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Excerpt for The Do-Over by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Do-Over

By Georgia Beers

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2019 Georgia Beers

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

The Do-Over

Fifteen years is a long time. Long enough to forget the past, forge ahead, and create a terrific life. Bella Hunt has done exactly that, complete with a successful career, a gaggle of close friends, and a home she loves. Life is good.


Or it was, until her teenage nightmare and the bane of her high school existence shows up for Bella’s class on conflict resolution. Easton Evans, in all her pretty, blond, my-parents-are-surgeons glory, throws Bella into an existential tailspin as her unpleasant memories from her past come screeching back. Easton doesn’t even recognize Bella, and what’s worse, Easton is...different somehow. Softer, kinder. And still unfairly attractive. None of it computes in Bella’s head. She’s hated Easton for fifteen years, done her best to scrub the past away. But now here it is. The past. Sitting in her classroom and waiting for Bella to teach her how to resolve a conflict of the heart.

Praise for Georgia Beers

The Shape of You


“I know I always say this about Georgia Beers’s books, but there is no one that writes first kisses like her. They are hot, steamy and all too much!”—Les Rêveur


The Shape of You “catches you right in the feels and does not let go. It is a must for every person out there who has struggled with self-esteem, questioned their judgment, and settled for a less than perfect but safe lover. If you’ve ever been convinced you have to trade passion for emotional safety, this book is for you.”—Writing While Distracted



Blend


“Georgia Beers hits all the right notes with this romance set in a wine bar…A low-angst read, it still delivers a story rich in heart-rending moments before the characters get their happy ever after. A well-crafted novel, Blend is a marvelous way to spend an evening curled up with a large glass of your favorite vintage.”—Writing While Distracted


“The leads are very likeable and the supporting characters are also well developed. A really enjoyable novel, and one that leaves the reader longing for a glass of wine!”—Melina Bickard, Librarian, Waterloo Library (UK)


Blend is a fantastic book with lovable but realistic characters, slow build-up sizzling romance, and an expertly crafted plot. The book is a perfect blend (pun intended) of wit, humour, romance, and conflict that keeps the reader turning pages and wanting more.”—Lez Review Books


Georgia Beers “develops characters that are interesting, dynamic, and, well, hot…You know a book is good, first, when you don’t want to put it down. Second, you know it’s damn good when you’re reading it and thinking, I’m totally going to read this one again. Great read and absolutely a 5-star romance.”—The Romantic Reader Blog


“Author Georgia Beers delivers another satisfying contemporary romance, full of humor, delicious aggravation, and a home for the heart at the end of the emotional journey.”—Omnivore Bibliosaur


“This is a lovely romantic story with relatable characters that have depth and chemistry. A charming easy story that kept me reading until the end. Very enjoyable.”—Kat Adams, Bookseller, QBD (Australia)


“Ms. Beers has a knack for creating characters that feel like real people, with families and pets and backstories and all the general messiness of life.”—Llama Reads Books


“On paper these two should not work but they do, they really do! And the connection is palpable. You can feel the chemistry—it radiated off the page…I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say Georgia Beers writes the best kisses in lesbian fiction.”—Les Rêveur


Blend has that classic Georgia Beers feel to it, while giving us another unique setting to enjoy. The pacing is excellent and the chemistry between Piper and Lindsay is palpable.”—The Lesbian Review



Right Here, Right Now


“The angst was written well, but not overpoweringly so, just enough for you to have the heart-sinking moment of ‘will they make it,’ and then you realize they have to because they are made for each other.”—Les Reveur


Right Here, Right Now “is full of humor (yep, I laughed out loud), romance, and kick-ass characters!”—Illustrious Illusions


“[A] successful and entertaining queer romance novel. The main characters are appealing, and the situations they deal with are realistic and well-managed. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good queer romance novel, and particularly one grounded in real world situations.”—Books at the End of the Alphabet


Right Here Right Now is a slow-burning sweet romance between two very different women. Lacey is an accountant who lives her life to a plan, is predictable and does not like change. Enter Alicia, a marketing and design executive who is the complete opposite. Nevertheless they click…The connection is sexy, emotional and very hot.”—Kitty Kat’s Book Review Blog



Lambda Literary Award Winner Fresh Tracks


“Georgia Beers pens romances with sparks.”—Just About Write


“[T]he focus switches each chapter to a different character, allowing for a measured pace and deep, sincere exploration of each protagonist’s thoughts. Beers gives a welcome expansion to the romance genre with her clear, sympathetic writing.”—Curve magazine



Lambda Literary Award Finalist Finding Home


“Georgia Beers has proven in her popular novels such as Too Close to Touch and Fresh Tracks that she has a special way of building romance with suspense that puts the reader on the edge of their seat. Finding Home, though more character driven than suspense, will equally keep the reader engaged at each page turn with its sweet romance.”—Lambda Literary Review



Mine


“From the eye-catching cover, appropriately named title, to the last word, Georgia Beers’s Mine is captivating, thought-provoking, and satisfying. Like a deep red, smooth-tasting, and expensive merlot, Mine goes down easy even though Beers explores tough topics.”—Story Circle Book Reviews


“Beers does a fine job of capturing the essence of grief in an authentic way. Mine is touching, life-affirming, and sweet.”—Lesbian News Book Review



Too Close to Touch


“This is such a well-written book. The pacing is perfect, the romance is great, the character work strong, and damn, but is the sex writing ever fantastic.”—The Lesbian Review


“In her third novel, Georgia Beers delivers an immensely satisfying story. Beers knows how to generate sexual tension so taut it could be cut with a knife…Beers weaves a tale of yearning, love, lust, and conflict resolution. She has constructed a believable plot, with strong characters in a charming setting.”—Just About Write

The Do-Over

© 2019 By Georgia Beers. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-63555-394-9


