A Kindred Spirit Legacy Book
First to Arrive
The beach house known as The Cockpit—East End, Sunset Beach North Carolina
Chaz saw her the first day he arrived at the beach, within the first hour, to be precise. He was the first of his group to arrive at the co-op beach house he owned with ten of his friends. He had a quick trip, having commandeered his partner Rick’s Cessna rather than drive from Greensboro. He picked up his Jeep at the Ocean Isle Beach Airport storage lot and had a short drive to the house. Seemed fair, Rick, passing over the keys to his ratty old sixties-era plane, as he had made off with Chaz’s five-week-old bass boat for three days without even telling him.
It was a great swap though—Chaz managed to get to The Cockpit before anyone else, despite having left hours later than everyone else. And he would have a freezer full of striped bass and white perch at his disposal when he got back home, courtesy of Rick.
As a bonus, he would also have a full report on how his new boat performed by someone who’d worked the NASCAR circuit to pay his way through school. Rick knew engines—car, boat, or plane—and he knew how to get peak performance by tweaking something or other, while crooning Do Wop to it.
Chaz was unpacking his much-maligned leather duffle when he spotted her out of the floor-to-ceiling window. He was on the top floor of the beach house, in one of the oceanfront bedrooms with a full bath, that he’d taken as a boon for being the first one to arrive.
The beauty’s fluff of sunny blonde hair ruffling in the breeze caught his attention and made him turn back to the window in mid-step. His eyes dropped to the sweet curve of her denim-clad ass, then continued down to her shapely tanned legs. Roving up again, he noted the bare expanse of skin from just above her hips to the lime green bow tied between her shoulder blades, and ending at the sun-kissed nape of her neck. Gorgeous tan, he thought, like those caramel chews he loved to suck on. Mmmm . . . that neck. Yes, very suckable. Very lickable. Very kissable. He felt the welcoming flutter of arousal zing through his groin.
There was something earthy about a woman in a tiny string bikini top wearing skimpy cutoffs. It screamed summer and reminded him of pubescent nights spent at the carnival walking behind a gaggle of girls flaunting themselves in barely-there shorts and tight, nearly see-through tank tops. This was no girl though, this was a woman. She walked with a purpose, her arms swinging by her sides, the bright green triangles bouncing slightly and drawing his eyes to her chest when she turned back to kick off her sandals at the access. He stood at the window and watched her, mesmerized. With one hand tucked into the pocket of his own shorts, he couldn’t help but notice Old Faithful jumping to attention and grazing the side of his thumb. Down boy, we’ll take care of you later—first lunch, then a reunion with the guys, then off to Myrtle Beach and all it has to offer.
He stood at the window, watching the little vixen’s hips sway as she walked down the beach access then turned right and headed west. He watched until she was a tiny speck of green and denim against the mottled tan of the sand. He wished he could have seen her face, but by the time he had spotted her, she had been nearly in profile to him, wearing huge Jackie-O styled sunglasses. In any case, his babe radar had opted to forego the face and had zeroed in on the body instead.
Shallow man, he thought. He turned to finish piling his clothes on the shelves in the eighteenth-century Scandinavian armoire. He’d designed and built the matching bedroom furniture around the piece as his contribution to the house five years ago when he and his buddies bought the lot and constructed the beach house.
He smiled at his self-deprecating thought. Yes, shallow indeed. And he wasn’t going to apologize for it. He had two weeks to indulge himself. Two weeks of wine, women and song, as the saying went, and he meant to use every single one of them to further his cause. Which would be to wipe his mind of the concerns that had plagued him the last two years. He had finally got his business off the ground, dealt with settling his father into an assisted living community, and repeatedly dodged the last woman he’d dated, who couldn’t seem to accept that he didn’t want to see her anymore and was now quasi-stalking him.
What kind of woman bought a wedding gown and put it in a man’s closet after their fourth date? He’d finally had to move into his office, shut down his Facebook account, and get a new phone to get away from her. Which reminded him, where was his new cell phone? Brent would be calling soon and he didn’t want to miss his call in case he needed a ride from the Myrtle Beach Airport.
