HER DOOR woke Paige. She wasn’t certain how long she’d been out. Wondering if Sterling had come to apologize, she turned the knob and was surprised to find his dad instead.
“My boy was telling me you needed supplies for soap making.”
So Sterling was using his father as a buffer. Fine with her. “Yes, most health food stores carry essential oils, but I also need lye, and it’s tricky to get.”
“Not really.” Mr. Keller’s grin wrinkled his leathered skin. “Jerry’s Hardware’s got it.”
“I doubt it.” Paige hated to correct him, but things had changed. “Two years ago the largest manufacturer of soap-grade lye went out of business. It’s almost impossible to find anymore.”
“Why don’t you prove me wrong with a little ride in my pickup?”
The worst thing that could happen was she’d be in the same predicament she was now. “Whatever you say, Mr. Keller. Give me a minute, and I’ll be right down.”
Paige ran a hand through her hair and looked at the clock. It was after ten. She’d slept for two hours. She thought of going to the store the way she was but wondered if she would run into Misty. No, she’d better get ready properly. After starting the shower, she went to her bag and pulled out her corral jacket.
Twenty minutes later she stepped into the passenger side of the rusty Ford next to Sterling’s waiting dad and peered around. The U-haul was gone, and Sterling and Austin were nowhere to be seen. She doubted she’d be missed and clicked her seatbelt as the diesel roared to life. Before she knew it, she was unclicking it again. They’d only driven three blocks.
Jerry’s Hardware was a square cinderblock building pressed between a lumberyard and gas station. In front of the store a life-sized wooden Indian held a trowel in its hand and was encircled with bags of chicken feed, a kiddie pool filled with plastic shoes, and a wheelbarrow holding flower starts.
Mr. Keller removed his hat, as if in apology. “I’ve got to make a quick run to the lumberyard. Why don’t you go in, and I’ll catch up with you soon?”
Paige opened the glass door plastered with local flyers about lost cats and tractors for sale. Inside, the store was crowded with shelves of merchandise no less eclectic. Wicker picnic baskets were next to welding supplies. A three-foot tall baby doll that had to be at least twenty years old was displayed at eye level in the original box. Paige remembered receiving one for Christmas when she was five.
“Can I help you?” A tall, thin woman with white hair clipped short asked. A tag on her shirt read, “Jerry.”
“I’m looking for lye. I want to make soap.”
“Oh,” she said with a smile. “Let me show you our Soap Corner.”
“No, I don’t want to buy soap.” Paige tried to explain, “I want to buy supplies to make my own.” She had to trot to keep up with the woman who turned down one aisle and up another.
“Here you go.” She held out her hand.
Paige stared. It was everything she could ever want. She touched each small bottle as she read: grape seed extract; Vitamin E, rosemary and apricot oil. On the shelf below were four cans of Red Devil Lye.
“You have it! Oh, my word!” Paige clutched the cans and turned to Jerry. “Is this all you have?”
“I think I’ve got six cases in the back. If you need more, my brother-in-law has a garage full. He went a little crazy when the company went out of business.”
Paige hugged her. “I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
The bell over the door rang, and Paige ignored it, continuing her perusal of soap additives. To the rear of the top shelf, she came across a yellow powder that looked like saffron. The front label said Narcissus bloom. Jerry was coming back with two large boxes in her arms. Paige called to her, “What is this? I’ve never heard of it before.”
“That’s daffodil powder. I’ve never been brave enough to use it myself, since I heard about the scare at the elementary school down the road. Apparently, one of the cooks thought a daffodil bulb was an onion and made half the children sick.”
Paige turned to the back label. “Here it says that it can help with joints and arthritis, but it does warn that the bulb is toxic. Hmm.”
“Oh,” said Jerry. “You’ll need one of these.” She grabbed a wire with two metal handles on the end that looked like what an assassin would use to strangle people.
“My Cynthia used to use two wooden spoons tied to a guitar string.” Mr. Keller approached them, a huge smile on his face.
Jerry handed Sterling’s dad the boxes. “I might have known she was with you. Mindy told us some pretty young thing had brought your boy back to town. I can’t wait to see him. Has he changed much?”
“Still ornery as ever.” He carried the boxes back the way he had come.
Jerry called after him. “I can’t imagine where he gets it.” Then she leaned over to Paige. “You know, that Sterling was the toast of the entire town. He was captain of the football team and the basketball team. After that little tussle with Darryl, he was even named captain of the baseball team. Triple threat is what he called it, and then he was gone. Without a word.”
“Really?” Paige remembered the glowing name on the ceiling in Linda’s room and wondered what his sister had to do with Sterling’s apparent rival. As they walked back to the register at the front of the store to pay for her purchases, Paige ran back and got the daffodil powder. If nothing else, it would be a pretty color.
The total was far less than she expected. Paige did some mental math and came up to twice the amount Jerry told her. “I think you haven’t charged me enough.”
“Well, I gave you half off on the condition you get Sterling to the Pit Friday night. Most of the town is planning on it. Deal?” She put out her hand.
“I’ll try my best.” Paige shook on it and reached in her purse. Sterling had insisted they take out some cash before leaving Vancouver, so they couldn’t be traced with a credit card. Paige would be happy when the next three days were over, and they could go back to their normal lives.
On the ride home Paige turned to Sterling’s dad. “I’ll never doubt you again.”
He laughed in response. “At least not when it comes to soap. Sterling’s mom loved making it. She wasn’t very good at it, but she loved it just the same.”
Paige gave him a confused look.
“I’m not disrespecting her or anything. See, my Cynthia was a city girl. We fell in love at the rodeo, and I took her home to the farm. She’d never cooked or cleaned in her life before then, but she took to it like a pig to a mud hole, happy as a clam to try every recipe known to man.”
“So you ate well?” Paige asked.
“Not most days. Did you see the pantry behind the kitchen?” he asked. “One year she got into this dill green bean recipe that makes me want to toss my cookies when I think on it. Waste not want not, they say, so I keep ‘em. But, you can bet dollars to donuts they’ll be there till kingdom come.” They pulled into the driveway and came to a stop, but Mr. Keller didn’t turn off the engine.
“You must miss her,” Paige said in the silence.
He nodded. “Yeah, I do, but what I really miss most is how she understood Sterling. She always told me that I only had to give him time, and he’d see the right way. Just give him time.” The last words seemed for her.
ANXIOUS TO GET HOME, Sterling floored the gas as he turned off Highway 22. Seconds later a siren whistled through the air. He cursed under his breath while pulling over. If it was Misty, he might be able to talk himself out of a ticket. In his rearview mirror he watched an officer with a grey butch-cut march toward him. His nose looked like it had been broken a dozen time. This must be the new sheriff Misty had mentioned. Sterling lowered his head and tried to look contrite.
The sheriff rocked back and forth on his heels. “Any idea what you were doin’ there? Just ‘cuz you think you’re a hot shot doesn’t mean you own the road, boy. I’m sure you know the drill, license and registration, now.”
He sounded more like a boot camp drill sergeant than a sheriff. Sterling handed him his information and then realized exactly who he sounded like. “Coach Newell?”
“I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. Sterling Keller. Always knew you’d make it big.” He ran his hand down the side of the car. “I heard you were in town.”
“Yeah, sorry about the speeding thing.” Sterling squinted.
“Don’t mention it.” Coach chucked the license back at him. “You can come home as fast as you want anytime you like. It was garbage how you got booted out in the first place. If it wasn’t for that stupid brother-in-law of yours, we would have been the ultimate triple threat that year.”
Sterling bobbed his head but really didn’t want to talk about it. It was history, and he didn’t have to think about the past anymore. What he wanted to do was get back to Paige and tell her not to worry. If Dotty was telling the truth, when Monday came, he should be able to iron everything out, and if he played his cards right, he could have his cake and eat it, too.
“Ya’ know, you weren’t the best athlete between the two of you.” The coach looked off into the distance as though looking back through the years. “But, you were a winner.”
“Wait.” Sterling’s brows lowered. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, Darryl was a natural talent, but, you, you wouldn’t let anything get in your way once you knew what you wanted.” He punched Sterling in the arm. “Remember when you tackled the other team’s center in basketball? Twisted up his knee so bad he was out for the rest of the season? Totally worth the technical foul. We won. That’s what I’m talkin’ about. You’d do anything to get what you wanted.”
Sterling’s arm ached where Coach Newell had punched it. Still, his conscience hurt worse. “That was not one of my better moments.”
“Nah, Darryl was soft. That’s why he lost the dairy. He worked his butt off but hired a couple of milkers who stiffed him. Let it go on too long, worried about their families, he’d say. Then when his distributor contaminated that truckload of milk, it was too much to recover from. You’d have sued and come out better for it, but he said he knew the bastard and couldn’t do it.” Newell shook his head in disgust. “Yup, lost the dairy because he was a wussy.”
“Sounds to me like a run of bad luck,” Sterling said, thinking of his 401K. If he had known, he could have carried them through.
“Don’t you remember what I taught you? We make our own luck. Look at you. It’s what made you a winner.” The sheriff was beaming. “Hey, I still got keys to the high school gym. What do you say we get together tomorrow afternoon and shoot some hoops? I’ve got some moves left, ya’ know.”
“I’m a little busy.” Sterling started up his engine again. In high school, Coach Newell had been his role model. He’d swallowed every word he said as if it were gospel truth. Seeing him now, Sterling wondered if the years had been hard on him.
The coach lifted one eyebrow. “Heard about that cute young filly you brought home. If Misty says she’s a looker, you know she’s a knock out. Now you better be at the Pit Friday, or I will arrest you myself.” He put his hand to his gun.
Sterling raised one hand in the air. “I’ll be there, I swear.” Then he had an idea. “Hey, Coach, do you mind if I borrow those keys?”
“Sure thing.” He chucked them through the window. Sterling barely caught them. “Bring them back to Mike’s Drug at three tomorrow. All the fellas are gonna wanna see you again. Planning on a little hanky-panky behind the bleachers?”
“Something like that.” He pocketed the gym keys and slid the car into gear. “Tomorrow it is.” Sterling peeled out onto the highway, not caring how fast he went. It was time to get home and do what he came here to do.
PAIGE SPENT THE AFTERNOON in her element. Between the things she bought from Jerry’s and what was in the kitchen cupboards, she was set. The Kellers even had an entire closet filled with quilts for insulating the baked bars. Sterling’s mom had used wooden crates from the barn as molds and had sliced the large flats into bars with a wire tool. Paige figured she could quadruple her production in the same amount of time with the new shape and procedure.
While she baked, Austin poked in and out, telling her about the innovations he had made in tracking the goats and how he had used bailing twine to give them makeshift collars. He squinted his eyes as he said, “Don’t be mad, but I micro-dotted the twine.” He bit his lip and waited.
