1. Misty Vale
T'was the summer of 2013, and all throughout the land- well, if you could equate a parking lot to an entire fairytale kingdom- was filled with dozens of people zooming in and out of the little building that was Misty Vale's one and only train station.
In the midst of the Technological Age, someone had forgotten to scoop this little twentieth century part of West Virginia into the bucket. Misty Vale was located just a little ways up river from Harper's Ferry, smack dab in the middle of Jefferson County. Of course, gone were the days of oil lanterns and hand-pumped water and horses everywhere, but the town still very much consisted of wide, sprawling farms, a rich street market industry, and most notably, the tiny town square surrounded by an assortment of odd little shops, including the closest thing to a McDonald's, Tee's Eatery.
That was the sight that greeted the eighteen-year old young man as he looked up from his map, his untidy pile of bags almost falling off the back of his bike. The motorcycle purred quietly beneath him, as if waiting for a signal to move.
Ryder swore under his breath, wiping the sweat from his brow. What kind of town didn't have a Subway, or a McDonald's, or at the very least, a Popeye's? He loved Louisiana-style chicken. After almost half a day of travelling, he wanted nothing but somewhere, anywhere, to cool down and have a bite to eat.
The boy's dark eyebrows furrowed as his thoughts drifted. He'd made it, he figured. He'd found Misty Vale.
Now, to find whoever Dominique Tulesa is.
Ryder had heard about his estranged grandmother, sure. They'd never met, and it was a wonder she knew he existed. In any case, he wasn't exactly keen on meeting the woman who'd disowned his mother and never looked back.
The one thing he was keen on was the possibility of a fresh start. It was why he'd agreed to leave Chicago and ride a motorcycle from one side of the continent to the other in the first place.
Now, he wondered what on earth he'd been thinking.
He set his helmet back on, revving up and taking off down the main town street, much to the dismay of the several shoppers traversing the area.
"Watch where you're going, you idiot!"
Ryder instinctively ignored the voice. He was used to wreaking havoc wherever he went. Plus, the speed helped calm his racing mind. He'd been all over the place since he set off from the small but functional apartment complex that morning, not even bothering to stop to rest or eat.
The air was cleaner, he'd give them that.
There was something about zooming past acres of fields of corn and bales of hay with the wind in his face and the sun on his back that just wasn't there in the city. Somehow, away from the concrete jungle that was South Side, the weight of his past mistakes wasn't as heavy on him as usual. And with Nick's recent return to the armed forces, a summer-long evasión may have been exactly what Ryder needed.
Ryder revved the bike's engine again as the road led him into a small but neat neighbourhood of modern-style houses that would not have looked out of place in the middle of California suburbia. They were stark contrasts to the sprawling farmhouses he'd passed on the way in.
The boy brought the motorcycle to a halt as he took it all in. His eye barely missed the shift in movement from one of the houses on the left, where another guy, probably around his age, jogged down the steps, keys jangling in his hands. Ryder removed his helmet, shaking out his sweaty dark hair before returning his attention to the young man. On closer inspection, he was almost familiar to him, with blond-brownish hair that fell into his face, hiding his features. Still, Ryder had a nagging sense of déjà vu.
He was about to move when the teen finally noticed him. "Hey!"
The stranger was standing outside a red Ford pickup that had clearly seen better days, watching him. "You lost?"
His Virginian accent was thick and strong in his voice, and suddenly, Ryder remembered where he'd seen this guy before. At a football game, in Memphis. He'd played as part of the WV All State team last year.
Mr. All State surveyed Ryder's multiple bags with interest. "Motel's that way," he said, motioning his head back the way Ryder had come.
"I'm not lost," he replied in a dismissive tone. "I'm looking for Dominique Tulesa."
"What do you want with old Tulesa? She late on her payments again?"
Ryder stared at the other boy in complete confusion before rolling his eyes and putting his helmet back on. Seeing his reaction, the other boy shrugged. "I can show you where she lives, if you want."
"I'll find it on my own."
The boy raised his palms in surrender. "Alright, man, but don't blame me if you get lost in the process."
