Line of Fire, An Autumn Rain Novel
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Copyright ©2012 Rachel Ann Nunes.
All rights reserved. No part of this text may
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without permission in writing from the author
I blinked to hold back the tears, stunned by what I was hearing. No! I
don’t believe it. But I did.
Hurt followed the disbelief, growing to an agony that urged me to physically
lash out at Sadie, my best friend and bearer of the terrible news, but I was
frozen in place, as though my heart had stopped pumping blood to my suddenly
Besides, it wasn’t Sadie’s fault.
Oh, Julian. How could you?
Sadie put a tanned, French-manicured hand on my shoulder. The sympathy in her
eyes did little to comfort me. “I’m sorry, Tessa. I really am. I didn’t want to
tell you but . . .” She sighed and continued in a whisper, “I would want to know
if it were me.”
Her words released me from my immobile state. “I need to be alone.”
“Of course. I understand. Call me if you need me.” Sadie leaned over and hugged
me while I stood without moving. I barely noticed her departure.
My eyes wandered the room of my childhood, only recently familiar again since
coming home to Flagstaff to prepare for the wedding. Mother had insisted on
dinners and celebrations, and since Julian and I planned to live in Flagstaff,
where he would work in his family business, it only made sense for me to leave
the job at my father’s factory in Phoenix several weeks early. I missed the job
and my friends the minute I’d left, but Julian and I were ready to take the
plunge into matrimony—or so I had thought.
In my walk-in closet hung the wedding dress I was to have worn in less than
forty-eight hours. The door to the closet was open, and I could see it from
where I sat. Bile rose in my throat, and a tear skidded down my cheek. I brushed
it impatiently away. I wouldn’t cry for a man who betrayed me.
Since tonight we were having the rehearsal dinner, last night had been Julian’s
bachelor party. Sadie, whose brother had been at the party, had told her all
about Julian leaving with another woman, who had seemed altogether too familiar
with a man who was about to be married.
I slumped on my bed, covered with the homemade quilt my grandmother had made, my
eyes still locked on the white satin dress. Drenched in lace and small pearls,
it had a sweetheart neckline and a gorgeous chapel train. The dress had cost
over a thousand dollars and took three weeks of daily shopping to find. My
mother had been with me every one of those days, which had been a torture in
I bit my lip until I tasted blood.
I’d met Julian Willis when I’d come home to visit for the Christmas holiday,
though if the truth be told, my visit had more to do with seeing my horse,
Serenity, than my parents. My parents had been invited to the Willis’s for a
party, and at my mother’s insistence, I’d tagged along. I hadn’t minded going
after meeting Julian. If his clean-cut good looks hadn’t won me over, his
attentiveness would have. After countless trips to Phoenix on his part and
numerous weekends home on mine, the inevitable had happened: we’d fallen in
love. He’d asked me to marry him, and I’d said yes.
Two weeks later, my father and Julian’s had negotiated a business arrangement,
to be contracted after the wedding. The Willis family owned a huge frozen food
conglomerate, and my father produced a line of breakfast cereals. With the help
of the Willises my father would expand to new markets he’d never reached before.
I wasn’t sure what the Willises were getting out of the deal, since my father’s
business was stable but not growing. Maybe they would simply have in-laws that
were up to their standard of living.
Not that we had ever been poor, not since my grandpa had worked himself into an
early grave to create that first bowl of sugar-coated cereal. I still missed him
What am I going to do?
The awful thing was that there was a part of me that wasn’t surprised. Julian
was attractive and attentive—a hit with ladies of every age. Half the
marriageable women in Flagstaff had chased him at one time or another, and
before we’d met he’d had a bit of a reputation—a reputation he’d assured me was
I won’t marry a liar and a cheat. Every woman deserved better than that.
I wondered if I’d purposely been blind or if he’d been good at hiding things.
Perhaps it had been a momentary lapse, but if so, what did that say about our
future? If I couldn’t trust him now, how could I trust him for the next sixty or
Maybe it’s all a mistake. I latched onto the idea. Yet in the next minute
I had to discard it. Sadie had been my best friend since kindergarten, and I’d
trust her with my life. There was no way she would have spoken unless she was
certain it was true. If anything, she hadn’t told me everything at she knew, not
wanting to hurt me further.
