“Be prepared to have your heart stolen, your passion for love ignited, and a tear-stained face…A powerful unforgettable love story” — Good Book Alert
“Stop, right there!” a man yelled from a distance, making Randall Rowe’s chest tighten even more if that was possible. What now? His trip home was turning into a disaster, and he hadn’t even seen his parents yet.
Randall paused walking and turned around to squint across the street at a row of brick buildings in the hot August sun, seeing no one. Summerdale hadn’t changed much, appearing more quaint and quiet than he remembered until this second, though he supposed anything would when you compared it to Los Angeles.
Maybe the man wasn’t talking to him, but he couldn’t be sure, especially since this was the first time he had been home in six years. He’d left at eighteen with two hundred dollars in his pocket and a dream he felt to his soul.
Suddenly, a girl bolted from Uncle Samson’s Grocery store with Samson running close behind, his full stomach rocking under his too-tight shirt.
“Thief! Stop her.”
Randall slowly grinned as they ran in his direction, enjoying the show. Samson had lacked that stomach years ago. In taking over his father’s business, the former football player had gotten comfortable, but still had quick feet. Three steps later, he collared the girl.
She fought like the devil, kicking and hitting. “Let me go! I didn’t do anything.”
Shaking his head, Randall crossed the street to the commotion and realized the girl was just a teenager. Her oversized, rumpled yellow t-shirt was at least three sizes too big, and her unruly, black curls hung in straggles around her light brown face. Clearly displeased about being detained, she pulled her foot back and nailed Samson in the shin.
“Ow!” He lunged at her. “Why you little—”
Randall grabbed Samson’s shoulder and applied pressure. “Whoa, there. What’s going on?”
Samson glanced up with surprise, two red spots staining his cheeks. “Where did you come from? Fine time to show up.” He turned back to the girl. “She stole from my store. I’m sick of these bad-ass kids.”
She raised her chin. “I didn’t. You’re lying.”
“Then what’s in your bag?” His thin lips curled. “I want it back now. I saw her taking a bag of Cheetos, and God knows what else.”
“I didn’t!” she cried, yet her hand traveled protectively to her milky brown, dirt-splattered bag.
“Tell that to the police,” Samson said. “Randall, hold her while I get ‘em.”
She kept silent, but Randall detected moisture forming in her deep brown eyes and sighed. “Wait, Samson, I don’t think we need the police. Let me take care of it.”
“What? Do you know this girl?”
He didn’t, but noticed what Samson was too angry to see: hungry eyes. “Yeah, I do.” He pulled out his wallet. “Twenty dollars should cover it.”
Samson scowled, but took the money, and then pointed a fat finger at the girl. “Fine, but if I ever catch you in my store stealing again, I’m sending you off to the police. Got it?”
She was humble, or smart, enough to put her head down and nod.
Samson stormed off, grumbling about thieves ruining his life and being the death of him.
Randall eyed the girl until she looked up and defiantly returned his stare. He imagined she could be anywhere from thirteen to fifteen. “What’s your name?” he asked.
Her skinny arms flew to her hips, making the yellow t-shirt swallow her frame even more. “Why do you want to know? You think because you paid him I owe you?”
“No, it’s just a question.” He slipped his hands into his pockets.
“Oh.” Her bluster disappeared. “Thanks, that was a close one. I’ll be on my way.” She sauntered off.
He quickly caught up with her. “Where do you think you’re going?”
She stopped and stared at him. “Look, mister, I’m just passing through. Y’all won’t see me again.” Tall for a girl, her head came up to his neck and he was six two.
“Well, I told Samson I’d take of care of it, and I intend to do that. Where are your parents?”
She crisscrossed her arms over her thin torso. “You’re not a pervert, are you?”
His eyes narrowed. “I’m not.”
“Well, I can take care of myself.” She turned and stomped away. “Leave me alone.”
He followed. “Kid, if you could take care of yourself, you wouldn’t be stealing.”
“Back off!” she growled.
He gritted his teeth, reminding himself this was a teenager—obviously, a smart-mouthed one—but he couldn’t just leave her without help.
“Are you a runaway?” he asked, nodding to her bag.
She paused, shifting her eyes. “No.”
“For some reason, I don’t believe you,” he said. “I could go to the police station a block from here and ask them about missing persons.”
“Why do you even care? Is it your hobby to go around trying to make people miserable?”
“Okay, have it your way. I wanted to say hi to my pals at the station.” He strolled away.
A few steps later, she ran up behind him. “Wait, mister, don’t go.”
He turned around. Tears glistened in her eyes, and his heart softened. “Don’t do that.” He nodded toward the metal-can diner at the end of the block. “You can eat there with my girlfriend and me. We’re having lunch. I’ll pay so you won’t have to steal anything else for today.”
He watched the indecision on her face, probably wondering if she should run or chance it for a hot meal.