"Back off, alright?" Ryder insisted. "Unless you got a better option?"
"I already said I can give you a ride," replied the boy, somewhat patronizingly. "But that offer ain't gonna last forever."
Evaluating his situation, Ryder shrugged. He'd made it this far on his own. A little help couldn't hurt.
The boy's blue eyes shone with excitement. "Great. Come on, then, I can help you load the bike into the truck."
Ryder eyed him skeptically for a minute, then gave in. Obliging, he tossed his bags and then, with Emmett's help, carefully loaded his precious motorcycle into the back of the truck.
"Emmett, by the way. Emmett Daniel," the boy introduced himself, closing the tailgate.
"Ryder Joseph," the dark-haired boy replied nonchalantly.
"Ryder Joseph, as in Ryder Joseph? As in you play for Chicago?"
Ryder shrugged. He wasn't surprised Emmett recognized him.
"Dude, I positively hate you."
"What?" Now he was confused.
"WV played you earlier this year. We practically got decimated."
"That's the game," Ryder shrugged. "We done here?"
"So you're here for the summer?" Emmett asked, as though he hadn't spoken.
Ryder didn't reply.
"Nice ride, by the way."
At that, however, his lips parted to reveal a cracked smile. If there was one thing he loved talking about, it was his bike.
"Thanks," he grudgingly replied, as though it was physically painful to deliver that simple courtesy.
"Gosh, is it always this hot?" Ryder asked with a frown as he hopped into the cab next to Emmett, who shrugged.
"You kinda get used to it when you've lived here for eighteen years. Beats a stinking city any day."
There was a brief silence as Emmett swung the truck onto Misty Vale's main avenue.
"Alright, this is Main Street. Everything's here, including a mechanic and 24-hour tow service. Down there's the grocery store, that's the bakery, whatever. You'll get used to it soon enough."
Minutes later, Emmett turned the pickup onto a long winding road that passed through the middle of a cornfield. The corn grass spread for acres in all directions, and Ryder was quickly disoriented.
They pulled up outside a large old-style farmhouse with a well-kept vegetable garden and old chairs on a wraparound porch. Fruit trees lined the side of the property. It was a little endearing, really, like something out of an old Western movie. On the west side of the house stood a barn, now half-opened to reveal a small, greying lady -Dominique Tulesa, cutting straight through a plank of wood with an electric saw. Sparks flew as she blew the dust off the raw edge, sliding the safety goggles above her head.
"This is your stop," said Emmett, opening the truck's tailgate. Ryder pulled his bags out, dropping them on the ground.
Finally, the old lady looked up. A smile took over her face almost immediately, and she put the saw back on the workshop table, dusting her hands off on the apron covering her floral print shirt and blue jeans.
"Emmett! How lovely of you to stop by!"
She embraced the blond-haired boy, who grinned eagerly.
"Hey, Miss T."
Her gaze flickered to Ryder, who stood uncomfortably, like a bug under examination.
"You must be Ryder."
The name slid off her tongue with ease, and for a moment, this woman reminded him terribly of his mother.
"Well, it was nice of Emmett to drop you off. Come, both of you-" she stopped, catching sight of the motorcycle.
"That thing stays outside, understood?"
"We're pretty far from the sea, young man. Hurry up, will you? The ladies are just about ready to serve dinner."
He was too late.
His grandmother put the plank of wood on a shelf along with identical pieces of material before motioning for the two young men to follow her inside. Ryder winced under the dull yellow light of the chandelier on the roof of the foyer area.
"Shoes off," she snapped at Ryder, who stepped back apprehensively. For an old lady, she was surprisingly commanding. He took his shoes off.
One minute, he, Emmett and Miss Tulesa were alone, and the next, they were in the company of seven or so other elderly ladies at a table completely covered in food.
"Ladies," Tulesa greeted them.
Several greetings were exchanged.
"Who's this dashing young man?"
Ryder never wanted to disappear more than he did in that moment.
"Go ahead, boy. Introduce yourself."
"Ryder," he bit out, before turning to his grandmother. "Can I go now?"