A knock on the door, made me start. “Who is it?”
Elaine Crawford didn’t so much as enter a room as she did sweep into it. She was
the epitome of grace and elegance. Even at eight-o’clock on a Thursday morning,
her hair was styled in an elaborate twist that not only was attractive, but it
left her beautiful neck bare.
“My, Sadie was in such a hurry this morning. I’ve never seen her run off so
quickly. Did you two have a disagreement?”
I shook my head, unwilling to trust my voice.
My mother’s eyes didn’t leave my face. “What happened? We can’t be losing your
maid of honor at this late date.” She smiled to show she was teasing, but there
was a warning under the words.
“Sadie and I are fine.”
“Wonderful.” She walked to the closet and went inside. “You’re going to look
like a princess in this dress. Even without you in it, I could stare at it all
day. Julian won’t be able to take his eyes off you.”
I gave her a weak smile. I did love the dress—a good thing since it had taken so
much time to find one we both agreed on. My mother wasn’t a woman to give up on
any goal, and her goal had been to find a dress that not only would I agree to
wear, but one that would make people talk for years to come.
She rambled on, going over a last-minute menu change and reminding me when we
needed to pick up my father’s tux. “I hope Lily’s man comes dressed
appropriately,” she said, almost as an afterthought.
“Mario’s wearing a suit. Lily said he looks great.”
“Well, I wish you hadn’t insisted on them coming.”
“Lily’s my sister. Of course she’ll be at my wedding.”
“You weren’t at hers.”
I didn’t say anything. Lily had done what she felt she had to, and I’d been
happy for her.
“He will never amount to anything.”
I couldn’t hold it back any longer, though I knew my mother was the worst person
to confide in. She’d never been the kind of mother to bake cookies, to take her
kids to the park, or sit and discuss life. As teenagers Lily and I had agreed
that she was like Mary Lennox’s mother in the Secret Garden—too occupied with
her own life and goals to really care about her daughters. “And you think Julian
will? Well you’re wrong. I just found out he’s been seeing someone else.”
My mother didn’t gasp. She didn’t hug me and ask me how I knew. No sympathy or
anger toward my fiancé. She simply stared.
“I can’t marry him,” I added.
That brought her to life. “Of course you’ll marry him. It’s you he loves, no
matter what you’ve heard.”
Something in her demeanor tipped me off. “Wait. What do you know about this?”
“I know that Julian is good for you. He’ll take care of you. His family’s
business is doing well, and our contract with them will do wonders for our
company as well. Your company someday.”
“You knew? All this time, you knew?” It was one thing disowning a daughter
because she married a man you didn’t approve of, but I couldn’t believe my
mother would want me to commit my life to man who cheated before he was even
married. “How long has it been going on? Does everyone in town know?” I could
imagine it now, people wagging their tongues and in the end sympathizing with
Julian because he was oh-so-attractive, as if that forgave everything.
Not in my book.
“The truth is,” my mother said, “that marriage is little more than a business
arrangement. Eventually you will realize that, and then you will understand this
is a problem you can over come. Besides, Julian will see the error of his ways.
He’ll always come back to you.”
I hadn’t even known he’d left me. I shifted on the bed, searching for something
to make her see reason. “Would you have married Dad, if he’d been cheating?”
“I would and I did.”
I gaped at her. I knew my parents’ marriage wasn’t perfect. Growing up, Lily and
I had clung to each other at night as they’d argued loudly in their bedroom. I’d
been glad to escape to college, though it had hurt me to leave Lily behind. But
she was far more resilient and determined than I ever was, never wavering from
her dreams of leaving and building her own life. It was she who had fallen in
love and eloped in the middle of the night two years ago when she was only
eighteen. She’d waited until I’d come home for the Fourth of July and had
awakened me during the night. I’d never forget how happy she looked. “I love him
so much!” She’d told me. “He’s like the air that I breathe. He’s a hard worker
and I know we’ll make it. You don’t have to worry about me any more.”
