Chapter 1. Funeral
They lowered the casket into the ground. There weren’t any other people around. Everyone had gone home after the preacher stopped talking. Roses and dirt covered his casket. The sun shined through the leaves of the trees.
“Ma’am, are you okay? I can take you somewhere if you need it,” a deep voice offered.
I sighed and looked up at the man that I assumed to be one of the cemetery caretakers. “No, thank you.”
The man gave me a sad smile and walked around me. All day long, I dealt with sad smiles. The last few days had been hell. Part of me wondered how I made it through. After everything the son of a bitch put me through, and he went and died on me. He took the easy way out, and I had to deal with his destruction.
The drive from Pierson back to Jacksonville took an hour and a half. After everything that happened the last few months, I had sworn off men altogether, not that I had been with many men. In fact, I was only with one, and that was enough for me.
By the time I reached my mother’s house, the sun had gone down. I turned off my car and stared at the garage door for a long moment. It wasn’t one of those moments where you sat and let everything sink in—I felt numb. Nothing made sense to me anymore.
“I fucking hate you,” I said through clenched teeth. My fingers tightened around the steering wheel. I couldn’t let what happened to him sink in because I would lose my mind if I did. It felt like a cold wind blew through my chest and froze my heart. I had to place my hand over my chest to be sure my heart still had a beat.
I climbed out of my car and grabbed my purse. I gritted my teeth to fight back the tears. Only one light shined in the house, and it came from the living room. I wasn’t surprised that my mother stayed awake to wait for me, but I wished she had gone to bed.
Mom came into the small foyer that divided the living room and kitchen. “Hey, baby. How did it go?”
“Well, it was a funeral. How do you think it went?” I asked sarcastically.
Mom pursed her lips. “Do you want something to eat?”
“I think I’ll just have a glass of water. Is Stormy in bed?” I turned and started for the kitchen. I didn’t need to hear my mother’s footsteps to know she would follow me into the kitchen.
Mom sat down at the kitchen island as I ran the faucet and grabbed a cup out of the cupboard. Mom sighed but didn’t answer my question.
I sipped the water and turned to face her slowly. “You didn’t answer my question?”
“Look, baby, about Stormy—” Mom started.
“Oh my god. You didn’t tell her, did you?” I snapped. I sat the glass down on the counter harder than necessary and narrowed my eyes at my mom. “Damn it, Mom—”
“Don’t use that word with me, Abigail Lindsey,” Mom warned and pointed a finger in my direction.
“I asked you not to say anything. That is my job. I’m her mother,” I spat. My blood pumped so hard and fast from the anger that it caused a rapid thumping noise in my ear.
“I didn’t tell Stormy anything, but you need to. She hounded me all day, wondering where you were and why you were gone so long. She asked me if you went to see her dad. She’s not stupid, Abigail. She knows something is wrong,” Mom said.
I sighed, feeling a little relieved, and leaned back against the counter. The flow of my blood slowed and steadied. “I’ll tell her when I feel the time is right. I can’t just spit out that her dad is dead, okay? Mom, I’ve barely had time to wrap my own head around it. Please, give me some time.”
Mom crossed her arms over her chest and nodded.
I could tell she had more to say to me, but I wasn’t sure what and not sure that I wanted to know. My curiosity got the best of me, “Spit it out.”
“Was it a suicide?” Mom asked.
“Yes,” I murmured. “He wrote a note for me.” I swallowed hard. “He said he refused to live without me but didn’t know how to stop using.”
“You should have put him in rehab. He was your husband. Marriage is sacred, Abigail. That’s what I taught you. I’m a little upset that you didn’t push at him harder—”
“Damn it, Mom, stop! I did everything that I could. I tried to talk him out of it. I told him to stop when he started. It’s not my fault. I told him if he didn’t stop, I would leave, and that is what I did. I never thought he would commit suicide, but I couldn’t live like that anymore. I told him if he got his shit together, that maybe I would come back.”
