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Michelle straightened her skirt as she got out of her very sensible car. She'd bought it because it was safe and fuel efficient. She'd intended to buy a white one, since she'd read white cars didn't show dirt as readily as other colors. But for some reason, when she was talking to the dealer, she hadn't pointed to the white car, but rather to the burnt-orange one. The color made her think of autumn leaves. She unconsciously patted the car as she got out in front of Erie Elementary.
The school was a two-story brick building with a row of oaks lining the path to the building and twin maple trees flanking the entry. The trees had been awash with autumn colors just a few weeks ago, but now only the most tenacious leaves clung to their otherwise barren branches. There was a definite nip in the air, proclaiming snow would be coming soon. And once snow started falling in Erie, Pennsylvania, it didn't stop until March sometimes even April.
By then, the meetings of the PTA's Social Planning Committee would be over. Michelle didn't feel a surge of relief at the thought. She'd miss seeing Samantha Williams and Carly Lewis every other Friday. Together, the three of them were the Social Planning Committee.
Shaking off her sense of foreboding, Michelle walked toward the well-lit entryway. Samantha, in charge of the Thanksgiving Pageant, always commented on how much she enjoyed coming into the dark, quiet school. But Michelle didn't enjoy it. As a matter of fact, she liked the school during the day when it bustled with kids and energy.
Still, she did look forward to these meetings.
Tonight's centered on making sure they had everything ready for the ThanksgivingPageant, after which they'd assess what needed to be done for next month's Christmas Fair. There were crafts and gifts to attend to, volunteers to organize, games to repair or rebuild and even a Santa to be rented. Michelle was in charge of the Christmas event, but she wasn't anxious. She thrived on creating order from chaos.
However, neither the Thanksgiving Pageant nor the Christmas Fair was what was on her mind as she entered the school. It was Samantha and Carly. For years, she'd known them both in a peripheral way because Erie Elementary was small enough that she was aware of most parents on at least a nod-to basis. But since they'd been thrown onto the Social Planning Committee together, they'd become more than just two fellow PTA parents they'd become friends.
And tonight Michelle really needed friends.
Carly Lewis was already in the meeting room when Michelle walked in. Normally, the petite, black-haired woman's slightly upturned eyes would crinkle as she smiled, but tonight there was no crinkle because there was no smiling welcome.
"You'll never guess what happened this week," they said in unison.
"You want to start?" Michelle asked.
"We'd better wait for Samantha." Carly patted the seat next to her. "She's bringing the snack, and I'm hoping whatever it is contains chocolate. I can guarantee that this is a chocolate sort of night."
"I" Michelle didn't get any further because Samantha Williams joined them.
"You'll never guess what happened this week." Samantha set a box resembling an egg carton on the table then took off her coat. The mother of four sounded tired as she brushed her brown hair out of her eyes.
"That's what I said earlier," Carly said, sounding depressed.
"Me, too." Michelle eyed the box. Chocolate-covered strawberries from Pulakos, if she wasn't mistaken. She hoped she wasn't mistaken, because she shared Carly's feeling that tonight was a chocolate sort of night. "We waited for you before we started spilling."
"You guys start, then I'll tell you my news." Samantha opened the box and it was indeed chocolate-covered strawberries. She took one and nibbled at the end.
Carly took one, as well. "Michelle first."
"It's Brandon," she blurted out. "He wants to find his father."
He'd come to her last night looking nervous. As he sat down next to her on the couch she'd known immediately that something was wrong.
"Aunt Shell?" he'd said tentatively.
"What is it, honey?"
Her concern had been validated when he didn't teasingly remind her that she was supposed to call him Brandon, not honey, sweetie, or love. "Aunt Shell, I want to know who my father is."
She'd expected to hear about a bad grade in schooland a bad grade in Brandon's eyes was anything less than an A, despite her assurance that an occasional B wasn't going to keep him out of the college of his choice. Brandon was a serious student. A serious boy.
