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Prelude (An Alec Winters Series, #1)

Copyright 2017 Chariss K. Walker

Published by Chariss K. Walker at Smashwords

Smashwords Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Sneak Peek At Crescent City, Book 2

About Chariss K. Walker

Other books by Chariss K. Walker

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Part I: Before – Chapter 1

At three-twenty-nine, the New Orleans high school campus was still and quiet in the sultry, subtropical climate. The sun-bleached white pavilion was in stark contrast to the lush greenery of palmetto bushes, bamboo palms, ficus, sheffalera plants, and thick St. Augustine grass that spread across the lawn. Not a sound could be heard anywhere. The live oak trees, dripping with Spanish moss, enhanced the overall calming silence and punctuated the oppressive humidity.

This period was a more tranquil and relaxed time…different than most people remember. It was a time before Columbine, before Facebook, before everyone had a cell phone or iPad. There were no campus security guards or checkpoints. Metal detectors and search dogs were a futuristic idea. There were no unauthorized search and seizures. The twin towers were still intact and Congress hadn’t signed The Patriot Act. Hurricane Katrina, one of the costliest and deadliest storms ever to hit the United States, wouldn’t smash the city to bits for another fifteen years.

It was a time when New Orleans was a thriving, bustling city with more than a million residents. The levees protected the people, their homes and businesses from the mighty Mississippi River’s routine flooding as it had done since colonial times. It was a time when people felt safe.

It was a boom period when millions of visitors came to New Orleans for the sole purpose of "laissez les bon temps rouler," let the good times roll. During the annual Carnival celebrations, that’s exactly what they did. ‘Carnival’ was a time to eat, drink, and celebrate life with music, friends, and good food. The city streets, filled with colorful parades and floats, marching bands, and vendors selling their exotic wares, buzzed with animated laughter and drunken antics. Intoxicated women flashed their boobs and drunken men laughed raucously while they threw colorful beads at the display. Numerous venues around town hosted enchanting balls and other holiday celebrations. All these festivities led up to Mardi Gras or ‘Fat Tuesday.’ After the merriment of wild revelry, parties, and feasts, Lent or fasting began.

Now, only a moment later, a bell rang inside the wide school halls, and within seconds, the triple-doors burst open, shattering the heavy stillness much like fine crystal shatters against a marble mantel. The noise was deafening as students poured outside onto the flat porch, stairs, and lawn. A few minutes later, Alec Winters raced down the front steps two at a time with Chaz Lambert, a good friend, close behind him.

Alec, a sixteen-year-old junior, skillfully avoided the throng of student groups gathered around the school’s entrance. His athletic ability and style was truly graceful, almost elegant, as he deftly dodged and sidestepped the excited, chattering crowds. It was one of the main reasons Coach Taylor, the varsity football coach, had his eye on him. As a freshman and junior varsity quarterback, Alec had never been sacked. He weaved, dodged, and swayed as if his moves were choreographed. The other players couldn’t get a hand on him. He’d make a fine starting quarterback, probably their best chance ever for a winning season and a chance at the 1992 state title.

“Hiya Alec,” a group of giggly teenage girls harmoniously called out as soon as they saw him. Some twirled their highlighted hair around a finger and grinned, others swayed their hips suggestively in an attempt to attract his attention. One, Danaé Chisholm, managed to get close enough to whisper in his ear, “I’m exactly right for you, Alec.” She pressed a small handwritten note into his palm. It repeated the message and included her phone number. Danaé held a hand to her ear imitating a telephone and mouthed, “Call me.”

Surprised by her forwardness, and just a bit overwhelmed by strange, appealing pheromones emanating from Danaé, Alec still didn’t miss a beat. He brushed off the illusive and fleeting attraction that attempted to draw him in. After nodding a quick, polite response to the group, the tall, clean-cut, sandy-haired teenager turned away. The more distance he put between Danaé and himself, the less he noticed her mysterious pull. He handed the note off to Chaz with a bemused grin.

“I think this must be for you.”

“Danaé wants you, not me,” Chaz emphasized as he wadded the note and dropped it into a strategically placed trashcan. “They all want you, but she has the courage to make it obvious. We’ve known each other since middle school, Alec, and it’s always the same story. The girls want you. ‘Call me; call me. Pick me, Alec,’” Chaz teased in a high singsong voice. He bumped his shoulder into his friend to stress the point. “They can’t grasp the fact that you’re already taken, my man.”

It wasn’t an assumption that all the girls wanted Alec. They did…and everyone knew it. He was the most popular student on campus. Not only was he incredibly appealing to the eyes, he was the next Bobby Hebert or Archie Manning. The girls dreamed of riding on his arm all the way to the National Football League.

Alec’s startling blue eyes searched the swarm of students for the only face he cared to see in the bustling crowd—Sabrina Devereux. She wasn’t part of the various well-liked and fashionable cliques, but she wasn’t into that scene and didn’t let it bother her. She was too studious and focused on her goals for that foolishness. She sat alone on one of the two large, square pedestals at the base of the porch. Alec slowed slightly, and reaching out, gently squeezed her elbow as he passed by.

