Always On My Mind, p.1part #8 of The Sullivans Series by Bella Andre / Young Adult / Romance & Love
Author: Bella Andre Chapter One
Lori Sullivan wasn’t looking for trouble. She swore she wasn’t.
Just because her nickname was Naughty and trouble seemed to follow her wherever she went didn’t mean she wanted any today. On the contrary—for the first time ever, she was looking for some peace and quiet.
No one in her family knew she was back in San Francisco, having just flown in on the red-eye from Chicago. Even though she loved them more than anyone else in the world, she just couldn’t face them right now. Her six brothers, twin sister, and mother were the best family a girl could have. . . and yet, if they found out that she was back, they’d not only want to know why she’d walked out on her show halfway through its run, but they also wouldn’t back off until they’d wrung every horrible detail out of her.
How did she know that?
Because it was exactly what she’d done to every one of them over the past twenty-five years.
So, instead of wheeling her suitcase from the San Francisco Airport baggage claim area over to the taxi station to head home to her apartment, she impulsively headed for the rental-car desk.
“Good morning, how can I help you?” chirped the blonde woman behind the desk.
Lori guessed the two of them had to be around the same age, but by contrast she felt at least a decade wearier. “I need a car. ”
“Great! Where are you headed and how long do you need it for?”
The woman’s smile was so bright, Lori felt her eyes tearing up from the glare. Fortunately, after her bleary-eyed flight across the country, immediately upon landing she’d put on her sunglasses to deal with the blinding sunlight pouring in through her small airplane window. She’d hate for the woman to think she was crying.
No, Lori refused to cry over anything that had happened in Chicago. Or during the year and a half before that.
She wasn’t a crier, damn it. Never had been, never would be.
The world would have do a heck of a lot more than give her a cheating scum of a boyfriend and take away her entire dancing career to make her cry.
She was young. She was healthy. She had her whole life ahead of her.
Somehow, some way, she’d figure out what to do with the next seventy years.
Which brought her back to the car rental woman’s questions. Where was she going? And for how long?
Blaming lack of sleep for the fact that all her brain could come up with was blanks, she asked, “Where’s your favorite place to go?”
The woman was momentarily surprised by Lori’s question, but then her face got all dreamy. “Pescadero. ”
Lori slipped her sunglasses down her nose so that she could peer at the woman over the frames. “Pescadero?”
Having lived in Northern California her entire life, Lori figured she must have driven through there at some point, but as far as she could recall, Pescadero had been nothing more than a bunch of farms strung together.
The woman nodded happily. “I just love the green rolling hills that seem to go on forever, all those sheep and cows munching away, and the fact that the ocean is at the end of nearly every farm road. ”
Lori loved living in the city. She loved working in cities, too, especially since her dance career had always been intrinsically tied to the movement all around her. A sleepy farm town was the last place she would ever have thought to pick for an impromptu vacation.
“It sounds perfect. How long can I have the car?”
Again, the woman gave her a slightly strange look before saying, “One month, and then I’ll need to fill out additional paperwork. But it’s really more of a day trip. A shortish one, at that. I can’t imagine how you could possibly spend a month in Pescadero. ”
Even though Lori was silently wondering the same thing, she handed over her credit card and signed a dozen forms promising that she wouldn’t damage the car. A few minutes later, she was holding the keys and about to walk away from the rental desk, when she turned back.
“Any idea how to get to Pescadero from here?”
* * *
An hour and a half later, Lori was wondering if the farmland was ever going to end when she saw a roof. Feeling like a sailor who had been out to sea for months before finally catching sight of land, she put her foot down harder on the gas pedal and sped toward what she could now see was the teeny-tiny Pescadero Main Street.
The car rental lady had been right about the pretty green fields and the cute sheep, but she’d somehow forgotten to mention how quiet silence was. . . or how lonesome.
Lori had filled her world with loud music and tall buildings and vibrant people for so long that it was strange to be surrounded by none of the above. She’d flipped on the car radio at one point, but it had felt akin to turning on a boom box in the middle of a church, so she’d immediately turned it off.
Still, for all that her mood wasn’t exactly at its best, since it was the first sunny day she’d seen in weeks, she was determined to enjoy the warm sun and blue skies. Plus, just as her auto-mechanic-slash-mogul brother Zach had always claimed, there really was something about getting in a car and going for a drive. Granted, she thought as she looked down at her little rental car, he usually did his joyrides in a Ferrari. Besides, he didn’t do them alone anymore, now that he and Heather were in love and engaged.
Lori pulled up in front of the Pescadero General Store just as a little girl walked outside carrying a big bag of dog food and wearing a huge smile. A man Lori easily assumed was her grandfather was barely a beat behind her holding a brand-new dog crate. Wearing cowboy boots and well-worn blue jeans, they both fit perfectly into the farm town.
As she got out of the car, Lori saw the girl’s puppy. His leash had been tied to a nearby post and when he caught sight of the little girl, the black and white dog started wagging its tail so hard its whole body looked like a kite flying in the breeze. The girl immediately dropped the dog food bag on the ground and picked up the puppy in her arms to give it kisses. The grizzled old farmer said, “You’re going to spoil him,” in a gruff voice, but his eyes were full of love.
