Excerpt from The Broken Circle

Chapter One

January 2009

Boston

A knock at her grad school apartment door pulled Lisa Delaney away from Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. Torcelli Construction. Eyes burning, she rubbed her lids while, from her iPod, she heard Bryan Adams insist that everything he did, he did for her. Old song. Easy words. If the man really wanted to impress, he could take her contracts exam in the morning. 

She pushed away from her desk, covered in law books and case briefs, and rose from her chair, stretching, bending and groaning. Her knees creaked like an arthritic old lady’s. Shaking her head, she emitted a long sigh and promised herself a gym visit the next day—after the exam.

A second knock echoed, this time more impatiently. 

“I’m coming. Hang on.” Nimble again, she rushed across the room and opened the door. 

Her eyes widened, her stomach began to roil as she looked at two uniformed state troopers, snow melting on their jackets, cop faces in place. Her thoughts raced with possibilities. Classmates? Mike? Oh, please, not Mike.

“Are you Lisa Delaney?” 

She stared at bad news and froze. All of her. Nothing worked. Not her mind, tongue, or breath. Perhaps her heart had stopped, too. One man coughed. The other repeated the question.

“I-I’m Lisa.” 

“Are your parents’ names Robert and Grace Delaney?”

Oh, God, yes! Her heart raced at Mach speed, but she couldn’t feel her legs at all. “What happened?” 

“May we come in, Ms. Delaney?” Taller cop. 

She nodded and pulled the door wider, but the knob slipped through her sweaty hands and she lost her balance. 

“You might want to sit down.” 

As though moving underwater, she struggled into the closest chair.

“I’m afraid there’s been an accident on the turnpike,” began the quiet-till-now officer. “A fatal accident.”

“Not…not my…my parents?” She barely got the words out before the officers’ sympathetic silence answered her question. 

“But that’s impossible! I just spoke to my dad…”

“When was that, ma’am?”

When? When? “I think…maybe…last…last night….”  Her voice drifted. Daddy had been checking up on his eldest, his numero uno child, joking with her about an apple a day. Staying healthy. A convenient excuse to call. To keep in touch with the one who’d left home. She’d understood his M.O. a month after arriving at school. Sweet, loving man. A man with a phone.  

“Wh-what…?” Her throat closed.  

The cops seemed to understand her intent. “The official investigation is ongoing, but according to preliminary reports, the other driver lost control of his vehicle and did a one-eighty.”

“Drunk? But…but it’s the middle of the week.” As if that fact could change things.

“The driver’s blood alcohol was normal.”

“Then what…?  The road…?”

“Icy conditions contributed. The temperature drops at night, and your folks were approaching at just the wrong moment. There were no survivors. I’m very sorry.” 

She nodded. No survivors? Mom and Dad? She wanted to cover her ears.

The other officer looked at his notes and said, “The Woodhaven police are with your brothers and sisters.”

Oh, God, the kids… She had to get back to Woodhaven!

Standing quickly, she was hit by a wave of nausea and fell back into her chair. She doubled over, hand on her stomach. The phone rang, startling her further. She stared at the instrument, half-buried by textbooks, reached forward, and slowly lifted the receiver. “Hello?” she whispered.

“Lisa! Lisa! The police are here. Mom and Dad were in an accident. You have to come home! Now! I’m scared.”

Jennifer. Her social butterfly teenage sister whose life revolved around boyfriends, best friends, and having fun. Except, not tonight. In the background, she heard the cacophony of younger voices crying and talking at the same time. She heard little Emily’s high-pitched wail. “When is Lisa coming?”  

“Hang on, Jen.” She took a breath and looked at the officers. “There are four of them. Emily’s only seven. My twin brothers are nine. Jen’s sixteen. I’ve got to get there—a hundred miles—and I don’t own a car.” She couldn’t afford one and didn’t need one in a city with mass transit.

The troopers nodded, and she spoke into the phone again.

“I’ll be there soon, Jen. As soon as I can. Maybe William and Irene can stay with you meanwhile.” Her fiancé’s parents lived across the street. 

“They’re not home. They went to Miami to see Mike play. Didn’t you watch the game yesterday?”

“Of course I watched, but I didn’t know his folks flew down.” Mike had subbed for the starting quarterback and played an entire quarter. It was only his first year, but now the Riders were in the play-offs. 

