Allison draped the damp washcloth over the towel rack and eyed her reflection. Her cheeks were pink and her eyes were puffy, but it was as good as it was going to get. She straightened her ponytail before flipping off the lights and stepping out of the small powder room. Ian and Eric were seated on the couch in identical positions: elbows on knees, linked hands between knees, anxious eyes fixed on the powder room door.
She summoned a smidgeon of cheer. "So, let's take the long way to the dealership. I need to say goodbye to my baby."
Eric leapt to his feet. "Can I ride with you?"
"Absolutely. If it's okay with your father."
Ian stood, smoothed his palms down his thighs. Allison couldn't read the expression on his face. Had she freaked him out? Was he rethinking his decision to allow her within a hundred feet of his son? Was he mentally diagnosing her with some sort of disorder?
"Sure," Ian said, turning to face his son. "Seatbelt. Don't bug Ally about driving. The answer to that one is no."
Allison locked the house for the second time that morning and followed Eric to her car. She waited until his seatbelt was securely fastened before she backed out of the driveway. She followed Ian down side streets towards the freeway.
Eric stared at the small screen in the center of the dashboard as if it was something off an alien ship. "I've been after Dad to get a new truck for years. His is straight outta the Stone Age. It has a cassette player. Nothing cool like this."
Allison tapped the screen to pull up the music options. "I'm spoiled, now. The screen and the backup camera are on my list of must-haves."
""That's not country music," Eric said as he reached for the volume knob under the screen.
"You grew up here in Hickville."
Allison took her eyes off the road long enough to wink at the teen. "You're very observant this morning. Quick: what color is my shirt?"
Eric arched an eyebrow. "Is Dad aware of how sarcastic you can be?"
"Honey, your father taught me the fine art of sarcasm." Allison settled back in the leather seat, tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. "You can change the station, if you want. Twin doesn't share my post-grunge fascination, either."
"No, no I like this music. Dad likes the old country stuff." Eric's face twisted into a scowl. "Not there are many alternatives around here."
Allison resisted the urge to ruffle his hair. He was the spitting image of Ian at that age. Right down to the sullen half-pout. She had the feeling that mentioning the resemblance to Eric would not go over well.
"Your dad took me to my first big concert, you know."
"George Strait at the livestock show?"
"Foo Fighters at a festival in Houston." She grinned at his surprised gasp. "I had to beg my parents for a month solid. I'm pretty sure your dad had to swear, under penalty of death, that nothing would happen to me. We stayed the night with your dad's Aunt Linda. Your old man's not quite the stick in the mud you think he is."
Eric's sigh seemed to hold the weight of the world. He shifted so that he could stare out the passenger window. "I know. Everyone says I need to cut him some slack, but… I don't know." He lifted one shoulder, let it fall. "His job is important, I get it. And I feel like a jerk when I get mad at him. He makes it to the big things, and my grandparents are always around, but there are so only so many things I wanna drag Grandma to, you know?"
"We need to clear it with your dad, but if there's something you want to do – one of the non-big things – and I'm available, we'll see what we can do."
Eric drummed his fingers on his thighs. His eyes were fixed on the passing scenery. Allison's stomach dropped. Had she overstepped? Misread the situation?
"Something like pick out a homecoming mum for a girl at school?" Eric asked.
Allison flicked on the blinker and eased the car onto the exit ramp. Her offer had been sincere, but she hadn't expected for Eric to jump on it so quickly. Or for it to involve the dating habits of teenagers.
"Mrs. Poole's probably swamped with orders," she said, hating to burst the kid's bubble. "Your dad and Uncle Harry liked to wait until the last minute, too."
Allison felt like she'd just kicked a puppy. It was going to cost her, but she had a suggestion. "Jack was pretty popular in high school, and he hated offending anyone. After our freshman year, Mom had to start making mums just to keep Jack from taking out a loan during football season. If you and I pick out all the supplies for her, I bet we can get her to make a mum for you."
Eric's head snapped around. "Really?"
"Yeah. My mom's pretty awesome like that." Allison pulled in to the empty parking space next to Ian's truck. "If you want, we can mention it to her tonight."
Ian was waiting for them in front of the dealership's tinted glass doors. His hands were in his pockets and his posture appeared relaxed, but frown lines bracketed his lips. "Everything okay?"
Allison pasted on a sunny smile, looped her arm around Eric's shoulders. "Of course. E and I were just discussing the fine Texas tradition of homecoming mums."
Eric stiffened but didn't pull away from Allison. "I want to get one for Stacy Parada."
"That cute brunette in your Geometry class?" Ian asked.
Eric's cheeks turned bright pink. He dropped his gaze to his sneakers. "Yeah, her. She's been helping me study."
