"You're set, Miss McCall," the hairdresser said, pulling the salon cape off.
"Thank you." Piper glanced at the mass of dark brown curls framing her pale face. "It looks great." She still liked a little fluff and curl even though straight hair was the trend.
The summer sun felt warm against her skin. As she walked down the sidewalk, away from the noise of the salon, she heard the beep of her cell phone. She retrieved it and looked at the missed call, Samantha. Piper quickly punched out the numbers to her twin sister's cell.
"Hello?" Sam's voice came over the line.
"Hi, sis. You called?"
"Uh-huh. Lynda called. She said you didn't bring in the sculpture for the auction."
"Oh, no. How could I forget something that important?" Piper nearly dropped the phone when she smacked her forehead, only to end up moaning in pain.
For the last few years Piper and Sam had donated their artwork to the Kids Kamp auction. Kids Kamp, a Christian organization, reached out to underprivileged kids from their local community. The camp provided adventure camps for free, and the auction helped supply operating funds for the camp.
"Well, I'm at home getting ready for the auction." Sam clutched the phone with one hand and brushed her hair with the other. "The staff wants us there early. Did you forget that, too?"
Piper ignored the remark. "Sam, can you bring the sculpture? I'm desperate. I need to go by the bank first and traffic will be too thick to get to the auction on time."
"Sure, where is it?"
"In my office on the left side of my desk on the pedestal."
"No problem. I'll see you there."
"Thanks, Sam. You're a lifesaver." Piper hung up, climbed into her car and made a quick run to the bank, where she was greeted with more bad news.
The teller handed Piper the bank receipt. "Miss McCall, it shows that you have an overdrawn balance. Your deposit isn't enough to cover the difference."
Piper panicked. How could she have made that kind of error? She felt her face flood with color. "What's the amount that I need to deposit to cover it?"
"Nine hundred dollars," the teller whispered discretely. "Your account is covered by over-draft protection but you will be charged if any checks bounce in your account."
"How did this happen?" Piper mumbled then looked at the teller. "I'll be back. Thank you."
She hurried out of the bank, stumbling to her car. She needed air. Her thoughts were so scattered lately, she had trouble concentrating on anything, let alone running a business. She and her sister had worked hard to make McCall's Fine Arts Studio a profitable business, but since their father's death last year, Piper had found it hard to create the unique sculptures that had originally made their gallery a success.
En route to the hotel's banquet room, Piper frantically tried to remember what she'd done to cause such an accounting error. Once at the hotel, Piper made her way down a long hall to the banquet room. She snuck in the back of the large room packed with people.
In front, she spotted Sam talking animatedly to their mutual friend and the founder of Kids Kamp, Lynda Brooks. Lynda owned Treasures In Time, an antique store that shared a common wall with McCall's Fine Arts Studio. Lynda had taken on the role of playing grandmother to Piper and Sam since the two women had never known their birth mother or grandmother.
Instead of moving down front with the other women, Piper decided to stand in the back and view the event from there. She observed silently as an abstract oil painting from a local artist raised two hundred dollars. When Sam's watercolor of red geraniums sold for five hundred dollars, Piper smiled despite her sour mood. She watched Sam cheering like a teenager in front. Even though her sister was her fraternal twin, she acted years younger.
The auctioneer announced her piece of art next. Piper watched a gentleman carry the sculpture out and set it on the viewing table. She blinked, squinting her eyes and blinked again. Her heart pounded. No, not that piece, she moaned inwardly. Oh, Sam, how could you do this? A large knot formed in her throat while she watched the bidders fight for her piece of art. Piper's eyes welled with tears, then one eyelid started to twitch uncontrollably causing her distress. She knew quite well there was no stopping the auction now.
"Oh, not now," she muttered. Since her youth, every time she felt nervous or stressed, one eyelid would twitch.
Piper's attention returned to the stage. She glanced at her beloved sculpture, then to her sister. Anger welled up inside. How could she have made this mistake? Rushing back to where the auction paddles lay, Piper grabbed one, then ran back and waved it in the air.
