(Book 3 of the Three Cross Faith Series)
Shannon Lucas stumbled from her car with a beer bottle in her hand. As she glanced upward, a stray thought made her double over in laughter. A cow jumping over that moon was more than her drunken mind could handle on a Friday night in Three Cross, Texas.
The neighbor's outdoor light went on. "Where have you been?" a man asked.
Shannon stared up at the man standing on the porch beside her part of the duplex. "Who are you?"
"I'm your neighbor. Where have you been?"
"Out." She took a long pull on her bottle and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "What's it to you, anyway?'
"Your kids are loud. I'm half-tempted to call the cops with their loud music."
She staggered closer, smoothing back her hair. "Well, Mr. Neighbor-without-a-name, I was out celebrating my twenty-ninth birthday."
His expression remained rather angry. "Is this the first time you celebrated that birthday?"
"No, but I've lost count." She stepped up onto her porch, watching the man. He was very good-looking, with light brown wavy hair and soft brown eyes. "I just can't believe I didn't notice you before. You're hot."
She reached up to touch his hair, just to see if it was soft, but he grabbed her hand with a stern look on his face and lowered it to her side. "You're drunk. Were you out driving like that? You could've killed someone." He lowered his eyes down over her as he frowned. "You're nothing more than a typical blonde."
"Ah, but I'm a natural blonde with blue eyes. That's different. Besides, it wouldn't upset me that much if I died. My kids hate me, my ex-husband wants me to drop off the planet, and even my family thinks I'm a misfit."
The man dropped her hand and crossed his arms. "It sounds to me like you need help."
"Naaah. Now tell me what my monster children did."
"Their rap music was too loud. I hate rap music."
She leaned against the siding on the porch and finished her beer. "Kids. What can you do?"
He clenched his jaw, looking very angry. "You could stay home and take care of them. How old are they, anyway?"
"Didn't you meet them yet?"
He shook his head. "No. They wouldn't answer the door. Where's their father, anyway?"
She sighed, feeling the sadness in her soul. "I messed up. I never should've had kids or gotten married—in that order, by the way."
"I'm not surprised," he muttered.
"Anyway, their father, the idiot, is in Oregon. He grows organic things, which probably means exactly what you think it means, along with all his mistresses and girlfriends, probably. I have no proof but it's pretty obvious."
His hands flew to his hips. "Illegal drugs?"
She waved him off. "I don't know or care. My parents wanted me here, convincing me when Harmonie started dating up there in Oregon without my permission."
He crossed his arms again. "How old is she?"
"Thirteen. Eighth grade. It's a horrible year to have to relive." Shannon tilted her bottle to her mouth again, but nothing came out. With a sigh, she stared into the empty bottle. "All gone, again. That's been happening to me all night long."
"Is Harmonie the oldest?"
"No. Willough is 14 and a freshman, but they're at the same school because of lack of funding or students or something." Tears clouded her eyes. "My babies are almost grown up and I'm gonna be alone again." She chided herself for her southern accent to come out. If Jerome knew, he'd be upset.
As the neighbor stared, she wondered what was going on behind those soft brown eyes of his.
"You think I'm a loser," she said. "All I need are a few cats and my reputation will be set, huh?"
"Not at all. I think you're lost. You need someone to guide you and take you to church. You said your parents wanted you here. Do they live around Three Cross?"
"Yeah." She pointed behind the home. "They live a few blocks away, and my brother and his new wife live out on a ranch." She moved her head back to the wall. "I'm the older sister and I'm supposed to be the one who teaches him things, but I can't do anything right. Not even on my birthday." She turned. "Good night. I'll have a chat with Willough and Harmonie and make sure they're beaten for not being respectful."
"No!" he said. "Don't beat them. I never should've mentioned it. Good night." He turned and went back into his house, locking the door behind him.
What a weird man.
Shannon unlocked her door and entered her half of the duplex, the side on the right as she would enter from the street. The inside of the place was a mess, but after picking up a few things, she gave up and went to bed.
After a fitful night of sleeping, a knock at the door woke Shannon. She turned over onto her stomach in her bed and pulled the pillow over her head. She felt miserable and knew she'd done something really stupid the night before. If she could just remember what it was, it might help.
"Mom!" Harmonie yelled from the stairs. "Someone's at the door for you."
"I'm dead. Tell them to go away because I'm dead."
"You're not dead," a male voice said, closer to her bed.
As she turned to see who it was, the covers were pulled off her back and the pillow was yanked off her head.
She rolled over. "Well, look here. It's Mr. Neighbor-without-a-name," she whispered, holding her ears. "Can you keep it quiet? I feel awful."
"I'm sure you do," he whispered.
"Good luck, Mom," Harmonie said. "You know better than to have strangers in the house." She headed back down the stairs.
Willough walked into the bedroom, eating a chocolate bar. "Mr. Somerset?"
The man appeared to be stunned. "Will? Do you live here?"
He nodded toward Shannon. "That's my mom, or at least she says she's my mom. I'm not so sure. I think I was adopted." He shoved the rest of the chocolate into his mouth and stared at Shannon. "Were you out drinking?"
