The First Boy I Loved

The First Boy I Loved

Cheryl Reavis

January 2014 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-4-068

Vietnam took her first love away from her.

Now it may take her next love, too.

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Back Cover Blurb

After her husband dies, Gillian Warner realizes how many sorrows she carries inside her, including unresolved grief over her first love, who died in Vietnam decades earlier. Haunted by his death in combat and a tangled web of guilty secrets, she books a guided trip to the battle site.

The tours are led by cynical Vietnam War vet A.J. Donegan, who makes his living taking naïve Americans on what he calls Guilt Trips, Inc. If they’re looking for peace of mind, they can forget it.

A prickly attraction sparks between Gillian and Donegan, with neither able to let go of the past without the other’s provocative challenge. In a test of willpower and desire, they’ll have to share much more than a journey to a place and a memory; they’ll have to travel deep inside the walls they’ve built around their hearts.

An award-winning published author, Cheryl Reavis's literary short stories have appeared in a number of "little magazines" such as The Crescent Review, Sanskrit, The Bad Apple, The Emrys Journal, and the Greensboro Group's statewide competition anthology, WRITER'S CHOICE. Her contemporary romance novel, A CRIME OF THE HEART, reached millions of readers in Good Housekeeping magazine. She has won the Romance Writers of America's coveted RITA award four times, and she is a four-time finalist. Publishers Weekly described her contemporary novel, PROMISE ME A RAINBOW, as ". . . an example of delicately crafted, eminently satisfying romantic fiction . . ."



Coming soon!


Chapter One

"I’LL TAKE HER with me. That’s the best I can do.”

Gillian waited for her son to finally absorb the fact that she was actually saying no to him. No, she wouldn’t postpone her trip, and no, it didn’t matter to her that he and his new wife had very important career obligations that precluded their being bothered with the troublesome female child from his previous marriage.

"Well, how long are you going to be gone?” he asked. "Maybe we can still—”

"The invitation is for a month.”

"A month! Mom, she’s fifteen years old. She can’t pick up and go half way around the world for a month!”

"Why not?”

"She’s in school?” he suggested pointedly.

"Justin, there are only—what—two weeks left? Marie here told me she’s failing math and English—apparently because she hasn’t passed a test or handed in an assignment since before Christmas.” She couldn’t keep the criticism out of her voice at his having let a bad situation continue for far too long. "What difference will it make if you pull her out early? I doubt she can catch up at this late date even if she wanted to. She has a current passport. She has a father who can afford to buy her a roundtrip airplane ticket. She has a grandmother willing to take her along. What neither of you has is a lot of time to make up your minds. I’m not changing my plans.”

Gillian offered no apology, no explanations. The arrangements were all made, and she hadn’t come to the decision to go easily. She didn’t miss the look that passed between her son and his wife, a look that landed somewhere between Now what? and Could we?

Clearly, Marie, at least, wanted to.

"I’ll... have to think about it,” Justin said.

"Fine. You have less than a day. I’ll be at home if—”

"What makes you people think I’d go!”

The inconvenient child in question had suddenly found her voice. Gillian looked in her granddaughter’s direction, wondering as she always did these days what had happened to the loving little girl she used to know. She barely recognized the sullen creature that had taken her place—the one with a silver stud body piercing above her left eyebrow. And the new creature had embellished its disguise by wearing black nail polish, tri-colored hair, and a deliberately provocative, raveled-hem denim skirt that was hardly more than a belt.

None of that bothered Gillian, however. Teenagers were determined to make their statements, even if they didn’t realize that what they were actually telling the world about themselves was far from what they intended. It was the look in the iridescent turquoise-rimmed eyes that worried her. A look that had only appeared in the last few weeks and had apparently made no impression whatsoever on the people who should have noticed that this girl had a tiger by the tail, and she was beginning to realize it.

At the moment, they were both too concerned about their high-powered jobs... and now too engaged in considering the merits of Gillian’s offer. Everything about Justin and Marie suggested it would be a blessed relief to actually send this bothersome, troublemaking child twenty-plus hours away by jet plane.

"Mae!” her father said sharply. "You watch yourself, young lady! I’ve just about had it with you!”

"Yes, Daddy,” she said sweetly, the tone rife with sarcasm.

"Damn it, Mae, I mean it!”

"Hold it!” Gillian said loudly. They both looked at her, startled. "I’d like to answer Mae’s question,” she said more quietly. "If I could have a minute with her alone, please.”

Marie was only too happy to relinquish her participation in trying to rein in Justin’s ungrateful daughter.

"Come on, Justin,” she said, all but pulling him out of the room with her. Gillian could hear their whispered but heated discussion as they continued down the hall toward the kitchen.

"You’re not going to talk me into anything,” Mae said. "I love Carson. I’m staying here. With him.”


"I love Carson! You don’t know how I feel!”

"No, you don’t know how I feel. I’ve been your age—you haven’t been mine. I don’t want to talk you into anything. You asked a question. I’m going to answer it—speaking only for myself, of course. I’m going to tell you what makes me think you’d go.”

"Things are different now. It’s not like it was when you were young.”

"Things are different. Not people—”

"It won’t do any good! I’m not going anywhere. I mean it!”

