FOLLOW ME HOME
FOLLOW ME HOME features Alcea O'Malley, the eldest of the O'Malley sisters introduced in SING ME HOME...
Read an excerpt:
Stalking up the sweep of asphalt that led from her mail box to her colonnaded home perched on a hilltop overlooking Cordelia, Missouri, Alcea O’Malley Addams II saw him about a half an hour before she ran him off the road.
Well, she didn’t exactly see him. What she saw was a plume of dust beyond the water tower, about an inch tall at this distance. Both the tower, and St. Andrew’s steeple in the heart of old Cordelia, spiralled above leafing canopies. Here and there, red and green roof tiles flashed in the late morning sun. Around her, daffodils unfurled, and acres of pastureland rolled downhill to meet copses of oaks, sycamores, and maples, as well as a new strip mall, housing development, and a complex of expensive retirement condos several miles away. On the horizon, the Ozark hills lay quiet, achingly green after last night’s April rain.
Once upon a time, Alcea had boasted about the panorama to anyone who would listen. Now neither the small dirt tornado nor the view held her attention. Her mind was focused on money. Always on money. She was surprised dollar signs weren’t spilling out of her ears.
She clenched a letter in her hand, the one her postman Eddie or Freddie—like Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, the old Steeplemier brothers looked exactly alike—had just handed over. The one that had arrived registered from Cordelia Bank where her ex-husband Stan was president. The one that had just made the pile of bills on her Queen Ann desk seem like so much confetti. Unwilling to satisfy the curiosity on Eddie-Freddie’s polished apple face, she’d torn open the envelope after his Chevy had pulled off in the dust. “In accordance with R. S. MO 443.25, request is hereby made of notice of sale…”
And, just like that, her home was gone.
Okay, not just like that. It had taken her four years to run through the money markets, the bonds, the stocks, and most of the antique furniture plus one grand piano that had been the bulk of her divorce settlement. Now she was left with a small savings account that she hoarded jealously, much to her daughter’s dismay, and child support payments that barely paid the utilities, let alone stretched to cover one pair of Kathleen’s Doc Martens. She also had a living room that looked like a deep-piled football field, empty of all its furniture save a china cabinet that had belonged to Stan’s parents.
She stretched her stride to miss a puddle. What did she need that for? She’d only kept it out of sentiment. His sentiment. Stan’s father had died in a car accident when he was thirteen. His mother Ellen, seven years ago. The Spode had long gone the way of the Flow Blue in the kitchen and the cabinet sat empty. If she could sell it before Stan remembered she had it, the cabinet might bring enough for a payment…
Oh, balls. At the top of the drive, she halted next to her Taurus and chewed her lip. And then what? They could break up what was left of the dining room suite and use it for kindling when the heat was turned off in the fall?
She stared at her house, at the brick-fronted facade with its wide veranda and rows of green-shuttered windows. Rock music pounded through the open French doors on one of two balconies upstairs, keeping beat with the ache in her head. In her youth, she’d sat atop the water tower and dreamed of owning this house. Now she did. And was about to lose it.
She pointed her chin toward the second storey. “Kathleen!”
It was the finest house in Cordelia, if you didn’t count her sister Lil’s compound a mile distant, and she tried not to. In the summer, roses climbed trellises that her yard man Erik Olausson had installed for her when she’d been a new bride eighteen years ago, then had tended for another fifteen. Until she’d let the old Swede’s services go along with her housekeeper’s. Now she polished the windows and fussed with the roses and mowed the acreage herself, sitting atop a tractor clad in denim and one of her mother’s old straw hats. Always early in the morning, when nobody could see she looked like a gapeseed.
She tried again to outstrip the bass player. “Kathleen!”
The doors to Kathleen’s bedroom were flanked by Mexican urns foaming with pansies. She’d picked up those urns on one of those inane excursions she’d once taken regularly with friends from the country club. She snorted. Some friends. Where were they now? Still at the country club, whispering behind their hands whenever she entered on Kemp Runyon’s arm or under the auspices of Lil and her husband Jonathan Van Castle. Despite her attempts at subterfuge, they knew she mowed her own yard. But they kept their remarks civil, likely cowed by the new CEO of PicNic Poultry Processing Plant or Jon’s status as one of the stellar country musicians of his generation. Like some evil recipe, emotions washed over her in equal measures of fear and envy and anger.
“For God’s sake… Kath-LEEN!”
