Thursday, November 14, 2013

Lost and Found (Walk the Right Road Series, Book 2) by Lorhainne Eckhart Excerpt

Lost and Found (Walk the Right Road Series, Book 2) by Lorhainne Eckhart
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  • A hit and run on a deserted country road.
  • A woman over the edge, a husband with secrets.
  • And a 911 caller with a murder no one saw coming.


The old Topaz spurted and shuttered as Maggie drove home. The rusted muffler, holding on by a wire, vibrated and shook the floor inside the car. Her ears were buzzing from the loud rumbling, which she supposed announced her arrival from blocks away. “Sorry!” she called, wincing as she waved to her elderly neighbors, who frowned as she passed before pulling in to her driveway. The necessary repairs were fast approaching critical, but on Maggie’s budget, not even an oil change would happen right now.
She blinked as she stood outside her average box-style house and stared at the front door. She turned and looked back at the faded blue car, realizing she couldn’t remember the route she’d taken to drive home. How many times over this past year had she done this?
A familiar scratch and whine yanked Maggie from her funk. She fumbled in her bag for keys while Daisy barked and scratched at the door. Maggie’s best friend and companion, who shared her deepest pain without judgment, unconditionally, always there, was a black and white dog with golden highlights—a sheepdog, lab, retriever, and a few other unmentionable mixes thrown in. The all-American mutt. Not much of a watchdog, but what she lacked, she made up for in spades with comfort, trust, and loyalty. Ten months ago, Maggie had driven to the SPCA. At the time, she didn’t know why she’d stopped, but when she saw Daisy lying quiet, rejected, and unresponsive in that tiny cage, she knew she couldn’t leave without her. Even the girl at the counter was shocked when Maggie specifically asked for the old dog. The lady asked her three times if she was sure she wanted a geriatric dog—one slated to be put down at the end of the week. Maggie was convinced the dog had been sent to her. From the first day of her depression, when she couldn’t get out of bed, Daisy had stayed with her.
Maggie opened the door. “You need to go outside?” she asked.
Daisy barked and pranced in front of Maggie and then raced to the back door, which opened into a small, fenced yard. Daisy was quick in her old age, with the way she darted out into the cold and then rushed back in.
“It’s too cold for you, sweetheart?” she asked. The dog yipped in agreement, and she patted her head and wandered into the open kitchen to brew a hot coffee. The message light flashed on her cordless phone.
She didn’t plan on returning anyone’s call, but she replayed the messages.
“Just checking to see how you’re doing, Maggie. Call me.” Her mom, at times, was irritating with how she kept calling and, when she was in town, dropping by unannounced. But that had been in the beginning, after Lily died. Thankfully, over the last few months, this behavior was decreasing.
The second message was from Richard, her soon-to-be ex. “I’m picking up Ryley from school today and keeping him through the weekend,” he said. Maggie shut her eyes and pressed her fingers to her forehead when a heavy fog of confusion muddled her thoughts. Finally, her memory clicked: Today was Tuesday. She blinked again. Or had she lost another week? She shuffled through the stack of papers, bills, overdue notices, looking for her calendar.
“No, no, no. I don’t think so, Richard,” she muttered. Fury pushed the blood through her veins while she looked at the date on the coffee-stained Day-Timer. She punched in the numbers to his cell phone, knowing he’d be somewhere on the forty-acre property and not in the beautiful two-story cedar home he had built after Ryley was born.
“This is Richard. Leave one.”
“Voicemail, you jerk? You’re screening your calls. You knew I’d call back.” Maggie didn’t think as she threw the phone down on the counter. She grabbed her purse and keys and tore out the front door, slamming it so hard the front window shook. She gunned the engine and backed out of her narrow, paved driveway. A horn blasted behind her, but she didn’t stop to look. Somehow, she made the twenty-minute drive out of town to the Gardiner acreage in just under ten minutes.
Traces of snow scattered the sides of the long driveway, and a big pile had been dumped close to the barn. She jammed on her brakes, and, for a second, doubt cut through her anger. Before thinking it to death, she hit the gas and drove past the double-paddock barn, parking outside the West Coast cedar home—her home, their home, the home she had once loved.
Maggie stared at the brown grass where her babies had played, the half-acre she’d dug and seeded alongside Richard. Old growth trees surrounded the perimeter, with a crop of Douglas fir hiding a small tree house—the one Richard had built for Ryley. Across the front yard, past the whispering willow, was the road that had killed her Lily.
