Excerpt for Finding Grace: The Weathering Stormy Series Part 2 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Finding Grace

The Weathering Stormy Series

Part 2

Auburn J. Kelly



Finding Grace

By Auburn J. Kelly

Copyright © 2017 Auburn J. Kelly

Smashwords Edition

All Rights Reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning, or otherwise without written permission from the publisher. It is illegal to copy this book, post it to a website, or distribute it by any other means without permission.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty One

Chapter Twenty Two

Chapter Twenty Three

Chapter Twenty Four

Chapter Twenty Five

Chapter Twenty Six

Chapter Twenty Seven

Chapter Twenty Eight

Epilogue

Message to Readers

Acknowledgements

About the Author



Chapter One

Stormy glared at the scattered cardboard boxes with contempt. They contained all that was left of her mother, and sorting through them was something she had been dreading for days. She would have put it off forever if she could have; knowing full well what would happen once she opened them. But her old landlord had forced her hand by threatening to throw them in the dumpster, claiming people were lining up to rent the place.

Yeah right, she thought. The place was a dump, and the man was nothing more than a greedy little troll looking to make his next buck. For him, it was business as usual. For Stormy though, it was a whole lot more than that. It was uncovering a wound. A deep, excruciating wound that felt like it would never heal. And she resented the hell out of having to be back there. It was the place she vowed to never set foot in again, and yet here she was, forced to dig into the past she’d been so eager to forget.

She wrapped her arms around herself and sighed as she tried to come to terms with what she needed to do.

“Come on, sweetie. It’s time to rip off the bandage.” Trudy, Stormy’s best friend and current roommate, laid a hand on her shoulder as a gentle encouragement.

Stormy’s body sagged in defeat and she let out a long, exaggerated sigh. “Do I really have to? Can’t we just take them with us so I can unpack them later?”

Trudy’s soft blue eyes met Stormy’s cloudy gray ones. “I know this is hard for you, baby. But it’s better this way. Trust me.” She rubbed soothing little circles on Stormy’s back in an attempt to comfort her. “Plus, I don’t know where we’d store them all in that tiny apartment of ours.”

Stormy gave a slow nod. “You’re right. I know you’re right. I can’t hide from it anymore.” What she didn’t say was that the boxes weren’t the only thing she wanted to get away from. Being back in Yaupon was just a cruel reminder of a long list of losses she’d endured in the last six months.

It’s where her mother died.

It’s where Brylan was.

Brylan. She’d written him a letter, had Nozz hand deliver it to him, along with the address to her new post office box. And now she waited with bated breath.

Had been waiting for weeks.

With all that had happened between them and all the chaos she was drowning in at the time, a letter seemed like the best approach. It put the ball in Brylan’s court. A test of sorts, to see if his feelings ran as deep as he claimed they did, to verify whether or not the whole thing had been a fluke—just a petty flirtation between two people who’d been thrown together by circumstance.

She needed to know. Did she and Brylan share something special? Or was she building imaginary castles in the sky, deluding herself with grandiose ideas, so desperate for something—or someone—to cling to that she hadn’t seen things for what they really were?

It had certainly felt real.

Stormy sat down on the living room floor of the old trailer and opened the flaps of the first box labeled Mama’s clothing. She coughed as the dust wafted up toward her face. “Geez, how did so much dust accumulate on this stuff is so short a time?” Stormy stared at the contents while trying to swallow back the hard lump in her throat. It was full of old tank tops with catchy slogans and jeweled designs emblazoned on them, a couple of frilly, western blouses, and several pairs of worn out jeans.

Her mother’s attire had been simple, but her mama had worn them well. That is, before the drugs and the booze had taken hold of her.

“Hey, Trudy. Hand me a Sharpie and that roll of masking tape.” With the black marker in hand, she put a new label on the box and scrolled the word donate across it. There was nothing in the box that she wanted, and she felt better knowing that somebody else might put the clothes to good use.

Trudy smiled at her. “Progress.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” She looked around the room and wrinkled her nose. “Only eleven more to go.”

****

“What about this one, sweetie?” Three hours into their rummaging, Trudy held up a simple white lamp with a faded, sickly green lampshade. It had seen better days. “Trash, donate, keep, or sell?”

“Uh, keep the lamp…but toss the shade. There’s one in your shop that I think would look awesome on it.”

Trudy stared at the lamp while tapping a manicured finger to her lip. “Ah! I think I know which one you’re talking about…the lilac one with the crystals draped around the bottom?”

Stormy smiled at her. “That’s the one,” she said while writing sell in Sharpie on the flap of one of the three remaining boxes. With Trudy’s help, they were making good progress. The task was less daunting with her pitching in. In the weeks since her mama’s passing, Trudy had been a godsend. She’d taken Stormy into her home, comforted her, and gave her time to heal. And then the two of them had concocted a plan together.

“So, how much longer before Trudy’s Two is up and running?”

“Couple of weeks, maybe a month…if all goes well.”

Stormy stood up to stretch the soreness out of her back from having been stooped over for so long. She walked over to the kitchen and grabbed her Styrofoam cup of watered down Coke, taking a big gulp while surveying the remaining contents of the living room. A sense of dread was nibbling around the edges of her mind. The deed was almost done and soon she’d be closing the final chapter on that part of her life—the part that her mama had been a part of.

She pushed the thoughts away with a subtle shake of her head.

“Who would have ever thought you and I would be living together in San Marcos? It’s still so surreal.” Though she vaguely remembered sitting in the leasing agent’s office and signing the papers, the memory of it felt more like the remnants of a dream.

During a time when nothing about her life made any damned sense at all and she was drifting aimlessly about in a blanket of fog, Trudy had thrown her a lifeline. Unbeknownst to Stormy, Trudy had already been making plans to leave Yaupon and open a second store, but she’d put her plans on the back burner when Marni died…when Stormy needed her the most. And with Stormy so desperate to escape, Trudy set her plans in motion…with one minor modification. She was taking Stormy with her.

