At the earliest light of a summer day that promised to be even hotter than the record-breaking heat of the day before, Allie Hudson Monroe made her quiet way through the otherwise deserted streets of Hidden Falls, Pennsylvania. She strode with purpose, a large canvas bag over her shoulder, to the intersection of Hudson Street and Main, where she crossed, and once on the other side, entered the Sugarhouse, the 1920s Art Deco theater that was her family’s legacy.
Built by her great-grandfather and bequeathed to her and her two sisters by their father, Franklin “Fritz” Hudson, the Sugarhouse had been boarded up for years. Since Fritz’d specified in his will that his three daughters had to live together in the family home on Hudson Street and restore the theater before they could receive their generous individual inheritances, his “wish” had actually been more of an ultimatum. Only the thought of receiving the promised windfall could have coaxed Allie to leave her California home and face the heat and humidity of a summer spent in the Pocono Mountains along with her estranged sister, Des, and her newly-discovered half-sister, Cara. Fortunately, life in Hidden Falls had turned out to be much more interesting than Allie’d ever imagined. She and Des were on their way to burying long-held resentments on both their parts, and she’d found Cara — whose mother may or may not have been married to their father, the paperwork on that being a little shady — to be amicable and open to their new relationship. Best of all, perhaps, was discovering their father had a sister they’d never met. Their aunt — christened Bonnie but called Barney by just about everyone who knew her — was delightful, welcoming, and loving to her nieces. While Allie was still finding her way, navigating carefully through these new relationships, she was also finding untapped riches within herself.
She’d even found herself a little short on the snark that had been one of her least enduring personality traits. Maybe even a kinder, gentler Allie though nothing was a sure thing.
As she’d done for the past week, after stepping inside the theater, Allie left the front door unlocked for the contractors who were working on the building. She turned on only enough lights to guide her to her destination: the scaffold that had been erected in the middle of the lobby. Shingles blown off the roof during a fierce summer storm had resulted in a leak into the ceiling and caused considerable damage to its hand-painted motifs. Allie had accepted the challenge of restoring them, and she would, one way or another.
One way would have been to hire an artist with sufficient talent to repair the intricately painted designs on the ceiling. Another would be for Allie, who wasn’t completely lacking in artistic ability, to make the repairs herself. Since there were no funds for the former, the latter was going to have to do. Though she’d majored in art and had had some training, she’d never fully tapped into her innate artistic talent. This was her chance to prove to herself — and everyone else — that she had more going for her than a pretty face and a stunning figure. Only to herself did Allie admit she’d skated on her appearance for far too long. She was eager to find what else she had to offer, especially now that her fourteen-almost-fifteen-year old daughter was with her for the summer and striving to find herself as well. It was suddenly more important than ever to be the kind of mother, the kind of role model, she wanted for Nikki: the happy, loving mother, and the strong, self-reliant woman Allie and Des had never had in Nora, their own mother.
The air inside the theater was hot, close, and dusty from the work the contractors were doing in the basement: repairing a recently discovered section of concrete wall that had been weakened by the same storm that had damaged the ceiling. Allie stifled four sneezes which followed in quick succession as she made her way into the lobby.
She took a really deep breath, then sneezed several times more, before staring straight up.
“It’s fine,” she whispered to herself as if encouraging a small child. “It’s not all that high. Not high like, oh, a twenty-story building might be. You’ve done this before. All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other and climb.” She straightened her shoulders before adding, “Just don’t look down.”
She shifted the canvas bag higher up on her shoulder before latching on to the lowest rung. One by one, sweating hand over sweating hand, one uncertain foot at a time, her heart crazily beating in her chest, Allie climbed the rungs until she reached the top platform. She couldn’t remember what had precipitated her fear of heights, she only knew it had always been with her. Des shared the same fear, one of the few things they acknowledged to have in common other than their parents.
“Don’t look down, girl, just don’t look down.” Allie sang softly to the tune she’d made up earlier in the week. “Everything’s okay as long as you don’t look down.”
