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Delivered with Love
By Sherry Kyle
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Sherry Kyle
All rights reserved.
The hum of well-wishers' voices swirled around Claire James as she stood numbly in front of the brick fireplace in her mother's cramped Los Angeles apartment. Her black dress, size six and at least two years old, squeezed the oxygen out of her lungs. Claire attempted to take a deep breath and willed herself not to cry. One minute at a time. That's how she would survive.
She looked down at her feet to avoid eye contact with the so-called friends and family who came to pay their last respects. Where were these people when Mom was sick? Claire pushed the cynical thought to the back of her mind.
The scuffs on her black sandals were a sad reminder of her life the past few years since her mother had been diagnosed with cancer. They had spent all her college money on chemo, radiation, and natural remedies to keep her mother alive. But in the end it hadn't mattered.
She walked across the room and stood next to the small circular table in the corner that held the punch and dessert. Haley, her older sister, had insisted on a reception, saying that their mother deserved a party. Party? Yes, Mom loved parties, but today was not a day to celebrate. Claire bought the punch, while Haley baked a homemade chocolate cake with vanilla icing. The sweet smell turned her stomach. Her sister topped each of the two tiers with daisies, their mother's favorite flower. Claire picked one off the top and held it to her chest.
"I'm sorry about your loss." Geraldine, the elderly lady from down the hall, startled her back to the present. She patted Claire's hand. "She suffered a long time."
Claire nodded and blinked back tears. She hadn't seen her neighbor in quite some time.
"Well, it's probably time for me to go." Geraldine straightened the pillbox hat perched on her head. "I need to feed my cats."
Claire forced what she hoped resembled a smile. Geraldine's cats were fed better than some humans — including her. What she would do for freshly baked salmon instead of frozen dinners. The smell permeated the hallway every Thursday evening.
Claire glanced at the clock. Only half an hour more and she'd have the place to herself again.
Each minute was an exercise in patience. The condolences, hugs, and empty words wore on her. She rubbed her moist forehead and swallowed. Suddenly, the room spun and her hands trembled. She needed to get out of there.
Claire wove through the maze of people and out the back door to find privacy in her mother's old Volkswagen. The seventy-plus-degree weather hit her in the face as she slid inside the car resting by the curb. She opened the windows, leaned her head against the headrest, and sat in a crumpled heap, wishing her mother was there to remind her to sit up straight.
"Claire," Haley's saccharine voice called through the passenger side window a few minutes later. "Please come out. The Thompsons are leaving."
Mr. Thompson and his wife made a striking couple. Wealthy. Happy. Put together. A life her mom never had.
"Claire? Answer me," her older sister demanded.
"Thank them for the casserole. And tell them good-bye for me." A moan escaped her lips.
"All right, but come out soon." Haley tapped the front window with a manicured fingernail. "Mr. and Mrs. Morris and the Williamses are ready to leave too. I don't want to stand at the door by myself."
Haley never did anything by herself. The sound of Haley's stilettos clicking against the pavement grew distant. Her sister had handed over their mom's care to Claire and eloped the summer after the cancer diagnosis. It broke their mother's heart. Mark, her sister's husband, hadn't even come to the funeral.
Neither had her father. But why would she expect him to come? Dad hadn't been around since she was a baby.
Claire's throat tightened as the tears cascaded down her cheeks. She dug through the glove compartment looking for a tissue. Something white caught her eye.
Claire fingered the old envelope. Her mother's maiden name was scrawled across the front with her deceased grandparents' former address in San Diego. She ran her fingers over her mother's neatly penned name and mentally calculated how old she would have been in 1972. Seventeen. It was hard to imagine her mom as a teenager — young and vibrant — a contrast from the way she looked in her last days.
Strange. Why would her mother keep an old letter?
Claire shuddered and her eyes filled with fresh tears. I miss you, Mom.
She pulled the letter from the envelope. Would her mom want her to read it? Her pulse quickened as the words drew her in.
"Dear Emily ..."CHAPTER 2
One year later
She never thought the letter would get her fired.
Claire stood in the kitchen in front of the restaurant manager with her mouth hanging open. She tucked her pen behind her ear and slipped her order pad into her apron pocket.
"It wasn't my fault Mr. Matley's pinkie finger got burned." Claire's heart sank. "He lifted his hand as I was pouring the coffee."
"Claire, the point is he was burned." Her boss pushed his thick black glasses higher on his nose with his right index finger. His moist forehead glistened in the fluorescent light of the restaurant. The smell of hamburgers on the grill wafted through the air.
During the months she had worked at the diner, Claire discovered food service wasn't her forte, but it paid more than the clothing shops at the mall. She averaged fifteen percent in tips, and her co-workers told her it had more to do with her looks than her ability to waitress, a fact she knew to be true. But it didn't take away the sting of their words. What else could she do?