Her cheeks were wet from the tears that wouldn’t leave. She roughly wiped her chapped cheeks and shut her eyes as she leaned back, wishing she could fall into sleep and oblivion, the only place she could forget for a while. But she didn’t. Instead, Maggie crawled out of her car as if she’d aged twenty years. And there stood Richard.
The gray blue of his all-seeing eyes now held an edge of hardness. His dark hair had lightened to a sandy gray, and he wore it longer, the unruly waves whipping around in the wind. Maggie couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something different about him, something solid, like a survivor, that wasn’t there before. He was tall and broad shouldered, and even wearing his old, torn barn jacket, she knew he could still turn every lady’s head.
How long had it been since she was here? With effort, she remembered: She hadn’t been back since the day she loaded Ryley up with their suitcases and drove away.
Watching Richard stare at her in his frigid, unforgiving way, all she could remember was how much she missed the strength of his arms when he enfolded her in them. There was a time when he could have protected her from anything. But not that. Blame had been passed around, the agony—grief. At thirty-seven, the weather-etched lines around his eyes had deepened. His solid jaw now held a bitter edge, and the tiny scar down his left cheek had been her parting gift.
She was rocked by all of it, the regrets. Why was she here? She closed her eyes to blank out his image, but it was too late. She felt the link, the connection to him, and no matter how she tried, she couldn’t sever it. However, she’d made her choice—or maybe it had been made for her?
“Richard, I …”
He said nothing. He left her standing there as he climbed the steps and went inside. The door clattered when it smacked the wood frame, dragging Maggie out of her hypnotic stupor and shocking the fury back into her. She marched after him filled with passion or hate, she didn’t know which, that drove her until she stood in the center of the open kitchen, facing the brickwork of the stovetop island in the center of this once inviting room.
“Maggie, what do you want? I left you a message.” Richard stood at the kitchen sink. He kept his back to her and, from what she could tell, stared out the window at the old-growth forest dotting the perimeter of their property.
“It’s Tuesday. You can’t pick up Ryley and keep him through the weekend. We have an arrangement. You get him on the weekends, not before. He has school and a routine, and it’s important—”
“I don’t give a crap about your perception of routine. The boy belongs here. He’s my son, and it’s time he came home for good.”
He cut her off in a way that was unbending, and she knew it was meant to overpower her, but she wouldn’t cave, not this time, because she felt something vital being yanked away. “You can’t do that! You agreed—we both agreed that Ryley would be better off with me in town. I’m his mother. You can’t take him away from me.”
Richard pushed away from the sink and stalked toward her. As he moved closer, his face softened. Panic expanded in her chest. There was something different about this man she’d once loved so deeply. It was as if he had peace, or was it resolve? Whatever it was changed her scattered focus—her determination. Her belly ached because she realized he’d healed and left her behind. How could he? His strong hands surrounded her shoulders. Tears clouded her clear vision when she looked up and tried to speak. But nothing would come.
“Oh, Maggie, you have to get past it.” His words were soft, but she sensed they were merely his shield.
“I can’t. I still see her running around. If I could have just gotten there sooner … Why did you let her go out? I should have gone with her.”
He didn’t push her away this time. He pulled her against him, surrounding her with his arms—strong arms. She breathed in the piney spice of the trees. He’d been chopping wood. She pressed her cheek against his chest; her head didn’t top his shoulders. She gazed up at him, and her fingers traced over each weather-worn line on his face. Her breath mixed with the warmth of his, and his head came down hard. The kiss was brutal, needy, as he backed her to the wall. He unzipped her coat, pulled open her shirt, scattering the buttons on the floor and lifted her bra, skimming his rough hands over both breasts.
Maggie unzipped his jeans, aroused and ready. Her own jeans loosened, and Richard pushed them down, but the pant legs stuck—her shoes, dammit. She struggled to kick them off, freeing one leg from her jeans. Richard lifted her and stepped between her legs, thrusting hard. She closed her eyes and wrapped her legs around his waist, caught up in the frenzy of need, life, and desperation to feel something, anything, again. He filled her over and over, her mouth on his, fast and hurried. There were no passionate or frilly words, just a physical need followed by Richard’s muffled curse, and he was done.
