If Ever I Fall by Sophia Renny by Sophia Renny - Read Online

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If Ever I Fall - Sophia Renny

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Schlitz

Chapter One

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You need to get out more.

Willa raised her eyebrows. I go walking every day unless the weather is horrible. Do you think we’ve seen the last of the snow yet?

Collette gave her a look. Stop trying to change the subject. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve been here for over three months. One trip to Newport and another to the home show is not going out. She emphasized the last two words with finger quotes.

It wasn’t the first time Collette had commented on Willa’s social life, or lack thereof. Yet, despite her next-door neighbor’s aggressive but well-meaning interference, Willa always found it difficult to take offense. How could she when the scolding was spoken with the accent of a fifty-five-year-old native Rhode Islander? Willa had fallen in love with the unique, non-rhotic accent within hours of moving to the Ocean State. If she attempted to capture the sound of Collette’s voice on paper, it might look something like this: Stahp trying to change the subject. Ya know what I’m tawking abowt. You’ve been heah for ovah tree months. One trip to Newpawt and anothah to the home show is naht goin’ owt.

I’m a California girl. Once the weather warms up...

When I was your age, I went out almost every night. Mercy, Audrey and I went clubbing every Saturday. The doormen knew us by name.

Mercy? Seriously?

Yeah. Mercy. Collette gave a wicked chortle, reminiscing. Her father would’ve had a heart attack if he’d found out. All that money he spent to put his kids through Catholic school. What a waste.

The older woman set down her coffee cup with a bang and wagged one finger at Willa. There you go, changing the subject again. I’m dead serious about this, Willa Cochrane. You’ve been holed up in this place for too long. I think you’re getting too comfortable being inside. I get the reasons why. I really do. But everyone’s starting to talk.

Define everyone.

The girls. The neighbors. Jeannie Clark was asking about you the other day. She says you’re inside all day. It’s not healthy.

Now Willa felt a stir of irritation. Why should I care what the neighbors think? What business is it of theirs how I choose to spend my time?

Collette put up her hands in defense. That’s just the way it is around here. We’re not like you Californians with your fences and gates. We look out for one another. Everyone loved Pauline. You’re her niece. Of course they’re gonna look out for you, care about you.

Willa stood abruptly, snagged Collette’s half-empty coffee mug along with her own and carried them to the sink. She stared out the kitchen window. It was looking to be a clear day for a change, not a cloud in sight. I’m going for my morning walk, she threw over her shoulder, her tone firm. Do you have to work at the library today?

No. I have the next two Saturdays off. There was resignation in Collette’s voice, though her expression was kind when Willa pivoted toward her.

I’m heading up to Dave’s Market, Collette announced, pushing her chair back from the table. They have chicken thighs on sale this week. Need anything?

No, thanks. I took care of my weekly grocery shopping yesterday. See? Willa said with a lightness she didn’t feel, I actually got in my car and drove somewhere.

Not the same thing, hon. Collette sent her a wave before heading for the front door. It’s supper and a movie night at my place tonight. The girls are coming over. Six o’clock. See you then. And she was out the door before Willa could say yes or no.

***

It had been bitter cold with a light snow falling when Willa had arrived in Rhode Island the first week of January. Never having driven in snow before, she’d quickly changed her mind about renting a car, instead taking a taxi the surprisingly short distance from T.F. Green airport to her aunt’s home in Conimicut.

She’d been seven years old the one time she’d traveled across the country with her father to visit Aunt Pauline. Her father had stayed the night of their arrival before leaving his only child in the keeping of his older sister while he spent the summer traveling through Europe.

Willa’s recollections of that summer were fuzzy, but she did remember this: walking along the beach at Conimicut Point—just as she was doing now, twenty years later.

It was the first Saturday in April and, at just after nine o’clock in the morning, already showing signs of being the first warm day since Willa had arrived in Rhode Island. Warm meaning that the temperature might venture above fifty degrees Fahrenheit.

The winds were calm, but she kept her hands tucked deep inside the pockets of her jacket as she took what had become her customary route, first heading along the beach on the northern shore that was flanked by the mouth of the Providence River on one side, beach homes on the other. When that portion of the beach was no longer accessible, she turned around, continuing at a brisk pace beyond her starting place, heading westward toward the point where—when the tides were low—a narrow sandbar jutted outwards, aiming for the Conimicut Lighthouse, a structure that had marked the entrance to the Providence River from Narragansett Bay for well over a century.

Surrounded by water on three sides, Conimicut Point offered pretty views of Barrington and Bristol to the west, the taller buildings of Providence visible to the north, and Patience and Prudence islands to the south. Sometimes, when it wasn’t too windy, she would walk the sandbar as far as she dared, stopping when the water began to overlap its banks. Collette had warned her not to walk out too far; the currents were strong and unpredictable in this place where the bay met the river.