Sabrina looked up briefly, flashed a dazzling smile before adding the usual self-assured response, “Take your time with Catalina. When you get back, I’ll be in the bleachers. Chaz will keep me company and then he’ll walk me over to the field.” Alec smiled in response and continued on his way.

Chaz, a slender blond-haired sophomore, had known Sabrina since they were toddlers. The Lamberts and Devereux’s had known each other socially for decades. They went to the same church and arranged for their children to play together. Chaz and Sabrina, both only children, had even gone to kindergarten together at Catholic school. It was a long-standing friendship.

Once Alec reached the sidewalk and was clear of most of the other students, he quickly covered the six city blocks to the nearby middle school.

When he first began to walk his younger sister to and from school, he was nine years old and she was five. It had since become their routine. They depended on each other. He laughed softly as he thought about the early days. When Cat, short for Catalina, was in kindergarten, she had tearfully clung to his hand, fearful of the new schedule and being away from home. However, by the second week of each new school year, she had grown more confident and was eager to get inside with classmates to begin the day.

At the beginning of middle school, which at that time was fourth through sixth grades, she began to shake off his protective hand and indignantly chided, “I’m not a baby, Alec.” Then, as she surreptitiously looked around the schoolyard, she whispered, “I like for you to hold my hand, but just not all the way to the front door, ok.” Knowing that independence would carry her far, Alec had chuckled at Cat’s grab for self-reliance. With parents such as Buck and Cassidy Winters, he knew she would need all the freedom and fortitude she could gather.

“Well, what about junior high school?” he had jokingly asked. “You won’t need me anymore by the time you get to seventh grade, will you?”

“Oh,” Cat had gasped as a hand fluttered to her throat, “of course I will need you. I’ll always need you, Alec. You’re my big brother!”

Now, as he neared his sister’s school, he could see Catalina sitting on the lowest step. Her long, naturally wavy, white-blonde hair caught dazzling rays from the sun, and for a moment, it looked as if a halo encircled her head. She waited patiently for Alec’s arrival.

She’s so tiny, Alec silently thought as he watched Cat sitting there alone.

An overwhelming wave of tenderness washed over him. Most of the other students, even those in lower grades, were much taller and larger than his petite twelve-year-old sister was. She was barely four feet ten inches tall and weighed about eighty pounds. The gentle affection he felt for her quickly turned to empathy. Cat had it much tougher than he’d had it at her age. When she needed a mother’s love the most, she hadn’t received the daily nurturing and maternal care he’d gotten from their mother.

It certainly had nothing to do with Catalina, he silently surmised.

She was a great kid and deserved better. She also needed more care and affection than he was able to provide alone. However, when he was younger, Cassidy was different. Then, she had been a good mother, always putting her children first. Alec knew that somewhere, along the path of life, that had changed and it saddened him.

Logically, Alec knew very well that his mother’s current condition was beyond anyone’s control. Nothing he or Catalina did could stir her from the dazed state that had crept up on all of them. She had simply slipped away. He knew he couldn’t force her to change, to awaken—not until she was ready anyway. He understood that people don’t and can’t change until they’re willing to do so.

Chapter 2

Alec was born and reared in the city of New Orleans. Often called more colorful, exotic names—Nawlins, the Big Easy, Crescent City, Mardi Gras City, and the Birthplace of Jazz—each name described an aspect of the famous French-Cajun city since its establishment in 1718. Crescent City became a popular nickname when the French Quarter expanded, following the natural curve or crescent shape of the Mississippi River.

New Orleans was certainly resilient—a city that kept crawling back for more no matter how the odds were stacked against it. Ever since the Hurricane of 1947, which had claimed fifty-one innocent lives, the Crescent City and its residents pushed on. By 1971, the below sea level city had been hit by five additional major storms, the worst of which was Betsy in 1965. Hurricane Betsy claimed seventy-five lives. Faced with life-threatening dangers again and again, the residents of New Orleans had somehow managed to stay alive, to dig themselves out of the rubble, and once again rebuild their city.

Alec’s mother, Cassidy, owned a home on Carrollton Avenue. She had inherited the large two-story from her parents, Martin and Jazibella Saguache. The residence had been passed down for more than five generations in the Saguache family. The surname, pronounced Suh-watch, meant ‘blue earth or blue water’ and each family member had indeed inherited startling blue eyes. The Saguache eyes were as blue as the Caribbean Sea, as blue as a cloudless sky. It was their most defining and striking feature.

During Alec’s younger years, Cassidy was gentle and kind, but after the long, endless days of marriage to Buck Winters, she’d changed. Her husband had effectively hidden his raunchy, carousing lifestyle for the first seven years of their marriage. After Catalina was born, he felt confident that Cassidy would never leave him. He intrinsically knew that his prudish wife would never choose to be a single mother with two young children in the dog-eat-dog city of New Orleans. He knew she would never leave the family home either.