She eased herself onto the edge of the platform, then carefully swung one leg over until she was straddling the plank. She wiped her palms on the red shorts she’d borrowed from Cara, still slightly annoyed that her sister’s size six clothes actually fit her. Allie had always worn a four. She hadn’t been conscious of having gained weight, but there was no Pilates studio in Hidden Falls, no spin classes, none of the fixtures of her life in L.A. Walking trails (in this heat, are you kidding?), a track at the middle school (so not her style) and no gym unless you wanted to drive two towns down the highway and work out with a bunch of sweaty strangers (no thank you). So when she needed a pair of old shorts to wear while she painted at the top of the theater, she’d had to borrow. She’d fully expected the pair Cara proffered to bag on her and she expected to hold them up with a belt. She was appalled when she’d had to inhale to zip them. Since she was a full five inches taller than Cara, the shorts were really short. Which really wasn’t much of a concern because who did she see in Hidden Falls she’d like to impress with her mile-long legs? No one, that’s who.
She slowly lowered herself to sit on the edge of the plank, then paused to readjust the pins that held the coiled braid of her long, thick blond hair. She knew it was messy, but she’d never worn a braid until yesterday when she realized she had to come up with something better than the pony tail that skimmed the tops of the paint jars every time she moved her head. Nikki had suggested the braid, and at that point, Allie barely cared, as long as she could keep her hair out of the paint. For possibly the first time in her life, Allie was unconcerned with her appearance, her focus totally on her work.
She scooted forward to position herself directly under a white patch where a plaster repair had been made. There were areas where moisture had destroyed entire sections of the beautifully painted ceiling. Allie felt sick every time she looked at it, knowing it had been the handwork of an artist who had known some limited fame during his lifetime, but who’d become well known as time went on. That he had a close personal relationship to Allie’s own family had made him even more of a favorite of hers: he’d courted and married a great-great-aunt.
When the theater was still quite new, the first Reynolds Hudson had employed Alistair Cooper, a young artist from the local college, to design and hand-paint the ceiling. No one knew exactly how long it took Alistair to complete the work, but it was universally agreed that it was a thing of beauty. Geometric shapes, painted in vibrant yellow, green, gold, blue, red, wound together, radiating out from the chandelier to create a glorious spectacle on the ceiling’s background of peacock blue. Alastair’d met the lovely Josephine Hudson and fallen in love, and once her parents had determined he was bound to be a famous artist, they’d permitted the two to marry.
“I’m not worthy,” Allie murmured as she prepared to go to work, lining up the jars next to her on the platform. Just the fact she was attempting to recreate the beauty Alistair had envisioned made her feel like an imposter. “I seriously am not.”
She’d never attempt to restore the work freehand; she wasn’t so arrogant as to think she was Alistair’s equal. But she’d cleverly made tracings of his designs, then turned the tracings into stencils, which she then placed over the missing areas of the ceiling. She’d had the original paints matched as closely as could be done, so any minute difference was imperceptible from the floor below.
Allie cleared her throat before sliding a stencil from her bag. After careful positioning directly over her head, she taped it lightly to keep it in place.
“I feel like such a fraud,” she grumbled. “I can’t believe I have the audacity to even attempt this. Yet here I sit…”
She searched her bag for just the right brush, then opened the first jar. Taking a deep breath, she touched the brush to the paint, then leaned back as far as she could, and began to fill in the center of the design with the pale yellow.
When the paint dried, she’d begin the border of blue, then outline it in gold to match the original. Taking her time, she painstakingly copied Alistair’s work. Only vaguely aware of the music blasting from the workers’ radios and ignoring the oppressive heat at the very top of the room, Allie focused all her attention on her task. She was so absorbed she didn’t hear the door of the theater open and close.
“Mom.” Allie’s daughter Nicole — Nikki — stood at the bottom of the scaffold. “Can I come up?”
“I don’t know, can you?” Allie replied without looking down. Even from the top of the scaffold she heard Nikki’s deep sigh.
“May I come up?”
“You may if you wait a minute. Let me finish this one section.” Allie remained focused on the diamond shape she was completing.
A few minutes later, she called down, “Okay, now you may climb up, but take your time and be really careful.”
She’d barely gotten the words out when Nikki was scrambling across the platform, her long blond hair, so like her mother’s, flowing over one shoulder.
“You climb like a monkey,” Allie said.
Nikki grinned. “Thanks. I’ve been practicing.”
“Oh really? When?” Allie moved her head slowly from side to side, trying to work out the kink that had settled in her neck.
“Mark and I raced up to the top the other day. I would have won but his arms and legs are longer than mine. I should have made him give me a handicap.” Nikki swung her legs over the side of the platform, making it sway slightly and forcing Allie’s stomach to flip.
“When were you and Mark in the theater together?” Allie frowned.
