Knock, knock, knock.
Holly Gundersen stretched, pointing her toes and stiffening her arms. Eyes still closed, she let her lips curve upward in a smile. It was the brief moment of optimism she always experienced before tumbling down the precipice into reality.
Her eyes snapped open, and she fought to draw in a breath through her constricted throat. Recently that tumble had become much more sudden and painfully jarring.
“Holly?” Her mom’s cultured voice slipped through the closed door. “Breakfast will be ready in thirty minutes.”
Two high-pitched barks punctuated the words. Wherever her mother went in the house, the Lhasa Apso was never far behind. The dog clearly adored her but seemed to just tolerate the other two members of the family.
“I’m up.” At least she would be in a few minutes. After a shower and a cup of coffee, she might even be able to hold a halfway intelligent conversation.
Footsteps retreated down the hall—heavier human ones and softer canine ones, the latter accompanied by soft scrapes of claws against the hardwood floor.
After a few more stretches and a huge yawn, Holly pushed herself to a seated position and swung her feet over the edge of the four-poster bed. No kitchen scents had made it upstairs and into her bedroom yet, but Holly could guess what awaited her—scrambled eggs and coffee cake, the latter made from scratch. It was her mom’s specialty and Holly’s favorite. Maybe the shower and coffee would wake up her appetite.
Her mother was handling her return home—and the reasons behind it—better than Holly had expected. When she’d arrived late last night, her mother had embraced her as if she’d expected her to vaporize on the spot, never to be seen again. The long, chest-crushing hug had left Holly with an almost uncontrollable urge to cry. Not that she hadn’t already done enough of that over the past three and a half weeks.
After plodding to her bathroom, she closed the door and turned the water on in the shower. By the time she was ready to get in, the bathroom would be good and steamy.
When her parents had had the luxury home built in the exclusive Bear Paw community outside of Murphy, North Carolina, they’d designed Holly’s suite with its own water heater. She’d barely been out of diapers at the time, but they’d apparently had the foresight to know that once she hit adolescence, she’d need it.
Except the bathroom wasn’t getting steamy. Not even a little.
She put her hand under the stream of water and drew it back. Ice cold. No way did she need a shower that badly.
Ten minutes later, she descended the stairs. The aroma of baking coffee cake hit her before she’d even stepped onto the marble tile of the foyer.
As expected, her mother was in the kitchen, beating eggs with a wire whisk. The oven light was on, a square Pyrex dish inside. Holly’s stomach growled. Yep, appetite alert and reporting for duty.
“Good morning.” She stepped up to the Keurig and pulled a mug from the cupboard. Zoe sat against the cabinets nearby, eyes hidden beneath flowing blond hair.
Her mother looked at her over one shoulder. “Good morning. Did you sleep well?”
“Pretty well.” Better than she had hoped. There was something comforting about being back in her hometown, wrapped up in the love of friends and family.
She had visited with both parents briefly last night before going to bed. This morning, she would spend some quality time with her mother. Tonight, she had dinner plans with her childhood friends, Jami and Samantha.
This afternoon, she’d have time to kill while her mother was tied up with one of her social clubs, time she’d probably spend reading or playing the piano. Venturing into town, when no one had expected to see her until November, would require too much explaining.
She filled the mug, then doctored the contents with sugar and hazelnut-flavored creamer. “By the way, something’s wrong with the water heater in my bathroom.”
Her mother looked at her again, this time with her eyebrows raised. “Like what?”
“No hot water. Not even lukewarm.”
“I’ll get a hold of Louie.”
“Louie Vanmeter still does your repairs?” He’d seemed ancient when she was a kid. He had to be at least seventy-five now.
“He still does everyone’s projects here. He’s been trying to retire, but we won’t let him.”
She poured the eggs she had whisked into a skillet and picked up her phone. The way her thumbs skidded over the screen, she looked more like a modern teenager than a fifty-something housewife.