Well, they had made it at first, while both were working, though they were in
school full time. They’d even bought a big, old run-down house to fix up. Then
the scholarship money ran out, and now Lily was expecting and so sick that she
had to quit her job. Worse, she had filled every vacant space in her old house
with teenage girls who had nowhere else to go except the street or back to the
unloving homes from which Lily had rescued them. In a few years, Mario would
finish school and be able to support them, but for now they survived on love,
what little I could spare, and the funds I begged for them from my parents.
Thinking of how Lily’s face lit up every time she talked about Mario, or
whenever he entered the room, and how careful he was of her, made me strong. I
wanted that for myself.
“I can’t go through with the wedding,” I told my mother. “I’m sorry.”
“At least talk to Julian. He’ll be able to make it right. I know it.”
I knew it, too, and that was exactly why I didn’t want to talk to him. When I
was with Julian, he was so persuasive, so convincing. He should have been a
televangelist, because he could convince anyone of just about anything. Since
he’d been over sales in his father’s company, he bragged that the business had
doubled in profits.
“Think of the caterer. All our friends coming from out of town. I swear if you
do this, you’ll be making the biggest mistake of your life.”
“The mistake would be marrying a man who really doesn’t love me.” Tears were
coming now, despite my efforts to stop them.
“He does love you. Every bit as much as you love him. Please, Tessa, you must
talk to Julian.”
For once would it be too much to have her on my side?
I came to my feet and walked past her. “I’m going to see Serenity. Then I’m
calling Julian and to tell him everything’s off.”
“What about Lily? She’ll lose her house without our help.”
I froze at the door. “What?” I turned, feeling stupid and slow.
“You heard me.” My mother lifted her chin, and not for the first time I noticed
her beauty. Lily took after her, with her blonde hair, even-toned skin, and
swan-like neck. My hair was altogether something else, looking as though someone
had upended a diluted bucket of orange paint on my head. Strawberry blonde, they
called it, though that was a big stretch of the word strawberry. A genetic gift
from my grandmother. I didn’t remember her myself, but when my grandfather had
been alive, he’d touched the splotchy freckles that nearly covered all my face,
and told me I looked exactly like her. I’d heard the love in his voice, and it
was the only time I’d really felt beautiful.
“I’ll give her my money,” I said without thinking.
“You forget that if you aren’t married, you won’t have your trust fund. Not
until five more years. And your father has already filled your place at the
factory. Lily’s house can’t wait five years, which means all her girls are going
to end up in the street again.”
She was talking about the trust fund my grandfather had set up—a half million
dollars up front and monthly payments thereafter, which would begin at
twenty-five if we were married and thirty if we weren’t. Lily was married, but
too young at twenty to receive anything. I’d planned to lend Lily the money to
buy her house outright after my wedding, but now it looked as though she’d get
her share at the same time I did.
I stared at my mother, fury arcing through my body. “Are you saying you won’t
help Lily anymore if I don’t get married? Being angry at her because of Mario is
one thing, but letting her losing her house because you’re upset with me is—” I
couldn’t think of a word bad enough, not one I would say in my mother’s
presence, so I quit speaking.
My mother’s eyes narrowed, and when she spoke her voice was as brittle as ice.
“It’s not for you to judge my relationship with your sister, but what I’m saying
is that we aren’t in a position to help Lily anymore—that’s why we’re pushing
for this merger. With the economy the way it is, you are the only one who can
save your sister.”
“Then I’ll drive to Vegas and marry the first person I meet!”
She laughed. “Oh, Tessa. Stop this. You love Julian. Go talk to him. There’s
been a mistake, that’s all. Go ride Serenity or take a walk or whatever you need
to do, and then get this taken care of. All the relatives will be here tonight.
All your friends from Phoenix.” She swept past me. “Or you can let Lily finally
see what a big mistake she made marrying that boy.”
