The black Silverado sat nestled amongst a copse of birch trees, easily overlooked.
But Kyle Worthington didn’t want to be noticed. Not until he knew who’d be coming up the gravel drive with his mother. Unless a lot had changed since he’d left home, she wouldn’t be alone. She’d always depended on his father for everything, including transportation if the trip involved anything outside of a ten-mile radius from home.
That was why he’d come. When she’d called, she’d sounded so lost, so helpless. Even then, it had taken him four days to make up his mind. Eight years ago, he’d disowned Murphy, North Carolina. But that was because Murphy had disowned him.
He wiped the fog from the driver’s window with the sleeve of his jacket and stared at the place he used to call home. The large cedar house sat surrounded by naked maple, beech and oak trees, their bare spindly branches fading silhouettes against a darkening backdrop. Over the past hour, the steel-gray sky had deepened to charcoal, draping everything in shadow. The first day of spring was two weeks away, but nothing hinted at its approach—not the heavy silence, not the barren landscape and certainly not the coldness that enveloped him and wrapped around his heart.
Headlights cut a swath up the gravel drive, followed by the low rumble of an older-model pickup. Probably Hank Dorchester. That was one thing about Murphy—people stuck together. His mom would have plenty of offers to help. He’d known this before he’d come. But there’d been something in her tone he couldn’t ignore, a silent plea no one could answer except her only child. So he’d packed his bags and left, shattering his vow to never again set foot on Murphy soil.
He reached for the door handle, then hesitated. The bundled-up figure that stepped from the cab was too short to be Hank. Shoulder-length dark hair flowed from beneath the knit cap, and blue jeans disappeared into ladies’ size hiking boots. The driver circled the truck, and before she even reached the passenger’s side to help his mother from the cab, he recognized the confident gait. Samantha Atkinson. Some things never changed.
And other things did.
He squared his shoulders and slid from the truck. He should have known she’d step up to help his mom. And if he came back, he’d be bumping into her at every turn. Samantha had written him off, not his family.
He closed the space between them. “Hello, Mom. Sam.”
When his mother turned, her brows lifted. She wore the strain of the last few days on her face, eyes puffy over sunken cheeks. On both sides of her head, hair had escaped her jacket’s fur-lined hood and framed her face. Sometime during the past eight years, silver had overtaken the black.
A smile crept up her cheeks. “Kyle, you came back.”
“Of course I did.”
He spread his arms, and she stepped into his embrace, squeezing him with a strength surprising for someone who looked so frail. “I’m glad you’re here. It’s been too long.”
Guilt stabbed him. Yes, eight years was a long time. He should have come back sooner. But part of the blame was hers. She could have tried harder, been more supportive when everyone turned against him. All he’d wanted was for someone to believe in him. But his mother wasn’t one to stand up to anyone, least of all his father. So she’d thrown him away like everyone else had.
He released his mom and cast a glance at Samantha. She nodded a greeting, but didn’t smile. There was a stiffness to her movements that was missing moments earlier. She lifted several Ingles bags from the bed of the truck, and he took what was left.
“I appreciate your helping Mom out.”
“No problem.” Her voice was tight.
Once inside, she placed the bags on the kitchen island and shed her coat and hat. Then she set about putting away groceries as if she owned the place. As he watched her rearrange items in the fridge, making room for the new, annoyance wove through him. She had slid right in and taken his place in the Worthington household.
“Samantha took me grocery shopping on the way home from the hospital.” His mother removed her jacket and hung it over the back of one of the chairs. “I’ve invited her to stay for dinner. Will you join us?”
Before his denial reached his lips, Samantha straightened and turned, giving him a full view of her right side. Annoyance morphed to shock, and a lead weight filled his gut. Pale, mottled skin stretched tightly across her right cheek, over her jawbone and down the side of her neck, several shades lighter than her natural olive-hued complexion.
She dipped her head and turned away, her hand pressed against her cheek. He hadn’t meant to stare. The last thing he’d wanted was to make her feel self-conscious. He’d just been caught off guard. Blindsided.
There was only one thing that could have scarred her like that. She must have run into the stable the night of the fire to save her horses. She’d been sixteen, he a year older. He’d known about the fire but little else. He’d been whisked away so fast, first to detention, then off to his aunt and uncle’s place in Asheville. A two-hour drive, but it may as well have been half a continent.
He jerked his gaze to his mother. “No, thanks. I grabbed something on my way here.”
“You have to at least sit with us and visit. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”
“You make it sound like it’s been forever since we talked.”
