Authors: Cindy Kirk
Ami’s heart gave a painful lurch. She shifted her gaze to the pictures of her and her sisters individually and then ones where they were together. They’d always been so close. Little stair steps, her parents had called them.
She’d been the oldest, but only by a year over Delphinium. Delphinium’s name had been too much of a mouthful, so her sister had become Fin almost instantly. While she and Fin had once been close, they were different personalities.
From a young age, Ami’s interest had been focused in the kitchen, while Fin loved parties and being in the center of any action. Ami meandered while her sister sped through life at breakneck speed. Primrose came next, then Marigold.
At this point Prim was the only one of the four girls who’d married and produced grandchildren. While Ami and her dad wished Prim and her twin boys would move back to Good Hope, a terrific job with exceptional benefits in Milwaukee had kept her tethered there, even after the death of her husband.
Ami wiped a hand across her eyes and plopped down on the one spot on the sofa not covered with gifts. This year the entire family would be back for Christmas. Not just to celebrate the holiday but for the open house Ami had planned for her father.
January would mark Steve Bloom’s thirty-fifth year with the school district. Since everyone was coming for Christmas, she and her sisters had decided it made sense to have the celebration while they were in town.
Of course, if she didn’t get Beck’s job, she wouldn’t have money to pay for the furnace
her share of the party. Not to mention there was a good chance she’d be kicked out of the Cherries unless she got Beck to agree to the tour of homes pronto.
She’d made no further progress in coming up with a solution to her dilemma when the phone rang that afternoon. By the time she hung up with effusive thanks ringing in her ears, a chill that had nothing to do with the lack of heat filled every inch of her body.
Ami knew she could have turned down the assignment, a drop-off of items in another part of town. But Calvin Koontz, the rotarian who scheduled such drop-offs, had told her before he even made the request that she was the fifth person he’d called. He’d have taken on the task himself except he’d fallen on the ice last week and seriously injured his ankle.
For a second Ami considered asking her father to come with her, but immediately dismissed the notion. He wouldn’t be able to take time away from the classroom so close to holiday break.
to be someone in Good Hope she could get to accompany her tomorrow morning. Or she’d just have to figure out another way to accomplish the task.
When Ami had thinking to do, she baked. Today, she had much on her mind. Beck. The furnace. Beck. The Cherries. Beck. Her likely encounter tomorrow with Clint Gourley. And, last but not least, her father’s growing “friendship” with Anita “I Need A Man” Fishback.
In between overseeing the furnace installation and baking, she’d spoken with all three of her sisters. Not one of them believed Anita posed a real threat.
Her sisters were intelligent women, and Ami might have been reassured, except for one fact. They hadn’t been around Anita in years. Even if they had, the woman was a chameleon. She could be sweet and charming one second and manipulative as all get-out the next.
Unfortunately her father, a man who only saw the good in people, appeared to be taking the woman at face value.
His naïveté scared Ami to death.
She saw no choice but to remain calm and observe. If Ami wasn’t careful, there was the possibility she could end up pushing her dad further into Anita’s grasping arms. She worried she may have done that already when her father commented on the drive home from the fundraiser that Anita worried Ami didn’t like her.
When she mentioned she didn’t know Anita well enough to dislike her, she’d seen a flash of irritation in her dad’s eyes. When he’d asked her to take every opportunity to become better acquainted with the woman, Ami felt forced to agree.
The way Ami saw it, the promise meant she could keep a close eye on the woman. Once her sisters were home and had time to assess the situation, they’d come up with a plan.
By seven o’clock that evening Ami was still searching for someone to accompany her on her mission of mercy in the morning. While awaiting callbacks from several possibilities, she decided to drop off a lemon pound cake at her father’s house.
Hopefully a nice visit with him would calm her fears. It felt good to pull out the Schwinn. With her fleece-lined jeans, silky thermal top under her sweater, and arctic-rated coat, Ami barely noticed the cold.
The streets were snow packed but well maintained. The residential streets were well lit, not only from the decorative street lamps but also the brightly colored Christmas lights on every home. Ami found herself singing a variety of carols on her journey.
By the time she reached the familiar block of her childhood, her mood was upbeat. Hopping off the bike, she rolled it up the walkway and parked the Schwinn on her father’s porch. In the window, a perfectly shaped tree with multicolored lights twinkled.