She was gone before I could protest. Before I could remind her about the baby,
who would be her grandchild, regardless of who his father was. Neither Lily nor
I had ever discovered why our parents hated Mario so much, but it seemed to go
much further than his race or his family’s blue-collar status in society. He
came from good, hard-working parents, who had taught him the meaning of love. He
was fun, intelligent, and he loved Lily more than anything. That he was good
looking was simply an added bonus. He was also good with the girls she fostered,
helping them realized how special they each were by the courtesy he extended
them. The example he was of an adoring husband changed the way many of them
thought about love.
If I couldn’t help Lily, and my parents couldn’t or wouldn’t, my little sister
would lose everything she’d been working for. Except Mario, of course. And the
I went out to see Serenity, putting a few sugar cubes in my pocket as I always
did without thinking about it. I was on autopilot. What was I going to do? I
couldn’t marry Julian, not if what Sadie said was true, but neither could I
leave Lily without help. I’d been mothering her since I was five and she so tiny
that all she could do was suck at the bottle the short-term nanny taught me to
give her. After the nanny left, I was more a mother to her than our own mother.
Serenity was out in the far pasture near the copse of trees that marked the
border of our three-acre plot, almost as though she was trying get as far away
from the house as I was. When she saw me, she trotted over with a soft whinny,
her brown coat glistening in the morning sunlight. She was beautiful, grace
incarnate, and for a strange instant, she reminded me of my mother.
She put her face close to mine in greeting. I could feel the heat of her breath
and smell of freshly chewed grass. “I know what you want.” I gave her a cube of
sugar, which she ate greedily, her soft brown eyes begging for more. I gave her
another before walking toward the trees. She hesitated a moment, as if confused
why I didn’t head for the barn and the tack so we could go for a ride, but I
didn’t feel like riding now. I felt like collapsing into a ball and crying my
I wanted a mother to turn to for help.
There was a gate at the end of the pasture, which bordered a wide path on the
other side of the fence line. The city had built the path before selling the
land beyond to a developer, who had promptly put up a myriad of tract houses
that had infuriated my mother and the other neighbors. Thus the thick row of
fast-growing trees that almost hid the abomination from our sight.
I, on the other hand, had been the one to put in the gate. I liked riding
Serenity on the path that extended for several miles. I liked seeing the mothers
jogging behind strollers, children on bicycles, runners stopping for a breath
after their runs.
Today none of that mattered. I slumped down at the base of a tree and let my
head drop into my hands.
What was I going to do?
Lily. I was calling her cell before I thought twice about it. “Hello,” she
asked, a little breathlessly.
“It’s me,” I said.
“Of course it’s you. I wouldn’t have answered otherwise. I would have stayed
hugging the toilet.”
“That bad, huh?”
“Worse than bad. On top of all this sickness and the house problems, I’m
spotting and the doctor told me I’m going to have to drop out of school to stay
in bed. I don’t mind, except that means I’ll soon have to start paying on those
student loans I took out. Not exactly what we need right now with the mortgage
three months overdue. It’s all we can do to get food in the house at this point.
If not for you, the food I get from WIC, and what Mario and the girls make, I
wouldn’t know what to do.” She heaved a sigh. “The worst is all the phone calls
from the mortgage company. I tell you, I will be so relieved when the house is
paid for, and I can tell them to leave me alone. You can’t know how much you are
saving our lives. Well, I guess you know exactly how much, but I will be forever
grateful. You have always been there for me.”
I shut my eyes for a moment. What was I going to tell my sister? I couldn’t
marry Julian, but I couldn’t let her down, either.
“Don’t worry,” Lily added, as if suddenly figuring out the reason for my
silence. “I have permission from the doctor to go to your wedding—not the
rehearsal dinner. Sorry about that. But I’ll be for the real thing.”
“That’s good. We’ll make sure you have a comfortable chair.”
“Is Mom okay with us being there? I mean I know you must have had to sacrifice a
limb to get her to pay that last mortgage payment.”
“She doesn’t have a choice. You’re my sister. I’m just really sorry things are
so hard right now.”
“We’ll make it. I’m happy. I want this life. And I’m helping those girls.
They’ve had it so hard. For some of them, this is the only place they’ve ever
felt safe.” Lily sounded fierce and little bit scared. As if to make up for
that, she tried to make the next comment light. “Well, all the hard times are
almost over with. The real problem is going to be losing all this weight after
this baby comes. I was fat enough to begin with. So what’s up, anyway? Why did
I hesitated, still unsure what to say.
