Lost and Found Sisters
I walk around like everything is fine but deep down inside my shoe my sock is sliding off.
–from “The Mixed-Up Files of Tilly Adams’s Journal”
Here was the thing: life sucked if you let it. So Quinn Wellers usually worked really hard to not let it. Caffeine helped. For up to thirty-eight blissful minutes it could even trick her into thinking she was in a decent mood. She knew this because it took forty-eight minutes to get from her local coffee shop through L.A. rush-hour traffic to work, and those last ten minutes were never good.
That morning, she got into line for her fix and studied the menu on the wall, even though in the past two years she’d never strayed from her usual.
A woman got in line behind her. “Now that’s a nice look on you,” she said.
It was Carolyn, a woman Quinn had seen here at the coffee shop maybe three times. “What look?”
“The smile,” Carolyn said. “I like it.”
Quinn didn’t know whether to be flattered or insulted, because she smiled all the time.
Okay, so maybe not so much lately …“I’m looking forward to the caffeine rush.”
“Nectar of the gods,” Carolyn agreed.
Something about the pleasant woman reminded Quinn of an elementary-school teacher. Maybe it was the gray-streaked hair pulled up in a messy bun, the glasses perpetually slipping down her nose, the expression dialed into sweet but slightly harried.
“You’re up, honey,” Carolyn said and gestured to the front counter.
Trev, the carefully tousled barista, was an L.A. beach bum and aspiring actor forced to work to support his surfing habit. His hands worked at the speed of light while the rest of him seemed chilled and relaxed. “Hey, darlin’, how’s life today?”
“Good,” Quinn said. She didn’t want to brag, but she’d totally gotten out of bed today with only two hits of the snooze button. “How did your audition go?”
“Got the part.” Troy beamed. “You’re looking at the best fake Thai delivery guy who ever lived. It means my luck has changed, so say you’ll finally go out with me.”
Quinn smiled — see, she totally did smile! — and shook her head. “I’m not—”
Trev piped in along with her, in perfect sync,” — dating right now,” and then shook his head.
“Well, I’m not,” she said.
“It’s not right, a hot chick like you. You’re way too young to be in a rut. You know that, right?”
“I’m not in a rut.” She was just … not feeling life right now, that’s all. “And hey, I didn’t tell you my order yet,” she said when she realized he was already working on her coffee.
“Has it changed?” he asked. “Ever?”
No, but now she wanted to order something crazy just to throw him off, except she wanted her usual, dammit.
Okay, so maybe she was in a rut. But routine made life simpler and after the complications she’d been through, simple was the key to getting out of bed and putting one foot in front of the other every day.
That and the badly needed caffeine, of course.
“You should go out with him,” Carolyn whispered behind her. She smiled kindly when Quinn craned her neck and looked at her. “You only live once, right?”
“Not true,” Quinn said. “You live every day. You only die once.”
Carolyn’s smile slowly faded in understanding. “Then make it count, honey. Go hog wild.”
Hog wild, huh? Quinn turned back to Trev.
“I’m all for the hog wild,” he said hopefully.
Quinn went for it. “An extra shot and whip.”
Trev blinked and then sighed. “Yeah, we really need to work on your idea of hog wild.”
When Quinn finally got to Amuse-Bouche, the trendy, upscale restaurant where she worked, it was to find her fellow sous-chef Marcel already in the kitchen.
He glanced over at her and sniffed disdainfully. Then he went back to yelling at Skye, a good friend of Quinn’s she’d brought on board a few months back.
Skye was chopping onions exactly as Quinn had taught her, but apparently Marcel didn’t agree. His voice had risen to a pitch designed to split eardrums as he went on and on in a mix of English and German that no one understood but him.
“Leave her alone, Marcel,” Quinn said.
He slid her a glacial stare. “Excuse me?”
“I’m the one who taught her how to chop. She’s doing it correctly.”
“Yes. If you work at a place flipping burgers and asking what size fry you want with your order,” he said, dropping the fake German accent as he sometimes did when he lost his temper and forgot to keep it up.
