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My decade-old SUV started making a strange pinging noise somewhere near El Dorado, Arkansas. It was a gloomy Sunday afternoon and everything I’d passed since Little Rock was locked up tight, so stopping anywhere besides an occasional McDonald’s was out of the question. Besides, my car didn’t need a side of fries; it needed a mechanic.
If I could just make it the last hundred miles, I planned to sleep for twenty-four hours at least. Well, I would eat first because my exhaustion currently warred with my hunger, and the hunger was keeping me awake right now. This was the farthest I’d ever driven alone and now that my car was getting sketchy, I worked to keep my mind from going to scary breakdown scenarios.
By the time I hit the Louisiana state line, I was gripping the wheel as the sun broke through the clouds. I did not want to break down in the middle of nowhere and end up at the mercy of a gun-toting local with a dead animal across his hood. I guessed it was deer-hunting season based on the amount of camouflage I’d spotted when I’d stopped for gas and food after crossing into Arkansas from Missouri.
Come on, come on, come on. I patted the dash of the red SUV I’d dubbed “Big Red” the day I’d driven her off the lot. She’d seen me through plenty of rough times, so her imminent demise weighed heavily on me. Plus, the cost of buying a new car…that too.
Should I break down, it was a toss-up between calling my new family for help or taking my chances with rednecks in the middle of nowhere. The Bertrands would fly to the rescue in a heartbeat and would probably arrive toting a hot casserole and sweet iced tea in case I was hungry.
My new family was my birth family, and we’d met soon after my mom—the one who raised me—died not quite two years ago. I’d gone in search of family roots and found the Bertrands. I’d sprung my existence on them while waiting for a bone marrow transplant to treat the unexpected blood cancer that attacked me while I’d been distracted by my caring for Mom. It was bad enough the Bertrand family had learned about me while I was at my lowest point, and then was made worse when they were forced to care for me for a couple of months after I’d gotten out of the hospital. Well, not exactly forced, but close enough.
If I could just make it a few more miles. “C’mon, girl,” I whispered to Big Red. “You can do this.”
My luck ran out as I spotted the city limits sign for my destination of Cypress Bayou, Louisiana. Big Red gave up with a rolling sputter and a heavy sigh, and we trundled into a convenience store parking lot. I had mostly made it to my destination. Calling the new family for a rescue felt less cringy since I was now so close.
Before deciding to move here from my lifelong home near Chicago, I’d made a chart with two columns: the plusses and the minuses to determine if I should relocate. The plusses had won out by only a slight margin.
Sighing over my present predicament, I noticed the auto shop just across the road and thought how great it would be if this had happened on a Monday. I couldn’t get cell service where I’d run aground, but I remembered my new sister, Leah, saying it was spotty around town, and sometimes you had to take a few steps one way or the other. And maybe hold your mouth just right. The Bertrands were odd to me, mostly because we were from different cultures, but really, I thought they might just be odd in general for all sorts of other reasons.
I glanced around my car before climbing out, preparing to pace the parking lot with my phone until I got a bar or two on my screen. Thanksgiving was looming and I hoped to get settled before then. Thankfully, the weather was extremely mild compared to Illinois in late fall. The weather went solidly in the plus column of the list I’d used when making up my mind to move here. I loved the year-round green of so many trees and plants here. Chicago pretty much turned brown in September and stayed that way until almost May.
“Hi, there. You got some car trouble?” The deep Southern drawl caused me to nearly jump out of my boots. When I turned around, a tall, dark-haired, dark-skinned man with deep brown eyes and a sprinkling of freckles across his nose stood directly in front of me, smiling.
I nodded, finding my words. “She died just as I pulled in. I’ll call my family to pick me up, and I can deal with it tomorrow when things open.” I waved a dismissive hand toward the SUV and the handsome stranger. I was parked in a space on the edge of the parking lot, so leaving my car there shouldn’t be a problem. This stranger didn’t look like danger, but one never knew.
“I work at the auto shop across the street there. I’m happy to help if you’d let me take a look.” He pointed over to the shop I’d noticed as I’d rolled to a stop.
He wasn’t wearing camo—a plus—though his jeans appeared a little worse for wear with grease stains on them. From what I could tell, his teeth seemed intact, and his long-fingered hands were stained around the nails, which made sense for an auto mechanic, so that checked out. And that smile of his…wow.
“I’m Nick Landry.” He held out his hand to shake mine. I took it and smiled back somewhat foolishly. I thought he must be Creole, based on some research on the region’s history and culture. The town was settled as a French outpost for trade with Mexico in the early seventeen hundreds, which the Spanish controlled at that time. Cypress Bayou was older than New Orleans, and most of the families who lived here had done so for generations.
I must have been staring because he cleared his throat, snapping me out of it. “Thanks for the offer. I wouldn’t want to put you out on a Sunday.” I wasn’t used to anyone stopping to offer help for no reason, but he did seem nice.
“No bother. I was working on a carburetor at the shop and ran over here to grab a water.” He indicated the bottle in his hand.
