Emotional. Honest. Real.

Protecting What Is Mine

Chapter 1

“I’ve got a full load for you, Mol. Just relax and give me another minute.”

“Sam, hold up a sec. Maybe this is a mistake.”

“Are you kidding me?” Sam growls. “After all this time and build up? No way are you changing your mind on me now. I’ll be there in a sec.”

I glimpse myself in the mirror and realize I’m chewing my bottom lip again. It’s a nervous tick I actively work to subdue. Most days. Today however, my nerves are firmly in control. But then again, this is not most days. For starters, it’s the Fourth of July, a darn important holiday around these parts. And for another, in a few short hours I will finally—let me repeat, finally—be on my long awaited (and much delayed) first date with Hank Wilde.

Sam walks into my bedroom carrying a pile of clothes so high she can’t see over it. My six-year-old niece, Vanessa, follows on her heels, spilling sandals and slip-ons as she goes. Sam carries the load to my bed and promptly drops everything onto the already sizeable maybe pile. “Phew. See babe, like I said, you have plenty of options.” She turns, stoops to eye level with her daughter, and delicately traces her finger down the young girl’s nose. She smiles as she takes the shoes and sets them at the foot of the bed. “Thank you so much for the help, sweetheart. Now, you go on back to your coloring. Aunt Mollie and I are going to sort through this mess, so we can find the perfect outfit for tonight.”

“Okay, Mommy. Love you.” The girl turns her bright, gap-toothed smile my direction and carefully considers her words before she speaks. “Aunt Mollie, remember what Mommy said…if he cancels again, it’s a problem with him, not with you.” With that, she skips out of the room and back down the hall toward the kitchen.

Sam lovingly watches the girl until she’s out of sight, then returns her attention to me. “Now, if you’ll tell me what your plans are for the evening, maybe we can whittle down this heap.”

“Well…” I trail off as I replay my last conversation with Hank. “I guess we never really got into specifics. Only that it’s the Fourth of July, and we should probably fit in fireworks…at some point.”

Sam brings a hand to her hip. “You mean to tell me, after all this time and all those cancellations, the two of you don’t even have a plan? For your first date?”

I sigh. “For the life of me, I don’t know why it’s taken this long. I mean…” My words trail off again as I reflect on the numerous fails Hank and I have had trying to get together. “I think I’ve had just as many reasons for cancelling as he has. It’s so bad at this point, it’s practically become a running joke between us.” I raise my index finger. “But when he stopped in while I was working at the diner the other day, he assured me, come hell or high water, this time was happening. I guess I was so relieved to hear him say it, I didn’t worry about the details.”

Sam’s eyes soften. “Mol. What is it about this guy? I know the Wilde’s are local royalty and all, but seriously, can one man really be worth so much fuss?”

“Samantha Louise Williams! How many dates have either of us been on in the last year? Combined even?”

Sam rolls her eyes and shakes her head. “Okay. Point taken, but…”

“No buts,” I say, as I walk to the bed and begin sifting through the clothes my cousin/roommate brought me. “I don’t know if he’s Mr. Right, or simply Mr. Right Now, but what I do know…”

Sam wags her finger. “Ahh ahh ah. No buts. Remember?”

“Grr.” I turn my head toward her and squint in mock frustration before beginning again. “What I do know is that his family history and reputation are a far cry from ours. And he’s easy going and funny, and…well, he’s not exactly hard on the eyes either. Plus, whenever he’s around, I have to work at remembering I’m not the only other person in the room. And the way I see it, any man that can do that, is worth a little patience.” The floral accents running along the hem of a blue sundress catch my eye from somewhere deep in the pile. I pull it out and walk to the mirror.

The corner of Sam’s mouth curls up. “Oh yeah. You definitely need to try that one on.”

“And anyway, don’t you think we deserve to raise our expectations? At least a little? It feels like the moment I stopped being okay with guys who considered the golden arches a nice dinner, my social calendar opened up. Like, all the way.”

Sam steps behind me and lifts my sandy blonde curls off my shoulders, scrunching the hair as she considers different styles. “What are we thinking in terms of hair for tonight?”

I bite my lip again. “I really don’t know.”

Sam pulls my hair back as she weighs the possibility of a pony tail. “I guess it’d be fair to say we’ve both had our share of losers, huh? At this point, I believe that’s all I’m ever going to attract.”

My eyes lock on hers through the mirror. “Why would you say that? You’ve got a ton to offer. You’re beautiful, and kind, and caring, and down to earth. Any guy would be lucky to score an evening with you.”

“Hmmm. Maybe I should hire you to do my PR work, because…for some reason…there just doesn’t seem to be that much interest in a twenty-something single mom working a dead-end job and living with a roommate. For the life of me I can’t understand why.” Sam shoots a wry smile back through the mirror.

