I took the turn off the main road through the barely visible opening in the dense trees like it hadn’t been fifteen years since I’d last done it. As I bumped and jolted along, memories of a time when this uneven and rutted path had once been a smooth and meticulously cared for road tugged at my heart.
About a mile up, the trees thinned as I neared the clearing. Butterflies danced in my stomach and my chest tightened in anticipation – or was it dread? – at the thought of what I’d find at the end of this road. Given the way things had gone the last time I’d been here, it was a bit of both I supposed. My breath caught at the lump in my throat and my eyes burned when my childhood home finally came into view.
I pulled my old Jeep to a stop just past the spot where the yard had once begun. Guilt and indignant self-justification warred inside me over my long absence from this place as I took in the dilapidated state of what had once been a beautiful two-story home with bright white paint, pale yellow shutters, and a lush green lawn bordered near the house by overflowing flowerbeds.
The yard was now an undefined patch of dirt broken sporadically by mounded clumps of yellow straw. Tangles of dead plants and thriving weeds vied for dominance in the flowerbeds. The once brilliant paint of the house had faded to a dull unidentifiable color interspersed with patches of the shiny silvery grey of weathered exposed wood. Most of the shutters were long gone. Those that remained hung awkwardly askew by single hinges and waved listlessly in the breeze.
In the haze of an emotion too complicated to name, I slipped out of the Jeep. The thud of the door closing broke the quiet and a flock of birds rose noisily from the leafless old tree that I’d once used as a means of sneaking out as a teenager. Dust sifted up and danced away as I made my way up to the sagging porch. The steps sloped at an unnatural angle and the railing was missing almost all its spindles.
Only the frame remained of the screen door. I swung it open, and as my hand settled on the doorknob, visions of that day so long ago washed over me like a flood.
Daddy and I screaming at each other. Momma in tears pleading for us to come back inside and talk. Assuring us we could work things out. Trying to calm Daddy down enough to be reasonable. But there was no reasoning with Reverend Able Trevelyon. He was a proud man of God and a pregnant unwed teenaged daughter, even one who’d just turned eighteen, was a disgrace he would not tolerate.
In the end, the words we’d thrown at each other had done irreparable damage. I’d hugged Momma, told Daddy just what I thought about him and his pride, then jumped into the waiting car of my best friend Kaleigh.
She’d dropped me at the bus station with a vow to keep my secrets, and the promise of a room at her aunt’s place in Florida. Next thing I knew, I was going to college at night and online while raising my daughter alone in a strange city hundreds of miles away from home. I’d severed ties so completely I hadn’t thought I’d ever come back here to this house, but here I was. Momma and Daddy were both gone now.
I’d lost touch with Kaleigh after she’d married a rich guy and moved to Morocco or someplace like that. Momma and I had exchanged secret phone calls for years. She’d begged me often to come back home. Vowed I’d be welcome. But I’d known that was just a dream of hers. What I hadn’t known was that she’d been dying and had been trying to mend the family before she succumbed to the cancer. When she’d suddenly stopped answering my calls, I’d broken down and called Kaleigh’s mom. I wished I’d done as Momma had asked if only to have been there to say goodbye.
“Mom? Are you okay?”
I smiled and swiped the tears off my cheeks as I turned to my daughter. “Yes Maddie, I’m fine.” I’d never told her the whole story. I hadn’t wanted her to know how unwelcome her existence had been to my father. I squared my shoulders and smiled. “Let’s go in, shall we?”
Her blue eyes were filled with concern. “We don’t have to Mom. Not if it’s going to make you cry.”
Her worry almost brought on the tears again so I wrapped her in a hug and squeezed her tight before she could notice. “How did I get so lucky to have you for my daughter, huh?”
She squeezed me back. “I don’t know but you sure couldn’t get much luckier.” With a giggle she pulled away. “Want me to go in first?”
I looked back at the old, scarred door. My heart ached with regret. Not for leaving, but for the pain I’d caused Momma. And for not being here when she was dying and would have needed me by her side. But this was our home now. I was going to have to make peace with my past if this was ever going to work.
The letter I’d gotten last month from the lawyer telling me Daddy had died and left me the house and land had been a shock. I hadn’t been sure what to do. My work as a freelance editor meant I could work from anywhere, but Maddie was a different story. She was a sophomore in high school. Moving back home would mean she’d leave behind friends, the leading role in a play she’d been dying to get, and the only home she’d ever known. But she’d insisted moving was what she wanted to do, so here we were.
