You can come home again.
Bittersweet memories overwhelmed Rori as she pulled her packed sedan up her sister’s the tree-lined driveway. From the moment she’d approached the outskirts of town, the memories had rushed back.
For longer moments she’d been that girl. The fit of the self-loathing and hesitant girl who’d escaped Oakley, Tennessee as quickly as she could a decade before, had been awkward. Awkward enough she was able to finally accept that demon was finally exorcised.
She was back. For good this time. Older. Wiser. Stronger.
Her sister’s pretty pale yellow two-story house loomed at the end of the drive when Rori pulled to a stop. It didn’t take more than a minute to turn the car off and get out, slowly and a little stiffly.
The wet heat of late spring grabbed her in a bear hug as she stretched. Twelve hours in a car two days in a row was more than enough. She didn’t want to drive more than ten minutes for at least a week or two.
“Rori? That you?” The sound of her name being called pulled her out of her thoughts and she turned around with a smile for her sister as she flew down from the porch.
Joy filled her at the sight of Kelly’s still-gorgeous face. “I’m here.” Rori hurried to meet Kelly in the middle, each engulfing the other in a hug, punctuated with tears and some laughter too. It had been too long and the exile had been no one’s doing but her own.
After the hug broke, Kelly looked her up and down with a huge grin. “I like the blond. You look good, Rori. You looked good before, but you had shadows in your eyes. Now? You’re just gorgeous. Must be all the weight you lost in the form of a loser French cheating ex-boyfriend.”
“Ha! Yes, something like that. You know, you get rid of Mom’s fry-it-you’ll-like-it way of eating and move to a city like Paris where you walk or bike all the time and that’s half of it right there.”
“Since we can’t pretend Mom doesn’t exist, my only other idea is that Max and I should move to Paris, then. Can we leave the boys with you?” Laughing, Kelly tucked a wayward curl behind her sister’s ear. “Aside from looking fabulous, doll, you’re home again and I’ve missed you so much.”
Rori found herself grinning through a sheen of tears again and shook her head. “I’m the one who’s glad.” She popped the trunk of the car. “I’d gladly take those boys from you, but you know you’d want them back in a few weeks.” Grunting, she pulled bags out, hefting them to the driveway. “Come on then, help me with my suitcases.”
“Where’s the rest of your stuff?” Kelly asked from the other side of her armful of bags, leading Rori into the house.
The darker, far cooler interior was a welcome change from the bright blast of heat outside. “Christ, I forgot about the heat. Nice in here though.”
“Willow trees and the big old oak in the front give great shade. Max is smart that way. You’ll be in the third floor attic room. AC gets up there and there’s a ceiling fan so you should be comfortable.”
“Great, thank you. The rest of my things are being shipped.” They took the stairs and Rori was glad she worked out on a semi-regular basis. Even at that she was huffing and puffing once they’d started the last, narrower set of stairs to the third floor. “Should be here Monday or Tuesday. I knew it would take me at least a few days to find a place so there was no use having to unload it twice.”
Once they’d gotten to the attic room, Kelly spun to level a glare her way. “A place? What do you mean, a place? I just got you back and you’re already planning to leave again? We have so much room, why not live here with us for a while at least? You have privacy up here. Your own bathroom. We won’t bug you when you work.”
“Kel, I love you, and it means a lot that you’d want me here. But you and Max have two kids and your own life. I’m back here to make a life for myself as an adult woman. I need my own place to make that happen. I won’t impose for any longer than I have to.”
Kelly sent her a scowl that only made her more beautiful. Rori snorted. “It’s not an imposition. Stay as long as you want. Max adores you, the boys adore you and I adore you, too. There’s no rush, honestly. I’ve missed you so much, I want you close by.”
Setting her suitcases down, Rori took an admiring look around the room. “This is gorgeous. You’ve really done so much to this place.”
She moved to the nearby window and looked out over the backyard. Balls, toys, bicycles and a well-worn path near a soccer goal setup told Rori a happy family lived here. This made her happier than she could express. Kelly and Max deserved this sort of joy.
Being accepted washed away most of her remaining sadness from the break-up and the relocation. It felt good to be accepted, to be welcomed back after being gone. After feeling out of place and anchorless for so long, her heart swelled and she blinked back tears at her sister’s reception. She’d missed her so very much—missed belonging to someone.
