Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Romance  ➡  Regency

The Perfect Holiday

p.
h1=.

Copyright © 2014 by Brian E Crosby

 

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical without the express written permission of the author. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

Published by CGJH Publishing

 

ISBN: 978-0-692-20018-6

LCCN: 2014939370

 

Cover design by Steven Novak

Cover design © 2014 by Brian E Crosby

Formatting by KristiRae Alldredge of Computers & More Design Services

To my family, who’s been waiting patiently for years for me to make something of myself.

h1=.

I wish to express my appreciation to all those who helped me in this undertaking. Thanks to Shirley Bahlmann, Steven J. Clark, and the rest of my writer’s group for their encouragement. Thanks to Tristi Pinkston for editing. I may have tinkered with it after she finished so if there are any typos, c’est moi. Thanks to Steven Novak for the cover design and for sticking with me, Kyler Wheeler for his expertise on mountain lion hunting, Nancy Campbell Allan for help with some of the scenes, and The Junction Café in Fairview, Utah where I did much of my writing, and had the occasional burger. Also, thanks to Sue Player and Kara Loftin for reading and giving feedback.

h1=.

Hey Folks,

I want to thank you for picking up The Perfect Holiday.

This is my first attempt at a novel. And as you can imagine, my insecurities are running pretty high. When I sat down to write a book, I wanted to accomplish three things. First, I wanted it to be a smooth, flowing read. Second, I wanted a quirky and curious storyline. But most of all, I wanted it to be simply FUN to read! Only you can tell me if I hit the bull’s eye or not.

The Perfect Holiday is based on a beautiful area of Central Utah, where small towns are nestled by rivers and green valleys are surrounded by mountain ranges. It’s where a summer softball game and a sunset are the highlights of day.

And I have really grown to love these two characters. AJ is a good man, a kid at heart. He makes tasty French toast and gives good foot rubs. Kori is a tough, smart attorney, who’s also a sweetie-pie—a sensual city girl that didn’t know what she was in for when she stumbles into Mule Creek.

They were an unlikely pair, but you know how love is. Love doesn’t take no for an answer. And when a brief encounter turns into a weekend, look out!

I hope you like the book. Drop me a line on twitter or at my blog. I love hearing from my readers and enjoy your comments, both positive and negative, and I’ll always answer.

Michael

www.twitter.com/mbanebrook

www.michaelbanebrook.blogspot.com

h1=.

Kori

It was a picture perfect evening.

Kori Sarcotti lowered her glass and surveyed the room. Eighteen round tables filled to capacity, black napkins folded and placed in a precise way on ivory table cloths, orchids in a white amethyst vase, and vintage chandeliers turned down to a candlelight glow. At the front of the room was a five string quartet playing Schubert in G major. It was all so exquisite. As long as Kori had been involved with the charity, they’d always held their functions at the DeSpain Manor, a refurbished mansion from the early 1900s turned bed-and-breakfast and reception center, and it’d worked out every time. Five-hundred dollars a plate and no one blinked.

The Spring Soiree was one of three benefits they held every year. A four-man golf scramble in the summer and a deer-widows luncheon in October kept their program fueled, but this was the big one. Several years ago, Kori had overheard some of the women at the club discussing the charity and she’d asked if she could volunteer. By now, she’d grown to love the charity as if it was one of her own children. The money they took in that night would support more than a hundred college scholarships in developing countries such as Honduras, Botswana, and Indonesia. She had often thought about traveling to some of these countries and meeting with the recipients personally, documenting how their lives had been changed. It was a one of these days kind of thing. But for now, she’d be happy working at this end. It was her year to be in charge and it was going off without a hitch.

The perfect choice to ask people for money, Kori was smart and beautiful. She had a reputation around the Salt Lake area as a cunning, but lovable, estate planning attorney. And she was a little bit of a workaholic. That’s what made her so good at her job. She enjoyed the pace and the pressure of work and she enjoyed fussing over her clients. In the past, they’d come from as far away as Australia to meet with her.

She sat at a table between two women who made up her committee. Gina was blond and thin—her long tan legs sprouting beautifully from beneath a short black skirt. Lucy had chestnut brown hair and a dark rose-colored dress that displayed her ample cleavage. Kori’s dress was lavender, stopping at the knees, less form-fitting, not as low-cut. She was the thinker of the group, a role that she’d accepted and cultivated.

Apart from their charity, the three of them did little together, which suited Kori just fine. She would get out of breath just listening to them talk about their fast-paced social lives. Besides, she knew that her husband was the real attention-getter here. Congressman Mitch Sarcotti. It wouldn’t be long and either Gina or Lucy would ask about him, and she would have to disappoint them again. He’d been in D.C. all week and wasn’t expected home until late that night. Sorry girls.

When the music ended, Kori followed Gina and Lucy to the bar. The girls got their drinks and quickly disappeared into a crowd of men, like squirrels into the brush. Kori ordered a Diet Coke with lime and turned toward the room.

At forty-eight, with thick, dark hair, Kori was third-generation Japanese-American. She grew up in Northern California where she lived with her parents and brother, Tenjiro. Her great-grandmother had been the first in her family to come to America, immigrating in the early 1900s. Kori was three when she passed away and had only faint memories of her. When Kori’s mother died a few years later, her grandparents sold their home in Redding and moved in with them in Mendocino. By now, her grandmother, who everyone called Obasan, had out-lived her husband and Kori’s father, living almost ten years in the house alone.

As she looked out over the crowd, her thoughts temporarily circled around her daughter’s swim meet. Kori didn’t typically miss one of her competitions, but with the benefit dinner that night, she’d had no choice. She tried to remember if the meet was home or away. Away could mean across town or across the state. With her mind going, she didn’t notice a man approach her until he cleared his throat.

“Diet Coke?”

Kori shorten her sip and met the man’s gaze.

“Can I get you a drink with more zip?”

“No thanks. I’m—“

“Married?”

She smiled. “I was gonna say working.”

Not real tall, the man had thinning, brown hair that’d been gathered into a short pony tail, tattoos on his forearms, various string and leather bracelets, and a small, silver hoop earring in one ear. Her first thought was that he’d gone through a lot of trouble to make himself look interesting, and had failed miserably.

“You probably don’t remember me.”

“No, I’m sorry.”

“We’ve done some business together,” he said, sinking his hands into his pockets.

Her brow furrowed as she tried to place him.

“You set up a living trust for my father.”

“Who’s your father?”

“The one and only Mr. Montgomery Kraus,” he said, holding out his arms to the room in mock grandeur. “I’m Cameron, by the way.”

“Kori Sarcotti.”

While Kori extended her hand to him, she inadvertently located Mr. Kraus in the room. She knew the man well. Not only was he a client, but he was a major supporter of the charity, and she quickly recalled the work she’d done for him, as she customarily did of all her clients when she needed to. Montgomery had labored over his kids and their piece of the estate, and had decided to omit some of them—at least temporarily—for their own good. From the man’s demeanor, she imagined that he was one of them that got the shaft.

Cameron motioned to one of the bartenders for a drink and took a long pull. “The famous Sarcottis.”

“Well, at least one of us is famous.”

He seemed amused by that.

“So, is it working out for you—the trust?” She pretended to be clueless.

Cameron set his mouth into a flat, tight line. “You cut me out, lady.”

Hearing the bite in his tone, Kori glanced quickly at two of her colleagues, Neil and Andrew, who were talking not too far away.

“You cut me out of a billion dollar pie.”

“Actually, I didn’t cut you out of anything.”

“You put it on paper.”

“I wrote it up as per your father’s instructions, that’s all.”

“Yeah, well, my father hates me.”

Kori watched his countenance cave in when he said it. “Maybe he just wanted to do what’s best for you.”

They were both silent for a moment. Kori wanted to leave but she almost felt some sick sense of duty to make sure he was okay before walking away.

He rotated his bottle in his hands. “I’ve been clean for six months.”

“That’s a good start,” Kori encouraged. “Your father will be glad to hear that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to attend to the guests.”

Cameron swiveled on his heels as she passed him. “You know, it’s funny.”

“What’s funny?” she said, turning to him.

“I expected you to be more—” He seemed to choose his next words carefully. “Forgiving of people that make mistakes.”

At that moment, Gina and Lucy materialized next to her.

“What do you mean?” Kori asked.

He smiled. “Why don’t you ask Mitch.”

h1=.

Kori graduated from Pepperdine University with a degree in Public Administration and then attended Stanford University to get her law degree. After graduation, she accepted a job offer with a well-known law firm in Sacramento. She’d been twenty-six and single. Her father had been delighted over this. It was proof that she was putting her education first, on which he had placed a tremendous amount of emphasis over the years. But Kori hadn’t been anti-marriage. It was just that school and work had taken everything she had, and there’d been nothing left for romance and the headaches that come with finding that one right person. Besides, she knew what it would take for her to make partner by the time she was thirty-five. Work. And more work. On the weekends too. She was booked for the next decade.

Not long after moving to Sacramento, Kori met Mitch Sarcotti. She was new to town, and for the first time in her life, she felt like she needed a vehicle. After doing her research, she set out on a chilly Saturday morning in November to do some car shopping. Mitch was twenty eight, and although she couldn’t vouch for his career choice as a car salesman, there was something about him that she liked right away. He was around six feet tall, with good looks, dark hair that touched his collar, and solid, honest eyes. She liked his eyes—liked the way they waited on her next thought. Attorneys were experts at reading eyes and his were gripping. Regardless of the eye thing though, she was wary. She’d read that car salesmen were sometimes crazy happy about nothing in an attempt to get you to buy, and when she considered this, he kind of fit the bill. Still, there was no doubt, he interested her. But it was during their first date that she became captivated by him.

While Kori’s family had paid for her to attend some of the best colleges in the country, Mitch had put himself through a local community college, working nights at a Chinese restaurant and at the car lot on weekends. She was impressed by his initiative and determination, and it seemed to level the playing field between them. Yes, he was a car salesman, but she believed that, given his intelligence and the right coaching, he could do a lot more with his life than just sell cars.

Mitch had been attracted to her, too. Beautiful dark hair, slender frame, and the funny little thing she did with her lips when she wasn’t sure about something. He’d seen it for the first time when she peered through the window of a 1988 Honda Accord, which according to her research, was an economical and reliable choice. She’d done it again when they went for a test drive and she stared at the shifter with all the numbers on it. But it was when he kissed her that he felt the most alive. When their lips touched, it was like they were the only two people on the planet.

They dated for several months—restaurants, drives down the coast, day trips to Lake Tahoe. It was wonderful. It was the missing piece for her. Her law degree and now Mitch. Life seemed to take on color when she was with him, as though it was a view that had been reserved only for people that felt the way they did about each other. One had to be in love to see it. And there it was. She was in love. And Mitch was in love with her too. And one night, while they were walking hand in hand on the beach, he confessed his love for her, and as the moon broke in his eyes, all she could do was look at him and say, “I love you too, Mitch.”

h3=.

For the rest of the evening, Kori couldn’t help thinking about what Cameron had said. She wasn’t sure why, but she sensed that the little worm was on to something. Later, as she drove home, she almost called Mitch to ask him if everything was okay, but they’d had a fight before he left and she hadn’t called him all week. They’d been having more and more fights these days. Sometimes she wasn’t through being mad over the last fight before a new one came along.

Thinking that work would take her mind off things, she stopped at her office to pick up a file. By now, the fourth floor of the South Jordan Business Complex was practically a morgue—a sharp contrast to earlier when it’d been a hive of activity, with lawyers and staff scurrying back and forth from one office to the next, shuffling all sorts of legal documents. On an average workday, it seemed there were enough lawyers around to make that joke a reality, the one where someone asks,

What do you call five hundred lawyers trapped in a burning building? A stroke of genius.

She had to admit that she’d laughed at that one.

But she wasn’t laughing now.

Soon, she was driving again—streaming along Interstate 15 through the middle of the Salt Lake Valley, then veering onto I-80, and finally up a winding road to the east bench. Unfortunately, she’d heard everything on the car radio on the way home. It was out there now, and it was bad. Mitch was in trouble. After pulling into the garage, she walked in and grabbed a blanket from a hall closet, taking a seat on a sofa. She didn’t turn on the TV or even a light. The glow of a spring moon coming in the window next to her was almost too much. While she waited, Kori’s gaze landed on a family portrait of the two of them with Mai, who’d been twelve at the time the picture was taken. On the piano was a much older picture, one of her and Mitch at Bear Lake in winter. Sheets of ice from the lake had been bulldozed onto the beach by fierce, driving winds—piled up like debris after a flood. They’d been climbing on the ice slabs when one of Kori’s friends yelled, “Picture!” She remembered Mitch quickly taking up a position behind her. He’d wrapped his arms around her and was kissing her softly on the head when her friend took the shot. That was the kind of thing he used to do. Amazingly, she still remembered how it made her feel.

Only a couple of years older than her forty-eight, Mitch had taken good care of himself. With straight teeth, a lean frame, and thick, dark hair that had been slowly turning gray for the last ten years, Kori had always thought he looked young for his age.

Just after midnight, Mitch finally walked through the door. He set his briefcase on the counter, and after stooping to look in the fridge, pulled out a beer. Knocking it back, his gaze tumbled onto hers, his eyes going from weary to wide-eyed, blooming like flowers in a time-lapse video. As was typical these days, she was about the last person in the world he wanted to see.

After removing his suit coat and loosening his tie, he took a chair across from her, slumping in it. Typically, Mitch was the kind of man who commanded the attention of others. He’d never slumped or plopped in the past. When he walked into a room, people noticed. He’d been aware of it, and loved it. But now, he looked flat, diminished—his normally perfect coloring washed out by what she assumed was guilt, mixed with fear.

Their discussion was short. She asked him if it was true. To that, the answer was in his eyes. She asked why, knowing that in the future the question would probably become dull with repetition. In his defense, he reminded her that he’d always taken care of their family and he would continue to do so—somehow. It was so typical of him to say something like that, and somewhere inside, it pissed her off. Besides, she’d already judged his way of taking care of the family and found it seriously lacking. When she’d finally heard enough, Kori got up and walked out.

Mai wasn’t home yet so she went straight to their bedroom where a wave of exhaustion suddenly washed over her. Even the thought of getting ready for bed left her drained. Bath. Pajamas. Teeth. Makeup. Forget it. It was too much. She wanted to plummet to the bed and not move until morning—and she would have except that it would have been the first time she’d ever done that. Instead, she swiped an impatient hand at her cheek, taking a tear with it.

Step with the left foot. Step with the right. Watch out for the dresser.

Step. Sigh. Step.

Passing by the window, she saw that it was snowing, hard. A spring snow. She didn’t know how she felt about that. She’d been enjoying the warmer weather, but on the other hand, if it snowed all night, she’d have a good excuse not to go into work in the morning. She even thought she might feel a cold coming on—maybe the flu. Bubonic plague? She could only wish.

As Kori undressed, she heard a door shut and the windows next to her shook. Soon after, Mitch’s Camaro sped down their long drive to the front gate. He was gone. Would he come back? Did she even want him to? She didn’t know the answer to any of those questions. Her hand flew to her chest as she wondered if any of this was her fault. It was so very Kori of her.

h1=.

An hour later, Kori Sarcotti had bathed, smeared herself with lotion, and pulled on a cream-colored nightgown with a small flower print. Then, after propping several pillows against the headboard, she picked up her phone and turned it on. Three messages and seventeen missed calls. She sighed. Sixteen of them were from the same number.

“Hi, Doris.”

She heard an exhale of relief come through the phone.

“Kori, I’m so glad you called. I’ve been worried sick.”

Doris was Kori’s best friend and former college roommate from their days at Pepperdine. Completely sweet and always over-the-top, Doris only completed one year of a four-year full ride and then transferred to BYU. With the increased distance, the two friends quickly lost track of each other, until a few years later when Mitch purchased the Chevrolet dealership in Salt Lake City. Living in the same town again, their friendship had reignited and now they were closer than ever. Although Kori was glad she’d turned off her phone for a few hours, she felt instantly better just hearing Doris’ voice.

“I’m fine,” she pretended.

“I saw the news. I can’t believe it.”

“Believe it.”

Doris’ sympathetic tone was causing her eyes to moisten, and a tear soon threatened to spill onto her cheek.

“Did you ask him about it? What did he say?”

“I asked him. He didn’t deny it.” She paused. “I guess that’s your answer.”

From what Kori had gathered, Congressman Mitch Sarcotti was being investigated for accepting bribes. There were witnesses, e-mails, recorded phone conversations of promises—in other words, an orgy of evidence. She knew what it would mean to bring down a powerful figure like Mitch.

“You know, I’ve always supported him in his work,” Kori said, sniffling. “When he needed me somewhere, I was there, even when I had an appointment. Dinners. Photo ops. And now this.” She let go of a breath that had been pushing to get out more than she’d realized. “Does that make me an accessory?”

“Don’t be silly. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Marriage, work, and public disgrace.” And probably divorce, she didn’t say to Doris. It cut her that she could sum up what seemed to be her life in three miserable seconds.

“How’s Mai handling it?”

“We haven’t had a chance to talk about it yet.”

“And work?”

“I was hoping it’d snow all night so I’d have an excuse not to go in.” She wiped her nose with a tissue and her voice took on a nasally tone.

There was a pause, and then Doris spoke. “What are you going to do?”

Kori thought. “Avoid everyone, except you, of course, barricade myself in my house. Then I’ll have to pull it together. I’ve got Mai to take care of. I don’t have the luxury of a breakdown.” She took a big breath and hoped Doris couldn’t hear how bad off she was.

“Good for you, honey. Listen, I got to go, but I’ll call you tomorrow and we’ll talk. We should meet for lunch somewhere, maybe that new Korean place on Foothill.”

“Sounds good,” Kori said, thinking there was probably nothing in the world that would get her out of the house tomorrow.

“And don’t turn off your phone. You almost gave me a heart attack when I couldn’t reach you.”

After agreeing, Kori hung up. Out of habit, she reached for a book from her nightstand and placed it on her lap. But given her state of mind, she doubted that she’d be able to read a word. She shook her head to herself, wondering what she was supposed to say to Mitch if she ever really got the chance without his lawyers flanking him. Thanks for the house and the yard and especially for the Greek statue in the fountain. Thanks for the times when she got to be on TV, and for the famous people she got to meet—people like Bob Dole, Clint Eastwood, and Alan Jackson. Thanks for all of it, and by the way, it didn’t mean anything.

Setting the book back on her nightstand, she walked to the window, hoping to find it still snowing. Fortunately, it was, flakes gliding effortlessly to the ground like white petals from a dying pear blossom. But then something else caught her eye, something off in the distance, near the gate, something she’d only seen once before, when Mitch won his congressional election. Only this time, there was no reason to celebrate. She stepped closer to the glass. Vans. TV news vans. Several of them setting up camp at the edge of their property. And as she stood looking out, trying to make sense of everything, she saw them spring to life.

h1=.

It was late afternoon, a week or so after the story about Mitch broke. Special Agent Kipner was exiting Mitch’s home office with a thick stack of papers hanging at his side. Warrants were a daily part of life now.

“Going out, ma’am?”

“Yes, Agent Kipner. Perhaps you would like me to sign out.”

The FBI had been in her way all week and she was starting to prickle under the scrutiny. Although she’d lost many things, her sense of indignation hadn’t been one of them.

“That won’t be necessary,” he said, as though he’d graciously waived the requirement in her case. He placed the papers on top of a stack of boxes marked Property FBI. “Will anyone be at home tonight?”

“Not until late, if we come back at all,” Kori lazily shot back under her breath.

“Remember, you are under court order not to leave the state.”

“We’re not leaving the state, Agent Kipner. We’ll be back in a couple of hours.” She wasn’t at all surprised that he couldn’t take a joke.

“My apologies for any inconvenience, ma’am. We’ll be leaving in twenty minutes or so. Would you like us to lock the door on our way out?”

“That would be much appreciated.” She reached for the door.

“Oh, by the way, there’s one more thing I’d like to ask you.”

Turning back to face him, she kept her hand on the knob, wanting to make this quick. “Yes, what is it?”

“Your husband mentioned that—”

At that moment, another agent approached, whispering in Kipner’s ear. Kipner listened and then leaned into the man and whispered back.

While the two agents conversed, Kori waited, hating the awkwardness and wishing they’d just speak aloud. She had nothing to hide.

When the agent left, Kipner finally turned back to her.

“Your husband told me you were with him on a trip to Lake Tahoe last summer, where he purchased a summer home for $2.5 million dollars and paid in cash. Is that about accurate?”

As she listened to Kipner’s question, she could swear that Mitch was trying to take her down with him. Her throat suddenly felt dry and she recognized the importance of being both truthful and careful. The thought crossed her mind that she should probably have her attorney present. Finally, she straightened. No. She’d just take her time. Think it through before blurting. She was an attorney herself, for Pete’s sake.

“Yes, I was with him on the trip, but I wasn’t there when he purchased the home.”

Perfect. She felt good about her answer. Besides, it was the truth.

“Were you excited about the acquisition?”

Duh! she wanted to say. “Yes, I was. We all were.”

“Whom do you mean by ‘all’?”

Not wanting to introduce Mai into the conversation, she narrowed an eye. “Are we almost through? I really must be going.”

Kipner tapped his bottom lip with a pencil. “Did you typically keep records when you traveled with the congressman?”

“No. I didn’t know they’d be necessary.”

She hated that Agent Kipner expected so much from her.

“Did you keep any airline tickets stubs, for example?”

“I might be able to find them—I don’t know for sure.” Oddly enough, she remembered exactly where she’d filed them, but she was in no mood to accommodate him so easily.

“What about other receipts from your trip?”

“Like what, Agent Kipner? Dinner? Gas? Junior Mints? I probably didn’t keep a receipt for Junior Mints.”

Kipner didn’t respond to her glib remark right away, and it seemed to Kori like he was memorizing her every twitch.

“Are we finished, Agent Kipner?”

Special Agent Kipner, ma’am.” He motioned with his hand for her to go. “Thank you for your cooperation.”

Stepping through, she pulled the door shut behind her and took a deep, replenishing breath. What possible reason they could have to want to dig through a fistful of old vacation receipts? She rebuked her husband for the tenth time that day, wondering what on earth had he been thinking? He used to be so smart. He literally boggled the human mind.

h1=.

Growing up in California, Kori had what she considered a very Japanese-sounding name—especially for a young girl just trying to fit in with a bunch of blond-haired, blue-eyed kids. By the time she was in elementary school, she found herself wishing that she’d been given a name like Veronica, or Sally, or Lisa—anything that sounded American—anything but Reiko. Lucky for her, her fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Land, had trouble with her name and started calling her Kori instead. He must’ve been a little dyslexic. As it turned out, she loved her new, American-sounding name, and fortunately, it caught on.

h3=.

Leaving the FBI in her wake, Kori went outside, stopped at her car and leaned against it. Shooting a quick glance upward, she saw that her daughter’s light was still on.

This old game.

It’d been no secret that Mai had been very unhappy lately. She didn’t like it that her father had moved out. She didn’t like that her parents weren’t talking. And the lack of privacy in her own house—torture for a fifteen-year-old trying to maintain some kind of normalcy in her life. Recently, she’d sharply objected to the idea of accompanying her mother to a bridal shower and Kori figured that Mai was purposely dragging her feet. It wasn’t what Kori needed right now.

Much to her relief, Mai appeared a moment later, making a pittance of eye contact as she approached. If looks could kill . . . Mai opened the passenger side door and slid into her seat as inconspicuously as possible for a grumpy teenage girl. Then, Kori climbed in herself.

“Thanks for coming with me, Sweetie.”

Mai turned to her mother, her jaw tight with a pugnacious half grin. “So where’s Dad, anyway—jail?”

“He’s in Wyoming for a meeting,” Kori said, sensing in Mai’s question a tone of loyalty to her father mixed with disappointment in him.

Mai sank back in her seat, folding her arms. “What a joke. I don’t understand why we have to prove to everyone that we can still socialize. Brandi will get married next week whether we’re there or not. I don’t think anyone would care if we didn’t show—in fact, they’ll probably be freaked out when we walk through the door.”

“Do you want to talk?” Kori asked, reaching beyond herself for a calm voice. “We can be late to the shower.”

“No, I don’t want to talk or be late. Let’s just get this over with.”

They used to be such pals. It wasn’t so long ago that being with her mom wasn’t something that she just wanted to get over with. Kori tried not to let the thought of it hurt her, and she was somewhat victorious.

Finally, she put the car in drive. She steered to the entrance of their estate, and after passing through the gate, watched in her rear view mirror as it closed behind them, just thankful that the news reporters had finally moved on. She figured they were outside Mitch’s hotel in Wyoming. They were after his butt, not theirs.

Mai rolled up her sweater and placed it between her head and the cool glass. When Mai went quiet, Kori studied her. She had a lot of her dad in her, her eyes rounder and her nose more pronounced than Kori’s. But she had her mother’s full lips, skin that tanned easily, and beautiful dark hair, almost jet black—with an added touch of purple from a package of grape Kool-Aid. Mai explained that it was the latest thing and all her friends were doing it. In spite of the beverage in her hair, Kori was stunned by how pretty she was becoming.

Not long after, they arrived at the Tanner home, rolling slowly to a stop behind a white Dodge Caravan. For a moment, Kori imagined that the shower had been cancelled—wished, more like—but as she glimpsed the house, she could see that it was well-lit, with people moving behind some of the windows.

Here goes nothing.

Kori turned the key and then reached into the backseat for the gift she’d brought for Brandi. After setting it on Mai’s lap, Mai immediately crossed her arms over the top of it.

“The worst part is that everybody’s gonna know about Dad,” Mai said. “I feel so stupid, don’t you?”

Kori gave Mai a sympathetic smile. “Maybe. But I think we can do this if we do it together.” After getting out, Mai waited for her mother to join her. Kori wrapped an arm around her daughter and together, they walked slowly up toward the house. On the door was a sign, and Kori read it to herself as she rang the bell. Everyone welcome. Come in and find peace.

h1=.

Taylorsville was at the heart of the Salt Lake Valley, a collection of quiet old neighborhoods with small homes and mature trees. It always amazed Kori that she could be on a busy four-lane avenue one minute, and then two turns later, be strolling down a peaceful neighborhood of meandering streets with a park at both ends.

Doris’s house was the quintessential rambler for the time—red brick and built in the early seventies. Roger had converted the carport into a full garage and built on above it, adding two large rooms to accommodate their family’s need for space as their children became teenagers.

Doris’s oldest daughter, Tricia, answered the door, and Kori and Mai walked into the living room to a chorus of salutations, which quickly put the kibosh on any doubts they’d had about coming. As soon as Kori sat down, she looked around and noticed those in attendance. There was Brandi, the bride, and her mom, Doris, and Brandi’s two sisters, Lora Lee and Tricia. Brandi’s best friends, Janet, Bethany, and McKenna were there, along with Jennifer, her cousin. In addition, Doris’s sisters, Aunt Phyllis and Aunt Arlette, as they were known to everybody, had both made the trip from Twin Falls, Idaho, and Mai and Kori brought the number to twelve. The mood in the room was decidedly festive, and for a brief moment, Kori could see herself having a little fun as the weight of her problems started to move to the back of her mind.

“Hey there,” Doris said, looking up to see Kori. “I’m so glad you came.”

“We made it,” Kori answered back, managing to add a gleeful note to her voice. If Kori’s self-esteem hadn’t already been at rock bottom, she might have been honest with Doris and confessed that she really had nowhere else to be.

“Hello, Ms. Mai,” Doris said. “I told your mother you didn’t have to come if you didn’t want to, but I’m glad you’re here.”

Mai smiled sweetly at that, and then slowly rotated her gaze toward her mother. As the tenderness in Mai’s expression faded, Kori got up and walked into the kitchen, angling to put some distance between them.

“What do you have around here to drink?” Kori asked.

“There’s Coke, Diet Coke, root beer, and something called Guarana. Lora Lee brought it. It’s from Belgium or Brazil or something. It’s all on the kitchen table. Help yourself.”

After popping a Diet Coke, Kori strode back into the living room just as Jennifer stood to begin the games.

“Okay, we’re going to divide into two teams. Brandi will act out a word, and each team will get a chance to guess. If it’s not your team’s turn, don’t shout anything!”

Of course, rules and winning weren’t the real purpose of the game. Instead, it was to watch Brandi make a fool of herself acting out verbs and nouns that had to do with the wedding night, and hopefully get her to blush in the process. Depending on the words Jennifer wrote on the papers, everyone might blush.

Preferring not to be in the middle of everything, Kori lifted a stool from the kitchen and found an out-of-the-way place from which to watch. After refilling a platter with crackers and cheese, Doris noticed Kori sitting by herself and grabbed her own stool.

“How are you holding up?”

Kori took a drink and it seemed to help her answer. “Just trying to stay alive—and out of the newspapers.”

“How’s that going?”

Kori held up her thumb and index finger as a measurement. “I have a stack of clippings this thick with Mitch’s picture in them—or mine.”

“You save them?”

“Kind of crazy, huh?”

“Maybe you can write a book and get famous when all this is said and done.”

Kori shook her head. “The last thing I want is more attention.”

Doris turned to watch Brandi as a moment of silence passed between them. Then she looked back at Kori. “How’s Mai doing, anyway?”

“She’s doing well—I think. She misses her dad, although he’s not gone much more now than before.” Rotating her glass in her hands, Kori winced at that. She didn’t want her talk with Doris to turn into a rant against her husband. She’d ranted plenty already, mostly to herself, and she was sick of it. “Thank heavens she’s got swim team,” Kori added. “You should see the way she pounds the water—like a dolphin.”

“That’s kids for ya. They’re resilient,” Doris said, finding Mai in the crowd. “And she’s so pretty.”

Doris had always considered Mai more of a daughter than a friend, and Kori knew that when Doris looked at Mai, she couldn’t help but think of her son. He’d been hiking in Little Cottonwood Canyon two summers ago when he fell more than a hundred and forty feet. Even now, Doris could barely say his name without breaking down.

“Oh, I’ve got to tell you what happened,” Kori said after seeing that Mai was getting into the game. “Last weekend, Mai was at a party and they were playing Spin the Bottle. You remember that game?”

“Chad Barnes.”

“What?”

“Whenever I think of that game, I think of Chad Barnes.”

Kori looked at her like Doris’s words were giving her an upset stomach. “I’m not even going to ask what that means. Anyway, the boy who got Mai tried to French kiss her.”

Doris’s eyebrows flew up.

“She almost died,” Kori went on, chuckling.

Doris looked over at Mai again, who was on her knees on the floor, calling out guesses.

“I’m just amazed she would talk to me about it. I don’t think I would have told my mother—would you?”

“Oh, gosh no.”

Kori laughed openly for the first time in days.

Doris reached for a cracker and nibbled the corner of it. “I wish some cute guy would stick his tongue in my mouth.”

“Doris!” Kori chastised.

“What?”

Back in the middle of the room, Jennifer held out a jar and Brandi reached in, removing another piece of paper that had been folded so many times, it was almost a spit wad. She grinned as she read it to herself and then looked at the ceiling as if concocting a strategy. Soon, the guesses started to fly.

From her place in the back, Kori was pleased that Mai was having such a good time, and she reluctantly confessed that coming had probably been the right thing to do. Still, without warning, her chest would suddenly constrict, as though getting enough air was difficult for her. She was reminded that a day or so after the allegations against Mitch ran in the paper, another story involving her husband broke, and for a while, it looked as if the bribes would trigger an avalanche of alleged misconduct. This time, Mitch was invited to the local police station and questioned about having sex with an under-aged prostitute. While they drilled Mitch about his relationship to the girl, Kori waited for him in the lobby. Almost three hours later, he appeared walking down the hall toward her. Mitch’s smile broadened as he got closer to her, but it didn’t reach the forced skip in his step. To Kori, he looked rattled, and for him, that meant lying.

As they drove back home together, a stuffy silence engulfed them, and Kori was forced to ask herself the next logical question. How many had there been? As the idea ran away with her brain, seeing numbers into the hundreds, she felt her heart being ripped from her chest. When they got home, Mitch packed a bag and moved out.

“I’m gonna get me one of those little minced ham things,” Doris announced. “Want one?”

“Sure,” Kori said.

h3=.

By the time Doris returned, Brandi was opening gifts, being a good sport when it came to some of them. Doris sat back down next to Kori, handing her a small paper plate of snacks. “So, what about Mitch?”

Kori was surprised by how hard the mention of her husband’s name hit her—like stepping outside into a cold chill without a coat. “What about Mitch?”

“You gonna keep him, forgive him, ignore him, or kill him?”

“I don’t know yet. Probably kill him.”

“Might have a tough time explaining that to the police.”

“What about castration? I know a lot of judges. I think I could get them to go for it.”

Doris chuckled. It was perhaps the meanest thing Doris had ever heard her say.

“I assume he moved out.”

“He took an apartment on the west side,” Kori said as she circled her glass, the ice scraping the side.

With that, they both let the moment fall into silence as they watched Brandi pinch a black lace teddy by two thin straps and hold it up for everyone to see. It was skimpy, even for a teddy. It barely qualified as fishing line. It was a tedd.

Doris smiled, and then turned back to Kori. “So, think about this. If Mitch goes away, you could be dating again. Are you prepared for that?”

“Are you trying to make me feel worse?” Kori said.

“Just saying.”

Kori looked at her. “I like being married, even if it hasn’t been one-hundred-percent great. At least there’s no pretending, no wondering if he’s gonna call, no small talk while you’re trying to get to know them—you know. No anxiety.”

“Oh, so you’re not feeling any anxiety right now?”

“Exactly,” Kori said, not willing to admit her contradiction. “I just can’t see the point in it. I’m a lawyer. I make good money. People in my profession respect me—a lot. I’m not lonely—I’ve got you and Mai, and my work, and my clients.” She leaned back in her chair. “If I ever get past this, and I will, it’s very unlikely that you’ll see me with a man—ever. And that you can take to the bank.”

h1=.

The shower finished around ten, and after helping with the cleanup, Kori looked at Mai, they both knew it was time to go. It’d been the getaway they needed. They were relaxed, somewhat, and although they knew they had difficult times ahead, they felt better. A bright moon lit the area around them, and as they drove up an on-ramp to the freeway, Mai looked over at her mother.

“Mom, are you sorry you married Dad?”

Caught off guard by this question, Kori turned quickly to look at her daughter. It didn’t escape her that Mai’s questions were getting tougher the older she got. Kori opened her mouth to answer, but then paused. The early years with Mitch had been pretty good. Could the last several undo everything?

“If I hadn’t married your father, I wouldn’t have you,” Kori said at last.

Mai shot her mother one of those typical-teenager looks that said to stop it. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it. I can’t be the only good thing about being married to dad.”

After thinking, she said, “I will always love your father, but he made it difficult for us to be together. I guess that’s the only thing that’s changed.”

Kori kept one hand on the wheel while she reached over with her other hand and rested it on Mai’s.

“Never forget that no matter what your father has done, no matter how big the mistake, he loves you, and he needs you to love him back. That’s your job as his daughter.” She squeezed Mai’s hand. “Can you do that?”

Mai smiled. “Don’t worry, Mom, I will.”

As Kori changed lanes, she thought again about Mitch. He was a guy who wanted everything and was used to getting it. It was strange to realize now that Mai could please him so easily, just by being his daughter.

When Mai went quiet, perhaps falling asleep, Doris’s comments about dating popped back into Kori’s head. Dating! she thought, letting out a puff of air that blew her bangs. The one thing she didn’t need was another man in her life.

h3=.

After parking the car, Kori and Mai walked into the house through the garage. Almost immediately, Mai gave her mother an exhausted wave and started upstairs.

“Thanks again for coming with me,” Kori called to her. “Sleep tight.”

As Mai disappeared, the flashing light of the answering machine caught Kori’s attention. Even though she was much too tired to deal with any more garbage for one night, she walked over and pushed the button anyway. There were eleven messages. Brother!

“Ms. Sarcotti, it’s Mike Johnson. I just wanted to see if you had time to speak with me tomorrow. There are some new developments, and I—”

Delete.

“Yes, it’s Marcia Barranton again, still trying to schedule you for The View.”

I hate that woman.

Double delete.

She erased the next eight messages without listening to them. Then for some reason, she let the last one play.

“Hey, Sis, it’s Teno. I need to talk to you. Give me a call when you get a chance. Actually, you’d better make it tonight. It doesn’t matter how late, okay? Bye.”

Hmmm.

Tenjiro was her younger brother. Married to a friendly woman named Lisa, they had three kids—two boys, Shawn and William, and a daughter, Erika. They lived in a small town southeast of San Francisco, choosing to live in the country while he commuted into the city for work. Tenjiro liked to joke that his nickname, “Teno,” meant that he was a 10.0 on the handsome scale. Kori remembered him using the line with varying degrees of success. Nowadays, he only used it on his wife and daughter, kind of a private family joke—although she could see him having a ball with it at the bridal shower.

Kori bit her lip in contemplation. The curious part of her wanted to know right away why he called. The common-sense part of her knew that she’d need to change her clothes and get something to eat before she could deal with her brother. Pulling a nightgown over her head, she thought about the message and the fact that Teno never called her—not on her birthday, not at Christmas, probably not even if someone died. Then she stopped short.

Please, not that.

Just like that, her imagination was running away with her. Hurrying downstairs, she grabbed her cell phone off the counter and completely forgot that she intended to snack before returning Teno’s call. She hit contacts and searched for his number.

“Hello?”

“Tenjiro, it’s Kori.”

“Oh. Hey.”

“How are you?”

“Good,” he answered. “Wow, what’s it been, like twenty years since I’ve heard from you?”

“I send your family a card at least twice a year, and call just as often. Lisa’s the only one who takes the time to respond.” Pressing the phone against her ear, she pulled out a chair behind her and sat down. “How’s the family?” Kori continued, wishing they could just skip the small talk. The reason for his call was starting to burn a hole in her brain.

“Fine. How’s Mai?”

“Good.”

She hadn’t talked to Tenjiro about Mitch, but she knew that he knew. Geez, everybody knew!

“I’m sorry about all you two are going through, Sis.”

“We’ll be fine,” she replied firmly. The last thing she needed was sympathy from Teno. “What did you need to talk to me about, by the way?”

He hesitated only briefly. “I’ve got some bad news, Sis.”

Again? Her life had been a magnet for bad news lately, and she wondered how much more she could take. He didn’t sound like himself. His voice was usually sharp, often condescending or even flippant. Let’s face it, she dreaded talking to him. But this time, there was an alien blend of compassion and solidarity in it. He actually sounded like he cared about her. That was the clincher. The news would be bad.

“What is it?” Kori said tightly.

“Obasan passed away this morning.”

h1=.

AJ

AJ Crawford lowered a bowl from the kitchen cupboard, and after filling it with cereal and milk, he walked his breakfast out to the patio. The sliding of the glass door woke Pearl, a Labrador-Golden Retriever cross, who raised her blond head.

“Hey, girl,” AJ said as he passed her to take a seat at a small patio table.

After eating what he wanted, he set the bowl on the deck for Pearl to finish and went back into the kitchen. Through the window, he watched as a truck approached, water splashing underneath a ‘72 Chevy short bed and hitting the hot engine, sending steam swirling in its wake.

With Tim bouncing around in the passenger seat next to him, Brooks honked as he circled past the house. Turning in front of the barn, he backed up, positioning the truck inches away from a horse trailer. The dogs were in their kennels in the back, barking like crazy, and as soon as Brooks came to a stop, Tim hopped out.

“Hush, dogs!” Tim yelled.

Before joining them, AJ opened the door to his gun safe and pulled out a Smith and Wesson .357 and a box of shells. Then he emerged from the house, only one arm in his coat, slinging the door closed behind him. Pearl ran ahead of him, her small yips of excitement diverting the attention of the hounds.

At fifty, AJ had dark, slightly wavy hair with a little gray mixed in, deep-set hazel eyes, and a smile that broke effortlessly. He’d been a gym rat most of his life and was still in pretty good shape for a guy his age. More than anything, he loved spending time with his two best friends—when they weren’t trying to set him up on a date, that is.

“’Bout time you boys showed up. What happened—have to work for the wives before you could play with the guys?”

“You know how it is, dude,” Brooks said. “Gotta keep the little woman pleased.”

Brooks grinned like a gigolo in an all-woman army, but AJ knew the truth, which was that Brooks probably had to fix a window screen or change the oil in Linda’s car before he could leave.

“Yeah, I know how it is.” AJ smirked.

“So, when are you gonna get you a woman?” Tim asked.

“Well, hell, Tim, now that you mention it, I’ll just go down to Bubba’s Foodtown and pick one out.”

AJ felt for his hunting knife and patted his pocket for his cell phone. To their credit, it’d been a while since they’d tried to set him up, so Tim’s comment didn’t make AJ want to kill him—yet.

“You forget where we live, Timbo. There aren’t a lot of single women my age around here to choose from.”

“Then go up north.”

“City chicks?”

“They’re chicks, aren’t they?”

“I don’t think they’d come down here, and I’m sure as heck not moving up there. Besides, it’s not like I’m locked away in my house eating TV dinners. The way I see it, if it happens, it happens.”

“What about that Happy Hearts thing?” Brooks reminded him.

AJ’s mouth started to curl into a smile until he quashed it. “Total disaster.”

Brooks and Tim both waited in silence.

“I’m sure your wives are gonna want a play-by-play as well, so I’ll save it for later. But let me just put it this way for now. After Happy Hearts, I’m happier just forgetting about women altogether.”

As AJ passed the corral, Tim threw him a Ding Dong, which he caught one-handed against his chest.

“Who needs a wife anyway when I’ve got Timbo here?”

AJ’s words caused Tim to smile like a little girl in a new Easter dress.

“He loves me. He gives me food.” AJ held out both arms. “What else does a guy need?”

Finally getting his other arm in his coat, AJ pulled up to the back of Brooks’ truck, unwrapping his Ding Dong.

“Did you bring the cooler?”

“Yep.”

“The big one this time?” AJ asked through cake and crème.

“The big one,” Brooks confirmed.

“Good.”

Filling his cheeks with air, Brooks bent down and lifted on the neck of the trailer, positioning it over the hitch on the back of his truck. While Brooks locked it down, AJ walked over to the barn and swung open the door. Tim materialized next to him and together, they stared inside.

“So, what are we taking today?” Tim asked.

AJ took another bite. “Timbo, today we’re taking the good stuff.”

AJ had been around horses all his life. When he was just a kid, he started a horse-care business that included watering, feeding, and brushing, even a little training, and eventually, shoeing. Within a year, he had earned enough money to buy his own horse. He continued his business until he left for college.

A few years ago, AJ took all the money he could get his hands on and bought thirty acres, building a barn, a corral, and a training facility. He advertised as kind of a horse daycare that could handle up to thirty-two head. He stabled the animals during the week and the owners would come down from the Salt Lake area to ride them on the weekends.

With the trailer secure, AJ started directing traffic, pointing with what was left of his Ding Dong.

“We’re gonna take this buckskin mare here to the left, the chestnut girl next to her, and for you, Tim, the spirited brown-and-white Pinto three stalls down on your side.”

“Great. I love a horse with spunk,” Tim said.

“You have a lot in common,” AJ said, putting his hand on Tim’s shoulder. “By the way, his name is Gasser.”

Passing Tim as he walked the mare into the trailer, Brooks grinned and shook his head. “Just stay downwind from me,” he warned. Then he closed the interior gate, separating the mare from the others.

A beefy-faced man, Brooks had a wide neck, a thick mustache that curled over his top lip, and a voice so deep it seemed to travel for miles.

“And let’s make this quick. I’d like to get out of here before Linda calls and needs something.” He looked at AJ as he exited the trailer. “I accidently left my cell at home—if you know what I mean.”

In the next few minutes, the other two horses were loaded and the trailer doors were closed. Dropping his arms to his sides, Brooks sighed a breath that hung in the morning air like cotton.

“Look, I know what you’re thinking, man. You’re thinking Linda’s got me in her back pocket. Well, maybe she does, but let me tell you a few things about being married, Amigo. It’s called a relationship, and in a relationship—”

AJ raised a hand to stop him right then and there. “Are you seriously gonna start giving me marriage advice? I thought we were about to do guy stuff.”

Brooks stared, looking put out at him for interrupting. But AJ had heard it all before. And their argument was always the same—that it’d been three years since Kelly died, and if he would just put some effort into it, he could find happiness again, and the loneliness he felt would be gone, and yada yada yada. It was all ridiculous. He knew the truth. And the truth was that it could never be as good or as right as it was with Kelly. There’d been magic at the Big O Tire store the day they met. Pure magic. Magic twice?

Not likely.

“I’ll trade you places,” Tim said as he hoisted a saddle into the back of the truck, grunting from the weight of it. “You can be married and I’ll be single for a while.”

AJ rolled his eyes at him, knowing that if Charlotte heard him say that, he’d be apologizing for a week. “Look, guys, let’s just get this crap loaded and hit the road. We’ve got lions to tree, and steaks and a hot tub waiting for us when we get back. Now that sounds a lot better than finding me a date, doesn’t it?” Sure that he’d made a good point, he put a hand on Tim’s head and rubbed, messing up his hair. “You got another Ding Dong, Timbo?”

Reaching into the cab of the truck for a bag of goodies that Charlotte had sent with him, Tim pulled out another tin-foiled treat and tossed it to him. As AJ took a bite, he closed his eyes and moaned in appreciation like a dog getting an overdue belly scratch.

“Now that’s a good Ding Dong, boys.” He took another bite and pointed at them. “If you guys can find me a girl who satisfies like a Ding Dong, by all means, get me her number.”

h1=.

With the clutch to the floor, Brooks put the Chevy in gear, driving across the valley to the West Mountains, a place called Gooseberry Flat where they’d had success tracking mountain lions before. There were other lion trackers in the valley, but hardly anybody went to the trouble of driving all the way to Gooseberry.

AJ was sandwiched in the middle, the rough ride causing him to pinball back and forth between the other two guys. Tim sat next to the door and had fallen asleep with his head resting against the window. When Brooks jerked the wheel to avoid a rut, Tim’s head rose and then slammed hard against the glass, waking him.

“Beautiful,” Tim complained at Brooks, rubbing his head.

“Doing my best.” Brooks smirked.

It was a dirt road, rocky at first, but it soon smoothed out as they got closer to the top. While AJ readied his camera, Tim and Brooks began scouting for the familiar lion markings at the side of the road. The tracks needed to be fresh—old tracks would run the dogs for miles as they chased an outdated scent. By the end of the day, the dogs could be in the next county and it’d take all weekend to get them back.

Preferring his old-school Nikon, AJ stretched a roll of film across the shutter, closed the back, and cocked the lever. Then looked over at Tim. “How’re things at the turkey plant? Business as usual?” When Tim didn’t respond, AJ continued. “What, you still having trouble with your boss?”

“Actually, they let me go a couple of days ago,” Tim said, attempting a smile that quickly lost its air.

AJ was taken aback by that. Tim had worked at the turkey plant for almost thirty years, most of it at the hatchery, and he knew more about propagating chicks than anyone in the area. Excluding the turkey plant, there were very few options for work in Kanosh County—the coal mine in Salt River and the oil fields near Sackville, but not much else. Tim would either have to move or lengthen his commute, and at his age, neither option sounded good.

“Sorry to hear that, man. What did Charlotte say?”

“I haven’t told her yet, but I know what she’ll do. She’s gonna piss a brick.”

“So why’d they let you go?” Brooks asked.

Tim shrugged. “They’re cutting back.”

“You’d better tell Charlotte soon,” AJ said, scratching his chin. “Before she finds out from someone else.”

“I know. I know.”