“That’s fine.” If she hadn’t prohibited him from doing that in the first place, it could have saved her a boatload of grief. “Is Sterling helping you?”
“He said he was busy. That’s why I’m not working on the milking station. I’ve got the design down but need a mechanical engineer to do the labor.”
“Sterling’s busy doing what?”
“I think he’s sulking.” Austin headed to the back door. “He took off this morning with the truck.”
Paige supposed he found out how his dad had got her the supplies and wasn’t happy about it. Did he expect her to sit around all day thanking him or maybe another trip to Make-out Meadow? She gritted her teeth as she poured her third batch in the mold. “We’ll need to milk the goats in the next hour. Could you start sterilizing those jars, so we can use them?”
Austin balked. “I’m almost done with this next subroutine. Can you give me another ten minutes, boss?”
“I’ll cover it.” Sterling stood at the back door, wearing his city clothes.
She looked out the window and saw the Lexus in the driveway. So he went back to Portland. He hadn’t spoken to her all day, and he never did apologize. She thought back to their time together in make-out meadow. He never did promise her anything. Is there a single phrase in the English language more noncommittal than, “I want us to be together?” That’s what he’d said. No time commitment, not even a definite meaning. She couldn’t read more into this relationship than was really there.
While he filled the sink with soapy water, she stuck the thermometer in the cooking pot one more time before combining the lye mixture with the oil, which turned golden. As she folded the two liquids together, Sterling walked up behind her.
“None of the soaps I worked with were that color. Did you do something wrong?”
“No, it’s a new recipe I’m trying.” Paige continued to stir, waiting for the chemical reaction called trace that would cause the soap to thicken like pudding. “It’s made with a little mint from the herb garden out back and daffodil powder.”
He chuckled and returned to the sink.
She wanted to ask him what that was about, but the soap was ready to be poured in the waiting wooden crate and wrapped in a quilt until the next day.
As she tipped the pan, Sterling’s dad let the screen door bang behind him. He had a shotgun in his hand. “Quick, Sterling, Austin, we’ve got to go help Jack Wilkes down the road. Two calves have been killed on his property. We think it’s a big cat. Move ‘em on out!”
Austin quickly saved what he was doing, shut his computer lid and leapt to his feet. Sterling draped an arm across her shoulder. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He touched his lips to hers and darted out the door.
Alone in the kitchen, Paige couldn’t believe that one small kiss could take her from frustrated to flustered so quickly. She ran a hand across her mouth. Okay, she could admit she was attracted to him, but could she really trust him? For all she knew, he’d spent the afternoon with Elaine.
AFTER CLEANING UP, eating supper alone and milking the goats single handedly, Paige began to worry about the men. She decided to make one more batch of soap to take her mind off of it. She had never had the ability to do more than two sets of 24 in Vancouver because that was all the tins she had. With the apple crates stacked to the ceiling, the only thing holding her back now was the amount of milk she had. It was freeing to see the last drip get used. With her buck, King, now returned, she could breed him with some Nubians and be able to expand much faster than she had previously hoped. Sterling’s suggestion to streamline came to mind, and she looked forward to using the wire cutter to slice the bars instead of using the mold. The only other problem she hadn’t tackled was how to wrap the finished product, but she was so tired by the time she finished the next batch, she decided that was a mountain she’d climb another day.
Her gaze flit to the clock. It was after midnight, and the men weren’t home yet. She hoped they were alright. She reached for the last quilt. It was green with small yellow flowers like the one on her bed back home. She smiled as she folded it across her second crate of daffodil soap. Though uncertain if the ancient Japanese claims were true about its healing properties, the soap seemed to glow with sunshine and had a mellow, pleasant scent that comforted her.
A high-pitched squeal echoed in the distance. At first Paige thought it must be a trucker applying worn brakes on the highway, but as the sound grew, so did her concern. From the house she could hear the goats becoming restless. A shadow raced across the yard and then another. It looked like coyotes.
Paige knew what to do. Usually, it didn’t take much to scare them away. A flashlight or clapping pans together was enough. She’d been through most of the cupboards and drawers in the kitchen and hadn’t come across any flashlights, but she had plenty of pans—all dirty, but they’d work. Grabbing two large aluminum bread bowls, she ran from the house screaming at the top of her lungs and thwacking the bottoms together with a clang that would put the cymbals of an orchestra to shame. By the time she got to the barn, she saw three fleeing, doglike shadows. King was prancing around the outside of the clustered nannies, pawing at the ground and rearing.
“It’s okay, boy,” she said breathlessly.
From behind her a gunshot rang out, and a man’s voice yelled, “Get outta here, ya filthy varmints!”
Paige was bathed in relief.
Mr. Keller rounded the corner with a rifle at his hip and Sterling at his side, also with a shotgun. His dad headed for the outside of the barn, checking the perimeter, while Sterling hurried to her side. “Are the goats alright?”
“I think so,” Paige said. “What took you so long?”
“We were following their tracks, and they circled back.” Another shot rang out from behind. “I better back up Dad.” Sterling rushed outside, and Paige decided to count the goats, just to make sure. Though her herd was less than thirty, with how much they were moving, it was impossible for her to number them. She felt badly for laughing at Austin earlier. If she could have separated them into smaller groups, she might have done it, but there was only one gated area in the barn itself, and with the coyotes still out, she couldn’t put them in the field. She stood and ran her fingers through her hair, trying to figure it out. She couldn’t see Petunia, but the goats were clustered so tightly, she could be in the middle of the herd.
“One’s across the highway,” another voice called from near the house. Austin’s computer screen looked like a bouncing light as he ran toward her, his laptop in the crux of his arm.
“I didn’t see Petunia in the barn.” Paige remembered how Austin had put microdots on the goats’ collars and ran to his side. Instead of little boxes in a table, goat icons flashed against a GPS satellite readout of the area. Paige knew the goat’s location right away.
She hadn’t noticed Sterling come up behind her and jumped when she heard his voice. “Don’t worry. I’ll get her.”
A yapping howl sounded from the direction of the highway. All fear fled as Paige thought of her favorite nanny who was due to kid at any time. “I’m going with you.”
Austin tapped his screen with his fingernail. “She hasn’t moved for a while. You better hurry.”
Paige sprinted forward, racing across the dark highway to the gate. Sterling started working the lock, but Paige climbed over the fence and kept running. She could hear the coyotes yapping in front of her right where she supposed Petunia to be. What if she had come out here to have her baby, and the coyotes found her? “Petunia, I’m coming,” Paige screamed. “Hold on.”
The path was steep, and she tripped in the gloom, falling hard. Sterling bent to help her, but she pushed him forward. “Go. Save her.”
He lunged on, and she was soon at his heels as they entered the darkened meadow. The pack of predators was huddled by the log where she and Sterling had sat together two days ago. She tried to sift shadow from animal and noticed a tall one with matted black fur. “Those aren’t coyotes.”
“It’s a pack of feral dogs.” Sterling aimed and fired just above them. They yelped but wouldn’t leave their prey. Paige couldn’t wait a second longer. She bolted out in front of him, screaming, “Get away from her. Get away.” As she drew closer, she could see that one had its jaws around Petunia’s nose. She raced over and kicked its side. The yellow mongrel snapped at her, and her reflexes made her lurch back. The dog bared foaming teeth, ready to pounce. In that moment another shot rang out, and the predator fell over dead while the others scattered.
Petunia was still on her feet. She didn’t make a sound and was trembling. Paige knelt by her and ran a hand along her side. She could feel her tighten and release. “She’s in labor.” She checked each leg. Her right front was covered in hot sticky blood. Her nose was torn, and each breath brought a whistling sound. “Come on, mama. We’ll help you.”
Sterling was beside her. “Tell me what you need me to do.”
“Wait with me. There’s nothing much else we can do right now.” She smoothed her hand down the goat’s neck, whispering to her and hoping she wouldn’t feel alone.
Sterling watched on, his gun across his lap.
It didn’t take long for the newborn’s first two legs to emerge. Normally, Paige didn’t assist with deliveries, but with how injured the mother was, she gently pulled on the wet legs until the head and shoulders pushed through. Once that happened, the kid slid free of the birth canal and into Paige’s waiting hands. “It’s a girl. It’s a little girl!”
She cleaned off the kid’s face with her hand and put her up to Petunia’s udder right away. “Come on, little one. Come on.”
Sterling touched her arm. “Why are you forcing the baby to eat? Let the nanny rest for a while.”
Paige looked at Petunia’s glassy eyes. They were growing dim in a way she understood. “If the baby doesn’t get colostrum from the mother, she probably won’t survive. It’s only produced right after a kid is born. I don’t think Petunia has much time.” Saying the words somehow made it real, and Paige blinked the tears away. She couldn’t fall apart now.
A growl to their left caught them both off guard. Though the pack of hungry dogs had been driven away from the goat, the smell of the afterbirth was too much for them. The dogs edged closer, despite Sterling yelling and batting at them with his rifle.
“Shoot them,” said Paige.
“It’s only a double barrel. I have one more shot.” He clipped a dog in the head with the butt of his gun. The creature yelped.
She noticed two other dogs baring their teeth and hedging in. Paige wondered if they’d have to go, and let the newborn take his chances without the needed nourishment. At last the kid latched on. Petunia was swaying, and Paige held her haunches to support her while the baby goat finished her first milestone.
Sterling called over his shoulder. “They’re not leaving. I’ve counted six of them.”
As Paige released Petunia, the nanny slid to the ground. The goat’s head lifted as she tried to get up. “I’m so sorry, my friend.” Paige stroked the goat’s face while holding the small, wet kid to her chest.
“We’ve got to go.” He hooked his arm around her, trying to force her to her feet.
Paige wouldn’t leave. “You can lift her. You’re strong enough. We can call the vet.”
“No, I know it sounds harsh, but letting the dogs have her is our only chance. Otherwise, they’ll attack us.” Sterling threw a rock and hit the alpha male on the nose. The others retreated a step but weren’t backing down.
Tears came then. “I can’t let her die by being torn apart. I can’t do it.”
Sterling cupped her cheek in his palm. “Go ahead, and I’ll do what has to be done.”
She knew he was right. She kissed Petunia’s forehead and left, clutching the newborn. She didn’t turn around when the last shot was fired and tried not to hear the sound of the dogs’ frenzy.
It seemed like seconds later that Sterling had his arm around her. “At least Petunia’s offspring is going to be healthy.” He patted the little kid’s head. “What shall we call her?”
It was the first time she really looked at the small animal. Mostly white, she had one black spot on her knee and a large grey uneven splotch on her spine. Paige followed the edge of the spot with her finger. “It looks like a flower.”
“Daffodil?” Sterling suggested.
Paige nodded but couldn’t speak. She nuzzled the little creature, feeling the bittersweet pain of the end and beginning of things, so often combined. Ahead the cattle gate shone in the moonlight. She touched Sterling’s arm. “Thank you for doing what I never could.”
