Valentines child, p.1
Valentine's Child, page 1
Published by Nancy Bush
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Copyright © Nancy Bush, 1997
Cover by Extended Imagery
e-book formatting by Guido Henkel
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
VALENTINE’S CHILD — NANCY BUSH
Rain sheeted over the windshield, so thick it could have been honey. Oblivious to its intensity, Sherry Sterling opened her car door and was immediately met with a deluge that turned her brown hair three shades darker and relentlessly poured into her eyes. Blinking rapidly, she jumped onto the rain-pounded street, one foot sinking into a low spot in the asphalt, instantly soaking her to the ankle.
“Welcome home,” she muttered, shielding her eyes against the downpour.
Straight ahead the street sign for Oceantides’ First City Bank glowed like a white rectangular eye. To her right, a pink neon crab and scripted letters that cried Crawfish Delish! beckoned to a café’s warm interior. Sherry debated. She had a lot to do. Lots of decisions to make. Lots of people to see.
Screwing up her courage, she marched across the street to another sign and another eating establishment, this one a tad less sharp and new but still appealing, more like a beloved but scuffed shoe. Bernie’s Pizza. The hangout of her youth.
She’d sworn she would never return. Sworn she would never set foot in this dreaded place again as long as she lived. Oceantides, Washington. Population: 2,002. If there was a more hellish place on earth, Sherry couldn’t think of it. This was where she’d suffered through an adolescence that had cut her so deeply that even now, years — eons — later, she still couldn’t hear the town’s name without feeling a burning pain that made goose bumps rise on her flesh.
Bernie’s sign grew clearer as she drew near — a wash of red and white against a sky so dark and close it felt like the lid of a black cauldron descending upon her. Drawing a breath, she reminded herself that this was just her hometown, a coastal tourist trap filled with colorful locals and a few mean-spirited people about whom she had less-than-pleasant thoughts.
She slopped through puddles of rain. Red beams of light flashed onto the pavement — a scarlet blur that warned in intermittent blinks that the swinging traffic lights overhead were on the fritz. Not that anyone cared. She could have been on the moon, for all the signs of humanity moving about tonight.
Her fingers closed around the metal bar on Bernie’s glass doors. Ghostly fingers walked up her spine. Déjà vu.
Inside, the warmth hit her like a hammer. The jukebox played at a decibel level she could no longer handle without pain. Sherry glanced around furtively, half expecting some old nemesis to leap up, point at her and scream out her transgressions.
Sherry Sterling. Sherry, Sherry. The easiest girl in town.
She gasped, one hand flying to her throat, too stunned to do more than stare at the balding man who’d spoken from behind Bernie’s front counter.
“Is it you?” he asked in amazement, a smile hovering at the corners of his mouth.
Brushing back a strand of saturated hair, Sherry gazed at his face, waiting for her heart rate to return to normal. Her first impression has how old he was; her second — and this came with a jolt — was that he was one of her classmates from Oceantides High.
“Ryan?” she asked tentatively.
“It is you! God Almighty!” Flipping up a section of counter, he came toward her, arms outstretched. His apron was covered with flour and marinara sauce. He stopped short, right in front of her, apparently recalling, as she did, that everything had changed.
But his openness worked like a cure. Sherry stepped into his arms and hugged him hard. Her throat tightened. Ryan Delmato, Bernie’s oldest son, had been one of the few people who’d stuck up for her own when everyone else at Oceantides High had welcomed her demise.
“I’m covered with sauce and flour.” He hugged her back, just as warmly.
“I’m dripping with rain.” She gently disengaged herself and glanced ruefully at the tiny puddles germinating around her feet.
“Wow. I can’t get over it! How long’s it been?”
“A few years.”
An understatement if there ever was one. It had been over thirteen years since graduation and even then, Sherry hadn’t been around for the ceremonies. She’d already left.
“Well, sit down, sit down.” He gestured to one of the tan Naugahyde chairs: Bernie’s version of serious Italian décor.
“Let me get out of my coat. It’s hot enough in here to take a steam bath.” Shrugging out of her overcoat, Sherry inhaled deeply, her pulse beating light and fast. She’d worked at Bernie’s Pizza that memorable, disastrous year when she’d fallen in love with J.J. Beckett, captain of the football team, the most popular guy in school, all-around Mr. Wonderful.
“So, what are you doing here? I heard you’d moved to California. Heading for stardom.”
“The rumor mill really did work overtime,” Sherry murmured, surprised even though she shouldn’t be. The collective minds of Oceantides High, didn’t appear to exactly be on the brilliant end of the scale. “I went to Seattle.”
“No kidding? All this time? What’ve you been doing there?”
“Working.” Ryan waited expectantly and Sherry added, “I’m half owner of Dee’s Seattle Deli.”
“It’s not all that glamorous. It’s really just a job.”
As soon as the words were out she regretted them. She’d spent so much time belittling herself, it had never occurred to her that in some people’s eyes her ownership in the deli might seem the pinnacle of success.
