“Whatever!” The teenaged voice resonated in the upstairs hallway, punctuated by the unmistakable slamming of a bedroom door.
“Fine!” came the reply, followed by the unintelligible mutterings of his mother as she stomped down the stairs.
Dana Naughton stepped into the foyer of her father’s home and set her suitcases on the floor. Guess I should have called first. She’d obviously arrived in the middle of something.
Her stepmother came around the corner, lugging an armload of toys. “Dana!” Catlin’s eyes lit up. She dropped the load onto the nearest chair and extended her arms.
“Hi!” Dana gave her a big hug.
Catlin released her, running her hands over Dana’s face and hair. “You look great! So tan! Did you get your hair cut? Why didn’t you let us know you were coming? We figured you’d spend some time with your mom when you got back from vacation.”
Dana chuckled, sorting out the questions and trying to get a word in edgewise. “I’m sorry, I should have called. We got in to Kansas City last night. Mom picked us up, we dropped Renata at her place and then I stayed at Mom’s. She was acting a little strange, though, so I didn’t stick around today. I was ready to come home.”
“Your mom was acting strange? Imagine that.” Catlin glanced toward the upstairs and expelled a breath that made her bangs flutter. “You’ve been gone a while. I’m not sure you realize what you’re coming home to. Things are a little strange around here too.”
“Yeah, I heard.” She moved a lock of Catlin’s curly brown hair out of her stepmother’s face. “What’s up with my little brother?”
A brown-headed blur whizzed past then stopped in his tracks. “Dana!” Her youngest brother catapulted himself at her knees.
“Hi Charlie!” Dana leaned down for a hug. “How are you?”
He clenched his fists together, flexing his little biceps, and assumed a wrestling pose. “Strong like bull!”
Laughing, she tousled his shaggy hair. “Are you a wrestler now? I thought you were a Ninja Turtle.”
“He’s a wrestling Ninja Turtle,” Catlin confirmed.
The six-year-old examined her luggage. “Did you bring me anything?”
“Charlie!” his mother made a face. “That’s not nice.”
He smiled up at them. “Daddy always brings me presents when he goes away.”
Dana tapped his nose. “Daddy spoils you rotten. But, yeah, I might have brought you something. It has to wait until I unpack, okay?”
“Okay!” He hugged her knees again and raced off.
“Slow down!” Catlin called after him and turned back to Dana. “So, did you have a fabulous time? How were the Cayman Islands? Did you like the Seven Mile Beach? It was beautiful when we were there.”
“Oh, yeah! There was so much to do on Grand Cayman, alone. We crammed in as much as we could in two weeks, scuba diving, snorkeling, and sailing.”
“Shopping?” Catlin batted her lashes.
“Definitely! Wait ‘til you see what I got.”
“I’ll help you unpack later. Right now, I need to find Clarissa. It’s too quiet. If she’s playing in the fireplace again, I might just lose it.”
“Come on.” Dana put an arm around her shoulder and led her into the family room. Her three-year-old sister sat in the middle of the floor, brushing the hair of her baby doll. “And you were worried,” Dana teased. “Hi Lissa.”
“Dana!” The petite blonde jumped up and sprang into her sister’s arms. “I missed you!”
“Hey, sweetheart. I missed you, too. Is that a new baby? She’s so pretty.”
Clarissa showed her the doll and Dana sat with them both on her lap for closer inspection. Her sister was like a doll herself, alabaster skin and fine, pale yellow hair that curled naturally into ringlets. Dana leaned in and placed a kiss on the girl’s cheek.
“We all missed you.” Catlin dropped onto the sofa. “The kids are so excited that you’re back to stay for a while. We got your room dusted and ready for you to move in.”
Dana leaned back, jostling Clarissa on her knees. “You didn’t have to do that, but thanks. Speaking of kids, someone is conspicuously missing. I heard a little ruckus when I came in. What’s up with Chris?”
Her stepmother sighed. “What’s not up with him? He’s moody, grouchy, belligerent…you name it. It’s summer vacation, for goodness’ sake. It’s not like he’s being worked to death. He plays video games and listens to music all day long. The only thing I’ve asked him to do is feed his dog, and even that’s an inconvenience sometimes.”
“Maybe he’s bored. He should get out and do stuff.”
Catlin gave her a look. “He’s got a pool in the backyard. I’ve told him he can invite his friends over anytime. I’ve even offered to give him money to go to the city pool if he’d rather do that, but no. He’s gone to movies once or twice and the skate park occasionally. I can’t drag him out of the house.”
“It sounds like he’s just being a teenager.” Dana smiled. “I remember a few rocky years in there myself.”
“I do too.” Catlin nodded, grinning. “But you and David kept busy, at least. You both liked sports, which got you out of the house and kept you active. Skateboarding is the closest thing to a sport Chris will consider.”
“I’d have been a wreck if I’d attempted that. I could never master roller blades, either. So, is he excited for his birthday? He’ll be sixteen soon.”
“Don’t ask me. If he is, I wouldn’t know it.”
Clarissa looked at her mother. “I need to go potty.”
Dana’s eyes widened. “No more diapers?”
“Nope.” Catlin hopped up and lifted the child to her feet. “Go ahead, I’m right behind you.”
Dana followed and stood in the doorway of the bathroom. “Way to go, munchkin!” She high-fived her sister after Clarissa had washed her hands. “I’m proud of you.”
“Thank you. Will you read me a story?” Her voice was high-pitched, but she was so well-spoken everyone found her hard to resist.
“I will.” Dana leaned down to her level. “Go pick one out, and bring it to the sofa.”
