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Excerpt for Coming Home: A Sweet Romance by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Coming Home: A Sweet Romance Story


 

by Laura Westbrook
















Text copyright © 2018 Laura Westbrook

All Rights Reserved

 

This book is licensed for personal enjoyment only and is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to people, living or deceased, places, or events is purely coincidental. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without the author’s written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in articles or reviews. The people depicted on the cover are models, not related to any of the characters or actions, and don’t necessarily endorse or condone the book’s contents. Individuals pictured are used for illustrative purposes only.

 



Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17


Chapter 1



Sophie could never get rid of the smell of burnt grease. It clung to her bright red and yellow uniform, covered her black shoes, and stuck to her skin. Trying to wipe it away didn’t help, but it didn’t matter anyway. She couldn’t worry about that. Her focus was on the fryer.

People usually ordered tater tots at McMann’s Diner faster than she could make them. The second Sophie finished one batch, they were yelling back to start another. The grease flew out and stung her forearms every time she dropped the basket in the fryer. She got used to the pain after a while. It was just another thing she had to deal with to keep going.

“What are you doing tonight?” Christy asked, moving back and forth down the line, making one burger after the other.

“I’m heading down to work at the tower.”

“Girl, I don’t know how you do it. I’m exhausted after one shift.”

“What other choice do I have?” Sophie took a basket out of the fryer and hung it up to drain.

“I dunno. I’d find a way.”

Sophie rolled her eyes and tipped the tater tots in with the rest. She glanced up at the clock. It was almost seven. “I’m going to scrub down the tables real quick and head out.” Normally, Sophie felt bad about leaving Christy alone, but that night she was too tired to feel much at all.

Sophie took a minute in the bathroom while doing her best to ignore her reflection. Her hair felt like a bird’s nest. No amount of hand soap could wash the grease off her arms, but Sophie did the best she could before climbing into her little, gray sedan and made her way across town to the financial district.

The Bulwark Tower was one of the largest buildings in town with twenty stories and just three people on the cleaning crew. One by one, Sophie vacuumed as many floors as she could, washing the floor-to-ceiling interior glass dividers and taking out countless bags of trash while trying to ignore the blisters that had formed on her heels. By the time her shift was over, it was well past midnight, and she was limping just trying to get her feet off the ground.

Sophie’s mother had left her a tiny, yellow house in the suburbs when she died. It wasn’t much, just a square building with battered shutters and a leaky roof. Sophie was always trying to find ways to fix it up, but money was tight and her boyfriend wasn’t exactly the handyman type.

When she pulled up, Orlando’s car was parked at an angle in the driveway, blocking her spot, so she had to park on the street next to the sidewalk in front of her neighbor’s house. It wasn’t a huge deal–she’d been friends with that neighbor for years–but it wasn’t a good sign. When she walked inside, there were liquor bottles strewn about and a joint that had burned down to a nub on the coffee table, leaving a black streak on the wood.

Orlando was laying on his back on the couch, wearing his usual sleeveless, white shirt and blue shorts. He looked up at her. “Hey, baby.” He had soft eyes and a smile that had never failed to dull her pain.

“Hey, yourself. I brought you some tobacco.” She looked down at the pile of half-burnt tobacco he’d left on the coffee table. He must’ve been rolling using old cigarette butts.

“Thanks.” He grabbed the bag and sat up slowly so he could roll himself a cigarette. “Did you bring food home?”

“No, I couldn’t. I had to work at the tower tonight.”

“Oh.” He lit a cigarette. “That’s all right, I guess.”

“Orlando! You’re gonna drop it.”

He looked up and started scratching his nose. He got like that sometimes–too drunk to pay much attention to what he was doing. He’d started drinking a lot, especially after he’d lost his job three weeks ago due to showing up for a shift still tipsy from the night before. Their fight about that had lasted into the following morning.

Until he could find another job, Sophie did the best she could to pick up the slack. She worked two jobs and survived on nothing but sheer willpower and smuggled tater tots. It was horrible, but she couldn’t stop. The bills didn’t pay themselves.

