October 16, 1999-Kankakee Valley, Indiana-Early morning
Carly Anderson woke up to a pounding headache. She was lying in a strange bed, wondering where she was. Cool cotton slid across her skin along her body. She realized that she didn't have a stitch of clothing on. She put her hand to her head, remembering the party and the drinking game that she'd been challenged to foolishly participate in. Everything else faded to black after that. Suddenly, there was movement beside her, she wasn't alone.
She rubbed her fists over her eyes several times. Nope, not a dream. The guy's back was turned away from her. Carly tried to think of who it could be. She wasn't dating anyone at the moment. She and Levi broke up two months ago just before she went to college. Besides, this guy had dark brown hair, and Levi had light brown hair. Looking at Levi didn't give her the same rush of attraction that she felt as she examined this man's physique. She didn't remember being with any specific guy the night before, but obviously she was. This was going to earn her such a reputation, if anyone found out.
She decided to sneak out early since it was just before the crack of dawn, allowing her to avoid the public walk of shame out of Harrison Hall. The last thing she wanted was to be the talk of Northwest Indiana State University. She preferred invisibility, not infamy. She slid carefully out of bed, so she wouldn't disturb the man beside her. She didn't want the awkward morning-after talk. She knew the score, not that she'd ever done anything like this before. She'd only been with one other man, Levi. Her cheeks filled with hot shame. She grabbed her clothes, rushed to dress, and got out of there faster than a runaway train. She hoped to put the whole unfortunate incident behind her.
September 7, 2012-Brook, Indiana-Morning
Carly ran to get her satchel and coffee. "Bella, we're going to be late. I can't be late for work today. If you hurry, I'll buy you breakfast from McDonald's." No response was heard. Every morning was a struggle between mother and daughter lately. Bella had just started seventh grade at South Newton Junior/Senior High School, where Carly taught English.
Suddenly, Bella's dark blonde hair and pink sparkled backpack whizzed back her mom on the stairs. Bella took a deep breath before calling out. "I'm ready. I thought that you were in a hurry."
Carly glared teasingly at Bella. "I am. I'm just a lot slower than you are. Never mind, let's go."
A moving truck pulled up in front of the house next door. A steel metallic Dodge Durango SUV pulled into the driveway behind it. Carly watched as a tall muscular man got out of the driver's seat. He was accompanied by a cheerful girl who looked to be about Bella's age. Carly stood there, watching his movements. She liked how the sun reflected off his chestnut locks.
"Earth to Mom! I thought you were in a hurry. I'm hungry. You promised me breakfast," Bella said, snapping Carly's attention back to her daughter.
"I will. It's just nice to see new neighbors. It's been awhile since anyone has moved into the neighborhood. I think we've got a couple of minutes to introduce ourselves to our new neighbors."
The impatient preteen followed her mother across the yard to the driveway next door.
Carly stuck her hand out to greet the man. "Hi, I'm Caroline Anderson. This is my daughter, Isabella. We live next door. I just wanted to stop by and say welcome to the neighborhood."
The man took her hand, shook it, and flashed her a warm smile. "I'm Nicholas Campbell, and this bundle of energy is my daughter, Natalie. We just moved here from Kansas City."
Isabella didn't say anything to Natalie. She just kept her eyes on her cell phone. "Mom, aren't you gonna be late?"
Carly looked over at her daughter disapprovingly before turning back to Nicholas. "I'm sorry. You know how kids are. Unfortunately, she's right and I'm really running late. It was nice to meet both of you. I hope that we see each other again soon." She flashed her daughter a serious glare before running back to their own driveway.
Carly was just getting her classroom set up for her first class of the day. As much as she looked forward to working with her students, there was one student who knew exactly how to get under her skin, her daughter, Bella. Carly loved the small town life and the small school district that was established for the communities of Brook and Kentland. The drawback was that she was the only English teacher for grades seven through nine and eleven. This meant that she had Bella as a student in her classroom. This was a situation that many teachers in the school were familiar with. Bella was not transitioning to junior high well. She had become sullen and her grades had gone down from last year.
Carly took a deep breath and walked over to the doorway to greet the students as they entered the classroom. She smiled, handed out bell work, and gave some students a high five. Bella entered the classroom silently and took her seat. Carly resolved to treat Bella as just as student and not a daughter when they were in the classroom. While the students worked on the morning assignment, Carly took attendance. The classroom door opened. The guidance counselor walked in with a short girl with brown hair who was looking down.
