Return to You

cover return to you pichiThis book is 84K words of epic heart wrenching love! 

Check out the first two chapters below. Drops July 29th 2020! 

*Unedited and may change

CHAPTER ONE

Autumn

 

I judge airplane flights on a drink scale. The drinks being alcoholic beverages, and the scale being how many I should have to get me through the terrifying experience of hurtling through the sky in a metal tube. 

I’ve checked the weather and I know what the skies have in store for me on my trip from New York City to Phoenix. If only I could use radar to see what’s in store for me once I land. Going back home to the small town I left ten years ago doesn’t exactly fill me with excitement. 

The flight-attendant on this flight has a kind, lopsided smile, and the second my backside is firmly planted in my first-class seat, I request a glass of wine from her.

So far, it’s a one-wine glass kinda flight. That’s bound to change though, especially with the shitstorm of a day I’ve had.

I smile gratefully when she hands me the dark red liquid. My nose dips into the glass and I inhale before taking a sip. I’m not one of those people, the wine connoisseur with the discerning palate. It’s just I find the scent of the wine comforting. It’s my airplane ritual, a signal to my brain that it’s time to relax. Wine and I are old friends.

My shoulders are the first to relax, inching down from my ears, followed by the unraveling of the muscles in my upper back. Passengers board as I unwind, and I watch them casually, my gaze flickering away if our eyes happen to meet.

I’ve always feared prolonged eye contact with strangers. Or… maybe not always. Just since then. I fear that someday, a person sensitive to the sins of others, will look at me and know. The way an animal senses an earthquake before it happens, they will see in my soul the dark stain of shame.

Shame stains all of us, but not everybody nurtures it the way I do. I could let it go, but it would take with it more than just it’s smudge. It would take him and I’m not sure I can do that.

I chug the rest of my glass, but promise myself to wait until we’re in the air to order another. I can’t show up and be drunk in front of my poor sick mother. Her life is hard enough as it is, there’s no way I’m going to pile my troubles onto her. She needs a doting, thoughtful daughter, and that’s exactly what she’s going to get.

 I’m so busy thinking of my mother that I barely register the woman who’s had one too many facelifts until she nestles in across from me. Her fingers are decorated with a diamond ring on each finger which she clutches her tiny Pomeranian like a life raft. We share a quick glance before I turn away.

I don’t belong up here in first-class. I make good money, but spending it on a fancy ride from the east coast to the desert, feels wasteful. I’ve made this same trek a dozen times since I moved to Manhattan, but I’ve always flown coach. Until now… Until my mom called and asked me to move home. Then I dropped everything: my job, my apartment, and two grand on a last minute airplane ticket.

My gaze stays firmly fixed out the window. The sky darkens, but the night steadily lights up. It’s mostly a white-yellow, the light from apartments, but there are neons too. And, tonight, the top of the Empire State Building is purple.

My upper body shifts forward in my seat as the plane backs away from the gate. We enter the runway, join the lines of other planes waiting their turn, then pick up speed. Nerves claw at my gut as I think of what I’m leaving behind, what I’m going home too. The unknowns that hide in every corner of my old town like hidden shadows waiting to pull me under.

Fuck this day.

My fingers press into the cold window, the heat from my skin leaving behind slick marks, as I whisper goodbye to the city I spent six years calling home.

The plane lifts off, and the feeling of weightlessness makes me gasp. The sprawling city twinkles at an awkward angle as we ascend. When I first came here, twenty-two years old and eager, this place smelled like hope and possibility. Now I know better. No matter how good something seems in the beginning, it cannot possibly maintain it’s luster. Eventually, everything fades.

      

**

“Folks, we have touched down in Phoenix. Current temperature is eighty-six degrees, and unfortunately it’s only five a.m. So you can expect that number to increase.”

The pilot continues to thank us for choosing the airline, but it’s drowned out by the collective moan of passengers after hearing the early morning temperature.

The heat doesn’t bother me. Where I’m headed, two hours north of the valley, it’ll be twenty degrees cooler. But considering what’s waiting for me there, it’s not an even trade-off.

I gather my purse and slip from the plush seat when it’s my turn, leaving behind the complimentary blanket and headphones.

Not gonna lie, first class was amazing, but my wallet can’t afford to make a habit out of it. Now that I’m jobless I’ll need to go on a budget until I can find something else.

