Read Evening Stars Online

Authors: Susan Mallery

Evening Stars (5 page)

“Sure thing. Probably Monday. You can come on your lunch break.”

“Sounds great.”

She hung up, more than a little confused by what had happened. She checked the window again. Yup, there it was. The loaner.

She put down the phone and walked into her bedroom. She had a mile-long list of things to get done today, and none of them had involved mulling over an old boyfriend. Dylan had been nice. That spoke well of his character. The fact that she didn’t
him to be nice was her own issue.

* * *

By nine-thirty, Nina had arrived at Blackberry Preserves. As it was a Saturday, she changed the sign to read Open—not that she was expecting many customers. It was too early in the season for a lot of tourists, and locals tended not to browse on the weekends. She flipped on the light switch by the door, then walked through narrow pathways to the office in the back. After tucking her purse into a desk drawer, she turned up the heat and started a pot of coffee.

In theory, the shop’s inventory was supposed to be computerized. In reality, more than half the stock moved in and out without ever being accounted for. Bonnie’s buying trips were done with cash and accounted for with mostly handwritten receipts. Nina had known that one day she was going to have to tackle the problem, but she’d been putting it off as long as possible. And that was going to continue, she thought, returning to the front of the store.

To the left, old wooden shelves held an impressive collection of vintage lunch boxes. Everything from Hopalong Cassidy to early Batman to My Little Pony. Some were battered and worn, but others looked as if they’d never been used at all. A couple still contained their thermoses.

Bonnie loved lunch boxes because children were generally happy. That was her actual logic. She bought the lunch boxes to share her joy in that fact with others. The knowledge that they collected more than they sold didn’t seem to bother her.

Three large display cabinets held figurines of all kinds. Lladro and Hummel, along with those from more obscure artists. Even as a kid, Nina hadn’t liked the tiny statues. She’d always thought they were watching her with evil intent. The same with the antique dolls. But the vintage clothes were fun. They were dusty and smelled funny, but she and Averil had enjoyed playing dress-up.

She walked to a rack of ball gowns from the 1940s. She’d loved dancing around, a rusty tiara on her head.

You be the queen and I’ll be the princess,
Averil had told her.

Nina had resisted, saying there could be two princesses. Even at nine, she’d understood that being the queen meant taking responsibility. All she wanted was to escape for a few minutes. But Averil had been stubborn.

You’re my queen, Neenie. You’ll always be the queen.

She touched another dress, remembering her sister claiming she could tell whether or not the wearer had been happy simply by the scent of the fabric. As everything smelled dusty to Nina, she couldn’t decide if her sister had been telling the truth. But Averil would only wear castoffs from happy people and carefully inspected all new inventory.

Nina supposed that everyone had strange memories from his or her childhood. Hers were about pockets of chaos followed by blissful periods of calm. Bonnie had been big on love, but not so much on structure. If there was no one to watch the girls, she thought nothing of taking them out of school for weeks at a time when she went on her buying trips.

When Nina turned twelve, she informed her mom that she was old enough to be left alone. She’d been armed with a list of reasons why she should be trusted by herself, but Bonnie had simply agreed with her. The following year, Bonnie had deposited Averil in her care, as well. She’d made sure the house was stocked with food before she headed off. There was money in the drawer and the checkbook. Nina had been faking her mom’s signature on checks for years, so paying the bills wasn’t a problem.

Nina paused by a desk lamp that Bonnie swore was genuine Tiffany and touched the smooth, colored glass. Memories lurked in this store, she thought. Hiding in corners like dust bunnies. As she couldn’t figure out how to get rid of them, she avoided them and this place. Which probably explained why Tanya had stolen. There was no one watching her.

The front door opened. Nina tensed, wondering if Dylan would be stopping by. She’d phoned to thank him for his help, but her call had gone directly to voice mail. She still wasn’t sure if she was disappointed or relieved.

But he wasn’t the one who walked in. Instead, it was a well-dressed woman with short, dark hair. She was about five-five, with dark blue eyes and a wide smile.

