Riverton Road Romantic Suspense 5
Mike & Amanda’s Story
When Amanda bought a yellow sports car, someone should have noticed that life was no longer business as usual with her, though she’d lost her own sense of what business as usual might be when William died. Amanda had married William because it seemed the most natural thing to do, like she’d been walking toward their wedding from the first time she put her baby foot on the unsteady ground and took a step. She and William were mates, meant to be together. They most especially shared a passion to inhabit the kitchen from the moment they woke each morning until their final breaths of energy escaped them at night, and they adored being the chief chef duo at Miller’s Inn on Riverton Hill Road.
Then William left the Inn before dawn on a Thursday morning to pursue the single passion they didn’t share, his love of fishing. Amanda might not mind baiting a hook with shiny minnows or sitting long hours in near silence, but she couldn’t stand removing the wriggling prize from that same hook, or seeing it done by someone else either. Which explains why William went fishing alone that Thursday before she was awake to watch him leave, and she never saw him again. Like black magic, he was gone, too rapidly to be real. A boating accident, they said, but she refused to view the wreckage where he’d been trapped like a steelhead on a hook and drowned. It was all she could manage to live through the wreckage that followed, one exhale then another until she gradually regained the ability to breathe without forcing herself, an experience as bitter as her marriage had been sweet. Still, she was back in the kitchen long before the art of easy respiration returned.
“William takes my hand to make sure I don’t add too much salt to the soup,” she’d say.
Some people understood what she meant. Her husband had a place in her heart from which she received the encouragement she needed to function, and maybe even a reminder that she would feel alive again someday. Other people were bothered, as if they believed she saw an actual ghost between the cabinets and countertops she and William had chosen together with great care and many long debates over color and style until they settled on white cabinets and red countertops for the bright, cheery look Amanda wanted.
Amanda wasn’t seeing a ghost or speaking to one, and she wasn’t feeling particularly bright or cheery either. She was struggling through, and getting back to work had been crucial to the struggle. Busyness would help her. She knew this to be true even before she believed a route existed, winding like a trout-filled river, from her stove to healing. Meanwhile, she’d relied on measuring out tablespoons of one ingredient and folding in fistfuls of another to distract her from keeping constant company with grief. For several years, she played her various life roles from the chamber of her heart that still beat. She’d been a daughter, a sister, a friend and most of all a mother to her beloved daughter Jillian, who gave Amanda purpose more than anything else could ever have done, including her kitchen. Jillian was already understandably bewildered by being the strange age of almost fourteen, yet she appeared more able to navigate her days following William’s death than her mother was.
Eventually, Amanda discovered a corner of her mind where William wasn’t at the devastated center. She arrived there by momentary fits and starts at first, and then for hours and episodes at a time, but she didn’t experience the sensation of being all the way back inside her own skin until the day she bought the yellow car. Suddenly, she was free again, most especially when the top was down and the wind tangled her pale curls into an unruly mass. Unfortunately, the Miller family wasn’t good at acknowledging changes in Amanda. They counted on her to be the steady one among the three Miller sisters. Amanda would be easy to deal with no matter what happened, never unruly like her curls. She would not rock the family boat, much less smash it into smithereens the way William had.
Amanda’s father Jake Miller, a former Navy man, approved of her in that reliable mode. Boat rocking was frowned upon if not forbidden entirely by the Captain, as he was often called, but only when he happened to be out of hearing range. The Captain was a reality to reckon with, marching across the Inn’s acreage and everybody’s lives in his forceful stride and ever-present black, knee-high rubber boots. He’d trod more lightly with Amanda since William died, but that didn’t mean Jake never brought her close to tears. He was charming when she behaved to his liking, but he could also freeze her out with an icicle-sharp chill on the rare occasions when she failed to be the manageable middle daughter he expected. She was violating those expectations tonight. There could be no doubt about that, or about the ferocity of Jake’s reaction as soon as he found out what she’d done.