As I slip past sluggish travelers wheeling heavy carry-ons, I notice their zombie-like appearance. I’ve always been a morning person, trained to function on little sleep, so the early hour isn’t a problem for me. A few hours of sleep on the plane is enough to carry me through until I can grab a nap later today.

The energy zinging through me now has nothing to do with sleep. Despite the reason I’ve come back, I’m excited to see my mom.

The thought has me moving faster, propelling me around a family wearing brightly colored Hawaiian shirts. I sneak a peek at them as I pass, and they all look tired, mildly sunburned, and a little depressed.

I see my mom as soon as I round the corner. She stands only a few feet beyond security. Any closer and the TSA employee would probably ask her to take a few steps back.

A grin stretches my face. She looks good. Skinnier than I imagined but healthy. Bits of silvery gray weave through her shoulder-length brown hair, showing me what I will one day look like. I don’t even allow the other half of my DNA into the equation. I think of my dad as a donor, and that’s it. He walked out on my mom before my first birthday and so he doesn’t deserve more than a fleeting thought. 

The closer I get to her, the more my eyes take in. I see it now. The way her t-shirt hangs limply on her body, and then I realize she’s in a long-sleeve and it’s hot out. There are deep bruises on her legs and my mouth goes dry.

I don’t mean for my smile to falter, but it does, and like a reflection in a mirror, her grin falls a fraction too.

The cancer has returned. It has hit her not once, not twice, but three fucking times.

Who the hell gets cancer three times? It’s not fair, but I can’t go down the road right now or I’ll end up cursing God in the middle of this airport.

The odds aren’t good for her… but I am here now and I’ll be dammed if cancer is going to take my mother from me.

Maybe my presence will be the difference. During her first two diagnoses, she’d told me to stay in New York and keep working. I’d argued, but my mom isn’t somebody to be argued with. She’s stubborn and firm, and I’d have better luck arguing with a brick wall. So I listened. I also knew she needed my help financially, even though she didn’t say it. The best way for me to help was to stay at my job and keep climbing, making sure those paychecks came in and got bigger along the way.  I sent her a chunk of money each month and she accepted it gratefully.

But this time, when she called to tell me about the current diagnosis, she asked me to come home. She didn’t tell me to stay put, like she had before, she just told me she’d pick me up at the airport. 

That’s how I knew it was bad.

I won’t let her see my fear now. I won’t make her console me, not when her energy is needed so badly on the inside. I’m here now, and I will add all my strength to this fight.

Walking the last few feet past the TSA employee standing like a sentry, I pass the sign that reads No re-entry beyond this point and straight into my mother’s open arms.

She is smaller, and it feels like a role reversal. I am, for the very first time, bigger than her.

But she still smells like my mom. Her lemon and lavender scent sinks into me, silently providing me comfort. My throat clenches with emotion but I clear it and keep my shit together.

As she pulls back, her eyes search my face. Concern pulls at her skin, deepening the lines. “Did you get any sleep on the plane?”

“A little.”

“How many wines?”

A smile tugs up one corner of my mouth. “It was a two-wine flight.”

“No turbulence, then?”

Other than the turbulence of leaving my career behind to go and care for my sick mother?

I shake my head. “Not really.” I’d been grateful for the smooth skies during the flight, but I had the second glass of wine because I couldn’t shake my thoughts of him

No matter how hard I try, memories of Owen Miller are on a tether. They are connected to me, and the slightest tug brings them bounding back.

I want to avoid him. It shouldn’t be too hard, not in a town like Sedona. There are enough tourists, enough vacationers, and as long as I avoid the places frequented by locals, I won’t be likely to run into him.

None of that will work though. He broke my heart, I broke his, and we walked away from the mangled remains of a love that had burned so bright it was blinding.

After what we went through, I should avoid him at all costs.

Too bad he’s my mother’s fucking oncologist.

That was karma giving me a big old kick up the ass.

Thanks Universe.

My mom knows I’m thinking about him. She can see it in my eyes, and I can see it in the pitying look on her face.

Reaching out, she wraps an arm around my shoulder and steers me toward the elevator bank. “It’ll be okay, sweetheart.”

I’m not sure if she’s referring to her cancer, or me being forced to have Owen Miller in my life again.

