Excerpt from Chapter One
LETTERS TO GABRIELLA
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Gabriella Forelli didn’t get out of bed that chilly May morning, with the sun high and her nervous heart full of hope, with the intention of ruining everyone else’s life.
She held her tongue and tucked away her bruised feelings while Lil pummeled her with pleas, warnings, and veiled accusations.
“How can you take Chloe away from us? Bruce would never have wanted this!” Gab’s mother-in-law punctuated her objections by throwing out the guilt card.
It would do no good to try to reason. Gabriella had tried reasoning with her in-laws for years. Bringing Gab’s dead husband Bruce’s wishes into the mix had become Lil’s modus operandi every time they disagreed. But it wasn’t just Lil. It was Benny, and Lizbeth, and Tugger, and all the Forelli cousins…and Lil’s sister Meg…and her bridge club.
Her in-laws meant well, but she’d suffocate if she had to live the rest of her life under the thumb of her dead husband’s family. She was moving for Chloe as well, before her little girl could be molded into another Forelli princess.
“I know this is hard for you.” Gab took hold of Lil’s hands, cradling them in her own. “But Chloe and I need to get on the road. If not for me then for her sake, put on a good face, okay?”
She gave Lil a gentle tug toward the front door and softened her tone. “Come out to the car and give Chloe a hug.” The longer she stayed the longer they would argue. Sometimes the kindest way to break a heart was to just walk away.
Two months ago she had received a ticket out of town from the last person she would ever have expected. She was taking it anyway.
TRAFFIC CLOGGED the length of I-95 from Connecticut to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It took ten hours instead of the eight Gabriella estimated to reach their destination. She found the marker she’d been looking for and turned into the driveway. Gravel crunched under the car tires, adding to the sense of remoteness as she coasted up the tree-lined approach. Squinting, she peered through the front windshield. After a couple of hundred more feet, the car’s headlights reflected off a large white house. She slowed to a stop and considered the place in silence.
Things always looked worse in the dark, she thought, and tried to focus on the positive. It had a wide front porch. She’d often imagined having one some day. Her dream porch had a riot of pots clustered everywhere, with colorful flowers spilling over the rims in cheerful abandon. And a swing, where she and Chloe could sit together and drink fresh, cold lemonade on hot summer days.
Gabriella glanced over her shoulder and took in her daughter, asleep in the back seat. The girl’s head rested against the door frame, her soft, snuffling snores going straight to Gab’s heart. A jumble of emotions clattered for attention. Despite the knot of nerves twisting her gut, she was anxious to build a new life in a place where the shadows of their past didn’t dangle over their heads like rusted chimes, no longer in tune. She prayed she hadn’t made a mistake, or that the shadows she discovered here would be worse than the ones she’d left behind.
She got out of the car and glanced around, unaccustomed to the deep, halting silence of the country. The air was different. Lifting her nose, she sniffed, her nostrils filling with unfamiliar smells. An owl’s call broke the still. She’d never heard a real one before, but the low hoo hoo hoo was so distinct it couldn’t be anything else.
Opening the car’s trunk, she retrieved a small suitcase and the large black trash bag into which she’d stashed their pillows, some clean sheets, and a blanket, just in case. The rest could wait until tomorrow. She’d been told nothing had been moved out of the house, so they should at least have a bed to sleep on tonight.
After mounting the porch, Gab set the suitcase and garbage bag down so she could fish her keys out of her pocket. With no idea what to expect, she took a deep breath, fit the key she’d received a couple of weeks ago into the lock, opened the front door, and walked over the threshold.
Inside, the house was pitch-dark, blacker than the night outside. It smelled forgotten…stale and lonely. Gabriella rolled her shoulders and stretched her neck from side to side. Not ready to think about what ghosts the old house held, she ran her hand over the wall until it brushed against a light switch. She flicked it on and off several times. Nothing. Rummaging through her purse, she fingered the small flashlight she carried for emergencies, clicked it on, and made a quick sweep with the light.
She spotted a staircase straight ahead. To the right was a couch in the middle of what must be the living room. She could put Chloe there while she made up one of the beds upstairs. That resolved, she went back to the car for her daughter and carried her into the house.
After settling the girl on the couch, Gab retrieved their belongings from the porch, locked the front door, and aiming the flashlight, followed the dim light up the stairway to the second floor. She chose a bedroom with a connecting bath and quickly made up the bed. Chloe could sleep with her tonight. She didn’t want her daughter waking up in a strange place and becoming frightened on their first night.
A few minutes later, Chloe stirred as Gabriella carried the girl up to the second floor. “Where are we, Mommy?” she asked around a sleepy yawn.
“Home, baby.” Gab kissed Chloe on the forehead. “We’re home.”