Canyon Creek, Texas, August, 2001
“I am not moving to San Jose!” Hope Wilson surged out of her chair and sent it toppling.
Arthur Burrows raised a hand. “Calm down, please. I know this isn’t easy for you.”
Hope leaned forward, bracing her hands on the lawyer’s desk. “Isn’t easy for me?” Her eyes stung and she felt the familiar tightening in her chest, but she refused to let the tears come. The anger somehow made her feel alive again. “My mother’s funeral was yesterday, now you tell me this, and you say it’s not easy?”
“I know this is all very difficult. No one could’ve foreseen your mother passing away so suddenly. Why don’t you sit down?” he encouraged. “Let’s finish going over your mother’s will.”
Instead, Hope spun around and moved to the window. Outside, the brilliant sunshine filtered through the high canopy of ash and oak trees. Wicker baskets hung from decorative lampposts, their profusion of flowers spilling over in bold sweeps of color. People strolled along the wide, cobblestoned sidewalks of Center Street, as if they didn’t have a care in the world.
How could everything look so normal when her life was over?
“Hope, please sit down,” Arthur repeated.
She was on the verge of another tirade but stopped herself. She couldn’t blame Mr. Burrows. He hadn’t caused her problems. He was her mother’s lawyer, and if anybody could help her find a way out of this predicament, it would be him. It certainly wouldn’t serve her purposes to antagonize him.
She turned from the window and strode to the chair, righted it and flopped down. Continuing to fight a battle with her temper, she could almost hear her mother’s admonition about being polite and respectful. It made her want to cry again. “Sorry about the way I behaved just now,” she said in a subdued voice. “But I’m not moving to San Jose.”
“Now, Hope.” Arthur sat back. “I’m afraid you don’t have much choice.”
“But my mother wanted Aunt Clarissa to take care of me. You said it’s in her will.”
“That’s true,” Arthur agreed patiently. “However, your father’s rights override your mother’s wishes in this case.”
Hope’s fury began to simmer once more, but it was overshadowed by a debilitating sense of anguish and fear, of being alone. “You can’t make me leave Canyon Creek. I’m not a child anymore,” she cried, but suddenly felt very much like one. Even to her own ears she sounded like one. She blinked furiously to stave off the tears.
“Look, Hope. I understand how upsetting this is for you, but you really don’t have a say in the matter. According to Texas law, at seventeen you’re still a minor. When I notified your father that Rebecca had passed away, his lawyer contacted me immediately. He was unequivocal about the fact that your father wants you to live with him.” Arthur’s voice turned conciliatory. “He’s your father. He’s family. Where better for you to be, with your mother gone?”
“He is not my family!” Hope raised her eyes to the ceiling and took three deep breaths. “He stopped being my father when he walked out on Mom and me, when I was two. I don’t even remember him. Don’t make me go,” she pleaded. “Mom had some money saved, and I have our house. I can work part time while I finish school.”
“Hope, you don’t have to do that. Your father is a very wealthy man. Financially, he’s prepared to give you a lot more than the allowance your mother was receiving from him. He’s willing to take you in, pay for your education. You can’t imagine how hard that would be for you on your own, even if it was a possibility.”
“What about what he did when he left? Closing down his business and hurting all the people who depended on those jobs? He and my mother grew up with the people who worked for him. What kind of man does that to his friends? How guilty do you think that’s always made me feel? And you want me to go live with a man like that?”
“It’s not a matter of me wanting you to live with him. It’s what he wants.”
Hope swiped a hand under her nose. “I don’t want to leave. I want to stay here. Aunt Clarissa said she’d move to Canyon Creek to be with me. You’re a lawyer. Can’t you figure something out?” she beseeched. “Other kids my age are allowed to live on their own.”
“It’s called emancipation and it’s rare. There has to be a reason for a court to grant that. I’m afraid there’s no compelling argument in your case. Take some time, Hope. Get used to the idea. I’m sure it’ll turn out just fine.”
Luke Carter pushed away from the bicycle rack he’d been leaning against as soon as Hope came out of the building. With his long strides, he was next to her almost instantly. “How did it go?”
“Okay,” she mumbled, walking past him.
“Hey. Hey!” He hurried after her and reached for her hand. “You don’t look like it went okay.”