Amanda’s usual strategy for dealing with her father was to agree with him, and it worked. He tended to be more lenient in general with her than he was with most people. Everybody believed he did that because Amanda was a widow, but she knew better. He had favored her long before William’s accident. Jake had convinced himself she was his good girl and filed her as such among the things he took for granted. On the other hand, she had always thought of herself as much more than that, just as she had now, at long last, begun to think of herself as more than a widow. The yellow sports car was her celebration of this evolution from shut up in the garage stall of her grief to flat-out ready for an open highway and the rush of wind in her hair. She hadn’t been foolish enough to expect that her family, including her obstinate father, would make the connection or notice the change in her. As a rule, they didn’t pay much attention to most things beyond their own individual lives, so they missed the point that this was not just a new car, it was a fresh version of Amanda. She understood why they weren’t likely to look deeper, and it almost but not quite didn’t bother her.
“You can trust people to be exactly who they are,” the Buddha says.
Amanda didn’t remember where she’d read those words. Maybe she found them among the hodgepodge of sticky notes on the bulletin board in her mother Millicent’s studio, the cluttered room under the dormer overhang of the Inn, three stories above the beautiful gardens she had created. Millicent Miller, painter-musician-poet, explained to anybody who might ask that the notes on her bulletin board were for her writing. When she liked the sound of something, she would scribble it on a sticky note and tack it up above her desk where she could see it and be inspired. Amanda had been inspired by the Buddha quote and liked the sound of it too because of the personal truth she heard there. She trusted everybody at Miller’s Inn to be exactly who they were, and they seldom proved her wrong in that. Even Amanda’s precious daughter Jillian was exactly her adolescent self, creating distance from her mom like she never had in any of her younger phases. But despite all of that, the day Amanda and her shiny yellow toy roared up the hill to the Inn for the first time, she had hoped for at least a raised eyebrow from somebody.
“Oh, how nice, darling. You bought a car.”
Millicent tossed those words over her shoulder as she flitted past on the way to her potting shed behind the Inn’s main building. It had been spring then, and in spring Millicent barely registered anything beyond her plantings, especially her roses which were the toast of North Country County. She might be many things rolled into a single, unreformed hippie person, but in springtime she was first and foremost a gardener. Therefore, Millicent was being exactly who she was, just like the sticky note said. Ordinarily, Amanda would have pushed her frustration aside, turned her thoughts to spring becoming summer and anticipated warm drives on balmy days. But it was July by now, and the weather had decided to be the one thing out of character in Amanda’s world, unseasonably cold, even for Northern New York State where the Miller family lived, not more than a couple of dozen miles from Canada. The misbegotten chill reminded Amanda to continue being unpredictable herself, instead of the dependable Miller sister everybody preferred, though they were anything but dependable themselves.
For example, her younger sibling Bethany had taken off for Chicago without warning, then showed up again, here at the Miller homestead, a decade later with her nine-year-old son Michael and a life-load of problems in tow. Those problems were solved of course, as Amanda expected they would be. Bethany not only did what she needed to do, she also made sure she got what she needed to have. That melodrama had happened last year, not long after Amanda’s older sister, originally named Patricia, announced she must now be called Patrice, which was typical of the way she ran her life and did her best to run everybody else’s too. She would proclaim in no uncertain terms how she intended the world to function, and her personal North Country corner of civilization swung into step at the rhythm of Patrice, never again to be referred to as Patricia, demanded.
Amanda’s example had always been very different from her sisters’. She didn’t take off, then reappear and set everybody in a tizzy over what she might or might not have been up to in between. Amanda didn’t make proclamations either. She didn’t demand, or even expect, anybody to fall into step with her parade. She ran the Miller’s Inn kitchen, just like she and William had done five years ago when he was still cooking beside her, which was the same way she cooked without him now. Meanwhile, no one seemed to notice anything she did or didn’t do. She understood that she’d set herself up for such treatment years ago after college, where she’d majored in psychology, which she had at first chosen mostly because she wanted to understand her family. Then she’d discovered the study of psychological disorders and related criminal behavior, and she was hooked. She was offered a research fellowship, to begin after she graduated, but when that graduation happened, the Millers needed somebody to run the Inn kitchen. Her grandmother had taught Amanda the art of cooking when she was growing up on Riverton Hill Road, but she’d never mastered the art of saying no. She gave up her own ambitions, and the fellowship, and went home where, eventually, William came along.
