Chapter One of SECRETS
Word of Warning
“Mom, why do you try so hard?” I asked curiously. I stuck a Common Scents label on the lotion bottle I held in my hand then pushed it aside. Ten more sat naked, waiting for theirs. “You’re already gorgeous and I’m pretty sure Mr. James remembers what you look like. Even if y’all do only get together once a year.”
“First of all, we’re at work,” she chided, keeping her bright sapphire eyes on the mirror in front of her. “You know better than to call me that here.” Within the walls of her store she’s “Mia.” “Second, impressions are everything. If David were the plumber, I’d still try to make a good impression. It’s just good business.” Somehow I doubted she’d go through all the trouble for the plumber.
“Okay, what does he look like then?” I asked, sticking another label on yet another bottle. Maybe her determination to look faultless has something to do with him. In twenty-two years I’ve never met the man. “Is he cute?”
“Like I said Leah, it’s just good business,” she said shortly. And there it was—professionalism. “You’ll see that for yourself when you get out in the corporate world. If you look the part you’re taken seriously. If you don’t, you’ll never get anywhere.”
“And you wonder why I’m not in any hurry to leave the store.”
“Do you really want to get into this right now?” she asked me impatiently.
“No, I’ve said all I wanna say.” And I had; several times.
“That’s what I thought,” she sighed. After a moment’s silence she glanced down at the floor beside her and frowned. “Would you mind bringing me my briefcase? I think I put it under the counter up front,” she asked, pulling up her long tawny hair. “I want to make sure David has everything he needs to get the taxes done.”
Glad for a distraction, I got up and headed for the front of the store. Labeling bottles and candles has never been my favorite thing to do. Over the years, I’ve discovered it isn’t Mom’s either. More than once she’s conveniently forgotten to put the labels on everything from handmade lotions and decorative soaps to hand-poured candles and scent sachets. Drew, my best friend and periodic co-worker, and I usually spend hours labeling one product or another.
Before I got her briefcase, I made a beeline for the front door and pulled down the shades. It was a lot later in the afternoon than I thought and the sun was beaming right into the picture windows at the front of the shop. Not a good thing when you have light sensitive eyes. Just walking into the room made my eyes water.
I can handle the light for a while, as long as it isn’t shining directly at me; but even then it eventually gets to be too much. If I don’t keep a pair of dark sunglasses handy to wear when it’s just too bright for me, my eyes can end up with severe burns. It’s only happened once, but that was plenty.
After a less-than-pleasant experience along with a desperate trip to the ER because my eyes had been burned so badly they wouldn’t open, Mom had light reflective shades installed all over our house and Common Scents. As far as I’m concerned the shades and sunglasses are the best inventions in the world. Even the tint on our car windows is the darkest we can legally get. A little extra protection never hurt anyone.
As soon as the shades were drawn, I grabbed her briefcase and took it back to the storeroom. When I got there her chair was empty and the bathroom door was shut. Guess it’s time for her to slip into something a little less comfortable.
“It’s on the floor beside your desk,” I hollered to her. “Do you need any help with your paperwork?”
“The last of it is printing out now. Thanks anyway, sweetie.”
With nothing else to do, I got back on the stool to finish up my tedious task. I love the fact that everything in the store is homemade, but there are days I wish they weren’t. It’d be nice if I had a little brother or sister I could pawn the task off to the way she did me, but Mom has always been content with the little family she has.
By little, I mean the two of us. I am the only child of an only child. Mom’s parents were killed in a horrible car accident shortly before she got pregnant. Then my dad dropped off the face of the earth a couple of months later. A few months after I was born, his parents passed away in their sleep during a house fire. His younger sister had run away months before that. As far as I know nobody had ever heard from her again.
“Okay, now be honest,” she said, stepping out of the bathroom. “How do I look?”