She’d known the foreclosure could happen—known it would happen—but she’d acted like a dumb ostrich. Damn Serena Simpson. Compared to this newest trophy of Stan’s, the affair with his assistant that had put the brakes on their marriage had been a walk in the park. Why did Serena want her house? Hell, the airhead owned that entire complex of luxury condos.
It took two more tries, but Kathleen finally appeared, a cordless phone to her ear, a book in her hand. She draped herself over the railing, blond hair spilling forward to shade her face. Except for the voracious reading habit, everyone said Kathleen was a twin of Alcea when she’d neared fifteen, and she’d soon reach Alcea’s five-foot-eleven. All of the O’Malley women were tall and bordered on skinny—her little sister Mari was skinny—except Zinnia. Yet her mother had always cast the longest shadow. Staring up at Kathleen, it struck Alcea that she’d only been a year or so older than her daughter when she’d latched onto Stan, making a choice that would chart her course to this point in her life.
Teenagers were dumb.
Kathleen twined a bare foot around her calf and continued her conversation despite Alcea’s tapping high heel. “No, it’s the fire that’s the metaphor, not the lake…”
Or maybe not so dumb. Kathleen was undoubtedly dissecting her book with Lil’s stepdaughter Melanie. Their discussions on Things Literary flummoxed Alcea. She felt less stupid around Kathleen’s other best friend, another cousin Daisy. Daisy’s specialty was Eye Shadow not Shakespeare. Eye shadow, Alcea could grasp.
Foot-tapping turned to whacking the envelope on the palm of her hand.
“Back in a sec, Mel.” Kathleen broke off and raised her brows at her mother. “What?”
She looked bored. Boredom was one of her two expressions. The other was disgruntlement. Oh, wait. And livid anger. But thinking of all the confusion she’d felt at Kathleen’s age, Alcea suddenly wanted to hug her daughter and never let her go. Not that she would. Hugging was out. The confiding girl with the sweet kisses had disappeared over the last three years. Alcea frowned. And also the roll of baby fat around that girl’s middle, along with anything to cover it. Even though the temperature still hovered under seventy, Kathleen was dressed in short shorts and a top that barely made it past her rib cage. Looking at her figure, Alcea bit back an aren’t-you-cold comment, not wanting to spark an argument, and also willing to admit that if she looked like that, she’d probably wear next to nothing, too.
“I’m going into town.” Well, she didn’t look like that but at thirty-six, she was still proud of her figure, made more astounding by what she did for a living. Snort. Some living. “I’m picking up Kemp for a late lunch at Peg O’ My Heart, and—”
“He’s letting you drive?”
Alcea ignored her. Kathleen thought Kemp was a throwback to the fifties. Which, nearing fifty himself, he was in a way. But he was also, well, sweet. Cordelia wasn’t exactly a hot bed of eligible bachelors. Not that she looking for hot. She was looking for faithful. Dependable. And wealthy, a sneaky little imp with clear eyes whispered.
“His car is at Cowboy’s.” Cowboy’s Tow and Service was the local garage. “And I have to stop at the bank. I have some business to discuss with your dad.” She had to talk to Stan. No, as much as she hated it, she had to plead with Stan. And if that didn’t work, maybe she’d wrap one of those gold chains he liked to wear around his thick neck and choke him. She stooped to pick up the purse and keys she’d left on the veranda steps when she’d mustered the courage to collect her mail.
“Tell Dad I’m not seeing him Sunday.”
Alcea sighed and opened her car door. The scent of cinnamon, cloves, and cocoa rolled out from the cakes she’d loaded in there earlier. “We’ve been over this before. You have to. Every other weekend. It’s part of the custody agreement.” Although she could sympathize with Kathleen—she didn’t want to see Stan either—she didn’t need to give Kathleen’s father an excuse to wrangle over child support payments.
“Who cares?” Here came disgruntlement. Kathleen’s fine brows dipped over the liquid brown eyes that were so like her own. “It’s not like we’ve ever had anything to talk about, and since he moved into Serena’s, she’s always around and he like acts like I’m not even there.”
Alcea knew what Kathleen meant. She’d only seen Stan that besotted with one other woman. His mother. “At least it’s only one day. He was supposed to have you both Saturday and Sunday And your dad is your dad.”
“He’s never acted like a dad!”
Livid anger wasn’t too far off. Wistfully, Alcea thought of the days when Kathleen had caught every word she’d dropped like rare jewels had spilled from her mouth. “And he’s also the one paying for your dress to the spring dance.”