"I need this job, Mr. Sutherland," Claire begged. "Can we give him a free lunch?"
She raised her brows and bit her lip. Today was the anniversary of her mother's death, and she was having a hard time concentrating. Her mind kept reciting the words of the letter she had discovered the day of her mother's memorial. And now she may have lost her job.
"You know as well as I do that Mr. Matley exaggerates, but he expects me to take action. He's one of my best customers." Her boss planted both hands on his hips. "Besides, you're late every day and I've had other customers complain about your service." He exhaled loudly. "You're distracted, Claire. Your mind is not on your work."
Her heart raced. Where would she find another job? "Is there anything I can do to change your mind?" She reluctantly met his gaze.
"I'm sorry." Mr. Sutherland's forehead crinkled with genuine concern. He slid his hands in the front pockets of his black slacks. "Please gather your things." He turned and walked through the door that led him out of the kitchen to the room filled with customers.
Claire followed him, untied her apron, and threw it on the counter. She reached in the left pocket and clutched the dollar bills and small change she had earned from the busy lunch hour. A familiar nausea somersaulted through her belly.
"Look on the bright side." Vivian, a middle-aged waitress, stood behind the counter cutting an apple pie into thick pieces, her upper arms jiggling with each slice of the knife. "Now may be the right time for you to pursue your dreams." She placed two pieces on separate plates. "You're college material, Claire." Vivian reached over and gave Claire's shoulder a squeeze. "Take care of yourself. I'm going to miss you."
Claire watched as Vivian's ample body lumbered through the maze of tables toward an older couple. Pursue my dreams. She bent down behind the counter and grabbed her cardigan sweater and purse. Her only dream at the moment was to get out of the restaurant as fast as she could.
"Good riddance," she muttered as she pushed the door open. The sun beat down as she inhaled the smoggy air.
Her green VW bug, faded by years in the sun, sat at the far end of the parking lot. Each step toward the vehicle she inherited from her mother made the cramp in her stomach tighten. She opened the car door, threw her purse and sweater on the passenger seat, and slid inside. Her head fell forward against the steering wheel. Why couldn't she forget the contents of the letter?
Claire reached over and opened the glove compartment. The tattered white envelope wedged underneath the owner's manual mocked her. She pointed a finger at the object of her ire.
"I lost my job because of you."
She spoke to the paper as though it had a life of its own. In a way it did. The letter held clues to her mother's past. She couldn't rest or keep her mind on her work or on anything else, for that matter, until she knew who wrote it.
Now she was not only out of a job, but she had to go home and face her sister as well. Haley might be sympathetic, but her sister's lazy, no-good husband would be mad. He counted on her tip money to support his drinking habit. And today would be the last day she'd have any to give him.
The engine revved after the third try. She flicked on the radio. Kenny Chesney sang "There Goes My Life." Perfect. The sad ballad matched her mood. She backed out of the parking lot and drove the long way home.
* * *
"You're home early," Haley called from the worn chenille sofa in the small family room.
"Business was slow." Claire cringed at the lie.
Haley sat absorbed in her favorite soap opera. Her feet, covered in her fuzzy pink slippers, hung over the side of the couch. Ever since she'd been laid off from her corporate job a couple of weeks ago, her signature stilettos had gathered dust in the closet. The only difference between her and her sister, at the moment, was the severance package Haley's former boss had offered. Would her sister see it that way?
Claire needed time to plan her next move. She slipped into her bedroom and closed the door. Even though she'd lived with Haley and Mark for the past year since her mother passed away, this place was never home. She looked around her sparse room. A twin bed, a small dresser, and a desk filled the space against walls that were a dull shade of gray. She had never felt the urge to decorate. All that mattered was the framed picture of her, her mom, and her sister on the end table she'd had since childhood. She sat at her desk, turned on her refurbished computer, and scanned the job openings on the online edition of the newspaper.
She was tired of being a waitress, but was she qualified to do anything else? If she pursued her dreams as Vivian had suggested, she'd go to college and become a nurse. But what was the point of dreaming? She couldn't pay for college, and Mark and Haley would never let her live under their roof for free.
Sleep. That's what she needed at a time like this. Claire shut off her computer and slid into bed.
* * *
"You were what?" Haley stopped stirring the big pot of spaghetti. "You were fired?"
The smell of Italian spices filled Claire's nostrils. She pressed her fingers against the Formica countertop. "It wasn't my fault. Mr. Sutherland wouldn't budge."
Haley threw her an accusing look. "Your rent's due in a couple of days."
"I know. Can you talk to Mark for me?"
"Mark's going to freak out, Claire! And then you know what happens."
Guilt coiled through Claire. "Maybe he won't. Maybe not this time."
