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Vines of Entanglement
By Lisa Carter
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2015 Lisa Carter
All rights reserved.
Would this ever get any better?
Laura Mabry swallowed past the lump in her throat. "Why didn't you tell me this was a father-son fishing trip, Ian?"
She gave her ten-year-old son The Look in the rearview mirror. "Garrett would've gladly—"
Ian's full lips twisted. "Exactly why I didn't tell you."
Switching off the ignition, she wheeled around in the driver's seat. "I don't know what you have against Garrett. He's been nothing but a godsend since your dad ..."
Ian's deep chocolate eyes flashed. "Helping himself is more like it."
Her eyebrows rose at his insinuation. Where had he learned about—?
She bull's-eyed Ian with one of Aunt Velma's Frozen Looks, which had skewered her often enough during her own adolescent years.
Was this what she had to look forward to as a single parent for the next ten years, give or take a few? Mouthy, teenage angst? Where had that sweet boy who loved Mom and baseball gone?
But she knew.
Into the grave with his father, a year ago this past February.
A wave of humid air enveloped her through the open window. She sighed.
Welcome to Memorial Day weekend. Temps still in the nineties as late afternoon drew a veil over the hazy Carolina sky.
"Garrett and I have known each other since we were children." She gentled her tone. "He understands what it's like to grow up without a dad. He wants so much to be there for you, Ian."
His mouth tightened in a thin, straight line, his lips disappearing into a grimace. He swiveled at a movement at the top of the driveway. Gangly limbed, sixteen-year-old Justin Monaghan hauled cases of Gatorade out of the Prescotts' brick colonial.
Ian reached for the door. "Justin's going to buddy with me on the trip. He lost his dad, too, a few years ago."
Despite the lurid publicity surrounding his father's murder, Justin, his sister, Claire, and their landscape architect mother, Alison, emerged intact. Better than intact.
A smile flitted across Laura's face at the thought of Alison's new husband and the children's adored new stepfather, Mike Barefoot, recently promoted to lieutenant within the Raleigh Police Department homicide unit.
Ian swung open the door. "And I don't need no ..." He muttered something, too soft for her ears to catch fully, but without a doubt uncomplimentary regarding various aspects of Garrett Payne's lineage.
She placed a restraining hand on Ian's duffle. "You wait one minute, young man. We don't talk like that in this family."
Dr. Stephen Prescott, a colleague and friend of her late husband at Rex Hospital, emerged from the cavernous depths of the garage. Twelve-year-old Trey and ten-year-old Dillon followed like frisky puppies.
"Gotta go. They're waiting on me. We're the last to arrive," Ian huffed. "As usual."
Stung by his unaccustomed sarcasm, she let go of the bag. "Don't you sass me." Traces of Velma echoed in her voice.
When had she started sounding like her seventy-five-year-old maiden aunt?
She pursed her lips. "With that attitude, you may not be going at all."
Ian clenched his teeth. "Don't embarrass me, Mom." The guys drew closer. "I need this trip. I need to get away from ..."
Since Holt died, she'd smothered him. Afraid she'd lose Ian the way she'd lost everyone else she ever loved.
But like she'd fixed everything else, she'd make this right.
She'd get herself and Ian past this crater in life's road if ... if it killed Ian?
No, killed her. Killed her.
"Honey ..." She laid her hand atop his shoulder.
He jerked at her touch, his face like obsidian. "Whatever."
"Mr. Flint Face," Holt used to joke.
His stubbornness. So like his ... Holt, never was ... She stuffed the memory of his other—
Ian scooted out, clutching the black duffle to his chest. "Wouldn't want to mess up your weekend with your boyfriend." He slammed the car door behind him.
Stephen rested his hand on the open window frame. "We'll take good care of him, Laura." He smiled. "Val's already gone to open the beach house."
Dillon, Ian's best friend, punched him in the arm. "Our base camp."
Ian punched him back. They grinned at each other, Dillon's big baby blues and fair complexion so different from Ian's more exotic looks.
Trey popped up between his father and the car. "We'll bring you some of our catch."
Stephen laughed. "Or not." He gestured toward his sturdy black Expedition. "Why don't you boys finish stowing the gear?"
"And the snacks." Dillon tugged at Ian's arm. "Mom bought Oreos."
"We'll be back Monday, Laura. I'll drop Ian off at your house." Stephen flicked a glance toward the crew headed for the SUV.
Except for Ian, who, although seemingly anxious to be rid of his mom, lingered.
"Val will make sure we don't starve. We're going to have fun, aren't we, bud?" Stephen slapped a hand across Ian's shoulders. "Tell your mom good-bye for now." Stephen waved good-bye, his long-legged strides eating up the distance toward the garage.
Ian huddled next to the window. Her stomach knotted. They'd been inseparable since the freak winter accident claimed Holt's life.