Allison and Ian both clucked their tongues at him. Their eyes met for a brief moment. A small smile lifted one corner of Ian's mouth. He inclined his head at her.
"Truth time, E. Are you giving her the mum because she's a good tutor or because you like her? It's not just a pretty flower and ribbons, you know," Allison said.
"She's already going to the dance with her friends. They bought tickets," Eric said.
Allison nodded. She gave in to impulse and ruffled the thick, blond hair on the back of his skull. "That's cool, and a lot of girls do that. But giving her the mum sort of implies that you'll be asking her to dance a couple of times."
Eric spun away from her hand. He glared at the two adults. "I was going to do that anyway."
"Okay." Ian held his hands up. "Okay. Then I'll keep mum about your plans."
Eric groaned, scrubbed a hand across his face. Wide, brown eyes stared at Allison accusingly. "Are you sure he was ever cool?"
"A long, long time ago, kid." Allison linked arms with Fowler men and turned them towards the doors. "C'mon, now. Let's do this before I lose my nerve."
Richard Fowler was a taller, rugged version of his son and grandson. His broad smile was warm, welcoming and utterly genuine. He wrapped tanned, muscular arms around Allison's shoulders and tugged her away from the other two.
"Well, hello, Miss Allison. Your pretty face sure is a sight for these old eyes." He kissed her forehead before setting her back for a visual inspection. "Don't tell me you've been on one of those city starvation diets. Well, not a problem now. My Ruth and your sweet mama will get you straightened out soon enough."
Though she felt warmth flood her face, she popped up on her toes to kiss Richard's smooth cheek. "Thank you, Mr. Fowler. It's good to be home."
"Yes, yes, it is, isn't it?" Richard held on to her arm and steered her towards a gleaming, red pickup truck. "A little bird told me you're looking to trade in your car for something more suitable for our fine terrain."
She shot a glare at Ian over her shoulder. He shrugged. Eric elbowed him in the side. She jerked her head for them to follow her. She adored Ian's father, but he had all the subtlety of a bulldozer. If she gave him an inch, he'd bully her into a luxury vehicle with more bells and whistles than she needed at a downright obscene 'family' discount. She didn't want more car than she needed, and she wasn't going to take advantage of her relationship with the Fowlers.
"No minivan, please. I was thinking of a mid-sized SUV. Something with four-wheel drive and a tow package," she said. "A backup camera and satellite radio would be nice."
Richard pivoted so they were headed for the doors that led to the car lot. Ian and Eric trotted behind them like faithful puppies. She answered Richard's questions regarding color and interior preferences. She requested a domestic vehicle, demurred when he suggested a luxury brand.
Ninety minutes later, Ian gently pried the keys to the sports coupe out of her tightly clenched fingers. "There's a good girl," he cooed, kissing her knuckles.
Ian dropped the keys onto his father's waiting palm. Allison sniffled a little as Richard instructed one of his salesmen to drive her car around to the back of the lot. The keys to her brand new, sky blue mid-sized domestic SUV didn't feel quite the same.
Eric scrambled into the backseat of Allison's new car. Ian strapped himself into the passenger seat. They'd decided to take Allison's vehicle to the downtown Market Day. She would drop Ian off to pick up his truck on the way home.
"This is pretty nice," Ian said, experimentally touching the screen in the center of the dash.
"Yeah," Allison said, a little glumly, "but it doesn't have a sunroof, and it won't go as fast."
"Knowing your lead foot, I feel a little better knowing that," Ian said.
"Look, Dad, no cassette player." Eric leaned between the front seats to point at the dashboard. "Welcome to the twenty-first century car."
Eric and Allison discussed new alt rock bands while she set the presets on the satellite radio. Ian perked up when she set one preset to the "80s and 90s Country" station. When Allison left the radio on that station, Eric flung himself back against his seat with a huff.
"Are you sure you don't need us to bring anything tonight?" Ian asked.
"Nah. Twin was going to swing by the store to pick up more snacks. If there's anything in particular you like, you can bring that." Allison grimaced. "You don't have to come for the ETS game. It won't be a party like the 'Bama game because the boys take their ETS football very seriously. There will be a lot of yelling. Besides, I don't want to monopolize your entire Saturday."
From the backseat, Eric snorted. Ian twisted around the seat to scowl at his son. Eric snorted again. Ian turned back around, smiled apologetically at Allison. "In case you didn't get the message, Ally, we want you to monopolize our Saturday."
"You get first shot at our Sunday, too," Eric said.
"Don't you have homework to do tomorrow?" Ian asked.
"Yeah. I need to finish a Chem assignment."
"I can help with that. I did volunteer to tutor," Allison said. She turned into one of the city's downtown public parking lots. "Jack and I were going to see Ozzy Molton's puppies after church, but the rest of my afternoon is free."