“Another six months,” she would tell him, when he tried yet again to drag her from beneath the burden of her family’s needs by urging her to pursue her unfulfilled dreams beyond the kitchen life. “Six months will give them time to adjust to running the Inn without me.”
Six months would inevitably pass, as William always predicted they would, and the family’s adjustment did not happen. He and Amanda had argued heatedly about that situation the night before his fatal fishing trip. William had insisted she should let him take over the Inn kitchen while she went after the research fellowship, which was still a possibility for her, a fact she’d kept secret from everybody but him. Amanda was angry with him for revisiting such a sensitive subject, because at its heart lay a confrontation with her family she did not want to face. She still hadn’t forgotten that night’s conversation and the hotheaded things she said. She’d awakened the next morning eager to tell William she didn’t mean her angry words, but he was already gone, and she never saw him alive again.
From then on, she no longer thought about unfulfilled ambitions or secret research fellowships. Most of all, she no longer thought about leaving Miller’s Inn. Instead, she hid out in her familiar kitchen, where she could tuck what was left of her heart inside its own numbness while she kept herself busy, busy, busy chopping greens and planning menus and stirring the soup every day, always extra careful not to add too much salt. Occasionally, she would allow herself a brief prayer that she might in time be granted the gift of healing in her battered, shattered places, in order for the numbness to be finally gone. Now, that time was miraculously here, with a sassy yellow car as evidence. At last, Amanda was ready to roar off down the driveway toward Riverton Hill Road and her future.
Michael Schaeffer sat back in his maple-finished faux captain’s chair and feigned just enough interest in the dinner conversation to keep track of what was being said. They were the only party left in the hotel dining room of the North Country Inn, “at the heart of beautiful downtown Riverton,” as it was described in the bulletin Justin Fowler sent around to announce these monthly gatherings when he had inaugurated them a year or so ago. The table was still full despite the late hour. Nobody had the nerve or the bad judgment to leave early from one of Justin’s events.
“Why is that exactly?” Mike had wondered more than once. “Fear, respect or just because Justin keeps the booze flowing like a river?”
He suspected all of those weighed in most of the time with most of these guys. He only said that to himself of course. He might have been guilty of some stupid behaviors in his life, but he wasn’t about to pick a fight with Justin unless there was a good reason for doing it. Too much trouble for too little reward was Mike’s estimation of how that would go. He wouldn’t waste his breath trying to be heard right now anyway. As was usual by this advanced stage of a Young Turks get-together, the boys were boisterous. They were laughing too loudly and talking over each other, every one of them competing with the other to stand out in Justin’s presence. They considered him their fearless leader, and he could have quieted them with a word, but he didn’t. The truth was, Justin encouraged this drunken camaraderie among his self-appointed personal chamber of commerce. It was a strategy, like everything Justin did.
“A spirit of brotherhood is what I am after, my man,” Justin had explained to Mike not long ago. “These fools did not have that before I came along and gave it to them. They sat around on their broadening behinds in their little offices. I got them up and moving. I got them up and moving together.”
Justin had come up with the name Young Turks for this collection of local businessmen and officials, even though some of them weren’t very young anymore.
“They have still got juice,” was Justin’s thought on the ages of his gang of local crony connections. “They have not yet turned to stone. They never will if I have anything to say about it, and I have something to say about everything. Before I finish with these North Country gentlemen, they will be making changes right, left and everywhere, all over this town.”