The Christmas spirit extended to the exterior. Though definitely more subdued than when four girls had their hands into the decorations, the house still had a festive edge. Outside, white lights wove through a swath of greenery edging the heavy wooden front door. A dark green wreath with the same white lights hung on the door.
The low-pitched story-and-a-half was an attractive home. Built new in the eighties, the bungalow had the appearance of a 1920s Craftsman-style home. Ami loved everything about it, from its taupe hardwood siding with cream-colored trim to the landscaped yard, which reflected her father’s love of plants and bushes.
When all the girls had been home, the house had been a cozy haven. She couldn’t imagine her father ever leaving this place that held so many happy memories. Recently, though, he’d mentioned several times the place was too big for one.
Once her sisters and nephews arrived, the home would once again be filled with activity and laughter. Ami expelled a happy sigh at the thought and slipped the box containing the pound cake from her basket.
Ami didn’t bother to lock the bike. The area was safe.
Neighbors looking after neighbors
, she thought with a smile.
The wind, which had been nonexistent, suddenly picked up speed. Ami was sorely tempted to forego knocking and just walk inside. Only the knowledge that while this might be the house where she’d grown up, it was no longer her home had her hesitating.
Turning her back to the wind, Ami hunched her shoulders, clutched the box against her body, and rang the bell. She waited several seconds and was about to hit the buzzer again when the door finally opened.
Surprise briefly skittered across her father’s face before his lips curved into a broad smile of welcome. He stepped aside and motioned her inside.
“I didn’t expect to see you this evening,” her father began.
“I went on a baking frenzy today. I made you a pound cake.” Ami suddenly noticed he wore khakis and a cotton shirt with his navy cardigan, rather than his normal evening attire of well-worn jeans and a sweatshirt. “You look nice, Dad. Did you have a school function this evening?”
“No.” Looking uncomfortable, he shifted from one foot to the other. “Actually—”
“I made him dinner.”
The feminine voice came from the living room, where a fire blazed in the hearth. Ami turned toward the voice and froze.
Anita sat on the sofa, a glass of wine in her hand. Thick, dark hair waved gently around an angular face with large hazel eyes. Although the shirt Anita wore was long-sleeved, Ami was surprised the woman wasn’t visibly shivering in the thin gold silk pants and shirt.
“Anita made a wonderful meal,” Steve Bloom said proudly. “Her lasagna is the best I’ve ever tasted.”
Ami tried not to take offense. She’d dropped off a pan of lasagna for her dad just last week.
“I love to cook, but it’s no fun just for one.” Anita bestowed a sweet smile on Steve before turning her attention to Ami.
“We had lemon meringue pie for dessert,” her dad added.
The pie was her father’s favorite.
“The pound cake will keep.” Ami kept her smile firmly in place.
Anita lifted her wineglass. “Join us.”
The woman acted as if this was
“Yes, please join us,” her father echoed.
Though Ami had initially planned to simply drop off the cake, chat with her dad for a few minutes, and then head home, she decided leaving now might appear rude. “Thanks.”
While her father left the room to pour her a glass of wine, Ami stepped into the cozy living room with its dove-gray walls and massive stone fireplace. She chose the chintz-covered chair her mother had always favored, directly across from the piranha.
It gave Ami great satisfaction to know evidence of her mother filled every corner of the room. The upright piano against one wall had been hers. She’d insisted all her girls take lessons, but only Fin had shown talent. On the side table, special picture frames, carefully chosen by Sarah Bloom, held photos of the family.
“I was surprised when the buzzer sounded. I didn’t hear a car outside.” Anita paused, then her gaze narrowed. “That’s right, you don’t drive.”
Ami crossed her legs and hoped her father would return quickly.
“I can’t imagine imposing on my friends for rides.” Anita gazed at Ami over the rim of her glass. “But not driving is better than hurting someone.”
Ami’s cheeks burned as if she’d been slapped.
“It’s a beautiful evening for a bike ride.” Ami lifted her chin and smiled her thanks as her father returned and handed her a glass of red. “I spend so much time indoors this time of year, it’s nice to be out in the fresh air.”
“I’m afraid I don’t share your love of the cold.” Anita gave a little shiver. “Even now I’m a bit chilled.”