So here was the thing. There were days where Quinn surprised herself with her abilities, and others where she put her keys in the fridge. But she was good at this job. And yes, she understood that at twenty-nine years old and quickly rounding the corner kicking and screaming into thirty, she was young and very lucky to have landed a sous-chef position in such a wildly popular place. But she’d worked her ass off to get here, going to a top-notch culinary school in San Francisco, spending several years burning and cutting her fingers to the bone. She knew what she was doing—and had the tuition debt to prove it.
Oddly, Marcel wasn’t that much older than she was — late thirties, maybe. He’d come up the hard way, starting at the age of twelve washing dishes in his uncle’s restaurant not all that far from here, but light years away in style and prestige. He was good. Actually he was excellent, but he was hard-core old school, and resented a woman being his equal.
Quinn did her best to let it all bead off her back, telling herself that she believed in karma. What went around came back around. But though she’d waited with pent-up breath, nothing had kicked Marcel in the ass yet.
“You,” he said, pointing at her. “Go order our food for the week. And don’t forget the pork like last time. Also, your cheese supplier? She’s shit, utter shit. Find another.”
Quinn bit her tongue as Marcel turned away to browbeat a different kitchen aide who was dicing red peppers, swearing at the guy in German as if that made him more intimidating. Quinn thought it made him more of an idiot. He jerked the bowl away to prove his point and ended up with red pepper all over the front of his carefully starched white uniform shirt.
Ah, karma at last — fashionably late, but better than never.
“I’m sorry about that,” she said to Skye.
“You’ve got nothing to apologize for,” Skye said. “If it’s got tires or testicles, it’s gonna give you trouble.”
Wasn’t that the truth…
On Sunday, Quinn drove to her parents’ place for brunch. A command performance, since she’d managed to skip out on the past two weekends in a row due to working overtime.
She hoped like hell it wasn’t an ambush birthday party. Her birthday was still several weeks away, but her mom couldn’t keep a secret to save her own life and had let the possibility of a party slip several times. Quinn didn’t like birthdays.
She parked in front of the two-story Tudor cottage that had been her childhood home and felt her heart constrict. She’d learned to ride a bike on this driveway, right alongside her sister, who’d been a far superior bike rider. So much so that Quinn had often ridden on Beth’s handlebars instead of riding her own bike. They’d pilfered flowers from the flower gardens lining the walkway. Years later as teens, they’d sneaked out more than a few times from one of the second-story windows, climbing down the oak tree to go to parties that they’d been grounded from attending — only getting caught when Quinn slipped one year and broke her arm.
Beth hadn’t spoken to her for weeks.
Once upon a time this house had been Quinn’s everything. But now coming here made her feel hollow and empty. Cold. And deep down, she was afraid nothing would ever warm her again.
It’ll get easier.
Time is your friend.
She’ll stay in your heart.
Quinn had heard every possible well-meaning condolence over the past two years and every single one of them was a lie.
It hadn’t gotten easier. Time wasn’t her friend. And as much as she tried to hold on to every single memory she had of Beth, it was all fading. Even now she couldn’t quite summon up the soft, musical sound of her sister’s laugh and it killed her.
Shaking it off the best she could, she slid out of her car and forced a smile on her face. Sometimes you had to fake it to make it.
Actually, more than sometimes.
Late April in Southern California could mean hot or hotter, but today was actually a mild eighty degrees and her mom’s flowers were in full, glorious bloom. Quinn ducked a wayward bee — she was allergic — and turned to watch a flashy BMW pull in next to her, relieved to not have to go inside alone.
Brock Holbrook slid out of his car looking camera ready and she couldn’t help but both smile and roll her eyes. “Suck-up,” she said, gesturing to his suit and tie.
Brock flashed a grin. “I just know where my bread’s buttered, that’s all.”
He worked for her father’s finance company and no one could deny that Brock knew how to work a room. He was good looking, charismatic, and when he looked at her appreciatively, her entire body hummed with anticipation. Or it used to.
But these days she didn’t feel anticipation for anything. She sighed and Brock tilted his head at her, eyes softer now, understanding.
He knew. He’d been there when she’d found out about Beth’s accident. But his understanding didn’t help.
