Laughter floated just above the laid-back rhythm of a live jazz band. Flickering candle light danced in the curve of wine glasses and polished silverware. A handsome waiter, wearing true-black trousers with a sharply ironed crease, swept her empty plate off the table. Before he left, he gave her a smile and a wink.
Nora Whiteside was in desperate need of a life.
The irony wasn't lost on her. Most women sitting in a booth at the Bijou, the swankest club in town, wouldn't be whining about their lot. They'd be happy to have a job that paid enough, retail management or not. They'd enjoy the nice apartment in a decent neighborhood, the ability to keep their kitchen stocked, and a long list of friends to call when they wanted a girls' night out.So what was wrong with her?
She traced her finger around the rim of her Cosmopolitan. If she spun it fast enough, she thought it might hum. She followed the motion with her eyes, and her gaze slowly lost focus, the world around her blurring at the edges. The sounds of conversation and music mixed together as her mind went jaunting off on a search for something she couldn't name. It was there, she knew, just out of reach. The word for what made her restless, kept her looking. If she just pushed a little harder, dug a little more—
"You haven't heard a thing we've been saying, have you, Nor?"
She flinched and snapped back to reality, attention sharpening on Sydney's puzzled smile. Syd sat back, eyebrows pulling together, but her smile widened. "I thought so. You were daydreaming again." Three heads bobbed in unison, knowingly.
Nora ignored the rush of heat to her cheeks. They couldn't see it anyway, not in light this low. "It's not daydreaming if it's not day anymore."
"All right, okay. Evening dreaming," Syd amended cheerfully. "The point is, we've been rambling on and you're off—where were you this time?"
"Nowhere." She sat up straighter, taking a sip of the drink she'd been fondling. "I wasn't anywhere. I was just thinking."
Bobbi shook her head and tossed the end of a breadstick back onto her plate. "If I'm going to drift, I want a beach, a drink, and a hot, bronzed man to magically appear in my head. Otherwise, what's the point? You need to work on your creativity," she teased.
She needed to work on something that was for sure. "I probably do," she agreed. "But I really wasn't seeing anything. No beaches or mountains or men of any kind. Just me and my thoughts."
"Give it up," Teresa said, sucking gin off the olive in her martini. "Once these two get after you, there's no stopping them. You want them to let it drop? Make something up. Tall, dark, and handsome is too vague. Say he's 6'3", raven-haired, and sapphire-eyed. Describe his chest. His thighs. And an ass that could crack walnuts." She leaned to one side, gaze fixed on someone not seated at the table.
Predictably, they all turned to look.
She, whoever's grandmother she might have been, was neither tall nor dark. She might have qualified for handsome if they used the old meaning of the word. She was matronly, to say the least, with an ample bosom and wide spread of hip.
Teresa grinned when they turned back. "Got you."
Syd threw a napkin. Bobbi discretely threatened to jab her with a fork.
These were her friends, her inner circle. They were the women she could count on when she felt down and out. They listened, they supported, and they got her head straightened out when she needed it most. So why hadn't she just 'fessed up and told them she was unhappy? If she'd had the answer to that question, she might have found the cure for cancer, too.
"I think I'm going to go," she said instead, earning a startled glance from all three of her tablemates. "It's nothing you did wrong," she added quickly. "I'm just..." She heaved a sigh and shrugged. "Not feeling it tonight."
Syd arched an eyebrow. "Not feeling what, exactly?"
Anything, Nora wanted to answer. Wasn't that at the core of her frustration? She wasn't feeling anything but the status quo, humdrum, day-to-day routine of life. She shrugged again. "In the mood?" She picked up her purse and nudged her chair back. "I'll call," she promised as she stood. "Tomorrow. Cross my heart. Tonight, I'm just going to go home and rest."
She turned and plowed directly into the waiter's chest. Fortunately, his hands were empty. If fate felt like playing nice for once, the waiter didn't hear her friends' sudden snickering. "Sorry," she said as she smoothed his shirt. "I didn't know you were there. I was just leaving."
"Alone?" Raven hair. Sapphire eyes. A perfect, polished, Colgate smile.
Her heart should have been beating a hopeful tattoo. Yet she idled at polite and possibly interested. She touched her hair absently and let her hand fall to her side. "Afraid so, at least for the night. It's this girl's night in, I guess." She flashed him another smile and edged by.
He watched her all the way to the door. She knew, not just because of the hotspot between her shoulder blades as she crossed the room, but also because when she turned back to wave, she saw a crooked little smile tugging up one corner of his should-have-been kissable lips.
Yep. Definitely something wrong.
The apartment was dark when Nora opened the door, but not quiet. Never quiet, not with Sully in the house. She'd gotten him as a kitten from the family next door. They'd come home from vacation to find they suddenly had more pets than they could afford. She didn't know when she fell in love with his silvery-gray fur and wide black stripes that the tiny little tabby would grow into a fifteen-pound attention hog. Still, he kept her from being lonely. That counted for a lot.
He wound around her ankles, purring loudly. When she picked him up, he nipped her chin and lifted a paw. She kissed the pads and put him down again. It was an odd little ritual, but it made her happy.
