| The Comeback Kiss |
By Lani Diane Rich
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I knew I should have sent her to boarding school, Tessa Scuderi thought as she sat at her kitchen table listening to her sixteen-year-old sister explain how Robby Parker had knocked her up in a round of passion under the bleachers during the Lucy’s Lake High Christmas Dance six weeks ago.
“I’m so sorry to have disappointed you.” Izzy sniffled, the moisture in her eyes shimmering in the soft glow from the light fixture hanging over their heads. “It was just a big, stupid mistake, and now I’ll have to pay for it for the rest of my life.”
“Oh, cruel fate,” Tessa said flatly, lifting her coffee mug to her lips. “You’re not getting a car.”
Izzy’s eyes widened with pretend shock, then narrowed with genuine frustration. She smacked her hand down on the old linoleum table. “Oh, come on!”
Tessa pulled her elbows back and stared at the table. “God, this thing is ugly. Why am I only just noticing it now?”
“That could have totally been true! What if I was really pregnant?”
“Impossible.” Tessa shrugged and put her elbows back on the table. “No one who has ever actually had sex would use a phrase like ‘round of passion.’”
“Hey!” Izzy’s voice was sharp and offended. “I got that from a romance novel.”
“I rest my case.” Tessa sipped her coffee and thought about the table. Maybe she should replace it. But it was such a hassle. The downside of living in small-town Vermont was how long it took to get to a damn Wal-Mart.
“I could be pregnant,” Izzy went on. “That is so much worse than having my own car.”
Tessa couldn’t help but smile. “And what? You thought that if I believed you were pregnant for a few minutes, then I’d let you have a car out of sheer relief?”
Izzy shrugged, lifted her coffee mug, and sulked. “It was a theory.”
“It was a bad one.” Tessa glanced at the clock: 6:45 in the morning. She had to give Izzy credit for strategy; getting to Tessa early in the morning was a good move.
Not good enough, but the kid was only sixteen.
“Look, Iz, I’ve got enough stress in my life without worrying about you getting speeding tickets—”
“I would drive like George Washington’s grandmother, I swear.”
“—or a flat tire on the side of a dark highway littered with sexual predators.”
“I’ll get AAA and a can of Mace.”
“And if I’m concerned about you getting pregnant—which, just between us girls, is the dark fear that keeps me awake nights praying to every variation of God known to man—then giving you a car is the very last thing I would do.” She looked Izzy in the eye and spoke firmly. “This discussion is over.”
Izzy’s eyes rolled up in a dramatic arc. “Just because you lost your virginity in the back of a car—”
“Little tip,” Tessa said. “Using my past against me does not help your case.”
“If I’m going to lose my virginity, I don’t need a car to do it.”
“But you do need a convenient location, and I’m sure as hell not going to be the one who gives it to you.”
“God! You are such a tool. I’m not even dating anyone.”
Tessa suddenly felt bone-tired. She shouldn’t feel that tired at twenty-eight, should she? “The tool is closing this discussion. You want some more coffee?”
Izzy slumped back in her chair. “Mom would have let me get a car.”
A heavy silence fell over the room, accentuating the absence they both felt so strongly. Tessa drained the last of her coffee, listening to the ticking of the wall clock as she breathed in deep, not sure what to say. What do you say to a kid who was orphaned at the age of six? Ten years she’d been trying to think of something, and always, she came up blank.
“Sorry,” Izzy mumbled finally.
Tessa smiled. There was very little Izzy could do that Tessa wouldn’t instantly forgive, and Izzy knew it. “It’s okay.”
Izzy leaned one elbow on the table as the fingers of her other hand picked lazily at her Pop-Tart. “You know what’s weird?”
“That parents keep letting their children play at Michael Jackson’s house?”
“That you still have a picture of that old car on the refrigerator.”
Izzy nodded toward the worn and faded photo, drawing Tessa’s focus to it as well. Tessa couldn’t help but smile. That car had been so cool. It was a vintage 1974 VW Thing, a boxy, funky-looking model that didn’t sell well and didn’t last long; theorists were split on whether the blame fell on the name or the design. But Tessa had loved it with all her heart. She’d gotten it for a song from Oliver’s on the edge of town, had spent a summer painting colorful daisies all over it, stems intertwining like lovers . . .
“Man,” she breathed to herself, staring at the picture, transfixed in the memory of her last carefree summer. “You just can’t replace something like that, you know?”