“Sure, Mom,” I agree quickly, slipping my arm around her waist and dragging my bag behind me. My palm rests on her hipbone and I swallow the lump in my throat.

“Baggage claim?” She asks when we reach the elevators, even though she has already pressed the button.

I nod, letting my head tip to the side so I can lay it on her shoulder. My mom has different plans though. She lets go of my shoulders and takes a big step away from me. Her eyes light up, mischievous.

“Guess,” she says, raising her eyebrows up and down twice.

Despite my anxiety, my fear and my sadness, I grin. Quickly I glance around at the numbers above the elevator doors. “Six,” I say.

“One,” she counters, her eyes on the small white number.

We’ve played this game as long as I can remember. Whoever guesses which elevator will open, or the number closest to it, gets a prize. When I was little it was a stop for a donut before starting the long drive home from the airport. After I turned sixteen, it was who had to be the driver.

We wait, expectant, and then a ding fills the air. Our eyes swing toward the sound. Elevator five.

Mom makes a face. “I lost. I’ll drive.”

“No, I’ll drive. I miss driving,” I tell her, stepping on first and sticking out my hand to ensure the doors don’t start to close before she can get on. I can’t believe she has even made the two hour drive from Sedona to Phoenix in the first place.

“You didn’t get much sleep on the plane.” She frowns.

“I got enough,” I argue. “A stop for some strong coffee and I’ll be good to go.”

She looks tired, there is no way I am making her drive.

Mom relents, and instead of relief, I feel sadness. The mom I’ve known my whole life would insist on being the driver, she’d dig in her heels and order me to get in the car. Not anymore.

After we collect my bags, I wheel them to her car, and get in the driver seat.

I turn on the air conditioning, but after fifteen minutes my mom reaches into the backseat and grabs a sweatshirt. When she pulls it on, I turn down the air with a frown.

“Nonsense,” she argues, “that’s why I’m putting this on.”

“I was getting cold too,” I lie. Does she not have enough fat on her bones to keep her warm? The thought completely freaks me out and my knuckles go white on the steering wheel.

I stop for coffee, ordering a double espresso for me, a tall morning blend for mom, and two breakfast sandwiches. The two hour drive isn’t bad, but I want to get on the road before rush hour traffic so I shoot the espresso as if it’s tequila, and we keep going. In between chatting, we eat our breakfast sandwiches as I point the car north. For the next ninety minutes I stay on the same interstate, watching the scenery switch from bustling city, to suburbs, to Saguaros, to scrubby brush. Beside me, my sweet Mom sleeps against the glass window.

I alternate between driving and glancing at her. My mom. My protector, encourager, and teacher. I cannot live without her.

Owen has to save her.

 

CHAPTER TWO

Owen

 

I never knew what tired meant until I became a doctor. I imagine it’s like having two newborns on opposite sleep schedules. Not that I would know from experience. 

It’s not really the hours I spend at the hospital that exhaust me. I’m fine on my feet for extended periods of time. It’s the emotional exhaustion I’m referring to.

Working in oncology will do that to you. Having patients regularly die hardens your soul.

Especially this morning… I wish with all my strength that my ten o’clock appointment wasn’t with Faith Cummings.

In med school I’d heard of patients who became like family. But what about people who were like family and then became patients? Med school didn’t have a chapter on that one.

I was an intern the first time Faith was diagnosed. The second time, I was a resident. And this time, I’m her doctor. As my career developed, so did Faith’s cancer. The maudlin parallel isn’t lost on me.

I’m not stopping at oncologist, though. I’m in a surgical fellowship, and when it’s over I’ll be a surgical oncologist.

Which basically means I can remove tumors from patients here in Sedona, instead of sending them down to Phoenix. Tumors have always fascinated me, when you resected the pink healthy tissue, there it was, like a wadded piece of gum, and so clearly alien to its surroundings.

Before I can head into Faith’s exam room, I need food and coffee. I have to fuel up before I see her, because each appointment with her leaves me emotionally drained. It’s not the fact that she looks so much like her daughter, a daughter who was simultaneously the great love and complete destroyer of my life. Okay it’s a little bit that. But mostly, it’s the fact that Faith is like a second mother to me and the pressure to save her life is so heavy, at times it crushes me.

