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A bend in the road, p.1
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       A Bend in the Road, p.1

           Tess Oliver
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A Bend in the Road

  A Bend in the Road

  A short story from the 2014 Pink Shades of Words Anthology

  Tess Oliver

  A Bend in the Road

  Copyright© 2014 by Tess Oliver

  This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.

  All Rights are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  Table of Contents

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Other Books

  Tess Oliver

  Chapter 1

  I glanced up in the rearview and the faded blue bruise stared back at me, mocking me, reminding me that I’d made an embarrassingly bad choice. Decent radio stations had vanished along with the chunks of tract homes, gas stations and mini marts. I pushed the CD button and turned up the volume.

  The sky was a crystal blue and the smell of manure and garlic drifted through the miniature vents on my very miniature car assuring me that Aunt Gail’s house was just a few miles away. Four years of college and another year of slogging through job searches and interviews had kept me from visiting my favorite aunt. But as my carefully planned, carefully controlled life had unraveled over the past year, I’d realized how badly I needed to see her.

  Aunt Gail had always been a free spirit, a never take life seriously type of person, the complete and polar opposite of my mom . . . and of me. From as early as third grade, I’d had my life planned and organized right down from my Hello Kitty pencil box to the college I would attend and the type of man I would marry. But last summer, when my perfectly methodical and predictable mom announced in an almost humorous fashion that she was leaving my dad, it knocked me off my path. That one bend in the road led to a series of wrong turns from which I was still reeling.

  A highway sign was my marker for the unpaved road leading to my Aunt’s farm. The sign was still tilted at a precarious angle from when Ryder Stevens, a neighbor boy, and I had taken a joy ride in his dad’s tractor. Ryder had given me my first real kiss, and if my uncle had not decided one blistering hot August day to sneak out to his barn for a midday beer, Ryder would have been my first everything. Ryder had been one of those dreamy boys who never said much but who could still talk any girl out of her jeans, and I had been no exception. My teenage hormones would spin out of control whenever he was near, and even though he’d never fit into my perfectly tailored scheme of life, he’d been impossible to resist.

  Titus, Uncle Robbie’s massive black shepherd, looked the same but moved a little slower as he trotted out from the farmhouse to greet my car. After the long drive, it felt good to stand. “Hey, Buddy.” His plush fur smelled like hay as I leaned down and hugged his wriggling body. In the distance I could see Aunt Gail with a red kerchief on her head strolling in from the field with a basket resting on her hip.

  She saw me and lowered the basket to the ground. “Janie!” We both ran.

  We threw our arms around each other and hopped around in a circle, laughing and crying. It had been too long. We finally stopped long enough to catch our breaths and Aunt Gail took a step back. Some of the creases around her mouth and eyes had deepened and some of the auburn hair had been replaced with streaks of gray but she was still radiant.

  “My little Janie.” She reached up and brushed back a strand of my hair and her smile sagged. “Ooh, that man, I could take him out back and—”

  I took hold of her hand. It felt warm and slightly calloused. “Aunt Gail, it’s fine. He’s out of my life for good, and I would rather not be reminded of my stupidity.”

  She nodded and kissed my cheek. “I won’t mention it again.” She took my hand and led me back to the basket, which was brimming with smooth red tomatoes. She sighed. “We’ve had tomatoes coming out of our ears.” We picked up the basket together and carried it back toward the house. Aunt Gail laughed as she said, “I’ve been serving Robbie tomatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and even though he doesn’t complain much, I fear if I put one more tomato dish in front of the man, he’s going to run from the house screaming. I’m planning to box some of these up and drop them off on neighbor’s porches. But not Fran down at the end of the road… she’s having the same tomato abundance problem as me.” She paused, then smiled. “Although it might be kind of funny to leave her a box! Anyhow, enough about tomatoes. Come inside for a sandwich and you can tell me everything that has happened in the last four years.”