She just wished she could get him to come to bed and cuddle with her. She needed his touch and his reassurance, but this was just one of those nights. When she climbed into bed, she fell asleep immediately, only to be woken up by the sound of her phone going off. She picked it up. Someone was calling from an Arizona number.

“Hello?”

“Sophie. It’s me.”

“Dad? Oh my God. You sound terrible. What’s wrong?”

“I hate to bother you like this.”

“No, it’s fine. Just tell me what’s going on.”

“I need you here.”

“What do you mean?” She sat up, terrified.

“I just…” He broke down into a sob. “I need you here.”

“All right. Let me see what I can do. Do I need to call someone? Are you in danger or something?”

“No, Cupcake. I’ll wait for you here at the house. I-I gotta go. I’ll see you soon, okay?”

“All right, Dad. I’m coming. I love you.”

Sophie jumped out of bed and grabbed a suitcase from the closet. She stopped when she heard the sound of the TV and looked out into the living room where Orlando was still sitting up, his head rising and falling with his cigarette ready to fall out of his mouth. As much as she wanted to, she knew she wouldn’t be able to bring him along. They could only afford one plane ticket, and she’d have to rent a car, pay for gas, and who knew what else. It just wasn’t possible.

She walked into the kitchen, poured him a cup of coffee, and sat in the chair next to him. “Here.” She handed him the coffee. “Drink this.”

It took him a moment to do anything. He could barely focus, but eventually he started drinking and his eyes opened up a bit more. “Hey. What’s up?”

“Orlando, this is important. My dad called. Something’s wrong. I’m going to fly out to see him.”

“Why now?”

“I told you. He just called. He hasn’t needed anything for years and now he’s sobbing on the phone saying he needs me there.” She wasn’t sure what was wrong, exactly, but she knew she’d never find out from a distance. She needed to be there. “It’s serious. I’m going to leave you with some money, and I can probably send more when my last paycheck clears the bank. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”

“Fine, just go.” His head drooped down and soon he was snoring.

And that was it. She’d expected at least a goodbye and safe travel wishes, but that was Orlando when he drank. She knew he wouldn’t be a fan of the idea, but when it came to family, she didn’t really have much of a choice. She couldn’t stay. She knew just from the sound of her father’s voice that something terrible was happening. He was a proud man. He wouldn’t have asked for help unless he really needed it. She’d have to leave things to chance and hope that Orlando could manage without her for a little while. She’d ask her neighbor to keep an eye on him, just the same.



Chapter 2



It took some negotiation and a lot of patience, but Sophie managed to catch a flight early that same morning. The flight was too short for Sophie to get any rest, so by the time they landed, she was almost too exhausted to keep walking. The Phoenix airport was like a small city, filled with dozens of restaurants and shops teeming with people. At the luggage conveyor belt, she missed her suitcase twice when it passed by her because she was too tired to recognize it.

For the tenth time, she wished she’d taken a shower after work before she got the call. Along with the shower, she needed a good night’s rest, but she wasn’t going to waste any time. Her dad needed her.

She’d left Red Canyon when she was nineteen, after her mother died and left her the house. She’d hated living there, but she hated herself even more for leaving. It was one of the hardest things she’d ever done, leaving her father, and every day she spent back in Arizona was another day of being reminded what she’d left behind.

The drive from the airport was long. She found herself staring at the lines on the road, struggling to keep her eyes open. She drove past the ice cream parlor where she’d go after school in the summertime and the thrift store where she used to buy most of her clothes. She was home.

As she made her way further into town, she started seeing flashes of her old self, a naive girl dreaming of what life would be like when she finally stepped out on her own. If only she’d known what it’d be like. The thought saddened her. Other than seeing her dad, she didn’t look forward to much else. There were too many ghosts in this town.

When she turned onto her old street, she had to pull over. She was too shocked to do anything but stare at the place that had once been her childhood home. The roof over the porch sagged and the curtains hung at an angle. The grass had long since dried up, and her mother’s old flower bed was covered in weeds.

She knocked on the front door. There was no answer. It was early morning, so her father was probably still sleeping. She turned the doorknob just to see if it was locked. Of course, it wasn’t. Small town living. Some things never changed.