Gillian waited for a moment before she continued, gathering her thoughts, reminding herself not to bring Carsoninto the discussion. Mae’s need to protect him was too strong—because Marie had come home unexpectedly yesterday and found him and Mae in bed together. Gillian didn’t know how far the tryst had gone, and she didn’t want to. Her goal at the moment was not to make Mae’s clearly unsuitable relationship with this boy seem any more like "forbidden fruit” than it already did.

She walked over to the mantel, to the silver-framed photograph of Mae when she was in preschool.

"Do you remember when this was taken?” she asked.

Mae stared at her, apparently trying to decide if this was a trick question—or something worse.

"Well, I remember,” Gillian said when she didn’t answer. "It was during the early days of the war between your mother and your dad—before you got used to it. You were old enough to understand something of what was going on, and you were so scared. You and I were sitting at the kitchen table—coloring in one of your coloring books. It was raining outside...”

"Gran, I have things to do. Are we going somewhere with this?” Mae interrupted, her profound boredom with the topic causing her to look at the ceiling and sigh.

"I guess not,” Gillian said. "I’ll get back to the question.” She couldn’t tell if Mae was listening or not.

"Your dad thinks I’m going to Vietnam to visit one of my old nursing school classmates. Her son-in-law and her daughter live and work in Saigon. He’s a film producer—I understand you can make movies very cheaply there. Her daughter runs an art gallery. My classmate—June—moved there so she could be close to her grandchildren.”

"Gran, I really don’t need to know all this.”

"Yes, Mae, you do. It’s not good to make important decisions without knowing all the particulars. So. I am going to see her, but that’s not the real reason I’m making the trip. I’m going because I have something I need to take care of, something I should have dealt with a long time ago. I’d just... buried the whole thing and hoped it would go away. Sometimes things won’t stay buried, though, and this pilgrimage, if that’s what it is, is going to be... hard for me. Emotionally. Actually, I expect to get my heart ripped out.”

Mae looked at her then. "Why?”

"It’s... personal. Something nobody in the family knows anything about. Not your dad, not your granddad when he was alive. Nobody.

"There’s a reason why I would be willing to make this kind of trip with a sullen, put-upon teenage girl—you, Mae. I told your dad I’d take you with me because I remember the other Mae, the one who lived here until a few months ago. And I remember when you were four years old, you and I were coloring Big Bird and the purple one—Grover. I looked over at you. You had a yellow crayon in your hand, and you were coloring away, but tears were running down your cheeks. Then you looked at me, and you said, ‘Don’t leave me, Mana’—that’s what you called me then. ‘Mana.’ And I said, ‘Don’t worry. Mana and Mae—we stick together. Whatever happens, you won’t be by yourself. I’ll be there watching your back.’ And you said...”

Gillian didn’t go on. She could tell by Mae’s face that she didn’t have to.

"I’m not going to hold you to a promise you made when you were four years old—but of all the people I know, there’s no one I’d rather have with me on a journey like this—watching my back—than the realMae.

"You don’t have a lot of time to decide which Mae you are and whether or not you want to help me get through this. You’ll have to make up your mind today so your dad can see about getting your ticket and your tourist visa. I don’t think there’s much doubt he’ll let you go.”

"He just wants to get rid of me,” Mae said, her voice barely audible. "They both do.”

"Yes. At the moment, I think he does. This thing with Carson has him scared. You’re growing up—which means he has to, too. His reluctance to do that in the past is mostly my fault—I thought I had a lot to make up for. But that’s another story.” Gillian picked up her purse. "Have you called your mother about staying with her for a while?” it suddenly occurred to Gillian to ask.

"She says she doesn’t have any room. She’s got a new baby to take care of.”

Gillian had forgotten about that. Fresh new babies trumped old problematic ones every time.

"I’m going home now,” she said. "If you do decide to come on this trip, you’ll have to lose the attitude. I didn’t let you walk all over me when you were four—and I really liked you then.”

She didn’t wait for Mae to respond to that remark. She left the room.

"Mom?” Justin called as she stepped into the hallway. "Marie and I think it might be good for her to go with you. You’d take good care of her, right?”

Gillian sighed. "No, Justin. I plan to sell her to a brothel. Look. June says she lives in a secure district, and neither of us is known for doing anything particularly risky. She’s emailed me all the info about traveling safely. I’ve done as much preparation as I possibly can. Really.”

"I didn’t mean...”

"Just call me later and let me know what you and Mae decide, okay? If she’s going, she’s going to have to have some more conservative clothes. You’ll probably have to do her visa application online, and we’ll hope it’s on the right computer when we get to the airport. You’ll need to talk to her school, and I’ll need a notarized medical permission and insurance cards in case she would happen to get sick while we’re gone.”

He took a deep breath, but he didn’t try to persuade her to change her mind about going again. Even so, Gillian thought he was still hoping she’d give in and cancel her trip.

"So did she say anything about Carson?” he asked.

"She loves him.”

"Sure she does. That little bastard is lucky I didn’t kill him. I still might.”

Gillian smiled slightly, remembering a time when he’d been the same kind of "little bastard.” Given the shambles he’d made of his first marriage, she wasn’t altogether sure he wasn’t still.

"Just call me and let me know,” she said. She gave him a token kiss on the cheek and left, breathing a sigh of relief when the front door closed behind her. She hadn’t planned on this latest family crisis, and she wasn’t going to try to fix it. She loved Mae, but Mae wasn’t her child. She was Justin’s, and he was going to have to behave accordingly.