For the second time, Lori felt her eyes start to water. She’d gotten used to the bright sunlight and had flipped her sunglasses up on top of her head a while ago, but now she plopped them back over her eyes.
As she stepped onto the sidewalk, both the man and the girl stopped to look at her, each of them doing a double take. She couldn’t figure out what had shocked them so much. . . not until she finally looked down at herself.
Oh yeah, this was why. The form-fitting, sleeveless, bright-pink top covered in multicolored sequins that ended at mid-thigh, and nearly opaque tights combined with the glittery heels she’d been dancing in, were a little strange to be wearing in the middle of the day. Not just here, but anywhere, really.
She’d completely forgotten what she was wearing when she’d stormed out of the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, thrown her things into her suitcase at the hotel, then headed to the airport to catch the next plane to San Francisco. She’d wrapped an oversized scarf around herself on the plane and in the airport, but it was so warm and sunny during her drive that she’d stripped it off and had left it on the passenger seat.
Of course the puppy didn’t care what she was wearing, and when she reached for it, he wriggled his furry body toward her. “What a cute puppy,” she said to the little girl. “What’s his name?”
“That’s a great name,” Lori said as she smiled and patted the dog, but just as her fingertips stroked the soft fur between the puppy’s ears, the girl’s grandfather dragged them away.
A moment later, when Lori turned to head for the General Store’s front door, the ground felt as though it was moving beneath her. Bracing herself against the wall, Lori realized she hadn’t had anything to eat for nearly twenty-four hours. Despite what most people thought dancers’ lives were like, she had a healthy appetite and a fast metabolism, and knew she shouldn’t have gone so long without eating.
It was just that food hadn’t sounded very good for a while now. . .
With renewed purpose, she pushed through the door. Animal feed and supplies ran the length of one entire side of the store. In the middle was a display of knitwear, jeans, cowboy boots, and what looked like packages of underwear and socks. The other side of the store had a deli counter, several refrigerated units holding eggs and cheese and milk, plus shelves weighed down with canned food.
She grabbed a bag of chips and walked up to the register. The teenage boy behind the deli counter turned bright red. “Wh-what can I get y—” He swallowed hard and reached up to loosen the neck of his T-shirt. “—you. ”
Even as it occurred to her that maybe she should have gone back to the car for her scarf to wrap around her dance outfit, she enjoyed the appreciation in his eyes. Just because she was done with men didn’t mean she didn’t still want to be wanted by them. That way she could have the pleasure of kicking them all to the curb—except for sweet teenage boys, of course.
“What’s the best sandwich you’ve got?”
His eyes went wide at her question, as if she’d asked him for the answer to how the earth rotated on its axis rather than just about cold cuts and bread. And boy, was he working hard to keep his eyes on her face rather than letting them drop to her breasts, which were pretty much on full display in her outfit. It was so cute that she wanted to leap across the counter to hug him for making her feel pretty again, at least for a few seconds of adolescent adoration.
“Um, I don’t know. ” He swallowed hard again before turning to scan the list of sandwiches handwritten on the board behind him. “Maybe the Muffuletta?”
“Sounds good. ” She put down the chips on the counter as he started to ring her up. “I’ll also take the strongest cup of coffee you can brew. ”
Who knew how much longer she’d be out driving these farm roads before she found a place to stay for the night? She did have the rental car for an entire month, after all.
He took her money from her with a shaking hand, and when she said, “Could you tell me where the bathroom is?” he dropped it all on the floor, then hit his head on the open register drawer when he went to pick it up.
Clearly not trusting himself to speak this time, he simply knelt on the floor and pointed toward the back of the building with a shaky hand. Lori figured it was a good idea to give him a break while he made her sandwich; she’d hate for him to slice off the tip of a finger with the meat cutter just because she was standing too close in barely-there spandex and glitter.
After quickly taking care of business, she looked at herself in the mirror and would have laughed if she hadn’t been so horrified by the mess she found in the reflection. With quick and efficient professionalism she fixed her hair and makeup. She’d always subscribed to the idea that if you looked good, you felt good, but today she had a feeling mascara and lip gloss weren’t going to fix much of anything.
After leaving the bathroom, she took a few moments to look around a little bit. On second glance, the General Store was pretty cute inside, a little farm “superstore” with groceries and clothes and chicken feed, clearly all of equal importance to the people who lived here. One table had a Local Authors sign on it and she stopped to scan the books of poetry, novels, and a couple of nonfiction tomes on farming techniques. The books gave her a sense of the community that this store supported, likely made up of farmers and their families who had been here for generations.
She’d been part of the dancing community for so long she hadn’t ever looked for any other world to belong to. Especially not when Sullivan family events with her mother and seven siblings were frequent enough to take up any free time she had.
But now, even the thought of dancing made her sick to her stomach. Her ex had wooed her with dancing. . . and then betrayed her with it. Once upon a time, she’d danced for herself, for the pure joy it had given her. Until these past few months, when she’d been little more than Victor’s puppet, dancing to try to please him. By the time she realized that nothing pleased him, she’d forgotten how to dance for any other reason. And now, it felt like there was a dead, numb zone inside her where her heart used to be.