“Mom? Let’s just go. Maybe try again tomorrow. Or not. We only rented the house in Florida. We could always kick them out and take the house back.” That last bit had been offered in a teasing tone.
I shook my head at her silliness. “We cannot kick Bill and Tracy out of the house. They signed a lease. Go ahead and do the honors. Just be prepared. From the looks of the outside, Daddy must have just quit trying after Momma died.”
She looked up at me, her big eyes searching mine then grinned and shoved open the door. When I hesitated, Maddie grabbed my hand and pulled me inside. Dust motes floated in thick clouds on the weak beams of sunlight coming through the dirty windows. The air was laden with the musty scent of a home long neglected.
The house looked exactly the way it had the day I’d left only more cluttered and covered in thick layers of dust. There was no way it had gotten this bad since he’d died, Daddy had only been gone a couple of months. My statement about him giving up after Momma died had been accurate.
Maddie tagged along as I walked from room to room lamenting about how sad Momma would have been to see her home in such a sorry state. Every so often I’d stop and pick up something of hers and hug it before setting them back down. Maddie had eventually grown tired of my weepy stories and asked me where my room had been. When I told her it was upstairs, the last door on the left, she’d dashed off to check things out.
Almost an hour later, Maddie was still upstairs rummaging through my old room. What I could make out from what she kept yelling down to me, Momma hadn’t changed a thing and my room was still filled with all my childhood treasures. I was sitting in Momma’s rocker by the window clutching her mug to my chest like a drowning swimmer clutching a lifeline. I’d found it on the windowsill where she’d so often set it down and then forgotten that she had. My heart lurched painfully at the memories of her hollering to me that she’d lost her tea again and me reminding her to check the window.
“Oh Momma, I wish I could have been here for you. I wish I’d known.”
I was startled out of my pit of sadness and regret by a knock at the door. Who could that be? How had anyone known we were even here? We hadn’t stopped anywhere in town.
Maddie came clomping down the stairs dressed in one of my old outfits and wearing high-heeled wedge shoes that were far too big for her. She paused on the landing, her gaze going from me to the door and back.
“Mom? You want me to get that?”
I set Momma’s cup carefully back on the windowsill and swiped at my cheeks. “No Baby, I’ll do it. You stay back. We’re pretty far outside town and I have no idea who it could be.”
I pulled the curtain on the door aside just a bit and peered out. When I saw who stood there, my heart stopped. I dropped the curtain like I’d been burned. My hand flew to my lips and I took a stumbling step back. What was he doing here? What was he even doing in town? Momma had told me he’d never come back after college. Said he’d landed a job in the city working for a big law firm. His not being here had been the only reason I’d even considered moving back.
Maddie rushed to my side. “Mom! What’s wrong? Who is it? Do you want me to call 911? Do they even have 911 in towns this small? What do you want me to do?”
The fear in her voice brought me to my senses. I shook my head. “No, it’s okay. It’s not anyone who would hurt us. I was just surprised is all. I do want you to go back upstairs while I talk to them though.”
“But Mom . . .”
“No arguments Madison. Go back to my old room. I’ll only be a few minutes. And close the door when you get there please.”
“Oh, all right, fine.”
I watched her as she dragged herself upstairs one slow step at a time. Periodically she’d look back over her shoulder hoping I’d change my mind. I stood with my arms crossed waiting even when the visitor knocked again.
When she’d disappeared into the room, I smoothed my hands over my hair, took a deep breath, and swung open the door. My heartbeat quickened and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. He was the guy I remembered but so different at the same time. He’d grown up from the gangly high school heart throb he’d been the last time I’d seen him into a tall, outrageously handsome man.
We both stood there staring at each other for several long seconds. Finally, he broke the silence.
“Claire. It really is you.”
I pressed a hand to my chest to try to hold together a heart that nearly shattered at the wonder in his voice. “Morgan, what are you doing here?”
“Murdock called. Said he’d seen you drive by his shop headed out here. I had to come see for myself if it was true. What happened Claire? Where have you been all these years? We were . . .” he paused when his voice cracked. “What happened?”
“Momma told me you’d gone to work for a big law firm in the city. What are you doing back in Lamont?” My attempt to keep the dismay out of my voice ended up making me sound critical and bitchy.
His brow furrowed. “You talked to your Mom? She told me she hadn’t heard from you. I was in the city, but Dad got sick and asked if I wanted to come home and take over his practice. I hated the city and jumped at the chance. Now it’s your turn. Where did you go Claire? Why didn’t you talk to me? You never even said goodbye.”
