Never Let Me Go: Chapter Two
After leaving the café, Chase felt lighter than he had in days—weeks, really. Easy flirting and light conversation with a cute waitress could do that for a man. And not just any waitress but Annie Darling, his baby sister’s childhood friend.
What were the odds of that?
He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. Of course the only woman to catch his attention in years would be a friend of his sister’s. Not that it mattered anyway; it wasn’t as if he were going to pursue anything with Annie. She lived in Trickle Creek. He lived in the city. And that wouldn’t be changing anytime soon. His job as a business consultant and analyst kept him way too busy for much of a social life. When he wasn’t on-site at a client’s, he was in his own office downtown, working ten- or twelve-hour days. The fact he’d taken a few days off for the funeral was already a bone of contention with his boss, Bruce.
Which meant, that no matter how cute Annie was, and how good she made him feel with only a few minutes of chatting, he was going back to the city. Just as soon as he got through this one last thing.
The light euphoria Chase had leaving the Bean Bag lasted only as long as it took him to drive through the town of Trickle Creek and through the log-and-wrought-iron gate for the big house.
Had it really been almost fifteen years since Chase had driven through those gates? It was hard to believe he’d been gone that long. His stomach twisted with a cramp of guilt at the thought of being gone for so long and only returning under these circumstances. Still, it couldn’t have been any other way, and his siblings, if they’d been old enough to understand, would have agreed.
But they hadn’t been old enough.
At twelve, Chase had hardly been old enough to understand himself. All he knew was that when his mother died, his whole world had fallen apart. The stepfather who had taken him and his younger sister in seven years earlier when he’d married their mother, and raised them like his own, changed overnight. At least toward Chase. His sister Charli had been unaffected by their father’s change. At least, that’s the way it had seemed to Chase.
As a broken-hearted little boy, he’d never felt more alone. In a town where he’d never really felt like he fit in, with siblings he’d always felt less than, and now without his beloved mother, he’d acted out. Making a bad situation even worse, until finally Michael—as he’d taken to calling him because it pissed him off—acquiesced to his incessant demands to go to boarding school on the other side of the country.
Over the years, he’d returned for the holidays and some summer vacations until he was old enough to stay on campus and work summer jobs. After that, his visits had decreased in frequency until finally, they’d stopped altogether.
A twinge of regret pinched his chest for a moment. Maybe he shouldn’t have stayed away so long. Maybe he should have made more of an effort. Especially since relocating to Calgary, only a few hours away.
The maybes were still rolling through his head five minutes later when he left his car in the circular driveway and made his way to the imposing wooden door.
Should he knock or walk in?
Neither seemed like the right thing to do. Fortunately, he was saved from the decision as the huge door swung open to reveal his sister Charli.
Her blonde hair hung in waves over her shoulders, the simple black dress made her seem smaller and frailer than the last time he’d seen her when she’d come to visit—was it almost a year ago already?—and she looked exhausted. And sad.
Again, Chase felt the weight of the guilt at not being there for her and the others. He was the big brother. He should have—
“Chase!” Charli threw herself into his arms and immediately started to sob.
He held her, awkwardly at first, and then settled into the embrace.
Despite the distance between them, he and Charli had always been close. The fact that he didn’t see her more was his biggest regret. Maybe that would change now?
But he knew it wouldn’t. Not unless something significant changed. He had his life out in Calgary, and Charli loved the mountains and running her greenhouses that needed almost constant tending.
“It’s going to be okay, Charli.” Chase wasn’t totally sure he believed that but what else was there to say in the situation? He rubbed her back until her sobbing slowed and she pulled away.
“Where did you go?” She pulled a tissue out of nowhere and blew her nose. “Why didn’t you come back to the house after the service? We missed you.”
He doubted that.
“You know why,” he said instead. “The same reason I stayed to the back at the cemetery.” It hadn’t felt right for him to sit up front with the rest of his siblings at the service, so he’d held back, staying to the fringes and mostly out of sight. “Besides, it’s probably for the best I minimize—”
“That’s bullshit, Chase, and you know it. You’re our brother. You belong here.”