Ian's gaze sharpened. Allison squirmed under that laser focus. She switched off the ignition, reached down for her purse. Ian continued to stare at her.
"Ozzy's German Shepherd puppies?" he asked.
"Yes. Jack suggested that I get one, and I agreed that the idea had merit."
"Ozzy's guard dogs. Your brother suggested that you get one of Ozzy's guard dogs."
Allison lifted her head to meet Eric's gaze in the rearview mirror. "I see now where you learned to state the obvious, E."
Ian's arm shot across the center console. He wrapped long, strong fingers around her wrist before she could open her door. "Does this have to do with what happened in Dallas? The thing you're going to tell me about as soon as possible?"
"Sunday afternoon. After you look at dogs and help the kiddo with his homework. We'll talk about it then," Ian said. His tone made it clear that they would talk whether or not she was ready for the conversation.
"Okay." She held his stare until he dropped her wrist. "It'll be okay, Ian."
"Isn't that my line?" he muttered as he opened his car door.
"I want a dog," Eric said once they joined him by the SUV's rear bumper. "A German Shepherd sounds cool. Can we go look at the dogs, Dad?"
Ian raised his eyebrows at Allison as if to say, 'look at what you started.' She grinned at him. "You can help me pick out which one I want, Eric. Ozzy's pups are always too cute," she said.
Ian clasped her left hand. His thumb stroked across the inside of her wrist before he tugged her towards the outdoor market set up in the middle of downtown Hargrove. There were tables selling everything from Tupperware containers to custom t-shirts to live plants to vintage comic books. Eric flitted from Ian's side to Allison's and back again as they strolled down the crowded street.
Ian bought a reusable grocery bag and fresh produce from one of the local farmers. Allison purchased a fruit tart from a table of baked goods. Rather than carry it around, she promised to pick it up on her way out. Eric disappeared for ten minutes and returned with an armful of t-shirts and a blueberry sno-cone.
All three turned at the shrill call. A tall, blonde woman wove through the crowd towards them. Eric groaned, slumped against Allison's side. She swiped the sno-cone out of his hand and helped herself to a spoonful of sweet, blue ice. Ian handed his grocery bag to Eric before stepping in the woman's direction.
"I don't recognize her," Allison said. The woman looked like she should have gone to high school the same time as Ian and Allison, but her face wasn't familiar. It was likely the woman had moved to town during Allison's absence.
"Debra Hastings. She's a nurse at the hospital where Dad works sometimes. They went out a couple of times a year or so ago," Eric said, taking back his sno-cone. "She's not bad, I guess. She just talks to me like I'm five."
"Some people don't know how to deal with kids," Allison said. Her eyes narrowed when Nurse Debra's friendly kiss landed a little too close to Ian's mouth.
"But you're cool."
"That's because my twin is stuck in the teenage phase." She slung an arm across his shoulders and turned towards a booth filled with wind chimes and lawn art. "Let's see if we can find a pink flamingo or troll for your Dad's yard. You can set it out one night when he's working and then see how long it takes him to notice it."
By the time Ian finished with Debra Hastings, Eric and Allison had procured a set of four small statutes of dancing fairies and a ceramic figurine that looked more like one of the seven dwarves than a troll. Eric stashed the statues in the cloth bag that held his t-shirts.
"Sorry about that," Ian said once he rejoined them. "A patient I saw two weeks ago was back in the ER, and she thought I'd like to know."
"Is your patient all right? Do you need to go to the hospital? Eric can hang with me if you need to go in."
Ian jerked Allison to him and, smack in the middle of their hometown, kissed her. Both were short of breath when he finally lifted his head. He snaked an arm around her waist to anchor her to his side.
"I'm afraid I'll see this particular patient in my other professional capacity in the near future," he said, voice husky, "and that's a damn shame. I've done all I can for her, though. But, thank you."
Knees wobbly and heart pounding, Allison could only nod. Her face felt hot. She swallowed, licked her swollen lips. Ian's fingers dug into her hip. She wanted to sink against him and steal another kiss but was conscious of their audience.
"Let's go back to one of the plant booths. I saw a chiminea that would be perfect for Jack's back patio," she said.
Ian carried their bags to the SUV while Eric hefted her new chiminea. All Allison had to tote was her purse and Eric's mostly empty sno-cone cup. "I never realized how handy it was to have a teenage boy around," she mused, clicking the button to open the SUV's rear door.
"Feel free to borrow mine whenever you need him. My kid is your kid," Ian said.
"I might just take you up on that." She had boxes that needed to be moved from Jack's garage to her bedroom. She wanted to paint the room, too. And redo the wallpaper in his kitchen.
"I really wish you would."