“Would you have gone back?” Mom challenged.
“Honestly, probably not. I didn’t love him anymore. You don’t know what it was like,” I murmured. “Once he started doing drugs, he was horrible to Stormy and me. He turned into a monster.” It might have sounded harsh, but that’s what drugs turned a person into.
Mom stared at me intently. “Did he hit you?”
I grabbed my glass of water and downed it before I sat the cup in the sink. My gaze didn’t meet hers as I walked past her.
Mom caught my arm before I could get too far. She turned me to face her. “Tell me something, Abigail. When you showed up here a few weeks ago, you didn’t tell me much. Obviously, a lot went on. If you won’t tell me, maybe you should see someone who can help you,” Mom said.
“A shrink?” I scoffed. “I don’t need help. I need to get a job and get my own place. I need to move past this. I came back here so I could get past it, not relive what happened with him by telling everyone.”
“I just think you should consider it,” Mom pressed.
From the look on her face, I knew she wouldn’t give in, but neither would I. The stubbornness came from my mom. “I’ll think about it,” I lied.
“Goodnight,” Mom said and pecked my cheek.
“Goodnight.” I turned away from her and went upstairs. Stormy’s bedroom door was across from mine and ajar. I peeked my head in to check on my three-year-old daughter.
Her dark curly brown hair fanned across the pillow, and she had one leg sticking out of her blanket. She had the teddy bear that her father gave to her on her birthday. Tears welled up in my eyes. I turned and strolled across the hall to my room. I closed the door and leaned up against it as tears poured down my cheeks.
Part of me wondered if she would hate me when she got older and learned the truth. Telling Stormy about her father’s death wouldn’t be easy. Stormy loved her father, Jason. Jason wasn’t always a horrible person, but drugs changed him. I pushed at him as much as I could to walk away from it, but it got to the point that I didn’t know how to help him anymore, and he became cruel. He nearly hit Stormy, and that’s when I knew I had to leave. Hitting me was one thing, but hitting Stormy, I couldn’t tolerate.
I got pregnant with Stormy unexpectedly during an intricate part of my life, and that’s how she got her name. She came during the storm of my life, and she pulled me out of the storm. Depression succumbed me a few years ago, and my self-esteem hit an all-time low. I drank too much, just for the hell of it. I partied so much that it’s a miracle my body wasn’t found in a dumpster or ditch somewhere. Before I became a mom, I wasn’t much better than Jason. Jason and I settled down, but Jason went back to partying times ten.
I changed into pajamas and crawled under the covers. Even though this wasn’t Jason and I’s bed, I could still feel him, as if he laid beside me. I could smell, hear, and feel him, but he wasn’t here. Jason was my first and only boyfriend. Getting past him seemed impractical, until one day, the realization that I wasn’t in love with him anymore hit me. It hit me like a bolt of lightning. Nothing felt the same after that.
My heart felt heavy and unsteady—it would be a miracle if my heart ever beat correctly again. Regardless of how bad Jason got, I still loved him, just not the same way I used to.
There were a few raps on the front door. I finished putting on my shoes and got off the steps to answer the door. Mom’s footsteps came from in the kitchen.
“I’ve got it, Mom,” I said. I opened the door, and my eyes widened in surprise. “Oh my god, Chelsea,” I breathed.
“Hey,” Chelsea said and smiled. “I hope you don’t mind me coming by. Your brother said you were back in the area. I ran into him last night.”
“I don’t mind. Come in.” I stepped back and held the door wider for her.
Chelsea walked past me and gazed around in wonder. “Wow, this place hasn’t changed.”
“Mom hates changes,” I said and chuckled.
Mom came into the foyer, and our laughter stopped. “Chelsea, what a surprise. How are you doing?”
“Hey, Ms. Ortiz,” Chelsea said.
Mom shook her head with a smile. “You can call me Marlena,” Mom said. Mom turned to me and kissed my cheek. “I have to get to work.”