The guidance counselor directed the girl to Carly. "Mrs. Walker, we have a new student. This is Natalie Campbell. She just transferred here from Missouri."
Carly smiled at the girl, immediately recognizing her from earlier that morning. She turned to face the guidance counselor. "It's Miss Anderson. I was Mrs. Walker last year before my divorce."
The guidance counselor didn't respond to the correction, but instead resumed discussing the new student. "We need to pick someone to help Natalie get acclimated to her new environment, help guide her through her first few days here. I think Isabella would be perfect for the job. What do you think?"
Carly pondered the idea for a moment. Bella didn't have many friends. This might be a good way for Bella to establish a new friendship. "I think that would be a great idea." She addressed Natalie. "Natalie, take a seat in the desk next to Isabella with her group."
Natalie nodded and silently walked over to the empty desk. Bella was equally silent. Carly started her lesson for the day. It was a review on the parts of speech with a Schoolhouse Rock: Grammar Rock video. Students were assigned partners to create a song or poem on each of the four main parts of speech. She designated Bella to be partnered with Natalie. She hoped that it would help thaw Bella's icy attitude.
Bella spent most of the day leading Natalie around the school, using as few words as possible. She resented her mom for forcing her to do any partnered or group work at all. Now, she was stuck with the new girl all day long at school and later at home for homework.
Natalie broke the silence during lunch while they were eating at the lunch table. "Your mom seems really nice. Have you really lived here all your life?"
Bella nodded. "My dad says that my mom isn't as nice as she seems."
"My dad says that about my mom, too. My parents got divorced last year. My mom left us. Divorce really sucks." Natalie took a bite out of her cheeseburger.
Bella's voice got quiet. "Yeah, it does. My dad is a really great guy. He really loves my mom, but she won't budge. They argue a lot, toss insults at each other. It's horrible. I just got back from spending the summer with my dad. He lives in Liberty. He helps my grandpa run the family farm. It's so cool. I get to swim in the creek and riding horses a lot. It sucked to have to come back here for school." She pushed the vegetables around on her tray with her fork.
"Yeah, it wasn't easy to move here from Missouri either. I had to leave my friends and move two states away because my dad wanted some distance between us and my mom. He's from around here, so he's really happy to be here. It's just hard to be the new kid. I wanted to make friends, but you barely even talked to me all day."
"It's not you. I'm just mad about coming back here. My mom has custody of me and she won't let me stay with my dad. I have lots of friends over there. It's so much fun. My dad lives near the state line. He took me to Kings Island six times over the summer. Every Thursday, everyone rides in a school bus over to the skating rink in Connersville. I don't get to do stuff like that here." Bella's eyes lit up with excitement as she talked. She put a spoon full of chocolate pudding in her mouth, showing the first signs of enthusiasm all day.
Bella was much more talkative with Natalie as the day progressed. They walked home from the bus stop together.
Bella cringed at the thought of going home to an empty house. "Do you want to come in with me? No one's home. We can do whatever we want."
Natalie shook her head, offering an alternative. "Let's go back to my house. My dad is baking chocolate chip cookies for me. We can eat and do homework there. My dad is really cool."
The girls entered the house to the smell of fresh baked cookies and chocolate wafting in the air. Nick greeted his daughter with a big smile and hug as she entered the door. It made Bella miss her father even more, but she smiled at Natalie's father anyway. Nick served the girls plates of warm cookies and tall glasses of fresh, cold milk for a snack. Afterwards, the girls ran up to Natalie's new bedroom. Natalie gasped in shock at how much her father had accomplished while she was at school. She spotted her bed already set up and made with clean sheets. Her favorite blanket was on the top. She squealed with delight and threw herself on her bed.
Natalie told Bella about her father's rule of doing homework first after school. The two got right to work on the assignment. They talked and laughed as they thought up lyrics to songs about nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Bella helped Natalie go through the boxes in her room to put things away after the homework was finished.
Carly arrived home around six o'clock. The house echoed with the sounds of silence. Carly called out her daughter's name a few times and looked around the house before deciding to check next door to see if Bella was there doing her assignment with Natalie. She walked next door, still fuming about Bella's lack of communication. She knocked on the door, and Nick answered.
"Is my daughter here?" she asked tentatively.
"Yeah, she's been here with Natalie for the past couple of hours. We were about to sit down to dinner." He opened the door wider for Carly to step in.