She wanted to feel again, dammit. The thrum of blood pounding through her veins in excitement. Happy butterflies in her belly…
The front door opened and Quinn glanced over. Both hers and Brock’s parents stood in the doorway, the four of them smiling a greeting at their chickens coming home to the roost, where they’d be pecked at for every little detail of their lives.
Quinn loved her parents and they loved her, but brunch promised to be more invasive than a gyno exam on the 405 South at peak traffic hours.
Brock took Quinn’s hand and reeled her in, smiling as he planted a kiss on her lips. It wasn’t a hardship. He looked good and he knew it. He kissed good too, and he knew that as well.
It had been two years since they’d slept together, two years since she’d felt the zing of sexual awareness or desire, and she didn’t feel it now either. Still, the kiss was nice, and normally she’d try to enjoy it — except he was only doing it for show. So she nipped at his bottom lip.
Laughing, he pulled back. “Feisty,” he murmured. “I like it.”
“I’m not going to sleep with you.”
“Pray tell why.”
“It’s been so long…” He tugged playfully on a strand of her hair. “I’m worried you’re depressed.”
This was just uncomfortably close enough to the truth to have her defenses slam down. “I’m not depressed.”
“Not you,” he said. “Your vagina.”
She snorted and yanked free. “Shut up.”
“Just keep it in mind.” He took her hand back and held it as he led the flight-risk chicken up the front path.
“I should’ve bitten you harder,” she whispered, smiling at the parentals.
“Feeling vicious today, I take it?”
“Annoyed,” she corrected.
“Ah. I guess turning old does that to a person.”
He was nine months younger than she and for just about all their lives — they’d met in kindergarten when he’d socked a boy for pushing her — he’d been smug about their age difference. She nudged him with her hip and knocked him off balance. He merely hauled her along with him, wrapping both his arms around her so that by all appearances he’d just saved her from a fall. His face close to hers, he gave her a wink.
And suddenly it occurred to her that this wasn’t about her at all, but him. His parents must be on him again about giving them grandbabies. And she got it, she did. The truth was, everyone expected them to marry. Brock had been her middle and high school boyfriend, and they’d gone off to college together. During their freshman year, they’d had a wildly dramatic and traumatic breakup involving his inability to be monogamous.
Oh, he’d loved her, she had no doubt of that. But he’d also loved anyone who batted their eyes and smiled at him.
It had taken a few years, but eventually they’d found their way back to each other. He’d grown up a lot and so had she. They were best friends—at times friends with benefits and at others mortal enemies. But after Beth’s death, their physical connection had fallen by the wayside … and that was all on her.
They’d eventually had the hard discussion about their different needs, and as a result, they’d gone from lovers to friends. She knew Brock would go back to lovers in an instant if she showed the slightest interest.
But she didn’t feel interest, and was starting to be afraid she’d never feel it — or anythin — ever again. “You’re only making it worse for both of us,” she said quietly as they moved toward the mother ship.
“If they think we’re working on things, they’ll leave me the hell alone.”
She had to concede the point as they hit the porch and were enveloped into the fold.
“Still not used to it,” her mom murmured to Quinn, clinging to Quinn for an extra minute. “It never feels right, you here without her…”
She didn’t mean it hurtfully, Quinn knew that. Her mom wouldn’t hurt a fly, but as always, a lump the size of Texas stuck in her throat. “I know, Mom.”
“I miss her so much. You’re so strong, Quinn, the way you’ve moved on.”
Had she? Moved on? Or was she just treading water, staying in place, managing to keep her head above the surface? Burying her feelings deep had been the only way to survive the all-encompassing grief, which at the moment sat like a big fat elephant on her chest. For the most part, she kept it locked away in a dark corner of her heart. She’d even built a wall around it, brick by painstaking brick, to contain the emotions that had nearly taken her down.
But she reminded herself that she was lucky. She had a job she loved, parents who cared, and a best friend/fallback husband if it ever came to that. And yes, she was turning thirty soon, and a surprise party still lay in wait regardless of the fact that she didn’t want it. But while she’d like to pretend none of that was happening, it wouldn’t derail her. Compared to what she’d been through, nothing could.
A little over a week later, Quinn was in line for her usual before-work latte when she felt the weight of someone’s gaze on her. Turning, she found a guy around her age with tousled black hair and black-rimmed glasses who looked a lot like a grown-up Harry Potter.
