I'm sorry I haven't posted in a while, but I have been dealing with health issues. Sigh. Anyway, I have had some feedback that I didn't put enough back story into Five and I thought I would go ahead and post the prologue I didn't include in the book that it looks like I should have. I hope you enjoy!
Aunt Grace was leaning over a stack of bills with her left elbow resting on the kitchen table. Her fingers were shoved into her ginger hair at the nape, massaging her neck. The crinkles around her soft brown eyes betrayed years of worry, making her appear slightly older than forty-one.
I nearly turned around when I saw how tired she looked, but I had put this off long enough. She didn’t acknowledge I was there even though I was hovering over her shoulder. I cleared my throat hoping some of my pent up nerves would escape with my breath. “I need to talk to you about something,” I said timidly, settling onto the chair opposite her. I had a hard time keeping my eyes from roaming to the stack of dishes that looked like one breath would topple them onto the dirt ridden hardwood floor. I couldn’t risk her asking me to clean up. Where was Travis, anyway? Knowing him he was probably trying to get out of his turn again.
“Hmm,” she said absently. “Can’t it wait?”
“Grace,” I stated forcefully in the most grown-up tone I could muster. She cocked a brow but still didn’t bother to look up. “I’ve thought this through and I have come to a conclusion. I want to go to St. Mary’s with Cassie.”
“You are not Catholic,” she replied pragmatically, placing down her pen. She locked her gaze onto mine faster than I could look away. Her usually warm eyes roamed over me coldly. She stared at me without any visible emotion, but her scrutiny could have melted diamonds.
I frowned at her. “What does that have to do with it?” She wasn’t acting the way I had imagined. Cassie and I had gone over this a thousand times. I had been sure she would use her old standby—money.
“The school is based around a religion you do not practice.” She grunted in clear displeasure. “We have discussed this, Rayla. I need you close to home.”
What she really needed was a free nanny. What a joke. Her idea of discussion had been an emphatic no when I mentioned that I wanted to look into other schools besides Snow College. “Jenny is old enough to take care of Sarah.” I had been ten when I started watching my cousins after school. Jenny just turned twelve. “Besides, I won’t be here anyway.”
“I am relying on you to come home on the weekends. Jenny isn’t ready for that much responsibility.”
“We each have to do our part. Do you think you should have different obligations than the rest of us?” She was laying the guilt on pretty thick, but I wasn’t going to change my mind.
“I just want to—”
“None of us gets what we want. I can think of better things to do with my time than find ways to pay for you to have shelter over your head.”
My words came out in a rush. “Don’t you want different for your children?” Too late, I realized my mistake: I was not her child. She had made sure I knew that from the day Mom left. Don’t get me wrong. Aunt Grace was kind to me. I knew she loved me, but she had always kept a distance between us that wasn’t present in her relationship with her own kids.
Her pinched lips turned in a forced smile. “That’s why I have agreed to let you go to Snow. I had hoped you would be grateful.” Her eyes narrowed, her breath whooshing out in a gust. “It doesn’t appear either one of us is going to get what we want tonight.”
How could she be so cold? She wasn’t even willing to hear my side of things. Her expression was steel, the set of her jaw granite. Changing her mind was hopeless, but I was going to make certain that she understood how I felt. “When have I ever gotten what I wanted— the time you let me go to Disney Land with Cassie?”
“We couldn’t afford—”
“Oh wait, I didn’t get to go with her because I had to babysit,” I said, right over the top of her lame excuse. “That’s all I’ve done for the last five years!”
“I realize you have made sacrifices, but no more than any other member of this family.” Her tone was ice dripping with hostility.
I didn’t deserve that. “I would rather work ten hours a day at the pig farm than waste my life taking care of your brats!” I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with her. At this point I would prefer a different continent.
I bolted out the back door with Aunt Grace on my heels. She placed a hand on my shoulder. “I know I expect a lot from you, but I am only doing what is best for everyone.”
I whirled around glaring for all I was worth. She pulled her hand back sharply. “No Aunt Grace. What you are doing is ruining my life!” And with that I took off up the hill.
She called after me, but I didn’t want to hear it anymore. My skin prickled from the cold. I should have grabbed a jacket, but I wasn’t about to turn around. I started into a run hoping it would warm me up. By the time I reached Cassie’s house I was sweating.
I rang the bell and bent over, resting my hands on my knees. I was surprised when Mr. Lambert opened the door. He wasn’t supposed to be in town this weekend. I stood up and tried to smile, but it wasn’t working.
He took one look at me and rushed to my side. “What on Earth? What’s wrong?”
My voice came out as soft and defeated as I felt. “Is Cassie around? I need to talk to her.”
He ushered me through the door, briskly rubbing his hand down my arm. “It must be thirty degrees out there. Where is your coat?”
I pulled in a deep breath. “Forgot it.”
He nodded. “Did you have a fight with Grace again?”
“She is the most ridiculous person alive. I didn’t even get to tell her about my scholarship. She just said no.” I swiped the moisture out of my eyes and gritted my teeth. I was determined to not break down in front of him. I knew he had pulled some strings to get me accepted to St. Mary’s College even though he hadn’t ever mentioned it. If I couldn’t go, it would be a total slap in the face to his generosity.
He smiled at me and nudged my chin. “Give her time to mull it over. She’ll come around.”