When she opened the door, the smell of sour food rushed out at her. It went straight to her head and brought on a wave of nausea that forced her to brace herself against the doorframe. It took her a moment to regain her composure, and even then she wasn’t fully back to herself. She covered her nose with her shirt and kicked aside the pizza boxes and newspapers blocking her path into the living room.

“Dad?”

There was no empty space, just trash piled on trash. The handle to the remote control stuck out of a used Chinese food take-out carton.

“Dad, it’s me.”

There was a stack of clothes piled on the couch, surrounded by a pile of hangers, possibly where he’d tried to hang them all up from a sitting position.

“I’m here.”

His voice came from the far corner of the living room, under a blanket that had seen better days. She reached him quickly and peeled back an edge of the tattered blanket.

“What happened?” She glanced between him and the rest of the living room. There was very little carpet space without something littered on it. “This is terrible. How long has it been like this?”

“A while. Hi, Cupcake.”

“Hi, Dad.”

When he sat up and she saw what was left of him, she sucked in air between her teeth. He wasn’t quite half his previous size, but it was pretty close. His muscles had shrunk into flaps of loose skin. His hair was thinner, and his face revealed sharp-edged cheekbones and sunken eyes rimmed with black rings. He looked so fragile. This was the man who had carried the weight of their entire family for most of her childhood. Now he could barely sit up.

“How did it get like this?”

“I’ve been sick a while.” He shifted around a bit and pulled on the back of his body pillow so it could hold his weight.

“Sick with what?”

“Leukemia.” He might as well have been telling her the weather for all the emotion he put into it.

She looked at him, blinking, even as she reached out to the couch for support. She wasn’t sure what she was expecting, but not that. She peeled back more of the blankets and pulled him into her arms. “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.” She wasn’t just reassuring him. She was reassuring herself.

Sophie’s father was the strongest man she’d ever known. He’d worked two jobs, sometimes three, and had come home late at night for just a few hours of sleep. Then he’d go back out seven days a week and do it again.

When it had become clear that Sophie’s mother was cheating, things started to wear on him. Sophie had seen it in the way he walked with his shoulders slumped and how he became a man of fewer and fewer words. Then he started avoiding things altogether. He’d disappeared in the workshop and refused to come out when Sophie’s mother was around. She wasn’t even trying to hide it at that point.

Before Sophie had left home, he was stuck in a never-ending loop of self-loathing and despair while he flipped from channel to channel. He couldn’t stop thinking about it. Moving on meant accepting it, and he simply couldn’t do that, so he let it wear away at him until everything fell apart. Eventually, the years of hard work had caught up to him, and his knee gave out, going on disability and retreating to his armchair in the corner. He’d slept there, ate there, and stared at the TV.

Even at that point, he’d been taking care of himself. He’d made sure to shave and shower, and he paid all his bills. When she left, she thought he’d at least stabilized. If she’d known this was coming, she would’ve stayed behind and taken care of him any way she could.

“Talk to me.” She pulled back to look at him. “Why didn’t you call me sooner?”

He turned away, as if he couldn’t bear allowing her to see him like this. “I don’t know.”

Sophie didn’t have to ask. She knew him well. He’d hid himself away from the world, cocooned in this little house, just like when he’d stay out in the workshop. It was a safety blanket to help cover up the pain he felt from losing his wife. The signs of his improvement hadn’t lasted.

But Sophie couldn’t do much right then, not on four hours of sleep. Instead, she made a path to the stairs to go find her old room. The upper level was cleaner. Piles of trash still littered the floor, but the rooms there were more habitable.

She walked back downstairs. She’d bet money there was an imprint on the chair from him sitting there so long. “Dad, you can’t sleep there. It’s not healthy. Will you come upstairs with me?”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I’m just tired.” He made no move to explain and said nothing else.

She crossed the room to his side. As she lifted the blankets to reveal his legs, she noticed how much smaller they were. They were like two brittle branches ready to snap. “Here, Dad. I’ll help you up. Just lean on my shoulder.” She kicked the debris out of the way and ducked down to sling his arm over her shoulder, trying to pick him up entirely, but he was too heavy. He’d have to help her. “How have you been getting around?”


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