This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, New York 12185


First Edition: March 2019


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Lynda Sandoval

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design By Ann McMan

By the Author

Turning the Page

Thy Neighbor’s Wife

Too Close to Touch

Fresh Tracks

Mine

Finding Home

Starting from Scratch

96 Hours

Slices of Life

Snow Globe

Olive Oil & White Bread

Zero Visibility

A Little Bit of Spice

Rescued Heart

Run to You

Dare to Stay

What Matters Most

Right Here, Right Now

Blend

The Shape of You

Calendar Girl

The Do-Over

Acknowledgments

I can’t recall now what got me thinking about two people who went to high school together meeting up again fifteen years later as the adults they grew into and getting to know each other, but it stuck with me for quite some time. High school was hard for me, as it is for most teenagers. I was a good student, but I was not popular. My parents divorced, and I had to change schools for my senior year. Add to that a years-long struggle with my sexuality, and yeah…not a fun time for me. While I consider myself a fairly well-adjusted adult and have gone to a couple of class reunions, there isn’t enough money in the world to get me to actually go back to high school.


That being said, I wanted to show a second chance. A chance to right the wrongs done to others. A chance to talk about the things that were terrifying at the time. A chance to show (and discover) what good people we turned out to be. I hope you enjoy the journey.


Thank you to everybody at Bold Strokes Books for continuing to make the publishing process easier than I ever expect it to be. This is a good place to be as a writer.


Thank you to my editor, Lynda Sandoval, who is like my writing makeup: she finds the blemishes and imperfections, teaches me how to fix them, and makes me look better than I actually do.


Thank you to my author friends who do what I do, who understand when I feel like I haven’t a clue how to write a book, and who cheer for me when I actually do just that. I’m so glad to have you guys in my corner and I’m doubly glad to be in yours. Also, thanks to my non-writing friends and family, whose support means just as much. I couldn’t do any of this without you.


Finally, I am forever grateful to my amazing readers who lift me up when I need it and keep me going when I’m stalled. Thank you doesn’t seem like enough.

Chapter One

“That’s not how Danny did it.”

Easton Evans sat at her desk and held the gaze of Brandi White—a mere one-tenth of the sales staff that hated her—and tipped her head slightly to the side. “Well, this is how I do it.”

“What difference does it make?” Brandi was the ballsiest of the group, and that made her an excellent salesperson. It also made her unafraid to push back against the new management that had been installed when Hart Commodities had taken over the smaller company and made several changes. This was a tight-knit firm, so when the six managers were let go in the buyout, the staff had been understandably upset. It seemed to Easton that her portion of that staff—the sales force—had decided to vent its frustrations by making her as miserable as possible.

Easton took a deep breath and willed herself to stay calm, to not get defensive. She did her best to keep a neutral tone as she slowly explained. “It makes a difference because my bosses want the sales reports by Wednesday at noon.” It wasn’t her fault the apparently godlike Danny had been laid off, but she also knew the staff needed somebody to put the blame on, and as their new boss, she fit the bill nicely. But she’d been taking their muffled—and not-so-muffled—comments for over a month now, and frankly, she was getting a little tired of it. “Listen, Brandi, nobody likes change. I get that. But I still need the sales reports in by noon on Wednesdays.”

“End of day Friday worked just fine when Danny was here.”

“I don’t care,” Easton snapped, her patience fraying. “I’m not Danny.”

“Yeah, no kidding.”

This was going nowhere, would continue to go nowhere, and Easton was annoyed that she’d let her frustration show. Wishing she hadn’t let Brandi see how much she’d gotten under her skin—but unable to keep from poking the inside of her cheek with her tongue anyway—Easton lowered her voice, hardened it. “Sales reports are due by noon on Wednesdays. End of discussion.”

Brandi glared back at her for a few seconds that felt like an hour to Easton. A stand-off. Damn, the woman had a backbone of titanium. Holding eye contact with her wasn’t easy, but Easton managed not to look away. Finally, three hours later (not really, but it felt like it), Brandi turned on her heel and left without another word. Easton let out a breath, irritated that she’d been holding it at all.

Her staff hated her. That was a fact. They’d loved Danny…and honestly, he sounded like a great guy. Easton had no idea how buyouts were done. She’d worked for Hart for five years, and this was a promotion for her. She’d gone from account executive to senior account executive to sales manager, but this was the first time she’d actually changed locations, started over in a brand-new setting with brand-new people. She was a good salesperson. She knew her stuff. She also knew, deep down, that she was a good manager as well, but this was messing with her confidence. Having a staff that disliked her intensely was new for her, and she wasn’t handling it as well as she’d like.

There were six employees like Easton. Six managers who’d been brought in from various branches of Hart Commodities to take over the departments of this new branch. Sales, marketing, customer service, HR, traffic, and vendor. Those were the management titles, and all of them had been brought in from other locations across the region. They had a management meeting set up for that afternoon, and Easton was anxious to see if any of her fellow managers were having the same continuing issues with their staff.

Allowing herself a moment or two of peace, Easton melted into her ergonomic chair and slowly exhaled. This was the first time she’d ever had an actual office, complete with a door and a window. She’d always been in a cubicle, even as the senior account executive. This was a definite step up, and when she took a moment and allowed it, she felt a warm sense of pride in the way she’d moved up in the company. Her office wasn’t big, but it was perfect. She had a nice desk made of a light wood (oak, maybe?) and a great chair. Behind her was a matching credenza where she’d made things a bit homier by adding a plant and several framed photos, mostly of Emma. Two chairs for visitors sat angled in front of the desk, upholstered with maroon vinyl (Brandi hadn’t sat in either of them, as standing—an attempt to keep the upper hand?—was her habit, Easton had noticed). A large abstract painting in pleasant, earthy colors hung on the wall opposite Easton, and she often studied it when she was trying to wind down or destress.