A text notification sounded a half minute later. Her mother glanced at the phone without so much as a pause in stirring the eggs. She’d always been great at multitasking. With her schedule, she’d had to be. Though she had never worked outside the home, between her social clubs and all the volunteering she did for civic organizations, she stayed busy.
She looked at Holly with a scowl. “Louie’s vacationing in Florida.” Something in her tone said that wasn’t acceptable.
Holly shrugged. “I think he’s entitled.”
“That’s not the point. I mean, who goes to Florida in July?”
“Apparently the Vanmeters.”
Holly slid into the chair at the four-seater table that occupied the breakfast nook. Outside the bay-shaped wall with its three large windows, a multi-tier deck spanned most of the back of the house. Lake Hiwassee some distance below and beyond.
She rested both elbows on the table. It held only two place settings. At this time of the morning, the house was empty except for Holly and her mother. Her dad would have been on the road two hours ago, headed to one of the multi-unit real estate projects he owned.
Holly took a sip of her coffee and closed her eyes. If chocolate was comfort food, hazelnut-flavored coffee was comfort drink.
“Don’t you have another handyman you can call?” Waiting until Louie returned from vacation wasn’t a good option.
Her mother removed the coffee cake from the oven, cut four squares and transferred them to another plate. “We’ve used Louie for so long, I wouldn’t know where to start. You have to be so careful nowadays, bringing people into your home.”
Holly’s nod turned into a shudder. Nobody had to tell her the world was dangerous.
Her mother spooned the scrambled eggs onto two plates and brought them to the table, Zoe trailing behind her. Her face broke into a smile. “I know who I can call. Jeanne Phillips.”
Holly gave her a crooked grin. “Ms. Phillips is a great piano teacher.” In fact, everything Holly knew came from her, at least until her four years at Indiana State University. “But I have a hard time picturing her changing out a water heater.”
Her mom laughed. “No, I don’t think she’s putting aside her music books for hammers and wrenches anytime soon. But I ran into her in town last week, and she’d just closed on that rundown house nextdoor to Bernie Hopkins. Her nephew was supposed to be arriving the first of this week to renovate it for her.”
When she approached the table again, she held the plate of coffee cake in one hand and her phone in the other. “I’m going to call Jeanne while we eat. If she hasn’t changed her number since you left for college, I’ve got her saved in my contacts.”
After putting the plate between them, she picked up the dog and placed her onto one of the empty chairs. Then she slid into her seat and scrolled as she talked. “I’m hoping that if I catch Jeanne early enough, her nephew will be able to get your water heater repaired today.”
Holly nodded. Having hot water by tonight wouldn’t surprise her. Her mom always managed to get things done in a fraction of the time that everyone else did. She’d mastered the art of being politely pushy.
“Here’s Jeanne.” Her mother touched the screen and put the phone to her ear.
Holly spooned some scrambled eggs into her mouth, determined to eat her breakfast while it was hot, regardless of her mother’s plans.
But the conversation didn’t last long. After a brief greeting, she got right to the reason for the call. Less than two minutes later, she hung up.
Holly looked up from her plate. “That was fast.”
“He happened to be with her, so she put him on. He’ll be here at ten.”
She laid the phone down and picked up her fork. “Have you talked to Ethan?”
Holly pressed her lips together, a knot forming in her stomach. “You mean have I talked to him since he called off the wedding? No.”
The short response didn’t reveal what she was thinking. It also didn’t mean the conversation was over.
Holly laid down her fork and picked up one of the squares of coffee cake. “Did anything new and exciting happen since I was last here in March?”
Holly and Samantha had filled her in on all Murphy news, almost in real time. But maybe she could redirect the conversation before her mother could continue the prior topic.
“Not really. Nothing earth-shattering, anyway. Your father has been traveling a lot. The apartment complex in Charlotte has been having some serious management problems. He’s probably going to have to make some staffing changes.”
