By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general.
I'm off to a very slow start with NaNoWriMo, but sometimes just getting started is the hardest part. This year's project is a contemporary romance of the second chance/best friend's big brother variety. -And yes, there's a secret baby, though he's not a baby anymore, and I promise the heroine had a really, really good reason to keep the secret! Anyway, if any of you are interested in taking a gander at my first scene, click "read more."
Avery pulled in to the small lot at Cooper's Market and cut the engine. She stared through the windshield at the storefront, transfixed by how familiar everything looked, as if she'd last been here yesterday instead of years before. The wide front porch with a pair of wooden rockers, where in fair weather old men played cribbage and chess and gossiped like schoolgirls. The handwritten signs announcing specials on deli meat, dairy products, and bakery items, taped up inside the big plate glass windows on either side of the door. The wooden sign above the front door, dark green letters on a white background: "Cooper's." In fifteen years, nothing had changed but the models of the cars in the lot.
Cal had opened his door and started to get out as soon as Avery parked, but when she made no move to leave the driver's seat, he turned. "Mom? You coming?"
She glanced at him, his tall, gangly frame twisted awkwardly as he hovered half in, half out of her tiny MINI Cooper. He practically hummed with suppressed energy as he held himself back to wait for her. He bounded toward every new experience without fear or hesitation, full of curiosity and confidence. Avery was so proud of that quality in him, though she couldn't take credit: in that, they were nothing alike.
"Mom?" he repeated impatiently, when she didn't immediately answer. "Earth to Mom, hello?!"
"Give me a minute. This is weird for me."
He followed her gaze to the weathered storefront and studied it doubtfully. "Why? It's just a store."
To outsiders, Cooper's was 'just' a little Mom and Pop general store, the kind that were a dime a dozen in rural New England (or used to be, before gas station convenience store chains cropped up in every town), a little dingy, a little quaint. Avery knew it was more than that to the locals, though: it was Command Central in the Wellsboro gossip machine. If she managed to screw up her courage and go inside, Avery knew she would be making a statement by her presence alone. Within the hour, word would be passed person-to-person, casually mentioned to everyone who passed through the checkout, before buzzing through telephone wires all over town: Avery Waites, the prodigal daughter, was back.
And then all hell would break lose.
Avery's already uneasy stomach seemed to dip and roll at the thought. She closed her eyes against the eager innocence of her son's face as a queasy wave of hot guilt washed over her. How had she let it come to this? How had she let it wait so long? Poor Cal was hovering on the precipice of having everything he'd ever known and trusted shaken to the core, and she hadn't even warned him. What kind of wretched parent was she?
"Okay, now you're scaring me," he said, sinking back into the passenger seat and pulling the door closed hard enough to rock the whole car.
Avery thought, with regret, of the many quiet hours of the long drive from Chicago. At any moment during that twenty-hour drive, she could have spoken. She could have turned off the music, taken a deep breath, and started the painful conversation that would have prepared Cal for the circus his life was about to become. She should have, it would have been the right thing, the fair thing, but she hadn't been able to summon the words. She'd kept her secrets too long for him to be anything but furious now, and she'd been afraid to face his anger in the cramped confines of the tiny car. More than that, she'd been afraid to break the fragile peace of their last hours together as the neat unit of two they had always been, single mom and only child, the pair of them united against any challenges the world could throw their way.
She was out of time. She inhaled deeply, filling her lungs against the pain in her chest.
"You know I grew up here," she began.
Cal nodded expectantly, his expression so open, so unguarded, Avery could read his features like the pages of a book. She looked down at her lap. She was breaking his trust irrevocably, and she couldn't bear to watch.
"I never told you, but your father did, too."
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Cal's hand curl into a fist against his denim-clad thigh, so tightly his knuckles turned white.
"What?" The word was hoarse, strangled, as if he didn't have enough breath behind it.
Two women walked beside the car and up the steps into the store, their laughter a jarring contrast to the tension between Avery and Cal. Their mirth underscored again just how very wrong it was to spring this on Cal here, without warning, in public, when they were already here in Wellsboro. -At Cooper's Market, of all places.
