Read Birthright Online

Authors: Judith Arnold

Tags: #Romance: Modern, #Contemporary, #General, #Romance, #Romance - Contemporary, #Fiction, #Fiction - Romance, #Non-Classifiable, #Romance - General, #Romance & Sagas

Birthright

BOOK: Birthright
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The first time Aaron had seen Lily had been a cloudless day, and he’d paid the price for staring at her

Looking at Lily was like looking directly into the sun. You could get blinded. In his case, he’d gotten a detention.

He’d been sneaking back into school after slipping outside to have a smoke. He’d listened for the bell and then inched open the door to ease back into the flow of students moving from sixth-period class to seventh. But then he’d glimpsed Lily emerging from the art room. She was so beautiful she’d practically sparkled, and he’d stopped to stare—with the door still open, in full view of the art teacher, who’d dragged him down to the principal’s office to report him for cutting class to go outside for a smoke.

Lily hadn’t even noticed him.

She didn’t notice him now. He turned in time to see her near the front of the church, sliding into a pew with her parents. She didn’t look shattered to him. She looked just as perfect as ever.

It was her father Aaron ought to hate. But he hated
her—
because she was gorgeous and smart, because she’d glowed with confidence, because she’d fed an unruly young teenager’s wildest fantasies, and those fantasies had frightened the hell out of him.

Dear Reader,

Every time a writer writes a new novel, she creates a world.

For
Birthright
, the first book of the RIVERBEND series, I got to create the world of Riverbend, Indiana, with four other authors. I live in Massachusetts, so I really needed their help in getting a feel for small-town Midwestern life. Riverbend’s terrain is quite different from the hilly New England town where my family and I live; the architecture, the types of businesses (there’s no grain elevator in my town!), the scents and sights and sounds are all different.

But people are people, no matter what world a writer creates for them. Men are men and women are women. Our struggles, our laughter, our yearning for love…No matter where we live, whether it’s a real New England village or a fictional Indiana town, the essence of our humanity is universal.

I hope you enjoy spending time in Riverbend as much as I enjoyed living there in my imagination, creating this special world where my hero and heroine, Aaron Mazerik and Lily Holden, find themselves—and each other.

Sincerely,

Judith Arnold

BIRTHRIGHT
Judith Arnold

Birthright
is dedicated to my wonderful,
talented Riverbend collaborators:
Pamela Bauer, Laura Abbot,
Marisa Carroll and Kathryn Shay

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Aaron Mazerik:
Former bad boy, current basketball coach and counselor at Riverbend High

Lily Bennett Holden:
Golden Girl, widow, artist and River Rat

Abraham Steele:
Town patriarch and bank president, recently deceased

Evie Mazerik:
Cashier at the Sunnyside Café, Aaron’s mother

Dr. Julian Bennett:
Town doctor, Lily’s father

Wally Drummer:
Retired basketball coach at Riverbend High

CHAPTER ONE

A
ARON AND CHURCH
didn’t get along. His mother had urged him to go a few times when he was a kid, but he’d known that the people who sat in church each Sunday feeling pious and pure were the same people who spent Monday through Saturday glaring at him with a mixture of disgust and contempt. Whatever they were learning in church, it didn’t seem to have much to do with love and generosity.

So he stayed away from church, figuring that if he had anything to say to God, he could say it from his own back porch.

But his mother had wanted to be here today, and here they were, standing in the doorway of the Riverbend Community Church. The aisle ahead of them was clogged with people, and the pews were filling up. All of Riverbend, it seemed, had decided to pay their last respects to Abraham Steele.

“Over there, Aaron—there’s a couple of seats,” his mother said, pointing to a half-empty pew just inside the door.

“I see plenty of seats closer up.”

She shook her head. “Back here is fine. We don’t belong up in front.”

They didn’t belong at the memorial service at all, but his mother had insisted on coming, and she
couldn’t walk all the way from her apartment to the church. She couldn’t drive, either, given that her right leg wasn’t reliable. Reluctantly, Aaron had agreed to take her.

He was worried about her leg. She’d gotten a lot back after the stroke, but not enough. She was lazy about her physical therapy. She was still smoking, too. It infuriated him that he’d rearranged his whole life so he could help her out, yet she’d done so little rearranging of her own life. She’d given up her car and switched from waitressing to running the cash register at the Sunnyside Café, but she’d refused to move out of the second-floor flat she’d been living in since before Aaron was born. Every day she tottered up and down the stairs, insisting she was perfectly all right, she wasn’t dizzy, the railings were sturdy and, damn it, she wasn’t going to move out of her home.

And she wasn’t going to quit smoking until she was good and ready, either.

He could smell the faint familiar scent of cigarette smoke in her hair. It mixed with the smell of her cologne, which in the June heat seemed heavier than usual, and the fragrance of the huge flower arrangements at the front of the chapel. She was wearing a pistachio-green linen suit that she’d bought for Easter a few years ago. It was inappropriately cheery.

But then, people in Riverbend had always considered Evie Mazerik and her son inappropriate. If they whispered about her outfit, it wouldn’t be the first time they’d ever whispered about her.

