A Beautiful Wreck (Second Chance #3) (2 page)

BOOK: A Beautiful Wreck (Second Chance #3)
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Chapter 2

O
ne Year Later

S
ometimes life passes
by in gray light. Morning fades into evening, each day a numbing exercise with the bed sitting at both ends like a dusty bookend.

“Grieve,” they said to her.

“There’s no wrong way.”

“Let it out.”

And then: “Let it go…. it’s time to move on.”

How can I move on? Everything I see reminds me of him. How do I get rid of his shirt I wore during our campfire? Even now, it still smells like his aftershave. I can’t sleep unless it’s under my pillow. My Facebook is filled with his pictures. My room is scattered with his notes. And my heart…. my heart is filled with nothing but a big hole that has no walls and no bottom.

And the anger….

I hate love!

P
ulling her laptop closer
, Cassie began to type.

They say that time heals all wounds. But I have found that not to be true. Time does nothing for the kind that are caused by love. All time does is teach you how to breathe around the bleeding heartache.

She paused. The title at the top of the page read, in bold letters:
Is Love Real?
The article was for her weekly column in Celebrity News.

Cassie rubbed her temples after reading her blurb.
It’s a miracle they’ve kept me so far. But maybe not for much longer.
Week after week, she’d dedicated her blog posts to Leif, sharing how grief tore her life down to fragile wisps. Patricia, her editor, had been very understanding—even encouraging—of the raw pieces at first. “People lose relationships in many different ways, Cassie. There’s no manual on how to get through it.”

But, after reading Patricia’s latest note, Cassie wondered how much longer she’d have her job. She might even have felt fear, if her emotions could give any other reaction besides hopelessness. “I think it’s time for you to be moving on from this. Spring is here! We want a happy blog filled with sexy posts. If you don’t think you can do it, maybe this job isn’t the right fit for you. But I have faith in you. You’re ready to kick life’s butt!” Patricia had ended the note with a smiley face.

Cassie had wanted to quit right then and there when she’d read it. Instead, she’d replied with, “Thank you so much,” and ended with her own smiley.

Puke.

Cassie’s stomach rolled over, knowing her sister would read the article. Miranda had been worried about her all year. Not saying a lot, but watching. Always watching. And now, after the anniversary of Leif’s death passed, Cassie knew Miranda was waiting for her to turn the corner.

“Turn the corner? I can barely leave my room,” she muttered. She felt bone-weary as she glanced around at the slobby mess piled across the floor.

I’m going to die here, in this house, aren’t I? I’ll probably die in this room.

Everything feels so hard. Even the easiest things. Even getting dressed.

Great. I’m going to die here, in my pajamas. And my hair will probably be unbrushed.

I’m drowning in this house. Drowning.

Cassie rubbed her temples some more before finishing the article. Quickly, she scanned through it again, then hit Send.

There. Another week done.

With a groan, she pushed the laptop across her bed and flopped back on the pillows. Leif’s box sat shoved underneath the bed, displacing the carton of love letters to one side. Cassie had tried to go through it. Really, she had. The first time she’d only been able to lift the lid, not really seeing what was in it through blurred vision.

She’d tried again six months later. But then it had been almost Thanksgiving, Leif’s favorite holiday. She’d only lasted a few seconds before cramming the lid back down.

But not before she’d discovered the photograph.

Time to try it again.
She looked out the window at the sunlight sifting through the trees outside. Her mind was already bucking against her decision.

You owe it to him.

Cassie climbed down to the floor and leaned to look at the box. It stared back at her, taunting her.
You think you can do it this time?
It seemed to be saying.
I don’t think so.

“Yes, I can freaking do it,” she muttered, and yanked out the box, dragging along a few attached dust bunnies. Her heart pounded. Licking the corner of her lip, she slid a finger under the edge of the lid. She sat for a moment, her muscles stiff.

Don’t you dare stop now.

She snatched off the lid and flung it to one side, out of reach. Her heart curled into a ball at the base of her throat. She swallowed hard, trying to breathe.
This always happens! Be brave!