The tide was high this morning. A cargo ship slogged through the channel, making its way toward the Port of Providence. Willa watched it for a while, taking deep breaths of the briny air. Other than an old man she’d glimpsed walking his dog in the grassy park area, she appeared to be the only person out this morning.

She embraced these moments. The calm, the quiet. The lack of urgency. There was nowhere that she had to be, no lectures to give, no papers to grade, no research to be done, no colleagues to impress. None of that mattered now; perhaps it never would again.

There was just this: the sand, the water, a lighthouse, a clear blue sky.

She contemplated her day. Maybe when she returned from her walk she’d bake some cookies to bring to Collette’s tonight. Then she might watch a couple more episodes of Lost; she’d started that series on Netflix last week and was already on season four. She hadn’t made up her mind yet on which series to watch next. Downton Abbey? Nashville? Scandal? So many choices for a girl who hadn’t been allowed to watch entertainment television while in her father’s house. As she’d grown older, she’d been so immersed in her studies and work that she simply hadn’t had time.

Now she had all the time in the world.

And those were just the television shows. She’d watched at least one movie every day throughout the cold and gloomy winter months. How decadent it was to burrow beneath her down comforter and immerse herself in the magic of movies. She watched anything and everything but found herself drawn towards the chick flicks, both classic and modern. She was fascinated by the lives the female characters led, the way they dressed and behaved, the way they interacted with the male characters.

Was that what her life could have been like? Was that how she could be living now?

She didn’t dwell on those questions for long. She didn’t like to think about most things, period, other than the simple, mindless pleasures that now occupied her days.

Still, as much as she’d fought against it, her peace of mind was disturbed by Collette’s words from earlier that morning. Until now, Willa hadn’t given a second thought to how outsiders might interpret her behavior since she’d moved into the neighborhood. For the first time in her life, she was officially on her own, beholden to no one. Selfish as it might appear, she’d only wanted to focus on herself, in a way she’d never been able to do before. Why should she feel guilty about that?

She was supposed to be in mourning, after all. She was a young woman who had lost both her father and her aunt—her only family—within the last six months.

She’d scarcely known her aunt. She hadn’t seen Pauline Cochrane since that long-ago summer. Other than the annual exchange of birthday and holiday cards—sent through her father—Willa hadn’t communicated with her either.

As for her father...

The profound relief she’d felt when she’d been informed that her father had died... She could never share that with anyone.

The instant Dean Stone had left Willa’s office after conveying the news of Derek Cochrane’s passing, Willa had vaulted from her chair and spun in circles around the room, arms outspread, palms up, fingers tingling. The pressing down feeling she’d carried with her since she was five years old evaporated instantly. It was as if she’d been a marionette affixed to taut strings all those years, performing to the puppeteer’s tune. Those strings had been severed at last.

Euphoria had crashed into uncertainty all too quickly. She’d collapsed to the floor in a corner of her office, hugged her knees against her chest and slowly rocked back and forth. She might have been freed from her father’s restraints, but now she wasn’t sure how to move forward on her own. It was as if her limbs were unable to carry her without those controlling strings attached.

In the days that followed, throughout the funeral arrangements and the ceremony itself, one thought had gained momentum and clarity until it had consumed her every waking moment: she needed to go somewhere, anywhere, far away from the classes, the research, the books, the academia that she’d grown to hate.

Out of the blue came a letter from a law office in Warwick, Rhode Island, informing her of Pauline Cochrane’s passing, and that she, Pauline’s only living relative, was named sole beneficiary of her aunt’s estate.

Willa would have liked to have left her job immediately, to hell with the repercussions. But there had been contracts to wade through, obligations both verbal and written, many of them commitments her father had made on her behalf without her knowledge.

When it was over, once she’d been able to pack up her belongings and ship them to her new home, once she’d closed the door to her office for the last time, she’d felt physically and emotionally exhausted, more tired than she’d ever felt in her life.

All she’d wanted was rest and quiet. And these past few months in her new home had provided just that. It was absolute heaven. Doing nothing. Thinking of nothing. Just sleeping, baking, watching movies and television, taking long walks.

A simple, logical self-analysis told her that she was going through the stages of grief. It was perfectly normal to isolate herself from her loss. But only Willa knew what she was truly mourning: the loss of her own self, the loss of the little girl she could have been, the young woman she might have been. She hadn’t reached the anger stage yet, and she didn’t think she was depressed. She could spend days analyzing the dichotomy of her emotions, the sense of freedom and peace juxtaposed with feelings of loss and regret. But she didn’t want to.

Maybe she was becoming a recluse.

Leave it to Collette to pry open Willa’s cocoon; the woman had been blunt and brash from the moment Willa had met her.