Ordinarily, her style is conservatively sexy. For this night only, though, she was pushing the envelope. Her gorgeous blue dress matched her eyes perfectly. Somehow the rich shade made her China doll complexion seem more fragile. A cluster of spaghetti straps led to a generously low neckline. Soft material flowed gently down to the middle of her thighs, beautifully complimenting the shape of her legs. A pair of black heels bumped up her petite five-foot-two frame by three inches.
“You look fabulous,” I sighed. “It’s a shame you’re only going to a business dinner.”
“That’s all I need, Leah,” she said firmly.
“No, it’s not. I’m twenty-two years old. I hate seeing you alone all the time. Mom, you deserve to have a life away from the store and me. I promise I won’t fall apart if you find somebody.”
“It doesn’t matter how old you are, baby. And I know you would love for me to find a man that could love me, but my heart belongs to your dad. No other man will ever be able to change that.”
“You can’t even try? I’m sure he wouldn’t want you to be alone forever.” I may not have known him, but if he had loved her the way she did him, it was a safe bet I was right. “What would he say if he knew you’ve been hiding behind him all these years?”
For a minute she was quiet. I thought I might have made my point. Then she looked back up at me and I knew I’d gone too far. Upsetting her was the last thing I wanted to do. Tears flooded her deep blue eyes even as a soft, patient smile formed over her perfect porcelain face.
“I don’t know what he’d say,” she said quietly, “But baby, I think he’d understand. The last night I saw him I found out how cruel and unpredictable this world can be. There are things, people in this world that can change your life in an instant, Leah. Most times you don’t even know who or what to look for until it’s too late. I lived through the pain once; I refuse to go through it again.”
“You think he’s dead don’t you?” It was a question I’d never asked. Honestly, I’d never had the nerve to.
“I know he is, honey. Death is the only thing that would keep him away,” she said, sitting down at her desk. “If only I had listened.”
“What do you mean by that?”
I don’t know much about my dad. I do know his name was David Connolly and he and Mom never married because he disappeared before they could. I’ve always figured my bright green eyes and dark brown hair came from his side of the family. My rich olive skin tone seems even darker against Mom’s pale complexion. As far as I can tell the only traits she and I have in common is height; five foot two, weight: one fifteen, and delicate features.
“Nothing, sweetie,” she responded to my question. “I just wish he could have been here for you,” she said quietly. “He would have been such a good father.”
“You know one of these days you’re gonna have to tell me about him,” I said softly. “I know it hurts you, but I don’t even know what my own father looks like.”
“And one day I will,” she said, holding back the tears. “But right now it’s still too hard.”
With that Mom shut down. She doesn’t like talking about the night he disappeared any more than I like trying to drag answers out of her. The truth is he is gone. He never knew about me and there is nothing she or I can do about it.
For years I’ve wondered about him. What did he look like? Laugh like? Did he have a sense of humor? Would he be proud of me now?
Mom turned in her chair to check her makeup and the conversation was over. I decided to keep my mouth shut and stock the empty shelves out front with the lotion bottles I’d finally finished labeling.
A car pulled into the parking lot; its radio blasting Pink’s latest single. Definitely Drew.
Taking note of her musical choice I tuned my sensitive ears into her heartbeat. My eyes may be excellent sight-wise, but my hearing is so acute I can hear the person on the other end of cell phone from across the room as if they were sitting right beside me. Landlines not so much. Thanks to Drew’s self-absorbed boyfriend it’s best to know whether or not to take cover before she walks through the door. He and his father have kept her so wound up lately it’s getting difficult for me to remember what her normal heartbeat sounds like.
“Drew’s here,” I said leaning into my mom’s line of sight, “and her heart’s racing.”
“Le—” Mom started.
“Nobody’s in the store,” I interrupted, defending myself against my mom’s impatient glare. “I just thought you’d want to know.”
