Authors: Stephanie Rowe
Tags: #Ever After#2
"Dad! Did you see the sign? They have ice cream in there! Can I get some?" Noah leapt out of the Mercedes, his hair still tousled from sleep.
Astrid jumped as if she'd been struck, and she looked quickly at Noah. Pain flashed in her eyes, pain so deep that Jason felt it in his own gut. He knew that pain, because he'd felt it every time he'd looked at his son for the last two years, and he hated that he saw his son with those eyes. He wanted to look at his son and see the boy that was still living, not the one who had died. He wanted to pulse with the life and the future they had ahead of them, instead of the shadows of his past.
But he couldn't do it. At least in New York he hadn't been able to.
Birch Crossing was his last chance.
"Dad?" Noah slammed the car door shut, his skinny upper arms hanging out of his New York Mets tee shirt. "Can I get some ice cream?" he asked impatiently.
"You bet." Jason was relieved to see his son's excitement. The unveiling of the store hadn't gone over all that well, but if ice cream could help, then he'd have the boy over here six times a day until he was so sugared up that his life was perfect. "Head on in. I'll catch up."
"Thanks, Dad!" Noah high-fived Jason's raised palm as he raced inside, his untied sneakers thudding on the old wooden steps. The door slammed shut behind him, leaving Jason alone with Astrid.
Jason made no move to go after his son. He knew what that small-town general store was like, and was pretty damn certain his son would be surrounded by love by the time he found the ice cream.
The woman standing before him, however...different story. What exactly her story was, he didn't know, but he wanted to. Hell yeah, he wanted to. He studied her more carefully than he had at the store, and this time he saw not just the flamboyant jewelry and audacious scarf twisted through her hair, but the tiny lines around her eyes and the corners of her mouth. Laugh lines? Or simply the signature of a life well lived? He didn't know, but he had a sudden urge to smooth his thumb over them...maybe feather a light kiss over the corner of her mouth...
Astrid cleared her throat and started to back toward a beat-up Ford sedan parked beneath some trees. "So, I'll see you around—"
"Wait." Jason strode after her and grasped her arm, unable to let her walk away. He was shocked by how soft her skin was, by the delicate curve of her muscle beneath his grip. She was so feminine, so unbelievably female, that it awoke something inside him, something primal and male that hadn't responded to a woman in years. Instinctively, he tightened his hold on her arm, suddenly terrified she would pull away, that he would lose how she made him feel. He hadn't thought of tender kisses and soft skin in so long he'd forgotten what it felt like.
She froze, her wary brown eyes meeting his. "What do you want?" But she didn't pull away.
Dinner. Dessert. You.
The words tumbled through his mind, but he shook his head, the thoughts too foreign to him after so long. "I don't know."
Her face softened, and she managed a small smile. "Welcome to Birch Crossing, Jason." She nodded inside the store. "They're waiting for you."
He shrugged. "Yeah, I know they are." He knew how small towns worked. They were probably grilling Noah right now to get as much information about the two of them as possible, and they would hit up Jason the moment he walked inside. He knew that, and that was why he'd brought his son here to live. Maybe the town could give Noah what his own father couldn't. "Who's waiting for you, Astrid?" he asked, the question coming out before it had even fully formed in his mind. But the moment he said it, he knew he wanted to know the answer. Was someone waiting at home for this beautiful, vivacious woman who hid so much inside?
He knew she wasn't wearing a ring on her left hand, but that didn't mean anything these days. Her heart could still be fully claimed.
"Who's waiting for me?" Astrid's face closed up, and he saw her summon that same flirtatious cockiness that she'd shown him before, the one that told the world that she was just fine the way she was. "Everyone and no one," she said. "Isn't that the way it is?"
He narrowed his eyes. "What does that mean?"
She managed a cheeky grin that didn't quite cleanse the pain from her eyes. "It means nothing. Unless you want it to, and then it does." She raised her eyebrows and lightly tugged on her arm, requesting her freedom.
Jason slowly let his fingers drift off her arm, and he saw the goose bumps pop up on her skin at the sliding touch. "It means I get to interpret it myself?"
