The Road Less Traveled – Chapter 1

I hit the wipers to clear the mist from the windshield as I kept both hands on the steering wheel of my motorcoach. Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass was a breeze in my new Foretravel ih-45 as the Cummins diesel made easy work of the three-thousand-foot pass.

My mind was hard at work on what new escapes I could throw at Randy Tremaine, the billionaire bad boy who featured heavily in my new series of romance novels. As if thinking of the devil would conjure him, my cell phone rang. I grinned when I saw the caller ID. Bess Deveraux’s name blinked across the screen. Pressing the answer button on the steering wheel, my voice was more chipper than I felt. “Hey Bess, what’s my favorite agent got for me today?”

Bess came back at me in an affected foreign accent, “Favorite agent? How many more do you keep around? Write a few romance novels, sell some books on Amazon and you authors go through agents like your billionaire characters go through women.”

Even though my stomach churned at her call, a grin split my face. Bess was no more French than I was a billionaire. The question that had been keeping me up for weeks bubbled from my lips, “What did Harlequin think of Give the Devil His Due?”

Bess dropped the accent, “What the fuck is wrong with you, Sydney? The guy was just arrested and your billionaire bad boy is a carbon copy of Jeffery Fucking Epstein?”

Worried by her tone, I played defensive, “Come on, Bess. Every woman who fancies herself a romance novelist is writing bad boy romance, billionaire romance, or billionaire bad boy romance. To stand above the slush, you’ve gotta make an impression.”

Bess shot back, “I got news for you, Syd, whoever said there is no such thing as bad press was a sociopath. This story is too raw, too toxic right now. I’m not sure I’d publish this under your own imprint if I were you. A billionaire who seduces underage women, drugs them and brings them to his island as his sexual playthings, don’t piss off your readers.”

The nervous buzz in my stomach turned to nausea. Give the Devil His Due was supposed to be my entrance into the fabled halls of traditional publishing. The competition in the indie market was brutal and the publishing schedule to keep my pen-name visible to viewers was emptying my well of creativity. The previous year, I released twelve novels. And this year my sales were only slightly more than half of last year’s.

I shifted back into drive once I was off the pass. I could drive and talk on the hands-free phone without being distracted. But Bess had thrown me for a loop. “If they don’t want extreme billionaire bad boy, what the hell do they want?”

The snooty foreign accent was back, “Not this. I’ve been told by an editor at Harlequin they are thinning their stable of authors. The eBook market is enormous, but it is only growing more competitive each year. Too many authors flooding the market with knockoffs of the last best seller. Have you thought about retirement?”

A car in front of me was slowing. A quick glance in my driver’s side mirror and I moved around the slowpoke. “I’m twenty-four years old, Bess. I haven’t even hit my stride yet. But I really needed this contact.”

An audible sigh came through the speakers, “You and me, both, Syd. I can try shopping it around to smaller publishers, if you really want.”

I could hear the “but” in her voice. It was useless shaking my head; not like anyone could see me. “No. Let it lie for now. I may self publish it yet.”

“It’s your funeral, Syd. Ciao.”

I killed the connection a split second before Bess, if only to work out some of my frustration. That’s when I noticed I missed a call while talking with my agent. A quick check surprised me. It was my sister. What did she want? It was too early in the year to invite me to Thanksgiving; summer had yet to arrive in the Pacific Northwest. My mind immediately went to the worst-case scenario. Had something happened to my only nephew? It embarrassed me when I realize how long it had been since I thought about Abby and Gabriel. I reached for the phone to see if my sister left a message.

I played the recording. Abby’s voice seemed off, “Hey, sis. Just wanted to talk, hear your voice. Gabe says hi. Call me back when you can.”

If I didn’t need to keep my eyes on the road, I would have stared at the phone. “What the fuck?”

Abby’s my older sister, by five years. Because of our age differences, we’re not very close. Since launching my writing career, I haven’t exactly invested a lot of time in my family. Even less now, since our mom died last year. Come to think of it, that was the last time I’d spent any time with Abby and Gabe. I treated my family sort of like church; Thanksgiving and Christmas, if I could swing it. Writing was my life, and that’s where I spent my time. Not that I didn’t love Abby. Now that Mom was gone, she and my nephew were the only family I had left. It’s just our lives revolved around different things. Since giving birth to my nephew at seventeen, Abby’s life revolved around him and her job as a teacher’s assistant. We’re both passionate about our lives; just in different ways.