The sun had gone down, and a steady rain began to fall on the drive home.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

The rain was full of ghosts, like a poem she had once read and remembered only vaguely, a woman’s recollection of things past, men past. It seemed to her now that her entire married life must have been haunted by the ghost of another man, one she always knew was there but never, ever acknowledged. She had deluded herself into thinking that she’d moved on, and she had been so proud of how well she’d managed. She had married someone else, had a child, had what even she would call a "good life.” But then her husband Charlie died, and she’d been caught up in a kind of relentless remembering, only she wasn’t remembering Charlie. She was remembering Ben Tucker, the man who should have been her husband.

At first she’d tried to find reasons for her sudden obsession with the past. Maybe it was the new local radio station that broadcasted "oldie goldie” music twenty-four hours a day. Or maybe it was because she’d run into some of her old classmates at the dedication of a new wing at the hospital where she’d gone to nursing school, ones who remembered when Tucker was in her life but not what had happened to him.

"I thought you’d marry that guy who was so crazy about you, Gilly,” one of them said, clearly not remembering why Gillian hadn’t until it was too late. And Gillian couldn’t make herself respond to the remark. She’d stood there, as the ensuing silence lengthened, until another of her classmates moved the conversation in an entirely different direction.

"Tucker was so cute, Gilly. I would have done him in a heartbeat,” she said. "I mean it.”

"Me, too,” another classmate, who had just walked up, said.

"I’m talking about hot, sweaty sex here.”

"Well, me, too!”

They had all whooped with laughter then, knowing that the people around them who had overheard were more than a little disconcerted that the old grads were having such an earthy conversation.

Gillian smiled, thinking about it now, knowing how Tucker would have laughed if he’d heard it.

But her smile faded. Maybe it was all of those things, and maybe it was none of them. All she knew was that she couldn’t explain it. How could she when she couldn’t even remember Tucker’s face? She had never had a photograph of him, and now only her young self knew with certainty what he’d looked like. Unfortunately, her young self was long gone.

She could remember the sound of his voice, and there were times when she could almost feel his breath against her ear, smell the soap he’d used when he shaved.

I know you love me, Gilly.

But she hadn’t loved him, and she’d told him so. If she had, she wouldn’t have done the things she’d done, and she wouldn’t be so filled with regret now. She had actually gone to a Vietnam veterans online message board looking for... she didn’t know what. Company, she supposed. Other people still carrying the kind of baggage that made them miserable. All the messages had been poignant and sad, but one—a simple question—had hit her hard: Where is our child?

She’d felt as if Tucker himself had asked it from the other side of that black marble wall in Washington, DC.

Tucker, are you somewhere watching all of this?

She hoped not. Surely he would have suffered enough without that.

She gave a quiet sigh and changed radio stations, only to switch back to the oldie goldie music again.

Let the memories come, she thought. She was tired of fighting them.

She had learned from one of her old classmates at the hospital dedication that June was living in Saigon—Ho Chi Minh City—and that she was feeling homesick and lonesome. Gillian had been closer to June than any of her other classmates, and she had emailed her a brief hello, which quickly evolved into a long electronic conversation about their respective widowhoods and ultimately into an invitation to come to Vietnam to visit.

What a mess, Gillian thought suddenly. She had no idea what would be best for Mae. Her granddaughter was clearly the worse for knowing young Carson Hamby. Gillian had met him once and had found him far too knowing and sophisticated for someone as naïve as Mae was. There was no doubt that he had given her a certain confidence, but it was the wrong kind, the kind that resulted in her dressing in the provocative way she dressed these days and saying the sarcastic things she always seemed ready to say. Gillian also thought that his influence was an important factor in Mae’s failing grades. Not that he’d told her in so many words to stop participating in the bothersome academic side of high school. It was more likely that he’d constantly made her have to choose—studying for a stupid test—or him? Finishing a term paper that counted for forty percent of her grade—or him? Going to class at all—or him?

Gillian understood that Mae saw herself as all grown up now and that she wanted to be treated like an adult—or at least her untested idea of what being an adult must entail. Gillian had tried to do that this afternoon. She and Mae had been very close for a long time—primarily because of her parents’ stormy marriage and because Gillian had never lied to her about anything, even during the worst of Justin’s messy divorce. Today, she had been honest about her need to go to Vietnam—as far as it went. She wasn’t ready to discuss the details, not when she wasn’t certain what the details were.

But she had no illusions that Mae would actually come along with her. Mae loved Carson Hamby—as only a fifteen-year-old girl can love. At best, Gillian thought the quandary she’d presented her might help her see that being a grown up sometimes meant having to make hard choices and then living with the guilt that invariably followed. It was a difficult lesson, one Gillian had learned and learned well when she wasn’t much older than Mae was now.

Gillian turned up the volume on the radio so she could hear "Rescue Me” over the sound of the rain and the windshield wipers. She could use some rescuing and so could Mae, but as far as Gillian could tell, the only thing they had going for them was each other.

She drove faster. She was in a hurry to get home, despite the fact that she had finished all her packing. Over Justin’s objections, she had moved to a quiet little four-room house on the Yadkin River a little less than a year after Charlie died. It overlooked the water, and it suited her well. She needed the kind of solitude it provided, the kind that held no personal memories whatsoever. She could walk room to room and not replay her life with and without Charlie.

