Yours, Mine...or Ours?

 

YOURS, MINE...OR OURS?
Special Edition #1876
ISBN 978-0373-248766
January 2008

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Owning his own country inn is a dream-come-true for ex-cop Rudy Vaccaro, who’s thrilled to finally have a shot at something of his own...and to raise his twelve-year-old daughter without his huge family’s well-meaning, but constant, interference. Except Stacey hates being stuck out in the sticks. And how did he know the inn’s owner had promised the inn to somebody else?

Violet Kildare feels her life is pretty much a junkyard of broken promises. Two years ago, her husband left her and their two sons with no explanation, and now the inn – her one shot at having something of her own – has been sold out from under her. So does she dare trust Rudy, so determined to right a wrong not even of his own making?

And more important, how does she trust her own heart, torn between the good man right in front of her...and the one who saved her life so many years ago, now determined to right a wrong or two himself?

 

EXCERPT

  

REVIEWS

Yours, Mine...or Ours?

4 1/2 stars — "The characters are simply wonderful, and their journey toward love unforgettable."
Romantic Times

At the height of the dinner rush, Violet Kildare grabbed one, two, three, four Specials for table six from underneath the warming lights and thought, Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

“Mom!” George, her nine-year-old son, yelled as she whizzed past the booth where he and his younger brother Zeke sat surrounded by backpacks, Gameboys, assorted school papers and the remnants of the burgers and fries she’d tossed at them an hour ago. “What’s five plus four?”

“Use your fingers!” she called back as she set the plates down in front of Olive, Pesha, and the Millies, who trooped down to the diner from the retirement community every night, unless it was raining or the snow was over six inches deep, smiling for them even though they never tipped and at least one of them was guaranteed to find something wrong with her food.

“You shouldn’t tell him that, dear,” Old Millie (eighty-six as opposed to “Young” Millie’s eighty-two) said. “How’s he ever going to learn his sums if he keeps using his fingers?”

The other ladies all murmured their assent, interrupted only when Pesha – bony, blond and half blind – poked Violet in the hip with one sharp fingernail.

“This isn’t what I ordered.”

“Yes it is, Pesha. You ordered the special. Hot roast beef.”

“No, the Special’s Salisbury Steak.”

“That was yesterday. Today’s Hot Roast Beef.”

Pesha squinted at Young Millie’s plate, directly across from her. “Is that what she’s having?”

“Yes, ma’am, that’s what they’re all having.”

“Well, I don’t want Hot Roast Beef, I want Salisbury Steak. Mushrooms on the side.” She shooed at the plate. “Take it away.”

With a heavy sigh, Violet snatched up the plate and headed back toward the kitchen. “Nine?” George called out. “Is five plus four nine?”

“That’s right, baby,” Violet said, shoving an orange – not auburn, not chestnut, not ginger, orange – corkscrew curl out of her eyes as she swallowed back hot, pissed tears. She hadn’t signed on for this, night after night of chronically sore feet and aching back muscles, of dealing with cranky, cheapskate old ladies and old farts who clearly thought she should feel flattered by their very unwelcome attention. Night after night of only being able to give her babies scraps of attention, instead of being able to sit down with George like a good mother and help him navigate the minefield of letters and numbers he brought home from school every day.

“What the hell’s this?” came the stringy, snarly voice from the other side of the warming counter when Violet shoved the uneaten roast beef back across it.

“Sorry, Maude, Pesha wants Salisbury steak instead,” Violet said tiredly to the dull brown eyes peering out at her from underneath black bangs with more staying power than the Berlin wall. “Mushrooms on the side.”

The sixty-something owner of Mulligan Falls’s only independently-owned-and-operated-since-1948 eating establishment grabbed the plate, muttering, as “Mo-om! What’s six plus two?” sailed across the crowded restaurant, piercing her skull like a nail gun, and she thought, Buck up, chickie, ‘cause going under’s not an option, even if she had been left on her own to deal with their smart-as-a-whip son who still couldn’t remember that five plus four made nine, who had to have all the directions on his assignments explained three times because he couldn’t remember them on his own. With their younger son who barely spoke, even at four, but whose smile could melt the hardest heart.

Not that she’d ever expected life to be easy, she wouldn’t even know what to do with easy, but she wasn’t asking for easy, just a chance—

“Here you go,” Maude said, clunking Pesha’s Salisbury steak on the serving counter. Pesha’s mushroom-smothered Salisbury steak. Not even taking the time to sigh, Violet grabbed a fork and scraped the fungus into a little glob beside the meat. Then, hoping for the best, she strode back toward the old ladies’ booth, yelling out, “Use your fingers!” to George.

The bell over the front door tinkled. More customers. Yippy skippy. The diner went eerily silent, as though somebody’d pressed the mute button. Violet glanced up, skidding smack into a pair of smoky blue eyes in a male face that didn’t have a single soft anything, anywhere. At least, what she could see underneath the beard haze.

He was big, bodyguard big, his head stubbled with little more hair than his face, big enough to nearly blot out the younger man behind him, to dwarf the pretty, long-haired girl in front, her slender shoulders swallowed by a pair of huge, hard hands.