“You can’t know what it means that you’d ask, that you’d really want me here. It’s a good reminder that I’m loved. But I need a quiet place to work. And someday I might actually have sex again so my own place is a good thing. It’s not like I’ll be far away. Oakley is still a small town. No matter where I live, I’ll be less than ten minutes from you.”
“I want you to be here with me,” Kelly repeated, but with resignation. With a sigh she opened the closet doors and pulled out hangers. “Mom and Howard are anxious to see you, too. She’s pissed you aren’t staying with them.”
Rori left that alone as she began to unpack. Kelly hung clothes while Rori folded and placed things into the nearby chest of drawers. “I know. Mom gave me the lecture already over the phone last week. What a treat it would be to stay with her and Howard, huh?” She’d need to get a local therapist if that happened.
“Anyway, if I stayed with her, I’d rob her of her righteous indignation. She’s determined to be offended no matter what I do. I may as well oblige her and make myself happy in the bargain. She was offended when I went away to college. She was offended when I went to graduate school. She was offended when I moved to Paris. Now she’s happy that I’m moving back but offended I’m not staying with her and her new husband in a two-bedroom condo.” She shrugged. “She’ll be offended no matter what I do. Anyway, if I didn’t give her something to be upset over, she’d just turn to you. I figure you and I need to take turns.”
Kelly’s long sigh reflected Rori’s emotions regarding their mother. “I’d say she means well. We both know she does. But I also know she doesn’t spend enough time thinking about the way she talks to you and how what she says affects you. God, it still makes me so mad to think about the way she used to go on and on about your looks!” Kelly fumed. Then, with a resigned shrug she blew her hair out of her eyes and grinned. “Wait until she sees you.”
“It’s not about her. Clear skin, a better hairstyle and a smaller dress size don’t make me a better person. Doesn’t make me noble or special. It just means my outer package is nicer to look at, but it has nothing to do with the kind of person I am now. I don’t want to ever give her the impression that my life is better because I’m prettier now, or whatever.”
Rori had left Oakley ten years before, with braces, glasses, sporting an awful case of acne, and carrying the evidence of the way she ate her fucking feelings. Gotten away from a mother who either cooked meals laden with cream or deep fat fried them all while constantly picking at her younger daughter’s appearance.
Being away from that constant assault on her self-esteem and undermining of her body had been a big healing point. Emotionally, Rori began to shed her old self within weeks. Getting the braces off and a pair of contacts had been the first physical changes. The acne had cleared with the absence of her mother and the crappy diet.
Her exposure to the rest of the world had helped Rori understand a lot of the crap she’d been carrying around belonged to her mother. School helped her remember she was smart and capable. Dating had helped with the insecurities about her appearance and desirability.
Now she bore very little resemblance to the painfully shy girl she’d been when she left town. The biggest change though, was on the inside; she finally loved herself and it showed. She’d set goals for herself and had met them. She’d survived. She’d believed in herself and that was the best thing of all. It was important that she not let anyone reduce it to having lost some weight and being prettier on the outside. She was more than that and she’d never let anyone put her back in that place of doubt again.
“Of course it’s not about that. Or even about her. You look great, Rori. Why should you diminish that you’re beautiful and sexy as well as smart and accomplished? She will only see the outside, you know that. We know better.”
Dealing with her mother, even just talking about it always made Rori tired.
“Anyway—” Kelly went back to hanging things up, “—you’re a vixen now and the male inhabitants of Oakley are most definitely going to notice that.”
“I had to catch up with you. Five years older than me, and you have two kids, it’s not like you’d know it to look at you. It’s like you get more beautiful each time I see you.”
“Another reason why I’d like it if you lived here. The constant compliments. Makes an old lady like me all happy.”
Kelly had always been beautiful, both inside and out. Where Rori was tall and had been gawky and heavy, Kelly was small, like a little doll with giant blue eyes. She’d married her high school sweetheart, Max Harris, who was, of course, the quarterback to her head cheerleader. They were a really lovely couple and their sons were big, like their daddy, with his black hair and Kelly’s blue eyes.
If Kelly hadn’t been her best friend as well as her sister, Rori probably would have hated her. Instead, the two sisters, as different as they could be, had always been there for each other, always supporting and loving when needed. Without Kelly, Rori didn’t know if she’d have been able to get past her mother’s constant carping on her appearance.
Kelly hung up the last sweater and closed the closet. “Come on downstairs, then. The boys will be getting home from school soon and they’ve been talking about you nonstop since your announcement about moving back to town.”