"Five hundred dollars from the pretty lady in back," the auctioneer called. "Do I hear five-hundred and fifty dollars?" He paused, then, "Five-hundred and fifty from the man in the gray suit."
Piper raised her paddle again without thinking. "Six hundred."
The man in the gray suit called out, "Seven-hundred."
Piper cringed and her eyelid fluttered nervously. At what price was this man going to stop? She couldn't afford anything right now, yet she waved her paddle like a crazy woman. "Seven-hundred and fifty." She'd have to post-date her check.
The man glanced at her, and then waved his paddle. "Eight-hundred."
Piper gulped. Her hand went limp and the paddle dropped to the floor. She had no money to offer.
"Do I hear eight-hundred and fifty?" No one waved their paddles. The crowd, silent and anxious, waited. "Going once, going twice, sold for eight-hundred dollars," the auctioneer said, his gavel hitting the podium.
The sound echoed in Piper's ears. Her eyes were glued on the gentleman whose auction paddle had waved victoriously in the air.
"Sorry, buddy, but you're not going to get it," she whispered through gritted teeth.
Feeling her eyelid stop its frantic movements, she made her way through the crowd. She spotted the gentleman who had bought her priceless sculpture. He stood above the crowd. Tall, a tanned, chiseled face, jet-black hair closely cropped to his neck, he looked like an actor from one of the daytime soap operas.
Suddenly, only an arms-length away, she felt unable to walk another step. Silently praying for courage, she willed herself to move and inched forward before she lost her nerve. Her feet felt like lead weights.
"Hello, I'm Piper McCall," she said, thrusting her hand out.
The gentleman glanced down at her, then firmly took her out-stretched hand in his and smiled. "I didn't think I'd get the opportunity to meet the artist in person."
Piper stared up at him. The man looked vaguely familiar. Had she met him before? "And your name?"
"Roman Montgomery, the proud new owner of a McCall sculpture," he said with a large grin.
"Roman Montgomery," she repeated in a daze.
"Sound familiar?" he said as if he knew something she didn't.
Memories of long ago suddenly came to mind. "Yes," she said, her face growing warm. "Third grade, Miss Schaefer's class." She grew tense and her hands formed tight fists by her side.
"I'm flattered that you remember," he said with a smile.
Piper forced a smile, biting back a harsh retort. Memories of the man were anything but pleasant. Roman Montgomery had teased her mercilessly all those years ago and she'd never understood why. He'd been a bully and a prankster. Roman had been eventually expelled from school due to bad behavior. Piper tore her thoughts away from those memories and concentrated on the reason for the conversation at hand.
"Mr. Montgomery, I'm afraid a mistake has been made. My sister accidentally brought in the wrong piece of art to be auctioned off."
Roman raised an eyebrow and stared at her for a moment. "So, if I understand you correctly, you're here because you want your sculpture back?"
She nodded uncomfortably. Filled with dread, her eyelid began to twitch again. Oh, Lord, please keep my eye still, she prayed.
He leaned forward. "Do you have something in your eye?"
"An eyeball," she muttered.
"Nothing," she said stiffly. "I can't talk now, but here is my phone number." She stuffed her business card in his hand. "Please call me if you decide to do the right thing."
"The right thing?" A lop-sided grin appeared on his handsome face. "And what would that be?"
His tone rattled her nerves. "A mistake happened and the right thing to do would be to return the sculpture to me. I'll pay you the eight hundred dollars, so Kids Kamp will still have the money. Or if you'd like I could give you another sculpture from my studio." And that would save me a bundle of money, money that I don't seem to have right now, she added to herself.
"You haven't changed, still as feisty as ever." He winked.
She bit her lip, trying to hold back the awful words she wanted to throw at him. She couldn't afford to be offensive. She needed that sculpture.
"Please call me," she said, then turned on her heel and walked back through the crowd.
Once in the safety of her office at home, Piper sank down into the soft, leather folds of her favorite chair. Tears fell as she stared at the pedestal devoid of a sculpture. Not long before her father died he had made a sculpture of a little girl walking hand in hand with her father. He had given it to Piper and swore her to secrecy because he hadn't made one for Sam yet and had wanted it to be a surprise.