Out of the corner of his eye, AJ continued to watch Tim, and having known him as long as he had—ever since elementary school, in fact—something didn’t seem quite right with him, and not just because of the job. Then, almost on cue, Tim cleared his throat.

“I got another . . . little problem,” Tim said, wincing sharply.

AJ and Brooks waited in silence.

“I went home with Carla.”

Carla Morrison. Her parents should have just named her “Trouble” because that’s what she was. Long legs. Leathery skin. She’d been married and divorced three times and had been on the prowl for almost a year, which was long enough to cause trouble for almost every man in Kanosh County. Unfortunately for Tim, she’d had a little thing for him ever since she moved back to Chester and got on at the turkey plant. Charlotte knew about her, but it’d never bothered her. She’d always trusted her husband. It appeared now that perhaps she’d gotten it wrong.

The news of Tim’s madness exploded inside the cab of the truck like a grenade in a grass hut, and AJ felt the truck slow when Brooks’ foot momentarily slipped off the gas.

“You’re shittin’ me?” Brooks yelled.

“Tell me you didn’t,” AJ begged.

“I did,” Tim admitted, bringing his hands to his face in a gesture of hopelessness.

AJ thought for a moment. “What does that mean exactly—go home with her? Have you fallen in love with her or what?”

“No!” Tim erupted. “What do you think I am—stupid or something?”

“Well, Timbo,” AJ said, “it’s not the smartest thing you’ve ever done,”

Trying to keep from just tearing into him, Brooks asked, “So you didn’t nail her?”

“It wasn’t like that,” Tim growled.

“Let’s just start from the beginning,” AJ said, gently nudging Tim back to his own side. “What was it?”

“I gave her a ride home. She asked me to help her change a light bulb in the kitchen. Next thing I know, her lips are on mine.”

“That sounds like her,” AJ said after letting go an exasperated breath.

Tim was the antithesis of Brooks—thin, to the point of being bony. Always a scruffy face, and jittery, like a cat on glass. Although he wasn’t too bright, he was totally lovable and everyone liked being around him, including Carla.

Tim rolled down his window and put his elbow on the door. The sky was the color of an island lagoon and the sun’s reflection bounced off the snow with magnified strength, causing him to squint.

“Aw, man, Charlotte’s gonna kill me,” Tim said, his face crumbling.

“Was it just a kiss?” AJ asked.

“Just a kiss,” Tim promised.

“Dude, are you crazy?” Brooks asked, his expression as though he’d just drunk from a cup used to empty out a plugged toilet. “You need to get tested. When I was in the Army, I saw a film about guys who got all kinds of crap, and they—”

“Look,” AJ said, cutting Brooks off. “If that’s all that happened, I think you should come clean. Tell Charlotte. She’s gonna find out one way or another. Carla will talk and then you’ll be dead, so just get it done. The quicker the better.”

“What he’s saying is that it’s like taking off a Band-Aid,” Brooks said, steering with his knees while he used his hands to add emphasis. “Pull it quick and it won’t hurt.”

Both Tim and AJ nodded.

“Only this Band-Aid has Super Glue on it, and it’s wrapped around your nuts,” Brooks said, breaking into a laugh that could have frightened off any nearby wildlife.

Tim’s face hardened with determination at that, and when he could finally talk over Brooks’ laughter, he said, “It’s my problem, and I’ll work it out.”

Not long after, Tim spotted a good set of fresh tracks on the side of the road and they stopped, releasing the dogs. Within seconds, the animals were off and running, howling incessantly into the mountain air. Their cries were long and drawn-out during the tracking phase, but once they had a cat up a tree, their howls would morph into short yips. That was the sign that they had one. With the dogs already in the distance, the guys quickly unloaded the horses, saddled them up, and rode off after the dogs.

h1=.

Later that afternoon, with a red sun hanging low in the horizon like a cherry suspended in Jell-O, AJ, Brooks, and Tim arrived back at AJ’s house exhausted and hungry. Circling the trailer, Brooks glimpsed his wife’s car in the drive and grinned.

“Steaks are on the grill, gentlemen.”

Tim and AJ both smiled at the thought of food.

Using his side mirrors, Brooks backed the trailer up to the barn and stopped. Tim got out while AJ snapped the protective cap over the lens of his camera and stuffed it into its bag. Removing a pen from the glove compartment, he wrote the date on the film cartridge and then dropped it into his shirt pocket, telling himself that he would drop it off at his darkroom on his way to the hot tub.

With the horses taken care of, Tim volunteered to feed and water the dogs while Brooks and AJ went inside to clean up. A moment later, they strode onto the back deck in swimsuits, high-fiving each other when they saw Linda standing at the grill.

In a Hawaiian shirt and jeans that people called “floods” back in the day, Linda stood about five five. Her walnut-brown hair was cut short and tucked behind her ears. She’d gained some weight over the years, but AJ sensed that Brooks didn’t mind the weight. In fact, he was sure he liked it.

Brooks and AJ groaned as they navigated the steps of the hot tub, each seeming to favor a knee or back or some other part of the body. Submerging themselves, they allowed the gurgling water to flow over them like a favorite blanket.

“Oh, man, this feels good!” Brooks said. He extended his arms along the edge, watching his toes pop up as his swimming suit took on air.

AJ sighed in agreement and positioned his back against one of the tub’s jets.

“We should take the rifles to the range next week,” Brooks said. “Do some shootin’.”

“I don’t know if I’ll have time. My trees are coming in.”

“Already?”

“It’s that time of year.”

“How many?”

“I ordered eight hundred this time.”

Brooks’ expression revealed that he was surprised by the number.

After taking care of the dogs, Tim finally joined them. “Is it hot?”

“Like the Mojave Desert,” AJ replied.

AJ had installed the hot tub himself a few years ago, building a support frame that would have made a bridge engineer proud. The last thing he did was install an extra-large capacity water heater that kept the tub at a toasty 104° without breaking a sweat.

Just then, Charlotte passed through the screen door with three plates balanced in her hands and walked over to where Linda was manning the grill. Stabbing the meat with a fork, Linda hoisted a steak onto the plates, and each time she did, Charlotte’s arms dipped with the added weight. Then she walked the plates to the edge of the hot tub.

“I love you guys,” Brooks said as he stood up and passed through the middle to get his.

Linda and Charlotte looked at each other and Linda announced, “There’s only two occasions when Brooks tells me he loves me. One is when I have food for him.”

“And the other?” Tim asked.

“Figure it out, Tim,” Charlotte said.

Thin and wiry, with coarse dishwater blond hair that feathered back into a seventies style, Charlotte had kept her shapely figure all these years. She often mentioned—bragged, more like—about wearing pants that she still had from her high school days, the kind with the high waist. Although she wanted to kill her husband a couple of times a week, AJ thought that she and Tim were a good fit, principally because Charlotte was easily amused and Tim loved to entertain.

AJ reached for his plate, water from his arm dripping onto the edge. “I have some left-over baked potatoes in the fridge,” he said. “You can throw them in the microwave for a few minutes if you’d like.”

“We already got them,” Charlotte said, letting go of his plate. Then she gave one to Brooks and Tim.

Taking in his dinner, AJ’s eyes widened. The steak had black grill lines running across it and he could hear it still sizzling. Next to his steak was the baked potato. Charlotte had cut it open and smothered it with an inordinate amount of butter, sour cream, and shredded cheese. She’d also topped it off with a squirt of ranch dressing, exactly the way he liked it. Next to his potato was a pile of seven-layer salad. Lettuce, bacon, mayo, and peas. Famished, he immediately began scarfing it down, shoveling several bites into his mouth before taking time to chew.

“Thanks,” he mumbled.

After getting their own plates, Charlotte and Linda slid chairs to the edge of the hot tub, taking up positions behind their husbands. Tim had crawled out of the water already and was sitting on the edge, swishing his legs in the water up to his calves. When Charlotte started squeezing his neck, Tim’s gaze rolled up to meet AJ’s and AJ thought Tim looked miserable. No, he was sure. He was miserable.

h3=.

With evening came a cooling off. Stars began to sparkle in the eastern part of the hemisphere where it was a deeper blue.

“So where’s Danielle tonight?” Charlotte asked.

“She’s staying at a friend’s house,” AJ told her. Starting to boil, he pushed himself up onto the edge, reached for his towel, and draped it around his shoulders. “She gets bored hanging out with her dad and a bunch of old people on the weekend.”

“Speaking of people getting older, AJ,” Linda said. “I’ve been meaning to ask you. How did things go with Happy Hearts?”

She made it sound like an afterthought, but AJ figured she’d been waiting all night for the right moment to work it in, and since it hadn’t come, she asked anyway.

“Oh, yeah—I need to thank you for that.”

“Seriously?”

“Not at all.”

Happy Hearts was a dating service. Signing him up had been Linda’s idea, but Charlotte did the legwork of registering him. A couple of weeks ago, a woman from the agency called and informed AJ that he had three dates. That’s how it worked—they grouped them in threes. So, for one entire day, he’d been at the mercy of the dating world. According to the woman who called him, this strategy allowed their members to compare three possible mates in a short period of time. AJ found that it was a little like going from a tooth extraction to a prostate exam.

“You went, right?” Linda’s eyes were hopeful.

AJ nodded while he took a drink, the bottle nodding with him. “I went,” he finally said. “Three dates, slammed together. A car wreck, a train wreck, and a pedestrian hit-and-run all in one day.”

“No, seriously, how was it?” Charlotte asked, ignoring his lies.

“Did you even try to make a connection?” Linda asked.

“Connection?” AJ repeated.

“So, tell us about them,” Brooks said, beginning to sound interested.

“Yeah,” Linda added. “Out of the three, which one did you like the best? Which one gets a second date?”

Getting up, AJ grabbed his shirt from the back of a chair, put his arms through it, and in one quick motion, slipped it over his head. “Well, Daisy was the first.” He smiled when he said her name like there was something he couldn’t divulge, not even to them. He picked up his drink from the edge of the hot tub and took another long pull before sitting down at a small patio table.

“We met for breakfast at around eight o’clock.”

h1=.

“I love breakfast,” AJ said. “Most important meal of the day!”

“I never eat breakfast,” Daisy countered, stirring her latte.

AJ dribbled syrup on his pancakes and set the bottle back in the middle of the table. “So, how long have you been involved with horses?”

“I grew up on horses,” she said.

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“That must have been quite a balancing act,” he said, trying to be hilarious. He hadn’t been on a date for a while and it’d been decades since he’d been on a blind date. He didn’t know anything about this woman, other than she wanted a man.

“Yeah, I prefer horses to people.”

“Wow, I didn’t know anyone actually took it that far. I mean, I love horses too, but—”

She shrugged.

AJ watched her take another sip of her latte and then asked, “So if I was a horse—”

“We’d be riding right now.”

He swallowed a little harder than usual. “I heard a clinking noise as you walked in. Was that . . . spurs?”

“Yep.”

“You wear spurs to breakfast?”

“I never take them off.”

“Never?”

She used her tongue to squeegee latte froth from her top lip. “Never.”

[_ _]

Brooks blew out, making a low whistling sound. “You gotta watch out for cowgirls. They’ll chew you up, spit you out, and then they’ll hurt you.”

Then Linda said, “Well, that was only one. Surely the other dates went better.”

She was so hopeful that AJ thought it was almost creepy. “I don’t know if you’d call them better, but they were different. I met the second woman for lunch at the Willow Mountain Polo Club. We sat outside on the patio and watched a match while we ate.”

“Did you bring your W-2s?” Crystal asked AJ.

AJ straightened in his chair. “I wasn’t aware that—”

“It’s pretty much standard procedure before an agreement to date can be reached,” she said.

“Agreement?”

“Yes. We need to be sure that we’re compatible financially, that we have the same goals.” Her hair was slicked tight against her head and gathered in a bun in back. She wore a dark blue suit, pressed, and AJ couldn’t see a wrinkle in anything she had on, not even her face.

“I could have my tax man fax them to you,” AJ joked.

“That might work.” Crystal scribbled in her notebook with a pencil. “For now, maybe you could just give me an estimate of your net worth—land, major assets, etc.”

“Assets?”

She leaned forward and raised a well-manicured eyebrow.

“Well, I have a son and two daughters. Do they count?”

His response made her visibly tense, as if she could appear more tense than she already was.

[_ “We’ll list family liabilities on page three.” She turned her pencil over and erased what she had started writing. “I’m talking about financial assets only.”_]

AJ leaned back, feeling the start of a stress headache coming on. This was only number two for the day, and he already wanted to run away screaming.

“Well, I had a ranch, but I lost it in my third divorce. It’s okay, though, because my bad back prevents me from doing any real work anyway. I sit on the couch a lot and watch Wife Swap. It’s hilarious. I’m sure you watch it too. Anyway, my tax settlement with the IRS will be paid up in about nine years, but hey, it was better than jail. Been there, done that.” He laughed and slapped his knee as though he’d gotten the best of the U.S. government.And I know you said to wait on the family stuff, but I just have to brag a bit. My daughter’s probation officer says we could be ready for supervised visits any day now.”

Crystal’s mouth fell open.

“More lemonade?” he asked her.

[_ _]

Brooks hoisted his drink. “How was the lemonade, anyway?”

“Sour and watered down—like my date.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a polo game,” Tim said. “Who won?”

Charlotte spoke up before they could waste any valuable time on Tim’s question. “So, third time’s the charm, right?”

AJ smiled. “Not exactly. I met Penelope for dinner at an outdoor play at the park on Center Street.”

“I’m glad you could meet me this evening.”

“I was happy to,” Penelope said, shooing a bug away from her face.

The sun was down and everything seemed to be different shades of blue. So far, Penelope was the best yet. She at least seemed like someone AJ could talk to. He opened two camp chairs and motioned for her to sit. “You come here often?”

“I try to see as many plays as I can. They do Shakespeare, Broadway, even opera, and most of them are well done.” She smiled, holding up a picnic basket for him to see. Then she set it down between them.

“Thanks for bringing dinner! I’m starving.”

[_ _]

AJ chuckled. I couldn’t spend another minute with Crystal, and I left before lunch arrived. I grabbed a burger a few minutes later, but by the time I met up with Penelope, I was hungry again.”

“What did she bring to eat?” Tim asked.

Charlotte flicked his ear. “Quiet. Grown-ups are talking.”

After removing a lid from a Tupperware bowl, Penelope motioned for AJ to help himself and he reached for a chicken leg.

“Seeing how you like the arts,” AJ began. “You might be interested in this. I was eating lunch at a small sandwich place a couple of weeks ago near University Avenue and a mime showed up and gave us a show.”

“A mime?”

“Yeah. I’d never really seen one up close. He was good—very entertaining.”

“I’d like to see that sometime. You say he was there in the afternoon?”

“Yeah. Why?” AJ asked, taking a bite of the chicken leg.

“I can’t go out in the afternoon.”

AJ raised his eyebrows. “Sun condition?”

“Vampire.”

At her words, AJ felt the chicken get stuck in his throat. “You’re a—”

“Vampire. I know. It sounds crazy.”

AJ tried not to look flabbergasted.

“I was infected about three years ago.”

“Infected?” he repeated in a tone that was higher than usual for him. He rotated the chicken leg in his hand, inspecting it. “How?”

“I drank from a drinking fountain after a vampire used it, and he slobbered on it—or something.” She looked disgusted at the idea of vampire slobber. “I never felt the same after that. I started going through some changes.”

“Changes?” He quickly paid attention to how he was feeling. “Am I in danger?”

“No, not at all. I’m what you would call a ‘vampire in transition’. Because there was no blood, the full transformation takes years.” She used a spoon to add fruit salad to her plate. “So, obviously, if we get together, you’ll have to take care of the kids during the day, and I’ll prowl—I mean, take care of them at night.” She smiled. “More chicken?”

[_ _]

“And that will be the last time I go on a Happy Hearts date,” he said.

Charlotte cut into her steak, not admitting anything.

Linda leaned over and spoke privately to Brooks and then got up and retrieved them two more drinks. After sitting down, she said, “Don’t worry AJ. There’s a good woman out there for you somewhere.”

AJ smirked at that. “You know, Tim and I were just talking today about finding a good woman.”

At the sound of his name, Tim stiffened.

“Really,” Charlotte reacted.

“Yeah, we agreed that a good woman is like a Ding Dong.”

Tim nodded nervously at AJ’s words. His pupils were like pinholes in his eyes, no doubt wondering why in the world AJ was trying to get him killed.

“You can always count on a Ding Dong,” AJ continued. “It always satisfies. We agreed that if a guy can find a girl like that, he should grab her.”

Charlotte looked sharply at Tim. “Is that what I am, Timmy? A Ding Dong? Because I’d really like to know what you mean by that.”

Tim pointed at AJ. “His words, not mine.”

“Just don’t give up,” Linda urged, getting back to the subject at hand. “And we’ll continue to look.”

Great.

He would have preferred that they just stay out of it, but he knew that was too much to ask. Besides, they did have a point. He was fifty and single, or alone, as they put it—alone sounded worse than single. Sometimes, he was about as alone as anyone on the planet. His parents had passed away. He had two brothers but they lived up north. They ran banks, or companies, or something like that. They were on their second marriage, perhaps their third. Affairs were common. Little was held in high regard, except success. AJ had let his closeness to them break down and they had done the same. He had Dani, but she had her own friends, and he knew from watching her older sister that her friends would soon be the most important people in her life, if they weren’t already. There was Brooks and Tim, but at the end of the day, they went home to their wives. Of course, he didn’t intend to be single for the rest of his life. He still believed that if the right person came along, he would recognize her. But at the same time, he wasn’t going to push it. He wasn’t going to manufacture something that wasn’t there naturally. It needed to hit him hard, like the first time he saw Kelly at the Big O Tire store more than twenty years ago. That was how it’s done.

“Maybe I should go on a trip somewhere, just pack the Jeep and hit the road. In a couple of days, I could be in San Diego or Little Rock.”

“What’s in San Diego?” Tim asked.

“It’s not about what’s in San Diego. It’s about what’s not in Mule Creek. Why stay here? Maybe the someone I need to find is sitting on the beach somewhere. Maybe I just need to get out there and find her.”

AJ certainly had everyone going with his threats of a road trip, but the truth was, he would never leave Mule Creek or Kanosh County. This was home, and nothing would ever change that. Actually, he would fire up his Jeep tomorrow, but he’d drive to the Munsons to pick up Dani—or was she staying at the Petersons? She had so many friends that it was hard to keep track. The point was, his life—their lives—were here, and here is where he’d stay.

Thirty minutes later, after his friends had gone home and after he’d let Pearl in for the night, AJ went to his room and was reminded of the story. He knew it by heart. It’d been his kid’s favorite bedtime story and he’d told it a million times while they were growing up. Tonight, he would tell it to himself.

h1=.

1984

It was a typical November day for the mountains of Northern Utah. A storm had moved in and was hitting the small town of Logan hard. Fortunately, the plows had gotten a good start and most of the snow had already been pushed off to the side into five-foot banks. After grabbing a Coke, AJ paid the woman at the Top Stop and walked back out to his truck where he noticed that one of his tires was low, causing his truck to sit catawampus.

Squeezing his Coke between his legs, he steered with one hand as he stretched his mouth over an apple fritter. A few blocks later, he pulled into the Big O Tire store where he parked and went inside. After taking a seat in the waiting area, he rooted through a pile of magazines that was scattered across the top of a coffee table. Like most people, he felt compelled to reach for one, even though he knew he would only thumb through it mindlessly.

While skimming a story on the up-coming NFL draft, the door next to him opened. Cold, stormy air swept in, and with it, a hint of wildflowers, which quickly tempered the rankness of virgin rubber and engine grease. He watched intently as a woman in black rubber boots slogged her way to the counter. With a red and white knitted hat and a scarf that snaked around her neck at least twice, she looked like a beekeeper trying to avoid the sting of a ten-degree wind chill. She was a bulky mess, and yet, the most breathtaking thing he’d ever seen.

The man at the counter sucked in air before addressing her. “Your front tires are far below the minimum. Your brakes are down to the metal and your window has a crack that runs halfway across the passenger side. I’m afraid your car won’t pass inspection. You’re looking at six-fifty, maybe seven hundred, depending on the tires you choose.”

Her shoulders slumped at Tony’s description of her car’s health. Women were already easy prey at a repair shop, but in her condition—desperate, probably broke, AJ figured she was in no position to get a good deal.

“Do you have a payment plan?” the woman asked in a voice as delicate as wind-blown wheat.

Sighing like she’d already been too much trouble, Tony reached under the counter for a pamphlet. “This is the finance company we go through.” He opened it and pointed to the last part. “You have to fill this out. Then it takes two days to get approval.”

As AJ listened to the two of them work out the details of her demise, he felt a tightness start to build in the pit of his stomach, and he somehow knew that he would meet this girl—needed to meet her, plain and simple. This part of the story always got a big giggle from his children—the thought of their father twisted in emotional knots at the very sight of their would-be mother. Classic.

After receiving an associate’s degree in business, AJ had decided that, at least for the time being, he just couldn’t stomach any more school. Not long after dropping out, he struck up a conversation with an uncle at a family Christmas party who volunteered to help him get a job. By the end of the week, he’d received an offer from Chiquita Banana. Yes, the dancing girl with fruit on her head. He’d spent three years in the jungles of Central America and had returned to the U.S. two weeks ago, just in time for winter.

With the credit pamphlet hanging low in her hand, the woman turned away from the counter. From her expression, it was obvious that she had no intention of filling it out. As she closed the gap between them, AJ studied her, keeping a magazine positioned in front of him, just in case. Her mocha-brown hair had worked out of her scarf in bunches. Dark eyebrows, beautiful brown eyes. She was like a song on the radio that touches a person so profoundly that they call the station just to find out who sang it. Her lips were chapped, but whose weren’t—it was November. Seconds later, she pushed on the door and disappeared into the storm.

With more courage than he was typically accustomed to having, AJ rose and followed the woman into the snow. It was clear—something else was in charge of him that day, and he liked it.

“Hold on a sec.”

When the woman turned, she saw a short-haired young man, about six one, walking briskly toward her with a nervous grin. While she waited for him to catch up, large, cotton-like snowflakes floated lightly past her face.

“Listen,” he said when he was close enough. “I hope you don’t mind, but I overheard your conversation. Sounds like you’re in a bit of a pickle.” He’d never used the word “pickle” in that context before, and he took it as a sure sign that he was off his game.

Game? What game?

Her eyes shot sideways, and for a moment, AJ thought they might moisten.

“Yeah, story of my life.” Her breath came out like clouds in the air. He loved her breath.

“Well, listen. I just spent three years in the jungle, and—”

She began to frown at that, her stare telling him to get to the point.

“What I mean is—I was working for a very large and successful company.” He paused. “Anyway, I was wondering if you would let me help you.”

“Help me?”

“Yeah, with getting your car fixed.”

Her eyes fluttered in confusion. He figured from the looks of her that she’d been hit on before—many times, probably—but never with a loan offer.

“No, I couldn’t do that.”

“Do you have another car you can use until this one is sound?”

She avoided his gaze and hunched her coat around her neck.

“Then why not let me help? Your car is a danger to you and to the public. I have a lot of friends in this town, and after what I just heard, I fear for their safety.”

She smiled, seemingly both amused with and slightly annoyed by his humor.

But AJ pressed her. “How about it?”

“I’m sorry, do you even know me?”

“No.” His grin faded.

“So, why are you offering to pay my bills?”

AJ swallowed. “Look, you need help and I’d like to help you. That’s it.”

Her eyes roamed his face, as though she was taking an x-ray of his thoughts. “Are you sure?”

“I’m doing this right now, with or without you.” He opened his checkbook and scribbled out an invisible signature as proof that she should take him seriously.

“Okay, but it’s only a loan. I intend to pay you back.”

“If you want,” he said, holding up his hands in surrender. “I can’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do.”

“You can’t force me?” she returned emphatically. “What do you call this?”

They both laughed at her observation as they walked back to the store. Six months later, they were married. No word if she ever repaid the loan.

h1=.

Kori

Because he still lived in the area, Teno made Obasan’s funeral arrangements. When it was all planned, he phoned Kori to tell her that everything was set for the following Tuesday. Kori bought airline tickets for her and Mai, and on Monday, they flew to San Francisco, rented a car, and drove along the coast to Mendocino, where they had a reservation at the Blue Heron Inn. Early Tuesday morning, Kori met with Teno and Lisa at the funeral home for a briefing before the ceremony began, which started at eleven and was finished by twelve thirty. Afterward, friends and neighbors pulled off a lunch, which was greatly appreciated, because it freed up Kori and Teno to deal with the more pressing matter of settling Obasan’s estate.

Later that afternoon, Kori wanted to visit the old house. Mai was tired and begged her mother to let her stay at the hotel by herself, employing a generous amount of facial drama to make her point. But after agreeing to some ground rules about where Mai could go, Kori finally relented. Actually, she preferred to go alone.

Pulling into a short drive that led to a detached garage, the place quickly felt familiar to her. A knee-high picket fence with peeling white paint separated the front yard from the neighbors on both sides. Grass thrived in the jagged cracks of the cement. A collection of bonsai trees dotted the front porch. Same old place, Kori thought. She tugged on a flimsy screen door that was wedged tightly in its frame. When it finally broke free, it wobbled briefly in her hand.

A child of the depression, Obasan had been compelled to save everything; tin cans, cardboard, magazines. Even plastic grocery bags had been wadded up into something that resembled a golf ball and secured with a rubber band. The dining table was a chockablock of books, some of them in English, some in Japanese. There was a stack of newspapers, and when she lifted the corner of one, she saw the words “President Nixon” in the headline. “Hoarding” was the term people would use nowadays.

Teno still hadn’t shown up. Perfect.

Wandering into the kitchen, Kori suddenly spotted a large cardboard box placed conspicuously on the counter with her name written in Japanese. She walked over, and after scooting it toward her, pried open the flaps and immediately began recognizing its contents. Report cards, school assignments, drawings and pictures she’d done in art class, even pottery. She smiled as she unearthed an old Rubik’s cube her father had given to help sharpen her mind for schoolwork. She recognized it all—except for one thing, a small, brown, leather book with the word “Journal” written on the front in shiny silver type. She pulled it out. It wasn’t hers, she knew that. If it was Teno’s, he’d be upset if she even touched it, regardless of whether it’d been placed in her box by mistake or not.

She opened it.

Blue ink, front to back. Adult handwriting. A uniform style. Ordinarily, journal writers tended to snatch up whatever writing implement was nearby. It was almost as though it’d been penned in one sitting.

She turned to the first entry,

August 20, 1965.

She read on.

Hanako Ishikawa? That was her great-grandmother.

It’d been years since she thought of her great-grandmother, probably because she knew so little about her. Kori’s father had made it clear that she was not to be discussed. On occasion, when her name did haphazardly surface, the adults would look at Kori and either leave the room or postpone their conversation until Kori was gone. All this secrecy had left Kori with nothing but her imagination, forcing her to draw her own conclusions about her great-grandmother. A spy, possibly a criminal. Really though, she had no idea.

“Boo!”

At his voice, Kori’s heart jumped a beat. “Hey, Teno.”

“Scare ya?”

“A little.” As annoying as ever, she thought.

As Teno walked in, Kori noticed his gaze zero in on her box, and she promptly slipped the journal under some papers and other keepsakes. She wondered for a split second if he’d already snooped through it before she got there. That would be just like him. But if he didn’t know about the journal, she wasn’t going to tell him—and sharing it was simply out of the question.

Teno looked at her with a puzzled expression. “Where did you get the box?”

“It was here when I walked in.”

He continued with the same pinched look on his face, just as she remembered it.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“She mailed mine to my house. Why wouldn’t she mail yours?”

“That was Obasan. She always had her own way.”

“You think we got the right boxes?”

“Positive.” She pulled out one of her old dolls and held it up. “You didn’t play with one of these, did you?”

Her question as to whether or not he’d rummaged through her box had just been answered, and she briefly let slip a narrow grin of victory as she thought of the journal. Wanting to be ready to leave as soon as it became too uncomfortable between them, which she knew could be at any moment, she began returning her things to the box.

“When are you headed back?” she asked.

“Tonight, late.” He pushed up on the tap, filling a glass with water. “So, what do you hear from Mitch?”

“Oh, not much. He’s pretty busy with his legal problems.”

“Well, I hope he goes to jail,” he said. “I never really liked that prick anyway.”

She raised a hand to him. “Teno,” she said pleadingly.

Teno always had a way of making her, or anything connected to her, seem subpar, and she knew that the color would start to drain from her face if she had to listen to him talk about Mitch that way.

“Go ahead. It’s just like you to defend him when he’s treated you like crap.”

“I’m not defending him,” she replied, trying to maintain a mild tone. “It just doesn’t do anyone any good to tear into him now. That’s all.”

Teno leaned back against the sink and guzzled. After finishing, he let out a loud gasp of satisfaction. “How’s Mai?”

“Good—swimming every day and doing well in school.”

“What does she think about her dad?”

Back on that? “She doesn’t say too much.”

“Sounds like she’s the only smart one.”

“Teno, I’m not going to do this. It’s none of your business anyway.”

“None of my business? You’re my sister, aren’t you?”

Kori didn’t answer as she picked up her box and walked it to the table as though she wouldn’t be there much longer.

Teno turned on the tap and rinsed his glass before putting it back in the cupboard. “You’ve read her will, haven’t you?”

“Actually, it’s not a will. It’s a revocable living trust with a healthcare power of attorney, and I wrote it for her. Remember?”

“Of course,” Teno said, waving a dismissive hand at her. “You’re the high-powered lawyer.”

Teno didn’t care much for the law profession, and he especially didn’t like his sister being a lawyer. In his twisted sense of reality, engineers were the only people worth a damn. He could talk to another engineer all night, but he couldn’t engage a pediatrician caring for his sick child for thirty seconds without losing interest. Bottom line, Kori knew two things about her brother. One, he thought engineers were the most important people on the planet, and two, he hated Kori having anything to do with Obasan’s will.

“Well, that’s what we lawyers do,” Kori said, shooting him a sharp, unapologetic smile. “We write wills and stuff.”

They were both quiet for a moment, and Kori wished that he would just leave or she was going to. Then Teno looked at her.

“Listen. I already took a picture or two, a painting she had hanging above her desk, a few books, and an old Japanese chess set I’d really like to keep. Ojisan and I played with it a lot before he died. It’s probably worth something to a collector, but I assure you, I’m not going to sell it. So look around and take whatever you want. Anything that’s left is going to Goodwill or in the trash.”

A few minutes later, Kori watched from the window as Teno moved down the walkway with a few more of Obasan’s things in his hands. After placing it all on the backseat of his car, he got in and drove away.

Taking Teno’s advice, her gaze moved perfunctorily around the room, but she already had what she wanted, and that was her great-grandmother’s journal that Obasan had meant for her to have. Soon, she’d find the right moment, a Sunday afternoon or a late night when she couldn’t sleep, a moment when she could read in peace, and she’d discover the forbidden life story of her great-grandmother, Hanako.

h1=.

From her years in the profession, Kori knew that the law was a powerful thing. And for those who understood it, it was a weapon, if that’s what they wanted it to be. The law was a magnet for people who wanted power. She’d asked herself many times if she was the same kind of person she saw all around her. When she was honest with herself, she had to admit that she probably was. She liked the power that came with being an attorney as much as the next person. Talking over Teno’s head about Obasan’s estate was a perfect example, and for the next few hours after she’d done it, she smiled every time she thought about it.

Inevitably, there comes a time in every law student’s life when they have to choose an area in which to become an expert. But the different specialties within the field of law are practically endless, and it can be an intimidating process as each lawyer must eventually commit to only one discipline within the larger picture. There was criminal law, immigration law, injury law, entertainment law, constitutional law, employment law, copyright law, patent law, advertising law, property law, tax law, and a hundred more. There were more branches of law than Kori could possibly list in her head, and before too long, she’d have to choose one—and specialize. In fact, it was the specializing in one area that made a lawyer so powerful. Hiring a jack-of-all-trades lawyer to work a divorce case was a little like asking a librarian to operate a backhoe. In the end, your attorney might not dig up as much dirt as you want them to.

For a select few, it was an easy choice. Maybe they planned to work in the family business and their father needed someone who understood business law or contract law. Or maybe their sister had been killed by an eighteen-wheeler, and they’d always dreamed of avenging her death by suing every trucking company that failed to maintain their fleet with the upmost diligence. But more often than not, it was a daunting task, and choosing their area of specialization eventually became the central preoccupation of a law student’s thoughts.

Similarly, Kori had battled with the same decision. What kind of lawyer did she want to be? Actually, she thought she’d made her choice several times only to change her mind. But when Kori was introduced to estate planning law, she was intrigued with it for a couple of reasons. For one, the majority of her clients would be retired folk and she imagined that they’d be easier to work with—more down-to-earth than say, entertainment law and a spoiled movie star. In reality, they simply reminded her of her grandparents. Another thing about estate planning law was that it wasn’t a real flashy position—as opposed to being a litigator, for example. Estate planning attorneys were usually behind the scenes, which suited Kori just fine. She had never seen herself as the kind to storm into a court room, point fingers at an accused killer, and machine gun a plaintiff with facts in an attempt to break them and leave them blubbering on the stand. But estate planning attorneys still had a great deal of power. In fact, one might say that they had more power than any other area of the law, because in the end, they had their fingers on the pulse of billions of dollars. Yup, there was no doubt about it. She was a power girl.

h3=.

Kori slowed as she entered the executive parking lot outside her office at half past eight, pulling into a space that, like the box she found at Obasan’s house, had her name on it, only not in Japanese. It was Thursday and it’d been a week since she’d been in the office or gotten any work done. Between her husband’s arrest and Obasan’s passing, her life resembled an engine that was losing oil, with lots of thick, dark smoke pouring out for everyone to see.

Thankfully, Mai was back in school and swimming like the world was going to run out of water. Mitch was going to be in and out of court for the next month or so and Kori had decided that for her own good, she’d skip the small skirmishes and attend only the final battle. She wished that she could be there more for him—he probably needed that from her. But for once, it had to be about her. And what she needed more than anything in the world was to get back to work and put everything behind her.

After dropping her keys in her purse, Kori checked her makeup in the small mirror on the visor, gripped the handle on her briefcase, and started toward the building. Passing through the automatic doors, she suddenly spotted Kevin Cross, her boss and long-time colleague, standing at the information desk, having what appeared to be a light-hearted conversation with a young, blond receptionist. The girl was cute, with a tight blouse and lots of very attractive hair. Probably Kevin’s new hire. A second later, the receptionist seemed to alert Kevin to her presence and she immediately understood that he’d been waiting for her to arrive.

Kevin was dressed in his usual dark blue suit, shiny black shoes, and gold tie pin. Walking toward her, he intercepted her before she could reach the stairs, his arms outstretched to receive her in a friendship hug. As usual, he was wearing too much cologne, and she imagined it soaking into the fabric of her clothes. This brief encounter would cause her to smell him for the rest of the day.

“Great to have you back, kiddo!” he said, drawing back from her.

“Thanks. It’s great to be back.” She was pretty sure that the firm was uneasy in light of her family problems, and even though he’d hugged her before, today’s embrace struck her as insincere. But Kevin had always had her back, and she hoped he would continue to do so now if she needed it.

“How did everything go—the funeral and all?”

“About as well as could be expected.”

“Great. Great.”

“I can’t wait to go back to work and get my mind off the rest of my life,” she said, taking off her coat and laying it over her arm.

“Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that.” His finger went to his lip. “I need a favor.”

“Oh, yeah? What kind of favor?”

She hoped this wouldn’t take long. Even though he was her boss, Kevin was a few years younger than her and not as good of an attorney. Usually, he left her alone, satisfied with looking good as she added client after client to her book and made an obscene amount of money for the firm. But he’d never met her in the lobby before, and the special attention was making her uncomfortable.

“I need you to go out of town to see two new clients,” he said, pushing his suit coat back in a Superman stance. “They live near St. George, which is about a five-hour drive from here. Your appointments are at four and seven o’clock, so you need to leave right away.” His eyes wandered over to the girl at the information desk, shooting her an almost undetectable smile that she alone was supposed to notice and comprehend. Then looking back at Kori, he continued, “Shirley made reservations for you at the Holiday Inn. I’d like you to stay over tonight and come home tomorrow. Then we’ll get together on Monday and talk. How’s that?”

Kori was stunned. “Kevin, are you serious? You want me to go to . . .”

“St. George,” he finished.

“I thought Greg was our out-of-town guy. Really, I think he’d do a better job than me.”

“There’s nobody in our office better than you, Babe.”

For the first time in her life, she wished that wasn’t true.

“Kevin, I’ve got a lot of work to catch up on here. I really can’t spend two days in St. George.” And I want you to get out of my way so I can go to my office. I’m comfortable there. I’m not comfortable in this lobby talking to you.

He stepped toward her again and bookended her shoulders. “It’s all set. Go! Take care of these guys. Your four o’clock is loaded, but we want them both. So work your magic. Sign them up and get a little relaxation in at the same time. Enjoy the hotel. Swim!” He made a swimming motion with his arms as if she didn’t know what he meant. “And tomorrow, I want you to take your time coming home. Find a back road and see some sights. Reconnect. We can talk Monday when you get back. Who knows—maybe you’ll be our new out-of-town guy—or gal.”

Did he just say that? So much for support. Was Kevin firing her? She’d seen him fire people before and it was starting to ring a bell. And what about Monday? What would they talk about on Monday? Kevin seemed to have an answer for everything, as though the little rat had thought long and hard before confronting her—ambushing her, more like. He’d definitely covered all his bases.

“Kevin, I don’t know. I just—”

Before she could get out her objections, he interrupted. “It’s a done deal.” He signaled to the blond receptionist and she scurried over, placing a folder in his hand, just like they’d planned.

“Put this in your briefcase. Your schedule has been cleared. All you gotta do is get in your car and head to St. George.” He started backing toward the elevator. “Good luck! And don’t go too fast. I know what a lead foot you are.” He pointed at her and smiled smugly. Then he got in the elevator and the doors closed.

Not quite sure what had just happened, Kori stood in the middle of the lobby, shell-shocked. She hated that Kevin could clear her schedule so easily, and without consulting her. It was proof positive of how thoroughly she’d been undone by this whole thing with Mitch. Kevin had never tried pushing her around before, and now it looked like he would get away with it. Lawyers were experts at reading people. They could tell when someone was hurting, and they knew exactly how to take advantage of it. She was wounded, vulnerable, and it showed. She glanced at the girl at the information desk—her starry eyes jetting away from Kori immediately. As Kori turned to leave, it crossed her mind that the young woman might already know that Kori was getting the ax. The pretty, young girls always seemed to know everything first.

But as she pulled out of the parking lot, Kori started to accept what had just happened, thinking that perhaps she could use some time to take stock of things. She didn’t need Kevin to tell her that she was under a permanent cloud. She’d make her own weather. Under the circumstances, she might appreciate a drive in the country as opposed to sitting in her office all day, counting the pitiful looks and pretending the stares from her colleagues didn’t bother her. And the whispering. She hated that. There was no reason not to have an enjoyable time doing what she liked to do anyway, which was taking care of the clients and their estates, St. George, or wherever. Business was business.

Before leaving town, she stopped at her house to pack a suitcase, and as usual, she packed more than she needed, putting something for every possible scenario in her bag until it would barely close. Next, she called Doris to ask her if she would pick up Mai after swim practice and have her stay at her house. Before getting on the interstate, she stopped at a McDonald’s and got a sausage-and-egg McMuffin and a Diet Coke. With her breakfast laid out on the console beside her, she powered up the on-ramp and turned on the radio, setting the cruise control to seventy-five.

h1=.

AJ

After a long day working in the nursery, vaccinating sheep, and training horses, AJ returned to the house just as it was getting dark. He took a shower, pulled on a pair of sweats and a T-shirt, and headed to the kitchen to get something to eat. Earlier, he’d asked Dani to bake a pre-made lasagna that he’d picked up from Bubba’s Foodtown. Although he was constantly amazed at how much Dani ate, it was just the two of them now, and he hoped that she hadn’t eaten it all. After finishing his supper, he climbed the stairs to check on her.

“Knock, knock,” AJ said, tapping gently on his daughter’s door.

“Come in.”

AJ pushed on the door and walked in, finding Dani on her bed with her knees up, leaning back against the headboard, doing homework. Her outfit for the next day had been draped over a chair in the corner.

At thirteen, Dani had thick, coffee-brown hair that she usually tied back in a ponytail, deep brown eyes and shiny braces—the spitting image of her mother, minus the braces. Recently, she’d hit a growth spurt that seemed to have no end, literally shooting up in height. Although she was still young in her features, her body was changing dramatically and everything she wore seemed way too tight on her, reminding him that she was fast becoming a woman. Fortunately, Amanda had taken Dani bra shopping the last time she visited from college, and he hoped it would suffice until Amanda made her way back later that summer. Heaven forbid she needed nylons, or worse.

“Clean room,” he said, taking a seat on the bed next to her. “I guess with age comes cleanliness, huh?”

“Then you should be spotless.” She smirked at him.

Her room was typical of a girl her age, where evidence of daddy’s little girl competed aggressively with the signs of womanhood. Makeup sat next to stuffed animals. A poster of the newest teen idol looked over a Disney princess bed cover. On a shelf, a glass terrarium sat empty, and he knew that she was infinitely more excited about the next after-school dance than catching lizards in the hills behind their house. Although he categorically adored the woman she was rapidly becoming, he missed his little lizard catcher.

“How was practice?”

“Good. Coach said I’m gonna start next game.”

“Awesome!”

For a moment, they both fell silent, and AJ began wishing for the umpteenth time that Kelly could see how their daughter was growing up, knowing she’d be pleased. Then, almost as though Dani had read his mind, she asked, “Dad, do you think Mom sees my games?”

The last few years since the loss of their mother had been tough on everyone, but Dani’d had a particularly difficult time with it. Her face would still go white when the phone rang or when someone knocked on the door unexpectedly. She seemed to relive the bad news all over again, dropping whatever she was doing and focusing—another problem, an accident, a death. He looked past her for a second to see the corners of several pictures of her mother that AJ had given her peeking out from beneath her pillow. Chances were, considering the question and the timing, she’d been thumbing through them just before he knocked.

“You know how she loved to watch you play.” He looked down at his hands, rubbing his palms together. It was still hard for him to think about Kelly, and answering questions from Dani was particularly gut-wrenching.

“Yeah, but do you think she’s able to come back and watch?”

His jaw stiffened. “Well,” he began, stalling. “Heaven’s supposed to be better than here, right? So I imagine that if she could watch your games here, she can come back and watch them still. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was able to join you on the field. There has to be some kind of advantage to being invisible.”

Dani smiled at that, and AJ noticed a rare, but comfortable rhythm that made talking about Kelly bearable.

“And the burgers and hot dogs are probably free for her.”

Her smile grew.

“All you can eat!”

With that, Dani broke into a giggle, her braces unyielding in an otherwise easygoing expression.

“Sometimes I do feel like someone’s helping me play.”

“Well, I wouldn’t put it past her. She loved you so much—loves you so much.”

He reached an arm around her and pulled her close, kissing her on the top of her head.

“Mmm, sweet enough to eat.”

She smiled at that. “Daddy?”

“Yeah?”

“You remember when mom was pregnant with me, and she was driving at night and ran out of gas?”

“Yeah. That dang old Buick.” He pulled back the covers and she climbed in.

“She was thinking about walking to the next town but I kicked her so hard that she had to sit back down and breathe.”

“Lucky for her you did. A police car pulled up behind her five minutes later. Turns out, it was a long ways to Preston. You took care of mom when no one else could.”

“Cool.” A smile spread easily over face.

He pressed down on both sides of her, tightening the blankets across her body. “The mummy cocoon,” he said in an evil voice. “In the morning, the transformation will be complete.” He ended with his best Dr. Doom laugh.

At his teasing, she yawned, apparently too old for the mummy cocoon.

“Dad?”

“Yes?”

“If I was taking care of Mom that night on the road, who was supposed to be taking care of her on the plane?”

AJ swallowed awkwardly at her words. It was an excellent question, and a vile one at the same time. With all his soul, he wanted to say something flowery, or something from the scriptures that included God or Jesus. But the truth was, he was still very bitter about the accident, and it wouldn’t have come out right.

“Well, I’m not sure,” he said, favoring her with a smile of forced reassurance. “We’ll have to ask her when we see her again, won’t we, pumpkin?” It was no answer, but it was all he had.

After kissing her on the head again, he stood, watched her curl into a comfortable sleeping position, turned out her light, and went downstairs.

h3=.

In the kitchen, AJ grabbed a small glass with one finger. As bad as he felt, he would have liked to reach deep into a cupboard above the stove and retrieve a half-empty bottle of whisky, but Kelly had gotten rid of it long ago. So instead, he opened the fridge and grabbed a can of V-8. He turned on the TV and dropped to the couch, knowing the couch was where he’d sleep tonight.

He popped the top and took a swig.

Dani’s question was beating a drum in his head. He didn’t know the answer and it bothered him. He missed Kelly. He was lonely. He thought about calling someone. He even remembered her number. 2905. She was nice—a good soul. And there was the other woman. 8586. He remembered her number because of how she’d said it, like she couldn’t help herself. They hadn’t gone out yet, but she was willing, he knew that. He could lose himself in her, escape the pain, bury it, somewhere in her hair and her body and her perfume. But before all that, he might think of Kelly. He might even look over and see her sitting next to him on the couch.

“Regular or kettle corn, honey?” she would say.

He knew what she liked. “Regular.”

He’d hear the hum of the microwave, followed by popping, and his memory would trip over her smile. When it was done, she’d glide back to the couch, her dark hair pulled up into a ponytail at the top of her head and her feet in fuzzy pink socks. She would sit, swing her legs over his, and hold out the bowl to him.

“What should we watch?” would be her next question.

AJ knew the answer to that too.

“How ’bout Music and Lyrics?” she would suggest.

They almost knew the lines by heart, but somehow, it was still mesmerizing when the dysfunctional has-been falls in love with plant girl. It seemed to make sense. Maybe it just hit very close to home.

“Good ol’ Hugh,” he would reply.

At that, she would giggle, and her laughter would echo in his ears until he could feel her warm, moist breath. Her shirt had come up and he could almost touch her soft stomach where she had a birth mark. Then, while the remnants of her perfume kneaded his memory, he’d take another drink, and wish she was there.

Setting his glass on the coffee table, he got up, pulled Music and Lyrics from the shelf, and popped it into the DVD player. He’d watch the movie alone. He’d watch it under a fog of regret, and loneliness, and tomato juice. His mind would sift through questions of why, how, and what the hell. He would kick off his shoes and lie on the couch, in a dark room, with a rock fireplace, where sunsets kissed the sky and mountain lions sometimes roamed the hills behind his house, and he would think about Dani’s question again, and before the night was over, he would cry himself to sleep.

h1=.

2011

It was still practically dark outside when AJ dipped two pieces of bread in an egg-and-milk slurry and laid them in a pan with a little oil. Inhaling deeply, he called toward the upstairs.

“Come on, kids. If you don’t hurry, you’re going to be late!”

What am I saying—the bus passed five minutes ago.

His eyes shot to a black-and-white cow clock on the wall. What’s keeping them? he thought.

Running out of patience, he turned down the burner and climbed the stairs.

“Paul,” AJ called, knuckling the bathroom door.

“What?” came the muffled reply.

“Paul, open up. I need to talk to you.”

Finally, the door swung open. Athletic, totally sarcastic, and occasionally hard-headed, Paul had hazel eyes and short dark hair. He’d hit the weights hard for football his senior year and AJ could tell a difference.

“What?”

AJ thumbed over his shoulder, ignoring a spot or two of shaving soap and the tiny specks of blood that were forming on Paul’s neck. “Dani missed her bus again. I need you to drop her off.”