“I’m sorry it had to be done.” He lowered his eyes, and she could see that he was as shaken as she was.
BEFORE THEY HAD EVEN CROSSED the highway, Sterling could see a black sedan pull into his father’s driveway. In the distance he watched his father near it with caution.
“Who do you think that is?” Paige asked.
Sterling thought about his visit with Dotty. He never should have gone into the city. Was it already over? “It could be a government car. We crossed state lines, so it’s possible the FBI could be after us.”
The passenger door opened, and a boy about ten stepped out. Another boy a few years older appeared beside him. “They must be recruiting mighty young these days,” Paige said.
Sterling unlatched the gate as the driver emerged. When he saw the brunette woman in her early thirties, he dropped the lock and chain he was holding. How could she have known he was here? Did Dad call her? He wondered if she’d even want to talk to him again. He knew a child was on its way when he left but had intentionally not asked for details because how could he have stayed away then?
He bolted across the road. As her features became clearer in the night, he could tell she’d been crying. He stood still about five feet from her, unsure how she would react at the sight of him. His dad took a step back and let her take the lead.
“Sterling?” she said. “You’re here?”
He moved tentatively toward her. “Linda, I came back to help a friend.” Her shoulders began shaking, and he could see large tears begin to stream down her face. “I’m so sorry I screwed everything up,” he said.
She sniffled, trying to get control of her emotions. “You didn’t. I did.” She lifted her arms and took her brother into a tight embrace.
Sterling thought coming to terms with his dad was going to be tough, but Linda opened a whole new chamber of his past he hadn’t been ready to consider.
“You’re Uncle Sterling?” the little boy at his side said. “You don’t look that mean.”
His older brother whispered to the boy. “He does have a gun.”
Linda didn’t try to correct them but put a hand on each of her sons’ heads. “This is Tyler and his younger brother Josh.”
Sterling handed the rifle to his father and knelt before the boys. “Good to meet you.” He put out his hand and shook theirs in greeting.
Josh pointed behind his uncle. “Who’s that?”
Standing, Sterling motioned for Paige to come join him. “This is my friend, Paige. We had a bit of a scare with wild dogs. Maybe we should head inside.”
“No,” the boy said. “Who is that?” He pointed to the creature in Paige’s arms.
She came close to Josh, so he could see. “This is Daffodil. She was just born.”
His eyes widened, and he reached his hand up then stopped. “Can I touch her?”
Paige nodded, and the little boy ran his hand against the kid’s mostly dry coat.
“Me too,” his brother said and pet the kid’s neck and side gently. “Where’s her mama?”
“She didn’t make it.” Paige’s voice broke.
“It’s okay, Daffodil.” Josh said. “We’ll be your friends.”
Sterling put his arm around Paige, and they headed to the house. “Dad, Austin and I can take the couch tonight, so the boys have a bed.”
Paige interrupted. “Where is Austin?” She looked around and saw the pickup gone.
Sterling’s dad responded. “He went to find Misty. She also covers animal control. Now about the sleeping arrangements. . .”
Paige interrupted. “They can sleep with their mother since I’ll be in the kitchen with Daffodil all night. She’ll need to be watched and fed.”
“We can do that.” Tyler volunteered. “I’ve fed calves before at the dairy in Etna.”
“They’d be good with her,” Linda added.
“Well then.” Paige handed the newborn to Tyler who stood a little taller and carefully carried the small goat into the full and messy kitchen.
Linda looked around at the folded quilts on every surface. “What is this?” She seemed to grow misty-eyed.
“It’s my soap. I make it from goat’s milk,” Paige said.
Sterling could tell she was embarrassed, thinking Linda’s comment was derogatory. He wanted her to understand what Linda was feeling. “When my mom would make soap, the kitchen looked just like this.”
“It’s true,” said Linda, patting Paige’s arm. “It makes it feel like home again.”
“Oh,” Paige covered her mouth. “Bedding may be a problem, too. I used all the quilts.”
Sterling’s dad slapped a hand on his youngest grandson’s shoulder “Josh, why don’t you help Uncle Sterling climb into the attic and get two sleeping bags.”
“Three,” Tyler added. “We’ll need one for Daffodil.”
“Three then,” he said. Sterling knew his dad hoped to get the boys comfortable with him as soon as possible and agreed. Now wasn’t the time to worry about what happened so long ago. It was time to do the best he could. There would be plenty of opportunities later to work out the other issues.
AT ONE THIRTY IN THE MORNING Paige finally let her head hit the pillow. The day wasn’t only physically exhausting but had emotionally taken its toll. She closed her eyes and envisioned Petunia lying there struggling to cling to life. Unbidden tears dripped down the sides of her face and tapped on her pillow. Paige hoped Linda couldn’t tell she was crying. Sterling’s sister slept on her side with her back to Paige, who took a shuddered breath.
Linda rolled onto her back, looking at the ceiling. “Thank you for turning what could have been one of the worst days in my life into one of the best.”
“Your brother did the same for me.” Paige remembered how he held her after Petunia was gone and chose the kid’s name.
Linda smiled and rolled to her side again. “It’s nice that he’s changed.”
That was all she said. Paige laid there awake until she could hear her bedmate’s breathing become deep and even. Like a sliver under her skin, she couldn’t leave it alone. He was keeping something from her, and she couldn’t love him completely until he trusted her enough to share it.
THE NEXT MORNING PAIGE OPENED her eyes to a child staring at her. Josh scrunched his nose. “I didn’t wake you up, did I? I was being really quiet.”
“No.” Paige sat up alone in the bed and looked out the window. “What time is it?” The sun was already over the top of the barn.
“Almost lunch. Daffodil’s doing great, and we milked the goats with Uncle Sterling. Oh, and Mr. Austin is awesome.”
Paige scratched her head as Josh bolted from the room. It was hard to imagine any child calling Austin awesome. Not that he wasn’t, it’s just most kids didn’t see him that way. She rinsed off her face and changed into a fresh pair of jeans before descending the stairs. Voices drifted from the kitchen, and she peered around the doorway. The wrapped apple crates had been stacked on the center counter, and the kitchen table was covered with a lace cloth. At one end, a single place setting sat unused. Sterling and Linda were standing over by the other side of the sink with their backs to her, working on something. They were the only two in the room.
“Morning, if you can still call it that.” Paige stuck her hands in her pockets.
“You’re up.” Sterling hurried to the table and pulled out a chair. “If you’ll sit, we’ve got a few surprises for you.”
She shuffled forward and sat in the chair. “Sorry I wasn’t there to help with the milking.”
Linda called over her shoulder, still facing the far counter. “Don’t worry. The boys loved it, and Sterling said they finished in record time.”
Opening the oven, Sterling retrieved a plate mounded with steak and eggs and set it in front of her. Paige lifted her fork as he poured a glass of milk.
Not quite meeting her eyes, he said, “When you’re ready, we’d like to share what we’ve been working on.”
Sterling was clearly nervous, which made Paige feel the same way. She took a bite of the steak and chewed slowly, wondering what was going on. She swallowed. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
Linda had a crate in her arms, but her back was to Paige. She turned around, and Paige dropped her jaw. Cradled in the yellow straw were a dozen cut bars of new soap. Linda had wrapped each with rough string like a ribbon on a gift and put a sprig of dried greenery and a little tag on them. The writing on the tag read Daffodil Soap.
“Those are adorable,” Paige said. “Where did you get the tags?”
“Jerry’s,” Linda answered. “Her brother has a die cutter and makes them. I tied them with baling twine. I thought we could change out the greenery depending on the type of soap. For this one I used mint from Mom’s garden.”
Paige held the bar in her hand. “It’s perfect.”
“And it cuts your production time and cost by at least seventy percent.” Sterling sat in the chair next to her.
She wasn’t going to let him get away with this that easily. “Okay, for display purposes the apple crate works, but what about individual sales? Really the bar isn’t even completely wrapped.”
Sterling looked to Linda who ran to the corner and brought out small gift bags of different colors. She lifted a bright yellow one, lined with shredded tissue paper. Daffodil Soap had been scrolled tastefully across the front with her logo of Petunia surrounded by flowers in the bottom corner. There was a lime one for the Lemon Grass Jojoba, a peach for the Apricot Almond Oil, a natural one for the Oatmeal Shea Butter and so on.
“The handwriting is gorgeous.” Paige guessed it didn’t belong to Sterling.
Linda was blushing slightly. “Thank you. When Mom used to make soap, I’d wrap them up for her, so they’d look like a gift.”
“Your dad told me they were unique,” Paige said, trying to be tactful.
“Horrible was more like it, but they looked pretty when I finished with them. It was more about giving a piece of love than a bar of soap, anyway.” Linda smiled, but her eyes grew misty at the mention of her mother. Sterling clasped her hand.
Paige wished she could have met their mother but was grateful for the wonderful legacy she had left behind.
Sterling jolted and slapped both hands on the table. “It’s almost ten thirty. We’ve got to get going, or we’ll miss them.”
“Where? Who?” Paige looked from brother to sister but neither would say anything.
Linda lifted the crate from the table. “I’ll stay here and finish cutting the soap. You two have fun, but make sure you check in the barn on your way out. The boys would be heartbroken if you didn’t.”
Taking her hand in his, Sterling led her out the door. Tyler, Linda’s oldest was waiting for them. Stacking hay bales, he had sectioned off a little room from the rest of the goats where Josh was sitting with Daffodil beside him.
Tyler stood by their side. “Grandpa found an old calf bottle. We fed her once about four in the morning and now. We thought we’d go to eight hours for the next feeding.”
“That’s exactly right.” Paige knelt by Josh who was so focused on his task that he hardly noticed her. Daffodil latched onto the bottle well and had a ring of warm foam around her little white mouth. In her face Paige could see the shape of Petunia’s head but her coloring was more like King’s. She ran her hand along the kid’s soft coat.
“Thank you so much, boys. You’re doing a great job.”
Tyler stood a little taller. “Grandpa’s helping us fix the fence in the back field, so we can separate the milking nannies from the others. We should have it done by tonight.”
“Wow.” She stood and rested a hand on Tyler’s shoulder. “You two keep track of your hours because I intend to pay you. We’ll work out the details later.” Paige could tell Sterling was anxious to go. He kept looking at his watch. “We’ll talk as soon as I get back.” She planted a kiss on Tyler’s cheek and one on the top of Josh’s head before running to Sterling’s side.
Sterling grabbed her hand. “We better hurry.” Together they jogged toward the highway.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
They dashed across the road and toward the cattle gate. The sheriff’s car was parked in front of it.
The lock was open, so Sterling only had to remove the chain. “To the meadow. Austin and Misty are waiting for us.”