Like now. God, Brandi White can needle me like nobody ever has.

Her body jerked slightly when her cell phone rang, she was so lost in her own thoughts. A glance at the screen told her who it was, and a warm and happy wave of relief washed over her.

“Hey, stranger,” she said with a smile, as she answered. She stood, crossed the office, and shut the door with a quiet click.

“My girl,” came the voice of Shondra Carletti. “Why have I not heard from you? Are you too important to talk to us little people anymore?”

“You will never be little people to me. You know that.” Easton dropped back down into her chair, felt her entire body relax at the sound of her best friend’s voice. Under her desk, she kicked off her heels, if only for a short time. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear from you today.”

“Last I checked, phone lines run both ways, baby girl. And did you break your texting fingers since I saw you last?”

“I know, I know. But I have been so busy over here, it’s ridiculous. Between learning how this place has been running and deflecting the hateful glares of my new staff and dealing with Emma—is there such a thing as the terrible sevens?—I’ve just been buried under my life. I’m so sorry. My God, I’ve missed you.”

“Sounds to me like you need one of Shondra’s margarita nights.”

“Yeah, I need, like, six of Shondra’s margarita nights. In a row.”

It was amazing how the world just seemed to right itself whenever Easton talked to Shondra. Easton was an extrovert and had many friends; she always had, even in high school. But there was something about this particular friendship with Shondra that steadied her like no other in her life. And Easton had the same effect on Shondra, despite her being five years younger. They’d discussed it more than once, settling on the conclusion that, for whatever reason, the universe meant them to be friends, and who were they to argue?

By the time Easton hung up fifteen minutes later, she’d set up dinner at Shondra’s on Saturday night. “Bring Emma. I’ll have my niece come over to watch the little ones so we can just chat. Tony’s got a poker night with the guys.” The idea of an evening of visiting, joking, and Shondra’s margaritas was heavenly enough to make Easton feel almost relaxed as she jotted notes about some things she needed to bring up at the manager meeting that afternoon.

Almost.


***


When the Xavier Company had been purchased by Hart Commodities, there had been dozens of changes. First had been the huge sign on the building that lit up green at night, replaced by the well-known blue-and-red Hart logo. Easton had felt a pang of sympathy for the Xavier employees who had been there from the beginning, as the Xavier sign was taken down in the middle of the workday when anybody could step outside and watch. Next, and sorely needed, had been the complete remodeling of the large conference room. Extremely dated, it had contained a long, pockmarked table that was probably older than Easton herself and shockingly uncomfortable chairs with beige fabric upholstery that was so worn it was nearly threadbare. One of the first lessons she’d learned when coming to work for Hart was that making a fabulous first impression was key. You couldn’t do that with a conference room that looked like it had come straight out of the seventies. So, the room had been gutted, then remade in the image of a highly successful and modern American company. Blue-gray paint on the walls; deep slate carpet on the floor; sleek new furniture with lots of black and glass and chrome; a sidebar for food, coffee, water.

It was impressive.

Easton thought so every time she walked in, even after working there for over a month. She nodded to the other managers around the table and took a seat. A few minutes later, Richard Joplin, their regional manager who Easton mentally referred to as the manager of the managers, entered the room and they got down to business.

By the time forty-five minutes had gone by, they were deep into a discussion about the negative responses of the employees.

“You all know this is not a surprise, right?” Richard stood at the head of the conference table and looked around the room with dark eyes that seemed to take in everything, seemed to actually see each of the managers present. Easton had only met him a handful of times, but she liked him. Liked his wisdom, liked that he was business-minded but also seemed to understand people. “Xavier was successful and good to its employees. It only makes sense that they’re all feeling a little betrayed and battered. It’s only been five weeks. We need to give them some time.” He picked up the tablet he’d brought with him. “That being said…” He left the sentence dangling as he scrolled. “We’ve had some complaints.”

Groans went around the table. Rolled eyes. Scoffs. Shaking heads. Sighs of exasperation.

Richard held up a placating hand. “I know. I get it. And again, this is to be expected. Every one of you has received at least two grievances from your staff. Some of you, more.”

His gaze didn’t stay on any one person, and Easton wondered how many she had. She braced.

Instead of rattling off some of those complaints, though, he clicked off the tablet and set it back on the table before taking a seat and folding his hands neatly in front of him. “So, here’s what we’re going to do.” All the while, the eye contact remained, and he moved it slowly around the table. “We’re going to send you all to a conflict resolution class.”

This time, they weren’t groans. They were gasps of surprise, of annoyance, of anger.

“You’re kidding,” said Kim Banks, the customer service manager, her cheeks blooming red.

“I’m not.” Richard’s voice remained calm and matter-of-fact. He waited them out, sitting quietly while they looked from one face to the next, grumbling their displeasure. While Easton wasn’t thrilled with the idea, she was willing to hear the explanation, which came once everybody had calmed down. “None of this is to reflect poorly on you. Not a single one of you would have been promoted to your current positions if we thought there’d be any issues. Granted, personality clashes happen, and there could conceivably be some at play here. But sending you all to this class is a show of good faith to the one hundred fifty employees we’ve taken on here. They were promised a smooth transition, and we want to make sure to keep our word.”

“What about them?” asked Henry Deets, the traffic manager, pushing his glasses up his nose with a finger. “I mean, it’s not just us. You said so yourself.”

Richard nodded. “They’ll be handled as well. We’ve got some things in place.” He glanced at the HR manager, and Easton realized they’d probably discussed it. Had to. “You’ve each been emailed the time and location of a conflict resolution class. I’ve put you all in the same one, figuring you can help each other out, talk about common issues. It takes place in the evening, which is an inconvenience, I know, but you’ll all be paid for your time. Once you pass the class, the instructor will send us the paperwork and you’ll be all set. Then we’ll have a company-wide meeting to let everybody know the steps we’ve taken.”