“Are you Nina?” she asked.


“Great. I’m Cindy Yoo. I’m here about the job. I saw it online last night, and I’m very interested.”

In reality, shutting down the store made the most sense. Unfortunately, that wasn’t Nina’s decision to make. She didn’t feel prepared for an interview, but they had to hire someone.

“Thanks for coming by,” she said. “There are application forms in the back.”

Cindy withdrew a folder from her large leather bag. “I brought a copy of my resume, along with several letters of recommendation.”

Nina took the papers. “That’s very professional of you,” she said slowly. As far as she knew, no applicant had ever come in with a resume before.

“I’ve got coffee going in the back,” she said, motioning to the open doorway. “Want some?”


Cindy followed her into the office. Nina cleared a stack of invoices off the spare chair, then poured them each a cup.

“Black is fine,” Cindy told her, then reached for the mug.

Nina poured her own and settled behind the desk. “I didn’t know the ad had gone up already.”

“I was online checking when it popped up.” Cindy smiled at her. “I’ll just say it. I don’t have retail experience, but I’m open to learning.”

“It’s not a complicated business,” Nina murmured, studying the other woman. She didn’t know all that much about fashion, but she would guess Cindy’s clothes were expensive. Her bag seemed to be real leather, and her wedding band was a row of sparkling diamonds.

Cindy pointed to the folder. “I can get more recommendations if you need them. I’m very excited about this opportunity.”

Maybe a little too excited? Nina opened the folder and studied her resume.

Cindy had graduated with a degree in history from a university in the San Francisco area. From there she’d become a secretary in a law firm. Four years later, she had been a paralegal in the same firm. That had been followed by a move to Seattle, where she’d done more of the same.

Behind the resume were a half dozen letters of recommendation. All glowing. Each had a phone number and a vow that he or she would hire Cindy back in a second if she was interested.

“Impressive,” Nina said, then looked at her. “I’m looking for someone to run the store. It involves managing inventory and selling to customers. I can’t help but think you’re overqualified.”

Cindy clutched her mug in both hands. “To be completely honest, I really need this job. My husband is a few years older than me. I’m his second wife. Our children just left for college. One is at MIT, the other is at Stanford.”

So it was a money thing, Nina thought, able to relate to that.

“My husband is Korean. My mother-in-law, while a lovely woman, has a very traditional interest in the life of her only son. Apparently his first wife was also traditional. Perfect, according to my mother-in-law, chosen by the family. She died and he fell in love with me.” Cindy paused. “Have you heard about the Tiger Moms?”

Nina frowned. “I think I read a couple of articles. They’re focused on their children succeeding.”

“Multiply that by a thousand and you’ll understand what I’m dealing with. I’m never good enough, and while she doesn’t come out and say it, I’m certain her daily prayers include me being dead.” Cindy flashed a smile. “Or at the very least, having her son come to his senses and kick me out.”

“That could be uncomfortable.”

“Yes, it is, and she’s coming to live with us.” Cindy swallowed. “This week. He’s helping her pack right now. I want to be nice to her. But to keep myself sane, I need a job. A place where I can go and think about something else. A place to pour my energy. I swear, I’m highly motivated to learn everything I need to know.”

Nina felt her concerns melting away. “You don’t have a criminal record, do you?”

Cindy’s eyes widened. “I assume that’s not a prerequisite?”

“No. Our last employee stole from us. We wouldn’t have known except she went to a local pawn shop to fence our property.”

“The pawn shop on the island?”

“That’s the one.”

Cindy leaned back in her chair. “Seriously, that’s just dumb. But lucky for you. As to the question, no. I’ve had two speeding tickets and that’s it. I’m a good person. Ask anyone.”

Nina grinned. “Except your mother-in-law.”


Nina handed Cindy the application. “I’m going to check inventory while you fill this out.”

She left Cindy in the office. She would ask Sam at the sheriff’s office to run a background check on Cindy, then call a couple of references. If that worked out, she was going to hire the woman and consider herself lucky to have found her.

