As you all know, my new novel, Love's Broken Road, comes out on Nov. 1st! I'm really excited about it and thought you might like a sneak peek into the first chapter!
Copyright Julie Coulter Bellon
All Rights Reserved
The sun peeked out from between the clouds, adding light to the somber tombstone gray all around her. Victoria didn’t even know why she was there. Standing in this exact spot at her husband’s funeral a year ago she couldn’t even pretend she was grieving. A twinge of guilt flickered deep in her gut. She’d wanted him dead and now he was. He’d died on their sixth wedding anniversary, too, which was a strange benediction to a marriage that had died long before.
“Caldwell, it’s time to go.” She called for her five-year-old son who had gotten bored looking down at his father’s headstone and had followed a butterfly to another grave. She probably shouldn’t have brought him. The reality was, she wanted him to forget his father— his moods, his shouting, the fights. Yet, for some reason she wanted this closure for both of them. To walk away and never look back. Too bad she hadn’t been able to do it when her husband was alive.
Caldwell stood beside her and she squeezed his hand. “Honey, is there anything you’d like to say to Daddy before we get on the airplane?”
Caldwell pushed his glasses back on his nose. “No.”
He was solemn. Too solemn for his age. His eyes had seen too much in his short life. Regret zinged through her and combined with the guilt, tied her stomach in knots. They both needed to start over in a city with no memories of what they’d endured.
She squatted down in front of him and touched his chin. “Are you excited to move to Lincoln?” Victoria had researched the safest cities in the nation, and Lincoln, Utah, had popped up as number fifteen. It was a smaller city with just under thirty thousand people, and it was full of parks and open spaces, but most of all, it had a high school that needed a math teacher.
Caldwell nodded his head once before he wrapped his thin arms around her neck and held her tight.
Victoria hugged him back, his warm body like an anchor in the storm they’d lived through. Her husband was the worst thing that had ever happened to her, but Caldwell was definitely the best. “We’d better get to the airport. Are you excited to fly on a plane?”
“Yeah.” He drew back and took her hand again. The stoic look on his face made her throat tighten. She wanted him to be carefree and full of childlike curiosity like she’d been at that age, but he wasn’t because of the choices she’d made.
Victoria straightened and they both stood there a moment longer looking at her husband’s name on the headstone. Caldwell Newel. Her jaw clenched. How many times had he told her she disgraced his name? That she would be nothing without him. Well, she was going to walk away with their son’s hand in hers and prove him wrong. The loose ends of the estate were all tied up, the life insurance had paid, and they’d both said goodbye. Well, Caldwell had. She didn’t have anything to say. She’d only come to stand on his grave, to know they were truly free, and he couldn’t hurt them again. She would make sure no one would.
They headed toward the far side of the cemetery where a taxi was waiting. The driver saw them coming and got out to open the door for them. “Thank you,” she murmured. He watched them get in, giving her an appraising look. Instead of trying to make herself as invisible as possible, Victoria raised her chin and met his gaze before helping Caldwell into the car. There was no reason to hide or think she was doing something wrong. Her therapist had helped her see how her identity had slowly been chipped away during her marriage, but she didn’t want to be lost or invisible. Not anymore.
She took a deep breath as the driver got in and pulled away. All Victoria felt as they left the cemetery was overwhelming relief. This was her first step into light and life after six years of suffering. She was going to meet it with a smile.
“I see a plane, Mommy,” Caldwell said, as he craned his neck to see out the window. “Is that the one we’re going to ride on?”
“Maybe.” She moved closer to him, taking one last glance at the skyline of Hartford. This was the only place he’d ever known as home. Hopefully Lincoln would come to feel like home sooner rather than later for both of them. “I guess we’ll see if our plane is still in the sky or waiting for us when we get to the airport.”
She reached in and took her phone out of her pocket for one more email check before their flight. A notification that she had one new message popped up. Tapping on it, she was surprised to see it was from the principal of Lincoln High School. Her heart rate picked up. If there was a problem now . . .