“Three?” Darla, the other waitress, finally got out, gawking at the taller man as though she’d wouldn’t mind clutching him to her flat little bosom like one of the front-door-sized laminated menus in her arms.

“Yeah, three,” he said, and Violet more felt than heard his voice, deep, not from around here, felt it seep into her skin, through her pores. . .

No more romance novels for you, she thought, shrugging off two years’ worth of unused hormones, about the same time she realized Darla had seated the trio in Violet’s station because hers was all filled.

Great. Just great, she thought as Darla passed around the menus, her long face sagging with disappointment.

But a gal’s gotta do what a gal’s gotta do. So, jerking her pencil out of her hair, Violet marched over to take their orders.

“Smile,” Darla hissed at her as she passed, and Violet reminded herself that her sore feet and aching back were not these peoples’ fault. And that the grumpy approach was probably not the best way to get a tip.

Both men were slouched heavily against the padded booth backs, the girl’s face folded into the standard issue adolescent glower. Without even knowing the particulars, Violet felt a tremor of sympathy for her. Orders taken, she called them out to Maude – burgers and fries, the Special, spaghetti for the girl – then asked, “So what brings you to Mulligan’s Falls?”

Those sharp blue eyes swung to hers, and assorted body parts quivered, remembering. Then he said, “I just bought the old Hicks Inn, up on the hill.”

And presto-chango, Mitch fell to second place on Violet’s Men Who Screwed Me Over list.

***

“Your food’ll be here in a sec,” the red-headed waitress said, her voice like needles as she snatched up the menus, and Rudy thought, Huh? But the needles had pricked him awake, at least enough to notice her as something other than the means by which food would eventually reach his stomach. Enough to catch the sparks of anger, of hurt, in her big, silvery green eyes, before she wheeled around and tromped off, the diner’s overhead lights tangling in a thousand tiny ringlets the same color orange as in the wallpaper in his “new” kitchen.

Yours, Mine...or Ours?Then the haze of exhaustion cleared enough for him to notice the body underneath the curls, short and curvy and compact in the pale green uniform, like one of those VW Bugs, he thought, stronger and far more crash-resistant than one might think.

“What was that all about?” Kevin asked, and Rudy shook his head, half annoyed, half relieved that he hadn’t imagined it.

“No idea,” he said. But after a flurry of murmurings and gasps, Rudy noticed several heads had turned in their direction.

“Dad?” Stacey whispered. “Why’s everybody looking at us?”

“Beats me, honey.”

Kevin leaned forward. “Why do I feel like we just landed in the middle of a Stephen King novel?”

Stacey sidled closer as Rudy kicked Kevin under the table.

Until three minutes ago, Rudy hadn’t had too much trouble keeping his good mood aloft. Much to their surprise – and Rudy’s profound relief – three of the upstairs bedrooms were in fairly good shape, as were the bathrooms. Yeah, the downstairs needed a lot of work, but no huge surprises. So he’d decided – especially after four hours of non-stop cleaning and inspection and plugging up unplanned critter doors – that nobody, including him, was up to canned Dinty Moore stew warmed up over a campstove. And besides, promising Stacey any dessert she wanted might earn him enough points to see them through at least the next twenty-four hours.

So, the U-Haul trailer unhitched, they’d piled into his edging-toward-classic-status Bronco and headed to town, “town” being Main Street, basically, five blocks long and anchored by an old-fashioned square, across from which sat Maude’s. Applebee’s, it wasn’t, but – as he explained to his sneering daughter – the sooner they started mixing with the locals, the sooner they’d stop feeling like outsiders.

“Never happen,” she’d muttered as they’d walked in. Although he already knew she had her eye on a piece of chocolate cream pile in the old-fashioned display tower on the counter.

He hadn’t counted, however, on being regarded like their ship had just cut swathes in the crop fields. Unnerving, to say the least. And frankly annoying. For God’s sake, the minute he or Kev opened their mouths it was pretty clear the Vaccaros hailed from the same good, solid working class stock as the majority of Mulligan Falls’s residents. So what the hell?

Their waitress returned with their drinks, which she clunked in front of them, her mouth pressed tight, and Rudy saw the pinch of frustration and exhaustion in those squeezed lips. Although what that had to do with him, he had no idea. His cop senses sprang to attention, that this was someone about to blow, and he thought, I could fix, you, too.

What the freaking hell?

“Oh, and, miss?” he said, gently, “my daughter would love a piece of that chocolate pie, if you could add it to our order?”

“Sure thing,” she said, not meeting his eyes but smiling just enough at Stacey for Rudy to see through at least some of those suffocating layers of resentment. Then one of the old biddies at the booth across the way called her over, in that imperious way people have when they think you exist solely for their comfort, complaining about her food being cold or something, and at the back of the restaurant a little boy yelled, “Mom! What’s twelve take away seven?” as the woman behind the serving counter dinged an obnoxiously loud bell and hollered, “Violet! Order up!”

He saw her – Violet – stop for a second, her back expanding with the force of her breath, before yelling, “Use your fingers!” to the boy (there were two of them, Rudy now saw, practically buried by books and things in the booth), grabbing the old lady’s plate and carrying it back to the kitchen, where she exchanged it for the three plates waiting for her.

