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A Kiss In Winter
By Susan Crandall
WARNER FOREVERCopyright © 2007 Susan Crandall
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFive years later
Mom would have been sad today. She would have been waiting here with tears in her eyes.
Caroline knew this because on the day she'd picked up her own senior year schedule, she'd come out of this very same high school to find her adoptive mother, Macie, and Sam's natural mother sitting in the car sniffling. Her mother had put a smile on her face and said how excited she was for Caroline. But there was a pile of crumpled tissues on the car seat that said otherwise.
It seemed so wrong for Caroline to be sitting in her mother's stead, waiting for Macie to pick up her schedule with her heart beating in joyful anticipation.
Maybe it was shame, maybe it was the August heat, or maybe it was the disgraceful excitement-in any case, sweat beaded on Caroline's brow and dampened her shirt, and her hair clung uncomfortably to the nape of her neck. She lifted her hair and fanned herself with the notice for a certified letter she'd been holding with a death grip since she'd found it in the mailbox.
Macie a senior. It had once seemed this day would never come. But the endless months of filling in for both mother and father-homework and sex talks, discipline and curfews-were nearly at an end. From her view now, near the end of the six-year stretch between their parents' deaths and both Sam and Macie being in college, the time seemed to have passed in a flash.
Perspective was a funny thing.
Waves of heat radiated off the blacktop, making the yellow buses parked like a line of dominoes seem to quiver, ready to topple. White-hot sun reflected off the windows of the other cars in the school parking lot. Caroline squinted against the glare, but no tears came. She was, however, feeling rather nauseated; the uncomfortable temperature-or the shame.
The small card in her hand didn't move much air. She could turn on the air conditioner, but gas was pricey and there was no reason to burn it up and not get anywhere. Another bit of perspective Caroline doubted she'd have if she hadn't spent the last six years watching the budget, making certain there was enough money to see both of her siblings through college.
In one year's time, Caroline's family responsibilities would be fulfilled. One last season of taking newspaper shots, yearbook pictures, and wedding photos; then she could plunge into her photography career with all of the pent-up passion she'd been suppressing. She could travel, expand her photographic horizons. Images of snowcapped mountains, vast rolling plains, and dramatic waterfalls set off a little thrill in the pit of her stomach. Maybe she could even land a magazine job and expose the want and suffering in nearly forgotten areas of the world. She could almost taste the freedom. Twelve short months . . . and she'd be moving Macie into a university dorm room and driving away.
That thought caused an unexpected hitch in her breath. As she pictured Macie standing alone on the sidewalk in front of a multistory institutional building, getting smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, tense worry mixed with a hollow aching sadness-a stark contrast to her giddy excitement of moments before.
She stopped fanning and looked at the notice that was beginning to smudge from the dampness of her grip. Waiting for her at the post office was a contract with the Kentucky Department of Tourism for the use of her photographs in their new media campaign. It was a bigger break than she'd hoped for.
Unable to travel to exotic locales, she had focused her camera on her home state. And, quite unexpectedly, it was paying off. First, the photograph she had taken of Macie that long-ago frigid December night won a local, then a national contest. Then her shots of local events, local landmarks, and local people had caught the publisher's eye. Her first published work, a calendar titled Kentucky Blue, had been the beginning. Now the year that calendar covered was three-quarters over . . . and she dared to lay a new plan. A post-guardian-for-siblings plan. An independent-woman plan.
Occasionally, a fluttery fear would settle in her chest. A fear that said something unforeseen, something in the same realm as the unlikely deaths of both her adoptive parents within weeks of each other, would happen to dash her dreams once again.
Her palms itched. She wanted that contract, the proof that her days of dealing with cranky brides and recalcitrant students were blessedly numbered.
She glanced at her watch. What was taking Macie so long?
Just as she was ready to go inside and see what was delaying Macie, her sister stepped out the front doors. Beside her was a tall, broad-shouldered boy with hair that was just a little too long for Caroline's liking and a swagger that said he ate nice girls like Macie for dessert and spit them out before bedtime.
Caroline sat up straighter in her seat and her mouth pulled into a disapproving frown.
Macie and the man-boy paused at the bottom of the wide steps. He gestured as he said something that made Macie laugh.
Caroline had her hand on the door handle before she realized she was about to get out and pull Macie away, as if she were a child unable to protect herself from a stranger.
Not for the first time, Caroline experienced a new respect for her adoptive mother and the freedom she'd given Caroline during her adolescent years.
