Book 1 in The Art of Living Duet
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The Art of Going Home
Wednesday, June 25, Eighteen Years Ago
“MY ANGEL!” THE woman sobbed. Her agonized wails spewed from the depths of her soul, tortured and foul. Clutching her wet daughter to her chest, she sat on the grass by a shallow wading pond, rocking back and forth.
A few yards away, a ten-year-old girl was gently lifted by a police officer from where she lay in a puddle of vomit. The cries seeped into her semi-conscious mind. She opened her eyes to glance toward her desperate mother.
“What did you do?” her mother screamed. “What did you do?”
As the officer approached, the woman turned away, refusing to release her claw-like grip on the girl's twin.
He had already checked. There was no pulse.
Wednesday, July 1, Present
I DIDN'T WANT to be here.
The other passengers in the crowded coach seats seemed inexplicably happy to have arrived. I wasn’t so enthusiastic. I hadn’t slept at all during the flight to Kansas City. My anxiety wouldn’t let me rest. Over the last two days, my grief had worn me down. I shuffled down the narrow aisle, off the plane, along the dingy hall, and through the airport toward the carousel to wait for my checked luggage.
Suddenly, a warm hand landed on my shoulder from behind and turned me around. A tall, solid man held me against him in a tight hug. I couldn’t see who’d grabbed me, and I started to push away.
“Maddie, you have no idea how happy I am to see you,” a familiar voice said. It belonged to Zacarias Redondo. I’d had a crush on him since I was in middle school. I wrapped my arms around his waist. He cradled my head as he rested his cheek against my hair.
I hadn’t seen him in ten years, though we’d spoken on the phone three days before. Too soon, he pulled back and gazed intently at my face. His look made me lightheaded. “I didn’t recognize you at first,” he said.
“What were you expecting?” Despite the circumstances, I couldn’t help teasing him. Because I’d known I wouldn’t have time to change, I was already wearing my black fitted dress and pumps. The ballerina neckline dipped low in the back. My long honey-brown hair was swept to one side and tied with a black ribbon.
“It wasn’t this. You’re… um…” he said.
“Um?” I prodded, raising one eyebrow.
“Sophisticated. That’s the right word. How are you holding up?” He brushed his fingers against my cheek. I amazed myself by tilting my head into the tender caress.
“I’m in shock, I guess. How are you doing?”
“Well enough, considering.”
“Why did you come to the airport? I was going to rent a car so you all wouldn’t be troubled to pick me up.” He took my hand as we moved toward the suitcases that were rotating on the luggage belt.
“We couldn’t let you do that. It’s no trouble.”
“How’s Sheriff Rey?” I asked. Zac’s father, Reynard Redondo, had been promoted from Deputy Sheriff to Corporal in the County Sheriff’s office six years ago. We’d always called him “Sheriff Rey.” The title stuck, despite its inaccuracy.
“Dad’s doing okay. Holding up. Taking it hard.”
Zac grabbed the suitcases I indicated, ignoring my attempt to take the lighter bag. He led me into the heat and sunshine to his parked truck. Its gleaming white paint looked pristine. He opened the passenger door and helped me up into the cab. While Zac was stashing my luggage in the back, I let myself sink into the seat. We made our way out of the airport complex, onto the interstate that would carry us away from civilization—first east, and then south—and toward the miniscule town of Clantonville.
Zac held his hand out, palm up. I raised my brows, hesitating before placing my hand in his. I didn’t remember Zac being that affectionate. I decided he was being extra supportive due to the sad event that had forced me to come back.
He gave me a grin, and turned his attention back to the road. “You’re more gorgeous than I remember, Maddie,” he said. Even after so many years, his familiar smile caused my heart to beat faster.
What? “I didn’t realize you ever thought I was gorgeous. You should get your vision checked,” I said, deadpan.
“Madisen Jessica Chandler! I’ve always noticed how beautiful you are. How could you not know that?” he admonished. “And my eyesight is perfect twenty-twenty.”
