Nothing but Trouble | Chapter 8 of 32

Author: Susan May Warren | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1188 Views | Add a Review

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CHAPTER TWO

Whoever said you can never go home again probably hailed from Kellogg, Minnesota, population 2,317.

PJ passed the carved Welcome to Kellogg sign, noting that they’d installed a small placard at the bottom listing the population, wondering if they’d change it should she decide to sink down roots.

Or just how soon the law would appear to run her out of town.

So maybe she felt a bit punchy, twenty-six hours on the road stiffening her brain and her muscles, combined with the wild spree of hope that had caused her to ditch her life —what was left of it, at least —in Florida and head north.

She turned down the country hee-hawing from her radio, still hearing the three little words that had kept her VW Bug’s gas pedal to the floor through Atlanta, Nashville, Peoria, Madison, and finally around 694 north, skirting Minneapolis, and then west, around Lake Minnetonka.

Straight into Kellogg.

“I need you.”

It scared her how much she clung to those words.

PJ unlatched her hands from the leather steering wheel, flexing her fingers, stretching her neck, hoping to release her bunched muscles. She’d wedged a box of books, shoes, and mementos into the seat behind her and shoved her duffel, filled with only the clothes she really liked, into the trunk.

She’d left the sundress behind.

And the garage sale furniture had been destined for abandonment all along. Her landlord even gave her back her security deposit, thankful for a furnished apartment to rent.

Anytime now, the voice of sanity could kick back in: PJ, what are you doing?

Rolling down her window, PJ stuck out her elbow and took a deep breath, the smell of summer stirring in the minty grass, the lilacs hanging from plump trees. Kellogg’s Main Street bordered Lake Minnetonka, now dark against the midafternoon sun, hazy and fierce behind anemic clouds. Lazy sailboats, moored at the yacht club and out in the harbor, gleamed bright and enchanting, whispering promises of windblown hair and a sultry tan as they bobbed like swans in the water. Sunday afternoon sun worshipers lay on the coarse sandy beach, others in blue and white loungers, floppy hats pulled low over sunglasses.

PJ had spent too many high school summers dividing her time between the beach and the country club pool, her legs sticky with coconut oil, hoping Boone might motor by or, better yet, hijack his parents’ ski boat and woo her into spending the afternoon skiing on the foamy waves.

Leave it to her fickle heart to trail back to Boone’s memory like a homing pigeon.

She breathed in the spice of garlic and smoking wood chips, courtesy of the grills off Sunsets Supper Club’s veranda just beyond the beachfront. In the lane next to her, a convertible of laughing, muscle-shirted boys turned up their radio. Rap music spilled out, and they jackhammered their way past closed storefronts displaying preppy fashions meant for leisure. PJ barely touched the gas, noting the new volleyball pit outside Hal’s Pizzeria and Bar; a sign over the outside stage advertised a jazz festival. Last time she’d seen a band at Hal’s, it had been Ricky Merkel’s punk band.

On the boardwalk that stretched along the beach like a border, the occasional couple strolled hand in hand. Frisbees winged on the breeze across lawns dotted with picnickers.

Like an old friend, a lusty wind reached out, tangling her hair into a knotty, carefree mess.

She had the urge to toe off her flip-flops and drive barefoot as she turned off Main at the theater, driving past the redbrick high school, then out to the country club, with its neat hedges, its white terraces, the tidy golf course. Before she could stop herself, her gaze swept the employee parking lot for his Kawasaki.

Boone’s voice, low and angry, came back to her: “You’ll be back someday. And maybe I won’t be here.”

Oh, she dearly hoped so.

The new kitchen wing, now nearly ten years old, jutted out past the old foundation. It felt too much like visiting a war monument. She had the urge to stand over it, say a little prayer for lives lost.

Namely, hers.

She pulled up at the far end of the parking lot, cataloging the changes. The weathered, white-tiled pool boasted a new slide and, on the high dive that had once trapped her at the pinnacle, a fresh coat of paint. A crisp white flag fluttered on the tenth green, in plain sight to anyone who might be looking.

