Lucy Rose-Southerland unlocked the door, suppressing the expectation to find her mother in the kitchen, piecrust ready to be filled with the berries that grew in abundance along the back fence. Foolish. Mom had fought the cancer just long enough to see Lucy through the darkest days of her life, but she’d been gone almost a year.
Lucy still had no idea what had prompted her to hold onto the house. Lord knows, she couldn’t have been any quicker about unloading her own house and all the memories it contained, but even with painful memories, something had caused her to put off selling her childhood home. Maybe she’d known deep inside it was a chapter in her life she’d never written the end for. Despite the grief that had entered her life, Lucy clung to optimism like a shipwreck victim would cling to a life preserver. There had to be something better around the next bend. You couldn’t simply close the book on a bad part. There had to be an epilogue. A happily ever after, or at least a vague sense of completion. Maybe that’s what had brought her back after all these years, a need to find a thread of happiness woven into the blanket of despair that covered her past.
She dropped her bags, and eased a few steps in. The place hadn’t changed. Worn furniture covered in a fine patina of dust crowded the small combination living and dining room. She glanced up the stairs, shut her eyes and heard the music she’d blasted on her old stereo. And her father. “Come into the den, Lucy.”
She’d never wanted to go into the den. Home of the fire and brimstone lectures, and spare the rod, spoil the child corporal punishment.
She’d never intended to come back to this old neighborhood with its antiquated wartime bungalows, and the war-like memories she retained of growing up at the mercy of her father’s drunken tirades. She hadn’t returned since she and Adam had conceived Elise their final year of college and her dad had declared her dead to him.
Lucy could clearly recall the mournful expression on her mother’s face the morning she’d announced she and Adam were expecting and planned to marry. It was as though mom had feared her only daughter would wind up in the same rock and hard place she had. With her staunch Catholic upbringing and tyrannical husband, divorce had never been an option for Dora Rose. Lucy didn’t feel the same. Had Adam ever shown any of her father’s inclinations, she’d have divorced him in a heartbeat. He hadn’t. Maybe he hadn’t been the all consuming, wild and crazy love of a lifetime some woman longed for, but Adam was gentle and a good provider. And having Elise to fill her heart with love had shown Lucy what real family was, so much so that she’d even grown to not resent the fact contact with her mother had to be made through a neighbor.
She smiled a little as she thought of Colleen O’Leary. Already crippled with arthritis by her mid-thirties, the feisty Irish woman had still ruled her houseful of rambunctious boys, and her jovial husband, with an iron fist. Colleen had been such a good friend to her mother. Lucy was convinced if only mom had listened, Colleen might have eventually talked her into leaving her unhappy marriage and reclaiming a life of her own. By the time the O’Leary’s had moved in, complete with their menagerie of pets, and boys with noisy toys, Dora had been too downtrodden to listen to anyone but her husband.
Maybe if she’d come in person and insisted her mother move in with she and Adam when her father first fell ill? No. She’d had no intention of ever returning to this house. Until the accident. The loss of everything she’d held dear had driven her back. Again she closed her eyes, but it only served to bring Adam and Elise into sharper focus. And to sharpen the knife that had pierced her heart and soul fourteen long months ago.
She didn’t want to be here. She didn’t want to be anywhere.
Lucy wiped her eyes on the ever-present tissue clutched in her fist and walked out the glass doors onto the patio. She’d loved the patio as a child. Surrounded with vines that drooped color and nose-tingling scents, she’d spent many enjoyable afternoons snuggling on the swing and listening to the O’Leary’s play basketball next door. Three blue-eyed devils raised in a house the same as the one she’d grown up in-yet so different. She’d often wondered what it would be like to have siblings, instead of being the sole recipient of her father’s unwanted attention. No, best that her parents had never had another child.
She lowered herself into the rusted two-seater swing. It groaned but held. Her exhausted body settled into the familiar comfort. When stains of a Bon Jovi tune, and the distinctive thump of a basketball reached her ears, for a second her heart fluttered like it had when she’d spied through the fence to watch black-haired brothers battle it out on their backyard court, then a fractured sob tore from her throat. She wanted to go back. God, how she wanted it. But not that far.
Curling into the swing, Lucy braced her head in her arms and sobbed. She should have taken Elise to that early morning hockey practice. If there was a journey to be made, she should have gone, too.
The ball next door quit thumping and Lucy heard the murmur of conversation. She strained to listen, curious about who had taken up residence in the O’Leary’s love and laughter filled home.
The doorbell jangled and Lucy wiped her streaming eyes, and sprang from the swing. She swung open the door to a black haired waif who looked around seven, Elise’s age. Except Elise no longer had an age. Lucy’s eyes flooded anew and the child appeared to be floating underwater as she stepped into the front hall.