“If you loved it so much, why’d you give it to Finn?”
Tessa’s shoulders tensed at the name. Correction: I gave him my virginity. Bastard took the car.
But that wasn’t the official story, so Tessa kept quiet, suddenly feeling the weight of all the lies she’d piled on the memory of that night ten years ago settling heavily on her existence. At the moment, though, it was more than she cared to think about, and it was definitely way more than she intended to explain to her little sister. She pushed herself up from the kitchen table, smoothing her hands over the skirt of her waitress uniform.
“You got all your homework, right?”
Izzy sighed a martyr’s sigh. “Yes, Warden.”
“I’d have gone with ‘Der Führer’ over ‘Warden.’ It’s got more punch.” Tessa led the way out of the kitchen, through the living room, and to the front door, the same as she did every day. “And you’re not getting a car.”
Izzy trailed behind her, like a sad, sole duckling. “Tammy Myers’s mom gave her a truck for her sixteenth birthday.”
“Tammy Myers’s mom is an idiot.” Tessa grabbed her coat off the rack by the front door, and handed off Izzy’s to her.
Same as she did every day.
“God, you are wound tight. You know what you need? A man.”
Tessa fought the urge to laugh as her sister puffed up, nodding her head furiously.
“That’s right. I said it. You need to get laid.”
Tessa grabbed her house keys from the basket that sat on the half-moon table, then turned to her sister with a beatific smile, cupping Izzy’s sweet face gently in both hands.
“Darling Isabella, love of my pathetic and sexless life, you cannot manipulate, cajole, or otherwise engage me to the point where I will let you have a car,” she said. “You forget that when I was a teenager, I was just like you, only about a thousand times worse. I know all your tricks, and I am immune.”
“I hate walking to school every day,” Izzy whined, shrugging Tessa’s hands away.
She stuffed her arms into her coat. “By the time I get there, my feet are frostbitten. How will you feel when I have to have a toe amputated?”
“It’s two blocks, Bette Davis. That’s the beauty of living in the middle of town. Everything’s within safe walking distance.”
Izzy stared at Tessa for a minute, then finally huffed and pulled the door open. “Damnit. I really thought the pregnancy thing would work. You know, contrast and compare.”
“I’ll give you credit, it was a nice strategy, but you still have much to learn, Grasshoppah.” Tessa stepped out onto the porch, locked the door behind her, same as she did every day. It wasn’t until she turned and bumped into Izzy, who had frozen on the porch right behind Tessa, that the routine of Tessa’s life finally broke.
“Oh, my God,” Izzy breathed, the words stepping out into the frigid February air in white puffs.
“What?” Tessa said, but her eyes landed almost instantly on the what, and she froze as well. Time seemed to slow down as she stared at the street in front of her house.
“That’s not . . . ,” Izzy said, pointing. “That can’t be . . .”
“No.” Tessa finally willed her legs to move forward. “It’s not. Go to school.”
“No way,” Izzy said. “I want to—”
“School,” Tessa said, her voice hard. “Now.”
Izzy muttered some complaints, hauled her backpack up over her shoulder, and marched off in the direction of the school. Tessa watched until her sister was out of sight, then slowly moved forward. Her feet felt strange beneath her, unconnected to either her legs or the ground, just numbly carrying her to the thing she was absolutely sure could not possibly be parked in front of her house.
And yet. There it was. Boxy. Yellow. Covered with flowers she’d painted herself. She rubbed at her eyes and took a step closer, focusing on the driver’s-side door. Two daisies, pink in the centers with orange petals, the stems wound together with the initials D.F. and T.S. spelled out discreetly in their twirly waves. She moved closer, opened the door, and glanced around the empty interior, then froze when she saw the keys dangling from the ignition. She slumped down into the front seat and pulled them out, her heart pounding as she held the key chain up in the waxing morning light.
It was the same key chain she’d had in high school, a simple silver rectangle with “Tessa” engraved in the center. On the day she got the car, Finn had given her that key chain.
And then, eight months later, he’d taken it back.
Which led to the question—who had returned it?
Her heart rate revved up, and she instantly tamped it down. She cared more about the car than Finn. It was the car she had missed all these years, the car she had wanted returned to her. And now that it was here . . .
