It would be hard to argue with anyone who called me a failure.

By twenty-one, I’d lost my college scholarship, passed up a great guy and moved back in with my mom. Who was glad to see me, but it wasn’t the glorious homecoming I’d dreamed of when I packed my bags three years ago. Still, even flavored with regret, I couldn’t deny a certain happiness about being home. Sharon, Nebraska, wasn’t much, just a tiny dot on the map. The downtown had all of six stores, and there were no shopping centers at all, at least not without driving forty miles, unless you counted the Walmart. We had McDonald’s and Pizza Hut¸ a roadhouse, two bars and a place called Patty’s Pancakes. Not surprisingly, they specialized in pancakes. The Grove was the only fancy place, a restored historic site; none of my dates had ever taken me there. But the smallness of the town meant everybody knew you, and there was some comfort in the familiarity and the gossip.

At the moment, my life was kind of a mess—but as I unpacked the last box, I sighed in relief. No more classes, no more faking interest in my alleged future when I talked to my best friend and roommate, Nadia. It used to be hard as hell, pretending everything was okay when my life was imploding. Yet even though I couldn’t share what I’d been going through, I’d miss Nadia; she was still in Michigan while I’d returned to Sharon to start over.

My mom tapped on the open door. “I didn’t really change anything. We can paint if you want or I could make new curtains.”

“That sounds fun.” I wasn’t being sarcastic. This room hadn’t been redecorated since I was thirteen, and the lavender was a little much. Not to mention the full-on princess theme going on here, between the white and gold furniture, the fluffy purple rug, all of my stuffed animals and a bookshelf overflowing with fantasy novels featuring knights and orphaned heiresses. The floral print bedspread and curtains made me want to crawl under the ruffled bed skirt and stay there.

“What did you have in mind?” Mom asked.

She looked great; the transformation I’d noticed when I’d last seen her at Thanksgiving had continued. It was now February and she’d lost that final twenty pounds, so if anything, she was slimmer than me. That should probably agitate me, but it was so good to see her rebounding. After my dad left, I thought she was wrecked permanently.

“To match the curtains, if you can make one. Or would that be too much?”

She cocked her head, thinking about it. “Probably not, as long as you don’t do patterns on the pillows as well.”

“I’m so happy you’re here. Even if it means things didn’t work out at Mount Albion.” She was careful not to state it aloud—that I flunked out of school, came home in disgrace, or at least, that was the talk around town. The worst of the church ladies whispered that I was pregnant, too.

“Thanks.” I gave Mom a quick hug. “Can I borrow the car?” So weird to be asking that. “I need a few things.”

“Not a problem. Can you pick up milk and eggs?” Her eyes sparkled as they met mine, conveying her awareness of how many times we’d enacted this same scene when I was in high school.

“It’s the least I can do.” I paused a beat, as she expected, then added, “Wait, no, that would be nothing. But then I don’t get the car keys.”

“Right again.” She led the way downstairs and dropped them into my open palm. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

I grinned, gesturing at my messy up-do and grungy gray sweats. “It’s tough when you look like this, but I’ll try not to break any hearts.”

It was half past three on Saturday afternoon as I skipped down the front steps. The house, a two-bedroom shotgun style, looked better than it had in years. Though my mom hadn’t admitted it yet, I suspected she had a guy coming around for upkeep and repairs, maybe more. She might think it would be awkward to tell me she was dating again, but in my view, it was past time. My dad had been gone for ten years, and the divorce had been final for eight. By no means could this be considered a sudden development.

I got into the old Plymouth and started it up. It made sense for me to buy my own car, but I couldn’t afford it at the moment. Ten minutes later, I pulled into the Safeway parking lot. Since I needed lotion and deodorant, I’d get milk and eggs at the same time. No reason to drive farther for more choices. As kids, we used to do crazy shit in the parking lot, mostly because there was nothing else to do. I remembered drinking behind the store and Nadia pushing me around in a shopping cart until management came out to yell at us.

The nostalgia that swept over me was deep and rich; no matter where I went, this would always be home. To a lot of people, Sharon seemed stifling, I guessed, a complete dearth of opportunities, but I hoped to get into computer science and land a job where I could telecommute. I’d always been more into fiddling with programs and apps than anyone else I knew, but I also had causes. So I tried the latter first and discovered I hated it enough to start over, even if it meant losing momentum on the academic track. Nobody knew this—and I’d never admit it—but the reason I flunked out was because I stopped trying. People always seemed to think I must be dumb, possibly because I’m blond and curvy. And that pissed me off.

Six cars in the lot—I counted them as I went inside. No need for a cart. I picked a wheeled basket instead and got the groceries before heading to the small cosmetics section. There, I found Nadia’s brother. As ever, my pulse went into overdrive and my knees went soft. I’d always had this reaction to him; too bad he treated me like an honorary sibling.

Belatedly I noticed he was deliberating the merits of two body sprays. They were both that terrible, smelly stuff that commercials claimed would make guys irresistible to the ladies but really reeked like chemical muskrat death. I mustered some normal and stopped peering around the shelf at him.

“Neither,” I said, stepping into sight. “Please? Have mercy, seriously.”

“That’s a weird thing to say, Lauren.” His expression was unreadable, but that was no surprise. Nadia always compared her brother to a tree stump.

I suspected he was more like one of those giant sequoias. There might be all kinds of things going on, but you’d never climb high enough to see it. The worst thing about Robert Conrad? In eighth grade, I had a killer crush on him. He was a senior in high school at the time, lettered in both football and basketball, while I was a chubby little grease spot with braces and a terminal case of the stutters anytime he spoke to me. We’d both moved on from those awkward days, but any time I ran into him, I felt thirteen again, nerves jangling like a car alarm.