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Laying a Foundation
&
The Groundbreaking

Love Under Construction Series

Prequel & Book 1

by
Deanndra Hall

The Groundbreaking

&

Laying a Foundation

Love Under Construction Series

Prequel & Book 1

Celtic Muse Publishing

P.O. Box 3722

Paducah, KY 42002-3722

Copyright ©2013-2014, Deanndra Hall

Smashwords Edition

Originally published separately, July 2013

Combined print version, May 2014

Combined ebook version, May 2014

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.

This book is a work of fiction.

Names of characters, places, and events are the construction of the author, except those locations that are well-known and of general knowledge, and all are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental, and great care was taken to design places, locations, or businesses that fit into the regional landscape without actual identification; as such, resemblance to actual places, locations, or businesses is coincidental. Any mention of a branded item, artistic work, or well-known business establishment, is used for authenticity in the work of fiction and was chosen by the author because of personal preference, its high quality, or the authenticity it lends to the work of fiction; the author has received no remuneration, either monetary or in-kind, for use of said product names, artistic work, or business establishments, and mention is not intended as advertising, nor does it constitute an endorsement. The author is solely responsible for content.

Cover design 2014 Novel Graphic Designs, used by permission of the artist.

Disclaimer:

Material in this work of fiction is of a graphic sexual nature and is not intended for audiences under 18 years of age.

More titles in the
Love Under Construction series

The Love Under Construction series consists of a prequel and four novels, the prequel and first novel of which are now available as a combo volume (although the prequel can still be had alone and free). You’ll learn the backgrounds of the characters by reading the introductory volume, and then see them continue on in the remaining books. These books are not stand-alone stories; while they can be read independently, there will be aspects of each that will not be clear unless they’ve been read in order. Enjoy them fully by reading them that way.

Tearing Down Walls (Book 2)

Secrets – they can do more damage than the truth. Secrets have kept two people from realizing their full potential, but even worse, have kept them from forming lasting relationships and finding the love and acceptance they both need. Can they finally let go of those secrets in time to find love – and maybe even stay alive?

Renovating a Heart (Book 3)

Can a person’s past really be so bad that they can never recover from it? Sometimes it seems that way. One man hides the truth of a horrific loss in his teen years; one woman hides the truth of a broken, scarred life that took a wrong turn in her youth. Can they be honest with each other, or even with themselves, about their feelings? And will they be able to go that distance before one of them is lost forever?

Planning an Addition (Book 4)

When you think you’re set for life and that life gets yanked out from under you, starting over is hard. One woman who’s starting over finds herself in love with two men who’ve started over too, and she’s forced to choose. Or is she? And when one of them is threatened by their past, everyone has choices to make. Can they make the right ones?

Also available . . .

The Celtic Fan

Who is Nick Roberts? He wrote a bestselling novel, The Celtic Fan, but no one’s ever met him, seen him, even confirmed that he exists. When four buddies take their annual “guys road trip,” they set out to find Roberts. Three of the four get distracted, and only Steve Riley, a journalist from Knoxville, stays on track and hunts down Roberts. His search takes him to the address he was given, only to find someone he’s sure has no ties to the author. But when a flash flood traps him with the shy and quiet Diana Frazier, the search is almost abandoned until Steve makes a discovery: Nick Roberts might not be as far away as he thinks. And if he finds the elusive author, will he tell? Two books in one, Steve’s story is told in his voice as Roberts’ original work winds through it. They’re sweet, passionate love stories, but one has a tragic end.

The Harper’s Cove Series

Come and visit the neighbors of Harper’s Cove! Every house on the block has a dirty little secret – and individually they think they’re the only ones. As they go about their kinky business, sneaky Gloria, the neighborhood busybody and drunk, is determined to know everyone’s secrets. As she pokes and pries, she gets a few surprises she never could’ve imagined. Join in the fun in the fast, nasty little erotica novellas and see how much fun you can have! This series will have seven to nine books eventually, and there’s a new one always around the corner.

Me, You, and Us Series

From a newby to the BDSM lifestyle and an experienced but damaged Dominant in Adventurous Me, to a victim of domestic violence and a Dominant with something to hide in Unforgettable You, to a Dominant in his sixties who finds the perfect woman outside the back door of his club by the dumpster in Incredible Us, the Me, You, and Us series will make you laugh, cry, scream, pant, and want to throw your e-reader at the wall. Come to the hottest fetish club in town, Bliss, and meet an unlikely group of people who wouldn’t seem to belong together on the surface, but surprise each other and themselves in ways you won’t see coming. It’s an incredible, unforgettable adventure that’ll make your heart beat faster.

Support Indie Authors!

Independent (Indie) authors are not a new phenomenon, but they are a hard-working one. As Indie authors, we write our books, have trouble finding anyone to beta read them for us, seldom have money to hire an editor, struggle with our cover art, find it nearly impossible to get a reviewer to even glance at our books, and do all of our own publicity, promotion, and marketing. This is not something we do until we find someone to offer us a contract – this is a conscious decision we’ve made to do for ourselves that which we’d have to do regardless (especially promotion, which publishers rarely do anyway). We do it so big publishing doesn’t take our money and give us nothing in return. We do it because we do not want to give up rights to something on which we’ve worked so hard. And we do it because we want to offer you a convenient, quality product for an excellent price.

Indie authors try to bring their readers something fresh, fun, and different. Please help your Indie authors:

-    Buy our books! That makes it possible for us to continue to produce them;

-    If you like them, please go back to the retailer from which you bought them and review them for us. That helps us more than you could know;

-    If you like them, please tell your friends, relatives, nail tech, lawn care guy, anyone you can find, about our books. Recommend them.