Buck was right about that, Cassidy felt trapped. Nevertheless, it was more than that. She grew disillusioned and disheartened. Her life had not progressed the way she’d thought it would and she was truly miserable. If the truth was known about the situation, she had never wanted to marry Buck Winters. In fact, Cassidy had fallen in love with Zach Weaver during high school and had dreamed of a happily-married life with him. However, when push came to shove, she hardly had a say in the matter.

Even though Martin and Jazibella Saguache had never gone into ancestral or biological details about their objection to Zack, they forbid the union. Her parents had merely insisted that their daughter marry Buck Winters. According to both of them, he was a perfect match—if she wanted to have a family and children. Cassidy definitely wanted to have children, but because her parents were secretive and mysterious, the importance and significance of a ‘perfect match’ was lost on her.

In the beginning, Cassidy had welcomed Buck into her bed. Although he was a tall and powerful man with a good job, there was something else appealing about him, something that she couldn’t quite define. He possessed a charisma that drew her in. Even after all this time, she still couldn’t name the attraction but she suspected it was sensory…a smell, a scent of some kind that she had once found appealing and attractive, almost irresistible.

In all reality, it was a cosmic mating call that Cassidy would never understand because her parents hadn’t shared the information with her. They failed to explain the genetic implications or that the Saguache line had to continue no matter what the cost. Unfortunately, whatever the attraction to Buck, it didn’t last long. It was gone as soon as she became pregnant with Catalina.

After that, Buck revealed his true nature. He had a penchant for too much drink and too many women. He no longer sought out his wife to fulfill his sexual needs. Without the ‘matrimonial-glue’ that normally binds a couple together, he became cold and hostile. He no longer showed any care or concern for her or the children either. Cassidy felt trapped in a loveless marriage.

Each time Buck betrayed her, and he cheated on her often, another piece of her joy died. Cassidy had become a little more cynical and a little more resentful about her circumstances. She was certain that marriage to Zack Weaver would’ve resulted in a happier life. She blamed her parents for the misery she suffered and never forgave them before their deaths.

Once, Cassidy had seen the possibilities in life and the beauty in everything. She had encouraged her children from a metaphysical perspective, quoting many simple, yet profound, philosophies from great teachers. Alec remembered his mother had often said that ‘everything is exactly as it’s supposed to be.’

At one time, she had faith that everything was connected; everything was perfect. She believed that gratitude was the key to true happiness. Eventually, with no way out of the loveless marriage to Buck, she couldn’t find anything for which she felt grateful. Alec wasn’t a fool; he saw the damage done by both his parents. Now, he wasn’t sure that his mother had faith in anything anymore. In fact, he wasn’t sure what she believed.

Cassidy’s early principles of faith weren’t commonly accepted in the staunch Catholic bible-toting population of New Orleans. Many of the good Christian folk in the area shunned the young mother. They agreed with her hedonistic husband who ridiculed her for such foolish beliefs. He called her faith ‘pathetic.’ He often told her she was ‘grasping at straws.’

Eventually, outnumbered, worn down, and isolated, she observed the shambles of her life only to lose any remaining faith. Cassidy reasoned that, without the ability to create effective change, life was pointless. Without faith, she began to deteriorate physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Life isn’t always likened to slipping on a banana peel and falling to the ground. Sometimes, it is a long, scary slide to the deepest regions of despair. Such was the case for Cassidy. Now, she was a blackout drunk, lying on the sofa in a complete stupor, unaware of the condition of her surroundings and blind to the fact that her family was falling apart. Their home life had drastically changed.

Cat missed the very best of our mother and it isn’t fair, Alec thought.

It wasn’t fair to any of them, but most of all it wasn’t fair to Catalina—she deserved so much better.

Chapter 3

“Are you ready, Cat?” Alec called out as the rest of the students scrambled onto the idling school buses. She didn’t answer, but she held out a tiny hand to her big brother. He took it, tugging her gently to her feet.

“Hold on, Mr. Winters,” a teacher called out to him. “I’d like a word with you.” Mrs. Anders approached quickly and turned to face him. “I’d like to know what is going on with Catalina. Has something happened at home to upset her or make her sad? Is there something we need to know?”

“Why, Mrs. Anders, I’m certain I don’t know what you mean,” Alec thoughtfully and cautiously replied. Mrs. Anders was a familiar face, one he knew from his time in this same middle school. In addition, she was often seen at school function with her husband who taught high school math. Although he knew she was a busybody, he couldn’t imagine why she had focused on Cat so early into the school year. He was at a loss for words as his eyes flickered over Catalina. He could only wonder about the reason his sister was distressed, especially at school. “She’s normally a very happy, well-adjusted little girl. I’m at a loss…an utter loss,” he stammered.

“Catalina was crying in the girls’ bathroom today. Pardon me, but that doesn’t sound as if she is very happy. Has anything happened at home to upset her?” Mrs. Anders, wanting sordid details, rephrased the initial question. “Is there family troubles?”

