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Like a bad penny, I came back.
Seven years ago, I moved to Chicago to pursue a new adventure. It was a great time in my life. I had a fun job and shared a gorgeous downtown apartment with my BFF. We partied like it was 1999. Then Ellie met the man of her dreams, and everything changed. Two months ago, she married him and moved out, leaving me with a huge apartment to myself and sole responsibility for the rent. Trouble was, I couldn’t afford it. So, I applied for a promotion at work. My contact in HR told me confidentially that my name had risen to the top of a shortlist of candidates for a management position, and I had my fingers crossed as I waited anxiously for the congratulations call from the general manager.
Well, I wish that was how the story ended, but I got passed up on the promotion I was more than qualified for and the raise I desperately needed. Disillusioned and living on my last dollar, I decided to say goodbye to Chicago and temporarily move back home to live with my parents while I planned what to do next. Move to California? Join the air force? Go to college? I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. So, in the meantime, here I was. Back in Minneapolis where I started.
And back into the family routine. Two days after I arrived back home, my mother dragged me out of bed at six in the morning to help her make potato salad, slice up a ham, and butter the buns for the sandwiches for our extended family’s annual reunion that afternoon. I wasn’t happy about getting up with the chickens, especially on a Saturday—my day to sleep in—but I knew better than to argue with her. She and my stepfather had always maintained the “my house, my rules” mantra and if I wanted to live there rent-free, I needed to toe the line. That meant doing chores, keeping my bedroom clean, and being home by midnight when I went out. No kidding! I didn’t mind doing my share of the work, but I was twenty-five years old, and all these rules made me feel like I’d just turned sixteen again. Especially the curfew!
Needless to say, I was anxious to get a job and get on with a new—and hopefully exciting—chapter of my life as soon as possible.
By ten o’clock that morning, I arrived with my parents at Long Lake Park in New Brighton. We parked next to the open-air pavilion; a state-of-the-art picnic facility situated on a hill in a 200-acre park overlooking the crystal blue lake. I knew this place well. Nora, my mom, had been renting the pavilion the weekend after Memorial Day for my stepfather’s annual family summer reunion since I was a kid. A half-dozen women—members of the reunion committee—were already there buzzing like bees in the pavilion’s full kitchen, preparing dishes for the noon feast. I didn’t want to be in the center of all those old biddies bossing each other around so I volunteered to clean all forty-one picnic tables and decorate them with tablecloths and centerpieces.
By twelve-thirty, nearly every table in the pavilion was filled with my happy step-relatives, chatting and laughing, their paper plates stuffed with every kind of salad imaginable, fresh veggies, ribs, burgers, and brats. Escaping from the hot kitchen to the buffet, I spooned a few cold items on my plate, grabbed a can of chilled Coke from one of the huge coolers, and looked around for a vacant spot to sit and quietly eat my lunch.
“Hey, Stella,” a deep, throaty voice echoed across the noisy pavilion. “Over here!”
My stepbrother, Randy waved his long, muscular arm above the crowd to get my attention. We hadn’t seen each other since last Christmas, and his appearance pleasantly surprised me. At least I had someone interesting to talk to now. Our parents—both young widowers—married when I was five and Randy was ten. We’d been getting on each other’s nerves ever since then. These days, however, we simplified things by agreeing to disagree. Same thing, but less drama.
He sat at a picnic table at the edge of the pavilion clad in tight jeans and a gray T-shirt with a huge plate of food in front of him. Next to that was a smaller plate filled with cake, cookies, and a classic Minnesota favorite—a thick Rice Krispie bar covered with melted chocolate chips. I scurried over to his table wondering if he’d share some of that delectable bar with me. He scooted over a few inches on the seat so I could slide in next to him.
Randy placed his arm around my shoulders and enveloped me with an affectionate hug. “You’re lookin’ good, sis. I called Mom last night and she told me you were back in town. I wanted to stop by the house to see you, but she said you guys were busy getting ready for the picnic, so I told her I’d catch you today.” He treated me to a handsome grin. “How does it feel to be living at home again?”
I countered with a wry laugh. “Like I never left. I’ve worked harder in the last two days getting ready for this picnic than I have in the last two months working full-time. How have you been? Mom says you bought a house and you’re remodeling it.”
His brown eyes twinkled. “It’s actually an old church. A small one, late Victorian style. I’m preserving the main features, like the stained-glass windows and the vaulted ceiling as I renovate the interior into a unique dwelling.”
