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By Phyllis J. Piano
BookSparksCopyright © 2017 Phyllis Piano
All rights reserved.
Driving past the picturesque California countryside near her home, Aleen Riddick turned left on the boulevard and immediately tensed up when she saw the flowers pinned to the tree, full-bodied red roses, literally weeping petals to the ground. So beautiful, so sad.
The flowers were a reminder of when everything changed. One day, she was a forty-something working woman with a committed, successful husband and a bright, wonderful daughter, but the next night, the lives of those she loved were altered forever.
While she was concerned about her own mental well-being, her thoughts always turned to her beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter, Sunny. She had been like a breath of fresh air, so full of life, funny, thoughtful. ... How many teenagers could you say that about?
Durk and Aleen couldn't have been prouder of Sunny. They'd heard the outrageous stories about the antics of their friends' teenagers, and they would stay quiet, as their daughter was something else. If she did anything that would worry her parents, she hid it really well.
But just over three months ago, everything changed for her lovely daughter. These days, her disposition was not sunny at all. No, melancholy filled her now. When Aleen looked into her eyes, all she saw was this dark depth of despair, and her mother felt powerless against it.
She shook her head to snap out of it and focus on finding a place to park. All Sunny needs right now is her mom in a car accident, Aleen thought to herself, shuddering.
It was a beautiful morning, the majestic mountains in the background, the flowering bushes growing alongside the road, and the occasional orange tree sprouting fruit. But Aleen wasn't in the mood to enjoy the scenery. The beautiful roses had evoked the scene of the worst night of her life. She had to stop.
Pulling over, Aleen parked her sturdy SUV, with nearly 106,000 miles on the odometer, and walked over to the flowers. While there were many bouquets and arrangements on the ground around the tree, she went to her knees to touch the weeping roses, gathering the fallen petals in her hands.
As the soft, vibrant red petals cascaded through her fingers onto the grass, sadness enveloped Aleen, and she started to cry, softly at first, and then the silent sobs racked her body. She rocked back and forth, covering her eyes with her hands.
Suddenly, she felt a tickling and then something stroking her face. Aleen looked up to see two corgi dogs licking her, and she couldn't help but laugh through her tears.
"Hey," she said to the dogs, petting them as they jumped on her.
"Sorry about that." Ted Hammand left the leash loose so the dogs could continue to lick Aleen and jump on her playfully as she sat on the ground. Ted was about Aleen's age and just under six feet, with a kind face, wispy brown hair, and wire-rimmed glasses. He wore khakis and a polo shirt, looking the part of the suburban dad.
"Oh, Ted," Aleen said. "I didn't see you there at first, or your friends." She sat upright and petted the dogs. Trying to make herself presentable, she took a handkerchief from her pocket to dab at her deep-blue eyes, which were now rimmed red, and smooth her light-brown hair as it blew in the wind. "When did you get them?"
"Well, you may have heard I just moved into a townhouse right here," Ted said, pointing at the condo development behind them, "and I decided to get the dogs. Gerrie would never allow pets, even though Stu and I always wanted one...." His voice faltered at the mention of his son's name.
"Anyway, this is Hope, and this is Cash." Ted continued. "They're brother and sister. The breeder wanted to keep them as a pair because they were raised together as pups, so I took them both. They're five years old, and I have to say they provide pretty good company and entertainment."
The dogs wrestled on the ground and nipped at each other playfully.
"They have wonderful personalities, and I'm sure they're a help to you ... a comfort," Aleen said. "I'd heard about the condo. I hope it's working out for you," she offered quietly. "It's just so close to where Stu ..."
"Yes. It is what it is," Ted said quietly. "I haven't adjusted to it yet, but I'm sure you understand. On the bright side, the dogs have made it feel more like home and lifted my spirits, actually.
"But I'm more concerned about you right now. Is it one of those days?" Ted sat in the grass next to Aleen.
"'Fraid so, Ted. I saw the flowers, the weeping petals, and I had to stop. The roses are so beautiful but so sad. Sunny and I bring flowers here, too. It's emotional every time. I guess I assumed Gerrie put the flowers out."
"No," Ted said firmly. "I did. I check on them almost every day and refresh them when they wilt. Being so close now, I come by here several times a day as I walk the dogs.
"You probably noticed the authorities don't let us put the candles at the base of the tree anymore. It's a hazard they said, but they overlooked it right after the accident."
"I did notice. I try not to look over and upset myself, but most days, I can't help but glance over when I drive by. And sorry I thought it was Gerrie who brought the flowers," Aleen added. "I should have known it was you. I'm also sorry I'm here, crying in the grass, making a fool of myself and upsetting you, too." Ted shook his head dismissively. "Don't worry about that. You and Sunny have brought flowers to this spot many times, which means a lot to me. Our lives have been drastically changed, and it just hasn't been that long since ..." His voice faded once more.
