RIA MARTINSHOULDhave enjoyed the chance to escape the endless bills and even more endless chores that faced her as the owner of a small, struggling motel. She should have relished the soft fall breeze off the bay. But as she hurried toward her teenage daughter’s school, her stomach churned.
Can you come pick up Kaitlyn ASAP?
October, and it was the third such urgent text message since Kaitlyn had started eighth grade. Ria’s heart ached for her sensitive younger daughter, and she wished she could just hug her and make everything right again. But hugs hadn’t helped, and neither had probing conversations nor clear consequences. Kaitlyn’s grades were slipping and her reputation as a star student was morphing into that of a star troublemaker. What had happened to Ria’s sweet daughter?
The private school’s parking lot was small, the two-story brick building surrounded by trees on two sides and backed by the sparkling waters of the Chesapeake. She paused a moment, deliberately making herself look at the natural beauty that usually calmed her. She’d been fortunate to get tuition assistance when they’d moved here last year, part of a displaced homemaker scholarship program. Such a great opportunity for her girls. Or so she’d thought.
Obviously, a highly ranked school wasn’t enough to help Kaitlyn, not now, anyway. She’d always been a daddy’s girl, even more so after the divorce.
And he’d gone AWOL as a parent.
She paused at the bench outside the school’s front door, sat down and tapped Drew’s number on her phone.
This time, it wasn’t even him asking callers to leave a message. “The mailbox is full,” recited a mechanical voice.
For just a second, worry overrode anger. Had something happened to her ex-husband, the girls’ father?
But no. If it had, she’d have heard. Yes, he was two hours away in Baltimore, but his department had her number and would let her know if he’d been in some kind of accident. They’d been divorced only a year and a half, separated six months before that. It wasn’t as if she and the girls were off his—or his employers’—radar.
This was just Drew being irresponsible, which was totally out of character, but then, men went nuts when they got divorced. It was the nature of the gender. She thrust the phone toward her purse, missed the pocket and grabbed for it as it fell to the ground.
“Ria! What are you doing?”
Her mother’s voice startled her. When she looked up to see Mom’s concerned face, her eyes warm and bracketed by fine wrinkles, her tawny hair pulled back into a messy ponytail, she felt like bursting into tears. But she didn’t, of course; she was a competent adult. “Being an idiot,” she said as she snagged the phone and looked at the face of it. “I think I cracked it. What are you doing here?”
“I got a text about Kaitlyn. When I texted back, the secretary said she skipped out of class again.”
Ria stood and frowned. She hadn’t called or texted back; she’d just hurried right over here. “Why would they get in touch with both of us?”
Mom shrugged. “Sometimes, when they can’t reach you...” She trailed off.
Ria’s perpetual mom-guilt ratcheted up a couple of notches. It was true, sometimes she couldn’t be reached, caught up in the day-to-day management of the Chesapeake Motor Lodge.
She’d never wanted to be that mom, focused on her career instead of her kids. But when she and Drew had split, working only part-time hadn’t been an option anymore. Thank heavens they’d moved to Pleasant Shores and were close to Mom, who’d picked up a ton of slack for Ria over the past year and a half. Especially when the disaster had happened, the one Mom didn’t even know about, because nobody knew. “I’ll take it from here, Mom. You do too much for me already.”
“Are you sure? I’m glad to help.”
“No, it’s fine. You go ahead back to work.”
“I’m done for the day. I’ll meet you at your place, if you’d like.”
Impulsively, she hugged her ever-supportive mom. “That would be great. Thank you.”
As Ria watched her mother walk away, she longed to call after her: “Please, stay. I don’t know what to do.”
All Ria wanted in this world was to help her daughter and thus redeem herself as a mother. But there seemed to be some kind of thin-but-impermeable wall between her and Kaitlyn. She could see her—indeed, the sight of her made Ria weak with mother-love—but she couldn’t seem to reach her.
She had to find a way to fix that.
KAITLYNSCRUNCHEDDOWNin one of the chairs outside Pleasant Shores Academy’s administrative offices and watched her mom talk to the school counselor. Despite the fact that she was sure to get yelled at, seeing Mom—her long red hair in need of a straightener, jeans out of style, black blazer showing she was trying to look professional—was a huge relief.