Alec looked closely at his sister, wondering what could have happened to cause her to cry at school. His parents often argued loudly. Threats of divorce often punctuated their disagreements. Alec had always reassured Cat that Buck and Cassidy would never divorce. He had explained that divorce was taboo and forbidden in the Catholic Church. Still, perhaps she had overheard something that caused her to worry unnecessarily.

Catalina looked down at her feet and didn’t add anything to the conversation. Alec bent down, looking closely at her angelic face, and asked, “Cat, did something happen at home to worry you?” She remained silent. “Did something happen at school today? Did someone hurt your feelings?” He gently rearranged strands of hair that partially hid her features. She only shrugged and continued to stare at her shoes. At a loss, Alec reassured the teacher, “I’m unaware of anything unusual or different in our home, especially something that would cause Cat’s unhappiness at school, but I will certainly talk to her in private, Mrs. Anders.”

“We want all of our students to feel safe here,” Mrs. Anders continued. “Children do their best work when there is a safe environment at home and at school. If something is causing pain or confusion, we’d like to help. If you discover anything, anything at all, please let me know.” Her chastising voice and concerned gaze followed the tall, athletic male and his smaller young sister all the way to the sidewalk.

Together, Alec and Cat walked towards the next major intersection to wait for the Carrollton Avenue trolley. Alec, towering over her, pointed at their shadows, “We look like Mutt and Jeff,” he teased. Even though the reference to the oldest, continuous running comic had always amused her before, Catalina didn’t acknowledge or laugh at the joke. Alec sighed deeply. “Other than crying in the bathroom, how was your day?” he asked, knowing he was the only one who would show any interest in Cat’s feeling, emotions, and activities.

“It was all right,” she slowly responded before eagerly adding, “Art class was great. We painted today. Although I’d rather sketch, it was still fun. I always love art, but you know that.” Cat, a gifted artist, even at her age, had already forgotten about Mrs. Anders’ inquiry. She was once again cheerful. Still, Alec couldn’t let it slide.

“Did someone hurt your feelings today or pick on you?” he asked. The excitement in her eyes died down as she looked up at her brother with a quizzical gaze, ignoring his question the same as she had refused to acknowledge the teacher’s concerns.

“Do you really have to go back for practice, Alec?” Cat’s voice, a near whisper and barely audible, turned the attention back to him.

“You know I do, Cat. First, football practice and then an evening shift at the grocery store. It’s the same schedule we’ve kept for the last several years and we’ll probably keep it until I graduate.”

“Oh, I can’t bear the thought of you leaving, Alec,” Cat cried out as she threw thin arms around her brother’s waist in a spontaneous show of love and affection.

“Then, don’t fret about it until it actually happens,” he teased as he softly patted her slender shoulders and then playfully mussed her shimmering hair.

“Are you studying with Sabrina tonight?” she queried. The question was innocent but filled with worry and alarm. He knew she dreaded the time alone with their parents before she even voiced it, but he couldn’t assume the depths of her angst and despair.

“I’ll be home around nine tonight. Promise,” Alec vowed.

“But,” she pleaded, trying one more time. With a catch in her throat, she stammered, “But…but I hate to go home without you. You know how it is. Mama will be asleep on the couch. Daddy always gets home before you do. He’s always in a bad mood and drunk. He frightens me, Alec…he hurts me.” The last part of her protest was muffled because Catalina had both hands over her face to hide her unwarranted shame.

“What did you say, Cat?”

“Nothing, nothing at all!” she stormed as she stamped a foot in frustration. “It doesn’t matter anyway,” she sobbed. “Just, please, Alec…don’t make me go home alone.”

“Is that why you were crying at school?” he asked in frustration. “Do you hate being at home so much that you were upset even before the day ended?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she angrily shouted. “You don’t get it! Nothing really matters anyway. Just forget about it, Alec. Nothing changes and it’s always the same. I hate my life! I hate mother and I hate daddy even more!”

Overwhelmed by her emotional eruption, Alec wasn’t equipped to deal with either Catalina’s or his own spiraling feelings. Strange emotions instantly forced their way to the surface, but only a teenager himself, he was ill-equipped to handle them. He certainly understood the disillusionment that Cat felt toward their parents. He had felt it all too often himself. Although he commiserated with her about all of it, he wasn’t sure what to do about her outburst.

He responded in the only way he knew how; he soothed and cajoled in an attempt to support his sister’s feelings, “Ah, boo; I’m sorry. I know it’s a dull routine, but there isn’t any reason for you to feel so dramatic about your life.”

“Don’t talk down to me,” Cat warned.

“I’ll always talk down to you…I’ll always be taller,” Alec joked. “All I’m trying to say is that it’s a pretty good life overall.” No response. “You know this is the way we have to do things, Cat. You’re a big girl now,” Alec tried to calm her. In response, Catalina snatched her hand from his and defiantly crossed her arms over her chest. She refused to say anything that would alleviate her brother’s concern. “Come on,” he worried as he reached to take her hand again. “I don’t have time to get into this right now. Coach will tear me a new one for being late to practice. We’ll talk about it when I get home tonight, all right?”