“Honey, that’s not the point and you know it,” she scolded. Her frown melted into a stern smile. “Drew knows you can hear a pin drop, but please don’t broadcast it. There are people that can and will take advantage of you. Besides, I’m sure she’s just fighting with Mark again.”
“Get ready,” I groaned. Drew slammed her car door shut so hard, the whole world knew she was irate. “She’s pretty hot.” Mom took a deep breath and promptly stuck her nose back into her computer.
Drew stormed through the front door; an explosion of citrus marked her presence inside the store. The tangy scent of oranges has followed her for as long as I can remember, despite the expensive perfume she uses. To me, the sharp scent perfectly matches her confident, energetic personality. Smelling Drew is like having a rejuvenating glass of orange juice first thing in the morning.
Not that she or anybody else knows about the scents. What I smell is my secret. I’ve always known being able to detect a smell beyond the lotions, perfumes, and other personal hygiene products isn’t normal, but what I’ve never been able to nail down is why I can smell people this way. Everybody has a scent. Sometimes their scent washes over me. Like Mom’s delicate rosy scent. It’s been there for as long as I can remember. For other people, it takes longer to detect, as if I have to break through some invisible wall.
Accompanying Drew’s scent is a bright orange haze which radiated around her, engulfing her entire body in a transparent mist. Frustration? Maybe? I’ve only had this curious ability for a few years. Without a guidebook to tell me what the colors mean I’m stuck in the guessing stages. The fact that they only show up when emotions are running high leads me to believe they’re attributed to moods. Until I know for sure, this little gem is yet another secret I keep.
If I had to venture a guess I’d say Drew had probably spent the night with Mark again and had another run-in with his father. I could still smell the lingering odor of cherry tobacco on her clothes, Marks’s father’s preferred flavor.
“You would not believe what that poor excuse for a man just did,” Drew said, completely exasperated. She unraveled her blonde hair from her purse straps then threw her bag under the counter.
“You’re probably right,” I said trying to think of some way to make her smile. “You know you smell like cherries, don’t you?”
“That…. man thinks a pipe is more dignified than a cigar or a cigarette. If you ask me only a pompous ass would smoke one of ‘em. They’re just as nasty as everything else,” she said flashing a contemptuous smile. The comment was a gem coming from her. She is an avid smoker. “Maybe he’ll end up with inoperable cancer and keel over soon.”
“So much for a smile,” I thought.
“Well come on, what’d he do?” I asked curiously. Her orange glow had turned bright red. Whatever he did must have been a doozy.
“That baboon just offered me two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to stop seeing Mark!” Drew screamed. Her knuckles were clenched so tight the bones threatened to pop out of her skin. “Can you believe that?”
“What’d you tell him?” I asked, picking my bottom jaw up off the floor. That was a lot of money.
“I told him to go suck an egg,” she answered proudly. “Of course he’s furious, but at this point in my life I really don’t care.”
“Does Mark know?”
“Course he does, he was sitting right there. You know something, Leah; he looked like he actually enjoyed it.” Anger had such a strong hold on her, she was shaking. Tears started to form in the corner of her light blue eyes. “After his precious father left he said the whole thing had been a test. But you know what, I didn’t see wonder dad handing out any grades.”
“I would have taken the money, sweetie,” Mom told her, coming out of nowhere. “I know it won’t love you, but at least you’d finally have a little peace.”
“Would you make some noise next time,” I told her, holding my chest. My heart was pounding. Thanks to my excellent hearing surprising me like that rarely happens.
“It’s not every day I get to scare you, baby,” she said innocently. She winked at Drew and smiled. “I honestly don’t remember the last time I scared you.”
“How about never?” Drew said giggling. The frustration and anger she felt seemed to melt away in an instant. “Now you know how we feel. Way to go, Mia.”
“Well, at least you’re smiling,” I said, rolling my eyes at the Cheshire grin on Mom’s face. “Are you sure Mark is worth all this or is there something about him I just don’t see?”
