When Life Happened Exclusive

 

CHAPTER ONE

The smallest room belonged to the biggest loser. Nothing said pathetic like blue polka-dot bedding on a white trundle bed surrounded by four walls pinned with rock-band posters and famous volleyball players.

“Take the bed, Parker. You can put it in one of the spare rooms.”

“I don’t want the bed, Mom.”

“Why not? You’ve slept in it since you were four.”

Parker turned off the light and carried the last of her belongings down the stairs. “Do you see how you just answered your own question?”

There was no pride sleeping in her childhood bed at age twenty-six, just like there wasn't any pride in the string of temporary jobs and a useless college education. Parker Cruse hadn’t planned on wearing the boomerang label, nor had she planned on her high-school sweetheart cheating on her with Piper—her twin sister.

“Once a conniving slut, always a conniving slut.” She wore the devil’s smirk, scrutinizing the photo of the happy couple.

The day the cheaters exchanged vows, Parker stopped planning. She also stopped talking to her sister. Piper’s choice, not hers. Mixing a strong laxative into the bride’s coffee the morning of her wedding irreparably damaged their relationship.

“Your sister is not a slut, nor is she conniving. It’s been two years since the wedding. I think it’s time you call her.”

Ignoring her mom’s peace efforts and biased assessment of her twin, Parker made a final inspection of the silver-framed, eight-by-ten wedding photo on the dark-stained mantel. She ran her finger along the wood.

“When’s the last time you dusted?”

“Parker.”

“Mom,” Parker mocked, brushing the dust off her finger.

“I’m serious. Piper is your sister. I hate that you both can’t put the past behind and start anew.”

A month’s worth of dust covered the photo as well.

“I’m serious too. You used to scold us for not helping out around the house, but now that I’m willing to help out, you feel ‘judged’ every time I pick up a dust cloth or vacuum.”

“Stop changing the subject.”

Parker traced her finger along the mantle again.

S h a m e

“Parker!” Janey Cruse smacked her daughter on the butt and erased the graffiti with her hand. “Now I’m going to have to take everything off the mantle and dust it. You’re worse than those idiots who write ‘wash me’ on the back windows of dirty cars.”

Worse? Not really. She was one of those idiots who wrote “wash me” on the back windows of dirty cars.

Parker took the wedding photo from the mantle and inspected her sister’s light brown hair styled in long waves down her back like their mom’s. Scorned and unforgiving, Parker had cut hers off to shoulder-length, flattened the life out of it, and dyed it three shades darker because she was done being an identical twin.

“The photographer did a superb job of photoshopping the train of her dress.” Parker shook her head and whistled softly. “We must have worked for over an hour trying to get all that shit off the satin and lace.”

“Parker, it’s not funny.”

“No.”  She turned toward her mom, wearing an exaggerated toothy grin. “It’s really not.”

“You ruined her wedding.”

With a shrug, she traced her finger along the dusty photo.

T r a i t o r

“Well, nobody died.”

“Parker.”

“Mom.” She drew out Janey’s name, thwarting her mom’s effort to have a serious conversation. 

Three quick honks echoed from the drive. Janey frowned at the photo when Parker returned it to its spot. She grabbed the gray wicker laundry basket and made her way to the back door across the patterned linoleum scuffed and scratched from years of heavy traffic.

“That’s what she said to me.” Dropping the basket at the door for her dad to load into the truck, she faced her mom again. “When I walked in on them, in my bed, naked—”

“Parker, I don’t need to know—”

A bit of laughter fell flat into a simmering, painful amusement. The dishwasher clanked and gurgled, jabbing at Parker’s nerves as much as her mom’s peace-making attempts.

Even then, years later, it still stung. “What? The details? You don’t need to know that sweet, innocent Piper had her mouth around my boyfriend’s—”

“Parker!” Janey clenched her fist at her chest like reaching for an invisible string of pearls.

With absolute certainty, Parker knew her parents had had sex once in their married life. They’d slept in separate bedrooms for as long as her memory could recall. Janey never understood what “the big deal” was about sex. On the rare occasion that she even said the word, her face contorted with disgust.

“This it?”

“Yes,” Parker replied to her dad without turning away from her mom’s sour-grapes face.

He grabbed the basket. A few seconds later a gust of wind whacked the screen door shut.

“Fine. No more details, except this one. When I told Piper she ruined my life, that I turned down two different volleyball scholarships so I could attend the same college as Caleb … she said, ‘Sorry, Parker, I really am, but nobody died.’”