"Certainly not. You haven't properly met the ladies yet."
"Do I want to?" he muttered under his breath. Emmett chuckled. "I'll see you around, dude. I gotta go."
Then it was just Ryder, Miss Tulesa, and the old lady society.
"Ladies, this is my grandson Ryder Joseph. You do remember him?"
"Eileen's baby boy? My, he's grown!"
"Aw, he's so big!"
"Isn't he the one with the drug dealer father?"
At that, Ryder bit back a collection of choice words handpicked from his arsenal of colourful language. He rarely talked or thought about his father. There was nothing he wanted to think, let alone talk about when it came to the man who'd fathered him.
In a motion that was quite out of character, Ryder winced. Chucking his father in his face had always been the most destructive insult. Especially when the only person who truly believed he was destined for something other than a life of crime was his mother.
And he'd disappointed her too.
"Can I please go to my room?"
Ryder's tone was harsher than expected, and his grandmother quickly ushered him and his bags up the stairs. They came to a low-lit hallway with solid oak doors on either side. Miss Tulesa led him to the second door on the left, which opened to a fairly small room with a sloped ceiling and one of those old desk lamps.
On one side of the room stood a small, neatly made bed that barely looked long enough to accommodate Ryder's tall frame. A bookshelf, almost as tall as the ceiling itself, was filled with old paper copies of great novels like Oliver Twist and Anne of Green Gables. The whole space had a comforting, familiar smell to it.
This must've been a girl's room, Ryder decided, going over to the vanity. He sat on the bed, meeting Miss Tulesa's curious stare.
"This was your mother's room," she said with a sad smile, as if rekindling a fond memory.
"My mom slept here?"
"Yes, she did. Go ahead, open the curtains."
He did just that, and was rewarded with a spectacular view. The full moon rose high above the sloping fields of Misty Vale, and in the distance, the lights of the town square were bright and music and cheers could be heard throughout.
"Wonderful, isn't it?"
A cool breeze fanned its way into the room, and Ryder sighed.
He stared out of the open window for a little while longer.
"Well, the bathroom's across the hall. Do you need help with your stuff?"
"Well, in that case, I want you downstairs for dinner in ten minutes."
"I'm not hungry," Ryder lied through his teeth. He wasn't in the mood to argue.
"Surely you must be. It's a long ride from Chicago here. How was the traffic?"
"How is traffic supposed to be?" he shot back, irritated. What was with all the questions?
His grandmother frowned.
"Downstairs. Ten minutes."
"I'm not hungry."
"You need to eat."
Ryder, frustrated, got up from the side of the bed.
"I don't need to eat. I need you to get out of my space."
"Don't be rude."
"Whatever. Can you just....go away? Please?"
His grandmother gave him a disdainful look.
"I'll let this go. Just this once. But you better get your act together real soon, or you'll end up-"
"Like my father?" Ryder scoffed, looking away. "Maybe that's not such a terrible thing."
Miss Tulesa cut herself off, leaving the room. Ryder pulled his shirt off, venting his anger in one almighty throw across the room. It landed in a heap next to the door.
He needed to sleep this off, whatever it was.
Tomorrow, he could determine his next move.
Ryder woke up to the mouthwatering aroma of frying eggs and bacon sizzling around in the kitchen downstairs. Instinctively, his stomach growled. Clearly, skipping dinner the night before had not been one of his wisest decisions.
He got up. Padded with bare feet across the unfamiliar wooden corridor to the small but tidy bathroom that smelled like lavender and vanilla. Pulling a fresh towel from the old stained-wood cabinet, he stripped down to the waist and stared at his reflection in the mirror on the wall, which remained perfectly intact despite its cracked iron frame.
The face that stared back at Ryder was almost completely unchanged, but the young man who wore it could not have been more different. He still looked exhausted. Dark hair, angular features, tanned skin interrupted only by the sleeve of tattoos that littered his left arm. Deep brown eyes that stared back at him in a mass conflict of emotion.
He sighed, pulling off the rest of his clothes and stepping into the shower.
Ryder yelped in surprise as the ice-cold water hit his back with a noisy splash.
