I jump back from the car and flap my hand around. My finger stings like hell—and when I look at it, I see why.
Breaking a nail lifting a suitcase. That figures. Just another reason why coming back to Shelton Bay is a mistake. If I’d stayed in Charlotte, at least all ten of my nails would still be intact.
I suck on my finger to soothe the sting and glance through the back window of the car. Mila’s still asleep, thankfully. If she was awake and caught me cussing there’s no doubt she’d be shouting, “Mama! Bad!” and following it up with a few excited rounds of the bad word.
I breathe a sigh of relief and move back to the trunk. I give the offending suitcase one last tug and it flies out of the car. The gravel crunches as it hits the floor, and I jump to the side. Fucking shit. Mondays suck.
Never, ever move on a Monday. Especially not back to the place you ran from in the first place.
I pull the envelope the lawyer gave me out of the glove box and dig for the key. I find it hiding between the creased papers, and with another glance at Mila in the backseat, I walk to the front door.
I hesitate, taking a deep breath in. I haven’t been to this house for two and a half years, much less been inside it. I have no idea what state it’s in since Dad died eight months ago.
I just know that I’ve put this off as long as humanly possible.
My hands are shaking as I shove the key in the door and turn it, and I swallow hard. The door creaks as I push against it, the sound almost ominous. My gut tells me to run because, holy shit, there could be all kinds of zombies and crap in here waiting for me!
Thankfully, my brain is more rational and tells me to step inside, and that I clearly need to lay off The Walking Dead.
It’s exactly the same as I remember. The same childhood pictures are hanging on the walls. Of my mom crouched behind me, hugging me. Of Dad and my brother, Steven, holding up a huge salmon from the time they went fishing in Oregon. Of me and Dad on my fifth birthday, me in a flouncy princess dress. Of me, Ste, and our parents at one of his baseball games, in the last photo we’d ever take together.
The same patterned rug I remember is running along the front hall, the corners slightly turned up from age, and, God, it’s freakin’ awful. Only elderly women should have flowered rugs in their house.
It still smells the same—like lavender and warm towels fresh from the dryer. I close my eyes and breathe in. Hell. I wasn’t here enough. I should have been here more. No matter that Dad went to the hospice in Charlotte to be closer to me instead of going to Raleigh. No matter that he came to me.
I was too selfish to go to him when he needed me.
I drop my head back and blink harshly. No tears. He made that clear. He told me days before he died that when I came back to Shelton Bay, I couldn’t cry. I wasn’t allowed to, because the happy memories were the best ones.
He told me that I’m not allowed to think of him lying in the hospice bed, too weak to even lift a glass of water to his lips, his eyes sunken and his cheeks hollowed. I have to think of him healthy, smiling, cradling his newborn granddaughter in his arms. I have to think of him making homemade pizza and trying to be both mom and dad for pretty much my whole life.
It would be easier to think that way if it didn’t feel quite so empty without him in this house.
“Mama! Mamaaaaaa! Where you?”
“Crap,” I mutter, turning back outside. And here I was, hoping I could get our bags inside before she woke up. I guess that’s what I get for effing around in the hallway.
I pull open the car door and smile. “Hey, baby girl! Did you have a good nap?”
“Out! Out!” Mila raises her chubby arms.
“Okay, okay, hang on.” I unbuckle her seat belt and lift her out.
She kicks her legs, and I put her down on the drive. She points to the house, so I nod with a smile.
“Go near those stairs and you’re on the naughty step!” I warn as she runs toward the open door.
I slam the trunk down and grab the two largest suitcases. I yank them behind me, and by the time I get to the door, my fingers burn. Damn, they’re heavy.
“I said stay away from those stairs, Mila Lou!” I call, closing the door behind me. She ignores me, and I quickly let go of the bag to sweep her up and away from the staircase. “Here.” I pull her dolly from the bag and give it to her.
She follows me when I open the door to the living room. I close my eyes as I’m assaulted by childhood memories for the second time. Of my mom, of my dad, of hiding behind the sofa and jumping out at Steven and making him yell. Of tearing open presents on Christmas morning and finding hidden eggs on Easter Sunday.
I take a deep breath and move to the windows. I open one to help eliminate the faint musty smell that’s hanging around. This room is almost stale from not being lived in, a stark contrast to the last time I was here. Our next stop will be the store, to get cleaning stuff.
