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Authors: Susan Mallery

Evening Stars (26 page)

BOOK: Evening Stars
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“Oh, no!”

She turned and saw Bertie had joined her. The other woman looked as shocked as Nina felt. Averil appeared, as well.

“She didn’t,” Averil breathed. “She couldn’t.”

Bertie shook her head. “We talked about this yesterday. She mentioned wanting to share the painting with the world, but I said we should wait. That we needed a plan in place. That it would be irresponsible...” Her voice trailed off. “I’m sorry, Nina.”

“Me, too.”

Because there were three reporters—one for each news van, she thought. All from Seattle. Which meant as soon as the story played on the local news, it would be picked up nationally. How long did they have until CNN showed up? Not to mention crazy people and shysters.

A warm hand settled on the small of her back. Irritation flared. Seriously? He couldn’t give her fifteen minutes to deal with this?

She turned, prepared to take Kyle on, only to find herself looking into Dylan’s concerned eyes.

“Hey,” he said. “I heard a teaser while I was watching the game. Something about a discovered painting and I knew. I came right away.”

Of course he had, she thought, relieved to have him there. No doubt he’d been in his parking garage when she’d tried to call. He wouldn’t have a cell signal there.

“Now what?” he asked.

Bertie’s eyes filled with tears. “How could she do this to all of us?”

Averil sucked in a breath. “Is anyone actually surprised?”

“No,” Bertie admitted.

Nina turned back to her mother. Bonnie was smiling, obviously enjoying the attention. The reporters were calling out questions—some about the painting, some about how she’d found it.

“We can’t keep it in the store anymore,” Nina said. “The safe is old. I’m sure it would be relatively easy to pick. We’ll have to take it home tonight.”

“Then to Seattle tomorrow,” Bertie said firmly. “You have the places that can store it?”

Nina nodded. She still had the list from Ambrose. “There are a couple in Seattle.”

“I’ll drive,” Dylan said. “I’m on call this Saturday, so I have tomorrow off.”

“You don’t have to,” she told him.

“I know.”

“Thank you.”

He moved his hand to her shoulder and squeezed. “No problem. I’ll be at your place at eight tomorrow. We’ll be in the city by ten and back the same day.”

“I’ll be calling the banks by nine,” Bertie said firmly. “Then I’ll let you know where I’ve made arrangements for storage.” She looked at Bonnie. “All right. This has gone on long enough.”

She walked past the reporters and stepped next to Bonnie, standing directly in front of the painting.

“That’s all for tonight,” she said firmly. “Thank you so much for coming.”

Bonnie looked at her, as if she was going to say something. Then her smile faded, and worry pulled at the corners of her eyes.

“Oh,” she mouthed, as if suddenly remembering that this was not what they’d agreed to do. She looked like a toddler who had just realized she’d done something very, very wrong, and that there would be punishment. What was adorable on a three-year-old was less appealing on a woman pushing fifty.

“Bonnie has some explaining to do,” Dylan said as they moved away.

“Don’t worry about her. Bertie doesn’t hold a grudge.” In a few days, all would be forgotten, Nina thought. By each of them.

“See you in the morning,” Dylan said before he left.

When he was gone, Nina moved next to her sister. “This is a mess.”

“A big one, even for Mom.” Averil’s mouth twisted. “I would offer to take the painting in for you, but I suspect you’ll be more comfortable doing it yourself.”

“I will. I can’t help being overcontrolling.”

“In this case, it makes sense.”

The TV lights turned off one by one. As twilight closed in, the crowd began to disperse.

“So much for having time to think,” Averil said. “Now we have to figure out what to do with the painting and fast.”

“Lucky us,” Nina whispered, thinking it was going to be a very long night.

Chapter Eighteen

DYLAN ARRIVED ON TIME. Nina couldn’t remember when she’d last been so happy to see a man—and that included date anticipation for her nights with Kyle. Even better than his reassuring presence, Dylan had brought his father’s Suburban. The giant SUV held the painting easily and could also be used as a tank in case there was a sudden attack from Canada.

“Can you make the climb?” Dylan asked as he held open the passenger seat. “Want me to get a stepladder?”

“Very funny. I’m not short and I take Pilates.”

“Impressive.”