Haley snorted. "Dream on. When he drinks, he ..." She shook her head and looked away.
He drank every night. Why did her sister put up with it? "Why don't you do something about it, Haley?"
"Like what? Leave?" Haley gripped the wooden spoon. "Maybe my vows mean something."
"Nobody heard you say your vows. You eloped!"
Haley shoved the spoon aside and turned on Claire. Her cheeks flushed pink. "How was I supposed to have a real wedding? Mom was too busy going to chemo appointments to even notice me."
Claire gritted her teeth. "Yeah, you're right. Why didn't Mom plan a wedding when she was fighting for her life?" Not to mention who drove Mom to all those appointments. Haley had no business walking away to get married.
Haley's mouth tightened. "I know what you're thinking, Claire. It's the same old same old with you. For your information, it was less of a burden for Mom to take care of one daughter than two."
"Don't give me that, Haley. You ran off for yourself, no one else."
"At least I did something with my life." Haley yanked open a drawer and grabbed at silverware. "You've been moping around ever since Mom died."
Claire glowered at her sister's pink slippers. "Since when is being on my feet all day in a restaurant moping around?"
Haley's hands shot up. "When's the last time you went out with friends? Or on a date?" She clattered the silverware on the table.
No. They were not going there. Claire threw open a cabinet and lifted out three plates. She busied herself placing them on the table just so.
"Claire." Haley's voice softened. "You've grieved long enough."
"And you didn't grieve at all." Claire whirled on her. "And now look who you're stuck with — Mark."
"Did I hear my name?" Mark staggered into the room.
"Honey, Claire has something to tell you." Haley's eyes narrowed. She ambled over to her husband and wrapped her arms around his waist.
"Yes, I do." Claire folded her arms across her chest. "I got fired today." She grinned at Haley, challenging her to deal with her husband.
Mark swore under his breath. He paced the length of the kitchen and ran a hand through his greasy brown hair. "No rent money, no room. Period." His thick drawl indicated he'd hit the bottle already.
Haley grabbed his arm and stopped him. "What does that mean?"
"It means, Haley, I want your sister gone by morning." Mark crossed the room toward the garage door and slammed it on the way out.
"I'll talk to him ... later." Haley's eyes held an emotion Claire had seen before. Fear.
A lump clogged Claire's throat. Did she dare leave her sister alone with this man? The smell of Mark's stale breath lingered in the air. Was Haley right? Was it time to move on with her life? Mark didn't give her much choice.
"Don't bother." Claire held up her hands in defeat. "I'll go pack my bags."CHAPTER 3
Michael Thompson sat on the edge of the king-size bed and looked at a picture of a wedding dress from Bride magazine. "Sandy, just where do you think we can come up with this kind of money?"
"Michael, our only daughter is getting married." His wife of twenty-seven years stood over him. "Look at the cathedral train and the beaded lace bodice."
She was speaking another language. "It's beautiful. And Julia would look amazing in it, but the fact still remains — the price tag is outrageous." He stood and handed the magazine to his wife.
"This is only the beginning, honey. The wedding is in four months, and there is much more we need to plan and purchase. "Sandy hugged the magazine to her chest.
His wife was as beautiful today as when he married her all those years ago. Her striking jet-black hair, cut just above her shoulders, and her brown eyes drew him in. "Sandy, can you keep looking? Maybe there's another dress out there that looks similar but is reasonable." He drew out the last word on purpose.
Her shoulders visibly drooped, and her eyebrows furrowed. "David's family will expect the best."
"Oh, so that's it." Michael strolled to their walk-in closet and opened the door. "You want Julia's fiancé to be impressed. "He came out holding a navy suit, a white shirt, and a striped tie. "We're not on the same financial level as the Richards. But that doesn't mean we can't give our daughter a beautiful wedding."
"You'll sell a few houses between now and then." Sandy's silky robe clung to her waist as she tightened the belt.
He cleared his throat. "Let's hope so."
The shirt collar felt stiff, perfectly starched the way he liked. He handed his tie to his wife. The edges of the tie whipped here and there as Sandy configured the perfect knot.
Michael inspected himself in the mirror. "I'm working hard, but houses in Santa Cruz aren't moving right now." The air between them felt thick.
"I made coffee. I'll bring you a cup." Sandy avoided the conversation at hand.
"I've got a meeting. There'll be coffee there." Two could play at this game. He grabbed his briefcase.
The meeting was for new employees. Michael had been a Realtor for twenty years, but he needed an edge over the newcomers if this wedding dress was any indication of the kind of money he'd be doling out the next few months.
"But you haven't eaten breakfast." Sandy stood in the doorway. "Or read the newspaper."
Excerpted from Delivered with Love by Sherry Kyle. Copyright © 2011 Sherry Kyle. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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