“You do.” She grabbed his hand and tugged. “And we want you here.”
That made one of them, for sure. Chase was fairly certain not all of his siblings would feel the same way. Still, there wasn’t any point in arguing with Charli. Not on such a day, anyway.
She tugged him through the massive entryway and into the living room where their baby sister, Kat, was sitting and staring out the window to the garden that faced out to the stunning mountain range. It was one of the things he missed about living in the big city. The skyscrapers were no contest to the beauty of the mountains. The sight of them took his breath away every time. As did the sight of Kat, folded in on herself, her long red hair pulled into a tight twist on the back of her head, her eyes pooled with tears and the general weight of grief making her look like the small child she no longer was.
She looked up from where she sat and blinked in his direction before wiping at her eyes. “Chase?”
He nodded but she was already on her feet and in his embrace. “Where have you been? Did you just get here?”
Chase squeezed his baby sister tight in an effort to relieve a little of her pain. “I got in early this morning. I went straight to the cemetery. I’m sorry I—”
“Well, look who decided to show up.”
Chase stiffened at his brother’s voice. Where he’d expected that his sisters would be happy to see him, Chase hadn’t been certain of the same reception with his brothers. Particularly Asher.
He released Kat and slowly turned around to see his brother. Five years his junior, he and Chase had never gotten along and was the sibling he’d seen the least. For all the family vacations that Charli had organized in an effort to keep them connected, Asher steadfastly chose not to participate if Chase would be there. In fact, Asher had been a teenager the last time Chase had seen him. Now, he was looking at a grown man. The spitting image of his now-deceased stepfather. The resemblance caught him off guard momentarily.
“Good to see you, Asher.”
“Is it?” His brother stepped toward him, his hands clenched into fists at his sides, his jaw set and his eyes flashing with challenge. Asher was taller than him by at least an inch now, and broader across the shoulders.
But Chase wasn’t a small man himself, and he definitely wasn’t one to back down from a fight, especially not when it was his little brother. He took a step forward as well but left his hands hanging at his sides.
“Couldn’t be bothered to visit all these years, or even come to the funeral, but it’s time to read the will and here you are.” Asher scoffed and took another step forward.
“There were plenty of family visits,” Chase said, his teeth clenched. “Just not here. And none you could be bothered to come to, I noticed. And I was at the service. If you pulled your head—”
“Enough.” Charli stepped between them, her arms outstretched. “We’re family and we’re all welcome here. I, for one, am glad that we’re all finally together. Fighting isn’t going to help anything. It’s only going to make it worse.”
She wasn’t wrong. Just because Chase had complicated feelings about their dad, didn’t mean they all did. And those feelings had no place at his funeral. The last thing he wanted was to stir up any trouble. That’s not why he was there. He nodded toward his younger brother and relaxed his shoulders. “It really is good to see you, Asher.”
Asher, still visibly agitated, did his best to relax for their sister’s sake, but as soon as she was satisfied they weren’t going to rip each other’s throats out and turned her back, he leaned over and hissed into Chase’s ear, “Why are you even here?”
“My presence was requested by the—” He was interrupted as their youngest brother, Craig, appeared in the doorway.
“Good, we’re all here.” Craig’s eyes flickered over to Chase. He nodded hello and turned to address the room. “The lawyer is ready for us in the study.”
“By the lawyer,” Chase finished with a wave of his hand toward the study.
Asher merely grunted his acknowledgment and led the way through the door to the study and reading of the will.
Chase waited until the rest of his siblings had made their way through the door before taking a breath and running a hand over his face. The sooner they got this over with, the sooner he could get out of there. And that would be the best thing for everyone.