“Dude, seriously? I’m a senior. You know how it looks when I have to cart my little sister around everywhere.”

“I’m not talking about everywhere, son—just to the elementary school.”

Paul groaned and closed the door firmly, without being disrespectful.

“I really appreciate it,” AJ called out. Next, he headed for Dani’s room, but when he peeked in, she wasn’t there. He found her seated at the kitchen table, having piled the first batch of French toast on a plate.

At ten, Dani already loved sports. With Amanda in college and Paul about to graduate from high school, AJ looked forward to following her around, season after season, from the softball field to the volleyball court. To his delight, she had recently shown some interest in archery, and AJ couldn’t wait to take her bow hunting with him in the fall.

“Look who finally decided to show up.” He walked over to the stove, dipped three more pieces of bread, and laid them in the pan. Then turning his attention to Dani’s lunch, he combined bread, mayo, mustard, and bologna the way she liked it. He cut off the crust and slid the sandwich into a baggie and then into a paper bag, along with some mandarin oranges in a sealed container.

“Your brother isn’t happy about having to take you to school, young lady. You can’t get ready five minutes sooner?” He held out his hand to her in a five.  “It just takes a little effort—maybe a minute faster in the bathroom, or a minute faster getting dressed. You understand what I mean?”

“That’s only two minutes,” she said, holding up two fingers to him. “I’d still be three minutes late.”

AJ stared at his daughter, secretly impressed by her witty sarcasm. “Thanks for the math lesson.”

Not admitting anything, she noisily sucked butter and powdered sugar off her fingers and asked, “So, when is Mom supposed to be home, anyway?”

“Friday—late, I think.”

“So she’ll be at my game on Saturday?”

“She wouldn’t miss it.”

At that moment, the phone rang.

“Dani, can you get that?”

“Yup.” Sliding off the stool, she skipped to the counter. “Hello, Dani speaking.” She listened and then laid the phone down. “It’s for you, Dad.”

“Pour yourself some milk,” he said as he walked toward the phone. “Hello.”

“AJ, this is Wilson.”

Wilson was Kelly’s client in Los Angeles. A huge fan of her work, he had referred a lot of business to her already. Although AJ had never met him, he felt like he knew him just from hearing Kelly talk about him.

“Hey, Wilson! It’s good to finally talk to you. What’s up?”

“I just wanted to say how sorry I am,” he said.

“Sorry? For what?”

Just then, there was a knock at the door.

“Can you hold for a minute, Wilson?” He set down the phone, walked to the hallway, and opened the door.

“Dave?” AJ said, taken aback by the sheriff’s presence. AJ’s first thought was that his sheep had gotten out again, and he took a step toward his coat that was hanging in the hall closet.

But the sheriff raised his hand for him to hold on. Then, while he seemed to try to find the right words, he removed his hat and nervously rolled the brim. Something had happened, he said, and it was bad. It was the worst thing ever. He hated having to be the one to deliver news like this. He was sorry, really sorry. It was about Kelly.

While AJ listened, he barely registered that Paul had finally made his way to the kitchen, removed a plate from the dishwasher, and was asking Dani to pass the syrup. Sheriff Dave went on to explain that there had been an accident and that Kelly, well—Kelly was involved. Her plane had gone down and unfortunately, she didn’t make it. Kelly had died in the crash.

The sheriff added again how sorry he was. He was still trying to piece it together himself. The FAA had people on the ground, but they moved like molasses, and so far, even they didn’t know exactly what caused it. Bits and pieces would probably continue to trickle in for hours. But he promised AJ that as soon as he knew something, he’d let him know. He made sure that AJ had his cell number and told him to give him a call if he needed anything, anything at all. He’d help in any way he could—the whole department would.

A few minutes later, the sheriff returned to his cruiser, closed his door, and looked back toward AJ, raising a hand to him through his window. Stifling an urge to just break down, AJ somehow found the strength to signal him back. Then turning, he glimpsed his children at the table and realized that what he had to do next would be the most difficult thing he’d ever had to do as their father.

h1=.

Kori

On Friday morning, Kori woke a little before eight in the St. George hotel where Shirley had made her a reservation. Her neck was stiff and she remembered that she’d intended to bring her own pillow the next time she traveled, but she’d forgotten. Of course, with Kevin shooing her out of the building the way someone might shoo a stray dog out the back door of a fancy restaurant—mop in hand, she didn’t exactly have time to prepare a checklist.

After showering, she dressed in a black skirt, beige blouse, and two-inch heels. Although she was technically done for the week, it was still a work day and she wanted to maintain at least a tone of professionalism. She gave the room a last looksee, dragged her bags to the lobby, and ate breakfast in the continental room on the main floor. Before leaving town, she pulled into a Top Stop , and after paying for her gas and a Diet Coke, she was on the road by nine.

The turnoff to Bryce Canyon was well marked. Even though she’d intended go straight home, she found herself taking the exit like Kevin had asked her to do. Just following orders, as usual. From there, it wasn’t long before she was climbing out of the heat of St. George and into the pines and fresh mountain air of Southern Utah’s Canyonlands, and it reminded her a little of where she grew up in Northern California.

Later that morning, Kori pulled into the Bryce Canyon parking lot and spent about fifteen minutes taking in its red rock formations, known as hoodoos. A flyer that she’d received at the park entrance explained that the pinkish-red hue for which the canyon was famous was caused by a high concentration of iron in the soil being exposed to oxygen in the air. She thought she recalled studying the effects of oxidation in a college chemistry class. When she’d seen about all she could see from the lookout, she got back in her car, flipped the visor up, and searched the radio for a station with less static.

The mountains and pines soon gave way to farms and pasture as the road plunged from the high country to the valley. Passing through small town after small town, Kori felt the intensity of the sun on her knuckles as its rays speared through the glass, warming her. Around noon, she slowed at the outskirts of Panguitch, and after driving down its Main Street, spotted a café called The Smokehouse. She pulled into a diagonal parking spot, grabbed her purse off the seat, locked her car, and walked in, noting an array of flickering neon beer signs dotting the windows of a nearby cantina. As her eyes adjusted to the inside, a hostess escorted her to a booth and handed her a menu. After having a minute to thumb through it, a thin, attractive waitress in her fifties approached.

“What’ll you have, doll?” the waitress asked, removing a pen from behind her ear.

Kori smiled and closed the menu. Glancing at the woman’s name tag, Kori said, “I’ll try the Butch Cassidy Bacon Burger Supreme, Chula.”

h3=.

Not long after, she was back on the road again. Small town. The next small town. More small towns after that. She glanced at her dash, noting that she had less than a quarter tank of gas. She slowed and read a sign. “Hometown of the Notorious Butch Cassidy.” She thought of her lunch and could now make the connection. Her head swiveled on her neck. The Butch Cassidy General Store. The Butch Cassidy Motel. The Butch Cassidy Gas-&-Go, at which point she pulled in. She filled her car with gas, and as she walked into the store to pay, noticed a flyer taped to the glass. Butch Cassidy Rodeo, July 8, 9, and 10.

Inside, she used the restroom and then perused the aisles for a moment, her legs stiff from the drive. She pulled a bottled water from a cooler and reached for a pack of breath mints. After setting her items on the counter, an older, heavy-set man in a sleeveless T-shirt rose from a lawn chair behind the register.

“Got everything you need?”

“I think so.”

He touched the screen. “$46.05.”

Kori gave him her card and he swiped it.

“Everybody here sure is crazy for Butch Cassidy, aren’t they?”

“I know I am,” he replied melodramatically.

Taking back her card, she regarded him with a speculative gaze. “I’m having trouble remembering my history. Who was he exactly?”

The man took a breath and looked to no particular place in the store. “Bank robber. Train robber. Thief, mostly, and leader of the Wild Bunch Gang, but in general, he was a guy you didn’t want to mess with. Some believe he was killed in Bolivia.”

“But you don’t.”

He shrugged. “Who knows with that guy? He might still be alive.”

“Wouldn’t that make him like a hundred and fifty years old?”

He grinned mischievously. “The stuff of legends.”

Kori smiled and twisted the cap off her bottle. “And you say he was born here?”

“Just outside of town.”

“What got him started on his life of crime?” she asked, taking a drink.

“I’m not sure. But I know that at least for a while, he earned an honest wage as a butcher.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, that’s how he got his nickname, Butch.”

She reached for her mints. “Well, I appreciate the education.”

“Anytime.”

After stepping toward the door, she turned back to him. “By the way, how long is it to Salt Lake from here?”

“Three to four hours, depending on how fast you drive.”

Kori thanked him again and walked out to her car. Before she got in, she looked at the sparse surroundings and imagined that she’d die if she had to live in a place like this. Three hours to home—to civilization. She had gas. She’d eaten lunch. She could still taste the onions on her burger, hence the mints. She was ready to complete the last leg of her journey—or should she say, Kevin’s journey. Nothing would stand in her way now.

h3=.

Twenty minutes later, Kori stood on the edge of the road, watching steam rise from the hood of her car. Her mechanic would later explain that a radiator hose had blown and all the water and anti-freeze in her engine had leaked out—gushed out, more like. Feeling more than a twinge of anxiety, she reached for her phone. No bars.

Why not?

Mumbling to herself, she put her phone in her purse, hit the door locks, and started walking. Minutes later, with her feet starting to go numb in her heels, she arrived at the outskirts of a town so small, she could see the beginning and the end of it at the same time. A sign at her right read “Oso Viejo Ranch.” A small road looked like it would take her to a house that was nestled against the base of a hill. She would walk up this road, knock on the door, try to be polite, ask to use a phone, call someone to come get her, and leave this place as fast as she could.

This was all Kevin’s fault, she thought as she turned onto the dirt road. She wondered if he’d be interested to know what happened when she took his advice. Maybe now he’d just let her sit in her office and things could get back to normal. Greg could be their out-of-town guy because clearly, she wasn’t cut out for it, even though she’d gotten both accounts yesterday. But the fact remained that she was stuck, and she wasn’t accustomed to being stuck. No, this had to end.

Monday morning, she would sit down with Kevin, like he’d said, and they’d get a few things straight. She wouldn’t be bullied. There was no way she could spend her days trekking through small towns like this for the rest of her life. She’d earned the right to stay indoors. She was an office girl—an air-conditioning, microwave-in-the-break-room kind of girl. The facts were as clear as the air she was breathing. She was going to stay in the office or find another firm. But that was next week. For now, she would pass the sign that says Trees for Sale and walk up the lane with her feet hurting, find someone to help her, and try very, very hard to forget about her life. It was a good plan.

h1=.

Kori & AJ

It was just after daybreak when AJ Crawford drove an old, flatbed Toyota pick-up into his tree farm and parked in a clearing where he worked. The truck was narrow—perfect for squeezing between the rows of trees. He worked almost non-stop, taking only ten minutes or so to down a sandwich and a Powerade around lunch time and then it was back to work. By afternoon, the sun was bright and high in the sky and the day was warm. White and pink petals still packed the branches of his flowering pear and cherry trees, but a good part of them had already fallen, blanketing the ground around him with Easter-like confetti. He wet a rag and wiped his neck, realizing that another hour or so and he’d call it a day. While giving the rag a twist, he spotted Pearl heading for her water bowl.

“Where ya been, girl?” he said as he spread the rag out on the hood of his pickup to dry. “Chasing ground squirrels again, huh?”

Pearl drank and then looked up at him, panting. Her tongue stretched almost to the ground and her eyes were slits in her head. Finally, she turned and collapsed in the shade of a nearby tree, sighing so heavily that her nostrils blew a puff of dust.

At his work table, AJ scooped potting material into a container and then added a tree. After making sure it was straight, he packed the soil firmly around the tree’s roots. Next, he picked up the hose and let a trickle of water run into the container. The water seeped quickly through the worked soil, drained from the bottom, and ran to the edge of the table. When he’d finished, he tossed the hose aside to where it’d been pooling up for most of the day. He moved the container to its corresponding row and was ready for the next tree.

First the pot, then the spindly Hackberry, add the soil, pack it down, glance over at Pearl, she’s doing fine, check the tree, it looks straight, add water, next tree, and so on. This was the fun part. Although it was a little monotonous, AJ loved potting the trees. It was the business end that kept him up at night—keeping track of inventory, calculating expenses, and billing the customers. Kelly had taken care of all that when she had time. Recently, he’d thought about hiring someone to do it.

A pot, then a tree, scoop in some soil.

Over and over.

Take a break, drink from a water jug, eat some Cheetos. What did Dani say about her softball game? Can’t remember. Pack it down, use the pruning shears to cut away a dead branch. It was green.

Son of a. . .!

He set the deformed tree off to the side, promising to salvage it later. Then he grabbed another pot and scooped in some soil.

Suddenly, AJ noticed Pearl sit up sharply, her eyes becoming focused and her breathing still.

“What is it, girl?”

After shooting him a quick glance, Pearl aimed her gaze into the trees.

“Good,” he said. “We could use a customer today.” Then he added to himself, “and some company.”

h3=.

Kori cupped her hands to her mouth. “Helloooo?”

She listened and heard the distant twang of a country radio station go silent. She called out again. “Hello?”

“Over here.”

“Where?”

“We’re in the center. Just keep coming”

She began moving again, noting that the flowering trees to her right were full of bees and she made sure that she steered clear of them. “Am I going the right way?”

“Yup, you’re doing great.”

The man’s voice was definitely closer now and she pushed on. “I’m trying to find someone to help me.”

“No problem. Just cut through that row and you’ll be here.”

A moment later, Kori parted the branches, landing with a slight stumble on the other side. When she let go of the limbs, the opening collapsed behind her. After momentarily forming her mouth to speak, she suddenly began whipping her hair with her hands.

“Spider web.”

“What?” she said curtly.

“Spider web,” the man repeated. “Thin, silky threads used for catching prey.”

“Yes, I know what a spider web is.” She tried to get her hair to lay flat again. “What kind of spiders, anyway? Poisonous ones?”

“All kinds,” the man said, already crossing the space between them. “Most of them are harmless, though.”

“Most?” Kori replied, her eyes climbing to meet his. She felt the tickle of something on her ankle, and not wanting to be bitten, she reached down and swiped at it.

“Well, now that you mention it, I have seen the occasional black widow.”

“Black widow?” She scowled. “I think that would qualify as poisonous.” She felt a little light-headed and figured it was from all her thrashing around. “Isn’t there some kind of spray or pesticide you could use on the trees to make them safe for people?”

The man seemed to think about her words for a moment. “Yeah, but I don’t think it would justify the cost to kill just one or two spiders.”

“What if it killed the one spider that would otherwise kill me? Could you justify it then?”

She watched as a curious smile spread slowly to the corners of his mouth.

“I see what you’re saying.”

Doubting that he really did understand, she pulled on her shoulder.

“Here, let me take a look.”

She aimed her back at him.

“You’re clear,” he said, using his hand to flick away some debris. “I’ll cancel the 9-1-1 call.”

Kori spun to eye him, her dark hair splashing across her face.

“Just kiddin,” he said, raising his hands. Then he stooped and she noted a look of concern on his face. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” she said, her voice rising.

He thumbed behind him at his pick-up. “You wanna sit for a minute on the flat bed?”

What? No lawn chair by the pool? “I’ll be all right,” she said, knocking down a sob in her throat. The guy was treating her like an accident victim, and if she cried, it’d be his fault. “Listen, I need to ask you—”

“Want something to drink?”

“No, thanks,” she said. “Actually, my car—”

“I’ve got all kinds,” he interrupted again. Moving toward his truck in swift strides, he tugged on a cooler lid. “Coke, Squirt, Powerade, water.”

“I don’t—want—a drink!” she spat as nicely as she possibly could, wondering if he was capable of listening for five seconds.

The man shrugged and let the lid close with a thud. Then he walked back to his work table without saying anything. He reached for a black container and filled it half full of dirt. Then he added a twig.

Kori rubbed her forehead, and after taking a breath, forced herself to notice her surroundings. Rows and rows of trees were covered in white blossoms, with a few pink ones mixed in, and even a dark red one here and there. A light breeze caused their petals to float down, almost flickering as they caught the light. Behind the man were several stacks of black plastic containers. Not far off was a large pile of dark soil, which she assumed was responsible for the animal-waste smell, and she made a point of not getting too close to it. As she took it all in, she couldn’t ignore the steady, frantic whir of the bees all around her, foreboding, like the threat of an approaching tornado. Bees. Spiders. What next? Polar bears?

“So many bees.”

He smiled and nodded without looking away from his work.

“Why do the bees go for these trees and not those over there?”

He shrugged. “Same reason a man is attracted to a woman, I guess.”

“And what’s that?”

“They go for the sweet stuff.”

Kori scratched her neck at that. “And they never bother you?”

“Not if I don’t bother them.” He pointed to himself with the scoop. “I’m AJ, by the way.”

“Kori—from Salt Lake.” She walked toward him with her hand extended.

AJ brushed his hand on his pants. “Nice to meet you.”

They exchanged a polite handshake and smile.

“And that’s Pearl,” he said, motioning toward the dog.

At the sound of her name, Pearl cocked her ears as though there might be a treat in it for her.

“Well, Kori from Salt Lake, what can we do for you? You need a bunch of trees, I hope.”

“Sorry, but I’m not in the market for trees.”

As she spoke, she felt a tickle on her back and imagined that no matter what this guy said, a spider could have worked its way under her blouse, and any second now, sink its pointy fangs into her soft flesh. There was no way he could know the attack habits of every spider in the area, and it was obvious from his cavalier attitude that he had no idea how much she hated them.

“Actually, my car broke down.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

She shrugged as though it was par for the course for her lately.

“You might have to spend the night in town,” AJ added.

At his words, she felt her expression lose any hint of goodwill. “Spend the night?”

“Now, who would’ve thought that’d be worse news?”

For a moment, she just stood there, looking at him. When he smirked and went back to work, she couldn’t help thinking that he was somehow enjoying this.

“Is there a mechanic in town?”

“Where’s your car?”

“Not far—about a mile that way.” She pointed in one direction and then, after thinking about it, pointed in the opposite direction “That way, on the main road.”

“Yeah, we’ve got a mechanic.”

Kori nodded, like she’d finally accomplished something.

“But he’s moving sheep up on the mountain. He won’t be back until after the weekend.”

“Oh,” she said weakly.

“Maybe I can take a look at it.”

“Are you a mechanic?”

“Not exactly, but I’ve had some luck fixing my truck from time to time.”

“Well, it requires more than luck to fix a BMW,” she advised him. She folded her arms. “Perhaps I could borrow your phone and I’ll call my mechanic.” While she waited for him to answer, she noticed his eyes drop to her legs before swiftly climbing to meet her gaze again.

“Would that be okay?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“May—I—borrow—your—phone?” she repeated. This time, her words were clear and evenly spaced.

“Oh, a phone.”

She nodded.

“Sure.” He looked in the direction of the house and then back at her. “Hop in and I’ll take you up.”

She stayed where she was. “You don’t have a cell phone with you?”

“Too many interruptions,” he said.

Kori cleared her throat at that. “Well, I can walk, and if your wife is there—”

“No cell phone, no wife,” AJ summed up quickly.

She stared, and in spite of herself, felt strangely intrigued by his remark. “Well, I don’t want to be a bother.”

“It’s no bother.” He motioned toward his truck again. “I needed to take a break anyway. Get in.”

Knowing she needed to get to a phone more than anything, Kori walked around the back of the truck when she suddenly let out a scream.

Moving quickly, AJ found her on one leg, holding on to the truck for balance. “Where’s your shoe?”

She pointed to a mud bog where water looked to have been running for several hours, if not days.

“Serious?” AJ asked.

“I’m afraid so.”

Just then, Pearl pulled up next to him, and for a moment, they looked as if they were putting their heads together.

Dropping to his knees, he reached into the mud, and a moment later, hoisted her shoe into the air like a warrior who just killed his first buffalo and was holding up the liver while the rest of the hunting party cheered. After getting to his feet, he set her shoe on the flatbed and reached for a rag to wipe his hand. “Soap and water, maybe a little gasoline. It’ll be good as new.”

Betting that the shoe was ruined, she was about to thank him anyway when she felt his arm at her back.

“Hold on.”

With her feet suddenly in the air, her arms flew instinctively around his neck.

“Don’t worry. I’ve carried fish that weigh more than you,” he said as he lowered her through the doorframe and set her gently on the truck’s passenger seat. “’Course, they didn’t smell as good.”

With her safely in, he flashed her a smile and flung the door shut. She stiffened at the hideous metal-on-metal grinding sound of the door. Once in, he steered them between the rows of trees until they stopped in front of a house where Kori took off her other shoe and followed him on to the porch and through the front door.

He handed her a phone book. “I’ll wait outside while you make the call.”

“Salt Lake? What, no Mule Creek Yellow Pages?”

“We’ve printed them in the past,” he said. “But they keep getting used as bookmarks or napkins.”

Kori smiled for the first time since they met. “Maybe if you included all the cows and sheep in town.”

“Not a bad idea.” He returned her smile and left.

Finally alone, Kori took a deep, shaky breath—perhaps her first good breath since AJ had picked her up and carried her to his truck. She tried to grasp the fact that she’d been driving down the road one minute, minding her own business, thinking about cooking Japanese food when she got home, and then, POW!—in the arms of a total stranger, her shoulder pressed against his chest. Things like that just didn’t happen. Not to her, anyway. And incidentally, he didn’t smell as bad as she would have thought for a guy with a shirt that dirty.

She walked over to a small oak table, sat down at one of the two chairs that bookended it, and turned on the lamp. She reminded herself that she’d just had one of the worst days of her life, and if she’d been a little unpleasant, well, no one would blame her. Flipping to the mechanic section, she quickly found the name of the garage she’d used in the past and put her finger next to the number. After dialing, she stood and took the phone with her.

Stopping at the living-room window, she gently parted the drapes to discover AJ at the edge of the gravel drive, working on her shoe. He’d turned on a tap near the house, and when he put his thumb over the end of the hose, he got a small stream of high-pressure water, and it seemed to be doing the trick.

Lost in thought, she was almost startled when she heard a voice in her ear, and to her relief, wasn’t so distracted that she couldn’t easily recall the problem with her car. After explaining her situation, she waited while the man rounded up an available driver. She imagined that no one was too excited about driving down to Mule Creek on a Friday afternoon, and actually, she couldn’t blame them. But they eventually found a guy who was married with kids and going to BYU, and although he probably wasn’t thrilled, he may have appreciated the overtime.

After ending the call, Kori set the phone on the arm of the couch and parted the drapes again. Now he was drying her shoe with his shirt. She smiled softly. It wouldn’t be long and she’d be leaving Mule Creek, maybe for good, and as she watched him, she found herself wondering why she wasn’t more pleased about that.

h1=.

After helping herself to a glass of water, Kori walked back out to the porch where she found AJ leaning against the flatbed of his truck. His legs were crossed at the ankles, right over left, and the wide brim of his work hat was casting a shadow across his face, making some of his features practically disappear.

“Look at that!” he said, holding up her shoe. “Good as new.”

“Thank you so much.” She really meant it this time.

“So, did you get ahold of anybody?”

“Yes. But they won’t get here until about six o’clock.”

“Six, huh?”

“Yeah, something about Mule Creek being just left of the moon.”

A smile widened slowly across his face. “You just couldn’t resist that one, could you?”

She joined him in amusement and then lowered herself to the top step, drawing her knees to her chest.

“You’re welcome to stay at the house until help arrives,” AJ said, as if he’d read her mind. He motioned toward the dog. “Pearl won’t mind—and neither would I.”

“I don’t know,” she said, looking at Pearl. “She’s sticking her tongue out at me.”

“That just means she likes you.”

Kori nodded and laced her fingers over one knee. She knew it would probably be smarter to wait by the car in case the tow truck arrived early. She wasn’t certain, but she might have to sign some paperwork before they could haul her car away, and of course, she needed a ride back to the city. But more than anything, she didn’t want to be an inconvenience.

“You sure it wouldn’t be an inconvenience?”

“Well, let me see.” He folded his arms and his biceps widened. “You don’t chase chickens, do ya?”

“I’ll try to stay away from the chickens.”

AJ grinned, and then spoke as though the decision to stay had been made. “Do you need anything out of your car?”

Kori pressed her lips together, knowing that she was about to be an inconvenience for the second time, which, by the way, was a record for her. “Now that you mention it, I could use some shoes.”

“Pearl and I are at your service,” he said, motioning over his shoulder to his truck.

With Pearl in the back, AJ steered them down the dirt road. A warm, relaxing breeze spilled in through her window, pushing Kori’s hair from her face. At the highway, AJ checked for traffic and turned left, and she thought she saw him notice her bare feet resting on the floorboard.

“Oso Viejo Ranch. Is that how you say it?”

“Close enough.”

“What does ‘Oso Viejo’ mean, anyway?”

“It means ‘Old Bear’ in Spanish.”

“Old Bear?”

“Yeah. In the early 1900s, people used to think that an old killer bear roamed these hills.” AJ rested his elbow out the window while he talked. “As the story goes, lots of men tried to hunt it, but they usually just got themselves killed in the process. Folks used to say that if you got close enough to see it, you were dead.”

Listening to the story, Kori frowned and did a quick check of the hills around them, praying that she didn’t somehow spot it meandering along.

“Did anyone ever kill it?”

“No one knows. There’s no picture of it, and no one’s ever found any bones that would support a giant killer bear theory. It could still be out there. You know how legends are.”

Kori’s jaw dropped a little. “I was just walking out there and I didn’t even know.”

“Whoa now, girl. It’s just a story.”

He yanked the wheel to avoid a pothole, and Kori braced herself to keep from tumbling toward him.

“How can you live in a place where you could be eaten by a bear at any moment?” she asked. “I could never feel comfortable until it was confirmed dead.”

AJ’s frame lurched with a chuckle. “Practically every night in Salt Lake, some guy gets his butt shot up at a 7-Eleven or there’s a knife fight at some party.” He smiled confidently. “I’ll take my chances with the bear.”

After thinking about it, she smiled. “Well, it’s a good story. And I love the name of your ranch.”

Not long after, AJ passed Kori’s BMW, doing a U-turn in the road and pulling up next to it.

“I’ll signal you if I see a bear coming,” AJ joked as she stepped down.

Turning back at him, her lips parted only slightly in an uneasy smile as she wanted to believe he was joking.

While Kori collected her things, which, as all travelers know, tend to get scattered, no matter how committed you are to keeping things tidy, AJ leaned against his door, and without meaning to, found himself studying this woman. Toned calves. Thick, dark hair that fell around her face and the delicate outline of a bra strap through her shirt. Reaching into the back seat, her black skirt tightened against her and AJ found himself admiring her figure. Despite her big-city background, he began wondering how she’d look in a cowboy hat and pair of boots.

A moment later, Kori mashed her teeth together as she hoisted her bag on to the seat next to AJ.

He reached for it and tugged it toward him. “Need any help?”

“No. Just a couple more things.”

She opened the back door to get her sweater, thinking she should probably get everything. Honestly, she’d rather be bear food than have to ask him for one more favor. Lastly, she plucked two sacks of Japanese food from the back seat. Who knew how long it would take for the tow truck to get there? She might need a snack. Food seemed to be her answer for everything these days. In fact, her diet had taken such a nose-dive lately, she wondered why she hadn’t already puffed up like a blowfish. Stress, probably. Then, breathing as though the move had worn her out, she looked in at him.

“I think that does it.”

“Great. Hop in.”

She climbed up and gave the door a yank, grimacing again at the sound of the hinges. “Please tell me you’re planning to do something about that door.”

“Well, I wish I could fix it with a little grease, but I’m afraid it’s gonna take more than that. And since it’s the passenger door to a work truck and hardly ever gets used—except when I have stranded women at my ranch—I’ll probably just let it go.”

She smiled at him, in spite of the fact that his comment had grazed a nerve.

“What’s in the sacks?”

“Japanese food that I bought at an Asian market in St. George.” She unzipped her bag and pulled out a pair of socks, unrolling them. “I saw that look, by the way.”

“What look?”

“You made a face when I said Japanese food.”

“I did?”

“Have you ever tried Japanese food?”

“No, but it sounds kind of . . . slimy.” He checked over his shoulder for traffic, let out the clutch, and moved into the road.

Kori shook her head at him in mild reproach. “Slimy? I think the word you’re looking for is ‘delicious’, or maybe ‘healthy’.”

They went over some bumps and Kori instinctively placed an arm on top of her bag to hold everything in place. “If you’re lucky, I’ll cook for you sometime.”

“I guess I could force something down. If it’s slimy enough, I won’t even have to chew it.”

Ignoring his ridiculousness, she watched out the window, and before long, the house came back into view. While AJ kept the engine running, Kori got out, and in a couple of quick moves, ferried her things to the porch. Then she walked back to the truck, resting her forearms on the passenger door.

“Make yourself at home,” AJ said. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours. If you like, you can sit on the porch and relax. The view’s incredible, especially during the late afternoon. Or you can go in the house. There’s drinks in the fridge—lemonade, Coke. If you’re hungry, you can make a sandwich. I wish I could be a better host, but I’ve got to get these trees in pots—the ones I have soaking in water, anyway.”

“Thank you so much, AJ. You’ve been a lifesaver.”

“It was my pleasure,” he said, enjoying the feeling of her warm, brown eyes directed at his.

After she’d stepped away, AJ let out the clutch and almost coasted downhill to his work area. He reached to adjust his rearview mirror, hoping that he might get to see Kori in it. Even a glimpse of her would’ve been nice.

h1=.

After AJ left, Kori carried her suitcase inside and set it down on the couch. Opening her bag, she swapped her skirt and blouse for a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Then she dug until she’d unearthed a pair of Sketchers. After finding a bathroom, she went into the kitchen to get something besides water to drink, eventually pulling a pitcher of lime-aid from the fridge and pouring herself a glass. As she sipped, she opened the fridge again and looked in.

Milk. Steak sauce. A pan of leftovers. Hmm.

She lifted the aluminum foil covering.

Potatoes, meat, and corn—some kind of casserole.

Interesting.

Next, she pulled on the freezer door.

Ice cream sandwiches. Corndogs. Pork chops.

She lifted a bag.

Frozen shrimp.

She cooked a lot with shrimp and was impressed to find a bag of it in his freezer.

When she was done snooping, she grabbed her drink, picked up her shoulder bag, and walked out, taking a seat in the porch swing. Setting her bag on her lap, she began to dig through it, eventually removing her great-grandmother’s journal which she’d all but forgotten about.

The valley was a patchwork of color. The mountains still had a little snow on their peaks and there was a forest of tall cottonwoods that followed a river as it steered through the bottomland. And from time to time, she got a whiff of a hedge of lilac bushes that were in full bloom. AJ popped in and out of her view in the exact spot where she had run into him almost an hour ago. A faded Cheap Trick t-shirt and tan cargo pants. He’d turned the radio up again after turning it down to locate her. She knew he was working, but he reminded her more of a kid on summer vacation than an adult running his own business. From a distance, she watched him carry a tree in each hand and set them down gently in their corresponding row. She remembered seeing signs that told which was which. Maples. Oaks. Honeylocust. But his life suited him—she had to admit that. He had whiskers on his chin, a couple of days’ worth at least, and his arms were lean and tan from the work.

She thought about walking down, and she almost got up, shocked that milling around next to him in the middle of nowhere was where she wanted to be more than anything. But he had been very clear—he had work to do. He didn’t need a city girl in his way, getting stuck in mud bogs and having to run her all over the valley in his truck.

She adjusted the cushion and brought her feet up, pinning them under her. She thought about the call she made to her mechanic, wondering suddenly why she’d been in such a rush to leave. Her mechanic had certainly bent over backwards to get her a driver. She’d worked with this shop before and she knew them to be efficient. They’d be there on time, which, in one way, was good because the last thing she wanted to do was overstay her welcome. Still, she’d be leaving in a few hours and she wondered if she’d ever have a chance to thank him for all he’d done, or to explain the kind of week she’d had. She wasn’t always this grouchy, and she wanted AJ to know that about her. And more importantly, she wondered if she’d ever have a chance to tell him what it’d meant to her, even if it’d only been for a moment, to be held by him.

h1=.

My name is Hanako Ishikawa. I was born in the springtime of 1890. I grew up in Kagoshima, which is on the south end of the island of Kyushu, and in the shadow of the Kagoshima volcano. I had one older sister, whose name was Saiko. Saiko was my best friend. Every day we would go to school together, walking about one mile there and back. Maybe it seems odd to say, but we liked school. Although the teachers were harsh, it was fun to learn. Most importantly, we knew that if we weren’t at school, we’d be working, doing chores, either for our parents or for someone else to earn money for the family.

By far, the best part of our day was the walk home. Two sisters who lived down the street from us and who were our same ages joined us most days. We walked slowly, talking, speculating about our futures and dreaming of the day when we would have husbands.

While we were walking home one day, Mayumi admitted that she thought our teacher, Naito Sensei, was very handsome. She claimed that she would have a handsome husband like him some day.

Originally from the Tokyo area, Naito Sensei had recently finished his university schooling, and was assigned to be a teacher in Kagoshima. In those days, when finished with their education, all teachers were expected to teach in assigned locations. Those who received high marks at the university were assigned to Tokyo and other large cities, which pleased them very much. Those who didn’t do so well in school were assigned to teaching jobs in rural areas, which was a disappointment to them. It was meant to be a punishment. But it seemed to me that Naito Sensei was enjoying his life in the country. He was well liked by the other teachers and the students, especially the girls. And since it was an all-girls’ school, he was liked by just about everyone.

Because Mayumi was poor, Saiko disagreed with her and tried to remind Mayumi who she was.

“How can you get a handsome teacher like him?” Saiko looked around and saw an old man pushing a handcart piled high with rice stalks that had been cut and tied together with twine. “You see that old man over there? He’s the man for you.”

Mayumi protested while the other girls laughed. We were all approaching the age when a husband would be chosen for us. In fact, my sister’s o-miai, or matchmaking process, had already begun. Normally, it took time to work out the details as the parents jockeyed back and forth to get the best deal for their son or daughter with the sewanin, or matchmaker, caught in the middle, which was right where she wanted to be. Of course, Saiko was hoping for someone young and handsome, but most importantly, kind. Rich would be good too. But unfortunately, it was rarely so. Sometimes the husband was old, maybe a widower, and not at all handsome, and perhaps mean. That was the worst fear of all.

Saiko was anxious about her pending o-miai and she didn’t like talking about husbands or weddings. So while we talked and giggled about almost everything, including boys, we all knew not to bring up Saiko’s o-miai. The subject was off limits.

As we slowly wandered through town, we would pass a noodle shop. The steam inside would fog up the windows until we couldn’t see in. But the smell of the noodles made us hungry and we began to walk faster, knowing that even though we had chores to do at home, we also had a snack waiting for us.

I remember well when the time came for Saiko to meet her husband. She was sixteen, almost seventeen. My mother, sister, and I, along with my grandmother, had been making food for three days, and the excitement had been growing. But my sister was nervous and I spent much of my time just being with her, not saying anything important, just taking her mind off her o-miai.

“I’m so scared, Hanako,” she said, rocking nervously back and forth.

I sat on the futon next to her. “I’m sure Mother made a good choice. Your husband is going to be handsome. And he will be good to you. I can imagine you in a few years with children, and you will be happy.” Of course, I had no way of knowing the truth. Everything had been arranged without involving Saiko and me.

She grabbed my hand and looked at me. “I feel like I’m never going to see you again.” I held her hand tight for almost an hour, not quite understanding why she would say such a thing.

Finally, the day of Saiko’s wedding arrived, and fortunately for Saiko, her new husband was fairly young and a little handsome, and we all—I mean, the rest of the young girls and I—believed she could have done a lot worse. She would probably grow to love him very much, as happened with most matches—at least, that’s what all the old women said.

After the wedding, Saiko moved to Kumamoto to live with her new husband and his family. Six months after the wedding, my parents and I traveled to visit her. Saiko was pregnant already, and on the outside, seemed happy. However, she worked a lot—in the fields during the day and then in the house, taking care of her husband, and sometimes his parents. It would have been difficult work for anyone, but it was especially difficult for Saiko as she was starting to show.

Her husband seemed nice and very respectful to our family, especially to my parents. But it seemed to me that he expected too much of Saiko in her condition. Before we left, we promised that we would visit again soon, probably a month or two after the baby was born.

The next week, I walked home from school with the other girls just like before. Even though I walked with my friends, I felt like I was walking home alone now that Saiko was gone. One day after school, I found my father waiting for me when I got home. It was one of the rare times I’d ever seen him home from work before I got home from school.

“Hanako, I have some very bad news.”

I closed the door and took off my shoes, leaving them in the genkan. I stepped into the room and lowered my bag from my shoulder, cradling it in front of me. He had scared me and I didn’t want to speak. But somehow, I already knew what he was going to tell me.

“Your sister passed away yesterday. The baby also perished.”

I felt my eyes start to moisten, but I fought it back as I knew that my father would expect me to be strong. I had to assume that my father’s heart was also breaking, but he didn’t show it.

As I recalled our visit to Kumamoto, I was not surprised by the news. Saiko had seemed overworked, and even though I didn’t say anything, I had worried about her. I also noticed the look in my mother’s eyes when she saw how hard Saiko was working. She was so proud of her. She had undoubtedly made some weighty promises about Saiko’s ability to take care of the home, of her husband and his family, and to work in the family business all at the same time. My mother seemed to believe that Saiko was living up to the agreement my mother had made with the groom’s parents. I don’t think it even crossed her mind that Saiko was in trouble.

After giving me the news about my sister, my father motioned for me to sit down and I set my school bag on the table.

“I know that the news about your sister is very sorrowful,” he began. “But we have some good news as well.” He cleared his throat and seemed to force a smile. “We have found a match for you too, Hanako.”

h1=.

Kori sat up and stretched. She wiped at the corners of her eyes. The groggy haze that had settled over her let her know that she’d not only slept, but it’d been a deep sleep. The sun had dropped in the sky and she was no longer under the shady protection of the porch. When she ran her hand along the leg of her pants, it was hot to the touch. Reaching for her great-grandmother’s journal, it all started coming back—her broken-down car, the spider webs, and AJ.

She glanced at her watch. 5:05.

The tow truck would be here shortly. She had an hour, tops, and she told herself again that leaving was for the best.

After inserting the red satin ribbon to save her place, she carefully placed the journal back into her bag. Then she directed her gaze toward AJ’s work area. His truck was visible, but she couldn’t actually see him. Yawning, she got to her feet, crossed the gravel drive, and walked into the trees, paying special attention to the menacing swarm of bees in the flowering trees. The day had turned out warm—even hot for this time of year, but pleasant. The sun drilled down through the tender spring branches, kissing her skin with filtered shade. It was much easier going now that she’d changed into jeans and cross-trainers. A short walk later, she came across AJ with his back to her. Not wanting to startle him, she cleared her throat to announce her presence.

“Well, if it isn’t the girl who was passed out on my porch,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at her and then back at his work.  

Her stomach knotted instantly. She had no idea he’d been back up to the house, and she began to imagine how she must’ve looked, sacked out in the swing.

“Have a good nap?”

“Funny, I wasn’t aware that you’d stopped by.”

“I had to check on my guest.” He removed a narrow twig from a bucket marked Indian Summer Crab. After positioning it in a pot, he dumped soil in on its roots.

Kori ran her hands over her hair. “I don’t usually fall asleep at a stranger’s home.”

“We’re not strangers,” AJ quickly contested.

“Not if you’ve seen me crashed out like a drunken sailor,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper.

She waited for him to say something, and when he didn’t, she turned to find him smiling, and she thought he looked way too pleased with himself for having caught her snoozing. As she turned, she spied the mud bog—her mud bog—the divot from her shoe now flooded with water. Stepping carefully around it, she was unceremoniously reminded that she now had more than one reason to feel awkward in his presence.

“So, this is where I was almost buried alive, huh?”

AJ shot a quick glance at the bog and then reached for his pruning shears. “Yeah, we’re thinking of naming it after you. We might even construct a marker—with a plaque.”

She coaxed her mouth into a sweet loop, even though she didn’t think the plaque idea was at all funny.

“So,” she began, wanting to change the subject. “You put all these trees in pots, and then what—sell them?”

AJ nodded. “We let them grow for a couple of years first. I won’t sell these for at least four years.”

“Who do you sell them to?”

“Nurseries, landscapers. I’ve even sold some to the U.S. Government.” He stooped, picked up the hose, and let it run in the container.

Kori laced her fingers behind her back. Watching him, she sensed that he had a love for the trees—a child-like zeal. She could tell that he absolutely enjoyed pampering them. His back widened and the veins in his neck and forehead appeared as he strained to move a container that was several times the size of the others. When he was done, he arched his back as though he suddenly felt a stiffness that would only go away with a good shot of ibuprofen. After moving a second tree, he walked over to his truck and reached inside the cab, removing a water jug.

“So, what about these trees in here?”

After lowering his jug, he breathed in heavily. “Those are maples. I’ve found that they plant better if I sweat them first.”

“Sweat them?”

“Yeah. I run a sprinkler on them, keeping them in a warm, hyper-humid environment for a day or two, or until they break bud. If not, a lot of them just won’t take.”

Kori walked over, stuck her hand between the plastic sheets, and let the sprinkler pepper her skin with tiny, warm droplets. She grinned luxuriously at the feel of it. “Maybe someone should sweat me or I won’t take.”

AJ chuckled as though he knew how she felt. “So have you heard from your ride?”

“No, but as far as I know, they’re still coming.” As she said it, she felt a trace of disappointment bubble to her surface.

“Have you ever been down this way before?”

“Never.”

“What do you think?”

She shrugged. “Nice.”

After replacing the water jug, he suddenly turned to her. “Hey, I’ve got an idea. My daughter has a softball game later this evening.”

“Your daughter?”

“Yeah. Thirteen going on twenty.”

Kori smiled. “I have a daughter too, Mai. She’s fifteen.”

AJ’s mouth rounded. “Oooh, tough age.”

“Could be, but she’s great.”

“Dating yet?”

“No, thank goodness.”

He paused and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “My oldest daughter couldn’t wait to date. Drove me crazy. I hated every guy she brought home.”

“That’s normal for dads.”

“I guess. But she must be getting better at it ’cause the guy she’s seeing now is working for the NSA and finishing his master’s degree in applied linguistics.”

Kori nodded unquestioningly, still wondering what all this had to do with softball.

“So anyway—how would you like to go?”

“To?”

“To my daughter’s game.”

Kori’s lips parted slightly in uncertainty. She pretended like she hadn’t already, for the briefest of moments, wished there was a reason for her to stay.

“I’m meeting a couple of friends before the game for a barbeque.”

Kori’s gaze shot to the ground. “I can’t. I’ll miss my ride back to Salt Lake.”

“Ah, yeah. Forgot about that,” AJ said, seemingly coming to his senses. Then he added, “We have an extra room, and I can take you home tomorrow. I need to go to Salt Lake anyway.”

She believed it was probably a fib, but no lie had ever made her feel more appreciated. “Well, that’s really nice of you, but I just can’t. I mean, it’s not possible.”

“Sure it’s possible. We just get in the Jeep and I push the gas. I’ve done it before.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said.

He grinned weakly at her, reached through the window for his jug of water, and drained it.

“What makes you think that I’m at liberty to just pack up and go with you?”

“I don’t know,” he said, tossing the empty jug onto the seat and walking back to his work table. “Maybe we should just forget it.”

Not that it mattered, but in the past, men had made it known that they found her attractive, and not just a couple of times. She’d been asked out at work and it hadn’t mattered to them that she was married. It surprised her at first, but after a while, she got so she could recognize when it was about to happen. But what really surprised her was how simplistic their efforts were. They usually just stared at her blouse while they suggested they get together for drinks—like she would even consider it.

But AJ wasn’t one of her morally bankrupt colleagues, and his daughter’s softball game wasn’t a sports bar. He’d said forget it, but that was the last thing in the world she could do now. She couldn’t go, of course. But at least part of her wanted to, which seemed to eat at her soul. At the risk of being disappointed in him, she felt a pressing ache to understand what was going on in that thick head of his.

“You know, I’m a little surprised that you would ask me out. It didn’t occur to you that I might be married?”

“I figured you’d tell me right away, and if you were—.” He squatted down to get some of the valuable potting soil that had fallen from his table to the ground. Corralling a few handfuls, he emptied the recovered soil into a wheelbarrow. “Are you married?”

“Yes!” She didn’t hesitate, thank goodness.

“Great. How long have you been married?”

“I don’t understand how that’s relevant.”

AJ paused and then smiled easily at her. “Look, first of all, I wasn’t asking you out. I was just . . . recommending that you do something fun while you’re in town. We don’t have an Eiffel Tower or a Great Wall of China. But we do have softball and barbeque. And it’d be a good chance for you to see the area.” He looked off into space. “And secondly, something about you didn’t strike me as married.”

At his words, Kori’s mouth nudged open. “Well, I am.” Do I need it tattooed on my forehead?

“You don’t look it. Not all the way.”

She snorted a laugh. “I’ve never heard of a half-married person. Am I the first?” Her eyes were zeroed in on him like he was short on brain cells or something.

He seemed to think about it. “You’re right. That probably wasn’t a very smart thing to say.”

“Perhaps I confused you with this large ring?” she said, raising her hand to model the diamond for him.

“Well, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’ve heard that sometimes women keep wearing their rings so they’re not bombarded by losers.”

Kori tapped her foot and looked at him like he’d answered his own question.

“But I’m not one of them!” he barked.

Smiling at himself, he walked back over to his truck and took out the Cheetos. After funneling a handful into his mouth, he motioned toward her with the bag.

Kori shook her head, wondering how he could even think about food when he was in the middle of making a pass at her.

“Okay, I’m sorry,” he said. “I can see that you’re happily married and I dutifully withdraw my offer, although, as I said, it wasn’t really an offer.”

“Actually, I’m probably getting divorced.”

“Well then, I don’t see the problem.”

Kori felt her eyes cool before growing hot again. “You don’t see the problem?” she repeated.

“Not really.” He dropped the bag of Cheetos onto the seat and seemed to eye his empty jug. Then he walked back to his work table and began gathering his tools.

Kori was silent for a moment while she allowed her thoughts to simmer. Despite her circumstances, she was hopelessly flattered by what she assumed was his interest in her, regardless of how hard he tried to downplay it. In fact, she thought she’d seen him notice her once or twice. Even more interesting, it surprised her that with everything going on in her life, she could imagine herself having something that resembled fun with a guy she barely knew.

With his work area cleaned up, AJ held open the passenger door to her. After getting in himself, he turned the key and they moved slowly toward the house.

“Sorry if I upset you,” AJ said.

“I’m not upset.”

“It’s just that my friends are always trying to get me to bring someone.”

She crossed her arms and looked at him. “So you think it’s okay to use me as arm candy?”

AJ couldn’t help laughing out loud. “Something like that.”

He seemed to be laughing at the both of them, and Kori suddenly felt her guard drop. She noticed his hand on the stick and the muscles in his arm as he changed gears, and she felt safe being with him. She was enjoying herself, crazy as it sounded. She was even enjoying their conversation, in spite of the fact that she was spinning in disbelief over it. She was away from all the news reporters and innuendos of friends and neighbors. She was hidden, jammed into the cab of a farm truck, in the middle of nowhere with poisonous spiders and killer bears running loose, and no one in the world knew where she was—except this man.

A minute later, they arrived at the house and AJ angled for a parking spot under a large Red Maple. He turned the key and the cab shook as the engine coughed once before dying completely. They sat quietly for a moment, neither of them willing to reach for the door.

“I want you to know that I appreciate the offer,” she said, refusing to look to him. “But you don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me.” As she spoke, she imagined the bad publicity that would surely result if the wrong people saw them together. “Believe me, it’s dangerous to know me.”

