~ The Courage Series ~
Two months, eight days, nineteen hours, and a handful of minutes—that’s how long it had been since Melody Todd’s heart had forever given up hope of being anyone’s someone. It wasn’t that she wanted to give up hope, but she hadn’t exactly had a choice. When Miss Perfection walks in the door, how could anyone else have any kind of chance?
Annoyed with life in general, she flipped her long, course blonde hair over her shoulder as she bent next to the rack of shoelaces that had been dismantled piece-by-piece throughout the day. With an audible sigh, she picked up three plastic holders and replaced them on the rack. Midnight Madness sales were bad enough, but holding one on Leap Year Day somehow seemed unconscionable. True if she was at home, she would only be studying, but even that seemed like a step up from Galaxy Shoes on a sale day.
The test in biology she had yet to study for crossed her mind as the last set of shoelaces found its home. As she stepped away from the rack, her gaze chanced across her watch. Once again she sighed. Eight o’clock already and not only had she not studied like she’d promised herself she would, she hadn’t even eaten since before noon. Why she agreed to work these ridiculous hours she couldn’t quite remember at the moment. It had something to do with making enough to afford tuition because the scholarship she’d needed hadn’t come through. Yeah, it was something like that, she thought as she straightened the rack of backpacks.
“Melody,” Nathan, the night manager, said in the whiny voice that raked across her brain like a jagged fingernail.
“What?” she asked, drawing the syllable out into two.
“Look, I admire your forward thinking in getting this picked up, but not at the expense of letting a customer walk out the door.” He pointed across three rows of shelves to an expanse of light green stretched across two nicely rounded shoulders. “Unless you want me to make this commission.”
Melody shot him a shut-up look and turned to stride down the aisle. “I’ve got it.” With purposeful steps she rounded her way into the aisle where the customer was even as she made sure that Farin was safely up front ringing up another customer. Yes, she had this one all to herself. Now if only she could make the sale. “May I help you?”
It wasn’t until he turned around that she realized he wasn’t examining his own shoes but those of the small boy at his feet. “We’re fine,” the man said quickly. “We’re just looking.”
“Oh,” Melody said, wishing she was better at high-pressured sales tactics. “I was just…” At that moment her brain caught up with her gaze and throttled her to a head-jerking stop. “Blaine?”
With a start the young man, dressed in smart charcoal pants and a light green dress shirt set off with a green and blue necktie, stopped his assessment of the little boy’s shoes and turned to her. “Melody?”
High-pressured sales tactics flew right out of her head. “Hey,” she said brightly, and without thinking, she reached over to give him a hug. “It’s been awhile.”
“Yeah, it has.” He accepted the sideways hug with a smile. “What’ve you been up to?”
“Oh, you know, selling shoes—or trying to.” She shrugged and smiled at him as her thoughts turned to her own disheveled appearance. Coolly her hand went up and flipped a shock of hair back over her shoulder.
He glanced down to assess the child’s progress. “I didn’t know you worked here.”
“About three years now.” Her brain snapped back into sales mode. “So if there’s anything I can help you with…”
With a slightly embarrassed gaze, he glanced down again at the child standing at his feet. “We were just looking for a good deal on some school shoes.”
“School shoes,” Melody said with a nod and a smile to the small brown-toned face staring up at her. She carefully bent down to the little boy. “You got anything special in mind?”
The boy cowered into Blaine’s pant leg.
“We were thinking about these,” Blaine said as he picked up the box, “but they’re a little steep.”
Melody glanced at the box in his hand, trying not to notice the chocolate brown of his eyes. “Hmm. Yeah, those are good—all leather uppers, but if you just want some good, basic tennis shoes, we’ve got these over here.” She stood, looked over the selection to her right, reached out for one, and stopped. “What size does he wear?”
“Umm, well, he was in a four last we checked, but…”
“So we need to figure out a size, then we’ll worry about a style.” With the precision of a hundred thousand times of practice, she whipped the size plate off the top of the shelves. “Here we go.” She bent back down and then decided even that was too uncomfortable so she twisted her feet under her and sat down. “Can you put your foot right here?”
The little boy stared at her skeptically. Putting a strong hand on his shoulder, Blaine led him around his leg. “Come on, Dylan. It’s okay.” With just more than a little coaxing, Blaine got the boy’s foot onto the apparatus.
