Houseful of Strangers

Houseful of Strangers

A Flying Solo Novel - Book 2
Flying Solo – single parents, second chances and the power of love...

After breaking his arm, Dr. Eric Mitchell is forced to seek help with his rural veterinary practice in upstate New York. The temp he hires is a surprise. At first glance, she seems too fragile to handle the large animals he caters to, and emotionally, she seems fragile as well. Her smiles are rare and don’t reach her eyes, especially around Joey, Eric’s ten-year-old son.

Two years after losing her husband and son, Dr. Alison Truesdale accepts a six-month position far away from her New York City home in an effort to pull herself together and move on with her life. A new environment and new challenges at work should help her to begin again. She hadn’t counted on a boss with an attitude. A man wary of women because of a bitter divorce and custody battle. She hadn’t counted on sharing a house with a sweet young boy, a painful reminder of her loss.

As trust begins to grow between Eric and Alison, another youngster enters their lives. An abused but street-smart runaway from the city hides in Eric’s barn which doesn’t thrill the vet. Surprisingly, this teenage girl might hold the key to transforming a houseful of strangers into a home full of love.

**Finalist, National Readers’ Choice Awards, Oklahoma Romance Writers
**Award of Merit—Holt Medallion, Virginia Romance Writers
Chapter One

Monday, April 18th

Forest Hills, Queens

She packed Billy’s picture last. The one with him wearing his dirty Little League uniform. He’d scored the winning run a moment earlier, and she’d been there, camera in hand. Her boy...

Alison bit her lip and slammed the suitcase shut. With trembling fingers, she groped for the locks, snapped them into place.

Okay. She could do this. She could leave her home which wasn’t a home anymore, but a hideout. She could leave this bedroom where she’d slept alone for the last two years. She could leave the bed where William had cradled her in his arms, where she’d given love and received it for fourteen years from a man who’d known he belonged right next to her.

She had no choice but to keep on going, but damn it! Survival was overrated.

A soft whine near her ankles caught her attention and she scooped Shadow into her arms. “We’re almost ready, girl,” she whispered to the black curly-haired schnoodle. Billy’s dog. Billy’s shadow. And now hers.

She put the dog back down and hoisted the suitcase to the floor, scanning the room with a critical eye for personal items. Tenants would be moving in the next day, tenants who understood that Billy’s room was off limits. She rechecked each dresser drawer as well as the master closet and found nothing. She’d sent William’s clothes to Goodwill and hers to her parents’ place in Massachusetts.

As she clasped the handle of the suitcase and stepped toward the door, her eyes fell once more on the bed. King-size for a tall man. She felt the corner of her mouth lift. Yeah... She and William had indulged in some great adventures there. She blinked quickly and hurried from the room, down the flight of stairs, Shadow at her heels. Outside on the front steps, she slammed the door behind them.

#

Bayside, Queens

 Fifteen-year-old Danielle O’Connor pointed out the street sign to her two new friends. “Jupiter Place,” she said. “We’re here, and we’ve got a job to do.”

“At your old house,” said Raven, shading her eyes and peering down the long city block.

“That’s exactly right,” said Dani softly.

The sun shone brightly, and Dani needed to feel its warmth on her face. She’d woven her hair into one long braid which hung down her back. April in the city smelled clean, hinted of promise...a promise of something. She didn’t know exactly what, but she liked the tang in the air. Especially combined with the familiar rush of adrenalin coursing through her.

“Nice spreads and big ole oaks,” drawled Houston. “A good hood.”

Dani glanced at the boy. A kid from Maine with a craving for Texas. “All the houses look alike…” she said, …“and the oaks have been here forever, but your accent’s getting better, cowboy. Keep practicing. And keep your mind on what we’re doing. Hear me?”

Maybe it was time to go off on her own again. After two years on the streets, she’d learned that life was easier just taking care of herself. But sometimes she liked the company. Last year, she’d returned to her old street alone and had achieved great success. Yet her satisfaction had been short-lived because no one had been there to see the shambles she’d made of her father’s house.

He’d deserved it and a lot more. “An alcoholic. A crazy cop,” the neighbors had called him. “No wonder they threw him off the force.” Dani had heard the whispers, had seen the empty bottles strewn around the house. And she’d been bruised enough throughout her childhood. Maybe if her mother had been alive... She stroked the gold four-leaf-clover she wore around her neck.