Not spotting his phone on the dresser or on one of the night stands, he left the bedroom and ran down the steps to the foyer where he’d piled the rest of his things: a beach tote, a hanging bag, a mini soft cooler, and his electronics carrier, which contained his iPod, MacBook, Kindle Fire, and hopefully, the missing iPhone.
He dug into the side pocket and with a satisfied sigh, pulled it out. He dug deeper and found the book he’d bought to accompany it, iPhone for Dummies. Not for the first time, he wondered if he shouldn’t have stuck with his old Blackberry and just changed the number. He’d need a week to figure out how to use this little marvel. Good thing his vacation coincided with him purchasing it yesterday.
He took the phone, the book, and the cooler into the kitchen where he emptied out a six-pack of Coors, a green smoothie bottle—his last in a detox regimen as a prelude to two weeks of mindless eating and drinking—and a collection of yogurt containers he’d brought from home. No doubt he and his buddies would fill the two refrigerators and two freezers with all manner of unwholesomeness as soon as everyone arrived and took their turn grazing the aisles at the local Food Lion.
For now, he enjoyed the starkness of the kitchen—the vast expanse of onyx and lapis granite countertops set off by light maple custom cabinets. With the influx of his highly acquisitive friends, every counter would soon be cluttered with Keurig and Espresso machines, donut makers, waffle irons, juicers, all manner of flavored coffee pods and k-cups, pretzel bags, microwave popcorn boxes, cans of nuts, boxes of cookies and crackers, and every variety of bread, bagels and chips imaginable. He’d heard Kyle was making his own beer and wine these days, so who knew what paraphernalia that entailed.
Chaz’s near obsessive desire for simplicity had been the catalyst for his latest business venture, Gnome Homes. He and his partner, Rick, designed and built impossibly small houses where efficiency of space was crucial—where every board, every plank, every panel had to carve out a niche and every space had to have a dual purpose. On the market they were known as tiny homes, and they were becoming very popular across the country as baby boomers simplified their lives and opted for a cottage lifestyle. Their company was one of the first to customize with renewable materials so they were on the fast track, getting national awards for their designs and for balancing ecological concerns with energy savings.
They built houses that ranged from 600 square-feet to 1,200 square-feet, where every inch was trimmed, reevaluated and redrawn until it met his criteria . . . nothing wasted, nothing extraneous, nothing that one could live without. Whether a bungalow, a cottage, a rustic barn, a tree house, or a bunker on the side of a hill, if his company made it, you could be assured you got the most useable inch for each area of living space. It was, after all, how he’d lived his whole life.
He’d always been on the go, even as a little kid, living the minimalist lifestyle, picking up and running from one place to another as he’d followed his dad from one job site to the next, leaving things behind because they’d had to. They often had no way to take them, and no place to take them to.
When he’d made it to college, dorm life had reinforced this pattern of living. Having an 8 x 10-foot space for a bed, desk, dresser, hamper, banker’s lamp, and a GT Xpress Meal Maker honed his efficiency skills. Studying wooden jigsaw toys taught him how to create templates to make interlocking furniture pieces with dual purposes, while saving space and making things stronger.
Architectural and Engineering classes taught him which materials he could count on for stress, load bearing, wearablity, and longevity. Forestry classes taught him even more. What rotted and where, what didn’t and why. His focus on sustainability and treating the environment as his ever-present benefactor was utmost in his mind whenever he started a new project. To say he loved his work was an understatement. His work was what gave him purpose, what challenged him and drove him. He could not imagine ever doing anything more important, more vital, or more useful for the planet.
He poured a glass of ice water via the door of the huge four-door Profile refrigerator freezer and went out onto the back deck. Selecting a chaise from the group of mesh loungers, covered with pillows and pads in a busy purple and orange paisley print—those clearly must’ve been Cam’s idea—he dragged it over to the west corner so he’d have a view of the sexy blonde should she be returning this way. Opening the Dummies book he began to read about the features and functions of his new iPhone.
