***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Jen DeLuca
I didn't choose the wench life. The wench life chose me.
When I pulled into the parking lot of Willow Creek High School on that late spring morning, I had very little on my agenda. No doctor's appointments for my big sister, no school obligations to shuttle my niece to. The only thing I needed to do was get my niece to the signups for the Renaissance faire. We were five minutes late, so it was going great so far.
Caitlin huffed from the back seat as I threw my little white Jeep in park. "Em, we're late!" She managed to stretch both my name and that last word out into at least three syllables. "What if they don't let me sign up? All my friends are doing this, and if I can't, I'll—"
"They'll let you sign up." But of course she was out before I'd even unbuckled my seat belt. I wasn't going to call her back. I didn't have that kind of authority over her. At barely ten years older, I was more a big sister than an aunt. When I'd first come to stay with my older sister and her daughter, April had tried to get Cait to call me "Aunt Emily", but that was only a short hop away from Auntie Em and Kansas jokes so we'd abandoned it quickly. My relationship with the kid had settled into more of a friendship with overtures of Adult In Charge.
This morning, Adult In Charge was kicking in. No way was I leaving a fourteen-year-old by herself in a strange situation, even if it was her high school. I grabbed my coffee mug from the cupholder and started after her. She couldn't have gone far.
My cell phone rang from inside my purse when I was halfway across the parking lot. I fished it out and kept walking.
"Did you find it okay?"
"Yeah, we're good. Hopefully this won't take too long."
"Oh, God, you don't have to stay." April sounded slightly horrified by the prospect. "You just need to drop her off and come back home."
I held my breath and tried to analyze her tone through the crappy cell phone connection. The past few days had been rough as she'd started weaning off the pain medication. "Everything okay?" I tried to sound as casual as possible. "Do you need me to come home?"
"No..." Her voice trailed off, and I stopped walking and listened harder.
"No, no, Emily. I'm fine. I'm right where you left me, on the couch with coffee and the remote. I don't want you to feel like you have to..."
"It's fine. Really. Isn't this why I'm here, to help you out?"
Another pause. Another sigh. "Yeah. Okay..." I practically heard her shrug. "I feel bad. I should be doing this stuff."
"Well, you can't." I tried to sound as cheerful as I could. "Not for another couple months at least, remember? Doctor's orders. Besides, this 'stuff' is what I'm here for, right?"
"Yeah." A tremble in her voice now, which I blamed on the Percocet. I'd be glad when she was off that shit for good. It made her weepy.
"Drink your coffee, find something awful on television, okay? I'll make lunch for us when we get home."
I hung up, shoved my phone back in my purse, and once again cursed out the driver who had run the red light that night. A vision of April's SUV popped into my head, that lump of silver twisted metal at the junkyard, and I pushed it aside. Caitlin had been asleep in the back seat, and somehow she'd walked away with nothing more than some bruises and a sprained ankle.
My sister hadn't been so lucky. Mom had stayed with her while she was in the ICU, and by the time April was home from the hospital a week later I'd moved in, so Mom could go home to Dad in Indiana. My older sister needed a caregiver for a while, and my niece needed an Adult In Charge who was mobile, so I was here to stay.
As for me... I needed a change. A couple weeks before the accident I'd lost not only my boyfriend and my apartment, but all my plans for the future. Willow Creek, Maryland was as good a place as any to lick my wounds while I took care of April and hers. Smack in the middle of wine country, this area was all rolling green hills dotted with small towns like this one, with its charming downtown storefronts and friendly people. Though I hadn't seen any willows yet and as far as I could tell there weren't any creeks, so the name remained a mystery.
I picked up the pace and pushed through the double doors, finally catching up with Caitlin outside the high school auditorium. She didn't look back at me, running down the aisle instead to join a handful of kids roughly her age clustered in front of the stage, getting forms from a guy with a clipboard. The auditorium was filled with clumps of kids embracing like long-lost relatives who hadn't seen each other in years, even though they'd probably sat next to each other in class the day before. There were adults around too, sprinkled here and there, but I couldn't tell if they were chaperones or participants. Then one of the adults turned around and his black T-shirt said "HUZZAH!" across the front in huge white letters, and I had my answer.
I took a long sip of coffee and sank into a chair in the back row. My job as taxi service was done. I checked the time on my phone. One hour until I needed to be back to pick her up, which wasn't enough time to go home. Willow Creek was a small town, but April lived on one end of it and the high school was on the outskirts at the other. I pulled up my list-making app. I'd picked up refills of April's meds yesterday, and this Renaissance faire tryout was the only other thing on my list. Was there anything else I needed to get done while I was this close to downtown?