“Please don’t tell me you’re a vampire,” AJ said, looking panicked.

She chuckled once. “It’s not actually that bad.”

Finally opening his door, AJ walked behind the truck, where she joined him. “Look, I’m just talking about a Friday night game of softball, not a marriage proposal. We’ll be in public the whole time. In fact, there’ll be at least two cops at the game to watch their daughters play.” He picked up a saddle that was slung over the fence and started for the barn, his face twisting with the weight of it.

“I know. I’m not worried about that,” Kori said as she followed him.

In the barn, he muscled the saddle onto its rack.

Kori kept her arms folded tight against her chest, thinking that if she didn’t, she might reach out and hug him for trying so hard. It’d been forever since someone wanted to be with her this badly, and she felt herself running out of reasons not to go.

“Things are just so—problematic.”

AJ’s brow arched at her use of the word. “Well, if you can’t go, then you can’t go.”

Just then, a car pulled in and their heads turned to the sound of gravel being pressed flat. When it stopped, two girls shot out.

“Hi, Daddy.”

“Hi, sweetheart. We need to leave for your game soon. Will you be ready?”

“Yeah,” Dani said as they both hurried toward him.

AJ introduced them. “Kori, this is my daughter, Dani, and her friend Allison.”

Kori nodded and smiled. “Hi, girls.”

“Meet me out here in twenty minutes, okay?” AJ said, looking at Dani.

“Sure. By the way, can Allison have a sleepover tonight?”

“I don’t see why not.”

Their expressions smacked of joy as they turned and bolted into the house. Then AJ turned to Kori.

“Well, here’s the deal. I’m gonna go in the house and clean up. The game’s in Chester, not too far. There’s room in the Jeep. You can do whatever you want, but I think you’d have fun if you came with us.”

Without saying anything, Kori slipped her hands into her pockets and nodded, knowing that in spite of the conflict she’d created for herself, it was an easy decision.

h3=.

Honestly, AJ couldn’t explain it. He didn’t know why he wanted Kori to come to the game so badly. After all, they’d only known each other for a few hours, and she’d spent most of that time asleep on his porch. And if he wanted a date, all he had to do was pick up the phone—the only tough part would be to choose just one of the women who had expressed interest in the last year or so. But as he brushed his teeth and changed from his work clothes into something clean, he found himself almost praying that she’d come.

Moments later, AJ stepped onto the porch, patting his pockets for his keys and cradling a bag of Ruffles.

“Well, what’s it gonna be?” he asked her, doing his best to mask his bias. “You gonna force me to show up empty-handed? Well, other than the chips, I mean?”

“Where would we be going exactly?”

“The Butch Cassidy Spring Invitational. Biggest tournament of the year—except for the play-offs, of course. It’ll be a blast. You know, Butch Cassidy grew up around here.”

“I think I heard that somewhere,” she replied dryly.

Shaking his head, AJ turned and walked toward his Jeep, marveling at the complexities of a woman’s mind.

Kori leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. She breathed in deeply, trying to avert the nervous regret that would certainly flood over her as soon as AJ and the girls pulled away.

When AJ pointed at the Jeep, Dani and Allison climbed in. “Are we ready to go?”

Both of the girls nodded.

AJ inserted the key, and after hearing the engine come to life, looked out his window at Kori, who was still sitting on the step. “I guess we’ll see you around sometime. Have a safe trip back to Salt Lake.”

h1=.

Later that afternoon at the Kanosh County fairgrounds, Brooks yanked at a couple of bungee cords on the back of his sixteen-foot Mountaineer trailer and lowered a barbeque grill to the ground. Carrying a propane tank in his other hand, he wheeled the grill to their picnic site, setting everything down a few feet from the table. After lifting the lid, he removed a pair of tongs and inspected everything for grime.

“Betcha he’s late,” Brooks yelled to Linda as he knelt down and connected the propane hose.

Linda opened the door of the RV and stepped out, her hands full of condiments. “He’ll be here. He wouldn’t make Dani late to her game.” She set the bottles on the table. “Is he bringing a date?”

“I doubt it,” Brooks said.

“Then we should’ve invited someone for him.”

Brooks straightened on his knees and eyed his wife, a drop of sweat ready to run from his sideburn. “No way. I’m tired of hooking him up. He never follows through. Then, when I see the girl, she tears into me.”

“Well, he’s never gonna find someone if we leave it up to him.”

Just then, AJ pulled up in the Jeep, parking behind Brooks’ trailer. Dani and Allison bounded out as soon as they came to a stop, lifting their softball bags from the back and breaking into a run toward the ball field. When AJ’s door opened, Brooks saw his sandaled foot hit the ground.

“’Bout time you showed up,” Brooks called to him. “I was gonna invite a girl for you, but decided you can’t handle the hotness of the women I know.”

AJ stiffened at Brooks’ comment and looked at Kori before turning back to Brooks, who had turned pale at the sight of a woman in AJ’s Jeep.

“I see you brought your own. Well done,” Brooks said, trying to recover.

Kori got out and joined AJ as he walked over to where Brooks was now standing at the grill.

“Brooks, this is Kori.”

Brooks smiled sheepishly, saluting her with the tongs.

“Kori, this is one of my oldest friends, although right now, I’m not sure why.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Kori said with a forgiving smile.

Just then, Linda shoved past her husband for her own introduction. “You said your name was—”

“I’m Kori.”

Linda wiped her hands on her apron and said warmly, “Well, Kori, it’s so nice to meet you.”

Linda’s personality was so calming and charming that AJ had once said she could take the edge off a rattlesnake with a toothache.

“Kori, I was just about to walk over to the community bulletin board and put up an announcement. Would you like to come with me?”

“Love to,” Kori said, glancing at AJ.

“I’ll stay and help Brooks with the grill,” AJ said.

“You’re not invited anyway,” Linda added, waving AJ off. “This is girl time.”

A moment later, Kori and Linda set out toward the other side of the park. AJ watched as Kori walked away, noticing again how wonderful she looked in jeans. When they were finally out of earshot, he punched Brooks in the arm.

“What was that all about?” AJ demanded.

“What?” Brooks replied, rubbing his arm.

“The ‘bring me a girl’ stuff when we pulled up.” He repeated what Brooks had said, but added a childish whine to it for emphasis. “You can’t handle the hotness of my women. Geez, man, I’m trying to figure out how you couldn’t see her sitting right next to me.”

“Dude, she was sitting right next to you?” Brooks replied, missing AJ’s point completely.

Almost instantly, AJ’s irritation was replaced by retrospect as he thought about Kori’s position on the drive over.

“No, I guess she wasn’t right next to me.”

“Too bad—with your bench seat and all.”

AJ just sneered at him.

“I’ll bet you wish she was sitting right next you, right?”

“She can sit wherever she wants,” AJ said.

At that, Brooks’ eyes suddenly brightened with understanding. “Holy crap, you like this girl.”

“Like her? I hardly know her!” As always, AJ regretted that Brooks could read him so easily. “You want me to light this thing or what?”

“Not yet. I gotta scrub the grill.”

AJ tossed the book of matches onto the table and shoved his hands into his pockets. Glancing up, he saw his daughter waving for him to come, and he held up the “two minutes” sign.

“There is something about her, though, or am I the only one who sees it?”

“Nawh, she’s cute, that’s for sure.”

“Cute, no doubt, but it’s more than that. She’s—” He paused while he searched for the right words, eventually giving up. “Heck, I don’t know what she is. I feel comfortable around her, though, and I’ve only known her for a few hours.”

“Look, man,” Brooks began, lifting the grill and letting it hang to his side. “I’m no expert on love or anything, but sometimes it can happen in a second.”

“What can happen in a second?”

Brooks grabbed a bottle of Dawn and a scrubbing pad from the table and started toward a water faucet. “I’m sure you’ll figure out.”

h3=.

Walking along the banks of a small creek that slithered through the park, Linda hugged her shoulders in the slowly cooling air.

“So where are you from?”

“Salt Lake.”

“I love Salt Lake,” Linda said in a dreamy tone.

“Really?”

“Yeah. But I never get to spend much time there. Whenever I go up with Brooks, he always wants to get back as quickly as possible—before rush-hour traffic, or to see a game. We never do anything fun when we’re there.”

“You should drive up alone sometime and stay with me,” Kori said. “We could go shopping together, do lunch.”

Linda smiled. “I would love that.”

A few moments later, they arrived at the board, and while Linda looked for space to pin her ad, Kori read some of the flyers. There was an ad for dog grooming—thirty dollars for small and mid-sized dogs, thirty-five for large, which included a shampoo. A girl named Ashley was looking for baby-sitting jobs. She was twelve, and could provide references. And a man in Loa was selling a lawnmower with no engine for fifteen bucks. Kori frowned, wondering what someone would do with a lawnmower with no engine. Finally, Linda found a spot she liked and pinned up her ad. Then she excused herself to go into the restroom.

While Linda was gone, Kori reached in her pocket for her cell phone and called Doris. She told her that she wouldn’t be home until tomorrow, at which point Doris’ curiosity began to spike. Kori placated her with a promise to tell her all about it later, and then asked if Mai could stay one more night. Kori said that she’d be home in the morning, afternoon at the latest. After promising again to fill Doris in, their call ended. Not long after, Linda exited the bathroom and they started walking back.

“So, what do you think of AJ?” Linda asked, having waited as long as she could before asking.

“I don’t really know him that well.”

“How long have you known him?”

Kori paused and looked at her watch. “Since about two o’clock.”

“Today?” Linda exclaimed.

Kori nodded, unable to stave off a guilty grin.

“And just like that, he asked you to come to the game?”

“Does he do that a lot?” Kori asked. “Pick up women at the drop of a hat?” Married women, she didn’t say out loud.

Linda paused briefly and then said, “To tell you the truth, he doesn’t date much. And believe me, we’ve been trying to set him up with the right girl for months. You can’t imagine how hard it is to get him to go out.”

Kori walked with her hands laced together behind her back as she quietly considered Linda’s words.

“He must’ve had a good reason to invite you, because there are plenty of women that would love to be here with him tonight. We might even see some of them.”

“Sounds delightful,” Kori responded sarcastically.

Linda grinned. “Joys of a small town, girl. Everyone knows everyone’s business, and you see those people everywhere you go.”

h1=.

Back at the barbeque, Tim and Charlotte had arrived.

“Let the party begin,” Tim proclaimed, holding a package of marinated turkey breasts in the air.

Brooks smiled at him when he saw the meat.

Tim set it on the table. “We got gas?”

“Filled it up yesterday.”

Charlotte walked up with a bowl of macaroni salad in her hands. It took all of three seconds for her to spot Linda and someone she didn’t recognize sitting on a park bench not far away. “Who’s the woman with Linda?” she asked, motioning with her head.

“Yeah, who is that?” Tim echoed.

Just then, AJ hopped down from the camp trailer with an apron. “Can you really see her from here? Geez, Char, you’re like a hawk.”

“Whatever. Who is she?”

“Her name’s Kori,” Brooks said.

Charlotte took in a quick, sharp breath and then looked at AJ. “She’s with you?”

AJ looked at her like someone who’d been caught fishing without a license.

“Give us some details,” Charlotte demanded.

While AJ wrapped the apron strings around his waist and tied them in front, he caught them up.

“So she came with us to the game.”

“Of course,” Charlotte said, narrowing one eye. “Anyone who has car trouble naturally comes with you to Dani’s game.”

AJ knew that once Charlotte picked up a scent, she was like one of Brooks’ dogs. She’d stay on it until she got what she wanted or die trying. He always thought she would have made an excellent interrogator for the Army’s Special Forces. But he just wasn’t ready to discuss how he felt about Kori, primarily because he had no idea himself. They were just there to have some fun—softball and food. That’s what he’d promised her, anyway, and he wasn’t going to let Charlotte turn a night of softball into a wedding.

“Look, I’m telling you, there’s not much of a story here. She’s going to hang with us tonight. That is, unless you guys drive her away with all your questions.” AJ picked up a package of hot dogs and ripped them open with just the right theatrical flair to prove that he was serious about them backing off. Then he looked at Brooks. “Are you ready for the dawgs?”

“Close. Give it a minute to heat it up, then we’ll start the turkey.”

“She’s pretty,” Tim said.

Charlotte glared at her husband. “Tim, can you get the chairs out of the back?”

As Tim went for the chairs, he raised an eyebrow in AJ’s direction just enough to let him know that Kori was smokin’ hot.

“What’s her last name?” Charlotte asked.

“Don’t know,” AJ said, trying to decide if he’d forgotten or she hadn’t told him yet.

“She looks a little familiar,” Charlotte continued.

Just then Dani ran up, stopping short of the table. “Hey, Dad, can I pitch to you?”

“Sorry, kiddo, I forgot.”

Brooks took the package of hot dogs from him. “Go ahead—I got the meat.”

“Thanks, dude.” In a series of quick moves, AJ pulled on the apron, and after wadding it into a ball, hurled it into an empty chair.

“Sweetheart, let me grab my glove and I’ll be right there.”

“’Kay,” Dani hollered before racing back to her team.

AJ soon followed her, pounding his fist into the webbing of his glove. A moment later, he was on his knees, Dani pitching to him while he handed out advice about her step off the mound or the way her hips rotated through the release.

“Extend your arm more, Sweetheart.”

“’Kay.”

Before long, the smell of turkey barbeque was drifting through the park, the smoke rising into the air, catching a current and dog-legging over the trees and toward the creek. The sun was starting to rest low in the sky and a golden glow had engulfed the valley. But there was a crispness in the air that could only mean that it was still spring in the mountains, and even though everyone wanted to believe that summer had arrived, the temperature would drop as the evening went on.

h3=.

From their seat on the bench, Kori and Linda watched as AJ and Dani played catch. After stretching to snag a high pitch that had missed its mark, he gently tossed the ball back to her, along with some advice. While some of the other girls began to line up behind Dani, waiting for their turn to pitch him a few, Kori caught herself observing his athletic frame.

“Did he tell you about his wife?”

“No,” Kori said, doing her best to conceal the sudden uneasiness that swept through her at the word wife. “Why—is she horrible?”

“Probably best to get the story from him,” Linda said. “But I can tell you this, I’m really glad you’re here.”

Kori smiled. “You know, I wouldn’t have said that a few hours ago, but I’m glad to be here too.” Then she looked beseechingly at Linda. “But please don’t read too much into it—honestly, it’s more circumstantial than romantic. He’s just being a gentleman to a stranded woman—that’s all.”

“Well, I know AJ pretty well and I think there’s more to it than that, at least in his mind.”

Kori wasn’t prepared for the delight that swept over her when Linda said it.

“C’mon,” Linda said. “Let’s go eat.”

As Linda and Kori arrived back at their picnic site, they found Charlotte rummaging through a box.

“Linda, I can’t find a tablecloth in this stuff. Do you have one in the trailer?”

“Yes, I’ll get it,” she said.

When a slight breeze kicked up, Kori wrapped her arms around herself.

“Do you have a jacket?” Brooks asked.

“Yeah, I have one in the Jeep.”

“Actually, that thing you brought won’t do you much good here,” AJ said as he walked up behind her, having finished with the girls. “Something about the creek and the trees—it gets colder here than anywhere.”

“I guess you have something better?” Kori replied.

Smiling, AJ’s long steps ate up ground quickly as he went to the Jeep, where he lifted the back window and reached in.

“I’ve got a heavy sweatshirt that will snuggle around your neck. And if you need a second one, I’ve got more. I keep a pile of them in the Jeep just for times like this.”

Tim leaned into Brooks. “Did he just say snuggle?”

Brooks nodded. “I used to look up to him.”

A moment later, AJ walked back over, and after handing her a sweatshirt, Kori held it up in front of her.

Tiger Football.

“I didn’t know you were a fan,” Tim said.

Smiling at Tim, she put both arms through the sleeves, and in one quick motion, pulled it over her head.

“Does it snuggle you?” Brooks asked, casting a disappointed eye at AJ.

“It’s great.”

As the time to eat approached, Linda moved the macaroni salad closer to the tossed salad. Then she positioned the baked beans on the other side of the macaroni salad. After that, a basket of rolls and finally a plate of brownies and AJ’s chips finished the line. While Linda arranged the food, Charlotte dug through a wicker basket for some napkins and placed them with the plastic utensils. At the end of the table was an open cooler full of drinks in ice. When the table was finally ready, Linda asked Brooks to say a blessing on the food. Brooks obliged her and then picked up the tongs again.

“Who wants what?”

“Kori, why don’t you start us,” Linda urged, handing her a plate. “Get a piece of meat from Brooks and then just take what you want.”

A few minutes later, they were all seated and wolfing down their meal. Tim, Charlotte, and Brooks were on one side, while Kori sat between AJ and Linda on the other.

Dani and Allison were in camp chairs, trying to get something down before the game, but they hadn’t made much progress when one of their teammates jogged halfway across the grass and yelled that Coach wanted everyone in the dugout. In a flurry, the girls took a bite for the road, grabbed their gloves, and raced toward the field.

“Good luck!” AJ called to Dani as she tore past him.

The food was good and the mood at the table was festive. They laughed and ate and then laughed some more, and Kori seemed to blend in as one of the gang, all the while basking in the knowledge that no one knew who she was or what was waiting for her when she got back home. She heard herself talking but didn’t recognize the glee in her voice. She figured that it had everything to do with AJ. Regardless of how nonchalant his invitation had been, Kori couldn’t help feeling like they were on a date. Not wanting to make too much of it, she tried to ignore the curious looping sensation in her belly every time AJ’s shoulder brushed against hers.

“So Kori, are you Chinese or Japanese or what?” Brooks asked.

“Both my mother and father were full Japanese, so that makes me full Japanese too, but I’ve lived in the U.S. all my life.”

“So you’re American,” Brooks confirmed.

“Yes.”

AJ sighed and looked irritated at Brooks.

“Bet you miss Japan, though,” Tim added.

AJ looked sternly at him. “How could she miss Japan if she’s lived in the U.S. all her life?”

Then Brooks piped up again. “So I guess you can speak all that scribble language like Chinese and stuff.”

Again, AJ rolled his eyes. “You both sound like a couple of redneck knuckleheads. She just told you she’s Japanese. What makes you think she can speak Chinese?”

“She said she’s American,” Tim shot back.

While AJ wondered if he’d regret bringing Kori in the first place, Brooks continued. “Well, they’re ’bout the same, aren’t they. Chinese. Japanese?”

Kori held up a finger to him while she finished chewing. “You know, living in the States, I learned English first. When my mother and grandmother, who we called Obasan, finally started to teach me Japanese, it was very difficult for me. It all looked like scribble to me too, at first. But little by little, it started to make sense.”

At her words, Tim nodded and flashed AJ a look that said his ignorance had been intelligence in disguise.

“I’ll bet you can cook Japanese food, though,” Linda said.

“Yes, I can,” Kori agreed with no hesitation. “But my Japanese cooking is probably not as good as this.”

Almost blushing, Brooks waved a hand of modesty at her.

“Best food at the tournament—or in the valley, for that matter,” AJ added.

“Speaking of the tournament,” Kori said, “did you guys know that Butch Cassidy was really a butcher?”

h1=.

After dinner, AJ took a drink of his Coke and then glanced in the direction of the ball field.

“The game’s about to start,” he said, looking at Linda with a sad expression on his face.

“Go ahead,” she said, as though she couldn’t resist him. “We’ll clean up and meet you there.”

AJ turned toward Kori. “You want to come?”

She looked quickly around the table. “I think I’ll stay with the girls and meet you there.”

“Okay.”

With that, the guys all slid out from the bench, and after waiting for AJ to grab his glove, they set out in the direction of the field.

Not long after, Linda got up from the picnic table and took a seat in one of the folding chairs surrounding the fire pit. Leaning back, she put her hand on her stomach as though she’d eaten too much.

“This is nice,” she said.

“It is,” Kori agreed.

Charlotte shook her head and her bangs parted. “You’ve probably already answered this several times, but how did you and AJ meet?”

“My car broke down near his ranch and he was kind enough to let me use his phone,” Kori said, glancing over to find AJ just before he disappeared behind the bleachers.

“So how did you get from phone call to softball game?”

“You know, I’m not sure. One minute I was waiting for a tow, and the next, I was on my way to a game.”

As Charlotte’s question sank in, Kori wondered if she worked for a small-town newspaper in the area. She had a journalist-feel to her.

Charlotte scooped up more cucumbers and onions that had been soaking in vinegar and put them on her plate, hitting them lightly with salt and pepper.

“And you’re from Salt Lake, right?”

“Yeah.”

“The benches?”

“Mouth of the canyon, actually. You know Salt Lake?”

“Not that well.”

Kori noticed Charlotte’s pinched look and could just imagine the gears turning in her head at full speed.

“You look a little familiar. Have we met?”

“I don’t think so. But I hear that a lot—I guess I’ve got one of those faces.” She said it knowing she was distinct as distinct gets.

Linda’s eyes began to sparkle. “Maybe she looks like someone famous.”

Charlotte stabbed a cucumber with her fork. “No biggie. It’ll come to me. It always does.” She took a bite, crunching with her mouth slightly open.

“Do you have any children still at home?” Linda asked.

“Yes, one.”

“How nice.”

“Yeah, she’s great. Her name’s Mai, and she’s fifteen. She’s doing her best to deal with everything, but it’s been hard.”

“What’s been hard?” Charlotte and Linda both asked in unison.

Having forgotten where she was and with whom she was speaking, Kori’s face suddenly went numb. She bit her lip as she tried to avoid the two curious faces staring back at her.

“You know, fifteen and all,” she finally said.

“I sure do,” Linda said. “That’s a tough age for kids these days.”

Charlotte looked at her inquisitively. “You didn’t bring her with you?”

“No. I was working in St. George and was on my way home when I had car trouble.”

“And found AJ,” Charlotte recapped, as though she was about to stumble on to what was bothering her.

“Exactly,” Kori replied.

Kori gulped down the last of her soda. Charlotte seemed to be having a blast putting two and two together, especially since it had to do with AJ’s love life. Hopefully, she wouldn’t come up with four.

“So she’s having a night at home with Dad, I suppose,” Charlotte continued.

“Actually, we’re sep—we’re divorced.”

“Separated or divorced?” Charlotte pressed.

“Both.” Kori stood up quickly. “I think I’m gonna get another Fresca.”

She walked over to the cooler where her hand waded through the half-melted ice and freezing water. For the moment at least, she’d put some distance between herself and Charlotte’s copious questions, and she chided herself for not going with AJ to the ball field when she had a chance.

A moment later, Linda stood up. “You know, we should probably start cleaning up if we’re gonna make the game.”

“I’ll help,” Kori volunteered eagerly. “Just tell me what to do.”

h3=.

From his seat in the bleachers, AJ saw Kori and the girls approach, and he signaled until they spotted him. One after the other, they cut across the tops of the aluminum bleachers until they’d made it to where the guys had saved them a spot. Offering his hand, AJ steadied Kori as she stepped around a family whose kids were all over the place. Then she placed her hand on his shoulder as she lowered herself to the bench, and he thought that maybe she’d left her hand there longer than she needed to.

“Wow, great view,” Kori said.

“How’s the game?” Charlotte asked.

“Up two-zero in the second,” Brooks said.

AJ brushed back his hair and then replaced his hat. He looked at Kori. “You know softball?”

“Well, not much. I played badminton in high school.”

“Badminton?”

“Yeah, and I know what you’re thinking, but don’t. Badminton is an intense sport and I was one of the best in the state when I was growing up in California.”

“She’s right,” Tim said. “I’ve seen it played.”

“Where have you been around badminton, except at your wife’s family reunion?” Brooks challenged.

“The Olympics! I’m telling you, they’re quick as jack-a-lopes.”

AJ paused to consider it. “Well, we’ll have to play sometime. Maybe you can help me experience its intensity.” He said it like a tease.

“I would love to play you someday,” Kori said, bumping him with her shoulder.

“Let some air out of his ego for us all, would you please?” Brooks added.

Kori smiled at that.

As they talked, the last of the day’s sun gave in to dusk and the lights of the ball field suddenly kicked on. AJ hoped Kori was enjoying herself, that she didn’t regret not returning to Salt Lake with the tow truck when she had a chance. To be more precise, he hoped she was enjoying spending time with him. He wondered if a starry sky and a cup of hot chocolate on a cool night would be fun for her. This wasn’t Salt Lake with restaurants and clubs on every corner and a mall in between. He just didn’t know that much about her yet to be sure, but still, her easy-going manner and comforting smile had infected him already, and he knew that without a doubt, he was having more fun than he’d had in years, and it was all because of her.

“I’m serious about you showing me how to play badminton someday,” he said.

“Anytime.”

h1=.

Now, someone might assume that a person can’t live in America without knowing something about softball—at least the basics. After all, baseball had been dubbed America’s pastime. But the fact of the matter was that Kori knew nothing about the game, and as she looked out from the stands, there was a whole lot for her to be confused about. For example, why were the girls walking to first base and then sometimes running to second? Sometimes they hit the ball, and other times they just walked away from the—what did they call it? Oh, yeah—home plate. She thought she’d heard of that before.

The people in the bleachers, most of them parents, cheered as loudly as they could for their children. The kids must have been new to the game because the parents spent most of their time calling out basic plays for them—Run, run, run! Throw it, throw it! Occasionally, the kids did the wrong thing and the parents would let out a loud gasp of frustration. Not only that, but they disagreed with the umpire on almost everything, and Kori came to believe that he must’ve been the worst umpire in history. The parents tried to help him with several of his bad calls, but he didn’t seem to improve as the game went on. One of the dads on the other team even suggested that the umpire get his eyes checked. Hopefully he did.

According to AJ, Dani was playing second base.

“Isn’t she standing a little far away from the base if she’s supposed to be on second?” Kori asked.

“She’s not supposed to be right on the base, but near it,” AJ explained.

Up to this point, Dani had caught a loopy fly ball and scooped up a grounder and thrown it to first—all AJ’s words, of course. And when Dani hit the ball and made it all the way to third, he got very excited, standing up and giving both Brooks and Tim a high-five.

Linda was on the other side of Kori and seemed to recognize the signs of softball overload.

“Does Mai play a sport?”

Mai’s coach had said that if she continued to work hard, she was sure to be offered a spot on a college swim team. Kori believed that she’d be offered an academic scholarship too, but as much as Mai loved swimming, it was nice to know that she might have more than one direction for her talents.

“Yes, she swims.”

“Oh, how nice,” Linda replied.

From Linda’s lackluster expression, Kori instantly realized that swimming didn’t rank high on their list of sports.

“Maybe you should plan your next trip to Salt Lake so it falls on one of Mai’s swim meets. We’ll go together.”

“That sounds great to me,” Linda said, seemingly tickled by the idea.

When the inning ended, AJ leaned toward Kori. “Hey, you want to get a snack?”

“You mean from the Butch Cassidy concession stand?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Love to.”

On their way out, AJ waved at a man a short distance off. “Hey, amigo. Como te va?”

“Bien,” the guy yelled back.

“You speak Spanish?”

“Yeah, some.”

“Are you being modest?”

“Okay, I speak pretty well.”

“Wow, a man of many talents.” Speaking a second language herself, Kori was intrigued. “Where did you learn Spanish?”

“Guatemala.”

“Guatemala?” she echoed with surprise. She’d assumed he would say a semester abroad in Mexico or Spain. “What were you doing in Guatemala?”

“Kind of a long story.” They stopped short as two kids ran in front of them, one chasing the other.

“But I want to hear it.”

He took a deep breath. “Four months out of college, I was offered a job to work for Chiquita Banana. After some training, they sent me to Guatemala. Spent three years there. All the chicken, rice, and beans I could eat.”

“Chiquita Banana?” She examined his face. “You mean, the dancing girl with the fruit on her head?”

“That’s the one.”

They continued toward the concession stand while she processed his adventure in her head.

“I hear that Guatemala has a lot of ruins from the Mayan civilization.”

“They do—hundreds,” he replied as they took a place in line behind two teenage girls.

“I hear that many of them haven’t even been excavated yet.”

“That’s right. There are so many that there aren’t enough workers or money to uncover them all. You can see these huge mounds in the jungle and you know that there used to be something there, a building or a temple, and now it’s all grown over with trees and ground cover.”

Hearing him talk about the ruins, Kori had to force herself to speak calmly. “Did you ever work on one?”

“What? Like, an excavation? No. I was pretty busy with my work. But I did take a trip to Tikal.”

“What was it like there?” she asked with her eyes wide open.

He paused while he seemed to try to sum up his experience in a way that would do the ruins justice. “Mind-boggling.”

At that moment, a woman at the concession stand broke in. “What can I get for you?”

AJ looked at Kori.

“I’ll take some Junior Mints.”

“Good choice.” AJ looked back at the attendant. “And two hot chocolates. Oh, and how about one of those apple fritters.”

While the woman got their order, the two of them stood off to the side and Kori’s thoughts returned to AJ’s work in Guatemala.

“Was it hard being away from friends and family for that long?”

“No, not too bad,” AJ said, digging in his wallet and pulling out a ten-dollar bill. “I don’t know what it was about that place, but it was kind of magical. Such an old culture, with deep traditions, and the people were so kind. They would do anything for me. I learned to find pleasure in the simplest of things, like they did.”

“Like what?”

“Like eating a tortilla fresh off the comal, with just salt and a chile. Or walking three hours to get where you’re going, and after you get there, you cool down with a drink and chat with people who just finished their own three-hour walk.” He paused and shook his head at himself. “Now if it takes me more than five minutes to get somewhere, I’m stressed out of my mind.”

Kori nodded. Then she said, “I’ve been thinking about traveling to Botswana.”

“Botswana? Geez. When you travel, you go all in.”

“I’ve got friends there,” she said smiling, as though she admitted that it wasn’t your typical vacation spot.

“That’ll be six dollars,” the attendant said.

AJ handed the woman a ten and waited. After shoving the change into his pocket, they gathered their snacks and turned to leave. Suddenly, they found themselves blocked.

“Well, look who it is.”

Looking up, Kori saw a man, quite a bit taller than herself, or AJ, for that matter, standing in front of them. His jaw was taut, his posture aggressive, and he stared down his nose at them in contempt. A woman with big, dark hair and thick eyeliner stood next to him with her arm looped through his, hanging on him like a tired kid at the grocery store hangs on their mother. Seeing the flame in the man’s twisted face, Kori mirrored the woman, instinctively reaching for AJ’s arm and pulling herself close to him.

“What do you want, Cal?” AJ spat.

“Same thing I always want—for you to die a dog’s death.”

The woman leaned toward Kori and spoke to her in a pseudo-hushed whisper. “Ignore him.”

“Yeah, ignore me and see what happens, A—J,” Cal said, purposely exaggerating each letter of AJ’s name like he was going to be sick to his stomach after having said it. “What does AJ stand for, anyway? Ass-wipe Junior?” He laughed like a bully.

AJ shot Kori a quick glance and then looked back at Cal. “You really want to do this here, with people around—families and kids?”

“Come on, Cal, just get in line,” the woman said. “Get yourself a Super Big Dog with everything and you’ll feel better.”

As if by instinct, Kori pulled on AJ’s arm, and together, they moved to go around Cal. It wasn’t until then that Cal even noticed Kori at AJ’s side.

“Hey, I don’t know what your name is, but you’re in danger.” He pointed directly at her as the distance between them increased. “Know why? ’Cause AJ here can’t take care of his women.”

With Cal behind them, they were aimed at the ball field again. Kori could see that AJ was upset by what’d happened, and she detected a clear shift in the air between them. The fun and somewhat flirty conversation they’d been having about Guatemala had been replaced by a stiff silence, and as Kori let AJ walk with his own thoughts, she wondered if she would ever know the real story behind Cal.

h1=.

By now, the park was covered with a thick darkness, and from where Kori and AJ were walking, it looked like a spaceship had landed on the ballfield.

“You okay?” Kori tried to ask delicately.

AJ didn’t answer right away. “I’m fine.”

“What was that all about?”

“It’s no big deal.”

“You think it’s no big deal?”

“Yep.” He seemed comfortable with the increased distance between them.

“It might be a big deal to me,” she persisted.

He came to a stop and looked at her as though he was stunned that she would even have an opinion on the subject. “Why?”

“Because I liked how things were going between us, and now—I don’t know.” She felt herself wearing her heart on her sleeve, but she didn’t care. She’d been humbled beyond belief in the last several weeks. Compared to what she’d been through, this was nothing. “Are you still gonna talk to me? I mean, are we going to be good together like we were a few minutes ago?”

AJ paused and took a deep breath. At her words, the rough edge of his expression seemed to soften like heated wax.

“Let me just figure things out for a minute.”

As they started walking, the space between them narrowed and Kori’s lips parted just enough to exhale a thin breath of relief. She began to wonder if AJ might hold her hand. After all, it was dark, and they were close again, even bumping sometimes as they walked. Even though it was completely ridiculous to think about, she would have been okay with it. Earlier, Kori had removed her wedding ring, and at the last second, slipped it into her pocket as they arrived at the park. And now, she was glad she had.

But she doubted that he’d make a move, even if he wanted to. He knew she was married, and although he might have been the last guy on earth to possess it, she felt like he had integrity. Besides, they could have a lot of fun just being with each other. No need to get clingy. Yeah, he was a good man. He was just what she needed—in a friend.

When Kori and AJ got back to their seats, Brooks moved a drink so they could sit down.

“Took you long enough. I though you guys fell in the river or something.”

AJ didn’t return Brooks’ jive.

“Something up?” Brooks asked.

“How’s the game?” AJ said.

“We’re winning.”

“Are we batting?”

“Yeah, that’s why we’re in the field, because we’re batting.” Brooks shrugged and looked at Kori for help.

Putting her hand gently on AJ’s shoulder, Kori leaned around the back of him and Brooks moved with her.

“We ran into Cal,” she said in a whisper that AJ could hear.

That was all Brooks needed to know.

h3=.

When the game was over, AJ and Kori waited for Dani at the entrance. Finally, he saw her coming with some of her teammates, and he could tell that they were all floating on air after the win.

“Great game, kiddo,” AJ said, tugging on the bill of her ball cap.

“Thanks.” She grinned. “Hey, Kori, how did you like the game?”

“I learned a lot. You guys are awesome.”

“Was that the first time you’ve been to a softball game?”

“First time.”

“Cool.” Dani looked at her friends. “Hey, Dad, can Bridgette sleep over with me and Allison?”

“Sure, as long as it’s okay with her parents.”

“She already asked and they said okay.”

“Great. Listen, it’s dark and I want to know where you guys are. Can you hang around the table with us for a while?”

“Sure,” Dani said. “Is there any food left?”

“Lots. Help yourselves.”

Now, normally after a game like that, or for any reason really, AJ would have reached his arm around his daughter, pulled her close to him, and kissed her on the head. That’s what he’d done since she was about ten months old and started walking to him with her arms out like Frankenstein with vertigo. But sometime in the last year, things had changed. She’d somehow become too old for Dad’s kisses, and it was killing him. Thankfully, she still used his shoulder as a pillow at church and she cuddled next to him on movie night—although he wondered if it was just to stay close to the popcorn. But he was ninety-eight percent sure that with her friends looking on, a kiss from Dad would be tantamount to a dog bite, and so as painful as it was, he resisted.

“Hey, Bridge, do we need to stop and get your things?”

“No, we have stuff for her,” Dani called back to him as they trotted off.

When they were gone, AJ looked at Kori, finding her staring. “What?”

“I’ll bet you can’t say no to that girl for anything.”

AJ’s mouth formed a straight line. “You’d be right. Is that a bad thing?”

“I think she’s lucky to have a dad like you.”

Just then, Charlotte walked up to them. “I’m headed to the ladies’ room. Anyone want to come?”

Kori raised a hand. “Yeah, I’ll go.”

“Me too,” Linda called out.

“I’ll see you at the fire?” AJ offered.

“Great,” Kori answered.

h1=.

By the time the girls got back to camp, Brooks had a bonfire going, and AJ and Tim had loaded most of the stuff into the camper trailer. Only several chairs and a cooler remained. After getting something to eat, Dani, Allison, and Bridgette had retreated into the trailer, where they could be heard whispering quietly between giggles. AJ imagined from the tone of their conversation that boys was the topic de jours.

At Linda’s urging, Kori pulled a drink from the cooler and then took a seat next to AJ, the sudden nearness of him quickly confirming her attraction for him. She sank back into her chair, greedily absorbing the heat as the flames leaped upward and outward. A moment later, Kori saw Brooks get up, only to throw a couple more pieces of wood on the fire. When the new wood hit, brightly lit embers spiraled upward like fireflies caught in a tornado.

In the light of the fire, Kori and AJ talked, and laughed occasionally over the silliest things. At times, AJ would look at her and she would feel his eyes rake over her as he seemed to treasure each one of her features. Then he would touch her arm and leaned into her, whispering. When he did, she felt his face in her hair and his hot breath pulse in her ear as everyone around them seemed oblivious to their own brand of intimacy.

Suddenly clearing his throat, Brooks got AJ’s attention. “Check it out, dude,” he said with a slight nod.

When AJ looked, he saw Sheriff Dave walking toward them.

“Hey, Sheriff, good to see ya,” AJ said, standing up and shaking his hand.

“You too, AJ.” His gaze moved around the campsite, stopping longer on Kori than anyone else. “Who’s your friend?”

“Dave, this is Kori, from up north.”

“Pleasure,” he said, tipping his hat.

Brooks had already gone to the trailer to get another chair and was unfolding it.

“Have a seat,” AJ said.

But the sheriff waved him off. “I don’t really have much time.” He took a deep breath. “Listen, I heard you had a little exchange with Cal tonight. I just wanted to get your spin on it.”

AJ folded his arms and it seemed to Kori from his posture that some of the things he’d felt earlier came bulldozing back into his thoughts.

“Not much to say, really. He’s just about the biggest—” AJ stopped and glanced over at Kori. “—biggest whangdoodle who ever walked the earth, and he always has been. That’s it.”

Tim snorted with laughter at AJ’s choice of words without even knowing what a whangdoodle was.

The sheriff rotated his gaze toward Tim and frowned.

“Sheriff, you know what he’s like,” Brooks said.

“Yeah, I do. But I can’t have any belligerent activity at a place like this. Not with families around. Cooler heads must always prevail. Y’all know what I mean?”

“You don’t have to worry,” AJ promised.

“Good. You folks have a great evening.” Then he looked at Kori and added, “Have a safe trip home.”

As Sheriff Dave left the light of their fire, AJ’s first reaction was to look at Kori, but her expression was unreadable to him. He started to feel bad about how things had gone, and without wanting to, he replayed their conversation at the tree farm, knowing that he’d promised her a fun evening. In fact, he’d practically guaranteed her that she would enjoy herself. In reality, he’d almost gotten in a fight, and now, they’d been interviewed by the cops.

A little before ten, Linda suggested that it was probably time to head back. At her urging, Brooks poured some water on the coals while Tim and AJ folded the chairs and put them in the trailer. After saying good-bye to everyone, Kori got in the Jeep, along with the three girls, and a few minutes later, AJ had them steaming toward home.

h1=.

Passing the last street light in Chester, AJ hit the gas, and the dark of night quickly fell around them. Not long after, Kori felt warm air at her feet and she pulled at the collar of the sweatshirt, loosening the drawstrings. Glancing over her shoulder, she found all three of the girls crashed out in back, using each other as pillows.

By the time they started through the pass, the moon was a giant glowing marshmallow in the sky. Deer were making their nightly migration from the hills to the valley, and according to AJ, they had a bad habit of springing into the road just as cars were passing. He mentioned that it would take about an hour to get home, longer than it’d taken to get to the park, because of the deer. But to Kori, an hour sounded great—even longer was okay. Whether they were in his old truck or the Jeep, she liked riding with him. Now, she had a decision to make. Should she slide over? Heaven knows, she wanted to. But with his daughter in the backseat, she didn’t want to do anything that he would have to explain later. Besides, there was no reason to sit close to him now, other than she wanted to, and she definitely wasn’t ready to be that obvious. She needed to maintain at least a pretense of mystery.

“Mind if I turn down the heat?” AJ asked, reaching toward the dash.

“Go ahead.”

“Sure you’re warm enough?”

“Yeah.”

“Too warm?”

She smiled. “Perfect.”

He seemed a little nervous, and she jokingly thought about telling him to relax. But she kind of liked him thinking about her needs—at least someone was thinking about her needs.

“So, did you have a good time?”

“Yes, I did.”

He looked hurt. “Even with all the trouble?”

She thought of Cal and the sheriff. It certainly wasn’t the kind of evening she’d been accustomed to all these years living in the city. Actually, it was a whole lot better. “Piece of cake,” she said.

“I didn’t plan on so much . . . confrontation,” AJ said.

“Well, at least I didn’t get thrown in jail, like I usually do on the weekends.”

When AJ recorded her playful smirk, he smiled too.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, squeezing his arm. “And I made a friend.”

“Linda?”

“Yes, but I was thinking of the sheriff. Couldn’t you tell?”

“Don’t take it personally,” he said, flipping on his brights. “We pay the man to distrust everyone.”

As she nodded and smiled, she acknowledged that she had a long way to go before she had AJ figured out. With him, there were way more questions than answers. But instead of feeling annoyed by the uncertainty, it only made her more determined to find out what made him tick. He seemed like the kind of guy who knew how to have fun, but according to Linda and Charlotte, he was choosy about whom he would have fun with. He worked hard, but he had all the time in the world to ride horses and help stranded women. He’d been married, but she was totally in the dark about how that ended. There was no doubt, he was an enigma.

In the canyon, the radio station turned to static, and AJ reached for the off switch. In its absence, silence spread thick between them like spilled ink on a white linen tablecloth. Finally, she wanted conversation.

“That was weird tonight with Cal, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry you saw that. It must have seemed so—small-town and trashy—just what someone from up north would assume we would do on a Friday night.” A car approached them from the other direction and AJ dimmed his lights. After it passed, he hit his brights again.

“We’re not immune to trouble up north, believe me.” Kori felt her stomach cramp up as she thought of her husband and their situation. “I could tell you a few things about trashy myself, thank you very much.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” she mouthed.

AJ moved in his seat. “Kelly was dating Cal when she and I met. Kelly was my wife. There’s a picture of her in the jockey box.”

Almost reaching for it, she somehow muscled her arm to her lap.

“Why in the heck did I tell you to look at a picture of her?”

Kori smiled and shrugged.

He made a gesture like he would start over and do it right this time. “After we got married, Cal tried to make things real difficult for us. Guess he thought that if he pestered us enough, we’d—I don’t know—separate or something. He finally gave up. But when Kelly died almost three years ago, he started up again, always wanting to fight and make trouble. For the most part, I’m pretty good at ignoring him, but sometimes—.”

Outwardly, Kori nodded understandingly. But inside, her heart stopped a beat as she realized that the question she’d had about his wife had just been answered.

At a T in the road, AJ stopped and turned right.

“Do you mind if I ask how she died?” In the brief silence that followed, she felt instant remorse for asking. “I’m sorry. It’s none of my business.”

He shrugged. “I don’t mind talking about it. Besides, I’ve told myself the story a hundred times and it still comes out sounding unbelievable.” He pushed in the clutch and moved the gearshift and they started picking up speed again. “Kelly studied interior design in college. After graduation, she worked for a company in Salt Lake. But she was a country girl at heart and after several years in the city, we moved down here to Kanosh County. In no time, she was busier than ever. She even had clients out of state. One day a client from Los Angeles called and asked her to work on his new home in Malibu. He even sent his private plane to Utah to pick her up. On the way to California, Las Vegas Control lost radio contact with them. Radar showed that they were still in the air, but there was no communication with the plane and they were way off course.” He paused for a moment. “They eventually crashed in a lettuce field in Sonora, Mexico. Computer malfunction, they said.”

In the silence, Kori sat motionless. Somehow, moving seemed almost disrespectful under the circumstances. She wanted to say something, knew she needed to, but she was certain that everything had been said a long time ago.

“I’m so sorry.”

AJ tilted his head in a way that said, that’s life. Then he said, “Have you ever loved someone so much that you wonder if it would have been better not to know them at all?”

At his words, Kori felt something inside her fracture. The sound of the Jeep’s engine suddenly seemed louder than before. She hoped it was a rhetorical question because with her heart in her throat, her voice would’ve broken miserably if she tried to say anything.

“I don’t mean that, of course. It’s just that I still don’t understand what happened. One minute we have a family—the next, we’re blown apart. Maybe I never will understand it.”

For the rest of the trip, AJ seemed to want to stay silent, and she let him. She worried that she’d tarnished the evening by asking about something she had no business asking about. Several thick minutes later, they pulled into the ranch, passing the now-familiar Oso Viejo sign. When the Jeep stopped, the girls woke and knuckled their eyes.

“Where are you three going to sleep tonight?” AJ asked, turning back to them.

“Downstairs. We want to watch TV,” Dani said sleepily. “Besides, all the blankets and pillows are downstairs.”

“TV? You guys look pretty tired already.”

“We’ll wake up,” Dani said, doing a cat-like stretch.

AJ looked at Kori and smiled as if to say, kids. Kori smiled back and then got out and followed the girls up the steps to the front door.

“Your room is the first one on the left at the top of the stairs,” he said, talking to her over the Jeep. “Do you need help finding it?”

“No, I’m good.”

“You’re welcome to take a shower.”

“I plan on it.”

He slammed the Jeep door shut and started walking to the barn. Suddenly, he wheeled back around. “Are you . . . are you hungry?”

“Actually, I am,” she said, turning to him again.

“How about some French toast? I make it pretty good.”

She paused, enjoying the twang of his small-town drawl. “You mean, like a pajama party?”

“Yeah,” he replied, as though she’d put what he was thinking into words.

She looked earnestly at him. “Sure you’re up for it, with everything that’s happened, I mean?”

He hesitated for only a moment. “Definitely.”

“In that case, food sounds wonderful.”

“Great. Let’s meet in the kitchen in, say, twenty to thirty minutes?”

“I’ll see you there.”

h1=.

As soon as Tim parked the car in the garage, Charlotte hurried into the house, landing in her bedroom. Tim followed her, but not before he’d checked on his cows, made sure his dogs had food and water, and dragged the garbage to the curb. In the kitchen, he hung his car keys on a hook next to the door, and before he could get something to eat, heard Charlotte calling him from the living room.

“Hurry, Tim! The news has already started.”

“One minute.”

Tim opened the fridge and scanned the insides. He pulled out the milk, and after looking around for Charlotte, took a quick drink from the container.

“Get a glass, Timothy!”

He flinched, and a drizzle of milk ran down his goatee. He put back the milk, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and joined Charlotte in front of the TV.

“Holy crap, what’s that on your face?”

“It’s an avocado-and-oatmeal mask,” she said matter-of-factly.

“It’s got chunks in it!”

“That’s the avocado,” she said, pushing some around with her finger. “I didn’t have time to mash it up like I usually do.”

Tim moved warily around her to his favorite chair, as though her mask was a leaking biological weapon.

“Now sit down and listen. I’m telling you, Kori is Kori Sarcotti. She’s Mitch Sarcotti’s wife. You know, the politician who got arrested a couple of weeks ago?” She pushed the volume on the remote several times.

“If she was, don’t you think AJ would already know that?”

Charlotte’s eyes blossomed. “Shhh, here it is.”

Now in local news, we start with a breaking story regarding Utah Congressman Mitch Sarcotti. We’re hearing now that a plea bargain has been reached between the prosecutor and the attorney for Congressman Sarcotti. The details haven’t been released yet, but sources tell Channel Six News that it may involve substantial jail time. We go live now to Bruce at the courthouse.

