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By Rebecca L. Masker
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2012 Rebecca L. Masker
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMarch 2005
Julie sat curled up in one of the patio chairs outside the townhouse she shared with her now ten year old daughter Carly. Carly was still asleep inside and the sun was just beginning to show itself. Even though it was only March the temperature was already well into the high sixties and Julie knew it was going to be another muggy Arizona day.
Taking a sip of her tea Julie leaned her head back against the chair and closed her eyes. She hadn't slept well the night before and she was fighting serious exhaustion. Carly had been a living nightmare the last few weeks. Almost every single morning before school she whined about not feeling well, pouting and even throwing a tantrum one morning when Julie insisted she attend school. Julie was rapidly growing tired of her daughter's attitude and was determined to find a way to nip it in the bud once and for all. How exactly she was going to accomplish that was as yet unknown, but she knew she'd figure something out.
Draining the last of her now cold tea Julie rose from the lawn chair and stretched, wincing as the bones in her back and neck crackled painfully. Entering the house she dropped her empty cup in the kitchen sink and, after peeking in to check on Carly, headed upstairs. Hopefully a hot shower would make her feel more human. She stripped out of her pajamas and tossed them in the general direction of the laundry basket. She kept her tired eyes closed as she turned the shower on and stepped under the spray. The hot water worked to loosen her sore muscles and as she reached for the bottles of shampoo and body wash on the shelf.
Julie cherished these little moments she had to herself in the morning. As dearly as she loved her daughter sometimes it felt good to be alone. Carly had been acting so strangely lately. Julie didn't know whether or not to be annoyed with Carly or worried about her. Lately she was leaning more towards being annoyed and she hated herself for feeling that way about the only truly good thing in her life.
For the last few years her life had taken on a rather monotonous routine and sometimes she longed for a change. Other times Julie welcomed the familiarity her routine offered her and she fought hard against change. Carly had been trying to convince her to get out more but Julie always found an excuse. She couldn't help but feel a tiny bit hurt that her daughter was trying so hard to get rid of her in the evenings when they spent quality time together.
Julie wasn't even able to really enjoy time with her best friends anymore. They were badgering her constantly about spending all her time either working or with Carly. Julie had been introduced to half a dozen eligible bachelors just in the last few weeks and she'd politely, but firmly, turned them all down and then turned her wrath on her friends who remained utterly unabashed. The last one they'd introduced her to appeared to be a little perverted and Julie had been scared that she'd find him waiting in her car when she left the clinic after work.
It was all too easy for Julie to remember with vivid detail how terrified she'd been when she first arrived in Arizona. Leaving home had seemed like a great adventure, something necessary that she'd done for the sake of her child, but suddenly finding herself in a strange place where she knew absolutely nobody had terrified her so badly she'd been half tempted to turn the car around and go back home to her parents.
Life these days was comfortable if not extravagant and that was just how Julie liked it. Growing up firmly set in the lower working class of a blue collar family she'd grown up understanding that things were tough and you had to work for what you got. She'd taken that attitude with her when she'd taken Carly across the country to Arizona to start a new life together and it had paid off in ways Julie had never dared to dream.
After leaving Maryland she and Carly had gotten settled in their new apartment with nothing but the bare necessities to get them through. The first few years in Arizona had been both incredibly difficult and, at times, utterly terrifying. More than once Julie had been faced with such exhaustion and anxiety that she'd seriously considered just saying the hell with it and moving back home where her parents could help take care of her and Carly. Those moments of self-pity were few and far between though, thank God, and the closer she got to finishing with medical school the less often they came to haunt her.
The landlady of the apartment where she and Carly lived, an older woman named Virginia, had been an absolute angel in disguise for Julie. Virginia had babysat Carly whenever Julie needed her and she hadn't charged an extraordinary amount of money. The thought of sending Carly to daycare had been horrifying, especially when Julie realized how much the average daycare charged. Working as a cashier in a local Wal*Mart had given her enough money to pay the bills, pay Virginia for babysitting Carly and put food on the table. Occasionally Julie would manage to save enough money to treat Carly to a movie or something but it was rare and Julie struggled with severe guilt for denying her daughter a better life.
Things had gradually gotten better once she finished medical school and got a job as an ER doctor at the local hospital. The hours were erratic at the beginning but it was worth it. She no longer had to worry so much about the bills and was able to do more fun things with Carly. Years of hardship had taught Julie a few lessons and she continued to put aside money for emergencies. The year before she had been able to put a down payment on the townhouse and she and Carly moved out of the apartment that had been their first home in Arizona.
Not living next door to Virginia had been hard, especially on Carly who looked at the woman as a surrogate grandmother, but Carly still went to Virginia's after school three days a week so at least they were still able to see each other.