No, she wasn’t going to borrow trouble. She’d been hired and had signed the contracts. Opening the email, she quickly scrolled down. It was just a welcome-to-our-school letter. Victoria let out a breath and sagged against the worn taxi seat. Dr. Wellborn, the principal, had given off the impression that he was a thorough, by-the-book administrator and Victoria liked that. No surprises. Well, except for her imagination running away with her that this job was too good to be true. It certainly had fallen into her lap as if it was meant to be.
She bent to read the rest of the email. After the welcome to our school paragraph, he went on to inform her that since she was new to the school, he’d assigned a Mr. Dalton to give her a tour and answer any of her questions. The last line reminded her that the opening staff meeting before Back to School Night was Monday at three sharp. All was as expected, except for someone being assigned to escort her around the school. But, she wouldn’t question it. Finding a rapport with her fellow teachers would be crucial for her success and she might as well get started off on the right foot.
Victoria turned her phone off and reached out to touch Caldwell’s shoulder. He immediately snuggled into her side, and she kissed the top of his head. Everything was happening so quickly, but she’d been trying to look at it like she was tearing off a bandaid. She had the weekend to settle into their condo and two days to get her classroom ready.
Anxiety pressed down on her shoulders, adding more weight. The ability to make her own decisions had been taken from her a long time ago and it was strange to have the control back in her hands. She’d decide what she ate and when, what clothes she wore and where she went. And now she made all the decisions for Caldwell on her own. That alone was intoxicating, not to mention a little unnerving.
Right after her husband’s death, she’d plodded along as if he were still here and coming home at any moment. But the last six months, she’d been chafing to get away from the house, the memories, everything. She straightened as they pulled up to the airport. Choices were scary and exhilarating, and her mind kept second-guessing every decision she made, but, right or wrong, they were moving to Utah. Today.
Caldwell slept most of the flight and Victoria dozed beside him. The stress of the job hunt and move had taken a toll, but they were leaving that all behind. When the plane landed in Salt Lake City, their luggage was some of the first off the carousel. Victoria smiled. Maybe their luck was changing already.
“Let’s go see our new place, okay?” She kept Caldwell close to her side. He moved slowly beside her, mesmerized by the crowds of people around them.
“Can I take another plane ride, Mommy?” He looked up at her, his face pleading. After what they’d been through she didn’t want to deny him anything, but even she knew better than to make promises she couldn’t keep.
“How about we look at the toy store and see if they have an airplane there?” He seemed satisfied with that and they wheeled their carry-on luggage to the carousel to collect their suitcases. His step seemed lighter as they walked together and that brought another smile to her face.
The car rental went smoothly, and soon they were on the road toward Lincoln. She consulted her GPS to make sure she was headed in the right direction and glanced in the back seat at Caldwell.
He couldn’t stop staring out the window. “Look at the mountains, Mama,” he exclaimed. “They’re so close. Can we climb one?”
“Definitely.” Her heart expanded in her chest. He hadn’t asked for anything for so long and since landing, they’d already talked about getting a toy and going hiking. That was how she’d always dreamed their life would be— simple and carefree.
She rolled down the window and let it blow through her hair. This was something she could get used to.
“You should close the window, Mom. You’ll muss your hair and look bad.” Caldwell’s voice came from the backseat, the words sounding just like his father and her heart sank. No matter how hopeful she was for the future, they still had things from the past to work out.
“No, sweetheart. We’re going to roll down our windows and sing to the radio. Every time we’re in the car.” To prove her point, she turned the radio on, found a song with a good beat and turned it up loud. Caldwell’s face, framed in the rearview mirror, looked shocked, but after he watched her for a moment he began to copy her head movements nodding to the beat.
Babysteps, she told herself. Someday, everything Caldwell Senior had ever said to them would be a distant memory. She started singing along with the chorus, and after she’d sung it twice, Caldwell’s little voice joined hers. Victoria wanted to pump her fist with the little victory, but just kept singing with that silly grin on her face.
They sang all the way to Lincoln city limits. It was only a short drive through Main Street, which had some charming, older buildings. An old-fashioned drugstore was closest, with a bank next door, a candy shop in the middle, and a diner at the end of the street. It was as if she’d stepped back in time to when the world was a simpler place. She loved that.