“Your girlfriend’s there?” she asked, biting her lip.
“Okay, fine,” she said reluctantly. “Let’s go.” She sprinted in front of him toward the diner, her skinny frame seeming to beg for food.
He followed, grinning; suddenly glad to help though this was admittedly out of his character. “Good decision, kid. My name is Randall.”
She glanced back. “You look familiar for—”
“What’s yours?” he interrupted.
“Um . . . Kayla.”
“No last name?”
“Not for you.”
“We’ll see about that.” He fully intended to know by the time they left the diner. Jumping ahead, he opened the door.
With the air conditioner grumbling, sixties-styled Carol’s Place was not much cooler than outside. A jukebox in the back corner played Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” As they walked in, the patrons stared, and the hum of conversations dimmed.
“Do I have two heads or something?” she whispered.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s me.”
“Wow, it must suck to be you.”
He shrugged. The patrons’ reaction was better than the glares Chandra and he received upon their arrival.
Chandra, her hair dyed chestnut brown, came into view as she tapped her manicured nails on a glass of water and fanned herself with the other hand. Raised in an A-list Hollywood family, the closest Chandra probably ever got to nature was a country club, unlike Randall who had grown up outdoors. Noticing him, she glowered. “I can’t believe that you just left me.”
He winced. Since they had arrived at the Detroit Metro Airport, all Chandra had done was complain, which made his anxiety about coming home worse. Once they had entered the diner, he told her he needed fresh air and left before she could say anything. He tried for an innocent smile. “Sorry about that. I ran into Kayla, here, and got sidetracked. Forgive me.”
Her pupils dilated as her eyes fixed on his smile. She lost the pout, returning a grin. “I forgive you. Barely,” she said then bit her bottom lip. Its perfect plumpness had instantly turned him on when he had met her at a premiere.
Relieved she had calmed, he slid next to her in the booth, and Kayla plopped down across from them. “I told Kayla that we would get her something to eat, by the way.”
Chandra’s big, brown eyes blinked at the girl. “Where did you come from?”
“I just met him outside. He helped me out of a spot,” Kayla muttered. “He’s kinda overbearing, but you look familiar—”
“I’m Chandra Snowden,” she cut in.
Kayla gasped. “You were Lacey in that movie with Will Smith. He’s my favorite.”
Chandra beamed with perfect white teeth. “Right, I didn’t get a huge part, but it’s a start. Will is the nicest man.”
Kayla swung her eyes to him, Chandra, and then back to him again. “I can’t believe it! Randall Rowe. I knew you were too pretty for a man with those light eyes. I saw one of your earlier movies, but not that new one, Dog Nights.”
His brow rose. Maybe he should’ve left her. “It was Dog Daze.”
She continued as if she didn’t hear him, “Girls at my school love you, but I always liked Will Smith better. I guess this means I don’t have to fear for my life.” She pivoted her head toward him. “But soon as I eat this, I’ll be on my way.”
Despite himself, he fought a grin, content to let her think so. “Great, as much as I love this conversation, here’s the waitress. What are you ordering?”
Kayla placed her order, followed by Randall, and then Chandra. The waitress disappeared, and Kayla leaned back in the booth. “What are two stars doing in this crusty town, anyway?”
Chandra smirked. “Crusty is a compliment. They don’t even have a four-star hotel, but this is where Randall grew up, and he wanted me to come.”
“It’s my mother’s birthday, for your information. I promised I would be here,” he said, though he regretted ever making the promise. But the fact that his father had called and asked . . . Well, he couldn’t refuse.
“Do you regularly go around trying to rescue strange girls, too?” Kayla asked.
“Only when they cross my path. Where are you from?”
“What do you care?” Kayla said with narrowed eyes.
He shot her a glare, which she returned.
“She doesn’t live in Summerdale?” Chandra interjected.
“No,” he said.
Her eyes widened. “This is like that movie I acted in when I was eighteen and played a runaway. Her father beat her and her brother all the time, and she ended up with a pimp and started hook—”
“We get the picture, hon,” he interrupted.
“Right.” Chandra glanced at Kayla. “You seem like a good kid, not a hooker.”
“Is that a compliment?” the girl asked with a doubtful tone.
“Of course, in the stories I’ve read about runaways, they’re either crazy, abused, or drug addicts. You don’t look like any of those—”
Realizing she was making a bigger hole, Randall put his hand over Chandra’s and lightly squeezed. “Here’s our food.”
The waitress set the burgers and salad on the table. The scent of the hot burger tickled his nose and his mouth salivated, making him aware he hadn’t eaten in hours.
Before he could grab it, Kayla slapped a dollop of ketchup on her plate, grasped her burger, and took a huge bite. He did the same, enjoying the juicy taste. Chandra shook salt and pepper, with apparent restraint, over her salad and forked it into her mouth.