An hour later, the bright green bikini top drew his eye away from his phone. Programing in new business contacts could wait. He shoved the phone in his pocket and watched as the lady in question came into focus. Several hundred feet away, he knew within a matter of seconds that her gait had changed. She wasn’t strolling anymore with a saucy sway of her hips. There was no perky bounce in her step. Her soft looking fluff of blonde hair was now damp and stuck to her neck. She looked as if she was trudging through a quagmire. The carefree swing of her arms was gone now; they were limp and lifeless by her side. Had he been a betting man, he would have wagered she wouldn’t make it back before tumbling face down into the sand,
He narrowed his eyes and tried to see her face, but she wasn’t holding her chin up. She was staring at her feet as she plowed ahead, seemingly mindless of her surroundings and concerned solely with achieving her target. Then she changed her trajectory. She left the water’s edge and was angled toward the dunes, making a beeline for the beach access next to The Cockpit.
As the woman struggled in the soft sand near the tideline, she weaved. In the same instant he stood to go down to her, he saw her lift her hand and wave to someone in the house next door. From the angle of her uplifted face, that someone was high up, on a higher level than he was—likely on a widow’s walk. He’d noticed earlier that one was hidden by a panel of latticework and bougainvillea blooms. People often screened off areas for nude sunbathing and he’d wondered if that was the case next door. Only the helicopters and drones knew for sure.
He heard a string of ludicrous nonsensical curse words, “Daggit nabshat, umhat a waba,” then the hurried scrape of a heavy wooden chair. Urgent footfalls of someone in flip-flops running down three flights of wooden stairs followed. The echoing staccato of the panicked steps had him standing and primed to run down and jump the balustrade of his own terrace, when he saw a tall brunette with a long ponytail leap the hedge bordering the patio of the house next door. She landed upright on the access walkway, bypassing the three steps leading up to it. It was an impressive high jump to say the least.
Arms pumping, she ran down the walkway, ignoring the people who moved aside to let her by. He could see that she had a water bottle in one hand and a cell phone in the other. When she made it to the blonde’s side, in the sand shy of her reaching the walkway, they both fell to their knees. The brunette gripped the blonde’s face in both hands, her gaze intent. She waved her away and reached for the water bottle that had fallen to the sand.
Chaz watched as she drank from the bottle and the other woman used her gauzy shirt to swipe at the blonde’s glistening face. Then the brunette began rubbing the blonde’s arms and they put their foreheads together, huddled in the sand.
Hmmm, clearly something going on there. Too intimate a gesture for casual friends. It figured. Two hotties next door and they were lesbian. He wished he had brought the binoculars out to the terrace. He still hadn’t seen much of the blonde’s face, even though her sunglasses had been pushed off then dropped into her lap by the brunette.
He could see them nodding and talking, and then after a minute they stood, the brunette helping the blonde to her feet. The blonde moved away when the brunette put her arm around her shoulders. He heard a distinct, “No!” to the support offered. Maybe because she realized how harsh she sounded, the blonde reached down and clasped the brunette’s hand in hers. They walked the few remaining steps in the sand, and then stepped onto the wooden walkway. With each step closer to the houses that were lined up facing the ocean just past the dunes, their faces came into better focus. When they were twenty feet away the blonde looked up, threw her head back and laughed at something the brunette had said. Chaz had his first full-on view of the blonde’s smiling face and the smooth curve of her neck, arched in ecstasy. His knees nearly buckled.
His personal love map—the sexual preferences for turn ons and turn offs that determined what he was attracted to—was admittedly complex at this stage in his life, but he felt it was finally perfected now that he was approaching his mid-thirties.
The list of feminine characteristics he had initially preferred, based on his early experiences and genetic makeup—raging hormones aside—had taken shape when puberty rushed in: brunette, slim, pretty wide eyes, nice teeth and good skin. Wafting a little during the middle-school years, it allowed for any girl who smiled back and appeared to wear a bra. Sadly, his list had shrunk even more during his late teens . . . the smile was no longer necessary, and neither was the bra.
Into manhood, his list had been revised many times. While in high school his peers had helped influence his predilections, but his own attractiveness soon became the major factor in determining his success. While he had been building his lists, so had the girls, and theirs demanded social prominence, athletic prowess, and swoon-worthy cars. He had none of those attributes. He lived in the cheapest apartments his father could find, had no money for gas nonetheless a car, and was never in one school long enough to do summer training, enter tryouts, or earn a position on any team.
