Van, aged 6
It was a ten-minute walk, and she knew it by heart, even though it was her first day of school. She needed to go out the front door, turn on her kicking foot, and walk toward the tree whose leaves were as red as her mom’s favorite lipstick. Past the DeBoone’s house, whose porch was always sparkling thanks to Marnie DeBoone’s constant scrubbing, then along the sidewalk until she reached the corner.
This was the part where Van always ran. All the kids said that Old Mr. Shawson’s house was haunted by his long-dead wife who had wanted children and would steal any who stepped on the lawn. Last year, Richie had pushed her onto the grass there, and she’d wet herself. Only a little, but she’d hated it just the same.
Only babies wet themselves, and she was six-years-old, too old to be a baby. But she ran anyway, not wanting Mrs. Shawson’s ghost to stop her from getting to school on time.
The gates to the elementary school were open, the yard full of small children clinging to their parents’ hands, oversized backpacks stuck to their spines like turtle shells. Van walked inside, pushing past legs and bags and sniffing children until she reached the door where Mrs. Mason was standing, talking to parents as she held a large brass bell loosely in her hands.
“Hello,” Mrs. Mason said, frowning as she looked down. “Savannah, isn’t it?”
“Where’s your mommy? She’s allowed in the school yard on the first day of school. Why don’t you go and get her?”
“My mom’s sick.” Van shrugged, as though it didn’t matter one bit.
Mrs. Mason blinked. “Oh. Okay.” It took her a moment to find a smile. “We’ll be going inside in a moment. In the meantime, why don’t you wait here.” She turned back to the mother she’d been talking to. “Tanner looks so much like Grayson. Is he as much trouble as his big brother?”
The pretty mom laughed. “Not yet. Though Cam and Logan keep egging him on. I know you had your hands full with them last year.”
“Well, at least I’ll get a break before Rebecca starts school.”
The lady smiled. “You’ll probably need it.”
“Speaking of breaks, I need to ring the bell and take the children in.” Mrs. Mason checked her watch then lifted the brass bell up, clanging it three times. A group of boys who were shouting and playing in the corner of the yard ran over, one of them barging straight into Van.
She stumbled, clutching onto the stained rucksack she’d found in the bottom of her mom’s closet a few days earlier. Two warm, small hands reached out to stop her from falling. Wide brown eyes were staring right at her, so close she could see herself reflected in them.
By habit, her hands curled into fists.
“Sorry,” the boy whispered.
“Tanner Hartson, you can’t go knocking girls over on your first day.” His mom ruffled his hair affectionately. “Are you okay, Savannah?” she asked. Her smile immediately made Van feel better.
Van nodded, her fingers slowly unfurling. “I’m okay,” she said, as the other children pushed past them, heading into the classroom.
And she was. For then. But that was only the first time Tanner Hartson would knock her off her feet.
The first thing Van Butler noticed was the silence. She’d forgotten about that, and it took her ears a moment to get accustomed to it as she climbed out of the car and looked at the neglected bungalow in front of her. Home. That’s what this place had been for the first twenty years of her life, though for the past eight it had been Mom and Craig’s, and somehow that had been easier. It hadn’t been Van’s job anymore to keep the grass mowed or the stoop swept or any of the other things that Craig had taken on. For the first time in her life her only responsibility had been to herself, and it had been glorious.
She smoothed out the creases on her cream skirt, the humidity already making her feel a little less pristine. Her pale blonde hair was neatly tied back in a low-pony tail, her white sleeveless blouse holding its shape in spite of the early summer heat. She took care of her appearance, it was the first thing people saw, after all. From an early age, she’d learned that people judged from appearances.
“Savannah Butler? Is that you?”
Van turned her head to the right. She hadn’t noticed her mom’s neighbor there. Mrs. DeBoone was kneeling on a bright red gardening pad, a scarf covering her hair and canvas gloves covering her hands as she planted brightly colored flowers into earthy beds.