Avery swiped at her tears with the back of her wrist. In all the upheaval of the last week, the shock of her mother's sudden defection from a thirty-five year marriage, the arguments with her siblings, the stress of uprooting her life and Cal's to move home with so little warning, she hadn't cried a single tear, but this was too much. "Even if by some miracle you ever forgive me for this, kid, I'm never going to forgive myself."
"My dad lives here?" Cal asked, his voice cracking as it had so often a year ago, when he'd hit puberty and had sprouted six inches in as many months. Even without looking at him, Avery could hear a world of emotion in the question: hope, fear, anxiety, shock, anticipation, and terrible, terrible resentment.
How many times had he asked about his father, only to have Avery put him off without answers? When he'd been a toddler, she'd relied on distraction ("Your dad? Well... Oh, look! A squirrel!"), but over the years his interest had gotten harder to deflect until Avery's strategy shifted to outright repression ("It's just you and me, kid; get used to it."). Neither strategy would work anymore.
"I don't think he lives here," she whispered, "but I'm sure he still has family here."
Thanks to the technological wonder of modern social networking, Avery knew for a fact his sister--her erstwhile best friend--still lived in town. Molly had a Facebook page which revealed she worked at Wellsboro High, which would be Cal's school as soon as Avery could get him enrolled. -Yet another reason Avery should have told him the truth long before now.
"What?!" Cal choked again. Then, more softly, "Who is he?"
Avery swallowed painfully. Her mouth was dry (no doubt because all the moisture in her body had been pressed into service to make tears and snot).
"Ethan Riley. He was my best friend's brother."
Cal seemed to chew on this information for a long moment, during which Avery began to cobble herself back together. She found a travel pack of tissues in her purse and mopped her face. She blew her nose.
"What happened?" Cal asked eventually.
She took a long, steadying breath. "That's a long story."
His blue eyes flashed angrily. "I've been waiting fourteen years, Mom; I think I've got time," he snapped.
She nodded. "I will tell you. You must have a lot of questions, and I will try to answer them all, but not here. We told your grandpa we'd be right back, with groceries."
Avery's father was the reason they were here in Wellsboro generally and at Cooper's specifically. Avery's mother had left him after thirty five years of taking care of him--doing the shopping, fixing his meals, paying the bills, looking after all of the necessities of life so that he would be free to concentrate on esoteric academic pursuits in his work as chair of the literature department at Windsor College. He was the stereotypical absentminded professor, and Avery and her siblings had doubted his ability to take care of himself on his own. Even a thousand miles away in Chicago, Avery had been the closest to home. As a writer, her work was also more portable than that of her sister Courtney (a pediatric surgeon in Phoenix) or her brother Joe (a software engineer in California). So Avery had been the one to come, and she'd been utterly unsurprised to arrive this morning to find a week's worth of dishes and trash piled in the kitchen and absolutely nothing in the house fit for human consumption.
This time, Cal was the one scowling out at the view of the storefront. He was clearly torn: he hadn't had a solid meal since dinner the night before, in a roadside diner as they passed through Pennsylvania. Hunger was a powerful motivator for a teenage boy in the midst of a growth spurt: for months, Cal had been emptying the larder faster than Avery could stock it. However, he didn't want to let the moment pass and miss the chance to learn about his father, either.
Avery watched him wrestle with this dilemma. "I promise: I'll tell you everything when we get back to the house," she vowed. She reached across the e-brake to pat his knee, but Cal flinched away from her. His rejection felt like a slap, but Avery knew she deserved his anger.
She checked her reflection in the rear view mirror and then wished she hadn't. Her face was splotchy from crying, and she looked like she'd been driving all night, which she had. As if she wasn't giving the tongues of this town enough reason to wag, without walking into Cooper's looking like death warmed over... But there was nothing to be done about it, short of driving across the river to do her shopping in Claremont, which would both take longer and would mark her as the coward she was determined not to be.