"Are you here to volunteer?"
One of the adults I'd spotted before—cute, blonde, shortish and roundish— had splintered off and now hovered at the end of the row where I was sitting. Before I could answer she took a form off her clipboard and pushed it into my hands.
"Here. You can go ahead and fill this out."
"What? Me?" I stared at the form as though it was printed in Cyrillic. "Oh. No. I'm just here to drop off my niece." I nodded toward the group of kids at the front.
"Which one's your..." She looked down the aisle. "Oh, Caitlin, right? You must be Emily."
My eyes widened. "Yeah. Good call. I keep forgetting how small this town is." I'd come here from Boston, and had grown up outside of Indianapolis. Small towns weren't my thing.
She laughed and waved it off. "You'll get used to it, trust me. I'm Stacey, by the way. And I'm afraid you kind of have to volunteer." She indicated the form still in my hand. "It's a requirement if a younger student wants to be part of the Faire cast. Anyone under sixteen needs a parent or guardian in the cast with them. I think April was planning to volunteer with her, but ..." Her sentence trailed off, and she punctuated it with an awkward shrug.
"Yeah." I looked down at the form. "You can't call it volunteering, then, can you? Sounds more like strong-arming." But I looked over at Cait, already chatting with her friends, holding her own form like it was a golden ticket. I read through the form. Six weeks of Saturday rehearsals starting in June, then six more weekends from mid-July through the end of August. I was already playing chauffeur for Caitlin all spring and summer anyway...
Before I could say anything else, the double doors behind me opened with a bang. I whirled in my seat to see a man striding through like he was walking into an old-west saloon. He was ... delicious. No other way to describe him. Tall, blond, muscled, with a great head of hair and a tight t-shirt. Gaston crossed with Captain America, with a generic yet mesmerizing handsomeness.
"Mitch!" Stacey greeted him like an old friend. Which he undoubtedly was. These people probably all went to this high school together back in the day. "Mitch, come over here and tell Emily that she wants to do Faire."
He scoffed as though the question were the stupidest one he'd ever heard. "Of course she wants to do Faire! Why else would she be here?"
I pointed down the aisle to Cait. "I'm really just the taxi."
Mitch peered at my niece, then turned back to me. "Oh, you're Emily. The aunt, right? Your sister's the one who was in the crash? How's she doing?"
I blinked. Goddamned small towns. "Good. She's...um... good." My sister hated gossip in all forms, so I made sure not to contribute any information that could get around.
"Good. Yeah, glad to hear it." He looked solemn for a moment or two, then brushed it aside, jovial smile back on his face. "Anyway. You should hang around, join the insanity. I mean, it's lots of work, but it's fun. You'll love it." With that, he was gone, sauntering his way down the aisle, fist-bumping kids as he went.
I watched him walk away for a second, because damn could he fill out a pair of jeans, both front and back. Then what he said registered with me. "I'll love it?" I turned back to Stacey the volunteer. "He doesn't know me. How does he know what I'll love?"
"If it helps..." She leaned forward conspiratorially, and I couldn't help but respond with a lean of my own. "... he carries a pretty big sword during Faire. And wears a kilt."
"Sold." I dug in my purse for a pen. What was giving up my weekends for the entire summer when it meant I could look at an ass like that?
What the hell, right? It would be time with Caitlin. That's what I was there for. Be the cool aunt. Do the fun stuff. Distract her from the car accident that had left her with nightmares, weekly therapy sessions, and had left her mom with a shattered right leg. When I'd arrived in Willow Creek, gloom had hung low over their household, like smoke in a crowded room. I'd come to throw open a window, let in the light again.
Besides, helping out my sister and her kid was the best way to stop dwelling on my own shit. Focusing on someone else's problems was always easier than my own.
Stacey grinned as I started filling out the form. "Give it to Simon up at the front when you're finished. It's going to be great. Huzzah!" This last was said as a cheer, and with that she was gone, probably looking for other parental-type figures to snag into this whole gig.
Oh God. Was I going to have to yell "huzzah" too? How much did I love my niece?
The form was pretty basic, and soon I followed the stream of volunteers (mostly kids, where were all the adults?) to the front of the auditorium, where they handed the papers to the dark-haired man with the clipboard collecting them. Simon, I presumed. Thank God, another adult. More adultier than me, even. I'd rolled out of bed and thrown on leggings and a t-shirt, while he was immaculate in jeans and a perfectly-ironed Oxford shirt, sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms, with a dark blue vest buttoned over it.