“Hello, Mrs. Deboone.” Van formed an appropriate smile on her face.
“You here to see your momma?”
Van nodded. “That’s right.”
“Did you hear Craig’s gone? Went off with the girl who works in the gas station.” She dropped her voice. “Your mom and him were fighting like cats and dogs a couple of weeks ago.”
Yeah, Van knew. She also knew that Craig was already living with the woman, some twenty miles from here. Her little sister, Zoe, had told her during a quiet, tear-filled phone call last week. That’s why she was here. Because she was needed.
Thank god she’d saved up enough from her freelance work to take a break for a while.
“Sorry if they disturbed you,” Van said, shooting the old lady a quick smile. She walked up the path, her heels catching in the cracks. Craig had only been gone two weeks yet the bungalow already looked like it was missing him. The grass that lined the pathway was up to her calves.
Mrs. DeBoone picked up the empty plant pots, slotting them one into the other, before she slowly pushed herself up to standing. “I should go in, before my knees give up.” She gave Van a smile. “Give my regards to your mother.” She glanced at Van’s mom’s bungalow and back to Van. “And I’m glad you’re back. For Zoe’s sake.”
She shuffled up the pathway. Van knew without a doubt that she was planning to call her friends to tell them Savannah Butler was back in town. That’s what happened in places like Hartson’s Creek. People filled the silence with gossip, because it was better than sitting alone.
Maybe that’s why she’d moved to Richmond as soon as her mom and Craig got married, back when Van was twenty-years-old. Zoe had been two then, pretty as a picture, with her chubby face and golden hair that matched Van’s.
In so many ways, Craig had been her savior. Taking care of her mom and loving Zoe as his own so that Van didn’t have to worry about them. For the first time in years she’d been able to breathe. To not have to anticipate her mom’s dizzying mood swings, or wonder whether the empty whiskey bottle in the sink was the second or third one of the week.
Life had been good, for the most part, since then. Yeah, there had been sad times. Particularly whenever she thought of the things she’d lost. But there were good times, as well. She was good at her job – working as a freelance event planner in the state capital. And she earned enough to not only live in a pretty apartment, but to live a good life and save money, too.
She’d always been obsessive about saving. Maybe somewhere deep inside she’d known her mom was a ticking time bomb. It was a matter of when, not if, she’d detonate.
Van rapped her knuckles twice on the door, but nobody answered. Without bothering a third time, Van knelt down on the dusty top step and reached into the planter whose contents were long dead. Crisp brown leaves covered the parched soil as she dug her hand around, a smile curling at her lips as her fingers found the key she was looking for. She slid it into the lock, and pushed the creaky door open.
“Mom?” she called out. “Are you home?” She caught her toe on a stack of mail. Leaning down to pick them up, she noticed how many of them were bills. Red ones. “Mom?” she called again, setting the envelopes on the hall table and walking toward the kitchen.
The counters were covered with dirty plates and wrappers. Half-drunk coffee cups had white and green mold floating in the dusty liquid. The room stank of stale food and alcohol, emanating from the empty liquor bottles flung in the sink.
She gagged at the aroma. Swallowing hard against the impending nausea, Van walked back into the hall. Gently, she rapped her knuckles on her mom’s bedroom door. “Are you in there?”
A groan echoed from inside and Van’s stomach curdled again. Maybe she was hungry. She’d driven straight here from Richmond, not bothering to stop to eat. Sighing, she pressed down the handle and opened the door, wincing at the mess of clothes covering the brown carpeting.
Her mom was curled up on the bed, her soft blonde hair stuck to her face. Her eyes were closed, her mouth gaping wide.
The closet doors were open. One side held her mom’s clothes, a clash of bright colors all pushed together. The other side was empty.
So Craig really had gone. Van looked around to see if he’d left anything behind. A razor, a tie, maybe a photograph or two. But there was nothing except the mess her mom had let build up. Typical Kim, she always did hate housework.