She scrambled into the seat, and he closed the door, then walked around to the driver’s side. She didn’t bother looking back at the house. While Averil had gotten up early to have coffee with her, she hadn’t seen her mother since the previous night. Bertie had briefly shown up to offer support, without saying anything about Bonnie. Loyalty, Nina thought as Dylan headed across the bridge to I-5. From there they would go south to Seattle.

But instead of merging, he pulled into a Starbucks drive-thru.

“Coffee will help,” he said as they got in line.

“Is my lack of sleep that obvious?”

“Of course not.”

She thought about the shadows she’d seen under her eyes that morning. “I appreciate the gentlemanly lying.” She leaned her head back against the seat. “I stayed up until one, then Averil got up and took over. I’m not sure what we were waiting for or how we expected to ward off an intruder.”

“Did you call the sheriff?”

She nodded. “He sent by regular patrols. I want to say I can’t believe my mother did that, but it’s actually very her. How she loves to share beauty with the world.” Although in this case, everyone agreed it was an ugly painting. “Or maybe she just wanted the attention.”

She tried not to think about the media people in front of the store and everyone who now knew about the painting.

Dylan pulled up in front of the speaker and glanced at her. She told him her order, which he repeated. Then he ordered a latte for himself.

“Ambrose is going to meet us at the bank,” she continued when they’d moved forward a car length. “I have all the signed paperwork for him to manage the painting. He’ll take care of getting the painting officially appraised and then we go from there.”

She refused to think about how they were going to pay the man if there weren’t proceeds from a sale, but that was a problem for another day. Right now she simply wanted the painting as far away from her mother’s house as possible.

They got their coffees, and then Dylan merged onto the freeway. Nina sipped and waited for the caffeine to drift into her bloodstream and increase her energy level.

She glanced at Dylan, taking in his handsome profile. “Did I thank you for driving me to Seattle?”

“You did.”

“Okay, well, I’m going to say it again.”

“Happy to help.”

She smiled. “You just wanted to get out of dealing with vaccinations and hemorrhoids.”

“I’ll admit that hemorrhoids aren’t my favorite thing to look at.” He kept his gaze on the road. “Spending the day with you has its perks.”

“My sparkling conversation?”

“I like that we have a history.”

“Me, too.”

She wouldn’t have thought they would become friends, but they had. They’d both grown up, and with maturity came change. But the essential core of who they had been hadn’t shifted very far from center. As much as she’d loved Dylan, she’d also always liked him. Apparently a decade apart hadn’t changed that.

He was nice and decent and had a way of taking charge that she totally respected. She could depend on him. These days, having someone else help with the decision-making was really nice.

She wasn’t sure what that kiss had meant. Dylan hadn’t ever asked her out—not the way Kyle had. Of course, Kyle had made his intentions clear from the first second she’d landed in his arms.

She sighed. He was turning out to be a complication, she thought. Last night had been a disaster. She briefly wondered about texting him to see if he was okay, but didn’t want to explain what she was doing to Dylan.

Too many men had never been her problem, but it was looking as if it might be now. Along with her sister, her mother, the painting, the store and her life, already in progress.

She turned to Dylan. “You have everything together. Why is that?”

He chuckled. “You’re giving me too much credit.”

“Am I?” She sipped her coffee. “All right, painting-rescue guy. I’ll just go for it. Why aren’t you married?”

“Is that a serious question?”

She thought for a second. “Yes, it is.”

“Okay. I came close a couple of times. Does that count?”

Was she one of the close calls? “With whom?”

“Once in medical school. A fellow doctor. She decided she wanted to be a neurosurgeon, so when we left for our internships, we went in different directions and lost touch.”

So not her, she thought. “Anyone else?”

He hesitated, then shrugged. “A woman I met last year. A single mom. But she didn’t want to leave, and I knew I wasn’t staying.”

“You were willing to be a stepfather?”

“Sure. I like kids. I always planned to have them.”

“Me, too,” she murmured.

“You didn’t think Serge was father material?” he asked, his voice teasing.

She punched his arm. “You will not talk about my ex.”

“Still pining?”

She reached for her latte. “It was a very short fling with unfortunate consequences. I regret everything about Serge. Especially marrying him.”