Rori followed her sister downstairs.
“Today’s paper is on the table there. Why don’t you look through the ads for places to live if you’re determined that way.”
Rori hid her smirk and settled in at the breakfast nook in the sunny kitchen and caught up on gossip as they drank iced tea and looked through the ads for rentals.
“I hear the bus. Prepare yourself.” Kelly sipped her tea as they both angled their attention toward the front door.
Shane and Alex burst through the door and suddenly there was a jumble of arms and legs and backpacks as the boys jumped onto Rori, hugging her.
“My goodness, who are these handsome men? Wait, are these my nephews? These brawny dudes? It can’t be!” She greedily soaked up all the hugs, kisses and love. These boys were a huge part of the reason she’d come back to Oakley.
There was talk of baseball games and schedules, friends, school and other gossip they both needed to fill her in on until she tossed Alex her keys and told them presents awaited them in her trunk.
They scrambled out of the room and through the front door.
“You spoil them.” Kelly refilled the teas before getting up to move around the kitchen.
“Of course I do, it pays to have good-looking men who adore me. Your boys are true to me, it’s more than I’ve had recently.”
“Speaking of that, Jude is still single.” Kelly shot her a sly look.
Jude Callahan, the guy who’d been the star of every one of Rori’s girlhood fantasies. Despite his bad boy behavior, he’d always been nice to Rori. He’d flirted and stopped when they were at school to chat and catch up. He’d made her feel like an actual girl instead of a shy lump. He was also Max’s half brother.
“That so?” She smiled at Kelly, not even bothering to hide her interest. Jude had been that unattainable ideal. The boy whose name she’d written probably ten thousand times on countless sheets of notebook paper.
“Yep. He’s working with Max.”
She burst out laughing. “Jude Callahan is a cop?”
“Hmm. I can only imagine what he looks like in a uniform.” Rori raised an eyebrow at her sister.
“Oh yeah.” Kelli nodded, fanning her face.
The boys came back into the house clutching their presents. Paper flew and she got more hugs and kisses in thanks. She could only understand one in every five words because they both spoke at the same time, but she got the gist.
“All right, boys, go and do your homework.” Kelly barely stifled a grin, her voice mock-stern. “It’s game night so we’re eating early. Daddy will be home in half an hour. Go on.”
They ran off up the stairs, still talking about the presents.
She shot Rori an annoyed look that was ruined by the slight curve at the corner of her mouth.
“Don’t begrudge me the only male attention I’ve had in six months.” Rori laughed at her sister’s put-upon face and brushed her hands off. “Now, let’s get dinner started shall we? I’m going to call these people about the ads.”
Rori called and made appointments for the next day to go out and look at two apartments and a small house. Afterward, she cut up tomatoes and other salad fixings while Kelly made a quick spaghetti sauce and boiled noodles. She also called her mother and made plans for a dinner at her condo on Sunday afternoon.
“I’m home.” Max’s deep voice sounded from the front hallway.
“Hey, Max, we’re back here. Dinner is just about ready. Grab the boys will you?”
He poked his head into the kitchen. “Hey, you.” He swept Rori into a hug, kissing her cheek. “Glad you made it in all right.”
Leaning forward, he gave his wife a far less platonic kiss than Rori had just received. The two of them always looked at each other as if no one else existed. “Mmm. I’m headed upstairs to change. I’ll deal with the boys and be back down shortly.”
Dinner was far more raucous than the last time she’d eaten with them. Both boys were a lot older and had plenty to tell their aunt about their lives. Competitive. Shane was so bold and vibrant, Alex the shyer of the two, but more intense. Each carried the best parts of their parents. She didn’t envy Kelly and Max’s job over the next years as the boys got into teenagerhood.
“You reconsidering moving back here yet?” Max helped clear the dishes. “I figure a few hours’ exposure to my sons and suddenly Paris is looking a lot better.”
“Ha! Your boys are a million times more appealing than Paris. Anyway, you two are raising some amazing kids. I’m in awe.”
Her brother-in-law ducked his head. “Thanks. It’s harder than I ever imagined it would be. Raising kids. I can’t take the credit though. It’s all your sister.”
“You know I think my sister is an awesome mom, but there’s a lot of you in them too. You’ve got a great house. Great kids and a fabulous wife. Not a bad life, eh?”
He gave her a one armed hug. “Not at all. I’m glad you’re back. Kelly needs you around and the boys are thrilled to have you back. Me too.”