She hadn’t really noticed that before and for a second nearly put her car into reverse. But it wasn’t likely that she’d see old Ben Murphy or Ernie Hoffman again, was it? Or that they’d still remember finding her on prom night entangled with Boone on the smooth putting green blanket?

Maybe there were some images a person simply couldn’t purge. She certainly had a few.

Behind her, a guest slammed the door to her silver BMW, balancing in her arms a gift wrapped in pink. PJ glanced in the rearview mirror. Why hadn’t she stopped outside town to change? Instead she had to show up smelling like she’d spent a week under a bridge, her red —no, auburn —hair greasy, in frayed jeans, a tank, and flip-flops.

“Oh, boy . . .” She sat in the car, hands wrapped around the steering wheel, debate gluing her to the seat. “Oh . . . boy.”

Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as she thought. So what if Connie was on her second husband, while PJ couldn’t even snag the first? No one in Kellogg knew that she’d job-hopped her way around the nation, had more forwarding mail addresses than a sailor. She could pretend . . . well, she was done pretending.

Maybe it was time to find the real PJ, the one she could live with long term. The one who didn’t have to be pastor’s wife material but wasn’t the messy PJ she’d left behind, either.

Besides, Connie, or maybe her mother, did need her.

“Don’t even think about coming back here, PJ Sugar. We’ll arrest you on sight.” PJ closed her eyes against Director Buckam’s warning in her ears. Just because she’d been banned from the country club premises ten years ago didn’t mean they’d recognize her today. She’d changed her hair color, for one. And this time she wasn’t wearing silk —or rather, not wearing it.

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

Right. She’d memorized that verse first after finding Jesus and salvation on the boardwalk in California. It felt easier to believe then, and especially when she packed up and moved to Florida. Now, however, was when she needed it.

Yes, the new and improved PJ Sugar.

Her cute little lime green Bug looked pedestrian and forlorn as she grabbed her bag off the front seat, shut the door, and climbed the broad, white steps, pushing open the door to enter the grand foyer of the club. Polished wood, worked leather, Turkish wool rugs —the smells of tradition rushed back to her. She smelled Sunday lunches on the veranda and Saturday morning swimming lessons, heard the slap of wet feet running through the main hall from the locker rooms, and felt anew the air-conditioning prickling her skin before she hit the humidity of the summer. She could almost see Boone in his caddie uniform, his wide shoulders under the green polo shirt grooming him into the preppy boy his father hoped to create. How one could hide behind the aspirations of an ambitious parent.

Voices lifting from the anteroom startled PJ to the present. She crept toward the fireplace room overlooking the golf course and Connie’s wedding reception area. Fifty friends, she’d said on the phone, a small get-together to celebrate the day. Had Connie dared jot her name on the guest list?

She stopped just outside the door, spotting her mother, her leg in a cast and propped up in her wheelchair, her voice commanding as she engineered the silver and black decorations.

PJ blinked and time fell away. Slim Elizabeth Sugar, directing the caterers at her and Connie’s graduation party, her regal pearls at her neck, her dark mahogany hair piled into a tight chignon. Blue and gold streamers had surrounded the graduation pictures on either end of a long table. How she hated that her mother had picked the eleven-by-seventeen shot of her in the pink angora sweater. But had she ever really had a choice?

A carved watermelon fruit bowl, croissants, a three-tiered marmalade cake with sugared orange curls twisting from the top crowned the table, all under an eight-foot sign: “Congratulations, PJ and Constance.”

Sisters from different mothers. In every way.

“PJ!”

Her sister’s voice fast-forwarded time, and her mother aged, with shorter hair, her face lined and, remarkably, even thinner, her bones sharp through a pair of classic black pants and a periwinkle silk shirt. She still wore the pearls at her neck.

Funny thing about regret. Now that it had climbed up from the hard places PJ had stored it, she couldn’t swallow it back down. It lodged in her throat, thick and choking off her air.

Connie handed off a box of corsages to the florist and rushed to PJ. “When did you get here?” She pulled PJ tight against her skinny, French-manicured self, every inch the groomed woman she appeared in the Internet photo for her firm. Poised, her dark hair pinned back, with their father’s deep green eyes, wearing a pressed linen suit that looked as fresh as when she’d put it on. True Sugars didn’t let anyone see them sweat.