He'd died before having the chance to complete Sam's sculpture. Piper had never told Sam the true origins of the beloved sculpture. She had allowed Sam to think that Piper had made it herself. Now the priceless gift from her father was in the hands of a scoundrel, Roman Montgomery.
"Piper," Sam exclaimed, bursting into the room. "Why did you leave? You were supposed to have lunch with Lynda and me." Sam walked over and plopped down on the love seat next to Piper and stared at her. "Are you crying?" She leaned forward. "Why are you crying?"
Piper reached for another tissue and wiped her eyes. "You brought in the wrong piece," she mumbled, pointing to the empty pedestal.
"No, I didn't," Sam argued.
"Yes, you did. You took the wrong one."
"No, I didn't. I..." She gasped, her gaze darting from the empty pedestal to Piper. "Oh, Piper, I know what happened! The phone rang and I went to answer it and then I was sitting behind the desk and I picked up the one on the left, but it really was the one on the right and I... Oh," she groaned, placing her hand on her forehead. "I've made an awful mistake. Oh, Piper."
"Mistakes happen," Piper murmured.
Sam rose to her feet, tears flooding her eyes. "I'm always doing something wrong. I always do stuff like this, Piper. I constantly mix things up. I used to drive Dad crazy." She brushed tears from her cheeks.
"No, Sam, don't say that," Piper sighed. "It's my fault. I forgot to bring the sculpture in the first place. I take the full blame for this."
"No, you asked me to do it and I blew it. What's new?" Sam cried. She spun around and stormed out of the studio.
Piper leapt up, sprinted to the door and flung it open. "Sam, come back here!" Her sister was nowhere in sight. Piper ran across the grass, through the open gate, to the driveway. Sam, already in her car, was backing down the driveway.
"Wait, Sam," Piper called.
"I'll fix things," Sam called out her window. "I'll get it back for you."
"I don't think so," Piper mumbled under her breath. The enemy had it now. Lord, please help me through this ordeal, she prayed, watching her sister drive away. She hadn't prayed all that much lately. In fact, she hadn't prayed much since a massive heart attack had killed her father the year before. His death had hit her hard. No signs, no warning, no good-byes. And no chance to say one last time, "I love you, Dad."
Piper's eyes filled up. She felt robbed, denied a chance to tell her father how much she adored him. She hadn't prayed much because she was angry about her dad's death. No mother, now no father. Sam was her only family. And now she was afraid of losing her, too. Life didn't seem fair. Why, Lord? Why did you take my parents away? She turned and walked back to the house.
The shrill ring of her phone brought her back to the present. She didn't feel like answering, but perhaps it was her sister. "Hello," she answered.
"May I speak with Piper McCall," a man's voice asked.
Piper's heart raced when she recognized the voice. "This is Piper."
"Roman Montgomery here." There was a slight pause before he continued. "I wanted to talk to you about the sculpture."
"I'd like to discuss it over dinner. How does that sound to you?"
Like a nightmare, she thought. "I can't tonight. How about if we discuss it over the phone right now?"
"How about tomorrow night?"
Piper willed herself to speak, but her mouth ignored the command.
"Hello? Miss McCall, are you still with me?"
"Yes," she said finally. Be smart, don't irritate the man, she told herself. "Dinner tomorrow night would be fine. What time and where should I meet you?"
"How about seven at Jimmy Jax's. It's on Pacific Coast Highway at--"
"I know where it is," she interrupted. "I'll be there."
"I'll be looking forward to it." His voice was deeper than before and had an intimate ring to it that sent a chill up Piper's spine. "Good-bye, Miss McCall."
"Good-bye, Miss McCall," Piper repeated sourly after she replaced the receiver. She immediately went to find her dark glasses. She didn't care how ridiculous she'd look with sunglasses on at night. She wasn't going to have dinner with Mr. Montgomery without being able to conceal her eye disorder. Piper put her glasses in their case and placed them safely in her purse, then headed back out to the studio and office. She needed to relax. When she worked with clay, it helped her to unwind, and she certainly needed to calm down after that call and her discussion with her sister.