He was staring at her with an intensity that caused her to blink and then crane her neck to peek behind her. No one was there, which meant he was staring at her. She shifted away and did her best to ignore him, instead tuning in to the two women in front of her who were chatting.
“Orgasms after the age of fifty suck,” one was saying. “No one tells you that, but they totally do.”
Her friend agreed with an emphatic head bob. “I know. It’s like sandpaper down there in Lady Town. Takes an entire tube of lube and a bottle of gin.”
The first woman snorted. “Don’t get me started. Alan will spend thirty minutes looking for a golf ball, but he can’t give me ten minutes to find the G-spot.”
Quinn must have made some sound, because they both turned to her with apologetic laughs. “Sorry,” Dry Vagina said. “It’s just one of the many, many things you’ve got to look forward to, along with hot flashes.”
“Don’t forget the murderous urges,” the other woman said. “And we’re talking premeditated too.”
Yay. Sounded great.
“Excuse me,” the man behind Quinn said, tapping her on the shoulder. Harry Potter, her stalker. “I need to speak to you.”
“Sorry. I’m not interested.”
“Wait, honey. There’s no need to make a hasty decision,” one of her new friends said. “What if he’s suitably employed, with no baggage?”
“Impossible,” Dry Vagina said. “That’d be like finding a unicorn.”
“Are you a unicorn?” the first woman asked him.
Harry Potter looked at Quinn with more than a little desperation. “Can I please talk to you … alone?”
“Not alone,” the first woman said. “That sounds like stranger danger. You can do your pickup-line magic right here, or better yet, do it online like the rest of the world.”
The guy never took his gaze off Quinn. “You’re Quinn Wellers, right?”
Wait a minute. How did he know her name? “Okay,” she said. “You’re going to need to go first.”
“I’m Cliff Porter,” he said. “I’m an attorney and I really need a word with you. Privately.”
She stared at him, trying to come up with a reason why an attorney would be looking for her.
“Porter or Potter?” Dry Vagina asked. “Because Potter would make more sense.”
He looked pained. “I get that a lot, but it’s Porter.”
“How do you know my name?” Quinn asked.
“Look, can we just…” He gestured to a small table off to the side of the line.
Torn between curiosity and a healthy sense of survival, Quinn hesitated. “I’ll be late for work.”
“This will only take a minute.”
Reluctantly, she stepped out of line and moved to the table. “You’ve got one minute.”
He took a deep breath. “As I said, I’m an attorney. I located you through a mutual acquaintance.”
“I’ll get to her in a minute. She let me know I could find you here in the mornings rather than scare you by tracking you down at your place of residence. I’m from Wildstone, a small town about two hundred miles north. I’m here to give you news of an inheritance. It’s important we talk about it because—”
“I’ve never even heard of Wildstone,” Quinn said “I certainly don’t know anyone from there.”
He nodded like he knew this. “We’re a small coastal ranching town that sits in a bowl between the Pacific Coast and wine country. Maybe you should sit,” he said quietly, and also very kindly she had to admit. “Because the rest of this is going to be a surprise.”
“I don’t like surprises,” she said, “and you have thirty seconds left.”
It was clear from his expression that he wasn’t happy about having to go into the details in public, but as he was a stranger and maybe also a crackpot, too damn bad. He drew in a deep breath. “The person who left you this inheritance was your birth mother.”
She stared at him and then slowly sank into the before-offered chair without looking, grateful it was right behind her. “You’re mistaken,” she finally managed, shaking her head. “I wasn’t adopted.”
He gave her a wan smile. “I’m really sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but you were.”
“I have parents,” she said. “Lucinda and James Wellers.”
“They adopted you when you were two days old.”
The shock of that reverberated through her body. “No,” she whispered. Heart suddenly racing, palms clammy, she shook her head. “They would’ve told me. There’s absolutely no way…”
“Again, I’m very sorry,” Cliff said quietly. “But it’s true. They adopted you from Carolyn Adams.” He pulled a picture from his briefcase and pushed it across the table toward her.
And Quinn’s heart stopped. Because Carolyn was the woman she’d met here in this very coffee shop.