Secrets of St. Claire Excerpt

by Robin Alexander

 

"Wait, I want to take a picture."

"Mom!" Alexis cried as she danced in a circle. "Everybody’s already out. I’m gonna miss the good candy."

"Move closer to Maddie, so I can get you both in the shot."

The reluctant kitten moved next to a teenager dressed as a punk rocker and made a weak attempt at a smile that revealed a couple of missing fangs. "Now can we go, please?" Alexis asked with a lisp that sounded like a feline hiss.

"No." Lindsay lowered her camera and walked over to Maddie as her thumbs danced over the keyboard of her phone. "Maddie, you’re taking my whole life in your hands tonight." Lindsay pointed to her seven-year-old daughter. "I need both of your eyes on her, not this." She pulled the phone away and waved it in front of her. "Promise me that she’ll never leave your side or your sight."

Maddie’s sole focus was on the phone. Her gaze followed it as Lindsay waved it around. "I promise, Ms. Juneau."

Lindsay frowned and tucked it into Maddie’s jacket pocket. She knelt in front of Alexis and straightened her black-and-white-striped cat ears. "What’s the law?"

The kitten exhaled dramatically in true feline form. "Stay with Maddie. Don’t go to houses that aren’t lit. Stay on our street and don’t eat the candy until you look at it."

"And don’t chew your butt."

"Momma, eww," Alexis said.

"Cats do it all the time." Lindsay kissed her on the cheek and stood. "I just don’t want you picking up any bad habits while dressed like one."

"If she chews her butt, I’m leaving her." Maddie headed for the door.

"Oh, come on. I can’t chew my own butt." Alexis ran after Maddie as she descended the porch steps.

Lindsay watched as her pride and joy chased her trick-or-treat escort across the front yard and merged into a stream of ghosts, goblins, and pirates roaming the sidewalks. She prayed that the twenty bucks she gave Maddie was well spent. There weren’t many teens in town in whom she entrusted Alexis’s care. And it wasn’t like they lived in New York, either. The town of St. Claire, Louisiana, was safe and looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, but Lindsay kept up her guard, especially where her only daughter was concerned.

With a sigh, she sank down into one of the wooden rockers on her porch and put the tub of candy on her lap, signaling to tiny warlocks and witches that she was open for business. They came in droves with their chubby little cheeks wet with drool. They waved swords and pitchforks. They rode in wagons and in the arms of their parents, and Lindsay knew every one of them right down to the newest, a few months old.

Unfamiliar faces were a rarity in town. Thirty miles from the nearest highway and surrounded by marsh on two sides, St. Claire was cut off from the rest of the world. Unless some hapless driver took a wrong turn, no one just wandered into the quiet enclave, and frankly, that was how the residents liked it. An idyllic community with no crime, no drugs, and no negative influence from the outside world—at least to the naked eye, and that was the secret of St. Claire.

Lindsay Juneau had lived there all her life. She smiled as she recalled the excitement of trick-or-treating. She and her friends dressed in bed sheets and would roam from house to house, collecting candy, and despite the warnings of their parents, they ate as much as they could stuff into their mouths.

Growing up in a town where everyone knew everyone else had at one time been magical for Lindsay. Whether on bike or foot, she and her friends explored every inch of the small settlement. Long hot summers were spent at Millburn Creek and in the shade of the old oaks that lined the streets. In those days, Lindsay and nearly every other child in town rarely wore shoes; the bottoms of their feet were like leather. Cut-offs and T-shirts were standard dress with the exception of Sunday when dressing up for church was required.

Although St. Claire was the perfect place for a child, it became a prison for the young adult, at least in Lindsay’s case. A brave few had moved away from their childhood home, and Lindsay had made up her mind to follow suit. She was making plans for college when her father passed away suddenly. Aside from a few distant relatives, she and her mother, Rose, were all who were left. Leaving her mother behind then was not an option, so Lindsay did what so many others were doing—taking over the family business and settling down.

The one thing that set Lindsay apart from the rest of her friends was her lack of interest in boys. She liked playing football with them, but when she became a teen, she never could muster the enthusiasm for the opposite sex that her girlfriends did. She may’ve been living in a small town but not under a rock. After reading books and watching a few television shows that dared to mention the topic, Lindsay put a name to what she was feeling. Lesbian was not a word she shouted from the rooftops, nor did she whisper it to friends. She did her best to look and act like everyone else and blend quietly into the background. She wore her dark hair long, covered her face with makeup, and tried to keep up with the latest fashions, though she often ended up wearing what was comfortable. And her secret remained buried deep in the proverbial closet.