But that was different. I wasn't sweet and shy and naive like Macie. Caroline had been baptized by fire early on and had never forgotten those painful lessons.
Finally, the boy walked to a hunkered-down, fancy-wheeled, big-ass-winged Honda Civic.
Macie stayed on the sidewalk, casting nervous glances toward Caroline, obviously not wanting Stud-man to know she was being carted around in an aging minivan by her much older sister.
The Civic started up, its engine buzzing like a swarm of killer bees. The guy revved the engine as he swung past Macie.
Macie smiled and waved.
Caroline gritted her teeth. Oh, Macie, don't go there, baby. Boys like that are nothing but a broken heart waiting to happen.
She should know; she'd watched it play out with her natural mother a dozen times before her eighth birthday.
Caroline assured herself that Macie was a good girl, blessed with a level head. But the look on Macie's face as she got in the car made Caroline question that assessment.
In her most nonconfrontational voice, Caroline asked, "So, who was that?"
With something near stars in her eyes, Macie said, "Caleb Collingsworth. Just moved here two weeks ago."
"Oh, from where?" Someplace tough and worldly and filled with trouble.
Macie added, "He's bored to death already."
Macie's gaze snapped her way. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Uh-oh, defensive about the guy already.
"Nothing." Caroline shook her head. "Nothing at all."
She started the car and pulled from the curb. Maybe Caleb Collingsworth would prove to be the player he appeared to be and go after a bigger fish, say a cheerleader . . . or his homeroom teacher.
"You've been thinking about Mom, haven't you?" Macie asked, her question vaporizing the image Caroline had conjured of Stud-man wooing Mrs. Kerrigan, the only female high school teacher under thirty.
Caroline cut Macie a look. "What makes you say that?"
"You always fiddle with your necklace when you've been thinking about her."
Caroline dropped the small gold heart that hung around her neck, as if caught doing something shameful.
"It's okay to miss her, Caroline. We all miss her."
What would Macie think if she knew just how selfish that "missing" had been?
Then Macie made her feel even worse. "It'd be all right to cry sometimes; you never cry. I cry almost as much now as I did then."
Caroline reached over and patted her sister on the leg. "That's because you're getting ready for a big step in your life. It's natural to miss Mom and Dad more now."
Macie pressed her lips together and shook her head. "You always do that."
"Now what am I doing?"
"Changing the subject away from your feelings."
Shooting her sister a grin, Caroline said, "That's because I'm old and don't have feelings anymore. Just ask Sam."
Macie rolled her eyes and made a sound of exasperation.
Looking for a safer subject, Caroline asked, "Is your schedule okay?"
Macie looked at the paper as if she'd forgotten she had it. "Yeah. I have government first semester, so Laurel and I will be in the same class."
"That's good." Laurel and Macie had been inseparable since they were toddlers. Laurel's family owned a farm down the road from the Rogers farm.
"Will you drop me off at Laurel's?" Macie asked. "I told her I'd come over and keep her company while she babysits her little brother."
Another delay in getting the contract, but Macie's summer days were numbered. Besides, Macie was ultra-perceptive when it came to Caroline's emotions; she might see Caroline's longing to escape as she looked at the contract for the first time. So she traded expediency for solitude. "Sure."
As they drove past their old farm on the way to Laurel's, Caroline slowed and looked at the house. It had become such an ingrained habit that she hardly registered she was doing it.
But today she slammed on the brakes and stopped in the middle of the country road. A tractor-trailer moving van was parked in the lane.
"She's moving?" Macie asked with surprise.
"It looks that way. Mrs. McGuire was supposed to notify me if it came on the market."
"Why?" Macie looked at her with drawn brows.
"Why what?" Caroline strained to see if furniture was moving out or in. In would mean she could relax. Out, well that just left too much up in the air.
"Why did you want Mrs. McGuire to let you know it was for sale?"
Caroline had never told Sam or Macie about the pressure that she'd received when she sold the homestead after their parents' deaths. Or her gut fear that once the property was in someone else's hands, the fate she'd worked so hard to avoid might still come to pass. She shrugged and tried to sound indifferent. "I just wanted to know."
She dropped Macie off and instead of heading to the post office, she drove straight to McGuire and McKinsey Real Estate.
Mick Larsen watched the movers carry the antique wardrobe up the narrow staircase. He waited at the top of the curving steps, his body rigid with tension, his hands fisted.
