“Pizza’s here,” Skylar called out as he walked down the steps into the basement room that had been turned into a lounge for Kayla and her friends.
Kayla jumped up from the sofa where she’d been sitting between Rebecca and Cilla and ran over to go upstairs. “I’ll be right back. Need to get plates and napkins.”
“Don’t bother. Here I am.” Kayla’s sister, Stephanie, appeared at the top of the steps with a grocery tote in her hand.
“I’ll get it, you don’t have to come down here.”
Stephanie shrugged. “It’s good for me. How are things going?”
Kayla waited at the bottom of the steps, and Stephanie smiled. “Seriously. I’m fine. It doesn’t hurt that much.” Since the car accident had messed up her leg so badly, when she got tired or spent too much time standing, she used a cane. She had an obvious limp, but the doctor told her she’d always have that.
“We’re looking at college stuff,” Kayla said. She looked over at the table in front of the sofa covered in glossy magazines.
Stephanie stared at the girls. “For who?”
“For Kayla,” Rebecca said. “We’re working on a plan. Do you want to join us?”
The look Kayla gave her sister was priceless. She didn’t want Stephanie to be here. They had been discussing this for months and still hadn’t come up with something Kayla wanted to do. The thing was, Kayla didn’t know what she wanted. Well, she did, but that wasn’t an option yet. She wanted to be a wife and a mom. She wanted that more than anything, but until she met someone who loved her, Kayla needed to find some independence.
Stephanie worried about her younger sister. Life had dealt them some terrible cards, but they’d come so far since moving to Bellingwood and Rebecca Heater had been a big part of Kayla’s growth. The two girls had been inseparable from the day they met. Sometimes Rebecca was a little much for poor Kayla. She could hardly keep up. But she did her best and because of that, she’d made friends, encountered things that she never would have experienced back in Ohio, and she’d even gone out with a few boys.
Skylar glanced at Stephanie. She smiled and shook her head. “I don’t need to be in the middle of this discussion. If you come up with a plan, Kayla, Skylar and I will figure out how to make it work. That’s what we do.”
Kayla took the tote bag from Stephanie and put it up on the antique buffet that the two girls had refinished last winter. They’d painted it a beautiful teal and stenciled pink and yellow flowers on the drawer fronts and the trim. It worked perfectly as a serving table down here. “You guys want one or two pieces?”
“Two,” Rebecca said, as she shuffled through what must be college brochures around.
Cilla Waters came over to the buffet and picked up a plate. “Thank you for the pizza, Stephanie. I love coming over here. This is such a great room.” She sighed. “And no urchins to pester me.”
“I’m glad you like it.”
“This is the best room,” Kayla said, beaming at Stephanie. “I can’t believe it’s ours.”
“We’ll leave you guys to your work. If you need anything, buzz me,” Stephanie said. “Pop and juice in the fridge. Take what you want.”
Rebecca glanced up. “Thank you for everything. This is so nice.”
“You’re welcome.” Stephanie pointed at the steps. “You go first, Sky.”
He nodded and went up. It took her longer to make the trek and she hated knowing that people were standing behind her, waiting and waiting. By the time she got up to the top and headed inside, Sky was setting plates out.
“You wanna eat in here or the living room?” he asked.
“This is fine, if that’s what you want.”
He breathed out. “I asked you first.”
“I really don’t care. Whatever you want.” She looked at his face and realized that she’d done it again. “No, really. Here would be nice. Thank you.”
Sometimes it felt like she had to battle every day to remember that her father no longer controlled her. She had worked so hard to become her own person, but every once in a while she drifted back into the little girl who acquiesced to everything, just to keep peace in the house. If she didn’t push back, he wouldn’t get angry and hurt her mother.
She and Skylar had talked about that part of her life, both in therapy sessions and when they were alone. He wanted her to be strong and independent, to be herself, even when it was difficult for her. He hated it when she treated him like he was the one in control. Stephanie knew that he hurt deeply for the girl she’d once been.
Stephanie reached out and took his hand. “Thank you.”
He nodded and gave her hand a squeeze. “What would you like to drink?”
“If I tell you I just want a glass of water, will you tease me about being a lightweight?”
“Not tonight. Water it is.”
Stephanie sat down at the little table. She couldn’t believe the life she was living. Everything inside this apartment was hers. It was all hers. Even Skylar. This wonderful, gorgeous, crazy, silly man was part of her life. He loved her and treated her like she was a goddess. How in the world had this happened?”
“How did what happen?” Skylar asked, looking at her with concern as he set two glasses of ice water on the table.
“Did I say that out loud?” Stephanie laughed. “I was thinking about how different my life was. I can’t believe that I’m here. With you. And Kayla is downstairs talking to her best friends about going to college. How did this happen?”
