Home > Well Met (Well Met #1)

Well Met (Well Met #1)
Author: Jen DeLuca

 One

I didn’t choose the wench life. The wench life chose me.

When I pulled into the parking lot of Willow Creek High School on that late-spring morning, I had very little on my agenda. No doctor’s appointments for my big sister, no school obligations to shuttle my niece to. The only thing I needed to do was get my niece to the sign-ups for the Renaissance faire. We were five minutes late, so it was going great so far.

Caitlin huffed from the back seat as I threw my little white Jeep in park. “Em, we’re late!” She managed to stretch both my name and that last word out into at least three syllables. “What if they don’t let me sign up? All my friends are doing this, and if I can’t, I’ll—”

“They’ll let you sign up.” But of course she was out before I’d even unbuckled my seat belt. I wasn’t going to call her back. I didn’t have that kind of authority over her. At barely ten years older, I was more a big sister than an aunt. When I’d first come to stay with my older sister and her daughter, April had tried to get Cait to call me “Aunt Emily,” but that was only a short hop away from Auntie Em and Kansas jokes so we’d abandoned it quickly. My relationship with the kid had settled into more of a friendship with overtures of Adult In Charge.

This morning, Adult In Charge was kicking in. No way was I leaving a fourteen-year-old by herself in a strange situation, even if it was her high school. I grabbed my coffee mug from the cup holder and started after her. She couldn’t have gone far.

My cell phone rang from inside my purse when I was halfway across the parking lot. I fished it out and kept walking.

“Did you find it okay?”

“Yeah, we’re good. Hopefully this won’t take too long.”

“Oh, God, you don’t have to stay.” April sounded slightly horrified by the prospect. “You just need to drop her off and come back home.”

I held my breath and tried to analyze her tone through the crappy cell phone connection. The past few days had been rough as she’d started weaning off the pain medication. “Everything okay?” I tried to sound as casual as possible. “Do you need me to come home?”

“No . . .” Her voice trailed off, and I stopped walking and listened harder.

“April?”

“No, no, Emily. I’m fine. I’m right where you left me, on the couch with coffee and the remote. I don’t want you to feel like you have to . . .”

“It’s fine. Really. Isn’t this why I’m here, to help you out?”

Another pause. Another sigh. “Yeah. Okay . . .” I practically heard her shrug. “I feel bad. I should be doing this stuff.”

“Well, you can’t.” I tried to sound as cheerful as I could. “Not for another couple months at least, remember? Doctor’s orders. Besides, this ‘stuff’ is what I’m here for, right?”

“Yeah.” A tremble in her voice now, which I blamed on the Percocet. I’d be glad when she was off that shit for good. It made her weepy.

“Drink your coffee, find something awful on television, okay? I’ll make lunch for us when we get home.”

I hung up, shoved my phone back in my purse, and once again cursed out the driver who had run the red light that night. A vision of April’s SUV popped into my head, that twisted lump of silver metal at the junkyard, and I pushed it aside. Caitlin had been asleep in the back seat, and somehow she’d walked away with nothing more than some bruises and a sprained ankle.

My sister hadn’t been so lucky. Mom had stayed with her while she was in the ICU, and by the time April was home from the hospital a week later I’d moved in, so Mom could go home to Dad in Indiana. My older sister needed a caregiver for a while, and my niece needed an Adult In Charge who was mobile, so I was here to stay.

As for me . . . I needed a change. A couple weeks before the accident I’d lost not only my boyfriend and my apartment, but all my plans for the future. Willow Creek, Maryland, was as good a place as any to lick my wounds while I took care of April and hers. Smack in the middle of wine country, this area was all rolling green hills dotted with small towns like this one, with its charming downtown storefronts and friendly people. Though I hadn’t seen any willows yet and as far as I could tell there weren’t any creeks, so the name remained a mystery.

