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Avery and Mike thought they had the perfect American family until their daughter ran away. Now Fiona’s back in town...and nothing will ever be the same again.
Avery Montgomery’s life changed forever in the checkout line at the Food-4-Less when she discovered her long-lost daughter, Fiona, working at the next register. Though Avery yearns to reestablish contact, Fiona has secrets and failures she can’t bring herself to share with her mother–and especially with her father.
Finally forced to choose between her marriage to Mike and a future that includes their beloved only child, Avery struggles to heal the rift that is tearing her family apart. To do that, she must risk everything she cares about, confront the sorrows of the past, and rediscover the love that once bound her family together. Avery must reach out to her husband and her daughter to forge a bright new future–and she must do it through a simple gift conceived in love.
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Karyn Witmer also writes historical romance novels under the pseudonym, Elizabeth Grayson. She lives in Missouri with her husband, Tom, and indolent cat, Simba.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Avery Montgomery's life changed in the checkout line at the Food-4-Less, right between the Bounty paper towels and the Heifitz hamburger dills.
"You got coupons, Avery, honey?" the checker asked.
Avery flashed the woman a smile and dug into the side pocket of her purse. She'd gone to high school with Loretta McGee; Loretta Polk she'd been then. They were awarded their diplomas at Larkin High two students apart–Parrish, Pettigrew, Pignoli, Polk. Loretta had been so pregnant that afternoon not even her graduation gown had been able to camouflage her condition, and she'd been married to Sam McGee before most of the senior class had recovered from their graduation-party hangovers.
Avery handed Loretta a fistful of coupons and glanced past the woman's care-weathered features to the people lined up at the next checkout. A burly man in a red plaid shirt jammed change into the pocket of his jeans and grabbed up the twelve-pack of Budweiser like he wanted to get home to his TV for the second-half kickoff.
As he turned toward the door, Avery caught sight of the checker at the next register. She was new to the Food-4-Less, sharp-featured and bony in the way kids consider provocative these days. With her bird's nest of raspberry-purple hair and the silver studs inching up the curve of her ear like a metallic centipede, she wasn't the type of girl Gill Matheson usually hired.
Then, as the new checker turned to greet her next customer, her gaze caught–and held–Avery's own.
In that instant, a shock of recognition thundered through Avery. The air in her lungs went vaporous and thin. Cold doused her. A maelstrom howled in Avery's head, as years of cherished memories swirled past her eyes.
Instinctively she reached back, seeking her husband's hand. Mike was there, just like always, clasping her fingers in his own, pressing his thorny thumb into the hollow of her palm. Holding her together.
"It's–it's her!" Avery whispered.
Mike squeezed in confirmation.
It was their daughter Fiona–Fee who'd run off eighteen months before to tour with Jared Hightower's rock band.
Deep inside, the fragile vessel where Avery had stored up every dram of her anguish and fear for her daughter abruptly burst. Thick, sweet relief spilled through her chest and belly.
Fiona was here.
Fiona was safe.
Fiona was home.
Then, Fee shifted her gaze to her next customer. Without the intensity of that contact, Avery wavered, then felt her husband steady her.
Every morning since her daughter ran away, Avery had risen from sleep with a hot, nameless dread squirming in her chest. For an instant she couldn't remember why that was, then she'd see Fee's photograph on her nightstand, and it gave that dread a name. It gave it substance and form and urgency. It stirred up grief that lay like a burden on her heart, a weight she carried around with her no matter what she did or where she went.
Avery had spent every day since Fiona left, listening for the phone to ring, waiting for one of her daughter's infrequent e-mails to arrive. Every night she'd scurry back to the house where she and Mike and Fee had lived together, open the door hoping–then stand staggered by the emptiness. Not once in all those months had Avery closed her eyes at night without wondering where Fiona was and if she was well and safe.
It's going to be all right now, Avery told herself. Now that Fee was back in Larkin, Avery would find a way to make it right.
She drew herself up tall and fought to find her balance. She needed to go to her daughter, clasp her hands around those bony shoulders, and smooth that haystack hair. She needed to kiss her daughter's cheek and seek the child she'd lost in the body of this stranger.
Avery stepped forward, meaning to greet Fee, to hold her safe in her arms, but Mike tightened his grip on her hand. "You don't mean to confront her here, do you?" he asked in an undertone. "Not with half the town watching to see what happens."
Before Avery could think, he turned to Loretta. "I'll be back to get the groceries later."