“Oh, baby. It was time. I needed to shake the dust of this place off my feet and try something new. And I think San Marcos is a good location for a second store, don’t you?”

Stormy nodded in agreement. San Marcos seemed like a perfect fit for both of them. A place for new beginnings. It wasn’t a big city, but it was full of youth and vitality, constantly buzzing with activity. Trudy’s Two, with its ostentatious, youthful flair and cozy atmosphere, was sure to attract customers. Especially since Stormy had talked her into serving her specialty coffees and offering free WiFi.

Stormy pulled her attention back to the contents on the floor, knowing that she had one more box to sift through…and looking forward to it about as much as catching the flu. So far it hadn’t been that bad. Mama’s clothing and miscellaneous trinkets hadn’t bothered her much, but the last one was going to be tough. It was full of mementos and personal effects.

“I’m going to start loading some of these in the back of the truck while you sort through the last of it,” Trudy gave Stormy a knowing look that was just a bit unsettling. The woman’s intuition or sixth sense, as she called it, bordered on scary sometimes.

“Okay. Thanks.”

She opened the remaining box and picked up a photo album full of cheesy grins and awkward poses. She’d forgotten how much Mama had liked to snap pictures when Stormy was a kid. She flipped to a picture they’d taken at Mustang Island and her mama’s laugh floated through her mind. She was surrounded by seagulls and screaming when they swooped down towards her, and Mama thought it was hilarious. Failing to see the humor, Stormy ran from the greedy rats with wings, convinced they were after more than her bologna sandwich. “Stormy…they don’t bite!” Mama had cackled at her.

“Then why are they chasing me?” Stormy cried while running through the warm, heavy sand.

“They’re just hungry. Toss ‘em a piece of your bread.”

Stormy did as she was told, flinging it over her head, and then her eyes lit with amazement when one of the birds caught the bread in mid air. “Wow, did you see that?” she’d beamed at her mother.

“I sure did.”

Stormy found herself smiling at the memory. It was one of Mama’s good days, one that she wished she could get back. The two of them spent a good chunk of the afternoon feeding the gulls bread and chips and whatever else they could find. Laughing, playing in the sand…those kind of memories were few and far between, and now she cherished them more than ever. After all, they were all she had left.

She wiped away the lone tear on her face and turned the page. And then her eyes landed on a picture of Jimmy. She had almost forgotten what he looked like. And there he was…one arm around Mama, and the other holding up a big catfish and grinning from ear to ear. He was handsome she supposed. Rugged, with one of those smiles that made his whole face crinkle, and it automatically made you smile with him even if you didn’t know what he was grinning about.

Stormy hadn’t thought about Jimmy in a long time and she was just starting to realize how much she missed him. He and her mama hadn’t been together for more than a year, but he’d been good to them. He was the only person who’d ever actually cared enough to step in and be a father to her…or tried to, until her mother pushed him away.

A bubble of resentment threatened to make its way to the top and Stormy pushed it back down. She took the photo out of the album and stared at it, remembering their camping trip at Lake…she forgot the name …but what she did remember was how mad Jimmy had gotten when the raccoons kept stealing their hotdogs from the picnic table before he had a chance to put them on the grill. Stormy and her mama stood at the door of the RV snickering while Jimmy shooed them away with his cap, yelling, “Get on out of here! Damn rotten masked bandits!”

Giggling at the memory, she brushed another tear away with the back of her hand and then slid the photo back into its rightful place before setting the album aside. Next inside was a smaller box, an old shoebox that housed broken costume jewelry, some crusty old batteries, a handful of loose change, a stack of homemade greeting cards that were scrawled in crayon, and Mama’s old driver’s license.

She traced the postage stamp sized photo with her finger as her heart wrenched. Her mama had been so young and fresh once, and Stormy was awed at how someone could look so good in a DMV photo. She tucked the license in her back pocket and then put the shoebox and the photo albums back inside. It was pretty clear that this box was going home with her.

Home.

The notion of it seemed so bizarre to her, packing up and moving someplace without Mama. It hardly made any damned sense. Mama was supposed to be there.

She taped up the box and took it out to her old, beat up Ford and placed it in the middle of the bench seat. There was no way she was risking it being donated or thrown away by accident. Trudy was leaning against the side of the truck, retying the red bandana that was holding her burgundy curls in place. “You okay, kid?” Her voice was soft and sympathetic.

“Yeah. I think we got everything, but I want to walk through the house one more time just to make sure.”

Trudy nodded with a smile. “Take your time, sweetie.”

They both knew it was time to say goodbye. And Stormy was dreading it. A ball of knots formed in her stomach as she walked up those rickety steps one last time, skipping the one that had always threatened to give way due to rot.

The inside of the house was all wrong. Lifeless. Empty. As empty as Stormy felt.

As she wandered from room to room, re-checking cupboards and drawers for things she might have missed, she wished that she could sort her feelings into nice neat little piles just as she and Trudy had done with Mama’s things—guilt, anger, regret, anguish, love, hate—the volatile cocktail of emotions swirling around in her head.

Despite the absence of air conditioning in the July heat, Stormy’s arms prickled with goose bumps as she stood in the middle of her mother’s empty bedroom. The room that she had died in. The room where she and her mother had spoken their last words to each other…where she heard her mother say “I love you” for the very last time.

It was strange standing there in her mother’s bedroom, and she half expected her mama to burst through the door and ask her what the heck she was doing in there. She wished that she would, just to hear her voice one more time…a complaint, an argument, a rant…anything. Anything would be better than the cold, vacant silence.

