From Chapter 1
I pulled up the schedule and minimized it to a small square, dragging it up to the top of my screen. I loved keeping an eye on the appointments, seeing the client name turn purple upon checking in, then yellow when their room was cleaned after they were finished. Our salon had three Versa Spas and sixteen regular tanning beds, all varying in speed and power. Mondays could be a fairly busy day, as people have their high hopes for the week, their mental to-do lists of how to get it started off right. Even during summer season the tanning salon stayed busy. Heaven forbid one of the suburbanites looked less than stellar taking their children to the pool or their summer activities and camps.
I blew out a breath. I could feel my old self threatening to peek through my carefully worked on new persona. My Mrs. Hawthorne persona. I wasn’t the old Nellie. I wasn’t.
I turned back to the computer, watching the check-ins and check-outs start to happen. I scanned the schedule again. Mostly familiar names in there. One in particular stood out to me on that day. Prue.
I clicked on her profile, which opened up the client information, including their photo we scanned from their driver’s license. Yep, it was the woman I’d been observing the past . . . oh, two weeks or so. Cute blonde bob, though longer now than in her picture. Bright green eyes. Petite. I remember being the one to give her the tour when she first joined as a member. I towered over her, and I’m 5’7.
She stuck out to me because she seemed so . . . sad. Something in her piercing green eyes stuck out to me that day. I didn’t know what her story was and I knew it wasn’t my business. We all deal with our own shit in our own way. But something . . . just gave me a pause. I never really had an empathic bone in my body, and I wasn’t the girlfriend type. I tried doing that whole have chicks on my side that I can count on and have each other’s backs years ago and that didn’t pan out. Nah. It’s just me and Harrison now. And our neighbors and Harrison’s work friends and the girls at the salon, but these are all acquaintances or employees. Not friends.
Working on a graphic for the Labor Day sale distracted me from my thoughts, and I forgot about Prue and much of anything else. I worked on a color scheme that popped, a layout that was aesthetically pleasing, and squeezing in all the pertinent details to the sale. At noon on the dot, my phone gave a chime. Time to break for lunch. If I didn’t schedule my reminders, I would forget to eat all together. And yes, I cared about my body and my health and I worked out, but I did not skip meals. I was not anorexic or bulimic, thank you so much. I was healthy.
I drove to the deli and picked up a typical lunch—turkey and cheese on wheat bread, loaded with spinach, green peppers, lettuce, a few pickles, and low-fat Italian. I asked for an apple and, back in the office, grabbed a Smart Water out of my personal mini fridge. I watched YouTube videos while I ate—everything from how to perfect my winged liner to design tips to music videos. This was my time to zone out. To forget work and deadlines and schedules and invoices and just chill.
At ten to one, I started cleaning up my mess. Throwing my wrappers away. Wiping up some apple juice dribbled next to my MacBook. Clicking out of YouTube and getting back to the daily schedule. And, just like clockwork, I watched Prue’s name become highlighted. She tanned Monday and Thursday at one o’clock each day. Ten minutes a time, though she stayed in the room for nearly twenty.
I headed out to the front desk, while Kerri took off for the day. The next employee, Sasha, was scheduled at two o’clock, so during this hour, I sat out front and checked people in and out and cleaned rooms. I loved my job. My career. My business. And while no, I didn’t need the salon to help us financially, I loved having a schedule. A normalcy to a life that had rarely seen any. A purpose.
“Have a good rest of your day, Kerri. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Sure thing, Nellie. Catch you on the flip.” Kerri waved enthusiastically and headed out the door, gaudy pink Coach purse slung over her shoulder, already thumbing away on her ginormous cell phone. I made a mental note to buy my best and favorite employee a real designer purse this year as her Christmas bonus. Coach was so . . . basic.
I shook my head as I took a seat behind the reception desk. Listen to me! Coach was basic. How so much could change in so little time. If you had told me this would be my life at twenty-nine not even ten years ago, I would have laughed in your face. Or tried to rob you.
I looked up when I heard a noise and saw Prue approaching the desk, head down, car keys in hand.
“Thanks for coming in!” I said cheerily, a smile on my face.
She glanced back at me, just for a moment, but I saw the tears slipping down her face before she managed to put her sunglasses on. “Thanks,” she practically whispered, before she was gone.