"Ugh." She felt awful.
"I'm to call Uncle Mac if you're out drinking. You said you were going to church last night."
"Ugh," she moaned again. She really didn't want to deal with any of this.
Will grabbed the portable phone beside the bed. She tried to reach it first, but he walked away with it, dialing, and put it to his ear. "Uncle Mac, it's Will. Mom's been out again. Do you want me to call Grandma and Grandpa?" He nodded, staring at Shannon.
She closed her eyes, trying to decide if she wanted to vomit or not.
"Tell him to come over here," Mr. Neighbor said. "I want to have a talk with him."
"Mr. Somerset said to come here." He nodded. "Yeah. Just like Eric's last name."
"Eric?" the man asked. "My brother?"
Will nodded, moving the phone away from his mouth. "Eric's in my uncle's band."
"The Three Cross Faith band?" He stared at Shannon. She covered her eyes with her hands, wanting to die. No one should see her like this.
Her hands were moved off her face and she opened her eyes. The first things she saw were those gentle brown eyes. If only he were a nice man.
"Is Uncle Mac your brother?" Mr. Neighbor asked.
She nodded. "Yes, the famous Mac Cooper, of Three Cross Faith. He and his new wife, Jaimee, are the darlings of the family. I'm nothing and will never amount to anything." She sat up with a sigh, moving her shoulder-length hair back from her face. "I feel awful, but it was a tough night."
"I remember." He pointed toward the front of the house. "Your car's parked in the front yard, blocking my driveway, in case you wanted to know. I thought I'd stop over and see if you'd move it."
"Great." She lowered her head to her hands and started to cry. "My head hurts so much. Don't ever let me drink again."
He helped her to her feet. "I figured you'd feel like this." He looked downward. "You slept in your clothes?"
"Yeah. It was too much work to change. I'm a lousy mother and a worse housekeeper, by the way, in case you didn't notice."
"Mr. Somerset, would you like breakfast?" she heard Will say.
"No, but I think your mom needs some coffee. Can one of you make some?" He helped her out of the bedroom and headed down the stairs as Will ran in front of them.
"I'm so sorry," she said, still crying. "I'm usually not like this."
"We'll get some coffee and talk about this."
"I need something for a hangover. I was up a lot last night vomiting."
He sighed. "I'm sure that's true."
She leaned closer. "I smell bad, don't I?"
He laughed. "Not that bad. I wouldn't worry about it." His arm was still around her as they reached the bottom of the steps. After a quick turn, he led her into the living room. "Where's your aspirin?" He moved away.
"In the bathroom." She spun around and fell on the living room floor, hitting her head against the wall. With a touch to the top of her head, she felt the sore lump and moved her head down to the floor. "I'm pathetic. Shoot me now and put me out of my misery?"
He sat beside her and stroked her hair. "Never. I've been where you are and this is going to be the worst day of your life. There's only one way to go and that's up. I want you to believe that, because I'm going to make sure that's the truth."
"You are?" She saw him in a completely different light. "Who are you?"
He pointed toward the kitchen behind her. "I'm your son's math teacher—Greg Somerset." Will was probably in the kitchen. "My brother's Eric Somerset, who plays the drums in the Three Cross Faith band with your brother, Mac."
She closed her eyes. "Tell me this is a nightmare?"
He chuckled, but she was serious.
She opened her eyes and tried to stand up. "I need to look presentable before Mac gets here. I'm going to get a shower."
"No," Greg said. "He needs to see you just like this. I want him to know what you're doing with your life." He helped her to her feet, guiding her into the kitchen.
She fell into a chair and Greg left her side. Both of her children were eating cereal at the table while watching television through the doorway to the living room.
He returned a few moments later, opening a bottle of aspirin. "Can you handle some aspirin?"
"Yeah. Thank you very much."
He put the medicine in front of her. "You're welcome." He went to the cabinets and opened them, one by one.
She needed more information. "You said you're Eric's brother, but you don't have much of an accent."
"Neither do you," he said, still searching for a glass. He finally found one and filled it with water.
"No. My ex used to make fun of it, so I learned to talk like they do in Oregon. What about you?"
He put the glass in front of her beside the pills. "I've traveled a bit, so I had to deal with people from all over. They couldn't understand me, so I worked hard to talk without it. It makes life a bit easier for everyone." He sat across from her. "So where do you work?"
Shannon put her arms on the table and lowered her head to her forearms, staring down at the wood grain of the table. "I got a job with my mom. I make food for the ranch hands in this area. They have a warehouse kitchen down the street a ways. I'm in charge of desserts."
"Take those. You'll feel better." He moved the glass and the aspirin closer to her, making her lift her head. "Do you like to bake?"
"No. I hate it." She paused in thought. "Wait. I take that back. I don't mind the work, but I hate dealing with my family. However, it does pay the bills."
He seemed curious. "What do you like doing?"