Both foreheads wrinkled, the two women kept glancing her way. Poor Mom, always so stressed, was just getting more so with this new problem. It was all Kaitlyn’s fault. She wanted to throw herself into her mother’s arms and cry like a six-year-old, but that wasn’t an option. For one thing, her mother drove her crazy these days. For another, she’d be tempted to tell Mom what she’d done.
That could never happen. Thank heavens she hadn’t told Mrs. Gray, the counselor, anything substantial. She’d just mumbled something about “friend problems,” because counselors always believed that. And it wasn’t untrue. Rumors about what she’d done had started to circulate, and the teasing had gotten especially bad today. Her friends from last year seemed to be ignoring her.
That was why she’d skipped out on her classes. She just had to get out of here.
Maybe the woman sensed Kaitlyn’s thoughts, because she and Mom both turned and beckoned to her. “There’s only one period left, so why don’t you go ahead and go home,” Mrs. Gray said. “You and your mom have some talking to do.”
Kaitlyn stared daggers at the woman.
Mrs. Gray patted her shoulder. “It’s not always easy for mothers and daughters,” she said, “but communication is so important.”
Well, duh. Unfortunately, communication wasn’t exactly her family’s specialty.
They got halfway across the parking lot before Mom started in on her. “I know eighth grade isn’t easy. But you’re old enough to keep control of yourself and stay in class.”
Kaitlyn pressed her lips together, because what did Mom know about eighth grade? What did she know about Kaitlyn’s life? At a school where everyone had been together since kindergarten, Kaitlyn was still considered a new girl and a summer person after a year and a half of living here full-time. It didn’t help that she was the biggest and tallest girl in her class and had gone from an A cup to a D cup practically over the summer.
In the car, she breathed a sigh of relief. Getting away from school felt so, so good. She wished she could get away from Pleasant Shores entirely, just go back to Baltimore for a month like they’d been supposed to do over the summer with Dad.
Not that Pleasant Shores Academy was a horrible place, or at least it hadn’t seemed to be when she’d started there last year. It was much smaller than the public school she and her sister had attended before their parents’ divorce, and she’d liked that, thinking it would be easier to make friends. It was definitely easier to stand out as a star student.
But when everything went south, a small, gossipy school wasn’t what you wanted. She’d learned that the hard way.
“So what exactly happened?” Mom asked as she started the car.
“Don’t yell at me!”
Mom opened her mouth, closed it, took a yoga breath. She had no idea how irritating that was, obviously. “I asked a question,” she said, speaking slowly and clearly now, as if Kaitlyn were a toddler, “in a normal tone of voice.”
The fact that she was right didn’t matter. “Just leave me alone,” Kaitlyn said, and her voice started to shake.
Just like it had when she’d walked up to Chris Taylor in the school library and tried to start a conversation, only to realize he was sneering and rolling his eyes toward Shelby Grayson and her clan, who’d looked at Kaitlyn and laughed in a mean way.
“Oh, honey.” Mom reached out and rubbed her arm as she had when Kaitlyn was little and scared. “Whatever it is, I’m sorry it hurts.”
Tears welled up and Kaitlyn jerked away. “Don’t!” If Mom kept on in this sympathetic voice, she would fall apart.
Mom’s jaw clamped, and she didn’t speak again until they walked in the door of their house. Grandma was there—thankfully—and from the smell of things, she’d cooked a lasagna. Normally, Kaitlyn loved her grandmother’s lasagna, and she hadn’t eaten anything since the granola bar Mom had forced on her this morning.
But her stomach felt too upset to even think of eating.
She headed up to her room, ignoring Mom’s protest, then stopped halfway up the stairs to listen to what Mom would say about the whole scene. She had to wait only a few seconds.
“Is she okay?” Grandma asked.
“I don’t think so. I’m going to go up and see if she’ll talk to me.”
“Give her a little time,” Grandma said. “Sometimes Mom is the last person an upset fourteen-year-old wants to talk to.”