"Well, I'm glad I ran into you," he said, regaining his composure and changing the subject. "Did you know Sunny was coming over today?"
"I had no idea. We used to share everything, but she's very different since the accident."
"We all are, Aleen. We all are." Ted stared down at the grass for a moment. "I invited her over for the Packers game. She used to come over to watch the games with Stu and me. It's the beginning of the season. Why don't you come over, too? We were just going to order some pizzas."
"How nice of you," Aleen said with a look of surprise. "I guess I never really paid attention to your Sunday game days before. I'm on the way to the grocery store, so why don't I pick up some pizzas at the store and bring them over?" "That sounds good. I'm sure Sunny will be glad you're there," he replied.
"I'm not so sure about that ..." A look of concern pinched Aleen's face.
"She enjoyed the games in the past, so maybe it'll lift her mood," Ted said. "You may not remember, but I'm originally from Wisconsin. Being a Packers fan is in the blood. My dad, my grandfather, and all my uncles were rabid fans. My mom, too! I passed along my passion to Stu, and he was a huge supporter as well, even though he never lived in Wisconsin.
"Sunny used to come by and watch the games with us many Sundays, so she's a big Packers fan, too. I just think it's important to carry on the tradition now that Stu ..." Ted's face clouded over, as it was difficult to finish the sentence.
"I understand, Ted, and I would be honored to be part of your football ritual. I may not make it to the condo until well after halftime. I have to do the grocery shopping for the week and a few errands, but I'll be there."
"Excellent." Ted gathered up the leashes and stood from the grass, Hope and Cash at his heels. "I plan to give Sunny Stu's favorite Packers T-shirt to wear during the game," he said softly.
"Oh, Ted ..."
"I hope she likes it," he said, brushing dirt and grass from his pants.
"I'm sure she'll treasure it," Aleen replied confidently.
"You have a wonderful daughter, you know? It's clear she hasn't been the same lately. She's suffering," Ted told Aleen, his voice wavering. "I really believe she tries to be her best for me, to help me."
"Well, I'm glad, and I'm sure you're helping her as well. Both of you loved Stu so much. It gives me hope she may find her way back to being herself again someday soon." Aleen touched his arm.
"I'm glad we had a few minutes to chat," Ted said, pulling himself together. "It helps to talk about Stu, and it's so much easier with you because you understand everything."
"True. Bottling things up doesn't work. Sunny and I tried counseling, but frankly, it wasn't helpful because we didn't like the counselor. I heard you had a similar experience," Aleen said.
"Yes, same deal. Maybe it was the just the wrong person. It's hard to talk to friends, too. When I see someone I know and they have that glaze of pity in their eyes, I just freeze up, and the conversations never take off."
"I hate that, too." The look in Aleen's eyes told Ted she understood all too well.
"I saw how upset you were when I first walked over with the dogs," Ted commented, turning the attention back to his friend.
"Will we ever be okay, Ted?" she asked, tears forming in her eyes.
"It sure doesn't feel like it right now," he replied, his face a mask of sadness.CHAPTER 2
Sunny Abigail Riddick sat on her bed, fiddling with her long blond hair and trying to study before she went over to Stu's dad's new condo for the game. She'd just started engineering school at UCLA. Sunny always loved tinkering and finding out how things worked. Somehow, she had always known she wanted to be an engineer like her father.
Her dad used his experience and expertise to capture a big job managing a team of engineers at the huge company based just fifteen minutes from their house. Her mom worked there, too, as an executive assistant.
Sunny had idolized her father, but after the split from her mother, she had no time for him. Thinking about her dad made her frustrated and angry; she threw her textbook across the bed, and it hit the ground with a thud.
They'd all agreed Sunny would start school as planned, that everything should go on as normal. "As normal," she mocked aloud to herself.
"As if anything is normal...." She spat the words and splayed herself across the bed.
She closed her eyes and thought of Stu Hammand. Sunny smiled dreamily and remembered the afternoon about three months ago at his house. It was how she could make it through ... to remember the wonderful times with him.
Sunny thought of him when her mind wandered in class, in the car driving to school, when she locked herself in her room, which was most of the time lately ... just about all the time she could, really.
Stu and Sunny met at their local high school when she was sixteen and he was almost seventeen. They'd been inseparable from the moment they saw each other. Both sets of parents nagged them about getting serious so young, but neither listened. Their souls were connected, and they couldn't wait to see each other at school and whenever they could sneak away together. They texted and messaged each other constantly when they were apart.
She looked out her bedroom window at the beautiful day, the sun shining and the leaves on the trees waving at her in the breeze. Sunny closed her eyes and willed herself back to that magical afternoon in June.
