Authors: Karen Templeton
“Oh, I know why you wanted us to meet—”
“No, I don’t think you do.”
Mallory crossed her arms. “You’re honestly gonna sit there and tell me you weren’t trying to fix me up?”
“Not in the conventional sense, no. I’m serious,” she said at Mallory’s smirk. “Yes, I’d love for you to find a man who’ll love you the way you deserve to be loved. I’m not gonna apologize for that. But even now that I know Zach Talbot is single, I’m not all that sure he’s that man.”
This was a shocker. “Really?”
“Really. Well, not now, anyway. Because when his brother and I were up at the house, he filled me in a little more about what Zach’s been through.”
“Oh, Lord, Mama—”
“I did not ask him, I swear. But Josh is clearly worried about him. So’s the rest of his family, I gather. Zach’s the oldest of the four boys—the second one’s off finding himself or whatever, and then there’s Josh and his twin brother Levi—”
of them?” With his dark good looks, Josh could put most of the Hollyhood hotties to shame. “Damn.”
“You said it. But Josh and Levi are fraternal twins, Josh said.
way...” She waved one hand. “Zach was always the quiet one, but since his wife’s death, Josh says, it’s like Zach’s buried himself in his sorrow. Not that he ever was the life of the party or anything. More the serious type, you know? But for more than two years, it’s like he’s been in a fog. And the more Josh and I talked, the more it occurred to me you might be able to help him find his way out of that fog. As a
, Mallory Ann. Only as a friend.”
“And I’m supposed to believe that?”
“I do not understand why you always think I have ulterior motives.”
“Um, because I’ve known you for nearly forty years? But even accepting your premise...why do you think I’d be able to help him?”
“Because you’ve been where he is. Not losing a spouse, no, but having your world turned on its head. And you yourself said it hurts you to see others in pain—”
“That doesn’t exactly make me an expert in helping them move past it. And anyway, I would think your situation is more similar to his than mine is.”
Mama stroked the sleeping dog’s head for a moment. “On the surface, that makes sense. But...”
Her mother’s eyes met hers. “Your father and I...we weren’t exactly what you’d call soul mates. Oh, we liked each other well enough, and we got along fine. Shoot, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times we argued. And I truly grieved him when he died. I mean that. Jimmy was a good man. But I remember the day—it was right after your tenth birthday, as I recall—when it suddenly dawned on me I wasn’t in love with him. Never had been. I
him, of course. Respected him, absolutely. And God knows I
more...” She shook her head. “It just never happened.”
Frankly, Mallory wasn’t nearly as shocked as she probably should’ve been. Mama was absolutely right about Daddy being a good man, and Mallory had loved him to pieces. And he, her. But her parents had had separate bedrooms for as long as she could remember. True, there’d been shared laughter, but it’d been more the laughter of friends, not lovers.
“And you’re telling me this now, why?”
“Don’t really know, to be truthful. Except something about being out here...it makes me want to be more honest, maybe. Must be the thinner air or something.”
Mallory smiled. “So why’d you marry him?”
“Oh, you know. Small town, timing was right...” She shrugged. “I had no complaints, though, all told. Don’t think Jimmy did, either. Maybe because we didn’t have any other frame of reference, I don’t know. But my point is, if what Josh says is true—and my eyes and ears tell me it is—I can’t relate to that young man’s sense of loss, of upheaval, nearly as well as I think you can.”
Wishing to hell the light was off, Mallory looked away. Because, fine, her mother was right—Mallory could definitely relate to the hurt she saw in those deep blue eyes, even though their situations were nothing alike. She also guessed Zach was doing everything in his power to keep everyone from knowing how much. Because she’d been there, too. Still was, frankly.
But what struck her even more was how close to home her mother’s confession had hit. That even as Mallory found herself perturbed for her mother’s sake that she’d apparently never experienced true, all-consuming love, she realized...neither had she. That her own marriage hadn’t exactly been all about the passion, either. When it ended, she’d felt more disappointed than devastated. Had Russell felt even that much? she wondered.
And if she let her thoughts continue down this path, she’d be screwed. Hoping to ease the ache in her back, she fisted the cushion on either side of her hips to shift on the sofa. “And what, exactly, do you think I could do for Zach?”
