Authors: Karen Templeton
not to them. They wouldn’t...they wouldn’t get it. But you have no idea what a huge relief it is to say it to
. So thank you.”
she wanted to say as the bell jangled and the boys burst back inside, out of breath and giggling, Mallory’s mother laughing almost as hard as they were. But after the initial stab of annoyance at the interruption, Mallory had to admit she was actually glad the conversation ended when it did. Because what would,
she have said? After all, she’d be the first to admit she’d never loved that deeply. And to be honest, seeing how tortured Zach still was this long after his wife’s death she wasn’t sure she ever wanted to. Nor could she blame him for wanting to steer clear of emotional involvement again.
Even so, there was a big difference between accepting your circumstances and rolling over and playing dead. Giving up. God knew Mama had drummed that into her head enough those first few weeks. Months. But if her own experience was anything to go by, that was one of those things you had to learn for yourself, on your own terms and in your own time. In other words nothing she could say would make a lick of difference if Zach wasn’t ready to hear it.
Never mind how badly she wanted to swat him upside the head. Or that she wasn’t deeply touched that he’d opened up to her, even if she didn’t completely understand why. Even so, she thought as she excused herself to use the ladies’ room, she could only hope that something or someone would eventually free him from what was obviously a crushing pain.
“Oh, sorry!” she said when she pushed open the door, smacking it into Val’s hip.
“No worries,” the waitress said, grinning. “Major design flaw. The stall’s good for you, though. Annie had it enlarged and retrofitted some time ago.”
She wheeled herself inside, began the tedious process involved in simply going potty.
“So...looked like you were having quite the conversation with Zach. Sorry—I forget not everyone is cool with talking while they’re peeing—”
As opposed to asking about a private conversation. Got it. “That’s okay, I’m good. This takes a while, anyway. I thank God every day it’s not a timed event.”
She heard a low chuckle on the other side. “And I just now realized,” Val said, “how nosy I sounded. I only meant, it was nice to see him talking to
. Somebody not related to him or a client, I mean.”
Mallory smiled. “It’s a small town. Kinda limits the options.”
“True. Even so...” She heard water running. “He needs to get out of himself more. We all worry about him.”
The stab of irritation took Mallory by surprise, especially considering the obviously genuine affection that had provoked the comment. Finally done, she pulled herself back together and made her cumbersome way to the sink to wash her own hands.
“You’re going to be Zach’s sister-in-law soon, right?”
Val looked a little puzzled, even as she smiled. “In a couple weeks, actually. Who told you?”
Mallory swiveled around to reach the paper towels. “Josh. When I was out at the ranch the other day.” Wiping her hands, she tilted her head and said gently, “I gather you went through some pretty rough times yourself.”
“You might say,” she breathed out.
“Then you get where Zach is coming from.”
“But that’s my point—I do know. And I also know I wouldn’t’ve gotten through it without the support system I had. Which is what we’re all trying to be for Zach.”
“I can see that. And like you, I don’t even want to think about how I would’ve managed without my mother. I’m more grateful than I can say that she was there for me. But she couldn’t work through whatever I needed to work through
Val leaned on the sink, her cheeks puffing out with the force of her breath as she looked at Mallory in the mirror. “I guess when you’ve been through it yourself it’s even harder to watch someone else suffer like Zach is. But I hear what you’re saying. And you’re right. Absolutely. Hey...” She turned to face Mallory, her eyes sparkling. “Would you and your mama like to come to a cookout at my place later?”
“Nothing fancy, just Levi and me and our girls, and Zach and his boys. Maybe the guys’ parents, not sure about that yet. Depends on whether or not one of Billie’s clients goes into labor. You like kabobs?”
“Um, sure. But...”
“Look, if you two are gonna be spending any significant time here...well. It can get a little
quiet, you know?”
“Never mind the quiet is exactly what I came for. Not that I don’t appreciate the invitation, but...”