“Yippee!” The child ran off.
Catlin sighed. “Now where did Charlie get off to?”
Dana touched her shoulder. “When you find him, send him to the family room. I’ll read to them both. I’m going to run up and say hi to Chris, first.”
“Thank you.” Catlin smiled at her gratefully.
Dana nodded and headed upstairs. Catlin looks tired. I’m coming home at a good time. There was another month of summer before the school year started up. She’d have plenty of time to watch the kids and give Catlin a much needed break before Dana started her first teaching job at St. Joseph’s Catholic School.
She’d gone away to college but always knew in her mind she wanted to come home to work. It was pure luck that the second grade teacher retired and Dana was quickly hired to fill her spot. Positions didn’t turn over often at the small school, so Dana thought it must have been fate. She was destined to be here at this time.
She walked down the upstairs hallway slowly, pausing to glance in each room. Charlie and Clarissa’s rooms were each done in Disney themes, heroes and princesses. She smiled at how neat and tidy they were. Dana bypassed Chris’s room for now and stuck her head into David’s.
Nothing had changed. It looked the same as the day he’d moved away to college. Her brother hadn’t looked back, though. He graduated and moved to Wichita, snagging a sports reporter job at one of the newspapers their father owned. Her dad had offered him a job closer to home at the Marshall Gazette, but Dave preferred a bigger city. He stayed busy, and she didn’t see him often. They texted once a week or so, and kept up with each other on Facebook. But it wasn’t the same as it used to be. Growing up, they’d been great friends and confidants.
Strolling past her own cheery yellow bedroom, Dana paused in the doorway to her parents’ room. The only spot that had significantly changed in the whole time they’d lived there, the room smelled as sweet as the fresh-cut roses she spotted gracing each table. An overstuffed white sofa faced the fireplace, giving the space a peaceful, cozy atmosphere.
After he married Catlin, her father had hired a contractor to renovate for them. He knocked out a wall, and their eight bedroom house became seven. Her folks gained a private sanctuary that she knew they enjoyed every night, once their children were in bed.
Dana leaned against the door frame, admiring the beautiful room. Her father had been crazy about Catlin from the moment they met, but their relationship had been rocky almost right from the start. David and I didn’t help matters, she thought guiltily. They’d been conflicted about their mother moving out, and their father moving on.
He’d had mixed emotions, too, and even gave his marriage another shot. But when their mother returned, all of them could see the couple was no longer meant to be together. Her father had lost his joie de vivre, his spark was gone. He later said Catlin had ruined him for anyone else. Dana knew that was true. They’d recently celebrated their six-year wedding anniversary and were still as much in love as newlyweds.
Dragging herself away from the serene spot, she stepped in front of her brother’s door and knocked. “Chris? It’s Dana.”
She opened the door. He sat on his bed wearing headphones, surrounded by his smartphone, an iPad and a laptop computer. “Sheesh! I’d never leave my room, either.”
“Huh?” He gazed at her, blurry-eyed, and removed the headphones.
Dana smiled. His brown hair was shaggy and overdue for a cut. When he’d been younger he wore it long, but the past few years he’d worn it much shorter and neat. Like Daddy’s. “Hey. How you doing?”
He shrugged. “How was the beach?”
“Beautiful. Warm. Perfect, actually. Lots of cute guys with Jamaican accents running around.”
“Girls too, I’ll bet.” He grinned.
“Oh, heck yeah. Renata couldn’t help checking out all the hot chicks.” Her college roommate preferred women to men which had made it much easier to get along for the last three years—no fighting over the same guy.
Chris sighed. “I wish I could go somewhere like that.”
“When you graduate from college, I’m sure Mom and Dad will give you a nice trip, too.”
“Which does nothing for me this stupid, boring summer.”
She leaned against the door frame. “So do something. Go swimming. Go outside and play with your dog. Roscoe’s probably lonely out there all by himself.”
He placed his headphones over his ears. “Have a mother, thank you. Don’t need two.”
She went over and lifted one side of the headphones. “Oh, but having two is so much fun. You should try it sometime.”
Chris grinned up at her.
She tossed a little wave and pulled his door closed behind her. It was no secret her mother, Barbara, and Catlin had never gotten along. Her father did his best to keep them apart, and now that she and Dave were older the women didn’t meet up very often. When they did, sparks of one kind or another usually flew.
She joined the youngest family members on the sofa where they read story after story, allowing Catlin time to make dinner. Dana was finishing up a fairy tale when the back door opened and she heard her father, Steve, step in.
The other children heard him, too.
“Daddy!” Charlie rocketed off the couch toward the kitchen.
“Daddy! Daddy!” Clarissa toddled after him.
Dana followed, watching amusedly as her father tried to kiss her stepmother with a child hanging from each leg. She’d always thought he was strikingly handsome, with thick dark hair and deep-set eyes. He wore suits to work, and by the end of the day his tie was usually askew.
“Daddy!” the kids belted out in unison.
Releasing his wife, he reached down and scooped both youngsters up in his arms. “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie!” He nuzzled the laughing boy’s neck. “Lissa, Lissa, Lissa!” He did the same to his daughter. “How was your day? Did everybody behave?”
They both answered at once, chattering as he set them down on the floor.
Dana stepped forward and said softly, “Daddy! Daddy!” She smiled at him.
His face lit up, eyes crinkling as a wide smile creased his face. “Dana Marie! Get over here!”
She melted into his arms and he held her tight, rocking her back and forth.
“When did you get here? We weren’t expecting you so soon.”
“I can leave if you want,” she teased.
“Just try it. I may never let you leave again, little missy.”