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More than anything else, we hope you enjoy our books and, if you do, contact us in whatever manner we’ve provided as it suits you. Visit our blogs and websites, friend our Facebook sites, and follow us on Twitter. We’d love to get to know you!

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Disclaimer

More Titles from this Author

Support Indie Authors!

The Groundbreaking

A word from the author

Welcome to the Commonwealth of Kentucky!

Tony

Nikki

Vic

Laura

Steve

Kelly

Peyton

José

Molly

Laying a Foundation

A word from the author

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

Chapter Forty-Three

Chapter Forty-Four

Chapter Forty-Five

Chapter Forty-Six

Chapter Forty-Seven

About the Author

Nikki’s Meatloaf Recipe

Sneak Peek: Tearing Down Walls

Sneak Peek: Renovating a Heart

Sneak Peek: Planning an Addition

Connect with Deanndra on Substance B

The Groundbreaking

Love Under Construction Series

Prequel

by
Deanndra Hall

A word from the author . . .

Welcome to the Love Under Construction series! While there aren’t enough changes to call this a new edition, I hope you’ll enjoy the combination of this series’ prequel and first novel. I decided to make this leap when the decision was made to take this series into print. It only made sense, as the prequel was so short. This way you get all of it at one time!

As I wrote the first book, I realized the characters were far more complex than I ever thought they’d be, and their stories deserved to be told so the reader could appreciate them and how far they’d come to get where they landed. It wasn’t easy writing; some of their stories are difficult to read even for me, painful in fact. But as a reader, you’ll find it easier to read the subsequent books if you know more about the characters. You’ll probably even discover you have a favorite character (I do have a favorite myself, but I’ll never tell – I love them all!).

The most important thing about these books is that, unlike most others, the main characters aren’t just barely out of their teens. They’re mature adults who would argue that the best portion of their lives is still ahead of them and, if you read these books, you’ll find out they’re right!

As a reader, you also need to know these aren’t stand-alone books. If you skip one, there will be aspects to the next that you won’t understand. Also know they get progressively steamier as they go along – that’s something to look forward to!

A special thanks to my loving partner, who has been long-suffering in this effort. In the original version, I promised him I’d take a break after I finished these five books. He now knows that’s never going to happen. So thanks, baby! And thanks too to Kellie at Novel Graphic Designs for the beautiful works of art that grace these books.

Enjoy this volume and keep reading – some of the things that happen will surprise you. I wrote them, and they surprised me!

Love and happy reading,

Deanndra

Visit my website and blog at www.deanndrahall.com

Contact me at DeanndraHall@gmail.com

Join me on Facebook at facebook.com/deanndra.hall

Catch me on Twitter at twitter.com/DeanndraHall

Connect with me on Substance B

Write to me at P.O. Box 3722, Paducah, KY 42002-3722

Welcome to the Commonwealth of Kentucky!

The city of Louisville, Kentucky, occupies four hundred square miles of riverfront property on the Ohio River. Even though the city also known as “The Ville” or “da Ville” doesn’t seem like a southern city, it is physically below the Mason-Dixon line, the imaginary line of demarcation for the southern states. Most of its residents sincerely consider themselves southerners, and they will let you know that in no uncertain terms.

With a metropolitan area of almost three quarters of a million residents, and the Louisville Combined Statistical Area boasting a population of 1.45 million, it is richly diverse in culture and lifestyle. Louisvillians are surprisingly open-minded, despite the fact that out of its nine colleges and universities, three are religious seminaries. It has micro-populations of virtually every nationality and culture, partially fed by nearby Fort Knox. The dining options are numerous, from Thai to Indian to Mediterranean, Italian galore, and everything in-between. Cultural events are plentiful, and the big event of the year, no surprise here, is the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May.

And if you live in Kentucky, you’d better like – no, love – basketball. While the University of Kentucky Wildcats are legendary, University of Louisville’s men’s Cardinals won the NCAA Championship for the 2012-2013 season, and their women’s team was second in the nation that season. When March Madness hits, households in the Bluegrass State revolve around their local coverage of games, and as Kentucky teams are eliminated, fans of the eliminated teams rally behind other Kentucky teams and will cheer their Kentucky rivals on to the end. When it all shakes out, as long as somebody from Kentucky wins the championship, everybody’s happy; well, fairly so anyway.

Hospitals abound. University of Louisville’s hospital was the first in the nation to offer a trauma center. Residents from five states come to University of Kentucky’s medical facilities and University of Louisville’s hospital. Norton excels in spinal surgeries, and Kosair Children’s Hospital is a premiere facility drawing patients from all over the country.

Lexington’s horse farms are gorgeous, and as the second largest city in Kentucky, it has a Combined Statistical Area of almost seven hundred thousand people. The metropolitan area has a variety of laws in place to allow it to grow without destroying the horse farms that make it known as “Horse Capital of the World.” As cities in Kentucky go, it is the chic place to live and raise kids. The population tends to be wealthier and better educated, and residents of Lexington consider themselves somewhat more sophisticated than most other Kentucky residents.

Shelbyville, by contrast, is a typical Kentucky small town. With a population of barely fourteen thousand, it’s known as the “American Saddlebred Capital of the World.” Its little main street is quaint, and the county is dotted with horse farms. It lies along Interstate 64, the artery that connects Louisville, Frankfort (the state capitol), and Lexington, known by most Kentuckians as “The Golden Triangle,” and, as such, serves as a bedroom community for Louisville. Shelbyville may be small and well north of the triangle, but it carries the flavor of all three of Kentucky’s largest cities.

Family is important in Kentucky, and nationwide, Kentucky has the largest percentage of native-born residents still living inside its borders. If you’re born in Kentucky, you’re pretty likely to be buried there. And for most Kentuckians, that’s just fine with them.