“Just now,” PJ managed. “Nice decorations.”

“You’re tan.”

PJ could have hugged her again for not mentioning the chipped fuchsia toenail polish, her ratty attire, the rather unsavory aroma she emanated. “Life on the beach, Sis.”

“And you colored your hair.” Connie reached out and fingered PJ’s shoulder-length cut. “I liked it long and blonde.”

Yeah, well, some things had to change. “You look great. Sergei’s a lucky man.”

“He loves me and David,” Connie said, her eyes saying more. “You need to get cleaned up —the wedding’s in an hour. Nothing like getting here early? So as to not worry the bride?”

“You know me —I live for drama.” But behind her words, she heard Matthew’s voice. “Well, not so much anymore.”

“Right.” Connie gave her a peck. “I brought you a dress. It’s black; I hope that’s okay. And some heels, like you asked. They’re in the Chip Hill room —you remember.”

“You look like you’ve been driving a truck.”

PJ didn’t even have to turn. “Thanks, Mom.”

“I’m kidding, PJ. Come here.”

PJ simply stared at the woman wheeling toward her. Extending her hands to her. Pulling her into her arms.

“I’m so glad you’re home.”

For a second she didn’t move, didn’t know how to. Glad . . . ? But then she leaned into the words, wrapping her arms around her mom, pulling her close, feeling the bones that seemed sharper. Still, she breathed deep, smelling the Chanel on her skin. Reorienting. Capturing.

Yearning.

Her mother pulled away from her too soon. “The important thing is that you made it. And you still have time to change.”

* * *

Her mother, or perhaps Connie, still had impeccable taste. Bouquets of fragrant gardenias framed the small platform where Connie and Sergei took their vows. Silver and black silk ribbons anchored the serving table, accentuated by the white-gloved servers carrying trays of salmon canapés and caviar on ice. An acoustic guitar player seated on a high barstool hidden discreetly to the side of the head table played unobtrusive, delicate tones. PJ watched as one polished, degreed lawyer friend after another stood and offered congratulations. When she finally raised her glass, her words seemed hollow, unattached to the bride.

Still, Connie beamed at her and raised her glass in approval.

“Isn’t she gorgeous?” A thin, elegantly coiffed associate asked as PJ helped herself to another canapé.

PJ watched as Connie, in her off-the-shoulder satin, diamonds dripping from her ears, floated seamlessly from one guest to the next. “Absolutely.”

“I just can’t understand what she sees in . . . him.” The associate raised her eyebrow as if PJ should know exactly to whom she referred.

“Hey, Sergei’s a great guy.” Oh, she hoped. “And he loves her.” Connie had said as much. “Besides, little Davy needs a dad.”

“Whatever. Everyone knows she’s marrying him for what’s under his tuxedo.”

PJ’s mouth opened, and she cast a furtive look for her mother or any of the country club regulars. Yes, it was true that Sergei probably had the build of one of the surfers from Cocoa Beach, with the accompanying working-English vocabulary. However, Connie had enough words for both of them, and opposites attracted, right?

Besides, the way Sergei’s gaze caressed Connie walking down the aisle, the way he locked his eyes with hers during his vows, as if seeing in her something that no one else could see and with her he might find the secrets he’d been searching for all his life . . . well, PJ might pour out eternal promises too.

And she’d bet that Sergei didn’t use words like not working. Or even pastor’s wife material, although if anyone could qualify, it would be Connie.

PJ downed her punch, reached for another, and wandered over to her mother, greeting guests by the door.

“Nice ceremony,” PJ commented, her best attempt at a “Hi, I’m here, it’s just us, what do we say now” kind of statement.

Elizabeth smiled at her.

PJ categorized it as more of a zippered, tight-lipped grimace. “What?”

“Nothing. Of course it was nice.”