“So, Jen, you need to be in charge now until I get there. You and the kids sit tight and wait for me.” She glanced toward the window, where falling snow was reflected by the light of the streetlamps.

“It might take a little while,” she added. “It’s a big trip, and the roads are bad…”  What was she saying? Her parents had just been killed on those roads. “Jen, honey, let me talk to one of the officers there.”

Her hand shook as she gave the receiver to the state cop. “Ask if they told the kids the truth.”

In seconds, he shook his head. “Not yet. They’re getting a social worker in on it.”

She raised her eyes to his. “Please tell them not to do or say anything until I get there. Okay?” 

Perspiration trickled from every pore. She shivered and sweated until finally her stomach lurched. Running into the bathroom, she vomited until nothing remained. Then she brushed her teeth, packed her suitcase to the brim, and snapped it shut. The sound focused her, and she inhaled a deep breath. Be strong, be strong…

One of the troopers held the door open. Her gaze skimmed the small apartment. She’d been happy there and ecstatic at being accepted into the program. She glanced at her textbooks before locking on to her college graduation photo. Her parents stood on either side of her, their smiles wide. 

“Oh-h… One second.” Her own future was now uncertain. Dropping her suitcase, she darted to the wall, took down the picture, and tucked it under her arm. Their dreams and her dreams might have to wait awhile.  

#

Michael Brennan needed three days to get home to Woodhaven and to Lisa. It seemed like three years. 

He tossed his luggage in his parents’ front hall, turned around, and headed directly across the street. The Delaneys lived in a two-story wood-framed house with a front porch similar to his and to all the other homes on Hawthorne Street. He’d grown up there, but Lisa and her family had moved in over four years ago in June, right after her high school graduation. He’d graduated from a neighboring high school that same year. Their paths hadn’t crossed until the evening his mother baked a cake and insisted their family welcome the new neighbors. Moaning and groaning, he’d given in, and the Brennans had gone to visit the Delaneys. 

When Lisa opened the door and walked outside, he’d almost tripped up the front steps. One glance and he couldn’t speak. His brain froze, too, as if a lightning bolt had slammed him head to toe. Big violet eyes, long, dark wavy hair, and a killer smile. A friendly smile. Who wouldn’t have fallen in love with her? But he’d been the lucky one, the lucky guy who’d relished every single day since Lisa Delaney had first appeared at that front door.

Now her sidewalk needed shoveling. The streets had been plowed since the storm a few days ago, the walkways, too, but snow had fallen again yesterday, and surfaces had turned icy. He flexed his shoulders and entered the house. He’d take care of the snow after he wrapped his arms around her…if he could find her. 

The Delaney house was packed. He recognized Lisa’s aunts and uncles from out of -town, and all the neighbors, of course.  Lisa’s closest friends, Sandy and Gail, were there, too. Either they’d stayed all day or had just come from work. He waved and searched for his mom.   

“Where’s Lisa?”

“I’m glad you’re here, Michael,” she said, giving him a quick kiss, “but don’t expect too much from Lisa. She’s overwhelmed as…as we all are.” Irene Brennan gazed up at the ceiling, indicating the second floor. “She’s got the kids with her. The funeral’s tomorrow, and she wants time alone with them.”

“Alone doesn’t include me.”

He took the stairs two at a time, sensing the glances, the sympathy of the visitors as he made his way up. He appreciated their support, but they didn’t have to worry. Surely, he could handle whatever he found. Surely, he and Lisa could handle it together. 

He paused in the hallway at the top of the stairs. Each of the four bedroom doors stood ajar, but he could hear nothing. He started to push the first door open when, from the end of the corridor, he heard Lisa singing quietly, “Too-ra Loo-ra Loo-ra, Too-ra loo-ra lie…”

Was she trying to put the kids to sleep at five o’clock in the afternoon? He slowed his pace and walked the last few steps before knocking softly and entering the master bedroom. Lisa sat on her parents’ bed, leaning against the headboard, the twins dozing on either side of her, little Emily sleeping on her lap. Jennifer lay across the foot of the bed, also sound asleep. He took it all in and understood that day and night had no meaning to them. 

“Lisa...” A whispered prayer.

