Prologue - Anthony
“Mom, are you sure the Wi-Fi will work?” I looked at Hailey in the rearview mirror. Snuggled under a mound of blankets and pillows, she looked back at me through eyes as gray as my own.
“I’m positive.” I laughed as I answered the question for the thirtieth time. “The tech should be there a few hours after we get there.”
She nodded and returned her attention to her game. I stared at the road in front of us, ready for the long drive to be over. We’d left New Mexico ready for a new start. Hopefully, going back to Black Claw would give us that. A second chance.
My mind drifted to my time living in Black Claw. Some of my fondest memories took place there. Unfortunately, some of my worst were there as well.
“Talk to me, kiddo.” I looked at her in the mirror again as she rolled her eyes. She grinned at the same time and I knew she wasn’t throwing me attitude. I didn’t think the child had enough attitude in her whole body to make me mad. “Keep my attention.”
She’d had a sweet, caring disposition since birth. That made the eventual conversation we had to have about her father all the more heartbreaking. She knew we’d left him, but she didn’t know the details. Eventually, I’d have to tell her.
I’d told her brother about his father about the age she was now. But she was so much more sensitive than he was at eight. I hesitated and kept putting it off.
“Why do you need me to keep your attention?” she asked.
Maddox, my son, shifted in the passenger seat and pushed his earbuds farther into his ears.
I ignored him in favor of talking to Hailey. He’d had a rough year and had been more and more closed off.
“Because I get hypnotized by the road,” I explained. “And it makes me want to fall asleep.”
“You could let Maddox drive,” she suggested.
I shook my head. “I’d rather drive myself. He can drive in town more.”
“What are you looking forward to about living in Colorado?” I asked.
She pursed her lips and looked out the window at the trees rushing by. They’d already begun to turn from green to yellows and golds, even though it was still summer. “Snow.”
“Oh, good choice. I loved the snow.” I’d spent every summer in Black Claw with my grandmother, but my mother had also driven us up the mountain for Christmas break as well.
The mountains were always full of snow. I’d beg to go out, then knock on the door ten minutes later, begging to come back in, half-frozen. Nana always had a mug of hot chocolate and tugged off my layers of clothing just to put them back on in a few hours when I asked to go play in the snow again. She had the patience of a saint. “It’ll snow before you know it, and we’ll build a snowman.”
“We can pretend he’s real,” she said, and I glanced at her in the mirror long enough to see her eyes twinkle.
The merriment had faded the next time I looked. “What if I don’t make any friends?” she asked. “They might not like me.”
“The school is small,” I said. “So, the kids don’t have a whole lot of other kids to play with. You’ll be popular, I’m sure of it.” I was sure. She’d made fast friends her entire life. Every time I turned around, she asked me to have a sleepover.
“I guess,” she muttered, and went back to her tablet. I chuckled and glanced at Maddox. He was leaned against the window with his eyes closed, the ever-present white earbuds still in his ears, playing some metal or rock song or another. He’d gotten that from my ex-husband, who had been a big fan of music.
I thought about poking him to get him to talk to me a while, but his year had been so rough that I wanted to let him rest. I also wasn’t sure I was ready for a deep conversation with him; he felt so guilty about the move.
His temper and demeanor reminded me so much of his father at that age, it made my throat close. His father had only been about a year older than Maddox when he’d left me, disappearing without a trace. Maddox looked like him, enough to remind me of him pretty much every day of his seventeen years of life. He’d been raised by my now ex-husband, Hailey’s father, but that didn’t make him any less a Kingston in looks.
I kept myself alert over the next hundred miles or so by reflecting on the last couple of years of my marriage—they hadn’t been pretty.
But Black Claw was our fresh start. Our new life.
After we’d moved out and left Hailey’s dad, Maddox’s behavior had grown worse and worse. I hoped having a new, clean slate would help him.
Maddox sat up without warning, startling me. My hand jerked on the wheel, making the whole car jolt. He looked at me with one eyebrow arched. “Sure you don’t want me to drive?”
“Ha, ha,” I drawled.
“Can we get something to eat?” he asked. “I’m starving.”
I glanced at the clock on the dash. “We just ate a couple of hours ago,” I said. I’d stopped for fast food on the way.
He shrugged. “I’m hungry again.”