Hands trembling, she reached inside the box. Rough and blue. She pulled out Leif’s favorite baseball cap. Her eyes closed. She bit her lip and clutched the hat close to her heart. After a moment she slid the cap onto her head. It was too big and fell down over her eyes. She spun the bill around to face backwards before reaching into the box again.

The pads of her fingers felt an edge. Taking a deep breath, she nearly had a coughing fit from the musty smell. Her gaze swept inside. A heavy book, obviously old, with white crease marks eating into the top edges of the thick cover. She gently traced a hand over the brittle surface. Stiff and dusty, the aged black leather carried the marks of being forgotten.

Cassie drew the book out and onto her lap. It took up nearly half of it. Crinkled, gold letters spelled
The Holy Bible.

She wrinkled her brow. She’d never heard Leif mention he had a bible before. Cautiously, she dragged her finger along the edge, before flipping the cover open to the first page.

Dedication—1921- To my darling son, Jasper, as you begin your marriage.
The thin, curlicue writing had faded to a dull brown.

The next line down commemorated another day, one year later. A son had been born.

The next few lines held the names of an additional son, a daughter, and then began marking their marriages, births, and deaths.

Leif’s birth. Four blank lines underneath to hold the date of his marriage, the births of his children.

Cassie touched an empty line. His death.

Her heart squeezed with grief. She felt around on the top of her desk and grabbed a pen. Hesitating over the page a moment, she began to scribble furiously: The most courageous man died on this day saving his brothers. He left a vacuum that cannot be filled.

Cassie wrote the date, catching her tears with her thumb before they fell on the paper and could smudge the ink. She kissed her fingers and pressed them to his name.
Leif, your life affected so many. You were a good man. Not a perfect man. But a good man. You deserved more.

She started to return the bible to the box, when she saw the photograph again. Cassie lifted it out. It had a crease down the middle from where it had been folded and its edges were dog-eared from being crammed into a pocket or a hat.
You must have kept this on you, Leif.

Gently, she flattened the picture against her leg.

Two boys sat on a log in front of a campfire. She recognized Leif right away. His red hair and goofy grin had remained the same as an adult.

But the other—dark hair, not smiling. Staring into the camera like he was awaiting a death sentence. He held a fishing pole in one hand, the end resting against a dirty, bare foot.

Both of them had the same lean, tan bodies that came from running in the sun all summer. A snapshot of one’s life, caught forever in that moment. Over so fast.

Cassie turned the photo over. In Leif’s cramped printing, it said:

Luke and me, the summer before fourth grade. Wallisberg, Oregon

Luke? She’d never heard Leif mention a friend by that name before. She paused for a second. Something about the name gnawed at her memory. She went for the bible and flipped to the dedication page again. Her pulse rising, she ran her finger down the generation lines.

There! There it was. Under Tamara, sister to Dave. She had a son named Luke. Cassie compared the dates. Dave was Leif’s dad. Tamara, Dave’s sister.

The birthdates matched.

Cousins.

“He must have been pretty special for you to be carrying around his picture,” Cassie whispered. “But why wouldn’t you have told me about him?”

At the bottom of the box lay a pale envelope, addressed to Leif when he was overseas. She pulled it out. It was thin, with a single sheet of paper inside. She set the photo to one side and withdrew the letter.

Dear Leif Hensley,

I regret to inform you that Luke Stanzione aged out of the foster care system in 2009. At this time, we don’t keep records of our former foster children after graduation. I can tell you that he graduated from Mill Falls High School the same year. I hope this will somehow help you in your search.

Leif had been looking for him, searching for his cousin.
A strange strength and energy began pulsing through her.
How did you lose him, Leif?
Her lips pressed together as she tucked the photograph into the bible and returned it to the box.

Can I leave the house and do this? Just saying those words freaks me out. But I need to save my job. And maybe, along the way, try to remember how to live again.

“I can do this. I’ll find Luke for you, Leif.”

Chapter 3


I
’m not
willing to go through that again, Miranda. I’m not.” Cassie silently counted to ten to control her patience.

Her sister pushed the porch swing, her flip-flop dangling from one foot. “Why can’t you at least be open to the idea of trying?”

Cassie crossed her arms and resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Her sister’s tone immediately dragged her back into the role of being a pouty ninth grader, upset she couldn’t go to some party. “I just don’t have it in me to do it again. Once was enough.”