She sucked down the aspirin and the water. "I earned a degree in art education when we were in Portland. I couldn't get a job, so I was a seamstress at a warehouse there. I seem to always end up in warehouses, but I just want to paint."
"I understand. I always wanted to be a basketball player, but had to get a real job, too."
The thought ticked her off. "You're making fun of me."
His face went solemn. "Never. You just need to be given some help and support and you'll be fine."
That was strange. "You don't feel sorry for me?"
"Not at all." A knock at the door had Greg out of his seat. "I bet that's your brother."
She hopped to her feet and ran to the downstairs bathroom, beside the living room. "Tell him I'm not here."
Greg laughed as she shut and locked the door, but she was serious. She didn't need to be judged by her holier-than-thou psycho younger brother. She hated psychology majors.
"Where is she?" Shannon heard. It was Mac.
Shannon sat down on the closed toilet seat. At least he didn't bring their parents.
"Come out," he said, knocking. "I promise not to be upset. I just want to talk to you."
It was quiet for a moment and then someone rattled the doorknob. She had to think fast. How could she hold the door against her brother if the lock didn't hold? He was big and strong, and with Greg's help, there was no way she could hold the door against them.
The door opened and she lowered her head to her hands. She felt awful, and with these two men staring at her—which she was sure they were doing—it was even worse.
"Well?" Mac said. "What are you doing?"
"I'm in the bathroom. I want a shower."
Both men lifted her to her feet and then dragged her to the kitchen.
Shannon fell into a seat at the kitchen table, ready to vomit. Once her head hit the table, she felt a hand on her back.
"I'm here," Mac said. "Tell me what happened this time."
She looked up at his angry face, tears filling her eyes. "Don't tell Mom and Dad, please? It'll kill them."
"I know." He sat down beside her. "What happened this time?"
"Jerome wants the kids back. He and I agreed to bring them here when Harmonie was doing things she shouldn't have been doing—"
Harmonie ran into the kitchen. "I didn't do anything. Just because I kissed a guy and let him get to second base doesn't mean I'm evil."
Mac turned toward her. "You're 13. That's so wrong in so many ways, I'm glad you're in Three Cross. I can guarantee that'll never happen here."
She ran out of the room and Mac turned toward Greg. "That went well."
"I see that."
A door slammed upstairs, and Shannon knew it was Harmonie. She was difficult at best.
Greg shook Mac's hand. "I'm Greg Somerset, Eric's brother. I live next door, where her car is blocking my driveway." He pointed at Shannon.
Shannon grabbed her keys off the table, holding out one key in particular. "Go move it. I don't mind."
Mac took the keys. "I'll do it. Your neighbor doesn't need to be bothered." He addressed Greg. "I'm so sorry you're involved in this. My wife, Jaimee, and I should've seen this comin'. They've been here since our wedding, at the beginning of last month."
"We won't be staying," Shannon said. "Jerome decided he wants the kids back. He's demanding they come back to Oregon so he can have them help harvest his crop, whatever that means." She looked around her brother and toward the front door. "Where's Jaimee?"
"She's not feeling well this morning."
That was odd. "Is she sick?"
He rolled his eyes. "Yeah, but it just started this morning, so don't think anything about it. She's not pregnant."
"But you've been married a month," she said. "It's possible, you know."
"Doubtful she'd be sick yet." He grinned. "But I'm not here about her. I'm here about you. Why would you go drinking again?"
"I was celebrating my 29th birthday."
"But you turned twenty-nine a few years ago, and your birthday is at the beginning of August. This is September."
She pushed back her hair. "Yeah, I was waiting until now to celebrate. It sounded good to me at the time."
He watched Greg as he stood. "I'll move her car so you're not inconvenienced. I'm really sorry about this."
"It's okay. She needs help."
Mac sighed, staring at Shannon. "Yeah, she does. I have a master's degree in psychology and now my wife wants me to finish my Ph.D. I was oblivious to this problem, though. I have a feeling I'd better put off my studies until this problem's in check."
"I can help," Greg said.
Mac thought for a moment. "Maybe you can help. Come outside with me."
Greg stood up and the two men walked out the door. Shannon let her head fall back onto the table, the tears and sobs uncontrollable.
She looked up to see Will standing beside her. "Yeah?"
His hands flew to his hips. "How can you talk to my math teacher? Do you know what this means for me at school? It's tough enough that I'm the new kid and I'm not from around here, but this is murder."
She sat up, the tears still on her cheeks. "I'm so sorry, sweetie, but he lives next door. I'm a lousy mother and maybe you should go back to your dad's house."
"No. I hate it there, and you know it. He has more than one woman at his house and they're always wearing sleazy clothes or almost naked. It's not right, Mom. As messed up as this place is, it's better than with Dad." He seemed more than frustrated. "Why did you ever marry him in the first place?"
"I don't know." She wished she didn't have to lie to him. "But without him, you never would've been born, so I don't regret it one bit."
"I do. I'd rather never been born." He ran out of the room and up the stairs.
Shannon couldn't be lower than she was at that moment, but Greg was wrong. It could get worse—a lot worse.