Chapter One: A New Home
Her heart hurt. That's the only way she could describe it. She sat on the corner of her bed, in her room, and held the battered white bear to her chest. The posters were gone from her walls. No sound came from the speakers of her CD player. And no sun shined through the windows. All her memories were packed in cardboard boxes and stacked against the wall.
Her heart hurt.
"Miss Barker?" a voice called from the doorway. She hugged the bear tighter and peeked over her shoulder. A uniformed chauffer stood awkwardly in the hall, peering hesitantly in her room. "Are you ready to go?"
She buried her face in the soft, old fur of her bear to stop her tears and nodded. She sucked in a breath that burned her lungs and stood. She clung to the old bear and stooped to grab the worn suitcase at her feet. The chauffer rushed to take it from her hand.
"I've got it, miss," he said kindly. She offered a weak smile, snatched her heaping bag off the bed and trailed behind him down the stairs. She ignored the bare walls and disregarded the covered furniture as she walked out the front door for the last time. She tromped down all three steps and climbed in the backseat of the limo. The chauffer closed the door and stored her suitcase in the trunk.
They pulled away from the tiny two-story house and she chanced one quick look back. The tears stuck in her throat like peanut butter and she whipped her head to face the front. She watched the chauffer's capable hands steer the car down her tree lined street and to the highway.
Gone were frenzied Fridays when they both pitched in and cleaned the house from top to bottom while blasting their favorite songs on the stereo. Gone, also, were Saturday night pizza and movies. No more summer evenings in the meager garden while listening to the ball game.
She sucked in a sob and gazed out the window, watching the town she grew up disappear behind the car. The pain in her heart increased as it became harder and harder to breathe. She was leaving forever. She was leaving to start a brand new life in some town she'd never been. They passed her old school and she averted her eyes, not wanting to gaze upon the institution she'd spent the majority of her life for the past three years. She wondered, for a brief second, what her new school would be like.
She squeezed her eyelids shut to avoid the tears that were sure to flow as they turned down Turner Street. She couldn't bear to gaze at her beloved library; home to her first job. She scrunched further in the leather seat to prevent temptation from forcing her eyes to open. Instead, images of the long rows of shelves and the musty scent of old books shrouded her mind.
Her father had been on the library's board and recommended her for the job. She remembered her first Saturday, nervously shelving books and shushing the rowdy children waiting for the librarian to read them their weekly story.
She cracked an eye open and smiled at the silver charm bracelet hanging from her left wrist. She flicked the lonely '16' charm and watched as it bobbled back and forth. It'd been a gift from her father on her sixteenth birthday last year. Sweet sixteen, she amended. That's what Daddy called it.
She sat up and dropped her arm, forcing her thoughts away from her father. She stared at the window and watched the factories belch their filth in the air as the limo sped down the highway. She set the teddy bear next to her and dug a book out of her bag. She might as well lose herself in someone else's misery for awhile; it'd be at least an hour until they reached the airport.
She exited the aircraft, clutching her teddy as though she were a tired, frightened four year-old, and wondered if her grandmother would meet her or send someone. She snorted in disdain. The old lady hadn't even made the trip south for the funeral so why would she go to all the trouble to meet her granddaughter at a crowded airport?
Her feet froze and a harried traveler collided with her, nearly sending her sprawling. She blushed and apologized as she urged her feet to move again. Another uniformed driver stood stoically, holding a rectangular cardboard sign bearing "PAXTON BARKER."
"Excuse me, sir," she said in a rather timid voice. "I'm Paxton Barker."
He nodded with a rather grim smile and lowered the sign. "Have you collected your luggage yet, miss?" She shook her head and he nodded again. "Very well. Baggage claim is this way, please."
She nibbled her bottom lip, eyeing the stiff man next to her out of the corner of her eye as they waited for the baggage carousel to begin its lazy spin. So many questions floated within the fog inside her brain but she just couldn't bring herself to voice them. She longed to fall in her comfortable bed among the happy, smiling faces on her posters and sleep until this whole nightmare ended.
"Miss, if you'll point out your bags, I'll retrieve them for you," the man suggested. He had kind eyes.
"That one, there," she said, pointing at her lone bag smashed in with the others. He reached across a handsome set of suitcases and snatched it, setting it at her feet. He looked at her expectantly. "That's the only one," she confessed. "I was told to only pack necessities."
He hoisted her bag and turned toward the exit. She followed, holding tightly to her teddy bear. He escorted her to a town car which she liked much better than the forbidding limo. Once they left the parking lot and hit the highway, the questions came rushing back.
"Excuse me, sir," she said, nibbling on her nearly raw bottom lip. "But do you work for my grandmother?"
"No, miss," he said. "She hired me to fetch you from the airport and deliver you to her home."
Deliver, Paxton thought wryly. Like a bouquet of flowers or a side of beef. Only she was fairly certain this was one delivery Grandmother Barker wasn't anticipating with bated breath.