“See you later, Mom,” I said. The front door closed behind my mom, and I turned to Chelsea. “So. . .” I trailed off.
“I thought maybe we could go to the mall or catch a movie later,” Chelsea suggested.
“Oh, um, that’s thoughtful, but I’m pretty booked today,” I grimaced.
“Your brother said you just got back?” Chelsea arched a brow. “You make plans fast.” Chelsea looked as if she didn’t believe me. It wouldn’t be the first time I blew her off. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings like that anymore. We were friends for a long time.
“Well, Sean told you wrong. I’ve been back for a few weeks. I need to find a job. Sitting around here all day is getting to be depressing,” I said.
“Oh, okay,” Chelsea said and nodded.
“I’m free tomorrow night,” I said. “We could grab a couple of drinks or something.”
“Aren’t you sort of on the wagon?” Chelsea’s eyes widened with concern.
I laughed. “I can control it. I was always able to control it. I just didn’t want to. I have a drink from time to time. I just don’t drink a lot. I don’t drink without a sitter.”
“Oh, right. Okay, a few drinks would be great.” Chelsea hugged me. “See you later.”
The door closed behind Chelsea. I walked to the edge of the steps. “Stormy!” I waited to see if she would come to me or if I would have to go up and grab her.
Stormy came around the corner with her blanket and teddy bear. She had a pouty face. “What?” she grumbled.
“Come on, baby. We need to go out for a little while.” In hopes she would drop the attitude, I gave her a small smile.
Stormy could talk well for her age and understood things in ways that most toddlers couldn’t. She wasn’t happy with me when I left Jason. She understood the reason why, but she missed him. I hated that I had to tell her that her dad’s dead. Part of me feared that Stormy would blame me for it.
“I don’t want to,” Stormy said. She raised her chin a fraction, and it reminded me so much of Jason when he didn’t want to do something.
“Stormy, I need to go find a job. I promise that if you’re good, I will get you a treat when we go grocery shopping, okay?” My eyes pleaded with her.
Stormy sighed and started down the steps. She reached me and sat down on the second to the last step. I grabbed her shoes and knelt in front of her to put them on.
“Mommy, I miss Daddy,” Stormy said.
I swallowed hard and looked up at her. “We’re going to talk about him tonight after dinner, okay?”
“Okay,” she muttered. From the tone of my voice, Stormy knew that it wasn’t good news, but she didn’t press the issue.
I turned up the radio as we drove down the street. Stormy would get cranky if she had to go on a car ride with no music. I had her favorite CD in. She sang along to the song.
Mom had picked up a newspaper for me, and I circled the jobs I had the most interest in applying for. I had experience with waitressing, cashier, coffee shops, and more.
The first one I stopped at looked nice. The coffee shop wasn’t big, and it wasn’t a corporate business. It was privately owned. This coffee shop wasn’t here during my teen years.
After I filled out the application and gave it to the manager, I ordered a small cup of coffee. Stormy asked for a doughnut. I handed her the doughnut. Stormy and I started for the door of the coffee shop.
“Mommy, can we have spaghetti for dinner?” Stormy’s chocolate brown eyes twinkled with hope and excitement.
There wasn’t any possible way to say no to her when she had that kind of enthusiasm. It was the most enthusiasm I had seen in her eyes in weeks. “Sure, bug.”
“Mommy, watch out!” Stormy stopped, and her little mouth opened into the shape of an O.
By the time I looked to see what stood in my way, it was too late. I gasped. My arm collided with a chest and the coffee lid popped off. The coffee splashed against the person’s chest and fell to the floor. “Oh my god!” I squealed. I threw my hands over my mouth. The steam rose in the air between us. I didn’t need to be burned by the coffee to understand that it was scalding hot.
The guy hissed in pain and clutched his coffee-stained shirt. “Damn,” he grunted.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I breathed. “I didn’t mean to. I can—”
He took in a sharp breath and looked at me with cold eyes. His gaze flickered down to Stormy.
