**SNEAK PEEK** Never Too Late
Ella and Logan
Chapter One — Ella
“Mom! Have you seen my cap and gown?” my daughter, Erin, yells from up in her bedroom.
“Check the laundry room,” I shout back as I pour coffee into my to-go cup.
She comes running down the stairs, into the kitchen, and to the laundry room at record speed.
I laugh and shake my head when her sock-covered feet cause her to slide across the floor, making her look like a cartoon character who’s spinning out.
I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the glass of the microwave that’s positioned above the stove, and my smile falls. I get lost as I stare at the reflection of a woman I don’t even know anymore. How’d I get here? It seems like it was only yesterday when I was eighteen, full of excitement for the promise of a bright future. Now I’m forty years old, have crow’s feet around my eyes, and my only child is graduating from high school.
Erin comes back into the kitchen with her cap and gown in hand. She tosses them down onto the table with her books, and she grabs her shoes. “Did you remember the bake sale tomorrow to help the new senior cheerleaders pay for their uniforms?”
I nod. “I’ll pick something up after your ceremony,” I promise.
A horn honks, and I look out the bay window in the front of the house to see Erin’s boyfriend, Brock, waiting in the driveway.
“Got to go, Mom,” Erin says, standing and grabbing her things.
“Hey, wait.” I put down my coffee and take the few steps to her.
“What?” Her eyes are wide and her brows are raised. She’s anxious to get to school, to say goodbye to her high school years.
“Slow down a moment and let me look at you.” I push her blond hair behind her shoulders so I can clearly view her beautiful face. She looks so much like I did at her age. Her blue eyes match mine but hers aren’t surrounded by wrinkles. Her pink lips are full and plump, and her smile can stop anyone in their tracks. She has a bright future, and it’s only a matter of time before she leaves me and our small town in Illinois to join some of the brightest minds in the world at Harvard University.
“Mom, I’m going to be late,” she complains, rolling her striking blue eyes, but she can’t hide that smile.
I laugh. “You’re late every day,” I point out. “Plus, who cares? It’s your last day. What are they going to do, withhold your diploma?”
Her eyes grow wide, and her back gets ramrod straight as panic sets in. “Can they do that?”
I laugh. “No.” I pull her in for a hug. “I just wanted to remind you to go slow today, to take it all in. This is the last day. Your life is about to change in so many ways, and you’ll never get this back.”
She pulls back with a sweet smile, clearly more relaxed now. “Thanks, Mom. I love you.”
“I love you too.” I step back and pick up my coffee.
“Hey, is Dad going to make it to graduation tonight?”
I shrug. “I haven’t talked to him all week. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
She smiles before tugging open the door. I stand and watch out the window as she runs across the yard to the awaiting truck. Her boyfriend leans across the cab and opens the door for her. She climbs up, and they meet in the middle for a quick kiss. Seconds later, they’re backing out of the drive, ready to finish their last day of high school.
With the house now empty, I grab my purse and keys and shut off the lights as I make my way to the front door. I set the alarm and pull the door closed behind me, spinning around to lock it. I turn and walk off the porch and down the sidewalk to my black Audi parked in the driveway. I can’t help but notice how well the roses are blooming along the front of the house and how the landscaper did an amazing job at trimming the hedges to make the house look like the perfect family home.
That’s what everyone thinks, anyway. This is the perfect home for the perfect family. All they see is the nice house, nice cars, our beautiful, smart daughter who’s about to leave for an Ivy League college, and my husband who has a good job and makes lots of money. They don’t see that he’s gone more times than he’s home, leaving a wife and daughter behind to live life without him. They don’t see the fights we have because of that job. And they most definitely don’t see the regret I have when I look at my life and the way it turned out.
I push all thoughts away, and I get behind the wheel and drive over to the flower shop I own. I inherited it when I was nineteen when my mother passed away of stomach cancer. I’ve been working at the place since I was old enough to hold a pair of sheers. I walk in and the bell above the door rings. Lisa, my employee and best friend, has already opened for the day.