Despite his super-mature vibe, he didn't look that much older than me. Late twenties at the most. Slighter build than Mitch, and probably not quite six feet tall. Well-groomed and clean-shaven with closely-cut dark brown hair. He looked like he smelled clean, like laundry detergent and sharp soap. Mitch, for all his hotness, looked like he smelled like Axe body spray.
When it was my turn, I handed the form in and turned away, checking to see where Cait had wandered off to. I couldn't wait to tell her I was doing this whole thing with her. That kid was gonna owe me one.
"This isn't right."
I turned back around. "Excuse me?"
Simon, the form collector, brandished mine at me. "Your form. You didn't fill it out correctly."
"Um..." I walked back over to him and took the paper from his hand. "I think I know how to fill out a form."
"Right there." He tapped his pen in a rat-a-tat-tat on the page. "You didn't say what role you're trying out for."
"Role?" I squinted at it. "Oh, right." I handed the paper back to him. "I don't care. Whatever you need."
He didn't take it. "You have to specify a role."
"Really?" I looked behind me, searching for the desperate volunteer who had coerced me into this gig in the first place. But she was lost in a sea of auditionees. Of course.
"Yes, really." He pursed his lips, and his brows drew together over his eyes. Dark brown brows, muddy brown eyes. He'd be relatively attractive if he weren't looking at me like he'd caught me cheating on my chemistry final. "It's pretty simple," he continued. "Nobility, actors, dancers ...you can audition for any of those. You could also try out for the combat stuff, if you have any experience. We do a human chess match and joust."
"I...I don't have any experience. Or, um, talent." The longer this conversation went on the more my heart sank. Now I was supposed to have skills? Wasn't this a volunteer thing? Why was this guy making it so freaking hard?
He looked at me for a moment, a quick perusal up and down. Not so much checking me out as sizing me up. "Are you over twenty-one?"
Jesus. I knew I was on the short side, but ... I drew myself up, as though looking a little taller would make me look older too. "Twenty-five, thank you very much." Well, twenty-five in July, but he didn't need to know that. It wasn't like he'd be celebrating my birthday with me.
"Hmmm. You have to be twenty-one to be a tavern wench, you could put that down if you want to help out in the tavern."
Now we were talking. Nothing wrong with hanging out in a bar for a few weekends in the summer. I'd worked in bars before; hell I worked in two of them until just recently. This would be the same thing, but in a cuter costume.
"Fine." I plucked my pen back out of my purse and scribbled the word "WENCH" down on the form, then thrust the paper back into his hands. "Here."
"Thank you," he said automatically, as though he hadn't admonished me like a child thirty seconds ago.
Gah. What a dick.
As I headed back up the aisle toward the back of the auditorium, it didn't take me long to spot Caitlin, a couple rows back talking to her friends. A smirk took over my face, and I scooted down the row in front of her, maneuvering around the folded-up seats.
"Hey." I gave her a mock punch on the shoulder to get her attention. "You know you need an adult to volunteer with you, right?"
"I do?" Her eyes widened, and she looked down toward Simon with alarm, as though he was about to throw her out of the auditorium. Well, he'd have to go through me first.
"Yep. So guess who agreed to be a tavern wench this summer. How much do you love me?" I held my breath. Most teens wouldn't want to be caught dead with a parental figure within a five-mile radius, much less want to spend the summer hanging out with them. But Caitlin was a good kid, and we'd developed a rapport since I'd stepped in as her Adult In Charge. Maybe she'd be cool with it.
Her look of alarm turned to surprised joy. "Really?" The word was a squeak coming out of her mouth. "So we both get to do the Faire?"
"Looks like it," I replied. "You owe me one, kiddo."
Her response was more squeal than words, but the way she threw her arms around my neck in an awkward hug over the row of seats told me everything. Maybe that was the advantage to being a cool aunt as opposed to a mom. This new family dynamic took some getting used to, but I was already starting to like it.
"We talked you into it, huh?" Mitch was waiting for me at the end of the row when I scooted back down to the aisle.
I shrugged. "It's not like I have much of a choice." I looked over my shoulder at Caitlin, giggling with her friends over something on their phones. "Doing this means a lot to her, so here I am."
"You're a good person, Emily." He squinted. "It was Emily, right?"
I nodded. "Emily Parker." I moved to offer a handshake, but he came back with a fist-bump instead, and what kind of idiot would I be to not accept that?
"Good to meet you, Park. But trust me. You're gonna have a great time at Faire."
I blinked at the immediate nickname, but decided to roll with it. "Well, I have been promised that there are kilts involved, so...?" I did my best to let my eyes linger on him without being some kind of creep about it. But Mitch didn't seem like the type of guy to mind a little ogling. In fact, he seemed to encourage it.
