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Tiffany’s hand-me-down hatchback sat cocked across two parking spaces in front of the store, loaded with boxes, bags, and earnest promises, and for all the times Della had looked forward to the day her daughter would finally spread her wings and fly, she had been imagining a short hop from the nest to an adjoining tree.
“Don’t worry!” Francesca—Tiff’s friend, new roommate, and travel buddy—called through the driver’s window of an equally stuffed-full Mini parked more or less between the lines. “I’ll take good care of her, I promise. C’mon, Tiff, let’s get this show on the road!”
Wait, Della wanted to say. Give me five more minutes. The weeks of planning and packing had dragged as tempers had frayed in the apartment over the shop, but things were blurring together now as her daughter—dark-haired, slim, and wearing vintage Levi’s and a belt buckle from some long-ago rodeo—danced across the sidewalk with one last bag slung over her shoulder.
“Call me when you get there, okay?” Della had to remind herself to breathe. “Better yet, Skype me. I want to see your new place.”
“I will, I promise.” Tiffany looked past her to the big display windows of Another Fyne Thing, lips curving as though she was already reminiscing about back when she used to work at her mom’s vintage clothing store.
“Be careful driving,” Della ordered. “Pay attention and leave your phone in your purse.”
“Watch out when you stop for snacks, and if you don’t like the look of things, keep going. In fact—”
“Mom! I’m not a kid anymore. I can handle myself.”
Della forced a smile. “Humor me.”
“I’ll be fine.” Tiff flung her arms around her mother’s neck in the same sort of strangle-hug she had been doing since she was little—except that now she towered over Della rather than weighing her down. “I’ll talk to you soon.”
Francesca gave a toot-toot of the Mini’s horn.
Della held her daughter tight. “Be safe and have fun. I love you.”
“Love you, too!” Tiff broke away and did a little line-dance kick on her way to her car, laughing as Francesca revved the Mini. “All right, already! We’re leaving!” She jumped in, cranked the hatchback’s engine, and then rolled down the window and hung out the opening to holler, “See you later, mountains. This girl is headed for the beach! Bye, Mom. You’re the best!”
Francesca gave a “Woo-hoo!” and leaned on the horn as she pulled out onto Main Street with CALIFORNIA OR BUST soaped onto the back window. The hatchback followed a moment later, with Tiff waving wildly out the window.
Della plastered a smile on her face and waved back as the girls caught a green light at the end of the block and continued on, getting smaller as the distance increased.
Come back! she wanted to call after them. I’m not ready! Which was a surprise—she had thought she was ready, that it was past time for Tiff to go. But Della had been Mom longer than she had been not-Mom. And where Tiff’s previous move-outs had been halfhearted efforts involving a couple of suitcases and a ten-minute drive, this time she had an apartment lined up, a job waiting for her, and all her stuff in the hatchback.
Don’t cry. You’re standing in the middle of Main Street. No doubt there were dozens of eyes watching her from behind display windows up and down the main drag of her beloved Three Ridges, Wyoming.
So, instead, she walked back into the shop, trying not to look at the HELP WANTED sign next to the door.
The welcome bell jingled just like always and the polished wood floors made happy little clicks beneath Della’s pointy-toed boots. The air smelled of the fresh, piney potpourri that Meg, down the street at Sense and Scents-ability, made specially for the store, and the thousand-foot floor space was stuffed full of a funky mix of old and new clothing and accessories.
Mismatched outfits wrapped around the support columns like they were climbing to the high, industrial ceiling; dresses hung along the back wall beneath hand-painted signs—everything from DATE NIGHT and FUN AND FLIRTY to RED CARPET and WOWZA!—and the old-timey mannequins in the big display windows wore retro cowgirl getups and kicked up their boot heels in a frozen line dance.
It was fun. It was colorful. It was surprisingly successful.
And now it was just her.
There wouldn’t be any giggling, dark-haired toddler hiding-and-seeking in the racks; no wide-eyed girl playing dress up with sequined gowns and too-big cowgirl hats; no teen who alternated between amazing and awful, sometimes in the same breath. And no young woman who, having gotten her dream job in California, had grown up seemingly overnight.
Nope, it was just Della and a whole lot of clothes with other people’s names on the labels.
“This is a good thing. A new adventure.” Except she didn’t want to start anything new. Right now, she wanted to go upstairs, make herself a cup of tea, and sit in Tiff’s empty room for a good wallow.
