Chemist Nikki Stacy has ambitions beyond playing mad scientist in her parents’ garage. The former prima ballerina is on the shortlist for a huge cash award that could finance the start-up of her natural cosmetics company, and her products are already generating buzz in eastern North Carolina. She’s got no time for distractions, which of course means she’ll probably have them in spades.
Charlie Mitchell wants to be one of those distractions. He’s had his eye on the quick-tempered sparkplug since they both went through puberty. The farmer thinks he’s the perfect yin to Nikki’s high-class yang, but she’s barely looked his way in her whole twenty-eight years.
Just when he finally catches the slippery woman’s attention, an old flame tries to shakes things up in a way that’ll not only embarrass his preteen daughter, but disenchant Nikki as well. Charlie’s got one last chance to snag the girl next door, and this time it’s not his libido talking, but his daughter. She needs a mother, and she wants Nikki to fill the job.
Nicolette Stacy had barely cleared the garage’s threshold before she was forced to draw air into her lungs. As she doubled over, wheezing, the grass beneath her pastel boat shoes seemed to sway and swirl. Closing her eyes, she groaned.
What had been in that gamma formulation? It hadn’t been all that different from the delta formula…had it?
Her brain was so scrambled from the fumes, she couldn’t remember. Had she added one drop of fragrance? Two?
Three back-to-back phone calls from cheer squad moms querying about a typo on the practice schedule had tipped Nikki into a downward spiral of inefficiency which only escalated with each of her father’s frequent passes by the open garage doors on his riding lawn mower. The thing needed either a muffler or an exorcism, she couldn’t say which.
Who knew what the hell she’d put in that beaker in between all those interruptions?
She coughed and dragged her tongue against her top teeth’s edge, trying to scrape off the sensation of fuzziness. Certainly, some of it was psychosomatic, but the rest of the discomfort had to be her tongue attempting to register in taste what she had inadvertently sniffed.
The moment her chemical concoction had started foaming, she’d tossed down her tongs and let out a primal-sounding scream before cursing a number of old, but not forgotten gods.
Why was this one thing so hard, when every other product she’d developed to date had been so damned easy? The lotions? The cuticle creams? The make-up removers? Those had been a cinch, and were well on their way to patent-dom. But this perfume flummoxed her. Maybe because it was supposed to be her most important formulation to date, she didn’t really know, but what she did understand was that perfume shouldn’t foam, especially not one she hoped to one day market to organic product consumers.
She’d turned off the burner, held her breath, and ran for the door—grabbing the fire extinguisher on her way out. She’d accidentally walloped herself in the gut with the heavy thing, and that precipitated that unfortunate inhalation of overflowing perfume made more yet more pungent by the still-hot burner.
Rank didn’t even begin to describe the stink. The odor was the kind of smell that could seep into one’s pores and corrode the body down to the bones…or at least she felt like it could.
What made the situation particularly demoralizing was that Nikki wasn’t just a hobbyist. She actually had training in chemical formulation. A master’s degree, even. For this one experiment, all that studying was doing her a fat lot of good.
She squatted, sitting back on her heels, and dipped her head between her legs, drawing in some cleansing breaths. The dizziness ebbed. The roiling of her stomach eased. She could swallow now without tasting that last infusion of plant extract.
Straightening her legs, she remained bent at the waist, lengthening her spine one vertebrae at a time like she used to do in Pilates class. She rolled her shoulders back, and opened her eyes to find a pair of madras plaid ballet flats pointed toward her own feet. One of those preppy feet tapped with impatience.
Nikki’s gaze followed the khaki pleat up her mother’s leg, past her peach sweater set—diminished somewhat in charm by arms crossed aggressively over Momma’s breasts—and focused on the narrowed green eyes.
She sighed. “Momma.”
Momma’s lips twitched at the corners. Sharp protrusions at her jaws became more pronounced as she ground her teeth side-to-side.
“Keep it up, and you’re going to pop out a filling,” Nikki muttered.
Momma’s eyes narrowed a bit more.
Her self-control was the stuff of legend. She could get angry, but that didn’t mean she had to lose her cool. If somehow she did manage to unleash her usually indefatigable restraint—oh boy, watch out.
Momma sucked in a deep breath and tucked escaping strands of dark blonde hair behind her ears. “The Mitchells will be here any minute,” she said, pinning her only child with an authoritative stare.
“What?” Suddenly, the air in the backyard seemed to disappear into some never before discovered vortex—as if God had turned on his vacuum and lowered the wheels. Nikki tugged at her right earlobe and tipped it toward her mother. Maybe she hadn’t heard her right. Of all the days to have guests, why that one? “I’m sorry, do what now? Say that again.”
Momma pursed her lips and cocked her head to the side. “You’re either playing deaf or dumb, and I know for sure you’re neither. The Mitchells, Nicolette. You know them. My best friend in the whole world. Our neighbors for as long as you’ve been alive, and etcetera.”
