Prologue - January
He strummed his fingers along with the song. That riff, the one leading into the chorus, was always the blazing hot part. Of course, it sounded best when the guitar player rocked it loud enough to deafen people in the next county. He and Gideon had tried to imitate it, the lyrics delivered in a wild screech, the guitar yowling and the drums’ percussion strong enough to make rakes and shovels bang against the rack hanging on the garage’s back wall.sad – ”
Gideon, one of the reasons they left LA. The accidents he claimed were nothing more than that. Lives lost, lives Noah wasn’t there to save.
His ease evaporated and he glanced up and down the aisle as he thought about the other big reason, the one he hoped he’d left behind. He noticed nothing obvious, but a threat could lurk anywhere, stalking his family. Even now, the tension never left him.
“Come on already, Char. Father is getting fidgety.”
Noah swallowed the worry, realizing he wasn’t living up to his promise to himself. Be in the moment. This time was about the girls. He used to be Daddy, or at least Dad. Elena decided those names were gauche. She wanted to call him Noah, but he had to draw the line. He was grateful his younger child didn’t yet look at him as if he was an alien from another century, yet being the operative word.
Elena tapped her foot out of time with the overhead music and watched her sister with marked exasperation. Charlotte was having a hard time selecting a binder for school. In the last few months, his outgoing bundle of energy had developed numerous decision-making issues, from what to wear each day to which books she wanted to read. She’d become quiet, too quiet. The psychologist assured him it was a method of coping with upheaval from the divorce. Noah understood the why, but he didn’t know how to fix it, another source of ongoing frustration.
“Would you like me to help you, sunshine?” He knelt next to Charlotte and examined the binders in their selection of styles and colors. His little girl smelled like her favorite lavender shampoo and bubblegum body wash. She leaned into his shoulder and he felt her nod as he inhaled with a pang. Up the aisle, Elena expelled another frustrated sigh and popped her gum. The popping accelerated as her eyes focused on her cell phone, her thumbs typing faster than her jaw could chew.
His daughters brought him immense joy. He wouldn’t give up time with them for the world, which made him eternally grateful this job came along. It provided an opportunity to move the girls away from the less savory aspects of life in Los Angeles. He wasn’t sure his kids felt the same way, but they’d come around. Or so he hoped. He hoped Gideon would come around too.
“Father,” Elena popped to emphasize two elongated syllables, “why can’t we study online at home? Lots of kids do it. Amelia goes to school online and then she can travel all over the world with her mother. If I’m going to be stuck in this effing hick town in the middle of effing nowhere, I should be able to go to school online so I can interact with people who are more my type.”
“Elena, language.” He sighed, knowing this was a futile reproof. It didn’t matter how many times he asked her to watch her tendency to curse. He’d even taken away her cell phone for a week.
“It isn’t like it’s even a swear word. I mean, you say worse. I’ve heard you.”
Yes, unfortunately, she had, on the phone with his ex-wife. Trying to be a good example, he set up a curse jar, and whoever said a bad word had to put in a quarter. He hadn’t yet figured out what would happen to the money. Coins were beginning to accumulate.
“Char, honey, how about this binder? Will this work for you?” He tapped a white one at the beginning of the rainbow of choices, and his daughter nodded solemnly.
He grabbed two for good measure and stood, placing them in the shopping cart.
“Father, I cannot believe you picked white. Only morons get white. I mean, really.” Elena stalked over to the cart and picked out the binders with two-fingered distain. “Charlotte needs appropriate colors, or she won’t fit in.”
Her irritation sent the message loud and clear. His eldest thought he was a clueless dork and therefore unfit to do something as straightforward as picking out the correct binders for school. Elena took over the job of helping Char, debating the merits and reasons why each color might or might not work, and Noah realized they’d be there for a while.
His daughters’ heads bent together in intense conversation. He’d do anything to protect them. Slay any dragons and neutralize any threats. He just had to see them coming. He couldn’t always be at his girls’ sides. Horror could ambush them on any street corner, at any alley entrance, even in a pristine green park.
The piped-in music changed to a heavy metal classic delivered in show tune fashion more appropriate to a dentist’s office, but despite its presentation, he bopped his head along with the rhythm. Music always soothed him, and today, he needed to restore his sense of calm. This move north to Flynn’s Crossing made him almost as jittery and unsure as the girls. Unsure wasn’t in his genes, or at least up until last summer, he didn’t think it was.
He hadn’t always been clueless either. In almost everything else in life, he was the bomb. Wait, did anyone say that anymore? He couldn’t help nodding and bumping along to the beat. If that made him un-cool, so be it. He was a clueless embarrassment to his girls, who were sure they knew more than he did.
Swaying with an occasional snap of his fingers, he let his eyes roam the stacks of paper and dividers extending down the aisle. This early on a rainy Thursday morning, they had the place to themselves. His shoulders shook in a little shimmy when it came to the chorus. He grabbed a package of highlighters and pulled off a passable dip and dive with the fake microphone, mouthing the words to the music. As absorbed as they were, neither of the kids noticed. No one else would witness his rock and roll tribute.
Except for her.
He stopped bopping, his eyes snagged on the person at the end of the aisle. She wore a grin that said she’d seen the whole exchange. The song moved on to the next verse, and as if she was part of the band, she bobbed her head back and forth in a parody of a back-up singer. The movement made her braid of light red hair toss on her back. Her lips parted when it came to the chorus, and he found himself grinning and playing along. Together, they lip-synced the words until they were cut-off by an announcement paging any available associate to assist a customer by the printers.
The woman shrugged at their interruption but grinned, and his smile grew in return. She looked vaguely familiar. Was she someone he knew? From here, the expression on her face spelled fun and mischief. What color were her eyes? Even hidden by a tan jacket with a logo on the front, he could tell her body was fit. She was tall, but then, he wasn’t, and she might have to lean down to kiss him.
Where the hell did that come from?
Did he need to put a quarter in the jar if he only thought the words?
It didn’t matter. He hadn’t kissed a woman in so long, he couldn’t remember how long it had been. He kissed his daughters, and he kissed his mother on those rare occasions when she breezed in and out of their lives. He occasionally did a cheek buss with colleagues who were good friends. But kiss a woman, as in full lip-on-lip action?
“You aren’t listening, Father. We’re done. God, will you stop being such an embarrassment?”
“Quarter in the jar when we get home,” he said to show he was listening.
“Charlotte is getting blue binders, because blue is cool. I, on the other hand, will have red, since red is my power color.” Elena sashayed down the aisle as she delivered the information, already giggling and typing into her cell phone as she passed around the corner out of sight. Char followed on dragging feet, leaving dark heel scuffs on the off-white tile floor.
Noah knew how she felt. The last few months hadn’t been a party for any of them, and through it all, he hadn’t taken a break to breathe. Now he wanted to stay here and play rock and roll star with the intriguing singer at the other end of the aisle. Elena would never notice, and he’d be spared her derisive comments in front of the first woman to catch his eye in ages.
She stood where she’d been lip-syncing, that sunny smile still on her face as she examined his family with friendly curiosity. When his eyes met hers, she raised her hand and gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up to go with the grin. A moment later, she disappeared toward the back of the store, as he stood motionless.
He felt a small hand on his and he turned his palm over automatically and closed his fingers, giving Charlotte a squeeze of recognition. When he looked down, her serious eyes filled her watchful expression. It hurt his heart to see her so silent and somber.
She shot a glance down the aisle, and her instant smile lit up his world. She leaned in and he leaned down, because whatever she said would always be important.
“Daddy,” she whispered, “that lady looks like fun.”