Holly nodded. That had been par for the course the past twenty years. The traveling part, anyway.
Her mom had never seemed to mind his absences. She’d always stayed busy, flitting from activity to activity, content as long as he was doing whatever he had to do to keep her in the style of living she was accustomed to.
Holly hadn’t minded, either. Her dad had always made it home for important events like her piano recitals and school programs. The rest of the time, between piano, school, cheerleading and hanging out with friends, she kept a full enough schedule to not feel much of a void at home.
She snagged the last square of coffee cake and placed it on her almost-empty plate. Once the handyman left, she’d take her delayed shower, put on some makeup and style her hair. Then she’d be ready for her evening out with Jami and Samantha.
It was an outing she looked forward to with equal parts anticipation and dread. Any activity with her long-time best friends was guaranteed to be enjoyable. But if she ventured anywhere in the public eye, there would be no way to avoid the awkward conversations, the questions that had no comfortable answers.
It would all become public soon enough. She just wasn’t ready for soon enough to be tonight.
“You two make such a cute couple.”
Her mother’s words sliced across her thoughts, and Holly cringed. “Made.”
“Ethan and I made a cute couple, as in past tense.”
“Oh, Holly.” Her mother reached across the table to rest her hand on Holly’s forearm. “You’re starting your dream job next month. Come November, you’ll be married to a doctor. Your life is bright with promise. Once he gets through his residency, you won’t want for anything. If you decide to continue working, it’ll be for your own satisfaction, not because you have to in order to make ends meet.” She sighed and gave Holly’s arm a squeeze before withdrawing her hand. “Come on, sweetheart. You need to give him a call.”
“There’s nothing to discuss. He can’t live with what happened and called everything off. That bright future is gone.” Her voice cracked at the end, and she swallowed hard. She wasn’t going to cry. And she wasn’t going to feel sorry for herself. At least, she’d been trying hard not to.
Her mother picked up her fork and slid the eggs around on her plate. When she finally spoke, her voice was low, with a touch of steeliness. “You know, it’s not too late to make the problem go away.”
Holly clenched her jaw. She’d had this conversation numerous times over the past week, with Ethan. Each one had ended in a stalemate. Compromise wasn’t an option, for either of them.
She heaved a sigh. “Do we have to discuss this over breakfast?”
“You’re finished with breakfast.”
No, she wasn’t. She still had two bites of egg left, bites that would now go uneaten. The appetite that had awoken with her entrance into the kitchen had gone back into a slumber. Or died altogether.
Her mom sat back in her chair, arms crossed and lips pressed into a thin line. “We didn’t give you every opportunity growing up and pay for four years of college to have you throw it all away on an unwanted child.”
Holly stood so quickly, her chair scraped across the tile floor and slammed against the sill of one of the nook windows. Without even looking at her mother, she stalked from the room.
“Think about your future.”
The admonition followed her, but she didn’t turn around or acknowledge it. Quick, little footsteps padded behind her. As she ran up the stairs, Zoe released two barks but apparently decided not to trouble herself with following.
Once inside her room, she closed the door and plopped down on her bed. From the moment she made the dreaded phone call a week ago, she had expected drama, concern for their family’s reputation, a dozen different ways to say, “What will people think?” She’d been pleasantly surprised to not get any of it.
All she’d gotten was encouragement, sympathy and support—promises to be there for her, to wrap her in love and acceptance. If she would just come home, they would help her gather together the shattered pieces of her life.
Now she knew. The encouragement and support she craved from her parents would come—but only on their terms. During all those conversations over the past week, her mother had been biding her time, saying whatever she had to to get Holly home, where she would have more influence and control over her decisions.
Her mother had lied. Maybe not lied, but definitely not been up front about what she’d been offering.
And Holly had allowed herself to be manipulated. Now she was home, but the comfort and security she’d always associated with it seemed far out of reach.
One act of violence had put her entire future at risk.
One little pink line had shattered it.