He had probably puffed out his chest then, under his custom-made dress shirt with JBF, for Justin Bennett Fowler, monogrammed on the pocket. The sleeves would definitely have been rolled up to create the impression Justin was a working man, a man of the people, a man they could trust. Mike didn’t remember the exact details of that evening, or many of the evenings he’d spent in Justin’s company. The booze would have been flowing, just like it was tonight. Mike had no doubt about that detail, and it had been years since he met a bourbon he didn’t like. It had also been a long time since he allowed himself to dwell on the origins of his taste for strong, brown whiskey. Such ruminations would have led him too close to a disastrous hillside half a world away, and he didn’t want that, though sometimes they crept in on their own.
“Don’t go there,” he almost said out loud, right there in the dining room of the North Country Inn, where the raucous Young Turks would have heard.
Mike forced his rambling mind back to the present and why it was he hung out with Justin in the first place. JBF had been there for Mike with advice and concern after he left the military and straggled back home to Riverton. He’d lacked a direction, and Justin helped him find one. Mike was a lost soul then and wasn’t ashamed to admit it. Justin’s help was more than just help. It had been Mike’s salvation, a generous favor when he needed one most, and Mike never forgot a favor. He also hadn’t forgotten how Justin appointed himself as a guide toward filling the empty place inside Mike where his brothers from the barracks had formerly been, if you could call their makeshift huts barracks.
“Look at my man Michael over here,” Justin bellowed now, even though Mike was only a couple of chairs away. “Do we want this bold specimen to be the next mayor of Riverton or do we not?”
Bleary shouts of agreement echoed through the otherwise empty dining room. Only the table servers and a barmaid remained, all of them most likely way past ready to knock off work for the night, but Justin was widely known to be a big tipper, so the North Country Inn staff kept smiling and delivering drinks. Mike, on the other hand, was feeling like he would make this latest conversational turn his signal to execute an exit, but not until he had emptied his glass. He was too faithful to his bourbon to leave a drop behind.
“Which bold specimen would that be?” Mike asked Justin, with the edge of a taunt in the question.
“You yourself are my boldest specimen,” Justin answered, waving his signet-ringed hand in Mike’s direction while addressing the room in general. “Michael Schaeffer is a winner if I ever saw one, and I cannot for the life of me understand why you would not be eager to prove that to everybody in this town.”
Mike returned Justin’s confident smile with a wry one.
“I can’t figure it out either,” Mike said.
Justin shook his head in disbelief and launched into a lecture on the need for good leadership in the world, and how the real men among them had to step up and blah, blah, blah. Mike didn’t need to listen because he had heard it all before, many times. Mostly he didn’t need to listen because he didn’t believe a word of it. He had believed once, when he was young and full of piss and vinegar, like the old-timers would say. He’d enlisted in the army back then, determined to show everybody in town, and rest of the world too, that he came from tough North Country stock and those words meant something special. Less than three years later, he had changed into the man who came home to beautiful downtown Riverton in a daze, desperate for guidance from Justin or anybody. In between, Mike had done his duty and then some. He had done his duty on a freezing cold night in Afghanistan, when he threw himself on top of a bleeding buddy to keep him warm and safe as incoming rounds popped and whizzed everywhere, too near the ground for the medics to get close. Mike did his duty that night, and what good had come out of it? His buddy died anyway.
“I see you have a hard time taking the heat, Mr. Schaeffer,” Justin pronounced back here in the present, chiding Mike who was gripping the table edge as he rose from his chair.
“I’m just heading for the head,” Mike said, even though he was really heading for an escape from the inside of his own head.
Not long afterward, he was back in the dining area at the shadowy end of the bar on the opposite side of the wide room from Justin and his gang. Ordinarily, Mike would have left altogether by now and driven out Jefferson Avenue to the Wayside Inn, a place a lot farther than a few miles from the North Country Inn on the local respectability scale. He was thinking about why he hadn’t done that, and how feeling lowdown was no excuse for avoiding unwise behavior, when Justin slid onto the next barstool.
“My main man is in one of his hiding moods, I see,” he said.
Justin clamped his hand on Mike’s back, and he shivered involuntarily.
“I also see how you still feel the cold. I hope you can get past that someday.”