“We’re going to walk slowly down the block,” she continued to her friends. “Just three kids killing time. And when we get to his house, we make sure it’s empty before we go in.” She paused and stared at Raven. Dani didn’t know her real name and didn’t want to. “Better take off the do-rag, Raven. We don’t want attention.”

“You worry way too much, Irish.” But the girl pulled off her head gear.

“I don’t worry, Raven. I plan.”

She’d had to learn to plan—about the time her breasts had begun to grow, and her hips had widened…and John O’Connor had done things to her... She swallowed hard. Back then she’d pleaded with him, had invoked her mother’s name, and held onto her gold charm. All for nothing.

Revenge was really very sweet no matter what some people said.

She scanned both sides of the street. Jupiter Place was quiet at two in the afternoon. The younger kids were still in school; the older kids probably had other activities. Like a track team. Dani glanced down at her running shoes. They fit just right—not too snug, not too loose—exactly as her coach had taught her.

She’d learned not to waste efforts when she stole. Take it right the first time. Her next shopping trip would include longer jeans. She had grown a couple of inches, and her boobs had sort of flattened out, which was fine with her. But her pants were too short.

“The house we want is on the other side of the street, almost at the corner,” she said. “Let’s just sort of meander.”

Raven rolled her eyes. “I don’t care about the rag, but we don’t need no hundred dollar words around here, girl. What’s me-and-her?”

“Easy, darlin,’” said Houston. “That’s just her way. Makes her feel mighty fine to know those big words.”

“Makes her feel mighty high. Higher up on us is what.”

Next time, Dani thought, she’d definitely come alone.

“How about,” she began, “I’ll get you something special when I go shopping again. Maybe... earrings?”

Raven’s eyes shone as Dani knew they would. The girl was easy to figure out. And cheap pierced earrings were easy to lift.

 Dani checked out all the cars parked along the curbs as they covered the length of the street, then the common driveway behind the row of attached brick houses. John O’Connor’s car wasn’t anywhere. She smiled.

“He can’t afford a new one, so we’re okay. I’m going in through the back. Raven, come with me and stand at the door, and Houston...you keep a low profile out here in front. I won’t be long.”

She let herself in with her key, and stopped short in the kitchen. Spotless. No way would her father do women’s work. A cleaning service? She doubted it. Moving silently through the room to the hallway, she climbed the stairs to the second floor, hoping to retrieve anything that belonged to her—clothing, books, anything at all—but paused outside the master bedroom. Perfume. She peeked in. Sure enough, on the dresser was a lady’s mirrored tray with girl stuff, like her mom once had. I feel sorry for you, lady.

Then she spotted the gun. His gun. The gun he’d bought after his retirement. “Once a cop, always a cop,” he’d said. The gun was now laying in a holster over the back of a chair. So careless...so inviting. Dani grabbed the gun belt and rushed back to the kitchen, took a paper napkin and lifted the weapon out. She put it carefully into the freezer. Then she lay the empty belt across the kitchen table. He’d go crazy when he saw the gun was missing. How long would it take him until he searched the freezer? Oh, yes. This was good. Very, very good.

She stuffed the napkin into her pocket, then opened the refrigerator and stared at some leftover roast beef. It looked delicious. She reached for it, then paused. Better not leave concrete evidence that someone had been in the house. When he eventually found the gun, he’d think he’d put it in the freezer while he was drunk. Oh, yeah...it didn’t get sweeter than this.

She left the house exactly as she’d found it—with the one exception—and greeted her friends with a light heart. “Let’s go,” she said, leading the others down the street. She’d been inside less than three minutes.

“You shudda taken the gun, Irish.” Raven rolled her eyes as if Dani was the stupidest human on earth.

Dani shrugged. The girl had no appreciation for subtleties. “Why? We can’t pawn it.”

“Yes, we can.”

“It’s got a serial number, Raven. All guns do. I don’t want trouble and neither do you.”

“We can get the ID filed off. And besides, your old man would never report it missing. A cop losing a gun? His friends would laugh at him.”

“I can always lift an extra wallet, Raven. But I really, really like the thought of driving him crazy.”

Raven turned to Houston. “Look at her face. Her eyes.  She got a crazy, mean streak, just like us. She ain’t no better’n us.”

“Never said I was,” replied Dani. They’d arrived at the subway station and descended the stairs, ready to go back to the city–to Manhattan–where they hung out. “It’s you who keeps saying that.” Maybe it was time to get new friends. Except she liked these two–most of the time. And most of the time, the kids she ran with dropped her. And then she’d be on her own again. Starting over.

Houston interrupted. “Raven, darlin’. She’s not getting everything her way.”