“Bruce, this has to be tough on the family. Any word on how they’re handling it?”

“Well, Evan, we tried to reach Mrs. Sarcotti, but she was unavailable for comment.”

“No duh! She was eating barbeque and watching softball in Kanosh County.” Charlotte laughed. “They’ll never find her.”

She has apparently taken a leave of absence from her firm.”

“Look!” Charlotte said, pointing as the TV showed footage of Kori leaving the police station sometime last week.

“Well, would you look at that?” Tim stared at the TV. “It does look like her.”

“I knew it,” Charlotte said, grinning like she’d just been told she was going to Hollywood on American Idol.

Tim finally sat back in his chair again. He brought his thumb and finger to his face, stroking his goatee. “I’ll see AJ tomorrow. I can ask him if he knows anything about it.” He glanced over at Charlotte and wrinkled his face. “Ewww! You know, I could hook up a sprayer and wash that junk off your face for you.”

“Just you never mind my face.”

“Easy enough.”

Now, Cynthia, how does our weather look?”

h1=.

AJ finished his chores in a rush. In his room, he showered, toweled off, ran his fingers through his hair a couple of times, and dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of dark blue sweats with a Utah State Aggies logo running down the side. Before leaving his bedroom, he brushed his teeth and pulled a pair of socks from a drawer.

In the kitchen, he removed a carton of eggs from the fridge, broke three of them into a bowl, and added milk and cinnamon. Then he whipped it all together. He dipped several slices of bread in the egg slurry which made a sizzling sound when he dropped them onto a griddle. With the smell of breakfast hanging in the air, he was just about to use the spatula when Kori appeared in his peripheral vision. Turning to look at her, he acknowledged a simple, straightforward beauty, even in her most rudimentary state, and he hoped that his admiration wasn’t too obvious.

“Feel better?”

“Much,” she said, offering an expression of renewal.

“Did you find everything you needed?”

“I did.” She rested her hand on the back of a chair. “It smells amazing in here.”

“Nothing says home like French toast.”

“Even though we live in America, right?”

AJ saw her crack a wry smile, and while he went back to his cooking, her eyes moved around the room. A sunflower ceramic tile design highlighted the backsplash. Brown-and-black specks peppered a tan marble countertop and the cookware was suspended from the ceiling over an island workspace. The cabinets and appliances were white, with two of the cabinets accented with an inlay of frosted glass.

“I love the kitchen.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Kelly wanted it to be the focal point of the house. She always thought that, as a family, we should spend more time in the kitchen than anywhere else.”

“Well, it’s beautiful,” Kori said. “I’m a bit jealous. Actually, the whole house is beautiful.”

“Thanks again, but, I can’t take any credit for that either. Kelly designed it.” He reached back and turned down the stove, promising himself that he would stop answering everything with Kelly did this and Kelly did that.

“So who keeps it clean, you or Dani?”

He coughed a sigh of defeat. “Good luck getting Dani to clean. If it doesn’t have to do with horses or softball, forget it. A cleaning lady comes in twice a week. I do the in between.”

Kori nodded, and after pulling out a chair, took a seat.

AJ lowered two plates to the counter, and then using the spatula, added French toast to each and carried them to the table. Butter, syrup, milk and glasses were already out. Circling behind her, he picked up on the apricot blossoms in her shampoo, and it reminded him of walking into a flower shop on Valentine’s Day. After sitting down, he reached for the milk and suddenly realized that she hadn’t moved.

“Something wrong?” he asked.

“I’ve just never seen French toast like this before.”

“Like what?”

She used her fork to poke at one. “Why is it blue?”

AJ looked at her with delayed awareness and then chuckled. “That’s right. It’s your first time here,” he said, sitting back in his chair. “I really didn’t think about it.”

“Think about what?”

He shrugged. “It’s one of those silly family traditions.”

“So tell it.”

“You don’t want to hear about our craziness.”

“Let’s just say I’m intrigued.” She folded her arms. “And I’m not eating this stuff until I get an explanation.”

AJ positioned his elbows on the table and rubbed his hands together, trying to erase a smile so he could talk without laughing.

“One day when my kids were still young, we had to postpone a trip to Disneyland. We’d been talking about the trip for months and my kids were devastated. I tried to think of something that would take the edge off, but how do you make up for Disneyland, you know? I was making French toast that morning, and I just decided to add food coloring to it. I told them that no matter how difficult life is, the French toast had it worse. It was even bluer. From that day on, we started making blue French toast as a reminder that no matter how bad it gets, there’s always someone who has it worse, and we should be grateful.” He stared at the plate in front of him. “It’s been forever since I thought of that day.”

“That’s a great tradition,” she told him. Then she put her hands in her lap. “I hate to be a bother, but do you have any jam?”

“Jam girl, huh?”

He started to get up when she put her hand on his knee. “You sit—I’ll get it.”

“They’re in the door of the fridge,” he said, pointing.

As she crossed into the kitchen, AJ couldn’t escape taking her in. She wore bright red pajamas with a snowflake print and a white T-shirt with a low neckline. Her shirt was damp from her wet hair and her skin tones seemed to bleed through it. As she stooped to look in, AJ figured that she had no idea how lovely she was.

“Apple,” she announced, turning back to him.

“Good choice, but nothing beats maple syrup on French toast.”

“Nothing?” She walked back to the table. “Maybe someday you can help me experience the maple syrup intensity.” She used a knife to spread the jam and took a bite, her full lips becoming more pronounced as she chewed. “This really, really hits the spot. I honestly didn’t realize how hungry I was.”

Watching her, AJ almost shook his head to clear his thoughts. “Now, about tomorrow,” he said. “I need to help Tim with a project in the morning. We should be finished by noon. Then I’ll run you to Salt Lake. How does that sound?”

“I get to sleep in and then you’re going to chauffeur me to my house. Sounds good to me.”

He smiled and shrugged, liking how she put it. “More French toast?” He wanted to fuss over her.

“No, I’m good with this.”

As the minutes passed, they continued to eat and talk. When they were both finished, Kori got up and walked their empty plates to the sink and began rinsing them off. Suddenly, AJ heard her inhale sharply.

“Where did you get this, AJ?” she asked, rotating something in her hand. “Guatemala?”

“No, I found it while I was hiking in the canyon.”

“Near here?”

“Behind the house. There used to be a lot of Indian activity in this area. I’ve found pottery shards, arrowheads—there’s even a small petroglyph about two miles from here.”

Kori continued to examine the relic from different angles. “This is amazing.”

“Yeah, pretty cool stuff,” he agreed.

“Stuff? AJ, this is more than stuff. This is a well-preserved archeological treasure from an indigenous civilization that existed, maybe even thrived, more than two thousand years ago. Do you know how incredible this is?”

“I thought I did.” She had lost him in her explanation. Finishing his milk, AJ rose slowly to his feet, his back stiff from a day in the nursery. “I’ve got more in a box on the back patio. You can look at all of them if you want.”

“You’ve found enough to fill a box?”

“Yeah. And that was without really trying.”

As he started for the door, Kori reached out to stop him, and when she spoke, her voice was as supple as moonlight.

“AJ.”

“Yeah?”

“I have a huge favor to ask of you.”

He waited to hear it, knowing that no matter what she needed, he’d find a way to accommodate her.

“I’d like to take a look in the hills tomorrow.”

“By take a look, you mean—“

“Dig.”

“Dig?”

“But it might take a while.”

A light went on in AJ’s head. “You want to wait until later to go home?”

“If that’s okay.”

AJ leaned back against the counter. Stay as long as you want.

“If you can’t, I’d understand.”

“Fine with me,” he said, shrugging. “How about we head back around five o’clock? Would that give you enough time?”

“That’d be great.” Kori turned and looked out the window into the darkness behind the house. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to dig in a place like this. You might have to send out a search party for me.”

AJ smiled at her enthusiasm. They were both leaning against the counter now, their shoulders touching. He could smell the apricot scent of her hair again and he wondered what it would be like to kiss her. He eyed her mouth and swallowed. Suddenly, the door to the basement burst open.

“Hey, Dad,” Dani said. “We’re hungry.”

Allison and Bridgette were only a step behind her. Before he knew it, the kitchen was crowded, way too crowded for him. AJ looked at Kori and took a deep breath, wondering if she felt the same way he did about Dani’s timing.

“I’ll fire up the stove, ladies. You’ll have grub in five minutes.”

Kori stood back while AJ went to the fridge.

“Hey, Dani,” her father said. “I know Alison’s been here before, but you might want to warn Bridgette about our special way of cooking French toast before she sees it on her plate and calls her mom to pick her up immediately.”

“What special way?” Dani asked.

Grinning, AJ looked at Kori as if to say, see.

“Why don’t you guys go back downstairs and I’ll call you when it’s ready?” he said.

With Dani in the lead, and sounding squeals of delight, the girls scampered away.

“Did we ever have that kind of energy?” Kori asked.

“Hard to believe, isn’t it?” He used a whisk to mix the milk and eggs. Then he reached for the cinnamon and gave it two shakes.

“Well,” Kori said, yawning. “I think it’s time for me to go to bed.”

“Tired?”

She nodded. “Thanks for everything, AJ.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I had a wonderful time today, which, when you consider it, seems unimaginable.” She replaced the shard in the windowsill. “I’ll look at the box of artifacts in the morning, if you don’t mind.”

“Whenever you want.”

She yawned again on her way to the stairs. “I’ll see you in the morning?”

“Actually, I’m going over to Tim’s house early, remember?”

She nodded. “That’s right, you told me.” She put her foot on the first step and made a silly face at herself. “I’m so tired, my mind is gone.”

AJ folded his arms and smiled at her.

“Well, good night then,” she said.

“Good night to you.” He tried to sound unfazed by her leaving.

She turned and started up the stairs.

“Sleep tight,” he called up to her.

“You too, AJ,” came the faint reply.

He heard the steps creak, followed by the closing of her door. Turning, he braced himself on the kitchen sink, locking his arms at the elbow. Reaching for the loaf of bread, he realized that it’d been a long time since he’d felt this way about a woman. One thing for sure—he loved it when she said his name.

h1=.

Alone in her room, Kori fell on the bed, back first, arms out. A smile creased her face when she thought about the day she’d had. It was followed by a frown a few seconds later as she understood how complicated she’d made things. She was dead tired. But at the same time, she figured that she wasn’t going to get a wink of sleep that night unless she did something to get AJ off her mind. A moment later, she forced herself to rise. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out Hanako’s journal and then crawled into bed, using the ribbon to find her place.

I always thought it strange that my father would tell me about Saiko’s death, and in his next breath, tell me that he had given me away too. At first, it was hard for me to think about my match. I didn’t want a husband. I wanted to stay with my family. I thought a lot about Saiko and how her marriage had been the end of her. I wished I had done more to help her. I knew she was hurting and I did nothing. For many years, even as an adult, I held myself partially responsible for Saiko’s death.

When I did have the courage to talk about my o-miai, I asked my father to tell me more about the man I would marry and where we would live, but he was reluctant to give me any information, until one day.

“Oh, dear Hanako. You are so blessed.” He acted delighted, but I didn’t believe his joy was genuine.

“Why, Father? Why am I blessed?”

His teeth were small, and stained with tobacco. “You are blessed because you will be married to a great man and live in a beautiful place.”

“Is this place far? Father, I don’t want to go far away.”

I knew he would be disappointed in me if I cried, but the thought of leaving my family was overwhelming, especially after what’d happened to Saiko.

He told me that a man in Hawaii had asked to marry me and that he and my mother had agreed to the match. I would leave in about two weeks for Hawaii and meet my husband there. I asked my father how it would be possible for the family to visit me, and he said that somehow it would work out. But I believed that he was lying, and I soon supposed that I would never see any of my family again.

Seeing that I was nervous, my father showed me a picture of the man and I held it in my hand. He was Japanese, and he was young and not bad-looking. For a moment, I was not terrified. If it wasn’t for the picture, I might have run away. Even with the picture, I thought about it, but I knew there was no way for me to survive except to sell myself, which I could never do. Besides, my parents would be dishonored, so I stayed. I asked my father the man’s name. He told me that he couldn’t remember, but he remembered that it was a good-sounding name, a strong name.

As I lay in bed the night before I was to leave, it occurred to me that my parents might have been paid money for me. They had given everything they had for Saiko to get married and there was barely anything left. Several months later, during one of the rare moments of conversation with my husband, I found out that he had, in fact, paid for me, but he never told me how much. But even though I felt like my parents had betrayed me, I had no time to be sad about it. I was leaving.

Early the next morning, a wagon and two horses stopped outside our home and a man asked me to get in the back. He said that my family couldn’t come with me and that I needed to say good-bye to them now. My mother was not there. I believe that she was so ashamed of what she’d done that she could not look at me. Actually, I don’t know what I would have said to her if she had been there, so maybe it was for the best.

Climbing in, I was surprised to see that there was another girl already there and I could tell that she was glad to see me. We immediately huddled close, holding on to each other. We stopped four more times, each time picking up another girl. At the dock, the six of us were herded into a large ship and steered to a room where we found three Korean girls, who were also going to Hawaii to meet their new husbands. Eventually, they split us up into three rooms. That was us—six Japanese girls and three Korean girls, all scared to death.

The trip to Hawaii was long, and we had to cook and do other chores. We wanted to talk with each other after working, but we were so tired that we had no energy left to socialize. The men on the boat were dirty—not just their clothes, but their hearts. They made sounds and signs with their hands. We were all afraid that we might be attacked, so we vowed to stay together. We were all young and unfamiliar with the ways of the world, but we instinctively understood that getting separated could be dangerous. I often wondered if my father was aware of the conditions we would be in—if he knew that I would have to fight to keep my honor, that I would be surrounded by people who didn’t care about me. Somehow, I felt that he did, and I wanted to ask him how a father could allow that to happen to his daughter.

When we did have a chance to talk, we never talked about our husbands or the reason we were on the boat. We talked about our friends back home, our mother’s cooking, favorite games, our best memories. It seemed that when we talked about home, we were off the boat for a few minutes, and it felt good.

Finally, we arrived in Hawaii. Although we were scared, we were excited to see our new home. I think we forced ourselves to be excited under the circumstances. The men on the boat walked us to a room in a building near the dock and we waited. We heard people talking outside the room. Time after time, a man would come into our room and take one of us. We found out later that our new husbands had to register us, stake their claim by supplying the immigration office with a number, and pay our passage. We were like a new piece of property and they had to present the receipt. My name was the second to the last to be called. I felt bad leaving the Korean girl Hang Soo. Even though we didn’t speak the same language, the look in her eyes when I walked away was understandable to me.

When I walked into the room, a man, many years older than me, took me by the arm. He wasn’t the man in the picture. He wasn’t young or handsome—he wasn’t even Japanese. He told me his name, but I couldn’t pronounce it. I didn’t care what his name was anyway, so I pushed it out of my mind almost immediately. I found out later that his name was Fredrick Yoast. I eventually forced myself to memorize it.

I hoped that he was taking me to the man in the picture, but he never did. He brought me to his house instead, and the first thing he did was take my clothes off and wash me with soap. I tried to stop him, but he insisted, and when he grew tired of my resistance, he hit me, so I yielded. I guessed that he was speaking English, which I could not understand. After he washed me, he took me to the bed and we were intimate for the first time.

[_ After he was done, he showed me that he had food in the cupboards. He made a motion with his hand, indicating that he wanted me to fix him something to eat. I wondered where the young Japanese man was. For days, I kept hoping that he would come, that he would save me from this terrible man. Finally, I gave up hope. I was devastated._]

Nevertheless, I slowly started to get into a routine. I got up every morning at five o’clock and made us both breakfast, and also a lunch to carry with us. Then Frederick and I walked about a block, where we would board a wagon that would take us to the cane fields. We worked six days a week, each day until five o’clock. Then we rode the wagon back. When we got home, I cooked and cleaned until I was so tired, I could only go to bed. Before going to sleep, Frederick would take off my clothes and insist that we be intimate. On Saturdays, he would go to the club and drink. When he got home, he would hit me for a while, and then he would take off my clothes.

My life was miserable. I thought again about trying to run away, but I didn’t know how I would take care of myself. And if I was caught—well, I didn’t know the penalty for that. I didn’t feel free. I knew that prisoners were punished for escaping, and I was a prisoner. So I stayed with my husband, worrying that someday, he might kill me when he didn’t want me anymore.

Little by little, I found ways to cope with my circumstances. I began to understand what Frederick wanted. The most important thing was to please him, but I was never able to completely stop the physical abuse that made life so intolerable. Things would be good for a while, a few weeks perhaps, and then something in him would snap and he would attack me.

Most of the other girls who worked in the cane fields were beaten too, but not as badly or as frequently as I was. They tried to help me by giving me some of their food so my husband would have more to eat, hoping that he would be full and happy. Sometimes they would tell their husbands about it, thinking that maybe they could do something to help me, but if they said too much, they risked getting beaten themselves. One time, I was beaten so badly that I couldn’t work. The foreman on the cane plantation noticed that I was absent and warned Frederick that if I couldn’t work, he would cut my pay. It scared Frederick, and for a short time, the beatings stopped. But it wasn’t long before the beatings started again.

One night after a long day of work, after Frederick had beaten me and taken off my clothes and then beaten me again, I found myself kneeling over him while he slept. He had been to the club and was drunk. I had a knife in my hands. Not just a small knife for peeling potatoes, but a knife that could be used to kill something, anything, even a man. With every bone and muscle in my body aching from the beatings of that night, I plunged the knife deep into his chest. As it entered his body, Frederick’s eyes burst open. He grabbed my hands and tried to remove the knife, but I pushed down with all my might. My bruised arms hurt, but somehow I found the strength to keep the knife embedded in him. A moment later, his grip slackened and his eyes went blank. He died, gazing up at me. I was ashamed to admit that killing Frederick made me feel good about my life for the first time since I left Japan.

But I knew that I could not hide what I had done. So I left my husband’s body on the floor where I stabbed him and I ran to a friend’s house. Keiko pleaded with her husband to help me and not to call the plantation manager, but he wouldn’t listen.

The next day, when the plantation manager found out what I had done, he was very angry with me. Frederick had been a valuable employee on the plantation, doing a very skilled job that involved a sugar press. He would be missed—not by me, but by the company. The plantation manager ordered that I be taken to the main building, where I spent three days in a locked room with only water and a small window looking out. On the third day, a man showed up and took me to the port. He gave me to another man on a ship, and I sailed away. For a long time, I dreamed that I was going home, to Japan, and I really believed that I was. Saiko had not survived her ordeal, but I had. Against all odds, I would see my family again. It seemed like the most logical thing. Even the amount of time we spent at sea was the same as the first time. But when we docked, I could tell right away that we weren’t in Kagoshima. In fact, we weren’t anywhere near Japan.

h1=.

The next morning, AJ got up early. He drove to Tim’s house, parked alongside a crumbling, weathered fence where Tim kept a small herd of cows, and walked around to back of the house. There, he found Tim seated on the grass, studying a set of plans, surrounded by what looked like a jumbo-sized pile of Lincoln Logs. Tim had been bugging AJ for weeks to help him put it up. When he asked Tim why he was in such a hurry all of a sudden, he said—how did Tim put it? Oh, yeah—if Charlotte found out about Carla, at least he could use the finished gazebo as a peace offering. Honestly, AJ doubted that Charlotte was that easy to handle, or that Tim knew that much about women.

Tim stood at the sight of AJ. “Thanks, man. You’re the best.”

“I got your back. Besides, I’ll collect on it someday,” AJ said, tucking in his shirt. “Think about it—how long have I held the championship game over your head? Remember, there would be no fame or fortune without my incredible pass,” he said, doing a slow-motion re-enactment of when he threaded a pass through three defenders to an open Tim with only four seconds on the clock.

“A little fame, maybe, but where’s the fortune?”

After basking in the memories of the game for a brief moment, AJ surveyed his surroundings, trying to get a handle on the time it would take to finish the project. He thought of Kori at the house, and for the first time in a long time, he had a good reason to hurry home for something other than watering trees or feeding livestock.

In her wisdom, Charlotte had purchased the gazebo as a kit. It wasn’t AJ’s normal way of doing things, but in this case, it worked. Simple. Efficient. And hopefully quick. Everything they needed to do the project had been shipped to their house and was now spread out on the lawn in front of them; brackets, nails, bolts, lumber, even fixtures.

“Man, some of this lumber is warped.” He picked up one of the more offensive pieces and looked down the line of it. “We might be buying a board or two from Lockhardt’s before everything is said and done.”

“That’s fine. But it’s got to be ninety percent done today. If I need to, I can get a piece or two later and finish it myself.”

“Okay, Timbo, I got it. You’re gonna build it and put it in your I’m an idiot bank account for when Charlotte chews your butt. Then you’ll parade your hard work in front of her and hope she doesn’t kill you.”

Tim shrugged like it made sense to him.

“I really don’t believe you’ve got her in your back pocket like you think you do.” AJ wrapped his carpenter belt around his waist and cinched it in place. A hammer and a level were already hanging from it. He grabbed a handful of nails and put them in the front pouch. “Kelly would’ve never gone for it.”

“It’s like ironing,” Tim said, making the motion. “You get things nice and hot, if you know what I mean, and then you smooooth out the wrinkles.”

“Please, I do not want to hear any analogies that involve you two and sex,” he warned. He twisted his Orioles cap around so that the brim was in back. “All right, where do we start?”

“Little motivated, are we?”

“What’s wrong with motivation?”

Tim looked big-eyed at him. “Nothing! Especially when you got a little Chinese cutie waiting for you at home.”

“She’s Japanese, you lame brain. I mean, she’s American.” AJ’s shoulders drooped. “Now you got me confused. Let’s just get to work.”

As the hours passed, the temperature rose and AJ wiped his forehead with his sleeve. The design of the gazebo was simple, and by late morning, they had made significant progress. Tim had cemented the four corner posts a few days before, and by now, they were solid and able to take a pounding. Straddling the center beam, Tim nudged a truss into place with his hammer while AJ held the other end.

“How’s Kori?”

“Doing great.”

“What’s her plans today?”

“She’s gonna look for Indian stuff in the hills. She’s got a thing for it, I guess.”

“When are you taking her to Salt Lake?”

AJ set his level on one of the beams and inspected it closely before nailing it. “Tonight, probably.”

“Tonight probably? I thought she’d want to get back as soon as possible.”

“She did.”

“So, call her a taxi.”

AJ looked suspiciously at Tim. “What do you care when she leaves?”

“I don’t.” Tim pulled up a board and looked at the number on it. “How well would you say you know this girl, anyway?”

“Not very well,” AJ admitted as he backed down the ladder. “But I think you know that.”

“Charlotte thinks she’s seen Kori before.”

“She thinks she’s seen everybody.”

“No, this time she’s serious.”

“And?”

“I don’t know—something about her being married to a guy in Salt Lake. That’s what Charlotte said, anyway.”

After refilling his nail pouch, AJ climbed back up the ladder with a beam, laying it in two waiting brackets. “She already told me she’s married.”

“So you’re dating married women now?”

“Not that it’s any of your business, but they’re separated and getting divorced.” Just then, AJ swung and bent a nail. “Crap. See what you made me do?” Using the claw of his hammer, AJ wrenched the damaged nail from the wood, the friction of it sending an ear-piercing screech into the calm spring air.

“Did you know her husband is a politician?”

“Maybe. What does it matter? Which politician?”

“A major one.”

“A major one?” AJ let his hammer hang to his side.

Tim nodded several times like what he said should matter to AJ.

“Tim, would you just tell me what the hell you know, or what that busy-body wife of yours thinks she knows?”

Tim hung the claw of his hammer from the frame and faced him. “Charlotte thinks Kori’s married to that guy, Sarcotti.”

AJ’s brow furrowed.

“Mitch Sarcotti,” Tim repeated emphatically. “Congressman Mitch Sarcotti, who took the bribe money and slept with the teenage hooker! Now do you know who I’m talking about?”

AJ didn’t watch the news a lot. He was usually so tired from working that he was asleep before ten. But he had heard a little about the Sarcotti case. Finally, he said, “Yeah, I know who you mean.”

“You need to be careful, buddy.”

“Careful?” AJ repeated questioningly. “She’s not the mob.”

Tim took a breath and looked earnestly at AJ. “Think about this. She’s a clean, rich attorney from the big city. Hell, she sparkles. You eat dust most of the day and love it. She has a congressman husband who’s committed criminal acts, and they’re in the middle of a divorce. You don’t even jaywalk. So tell me, what part of this is good for you?”

AJ’s gaze seemed to float away at Tim’s words. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he’d always known they were an improbable match. But if what Tim said was true, it was even worse than he thought. He didn’t like it, but Tim’s ramblings made sense, which was pretty much the first time he could remember thinking that. But Tim hadn’t been the one gazing into her eyes while they sat by the fire. He didn’t see her light up at the idea of digging in the dirt for old stuff, and he had no idea how she smelled after a shower. He admitted to himself that it wasn’t a perfect scenario, but something in his gut was telling him that she might be worth it. He’d been right about these kinds of things before.

“Just watch yourself, man,” Tim cautioned. “ That’s all I’m saying.”

AJ took off his hat, and after running his fingers through his hair, replaced it. He sighed and then asked Tim, “You got anything to drink around here, Timbo?”

h1=.

By nine, sunlight splashed into Kori’s bedroom through two connected, eastern-facing windows. With her hair a little sleep-tousled from being wet the night before, Kori rolled out of bed, arranged the pillows against the headboard, straightened the blankets, and headed to the bathroom with her toiletry bag. In the mirror, she arched her eyebrows, revealing dark circles under her eyes. Amazingly though, they didn’t look as bad as they had before.

A moment later, she rinsed the toothpaste from her mouth, put the green protective cover back on her toothbrush and put it back into her bag. She washed her face, and after patting it dry, ran a brush through her hair and went downstairs.

Still in her pajamas, she recalled what AJ said about leaving early for Tim’s and she believed that she was most likely alone in the house, except for the three teenage girls in the basement who would probably sleep until noon. Without meaning to, she walked by his room and was able to see in through an open door. His t-shirt was on the bed and his sweats were on the floor in a heap. The air seemed damp, like a shower. The smell of soap caught in her nose and she began to wish that she’d gotten up to see him off.

In the kitchen, she recalled seeing a box of peppermint tea sitting out on the counter the night before and she reached for a pan to heat some water. As she turned on the tap, she noticed a note on the counter.

Good morning,

There’s an omelet in the fridge. Use the microwave to warm it. I’ll be back around noon, hopefully. I left the keys in the Jeep in case you need to go anywhere. AJ

P.S. I put a sun hat on the table. It should look cute on you.

While her water heated, she opened the fridge and found the plate with the omelet. After microwaving it, she poured a glass of orange juice and then took a seat on a stool. Cheese oozed out when she pressed down her fork.

This guy is good, she thought.

As she ate, she noticed a wall of pictures and was intrigued. After shoveling another bit of omelet in her mouth, she got up to take a closer look. There were family portraits with the typical artificial, pastel backgrounds and cajoled smiles of grouchy kids. Kelly was in those and Kori could see that she was beautiful. There were several school portraits of Dani that cataloged her development over the years. She saw pictures of kids posing in their football gear or holding a basketball. There was one in the middle of the girls track team that said ‘State Champs’ across the top. She figured that Amanda was among them but she wasn’t sure which one was her. Maybe that one. For an instant, she wondered what it would be like for a new woman to come into this house, clashing with the memories of their mother, grappling to blend in while still trying to forge an identity of her own. Surely a guy like AJ wouldn’t stay single for much longer. For reasons that she couldn’t explain, Kori felt happy for this new woman, and maybe a bit jealous.  

Sliding into her place again, Kori cut another bite of omelet and recalled her great-grandmother’s dilemma. By now, Kori referred to her in her mind as Hanako. It made them seem like friends, cohorts. She knew she was the only one on the face of the earth who was aware of her great-grandmother’s story, and it made her feel close to her. As she promised herself that this secret would be safe with her, she thought of her own secret, and realized that at least for the moment, the two women had something in common.

Back in her room, Kori changed into the clothes she had set aside the night before, which included a pair of shorts. She gathered her hair in a ponytail, smeared her arms and face with sunscreen, and then went back downstairs.

Knowing she needed more than just her bare hands with which to excavate, she grabbed the sun hat AJ had left on the table and opened the door to the garage. Rummaging through the shelves, she settled on a small hand ax with a pick on the other end, a camp shovel, and an empty, white, five-gallon bucket. After setting the tools in the bucket, she opened the back door to the garage, walked across the lawn, and started up the hill where she stepped around sagebrush and ducked under cedars. She smiled at what was happening, trying hard to believe it all, hoping that it wasn’t a dream that would vanish when she woke. A few days ago, she’d been drowning. Now, she couldn’t remember feeling more alive.

h1=.

With something in each hand and the hat shading her face, Kori continued trekking up the hill and immediately began to map out for herself the best place to begin excavation. She tried to imagine an indigenous people, living their lives with the daily activities of the time—eating, congregating, loving.

Where to start?

Taking small steps, she began to canvass the ground, her eyes moving in an organized back-and-forth pattern, like a rescue plane searching the ocean for survivors on a raft. She wasn’t in a hurry. She took her time, evaluating and eliminating before taking another step. All the while, her heart was in her throat, knowing that at any moment, she could find something. She poked with the pointy end of her ax, moving rock and sand, looking for hints that there might be more beneath. She squatted to take a closer look, and when she got up, the backs of her knees were wet with perspiration. She remembered from her college course that the most significant artifacts were usually found in the first three feet of material. But she was in no position to dig three feet down. She needed to find something nearer the surface. There was something there—she could feel it.

Like most law students, Kori’s class schedule had been on a predetermined course. Taking electives was frowned on, as it could throw off her schedule and delay her completion of the program, and perhaps even graduation. And when her father found out that she had registered for an archeology class, he was furious.

“You do this without telling me?”

Kori took a seat across from him at the kitchen table and said nothing, knowing that she was not supposed to answer yet.

“You so smart,” he said, chastising her in his thick, Japanese accent. Her parent’s union was the product of a match made between families in two countries, and her father came over from Japan to marry her mother.

When her father finally turned to her, his eyes were puffy, like he’d been crying, which was supposed to add to her shame. His arms were straight, elbows locked, hands braced against the table. He turned his head to gaze out the window again and Kori looked down at her lap.

“Now is too late to get out of class—you must finish. But no more. From now, you take only classes to finish degree.” His glassy eyes turned to look at her again. “And you finish!”

“Hai.” She answered in Japanese, which accentuated her compliance. Believing that her father was finished, she got up from the table and left, the faintest of smiles on her face. Later that year, she finished the class, receiving the highest percentage the teacher had ever given in that course—103.5%, including extra credit.

h3=.

Back on the hill, Kori decided to angle sideways, choosing to work her way around the hill rather than going over it. She lifted up a branch of sagebrush and inspected the ground around it. The heat of the day seemed to be pouring down on her now, but it had little effect on her enthusiasm. She imagined a people, young and old, sitting around a fire, cooking, playing. She saw a woman cleaning a bowl, and after accidently breaking it, discarded it, never imagining that a thousand years later, the shards would be unearthed and cherished by an entirely different civilization—by her.

Tasting dirt, Kori spit.

As she plunged her shovel into the soil, turning over a scoop after scoop, she recalled the day she almost traveled to Honduras on vacation. She was helping Mitch with flight reservations. Sh’lisa, a large woman with bright blue eye shadow and hair that almost seemed orange, sat at her desk with her eyes glued to her computer screen as she reviewed Mitch’s flight schedule.

“So I have Mitch cleared to Reno, and then the next day, on to Boise.” She punched a few more buttons on her computer. “How is he getting to Portland?” Sh’lisa asked Kori, her fingers poised to type the answer.

Kori didn’t hear her right away. “Huh? Oh, he’ll rent a car, I think. He has meetings along the way.”

“Great.” Sh’lisa hit the key board. “What day is he coming back to Salt Lake?”

This time, Kori didn’t respond at all.

“Hello! Earth to Kori,” Sh’lisa said, snapping her fingers.

“Sorry. He’s coming back on Thursday.” Kori raised a brochure she had picked up in the waiting area. “What is this?”

Sh’lisa reached for an oversized drink, sipping her Diet Pepsi through a straw. “That’s a company that will send you to a ruin somewhere in Central America. They put you to work restoring ancient sites and digging for artifacts.” Sh’lisa made a face and leaned back. “From what I hear, some people love it—some very sick people.”

Kori smiled at her choice of words. “So, you pay to go there and you just start digging or what?”

“No, they have a place for you to stay and a site for you to work at. There’s a professional to show you what to do, to give you training.” Sh’lisa took the brochure from her and opened it, practically scowling. “When I go on vacation, I go to a bungalow on the beach, not to some patch of dirt with a billion mosquitoes. The only things I want biting me are eligible men.” She gave the brochure back to Kori and then checked her makeup in a small mirror attached to the side of her monitor.

“Can I take this?” Kori asked, holding up the brochure.

“Are you seriously thinking about going?”

“Why not?”

Why not?” Sh’lisa said with a shudder.

Kori stuck the brochure in her purse. “Could be fun.”

h3=.

Kori was almost one-hundred-percent positive that Mitch wouldn’t go for a trip like that, but she took the brochure home anyway. She thought the best thing to do would be to leave it in a conspicuous place, on the kitchen table or the counter, and let him see it without her around. That way he could think about it, making it his idea, which usually worked out better than if she sprang it on him. A couple of days later, Mitch brought it up in dinner conversation.

“I saw something in the kitchen, Mayan Excavations or something like that. Were you thinking about going?”

“Well, we haven’t been away together for years.”

“So you thought digging in the dirt and sweating in the jungle would be a fun vacation?”

“It was just an idea.”

“Doesn’t sound like my thing,” Mitch said.

“Well, what is your thing? Maybe we can do it together.”

She watched him closely and tried not to remind herself that it’d been years since he’d offered to take her on vacation, even though he traveled all the time. It would have been so easy to make a fun weekend out of one of his trips to San Francisco or New York. Fun, that is, if he wanted to be with her.

“Look, I don’t want to fight about this.”

“We’re not fighting.”

“If it’s something you want to do, then do it. I’ve got too much work to do anyway.”

You’ve always got too much work to do.

“Maybe this summer, we can take the boat to Lake Powell,” he said.

“Yes,” Kori said calmly. “Lake Powell would be fun, but with this, we could get away where no one could find us, digging for ancient artifacts. Digging for treasure! And just being together, doing something new and exciting. Doesn’t that sound fun?”

“Yes, it does. But now is not a good time. You know how my schedule is. It’s crazy!” Mitch used a napkin to dab his mouth and then he let it drop to his plate in a wad. “We can do ‘new and together’ later when I have more time.”

Kori didn’t need it spelled out for her. He’d used the old reliable, the standby, the one thing she couldn’t argue with. In other words, he wanted to be with her, but his responsibilities as husband and father—and don’t forget his responsibilities to his constituents—made it impossible. What could she say to that? Nothing. After all, his work ethic was one of the things she’d loved most about him. She used to love it, anyway. So she let it go, and she never brought it up again. It was just one of many signs that they were growing further and further apart. Now, as she looked back on it, he probably wanted her to go so he could be with one of his girlfriend, and she was forced to consider the ugly possibility that she’d spent the last few years of her marriage simply—in the way.

Shaking her head at the memory, she continued moving across the hill, stumbling on to a wash that came out of the canyon and ran only during a heavy rain. Lowering her hand to the bank, she dropped in. She walked to a bend in the wash and plunged her shovel into the dry stream bed, turning over several scoops of sand. Seconds later, she set the shovel down and used her fingers to sift through the disturbed earth. Suddenly, she found something—a shard. It was about two inches by three inches. It had dirt caked on it, but she could see the decorative markings. Chills ran through her as she confirmed its authenticity to herself. She continued rummaging in the same area, but slower and more carefully. Assuming there were more, she didn’t want to break any shards into smaller pieces with a strike of her tool. This was her first find, and she made a point of telling herself to remember the details of that moment.

In a matter of minutes, she’d found several more shards, all different sizes—and all broken, but the markings on some of them were the same. She theorized that this may have been a disposal area, and if she calculated correctly, she could find everything from cookware and toys to broken weapons and more.

What a find! She loved to use the word “find.” It made her feel like a real archeologist.

As the hours went by, she began to amass an impressive collection of artifacts. Each time she unearthed something, she lined the new piece along the bank of the wash and resumed excavation, methodically separating material from artifact. Suddenly, her dig took on a whole new direction—an arrowhead. It was small and well used. Actually, it was hard for her to tell if it was worn down because of use or the natural elements of weathering, but she would determine that later. She set the arrowhead next to the pottery and continued, the thrill of the arrowhead fueling her on.

Getting off her knees for a minute, she stood and inspected everything. It wasn’t the Yucatan. It wasn’t the jungles of Guatemala or Honduras. It was just Mule Creek, AJ’s backyard in fact. But for her, it was Machu Picchu.

h1=.

Driving back to the ranch after helping Tim, AJ tried to hurry it up. He’d spent longer at Tim’s than he’d planned and now he just wanted to get home. He was excited to see Kori again, to be with her, to talk to her. She was interesting in a way that he hadn’t known for some time. He wanted desperately to get to know her better and he only had a few hours to do it.

As he drove along the Sanpitch River, he found himself wanting to know what kind of day she’d had, and if she liked the omelet he’d left for her. He wondered whether she’d worn her hair down, or had decided to put it up while she worked outside. He hadn’t seen it up yet, but he supposed it would look good on her. Heck, everything looked good on her. He was surprised by the almost teenage nervousness he felt when he thought about seeing her again, especially since she didn’t seem at all his type. He usually dated blondes, more often than not, thin, and with the same drawl he had. Typically, he knew their family and odds were he’d probably done some work for their dad at one time or another. He may have even gotten into a fight with one of their cousins in high school.

As he tried to understand where this thing with her could possibly be going, Tim’s words came back into his head—“What part of this is good for you?”

He knew Tim was probably right. It didn’t happen often, but when he was right, he was right.

He’s probably right.

Finally on the main road, he was able to pick up speed. His thoughts went back to the night before and he pictured her having fun at the softball game, and later, drinking a soda in the glow of the fire. Her dark hair spilled out of his old high school hoodie and fell softly on her shoulders. Her brown eyes sparkled, and the light of the moon seemed to dance in them. And from what he could tell, she was quite a different person from the woman who only a few hours before had burst through his trees, totally oblivious to the possibility that spiders and people could co-exist. She smiled easily now, and he thought that maybe he’d had something to do with that. Their shoulders had rubbed together often while they were eating, and each time they did, he sensed a growing permanency in their relationship, and he hoped that he wasn’t the only one who felt it. He recalled how she’d helped him move around Cal at the park. As if by instinct, she’d pulled gently on his arm with the cool-headedness he’d rarely seen in himself. It’d been a long time since someone’d had his back like that and he swore that he could still feel where she’d touched him.

But he admitted that he really didn’t know that much about her and he wondered, with her leaving soon, if he ever would. Was she a lead foot, or did she poke along? Did she like TV shows, or prefer movies like he did because he couldn’t stand to watch the mind-numbing commercials? Or did she like to go to the theater? Or, heaven forbid, the opera. Did she read mysteries or biographies? Did she really like French toast, or did she prefer pancakes and was just being nice? Maybe she just had coffee and a donut every morning, although from what he’s seen of her figure, he didn’t take her for a junk-food girl.

True, she had a history. But everybody in Kanosh had one, although hers was unique, to say the least. He certainly wondered why she hadn’t told him who she really was. Okay, he admitted that she might’ve had good reason, but at what point would she have trusted him? And what would she say now if she knew that he knew, assuming Charlotte was right? He wondered if he would bring up the subject of her husband on their drive home. And there it was—their drive home. The thought of taking her back to Salt Lake made him wince with disappointment. He wasn’t ready to take her home. But how could he ask her to stay?

Shaking his head at himself, he wondered if the whole thing would make him go bonkers. And just for the record, this wasn’t the first time he’d felt this way, and he was reminded of that day at the Big O Tire store, almost twenty-five years ago. But he wasn’t a kid anymore, which was probably why he was so confused by the feelings that were at his surface. The only thing he knew for sure was that he wanted to get home, to spend time with a woman he knew as Kori, who loved archeology and Junior Mints, and who’d had some car trouble in the little mountain town of Mule Creek.

h1=.

By the time Kori even slowed down to think about how hot and tired she was, the sun had already drained her. She imagined that her face was probably red, and she’d finished off her bottle of water long ago. She’d dug, scraped, and clawed at the dirt with everything from her pick to her fingernails. She’d knelt down and stood up hundreds of times and she figured that she’d moved enough dirt to dig a small swimming pool. But she smiled when she glanced at the plethora of artifacts she’d lined up on the bank of the wash.

Needing to get out of the sun, Kori gathered everything up and prepared to go back to the house. She wanted to clean the pieces she had, knowing that the restoration process was where the real work began. She gripped the bucket’s handle and then grabbed her tools.

At the house, she added water to the bucket and let the shards soak. After gently scrubbing them, she displayed the cleaned shards on a dry towel that she’d spread out on the counter. She could see that many of them looked similar, probably from the same vessel, but she wouldn’t try fitting them together until they’d had time to dry.

Just then, Dani walked into the kitchen. “What’s all this?”

Kori looked up at her, startled. “Oh, Dani. You scared me.”

“Sorry.”

Kori took a breath. “To answer your question, they’re pieces of history.”

Dani observed them closely. “Did you find them?”

“Yeah.”

“Up the hill?”

“Yup. Well, actually, I found most of them in the wash that runs down the canyon. But someday, I’m gonna give the hill a workout too.” While Dani looked on, Kori continued to lay them out on the dish towel, arranging them in what she thought were logical groupings.

Dani took a step closer and leaned down to inspect them. “Look at these markings. They’re cool.”

“They’re cool, all right.”

“Where did you learn how to do this?”

“Well, I took a class when I was in college, but really, you and your friends could go up there and find some, I’m sure.” Kori held a specimen up to the light and rubbed it gently with a dish towel to remove some stubborn, caked-on dirt, careful not to damage any of its edges.

Dani walked toward the fridge, pulled out a jug of milk, and setting it on the counter. “So, you’re going to come back?”

“Yeah, there’s a lot more to find on that hill.”

“You must like my dad,” Dani speculated, opening the dishwasher and taking out a bowl.

It took a second for the straightforwardness in Dani’s tone to register with her. In response, she chose her words carefully. “I think your dad is a really nice guy,” she said. “But we’re just friends.”

“He is a nice guy,” Dani said. She poured some cereal in her bowl, added milk, and carried her bowl to the table.

Seeing Dani get food, Kori realized she hadn’t eaten for hours. “You know, that looks pretty good. Mind if I join you?”

“Go ahead.”

A moment later, Kori had fixed her own bowl of cereal and was seated at the table across from Dani. “If I did want to come back to dig some more or maybe spend some time here, would you be okay with that?”

“You mean date my dad?”

Kori smiled apologetically. “I was talking to you like you were a kid, wasn’t I?”

“Don’t feel bad—everybody does,” Dani assured her.

“Well, I won’t.”

Dani smiled, then took a bite of cereal and tried to talk with her mouth full. “Oh, by the way, there’s lots of women around here who want to date my dad. So you’ve got some competition, just so you know.”

“Thanks for the heads-up,” Kori said as she reached back and pulled at the rubber band that was keeping her hair in a ponytail. When she let go, her hair fell around her shoulders. “Is he seeing anybody now?”

“No one steady, but they try hard.”

“So what are my chances?” Kori asked.

Dani appeared to be thinking hard about the question. “I’d say—good to awesome.”

Kori recognized the compliment. “You know, we didn’t get a chance to talk yesterday at the game. I’m glad we did now.”

“Me too.”

Just then, gravel crunched outside and they both turned.

“Dad’s home,” Dani said.

At Dani’s words, Kori felt a twinge of panic. She had no idea what she looked like, but if she had to guess, she’d say mangy. She got up and hurried to the sink where she wetted her hands and patted her face. Then she dabbed it with a towel that was hanging on the fridge door. As she jogged back to the table, Dani giggled softly at her behavior, which made Kori giggle too.

“You look good,” Dani said.

“Are you sure?”

“Dad doesn’t like a lot of makeup anyway. He’ll be impressed.”

Seconds later, AJ’s voice thumped in the hallway. “Hello, hello!”

He entered the kitchen, finding Kori and Dani sitting together at the table. From his expression, Kori believed that he didn’t expect to see them that way.

“Did I interrupt something?”

They both shook their heads.

Dani pointed. “Dad, you’ve got to see what Kori found.”

AJ unhooked his tool belt and laid it over the back of a chair. “Wow!”

“Cool, isn’t it, Dad.”

“Yeah, cool.” He narrowed his eyes at Kori. “Someone’s been having fun today.”

“Yes, someone has,” Kori said as she walked over to where the specimens were laid out. “Can I tell you about them?”

“Please,” he said, stepping out of her way.

She began with the group on the towel farthest from him, explaining that she’d found shards from two or three different ceramic objects—plates, bowls, etc. She used her hands like she was a game-show host introducing luxury merchandise.

AJ leaned in to take a closer look. “Those markings look like they might match up. See there?”

“Yeah, you’re right. And this one might go on this side.”

AJ studied it. “I think you’re right.”

Kori couldn’t wait to go on. He was actually paying attention—she could tell by the way his eyes flickered back and forth between her face and the artifacts. At the law firm, unless she was talking about football or a sexy new intern, she hadn’t been able to hold a guy’s attention for more than ten seconds, and she wouldn’t be caught dead talking about either.

She moved closer to him. “Now, these are points, also referred to as arrowheads.” She picked one up. “But what’s interesting about this one is that it has a hole in it.”

AJ peered at it more closely. “So what would the hole be for?”

“Well, that’s a good question.” She held it up to the light and looked through it. ”My guess is that it was first used as the tip of an arrow, but became dull and worn out with use, so someone bored a hole in it and used it as jewelry.”

“Interesting,” he replied.

“Arrowheads with holes in them are rare,” she said, setting the piece back down on the towel. “I would bet there’s a compelling story behind it.”

“I think an arrowhead necklace would be way cool,” Dani said, bringing a hand to her neck.

AJ’s eyes shot to another section of towel. “And this?”

“Can you guess?” Kori asked him, picking it up.

“Uh—an arrowhead?”

“Nope.”

He studied it. “A super-big arrowhead?”

Kori giggled. “No, but good guess. It’s a spade. It looks like a weapon, but there’s no way to attach it to a spear or arrow, so that tells me that it was meant to stand alone.”

“So is it a decoration, or a game piece, or what?

“It’s actually a tool. They used it to cut or scrape hides, to pry, and to hollow things out, like gourds.” She made a digging motion to demonstrate. “This was their equivalent of our multi-purpose tool. In other words, it’s the world’s first Swiss Army knife, and this one was probably made more than eight hundred years ago.”

He took it from her. “Heavy.”

She nodded.

“So, where’s the magnifying glass?”

“Well, it’s not quite that advanced. Don’t forget we’ve had hundreds of years to improve on it.”

“So,” AJ began, seemingly deep in thought. “Being the expert that you are, maybe you can tell me this. Could I use this spade to, say—tickle a little girl?”

“Daaad!” Dani complained, rolling her eyes

“You’re wrong on both counts, AJ,” Kori said as she commandeered the piece from him.

“Both?” he replied, scratching his chin.

“Yes. First of all, I can definitively say that it wasn’t used as a tickling device, and second,” she looked at Dani, “she’s not a little girl. She’s a young woman.”

Dani grinned boldly at her father, as though she’d been telling him the same thing for years and he just didn’t get it.

AJ laughed and took a step back. “I know when I’m outnumbered.” Then he looked at Kori. “So listen, speaking of antiques, I have to go see a guy about an old motorcycle I’m thinking about buying. A 1954. Would you like to come with me?”