I pushed Stormy behind me and gave him a puzzled look.
His eyes flickered back to mine, and he shook his shirt slightly. His blue eyes didn’t match his black hair and dark skin. His blue eyes were cold just a moment ago, and the coldness faded abruptly after he looked at Stormy. He cleared his throat and shook his head. “Don’t worry about it,” he murmured. A moment ago, he looked like he wanted to lay into me, and suddenly his entire demeanor changed. He looked emotionless but not cold.
Why does he look so familiar? “No, really, I’m so sorry. I can give you some money for a new shirt. I really—”
“Seriously, it’s fine. It was an accident. Excuse me.” He stepped around me.
I pulled Stormy closer to me. Both of us stared at the man as he retreated.
My car sat along the curb just outside the coffee shop.
Stormy climbed into her booster seat, and I strapped her in. “Mommy, that man was mad.”
“He just got burned by coffee. Of course, he’s mad, bug,” I said. Something about him was familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
“He had pretty eyes,” Stormy said and smiled.
I snorted and giggled. “Did he?”
“I want a boyfriend with pretty eyes,” she said and smiled.
“Oh my god,” I said and bursted into laughter. “Bug, I really hope you play hard to get a little harder than that. You can’t just fall head over heels for a boy because of his eyes.”
“Yes, I can,” she argued. She stuck her tongue out at me.
“Well, I’m not getting that job,” I muttered.
“Are you kidding? I just burned a customer with hot coffee. I’m sure the workers behind the counter saw it.”
“It was just an accident,” Stormy said and shrugged.
I sighed and pulled away from the curb. My daughter’s incorrigible—I thought to myself. However, I couldn’t deny that she was right about his eyes. Something about his eyes was very alluring—practically seductive, and he wasn’t even trying.
My twin brother Sean came over for dinner. Sean, Mom, Stormy, and I sat around the small table in the kitchen.
“So, how did the job hunting go?” Mom asked me.
Sean looked up at me with a curious gaze.
“Mommy spilled coffee on a man at the coffee shop,” Stormy blurted out. Stormy giggled at the memory. “He was mad.”
Sean threw his head back and laughed. “You are a fucking klutz, Abby.”
“Sean Alexander,” Mom snapped. “Don’t you speak that way in front of this baby.” Mom gestured to Stormy, then reached across the table and smacked Sean upside the head.
“Ow, Momma, sorry,” Sean muttered.
I giggled. Anytime my mom scolded us, she always used our first and middle name. It sounded more threatening. We always knew when we were in big trouble growing up. It was the only time she said our full names.
“It was an accident. Stormy asked me a question, and I looked down to answer her. I didn’t see him,” I muttered.
“Oh, sure, blame me,” Stormy muttered and rolled her eyes.
Sean chuckled. “Don’t feel bad, Stormy. She did it to Uncle Sean growing up too.”
I scoffed. “I did not.”
“Did so,” Sean argued. “Oh, hey, I ran into Chelsea—”
“I know. She was here earlier. I made plans to go out with her tomorrow,” I said.
“Do you have a sitter?” Mom asked.
I put my fork down and bit my lip. My eyes pleaded with Mom’s eyes.
Mom sighed. “Abigail, I can’t do it,” Mom said sternly and gripped her fork tighter as irritation colored her eyes. “I have to work tomorrow night.”
“But it’s Saturday,” I argued.
“I told you I had a big project at work,” Mom said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
“I’ll watch her,” Sean said.
I gave my brother a dubious look. “Are you kidding? If you watch her, she will be up until midnight eating ice cream and candy.”
“I want ice cream,” Stormy said and grinned widely.
Sean rolled his eyes. “I can take care of her.”
I debated it for a moment. I gazed down at Stormy, and she smiled widely at me. “Ugh, I suppose,” I said. I looked back at Sean, and he was smiling wickedly. “But she needs to go to bed by nine, or she will mess up her schedule. I mean it, Sean.”
