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Lukas leaned forward and placed his palms on the table. “If we don’t take risks, then what are we?”

“Safe,” Glynnis said. “We’re—”

“Unchallenged,” Lukas interrupted. “And being unchallenged, as Petra says, leads to underperformance. Does anyone here want to be accused of underperforming?”

Nope. We all leaned in. If making fools of ourselves at a book signing was what it cost to keep our jobs, so be it.

“Okay,” Lukas said, accepting our acquiescence. “Okay, then. We are more than up to the task. All hands on deck for this one.”

“No pairs?” Jackie said.

“No,” Lukas said. “We’re in this together. All of us.”

Jackie and I shared a relieved glance. Did that mean he wasn’t going to fire anyone?

“Are you still kicking someone to the curb?” Rhiannon asked what we were all thinking.

Lukas steepled his fingers, a gesture that I now found almost unbearably irritating. “I’ll be closely monitoring everyone’s work, and after we speak with Petra, one person will be free to seek other opportunities.”

“That’s a yes,” Rhiannon said.

“But we’ve got new business,” Jackie said. “Landon will bring in a lot of money.”

“I’m looking at long-term financial viability. That’s always a concern,” Lukas intoned. He wore an expression of such seriousness I wondered if he practiced it in the mirror. He shook his head, as if shaking off the unpleasantness of thinking about something as crass as money. “Strategy sessions start next week. Plan on getting here early and staying late.”

“It’s summer,” Glynnis whispered, and then I immediately saw the regret on her face.

Lukas stood and adopted a stance that was vaguely presidential. “It’s game time,” he said with a straight face. “Bring me your best.”

“Petra Polly probably thinks he’s psychopathic,” I said to Glynnis and Jackie as we strolled through the farmers’ market.

Jackie laughed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she filed a restraining order. Do you really think she wants people like us to do her ad work?”

“I doubt she’ll even pay us any attention,” Glynnis said. “But I guess it doesn’t matter. One of us is still getting fired.”

I heard my name being called and turned to see Mykia hanging from the back of her truck, beckoning us over. I hadn’t seen her since she’d checked out my tomato plants, and I smiled broadly—her joy was that infectious.

“How’re my ad girls?”

We filled Mykia in on the latest Lukas drama.

“That guy needs to chill,” she said after I was done.

“He should hang out here more often,” I said. I had come to see the farmers’ market as a calm presence, an escape from the high-stress world of Guh.

Mykia grabbed a bunch of kale and handed it to me. “How’s your garden doing?” she said to me when I was done. “Is it still bringing you back?”

It was. Success was spotty—I’d planted some herbs too close together, and the more dominant ones were choking the others out; I’d watered too heavily at times and at others not enough; and weeds were encroaching when I didn’t have the time to pull them, but some of it was flourishing, particularly the tomato plants, whose leaves were deep green and velvety, with plump green tomatoes on the verge of turning color. I took deep satisfaction in the process, from the initial planting, to watching the roots dig in, to the plants figuring out a way to flourish.

“I love it,” I said, prompting a grin from Mykia. “I really do.”

“You should celebrate what it’s doing for you,” she said. “Have a garden party.”

“But there’s no room for people. It’s a mess.”

“I’ll help you with it,” Glynnis offered.

I hadn’t hosted a party since . . . since I couldn’t remember. Jesse and I had been so wrapped up in making enough money to stay afloat we hadn’t had much time for anyone but Trey. At least that was what we told ourselves. The few dinner parties we’d had were overshadowed by our own insecurities and desire for perfection. It was less stressful to go out to eat together, less potential for error. But since Jesse died, I’d been making mistakes with embarrassing regularity, and I was still standing.

“So,” I said, “who would I invite besides you two and Jackie?”

“I’m sure you could scrounge up some people,” Mykia said with an eye roll. “Invite those uptight people from your village hall. Show them how you’ve got everything under control.”

“I don’t have anything under control,” I said. And it was true. Not my job, not my kid, not my home.

She laughed. “Of course you don’t. But they don’t need to know that.”

Why not invite Miss Khaki and Label Lover? Maybe they’d decide I didn’t need psychiatric help, only help getting my hands dirty. There were also a few women in my neighborhood who offered tips or gave quiet words of encouragement as they walked their dogs past my property. I could invite them. My coworkers, Lukas included, could bulk up the list. I might even extend the olive branch and invite Mr. Eckhardt.

“I’m warming up to the idea,” I said. “A garden party. Never thought I was the type, but I’m learning I’m all kinds of types.”

“That’s a good thing,” Mykia said. “But now you’ve got to focus on practicalities. Where are you going to put the bar?”

CHAPTER 19

“Where are you going?”

I’d picked up Trey from Colin’s and impulsively taken an alternate route on the outskirts of town, down a two-lane highway that led to a succession of new but only partially occupied corporate parks.

“I need to see about something,” I said vaguely as Trey returned to texting. Good, I thought. There’s nothing like the element of surprise.

I pulled into a large parking lot in front of a deserted loading dock. The lot was rectangular and dotted with concrete-bottomed security lights. Perfect. I rolled to a stop.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Trey asked, finally looking up from his phone.

I unlatched his seat belt. “We’re switching places.”

“I don’t want to do this.”

I kept my tone brisk, no-nonsense. “It’s not about want. It’s about need.”

“I don’t need to do this.”

“You will not be allowed to graduate until you take the driver’s education class. There’s no special dispensation for people who don’t feel like it,” I said, reminding myself that sometimes the strongest love was the tough kind. “You’ve got to face your fear.”

“I’m not afraid. Telling me I am is bullying.”

“I’m afraid, too, Trey. All the time. It doesn’t mean I don’t still take action.”

“Are we living in the same world? You never take action unless you’re forced to. Are you forcing me? I said no. And ‘no,’ as everyone feels the constant need to remind me, should always mean no. You should respect that.”

“Look,” I said, feeling my small reserve of patience shrink to nothing, “this is not an argument or a negotiation, and it has nothing to do with respect. Get in the damn driver’s seat. You don’t even need to put your foot on the gas pedal. Put it in drive, and the car will move slowly on its own. All you need to be concerned with is steering.”

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