Aspen is not staying in Winter Falls. Absolutely freaking not! No way! If you can’t tell, she has strong opinions about her hometown. Especially about the boy who broke her heart. He’s definitely not getting a second chance.
The residents of Winter Falls disagree. They will do everything – and I do mean everything – in their power to ensure Project Weston is a success.
Ready to read whether Lyric can convince Aspen to stay?
Not convinced? You can read the first chapter of their story here. Ready to read more? Read the second chapter below!
Family tree – a diagram showing your relationship to all the nuts in your family.
When we pull up into my parent’s driveway in Basil’s beast – as he affectionately refers to his tow truck – my entire family is waiting for me on the front porch. There goes my hope for keeping my return home quiet.
“Thanks for the ride, Basil.”
“No problem, man. No problem.”
With his long hair, bell-bottom pants, and bright floral shirt, Basil resembles a hippie headbanger, which is fitting since he totally is. The first generation of Winter Springs residents are all hippies. It made for an interesting childhood.
My door flies open. “Aspen Cloud, you’re home.”
My mom sounds happy, so I don’t bother reminding her of how much I hate the name Cloud or how I’m not home for good. I’m home for now anyway. I climb out of Basil’s beast straight into her arms.
Mom’s arms wrap around me, and she sways me from side to side. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you.”
I close my eyes and sink into the comfort she’s offering. The fear and tension I’ve been feeling since I saw the flames shooting out of my building ease out of me. I’m home. I’m safe. I have somewhere to sleep tonight besides the backseat of my car.
She leans back to gaze into my eyes. “You’re going to be fine, baby girl. Just fine.”
For the first time since my home and business were destroyed, I believe it. “Thanks, Mom.”
Dad elbows Mom out of the way and lifts me into his arms before twirling me around like I’m the seven-year-old girl who thinks playing helicopter is the best thing in the world, instead of the thirty-three-year-old mature adult I am. I giggle as he spins me around. Maybe not a mature adult then.
“Put me down, Dad. I’m not a child.” There’s no heat in my words since I’m giggling like the seven-year-old girl I claim I’m not.
He sets me on the ground and places his forehead against mine. “You’ll always be a child to me, baby girl.”
“Stop hogging her!”
My sisters, all four of them, attack and I don’t stand a chance. Before I know it, we’re rolling around on the ground.
“It’s good to have you home, big sis,” Ellery says.
The others – Juniper, Lilac, and Ashlyn – murmur their agreement. In case it’s unclear, my parents were hippies – still are actually – and they named their five girls after their five favorite trees. You’d think we’d get teased about it, but in the town of Winter Springs, hippie names are the norm.
I’m the oldest of this gang of sisters with Ellery next. Lilac is smack dab in the middle. Then, comes Juniper and last but not least is Ashlyn.
I struggle to my feet. “I need to let Waffles out before he pees all over the interior of my car.”
Lilac, aka Ms. Civil Engineer, curls her lip at the state of my car. “This is your vehicle? It’s in violation of town ordinance.”
I roll my eyes. “Yes, Ms. Know It All, but I didn’t exactly have a ton of cash laying around to buy a car when my life burned to the ground. Literally.”
She flinches. “Sorry, Aspen. I didn’t mean …” She clears her throat. “Anyway, I assume Basil will be removing this eyesore from the driveway.”
“Geez, Lilac. Have some compassion.” Ashlyn bumps her shoulder as she passes her to open the passenger door of my car.
Waffles jumps out of the car, dashes to the lawn, does three circles, and promptly lifts his leg to have a wee. While pee is still streaming out of him, he notices a squirrel on the lawn and rushes after it leaving a trail of pee in his wake.
The squirrel scurries up a tree, and Waffles paws at the tree while barking up a storm at the poor squirrel. At least, he’s finally done peeing.
“I got him,” Juniper – my animal loving sister – yells. “You unload the car.”
She holds out a treat to Waffles and he swivels away from the tree toward Juniper. She keeps the treat out in front of her as she backs into the house with my dog eagerly following her.
“Is this everything?” Dad asks from where he’s peering into the trunk.
“Yeah,” I sigh out.
Ellery wraps her arm around me. “It could have been worse.”
Staring at the three boxes of books and one suitcase of clothes comprising every single thing I own in the world, I have a hard time believing her.
She squeezes my shoulder. “You’re alive. You’re young and you can rebuild.”
“Easy for you to say. You have a successful business. I have nothing.”
Ellery owns the local bed and breakfast. She spent years renovating the delipidated mansion on the southern edge of downtown and turned it into a romantic country inn – The Inn on Main.