Automatically, my eyes flit to the little girl babbling to her dolly.
Being scared to leave this house is dumb. So. Friggin’. Dumb. Like a kid that’s too afraid to get out of bed because of the monsters they imagine are underneath. But I have to leave sooner or later.
She’ll be seen, sooner or later.
I may as well go with sooner and silence the rumor mill I know has been churning.
But . . . I don’t move. I stay standing where I am, staring at her.
I’m in awe of her innocence. I wish I could see the world as simply as she does. She’s completely unaware of my inner turmoil, of how torn I am. So many lives could be turned upside down in the blink of an eye, merely because of her existence.
I turn on the television to silence my thoughts and flick straight to a music channel. It’s a reflex now. My fingers move automatically to the buttons that will take us there.
The cable is still working despite it being eight months since Dad died. I know because I’ve paid for it ever since, waiting for the time when I’d grow big enough balls to come home.
Home. Now, it is. Mine, again.
When Dad died and the will was being read, Steven called from Afghanistan and gave his share of the house to me. He has his apartment, and he had decided, by himself, that me and Mila will get more use from this house. That we’d get more use out of living rent-free than he would—and he’s right. After all, I only have a couple hundred bucks left from my waitressing job in Charlotte. After that, I have to live off my inheritance. The one thing I definitely don’t want to do.
So the house is bigger than we need, but it has a huge yard for Mila to play in. That’s sure as hell something my tiny, two-bed, city apartment doesn’t have.
“Dadda!” Mila claps her hands.
I turn around sharply. She pulls herself up on the TV stand and stares at the screen like a lovesick teenager. But my heart is thumping double time, my palms almost sweating. It takes a few beats of the music to realize it’s just Dirty B.’s latest song on MTV and not the man himself walking through the door.
I force a laugh at myself. Shit, I’ve been back in Shelton Bay for ten minutes, and I’m already thinking Conner Burke will burst my door down for the daughter he doesn’t even know exists.
I run my fingers through my hair. Crap.
My stomach twists with the same guilt I’ve carried around for nearly two and a half years—the guilt of keeping her away.
Mila shrieks when Conner’s face fills the screen. He’s smiling, his voice crooning through the speakers and sending wave after wave of tremors through my body. The way it always has. He’s living the dream, his dream. I could never take that from him.
I know what I did was for the best. Running away the day I saw that little blue line was both the best and worst decision I’ve ever made. Besides, I’ve never kept him from her.
That’s not a justification for my actions, no matter how many times I tell myself it is. And I’ve told that myself a million times, maybe more. Like the fact I’m lying to only one of them makes it better.
I watch Mila bopping up and down to the song. I watch my secret, my darling little skeleton in the closet, and know it’s about to be over. I know that within forty-eight hours, all of Shelton Bay will know I’m back. Forty-eight hours, if I’m lucky.
They’ll know and they’ll spy and they’ll talk. Because that’s small-town life. Everyone knows everyone’s business. No stone is left unturned, no secret left unshared.
Soon enough, they’ll all know. And Conner will, too. The second Dirty B. arrive back in town for their mid-tour break, he’ll know.
I pull the keys from my pocket, turn off the television, and swoop Mila up with one arm. “C’mon, baby girl. Let’s go shopping.”
The store stares at me like it’s challenging me to get out of the car. I stare back at it, wondering if I really am brave enough to face reality this time.
I wasn’t for my father’s funeral. I wasn’t brave enough to show everyone I was there, so I slipped in a minute late and hid at the back of the church. I watched them bury him from afar like the wimp I am.
Now I can’t run any longer.
I swipe my sweaty palms across my thighs and take a deep breath. My fingers run through my hair as I get out, like the impromptu restyle will hide my face from everyone.
Mila reaches for me as I set her on my hip and push the car door shut. I lock it and rush toward the front of the store for a cart. Let’s get this over with.
I slip Mila into the seat, my hands shaking as I walk into the store. Not without reason.
All it takes is for one person to notice you, and you’re done for.
And I’ve been noticed.
Maybe it’s paranoia. Maybe it’s assumption. Or maybe it’s true, because I can feel questioning gazes burning into me. I can feel the stares making sure I’m really here. That I’m really Sofie Callahan, back from wherever the hell it was I went.