She swallowed. "Did you pack your underwear? Got your cell phone charged? Aunt Velma, Garrett, and I are a speed dial away. Call me, night or day if you need—"
Ian shoved away from the car. "Stop babying me." His eyes narrowed, a dangerous glint surfacing. "I hate Garrett 'Payne in the—'"
"Ian ..." Hot tears prickled her eyelids.
His breaths came and went in short spurts. "And if you marry him, Mom, I'll hate you, too."
* * *
Jon Locklear slipped the key into the lock of his apartment. He entered, slinging his duffle bag onto the lumpy seen-better-days couch borrowed from his sister Yvonne. His long, slightly hooked nose—like a bird dog his other little sister, Kelly, teased—wrinkled.
The elders on the swamp might've wondered at the pungent scent. Wondered if a toten—an evil spirit—wandered about. But he knew better.
After a week of well-earned vacation time, the apartment had a closed-in, musty smell.
He'd taken out the garbage before leaving town to spend time with his mom, hadn't he?
He approached the silver bin in the kitchen with trepidation. His foot clamped down upon the pedal, swinging open the trashcan lid. He flinched.
Maybe not ...
"Oh, Jonny boy." He covered his nose in a futile gesture of self-preservation. "You're an idiot." And, a terrible housekeeper.
Not much house to keep while he'd been in the Marines at either Camp Lejeune or overseas. But after deciding not to reup, his feeble attempts to keep house—first in Baltimore and then after landing this gig with the RPD Homicide Unit—hadn't amounted to more than pirating towels and sheets from his mother's linen closets.
As for dishes?
Nah ... Not necessary. Not as long as McDonald's continued to thrive on these here American shores.
One of the things he loved most about America—a Starbucks, a fast food joint, and a church on every corner.
He fumbled for an errant clothespin in the closet of his one bedroom walk-up. He opened and closed it on the end of his offended appendage. Taking a deep breath—not unlike the posture he assumed when his sisters pressed him into changing a diaper or in defusing an IED outside Kabul—he gathered the edges of the garbage bag and headed for the dumpster in the parking lot.
With a mighty, overhand swing worthy of his lacrosse-playing ancestors, he heaved the bag into the rank confines of the puke-green bin. He backed away from the garbage bin across five empty spaces until he leaned against the still-warm engine hood of his golden-hued Ford F-150.
Exhaling in a loud gust of air, he glanced about feeling sheepish, wondering who else might've observed his bizarre behavior from the building's wall of windows. Realizing the clothespin still rested like a figurehead on the prow of his nose, he removed it and stuffed it in the pocket of his cargo pants.
Jon shoved off from his truck and returned to his apartment. He stopped on the threshold, his nose testing the air for any more malodorous smells.
Not great. He sniffed again. But better.
He pressed the message button on his wireless phone. Grabbing his duffle, he carried the phone with him into the bedroom. The first, Yvonne's home number.
"Uncle Jonny?" A pause. "It's me." Another pause. "Cami."
He smiled at the voice of his six-year-old niece. He placed the phone on the bureau to listen while he unpacked.
"My toof came out. All I had to do, like you said, was bite into one of Gram's apples. Mom says if I put it under my pillow tonight, I'll get a surprise." Her voice fell to a whisper. "You think she means money?" A sense of awe entered her tone. "I got four more loose ones I can wiggle with my tongue. Four," she added in case he hadn't caught it the first time. "I'm going to be rich."
He laughed, breaking the stillness of the apartment.
"We miss you already. See ya, Uncle Jonny. Bye."
"I miss you guys already, too." He dropped onto the bed, the edge of the mattress groaning at his weight.
Message two. His mother, Florence Oxendine Locklear, recuperating from hip replacement surgery. "Jon, call and let me know you got home safe."
He grinned. Never know he was thirty-three. She treated him like he was still a mischievous child, a yerker in the English-Southern-Lumbee way of speaking.
"Lots of crazy drivers in the big city. Don't know why you couldn't have found a nice job with the sheriff's department in Robeson County or with the local Mimosa Grove police."
He rolled his eyes.
Maybe because there were no career opportunities in good ole, one-stoplight Mimosa Grove, North Carolina? The back end of Nowhere.
"Did you eat yet? You were as skinny as a corn stalk when you got here last week."
He'd eaten. In the truck on the way to Raleigh. Everything his sisters packed in containers from a week's worth of family barbecues and get-togethers.
"I wish ..."
Here it comes.
"I wish you'd find a nice girl ..."
His mom and sisters had done their best to introduce him, over the last week, to every available female under the age of forty.
"I know I should've had the courage to say these things to your face, son. But somehow over the phone is easier. You need to find you a good, Christian woman and settle down. Preferably a good, Christian, Lumbee girl."
This again. Same song. Stanza ninety-five in her quest to pair him with a real Lum woman.
"It's not right you being alone so much. If your dad were here, he'd say the same thing."