Tony

Christmas 2011

The fire was warm and comfy, and so was everyone near it in the huge house not far outside Shelbyville, Kentucky. Drinks were sloshed around, enough food was spread out to feed a university campus, and the holiday music coming from the home theater system was just so much noise in the background.

Tony looked around at the other couples in his big family. Most were touching each other in some way, holding hands or sitting side by side with an arm around the other’s shoulder, and it took everything he had not to give in to the dull, persistent ache in his chest. If he lived to be one hundred, he’d never fully understand how someone could be in a crowd and still be so utterly alone.

While everyone else ripped at wrapping paper, he went into the kitchen for another drink. If he were being honest with himself, he did it just to get away for a minute or two, to distance himself a little from all the merriment. A hand on his back caused him to turn, and he looked down to find his baby girl. She might be a grown woman, but she’d always be his baby.

“Dad, you okay?” Her voice was rife with concern.

“Yeah, fine.” He popped the cap on another beer. Not very convincing, he thought with a sad smile.

“I know it’s hard. You’ll find someone eventually. I have faith in you.” Her hand rubbed small circles between his shoulder blades.

“Don’t worry about me, pumpkin. I’m fine.” He leaned over and gave her a peck on the cheek.

Her walnut-dark eyes smiled. “I know. But I also know how lonely you are. It hurts to watch.” She turned and left the room, and he knew she didn’t want him to see the tear that was certain to be trailing down one cheek. He wasn’t hiding his misery well enough, and the last thing he wanted was to make someone else miserable.

Standing in the kitchen doorway and looking out into the great room, he watched the whole Walters family. All four of his brothers had beautiful wives, and their kids were something special. His own two kids were in great relationships. His son had married a lovely girl and they were hoping to have a child soon. His daughter had found someone and managed to land in a loving, committed relationship – no small feat for a lesbian in her twenties. Even his mother seemed happy in her widowhood; she’d made it plain his father had been the love of her life and she would never need another. It would be natural to be happy for all of them, knowing they were comfortable and loved. But looking at them, watching them, was almost too painful to bear.

After everything was cleaned up and everyone was in bed, he sat on an ottoman in front of the fire. His heart was as cold as the beer he was sucking on. Beams of light from the flood lamps on the patio reflected the snow that was falling even harder now. He thought about his ex-wife, the bitch, and watched the huge flakes fall. Wonder where she was spending Christmas? He didn’t care, as long as it was nowhere near him, and he shuddered just thinking about her. She’d ruined everything for him.

I’m fifty-seven and that part of my life, love and happiness and all of that shit, that’s all over. The fire was starting to die down, and he contemplated putting another log on. Why bother? Let it die. He poked at the embers to get the last of the heat out of them, then sat back in his chair and glanced down at the front of his jeans – yep, limp and dead, just like it had been for twenty years. Oh, it had a revival a couple of years before, but generally it just hung there neglected, no longer waiting for someone to come along and stimulate it, knowing that wasn’t even on the table anymore.

He had his work; that kept him busy. Heading up a large, family-owned construction and contracting business wasn’t a part-time job. And he had the gym. He was there almost every day, and his body was a well-tuned instrument. Everyone who saw him thought he was in his early forties, certainly not his actual age, and his genetics helped that along. Women looked at him with longing, but after what that bitch had put him through, no one was getting near him, no way, no how.

The embers in the fireplace seemed to simply wink out of existence, just like his chances at happiness. Everyone under his roof tonight was snug and warm with someone they adored and someone who adored them nearby.

Except for him. And that wasn’t likely to change.

New Year’s Eve 2011

“Hey, what did you bring?” Tony prowled through the bags Vic had brought in with him.

“Hmmmm, let’s see,” Vic said, pulling out a box. “Mallomars and Moon Pies.”

“Love ’em,” Tony said.

“Yeah. And big bags of m&m’s and Skittles.”

“Love ’em too,” Tony said.

“And,” Vic said, pulling out two boxes, “Goo-Goo Clusters!”

“Ah, makes me proud to be a southern boy!” Tony said, ripping a box open.

“And a huge bottle of,” Vic pulled it out with a flourish, “Maker’s Mark. Plus some cheaper stuff for when we don’t care anymore. Which I hope is soon.”

“No shit. I plan to get completely hammered.” Tony looked at the bottle and gave serious consideration to tearing into it and drinking straight from it.

“Yeah, me too. I looked around the house but I didn’t have any weed or I would’ve brought that too.”

“Ohhhh, that would’ve been sweet. Oh, well, I think we can still do enough damage with the liquor.” Tony scrounged around the kitchen and came up with bowls for all of the stuff Vic had brought.

“What else have we got?” Vic asked.

“Well, I’ve got donuts, the powdered sugar kind and some filled with Bavarian crème, and all kinds of cookies, and chips, my god, every kind of chips I could find, and that great pub mix, you know, the one with all the different little things in it?”

“Yeah, I love that shit!” Vic grabbed two bowls and headed for the great room in the big house. Tony picked up all he could carry and followed.

An hour later, they were well on their way to something much more intense than a buzz. Neither of them did any heavy-duty drinking on a regular basis, and the much larger Vic was faring a lot better. The alcohol was slamming into Tony like a freight train.

“Well, here we are. Two cousins. Alone on New Year’s Eve,” Tony mumbled.

“We’re not alone,” Vic reminded him. “We’re here together.”

“You know what I mean, smart ass,” Tony slurred back. “I don’t have a woman, and you don’t have a woman. So we’re alone.”

“Yeah. No fun. Hey, how long’s it been since you got laid?”

“Couple of years.” Tony took a pull off a bottle of bourbon.