Chapter Four

AVERIL HAD GROWN UP in the Pacific Northwest where the ocean temperature rarely climbed past sixty and that was in the summer. California wasn’t all that different. Right on the beach the water warmed up a little in July and August, but only a few hundred yards from shore, the ocean floor plunged and the water was chilly. She’d visited a friend in Florida over a summer break from college and had been shocked by the shallow, warm gulf lapping at the sand. Somehow it just seemed wrong.

Now, as the wind picked up, she tightened the sail, then secured the line. The sun was high in the sky, the brilliant blue reflected in the endless ocean. Once they were on course again, she glanced at Kevin. His sunglasses hid his eyes, and if she couldn’t see them, she didn’t know what he was thinking.

He’d been quiet lately. If it were anyone but him, she would say pensive.

“Kevin,” she began. “Are you mad at me?”

He turned to her, his sunglasses hiding the direct line of his vision. “No. Not mad.”

“Then what?”


The word was like a slap. She’d always been the object of desire in their relationship. The one who was chased and caught. She loved her husband and did her best to be good to him, but he was the one who came to her. Now she felt the foundation of her world shifting under her.

“About the baby?” she asked, her voice small.


The wind whipped her hair around her face. She’d pulled it back in a braid, but a few strands had worked loose. She pushed them out of her eyes and stared at him.

“Are you disappointed in


She felt the air rush out of her lungs—as if she’d been kicked in the gut. Panic seized her, making her want to say whatever was necessary for him to take the words back. She couldn’t stand for him to reject her.

“I know you’re not happy,” he continued. “I wonder if I’m the reason.”

Relief made it easier to breathe. This wasn’t her fault. Okay, she could deal. “You’re not,” she assured him. “I’m not sure what’s wrong.”

“Do you still love me?”

“Of course. Don’t be silly. We’re married.”

“What does being married have to do with anything?”

“I don’t know. It just does. We’re together.”

He looked away, then, and the panic returned. This time joined by fear.

“I don’t know what you want,” he admitted.

“I don’t, either. It’s not about you, it’s about me being uncomfortable and...” She paused as the truth settled over her. A truth she’d been avoiding for a long time now.

“I want to go home.”

She said the words without thinking about how they would sound. How
would read them. His expression didn’t change, but his hand reached for the line, and seconds later the jib collapsed. He pulled in the large sail, keeping it from sinking into the ocean.

“Kevin, no,” she said, grabbing his free arm. “Don’t do this. I didn’t mean right this second.”

Because by “home” she’d meant Blackberry Island. They’d both understood that.

He secured the sail, then turned to her. “It’s always been home. I’ve known that. You need to see Nina. What I don’t get is you two can’t be in the same house for more than a day without fighting. It happens whether she comes to see us or you go to see her. Yet, you can’t seem to make a decision without her. Why?”

She didn’t have an answer. She wanted to tell him he was wrong, only he wasn’t. Nina was... She swallowed. He was right. Nina was the voice in her head.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“It’s not about an apology. I’ve given you all I have, Averil. All I am. If it’s not enough, I’ve got nothing left. Maybe I’m not supposed to make you happy. Maybe you’re supposed to figure that out on your own.”

She wanted to tell him she didn’t know how. Didn’t understand what being happy meant. Contentment was relatively easy, but happy? Who could say that?

“I don’t want you mad at me,” she murmured.

“I’m not. I’ve loved you from the first day I met you, but I can’t live in this half life any longer. I need you to be in this with me, or I need you to leave.”

The fear returned, but she held on to it, enduring the sense of having her heart ripped into pieces.

“Go see your sister,” he continued. “Figure out what you want. I’ll wait.”

“For how long?”

He removed his sunglasses then. She gazed into his eyes, seeing a combination of sadness and determination. “I don’t know. I’ll let you know when I’m done wanting you to come home.”

Which was fair, but terrifying. What if she waited too long? What if...

And with the questions came the realization that she’d already made up her mind. That whatever the price, she needed to go back home, to find answers. She felt as if everyone else had grown up and moved on, while she’d been stuck.

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