Impossible dreams, p.10

Impossible Dreams, page 10

 part  #1 of  Carolina Series Prequel Series

 

Impossible Dreams
 



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  Maya wondered how well Axell was doing with his child. And what plot the mayor schemed to destroy her dreams.

  ***

  Talking into her cell phone, Selene paced the dusty pine floor of the empty shop with the restless grace of a caged panther. Maya admired her energy but conserved her own as she waited for Axell and the building inspector to return with word on Cleo’s shop.

  Selene clicked the phone closed and glanced around the empty shell of Axell’s building with distaste. “Girl, you got your work cut out for you.”

  “I’ve got to do it.” Maya wiggled on the high stool she’d found in the back. “Cleo will be home in a few months. What’s the chance of anyone hiring her?”

  “Zilch,” Selene said crudely. “You’d better be praying hard. You got a plan for this place?”

  That was a topic she could handle. Maya pointed out the twelve-foot high barren walls. “I saw an artist at a local art show who had the most amazing paintings. They practically glowed from within. Do you think I could display large oils on that wall?”

  “That’s not a plan,” Selene said with disgust. “That’s a dream. Tell me how you’re going to make money off those oils, and you’ve got a plan.”

  “Selling oils is a plan,” Maya insisted. “That space would be wasted otherwise. I could take them on consignment so I don’t have to shell out money for inventory. I’m not entirely stupid.”

  “No, just a little batty.” Selene swung on her heeled sandals to glare at the walls. “You need to paint them white and add track lighting.”

  “Sure and add a crystal chandelier and wine bar too. I’m not that batty.”

  Selene’s cell phone beeped as Axell strode through the front door.

  Maya’s fingernails dug into her palms, and she wrapped her feet in the stool rungs as she anxiously watched Axell’s face for some clue of the inspector’s decision. Not a smile, not a wink, not even a frown indicated the results as he walked with lion grace across the bare floor. He held her entire life in his hands, and he didn’t say a blamed thing. The tension was killing her. Maybe killing him was an alternative. She wanted her teapot back, dammit.

  Calmly, Axell handed Maya a wad of official-looking papers. She stared at them, her hands shaking.

  “You’ve got permission to move your things.”

  Stunned, she just sat there staring at the papers that saved her life, Cleo’s life, Matty’s future... Tears welled in her eyes and joy spilled from her heart. Unable to jump and down and squeal with glee, she did the next best thing.

  She leaned forward, propped her hands on Axell’s shoulders, and kissed him smack on his startled mouth.

  Stunned, he stood like a store dummy with his hands at his side.

  His mouth woke quickly enough, though, and their lips melted together with incredible ease. He tasted of coffee, and oddly enough, vanilla — all hot and sugary and yummy.

  Her turn to be startled, Maya hastily pushed away, flushed, and wrapped her arms around herself instead of him. Axell eyed her warily, with the heat still smoldering in his eyes. She hadn’t intended anything sexual with her embrace, but sparks of something electric were suddenly shooting all around them. Maybe the shop had faulty wiring.

  The man definitely had a Scorpio moon. Boy, can you pick ’em, Maya.

  “I take it you appreciate the results,” Axell said wryly, retreating a cautious pace.

  Entranced by the wild flare in his eyes, Maya couldn’t look away. The staid businessman in his pressed suit and conservative tie had real live wires pumping somewhere beneath that deadly attire. The lion king lived. He could roar.

  A cough from behind them warned Selene’s call had ended. Nervously, Maya glanced at the documents in her hands. At the same time, Axell reached for them. An impromptu tug-o-war ensued until Maya gathered her wits and released them.

  “I’ve called a local mover who’s willing to pack and transport everything,” he declared. “The building may be safe, but I don’t think you should be doing that kind of work. And I’ve got a cleaning crew coming in to wax the floors and dust your inventory when it arrives. You’ll need to be here to tell them where everything goes.”

  Axell’s curt, businesslike tones restored the moment to normal, and Maya breathed a sigh of relief. One of these days she hoped to curb her impetuous behavior. She was about to become a mother; she had to grow up.