“Last week. Aunt Des was showing Mark’s uncle Seth the section you already finished. He was gobsmacked.” A smile spread across Nikki’s pretty face — so very much like Allie’s — as she looked up. “Everyone knows you’re doing an awesome job. When the paint dries, no one will be able to tell the difference between what you’ve done and the original.”
“I doubt that’s true, but thank you, sweetie.” Allie knew she was doing as good a job as anyone could possibly do, but all the same, her daughter’s words warmed her heart. Still, she harbored no illusions about her work: not free-hand but with the use of props. Allie had been trying to decide if that was a cop-out or a stroke of brilliance, and still wasn’t sure. But the bottom line was that it looked pretty darned good from the floor of the lobby. “So what are you up to this morning?”
“Mom, it’s almost noon.” Nikki was still looking up, her eyes studying the sections her mother had already painted.
“Seriously?” Allie frowned. It felt she’d only been in the theater for a short time, certainly less than an hour. And yet almost six hours had passed, which probably accounted for the fact that her neck and back were burning from the stress of having kept the same position all that time.
“You were up really early. I heard you leave but I was too tired to get up and go downstairs and have breakfast with you.”
“I wanted to get some time in here before it got too hot.” She wiped the back of her neck with a tissue she pulled from her bag. Her skimpy tank was stuck to her, front and back, so wet she could wring the sweat out, and now that work was no longer a distraction, she felt like a sticky wet mess. “I had no idea I was here so long. I’ve had enough for today.”
She glanced at her daughter.
“So what are you up to?” Allie repeated the question as she began to repack her bag.
“I wanted to ask if I could go out to Seth’s farm this afternoon.”
Allie raised an eyebrow. “Let me guess. Mark’s working with Seth today.”
Nikki nodded. “They’re making frames for the new grape plants Seth brought back from France last week. They worked over the weekend to get the plants into the ground, but now Seth wants to get the frames up before the plants start to grow.”
“And this would involve you how?”
“I offered to help paint the frames.” Apparently anticipating resistance from her mother, Nikki hastened to add, “Mark’s sister, Haley, and their friend Wendy will be there. I just met her yesterday. She’s really nice and she wanted to help so I asked Aunt Des and she sure. I could go out with Aunt Des. She’s going to be helping, too.”
“I guess it’s all right.”
“Yay! Thanks, Mom.” Nikki’s phone immediately appeared in her left hand and she began to type with a speed only the young have mastered. Seconds later, they heard a ping. Nikki swiped her screen, then smiled. “Mark is already out there. He’s been working since early with Seth.” She pocketed the phone.
“What’s going on back at the house?” Allie stretched her shoulders, grateful for a few minutes looking straight ahead rather than up.
“Not much. Aunt Barney’s going over to Tom’s house to help him sort through some stuff of his mother’s. He said he doesn’t know what stuff’s valuable and what’s not.”
“Shouldn’t Tom’s sister be doing that?”
Nikki shrugged. “She lives in London.”
“Oh. Right. What’s Cara doing?”
“She got up early, not as early as you, though. She packed a picnic. She and Joe are spending the day out at the lake. The big Hudson lake outside of town. They’re going to kayak and stuff.”
Nikki’s phone pinged again.
“I gotta go.” She looked up at Allie. “Aunt Des is ready, and she wants to leave by twelve-thirty and it’s twenty after.” Nikki leaned forward as far as she could to kiss her mother’s cheek. “You’re the best mom. See you later. And thanks again.”
“You’re welcome.” Allie watched Nikki work her way down, nimble as an elf, before adding, “I think.”
She continued to pack up her things, fighting off the feeling she got whenever Nikki spent time with Mark. Oh, of course everyone said what a good kid he was. He was smart, he was athletic, he was polite, he was hardworking, and he was adorably cute. He volunteered to build houses in Haiti with a group from his church. Rationally, Allie knew Nikki’d hit the boyfriend jackpot. He was the son of Seth’s cousin. Did it make her a bad mother that she knew Nikki’d be returning to California at the end of the summer and that would probably be the end as far as Mark was concerned?
Mothers weren’t always rational where their young teen daughters were concerned when it came to boys. Allie knew she was overprotective sometimes — some might say overbearing — but Nikki was her world. Her only child. The only good thing that came out of a fifteen-year marriage to a man who one day decided he didn’t want to be married anymore and cut her loose. Clint, her ex, had made a big thing out of giving her the house they’d bought years ago in L.A. Everyone said how generous he was — but she was the one who had to pay the insanely high taxes on the place. Clint had moved to a community that was close to an hour away from Allie, then enrolled Nikki in a very toney — and pricy — private school, for which Allie ended up paying half the tuition, an expense she couldn’t really afford but insisted on contributing her fair share. Which of course, Clint had known she’d do.