Maybe that was her fault. She'd come into parenting her nephew so unexpectedly. She'd read everything she could, but she'd never encountered a situation like this in any of the how-to books.
"Bran, I don't" How could she tell him she didn't know? That her sister, Tara, his mother, had had a long line of boyfriends when she lived at home, and after she leftwell, she hadn't talked to Michelle about things like boyfriends when she made her infrequent calls. Hell, she hadn't even told Michelle about Brandon until the day Tara had shown up on Michelle's doorstep five years ago with the eight-year-old in tow. She'd refused to talk about Brandon's father, even after she revealed that she was dying. Tara simply said Brandon was hersand hers alone.
"Bran, honey, I don't know who your father is," she'd said. The look on his face would haunt her for some time.
Michelle shook off the memory. Samantha and Carly were both waiting for her to continue, but Michelle didn't know what to say. How did you admit your own sister had disappeared from your life for almost a decade, only to return when she was too sick to continue to care for her son on her own?
"You don't know where his father is?" Carly asked, a gentleness in her voice that showed off the soft side she rarely displayed.
"I don't know who his father is," Michelle admitted, "much less where he is."
Neither of her friends said anything. Michelle couldn't blame them. What was there to say to a statement like that? Her sister had hurt her in so many ways, but not telling her about Brandon, and not leaving her with answers to help him now, made the rest of the pain seem insignificant. Deciding how to handle his questions about his father was tearing her up.
"That's the problem. What if I help Brandon find the man, and he's " She hesitated. "What if he's not the kind of man you'd want in a young boy's life? I met some of my sister Tara's boyfriends and, believe me, there's a very good possibility that's the case. What if we find him and he hurts Brandon? Not physically. I'd never let that happen. But what if he tells him he doesn't want him? Or what if " Her voice dropped to hardly more than a whisper. "What if he wants full custody? I could lose Brandon."
"Oh, Michelle." Samantha patted her hand.
Michelle studied the two women. She had known she could count on their support. That meant so much. She worked in a male-dominated office. She wasn't sure if it was that women were less likely to major in accounting, or if A&D Financial didn't hire many women, but in any event, she was the only woman in her office. She didn't mind hanging out with the guys, but none of them were friends. And though Heidi was her friend, Heidi's life was perfect and orderly. She was happily married and just seemed to radiate contentment. Michelle didn't think Heidi could really relate to something this well, messy.
Maybe that was part of the bond she had with Samantha and Carly. They were single moms, dealing with all the messiness of balancing kids and jobs on their own. Michelle might be Brandon's aunt, but she felt a kinship with her PTA mom friends. With Samantha and Carly she could let it all hang out.
"Brandon came to live with me right after I graduated from college. Part of me hoped someone else would claim him. My mom. His father. I was young and I didn't know the first thing about raising a child. But now, he's my life. My sister made a lot of mistakes, and I couldn't do anything to stop her. But Brandon was her greatest achievement and she trusted him to me. How can I live without him? He needs me. And I need him. Maybe that's selfish, but I don't know who I'd be if I wasn't Brandon's aunt."
Carly leaned over and hugged Michelle. Touchy-feely wasn't the norm for Carly, which made the gesture even more treasured.
"No matter what happens," Carly assured her, "you'll always be his aunt. He'll always love you."
"How can I take that risk? How can I help him find someone neither of us knows and take a chance that I'll lose everything to him?"
Samantha nodded. "What did you tell Brandon?"
"I told him we'd wait. When he's eighteen I'll do everything in my power to help him find his father."
"How'd he take that?" Carly asked.
The pain of his reaction was still fresh for Michelle. "He was furious. He's still hardly talking to me. And Bran and I don't fight like that. I don't know how to handle it to handle him."
"He knows you love him and he'll come around," Samantha promised her. "We've had our own hurdles at my house, but the kids know I love them, and that's why they always get over being mad. So will Brandon."
"I hope so." Michelle didn't feel very confident that Brandon was going to just get over this. "I hope our talk was the end of it. I hate having him mad at me, and feeling as if I've somehow let him down."