“Wow, you’re Morgan McCall, aren’t you?”
I turned around in dismay at Maddie’s words. No, this couldn’t be happening. “I told you to stay upstairs Madison.”
“I was worried, so I came to make sure you were okay. Do you know who this guy is? That’s Morgan McCall. He’s like a famous attorney. Jenna and I did a report for school on that big case he won.”
I closed my eyes. I vaguely remembered Momma saying something about him winning some big case, but I hadn’t wanted to hear it and had changed the subject. I didn’t watch TV and rarely looked at online news. It had been a high-profile murder case if I remembered correctly and I had no interest in that sort of thing.
Morgan hadn’t said a word since Maddie had shown up beside me. I turned and wanted to weep when I saw his expression. He stared at her taking in her raven hair and blue eyes that were exact replicas of his own. I could see his mind working furiously. There was no way he could have any doubt. The resemblance was uncanny.
He started to say something, but I stopped him with a shake of my head. “Maddie honey, Mr. McCall and I are going to go out on the porch and talk. Would you go see if there’s anything in the kitchen to make some coffee please?”
Her nose wrinkled. “Eww, how can you drink that stuff. Could I talk to him after I make it? Jenna will be so jealous. She had like a major crush on him when we were . . .”
She flounced out of the room on a huff and I stepped outside and closed the door. Morgan gave me an incredulous look.
“That’s my daughter isn’t it?”
I didn’t want to answer him.
“Claire? Is that why you left town? Why didn’t you tell me? I would have taken care of you. Of her.”
I sank down onto the old rocker Daddy had spent countless hours in and searched his face. I couldn’t tell if he was angry, but the hurt was unmistakable. Would he try to take her from me? He and his family had money. Lots of money. But it was time to quit running.
“Yes, she’s yours. You were on your way to great things Morgan. You had a full-ride scholarship to one of the most prestigious law schools in the nation. I couldn’t ruin that for you. If I would have told you, you would have stayed in Lamont. Your parents already hated me. Hated that you were dating the preacher’s daughter.” I searched his eyes frantically. It was no wonder he’d become such a successful attorney; his face gave no hint as to what he was thinking. “I’m so sorry I kept her from you. I was young and scared and Daddy was so mad . . . Please don’t take her from me Morgan, she’s all I have.”
He squatted down in front of me and took my hands in his. “Claire, I would never do that. You’re her mother and it’s obvious she adores you. I won’t say I’m not hurt and more than a little angry that I missed out on fifteen years of her life. I wish you would have trusted me. We could have made things work. It would have been tough, but we could have done it.”
“Daddy said you and your parents would make me give her up. That the McCalls wouldn’t want an illegitimate child muddying the waters. He said that with the kind of money you all had I wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of keeping her. He wanted me to end the pregnancy. I couldn’t let any of that happen.”
“Hey, don’t cry. I know how he could be. And I think you know Mom and Dad aren’t that way. They didn’t hate you. They just wanted . . .” He lifted our joined hands and raised my chin up so I was looking him in the eye. “That’s all in the past. We’re both back in Lamont now and I’d love to get to know her.”
More than anything I wanted to fall into his arms and tell him how I’d never stopped loving him. “What will your wife think about you having a teenaged daughter?”
“That’s not an issue.”
He pulled me to my feet never letting go of my hands. “No, it’s not. I don’t have a wife.”
I couldn’t stop the flare of hope. “You never married? Why not?”
He pulled me closer. “Because I’d already given my heart to a little red-haired preacher’s daughter. I love you Claire, I never stopped. I know a lot of time has gone by. Neither of us is a teenager anymore. If you’re willing, I’d like to see what happens.” He pulled back. “Wait, there’s no Mr. Trevelyon is there?”
The hope flared into happiness. “Nope, no Mr. Trevelyon. Never has been. My heart was already taken too.”
He touched his lips to mine. The kiss was tender and full of promise.
“Holy cow. Jenna is going to be over the moon jealous now. Not only did I get to meet Morgan McCall, but he’s my dad. This is so cool. So, you guys going to get married or what? I gotta go call Jenna.”
By the time Morgan and I jumped apart at Madison’s words, the screen door was already bouncing against the door frame as she ran inside to call her best friend. I laughed at the mix of emotions on his face.
“Welcome to life with a teenager Mr. McCall.”
His answer to that was to pull me back into his arms and kiss me again.