Quickly Melody measured the small foot. “I think a four-and-a-half would work.” She turned back for the shoe shelves. Two swipes and she had three boxes in her hands. “Let’s start with these.” As she bent to the floor, she swung her hair over her shoulder. “So, Dylan, how’s school?”
“Fine,” the little voice answered as Blaine helped him slide up on the bench seat.
“What grade are you in—first?”
“Second,” he answered softly.
In no time Melody had the shoe laced. Her hands worked to put a shoe on the little foot even as her mind worked through a million questions that had nothing to do with school. One date and one… well, she had never been real sure what that was, but it was definitely something you wouldn’t have gone on if you had a wife and child at home. Furtively she checked Blaine’s ring finger, left hand. No ring, but then that didn’t always mean anything. “Second grade. Are you getting really smart in second grade?”
“I know how to spell knuckle,” the little boy offered.
“Oh, yeah? How?” she challenged.
“K-N-U-C-K-L-E,” he said slowly as she worked a shoe onto his other foot.
“Wow. That’s really good. I couldn’t spell that until at least third grade.” She caught the smile he beamed up at Blaine and didn’t miss the sweet, kind, brown eyes that beamed one right back. Carefully she leaned back. “These are four-and-a-halves, but they might not have enough growing room in them. See what you think.”
Smoothly Blaine dropped to one knee and felt the toe of the shoe. “How do they feel?”
“Good,” the little boy answered with a hesitant nod.
“How about you walk around in them a little?” Melody suggested.
Slowly the little frame slid off the bench and took three uncertain steps away and then came back. Blaine watched him closely as Melody fought to keep her concentration on the little boy and away from the young man observing him. Dylan slid in between Blaine’s knees as Blaine put a hand under his arm. “What do you think?”
The two little shoulders reached for the ceiling.
“We could try a half size bigger,” Melody said when Blaine’s silence dragged on a little too long.
“We probably ought to.”
She swung back into professional mode, and in no time Dylan was walking in the larger shoes.
“What do you think?” Blaine asked to no one in particular. Concentrating on his feet, Dylan nodded. When he made it back to them, Melody reached down and tested the toe.
“You’ll probably want the bigger ones,” she said. “Otherwise you’ll have to be in here again in a month when he grows.” As soon as she said it, she wished she had given the opposite advice. However, it was too late to take it back because Blaine nodded.
“Then we’ll take them,” he said decisively but wavered in the next second. “Oh, how much are they?”
“$30, but tonight it’s half off,” Melody said as she stowed the unwanted shoes back in the other box.
“Can’t beat a deal like that,” Blaine said. He started to take the shoes off but stopped. “Can he wear them out?”
She shrugged. “Sure.” Quickly she replaced the other shoes as well, but she noticed the rag-tag pair of shoes Blaine picked up from the floor. It didn’t take much to see how fast he threw them into the new box and closed it. When he glanced at her, she saw the embarrassment scrawl across his face, but she smiled it away. “You need anything else? A backpack? Shoelaces?”
His smile stretched tighter than the grimace had. “Nope, I think this will get it.”
Nathan would probably give her a demerit for not getting them to buy something else, but at the moment she didn’t care about anything other than the two people walking with her to the checkout. She wanted to say something to fill the silence between them, but she could think of nothing. She was glad to see that Farin was nowhere in sight.
“I saw Eve the other day,” Blaine finally said as they reached the front.
Melody’s heart collapsed around the name, but she willed her voice not to register that fact. “Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah, she and A.J. are getting a house out in Rolling Hills.”
“Oh, really?” Hurt, unseen to that moment, flooded through Melody’s chest. “I hadn’t heard that. Cool.” Fighting to take her mind off of the conversation’s track, she busied herself with the register. “That’ll be $16.85.”
He handed her a twenty and waited for the change. She didn’t want to look at him. There were too many things she didn’t want him to see. Quickly she exchanged the money, handed it to him, and slid the receipt into the bag. She folded the plastic handles and handed the bag over the counter. “Your receipt’s in the bag.”
For one solid second after the bag was in his hands, Blaine didn’t move. He had such a nice face, conventional and yet striking. “I guess I’ll see you later then?”
“Yeah, later,” she said with a quick nod as she pushed her hair over her ear.
One more awkward pause and Blaine reached down for Dylan’s hand. “Well, ’bye.”
