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Are you still glad we did it?"
Allison Moore looked up from her laptop Monday morning and studied her business partner and onetime best friend, Kayla Brown. Not at one time. Still best friends. At least that 's what Allison told herself. It 's what Kayla probably said inside her head too. And Allison wished it were true. But she 'd discovered that people who say, "Don 't go into business with friends or family," have a large slice of wisdom on their side.
Allison didn 't have to ask what "it" was. Going out the door. Leaving their old architecture firm, where they 'd made gobs of money for the owners and not much for themselves. Now here they were, two and a half years later, working harder than they ever had, and still not making much money for themselves. But it would come, wouldn 't it? It had to. Their heads weren 't completely under the financial waters, but she and Kayla did have to hold their breath far more frequently than they liked.
"Glad?" Allison leaned back in her chair and picked up her heavily caramel-flavored coffee, the only breakfast she 'd had that morning, like most mornings. "Yes, I am. Most days at least."
Kayla stepped inside Allison 's tiny office and sat on the chair on the other side of Allison 's oak desk, the twin to Kayla 's. Oak. Not Allison 's style. Kayla 's neither. But the furniture had been affordable.
"Me too." Kayla sighed. "I 'd rather be poor and free than rich and in the shackles we used to wear."
"I agree." Allison took a sip of her almost-warm-enough drink. "Except when Seattle rain turns into snow up at Steven 's Pass and I don 't have the money for a lift ticket."
"Our time is coming. With four new major accounts within reach, you have to be feeling good."
The air felt stale — the same conversation they 'd had too often over the past six months was undoubtedly the reason — and they slipped into silence. Another sip of coffee.
"Am I still your best friend, Al?"
Allison stared at her. The truth? More often than not it was an extreme challenge to be around Kayla. But Allison was committed to the business. And committed to the friendship.
"It 's been hard. But yes, you are." Allison took another sip. "Am I yours?"
"I want you to be."
Allison nodded and pushed back from her desk.
"Like you said, Kayla, I 'd rather be here running my own business than working for someone else. Not sure I could ever do that again. And you and me? We 'll get back to the way we were once we get a little bit of cash flow going. It 's just the stress, you know?" She set her cup down and straightened up. "I should get going on these drawings. Promised Kim Kelly they 'd be finished this afternoon."
"I 'm sorry, Al, for what I did on Friday." She placed her hands on Allison 's desk. "When I 'm wrong I say I 'm wrong, and that wasn 't in any way called for, for making you look foolish because I blew off the appointment, and I 'm really, really sorry because I didn 't come but I said I would and then I didn 't, but I thought it was too small of an account for us to pitch, and I did tell you that, but I still should have ... and it was late on Friday afternoon and I wanted to get home to my kids, and to hubs, and since you don 't have kids, you don 't know what it 's like, but it tugs at me, but still, I ... I was so completely wrong."
Kayla scrunched up her face and peered at Allison, then tilted her head, waiting for an answer.
"Not completely wrong. You were right. They 're small. But I got 'em." Allison pointed to her coffee cup and grinned. "So they 'll at least pay for our coffee."
"Really? You signed them?" Kayla stood and clapped twice.
"Sweet!" Kayla reached back and pulled a slip of paper out of her jeans. "Then there 's even more reason to give you this."
She unfolded the flyer and slid it across Allison 's desk.
"I signed us up for a Sip-and-Paint class this Thursday night. My treat."
Allison smiled. "I 've always wanted to try that."
"Me too. It 'll be a celebration of picking up our latest massive client."
Allison laughed and said, "Can 't wait."
Kayla flashed the love sign and Allison returned it. As Kayla spun to go, Allison 's cell phone rang. Caller ID said it was her mom. But Allison had no time to talk and at times her Mom could be a world champion monologist. Not a problem when Allison had time to listen. Which wasn 't now. She would return the call on her way home. The ringing stopped. Allison 's focus returned to her drawing desk, but before her brain could engage, her cell rang again. Her mom. Again. Allison sighed, sat back, and picked up her phone. Deep breath. Explain she couldn 't chat and hold her mom to under five minutes. Then finish the drawings.
"Hi, Mom. Listen, I 'd love to —"
"No, this isn 't your mom, Allison. It 's her neighbor, Tara Elsner. We 've met a few times. You might remember me."
"Yes, Tara, of course I do." Heat flashed through Allison. "Why are you calling on my mom 's cell? Is she okay?"
"Yes, Corrine is ... your mom ... is fine." Tara paused. "Well, not so fine. She was up on a ladder working on the gutters and slipped and fell, and landed on her ankle and broke it pretty badly. Bruised up a little on her right side."
"Yes, she 's banged up but okay. It could have been far worse."
"What was she doing up on ... No, no, no, forget that. Where are you now?" Allison stood and grabbed her purse and her car keys.
"She didn 't want to bother you, but I said you needed to know ... she was and still is in, I suppose, a lot of pain, so I borrowed her cell phone because in all the commotion after she called me and I raced across the cul-de-sac to help her, I forgot to grab my cell phone before we —"
"I 'm sorry to interrupt, Tara, but where are you?"