Vic’s eyebrows knitted. “I didn’t know you dated anybody. What was up with that?”

“Didn’t date her. Long, sad story.” Tony took another hit off the bottle. “Well, the getting there was sad. The being there was awesome. She was a helluva fuck, lemme tell ya. But I’ve said enough; I really don’t want to talk about that. What about you? What happened to that little girl, Carrie? One day you’re banging her, and the next, she’s gone. Where’d she go?” Tony didn’t usually talk so coarsely, but it was just him and Vic and the liquor. Liquor always worked as a solvent on his personal filters, so they were more or less already shot.

“I pretty much ran her off; kinda scared her away. Didn’t mean to, but it happened.” Vic drained a bottle and looked for another. “I’m a bad, bad man.”

“Yeah, right; big, bad teddy bear. That’s what you are, my cousin-brother,” Tony laughed. “Big ol’ teddy bear.”

“The teddy bear has a grizzly side. Hey, didn’t I see a bottle of Evan Williams around here somewhere?” Vic asked, changing the subject and looking through the pillows on the sofa.

“I think it’s in the, the, oh, hell, what’s that room called?” Tony slurred, pointing toward the kitchen.

“Can’t remember.” Vic stuck his hand between the sofa cushions and pulled out a quarter. “Hey, your sofa’s throwing up money!”

“Don’t be talking ’bout throwing up, what with the power of suggestion and all that.” Tony got up to go to the kitchen and staggered a little. “Whoa, damn house must be on one of those tectonic plate fault line thingies ’cause the earth’s moving,” he giggled. When he came back, he tossed a bottle of Old Granddad to Vic. “Here, more fuel for the fire.”

“Thanks, cuz. Seriously, though . . .”

“No ‘seriously’ now. I can’t handle fucking seriously,” Tony admonished.

“Okay, just bullshitting you then, isn’t there a woman somewhere you want to ask out?”

Tony thought for a minute. “Yeah, there’s this woman at my gym. She’s kinda cute. Nice tits, nice ass. Very nice hair. Looks like a sweet one. I’ve been watching her for four years. But she’d never go out with me.”

“Four years? Hell, nobody can accuse you of jumping the gun! You’d be lousy at speed dating.” Vic was shocked; why hadn’t Tony just asked her out? “Why wouldn’t she go out with you? You’re a good guy.”

“Yeah, and I’m hung, too! But I can’t just walk up to her and go, ‘Hey there, I’d like to go out with you and guess what? I’m hung!’ Probably get ar-ar-arrested, think?”

“You’d better slow down, buddy. You’re getting pretty damn polluted.” Vic reached for the bottle of Jack Daniels that Tony was sucking on.

“Hey, fuck you!” Tony snapped, snatching the bottle away. “You’re damn right I’m getting polluted! I’m here in my own house in my own recliner. So if they wanna ar-ar-ar-arrest me for that damn intoxication bullshit, they’ll have to do it between the recliner and the bed, ’cause that’s the only place I’m going tonight.” He took another draw. “And I’m not asking any woman out. Bitches only break your heart, man. Over and over. All of them. That’s no good.”

“Wow, you’re even more jaded than I thought.”

“Yeah, well, uh-huh, yeah, I am. Pre-tteeeee damn jaded.” Tony picked up a donut, stuck his tongue through the hole, and tried to pull the whole thing back into his mouth which, of course, failed miserably and made a huge mess. “Boy, Helene’s gonna be pissed at me tomorrow,” he groaned, his head falling back onto the chair.

“Not as pissed as you’re gonna be with yourself, especially since she won’t be working because it’ll be New Years. That means we’ll have to clean up this damn mess ourselves; I can hardly wait. Come on, bud, let me get you into bed.” Vic put his arm around Tony’s waist and helped him stand.

“You’re not gonna take advantage of me, are you?” Tony laughed.

“You should be so lucky,” Vic growled as both of them staggered down the hall.

Vic felt like a rhino had sat on his head all night. He managed to get to the kitchen, but he didn’t smell any coffee. Tony was there, perched on a stool at the island, head on the counter and arms extended straight out.

“What the hell are you doing?” Vic asked him.

“Am I dead? Because I’m wishing I was,” Tony mumbled into the countertop.

“Not unless you’re a zombie or a vampire, because you’re talking to me, idiot,” Vic said matter-of-factly.

“Uhhhhhhhhh, if I was a vampire I could get all the good-looking women. They love that shit,” Tony groaned.

“Fuckstick, you couldn’t get a woman right now if you were naked on the side of the street and waving thousand dollar bills,” Vick laughed.

“Bite me!” Tony growled.

“Won’t do you any good. I’m not a vampire.”

“Oh, yeah; that’s how it works. I forgot.” Tony rolled his head slightly to look at Vic. “How much did I drink last night?” He rolled his forehead back to the countertop. He didn’t remember a whole lot after they’d opened the second bottle.

“Let’s just put it this way – you’re now on every whiskey maker’s VIP list.” Vic was busy trying to figure out the coffeemaker, punching buttons and getting more frustrated by the second. “Why the hell do you have to have a damn three-hundred-dollar coffeemaker? Why can’t you just have a simple fifty dollar coffeemaker so we could have some coffee?”

“I don’t know,” Tony groaned. “I don’t know anything anymore.”

“That’s sure as shit true. What do you want for breakfast?”

“Sleep. And more sleep. And you?”

“Yeah, sleep. I wish I could just sleep my fucked-up life away,” Vic muttered as he won the war against the coffeemaker. “Coffee coming up in ten.”

“Thank god. I thought I was gonna have to drink more bourbon and pretend it was coffee.” Tony tried to sit up and dropped his head back down again.