There were cars passing at a steady rate, so I wasn’t in the middle of nowhere anymore. I exhaled and smiled. “I’d appreciate it.” If he was already working in the shop, then maybe at least he could have a quick look.
“Can you pop the hood?”
I climbed back into the car and pulled the release lever for the hood while Nick, the mechanic, lowered his head to have a look.
I could feel a flush creeping up my neck. Had he noticed that I was flustered? I might have to add another item—uh, person—to the plus column on my list: Nick Landry.
Now I needed to find some cell service. I got out of the car, leaving the door open and took a few steps in one direction to test my sister Leah’s cell service theory. Sister. That still seemed like an odd thing to say after growing up as an only adopted child.
But to give Leah credit, she was right. Two bars appeared at the top right of my screen, and I hadn’t made any funny faces. I’d call her first since I didn’t want to worry my birth mother, Karen, who tended toward the dramatic. Deciding between multiple people to call on was new for me too. It had always been my mom and me after Dad’s heart attack.
“Hello?” Leah’s voice sounded a little bit like mine, weirdly, but with a Southern intonation. “Allison, is that you?”
I’d stepped away from the car a little farther to keep my conversation private. “Hi, Leah. My car gave up the ghost at the edge of town, but I’m here with a mechanic who’s having a look under the hood.”
“Oh, no. Tell me where you are, and I’ll come get you.” She sounded concerned.
“He’s still having a look, but I’ll call you back if I need a ride. I just wanted to let Karen know I’d made it into town.” Karen was a worrywart in overdrive. I’d learned that about her when I was just out of the hospital and weak as a newborn kitten. Nana, my grandmother, had to shoo her away from me regularly because she’d hovered so much.
“Yeah. She’s been pacing the floor for the last hour waiting to hear from you, so I’ll tell her to sit tight and that you’ll be here as soon as possible. Keep me posted and I’ll head over and pick you up if the mechanic can’t get your car started.”
“Thanks a lot.” I disconnected the call. That hadn’t been too awful.
I moved back toward my car when I ended the call. “Are you new to Cypress Bayou?” Nick asked from his position under my hood.
“Yes. Kind of. I’m moving here from near Chicago.”
“Chicago? Well, that’s new. I don’t know if I’ve ever met anybody from there.”
“Well, I guess you have now.” I’d moved closer to where Nick was working to get a better look at my car’s nonworking engine. Not that I knew anything about fixing one.
“I hear it’s windy.” Nick pulled out the dipstick and looked closely at it. I caught the unexpected scent of sandalwood mixed with gasoline.
That made me snort just a little. “Yes. It’s windy. And cold. I don’t think I’ll miss that about it.” We made small talk, which was safe and made me more comfortable standing around with a stranger.
“You said you had family in town?” he asked.
“I’m related to the Bertrand family.”
He stopped what he was doing and looked at my face. “Oh, I should’ve guessed it. I can see the resemblance. You’re the new daughter.” He didn’t sound especially surprised by this. “The Bertrands are neighbors of my parents. Known them my whole life. Leah and Carly were a little younger than me, but we grew up pretty close because of our families.”
Carly was my new youngest sister, who’d just turned twenty-seven. She was engaged to Tanner Carmichael, who was closer to my age of thirty-five. “I guess that’s a bit of a coincidence, huh?”
“Stranger things happen around here all the time, especially lately.” He gave a funny eye roll, which made me smile involuntarily.
“If you say so.” This small-town thing would take some getting used to. While I’d known my closest neighbors in Naperville, I still ran into strangers there every single day. I had a feeling very few people here didn’t know each other.
How I’d ended up here started with my incessant need to know where I came from. Who I’d come from. I’d been burning with questions since I was twelve and found out I was adopted. Turns out, I was the secret baby of the now infamous District Judge Arthur Keller and Karen Bertrand, two lifelong residents of Cypress Bayou.
Of course, the folks here were sparking with questions as soon as I showed up. It was like being the new animal in the zoo that everybody wanted to get a good look at. Even though I’d been the one to seek the family out initially, I admitted my attitude had changed drastically from before.
He snapped the hood shut and said, “I’m sorry to say, we’re not going to get your car running today. I’ll tow it over to the shop and order your parts.”
“How bad is it?” I didn’t know if I wanted to hear his assessment, but I got the feeling he was trustworthy.
“Not so bad that you need a new car yet. It’s a combustion problem. There’s a part that tells the coil when to fire the cylinder, and yours is busted.”
Not needing a new car was a good thing right now. “How long until the part comes in?” I felt the heaviness of exhaustion set in after being on the road for so many hours. These days, I only had so much gas in my personal tank.
“Middle of the week if I put a rush on it. Sorry about that.”
“Okay. Thanks for your help. I’ll call Leah back so she can come and pick me up. Excuse me.” I took a couple of steps away to make the call.
“No need. Once I tow it over to the shop, we’ll transfer everything into my truck, and I’ll take you wherever you’re headed in town. Sounds like you’ve had a long trip already.”