Raucous laughter lifted from one of the far corners of the room. PJ’s gaze darted to a group of what she could only peg as Sergei’s contingency. Internationals, earmarked by their dark dress pants, European-cut shirts, squared-off shoes, and hair either tied back or cut high and tight and severe. A regular mafioso clan, right here in River City.

“It’s the Russians,” Elizabeth said as if reading PJ’s mind.

“You make it sound like they’re invading us.”

Elizabeth gave a wave of her hand. “Thankfully they only have a three-month visa.”

“The entire lot is here for three months?”

“No, no. Most of them live here. Just Boris and Vera are here on a visa.” She nodded toward a duo sitting at a table not far from the commotion. “Sergei’s parents.”

Boris had cloned himself in Sergei —thick arms, narrow hips in an oddly fitting suit. His wife, Vera, had squeezed her body into a black cocktail dress that in earlier years might have been banned on country club premises.

PJ glanced back at her mother, who wore an expression that suggested she had eaten some bad salmon. “They can’t be that bad.”

Elizabeth raised a groomed brow. “Just you wait. They don’t speak English.”

“Oh no, the Russians are taking over the world.”

“Mark my words, PJ, this is just the beginning.”

PJ shot a look at Connie, hanging on beautiful Sergei’s arm, laughing, her eyes shining. “I certainly hope so.”

Her mother rolled away as PJ finished her salmon canapé, ditched her plate, and went after the strawberry white cake. She took a piece and moored herself in a corner while her mother made the rounds, greeting guests with a smoothness bred straight from the House of Windsor. No one would have known that she’d once been a Mulligan, raised on a farm outside a smudge on the map in southern Minnesota before meeting Carl Sugar at Wheaton College and marrying well. She refused to allow his investment firm to drop his name, even a dozen years after his death.

Her mother knew the value of a good investment.

An hour later, while working on her second plate of cake, PJ decided that she’d imagined her own mythology. Three hours at the Kellogg Country Club, and she had yet to hear a police siren, see bright whirling bubble lights, or even hear one snide comment about illicit activities on nearby putting greens.

Maybe she could, indeed, return a new creation.

She tugged at the clinging black sheath dress Connie had bought for her, eased out of the high pumps that tore at her feet, resisting the urge to dig her flip-flops from her purse. She hoped Davy liked the beach. . . .

“Are you sure it’s a good idea for PJ to keep him while you’re on your honeymoon?” The voice, spoken too brightly for her to ignore, rose from behind her, where Connie had clumped with Sergei and, of course, her champion at arms, Elizabeth Sugar.

“I am perfectly capable of taking care of him, Connie.”

Him being, of course, Davy, Connie’s four-year-old dark-headed son, formerly slicked up for his parade down the aisle, smiling like an imp for the photographer. Now he sprawled on the floor, rumpling his suit and tie. He’d wedged the ring pillow he’d carried for his mother under his shirt, occasionally beating his chest like Tarzan.

Hey, cool idea.

“PJ’s just . . . She’s not . . .”

“I’m standing right here, Mom,” PJ muttered as she watched Davy draw his tuxedoed arm across his gooey brown mouth, leaving a trail of glistening chocolate from his pillage of the mints table.

“PJ barely knows David,” Elizabeth said as if she hadn’t heard PJ.

Maybe her mom had a point. . . . But PJ knew Connie would rally, years of courtroom experience in her corner.

“So she’s not auntie of the year.”

PJ wanted to raise her hand, call an objection. She did send presents twice a year. And called on his birthday.

“PJ is an adult. She’s not likely to burn anything down again.”

Oh, good one, Connie. Bring that up. Still, the realization that Connie believed in her despite her past and seriously intended to make good on her request for PJ to watch Davy while she and Sergei escaped to Mexico drowned any words PJ might raise about her innocence.

Besides, apparently she was invisible.

Her mother lowered her voice, as if PJ couldn’t hear her from twelve inches away. “PJ doesn’t know the first thing about kids —” okay, she was right about that —“she doesn’t even like kids —” not entirely true, she just didn’t like runny snot —“and besides, I’m just in the wheelchair for today. I do have crutches.”

