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Authors: Stef Ann Holm

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BOOK: Leaving Normal
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Sarah's handwriting couldn't find its way out of a paper bag it was so sloppy. All he could make out was the "C" of the last name. The rest was one big squiggly line.

As Fred took the walkway up to the front door, he thought whoever sent Iris some irises was pretty clever.

He punched the doorbell and waited for an answer.

The door opened and a woman stood in the opening. At first glance he assumed she was younger than she was by the nice shape of her figure. On closer inspection, she was actually a more mature lady. Not mature in a way that was aged and unbecoming, unflattering or unappealing. But mature in a very lovely way.

She was tall, too. Probably a couple inches taller than him.

He gazed at her feet to see if she was wearing heeled shoes. No.

He hadn't dated much since he'd been a widower. The first several years had been hard ones, then he'd gotten into the swing of things being on his own. He'd had a few dates his girls didn't know about. Decided real quick that women his age were no fun. Amazing how many didn't want to go to the lake because they didn't swim, or the sun was too hot or they didn't water-ski because of their hip. Or didn't want to in-line skate or bike. Didn't want him to open the sunroof on his car because the wind gave them an earache. Or didn't want

to go to Las Vegas because plane travel upset their stomachs. Those who took a shine to him had only been interested in being taken care of by his retirement checks. He was no woman's keeper. He'd only done that for the single love of his life because she had been the mother to his children, and nobody else could ever replace that special spot in his heart.

"Flowers for Iris," Fred found himself saying, staring into a pair of nice brown eyes.

"I'm Iris." -

He should have known.

She was very attractive. He liked her hair. The light shone on it in a soft, kind of warm way that looked nice. Her eyes were brown and she actually wore makeup. Many of the ladies his age had forgone makeup and styling their hair. They'd gone over to the dark side— bouffants and Marlene Dietrich eyebrows.

"Then these are for you."

"How sweet." She took them, paused and said, "Oh, let me thank you for your time."

He knew what she was getting at—a tip. "No thanks necessary. I was happy to do it."

And he was. Happier than he realized when she smiled at him. But that only made him think of something else—

Who in the hell had sent her the flowers? A boyfriend? A husband? One of her kids, if she had any?

Why did he even care?

"Have a merry Christmas," he muttered as he stepped off the porch, only to catch himself glancing over his shoulder at her as she pressed her nose into the flowers with the sweetest smile he'd ever seen. Fred climbed into the van, cranked on the heater and braced himself by gripping the steering wheel. What had come over him?

The cell phone he'd set on the dash chirped and startled him.

He answered and Natalie asked him where he was.

"I'm just now done with Iris, um—whatever her last name was," he replied, wishing he'd had the foresight to read what had been written on the card before he'd made the delivery.

"I know you like to take your time, Dad, but we have a bunch more deliveries."

"I'm heading out to the next stop now." He turned over the ignition, took a sip of his Dr Pepper, the ice having melted enough to knock some of the carbonation from the syrup. He made a sour face. "Hey, none of my afternoon deliveries happen to be in the direction of the Milwaukee Street Target, are they?"

"No." .

"Well, hell."

He clipped the phone line dead, punched his foot on the accelerator, and snuffed out thoughts of how tasty a white-cherry slushy would be.

 

"I hope Austin doesn't look as rough around the edges in person as he did in the photos Cassie e-mailed me," Natalie stated above the noise of the airport's PA system.

Sarah's expression went from enthusiastic over Cassie's imminent arrival to guarded. "Don't get your hopes up. He did look a little…uh, not really right for Cassie."

"I know."

Natalie mulled over the very real possibility that this new boyfriend of Cassandra's was not good enough for her daughter. Of course, very few boyfriends of eighteen-year-old daughters were worthy of baby girls. It was just that Cassie seemed to act a little differently when she was with Austin.

There were those times when Natalie had called Cassie, and Austin was in her dorm room with her— something that rather distressed Natalie. She mentally went over all the "girl talks" she'd had with Cassie about birth control and safe sex. Yet it seemed that whenever he was with Cassie she got silly and giggly. Goofy. Cassie wasn't a goofy girl. She'd always been fairly solid, a grounded young lady with a good head on her shoulders.

