Excerpt: Paris in the Springtime

 

Chapter One

Paris Cutler slowed as she maneuvered her car around another tight turn. The state highway had followed the stage road which had followed a walking path that had followed a game trail. For a road engineered by wild deer, this isn’t so bad, she mused, grateful she had largely outgrown the motion sickness that had plagued her in childhood. She smiled as she passed a wide pull-out, one her family had dubbed the Paris Pull-over for the many times they had stopped there on her behalf. Local lore held that Black Bart had once held up a stage at this very spot. She thought it likely the victims of the gentleman bandit enjoyed this place more than she did.

Easing into the next turn, she sighed, letting go of tension she had carried for weeks. Or months? She shook her head, determined not to rehash recent events through still another depressing cycle. Concentrate on what you see, she counseled herself. It’s so beautiful here.

The mountain road was indeed beautiful. Downhill, in the Sacramento Valley, the dogwood blossoms were falling, the trees beginning to green with new leaves. But here, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, dogwoods showed off at their loveliest, flashes of white and pink among the new green of the oaks and the gray-green of the pines. Each small increase in elevation added its own beauty—the lacy needles of the redwoods, the dark green of fir, and blue-green of spruce. As always, the natural beauty calmed and nurtured her.

This road had been a part of her life for as long as she could remember. Vague images surfaced from the past: trips to visit grandparents when she was very young and her dad was still living; and then later, visits made with just her mother; treks up and down the hill taking Mom for chemo and then, for dialysis; much later, the shopping forays with high school girlfriends or Aunt Jess. The associations brought mixed emotions. Still, driving this road always felt like coming home.

“Welcome to Destiny. May you find your destiny here.” The sign, perched above its state historical marker, signaled the end of her journey. Minutes later, she pulled into the dooryard of Gran’s two-story craftsman, a hold-over from the Victorian era when Destiny, California had boomed, its ramshackle growth fueled by gold and greed. Once, gold-hungry miners had considered this place their destiny. Thank goodness it isn’t mine!

She honked, the toot-toot code for “I’m home!” Leaving the unpacking for later, she bounded up the back steps and turned the knob on the kitchen door, startled to find it locked. Only then did she notice the note left just above eye-level:

Running a few errands. Back soon. Jess has your key at the school. Love, Gran.

Locks? Keys? This is new. Though it wasn’t the homecoming she had hoped for, the setback was small and a detour to the high school was no big deal. She turned her car in the yard and drove back the way she had come, cruising down a side street to reach the town’s three schools: elementary, middle, and high school lined up, side by side, no more than six-hundred students in all three. The next surprise came when she reached the high school parking lot to find it almost deserted, the only cars in the row reserved for faculty.

“Hi, Mrs. Bailey,” she called as she entered the front office. The school secretary seemed as permanent a fixture as the painted prospector grinning down from the wall of the gym. She had been the front office guardian for as long as Paris could remember.

“Oh, hello there, Paris. You’re looking well.” The secretary seemed genuinely pleased to see her. “Can I help you with something?”

“I’m here to see Aunt Jess. I’m guessing this must be a staff development day?”

“Oh yes, right you are. Professional development today, staff only. The students will be back on Monday.” She turned the guest register toward Paris, laid a pen on its surface, and pushed it toward her. “Go ahead and sign in, dear. The faculty should be just finishing their afternoon session. You’ll probably find Ms. Kerr in Room 18.”

“I remember.” Paris signed her name. “Thanks, Mrs. Bailey.”

“Have a good visit.” The woman turned back to her computer screen and Paris closed the office door behind her—quietly, the way Mrs. Bailey preferred.

Memories assailed her as she walked the familiar hall. Sophomore year, she was the new girl, already bearing a chip on her shoulder because of her mother’s cancer. Too ill to work, Mom had given up her job. That meant losing their condo in the valley and moving to Destiny to live with Gran. Torn from her home and friends and terrified for her mother, Paris had been prickly, introverted, and angry, definitely not easy to befriend. Amber Reyes had befriended her anyway. Paris smiled, remembering the kindness of one of the most popular girls in school. Amber had seen through her veil of indifference and brought her into the community.

By junior year, Paris had been confident enough to run for student office, serving that year as secretary. That was also the year Mr. Frantz joined the faculty, completing his student teaching in Mrs. Elam’s English classes. Twenty-two, tall and handsome, he had won the attention of all the girls in school. Then the class clown announced that if Paris Cutler married the new teacher, she’d be Paris Frantz. “Get it? Paris, France!” Everyone had teased her until Mr. Frantz finished his student teaching and moved on.

Junior year was also when she’d discovered her writing talent. Encouraged by the hot new teacher, she had begun to develop her skill. That eventually led to a career in technical writing, producing user manuals and reports for California’s newest Gold Rush, the booming high-tech industry.

Passing the art classroom brought embarrassing memories of Mr. Wiley’s senior year art elective. Her talent was in words, not visuals, and the fussy art teacher had wasted no effort on false encouragement. When her mother died in the middle of her senior year, Paris had sought and received permission to drop his class, to the relief of both student and teacher. She hurried past the art room and into Room 18.

“Hey, Aunt Jess! How’s California’s best math teacher?”

“Paris! Glad you’re here!” Slim, long-legged Jessica Kerr leaped up and ran around her desk to clasp Paris in a bear hug. “How was your trip? And how’re you doing? You okay?”

Aunt Jess’s concern was predictable but still disconcerting. “I’m okay, bruised but not broken. I just need a little time to regroup.”

“What she did to you was so unfair. I’m sure you have grounds to sue—“

“Jess, if you don’t mind, I don’t want to talk about it now. I don’t even want to think about it.”

“I can understand that. Okay then. On to more pleasant things. Gran is looking forward to having you with us for a while. Have you seen her yet?”

“No. She left a note about running some errands and said you’d have my key. What’s with the keys and locks anyway? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that kitchen door locked.”

Jess sighed. “Looks like the modern world has finally found Destiny in both good and bad ways. The town has had some break-ins lately.”

“Break-ins? Real home invasions?”

“Um-hm. No one hurt, at least not so far. There usually isn’t very much taken, either, usually just some food or a little cash that was left lying around. The sheriff thinks it’s probably just kids. Still, people are starting to be more careful. Gran locks the doors whenever she leaves the house now and before we go to bed at night. Oh, speaking of which…” Jess dug in her purse and came out with a key-ring. “The square silver key unlocks the front door, the smaller silver is for the kitchen door, and the little gold one is—”

“The post office box, right?”

“Right.”

“Still Box 214?”

“You remember.”

“It hasn’t been that long.”

“Guess not. Have you had lunch? I think there’s food at the house—”

Paris smiled. “Don’t worry about me, Aunt Jess. I’ll be fine.” She tucked the keys into her pocket. “I’ll catch you later at the house, okay?”

“Sure, sweetie. Welcome home!”

“Thanks.” Paris leaned in for another quick hug, then threw a smile over her shoulder as she left the room. Her mom had been fifteen when her sister, bonus baby Jessica, was born. Just six years older than Paris, Jess had seemed more like the sister she never had than an authority figure aunt, but that didn’t keep Jess from wanting to take care of her.

If I’m not careful, I’ll fall right back into the kid pattern all over again, both Gran and Aunt Jess fussing over me. Then again, maybe a little pampering wouldn’t hurt. Smiling to herself, she started back toward the office and ran squarely into a solid wall of hard human muscle. Startled, she looked up into the man’s face. “Mr. Frantz? What are you doing here?”

Susan Aylworth writes sweet and clean, contemporary romance novels set in small-town America (USA).

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