“Yeah, well, owning a B&B is not all it’s cracked up to be,” she mutters under her breath.
Before I have a chance to ask her what she’s talking about, she grabs my suitcase and marches into the house.
“What’s going on with her?” I ask Ashlyn.
There’s no sense asking Lilac. Ms. Engineer barely deigns to acknowledge the world outside of environmental engineering exists, she’s hardly going to know why Ellery’s unhappy.
Ashlyn frowns as she watches Ellery retreat into the house. “Rumor has it she’s had some trouble with guests who don’t approve of the no gasoline engine cars in town rule.”
“It’s utterly ridiculous,” Lilac says. “There are free bikes anyone can use. And if a bike isn’t good enough for her guests, they can rent an electric golf cart.”
As part of the whole carbon neutral town thing, alternate forms of transportation are not simply encouraged, they’re facilitated. Biking paths and footpaths are as prevalent – if not more prevalent – than roads for cars.
My parents – as do most residents – use a golf cart as their main source of transportation. They don’t actually own a car – no one in my family does – which is why I had to buy this heaping pile of shit, to begin with.
Once we’ve emptied the car and placed my boxes and suitcase in my childhood bedroom, we gather at the dining room table where Mom has an apple pie waiting for us. Mom thinks apple pie heals all wounds. Her pie kind of does.
“What happened?” Ashlynn asks. “Why did your bookstore and apartment burn down?”
In addition to being a troublemaker of the highest order – something she’s very proud of – my youngest sister was born without the tact gene.
Ellery squeezes my hand. “You don’t have to answer her.”
I’m lying. It’s not. I can still smell smoke in the air despite having showered and scrubbed my skin until it was raw several times since the fire. I practically used an entire bottle of shampoo on my hair trying to get the smell of smoke out of it. All to no avail.
I swallow and force myself to tell the story, albeit a much shorter version. “Waffles woke me up in the middle of the night because he needed to go out. When we returned, there were flames shooting out of the café and bookstore downstairs. I rushed upstairs and managed to throw some clothes and jewelry in a suitcase and put some of my photo albums and books in a few boxes.”
“You went into a burning building?” Dad roars.
“Only the ground floor was actually burning. There weren’t any flames in my apartment above.”
“You could have been killed.”
At his words, I draw the sleeves of my t-shirt down over my hands. Wrong move. My mother would have made the perfect Cold War spy. Ironic since she married a Soviet immigrant. She doesn’t miss a thing. She shackles my wrist and carefully draws the material up my arm.
Her bottom lip trembles and there are tears in her eyes. “You didn’t tell us you were injured.”
“It’s fine. They’re barely second-degree burns.”
“Second-degree burns can cause scarring,” Lilac offers. When everyone at the table turns to stare at her, her eyes round. “What? It’s a fact. You can’t get mad at me for stating facts.”
I sigh. “I’m not mad at you, Lilac Bean.”
Mom stands. “Let me phone Dr. Blue. I’m certain we can get you an appointment right away.”
“There’s no need. I’ve already seen a doctor. He gave me antibiotics. Everything’s fine.”
Mom looks to Lilac for confirmation. At her nod, Mom returns to the table. “But you need to promise to tell me if you’re in pain.”
I’m sorry, Ashlyn mouths at me. I smile at her. It’s not her fault. If she was in a fire, I’d want to know everything, too.
“Now,” my dad says once the pie is demolished, “tell me why your insurance company won’t pay out your claim.”
Dad may appear to be a laidback hippie most of the time, but he’s also the town’s attorney. And he doesn’t let anyone mess with his girls.
I shrug. “Since the cause of the fire is unclear, they need to conduct an arson investigation and eliminate me as a suspect before they’ll pay my claim.”
“Are they out of their minds?” Dad bellows.
Mom pats his arm. “Now, now, Daniel. Getting your heart rate up will not help anything.”
When Mom isn’t spying on or interrogating us until we spill all our secrets, she’s the peacemaker. She’s the principal of the local school and has plenty of experience keeping the peace. Lucky for me, she wasn’t the principal when I was in school. It’s hard to get away with skipping class when Mom’s the principal.
“Besides,” she smirks at me, “our baby girl is home until the insurance company pays the claim.”
You don’t need to be a mind reader to figure out what she’s thinking. Mom hasn’t exactly been subtle about her desire I return home for good. She never wanted me to leave in the first place.
She’s out of luck. As soon as the insurance money is in my bank account, I’m out of here.