“Sounds pretty great to me,” Ryan declared without an ounce of envy. “I’m still here at the pizza place, making a nuisance of myself.”
“How’s your dad?”
“Oh, Bern’s the same. Just a little grayer, y’know?” Ryan grinned and Sherry saw the boy she’d gone to school with. “He still asks about you. ‘That Sterling girl. She sure was a looker.’ You’ll have to stop in and say hello before you leave.” He paused. “How long ya here for?”
“Just passing through.” Sherry smiled, certain that if she showed any other emotion, she would break down and make a fool of herself.
“Wouldn’t it be great to see some of the old gang again? I mean, jeez, it’s been so long!”
Ryan was oblivious to her sarcasm. And why not? He’d always been jovial and extroverted and completely innocent. He’d been incensed by the cruel things they’d said about her, a champion to the end, even when she’d wanted him to just shut up and let the whole thing die.
But she’d appreciated his championing nonetheless.
Well, that was what she was here for now, right? To put all this nonsense to bed. To face and forget about the mistakes she’d made, and then to try to forgive the people who’d hurt her when she’d been a miserable, mixed-up kid.
“So, are ya married?” Ryan asked, glancing down at her hands.
“Not at the moment.” Not ev
“You remember Kathy Pruitt? I made her my lovely bride right after graduation.”
“I remember Kathy.”
A little on the plump side. A lot on the insecure side. A follower.
“We got two kids. Ryan, Jr.’s ten and Cecilia’s nine.”
“Ya want some pizza?”
He bustled back behind the counter where a girl in her teens was kneading pizza dough. She stared at Sherry through liquid, dark brown eyes with that incredibly dull, suspicious stare that lived in the gaze of too many American teens.
“Pepperoni’s on special. I can make you an individual.”
“That’d be great.”
Sherry laid her coat over the back of a chair and perched at a nearby table, watching as Ryan and the girl worked on her order. The phone wasn’t ringing; no one wanted to go out in the rain. Little wonder. Water still beaded and ran off her coat onto the floor.
“It’s a monsoon out there,” she said loudly.
“Huh?” Ryan glanced toward the now-steamy glass front doors. A gust of wind half blew them inward. “Yeah. What a disaster. You sure picked a good time to come.”
“My timing never was great.”
“Huh?” He cocked an ear her way.
Sherry settled back and sighed, ruefully aware that her heart still beat light and fast. Why did it matter so much?
She knew why. That was the trouble. She’d known why nearly fourteen years ago when she’d decided to keep her pregnancy a secret.
A group of kids ran into the pizza parlor, screaming with laughter and shaking water from their hair. The girls hung on the boys and the boys pushed each other around, teasing and testing and generally showing off.
It could have been Sherry’s senior year. It could have been her and Roxanne and Summer and Ryan and Matt and J.J. One of the boys flipped a quarter from his pocket, caught it and headed for the old-time jukebox, a Bernie’s tradition.
Sherry held her breath. Gooseflesh rose on her skin. Memories danced inside her head.
He placed the quarter in the slot, leaned over the names of the songs, punched a few buttons. The words to “Sherry Baby” crowded her mind — an oldie that J.J. insisted on playing for her. She steeled herself, taut as a bowstring. Heavy-metal music suddenly screeched and blared through the room and Sherry slowly relaxed.
Ryan brought her pizza. Sherry chewed several bites and gave him the thumbs-up. He grinned, delighted. She felt like a fraud, for it was all she could do to swallow — although it wasn’t the fault of the food.
She stayed as long as she could before her conscience got the better of her. Finally, she paid and thanked Ryan, then waded through the rain-shrouded street back to her car. The white Ford Focus started without a cough and Sherry eased toward North Beach Road — where the wealthy people lived.
The Becketts owned the house at the end of the lane, a Victorian seaside home with a wrought-iron-railed widow’s walk and elaborate gingerbread surrounding every pillar and window. As a child, Sherry had dreamed of living in a house just like theirs. It was beautiful. A fairy tale. So perfect, it belonged in Candyland or a Disney movie.
And it was huge. Gargantuan. With ivy climbing around a wind-battered oak whose upper branches sported a tree house, a miniature copy of the mansion itself.
The Beckett kids had wanted for nothing. Sherry could remember sticking her face between the wrought-iron spikes of the surrounding fence, peeking at their wonderland, wishing with all her might that she’d been “to the manor born” instead of the skinny-legged daughter of one of Oceantides’ poorest and most pathetically dysfunctional families.
Her father had beaten both her and her mother. Not often. Only when he drank, which was on rare occasions. But it had created a pall over their home, a cloud of fear that Sherry could never completely forget. His horrified remorse afterward only made the whole thing a hundred times worse. It made her believe there would be an end. It made her believe that he would finally pull his life together and they could live as a whole, happy family. Maybe not as rich in wealth as the Becketts, but happy nonetheless.