He swallowed and asked, “Is your burger good, Kayla?”
“Uh-huh,” she managed, her cheeks fluffed out like a chipmunk.
“Don’t swallow your food whole. Chew it,” he reminded her. She didn’t answer as she washed the burger down with a generous amount of strawberry shake.
“Someone is going to have a stomach ache,” Chandra warned, “if she keeps eating like that.”
“Do you want some dessert too?” he offered. Still chewing, Kayla nodded vigorously.
“You cannot be serious,” Chandra said.
“She’s hungry.” He returned to his food. “When the waitress comes back, we’ll get some.”
After enjoying the remaining bites of his burger, he stopped the waitress. “What will it be, Kayla?”
She chewed quickly and gulped to get out: “Peach cobbler.”
Chandra’s eyes narrowed as she played with her salad, giving him the feeling that she was annoyed. Personally, he hated how she counted each calorie, but after being in Hollywood for so long, he was used to it.
He studied the girl. With her burger and most of her fries gone, she slumped back in the booth and rubbed her stomach. A slight smile played on her lips and her eyes drooped. “I haven’t forgotten my questions,” he said. “I need to know where you’re from and your last name.”
She groaned. “Why is it so important to you?”
“I’m just trying to help you get to where you’re going, safely and without breaking the law.”
She tilted her head and stared at him. He guessed deciding if he was trustworthy or not. “Columbus, Ohio,” she finally said. “And my last name is Denton.”
“How old are you?”
He found himself mildly shocked. He’d been sure she was younger. “Where are you going?” he asked, and her eyes rolled. “Come on . . .” he pressed.
“Chicago,” she huffed.
“So how did you get here?”
“I caught a ride with an old lady headed this way from Toledo, Ohio, where I was living with my Aunt Megan. I’m a little off course, but I’m almost to Chicago.”
“But why are you running from your Aunt’s house?”
Kayla frowned, glancing down. “Why does anybody run? No one wants them.” She peeked up, a liquid glaze forming in her eyes. “My parents died, okay,” she whispered.
He grimaced. Tough luck for anybody. “I’m sorry.”
“Me too,” Chandra chimed in.
He wanted to dig deeper, but thought better of it in such a public place, and made up his mind to help her as much as he could. She seemed like a smart girl—maybe too smart for her age—but a good kid overall.
“You shouldn’t be out there alone,” he said. “My mom helps young girls from her church, maybe I can see if you can stay with my family until this is figured out.”
Kayla played with her napkin. “Why would your mother want to help me?”
“She cares about people. My dad is a preacher, and they’ve helped a lot of people get on their feet. After we eat, we’re headed there. You can come.”
Her lips pursed. “Are you giving me an option?”
He controlled his grin and sipped the thick milkshake. “If you put it that way, not really, because anything can happen to you out there. What’s in Chicago, anyway?”
“My Aunt Charlotte.”
“You’re super lucky to have run into us,” Chandra said.
“I had it under control,” she bit out. “I just ran out of money.”
“Well, Randall will help you now.”
Kayla raised a brow. “Why am I not warmed all over?”
Sitting in the backseat of Randall’s black Mercedes, much fancier than anything she’d ever been in, Kayla bit her already nonexistent nails. She couldn’t believe Randall had made her call her Aunt Charlotte in Chicago, though she’d only gotten the answering machine, but now she dreaded the call back. What if Aunt Charlotte didn’t want her?
She leaned close to the window to avoid the musk reeking from her clothes. Thankfully, Randall had put the windows down so the stench wasn’t overbearing. Her eyes drooped. For three days, she’d been hitchhiking and sleeping sporadically. Leaving her Aunt Megan’s house at five in the morning had been rash, but her only option at the time.
She shook her head to stay awake, hating having to be on guard every second. How she wished to be safe. In the past, that would’ve been home with her dad, but home wasn’t home—and her dad wasn’t the same either. Her stomach rolled at the thought, and her hand balled into a fist.
Heading down a dirt road through tall oak trees, they wheeled around a bend and a two-story white house with dark green shutters came into view. The car stopped in front of it. She stared, since she had assumed his parents would have a mansion. Isn’t that what stars did: buy their parents a mansion?
“It’s smaller than I thought it would be,” she blurted.
Randall opened the car door. “Let’s go,” he muttered without looking at her, almost seeming anxious. Heat swamped her as she stepped out and squinted in the bright sun. Randall walked up three steps to the porch and rang the bell. Chandra followed, and Kayla shuffled in the rear.
A middle-aged plump woman in a long blue dress opened the door, shrieked, and rushed into Randall’s arms. They hugged tightly. Her wide smile radiated warmth and love as her eyes filled with tears. “I can’t believe you’re here! It’s been too long, son.”
“I know, Mama. Happy birthday, your present is on the way.”