  She wished she had the papers back just so she had something to do with her hands. “I can’t afford all that,” was all she managed to whisper.

  “We’re partners, remember? You’re the labor, I’m the capital.” Axell neatly folded the stack of documents and inserted them in an inside coat pocket.

  “Hold up one minute.” Selene intruded, extending her hand. “Partners? You’ve had an agreement drawn up? Does it specify salary? Profit-sharing? Accountability? I’ve got a vested interest in this woman too. I’ll not have her tied to this place for the rest of her life.”

  Maya bit back a grin as Axell stared at her friend as if Selene had turned two shades of pink and purple right before his eyes.

  “I’ll have my lawyer draw something up,” he responded cautiously.

  “I’ll have my lawyer go over it,” Selene countered.

  “I’ll just mosey on over and get my clothes,” Maya murmured, still grinning as Axell and Selene glared at one another like two gladiators in a ring. She slipped from the stool and edged toward the door.

  “You’ll damned well not go inside that building!” Axell shouted, apparently recovering his senses as she reached for the knob.

  “If it’s safe for the movers, it’s safe for me,” she called sweetly, marching out without looking back.

  Furious at his inability to control the capricious twit, Axell stalked after her.

  “She’s a Pisces,” Selene called after him. “You might as well try to catch a fish with your bare hands!”

  Axell shot her a glare of disbelief and strode out. Pisces, his foot and eye. Someone just needed to put a rein and harness on her. And a muzzle.

  He found Maya ecstatically polishing her silly teapot and cups and carefully packing them in paper into a box that looked as if it had been carried through Donner Pass on mule back. Three times.

  “The movers will bring packing boxes,” he reminded her.

  Rain clouds had moved in earlier that day, so no sunlight danced through the prisms over her head. Still, her cascade of auburn curls glowed with a light of their own as she shook her head.

  “No one moves these but me,” she announced firmly.

  Since she seldom announced anything, much less acted on it with such determination, Axell resisted arguing. Obviously, he didn’t understand the attachment, but he recognized it for it was. “All right, let me get you a stronger box. Why don’t you come over to the restaurant with me and have some tea while I find one?”

  She glanced at him mischievously. “You’re afraid I’ll do something silly if you let me out of your sight. I’ve been surviving on my own for a lot longer than you realize, you know.”

  “Yeah, and a hell of a job you’ve done, too,” he said dryly, extending his hand to help her rise from the floor. “Humor an old man and come with me.”

  Accepting his hand, she glanced at him curiously. “Old man? Have I aged you that quickly?”

  Her perceptive look nearly floored him, but Axell tugged her toward the door without acknowledging it. Her kiss earlier had awakened his awareness of their age differences. She was still young and full of enthusiasm. He was jaded and beyond feeling much of anything, except testosterone surges during mind-bending kisses. Like an alcoholic craving a drink, he wanted another.

  “Kids’ll do that to you,” he replied evasively. She’d have him darting in and out of arguments like a minnow before long.

  “Constance seems happier after your talk with her. I notice she even told you what shoes she wanted with her dress this morning.”

  Axell grimaced. “Yeah, the ones you painted drag
ons on. Now, if she’d just learn to dress herself, we may have accomplished something.”

  Suspiciously, he watched Maya bite her lower lip as they progressed slowly through the sprinkling mist toward the restaurant. He recognized that look.

  “What?” he demanded. “What are you not telling me now?”

  An impish dimple appeared and disappeared at the corner of her mouth as she slanted him a sidelong look. A man could imagine all sorts of things in a look like that. It was a damned good thing she was pregnant so he knew where he stood.

  “Well-l-l,” she drew out the word thoughtfully. “You’ll not like it if I tell you.”

  “I already figured that,” he said resignedly. “I’ve noticed I seldom like anything you tell me.” He bit back a groan as he watched his mother-in-law emerge from the restaurant with all her battle armor in place. “You’d better hurry up and say it because this may be the last time you see me alive.”

  Startled, Maya followed his glance and giggled. Giggled. Axell could scarcely believe his ears. No one giggled at Sandra in full battle mode. Southern ladies might be all sweet and creamy on the outside, but a Southern man knew the sugar concealed one hell of a tough pecan beneath.