I picked up the pace and pushed through the double doors, finally catching up with Caitlin outside the high school auditorium. She didn’t look back at me, running down the aisle instead to join a handful of kids roughly her age clustered in front of the stage, getting forms from a guy with a clipboard. The auditorium was filled with clumps of kids embracing like long-lost relatives who hadn’t seen each other in years, even though they’d probably sat next to each other in class the day before. There were adults around too, sprinkled here and there, but I couldn’t tell if they were chaperones or participants. Then one of the adults turned around and his black T-shirt said HUZZAH! across the front in huge white letters, and I had my answer.

I took a long sip of coffee and sank into a chair in the back row. My job as taxi service was done. I checked the time on my phone. One hour until I needed to be back to pick her up, which wasn’t enough time to go home. Willow Creek was a small town, but April lived on one end of it and the high school was on the outskirts at the other. I pulled up my list-making app. I’d picked up refills of April’s meds the previous day, and this Renaissance faire tryout was the only other thing on my list. Was there anything else I needed to get done while I was on this side of town?

“Are you here to volunteer?”

One of the adults I’d spotted before—cute, blond, shortish, and roundish—had splintered off and now hovered at the end of the row where I was sitting. Before I could answer she took a form off her clipboard and pushed it into my hands.

“Here. You can go ahead and fill this out.”

“What? Me?” I stared at the form as though it were printed in Cyrillic. “Oh. No. I’m just here to drop off my niece.” I nodded toward the group of kids at the front.

“Which one’s your . . .” She looked down the aisle. “Oh, Caitlin, right? You must be Emily.”

My eyes widened. “Yeah. Good call. I keep forgetting how small this town is.” I’d come here from Boston, and had grown up outside of Indianapolis. Small towns weren’t my thing.

She laughed and waved it off. “You’ll get used to it, trust me. I’m Stacey, by the way. And I’m afraid you kind of have to volunteer.” She indicated the form still in my hand. “It’s a requirement if a younger student wants to be part of the Faire cast. Anyone under sixteen needs a parent or guardian in the cast with them. I think April was planning to volunteer with her, but . . .” Her sentence trailed off, and she punctuated it with an awkward shrug.

“Yeah.” I looked down at the form. “You can’t call it volunteering, then, can you? Sounds more like strong-arming.” But I looked over at Cait, already chatting with her friends, holding her own form like it was a golden ticket. I read through the form. Six weeks of Saturday rehearsals starting in June, then six more weekends from mid-July through the end of August. I was already playing chauffeur for Caitlin all spring and summer anyway . . .

Before I could say anything else, the double doors behind me opened with a bang. I whirled in my seat to see a man striding through like he was walking into an old-west saloon. He was . . . delicious. No other way to describe him. Tall, blond, muscled, with a great head of hair and a tight T-shirt. Gaston crossed with Captain America, with a generic yet mesmerizing handsomeness.

“Mitch!” Stacey greeted him like an old friend. Which he undoubtedly was. These people probably all went to this high school together back in the day. “Mitch, come over here and tell Emily that she wants to do Faire.”

He scoffed as though the question were the stupidest one he’d ever heard. “Of course she wants to do Faire! Why else would she be here?”

I pointed down the aisle to Cait. “I’m really just the taxi.”

Mitch peered at my niece, then turned back to me. “Oh, you’re Emily. The aunt, right? Your sister’s the one who was in the crash? How’s she doing?”

I blinked. Goddamn small towns. “Good. She’s . . . um . . . good.” My sister hated gossip in all forms, so I made sure not to contribute any information that could get around.

“Good. Yeah, glad to hear it.” He looked solemn for a moment or two, then brushed it aside, jovial smile back on his face. “Anyway. You should hang around, join the insanity. I mean, it’s lots of work, but it’s fun. You’ll love it.” With that, he was gone, sauntering his way down the aisle, fist-bumping kids as he went.

I watched him walk away for a second, because, damn, could he fill out a pair of jeans, both front and back. Then what he said registered with me. “I’ll love it?” I turned back to Stacey the volunteer. “He doesn’t know me. How does he know what I’ll love?”

“If it helps . . .” She leaned forward conspiratorially, and I couldn’t help but respond with a lean of my own. “He carries a pretty big sword during Faire. And wears a kilt.”

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