“Hi, love. How’s your morning?” she asks from behind the counter.
“I think I’m on the verge of a mental breakdown, but I’m here,” I reply as I’m placing my purse under the counter and pulling out my apron to tie around myself.
She giggles. “It’s the day, huh?”
I nod. “Yep.”
“Is Tom going to make it home?” She knows that Tom is a sore subject, so her tone isn’t as strong as usual. It’s slightly shaky, unsure.
I shrug. “I haven’t talked to Tom since last week.”
“What?” she asks, confused.
I plop down on the wooden stool behind the counter. “I think he’s going to ask for a divorce.”
“What? Why in the world would you think that?” She’s suddenly concerned. Like most people in this town, Lisa doesn’t know the full extent of our problems. She knows more than most, but I’ve shielded that part of my life away from her as much as I could.
“Things haven’t been good for a long time,” I confess. “We hardly ever talk anymore, and when we do, we just argue. He’s been living at his apartment in London. If it wasn’t for Erin’s graduation today, I don’t think he’d be coming home now… if he even is. I don’t know anymore.” I feel a sob make its way up my chest. “What am I going to do, Lisa? I’m forty years old, and I’m going to be going through a divorce? It’s too late to start over. I haven’t been single in twenty years. I haven’t gone on a date since I was nineteen. I don’t even know how to date anymore.” Tears are quickly filling my eyes and falling over the rims. My heart is pounding hard, threatening to beat out of my chest, and my lungs feel like they’ve suddenly forgotten how to work.
“Shhhh. Oh, honey. You’re going to be just fine,” Lisa says, coming to wrap me up in a warm hug. She holds me close, slightly rocking me back and forth while shhhh-ing me. “Everything will be great, you’ll see. You are a beautiful, sexy, successful woman. Any man in town would be more than happy to have you on his arm.”
I snort. “Like who?”
“Well, let’s see.” She steps back to think it over. “What about Jack?”
I laugh. “Jack, really? He’s been married four times, Lisa,” I remind her, rolling my eyes.
“But he’s going through a divorce,” she points out.
Her eyes roll up as she thinks again. “Tony?”
I shake my head. “He’s twenty years older than me and just suffered a heart attack.”
“Damn, El. I didn’t know you were so picky!”
“I guess we could always track down Lo—”
“Don’t you dare say his name,” I nearly yell, cutting her off. I haven’t seen him since he left for college without me when we were eighteen.
He’s the one that got away. The real love of my life. The one that left for the college that we were both supposed to attend—that is, until my mom got sick and I had to stay home to run the store. I was to join him the following year, but we lost touch. The calls between us dwindled down to nothing. The letters stopped coming, and the visits never came through. The worst part is, I don’t even know why.
“It’s been years, El. I don’t think saying his name is like Beetlejuice or anything. He’s not going to magically appear if I say it out loud,” she points out.
“Well, I never thought I’d be forty, with my only child about to leave home, and going through a divorce either, but here I am, Lisa!” Okay, I may be a little irritable at the moment.
She laughs, knowing not to take my tone as serious as it sounds. “You don’t even know that. Tom isn’t home yet. Just… calm down and see how the evening goes. Enjoy your daughter’s graduation.”
Easier said than done. But the one thing I can do is control my thoughts. I push myself up off the stool and move to the back to start on the orders that need to go out today. I can’t control what’s going on in my life, but I can control these arrangements and I can control my thoughts. Staying busy is the best option at this point.
I turn the radio on and get busy, listening to the old ’90s alternative station on Pandora as I gather the needed materials for the day. I go through my checklist and have everything out and ready. I get to work, singing along with all my favorite songs and keeping everything outside of this room out of my head.
By lunch, I almost feel normal again. I put things away and head back out onto the sales floor. Lisa is behind the counter, dusting. There isn’t much to do around here if you’re not making arrangements or waiting on a customer.