Life was pretty damn good now and Julie was proud of herself for not giving up. She had a good job, she had an amazing kid and she had great friends that she knew could be trusted to be there for her and Carly no matter what. The only thing missing in her life was a man and it wasn't until quite recently that it really hit her that she might want a man in her life.
Julie had been at the bar with her friends having a few drinks, a ritual they had twice a month, and they had all been talking about Julie's lack of luck and experience with men. Her friend Sienna speculated out loud the possibility that Julie's working parts had probably shriveled up and fallen off from lack of use and Julie, who had just taken a sip of her drink, snorted laughter and sprayed the mouthful all over the table and her friends. All four of the girls had nearly fallen off their stools they were laughing so hard.
That night though the conversation had reentered Julie's mind and she wondered if Sienna might not be partially right at least. She hadn't been with a man since she'd gotten pregnant with Carly and that experience hadn't exactly made the Earth move or anything. Ten minutes with a boy she'd been desperately in love with and the next thing she knew her life was changed forever.
Kevin Meyers had been everything Julie had ever wanted and when he finally gave her the time of day Julie had been ecstatic. They'd known each other all their lives and had "dated" once before when they were in 1st grade. Julie hadn't been worried when she first found out she was pregnant with Kevin's child; at least not until Kevin disappeared. Less than a week after telling him she was pregnant Kevin and his family had left town and Julie hadn't heard from any of the Meyers since then.
When Carly was born perfectly healthy seven months later Julie had cried tears of relief and happiness. When she filled out the birth certificate she defiantly gave Carly her own last name, not wanting her little girl to be saddled with anything belonging to her so-called father. Though Carly had frequently asked about her father when she was younger she'd learned that the subject was better left untouched and had ceased asking questions about him.
Julie had been torn between guilt and sheer relief when the questions stopped. She was still bitter over Kevin's betrayal but that wasn't the real reason she didn't want to talk about the man. Ten years after she last saw the boy who fathered her child Julie still had feelings for him. She tried desperately not to think about Kevin because whenever she did the empty part of her that longed for a man seemed to throb and surge with almost painful intensity.
The water in the shower had gotten a little too cold for comfort and Julie stepped out, wrapping a towel around her quickly to keep from dripping water on her bedroom carpet. Opening the closet door she reached for her scrubs and laid them on the bed. Removing the towel and tossing it in the hamper she turned to the full length mirror that hung on the inside of the closet door and looked at herself critically.
At just twenty six years of age her body was still fit and firm. She was curvy without being plump and yet slim without being scrawny or looking undernourished. Her shoulder length brown hair was tinted with shades of blonde, one of the few luxuries she allowed herself, and her brown eyes were a soft coffee color. She supposed she was attractive in her own way. She had been told more than once that men had stopped to give her a second look but she was usually too busy to notice. It was rather depressing at times.
Sighing Julie forced herself to push the memories of her past behind her as she dressed for work, sitting on the bed to tie the laces on her comfortable sneakers. She pulled her hair back into a sensible ponytail and left the room, turning all the lights and the ceiling fan off before closing the door.
Julie heard Carly yawn and stretch before she even opened her daughter's bedroom. With her first real smile of the morning Julie knocked gently on Carly's bedroom door.
Carly still sounded half asleep, Julie thought to herself as she entered her daughter's room and perched on the edge of the bed. Carly was still buried under the covers with just her head poking out and, once her still sleep blurred eyes focused on her mother, she smiled.
"Morning, Mom." The words were barely coherent amid another jaw cracking yawn from Carly and Julie couldn't help but chuckle at how alike she and her daughter were.
Nothing had made Julie more grateful than to see Carly grow up to look so much like her. Julie had been terrified that Carly would favor her father and that she would be forced to reconcile her anger with Kevin each and every time she looked at Carly. Thankfully she was spared from having to deal with that and she thanked God for it every day.
Julie gently tucked an errant strand of Carly's dirty blonde hair behind her ear. "Morning, ladybug. You still feeling bad?"
Carly had been complaining of feeling ill the night before but now she shook her head. "No, I think I'm all right now. What time is it?"
"Not quite seven. You still have plenty of time to get ready for school."
Julie got up from her daughter's bed and started to leave the room. Turning back to Carly she said firmly, "Do not go back to sleep, young lady."
Carly flashed an overly innocent smile and Julie couldn't help but laugh. It felt good to laugh and it was Carly who made her laugh more than anyone else. Julie truly didn't know what she'd do without Carly.
In the kitchen Julie popped a couple of Toaster Strudels in the toaster and listened as the shower was turned on in the bathroom. Despite her determination not to think about the past Julie couldn't help it when her mind started to wander again.