The town was only about forty minutes from the airport, but once they got out of the sprawling city limits of Salt Lake and onto Main Street in Lincoln, it was like night and day. Victoria could definitely get used to a more small-town country feel. The GPS guided them through town and within minutes they were parking in front of their new townhouse. It was a small complex of four upscale duplexes facing a grassy courtyard with a play area in the middle. Another big change from the mini-mansion they’d been living in.
Victoria turned the car off. “Ready to see our new house?” she asked, turning around in her seat.
“Yeah.” Caldwell looked a little uncertain, so Victoria forced a bit more cheer into her voice. “Once we take our stuff inside, maybe we can eat at the restaurant I saw back there.”
That made him smile. “Can we have pizza?”
Victoria tilted her head. “Maybe. Let’s look at the menu and decide, okay?” She got out of the car and came around to Caldwell’s door. “But first, I want to see your new room.”
He took her hand as they walked to the trunk and took out their luggage. They hauled it to the front door, and Victoria fished inside her purse for the keys the realtor had sent. Slipping the key into the lock, the door opened and they stepped through.
Victoria set the suitcase down and surveyed the living room. Definitely smaller than it had looked in the picture, but still adequate. The carpets looked like they’d been recently shampooed, and the furnishings that came with the townhouse were simple and homey. “What do you think?”
Caldwell nodded. “I like it.”
They walked down the short hallway to the bedrooms. Compared to their previous home, the entire townhouse could fit in the front entryway. But this was theirs, and that knowledge made it the best house Victoria had ever seen.
They stopped in what would be Caldwell’s bedroom, just down the hall from hers. It had a twin bed and a dresser, but not much else. They would definitely need to go shopping tomorrow for a few personal touches. She walked over to the window, glad there was a nice view of the complex courtyard’s little playset in the middle. The whole place had a peace surrounding it that reminded her of her grandparents’ farm where she’d spent her summers. Taking that feeling as a sign, Victoria knew this was where she was meant to be.
“Can I go play?” Caldwell asked, joining her at the window.
She put her arm around him. “It’s getting late. What about we do the playground tomorrow and right now, we unpack and go eat?” she asked. Suddenly she was famished.
“Okay.” He turned and tried to pull his suitcase up on the bed, but it was too heavy. She helped him get it on the mattress so he could unzip it. It didn’t take long to put his clothes away in the closet and dresser and soon they were doing the same to her clothing. Caldwell was always eager to help and she found herself humming as they worked.
“We’re happy?” Caldwell said it as a question, his brown eyes watching her hang her dresses in the closet.
She sobered. “Yes, we’re happy. I’m excited, too,” she said carefully. “I think I’m going to like it here.”
He nodded and pushed his glasses back up on his nose. They were forever slipping down, and she needed to get them fixed. Maybe now they were here she could tackle those little things.
“Are you sad, sweetheart?” she asked him.
“No. I want to go to school and find a friend. Like Paddington, but real.” Paddington was the bear that Caldwell slept with at night. His voice was wistful and Victoria’s heart lurched. They’d been isolated for so long that Caldwell hadn’t had the opportunity for friends and playdates.
“You’re going to have tons of friends,” she reassured him as she ruffled his hair. “Everyone who knows you loves you.” Granted, his circle of acquaintances had been severely limited to this point, but she knew he would make friends fast if he could be himself around people. “Now, are you hungry? Let’s go eat.”
“I’m starving,” he said, taking her hand.
They headed for the front door and she carefully locked it behind her. Caldwell swung her hand in rhythm with their steps as they walked to the car. She couldn’t help but smile down at him. He made everything worth it.
Before long they were buckled in and driving back the way they’d come. When they got to the nearly empty parking lot of the diner, Victoria released a breath. The room wasn’t packed and a quiet dinner was just what they needed.
They waited by the register to be seated, a hum of hushed conversation coming from several booths. A young woman came around the corner and when she saw them she grabbed two menus, one for an adult and one for a child. “Hi, welcome to Rosie’s. Right this way.”