A firm knock sounded on the bathroom door, and the boy jumped about ten feet in the air when his grandmother, rather crudely stuck her head in.
"What're you keeping so much noise about?"
"The water...it's freezing," Ryder chattered out.
"Ain't you ever had a cold bath before?" Miss Tulesa asked, somewhat scornfully. "Why on earth would you want to take a hot shower in the middle of July?"
She shook her head as though disappointed. "Let it run a bit, if you must. It'll warm up eventually. And hurry up, will you? We're having porridge."
Porridge? Who the hell drinks porridge?
Ryder's thoughts grew louder as his grandmother left, and he slammed the faucet off, swear words slipping out of his mouth.
Stupid cold ass water.
When he finally got downstairs, he was casually outfitted in a T-shirt and a loose pair of sweats, his phone in hand.
"Hold it right there!" a female voice yelled. "Who are you and what are you doing in my house?"
Ryder paused to examine the culprit. She was small and slender, and he noticed the obvious resemblance to his mother in the woman's facial features. She had the same hazel eyes.
Still, it didn't add up. His mother had been an only child, as far as Ryder was concerned. Perhaps the woman was simply another relative he'd never had the displeasure of crossing paths with.
"I should ask you the same thing," he replied apprehensively. "What are you doing here?"
The woman raised an eyebrow, a small smile playing on her lips.
"Well, you see, you could ask that question, except-" she spun around in satisfaction, "- you're the one out of place."
Ryder raised an eyebrow in confusion.
"Mom," the woman half-yelled, and to Ryder's surprise, his grandmother was the one to appear.
The gears in Ryder's brain started working feverishly, trying to make sense of what he had just seen and heard. Something wasn't adding up. If his grandmother had answered, that meant she was this woman's mother. And if she was Ryder's grandmother, then...
"She had a sister?"
The two women stared at him blankly.
Ryder snapped, annoyed.
"Well? What the heck is going on here?"
Miss Tulesa shook her head, confused.
"You didn't know? She never told you?"
"That my mother had a sister?"
He shook his head vehemently, hurt and anger radiating off him.
"You know what? I don't even care."
Ryder's aunt's eyes softened.
"I knew she was angry," she whispered, "but I never thought she'd lie about her family."
"What are you talking about?" Ryder demanded.
"She's never once mentioned she had siblings?"
Ryder looked down at the floor, trying hard to remember if he'd ever heard his mother mention anything about her childhood. Nothing came to mind. Eileen had never been one to talk much about family, anyway. You, me and Nick. We're a family, she'd say.
"It's not her fault," Ryder snapped. He'd always felt a fierce loyalty to his mother, and he was just as protective of her as she was of him. "Maybe you never gave her a reason to mention you."
His grandmother's eyes darkened ever so slightly. "I'd be careful what I say, Ryder Joseph. You're treading in dangerous waters." Her voice was cutting.
"Is that so?"
"Be quiet, boy. You have no idea what you're talking about."
His aunt, picking up on the tension, quickly stepped between them.
"How about we all just calm down and start again?"
Dominique Tulesa clenched her fists, biting back a response.
"I'm Felicity," his aunt said with a small smile. She motioned to his grandmother. "You've got to give her a break. She gets a bit...brash sometimes."
Ryder shot the woman a disdainful look, but to her credit, she didn't flinch. Instead, she stared right back till he was the one to finally break eye contact.
"What's all this?" a male voice asked, and a few seconds later, two grown men joined them in the dining room.
"Hey," Felicity greeted them.
"What's going on? Who's the kid?" the one with light brown hair asked with an air of skepticism.
"I'm not a kid," Ryder said in a clipped voice. His aunt shot him a warning glare, and he rolled his eyes.
"I didn't ask you anything," the man shut him down. "Ma, who's Mr. Sassy Pants?"
Felicity sent the man a pointed glare before introducing him.
"Will, Jon, this is Ryder. Ryder, these are your uncles, the twins, William and Jonathan. They're the youngest of us."
"Wait. Uncle?" Jonathan examined Ryder with piercing greenish brown eyes. "What in the world..."