Allie’d been working as an assistant director on a TV series that had been cancelled and was rapidly running out of funds when her father died. The conditions of Fritz’s will had infuriated her — if ever she’d needed that inheritance, it was then — and his demands that his daughters move to Hidden Falls and rehab the theater had been puzzling. But in retrospect, she recognized there’d been a financial silver lining. She could rent her house while she was gone and have enough income to continue paying her share of Nikki’s school expenses, since she, Des, and Cara were living expense free in the family home with their aunt while they worked on the theater.
Allie swung her bag over her shoulder, preparing to start her descent, thinking how much her life had changed since she’d arrived in Hidden Falls. There were days when she felt like a different person than the one who’d boarded the plane in LAX and flew to Scranton, Pennsylvania, rented a car, and drove to this tiny no-where town. At first, she’d hated it. Now she was growing accustomed to the slow pace and the fact that everyone in town knew who she was and where she came from simply by virtue of the fact that she was Barney Hudson’s niece.
She dropped one leg over the side, singing softly to herself, “Don’t look down, girl, just don’t look down. Everything’s okay as long as you don’t look down.” — when she did exactly that.
She bristled at the sight of the man who stood at the foot of the scaffold staring straight up.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was looking for Des. I stopped over at the house but no one answered.” His arms were crossed over his chest and in place of his usual chief of police uniform, Ben Haldeman — the very bane of Allie’s existence, the gigantic thorn in her side — was dressed in cutoff jeans and a light blue tank top, flip-flops on his feet. He didn’t bother to smile at her — why pretend he liked her any more than she liked him? — but he didn’t blink when she stared down at him, either.
“I’ll let her know when I see her.”
“Then I’ll just leave this little guy here, and you can take him home with you. How ‘bout I just tie his leash up to the scaffold?”
“What little…” Allie leaned over the side of the platform, just far enough to make her head spin and her stomach flip. She pulled back, but not before she saw the little black dog on the red leash that Ben was tying to the bottom rung. “Wait, where’d that dog come from? You can’t leave it here.”
“Found him out on the highway running loose. Tell Des to give me a call.” Ben patted the dog on the head and turned toward the door.
“Wait. Ben. No, don’t…”
He waved as he walked away. “Have a nice day.”
With a deep sigh of exasperation, Allie sat back on the platform. The man had given her a hard time before she’d even gotten out of her car the night she arrived in Hidden Falls — she’d just barely turned into Barney’s driveway — and he hadn’t let up since. Oh, there’d been a time when he’d seemed to be lightening up on her, but she’d killed any mellow feelings he might have started to have on the Fourth of July when she’d inadvertently — not to mention publicly — just barely stopping short of reminding him that his only child had died.
Not exactly, but close enough.
He’d been teasing her about being overprotective where Nikki was concerned. Was it being overprotective to want to know where her fourteen-year old daughter was going and who she was going with? She didn’t think so. Her comeback had been quick and thoughtless.
“Said the man who…” She’d stopped herself before she finished the sentence, but it was pretty clear she’d been about to say, Said the man who had no children. She hadn’t said it, but the unspoken words had hung in the air between them — and everyone around them had heard.
Ben had gone white, then turned heel and left, and it was obvious he’d been cut to the quick.
She knew she could be a first-class pain in the ass and God knew she had her moments, but she would never — never — purposely say something like that to anyone, not even her worst enemy. It had made her sick to her stomach to know she’d hurt Ben in the worst way possible. She’d gone to his apartment that afternoon to apologize, but the damage had been done. He’d shown her a photograph of his beautiful son, who along with his mother, had been taken from Ben when their car had been hit by a drunk driver. The picture of the sweet dark-haired boy had broken Allie’s heart. She’d tried to tell Ben how terrible she felt, how she’d never intentionally say something so horrible, but he’d turned her words against her, accusing her of making it all about her. Her feelings. Her embarrassment.
The last words he’d spoken to her before today had been, “Nice, princess. Guess you told me, right? Way to get the last word.” And then he’d slammed the door in her face, leaving her speechless and tearful on his doorstep.
The feeling she’d had that day swept through, a chronic sense of self-loathing she was pretty sure she’d never be able to shake, every time she thought back to that day.