He squeezed my hand with a devilish smile, knowing full well the effect he had on women. The inevitable pink seeped into my cheeks. I still blushed every time he complimented me.
“How have you been? And don’t tell me you’re ‘fine.’ How are you really?” he asked.
I didn’t avoid looking at him like I used to, studying his profile slowly. I saw all of the reasons I’d been infatuated with him when I was in eighth grade, and he was a junior. His Latino good looks made my stomach flutter. He had sensuous lips that begged to be kissed, straight white teeth, and cleanly arched brows. His smooth olive skin and chocolate eyes promised to grant secret desires. He was six foot three, with a perfect masculine body. He exuded raw power, like a captive animal that might attack at any moment. He looked particularly handsome in his suit and tie. For the first time ever, I wasn’t self-conscious around him. Maybe you’re too exhausted today.
“I’m numb, I guess,” I replied. “Aunt Ceci’s passing was such a blow. She never told me the cancer was that advanced. I’m going to miss her so much.” I fought the lump in my throat. “I should’ve been there. Now I’ll never get to tell her goodbye.”
“She didn’t want to put you through seeing her in pain at the end.”
What? Why not? I was too surprised to comment.
“How are you doing otherwise? With life in general?” he asked.
“My life is going well,” I answered automatically. He threw me an unconvinced look. “Truly it is. I guess Aunt Ceci told you that I finished my Chartered Property and Casualty Underwriter coursework?” Zac shook his head. “It’s a designation for insurance professionals, kind of like an MBA. The classes and exams are pretty demanding. It took me four years to finish. Also, I got a promotion at work a couple of months ago. Our San Antonio office has about thirteen thousand employees, so the competition is always extreme. For the ten positions they were filling, there were about two hundred and sixty applicants.”
“Wow! I heard about the promotion. I didn’t realize how many people you beat out for it. You know I’m proud of you,” he said. “What about your life outside work? What keeps you busy? Anybody to hang out with? Anyone you’re close to?”
I knew what was behind his questions. I was sure Aunt Ceci had kept him updated about my life, about my small circle of friends. That I had no boyfriend.
Not that it was difficult for me to talk to people. I gave presentations at work with confidence. Yet, I always worried that, if others got past my protective walls, they’d think I wasn’t good enough.
“You may think I don’t form intimate relationships, but I do,” I said defensively. “I’m sure Aunt Ceci told you I belong to a running club. Well, I guess it’s not a club. About twenty of us get together after work three times a week. On the days I don’t run, I work out at the gym. I know people there, too.” They’re acquaintances, at least.
“What do you do on weekends? Holidays?” he pressed. “Who do you talk to? Someone close enough to confide in?”
You’re letting this go too far, Madisen. “Okay, Zac. I get it.” I tried to cross my arms. He wouldn’t let go of my hand.
You don’t think leaving home was the right decision. Nevertheless, I’m satisfied with my life.” It was mostly true. My best friend, Tabitha, was the one person I’d told about my “just-sex hookups,” when I couldn’t take the loneliness anymore.
Zac’s expression grew serious. “It’s not that I think your decision to leave was wrong,” he said. “When you escaped the bad memories of Angeline’s death, you left behind everyone who loves you.”
He was right. I’d paid a high price to leave the only home I’d ever known. I couldn’t tell him that memories of my murdered twin weren’t the sole reason I’d fled. Aside from being disliked by nearly the whole town, I also left because it was the one place I heard my dead sister’s voice in my head. I was certain full-blown insanity would follow. It had happened to my mother, and I was terrified I’d inherit her mental illness.
I managed to keep my voice steady as my eyes stung with tears. “I know I left good things behind,” I agreed. “Aunt Ceci was the best. She cared for me as if I were her own daughter, and I wasn’t there for her at the end. I won’t forgive myself for that. And I won’t stand for you lecturing me about the choices I’ve made. I did what I had to do.”
With a pained look, he let the subject drop. I suspected it wouldn’t be the end of the discussion...
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