By the time Sherry understood that nothing would change, Sherry’s mother had died. Not physically. She was still there, sitting in the living room or moving with the beaten weariness of the hopeless through the kitchen, where every moment was an eternity, every movement an expenditure of energy she couldn’t afford, every teardrop an evaporation of her soul until there were no more teardrops left.
Sherry was virtually on her own at fourteen. No one regulated her. No one could afford the emotional commitment.
So… she searched for love elsewhere.
Her friends were her lifeline — at least, until she turned seventeen and her skinny legs lengthened and curved and her breasts developed and her cute, freckled face smoothed out and changed. Suddenly her eyes were blue-violet, her lashes thick, her lips full and smiling with promise.
So long, friends. Hello boyfriends.
The shame of it was that Sherry had welcomed the change. Reveled in it. Who wanted to be the plain girl? Not Sherry Sterling. No way! She wanted to be the siren, the girl everyone wanted to be, the most popular girl in school.
And she was bound and determined to win that trophy, no matter what it cost.
What a vain, silly, self-destructive goal. But for the girl who had nothing, it was a chance to have almost everything.
And everything included J.J. Beckett.
Sherry pulled into the Beckett drive and up to the gates. Her hands clenched around the steering wheel, headlights feebly arrowing through the pounding rain. The windshield fogged, and she switched on the defrost, glad the rush of air covered the surf-like pounding in her ears.
She had to climb out to push the button of the intercom. Cold raindrops trickled down the back of her neck. Her shoes were soaked, ruined, and she stared down at them dismally, wishing she didn’t have to go through with this.
But she did.
Punching the black button, she called, “Hello?” into the speaker.
Background fuzz. No answer.
She waited, then called again.
“Who’s there?” a female voice demanded, so sharp and clear that Sherry sucked in a breath in recognition.
His mother’s voice. The Dragon Lady. As cold as ocean waves and just as treacherous.
Sherry had run afoul of her without even trying.
Swallowing, she announced, “Hello, Mrs. Beckett. It’s Sherry Sterling.”
She’d said it and her voice sounded strong and clear. Thank you, God.
Dragon Lady knew damn well who it was. For the first time since she’d decided to make this pilgrimage, Sherry broke into a smile. Nervous as she was, she was no longer the frightened little girl Patrice Beckett had scorned with such fury. “Sherry Sterling,” she said distinctly.
There was no answer.
“I’d like to talk to J.J. I need to get his address or phone number.”
“J.J.’s not here.”
Did I say he was? Sherry controlled her temper with an effort. But it was good to be mad. Great, in fact. She’d cowered as a teenager but she was a teenager no longer. She was a woman who, for better or worse, had made some tough choices over the years and had lived with them. They hadn’t all been the best choices. Many times they’d been the only choices. But she’d made them all on her own.
“Would you be kind enough to give me his address? I’d really appreciate it.”
Sherry waited and as the time spun out she realized she’d been cut off for good. Cut off as permanently as she had been nearly fourteen years ago.
Pressing the button, she said distinctly, “I won’t go away. I’m staying in Oceantides until I finish what I came for. I’m going to come every day and press this button until you either help me, or give me a good reason why you won’t. You can call the police. In fact, I’m
Back in the car, Sherry inhaled several angry breaths before she started the engine. In a spurt of indignation she backed out of the driveway, spraying wet-black gravel in all directions. Her right rear tire slipped off the road into a muddy bog. Yanking the wheel, Sherry punched the accelerator but the car only succeeded in spinning in a circle until she was sideways in the road.
She tried to baby the car forward but the right rear tire spun deeper into the mud.
“Wouldn’t you know,” she muttered, sure this was some kind of punishment for arguing with the ruler of Beckett Manor.
Sudden headlights flickered eerily. A car was coming — fast! Panicked, Sherry tried to twist the steering wheel. If this car didn’t slow down, it would plow right into her driver’s side as soon as it made the last turn. Stomping on her accelerator again, Sherry prayed for help. Her back tires whined and spun.
The approaching vehicle whipped around the corner. Its headlights bore down on her like huge, glaring eyes. Sherry jerked back in the seat, as if that would save her from impact. A black Jeep. Racing toward her. Huge tires spewing water. Crying out, Sherry covered her face with her arms.
The driver slammed on the brakes. The Jeep shimmied and slid sideways, hydroplaning toward her car in a slow-motion nightmare. Sherry braced herself. Inches from impact, the Jeep suddenly shuddered to a stop, as if the driver had suddenly found a magic brake.
Sherry exhaled in a gasp of relief. She fumbled for the door handle. Hallelujah! No crash. No injuries. But her pulse was galloping at breakneck speed again.
The driver leaped out of his Jeep at the same moment she scrambled out of her Focus. “You okay?” she asked.
He strode toward her, hard, fast, his shoulders thrust forward.
“Oh, no.” She would know that walk anywhere. J.J.
“What the hell are you doing?” he demanded furiously. “Meditating? You want a view of the beach, go somewhere else. This is private property.”
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