But as a graduating senior, his choices soon became unlimited as his height soared, his jaw squared off, and the college scholarships rolled in. He was his own man now. He didn’t have to pick up and follow his father anymore. A part time job yielded a lumbering Oldsmobile with a back seat larger than any bed he’d ever slept in. He christened the striped tan and white vinyl seat twice the first night he had the car, with two dates back-to-back—a cheerleader who had never given him the time of day, and a waitress at the diner where he’d stopped to have some pie before going home to pack for college.
During his early twenties he was totally unprincipled and relished the vast variety of companionship that was offered at each bustling college campus he visited. Whatever Playboy was selling, he was buying. A few of the women he had dated had even made the college issue for the school he attended. He had relished the idea that his choices were validated by the premier men’s magazine, and had enjoyed parading his not-so-modest conquests at a multitude of decadent parties.
Then, at a friend’s wedding, he’d met Julia and she’d revised his standards overnight. The idea of refinement and class suddenly had merit. He was smitten, and the happy couple was together for two years. Then, through his own boneheaded stupidity, he caused their devastating breakup. After that, he swore off women until finally, a year later, he rejoined the hunt.
He was very discriminating after the loss of Julia. Once attracted to women with long hair, large breasts, bubble butts and long, limber legs, now they had to have class, and care about causes. They had to own cashmere sweater sets and wear real pearls. But try as he might, he couldn’t duplicate what he’d had with Julia.
His next phase was demure trendsetters and phony sophisticates, finally going international. He discovered he had a penchant for hot-blooded Latinos and savvy Asians.
He’d been dating a diverse sampling of jetsetters from the professional pool of sales reps he’d met during tiny house conferences when he’d met Lisa, the stalker who’d come on to him while he’d been preparing for a triathlon. He’d never dated an athlete and had been amazed by her stamina. It should have been a hint of what was to come. Like a pit bull, she hadn’t wanted to let loose of her prize when he’d wanted to move on. He planned to go back to square one after this vacation: brunette, slim, pretty wide eyes, nice teeth and good skin.
But unbeknownst to him, his love map was once again being redrawn. As he stood watching the two women make their way up the long wooden walkway, laughing and bumping hips, he felt the universe shift.
As early as this morning, if you’d asked him his sexual preferences for a possible mate—for he was beginning to have thoughts of settling down and doing the family thing—he would have said dark and sultry. With hair long enough to wrap around his fist so he could gently tug her head where he wanted to place her mouth. She should be cultured, but with a fun side. With sleek long thighs strong enough to hike mountains, straddle horses, and him—so she’d be able to ride him late into the night. And a sweet side, one that would bend to a child’s level to wipe away tears and ruffle unruly curls.
But now, now his body and mind were acting in accord, processing and selecting every facet of this nearly collapsing woman and fitting her as his ideal. Soft, short, flyaway, golden blonde hair; expressive, flared light brown eyebrows, arching like perfectly sculptured wings over brilliant green eyes; a heart-shaped face set off by a pixie nose and lips so full, so rosy pink they mimicked the lustrous lining of a conch shell. Yet somehow frail—petite and small—calling for something primal in him to protect her.
This was not a woman he wanted on top—at least not initially. This was a woman he wanted to dominate and own, one he wanted to claim and keep. He wanted to take her from above and command that she be his, only his. And he knew this so viscerally that it accelerated his heart and made him lightheaded. He had never been possessive of a woman. Hell, one of his favorite kinks had been to share them.
He blinked as the women passed under the shadow of a latticed arbor, and then he heard them making their way up the stairs and into the beach house beside his. Then he heard her laugh. Holy Mother of God. He actually placed his open palm over his heart and held it there. Jesus! Now what, he wondered as he stared out toward the sea, blinking in the brilliant afternoon sunlight. With one look, his love map had been destroyed. Decimated. He knew if he didn’t have this woman, no other woman would do. His map . . . a world atlas if he was honest . . . had led him here, to her. Now what?
His cell phone rang just then and he reached down to inch it out of his jean’s pocket. He looked down at the display, saw it was Brent and smiled. “Hey Bro, been waitin’ for your call. You need a ride or are you on your way?”
