The persistent ringing of the phone shattered the early morning quiet. Even before Elloree could reach the phone to shut off the annoying sound, she felt an intuitive stab, and her hand hesitated before lifting the receiver.
Then her crisp, cheerful answer went across the wire. “Good morning.”
It only took an instant for her to recognize the gruff, deep voice at the other end. Not a “Hello, how are you?” or “It’s been a long time.” But of course it was as it always had been with him. “Hell of a day here, El. I’m up to my ass in work as always. And it’s raining—just a sloppy, dreary muck.” He made a sort of snorting sound of disapproval.
She had to smile as she pictured him pacing at the other end of the line. She could see his craggy face set with determination as his broad, flat fingers ran restlessly through his coarse, graying hair. My God, hadn’t she sat across from him at too many staff meetings to ever forget the intensity in those dark brown eyes?
“Well, I guess the weather is one thing you can’t control, Mark,” she replied. “But it’s good to hear from you,” she added, surprised that she meant it. “How are things going?” and there was a question in her voice—not a longing, just a question. She couldn’t help feeling curious about a call that had come so unexpectedly, bringing a flood of memories with it.
“Things are not just going, they’re growing, and in leaps and bounds,” he boomed. “We’re about to launch a new promotion that should take us into both national and international markets we’ve been trying to tap into for a mighty long time.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Mark.” But still she waited. He hadn’t called to tell her idle news about his business growth.
“I’ll get right to the point.”
Her breath caught in her throat as he said it. Same old Mark—hit it hard, hit it fast, and nine times out of ten, you get what you want. Wasn’t that what he’d always told her?
“What I want, Elloree”—he spoke quickly, firing his words into the phone at her as if his rapid delivery would convince her—“what I need and what the company has to have is someone to head up this operation. Someone, not just to work up designs, but to get the goddamned thing rolling like I know it can and must. Someone to handle the artists—kick some temperamental butt, you know, while making them love every minute of it—and then put together some presentations that will knock the balls off those son-of-a-bitch buyers. I need a multidimensional person to get this off the ground and pull the whole campaign together.”
Elloree’s hand tightened around the receiver. “I know you have a very large and capable staff now, Mark,” she said. “Alex Tenner is one of the best, and I read you stole him from Hallmark just last year.”
Mark laughed, the deep bellowing sound shaking the phone. “You’re right there, but we call it ‘making an offer he couldn’t refuse.’ Yeah, we’ve got him on our side now. But between you and me, the guy’s a light-footed ass who spends too much time thinking with what’s below the belt. No, this operation needs someone special.”
How very like him, Elloree fumed, pacing the kitchen, still clutching the phone. Today, without warning, one phone call had transformed an ordinary Saturday morning into something that was anything but. Impulsive, aggressive Mark Williams had always known what he wanted. And as he phrased it this morning, “I want and need you to come back to work, El. This project can’t fly without you.”
I wish I’d just let the answering machine pick up the call, she thought, I wouldn’t have had to talk to him and hear those persuasive words. Just like that, go back to work. Damn him. But even as she thought it, she knew she’d made her decision when she’d heard his voice. Still, she answered carefully. “You know I can’t just come back, Mark. I would need time.” She hesitated and then added, “Time to talk to Tom. And there are things here to work out before I could even think of it.” She tried to sound firm and in control, but her heart was racing with excitement.
“Fine, fine; take all the time you need. Call me on Monday with your answer.”
She wondered if he could detect the quiver in her voice when she promised to call on Monday.
Elloree stood for a moment staring at the kitchen counter. Mechanically, she rinsed the few dishes that had been left there. “All the time I need,” she muttered. “Call on Monday. Time, what does he know about time?” She shook her head angrily.
She could hear the children in the backyard, their voices high-pitched from play. They were still a marvel to her—those perfect little hands and feet, such distinct personalities emerging as they grew. She was always amazed how two boys could be so entirely different. Paul was the oldest, a tall, sturdy, blond boy with piercing blue eyes in a round, cherubic face. Paul regarded the world with a serious curiosity that sometimes seemed too intense for such a small child. Thick, curly hair framed a round, freckled face that was most often thoughtful. His sensitive mouth could be drawn into a determined line one moment and then break into a quick grin the next. But despite all his seriousness, Paul had an infectious laugh. Most children of his age giggled shrilly, but Paul had a deep chuckle that seemed to come from the very depths of his well-worn sneakers.
Timmy was as opposite to his brother Paul as anyone could be. Timmy owed his looks to neither of his parents. In both appearance and personality, he belonged strictly to himself. Although not a handsome child, he had a winsome appeal, and his small-featured face was dominated by ears that protruded abruptly from a mass of carrot-colored hair. From his earliest playpen days, Timmy had displayed two distinct sides to his character—Timmy the comedian and Timmy the crab. He could be laughing one moment and then change swiftly into an irritable whiner the next. Timmy would always have a personality that few would take the trouble to understand.
Elloree abruptly brought herself back to the present. Mark Williams had offered her the career opportunity of a lifetime. She would have to convince Tom that her work at Wishes was important to her. Her love for her work had never been replaced by her roles as wife and mother.
The doorbell chimed, interrupting her thoughts. A messenger from Wishes Inc. handed her an envelope addressed to Elloree Prince. Mark Williams never had accepted her married name. She dismissed the boy with a quick, “Thank you,” and tore open the seal. “Need your answer Monday. Come on in; the water’s fine,” was scrawled across company letterhead in Mark’s bold, strong handwriting.
