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“I saw how you looked at me in the hall the other day, Lucy, and I know that nudes would be right up your alley.” He wiggled his bushy eyebrows her way. “But if you insist on painting fruit, how about cherries? Or bananas?”

“Lordy.” Lucinda fanned herself with the dry paintbrush. “Behave,” she chided.

Liza strode over to the man. “If you’re going to bother my class, you’re going to have to leave.”

“Are you seriously throwing out a virile and willing model?” Irwin asked and reached for the belt buckle on his pants.

“No!” Liza yelled. “Do not undress. Sit down and sketch like the rest of the class and you can stay.” She met Molly’s gaze and shook her head.

“Oh, all right, but you can bet I’ll be filling out one of those complaint cards,” he muttered.

“You be sure and do that.” Liza crooked a finger at Molly as she walked to her side. “Can I talk to you outside?”

Molly nodded.

“And the rest of you, keep sketching. Irwin, if I come back and you aren’t dressed, I’m filing a sexual harassment charge against you, so don’t even test me.” Liza strode out of the room and Molly followed.

When they reached the hall, they both burst out laughing. “Sometimes it’s so hard to keep a straight face,” Liza said. “So what are you doing here? You don’t take my art classes.”

Molly shrugged. “I haven’t been here in a while and I wanted to check on everyone.”

Liza stepped back and studied her. “You look tired.”

“Stressed is more like it.”

“Well, I can’t say I blame you, what with your father’s situation and all.”

Molly leaned against the wall, letting it support her weight. “Did I mention my mother arrived for an unannounced visit?”

Liza had heard about Francie but had never met her in person. “Why in the world would she come to this little podunk Connecticut town?”

Molly grinned. Apparently Molly’s descriptions had been accurate enough that Liza had Francie pegged. “She says she’s here to support me in my time of crisis. I’m guessing she pissed off her wealthy boyfriend and had nowhere else to go, so she’s here until she regroups and thinks of a new strategy to bag herself a rich man.”

“And her presence is an added stress you don’t need.” Liza might have majored in art but she had a good heart and a solid understanding of human nature. Molly often thought she could have been a psychologist.

“Hunter thinks I should lay down some ground rules.”

“Hunter, huh?” A wide smile crossed Liza’s face. “And we care what Hunter thinks?”

Molly rolled her eyes. “I told you, we go way back.”

“What you told me was vague, but I’m good at reading you, and that man makes your eyes light up like I’ve never seen.”

Heat rose to Molly’s cheeks. “He might have a teeny effect on me.” He was also complicating her life at a time when she didn’t need any more things to think about.

On the other hand, he wasn’t pressuring her or making demands, he was merely working on her father’s case and being there for her, anticipating her concerns and worries, and acting more like someone who cared about Molly than a lawyer hired to defend a client.

“Well, no matter how you feel about him, it sounds like the man has a point. From what you told me, your mother expects you to drop everything when she arrives and cater to her whims.”

Molly nodded. “This morning she asked if I’d pick her up and take her for coffee. The hotel coffee tasted burnt. Then she needed dry cleaning because the hotel wouldn’t have her suit back in time for what I have no idea.” She shuddered, remembering her mother’s authoritarian tone as she couched her orders as requests that weren’t.

“What did you tell her?” Liza asked.

“That she’d have to find a way to deal with her own problems because I had a boatload of my own. Then I hung up and came straight here before she could grab a cab, show up at my father’s and start making demands in person.”

Liza nodded slowly. “Wasn’t there a time when you’d have done anything she asked just so that she wouldn’t get upset and leave you again?” Her compassionate gaze bore into Molly’s as she spoke.

In the wake of Molly’s silence, Liza glanced into the art room.

Molly knew their time to talk was running out, but hearing her pathetic behavior summed up so succinctly struck like a knife in her heart. “Yes, there was a time I would have done whatever she wanted. So isn’t it progress that I said no?”

“If you call running away saying no.” Liza reached out a hand and touched Molly’s shoulder in a gesture of true friendship. “Listen, I think Hunter has a point. You need to level with your mom about what she can and cannot expect from you from this day forward. Until you do that, you aren’t really telling it like it is. You’re avoiding facing the reality that once you put down some ground rules, she might not come back again. Ever.” Liza’s voice was softened, but Molly heard every word.

Fear lodged like a rock in her throat. “I don’t know if I can do that.”

“Listen,” Liza said. “I have to get back inside before Irwin starts stripping, but if you ask me, whatever kind of relationship you and your mother end up with after you confront her can’t be worse than what you have now.”

Molly swallowed hard. “You may be right, but if my father goes to jail and my mother bails on me forever, what’s left?”

Hunter. But Molly had spent the last twenty-eight years thinking family was the way to fill her emotional void. The idea of willingly pushing her mother away scared her beyond reason. Not a particularly adult notion, but an honest one, Molly thought.

Liza pulled her into a quick hug. “I’m free after this class if you want to talk, okay?”

“Thanks,” Molly said. She appreciated her friend and the fact that she could confide in her about things so personal.

Liza walked back inside. “Irwin, put your shirt back on now!” she yelled.

Molly shook her head and laughed. As she headed back to the main lobby, her cell phone rang and she pulled it out of her purse. Her father’s home number flashed on the small screen.

She flipped the phone open. “Hello?”

“Molly, it’s Dad. You need to come home immediately. Seth’s missing. Nobody knows where he is and Jessie’s locked herself in her room. She won’t talk to anyone and I’m worried about her.”