A different song came on—"The Last Train To Clarksville.” She remembered that the lyrics had scared the young men of draft age back then, causing the rowdy ones to get quiet and the quiet ones to get louder, as if flipping their personalities could somehow make them forget that it was all but certain that they were going into harm’s way. She had felt so sorry for them then. She still felt sorry for them, the ones who had survived the war and the ones who hadn’t.

She gave a quiet sigh, determined to cling to the courage it was going to take to actually leave her little house for a month and go to Vietnam.

MAE PEERED INTO the hallway to make sure her father and grandmother were no longer in the foyer, then slipped out and hurried to the guest bathroom downstairs. She had the cell phone her father had left on Marie’s expensive antique writing desk in her hand, despite knowing she was forbidden to use the phone for any reason, much less to call Carson.

She closed the bathroom door quietly and locked it, then dialed Carson’s home phone number and turned on the tap while she waited. She’d been calling him all afternoon, and she hadn’t been able to get in touch with him. She’d left messages on his cell phone voicemail, but she thought maybe he’d lost his phone again—he was forever leaving it someplace. She had no choice but the keep trying his house.

The line was busy.

She gave a heavy sigh, then closed the commode lid and sat down. She could hear her father calling her as she dialed the number again. This time the maid answered.

"This is Mae Warner,” she said, identifying herself carefully in keeping with the strict telephone protocol at the Hamby residence. "May I speak to Carson, please?”

"I’m sorry, Miss Warner. Mr. Carson isn’t...”

There was a sudden fumbling with the telephone on the other end, and a different voice came on the line.


"Mae,” she corrected.

"Whatever. This is Carson’s brother. You need to quit calling his cell and quit calling here, okay? You’re just embarrassing yourself.”


"You heard me.”

"No—I—I want to talk to Carson.”

"Honey, he doesn’t want to talk to you, don’t you get it? He’s just not into you anymore. In fact, he was never into you—well, except for... well, you know...”

"I don’t believe you!”

"Then that’s your problem. You were one of Carson’s bets, that’s all. He said he could turn a super geek, and he did. He won the bet, and that’s the end of it, Mel. So I’ll just say thanks for the really good time on his behalf. Don’t worry—you can keep the eyebrow stud he talked you into getting. Now. Try to pay attention. Don’t. Call. Here. Again. Got it?”

The line went dead, and Mae sat there, holding the cell phone tightly in her hand, staring at it as if she didn’t understand what it was or how it had gotten there. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she was vaguely aware that her father was still calling her.

"Mae! Mae!”

She didn’t answer him. After a moment, she stood slowly and turned off the tap. She stared into the mirror and eventually registered her own reflection as if she’d never seen it before. The hideous tri-colored hair. The garish turquoise eyeliner.

... turn a super geek.

Some part of her—the tiny part that wasn’t about to scream and cry—realized that Carson deserved to win his bet. The studious-looking little professor she was used to seeing was long gone. She looked like someone from the Bad Girls and Losers Table in the school cafeteria.

She watched, detached, as her fingers moved to touch the silver stud over her eyebrow. She pushed at it, then grabbed it and pulled. Hard.

"SHE HAD TO HAVE a couple of stitches. Marie’s all upset—the bathroom is a mess—she just had it redone. I didn’t know what the hell Mae had done to herself.”

"What did she say?”

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. She won’t say why she tore the stud out like that. She won’t talk about it. It must have been something you said to her.”

"Something I said? I don’t think so.”

"Well, what else could it be? She wasn’t thinking about hurting herself before you talked to her.”

Gillian sighed. "Fine. Blame me if it makes you feel better.”

"Are you... still going?”


"Oh. I was hoping you’d change your mind about staying with her here. After what happened and everything.”

"Justin, you can’t accuse me of causing this kind of self-destructive behavior and then expect me to stay with her while you and Marie go on your business trips.”

He didn’t say anything. Gillian could hear Marie talking in the background.

"Well,” he said finally. "I just wanted to let you know—wait a minute. What?” he said to Marie. "Mom, I’ve got to go. Marie says she can’t find her.”


He hung up, and Gillian stood there for a moment before she put the handset back in the base. It rang again a few minutes later, but no one said anything when she answered it.

"Hello?” Gillian said for the second time.

Then, "Gran?” Mae was crying. "Gran…”

"Mae, what’s wrong?”

"Will you come—and get—me? I—I want...”

"Where are you?” Gillian interrupted.

"At the movie—theater. Tinsel—town.”

"What are you doing at the movies?” Gillian demanded.

"Some friends—gave me a ride. This was as—as far as they were—going. Gran, please! Please come—and get me!”

"Okay. You stay right there. I’ll come and get you, and we’ll talk.”

Gillian grabbed her purse and immediately went out into the rain again. She had no idea what this latest behavior indicated and couldn’t begin to guess. She would have to try to get Mae to explain it—and good luck with that.

The parking lot at the movie complex was full, and there was a long line of vehicles picking up people waiting near the ticket booth out of the rain. She saw Mae almost immediately, huddled and alone as if she were trying to make herself as inconspicuous as possible, the adhesive bandage she’d just gotten in the hospital emergency room clearly visible. Mae didn’t see Gillian, however—she wasn’t even looking—and Gillian couldn’t get her attention despite tapping the car horn several times—much to the annoyance of the driver in the car ahead of her.