"Right now we 're in a room waiting for —"
"Are you at the hospital?"
"Thanks, Tara, I 'm on my way."
Allison hung up without waiting for a goodbye, and snatched her purse and coat, and sprinted out her door and into the doorframe of Kayla 's office.
"That was my mom 's neighbor. My mom broke her ankle. She 's at Overlake. I gotta go."
Allison turned and raced to the front door of their office, yanked it open, and pushed into the hallway.
"Is she —" Kayla 's voice was clipped off as the door slammed shut.
Allison growled at the Bellevue traffic crawling up 405 and glanced at her watch. Ten forty-five. Ten years ago you could hit the speed limit this time of day for at least a few seconds at a time. Even five years ago. Now? Lucky to reach half that speed. She tried to calm down. It wasn 't a heart attack. She didn 't need to race to get there. Allison called Tara back and was told her mom 's ankle had been set and she was sleeping. But still. She wanted to get there. Be there when her mom woke up. Tell her things would be okay. Because her dad wouldn 't ever be there for her mom again.
Why did he have to go and die? Yes, he was with Joel now, father and firstborn son reunited. But now it was just Allison and her mom. Parker? Sure, he was alive — at least he was three and a half months ago before he 'd vanished again — but being alive and being part of their shrinking family were two different things.
Finally she reached her exit and accelerated down the off-ramp as if she could make up the time she 'd lost in the sea of stop-and-go cars. A light mist from the sky began and she turned on her wipers.
Broken ankle? Falling from a ladder? Allison shook her head. What was her mom doing up on a ladder working on the gutters? Sixty-two-year-old women did not get up on fifteen-feet ladders. At least they shouldn 't. Especially not women with frequent vertigo.
Allison pulled into Overlake Hospital 's parking garage twenty minutes later. Ten minutes after that, a nurse in the ER gave a quick rundown of her mom 's condition, then pointed to a hallway to Allison 's left. "Your mom 's at the end of the hall, probably still sleeping. She was when I checked five minutes ago."
She clipped down the hall and breathed that antiseptic hospital smell that always seemed to be covering up a deeper, less pleasant odor hiding in the walls. She slowed as she approached the ER bay, stopped just outside the door, took a deep breath, then stepped inside. Her mom lay propped up in a bed with an off-white blanket covering her. "Mom?"
"Hi, sweetie." Her mom gave a smile, her eyes at quarter mast. "I guess I lost my balance."
"They told me you were trying out for the circus."
Her mom laughed. The morphine they 'd given her was obviously taking care of the pain, at least for now. "You should have seen the flip. I just couldn 't stick the landing."
Allison sat and took her mom 's hand. Warm and soft. Gentle. The way it had been forever.
"Thanks for coming, Al. You didn 't have to."
"Mom? What were you doing up on a ladder?"
"Working on the gutters."
"Why? What would possess you to climb up there?"
"They need fixing. And Parker 's not around. And who knows if he 'll ever be around again."
"So if Parker 's not around, you hire someone to do it."
Her mom turned her head and stared at the rail of her bed.
"No." Her mom pulled her hand away. "I can do it myself."
"Obviously that 's not the case."
"I won 't slip next time."
"They told me you won 't be ready to do anything for at least a month and a half."
Her mom yanked her arms across her chest. "Then I 'll fix them in six weeks."
"Please, Mom. Explain this to me. Why didn 't you hire someone to take care of your gutters?"
Her mom turned back and opened her eyes fully for the first time since Allison had stepped into the room. "No, I won 't."
"It 's nothing you need to know about."
"Why are you —"
"It 's strictly off-limits."
The look in her mom 's eyes was full of fear. More than Allison had seen in her mom for a long time. Maybe ever. Whatever it was, Allison had the feeling it was about to change her life.CHAPTER 2
Three hours later, AS Allison drove her mom home from the hospital, she tried once more to draw her mom out. No luck.
After she asked twice, her mom muttered, "You 'll find out soon enough, so let it rest, okay?"
"Find out what?"
Her mom slipped back into silence and Allison tried to shift gears.
"How are you doing with missing Dad?"
"I don 't."
"Don 't miss him."
The same answer she 'd given a few days ago. Strange. Only four months since the funeral, and her mom had gone from constantly talking about his passing to not at all. It didn 't make sense. They 'd been happily married since the day they wed, and now it was as if he 'd never existed. The last time Allison had stopped by, all but one picture of her dad had vanished from the walls.
They rounded the corner of the street her mom lived on, the sun now streaming directly through the windshield into Allison 's eyes. She pulled down the visor, shielded her eyes, and slipped on her sunglasses. The maple trees were just starting to bud, but the reminders of a wet, gray Seattle winter hung in the air.
The house would always be home for Allison. For her mom as well. Mom would live the rest of her days here. So many memories. For all of them. The good, the bad, the horrific, but those walls held her history. Parker 's. And most of all, her mom 's. How many couples could say they 'd lived their entire married life in one house?
