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Chapter Two … Continued (Day 8)
Behind us, I hear Misty speaking to Damien. “I’ll wipe off his hands before he gets in the car. And feel free to look around as much as you want. It’s kind of a maze in there, though. We haven’t unpacked a thing.”
Caroline and I pause, and I watch as Misty hurries off after Andy, who’s running as fast as his little legs will allow toward the Rolls Royce. Damien turns but hesitates before walking toward us, his expression unreadable. Then he cocks his head just slightly, and when his brows rise in inquiry, I see everything he’s not saying aloud. I’m sorry. Are we okay?
The fist around my heart loosens, and I draw a breath, wait a beat, and then extend my hand. For an instant, relief flickers in his eyes. Then his expression clears, and he joins us, locking his hand with mine.
Caroline looks between us, then smiles so brightly that I have to wonder if she’s picked up on the tension. Not that I’m about to ask. Instead, we continue to the house. “How many times did I walk you home when you and Ollie were little?” Caroline asks as we step onto the porch. “Or come over here to drag Ollie back home when you two spent the day in your pool?”
“A lot,” I say, letting the memories distract me. The truth is that Ollie rarely came over here. When we were allowed to play together, we both preferred his house. Only in the dead of summer did we stay here to enjoy the pool, and then only after my mother had assured herself that I was covered head-to-toe with sunscreen. God forbid the beauty queen get a sunburn or freckles.
“Go on, sweetie,” Caroline says. “I’ll wait for you two out here.”
I nod, and when Damien squeezes my hand in silent support, I realize how clammy my palms have become. The door is already ajar, so I use my free hand to push it open. I swallow and then, before I can lose my nerve, I step over the threshold.
I hesitate, not sure what I expected. Memory-shaped ghosts drifting down from the ceiling? My mother’s face looking back at me from the hall mirror? Her voice ordering me to go to my room and rest because it’s almost nine o’clock and I need my sleep before that weekend’s pageant?
But there is nothing. It’s just walls. Just tile and hardwood, paint and wallpaper. I feel my body relax, and when I meet Damien’s eyes, the corner of his mouth curves up in a smile of understanding.
“Where was your room?” he asks as we move through the foyer to the open-style living area.
“That way.” I point to the long hallway that leads off to the right. “My mom was in the master bedroom, all the way on the other side of the house. But Ashley and I were both down here.”
“I doubt it’s going to look anything like what it did when I was here,” I say, but I’m already heading that way. I’m right, of course. The walls are a plain, flat white where they had once been a pale pink. I’d wanted lime green. Something funky and fun and a little bit obnoxious. A counterpoint to the so-good-they’re-smarmy manners and perfectly proper clothes that had been foisted on me for my entire life.
My mother, of course, had vetoed that plan, because little girls who win pageants are the kind of girls who love pink. Girls who follow the rules. Who don’t make a fuss or cause trouble.
Girls who don’t have opinions of their own.
At least that’s what every word out of my mother’s mouth seemed to imply. I’ve learned better since, and I know several women I respect who’ve done the pageant circuit. But back then, I had my mother in my head. And every time I won a pageant, I had to wonder what that said about me. Was I truly that boring and empty-headed? Was that really all I was good for?
I remember going to Ashley, curling up among the pile of pillows on my big sister’s bed and whispering that I hated our mother. That I hated pink. That Mother was mean and I wanted my walls to be my walls and it wasn’t fair and why couldn’t I ever do anything I wanted, and on and on and on.
“Do you know what she did?” I ask Damien, after I’ve told him all of that. “She came home from school the next day with a tiny jar of lime green paint she’d swiped from the high school art department.” I blink back the tears that have gathered with the memory. “She told me I needed some green, and so we painted a tiny green square right behind my bedside table, and then we took a pencil eraser and wrote our initials in the paint. It would have been right about here,” I say, leading him to the far side of the room and pointing to a pile of boxes.
He bends, moves a couple of the boxes aside, and then crooks his finger for me to join him. I do, then suck in a breath when I see what he’s found. It’s been covered, but I can still clearly see the hint of a green square beneath the flat white. And in the middle—more texture than image—are the initials NF and AF.
My knees go weak, and I let myself slump to the ground, Damien’s arms going around me to cushion my fall.
“Thank goodness you’re here,” I murmur, my back to his chest.
“I’ll never be anywhere else.”
I nod, acknowledging the simple truth that is the shining miracle of my life as I lean back against him, grateful for his warmth and strength.
“I don’t want to remember,” I admit. “And yet just being here—it’s all coming back. Good. Bad. It’s crashing over me like waves. All these memories, and I don’t have the strength to stop them coming.”
“Then don’t,” he says. “Let go, baby. Let the tide take you. I’ll be your tether. I’ll always pull you back home.”
I squeeze my eyes shut, lost in the magic of his words. In the promise that he will always protect me. That he’ll always love me.
A shiver cuts through me. Not from a chill. Not from fear. But from the simple realization that I should have known that kind of all-encompassing, unrelenting love from my mother. But I’d had to find it in my sister. In my friends.
“My mother didn’t have a clue,” I whisper. “Not even an inkling of how to be a mother.”
The tears flow freely now as I recall the day I got the phone call that Ashley was dead. My mother’s flat voice that she’d killed herself. And not flat with regret or mourning, but with disapproval. As if Ashley hadn’t lived up to expectations.
The irony, of course, was that it was expectations and insecurities that had killed my sister. Her deep-seated certainty that she had no clue how to be a wife. That when her husband left her for another woman, it was proof that she was a failure—just like my mother had always said.
She’d killed herself because she’d believed she was nothing. But to me, Ashley had been everything.
“We were sitting here when she told me she was going to get married. On the floor beside my bed. And she said she was going to have a good life and be a better mom than ours.”
My words tumble out as fast as my tears. I love Ronnie and Jeffery, my niece and nephew, but Ashley’s child should have come first. I wanted so badly to be Aunt Nikki. To be the very best aunt ever, just like Ashley had said. “She never got the chance.”
Suddenly, the loss of my sister is like a physical pain in my chest. I turn in Damien’s arms, bury my face against his chest, and sob.
I’d come to this house wanting to exorcise my demons, but now it seems like the ghosts are everywhere.
I gulp in air, then try to force words out past my tear-clogged throat. “Please,” I beg. “Please, can we just get out of here?”
“We’re already gone.” He kisses me gently, then takes my elbow to lead me out of the room. But I just stand there beside him for a moment, hating how weak and fragile I feel. I try to gather myself, determined to get out of this house without Caroline or Misty seeing any evidence of pain on my face.
And yet I can’t manage. My knees are weak. My skin clammy. I start to take a step to the door, but the world seems to turn inside out, and me along with it.
I have only enough time to look up at Damien—to see the worry etched on his face—before the grayness takes over, and I collapse into my husband’s arms.
That’s it for Chapter Two!
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Be sure to pop back tomorrow to start reading Chapter Three of Anchor Me, available April 11. Grab your copy now!
And if you’re just now meeting Nikki & Damien, why not grab of copy of Release Me, the book that started it all!