A flock of manic and sorely out-of-season butterflies took flight in Becca Sweet’s stomach as she lifted her hand to press the doorbell of her sister’s house.
Or maybe it was the barely visible baby growing a few inches lower. Nah. She wasn’t quite far enough along to feel anything yet.
Either way, she didn’t relish the next few minutes. She stalled, looking at Maggie and Mike’s house. Her forefinger hovered over the lighted oval in a moment of indecision.
Light flowed out around partially opened draperies, a Christmas tree adorned with sparkling multi-colored lights taking center stage in the picture window. A crèche stood silent vigil in the front yard. Snowflakes danced in the wind and settled on her cheeks, then decorated her eyelashes. Her breath created small clouds in the air.
It was so lovely and picturesque, it nearly took Becca’s breath away. Then again, maybe it was the bitter cold that stole her breath. An involuntary shiver ran through her and made up her mind.
She stabbed the bell and stood back, firming her lips and squaring her shoulders.
No more nights in the car. Even if it meant owning up to her failure to keep up payments on the loan Mike and Maggie had advanced a while back. Evasion had been a bad plan to start out with, but now concern for her baby eclipsed Becca’s pride.
Footsteps sounded in the house, and Becca presented a tight smile at the peephole and waggled a gloved hand.
The door jerked open, Maggie planting herself as a human shield between the warmth behind her and the cold swirling around Becca. A range of emotions crossed her face, but a flash of what might have been joy was quickly chased off her face and replaced with suspicion.
“Becca. It’s been a long time.” Maggie drew herself up to her full height of almost five feet four inches.
The tone of her voice almost cowed Becca, but there was more at stake for her now, and she didn’t retreat from her sister’s disdain.
“Hi, Mags.” The fantasy of a welcoming smile and Come in, come in was too much to hope for, so she didn’t.
“What do you want?” Maggie didn’t bother with a smile, whether tight or genuine. Megan, who was closing in on her fifth birthday, ran up behind her mother and peered around her legs. Maggie put a proprietary hand on her daughter’s head, preventing her from venturing any further. Both sported riotous carrot-colored curls, Megan’s marginally corralled in a whale-spout ponytail atop her head. Maggie wore her hair cropped shorter than the last time Becca had seen her.
Becca buried her ego and forced a light note into her voice. “Got any extra Christmas spirit around? Any you’re willing to share with me?” She steeled herself for rejection, knowing full well she deserved every bit of censure Maggie had stored up on her behalf.
Maggie’s face went even stonier. “You never…” She glanced down at Megan as if weighing her next words. “You didn’t keep your word.” Pain borne of betrayal shimmered in her voice.
“I’m sorry. I’ll pay back the money, I promise, but it’s tied up right now.” Though she tried hard to ignore it, shame crept under her skin. The loan had gotten bumped down on Becca’s list of priorities, but she still intended to make good on it. It would just take longer. A lot longer. Becca’s word wouldn’t sway Maggie, especially now, but it was the only thing she could offer.
“You still with Trent? Or is it Trey?”
“Travis.” A blush tried to warm Becca’s cheeks, but it was a losing battle in the frigid air. “No.” She shoved her gloved hands into the pockets of her coat. Maggie had never liked the burly bouncer with an affinity for piercings. Becca should have listened, but she’d been so intent on proving her independence that she’d stuck with her poor choice until he’d shown his true colors. She clamped her lips against spilling any tidbits about the breakup or the reasons behind it. Some details of Becca’s life weren’t her sister’s business, and would only add a spark to the tinder of their already volatile relationship.
Besides, the sheer lack of character Travis had revealed still shook Becca to the soles of her feet, and she was too raw with her own pain to pull it out for examination, by either herself or Maggie.
Even so, she recognized the fairness of Maggie’s question, and the protective instincts behind it. Heck, Becca would do the same, had she been lucky enough to be in her sister’s place.
“Since you know there’s no more m-o-n-e-y”—Maggie spelled the word with another pointed glance at Megan—“then why are you on my doorstep?”
Becca gave up on subtlety or niceties. “I need a place to stay.” Her sister’s expression went thunderous, so she hurried to add, “Just for a few weeks. I have an apartment lined up, but it’s not available until the first of the year. I’ll stay out from underfoot as much as possible. Just a warm place to sleep, that’s all I ask.”
“I’m not doing this again, Becca.” Maggie started to swing the door closed, regret warring with the determination in her expression. “I’m sorry.”
Suddenly desperate, Becca stuck a sneaker-clad foot over the threshold to prop the door open. “Please. I’m begging.”
“I’m sure you can find room at a shelter.” The words sounded stilted and forced, but Maggie didn’t back down.
Becca cringed at her sister’s uncharacteristic harshness.
Megan peered up at her mother, enthralled with the drama in their voices. A lusty cry came from somewhere deeper in the house. That could only be Marty. She’d last seen the two-year-old as he was beginning to crawl.
“Have you ever been to one, Mags? A shelter?” She gave her sister a searching look. “No. Of course not. It’s not a good place for women or children.”
Maggie’s eyes flickered in acknowledgement of her statement, and there might have been a flash of compassion hidden in them, but the line of her lips remained unyielding.
Becca pressed her point. “Storm’s coming, and they’ve got the white flags out.” Temperatures were forecast to plummet and stay below zero. Surely her sister understood how crowded the shelters were going to be for the next few nights. “I’ve been sleeping in my car, but I don’t dare now.”
Maggie glanced past Becca’s shoulder to take in her second-hand car, the back seat bulging with clothing and what little else she’d been able to salvage when Travis threw her out.
“What about work?” Rather than softening with pity, Maggie’s voice rose, irritation now prominent. “You still at the—?” She clamped her lips over the rest of the word, likely only because Megan was taking in the exchange with wide eyes and a sharp mind.