She twirled the keys in her hand, her teenage years coming back to her in flashes. Laughing with Finn, kissing Finn, sneaking away with Finn, stealing the town bell with—
Oh. Crap. She gasped and gripped the steering wheel tightly in her hands as, for the second time that morning, the weight of a decade’s worth of lies fell down on her. Finn couldn’t be back. He wasn’t supposed to come back. Ever. She’d been banking on it, counting on it, and if she’d miscalculated, it would ruin everything.
Tessa twisted around, glancing in the backseat for some evidence of what had happened, hoping against all hope that maybe the police had left a note explaining that they had confiscated and returned it, or that there was a fairy godmother sitting in the back with a wand at the ready. There was nothing except a snow brush and an empty Tic Tac container. Her heart pounded in erratic rhythms as her eyes darted about, finally catching on something lying on the headrest behind her. She reached up and plucked it off, and even in the faint morning light, she knew exactly what she was seeing.
One short red hair, slightly stiff with styling gel.
“Well,” she said finally. “Shit.”
“Hey, Babs.” Dermot Finnegan huddled in an alley, leaning against the brick wall of Lucy’s Lake’s only movie theater as he held his cell phone to his ear, feeling like a criminal even though he hadn’t done anything illegal yet that day. “Where’s my car?”
“Finn?” A yawn stretched through the phone. “Is that you?”
“Yeah, Babs, it’s me. Where’s my car?”
“Goodness,” she said. “What time is it?”
Finn glanced over his shoulder at the street behind him. It was still empty, for now. He tugged his brown knit hat down over his ears and forehead. “I have no idea, but the sky’s kinda pink. I hear it’s called sunrise. It’s really not as great as they make it out in the movies. Now where’s my car?”
Finn rubbed his fingers over his eyes and tried to keep his voice even. “The car you said would be here.”
“Oh,” she said, her voice gaining strength. “That’s tomorrow.”
Finn went still. “Gee. You don’t say. Because the eight thousand times we talked about it last week, I could have sworn you said it was today.”
“Hmmm, really?” He heard the rustle of papers in the background. “See? I’ve got it right here. Rental car. Max’s Diner, Lucy’s Lake, Vermont. Tuesday, February 10. That’s tomorrow.”
Finn raised his eyes skyward. “Beg to differ, crumb cake. Today’s Tuesday, but it’s the ninth. Now, think. When you made the arrangements, did you say Tuesday or the tenth?”
Finn already knew the answer. For fifteen months now, he’d been working—for lack of a better word—for Babs Wiley McGregor, the slightly off-center widow of Manhattan real estate king Bryson McGregor. He should have known this wouldn’t go smoothly. Things involving Babs, no matter how tangentially, rarely did. But getting paid to do odd little “favors” for Babs’s nutty rich friends beat petty bird thieving, his previous occupation, by a country mile. As of yet, none of Babs’s insane friends had bitten him, crapped on him, or woken him up in the middle of the night with incessant chirping.
“I said the ninth. And I’m almost certain . . . wait, my calendar’s right here . . .” There was a pause. “Oh. Whoops.”
Finn heard voices on the street behind him and slid deeper into the alley, pushing himself flat against the wall.
“I need that car, Babs. Now. There’s no way I’m making it to Boston by tonight if I have to hitch.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” Babs said. “Now that I’m looking at my calendar, I realize that the favor isn’t until Saturday night anyway. Isn’t that funny?”
Finn glanced out at the street. A woman huddled in a white coat passed by, leaving a thick trail of perfume in her wake. Finn huddled flat against the brick wall; the woman passed without noticing him. A lucky break, but every moment he spent in Lucy’s Lake made it that much more likely he’d be spotted, and that was not part of the plan.
“No,” Finn said. “Not funny unless public hangings are your brand of comedy. People in this town don’t like me much.”
“Oh, tosh,” Babs said. “What’s not to like? I think you’re absolutely charming.”
“No argument,” Finn said. “But these people haven’t seen me since I was a teenager, and I was a little”—he paused, searching for the right adjective to describe himself in high school—“unruly back then.”
“Everybody was unruly as a teenager. When Dana was in high school—”
“I blew up the nativity scene in front of the church using half a pound of black powder and a homemade mortar,” Finn said. Although that was among the least of his youthful infractions, he figured it trumped anything Babs’s daughter had ever even thought about doing.
Babs paused. “Well, lots of kids—”
“During the outdoor Christmas Eve vigil.”