"You're Eileen's kid," offered William a beat later. He nodded to himself. "Yeah, Jon. He's got Eily written all over him."
Ryder shifted uncomfortably.
"So you're the long lost second son," said Jonathan. "The last time we heard from your mother, you weren't even born yet."
"Pleasure to finally meet you," said Will, extending a hand for him to shake. "We got a lot to catch up on."
Ryder stared at his palm in wry amusement. Did this guy really think he wanted anything to do with these people? Up to a minute ago they'd labelled him a home invader, and all of a sudden, a couple genetic traits made him the newest remember of the Joseph family.
Will took his hand back. "You play football, right? I've seen you play, kid. You've got a gift."
Ryder shrugged in response, wanting nothing more than to escape this unwanted family reunion. It was already a very tense situation, and he knew he would snap sooner or later.
They just had to piss him off enough.
Jonathan stood quietly, observing the exchange. He looked the most like Ryder's mother, almost eerily similar in resemblance.
"What are you doing in Misty Vale?" Jon asked, and that was it. Ryder's short fuse had run out, and the wave of new information sucked him under.
"It's none of your business. None of you gave a damn about me before, so why now?"
"Ryder!" his grandmother scolded. He raised a hand.
"Don't," he said, not meeting her eyes. "I can't do this right now. Just leave me alone."
With that, he stormed out of the house and into the central courtyard. Outside was nice and warm in the summer morning heat.
It was the perfect time for a ride.
Going over to the old barn turned workshop, Ryder pulled the white tarpaulin off of his beloved motorcycle leaned against the outer wall, dusting off the stray leaves and rolling it into the now quiet inside.
Ryder had issues.
Everyone knew that. He knew it.
And he didn't care.
He didn't take kindly to surprises. Especially not ones where he found out he'd had an entire family he'd never known about. His mother had never liked to talk about her family before Chicago. Every time he or his brother had asked questions, she'd simply said "things are complicated". Nothing less, nothing more.
Ryder wondered now if that had been a good thing.
He stood there in silence for a few monutes, trying to process everything he'd just learned. His mom had had a family. And not just one sister. She had a sister and two brothers. Brothers that might have been the father figure he'd needed all his life, had things been different.
Maybe she hadn't lied, Ryder considered. But she'd kept them a secret, and that was just as awful.
Before he could mount the bike, the barn door swung open, startling him. William stood beyond it, a plate of food in his hand.
"Saved you some food," he said, walking towards him.
"I'm not hungry."
"Ma says you didn't eat last night. Star player like you needs to keep his strength up."
"I said I'm fine."
Will shrugged. "Come on, kid. Sit down. Have something to eat."
Contemplating his options, Ryder followed William into the garage, propping on a stool as he took the plate from the older man's hands. He looked as though he'd seen better days, but there was a playful light in his brown eyes that soothed Ryder's thoughts.
Maybe he could give him a shot.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked his uncle. "Why are you even bothering? You saw how I snapped out there."
Will laughed. "You think you're the first one of us with spunk? I haven't heard anyone snap at Fizzy that way since we were kids."
He offered a hand. "Welcome to the club."
Reluctantly, Ryder shook Will's hand.
"Now eat up. My mama cooks up a right good plate of breakfast. It'd be a shame to let it go to waste."
Now Ryder was stubborn, but if there was one thing he couldn't resist, it was food.
Faster than he thought possible, Ryder scooped the eggs, pancakes and bacon up, not realizing how hungry he had really been. By the time he finished the hash browns, he was full for the first time in days.
Ryder burped, his hands to his mouth.
"Better?" William asked with a grin.
Sighing happily, Ryder nodded.
"I told you so. Now, let's have a look at that beauty of yours, eh?"
Ryder looked at him warily.
"William, are you good with bikes? I don't trust anyone with her unless I'm sure."
His uncle waved him off.
"Please, boy. Call me Will. I've got a degree in Computer Engineering and Mechanics. Did my internship with Harley-Davidson. Everything I know about bikes I learned hands-on."