“Got it. But if you change your mind...here...” Val tugged her guest checkbook from her apron pocket, scribbling something on the top slip before tearing half of it off and handing it to Mallory. “Here’s the address. It’s not far from here. And don’t worry about if there’s enough food, Levi always cooks enough for half the town, anyway. And to be honest? As much as I love my family, and this town, a little fresh blood now and then doesn’t hurt. But it’s up to you.”
Mallory took the slip, more touched—and more conflicted—than she could say. She stared at the number for a moment, then smiled up at Val. “Let me have your number, I’ll let you know for sure a little later. How’s that?”
The blonde lit up like a Christmas display. “That’ll work, sure.”
They exchanged numbers on their cells before finally leaving the restroom, Val heading into the kitchen, Mallory toward the booth where her mother sat. Alone.
“Zach and the boys left?”
“The little one was clearly done,” Mama said, getting to her feet. “I told him to go on, not to wait on my account. Although I was beginning to wonder if you’d disappeared into an alternate universe. You okay, baby?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Got caught up in a conversation with Val, that’s all.”
“In the ladies’ room?”
“Seemed as good a place as any.”
Shaking her head, Mama rearranged various pieces of clothing, then lugged her elephant-sized purse out of the booth and headed toward the door. “Zach picked up the check, by the way. I told him that wasn’t necessary, but he insisted. Wasn’t that nice?”
“Yes, it was,” Mallory said, letting her mother get the door for her. They were all tucked up in her mother’s car, however—Mama had insisted on driving the Caddy today, and Mallory hadn’t had the wherewithal to argue—before Mallory said, “Val invited us to dinner, by the way.”
Clutching the steering wheel, Mama turned, her brows drawn. “When? Tonight?”
The thing was, until she heard the words fall out of her mouth she hadn’t decided whether or not to tell her mother about the invitation. After all, she could have kept the whole thing to herself and no one would’ve been the wiser. But even though her mother hadn’t said anything, Mallory knew the isolation was beginning to get to her. Especially after already not having many friends in LA. Unlike Mallory, who could happily go for weeks without interacting with the human race, Dorelle Keyes was born to schmooze. For all she’d sworn Mallory was doing her a favor, taking her in—and on, let’s be real—after the accident, Mama had made the far greater sacrifice. Especially by trekking out to the middle of nowhere with her daughter. Add that to everything else the woman had done for her? Sucking it up and going to someone’s backyard barbecue was the least she could do.
“Why?” Mama asked.
“I have no idea.”
Her mother looked out the windshield, the beginnings of a smile curving her red lips. “Who all’s gonna be there?”
“Most of the family, sounds like. You game?”
Mama looked at her again, then reached over to curve her warm fingers around Mallory’s hand. “Are you?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Then, hell, yes,” Mama said, backing out of the lot hard enough to make Mallory’s stomach jerk six ways to Sunday. Although that probably had less to do with her mother’s sketchy driving than the fact that Zach was part of that
most of the family
And she really, really needed to get over herself.
* * *
Growing up in this family, Zach mused as he sat on his parents’ back patio watching four kids run around the yard in the rapidly waning light, a person got used to plans changing at a moment’s notice and for the slimmest of reasons. In this case, moving dinner here instead of having it at Val’s house. Something about his parents having a bigger grill, she’d said when she called.
Whatever. Had nothing to do with him. He was only here for the boys, so they could play with their new cousins, hang out with their grandparents. Well, that, and because he was hardly going to turn down another opportunity to feed said boys without actually having to cook for them. These days, his main goals were to keep them alive and out of trouble. However those were accomplished, he thought as he stretched out on a webbed lawn chaise he remembered from when he was a teenager, he wasn’t too picky about.
He let his eyes drift closed. He never had gotten that nap, and while he wasn’t about to actually go pass out in his parents’ guest room, at least he could rest easy knowing there were as many alert adults as kids. Except the minute he did, the muffled sounds of the kids’ giggles and the adults’ conversation over by the smoking grill lulled him into that not-entirely-comfortable state of half-consciousness where reality smudged into memories, where Val’s laughter sounded eerily like Heidi’s. Where, for a split second, he thought she was standing over him, chuckling about his having fallen asleep.