“Ooh,” Babs gushed, drawing from her endless supply of fierce loyalty. “Like fireworks. Must have been lovely.”
“Reverend Diggs was a Vietnam vet,” Finn said. “He dove to the ground, knocking over the school librarian, whose flaming candle flew out of her hand and landed on the mayor’s toupee. Do I need to keep going?”
“I don’t think so.” Babs paused. “Dana set a priest on fire once, did I ever tell you about that?”
“No, but it sounds like a great story.” Finn glanced over his shoulder again. “Look, people in small towns like this are long on memory and short on forgiveness, and if the term ‘lynch mob’ means anything to you, you’ll get me a car. Now.”
Babs sighed. “I’ll try. But it’s not like you’re in the hub of civilization. Why can’t you just wait it out until tomorrow? I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll make some calls and see what I can do. But I do think you’re overreacting, Dermot.”
“Point of information: Calling me Dermot does nothing to endear you to me right now.”
“You really should go see your family,” Babs went on, ignoring him. “You’ve got five whole days and nothing to do. I’m sure they’d be happy to see you.”
Finn opened his mouth to speak, then paused as realization sank in. “Hey. Babs. Just to soothe my curiosity—you didn’t do this on purpose, did you?”
Her voice rose half an octave and dripped innocence. “Do what, dear?”
“Hey, and there’s my answer,” he said, running one gloved hand over his head. “Look. I told you. I don’t wanna see them, and they don’t want to see me. I came here to do one thing, and I did it, and now I need to get out of here.”
“Oh! I’ve got a beep,” Babs said suddenly, although Finn heard no interruption on the line. “It’s Dana. I’ll be in touch.”
“Get me that car!” Finn said quickly before Babs disconnected the call. He flipped his cell shut and tucked it into his pocket, then let out a grating chuckle.
He was an idiot. He knew when he started on this whole thing that it was a bad idea. It had been a bad idea to go back to Westchester and drive by the house of the old lady he’d sold the Thing to. It had been a bad idea to hit the doorbell, and pay twice the car’s value to a woman who probably wouldn’t have noticed if he had just hot-wired it and took it straight from her driveway.
A few years back, that’s exactly what he would have done, without a second thought. Hell, a few years back, he wouldn’t have gone looking for the damn thing in the first place.
He’d been much, much smarter then than he was now.
Finn looked down the length of the alley, the back of which jutted up against the parking lot of Max’s, the two spaces separated only by a cheap metal guardrail and some trees thinned by the winter. He had to get out of there before Tessa saw the car and announced his presence in town.
Tessa. He could still see her face in his mind. Light freckles sprinkled over nose and cheeks. Blushed lips. Chocolate brown eyes that flashed murder when provoked. Oval-shaped face framed by thick dark curls she always complained about but never cut. Something coursed through him, and it took a moment for him to recognize it as a mixture of regret and excitement.
Over a girl he hadn’t seen in ten years; a girl who would probably kill him with her bare hands given half a chance.
He pulled up the collar of his jacket around his face and hunched into it as he headed out to the sidewalk. If he could get to the edge of town, he could probably hole up in the shack next to the lake until he figured a way out of town that didn’t involve relying on Babs friggin’ McGregor, which had been just one in a long string of mistakes he’d made in recent months.
Well, it was over. The stupidity, the guilt, and the lame attempt at making up for something that couldn’t be made up for. From now on, he was the old Finn, the smart Finn, the Finn who moved through life free and easy, letting the past stay in the past.
Head down, he took a left out of the alley and kept his eyes on his feet. It wasn’t until he smelled the smoke that he slowed down and looked up. At first, he couldn’t tell where it was coming from, and he was about to dismiss it as someone’s fireplace smoke when he heard panicked sounds coming from across the street. He grazed his eyes over the buildings there and saw smoke creeping out from under one of the doors, then lifted his focus to the sign over the awning.
FOR PET’S SAKE.
I should let it burn down just for the name alone, he thought. He looked down the street one way and then the other. No one. Nothing. He heard what sounded like a high-pitched bark, and saw that the smoke creeping out from under the door was thickening.
Something in FOR PET’S SAKE was definitely on fire.
Hopefully, it was the person who’d named it.
“Well,” he muttered to himself as he felt the struggle between smart and stupid start to stir within him. “Shit.”
Excerpted from The Comeback Kiss , by Lani Diane Rich . Copyright (c) 2006 by Diane Schwalbe. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top