“Damn.” She looked down at the dog. From the top of the scaffold, she couldn’t tell what kind of dog it was, just that it was small and all black and was moving nervously around the limited space Ben had left it in. Of course he’d bring a stray to Des. She was the dog whisperer. She’d funded a rescue shelter back in Montana, where she’d been living, and it appeared she was now doing the same thing here in Hidden Falls. Seth had lots of room for a shelter on his farm, and he’d made it clear he was okay with Des bringing abandoned or lost dogs there since the town had no other provisions for strays. The fact that Seth was in love with Des probably had something to do with his offer.
Another heavy sigh, and Allie began the climb down. When she reached the floor, she stood several feet away from the dog and stared at it. It had perky ears that stood away from its head and big round eyes, a stocky body, short legs.
“So, I, ah, guess you got lost.” She set her bag down on the lowest plank of the scaffold and reached to untie the dog, which backed away as if in fear. “Oh, no, no. I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to untie your leash so we can leave.”
She stopped to considered how Des might handle this situation. She tried to remember how her sister spoke to Buttons, the white dog she’d rescued — and kept — several months earlier.
“So maybe you’re hungry.” She started at the dog, who made no move but continued to stare at her with its over-sized eyes. “Or maybe thirsty. Want some water?”
The dog didn’t move, nor did it look away.
“All right, look. We’re going to go for a walk, okay? Wouldn’t you like to be not tied up anymore?”
She leaned closer and reached for the leash. The dog growled.
“Oh, crap. Was that a threat? Are you going to bite me? It figures he’d bring me a vicious dog.” She stood with her hands on her hips, trying to figure out what to do next. “Look, I’m hot and starving, and I want to go back to the house. I have to take you with me. I can’t leave you here tied up, all alone.”
She reached again for the leash — and once again the dog growled.
“Okay, you’ve gotta’ stop doing that. I’m trying to help you. You don’t look like a puppy, so you should know the difference between someone who’s trying to help you and someone who means you harm.”
Another growl, this one from deep in the dog’s throat.
“I give up. I get that you don’t like me, but I still can’t in good conscience leave you here.” She searched her bag for her phone, then speed-dialed Des’s number.
“Des, we have a situation,” Allie said when her sister answered.
“What kind of situation?”
“The canine kind. Ben dropped off a dog at the theater. He said he found it running loose on the highway. He brought it in here and tied it’s leash onto the scaffold so I could bring it home to you. Which would have been fine except the dog growls at me every time I reach for the leash. What do I do?”
“Does the dog appear to be injured or hurt in any way?”
Allie walked around the dog, giving it a wide berth even as she gave it a once-over. “Not that I can see.”
“Did you speak to it nicely, or did you talk to it the way you talk to Ben?”
“What difference would that make?”
“Dogs are very sensitive creatures. They recognize hostility. If you’ve been snarling at it, it’s going to snarl back.”
“Des, I didn’t snarl. I was actually very nice. I asked if it was hungry or thirsty and told it I was going to take it for a walk, but it won’t let me untie it.” Frustrated, she added, “Ben knew the dog wasn’t friendly. He still hasn’t forgiven me for…”
“Ben’s past all that,” Des interrupted.
“No, he isn’t.”
“Let’s focus on the dog.” Des went quiet for a moment, then said, “Ask it if it wants to go for a walk. Most dogs know walk.”
“Allie, say it nicely.”
Allie groaned. She lowered her voice and said slowly and sweetly, “Hi, doggie. Want to go for a walk? Walk, doggie?”
“What’s it doing?”
“Glaring at me with these big eyes.”
“Sit down and talk to it. See if you can get the leash loose.”
“He’s going to go right for my bare legs, I just know it.” Allie flinched, imagining those sharp little teeth buried in her calf.
“Do you have any food?” Des asked.
“I don’t know. Let me look in my bag.” She rummaged for a moment, then found a cookie encased in plastic wrap.
“I have a cookie, but I don’t know how old it is.”
“It’s not chocolate, is it? Chocolate’s not good for dogs.”
“It’s a sugar cookie.” Allie took a closer look through the cellophane. “Not much sugar on it.”
“If he’s hungry, he won’t care.”
“Okay, here goes.” She unwrapped the cookie and broke off a piece. “Here, boy. Want a little snack?”
The dog’s nose began to twitch as he sniffed the air. He took a few tentative steps toward her.