A pit settled in her stomach, and she stopped. “I don’t want to go back there ever. I don’t want to think about what happened last night again.”
He put an arm around her and lifted her chin. “They caught the owner of the dogs. Austin was a real hero in this thing, but I want him to tell you.”
Paige remembered the boy’s comment when she first woke up. “That’s why Josh called him awesome.” She took a deep breath. “I’ll trust you on this.”
“You won’t regret it.”
She took his hand, and they hurried to the meadow.
Austin was always a bit of a neat freak, but you’d never guess by looking at him now. His face was smudged with fresh dirt, the knees of his trousers were grass stained, and his hands were caked in mud. Misty was in her uniform but almost in the same condition. Paige could tell by their faces both were exhausted, but they greeted her with matching smiles. Behind Austin and Misty was a shovel and a fresh plot of earth. Paige could guess what it was for before Austin confirmed her suspicions.
“We buried the last of Petunia’s remains,” he said. “When the dogs attacked her, one of them got the microdot stuck to his muzzle, so we could chase them.”
Misty stepped forward. “It was Austin’s computer thing that led us to their owner. He’s being charged, and the dogs are in custody. Because of you all, they won’t hurt anyone else.”
“What’s going to become of them?” Paige asked.
Misty’s face was set, and she looked little like the beauty Paige had seen yesterday. Today, she was serious and responsible. “They are scheduled to be destroyed.”
“No.” Paige turned to Sterling. “I don’t think it was their fault they were starving. Couldn’t you call Kiyo about Best Friends? I think that’s what they do, isn’t it? Rehabilitate dogs like that.”
Sterling brightened. “Good idea. Misty, can you hold off until then?”
“Sure.” She nodded. “And, Sterling, I dropped that CD off you asked for. Your dad said he’d put it in his office.”
Paige wasn’t sure what she was talking about.
Across the meadow they could hear footsteps and turned to find Jerry holding a flat of lavender petunias. Paige met Sterling’s eyes and couldn’t help herself. She threw her arms around him and kissed him. “You are so sweet. Petunias for Petunia.”
Sterling reddened. “I had to call Jerry about the bags and tags anyway.”
Four trowels hung from Jerry’s belt loops. They all knelt and planted the new flowers together. While on her knees beside Austin, he turned to her. “Another cool thing happened last night. We thought we had lost the dogs’ signal. They had gone out of the two-mile radius since we had to follow the roads. Anyway, the beast must have hit an electric fence because it boosted the output. Isn’t that cool?”
Paige nodded without saying anything, not quite certain why this development was so significant.
“Think of the applications on cars, cellphones, pacemakers, hearing aids and children’s clothing!” Austin’s hands were trembling with excitement. “Okay, that last one doesn’t have an electrical source, yet. They could all be tracked.”
Misty turned toward him with a smile. “This man is a genius.”
Paige and Sterling laughed. “We know,” they said at the same time.
HEADING BACK TO THE HOUSE, Paige held Sterling’s hand tight. “I think Misty has a little crush on our boy Austin.”
“Could be.” Sterling said, but she could tell his mind was somewhere else.
“What is it?”
“I made plans for us today. I’m not sure with all that’s gone on that you’re up to them.”
“What plans? Does it have to do with that CD Misty was talking about?” Paige bit her lip. She wanted this to last forever, surrounded with family and people you could count on.
“Yes.” He squeezed her hand. “Tonight’s the dance at the Pit, and I thought we might practice. Misty dropped off some music, and I got the key to the high school gym. What do you think?”
A smile blossomed across her face. “Sounds fun.” She was happy to keep reality at bay for a few hours longer, but in the back of her mind she knew it wouldn’t be kept there for long.
THE HOUSE SEEMED UNUSUALLY QUIET, and the pickup was gone as they approached. Sterling hustled to the barn while Paige peeked in the kitchen. It looked like Linda had only gotten through the first three molds before she’d been interrupted. The wire was still laced through a block of hardened soap.
The slam of the screen door signaled Sterling’s entrance. “The boys are gone, too. Dad must have taken everyone out for lunch.”
“Great.” Paige said. “I’ll take a quick shower and be ready in a few minutes, alright?”
“And I’ll shower in the garage.”
She laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope.” Sterling ducked in the laundry room to grab a towel. “Dad’s office is out there with a full bath. Believe me, it’s best to avoid temptation. Especially if dad comes home while I’m sneaking in on you.” He pecked her cheek.
She shoved him lightly toward the door. “Then get a move on. I’d like to be ready before your family comes home.”
With the house empty, Paige mounted the stairs and walked down the hall. The normal groans and creaks of an old house was something she was used to, but another sound came to her ears that didn’t fit. It was so soft, she could barely hear it, like muffled breathing or someone with a cold. Instead of turning to the right at the hall, she went left and came to a closed door. She rapped on it gently.
“Come in.” It sounded like one of the little boys, the tenor was so high.
Turning the knob, Paige immediately recognized the master bedroom. On the other side of the bed next to an end table with an ancient phone on it, Linda held a tissue balled in her fist. Her nose was red. Her eyes puffy. She gestured for Paige to come in.
Paige sat beside her. She didn’t want to pry but wanted to help in some way. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Not unless you can change history.” Linda wiped her nose. “It amazes me that a man can chew on the same bone for twelve years and still hasn’t had enough of it.”
“This is your husband you’re talking about?” Paige said, still unsure what was going on.
She bobbed her head. “Yes, Darryl.”
The glowing name on the ceiling suddenly made sense. “So you’ve known each other since high school?”
“Before that.” Her cheeks lifted in what must have been pleasant memories. “I knew I wanted to marry Darryl since the second grade. Everything would have been fine if he hadn’t gotten appendicitis as a senior. He had an allergic reaction to the pain meds and missed three months of school. They decided to let him repeat his final year of high school.”
“That’s got to be hard, but why would it affect him for twelve years?” Paige was still trying to understand.
“You don’t know?” Linda looked at her, seeming a little dazed.
“Nothing about this,” Paige said.
“Darryl’s wanted to play professional baseball all his life. A bunch of scouts were scheduled to come to the game he missed because he got sick, so the next year he was given the same position on the baseball team. The problem was that Sterling was a year behind us in school and planned on taking that spot.” Linda bowed her head.
“Oh, I see,” Paige said.
Linda turned toward Paige. “It wasn’t just baseball for Sterling, like it was for Darryl. Sterling had been captain of the football team and the basketball team. He wanted all three, and when Sterling latches on to something, he’s a pit bull.”
“I believe that.” From what she’d seen of his business dealings, Paige knew it was an accurate statement.
“Anyway, when Darryl was named captain of the team instead of Sterling, my brother threw him a party. We all thought he was being a great sport. What I didn’t know until we got there is that Sterling had talked the Freeman boys into bringing a keg.” Linda stared at her like it was significant.
“That seems like something all stupid seniors do,” Paige said.
Linda lifted one brow. “Except the school board had signed a zero tolerance rule for drinking if you wanted to play on a sports team. No one knows who called the cops on us, but we all had to take Breathalyzer tests. Sterling was the only one who hadn’t had a drop.”
“Really?” Paige was getting the picture.
“And none of the other key baseball players were even invited to the party.”
“Oh,” Paige said.
“When Dad found out, he was furious. You could hear them screaming at each other all the way from the barn. Dad felt Sterling had hurt our family’s good name. Sterling said what he did was entirely legal and thought Dad was overreacting. The next morning Sterling was gone, but Darryl was still off the team. They haven’t spoken since.”
Paige looked at the old rotary phone. “So now Darryl knows Sterling’s here?”
Linda nodded. “It’s funny. The night I came here we were fighting about this very thing. Darryl still blames Sterling for his failures. I couldn’t take it anymore and came home for a break.” Linda huffed out of frustration.
“How did he find out about Sterling?” Paige asked.
“Josh told his father about Daffodil. I suppose it had to be faced some time. He’s on his way.” Linda stood. “I guess I’ll go warn Sterling.”
Paige’s hand shot out and caught Linda’s. “Don’t. We’re going to the high school gym to dance. That should give you time to calm down Darryl enough for them to face each other. I knew something was up with Sterling being gone for so long. This makes total sense. If he can fix this, it will help them both.”
Linda put her other hand over Paige’s. “I thought the same thing, but I couldn’t do it alone. Dad didn’t want to talk about it, and Sterling was in hiding. With Mom gone, I didn’t know what to do.”
“We’ll tackle this together,” Paige said. “It’s time we all face the monsters in our closets.”
THE OFFICE AND ADJOINING BATHROOM were definitely a male domain. Sterling tried to ignore the active spider webs in the corner of the unused shower as he lathered up and was out in record time. After yanking on new jeans and a fresh shirt, he went to look for the CD Misty said she’d dropped by while he was gone. In the office he found his dad had the same Holstein hide chair that he remembered as a schoolboy. The desk was piled high with bills and notices.
Though it would kill his dad to know he did it, he sorted through them. They told an all too common story. The taxes on the property were equivalent to a mortgage. He found installment payments his father was still making on dairy equipment he’d lost. Anyone else would go to court to declare bankruptcy and have these obligations removed, but he knew his dad would never do such a thing. It was a matter of honor with him. If he signed an agreement, he’d hold to it, even if it took the last ounce of his life’s blood.
Sterling’s eyes lifted. On the front edge of the desk was a carved frame. Inside sat a picture he had forgotten about. It was taken Sterling’s junior year, right before Darryl got sick. His mom and dad stood all smiles, arm in arm, surrounded by the three of them, Linda, Sterling and Darryl. Everyone was so happy, so innocent of what would tear them apart in the next few months. Under the frame sat the CD. Sterling shook his head, wondering if his dad had put it there intentionally, so he’d see the picture.
If he could fix things, he would, but Darryl would never talk to him again. He knew that. Sterling had just been young and stupid, and it was twelve years ago. Maybe Linda and the boys could talk some sense into his brother-in-law.
The sound of the pickup rolling into the driveway got him to his feet. Sterling hurried to the door and met Paige leaving the kitchen. Her hair was pulled up in a ribbon and tawny ringlets framed her face. They strolled arm in arm to the pickup as the boys leapt from the back of the truck with overloaded ice cream cones.
Sterling rubbed the top of Josh’s head. “I see you went to the drugstore. Best ice cream ever.”
His dad approached him, his expression serious. “Bob Newell says you’re planning to make a visit there later.”
“I’m just bringing back the key I borrowed. It’s nothing, Dad.”
His dad seemed to grow old before his eyes. “That man is no friend of yours. When we parted ways, my anger was turned the wrong direction. He may not have done it, but he fueled it. You stay clear of him. Ya’ hear?” His brows were lifted as high as they’d go and his mouth formed a little slit.
It broke Sterling’s heart that he’d caused his dad such pain. It wasn’t the coach’s fault. It was his and his alone. Wherever a person went, they could find people like the coach who loved to pit people against each other and watch the fireworks. The key was not to play. He was so blind then.