“No more liquor for you. We’ve gotta get our shit together because we’ve both gotta go back to work tomorrow.”

“Okay. Hey, wait; I’m the boss. I don’t fucking have to go to work if I don’t want to,” Tony told the countertop.

“Hell, you know that won’t fly, boy.” Vic shook his head again. “Shit, you’re a lightweight drunk,” he chuckled.

Tony ignored his goading. “So, you wanna drink some coffee, take a shower, go get something to eat? We probably should.” Tony tried to sit up again and this time he succeeded.

“Hope you’ve got some good dark sunglasses, ’cause you’re gonna need ’em,” Vic said.

“Darkest Oakleys they make,” Tony told him. “Where’s that damn coffee?”

Nikki

August 2006

Folding the basket of laundry seemed too hard. Nikki just pulled her things out and threw them in the suitcase. She took the little bit of clothes still in the closet off the hangers and put them in too. Then she threw the dirty stuff into a garbage bag, squished the bag in, and zipped it all shut.

It was late afternoon after the funerals, and the house was quiet; her mind was anything but. She thought about the dirty dishes and garbage she left behind in the kitchen at home when she took off. Thank goodness she’d remembered to take the dogs to the vet to board them; it was a miracle she hadn’t just forgotten and left them in the house alone.

The last three days had been a blur. Dozens of people had shown up for the services, which surprised Nikki to no end. It had only been six months since they’d moved away, but longer for the kids because they’d gone away to college and found jobs elsewhere, and yet many of their former classmates had shown up. Interestingly enough, almost no one had even acknowledged her; it was all about her parents. The house was full of food she wouldn’t eat brought by people she didn’t know, mostly her parents’ friends from their church. It was all so exhausting. If Randy had been with her it would’ve been much easier, but of course he couldn’t be. She hadn’t gotten his ashes back yet, or she might’ve put them in her suitcase just so she’d feel him close to her.

Worse yet, Nikki had gotten the distinct impression her mother was gaming for a fight. Barbara had been more condescending than usual, and she’d thrived in the attention she’d gotten from everyone who’d shown up. Occasionally she’d taken a sideways glance at Nikki. That meant something was about to happen, and Nikki was certain it wouldn’t be pretty.

A noise at the door made her turn and look and, sure enough, her mother stood there, hands on her hips. “What are you doing?” she asked, and Nikki could tell with only those four words that she should steel herself for battle. And she knew it wouldn’t take long for the verbal bullets to start whizzing past her head. Her mother was used to getting her way, and nothing would ever change that. Bucking her meant you’d have hell to pay.

“I’m packing.” Nikki thought that was pretty obvious. “I’ve got to get back home and take care of things.”

The corner’s of Barbara’s mouth twitched, and Nikki could almost swear she saw the beginnings of a sadistic smile. “You are home. You’re not going back there.”

Nikki stared at her, her brow furrowed. “What do you mean, I’m home and I’m not going back? Murray isn’t my home. I live in Louisville.”

“Oh, for goodness sake, Nikki, give it up! You don’t need to go back there,” her mother growled. “Your dad and I have made a decision; we’ll clean out the spare room and you can live here.”

Nikki’s mind reeled. “That’s not your decision to make. I live in Louisville,” she reiterated. “My house is there. My dogs are there, for god’s sake. I’m going home,” she said again.

“Oh, Nikki, don’t be difficult about this. After all, you don’t have anyone there anymore, and we don’t have anyone here. You can stay here and take care of us! Wouldn’t that be nice, just the three of us? It’ll be fun!”

As that scenario played out in her mind, Nikki shuddered. No way was she staying in Murray, taking care of them, being shackled to a life of board games, jigsaw and crossword puzzles, church socials, and the fried seafood buffet at the local family restaurant. If she stayed, her life would be over. Oh, it was pretty much over anyway, but at least at home she’d be near Randy, Jake, and Amanda’s things. She’d have peace and quiet to think and to heal. She’d have the dogs; Bill and Hillary were all she had left of her little family, and she was anxious to get back to them. “No, Mom, I’m going back to Louisville.”

Barbara’s face knotted in anger. “You selfish, ungrateful brat!” she snarled at Nikki. “You think you’ll go back and have a happy life, but you’ll be miserable. I know – you’re probably thinking you’ll get a man! Well, they’re not going to want you. Look at you – fat, pale, short. You’re a terrible cook and a horrible housekeeper. And you’ve got no personality. What man will want you?”

Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. Don’t let her see you cry. “You know, Mom, I’m sorry you’ve always been so jealous of me and my relationship with Randy. I’m not stupid – I know I’ll probably never have that again – but if I stay here, I’ll never have a chance at anything, and thanks to you and your mouth, I’ll have zero confidence and optimism to boot. So no, I’m not staying here.”

Nikki felt something in the air shift as Barbara strode across the room and pointed a finger in Nikki’s face. “Let me tell you something, missy!” she screamed. “If you leave, that’s it! We’ll have nothing more to do with you! Don’t bother trying to get in touch, because you’ll be dead to us, you hear me?” she continued yelling. “And you can pack your stuff up and get out of here this afternoon, go stay in a motel or something, because you’re not welcome here!” She stomped out of the room and slammed the door shut behind her.

Nikki stayed in the bedroom with the door closed for the rest of the day; she wasn’t hungry anyway, and the guest room had its own bathroom, so she just hid out and stayed in her pajamas. As she was getting ready for bed, there was a knock at the bedroom door. Before she could answer it, the door opened and two uniformed officers stood in the doorway. “Mrs. Wilkes?” one of them asked.

“Yes?” she answered, confused. There was no one else for her to lose, so why were they there?

“We got a call that you were asked to leave this property and refused. Is there a problem?”