Loretta glanced first at Avery, then at Fee. "I'll have someone put them in the cooler out back."
"Thanks," Mike said and shifted his grip to Avery's elbow. He steered her down the checkout lane, propelled her past the row of teenage baggers, and through a clot of abandoned shopping carts.
Fiona didn't so much as glance their way, concentrating instead on the queue of Sunday afternoon customers backed up at her register.
The door into the parking lot whooshed open before them. The toes of Mike's work boots nudged the heels of Avery's pumps as he urged her through. He bustled her down the ramp and across the blacktop to where his midnight- blue Silverado was parked.
Any other time, Avery would have resisted, but she was too shaken by seeing her daughter and too unsure of what she should say to her to pull out of Mike's grasp. Over the years she'd trusted Mike to do what he thought was best for her, to do what he thought was best for all of them. So she let him hand her into the cab of the truck. She waited for him to stride around to the driver's side.
He had barely slammed the door behind him, when she burst out, "That was Fiona, wasn't it?"
She was almost afraid to believe what she'd seen, to believe that the terrible months of anxiety were over.
"Yes," Mike confirmed.
"After all this time," she wanted to know, "how could she just turn up here? Right in the middle of the grocery store?"
"I don't know, sweetheart."
Avery looked up in to her husband's angular, sun-browned face and tried to gauge his reaction to unexpectedly encountering their daughter.
"Where do you suppose she's been all these months?" Her voice wavered a little. "And why did she decide to come back to Larkin now?"
Mike reached out and took her hand.
"She has to have been in town for at least a little while," Avery went on, reasoning aloud. "Prime jobs like checking at the Food-4-Less get filled the minute the kids come back to college."
Mike's deep, sure voice steadied her, just the way it always did. She stared past him out the window and tried to think. "Where do you think she's been staying?"
"With Casey?" he guessed.
Casey DeCristo had been Fiona's best friend ever since the day her daughter had been summarily promoted from second to fourth grade. She'd arrived in Mrs. Lapp's classroom a scrawny, fierce-eyed seven-year-old. Fee had already figured out that being smarter than everyone else made you a freak and wanted her classmates to know she wasn't going to let them bully her.
But that first day at recess, Casey, who was a pretty, popular, self-possessed ten, had gone out of her way to befriend the younger girl. That simple kindness had forged a friendship that was going to last all their lives.
Since then, the two girls had ridden bikes together, tried out for school plays together, "eewed" through dissections in biology class together. They'd had sleepovers at each other's houses, baked countless pans of butterscotch brownies, and gone off to band camp arm in arm.
Fee and Casey had shared clothes and worries and girlish secrets. Then, in the middle of their junior year of high school, Casey had met and fallen in love with Dan DeCristo. From that day on, she and Fee had set about making very different lives for themselves–but their friendship had never wavered.
Avery nodded in agreement with her husband. "If Fee is back in Larkin, she'd be staying in that tiny little house of Casey and Dan's."
The tiny little house mere blocks from where Fee had grown up, from where she and Mike were living now.
"Oh, Mike!" Knowing how close her daughter had been put that quaver back in Avery's voice. "Why wouldn't Fee come home to us instead? Why didn't she even let us know she was back in Larkin?"
Her husband slid an arm around her shoulders and pulled her toward him across the seat. He wrapped her against him, drawing her close. She nestled into the hard breadth of that workingman's body, breathed the tang of freshly sawed wood that was so much a part of who he was, and closed her eyes against the sting of tears.
He stroked his hand the length of her ruddy-brown braid, feathered kisses against the faint crease that had formed between her brows. He hugged her close, and Avery indulged herself in the comfort she'd always found in her husband's strength.
"Fee's always insisted on having things her own way," he murmured.
As if that explained why Fiona had kept her return to Larkin a secret, as if he could accept the pain not knowing caused. But even as mildly as he'd spoken, Avery heard the edge in his voice. Because Fee had always been her daddy's girl, Mike had been angry and deeply hurt by the way she left.
"If she wanted us to know she was back," he went on, "she didn't have to guess about where to find us."
After all these months of silence, Avery didn't care what Fiona wanted. She didn't care that Mike was advocating caution in approaching her. Right now Avery knew exactly where her daughter was, and she meant to have a word with Fee before she slipped away again.
Avery lifted her head from her husband's shoulder and looked up into his deep-blue eyes. Her gaze skimmed the angle of his long jaw, touched the sprinkling of gray in his dark hair.
