My breath froze in my chest as I bolted from the safety of the warm cab into a rainy English night. Rosehaven Downs was silent and bathed in the pitch darkness of the wee hours as I scurried across the small but neatly kept, snow-coated lawn. I was soaked and shivering by the time I reached the porch of my mother’s slightly dilapidated Victorian home and picked my way up the worn steps, trying to avoid the creaky spots. I shook ice out of my coal-black waves as I pounded on the aged, peeling, powder blue door and cringed when the foyer light blinked on. The door creaked open,, and my mom squinted at me in sleepy confusion until she realized that I was, in reality, shivering on her doorstep. Concern clouded her classically elegant Audrey Hepburn eyes, and she wrapped a protective, if dainty, arm around my shoulders, pulled me inside and nudged the protesting door shut with her foot.
“Lauren, darling, what are you doing here? It’s two in the morning, and I put you on a flight back to your dad’s yesterday.”
I took a deep breath, bit my lip, and stared down at the dusty pink roses on the worn hunter green hall rug. “I had to fly back, Mom. Dad eloped with that girl he’s been dating while I was here for Christmas.”
“Dad took his girlfriend Michelle to Las Vegas for Christmas, and she talked him into getting married while they were there. She was packing for their honeymoon when Dad brought me home from the airport.”
Mom stared at my bare arms and legs, and I could tell by her expression that she was debating whether to chew me out right then or save it for later. “You didn’t even stop to change clothes?” She batted her wild black curls back out of her face and glared up at the ceiling. She was either counting to ten or sending a few intense, exasperated prayers heavenward. “It’s late December in England and my daughter shows up in the middle of the night wearing a tank top, shorts, and flimsy canvas sneakers! Brian, could you please bring some towels down here?”
I shrugged and hugged my torso a little tighter so my shivers wouldn’t be quite as evident. “I was so mad I didn’t think about clothes. I didn’t even bring my suitcase. It’s still all packed up, and sitting in the middle of my bed at Dad’s. I called James to come pick me up, left a note that I was going to bed early and snuck out when Dad went into his office to work. James dropped me off at the airport, and I used the credit card Dad gave me for gas to buy a plane ticket.”
Mom shook her head and her hair fell back in front of her warm, caramel brown eyes. “You father is likely to have a bloody heart attack when he figures out you aren’t there. That credit card will probably be history by lunchtime, too.”
I lifted one of my shoulders in a half-hearted shrug. “Too bad, I guess. I almost had a stroke when I got home and found out he’d married Michelle.” My stomach churned at the very thought of my forty-two and his barely twenty-one-year-old wife girlfriend—wife. Dad had been delighted to share the romantic story…how he just happened to be having a drink in the bar where she was celebrating her twenty-first birthday, how their eyes met across the crowded room. So gross.
“Honey,” my mom said, pulling back to the present.
“I mean, she’s only three years older than I am,” I went on, pacing now. “ And as if things aren’t bad enough, she flirts with Neal when she thinks Dad and I aren’t around to see them. My father’s wife flirts with my boyfriend!”
“Honey,” my mom tried again grabbing me this time as I passed by her.
“How disgusting is that?” I asked as if I expected an answer. My mom’s mouth opened, but before she could get out a single syllable, I was off again. “She’s a gold-digger and the only one who can’t see it is Dad. Do you know that she showed up at Grandpa Alex’s funeral looking like a hooker, for God’s sake? I thought Granny Betty was going to have an aneurysm before I could get Dad to make Michelle leave.”
Mom stared at me in open-mouthed horror. “Your father’s drinking again?”
“Not as bad as he used to. It’s just an occasional thing if you count any excuse Michelle can think of as an occasion.”
For a moment, all Mom could do was shake her head. “Your father is a grown man, Lauren, although he doesn’t act like it sometimes.”
“Ever.” I rolled my eyes so hard it hurt.
“We can’t dictate his choices, no matter how painful the ones he makes may be. We’re just going to have to figure out a way to deal with this.”
“Deal with what, Gillian?”
Mom turned around and I saw her husband, Brian, at the base of the stairs with a massive stack of fluffy pink towels in his arms. He looked like a tired, confused Santa Claus.
“Nicholas eloped with a twenty-one-year-old girl while Lauren was here for Christmas.”
Brian sighed, shook his head, and handed the towels to Mom. He shuffled into the kitchen and called over his shoulder. “Tea or Cocoa?”
His offer coaxed a small smile out of me. “Cocoa, please.”
“Tea for me, dear.” Mom wrapped me in one of her gigantic bath sheets and we settled in at the antique kitchen table sharing a collective sigh. I tugged the towel tighter around me and glanced at the hand-painted kettle on the stove. It was powder blue with soft pink heart-shaped polka dots. I remembered the day Mom and I had painted it together.
“I wish Dad were as considerate as you, Brian. He never thinks about how things will affect me before he does them.”
“Your father doesn’t mean to hurt you, darling. He’s just too immature to stop and think about what he’s doing until it’s too late.” Mom’s voice was gentle and her tired eyes told me that she knew better than anyone, although she’d never say it aloud. That only succeeded in cementing my desire not to go back to Florida. I looked down at the table, feeling her worried gaze. I couldn’t look her in the eye. If I did, I would have cried.
I took a deep breath and held it for a moment. “That’s why I’ve decided I want to move in with you and Brian. I need a more stable lifestyle than the one I’m getting with Dad and Michelle.” I studied her expression out of the corner of my eye and a sudden wave of doubt crashed in around me. Oh, God, what if she and Brian don’t want me to move in? Things get a little cramped while I’m here. Maybe they don’t have room for me full-time? Brian set our drinks down on the table and leaned back against the counter without a word.
“What about your friends? It’s your senior year. Are you sure you want to leave at this point? You only have one semester left,” Mom said, leaning forward and taking my hand.
“I’d miss James, Maria, and Audrey,” I admitted, thinking of my boyfriend and best friends.
“And what about Granny Betty? She’s the only grandparent you have left. She’d be devastated if you left right now, too,” Mom added.
“I know. I don’t want to leave Granny Betty,” I sighed, letting my head fall onto the wooden tabletop.
“Please, don’t misunderstand me…” Mom rubbed my hand soothingly, her voice patient and reassuring. “You’re welcome to move in with us if that’s what you really want, dear. I just want to make sure that you’ve really thought this through. It’s a big choice to make.”
“I really don’t think I can stand to live in that house now that Dad’s married to Michelle. She hates my guts, and the feeling is pretty much mutual,” I said, my voice muffled by the table.
Brian stifled a yawn and patted my shoulder. “We’ll figure things out, dear. In the meantime, I’m going back to bed. I have to teach an 8 a.m. class.”
I nodded and yawned, too. “Thanks, Brian. The cocoa is fantastic.”
“You’re welcome. Goodnight, my lovely girls.” Mom and I watched him trudge back up the stairs, and the look on her face made me wonder why she’d ever married Dad. He and Brian were polar opposites.
“I’m so glad you found Brian, Mom. You’re lucky to have each other.”
“I know.” She caressed her simple silver wedding band and sipped her hot tea.
“I don’t know how this happened. Grandpa Alex was sure Michelle would get impatient and run off before Dad took the time to marry her. I wish he’d been right.”
“I know, love. Drink your cocoa, take a hot shower, and get some sleep. We’ll reevaluate the situation later.”
I stood and leaned down to kiss her cheek. “Thanks, Mom. I love you.”
“I love you, too, darling.”