Nikki sighed and shook her head. “No, no problem, sir. Let me get dressed and I’ll leave. My mother’s just . . .”

“Yes ma’am, I don’t know the exact dynamics, but this is their home and you need to honor their wishes.”

“Again, no problem. I’ll be gone in a few minutes. You’re welcome to stay and watch me leave if you’d like. But I need to get dressed.”

“Not necessary, ma’am.” He turned and looked over his shoulder up the hallway. “And, by the way, I’m very, very sorry for your loss,” he almost whispered. He looked at the other officer out in the hall, then turned back to Nikki and very quietly said, “And I’m so sorry we had to do this. This is very mean-spirited of your parents, but we’re bound by law, you know? So I apologize. Is there anything we can do for you? Help you in any way?” He looked sincerely regretful, and the other officer nodded his agreement.

“No, thanks.” Nikki gave them a weak smile. “But I appreciate it. Don’t worry about me – I’ll be fine as soon as I get back home to Louisville.”

“Well, you be careful and safe, ma’am. Again, our sympathy for your loss.” He closed the door, and Nikki heard low voices in the front of the house before the front door opened and closed as they left.

Nikki put on her clothes, gathered up her luggage, and made her way up the hall to the front door. She took one last look at the couple sitting in the living room in front of the TV, doing an exceptional job of ignoring her, and wished things could be different. I need you, your love, so much right now. Couldn’t the two of you just love me a little bit, just for a little while? But no; it was all about them, always had been, so Nikki already knew the answer.

The wheels on the luggage clunked down the sidewalk and she loaded the bags into her car, then pulled away from the curb. Instead of going to a motel, she just got on the road and started driving toward Louisville. There was no reason not to; if she didn’t make it, no one would care. The vet would find homes for the dogs, and she’d be free of the pain she knew she’d feel all day, every day, for years to come.

Christmas 2011

In a small house in the Middletown township of Louisville, she finished her leftovers and put the paper plate in the trash. The two little dogs, roused out of their sleep by her movements, followed her from spot to spot, hoping for something to fall from the counter.

The tiny Christmas tree – she still called it Christmas, even if she celebrated Yule instead of the Christian holiday – was lit and standing by the television. She couldn’t bring herself to turn on the TV because she didn’t want to see any of the Christmas specials or old movies. Instead, she picked up the few wrapped packages and called the dogs up onto the sofa with her.

“Look! This one is from Dr. Kincaid! What could it be?” she cried in mock excitement. She ripped the paper off as they watched, tails wagging. Gourmet dog cookies; Dr. Kincaid gave tins of those to his clients every year. They went wild until she gave each of them a cookie, then they jumped from the sofa and ran to opposite sides of the room, probably each thinking that would keep the other from stealing their treat.

She opened another small package, this one from her boss, Marla. Inside was a pair of pretty gold earrings and a gift card for the café next door to her work. At least she’d have lunch a couple of times a week for awhile. There was a card from her coworker, Carol, and it had a gift certificate to the nail salon she frequented – that meant she’d get a break on a few of her nail fills. That was the one thing she’d been able to keep up – having her nails done – since Randy had died, and knowing she’d at least have that simple luxury had kept her going when she would’ve quit her life otherwise. She hadn’t been able to get Marla or Carol anything but cards, couldn’t afford to. The only other package had no tag because she’d wrapped it for herself. It was the sweater she’d seen for months in the window at Accoutrements, the consignment store down the street from work. She’d finally talked herself into buying it, then decided to save it for Christmas. It was the nicest thing she owned, so she gifted it to herself.

And with that, Christmas was officially over. No more gifts to unwrap. No family to visit, or have visit her, or even send anything to or get anything from. Against her better judgment, she decided she’d make an attempt and pulled out her cell phone, then dialed the number from memory.

It rang three times, and her mother answered. “Hello?”

“Hi, Mom? It’s me.”

She heard her dad’s voice in the background: “Who is it?”

Her mom answered him. “It’s no one.” The line went dead.

Well, she’d tried. Even though it was painful, she was pretty sure she’d try again on their birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and even next Christmas, and probably with the same result.

She went into the kitchen and made herself a cup of hot chocolate. Cuddling back into the sofa, she picked up her old electronic tablet, the one Randy had given her for her birthday years before, and tried to read but couldn’t concentrate. In the photo app she looked through the images, bright on the screen. A smiling, happy family looked back at her, and in some of the pictures, she saw her own face, slightly younger and with fewer lines, not to mention lots of extra pounds. It was hard to believe they’d been real; they seemed like a sweet dream instead of the living, breathing people they’d been. But they were gone and she was alone, and likely to stay that way.

A lone tear meandered down her cheek and dripped off her jaw. That was the trouble with grief; there was no instruction manual, no expiration date. She didn’t know how long it was supposed to take. When would it be over? Would that day ever come? Even if there was an end, she wasn’t certain she’d live to see it.

She sipped her hot chocolate until it was cold and not very tasty anymore. After she unplugged the small tree, she let the dogs out one last time and changed into her pajamas. A driving snow had started, and the light from the porch reflected on the large, fluffy flakes. It would be pretty in the morning. After the dogs came inside, she turned off the light and locked the door.

Climbing into the empty bed, she pulled the flannel sheets up around her neck. One dog lay next to her, the other at her feet. They were her only family now, and she was glad they were there, but they couldn’t tell her they loved her, or if she looked okay when she got ready to leave for work in the morning, or discuss their opinions on the latest movie they’d shared with her on the sofa. Even with them, she was still so terribly, horribly alone. Just someone to eat dinner with, or to talk to while she was shopping at the grocery, anything or anywhere, really – that was all she wanted, but that part of her life was over. She’d spent thirty years with the love of her life, so expecting to find someone else, especially without making any effort to do so, was asking a little too much. She had her work at the shop, and her books, and the gym. Working out made her feel good about herself, so she just poured any energy she managed to squeeze out into getting fit and feeling better. It would be nice to say the exercise made her feel less depressed, but nothing could do that.