“You’re always too busy,” she bitterly complained as she jerked her hand from his again and twisted away from him in anger.

“Come on, Cat, we have to catch the streetcar. Even if you look like Mutt, you’ll soon be a teenager,” he teased, trying to brush the nagging worry aside. She didn’t laugh so he continued with even more impractical and inane suggestions, “Besides, the trolley drops you off directly in front of the house. Go upstairs and do your homework. Put on your headphones and get out your sketchpad. If they argue, turn the music up to drown them out,” he coaxed. “Stay in your room. Stay out of the way and avoid both of them. You can do it. Do you want anything in particular from the deli? I can bring food home when I get off work. How does a chocolate brownie sound, hmm?”

Cat only nodded. She was angry and scared, but she knew that any further pleas were useless. She didn’t argue or beg anymore. It never did any good anyway. She knew her brother was popular and had a busy life. She didn’t want to interfere with it; she loved him too much to cause him pain. She looked up at Alec one last time. Her aquamarine eyes filled with tears and then overflowed down delicate, pale cheeks. Determined to be the ‘big girl’ her brother thought her to be, Cat hastily wiped away the liquid betrayal.

Alec kissed the top of his sister’s white-blonde head before lifting her slight body onto the top step of the streetcar. A coin clattered through the fare mechanism and the door closed. He could still see her grief-stricken face as the trolley pulled away. The sadness she experienced tugged relentlessly at his heartstrings.

She’ll be all right, he silently affirmed, forcing himself to believe it. The statement became a mantra as he jogged back to his school. The words, she’ll be all right, she’ll be all right, rhythmically kept time with the pounding of his feet on the pavement. Before the trolley made its final turn, he was in the gym ready to suit-up. Soon, the streetcar passed through the Garden District, dropped Cat off at their Carrollton Avenue home, and then, headed downtown.

Cat was out of sight, but not out of mind. Mrs. Anders words bothered Alec. Cat’s tear-streaked face haunted him too. Still, he recognized his own helplessness about the situation. He didn’t know what to do or what to say to alleviate her fears or the dread that seemed to bubble up in his stomach.

Chapter 4

By the time the forty-odd players ran out on the practice field, Sabrina was comfortably perched in the bleachers. She was reading a book, but looked up the moment the team exited the gym. Alec waved to her. With a flutter of butterflies in her stomach, she waved back. Sabrina, filled with admiration for her boyfriend’s athletic agility, kept her eyes focused on Alec during the practice game.

Chaz occasionally glanced at Sabrina as she watched Alec but he didn’t say anything. He was comfortable sitting beside his second best friend and watching the action. Almost as tall as Alec, Chaz was on the slender side. When he was encouraged to join in some type of sports during junior high, Chaz had laughed, saying, “Look at these hands…they’re the hands of a surgeon. Why would I risk injury to my life’s goal for a little glory now?”

“All right, Winters,” Coach Taylor called out as he loudly clapped his beefy hands together, “let’s see what you’ve got.” When that didn’t get the team’s full attention, he whistled shrilly. “Let’s go, let’s go! Get out on the field. Daylight is wasting. Hustle! Get those asses moving, girls!”

After the hour-long scrimmage, Coach Taylor stood with his arm around Assistant Coach Baird’s neck. Pulling Baird’s head closer, Taylor hissed in his ear, “Didn’t I tell you that bastard has an arm!” he excitedly boasted.

“Yeah, he’s got one helluva arm,” Baird nodded agreement. “I haven’t seen anyone any better, but you’ve been grooming him for a couple of years. He should have a good, strong arm.”

“I haven’t given him any special treatment or training,” Taylor boisterously objected. “He’s a natural. I just taught him to focus.”

“What I like best about young Winters is that no one can touch him,” Baird conceded. “He maneuvers himself without effort. He’s so athletic and nimble he could play any sport. He actually reminds me of Ali…‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ should be his new mantra. He seems unstoppable!”

“Yep. He’s all of that and more,” Taylor proudly agreed.

“Aren’t you worried about starting a junior? You’re going to stir-up a serious shit-storm with the senior players and their sideline parents. You know that, right?”

Taylor ignored the question and any worries brought on by the team’s competitive nature. He’d already held off for a year and now the time was right. His prize quarterback would make it all worth any crap received from faculty, control-crazy parents, or the team. A wide grin spread over his jubilant face, “Yep, we’re going to have a winning season! I can feel it!”

“It’s about damn time!” Baird agreed.

In the meantime, Alec showered, changed clothes, and then hurried outside to find Sabrina. Chaz waited with her just outside the gym. Eager to spend time with each other, Alec and Sabrina slowly walked arm-in-arm to her well-maintained home on Carondelet Street. Chaz lived a few blocks down and he followed closely behind them. Alec looked over his shoulder at Chaz and waved him forward to join them.

