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Adelia watched with her heart in her throat as the moving van pulled away from the crumbling curb in Swan Point, one of the oldest and, at one time, finest neighborhoods in Serenity, South Carolina. With moss-draped oaks in perfectly maintained yards backing up to a small, man-made lake, which was home to several swans, the houses had been large and stately by early standards.
Now, though, most of the homes, like this one, were showing signs of age. She found something fitting about the prospect of filling this historic old house with laughter and giving it a new lease on life. It would be as if the house and her family were moving into the future together.
Letting go of the old life, however, was proving more difficult than she'd anticipated. Drawing in a deep breath, she turned to deal with the accusing looks of her four children, who weren't nearly as convinced as she was that they were about to have an exciting fresh start.
Her youngest, Tomas, named for his grandfather on her ex-husband's side of the family, turned to her with tears streaming down his cheeks. "Mommy, I don't like it here.
I want to go home. This house is old. It smells funny. And there's no pool."
She knelt down in front of the eight-year-old and gathered him close, gathered all of them close, even her oldest, Selena.
It was Selena who understood better than any of them why this move had been necessary. While they all knew that Adelia and their father had divorced, Selena had seen Ernesto more than once with one of his mistresses. In a move that defied logic or compassion, he'd even had the audacity to introduce the most recent woman to Selena while he and Adelia were still making a pretense at least of trying to keep their marriage intact. His action had devastated Selena and it had been the final straw for Adelia. She'd seen at last that tolerating such disrespect was the wrong example to set for her three girls and even for her son.
"I know you'd rather be in our old house," she comforted them with a hitch in her voice. "But it's just not possible. This is home now. I really think you're going to love it once we get settled in."
She ruffled Tomas's hair. "And don't worry about the funny smell. It's just been shut up for a few months. It'll smell fine once we air it out and put fresh paint on the walls." She injected a deliberately cheerful note into her voice. "We can all sit down and decide how we want to fix it up. Then you can go with me to the hardware store to pick out the paint colors for your rooms."
The girls expressed enthusiasm for the idea, but Tomas remained visibly skeptical.
"What about the pool?" he asked sullenly.
"We can use the town pool," Selena said staunchly, even though there were tears in her eyes, too. "It's even bigger than the one at home, and our friends will be there. And since we're living so close to downtown now, we can walk to the bakery after school for cupcakes, then stop in and see Mom at work. Or go across the green to Wharton's for ice cream."
Natalia sniffed, but Adelia saw a spark of interest in her eyes.
"I like ice cream," eleven-year-old Natalia whispered, then nudged Tomas. "You do, too."
"Me, too," Juanita chimed in. Until the divorce Adelia's nine-year-old had been boundlessly enthusiastic about everything, but this was the first sign in weeks that her high spirits were returning.
Tomas continued to look unconvinced. "Will Abuela be able to find us here?" he asked doubtfully.
"Of course," Adelia assured him. Tomas adored her mother, who'd been babysitting him practically from infancy because of all the school committees on which Adelia had found herself and, more recently, because she was working at a boutique on Main Street. "She helped me to find this house."
Amazingly, for once, her mother had kept her lectures on divorce to herself and professed to see all the positives in the new life Adelia was fashioning for her children. She'd told stories about the days when the elite in town had lived in Swan Point. There had been lavish parties in this very house, she'd reported to Adelia. She'd stuck to focusing on the possibilities in the house and the quiet, tree-shaded neighborhood, not the negatives.
Her mother's support had actually given Adelia the courage to move forward. To her surprise, Adelia had recognized that even in her early forties, she still craved her mother's approval. It was one of the many reasons she'd waited so long to end her travesty of a marriage.
"Can we still go to Abuelas house for cookies?" her son pressed.
"Absolutely," Adelia said. "You can go every day after school if you like, the same as always."
Though he was starting to look relieved, a sudden frown crossed his face. "What about Papa? Is he going to live here, too? He won't like it, I'll bet. He likes our real house, same as me."
Selena whirled on him. "You know perfectly well he doesn't live with us anymore. He's not coming here. Not ever! He's going to live in our old house with somebody else."