She yanked free and stuffed both hands in her pockets to keep Luke from grabbing one again. Her head bent, she moved forward at a brisk pace.
“Hey!” He passed her and stopped directly in her path, grasping her shoulders. She kept her head lowered, her long mahogany hair hiding her face. Luke shook her gently, and bent down to study her face. “It’s me. You can’t lie to me.”
When Hope remained silent, he gave her another light shake. “It’s me,” he said again. “You can tell me anything.”
On top of the pain and fear, Hope was now livid with herself. What was she doing, shutting him out? This was Luke. Her best friend since they were in grade school. Her boyfriend since last year. Luke had been there for her all her life. She knew firsthand how hard it was when people you cared about left you—as her father had and now in a different way her mother, too. How could she tell Luke that she was leaving Canyon Creek? That she was leaving him.
Hope let out a ragged breath. Through lowered lashes, she studied Luke’s perfect face, the thick mop of chestnut-brown hair, and those expressive gold-flecked amber eyes that made her think of a lion. How was she going to do it? How was she going to break the news to Luke, explain to all their friends that she was going to live with the man who’d caused so much harm to their town and to many of their families?
She pulled one hand out of her pocket and placed it gently in the crook of Luke's arm. “I just need a little time.” She saw the flicker of frustration on his face before compassion eclipsed it. He took a step back and to the side. “Yeah, okay. But remember I’m here. Whatever you need. We’ve always been there for each other.”
“I know.” She rose up on her toes to kiss his cheek. “I appreciate it.”
Hope walked home alone to the little brick bungalow she and her mother had shared since they’d been on their own, and let herself in.
Once inside, she stood very still. Everything was the same, but everything had changed.
She knew Aunt Clarissa was there because her Camry was parked in the driveway.
Aunt Clarissa, who lived in San Antonio about two-and-a-half hours southwest, had hurried to Canyon Creek to be with Hope when Hope's mother had collapsed from a burst brain aneurysm a week ago, killing her without any symptoms or warning. Fortunately, as a survey associate for a market research company, Clarissa was able to work anywhere there was a telephone and an internet connection. They’d talked about Clarissa’s moving to Canyon Creek and becoming Hope’s legal guardian, as her mother’s will specified. With the lawyer’s bombshell, that was no longer an option.
Maybe if Clarissa was truly her aunt it would’ve been possible. But just like Hope, her mother had been an only child. Rebecca and Clarissa had become best friends as teenagers, and Clarissa was the closest thing to family that Hope had. She’d called her aunt since she was a toddler, and loved her as much as she could’ve loved any family member.
Clarissa had wanted to accompany her to the meeting with the lawyer, but Hope knew Clarissa was in the middle of a project with a tight deadline. When a problem had arisen that morning, Hope had insisted she’d be fine on her own. Besides, Luke had offered to walk over to the lawyer’s office with her, to keep her company and then wait for her outside. In the end, Clarissa had agreed to stay home. Now Hope had to tell her what the lawyer had said. Unlike the way she had with Luke, she wouldn’t be able to forestall the inevitable with Clarissa.
Hope found Clarissa in the kitchen, bent over her laptop, fingers flying across the keys. Red-framed reading glasses perched on the bridge of her nose, and her hair looked as if she’d dragged her fingers through it more than once. Her foot tapped the tile floor to some silent beat. Clarissa always seemed to have limitless energy, yet just seeing her calmed Hope, and eased her feeling of despair.
Clarissa had been there for her, as had Luke, in the long, dark days since her mother died. Now Hope would have to say goodbye to her, too. Canyon Creek and Clarissa’s home in San Antonio were a world away from where she'd be living in California. Hope’s throat clogged with unshed tears, and she tried to clear it with a little cough.
Clarissa’s fingers stilled. Noticing Hope, she jumped up and rushed over, pulling her into a comforting hug. “You’re back. How’d it go?”
“Not good,” was Hope’s muffled response.
With a final squeeze, Clarissa stepped away, and searched Hope’s face. The concern in her eyes was enough to make Hope lose control, and her body began to shake.