I hide down one of the aisles, smiling reassuringly at Mila. She babbles to herself quietly, blissfully ignorant of the whispers I know are circulating. It might be midday on a Thursday, but it’s still packed.
For the first time in my life, I wish for a Walmart instead of our local market. And I hate Walmart.
I fill the shopping cart with the essentials. Bread, milk, cheese, Mila’s favorite star-shaped chips. She reaches for the packet immediately and I swat her hand away gently.
“Nuh-uh, missy. When we get back.”
“Mama! Want sars!” She reaches behind her.
“Mila, no.” I right her and grab her diapers off the shelf. Her little legs kick the cart in protest, but I ignore her. This is a regular battle—one I always win.
“Well, if it ain’t the long-lost Sofie Callahan,” a voice drawls behind me. A voice I despise.
I turn, keeping Mila hidden behind my back, and stare into the face of Nina Hawkins. From the bleached blonde hair and heavy makeup to the way-too-low-cut shirt, she looks exactly as I remember her. “Nina. How are you?”
She smiles, but there’s no warmth in it. “I’m doin’ good. Where’d you go to?”
“I’m really well, thanks for asking.” I force my own smile. My mom taught me that a Southern girl is always polite. Especially when she wants to scratch the other woman’s eyeballs out.
Nina’s smile strains, and her eyes flick to my side. “I didn’t know you were a mom now.”
I reach behind for Mila’s hand. “A lot of things change in two years. I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s time for her lunch. Bye, Nina.”
I’ve barely taken a few steps before I hear her voice again. “I guess Conner doesn’t know. At least he never mentioned it to me after you left.”
My heart clenches with her insinuation, and I turn quickly. Only my face doesn’t betray what I feel inside. “Conner? Why would he know anything about her?”
Nina blinks harshly but doesn’t say another thing. I have no idea if she bought that, but the sound of a “You’ll never guess who I just saw . . .” follows me as I walk to the cashier.
I almost drop my debit card because my palms are sweating again, but I jab my pin number in correctly. I just want to get out of here and back to the safety of my father’s house. My house, I guess.
I’m practically running across the parking lot when another familiar voice calls my name. This one is softer, one I’ve missed.
“Sofie? You’re back?”
I pause, swallowing, and nod. “Yep. I’m back.”
“And . . .” Leila Burke steps in front of me and looks at Mila. “A baby?”
I look into the eyes of one of my closest friends. At least, she used to be. Once upon a time, when everything was simple and the biggest thing we had to worry about was whether or not we could sneak in past curfew without getting caught. “Yep.”
“No. I stole her,” I mutter, and load the shopping into the trunk. Leila doesn’t say anything when I lift Mila and strap her into her seat.
“Sofie . . .”
“Don’t.” I look up and into her blue eyes, so similar to Conner’s. “Please don’t ask me questions I’m not ready to answer.”
She tucks her ombré hair behind her ear. “You told Nina she wasn’t.”
“I didn’t tell Nina a damn thing.” I open my car door and get in, starting it before she can speak again.
There’s no way I can hold a conversation with her and not want to break down. I knew I wouldn’t get away with this trip to Shelton Bay unscathed—but I thought I might be able to make it longer than a few hours without seeing the girl I spent my life attached to, my best friend.
Without seeing his family. Mila’s family.
I drive out of the parking lot and toward the house. I can’t think of it as mine yet. I don’t know what I’m doing with it yet. If I could move it to Charlotte, it would be perfect. . . . But I can’t. The house is here, and . . .
I shake my head. I’m not doing this today. There’s plenty of time to make that decision. Right now, I have to focus on getting through today. On getting through this fucked-up situation I caused.
I kill the engine in the driveway and get out as Leila’s car stops directly behind mine. I rub my temples. Dammit, I should have known she wouldn’t let this go. She’s as stubborn as they come.
“Oh, hell no, Sofie Callahan. You ain’t walkin’ away without telling me some truths, girl.”
Mila clings to me tightly as I pull her out. “Can you not, around Mila? She’s not used to yelling.”
“Sorry.” Leila winces and pops the trunk of my car.
“What’re you doin’?” I ask as she starts pulling my shopping bags out of the trunk.
“I’m not leaving until you’ve started talking. Are you gonna open this door or what? These bags are freakin’ heavy.”