Gillian kept her eyes on her granddaughter as she inched the car forward because Mae suddenly looked as if she were ready to bolt into the parking lot. Finally, as Gillian tapped the horn again, Mae looked in Gillian’s direction and came running.

She was soaking wet by the time she reached the car, and clearly there would be no talking to her. Mae didn’t want to talk. All she wanted was to go to Vietnam.

"Please, Gran! You’re right about school. It won’t matter if I leave—I’ve already failed the year. Please!”

"If you really want to come with me...”

"I do!”

"Then we’ll have to go see your father. Right now,” Gillian said.




"You’re going to have to trust me here. I mean it. It’s either do this right now, or stay here with your dad and Marie with nobody watching your back.”

Mae gave a long wavering sigh. "Okay,” she murmured.


"Okay. I said, okay.”

"Good,” Gillian said. "Then let’s do it.”

"I WAS MAD AT Carson,” Mae said, making herself look directly at her father. She knew her voice sounded unsteady, but she couldn’t help that.

"Mad at Carson,” he repeated. "So you tore a hole in your forehead. Does that make any sense to you? It doesn’t to me.”

Mae bit down on the snide response that popped into her head. They seemed to come so easily these days.

Practice makes perfect. That’s what Carson always said, only he had been talking about something entirely different.

"Well,” her father said after a moment. "I just don’t know. Marie thinks we need to send you to a private hospital—for behavioral problems. Or maybe one of those wilderness camps. Obviously, there’s something wrong with you.”

Mae could hear her grandmother clear her throat on the heels of that remark, but she didn’t say anything, and Mae didn’t turn to look at her. She just sat there and stared at the toe of her father’s shoe. She could feel him waiting. Now all she had to do was figure out what he was waiting for.

"I’m... sorry,” she said finally. "What I did was really... stupid. I’m sorry, Daddy.” Her throat began to ache suddenly; her eyes burned.


If he only knew how stupid.

She could feel the tears beginning to well, and she closed her eyes. She bit down on her lower lip to keep her mouth from trembling.

"Help me here, Mae,” he said. "What exactly do you want? Maybe if I knew, I could figure out how to end all this craziness.”

"I want to go with Gran,” she said quickly. "It’s cheaper than a hospital or one of those... delinquent camps,” she added.

"Well, not much, Missy,” he said. "And I doubt your grandmother still wants you along. I wouldn’t, given the stuff you’ve pulled tonight. And that’s not counting running off like you did. You scared the hell out of us!”

She didn’t believe she’d scared him. She especially didn’t believe that she’d scared Marie. And it was all she could do not to say so. She looked at her grandmother instead. "Do you still want me to go with you, Gran?” she asked, hating that she sounded so pitiful. But why not? She was pitiful. Pitiful and stupid and maybe pregnant...

"Mae!” her father said sharply. "I asked you a question!”

Had he? If so, she’d missed it, and she did the only thing she could. She bowed her head again and let the tears slide down her cheeks the way she must have when she was four and coloring Big Bird.

"I was thinking she could stay with me tonight—if she wants to,” Gillian said. "It might give all of you a chance to step back.”

Mae’s head came up. "Could I, Daddy?”

"You’re grounded, remember?” he snapped. "Oh, that’s right. You keep forgetting that little detail, don’t you?” He took a deep breath. "But... I guess you could be grounded there just as well. Maybe better—unless you steal somebody’s boat. Mom, she’s not to see or talk to Carson, I mean it. Is that clear, Mae?”

Mae nodded. He had no idea how easy it would be to comply with that restriction.

"Run get your pajamas and your toothbrush, then,” her grandmother said, and Mae immediately got out of the chair and hurried from the room.

"I’ll bring her back in the morning—after you and Marie have talked,” she heard her grandmother say.

"You would actually take her with you?” her father said. "After all this?”

"Yes,” her grandmother said.

Mae returned quickly, her few things stuffed into her backpack. She didn’t try to hug her father before she left. She simply said goodbye and followed her grandmother out to her car. She realized when they were more than halfway to her grandmother’s house that neither of them had said anything since they’d left. Mae looked in her direction.

"Don’t worry,” Gran said, as if she’d been waiting for her to do just that. "Whatever questions I have will keep. So you’re safe from interrogation—for tonight at least.”


She hadn’t felt safe in a long time. She took a deep breath and leaned back against the seat. She was so tired. She was always tired, no matter how much sleep she got.


She winced as she remembered the sound of his brother’s voice.

He’s just not into you.

I love you, Carson!

Maybe his brother had been playing some kind of joke. Brothers did that kind of thing to each other all the time. Maybe...

All the desperate possibilities suddenly left her mind, to be replaced by stark reality. A joke had been played, but the joke was on her. Stupid, stupid Mae.

The tears were coming again, and she looked out the side window. Her head hurt, and it wasn’t until she touched the adhesive bandage that she remembered why. Maybe she should go to a crazy people’s hospital. Maybe something was wrong with her.

She realized suddenly that her grandmother was pulling into the long driveway that led to her river house, and she gave a quiet sigh. It would be better here—with Gran—especially the no questions part.