“Hey, Theresa.” I stop in front of the woman sitting behind the nurses’ desk. She looks up slowly from the computer, her chin leading the way and her eyes the last part of her face to rise.

“What’s up, doc?”

I want to make a joke about Bugs Bunny, but I don’t dare. Theresa is no-nonsense. To be honest, she scares me a little. What she lacks in warmth, she makes up for in ability. Nothing shakes her. If I needed medical care, I’d request Theresa as my nurse any day.

My gaze shoots down the hall, then back to Theresa’s cool expression. “I’m mentally preparing for Faith Cummings’ appointment.”

At the mention of Faith, warmth trickles into Theresa’s chocolate-brown eyes. Theresa loves her work, but she especially loves Faith. After all the years Faith has been coming here, they’ve formed a friendship.

She leans forward, her floral printed scrub top crinkling against the edge of the desk. “Don’t tell anybody, but about ten minutes ago I put homemade cinnamon rolls in the staff room.” Her tone is hushed, and when she says the words homemade cinnamon rolls, she whispers.

My palms meet in front my chest, pushing together as if in prayer while I try to contain my drool. “Thank you,” I mouth. Theresa is an amazing nurse but an even better baker.

She sits back in her chair and focuses on whatever she was doing at the computer, as if I never stopped by.

I leave, my steps quickened by the smell and taste of sweet cinnamon even though I’m not there yet. Funny how taste and smell can be burned into your memory. There’s a certain someone living in Manhattan whose fault it is that I can still smell cucumber melon scented lotion without needing to be anywhere near it. But I don’t think about that. About her. Those thoughts aren’t allowed anywhere near me, because if I let them in, they won’t stop. Like an angry mob at the closed gates of a kingdom, they will pound at my walls until they break in. Focusing on the taste of cinnamon rolls is much, much safer for the well-being of my heart. 

I’m the third person to help myself to the pastry. There are only twelve in total, and the remaining nine will be gone in minutes. Thank God Theresa likes me. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have said a word to me.

If I were Ace, for example, Theresa would’ve kept her mouth shut. She doesn’t like my best friend. She thinks he’s a player, and to be fair, he is one. It took him getting his heart smashed just one time, and Ace Drakos became a self-titled bachelor for life. It’s made for some drama around the hospital, but he makes it clear from the outset what he’s about. Still, it doesn’t seem to stop some of the woman from giving him dirty looks. Or keeping delicious homemade pastries a secret from him.  

I’m the nice guy, the good cop, the one you give secret pastries to.

As I finish my roll, I down the contents of a too-hot cup of coffee, and leave the staff room with a sweet yet slightly burnt taste on my tongue.

Time to see Faith.

**

           “How’s my favorite patient?” I beam as I step into the room. I say that to everyone, but she’s the only one I mean it with.

“Hey there,” Faith smiles as she speaks. For someone so sick, Faith never stops appearing happy. Once, during her second battle, I’d complimented her upbeat attitude. She told me joy is a choice and she’d choose it any chance she got.

I think of her words frequently, but I haven’t fully followed her advice. In my job, even if there is more good than bad, the bad is so heavy it often outweighs the wins. Sometimes I regret my choice to go into oncology, it’s a constant balance beam of saving people and watching them die.

“Good morning, Faith,” I return her smile, and close the door behind me. “How are you feeling?”

“Good as new,” she responds, cheerful.

To be honest, she does look peppier than the last time I saw her. Her eyes are twinkling. Her legs, dangling from the examination table, softly bump against it.

She’s excited about something.

It makes me happy to know something has excited her. The current state of Faith’s world is anything but happy. I find myself wondering what it could be but try to keep a distance emotionally during our appointments.

“Let’s get this exam under way.” It will be quick. A cursory exam before chemo can begin in a few days. I check her lymph nodes and glance for the tenth time at her blood work. “Everything looks good to start chemo Faith.”

She’s a veteran to what some of my patients call ‘the poison drip’, she simply nods her head, fearless.

I’m busy checking her blood pressure when she says, “I have a question for you. A hypothetical question.”

With my feet firmly planted on the ground, I push back, and the stool I’m sitting on rolls a foot away from Faith. “What’s up?” I ask, looking up at her.