I sigh and slam the trunk down. I unlock the front door, and Leila strolls in, depositing the bags in the kitchen.
“Sars, Mama! Sars!” Mila cries, reaching for the bags on the floor.
“Okay, okay, hang on.” I put her down and grab a packet of the chips.
She snatches the bag from me and digs her little hand in.
“What do you say?”
She shoves a chip in her mouth and looks at me with wide, innocent eyes. I bite my lip to stop myself from laughing. Damn, that look is too cute.
She grins. “Tankoo.”
“Good girl.” I kiss the top of her head and join Leila in the kitchen to put the groceries away.
Leila’s eyes follow me as I move around the kitchen. I wrinkle my nose as I empty out the fridge of the old, rotten food left over from before Dad died. The smell makes me want to vomit, and I breathe through my mouth.
“Ew.” I grab a garbage bag and fill it with the contents of the fridge, dumping it in the trash can in the backyard. “Shoulda come back sooner.”
Leila hands me cleaning spray and a paper towel, wordlessly, her eyes still searing into me.
“Thanks,” I mutter, knowing her questioning is inevitable. I get sucked into cleaning the inside of the fridge. My stomach is rolling, huge somersaults that ignite a guilt-ridden nausea.
“So,” Leila says quietly. “Were you ever going to come back?”
I shrug a shoulder. “Eventually. I knew Dad was going to die and that I’d have to sort it out if Ste wasn’t here.”
“Doesn’t he come back in a couple months?”
“So why bother coming back? Your dad died months ago. Why not just stay wherever the hell you fucking disappeared to two and a half years ago?”
I glare at Leila. “Can you keep your voice down? It might not bother you, but shouting in front of Mila sure as hell bothers me.”
Leila stares at me. “I’m sorry. I’m just so friggin’ angry with you, Sof. Why didn’t you tell me you were leaving?”
My eyes travel to Mila as I close the fridge door slowly and lean against it. The cloth falls from my fingers to the floor, and I hear Leila’s sigh.
“She’s the reason you left. . . . Isn’t she?”
“I told you I’m not answering questions I’m not ready to.” I wince as Mila crushes a handful of chips into the carpet and pray Dad’s vacuum still works. I pull the fridge open again and start filling it with new, fresh food. “I don’t owe you anything, Lei. I don’t have to answer you.”
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Take it however you want.”
“I’m her aunt, aren’t I? She’s Conner’s daughter.” She continues like I never said anything. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
I put the milk in the fridge door and shut it. “Hey, you,” I say, ignoring Leila. Mila looks up at me. “Ready for your nap?”
“No nap! No nap!”
I roll my eyes and walk outside, grab the travel crib from the car, and bring it inside. Mila is still repeating her pre-nap mantra as I take it upstairs and set it up. I tuck her favorite blanket in it before heading back downstairs to her. I retrieve her dolly from the front room and pick my baby up, batting crumbs off her little hands.
“No nap! No nap! No nap!”
I take her upstairs and deposit her in the crib with a kiss on her forehead. “Sleep tight, baby girl. I love you.”
I close the door behind me and leave her there, still chanting “No nap! No nap!” She’ll give up in a few minutes and lie down. Knowing that fact is one of those crazy things I can appreciate in this insane upheaval of both of our lives.
Leila watches me as I enter the kitchen and pour a glass of orange juice. “You can’t hide this, y’know?” she pushes. “You can’t hide her. Nina will have it halfway around town already.”
“You think I don’t know that?” I snap, turning to look at her. “You think I don’t know that by tomorrow Mila will be common knowledge in this goddamn town?”
“Oh, I know you know it, Sofie. I’m just wondering how long you thought you’d keep her a secret.”
“As long as I possibly could. It’s what was best for everyone. And no, before you ask, I’m not ashamed of her. But I have my reasons, and I don’t have to justify them to you.”
Leila raises her eyebrows. “No, but you have to justify them to my brother.”
“Get out,” I say firmly, meeting her eyes. “Whether or not I do is not your business, Leila. Neither is Mila. Until you understand that and can respect my decisions, no matter how wrong you might think they are, I don’t want you here.”
She pushes off the kitchen counter and shakes her head, her eyes shadowing with sadness. “What the hell happened to you, Sof?”
“I became a mom, that’s what. And she comes first. Even before you.”