  “The hair looks like a helmet, don’t you think? Does she carry a sword?”

  “What do you think that ring is on her finger? She can cut a man’s throat with that thing.”

  Maya’s gurgle of laughter almost had him grinning. He’d never grinned in Sandra’s company before.

  “The designer suit is full battle regalia, right?” she whispered as Sandra apparently saw them and waited impatiently, tapping her elegantly shod toe.

  “The pearls are her magic shield. They’re supposed to blind the enemy with her wealth and protect her from all who couldn’t possibly afford them.”

  “Ooo, you’re good.” Maya shot him an admiring glance. “I might need you in storytelling class.”

  Since they were within earshot of Sandra, Axell didn’t respond to that remark. He hadn’t failed to notice Maya had avoided his earlier question about Constance’s dressing habits. He would have to learn to keep the conversation focused around this slippery little fish. Fish! He swung his attention to Constance’s grandmother.

  “Good morning, Sandra. Have you met Miss Alyssum, Constance’s teacher? Maya, Constance’s grandmother, Sandra Matthews.” He no longer had to introduce her as mother-in-law, Axell realized with an odd feeling of relief. Sandra was nothing to him anymore.

  Sandra glared venomously at Maya. “I believe we have something to discuss in private, Axell.”

  “I can’t imagine what, Sandra.” Skillfully appropriating Maya’s elbow with one hand and opening the restaurant door with the other, he nodded for Sandra to precede them. He’d be damned if he let the old biddy walk all over a tenderfoot like Maya. The schoolteacher didn’t have the social daggers to protect herself.

  “I’m talking to the judge this afternoon,” Sandra ground out, apparently through her neatly capped teeth.

  “Tell him hello for me,” Axell replied insouciantly, although his insides were clenched as tightly as Sandra’s teeth as he led the way to a table. Stoicism had its price.

  “I’ve tried to be polite about this, Axell,” she said, refusing his gesture toward a booth. “But you’ve gone out of your way to flaunt your improprieties in public. I won’t have an impressionable child like Constance living under the same roof as this...this...” Words apparently failed her.

  Words had never failed Maya, Axell realized with a groan as she flashed one of her brilliant go-to-hell-happily smiles. Curiosity prevented his stopping her.

  “Nine-months-pregnant schoolteacher?” she supplied cheerfully. “And you will note, won’t you, that I arrived here seven months ago? So Axell has nothing whatsoever to do with my...‘interesting condition.’ And if you think there’s anything else between us but his old-fashioned solicitude and generosity, then you have bacon where your brains should be. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m after a box from the kitchen.”

  She swam away, out of the conflagration she’d fueled. Axell could only admire her dexterity as she swept from the room. He’d hate to see how swift she was without the burden of pregnancy holding her back. Like the Cheshire cat, she’d probably leave her smile still spinning in the air behind her.

  Popping the top from a water bottle, he leaned against the bar. “Give Judge Tony my regards, will you? And tell him if he wants to make a political case out of this, I’ll take it all the way to the Supreme Court. That should thrill him. Constance is mine.”

  Sandra narrowed her eyes. “Are you certain Constance is yours?” she asked coldly. “My daughter wasn’t exactly a one-man woman when you married.” She stalked out, spine straight, high heels clicking.

  Axell heaved his water bottle across the bar at a row of whiskey tumblers. The sound of shattering glass didn’t equal the devastation inside his soul.

  ***

  October, 1945

  I’ve gone back there every night this week. I can’t stay away. She’s all I can think about. I can scarcely concentrate on the books for seeing her in my head, her red hair sprawled across the pillow, her white skin pale in the moonlight. I’m not a poetic man, but she makes me want to sing songs.

  I’ve got to stop going there. I’d be ruined if Dolly’s father found out.

  Eleven

  I need someone really bad...are you really bad?