Snuggling down under the comforter and sheets, she tried to think of other things, but kept coming back to those faces. Just when she thought she’d cried so much that she had no tears left, her pillow wound up soaked. She cried until she couldn’t cry anymore, and then cried for ten more minutes.

Turning on the light, she grabbed a handful of tissues and blew her nose, then turned the light back off and switched to the dry pillow on the other side of the bed. A weariness spread over her, born of the simple act of continuing on. She thought about lighting her Candle of Intention, but it seemed like too much work, so she shuddered and closed her eyes. As she did every night before she finally drifted off, she asked the God, the Goddess, the Universe, whoever was listening, to please let her just stop breathing in the night. It was simple; just let her heart stop beating. Why not? Her life was pretty well destroyed anyway. Continuing on was too hard. After she’d pleaded for fifteen minutes, she sighed deeply and fell into a restless sleep. She’d sleep all night that way and wake up in the morning as tired as the night before. There was no real rest for her, because there was no escape from the thoughts that drained her, and no one to hold her when she cried.

Vic

September 1974

Nipote, would you like to tell me what happened?” Zio Marco was standing over Vic, and he was furious.

“They called me a dago, so I kicked their asses.”

Marco shook his head. “Vittorio, you cannot just go about beating other boys when they call you names. I fear I will not be able to keep you out of the hands of the law if this continues. School has just started for the year, and already you are in trouble? This cannot continue.”

Vic hated to see Zio Marco disappointed in him. Zio Marco and Zia Raffaella had been more than kind to him and to his mother, Raffaella’s sister Serafina, since they’d run from Italy to his aunt and uncle’s home in Kentucky to get away from Vic’s father, leaving behind everything they had. The things that man had done were horrible, and Vic had sworn to himself he’d never be beaten, abused, or mistreated by anyone again.

“But they came at me with a baseball bat, Zio Marco! What was I supposed to do, just let them knock me senseless?” Vic asked.

Marco sat on the side of the bed and put his face in his hands. “I do not know, nipote. I just know this must stop. You have to finish high school so you can go to college.”

“Oh, I don’t want to go to college,” Vic announced, and Marco stared at him, horrified. “I want to join the service.”

“Well, nipote, the service will not take you if you have a juvenile record. So think about that, young man.” Marco got up and walked out of the room, closing the door behind him.

What the hell am I supposed to do?, Vic wondered. All of the kids at school hate me. I have no friends, no dad, no girlfriend. In his mind, Vic had no one. He and Bennie were the same age, but Bennie wouldn’t have anything to do with him. Bennie was a Walters, and even though Vic had lived in the lap of luxury growing up in Italy, to the Walters boys, Vic was a poor relation. Freddie was only a little older, but he didn’t really have anything to do with Vic either. Tony had always been nice to him, but Tony wasn’t around; he was in college in Lexington and besides, he was older too.

On top of that, none of the Walters kids had gone to American public high schools; they’d spent their high school years in Italy, living with relatives and learning about their heritage. Vic had never gone to a public school – his years in Italy had been spent in expensive private schools, so an American public high school was like a whole different universe to him. And as if it wasn’t bad enough already, Vic had graduated from secondary school at the age of twelve. The last thing he wanted to do was go to school and sit, bored, all day long for no good reason. The only class he even remotely liked was civics; he enjoyed learning more about the United States.

Zio Marco didn’t understand what it was like, being dropped into a strange, new world. He’d worked hard to get rid of his accent, but it still crept out from time to time, so he just tried to be quiet and not really talk to anyone. And being so tall made it impossible to blend into the crowd. He was sure he was a pretty good guy and he’d had lots of friends in Italy, but none of the kids would even give him a chance. I’ve tried staying to myself, ignoring those people, but they just won’t leave me alone. I hate that school. Maybe I should just run away. It didn’t help that he was easily the best-looking young man in the whole school. That only made the other guys hate him even more.

At school the next day, Vic was trying his best to lay low and stay below the radar when Mr. Barnes, the physics teacher who coached the wrestling team, walked up to him and asked, “Vic, can I talk to you for a minute?” He headed to his classroom and Vic followed, wondering what he’d done this time.

Mr. Barnes sat down behind his desk and motioned for Vic to sit. “I wanted to talk to you,” he said once they were both seated. “You’re a big guy.”

“Yeah. I guess I am.” He was only fifteen, sixteen in October, and already he was at least six feet and three inches tall.

“Have you ever thought of trying out for the wrestling and the weightlifting teams? I think you’d be pretty good.” He smiled at Vic.

“How do I do that?” He’d never tried out for anything in his life. Any kind of sports would have been out of the question for him in Italy – he was supposed to look good and be a politician’s son, not an athlete.

“They’re holding tryouts tomorrow. Would you like to sign up?”

Vic thought for a minute. Yeah, what the hell? Worst thing that can happen is that I don’t make it. “I guess so,” he told Mr. Barnes with a shrug.

“The signup sheets are in the office. Just go and ask Mrs. Connors to let you sign them. And good luck.” Mr. Barnes stood and when Vic stood, Mr. Barnes shook his hand. It was the nicest anyone at the school had ever been to him.

Vic went straight to the office and asked Mrs. Connors, the school secretary, for the signup sheets. He put his name on both the wrestling team sheet and the weightlifting team sheet. He took a minute to look at the football team signup sheet, then thought better of it. I don’t really understand American football that well. And I’d rather do something where I rely only on myself, not teammates. No one’s ever had my back.