Each of them was on his or her phone, scrolling to the email, muttering. Richard gave them a moment before asking if there were questions. Then he ended the meeting.

The rest of the afternoon went by in a blur of phone calls, emails, and side-eyes from a couple of her staff, and it wasn’t until she was in her car and on her way to pick up Emma from after-school day care that she had time to actually think about what had transpired.

“Conflict resolution, huh?” she said aloud as she sat at a red light and rolled it around in her brain. Despite the fact that it would be inconvenient and time consuming for the managers, it would show the Xavier-now-Hart employees that their new bosses were listening. It was a smart move in an attempt to promote harmony between the new and old factions of the company. Easton got that. It didn’t thrill her, but she understood the motive behind it. She would go. She would listen. She would pass. And that would be that. She’d only given the email a quick glance, but she saw that it was a six-week course, one hour for six Wednesday nights starting next week. And she’d get paid. Wednesday through Saturday morning were Emma’s days with her father, so at least Easton wouldn’t need to find a sitter.

She parked in the Denby Day Care parking lot and got out, pulling her light jacket tighter around her and wishing she’d worn the heavier one. The weather in late April was hit or miss, and today, she’d missed.

“Mommy!” The cry that Easton lived for. A seven-year-old blond torpedo shot across the room and wrapped its arms around her thighs.

Easton squatted, took her daughter’s face in her hands, pushed her hair out of the way so she could see those huge blue eyes. “Hi, baby,” she said, and kissed Emma’s forehead. “I missed you.” She said it every day. Every day, it was true.

“Look!” Nearly everything Emma said sounded like it had an exclamation point on the end, and she held up a piece of red construction paper with some other colors glued to it.

“Did you make that?” Easton asked as she took it and scrutinized it like an art dealer.

Emma nodded vigorously as one of the day care aides approached them with a smile. “Hi, Mrs. Evans,” she said warmly.

“It’s Ms. Evans.” Easton smiled as she corrected the aide for what felt like the millionth time. “But call me Easton. Please.”

“Can I have a word with you before you go?”

“Sure,” Easton replied with a nod, and told Emma to get her things together.

“Let’s go in here.” The aide led her into an empty office and closed the door behind them.

Oh, this can’t be good. Easton kept smiling.


***


As soon as Easton opened the front door of her house, Emma blew past her, dropping all her kid crap on the floor as she did, and was through the kitchen heading toward the family room where all her toys were.

“Um, no. Get back here, young lady.” When there was no response, she raised the volume. “Right now, Emma!” Easton was not a woman accustomed to raising her voice. It wasn’t done in her family (probably because nobody talked about anything emotional…at all) and it simply wasn’t something she had experience with.

Until Emma was able to walk.

It started slowly, maybe raising the volume a notch or two here and there. And then Emma turned four and it went up another notch. At five, Easton wondered if all kids instantly went deaf, as Emma didn’t even turn to look at her most of the time. And seven?

God. Seven was killing her.

“Emma Catherine Douglas, come here, please.” Easton rolled her eyes and muttered, “Yeah, because asking nicely will make all the difference.”

It seemed like another ten minutes went by and Easton had to force herself not to chase Emma down instead. Shondra was always on her about that. “Don’t give her the power. You’re the mom here. You’re the boss.” Easy to hear. Hard to enact. Finally, Emma came trudging back to the entryway, casually brushing the hot pink mane on one of her My Little Ponies.

“What is going on with you?” Easton asked, her voice calmer.

Emma continued to brush as she lifted one small shoulder in a half shrug.

Easton squatted to be on the same level. “Sweetie.” She put her hand gently over Emma’s brushing hand to get her attention and waited until Emma’s big blue eyes met hers. “You’re a big girl now, and you know how to share toys. You can’t be snatching them out of other kids’ hands. You can’t be mean like that. You know better.”

“I don’t like her,” Emma said, so softly Easton barely heard.

“Who?”

“Millie.”

“Is that the other girl?”

Emma nodded, working the pout hard by sticking out her bottom lip.

“Why don’t you like her?”

Emma looked off into the room as if searching for the right words. “’Cuz she thinks she’s better than everybody. She’s always talking about her stuff, how her toys are better than the stupid ones there.”

Easton rolled her lips in, not wanting to smile at the tone of grave injustice Emma was using. Instead, she nodded with understanding.

“So, I told her to go play with her own toys then.” Emma went back to brushing her pony.

“And you took the one she had.”

Emma gave one very satisfied nod.

“Emma.” When she kept her focus on the toy, Easton gently took her chin and turned her face to look at her. “You know that was wrong. Don’t you?” Using her best Mom Look of Intensity (tm Shondra), she waited.

Emma finally sighed. “Yeah.”

“And you’re not going to do it again?”

“Ugh! Fine.” Emma groaned then, making it sound like Easton had asked her to eat nothing but vegetables for a week. Without waiting for more discussion, she turned on her little heel and stalked back toward the family room.

Easton stood up with a sigh. Being a parent was the single most rewarding and frustrating thing she’d ever taken on in life, and she often wondered exactly how badly she was destined to screw up her daughter. The fear of every parent on the planet, she’d discovered.

“All mothers think like that, honey,” Shondra would say. And she would know, being slightly older than Easton and with three kids of her own. But knowing all mothers felt the same way didn’t make feeling it any easier.

Shaking the thought away for the time being, she took off her lightweight jacket and hung it in the coat closet. Soon she wouldn’t need it. It was still a bit cool, but May was this weekend and then summer would be on them before they knew it: Easton’s favorite season. She sifted through the pile of mail as she fantasized about the upcoming months. She loved being warm. Loved the sunshine. Loved lounging by the pool (which had been a requirement when she bought the house last fall). Loved—

Easton swallowed hard as she stared at the big white envelope in her hand. The one with the names of four attorneys in the return address corner. She knew what it was, didn’t need to open it. Knew she should be happy about it, happy to have the failed chapter of her life finally done and over with, but… Tears welled up in her eyes and a lump of emotion sat solidly in her throat, despite her efforts to swallow it down.