“Close the door,” Kim rasped, turning on her side and covering her eyes. “Don’t let the light in.”
Van pulled the door until it clicked shut behind her. Her mom groaned again as Van started to pick up the scattered clothes. “Where’s Zoe?” Van asked her.
“It’s six o’clock in the evening. School finished hours ago.”
Kim let out a sigh. “Then she’s probably with a friend. Or at the library. She goes there almost as much as you did.” Her mom reached out for the glass beside her bed, sighing when she saw it was empty. Finally, she opened her eyes and moved her gaze to Van. “What are you doing here?”
“Zoe told me you weren’t well.”
Kim rolled over and pressed her face into the pillow. “Did she tell you Craig’s gone?” she asked, her voice muffled.
“Yeah. I was sorry to hear it.” Van stuffed the final piece of clothing into the laundry basket. It was overflowing. She’d put a load of laundry in tonight, then another in the morning. If she was staying here, she’d have to tidy up.
She hated mess. Her pristine apartment in Richmond was testament to that.
“Everybody’s talking about it.” Kim sat up in the bed and attempted to smooth her hair down. “How he’s gone off with a girl half his age. I bet they’re all laughing at me.” Her face crumpled. “I hate him,” she hissed.
Van sighed and sat on the bed next to her mom. “No you don’t. You’re just sad.” Kim looked up at her, her eyes pleading as though Van was some kind of savior. “Why don’t you go take a shower?” Van suggested. “It might make you feel better.”
Her mom flopped back onto the bed. “I don’t want to get up. There’s no point anyway. I can’t go anywhere. Not when everybody is talking about me.”
The front door slammed. “I’m back!” Zoe called out, her voice echoing in the hallway. Van jumped up from the bed and flung her mom’s door open, grinning when she saw her sister. Zoe’s pink sparkly backpack completely dwarfed her ten-year-old frame.
Slowly, Zoe looked up, her mouth dropping when she saw Van standing in the hallway.
“You’re here!” she shouted, her lips erupting into a grin. “Oh god, you’re here.” She dropped her backpack and threw herself at Van, her arms wrapping around her sister’s waist. “I didn’t think you’d come.”
Van kissed the top of her sister’s head. “Of course I came. I told you I would.”
Zoe looked up, her face shining brightly. “How long can you stay? Has Mom seen you?” She hugged Van tighter, pressing her face against Van’s shoulder. “I’m so happy right now.”
It was impossible not to feel warmed by Zoe’s excited reception. “I’m here for as long as you need me,” she murmured into Zoe’s blonde hair.
“Really?” The expression of hope on Zoe’s face nearly killed her.
A loud sniff came from their mom’s bedroom. Van turned her head, to see Kim laying on her side, tears streaming down her face.
“Of course she’s staying,” their mom said, giving Van a watery smile. “She’s a good girl. She’ll take care of us, Zoe.”
Van took in a deep breath, and smoothed Zoe’s hair with the palm of her hand. She’d stay for as long as they needed her. Even if a part of her wanted to run as fast and as far as she could from here.
Her mom had always relied on the kindness of strangers and friends. But most of all she’d relied on Van. For a few years, Craig had taken on that role and Van had felt free. Enough to move away and begin a career of her own.
But now he was gone and the burden was hers to carry again.
Funny how it felt heavier than ever.
“Another beer?” Tanner Hartson called out to his brothers, carrying four bottles of Sierra Nevada in his large hands as he made his way across his eldest brother’s backyard. Not that you could really call it a backyard. It was more of an estate. Gray’s sprawling mansion sat on twenty acres of land, along with a purpose-built recording studio, a mother-in-law apartment for Gray’s girlfriend’s mom, plus a swimming pool, hot tub, and pool house. It was like he’d picked up a little piece of L.A. and moved it to their sleepy home town of Hartson’s Creek.
