“You want Sarah to stay here with me and my son? Are you serious?” Melanie asked from the doorway of her house.
He looked her in the eye without answering her question. He didn’t need to. She knew he wasn’t the type to joke.
Melanie held the doorknob with one tense hand. “Did you not see how she was with me the day you two left? We don’t get along.”
Tony wasn’t asking. He wasn’t budging until she agreed. “Sarah needs a place to stay while she sorts out how to get home.”
Melanie hedged, suggesting, “How about a place in town?”
Tony shook his head, unwilling to even consider the option.
Pursing her lips in irritation, Melanie said, “I don’t see why she can’t stay with you. It’s not like the whole town doesn’t know how close you’ve gotten.”
He was about to tell her that the house she lived in was his, not hers. Anger swept through him and he’d barely opened his mouth when Melanie spoke before him in a rush. “I shouldn’t have said that. Whatever happened between the two of you is none of my business.” When he didn’t say anything, she said, “I need this job, Tony. Sarah can stay here.”
A wave of shame swept over him, rocking him back on his heels. When did I become the man that single mothers believe would throw them out in the streets with their children? He rubbed his forehead angrily. Her house was the only home her son had ever known. He removed his hat and said, “You’re not fired, Melanie.”
Melanie nodded, visibly relaxing in response to his quiet tone. He hated the tears that came to her eyes as she said, “Thank you. I don’t know where I’d go if I was.”
Tony shook his head, his remorse deepening, and although he strove to distance himself from it, he couldn’t muster anger or indifference. All he felt was a deep regret that she had lived so long in a state of desperation that he’d never even noticed. Why didn’t she have savings? She didn’t pay rent. Where was her money going? He felt worse when he realized how very little he knew about a woman who had worked for him for the past four years.
He turned to walk away. The screen door slammed behind him, and he figured Melanie had gone back inside until he heard her call his name. “Tony.”
He looked back over his shoulder.
“Send Sarah over. I have an extra room just sitting here, and it might be nice to have another woman to talk to.”
“You don’t have to do that,” he said gruffly.
She squared her shoulders and put on a bright smile. “I know I don’t, but I want to do this for you. Send her. It’ll be fine.”
He settled his hat deep on his head and nodded without returning her smile. “I appreciate it,” he said, and realized that he sincerely did. Those two women were like oil and water, and Melanie’s instincts were probably right that mixing the two wasn’t wise, but he wasn’t ready for the alternative.
He wasn’t ready for Sarah to leave.
In her wildest imaginating of how her first day back on Tony’s ranch would go, Sarah had never dreamed it would include an invitation from Melanie to stay at her house for a couple of days. Sarah searched her face for a sign of sarcasm but found none. What did Tony threaten her with that made her willing to stand there and pretend she doesn’t hate me?
Instead of feeling triumphant in the face of her rival’s humility, Sarah felt profoundly sorry for Melanie, and she knew that before addressing her housing offer, there was something that needed to be said. “I am so sorry for what I said to you last week. I was wrong and I was rude. I felt awful about asking for my notebook back from your son. If it wasn’t full of personal information, I would have let him keep it.”
Melanie’s eyes locked with hers in surprise. “He knows better than to take what’s not his.”
“Could I buy him a few coloring books before I go?”
Melanie stiffened with pride. “We don’t need anything.”
Sarah suppressed a grimace. No matter how hard she tried, she and Melanie just didn’t click. “I know, but it would make me feel better about how I behaved.”
Lips tight, Melanie said, “I’m not going to poison you. You don’t have to be nice to me.”
Sarah smiled nervously. “That’s a relief.” Crap, I can’t believe I forgot about that. “Listen, your offer is nice, but we both know it’s not a good idea. The sooner I leave the better.”
Melanie took a piece of paper out of her pocket. “A friend of yours has been calling all week. Maybe you should call her back. She might be the solution you’re looking for.”
Sarah took the paper and her lip curled slightly in distaste. Lucy? Seriously? She crumpled the paper in her hand.
Melanie said, “She called almost every day.”
She can call until the end of eternity and I won’t call her back.
“I have to go make lunch. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.”
Still feeling badly about the last time she’d seen Melanie, Sarah couldn’t help but ask, “Is your son with you today?”
Melanie shook her head and looked away. “He was tired today, so he stayed back at the house with David.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Is he okay?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Melanie answered shortly and walked away, disappearing into the hallway that led to the kitchen.
That seems to be a theme around here.
Sarah foraged through her purse and found the list of places where she’d stayed on the way down—all horse-friendly bed-and-breakfasts. She called the closest one. No availability for at least a month. Crap. The same answer from the second place she called. Full up.
I could call Charlie. He’d know what to do. No, I need more time before I face him, before I even begin to try to regain what we’ve lost.
And I can’t stay here and pretend last week didn’t happen.
Melanie walked into the living room again, this time with a cordless phone. She handed it to Sarah. “It’s your friend again.”
Shocked into silence, Sarah took the phone and held it to her ear.
Lucy gushed a greeting. “Oh my God. I can’t believe I finally reached you.”
Before this goes any further, it’s time for a bit of honesty. “I don’t want to talk to you.”
In a much more subdued tone, Lucy said, “I deserve that, I know, but please don’t hang up.”