She mumbled something—presumably good-bye but for all she could tell it could’ve been ‘how could you do this to me?’ Granted, he hadn’t really done anything more egregious than innocently end up on the semi-same date with her, but still. Just the thought of his poor car, the stench of vomit and the sound of her moans filling it, threatened to make her sick all over again. That hadn’t been her fault of course. The name A.J. streaked through her mind as the memory rewound a bit more, and she threw a box that had fallen on the floor under the counter a little harder than she really had to.
A.J. and little Miss Perfection. Heat rose in her at the very thought of them. Now they were buying a house together. Thrilling. She was absolutely thrilled for them. She kicked another box under the counter. Of all the bad dates she had ever been on, and there had been many, that day at AstroWorld had been the very worst. There had been a time when she had kept up with A.J. feat for feat, but apparently that time had passed.
It was Greased Lightnin’s 360-loop that ultimately got her, and in that second she had lost every shred of dignity she had managed to muster in the past 25 years. Of course Blaine, or more precisely, Blaine’s car had been the unfortunate recipient of the fall-out from that bad decision. And while Blaine was making an emergency trip to get her home, Miss Perfect had made her move on A.J. Things had never been the same since.
Even as the thoughts continued, Melody yanked two boxes up from the floor next to the women’s shelves. Her heart dove for the floor at the mere thought of A.J., her best friend in the whole world. Now he was gone, making a life for himself with her. Her. Eve What’s Her Name. So, now they had a house. So, what? They were married. Right? A.J. and Miss Perfect Wonderful, Fantastic Eve were married. And now they were living happily ever after just like the storybook said they would.
Swiping her cheek with one hand and slamming another box onto the shelf with the other, Melody tried to stow the lump in her throat as easily. There had been a time in what seemed a different lifetime that she would’ve been the first one A.J. would’ve called with news like this. But now… Now she had to hear it from some semi-acquaintance who only knew her because she’d used him to make A.J. jealous. She snorted softly. “Well, that worked.”
With a swift kick she corralled two more boxes to the shelves. “It’s over, Mel. It’s over. Get over it, and move on already. Just get that through your thick skull, and we’ll all be better off.” Unfortunately her head wasn’t the only part of her not getting the message.
Blaine Donovan checked the plate glass window once more from the safety of the darkened parking lot. She was busy—working. She wasn’t watching him. That was a good thing, he told himself as he hustled Dylan into the beat up, green Toyota. At least that way she wouldn’t notice his current mode of transportation. Not that it made any difference to him if she wondered, he reasoned as he yanked twice to get the door opened and then jumped into the driver’s side, grabbed his glasses off the dashboard, and prayed that Lillian would start just one more time. “Just get me out of here, Baby,” he pleaded as he pumped the accelerator before cranking the starter. If only she would get him safely into the middle of an intersection before she decided to die for good, at least he could handle that.
Still pumping the gas, he prodded the little car out of the lot as his gaze found the rearview mirror, and he just had to smile with the sigh. Melody. She was still as nice as he remembered. Sweet and unassuming. Fun even—as long as she wasn’t throwing up in your best friend’s car. A genuine laugh escaped at that thought, and he squeezed his eyes closed at the memory.
It had cost almost a hundred bucks that he didn’t have to get that car back to good enough so that Peyton hadn’t noticed. Not that Peyton noticed much of anything when it came to stuff he owned—especially cars. Blaine had lost count of the number of cars Peyton had wrecked since their senior year in high school. First it was a Mazda, cute little metallic number that probably set Peyton’s dad back more than ten grand or three. Then there was the red Firebird. That one only lasted a month or so. Then only six months before E-Day as Blaine had affectionately begun remembering it, Peyton got the gold Porsche Carrera GT. Cool. It was the coolest car Blaine had ever seen with the leather seats and the computerized everything.
Blaine still remembered pulling up to Eve’s apartment in that car. He had felt like a million and one bucks in it. And walking her out to get in that car… Man, it was the greatest moment of his life. What happened next he still wasn’t real clear about—except that by the time he left the amusement park, he was coming to the rescue of a very sick Melody who couldn’t walk two steps without him holding her up, and Eve was permanently in the arms of someone he’d never even heard of prior to that day.
The ride home was when the little Carrera had been baptized. He shook his head at the memory. Melody had apologized until she could hardly keep her head up. He still remembered her leaning against the bucket seat nearly lying in the trunk for how far back he had laid it. Without a doubt at that moment she was the sickest human being he had ever seen.