It hadn’t. For the first several months after the fire, a thick wall of silence had stood between him and his entire childhood world. Then one Saturday afternoon, his mother had shattered that silence with a surprise phone call. He still didn’t know what had triggered it. Maybe the approach of her forty-eighth birthday the following day had refocused her thoughts on what was important. Whatever the reason, ever since, one called the other at least two or three times a month. Regularly, but never evenings or Sundays when his father would be home.
He sank onto one of the bar stools. “How is Dad?”
“Not good.” Her voice broke and she turned away to remove an onion from the bin next to the sink. “He still hasn’t regained consciousness.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” For her sake, not his own.
She placed a garlic bulb and green pepper next to the onion. “The stroke was bad. We’re still not sure of the prognosis. They’ve moved him from Murphy to the stroke center at Erlanger.” She turned an appreciative glance on Sam. “Samantha made the three-hour round trip to Chattanooga to get me there yesterday morning, then again to pick me up this evening. She’s such a sweetheart.”
After retrieving a jar of spaghetti sauce and box of pasta from the pantry, Sam set about dicing the onion. “I’m just glad I could help. If this would have happened a few months later, my schedule wouldn’t have been quite as flexible.”
“Maybe by the time you reopen, he’ll be better.” His mother cast a glance over her shoulder. “Samantha runs Wild River Outfitters now.”
“You run it?”
“I’m buying it.” She gave him a tense smile, but the uneasiness didn’t dim the pride shining from her dark eyes.
She’d done well for herself. A couple of months before he was sent away, she’d gotten a part-time job at Wild River. Now she owned the company. “It sounds like life is treating you well.”
“It is.” She washed the green pepper, then chopped as she spoke. “Half the year, I’m on the water almost every day. I leave the books and paperwork to someone who doesn’t mind being cooped up indoors.”
That was the Samantha he remembered. Anytime the weather was good, and sometimes when it wasn’t, she was always outside—taking care of her horses, hiking through the woods, rafting the Nantahala or Ocoee. As he watched her scrape diced vegetables into a hot frying pan, he had to tamp down some unexpected envy. She was content. Doing what she loved. Owner of her own company at twenty-four. Her life was on track. At least one of them had reached their goals.
His mother continued. “The rest of the year she helps Bert with the store.”
He eyed his childhood friend. “You used to be scared of my dad. Now you’re working with him?”
“We get along great.”
Of course they would. Samantha wouldn’t be held to the impossible Worthington standards.
She gave him another one of those uneasy smiles. “I was scared of him as a kid, because he seemed gruff and stern.”
“That’s because he was.”
She shrugged and returned to her meal preparation. “He’s mellowed a lot over the past few years.”
His mother poured the jar of spaghetti sauce into the frying pan and gave her a pat on the shoulder. “That, my dear, is because of you. You seem to have that effect on him.” She watched Samantha add minced garlic to the mixture, then reached for some spices. Finally, she turned to face him. “Are you sure you don’t want some dinner?”
He drew in a slow breath, savoring the aromas filling the kitchen. The sautéing vegetables had piqued his appetite.
“You talked me into it.” That burger he’d eaten on his way out of Asheville hadn’t been so great anyway. It could slide over and make room for some homemade spaghetti. A sudden pang of nostalgia hit him. He’d missed his mom’s cooking. His own wasn’t that good. Over the years, he’d had a couple of girlfriends who were okay cooks, but nothing to write home about. Bridgett, his current girlfriend, didn’t cook at all. Actually, there wasn’t much Bridgett did do.
His mom set the table while Samantha transferred hot slices of garlic bread to a towel-lined basket. The stiffness he’d noticed earlier had lessened. As she flipped the ends of the towel over the bread, her movements were fluid. But she wasn’t relaxed. Her shoulders were raised under the multi-colored sweater, and tension radiated from her.
She freed her ponytail and slipped the elastic band around her wrist. Before turning to face him, she finger-combed her hair forward and drew in a deep breath. The thought that she had to steel herself to approach him was a stab in the heart.
After they’d each taken a seat, his mother jammed a set of tongs into a bowl of pasta and passed it to him. “Tell Samantha what have you’ve been doing with yourself.”
“Nothing too exciting. Mostly work.”
His mother pointed at him with her fork. “He’s done really well on his job.”
“What do you do?”
Kyle’s eyes shifted to Sam. Whether she really wanted to know or was trying to be polite, he couldn’t tell. “Manager for a machine and fabrication plant.” At least that used to be his job.
“Kyle is way too modest.” His mother waved her hand, dismissing what he’d said. “What he’s done is single-handedly turned the place around. When he took over two years ago, it was on the brink of bankruptcy.”
He shifted in his seat. “You’re a typical mother. You think the sun rises and sets on your kid.”