He hugged his father. “I love you, Dad.” As he pulled away, Sterling smiled. “Can I take your truck?”
His father returned the smile, struggling to keep the moisture in his eyes where it belonged. “Go on then,” he said gruffly.
Sterling opened the passenger door first for Paige and then trotted around the square front of the full-size pickup to take his place behind the wheel. The bench seat allowed her to snuggle right up next to him. As he pulled onto the highway, Sterling felt at peace. There was something about the rumble of a diesel engine that made him feel he could conquer anything.
Though the high school was less than half a mile down the road, the gymnasium was tucked in the far corner of the parking lot and shaded by a copse of trees. They let themselves in the huge square room lined with bleachers. Sterling opened a door to a room partitioned off with glass and put a CD into a slot on the wall. Soon the sounds of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” were blaring over the PA system.
He turned down the volume and took Paige’s hand. “Have you ever done this before?”
“What are you talking about? Dance alone in a school gym with the football captain or learn the steps to this song?” Sterling began to answer, but she lifted her hands. “It doesn’t matter because the answer to both is no. This is entirely new territory for me.”
“Me too,” he said, taking her in his arms. If it weren’t for Paige, he may never have come home. He’d never have met his nephews or hugged his dad. His arms tightened around her. “Thank you. You don’t even know how you’ve changed my life.”
“That’s truer than you know,” she whispered.
He held her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. The music changed to a slow ballad. “These past few days have been crazy, and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping anytime soon, but for right now, can we just dance?”
“For now.” Her ringlets jiggled with her nod.
They rocked back and forth to the music as one. He relished being with her, feeling free of the anger he’d been holding onto for years. It was through her he was healed, and he would do anything he could to repay her. He somehow knew from the minute he walked into her living room two weeks ago that step by step she’d bring him home. He thought back to when the goats were taken, and he found her in the meadow with Petunia. She had asked him two things of him. He never answered back. It was time.
“Paige, do you remember when I held you in the meadow behind your house?”
“Mm-hmm.” Her eyes were closed as she nuzzled against his chest.
“You asked me then if I’d ever lied to you.”
She opened her eyes. “Yes?” Now he had her attention.
“Well, I didn’t, but I didn’t tell you everything either. You’ve wondered over and over why I left here. I told you that my dad and I got in a fight, but I never told you what it was about.”
Paige kissed his hand which was right beside her cheek. “Linda told me about Darryl. What I want to know is what would you do if you saw him again?”
“I’d tell him I was wrong. I was a jerk back then, and I’ve been one for years since. You were right about the second thing, too. I do push people into things, and I’ll never do that to you. I’ll respect it when you tell me to stop or back away.”
She grinned. “Well, you’re lucky because I don’t remember saying no to you for quite some time.”
The music swelled into a second chorus. As they danced, Sterling remembered another vow he’d made to himself that he was fulfilling. “You know,” he whispered in her ear, “I thought we’d dance in Dallas together with you in that sapphire dress, but it’s even nicer here.”
Paige agreed. “That was a beautiful dress. I’m sad I left it behind.”
“It’s in the trunk of my Lexus right now.” Sterling twirled her with the last note. “When you left Dallas, I determined that things would work out between us.”
Folding her arms, Paige gave him a censuring look. “Really.”
“But if you had said no, I would have respected that.”
She laughed and hugged him.
PAIGE BIT HER THUMBNAIL and peered out the truck window. One last errand, and it would be over. They pulled in front of a white brick building with a large front porch and two empty rockers. Above the porch a painted sign read Mike’s Drugstore. The place looked quaint, except for the sheriff’s car parked out front.
“He’s still here. Come on, Paige, this shouldn’t take long,” Sterling said.
“I’ll wait in the car.” They’d been gone two hours, and Paige worried Darryl was already there. She could imagine Linda waiting for them and wanted to hurry. Paige hadn’t told Sterling he was coming, but somehow felt it would be better if he didn’t know they had sort of arranged it. Besides, with his current attitude, it had to work out well. And if Darryl wasn’t open to forgiving Sterling, at least no one in the family could hold it against him. Rifts would be repaired, and Paige knew she could live with that.
Sterling opened her car door. “Please come. Coach Newell said he wanted to meet you. It will only be a second.”
“Fine.” Paige agreed against her will. She hadn’t actually refused but somehow knew she didn’t want to. As she drew closer to the drugstore, it wasn’t quite what it seemed. It had a sour smell to it, and the front door was banged up rather badly. Inside, there was a rack of yellowed greeting cards that looked as though they hadn’t been touched in years and a shelf of aspirin and personal items common to any gas station seemed equally ignored. On the far wall a counter ran the length of the store lined with padded stools. Behind the counter was an antique soda dispenser and a chest freezer with ice cream where a teenage girl talked on her cellphone.
A group of older men sat in folding chairs at a card table in the corner with cups of coffee in front of them. Rather than the happy Jimmy Stewart type of old men, these were the grumpy Walter Matthau kind. Paige didn’t want to have anything to do with them.
Sterling held out the key to the leader of the bunch, who wore a tan police officer’s uniform. “Thanks, Coach.”
The hardened man leered at her and winked at Sterling. “Hope you made good use of it.”
Sterling seemed oblivious to his innuendo. “Yes, sir. Paige is ready for the Pit tonight. We practiced all the best dances.”
“What about the mattress mambo?” one of the men said.
They all burst into harsh laughter, and Paige reddened.
Sterling seemed not to notice or care. “So, Coach, we’ll see you tonight.” He touched Paige’s arm ready to go, and she was grateful he was cutting the visit short.
The coach got to his feet. “Not so fast, son. We want to catch up. Take a seat.” He held out his chair for him.
“Sterling,” she whispered. “I think we should go.”
The garbled crackle of a police radio sounded through the room with an announcement. “10-91J that’s a 10-91J. Assistance required.” Newel reached into the center of the table and turned down the volume of his scanner.
“Don’t you need to get that?” Sterling asked.
Newell took him by the shoulder. “You’re more important, son. Now sit.”
Paige blew out a breath to calm herself. He promised not ten minutes ago that he’d listen to her. Now she felt invisible. It wasn’t that she wanted to control him, but she had a bad feeling about this guy. The fact that Mr. Newell caught up with Sterling by sharing news about divorces, job losses and suicides explained a lot. If he was the athletic coach when Sterling had all his problems, no wonder he was in such a competitive and angry place back then. And if Sterling was really over it, why would he even want to converse with someone who had added to the problem? All the confidence and safety that Paige felt in Sterling’s arms in the gym was rinsing away bit by bit.
Another explosion of laughter over a new teacher quitting after being hazed by the football team, and Paige had had enough. “I’m going to the car.”
Sterling didn’t even look her direction. “I’ll be there soon.”
HALF AN HOUR LATER HE MADE HIS WAY BACK to the pickup, a broad grin plastered across his face. He sat in the driver’s seat and started the engine. “Sorry about that.”
“Are you?” Paige said and bit her tongue. She wasn’t going to lecture him, though she wanted to. Her Uncle Bill would have told him that when you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas.
“You know, you could get further away from me if you sit in the back of the truck,” Sterling said as they pulled onto the road.
She was pressed against the passenger side door and hadn’t noticed. Moving a little closer, as much as her seatbelt would permit, she swiveled to face him. “Fine, but I don’t ever want to be around that man again.”
“Paige, he was a big part of my life,” Sterling said.
“Which part?” Paige tried to see things his way but couldn’t. “Think about it.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I don’t understand?” Paige faced him. “It’s you, Sterling, who doesn’t get it. That man is not who you think he is. He’s just like Elaine, a bully, and every minute you spend with him makes you a worse person. He was part of the reason your family was almost destroyed. Why can’t you see that?” She folded her arms and stared forward.
Sterling didn’t reply. He was staring forward, too.
In the distance she could see a large cattle hauler and several police cars with their lights flashing in front of the Keller home. Her stomach lurched. Two more days, and they would have been in the clear. How could this have happened?
As Sterling pulled up to the curb in front of the house, Paige leapt out of the vehicle before it had even come to a stop.
Misty was talking to Sterling’s dad. Paige approached them and listened in. “We got the warrant less than an hour ago. Normally, we would have investigated first, but there was a special injunction. It’s out of my hands.”
Austin was at the barn, yelling at the men in navy jumpsuits loading the goats. Josh and Tyler huddled in a corner with the younger boy holding Daffodil in his arms.
At the corner of the yard, Linda was engaged in a heated conversation with a man that Paige assumed must be Darryl. His head was bowed, and his hat was in his clutched hands.
Linda’s volume trumped everyone else’s. “How could you do this to us? To the boys? You’re going to break their hearts all because you can’t let a stupid prank go. It’s not important anymore.”
“I didn’t call the cops, Linda. I swear,” he pled.
Paige didn’t care if he had. It had been unfair of her to force this good family to shoulder the burden of her problems when they had plenty of their own. Linda walked away from her husband who turned his back to Paige, as if in shame.
Linda shook her head. “Paige, I’m so sorry.”
“No, Linda, it’s okay. We knew this could happen. Don’t blame your husband.”
“But he led them here. The police cars were following his truck.” Tears welled at the corner of Linda’s eyes. “The boys were happy again. Now all that’s gone.”
“Maybe not.” Paige peered over her shoulder and saw a man loading King onto the truck. “Wait here.” She sprinted toward him. “Excuse me, sir, but that buck is not part of the herd.”
“I was told to take them all,” he said.
“Could you load the others first while I get this sorted out?” Paige made her voice as sweet as she could muster.
Austin had come up beside her. “Good job, boss. You tell them.”
“The animals don’t look mistreated. Go ahead.” The worker handed King’s lead to Austin and went for another goat.
Paige rushed to Misty’s side and found Sterling already there. Paige addressed the deputy. “Misty, I’m so sorry we didn’t tell you about this dispute, but I need to know if there is a list of the goats to be removed.”
“I think so.” She pointed to another police car where a huddle of uniformed men was talking. “The state troopers have the paperwork and say they’re in the lead on this.”
“Two of the goats are not part of the herd. That white buck and the new kid the boys are holding. Can you make sure they don’t get touched?” Paige asked.
Misty considered the situation before agreeing. “Fair enough. Give me one minute.”
As Misty walked off to talk to the other officers, Sterling turned to Paige. “I’m so sorry about this.”
“I’m sorrier for your nephews.” Paige scanned the spectacle around them. With the lights and crowd, it looked like a circus. A handful neighbors had even come to watch. “Linda thinks Darryl called the cops.”
“That would be like him,” Sterling said.
“Even if he did, it’s his right. We broke the law and should have dealt with this legally from the beginning. Don’t blame him and destroy your family all over again. That’s more important than anything.” Paige stomped away. If she had a family like his, she’d be defending them, not tearing them down.