She settled back with her book, not quite sure how far they'd have to travel and not really wanting to ask. She finished chapter ten and started eleven when the driver spoke, startling her.
"We're entering Dell Falls now, miss," he announced.
Paxton carefully marked her page and looked out the window. Charming was the first word to pop in her head. Picturesque was second. The driver slowed to obey the speed limit and Paxton was able to study the shops lining what must have been the main street. A frenzied mother hurried her toddler into a grocery store while two pre-teen boys sped by on their bicycles.
She spotted a bakery, a drug store and a service station before her eyes feasted on a square, brick building whose sign proudly announced Dexter's Books N Coffee. Her heart pounded a couple extra beats and she wondered how far her grandmother lived and if she'd be able to walk to the store.
All too soon, the driver turned down a tree lined road where houses were sparse and carried her up a hill to a formidable Victorian house surrounded by a wrought iron fence. A groundskeeper opened the gate and allowed the car passage, waving to the driver.
They stopped in front of a huge porch and Paxton cautiously stepped out of the car, teddy bear in her arms. The heavy door opened and a woman, whom Paxton had never laid eyes upon, swept out on the porch. She wasn't nearly as tiny or frail as Paxton had imagined, though she looked to be taller than her granddaughter.
She opened her arms and forced a smile. "Paxton, dear. How nice to finally meet you."
Paxton returned the forced smile with one of her own and stepped into the older woman's embrace. "It's nice to meet you, Grandmother."
Elizabeth Barker patted her only grandchild on the back. "I'm very sorry for the circumstances but I am happy you're here." She stepped back, hands firmly clutching Paxton's shoulders. "You look like your mother."
"That's what Daddy always said," Paxton whispered.
Elizabeth released Paxton's shoulders and lifted a hand to her heart. "Oh, my son. Such a fool!" She eyed Paxton guiltily. "But you don't want to hear such things. Come along, we'll get you settled." She motioned for the driver to set the bag just inside the door and draped an arm around Paxton's shoulders. "Consider the entire house yours, dear. You do live here now."
"Thank you, Grandmother."
Elizabeth tsked. "Please, there is no need to be so formal. Call me Grandma or Liz or anything, just not Granny."
Paxton stopped her giggles as soon as they left her mouth. Guilt flooded her heart and she turned her head.
"It's a terrible thing for a girl to lose her loved ones at such a tender age." Elizabeth hugged Paxton to her side and led her up a staircase. "Let me show you your room. You must be tired from your journey."
At the head of the stairs, Elizabeth made an immediate right turn and opened a door. She smiled and gently shoved Paxton inside. The hardwood floors sparkled in the late afternoon sun. A bed was situated against one pale pink wall opposite a bureau and vanity table. An empty bookshelf stood near the door, waiting patiently to be filled.
"I hired someone to paint the room pink. I hope that's okay," Elizabeth said as she opened the walk-in closet. "If you don't like the color, we can change it."
"It's fine, thanks," Paxton said as she stood in the middle of the room and turned in a tight circle. It was definitely bigger than her old bedroom and she loved the wispy pink curtains covering the windows. She knelt on the window seat and peeked out at the woods beyond the fence. The leaves on the trees danced in the light summer breeze and Paxton ached to feel their shade. "The view is beautiful."
Elizabeth joined her, opened the window and pointed at the woods. "The trees are beautiful and the woods peaceful but I don't think it would be a good idea to wander around out there. It would be very easy to become lost."
Paxton frowned and extended her gaze. It was hard to tell, for her grandmother's grounds were rather extensive, but she didn't think it looked like a particularly thick patch of woods. She shrugged and turned her attention back to her grandmother. "Do you know when my things will be arriving?"
"Oh, I don't expect they will for a day or two. But if you need anything before that, we can go into town and get it."
Paxton nodded. She didn't really need anything except the things most familiar to her. She wanted to paste the walls with posters of her favorite bands and actors. She wanted her CDs and her computer and her clothes and her stuffed animals. She wanted to make this room feel like hers so maybe, just maybe, the hurt would stop and she'd feel whole again.
"You have your own bathroom through that door. My bedroom is down the hall and on the left. The others are just spare, really." She stood in the doorway, wrinkled hand on the knob. "I'll have Albert bring your bag up and I'll show you the downstairs after dinner."
Once Elizabeth left, Paxton dumped the contents of her bag on her bed and rifled through them. She picked up her mp3 player and set it to the side, promising to listen to it later. Her cell phone caught her attention and she flipped it open, knowing all along there'd be no signal; her father's attorney had canceled all services, including the cell plan with Paxton's phone on it. Still, holding it in her hand made her feel connected again; like she could call Samantha or Mallory at any time and cry to them some more about how unfair life was.