“Sure.”

“I’d go another day, but he’s been holding it for me, and if I don’t see it today, he’s gonna sell it to someone else.”

“No, I understand.” She set the shard back on the counter. “But what about Salt Lake?”

AJ hesitated a moment and then shrugged. “I could take you tomorrow.”

Kori thought tomorrow sounded wonderful, but she’d have to call Mai, and by this time, a broken-down car story wouldn’t do it. Mai would want a real explanation and Kori couldn’t tell her the truth—not all of it, anyway. Mai was still in a fragile place. Kori imagined that she still hoped her parents would get back together someday. It wasn’t possible, but at fifteen, Mai would just want things to go back to the way they were. Then there was Doris. She’d be crazy with questions.

AJ must have noticed her hesitation. “Or later tonight,” he quickly added.

But Kori knew what she wanted. “I’d like to stay, if it’s okay with you.”

“Great—I’ll go clean up. Twenty minutes?”

“Okay.”

He started to leave the room when Kori called to him. “Have you eaten?”

He leaned against the door jam. “Charlotte made me a sandwich.” He started to go again.

“Dad, wait.”

“Yes, Sweetheart?” he said, leaning back into the room.

“Allison asked if I could have a sleepover at her house tonight. Is it okay?”

“I guess that’s fine,” he said.

“Thanks, Dad!”

Watching him walk across the living room, Kori saw him disappear into the master bedroom suite. A second later, Dani vanished too. That was when Kori felt her jaw drop. Was she the only one who got it? Dani would be leaving for a sleepover. That meant that she and AJ would be alone in the house. By themselves. Alone. She had to assume he hadn’t planned it that way and she kind of wished she could be there when it hit him, just to see his face.

Feeling both thrilled and conflicted, Kori went slowly upstairs. She told herself it was an innocent mistake, and since she knew herself, since she knew what she wanted, it wouldn’t be a problem. After all, she was almost fifty and he was probably close. They were both adults. They could have an evening alone without doing something they’d regret, even if, for the briefest of moments, the thought of it had trickled into her mind. Closing the door of her room behind her, she put her hand on her chest, realizing one thing—she was definitely more thrilled than conflicted.

h1=.

Although Kori was dying to take a shower, there just wasn’t time. AJ had listened patiently as she went on and on about the things she’d found, but she realized afterwards that she’d probably made him late. For now, she just ran a wet washcloth over her arms and legs, which was good because when she looked at the cloth, it was filthy. Next, she brushed her teeth and quickly ran a brush through her hair, and before leaving the bathroom, applied aloe-vera lotion to the places where she’d gotten a little too much sun. A few minutes later, she opened the front door and stepped briskly onto the porch, rubbing the last of the lotion into her parched elbows.

From the looks of things, she was the first one out. She took a seat in the porch swing, and for some reason, was reminded of her birthday next week. Not that it merited much more than a quick, sentimental admission, which she would categorically refuse to do when the time came. It would be her forty-ninth. Almost half a century. It sounded worse when she put it that way, like a coin collector talking about a rare nickel he’d recently purchased. And she knew that, for the first time in her life, she’d probably celebrate her birthday alone.

Wanting to ignore all that, Kori felt in her pocket for her cell phone, forgetting for a moment that service in Mule Creek was absurdly inadequate. Luckily, she caught a signal without too much trouble and decided that the best way to place a call in town was not to be stranded and desperate. As she’d anticipated, Mai immediately asked her when she’d be home. Kori explained that she was taking a little vacation—that she’d probably get back tomorrow sometime. Thankfully, Mai didn’t seem to flinch at her staying another day, and for a moment, Kori imagined that Mai was surprised, and maybe a little relieved, by her mother’s calm and cheerful tone after being cranky for days.

After standing and pushing her phone into the back pocket of her jeans, Kori walked down the porch steps and it quickly became apparent that she’d overdone it on the hill. She felt the sting in her leg muscles a second time, and then a third, as she gingerly made her way across the gravel drive. Before she knew it, she had strolled into the barn and was immediately taken aback by the odor, which caused her to take shallow breaths at first. Her eyes greedily drank in what little light there was and her ears seemed to ring from the intense stillness, which didn’t make any sense to her. A moment later, she found herself opposite one of AJ’s horses. It was an ash shade of gray with white markings on its forehead and more white around its nose. Its muscles flexed and twitched and its eyes looking her up and down in a way that left her both calm and suspicious.

Speaking of relaxed, AJ would be walking out of the house soon. The guy was Mr. Relaxed. He seemed to have nothing to worry about and no one to answer to. She, on the other hand, always had tons to worry about and plenty of people to answer to. She thought again about their pending evening together and confessed that it had a distinctly unfaithful quality to it. Dani going on a sleepover had put her in a very distressing position, as if she needed more things in her life to be frazzled about. Okay, men saw things differently than women did. From her years in the law profession, she’d seen enough to say that without hesitation. But that didn’t stop her from picturing how the night might unfold; making food together, then talking, and laughing as they enjoyed each other’s company, they’d watch it get dark from the porch, and as they got closer to each other, she’d eventually melt into his arms, and it was the melting that had her particularly on edge. Actually, she couldn’t imagine anything more enjoyable, but what if the newspapers got wind of it, and what would her attorney say? Then there were Mai’s classmates, the FBI, and—

“You ride?”

Kori turned quickly. “Actually, no. I’d like to try it someday, but—”

“But what?” AJ asked.

He stopped close enough to her that she could smell his cleaned-up, soapy scent. She turned back to the horse. “They’re so big. I just can’t imagine—you know—handling one.”

“You’d do fine,” he assured her. “Here’s a little secret that a lot of people don’t know. Horses actually want to please you. It just takes a little experience. If your intentions are good and they know it, they’re your best friend.”

“So you do this for work—besides the trees, I mean?”

“Yup.”

“What kind of work is it, exactly?”

“Well,” AJ said, “We board horses for people who live up north. We take care of them—food, grooming, vet needs, everything. Then, when the owner has time, they come down and go riding. They don’t have to do anything except enjoy their horse. And they pay me pretty good to do it.”

“Where do people ride?”

He pointed through the back of the barn. “That’s Fish Lake National Forest. There’re hundreds of trails in those hills. You can ride for days and never be on the same trail twice.”

“And lots of people want to keep a horse this way?”

“Enough.”

She glanced down the row. “You have so many.”

He sucked in air before speaking. “The barn’s almost full now, but having a horse gets old after a while and when the novelty wears off, people sell ’em. And unless I can convince the new owner to board it here, we lose the business. And as for the trees, last year I lost fifteen percent of my trees to deer and cold temperatures. But what can you do except keep moving forward?”

From outside, the sun drilled down through holes in the tin roof like icicles of light. It splashed on the ground in white-hot pools, as though it would consume the barn with fire. Kori reached up for the gate and felt her hand settle against his.

“We invested in all this, thinking we had Kelly’s income to help. Actually, she brought in more money than I did. Still, I wouldn’t do anything else.”

Kori nodded in understanding. “I would love to see Mai on one of these things. I know her—she’d jump right on without thinking. She’s so much braver than I am.”

“Well, next time you come, bring her and we’ll go for a ride.”

“The owners don’t mind if you ride them?”

“Actually, it’s part of my job.”

“Your job?”

“Yeah, some of the owners don’t get down here a lot. And if you let a horse go too long without riding them, they can get a little wild.” He winced slightly. “It’s not good when a nine-year-old girl goes flying through the air. Her father tends to look at me when that happens, so I have to ride all the horses from time to time, just to keep them broke. Dani helps me, of course. So does Tim. So next time you’re here, we’ll just pick a couple of horses and head up the mountain.”

“Up my mountain?” she asked with a playful grin.

“Oh, it’s your mountain now, is it?”

AJ chuckled at her teasing, hiding the fact that he was trying to memorize the way she looked. Her eyes were the color of rich, dark leather, and her lips were a peach fizz. He wanted to kiss her, bad. But he knew that she’d never go for anything that reckless. She’d been clear about her situation—married, but probably getting divorced. He recalled how hard it was just to get her to go to the game and he wasn’t about to keep pressuring her. So instead of putting an arm around her, like he wanted to do, he pushed his fingers into his pockets, secretly kicking himself for not suggesting earlier that they go for a ride.

“So, this is Sundown?” she asked after glimpsing an index card that had been pushed over the head of a nail.

“Yep,” AJ drawled, noticing her eye a sack of oats. “You can feed him if you want.”

“I would love to.”

After digging into the bag, AJ dispensed a handful of oats into Kori’s cupped hands.

“Now hold it out to him. Keep your hands kind of flat and your fingers out of the way.”

Slowly, Kori stuck her hands between the two top rungs of the stall. To her delight, Sundown came toward her immediately, his lips clawing at the tasty oats, tickling her palms. She almost yanked her hands back. When Sundown was finished, he snorted a warm breath on her wrist. It startled her and she squealed. “That was amazing,” she said, wiping her hands on her pants. “I can’t wait for Mai to try it.”

AJ smiled at her and closed the bag of oats. “You know, I’m glad you broke down near my house.”

“You are?”

“Yeah, I’ve really enjoyed having you here. Sometimes the ranch just seems like . . . work. You remind me of how much fun it can be.”

She smiled softly at him and then her brow furrowed. “What?”

“You’ve got a piece of straw in your hair,” he said, squinting. “Do you mind if I . . . ?”

“Please.”

Kori stood motionless as his hand sifted through her hair. Her eyelids became heavy and she felt each delicate tug as though all the nerves in her body had somehow traveled to her scalp.

“Sorry.”

“Couldn’t get it?”

“No. In fact, I think I made it worse.”

Lacing her fingers with his, Kori used her other hand to easily rake the straw free.

“Got it!” he said, sounding impressed with her. “I guess I was worried about pulling your hair too hard. I should have just let the expert do it.”

“That makes me an expert at two things,” she said, not yet willing to let go of his hand.

“Oh? What’s the other thing?”

“Finding ancient artifacts, silly.”

“Righhht.”

He smiled, and she felt their hands change position.

“I’m trying to think. Did I say that I liked having you here, or that I like you?”

“I can’t actually remember,” Kori said with rushed breath.

Resting his hands on her waist, AJ kissed her softly on the mouth, his lips melting into hers while his hands got to know her with a gentle embrace. Kori raised her arms to his shoulders, pulling him tight against her. She felt the strength in his frame, equaled only by the tenderness in his advance.

A moment later, dull, barn light edged between them.

Kori’s heart was pumping like a cement mixer, but it felt good to be banging around like that. She drank in a much-needed breath between lips that were just barely parted while she searched his face. He was eying her too, curiously, as if he was waiting for a jack-in-the-box to spring open. She knew herself and she believed she knew AJ well enough to say that neither of them was in a habit of kissing a stranger, not like that anyway, not that softly and adoringly.

“I’m not sure I should’ve done that,” he finally voiced. “I seem to remember you mentioning that your life was. . .problematic. Is this going to make it worse?”

“Definitely not,” Kori said, looking up at him.

Suddenly, a voice rang out. “Daaad!”

AJ twisted his head toward the open barn door, then looked back at Kori. “I should go see what my daughter wants, but I need to take my hands off you first.”

Rising on her tip-toes, she kissed him again.

“Thanks for making it so easy,” he quipped.

She smiled and walked out of the barn, immediately raising her hand to the intense sun.

“We’re right here, Dani.”

At the sight of them, Dani rushed over.

“What’s up?” AJ asked as he pulled up behind Kori.

“Allison’s mom can’t come get me. I need a ride to their house.”

He cleared his throat. “Sure, no problem, sweetheart.”

Then Dani looked at the both of them curiously. “What were you doing in the barn, anyway? Is there a problem with one of the horses?”

“No, the horses are fine,” AJ said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” AJ glanced at Kori. “I was just showing Kori the horses and explaining what we do here.” He was happy because it wasn’t a lie. “Let’s go.”

At his words, Dani bolted back to the porch where she’d set down her duffle bag. She tossed it into the back of the Jeep and then climbed in. AJ got behind the wheel while Kori walked up to the passenger door—and then, to AJ’s surprise, closed it without getting in.

“You’re not coming?”

She pursed her lips. “I think I’m gonna stay. You go, and when you get back, we’ll make dinner.”

He leaned back in his seat, the puzzlement of the whole thing evident on his face. “Everything okay? Are you upset about . . .” He glanced in the back at Dani. “ . . . the horses?”

“What’s wrong with the horses?” Dani roared.

AJ reached back and put a hand on his daughter’s knee. “Just a minute, sweetheart. Let me talk to Kori.”

Dani groaned with frustration as Kori looked in at AJ and said, “No, of course not. I loved the horses. In fact, I hope we see them again.” Then she waved a hand at him. “Go see your motorcycle. Everything’s fine.”

After glancing at his watch, AJ said, “Then I’ll be back around six-ish.”

“I’ll be here.”

“Just make yourself at home.”

She chuckled. “It seems like all I do is make myself at home in your home.”

Before driving away, Dani jumped from the back to the passenger seat and stuck her arm out the window, waving good-bye to Kori as gravel moved beneath the Jeep’s tires.

Kori hugged her shoulders as she watched them move out of sight. She could still feel the weight of his hands on her waist. Her lips tingled a little from the whiskers around his mouth. It was a good tingle and it slowly moved through her, even to the backs of her knees. AJ had made her feel beautiful, desirable, and for some reason, she thought of her birthday again, knowing that his gift was just what she needed.

h1=.

Kori walked into the house, and after closing the door, leaned against it. She couldn’t help wondering what on earth she was doing with this guy. She drew a deep, conflicted breath when she recalled that she’d recently given Mai some advice on how to handle a boy who was showing interest in her—and now this? But something was happening between them, something that, until this weekend, had been impossible for her to fathom.

In her room, she picked through her dirty clothes, making a small pile of laundry. Her shorts dropped to her ankles and she added them to the pile along with her shirt and underwear. She put on a robe, and before hurrying back downstairs to start a load of wash, started a bath.

Back upstairs, she lowered herself in the warm water, feeling a twinge of pain in her leg muscles again. It’d been years since she’d done that much physical labor, and she advised herself to look for some ibuprofen when she got out.

As she soaked, she felt the water’s healing warmth begin to purge the soreness from her muscles. It lapped over her and she could see that her arms, and especially the tops of her knees, had a strawberry hue to them. Pushing with her thumb, she watched her skin go white, and then back to a reddish-tan.

She squirted liquid soap on a loofah and tried to recall the last time someone besides Mitch had kissed her. Knowing it’d been decades, she wondered why it hadn’t felt—stranger.

A good while later, Kori got out and dried off. Walking out of the bathroom, steam swirled in her wake, halfway fogging the mirror over a dresser in the bedroom. With something akin to giddiness coursing through her, she threw on a white tank top and her red snowflake pajamas from the night before. She brushed her hair, grabbed the two sacks of Japanese food, and went downstairs.

In the kitchen, Kori opened the freezer and located the shrimp and pork cutlets she’d seen the day before. After running hot water over the shrimp, she peeled them and dropped them in a tempura batter. She used the microwave to defrost the cutlets, and after breading them, fried them in oil until they were about half cooked. She mixed a package of miso soup with water and put it on the stove for later. Locating a rice cooker in the back of a cupboard, she measure out two cups of rice, added water, and pushed the start button.

After moving her clothes to the dryer, she stepped into the living room and took a seat on the couch while the food caught up to her. She sipped from a glass of ice water, knowing that after being in the sun all day and her hot bath, she needed to get as much water in her body as possible. Sitting back against the cushions, she noticed the room. It was pure AJ. A fireplace made of river stones stretched to a vaulted ceiling, dominating the room. An old wagon wheel with a sheet of glass on top served as a coffee table. It was littered with sports and horse magazines, along with a book or two, none of which piqued her interest. Then, recalling Hanako’s journal, she hurried upstairs to get it and then back down to take a seat on the couch again, quickly finding her place.

After hoping for weeks that I was returning to Japan, I was devastated to find out that I was even farther away from everything that was dear to me. They called this place San Francisco, in America. I’d heard of America in school, but only a little. America was so far away from our lives in Japan that most of the teachers never talked about it. And when they did, they didn’t know much about it. During my childhood, Japan did not like outsiders and did not try to learn about the rest of the world. Nevertheless, I was now in America, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Fortunately, there were two other girls with me, but they were both from China. Because of our language barrier, they only talked to each other, but they still allowed me to huddle close to them, which I appreciated.

When we docked, we were taken to a room where we waited for several hours. I wondered if I had been sold to another husband, and I worried that he would be worse than Fredrick. Finally, the door opened and I was surprised to see a woman come in. She told us that her name was Mrs. Yang. She was Chinese, but after speaking to the other girls, she spoke to me in very poor Japanese. I was grateful that she tried.

For an Asian woman, she was heavy, heavier than I had seen before. Her face and neck were full and her eyes were narrow. She wore a very fancy red dress with a gold tie around her middle. Her hair was up and it had many pins and other hair pieces to keep it together, and I imagined that she was very wealthy. Fortunately for me, she seemed nice, and I felt safer with her than at any time during the last nine months.

After welcoming me, she motioned for us to come, and we followed her out of the room and onto the streets of San Francisco. Hawaii had been small and quiet, but San Francisco reminded me more of Japan. There were lots of people yelling and selling things, and there was a distinct smell in the streets that was part food, part waste, and part desperation. We walked for about five minutes, and finally Mrs. Yang motioned to a building, telling us that this was our new home. After following Ms. Yang to our rooms, she told us to clean up and that she would send for us in about an hour for dinner. I did as she asked, still not sure what we were doing there.

The food was good and when we were finished, Ms. Yang talked to us. First, she spoke to the girls in Chinese, and since I couldn’t understand it, I watched their faces. They became sad to hear the things she said. A moment later, one of them started to cry, and Ms. Yang got angry with her.

I did not want to hear what she was saying. I knew that the town was big and I thought about getting lost in it, maybe somehow getting back to Japan. But I had no money. Besides, I worried about what they would do to me if they caught me. So I waited for Ms. Yang. Finally she turned to me while the other two girls went to their rooms.

“Did you enjoy your food?”

She smiled and looked almost too happy. I’d already seen her angry, so I didn’t trust her completely.

“Yes, I did. When can I go back to Japan? I need to see my family.”

Mrs. Yang frowned. “That will not be possible.”

She explained that a man named Mr. Chui owned me now, and that I would work for him. She told me that I could save some of the money I earned and someday, after I had finished paying my debt, I could stay or leave, even go back to Japan. It would be my choice.

I asked her what kind of work I would be doing—cleaning or working in the fields. I explained to her that I knew about sugar cane and rice. I knew how to cut them and tie them into bushels. She smiled and shook her head. She said that my job was simple—to please men, to take care of them, to give them what they wanted. She said that if I did a good job, they would give me lots of money, and I could use some of it to go back to Japan someday. I believed that I knew what she was talking about, and it horrified me.

It was difficult at first to be with the men, but it was far better than being with Frederick in Hawaii. These men never beat me. In fact, if they hurt one of the girls, Mrs. Yang would not let them come back. There was always food to eat in the house and I didn’t have to cook or clean, except my own room. I got to know some of the men and I learned how to please them with the least amount of effort. Sometimes the girls and I would share the things we’d learned.

On my days off, I would go into the city to go shopping, and once in a while, I would treat myself, but not often. The other girls spent a lot of their money, but I saved most of mine. I wanted to leave as soon as possible.

After about a year of working for Mr. Chui, I asked Ms. Yang when I could leave. She pulled out a book that showed my debt to Mr. Chui and calculated that I needed about two more years. I was disappointed to hear that because I was saving as much as I could.

One day, a man came to the house. While he was in a room, he got angry with Lin Woo, who was a Chinese girl. He was so angry that he took out a gun and shot her, but she didn’t die. Mr. Chui and two other men ran in with guns, but the man was hiding in another room. They searched for him and when they found him, the man shot Mr. Chui and he died. He also shot Ms. Yang as he was leaving, but she did not die. During the fight, all the girls ran from the house and into the streets. In the confusion, I could have left the house, but I didn’t have any of my money, so I went back when it was safe.

From that day, there was a new owner. Her name was Ms. Fung and she worked together with Ms. Yang after Ms. Yang got out of the hospital. Fortunately, she honored the agreement I had with Mr. Chui. I was safe again, but it seemed that going home to Japan was still a dream, a dream that I would never be able to reach.

After taking in the events that she’d read, Kori closed Hanako’s journal and checked on dinner. Then she went to the laundry room where she pulled everything from the dryer, carrying a basket upstairs. In her room, she separated out a pair of underwear and a bra. She looked at the clock. It was a little before six. She imagined that AJ would be getting back any minute, and although she had a pretty good start on dinner, she was nowhere near ready.

She dressed quickly and looked in the mirror, thinking that she liked the sun-kissed glow in her face. But still, she added a smidgen of mascara and a touch of bronze eye shadow, before shooting her wrists with perfume. She looked good for almost forty-nine, she thought, at least today she did. For some reason, she believed that AJ’d had something to do with it.

All of a sudden, the closing of a door shook the window in her room.

“I’m back.”

“Great, I’ll be right down,” she hollered, a wave of delight washing over her just hearing his voice again.

“Actually, I think I’m going to jump in the shower quick,” she heard him call back.

She took a breath to steady her tone. “Okay.” A few minutes later, she hurried downstairs and into the kitchen.

The rice had cooled, and as she took a sample in her fingers, she could see that it was perfect for making sushi rolls. She almost started cooking the pork again but decided to wait until closer to dinner time. She got out another pan for the tempura shrimp. She put bean sprouts in a bowl and ran them under cold water. Then, she peeled a cucumber and cut it into thin strips.

As she brought a spoon full of miso soup to her mouth, she began to worry that with an entire evening of conversation ahead of them, AJ might find her dull, and she cautioned herself against trying to be someone she wasn’t just to entertain him. Feeling a nervousness build in her chest, she forced herself to just focus on her cooking.

It’s just dinner. I’ve made it a hundred times.

h1=.

After showering and getting dressed, AJ walked into the kitchen, pushing the long sleeves of his T-shirt past his elbows. When he saw Kori standing in front of the stove, all he could do was stop and look at her. She wore a short sleeved T-shirt and a skirt that went mid-calf, not real snug on her, but it still did wonderful things for her figure. He’d been wondering what she would wear, how she’d look. She stirred, added water to something, turned the dial, stirred again, and brought something to her lips to taste. The simplest actions were done with grace and beauty. And he’d been thinking about their kiss, how they seemed to just come together, like two magnets that’d gotten too close to each other. Her lips were soft and she felt good in his arms. Damn, he liked kissing her. He liked her. Now she was in front of him, stirring, checking, sampling. She looked beautiful, and he confessed that somehow, she’d exceeded every one of his expectations.

She shot him a quick glance and then turned back to her cooking. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“Welcome back.”

“Thanks.”

AJ shifted his feet, not exactly sure how to pose, or even how to be with her in the kitchen. He checked his sleeves, they were even. His hands were like clubs of wood hanging at his sides. How long would it take for him to relax?

“Did you have a good afternoon?” AJ inquired, happy with the way he said it.

“I did. Thank you.”

Good return. Polite

The stove, the sink, then the counter. She had a lot of things going at once and she darted with ease and purpose, and he noticed every motion.

“But my legs are sore,” she said.

“Your thighs and glutes?” He used his hand to identify the areas on himself.

“Yeah.”

“Probably too much squatting and standing.”

“That’s what I’m thinking.”

He smiled and pushed his hands deep into the pockets of his pants, making the pleats widen.

“Are you hungry?”

“Very. What are we having?”

She began pointing. “Tempura shrimp, miso soup, and tonkatsu, which is like a pork steak.”

“What’s miso soup?”

“Traditional Japanese soup made from fermented soybean paste and kelp. Then you add onions and tofu. It’s very healthy.”

AJ thought for a moment. “The pork steak sounded good.”

She looked at him and smiled as though she hadn’t understood his qualms about the menu.

“Humid, isn’t it?” he continued.

She nodded. “It’s gotten worse since I started cooking.”

“I think it’s gonna storm tonight.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, we get a lot of moisture coming up from Mexico this time of year.”

Recalling that she was from Utah too, he chided himself for talking about the weather like he was some kind of meteorologist. He pulled his hands from his pockets and got an idea.

“Would you like something to drink?”

“Sure,” she said.

Opening the freezer, he removed a can of concentrate. “How about cranberry juice?”

“Sounds great.”

AJ brought down a pitcher, and after pouring in the concentrate, added several cups of water. He stirred and then circled behind her to get two glasses from the cupboard and grazed her arm.

“Sorry,” he said

She moved over. “I’m in your way, aren’t I?”

“No, you’re fine.”

“There’s room for both of us here.”

“Yeah, but you’re cooking,” he said. “I should watch out better.”

After shaking his head at himself, he dropped ice into the glasses and filled them about two-thirds with juice. He added Sprite and set her glass on the counter where she could reach it easily. As he stood back, he thought briefly about just grabbing her and kissing her again, getting it over with, whatever it was. Maybe then he could breathe without feeling like his lungs were going to burst.

“The Sprite gives it a kick, I think,” he said.

“Well, I look forward to the kick.”

She was right, that was a dumb thing to say. But she snatched it up anyway and took a sip.

“Delicious.”

AJ took a drink, studying her over the top of his glass. She’d found an apron, and a perfectly symmetrical bow rested at the small of her back. Her hair was pushed back behind her ears and he could see the soft recesses of her neck. He knew it sounded crazy, but somehow, she’d become even more beautiful in just the last few hours.

“I was a little worried about today,” he began, looking into his glass.

She glanced at him.

“With what happened . . . out there.” He motioned toward the barn, just glad to have something in his hands while he talked.

“Happened?”

Sensing her puzzlement, he began to wish that he’d never brought it up until he saw Kori’s mouth turn up into a reassuring grin.

“You’re hilarious,” he said.

She put down her knife and walked over to him, knuckling him gently in the ribs. “Oh, you mean our kiss.”

“Yeah, that,” he replied, tightening his stomach against her jabs.

“Hmm, let me see. You thought I might be upset about getting a soft kiss from a handsome guy in a romantic setting? Is this a trick question?”

He noticed a reddish color in her cheeks, and he wondered if she’d disclosed more than she intended to. “I just wanted to make sure, that’s all.”

“What about you?”

“I’m okay with it,” he replied more nonchalantly than he felt.

Kori went back to the stove and scooped up the shrimp tempura from the hot oil, then dropped in more. “Did it worry you when I backed out on the motorcycle trip?”

“A little.”

“Sorry, but I wanted to cook for you and I needed to get things started.”

“Well, it looks like it was worth it.” AJ motioned to the counter. “What’s this over here?”

“We’re making sushi,” she said, gripping an avocado.

“Around here we call it—bait.”

She smirked up at him and removed a package from one of the plastic bags.

“And that?”

Nori.

“Which is . . . ?”

“Dried seaweed.”

He stepped back, and in his mind, added seaweed to the kelp and soybean, wondering if he was actually going to be able to do this.

She gripped his upper arm. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“All this kelp and seaweed stuff. You’re messing with my redneck roots.”

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a little kelp?” Kori teased. “I thought you were a tough guy.”

Kori separated two sheets of nori and laid them flat. They were dark green, thin, and square, and when AJ touched one, it reminded him of a dead leaf.

“Wait! You want me to make one?”

“I could make them all day,” she said, closing the package of nori and tossing it out of their way. “But I want you to be able to say that you made your own.” She turned and retrieved a pan of rice, setting it down on the counter in front of them. “First, dip your fingers in water so the rice won’t stick. Then take a handful of rice and put it on the sheet of nori, spreading it out, like this.”

He watched her and then scooped out his own.

“Good. Now spread it with your fingers.” She stretched back toward the stove and turned the miso soup down to low. When she rocked back, AJ noticed that she landed closer to him than she was before.

“That’s it. Good!”

“Reminds me of ceramics class.” The rice began to cake to his hands. “Uh, this is harder than it looks.”

“Keep trying. You’ll get it.”

“Before I starve, I hope.”

While she chuckled at him, he eyed his drink and she noticed.

“You want a sip?”

“Well, I was thinking about it, but with these hands—”

Almost before he knew it, Kori had raised his glass to his lips.

“Thanks,” he coughed.

Kori giggled. “Too much? Sorry, I haven’t done that since my daughter was nine months old.”

“You’re still pretty good at it.”

“Next time, I’ll bring you a sippy cup.”

They laughed together and AJ saw her tuck a strand of hair behind her ear and he was again aware of how stunning she was. Turning back to his project, he realized his feelings for her were growing with every glance.

He cleared his throat. “You know, Tim said something interesting today.”

“I meant to ask—how are Tim and Charlotte, anyway?”

“They’re good,” he said. “But Tim mentioned that he and Charlotte might know you from somewhere.”

“Really?” She turned back to the stove and forked the pork cutlets. “I don’t think I know them.”

“Charlotte thinks she saw you on TV.”

There was a lengthy silence after he said it, and right away, he detected a shift in atmosphere.

“They might have,” Kori said tightly. “Would that be a problem for you?”

“Not really.”

“Did they tell you about Mitch?”

“Tim mentioned something about him.”

“And you really didn’t know before then?”

He shook his head.

She sighed. “I’ll have to remember to thank Charlotte for that. I felt the wheels turning in her head at the park.”

AJ chuckled. “That’s Char.”

Thunder broke in the distance. Kori pushed bowls of bean sprouts and cucumber to where he was working as if he was supposed to know what to do with them. Then she leaned back and folded her arms.

“AJ, I’m married.”

“I know.”

“And I have a daughter.”

He noticed the way her voice slipped on that. “You’ve already explained all that and I understand the situation.”

She made a frustrated sound. “That would be the first time someone actually understood my situation.”

AJ didn’t know how to respond to that. He sensed that she was a little hurt by him knowing who she was. She’d been enjoying being someone else for the weekend, and now, he’d ruined it.

“My life is under a magnifying glass,” she continued.

He nodded.

“Nothing I do goes unnoticed, everything is recorded.” Her eyes dropped to the floor and she cinched her arms even tighter across her chest. “So knowing that, the question is—why did I kiss you?”

“Actually, I kissed you,” AJ said, holding up a finger caked in sticky rice.

“I’m pretty sure I kissed you back.”

He opened his mouth to argue, but couldn’t.

Pushing herself away from the counter, she brought over a can from the bag of Japanese food and set it between them.

“What’s that?”

“Barbequed eel,” she said candidly. She was too distracted with everything to prepare him for the word eel.

After frowning at the can, he noticed her glass. “Can I get you a refill?”

“Sure,” she said weakly.

Walking to the sink, AJ turned on the tap and rinsed his hands before opening the fridge.

“Wait, AJ. I seem to remember seeing something on the bottom shelf.”

AJ crouched down and glimpsed a six pack of mojitos. “Oh, yeah. Brooks and Linda left them here a couple of weeks ago.” He favored her with the tiniest of grins. “Want one?”

“I would love one.”

Sliding a carton of eggs, he reached in and grabbed the case by the handle. After removing two bottles with one hand, he set the case back in the fridge on the top shelf. Her bottle made a shwoosh sound as he twisted the top.

“Want a glass?”

She shook her head and reached out for it, bringing it straight to her lips.

AJ popped his own and let both caps tumble into the trash as he passed. Before taking a drink himself, he watched her. Her eyes were closed.

“Mmm.”

“Good?” he asked

She made a sound of satisfaction with the bottle to her lips.

AJ took a pull, and after setting his bottle on the counter, went back to his masterpiece. Kori removed a can opener from a drawer and crushed the cutting edge through the top of the can of eel.

“You know, it’s funny. I’ve barely even thought about my husband or our problems from the moment I met you. It’s been a holiday from my life. The ball game, the arrowheads . . . the barn. Everything. I had to come to the middle of nowhere to have the best vacation I’ve had in years.”

AJ smiled. “We try hard to encourage tourism in Mule Creek.”

“And you’ve had, like, three tourists this month?”

“I’m really only interested in one.”

“But I liked it when you didn’t know about me,” she said in a pouting tone.  “I don’t know what you’ll think of me now.”

He pulled her into a squeeze, and when he released her, he said. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Be honest.”

She nodded but her wide eyes revealed that she was worried about what he might ask.

“Did you really say—eel?”

She smiled and let her head fall into his shoulder. “You just refuse to let me feel sorry for myself, don’t you.”

AJ’s mouth flattened. “So you did say eel.”  

h3=.

Kori felt herself inhale easier now as she watched AJ finish his sushi. Mitch had made a living with his words. So had she. In fact, everyone she knew had. AJ made a living with his hands and it showed in the way he accomplished something new. She imagined that he was disappointed with his sushi, but he’d impressed her, again. It was a good-looking roll.

Yet, of all the things she wanted to talk about, who she was wasn’t one of them. She’d been enjoying her anonymity and she’d been in no mood to explain anything, especially when it came to the subject of Mitch. Fortunately, AJ had been great about it, and Kori started to feel relieved that he knew the truth about who she was. Now she could be herself,—an attorney, an archeologist, a Japanese chef, strong, soft, feminine, flirty, all of it. For the first time since she could remember, she felt like she knew exactly who she was, and it was exhilarating, and she had AJ to thank for it.

“Question,” AJ said.

“Another one?”

He nodded. “Does it have to be in the barn next time?

She smiled guiltily.

“It’d be so much more comfortable on the couch, or in my truck.”

“The couch would be fine.”

“How ’bout in a tree?”

Kori laughed openly. “Okay, I’ve got a thing for barns and you for trees.”

Thunder rumbled again, only this time closer. As it did, Kori caught a glimpse of them cooking together on a hundred different rainy nights in the future. Images flashed. They were close. He was touching her. She had a carefree expression on her face, like the one now.

“How did you do the rolling part?” he asked her.

Making no effort not to brush up against him, she reached in front of him. “Start at this end and just roll it like a sleeping bag.” She started it for him and then he took over. “Wet the edge and it will act like glue to keep it from coming apart.”

When he was finished, Kori put her hands on his waist and gently propelled him toward the sink. “Wash your hands and go sit for a minute. I’m going to make one more.”

In the time it took AJ just to clean up, Kori had almost finished another sushi roll. Her fingers seemed to dance, each step done with the dexterity of many years of practice. Setting them on a plate, she sliced them into pieces a half an inch thick, and put the plate on the table. She poured miso soup into two bowls and went back for the tonkatsu and the shrimp tempura. Lastly, she grabbed a bottle of soy sauce and a small plate for the wasabi and ginger, and as she did, she recalled that she and Mai had recently talked about leaving Salt Lake, going somewhere new—a fresh start. It was just talk, but it seemed to serve a therapeutic purpose. As she sat down next to the man she knew as AJ Crawford, in the kitchen decorated by his wife, where they’d made Japanese food together, in the small mountain town of Mule Creek, she acknowledged how warm it was for early Spring, how humid the air. But as warm as it was in the kitchen, it was even hotter between them, like breath, and she was suddenly aware of how close she felt to him. Maybe that was why she couldn’t bring herself to leave his house, why she couldn’t go upstairs and pack her things, call a cab from up north and just leave, get out, before this had all gone too far. But she knew why. It was the same reason that she couldn’t be away from him for a second. AJ felt like a fresh start to her.

h1=.

From his seat at the table, AJ observed out the window that the sun had dropped below the storm, suspended in a clearing between the clouds and the mountains to the west. The trapped sunlight ricocheted around the valley, smearing everything with a golden hue that was more rich and intense than usual. He suspected that it might start raining before the sun set, which would add to its enchantment. If it did, he’d ask Kori to step outside and enjoy it with him.

“Can I at least get the silverware?” he finally asked.

“I’ve got chopsticks in there,” she said, pointing to a plastic bag. “You can put two sets on the table.”

“Chopsticks?” His voice went higher than usual on that.

Reaching for the bag, he removed two pair, and almost as an afterthought, brought down a handful of napkins that were stowed in a top cupboard. “Do we need these, or do you have a Japanese substitute?”

At his teasing, she smiled, and when he saw the softness in her expression, the chopsticks didn’t seem like such a big deal.

“If we’re lucky, it’ll rain while we’re eating,” Kori said. “I love the sound of rain during dinner.”

“Rain and barns,” he said as he took a seat.

She sat down in the chair next to him. “Are you compiling information about me?”

“Just trying to figure out what makes you tick.”

“I think you know a lot more about me than I know about you. What makes you tick?”

“Fast cars and wild women,” he joked, disappointed that the sun had gone down before the storm had arrived.

“Puh-lease! The gray hairs I saw on your chin tell a different story.” Using a wide plastic spoon, Kori scooped rice onto both their plates.

“Well, I really do like fast cars. I have an old Corvette in the back of the barn that I plan to get running one of these days.” He scratched his head. “I’ve been saying that for a long time. Other than that, I like ranching, cooking barbeque, movies, and going to local high school basketball games. And if I had to be honest, I like my women tame.”

“So am I tame enough for you?”

“Honestly, I don’t know yet.” He sat back and eyed her. “The lawyer thing is kind of intimidating.”

She smiled, knowing it was. Then she picked up a set of chopsticks and removed the paper wrapping. With her tongue in the corner of her mouth, she broke the sticks apart and handed them to him.

“Have you ever used chopsticks before?”

His silence told her that he hadn’t.

“Well, don’t worry.” She snapped apart her own pair to demonstrate. “People make them sound way more difficult than they are.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice.”

She positioned her hand for a demonstration. “One goes here. Then lay the other one across your thumb—like this, and just pinch them together.”

He practiced a few times but it soon became apparent to both of them that he’d be there all night.

He took out his pocket knife. “What if I make a pointy end and stab my food?”

“Stabbing your food would offend every Japanese person who has ever lived,” she said, taking the chopsticks from him. “I’ll give you an A for effort, though.”

Relieved, AJ got up and walked into the kitchen. A moment later, he sat back down and looked at her. “Check this out. It’s called a fork. It looks like a weapon, but there’s no way to attach it to a spear.”

She laughed at him and he enjoyed making her laugh.

Settling into dinner, their topics wandered. Kori drifted easily on their conversation and AJ’s interest in her. She asked more questions about Dani, and in response, AJ tried to get to know Mai without her there. They shared stories of the early years when their kids’ birthdays at the park and ballet lessons were the most important things in their lives. When she giggled, AJ would look at her and try to fathom how her husband could have cheated on a woman this amazing. They compared horror stories of work and marriage, and had it been a competition, Kori would have won both—hands down. She smiled when she thought about dressing him up in a suit and tie and taking him to the opera, and he couldn’t wait to take her snowshoeing next winter. At one point, Kori reached over and stuffed AJ’s mouth with eel sushi, using her own set of chopsticks. The look on his face made Kori laugh, almost causing her to squirt drink out her nose. They talked and laughed and ate until they couldn’t eat anymore.

When they were finished eating, they cleaned up. Kori loaded the dishwasher while AJ cleared the table and wiped down the surfaces.

h3=.

“I didn’t make any dessert.”

“That’s okay. I don’t usually eat dessert anyway.”

“No pie or ice cream?”

He stopped wiping and thought. “Not very often. Cheesecake once in a while. Maybe an apple fritter.”

“Old cars and apple fritters,” she repeated.

“Now look who’s making a list.”

A second later, the phone rang, and after checking the ID, AJ picked up the receiver. “Hello.”

“Hi, Dad.”

“Hey, kiddo.”

“I just called to see how things were going.”

“How things are going?” he repeated for Kori’s benefit. “Things are going good! How ’bout you?”

“Good. Allison’s mom made corn dogs. They have a corn dog maker.”

“Sounds yummy.”

“How’s Kori?”

Well, I’d like to kiss her for an hour. “She’s good. She made some amazing Japanese food for dinner.”

Kori smiled at that.

“Cool. Save me some?”

AJ craned his neck to see. “Looks like there’s a little bit left.”

“Thanks,” Dani said. “By the way, what’s she wearing?”

“What’s she wearing?”

“Yeah, her outfit.”

Kori seemed to intuitively know to break in. “White cotton skirt.”

“White cotton skirt,” he repeated through the phone.

“Yellow V-neck T-shirt.”

“Yellow shirt.”

“V-neck, AJ,” Kori corrected him.

“Sorry. Yellow V-neck T-shirt,” he said, careful to get it all right this time.

“And leather sandals with a heart on the strap.”

“Leather sandals—hearts on strap.” As he finished saying it, Kori pulled up next to him.

Cuuute!” Dani said.

Then Kori stooped to whisper in his ear. “And lace underwear, light pink.”

“What’d she say, Daddy?”

AJ strained to focus. “Uh, socks.”

“Socks with sandals? Dad, are you sure?”

After checking her feet and finding no socks, he shot Kori a look that was part cool it and part good to know. “You can discuss fashion sense with her later.”

Kori strolled back into the kitchen, seemingly very pleased with herself for having left him tongue-tied.

“Well, Daddy, I got to go. We’re gonna watch Twilight.”

“Which one?”

“All of them.”

“Well then, you should sleep until about noon tomorrow. Have a good night, honey.”

“You too. Bye, Daddy.”

After hanging up, neither of them spoke for a moment, allowing a comfortable silence to escort them back to where they were before Dani’s call.

“That was Dani,” he finally said, not thinking at all before speaking.

“Oh, yeah? She having fun?”

“Seems to be.”

He leaned back against the wall while he took her in. She was tough to get a handle on. Attorney, sushi maker, archeologist, smart, sexy as hell, and married. Quite the package.

“She liked what you were wearing, by the way.”

She smiled back at him but didn’t say anything as he drained the rest of his bottle, his gaze never leaving her. She was intoxicating. Kori was driving him blissfully nuts, and all she was doing was cooking dinner and being herself. Bottom line, it’d been a good long while since he’d been with a woman that made him feel this alive.

With the kitchen put back together after every inch of it had been blanketed with some type of Asian concoction, Kori reached up and put the rice cooker back in the cupboard. Suddenly, she wheeled around, pointing the flat, plastic rice spoon directly at him.

“Hey, I forgot to ask. What happened with the motorcycle?”

AJ smiled guiltily. “Replacement parts are gonna be a bear to find.”

h1=.

After dinner, AJ suggested that they sit on the back patio and listen to the storm as it rolled in. Before following Kori to the back door, he veered into the kitchen, opened the fridge, and held out a bottle to her.

“One more?”

Kori nodded, telling herself it was definitely the last one. She didn’t drink much and the first one was already warming her belly, and her thoughts.

The sliding door alerted Pearl who followed Kori out and then disappeared into the yard. Kori took a seat in a comfortable patio chair. Night had begun to wipe clean the memory of a bright spring day. The storm was quickly filling the sky with dark, mischievous clouds. And wind, a lot of wind now. But the patio was protected and calm. Kori Sarcotti, congressman’s wife, attorney with a large and well-known firm, usually never out of sight for more than a moment, was lost, tucked away in a quiet farming community with snow-capped mountains and slow, empty roads. She tried to remember the last time she was off the grid like this. Never, was her answer. She had two phones and one of them doubled as a walkie-talkie. Typically, no more than a moment went by without one of them sounding. Kori Sarcotti, Japanese-American, mother of one daughter, budding archeologist, was enjoying spring thunder claps and long oily baths. Even her sore muscles only served to remind her of the fabulous day she’d had. The smell of rain hit her senses, mixed with a clean, good man that was attracted to her. And she knew he was. A man that found her stimulating—and stimulated her in all the ways that mattered. A man stranger, yet one that seemed to know her better than anyone ever had.

A moment later, AJ walked out, closing the screen door behind him.

“I bet that jungle gym doesn’t get much use anymore,” she said.

“Sorry to say, not for a long time.” AJ handed her a bottle.

“Thanks.”

Plopping hard in his chair, he continued. “I don’t have any grandkids. Amanda’s my oldest, and she’s determined to finish college before she even thinks about getting married. Paul, well, Paul’s Paul, so forget that. And Dani’s thirteen, so it might be a while before it gets any use.”

“You sound like you can’t wait for grandkids.”

He smiled easily. “I’ll be ready to be a grandpa when the time comes. But for now, I’m good.”

Kori nodded, and in the relaxed silence that followed, took in the back. Mature aspen trees stretched from one end of the yard to the other. A ceramic patio, the color of Mexican roof tiles that overlook blue ocean vistas, was laid out. Overhead, a series of beams half-covered by ivy, and in the center of the patio, a gas fire pit, and since AJ had already flipped it on, Kori could feel the heat from where she sat.

“I love the backyard.”

“Thanks, but you haven’t seen the best part.” With a wry smile, AJ got up. Suddenly, several strands of small white lights lit up above her, and it reminded her of a wedding in the park.

“Oh, my goodness.”

“Like it?”

“It’s beautiful.”

The smell of rain mixed easily with the mint on her breath, making her feel as relaxed as she could ever remember being.

“So, do you date much?” she asked.

AJ’s gaze quickly swung toward her. “Wow. That came out of nowhere.”

Raising her drink to her mouth, she let an ample swig wash down her throat, as though it would somehow dull the edge of her straightforwardness. After swallowing, she replied, “Just trying to get to know you.”

Pearl wandered back over, and after a quick drink and a head rub from AJ, dropped to a resting position at his feet. AJ set his legs in a wide stance and seemed to think about her question. “Sometimes. Not much, though. Charlotte and Linda are more interested in my dating life than I am.”

“I noticed that,” she said, one leg over the other, her foot swaying in casualness. “Why don’t you date more?”

“I don’t know,” he drawled, and then after thinking about it, said, “Dating’s hard.”

“Maybe you can give me a few tips. I might be forced to try it someday.”

AJ set his drink on the table and leaned toward her as though he had something important to say. “The hardest part about dating is that you end up changing who you are. You clean the house just because they’re coming over. You put out the nice dishes. Shave.” He ran his hand over his chin when he said it. “You watch the things you say and before long, you’re not even yourself.”

“I know I always shave,” she said, giggling and touching her chin the same way he did.

“You laugh now.”

Kori smiled at his warning and raised her drink again, the bottle stalling near her lips. “Have you changed for me?”

“Are we dating?”

After taking a sip, she said, “I think you know the answer to that.”

“And the answer is—?”

“The answer is the answer that you know.”

AJ sat back and rested his bottle on his knee. “Wow. And I thought the chopsticks were confusing.”

“The answer is that I’m still married,” Kori said, her smile fading. “And being investigated by the FBI, and on TV almost every night.”

“I’m not interested in dating the FBI. And as for TV, I don’t watch it that much—although I might start, just to see you more.”

She frowned at that, in spite of the fact that she knew he was kidding around. Rain drops suddenly began making it through the ivy and landing on the patio in dark spots. All at once, a bolt of lightning crashed not far over their heads. The sound of white, hot power tearing a hole in the sky made everything but finding shelter seem absurd. Kori saw herself catapult to the screen door with Pearl squeezing past her. AJ followed closely behind her after turning off the lights and fireplace and snagging their drinks off the table. Once inside, they looked at each other and laughed out loud at how they must have looked, scampering into the house like scared rabbits. Kori felt the hairs on her arm standing up from the electrical charge and she used her hands to mash them flat.

Still laughing, AJ walked into the kitchen where he opened a cupboard above the fridge. He tossed her down a box of matches and lowered several candles onto the kitchen counter. He explained that storms like this one often knocked out the power and he wanted to be ready just in case.

Not long after he’d predicted it, lightning struck again and the house went black. Although the candles were ready, neither of them was prepared for how dark it suddenly became. Barely able to see her hands in front of her face, Kori fumbled with a match until she was finally able to strike it against the side of the box. She lit all four candles, and together, they distributed them around the house, leaving one in the kitchen and taking another to the bathroom.

h1=.