“I promise, there are other people out there. You might have to ‘fake it until you make it’ for a while, but he’s a nice guy. I’m just saying go out as friends.”

“Devon is your friend. You work with him. I don’t care if he’s a nice person. He’s not Leif. Nobody else could possibly be a best friend like he was. Laugh at my stupid jokes. He was my rock for a long time.” A sob began to work its way up her throat like a razor blade. She gritted her teeth, refusing to let it come out. “I’ve got other things to do with my life. Love isn’t one of them.”

“I’ve noticed whenever you speak of Leif, you always speak of him as a friend. How are you grieving him? As a friend, or…?”

Miranda’s words cut her to the core, stirring up her tamped-down fear. “Stop! I don’t want to talk about it!”

Her sister chuffed at her tone and stood up. “You’re not even twenty-three yet, Cassie. For crying out loud, you have your whole life ahead of you. You need to get out and quit moping about in your room. You can’t give up now! You have to find your smile again.” Miranda’s eyes lingered on her face, but Cassie only frowned.

Shaking her head, Miranda walked over to the sliding glass door. Her vanilla perfume wafted over Cassie as she passed by. Memories of Sunday mornings at the pancake house flashed in Cassie’s mind, stirring a nostalgic sadness.
My biggest problem back then was choosing what kind of syrup I wanted.

“Wait! Hang on for a second.” Cassie jumped to her feet from the swing to follow her sister. “Look, I don’t want you to be mad. I love you, and I love how much you care about me. And you’re right. Something does have to change.”

Miranda’s shoulders softened, her hand pausing on the slider’s handle. Eyes filled with concern, she looked back at Cassie.

Cassie released the breath she was holding. “I feel like I’ve been disappearing here. I feel like I’ve been caught in a whirlpool just sucking me down, and I’m never going to get out.”

“Awww, sweet baby. I know. It’s been so frustrating watching you suffer, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“This sounds so weird but, even now, out of nowhere it’ll hit me that he’s gone, and I’m in shock all over again, like I’m hearing it for the first time. I really feel….”
Don’t say it. Don’t say you’re afraid you’ll die here. It’ll freak her out.
“Uh, I’ve been thinking I’ve just got to get out of here for a while. Maybe get on my own for a bit. I still have that life insurance from Dad.” Cassie smiled half-heartedly.

Miranda’s eyes fluttered closed, and she nodded. She opened them and leaned over to tuck a stray blonde wisp behind Cassie’s ear. “Chickee, I don’t love the idea, but I get the need for an escape. Go, then. Find your peace. I know you believe it’s out there somewhere.”

Cassie’s lip quirked at the corner. “And now you’re about to tell me that it’s really something inside of myself. You’re always so helpful with those little tidbits of advice.”

“You know me so well.”

“Anyway, I don’t want you to worry. I think I’ve got a goal. Leif was trying to track down his cousin, Luke, before he died. I’m going to find Luke and give him the bible. It was his grandma’s and, honestly, I don’t know anyone else to give it to. I want Luke to know his cousin was searching for him, that Leif cared. It makes me feel like I’m completing Leif’s mission. Who knows? Maybe that will help me move on. I’ve got to try something.”

“Okay, so I hate that idea. Why can’t you just get an apartment in town? You’ve just gone from escape to crazyville.”

Cassie snorted. “Really? You just said it was a good idea.”

“I did
not
say it was a good idea. I said I could understand the need to get away, not traipsing around alone on some missing person’s search. What if you can’t find him? Will you still be able to move on?”

“I don’t know, sis. That’s the truth.”

Miranda opened her mouth to say something. Shut it again. Finally she blurted, “Just keep in touch. Like, every night. I’m serious.”

“Whatever, Mom. Now, don’t ask me if I have clean underwear.”

“Please, Cassie, just call. Please for my sake. I’ll worry if you don’t.”

Cassie rolled her eyes. “I’ll text you, Facebook you, whatever. I’m not dropping off the planet. Just going to leave town for a bit.”

“Don’t act like I’m overreacting here. I’ve been gearing up all week to have a talk with you about going on a date with a nice guy from my work. You kind of dumped this on me out of the blue.”