“Come on, it’s for you.” She lowered her voice as she’d heard Des do when she was talking Buttons, then lowered it again to almost a whisper. The dog came closer, then stretched out its neck. Allie extended her arm so the dog could take a bite. She broke off another piece, then while she fed it with one hand, she untied the leash with the other.
“Yes!” she said triumphantly. “The dog has the cookie, I’ve got the leash, and we are outta here. Thanks, Des.”
“I’ll meet you at the house in about ten minutes and I’ll check out your new friend.”
“Why didn’t you just meet me here and do your thing with him? He could have bitten me. Attacked me.”
“But he didn’t do any of those things. You’re fine. He’s fine. See you soon.” Des was gone.
“Come on, boy. I’m guessing you’re a boy. Can’t really tell and I’m not gonna look. Not taking a chance of losing a finger. Besides, it doesn’t really matter, right? You’re not staying with me, so frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Allie tugged gently on the leash, and to her surprise, the dog followed her through the lobby and out the front door.
“It was the cookie, wasn’t it?” She paused to lock the front door. “It’s not me, right? You just wanted a snack.” She tucked the key into the pocket of her shorts. “Dad always said the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. Appears that applies to dogs as well.”
They stood on the curb and waited for the light traffic to pass, then crossed the street. Once on the other side, Allie picked up the pace and the dog kept up, stride for stride. When they reached the Hudson family home, Allie let the dog sniff around the yard before going into the house, as she’d seen Des do with Buttons.
“I think you’re supposed to be doing something right about now, buddy. Like watering the plants, if you get my drift.” The dog continued to sniff the grass and the plants that framed the front porch steps, but that was about all. “So maybe you’re okay, then. I guess Ben took you on a walk or something?”
She went up the front steps, the little black dog right on her heels.
“Here’s the deal, pal. You may not do your business in this house. Uh-uh.” She shook her head and opened the front door. “Good dogs leave it all outside, do we understand each other?”
The dog dashed past her, running the straight length of the hall to the kitchen.
“Well, I guess you know what the kitchen is for. Let me see if I can find something for you to eat.” She dropped the leash and went to the refrigerator and hunted through the contents until she found a container of leftover pork from two nights prior. “If you sit like a nice doggie, you can have some of…”
The dog jumped up and snatched the meat out of her hand.
“That was rude. Didn’t anyone teach you manners?”
She started to take another piece of pork from the container, then paused. “Dear God, I’m having a one-sided conversation with a dog. I’m turning into my sister.”
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Des came into the kitchen with Buttons on her leash.
When the little white dog saw the newcomer in her house, with one of her humans, she stopped in her tracks and glared.
“It’s okay, Buttons,” Des assured her. “He’s a new friend. We’re going to take him to the vet, have him checked out, and if he gets a thumbs up from Dr. Trainor, we’ll take him out to Seth’s farm to play with the other doggies.”
The black dog’s tail began to wag slowly, then Buttons approached him, stopping to sniff his butt.
“Gross. Why do dogs do that?” Allie made a face, and Des laughed.
“Why do you shake hands with someone you’ve just met?” Des asked.
“So much more civilized than — you know.” Allie pointed to the two dogs who were engaged in the dog equivalent of getting to know you. “What kind of dog is he, anyway?”
“Looks like a French bulldog. Nice breed. Come here, little guy. Let me look at you.” Des knelt next to the dogs and ran her hands gently over the newcomers back. His tail continued to wag. “You’ve very cute, you know that, right?”
Allie rolled her eyes, and Des laughed again.
“Don’t pretend you weren’t talking to him when I came in, girl. I heard you.”
“I wasn’t carrying on an entire conversation as if I expected a verbal response.”
“Were too.” Des grinned.
“Was…wait! Did he just…” Allie pointed to the puddle around the leg of one of the kitchen chairs. “He did. He lifted his leg and peed on that chair.”
“Aw, that’s sweet, Al. He peed on the chair you usually sit in. He’s just marking his territory, and he’s made sure it includes you.”
Des gathered up both leashes. “You might want to clean that up before Barney gets home.”
“Wait. Where are you going?”
“To the vet’s, then back to Seth’s. See you later.” Des disappeared down the hall. Seconds later, Allie heard the front door close.
“Nice way to thank me for bringing you home and saving you from a life on the streets.” Grumbling, Allie grabbed the nearby roll of paper towels and soaked up the puddle the floor. “This is why I will never have a pet. If I’d wanted to clean up after someone, I’d have had another child. Which I have no intention of doing. Ever.”