With trembling fingers, Stormy slid the plastic accordion doors of the closet open, the motion causing the empty hangers to swing back and forth as if they were mocking her. Just a short while ago, Stormy had been planning on leaving that run-down old trailer without ever looking back. She’d resented her mother back then and couldn’t wait to get away from her. Blamed her for all that was wrong in her life.

But then her mama had gone and left first….

The threat of more tears stung the backs of her eyeballs. Dammit! She was tired of never knowing which emotion would decide to rear its ugly head. And sometimes she could swear that they were all trying to come out at once. She was like a faulty round of ammunition—unstable and unpredictable, and liable to go off at any time.

Trudy’s voice startled her, “Everything good in here?”

No. Things weren’t good. Stormy’s gut twisted with the fact that her mother’s life was snuffed out before it was finished. Though there was nothing left in that old trailer to do, it still just felt wrong to leave it. There was no real rationale behind the feeling, and yet it was there, flashing like a neon light in her head.

“Yeah. I’m ready when you are.” She eased toward the door and put her hand on the light switch, giving the room one last glance before casting it back into darkness.

Bye, Mama.



Chapter Two

Stormy opened the French doors that led to the tiny balcony of their new apartment and stared in awe. “Wow, look at this view, Trudy! I still can’t believe we live here. It’s so pretty.” Through the scattering of pecan trees and live oaks there was a view of the crystal clear river that ran through town. “We’re going to have to do that. It looks like so much fun.”

Trudy sauntered over to the balcony and whistled. “Mmmm Hmmm. Nice view indeed. We definitely picked the right place,” she said as she appraised the gaggle of half naked men that floated by on inner tubes.

“Trudy!” Stormy gave her a playful slap on the arm and giggled as she rested her elbows on the railing. It did look like fun…floating down the lazy river, soaking up the summer sun without a care in the world.

Not that Stormy would know. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been that happy-go-lucky. Maybe never.

As if reading her mind, Trudy said, “That’ll be you pretty soon. Down there floating along with all your college friends.” She gave Stormy a small, hopeful smile before turning her gaze toward the river. Something lingered in her empty stare. It took Stormy a minute to put her finger on it, it was so unexpected and out of place. She looked…grief stricken.

“Everything okay, Trudy?” Stormy rubbed Trudy’s shoulder soothingly, the way Trudy had done for her more times than she could remember.

Trudy placed a hand on top of Stormy’s. “I’m fine, sweetie. Just tired.”

That was reasonable. They’d been lugging things back and forth from the truck all morning, making Stormy wish they had gotten an apartment on the first floor instead of the second. Stormy felt sorry for the poor saps on the fourth.

“Why don’t you sit and I’ll make a couple glasses of sweet tea.” Stormy went to the refrigerator and pulled out the floral pitcher. She had to contain a giggle when she put her glass under the automatic ice dispenser on the fridge. For her it was a novelty, a far cry from the old plastic ice trays that she was used to wrestling with, and she was happy Trudy had brought her own appliances along.

She filled the glasses and set them on the breakfast bar that separated the kitchen from the tiny living room. “Oh shoot!” she said when she looked at the plastic cat-shaped clock on the wall, “I’m going to be late to orientation.”

“That’s today?” Trudy looked alarmed. “My goodness, girl. We just barely got here. Aren’t you exhausted?”

Stormy had passed exhaustion several hours ago, but the campus tour was something she’d been looking forward to for the past two weeks. She needed it. Needed to cement the fact that college was real, that there was a future out there for her.

Before she could answer her, Trudy’s phone started vibrating across the counter. Stormy didn’t miss the way Trudy’s eyes widened when she looked at the screen. “Sorry, sweetheart. I’ve got to take this.” She hopped up from her stool and rushed out to the balcony, closing the French doors behind her. She’d been acting strangely over the past few days. Several hushed phone conversations and frequent outings with no explanation…. Stormy suspected she was seeing someone, but for whatever reason Trudy didn’t want her to know about it.

Stormy brushed the incident aside and scuttled into the bathroom for a shower. Twenty minutes later, she popped back into the kitchen to fetch a water bottle out of the fridge, knowing she’d be needing it while gallivanting across the Texas State campus in the sweltering heat.

Trudy had resumed her spot on the bar stool in the kitchen, apparently finished with her secret phone call. “Is that what you’re wearing?” She made a face and wrinkled her nose as if Stormy was stinking up the place.

“What’s wrong with my outfit? The brochure said to dress comfortably. It’s a hundred degrees outside.” She looked down at her white denim shorts and plain, blue tank top. She thought she looked alright.

Trudy ran her fingers down the length of Stormy’s ponytail. “Want some help with your hair and makeup? There’s bound to be some cute guys roaming around. You never know,” Trudy said with a wink.

The last thing Stormy wanted to think about was men. It was her time to shine and she didn’t want anything interfering with that. “No, Trudy. I don’t have time. Thanks though. It’s too hot for all of that anyway. My makeup would just melt off.”

Trudy let out a frustrated sigh of defeat, “Alright then.”

****

Texas State was like a city within a city and there was so much to do and see. She couldn’t help but be impressed by it. It had been a long day and she was hot and tired. However, it had been worth it. The hope in the air was almost tangible, as if she could reach out and grab some of it. And after the last few months, that was something she needed. Hope.

The campus store was her last stop on the tour. She’d made a special point of stopping in to buy a couple of tee-shirts bearing the school logo, further reinforcing that the whole thing was real. For whatever reason, she was still having a hard time wrapping her mind around actually going to college. Higher education had been like a pipe dream, something she could see in her mind but was too far away to touch. Something set aside for rich kids with functional families…not people like her.

The place reminded her of a department store with racks and racks of clothing and shelves of miscellaneous odds and ends. A maroon baseball cap with the school mascot embroidered on it caught her eye. She put in on and pulled her pony-tail through the back while she sought out a mirror.