Austin Mably made Cassandra Goodwin breathless.

No doubt about it, her daughter got that lightness in her voice when she talked about the boy. Natalie could only hope the relationship wasn't too serious, or that it wouldn't last for long.

Cassie needed to focus on her education.

That was a big bone of contention for Natalie. She'd dropped out of college and hadn't pursued her degree. She'd married and taken on a set of family responsibilities. Not that she regretted any of it. She just wanted a better life for her own daughter. Cassie had so much potential. She was an excellent artist—a great visual person who'd always won awards in high school.

A new batch of holiday travelers came through the glass security doors of the Boise airport. Family and friends waited in a designated area. Forgoing the vinyl chairs Natalie and Sarah stood at the top of the escalator. Passengers rolled carry-on luggage through the concourse.

Natalie was anxious to see her only daughter, to reconnect and visit. Give her a big hug and a kiss. To reaffirm the familiar bond. She wanted to hear all about her college life this past month, how she was doing in her classes. Her daughter had always excelled academically and she carried high hopes for becoming an advertising designer. Natalie wanted to know more about who her friends were, although Natalie suspected Cassie had chosen Austin above making new girlfriends.

Cassie hadn't come home for Thanksgiving due to class scheduling and a project she had to complete. Natalie had missed her greatly and was glad she'd be here for a week this time. Part of the time would be spent with her and the other time with Greg.

Sarah scanned the crowd while saying, "What are you going to do if you don't like Austin?"

"What can I do about it? Cassie likes him." Natalie held a white-frost bouquet for her daughter, a welcome-home gift. The sweet smell of white carnations, lilies and roses overpowered the fast-food odors of the airport.

Sarah thoughtfully asked, "Remember Kyle Provant?"

"How could I forget? You dated him in the tenth grade. Dad hated him."

"That's sort of why I dated Kyle—I mean, I thought he was cute. But Dad wouldn't let me get my learner's permit until my grades were better, so this was my one way of getting back at him."

"All I remember about Kyle is that he had to go to juvenile court for car theft."

"Yeah. His house was on Dad's mail route and Dad delivered the court notice. When he came home from work that day he gave me holy hell about it, asked me if I knew I was dating a delinquent. I told him it was no big deal. He had a fit. Said I couldn't date Kyle anymore."

"That's right."

"So my point is—I only picked Kyle because there was something I wanted more than him. And that was to get my learner's permit."

"And this has to do with what?"

"Leverage. I told Dad I'd stop seeing Kyle and get my grades up if he'd let me get my learner's permit."

"Dad never said you could do mat."

"I know. But Mom did. She was always on my side." Sarah smiled, a pair of dimples coming out on her cheeks. "Mom never liked to argue."

Natalie smiled in fondness, an image of their mother coming to her mind. Mom had always been the peacemaker in the house.

"So I'm thinking—why do you think Cassie wants to date a boy you probably won't like? What does she want?" Sarah asked.

Baffled, Natalie shrugged. "She hasn't asked me for a thing."

"Well, there has to be something exciting about this boy."

Tamping down the anxiousness that struck a chord, Natalie uttered with dismay, "She wanted me to up the limit on her Visa and I said no. Oh, God—do you think this is about me not letting her go shopping?"

Sarah folded her arms beneath her breasts. "When I was her age, I might have thought about it." Sarah's stream of thought was cut short, her gaze narrowing. "Is that her? I think it is. She's wearing a red beret."

Natalie stretched on tiptoe to see. She caught sight of her daughter coming toward her on the ramp, a smile on her travel-weary face. A red felt beret was angled on her blond-highlighted hair, her cheeks wintry pale and appearing fuller. She looked exhausted, as if she hadn't slept much last night. The zipper of her coat was undone, the edges hanging open. She wore bleached jeans and a gray sweatshirt, very nondescript. Cassie had always had a snap more fashion flare.

Maybe she really did need to go shopping…

"Doesn't look as if Chicago has turned her into a big-city girl," Sarah commented, waving to her niece.

"She looks great," Natalie replied, her heart warming and a smile spreading across her mouth. "Tired, but great."