Ryder was impressed. His uncle didn't look like the biker type.
"So, you bought it used?" Will asked. Ryder shook his head.
"I used to hunt around at different junkyards. Pawn shops. You know. I built it back from just a frame."
His uncle nodded approvingly, inspecting the motorcycle. "It's a fine job," he commented, running his hands over the leather seat. "You sure your future's in football?"
Ryder grimaced. "I don't want to talk about it."
Will shook his head fondly at the young man. "You're just like your mother," he commented. "No doubt about that."
Ryder lifted his head, ignoring Will's gaze.
"My mom. What was she like?"
"Growing up?" Will asked, taking a seat once more. "Oh, Eileen was a stubborn one, she was. Jon and I are the last, you know, so it was either do what Eily said and risk getting in trouble, or run to Fizzy so she could protect us."
He laughed. "We used to be really close. I was her favourite twin. We did almost everything together." Will's face darkened. "We haven't had a decent conversation in almost twenty years. It's a crap feeling."
The vulnerability left Will's posture, and he shook his head.
"I think that's enough storytelling for one day, kid. Have you checked out the town yet?"
Ryder shook his head. "Not much to see. Everything's so tiny and quiet."
"I know. It can be a shock sometimes."
"You're not from around here?"
Will chuckled, shaking his head.
"Sure, I was raised here, but I live in New York. I'm middle level at the local RAM Trucks up there." Ryder nodded. "Oh."
"What about you, Ryder Joseph? Where'd Eileen take off to?"
"Chicago, born and raised," Ryder muttered.
"Chicago, eh? And what does she do now? Still cashiering at Walmart?"
Ryder felt offended, even though the question had not been asked with any kind of malice intended.
"She's a marketing assistant," said Ryder. "But I guess you'd know that if you bothered to stay in touch."
"Hey." Will quickly rebutted. "Me and your mom, it's a long story. Don't jump to conclusions."
Ryder stood up, the mood ruined. "I'm gonna head out."
"Give us a chance, kid. Come on. How about you and I head into town and help the others set up for tonight?"
"The Misty Vale Women's Society has an annual three-day carnival every 4th of July. Tonight's the opening night. Gonna have something like an open talent show. Lots of food."
Ryder considered his options. He could stay here at the farmhouse, and probably be assigned some ridiculous house chore, or he could go with Will, who, to his surprise, he actually didn't mind.
"Okay," he finally said. "I'll go."
William grinned, smacking his back hard.
"Now that's the spirit!"
Ryder found himself laughing along.
Maybe he could give them a chance after all.
Audrey Greslin, soon-to-be Mrs. Derek Daniel, liked to think she was absolutely beautiful- flawless, even. With her smooth, long, tan legs, flat stomach, delicate yet slender curves, and a more than modest bosom, one would not doubt her. She had stunning blue eyes, and blonde hair that fell almost to her waist.
Today, it was pinned into a half-updo, and her already pretty features were highlighted with a light coat of makeup.
Audrey let out a sigh of annoyance as the housemaid Lorraine put the final touches on her floor-length gown. It was a soft baby blue thing, strewn with gems and pearls which lightly touched the ground when she walked. She wore a pair of six-inch silver heels, matching her silver accessories.
"So? What do you think?"
Lorraine bowed her head respectfully.
"It's lovely," she said. Audrey frowned.
"Not the dress, Lorraine. Me! How do I look?"
The maid rolled her eyes, wiping a bit of sweat off her forehead.
"Absolutely stunning, if I do say so myself."
Audrey smirked, shoving her way past the other woman. Her engagement party was going to be splendid. Absolutely splendid.
Invitations had been sent out, catering organized. The party was set to take place downstairs in the main area of Derek Daniel's two-million dollar Los Angeles home.
As for the wedding? Audrey was beyond the planning stage. In her opinion, she and Derek were already married, and all they needed was a fabulous wedding ceremony to top it all off. She'd already been to the second fitting of her twenty-five thousand-dollar wedding dress.
"Derek!" Audrey yelled, pushing her blonde curls out of her face.