“You should buy it. It suits you,” said a voice from behind her. Stormy’s heart lurched in her chest at the familiar baritone. When she spun around, her eyes widened and she broke into a huge grin.

“Nozz!” She threw her arms around her old friend. “What in the world are you doing here?” She hadn’t seen the guy in weeks. As far as she knew he was still living in Beeville with his older brother.

After their quick embrace, Stormy held him at arm’s length, taking in the sight before her. His big green eyes had that same mischievous sparkle that she remembered, and his big cheesy grin was still as infectious as ever. It was the rest of him that made her pause. His floppy blond hair was now closely cropped, leaving only a hint of waviness on top. His baggy jeans and tee-shirt, the ones that use to flap around on him because they were two sizes too big, had been replaced with better fitting ones that showed off his physique…the one that she didn’t know he had.

“Wow. You look great, Nozz.”

“Thanks. So do you.”

Stormy doubted that. Her face was still flushed from the heat and her hair was wet at the temples from sweat. She was sure she looked a mess. “You still didn’t answer my question,” she gave him a playful punch in the arm. “What are you doing here?”

****

Nozz shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I called Trudy when I couldn’t get you on your cell. She told me where you were.”

Stormy fished her phone out of her pocket and scowled. “Oh. My battery is dead. Sorry.”

“No big deal. Anyway,” he continued, “I figured I’d just meet you here…kill two birds with one stone. Get a feel for the place.”

Her face lit up hopefully. “You mean you’re thinking of enrolling for fall? Here?”

He tried to look nonchalant, even though his insides were shaky. “I wasn’t a hundred percent sold on the idea before, but it’s looking better and better all the time.”

He hated the lie. It was sour on his tongue. College had never really been on his radar. His grades had always been stellar and he’d scored off the charts on the standardized tests at the end of the year, but he’d always found school boring. Too easy. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to sit through four more years of lame assignments that were below his level of intellect.

But it was worth it to see Stormy’s bright smile, and the enthusiasm radiating off her was a huge relief to his frazzled nerves. He’d been back and forth on the idea all day, not knowing if showing up out of the blue was the right thing to do. But she was glad to see him. Of that, he was certain; it was all over her face. Hell, she was the only thing he was sure about at the moment. Everything else was a big question mark.

Of course, he wasn’t about to tell Stormy any of that.

He didn’t want to rain on her happiness. She was blessed with knowing what she wanted out of life. As for him, the future was a big, blank wall of nothingness. He couldn’t see it no matter how hard he tried. With everything around him crumbling beneath his feet—his job, his family, his living situation—his outlook on life in general was shitty. The only bright spot in his mind was the girl currently standing in front of him.

His Stormy.

Lately, she was all he could think about. Now that Brylan was out of the picture he needed to make sure it stayed that way. Brylan was generally a good guy, sure, and Nozz had once thought of him as a friend. But when it came to Stormy, Brylan Knight wasn’t good enough. Didn’t try hard enough. And hopefully Stormy had come to the same conclusion by now.

Stormy took off the cap and glanced at the price tag before tossing it back on the shelf.

“What? You’re not going to get it?”

Her dark eyelashes fluttered and she looked a bit embarrassed. “I think I’ll have to pass on it this time.”

“That’s a shame. It looked cute on you.”

This time it was his heart that fluttered. She shyly cast her smoky gray eyes downward, her lashes caressing her pink cheeks. She was adorable when she was embarrassed.

“Hey,” he said, “If you’re done here, do you want to grab some coffee or something?”

“Umm…I’m not sure I’m in the mood for coffee.” She pushed a damp strand of hair away from her forehead. Considering the sweltering heat, coffee probably was a bad choice, but it had been the first thing that popped into his head.

“A glass of iced tea sounds better. How about we go to my apartment? I’m sure Trudy would love to see you.”

It was the exact opening he was looking for. “Sounds good.”



Chapter Three

Stormy scowled at the note lying on the kitchen counter. Trudy was on another one of her mystery outings. Don’t wait up, it said.

Yeah right. Of course she’d be waiting up. Worrying. Something was going on with Trudy. Something big. And it wasn’t like her to be so secretive. Obviously she was entitled to her privacy. That went without saying. But it bugged her that Trudy was holding back a part of her life, unwilling to share it with her. She hated to admit it, but it hurt. A lot.

For the past six months Stormy’s life had been spun on its head and then mangled to pieces, and Trudy had been there to help her pick them back up. She was Stormy’s Rock of Gibraltar, and she hoped that one day she’d be able to return the favor. But how in the world could she do that if Trudy kept holding her at arm’s length?

“You okay?” Nozz laid a hand on her shoulder. She’d almost forgotten he was standing there.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” She crumpled up the note and threw it in the trash can on her way to the fridge. Apparently she’d thrown it with more force than she intended because it bounced back out and rolled across the floor.

“You don’t look fine.”

Stormy grabbed the tea pitcher out of the refrigerator and groaned when she saw that it was nearly empty. Trudy was a blessing to have as a friend, but Stormy was starting to question what she was going to be like as a roommate. She shook the empty container at Nozz. “Looks like Trudy forgot to make more tea. I’ll put some on to brew.”

Nozz settled himself on a barstool. “It’s cool. I don’t have any place to be.”

Stormy’s heart swelled at the sight of his smile, realizing just how much she’d missed it in the past weeks.

Sweet, adorable Nozz. Her friend.

He cocked a dark blond eyebrow. “Why are you staring at me like that?”

Stormy felt her cheeks heat up. “I just can’t believe you’re here.”

He tilted his head slightly, reminding her of a puppy reacting to a strange sound. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“Good. Definitely good.” She gave her best smile and Nozz matched it with his own cocky grin.