Her red-rimmed eyes brightened, her arms opened, and he was there. Kissing her and gently shifting one little brother lower on the mattress. She began to cry, her tears mingling with his as he rained kisses, and his tension melted simply by holding her in his arms. Tears flowed as he continued to embrace her and grieve while remembering Grace and Robert Delaney. 

They’d been wonderful neighbors, wonderful parents, and good friends with his folks. The Delaneys had worked so hard to finally become “owners” instead of “renters,” and celebrated their move to Hawthorne Street each time they’d made a mortgage payment. Lisa had told him how her dad would brandish the check and twirl Grace around the kitchen every single month. With their growing family, it had taken them fifteen years to afford their own home.  

“How long can you stay?” Lisa whispered.

“He can’t,” mumbled nine-year-old Andy, rousing slightly. “He has to go to the conference championship game. And maybe to the Super Bowl.”

“But not yet,” Mike said, rubbing the boy’s head with affection, but focusing his gaze on Lisa. “I’ll be here for the funeral tomorrow. You won’t be alone. Then I’ll be back in a week. One short week.” Which might feel like an eternity to Lisa.  

“I’m glad, but-but everything has changed,” she said, pulling a tissue from the nearby box and blotting her face. “We need to rethink our plans.”

“The basics haven’t changed,” he replied quickly. “I love you, Lisa Delaney. And don’t you forget it.”

Her eyes shone. She pressed his hand, her fingers narrow and delicate around his broader ones. “I love you, too, but-but….” She sighed and glanced at the assorted children. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen next,” she said quietly.

“I am,” he said. “I’m going to kiss you again.”

And he did. When she kissed him back, when she lingered and leaned against him, he almost collapsed with relief. She was the one for him. No matter what. Her needs, the kids’ needs…. 

“We’ll sort it out when the time comes,” he said. “I’ll support you in every way I can.” The logistics would no doubt be complicated, but he had faith that he and Lisa could do anything as long as they did it together.

She offered a wan smile. “I know you’ll do your best, but you have commitments to the team. You’re so talented! We all know you’re being groomed as a starting quarterback, maybe even next year. So I think, for both our sakes, I need to handle this-this family situation by myself.” 

No, she didn’t, but her brave effort tore a corner of his heart. “I think you’re right about my place in the team,” he said slowly, “but that’s in our favor. The money’s good.” He’d worked hard with his coaches, and his natural talents had been recognized. His dream career loomed just over the horizon. 

“I must be weird,” said Lisa. “I never think about your salary. Even your first year minimum is like make-believe Monopoly money to me. It doesn’t matter. I’m just so…so proud of you.”

Men cry. Even big football players. But once that afternoon was enough. His throat ached as he swallowed to stem more tears. Lisa needed him to be strong. 

“Have I ever told you about my conversation with your dad at the end of the summer you moved to Hawthorne Street?” he asked. “It was right before I went off to Ohio State on my scholarship.”

“All Daddy told me was that you were too big for your britches, but he was laughing.”

A surge of love and a wave of sadness—both raced through Mike. The words sounded exactly like something Rob Delaney would say. And the laughter–well, laughter was the norm in Lisa’s family. Her dad loved to tell a good story and could imitate the comedy greats and their jokes. Rob had been a natural “on stage,” and no one had a bigger heart. 

“Before I left for college,” Mike continued, “I told him I was going to marry you someday.” 

“You’ve got to be kidding! We were only eighteen. We’d just met that very summer.” For a moment, her expression lightened. She tipped her head back, and her eyes met his. “And what did he say?” 

“He said that I’d better treat you like gold—always. And I promised I would.”

“O-o-h….” Despair once again etched her face. “Our lives… everything...”—she waved her arm— “has changed. I can’t-I won’t hold you to any promise.”

“You have no vote.” He kissed her again, vowing to keep that promise. Loving Lisa was the easy part. Building a solid future together…well, that goal might be more difficult to reach now. Lisa was in no condition to make any decisions. Their next steps would be decided by him. 

His gaze rested on each of the youngsters, one at a time. Four sweet, innocent children. Without warning, his heart started to race, and his palms became covered in sweat. Fear. Like Lisa, he was almost twenty-three, and deep down, he was scared, too. He had no experience with kids, not even a younger brother or sister. But he wouldn’t give himself away, wouldn’t let Lisa know. A quarterback led with confidence on the field. Now he had to do the same at home. 

 

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