HALFWAY BACK TO THE BARN, Paige heard a siren ripped through the air. The sheriff’s car pulled into the driveway with the blaring announcement of its arrival continuing until Sheriff Newell opened his door.
“What’s going on here?” he said as though he alone was in charge.
He strutted up toward his deputy and ripped the papers from Misty’s hands. After listening to state trooper’s explanations for a moment, he muscled his way toward the livestock truck. “Alright, boys, move ‘em on out. Hustle!”
Sterling was off talking to his father, and Misty positioned herself by Austin and the boys. Paige straightened her shoulders and walked up to the sheriff. “Sir.” She tried to sound respectful, which was a challenge. “There are two goats here that are not on that list. . .”
“You can deal with that at your hearing come Monday morning.” He didn’t even look at her and called to the workers. “Take ‘em all, boys.”
“No.” Paige pointed to the papers and inadvertently touched Coach Newell’s sleeve. “Look at the paperwork. The buck and that little kid are not part of the herd.”
“I could put you in cuffs for assaulting an officer.” He tried to stare her down.
Paige met his gaze. “Really? Could you at least do your job and look at the stupid paper? You don’t even have to read it. All you have to do is count.”
The men hired to remove the goats had finished loading all except for the two in question. Misty stood before Austin and the boys with her feet apart and her hands at ready, glaring at her boss. “Check the stats, Newell. I won’t let you take them unless you can prove they are on the list.”
He flipped around towards her. “You’ll do what I say, deputy.”
“I follow the law, not you, Newell.” Misty said.
Sterling and his dad had drawn closer, Linda and Darryl on either side.
“Coach, it’s okay.” Sterling stepped forward. “We can figure this out.”
“Stand down, boy. This is about obeying your superior officer. Misty, you do what I say, or you’re fired.” The sheriff marched forward and grabbed the lead from Austin’s hand, but Austin wasn’t letting go. After a tug of war where the sheriff was losing, Newell shoved Austin hard with his shoulder. He skidded to the ground. Austin regained his footing and brushed off his pants, ready to tackle the coach, but Paige shouted, “Don’t, Austin. It’s not worth it.”
Austin paced back and forth as Newell victoriously led King toward the truck, but Misty bolted forward. “No.” She yanked the lead from Newell’s hand. “Not this time.”
“Fine. We’ll start with the kid.” He marched up and tried to grab the baby goat from Josh’s arm, but Josh hunkered in the corner with Tyler hovering over him. Newell wrenched Tyler back, so he could get at the younger boy.
Darryl came alive behind them. “Get off my son.” He rushed forward, and Paige looked to Sterling who wasn’t moving. She couldn’t understand why he wasn’t doing anything. Sterling knew Newell better than anyone, and he was just standing there.
Right before Darryl reached the coach, Misty tapped Newell’s shoulder. The sheriff turned around in time to get jabbed on the chin with her fist. He went down to his knees and face-planted into barnyard muck. The state troopers looked stunned. Misty pulled the paperwork from the sheriff’s unconscious fingers and walked forward. “I believe you’ll find everything in order.”
The state troopers left without their sirens on. As the livestock truck pulled away with her herd, Paige didn’t know if she’d see the goats again, but she did know she had a lot to be grateful for. First, she went to Josh and Tyler, still holding Daffodil. If Sterling wouldn’t make this right, she would.
She knelt to face Tyler, whose parents had run to his side. “I’m so proud of you,” she said.
Tyler beamed. “We saved her, didn’t we?”
“You did,” Paige kissed his cheek then stood to talk to his parents. “Linda, I’ll get this whole thing straightened out by the end of the week. Is it possible to have the boys stay and take care of these two until then?”
Darryl stepped forward. “We’ll do it. We want to help however we can.”
“Thank you.” Paige smiled. “Sorry about this whole mess. There should be enough milk for the newborn from the last two milkings.”
While Misty called for an ambulance to haul away the sheriff, Sterling knelt by his coach’s side at the other end of the yard. He stayed with the man until he was loaded up and driven away.
Austin penned King and came over to Misty. “That was awesome. What I’d give for that right hook.”
“Well, it probably cost me my job.” Misty rubbed her knuckles.
“With a boss like him, is that really a bad thing?” Austin smiled. “I bet we could find you another?” He looked to Paige.
“Right now, Austin, I don’t think any of us have a job.” Paige felt defeated, but not alone. The whole family stood around her except the one person she expected to be at her side.
Sterling was still at the end of the driveway. The ambulance had left, but he stood there alone, doing something on his cellphone. He looked like he was texting. She thought he cared more about his own family than that. She thought he cared more about her. Obviously, he didn’t.
Austin smiled. “I’d like to stay here and make certain everything has been properly documented on this end, if that’s okay with you, boss.”
“How will you get back?” Paige asked.
“The bus or rent a car. It’s all good,” Austin said with a broad smile.
Paige wondered what had happened to the stiff young man she had brought here.
“Okay,” she said, suddenly feeling exhausted.
Finally, she hugged Sterling’s dad and thanked him for all he’d done.
Mr. Keller’s voice was low. “If Darryl did this, it’s because he thought it was the right thing to do.”
“I understand,” said Paige. “Please, don’t give it another thought. We never should have brought you into this.”
“But I’m glad you did.” His smile encompassed his whole leathery face. “Paige, you stand up to those scallywags and get your goats back. Whatever it takes.”
“I will, and when I do, would you consider having the milking division centered here? I was hoping Darryl could head it up. Maybe we could even buy back the dairy as we expand,” Paige said. “That’s my plan, anyway.”
Mr. Keller seemed to be focused on what was behind her, and Paige peered over her shoulder. Sterling finally pocketed his phone but wasn’t joining the family. His dad said to her, “Don’t let your hopes for him die just yet. If things are right, it’ll work itself out.”
Paige hoped Sterling’s dad wouldn’t be too disappointed that their continuing relationship would be only business because she had no intention of becoming romantically involved with Sterling Keller ever again. She couldn’t imagine what was going through his mind when he didn’t stand up to Newell, and frankly, she didn’t care. She headed to the kitchen door so she wouldn’t have to look at him. “I’d like to leave for Vancouver as soon as possible,” she said to Sterling as she walked away.
“I understand,” he answered.
The ride home was quiet. Every time Paige started to open her mouth, she knew she’d yell at him for not comforting his nephews, for not supporting Misty, and, most of all, for caring what happened to that stupid sheriff.
Halfway home Sterling cleared his throat. “There’s only one lawyer that I know of who’s ever beaten Elaine. I’ll give you his number when we get back.”
He clenched his jaw and said no more.
“What’s going on, Sterling? Talk to me.”
Sterling kept his eyes on the road. “I can’t yet. Not until I know the facts. I’ll figure this out. Trust me.”
That was the problem. She wouldn’t. Never again.
It was twilight when he dropped her off. She took her suitcase from the trunk, and he carried the crates of soap they had finished. After the last of the crates were brought in, he dropped off a black duffel bag.
Paige picked it up. It was heavy. “This isn’t mine.”
“Yes, it is. Those are your clothes from the Texas trip.”
“Oh.” Paige let the bag drop to the floor.
He went to kiss her goodbye, but she turned away.
“I understand,” he said. “No means no, right?” He stepped out the door and winked her direction. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”
She slammed the door behind him. The house was dark, empty, and she was alone.
STERLING DIDN’T EVEN DRIVE HOME. It had taken all his composure not to pull out his cell on the way home and tell Dotty what he thought of her. This was unforgivable. She had promised. The single word text he received right after Coach Newell got sacked, “Incoming,” was too little too late. She hadn’t return his texts or emails since.
He threw the gearshift into park, jumped out of his car and pounded on her front door. Dotty opened it and smiled as if he were an expected guest. She gestured for him to enter. He did, but after two steps, wished he hadn’t.
On Dotty’s pink sofa sat the person he least wanted to see in the entire world. Elaine.
THE ATTORNEY STERLING REFERRED PAIGE TO made time to see her right away. She entered the offices of Samuel Lewis at ten the next morning.
He was a jolly-looking man with thinning hair and thick lips. Paige liked him right off. “I took the liberty of contacting Erickson Holding and they responded immediately,” he said. “After reviewing the documents, I hate to say it, but I don’t see that you have a leg to stand on. “
“What?” It felt to Paige as if she’d been dealt a physical blow. “The stipulations in the Power of Attorney I signed said I could oversee the move of the goats. When that wasn’t honored, shouldn’t the document have been null and void?”
He held his head at an angle and jiggled it slightly, his double chin echoing the movement. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. They sent me were basically a Bill of Sale for the patent rights to your soap formula and your current herd, and a copy of your bank record showing the receipt of $300,000 in your account.”
“Wait, that money was for medical bills,” Paige said.
“And why would Elaine Erickson be paying for your medical bills?” The lawyer looked thoroughly confused. “She doesn’t have a philanthropic bone in her body.”
“They were for my uncle, and she knew him. He used to work for her. That’s why she was executor of his will.”
“The record shows your uncle died ‘intestate’ or without a will.” He flipped through the pages of his file. “There is no mention of any connection between Elaine and your uncle at all.”
Paige couldn’t believe it. Was anything Elaine told her true? “Then there wasn’t a lawsuit against me from some emu company for the formulas of my soap products?”
His eyes had grown compassionate. “Sorry, she really did a number on you.”
“Then it’s hopeless?” Paige said. “Can’t I countersue, so she can’t do this to anyone else again? So it’s on the public record?”
“Yes, you can, but I’d counsel against it.” He closed the file. “It may do more harm than good since she included a police report where an addendum by the police chief calls you delusional. If you try to fight this, there’s a chance she could have you committed.”
Paige thought about Blanche and the emu farm next door. Of course Elaine had set that up, too. It was unthinkable that someone could be that conniving. How could Sterling endure being around her if he knew all of this?
“Well, thank you for your time.” She got up to go.
“Do you have any of the original documents you signed?”
Paige shook her head and chided herself again. She knew she should’ve kept a copy of any legal document with her signature.
“What about hard evidence? Receipts? Emails? Bruises?” Mr. Lewis seemed to really want to help.
Then Paige remembered what Sterling and Austin said about King. “I had a buck who’d been missing for three months before this all happened. We found him at the facility next door to me when we took the goats. He had obviously been stolen by her.”
“Or he wandered next door. The proximity makes it a hard sell. I’m sure she thought of that. I’ve got to hand it to her. If I hadn’t worked with Elaine before, I’d think you were crazy.”
The rest of what he said washed over her. He promised he’d continue to do what research he could and write an initial letter, but beyond that there wasn’t much he else to do. How could she have believed what Elaine told her? Why hadn’t she asked for proof? Elaine’s promises had seemed so real, just like her feelings for Sterling.