  Returning from the kitchen with an assortment of boxes, including one filled with freshly baked cinnamon rolls, Maya discovered Axell sitting at his polished bar, sipping an icy drink, a black cloud almost visibly hovering over his golden head. Her insides did a tumbling number as she remembered one of too many incidents in her childhood involving bar stools and alcohol. Then seeing the half-empty bottle of mineral water sitting on the bar, she breathed easier and approached with firmer tread.

  “Drowning our sorrows so early in the day?” she teased daringly, taking the stool beside him and opening the box of rolls. After seeing Axell’s human side last night, she couldn’t view him as an invulnerable paragon any longer. “Sugar is much tastier than water.” She helped herself to a steaming soft roll, and with a sigh of ecstasy, sank her teeth into it as she pushed the box in his direction.

  Axell took a bun and tore into it like a vicious dog handed a bone. Maya considered that a sacrilege. She adored cinnamon rolls, even the kind from a can — which were the only ones she’d known growing up. One savored cinnamon rolls, not swallowed them whole.

  Picking out a plump juicy raisin, she contemplated leaving this obviously angry man to his tantrum and going on about her business. Unfortunately, right now, it looked like he was her business. Or Cleo’s, anyway.

  “Ticked you off, did she?” she asked conversationally, licking a particularly sticky cinnamon-coated finger.

  A V wrinkled the bridge of Axell’s nose as he glanced over and caught her childish act.

  Beaming in response to his frown, Maya popped another raisin into her mouth. “Tell me not to play with my food if it makes you feel better.”

  Axell managed a smile of sorts. At least his lips turned up briefly at the corners. His eyes, however, remained stony cold. His square jaw had a stuck-out set to it that would have driven Maya into spasms if she thought it aimed at her. For a change, though, she figured she was innocent.

  “Carlos makes those rolls for the staff. I don’t ever get one unless I go to the kitchen and demand one.” He polished off the remainder of the sticky bun, and with a defiant gleam, licked his fingers.

  Maya grinned. “You’ll notice most of your staff is female,” she replied.

  Axell squinted at her, followed the track of her thoughts and finally saw its destination. He snorted in appreciation. “The old billy goat.”

  Maya snickered. “Shame on you. He’s a sweet old man. Shall I go back to packing my boxes or would you care to explain your serious snit?”

  “I don’t have snits,” he snapped
, throwing back the glass of water as if it were whiskey.

  “Right, and I don’t have constipation.” She slid off the stool, and leaving the rest of the rolls to sweeten his temper, strolled toward the door with her boxes.

  “Where the hell do you think you’re going?” he called after her. “Don’t you ever sit in one place for three minutes?”

  Maya directed a wry look over her shoulder. “Not where I’m not wanted. I’m perfectly aware I’m a hideous intrusion in your life, so I’m doing my best to make myself scarce.”

  She walked out before Axell could summon a reply. Refusing to consider Sandra’s insinuations of Constance’s parentage, he distracted himself by staring at the door from which Maya had shot her parting volley.

  A hideous intrusion? Was that how the gypsy saw herself? He realized that’s probably how she’d felt most of her life. He remembered her mentioning she and Cleo had spent a lot of time in foster homes. What must that have felt like to an uninhibited child like Maya, being shoved into a stranger’s house, into an established way of life, not knowing the rules or limits or how long she’d be welcome?

  And that’s just exactly what he’d done to her and Matty — shoved them into a strange situation, and left them to flounder for themselves. She was good at it, he had to admit. He hated having his orderly life turned upside down, hated any break in his routine, but she had slid between all the cracks in his walls and found a niche of her own.

  Amazed, Axell poured the rest of the water into his cup, ignoring the shattered glass behind the bar as determinedly as he ignored Sandra’s words. Maya and Matty hadn’t once set foot in his wing of the house. Actually, if he thought about it, they hadn’t set foot anywhere but their bedroom, the kitchen, and the family room, places he didn’t particularly consider his turf. They stayed out of sight and sound when he was home. He didn’t even know when they ate breakfast or how they got to school. Matty took the bus, presumably.

  Damn, but he’d been a blind bastard. Here he’d been thinking of himself as a humanitarian, when all he offered was another substitute foster home. He hadn’t thought of either them as walking, talking human beings with minds and needs of their own.

 

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