My father’s visit was awkward and full of tears (from both of us) and a lot of weird hugging. He was old. He had gotten old while I was away, and my ‘tragic disappearance,’ as the news called it, caused even more aging.
He asked me if I was safe, if I was happy, if I wanted to come home.
“I do want to come home,” I whispered softly. “I just… I don’t want to bring any more trouble onto the family. The kids’ dad, he’s… he’s getting out of jail tomorrow and he already thinks I-“
“You’re still my little girl, Ella. Your mother I want you to come home to us and we promise we’ll do all we can to protect you. Whoever this man is… if he has a rap sheet, his word is nothing compared to mine.”
I nodded and murmured, “Are you sure? I can come home?”
More tears erupted and he held me close. “I love you, Ella Bella. You never really left in our eyes.”
He had always called me that and it always made me roll my eyes. Now it made my heart squeeze painfully. “I love you too, Daddy.”
My dad took me into town first so I could get my hair dyed back to its natural color and trimmed up, and also to get some fresh clothing. My mother met me outside of the house and enveloped me in her still-strong arms. I snuggled into her and breathed in her scent, whispering, “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t apologize, Sweetpea,” she murmured. “You’re home and you’re safe now. Now, let me see those grandbabies.”
My days on the farm were full of milking and egg collecting and weeding. I was too busy to worry that Beau was out of jail now and might be looking for me.
I gave my dad enough information so that he knew Beau might be looking for me. He promised me he would tell the police to keep a detail on him, but he also assured that his shotgun was still above the mantle and in as good of condition as always.
“I’d love the little fucker to try something,” he added ominously before looking at me apologetically. “Sorry, Ella.”
I shrugged. “I’d like nothing more than for my Dad to kick his ass, so, no harm done.”
I tried to spend every night bonding with my kids and showing them that I was still their mom, that I still cared, I just wasn’t with them all the time anymore. Not to mention that their daddy was dangerous and if they saw him, to call the police.
Fennec was the easiest one to adjust – he loved Grandma and cooking with her, so he didn’t mind Mom being out of the house so much. Even so, we spent every night, come rain or shine, fishing.
Becca (my mom had helped me with names and we picked Rebecca for my youngest) and I worked on her skills – mostly language, as she seemed to be a bit slow in understanding and retaining. I was hoping she was just absent minded and there wasn’t something more damaging going on.
And then my father made an announcement – he had retired and was being honored at the City Hall. He asked that we all attend with him. I was thrilled for him – he had been with the force for thirty-five years and had served them loyally.
We all went out to dinner the next night to celebrate – and someone I didn’t expect to ever see again showed up.
“Mr. Quezada, Mrs. Quezada… Ella.”
I turned and my eyes widened. It was the firefighter who had delivered Rebecca so long ago. “Hi!” I exclaimed, shocked. I got to my feet and shook his hand, Becca on my hip.
“So this is the little one?” he said with a grin, reaching out to Becca. To my shock, she didn’t shy away, like she usually did with men – she reached right out to him and willingly went into his arms. She was running her hands through his hair and he was laughing, swaying her back and forth. “The name is Julian. Julian Mayberry. I don’t think we ever exchanged real pleasantries.”
I grinned. “Ella Quezada, but you evidently knew that.”
“I hope you weren’t too mad,” he added gently.
“For me telling your dad that I saw you,” he said softly. “Your dad and my dad were friends and, well, I heard a lot about you. Once you went missing…” he shrugged. “I couldn’t just let it go when I saw you.”
“I’m glad you told,” I said with a smile.
“You look much better,” he smiled, seeming a little shy. “You know, now that you’re not skin and bones.”
We talked for a bit more before dinner came and I had to excuse myself. Before he left, though, he handed me a card with his number on it. I smiled and slipped the card into my purse, sitting down to dinner.
It took me a week to scrounge up the courage to call Julian. “Want to grab a coffee in town or something?” I asked breathlessly when he answered.
He was quiet for a moment before asking groggily, “Who is this?”
I could have kicked myself. “Sorry, um, this is Ella. Ella Quezada? Sergio’s daughter?”
He chuckled. “Ah, of course. Sorry, I was asleep – bad night last night, a few fires and cats stuck in trees. You know. Big important firefighter stuff. Coffee sounds good, but how about we do something a little more exciting?”
I balked. Exciting? Wasn’t that how Beau always phrased things before his fist started slamming into me?
“The fair is in town,” he offered.
I swallowed, forcing my heartbeat to slow. He only meant a fair. Not breaking into a house or robbing a convenience store. “Sure. That sounds… good.”
“Tomorrow around noon work? Bring the kids,” he added sweetly. “I think they’d like it.”
“Sure,” I repeated before hanging up. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for this, but what was the worst that could happen?