“I regret not coming home a month sooner.”

Nina stiffened, then immediately tried to relax so he wouldn’t notice. While Dylan’s words were clear, his meaning was not. He’d claimed to have returned to tell her he still cared—only she’d been off getting married. If he’d come a month sooner, she would have been single. So, then what? Would he have said he still cared? Still loved her? And would they have...

She wasn’t sure what would have happened next, but she had a feeling everything would have been different.

Before she could figure out what to say, her cell phone rang. She pulled it out of her bag and glanced at the screen. “It’s Bertie,” she said. “Probably with the bank information.”

Dylan nodded but didn’t say anything. She answered the call and took down the information. By the time she was done, they were on the outskirts of Seattle and starting to hit traffic. He said something about the rain, she mentioned how Ambrose reminded her of a BBC character, and the moment was lost.

But not the memory of it, she thought. Did Dylan regret losing her as an “oh, darn” moment, or was he thinking he should try to set things right between them? And if it was the latter, what did that mean to her? They were both in different places. She wasn’t sure going back was the right thing.

There was also Kyle and how he fit into all this. Too many questions, she thought, and no answers.

“Your insurance company isn’t going to be happy if we get rear-ended with a ten-million dollar painting in the back,” she said conversationally.

Dylan grinned. “Bet Dad never thought of that when he offered me the Suburban.”

* * *

As promised, Ambrose was waiting at the bank. They exchanged signed paperwork, then took the painting into the special vault. More signatures were required, then they went to Ambrose’s cushy office and he explained the process of getting an appraisal, along with the steps that would need to be taken to bring the painting to auction.

Nina was grateful that he never once mentioned the debacle of her mother sharing her find with the world. She and Dylan stopped for an early lunch before heading north. They were back on the island by three. He drove her to her house, then turned off the engine and walked around the SUV to her door.

“I can’t thank you enough,” she said sincerely as she slid to the ground and grabbed her bag. “I honestly don’t think I could have gotten through this by myself.”

“Not to mention the fact that the painting wouldn’t have fit in your car.”

“Yes, there’s that.” She glanced at the house. “It’s a mess. One that might leave my mom and Bertie in possession of a lot of money, but still a complication.” She smiled up at him. “Just think. You got your good deed for the month done early. Now you can relax.”

Instead of smiling back, he cupped her face in his hands, leaned in and kissed her.

The contact was warm and firm. Familiar, she thought hazily as she dropped her bag on the ground and wrapped her arms around his waist.

They moved closer, finding a familiar pose. She tilted her head and waited for his tongue to lightly brush her own. Wanting sparked—desire blending with memories into a powerful cocktail designed to leave her light-headed. But before she could figure out what she wanted, he drew back and smiled.

“Take care of yourself,” he told her, then walked around the front of the Suburban.

She picked up her purse and walked to the porch. As he drove away, she wasn’t sure if she was aroused or annoyed. Maybe a little of both. What was he thinking, kissing her like that, then leaving? What was she doing, kissing him back? She was seeing Kyle. Semidating and definitely sleeping with the other man. Not only wasn’t this her style, she had a feeling she wasn’t going to be very good at juggling two men. Or was that an acquired skill and one she should think about learning?

* * *

Averil sat cross-legged on her bed and hit the enter key with as much force as she could. The screen popped up with an “are you sure” message.

“You bet I’m sure, assholes,” she muttered as she clicked yes.

In return the screen posted a message saying she had been permanently unsubscribed from her online writing critique group.

She flopped back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. After the last round of critiques, she’d taken a couple of days to recover from the hostile comments, then she’d gone back into her archives and checked out what had happened the handful of other times she’d submitted her work.

Every comment had been negative, and many of them had bordered on snide or worse. They didn’t just seem to hate her writing—it was as if they were questioning who she was as a person. She wrote for a living—articles, but still. She was used to the process and comfortable being edited. Maybe she really was a lousy fiction writer, or maybe they were a really bad critique group. She’d gone back a second time and realized that nearly every comment to every writer was negative. That had made her realize she’d put herself in a position to be discouraged every time she submitted. Was this yet another way she was self-sabotaging what she claimed was her dream? Something to think about.

BOOK: Evening Stars
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