Reality was a bitch. Her jeans dangled from one leg, and there he was, still buried inside her. Both of them panted as if they’d just run a marathon, and the dark intruder of truth smashed through the illusion. His eyes closed, and he rested his forehead against hers before gradually pulling out and setting her down.
Richard moved back and zipped up his pants. Awkwardness rushed in. Her jeans were inside out on one leg, her underwear bunched and twisted. It took her a minute, like a clumsy first-timer, to right her jeans and pull down her bra. The blue buttons on her cotton shirt were spread on the cream-colored floor along with her jacket. Maggie pulled her shirt together and glanced away, an unbearable sense of strangeness lingering between them. She shut her eyes and took a breath. What was the big deal? He’d been her husband for eleven years.
“Um … sorry about the blouse.” He gestured to the lost buttons. “Some of your clothes are still upstairs.”
Avoiding his eyes, she held the tattered cloth closed over her breasts and hurried through the living room. The open wood beams gleamed as she looked up at the pitch of the high ceiling. The post and beam theme continued up the L-shape staircase. The solid planks had once seemed to vibrate with their love and passion. Nine years ago, side by side, Richard had built her this beautiful house. Eleven months and seven days of sweat, sore muscles, love, tears, joy, short tempers, and fierce lovemaking had created this house.
She froze at the top of the stairs. Clasping her hands in front of herself, she fought to hold back the ache that pitched from some place deep within. Her ribs, stomach, throat ached. Whoever said time healed all wounds had lied. The solid wood door was a banishment. She turned the knob and pressed open the door, stepping in.
The twin bed with a pink Cinderella bedspread nearly brought her to her knees, as if someone had rammed a fist into her stomach. The dolls and stuffed animals were assembled neatly on her pillow. The six-drawer dresser with hand-painted rosebuds on the drawer fronts hadn’t moved.
When Lily was six months old, Maggie had painted each pink flower as a token of her love. She picked up the silver framed picture of Lily in her arms moments after she was born, tracing the outline of her baby’s head, her eyes wide open and filled with a spark of light. But even then, she had gazed into shadows, as if not entirely seeing. Maggie shut her eyes, pressed the picture frame against her chest, and tried to resurrect some remnant of her precious girl, some piece of her now lost from that horrible, fateful day.
“Oh, God, how could you take her?” Her voice trembled. She ached just being here in this room, except something was different. It was as if Lily was here with her now.
Maggie didn’t know how long she lay on Lily’s bed, her back pressed into the soft plush mattress, remembering all the nights she had lain cuddled next to her tiny daughter, holding her through one of many night terrors.
How many nights after the accident had she lain here, never leaving this room, while the rift between her and Richard grew wider than the Great Divide? With the blame they had heaped on each other, Richard had spent weeks drunk, disappearing during the day. At night, he’d come and go until the memories and pain of this place became too much to bear.
The furnished house in Gardiner had appeared in the local paper for rent, and Maggie believed it was meant to be. She had phoned, met with the property management company, and signed the lease all in one day. Then she had packed up her and Ryley’s belonging in two suitcases and pulled away in their SUV while Richard was gone. She hadn’t left a note. Ryley, at nine years old, had screamed and cried as far as the main road before sulking in the backseat.
“It’s going to be better, I promise,” Maggie had told him, and she believed that by leaving, she’d finally be able to breathe without the burning ache ripping her apart.
The eruption from Richard when he tracked her down through the school, and the ensuing fight, had been ugly. She had clawed his cheek with her nails. He seized her SUV and canceled her credit cards. She had obtained a lawyer and filed for legal separation, and he had gotten his own lawyer, too. Hers, as she looked back, had been good. He hadn’t been in it for the money, and he had warned her from the beginning to play fair. She and Richard had both been grieving from a terrible loss, but his lawyer had been dirty, only in it for the money.
Her local lawyer, Peter Sullivan, older and balding, had counseled her briefly on their first meeting. If she lashed out in anger and tried to lie or cheat Richard, she’d have to find another lawyer. Maybe some lawyers played that game, but he believed in fair play. That had gotten her attention, but not her SUV back. It was pointed out that the house, the vehicles, and the credit cards were, after all, in Richard’s name. The joint bank account had ten dollars left in it. Smart man, he had stashed his money somewhere else.