“You shouldn’t talk,” Cassie arched an eyebrow.

Miranda blushed. Cassie could tell her sister was remembering her own vanishing act nearly five years earlier. “All right. Don’t rub it in. That’s why I said I understood what you’re going through. Can you at least tell me where you’re planning to go?”

“I don’t know yet. I’ll search him up. How many Luke Stanziones can there be out there?”

“That’s your big idea? Search for Luke Stanzione?” Miranda snorted. “Because surely there couldn’t be more than one of them.” She groaned, covering her face with her hands. “It’s like you’re trying to end up on the Cold Case Files.”

“Oh Miranda, you doubt my ways? That’s not something you should joke about.”

“I forgot. You are the pro stalker. You and your laptop.” Miranda walked inside and slid the sliding glass door closed behind her.

“The smart phone works, too, and yes,” Cassie plopped back down into the porch swing, her fingers furiously flying over the keypad. “Yes, I am.”

I
t turned
out there were two Luke Stanziones, both located in Oregon, several hundred of miles away.
So close. Why’d you wait to search until you’d already left for Afghanistan, Leif?
Cassie grabbed a pen from behind her ear and scribbled the address on the palm of her hand. She studied it for a second.
This is it. My ticket out of here.
She stared over the porch railing out at the lake.

Sharp sun-diamonds reflected across the surface of the water. The breeze swept over her face, carrying the green scent of the neighbor’s freshly cut grass. She inhaled deeply and relished the warmth of the sun baking into her skin.

I can do this. I really can do this.

She squeezed her hand tightly around the address and opened the slider. After taking the stairs two at a time, she reached her room and dove straight into her closet.

The first thing she saw was the black dress she’d worn to Leif’s funeral. It had been cold that day. She’d stood in the back of the church, afraid and wanting it to be over, not knowing anyone there except for Miranda, who held her hand. Cassie’s high heels had sharply pinched her toes, and she’d relished the pain. Each throb in her feet had matched the words of the priest, until she could drown him out. Drown everything out. Boom. Boom. Boom.

Her lip trembled at the memory.
Cass, pull it together.
She shoved the dress to one side.
From the top shelf, she hauled down a suitcase. She flung it on her bed, suddenly stumbling from a stab of pain in the ball of her foot.

“Ow! Ow! Ow! What the flip was that?” She shifted through the piles of clothing on the floor and pulled out a hair claw. “So that’s where you disappeared to.” After dropping it into her suitcase, she spun to survey her messy room. “This is going to be interesting,” she muttered as she shuffled the clothing around.

Twenty minutes later, she was packed and hauling loads out to her car. The back seat was crammed with so much stuff it looked like she lived there. “Laptop, tablet, phone charger, purse.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “All there. Time to escape, Cass.”

Downstairs, she grabbed her jacket off the coat hook and a handful of hard candies from the candy jar on the coffee table. Then she wandered into the kitchen looking for her sister.

Miranda’s eyes widened when she saw her. “You’re kidding. You’re not planning on leaving right now?”

“I have to. I feel like I can’t stay here a minute longer, or I’ll chicken out.”

Miranda slowly nodded and returned to beating something in a mixing bowl.

“What are you making now? Dare I ask?”

Miranda’s face was red from the effort of whipping the whisk. “Egg…. whites….” she panted.

“I see that. Why?”

“Why does it matter?” Miranda cringed and dropped her head. “I’m sorry, sis. It’s for quiche, if I’m reading the stupid recipe right. I’m just trying to be all calm and collected about you leaving, and not completely freak out. Okay?” She dropped the whisk and walked over to Cassie. “I’m completely freaking out.”

“Come on, now. Let’s not get sappy. I’m just going to be a phone call away.”

Miranda grabbed Cassie in her arms. “I practically raised you. I can get sappy if I want.” She kissed her forehead. “I love you so much. I know you’re going to be okay. You have a good head on your shoulders.” She pushed Cassie back and stared straight into her eyes. “So, keep it that way.”

Cassie hugged her. “I’m leaving now.”

“Okay.”

“So, let go.”

Miranda’s arms reluctantly released her. Cassie gave what she hoped was a reassuring smile and turned to go.