"Thank you," she whispered. She eased out of his arms and reached for the door handle.
"What are you doing?" Mike demanded and caught her arm.
"I'm going to talk to Fiona."
"You're going in there and will make a scene"–he notched his chin in the direction of the grocery store– "that will set the whole town talking!"
Avery turned and looked back at him. "If people know Fiona's back in Larkin," she pointed out, "they're talking already. As fast as word usually gets around, I'm surprised no one's seen fit to tell one or the other of us that Fee's returned."
If Avery hadn't been looking at Mike directly, if she hadn't known his face as well as she knew her own, she might have missed the faint shift in his expression. She might not have seen the nearly imperceptible tightening at one corner of his mouth, the shadow that crept into his eyes.
In that instant, Avery felt the weight of certainty settle over her. "My God!" she said on a shaky breath. "You knew Fiona was back in Larkin, didn't you?"
Sometimes, for a smart girl, she was just too stupid to live.
Fiona eased her purple Neon into the parking space behind Dan and Casey DeCristo's tiny brick house and killed the engine.
"Damn it!" she shouted, pounding her palms on the steering wheel. "Damn it, damn it! You knew if you came back to live in Larkin you were bound to run into your parents!"
On the drive from California to Kansas, Fiona had brooded over that first meeting for miles on end. What she ought to do, she'd told herself, was drive directly to her parents' house and announce that she'd come home to Larkin in disgrace. But she hadn't been brave enough to do that.
Fee thought about stopping at the Holding Company on her way into town, the stuffed-animal business her mother had founded when Fee went into kindergarten. Once the women who'd been doting on Fee since she was five years old had welcomed her back, what choice would her mother have except to greet her with open arms?
Since she hadn't had the courage to do that, either, Fee had been considering asking Casey to invite Avery over for coffee. That way, at least, she would have been able to confront her mother for the first time in private.
Fiona hadn't dared to think what it might be like to confront her father.
She wrapped her hands around the steering wheel and shook it hard. Since she'd made this mess, she should have taken responsibility for arranging the first meeting with her parents. It might not have been comfortable, but at least it would have been on her own terms.
Instead she'd glanced up from her register at the Food-4-Less and found them staring at her from the next checkout. Her heart had leaped so hard against her breastbone Fee thought it might pop the snaps down the front of her scum-green smock.
Fee raised her fist to her chest and tried to rub away that lingering tightness.
Since her parents almost always shopped at the Food-4-Less in town, she thought she'd be safe taking a job at the store out by the highway. Yet there they'd been, right in the middle of the Sunday afternoon rush: her mother, whey- faced and swaying on her feet, and her father, glaring as if he intended to incinerate her on the spot.
In that instant, Fee had been shocked not just at the sight of them, but by the new creases that stood out around her mother's eyes like wrinkles in a bedsheet. The open hostility in her father's face had forced her back a step, and she wondered if he was more angry with her for what she'd done, or how it had affected her mother.
It's all my fault, Fee conceded, her conscience jabbing her. She'd deliberately snatched up the chance to get away, chosen love and adventure over what she realized even then was the wiser choice. Knowing the things she and her parents had said to one another that last night and remembering the way she'd left, Fee hadn't wanted all that much contact. So she'd fallen silent, making her mother worry and her father . . .
God only knows what her father thought.
Fiona huffed out a shaky breath and scrubbed at her eyes. She climbed out of the car and darted across the backyard to the DeCristo's side door. As Fee jerked it open, Casey appeared on the landing trailed by her sturdy two-year-old son. Casey had on a frilly lavender sundress in deference to the lingering mid-September heat and had curled her hair.
Guilt prodded Fee hard. She'd forgotten she promised to baby-sit for Casey and Dan tonight. Now she was late and had wasted their precious time together.
"I'm sorry," she apologized hastily. "I didn't mean to hold you and Dan up."
"Not a problem," Casey assured her and gathered Derek up in her arms.
Fee followed Casey and her toddler into the hall, then headed directly for the bedroom at the back of the house. It was barely large enough to accommodate the low toddler's bed and the battered maple crib set up in the corner. Still, the creamy yellow walls and bright strip of Winnie the Pooh wallpaper that banded the waist of the room gave the place a bright, whimsical feeling.
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Book Description Dell, 2006. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0553584251
Book Description Dell, 2006. Mass Market Paperback. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0553584251