“He was great at first. It was kinda nice to have a guy who wasn’t always surrounded by a bunch of drunken animals.” Drew sighed heavily. “Now that he’s done impressing me, he takes every opportunity to let me know his dad hates me. It’s like being with a sadist. Misery and pain get him off.” She turned to my mom. “He’s not a gentle man.”
That, even I understood. I made a mental note to try to pick up his scent the very next time I saw him. The simple thought had never crossed my mind before because he wasn’t somebody I was really interested in getting to know better. If it was personality I picked up on, I’d be able to find out exactly who he is. Maybe then I might be able to talk some sense into Drew.
Mom patted her hand gently and gave her a warm smile. “Honey, you know as well as I do that’s not a good sign,” she warned.
“So what happens now?” I asked after Mom disappeared into the backroom.
“You know something, babe; I really don’t have a clue. He and that oaf are gonna be working on some big deal for the next few days. According to Mark,” her voice took on a deep, masculine tone, “ ‘crucial research must be done’ before they can proceed. The case fell in their laps late Tuesday and whatever it is, it’s big. I guess we’ll have to try to sort it all out over dinner tomorrow night.”
“Sounds like you’ve got a lot of thinking to do.”
“Sure do,” she agreed. “I don’t know how we’re gonna work this out, Leah. I really can’t see us staying together if Pops has a hand in everything Mark does.” She straightened up and looked around the store. “You better put me to work before I start throwing things.”
Knowing she was serious, I handed her a can of glass cleaner and a roll of paper towels from under the counter and pointed to the windows. She doesn’t like dusting and I don’t like windows.
“If you do the front windows,” I said handing her a rag. I tossed a can of glass cleaner from underneath the counter and gestured behind me. “I’ll dust the shelves in the back.”
“Deal. You got your glasses?”
“They’re in the car,” I admitted. “I thought I left a pair around here for emergencies, but I can’t find them.”
“In that case, don’t turn around until I tell you I’m done.” She walked to the windows and waited until I turned my back to pull up the first shade.
I grabbed a couple of dust rags out for myself and walked to the back of the store. I was starting on the top row when Mom’s cell phone rang. Since dusting doesn’t require a lot of brain power I decided to listen in. It was impossible for me not to hear her side of the conversation anyway. Maybe I’d get lucky and the other person would be on a cell phone too.
“Hello, May. It’s been a while,” Mom said pleasantly. “How are you and the boys?”
No such luck— “May” was calling from a landline.
“Really? How’s that going?” Mom asked. A short pause ensued. “I know what you mean. I am so glad to hear they’ve been able to do something positive with their lives. I have to admit I had my doubts. Their daddy being who he is and all.” Silence filled the little room again. “Oh yes, Leah’s doing great. She graduated back in December,” she said proudly. “She earned two degrees: one in accounting and another in business.” Mom’s ‘uh-huhs’ and ‘I sees’ went on for a few minutes while the lady on the other end dominated their conversation.
“I’m sure he did. She gets it from her dad you know,” Mom said happily. “He was always good with numbers. Look at what he’d accomplished before that horrible night.” Why couldn’t we talk about him as easily? Was it because May had obviously known him as well? Was there some bond the two had that made it hurt less? Before I could contemplate a moment more, Mom changed the subject of the conversation. “Now, what can I do for you? I won’t be able to bring anything out today, but I can put you on the top of my list for tomorrow morning.”
Suddenly, her heartbeat quickened. I heard her breath catch in her chest. Either she was getting really good news or something was seriously wrong.
Inch by slow inch I slipped closer to the doorway. Mom’s pleasant rosy scent was gone and I wanted to see if she had a haze to help me gauge her mood. The blue one I saw around her didn’t make me feel any better. Blue, from what I could see, signaled worry. That’s something Mom rarely does.