Please don’t ask me what percentage chance I think she has to go into remission this time. I hated the question, and I couldn’t do it with her. If made me feel like I was playing God and even a skilled doctor and mathematician can never get that question one hundred percent right. The fact that her cancer is back again for a third time is not good.

“If a person knew something that might make another person feel a certain way, should they tell them about that something?” Faith raises an eyebrow.

My insides tighten. It’s ridiculous. We haven’t talked about Autumn in a long time, and yet I know it’s about her. Faith is being sneaky which isn’t her normal demeanor. I swallow hard, readying myself to hear bad news. Autumn’s getting married. Autumn’s pregnant. Autumn anything. The ever-present pain stabs at my heart as I imagine what Faith is about to say. My memory kicks in, the angry mob bangs on the gate, and I see Autumn in my mind.

There she is, the girl who owns every piece of my younger self.

The girl who haunts my nights, my days, and every relationship I’ve tried to have since her.

The girl who massacred my heart and left me for dead.

I push past the turmoil inside and ask, “This something you refer to…will it make the person feel bad? Or good?”

Faith purses her lips and tucks her hair behind her ear. “Definitely bad. But also, maybe good?”

“Maybe good?” I ask, my eyebrows raised. Maybe it’s not about Autumn after all. I can’t imagine there’s anything Faith would know about Autumn that would make me feel maybe good. “I suppose those are pretty decent odds. I’d want to know. Hypothetically speaking, of course.” I wink at Faith, the vise-like grip on my stomach loosening. 

“Autumn’s home.”

No tightening in my core now. Just a feeling like my bones have turned to jelly and they’re undulating inside me like ribbons in the wind. Those two words send me over the edge.

“Owen?” Faith’s forehead leans closer, urging me to speak.

My throat is dry but I find words. “For how long?”

Faith looks away. She shrugs. “I don’t know. She’s moved back for now. Someone took over her lease on her apartment in the city. I suppose it depends on how all this”–she gestures to the room around us–“goes.”

Holy fucking shit. Autumn Cummings was back home. And not like the past, just for a weekend, in which case I could hole up inside to make sure I didn’t run into her. She was back. I realize now that she’s come back to care for her mother which means Faith must be thinking this is her last fight.

“It’s going to work, Faith,” I assure her, remembering that I’m the doctor here and need to comfort my patient. I don’t know that, of course. I don’t have a crystal ball, or a magic wand. All I have is an ardent desire for a favorable outcome.

Faith extends a hand between us, and I catch it.

“Of course it will,” she says, squeezing my hand gently before she lets me go.

The curiosity is killing me. I have to ask. “How is she?”

I regret it the second I say it, I shouldn’t show interest, it will only encourage Faith.We made a pact ten years ago… we don’t talk about Autumn. Now that pact is broken and I want to know everything.

“She flew in on a redeye early this morning. So, right now she’s tired. But I bet she’d be up for a visitor later this afternoon.” Faith’s face looks hopeful.

Is this woman trying to kill me? I can’t see Autumn. No way. She should know better than to encourage us to get together… but of course she doesn’t. She doesn’t know the hell I walked through with her daughter. Neither of us made it out of that fully alive.

My head shakes back and forth. An automatic response. “She doesn’t want to see me, Faith.”

I don’t want to see her either, but because Faith doesn’t know why we broke up, only that it was ugly, so I am trying to play it cool.

Faith lowers herself from the exam table and reaches for her purse, winding it over her shoulder. “Perhaps before I die one of you will finally tell me what happened between you two.” There’s an undercurrent of irritation in her tone.

My only response is a chuckle nervously. If Autumn hasn’t told her mother yet, it means she doesn’t want her to know. And after everything that happened, I can at least respect that.

“That’s what I figured you’d do,” Faith says tartly and the laugh dies in my throat.

Through my lab coat I feel the warmth of her palm, and I turn toward it. Since I was fifteen Faith has been like a mother to me. My own mom left me and my dad when I was five, and when Autumn and I became friends, Faith welcomed me into her home. Soon I became Autumn’s boyfriend. Faith treated me like a member of the family, we had family meals together, she listened to me gripe about the guys on the soccer team and I knew I could go to her with anything. I don’t know what would’ve happened to me without Faith’s love and guidance. I was a flailing teenager, a good kid at my core, but my heart had been broken by the rejection of my own mother. Faith’s presence and inherent mothering filled in the cracks in my heart. 