****

Trudy hesitated outside the wooden door with the frosted glass insert, staring at the black lettering stenciled on with uncertainty festering under her skin. Was she ready to go through it again, to lay all of her dirty laundry before another total stranger? The first time had nearly torn her in two. She’d put her life out there for all the world to see, her vulnerability and heartbreak on display while police officers shook their heads and showered her with empty words. We’re sorry, ma’am. There’s nothing more we can do, they’d told her.

She had to do it. It was time to try again, painful as it would be. Despite all the people who told her to give up and move on, Trudy still held a flicker of hope. And JT Noble was supposed to be the best private investigator in the business. It had been said that if there was a needle in a haystack, he was the one who could find it. If he couldn’t help her, nobody could.

And then there was her gut. Her instincts had nudged her to reach out to him…and her instincts were never wrong.

If only I’d listened to them back then….

She squared her shoulders and patted her hair, which was swept up into a sophisticated French twist. The navy blue blazer felt heavy and restrictive. She tugged it down and ran her clammy hands down the smooth fabric of her pencil skirt, feeling like a phony. The outfit was a far cry from her usual getup, her light, colorful peasant tops and breezy skirts, but she was smart enough to know that in order to be taken seriously she needed to look the part.

Releasing a shaky breath, she knocked on the door, rattling the glass pane.

“Come in.” The gruff bark nearly shattered her fragile resolve but she forced herself to turn the handle anyway.

“What is it, Barb? I told you to hold my calls. I’d like to eat my lunch in peace for once.” The man was hunched over his desk with what looked like a meatball sandwich clutched in his large hands. He didn’t look up until Trudy spoke.

“Barb must have stepped away from her desk,” she said coolly.

The man looked up at her with a movie reel of expressions playing across his face. The first was surprise, then irritation, mortification…and the last one something akin to bewilderment. He wiped his hands on a greasy paper napkin before standing up and straightening his tie nervously. “Oh, I’m sorry. My secretary said my next appointment wasn’t until one o’clock.” His soft hazel eyes were apologetic but Trudy picked up on the annoyance around the edges of his voice.

Trudy was flustered, as evidenced by the heat creeping up her neck. “I don’t have an appointment. I’ve been trying to get one for weeks, but Barb keeps insisting that you’re too busy to take my case.” Trudy couldn’t help the bitterness in her tone. She’d called and called over the past two weeks, only to be snubbed by the rude secretary. Trudy’s arrival during the lunch hour was no accident. If the woman’s astringent phone etiquette was any indicator, she would be no picnic in person either. It was better to just bypass her altogether.

“Well, Mrs….”

“Carmine. And it’s Ms…not Mrs.”

“Ms. Carmine, Barb wasn’t leading you astray. I’m not taking any new cases at the moment.” He gestured to the overflowing pile of manila folders and papers strewn across his desk. “I’m up to my eyeballs in alligators right now.”

Trudy felt a twinge of guilt for bamboozling her way into his office. It was clear that the man was busy. But there was too much riding on this meeting to simply give in. Rather than argue with him, Trudy dug into her purse and pulled out a short stack of photos. Her heels clomped across the concrete floor in a slow, steady cadence as she slowly approached the desk. There she proceeded to fan the pictures out for him to see. She put her finger on the top photo as tears pooled in her bottom lids. “Please, Mr. Noble,” her composure was slowly cracking, “I can’t take another rejection. If you don’t help me….” The words were choked off by a sob.

JT rounded his desk and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Here, why don’t you sit for a minute?” He picked up a pile of folders from the brown leather club chair that sat across from his desk and guided her into it. His touch was gentle as a lamb, which surprised Trudy considering his size. JT Noble was tall and lean, with square shoulders and brawny arms that strained under the starched fabric of his white shirt as he handed her a tissue.

She gently blotted her eyes, mortified that she’d fallen apart in front of a total stranger, sabotaging her effort to sway him with austere determination. Now she just looked weepy and fragile, like someone who could be easily dismissed—like the woman she used to be, instead of the one she’d spent years transforming herself into.

The old Trudy was weak. Pathetic. Didn’t stand up for herself. Didn’t stand up for anything…or anyone. That’s why her ex-husband had walked all over her, cheated on her, treated her as a second-class citizen.

Because she’d let him.

Trudy shook her head, tossing away the ugly thoughts that threatened to take over. She couldn’t blow this. It was too important. So, she straightened her spine, sucked in a cleansing breath, and looked the PI square in the eye.

“I need your help, Mr. Noble. And I’m not taking no for an answer. I need you to help me find my daughter.”

****

There weren’t many people who could get under JT’s skin, but the fiery redhead before him had something in her eyes that he hadn’t seen in a long time. Raw need. And he was intrigued by her.

This wasn’t some middle-aged oil tycoon who suspected that his twenty-year-old bride was cheating, or a cattle rancher trying to track down a prized bull that had gone missing. It wasn’t like any of the other asinine cases that cluttered up his office…and his head. Imbedded in the depths of her brilliant sapphire eyes was pain. And he had to squash the overwhelming, unexplainable urge to fold her into his arms.

He wasn’t sure what compelled him to do it exactly—maybe it was because it reminded him of his days on the police force, or maybe it was because he needed something real, something tangible to remind him why he got into this business in the first place—but he found himself wanting to find out more about this woman’s situation. It was stupid considering that his ass was already overloaded, but it also felt like the right thing to do.

JT walked back over to his side of the desk and picked up the photos that the woman had deposited there, photos of the girl with the same piercing blue eyes as the ones who were so intently focused on him at the moment

“I knew you were the right one.” Her words were barely above a whisper, but the conviction in them made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. What if she was wrong about him? Cases like these tended not to have happy endings, and he could see in her face that her expectations were high. He didn’t want to think about what it would do to this woman if he couldn’t find her daughter. It would crush her. It would crush him.

“Ms. Carmine, I haven’t said I’ll take your case.”