“Just like him to make the decision sound so easy,” she muttered. “Damn, he’s really pushing hard.”
“Hey, Mom. Hey, Mom,” came an anxious call from the backyard, and she sprinted for the kitchen door.
Timmy, in his army helmet and cowboy boots, was perched high in the peach tree lobbing fruit grenades at his brother. An overripe one exploded in a direct hit on Paul, who, with splattered pants and injured spirit, hollered his objections.
“He’s not supposed to be up in that tree, Mom. Tell him to come down. Timmy, Mom’s gonna get you,” Paul yelled at his brother, who promptly retorted by tossing another gooey peach that landed squarely in Paul’s hair, producing a wail of protest.
Elloree intervened just in time to prevent Paul from shinnying up the tree after his brother. “Okay, okay, let’s straighten this war out. Come on down, Tim.”
Paul stood angrily at the base of the tree watching his younger, more agile brother swing monkey-like from a limb. Paul’s heavier build and more cautious nature usually kept him on the ground, while lithe, little Timmy could shinny up a tree faster than a cat and, once up there, be completely at home. He never had fallen, although he engaged in breathtaking aerial leaps that made his mother shudder. Disciplining Timmy for daredevil tree climbing acts never discouraged him. No one in the Randall household could successfully curtail his death-defying hobby. Everyone had accepted it but Paul, and it infuriated him to have Tim scamper up a tree out of his grasp. It simply was unfair for a little brother to possess such a talent and use it to such unsporting advantage. At this moment, Paul felt keenly insulted and glowered fiercely at the teasing Timmy.
“Aw, Mom, we were only playing,” Timmy protested as he landed at his mother’s feet.
“Oh yeah! Look at my pants. And I’ll bet I’ve got a bruise as big as a pumpkin on my leg,” Paul countered.
“A pumpkin! Boy, get you. I couldn’t even throw a pumpkin from up there, and there aren’t any around here anyway.”
Both boys plodded toward the house at first jostling each other as they went. But as the temporary cease-fire in their war worked its magic, the boys forgot their recent anger and the threesome linked arms and walked across the yard together. Elloree wondered how she was going to tell them about her offer at Wishes, and she knew she could never explain why she would have to leave them. They reached the house, and the boys flung themselves down at the table in the bright, sunny breakfast room.
When Elloree and Tom had purchased the sprawling, old place, the breakfast room had been a dingy green, but she had redecorated it in creamy whites and colorful wallpaper. It had taken months of work for an old German craftsman to strip away the layers of paint to restore the finish of the fine wood floors and paneling throughout the house. Even the high, exposed beam ceilings and rusted, wrought-iron banisters had regained their original luster. And when finally finished, the house had an elegant, stately charm. Ornamental gates across the driveway and a bubbling fountain in the front courtyard completed the transformation of the once run-down, old place. But Tom remained practical to the end, grumbling about inadequate heating and antiquated plumbing.
Months ago, sitting in this very room, Elloree had tried to talk to Tom about her work. She wanted to submit her freelance artwork to some local publications. With her background, she knew she could sell some pieces and begin to build a client base that could grow into her own small company. Tom had listened patiently while she’d outlined her plans, smiled, and then suggested she accept the post of art director for the spring community hospital benefit. He pointed out it would be a perfect outlet for her talents since the hospital would need brochures, posters, and advertising layouts planned. He had stubbornly refused to discuss her wish to work any further, using the boys and their schedules as a final objection. Since there was no financial need for her to work, Tom considered the subject closed. He had patted her shoulder and left the room, reminding her to call the hospital benefit chairman on Monday.
Frustrated and bewildered, Elloree resented his attitude and lack of understanding. In the beginning, Tom had seemed intrigued with her work, but after their marriage, he’d discouraged her from continuing with it. At first, she’d resisted, but gradually, she had given in to him. The last assignment she had done professionally had been six years ago, just before Timmy was born, and now she did have the two boys to consider.
At this moment, Paul was looking at her expectantly, waiting to be reprimanded for the morning’s activities with his brother. Both of their smudgy faces turned toward her with large question marks stamped across them.
“Well, Mom?” asked Paul.
“How do you feel about Mrs. Clive coming to live with us for a while?” Elloree plunged in hopefully. Mrs. Clive had been the Randall’s part-time housekeeper for several years and would be the ideal one to take over.
“Why?” questioned practical Timmy. The boys eyed their mother, concern and suspicion creeping into their faces.
“Well, I’ve been offered …” Elloree’s words trailed off and stopped. Those faces suddenly made her very uncertain.
“Are you going somewhere, Mother?” Paul asked seriously. For these adult conversations, he always used “Mother” rather than the less formal and usual “Mom.”
The boys looked young and vulnerable sitting there before her, like two helpless puppies, she thought. Instead of the unemotional, factual conversation Elloree had planned, she found herself blurting out, “Oh, I love you both so very much. You must never forget that, no matter what I do.” First she hugged Paul and then moved quickly around the table to gather Timmy into her arms for a moment.
“Never mind, boys, it’ll keep. Go on outside to your play, but stay away from those peaches.”
Timmy and Paul exchanged puzzled glances then raced for the door.
“Beat you to the garage, Shrimp,” Paul’s challenge echoed after them.
Elloree sat down at the table, cradling her head on her arms for a minute. “Oh God, what will I say to Tom if I can’t do better than that with the boys,” she moaned.
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Genre - Women’s fiction
Rating – PG-13
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The author is giving away 1 soft cover books and 3 kindle books in this tour.