She tossed the paper towel into the trash and washed her hands. She made a sandwich, then hunted in the fridge for a beer, but they were out, so she settled for a glass of Barney’s freshly made lemonade and went out to the patio in the back yard. She ate at the bistro table, then stretched out in the sun on a nearby lounge. After about twenty minutes, she grew hot and bored.
She took her plate and empty glass inside, refilled her lemonade, and went up to her room.
The bed was still unmade and the shade still completely down so the room was dark. She pulled it half-way up, then opened the window a little more to let in whatever breeze might drift through from the trees behind the house. Stripping off her clothes, she headed for the shower. Fifteen minutes later, wrapped in a towel, she wandered back into the bedroom and sat on the room’s only chair to dry her hair.
The house was so quiet, felt so empty when there was no one else there. How did Barney stand it, all those years she lived here alone, after her only sibling had taken off with his girlfriend for California and their parents passed away? Any empty house might feel lonely, but the Hudson house was large enough to take up the entire block on its side of street so there was no such thing as a next-door neighbor. With seven large bedrooms and baths on the second floor, and a number of spacious rooms on the first, it definitely qualified for mansion status. And rightly so since the Hudsons had all but founded the town. They’d made their money in coal and had set the bar high for the treatment of their workers: they paid decent wages, provided medical care for the sick and injured, and founded a college which the miners’ children could attend free of charge. The college had been named for Allie’s great-grandmother, and Alma College had continued to grow and expand in the years since. The Hudson’s had donated the land on which the first elementary school had been built and donated money for the first hospital in the area. It was no surprise that the family that could afford to do all that would have the grandest house in town. Even Allie, jaded though she’d been after living in Los Angeles for so many years, had been impressed with its Victorian turrets and wrap around porch and all the gingerbread trim, the generous rooms, high ceilings, and more than a few ornately trimmed fireplaces.
Hudson House was impressive, all right, though Allie was pretty sure she wouldn’t want to live there alone for any length of time. But being a Hudson in Hidden Falls came with a legacy, one Allie was just beginning to appreciate. She was proud of what her ancestors had accomplished and of their philanthropy.
Her father’s infidelity aside, she was proud of him, but she was most proud of Barney, who’d fought to be the first woman president of the family’s bank, who’d seen the town through troubled financial times, and had approved the loans with which residents had purchased homes and kept their businesses afloat in times of trouble and sent their kids to college. Would it be over-reaching to say that Barney was the backbone of Hidden Falls? Maybe, but not by much.
In Hidden Falls, it was good to be a Hudson.
Unless you were alone in the sprawling house on a hot afternoon when everyone else was out doing their thing.
Did it seem everyone had found a partner of one degree or another? Cara had found Joe when the sisters hired him as the general contractor on the theater project. Des had met Seth when she rescued several stray dogs from the boarded-up theater and he’d volunteered to foster one, and later helped her dream of a rescue shelter there in Hidden Falls come true. Nikki had Mark to hang out with and even Barney had found a would-be partner in Tom Brookes, who’d been a neighbor and best buddy of Gil Wheeler, her late fiancé.
So, everyone but Allie. Not that she was looking for an “other”, but suddenly, she felt like the ultimate fifth wheel.
Unexpected loneliness swept over her, a harbinger, she thought, of the years ahead of her. She knew she’d only have a few more years with Nikki before her daughter went off to college. Then — blink! — Nikki would be starting her career, whatever that might be. Then — poof! — marriage to some guy Allie might not even know, and the one person in this world Allie would willingly die for would be gone. Intellectually, she knew that the bottom line was to cherish the moments she had.
And I have those moments now, this summer, she reminded herself.
But when the summer came to an end, Nikki would be back with her father, who lived only a few blocks from Nikki’s school. Well, her father and the woman he’s seeing. Who just happens to be the mother of Nikki’s best friend, Courtney. Allie hadn’t brought up that dating situation to Nikki since she was unsure if her daughter was aware. What if Clint hadn’t shared that with Nikki? As much as it wouldn’t bother Allie to see Clint uncomfortable, she would never do anything that would damage his relationship with their daughter. Whatever else Allie could say about Clint — and there was plenty — she had to respect the fact that he was a terrific father, one who loved his child very much.
I am going to take every bit of this kid I can get this summer, she told herself as she searched her bag for her phone. I’m not going to feel sad about what’s going to happen after the summer is over. Seize the moment and all that.
She hit the icon for Nikki’s phone.
“Hi, Mom.” A giggling Nikki answered on the third ring.