The wardrobe tilted slightly. Mick lunged forward and reached, as if he had a prayer of stopping the heavy piece from flipping over the banister from where he stood. His insides jerked into a knot as he waited for the sound of splintering wood. The wardrobe would be hard to replace, the banister impossible.
Somehow the two musclemen managed to shift the weight and keep it upright. As they stepped into the upstairs hall, Butch, the bigger of the two men, called out, "Relax, Dr. Larsen. I told you we'd take care of your stuff."
Mick cringed at the "Doctor"; it was a title he no longer deserved. He'd told the men early on to call him Mick.
He nodded and managed a falsely confident smile as the men huffed on. Then he held his breath until he heard the wardrobe's feet settle gently on the floor in the master bedroom.
With a sigh of relief, he ran a hand along the thick handrail of the staircase in his new old home. He'd grown up in a house like this, a house with a long history. He'd lived his childhood surrounded by plank floors with secret squeaks, irreplaceable carved woodwork, and a dusty attic filled with spiders and uncountable treasures tucked in dry, crumbling boxes.
He'd taken such things for granted; he still loved this small town filled with old houses and history. But while attending medical school in Chicago-and living in a two-room apartment in a hundred-year-old house-he'd met Kimberly, a brilliant and strong-willed neurology student, who loved abstract art, hard shiny surfaces, and lots of clean white space.
She had come into his life at his moment of greatest doubt. He had been on the verge of leaving medical school. It hadn't been his grades or the money-the two biggest catalysts for med school dropout. It had been his own lack of enthusiasm. After growing up in a family of doctors, after never once considering another life-path, Mick had suddenly feared his heart just wasn't in it.
He should have quit then; if he had, lives now destroyed might still be whole.
But at that point he'd already let his father down by going into psychiatry, a specialty that barely qualified as real medicine in the Larsen family. The youngest and only male of the Larsen children, Mick had been slated from birth to join his father in family practice here in Redbud Mill, just as his father had joined Mick's grandfather in that same practice.
His sisters had gone above and beyond in upholding the family tradition, even though girl Larsen children were held to a different standard. Without so much as a prod from their father, the girls had all not only chosen medicine, but excelled in respectable specialties: Elise, a cardiologist; Johanna, a pediatrician; even the black sheep, Kerstin, was an oncologist.
Mick's fear of disappointing his father further had been the only thing that had kept him in school. At the point when Kimberly entered his life, that fear had been in danger of being overrun by self-doubt.
Kimberly had stepped in, bolstered his confidence, quelled his questioning mind, and nudged him toward his degree and his license. By the time they'd finished their residencies, they were a couple. He still wasn't sure how, exactly, it had happened. They arrived at that point in sort of an unconscious drift; neither of them had a lot of time to focus on a relationship.
So he'd stayed in Chicago for Kimberly, who came from old Chicago money-and maybe, if he were honest with himself, to avoid facing his father's disappointment head-on day after day.
Shortly after Mick and Kimberly had moved into the ultramodern high-rise, Mick had begun collecting antiques. Living in that alien environment, the accumulation of items with a long and mysterious history made him feel less out of place.
At first Kimberly had made him keep his "old junk" in the spare bedroom. That soon filled up and rich wood antiques began to spill first into their sterile-looking, minimalist bedroom, and then into the leather-and-glass living room. She hadn't liked it. But, as it turned out, that was the tip of the iceberg when it came to things she disliked about Mick, his friends, and his love for things old.
"That's the last piece, Dr. Larsen," Denny, the less-robust mover, said as he came back out of the master bedroom.
Mick ground his teeth at the "Doctor" as he shook Denny's hand. When Butch followed into the hall, Mick handed each man a fifty-dollar tip. "I appreciate all of the special care."
Both men would probably grumble over beers later; but they'd kept their good humor while Mick hovered like a worried mother as they'd wrapped and carried his treasures.
Once the movers had gone, he stood at the base of the stairs and looked around. He heard the drone of summer insects through the open doors and windows. Other than that, it was silent. After living in the city for years, he'd forgotten what silence was like. He hadn't anticipated the lonely feel of big, high-ceilinged rooms and acres upon acres of empty fields and pastures.
He wiped the sweat from his brow and heard a single bee buzzing against the screen.
Too damn quiet.
He feared silence was going to have an unforeseen and unfortunate by-product. As he stood there, adrift in boxes and bare windows, the voice came again-the desperate voice of a miserably lost soul giving Mick one last chance to avoid disaster.
Excerpted from A Kiss In Winter by Susan Crandall Copyright © 2007 by Susan Crandall. Excerpted by permission.
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