“But...well.” Her mother’s voice sounded sad, almost hopeless. “I guess you’re right, but it’s frustrating not being able to do anything to help.”
“Have you talked to her dad? He always connected so well with Kaitlyn.”
“No, because I haven’t been able to reach him. His mailbox is full and he’s not answering his phone.”
Her grandmother tsked, and they talked a little bit about whether Kaitlyn’s sister, Sophia, could help.
As if. Sophia was too caught up in her own excellent social life to give more than a pitying glance to Kaitlyn.
“You know what?” her mother said to Grandma. “This isn’t Sophia’s responsibility, and like you said, I’m not connecting real well with Kait these days, no matter how hard I try. I’m going to go find Drew.”
“Oh, honey,” Grandma said in exactly the same worried, sympathetic way Mom had spoken to Kaitlyn. “Is that a good idea? I’m glad to stay with the girls, of course, but...”
Kaitlyn closed her eyes. Yes, yes, please yes. Having her big, strong police-officer dad in the area might get Shelby Grayson and Tyler Pollackson and the rest of the mean older kids off her case.
“It’s the only idea I can think of. I know I can get information out of Michael or Barry.” Those were the officers Dad was closest to on the force, who’d been coming to their house since Kaitlyn was small.
“But if he doesn’t want you to know where he is...” Grandma trailed off.
“At this point,” Mom said, “I don’t really care what he wants.”
“You don’t want to catch him in an awkward position.”
When she realized what Grandma was saying, Kaitlyn almost gagged. She did not want to think of her father in an awkward position with anyone.
“Just because Dad ran around within seconds of leaving you, that doesn’t mean Drew is doing the same thing.”
“Of course it doesn’t, honey, but you still might not want—”
“He hasn’t seen the girls for three months. Totally outside our visitation agreement. Just a few texts and some vague excuses. He moved out of his apartment and didn’t even give us his new address.”
“Are the support checks coming?”
“Yes, he’s great about that, but being a father isn’t just about money. They need to see him. Kait especially.”
They went on talking, but Kaitlyn didn’t linger to hear any more. Her mom would go bring her dad home, and Dad would make everything better.
AS RIADROVEthrough their old Baltimore neighborhood, memories flooded her. She had walked through these tree-lined streets so many times, holding Sophia’s hand and pushing Kaitlyn in a stroller. There was that little corner restaurant where she and Drew had gone on date nights. Their old church, where they’d attended in the early days, before Drew got too busy with extended shifts and Ria got too bitter.
She lowered the window, and the smell of autumn leaves brought back more memories. Her stomach twisted with nostalgia and missed opportunities, but she tried to focus on the city noises: cars and horns and sirens from a busier street nearby. She didn’t miss that, she reminded herself. City living could be hectic. She loved the quiet of Pleasant Shores.
There was the park with walking paths, next to the little lake they’d skated on in winter. She and Drew had taught both girls to ride their bikes on those paths.
She drew in a deep breath and let it out, blinking back tears. This was why she avoided coming back to Baltimore. Thanks a lot, Drew, for making me fall apart again.
But that was what Drew did. One look at him and she remembered all the good times; spend an hour with him and she got frustrated and remembered exactly why they’d split.
She pulled into the same gas station where they’d always filled their tanks and ran inside to get something to drink.
“Ria! Is that you?”
Ria turned, and there was Sheila Ryan, one of those mom friends with whom she’d been thrown together for years. They didn’t really like each other, but they pretended to because that was what you did for your kids.
“Hi, Sheila. How’s it going?” Ria prayed that Sheila wouldn’t ask her the same question.
Sheila went into a description of her thirteen-year-old daughter’s ascent up the cheerleading-squad ladder, her status on the honor roll and the volunteer work she was doing to help shelter animals.
“How are Sophia and Kaitlyn doing?” she asked.
“Oh, just great. We love living at the shore.”
“I was sorry to hear about your divorce. That must be a big adjustment, for you and for the girls.” Sheila’s words were kind, but her eyes were just a little too avid and curious. Whatever Ria said would find its way around the gossip circuit.