“Hey. You sound happy. What’s happening out there, silly?”
“Oh, Mom, it’s been so much fun. Aunt Des and I painted so many of those frames for Seth’s grape vines. And it’s so stinking hot. So we went down to the pond and jumped in. And now we’re doing…” Nikki screamed, turning Allie’s blood to ice before she started laughing.
“Nik?” Allie held her breath.
“Seth has water balloons. He exploded them on the ground in front of us and we’re soaked!” Nikki dissolved into a fit of laughter as apparently another balloon had hit close by.
“Well, when you come home to change into dry clothes, why don’t you and I get dressed up a little and drive into High Bridge and have dinner, just the two of us. Then maybe we could go see a movie in that new theater out on the highway, just like we used to do back home.”
“I would except Aunt Des and Seth are going to barbeque and they invited us — me and Mark and Hayley and Wendy — to stay and eat with them since we worked so hard today. I didn’t think you’d mind, but I was going to call and ask.”
“Oh. Well. Okay.” Allie felt more than a little deflated. She tried to keep the disappointment from her voice, but she was pretty sure she’d failed. It hadn’t occurred to her that Nikki would have made plans on her own, without letting Allie know.
“Can we do it another night?”
“Of course. Sure. Well…I guess I’ll see you when you get home.” Allie’s philosophy had always been, when you don’t know what else to say, hang up.
“Mom, wait. Aunt Des said you’re welcome to join us.”
“Oh, no, that’s okay. Sounds like she’s got a full house. I’ll stay here and grab something with Barney.”
“I guess with us here and Aunt Cara doing that picnic with Joe, Aunt Barney wouldn’t have anyone to eat with, so that’s nice of you.” Nikki shrieked again as apparently another water balloon burst.
In the background, Allie could hear laughter.
“Look, it sounds like you have a lot going on there, so I’m going to hang up. Tell Aunt Des I said thanks for the invitation, but I’ll pass.”
“Okay, bye Mom.” Nikki was laughing as the call ended.
Allie sighed, and tried to ignore the wave of sadness that began to creep around her. Except for the weekends, when she had Nikki to herself, Allie’d lived alone for almost a year in L.A., but she’d never felt as lonely as she did after disconnecting that call. She tried to decide what to do with herself when she noticed the ice had melted in the glass of lemonade she’d left on the table. She thought about the half-empty bottle of vodka in the small linen closet in her bathroom.
Since Nikki arrived, Allie’d kept her drinking to a minimum: even she’d had to secretly admit her nightly “cocktails” were becoming a problem, though she never drank when Nikki was around.
“Well, she isn’t here now,” Allie said aloud, “so why not?”
She went downstairs for ice and was about to refill the glass when she heard the front door open, then close.
“Hello, anyone,” Barney called.
“In the kitchen,” Allie called back.
“Oh, my, but it’s a scorcher, isn’t it?” Barney came into the kitchen, her face glistening with perspiration. “I can’t remember being this hot. Ever. I am calling Joe and telling him I want that central air conditioning put in asap. I don’t care if he has to put one unit upstairs for the second floor and one unit in the basement for the first. I just want it done and I want it done now and I don’t care what it costs.”
“Yay for that. We’re all dying,” Allie said.
Barney dropped her bag on a kitchen chair, then poured herself a glass of water from the tap and took a long drink. “I’m too old to sweat this much.”
“I felt that way when I got back from the theater. A shower works wonders.”
“I’m on my way upstairs right now.” Barney swept the sweat from her brow. “Where is everyone?”
“Des and Nikki are at the farm with Seth and some of Nikki’s friends, and Cara is still with Joe.”
“Will anyone be here for dinner?”
“Looks like you and me.”
“Well, then, let’s just take ourselves over to the Goodbye. Judy had a sign out earlier that they have Pocono Mountain trout tonight, and I’d love to dig into one of those.”
Allie debated between the bottle upstairs and the trout in the café on Main Street.
“Come on, Allie. Just you and me. We never have anytime together, just the two of us.”
“All right. Sure. Thanks, Barney.”
“I’m going to run upstairs and take that shower and you go on and change into something pretty.”
Barney’s smile as she left the room assured Allie she’d made the right choice. Even as the desire for a drink had started to play on her nerves, she took a deep breath, tried to push that need away, and followed Barney upstairs, grateful she’d been able to beat back the dragon at least for a little while.
Excerpted from The Goodbye Café by Mariah Stewart. Copyright © 2019 by Mariah Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.