A picture of his hard-working dad perched atop his red Farmall tractor rose in his mind. Jon's mouth pulled downward.
His mother cleared her throat. "You got to get over her, honey. What's done is done. No going back. You got too much life and love in you to waste on something never meant to be." She murmured her love and hung up.
If only he could. If only his mother knew ...
He wondered sometimes how much his never-miss-a-trick mother did know. Or, suspected.
Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan. A string of failed relationships between here and every Marine base he'd been stationed at over the last decade. Including the police academy and as a rookie on the mean streets of Baltimore.
But nothing had ever erased an image of china-blue eyes and the sweet smell of honeysuckle from his heart.
The best and the worst days he'd ever known. He'd tried over the years not to think of what might have been. Only pain lay down that path.
Now, a second chance career-wise. An opportunity to make a difference on the home front. To protect and serve.
A chance to see his long-neglected family on the weekends he wasn't on duty. A chance to start over.
His mom was right. Time to move on.
A beep. Message three. Ana Morales's strong confident tone. "Hey, handsome. You back in town? Great news. The paperwork came through transferring me from Narc to Homicide. We're colleagues now."
He smiled into the phone.
"The guys are meeting at Leo Loco's for a game of pool and drinks. Wondered if you wanted to grab dinner first and keep me from eating alone. Again." Her voice, throaty, sexy, and inviting, rumbled across the phone line. "Call me if you're available."
The skin on his forearms tingled.
He glanced at the pile of dirty laundry. The silence engulfed him, broken only by the tiny ping of a water droplet hitting the basin of the bathroom sink. He rubbed at his jaw, shadowed with stubble.
Was he available? Was this call from Ana so soon after his mother's a sign from God?
Taking a deep breath, he reached for the phone.CHAPTER 2
Feeling superfluous, Laura headed toward her own Woods Edge neighborhood. She heaved a sigh of relief as she entered the peaceful, tree-shaded lanes of her mother's childhood home. And as an added bonus, underneath the towering canopy of oaks, the temperature dropped ten degrees.
Stately colonials, Tudor Revivals, and Craftsman bungalows boasted large, leafy lots bordering a set of intertwining naturalized trails. The greenway meandered through Woods Edge, paralleling Crabtree Creek and Raleigh's more exclusive neighborhoods.
Driving into her cul-de-sac, she curled her lip at the decorative ivy vines suspended from the peaked roofline of her storybook Tudor cottage. With the vines embedded into the stones of the house, contractors advised her to leave the vines alone or risk damaging the integrity of the structure.
In the garage, she rested her head on the steering wheel before her sense of duty prevailed. Buggsby waited for their daily afternoon stroll.
Her bare thighs below her black Nike running shorts stuck to the hot leather seats. As if ripping a Band-Aid off skin, she tore herself free. Way too early for temps like these. Felt like July or August.
In the kitchen, she helped herself to plenty of ice cubes in a glass of her summertime favorite: peach tea. Her hand wrapped around the glass, she paused. Goose bumps prickled her arms. Something wasn't right.
The air had a disturbed feel in her home since she'd taken Ian over to the Prescotts'. Cocking her head, she listened for noises that didn't belong to the creaking house. Her eyes darted around the kitchen, but nothing appeared out of place. She forced her hunched shoulders to relax.
Taking a deep, welcome swig, she gazed out the window at her weed-infested backyard. After Holt died, she'd bought the family home. The home Aunt Velma insisted she couldn't vacate to join her friends at Stonebriar Assisted Living until someone trustworthy—that is, Laura—took it off her hands.
With gratitude, she accepted her aunt's generous terms, opened the needlepoint shop she'd dreamed of, and made a new life for herself and her son. In the nine months since the remodel, Ian succumbed to his night terrors only twice. And those she traced to the first day of a new school year and the other, the first ice storm of winter.
Aunt Velma, quilter extraordinaire, never had the time or inclination for gardening. But years ago, Laura and her mom, Louise—on the good, pain-free days—sat together on the screened porch and dreamed verdant dreams. Dreamed of replacing the overgrown azaleas and camellias with newer plants more suitable in scope. Envisioned the gardenias they'd plant for hot summer blooms. Planned the pruning and shaping of the wild wisteria blanketing the back of the property adjacent to the greenway.
The sight of those purple clusters during her mother's final spring brought tears of joy to her mother's eyes. And when the last petals had fallen to the pine-needled lawn, so too, had her mother's spirit. Laura set the glass upon the counter with a decided clunk.
The vines had to go. Atmospheric? Sure.
If you were into creepy and parasitic.
Make that grasping. Predatory.
She hated vines now. Hated how they devoured the soul out of the tree. Choked life from everything they touched. A draping mantle of slow death. She much preferred the order of the rose bed she'd planted.
Excerpted from Vines of Entanglement by Lisa Carter. Copyright © 2015 Lisa Carter. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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