* * *
“Come on, Barb.” Annie leaned over the counter toward the other woman, who was sitting behind it. She glanced back at her seven-year-old nephew, Grady, who was kicking at a mark on the linoleum floor of the old community center and thankfully not paying attention. “You know as much as I do that he needs this.” She turned her attention back to the other woman. “Can you just—”
“I can’t let him keep coming to the summer program without payment.” Barb cut her off. “If you need financial assist—”
“I don’t need any assistance,” Annie hissed under her breath before swallowing hard. It wouldn’t do any good to piss Barb off. For better or worse, the woman was the gatekeeper of community programming. She didn’t need to give her more reasons to make life difficult for her. “I’m sure Jill just forgot to drop off a check before she went out of town,” Annie said, this time with a bright smile on her face. “As soon as she gets—”
“She can make the payment through online banking,” Barb said. “No need for checks at all.”
Not that she didn’t know that already. It’s not like it was 1983.
“Oh.” Annie feigned surprise. “I’ll make sure to tell her that when she calls next and she can take care of the payment then. No problem.”
“No problem,” Barb agreed. “And then Grady can come back to the program.” She pressed her lips together. “When Jill gets home.”
It’s going to be like that, is it?
Annie swallowed hard. She shouldn’t be surprised that Barb knew—or suspected—that Jill wasn’t on vacation as Annie had been telling anyone who pushed too hard. People weren’t stupid. Especially people in Trickle Creek, who’d known Annie and her sister their whole lives. The only vacation Jill was on was the kind where she took off with a man, usually one who’d buy her whatever drugs she currently favored and pay her way. She’d be back as soon as she got tired of him, or he wised up. Whichever came first. It wasn’t her first time, and unfortunately for her young son, it wouldn’t be the last.
The thing was, when Jill was home, she was actually a pretty good mother. She worked hard at whatever job she could find, which in a booming tourist town with more jobs than potential employees, was never hard to find. She doted on Grady and spent as much time as she could hiking or skiing or swimming with him. Those times would last for months, and once when he was little, a full year. And that was the worst part, because then Annie would let her guard down, and even allow herself to think about her own future and the possibilities that might be open to her if she didn’t have to raise her nephew at the drop of a hat.
Jill had already been gone for three weeks this time. She could be home at any day. Or not.
“How much does she owe?” Annie asked Barb, knowing full well that no matter how much it was, she wouldn’t be able to afford it. “I’ll see what I can do.”
For a moment, the older woman flashed her a look of what Annie was certain was pity. She blinked hard and the look was gone.
“Four hundred and twenty dollars.”
“For summer program?” Annie almost choked on the words.
“As I said, there are programs available and if you qualify—”
“No.” She wouldn’t qualify because Annie wasn’t Grady’s mother, nor was she a legal guardian. She pinched the bridge of her nose with her fingers and inhaled. When she looked up again, she played her last card. It was her only hope. Grady needed the program. She needed Grady to be in the program. Otherwise, she’d have to figure out what to do with him during the day while she worked at the cafe. It was bad enough she had to take him to clean the short-term vacation rentals she contracted for on the weekends. At least there she could set him on the couch with a book or her phone to play games on. That wouldn’t work at the cafe. Not if she wanted to keep her job. And she did. There was only one thing left. Annie leaned a little closer to Barb.
“I’ll clean your place.” She hated making the offer, but it was all she had left. “Every other Saturday,” she added quickly and then, before Barb could voice any objections, “I know it’s been hard since Phil got sick. This will help.” Annie looked into the other woman’s eyes and nodded. “Both of us.”
Equally a curse as much as it could be a blessing was the fact that everyone knew everything in a small town. Including how much Barb was struggling when it came to juggling her job, her husband’s cancer treatments, and their hobby farm just outside town. Never mind keeping up with the household chores. It wasn’t much, but if Annie could trade her time and skills for Grady’s summer program, even for a few weeks, it would help them both. She didn’t know how she would find the time to fit in yet another job, but she would. For Grady.
Annie waited while Barb digested the offer, but she didn’t have to wait long.
“Just until Jill comes home.”
She exhaled and nodded her agreement. “Until Jill comes home.”
Before the other woman could change her mind, Annie grabbed her nephew’s hand and led him out of the building. She’d already had to take the rest of the day off from the café; she might as well make the best of it for her and Grady. “What do you say we go swimming this afternoon, kiddo?”