Carly and Samantha continued comforting Michelle, and she let them. She needed to hear that everything was going to be all right. Even if she wasn't sure she believed it.
But she could see something in Carly's face, something that said she needed to vent, as well, so Michelle thanked Samantha and Carly. Then she pointed to Carly. "Your turn."
For a moment her friend hesitated. But Carly's need to unload was evident as she said in a burst, "Dean and I are trying to finish the divorce settlement with a mediator. As soon as that's worked out, it's all done. My marriage is over." She paused. "No, I take that back, the marriage was over the moment I caught him with his secretary on that couch I bought for his office. The actual divorce was in January, despite the fact we hadn't sorted out the marital assets. I graduate in December, and I'd really like to go into the new year with a degree, a new job and a totally finished divorce. I can't spare much more time for this. I've got a couple huge papers due, on top of getting ready for the start of the holiday season."
This time Michelle joined Samantha in making comforting noises as Carly continued to talk about her ex, and how he'd balked about paying for her to go back to school, despite the fact she'd quit college to put him through law school.
As Carly wound down, she joined Michelle in looking at Samantha. That's all it took for their friend to blurt out, "I broke off my friendship with Harry."
Samantha had been growing closer and closer to Erie Ele-mentary's interim principal, Harry Remington. She'd claimed that they were simply friends, but Michelle and Carly had talked about it, and neither had bought Samantha's definition of their relationship. It was clear to them, if not to Samantha, that there was more than a friendship brewing between the two of them.
As Samantha told them she'd kissed Harry, Michelle shot Carly a private smile behind Samantha's back. Their suspicions were verified. But then Samantha said that her oldest, Stan, was having trouble accepting her friendship with Harry.
"So, I ended it. I'm sure it's for the best. He's leaving soon, anyway."
That did surprise Michelle. Samantha didn't seem like the type who'd give up something she wanted without a fight. "And you didn't want to."
"No, I didn't want to, but right now, the kids have to come first. Stan has to come first."
The fact that Samantha would put her own wants and desires aside for her kids didn't surprise Michelle, either. Samantha was an unselfish, loving mother.
Was Michelle being selfish by denying Brandon her help in searching for his father?
Was it concern for her nephew or a selfish fear of losing him that had prompted her response?
She wasn't sure. And she didn't want to think about it, so she said, "We're supposed to talk about the Thanksgiving Pageant. Is there anything we can do?"
Samantha shook her head. "No, there's nothing either of you need to worry about. I've got it all under control."
Michelle wished she could say the same.
She'd built a solid life for herself and her nephew. A good life.
Brandon had spent his first eight years living a vagabond existence with Tara. Moving from place to place, while her sister moved from man to man. Always searching for something. For someone.
Yet maybe Michelle's life was too regimented. Maybe what she thought was a comforting sense of order had left Brandon feeling smothered and stifled. Maybe that's why he wanted to find his father, to find a way out.
She sat, eating chocolate-covered strawberries, and worried that somehow she'd messed up and that her nephew was going to be left to pay the price.
Daniel McLean closed the shop door and walked the dozen or so steps through his backyard to his house's back porch, wading through what was left of the foot of snow that had fallen the day after Thanksgiving. This weekend had been warmer, reducing the snow to a troublesome slush in the yard.
He kicked off his boots next to the door and walked into the kitchen. He stood a moment and took it in. The cabinets he'd spent last winter working on between jobs looked perfect. Their deep maple hue gave the room a warm feeling. Once he finished the mantelpiece he was carving, this room would be done. Then it was on to the library.
He'd bought the old house last year. It was perfectly situated on a small wooded lot just outside Erie in Greene Township. He had neighbors who were close enough if he needed a hand, but not in eyesight of the house. Making the old barn in back into a workshop had been his first project. The house was going to take longer, mainly because it wasn't a priority. Work had to come first.
McLean's Restoration had taken off. He was booked for the next nine months.
He opened the fridge and took out a can of soda. He'd just popped the tab when the doorbell rang.