“Tell me,” Lily urged. “Is it Julian? What’s he done now?”
“What do you mean, now?”
“Well, he’s always doing something.” She paused before adding, “Are you sure you
should be marrying him?” She’d asked me this a dozen time in the past two
months. I usually got mad. “Look, it’s not too late to call it off.”
What about the catering, the flowers, the guests? I wanted to say.
What about your house and all those girls you’re helping?
“Look, Tessa, we both promised ourselves that we would never have the kind of
marriage our parents have. They barely talk. They practically live separate
lives. If you aren’t sure, you can’t go through with it.”
I had the sense that she was treating me like one of the girls she was trying to
save. “I love him.”
“Do you really? Do you love him so much that you feel you’ll die if he doesn’t
love you back?”
I imagined her holding a hand to her heart and gazing out the window. “It
certainly feels like it right now.” Yet I knew I wouldn’t die because thickly
layered over the hurt was a growing coat of anger that was urging me to do
something. To act. To show Julian I didn’t need him.
“Maybe this is a sign. I’ve told you before that he’s not real. I can’t tell
when he’s being truthful or making something up. You’re not yourself when he’s
“Mom would be furious if I canceled the wedding.”
“Then you leave and come here. We’ll make it work somehow. I hope you know that
I’d rather have you happy than all the houses in the world.”
I did know that whatever the cost to her, Lily wouldn’t want me to sacrifice
myself. But she was the one who needed help now, whether she admitted it or not.
“Maybe it’s just pre-wedding jitters,” I said, trying to fake a casualness I
didn’t feel. “I should talk to Julian.”
“I don’t know. Maybe that’s not a good idea. If you’re having doubts, maybe you
should delay things a few weeks and decide without him around. You only have one
chance to do this right the first time.”
I didn’t know if delaying things would help. It certainly wouldn’t change his
infidelity. If Lily knew about that, she’d probably hunt him down herself. She’d
think I was crazy for even considering going through with the wedding. But for
all the young women she’d saved, she didn’t know what it was like to protect a
younger sister. I’d been doing it all my life.
“Everything is going to be fine,” I said. “In a few months when we’re sitting
inside your mortgage-free house playing with your little baby, we’ll laugh about
“Oh, Tessa. Are you sure?” The tone in her voice told me she was smiling.
“I’m sure. Don’t worry about a thing.”
“I love you, Tessa.”
“Love you, too.”
I hung up but remained sitting in the tall weeds, my back against the tree,
staring into nothingness. Serenity nuzzled my head in worry. “It’s all right,
But it wasn’t.
I have to think. Why couldn’t I think? I kept seeing my mother’s face
drawn in disapproval and my father’s flushed with anger. Lily sick in bed, her
girls sleeping in the streets. Julian’s smile—mocking. I rubbed my face with my
hands and they came away wet. I hadn’t even realized I was crying.
The creak of the back gate signaled someone’s approach. “Tessa? Are you okay?” A
man’s voice, one I recognized.
I hurriedly dried my face with my shirt before he came into view around the
“Oh, there you are.” He was a tall, broad, scruffy-looking man with green eyes
that were restful. I thought he was nearing forty, but it was hard to tell with
the brown beard and the longish hair that fell to below his ears. He lived in
one of the tract houses, and several times over the last year, I’d caught him
petting Serenity over the fence. I didn’t mind because I was away so much, and
except for the groom who came every day to feed her when I wasn’t home, she
didn’t have any company.
“Hi Gage.” I knew barely more than his name, though we’d talked on numerous
occasions. I’d heard he was a convict, recently released from prison. He’d
killed someone with his bare hands, or so the rumor went, and had spent six
years in prison. My mother loved that. She would have taken up a petition to
force him from the neighborhood had it been possible. I was glad it wasn’t
because over the months of talking to him and seeing him so gentle with
Serenity, I wondered if the stories were even true.