“You’re the best present. I don’t need anything else.” She squeezed him, and the emotion in her voice constricted Kayla’s heart. What she wouldn’t give to have her mother back and be able to hug her again?
“Indulge me,” Randall said as they parted. “I can afford it now.”
Her hand patted his face. “You’ve grown so handsome and mature.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Joseph, doesn’t your son look mature?”
Kayla peered into the house and noticed a tall man hanging in the shadow. Stepping forward, he grunted. As the sunrays lit him, Kayla thought he almost had a regal air, and she understood where Randall got his lean, strong physique.
“If you say so, Doreen,” his voice boomed, gravelly and powerful. He had a white streak at his temple and age lines around his mouth, making him seem stern.
Randall nodded to the man. For the first time since she met him, he appeared unsure. “Father, how are you?”
In the awkward silence, they studied each other, neither moving, until Randall shifted his eyes. “Mom, Dad, this is Chandra and Kayla. I traveled with Chandra, and I just met Kayla.”
Doreen turned her smile toward them. “Oh, I’m so sorry for being rude. It’s a pleasure to meet Randall’s friends.” She gave each of them a hug. “Did my son tell you this is the first time he’s been home since he was eighteen?”
Her black brow arched. “Don’t ‘Mom’ me. It’s been six years. If I hadn’t seen you on television, I would’ve forgotten what you looked like.”
Kayla revised her opinion: sweet, but not a complete pushover.
Blinking to regain control, his mother said, “Sorry, ladies. I’m being rude. Please come inside, and I’ll get some tea or lemonade for you.”
Kayla stifled a smile as they headed inside, rather liking to see Randall put in his place.
The home reminded her of walking into a sanctuary: crosses and pictures of Black Jesus hung on the wall, and a Bible on the coffee table. Beige walls and pastel furniture recalled the eighties. The kitchen contained yellow-and-white flower wallpaper and white cabinets. As they sat at the table, Doreen poured drinks and asked, “How was the trip?”
Chandra groaned, and then launched into the details of the uncomfortable plane ride and the slow car. Kayla wanted to roll her eyes, wishing she had Chandra’s problems.
“Well, I’ve been expecting you,” Doreen said as Chandra finished, “so I’m just happy you’re here in one piece.”
Randall glanced up. “I had an interview to do, so I thought it was best to wait until today to fly in.” Something about the way he averted his eyes made Kayla think he wasn’t telling the whole truth.
“I figured work was the reason,” Doreen said, not looking up from the drinks she carried.
“Right,” Joseph said, entering the kitchen. “That’s why you drove me crazy in the process, doubting whether he was coming. Your mother has been in an uproar.”
“I have a right to be excited now and again.” She plopped the cold glasses in front of them.
Randall smiled. “Of course, it’s your birthday, and I want to take you all out to dinner tonight.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Joseph said. “Your mother has a great meal planned.”
Kayla sipped the lemonade, trying to settle her knotted stomach. Why hadn’t Charlotte called back yet?
The doorbell rang.
“Who could that be?” Doreen said, and then glanced at Randall who smiled. “My present?”
She raced out of the kitchen, and they all followed with Kayla trailing them, mildly curious since Randall was loaded.
A deliveryman at the door handed Doreen a piece of paper to sign as two men unloaded a huge box from a truck with the words ‘Steinway & Sons’ on it.
“What have you done?” His mother’s hand flew to her mouth.
“You love to play a good piano. I want you to have the best.”
She removed her hand to reveal a big smile. “Will it even fit in the house?”
“It can go in the church if you like,” Randall said.
Joseph folded his arms. “We can’t accept this gift.”
“Why not? It’s for Mom.”
“We aren’t extravagant people as you well know,” his father answered. “Do you know how many meals this one piano can provide to people who are lacking?”
The joy on Doreen’s face dimmed, and Kayla felt bad.
Randall’s emerald eyes grew cold as flint. “Why are you trying to ruin this for Mom?”
“I want your mother to have the best, but you can’t buy people.”
“That’s bullshit, and you know it. I just want to share what I’ve achieved with the people I love, but you won’t let me. Would you rather I’d failed in Hollywood?”
Doreen squeezed Randall’s shoulder. “Stop it. I won’t allow this arguing. It’s my forty-eighth birthday. You two haven’t spoken since you left, and I haven’t seen you until today. I don’t want this family torn apart anymore.”
“Then why is he trying to ruin your present?” Randall demanded.
Her eyes welled. “Thank you, Randall, for the wonderful present, but your dad is right. I can’t accept it. Excuse me.” She brushed past them and rushed upstairs.
“Look what you’ve done to your mother,” Joseph said. “This is why you should be back in Summerdale doing your duty. And, yes, I would’ve rather you failed.” He stalked away.
Kayla glanced back at Randall to see his chiseled face turn to stone, and the bleakness in his eyes made her forget her own pain—for once.