“Two weeks with a four-year-old. How hard could that be?” PJ wasn’t sure why she’d decided to wage a defense. Her mother made some good points. However . . . “I need you.” The words had taken over her brain, giving her mouth its own mind.

“Exactly.” Connie smiled at her gorilla-impersonating son, so much unadulterated love in her eyes. PJ’s throat thickened. What must it be like to be that adored?

She dumped the unfinished cake onto a table and wiped her mouth with a napkin. “Listen, Connie. Mom. I’ve worked as a counselor at a wilderness camp, fed gorillas at the San Diego Zoo, jumped from tall buildings as a stunt girl, waited tables, driven dump trucks, cleaned motel rooms, changed oil, apprenticed as a locksmith, been a ski instructor, herded cattle, and even worked on a carpentry crew. I think I can figure out how to make macaroni and cheese, keep Davy fully clothed, and tuck him into bed at night. I’ll even read him a story.”

“He likes Horton Hears a Who!” Connie offered.

“Me too. We’ll get along famously.” PJ gave her mother a grin, all teeth.

Behind his grandmother, Davy stuck out his chocolate-slathered tongue at PJ.

“Well . . .”

“The truth is, I didn’t exactly bring a wedding gift.”

Besides, how else would she prove that she intended to . . . stay? The word wedged itself into the middle of her chest like a bubble, so fragile that if she moved too fast, it might pop. But the minute she’d touched her brakes inside the Kellogg city limits, the hope had expanded, taking up too much room inside her.

She would start over. For the final time. Connie wasn’t the only Sugar girl who wanted a career, a house on the hill, and a man with great shoulders. She just happened to be the one who got them.

“Fine,” Elizabeth said, her mouth again that tight zipper.

PJ stifled the urge to wince. Instead she produced a smile that would have made her eleventh-grade theater teacher cheer. Please don’t pop the bubble, Mom.

Thankfully, Elizabeth Sugar would rather have her head shaved in public than air her dirty tennis shorts to the world. PJ breathed relief as her mother rolled away.

“David will be so thrilled.” Connie’s expression screamed victory. PJ shot another look at Davy, now pulling off his socks. “He’s really looking forward to your visit.”

Oh yeah, he was doing a regular Irish jig.

“You’re a lifesaver.” Connie brushed her lips against PJ’s cheek.

A lifesaver. Yep, that was her, in a nutshell.

Connie finally disappeared into an anteroom and then, ready to depart for her honeymoon, made her entrance to the crowd assembled on the veranda. She towed little Davy by the hand toward PJ, who smiled like Barney and crouched before her new charge.

“So, you’re Davy. I’m your auntie PJ.”

Davy winged her hard, right on the top of her shoulder.

“David, that wasn’t nice. You apologize to Auntie PJ.”

“I don’t like BJ!” He turned and buried his face in his mother’s pressed pants.

“He’s a little upset about us leaving.”

No, really? PJ stood and congratulated herself when she spied his foot moving and managed to dodge a snap kick to her ankle. “Are you . . . sure you should leave?”

“He’ll be fine.” Connie crouched before Davy and held him at arm’s length. But her mouth trembled. “You and PJ are going to have lots of fun, David. I promise.” She pulled him to herself and held tight, whispering in his ear.

“Um . . . Mom moves pretty fast in her —”

Connie’s sharp look cut her off and she pursed her lips tight.

PJ blew out a breath and, slipping out of her heels, knelt behind Davy. Then, taking his arms, she transferred his death clench from Connie’s neck to hers.

Davy leaned back and roared, struggling, kicking. Connie stood, her hand pressed to her mouth in horror.

“Go now,” PJ said quietly, matching his hold, trying not to wince for Connie’s sake.

Connie wiped her cheeks. “Okay, listen; he starts summer preschool tomorrow at Fellows Academy. His uniform’s pressed and in the closet.”

Uniform? For preschool? “No, not Fellows, Connie . . .”

“Stop right there.” Connie leveled her a look that she could have learned only from the master. Or maybe on cross-examination. “He’s been on the waiting list for three years. It’s very important he is there on time, pressed, combed, and smiling.” She reached out to run a hand over Davy’s head, then pulled back. “Please, PJ.”