Adelia winced at the disdain and hurt in her oldest's voice. Ever since she'd realized that her father had been openly cheating on Adelia, Selena had claimed she wanted no part of him. Her attitude had hardened even more when she'd overheard Ernesto describing her as her mother's child in a tone that made clear he wasn't complimenting either one of them.
Adelia had even spoken to a psychologist about this rift between father and daughter, but the woman had assured her that it wasn't unusual for an impressionable teenagerSelena had just turned thirteento react so strongly to a divorce, especially when Ernesto's cheating had been so public and when he'd shown no remorse at all once he'd been caught. In fact, he'd remained defiant to the bitter end, so much so that even the judge had lost patience with him.
At Selena's angry words, Tomas's eyes once again filled with tears.
"Enough," Adelia warned her daughter. To Tomas and the younger girls, she said, "You'll still be able to see your father whenever you want to." Like Tomas, Natalia and Juanita looked relieved, though they carefully avoided looking at their big sister, clearly fearing her disapproval. That was yet another rift she'd have to work on healing, Adelia concluded with a sigh. Ernesto certainly wouldn't make any effort to do it.
As hurt as she'd been and as much as she'd wanted to banish Ernesto from her life forever, she'd accepted that her kids deserved to have a relationship with their dad. It would be selfish of her to deny them that.
Besides, she'd had enough explaining to do to the rest of her rigidly Catholic family when she'd opted for divorce. Then, to top it off, she'd insisted on moving out of the huge house on the outskirts of town that Ernesto had apparently thought was reasonable compensation for his infidelity. Her sisters had been appalled by all of itthe scandal of Ernesto's cheating, the divorce and the move. Keeping her children away from their fatherhowever distasteful his behaviorwould have caused even more of an uproar.
Not that Adelia cared what any of them thought at this point. She'd made the only decision she could make. Her only goal now was to make this transition as easy for the children as possible. She'd do it with as much cheerfulness as she could possibly muster. She might not even have to fake it, since on some level she was actually eager for this fresh start.
For now, though, she forced a smile and looked each of them in the eye. "I have an idea," she announced, hoping to turn this difficult day around.
"What?" Tomas asked suspiciously.
"I think we all deserve a treat after such a long day."
"Pizza?" Natalia asked hopefully.
Adelia laughed. Natalia would eat pizza three times a day if she were allowed to.
"Yes, pizza," she confirmed.
"Not here, though," Tomas pleaded, wrinkling his nose in distaste.
"No, not here. The dishes aren't unpacked," she said. "We'll go to Rosalina's. I'll call your uncle Elliott and see if he and Aunt Karen would like to join us with Daisy, Mack and the baby."
This last was offered especially for Selena, who adored her uncle and who'd become especially close to his adopted daughter, Daisy. Adelia might not intend to keep Ernesto away from his children, but Elliott was the male role model she really wanted in their lives. Her younger brother was loving, rock solid and dependable. She'd be proud to see Tomas grow up to be just like him. And she desperately hoped her girls would eventually find men like him, too.
Once the decision to divorce had been made, Elliott had overcome all his own strong objections to offer her the support she'd desperately needed. She owed Karen for bringing himand even her motheraround. Her own sisters continued to treat her as if she'd committed a mortal sin.
The prospect of pizza at Rosalina's with Uncle Elliott and his family wiped away the last of the tears, and Adelia took a truly relieved breath for what seemed like the first time all day. Her family was going to be all right. There might be a few bumps along the way, thanks to her determination to shed any of her own ties to Ernesto, but they would settle into this new house.
And, she concluded with new resolve, they would turn it into a real home, one filled with love and respect, something that had been in short supply with her ex-husband.
Gabe Franklin had claimed a booth in the back corner of Rosalina's for the fourth night in a row. Back in Serenity for less than a week and living at the Serenity Inn, he'd figured this was better than the bar across town for a man who'd determined to sober up and live life on the straight and narrow. That was the whole point of coming home, after all, to prove he'd changed and deserved a second chance. Once he'd accomplished that and made peace with his past, well, he'd decide whether to move on yet again. He wasn't sure he was the kind of man who'd ever put down roots.