Now to go shopping for some normal clothes that didn’t look like a drug dealer bought them for his broken family.
When we got to the fair, I didn’t see Julian anywhere. It was fine, though, since we showed up early. Fennec was quick to run off and grab a free snocone, leaving me standing idly on the sidewalk, bouncing Becca on my hip.
I knew the voice before I turned. My heart was in my throat as I turned.
My brother. I hadn’t seen him in so long. He looked good – older and dressed in a suit. He took me into his arms in a swift motion, hugging me close. He even got a little teary.
He kept apologizing for the way he treated me as kids. “I always loved you,” he said sincerely, taking my free hand in his. “When you left…”
“I know, I’m the one who’s sorry,” I said softly. “I was stupid.”
He shrugged. “We all do dumb stuff. If… if you’re willing-“
My phone began shrilling right then. “Sorry, Bray,” I said quickly, grabbing my phone. “Hello?”
“Ella, thank God, it’s Julian! Sorry, I’m going to be a bit late – something came up at work and I need to go in and help find a rabbit – long story, tell you more when I see you.”
“Ok, no problem,” I said with a grin. A rabbit? “See you soon.”
When I hung up, Brayden looked sheepish. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were meeting someone. Mom just said you were coming with the kids…” he trailed off and reached out to stroke Becca’s cheek. She hid her face in the crook of my neck, but giggled. She was playing coy. What a flirt.
“No, no, it’s fine. He’s late, so no big deal. What were you saying earlier?”
Brayden looked uncomfortable. “Ariana’s here, too. She’d love to see you. She really beat herself up a lot when you left, and she… well, if you’re willing… she’d like to talk with you.”
I nodded, my throat sealing up. I wasn’t sure what all of these lightheaded, emotional feelings were, but it felt good. It felt like healing.
Ari was just how I remembered her – slender, effortlessly beautiful – and now she had a wedding band. We talked a bit over some iced coffees and she dished on her new husband.
“He’s a boat captain,” she said with a faint smile. “He got me into diving. I do it for a living now. I’m more accustomed to the water than dry land,” she laughed, flicking her blond hair over one shoulder.
“We missed you,” she added, the change of topic making her smile disappear. “I’m so sorry if I was the reason. I’m sorry if I…” she trailed off and looked away.
“It was my fault,” I replied, patting her hand. “I left because of me. Not you.”
“Ella!” I turned to see Julian jogging my way, seeing breathless. “God, I am so sorry, I-” he broke off, eyes landing on Ariana.
Oh great, I thought with an internal sigh. I never stand a chance against the golden goddess.
“Hey Ariana,” he greeted before turning his attention back to me. “Do you and the kids want something to eat or drink? My treat. Then we can throw ourselves onto the dance floor and embarrass everyone.”
I grinned. “Sure, thanks. Anything is fine.”
When he went to he concession stand, Ariana bumped my hip with hers. “You and Julian, huh?” she said with a sneaky grin. “Good choice, sis. I’ll leave you to it. Don’t be a stranger, okay? Come visit me sometime?” She kissed my cheek and Becca’s head.
We spent hours at the fair, eating too much, drinking too much (coffee – I saw the effects of alcohol on Beau and was not interested in any of it), and making fools of ourselves. Julian and I danced for hours, sometimes with Becca and sometimes without.
Becca and Fennec bonded over ice cream and peek-a-boo.
And then Julian did his best to teach me how to skate.
It’s still a work in progress.
We sat and watched the stars come out while Becca played with her stuffed toy Grandma had given her. Fennec was off getting another snocone (I let it go – let the kid have fun).
“I really like you, Ella Quezada,” Julian murmured softly.
I smiled faintly. “I’m damaged goods, Julian Mayberry.”
“We all are,” he bumped my shoulder with his. “It’s just finding the damage that works with ours, you know?”
I was about to turn and make sure his eyes seemed as truthful as his voice did when Fennec ran up to me, throwing himself into my arms. “Mom, Dad’s here,” he whispered, his face wet with tears. “He tried to get me to come with him.”
I was up in an instant, trying to disentangle Fennec’s arms from my neck so that I could grab his hand and his sister. Julian heard, too, and picked up Becca and took my hand. “Come on, I’ll get you all back home,” he said soothingly, but I saw a vein in his neck pulsing as his eyes swept over the darkened fairground.
We made it to Julian’s car, and then home, without incident. I could help but feel as though Beau’s eyes were on me the whole time, though.
Julian took me up to the door and spoke with my father while I got Becca put to bed. When I came down, Julian took me aside, his face soft.
“I’m sorry about that.”
I wanted to laugh. He was sorry? “You didn’t do anything.”
“I might have put you in danger by taking you somewhere public. I should have thought…”
I kissed his cheek. “It’s not your fault. Thank you for the great night. The kids had a lot of fun… and so did I.”