“Come on, Chaz. We’re all friends here,” Alec cajoled, encouraging him to keep up with them.

Together, the three continued the rest of the way. After a lingering sweet goodbye kiss and a promise to return as soon as he could, Alec waved goodbye. Then he turned around and sprinted the entire distance to his part-time job at Lang’s Market and Deli. Chaz stood with Sabrina while she lovingly watched Alec’s retreat. He silently admired her exquisite beauty and her loyalty to his friend.

“Alec’s a lucky guy, Sabrina. You really love him, don’t you?” he asked, but it was more of a statement. At her quizzical expression he informed, “It’s written all over your face.”

“Is it really?” she asked with her cheeks blushing a little as she looked into Chaz’s hazel-green eyes. He ducked his head, slightly embarrassed. The movement caused his straight blond hair to fall forward hiding his chiseled features.

“F’sho,” he chuckled, easily voicing the dialect of their home city in an attempt to cover the self-consciousness he suddenly felt.

“Yes, I really do love him,” Sabrina softly admitted. “I’ve never felt more whole than when Alec is with me. I could get lost in his eyes…it’s as if an entire, unknown universe is there waiting to be explored.”

“Still,” Chaz added. “We’re all really just babies compared to our parents and the educators around us. Do you think what you feel for him will remain true after he’s off to LSU?”

“Yes, of course it will,” Sabrina defensively replied.

“I’m just saying…Alec will be at college playing college football, surrounded by a slew of new college girls,” he emphasized each word slowly to make his point. “All those college hotties will be vying for his attention while we’ll still have one more year of high school. You’ve seen the way the girls crowd him each day. The girls at LSU will be prettier and more persistent.”

“Of course I’ll still love him and I trust him,” she heatedly confirmed, deflecting Chaz’s comments. “Why wouldn’t I? You’re just trying to make me jealous, aren’t you?”

“Uh, well, uh, no. I’m not trying to make you jealous and I’m not saying you won’t still love him,” Chaz stuttered as he crawfished away from the topic. From her reaction, he wished he had skirted it altogether. “I don’t know…it just seems that life changes for everyone after they reach the crowning apex of high school. Quite a few high school sweethearts drift apart and go their separate ways after graduation.”

“Some make it,” Sabrina testily argued. “Look at Coach Grayson and his wife. They’re still in love.”

“Yes, but they met in college, not high school,” Chaz set the record straight.

“All right, Chaz. I’ll play along…Do you believe that you will still attend medical school after you graduate?” Sabrina implored. Without waiting for a response, she continued, “The desire to be a surgeon is something you feel now. Will it carry you through an undergraduate program at Tulane and then four additional years of medical school, not to mention those long years of residency? Will you still feel the same, Chaz?”

“That’s different,” he hastily objected with a bit of irritation. “That’s a career choice, a life plan. It’s a goal that I’ve had for a very long time. You know that. It’s your plan too.”

“That’s true, but is it really that different?” she chided. “It’s also true that everyone has dreams and plans for their lives that aren’t always realized. Something as simple as high school can get in our way…not to mention a thousand other things that can happen. However, I expect that I will always love Alec. I also believe that you and I will follow through with our medical career aspirations regardless of any unforeseen challenges.”

“Brains and beauty,” Chaz grudgingly admired. “You have a way of cutting to the core of any topic, Sabrina.”

When Alec was out of sight, Chaz followed Sabrina inside to her bedroom. There, they set out an armload of books and commenced to study together. This long-standing, mutually beneficial relationship was appropriate since Chaz and Sabrina took the same advanced classes and had the same goals for their future.

Moreover, Chaz liked being at Sabrina’s home. There, her parents made him feel comfortable and welcome. It wasn’t the same for him at his own home. Both of his parents were doctors, and with their busy practices, he rarely saw them. Sadie, the live-in housekeeper and previous nanny, was the only family he had waiting for him each evening.

Chapter 5

They won the 1992 State Championship that year and the full and satisfying routine that filled Alec’s junior year continued throughout his final year of school. Hope of winning the 1993 State Championship was also a good bet with Alec leading the team. Other than recruiters who attempted to steal him away from LSU, little changed during his senior year. Each game brought at least one of four recruiters from the top ten NCAA College Football teams to watch him play football and win. Most often, it was a recruiter from Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, or Florida State. On occasion, Oregon showed up. Each one was there to keep an eye on him and assess his talents.

“It’s only smooth sailing now, Alec,” Coach Taylor assured him.

It was true. Now, as a senior, Alec felt more confident than ever about his future. The talks with LSU were in the final stages and the scholarship package offered was better than he could’ve imagined. Coach Taylor had made sure Alec played a recruitable position and it had paid off handsomely. He’d have a full ride to the college of his choice. Moreover, Baton Rouge was only eighty miles away. It was certainly close enough to visit his family and Sabrina as often as he liked. For Alec, that was the critical selling point.