Piper grabbed her apron, tied it on, switched on her CD player and set to work. A calming melody filled the air as she first pounded the clay into submission then placed it on the wheel. As she worked, her gaze was drawn to the wall in front of her. She stared at the poster her father had bought for her the year before. It had a picture of God's hands holding a clay pot. Piper lifted her foot off the pedal and the wheel slowly stopped spinning. She read the scripture at the bottom of the poster. Isaiah 29:16, "Can the pot say of the potter, 'He knows nothing?'"
She tilted her head to one side, reflecting. God was the potter, she the pot. How could he not know her pain? Her gaze went back to the clay. "He formed me and he knows all."
An hour later, just when Piper had decided to clean up her ceramic tools and make something to eat, Sam walked into the studio looking distraught.
"I'm sorry, Piper. I tried. I really tried. They won't give me the buyer's name," she rambled on. "I went to Lynda's house, but she wasn't home. I thought for sure she could help us since she's the founder of Kids Kamp. When she wasn't there I went back to the auction and found Mr. Glassco, the charity's financial officer. I explained the situation, but he said the sale couldn't be reversed. I'm so sorry, Piper."
Piper drew a slow, calming breath, wiped her hand on a cloth and neatly placed her tools in a container, then turned and looked at her sister. "I know who the buyer is and I've already talked to him."
Sam clapped her hands together. "Oh! That's great. What did he say?"
"He's taking me out to dinner to discuss it tomorrow evening."
"What's his name? Is he friendly? Do you think he'll give you back the sculpture?"
"Whoa." Piper raised her hand. "Not so fast, you're making my head spin. To answer your first question, his name is Roman Montgomery. Is he friendly? I'm not sure but I certainly didn't like him in third grade. Will he give me back the sculpture? If he doesn't, I'll make his life miserable."
"That's not very Christian." Sam wagged her finger. "He was in our third grade class? Why don't I recall him?"
"He was in my class. That was the year we were separated. Principal Wynn tried to shape Roman up with a lot of time spent in detention. When that didn't work, he finally expelled him."
Sam scratched her head. "I vaguely remember him now. Wasn't he the boy who put bubble gum on your seat?"
Piper grimaced. "Yes. I'll never forget how embarrassed and humiliating that was, and I can name quite a few other nasty things he did to me."
Sam laughed. "I can still see that wad of pink gum dangling from your skirt. All the boys were laughing in the hallway when you walked by on the way to the cafeteria."
"Thanks," Piper snapped. "How can you laugh about it?"
"Sheesh, Piper! It's in the past, forget it."
"Things like that aren't easy to forget."
Sam frowned. "Well, this doesn't look good. We better start praying."
"Gee, thanks for your positive attitude," Piper mumbled.
"Piper, I'm your sister. I know how you get if someone does you wrong." Sam touched her arm tenderly.
Piper bristled at her sister's comment. "It's called righteous anger and it's biblical!"
"But holding onto a grudge isn't." Sam opened the front door. "Forgive and forget, remember?"
Piper raised her eyebrows. "Whom do I hold a grudge against?"
"Anyone who does you wrong and that includes me." Sam gave her sister a stern frown before closing the door softly.
Piper stared angrily at the door. She didn't hold a grudge against Sam. She loved her sister, flaws and all. Why had Sam said that? "Grudge, humph," she muttered, and picked up a piece of clay. No, Sam couldn't be right. Piper didn't hold grudges. She squeezed the clay, watching it ooze between her fingers.
Okay, maybe she held grudges against the likes of Roman Montgomery, but not against Sam, her beloved twin. She forgave and forgot all of Sam's mess-ups. Like the time in high school when Sam had taken her gym clothes from her locker by accident leaving Piper with only her undergarments and a towel. Or the time Sam had run over her foot with her skateboard, breaking two of Piper's toes. And the time Sam had thrown the baseball and hit Piper in the head with the ball, giving her a concussion and a lump the size of Mount Everest. "Oh, gosh, I do hold a grudge," Piper moaned, dropping the clay on to the table. And obviously Sam felt it. Piper lifted her gaze skyward. Lord,
I guess I do need to change my attitude. Help me to forgive and forget.