  Aunt Gail’s kitchen had a breathtaking view of the entire farm. A weak breeze bent the tender tips of the grass that ran along the border of the fields. The air lingered with the fragrance of freshly picked vegetables and a hint of garlic. The neighboring land had been used for growing garlic for years and the entire valley had always smelled a bit like an Italian restaurant, but it had never been an overwhelming smell, just enough aroma to keep you perpetually hungry.

  “Where’s Uncle Robbie?”

  Aunt Gail reached into the refrigerator and pulled out two premade sandwiches. “He had to haul the tractor into town for some repairs. And, of course, I remembered too late that I needed some cheddar cheese.” She grinned at me. “I’m making your favorite tonight— mac and cheese, or at least I was planning to. I forgot to remind him about the cheese, and he never remembers to take his cell phone with him.” She lowered the plates to the table and we sat.

  “I could drive into town later and pick up some cheese.”

  “That would be great. Are you sure?”

  “Uh, mac and cheese? I think I can make the sacrifice.”

  She looked over at me and some of the sparkle faded from her eyes. “So, Janie, tell me what happened. You sounded so distraught on the phone.”

  “I’m sorry if I worried you, Aunt Gail. Everything just sort of went to crap all at once.” My voice wavered a bit so I stopped to take a bite of sandwich, hoping to squelch an eruption of emotion. I swallowed and took a breath as Aunt Gail waited patiently for me to continue. She had always been a much better listener than my mom, who would start in with her advice and lectures before I could even get three words out. “The company I was working for had to lay people off, and since I was as the bottom of the heap, I was the first to go. Almost immediately, Trey started acting differently toward me. He’d always seen us as this future power couple climbing the ranks together, sweeping up tons of money and prestige on our rise to glory and success. But then, suddenly, I was jobless . . . and, in his eyes, worthless.” I swallowed to relieve the thickness in my throat.

  Aunt Gail reached across and patted my hand. “What an awful man.”

  “He really is, but it took me a year to realize it, and I feel so ashamed.”

  “No,” Aunt Gail protested. “You were young and—”

  “Trey fit perfectly into my plan. He was successful, ambitious and handsome.” I gave a small grimace. “Although now I cringe just thinking about him.”

  “Good. You should. He sounds truly monstrous.”

  “The final blow came when a friend of mine needed to find a home for a stray kitten. I hadn’t had a pet since I left home for college, and I was sorely in need of a little furry friend. Trey exploded with rage telling me I had some nerve bringing a cat into his home without his permission.” My jaw clenched tightly just thinking about the fit he’d thrown. “Up until that point, I’d paid for half of that overpriced, cramped apartment, but once I was jobless, it became his home. I told him he was a selfish prick, and,”
the words stuck in my throat, “he threw the glass he’d been holding.” I could sense Aunt Gail tense with anger as I spoke. “I have no idea if he’d truly meant to hit me, but we were through. I walked straight into the bedroom and packed.”

  “I’m sure it was heartbreaking for you, but I’m glad you left.”

  “You know something, it wasn’t all that heartbreaking. In fact, it was kind of freeing. Not even sure how I ended up with him in the first place.”

  Aunt Gail sipped some iced tea. “The plan, remember? Maybe it’s time for you to veer away from that plan. Which reminds me, your mom called me just before she left on her cruise.” She looked at me over the brim of her glass. “She has never sounded happier.”

  Aunt Gail knew how to get her point across without ever really pointing it out.

  I picked up my sandwich. “I guess she’s finally learned how to veer.” A horse whinnied in the distance. “Oh my gosh, was that Queenie? How is she?”

  “That sounded like Charger.” Aunt Gail rolled her eyes. “Your uncle bought himself a new gelding, and that horse is the most ornery, challenging animal I’ve ever met. I told Robbie he should have named him Widow Maker because that is what he’s going to make me. Ryder’s been coming over to work him, but I don’t know if he’ll ever be broke enough for Robbie to ride.” She picked a piece of lettuce off her sandwich and dropped it onto the plate. “I sort of hope not.”

