Love Walks In : Excerpt
"Tom, you would have loved living in this house." Seated at the café table nestled in the corner of her living room, Annette Deluca held the silver frame encasing her family's photo. She remembered the day in 3-D Technicolor. Adam's fifth birthday. Corralling her offspring for a photograph had taken more effort than organizing the entire party at the popular children's venue. What the picture didn't reveal was the near headlock it had taken for her to pin down their son for two minutes nor the gentle pressure with which her husband Tom's hands held their daughter in place. Yet somehow Tom's assistant had managed to coax a smile out of the two siblings, creating the perfect family picture. Damn how Annette missed that.
With the windows wide open, the wind carried the sound of the distant waves crashing ashore and dropped them beside her, opening another floodgate of memories. Summers by the beach. Winters diving in Hawaii or the Barrier Reef. Christmas in the mountains. They'd done it all before the children were born and then done it again as a family. "Do you have any idea how much I miss you?" she asked the man in the photo.
A gull swooping past the window caught her attention. Focusing on the broad wingspan as the bird glided away from the house and out to sea, she gave herself a mental shake. The last thing her late husband would want her to do is spend her days living in the past. "Time to get back to ringing in the season." This year she thought she'd follow the lead of advertisers on television and get the house all cheery with Christmas spirit now, instead of waiting for after Thanksgiving. Over the weekend, she and the kids would bring out the tree and spend some family time hanging the ornaments and tinsel, and maybe even stringing some popcorn—the way they did when Adam and Bethany were really young. Pushing herself upright, Annette set the frame on the shelf where it belonged. Surrounded by the wealth of family photos that helped keep the memories strong, she shoved aside the melancholy and opened another box of holiday decorations.
The first Christmas without Tom had been difficult. Thank heaven for Maggie. Annette’s household manager had become indispensable. Caring for the children day and night, taking on the role of mother, while Annette pushed her way through physical therapy and recovery. It was so hard to believe she'd survived that horrible crash. But she had with Maggie's help. And then there was the entire Everrett clan. All of them, and what seemed like half the navy's Special Forces, looked out for her and her children in those dark days after the plane crash that took Tom's life and left her fighting for hers.
And Lord bless Maile Everrett. Opening her home for the holidays had made the void caused by Tom's absence a little easier to bear. Annette and her kids had still felt the hurt, but most of their smiles had been genuine, and that was due to the warmhearted matriarch. And, of course, the Everrett family's ever-faithful German shepherd, Gunny, who had done as much for bringing back the spark to her son's life as Maile's grown son had.
"Wow, the water is perfect today." Maggie wrapped a beach towel around her, tucking in the corner as she crossed the threshold.
"This is Hawaii." Annette laughed. "The water is perfect every day."
"I know. But, after so many years living in L.A., I keep expecting the ocean to feel like an ice pond in Antarctica."
"Not going to happen." Prominently placing the antique Santa's sleigh and reindeer she'd retrieved from the box on the minimalist mantel, Annette shook her head at her friend.
The familiar sound of her cell carrier's ring tone played. She really needed to pick a better tune. Her phone always sounded like a television commercial for her provider. Glancing quickly at the screen, her heart gave a small stutter as the name of her son's school popped up. "Hello?"
"Mrs. Deluca, this is Harriett from the principal's office."
Her mind ran full speed ahead. All the horrible possibilities for a phone call from school tripped and shoved their way over the benign and more likely reasons. "Yes?"
"We've had a little … incident."
Okay. Incident is way better than accident, and Harriett's tone, while stern with a hint of frustration, gave no indication that Annette needed to be racing to the emergency room. "How little?"
"Adam has been in a fight."
"A what?" Her son didn't fight. The kid was a card-carrying member of Future Pacifists of America. Hug the trees and save the whales too. "Are you sure?"
"Never mind. What happened?"
"I think we should discuss this in person."
"Very well. I'll be there in a few minutes."
"Bring a clean shirt."
"And pants. Your son's have seen better days."