Zach jerked awake, his heart pounding, to see his mother sitting across from him, a gentle smile on her high-cheekboned face. The sun had all but set by now, gilding her long, silver hair, her favorite bulky cardigan, buttoned nearly to her neck against the evening chill.
“When did you get here?” he said, fighting a yawn as he sat up straighter.
“A few minutes ago. Had a gal thought she’d started labor, but I don’t think so. She’s not five minutes away, though, I can get to her quickly if things change. There’s beer in the fridge. Wine, too, although you probably don’t want that. I restocked when I heard we were suddenly hosting a party.”
Zach frowned. “Since when is family a ‘party’?”
“Since Valerie decided to invite that actress and her mother.” At Zach’s apparently flummoxed expression, Mom’s smile spread a little farther. “You didn’t know?”
“Is this a problem?”
“Why would it be?”
“I have no idea. But I can never tell with you these days.”
“And what exactly is that supposed to mean?”
“Maybe you should listen to yourself,” Mom said, pushing herself out of the chair, “and get back to me on that. Anyway, I expect they’ll be here soon.” A frigid breeze shunted through, ruffling her hair. Hugging herself, she looked out over the yard. “Think we should eat inside? It’ll be awfully tight, though.”
“It’ll be fine, Mom,” Zach said, prying himself out of his chair. Steeling himself for... God knew what. Okay, not true, because he knew damn well what—for the first woman since Heidi who, simply by virtue of being herself, could apparently make him lower barriers he’d sworn were never coming down again. Who could turn a simple conversation over burgers and fries into...more. A lot more. Who looked at him like she could see into his soul.
Whose eyes let him see into hers.
Over the cramp to his chest, he smiled at his sons stomping across the patio toward him, a panting Jeremy clutching his chest as if he was about to keel over, even as he held on tight to his little brother’s hand.
“What’s with you?” Zach said, hauling Liam into his arms, his chest cramping all over again when the little boy yawned and snuggled close, his sweet-sour smell tickling Zach’s nose.
“Worn...out...” Jeremy said, the chaise squawking when he collapsed on it. “Josie and me were chasing the baby. Hers, not ours. How can something with legs that short run that fast?”
“Exactly what your mother and I used to say about you when you were that age. You were like a little lizard, darting away from us so fast we could barely catch you. Especially if you got hold of something you weren’t supposed to have.”
Breathing a little easier now, Jeremy looked up at him. “I sorta remember.”
“I doubt it. You wouldn’t even have been two.”
“No, really.” The boy sat up, his expression far too serious for a kid. “It’s fuzzy, but... I think I can hear Mom’s laugh.”
Somehow, Zach held it together. From inside, he heard his brother give his father good-natured grief about something, his mother tell them both to behave. Then, faintly, the doorbell ringing. “Not from then, I don’t think. You were five when...she was with us until you were five.”
Looking out into the now dark yard, Jeremy nodded. “You still miss her?”
“Yeah. Me, too,” he said, then got up. “It’s cold. We should go inside. Where it’s warm.”
Where, crowded in his parents’ tiny kitchen with everyone else, were Mallory and her mother, Val making introductions as both women effortlessly worked the crowd. Still holding Liam, Zach hung back, watching, unable to take his eyes off Mallory, who’d taken baby Risa onto her lap and was now making faces at her, her eyes alight. Even in a plain black sweater and blue jeans, with not a whole lot of makeup that he could tell, the woman...glowed. As if she was more than a mere mortal. And not only because the overhead light made her hair look like it was on fire. Whatever it was that held his attention captive, it came from someplace deep inside her, he realized. Something unfeigned and completely natural, the very opposite of what you’d expect a famous movie star to be like.
And for the first time, Zach maybe understood what had made her a star—a
star, not some flash-in-the-pan reality show personality. Because Mallory Keyes was genuine. Real.
. A woman who held nothing back. And had that something that made it impossible to look away when she was on-screen. Even if that screen was only his forty-two-inch TV.
Because, yeah, Netflix.