She left the lawyer’s office and went home, but the thought of chewing on her mistakes alone for a day was intolerable. Beside the front door, stacks of apple crates called to her. She still had an empty booth at the farmers’ market. Once the thought hit her, it wouldn’t go away. Packing what she could in her hatchback, she took off.
Paige arrived at her booth a little after ten. The florist’s daughter was working the booth next to hers alone and agreed to watch her product, so Paige could make multiple trips to the car. Right away there was interest in her new packaging and in the bright yellow daffodil soap. Two older women in red floppy hats asked her all about it.
Paige explained, “Mint constricts veins, and according to the back of the bottle of the daffodil powder I bought, it can help with arthritis. I’m hoping that’s the case, but to tell the truth, I’ve never tested it.”
“Then why don’t we test it together now?” A low voice behind her caught her off guard.
“Sterling?” Paige caught her breath. The flood of conflicting emotions pounding through her were nothing but a blur.
“May I wash your feet?” Sterling was on his knees. He took the bowl and filled it at the pump then waited in front of the cedar chair.
She wanted to throw her arms around him and punch him out at the same time. Cautiously, she stepped forward and sat. “Did you talk to Elaine?”
He unbuckled her sandal and slid the shoe from her foot. “Yes, but she’s not bending. She says everything is hers. How did the lawyer go?”
“Horrible. There never was a lawsuit. Elaine is claiming the money for medical bills was for the sale of my soap formulas and the goats. It’s over.” The flat of his thumb ran across her instep, sending a chill up her spine and through her skull, but it couldn’t offset the pain in her heart.
He cracked a grin. “You’re ticklish.”
“Only a little.” She let herself relax. “What are we going to do?”
His eyes caught hers. Those pale, clear eyes. “The best we can.”
After wetting her foot, he began to massage in the soap. He laid the base of her foot against his thigh and stroked the top of her foot from ankle to toe over and over. She closed her eyes. It was such a nice feeling. Then he lifted her foot in both his hands and worked out the bottom of her foot, rubbing each area in slow circles. She hadn’t realized how sore her feet were from all the stress of the last week. “You could do this forever,” she said.
He dipped her foot in the water and began patting it off with a towel. He looked up at her. “I should have seen it. If I hadn’t been so blinded by my feelings for you, I would have caught the money trail Elaine was leaving. It was so obvious.”
She opened her eyes. “Wait. You’re blaming this on your feelings for me?”
“No, I just can’t swallow that we’ve lost. There’s got to be a way to turn this around. I don’t care what it takes. I’ll get Elaine.” Sterling was still holding her bare foot. “I never lose.”
She yanked it away and stood, one shoe off and one shoe on.
“Yes, you do,” Paige said. “You lost twelve years ago when you hurt poor Darryl and your mom and dad. You lost two years after that when you refused to return for your mother’s funeral. You lost when you hired on with Elaine, and when you stayed at the drugstore talking to your disgusting coach. You lost when didn’t run to the aid of your sweet nephews.”
Paige couldn’t help the tears rolling down her cheeks. “Most of all, you lost right now. You were holding my foot in your hand, and rather than saying you won, that you won my heart, your focused on getting back at Elaine.”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it that way.” He went pale.
“Yes, you did.” Paige couldn’t do this anymore. “Sterling, it’s over between us for good. I can’t want you and care about you only to have my heart stomped on again. I won’t do it. No.”
He didn’t move. “And your no means no.”
Paige bobbed her chin, unable to say the words.
He left the bowl of soapy water in front of the chair and walked away, disappearing into the crowd of shoppers.
The women were still standing there. “So how does the soap feel?”
Paige could either collapse or keep going, and she chose the latter. “Why don’t you sit down, and I’ll show you.” She washed feet for the rest of the afternoon, so she wouldn’t have to think or hope or feel at all.
Leaving the farmers’ market, Sterling knew what he had to do. She may never know his sacrifice, but she’d reap the benefit of it. He lifted his phone. “Elaine, you’ve won. I’m coming back. Return the goats, and you can have me.”
“It’s not that easy. I’ve got to talk to my lawyers, draw up some contracts and iron out a few legal matters. Give me until Tuesday afternoon.”
“Done,” he said.
“And you’ll never see her again?” Elaine asked.
“That’s a certainty.”
“Sterling, you know this whole little fling has cost me a bundle, but you did the right thing.”
His laugh was derisive, but he didn’t care. “And how would you know what the right thing is?”
“It’s whatever I say it is.” Elaine gave a light chuckle.
“Now that, I believe.” Sterling hung up the phone and floored the gas.
TUESDAY MORNING PAIGE HAD NO REASON to get out of bed. She’d peeked at the clock from under her quilt twice, but it was still before ten. Her hope to set a personal record was shattered when the doorbell rang. Paige wondered who even knew she was still alive, let alone cared enough to make the trip to her door.
Her living room was spotless from lack of use, and she threw the door open wide. The man in the blue jumpsuit looked familiar, and the roar of a diesel made her curious. Then she heard the soft bleating of dozens of goats, and a smile broke out across her face.
“Where do you want them?” It was the man who had confiscated the goats from Dallas.
“In the barn. I’ll show you.” Running barefoot across the gravel, she didn’t even notice the rocks biting into her feet. Elation filled her as she named each goat descending the ramp. Licorice, Cinnamon, Concrete, Chocolate Chip and so on. It saddened her that Petunia wasn’t among them, but soon her newborn would join the herd, and they’d all be together again.
After the goats were all settled, and the truck pulled away, she dashed into the house and picked up the phone. “They’re back! They’re back!”
Linda screamed on the other end of the line to the others in the room. “The goats are home!” and Paige could hear the cheers from the boys, Darryl and Sterling’s dad. Linda calmed them enough to talk. “So what happened? Did she settle?”
“I’m not sure,” Paige said. “The lawyer I was working with was really good. He must have done something.”
“Have you told Sterling yet?” Linda asked.
Paige squinted her eyes shut. “Could you?”
“For some reason his phone has been disconnected. We were hoping you had the number.”
“What?” Paige opened her eyes. “Did you try directory assistance? He might have changed it.”
“He’s unlisted.” Linda said. “Do you know where he lives? Maybe you could go by.”
Her chest felt hollow. “I never saw his apartment. The only thing I know is where he works.”
“Would you try there?” Linda pled.
DRESSED IN HER BLACK PANTSUIT with the copper shell, Paige had straightened her hair and took special care doing her makeup. She sat in the car for half an hour before she could find the courage to at last do it. Not two steps into the lobby, Paige had a security guard approach her.
“Ma’am,” he whispered. “Are you Paige Lindon?”
“Yes,” she said.
“We have a letter for you at the front desk.”
Paige almost skipped over to it, hoping it was a message from Sterling. Once the guard handed her the envelope, she knew differently. The clipped writing belonged to Elaine, who clearly stated that if she attempted to contact Sterling again, all legal action would be resumed against her with extreme prejudice. Paige tore the letter in half and left it on the floor as she stormed from the lobby. Sterling knew where she lived. The ball was in his court.
THE NEXT DAY SHE RENTED ANOTHER U-haul and drove south. Austin and Misty were there to greet her, along with Sterling’s family. They unloaded the goats and spent another day laying out plans to turn her barn into a manufacturing center while leaving the milking facility down south. They could transport the raw milk twice a week, a job Sterling’s dad volunteered for.
Austin agreed to stay on and assist with staging the new milking area, production and breeding. He had started a new computer app to help him while Misty was hired on as the new chief of security.
As Paige walked to the door, Linda followed her to the car. “I don’t care what my fool brother does, you are family to us. We love you and will always be here for you.”
Driving home, Paige tried to settle the emptiness that filled her chest. Though she’d gotten back her business and secured the Kellers’ income, so they wouldn’t lose their legacy, somehow it wasn’t enough. She thought of the moment when Sterling was holding her foot, saying how much he hated to lose. Well, she hated it, too. Elaine had won.
FRIDAY MORNING PAIGE GOT UP AT SUNRISE. She and Linda had made another batch of daffodil soap while she was in Dallas, and Paige was excited to really push the new line. She wore the last of the pant suits she had bought with Sterling in Texas. It was linen with an ivory shell and gold jewelry. As she dressed, she remembered shopping together and the hope she felt then. If only it hadn’t all fallen away.
Paige headed to the farmers’ market early and felt confident as she made her way to her booth, carrying three crates at once. Surprisingly, when she got there, someone was waiting for her. Dotty sat in the Adirondack chair, a large designer purse in her lap. She hopped to her feet as soon as she saw Paige.
“Will you ever forgive me?”
“For what?” Paige couldn’t look at her.
“It was me.” Dotty took a deep breath. “I was afraid Sterling would leave, so I made a deal with Elaine and told her where you were.”
Paige put the crates on the counter. “How did that work out for you?”
“She booted me into the street just like Blanche did to Ryan,” Dotty said. “That’s his ex.”
“The emu guy?” Paige wasn’t surprised by the connection, but it was nice to have it confirmed.
Dotty almost spit. “It wasn’t his fault. Elaine pulled the same scam on his emu business that she did on yours. She promised him he’d get it all back if he fooled you, but she didn’t give him squat.”
“Excuse me if I don’t have sympathy. Because of them, I could have been committed.” Paige began arranging the soaps around her booth. “I think we’re done here.”
“No, we’ve just started.” Dotty grabbed her hand. “Sterling finally did it. In all the negotiations for you to get back your goats, he found a loophole. He’s beaten her at her own game. He quit Erickson Holdings two days ago. Do you know what that means?”
Paige was trying to be patient. “Tell me.”
“You can be together. The only reason he left you was because Elaine told him that was the only way you’d get your goats back.”
Paige stomped her foot. “He didn’t leave me. I told him to go.”
Dotty’s laugh had no humor in it. “Do you really believe that?”
Paige couldn’t think clearly. “If what you’re saying is true, why isn’t he the one here telling me this?”
“Alright, if you’re going to play hardball, then here.” She slapped a manila envelope on the counter.
“What’s that?” After her last letter from Elaine, Paige wasn’t sure she even wanted to touch it.
“Do you remember what I did when we first met?” Dotty batted her eyelashes innocently.
“Yeah, you went and yelled at Elaine for hiring me.” Paige remembered the cold greeting like it was yesterday.
“I did that to grab what was in her shred pile. Now will you look?”
With shaking hands Paige pulled out the three documents she had signed. It was the evidence she needed to take Elaine to court. “Thank you.”
Dotty flicked her wrist. “Don’t thank me, you need to thank Sterling with a huge make-out session and maybe even a ring.”
Paige reddened. “No, I think Sterling and I are done.”