Allison did a double-take as the one-story home came into view fifty yards away. Was that a For Sale sign in her mom 's yard? No, couldn 't be. Had to be in one of the neighbor 's. But as she got closer she saw that wasn 't so. She pulled up to the curb and blinked as if that would make the sign vanish, or move to the next-door neighbor 's yard.
"Mom, what is going on?"
"I told you you 'd find out soon enough. Now you have."
Allison sat, stunned, and grasped for reasons why her mom would be selling her home. She closed her eyes, gave a tiny shake of her head, and opened them, half expecting the sign to be gone. It didn 't happen. She stared at the sign for a few more seconds, then turned off her car, got out, and shuffled over to the sign.
A bad photo of a middle-aged, plump, smiling Realtor blared out at her. Allison touched the letters on the sign that spelled out For Sale. The sign curled slightly at its edges, which meant it had sat there for a few days at the least. She swallowed and took a slow look at the yard, the house, the roof, the stamped concrete paths leading to the backyard where so many barbecues and games of bocce ball had happened over the years.
She walked back to the car, pulled her mom 's crutches out of the trunk, then went to the passenger-side door. Allison opened it and said, "What 's going on, Mom?"
"I 'll tell you when we get inside."
She lifted her mom up and out of the car, then handed her the crutches.
"Can you do this?"
"Yes," came her mom 's sullen response.
It took three minutes for them to navigate the seven steps to her mom 's front porch. Three minutes of silence during which Allison 's mind tried to come up with answers. Finally they stepped inside and Allison helped her mom to the couch in the living room. Then she sat across from her mom in the rocking chair her dad had loved. Allison leaned forward, elbows on knees.
"Are you going to tell me now?"
"Would you like some coffee? Some tea maybe? That 's your favorite, and that always seems to go better when it 's later in the day. Or I could whip up some —"
"No, Mom. You 're going to rest that ankle."
"I 'm going to need to learn how to use these crutches, so why don 't —"
"Stop, Mom. Please."
Allison took a slow breath. Maybe tea was a good idea. Give her mom a moment to settle in and figure out how she would tell Allison whatever the horrendous secret was.
"Why don 't I go make us some tea?
Her mom nodded. "I 'd like that, thanks."
Allison went to the oh-so-familiar kitchen, put a kettle on the stove, and waited for the water to heat. She wandered over to the refrigerator and spotted a photo of a midthirties man and a little girl, both dressed to the nines. Over their head was a sign that said, "First Annual Daddy-Daughter Dance!" Probably the son and granddaughter of a friend of her mom 's.
A memory rushed into Allison 's mind before she could stop it. She 'd been in second grade, more dressed up than she 'd ever been to that point in her young life. She was about to go to her first dance. A few minutes before it was time to leave, Allison 's mom stepped into her bedroom room and gave a little laugh.
What 's funny, Mommy?"
"Nothing." Her mom 's eyes went from Allison 's dress to the bow in her hand and then to the quiver of arrows slung around her neck.
"It 's just —"
"Do you like my bow, Mommy?" Allison grinned. "I 'm a princess, but I 'm also a war-ee-or."
"You mean a warrior?" Allison nodded.
"I didn 't know princesses carried bows and arrows."
She grabbed her bow tighter. "If they 're a war-ee-or they do."
"I see." Her mom knelt beside her. "But I think you 're far more of a princess than a warrior, so maybe we should leave the bow and arrows at home."
"Nope." Allison closed her eyes and wagged her head back and forth. "I 'm half and half."
"Okay." Her mom squeezed her hand gently and said, "But I still think you should leave your bow at home. You don 't want to scare the other princesses at the dance that don 't understand you can be half and half. What do you think?"
Her mom stood and ushered Allison to the door. "We should go downstairs. We don 't want to keep Daddy waiting, do we?"
As they reached midpoint on the stairs, her dad slid into view and came to a stop in front of the front door. The suit he ' d been wearing earlier had been replaced with jeans, a Huskies sweatshirt, and a baseball hat. Allison stopped and pulled her hand from her mom 's grip.
"What are you doing, Daddy? Aren 't you going to wear your suit to the dance?"
Her dad glanced at her, then fixed his gaze on her mom. "Corrine, can I talk to you for a second?"
Allison 's mom didn 't answer. She turned to Allison and said, "Hang on for a minute. I 'm going to talk to your dad. Go up to your room and I ' ll be right up, okay?"
Her mom clomped down the stairs, and she and Dad shuffled into the living room and talked in whispers. But Allison didn 't go to her room. She padded down the rest of the stairs and sat on the bottom step.
"Did you hear me?" Her dad 's voice wasn 't a whisper anymore. "Yes. I heard you. You 're going to break a little girl 's heart so you can go watch Joel play baseball."
"So you didn 't hear me. He 's not just playing. He 's pitching. In the final game of the season. They win this, they get into the playoffs. If he 's the winning pitcher it sets him up for —"
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