Tanner passed the bottles to his brothers, then sat in the spare adirondack chair and lifted the beer to his mouth, closing his eyes for a second as he swallowed, the liquid cooling his belly. He leaned his head against the chair, and raked his fingers through his thick, dark hair. He sat low in the chair, his denim-clad legs stretched out, the fabric pulled tightly over his thigh muscles. His white shirt, unbuttoned at the neck showed a smattering of dark hair, was crumpled thanks to the afternoon heat. Like his brothers, he was tall, strong, and had a jaw most models would die for. As teenagers, the town had coined the term ‘Heartbreak Brothers’ to describe them. Something all four of them had come to loathe.
“I hear congratulations are in order,” Gray said, lifting his bottle to Tanner. “Logan told me you sold your business. Way to go, man.”
“Thanks.” Tanner clinked his bottle against Gray’s, then took another large mouthful. It had only been five days since he and his two co-owners had signed on the dotted line, selling their company for an unimaginable profit. He, Austin, and Jared had created their own software company from nothing when they’d graduated from Duke, the three of them working together on coding to improve the security of banking systems and apps throughout the USA.
Two months ago, they’d been made an offer that was impossible to refuse. Jared and Austin had wanted to accept it immediately. Jared had a family now, and the business was taking him away from his wife and baby seven days of the week. Austin’s dad was sick with cancer, and living in California. It was only Tanner who had no other responsibilities, and there was no way he could hold out on the two people who needed his signature on the dotted line.
So here he was, richer than he’d ever imagined, but with no idea what to do next. He rubbed the back of his neck with his palm. He should be happy, he knew that. Yet the thought of all this free time on his hands made him uncomfortable as heck.
“So what happens now?” Gray asked him.
“We hand over all the intellectual property and make sure the transfer goes smoothly.” Tanner shrugged. “Then I’m a free man.”
“You gonna set up another company? Keep coding?”
Tanner lifted his beer to his lips. “Can’t. Part of the deal is that we won’t do any coding that might compete with the business for a year.” He took a sip, swallowing it down. “So unless I want to go serve pancakes at the diner, I’m a man of leisure.”
“That’s rough.” Gray nodded at him.
“Hey, don’t worry about him,” Logan said, grinning. “Has he told you how much they’re paying him for this? The guy never has to work again if he doesn’t want to.”
“How much?” Gray asked, tipping his head to the side.
Tanner told him, and Gray’s brows lifted up. “Whew.”
Not that Gray should be that impressed. As a successful singer, he’d earned more than enough money over the past few years to not worry about cash ever again. He’d spent years touring the world, and not visiting home, thanks to the animosity between him and their father. Then last year he’d returned and fallen in love with Maddie Clark, and the two of them had built this house together.
“You might not be the richest brother any more,” Logan said, grinning at Gray. “Now we’ll all be begging Tanner for a loan.”
“I’m pretty sure Cam’s the richest,” Tanner pointed out. “He just got signed for another season.”
“I can categorically state I’m the poorest,” Logan said, shrugging as if he didn’t care in the slightest. “In cash at least. I just bought another restaurant.”
“Are you guys waving your cash around again?” their little sister, Becca, asked, as she bumped Tanner along the chair, somehow squeezing into the tiny space beside him. “You’re all disgustingly rich. And you need to stop making me look bad. I’m sick of going on dates and having to tell guys who my brothers are. All they want to know is if I can get them tickets to Cam’s football games or Gray’s concerts.” She shook her head. “I wish we had a normal family.” Her voice was wistful.
“You shouldn’t be dating anyway,” Tanner said with a grin, pressing his elbow into her side. “You’re only a kid.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m twenty-four.”
Gray caught her gaze. “Tanner’s right. No dating.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You want me to grow up old and lonely like Tanner? No thanks.”
Tanner rested the base of his bottle on the grass beside the chair. “I’m not old and lonely.”
“Okay then. Young-ish and lonely. Same difference.” Becca grinned, her upturned nose wrinkling. “Speaking of which, are you going to say hi to Savannah Butler when you see her in town?”