Dotty pinched Paige’s chin between her thumb and forefinger, not very gently, and inspected her complexion. “Blushing like that doesn’t happen unless there are feelings in there.” She tapped Paige’s sternum. “Now, listen to me as if I were your mother because I love that boy like a son, okay?”
“Okay,” Paige said.
“I ain’t never seen Sterling as good and kind as he’s been with you. We always called him a boy scout, but at Erickson Holdings that was a relative term. His last day at work, do you know what he did? He left me his Lexus, even changed the title to my name.”
Dotty was stirring up all the hurt Paige had thought she’d put behind her, and she wasn’t willing to go through it again. “What does this have to do with me?”
“Don’t you get it?” Dotty said. “Lots of things turn people bad. Ambition, selfishness, pride and anger can derail the best of us, but there’s only one thing that makes us better.”
“Love. That boy loves you, and it’s time you accept it and love him back.”
Paige could see the barricade at the entrance of the market almost ready to open, a mirror of her own feelings. “But where is he?”
“I have no idea,” Dotty said. “When he left town, it was like he disappeared. I’ve looked everywhere. He’s covered his tracks well.”
“Then how can I find him?” Paige asked.
“If you really want to, it will happen.” Dotty lifted a bar of daffodil soap and took a whiff. “This stuff is amazing, by the way.”
Paige felt a kernel of hope awaking inside of her. The air horn blasted, signaling the opening of the farmers’ market. As shoppers began their sprint towards the booths, Paige grabbed her purse, stuck the documents in it and headed the other direction.
Holding up the yellow bar, Dotty said, “Can I have this?”
“You can have all of them.” Paige said as she continued walking. “You can have the whole booth for all I care!”
Dotty called across the way. “Does that mean I’ve got a job?”
“If you want it.” Paige broke into a full out sprint to her car.
Finding Sterling was something she couldn’t do alone, but she had a pretty good idea who could help her. Going south on the freeway, she headed toward Dallas.
THE TWO-HOUR DRIVE DAMPENED her original excitement. Halfway there she’d called Linda, who still hadn’t heard a word from Sterling. Paige arrived at the barn soon after the morning milking, wondering why she’d come at all.
Misty tightened a bolt on the new milking station while Austin checked his plans from the computer and gave direction. It had an automatic feeder and an electronic stanchion complete with safety latch. Austin truly was brilliant. Paige assumed the rest of the Kellers were in the house somewhere. She sat down on a hay bale and put her chin in her hand.
“What brings you here?” Misty left Austin’s side and stood next to her friend.
“And in such a grumpy mood?” he added.
Paige hesitated saying anything but couldn’t hold it back. “I’ve got some things I’ve got to say to Sterling, and I was hoping someone had heard from him.”
Misty dropped the wrench she was holding. “I knew you two couldn’t stay apart. The first time I saw you together, I knew.” She punched Austin’s arm.
Paige felt worse. “A lot of good it does now. No one knows where he is.”
“I do.” Austin picked up Misty’s wrench and handed it back to her.
“What?” Misty and Paige said simultaneously.
“I used his computer as a prototype for my new electric boosted microdot. It feeds its signal into the nearest cell tower, so I can track him anywhere. Last I looked, he was in Texas.”
“Texas? He must have gone back to Earth Tech.” Paige bet he’d partnered with Julie after all. It really was over.
“Wait,” Austin had his computer out. “It looks like he’s somewhere over Idaho and moving at incredible speed. Could this be a malfunction?” He tapped the screen.
From across the yard, the kitchen door flew open, and Linda ran out the door in her bathrobe, screaming. “He’s coming home! He’s coming home!” She arrived at the barn breathless. “Sterling’s flight lands in about two hours.”
Austin seemed a bit miffed. “I would have come to the same conclusion, given a few more minutes.”
Paige was almost afraid to ask, “How did he sound?”
A towel covered Linda’s wet hair. “Tired or sad or both. He said he needed someone to pick him up at the airport.”
Misty knelt beside Paige and whispered, “You should do it.”
“I’ve got a better idea. Could Darryl pick him up?” Paige asked.
“I guess.” Linda seemed to like the idea the more she thought on it. “It’d probably be good for both of them. I don’t think they’ve talked since that day.”
“And what are you going to do while they’re gone?” Austin asked.
“I think I’ll drive back home and get ready for my big date. It is Friday night after all.”
“Wait,” Misty stared her down with a look she must have learned as a deputy sheriff. “I thought you were going to start dating Sterling.”
“I am, if he’ll have me.” Paige got to her feet. “Do you think you can get Sterling to the Pit tonight?”
Linda became as excited as she was when she first emerged from the house. “Heck, yeah! Darryl and I will get him there if we have to hogtie him to the top of the car.”
THE NIGHT SKY WAS CLEAR and thick with stars as the pickup pulled out of the old ranch house and rumbled into town toward the Pit. Sterling’s dad and Linda had decided to stay home with the boys, so Darryl and Sterling could have more bonding time. How could he have been such an idiot for so long? He’d forgotten how much he enjoyed Darryl’s subtle sense of humor and the easy way he accepted whatever life dished out. Sterling knew he had a lot to learn from him.
They rounded the corner, and Sterling almost choked when he saw how full the parking lot was outside the restaurant. Darryl didn’t seem to notice. He slid the gearshift into park, leapt from his seat and was almost to the door before he turned to his brother-in-law. “You comin’?”
“I told you you’re the boss.” Sterling dragged his feet as he walked. He’d left his hometown twelve years ago with his pockets empty and his head down and was returning the same way. It wasn’t enough that Dotty had showed him the paperwork. He’d had to pay a hefty legal retainer to get Elaine to back off. She’d cosigned his mortgage on the loft, so he’d lose that too. The market was at a high when he’d bought it, and he’d spent far too much on renovating. By the time he closed everything out, the 401K was gone, and all he had left was his Lexus, which he owed to his secretary. After all, a promise was a promise.
The bar and grill was filled with familiar faces. A local band played country classics from the other room for a crowded dance floor. Most of the people wore jeans and work shirts. Walking behind Darryl, Sterling tipped his hat at childhood acquaintances as he weaved his way through the patrons sitting at round tables in front of the bar. He was waving to Jerry in the corner when he almost fell flat on his face. A booted foot was stuck out in front of him. It belonged to Newell, who sported a hefty shiner.
Darryl rushed to defend him, fists at ready. “You scumbag. If you ever touch my family again, I’ll—”
Sterling put a hand on his brother-in-law’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s get our drinks.” He took a step away from Newell’s table and addressed Darryl loud enough that all Newell’s friends could hear. “You know, the sheriff is up for re-election in a few months, and there’s a former deputy who might run. I hear she has an awesome right hook.”
Newell rose unsteadily like he’d had one too many. “It was a sucker punch, I tell ya.” He clenched his hands. “Face me in a fair fight and see who’s left standing.”
His brother-in-law would have accepted the challenge, but Sterling shook his head. “Let it go. He’s not worth it.”
Newell’s laugh sounded more like a bull snorting. “You’re not worth it. Neither one of you. When I think of the time I wasted trying make you into something, and look at you now.” He shouted to his table full of cronies. “Losers! Both losers.”
Patting his brother-in-law on the back, Sterling continued to the bar. He had to admit Newell was right. He was a loser. He’d lost everything.
After taking their seats, they sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes. Darryl peered at him out of the corner of his eye. “Thanks for that. Never liked the guy.”
“I feel the same way.” Sterling couldn’t believe he’d ever cared what his old coach thought of him.
“So what were you doing in Texas of all places?” Darryl asked.
“I thought I had an opportunity there, but someone beat me to it.” He tried not to think about Julie gloating over her new boyfriend. “Not sure what I’ll pursue next.”
Darryl took a sip of his drink. “Sometimes if you wait a little while, what you really want will come to you.” He got to his feet and walked away.
Sterling was confused and turned around. He never expected to see what was right in front of him. The sapphire blue formal she wore glistened in the warm light, but it was nothing compared to the way Paige looked at him, as though he were all she ever wanted. If only that was true.
“What do you say we dance?” She bit her lip as if nervous he might refuse.
He removed his hat before standing and bowed his head. “You’ve got to know what you’re getting yourself into. Paige, I’ve got no job and little hope for one. Elaine’s blackballed me from all my contacts, and I’ve lost my apartment, too. I’ve got nothing.”
“Well, I guess you’ve become the man I first thought you were.” The joy in her eyes seemed to grow. “And as I remember it, I liked him a lot.”
“You’re sure about this?” He took a tentative step toward her. “I don’t want you to get stuck in a deal you’ll later regret.”
“Sterling.” She shoved her balled fists on her hips. “If I wasn’t sure, do you think I’d come to the Pit wearing this?”
The dress she wore was beautiful but he liked her just as well in the baggy overalls she wore the first time they met at the farmer’s market. “You’re right. I’ve got a feeling this is a win-win.”
He threw his hat in the air and took her in his arms, determined to never let her go again.
PAIGE LINDON arrives at the farmers’ market to find her booth rebuilt in cedar. JOE, a good friend and fellow vendor, has surprised her in hopes of becoming closer, but Paige isn’t interested. ELAINE, a wealthy customer, makes an offer to buy Paige’s Goat Milk Soap business, but Paige laughs it off. Elaine suggests she “hire” a boyfriend to help with the goats and to deter Joe. Paige laughs that off, too. By the afternoon Paige has sold out and has to hurry home to get more product. AUSTIN, a friend from her college days, introduces her to STERLING KELLER who she thinks is an out-of-work farmhand. She asks Sterling to watch her booth for a few minutes. Due to a break-in at her house, Paige returns late that night and takes Sterling to dinner. Not wanting to be alone, she asks for his help milking the goats, and he stays the night. The next morning is ideal until JULIE, Joe’s ex-girlfriend and an heiress, recognizes Sterling as a venture capitalist researching Paige’s business. He agrees to wash her feet so she won’t blow his cover. Paige grows jealous and forces him to wash ladies’ feet most of the day.When the farmers’ market closes, he leaves, and she believes she’ll never see him again. A few days later, Elaine calls Paige to explain a company is suing for her soap formula. As a family friend, Elaine agrees to use her legal team and hires Paige until the dispute is cleared up. Elaine proposes moving the goats to a neutral facility in exchange for a one-week deadline to negotiate a settlement. Paige agrees when she discovers Sterling works with Elaine. Trustworthy Austin agrees to help move the goats. Sterling and Paige go on a business trip to Texas to scope out a new company. Julie arrives and tells Paige that Sterling has lured her away so that Elaine can steal her goats. Paige flies home to find the goats moved right under Austin’s nose. A contrite Sterling rushes back to make things right. Austin has created a new tracking system, and they find the goats. The three friends decide to "kidnap" the herd in a U-haul. Sterling takes them to his family farm two hours south. Only he hasn't been there in twelve years due to a secret in his past. With Paige beside him, Sterling must face his past to win his future.