* * *
Piper yawned and popped the bread into the toaster, willing her eyes to stay open. She hadn't slept well the night before, tossing and turning in nightmares of dining with Roman Montgomery. She heard the front door open and turned. That would be Sam, and Piper had made a vow that she would begin to treat her sister better. She had renounced all grudges. All was forgotten and with the Lord's help, she and Sam would make a fresh start beginning today. She loved her sister and needed to prove to her that she was loved unconditionally.
Sam, dressed in jeans and a pink sweater, her wavy blonde hair braided down her back, walked into the kitchen and smiled. "Good morning."
"Why are you up so early?" Piper opened the refrigerator and grabbed a jar of jelly.
"Oh, I had fun looking for bargains at the garage sales in the neighborhood." Sam snatched the piece of toast Piper had buttered and took a bite.
Piper bit her lip, and then offered, "Can I make you some eggs to go with that?" Go the extra mile she encouraged herself.
Sam smiled. "Gee, thanks, but I'm not that hungry."
"So, did you find any good deals?" Piper sat down at the table, buttering another piece of toast.
Sam nodded. "I did! I've always wanted one, but Dad would never buy it for me because it cost too much. He probably knew you would never use it with me."
Piper grimaced. "What is it?"
"A tandem bicycle. Now I have to find someone who will ride it with me," she gave Piper a hopeful look.
Piper groaned inwardly. No, I'm not going to do it. She stuffed a piece of toast in her mouth and thought a moment. She had made a resolution to be a better sister and she was already being tested. She didn't want to fail this time. "I'd like to go riding with you, Sam." She grabbed her plate and stood.
Sam bounced up. "Great! I'll go and get my tennis shoes on. Then we can go."
"Sure, sounds like fun," Piper mumbled. Cheer up; it's just a bicycle ride.
Minutes later, Piper was trying to balance herself on the back seat of the tandem bicycle, holding on tightly to the handle bars. It had been a while since she had ridden a bike. "I'm ready," she said to her sister.
"Okay, start peddling," Sam called, rising out of her seat and leaning forward to get them on their way.
They wobbled down the driveway while they tried to find their balance. Once they steered onto the flat road they were riding fine. The crisp morning air awakened her senses. She breathed in the fresh smell of Eucalyptus trees that lined the side of the road.
"Isn't this fun?" Sam chattered away while she steered them down one street after another.
"Yeah, it is." Piper was smiling and actually enjoying herself. It did feel good to get out and do something different.
As they biked, they passed a beautiful two-story stone house with stained glassed windows and a turret. Sam took one of her hands off the handlebars and pointed. "Isn't that home gorgeous?"
Piper turned to look. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a black dog running toward them. "Watch out, Sam!"
"Hold on," Sam yelled and made a sharp right turn.
The bike rammed into the curb, tossing Sam and Piper to the asphalt. Piper yelped as her face hit the ground and sharp pain hammered through her head. She pulled herself up into a sitting position, pressing her hand against her cheek. Through blurred vision, she noticed the local paperboy running down the sidewalk. He reached for the bike and set it against the curb, out of the street.
"Are you two all right?" he asked.
Piper nodded. "I'll survive, thank you," she mumbled, trying to stand up. The boy reached for her arm and helped her up. "Thanks," she said and noticed her sister standing already and brushing her pants off. "Are you okay, Sam?"
"I scratched my arm, but that's it. I'm fine." Walking over to the bike, she picked it up, looked at Piper and winced. "You've got a cut on the side of your face. I'm sorry."
"I know," Piper said, forcing back her irritation. "I'll clean it up when I get back to the house."
Sam stared at Piper. "Aren't you angry with me?"
"No. It was an accident." Piper pushed her hair back from her face and winced when her fingertips brushed the cut. She ignored the pounding in her head and the stinging pain on her cheek, refusing to follow her usual habit of lashing out at Sam for the mishap.
Sam frowned. "Really?"
Piper smiled and sucked in a breath when the pain bit into her flesh. It felt good not to overreact. She walked over to the bike. "Come on. Let's get back on and peddle home."
Sam's eyes widened. "You want to get back on that bike with me?"