“Got a rental car after realizing there’s no place in your ratty old Jeep to put my golf clubs. I just got a brand new set in a real nice leather bag, so I sure as hell don’t want to put them in that leaky ragtop where only one door locks.”
“Aw, Busty’s been good to us. Trusty . . . reliable.”
“You mean rusty and undependable. By the way, did you ever get those brakes fixed?”
“Yes, and it was inspected the last time I was here, if that makes you feel any better. And you know as well as I do that a good coat of rust is the best protection from the elements here.”
“Says the man who builds his famous little houses with indestructible Japanese Shou Sugi burnt wood.”
“Checking out my website, huh? Wish I could make a car out of it. You can’t hurt that stuff. So where are you?”
“Driving on Route 9, just coming off 31.”
“Good. I hear a few of the others pulling up out front. God, it’s going to be just like old times in the dorm.”
“Yeech, I hope not. Those bathrooms were smarmy and not a one of us changed our sheets unless a girl insisted on it.”
“We’re grown men now. We know how to use Clorox and Tide. Plus, we can afford to buy cleaning supplies and fresh linens now. They were luxuries back then.”
“You got that right. We knew what a plunger was but not a bowl brush. Can’t wait to hear all about your business, Bro. Heard you’re going gangbusters with it and knockin’ down awards left and right. See you in fifteen. Hey, save me a good room, will ya?”
“When you designed this house, you said all the rooms would be good.”
“Yeah. By good, I meant soundproofed against Cam’s snoring.”
“Cam says he doesn’t snore anymore. Says he had his deviated septum worked on last year.”
Brent laughed. “As if that’s the only thing deviated about him. His surgeon should have done a BOGO on him. Seriously, I want the nautical room. Go throw a suitcase on the bed and lock the door from the inside, I’ll pick the lock when I get there.”
“Roger that. Hey . . . I really appreciate you dropping everything and coming this year.” Last year Brent had been in the middle of a huge construction project and couldn’t get away. This year he’d planned his latest job around this trip.
“Wouldn’t have missed it. Hard to believe it’s been ten years, huh?”
“Yeah. Seems like just yesterday we were tossing our hats in the air.”
“And tossing our cookies over the balcony,” Brent said with a loud guffaw. “Speaking of which, should I stop for some Petrone?”
“Ugh, don’t remind me. I’m never doing tequila shots again.” Chaz’s hand went to his stomach in a reflex gesture at the memory of a night he’d give his first million to forget.
Brent laughed, “We’ll see,” he said, and then disconnected.
Chaz sat on the edge of his bed and rubbed at a spot on his chest that still ached from the memory. No we wouldn’t see. He might drink a glass of wine occasionally, and take a sip of champagne at a toast for a friend’s wedding, down a few light beers, but never hard liquor—never again. Though Brent had been there that night, even he didn’t know how devastating that night had been for him. He’d almost lost his life that night. He had lost his girlfriend. One he’d been crazy about during his junior and senior year at Stanford.
He got up to get his empty duffle and walked down the hall to toss it on the bed in the blue nautical room. He pushed in the button on the levered door handle and pulled the door shut just as the rest of the guys began tromping up the stairs.
He leaned over the companionway and called down to them. “’Bout time you got here. I’ve already been to the grocery store, rented the canopy, checked the grill, unpacked, and set the thermostats.”
“Aren’t you the good doobie,” Dev called up at him. “Did you perchance scope out the curvy little hotbox watering the plants on the front porch next door? She is one sweet Carolina girl in those cute little boy shorts with that Pelican baseball cap on her sassy blonde head.”
Heat as fast as a lightning bolt infused him. “Yeah, I spotted her.” He didn’t know why he said the next part, it just spilled out, “And because I spotted her first, I got dibs. Those are the rules, Bro. I’ve been watching her since I spotted her on the beach.”
Dev gave him a narrow-eyed look.
Palo, tromping up the stairs after Dev, saw the conflict coming from two men who always seemed to love antagonizing each other, and jumped in. Jostling Dev’s shoulder in comrade fashion, he murmured in his thick Italian accent, “There appears to be a consolation prize that’s just as pretty, and since brunettes are usually drawn like a magnet to your dark good looks, I doubt you’re going to have to work at it overmuch.”