Stu had arranged for her to come over after lunch. Sunny told her parents she was going to spend the day with Stu and her friends, perhaps see a movie. It was a bit of a fib, as they planned to spend the day together, alone. Her excitement was overpowering.
His parents had gone up north to the wine country and wouldn't be back until dinnertime, so Stu and Sunny would have the whole day together.
Sunny wore her best jeans, a nice, new form-fitting top, and she'd taken extra care to get her makeup and hair just so. She wanted to look fabulous for him. This was an important day in their relationship.
As Sunny drove over to Stu's that June afternoon, she felt so light, so happy. It was just after high school graduation, and she and her boyfriend were making all their plans for college. With her at UCLA and Stu at USC, they would be able to see each other often. They were both happy to have been accepted into such great schools that were so close to home.
It was a perfect day, as the weather wasn't too hot yet. The morning was foggy and damp, a perfect example of the "June gloom" in Southern California. By late morning, the bright sunshine had burned away the fog, leaving the sky a piercing blue.
Sunny could hardly contain her excitement as she drove over to the Hammands' house. When Stu greeted her at the door, tall and long-limbed, with light-brown hair and green eyes, he was so gorgeous. But the greatest thing about Stu was he was so wonderful inside, so kind, like his dad, and whip smart and funny like his mom. He's just perfect, Sunny thought to herself as she walked in and he enveloped her in his arms.
"Hey," Stu greeted her.
"Hey, yourself," Sunny replied as she gave him a sloppy kiss hello.
They walked in and sat on the couch, and Stu went into the kitchen to get them some cold drinks. "How cool that we have the house all day," Sunny shouted to him in the kitchen.
He joined her and put the drinks on the coffee table. "For sure. It's great how it worked out. You know how my dad is about wine tasting. I don't really think Mom was that excited about going. She always has lots of things to do on Sundays before she goes back to work. She seemed a bid edgy today, too.
"Not sure why it was so important to her that I was around for dinner, but it's no problem 'cause I knew I'd have the whole day with you," he said, smiling broadly.
Stu's mom, Gerrie, was the highest-level woman at the same company where Sunny's mom and dad worked. She was in charge of all sourcing, IT, and other administrative services for the multibillion-dollar business. She had hundreds of people in her department, made tons of money, and traveled all the time.
Gerrie reported directly to the CEO and was the only woman on his team. She was beautiful, with stylish shoulder-length dark hair and flashing green eyes. She looked a lot younger than her years and always wore the latest fashions. She had a great sense of humor and doted on Stu — when she was around. It seemed to Sunny Stu's dad was more like the mom than Gerrie, but it seemed to work for them.
Stu sat next to Sunny and put his arm around her. She settled into him, getting comfortable and winding her arms around his waist. Sunny looked at Stu and thought he was so different from the other boys at school. He seemed more serious but funny at the same time.
He was so intelligent; he had one of the highest grade point averages of anyone at school, so he had lots of choices for college. Sunny was pleased he'd decided to study premed at USC. Stu would be terrific at anything he decided to do, but he would make an awesome doctor.
The couple could talk about anything. She had some great girlfriends at school, but Sunny always felt more comfortable when she was with Stu, which was kind of weird, as the majority of girls she knew felt most at ease with their friends.
Such a big step today, Sunny thought. Just then, her phone dinged with a text message. She moved away from Stu, grabbed her phone, and put it on silent.
"No interruptions!" she said. "I just want to be with you. I've been thinking about our time together all day." She took a drink of iced tea before snuggling back in Stu's arms, gazing at him, thinking about what it would be like to make love with him. She'd prepared mentally and physically for this day.
It wasn't Stu's first time. When he was sixteen, he had sex with a girl named Rosie he'd met at a summer camp. They stayed in touch for some time but drifted apart, as she lived in the Boston area. He'd told Sunny about it; they shared everything.
"Well, we can do anything you want. We have the house to ourselves and all the time in the world. I don't mind to just hold you like this," Stu said, kissing the top of Sunny's head.
She looked up at him and touched his face, bringing it to hers. They kissed playfully for a long time, and then they both felt the passion heating up.
His kisses became more urgent, and Sunny tasted him as his tongue darted in and out of her mouth. She unbuttoned his shirt and ran her hands all over his torso and shifted her weight to bring her body closer to his.
Stu whispered in her ear, "Let's go upstairs to my room."
As they walked, they continued to nuzzle each other. Once in his bedroom, the two couldn't take their eyes off of each other, shedding their clothes slowly. As they explored every inch of the other's body, Sunny felt so much love for Stu. Being with him this way finally joined them together forever. How could she ever love anyone else?
Excerpted from Love Reconsidered by Phyllis J. Piano. Copyright © 2017 Phyllis Piano. Excerpted by permission of BookSparks.
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