Yeah, that’s what Nikki had thought she said. Her shoulders fell. “I know who they are, but maybe I don’t have a concept of just how many of them and why they’re coming.”
“All of them.” Momma massaged the undersides of her eyes and blinked rapidly. The fumes must have finally struck her. She backed away from the garage, waving her hand rapidly back and forth in front of her face. “They’re coming for dinner. Lord, I hope those fumes clear out before they arrive. What was it this time? Eau de Skunk?”
Nikki, who’d been following at her heels, stopped and spun around. Probably should have checked on that burner, given the fact there was no money left in her stretched-too-thin budget to replace anything, and she wasn’t sure if her parents’ homeowners insurance policy covered fire caused by hipster mad scientists.
Momma’s footsteps echoed from the deck stairs, and as Nikki shored up her reserve, rolling up the sleeves of her lab coat to re-enter her makeshift laboratory, Momma called back, “Make sure you shower, Nikki. You’ve got that taint.”
“Shower for what?” Nikki shouted back. “Don’t save me a place at the table.” She yanked the burner’s cord and scoffed. “As if.” With a repurposed paint scraper in hand, she went to work prying up the caked-on chemical mess on her daddy’s workbench.
“You will shower,” said the stern, flat voice behind her.
Nikki yipped, and dropped the scraper. She turned, clutching her chest, to find Momma in the doorway, her eyes narrowed into slits again.
“Jesus Christ, what’d you do? Teleport?”
“Don’t you dare use the Lord’s name in vain, Nicolette.”
Nikki turned her back and scraped some more. “Okie dokie.”
Moving back into her parent’s house had been a bad idea even when Momma suggested it at the start of the fall semester. Two months later, Nikki hadn’t changed her mind. It was still a bad idea.
She hadn’t had much choice, though. There wasn’t much rental property to be found in rural Chowan County, and she hadn’t had enough time to find anything more suitable before starting her job at the middle school.
Nikki Stacy, a middle school teacher, of all things.
She’d been more or less strong-armed into the job, and had only taken it so everyone would shut the hell up about it. Although she was a trained chemist, professionally, she’d been a ballet dancer up until two years ago. Her overworked ACL finally called it quits, sidelining her more or less. Sure, she could have stayed on with the troupe she’d been dancing with in Europe, choreographing and assisting, but she knew a sign when she saw one. A bum knee seemed as good a reason as any to put her nose to the grindstone and finally finish her master’s degree. She was a grown-up, and grown-ups knew when to buckle down and get a “real” job.
She’d had a choice: teach or take that gig at the fine chemicals company up in Virginia. The job entailed perfume formulation, and was contract-to-hire. That sounded risky. If she were going to be out of a job in a year anyway, she’d just as soon stay close to home.
Well, now she kinda felt like she’d made the wrong choice.
“Nikki, you get in that house and shower immediately, do you hear me? You will not embarrass me in front of the Mitchells.”
“Wait a gee-dee minute.” Nikki brushed her sweaty palms on her lab coat before fisting her hands onto her hips. “You know I’ve always graciously abided by that whole honor-thy mother-and-father thing, but sometimes I think you forget I’m not a little girl with pigtails and patent leather shoes anymore. In fact, I’m breathing down thirty’s neck, and running neck and neck with you in the crow’s-feet contest.”
Momma gave her a long blink.
Nikki pressed on, brazenly. The woman had her limits, after all. “You can’t order me to the table. I mean, come on, Momma. I pay rent here. I’m not exactly hanging off the teat.”
“Goodness sakes.” Momma blew a sigh and patted her perfect blonde coiffure, probably in search of stray hairs. Naturally, there were none. “I just—”
“Nope. Don’t even start.” Nikki grabbed the nearby broom and pushed the bristles over the sawdust she’d sprinkled onto a spill earlier in the day. “You think I don’t know what you and Sarah are up to? Huh?”
Momma rocked on her heels, saying nothing.
“You’ve been trying to hook me up with Charlie since I was a minute old and he was a strapping preschooler of age three. Well, I’m going to be clear for once, because I’ve never came out and addressed it. Quit it.” She nudged the dustpan toward the sawdust pile with her foot.
“What precisely is so wrong about Charlie Mitchell?”
Nikki concentrated on brushing every speck of dust onto the pan, ignoring the prickle on the side of her face from Momma’s glare. She didn’t respond until after she’d dumped the dirt just outside the garage door, and shoved the broom into its cubby. “It’d probably be easier to tell you what isn’t wrong.” She blew out a long breath and jammed her hands into her jacket pockets. “Come on, Momma. That’d be dating way down, and you know it. A farmer? Not to go all dramatic like Scarlett O’Hara, here, but I expected you of all people to want me to hook up with a guy whose job description requires clean fingernails and regular haircuts.”