“How long ago?” she asked quietly. Her voice was barely a whisper and restrained. Hope for good news went right out the window. Mom sounded scared. After a short pause, her heart began to slow down slightly. “Oh May, that’s more than enough time. She’s probably already used the information to her advantage.” I waited anxiously to find out who she was and what her information was being used for. “I guess it really was just a matter of time, wasn’t it? Thank you so much for calling. Will you please let David know I’ll be here when he’s ready?” Silence again. “I will. Y’all stay safe too.”
Mom snapped her phone shut and her heart was still pounding. She took slow, deep breaths trying to regain some sense of control. As soon as I heard the phone hit the wall by her desk, I knew her calming technique had failed miserably. Whoever “she” was managed to take Mom from worried to mad in a five minute phone call. The sad part was, “she” wasn’t even the one on the phone.
“I’m done now, sweetie,” Drew said, brushing past me. She hurried past Mom and went straight to the bathroom.
I jumped back to my spot and went back to dusting before Mom could catch me spying on her. It was hard to keep myself from asking who the woman on the phone was and what had her so upset. I assumed May was Mr. James’s secretary. She had told her to let him know she’d be here when he was ready. Whatever that meant.
When I walked into the store room, dirty dust rags in hand, Mom’s mood had completely changed. Her sweet scent of roses and Drew’s burst of citrus mingled together pleasantly creating an atmosphere of pure calm and sunshine. She acted as if the phone call never happened.
“I hope this guy is worth all your trouble,” Drew was saying. “You look gorgeous.”
“Thank you,” Mom said sweetly. “I guess you’ll get to see for yourselves later on. David will be here sometime after eight o’clock to pick me up.”
Drew and I were both shocked. We just looked at each other, open mouthed and wide eyed. Mr. James has always been more of an enigma than a real, live person. They always met at the restaurant and he only ever called Mom on her cell.
“What’s the occasion?” Drew asked curiously.
“I thought it was time for him to meet Leah,” Mom answered, suddenly finding a blank piece of paper quite interesting. “He’s got a lot of good connections and now that she’s finished with school, I thought she might want to get her feet wet. The quicker she puts her skills to use, the better her life will be later.”
“Mom, I’m standing right here,” I reminded her. “And I’ve already told you I don’t want to go to work in some overcrowded office with a bunch of stuffy people.” I knew my reluctance to fall in line with her way of thinking made her mad, but at the moment I didn’t care. The poor man was going to be ambushed tonight and I doubted he even realized it. “Does he know you’re planning on using him?”
“He’s happy to help.” The shaky tone in her voice didn’t sound at all convincing. “Weatherford just doesn’t offer the same kind of opportunities the bigger cities can. Honey, there is so much more you could be doing.”
“I’ve only been out of school for three months, Mom,” I argued as Drew silently ducked out of the room. “I’m not ready to jump into a big corporation yet.”
“Yes, you are. You’ve got a brain like your father’s. Use it.” I squirmed as her eyes bored holes into me.
“Thanks for your faith in me, but I really am happy right where I am,” I told her. “If Mr. James knows of something here I promise I’ll look into it, but I’m not leaving Weatherford.” A compromise seemed better than a fight.
“I’ll be sure and ask,” she said happily. “I’m sure David knows someone who could use a little extra help.”
With her mind seemingly at ease about my future, she began packing up her briefcase. I brushed our conversation off and went back up front to help Drew with a few customers that needed our attention. One couple was looking for a little extra help in the romance department. Another was just looking for a cheery scent to start her day with. Too bad we can’t bottle Drew, I thought.
We waited a few minutes hoping for a few more customers. Drew and I preferred talking to others about the scents they bought rather than stocking them. After the longest ten minutes of the night it was obvious tonight would be slow. Drew cleaned the display beside the counter while I made a list of the scents the shelves were running low on. I kept my fingers crossed as I grabbed the box I’d emptied earlier and headed back to the storeroom. Maybe, just maybe Mom had remembered the labels.