Dev looked over at Palo and smiled. “Yeah, they are drawn to me, aren’t they?” He boyishly scrunched his nose up at Chaz, then flipped him the bird. “Hundred bucks says I get laid before you do.”
Chaz laughed and the boom of it echoed down the staircase and throughout the central part of the house. “I’m looking for quality now, not quantity. And just because she’s a looker doesn’t mean I want to bed her. Maybe I just want to discuss books and movies.” He didn’t bother to mention that there seemed to be a distinct possibility that the blonde and the brunette next door might be a couple. And that considering his reaction to seeing her, the upshot of that being the case, it could mean unrequited adoration and a celibate future looming on his horizon.
“Ah, she’s already shot you down,” Dev said as he topped the landing.
“She has not. I haven’t met her yet.”
“You just said—”
“I said I spotted her.”
“Oh, just spotted her. I’ll give you twenty-four hours, after that, I’m moving in.”
Like hell you are. “Fine. But then I just might take the brunette, too.”
“Oooh,” said Cam, from the bottom of the stairs, “Now that’s the Chaz we all know and love—king of the double hitters. In your scouting out the lay of the land, did you spot any questionable young men? Make that questing young men.”
“I don’t have your gaydar Cam, so I really wouldn’t know whether I spotted any like types. Last I heard, you were bringing someone to this shindig.”
“Nah, he couldn’t get out of a gig he was doing in Boston.”
They all made it up the stairs, loaded down with a suitcase in each hand and laptop cases slung over their shoulders. Then they began fanning out in search of bedrooms to quarter themselves in. Chaz stood on the landing and watched them each try the door to the locked bedroom, shake their head, and move on.
King of the double hitters. He hadn’t heard that in years. But he couldn’t deny what had once been true. Often he hadn’t been satisfied with one. And neither had Brent. It was one reason they were still so close. You didn’t tussle the sheets together with one woman between you and not learn all there was to know about each other. But a lot had changed since college. A lot had changed since that night when he had tossed his hat, tossed his cookies—and due to a large quantity of tequila—irrevocably tossed aside the woman he had been in love with.
The Horrible “C” word. No, not that one!
Margaret Ellen, or Mags, as her friends called her, was beginning to feel the effect of the late afternoon sun and the drag of the sand in her calf muscles. She should have remembered that high tide was moving in before she’d left base camp, the posh beach house her sister had bartered for her decorating skills in lieu of rent money so they could celebrate the results of her latest C.A.T. scan, at their favorite place—Sunset Beach.
Mags arms weren’t swinging so enthusiastically now. In fact, she was beginning to have doubts about whether she was going to make it back from the Mailbox today without having to call for reinforcements. But really, how ridiculous would that be if her sister had to come get her with their tandem bike?
She patted the pocket that held her cell phone but didn’t take it out. She was going to do this, and she was going to do this on her own, every single day they were here. You couldn’t have something so life affirming as the miraculous disappearance of every single tumor, dissolving into oblivion, without being thankful and acknowledging the wonder of it all—every single day.
No doubt though, despite the gorgeous day, she was becoming weary of the walk. Four miles round trip was perhaps too much to tackle this first time out. Yet, she really shouldn’t feel this tired; she’d taken a nice long nap after lunch. Still . . . er Dr. Balfour had said she would have some lingering effects of the medicine in her system for quite some time. He had told her that a major plus would be that the residual amounts of the Sorafenib would continue to do its work, keeping any new tumors from forming—causing them to dissolve, shrink, soften . . . and then melt and disappear before they had a foothold. All good words for those nasty evil tumors.
Melt was the word she preferred to use. It had become her focus word. She had often sat staring, concentrating on her chest wall and willing those three small remaining tumors to completely dissolve. She had visualized them melting like M&Ms on a bed of freshly steamrolled asphalt—on an August day in Louisiana. Then she would grin as she imagined a summer downpour washing the remnants away—down the drain, deep into the earth. Away from any place a human could touch.