  “Ryder? I’d forgotten all about him.”

  Aunt Gail’s brow arched at my obvious lie.

  “He got married, didn’t he?”

  She waved her hand. “That was over faster than a summer thunderstorm. They were never suited for each other. I think Ryder just married her to placate his father, who was sick with cancer at the time. After his father died, he got a quick divorce and left town for awhile. Ended up in some trouble with the law— a bar brawl or something, I think, but he’s back now and he’s been fixing up the farm.”

  I chewed a bit faster as she spoke, as if some of my teen hormones had resurfaced with just the mention of his name.

  Aunt Gail grinned at me. “And he is still a tall drink of water, that one. But he never got serious with anyone again. Or at least not that I know of.” She stood and carried her dishes to the sink. “Speaking of Queenie,” she said, Aunt Gail could snap to a different subject without taking a new breath, “she’s been standing out in the pasture with the other horses all day. She’d probably appreciate you taking her out for a little ride— if you’re up for it.”

  “I’m so up for it I can’t even tell you.” For the first time in months, I heard happiness in my tone. “But first, I’ll go into town to get that cheese.”

  Town was really two parallel lines of outdated, quaint shops bordering a thinly paved stretch of road called Main, but it was the kind of place that made you feel at home even if you were from out of town. I pulled my car into one of the three spots in front of Bert’s Market and Sundries and hopped out. It was one of those stores that had a little bit of everything.

  Bert’s beard had thickened along with his waist. He glanced up from his cash register and then his face popped up with a bright smile. “Janie Morris, you’re back. It’s about time.”

  I waved. “Hey Bert, Aunt Gail sent me in for some cheddar cheese.”

  “Straight back and to your left.”

  I grabbed a package of cheese that looked as if it had been on the shelf for a good long while and returned to the check stand. The bell on the door rang behind me, and Bert nodded a silent greeting to the customer.

  “Don’t think I’ve seen you around these parts since you were a teenager,” Bert said.

  “I know, it’s terrible of me, but I went off to college and got too busy. But, now I’ve found my way back, and I’m glad.” And it couldn’t have been more true. All through college I’d convinced myself that I could only be happy in the bustling world of business and finance. Now I had my reservations.

  Bert’s mustache had grown completely gray, and it twitched as he spoke. “That’ll be five, eighty-five.”

  I reached into my pocked and pulled out the five dollar bill Aunt Gail had given me. “I have another dollar in my—” A large hand reached from behind me and a dollar bill fluttered to the counter.

  I turned around. His shoulders had filled out, his arms had thickened with muscles and he’d added some tattoos, but his gaze was as familiar and unsettling as always.

  Ryder stared down at me from a dark curtain of lashes, and I was instantly transported back to my teen years when one glance from those cool blue eyes could set my skin on fire. “You’re back, J.J.” It was the nickname he’d given me and hearing it now made me smile. He paid Bert for the gallon of milk he held.

  Bert bagged the cheese and handed it to me with a wink.

  “I’m visiting my aunt for a few weeks.” We walked outside. The black jeep he’d driven in high school, the very same jeep where we’d had more than one major kissing session, was parked next to my car.

  “You drove all the way up here in a lawnmower?”

  I lifted my chin. “Bob is not a lawnmower. He’s a Smart Car.”

  His lazy smile, the smile that was one of his major weapons in charming a girl out of thinking straight, appeared. “You named it Bob?”

  I shrugged. I was acting cool and smooth as whipped cream on the outside but for some silly reason my insides were churning like butter. “It seemed to fit.”

  That infectious gaze of his drew me in just like it always had. He stood there so cool and confident and familiar, the same boy who could sweet talk me into anything, it felt as if I’d never left. “Well, I guess I’ll see you around.”