Her divorce was final.

“Mommy, can I have Goldfish?” Emma’s words died as she stopped in front of Easton. “Are you okay?” she asked softly.

Easton nodded, pulled herself together. “Yes. Absolutely. Mommy’s fine. You want Goldfish?”

Emma looked unconvinced, but nodded anyway, her eyes carefully tracking Easton’s movements, watching her face. Easton could feel it even when she wasn’t looking. She might be in her terrible sevens, but Emma had always been a very emotionally tuned-in kid. She worried about Easton, and Easton knew it. And hated it. She didn’t want to add more stress to her child’s life than she already had.

“One bowl of Goldfish crackers, coming up,” Easton said, with forced enthusiasm. She sniffed, mentally shook herself, then held her hand out to Emma and marched with her into the kitchen.

Closing that chapter. Time to start a new one.

That was her mantra. She used it all the time, said it aloud and in her head. But starting a new chapter was easier said than done.

It was also terrifying.

Chapter Two

“Hidey ho!” Bella Hunt called out as she walked through the front door of her friend’s town house. The smell of burnt toast immediately assaulted her nostrils—a good way to be sure she was in the right place.

“Nobody says ‘hidey ho’ but hobbits and leprechauns, Bells. And you’re small, but not that small.” Amy Steinberg smiled and wrapped her arms around Bella. Lowering her voice, she added, “Heather’s busy scorching the eggs. Be nice.”

Bella shook her head with a grin as she took off her jacket and tossed it on Heather’s overstuffed couch. “Who burns eggs?” she whispered as she followed Amy back to the kitchen.

“Really? Have you met our friend Heather? Sweet, funny, thinks she can cook?”

Louder, Bella said, “Hey, you!” as Heather Simmons came into view. “What’s cookin’?”

“Omelets. Hungry?” Heather smiled at Bella, her face a portrait of endless hope, her black apron telling everybody God’s honest truth with its screen-printed words: Dinner’s Ready When the Smoke Alarm Goes Off.

“Starving,” Bella said, and kissed Heather on the cheek, trying not to look at the devastation in the frying pan Heather manned. “I brought bagels.” She held up a bag and stifled a laugh as Amy mouthed a silent “Thank God.”

These were her best friends, and not a day went by when Bella didn’t thank her lucky stars for them. They’d met in college, had all been on the same floor their freshman year, all with roommates they didn’t really click with. Once they realized they shared the same psychology major, they’d decided to get a suite together their sophomore year, and the three of them had been the best of friends ever since. They’d seen each other through everything: job changes, deaths, breakups. Their lives were busy—Bella worked at a corporate wellness center, Heather was a social worker, and Amy, a school counselor—but they had brunch together every Sunday they could, and their group text was constantly active.

Amy handed Bella a champagne flute filled with the lovely orange shade of a mimosa, then touched her own glass to it with a pretty clink.

They worked as a team, removing plates and silverware from cabinets and drawers, each of them knowing mostly where everything was in one another’s kitchens. Amy chatted about one of her students as they set Heather’s small kitchen table and Bella put the bagels on a plate, arranged two kinds of cream cheese around it.

“I thought you were making omelets,” Amy commented, as Heather scooped what could only have been considered scrambled eggs onto her plate.

“Shut up and eat,” was Heather’s response.

“Yes, ma’am,” Amy said as she glanced at Bella, who was grinning.

“There’s cheese and green peppers and onions,” Heather said, defending her case. “All your favorite things. Eat it.”

Bella laughed. “Wow, somebody needs more coffee.”

“No, I need more alcohol.” Heather grabbed the third flute and sipped, punctuating it with an exaggerated “Ahhhh!” of satisfaction.

They sat down to eat, and Heather brought up a family she’d been dealing with that involved a father dealing drugs and a mother working herself to the bone, how heartbreaking the situation was. Bella never said so, but the clients Heather’d just described were the very reason she hadn’t gone into social work. She didn’t think she could handle it, the emotional toll it would take on her. Heather didn’t look nearly as tough as she was. Bella thought she looked a bit like a ’50s housewife with her ash blond hair cut to chin length, her plump build, her penchant for floral dresses, and her perpetual smile. She was instantly likable. Endlessly optimistic and cheerful. Bella had no idea how she did it, given what she saw every day. But when you were in a bad mood or felt you’d lost hope for all humanity, spending an hour with Heather was the cure. She was the opposite of sadness and frustration, and she always had plenty of good things to say about anybody and everybody. Which was not to say she was a pushover. Far from it. Amy, a little more descriptive than necessary sometimes, liked to say Heather could put a person’s balls in a vise, turn the crank, and smile sweetly the whole time she was doing it. Bottom line was simply that Heather was the kind of person Bella wanted to be when she grew up: sweet, kind, tough as nails.

The three of them talked. All the time. About everything, good and bad, especially when it came to their work. Bounced things off each other. Everybody always remained nameless in their conversations—clients, patients, and the like—but the three women found it endlessly helpful to get the thoughts and opinions of the other two. Often, new angles or perceptions were discovered in their discussions.

“What about you?” Amy asked as she pointed to Bella with a fork.

Bella shrugged as she forked some well-done egg into her mouth. It didn’t taste bad at all if she didn’t eat the blackened parts. “The usual. Nothing much to report since our last brunch.” She swallowed, then recalled something. “Oh! I’m doing a conflict resolution class starting on Wednesday.”

“Your first one,” Amy said.