The plates precariously balanced, she spun around again at the precise moment the youngest boy darted out of the booth and into her path. On a yelp, the waitress – Violet – stumbled, the plates leaping, flying, crashing magnificently onto the tile floor, as, catching her son in her arms, she went down, too.

Rudy and Kevin were instantly out of their seats, Kevin snatching the child out of the pile of shattered plates and splattered spaghetti and scattered fries and roast beef and gravy as Rudy grabbed for the crumpled waitress.

“Leave me alone!” she cried, close to meltdown, slapping at his hands as she struggled to her knees and grabbed her chick. “Zeke! You okay? Does anything hurt?” Heedless of the spaghetti sauce and gravy clinging to her breasts, dribbled down her skirt, she frantically checked for blood and bruises. A noodle dangled from her hair; she yanked it out and tossed it on the floor, then clamped one tiny shoulder with a short-nailed hand, holding the other one three inches from the kid’s nose. “How many fingers?”

“Th-three,” the kid said, small-voiced, trembling. “I’m sorry, Mama, I had to pee! I didn’t see you!”

“It’s okay, baby, it’s okay.” The boy momentarily vanished into her bosom to have a dozen kisses rained upon a crop of short blonde curls. “It’s okay,” she said again. “Accidents happen, it wasn’t your fault.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Rudy saw Stacey pick her way through the carnage. “If you want, I could take your little boy to the restroom and get him cleaned up,” she said, and Rudy gawked at her.

“Thank you,” Violet said, nodding, only now seeming to notice the extent of the mess, which verged on epic proportions. As Stacey led Zeke away, Violet sat back on her haunches and moaned. A tall, shapeless, hairnetted brunette in a grease-splotched apron appeared out of nowhere, bringing with her a deathly silence. Rudy glanced over his shoulder: Every eye was trained on the scene.

“This makes what, Violet?” she said. “The third time this month?”

“I know,” she said, flushing red as she began gathering the jagged pieces of earthenware, their soft clanking like screams in the deep hush. Rudy squatted to help her; she glared at him, then shrugged. “Zeke ran out in front of me—”

“And didn’t I say you could bring the kids here while you worked as long as they weren’t a nuisance?”

“It was an accident, Maude.” The waitress kept her eyes on the floor, tense fingers clutching two neat halves of a broken plate, weariness and embarrassment stiffening her back. Kevin appeared with a gray plastic tub, started tossing the mess into it; Rudy tried to pry the broken plate from Violet’s hands, which earned him another glare. She tossed the destroyed crockery into the bin, saying, “I’ll pay for the loss. Like always.”

“I’m sorry, Violet, I really am,” the older woman said, not sorry at all. “This isn’t working out—”

“No! Maude, please!” Tears bulged in Violet’s eyes when she looked up. “I promise it won’t happen again—!”

Rudy was on his feet, staring down whoever the hell this Maude was, his steady, now-we-don’t-want-any-trouble cop’s voice barely masking his irritation. “Like she said, it was an accident. So how about cutting the lady a break?”

“You stay out of this,” Violet said, now standing as well, the eyes inches away, as were the breasts, like double-dip mounds of pistachio ice cream, or maybe mint, the image almost enough to neutralize a tone meant to shrink gonads in a hundred yard radius. Too bad for her Rudy’s were the nonshrinkable variety. He may have turned in his badge and gun, but not those. “I don’t need some stranger fighting my battles for me!”

“Then let me introduce myself,” he said, extending his hand. “Rudy Vaccaro.”

For a second, he thought she might spit at him.

“Who?” Maude said.

“He bought Doris’s place,” Violet said, and something in her voice brought his head around. Then, to add to the bizarreness, Maude laughed. Rudy’s head swung back to Maude. Who was smirking.

“No, mister, I sincerely doubt she wants your help,” she said, as Stacey returned with the younger boy, who immediately plastered himself to his mother’s side. As Violet cupped the boy’s head, her boss said, “So what’s it gonna be? You gonna find somebody to babysit your brats or what?”

The waitress flushed again, the deep pink a weird contrast to the orange hair, then turned, wagging her hand at the older boy. “Get your stuff together, we’re leaving,” she said softly, and Kevin tugged Rudy’s sleeve and whispered, “Not your problem, bro, let’s get back to the table, okay? Rudy!

Torn, Rudy frowned into his brother’s eyes. “Obviously, you hanging around is only making this harder for her,” Kevin said under his breath. “Come on.”

Yours, Mine...or Ours?After a final glance at Violet as she herded her sons through the restaurant and out the back door, Rudy followed his brother and daughter back to the booth. But everyone was still staring, and he knew damn well they were the subject of at least a half-dozen whispered conversations, too.

So when the other waitress brought them their re-done dinners, Rudy asked, “Okay, clearly I’m missing something. What’s my buying the Hicks place got to do with Violet?”

Her eyes banged into his. “You don’t know?”

When Rudy shook his head, the waitress said, “Then let me be the first to break it to ya...”


(c) 2007, 2008 Reprinted with permission of Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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