That boy was going to break the bank in food. Luckily, he had his father’s metabolism. If he’d gotten mine, he’d have been three hundred pounds by now. I had to count every dang calorie. “We’ll get a pizza when we get to town,” I said. “Why don’t you look up the pizza places, and we can call when we’re about thirty minutes out?”
He nodded and picked up his phone. “There’s a place that has New York style,” he said a few minutes later. “They’ve got good reviews.”
“Okay. We’re about an hour away.” I pulled off the interstate onto the highway that would lead us straight to our new home.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” he asked. He’d asked me several times already, from the moment I told them we were moving.
The question was beginning to try my patience, but I sucked it in and gave him a sympathetic look. “I think it will be. Use this new place, new people as a chance to have no preconceived notions about you. These people don’t know you and won’t judge you.” The girls here would be just as much trouble though. He was just like his father. The teenage girls in Black Claw had fallen all over Maverick, and the teenage girls at his school had fallen all over Maddox. I’d been afraid for a couple of years that he’d make me a grandmother before my time.
Not that I’d judge. I was nearly eighteen when I found out I was pregnant with him. He was the best thing that had ever happened to me until Hailey came along.
That didn’t mean we hadn’t had many, many conversations about protection, though. No sense in him having a baby too early if he had all the facts and could prevent it.
Every conversation left him mortified and embarrassed. I just gave him condoms every few months and told him not to make me a grandmother. His stepdad had given him the more in-depth birds and bees talk, thankfully.
“Is this place even habitable?” Maddox asked. “Or are we about to go live in a shack?”
“Don’t you remember the cabin?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Not really. Just snippets. But it’s been empty for like eight years, hasn’t it?”
I hadn’t been back to Black Claw in nearly a decade. My grandmother had died the year before Hailey was born, when Maddox was nine. We’d visited her yearly before that. When she was on her deathbed, I’d gone to stay with her for the last few weeks of her life. Then, after I buried her in the family plot, I’d slowly gone through the house and gotten it ready to close up. It was still furnished, but after sitting empty for so long, it was likely going to need repairs.
“I sent in a cleaning company last week,” I said. “Don’t worry. We’ll have to have a repairman out, I’m sure, but in the meantime, it’ll be more than livable.”
“If you say so.”
I didn’t think he’d have that attitude if he remembered the cabin. It had started as a modest log cabin, built for my grandmother by my grandfather when they married. As their family grew, he’d added onto it, but he really had an eye for architecture. He’d turned it into a gorgeous large home, warm and inviting, over the years. My grandmother lost her children after they grew. One to cancer, one to a car wreck, and my mom to her own poor choices. Mom was still alive, somewhere out there, but had chosen not to have anything to do with Nana or me. “We’ll see how you feel about it when we get there,” I said.
He sat in silence for a few more minutes. “Are you sure it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to go to an online school?” he asked.
I’d really considered it. But I didn’t want him to miss out on all those senior year things that he’d remember for the rest of his life. From football games to prom, being a senior in high school should be one of the best times of his life. The last year had been so rough on him, I just wanted him to have a normal last year of school.
“Give it two months,” I said. School in Black Claw had been in session for three weeks already, so he’d be at a bit of a disadvantage, but I knew my son. He’d have the girls flocking over him and the guys asking him to go out for the football team. “If you are unhappy in two months, we’ll revisit the online school idea.” The state had an online public school, and it had decent reviews and test scores, but I wanted him to have the full experience. Hopefully, I wouldn’t regret my decision.
“What if I lose my temper?” His eyes shifted away from me as he asked. He hated talking about it.
“Then you do what your therapist said. You’ve got exercises to help you keep your anger in check, right?”
He nodded. “I guess. I’m still not so convinced they work.”
“It’s worth trying.” I looked at the clock and noted the familiar landmarks. As we passed a seafood restaurant popular in the area, I smiled. Seafood in the mountains. “Go ahead and call for two large pizzas.” I considered telling him to change it to three. He’d eat a whole pizza on his own, and I always liked to have leftovers. Pizza for breakfast was one of my favorite things.
“Half cheese for me, please,” Hailey chimed in from the back seat. “Are we almost there?”
“About half an hour,” I replied. “You excited?”
“I didn’t think I would be, but I am. I can’t wait to decorate my bedroom.”