Vic had never wrestled before, so he watched a couple of the other guys at the tryouts the next day. I can do this, he thought. It doesn’t look so hard. When it was his turn, they paired him with the biggest guy on the team. They’re trying to get rid of me, he thought as he faced the other young man. Something clicked inside him, and when the whistle blew, it took Vic a whole three seconds to solidly pin the guy to the mat. There were gasps and murmurs from the bench. They paired him with another big guy, with the same results. He went through almost every guy on the team, and quickly and efficiently laid them to waste, one by one.

After the tryouts, Mr. Barnes came up to him and said, “Well done, Vic! Did you by any chance sign up for the weightlifting tryouts too?”

“Yes, actually, I did.”

“Good. Coach Murdock will love getting hold of you.”

By the end of the day, Vittorio Vincenzo Cabrizzi was a starter for both the wrestling and weightlifting teams. He finally belonged somewhere.

July 2009

“Vittorio Cabrizzi?” The police officer stood on Vic’s doorstep, another officer standing behind him. They had to look up at the huge Italian; he dwarfed them with his six feet and eight inch frame.

Vic felt sick to his stomach. “Yes, that’s me. Can I help you, officer?”

“Yes sir. We got a call from the hospital about some injuries sustained by a Carrie Johnson? They said you were with her. Could we come in and ask you a few questions?”

“Sure. Please come on in and have a seat.” Oh, great – I’m fucked, Vic thought as he led them into the living room.

“So, Mr. Cabrizzi, the hospital told us the patient said she’d sustained the injuries during, um, relations, is that right?” the officer asked, trying to be matter-of-fact but still blushing a little.

“Yes sir, that’s right.”

“And so this was an accident? Because the physician didn’t think it looked like an accident. They said it looked like an assault.”

Uh-huh, Vic thought, one look at my height and these muscles and they just assume I beat up on women. This could be really, really bad. “It was an accident. We just got a little carried away, that’s all. Carrie talked to them about it and told them that we . . .”

“Speaking of whom, is Miss Johnson here? Could we talk with her?” the officer asked.

“Yeah. Let me get her.” Damn, this just keeps getting worse, Vic thought as he made his way to the bedroom.

Carrie was standing by the bed, slowly packing boxes, and the sight broke his heart. Her face was flooded with tears when she turned to look at him. “What?” she asked.

“The police are here. They want to talk to you.” Vic’s head dropped. “Carrie, you don’t have to say anything for my benefit. Tell them whatever you like.”

She walked past him and headed to the living room without saying a word. Vic followed her, but the officer looked at him and simply said, “Alone,” so he went back to the bedroom and sat on the side of the bed. After about ten minutes, he heard a male voice say, “Well, thank you, miss, and if you need us, please call us.”

In a few seconds, Carrie came back into the bedroom. She started packing again, then looked over at Vic, who sat with his head down. “Don’t worry. I told them the truth, the same thing I told the people at the hospital. I don’t think they’ll bother you again. It’s not like I want to get you into trouble, Vic.”

Vic felt his eyes burning as the tears welled up. “You didn’t have to do that, but thanks.” He reached over and put his hand on her arm, but she pulled away. “Carrie, I’m so sorry. I just, I don’t know what to say because I really don’t know what happened. If I could’ve stopped, I would’ve, but I couldn’t. It was like something just clicked inside me and I lost control and I, I don’t know . . .” His voice broke, and he buried his face in his hands.

Carrie sat down on the bed beside him, but she didn’t touch him. “Vic, I don’t know what to say either. You’re a great guy, really, you are. You’ve treated me like a queen. I’m not in love with you, but I care about you, and I was committed to staying with you, trying to see where this thing between us was going, you know? But now I’m afraid. This is the third time this has happened, and every time has been worse than the one before. And I can’t take a chance on it happening again. Next time you could do damage that couldn’t be repaired and the injuries could be permanent. That really scares me, because some day I want a family, so I can’t take that chance. That means I’ve got to go. I’m sorry.” Still not touching him, she stood and started packing again.

Vic got up and walked out of the room, through the kitchen, out the back door, and sat down on the steps. The moon was bright, and there were so many stars that it looked like the sky would explode with them. This is it for me, he thought. I’m done. I’m going to hurt some poor woman. That can’t happen again. Next one might be more than just some stitches; it could be much worse. So that part of my life is over.

“I’m going,” he heard Carrie say from behind him. He turned and looked at her in the doorway. She looked so beautiful there, the lights from the kitchen illuminating her curly red hair, and a deep ache set up in his chest.

She walked up the hallway to the front door, and he followed her, wishing he could come up with something, some reassurance, that would get her to stay. But if he did he wouldn’t even believe it himself, because he couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t happen again, since he didn’t know why or how it happened in the first place. When she stopped at the door, she looked at him with such sadness that his heart broke all over again. He reached to hug her; for a moment, she pulled away, then she stood on her tiptoes, leaned toward him, and wrapped her arms around his neck. His arms closed around her waist, and as she began to sob into his neck, hot, sour tears poured down Vic’s face and fell into her hair. They stood like that for several minutes until she finally pulled away and walked out the door without looking back. Vic watched her car roll down the street until the taillights disappeared.

And once again, like always, he was alone.

Laura

January 1996

So, what did you get?”

Laura opened the package. Even though Christmas was officially over, it had taken a good while for the boxes to reach Bosnia, military mail being notoriously unreliable. Inside the package were socks, her favorite shampoo, and three sticks of her favorite deodorant, along with some feminine products. They’d also tucked four letters in with the personal items; there was one each from her mom, dad, brother, and Charles. “Did you get a box?” she asked Brian.


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