PJ should have guessed that Connie would be well on her way to grooming Davy for his future. A true Kellogg Sugar.

“Pressed. Combed. Smiling. Got it.”

But Connie stood frozen, staring at her son as if seeing him for the first or, perhaps the last, time. Was she remembering that night when her first husband pulled away, waved to her from the driveway, and betrayed her in every way possible?

PJ touched her arm. “He’ll be fine. I promise, you won’t come home to a son malnourished, ignorant, and hunted by the local law. I will drive him to preschool, bathe him regularly, feed him nutritious suppers, and read him stories. Horton, remember?”

“Horton.” Connie swallowed back the pain on her face. “I owe you.”

“No. . . . We’re just getting started with my payback. Go. Be married.” She winked and Connie grinned big.

Sergei was leaning against their gold Lexus, arms folded across that mountainous chest. “Zank you, Peezhay.”

So he had some issues with the English language. He clearly adored Connie. And the accent could turn any girl to butter.

He adjusted his Ray-Bans and waved as the crowd delivered their bubbles. He opened the car door for Connie to climb in, then went around to the driver’s side.

Connie leaned out the window. “Oh, by the way, Sergei’s parents are staying at the house while we’re away. Sergei’s cousin Igor lives in town —he’ll chauffeur them if they need anything. Just make sure that Boris doesn’t do any sunbathing.” She waved as Sergei pulled away.

Sunbathing?

Davy kicked out of PJ’s arms, landing with a thud on her bare feet. “Mommy!” Before she could grab him, Davy raced after them, arms flailing, screaming.

Yes, they were going to have so much fun.

“Davy, come back!” PJ ran down the stairs, cringing as he threw himself onto the pavement. Of course, her mother watched from the porch, wearing a pained expression.

“No, don’t . . .” Standing over the thrashing boy, she didn’t know where to start. Pick him up? Rub his back? Put something between his teeth? “Davy, c’mon . . .”

The crowd began to shift away as if embarrassed by the spectacle.

“Okay, fine, Mom. Come and help me then.” When PJ didn’t hear movement, she looked up at her mother, who remained on the porch, shaking her head.

“PJ, actually, I think this will be good for you.”

“What does that mean? That’s not fair. You know him better —”

Her expression must have betrayed her frustration, because her mother’s eyes softened. “Please try and . . . and . . . well, I’m sure you’ll do just fine. Just don’t get . . . into . . . trouble.”

Why did she always feel twelve years old around her? “Mom —”

“Let me know when you’re ready to go.” She rolled herself into the club.

Davy, dirty, rumpled, and noisy, pitched and frothed on the pavement. Connie’s friends had deserted her, probably heading back inside to finish off the canapés.

PJ knelt beside Davy. Maybe she should just hike him over her shoulder, fireman style.

Please, God . . .

A shadow tented over her. “David, do you want some ice cream?”

PJ stared openmouthed at her rescuer, at the unexpected smile surrounded by white whiskers against his dark skin. “Mr. Hoffman.”

“I figured you’d show your face back here again.”

The past flickered in his eyes, and PJ stilled. Please . . .

“It’s just a shame that it took you ten years.”

PJ could have kissed him. Especially when he held out his hand, his dark eyes kinder than she remembered when she’d tried to sort out the dates of the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades, and especially when she’d tried to spit out an explanation so many years ago on just about this very spot.

His gaze scanned her, however briefly, up and down, as if trying to find the girl he knew. Did he see past the PJ that was to the PJ she’d become? the one who longed for redemption, to know how to pick up Davy and hold him close, to be something in his world, in Connie’s world . . . frankly, the world at large?

“I see you still have that tattoo.”

“Oh.” Well, she was wearing a sleeveless dress. She stopped just short of moving her hand to cover it.

He snickered, shaking his head. “Same old PJ.”

“Same old Mr. Hoffman,” she said back, and he guffawed.

“C’mon, David.” Hoffman held out his hand. “Let’s get some ice cream.”