On this particular evening, Alec once again walked Sabrina home. Chaz followed at a modest distance to allow them some privacy, but as usual, Alec waved him forward to join them. Chaz was always happy about being included, however, he was anxious to get on with their studies.

“I’ll see you after work,” Alec promised as he tenderly kissed Sabrina goodbye.

“Take your time,” she agreed. “Spend some extra time with Cat…she needs you Alec. You’re practically both mother and father to her. You should have dinner with your sister tonight.”

“You’re right. That’s a great idea and I’ll do it, but I’ll be back as quickly as I can,” Alec promised before kissing Sabrina once more. Chaz kicked at imaginary debris on the sidewalk, waiting patiently for the couples evening ritual to end.

“Great,” Chaz commented with only a tiny bit of ire even though Sabrina shot him a cross glare. “What?” Chaz exhaled, looking surprised at her reprimand. “That gives us a few more minutes to study for this massive chemistry exam. This new teacher is kicking our butts.”

“Oh, and Alec,” Sabrina added, “If you need the entire evening with Cat, that’s fine too. Chaz and I will study until ten o’clock, but I have to be in bed by eleven. I have to be up extra early tomorrow to get everything ready for Mother’s birthday. I love you. If I miss you tonight, know how happy I’ll be to see you tomorrow.”

Business at the market was unusually slow that evening. There was very little for Alec to do. In all reality, he would rather stay busy while working. It didn’t matter to him whether he bagged groceries, stocked shelves, swept and mopped aisles, or did any other number of odd jobs at the family owned grocery. He simply liked to work and keep his body moving.

The simple tasks kept his mind occupied and held the normal worries about his sister and mother at bay. It kept him from thinking too much about the problems at home. Cat’s unidentified fears and Cassidy’s unrelenting lethargy worried him often. Overall, the busy-work calmed him.

Knowledge that the grocery store had been in operation for four generations gave Alec a sense of permanence and belonging. It was something he really needed. He’d often felt different, as if he didn’t quite fit in or belong, as if he was born during the wrong era. Places and things that had been around for a long time seemed to balance the scales and even out those unsteady emotions.

Intellectually, he knew that the feelings of being different were normal teenage-angst. Catalina, now thirteen, was going through that troubling time also and he sympathized with her. It was rare for any adolescent to feel a true connection because each was still trying to figure things out and find his or her way. Alec realized that the years between thirteen and nineteen were often both scary and exciting. They certainly were for him. He also understood that those who did associate with like-minded friends or beliefs would tenaciously cling to their group throughout high school and on into adulthood. It provided a much-needed safety net for them.

Still, the longevity of his workplace was an added bonus. It was the same with the home on Carrollton Avenue. It had been in his family for more than five generations. How much more, he wasn’t sure. He only knew it was a safe haven for his family, or was it. Cat’s fearful expression loomed in the back of his mind. Her tear-streaked face ripped the ideal of happy home to shreds. Within seconds, the notion was gone.

Such an ideal of happy home was an illusion anyway, he bitterly acknowledged.

Alec recalled that the crying and objections about being home alone with their parents had started the previous year and continued into the current year. Cat had even put away her drawing supplies as if the art she’d once loved no longer gave her any joy. Feeling overwhelmed, and that there wasn’t anything he could do anyway, Alec had ignored all of it. Even now, unsure how to process the emotions he felt when he thought about his sister’s unhappiness, he shoved the images and the guilt away. Although it still percolated on the back burner of his mind, Alec forced himself to concentrate on the more pleasant thoughts of Sabrina.

My God, but she’s beautiful, Alec silently acknowledged as he shelved a box of canned soup and allowed Sabrina to take over his thoughts. I can’t imagine a more enjoyable life than one where I’m wrapped in her welcoming and loving arms every night.

Alec had first met Sabrina when the freshmen of several area middle schools converged into one central high school where he was already a sophomore. Sabrina had attended Catholic school until the end of eighth grade, and even though she’d been friends with Chaz through church and other neighborhood affiliations, Alec had never met her.

Even at fourteen years of age, Sabrina was the epitome of a desirable French-Cajun beauty with dark hair, olive eyes, and a creamy, flawless complexion. She was five feet eight inches tall with a slender, yoga body. She fit into his arms perfectly, and while holding her close, he always felt as if he was the luckiest person alive. The combination of her confidence, intellect, and appearance was exceptional. In fact, she was the entire package, and as such, she intimidated both male and female students alike.

She is too beautiful, Alec silently realized.

Her beauty caused girls to hate her and boys to feel as if they didn’t have a chance with her. She had acquired the nickname of ‘tutu’ because she was too smart, too beautiful, too much. Because of her positive attributes, Sabrina didn’t fit in either. Alec shared that bond with her as well. The feelings of exclusion and separation from the other students had bound their hearts even more closely together.