Victoria waited for Caldwell to go first, and they followed the waitress to a booth in a corner. When they were seated, Victoria opened the menu. “What are you in the mood for?”
“Pancakes,” Caldwell said without hesitation.
Victoria laughed that the pizza he’d wanted earlier was forgotten. “You would eat pancakes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if I let you.” He smiled back and for a split second any lingering hesitations about their cross-country move was lifted. This was right. She knew it. She just had to trust it.
She quickly picked a pasta dish she shouldn’t eat, but this was a celebration. Caldwell took out the crayons that the waitress had left and began coloring the pictures on the kid menu. Victoria took in the restaurant.
There was an old-fashioned bar where an older man sat sipping a drink and reading the newspaper. Some teenagers were in another corner booth snapping selfies. She watched them for a second, wondering if any of them would be in her high school math class. Even the thought of having her own classroom after all this time made her shrink. Thankfully she’d kept her certification up-to-date, and Dr. Wellborn had said he would work with her on getting teaching credentials for the state of Utah. She’d taken the leap and, so far, there hadn’t been a hard fall. A tiny part of her was waiting for the other shoe to drop, but she was doing her best to ignore it.
A little bell dinged from the back and Victoria knew that had to be their food. Before the waitress could bring it by, though, the front door opened and a man dressed in a white t-shirt with a large black smudge across the front of it stepped through. He was tall and broad-shouldered, his body lean like a runner’s instead of someone who spent his time in a gym. His jeans were ripped on the knee and he wiped his hands on his thighs before he greeted the waitress with a friendly grin. “Hey, Emma, do you have my dinner for me?”
Victoria shamelessly eavesdropped while watching the waitress flip her hair over her shoulder and give the man a coy smile. If she were in the waitress’s shoes she would have done the same. The man had an easygoing air and combined with his good looks, he’d appeal to any woman. But it had been so long since Victoria had even thought of flirting. She’d probably forgotten how. Not that she wanted to flirt with anyone, anyway. She leaned over Caldwell’s shoulder to put the man and all her can-I-flirt-or-not questions out of her mind.
“I was starting to think you weren’t coming in tonight,” the waitress said to him, loudly enough anyone could hear their conversation whether they wanted to or not. Victoria couldn’t help herself and bent her head toward them.
“Ended up out at my parents’ longer than I thought. Their truck needed an oil change.” Victoria looked up just in time to see him run a hand through his hair, making it stick out at the ears. He didn’t seem to have a clue how adorable he looked. The waitress sure did, though. She practically swooned, but held on to the counter instead.
“What do I owe you?”
“Just the usual.” She stepped a little closer, holding his to-go bag next to her body.
Victoria couldn’t take her eyes off them. What was his usual? Steak and potatoes? Pizza? She tilted her head, trying to get a better look at the bag when his gaze traveled past the waitress and landed right on her. He matched her angle and gave her a half-grin, before he took his wallet out of his jeans pocket to pull out some bills.
“Thanks for keeping it warm,” he said to the waitress, but then was obvious about giving her a pointed look, his eyebrows raised.
The waitress started to turn around, but Victoria quickly dropped her head to stare at her table and act like she hadn’t noticed either of them. Why hadn’t she minded her own business? Had he left yet? She peeked over to see if he was gone. Her eyes met his and for just a second, the restaurant faded away and all she could see was him.
Until the waitress broke in, moving between them.
“You know I’m here to help with whatever you need.” The waitress held the bag of food out to him, and if Victoria had to guess, the girl was definitely batting her eyelashes at him for all she was worth.
Curiously, he seemed oblivious to the girl’s intentions. He took the food and gave her an absent smile before he left.
The waitress stared at the door for a moment longer before she turned away. Victoria didn’t know who that man was, but he obviously had an admirer. Maybe two if she was being honest with herself.She shook herself mentally, knowing she wasn’t in a position to date anyone and had no business even looking. Her focus had to be on making a new life for herself and Caldwell. This was her chance and she was going to seize the opportunity.