“Wait!” Miranda yelled, scurrying over to the junk drawer. She rifled through it for a minute, finally extracting a pocket-sized container of pepper spray. "Take this with you. I’ll feel better.”

Cassie stuck it in her purse. “Okay, I’ll talk to you soon.” She scratched Archer behind the ears before walking out the door.

Once in the car, she adjusted the mirror, catching a glimpse of her shocked blue eyes.
This is happening.
I’m really doing this.
She cleared her throat and flipped on the radio. “Time to roll.” Her hands shook slightly as she shifted the car into gear and slowly backed out of the driveway.

T
hree hours
and one bathroom break later, Cassie crossed the Oregon state line.

She pulled over to a curb and began to rehearse what she was going to say. “Hi, Luke. Sorry to barge in….” Her eyes squeezed shut.
Please, Cass, don’t say that. “
I was just in the area and thought I’d stop by. I don’t know you….”
Seriously? This is getting worse and worse.
She retrieved the photograph from her purse. Holding it close, she compared the two cousins. Both had the same cowlick in the front.
What was I thinking? I thought this was a good idea, but it was a mistake, wasn’t it?

Feeling the first tinges of panic, she dialed her sister. “Miranda, I’m in Oregon and I’m freaking out. What if for some crazy reason Luke grew up to look like Leif? I might lose it right there on the doorstep.” Cassie gave a shuddery groan. “They might call the police on some raving loon! You might have to bail me out.”

“You’re going to be fine, Chickee.” As always in this type of situation, Miranda was calm, using the same voice she’d used to comfort Cassie when she skinned her knee as a kid.

“I don’t know if I want to be fine. I feel like maybe I should still be hurting. It’s like the pain is still keeping Leif alive, somehow.”

“He will always have a part of your heart. And what you’re doing now is incredible.”

“What if his cousin breaks down on me? What if I end up sending the poor kid over the edge instead?”

Miranda was silent on the other end for a moment. “You know, whatever happens is going to happen. What Luke does will be his choice. You can’t go into this worrying about his reaction.”

“Thanks, sis.”

"You still have the pepper spray?"

Cassie eyed it in the cup holder. “Yes, Miranda."

“You keep it on you. Remember, I’m just a phone call away. You call me if you need me, and I’ll jump in the car and head that way.”

“Love you, sis.”

“Love you, too.”

Cassie dropped the phone in her purse and pulled back on the road, gripping the steering wheel tighter. “What if this kid still doesn’t have a family?”

She snorted as she thought about what Miranda would say to that:
He isn’t some lost kitten, Cassie. He has a home.

“Leif, I’m going to take care of your cousin somehow. I’ll be there for him like you wanted to be.”

Outside, the sun dappled the ground through the green leaf canopy. Only another hour or so to go.
It’s amazing this kid lived so close, and Leif never told me about him.

Leif had spent the last year of his life trying to find information about Luke.

Why did you keep him a secret? What did you want to hide?

Maybe he didn’t want me thinking badly about his family? Maybe he was just dealing with the shock of finding out his cousin had been in foster care. Maybe he couldn’t deal with it, being in Afghanistan.

He just didn’t want to include me for some reason.

The fear slithered out again.
We’d both changed. More than I wanted to admit.

“I’m driving myself crazy,” Cassie muttered. She blinked hard to dispel the growing tunnel vision. “There’s no way to know now. Just gotta move forward.”

She turned the radio down. “Leif, I don’t know if you can hear me. I don’t get the whole secret cousin thing, and why you didn’t clue me in. But it’s okay. I miss you so much.” A lump grew in her throat. Impatiently, she wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand before clenching the steering wheel again. “So, I’m going to find him now and bring a bit of you to him. The bible, I mean. And, hopefully, I can take a step forward with that. It’s not that I want to move past you. It’s that life is moving on without me. If I can take care of your cousin, I think that will help.”

She sighed again. “I just hope he doesn’t look like you. I think that would kill me.” A stab of guilt filled her. “In some ways, this is so hard because what you look like has been fading for me. How am I supposed to do this? How am I supposed to remember and let go at the same time?”

BOOK: A Beautiful Wreck (Second Chance #3)
6.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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