How much of that ride she remembered he had no idea. Most of it she spent moaning and barely holding the green in her face from coming up again. Thankfully when he dropped her off, no one had been at her house because explaining her state and why she was coming home with a guy she didn’t even know might not have been pleasant. He had spent the next four hours trying to make the car semi-presentable again, and it was well after midnight when he had dropped it off at Peyton’s, grabbed Lillian and headed back across town to the little dump he called home.
A rock descended to his chest when he thought about the place he still reluctantly called home. His gaze traveled from the traffic outside the window to the child in the seat next to him. Asleep already. Poor little guy. Blaine checked his watched with a short sigh. 9:34. Dylan should’ve been in bed an hour ago. He didn’t need to be out shopping. He needed to be at home in his bed getting a good night’s sleep for school tomorrow.
Blaine shook his head without shaking it and refocused on the road. It couldn’t be helped. He didn’t get out of class until 8:00, and there was simply no time between work and class. He shoved his cramped schedule away from his consciousness. It was depressing, but only if he thought about it.
Allowing whatever less depressing thought that wanted to take over in, he drifted back to Melody and the panic that had set in the night she had called him a few weeks later. Had it been him who had thrown up in her car, he would never have made that call. No way. No how. They should’ve given her a courage award for that one. It still surprised him that they had ended up with A.J., Eve and the gang on that date too. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t quite get all of the pieces of that puzzle to line up in his head.
Eve was as nice as she had always been to him, and the others were pleasant enough although he really didn’t know them well enough to know if that’s how they always were or if there was something else going on. It was only A.J. who hadn’t seemed all that happy about Blaine’s presence. Okay, at the amusement park, Blaine could understand the animosity now. Eve had apologized about it the next Monday. But how long could a guy hold a grudge against an innocent bystander? Apparently, with A.J., a long time.
No, it was plenty clear that A.J. Knight had a chip on his shoulder, and Blaine had dealt with enough chips in his time to know you can either knock them off or steer clear. He was sincerely glad that steering clear was the easiest fork in that road. As he turned into the little driveway, he prayed that the light blue flashes of light through the open front window meant his mother had already passed out on the couch.
The blinding light of the refrigerator stung Melody’s overtired eyes. Biology was going to kill her. She rummaged past the mayonnaise and milk and grabbed a yogurt from the back. What she really wanted was chips, but she had sworn on Monday that she was going to start sticking to her diet. Never on the slim side, her freshman 15 had turned into the sophomore 40. That fact wasn’t lost on her consciousness. However, as she filled her glass with stale-tasting water, sympathy for her situation invaded her body, and she grabbed the chips anyway.
She needed something. Something to make it through this night—if not this whole crummy semester. First there was Biology that she hated. She had thought the principles of marketing class would be fun until she figured out on the third class that all the teacher did was talk about guns and deer. And then there was math. How they had talked her into taking math and biology at the same time, she would never know.
In her room, she threw the bag of chips onto the bed with a crunch, grabbed her book off the desk and replaced it with the yogurt. With a flop she fell onto the bed and reached for a chip. “The five parts of the circulatory system are…”
He was missing something, Blaine thought as he scanned back across the textbook page. His fingers rested on his head, his thumb holding up the edge of his glasses that he only wore for reading and close-up work. Drafting 202. He should’ve known this stuff forward and backward by now, and yet somehow this point was eluding him. It just couldn’t be this hard. Slowly word-by-word he reread the section that he should’ve already had memorized. Still what it said was exactly what he was doing, and it wasn’t working. In frustration he stood from the little kitchen table and strode over to the refrigerator. One hand slid down to keep his tie in place as he opened the door and scanned the contents. He pulled out a Coke and then looked down at his attire and sighed. Nearly three o’clock in the morning and he was still in the same clothes he’d put on at seven the morning before.
Somehow, some way he was going to have to get a little sleep. He couldn’t keep up with this schedule much longer. He popped the Coke open and took a sip. But what were his options? Cut down on work? They’d all starve. Not go to school? No, that wasn’t an option he would even consider. He had worked too hard to this point. He wasn’t going to back out now.
Straddling the chair, he sat back down, sighed, scratched his head, and stared at the book lying open on the table. Only then did his gaze slide from the printed words up to the four-color illustration at the top and then to the one small angle in the corner. With a clank the Coke can hit the table, and he grabbed his pencil. “Oh, please, please, please, let this work,” he breathed, knowing if it didn’t he might very well show up for work in five hours in those exact same clothes.