She took the day's stack of junk mail in to the living room, toed off her shoes by the sliding glass door that led to the balcony, and began to rifle through the pile. Coupons, free software trial. A flyer for a cleaning service. One day, after she'd won the lottery, she'd give them a call. A bill, another booklet of worthless bargains…and an envelope, addressed to her, but with no return address. Interesting.
Nora sat in her chair and put her feet up. Sully launched himself into her lap, unconcerned about her comfort or whether she wanted him there. He owned her lap and he intended to take advantage of its appearance, no permission necessary. This, too, fit into the ritual. She held the envelope over his head as she tore one end off and slid out the neatly folded letter.
You don't know me, she read, but I've known about you since you were a couple days old. My name is Shiloh Whiteside. I'm your father.
Her feet slipped off the footrest. Sully took offense and leapt out of her lap, tail twitching in irritation. He'd get over it, she knew, and she had to read the words again. She sat forward, paper wrinkling in her grip. Her father. That wasn't possible. Her father was dead.
She grabbed the envelope and flipped it over so the address faced up. The date on the cancellation mark read just a few days ago. The paper was crisp and white. This wasn't some long-lost postal accident. Someone had sent this recently.
But all her life, growing up, there'd been no one to call Daddy. Her mother insisted that he'd died when she was still in the crib. There were no pictures, no phone calls. There were men who passed in and out of their lives, but none of them stuck around long enough to be fathers. This had to be someone's poor idea of a joke.
Nora read the first lines of the letter again. The words didn't change. Father. Unchanging, unfading, there in black and white. She couldn't help herself. She had to read on.
I know this will surprise you. You surprised me too. Doesn't make it better. Doesn't make it right. Doesn't matter. I have something that belongs to you.
She read on, bottom lip caught between her teeth. It wasn't much, he reported, and it stood on reservation land but it had a roof and four walls at least. The picture he sent should prove that. It's all I got left in the world, but it's yours if you want it.
She put the letter in her lap and reached for the envelope again. The picture stuck to the side. It took a decent tug to get it loose but then it slid free. She held it by the edges like it might disappear as she turned it over to see what her long-lost father had to offer.
The sky in the photo was a deep, vibrant blue. In contrast with the rich red of the rock formations, it was even more striking. The house in the foreground, however, looked like it had seen better days. The roof didn't sag, though, and the walls she could see didn't bow. Then again, the house didn't hold her attention.
She studied the man who stood in front, hands buried deep in the pockets of his jeans. Like the house, he'd been around a while. There were broad streaks of silver in his hair. His face was bronzed and wrinkled, but not so much that she couldn't see his crooked, apologetic smile or the spark of reflected light in his eyes. His shoulders looked as if he'd been caught mid-shrug. His jeans were faded and patched at one knee. The gray fleece jacket he wore had a ragged collar. His shoes were scuffed.
She caught herself tearing up. Not because of the state of his clothing or the worn corners of the house. It was because she looked at a man she should have known all her life, and this was her first glimpse of him, at the end of his. With those shoulders, he might have been good at giving hugs, or strong enough to pick her up when she fell off her bike, out of a tree or out of love.
She cried because her hair parted the same way without help, leaving a mostly-straight line down the center of her head. She had his nose, she thought, though that would be hard to tell without getting closer than the picture allowed. She recognized the stiff, uncomfortable posture as her own when faced with a situation she wasn't sure about. She recognized him, her father, finally. That was worth a tear or two.
Sully, ever the barometer of her mood, hopped back into her lap and butted her chin again. She couldn't help but smile as she sniffled and scratched him behind the ears. "Look, buddy, we have a dad." He licked the picture when she showed it to him. That, from Sully, counted as benediction.
Nora looked around her apartment as the cat settled into her lap. A house. A place of her own. In another state, on a reservation. She'd never gone. Mom told horror stories about growing up there and refused to take Nora when, as a child, she asked. After high school, there were summer jobs and then she went to college. By the time she got around to plans for her trip after graduation, visiting the rez had stopped crossing her mind.
She shook her head. "No time like the present." She'd go now. She owed that to her father, at least. She had vacation days saved up at work and she couldn't remember the last time she'd actually left the city for more than a day-trip.
Of course, she'd have to tell Mom where she was going. For a moment, she thought she might make something up, invent the winning prize from an out-of-state spa that she just couldn't pass up. No, lying wasn't her forte when it came to strangers, much less her mother. She'd see right through the act. So, she'd tell the truth and deal with the dramatic fallout. If it meant they weren't speaking to each other, things would be fine and settled by the time she got back.
And that curious little current running through her, which had her heart beating a little faster, and her mind racing as she started mentally packing a bag? It had been a long time since she'd felt that, too, but she thought it probably counted as excitement. She was facing an adventure of sorts and she looked forward to surviving it. If it went horribly wrong, at least she'd have a good story.
If it went better, she'd have a family.
"You have a family, Nora. You have me." Doreen, her mother, crossed the apartment living room quickly. If she'd meant to imitate a hen that had been startled from its perch, she had the act down pat. She settled on the couch, brow furrowed, and reached for Nora's hands.