“But you didn’t say you wouldn’t either. That means you will. I can see it in your face. You’re intrigued.” The corner of her full mouth turned up in a smirk. “I have a sense about people.”

That’s what unnerved him, her penetrating gaze; the one that seemed to look straight into his soul.

He pushed his now cold sandwich to the side, intending to microwave it later, and knowing it wouldn’t be nearly as good the second time around. Then he picked up the photos again and started flipping through them, stopping on the one that looked the most recent. The girl looked to be around fifteen. It was a generic looking school picture. The auburn-haired girl was smiling, but it was forced, and it competed with the solemn look in her eyes. Like the woman sitting across from him, she was beautiful, but looked as though the weight of the world was sitting on her shoulders.

He set the photos on the desk and laced his fingers together. “Okay, tell me about the day she went missing.”



Chapter Four

Stormy applied a coat of clear lip gloss and ran a brush through her thick, wavy mane, thinking that it was time for a trim. The length was halfway down her back and felt heavy. She idly wondered how all those other girls that she’d seen flitting around town got their hair to look so feathery and light. Maybe it was time to see a stylist, if she dared to be brave enough.

She turned to the full-length mirror on the door and looked herself over once more. Her looks were not something she usually fussed over, but she was starting a new chapter in her life and the baggy jeans and sloppy tee-shirts weren’t cutting it anymore.

She tugged the hem of the flouncy sleeveless top, hoping to conceal a little more of her butt since the new skinny jeans left little to the imagination. They were way more form fitting than she was used to and made her feel self conscious. But Trudy had insisted that she buy them because they were “the in thing.’”

Heaving a breath, she stepped out of the bathroom and headed toward the living room where Nozz was waiting for her on the couch. Ever since she’d bumped into him at orientation he’d been coming around regularly, showing up every weekend without fail, and sometimes even during the week. They were sliding back into their old, comfortable routine as if nothing had changed, as if weeks and miles had never separated them. And it felt good.

“Wow, you look great.”

Trudy was in the recliner, facing away from her, but turned around when Nozz spoke. “My, my, my. Well look at you.” She gave Stormy a pointed look. “See…I was right. That outfit looks wonderful on you. Shows off all your curves.”

Stormy’s cheeks heated with embarrassment and she tugged at her blouse again. “Thanks. I think.”

Nozz stood up, drawing Stormy’s attention to the tight black tee-shirt that was tucked into the dark jeans he was wearing. His transformation was still taking some getting used to, but Stormy liked it. A lot. More than she probably should.

“You’re looking pretty sharp yourself, Nozz.”

“Thanks. But I go by Josh now.”

Stormy and Trudy both shot him an inquisitive look.

“Josh?” Stormy looked perplexed. “So you’re going by your given name now?”

“Yeah.”

Stormy wasn’t sure if she liked the idea and she wondered what had brought about his sudden need to reinvent himself. But her thoughts didn’t linger there too long. After all, she was sporting an outfit that she wouldn’t have been caught dead in a few months ago. Perhaps he felt the same way she did.

Out with the old, in with the new. Onward and upward.

“Alright then, Josh. Let’s get this show on the road…before I chicken out.” She didn’t want to go to the party. Had never been to one, ever, and the butterflies in her stomach were multiplying rapidly.

She wanted to kick the crap out of whoever posted the flyer on her door. Somebody, probably a neighbor, was hosting a bonfire bash and had invited the whole building. Stormy’s first reaction was to wad the thing up and toss it before Nozz had an opportunity to see it. But she hadn’t been quick enough. She’d said no, but he had taken her out at the knees, knowing she could never refuse those big, green puppy dog eyes of his.

She was now wishing she’d have stuck to her guns. Damn him and his cuteness.

Nozz walked over and took both of her hands in his. “Nervous?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t be. It’s no big deal. Just a bunch of idiots drinking beer in a cow pasture. Nothing to be scared of.”

Stormy arched an eyebrow. His description didn’t sound the least bit appealing. “Okay, and we’re going because….”

Nozz snickered at her skeptical tone. “Because we’re young. And that’s what young people do.”

“Since when does being young equate to being stupid?”

He grabbed her by the wrist and dragged her toward the door. “Oh, come on. It’ll be fun.”

“He’s right, sweetie. You’re getting old before your time. Go out and see how the other half lives for a change,” Trudy interjected.

Stormy was thinking a root canal sounded more fun. “Fine,” she said dolefully. “Let’s go.”

****

Stormy’s truck bounced down the dusty dirt road while the dashboard squeaked its protest. Stormy grimaced at the way her old rust bucket rattled, thinking it might fall apart at any minute. “Are you sure we’re on the right road?”

“I think so.” Nozz turned the flyer with the hand-drawn map upside down, then sideways, then right-side up again. He looked like a monkey concentrating on a math problem. “The turnoff should be right up there.” He pointed up ahead, to where the dirt road split. Stormy could barely make it out in the dark.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, see that sign? The one that says Raggedy Road? We’ll be taking a left there.”

“Well, if Raggedy Road is bumpier than the one we’re on, then I’m not sure there’ll be anything left of my truck when we get there.”

After the turnoff, Stormy saw an orange glow in the distance. As the truck drew closer, it was apparent that they’d found their destination. Dozens of vehicles, mostly trucks, were parked in a haphazard semi-circle, facing a fifteen-foot triangle of flames. Large billows of gray smoke swirled around the top of the burning wood before drifting off into the inky darkness of the night sky.

Country music was blaring and people were scattered everywhere, laughing, drinking, and appearing to be having a good time. Stormy sat behind the wheel, contemplating whether or not she wanted to partake in any of it. Before she knew it, Nozz had exited the truck and had opened the driver door, coaxing her out. “Come on, Stormy,” he gestured to the other partygoers, “they won’t bite.”