“I’m going to grab a salad for lunch. Want anything?”
“Oh, make it two. And a glass of wine wouldn’t hurt,” she jokes.
I laugh. “There’s a six-pack back in the cooler,” I say, walking out the door and heading across the square for the diner.
Chapter Two — Logan
I can’t believe I’m doing this—going home after twenty-two years. It’s something I said I’d never do, not after ruining the lives of everyone I knew. I look down at the letter in my hand from the city of Herrin, Illinois. It states that if my father’s property, now mine, isn’t dealt with soon, they will have no choice but to condemn it and tear it down. I haven’t been in that house since I left it at the age of eighteen. I can’t help but think back on the last day.
“Please don’t cry, El.” I raise my hands and cup her cheeks, wiping her tears away with my thumbs.
She nods and forces a smile. “It’s just so unfair. I was supposed to be going with you. This was supposed to be our new start.”
I pull her against my chest. “I know, but it won’t change anything, baby. I promise, I’ll wait for you. We’ll talk every day. We can send each other love letters. And Tom will still be here if you need anything. He’s my best friend. You can trust him just like you do me. In a year, you’ll come to school, and it will be like no time at all has passed.”
“Promise?” she asks, looking up at me with her big blue eyes full of tears.
“I promise. I love you, El. We’re going to spend the rest of our lives together.” I lean in, pressing my mouth to hers, and she kisses me like I’m the air she needs to breathe.
Pulling away from her and getting behind the wheel is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I manage. I have no choice. My dad’s health isn’t doing good, and I need this degree to take over his business. He’s counting on me. Not to mention, El will need someone to take care of her too. Getting this degree is the first step at getting my future with her.
I shake the memory from my head, cursing myself at how wrong I was. I didn’t know the future that I would get. I didn’t know I’d end up here, alone at forty and still desperately in love with my high school sweetheart, the girl I left behind. She never did come to school, not that I know of anyway. Hell, she could’ve, but I would have already been gone. Truth be told, I haven’t even talked to her since my father passed away three months after I left for college. He didn’t make it long and neither did I.
The bus stops at the center of town and I climb off, almost expecting something to change, but everything looks the same as the day I left. The town square still has its big white gazebo in the center with all the little shops and restaurants scattered around it. This town really does look like it’s taken from a picture in a storybook with its perfectly planted flowers, school spirit decorations, and little shops. It was something I hated growing up.
I hike my duffel bag up higher on my shoulder and push onward, not wanting to run into anyone from my past. I’m sure that will only bring up the question: where have you been? And that’s not something I’m really prepared to answer. If I owe anyone an answer to that question, it’s El.
I walk past the diner, peeking inside to see the older citizens of town in there, having their morning coffee, eating their donuts, and reading the morning paper that probably contains nothing but good news. I pass the antique store and see Mrs. Mary through the window and behind the counter. I’m surprised she’s still alive. She had to be close to a hundred when I left. But she sees me and her smile falls. Her eyes watch as I move across the window and out of sight. I’m sure she’s surprised to see me back here. Then I walk by the flower store that El’s mother owned. I peek in the window but find a woman I don’t recognize. I’m sure El probably sold it after her mother passed so she could get on with her life.
I round the corner and can breathe a little easier now since I haven’t run into anyone. I keep walking down the sidewalk that leads to the house I grew up in. I find it funny and strange that nothing in this town has changed over the years. All the houses are the same as I remember them. They all have perfectly manicured lawns, flags flying in their front yards, and white picket fences. All of them except this house, my dad’s house.
I come to a stop on the sidewalk and turn to face it. I look it over, noticing how rundown the place has become. The yard is overgrown with weeds, the wooden privacy fence in the backyard has a section that’s already fallen down, and the flowers and scrubs that used to line the walkways are dead or grown out of control. The old tree in the front yard has a broken branch that’s now lying in the grass, and the garage door is hanging on by one hinge. It’s amazing the place doesn’t have any broken windows or any other signs of vandalism, but this is the perfect town after all.