Randy had always liked carpenter work and it made no sense to me why he’d gone into law enforcement instead. I thought he liked being a cop, too, but according to Mom, he’d quit the force a few months ago and started his own business as a private detective.
I chuckled inwardly. My stepbrother was thirty years old and owned his own business, but to me, he would always be the bratty kid who pulled my hair, teased me until I cried, and tattled on me incessantly. Randy looked a lot like Mel—my stepfather—with thick black hair, a permanent five-o’clock shadow, and a sexy dimple on his chin. He stood six feet and four inches tall in his socks. All my life he had always towered over me, but I never let a small detail like that deter me when we fought like crazy as kids. And I still didn’t.
He smiled at the mountain of barbequed ribs on his heavy-duty paper plate. “H-m-m-m… I’ve been dreaming about this meal for a week.”
“How is your detective agency doing these days?” I asked and shoved a forkful of cold salad in my mouth. The tangy flavor of strawberries and whipped cream blended with whipped Jell-O tasted like heaven on my tongue.
“Great!” he replied a little too fast. He paused. His fork, heaping with potato salad, halted mid-air. “But it could be better.”
I shrugged, wondering what he meant by that. “Then make it better.”
“I could if only—” His phone beeped. He picked it up, frowned at the number then set it back on the table. “I need someone to manage my office and answer all my calls. I’ve installed a landline and ordered business cards with the new number on it.”
I swallowed a bite of ham sandwich and reached for my Coke. “Why? What’s wrong with your cell phone? You carry it with you wherever you go.”
He shook his head. “I can’t answer it when I’m meeting with people, or I’m on a recon, or working undercover. It’s disruptive, so I put it on silent, but then I miss a lot of calls that I should have taken. I need someone to screen all my calls and handle the easy stuff, so I only have to deal with major issues. Any client I’m working for, of course, will get my private number. Those calls are my number one priority.”
He shot me a sideways look. “Mom says you’re looking for a job. Why don’t you come and work for me?”
I almost choked on my Coke. Work for him? As in…take orders from him? Uh-uh. I rolled my eyes. “You’re kidding, right? You know our working relationship wouldn’t last more than a day or two. We’d get on each other’s nerves and start fighting. We’d drive your clients away!”
He gave me a pleading look. “Ah, come on, Stel. It’ll only be for a couple of weeks until I can get someone permanent. I promise!”
“Ran-dee…” I said, noticing my childhood whine creeping into my voice. See? I thought to myself with irritation. The drama is already starting! “I need to get a job in my field,” I argued. “So I can get the heck out of Dodge as soon as possible. Mom and Dad are already driving me crazy.” I’d filled out an application on several online job search engines but hadn’t come across anything located in the Twin Cities yet that fit my qualifications.
He took my hand in his, letting me know he wasn’t too proud to beg. “Help me out here, sis. It’ll only be until I can get someone permanent to fill the job. I’ll even let you hire her.”
“Look, I’m a sales associate and a darn good one, too. Not an HR specialist,” I said pulling my hand away. I stuck out my foot to show my favorite pair of designer sandals. “My expertise is in high-fashion retail. I don’t know anything about the private investigator business.”
“So what? You’re not stupid,” Randy said with a mouthful of barbequed rib. He gave me a stubborn look. “You can figure it out.” He put down his rib and wiped his hands on a napkin.
“How much will I get paid?” I asked as I picked at my frosted brownie.
He gave me a figure. I burst out laughing.
“Think about it, okay?” he asked with a hopeful smile. “You can let me know by Monday.”
“Right,” I said as I forked potato salad into my mouth. He sounded like he expected me to take the job. But then, his ego had always been bigger than his brain. With any luck, I’d have a permanent job by then.
I decided to change the subject. “Are you sticking around for a while or are you leaving after lunch?”
He took another bite of his barbequed rib. “I’m going to catch up with a few people I haven’t seen since last year’s picnic and then take off. I want to get some work done on the house. Why?”
I looked around to make sure my mother wasn’t within hearing distance. “I need a ride home to get my car. I want to go to the Mall of America to buy some makeup.”
And check out a couple of job possibilities.
He frowned. “Why are you whispering?”
I motioned with my eyes toward the auburn-haired woman approaching us. “Why do you think? I’ve got to get out of here before I get stuck washing pots and pans.”
Too late. The look on Mom’s face indicated she needed an army to handle the cleanup and she had me in her line of sight. To my dismay, my best-laid plans had been thwarted. I had just been conscripted to report to the kitchen for KP duty.
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