“What you mean?”

“Well...she won’t be there to see her old man’s face, now will she? And that’s what she’d really like.”

Houston had nailed it. But Dani resented him having to appease Raven. The whole day had been like that with the other girl. Her behavior was getting on Dani’s nerves.

The train pulled in. Seats were easy to find on a Monday afternoon, and Dani leaned back. Raven sat next to her with Houston on the other side. The would-be cowboy was busy studying the other commuters. A habit they all had of studying their surroundings.

A minute after the train started, however, Dani felt Raven leaning against her, sound asleep. She shook her off, but Raven’s head landed back on Dani’s shoulder, heavier than before, and her whole body followed as though Dani were a mattress.

She looked across Raven at Houston. “I got a bad feeling something’s going on with Raven. Stand up in front of her for a minute.”

“Dang it, Irish. She’s only tired.”

His immediate defense turned Dani’s bad feeling into a hard knot. “Either get to your feet, or I’m outta here.”

With a big sigh, Houston slowly complied. As soon as he’d blocked their companion from view of the other passengers, Dani rolled up Raven’s sleeve and examined the inside of her arm. She glanced at Houston. “When did she start?”

He shook his head. “Dunno.”

“We’re going to bring her to a rehab center,” said Dani. “I can’t take care of another one...not even one more.” She pressed her lips together and blinked hard. “Remember Raine? She died while I held her on the friggin’ sidewalk!  And Lucy—I couldn’t get her to a hospital in time.”

Houston shook his head. “Before I knew you, darlin’. But I’m thinkin’ that a rehab center isn’t right for our Raven. She’ll hightail it straight out of there.”

“She’ll die if she doesn’t go,” said Dani. “At some point. Right now, she still has a chance.” She paused. “Listen... there’s a place on Tenth Avenue we can spend the night. A warehouse with a guard who looks the other way. His name is Eddie, and he says I remind him of his granddaughter. Raven’ll be more alert in the morning. We’ll both talk to her then.”

“I’m hungry.”

Food! Was food all that boy could think about?  “How about a Big Mac?  I’ve got enough for us and the watchman.”

He nodded. “Good plan.”

#

Had she remembered how scenic Route 17 West was, Alison would have planned to arrive in Twin Lakes the following evening. With her mind on other matters, however, she’d barely thought about the long drive or the temp job she’d accepted upstate.

As she left the city behind, she felt herself begin to relax. Through her windshield, she saw countryside covered with new spring grass. She noticed the patterns of sunlight and shadow on the trees along the road. She saw small dairy farms, red barns, the cows and calves at pasture, horses, too. Familiar scenes from her childhood.

There was no reason, she decided, that she couldn’t take her time and arrive in Twin Lakes the next day. She pulled into one of the rest areas, which provided heart-stopping views, and used her cell phone to call the number on the business card for her new employer: Dr. Eric Mitchell, DVM, 135 Applewood Road, Twin Lakes, NY.

She spoke to a woman named Ruth who told her to take her time and arrive safely. In a warm voice, she told Alison not to worry about Dr. Mitchell. Ruth would handle her son.

Great. The vet had to be handled. Okay, the guy was in pain with a broken arm, couldn’t do his job, and would probably be annoyed if his new temp arrived a day late.

Alison shrugged. She’d worry about it tomorrow. She’d had a hard day herself and had just begun to unwind. The sun was beginning to set behind the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. She attached Shadow’s leash and got out of the car with her. Time to say goodnight to Billy and William.

Afterwards, in her motel room, she slept like the proverbial baby, without having to use antidepressants, and woke up the next morning feeling refreshed. Encouraged. She’d been right to sell her practice and get out of the city. Away from her too-familiar routines. Taking this short-term job upstate had been a good decision.

#

Dani’s plan to sleep in the warehouse had been a good one. Except when she woke up at six the following morning, her friends were gone. She found herself lying on her side, knees pulled into her stomach, hands clutching her four-leaf clover. Her face was damp. She’d been dreaming of her mom.  Maureen had been crying, her blue eyes filled with tears as she’d called Dani’s name. And now, Dani didn’t want to move. Just wanted to hole up forever in that dream-like state. With her mom.

Minutes passed, and then like an old woman with fragile bones, Dani stood up slowly. She used the warehouse’s washroom, anxious to be gone before the seven o’clock shift came on. No shower today, but she scrubbed her face and pits and used the deodorant she’d gotten from the outreach van. She brushed her hair back into a low pony tail. In jeans and a jersey, she hoped she looked like any American kid.