Rainwater beat onto the patio. White pops shot into the house like flash photography. Remembering one last thing, AJ went upstairs to make sure all the windows were closed, especially the ones in Dani’s room. When he returned, Kori had moved to the living room, where she’d kicked off her sandals and was lying on the couch. AJ sat down, and after scooping up her feet, rested her legs on his.

“I’ve been reading my great-grandmother’s journal,” Kori began.

“Really?” AJ said as he reached for her foot and started squeezing. “What time period are we talking about?”

“Late 1800s, early 1900s.”

“Interesting?”

“Very. When I was young, my family almost never talked about her, and when they did, I had to leave the room. But last week my grandmother passed away and she left me Hanako’s journal.”

“Hanako?”

“That was her name.”

He squeezed her heel. “Is it a good story?”

“It’s a hard story.”

“In what way?”

“Well, I haven’t read it all yet, but so far, she was a mail-order bride, purchased by a terrible man in Hawaii. He beat her all the time. He even raped her. And when she finally escaped, she was sold into prostitution to a man in San Francisco and worked in the sex trade for several more years.” Kori turned her head toward the candle that was sitting on the wagon-wheel coffee table, knowing that he’d found the right spot in her arch. “The saddest part is that all she really wanted to do was go home.”

“I guess I would too.”

“Yeah, but it was her family who sold her in the first place.”

AJ looked up thoughtfully. “You know, I remember my mother telling me that some of my ancestors were from Hawaii.” He swapped the foot he was working on for the other. “But my great-grandmother divorced my great-grandfather and moved to Utah. My mother always said it was a mistake to move the family from Hawaii. She hated it here—too much cold and snow, I guess.” He let his head fall back, looking at the ceiling. “Man, she used to complain to high heaven about the snow. I think she really would have been happier in Hawaii.”

“Looks like we finally have something in common,” Kori said.

“I guess so,” he agreed as his hands found her calf. “So what did you get from your great-grandmother?”

His question surprised her. “What do you mean?”

“Traits, characteristics. Are you anything like her?”

She thought for a moment. “Well, Hanako was resilient and determined. Reminds me of myself when I was growing up, and then in law school and my first few years with the firm.”

She put her arm under her head, giving her a better view of him. His features glowed orange. The sinews of his forearms move in rhythm with each squeeze as he forced blood in and out of her tissues. He was seeing her. He was seeing her and it felt good to be seen.

“You’re hired, by the way.”

AJ smiled and kept kneading her.

Rain moved down the sheeted glass in swells. Candles traced uneasy shadows on the walls. Her drink tickled her senses, especially the one she drank on an empty stomach. That one had gotten a head start on her. The sushi. The storm. The massage. Considering her circumstances, it was almost beyond her ability to fathom. She looked at AJ, knowing that few smiles had ever given her the funny feeling she noticed in her stomach every time one broke across his face. In his tender hands, her body was beginning to hum with the kind of sensitivity she had long thought drained from her.

“What am I doing here?” she said with a smirk.

He didn’t answer right away, as though he was wondering himself. “Drinking all my mojitos.”

“Seriously. And don’t forget, I’m a lawyer.”

“We eat lawyers for breakfast around here.”

“Just try it.”

He favored her with a grin that collapsed into a frown. “You’re badgering the witness.”

“You haven’t seen badgering,” Kori said, laughing. Everything was starting to seem funny.

“Then I object.”

Giggling, she sat up and set her bottle on the table. Leaning her weight into him, he toppled over and she found herself on top of him. “Do you still object?”

“Not at all, Your Honor.”

She felt his arms find the small of her back.

“I think I know what you got from your great-grandmother,” he said.

“What?”

His voice became soft. “She must’ve been very beautiful.”

At his words, Kori let her mouth sink to his. Soft, wet kisses. A river. A plush, encompassing stream of them and their current carry her away. The mint and lime danced on their lips as they turned one way and then the other. She pressed down on him—her breasts, her belly too. She wanted to descend into him, into the cool, replenishing pool that was AJ Crawford. She kissed his smooth, angular jaw, nibbling softly at his chin, then his neck, tasting him, picking at the seams that held him together. Something inaudible escaped his lips, something that signified pleasure. She loved hearing it—loved being the one pleasing him. He wanted her. He could come undone, and she knew it. Her skirt came up. It was easy for him to touch her bare skin now, and he touched her. His fingers danced, drew on her in heated strokes. There wasn’t a part of her that didn’t feel him, and she admitted to herself that their weekend together had been pointing to this from the very start.

Drawing back from him, she ran her finger over his mouth, dragging his bottom lip with it. “Those lips,” she murmured. “I could kiss you forever.”

“Sounds nice.”

It was just what she needed to hear, and while the anger of the storm had mostly moved on, suspended over a jagged, red dirt canyon on the other side of the valley, they enjoyed another long kiss. Between the sound of her breathing and the soft drumming of small rain drops, she thought she heard the voices of young Japanese girls, laughing and giggling as they walked home from school. They took each other by the arm and they dreamed together and skipped. Good things filled their heads. After-school treats, and the games they’d play when their chores were done, and the boys they’d noticed, and the feeling that brought. And they thought of future good husbands. And through it all, Kori clung tightly to AJ. This was the thing of frilly prom dresses and weak knees in shadowy summer barns and tall oak breezes. Love me, but not utterly to death AJ Crawford, she thought. While sheep nibbled at wet grass, Kori’s thoughts gravitated to a different life that, at the moment, felt sunsets away, yet reached out and gripped her securely. It caused her to draw back from him, and from the look on his face, she’d done it more abruptly than she meant to.

“I need to ask you something, AJ,” she panted.

“The answer is yes.”

“But I haven’t asked yet.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

She smiled at him, happy that they’d taken each other to this place. “But it’s a really big thing.”

“Okaaay,” he replied, this time with some apprehension.

“You’re going to be disappointed, I know it.”

“About what?”

She took a breath for courage. “I don’t think we should—you know.” She left her words unfinished. Then she added, “I mean, I want to, but—”

“We don’t have to,” he said without hesitation.

Kori dropped her head softly to his chest. She heard the beat of his heart in her ear, and knew that, at least for the moment, it was beating for her. When she raised her head again to look at him, she said, “But here’s the interesting part.”

“There’s an interesting part?” AJ repeated.

She nodded and her hair tickled his face. “Even though we can’t sleep together, I still want to sleep near you tonight.”

“So, how’s that gonna work?”

“Weellll—I’ll sleep on the couch and you make a bed next to me on the floor.” She winced, as though she could already feel the backache he’d have in the morning. “I’m still married, AJ. I want to be close to you tonight and I don’t know of another way.”

For a moment, his expression was unreadable to her. Then after a short pause, he said, “I’ll get out some blankets.”

She smiled warmly at him. “Thank you. Not many guys would go along with me on this.” No guys I know.

Then, while bees slumbered and blossoms brewed nectar under a spring moon, Kori and AJ kissed again. His lips. Her lips. His lips. Her neck. The soft, warm spot below her ear. A chill. It was a good chill, and a shiver followed it, and a breath, and a gasp. He was enjoying her, savoring her. He found every crook and dimple in her neck that had feeling and she felt it. Only after he’d drank in his fill of her did he locate her lips again.

“Mmm, I love those lips,” she finally said. Then, she pushed herself up, feeling his chest muscles in the process. “I’ll be back.” After stopping to grab a candle, she went upstairs.

AJ lay still in the shadows of the room, one hand on his chest, the other hanging over the side of the couch, his knuckles scuffing the carpet.

A campout? he thought incredulously to himself.

Not wanting to think about it too long, he sat up and twisted to see the clock. His day had started early and he was bushed. He pressed on his eyes when he saw that it was after one in the morning. Yawning, he got up and opened a downstairs closet, tossed two blankets on the couch, and an equal number on the floor, plus an extra-large quilt for padding. Then he walked to the bottom of the stairs and hollered to Kori to bring a pillow from her bed when she came down. With the bedding in place, he stood back, knowing he wouldn’t even bother trying to explain this to Brooks and Tim. Better to just let them use their imaginations.

h1=.

Not long after, Kori came downstairs in her red pajamas. Sporting gray sweats, AJ walked in about the same time with his pillow pinned under his arm, blowing out candles as he went. Just for fun, he flipped a light switch and made a defeated face when he saw that the power was still out.

Kori sat on the couch.

“How’s the setup?”

“I like it,” she said, running the flat of her hand over her make-shift bed.

With the candles out, AJ carefully picked his way past the furniture and then lowered himself to the floor. He leaned back against the couch and exhaled.

“Long day?” Kori asked.

He sighed a deep breath. “Tim’s gazebo was a bigger project than I thought.”

Kori found his shoulders and began squeezing through his T-shirt. Another breath escaped him. She straddled him to get better leverage, kneading his traps and wondering if she was even strong enough to do any good. She moved her fingertips over his head and grabbed fistfuls of his hair, tugging gently.

“You’re gonna put me to sleep.”

“That’s okay.” She reached around him, hugging him and taking in his scent. “How does the floor feel, by the way?”

He snored lightheartedly and she buried her face in his neck.

“Oh, I wish it was that comfortable,” she confided.

He laughed.

“I’ll let you go to bed,” she said.

She’d somehow said it, but that was the last thing she wanted. She wanted to be up with him all night. She wanted him looking at her, taking her in. She wanted him to gaze at her until he knew her from memory. But she’d found the will to let go of him and they both sank to their sleeping positions. When he was settled, she reached for him, interlocking their fingers and resting both of their hands on his chest.

“Did you have any idea yesterday that you’d be doing something this silly?”

“Nope,” he said as he adjusted his position. “I was sure I’d be doing something a lot more boring.”

She felt instant delight at his answer. “You know, I’m kind of looking forward to some of your famous blue French toast for breakfast tomorrow.”

“You got it,” he answered with a yawn.

She looked down at him, barely able to make out a person. “AJ.”

“Yeah?”

“I want you to know that no matter what happens to us in the morning, or next week, or a year from now, I’ll always remember this weekend as one of the best ever.”

With what seemed like a lot of effort, he propped himself up on his elbow and found her lips in the dark, kissing her—not real long, but like he meant it. Then he squeezed her hand. “Me too.”

h3=.

While she played with the webbing between his thumb and finger, she heard him take a deep, relaxed breath, and she imagined that it wouldn’t be long before she would be talking to herself. AJ had put in a day. He’d made her breakfast, worked for Tim, gone motorcycle shopping, cooked food he’d never seen before, and made her feel interesting and attractive. All in a day’s work for AJ Crawford.

She purposely stayed quiet for a few minutes, imagining that he would appreciate the lack of chatter as he eased into unconsciousness. She smiled to herself as the thought crossed her mind that she might finally know what she wanted out of life. It wasn’t the job, or the admiration of her co-workers. It wasn’t her former friends at the club, the ones that had pulled away from her over the last few weeks, or even her beautiful house. No. It was simple. She wanted this. This amazing feeling. She was staring at fifty and she really hadn’t known what to expect from it. Now, she did know. She looked down again into the darkness and noticed AJ’s chest slowly rise. A moment later, in a room with a wagon-wheel table, and smoldering candles, in the small mountain town of Mule Creek, where a river ran through the bottom land, and a storm moaned harmlessly in the distance, she reluctantly allowed herself to drift away too.

h1=.

The next morning when Kori woke, she found herself on the floor, along with all the blankets. She quickly checked for her pajamas. They were on. She sat up and put her hand to her head, thinking that she could still feel the effects of the mojitos, wondering what on earth was in those things. Heading for the kitchen, she bumped her leg on a table. Stupid table.

In the kitchen, she lowered a glass and turned on the tap. From the light coming in the windows, she guessed that it was probably nine, maybe a little later. There was no sign of AJ. She squinted toward his bedroom. Nothing. Noting that the stiffness in her legs was even worse the day after, she walked back to the couch and folded and stacked all the blankets. She paid special attention to the table this time. Next, she made her way up the stairs, taking her pillow with her.

In her room, she showered, wrapped herself in a towel, and passed in front of the mirror where her eyes blossomed. She raised her chin, turned her head, rubbed her neck with her hand as if that might do something. But it didn’t. It was still there. A hickey. She stared at it, and then noticed a small one on the other side. This was beyond ridiculous. She’d never seen anybody her age with a hickey before, not even on Gina and Lucy. For a brief moment, she wondered what she could do to hide them. Make-up, maybe a scarf? But before she had much time to think about it, the newly carefree and adventurous side of her took over, the part that turned on to narrow dirt roads in quiet valleys, the part that sat on shady porches and read old journals, that strolled through spring trees and cuddled next to fires in the park. She looked at them again. No, she liked the way they looked on her. Damned if she’d hide them. She’d wear a turtle neck around Mai for a while but that was it.

After looking at them one more time, she dressed and packed so that when AJ was ready to leave, he wouldn’t have to wait for her. After all, she didn’t want to be any more of a bother than she had already been. When she was ready, she lifted her suitcase and went downstairs, feeling every step in her sore leg muscles.

h3=.

“Good morning,” AJ said cheerfully.

“Good morning.”

“Breakfast is almost ready, and this time, I’m going all out—green sausage.”

Kori’s eyes flashed closed and then open.

“Just kiddin’.”

She smiled, thinking she should know his humor by now. Then she noticed a newspaper resting on the table.

“The Salt Lake Tribune.” she declared happily. “You got this for me?”

“The gas station gets a few copies on the weekend. By the way, would you like some tea?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Got any orange juice?”

“Coming up.”

She noticed the dog sitting on a mat by the back door. “Good morning, Pearl.”

Pearl reacted to the attention by rhythmically thumping her tail against the glass.

“Is this the only paper you get down here?” she asked, wondering if he’d seen her hickies yet since she hadn’t tried at all to hide them.

“We’ve got a local one, but it’s a bi-monthly. It comes out next week—Friday, I think.”

“Bi-monthly?” Kori flashed him a look of concerned as she removed the rubber band from the rolled paper. “What if a tractor gets a flat tire or the sheriff has to scold some guy at a softball game? Wouldn’t people need to know about it?”

AJ appeared amused by this. “You would have to bring up the sheriff again.”

“Of course. He’s one of my most cherished memories of this place. I especially liked the way he glared at me for being an out-of-towner.” She narrowed her eyes suspiciously, mimicking what she’d seen in the sheriff. “I thought he was going to frisk me and take me in.”

Shaking his head, AJ grabbed the spatula and flipped all four pieces of French toast. Then he looked back at her. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” She held up the paper for him to read the headline. “Unless my family on page one is a problem.”

AJ read it. Congressman Sarcotti Accepts Deal, Gets Eight Years.

When she was sure he’d finished, Kori dropped the paper onto the table.

“Got off light, if you ask me,” AJ said.

Even though she knew everyone was curious, Kori wasn’t aware that he’d been following the story so closely, and honestly, she didn’t know if she liked him having such a strong opinion about her life.

“Sorry, it’s not my place to judge.”

“No, you’re right.” She picked up the paper again and looked at Mitch’s picture. “He’ll be fifty-nine when he gets out. If he hadn’t taken the deal and was found guilty, he might have gotten twenty years or more.”

AJ set a plate of French toast next to her glass of juice. Then he got a plate for himself and joined her at the table. They ate mostly in silence as she read and re-read certain parts of the article, and as she did, she acknowledged the reality of things—that her precious weekend with AJ was coming to an end, and in a few hours, it would be business as usual—lawyers, journalists, and the FBI. The paper was just the beginning of it.

AJ didn’t mind the silence. He’s been in relationships that worked great while they were talking, but found they couldn’t just sit and be together. So he sat and the quiet continued. The only problem was that, while he was perfectly willing to sit quietly with her, his thoughts redeployed to last night and he wanted to take her hand. She was warm, and she warmed him, both with her touch and her glance.

After they’d finished, AJ walked the dishes over to the sink and then returned to his seat.

Kori felt guilt for her self-absorption. “Sorry I’ve been such lousy company this morning,” she said. “I’m just not sure what’s going to happen in the next few weeks, and there’ve been few times in my life when I had to admit that. It’s unfamiliar territory for me.”

AJ nodded. “Well then, as much as I hate to say it, I think we should get you back to Salt Lake.”

She hesitated before finding the will to agree with him. “Yeah, Mai will be wondering where I am.”

“Do you want to call her before we leave?”

Kori glanced at the black and white cow clock. “No, I’m sure she’s still in bed.”

Before getting up, AJ reached under the table and brought out a box.

“What’s that?”

“It’s your artifacts. You can take them home in this.”

At the sight of the box, she felt her eyes sting with appreciation and she pulled him toward her, kissing him on the lips. “Thank you for not letting me forget them.”

When AJ was able to let go of her, he got up, went back to the stove, dipped two more pieces of bread in the egg, and put them in the pan.

“You still hungry?” Kori asked.

“They’re for Pearl,” he said, pointing with the spatula. “French toast is her favorite.”

h1=.

Short of being on top of him, Kori sat as close to AJ as she could on the ride back to Salt Lake, sometimes resting her hand on his thigh, or reaching around his shoulders to hug him. Traffic was typically light on Sunday mornings and they took their time, both of them knowing that their weekend would come to an abrupt end when Kori got out. Rambling on about the ranch and how he planned to make it more profitable, AJ did most of the talking and Kori the listening. Occasionally, she would rest her head on his shoulder, trying to memorize his scent as the ideas came pouring out of him a mile a minute. A bed-and-breakfast. Organic greenhouses. Even a herd of Emus.

“I’m going to have you drop me at my girlfriend’s house, if you don’t mind. Mai will be there, and Doris can take me to get my car tomorrow. You’ve done so much—I just can’t thank you enough.”

“I think we’re past thanking each other.” He raised his visor. “I want to see you again. I hope you know that. I don’t care how far apart we are.”

“I’d like that,” she said, knowing that she still had some unfinished business with her husband. “But do you think we should start a relationship?”

He shrugged. “I just like the prospects of free legal advice.”

She laughed. “But you know what I mean, right? We’re so different, your world and mine—like opposites.”

“Yeah. So?”

“I guess I’m just wondering what it takes to make a relationship work these days.”

AJ thought for a moment. “Actually, I think we’ve got a lot in common.”

“We do?” She was surprised that he would say that, considering. “Such as?”

“Well, you like archeology and I have an ancient civilization in my backyard.”

She giggled. “I forgot about that.”

“You’ve got a thing for barns, and we have tons of barns in Kanosh County.” He pointed as he drove down the interstate in the middle of the Salt Lake Valley. “Look, no barns. You’re undoubtedly sexually frustrated living up here.”

She laughed again and joined in. “I like blue French toast, and you make the best blue French toast in six counties.”

“Seven, if you go into Colorado,” he added.

“Exactly, and we both sort of come from Hawaii.”

“That’s right. In fact, I thought of something this morning that I didn’t tell you last night. I remember my mom telling me that my great-grandmother divorced her husband in Hawaii and moved to the mainland with their one child—something about him being a pain-in-the-you-know-what. Several years later, he married a Japanese girl.”

“Smart guy. Japanese girls are awesome,” Kori teased.

“Well—it gets better.” He changed lanes to make a left turn and stopped at a red light. “The way my mother told the story, he died a couple years later. His Japanese wife stabbed him to death, right in the heart with a knife. Can you believe that?”

Kori went immediately numb. She debated for a moment if she’d heard him right, but she had. She considered the journal and thought that maybe he’d been reading it and it was all a big joke. Japanese wife? A knife? A stabbing? This couldn’t be happening.

“That’s why when a friend suggested that I try to internet date some girl from Moldova, I said forget it!” He nudged her with his elbow in jest and she wobbled like a Jell-O salad. The light turned green, and after a couple of cars passed, he was able to turn left.

“So much traffic and so many people. I think I would go nuts up here.”

She heard him talking, but dread was flooding into every part of her and it was impossible to make sense of what he was saying. She looked out the side window, and as AJ rambled on about something, she sank deeper in angst with every word. She wanted to get away from him, for a minute at least. She needed to think. He couldn’t just drop a bombshell like that on her and not give her time to think. Fortunately, Doris’s house was just around the corner and she could feel herself reaching for the door already.

“Here we are, I think,” AJ announced. “2751 West Pioneer, right?” He peered past her at the numbers on the house.

“This is it,” she finally said through lips almost too brittle to speak. Clutching her purse, she readied herself to exit as soon as he brought the Jeep to a stop.

“Is everything okay?” AJ asked.

“Fine,” she said. “I’ve just got a lot on my mind now that I’m back home.”

He put the Jeep in park. “So you’ll call me about next weekend?”

“Sure,” she said while she pushed open the door. “I could be really busy, though, so we’ll have to see. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound like any fun.” He got out to help her with her bag, but before he could, she’d pulled her luggage from the back seat of the Jeep and brought it down hard onto the driveway.

“Thanks for everything,” she called, hoping AJ couldn’t see the shake in her hand.

“I could’ve helped you with that, you know.”

“No need—I’m good.”

“Do you want me to come in?”

She didn’t answer. She opened the front door without knocking, and as she pulled her suitcase in behind her, she sensed him watching her in bewilderment. But she didn’t have the luxury of being sympathetic. She needed to get in and sit down before she fell down. More to the point, she needed to be away from him.

She turned to face him and offered a simple wave from the door. “Thanks. Have a safe trip.”

AJ lifted his hand, but the door closed so quickly, he wasn’t sure she’d seen him wave back.

Inside, her breaths grew shallow and were mixed with a feeling of wanting to cry. She cracked the curtain to get one last glimpse of him and saw his handsome face marred with confusion. He was lost. She felt her heart being pulled in two directions—one drenched in feelings for him, the other laced with guilt and family honor. The guilt was winning—as it always had.

At that moment, Doris walked in, shocked to find Kori in her living room. “I didn’t hear the door.” She walked over and gave Kori a firm hug. “It’s about time you found your way home, stranger.”

Kori turned and sat on the couch. “Is Mai home?”

“Yeah. She’s asleep upstairs,” Doris said as she joined Kori on the couch. Doris’ eyebrows pinched together. “What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Through sobs and several tissues, Kori started at the beginning and eventually told Doris everything—the softball game with his friends, their dinner together during the storm, the way he kissed her. She ended with the part about his family history in Hawaii, and even with ample head nodding from Doris, by the time she was finished, Kori was as confused as she had ever been about anything in her life.

h1=.

Kori

Even though Mule Creek was only a few hours away, to Kori, it might’ve well been a million miles, and the longer she waited to call AJ, the farther away it seemed to get.

She’d been back to work for almost a week, and on Tuesday morning, she’d walked into Kevin’s office and told him that from now on, she’d do most of her work from home. She’d come in only when she needed to—that is, if he wanted to keep her clients and the assets rolling in like they had been. She made it sound like she was asking permission, but she was going to do it whether he liked it or not. She’d been with the firm longer than he had and she was better at the job than he was, so he would listen to her, or else. Besides, if she left, she’d have ten job offers before the day was out. It was an easy decision for him.

Fortunately, Kevin understood what she was saying and he liked the idea immediately, knowing that the alternative would have the senior partners down on him in a second. It was a great way to get her out of the office and still get more of the same kind of work from her. But even though she knew he liked it, he pretended to be inconvenienced, seemingly short on staff and long on work. A few days later, she heard from one of the office girls that Kevin had taken credit for the idea. Typical.

h3=.

Later that night as she sat on her bed in her nightgown, riffling through a stack of papers that added up to millions of dollars, a sound outside her door broke her concentration.

“Mai, is that you?”

The door opened.

“Hey, Mom.”

“Hey, honey.” Kori started clearing a spot on her bed. “Have a seat.”

“Didn’t you used to work at your office? You do remember your office, don’t you?”

Kori patted the comforter for Mai to sit down. “I’m becoming a homebody. Did you get the rest of that Chinese food I left you?”

“Yeah, but I was gonna ask, why Chinese food?”

“Well, I had some stuff for Japanese, but I used it already and I haven’t had time to get to the store.”

“When did I miss Japanese food?”

Kori shrugged guiltily. “Kind of a long story.”

“Speaking of stories, did you see the message I took for you the other day? The guy wanted you to call him back. I wrote his number on the whiteboard next to the phone.”

“You talked to him?”

“Yeah. He was nice.”

“He is nice,” Kori agreed.

Mai paused as though she wanted her mother to fill her in, and when she didn’t, she asked. “So, are you seeing this guy?”

“Not really.”

“Is it because of Dad?”

“Yes and no. Mostly no.” She wished she could sum up the situation with AJ in one sentence, but she knew that was impossible.

Then Mai spoke. “Mom?”

“Yeah?”

“What is Mule Creek?”

Kori was taken aback. “Where did you hear about Mule Creek?”

“From the guy on the answering machine.”

Kori looked perplexed. “I thought you took his call.”

“I did, but he called back and left a message too.” She cast her mother a distressed look. “You should check your messages and you’ll see that he’s called several times.”

“So, what did he say?”

Mai exhaled and used her fingers to keep track. “He said that Mule Creek was starting to look good on you, and that you just need a little more manure on your shoes and you’ll be perfect.” Mai stuck out her tongue at the thought of manure. “Oh, and something about showing you the insanity of it all. What was he talking about?”

Kori just smiled. “Thanks for the message, honey. By the way, you usually can’t remember one word of my messages. How did you remember every detail of this one?”

“’Cause I listened to it about five times.”

“Why?”

Mai smiled sheepishly. “I liked his accent.”

h1=.

AJ

The Kanosh County 4th of July parade was one of the most popular events of the year, and people came from as far away at St. George and Salt Lake to attend.

“AJ, over here!”

When AJ looked, he saw Brooks signaling to him from the crowd. Turning around, he faced Dani and Allison, who were lagging behind. “They’re over there,” he yelled. He waited for the two girls to catch up. “They’re over there,” he repeated more quietly.

As they approached, he noticed Dani’s beautiful, long brown hair draped over her bare shoulders, and for the millionth time, he was reminded of how much she looked like her mother.

“Dad, we don’t want to sit with you and your friends. We want to walk around,” Dani said, glancing at Allison for support and then back at her father. They both had the exact same look on their faces, like they’d practiced in advance.

“Well, okay.” He pointed with a folding chair that he had pinned under his arm. “I’ll be over there if you need me.”

“We could use some money, though,” Dani hinted, looking at him from just beneath her bangs.

“How much?”

“A twenty ought to do it.”

He set down his backpack and chair and opened his wallet. “You sure know how to handle me,” he said, knowing he would have never let them walk away without some money in their pockets anyway.

Dani smiled.

“Be safe. And stay together.”

After handing Dani two tens, the two girls turned and were absorbed into the crowd like food into a paramecium. Then he turned back to Brooks, who was sitting on the edge of the road in a lawn chair with a drink in his hand. AJ walked over to where Brooks had saved a spot for him, opened his chair, and after sitting down, lifted a Coke from Brooks’ cooler and took a long pull. Then he took a good look at Brooks. Dark glasses, wide-brim straw hat, shorts that flared open far enough to scare animals and small children, and the whitest legs in the county.

No wonder the girls won’t sit with us.

“I haven’t seen you for forever. How ya been?” It’d only been a couple days, but for them, that was a long time.

“Busy,” AJ told him.

“Trees?”

AJ made an exhausted face to say that it was the trees, and everything else. Just life in general. “It’ll slow down now, though.” He wiped his brow. “You couldn’t get a place with a little shade?”

Brooks shrugged like the heat didn’t bother him.

AJ raised his hand to the sun. “Where’s Linda?”

“She’s around here somewhere,” Brooks said. Then he looked at AJ. “I’ve been meaning to ask you. What’s the news from Kori?”

“Not much. Why—did Linda tell you to ask me?”

“I’m just concerned about my bro, that’s all.”

AJ looked at him dismally. “Bull.”

Brooks leaned out, looking down the street for any sign of his wife. Then he turned to AJ again. “All right, maybe she did say something. So, whatever you can give me—I would appreciate it. I hate going back empty-handed.”

“I’m glad to hear that my personal life is so much fun for you guys.”

“It’s not like we’re taking bets or anything,” Brook replied. After saying it, Brooks had a peculiar look on his face, as though he might have accidently stumbled onto something.

“Well, if you want to know the truth, I haven’t heard from her since the day I dropped her off in Salt Lake,” AJ confided. “It’s like we never met.”

“Man, that is weird.”

“It is, and there’s not much I can do about it. I tried calling, I left messages, but nothing. I even talked to her daughter.”

“Her daughter?”

“Yeah, and she was really nice.”

Brooks’ face crinkled with suspicion. “What happened the last time you were together?”

“Nothing really. I dropped her off at her friend’s house and we talked about seeing each other on the weekend.” AJ reached into the cooler and grabbed some ice. He popped it into his mouth and it skewed his speech. “She was supposed to call me that week, but she never did. I thought maybe she just wanted to surprise me, but when Saturday night rolled around, I knew she wouldn’t show. Believe me, I’d like to talk to her too. I’d ask her what the heck is up, and I’m not sure that I’d be too polite about it, either.”

“And you didn’t say anything to screw it up?”

“I’ve been over and over our conversation. There’s nothing.”

They could see the parade starting as five guys from the local Army Reserve escorted the American flag up the street.

“The last thing we talked about was my great-grandfather getting killed in Hawaii. Next thing I know, she’s out the door and flying down the walk, dragging her luggage behind her.” He brought his drink to his mouth and let it hover there while he finished his thought. “Haven’t heard boo since.”

As the flag got nearer, both men stood, along with everyone around them. After it’d passed, they sat down again.

“Well, maybe it’s time to forget about her—time to move on to greener pastures. I can set you up with a woman from work. She’s got a killer body.” Brooks waited for an answer, and when AJ didn’t offer anything, he shrugged and added, “You know, I thought she was a little strange—woman attorney, running around southern Utah alone, car breaking down and all. She was bad news from the get-go. You’re better off.”

AJ faced the parade, like he was actually seeing it, but thanks to Brooks, his thoughts were on Kori. There wasn’t anything wrong with her, and he knew it. She was great, foreign car and all. She smelled good. Her hair felt good in his hands. He even liked her cooking, and if he hadn’t been as enthusiastic about the sushi as he should have been, he’d be crazy about it next time, even the eel. Whatever it’d take, he’d do it. One thing for sure, he knew he wasn’t better off.

“Yeah, you’re probably right, dude.”

h1=.

After the parade, AJ told Brooks he’d meet him at the rodeo. But first, hoping he might run into Dani, he strolled over to the Mountain Man Rendezvous, which was a short walk across the baseball field to the park. The Rendezvous was a mecca for salty old dogs who longed for a simpler way of life when dinner meant shooting a bear, hauling it back to their cabin, and tanning its hide to become next year’s winter coat.

First, he stopped at a teepee where he watched a guy dressed like Grizzly Adams start a fire with two sticks and a string. Next, an old man with a beavertail hat shot a black powder rifle and AJ made a mental note to take up the hobby someday.

With a salted pretzel in his hand, he worked his way through the crowd, not able to walk in a straight line for all the people.

“See anything that interests you?”

Hearing a voice, AJ looked to see a man standing proudly by a table crowded with Native American artifacts.

“Everything’s for sale,” he petitioned.

AJ walked over and reached toward the table.

“That’s a—”

“A spade,” AJ said, naming it before the man could. “Used for digging, prying, even for scraping hides. It’s a multi-purpose tool, kind of like a Swiss Army knife.”

“You’re right. The man knows his artifacts.”

By this time, AJ wasn’t alone.

“Wow, you’re like an astrologist or something,” a woman said.

AJ set the spade gently back on the table. “I have a friend who’s an archeologist.” He emphasized the word for her educational benefit. “I learned about spades from h—from them.”

She extended her hand. “I’m Noelle.” Her head tilted slightly when she introduced herself, like a dog that was trying to understand human talk.

“AJ,” he said, feeling the slipperiness of her hand lotion. “I think we met a couple years ago at the school’s Halloween festival.”

“That’s right. We worked the spook alley together.”

AJ smiled and nodded. “How’re your kids?”

“They’re good. They’re around here somewhere.”

Her eyes quickly took in the park, but AJ got the feeling that she had no desire to locate them.

AJ guessed that Noelle was probably in her mid-forties. She had dishwater-blond hair that had been bleached almost white, but was all but grown out except for the ends. She wore faded jeans and a T-shirt, both of which were tight and made her look curvy. And when she knew AJ was watching, she reached across the table to handle a piece of obsidian, making sure that her shirt came up so he could glimpse the tattoo on her lower back.

After putting the obsidian back in its spot, she straightened and asked. “Are you going to the rodeo later?”

AJ formed his mouth to answer, but before he could, she spoke again.

“We should go together.”

Noelle would have been tickled to know that the thought of asking her to join him had already crossed his mind. Though she seemed somewhat morally compromised, she wasn’t half bad-looking, and he found it hard not to notice her parts. He’d seen her tight clothes and detected a hint of vanilla-laced perfume. Not surprisingly, he’d also noticed her black bra straps that were playing peekaboo on her shoulders, and of course, her tattoo. Everything had produced the desired effect, which was to cause him to imagine her naked, and at least for a second, he thought about what it would be like to hold her later that evening. To his credit, it’d been a while since he’d been with a woman, and he thought he might be willing to justify his circumstances a little. And as if he needed more incentive, Brooks and Tim would be very impressed if he showed up at the rodeo with Noelle on his arm, although Linda, not so much.

“Actually, I’m seeing someone right now,” AJ said. “So it probably wouldn’t be a good idea.”

He wondered why he would think of himself as being in a relationship with Kori when she’d dropped him like a medicine ball at the Native American cultural exhibit. But that was the position in which he found himself and he knew for a fact that he could never be with Noelle, not while he still felt the way he did about Kori.

Noelle flipped her hair and a multitude of bracelets on her wrist clanged together in a sexy rattling sound. “Is she here with you tonight?”

I wish. “No, but it just wouldn’t be a good idea. You know what I mean.”

Despite her obvious disappointment, Noelle boldly stepped toward him until she was close enough that he could smell the flavor of her gum. Big Red.

Taking AJ by the hand, she pulled a pen from a denim bag that hung on her shoulder.

“Just in case you can’t remember her name later tonight.”

She held his hand in hers as she wrote her number on his palm, making sure that he felt every touch of her fingers and the ball of the pen as it flowed over his skin. Then she turned to scamper off, and as AJ watched her jiggle away from him, he wondered again what it was about Kori that would cause him to send Noelle away—tattoo and all.

As he turned and started toward the arena, AJ took one more look at the spade. What a load of crap! AJ huffed to himself, thinking that the busted-up piece of junk on that guy’s table had nothing in common with the Swiss Army knife he got when he was a kid, and still had. Where’s the magnifying glass?

h1=.

Arriving at the rodeo, AJ gave his ticket to a young girl in a cowboy hat at the gate and strolled in. Before hunting down his friends, he bought a shredded turkey barbeque sandwich and a Dr. Pepper at the concession stand. Then he spotted them in their usual spot—top row, near the center. The sun was low and at their backs, and the sky was a blue that was usually reserved for coloring oceans on a map.

“So, how have you been?” Linda asked.

“Great,” AJ lied.

She looked wounded for him. “Honey, Brooks told me about Kori.”

After she said it, AJ glanced past her to see Brooks, who was pretending to be interested in the clown that was shooting free T-shirts into the crowd with an air cannon.

“She’s making a mistake,” Linda continued.

AJ set his Dr. Pepper on the bench next to him and unwrapped his sandwich. “Yeah, well, she’s a big girl.”

“It just doesn’t make any sense. I talked with her that night at the park. She liked you, I could see it on her face, and I’m not usually wrong about these things.”

“Well, you must’ve been wrong about this one,” he said, popping the top of his drink. “Don’t worry—you weren’t the only one she fooled.”

A moment later, AJ heard the P.A. system crackle. “Next up in the bull-riding competition—Zebediah Karr. He’ll be coming out of gate two on a bull named Toxic.”

Brooks leaned in front of Linda. “Hey, dude, look who it is. It’s old Zebby.”

“Who?”

“Zebediah Karr. The guy we met at Joey’s that night in Pocatello. The guy with one nut! He lost it riding a bull named Nutcracker. Remember? It even made national news because of the bull’s name.”

A.J began to nod in recollection as it came to him.

Then the rodeo announcer continued. “And there he goes.”

The crowd cheered as the cowboy managed to stay on for five or six seconds before crashing to the ground on his hands and knees.

“Let the cowboy know you appreciate his hard work. Give him a hand, folks.”

“A hand? What he needs is a steel plate to protect his last nut,” Brooks called out, loud enough for most of the people around him to hear.

Anxious to change the subject from the malfunctioning cowboy, Linda pushed Brooks out of her away. “Listen, I think you should go up there. It wouldn’t be hard to find out where she lives. Something’s just not right about the whole thing, and you need to find out what.”

“I’ll think about it. But listen, while I’ve got you here, I think I’m gonna take a trip.”

“A trip?” Linda repeated.

“What trip?” Brooks grunted.

“AJ’s taking a trip,” Linda told Brooks.

AJ took another bite and chewed a moment before answering. “Yeah, I think I’m just gonna to get away for a couple of weeks, maybe a month.”

Brooks’ mouth was open, a piece of half-gnawed licorice hanging precariously from his lower lip. “What about the ranch?”

“I’ll go in September when tree season is over.”

“And Dani?” Linda asked.

“Well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

Linda stopped him. “Don’t give it another thought. She’s welcome at our house.”

Their kids had been gone for several years, and AJ knew they missed having them around. Besides, they thought of Dani as one of their own anyway. It was the perfect place for her.

“I really appreciate you guys.”

“Have you told her yet?”

“No, but I will soon.”

“Where are you going?” Brooks asked, perhaps worried that he’d have to spend a lot more time with Linda while AJ was gone.

“I don’t know yet.”

“Taking the Jeep?”

AJ looked at him like he should think before he talked.

“Yeah, of course you are. And you have no idea where you’re going?”

“Maybe north to Montana or south to San Diego, or maybe the mid-west. I’ve always wanted to visit Little Rock, the Gulf Coast, eat some Cajun. I really don’t know. I might not know until I’m there.”

They turned to see the next rider as the announcer’s voice crackled through the speaker again.

“Next up, we have a local cowboy coming out of gate seven. He’ll be trying to earn some take-home pay riding a bull named, Nutcracker.”

Brooks and AJ looked at each other and laughed.

h1=.

Kori

It’d been a while since Doris had gone with Kori to one of Mai’s swim meets, and when Kori invited her, she gladly accepted. It was the state finals, and if Mai did well, she’d be invited to Seattle in a few weeks for the Western Regionals. Mai’s friends, Beth and McKenna, and Brandi and her new husband, Sam, were also at the meet.

Mai had advanced to the final heat for the backstroke, and Kori could see Mai off to the side, her coach giving her some last-minute advice before she was instructed by the judge to get into the water. In order to qualify for Nationals, Mai would have to place in the top two, and everyone, including Mai, realized that an entire season of hard work was coming down to the next couple of minutes.

Finally, the announcer spoke. “Swimmers, take your marks.”

Mai and the other girls lowered themselves into the water and faced the wall. They brought their feet up and braced them against the side, their knees pressed against their chests. The buzzer sounded and they were off.

This was the 200-meter back, which meant that they swam the length of the pool four times. For much of the race, Mai was in third place, but as Kori watched, it seemed to her that Mai was saving something while the girls in first and second place appeared to be laboring.

“She looks good. She’s right where she wants to be,” Kori said, turning to tell everyone behind her.

As the swimmers pushed off the wall for their last time, Mai seemed to find another gear, pulling even with the girls by the time she reached the middle of the pool, and eventually winning by slightly more than an arm’s length.

With the race in the books, Mai’s fan club sat back down.

“Holy crap, what an exciting race. Look at me, I’m shaking,” Doris said, holding out her hand. “I forgot how fun these meets can be.”

Mai lifted herself out of the pool and immediately waved to her supporters. Kori stood again and put both hands in the air, pumping her fists. “Looks like we’re going to Seattle.” Then she opened her program and ran her finger down the page. “Her next race isn’t for more than an hour. Should we get something to eat?”

“Now you’re talking,” Sam said.

After spreading their stuff on the bench to save their spots, they headed out to the car, finding a Denny’s near the freeway. Brandi, Sam, Beth, and McKenna all seemed to frown at the idea of eating at Denny’s and decided to walk to a Wendy’s that was no more than half a block away, which suited Kori and Doris just fine.

h3=.

Having missed breakfast, Kori ordered two eggs over medium, hash browns and sausage, orange juice to drink, and an English muffin. Doris ordered about the same, except she had her eggs scrambled and asked for a side of baby pancakes.

While they waited for their food, Kori talked about Nationals and invited Doris to come with them, if she wanted, all expenses paid. Doris said she would think about it, but Kori imagined that Doris wouldn’t turn down a chance to get out of town and have fun in Seattle.

After a short wait, a middle-aged, redheaded waitress named Kitty set their food on the table in front of them.

“I haven’t heard you say too much about AJ lately,” Doris said, using a knife to spread butter on her pancakes. “You were supposed to come to your senses and get back to me. Remember?”

Here we go again. Kori shrugged and took a sip of her water.

“Is he still calling you?”

“He gave up.”

“But you said he was cute, right?” Doris asked, hitting her scrambled eggs with Tabasco.

“I don’t think there’s a word for the way he looks.”

“I wish you had taken a picture.”

Kori wished she had too. And when Doris pressed her for a description, she did her best to remember him. Non-judgmental eyes and a caring smile. Hair that made you want to run your fingers through it and pull. When Kori had finished, Doris had a smirky gleam in her eye, as though Kori had been describing AJ more for her own benefit than for Doris’.

“I thought about taking a picture, but it just didn’t seem right. ‘Hey, can I take a picture so I can always remember when I was slumming in the country with my redneck lover?’”

“He sounds perfect. Tell me again, what’s wrong with him?”

“I’m married,” Kori said firmly.

“Getting divorced.”

“Yeah, getting. It’s not final yet. And then what do you expect me to do? Run out and immediately start sleeping with the first guy I meet? Can’t I just enjoy life without a guy?”

Doris just stared at her.

“You’re nuts,” Kori said with a sigh.

Catching the waitress’ eye, Doris motioned for her to come over. “Do you have any of that blueberry syrup?”

“Right away, dear.”

Doris looked back at Kori. “I just love blueberry stuff. Syrup, jam—blueberry waffles. But I never get it unless I’m at a restaurant.”

“They sell blueberry syrup at the store, you know,” Kori said, looking at her like she was just plain helpless.

A moment later, Kitty set a purple-colored bottle on the table and Doris drizzled the contents over her pancakes. Then while she was there, Kitty started clearing some of the dishes they didn’t need anymore. Overhearing their conversation about a guy, she asked about him and Doris wasted no time spilling everything about Kori’s love life to a stranger. “Bottom line, she’s got this amazing guy on the hook and she’s bothered by ethics and misplaced guilt. You know—the way our mothers used to make us feel.”

Kitty threw her head back, laughing “I was like that once,” she said. “Now if a man wants me, I’m his.”

“See?” Doris hissed.

Kitty put down the dishes. “What’s he like?”

Kori stabbed mindlessly at her food. “He uses words like whangdoodle.”

“Whangdoodle?” Doris repeated. “What on earth does that mean?”

“It a mythical creature of an undefined nature.”

Doris and Kitty looked at each other.

“I looked it up,” Kori said unabashedly.

“You looked up his words?” Kitty repeated in a tone that suggested Kori was in deep.

“And there’s the other thing,” Kori added.

“What other thing?” Kitty asked.

Finally, Kori turned to her. “Kitty, can you give us a minute?”

Unable to mask her disappointment, Kitty looked at Doris. “I’ll be right over there if you need me, dear.”

After Kitty left, Doris turned to Kori. “You don’t mean that old worn-out excuse about him being the great-grandson of some mean old butthead, do you?”

Holding her English muffin in her hand, Kori’s shoulders fell, put out at Doris for not understanding. Then she proceeded to explain again the gut-wrenching coincidence that made it practically impossible for her to ever see AJ again. His great-grandfather had purchased her great-grandmother and paid to have her shipped to Hawaii, like he was buying furniture from Overstock.com. He’d beaten her practically every day, and even though she eventually got payback, she was sold into prostitution—all because of AJ’s great-grandfather. Then she reminded Doris that it wasn’t a question of whether or not Kori liked AJ. It was a question of family—of honor. How could she ever face Obasan or Hanako again? . . . and she’d always believed she would.

After she was done, Doris told her that she was acting all loony tune and that she should just forget about that, jump in her car, and rush down to Mule Creek before it was too late. It was the same thing Doris had told her before. Honestly, the woman was a broken record.

“Are you absolutely sure about this? I’ve known you a long time, and I can tell that you like this guy. And from what you’ve told me, it sounds like he likes you too, or he did until you abandoned him. Are you seriously going to walk away from this?”

“What choice do I have?” Kori opened her purse and lay down a tip. “I’ll get the check and then we’d better get back.”

Outside, Kori noticed a selection of trees in front of Pioneer Valley Nursery.

“Where you going?” Doris asked.

“Just a sec. I want to look at these trees.”

Doris followed. “You thinkin’ bout planting more trees in your yard?”

“Maybe—but I’ve got a tree guy,” she said, only half listening.

“You’ve got a tree guy?” Doris repeated, puzzled. “I’ve got a hair guy and a pizza guy, but who’s got a tree guy?”

While Kori fingered a leaf, a high school kid in khaki Dockers, a dark blue shirt, and a name tag that read “Josh” exited the store.

“Can I help you?”

Kori glanced at his name tag. “No, Josh, I’m just looking.”

The young man was about to turn and walk away when Kori stopped him. “Josh, can you tell me if you sweat these trees?”

“Sorry?”

“I noticed that it’s a Maple and I was wondering if you sweat them? You know, keep them in a hyper-humid environment until they break bud?”

Josh winced. “Actually, I’m better at flowers than trees. But I can get someone for you.”

While Josh squirmed, Kori fingered a leaf, like she was buying material for a quilt. She was talking over his head, first, the law with Teno, now trees with Josh. Finally, she sighed. “Never mind.”

h1=.

Later that night, Kori pulled their car into the garage and pushed the button to close the automatic door behind them. Then she followed her daughter into the house.

“Mai, take a shower and get to bed as quickly as possible. You need your sleep after a day like today. And congratulations again! You deserve it for all the hard work you’ve been putting in.”

Kori admitted that, lately, she smiled easily at her daughter. Her expression seemed to brighten at the drop of a hat, like it used to. Work was going well with the new arrangements. She liked being home more, and her production at the firm hadn’t tailed off like some of her colleagues had warned her it would—in fact, it was up. Mitch’s ordeal was all but over—all but the jail time, that is. She hadn’t seen the FBI for months and there were fresh stories leading the nightly news, and she could finally watch it again without seeing herself and getting sick.

But perhaps the best change was the one she noticed in Mai. Kori knew that as hard as it had been on her, it’d been worse for Mai. Thankfully, she’d stopped pouting and begun talking. Doors were being shut again instead of slammed, which was a tremendous relief for Kori’s nerves. Mai had grown up a lot during the last few months. She’d had to grow up, and at this crucial time in her life, Kori could say without hesitation that their relationship had never been better.

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Good night, sweetie.”

“Night,” came the sleepy reply.

After dropping her things on her desk in her office, and making sure the alarm was activated, Kori was no more than ten minutes behind her daughter. Upstairs, she showered and then passed in front of the mirror. The hickies that AJ had given her were long gone. She’d watched them go from red to a serious purple before turning brown and fading out. They lasted a week, maybe less, and then disappeared, like a candle that ran out of wick, burning out of sight. She touched the places where they’d been. It was silly of her to think about them, she knew that. But she’d cherished them. She still hadn’t seen hickies on any other woman her age. She knew this because she’d been keeping an eye out for them. Even a light shadow would have been noticed by her. Somehow, that made the memory of them even better, and under her breath, she thanked AJ again for the hundredth time.