Derek Daniel was a handsome man, for forty-three. He had just a hint of greying hair at the otherwise brown roots, slight wrinkles from too many days of hard work, but he was incredibly good-looking, with deep blue eyes and a strong, angular frame. He stood at just over six feet, and now, dressed in a pair of tan slacks and a white dress shirt that was open at the collar, on could easily see the resemblance between him and his eldest son, Elliott.
"Wow," he breathed out, his voice warm with desire. Audrey batted her eyes, taking his arm. He automatically pulled her close.
"How does it look?" she asked, somewhat shyly.
"You look amazing," he whispered, kissing her cheek. "Absolutely breathtaking."
"You don't look half bad yourself," Audrey commented, and he grinned. "You clean up surprisingly well."
Derek remembered quite vividly the first time he'd laid eyes on Audrey Greslin two years before. She'd been twenty-six then, at the height of her modelling career. Derek had been attending a business partner's birthday celebration, and he'd been introduced to her by her brother, Alan, another one of his business associates.
He still remembered his first glance of her, her eyes blue against the cream of her lace dress, the very picture of sophistication.
In fairness, Derek had been quite the eligible bachelor, though he himself cared very little for money. Before Audrey, before all the wealth, he had worked himself almost to death building what would become OptiTec International alongside his first wife, Charlotte. They'd developed the business plan first as partners on a class project way back in high school, and launched it years later. Derek had watched their idea succeed from the shelter of their comfortable but modest home in West Virginia, where he'd lived with Charlotte and their three children.
Fast forward a decade, and life had longer been so rosy. Business got in the way of parenting, and somehow, maintaining good business connections became more important than establishing those with family. They'd been happy, sure, but the fire that had spanned the first few years of their marriage had died down. Without that spark, Derek had absorbed himself in his work, failing to notice his deteriorating relationship with his wife until it was too late.
The entire period leading up to their eventual divorce had been tense. Their children, the oldest of whom had just turned ten, had seemed oblivious, but were very much aware of the rift in what had seemed to be the perfect couple. Needless to say, Derek's relationship with his kids, especially Elliott, had never been the same.
With Audrey in the picture, things had gone from bad to worse. The three children harboured something worse than the usual dislike for a potential stepmother, although that was probably because Audrey was young enough to be their sister. Still, Derek loved her. At least, he told himself he did.
Looking into her eyes, as he did now, any remaining semblance of doubt faded from his mind. Audrey had become more than just a fling- he wanted this, he wanted her. More than money. More than business. Almost more than he'd ever wanted Charlotte.
"Ready to go?" he asked, with a light peck of her lips. She sent him a flirty smile.
"I'm always ready," she replied, and pulled him out of the room after her.
Levi Daniel looked up as his older brother Derek descended the stairs with his new fiancée on his arm. They were immediately the centre of attention in the room, and Rachel, Levi's teenage daughter, tapped his arm excitedly.
"Look, Dad! It's gorgeous, isn't it? Audrey's dress...it's beautiful!"
Levi already knew what the whole impromptu celebration was about. Derek wasn't a party person- he certainly didn't host them himself, either. His brothers Levi and Donovan, and a couple of close friends were the only ones on his side who Derek had made aware of his engagement. Heck, he hadn't even told Charlotte or his kids yet.
Donovan, on service with the U.S. Navy in the Gulf of Mexico, had respectfully declined the invitation, so Levi was attending on both of their behalfs. Levi's wife, Melissa, stood about ten feet away, sipping from a glass of wine, a smile on her face. He stared a bit at her, entranced by the way her smile crinkled up the corners of her eyes. She was beautiful when she smiled.
Turning his attention back to the guests-of-honour, Levi saw Derek clap his hands, and Audrey rap lightly on a wine glass with a spoon.
The room gradually fell silent, all eyes on the two people on the stairs.
Derek gave a gracious nod.
"Goodnight, everyone," he began in the executive voice he'd managed to perfect.
"My dearest friends, colleagues, family-" he motioned to Levi, who raised his glass in acknowledgement- "-it is my honour to once again welcome you to my home. I'm sure you're all wondering what the special occasion is, and that, my dear friends, is this."