Thank heaven for his cousin, Mitch Franklin, who'd offered him a job starting on Monday without a moment's hesitation. Recently remarried, Mitch claimed he needed a partner who knew construction so he could focus on his new family. He'd taken on a second family just as he'd started developing a series of dilapidated properties on Main Street in an attempt to revitalize downtown Serenity.
Gabe had listened in astonishment to Mitch's ambitious plans as he'd laid them out. Despite his cousin's enthusiasm, Gabe wasn't convinced revitalization was possible in an economy still struggling to rebound, but he was more than willing to jump in and give it a shot. Maybe there would be something cathartic about giving those old storefronts the same kind of second chance he was hoping to grab for himself.
"You're turning into a real regular in here," his waitress, a middle-aged woman who'd introduced herself a few nights ago as Debbie, said. "Are you new in town?"
"Not exactly," he said, returning her smile but adding no details. "I'll have"
"A large diet soda and a large pepperoni pizza," she filled in before he could complete his order.
Gabe winced. "I'm obviously in a rut."
"That's okay. Most of our regulars order the same thing every time," she said. "And I pay attention. Friendly service and a good memory get me bigger tips."
"I'll remember that," he said, then sat back and looked around the restaurant while waiting for his food.
Suddenly he sat up a little straighter as a dark-haired woman came in with four children. Even though she looked a little harried and a whole lot weary, she was stunning with her olive complexion and high cheekbones. She was also vaguely familiar, though he couldn't put a name to the face.
There hadn't been a lot of Mexican-American families in Serenity back when he'd lived here as a kid, though there had been plenty of transient farmworkers during the summer months. For a minute he cursed the way he'd blown off school way more often than he should have. Surely if he'd gone regularly, this woman would have been on his radar. If there had been declared majors in high school, his would have been girls. He'd studied them the way the academic overachievers had absorbed the information in textbooks.
Instead, he'd been kicked out midway through his junior year for one too many fights, every one of them justified to his juvenile way of thinking. He'd eventually wised up and gotten his GED. He'd even attended college for a couple of years, but that had been later, when he'd stopped hating the world for the way it had treated his troubled single mom and started putting the pieces of his life back together.
He watched now as the intriguing woman asked for several tables to be pushed together. He noted with disappointment when a man with two children came in to join them. So, he thought, she was married with six kids. An unfamiliar twinge of envy left him feeling vaguely unsettled. Since when had he been interested in having a family of any size? Still, he couldn't seem to tear his gaze away from the picture of domestic bliss they presented. The teasing and laughter seemed to settle in his heart and make it just a little lighter.
When his waitress returned with his drink, he nodded in the woman's direction. "Quite a family," he commented. "I can't imagine having six kids. They look like quite a handful."
Debbie laughed. "Oh, they're a handful, all right, but they're not all Adelia's. That's her brother, Elliott Cruz, who just came in with two of his. He has a baby, too, but I guess she was getting a cold, so his wife stayed home with her."
Gabe hid a grin. Thank heaven for chatty waitresses and a town known for gossiping. It hadn't been so great when he was a boy and his promiscuous mother had been the talk of the town, but now he could appreciate it.
"Where's her husband?"
The waitress leaned down and confided, "Sadly, not in hell where he belongs. The man cheated on her repeatedly and the whole town knew about it. She finally kicked his sorry butt to the curb. Too bad the whole town couldn't follow suit and divorce him." She flushed, and her expression immediately filled with guilt. "Sorry. I shouldn't have said that, but Adelia's a great woman and she didn't deserve the way Ernesto Hernandez treated her."
Gabe nodded. "Sounds like a real gem," he said.
In fact, he sounded like a lot of the men who'd passed through his mom's life over the years. Gabe felt a sudden surge of empathy for Adelia. And he liked the fact that his waitress was firmly in her corner. He suspected the rest of the town was, too, just the way they'd always stood up for the wronged wives when his mom had been the other woman in way too many relationships.
Funny what a few years could do to give a man a new perspective. Back then all he'd cared about was the gossip, the taunts he'd suffered at school and his mom's tears each time the relationships inevitably ended. He'd witnessed her hope whenever a new man came into her life and then the slow realization that this time would be no different. His heart had broken almost as many times as hers.