Her grandmother parked close to the back door because it was still raining. Mae got out immediately and waited in the rain while her grandmother found her keys and got the door open. Then, she went straight to the guest bedroom her grandmother kept just for her, one she’d had no occasion to use in a long time. She loved the room, loved the way it looked and smelled—like lavender and lemons. It was more hers then the room Marie had assigned to her at her father’s new house. And the room she stayed in at her mother’s house—well, it was gone. No doubt it was full of baby furniture and Winnie the Pooh wall decals.

She sat on the edge of the bed for a while, cold inside and out. She could hear her grandmother doing something in the kitchen and the phone ring. She put on her pajamas, washed her face around the bandage, and brushed her hair. Then she sat on the side of the bed again, still cold, still numb.

There was a quiet knock on the door.

"Come in,” she said, trying to sound as if she hadn’t had the kind of day she’d just had.

Her grandmother came in with a thick white mug, one she’d bought at a restaurant going-out-of-business sale. Mae smiled, because she could smell the hot chocolate. No one ever made hot chocolate for her except Gran, and she wanted to cry all over again.

Her grandmother set the mug down on the small table next to the bed and handed Mae a napkin.

"That was your dad on the phone,” she said. "He says you can go.”

The relief Mae felt was so profound that she flung herself into her grandmother’s arms.



Chapter Two

THE LONG BUT orderly line moved again, and Gillian advanced one whole step. She wondered idly if the customs agents ever mistook physical wretchedness for criminality. If they did, then she and Mae both were in big trouble. Gillian was so tired. She could barely stand despite the naps she’d managed to take over the Pacific Ocean and in the assorted airports before this one. She’d lost track of the sequence of the layovers. The Saigon airport was older and more outdated than she’d expected, and she wondered how long it had been in use. No. She wondered if it was the first thing Tucker had seen when he arrived here. She could see trees outside, and that was uplifting somehow, knowing that the place wasn’t all tired buildings and concrete.

"Are you hungry?” she asked Mae, and Mae shook her head. The girl had hardly eaten anything during the entire twenty-six hours of either flying or waiting to fly. She had slept soundly, though—when she stopped long enough. She’d spent a lot of the night over the ocean pacing around and around the center seating in the plane. And, when they were on the ground, she’d walked all over whatever parts of the airport she could without causing an international incident. At the moment she looked as exhausted as Gillian felt. Gillian was concerned, but she didn’t ask Mae if she was all right. She ratcheted up her once-a-nurse-always-a-nurse alert status and grew more watchful instead.

The line moved again, and Gillian could actually see the end of it. If there was a God in Heaven, sooner rather than later, she and Mae would be walking out the double doors and into what she hoped was a solution instead of an entirely new problem. She had no idea whether she’d done the right thing in coming here.

"June emailed me,” Mae said, taking Gillian by surprise. It was probably the first time she’d actually initiated the conversation since they’d left their first layover in Detroit.

"Did she?” Gillian asked in a bold attempt to keep it going. "What did she say?”

"She said she was glad I was coming and there were some young people she wanted me to meet.”

"Oh, well, good,” Gillian said despite the look on Mae’s face. Clearly, Mae didn’t think it was "good” at all.

"I don’t have to if I don’t want to, do I?” she asked. There was a slight quiver in her voice, just enough of one to be alarming.

"No,” Gillian said. "But I think you ought to have a good night’s sleep and some decent food before you decide whether or not you want to.”

Mae didn’t say anything else. She reached up and absently touched her newly shorn hair, the quickest, cheapest way to get it mostly all one color. She looked gamine-like and sweet in a young Audrey Hepburn sort of way. And she was certainly trying to be an acceptable travel companion, despite her long silences. She had researched the Vietnamese culture and the travel recommendations before they left, verifying the information June had given them and the fact that their destination might be called Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, a concept that was wasted on Gillian. The place was Saigon, the name it had had when Tucker was here.

Mae had even managed to save her father additional expense by resurrecting some of her pre-Carson clothing from the floor of her closet as well. They were much more in compliance with the recommendations for foreign tourists—nothing low cut, no bare shoulders, no denim "belts” with raveled hems.

They had both packed light because of the ever-changing airline regulations and because neither of them wanted to have to drag around heavy luggage when they had no firm idea about where they would be going or how they’d get there. June was supposed to meet them, but this was a foreign country, and Gillian had no expectations that their well-laid plans could be executed without a hitch.

Gillian ignored the customs agents as they did their inspections. She was too tired to worry that she might have something in her bag that would upset them. It was more likely that there was something that would upset her. At the last moment, she had made room for the small box that contained Tucker’s personal effects. It was far too late for her to be concerned by the fact that she didn’t really know what was in it.

Nothing alarming, apparently, because she and Mae were allowed to go through. Gillian stepped outside into the heavy heat and humidity that was Vietnam and was immediately startled by the number of people who were waiting some distance away, all of them seemingly contained and all of them quietly staring in her and Mae’s direction.

"I feel like I ought to break into a tap dance or something,” Gillian said, making Mae almost smile. She could see handwritten signs in an array of languages being held up by various people in the crowd.

"Over there, Gran,” Mae said, nodding instead of pointing.

Gillian spotted her name on a sign being held up by someone she couldn’t see because of the tightly packed front row of people who were still staring and waiting.

She walked in that direction.

"Don’t motion for whoever it is to come to you, Gran,” Mae said. "It’s supposed to be rude.”