“Sweetie...” Janey tilted her head to the side, voice soft “...that wasn’t a good reason to do that to her on her wedding day.”

A lava of anger spread along Parker’s skin until her cheeks burned. “I did what I did because of her stupid toast at the rehearsal dinner!”

“It was a lovely toast.”

“Fucking hell, Mom!”

“Parker.” She tsk-tsked her with a disapproving head shake. “You’re too intelligent to use such language.”

Years of pent-up anger clawed to the surface. Parker ran her hands through her hair and tucked it behind her ears while grumbling. “Let me refresh your memory. It went something like this: ‘I’d like to thank Parker for being oblivious to the love blooming between Caleb and me, then graciously stepping aside so we could be together.’ That wasn’t a lovely toast. It was a verbal slap in the face, and it was horrifically embarrassing and degrading.”

Janey moved closer and rested her hand on Parker’s cheek. “Piper called me yesterday. She and Caleb are moving back home next month.” Her lips pulled into a sympathetic smile. “Your sister is pregnant.”

They would name their child something like Gullible or Oblivious and say they named it after Parker.

“Well, good thing I’m moving out so they can come visit you and Dad without running into me.” Keeping resolute confidence after that statement deserved an award considering her “move” was way across the road into her grandparents’ old farmhouse. An impressive show of independence for a college-educated twenty-something. If Piper and Caleb accurately named their child after her, it would have to be Pathetic Loser.

“You riding over with me or walking?” her dad asked. “I drove Old Blue over earlier and parked it in the garage. You’ll want to get a garage door opener soon. Definitely before winter.” 

Parker turned and pushed a half smile through her stubborn frown. “I’ll ride. It might make it feel more official. As for the garage door opener, it’s not a high priority. I can open and shut the door just fine.”

   “I’m going to miss you, sweetie.”

 Bart Cruse rolled his eyes at his wife’s comment. “Jeez, woman! She’s going to be across the road. A hundred yards.”

Another affirmation of Parker’s loser status.

“Crack the windows. You’ve done all that painting, and even though the base paint had no VOCs, there were VOCs in the tints. And don’t forget to check the smoke alarm batteries.”

“Yes, Mom.” She gave her a thumbs-up and followed her dad out the door.

“And the carbon monoxide detector too! I’m afraid you’ll forget about it when you turn on the furnace this winter!”

Bart chuckled as the loose gravel of their drive crunched beneath his boots. “See what I’ve been dealing with for the past thirty-five years?”

Parker squinted as a sudden gust kicked up dirt when she hopped in the truck. “She just expresses most of her love in the form of worry. It’s still love.” She slammed the door.

He mumbled something, but it wasn’t any term of endearment.

***

Parker’s new independence may have been in the hundred-yard shadow of her parents’ house—separated by opposing gravel drives and a two-lane country road—but it qualified as freedom.

Different house.

Different lot.

A new start.

She and her father had spent the better part of spring fixing the old place up on the inside. They refinished the dark wood floors of the two-story farmhouse, painted the cabinets white, and replaced the laminate countertops in the kitchen and two bathrooms with granite. Parker covered almost every wall with a shade of blue to make it her own. It may have had a few VOCs lingering, but Parker preferred a new-paint smell to the previous musty odor that clung to every surface.

Parker spent every last dime she’d saved since college to make the renovations. Utilities would be a challenge until she found a job. The thermostat sat at eighty-two, and she’d drop it to sixty-five in the winter. She wasn’t homeless or living with her parents; that’s all that mattered.

While cooking her first official dinner in her house, someone’s fist rapped against the front door. With a hundred percent certainty, she knew Janey Cruse, professional worrywart, was at her door.

Mommy Dearest couldn’t stay away for a full three hours. No parties or orgies were in Parker’s immediate future, but she wanted to keep her options open and parents from dropping in at will.

She flipped off the gas burner and lifted her grilled cheese off the griddle pan. “Hot! Ouch!” It landed on her plate, total luck. Parker sucked her burnt finger tips as she inched closer to the door, barely able to contain her giggles.

“Yes. Yes! YES! Oh, give it to me! Harder! Faster! Oh … god … more tongue!” Parker moaned and yelled before covering her mouth to silence the laughter. Satan knew her by name, of that she felt confident.