“Who says I’m going to see her in town?” His stomach dipped at the thought of it. It had only been a few hours since he’d learned Savannah Butler had come back to Hartson’s Creek. He had no idea why she was here, either. The days when they told each other everything were long gone.
Had been for years.
Becca shrugged. “It’s a small town.”
“Sure is.” Gray’s girlfriend, Maddie, walked over, carrying two glasses and a half-full bottle of champagne. She poured a glass for Becca and herself, passing one to Tanner’s sister. Gray opened his arms up, and Maddie snuggled into his chair with him, whispering something in his ear.
Becca took a sip of champagne and turned to Tanner. “I wish you and Van were still friends. I miss her. She was like a sister to me growing up.”
There was a time when Van Butler spent more time at the Hartson house than her own. Tanner’s Aunt Gina, who’d taken care of the five Hartson siblings after their mom died, had grown used to making an extra portion for the girl who lived a few streets away.
And every evening, when Aunt Gina told her it was time to go home, Tanner would walk her to her tiny, ramshackle bungalow and watch silently as she stepped inside, grinning when she’d turn back and stick her tongue out at him before closing the door.
“You have Maddie now,” Tanner pointed out, nodding his head at Maddie and Gray. They were laughing at something she’d just said. “She’s like a sister to you as well.”
“Yeah I know. But we’re still outnumbered.” Becca took a sip of wine.
“Maybe Cam or Logan will bring a girl home,” Tanner said in an attempt to appease her. Becca was his little sister, after all. Like she was with all of his brothers, Becca was his soft spot. The one they made sure was happy. Anybody else would probably have been spoiled by it, but not Becca. She was too good for that.
She choked on her wine and he swallowed down a laugh. Logan gave her a half smile.
“I’ll believe that when I see it.” She put her glass back down and turned back to Tanner. “What happened with you and Van anyway? One minute you guys were best friends, the next it was like you didn’t even know each other. I kept asking, but nobody told me why.”
Tanner lifted Becca off him, then stood and stretched his arms. “This beer isn’t cutting it,” he said, ignoring her question. “Anybody ready for whiskey?”
“Not for me.” Gray shook his head. “But you guys go ahead. Becca brought some bourbon home from the distillery.”
She nodded, her questions about Savannah Butler forgotten. “We haven’t released it to the public yet.” She turned to Logan, her eyes sparkling. “I can probably get you some for your restaurants if you like it.”
Becca had worked at the G. Scott Carter distillery since she’d left college three years earlier, first as a trainee, now as a distiller.
“Sounds good.” Logan nodded and looked at Tanner. “I’ll take a glass, please.”
“Me too.” Cam nodded. “And then I need to hit the sack. I’m back to training next week.” He stretched his arms.
“When are you guys going back to Boston?” Becca asked the twins. Cam and Logan had settled there after college, when Cam had been one of the top draft picks and Logan was looking at starting his restaurant career.
“Monday,” Logan told her. “I need to be back at work by then.” He flashed her a smile. “The fun of being in the hospitality industry.”
“But you’re staying for a while though, right?” Becca asked Tanner.
There was something about the way she was looking at him that tugged at Tanner’s heartstrings. Where there was only three years between him and Gray, with Cam and Logan slap bang in the middle, Becca was the youngest by four years. Growing up, she’d always chased them around on her tiny legs, panting loudly when she couldn’t keep up.
Then as they’d left home one by one, she’d been forlorn without them. If you took his arm and twisted it behind his back he might just admit he missed her, too.
He’d never tell her that.
“I might hang around for a bit,” he conceded. “It’s not as though I’ve got anything better to do.” Counting the dollars in his account had already bored him to death. He needed to get a hobby and fast.
What was it that Aunt Gina always said? The devil makes work for idle hands. Right now his whole body was idle. Who knew what the devil had planned for him next?
STILL THE ONE RELEASES AUGUST 19!