Through her aunt’s lawyer, Willa had learned that Collette Fournier had been Pauline’s next-door neighbor for over twenty years. She’d been appointed by Pauline as executor of Pauline’s estate. Communicating through the lawyer, Willa had notified Collette of her plans to move into the house and what day she’d arrive.

As soon as the taxi had pulled into the narrow driveway on that cold evening back in January, a short, plump woman wearing a purple coat over hot pink snow pants tucked inside winter boots came trudging through the snow that filled the side yard between Pauline’s home and a smaller, single-story cottage next door.

You must be Willa, she hollered as soon as Willa opened the car door. I’m Collette Fournier. Great to meet ya! Come on. Let’s get your things and you inside the house. It’s freezing out here. Hey, Brian. How are ya? How’s your ma?

The older woman chatted amiably with the taxi driver as she helped him hoist Willa’s two heavy suitcases from the trunk and then led him towards Pauline’s house. Willa, with her shoulder bag slung over one arm and her smaller carry-on in tow, followed them with tentative steps as they took a brick pathway along the left side of the house. She could tell that the pathway had been shoveled recently, but the freezing temperature had already iced over sections of the fresh batch that had since fallen.

Willa had never walked on snow before. She’d had the foresight to purchase boots with treaded rubber soles, but she wasn’t confident on whether or not they’d work on ice. She stuck to the edge of the pathway where the snow was deeper.

Collette chortled from where she stood on a wide brick doorstep. Not used to snow, are you, she said, not unkindly. I’ll show you how to walk on it tomorrow. She returned her attention to the taxi driver as he came back outside. Thanks, Brian. Say ‘hi’ to your ma for me.

I will. See ya, Collette. He gave Willa an amused smile and a head nod as he sidled past her.

Willa was aware that her cheeks were red from both cold and embarrassment when she finally reached the doorstep. Collette leaned against the glass-paneled storm door, holding the main door open with one hand, beckoning Willa to move faster with the other. Come on in, hon. I turned the furnace on high this afternoon. It’s nice and warm for ya.

Thank you, Willa murmured as she stepped into the house and wiped her boots on the braided rug in the entryway.

Collette hurried in behind her, shutting both doors firmly before stomping her feet on the rug and briskly rubbing her hands together. Don’t worry about taking off your boots. No fancy floors in here. You can put your pocketbook there if you like.

Pocketbook? Collette pointed at Willa’s shoulder bag and then at a small table to the left of the door. Willa set her bag on the table, her carry-on beside her suitcases. As she removed her gloves, she took inventory of her surroundings.

Directly ahead, a narrow-carpeted hallway led to what appeared to be the kitchen. An arched doorway to her right opened into a small, dark-paneled living room that was occupied by one lone armchair, an ancient television on a metal stand and a cluttered assortment of odds and ends: mismatched side tables, a bookcase crammed with books, newspapers and magazines, a curio cabinet containing a hodgepodge of items in need of dusting. There was a closed Dutch door on the far side of the room.

That leads out to the front porch, Collette explained, tracking Willa’s appraisal. She pointed to their left. In here’s the dining room. Hasn’t been used in a while.

Willa had only a few seconds to note the dusty oblong wooden table and chairs, the heavy red velvet curtains framing a wide picture window. Collette scooted in front of her and, with a wave of her hand, beckoned Willa to follow her down the hallway. She spent most of her time in the front room and her bedroom these last couple of years. Collette pointed to two closed doors on the right. This goes to the laundry room. That one goes upstairs. There are two bedrooms up there. You stayed there that time you came to visit. Do you remember?

No. None of this looks familiar to me yet. But I don’t remember it being so cluttered. I would have remembered that much, I think.

Willa’s father had been obsessively neat. It couldn’t have been like this that day before he’d left for Europe; he wouldn’t have stayed the night otherwise.

Your aunt was eighty-three years old. She wasn’t untidy. She just couldn’t keep up with things these last couple of years. I came in twice a week to dust and vacuum. After... There was a slight catch in Collette’s voice. After she passed, I wasn’t comfortable touching her things. They belong to you now.

You’ve been her neighbor for a long time, Willa said, keeping her tone neutral, uncomfortable and unfamiliar with showing emotion.

Collette paused outside an open doorway. She pulled a tissue from her coat pocket and dabbed at her eyes. She gave Willa a wobbly smile. Twenty-five years. We moved next door right after we got married. My ex-husband and me. Pauline took me under her wing when I needed her advice. She was a wonderful lady.

Hesitantly, Willa placed her hand on the older woman’s arm. Thank you for being her friend and for watching out for her. I... I wish I could have known her better than I did.

Collette wadded up the tissue and stuffed it back in her coat pocket. She straightened her shoulders and sniffed. "She never blamed you for that, Willa. It was that brother of hers. Your father...  Ah, well, water under the bridge, she used to say.