Justin sounded sympathetic, but something in Mike was skeptical about that sympathy. He had no doubt Justin was aware of the dark memories his words were sure to trigger for Mike. His most dreaded combat carryover was from the cold growing worse outside of him while he also turned frozen inside. He had never spoken of that frigid hillside night with anybody here at home, but Justin made it his business to learn about everybody’s bad nights. Maybe he did that because he cared, like he claimed. Maybe he did it because such information could be good ammunition. Mike wasn’t sure which of those might be Justin’s motivation. Mike had no concrete reason, other than raw instinct, for harboring such suspicions, but those instincts prompted him to keep on harboring, even though he bore some guilt for doing it.
“By the way, maybe you should consider wearing something besides black,” Justin continued. “Broadening your color palette might cheer you up.”
He was referring to Mike’s usual outfit. Black boots, black jeans, black shirt, black jacket. Occasionally, he varied his wardrobe and wore black slacks instead of jeans.
“Black is my signature color,” he said and took another long swig of Wild Turkey.
“Except for the belt buckle. What is the story on that?”
Mike heard himself laugh.
“I thought you knew everybody’s story about everything,” he said. “You must be losing your touch.”
“I will find out about the belt buckle,” Justin said with a smile as he slid off the barstool and slapped Mike on the back. “There is one thing you can always be certain of, my man. I never lose my touch.”
He walked away, and Mike took note, as he had before, of the imposing confidence that made Justin appear several inches taller than he in fact was. His posture almost never deviated from being ramrod straight. That habit, plus some others, had prompted Mike to look into Justin’s past, specifically his military records, but he had none. Justin Bennett Fowler was never in the service. He had grown up in New England, gone to college and been pretty much innocuous before landing in Riverton where he apparently made it his ambition never to be innocuous again and, to be fair, most North Country folks appreciated his many contributions to the community. Still, Mike’s naturally questioning nature held him back from full enthusiasm. He found it hard to believe the Justin he now knew had remained off the attention grid for as long as his research history suggested. What exactly had he been doing during those several unrecorded years?
Mike’s mind drifted back to Justin’s remark about the belt with the silver and brass buckle depicting a sunrise. It had been a gift from Mike’s younger sister Judy. He couldn’t stop himself from shivering once again. Those instincts of his were warning him to be wary when it came to the possibility of Justin discovering anything at all about Mike’s baby sister and how close they had once been. Mike shoved his glass away so hard it almost bounced onto the floor.
“It’s time to get out of this barroom.”
This was a phrase he had heard himself say way too often.
Amanda understood that her current rebellious mood was the reason she had responded so willingly to Willow Fowler’s desperate pleas on the phone the night before. Amanda’s natural instinct for maintaining peace in her life usually prompted her to avoid anything even closely related to desperation. She was beginning to be reminded of the wisdom of that attitude tonight as she steered her yellow car off Jefferson Avenue in downtown Riverton. What had she been thinking? She and Willow had lost touch with each other years ago because they were obviously destined to pursue very different lives. Amanda had wanted security. Willow openly admitted she was headed toward adventure. Amanda had suspected there could be danger involved in those adventures. She had even mentioned that to Willow, who laughed off the suggestion.
“Fiddle dee dee,” she’d chirped, echoing her favorite heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, and that had been the end of the conversation.
A thought struck Amanda now, with such vivid intensity it might have been spelled out on a billboard several feet high stretched across the avenue in front of her. She could be making a big mistake. Maybe she should have listened to her mother Millicent’s sticky note wisdom. Maybe Amanda should trust herself to be the sensible woman she had always been, and the sensible choice right now would be to turn around and race back to Riverton Hill Road as fast as this jazzy car and its considerable horsepower would allow. Instead, she gunned the engine with more foot pressure than was necessary to make it over the hump at the entranceway to the North Country Inn parking lot. She wasn’t going to turn around and race back anywhere, not tonight. She’d worked a long day in the Miller’s Inn kitchen, and she was bone tired. She was also half blind from staring at highway lines and oncoming headlights to get here. She might retreat later, but for now this journey, and over-worrying herself about sensible choices, had reached an end.