“He’s had tons of chocolate. I don’t think ice cream’s going to —”

Davy instantly stopped crying. He poked his little tearstained, belligerent face out of his arms and grinned at his benefactor. Perfect. Leaping up, he dove into Hoffman’s arms, clinging to his neck.

“Oh!” Hoffman said, and a flash of what looked like pain shadowed his face.

“Are you okay?” PJ eased her nephew off Hoffman, setting Davy down on the sidewalk. She slipped her hand into his, and he promptly leaned down and bit it.

Hoffman nodded, limping toward the poolside deck. “Bad back.”

“I’m sorry.” PJ switched hands, and Davy landed a fist on her wrist, then went limp. She swooped him up, aware of eyes on her as they struggled their way to the pool.

Davy braced his hands on her shoulders, pushing away with every ounce of his four-year-old power. “I want my mommy!”

“Me too, pal.”

“He surely has Sugar in him,” Hoffman said.

That wasn’t fair. To her knowledge, she’d never bodily harmed anyone. Well, with the exception of that time she’d caught Boone hitting on Angie St. John, but really, it had been mostly words thrown, not fists.

Hoffman must have read her face. “I mean that he doesn’t give up.” He clamped his hand on her shoulder, warm, welcoming. “Glad you’re back. I hope you’re sticking around.”

PJ had no words as Davy finally struggled out of her arms, landed on the pool deck, and raced for the ice-cream stand. She collapsed into a deck chair.

“Ernie —I need to talk to you.”

PJ looked up, and everything stilled as she watched Ben Murphy stride across the lawn toward the pool area. Oh no, oh no . . . former math teacher and prom chaperone at ten o’clock.

Really, she had to stop thinking that the past happened yesterday. These people had moved on, and so must she.

“Say hi to PJ,” Hoffman said to Murphy, digging out his wallet. He wore a dangerous smile that PJ could have done without.

Murphy stopped as if running into plate glass. “PJ . . . Sugar?”

PJ lifted her hand, waved it like a leaf in the wind. But the scene resonated in his eyes —the fire lashing the dark sky, the scream of the sirens, Boone’s breath on her skin a second before Mr. Murphy and company motored up on a golf cart.

She dropped her hand back into her lap.

Murphy had recovered his gait and gave her a small shake of his head as he passed her and joined Hoffman at the ice-cream stand.

PJ sat there tasting yesterday like tar in her mouth.

Davy returned, slurping a single dip chocolate ice-cream cone. Chocolate dripped from his chin. Hoffman followed, having dispensed with Murphy, and lifted Davy onto a chair next to PJ. He pressed his hands against the small of his back and stretched.

“How’d you do that?”

He winked. “Sometimes you just got to give ’em a little sugar.”

PJ wasn’t sure Kellogg could handle any more Sugar.

“You!” The voice came from the wraparound veranda overlooking the patio. Hoffman looked up and PJ jerked, turning. She’d known her luck wouldn’t hold. But no, a man she didn’t recognize leaped the banister, landing hard on the cement, right beside a row of teakwood deck chairs.

She stood and backed away as he strode toward her.

“Where’ve you been?” Tall, with the build of a sailor, he wore the white uniform of one of the waiters or maybe a spa attendant, anger riddling his face. “You don’t return phone calls anymore?” His glare landed beyond her.

Oh. He was after Hoffman. PJ glanced back at her history teacher and could have sworn he’d turned a little pale. Chatter poolside stopped, all eyes on the ruckus.

A morbid relief that she wasn’t the cause of the commotion rooted her to her spot, one hand reaching out for Davy as the man advanced on Hoffman.

“Where’s my money, huh? She’s going to find out; you know that, right?”

Hoffman raised his hands, surrender-like.

PJ rounded. “Hey!” she yelled.

But the man never slowed, pushing past the deck chairs and arrowing straight for Hoffman, palm out, and thumping Hoffman hard in the center of the chest.

The history teacher flew back into the pool. Water bulleted PJ and Davy and splattered the deck like gunfire.

Davy dropped his cone and wailed.

PJ stood stock-still as the man dove in after Hoffman.

She’d just known, if she returned to Kellogg, she wouldn’t escape the bright lights and sirens.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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