Natalie hadn't realized how much she'd missed her daughter until this moment. So much had happened since she'd sent her only child off to college. It was good to have her home so they could catch up, and Natalie could show her Hat and Garden.

Cassie approached with a lightness to her steps, carrying an overstuffed travel bag.

In that moment, the tagalong boyfriend was forgotten.

"Mom!" Cassie said, dropping the bag and putting both arms around Natalie.

Natalie held on tight, breathing in the scent of her daughter, reveling in the feel of their embrace. "Cassie, honey, I missed you."

"Me, too, Mom."

Pulling back, Natalie brushed the long hair from Cassie's left cheek. She'd lost that innocent high-school demeanor, the look of a flighty senior ready to move away. In its place was a college student, more mature and self-sufficient. "You've changed."

"No way."

"Yes, you have. You look…different."

"I'm tired. I didn't sleep well last night, too excited to come home, I guess."

Sarah hugged her niece. "The girls have been asking about you."

"I brought them something. It's in my suitcase—if it made it here. O'Hare was crazy. We almost missed our flight"

Natalie presented her daughter with the white flowers, giving her a buss on the cheek. Her skin felt smooth and warm beneath her lips.

"They're beautiful." Cassie breathed in the fragrance.

"Are you going to introduce your friend?" Sarah questioned.

"Austin, come here. I want you to meet my mom and my aunt!"

It was then that Natalie homed in on the boy standing three feet away from them. He wasn't exactly a
boy
. He was a young man, twenty years old. Call it a mother's instinct, but Natalie didn't get a good feeling about him from the outset.

The photos had been correct; now seeing him in real life, Natalie's premonition was correct.

He had too much product in his hair which was a dull brown color. The style seemed greasy. His eyes were gray like fog, the eyebrows above flat and thick. A smile curved on his mouth, his teeth marginally crooked, but not overly so. His face was pleasant enough if she were being generous. But the fact remained Natalie didn't think he was good enough for her daughter. That conclusion was hammered home when she noted the sleeves on his plaid flannel shirt had been rolled up, revealing forearms colored with tattoos.

"Mom, this is my boyfriend—Austin Mably."

Boyfriend
? Did Cassie have to call him that?

Cassie had never had a serious steady in high school, and that pleased Natalie. Her daughter was in-volved in school activities, big groups and sports. Barely four months had passed since she'd started at Columbia College Chicago. That seemed so soon to land a boyfriend, much less bring him home for Christmas.

Natalie stiffly extended her arm to Austin's outstretched hand. "Hi, Austin."

"It's nice to meet you, Mrs. Goodwin."

"Natalie," she clarified before she thought better of it. She had to give him credit for addressing her respectfully, but she hadn't thought of herself as a missus in quite some time.

"This is my aunt, Sarah," Cassie said.

Sarah said, "So, your mom told me you two met at orientation."

"We didn't like each other at first." Austin scratched the light bristles of beard. Certainly not a day's growth—more like a few days'. "I thought she was too country for me."

Natalie stood taller. "Idaho isn't the country."

"He thought Idaho was where Iowa is." Cassie's laughter was soft.

If it hadn't been a common mistake, Natalie might not have nodded. "Where are you from?" she questioned Austin.

"Minneapolis."

"Not exactly New York City." There was a slight bite to her remark. Sarah caught it and nudged her with her shoulder. Natalie was wishing that she could rewind the moment and watch Cassie come toward her again, only this time, without Austin in the background.

"I'm not much for New York." Austin settled his hand on Cassie's shoulder. "I like Chicago."

Her daughter's face lit up as if it had been illuminated by a host of holiday lights. A stab of jealousy worked through Natalie, leaving a bitter taste in her mouth. She didn't want to share her daughter, not now. Not this Christmas. It was going to be difficult enough with Greg taking their daughter for half her stay.

"Well…1 guess we should get your luggage," was all Natalie could think to say.

As they walked to baggage claim, Cassie snuggled next to Natalie, hooking her arm through hers. In a low voice she said, "I want you to like him. Give him a chance, Mom. Please."

Natalie kept her gaze straight, her throat tight while her pulse beat at the base of her throat. "Honey, I've reconsidered the issue of your Visa card. I'll extend your limit."

BOOK: Leaving Normal
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