Over the last two years she had learned to use the power of her mind to go deep into her consciousness and envision things the way she wanted them to be instead of the way they were. Her positive thoughts to her negative disease kept her grounded and made her feel less helpless, less like a victim. As if she could have a hand in her recovery.
She had told herself all along that she would have a hand in her recovery. And ultimately, she had. She, along with her doctors, had charted a course, and now she was on the sunny side of the beastly mess. Her disease, hemangioendothelioma, known as E.H.E., had been vanquished—for now. She was in remission, although her particular type of cancer could be either waiting in the wings or gone forever. One never knew for sure. She sighed and blinked her eyes hard. She would live the rest of her life waiting to hear if her nemesis had deigned to reappear. It had been in her lungs this time, thirty nodules bilaterally—meaning in both lungs. But it could reappear anywhere, at anytime, or it could leave her alone to become a doddering centenarian.
When she was first diagnosed, there were too many tumors to just go in and get them out, but too few to make her systematic, meaning aware of them and suffering symptoms related to them. She’d been lucky in that aspect. They might not have found them for years if she’d been able to shake the bronchitis that had led to her having that fateful x-ray. Cancer. God, that had been one hell of a way to stop a life that was just showing a helluva lot of promise. She’d just tested for her C.P.A., signed a lease for an uptown office, and moved from her crappy old apartment into a really nice townhouse near the river. And, oh yeah, she’d just gotten engaged.
She’d heard about the stigma of cancer, but had never really thought about it until that day. But that Wednesday afternoon, her emotions ratcheted to the pinnacle, had been a defining moment. Her psyche had been shaken. Her core shifted as if a battering ram had run through her. Within moments, her belief in herself as someone above the cut and working toward the top echelon in her little circle of humanity, had suddenly been shifted. It was almost as if someone had stamped a big REJECT sticker on her forehead. She was defective now, someone to be culled away from the rest of the bright performers and sent away to either be discarded, or put back together in the proper, acceptable manner.
That evening, it hadn’t helped her essence of spirit to learn her fiancé now felt her unworthy to wear his ring, that he refused to be there to share this battle with her. He had no problem telling her that he found her lacking now. She no longer fit the role of the perfect society bride he’d had in mind. She was flawed. And he was having no part of that.
But Mags was a fighter. She determined that after all her hard work this was not going to take her out of the game. And she was not going to spend a moment suffering heartache over a man who had turned out to be unworthy. She was glad she’d found out now, that “’til death do us part” did not apply to him.
She treated the news of her illness as if it was a test of some sort, one that required rigid course work much like the classes she had taken in her final year of postgraduate school. The ones that had kept her up late at night and at home on weekends, her nose against the screen of her laptop, her fingers paging through text books that had cost almost as much as her rent.
In the end, the only things she’d lost were her modesty—as it seemed every doctor she saw was focused entirely on her chest, though mostly through scans—and her scumbag fiancé. He too had been interested in her chest, but certainly not if there was going to be any cutting going on. In fact, he had made it clear that he wasn’t going to be onboard for nausea, fatigue, weight issues, or hair loss either.
He’d called and left a message on her answering machine the next afternoon when he knew she’d be at work, so he wouldn’t have to talk to her. He’d asked for his ring to be sent back, saying it had cost him three months’ income.
Her sister, in high dudgeon, had already taken the ring back to the jeweler and sold it. She had said, “Bloody hell, it might be three months’ income to him, but it’s nine mortgage payments to you. Let that bastard sue you. When you show up in court bone thin with a bald head, let’s see who the judge favors.”
She adored her sister, always had. Kara had read reams of material on her disease, taken her to every doctor’s appointment, held her hair back from her face over every open toilet, until there was no hair, and made sure her life ran as smooth as it could while she was treated with powerful drugs that left her dizzy and frail. Now that she was recovered, she owed it to Kara to rebound and make her proud.
She saw Kara running toward her now, phone in hand, never hesitant to call for help for her. Seeing the worried look on her face, she forced herself to smile and make it up the beach and into her waiting arms. Yes, she was tired, she had walked way more than she should have. But with Kara’s help, she was alive, and she was back. Life was good—so very good.