"Oh, yeah." A grin crawled up his face, and his eyes lingered right back. A flush crept up the back of my neck. If I'd known this was going to be a mutual-ogling kind of day, I would have done more this morning than wash my face and put on some lip gloss. "Believe me," he said. "You'll have a great summer. I'll make sure of it."
I laughed. "I'll hold you to that." An easy promise to make, since I was already enjoying myself. I headed back up the aisle and plopped into my vacated seat in the last row. Down at the front, Simon collected more forms, probably criticizing applicants' handwriting while he did so. He glanced up at one point like he could feel my eyes on him, and his brows drew together in a frown. God, he was really holding a grudge about that form, wasn't he?
At the other side of the auditorium, Mitch high-fived a student and offered a fist-bump to Caitlin, who looked at him like he hung the moon. I knew which of these two guys I was looking forward to getting to know better this summer, and it wasn't the Ren Faire Killjoy.
I'd always been a little in awe of my older sister. Married young and divorced young from a man who'd had little interest in being a father, April had raised Caitlin on her own with an independence that bordered on intimidating. We'd never been particularly close—a twelve-year age difference will do that when April was off to college right around the time that I was starting to become interesting—but I'd always thought of her as someone to emulate.
Which was why it was so hard to see her in her current condition.
When we got home from auditions, I opened the front door to find a crutch in the middle of the living room floor. I followed the line of the crutch, which pointed directly at my big sister on the couch, looking like a dog who'd been caught going through the trash.
"You tried to get up while we were gone, didn't you?" I crossed my arms and stared her down. It was hard to look threatening when you were barely five foot three, but I managed pretty well.
"Yeah." April sighed. "That didn't go well."
Caitlin didn't notice our little standoff. "Hey, Mom!" She dropped a kiss in the vicinity of April's cheek before running off to her room. She could text more efficiently in there, probably.
I picked up the fallen crutch and propped it against the arm of the couch next to the other one. "BLTs okay for lunch?"
"Sure. Everything go okay?" April craned her neck to the side and tossed the question over her shoulder as I went into the kitchen to get the bacon started. "Did Caitlin get signed up for the cast?" Shifting noises on the couch, punctuated by some swearing under her breath. Yeah, she was definitely cutting back on the pain medication. The next few days would be bumpy.
"Everything went fine. They said they can't take everyone, but they're sending out an email next week to everyone who made the cast."
"Next week? Oof. I don't know if I can live with her long enough for her to find out if she's in."
"She'll get in." I punched down the bread in the toaster and started slicing tomatoes. "If they don't let her in, they don't get me. Thanks for that, by the way. You totally set me up."
"What? No, I didn't. I told you not to go in there. All you were supposed to do was drop her off."
"Yeah, well." I got down three plates and started assembling sandwiches. "Caitlin can't be in the cast without a parent volunteering. They said you were going to volunteer, you know, before..." There was no good way to end that sentence.
"What?" April was repeating herself now, and it had nothing to do with meds. "I ... oh." Yep. There it was. She remembered now. "Shit." I glanced through the pass-through to see her sag against the back of the couch. "I did set you up. I completely forgot."
"Don't worry about it. I have it on good authority that it'll be fun." I put the plates on the pass-through and tossed a bag of chips up there beside them. I thought about Mitch and his promised kilt. That would certainly be fun. Then I thought about Simon and his disapproving face. Less fun. I brought lunch out to the living room, and we ate on TV trays so April wouldn't have to get up. I left the third plate on the counter; Caitlin would be along for it eventually.
"Fun," April repeated as she reached for her sandwich. She didn't sound convinced. She took a bite and shrugged. "I guess. I mean, what else have you got going on, right?"
I crunched a chip and half-squinted at her. She couldn't be serious. I had a list-making app completely dedicated to their schedules. Surely she remembered what a non-stop life she and her kid had before one guy ran a red light one night and changed everything.
She met my gaze and squinted back with an exaggerated face. She wasn't serious, after all. I wasn't used to a sister who joked around with me. But she was trying, so I played along, throwing a chip at her. "You're right. In fact, I picked up a box of chocolates so we could lie around all weekend and watch television."
"Good plan." She leaned forward and snagged the bag of chips. She shook her head at me. "You're too defensive. That Jake guy did a number on you, huh? You know, when Mom told me about him I said he was no good. You broke up what, a couple months ago?"
"Yeah." I sighed. Of course Mom had told her. April and I had always gotten along fine, but the age difference, plus all the moving away from home and starting our own lives, had kept us from being as close as sisters usually were. Hence Mom acting as a kind of conduit between us, filling us in on each other's lives. It was a weird system, but it worked for us. "Yeah, it was week or so before your accident. So you know, good timing."