Just about that time, a herd of unruly guys ran past them, shoving and punching each other while grunting and shouting something incoherent. “Are you sure about that?” she asked doubtingly.

Nozz chuckled, “Well, I promise I won’t let them bite you, anyway.”

Against her better judgment, Stormy eased out from the safety of her truck and followed Nozz through the crowd. Encircling the bonfire were rows and rows of rectangular bales of hay that were being used as makeshift benches. Stormy took a seat on one of them and then Nozz bent down to her ear, practically yelling over the earsplitting music, “I’m going to go find us some sodas.”

Stormy looked around at the red plastic cups everyone else was carrying around, guessing at the contents. “Okay. Good luck with that.”

He gave her shoulder a light squeeze before disappearing into the crowd. Stormy sat watching the flames flicker and curl, reaching out and then retracting themselves. Occasionally a bright orange ember would peel off and flutter around for a few seconds before fizzling out in the damp night air. People were gathered in small groups, talking and laughing, seemingly comfortable with their surroundings while Stormy felt small and insignificant sitting there all alone.

Twenty long minutes passed and there was no sign of Nozz. Tired of waiting all by herself, Stormy bravely decided to venture out to find him. She parted her way through the sea of drunken people, bumping into them and getting bumped, saying “excuse me” more times than she could count. “Nozz?” She was practically screaming, but her voice was stamped out by the ruckus. “Nozz!” It was useless. It was as if somebody had hit the mute button on her vocal chords. She was hollering for all she was worth, but the sound was being swallowed up by the chaos all around her.

After getting bumped for the umpteenth time and having beer sloshed all over her bare arm, Stormy’s nerves began to fray. The close proximity of the drunken crowd and the pounding echo of music and disembodied voices began to take its toll. Her heart began to race and the panic set in. She needed to get away from there, but nobody was letting her by. When the panic climbed into her throat and threatened to choke off her air supply, Stormy began to shove people out of the way, ignoring their disgruntled remarks.

By the time she made it away from the crowds and into the clearing, her heart was like a hummingbird fluttering in her chest and she couldn’t breathe. She braced herself, planting her hands on her knees and hung her head, willing the air to come into her lungs. Once the tightness in her chest subsided, she set out to find her truck. Thankfully, the rusty red heap wasn’t hard to locate amid all the shiny new vehicles scattered about. She dug the keys out of her pocket and climbed into the protection of her old faithful ride. Surely Nozz would come looking for her there and then they could go home. Where it was safe.

She rolled down the windows, letting in the earthy smell of cows and rye grass and burnt wood, and releasing some of the muggy heat that was trapped inside. That’s when she heard the low moan coming from somewhere nearby.

She ignored it at first, figuring it was just somebody who’d had too much to drink and it was disagreeing with them. But then the moaning turned to a distinctly female whimper. Leaving the safety of her truck was the last thing she wanted to do but her conscience got the better of her.

Somewhere in that big, dark field, amidst all those vehicles, was someone who needed help.

After a big, steadying breath, Stormy exited the truck and followed the sound of pitiful choked sobs. She ducked and weaved her way through the big ole pickup trucks and the SUVs until she found the source. Crouched down beside a dark colored car—she thought it was blue but it was hard to tell in the dark—was a girl who was crying into her hands. Her long blonde hair was hanging like a curtain around her face so Stormy couldn’t tell much about her. Other than the crying, the girl seemed to be intact.

Stormy squatted beside her and reached out tentatively to touch the girl’s arm. “Are you okay?”

The girl sniffled and moaned something incoherent.

“Do you need me to call somebody for you? Are you hurt?”

More sniffing, coupled with a groan, “They left me,” she whined pitifully.

“Who left you?”

The girl attempted to point to no place in particular. Her movements were uncoordinated and sluggish. “My friends,” she slurred.

Stormy exhaled a long sigh. The girl was obviously drunk…a sight she’d seen more times than she cared to remember. An image of her mother floated to her mind and she shook it away. “Do you need me to call somebody for you?” she tried again.

“Stormy! Stormy where are you?”

Stormy stood up and waved her arms at Nozz, who was running around in a tizzy and calling for her. His shoulders dropped when he saw her and he jogged over to where she was. “Thank God. What are you—?” His words were clipped by the sight of the crumpled girl on the ground. She’d slumped from a semi-sitting position to being sprawled out on the ground like a limp rag.

“I think she’s had too much to drink. We need to help her.”

Nozz ran a hand through his shortly cropped hair. “Okay. What should we do?”

Stormy looked around the parking area, silently hoping somebody would be looking for the girl, but seriously doubting anyone was. She knelt down close to the girl. “What’s your name? Do you want me to call your parents? A friend?”

All she got was another groan. She pushed the girl’s hair back from her sweaty face. “Hey, sweetie, let’s—Oh my gosh! Marissa?”

Nozz’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. “Marissa…from Yaupon?” He stepped in for a closer look. “You’ve got to be shitting me.”

Stormy couldn’t believe it either. It was her arch nemesis, a major thorn in her side, laid out in the middle of a cow pasture, completely alone and drunk as a skunk. Damn. “Well, help me get her up.”

“No way. I think you should just leave her there. She deserves whatever she gets.” Nozz had had his run-ins with Marissa too. His hesitation to help her didn’t surprise Stormy in the least, but the malice in his tone was a little disarming. The girl was a pain in the ass but she was still human.

“Come on, Nozz. Help me get her to the truck,” Stormy urged with a little more authority.

With Nozz’s reluctant help, the two of them propped her up against the car. By this time she was completely unconscious. Alarm shot through Stormy and she pressed two fingers to the girl’s neck. Her pulse was strong and steady, and Stormy sent up a silent prayer of thanks.

Together, Stormy and Nozz hoisted the girl up to a somewhat standing position, but it was like trying to support a soggy noodle.