“Don’t cry. I’m sorry I took your berries, but look, we made tarts.”
Again Lucy wiped her eyes and accepted the plate the child offered. Hiccupping back a fresh sob, she eyed lopsided and overly brown tarts. “How lovely. Did you make these yourself?”
“I had a bit of help. But I did most of it,” she hurried to add. “You’re not crying because I stole your raspberries, are you?”
Throat tight with stifled tears, Lucy settled for shaking her head.
“I cried a lot too, when I first moved here, but Granny was right, this is a happy neighborhood. Soon you won’t cry as much.”
Hmm, whoever this child is, her Granny must have lived on a sunnier side of the street than I ever did. She kept silent, unwilling to afflict such a cheerful little girl with the negative thoughts she just couldn’t seem to shake lately. Didn’t time heal all wounds? Why did hers keep tearing open? Maybe finally closing the door on her unhappy childhood would help her close the door on her current unhappiness. At this point, she’d try anything.
A shadow fell across the door and Lucy jerked her gaze upward. It came to rest on a sturdy, black haired man who could only be an O’Leary.
He focused on the child. “I said deliver and return, Shannon.”
She hung her head. “Sorry, but…”
“No buts. Bowser needs his dinner and you have math.”
The girl edged toward the door. “Yes, sir.”
He watched her leap down the stairs, finally turning back to Lucy. “I apologize. She’s a bit forward, particularly with women. I…”
Cutting himself short, he met her gaze and a slow smile spread across his face. “I recognize you. You’ve no idea how many fantasies I spun about the shy, pretty girl next door. Welcome home, Lucy.”
Home? Lucy shivered as he grasped her chilly fingers in a warm grip. He’d fantasized about her? Ironic after the many hours she’d spent dreaming the O’Leary’s would invite her to live with them because they didn’t have a daughter of their own, or that some day she’d marry one of the laughing young men and be embraced by the family. “I…”
“Mick,” he supplied, still not releasing her hand. “Or the monkey in the middle, as they used to call me. I just lit the grill. Why don’t you come over for a burger and we’ll catch up?”
Suddenly desperate to escape the bubble of grief she’d been isolated in, Lucy nodded. “I’d like that, if it’s okay with your wife.”
“Don’t have one.” He led her to the house next door, cringing a little when he swung open the front door and they had to maneuver around a backpack, half dozen pairs of brightly colored sneakers, and a glittering pink skateboard. “Which is why my house looks this way. Let’s go outside.”
Over beer, burgers, and banter, Lucy relaxed, surprised at the foreign sound of laughter. There’s and her own. She’d always wanted to know how it felt to be involved with a family who could laugh-even while they argued. Now she knew. Even without his parents and boisterous brothers, Mick O’Leary was an entertaining force, and the lively Shannon had inherited all the O’Leary charm and then some. And it was every bit as wonderful to be included in the laughter as she’d suspected.
Mick and Shannon had jokingly bickered about housework, the basketball game they’d played earlier, and even about who had to get up first the next morning to let the dog out. He’d talked about how much he loved living back in the old neighborhood, how he enjoyed his work as a veterinarian, and it was obvious he doted on the little girl who was a miniature blue-eyed version of him. Aside from whatever had estranged Mick from Shannon’s mother, he seemed to live a completely charmed life of love and laughter.
If she had an exuberant man like Mick O’Leary in her life, would the sun that shone from him clear a little of the dark cloud that had followed her far too long? Lucy shook off the completely unexpected thought, surprised it had even entered her head.
After they’d eaten, Mick stacked plates. “You know the routine, kid. You’re dish detail.”
Lucy smiled as Shannon leaped to do his bidding. “Your daughter is wonderful.”
He looked surprised. “Daughter? Oh, um, Shannon is my niece.” Grief momentarily dulled the blue brilliance of his eyes. “She was orphaned about fourteen months ago. A long haul driver, drunk at dawn. Wiped out her parents and another family. Dad passed away a few years ago. Mom is in a retirement home better equipped to handle the way arthritis has handicapped her than we ever could have made this old place. My older brother and his wife are in the service, a bit too unsettled for soothing an orphaned girl. That left me, the seriously single and least likely to grow up, having to dive into single parenthood.” He shrugged. “And I seriously love it. Lucy? Are you all right?”
She gasped as the sunny yard revolved, and he leaned to clasp her suddenly icy hands in a warm grip. Wrapped in grief, she hadn’t connected the names of the other victims. They’d both lost loved ones that terrible day. “My family.”
Without warning he gathered her in his arms. “You were meant to come home, Lucy.”
She clung to his solid warmth and for the first time in years-maybe ever-she felt as though she really had come home.
Learn more about Lainey Bancroft at her SHOWCASE PAGE.