"Well, it saved you from being homeless."
"I wasn't homeless." But I frowned into my sandwich because she was right. When Jake had left for his fancy lawyer job he'd not only dumped me like unwanted baggage (which I guess I was), but he'd canceled our lease on the way out of town. I'd been panicked, scrambling to find another apartment I could afford with my two part-time jobs, when Mom had called from the hospital about April's accident. It'd been a no-brainer to throw my stuff into storage, drive the four-hundred-something miles from Boston to Maryland, and transfer my panic away from myself and onto them.
But I didn't want to talk about Jake. That wound was still too fresh. Time to change the subject. "Stacey says hi, by the way."
"Stacey?" Had I gotten the name wrong? "Blonde hair, about my height, big smile? She acted like she knew you. She knew Caitlin, anyway, and she knew who I was."
"Ugh." April rolled her eyes and took a sip of her Diet Coke. "That's the one thing about living in a small town. Everyone knows your business. Even people you don't know that well."
"So... you don't know Stacey?"
"No, I do. She works at our dentist's office, and we say hi every time Cait or I have an appointment. Nice, but ..." She shrugged.
I got it. "...But not someone who should know that much about you."
I thought about that, considered my next question. "I don't suppose you know a guy named Mitch, do you?" Now there was someone I wouldn't mind knowing a little better.
"Mitch..." April tapped a chip on her bottom lip. "No... Oh. Wait. Kind of a big guy? Muscles? Superman jaw?"
"Looks like he can bench press a Volkswagen." I nodded. "That's the one."
"Yeah, I've seen him around. Nice guy. I think he teaches gym? Hey, Cait?" April leaned back on the couch and called toward the hallway. I turned to see my niece had come out in search of lunch.
"Ooh, sandwich. Thanks, Emily." Caitlin grabbed her plate and perched on a stool. While she chewed she raised her eyebrows at her mother. "What's up?"
"That guy Mitch... doesn't he teach gym at your school?"
"Mr. Malone?" She swallowed her bite of sandwich. "Yeah. And coaches something. Baseball maybe?" Caitlin wasn't into sports. None of us were, so she came by it honestly. "He was hitting on Emily today." She reached over and dug a handful of chips out of the bag.
"No, he wasn't." Was he? Maybe a little. The back of my neck prickled with heat.
"Don't get excited," April warned. "From what I hear, he hits on everyone."
"Damn. So I'm not special?" I tried to look upset, but being teased about a guy by my big sister was something that had never happened before, and it made me grin. I shrugged and handed Caitlin the chip bag. "That's okay. I'm not planning on marrying the guy. Maybe just objectifying him while he wears a kilt."
The more I thought about it, the more this summer was starting to sound like fun. And I needed to have some fun. Put Jake in the rear view. I still remembered the look on his face when he told me he was moving into the city without me. His face had looked like...well, his expression had reminded me of Simon's. The form police guy from this morning. I'd gotten serious Jake flashbacks from him, and I didn't like the way that made me feel. Embarrassed and small.
Right now, guys like Mitch were much better for my sanity. Guys like Mitch offered the possibility of a quick, fun hookup at some point during the summer, with no complex emotions or perceived inadequacies to get in the way. I could use someone like that in my life right about now.
After cleaning up the kitchen, I pulled up my calendar app again. My afternoon and the rest of the weekend were pretty much an open book. Much like my entire future. I didn't like it. I liked plans.
With Jake I'd had a plan. We'd met my sophomore year in college at a fraternity party, two like-minded intellectuals that were too good for beer pong. We'd talked all night, and I thought I'd found my soul mate. He was smart, focused, driven. I'd liked that streak of ambition in him that matched mine. For years I'd stuck with both him and our plan. Get him through law school. Once he'd set himself up in a career we'd be an unstoppable team. It was going to be us vs. the world. Jake and Emily. That was the plan.
But Jake was gone. What I hadn't realized that, while my ambition had been for us both, his was only for himself. When he got that high-powered job he'd been shooting for, he left old things behind. Like our place, which he left for a high-rise apartment downtown. And me, the would-be fiancée he no longer needed. "It doesn't look good," he'd said. "I can't have a wife who works in a bar. You don't even have a bachelor's degree." It was like he'd forgotten all about our plan. And maybe he had. Or maybe he'd gotten what he'd wanted out of it and didn't need me anymore.
So here I was in Maryland. I'd arrived without a plan, but my sister needed me. That was enough for now. The thing was, I needed her too. I needed to feel like I could help. Make a difference in someone's life. Fixing things was what I did.