She hugged her arms to her chest. "It means that I get to learn about you by how you interpret it. It's a trick to manipulate you into showing me what you don't want me to see."
He laughed, a sound that started in his chest and came to life of its own accord, the way it used to do, long ago. "You are trouble, aren't you, Astrid Monroe?"
She grinned, and this time, the smile was real. "I am. You should watch out for me. The town will warn you off me, for sure."
"All the more reason to learn more about you."
She laughed, a cheerful sound so much like the one she'd first gifted upon him at the store. "Well, good luck with that. I'm an enigma, and I like it that way."
He grinned. "I like challenges. I accept."
Her eyebrows shot up, and for a split second, wariness flashed across her face.
He softened his smile, and gave her a cocky grin to lighten the moment. "You should be worried, Astrid. I'm incredibly tenacious."
She smiled then, amusement flashing in her eyes. "You'll never find out my secrets, Sarantos. Even Eppie can't figure them out."
She pointed behind him. "Eppie."
Jason turned to see a weathered old lady striding across the porch toward him, a stuffed loon dangling precariously from her tilted hat. Ah...Eppie. There had been an Eppie in the town he'd grown up in. Her name had been Marianne Weddlington, and she probably still knew every detail about Jason's life even though he hadn't lived there since he was seventeen.
Eppie thrust her hand out at him as she neared. Adorning her fingers were an assortment of large rings trapped forever on her fingers by swollen, arthritic knuckles. But the challenge in her eyes told him that she'd probably never even bothered to take time to notice anything as insubordinate as knuckles that wouldn't bend properly. "Eppie Orlowe," she announced. "Welcome to Birch Crossing, Mr. Sarantos. You have a lovely son. Very articulate and charming."
"Thank you. Noah's a good kid." Jason shook Eppie's hand and glanced over his shoulder just as Astrid climbed into her car. She gave him a cheeky wave as she drove away, leaving him stranded with Eppie.
He laughed softly, knowing that she'd intentionally delivered him to Eppie, leaving him trapped.
But for the first time in years, he felt a surge of life pulsing as he watched Astrid's rusted car rumble out of the parking lot. The woman had spunk, and he liked it.
"Jason." Eppie's hand fell heavily on his shoulder as she turned him back toward her. "Before you go looking all googly-eyed at our Astrid, you'd best be telling me where your son's mama is. Are you married?" She raised her brows. "What kind of a man are you, Mr. Sarantos? I need to know."
Jason's adrenaline faded, and he looked Eppie in the eye and gave her the truth. "Not the kind of man you want in your town, I suspect."
Eppie's eyes narrowed, and for a moment, she stared at him.
Then she let out a whoop of laughter and slammed her fist against his shoulder. "Hot damn, boy. I like you already! Come on in."
And just like that, he knew what kind of town this was.
It was the right town.
Which meant he had a chance. Noah had a chance.
A chance was more than he'd had in a long, damned time.
* * *
The orchid was blooming.
Astrid stood in the doorway of her apartment, shocked by the sight of the white flower on the end of that lonely stalk. A third cycle of blooms? How was that possible? She'd never had three cycles of blooms on an orchid. She hadn't even noticed a bud forming.
Tears filled her eyes as she shut the door and knelt on the ottoman that she used for a window seat. She closed her eyes and pressed her nose against the blossom. The delicate fragrance filled her nose, and she smiled, letting it wash over her. Yes, this was home.
Then her smile faded, and she looked down at the crumpled letter in her hand. After spending four hours at the town library going through art books to try to find something to inspire her, she'd finally read the letter on the way home. Eppie was right about what it said. Astrid had three weeks to find a new place to live. Three damn weeks.
She turned and surveyed the one-room apartment. Now that it was evening, the shadows were thick and long inside. The overhead bulbs and the birch log lamp by her bed would do little to illuminate the place, but the bright desk light over her work station would concentrate enough light to work all through the night if she wanted to. With a sigh, Astrid studied the scarves dangling from the curtain rods above the two windows, providing bright color and privacy at the same time they hung on display for her to select the scarf of choice for the day. Curtains were the sign of someone who was going to stay put for a while.
