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“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I might actually like you, Bill Eckhardt.”

“And it completely shocks me to say that I might almost tolerate you, Paige Moresco.”

“Well, if that’s true, will you call off the village dogs? I’ve got a citation with my name on it.”

“Seems to me that citation somehow ended up on my lawn, in pieces.”

“I might have found my temper.”

He blushed. Mr. Eckhardt blushed! “It wasn’t real,” he admitted. “I stole the form from the village hall. The terrible twosome was breathing down my neck. I had to do something.”

“Well, I won’t tell. You didn’t press charges for my thievery, so I’ll conveniently forget you stole government property.”

“I think that’s fair,” he said.

“Oh, nothing’s fair, Bill, but sometimes things work out all right.”

We ate with gusto. The dinner wasn’t the somber affair it should have been, given the circumstances. Bill Eckhardt, to Trey’s and my great shock, had a sense of humor and regaled Petra with stories of visiting London in the swinging ’60s. The tomato sauce was rich and savory, and we all had second helpings. I made up the couch for Petra before she slipped into a food coma, and then I kissed Trey before he trudged up to his room.

“You grew some good tomatoes, Mom,” he whispered before kissing my cheek. “You did it, even if it didn’t work out like you thought it would.”

“I allowed myself to take a risk,” I said. “I’ve been thinking maybe I should allow you to do the same. Let’s carve out some time to discuss colleges that have good fine arts programs.”

Trey’s mouth opened in shock. “Really?”

“Really. I mean, I still want you to go to a good school and keep your mind open to all the opportunities that will come your way. But I don’t think I should discount your passion.” I pulled him into a hug. “You’re a good kid, Trey. I’m so happy to be your mom.”

Trey held me just as tightly. “I don’t always show it, but I’m happy, too, Mom.”

CHAPTER 29

I’d texted both Lukas and Jackie before going to bed the night before, so the employees of Guh were not surprised to get a visit from Petra Polly, but they were absolutely shocked by the woman who walked into the office.

“Fuck, this place looks like IKEA vomited a metric ton of plastic. I can smoke in here, right?” she asked, first thing. “There’s nothing to soak up the smell. It’s all impermeable. Haven’t you ever heard of nonsynthetic furniture?”

Lukas smiled tightly. “Of course.”

Jackie’s mouth fell open. “What? She gets to smoke in here?”

“Go ahead and have a smoke, if it sets yourself right,” Petra said. “I’ve got spares if you need one.”

“Maybe later,” Jackie mumbled when she caught Lukas’s stricken expression.

The room went silent as she lit up and took a nice, long drag. “Well, are you gonna show me something or what?”

I was hardly an Instagram-loving, “let’s document everything” type of person, but at that moment I would have given a body part to have a photograph of the reaction to Petra-in-person. Byron smirked. Rhiannon seemed impressed. Glynnis, her cheeks blotchy with embarrassment, wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone. Lukas, stunned that his idol stood only feet away, swayed on his feet. Jackie gazed longingly at the cigarette dangling from Petra’s lipsticked mouth. The blue-red color bled into the lines bracketing her mouth, the wrinkles common to chain-smokers everywhere. I’d suggested a softer color, but she’d found the bright lipstick in my makeup drawer and declared it “dishy.” It was the only thing she’d agreed to borrow from me. She wanted to look like her real self, she’d said, adding, “It’s important I establish the right message. If you think I’m good to go just the way I am, then I want them all to see me the way I am in the day-to-day, you know?”

“Which is?” I’d asked.

“I’m a right hot mess.”

After getting over their initial shock, the employees of Guh scurried around the conference room in a tizzy, frantically getting their act together. They presented the mock-ups in a perfectly professional manner and discussed our well-planned, if generic, strategy for putting her ahead of the pack of millennial self-help experts. They offered ideas for a website redesign and talked product placement.

Petra blew smoke in perfect rings, her face a stony, expressionless mask.

“We believe you’re special,” Lukas said passionately. “No one else can touch your wisdom and wit. Your beauty and class—”

“Stop right there,” Petra said. “There’s a problem.”

“Whatever it is, we’ll fix it,” Lukas insisted.

Petra lit a new cigarette with the dying remains of another. “That’s the thing. It can’t be fixed.”

“Could you be a little more specific?” Byron asked, earning a withering side-eye from Lukas.

Petra gestured to her heavily creased, tomato-stained silk dress, her tattered stockings, and her horrific bedhead. “What you see here,” she began, her accent hitting us all like a sledgehammer, “is the real me, in fucking person. How the hell am I supposed to talk to people and get them to listen? Those pictures look nice, but if I’m taking this business to the next level, I need to be a fucking spokesperson. You get that? Me. A spokesperson.”

Lukas nodded like a bobblehead. “I understand what you’re saying.” He didn’t continue, which meant he couldn’t. He had no idea how to handle the situation. Wild-eyed, he said, “Could you give us a few minutes, Ms. Polly? There’s a lovely farmers’ market in the parking lot. Paige, would you mind taking our guest to get some fresh coffee? It’s on us, of course.”

“It sure as fuck better be,” Petra said, but she winked at him to lessen the harshness of her comment. “Get your ideas together. We’ll be back in the shake of a lamb’s tail.”

Mykia’s laugh could probably be heard on a distant planet.

“You’re Petra Polly? I thought you were supposed to be some uptight hipster bitch!”

Petra laughed. “I am a hipster bitch, bitch.” She leaped up on the back of Mykia’s truck and plopped herself down at the edge. “I’m not uptight, though. Not in the fucking least.”

“I thought we were curbing the f-bombs,” I pleaded. “At least try.”

Petra shrugged. “Okay. How about every time I curse, I give you a fiver. You’ll have enough money to repair your garden in no time.”

Mykia grew serious in a flash. “What is she talking about? What needs to be repaired?”

With a sigh, I pulled my phone from my purse. While Petra got ready, I’d documented the damage. I’d practically had to shove my phone in a bag of rice it was so soaked with my tears. “This happened sometime last night. I don’t know who did it.”

“That creepy neighbor,” Mykia said, incensed. “I will rip every tooth out of his skull.”

“She’s violent,” Petra said with more admiration than was proper. “I like her.”

“It’s not him.” I paused. “It isn’t Trey either.”

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