With that secret, she married a man because that’s what she was supposed to do. And in some way, Lindsay realized too late the commitment did not chase away her true self, and as hard as she tried, she could not find the numbness she wished would come and allow her to live the life she thought she was supposed to lead. When she turned thirty, another word came to mind—divorce—and on the day she was about to tell her husband that the marriage was over, she found out she was pregnant.

In a small town, one becomes sort of a celebrity when she’s expecting a child. She and her husband, Mike, and a few other pregnant couples were the center of attention. Lindsay became quite the actress, pretending to be thrilled with beginning a new family, but behind her fake smile, she felt shackled to a life she didn’t want to live.

But Alexis’s arrival changed everything. The moment Lindsay held her in her arms, she resolved herself to do anything she had to do to give her child the perfect life. And that meant staying with Mike. For a while, changing diapers and living on an infant’s schedule distracted her, but once Alexis was up and running, Lindsay found herself once again wanting to do the same.

Despite rumors, there was no infidelity, no fighting, and no drama, and the divorce was quiet and amicable. To his credit, Mike had known for some time that his wife was going through the motions. He bought the "married too young" line and granted Lindsay her freedom. It was then that Lindsay realized that he too was dissatisfied. Mike worked offshore on long assignments, and Lindsay had full custody. When he was home, Alexis spent time with him. The arrangement for both was perfect.

Though Lindsay was free from marriage, she was not free to live as she pleased. Discreetly dating a woman with her daughter in the house and her mother living next door was not going to work. There weren’t any prospects in St. Claire anyway, so Lindsay spent her nights alone in a fantasy world believing that one day she’d meet the right woman at exactly the right time.

Lindsay’s watchful gaze moved down the block until she found the kitten she was looking for. Her bag was bulging; the candy haul had been a good one. Alexis was walking slower, and Maddie had to prod her to keep up. Lindsay grinned as she remembered how she’d hit the streets running, but the walk back with a heavy sack was slow and painful. And that was after she’d spent the day at the fall festival bobbing for apples and throwing beanbags through tire swings for prizes. Alexis had at least enjoyed a power nap before trick-or-treating, but she looked dead on her paws.

"Brought her back in one piece, Ms. Juneau, and she didn’t chew her butt or her tail." Maddie grinned as they came up the walk.

"And, Momma, look what I got." Alexis climbed the three steps to the porch, dropped her bag, and dug around until she produced a cellophane-wrapped caramel apple. "Mrs. Castillio was giving them out to all the kids," Alexis pointed accusingly at Maddie, "and she ate hers without having it checked."

"If the apples came from Mrs. Castillio, then they’re safe." Lindsay handed out the last of her candy to two cowboys and stood with a groan. "Thank you for taking Alexis, Maddie, and please tell your mother I appreciate her allowing you to help."

"I will." Maddie scampered down the porch steps calling over her shoulder, "Night, butt biter."

Alexis dropped the apple back into her bag. "Mom, see what you did?"

Lindsay scooped up her daughter and the bag. "I’m sorry. It was just a bit of cat humor between us."

"How many pieces can I have?" Alexis wrapped weary arms around Lindsay’s neck.

"You can have two and not the apple. That’s too big of a job for this evening. Save that for tomorrow night or Saturday." Lindsay walked into the kitchen and poured the candy on the table. Except for a couple of melted peanut butter chews, all the wrappers appeared intact. "I’ll get you a glass of milk, and you can have your snack. After that, it’s shower time."

Alexis climbed onto one of the chairs and perused her stash with a gleam in her eyes. "Billy Meyers stole all the Butterfingers out of Hailey Everett’s bag, and she was some pissed off."

Lindsay missed the cup and poured milk onto the counter before she caught herself. "Honey, that’s ugly. Where did you hear that?"

"From Billy." Alexis unwrapped a Milky Way and took a big bite. "He said Hailey was pissed off and tried to kick him in the beans."

Lindsay hid her grin as she wiped up the counter. "Doesn’t Billy get in trouble a lot at school?"

"Yes, ma’am."

"Then I think it’s best that you don’t follow his example. From now on, if he or any of the other kids at school says something you haven’t heard before, we should discuss it before you start to use it. ‘Pissed off’ is just an ugly way of saying mad or angry."

Alexis held up a small chocolate-smudged hand. "But what makes it ugly if it just means mad or angry?"

The kid had a point. "One day when you’re older, you’ll make choices about how you talk, but for right now, let’s just keep it simple and clean. Okay?"