Autumn might be in pain, knowing this is her mother’s third dance with the devil that is cancer, but she doesn’t have the market cornered. I’m hurting too.

Faith looks at me, hope plain on her face. “So, will you come by for dinner?”

Fuck no. Willingly walk into the lions den and see the woman who owned the scars on my heart?

No way.

“Tonight?” I ask nervously. Shit, it’s hard to deny this sweet woman.

She nods. Dinner on Mondays has become a ritual of ours, and I don’t have anything planned tonight because I assumed I would be eating at her place. It started when she beat cancer the first time. I took her out for a celebratory dinner, and while we were at the restaurant, she’d commented on how nice it was to spend time with me away from her health issues. We’d decided then that we’d make it a weekly occurrence, and aside from illness and the odd vacation, we haven’t missed a Monday. Last month I started mowing her lawns on Sunday, it was safe to say that if Autumn was living at her mom’s, I wouldn’t be able to avoid her without being rude to Faith and that I would never do.

I sigh. “I don’t know, Faith. I’ve got a lot of work to catch up on.” 

Please God let me stay away. Let me resist the hold that Autumn has over my life.

A disappointed look creeps into her eyes, but she’s quick to tuck it back.  

Her upset makes me feel the need to amend my statement. “For now, at least. Give me a few days to catch up on work and I’ll see if I can stop by.”

A few days to think up an excuse on why I could never go over to her house again was more like it. I could avoid Autumn forever, right? I’d just hire a private investigator to map her schedule and favorite stores and then I’d steer clear of them.

The strap on Faith’s purse slips down her arm and she hoists it back up into place. “You’re going to see her sooner or later. Might as well rip the band-aid off.” She winks at me as she says it.

Busted. Faith always has a way of reading my thoughts. She knows this isn’t about work I have to catch up on.

My head tips back in silent laughter. “I’ll keep that in mind.” I watch her walk to the door. “See you soon,” I say with a wave.

Soon being the operative word, Owen.” She gives me a motherly look, the kind with affection and warning rolled into one.

“Yes, ma’am.” I couldn’t deny that woman her happiness, especially since the cancer was back. I’d eventually have to force myself to see the girl who demolished my heart and then go home and lick my wounds like any respectable man.

She slips through the door and I watch it slide into place, closing with a blunted thunk.

A deep breath escapes my chest. My fingers press into my eyes as images of Autumn parade through my mind.

Young, innocent Autumn the day I met her. Only fifteen.

Not-so-innocent Autumn the day I held her in my arms and we passed the point of no return.

Autumn, tears staining her face, as I said things I can’t take back, no matter how much I regret them.

What would it be like to see her now? I have to admit, the idea is exhilarating and terrifying.

Would she turn me away? Invite me in? Throw her arms around me? Smack me across the face?

Excitement presses into the corners of my body. I could see Autumn again. Tonight, if I wanted to. In just a few short hours, I can have the reunion I’ve spent too much time envisioning. For years I thought of what I would say if I ran into her in town, what she would look like… 

I pull my phone from my pocket and pull up Autumn’s name.

After all these years, I’ve kept the same number. I wanted to make sure she always had a way to reach me, in case she needed me. I was a schmuck like that, I liked the pain apparently.

If I kept my number, maybe she has too.

My thumb hovers over the screen, then it drops down. I press her name. It’s dialing.

Holy shit.

I actually did it. I was calling her.

I stare at the screen until I hear a faint ‘hello’ float into the air.

“Uh, hello,” I say, bringing the phone to my ear.

What are you doing you idiot? She tore your heart in two and then popped it into the blender. She ghosted you on an epic level after three years together. HANG UP!

The excitement and trepidation bounding through my chest deflates like a popped balloon as I hear the voice say hello again. It’s not Autumn. Even after all this time, her voice is burned into my soul.

I push on, because I don’t want to hang up on this woman and I don’t know what else to do. “May I speak to Autumn please?”

“No Autumn here,” the woman answers, then hangs up.

My chin rests on the edge of my phone and I look out at the rest of the room.

She changed her number. She knew we were over, she fully let go.

I was the idiot who kept hope alive.

 

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