She needed a front door camera to see the look on her mom’s face. It went on her list of things to get before the garage door opener. After a few seconds, she shimmied out of her shorts and top, wearing only her panties and bra. It was mean, but Parker loved a good joke. She opened the door to relieve Janey of her impending heart attack or stroke.

“Sorry, you caught me in the middle of—oh shit!” Parker jumped behind the door as the aged, wooden steps creaked beneath the man retreating down them; he glanced back at her.

“You’re not my mom.” She winced while peeking around the door as the words shrieked from her throat.

He bit his lips together and hummed. “I think you should be relieved I’m not your mom.”

Her nose wrinkled as sweaty embarrassment beaded along her skin. “Sadly, I’m not.”

“My … um …” He adjusted his red Cubs cap on his head, exposing his matted dark hair for a brief moment before pulling it lower to hide his eyes. He had a handsome face and tall, lean body that wore his dark jeans and a gray tee perfectly.

“My dog got out of our yard. I think he’s behind your shed. I just didn’t want to roam around your property without letting you know my intentions. You know … people guarding their property with guns. But, I, uh … doubt you have a gun on you at the moment.” He kept his gaze lowered like a real gentleman.

“I’m…” keeping his chin down, he jerked his head to the side “...your neighbor to the south, Gus Westman.”

“Sure. Yeah. Let me … uh … slip my clothes back on, and I’ll help you look for him.”

Gus shook his head. “No need. I’ll let you get back to your thing.” 

She left the door cracked an inch and grabbed her clothes. “It’s not what it sounded like. I was just faking an orgasm,” Parker yelled from behind the door. Tugging her shorts up her legs, she rolled her eyes. “Not what I meant,” she whispered to herself, pulling her shirt on.

“None of my business. I’m … going to look for Rags.”

“Be right out!” After shoving her feet into faded navy Chuck Taylor’s, she grabbed her sandwich from the kitchen and hustled out the front door. “Rags? Is that his name?”

“Yeah.” Gus glanced over his shoulder as she ran to catch up, his embarrassment evident in his nervous smile and difficulty maintaining eye contact.

“Sheepdog, right?”

Gus nodded as the tangled weeds and grass rustled and cracked releasing a warm, earthy smell while they trudged toward the shed.

“Thought so. I’ve seen him in your yard. I’m Parker, by the way.”

Another quick sideways glance. “Nice to meet you. I’ve met your dad. He said you were going to be moving into the farmhouse.”

“My dad didn’t mention he’d met you. We watched, admired, your house being built last summer. I’ve seen your Westman Electric van, but I didn’t realize you were the owner. Grilled cheese?” Tearing apart her gooey sandwich, she offered him half.

“No. I’m good.”

“It’s Havarti and pepper jack.” Surely a bite of the greatest cheese combination to ever be melted between two pieces of sourdough could erase all memory of the naked girl who answered the door.

“Really, I’m good, but thank you.”

With a shrug, she took a bite. “There he is!” She pointed to the corner of the shed.

“Rags!” Gus yelled. “Come. Now!”

The white and gray dog hung its head in a moped posture and inched toward them.

“Fuck,” Gus grumbled.

“Oh man. I’m very sorry.” In case the bra and panties didn’t prove her lack of manners, mumbling over a mouthful of sandwich did the job. “I need to get those cockleburs dug out.”

There must have been over a hundred burrs tangled in the dog’s thick coat.

“She’s going to kill us both, buddy.” Gus tugged the bill of his cap down a bit as if it could shield him from trouble.

Rags sat in front of him, tongue out, almost smiling.

“Your wife?”

Gus nodded.

“You’re going to have to shear him like an actual sheep.”

“Yeah.” He released a long sigh, rubbing his temples.

“My grandparents used to have two golden retrievers. When they’d get into the cockleburs, the only choice was to get out the shearers. I think they’re still in the shed.”

“Really?” For the first time, Gus’s brown eyes with flecks of gold met Parker’s and held her gaze for more than a few seconds. He grinned. Not a creepy man’s grin but more of a boy’s grin. The you-just-got-me-out-of-trouble grin.

Parker felt it in places inappropriate to feel a married man’s grin.

“I don’t want to keep you from your company.” He jerked his head toward her house.

She laughed. “No company. I really did think you were my mom. It was a joke. She doesn’t believe in sex.”

 He narrowed one eye. 

“True story. There’s no other way to say it.”

When the skepticism faded from his face, he cleared his throat. “Let’s get this done, Rags. We’re both going to be sleeping in the dog house.”