She had a savings account with a few thousand in it—one her mother had set up for her years before. She had bought her older junkyard Topaz for a few hundred dollars, and it ran and got her from point A to point B. Richard had agreed to child support and minimal spousal, and although not generous, it had been enough for her to buy food and pay rent. Ryley would go back to his dad’s on weekends, and weekdays he would live in Gardiner with her. The agreement had been created by lawyers and signed in a cold, sterile legal office on a bleak day filled with torment, blame, and a fine line between anger and love. How had it turned so ugly?
She wiped her face with her ripped shirt and left Lily’s room, only this time, she didn’t shut the door. She hurried to the master bedroom next to Lily’s, the one she’d shared with Richard. Nothing had changed. The same light green floral duvet covered the large bed, flanked by the same oak night tables. The wide dresser was still flush against the wall, where she’d shoved it five years ago. She was drawn to the large bare windows, no curtains, just the way she’d once preferred. Now, her rented house came complete with blinds and heavy drapes to shut out the world.
She glimpsed her red, tear-stained eyes in the dresser’s large mirror, her limp, tangled, dark hair, and her now ruined blouse—thanks to Richard. She rested her forehead against the mirror and squeezed her eyelids shut. “We’re as good as divorced. What were you thinking, Maggie?” She pushed away, gazed at the disheveled stranger in the mirror, and was shaken from her confusion by the soft murmur of voices downstairs. She dropped her torn shirt on the floor, opened the closet door, and reached for a bright red sweatshirt stacked on the shelf. Richard was right; she’d left many clothes behind.
Maggie pulled the warm sweatshirt over her head and dashed down the stairs into the dim living room. How late was it? She stumbled and grabbed the railing when she heard Ryley laugh. Pots banged and clattered, utensils rustling as she watched from the shadows. Father and son were illuminated in the kitchen. Richard hovered beside Ryley. They were chatting, laughing, and Ryley was chopping what? This wasn’t her quiet, shy boy. He was relaxed and joking with his dad. Ryley never joked with her. He hadn’t laughed since … well, since she couldn’t rightly remember.
Ryley didn’t help in the kitchen with her; Maggie did all the cooking for him. They had a routine: eat, homework, watch TV, and then bed. Whatever this was with Richard, there was no place for her.
“Hey, are you making dinner?” She tried to sound happy. They both looked up. Richard blinked, and she wondered for a moment if he’d forgotten she was here. Unease filled the room. “Umm, I should go,” she said, pointing to the back door. Her hand shook. Where had she put her coat?
“Maggie.” His voice was soft and low when he touched her shoulder and rubbed his hand down her arm. “Stay for dinner. Please.”
She looked up. Awkwardness lingered. He dropped his hand and stepped back. A fork clattered on the counter, and Maggie blinked. “Richard, I should go.” She dropped her gaze to the floor. She couldn’t look at him. She stepped around Richard and attempted a smile for Ryley—something that felt more like it had been painted on.
“Are you staying, Mom? We’re making tacos.” He held a wooden spoon, hovering over the fry pan, and looked almost hopeful for a second. Then something flashed in his eyes that had him stepping back. That carefree easiness he’d had moments ago with his dad, before she walked in, was gone. He appeared nervous and uneasy.
Was it just her? A knot tightened in her stomach, and she felt the dark basement swooping up to drag her back to the pits of despair. She couldn’t bear to lose another child. She reached out and hugged Ryley. He was stiff and pulled away. She looked down before she spilled any more tears. She forced a fixed smile again for Ryley. “No, not tonight. I’ve got to go. But you have fun with your dad.” Maggie turned and froze. Richard held her coat and helped her into it. This time, his hand didn’t linger.
“Ryley, I’m going to walk your mom to her car. Turn off the burner till I get back.”
“Okay, Dad,” he said. She heard a relaxed, carefree tone ease back into his voice, as if everything was all right. Of course, she wondered if this was because she was leaving.
Richard’s hand touched the small of her back when she walked out into the dark night. The porch light glowed softly, lighting her way as Richard walked her out. He didn’t say a word as he opened her door and rested his hand on the roof of the rusty car. “Maggie, about earlier—”
She couldn’t bear to hear regrets. “Please, Richard, I just need to go. Please let me go.” She climbed in and pulled the door closed. Starting the car, she watched him step back before he turned, hesitating a second, and walked back into the house. Maggie drove away and glanced in the rearview mirror just as the porch light went out, feeling a dreadful loss. Except this time, the loss was different, and she didn’t know why.

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