Of course, what she’d said was true. When he came to Simpson Metal and Machine, it was less than six months from closing its doors. Now, after two years and lots of blood, sweat and tears, the company was making record profits. A lot of good it had done him.
His mother reached over to pat his forearm. “I’m so glad you came.” She smiled again, this time with some hesitancy. “Are you going to go see him?”
Kyle rolled some spaghetti around his fork and shrugged. “I doubt he wants to see me. So no, probably not.”
Her face crumpled. “Oh, Kyle, someone has to make the first move.”
“He’s the one who sent me away. If he has a change of heart, let him make the first move.”
“He can’t now. But what about the past eight years?”
“Your father has always been a stubborn man. That stubbornness has left him with a lot of regrets.”
He heaved a sigh. “It’s my first night here. Can’t we just enjoy the rest of our meal?”
“Promise me you’ll think about it, and I won’t say anything else.”
When dinner was over, everyone seemed to breathe a collective sigh. Though his mom had kept up a steady stream of upbeat small talk, the tension in the room was still heavy enough to slice and package. Her attempts were admirable, but her sing-songy tone didn’t fool him. The cheeriness was nothing but a façade, one she was struggling to hold in place.
He gathered the serving dishes and crossed the kitchen. Samantha stood at the sink rinsing items and putting them into the dishwasher. As long as he’d known her, she’d never lacked ambition. Or energy. She’d had plenty of girlfriends, but she’d often run with the boys. Though Kyle had initially been her brother Scott’s friend, their activities had regularly included Sam. For much of his childhood, she and her twin brother had been tied for the position of best friend.
Then the fire happened. It was one of those monumental events that split time—before the fire/after the fire. That was when his entire world caved in.
He shoved the memory to the back of his mind. He didn’t need to go there tonight.
His cell phone rang, and he looked at the display, thankful for the distraction. His relief lasted until he read the name. He’d been gone less than four hours, and she was already tracking him down. He stepped from the kitchen to take the call.
“How is everything going with your mom?”
“Fine so far.”
“Does that mean you’ll be coming home soon?”
“I just got here. She needs me.”
“But I need you, too.” The words held the same sultry tone she used when she wanted something. “You’re going to be back for my birthday, aren’t you?”
“Since it’s only a week away, probably not.”
“But Ky-le. I don’t want to celebrate my birthday without you.”
He could picture the pout—mouth scrunched, lower lip extended. It had been cute the first time, not the hundredth.
He heaved a sigh. “We can celebrate it when I get back.”
“What about your job? You can’t stay away too long.”
“I’ve got lots of vacation.” He winced at the less than truthful answer. Well, he did have a lot of vacation.
“They’re letting you take it all at once?”
“What do you mean, ‘sort of’?”
He cringed again, the taste of failure bitter on his tongue. An image filled his mind, his father’s face, eyes heavy with disappointment, lips turned down in disgust. He shook it off. “Old man Simpson’s son decided to return to the company. Simpson made him the new manager.”
“But that’s your job.”
“It was my job.”
“So you’re…unemployed?” She spat out the word as if she’d just gotten a mouthful of sand.
“As of yesterday, yes.”
“What are you going to do?” Her tone was filled with worry, but he wasn’t fooled. Her concern had to do more with how he was going to buy her the things she wanted than how he was going to pay his bills.
“I’ve got some money put back. I’ll just have to be careful.”
“Maybe you’ll find something soon.” Her voice trailed off. She obviously didn’t know how to handle this hitch in her plans.
After several stiff moments, he decided to spare her the discomfort. “Well, I need to go.”
“All right.” Relief filled her tone. “Have a good night.”
He slipped the phone back into its case on his hip, shaking his head. More than likely, this would be his last contact with her. One good thing had come out of his losing his job. He’d been looking for a way to end his relationship with Bridgett. A lot of the women he’d dated had been shallow. But she brought new meaning to the word.
He headed back the way he had come. When he passed the kitchen, Samantha was spraying some kind of disinfectant on the counters and wiping them with a sponge. There wasn’t a dirty dish in sight, and all food had been stowed in the fridge.
Samantha and Bridgett were as different as two women could be. For as long as he’d known Sam, she’d put others first. She was always rescuing some poor abandoned animal, caring for her horses, or lending a hand when someone needed help. And patiently listening while one disturbed teenage boy vented. She’d been the best kind of friend, the only one who really understood him. Yes, Sam was everything Bridgett was not.
Too bad it was all a mirage. In the end, she’d turned on him. It had been her accusations that had gotten him booted out of Murphy.
And he’d best not forget it.