“Rayla?” Cassie asked as she descended the ornately carved staircase. It was wider than most hallways, curving gracefully along the wall. Her face turned in a frown when she looked at me.
I ran over to her and shook my head in response to her silent question. Her pale eyes softened with compassion as she placed an arm around my shoulder. “We’ll be upstairs, Dad,” she shot over her shoulder.
Mr. Lambert smiled reassuringly. “Remember the old saying, Rayla: The world is always darkest just before the dawn.”
Was that really supposed to make me feel better? I was pretty sure my tomorrows weren’t going to get any brighter than today if I didn’t do something to change my life. I returned his smile and let Cassie guide me to her room.
She closed her door softly as I flopped on the bed. The TV was on and she had been watching an old rerun of Happy Days. I sighed wishing my life were that uncomplicated.
“Spill,” she said, sitting beside me.
I tucked my arms around my stomach. “She wouldn’t even listen to me. I hate her!”
Cassie touched my arm. “Maybe we should just go to Snow this year. We could transfer to St. Mary’s next year when she has had time to get used to you being gone.”
I shook my head. “She wants me home every blasted weekend. Said Jenny couldn’t handle taking care of Sarah.”
Cassie sucked her bottom lip into her mouth. She gazed up at the ceiling as if it were a starlit sky. She shrugged a shoulder after a while. “I just don’t see how we could make it work.”
“I’m eighteen. She can’t make me stay here.”
She touched my leg. “She is the only family you have left. Don’t you think you should just cool off for a bit?”
“I’ve never wanted to go to Snow anyway.”
She frowned. “Everyone we know is going to be there.”
She stood up and began pacing. “Chase is going.”
My eyes flew wide. “When did you talk to him? I thought you were done getting used.”
She shrugged. “Can’t seem to get him out of my system.”
“You deserve better than that jerk. Think about it, Cass. Notre Dame. Football. Real men, not that louse that acts like he’s heaven’s gift.”
She considered me for a moment then bounded over to her laptop. She grabbed it then sat beside me again. Her already bright eyes were nearly glowing.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
She smirked. “Looking up the team roster.”
My heart started beating faster, but it wasn’t because I cared a whit about football. She was in it again, and with her help I could do anything.
We spent the next eight months figuring out the details. As far as Aunt Grace was concerned, I would be going to Snow College tomorrow morning. What she didn’t understand wouldn’t hurt me.
I set my suitcase down by the bottom of the stairs. Jenny and Sarah were waiting for me with outstretched arms. I leaned into them, inhaling the scent of cheap strawberry shampoo.
Sarah wrapped her arms around my waist, gazing up at me with tears in her eyes. “I don’t want you to go,” she said then buried her face into my abdomen.
I held her tight for a few moments, feeling like the biggest loser but not the good kind. “I’ll be home before you know it, and I’ll bring you a present.”
She pulled away from me, her eyes brightening. “Really?”
She ran into the kitchen, her tiny voice raised in excitement. “Rayla’s gonna get me a present, Momma!”
“Is she now?” Aunt Grace stepped into the foyer. Her face was tight with worry. “You call me when you get there.”
“I will,” I said.
“I don’t see why you just can’t stay here tonight.”
“I already told you. We have to leave really early. I don’t want to wake anyone up. Cassie’s parents aren’t even in town right now so we won’t be bothering anyone at her house.”
Jenny hugged me from the back. “You better e-mail me.”
She bounded up the stairs yelling for Travis to help her move her stuff into my room. He stopped by the railing and stared down at me with his lopsided grin. He flipped his head to get his dark bangs out of his eyes. “See ya round, Cuz.”
I tilted my head in an upward nod. “Sure thing.” I pointed my finger at him. “Be good.” I wasn’t that much older than him, but I felt as if we had ten years between us.
He huffed. “When am I ever not?” He took off around the corner before I could say anything else.
Sarah had pulled Aunt Grace into the living room for her bedtime story. I waved goodbye, but neither of them noticed. The door creaked as I pulled it shut. I quickened my step, but no one followed me.
The tires threw up a cloud of dust as I sped away toward Cassie’s place. I gazed at my home through the haze of the rear view mirror. The moon set an eerie cast to the scene. The old Victorian had seen better days. It needed a paint job and the porch swing was only hanging by one chain. Bicycles littered the lawn that was about two weeks overgrown. It wasn’t anything compared to where I was going, but it would always be special to me.
I swiped the tears from my eyes and rolled down the window.
Cassie was waiting outside for me when I pulled up. Her grin couldn’t have gotten much bigger. She opened the door and plopped into the seat. She reached into her purse and pulled out a wad of cash. “Dad’s going away present.”
I kept my cringe to myself. I was tired of feeling guilty for taking advantage of Mr. Lambert’s endless acts of kindness. “You have got to have the coolest father on the planet.”
She smiled brightly. “Yeah. Isn’t he great?”
“You sure you’re ready for this?” I asked with mock seriousness.
She laughed. “No backing out now!”
I waggled my brows before I put the car in gear and lowered her window. The night was extraordinarily hot and the air sucked the moisture from my body like a sponge. She just shook her head at me.
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t think it would still be this hot when we planned this whole thing.”
“If you think this is bad, you just wait until you have sweat dripping from you twenty-four-seven.”
She’d already tried to explain humidity to me, but I didn’t care if I had to take three showers a day. I was on my way to my new life. We had pulled it off without any snags. Nothing was going to stop me from claiming my dreams.