As far as he was concerned, she was miles ahead of the other female students who threw themselves in his path, begging to be his girl. Alec wasn’t blind. He knew they wanted him to choose one of them. However, from the day he first met Sabrina, he’d only had eyes for her. A fleeting glimpse of Danaé popped into his mind, but he easily brushed the unbidden thought aside.

When he’d first seen Sabrina, he’d felt an overwhelming desire to take her arm and to look into her eyes. Instead, the thought of talking to her made him feel shy and awkward which was unusual for his natural self-assuredness. A slight blush had crept up his face as he tried to gather the courage to introduce himself. He wrestled with the idea while she took the initiative.

“You’re Alec Winters. My good friend Chaz Lambert talks about you all the time. I think you’d like to walk me home today,” she’d said with a smile as she unflinchingly gazed into his clear blue eyes. He walked her home after practice that day and the connection between them felt instant.

They talked too long and time raced by making him late for his shift at the grocery store. To him, it felt as if he could talk to her for hours on end. Silences were never empty with Sabrina. Somehow, the conversation continued on some other plane as if their hearts already knew the story. They were inseparable and in love from that moment on.

No one thought their love would last, not even Chaz. They were on divergent paths for the future. Well-meaning parents and school advisors cautioned that young love couldn’t last, that it burned too brightly and quickly, but they were wrong. The love Alec and Sabrina shared was committed; their bond was enduring and everlasting. They were completely, utterly in love. More importantly, they shared a ‘first love.’

First love, that first experience of sharing heart and soul with another, is the strongest. The heart is fresh and open to possibilities. The soul is eager to intertwine. The flame of first love is the brightest and most intense. Nothing can ever compare to it. Never having felt the sting of disappointment or betrayal, first love has its own energy and beauty…a magical quality that can’t be dampened, dispelled, or discredited. Alec knew that Sabrina was the one for him. He was ever aware that she was all he’d ever want or desire in a woman.

As the woman of his dreams, Alec had their immediate future carefully planned out. He’d spent countless hours planning a life that would benefit each of them. He’d attend LSU while Sabrina went to Tulane. After graduation from college, he’d get a good job while she continued medical school. They’d marry and have their own home, living anywhere she wanted. It was a great plan. One that kept his mind occupied while working part time at Lang’s Market.

“Hey Alec!” Johnson, the store manager called out. The booming voice startled him out of the reverie. “Quit daydreaming about that pretty little girlfriend and pack up dinner for the family. It’s nearly closing time, but it’s slow tonight and I need to get out of here a few minutes early. My wife has plans for this big, beautiful brown body of mine.” Johnson chuckled softly before adding, “It’s our anniversary.”

Alec selected small deli items that he knew Cat would enjoy and packed up half a stroganoff for his own dinner. He boxed two brownies separately to complete the meal. He knew that Cassidy wouldn’t eat anything and that his dad often ate at the bar or drank his dinner. There was no need to pack anything for either of them. Although Alec usually had something to eat at Sabrina’s home, tonight he’d have dinner with Cat. Then, if that didn’t take too long, he’d visit Sabrina before she went to bed at eleven.

It was a good plan, and he was satisfied with it, but the well-worn routine unwittingly had become a rut. Same old, same old wouldn’t cut it anymore. The quarterback of life’s big game was about to change Alec’s life forever.

Chapter 6

Fully expecting his parents to be asleep, Alec was eager to spend quality time with Catalina. Dinner with his sister was long overdue and he was grateful to Sabrina for suggesting it. As he hurried home, he carried a plastic bag of boxed food from the deli. The handles were looped over his right arm and he kept it balanced as he sprinted down Carrollton Avenue. The sooner he fulfilled that obligation to Cat, the sooner he could head to Sabrina’s home, hopefully to spend at least an hour with her. However, only half a block away, he was shocked to hear the wild commotion going on inside the solidly built manor. It was unusual for the sound of any voices to be heard outside.

Now, the shrillness of an argument trickled out onto the front stoop, growing louder the closer he got. Nosy neighbors, standing outside on their lawns, listened intently. It seemed every person’s eye was trained on the Saguache home. Some simply stared and muttered unintelligible comments while others looked up at Catalina’s bedroom window. He knew something was terribly wrong before he ever entered the two-story home.

“What the hell!” he gasped as he opened the front door. The shopping bag slipped off his arm, the Styrofoam containers burst, and the food spilled out onto the floor. Alec cursed again under his breath, but he paid no attention to the self-made mess. Instead, he quickly searched the room, taking in everything. No one was there to explain. All the noise came from upstairs, from his sister’s bedroom.

On this particular night, their father had come home drunk again. Rather than stumble to the master bedroom to watch television or collapse in a recliner until he passed out, Buck Winters had gone to Catalina’s room. Once inside, Alec could distinctly hear the unpleasant ruckus of Cat’s shrill crying and Buck’s slurred threats. The sound of his sister’s hysterical screams chilled his blood.

“What the hell is he doing to her!” he stormed again as he swiftly took in the scene downstairs.

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