I frowned, looking at the screen. I checked out her room on the computer, then proceeded back to room 8 to give it a clean. Wiping down the bed, I couldn’t stop thinking about this particular client. Why was she giving me the vibe that I should . . . help her? Offer her a shoulder to cry on or at least just someone to talk to? Maybe she was like me and never had a real friend she could count on. Maybe I could be that person for someone. Maybe making a new friend was just what I needed right now. To remind me that I had changed my life for the better, and I could still be that better person. Maybe the timing was perfect, what with my past threatening to return. This was the life I ran away to. I had to keep it together.
From Chapter 2
Once back home, I had just over an hour to get showered and changed and to the school. My mom, Jean Doherty, was the principal of Eakwood Elementary School, one of the three elementary schools in this small town. School had only been in session for two weeks but I found myself there three days a week helping out. They got unexpectedly short-staffed in several places right before the school bell rang for the first time, so I was filling in. Because I didn’t have anything else going on in my life. Right.
I was a court reporter and worked hard at my job. But it wasn’t your typical 9-5 desk job. Some days I worked in the courtroom from eight in the morning to two in the afternoon without a break. Some days I worked solely from home, transcribing notes and proofreading the depo. Not very often would you find me in the office of my employer, Swank and Marty, because it simply wasn’t needed and now it was too far to travel. Just three blocks west of Michigan Avenue, when I lived in Chicago I was there much more often, simply because I enjoyed being there and around my co-workers. That changed real quick when I learned one of my office-friends, Brandi, was sleeping with my boyfriend. That put a real damper on the office morale, especially when I learned she moved into the house with him that I cosigned my name to on the mortgage. Yeah. That stung.
After my relationship imploded, I hightailed it out of Chicago and to Oamark Park, to be closer to my mom. Since my dad died three years prior and I was their sole offspring, I often wanted to be closer to her. It was only about an hour drive from here to Chicago and I came back nearly every weekend to be by her or bring her into Chicago, but it was different being just minutes away from each other now. And being that I was at her school so much, we saw each other on nearly a daily basis. I wasn’t complaining because I loved my mom and our relationship was fantastic. I just didn’t . . . expect life to turn out this way.
It was all planned out. I had been with Deacon Moore for three years. We were in love. We met through mutual friends at a birthday party one night and had our first date just days later at Portillo’s. He was everything to me. My best friend. My biggest supporter. He gave me shoulder rubs when I was hunched over my steno machine all day and night. He brought me foot-long sandwiches when I was in the courtroom and only given a ten-minute lunch break. He eventually started working in my office, which I loved. He came home with me and charmed my mother. I thought a proposal was coming anytime. We bought a house together. It was my own version of a fairy tale.
Until it all came crashing down. Turned out the perfect Deacon wasn’t quite as perfect as I thought he was. He had been seeing Brandi on the side for nearly eight months. Eight months. We signed the mortgage papers as he was sleeping with another woman. How . . . how could someone do that to a person? And why? Why make me waste so much time and money and energy when he didn’t even want to be with me? What was the point?
Though money was never really much of a concern for me—Dad had a good life insurance policy and court reporters made a better-than-decent salary—but Deacon was still slowly draining my finances. I paid for the home inspection, the realtor fees, the upfront taxes. I paid the loan payments on the new car “we” purchased together but only Deacon still drove. Deacon and Brandi had missed three mortgage payments and the bank called me to get that paid because my name was still on the mortgage. All that nonsense has led us to court, which means . . . more money being drained out of my account. I couldn’t believe I made such a mistake. That I was so easily fooled. That I was betrayed by my lover, my best friend. Betrayed by a co-worker and someone who I was at least friendly with, if not real friends. And the fact that it totally upended my life was just the cherry on top.
I went from thinking a marriage proposal was on the way, moving into a beautiful home, bringing a new puppy into our lives to living in a small cramped apartment with my finances in jeopardy. Suing my ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend to try to gain back some of the money that I spent paying their freaking mortgage. It just wasn’t fair.
I pulled up to the school and parked in the employee parking lot. Walking in, my thoughts were still on how my life turned so quickly. What did I do to deserve such deceit? I was the good girl, the good person. I had morals and always tried doing the right thing. Karma scared the crap out of me. I was the dependable, reliable one. How was this fair, karma? Huh? It wasn’t. It just simply wasn’t. And that infuriated me. What was the point of always making the right choices if this is what I got in the end?