Bella nodded.

“Do you know who’s in it?” Heather asked.

“We were hired by a big company. Hart something. They’re sending us their entire management team, I think.”

“Wow.” Amy sipped her mimosa. “They must be having issues if all their managers need conflict resolution.”

“Not necessarily,” Bella told her. “From what I understand, they’ve just merged with another company. A lot of times, according to my supervisor, corporate businesses will send their people to classes like mine just as a…” She searched for the right word. “Like a refresher-type thing. You know?”

“Night class?” Amy asked.

Bella wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, which I’m not thrilled about. But it’s only for six weeks. I’ll live.” She spread cream cheese on a bagel and said, “Truth is, I’m a little nervous.”

Amy and Heather scoffed at the same time, which made the trio laugh. “That’s ridiculous,” Heather offered.

“I’ve never taught this before.”

Amy waved her off. “Heather’s right. Don’t be ridiculous. You’re gonna be great. You’re trained to run it, right?”

“You’ve probably memorized all the information. I’ve met you.” Heather shot her a grin and Bella had to return it because Heather was right: she’d read every single thing she could find on the subject of conflict resolution, going so far as to search her old laptop and find a paper she’d written in grad school on the topic. She was more than ready.

“You’re right,” she said. “I know what I’m doing. I think I’m just nervous in general.”

“I get that,” Amy offered. “Standing in front of a group is different from dealing with somebody one-on-one. Is it a big class?”

Bella shook her head as she chewed. “Six.”

Amy made a sound like pfft. “No biggie, then. You got this.”

“You do,” Heather agreed and started to stand. “More eggs?”

“No!” Bella and Amy said together, more forcefully than necessary.

Heather squinted at them as she slowly lowered herself back onto her chair. “You guys are subtle.”


***


“Okay, girls, I know dinner’s a little early, and I’m sorry about that. But Mama’s got to teach a class tonight, remember? So, we need to move it along. All right?”

Lucy looked up at Bella as she chewed. Slowly. Like she had all the time in the world. Ethel, on the other hand, had done a terrific impression of a vacuum cleaner and was now doing her best to lick the paint off her ceramic bowl.

“Come on, Ethel. Outside.” Bella slid the back door open just as her cell rang from the kitchen counter. “Hey, Mom,” she said as she answered, leaned against the counter next to Lucy, who was maybe almost finished.

“Hi, sweetie. What’s new?”

“Not a lot.” Bella put the phone on speaker and set it down so she could gather her things together. “I’m teaching a class tonight and I’m trying to get Lucy to eat a little faster than she would if she lived her life in slow motion. Which she does.” She leaned down and said the last three words closer to her dog. Who blinked at her, unimpressed, and moved not one iota faster.

“I will not have you spreading lies about my granddoggies,” her mother teased. “Grandma loves you, Lucy-bear.”

Bella rolled her eyes good-naturedly as Lucy finally finished her dinner and sauntered toward the back door. “No, no. Take your time, Luce. Don’t mind me. It’s not like I have anything in life besides you.” She slid the door open and let Lucy out into the small backyard.

“I almost FaceTimed you,” her mother said.

Bella laughed. “Not until you figure out where the camera lens is on your phone. Last time, I talked to your forehead for twenty minutes.”

Her mother chuckled, a sound that surprised most people with its huskiness, given that Michelle Hunt could only be described as petite. “I only have a few minutes tonight, so you lucked out.”

“Working?” Bella’s mom had been waitressing at the same diner for more than twenty years. It was exhausting, thankless work, but she had regulars who loved her, considered her part of their routine. She would never think to inconvenience them by taking time off or changing her hours.

“I’m on my break. Got about ten minutes left.”

“Mom, you have more than enough seniority to request only the day shift. I hate you working at night.”

“I make better tips for dinner than I do for lunch. You know that.” Michelle’s voice was light, cheerful, like it always was, despite the fact that they’d had this same conversation a million times.

“I know.” Bella kept her sigh as quiet as she could. “How’s Dad?”

“He’s good. Strained his back a little bit the other day helping to lift something at work, so he’s taking it easy tonight on the couch.”

“Has he been taking his meds?” Bella’s father had been on pills for arthritis for as long as she could remember, but he didn’t always take them like he was supposed to. Because he was a stubborn, stubborn man.

“He’s been pretty good about it.” Translation: not always.

“I’ll call this weekend and get on him.”

“When will we see you?” Her mother’s voice held a hint of wistfulness that never failed to make Bella feel guilty for not visiting more often.

“Soon, Ma. Soon. The girls and I could use a road trip.”

“Good. I have a couple of steak bones in the freezer I stole from the diner.”

Bella grinned. It wasn’t the first time her mother had snagged steak bones from a customer’s plate and saved them for Bella’s dogs. “You’re a good grandma.”

They chatted a bit longer before Michelle had to get back to her customers. As with so many people, Bella’s perceptions had grown and changed around her parents as she became an adult. When she’d been young, part of her was embarrassed by them and their working-class jobs. They’d never had much money. Bella’s clothes were often from thrift stores, which was horribly embarrassing when she was a teenager. Now she was still embarrassed, but with herself for being so self-centered as a kid. Now she admired her parents for how hard they’d worked to give her what she needed. No, she’d never had designer clothes, and she was still paying off the student loans she’d had to take out as she put herself through college, but she understood that her parents had loved her more than anything, had done their best to keep her fed with a roof over her head and a mom and dad who adored her. Now she wanted to protect them from so much hard work, always had to remind herself that her mother was an adult, an intelligent woman who could make her own decisions about what shifts she preferred to work. The biggest realization that comes with being an adult is understanding that your parents are merely human. It took Bella a while to get there.