“Chill, sis. I got this,” Sean said. “How hard can one three-year-old be?”
Mom chuckled and looked at Sean doubtfully.
We finished eating in silence.
Mom put Stormy to bed for me. Sean and I cleared the table and started the dishes. Mom hated dishwashers. She referred to them as pointless because you had to have the dishes most of the way cleaned off before you put them in the dishwasher, so you might as well clean them by hand.
Sean turned to look at me as he dried the last plate. “I’m going to save Chelsea the horror of having to tell you. . .” Sean trailed off.
“Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good,” I teased.
Sean bit down on his lip and shrugged. He put the plate back in the cupboard and turned back to face me. He shoved his hands in his pockets and leaned against the counter. “We started seeing each other a few weeks ago,” Sean said.
“Ew.” My face scrunched up in disgust. “Really?”
Sean rolled his eyes and scoffed. “Grow up, Abby.”
“I’m far more grown-up than you,” I muttered.
Sean chuckled and shrugged. “Okay, maybe,” he allowed.
“She’s had a crush on you forever, you know,” I said and shrugged. “I’m not surprised.”
“She did?” Sean asked in disbelief.
“Well, don’t tell her that I told you that, but yes. You probably would have known this if you weren’t too busy running around with a different girl every week,” I teased.
“What can I say? The player thing gets old after a while.”
“Wow, you have matured. Tell me more.”
“I’m serious. It took me a while to convince Chelsea that I was serious about wanting to be with her,” Sean said and sighed. “I deserved that.”
“Or worse,” I snickered.
“Ha-ha,” Sean muttered.
“Where are you working?”
“I’m working for Mateo Cruz.”
The air escaped my lungs, and I turned to face my brother.
He stopped and pursed his lips at my reaction. “Wow, I think Mom took it better than you did,” Sean teased. He batted his eyelashes innocently.
“You’re in a freaking motorcycle gang!” I shrieked. I shoved him back with my hand and stepped closer. “Are you insane?”
“It’s not that bad,” Sean snapped. “I’m not doing drugs. I’m not drinking all the time. They’re cool guys. I mostly do mechanic work.”
I scoffed. “Right. They’re so innocent. Everyone knows who Mateo is and what he does,” I spat. I crossed my arms over my chest and shifted my weight to one leg.
“That’s just a bunch of rumors, Abby. Most of that crap you hear isn’t true. I’m a grown-ass man. Don’t fucking treat me like I’m five. I’m older than you. Did you forget?”
“By ten minutes, you idiot, and if you didn’t act like you were five, I wouldn’t treat you like you’re five. I can’t believe Mom would let you—”
“Mom can’t fucking do anything about it. I’m an adult. Besides, look at some of the jobs you’ve done,” he snapped. His eyes narrowed at me.
My gaze fell to the floor. Tears built in my eyes. Sean knew I wasn’t proud of that, and I couldn’t believe he threw it in my face.
Sean sighed. “I’m sorry, Abby.” He reached for me, but I took a step back.
“I’m going to bed. I-I’ll bring Stormy tomorrow around six,” I murmured. I turned and walked out of the kitchen.
“Abby,” Sean called after me, but I ignored him, and he didn’t follow after me.
I stopped at Stormy’s bedroom and peeked in.
Stormy looked up at me and smiled. “Hi, Mommy.”
“Hey, baby. I wasn’t sure if you were still awake,” I said. I stepped into her room, closed the door, and turned on the small pink lamp beside her bed. “We need to talk.” I sat down on the edge of the bed. My mind raced, and I wasn’t sure where to start.
“About what?” Stormy asked. She sat up and clutched her blanket. Her eyes filled with worry.
Mom had been right. Stormy knew something wasn’t right the last few days. I sighed and stared down at my hands which were intertwined and trembling. I held my hands so tightly together that my fingers ached in protest.
I looked up at Stormy and swallowed hard. “We have to talk about your dad.”