“My lord, I’ve raised a snob.”
“Takes one to know one.”
Momma leaned against the doorframe and lifted one shoulder in a teensy shrug. “They’re good people, or else Sarah wouldn’t have married into them, right?”
Nikki closed her eyes and rubbed them with the heels of her palms. She didn’t seem to be getting through to the woman, and as it was, they were treading on shaky ground. On a crumbling precipice, really. Anything Nikki could say at that point could be construed as offensive, so she had to do more than mind her words. Opening her eyes, she put up her hands in a consoling gesture. “Look, it’d never work, even if I were willing to try. He’s got a twelve-year-old who is not only one of my students, but is on the cheer squad I advise. I don’t want to be attached to my students outside of school, no matter whom they belong to. I’m too young to date someone with a kid that age. Especially a kid who’s seen me in my ratty bathrobe.”
Momma rolled her eyes.
“Second,” Nikki counted off on a finger, “you and Daddy always harped on me to get an education. I got one. A damned good one. Now you’re trying to play matchmaker between me and someone who graduated from high school by the skin of his teeth.”
Momma’s only response to that was a long blink.
Nikki held up a few fingers. “Third, I don’t like scruffy men.”
Now it was Momma’s turn to blaspheme. “Jesus Christ. Big deal, they all come a little rough around the edges. You think your daddy didn’t need some work? The first time I laid eyes on him, he didn’t own any clothes that weren’t Army-issued, and couldn’t speak a sentence without the words ‘goddamn’ or the phrase ‘know what I mean.’ Looking at him now, you wouldn’t know it. So, clean Charlie up, for Pete’s sake, if it’s that big a deal to you.”
“But…” Nikki got closer to Momma, intent on accentuating her point.
Momma pinched her nose, but battle-ax she was, she didn’t budge.
“Why are you so intent on making this happen now? Is it that you think I’m out of options? That at this point, I’m incapable of selecting a suitable boyfriend on my own? Do you think all my eggs are going to dry up before I get around to convincing some suitable individual to put a ring on it?” She held up her left ring finger demonstrably.
Momma opened her mouth to respond, but Nikki wagged an index finger in front of her face. “Nuh-uh-uh. Save it. Not done.” She eased away, and grinned at the sound of Momma taking a deep breath when Nikki turned her back.
“The long and short of it is I’ve got a type, and Charlie isn’t it.” She caught Momma rolling her eyes yet again when she turned at the workbench, so she returned the sentiment. “To reiterate, I don’t want to be anyone’s mother right now. There’s this thing amongst us young bucks called baby-momma drama, and according to Gabby, her mother is absofuckinglutely nuts. Did you know?”
Momma did that elegant one-shouldered shrug again—a total no big deal type of gesture.
Of course it was no big deal to her. She wouldn’t be the one wading through the muck when Becky next rolled into town raising hell in the name of L-U-V, love. Nope. Nikki wasn’t touching that with a hundred-foot pole.
The slam of a car door echoed from the driveway on the other side of the house. “Bunny?” a sweet voice called out. “You in the garage, honey?”
Sarah. Nikki rubbed her eyes again and groaned. No hope for a stealthy escape now.
A screwball smile spanned Momma’s face when Nikki looked up again. She spun on the heel of her cute little flat, and giggled.
“Don’t. You. Dare,” Nikki threatened, knowing full well it’d be as ineffectual as setting a fire to wet kindling.
Momma hummed as she sashayed to the door, swinging her narrow hips and giggling like it was all a goddamned joke. “Hey, Sarah!” she yelled, waving. “Hey, Chuck. Charlie. Hey there, Gabby, sweetheart.
They all called back greetings.
Nikki pushed her lab coat off her arms with a growl. “Don’t call them over here!”
“Oh, look, Nikki. I think Charlie got a new shirt. That blue suits him so well. He really does try hard, doesn’t he?”
Nikki forced a feral-sounding hiss through her teeth, and edged around Momma. She double-checked her burners and snapped lids onto her containers of chemicals. “Jesus may forgive you for this, Momma, but I won’t.”
“Nicolette, you’re far too dramatic. Last I heard, you were a trained dancer, not an actress.”
Nikki eased toward the door, leaning sideways just enough to see that the Mitchells had gotten diverted from the porch and were now heading toward the old brick barbecue where Daddy poured charcoal onto the grate.
Daddy’s in on it, too? She’d never felt more betrayed. Of all people. She was turning in her Daddy’s Girl certificate if it were going to be like that.
On the count of three, she lowered her head, said a small prayer to whichever god was listening, and made a mad dash from the garage to the deck.
“Hi, Miss Stacy!” Gabby called out as Nikki pounded up the stairs.
Nikki threw up in arm in a wave, and scrambled through the back door. She shut it, leaned against it with a sigh, and stomped up the ecru-carpeted stairway to her bedroom.
“Should have never come home.”