My bedroom in the cabin had been the best one in the house, and I’d promised it to Hailey.
After a quick stop at the pizza place, where I sent Maddox in, we turned up the road to our new home. I had to stop thinking of it as Nana’s cabin. It had been mine, technically, since she died. It was time to make it feel like my home.
My stomach buzzed as we neared the cabin. If I kept driving up the road another half mile, to the only other house on the street, I’d likely have a little freak-out and scare the kids.
Maddox’s father and his family had lived there once upon a time. Last I’d checked, they’d sold the property, though. When I came to Black Claw to bury my Nana, I’d asked around discreetly, and they hadn’t been back. No reason to think they’d ever come back at this point.
I pulled onto the long gravel driveway and immediately regretted not calling around to find someone to come regravel the driveway. It was rutted and washed out. “Okay,” I said as Hailey giggled from the back seat, bouncing around. Maddox stared at me as he clung to the ‘oh shit’ bar. “I’ll call and have this fixed first thing. Don’t give me a hard time about it.”
He gave me half a smile, the first one I’d seen since we left New Mexico. “Sure, Mom. Whatever.”
The cabin came into view, wiping the smile off of his face. I’d planned our arrival time so we’d have plenty of daylight to explore the cabin. The moving truck would be here in a matter of hours, hopefully after the cable guy left. We probably wouldn’t have much time to unpack, but at least it would all be here. Such as it was.
After the divorce, we didn’t have as much stuff as I’d expected. I’d called them back and changed my truck request to a smaller one once it was all packed. Since we didn’t bring much furniture, it had been a sad stack of boxes.
“Wow,” Hailey breathed. “It’s huge.”
The large windows on the front of the house gave a ton of sunlight, even in the winter. As I recalled, it got too bright sometimes in the winter with the reflection off the show. “When I was a kid, there had been huge shades that could be lowered to block out the sun when it got to be too much. I’m sure we’ll need to replace them.”
“How are we affording all this?” Maddox asked in a hushed voice.
I put the SUV in park and twisted back to look at Hailey, but she was gaping out the window at the house. “Gimme the keys!” she squealed.
I handed her the key to the front door and she launched out of the vehicle. Maddox stayed put. “I’ve got quite a bit of money left from the divorce,” I admitted. “But I’m going to try not to use it. I want to save it for Hailey’s college.”
Maddox had already made it perfectly clear he would not be going to college. He wanted to go to a trade school and hone his favorite hobby—woodworking. We could afford to pay for that with small loans. I’d help him any way I could.
“What about your job?” His face was open and curious; he wanted to go explore as well.
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll get by just fine. I’ve got freelance work lined up.” My job as a web developer wasn’t something in high demand in Black Claw. I’d been reaching out to industry contacts from the moment I decided we should move. They’d pulled strings and put out feelers and gotten me a long list of work. “I mean it. Go explore, pick out a bedroom, and don’t worry about money. We’re fine.”
He nodded. “Okay.”
When he walked up to the cabin, I realized he looked lighter than he had in months. This had been a good idea; I was sure of it.
As I put my hand on the door handle, my phone beeped. I was a little surprised that I had service this far up the mountain. I grabbed it out of the console to find my best friend’s name displayed across the screen.
“Hey, Char,” I answered.
“How was the drive?” My best friend’s voice was a relief to hear. Charlotte had befriended me not long after I moved to New Mexico and we’d been ride or die ever since.
“We just got here.” I stepped out of the car and walked toward the house. “I’m surer than ever this was right.”
“Oh?” she asked.
“Yeah. Madd seems like a different kid since he got here. A new start is just what we needed.”
She laughed. “You were right. I just didn’t want my bestie to move so far away.”
“I know. I already miss you. But you’ll be out here soon, won’t you?”
“Absolutely, babe. Wouldn’t miss it. I’ve got my flight booked.” She was flying out and renting a car.
“Okay.” I walked in the front door and memories assaulted me. “I’m going to go settle in. Call me later.”
We hung up and I looked around the living room. The furniture had fared pretty well under the sheets I’d put over it. A thump on the ceiling above me told me the kids were exploring upstairs.
They were both into it. This had been the right thing. Finally, something was coming together for our family.
It was about damn time.