At least Aaron was dressed for the occasion, in a dark-gray jacket and lighter-gray slacks, a white shirt
and a plain burgundy tie. Dressing correctly was the least he could do in Abraham Steele’s memory. He’d hardly known the guy, but he’d played basketball with Abraham’s son, Jacob, and he remembered seeing Jacob’s old man at every game, watching every play, sitting straight and proud on the bleachers and hollering whenever the Riverbend boys scored. Even after Jacob graduated, Abraham Steele had continued to attend the games.

Aaron’s mother had never come to a single one.

She was edging past the people already seated in the pew and apologizing repeatedly as she made her way clumsily over their feet and around their knees. Aaron eased along the pew with more grace. He held her cane as she lowered herself onto the hard white bench, then sat next to her. Organ music filled the air, some hymn that sounded vaguely familiar. If Aaron attended church, he might have recognized it.

People continued to stream into the building. Abraham Steele’s twin sisters entered, their heads bowed, one of them clinging to the other’s arm. Behind them trailed Kate McCann, the young woman who managed their bookstore, which was just across the street from the café where Aaron’s mother worked. The Steele sisters seemed to have aged a lot in the weeks since Aaron had last seen them. They had to be in their seventies, but they’d always seemed strong and spirited.

Not today.

“It’s breaking their hearts,” Aaron’s mother whispered, her gaze following the sisters down the aisle as the crowd parted to let them through. “I don’t know how they’ll survive this.” Her voice caught in
her throat and her eyes glistened as she wallowed in the drama of the moment.

“They’re tough,” he whispered back. They’d always treated him courteously, even when he’d been just a kid hanging out in the streets and looking for trouble. If they found him loitering near their store, they used to ask him not
what
he was doing but
how
he was doing. They’d tell him to give their regards to his mother, as if the Mazeriks were just like anyone else in town. To acknowledge him when he’d been nothing but a punk on the fast track to bad news proved just how tough they were.

More people entered the church, the men in dark suits, the women in somber dresses. In her bright green outfit, Aaron’s mother stuck out like a shoot on a tree, a sprig in need of pruning.

Aaron noticed Mitch Sterling entering with his son Sam. Mitch had been a classmate of Aaron’s and a fellow member of the high-school basketball team. Now he ran the town’s hardware store and lumberyard. When Aaron had bought his house, which hadn’t been much more than a glorified fishing cabin when he’d taken title to it two summers ago, he’d spent a lot of time and money at Mitch’s store, purchasing supplies to expand the rear deck and insulate the attic.

Aside from basketball, Mitch hadn’t had much to do with Aaron at Riverbend High. Mitch had been part of a group that had called themselves the River Rats. Aaron wasn’t sure where that name had come from. All he’d known was that they were the insiders, the popular kids, the leaders. They’d known who they were and where they belonged.

Aaron hadn’t been in their group. He hadn’t belonged anywhere back then.

He watched Mitch move down the aisle with his son. The kid was about ten, trapped in that awkward state between childhood and adolescence. Mitch had enrolled him in Aaron’s summer program, which was fine with Aaron, except that the boy was seriously hearing-impaired. Aaron didn’t know sign language. He wasn’t sure how he was going to communicate with Sam.

“Kate is such a sweetheart,” Aaron’s mother was murmuring, her gaze still on Kate McCann and Ruth and Rachel Steele as they sorted themselves out in a front pew. “She comes to the Sunnyside for lunch sometimes. But her daughters are wild. Adorable as hell, but wild. I don’t know how she manages the two of them all by herself.”

Some single mothers managed better than others, Aaron thought. His mother had done the best she could. Unfortunately her best had been lousy.

“And I’ll tell you what’s really breaking Ruth and Rachel’s hearts,” his mother continued in a low voice. “Jacob didn’t come home. How could someone not come home to pay his last respects to his father?”

Aaron shrugged. The relationship between the most powerful man in Riverbend and his absent son wasn’t his business.

Apparently it was Evie’s business, though. As the Sunnyside Café’s cashier, she considered everything in town her business. “Even if there’s bad blood there, what kind of son would stay away at a time like this?” She shook her head.

Aaron hoped his lack of response would discourage her. He didn’t like gossip, especially since he’d been the subject of so much of it in his life.

Surveying the crowd, he spotted Charlie Callahan taking a seat across the aisle, a few rows ahead. Charlie had been another classmate of his, and another River Rat. After Aaron had bought the cabin, Charlie had offered his expertise as a carpenter, helping with the rehab work. No one seemed to care much about who Aaron used to be fifteen years ago, or which group he hadn’t been a part of. They weren’t in high school anymore.

“There’s a rumor floating around that Jacob left the country,” his mother confided. “He got real rich, set up one of those bank accounts in the Bahamas and now he’s living there. And obviously doesn’t give a damn that his father is dead.”

“He was a good guy,” Aaron whispered. “He wouldn’t do that.”

“Then where is he? He left town years ago and never came back. He broke his father’s heart—his aunts’ hearts, too. You know those aunts just about raised him after his mother died. And now he won’t even come to the memorial service.”