"Yes, ma’am." Alexis picked up a pint-size pack of M&Ms. "Would you tear this for me? They’re a bitch to open."

"Teeth clean?"

"Check."

"Body and fur clear of fleas, dirt, and debris?"

"Check."

Lindsay peeked around the doorjamb. "Ready for monster check?" Alexis grinned and nodded as she lay on her back with her hands tucked behind her head. Lindsay made a show of checking the closet, rustling the clothes for any creepies that might’ve been hiding there. Then she got down on her hands and knees and looked beneath the bed. "You’re all clear except for this little monster here." She pointed to the face on Alexis’s comforter.

"Don’t knock the Bieb, Mom."

"I don’t know how you sleep under this. The Bieb has beady little eyes and sharp fangs."

"Justin Bieber is the cutest boy on the planet. He’s not gross like the boys in school."

"Speaking of cute boys, where’s Peepers?" Lindsay looked around, expecting to see the white fur ball that usually slept in the middle of Justin Bieber’s face.

Alexis sat up with a look of concern. "Maybe he’s still outside."

Lindsay gently pushed Alexis back down and tucked the blankets under her chin. "I’ll take care of Peepers. He’s probably hunting grasshoppers or field mice." She stroked dark strands of hair from Alexis’s face and stared into the same brown eyes she saw in the mirror each morning. "I love you with all my heart, kiddo."

"Love you, too, Mom."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Nicole Allen watched the moving van pull out of her driveway and turned to go inside, so she could begin hours of dreaded unpacking.

"Are you Dr. Allen?" a voice called out.

"I am." Nicole shielded her eyes against the morning sun and watched as a tall lanky teenager ambled across her new lawn.

"I’m Deana St. Angelo. Dr. Gary told me to come and see you as soon as you got into town."

"Okay, well..." Nicole glanced inside the screen door and frowned at the boxes lining her wall. "We can chat here on the porch if that’s all right with you. My place is a wreck right now."

Deana smiled awkwardly. "Is this a bad time?"

"Not unless you want coffee. I have no idea where my maker is."

"I can run down to T-John’s and get you a cup if you’d like."

Nicole was prepared to say no, but as she looked at the mountain of boxes, she had a change of heart. "How far is that?"

"Just a block away," Deana said with a shrug.

"If you truly don’t mind, I’d be grateful."

Deana looked pleased. "Cream and sugar?"

"Yes to both." Nicole watched the girl run across the lawn, her boots kicking up leaves dropped from the white oak that shaded her porch. While she waited, Nicole unpacked a couple of the smaller boxes in her kitchen and tried to recall what Landon Gary had told her about Deana. Nicole had stopped listening after punctual and professional. The kid had the job based on that alone.

Gary had also said it was a good idea to keep a regular on board because the locals were resistant to change. And even though she was the only veterinarian for eighty miles, that didn’t mean she’d have guaranteed business until she gained the trust of the town. Having been raised in a large city, she was unaccustomed to small-town ways, as Gary had put it. "Give yourself some adjustment time. Life in St. Claire is very different," he’d said when they closed the deal.

Nicole’s father, Darrin, had studied veterinary medicine at LSU. Far from home for the first time, Darrin bonded with another homesick student, Landon Gary, better known as Gary. After graduation, Darrin moved back to Montana, but Gary had fallen in love with a Louisiana girl and stayed behind. They’d remained in contact throughout the years.

When Gary told Darrin of his retirement plans, Darrin made the recommendation to Nicole to buy the practice. Dad claimed it was time to settle down. Nicole didn’t argue the point. They both knew the reasons she could no longer remain in Butte. They visited St. Claire together the previous summer, and something about the tiny town called to Nicole. Oddly, it felt like home, even though it seemed like a million miles from where she grew up. The deal was made, and Nicole had a new house and business.

Nicole heard the sound of boots clomping across her front porch. Deana stood smiling on the other side of the screen door and raised the cup. "I feel bad about not being able to offer you anything. I have some juice if you’re interested." Nicole stepped onto the porch.

Deana shook her head and smiled. "No, ma’am. I’m just fine."

"Have a seat." Nicole gestured to one of the freshly painted Adirondack chairs. She took a spot on the swing, so she could get a good look at her new receptionist/assistant. Deana looked like any other teen, wearing a pair of faded jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt sporting an American Eagle logo. Her brown hair was full of highlights, but there were no oddly placed piercings, none that was visible anyway. "Refresh my memory, how long did you work for Dr. Gary?"

"It would’ve been three years this spring." Deana folded her hands and put them in her lap.