Both dogs stood at the back door looking in wistfully, like children peeking in a store window. Children with barrel chests and the huge square heads of pit bull mixes, but children just the same. Bella grinned at them and let them in. Ethel went right for the toy basket, as was her after-dinner routine, and pulled out a tennis ball. Lucy headed to her bed in the corner of the living room, as was her after-dinner routine, and curled up to watch Tennis Ball being played.

“Okay, but this has to be quick, E. I have to leave in, like, twenty minutes.” The way her small house was laid out, if she sat on the floor at the end of the living room, there was a straight shot across the room and down the hall to the front door. Not super long, but long enough for Ethel to get a little jog in as she chased the ball. Bella grabbed a folder out of her bag so she could take a quick look at her notes for tonight, then plopped down in her usual seat on the floor and tossed the ball down the hallway. Lucy watched Ethel lope after it, then trot back with it in her mouth, her head turning as if she was watching a tennis match. Bella opened the folder as Ethel dropped the ball in her lap.

They went on like this for a while, until Bella was satisfied that she was fully prepared for the class. Before she closed the folder, she glanced at the list of expected attendees and one name caught her eye, made her do a double take.

Easton Evans.

“Noooo,” she said softly, drawing out the word as Ethel whined and nudged her with a nose. “Can’t be the same person. What are the chances?” She tossed the ball without looking, squinted at the paper. Easton Evans was not a common name, but still. The last time Bella had seen the Easton she was thinking about was fifteen years ago and about three hundred miles away. “Can’t be her.” Bella shook her head with certainty and closed the folder. Ethel was back with the ball that was now a little wet and squishy, and Bella grabbed her head with both hands, lovingly ruffled the short fur and floppy ears. “Just a coincidence, right, E?”

Giving the ball one more toss, Bella pushed herself to her feet.

“Has to be.”

Chapter Three

Framerton High, 2003


Changing schools was awful enough, but doing so in the middle of the school year, junior year, was beyond horrendous. Izzy didn’t have a ton of friends at her old school, as she was quiet and shy and kept to herself. But there were a few. When that school closed—some budgetary thing she didn’t really understand—all the students were split up and integrated into different schools in the area. Izzy had ended up at Framerton High. Which felt huge, like she’d been dropped in the middle of the ocean with no idea which direction she was supposed to swim to next.

She’d found her locker and it had opened on the first try; that was a relief. But now she had to figure out how to get to her lit class. She knew it was in room 217b, but beyond that, she was lost. Standing in the middle of the hall with her books clasped tightly to her chest, she felt a subtle panic start to build. It began in the pit of her stomach and worked its way out, like an octopus reaching its tentacles to all her organs, squeezing them one by one. Perspiration broke out across her forehead just as she was jostled from behind.

“Nice outfit,” the jostler said, her tone snide. She shot Izzy a look of condescending pity over her shoulder as she continued down the hall and stopped at a locker thirty or forty feet away. She was tall and had chestnut brown hair that was expertly (and Izzy would bet expensively) highlighted, and at first glance, she’d probably be considered pretty, but her expression was cold. Icy. Her smile didn’t reach her eyes.

Izzy swallowed and looked down at her clothes. There was no way that girl could know they were from Goodwill. Was there? There were three other students at the locker where she stood. Two guys, both with dark hair and the broad-shouldered build of football players, laughing and swearing loudly. And another girl…a girl Izzy couldn’t pull her eyes from, even when she tried. She was blond and Izzy could see her enormous blue eyes even from this distance, how they were lined with black. A weird feeling curled in Izzy’s stomach, a flutter of sorts. A tickle, but a tight one, like a coiled snake waiting to strike, and as she watched the blond girl throw her head back and laugh, Izzy’s mouth went dry.

What is happening?

Izzy’s panic only grew as she watched them, not wanting to stare but filled with the desire and wistfulness she’d almost grown used to, it was such a common emotion in her arsenal. That longing to have what she didn’t—money, friends, status—to be what she wasn’t—pretty, popular, charismatic. It had started with junior high…that slice of school when kids were no longer friends with everybody. When they started to break off into groups. Cliques. When labels appeared out of nowhere, and suddenly everybody had a descriptor. Jock. Geek. Goth. Artsy. Nerd. At least at her old school, she had a handful of other nerd friends because they’d started out together, but now? The other dozen kids that had also been transferred into Framerton had labels that differed from Izzy’s. They were kids she barely knew, not friends, so she was on her own here.

The budding panic was still there, and in the next instant, all four of those kids were looking her way.

“Jesus, stare much?” the jostler said, loudly enough for others in the hall to hear and also look in Izzy’s direction, and a few snickered.

Shit. Now she’d done it.

As she yanked her gaze from the foursome, she was horrified to feel her eyes well with tears. The panic bloomed large, exploding like a firework, churning her stomach and threatening to expel the toast and peanut butter she’d had for breakfast. Yeah, that was all she needed: to throw up in the middle of the hall. Or burst into tears. Or both. That’d seal her fate completely for the next two years.

There were so many kids in that hall, so many looking her way, and Izzy was only certain of one thing: she’d never felt so utterly alone in her life.


***


Not for the first time in her life, Easton was confused by her own emotions. The notification of the completion of her divorce had thrown her for an unexpected loop and she was having trouble understanding why.

The first thing she’d done was text Shondra, who’d done her best to comfort her. It’s a big deal, she’d typed. It’s the end of a major part of your life. There are feelings around that. Big ones. It’s okay to feel them.

But it’s not a surprise, Easton had explained back. I wanted this.

That’s what she had trouble swallowing. She’d wanted it. She’d been the one to ask for a divorce. If it had been up to Connor, they’d be doing their best to work things out, but Easton knew that would never happen. Not if she was going to be truly happy.

So why did that simple piece of mail fill her eyes with tears and her heart with sadness?