“Maybe he couldn’t come back. Maybe—”

“He’s dead? That’s what Lucy said. She was willing to bet money on it, but I told her that’s too ghoulish, betting on the death of a young man like Jacob.”

Apparently it wasn’t too ghoulish for his mother and the other Sunnyside waitresses to conjecture about, Aaron thought with a wry smile.

Evie reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze. “Everyone knows
you
came home when I needed
you. Quality isn’t about how wealthy you are. It’s about how you act, how you take responsibility. Jacob Steele didn’t come home.
My
son did.”

Aaron hadn’t come home because he’d wanted to. Riverbend had never been a happy place for him. If he’d thought about it, he might have moved his mother down to Indianapolis, instead of the other way around.

But he hadn’t thought about it. He’d quit his job, broken up with Cynthia because she’d refused to accompany him to “that closed-minded little town that you hate, anyway, Aaron, so I don’t know why you’re going there,” and come back to Riverbend.

He noticed Frank Garvey entering the church right behind the mayor and her husband. Clad in civilian clothes, Garvey wasn’t immediately recognizable. He’d aged, too, and added a good twenty pounds of paunch. But Aaron would never forget the cop who’d locked him up. At the time he’d loathed Garvey. Now he’d matured enough to understand that maybe Garvey had saved his life. Garvey and Coach Drummer, one hauling Aaron in and the other bailing him out.

Behind Officer Garvey was another man Aaron knew well: Dr. Julian Bennett, tall and fit, his chestnut hair streaked with gray. He was older than Aaron’s mother but looked ten years younger, his face barely lined, his posture straight and confident. Aaron had mastered the skill of looking at Dr. Bennett without wincing, but his gut always tightened with rage when he saw him.

His gut always tightened when he saw Dr. Bennett’s daughter, too.

She entered the aisle after her father, and Aaron felt his innards clench with more than simple rage. Resentment was a part of it, along with frustration, regret and the cold understanding that some things could not be changed.

He hadn’t seen her since they’d all graduated from high school fifteen years ago. She’d been beautiful then and she was beautiful now, slim and elegant in a gray silk suit, her straight blond hair dropping loosely past her shoulders. Viewing her today was as wrenching an experience as it had been the first time he’d glimpsed her in the hallway at Riverbend High.

“Look, there’s Lily,” his mother murmured.

“She’s so pretty.”

He focused on the stained-glass window behind the altar, unwilling to acknowledge how pretty Lily Bennett was. Sunlight filtered through the slivers of color, making them glow ruby and amber and royal blue. If he stared at the window long enough, maybe the colors would hypnotize him and he’d lose track of Lily and her father.

“She’s Lily Holden now,” his mother added.

As if he cared that Lily had gotten married.

“A terrible tragedy. She married a millionaire, a big-shot attorney in Boston, and then he died in an automobile accident. The poor girl hasn’t gotten over it.”

As if he cared.

“Rumor has it she was so shattered by his death she still hasn’t gotten over it. She came home last March. Lucy says Lily just rattles around her house—she bought that old Victorian on East Oak Street, with the wraparound porch. Must’ve paid a
fortune for it, but that rich husband of hers left her mighty comfortable. Not that money can buy you happiness. She hides in the house, won’t socialize, won’t get out and do things. It’s tragic.”

Aaron shifted his attention from the stained-glass window at the front of the room to the narrow side window at the end of his pew. Through it he could see unrelievedly blue sky. It was a perfect day for stretching out in the hammock on his refurbished deck, a beer in one hand and John Grisham’s latest in the other. It was a day to avoid worrying about the summer program he’d planned, about scraping up the funds to maintain it, about how the hell he was going to get through to Mitch Sterling’s hearing-impaired son. It was a day to avoid thinking about his mother’s health and the death of the town patriarch—and definitely about Lily Bennett, or Lily Holden, or whatever her name was now.

The first time he’d seen her had been another cloudless day many years ago, and he’d paid the price for staring at her. Looking at Lily was like looking directly into the sun. You could get blinded.

In his case he’d gotten detention. He’d been sneaking back into the school building after slipping outside to have a smoke. He’d wedged a piece of paper into the doorjamb so the door wouldn’t lock behind him, and after he’d finished his cigarette, he’d listened for the bell and then inched open the door to ease back into the flow of students moving from sixth-period class to seventh. But then he’d glimpsed Lily Bennett emerging from the art classroom. She was so beautiful she’d practically sparkled, and he’d stopped to stare—with the door still open, in full
view of the art teacher, who’d grabbed him by his collar and dragged him down to the principal’s office to report him for cutting a class and smoking. Aaron had stunk of cigarettes.

Lily hadn’t even noticed him.

She didn’t notice him now. He turned from the window in time to see her near the front of the church, sliding into a pew with her parents. She didn’t look shattered to him. She looked just as perfect as ever.

It was her father Aaron ought to hate. But he hated
her
—because she was gorgeous and smart and poised, because she glowed with confidence, because she’d fed an unruly young teenager’s wildest fantasies, and those fantasies had frightened the hell out of him.

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