“Aw hon. Any man that isn’t willing to take the time to understand your special circumstances isn’t worth your time anyway.”

Sam nods. “That’s what I tell myself…every night…as I go to bed alone.” She looks to the ground as she sighs. “That’s enough about my drama. Today is about you. And making sure Mr. Wilde sees how lucky he is to be spending the evening with a catch like you.” Sam wanders back to the bed and picks through the pile, finally returning with a couple other must-try outfits. The first consists of an old white t-shirt emblazoned with The Rolling Stones’ lips and tongue logo that she’s had since we were teenagers. One which is now at least a size too small for our adult frames, coupled with an equally scant pair of cut-offs whose pockets hang freely below the frayed denim.

I look myself over in the mirror and shake my head. “Maybe a little too slutty for a first date. Besides, as much as I love The Stones, don’t you think this baby is ready for retirement?”

Sam rolls her eyes as she hands me another outfit. “Umm? No way. Do you remember that concert? And all the chaos going on at home? That night was exactly what we needed to forget about our drama. Even if it was only for a few hours.” Her eyes drift as she loses herself to the memory. “If only I’d known then how short I was on time for those youthful nights of wild abandon.” She sighs as her attention returns to the present. “Nope, I’ll wear that shirt until the last thread breaks. Besides, when are we ever going to see the Rolling Stones live in concert again? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I wouldn’t trade my time with that little angel in the other room for anything. I’m just saying, you know, if I’d had a voice in the conversation with Clint and that hussy he knocked up, I would have requested they hold off for another year or so.”

“Girl, I don’t know another person on this planet that would’ve done what you did. You gave up everything—your future—to care for your brother’s child.”

Sam blankly stares at me. “You’re joking, right? Wait. Are you being serious?”

The mildly harsh tone behind her words catches me off guard. “Yes, I’m serious. That’s not a small thing for anyone to do, much less an eighteen-year-old.”

“Mol.” Sam plops onto the bed next to the mound of clothing. “Uhh, what about Mom? And… it’s worth remembering she didn’t just take on the burden of one additional mouth to feed. Something she was under no obligation to do, by the way. No, no. She took on two bratty mouths. All while trying to pay for lawyers for your dad, and rent, and food, and…”

I slide off a puffy yellow dress that makes me feel like a marshmallow Peep and hand it to Sam. “Maybe it’s time we start a donation pile. I volunteer this thing to be the first item.” Sam nods as she walks it over and tosses it in the corner. When she returns to her seat on the bed I continue, “Mom definitely burned the candle from both ends to do what she could for us, but that’s what family is all about, right? Besides, you were never anything but a blessing. The little sister I never would have had otherwise, and you were no brat. You did all you could to help make sure she didn’t have to worry about stuff around the house after working a double shift at the diner. Clinton, on the other hand. I mean, you two were a package deal, but sheesh.”

Sam nods in agreement but before she has a chance to speak, my phone buzzes and vibrates around on the dresser. I go to pick it up and stop, frozen, when I see who’s calling. I look at Sam. “Oh no, it’s Hank.” Lip chewing fully engaged.

“Well, answer it. You don’t know if it’s good or bad until you see why he’s calling.”

Seeing as she’s always my voice of reason, I take a deep breath and pray she’s right. “Hey you,” I say to Hank. “What’s going on? Huh? Oh my God! Are you serious?”

My hand covers my mouth as I try to process what I’m hearing. “Is he okay? No, no. Of course, I understand. You’ve got to be with your family right now. Okay. Yeah. Uh, let me know if there’s anything I can do. Okay. Bye.” Tears begin to fall before I can end the call.

“Mol?” Sam is off the bed and standing in front of me in a flash. “What happened? What’s the matter?”

“It’s Hank’s brother…Chet.”

“Yeah? What about him? Babe, what is it?”

“They’re rushing him to the emergency room. I guess the family found him out on the ranch, barely alive.”

“Oh. My goodness. What happened?”

“Hank said they don’t know, just that he’s in real bad shape.”

Sam wraps me in her arms. “Hon, I’m so sorry. If it wasn’t for bad luck, we just wouldn’t have any luck at all, would we?”

Realizing that I’m standing in my bra and underwear like an idiot, for something that’s no longer going to happen, I wipe my eyes and grab my comfiest pair of sweats from the bottom drawer of my dresser. “I think a situation like this calls for ice cream,” I say, trying my best not to think about another almost with Hank Wilde. “Mind if I tag along with you and Nessa for fireworks tonight?”

“You know how that girl feels about her Aunt Mollie. She’ll be ecstatic.”