Derek took Audrey's hand in his, turning her slightly more towards the guests.
"Two, almost three years ago, Alan Greslin introduced me to this beautiful young woman you see before you. Little did I know, that day would grow to be one of the best days of my life."
He motioned to Audrey, who stood smiling sweetly at his side.
"Time has passed, and ever since I first compelled Audrey to go on a date with me, she's become so much more than just a woman. This woman has been my everything- lover, friend, confidante, and I am immensely- extremely proud to say that I adore her.
I was thinking about it over the last couple of weeks, you know. I sat there thinking, 'what happens if I let her go?' And then I realized that I don't want to lose this woman. This incredibly beautiful, talented woman I get to call mine. That's why two weeks ago, as some of you may know, I begged Audrey to let me spend the rest of my life with her."
Derek looked adoringly into his fiancée's eyes. Levi barely missed the slight furrow of Audrey's eyebrows, as she unknowingly tensed. He waved it off as embarrassment.
Then with a brilliant smile, she kissed Derek on the cheek, and turned back to the guests.
"I said yes. I mean, how could I say no? Derek is everything a woman could ask for," she said, beaming.
Levi wanted to hurl.
"I called you all here today, so we can all celebrate this milestone together. I get to make this amazing woman my wife, and spend the rest of my life with her. And who knows, maybe in a year or two, we'll have little Dereks and Audreys," Derek continued with a chuckle. Audrey turned white, the colour draining from her face.
Luckily for her, the guests broke out into chatter and applause, leaving them free to mingle. A live band kicked up, playing a soft jazzy tune.
Derek excused himself, heading over to Levi and Rachel, who was taking a fruit and cheese kebab from one of the more handsome servers. She winked, earning herself a massive smile.
"I think he likes me, Dad," she chuckled. Levi laughed. "Chill out, little birdie."
"Uncle Derek!" she shrieked, pulling him into a hug. "Congratulations! You didn't tell us you were getting married!"
"I know, I know. I wanted to surprise you guys," Derek replied, facing his brother.
"She's over there, why don't you go ask her?"
Simply put, Levi and Derek didn't exactly have the smoothest brotherly relationship. For years, it had been Derek and Donovan, then Donovan and Levi. Derek had never been close to his youngest brother, and they had grown even further apart after Donovan joined the Navy.
Derek smiled to himself.
"Same old Levi, huh?"
He looked over at Rachel.
"Rachel, why don't you go see if there are any more hot waiters left?"
She grinned, sashaying into the crowd.
"She's sixteen, Derek." Levi bit out.
"Aw, she'll be fine. Let's you and I have a talk, shall we?"
Derek led his brother outside onto a balcony overlooking the garden that completely surrounded his house.
"You didn't sound very happy to hear about the engagement," Derek commented, sipping his wine.
"What do you care what I think?"
"Derek, leave it. I just hope you know what you're doing."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Derek, you barely know this woman."
"I've loved her for two years!"
"And you and Charlotte were together almost four years before you got married. Don't you think you're rushing things?"
"Is that everyone's problem? The fact that I'm remarrying after Charlotte? She's my ex, Levi. I can't be tied down my whole life."
"Look me in my eyes."
"Derek, look me in my eyes, and tell me that you don't love Charlotte."
Levi's voice was cold and hard. Derek met his eyes, preparing to speak.
"I can't do it."
Defeated, Derek gulped the rest of his wine down.
"What was the point, huh, Levi? I love Audrey. So what if I still have feelings for Charlotte? We divorced. We went our seperate ways. I want to do this, Levi. I want to spend the rest of my life with Audrey."
"You can't give her your all if half of you is still hung up on your ex-wife. I see the way that woman looks at you, Derek. She wants only one thing, and it's not your heart."
Derek ran his hands through his hair.
"Audrey loves me."
"You know, for a grown man, you're ridiculously oblivious."
"Kicking me out, big brother? Not so happy with the truth, are we?"
"I made a choice."
Levi walked away, his words a bitter murmur.
"You're making a mistake."