“Be an example, maybe?”
“Of what? My spine is broken, not my heart—”
“Then maybe you should remember those first few weeks, after the accident, when you were sure your life was over. No, you’re no expert, maybe, but you’ve overcome so much, baby—”
She reached for her mother’s hand. “In case you hadn’t noticed, my life has kind of imploded over the last year or so. Again. Whole reason I’m here, you know? To take stock, figure out what comes next. Maybe to you it looked like I was doing okay—”
“More than ‘okay,’ honey—”
“Physically? Yes, I’ve exceeded everyone’s expectations. Not to mention my own. And I’m grateful for that, believe me. But my marriage fell apart, my son’s living with his father, and I’ve been in career limbo since the accident. Those are the facts. I’m no more in the position to be a cheerleader for somebody else—particularly somebody I’m guessing would not take kindly to some stranger sticking her nose in his personal life—than the man in the moon. I came here to get away from complications, not pile more on.”
“And it’s not like you to feel sorry for yourself.”
“Oh, don’t give me that look—yes, that one. Because you know full well you wouldn’t’ve made the progress you did if I’d babied you. If I’d felt sorry
you. And damned if I’m gonna start now. So you’ve had a few setbacks. Big deal. This, too, shall pass.”
And the elephant swaggered into the room and plopped its big ole butt on the pavers between them.
“I know you think I shouldn’t’ve left LA. Or given up on Landon—”
“I never said that.”
“You didn’t have to, the undertones to every one of our conversations are loud and clear.”
Mama’s mouth pulled tight. “Then, no, I don’t think leaving was the answer. And it wasn’t Landon you gave up on. It was yourself.”
Mallory’s face warmed. “Being realistic—or taking time to get my head on straight—is not feeling sorry for myself. Or giving up. Whether you think so or not. And what on earth does any of this have to do with Zach Talbot?”
Shifting the dog in her arms, her mother stood. “You need a purpose, honey. A reason to get up in the mornings. To get out of your own head. And right now it doesn’t look to me like you have that. I’m only saying, that young man might be why you were led to come here.”
“Now you’re just talking crazy.”
“Yeah, well, at least I’m talking. At least
facing the truth. Not running away from it.”
With that, Mama shook back her hair as much as a ton of hairspray would allow and left the room.
But the worst part of it was that Mama was right. Dammit.
Then again, if Mallory was as messed up as her loving mother seemed to think she was, what on earth good would she be to Zach? Who by all accounts was equally as messed up?
She tossed aside the throw over her legs to get back in the chair, which she rolled across the floor to turn out the damn light, so she could sit in the damn dark and consider her sins.
Which, apparently, were many.
y rights, Zach should’ve let his brother return the sunglasses to Dorelle. Except Josh—rightly—pointed out that Mallory’s mother would be far more likely to pay another visit to the clinic than Josh would get anywhere near where they lived on the other side of town. And since they didn’t look like some cheapo discount store things, Josh guessed she’d probably like them back.
Sure enough, the next day Dorelle called, asked if Josh had brought them by. So naturally Zach said he’d be glad to return them to her since she had no reason to bring the dog in at the moment. No, of course it wasn’t a problem.
So here he was, standing on the wooden-planked porch fronting the ranch-style house, set off far enough from the highway that the surrounding pinons and aspens easily swallowed up whatever traffic noise there might have been. It was real pretty out here, Zach had to admit, even though with two young boys and his practice he’d grown to appreciate the convenience of in-town living. Even if the town was Whispering Pines, where convenience was definitely in the eye of the beholder. Still—he turned, smiling at Benny watching the boys chase each other across a space far too large to be called a front yard—sometimes he missed living out in the country.
The front door—carved, huge, way overdone for the house—opened. In a dark green sweater that made her eyes go more hazel than gray, Mallory looked up at him, frowning. Zach lifted the sunglasses. She sighed.
“I swear, that woman loses more pairs of sunglasses. But you didn’t have to bring them. We could’ve picked them up the next time we were in town—”
“Then I guess that explains the cookies.”
“Three kinds, last time I checked.” She leaned over to look past him. “And I take it the comets streaking across my yard are the boys?”
“They have two settings—warp speed and zonked out.”