"Of course." Piper lifted a sore leg over the seat and sat down.
"You can steer if you want," her sister suggested.
Piper shook her head. "No, you go ahead." She watched her sister shake her head while mounting the bike. They peddled slowly at first, steering the bike close to the side of the road, safe from any traffic. Trying to balance on the back, Piper had one hand on the steering bar and one on her cheek. She found the pain intensified if the wind hit the abrasion.
By the time they arrived back at the house, Piper's face stung like it was on fire and she immediately went into the bathroom to examine the wound. Tiny bits of asphalt were imbedded into her skin. She washed it carefully, then poured disinfectant on it and dabbed at it again, trying to get all of the rock bits out.
"Piper," her sister called through the bathroom door. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, sure," Piper muttered. If she hadn't ridden that stupid bike of Sam's none of this would have happened.
"Open the door," Sam pleaded.
"No, I'm okay, really." Please. Just leave me alone.
Her sister banged on the door again. "Open it, Piper. Please?"
Piper grudgingly opened the door. "I'm fine. See?"
Sam shook her head then leaned forward to examine Piper's face. "You have bits of the street stuck in your cheek."
"Wonder how that happened?" Piper grumbled, making a sour face in the mirror.
"Nothing." Piper plastered a smile on her face. How quickly she had forgotten about the new leaf she turned over. Suddenly she wanted to rip up that new leaf into tiny little pieces. Being a forgiving person was no easy task. Lord, help me, she called out silently.
"I need to get my face cleaned up so I can open the gallery."
"I'll open the gallery, Piper," Sam said. "No worries. I'll leave right now."
"Thanks, sis," Piper patted her sister on the shoulder. "I'll see you in a little bit."
"Okay, call me if you need me." Sam disappeared out the door in a flash.
Piper picked up a pair of tweezers she had sterilized with alcohol, and began to pick out the rock imbedded in her cheek. She refused to cry and, instead, grit her teeth. As she pulled out the last bit of asphalt, she stared at the mirror. She looked as if she'd battled with a piece of ten-grade sandpaper... and the Mr. ten-grade had won!
Piper grimaced, thinking of her dinner date that evening. How could she meet with Roman when she looked so atrocious?
"Oh, why does it matter anyway what I look like?" she said to the mirror. "This isn't a date, girl. What's a date? I haven't been on a date in so long I've forgotten." She stared angrily back at the mirror. "What are you looking at? Can't I talk to myself without feeling like a loony?"
Piper shook her head. Was she going nuts? With a sigh, she turned and went into her bedroom to change clothes. She reached into her closet, pulled out a loose-fitting summer dress and slipped it over her head. She tied a matching scarf in her thick brown hair, slipped some colorful bracelets over her wrist then headed downstairs.
In the kitchen she grabbed a bagel, spread some cream cheese on it and took a large bite. Sitting down at the table, she fished through her purse and removed her checkbook. She had to find the bank error quickly. On the way to work, she'd have to stop at the bank and transfer what little savings she had into the business account. Over and over again she added the deposits and withdrawals, but couldn't find where she'd made the error. She picked up her cell phone and tapped in the gallery number.
"McCall's Fine Arts Studio, may I help you?" Sam answered.
"Sam, at the bank yesterday the teller told me our business account was overdrawn, but I can't find the error. Do you have any clue as to how this happened?"
"Why didn't you tell me yesterday?"
"I was a little pre-occupied with the auction," And the loss of my sculpture.
She heard Sam sigh. "I had to withdraw cash this week to pay for the framing materials from Mr. Jensen. I don't think I recorded it in the checkbook. Remember, he doesn't take checks anymore, cash only."
"Oh, why didn't you tell me? I could have transferred money to cover it." Although agitated, Piper struggled to keep her voice calm.
"I didn't know that we were running things that close. Maybe you should have told me," Sam said defensively.
"Yes, maybe I should have." Be nice don't argue. "No worries, I'll fix it today." Piper blinked, surprised by her calm attitude. "At least I know what happened. I'll see you at the gallery in a little bit." She hung up before her sister could say anything and inhaled a deep breath. Being a kind sister all the time was no easy task.