She sucked in a deep breath, let it out and forced a smile. “Thanks. It’s definitely an adjustment. But I’m running a little motel, and that’s fun.” Except that it’s always at risk of going under. “And the girls love their new school.” Well, Sophia did, so that was at least half-true.
She made an excuse and escaped, and only when she got to the car did she realize that she hadn’t gotten the drink she’d gone in for. She’d never been good at the competitive mom games. They always made her uncomfortable.
As she drove the rest of the way to the police station, she wondered whether it had been like that for the girls, too. Had they felt the competition of their upper-middle-class neighborhood, where she and Drew had stretched so hard to be able to afford their little brownstone?
But none of those status games mattered, she reminded herself. What mattered was helping Kaitlyn.
At the police station, more memories assailed her. She’d come here so often over the years, to pick Drew up, to bring him something he’d forgotten, to just say hello, when the girls had been small and she was a stay-at-home mom.
Now she didn’t fit anymore. The new receptionist didn’t know her, couldn’t tell her anything about Drew, citing confidentiality. Fortunately, she found his friend Michael and begged and pleaded her way into getting Drew’s new address.
“He shouldn’t have fallen out of touch with you, Ria,” Michael said. “But he’s had a tough time. If you want, I can try to call him and let him know that you need to see him.”
“Thanks, but I’ve come this far.” Then what he’d said registered. “He’s not working here anymore?”
“He didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
Michael studied her and slowly shook his head. “He’s on a, um, a leave,” he said.
“Is he okay?” Her heart pounded wildly.
Michael opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again and nodded. “Pretty sure he is,” he said. “Honestly, I haven’t spoken to him for a few weeks.” He looked like he wanted to say more, but someone called him from the back hallway, and he patted her shoulder and left.
Something was definitely going on. And she was going to find out what it was. It wasn’t right that Drew had left her out of his life this far. Not that she had to know everything—they were divorced, after all—but they had kids together, kids who needed him. Her anger mixed with worry, because Drew was usually so responsible. Had he changed that much?
She drove toward the address Michael had given her. The neighborhood wasn’t nearly as nice as where they used to live. Unwanted sympathy washed over her. Drew paid regular, generous child support, which allowed her to live in Pleasant Shores with the girls. He’d taken the hit to his own lifestyle, unlike a lot of divorced dads, and she appreciated that.
She turned onto his block and was looking for a parking place when she saw Drew across the street.
With a woman.
A stylish, laughing, tall, thin blonde. She seemed very animated as she talked with Drew, who was looking straight ahead. They were both tall enough that she could see them over the row of parked cars. She pulled crookedly into a parking place, nearly hitting the car parked in front of her, and sat, breathing hard.
He’d replaced her; he really had replaced her.
She had never thought that would happen. Not really, not deep inside. Her chest contracted around a hole that had opened up right where her heart had been.
It was true, then. He didn’t love Ria anymore. She’d gotten too stressed, too focused on motherhood instead of marriage, too fat. She had screwed up and made so many mistakes, some of which Drew didn’t even know about. Of course a man would leave someone like her.
That tiny flame of hope she’d nursed in her heart of hearts, that they’d get back together, someday, flickered out.
Drew stumbled a little, and the woman leaned closer, seeming to steady him. Drew never stumbled. Had he been drinking? During the day?
What had this woman done to him that he’d be falling-down drunk? Indignation propelled her out of her car. She closed the door quietly and sneaked across the street to watch them from behind. The woman glanced back once, and Ria waited for Drew to do the same, but he didn’t. He was focused straight ahead. His walk was a little halting, not his usual confident stride. Now, though, she could see that he didn’t have the stumble of someone impaired by alcohol.
Had he been injured?
There was something about the way the woman walked a little bit behind Drew rather than right at his side. Ria edged around parked cars until she was in front of the pair of them, crossing the street so they wouldn’t notice her, and her heart nearly stopped when she saw the cane Drew was holding. It was white, with a black handle, a red section near the bottom and a roller tip. He was sweeping it back and forth as he moved down the street, and the truth slammed into her like a gale-force wind.
Drew was blind.