"What about plans for college?" Lindsay could tell that Deana had almost made a face but caught herself. "You don’t like school?"

"No, ma’am, I don’t, but I know that if I want a job with a decent paycheck, I’m gonna have to learn to like it. My parents are letting me work for a while, so I can understand just how hard it is."

Nicole nodded in understanding. She’d been the same way. By the time she graduated high school, she would’ve favored a beating over a classroom. It took her about a year of flipping burgers and ringing up groceries to appreciate the opportunity for education. "What’re your hobbies?"

"I love to play Call of Duty." Deana smiled shyly. "That’s a videogame. I ride horses and fish. That’s pretty much what everyone my age does around here."

Nicole nodded and took a sip of her coffee. "Tell me what makes you the best candidate for the job."

Deana didn’t hesitate. "I have experience in this office. I know all the filing and computer systems. I’m great with animals. I’m the only person that Mrs. Berthalot’s rabbit Nibbles will come to besides her. And I have only called in sick once the entire time I worked for Dr. Gary." Deana folded her hands and held them in front of her face like she was praying. "And I really, really want this job."

Nicole grinned. "It’s yours on a few conditions. First, you must always be polite to the customers. Second, I expect you to be on time. And third, I need you to tell me about the people and the animals that come in. I’m not asking about gossip, but if you know something that’ll assist me in my job, I’d like you to apprise me of it."

"Well, for starters, Nibbles is a hypochondriac. Well, not the rabbit, really. Mrs. Berthalot is. She’ll bring him in once a week for some illness she read about at the library. Dr. Gary said she’s just lonely, but she’s pretty mean. Nobody in town wants to spend a lot of time with her because she loves to argue."

Nicole pointed at Deana. "That’s exactly the kind of stuff I want to know."

Deana thought for a few minutes. "Mr. Piper’s kinda crazy, but he’s really nice. He has an old beagle named Chip, and every now and then, Chip will tangle with a raccoon." Deana shook her head. "Chip never wins. But Mr. Piper falls in love with every woman that comes into town. A lady moved in last year, and he sent her roses every day until she had to tell him to stop. The funny thing is the lady was like ninety, and I think Mr. Piper is like sixty or something."

"I’ll keep that in mind," Nicole said with a grin.

"Oh, and there’s Mrs. Crantz. Did Dr. Gary mention anything about her?"

Nicole nodded. "He said she was a shut-in with a lot of dogs and cats."

"Yes, ma’am. She doesn’t come into town. Dr. Gary always went to see her, and if the animals needed to be neutered or spayed, he’d bring them back to the clinic. Never—" Deana jumped when a car horn blared. "I’m sorry, that’s my mom. She wants me to ride with her to Houma, and she’s in a hurry because there’s a sale at Bed Bath & Beyond."

"That’s all right. I’ll see you Monday at eight."

Deana squealed with delight and pumped her fist. "Thank you so much! I won’t let you down, I promise."

"You’re welcome," Nicole said, but she doubted that Deana had heard. She watched the exuberant young woman race down her driveway and jump into the waiting silver minivan. With a stretch and a groan, Nicole tried to persuade herself to leave the sunny spot on the porch and attack the mountain of boxes inside. The sunny spot won out at least for a few extra minutes.

The grass was still green; trees still had leaves, though most were brown, red, and yellow. Somewhere in the distance, she could hear a lawnmower—sounds and sights so foreign to her this time of year. Back home, there was already snow on the ground and the trees long barren. People on the sidewalks wore sweatshirts and a few light jackets, but to Nicole, it felt like a summer day. She’d miss the snow at Christmas, but the prospect of never having to pick up another shovel was worth it.

It was the Southern summer she feared. Her previous visit to St. Claire had been in June, and when she walked out of the New Orleans airport, a heat so oppressive fell over her like a heavy wet blanket. Her normally straight hair was untamable. It curled in some places and grew wavy in others. And sweat she did. Her clothes were wet anytime she spent more than five minutes outside. "There’s no time to acclimate," Gary had said. "We go from what we consider cold to hot in a matter of days. Spring here is hotter than July in Montana."

But still this odd place felt like home, and for the life of her, Nicole could not figure out why. The second Gary drove them down Main Street she felt an inexplicable feeling of familiarity, as though she were coming home from a long journey. Sometimes, she wondered if perhaps she somehow inherited her father’s love for Louisiana. Maybe all the talking he did about the food and the places he loved had somehow become a part of her like a memory. Whatever it was didn’t matter. She was far away from Montana and all the problems there, and that made Nicole extremely happy.

 

 

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