I walk up to the front door, kicking rocks and weeds out of the way of the sidewalk. I bend down and pick up the small concrete turtle, finding the key just where I’d left it.
“Huh.” I laugh and place the turtle back in its spot. I open the screen door, and it squeals in protest. I make a mental note to oil it later as I slide the key into the doorknob. The door opens inward, and the smell of dust, mildew, and old house fills my nose. I go to step inside, but the screen door decides to give out, its bottom hinge breaking. I catch the door, now only hanging by the top hinge, and pull it closed. With a sense of dread and sadness, I journey though the old house that used to be called home.
The entryway is completely bare, all but the old rug and staircase that leads to the second floor. The living room is to my right, and I peek my head inside to see it almost just as empty as the entryway. When Dad passed, I couldn’t bring myself to come back here to clean it out, so I called a company here in town and told them to take anything they wanted and to send me a check in the mail. The only things left are the pictures on the walls and Dad’s old lounge chair that I assume was too worn for resale.
I try to remain detached as I turn and walk farther down the hall to the kitchen. The table is no longer there, but everything else looks intact. The old refrigerator and stove are in the same spot, doors open and empty. There are a few cabinets with the doors hanging off, but the shelves are still lined with dishes and glasses. Everything is covered in a thick layer or dust, but all it needs is a good cleaning.
I open the back door and step outside onto the porch. It’s still good and solid but the backyard is completely overgrown and in need of care. The rose garden that used to be Mom’s baby is destroyed, dead and covered in debris. The swing that used to hang from the roof has fallen down on one side, and I move to hang it back upright. I pick up the chain and raise it to the hook. I move around it to have a seat, sitting slowly in case it gives out, but it doesn’t. I bounce gently a couple of times, and when I don’t fall on my ass, I feel a little more at ease.
As I swing slowly back and forth, I look out over the yard, but instead of seeing what is, I see what used to be: Mom’s rose garden, green and flourishing; the neatly mowed grass; the bird house that I made in grade school that used to hang from that tree in the far corner of the yard; the area next to the garage that used to be paved with lawn furniture; and a grill for our family barbecues. And I see her. El. We used to hang out here all the time. We’d drag a chair over to the corner of the garage and make out behind it where my parents couldn’t see. I smile at the memory and feel my lips tingle as I remember those kisses.
“You swear your dad won’t find us back here?” she asks, moving to sit on my lap.
I pull her down on me. “He’s inside, asleep in his recliner. He’s out.” I place my hands on her cheeks and direct her lips to mine.
Kissing her is like heaven. Her lips are soft and meld to mine perfectly. She tastes of strawberries and a sweetness that is all her own. Her heat sinks into me, making me want to take this make-out session further. Always wanting to take it further. Always needing more from her. But with my dad in the house, it’s hard to get away with having sex in my bedroom. If we don’t wake him going up the stairs, the squeaking of my bed directly over his head will for sure.
My hand is on her hip, and I’m squeezing it gently. I wish we had our own little place to go to be together like this, together alone, where there are no prying eyes or controlling parents.
She breaks our kiss and looks into my eyes. “Let’s go to your room. We can be quiet.”
I smile, happy that she seems to need me as much as I need her. “Okay, but we have to be quiet,” I tell her.
She agrees and stands up. I take her hand in mine, and we walk across the yard and in through the back door, sneaking past my dad in the living room and up the stairs to my room. The moment the door closes behind us, I spin around, my lips pressing against hers once again. I walk her backward to my bed and just our weight on it makes it cry out in protest.
“This will never work,” I whisper. “The bed is too loud.”
“The floor then,” she says, pushing me away and walking around the bed, sitting on the floor. Even if Dad walks in, he won’t see us behind the bed. I laugh and shake my head but waste no time in going to her, giving her what she needs, even if it means getting myself grounded for the rest of my life.