They'd never had curtains as a kid, and Astrid had hung those scarves up the first day.
They looked good. In fact, the whole place looked good. Her bright quilt was so Maine-esque and cozy with its square patterns. She loved the picture of Wright's General Store that Emma had painted for Astrid as a Christmas present. In the corner stood the apothecary cabinet she'd fished out of the pile at the dump and refinished for storing her jewelry supplies. Her things. Her home. Her life.
Sudden tears filled her eyes, and she sank down on the bed. Dammit. She didn't want to leave. She looked down at the letter, and then frowned. Did she really have to? Was there a way to fight it?
She grabbed her phone and dialed her landlord. The answering machine picked up on the first ring. "I'm off with my girl. If you can find me, you can talk to me. If you can't, then figure your problem out on your own." The message trailed off with the cackling laughter of an old man in love.
Astrid gripped her phone. "Hi, it's Astrid Monroe. I got your notice, and I was hoping there was a way we could work around it. If you could give me a call, that would be great." She left her number, then hung up. There had to be another solution—
"Hey! Open up! I haven't got all night!" Eppie's voice echoed through the apartment as she thudded on the door. It sounded like she was kicking it?
Astrid set her phone down and opened the door. "Eppie—"
The older lady surged past her, almost buried beneath a stack of flattened cardboard boxes. "Griffin was going to toss these," she announced as she dumped them on Astrid's carpet. "Can you imagine? He said he hadn't even realized you were moving. How could he not know?" She set her hands on her hips and glared at Astrid. "The man's been the owner of Wright's for almost two months now. He has a responsibility to know everything. What are we going to do with him? Seriously?"
Astrid stared past Eppie at the massive pile of boxes at the top of the stairs, her heart sinking at the irrefutable evidence that she had to move. "How much did you bring?"
"All of it." Eppie wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist. "That's all I'm carrying in, though. The rest is up to you. I need to go to Bingo. I heard the chicken buffet was cold last week, so I want to check it out. Just because I skip one week, they think they can slack. Astonishing, really." She set her hands on her hips. "Did they truly believe I wouldn't hear about it? Really?"
"Eppie. No one on this earth would think you wouldn't hear about it. They probably made it cold to force you to come back because they missed you."
"Oh..." Eppie fluffed her hat, a cheerful expression on her face. "I like the way you think, Astrid. You're a good girl."
Astrid was so surprised by Eppie's comment that she almost dropped her phone. "I am?"
Eppie paused, then shook her head. "Yes, you're right. No one would buy into that description of you. It doesn't do you justice." She patted Astrid's arm affectionately. "Do you know where you're moving yet?"
Astrid swallowed, trying not to let Eppie's recant of the compliment hurt. "No, I just found out—"
"Well, don't waste time. The summer help is rolling in and they take all the cheap digs." Eppie sauntered toward the door, her face serious. "How was work today, Astrid?"
Astrid lifted her chin. "Fantastic. I did three new designs."
Eppie narrowed her eyes. "Give it up. No one can lie to me. You let me know what I can do to help you, you hear?" She didn't wait for an answer, letting herself out the door.
Astrid sighed, but before she could begin to deal with the boxes, her phone rang again, and she answered it immediately. "Sam?"
"No, it's Jason Sarantos." His voice was low and deep, rumbling over her the same way it had the first time she'd met him.
"Oh, hi." She swallowed, trying to find her pep again. "How's the new place?" she said, forcing cheerfulness into her voice.
He laughed softly. "It's got some work to be done, I'm afraid, but Noah thinks the decaying rat we found under the sink was awesome."
Astrid chuckled at the vision. "You boys can keep the dead rats for yourself."
"Oh, I don't think Noah's going to be sharing it, so don't worry." He cleared his throat. "Listen, do you know where the key is to the storage room out back? The front door key doesn't work in it, and I need to get in there."
"Oh." Astrid frowned. "Wasn't it unlocked when you arrived?"
"It was. I took my computer in there to do inventory, and then when I left, Noah shut the door. So, yeah, now it's locked, and it has my computer."
Astrid laughed. "I'm sure your computer is having a lovely time."