“You made it happen,” he said. “You didn’t give up. You never gave up. Stephanie, I don’t think you see yourself for who you truly are. You are one impressive young woman. You’re smart and tenacious. You love like nobody’s business and you are a solid rock, no matter how wild the storm rages around you. That’s the first thing I noticed.”
“It’s hard to explain. You’re solid.”
She scowled at him.
“Not like that. You don’t change.” Skylar shook his head. “That’s not right, either. I know you’ve changed a lot. But you are always Stephanie. No matter what. You’re safe. You’re just … Stephanie.”
“Thank you. I think.” She gave him a small smile. “No. I get it. I understand what you mean. You know that’s what I always wanted to be for Kayla. I wanted her to feel safe. Whatever I had to do, wherever we had to go, I wanted her to feel what I never felt. I wanted her to go to bed at night and know that the next time her eyes opened, the sun would be shining and she had a wonderful day ahead.”
“She has that.” He nodded toward the back door. “I still can’t believe those three are old enough to be talking about college.”
“I remember the night I met Polly and Rebecca,” Stephanie said. “Kayla wanted so badly to spend the night at their house because I had to work late, but she woke up from a bad dream and got scared. Polly called me. It was no big deal that Kayla woke her up and they had to wait for me to drive over there. She didn’t care that I lived in the trailer park and we had nothing. Rebecca didn’t care either. She thought Kayla’s room was awesome, even though we didn’t hardly have anything. I can’t believe Kayla found her as a friend.”
“And you found Polly as a boss,” Skylar said. “I guess I did, too. Where do you think Kayla will go next year?”
The three of them had been talking about this for months and Kayla still didn’t know what she wanted to do. “You want to make a wager?”
He waggled his eyebrows at her, then laughed when she shook her head. “What’ll I win?”
“I don’t care.”
“How about if I win, you go away with me for a weekend, just us. No Kayla. No worries. We go somewhere and have fun.”
“And if I win,” Stephanie said, “You go away with me for a week. Just us. No Kayla.”
The slice of pizza was already heading for Skylar’s mouth. Rather than taking a bite, he set it on the plate and looked at her in shock. “Wait. What?”
“I have plenty of vacation and I want to see more of the world. I’ll take Kayla another time, but I’d love to go to Colorado. Drive in the mountains, go to Denver, be a tourist.”
“Just us?” he asked, his face still showing his surprise. “Alone?”
“Then I want to change my choice. I’ll choose the same thing. Except, why don’t I pick Philadelphia. A whole week with only us? I want that.”
Stephanie laughed. “You know, we could plan a vacation without the wager, but back to the bet. I say that Kayla will go to the community college in Boone. She’ll live here and work more hours at the front desk so she can afford it. Jeff said that she could help Judy Greene at the bed and breakfast, too.”
“You know we can help with college.” Skylar shook his head. “I know, I know. We’ve talked about this. She has to figure out how to do it on her own.”
“You’re still paying off your student loans. I don’t want her to do that. We’ll help if she needs it. Now, what’s your bet?”
“Since you won’t let her take out a student loan, I don’t know if I have one. I was going to say she’d go to the University of Iowa with Rebecca.”
“Those girls really need to separate from each other. Rebecca isn’t always going to be around for her. Rebecca and Andrew will get married and travel around the world and do crazy things. Kayla isn’t that person,” Stephanie said. “You know I worry that Kayla relies on her too much for everything.”
He reached over and took her hand. “She’s going to be okay. You have to believe in her.”
Stephanie nodded and pushed the pizza around on her plate. She discovered two or three months ago that Skylar loved mushrooms, but she hated them, so he never ordered pizza with mushrooms on it. They hadn’t fought about it, but she did teach him that Pizzazz would actually make the two halves of a pizza different. He was such a good guy. “I do believe in her. She’s so innocent, though. I never thought that would be a bad thing, but it scares me for her.”
“That’s why I’m glad you guys live in Bellingwood. You have so many friends around that will help her. Not just Rebecca, but Cilla’s down there helping them plan, too. And no boy can get through Andrew Donovan to Kayla. She’s going to be fine. So, what will you do if she finds a program at the University and really wants to go to school over there? Not just because of Rebecca?”
“I guess we’ll make it work.” Stephanie shook her head. “I’m not old enough to be worrying about college for someone else. This is weird, right?”
“Exactly what has been normal about your life?” he asked with a grin. “It hasn’t mattered up until now. And look, that weird life of yours brought us together. What’s normal about living in the caretaker’s apartment of a little hotel in the middle of Iowa? Or working for a woman who finds dead bodies? Or spending your days in an old schoolhouse with big horses that live right nearby. It’s all a little weird. Puhleeze.”
“You’re right.” Stephanie took a deep breath. “We can do it. We can do anything. I’m just glad that you don’t let me do it all by myself.”
“Never. I’m always going to be here. You know I love you.”
She blinked back sudden tears. “Wow. Didn’t expect to cry. I love you, too.”