* * *
Another number changed on the digital clock. Brian would be home in a few minutes. Sometimes Michael Becker wondered who attending a new school was more stressful on, him or his son. So far it was a toss-up. He'd hoped mainstreaming middle school in Hawaii would be easier on Brian than in the large Dade County public school system. All his son wanted was to be like other kids his age. To go to a regular school, have friends, be invited to parties. There was even talk of a girlfriend.
Mike scrubbed his hand down his face. Hawaii might be Paradise, but he wasn't holding out for miracles. Or maybe he was. Normal people didn't turn their entire world upside down if they weren't hoping for something.
Awake since four o'clock this morning for a conference call with L.A., Mike seriously doubted the wisdom of his choice to live in the Hawaii-Aleutian time zone. Working for a Fortune 500 company on a global IT project had its perks and problems. He could telecommute from the house and be home for Brian. On the downside Mike could be attached to his computer at all hours of the day and night seven days a week. Or the blasted phone. And if Singapore didn't have the numbers run for him in the next minute, they would just damn well have to wait for him to do his part. No way could he ignore Brian's arrival after school. For the last twelve years, routine had been critical in every aspect of his life. Even as a baby Brian didn't adapt to variations in the daily schedule. Karen had made it all look so easy. From sunrise to bedtime, everything ran like clockwork.
Now, as soon as Brian walked through the door, the well-planned and practiced system kicked into gear. To the minute. No room for the slightest deviation. Snack. Homework. TV. Homework. Mike pinched the bridge of his nose.
The last digit flipped on the clock as Mike and Brian's neighbor pulled in the driveway. "Bless her."
Not many people understood Brian's need for order and routine and schedules. Heaven forbid his ride home from school decided to stop at the grocery store for a gallon of milk or try a shortcut to save time. The slightest detour always spelled disaster. But his neighbor Liz got it. She picked up Brian at the exact same spot at the exact same time and drove home the exact same route, and, so far, Liz was the only thing about the new school and the new routine that was going well.
His work cell resting on the desk buzzed. Glancing down, Mike saw the long string of numbers—Singapore. Not good. Preferring to use chat or email, it wasn't normal for the offshore team to call. This could only mean trouble. Reluctantly he grabbed the phone. “Becker.”
“Good afternoon, Mike,” the caller began. Always frustrated by the formality of the greeting and the acknowledgment of the time difference, he replied with the standard, “And good morning to you.” After all, Singapore was eighteen hours ahead—already the next day. What he really wanted though was to hurry up this conversation—get to the point. The last thing he needed was a lengthy conversation with Brian about to walk in the door.
The sound of a car door slamming broke into his thoughts, followed by another, and Mike's head snapped up. Liz normally watched Brian walk to the door and waited for Mike to wave back. The routine didn't call for her to get out of the car and walk with Brian. Shit. With a quick “I need to go. Send me an email,” he cut short the call and dropped the phone.
Tempted to hurry outside to find out what happened, instead Mike bit his cheeks and waited for Brian to open the door as usual. The second Brian appeared in the doorway, Mike knew the slight change had been enough to throw his son off his game. Brian’s gaze remained on the floor, watching his feet as he moved farther into the house.
"Time for your snack. Would you like ice cream, an apple, or chips?" Mike hoped falling into the familiar repartee would be enough to get his son back on track.
Quietly Brian continued to the kitchen, his gaze still cast downward.
Before continuing with the cycle of asking three times, Mike leaned toward Liz and whispered, "Wait for me in the living room."
Liz nodded and, passing behind him, made her way to the other room. Much to Mike's relief, the remainder of the snack-time routine fell into place. Once he'd placed the apple slices on the table, Brian seemed to have recovered from the small shift.
Wiping his hands down the side of his slacks, Mike took a seat in the living room, drew in a fortifying breath, and hoped whatever Liz had to say wasn't going to turn their world upside down again. "What happened?"
"There was a fight at school."
"Fight?" Mike sprang to his feet. "Oh, my God."
He turned to bolt back into the kitchen, not sure how he could have missed signs of a physical encounter, but Liz grabbed his wrist. "Not Brian."
What did she mean? What was the point of disrupting everything to tell him someone else had a fight at school? "I don't understand."
"It looks like your son has a new champion."