Mallory chuckled, but her smile didn’t quite blossom full out. “Sounds familiar. Well, I suppose you may as well bring them in to eat the cookies. Because heaven knows I don’t need them—the chair makes my butt look big enough, thank you.”
Swallowing a grin, Zach turned and called. Panting and flush-faced, they ran over, the dog plodding slowly behind. Zach automatically started plucking bits of dried grass out of his youngest’s hair. “You guys remember Miss Keyes from yesterday?”
“Uh-huh,” they said in unison, doing the bobble-head thing as the dog finally finished the journey...and promptly planted his muddy front paws on Mallory’s lap and started to lick her face, his tail pumping a mile a minute.
“Benny!” Zach bellowed over Mallory’s shrieks and the boys’ explosion of giggles, grabbing the dog’s collar and tugging. Hard. Like trying to move a five-hundred-pound boulder.
With a mighty yank, he finally got the dog off Mallory’s lap. “And you two can stop right now,” he said to the boys. Who of course only laughed harder.
Mortified, Zach turned back to Mallory, busy wiping dog slobber off her cheek. He dug in his jacket pocket for a tissue. Which, with drippy-nosed boys, he always carried. Amazingly, it was actually clean.
“I’m so sorry!” he said, handing over the tissue and glaring at the completely unrepentant dog. “I had no idea he’d do that—”
“No worries,” she said, chuckling, mopping up the dog spit. “Come here, baby... No, it’s okay, don’t you pay any attention to the mean ol’ man...”
The dog gleefully obeyed
, wagging back to again get in her face, grinning his doggy grin and clearly enjoying the hell out of her fawning all over him. A moment later Dorelle appeared, bringing with her the scents of chocolate and brown sugar.
“Oh, I’m so glad y’all came!” she said, snatching the glasses from Zach. “Can they have some cookies?” She beamed down at the boys. “Right out of the oven, all gooey and warm.”
Two sets of pleading eyes swung to his, and Zach sighed. “Only a couple, they haven’t had dinner yet.”
“Got it,” Dorelle said, gathering the boys to her like a mama hen and herding them toward the kitchen. “Y’all like milk with your cookies? Or juice...?”
Zach returned his gaze to Mallory, her lap still full of blissful dog. “Um... I wasn’t actually planning on staying?”
“Meet my mother, the unstoppable force,” she said, gently pushing the dog down so Zach could come inside, into a spacious entryway flanked by a living area on one side, a formal dining room on the other. Not that he knew much about decorating, but the overall effect seemed more yard sale hodgepodge than designer-contrived. Or maybe that was the contrivance. “Oh, and by the way, Mama’s concept of a ‘couple’ probably does not jibe with yours.”
“That’s okay, neither does
“And by ‘not planning on staying,’” she said, her eyes sparkling as she looked up at him, “was that you just trying to be polite? Or do you really have someplace else to be?”
“Would it make any difference?”
“To my mother? Not a lot, no.”
“And to you?”
Her eyebrows lifted. As did the corners of her mouth. “Far be it from me to detain a gentleman under false pretenses,” she said with a slight bow. “Or keep him against his will. Although I’m sure you know my mother probably didn’t leave those sunglasses behind on accident.”
Zach shoved his hands in his back pockets, unsure about how he felt by this turn of events. Unsure, period. “I did have my suspicions.”
Mallory glanced at the dog for a moment, then back up at Zach. “She’ll swear up one side and down the other she’s not trying to fix me up, but the woman lies like a rug.”
He smiled. “So I take it you’re not exactly on board with her plans?”
After a moment, she said, “The past five years haven’t exactly been a picnic. All I want is a little peace, you know? Some space where nothing’s happening. I am not looking for someone new in my life, believe me. At least not now.” Her lips curved. “And I suspect,” she said gently, “you know exactly where I’m coming from.”
Her understanding rattled him more than he was about to let on. “I do. So the question is...do we tell your mother?”
“Oh, I suppose we should let her have her fun. She doesn’t get much of that these days. And anyway, you seem reasonably sane, which is more than can be said for ninety percent of the men I usually come in contact with. The women, too, for that matter.” Her eyes narrowed. “I feel like you and I could actually have a real conversation, if we put our minds to it.”