With more than a little trepidation, I tapped the screen on my phone to return the call. When she answered, Abby sounded tired, “Hey, sis. That was quick.”

“Was on the phone with my agent. How’re things with you and Gabriel?”

“It’s Gabe now. You’d hardly recognize him. He’s as tall as me now.”

When I saw my nephew at our mom’s funeral, he was short, like most kids. “Really, isn’t he still ten?”

My sister’s laughter was hollow, “Goodness, that’s what comes of only coming for Thanksgiving and Christmas every few years, Syd. Gabe will be twelve at the start of July.”

I felt guilty. It had been too long. “Save a place for me this Thanksgiving. I’ll make sure to be there this time.”

Silence filled the air. “You there, Abby?”

I could hear the tears in her voice, “If I’m still here, Syd. I went to the doctor last week and the news…”

When she faltered, I blurted, “What? What’s wrong, sis?”

“It’s cancer.”

My eyes blurred, and I eased off the Cummins diesel engine. I saw a gas station in the distance and hit the blinker. Mom had died of cancer and my mind was a jumble of questions. “Give me a sec, Abby. I’m pulling over.”

Her quiet sobs pulled at my heart as I brought the RV to a stop on one side of the gas station. When I engaged the emergency brake, I said, “How far along is it?”

Abby’s voice shook, “Farther along than I’d like. Oh, hell, any amount is more that I’d want. I’m supposed to start an aggressive round of chemo in a few days.”

Never had I wanted to be closer to my sister than at that moment. Thoughts about my writing career fled my mind, “I can be there tomorrow, Sis. How’s Gabriel, I mean, Gabe handling it?”

A loud sigh filled the cab of the RV, “He knows I’m sick, but I haven’t told him how serious it is yet.”

Her humor wasn’t entirely gone, “At least school’s out, so I won’t have to burn any sick-time with the school district.”

My heart hurt as though squeezed in a vise grip. I wished I could take back the years spent on the road, writing, to have been with her over the past few years. Tears spilled across my cheeks, “When I get there, you just tell me what you want me to do and consider it done.”

Abby’s sob filled the speakers. I couldn’t hold back either and I cried with her. After a moment, she said, “They’re going to admit me to the hospital for the chemo. I don’t want Gabe to see me like this, Sydney.”

I was sure I could find a place to store the RV in Bakersfield, “I can stay with him all summer if you need. Not a problem.”

“Can you do me a solid, sis? Take him with you for the summer. Get him out of town, away from here for a couple of months. It’ll do him good.”

I could hear the unspoken words. It might do you some good too, Sydney. Abby didn’t begrudge me the success I found as a writer, but she loved her family and my absence always bothered her. Now that it was just to two of us and her son, how could I possibly blame her. In that moment, I would have agreed to anything, “Sure, Sis.”

We talked for a while longer before she said she needed to rest. Once I disconnected the call, I stared out the windshield. The Cascade Mountains filled the vista. What had I just agreed to? Where would I put a ten, no–scratch that, an eleven-year-old kid in the RV?

My home on wheels was spacious for just me. But I hadn’t bought it intending to share the space. I swiveled the driver’s chair around. The slides were pulled in, compacting the space. A narrow space between the left and ride slide-outs left me a pathway to the toilet room halfway along the RV’s forty-five-foot-long chassis. When I passed by the sofa, I wondered how Gabe would enjoy sleeping on it. Since buying the RV with the proceeds of my earlier sales, I’d fallen asleep on the sofa more than a couple of times.

I slid into the toilet and closed the door before I bent over the toilet and threw up. I didn’t know where it came from, but dread filled me; I didn’t want to lose my sister. Compared to that, the rest of my dread was inconsequential. I didn’t know what to do with a kid for a couple of months. And God forbid, if something should happen to my sister, I had no idea what to do with Gabe.

Thirty minutes later, refueled and back in control of my emotions, I pulled back onto the highway with Bakersfield, California programmed into the GPS.

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