Not surprisingly, she hadn’t. Better still, the lotions weren’t even separated into scents. At least we had plenty of time on our hands. This was going to take awhile. I didn’t know how many different scents were sitting there. It’s a good thing my nose works extremely well.
“Mo-ia,” I said quickly correcting myself. No way was I going to let ‘mom’ slip out again. “Where are the lotion labels?”
“I forgot again, didn’t I?” She handed me a manila folder from her top drawer without even glancing up. “They’re in the front. Sorry about that.”
“It’s alright, it’ll keep us busy,” I said, trying not to sound put off. I filled up the box with lotion and dropped the folder inside. Just before I walked back through the doorway Mom grabbed my arm. Intensity burned in her eyes, leaving me with a strong sense of curiosity. “What’s up?”
“Leah, I need to ask you a question and I want you to be completely honest with me. In the last few days has anyone come in looking for my daughter?”
“I hate to tell you this, but most of your customers already know who I am.”
“I know that,” she said impatiently. “I’m talking about people you’ve never seen before.”
“Not that I know of, why?”
Before she answered, she took a firmer hold of my forearm. This was obviously very important. “If anybody does ask, do not tell them who you are. Do you understand me? Lie if you have to.”
“What’s going on Mom,” I asked, narrowing my eyes at her. I dropped the box on the floor and pulled the stool over to sit down beside her.
“Baby, all I can say for sure is that you may not be safe,” she whispered. “We’ll know more over the next few days, but for now I want you to be careful.”
“Why wouldn’t I be safe?” I asked curiously. “And who is we?”
“I can’t tell you that right now, Leah,” she answered softly. “Please don’t push me on this. I promise I’ll tell you more when I can. Just do what I said and keep your name to yourself.”
“You’re starting to scare me,” I said honestly. “You act like there’s a boogie man out there somewhere just waiting to pounce on me.”
“Listen to me. What may be after you, I’ve already seen. And it’s not something I can run from anymore.” Her voice was calm now; like she’d already made peace with whatever she was warning me about. “Now, because of some serious lack of judgment, you’re in trouble. From this point on keep an open mind and be willing to accept the impossible. I don’t care what your brain tells you.”
Great, if that was all I had to go on, I didn’t have a chance against this foe she insisted on being so elusive about. An open mind only gets you so far. How am I supposed to fight something when I don’t even know what to look for?
The lady on the phone appeared to know more than I did. And all this had started after she called. My brain went hay wire trying to make sense out of all the bits and pieces of their conversation. The thing is I’d only heard one side. I rolled Mom’s part over and over in my mind trying to read between the lines until my head started to pound.
Judging by the tone Mom took while talking to May I could assume they were friends. I could even determine that she’d more than likely known my dad. Mom had mentioned him; even made a reference to his intelligence. If that was the case, maybe this whole situation had something to do with his disappearance. Then again, I couldn’t be sure about that either.
“Does this have anything to do with my dad,” I asked point blank.
“It does, but that’s all I can tell you right now. Use every sense you have to feel people out,” she said, looking directly at me. “I know you can.”
“If you only knew,” I thought. One of these days I just might decide to tell her.
“Just stay alert and keep yourself safe. I can handle my end,” she said confidently.
“Handle what?” I asked, pushing for more. “You can’t give me bits and pieces and expect me to automatically understand.”
“Yes, I can,” she said flatly. She kissed me on the cheek and waived her hand towards the front, gesturing me away. End of discussion; conversation over.
Dazed and completely confused, I picked up the box of lotions and went back to Drew. She was waiting on a customer when I walked up behind her. At first she was happy to see me and then I pulled out the folder. After seeing that, my friend and helper deflated before my very eyes.
“You have got to be kidding me,” she groaned after the indecisive customer finally left.
“I’ll sniff, you label,” I suggested.
“Sounds like a plan to me,” she said, plopping down on the floor behind the counter. “After a while they all smell the same to me.”