Julie would never tell Carly this but she knew where Kevin was. He had come to her parent's house a few years after Julie left town. When Jeremy and Elizabeth Forrester refused to tell him where Julie and Carly had gone Kevin had left his card with all of his information on it and begged them to tell Julie he wanted to contact her. Julie had the card tucked in her wallet behind all the others but she'd never even attempted to call him or e-mail him.
Part of Julie hated herself for keeping the card; many times she ached to tear it into little pieces and sever all of her ties to Kevin Meyers. Another, more mature, part of her insisted that she keep it in case of an emergency. What sort of emergency would require her to contact Kevin she didn't know, but Julie felt a little bit safer knowing she could contact him if absolutely necessary.
Julie was again woken from her reverie, this time by the sound of Carly closing her bedroom door and bounding down the hallway into the kitchen. She was dressed for school in a pair of faded jean capris and a short sleeve t-shirt that would be relatively cool on such a stifling day.
"Do you want apple or cherry?" Julie asked as she put the Toaster Strudels on a small plate while Carly poured herself a glass of cranberry juice.
"Cherry," she said and sat down at the kitchen table. Julie joined her with their breakfast and a cup of coffee for herself. They ate in companionable silence and when the last bite was gone Julie rinsed the plate and her coffee cup.
"How would you like to go see a movie tomorrow night, Carly?" she asked
"Cool!" Carly exclaimed. "What movie?"
Julie put the dishes in the drain and sat back down again. "I was thinking about that new Disney movie; Ice Princess. I saw the preview last night and it looked cute. I thought maybe we could do a little shopping and get some lunch while we're at it. Maybe even get our nails done. We haven't had a girlie day in a while."
Carly's eyes lit up and the next thing Julie knew Carly had leaped from her chair and thrown her arms around her in a crushing hug.
"Thank you, Mommy!" Carly cried right in Julie's ear, nearly deafening her.
Julie laughed and hugged Carly tight, savoring the closeness she still shared with her daughter and knowing that the day would come, probably sooner rather than later, when Carly would have better things to do than spend the day with her mother.
Glancing at the clock on the stove Julie gently disentangled herself from Carly. "Go get your stuff, baby; the bus will be here any minute."
There was a new urgency in the way they bustled about the house. Julie rummaged in the depths of her purse for her car keys, cursing when she couldn't find them until she looked up and saw them hanging up on the hook by the front door. Carly had retrieved her backpack and was waiting outside. Julie closed the door and locked it, then walked Carly to the end of the townhome complex parking lot to wait for the bus.
They made it with just seconds to spare. They'd no sooner reached the entrance to the parking lot when the big yellow bus lumbered its way down the road and stopped with a screech of brakes to open the door for Carly.
"Morning, Dr. Forrester."
The bus driver, an elderly man named Hank, called down to Julie with a broad smile on his cracked and leathery looking old face.
Julie smiled up at the old man. "Good morning, Hank. How's Alma been feeling?"
Hank's wife had been ill off and on for several months and Julie had her doubts about whether or not the woman would survive to see the new year. She was quite surprised when Hank grinned at her and said, "She's feeling perkier than I've seen her in quite some time. Thanks for asking, Doc. You coming up there, Carly girl."
Julie hugged her daughter and gently shooed her onto the bus. Carly climbed the steps and took her seat next to her best friend Bree. Julie waved as the bus doors closed and all three of them; Carly, Bree and Hank waved back.
Julie watched the bus drive away until she could see it no longer and then went to her car. She was still driving the battered old Ford she'd come to Arizona with and was thoroughly convinced that the only thing keeping the piece of junk running was her own sheer force of will. Putting the key in the ignition Julie made the first of what would end up being several attempts to start the car, wincing slightly at the deafening rumble of the engine when it finally caught.
She put the car in gear and winced at the sudden loud backfire and resulting cloud of noxious fumes that poured from the muffler. The EPA would have a field day with her, Julie thought as she babied the car out of the complex and onto the main road. Even with the windows rolled all the way down the overpowering odor of exhaust permeated the interior of the car and she was soon feeling a bit lightheaded and dizzy.
As she navigated the familiar streets of Scottsdale Julie took a moment to appreciate the beauty of the area she now called home. Living in Scottsdale was a dream come true for Julie. After growing up in Baltimore, surrounded by good friends and good neighbors, she'd been determined to raise her daughter in a similar environment. Though downtown Scottsdale was often described as the desert version of Miami Beach it had character and was rich in history, something that was important to Julie.
Excerpted from The Gift by Rebecca L. Masker Copyright © 2012 by Rebecca L. Masker. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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