"There's nothing there for you," she went on. "Just a lot of disappointment and broken dreams."
Nora tucked a lock of hair behind her ear before letting her mother still her hands. "There's not exactly a lack of disappointment here."
Doreen's lips thinned. "That isn't fair."
"You told me he was dead, Mom. When other little girls were having Father-Daughter days, I had Uncle Max." She held up a hand. "Not that there's anything wrong with him, but it wasn't the same." She let her arm fall. "The point is that you lied to me."
"I had reasons," Doreen said, letting go to rub at one eye with the flat of her thumb. "I didn't want you expecting something from a man who would never give it to you."
"Did you even give him a chance to prove he might have done the right thing?"
Her mother gave her a look. It was the sort that made her wish she could suck her words back in and swallow them before they escaped. Nora slouched against the arm of the couch behind her.
"We were young," Doreen said with a sigh. It was true. Though Shiloh's hair showed thick streaks of gray in the picture, Doreen's hair was still raven-dark. Here and there, a long strand of silver sparkled in contrast but more often than not, people asked Nora if they were sisters rather than assuming they were mother and child. "We weren't planning on having kids. We weren't even sure we were getting married."
"Enter the mistake," Nora said wryly. "Good to know."
"Would you behave? Besides, you weren't so much a mistake. If I hadn't wanted to keep you, I would have found a way. The clinic, my grandmother. I didn't," she pointed out, patting Nora on the knee.
"But you told him."
"Of course I told him. I was nervous. Terrified. I had no idea what he'd say." Her gaze went distant, and she bit the inside of her cheek.
Nora nudged her lightly. "So?"
"Hm? Oh." Doreen didn't blush. When nervous or embarrassed, she tidied instead. She brushed at her shirt, sweeping away invisible specks of something. She scratched at a fleck on her jeans. "He gave me money."
Nora's eyebrows shot toward her hair. "He did what?" Of all the answers she'd been expecting, her father paying her mother off wasn't one of them.
Doreen flinched. "What what? Why are you squawking? He meant to help." She went back to brushing at herself. "He'd been working in the grocery and had some money saved. He gave me everything he had."
"I told you," her mother said with a shrug. "We weren't planning on family, and the rez didn't seem like the place for kids. Not when we were both living with our parents and couldn't afford more than that." She took a breath. "He said the money was for a ticket. One way on the bus as far as I could go. I was supposed to write him when I got there. Tell him where I ended up so he could keep track of me."
"And?" It didn't usually take this much prompting to get a story out of Doreen. Nora nudged her again.
"And," she said, swatting Nora's ankle. "I made it to Denver. I stayed in a shelter for a while. And I wrote him," she offered. "When I got there, when I got a job, when I got my first apartment. I think I had myself convinced that one morning I'd wake up and he'd be at the front door. That we'd get a happy-ever-after." She smiled sadly and took another breath as she straightened. "So much for wishful thinking. You want iced tea?"
Nora watched her mother head for the kitchen. A moment later, she climbed to her feet and followed. She leaned in the kitchen doorway. The walls had been painted a cheerful orange-yellow. A row of dark red ceramic tiles divided the counters from the walls, and a string of peppers hung in the window over the sink.
Mom wasn't from a Southwestern tribe, but the kitchen made her happy. "What about the letters? Did he ever write back?"
She nodded as she poured. "Once. He sent me another check and gave me a new address. You were two. I sent a picture and that was it." She passed Nora a glass and leaned against the counter. "So I made a decision. I could explain why you had a father who only turned up every two years, or I could just write him out of our lives. I'm sorry that I lied to you. No," she amended, "I'm sorry you're upset. But I did what I thought I had to do and I wouldn't change that even if I could. You came first. You always have."
The glass in Nora's hand felt too heavy to simply hold tea. A few bubbles swirled on the surface of the liquid inside and watching them made her head spin along, her thoughts chasing one another. Of course her mother thought she'd done the right thing. At the time, maybe she had. But Nora wasn't two anymore. Hadn't been for a long time. She knew how to take care of herself and how to make decisions on her own, popular or not.
She took a few deep swallows from the glass, cleared her throat, and squared her shoulders. "I'm going."
Nora blinked in surprise. "You do?"
Doreen smiled. "I raised you, baby. I know how far your stubborn streak goes better than you do." She reached for Nora's hand again and pulled her close. Their shoulders touched and Doreen rested her head against Nora's temple. "Go, if you need to. Meet him and take a look around this house of his, if it really exists. But…" She caught Nora's chin and turned her head so they looked directly at one another. "You be careful with him." She let go and tapped a finger gently against Nora's chest. "Be extra careful."
Nora's eyes suddenly stung like a herald of tears. She blinked hard and caught her mother's face between her hands. She stood on her toes and kissed Doreen's forehead. "I'll be careful," she promised. "I just want to meet him." She managed a wavering smile. "And if the house is nice, I'll be sure to invite you up."
"If the house is nice, I'm moving in."
Forward to Chapter Two
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