Easton pulled into a spot at the Hallman Wellness Center and shifted into Park. She was actively fighting the urge to cry when her phone rang and a check of the screen on the dashboard told her it was Dr. Stephen Evans. Her grandfather. Relief flooded through her and she hit the green button.

“Hi, Grandpa,” she said, then cleared her throat.

“Hey there, Buttercup. What’s wrong?” His voice was soft and kind and made it easy to understand why his patients were so comfortable with him. Easton could picture him, seventy-six years old but looking a good fifteen years younger than that, his thick silver hair probably a little too long, his purple stethoscope hanging around his neck. His blue eyes were magnetic, the color stunning and the warmth in them almost surprising.

“How do you do that?” Easton asked, with a self-deprecating laugh.

“I know you,” he answered simply. “You okay?”

Grandpa Evans was one of the only people in Easton’s life that she talked to. Really talked to. She wasn’t sure how a man born in the early 1940s could so completely understand his granddaughter who was born in the mid-1980s, but he did. He got her. She discussed nearly everything with him. He was the first one she’d told when she realized medical school wasn’t her thing (much to the dismay of her parents). He knew she was pregnant before she’d even told her husband. He was the first person (and still one of the only people) who knew why she’d left her marriage. He got her.

“My divorce is final.”

“Oh, Buttercup, I’m sorry. That’s a hard one.”

“But why? Why is it hard? It’s what I wanted. It’s what I asked for. I don’t have the right to be sad about it now.”

“Says who?” Easton could hear the rustling of fabric, the groan of a chair, and knew her grandfather was sitting back at his desk. She could picture it clearly in her mind. She’d even bet he’d just taken off his glasses. “It doesn’t matter who ends a partnership or why. It’s still the end of a big part of your life. I know for some people in dire situations, it can be a relief. And I know that for you, it was the right decision. That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to mourn. To grieve.”

“Mourning.” The proverbial light bulb went on in Easton’s head. “That’s what I’m doing, that’s what this is. I’m grieving the loss of my marriage.”

“Of course you are. It only makes sense. And it’s okay to do that. You know that, yes?”

Maybe he and Shondra were right. Maybe it was just the final slamming of the book on her marriage that she was having a hard time swallowing. And that’s okay.

“I don’t know why I don’t just call you in the first place,” she said, with a chuckle. “You always make me feel better.”

“I don’t know why you don’t either.” Grandpa’s laugh matched hers. “How’s everything else? Work? Emma? I’ve got four more minutes. Give me the abridged version.”

Easton did. She told him about Emma’s school issues—“She’s a smart girl, she’ll learn the lesson.” She told him about her staff—“They just need time.” She ended with the fact that she was in the parking lot, about to head in to her first conflict resolution class, to which Grandpa groaned.

“You don’t need that class. You do just fine.”

“I know. They sent all of us, though. A good faith gesture, they said.”

“Bah. That’s new-agey crap.” But his voice was light, and Easton could hear the humor. “I’ll be interested to hear how it goes.”

“I’ll keep you posted.”

“Last patient of the day is here, Buttercup. Gotta run. Come visit sometime soon.”

Easton promised she would, then they said their goodbyes and she hung up.

She turned the car off and sat there for several moments, stared out the windshield. While she felt better after talking to her grandfather—she always did—the melancholy from before he called seeped back in slowly. This was not where she’d expected to be at thirty three, that was true. When she’d married Connor, she’d convinced herself that was it. That was her life, how it was going to be. Just like her parents wanted for her. Expected of her. She’d failed them by not following in their medical footsteps, she’d be damned if she’d fail them by messing up her marriage as well. What was that saying? The road to hell and all that? She sighed heavily. Starting over with her seven-year-old daughter had never been part of the plan.

And now this. Conflict resolution. She didn’t need to be here. Grandpa knew it. She knew it, and her bosses knew it. But her job was important to her, so she would do what was asked of her, even if it meant giving up Wednesday evenings for six weeks. With a resigned sigh, she yanked open her car door, grabbed her purse, and headed into the two-story brick office building.

From the outside, the Hallman Wellness Center looked like any average brick-and-mortar office building. Very standard. Very ordinary. Inside, however, was a different story.

The lobby was softly lit and carpeted (newly, judging by the smell) in a pleasingly warm burgundy. The waiting area was small but its furniture soft and inviting: overstuffed chairs and love seats around a square table that boasted various magazines and a vase of fresh red and white carnations. The air smelled like home—the aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg almost masking the new carpet smell and coming from…somewhere Easton couldn’t pinpoint. As it was after hours, there was nobody at the front desk, but a black standing sign indicated in white letters that the conflict resolution class was being held in room 106. Which was to Easton’s left, according to the arrow.

A smattering of people was still working, sitting at various desks or in offices, pecking away at keyboards or chatting on phones. Easton walked down the hallway until she found room 106. Four of her coworkers were already present and she grimaced inwardly, glad she wasn’t the last to arrive.

Rather than a classroom setting, which was what Easton had envisioned, the room held a desk in one corner and a large, round table with eight chairs. She headed that way and took the chair next to Paul Antonassio, who was their vendor manager and, of all people, really didn’t need to be there, as he didn’t have a staff. As if he read her mind, he smiled and shrugged at her as she sat, his face clearly saying, “What can you do?”

A glance up told Easton the woman running the class, who stood near the desk in the corner of the room, was slight in build, probably no older than Easton herself, and stunningly pretty. Brunette hair that fell just to her shoulders in easy waves, eyes that seemed dark, but it was hard to tell from a distance, high cheekbones and a gentle jawline. She was dressed in business casual attire: dark blue dress pants and a pink button-down top, the sleeves rolled halfway up her forearms.

Also, she was looking right at Easton, her expression hard to read, but definitely not screaming “open and friendly.”

“Hi,” Easton said, adding a little wave of apology. “Sorry, do I need to check in or anything?”


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