Clarissa slid an arm around Hope’s waist and guided her to the kitchen table. “Here. Sit. I’ll get you a cup of tea.” She passed Hope a box of tissues, fixed two cups of tea and sat next to her. “I knew I should’ve gone with you. I just knew it. Tell me what happened.”
Hope reached for a tissue and blew her nose. “The lawyer—Mr. Burrows—he says I have to live with my father. Move to San Jose,” Hope said in a strangled voice.
“Your father?” Clarissa appeared shocked. “How is that possible?”
Hope’s face crumpled, and another deluge of tears threatened. She managed to explain what the lawyer had told her. “He…he said I…I don’t have a choice.” Her voice sounded that of a much younger child rather than the adult she had so vehemently asserted she was to Arthur Burrows. “What am I going to do?”
Although they’d spoken about the possible scenarios, Clarissa had insisted she’d move to Canyon Creek so Hope wouldn’t have to leave her school and her friends. Now it seemed she’d be uprooted anyway, forced to live in a place she’d never seen, with a father who was a complete stranger to her. “This is so unfair,” she wailed. “Mom was only forty-three. Why did she have to die?”
Hope’s hands were busy shredding a damp tissue, and Clarissa enfolded them in her own. “There are no easy answers to your questions, honey. I’m not sure anyone knows what causes a brain aneurysm, and there’s no telling when or if it will rupture. It was sudden, which means your mom didn’t suffer. There should be some comfort in that.”
Hope pulled her hands back and dropped her head into them as she continued to weep.
Clarissa wrapped her arms around Hope and rocked her gently. “Oh, Hope. I’m so sorry.” When Hope’s tears slowed and her breathing leveled, Clarissa eased back. She got another tissue and mopped the moisture streaming from Hope’s eyes. “I should’ve gone with you.”
“No. No, it’s okay. It wouldn’t have changed anything.”
“Well, this isn’t right.” Clarissa rose. Riffling through the letters and notes in a basket on the kitchen counter, she located the lawyer’s business card.
Hope felt a glimmer of optimism. She held her breath as Clarissa had a mostly one-sided conversation with Arthur Burrows, concluding the call with, “I see. Yes, tomorrow’s fine,” and a curt, “Thank you.”
“What did Mr. Burrows say?” Hope asked as Clarissa sat back down.
She smoothed a few tendrils of Hope’s hair from her forehead. “I’m going to see him tomorrow. We’ll see what can be done.”
Hope was sitting on the front steps of the house, a book on her lap, when Clarissa returned from her meeting with the lawyer. Clarissa lowered herself to the step and slid an arm around Hope’s shoulder, drawing her close.
“I’m sorry, honey,” Clarissa began. “I think Mr. Burrows is right. If your father wants you to live with him, there’s not much we can do.”
“But you said I could stay with you!”
“I did. But I never expected that we’d hear from your father—or that he’d insist on having you live with him.”
“Can’t we stop him? Can’t we get him to change his mind?”
Clarissa ran a hand down the length of Hope’s hair.
“I don’t think so. Your father has the law on his side. Jock’s lawyer made it clear to Mr. Burrows that he’s adamant. Mr. Burrows didn’t get the feeling that it was negotiable.”
“Can’t we take some sort of legal action?”
“Your father has money, lots of it. Even if we wanted to fight him in court, we’d run out of money long before Jock felt the slightest ripple in his net worth. I’m sorry, but I can’t see any way around it. It’ll be okay, honey,” Clarissa tried to reassure Hope.
“How can it be? I don’t know my father. I’ve never been to California. You and Luke and all my friends are here. It’s going to be awful.”
“I’m sure it’s not going to be that bad. We’ll only be a phone call, Skype or e-mail away. I’m certain your father will let you visit, too.”
“That…that’s not…the same.” Hope could barely get the words out, she was sobbing so hard.
“Come here…shh.” Clarissa held Hope tighter. “You’re going to be eighteen in less than a year. At eighteen, you’ll legally be an adult. If things don’t work out for you with your father, you can live with me then. But give it a chance first, okay?”
“It’s almost a whole year. My friends will forget about me. And Luke…Luke will have a new girlfriend.”
Hope thought about her father leaving her. Now her mother was gone, and it seemed that Aunt Clarissa was abandoning her, too, despite her promise. If she moved, Hope faced losing everyone close to her. She’d be all alone.