She left before anyone showed up for work. At Eighth Avenue, she slowed down and headed toward the Fourtieth Street entrance to Port Authority, one of her regular hangouts. The main concourse was busy by the time she arrived. Shops and restaurants were open for business. The place had restrooms, and it was easy to blend into the crowd.

New kids showed up by bus all the time, from all over the country, looking to make it in New York. Sure, they were usually older than Dani, but they didn’t know squat. Dani felt ancient in comparison. Sometimes, she tried to give the girls a five-minute survival course. Watch out for the pimps. Carry your shoulder bags against your body, under your coat. That’s when Raven had called her a “Stinkin’ social worker.”

So what if she was? Once, she had a mother who sang to her. She knew what a regular family should be, and if she couldn’t have it for real, at least she could try to create one. She and the other kids should take care of each other. But somehow, her little families never stuck together. Sometimes, she was the one left out.

Within ten minutes, she recognized three girls who always traveled together, and dropped down beside them on a bench outside the Good-to-Go Café. She slipped her backpack off and put it on the floor, placing one foot through the straps.

The girls barely raised their eyes to her.

“What’s happening?” she asked.

“Noah and Ayesha overdosed.”

Just like that. No preamble. “Oh, man.” Dani’s stomach lurched—instant nausea. “I took them to a clinic...I thought they were getting better...trying....   When? Where?” She felt tears roll down her face. Impatiently, she wiped her cheek before reaching into her backpack for her notebook. “I’ve got to add their names.”

“Oh, Jesus. Look what she’s got.”

She ignored the redhead and found the right page. In the top margin, she’d printed, Rest in Peace. Her list filled more than half the paper. She added the two new names beneath Raine’s and Lucy’s, making the sheet three-quarters full.

“Do you know when they died?” she asked.

No one seemed to have a clue, so she wrote, “beginning of April.” 

“Why you doin’ that, Irish? You gonna call their parents? Or print a notice in The New York Times?” The biggest of the three, Sunshine, sounded angry, her voice laced with sarcasm. “You think anybody cares about two runaway black kids?”

Dani saw the rage and hurt reflected in Sunshine’s dark brown eyes. “Yes, I do. And I care, too.”

“You? You can’t even help yourself. You’re a-a nobody’s child, just like us. And one day you’ll be dead like them. And so will I.” Sunshine began sobbing. Sucking air, blowing it out. Big shuddering sobs.

Dani stared hard at her, then rose and hoisted her backpack. “Yeah,” she said. “You’re right. One day, I’ll die. But when I do, it won’t be for nothing.”  She grabbed the other girl’s arm, like she’d done with Raven’s. “Look! Look at what you’re doing. You don’t want to die? Then get yourself clean.”

She glanced at the other two. “I know a place we can take her. No ID problems. No questions asked.”

The girls didn’t respond. Instead, each of them looked at the floor. And then Dani understood. They were all into it. And one day, she’d enter three more names into her notebook. She ran outside into the fresh air.

The usual noises calmed her. The usual bustle. The sounds of life. She sat at a table in Bryant Park behind the huge public library at Forty-second Street & Fifth where no one would chase her. The park was for everyone, even for her.

She fingered the four-leaf-clover on her necklace. She’d been somebody’s child in her other life. In this life, however, she’d just spent a hard twenty-four hours. She understood the temptation, understood the allure of letting the pain wash away in a haze. The pain of being nothing, belonging nowhere.

Sunshine had been right. No one wanted them. And now the girls would have to come up with cash regularly to pay for the dope. And when they couldn’t, they’d wind up prostituting, working for a pimp.

She didn’t need that kind of protection. She didn’t use. No dope. No alcohol. And that’s what saved her. Not that she’d consciously chosen the high road. Simply, the smell of liquor made her sick. It brought back memories she didn’t want. The image of O’Connor. Her father.

She put her head on her arms and rested on the cement table top. Sometimes she hated thinking, period. It was just too much effort. She was drained. And sad. Very, very sad. She held on to her necklace and cried softly, this time allowing her tears to flow.

Once she’d cried it all out of her system, she sat in the warmth of the sun, and she made up some new rules. No more friends. No more traveling in groups. No matter how lonely she got, from now on, she’d watch her own back.  Maybe get a real job. She was tall enough to pass for older now. She could waitress or at least work in the kitchen. And with regular money, she could get a place. Start all over.