  “Yeah,” I said a little too loudly. “See you around.” I slid back into my puny car and had to make a conscious effort to slow down my breathing and the slight tremble in my hands. He backed his jeep out of the parking spot, and I watched him drive off as the tiny, annoyingly logical voice in my head reminded me that he was the last thing I needed right now.

  Chapter 2

  Queenie snorted softly as I buckled the bridle. She’d whinnied as soon as she saw me walking toward her in the field and I’d been overly pleased that she remembered me. I led her out of the barn to the garden bench that I’d always used to climb onto her wide, sloped back. It had seemed too hot and sticky for jeans and boots so I hadn’t changed. I slipped off my sandals and hiked my dress up to mid thigh.

  Queenie stood as still as a sentry as I climbed onto her bare back. For the first ten years of her horsey life, Queenie had pulled a wagon around an amusement park, and Uncle Robbie said that the experience had made her the best trail horse in the world. He’d insisted that a meteor could come crashing down to Earth next to where she was grazing and Queenie would likely just flick her tail in irritation from having her lunch interrupted. Aside from several dull rides on rental horses, my only riding experiences had been on Aunt Gail’s farm, and Queenie had given me the confidence to learn quickly.

  It was just an hour or so before dusk and the shadowy sunlight made the stretch of fields and pastures look endless. Birds were diving into the tall weeds along the side of the road hunting for their last meals before the settling darkness would banish them back to the safety of the trees. A rhythmic hammering in the distance pricked Queenie’s ears forward, and she picked up her heavy feet and plodded faster down the dirt path.

  Ryder’s house came into view as we reached the top of the road. Again, the stupid rational voice in my head spoke up, telling me to turn around. For years, I’d stuck to my plan and listened to that sensible voice, and it had ended badly. I squeezed my legs against Queenie’s sides and prodded her forward.

  Fresh, unpainted wood lay in stacks along the front of the house. Harold and Chuck, Ryder’s two giant dogs, heard us approach and lifted their big heads. Apparently Queenie and I were not exciting enough for more than a tail wag and short bark.

  Ryder stood up from behind the balustrades on his newly built porch.
He reached up to wipe the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand and then he scrubbed back his dark hair.

  “Looks nice.” I was surprised but relieved to hear the confidence in my tone. Even though I was still feeling a blush all the way down to my toes, I was done behaving like a red cheeked school girl.

  Ryder glanced around at his handiwork. “Thanks. It’s taken a hell of a lot longer than I’d expected.” He walked down the newly built steps. “Hey, Queenie.” He reached up and patted the mare’s neck. His gaze drifted along my bare legs. Then his long lashes lifted as he looked up at me. His throat moved as he swallowed hard and words seemed to be stuck in his throat at first. “You are a sight, Janie. A man could spend his whole damn day just looking at you.”

  I smiled down at him. “And you’re still a smooth talker.”

  “Yeah, it’s always worked for me.” A wicked smile turned up the side of his mouth. “Talked you right out of your jeans in your aunt’s barn, a day that is scorched into my brain forever. Never did get over the disappointment of your uncle coming across that yard and stopping us.”

  “It’s a good thing he’s a loud sneezer, or we never would have heard him coming.”

  He smiled up at me. “Want to come inside and see what I’ve done to the kitchen?”

  “Sure.” I slid my leg around and he reached up to grab my waist. He brushed my body against his as he lowered me slowly to the ground. Taking the reins from my hand, he walked Queenie over to a patch of grass and she dropped her head to graze.

  Ryder looked down at my bare feet. “I’m not great at keeping track of nails.” Without warning he swept me into his arms. I laughed and threw my arms around his neck.

  “Remember when you got stuck in the middle of the river and you were too afraid to cross the rocks—”

  “And you lifted me into your arms? Ryder Stevens, there isn’t a girl on this planet who could forget being swept up in your arms.” I looked at him and his nearness made me forget my words for a second and when I spoke they came out as a whisper. “Of course I remember.” I rested my head against his hard shoulder. He carried me up the porch steps and I pushed the screen door open with my foot.

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