Home > Last One Home (New Beginnings #1)

Last One Home (New Beginnings #1)
Author: Debbie Macomber

Prologue

Summer had always been ten-year-old Cassie’s favorite time of year. Larson Park, just down the street from her house, was the neighborhood play yard where her sisters and kids from the block gathered in the cool of the evening. The most popular after-dinner game was hide-and-seek, and the huge chestnut tree in the center of the park was their home base.

“Olly olly oxen free,” twelve-year-old Karen called out. Cassie’s older sister was it, and she was good.

Cassie struggled to hide her giggles. She’d gotten good at hiding—no one knew of her secret place inside a huge bush that grew low to the ground. The day had been blistering hot, but a cool breeze set the leaves to whispering. When she closed her eyes, Cassie could hear the trees singing to one another.

Cassie was just small enough to squeeze in between the thick branches of the bush and hunker down out of sight. She held perfectly still as crickets chirped in the background. The scent of the freshly mowed lawn nearly caused her to sneeze, which would have ruined everything. The best part about her hiding spot was that she was able to peer out between the greenery and watch when Karen left the chestnut tree.

Fun and games with her two sisters and friends was a perfect ending to what was probably the best day of Cassie’s entire life. Earlier that afternoon a big truck had parked outside their house with a delivery. It was the piano Cassie had dreamed about ever since she started taking lessons two years earlier. Recently Mrs. Schneider, her teacher, had encouraged her parents to invest in a piano.

According to the teacher, Cassie had musical talent. She loved to sit at the piano, fascinated by the sound each key made and what happened in her head when she heard a song on the radio. Mrs. Schneider claimed Cassie had been born with a musical ear. Cassie wasn’t quite sure what that meant and thought it might be her ability to hear a song and then find the keys to play it all on her own without looking at sheet music.

Unfortunately, the only place she’d had to practice was at the old upright in the school gymnasium. The piano was available after school and at no other time. Mrs. Schneider was certain Cassie would excel if she had access to a piano of her own. But pianos were expensive and her mother had sadly explained that the family couldn’t afford to take on that big of an expense.

Her dad, however, had overruled her mother. He insisted that they would find a way to pay for a piano, and he had. He’d found a rent-to-own program and vowed to squeeze the twenty-five dollars a month out of their already tight budget.

When the delivery men rolled the piano into the house, Cassie could barely contain her joy. She’d sat and played until it was dinnertime and her mother made her quit because it was her turn to set the table.

It was hard to tear herself away from the piano for their nightly games, but the house was hot and the cool night air beckoned her. Cassie’s parents sat in the center of the gazebo her father had built, drinking coffee and keeping an eye on the park.

Their nightly game of hide-and-seek involved nearly the entire neighborhood. They could play until it was dark and the porch light went on at the house. That was their signal it was time to come home and get ready for bed.

Cassie squirmed, certain she was about to sneeze. A loud clap of thunder shook the sky. Heat lightning wasn’t uncommon this time of year.

“Olly olly oxen free,” Karen cried out again.

Cassie saw several of her neighborhood friends dash for the tree. Seeing that the coast was clear, Cassie left her secret spot and was on her feet and running. Right away Karen spied her and was after her, chasing her with a determination that nearly caused Cassie to stumble. If she made it to the chestnut tree before Karen could tag her, she’d be safe.

Zigzagging across the lawn, Cassie twisted and turned in an effort to avoid her sister’s outstretched arm. By the time she was close to the tree she was breathless. From the corner of her eye, Cassie saw her youngest sister, Nichole, emerge from her own hiding place behind a bench and run for the tree as well. She tried to hurry and reach it first.

Cassie nearly made it, but Karen was too quick for her. Just before she lunged forward to touch the tree, Karen slapped her shoulder. Cassie had been caught.

The three sisters sprawled onto the grass, gazing up at the darkening sky. Holding on to their stomachs, they panted and laughed. Up and down the streets porch lights were coming on one by one. Soon their neighborhood friends headed off into the dusk until only Karen, Nichole, and Cassie were left under the big chestnut tree.

Cassie’s heart swelled with happiness in the glow of her one perfect day. It spilled out into a huge grin as she stretched out her arms to either side of her and touched her sisters, wanting to share this joy with them.

Their father stood in the gazebo and called, and all three girls leaped up. Karen shouted, “Last one home is it.” Both Karen and Nichole got a head start, but Cassie was right behind.

Chapter 1

The impossibly thin woman sitting next to Cassie Carter in the King County Courthouse in Seattle trembled like an oak leaf in a storm. When the judge entered the courtroom and they were asked to rise, Maureen could barely manage to get to her feet. Cassie wrapped her arm around the other woman’s waist and helped her to stand upright. Maureen was skin and bone, so thin Cassie could feel her ribs. She’d been that thin once herself. Like Maureen, she had been beaten down, battered, and emotionally broken.

“You’re doing great,” Cassie whispered. She understood all too well what courage it took for Maureen to testify against her husband. Cassie had sat in a similar courtroom in Florida, only she’d sat alone. Duke, her husband, had glared at her as she’d slowly walked toward the witness stand, his dark eyes filled with hatred. Eyes that said he would kill her if he got the chance.

He nearly had.

They’d been married only a few months when Duke hit her the first time. He’d had a few beers with friends and come home and found Cassie didn’t yet have dinner ready. To show her how displeased he was, he’d slapped her. Cassie had been stunned. Her father had never laid a hand on her mother or her, nor her two sisters. Horrified, she’d pressed her hand to her cheek, hardly knowing what to think.

That was the first of many such slaps. Afterward he was sorry. He felt horrible that he could do anything to hurt the woman he loved beyond life itself. He’d cover his face and weep, begging her forgiveness. The irony of it was that she, the one who’d been hurt, would rationalize his anger and comfort him. Shocking, really, when she thought about it. Duke hit her and she was the one who apologized.

As the years progressed, the slaps turned to slugs and the slugs into beatings. During the last beating she’d seen that very look in his eyes, the same one he gave her the day she stood in a Florida courtroom.

The look that said her days were numbered. She would pay for what she’d done.

That final time, as Duke’s fists pounded down on her, Cassie had been terrified by the cold hate in her husband’s eyes. Duke would not stop until he killed her. It was as clear as the writing on a highway billboard. In that breathless moment, Cassie knew beyond a doubt that she was about to die. She lost consciousness briefly, and when she came to again she heard him rifling through the kitchen drawers. She knew he was searching for a knife.

Carried by adrenaline, numb with fear, she managed to escape into her daughter’s bedroom and blocked the door by tilting a chair beneath the knob. She grabbed seven-year-old Amiee and fled out the window.

She didn’t take her purse or her identification or any money. And she had no friends, no resources. Just her daughter and the clothes on her back.

Cassie hadn’t needed anything else. The one precious thing that had come out of her marriage had been her daughter. Fleeing to a women’s shelter, Cassie was given housing and assistance. Duke was arrested and sentenced to a six-month jail term.

Cassie had taken those months to put her life together. And to try to make her way back to the good life she’d left behind. The hardest part hadn’t even been leaving Duke after all—it was that she didn’t have her family’s support. She was on her own, without her parents, without her sisters. She had to do it alone, and so she had.

“What if the judge doesn’t believe me?” Maureen whispered, her voice trembling to the point that her words were barely discernible.

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