After a few steps, Gillian saw that the sign-holder was a young man. It took him a moment to notice her. He was Vietnamese—she supposed—and not much older than Mae. He had the suggestion of a goatee, and he was wearing a wide leather bracelet with metal studs on one wrist. He wore Western clothes—jeans and an artfully faded dark brown T-shirt. If anything, he looked like an American college student. He definitely didn’t look like her idea of a Saigon cab driver.

"Are you Mrs. Gillian Warner?” he called in perfect English. No one seemed inclined to let him get closer to the barrier between them.

"Yes,” Gillian called back.

"Is that all the luggage you’ve got?” he asked as she and Mae approached the barricade. He was looking at Mae, who had gone silent again.

"This is it,” Gillian said. "We only brought what we could roll.”

"Great. You’ll have to go around that way. I’ll wait for you.”

Gillian tried not to sigh. Another line.

But this one went more smoothly, and it took only a few minutes to reach him on the other side. She could hear the rumble of thunder, and she looked toward the horizon. The spectacular, sun-glazed thunderheads that had worried her as the plane landed were gone. They had morphed into a dense wall of dark gray. The wind was picking up, and she could see the line of demarcation where the approaching rain began and ended.

"I’m Evan Nguyen,” the young man said, extending his hand to her despite what Mae had found on a travel website about the questionable acceptance of Western handshaking in Vietnam. "June sent me to pick you up. She wanted me to tell you that she had to take one of the grandchildren to the pediatrician, and she’ll meet you later at the house.”

"Oh. Okay. This is my granddaughter, Mae. Thank you for stepping in like this.”

"My pleasure. Everyone’s excited about June’s guests from America.”


"The people at the adoption agency orphanage actually. June volunteers there a couple of times a week, and she’s been keeping us posted. You’ll have to come with her one morning while you’re here.”

"Oh, do you work there?”

"Part-time. I help with the on-line English communications and translations and with the actual meetings with people wanting to adopt. The rest of the time I’m at the university—except when I’m teaching English as a second language at the British International School.”

"I see. So... you’re... not from around here,” Gillian suggested with a slight smile.

He grinned. "No, ma’am. I grew up mostly in Virginia Beach. My stepfather was an American sailor.”

He hurried them along toward a waiting taxi not far away. Even with minimal luggage, the vehicle was small for three passengers. There seemed to be a problem with the driver, and Evan motioned for Gillian and Mae both to stay where they were while he spoke to the man. Gillian watched, trying to understand the situation, which was difficult because the body language seemed all wrong. Evan was clearly displeased, and the more displeased he looked, the more the driver smiled.

The conversation suddenly ended—to Evan’s satisfaction apparently. He opened the car door for Mae and Gillian to get in, then wedged in both of their suitcases and carry-ons, completely undeterred by the fact that there was no place to put luggage in the back seat without some significant contortions on Gillian’s part.

"It would be better if you kept your suitcases with you,” he said before she could ask.


"I need to insult him,” he said. "I know it’s inconveniencing you more than it is him, but I’d appreciate it if you could put up with it.”

"Why are we insulting him, exactly?”

"He tried to revise the price he agreed on to take you to June’s place. I want him to know I think he’s a thief—as in, your luggage isn’t safe in his trunk.”

"Ah. And you can’t just tell him?”

"No. Well, yes. I did actually. But that doesn’t have the same impact.”

"And we trust him to drive after all this?”

"The cab is his livelihood, and he’s got a big family—so yes. But big family or not, he shouldn’t go trying to rip off the viet kieu—us foreign Vietnamese—especially when he knows my grandmother.”

"Okay, then,” Gillian said just as the rain arrived.

Evan closed the car door quickly and got in the front seat with the driver he wanted to insult.

"Which one of June’s grandchildren is it?” Gillian asked as the driver pulled seemingly without looking into a beehive of airport traffic.

"It’s Beth—the oldest,” Evan said, speaking over his shoulder. "She’s running a fever. Her mom is in Hanoi at some big deal... foreign investors... gallery thing. The kids have a nanny, and Susan was fine with letting her take Beth to the doctor, but June wanted to do it herself. She’s not sure she’ll be back by the time you get there, but she gave me the key and showed me which rooms are yours. She said to tell you to make yourselves at home.”

He was speaking to Gillian, but she had the distinct impression that his attention was on Mae, who was staring out the window as if there was something to see. The driver drove so fast and the rain fell so hard, Gillian doubted Mae could see much of anything even if she’d wanted to. After a time the traffic grew more congested, slowed, and then stopped altogether. The taxi was suddenly surrounded by men and women getting rain soaked on the backs of bikes, motorbikes, and scooters. The smell of the exhaust filled the taxi despite the rolled up windows—or maybe because of the rolled up windows.

"Is the traffic always like this?” Gillian asked.

"Pretty much,” Evan said. "In the daytime, anyway. It’s not as bad in the middle of the night. June told me you were in school together.”

"Nursing school, yes,” Gillian said.

"June said it was sort of a cross between a nunnery and boot camp—only with sick people.”

Gillian laughed. "Exactly.”

The rain suddenly pounded harder on the roof of the car, putting an end to the conversation. She glanced at Mae.