She took a couple of steps into the entryway. "Let me get Bella and get out of your way. I'm sorry to interrupt your dinner."
"Nonsense, I made plenty of food. Bella was going to eat with us. Why don't you both stay for dinner?"
"I don't know, Mr. Campbell. I wouldn't want to impose."
"Call me Nick. It's not an imposition. I cook enough for leftovers tomorrow night. You'll be doing Nat a favor. She hates leftovers." Nick smiled at her warmly.
"Sure, why not." Carly followed Nick through the house to the dining room. She found both of the girls already seated at the table. She sat down while Nick carried the bowls of spaghetti, salad, and crescent rolls to the table.
"Miss Anderson is my language arts teacher." Natalie announced in between bites of salad.
"Really? Is that so?" Nick responded, looking at Carly. He turned his attention back to his daughter. "How do you like your new school so far?"
"It's okay. Miss Anderson and Bella are really nice. Bella spent the day showing me around. Miss Anderson made class really fun today." Natalie bit into her spaghetti eagerly.
"I showed a Schoolhouse Rock video in class. Students really like it. We covered the four main parts of speech. The kids were assigned to create a poem or song for each one," Carly explained.
"Interesting. Any chance I can get you girls to share yours with me tonight before Miss Anderson grades it tomorrow?" he asked Bella.
"Okay, but you don't have to call my mom Miss Anderson, except at school."
"Well, Caroline, how's the spaghetti?" Nick asked.
"It's good. I haven't sat down to a meal cooked by someone else in a long time. I really appreciate this. How are you settling in so far?"
"I did what I could today. The girls worked on Nat's room after school. I hope to be completely unpacked and moved in by this weekend."
Carly leaned her chin into her hand casually. "I like what you've done so far. So, what brings you to our little town?"
"I'm reopening the thrift store downtown. I used to live nearby. I grew up in Kentland."
"I went to South Newton Junior/Senior High School, class of 1999."
He smiled at her. "We have that in common. I was in the class of 1998."
"It's amazing that we never saw each other before. It's a pretty small school."
"I was in the drama club and the science club. I remember seeing you around school, but our paths didn't cross much since I was a grade ahead. You were always with that basketball player, Levi. I can't remember his last name."
"It's Walker. I ended up marrying him about five years after graduation."
Bella cut in. "My mom didn't marry my dad until I was four."
"I'm a very cautious person. My parents died in a car accident when I was twenty-one. Bella was two at the time. My younger sister, Ivy, was thirteen. She moved in and I took care of both of them. I worked, went to college, and took care of two kids. I didn't have a lot of time for a relationship. As long as I'm in the hot seat, how about you? How did you meet and marry Natalie's mom?"
"We met during my junior year of college. Things happened very fast, and before we knew it, we were married and Natalie was on the way. We got divorced last year. She left and gave me full custody of Nat. We haven't heard from her in a while. I moved back here for a fresh start."
Carly's voice got quiet. "Me, too. My divorce was finalized last year. Levi has some visitation. Bella just got back from spending the summer with her dad."
Nick observed the change in Carly's demeanor after talking about her ex. "How about some ice cream after dinner?"
Carly was getting ready to leave with Bella. Bella grabbed her backpack from Natalie's room. Carly and Nick stood in the entryway near the front door.
"How about I walk you back to your house?" Nick suggested.
Carly chuckled. "It's just next door. I live a few feet away."
"I'm trying to be a gentleman, Caroline. It was a nice evening. It was nice getting to know you and your daughter."
"Sure, why not? I'm just not used to having a nice guy around."
He smiled at her. "You've been around the wrong types of guys then."
Natalie and Bella rushed out the door ahead of them. The walk to Carly's house was quiet. Bella rushed into the house with Natalie so she could show Natalie her bedroom. Nick and Carly paused just outside the front door.
She opened the door and turned to face him. "Thanks for dinner. I had a nice time tonight. We should do this again sometime. The girls seem to be getting along great. I'll cook next time."
He lifted an eyebrow in mild surprise. "That'll be great. I have a feeling that we'll be spending a lot more time together since the girls are friends now. Thanks for the invitation. I'll take you up on that soon. Send Nat home in a few minutes, okay? Good night, Caroline." He lifted her hand and gently kissed it. He turned to talk away.
Carly shivered a little. "Hey, Nick?"
He turned around. "Yeah?"
"You can call me Carly."
Copyright © 2012 by Laurie Mills
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the author, Laurie Mills.
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.