At the Crazy Coon Saloon. Not a tavern for the faint of heart, it wore its tough reputation with pride and flaunted its exotic dancers with belligerence. Becca’s skill lay in bartending, but apparently Maggie thought she supplemented her income on the stage. Heat rose in Becca’s cheeks again, but she was sure the wind carried it off before they could blush.
“I don’t dance, Mags.” Before she got the words out, a figure blotted out the light behind Maggie. Mike. Her heart sank even further.
He placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “Hey, Becca. C’mon in.” He stepped aside. Maggie shook her head and dug in her heels.
“It’s time for that tough love we talked about, Mike.” Her voice shook on the last words.
Mike tightened his grip and glanced down at Megan. “Go in and check on Marty, Little Bit.”
“No buts. Get.” His tone, while still affable, brooked no disobedience. Megan turned and flounced off with the melodrama only little kids could display with any semblance of credibility. He returned his attention to Becca, but directed his words to Maggie. “What’s this all about?”
“I was just going—”
“She was just going—”
Becca and Maggie spoke at the same time. Mike held up a hand. He shot a glance at Becca and said, “Stay right there,” then looked at his wife. “She’s family. You two need to get past your differences sometime. Don’t you think the tough love can wait until morning?”
Maggie turned to face him, her eyes spitting fire. “She’s a user, Mike. We gave her a loan in good faith, and she hasn’t paid but fifty or sixty dollars on it over the past six months. Now she’s here looking for—” She threw her hands up, the motion abrupt and angry. “She wants to stay here, she wants another handout, she wants more, more, more. Just like always.”
Becca straightened and brushed aside the last barb as so amorphous as to be impossible to address, but she wouldn’t let the first one go without protest. “What do you mean, I’m a user? I don’t do drugs, Mags. Never have.” She didn’t add that if she did, staying in Mike’s house would guarantee top billing on the list of Most Moronic Criminals Ever. The man was a DEA agent and sometimes went undercover, always a surprise to Becca, given his straight-arrow and decidedly average looks.
He waved a hand to stop them both. “No one’s accusing you of drugs, Bec. Is this about the money, Maggie? Because that’s not as important as people.”
“The money is the symptom, Mike. It’s all the rest. Aren’t you concerned about the kids? She’s a bad influence.”
Mike scratched the side of his nose. “Not sure I’m following you, hon.”
Her sister rounded on her, focusing her fury like a laser on Becca. “She’s irresponsible, she works at that strip joint and she’s covered with tattoos. Is that who you want your daughter to look up to?”
Becca heard an undercurrent of anguish beneath the words. Her heart plummeted. She never meant to cause anyone distress, but she’d managed to do that anyway. Had it been only Maggie, Becca would have walked away from the confrontation, but her sister had taken everything out of context and done it in front of Mike. She wanted to put in perspective, maybe even explain. Instead of turning tail, she stepped forward, ready to defend herself.
A howl of outrage accompanied by a banshee screech came from deep in the house, interrupting her. Mike swore and pivoted. “Megan Marie, knock it off.” He loped toward the great room which housed a toy chest along with an antique oak table that did double duty as a pretend fort. Or at least it had the last time Becca had visited. She and Megan had spent hours under it, a sheet allowing them to create a fantasy world within their cocoon.
Maggie firmed her grip on the door and lifted her chin.
Marshalling the scrap of dignity she still retained, Becca lifted her chin, too. “I’m not working there anymore, my tatts are my business, and I am—” She faltered on responsible, because she could see her sister’s point. Right now, she felt anything but grown up, but didn’t want to admit it to herself or to Maggie, nor did she want her face rubbed in it.
She squared her shoulders. “I’m between jobs. I’ll find something soon.” I hope. Travis had poisoned the well of bartending jobs with lies, and her list of prospects was dwindling as she accrued rejection after rejection.
“Jobless, too?” Maggie sounded resigned, like she expected exactly that from her wayward younger sister.
Becca’s temper snapped. “My money’s tied up at the community college right now, and I can’t get a refund until after the first of the year. I’m doing the best I can, Mags. Believe me, if I had any other options, I’d be there instead of gracing your doorstep and interrupting your perfect life.” She wheeled to leave, disappointment in her sister’s response defeating her more than her circumstances ever could.
“Mommy, who’s that lady?” Megan’s voice rang out in the cold air like Christmas handbells. Regret squeezed Becca’s heart. She’d let far too many months pass without making an effort to repair her relationship with Maggie. Now the months had stretched into more than a year, and Megan didn’t even recognize her anymore.
But Megan’s question ricocheted in her mind. Who am I, Mags? Your sister? A bag lady? Granted, she had a car full of stuff rather than a bag or a grocery cart, but that answer stung. The black sheep of the family? Well, that was a given, and had been since her earliest memories.
More than her imagined replies, though, Maggie’s silence struck a shaft of pain through Becca’s heart. She trudged through the accumulated dusting of snow toward her car, head bent against the wind.
Tears prickled at the back of her eyelids, but Becca refused to shed them. She blinked, causing the image of her car to waver in front of her. At first, she thought the sensation was because of tears shimmering in her eyes, but then her vision narrowed. The odd combination of hunger and nausea that had dogged her over the past several months surged to the forefront and sapped the strength from her legs. She wobbled. Horror filled her as Becca realized she was on the verge of fainting.
“…my sister. Your Aunt Becca.”
Her knees gave out. Becca flung an arm out to break her fall, and everything went dark.
As her consciousness faded away, one clear thought flared bright before it, too, evaporated.
Maggie had acknowledged her. My sister.
Hope, unearned and probably unreasonable, sparked as Becca’s surroundings slipped from her awareness and snow chilled her cheek.