She’s so quiet, Gillian thought again. It wasn’t the sullen kind of quiet. It was another kind, a sorrowful and more worrisome kind. Mae wasn’t just sad about leaving Carson, in Gillian’s opinion. There was something else going on. Gillian had offered to let her call and say goodbye to him if she wanted to, but she’d looked so stricken, for a moment, Gillian had thought Mae completely misunderstood what she’d said.

But she hadn’t misunderstood. For a reason yet to be determined, Mae was seriously avoiding any contact with Carson Hamby.

Gillian turned her attention to the rainy view out the car window on her side. She was surprised by the number of colorful buildings—turquoise, salmon pink, and one trimmed in yellow and brown stripes. They reminded her of the Caribbean, and they were probably nothing like the buildings Tucker would have seen. She hadn’t received many letters from him, but she was sure he would have mentioned this kind of architecture in one of them. His writing style had been as much travel diary as love letter.

It occurred to her suddenly that while she might find the place where Tucker died, it could have changed so much that what happened there would be completely negated.

Eventually, the traffic started moving again, and at an even faster pace if that were possible. The lesser conveyances weaved in and out among the larger vehicles, causing Gillian to catch her breath more than once. After a time, she stopped looking.

"How much farther is it?” she leaned forward to ask Evan at one point.

"Hard to say,” Evan said.

No doubt, she thought, if the driver had been insulted as intended. She leaned back and tried to find a better place to put her feet, but it was useless. After a time she gave up.

Mae was drooping. She had her head propped on the edge of her upended luggage; her eyes were closed. Gillian had to wake her up when they finally reached June’s place, a new-looking three-story townhouse on a pleasant street of townhouses. The outside of all of them had been painted a warm beige color, but the trim varied. Each townhouse had a terrace with French doors on the second floor. The dark brown terrace railing on June’s house was set off by a rectangle of soft slate blue painted on the wall below it. There were potted plants by the French doors, and out front some kind of palms. This could have been any modern neighborhood. She had to keep reminding herself that she was a long, long way from home.

"LET ME UNLOCK the gate before you get out,” Evan said because it was still raining. He ran to open the art deco-looking iron gate, then ran back to get the luggage, pay the driver, and send him on his way. Gillian tried to reimburse Evan, but he refused.

"That was June’s dime,” he said.

The house was cool and very quiet when they stepped into the foyer. The color scheme seemed to be white, pale blue-green, gold, and dark brown—with absolutely no clutter. The pristine white walls stood in stark contrast to the dark wood of the doors and moldings and floors. There were a number of framed prints on the walls and over the doorways, all sizes, all looking professionally done—courtesy of June’s daughter, the gallery owner, Gillian supposed.

"I don’t think she’s back yet,” Evan said. "Your rooms are on the third floor. Mae’s is the last one on the left. Yours is the first one on the right. Go on up. I’ll bring your luggage and leave it at the top of the stairs.”

"Thank you,” she said, grateful not to have to drag her suitcase up three flights. As it was, she wasn’t altogether sure she wouldn’t have to drag Mae.

"Which room did he say?” Mae asked as they began the climb.

"Yours is the last door on the left. I think you need to take a nap.”

Mae nodded, apparently too tired to argue.

The upper floors had the same white walls, dark wood, and gold-framed prints with several globe sconces interspaced between them for lighting. There was no carpeting anywhere that Gillian could see, and their footsteps echoed throughout the house.

When they reached the third floor, Gillian walked with Mae down to her room and opened the door. There was a small basket of fruit and some bottled water on the nightstand. June had written "Welcome, Mae” on a white card and propped it against the basket.

Gillian smiled. June hadn’t changed. This was just the kind of thoughtful thing she’d do. Gillian was going to ask Mae if she wanted anything from the basket, but Mae was already kicking her shoes off and stretching out on the bed.

"Go to sleep,” Gillian said, leaning down to kiss her cheek and pull the fan-folded throw on the foot of the bed over her feet.

"Okay,” she murmured.

Gillian closed the blinds and quietly left the room. Both suitcases were sitting at the top of the stairs. She rolled Mae’s down to the end of the hall and left it outside her door. On the way back, she admired some of the framed prints despite her fatigue. By the time she reached her room, she was ready to call it a night—or day. Her brain was clearly at war with what her eyes were telling her.

She opened the room door and turned to pull her suitcase inside. When she straightened up, she gave a sharp intake of breath.

There was a man lying on the bed with his eyes closed. He was wearing cut-off jeans and no shirt. She turned quickly to back out of the room, then realized there was a fruit basket on the nightstand in here, too, and a card with her name on it. Unfortunately, most of the fruit had been eaten, and the bottle of water lay on its side, empty. There was a pile of dirty clothes and a wet towel lying in the middle of the floor.

First room on the right. That’s what Evan had told her. This room—and the sleeping man had apparently claimed it.

She realized suddenly that he was looking at her.

"I think you’re on my bed,” she said, determined not to panic and wondering if he was June’s uninformed and befuddled lover or something.

He didn’t say anything. He moved over several inches, patted the area he’d just vacated, and closed his eyes again.

It had been a long time since she’d had an offer even remotely like that, and she nearly laughed. But as inviting as the space now available might be to someone whose last twenty-six hours had been devoted entirely to air travel, she waited.

After a moment he opened his eyes again.

"Who are you?” she asked.

He yawned. "I’m the guy who’s going to take you on your guilt trip.”



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