Instead, she crossed to the front door, flipped the sign from CLOSED to OPEN, and then headed for the back to make a big pot of coffee.
She had a feeling she was going to need it.
“An aquarium wall.” Max scowled at his foreman. “Since when are we building a science center?”
They were renovating a library, darn it. The space was cleared out, the interior walls were torn back to studs and support beams, and they were surrounded by the buzz of a job well underway—a mix of radio stations, nail gun pops, and the smell of sawdust and drywall. It was too late to be making major changes.
Then again, that hadn’t stopped their client from having bright ideas two weeks ago, and then again last Monday. Why was he surprised by this one?
“The mayor got somebody to donate microscopes and stuff, and talked the high school into offering honors students extra credit to take shifts. She wants us to do lab benches with stone countertops and a couple of sinks.”
“Plus an aquarium.”
“More like a terrarium, I think, for rotating displays. You know, Snake Month, Hatch-A-Chick, Caterpillar-To-Butterfly, that sort of thing. So we’ll have to worry about ventilation and temperature control, but at least we won’t have to make it watertight.”
“Meanwhile, we’ll be adding plumbing to a whole new room, plus extra fire suppression and, depending on how much actual lab stuff they’re planning on doing, possibly additional ventilation and a safety shower. Which means new drawings, new permits—”
George—fortysomething and well padded around the middle—held up both hands, one with a screwdriver in it. “Don’t shoot the messenger, boss. I’m just relaying. But I’ve got to say it does sound cool. My kids would love to have something like this at their library.”
“Sure, it’s cool. But …” Max exhaled. “You’re right. It’s totally cool.”
His nieces would be all over Snake Month, and his mom had done the caterpillar-in-a-jar and tadpoles-on-the-windowsill thing for them. He still remembered the fun of traipsing out as a family to make a big production over releasing that year’s butterflies or frogs back into the fields and streams behind the house—back when they had been little kids and things had been simpler. And, yeah, something like this was sure as heck better than adding more computer stations to the main rooms or another flat screen to the tutoring pods.
He might be a fan of technology, but he preferred the kind of tech that got you doing stuff rather than just staring at a screen.
“So you’ll draw up some plans?” George asked, with a spark in his deep-set blue eyes that suggested he was more than just the messenger here. But that was one of the mayor’s skills, wasn’t it? She didn’t just come up with ambitious plans—like rebooting the local fair or turning the tired old library into a multimedia learning center—she got everybody around her on board.
“I’ll get on it.” Because, yeah, it was a seriously cool idea, and it sounded like Mayor Tepitt already had some of the materials lined up. Besides, the customer was always right at Ramsay and Sons Construction, even when said customer was a mind-changing, last-minute-upgrading pain in the ass.
George saluted with his screwdriver and headed back the way he had come, into the offshoot room that the mayor had originally planned to furnish with sofas and cubbies, but had morphed to a multilevel study space with lots of carpeted ladders, ramps and platforms. A big floor-to-ceiling window ran the length of the room, looking out on the two-acre rectangle that the local aggie school was turning into an organic, self-sustaining farm, with community garden plots running along one side and a big greenhouse in the back.
Again, totally cool. Totally last-minute. And totally a huge pain in the ass for a construction crew that was a long way from home.
Shaking his head, Max patted his pockets for his laser tape measure and synched-up phone—there was an app for everything these days—and turned toward the empty room that had apparently gone from a classroom to a discovery lab overnight. On the up side, at least it was next to a bathroom, so it wouldn’t take too much to stick a couple of sinks in there. Unless, of course, they needed a separate outflow to collect chemical waste. Sigh.
Figuring there was no point in borrowing trouble, he got to work re-measuring the space with the new plan in mind and roughing out a sketch for the sinks, lab benches, and terrarium, adding a storage wall and plenty of outlets while he was at it.
No doubt the mayor would want to make changes, but in his experience it was usually easier to start with a sketch than a blank screen.
He was just finishing up a few last tweaks based on a quick online recon of the basics of terrarium design—how it was important to make it hypoallergenic, easy to sterilize, and 100 percent controllable when it came to temperature, airflow, and humidity—when his phone rang and a familiar face popped up on the ID screen.
“Well, hell.” Max hated that it had gotten to the point where the sight put a clutch in his gut. Hated that he hesitated a long beat before answering. “Hey, Dad. What’s up?”