“I saw Serenity, and she was looking kind of nervous. Thought maybe you’d had a
“She’s not even wearing a saddle, and I don’t ride bareback.” Not usually.
He looked at the sorrel. “Oh, I guess I didn’t think that far.” He gave me a
tentative smile, which didn’t have much effect on his face under all that hair.
I wondered what he really looked like. “Well, as long as you’re okay. But
shouldn’t you be shopping or at the hairdresser or something? You’re still
getting married, aren’t you?”
I closed my eyes for a painful moment. I wondered if he’d heard the rumors about
Julian, and if he felt sorry for me. “I don’t know.”
An emotion I couldn’t define passed over his face. In a swift movement, he
squatted down beside me. “What happened?”
“What makes you think something happened?”
He gestured to the grass. “Because you’re sitting in a bunch of weeds two days
before your wedding, looking like you wished a hole would open up and swallow
A hole would be nice, except then how would I help Lily? My father had hundreds
of applications for each job opening in his factory, and I knew that other
companies were just as flooded. None would want to pay me what I’d earned with
my father, and my degree in liberal arts now seemed rather useless. Of course,
I’d never thought I’d actually have to support myself.
A burst of anger blotted out the despair. How could I have been so stupid? Lily
had at least tried to become independent, while I’d stayed reliant on my family.
Now they controlled my life.
For a moment the hurt and betrayal was too great to endure. Yet I didn’t die,
and after a moment the pain receded enough to breathe again, and I knew what I
had to do. I stood up, brushing my hands on my pants. “I’m getting married,” I
said. “But not to my fiancé.”
Gage’s eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?” At that moment he looked
hard, like a man who could kill someone.
“He’s a liar and a cheat, and I’m getting out, even if I have to hitchhike my
way to Las Vegas and marry the first man I meet.”
“So is marrying someone who doesn’t love you.”
“At least you know him. Don’t you think marrying some stranger in Las Vegas
would be even worse?”
“Not if it was a business arrangement. Temporary.” Take that, mother. I was a
quick learner. I would find a way around the trust fund requirements because I
knew if my grandfather were alive, he’d be the first one to help Lily, and he
certainly wouldn’t see me married to a man who would betray me.
I stuck out my hand to Gage. “It’s been nice knowing you, Gage. I hope you have
a wonderful life.”
His hand swallowed mine with a strength that made me slightly uneasy. “What
Serenity had been a constant in my life for seven years, but I couldn’t see
walking down the Las Vegas strip with a horse in tow, looking for a likely
marriage candidate. If I managed to get the trust fund, I could move Serenity to
wherever I ended up. Maybe I could buy the field next to Lily’s old house. That
is, if my parents didn’t sell her first.
I bit my lip, and then winced at the pain. Tears smarted in my eyes. “She’ll be
okay here for now.”
I turned to go, but Gage’s hand shot out to grab my arm. I felt a momentary
shiver of fear, and he must have seen it in my eyes because he dropped his hand
instantly. “Sorry. I just—are you in trouble? Is there something I can do to
help?” He was uniquely appealing at the moment, a mix of little boy and
I forced a smile. “How about a ride to Las Vegas?” Because my old car was gone,
and the new one, a wedding gift from Julian’s parents, wasn’t scheduled to
arrive until after Julian and I returned from our honeymoon. “I’m kidding. Look,
thanks for your concern, but everything is fine. I’m not the first woman to have
her heart broken.”
He arched a brow. He had nice brows, expressive. “You look more mad than
He was wrong. My heart did hurt. I hated knowing that I wasn’t enough for
Julian, that he didn’t love me the way I loved him. Yes, I was also furious at
him, and at my parents, but most of all at myself. I was the reason I was in
this mess, the reason Lily was in danger. I’d trusted the wrong man.
“Then you don’t know me very well,” I told Gage. “Goodbye. It really has been
nice knowing you.” I could feel his eyes on me as I left. Grabbing Serenity’s
mane, I pulled myself up on her bare back and let her take me to the other side
of the pasture.
“I’ll miss you more than anyone here,” I whispered, giving her the last cube of
sugar in my pocket. “But I’ll be back some day. I promise.”
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