“Yes, but that’s too much to ask of you. Leah will help me.” The man was a stranger offering to give me a ride and move my things. I didn’t know whether to worry that he would disappear with me or to fall at his feet in pure gratitude.
“The Bertrands are like family, and my daddy would give me the red ear if I didn’t assist a lady in need. Plus, I’m happy to do it. Got nothing else to do on a pretty Sunday afternoon.” He looked up to the sky.
I was fairly sure now that he wasn’t a serial killer who planned to whisk me away in his white, windowless, serial-killer van. I brought my thoughts back to his comments on the weather. It was crisp and cool, but the sky was cloudless and sunny.
“Thank you, Nick.” I couldn’t resist asking, “What’s the red ear?”
He laughed. “My grandma Landry always said that. It means my daddy would fuss at me until my ear turned red if I didn’t do right by you.”
“Ah, I get it. I’ve never heard that expression.” I’d never heard a lot of expressions that popped out of people’s mouths down here. Mostly my family’s mouths.
“Yeah. I doubt that’s a common one up north where you’re from.” He shut my hood, pulled out a red bandana that hung from his back pocket, and wiped his hands on it.
“It’s the Midwest.” I’m not sure why I corrected him. Maybe because he’d dismissed me as a Yankee.
“Chicago. It’s considered the Midwest, not the North.”
“I stand corrected.” He inclined his head toward me and my superior knowledge.
I texted Leah to let her know what was happening.
Nick tried not to stare at Allison. The resemblance was striking to both her sisters, even though the two didn’t really look alike. Allison had Leah’s facial structure, but she had Carly’s shiny dark hair, though it was still a pixie length, and the same facial expressions as Carly when she spoke. She seemed a little pale now, but he knew she’d been very sick only months ago.
Nick infrequently ran into the Bertrands around town these days because work kept him busy, so it had been a little while since he’d seen them. Nick Landry didn’t consider himself a gossip, but his dad referred to his mom as a nosy neighbor in jest. But Mom really was a very nosy neighbor. “Sit tight, and I’ll go and get my tow truck.”
“Thanks.” She climbed back into her vehicle to wait.
Nick returned in a couple of minutes driving a flatbed tow truck painted bright blue and yellow. It took him only a few minutes to lift her inert car onto the back. When he was finished, he opened the passenger door and motioned for her to climb inside. Nick efficiently lowered the car into a parking spot behind the building once they’d crossed the street to where the garage was.
“Is that everything?” he asked as they transferred the last few items from her car to his truck. He was glad he’d splurged and gotten the sliding cover for the bed of his pickup, so none of her things would blow out or get damaged.
“I think so.” According to his mom, Allison was the eldest of the three Bertrand siblings, taking over that role from Leah now that she’d entered the family.
“Your resemblance to Leah and Carly is striking, but I guess you knew that.” Nick made conversation after she’d climbed into his truck as a passenger. He felt like he knew her, even though they’d just met. She seemed so familiar.
“Yes, it’s strange when I see them. It’s like catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, but not really.”
“So, where are you staying?” He assumed she would be moving in with her nana Elise or Karen, her mother.
She fished out a piece of paper where she’d written the address and handed it over to him.
Nick looked at the address. “Oh, that’s Jake Carmichael’s old place. It’s a cool loft, right downtown.”
“I guess you know a lot about the Bertrands—and the Kellers, huh?” She met his gaze.
He shrugged a shoulder. “Things get around in a town this size. And my mom doesn’t miss a chance to fill me in.”
“Your mom and Karen seem to have a lot in common—no offense.” A smile quirked Allison’s lips as she said it. Her mother, Karen, was legend for inserting herself slap in the middle of things going on in town, much like his mom. But he wouldn’t say anything ill of Karen to her new daughter.
“Yes, they’ve known each other most of their lives. And none taken.”
“I’m guessing everybody in town knows my story? My family’s story.” He caught her eye roll and it made him grin.
“Uh-huh. Sorry, but you’re walking into the tail end of all the commotion around here with Judge Keller.” District Judge Arthur Keller, Allison’s birth father, had recently been involved in unsavory behavior. It was to be determined if he would serve prison time or just be stripped of his spot on the bench, politics around here being what they were.
“I expect to be pointed at and whispered about until this dies down. If it ever does.”
“The Yankee accent could be an issue,” he teased.
She laughed then. “Again, Midwest. But I’ll practice my y’alls and bless your hearts and see how that goes.”
It was nice that she had a sense of humor about it all. “You look like you’ve recovered from cancer well.”
She turned to him. “Yes, not being completely bald anymore is nice.” She ran a hand through her shiny, dark cropped hair. “I’m ready for it to grow out again.”
“It suits you.” Her face flushed at his compliment, but he pretended not to notice.
“Have you seen the apartment yet?” he asked, turning onto Front Street. “You’ve got a great spot on the river to see the fireworks during Christmas Festival.”
“I haven’t seen it yet. The family decided where to put me for now.”
“You could do a lot worse as far as family, but I guess being new to everyone is a bit daunting.”
The fact that he used the word daunting made her grin. “Yes, just a bit.”
End of Excerpt