She curled up on the bed; cell phone clutched tightly in her hand, and closed her eyes, bringing her father back to life. His broad shoulders easily carried any teenage drama she'd set upon them and his blue eyes, so like her own, crinkled in concern. He'd tell her to keep her chin up, be strong and any other cliché saying he could think of to make her feel better. Then he'd ruffle her hair with his big, calloused hand and suggest they run out for a burger and fries. And a chocolate milkshake.
She caught the salty tears with her upturned lips as she slowly drifted off into slumber.
A rap at the door flung her back to consciousness and she shot straight up, smoothing her pale blonde hair in the process. Her eyes adjusted to the darkening room as the door opened and Elizabeth entered, concern etching the wrinkles on her face.
"Are you feeling alright, dear?"
"Yeah," Paxton said, sliding off the bed. "I guess I must have dozed off." She spotted her suitcase near the door.
"Dinner is ready if you'd like to wash up and come down. You'll be able to find the dining room, right?"
"Yes," Paxton said groggily.
They ate in the formal dining room at a long table. Elizabeth sat at the head and Paxton to her right. The grilled chicken smelled heavenly but Paxton barely tasted it. Her dreams had been full of images of her father and she couldn't shake his memory from her head. She wondered what he would think of her living with his mother. She knew that Richard Barker had cut off all ties to his family when he married Gwen Thompson but she never knew why. It was one thing Richard never shared with his beloved daughter.
"How about if we tour the grounds tomorrow morning?" Elizabeth suggested. "Then maybe we could go into town and have lunch."
"That would be fine," Paxton mumbled.
"Do you have a driver's license?"
"Yeah," Paxton said, looking into her grandmother's worn eyes. "Don't you?"
Elizabeth chuckled. "I do but I just don't like to drive."
Paxton clenched her bottom lip between her teeth. "Um, what about school?"
"School?" Elizabeth asked. Paxton nodded her head. "It's not quite July! You don't need to worry about school yet."
Paxton lifted a subdued shoulder. "I know. I just wondered where I'd go."
Elizabeth set her fork next to her plate. "Well, I thought perhaps I'd send you to your father's school. It's a fine establishment about forty miles north of here."
Paxton's own fork clattered to the table. "Forty miles?"
"Yes, dear," Elizabeth frowned. "Warner Academy is a boarding school; the best in the area. Most graduates go on to the finest universities."
"You mean I won't live here with you?" Paxton grappled.
"Of course you will," Elizabeth said with a smile. "You'll be here for the holidays and each semester break. And during the summer." She picked up her fork and speared a chunk of broccoli. "Once you're settled you'll be able to come home weekends if you like."
Boarding school, Paxton thought. She stared at the lukewarm food on her plate as her appetite fled. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. She did want to go to a great college after graduation.
Elizabeth patted her hand. "It's a wonderful place. The headmaster is a dear friend of mine and he assured me that there will be a place with you this fall."
Paxton lifted her eyes and gave Elizabeth a watery smile. "I'm sure it is. I can't wait to see it."
Elizabeth's grin lit up her eyes. "Perfect. If you've finished your dinner, I'll show you the rest of the house."
Paxton escaped to her room after Elizabeth's drawn out tour of her home; including its elaborate history. The downstairs consisted of a parlor, a sitting room, a dining room, kitchen and study. It was indeed beautiful and richly decorated, but Paxton preferred the simple little house she'd lived in her entire life where memories echoed off of every wall.
She situated her legs beneath her body on the window seat and breathed in the summer air. Night had descended and she could almost make out the fence line in the shadows. She folded her arms on the window sill and rested her chin on top, gazing absently at the darkness beyond the window screen. Crickets sang happily to the fireflies blinking on and off over the grass. Paxton longed to be walking among them as evening strolls through her quiet neighborhood was among her favorite things. Maybe once she got to know the grounds and the area surrounding the fence Elizabeth wouldn't be too against Paxton resuming her nightly prowls. She certainly hoped so for she didn't think she'd be able to stand being locked in the house every evening.
A cloud rising from the trees caught her eye and she lifted her head to study it further. She squinted, trying to make out exactly what it was and when she failed, she raced across the room to flip off her bedroom light. The cloud became clearer as she knelt on the window seat, eyes trained on the dark trees.
It was smoke, she was sure of it, though she couldn't see flames. She inhaled a deep breath of summer air and didn't recognize any scents as that of smoke. She wondered if she should alert Elizabeth as the woods were directly behind her fence. She hesitated and decided to keep an eye on it and if it should appear to move closer, she'd warn her grandmother.
But as the night wore on, the thin line of smoke never grew and never seemed to be contained. Her eyelids became heavier and heavier until they finally fell. An hour later, the cloud of smoke disappeared.
A/N: So sorry I've had to remove this story but it has been sent off to be published (Yay!) I'll post info as things progress and keep you updated including how to get the book if you're interested. Thanks to all who have read it and reviewed it.