#

Alison arrived in Twin lakes in the late afternoon before the pale sun had set. She headed north from Main Street to Applewood Road where the vet lived. When she spotted the street sign, she slowed down and took stock. Houses were separated from their neighbors by acreage, not by city lots, and most places had barns or other outbuildings in the back. Oaks, maples and birches lined the road, with mailboxes between them.

She found Dr. Mitchell’s house easily enough. His mailbox stood in front of a yellow two-story structure set back from the road. She turned into a wide circular driveway which branched to a three-car garage. Just as she was deciding where to park, a yellow Lab, weighing at least sixty pounds, ran at the car, barking. Alison braked and turned to Shadow, whom she’d let out of the traveling cage a while ago. Her dog stood riveted at attention.

“I guess we’re in the right place, Shadow. But you’re no match for that big girl.”

She parked the car, took Shadow into her arms and opened her door, ready to make friends with the family’s representative. As Alison got out, the Lab wagged its tail hard enough to create a breeze. Still holding Shadow, Alison scratched the Lab under her chin. The dog immediately closed her eyes and tilted her head back. Long mewling whines came from her throat. She was singing.

Then Shadow, all seventeen pounds of her, jumped down next to the Lab and whined along in two-part harmony. A dog chorus. Alison began to chuckle. “No wonder I love dogs. You guys are funny.”

“Then you’re in the right career,” said a soft voice. “Hello and welcome. I’m Ruth Mitchell.”

Alison looked up to see a trim woman older woman with wavy salt-and-pepper hair, and a big man, whose right arm was in a sling, walking toward her.

“Happy to meet you,” Alison said, extending her hand. The other woman took it gently.

“This pesky arthritis is softening my grip,” said Ruth.

“I’ll remember that,” Alison replied, turning toward Ruth’s dark haired son, whose left hand rested on the leather belt holding up his jeans. “I’m Alison Truesdale,” she said. “I guess I won’t shake your hand.”

He nodded. “A schnoodle, huh? Interesting choice for a vet.”

“Why’s that? I’d say a schnauzer-poodle mix is an excellent choice for anyone.”

But the vet seemed disturbed.

“So, are you susceptible to dander and air born allergens?” he asked. “Because if you are, you can get behind the wheel again tomorrow morning and go back where you came from.”

His concerns were unfounded, but his rudeness was disappointing.

She raised her chin and stared into his eyes. “Do you think I’d have become a veterinarian if I were allergic to animals?”

“I don’t know why women do anything,” he retorted. “A schnoodle is the perfect dog for someone with allergies.”

That someone had been William, but the barracuda here didn’t need to know that. “Shadow is a perfect pet for anyone,” said Alison. “I’m a licensed veterinarian, and you seem to need help. If you don’t like working with women, you shouldn’t have hired me.”

Silence beat against her eardrums. Had she actually used energy to fight back? Had she cared that much? The doc studied her as if she were a strange specimen on a petri dish. Only his mother smiled.

Suddenly, six months seemed like a very long time.

#

The woman didn’t seem strong enough to carry her suitcase, let much less deliver a calf in trouble. Bony. Small hands. If she gained a few pounds, he’d call her, slender.

Eric Mitchell stood in the driveway absorbing his new reality. He needed help. Dr. Alison Truesdale had been right about that. But he should have settled for a rotation of veterinary students from Cornell University, his alma mater. They’d have wanted a chance to work hands-on in a real practice and earn a little money, too. But they also needed to graduate. No one student could give up a semester to work with him. And he didn’t have time to train a new student every week or two. Ergo, Dr. Alison Truesdale. With her Schnoodle who had the same dark wavy hair as she did.

The thought made his lips twitch. Dogs and their owners. “I don’t care if you’re male, female or Martian, Dr. Truesdale. I need an associate with the stamina for a large animal practice.”

He liked the way her gaze met his. Open. Unafraid. Some of the old-time farmers in the tri-county area needed to be dealt with directly.

“Time will tell, Dr. Mitchell. Won’t it?” she replied.

He was about to comment, when he spotted a small jean-clad whirlwind coming at him from the direction of the barn.

“Dad, Dad! Rosie ate a whole pound of starter. I think she really liked it....” The boy stopped just short of crashing into him as soon as he noticed their visitor.

Eric put his good arm around his son. Raising a calf was Joey’s first 4-H dairy project, and his enthusiasm rivaled Tom Brady’s love of football. “Great work, son. Gradually increase the starter, give her plenty of water, and soon she’ll be weaned.”

He urged Joey forward. Turned to introduce Alison Truesdale. And saw trouble.

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