The arc of Amanda’s headlights darted across the expanse of the empty parking lot which adjoined this more populated one. She had clicked off her high beams when she left the highway at the Riverton town limits. She reached out to turn the lights off altogether in the same instant they revealed a single car in the adjacent lot. A man was seated inside with his hand on the open driver’s side door. He glanced up, then turned abruptly away and jerked the door shut.
“I hope that isn’t the past repeating itself,” Amanda said to herself, not loudly enough for him to hear.
Back in high school, she’d been an outside-of-townie up against the inside-of-townies and destined to be shut out of things at every turn. The kids at Riverton High School treated her like a country kid who didn’t belong. On the other hand, without them excluding her from their cozy hometown nest, and the resilience their behavior had taught her, she might never have flown on to the life she’d had since. She might never have gone on to college and the fascinating work with all kinds of human behaviors she discovered there. She might never have had the strength to leave that work behind to return to the North Country and meet William and cook by his side through their wonderful years together. She might never have run her own professional kitchen or, most important of all, raised an amazing daughter like her beautiful Jillian.
Amanda grabbed her rolling bag and slammed the car door extra-hard for emphasis. Willow was staying at this hotel and had offered to share her room for the night, but that sounded like a sleepover to Amanda, who had hosted too many of those for Jillian to be interested in another. Still, Amanda liked the idea of a night, or maybe even a couple of nights, away from the family and the family business, so she’d booked a separate reservation. She had also packed too much. Did she really need a bag full of stuff for a brief getaway? She should have planned this trip better, the way she usually planned everything, but she’d been work-weary at the time so she simply tossed things in until the bag wouldn’t hold any more. She was still weary as she nudged open the double glass doors to the rear lobby of the hotel.
A sign indicated the bar and restaurant to her right, down a hallway lined with blown-up photos of Riverton’s turn-of-the-last-century glory days. In their own earlier times, Willow would have been waiting in that bar, surrounded by friends and admirers. Willow’s highly charged spirit drew people to her, occasionally the wrong people, but no real harm had ever resulted, certainly nothing like the trouble she claimed to be in now. There was no mistaking her fear last night on the phone. She’d begged Amanda to meet here. Her immediate instinct was to refuse, but she couldn’t ignore such pitiful pleas from the person who had been her only ally during her difficult years at Riverton High, when a friend was what she needed most and Willow had been that friend. Consequently, here Amanda was, trundling her overloaded luggage toward the registration desk, so absorbed in thought she nearly ran into the man standing still as a stone wall in her path. She glanced up to apologize, but the words flew out of her mind before she could utter them.
The handle of the rolling bag slipped from Amanda’s grasp and hit the marble floor with what sounded to her like a thunderclap. She might have lost the strap of her purse down her arm as well, but it caught on the shoulder pad of her jacket. In one of those odd flashes of thought that can happen during a moment of shock, she wished she hadn’t worn linen because the fabric crumples so easily. She must look like one big wrinkle right now, which was hardly the image she would have preferred to present the first time she saw Mike Schaeffer again. At any moment over many years past, if she’d been asked about this man, she would have said she barely remembered him, which she would have honestly believed to be true. Her heart and her life were filled with William then, but now William was gone. More and more each day, she felt like he had been gone a very long time.
Standing awkwardly in this hotel lobby, she was suddenly aware that she remembered Mike Schaeffer much too well. She stared up into his startling face, startling because he was here in front of her, so close she could have reached out and touched him. More startling because he had grown more handsome with age. Most startling because she was instantly seventeen again, filled with the confused, exciting, wonderful feelings he had aroused in her then. She might be a thirty-something woman now, running a complicated restaurant business back on Riverton Road Hill. But, here in the lobby of the North Country Inn, she was once again an out-of-town girl with an aching adolescent crush on a man beyond her reach.