“I can turn up the heat.” Her father had begun to rise when Anita’s fingers closed around his hand, pulling him down.
“I’ll be fine if you just move a little closer,” Anita purred.
If you’d just put on some decent clothes, you’d be fine.
Ami swallowed the words on the tip of her tongue.
Steve scooted closer with a pleased smile, even going so far as to put an arm around Anita’s shoulder. Ami noticed her father staring with an expectant expression.
“Sounds as if you two had a nice dinner.” Ami feigned a look of interest. “Lasagna and pie. Very nice. I love the meal, but it does take a lot of pots and pans.”
“It sure does.” Anita expelled a melodramatic sigh. “I should get up now and tend to the mess.”
Though the woman made no attempt to move, Steve took her hand. “I told you not to worry about that, Cookie. Your back is bothering you, yet you slaved over a hot stove in order to make me a fine meal. I’m certainly not going to let you do the cleanup, too.”
The warmth in his voice had red flags popping up so fast it made Ami’s head spin. And
Her father had a pet name for Anita Fishback?
This was worse than she’d imagined.
“Your father is a true gentleman.” Anita covered Ami’s father’s hand with hers. She gave it a squeeze before slanting a faux smile in Ami’s direction. “He’s so good to me.”
At that moment, Ami wished she were Marigold. Growing up, the youngest Bloom sister had perfected a number of gagging sounds.
“Why don’t I take care of the dishes?” her dad offered. “It’ll give you two girls a chance to talk and get better acquainted.”
Was that a warning glance her father shot in her direction? Sure as heck looked like one. Ami felt herself stiffen.
“Don’t go, Honey Bear. Stay here with me.”
Ami covered her snort with a cough.
When her father’s eyes narrowed, she coughed again just for effect.
“That cold air must have gotten to my lungs more than I realized,” she added.
The tight set of her father’s jaw told her he wasn’t convinced.
“I have an idea,” Anita began, then waved a dismissive hand, the diamond tennis bracelet around her wrist catching the fireplace’s glow. “No, it would be asking too much. Forget I said anything.”
Anita lowered her gaze, looking all innocent and contrite, but not before Ami saw the calculating look in her eyes.
Like a piranha, Ami thought. Lurk, then dash out and strike.
“Tell me,” Steve urged his
. “I’m sure whatever you have in mind isn’t too much to ask.” Her father shifted his attention to Ami. “Anita always thinks of others first.”
Ami had no doubt that was true. Like now, Anita was thinking of how best to hook and reel in Steve Bloom.
“Tell me,” Steve repeated when Anita milked the moment by remaining silent.
“Okay, but only because you insist.” The apologetic look on the woman’s face might not have fooled Ami, but her father’s face softened.
“Ami is a whiz in the kitchen. I thought, well, if she doesn’t mind, perhaps she could clean up?” Once again the apologetic look made an appearance. “It wouldn’t take her long. Since her bakery was closed today, she had a day of leisure.”
When Ami didn’t immediately respond, Anita demurred. “Forget I said anything.”
Ami remained silent, waiting for her father to inform Anita he couldn’t possibly ask his daughter to clean up the mess from their dinner.
Those words didn’t come. Instead, her father leveled a look at her. “What do you say, Ami?”
After a restless night, Ami woke before dawn. The scene with her father and Anita had made sleep impossible. She still believed she’d been right in politely refusing the request. Her father had been furious. It wasn’t like him to get so angry.
Yet, when she’d seen Anita’s smug smile, she’d wondered if she’d won the battle but lost the war.
No. Her father was a sensible man. He’d get over his anger. Except she had no doubt that Anita would be tossing kerosene on the smoldering embers to keep the fire burning.
But for now, Ami had other matters demanding her attention. The sun had barely begun to rise when Ami placed a call to Beck.
He answered on the fifth ring. “Ami. This is a pleasant surprise.”
The sound of Beck’s soft southern drawl steadied her.
She switched the phone to her other hand. If Beck didn’t agree, she wasn’t sure what she was going to do. She was running out of options and out of time.
“Is something wrong?” His voice sharpened.
“No, no, nothing’s wrong.” Her now-dry hand fluttered in the air. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”
His chuckle was as warm and smooth as a glass of her father’s Kentucky bourbon. “I’ve been up for a while now. I was getting ready to step into the shower.”