“I’ve got her.” Nozz swept the girl up and cradled her to his chest. “Go get the door.”

****

Trudy had been watching an old episode of Friends and was just about to slip into sleep—that good kind of sleep, the kind that slowly drags you under whether you want it to or not—when she heard a commotion at the front door. She threw back the red chenille throw and sat up, rubbing her eyes and not quite believing what she was seeing.

“Oh my goodness! Who…what…. Is that…Marissa?” She jumped up from the recliner and pointed Nozz toward the couch. “Put her over there.”

As instructed, Nozz deposited Marissa on the couch…or more like, dumped her.

“Geez, Nozz! She’s not a sack of potatoes,” Stormy scolded him.

“What happened,” Trudy asked. “Is she okay?”

Stormy started rambling, “I found her in the parking lot. She’s drunk. We didn’t know what else to do with her.”

Trudy jumped into caretaker mode. She pointed at Stormy, “Go get a wet cloth, and—”

“I’m on it.” Stormy didn’t let her finish. Trudy had almost forgotten that the poor soul was an old pro at this kind of thing.

Stormy returned with a wet cloth, a plastic pail, a bottle of Tylenol, and a glass of water. Trudy grabbed the rag and began bathing Marissa’s face, pushing back the damp hair that t was stuck to the sides of it. The girl whimpered and moaned. “There, there. It’s alright, sweetie,” she cooed. The girl looked so sweet and innocent in her current state, hardly resembling the spitfire rebel who had stood in her store hurling threats and insults at her and Stormy a few months ago.

Marissa’s eyelashes fluttered and she moaned. “I’m g…sick.” Trudy held the pail while Marissa emptied the contents of her stomach. Stormy was on the other side, holding back the girl’s hair. And Trudy could tell by the pain on her face that she was reliving a part of her past. A part that Trudy wished she could snatch from her memory and bury forever.

But life wasn’t like that. Unfortunately, you couldn’t pluck out the ugly pieces and discard them like an old candy wrapper.

Trudy looked over at Nozz. He had his arms wrapped around his middle, looking uncomfortable in his own skin. He had his own demons, and this incident was conjuring up something within him too.

Marissa moaned and flopped back against the pillow that Stormy had placed there. Trudy’s knees creaked as she stood up, an unkind reminder that she wasn’t so young anymore. Not that she was old. At thirty-nine, she was far from it, and she told herself that on a daily basis. But her body apparently had not gotten the memo. She ran some cold water over the washcloth and wrung it out before returning to the couch. Marissa was snoring softly. The crease between her eyebrows had disappeared and she looked surprisingly peaceful.

Trudy stared at the sleeping girl and shook her head slowly. How did these little baby birds keep falling out of the nest and landing in her lap?



Chapter Five

Stormy was in the kitchen stirring creamer into her third cup of coffee and staring at the two snoring bodies in the living room. Marissa was sprawled on the blue and white striped sofa while Nozz’s sleeping form lay crumpled in the recliner just a few feet away.

It was nearly noon. Trudy had told her to let them sleep as long as they needed to, but this was getting ridiculous. Trudy was all alone in the store, having not yet hired any fresh help, and Stormy was anxious to get there. But she couldn’t leave these two in the apartment alone. Marissa would wake up disoriented and confused…and hung over, and Nozz was liable to be grumpy. There was no way she could leave them there alone together; unsupervised, one of them might throw the other off the balcony.

Stormy set her cup on the counter a little harder than necessary and proceeded to the pantry for a box of cereal. She slammed the pantry door, then the door to the cupboard, and then pulled open the silverware drawer with enough force to rattle the contents. Loudly.

Marissa was the first one to stir. She turned over on the couch with a soft moan and then her eyelids flickered open, blinking away the remnants of sleep. It took her a minute to focus her eyes on Stormy, who was standing in front of her with her bowl of cereal in hand.

“Good morning, Marissa,” she voiced cordially. She hadn’t forgotten how poorly Marissa had treated her in the past, but she felt a small pang of sympathy for her considering her current state.

Marissa pushed herself into a sitting position, looking confused. Her eyes were bloodshot and rimmed in black where her makeup had smeared, and her face was pale. It went a shade whiter when she realized where she was. “Wh…what happened? How did I get here?”

She was a lot more docile than Stormy had anticipated. “You passed out at the party last night. Nozz and I didn’t know what to do with you so we brought you here.”

Marissa bent over and gingerly placed her head in her hands as if her it were made of fragile glass. Stormy imagined that’s how it felt.

“Headache?”

Marissa nodded slowly without looking up. Stormy went to the kitchen to fetch the Tylenol and a glass of water. She shook out two capsules. “Here. Take these.”

Barely looking at Stormy, Marissa scooped them out of her hand and downed them with the water. “Thanks.”

Stormy looked at her curiously, wondering if the girl even recognized her. She’d been expecting frostiness, not gratitude. This was the surly girl who had made it her mission to be a persistent pain in Stormy’s ass every day for five months. There was no way she didn’t remember her.

Marissa handed the empty glass back to Stormy, the two of them locking eyes briefly. “Why are you being so nice to me?”

Ah, so she did remember.

“Honestly, Marissa, I’m not really sure. All I know is that you were in pretty bad shape last night. You obviously needed some help…and I happened to be there.”

“How bad was I? I mean, I didn’t do anything…embarrassing, did I?”

Stormy turned her head toward the rustling sound coming from the recliner.

“You mean before or after you took off all your clothes and danced naked on the hood of your car?” Nozz asked, droopy-eyed and stony-faced. Stormy put her hand to her mouth to repress a snicker while Marissa’s eyes grew wide in horror.

“No. Please tell me I didn’t…”

Stormy slapped Nozz on the knee. “No. You did not get naked. He’s just messing with you.”


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