“I don’t even know if I’m going. Boys are so lame.”Alcea could second that. Kathleen’s expression took on a calculating look. “But Serena said she’d take me shopping... You know, sometimes, like, she’s not too bad.”
This brought Alcea up short, even though she knew Kathleen could be bought. Hadn’t she bribed her enough times herself? “I thought you hated her.” Serena was a topic Alcea allowed Kathleen to rant about without interruption.
“She’s okay. I mean, you have Kemp”—Kathleen made him sound like a case of measles—“so why shouldn’t Dad have someone?”
True. And she couldn’t say she hadn’t enjoyed seeing Lothario led around by the nose for the last six months. She almost voiced the words, then thought better of it. Nothing good ever came from sticking kids in the middle of parental battles. “Don’t go anywhere while I’m gone.”
“And don’t invite anyone over, either.”
“I’ll be back around three.” She’d learned to ride over the “buts.”
Alcea slid into the Taurus and, with an offhandedness she didn’t feel, tossed the envelope next to two cake carriers. She’d traded in her BMW for the used Ford two years ago, explaining to anyone who’d asked (and even those who hadn’t) that she was tired of taking the BMW all the way to Sedalia whenever it needed a repair. She lowered the visor and checked her appearance. The starched white collar with its ribbon of lace looked demure, elegant, and went with her white silk pants. She tucked a stray strand of gold hair back into her chignon. Her appearance would meet with Kemp’s approval. Thinking of Kemp, she glanced at the envelope. Oh, balls. She worried too much.
Something would save her. Stan would delay foreclosure, like he had before. Or, there was Lil. Or Kemp. He was already halfway besotted, so…
That damn clear-eyed imp suddenly surfaced in her head again, as it had with increasing frequency over the last few years. Your problems aren’t Serena’s fault. They aren’t Stan’s. And you’re a worm to think anyone else should solve them.
Suddenly sick of herself, of her whole damned life, she flipped up the mirror, revved the engine, and took off with a squeal of tires. She could think of a lot more things she liked better than introspection. She looked around. Like her acreage. Dang, but it looked just as good as when Erik Olausson had mowed it. Her mood lightened a tad until she passed Lil’s house, gated and barely visible from the road. Along with Cordelia’s premiere home, Lil had a burgeoning business, a solid marriage, and two beautiful stepchildren including Melanie who never talked back.
She looked around for something to distract her from thoughts of her perfect sister in her perfect life, and her gaze landed back on the water tower. The plume of dust had moved away.
As a teenager, she’d made a regular habit of climbing the tower. In her bravest moments, she’d even swung down from a crabapple tree outside her window and made her way through darkened streets to sit on its railed ledge at night, searching out the moon-washed white of the colonnaded house. She’d always gone alone, except...
One night, she surprised a boy up there, a senior to her sophomore. She’d noticed him at school. Who wouldn’t with his sea-foam eyes and dark hair waving above a face all brooding angles and planes? But she’d ignored him. Those translucent eyes were usually pinned to a book. And popular Alcea O’Malley didn’t do books. But that night she’d seen him in a new light. Moonlight. Its glow had highlighted his cheekbones, shadowed the hollows of his face, and turned his clear eyes silver. Those eyes had stared right past the artifice of Alcea O’Malley and straight into her heart. He’d made her look at herself, even while she was busy staring at him. She’d returned home with her head in a whirl, had decided, even, that she might take up reading, and maybe, maybe pursue a career. Dakota Jones. Who could forget that name? Or the possibilities he’d raised?
She grimaced. Obviously she could. Within weeks of that night, she’d dispensed with the idea of books and self-fulfillment. Instead, she’d sported Stan’s high school ring on her finger. Stan’s mother had approved his choice of Miss Cordelia. And Miss Cordelia had thought exchanging that ring for a wedding band after they’d graduated was quite a coup. A much easier coup than relying on herself. As swiftly as Dakota Jones had dismissed her, she’d dismissed him. From her life, if not entirely from her thoughts. She shook her head now to clear him out again. He was just one of those silly romantic memories that shined brighter with the polish of time.
She braked at an intersection, and her car unexpectedly slid from gravel onto the pavement of the highway before coming to a halt. Fortunately, no cars were coming. She slapped the steering wheel. Figured. Spongy brakes were cosmic payback for her continuing lie about the BMW. She sighed. She’d take the Ford to Cowboy’s after she visited the bank…
And pay for the repairs with what? Deciding that if one more thing went wrong, she’d explode, she stabbed the accelerator and burned tire tracks into the road behind her. Looking ahead, she saw the plume of dust had disappeared.