It was fall and the night temperatures had been dropping into the twenties, and before crawling into bed, she pulled on a warm, flannel nightgown. As she did, she couldn’t help thinking about what Doris had said, about her being—how did she put it?—a loony tune, and that she should just forget about the Hawaii thing and go back to AJ. But she knew she couldn’t. Still, she wondered how AJ was getting along—how much business he’d done in tree sales this year, how many horses he had in his barn, and whether he’d found someone that loved him as much as she had loved him.

Loves him, she thought.

Part of her hoped he had. He deserved it. But a bigger part couldn’t even consider such a thing. As her weekend in Mule Creek suddenly came rolling back to her, she saw him, as clear as if they were sharing the couch now; his easy going smile, the love he had for his work. She didn’t know how, but he’d pulled her in, coiled her around him like a spool of thread, and as hard as she tried, she found it impossible to unwind herself. No matter what happened, she would always feel him not too far off, close enough to admire—and want.

And she thought of that night. That wonderful night, when she was standing in the kitchen, cooking, knowing that she loved cooking for him. She’d heard him pull up behind her and sensed that his eyes were on her, admiring her. Women could do that. His gaze had washed over her like a spell from an old magic book, and she would have rather burned the food than break it. He’d seen her bare arms with a smidgen of sun, her hair—soft and a little full from the humidity, the curve of her back. And she was sure that he’d rested his stare on her hips for at least a moment, taking her in, enjoying her. That, men could do. Just being noticed made her feel whole in a way that she hadn’t felt in ages. Transparent, as though he could see right through her, to her soul, yet plentiful and real. AJ had been real.

Still thinking about him, and wondering how long she could live like this, she opened a drawer by her bed to find her chap stick. Suddenly, she became still as she glimpsed the brown leather of Hanako’s journal, almost buried under papers and notes from work. She hadn’t read from it for weeks. She hadn’t even thought about it. But she quickly remembered that she had only a few pages left, and after removing it and crawling into bed, she drew out the satin ribbon.

As I have had a chance to look back on my life, I have many regrets. I regret that my sister Saiko died when she was so young, and I regret not being able to do anything to stop it. I regret being taken from my home in Japan. I regret that my family was so poor that they felt they had to sell me for money. I regret that I never got to see my parents again after that. Later, after leaving San Francisco and meeting my husband, I wanted to see them and I thought about going back to Japan for a visit, but now I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t think they could have looked at me, and I would have returned to America disappointed in them and with nothing resolved.

There were many times in my life when I was angry with God and questioned why these things happened to me—anybody would. But the things that happened were not the fault of God. My life was the result of the choices men made for me. Now I believe that even though I was mistreated, God was watching over me and I feel peace about that. In fact, I believe it is because of Him that I could have survived all the trials I was forced to endure.

Now, many years later, I can say that I forgive the people who hurt me. I forgive my parents for selling me. I forgive all the men in my life who took advantage of me. Most of all, I can say that I forgive Frederick for what he did to me. He could have made my life so different, so pleasant. If he had been kind and treated me with respect, I would have grown to love him and I would have been a good wife, and we could have had children and been happy. But he chose not to love me, and for that, I have forgiven him. The only way I was able to go on with my life was to forgive.

As I grow old, I wanted someone in my family to know about my life. To you who are reading this, I will leave it up to you whether to tell others or keep this story to yourself, but in the end, I hope that you will pass the book on to at least one other person. I need someone to know the truth. Equally, I need you to know that I forgave the people who offended me and that I have found peace. I hope this story can be of use to you, as we are all sometimes hurt by the ones we love in our lives.

[_ _]

Hanako Ishikawa

[_ _]

[_ _]

As Kori lay there, the words of the last few pages tumbled around in her head. Hanako forgave them? She forgave them all. After what Kori had learned about Hanako’s life, that was about the last thing she’d expected her to write. It was like a book with a surprise ending—it had fooled her completely. She heard a promise in the words and it seemed to fill her with a soft and soothing hope. Perhaps all was not lost. Perhaps Hanako could put them back on the right track again. She closed the journal slowly, and for the first time since she opened its pages, she knew, without a doubt, that Hanako’s journal had been written for her.

Completely drained a few minutes ago, she suddenly felt refreshed. In a flurry, she threw back her covers and jumped out of bed. From her closet, she pulled out a suitcase and began loading it with things from her drawers and from the bathroom. Fredrick had hurt Hanako deeply. He’d practically ruined her life. Yet, she’d forgiven him. If Kori had anything to say about it, Fredrick’s curse on her family would end here and now, and she knew what she needed to do next.

h1=.

AJ

AJ opened the fridge and put back the milk and juice, and out of habit, made a mental note to buy butter and a loaf of bread—until it hit him.

Wait a minute. I’ve got to get rid of this stuff, not stock up.

He closed the fridge and surveyed the kitchen. It was clean. He’d fed the livestock and drained the irrigation system to the trees for the year. He’d dropped Dani off at the bus stop. He felt like he was ready to set out on his adventure.

Outside, he turned on the water and let a hose run in the sheep trough, topping it off. Tim still hadn’t found work and he’d agreed to watch AJ’s place while he was gone, taking care of the animals, especially the horses, and any late-summer tree sales.

AJ stood by the fence with one foot on the lower rung as the water swirled in the trough, creating a whirlpool. When it was full, he tossed the hose to the side and reached for the tap. Suddenly, he looked to see Tim speeding up the drive in his red Chevy Silverado.

“AJ,” he yelled out his window before coming to a stop. He put his truck in park and slid out, walking toward AJ in quick strides.

“Dude, I got the morning feeding. I told you that.”

Tim shook his head. “I’m not here about that.”

“What, then?”

“AJ, I’m a dead man,” Tim said, looking rattled.

“You look pretty good to me, except that you’re sweating like a pig.”

“Well, maybe I’m not dead yet, but I’m gonna be.” His eyes were large and expressive and his narrow shoulders drooped even more than usual.

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s bad, AJ, real bad.”

“Just start at the beginning.”

“But it’s so bad.”

“Tim!” AJ said heatedly.

Tim took a breath, positioning his feet a couple of times for balance like a shortstop before the pitch. “I don’t know how, but Charlotte found out about Carla, and man is she pissed! She threw a hissy fit and called me something—called me a lot of things, actually.” Tim’s face stretched down like he was going to cry. “AJ, I think she’s gonna divorce me!”

AJ could feel Tim’s panic, and he knew that if Charlotte ever did divorce him, he’d be done for.

“You never told her?” AJ asked him incredulously. “I told you to tell her.”

Tim shook his head. “I know. I should have.”

AJ put his hands on his hips. He didn’t want to get involved, especially this late in the game. Besides, he had a trip planned. And even though Tim was his friend, part of him thought Tim deserved what he was about to get.

“So what can I do?”

“I need you to go over there and talk to her.”

“Why?”

“So she don’t leave!”

“She’s not gonna leave. I don’t know why, but she loves your sorry butt.”

Tim’s mouth was open, but it took a second for something to come out. “I . . . I . . . I don’t know, man. Can’t you just go over and talk to her, feel her out a little? You’ve always had a way with her.”

“That’s because I’m not letting her down all the time.”

Right away, AJ knew that he’d gone too far, and he saw Tim’s countenance fall because of it. Snatching up the hose, he began rolling it.

“Look, you think I know Charlotte, and you’re right, I do—and a little about women to boot. So, you’re gonna have to trust me on this one. She’s not going to divorce you.”

At AJ’s refusal to take him seriously, Tim’s jaw grew firm. “Well, if you know women so well, where’s Kori?”

Now they were both saying things they’d regret.

“I wish I knew,” AJ said quietly, leaning a forearm on the fence.

“Dude, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I’m just stressed out of my gourd.” Tim laced his fingers and wrapped his hands around the back of his head, his elbows out. “What should I do?”

AJ looked pointedly at him. “You should’ve told her, man.”

“I know that now. But you’re gonna talk to her, right?”

AJ held out both his arms. “I’m just about to leave, remember? Road trip? Adventure?” He dropped the rolled hose in its spot, knowing that as much as he wanted to, he just couldn’t leave Tim this way. “Where is she?”

Tim lunged toward AJ and hugged him tight. “Man, you’re the best. She’s at home.”

A few minutes later, AJ went in the house one more time to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. When he came out, he got in the Jeep and looked reproachfully at Tim. “If I think there’s a reason for you to be worried, I’ll call you. If I don’t call, just go home in a few hours.” He rested his elbow on the door. “And take good care of my place.”

“Don’t worry, dude, I got this. And be careful—she has a gun! A couple of them.”

AJ gave Tim a look that said there must be something wrong with him and hit the gas.

h1=.

Kori

Just remember—you didn’t ask for this to happen.

That’s what Kori was telling herself around nine o’clock the next morning when she pulled into a large parking lot and stopped her car at the far end, purposely leaving several spaces between her BMW and the next car.

Looking around, she was surprised there were so few vehicles. It reminded her of a Walmart in the early morning hours before it was swamped by customers. She lowered her head and peered through the windshield at the twelve-foot-high chain-link fence that surrounded the building. She especially noticed the razor wire that looped around the top, making the fence more like fifteen feet high.

Out of habit, she reached for her purse, and then decided to take only her driver’s license with her.

Although she’d worked as an attorney for years, she’d never actually seen this side of the law, and as she walked to the front of the building, the mirrored door opening for her automatically, she felt a little queasy being at the prison.

Walking with her ID clutched tightly in her hand, she aimed herself toward an enormous round desk where three men in uniforms were surrounded by monitors. A fourth man approached her, and after telling him that she had nothing in her pockets, he motioned for her to pass through a metal detector. A green light above her head flashed once as an indication that she was weapon-free.

Next, a thick-necked man with a tightly trimmed mustache wiggled his finger for her to approach. “Can I help you?”

“I’m here to see Mitch Sarcotti.”

The man reached for a book and opened it. “I.D.?”

She set her license on the counter and slid it toward him.

He took a good look. “Relationship to the incarcerated?”

“Wife,” she said.

The guard handed back her license.

“When you hear the lock release, pass through this door and turn to your right. That’s the visiting area. Wait there. Someone will escort Mr. Sarcotti to you.” His eyes dropped to his paperwork again. “You’ll only have ten minutes with him.”

As per the guard’s instructions, Kori passed through the door and turned right. Locating the room, she took a seat with her back to the far wall. Praying that Mitch would get there quickly, she examined her surroundings. The room was completely white. Several long tables with chairs were spaced out evenly and it reminded her of an elementary school cafeteria, except there was no kitchen or kids in line.

A couple sat on the opposite side of the room. The man looked tough, maybe even dangerous. He had a mustache that continued down to his chin and several tattoos on both arms. More tattoos climbed his neck. A woman—blond, wearing shorts and a tank top—sat huddled next to him. She seemed like she adored him, and Kori wondered what on earth she could possible see in a guy like that, until she remembered that she was there to see a convict too.

To Kori’s great relief, Mitch walked in about five minutes after she sat down. His hair was cut short, almost shaved, and he wore a light-blue jumpsuit with a number stamped on the front pocket in black ink.

As he approached her, she noticed right away that his demeanor was different. He looked earnest, humble, and other than his smile, there was practically nothing about him that she recognized. He looked a little bit like the early years Mitch—simple, unassuming, before he was Mr. Power Politician.

The guard said something to Mitch that Kori couldn’t hear, and Mitch shot him a submissive look. Then he dropped into a chair opposite her and folded his arms, blowing out a big breath that caused his lips to vibrate.

“Hey.”

“Hi, Mitch.”

“Wow, weird circumstances, huh?”

“To say the least. You doing okay?” she asked.

“Who, me? I’ll be fine. It’s you and Mai I’m thinking about. Getting busted and locked up kind of puts things into perspective.”

“Too bad it had to come to that,” Kori said, doing her best to maintain at least a pretense of understanding.

“Are you angry?”

“No. I’m furious.” She was.

“You should be.” He looked at his hands like he could still see what he’d done.

They sat quietly for a moment, and Kori’s head swiveled on her neck to see the room again. “Isn’t it hard to be in here?”

“No. Well, yeah, but not as hard as you’d think. How’s work?”

“It’s okay. Same as always.”

“Kevin still wearing too much cologne?”

Kori glanced past Mitch at the other couple to find them kissing, and she just couldn’t believe where she was. “I’m taking work home now. I only go into the office once or twice a week.”

“Why are you doing that?”

“I just don’t feel comfortable around the office.”

Mitch looked regretful. “Sorry. I know that’s my fault.”

“It’s okay. I get to spend more time with Mai. It’s working out great.”

Just then, the guard called out, “Five minutes, Mitch.”

Mitch twisted in his chair to eye him over his shoulder, nodding once.

“Why isn’t the guard watching that guy as closely? He’s been in the visiting room since I got here.”

Mitch looked at them and then back at Kori. “He’s minimum security. See his suit? Orange. I’m baby blue,” he said, holding his arms out to model his jumper.

“So, what does baby blue mean?”

He thought and then slowly exhaled like he hated saying it. “I’m what you call maximum security—dangerous—a threat to society. I’ve gone from civil servant to public enemy number one in four months.”

“For a white-collar crime?”

“Well, when you add in the sexual assault of a minor—”

As soon as he reminded her of the girl, she felt any trace of sympathy she had for him start to splinter. The sting was back.

“They think I’m gonna run or something.”

“Where would you go?”

“That’s just it. It’s ridiculous.” He raised his hands in frustration, and Kori saw the guard pay attention to him. “They also told me that if they sense anything suspicious, I’ll be put on suicide watch.”

Kori’s eyes widened. “You’re not thinking—”

“No, of course not,” he said, waving off the idea of it. “But sometimes guys like me, guys who had it all and lost everything—they start thinking about it.”

“How to kill themselves?” Kori questioned.

“I guess. Anyway, I’ll get more privileges after I’ve been here a while and I’ve proven myself. But until then, they’ll be in my face.” He raised his voice when he said it and looked over at the guard, who nodded in agreement, confirming that they would definitely be in his face. “How’s my daughter, anyway?”

“She’s great,” Kori said with a smile. Then her mouth went straight. “But she doesn’t want to see you right now.”

Mitch looked concerned. “That’s okay. I know I screwed up with her. A letter, or maybe a picture or a drawing would be nice, if she’s willing. Only if she’s willing.”

“She’s too old for drawings, Mitch.”

“Then a picture with her friends.”

After hearing him say it, Kori just looked at him, baffled by his deformed thought process.

“What?”

“No parent is going to let you put up a picture of their daughter in this place. Honestly, I don’t even want one of Mai in here.”

Mitch dropped his forehead to the table. “I’m really in here, aren’t I? I’m in a sick place, and it’s my home now.”

A silent dread settled over the both of them, as Kori couldn’t disagree.

Soon after, Mitch regained his composure and looked at Kori with a crooked grin. “So, are you dating anybody?”

“Mitch.”

“What?”

She gave him the look she always gave him when he asked dumb questions. “I wouldn’t tell you if I were.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not jealous. There are a lot of guys in here who want to be my boyfriend. I’ve got plenty of options.”

Hearing him say that made her ache, and she was grateful when he chuckled. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the guard look at his watch.

“Listen, Mitch, we don’t have much time left. I just wanted to thank you for signing the papers,” she said, her voice cracking. “I’m sorry I’m not stronger.”

Mitch reached out to touch her hand but then stopped himself, knowing that personal contact was still forbidden to him. “It’s not your fault—don’t even think that way. You want a divorce, I’ll give it to you, end of story. I haven’t been much of a husband. And there’s no reason your life should be on hold.”

“Thanks for being so understanding.”

Mitch straightened when he realized that the guard was approaching from behind.

“Time’s up, Mitch. Let’s start back.”

He stood almost immediately. “Kori, thanks for everything.”

She didn’t feel like she’d helped in any way and she really didn’t know what to say, so she just smiled.

The guard extended his hand toward the door and Mitch turned, and after looking back once and waving, he obediently disappeared.

Suddenly, the whiteness of the room was making her sick, and she got up and passed through the checkpoints as quickly as she could without causing alarm. From the safety of her car, she looked again at the fifteen-foot-high fence and realized that fences for Mitch were going up just as they seemed to be coming down for her. She looked at her watch. It was nine forty, and a slight smile toyed with the corners of her mouth as she pulled out of the parking lot and pointed her car in the direction of Mule Creek.

h1=.

With the visit to the prison behind her, Kori could finally breathe, and her excitement to see AJ grew as she got closer and closer to Mule Creek. She tried to imagine what he would be doing when she arrived—perhaps working with his trees or tending to the horses, or sitting on his flatbed with his feet hanging over the side, eating a sandwich.

The interesting part was that each time she pictured him, he was alone—but she couldn’t be sure that he was indeed still alone. It’d been almost five months since she’d spent the weekend at his ranch, and she knew good and well that he could be in a relationship. In fact, she could have been the primer for him to start seriously dating again. Maybe this intruder, whoever she was, was working right now to help AJ kick his Kori habit, if he even still had one. She prayed she wasn’t that easy to forget.

Of course he had one.

But she also vividly recalled what Dani had said about there being a lot of women who were interested in her dad, and as those words came crashing back into her thoughts, a dull panic started to trickle from her head to her stomach. What if she pulled into the drive and AJ and his new girlfriend were sipping drinks on the porch, or just about to leave on a horseback ride to the mountains for a picnic? As she slowed to maneuver around a deer carcass in the middle of the road, Kori shuddered at the awkwardness of it and she told herself that she needed to be ready for anything. She kept thinking that maybe she should’ve called first, given him a heads-up, given him time to send the woman home—whoever she was. But every time it crossed her mind, she was glad that she hadn’t. She wanted her visit to be a surprise. All she could do was hope that it would be a good surprise.

And she knew there would be some apologizing. But she’d stopped at the Asian food store before she left town and she had an amazing dinner planned that would include sushi and tonkatsu—especially tonkatsu, because she knew he liked it. She even bought him a pair of special chopsticks that were supposed to be good for beginners. She’d thought of everything.

h3=.

Just then, the sign for the Oso Viejo Ranch came into view and she felt a sudden pounding in her chest, like when she was supposed to give a speech and her name was just about to be called. After making the turn at the large white oak she drove slowly up the road to the house. As she pulled up, she spied Tim straddling the top rung of the corral, his mouth falling open when he realized who it was. Taking a deep breath, she put the car in park, turned the key, and got out.

“Hey, stranger, how are you?” she called, knowing she was about the last person in the world Tim expected to see.

“I’m good. You?”

“Good.” She stretched, stiff from driving straight through. “Wow, it’s pretty here in the fall, isn’t it?”

“Yup,” Tim drawled.

“How’s Charlotte?”

“She’s—uh—Charlotte.”

“I’ve really missed her. She’s such a sweetheart.”

“She’s something alright.” He paused for a second and then added, “She always talks about going to Salt Lake and spending the day with you. She calls it her ‘get-a-life day’ or something like that. I’m not sure how that’s supposed to make me feel.”

“I’m sure it’s just girl talk. I’ll touch base with her later.”

“I’ll tell her you came by.”

“That’d be great.”

The door to the barn was open, and for a moment she thought she could see Sundown. But there was no sign of AJ, and she wondered if she’d done the right thing by showing up unannounced. Just then, Pearl trotted toward her, her tail going a hundred miles an hour. Kori knelt down and cupped Pearl’s face, talking to her like they were old friends. At least Pearl was glad to see her. Then she looked up at Tim. “Linda and Brooks doing okay?”

“Yup. They’re good.”

Running out of small talk, Kori stood from petting Pearl. Her heart was hammering. She wished AJ would just show up—just step out of the trees or from round the barn. That would make this whole mess so much easier. Tim was no help. He was acting coy. He had to know why she was there. It wasn’t like she could be having car trouble again. That would be ridiculous.

“You having car trouble again?”

“No,” Kori said, smiling at Tim as though she deserved that. “Is AJ around?”

“Nope.”

“He’s not around?”

“Nope, he’s gone.”

“Gone, huh?” Gone to some woman’s house? Gone on a date? Geez, Tim, be specific!

“Just gone,” Tim added.

“Do you know where he went?”

“Nope.”

“You don’t?”

Tim shook his head.

It was time to cut through the crap. “If you did know where he went, would you tell me?”

Tim took a while to answer. “I don’t know. Maybe you don’t deserve to know, since you dropped him like a bale of hay.”

Kori wanted to momentarily close her eyes. She breathed in a deep breath and let it out slowly. At least Tim was starting to be honest. She could work with that.

“Look, Tim . . . Timbo . . . Timothy. I know you’re his friend and I can imagine what you must think of me. But I really need to speak to AJ. Can you tell me where he is? Would you tell me where he is, please?”

“Well, that’s the thing. He was going to my house for a quick stop and then he was leaving on a road trip.”

“A road trip? Where?”

“I don’t know. He didn’t even know.” Tim didn’t bother to hide his cluelessness.

“How could he not know?”

“Well, that’s AJ.” Tim jumped down from the corral and walked over to the barn, closing the door.

“So he was going to your house. Would he still be there?”

He made a face. “I don’t know. He wanted to get moving, so he’s probably making it short.”

“Well, would you take me there?”

“What? Where? My house? No, I can’t,” he said, suddenly rattled again.

“Why?”

“You want me to go to my house.” He didn’t say it like a question.

“If AJ’s there, yes.”

“Can’t.”

“Why?” she asked, ready to throttle him.

“I’m kind of in the doghouse with Charlotte,” Tim said. “She’s looking to kill me.”

Kori turned and started walking toward her car. “Get in. You can tell me about it on the way, and I’ll smooth things over with your wife.”

“You think you can?” Tim said, trotting hopefully behind her.

“Don’t worry. I’m a lawyer. I could talk the emperor into giving up sushi.”

h1=.

AJ

When AJ pulled into Tim’s drive, he could see Charlotte in the backyard sitting in a swing that hung from an old buckeye tree. Her arms were folded and her head was turned toward an empty pasture. AJ walked around the side of the house, and when she spotted him, she didn’t react, which AJ took as a sure sign that she was truly unhappy. Gripping a chair from the patio, he carried it over and sat down a few feet from her.

“Why so far away? Did Tim tell you I’ve got a gun or something?”

“Gun? I’m more worried about your fingernails.”

Charlotte laughed harshly. “Well, I’ve got both, so watch it.”

While the moment fell into silence, AJ’s gaze moved around the yard, finally landing on the gazebo he and Tim built a few months earlier. A barbeque grill was parked under it and a hot tub was turned on its end, waiting to be installed. All that work, AJ thought. Would it be enough?

“So Timmy’s in trouble and you hurry over. Is that it?”

AJ shrugged. “What can I say? He’s my friend.”

“You never hurried like that when we were dating.”

“That was a long time ago. I don’t remember what I did.”

She looked at him closely. “I still remember everything.”

AJ knew what she meant.

“You running off to Guatemala was hard on me. And while you’re gone, I get stuck with Tim.” She straightened her leg and the swing stopped. “Do you ever think about when we were together?” She watched his face closely for a moment and then said, “Don’t answer that.” She snatched up a swing pillow and hugged it to her chest. “I’ve always gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to guys—every time.”

AJ stayed quiet.

“Can you believe it? Carla? Is there any bigger joke in Kanosh County? You know how people will see this—they’ll say that things must be really bad at home for Tim to be forced into her arms.”

Tim had fled the house before he’d had a chance to feed his cows and they crowded around the fence, mooing like crazy for AJ’s attention.

“Hold on,” AJ said. “I can’t hear myself think.”

Getting up, he walked over, grabbed a pitchfork that was leaning up against the side of the barn, and dropped enough hay over the fence to keep the cows busy for a while. Then he took his seat again.

“You know, he only kissed her,” AJ said. “And I’m sure she initiated the whole thing. He wasn’t even thinking ‘kiss’ when he went in her house.”

“He wasn’t thinking at all” Charlotte said, looking at him with flames in her eyes.

AJ reached down, scooped up a buckeye nut, and lobbed it her way, landing it softly in her lap. AJ was the one guy in the world who could throw something at her while she was fuming and not get killed for it.

“So what are you going to do?” AJ asked.

The corners of her mouth slowly turn up. “I’m gonna get a ton of work out of him, that’s what I’m gonna do. Maybe a vacation and a few good backrubs.”

AJ smiled. It was just as he’d suspected. Tim would take a lump or two and then everything would get back to normal.

“Good. Can I tell him that he can come home?”

“Not yet. Let him sweat a while.”

AJ laughed and then said, “Oh, wait—I won’t be seeing him.”

“You won’t?”

“Road trip, remember? I’m headed to . . . well, I’m not sure exactly.”

“You’re still not sure?” Charlotte asked in disbelief.

“I’m going to Panguitch. From there, maybe I-15 to Vegas and on down to San Diego, or I-70 to Denver, or maybe Montana.”

Charlotte’s eyes grew soft at the thought of getting away.

“Who knows, maybe Botswana.”

“You should take me with you,” she said, sounding wistful.

“Tim would kill me.”

“That skinny little rat can’t whup the shirt he’s got on.”

AJ laughed because it was true. Then, bathed in the warmth of an Indian summer morning, they talked for a while longer. As Tim had hoped, AJ was successful in smoothing things over with Charlotte. By the time AJ rose to leave, he was confident that Tim’s marriage would weather the storm of Carla, which was a big relief because he knew of other marriages that hadn’t.

h1=.

Kori

Kori skidded to a stop in the gravel in front of Tim’s house. Tim pointed out right away that AJ’s Jeep wasn’t there, implying that they were too late, and Kori felt some of the warmth leave her core. 

This couldn’t be happening.

After bolting from the car, they both crashed through the screen door of Tim’s house, finding Charlotte peeling potatoes at the sink. Tim hadn’t forgotten that he was in the doghouse, but he was fairly certain that Charlotte would afford him a temporary truce while they helped Kori. 

At Kori’s urging, Charlotte confirmed that AJ had been there, but that he’d left about twenty minutes ago, and what made matters worse, she couldn’t say for sure which direction he was headed.

“You have no idea where he’s going?” Kori asked disbelievingly.

Charlotte’s brow furrowed as she racked her brain for clues. “He said San Diego, but he also said Denver and Montana. And before he left, I think he mentioned Boston.”

“Boston?” Kori shrieked.

“My money’s on San Diego,” Tim said.

Charlotte sneered at Tim and then said, “Has anyone tried to call him?”

“No service where he’s going,” Tim said.

“Well, somebody please tell me what to do,” Kori said, “because I’m out of ideas. And if we don’t do something quick—”

Charlotte and Tim looked feebly at each other.

“Nothing?” Kori cried.

Charlotte shrugged. “The only thing I know is that he was going to Panguitch. For all I know, he’s parked at the intersection right now trying to decide which road to take.”

“He planned a trip and didn’t know to where?” Kori looked stunned. “Is this kind of severe indecision a habit of his? Because if it is, we’re gonna have to have a talk about it.”

Tim’s face suddenly lit up. “Did you say he was going to Panguitch?”

“Yes, Tim. That’s what I said.”

“Are you sure?”

Charlotte glared at him, and when she spoke, her voice was razor sharp with frustration. “Do you need me to type it up and put it in the mail?”

“Well, this is perfect,” Tim said, taking one step back from Charlotte.

“Why is it perfect, Tim?” Kori asked.

“Because I know AJ.”

“We all know him. Get to the point,” Charlotte demanded.

“Well, evidently I know him a lot better than you. After all, who did he pass to in the championship game with four seconds on the clock? Who did he trust to make the winning shot?” He made a shooting motion with his hands, reminiscent of their high school victory. “I know him so well that I know where he’ll be for about—oh, thirty minutes or so.”

“Tell us!” Kori pleaded.

“Whenever he’s in Panguitch, he always stops at the Smokehouse for a Butch Cassidy Bacon Burger Supreme. I know him. He wouldn’t pass through without stopping and getting one.”

Kori was dumbfounded by this, so much so that she momentarily forgot that time was of the essence. She should have known. Everything in Kanosh County eventually comes down to Butch.

“Are you sure he’s gonna stop?” Charlotte asked.

Tim’s face tightened with self-confidence. “Don’t insult what little intelligence I have. If I say I know him, I know him.”

“Then I’m headed to Panguitch,” Kori said, pushing open the screen door and leaping off the porch.

Charlotte yelled out to her. “You know how to get to the café?”

“No problem,” Kori said as she yanked open her door. “I’m practically a regular.”

h1=.

It was after one o’clock when Kori was finally on the road again, and according to Charlotte, AJ had almost a thirty-minute head start. With desperation setting in, she tried AJ’s cell a couple of times on her way down, but he hadn’t picked up. The excitement of surprising him was gone now and she’d reach him anyway she could.

She drove quickly, passing through one small town after another, counting them down as she went. She whizzed past the Butch Cassidy Motel, barely acknowledged the Butch Cassidy General Store, and didn’t need to get gas at the Butch Cassidy Gas-&-Go. Finally, she arrived in Panguitch, pulling into a diagonal parking spot on Main Street. Straight-arming the door to the Smokehouse, she found Chula standing at the register.

“Hey! Good to see you again.”

Kori was too stressed out to be awestruck by Chula’s memory skills.

“Would you like the same booth?”

“Actually, Chula,” Kori said, “I’m looking for someone.”

“Who are you looking for, doll?”

“AJ Crawford. Do you know him?”

After shooting Kori a look of you go, girl, Chula motioned with her head toward a booth by a window. “He’s right over there.”

Kori spun to see where Chula had indicated.

“Oh, shoot!” Chula said. “He must’ve just left.”

At Chula’s words, Kori suddenly felt like a puppet that’d had its strings cut—zapped of purpose and function. By now, all she wanted to do was sink to the floor and lay there in a heap, and she almost did, except she heard Chula’s voice again.

“But have a seat there anyway, and I’ll be back to clear his plates.”

“Sure,” Kori replied, her voice as thin and delicate as wet newspaper.

She walked over and slid in. She thought maybe the seat was still warm. She could smell his scent, or maybe it was just her mind playing tricks on her. She spotted a tip on the table—a dollar bill and some quarters—and she imagined him going through his pockets to find it. Three roads out of town. Maybe she should just pick one. He couldn’t be more than a few miles away and she knew his Jeep. While she debated, she started cleaning up after him. She brushed some crumbs into her hand and then dropped them on the plate. She moved the ketchup over by the napkin holder opposite the salt and pepper. Gathering up his silverware, she wished she could’ve somehow shaved even five minutes off her time. Five minutes.

“It’s called a fork.”

At the sound of his voice, Kori turned quickly to find AJ standing behind her.

“If you’re thinking about using it on me, you should know that it’s not a weapon. It wasn’t designed to be attached to a spear.”

Before Kori could get the muscles in her jaw to loosen, Chula walked up. She placed a hand on AJ’s shoulder and motioned to a Styrofoam box on the table. “I wondered if you were going to remember your to-go burger before you got too far away, AJ.”

“You knew I’d be back for it, girl,” AJ said as he slid into the booth opposite Kori. He refused to take his eyes off her, as if Kori was some steamy, road mirage that might disappear if he looked away.

The exchange with Chula had given Kori a chance to gather her thoughts. A second earlier, she was sure that she’d missed him, and now, he was sitting directly across from her, looking a tad miffed, like he wanted an explanation, like he was owed one—and she knew that he was. The problem was, nothing came to mind. Nothing coherent, anyway.

“I always order one for the road.” He lightly tapped the box.

Kori nodded at the idea. Although they’d spent only one weekend together, she thought it was classic AJ.

“So, here we are,” AJ said.

“Yeah, here we are,” Kori agreed meekly.

“You look good.”

She smiled, but thought his tone was thick with obligation, as though he didn’t mean it and just had to get the compliment out of the way.

“Thanks. So do you.”

“What brings you out this way?”

“What brings me—” Kori blinked. “I’m here to see you.” She was absolutely baffled by his question, since it should’ve been obvious.

“To see me?”

“I’ve been breaking every speed limit in the county to catch up to you.”

“Got tired of ignoring me from Salt Lake, so you thought you’d come down here and do it, huh?”

He poked around in his mouth with a toothpick, and she couldn’t tell if he was smirking at her or reaching for a molar.

“I came to apologize.”

“You came to apologize,” he repeated placidly.

“Yes.”

He sat back and folded his arms. “Well, let’s hear it.”

Thinking she already had apologized, Kori’s brow furrowed slightly. Finally, she straightened and made it official. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s it?”

“Well, I had a lot more and it made me sound very lovable and forgivable, but for the life of me, I can’t recall any of it right now.”

He looked off into space. “Sooo, what am I supposed to do?”

“You’re supposed to forgive me,” she said, wishing he’d paid better attention in Sunday school.

“Easy as that, huh?”

“Yes! That’s what you do when someone apologizes.”

After a moment of contemplation, he raised both hands. “Okay. Apology accepted. Have a good trip back.”

“What?”

He was making a half-hearted attempt to slide out of the booth when he stopped and repeated. “I said, have a good trip back.”

Her lips came together in a flat line as she stared at him. She hadn’t come all this way only to listen to him be ornery beyond reason. She’d been to the prison, dealt with the guards, listened to Tim ramble, and then got practically nothing out of Charlotte. Besides, she knew what he was doing and she didn’t appreciate it.

“You’re gonna leave even though I came all this way?”

“Have to. I got a trip planned. Saya-nari.”

“It’s sayo-nara, by the way.”

“Whatever.”

“AJ, you’re talking like we’re on the phone and I’m hundreds of miles away. I’m sitting right here in front of you.”

“Yes, and I’m wondering why.”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“Not to me. The only thing obvious to me is that we had some fun on the weekend once, and now that’s over.”

Chula approached cautiously. “Can I bring you two something? Coffee? Pie?”

“No thanks, Chula,” AJ said. “I gotta git.”

Wishing she knew how to let the air out of his wounded ego, Kori folded her arms. “Tim told me you don’t even know where you were going.”

“I might have an idea”.

“Might? Either you do or you don’t.”

“Well, it’s the leaving that’s important anyway.”

“To a certain point, and then you have to decide.”

After shooting her a perturbed look, AJ got to his feet and reached back for his Styrofoam to-go box. He turned to Chula, motioning to her with it. “Thanks for the burger, girl.”

Chula nodded, chewing her gum so recklessly, she looked like a Hungry Hippo on steroids.

When he took a step, Kori reached for his hand.

“AJ?”

“Maybe we’ll see each other around some time,” he said stoically.

With that, he put enough space between them that her hand fell helplessly away. He walked across the diner, pulled on the door, and before Kori could comprehend what’d happened, AJ was gone.

Never feeling more alone in her whole life, Kori put her hands in her lap. She felt the sting of tears building in her eyes. Wondering what on earth she could have said to change his mind, she didn’t register the ding of a bell that hung from the corner of the door.

“Hey, Kori.”

Wiping her eyes, she turned around.

“You coming or what?”

Staring at him, understanding slowly began to replace disappointment. She got up and passed through the door that AJ held open for her. The folks in the Smokehouse cheered. Some even laughed. Outside, Kori had a chance to collect her thoughts.

“Wow,” she said, shaking her head as the door closed behind them. “Wow,” she said again.

“Wow what?”

“Wow—as in, I had no idea you were that mean.”

“Mean?”

“Yeah. And vindictive.” She felt relief mixed with a trace of anger wash over her. After finding his Jeep, she turned and leaned against the hood. “I’m really mad at you. You put me through heck in there.”

“I’m sorry?” He said it like a question, wondering how she’d turned it around so that he was now apologizing to her. “You know you deserved that.”

She rolled her eyes. “Okay, you’re right.”

“And a whole lot more.”

She smiled and stretched her arms around his neck. “Maybe I can make it up to you.” She pulled him towards her and kissed him, sending her own pulse spinning. The warmth and closeness of him was as if a harsh winter had turned to spring in a heartbeat.

When they drew apart, she asked him, “Do you have to go on this trip alone?”

“Well, to be honest, I didn’t want to sleep on the floor every night.”

She covered her eyes in embarrassment.

AJ laughed. “Who did you have in mind, anyway?”

Lowering her hands, she rabbit-punched him in the stomach.

“Are you free?” AJ asked with a grin.

“How long would we be gone?”

“Couple weeks, maybe.”

“I’d need to make some calls, but . . . yeah. And afterwards, you can come with me to Seattle for a swim meet.”

“Sounds great.”

After unlacing their fingers, AJ opened her door and she got in. Then he walked around to his side.

“What about my car? I can’t just leave it here.”

“Don’t worry, it’s a BMW. It could sit here for a year and no one would touch it.”

She stared blankly at him.

“I’ll call a guy I know to come get it. We can pick it up on our way back. How’s that?”

She smiled and sank back into her seat.

AJ turned the key. “I need to make a stop before we leave town.”

“Need to buy a map?”

He leaned back in his seat, his hazel eyes squinting in mock grief. “A map? You sure know how to hurt a guy.”

“Sorry, but it kind of sounds like you do,” she said.

He chuckled. Leaning over, he kissed her softly, and when he drew back, he said, “I guess a map wouldn’t be a bad idea. But for some reason, I got a hankering for a box of Ding Dongs.”

The End

 

You’re finished!

So, now what?

Do me a favor, three favors actually.

1. Go to amazon.com and leave a review.

2. Recommend the book to your friends on Facebook, and other social media.

3. I am always looking for great love stories. A true love story is always more appealing and meaningful than anything I could make up. I’m especially interested in Civil War, WWI, WWII, and pioneer stories. If you have a love story in your family with a curious ending or twist, and have been thinking about bringing it to life, I would love to hear it. I assure you that I’ll execute the telling of your story with the utmost care and respect for the individuals involved.

Thanks again,

Michael

h1=.

1

“I’ve got a plan,” Brad said.

Emmett chuckled wryly. “So far, your plans have been about as useless as an umbrella in a tornado.”

At that, Brad’s lips went white, pinching together like a big zit that was ready to explode. Unfortunately, Emmett had seen that look on his brother’s face all too often. Emmett sighed and tipped a bowl to his mouth, drinking the milk. He was pretty sure that whatever his brother had to say would be ridiculous but he couldn’t help himself. “Okay, I’ll bite. Tell me this great plan of yours.” 

Brad glared at Emmett for a moment and then said coolly, “We draw for it.”

Emmett’s Adam’s apple climbed and then plunged as he forced a knot down his throat. “Whatcha talkin’ bout, Willis?”

“You heard me,” Brad said, leaning back and lacing his fingers behind his head. “We draw for the farm, winner take all.”

And Brad was supposed to be the smart one. 

An hour ago, Emmett Blackburn had walked slowly back to his truck, thinking he just might kill the guy when he got home. Exhausted, he laid his tools in the back, took a long drink from a warm water jug, and raised the tailgate. It was almost the end of August and night was coming earlier now. Summer had passed in a blink. Before climbing in, he gazed out over his crops. That was what mattered most to him, his land, 800 hundred acres. It wasn’t the largest spread around, but it was his, and the dirt of it ran in his veins like rich, plentiful blood. 

Minutes later, his face glowed orange from the controls of his dash and his headlights spilled onto two, faint parallel tracks. After a gravel road, he turned left on to 89. With pasture on both sides, the highway sliced through central Utah like a crack in a cement driveway. Steering through the small town of Potter’s Pond, he passed the diner and was disappointed to see that the OPEN sign had already been turned off. 

After stopping at the grocery store, he pulled up to a small, white, two-story farmhouse. Black shutters and a wide, wrap-around porch dominated its appearance. His grandfather built the house after emigrating from Denmark in 1921. It was the same house his father grew up in, and where his parents held their wedding reception. Steering around back, Emmett parked and got out. A kitchen light was on.

Damn!

Brad was four years older that Emmett’s twenty-two. He left Potter’s Pond six years ago for college, and since then, he’d gotten married and had two kids with one on the way. Besides the five of them, his wife, Charlie, had two kids from a previous marriage. A few months ago, Brad moved his family back into the old farm home and Emmett was struggling with the change. It was basically chaos. The clothes washer ran constantly, their SUVs blocked the driveway day and night, and there was a jungle gym out back and at least a hundred plastic, neon toys strewn from one end of the yard to the other. Last week, Emmett almost broke a toe when he kicked one.

Carrying the groceries, Emmett let the screen slam behind him.

“Trying to break it, or what?” Brad asked.

Emmett eyed him briefly. Then he set the groceries on the counter and went to the refrigerator.

At five ten, Brad was shorter than Emmett by about four inches. He’d put on a few pounds too, probably from lounging around the classroom. And he’d lost a lot of hair in front, which made him look older than he was. His wife, Charlie, on the other hand, was pretty. Soft brown eyes, and short blond hair that whipped her face when she turned quickly. Emmett knew she was smart, but brains sometimes took a back seat to Hollywood gossip and horoscopes. Other than wasting her time, she only had one other flaw. She was a terrible judge of character, as evidenced by her marriage to Brad.

“I tore down the wheel line on the back fifty today,” Emmett said with his head in the fridge. “I moved it to the north field.”

“I had that scheduled for tomorrow, but whatever.”

“Scheduled? I don’t need a schedule.” Emmett lifted a carton of milk from the refrigerator. “When was the last time you tore down a wheel line, anyway?”

Brad sighed in annoyance and went back to reading his Wall Street Journal.

After graduating from high school, Brad attended the University of Utah. Four years later, he went to Arizona State for his MBA—but he never finished. To tell the truth, Emmett hadn’t been at all sad to see Brad fail at something. He’d had lived most of his life in the shadow of Brad’s academic accomplishments. He was aware of it, and sick of it. But now, Brad was back, sitting at Emmett’s kitchen table and instructing him on wheel line management, treating him like some lackey cowhand instead of the guy who’d been running the place for the better part of a decade.

“Cocoa Puffs for dinner?”

“The café was closed,” Emmett said icily as he dropped into a chair. “What are you doing here anyway? You’re not a farmer.” 

“I grew up here, Emmett. I think that counts for something.”

Emmett laughed. “That doesn’t mean jack-shit.” 

Brad’s eyes appeared to go hot before cooling again. “And Charlie likes it here.”

“Charlie?”

“Yeah, and it’s a good place to raise kids.”

Emmett couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I’ve never heard you say one good thing about this place. Sure you wouldn’t be happier at Google or Microsoft?”

“We’re here to stay,” Brad said, glaring at him. “The sooner you come to terms with that, the better.”

Emmett hunched over his bowl, spooning cereal into him mouth. The situation was hopeless. They’d never gotten along. How were they supposed to work the farm together?

“I get it,” Emmett said, somehow finding a pleasant tone. “You like living here. But there’s got to be something else you can do.”

“Like what?”

Emmett shrugged. “Open a paint ball course or do peoples taxes.”

Brad smirked and shook his head as though Emmett had no idea what it took to make it in the world of business these days.

“The motel’s for sale.”

“I’m not buying that,” Brad snapped.

“Why not?”

“It’s a dump.”

“So. Get it cheap and fix it up.” And get the hell out of my house, he didn’t say.

Brad folded his newspaper twice and placed it on the table. “Emmett, I’m the oldest. Now that Dad’s gone, I have a responsibility to do what’s best for the farm.”

“What’s best for the farm is if you let me handle it, like Dad did.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“’Cause I have a stake in this place too. The will? Remember?”

Emmett offered a shrug of indifference and took another bite. He knew exactly what the will said. Several years ago, their father had hastily penned something that split the farm equally between the two boys. Emmett had been meaning to talk to him about it, but no one counted on their father keeling over at fifty-seven.

“We’re fifty-fifty on this thing,” Brad continued.

“Then you work yours and I’ll work mine.”

Brad shook his head. “The farm’s too small to be worked separately.”

Brad was right. Farms that size were routinely plowed under by larger conglomerates. Emmett had even seen it happen in Potter’s Pond.

That’s when Brad mentioned his plan. Four short words; we—draw—for—it. No words in the history of speech had ever hit him with such force. He could barely breathe. This was a perfect example of why he didn’t trust Brad. He was always crossing the road in to Crazytown. 

While Emmett delayed, Brad went on. “Winner take all. It’ simple, fair. That way, the farm will have a chance to survive.”

Coaxing himself to stand, Emmett went to the kitchen. He turned on the tap and filled a glass with water, trying to shroud the fact that he’d been caught off guard by Brad’s aggressiveness. After drinking, Emmett turned to him. “Draw what?”

“Short stick. Out of a hat. High card. Whatever—it can be your choice.”

Although Emmett had never fully trusted Brad, he felt like he understood him, and the one thing he knew about his brother was that he was smart, cunning, too. But he’d never seen him be reckless. That’s what made his offer to draw for the farm so unsettling.

“Yeah, and if I lose, I’ll be broke.”

“I have a plan for that, too.”

Brad had a plan. Big surprise. The gears in his head were always turning.

“Using the farm as collateral, the winner will agree to borrow five hundred thousand dollars and give it to the loser. We own the farm free and clear, so a loan should be no problem. Probably get a great interest rate, too. With that kind of money, the loser could do just about anything he wanted.”

“Since when are you such a gambler?” Emmett said.

“Since it makes sense for only one of us to be on the farm.”

Emmett hesitated, but not for long. He dropped his shoulders. “Brad, this farm is all I got, man. I can’t lose it. Honestly, I don’t know what I’d do for work.”

“Half.”

“What?”

“You have half of a farm,” Brad said.

Emmett sighed in understanding. The thought of Brad gone did soothe Emmett’s otherwise torched nerves. But as always, Brad knew just which of Emmett’s buttons to push. He’d never be able to get back into farming if he lost. Five hundred thousand wouldn’t buy much in way of land and equipment, and he’d worked his own place too long to work for someone else. But if he won, he’d be set. He’d marry Mindy and they wouldn’t have to worry about buying Brad out of his share of the farm. Mindy was a farmer’s daughter. She’d definitely understand the need to have it all. It was a gamble—but it might be a gamble worth taking.

“Well?” Brad pressed. “What do you think?”

Emmett pushed himself away from the sink. Grabbing his hat off the table, he turned to Brad. “It’s a stupid plan, but I’ll let you know.”

h1=.

h2=.

Michael enjoys being a college English teacher. He likes to hike, cook, and try new restaurants, especially Vietnamese and Indian. He loves to sit at sidewalk cafes and eat pain au chocolates, climb both volcanos and Mayan ruins, and study foreign languages. He’s seen the Andes and the Rockies and traveled from Rio de Janeiro to Brussels to Nagasaki. His travel bucket-list includes Uruguay, Moldova, Portugal, and New Zealand. A father of four, he currently lives with his wife and his two daughters in the mountains of Utah.

h1=.

Acknowledgements

A note to the reader

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

Chapter Forty-Three

Chapter Forty-Four

Chapter Forty-Five

Chapter Forty-Six

Chapter Forty-Seven

Chapter Forty-Eight

Chapter Forty-Nine

Chapter Fifty

Chapter Fifty-One

Chapter Fifty-Two

Chapter Fifty-Three

Chapter Fifty-Four

Chapter Fifty-Five

Chapter Fifty-Six

Chapter Fifty-Seven

Chapter Fifty-Eight

Sweet Sun Kisses

About the Author


The Perfect Holiday

The Problem… At forty-eight, attorney Kori Sarcotti is taking a beating. Her husband is under investigation, the FBI is serving her warrants, and her firm is sending her on road trips just to get her out of the office. But when her grandmother, and woman who raised her, passes away, things go from bad to intolerable. The Solution… Not long after her grandmother’s funeral, Kori finds herself stranded in the small town of Mule Creek, where she meets unsophisticated rancher AJ Crawford. When AJ asks her a question that both shocks and delights her, she admits that her predicament had become ‘The Perfect Holiday’.

  • Author: Michael Banebrook
  • Published: 2016-04-07 03:20:22
  • Words: 82266
The Perfect Holiday The Perfect Holiday