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The Break
Author:Ruth Cardello

The Break by Ruth Cardello

(D): stays with Dereck after the divorce

(S): stays with Stephanie after the divorce

A note to my readers What is a water bear?

Water bear bugs (a.k.a. tardigrades) are microscopic eight-legged creatures that live in water and are said to be able to survive even an extinction-level event. They could survive not only without water for thirty years but also in the vacuum of space. They are popular enough in some circles that people sell plush-toy replicas of them.

I may have to give one to my children this holiday season, just to see their expressions when I do. Water bears—so ugly they’re cute.

Chapter One

Rachelle Westerly stopped halfway down a long corridor lined with closed doors. When her brother Eric had said his London home was large enough for her to stay as long as she wanted without it bothering him, she’d thought he was being kind. No, he’d been serious. In the week since Rachelle had arrived, she’d seen him once. His house staff, large and efficient as it was, could never quite tell her his location.

Having grown up in a modest suburban home outside Boston, Rachelle didn’t know what to think of the majestic seventy-plus-bedroom English estate. Is this what I’d be used to if I had gone with Dad? When her parents divorced, the three youngest children had remained with their mother, who had raised them on a frugal nurse’s salary and taught them the importance of clipping coupons. They’d never been hungry, but they’d all worked and contributed to the family’s budget because their mother considered money the root of all evil. It was—according to her mother—what had torn the family apart.

If this is hell, it has a remarkable number of antiques.

And staff.

Years of teaching first grade had honed Rachelle’s ability to link faces with names. Not much crushed a child more than forgetting his or her name. Still, Eric had such a large staff that she wondered if anyone knew all of them. Some cleaned, some cooked, some tended to the gardens, while others maintained the vehicles or the buildings. There were several pool cleaners, a security team, and Reggie, the full-time electrician who had given Rachelle a tour of which parts of the estate were not currently safe.

Who has a house so large parts of it are unsafe to venture into?

Movie stars.

When Rachelle had asked Eric about those areas, he’d said renovations were the norm for any estate from the 1800s. Homes that were once built and owned by royalty were now often sold off to “commoners” because the cost of maintaining them was staggering.

“Then why own one?” Rachelle had asked.

Eric had shrugged and said, “It seemed a shame to let nature reclaim it. Besides, it’s not like I can’t afford it. You could as well if you asked Dad for your inheritance.”

“Don’t you mean our grandmother?”

Eric had shuddered. “There’s not enough money in the world to make asking Delinda for anything worth it. You don’t have to go through her to get to your inheritance. Just ask Dad for a loan. There’s nothing he likes more than writing a check. It’s what he does best.”

“Is that how you pay for all this?” Rachelle had asked. Getting to know her brother was why she’d come.

“I wish. No, I pay for it with my privacy and my dignity.”

The pain she’d seen in his eyes had validated what she’d sensed as she’d spoken to him at their brother Brett’s wedding when she’d found Eric standing off to one side—alone. He might have always been able to afford anything he wanted, but it hadn’t made him happy. It saddened Rachelle to realize that the fame Eric had found on the big screen hadn’t, either.

Her family teased her for always wanting to mother-hen them, but she couldn’t help it. She worried about people. Every child who had ever occupied a chair in her classroom had left with a piece of her heart. She remembered a veteran teacher once telling her she’d need to toughen up or she’d never make it as a teacher. She hadn’t even tried. If caring too much was wrong, she’d never be right.

Unfortunately, that pretty much described how her life had been going lately. She was having difficulty reconciling how she’d always seen herself with how she’d behaved lately. She used to describe herself as caring, honest, confident.

Recently, if she was honest with herself, the woman in the mirror looked scared and clingy. When her brother Spencer had found out his biological father was their mother’s second husband from an affair she’d had while still married to her first husband, all hell had broken loose in her family. She’d tried to contain the damage, but her efforts had only made it worse, and she’d ended up hurting the very people she loved. Although apologies had been made and forgiveness had been granted, the experience had left Rachelle shaken.

Every time her mother had stumbled, Rachelle had been there to help pick her up. After the divorce, Rachelle had cared for her youngest sister, Nicolette, and Spencer. When Mark, her mother’s second husband, had gotten ill, Rachelle had helped care for him as well. She’d picked up the parenting slack as much as she could, and she’d never resented the added responsibility. She thought that’s what people did when they loved their family.

Somehow it had been too much. Like coming here?

But how could I pretend I didn’t see the yearning in Eric? He wants to find his way back to us.

Right now I’d be happy to find my way back to my room.

Or the main foyer.

The corridor dead-ended at a large double door. Rachelle tried to open it, but it was locked. She jostled it again, more out of frustration than because she thought it might suddenly open.

“Are you lost again?” Reggie asked from behind her.

Rachelle spun around. He reminded her of Lurch from The Addams Family, but younger. Tall. Pale. Jet-black hair. She guessed he was not much older than she was—in his early thirties, perhaps. He was American, so Rachelle felt somewhat of an affinity for him, but he was also quite odd. “I thought I saw Eric come this way.”

“Unlikely. This wing isn’t currently in use, as repairs are scheduled. I’ll show you back to your suite.”

Rachelle nodded and stepped away from the door. “Do you know where Eric is? I tried to call him, but he never answers his phone.”

“He’s a busy man. As am I.” He turned and began walking away.

Rachelle quickened her pace to keep up. His title might be electrician, but there seemed to be more to his role. “The thing is—his premiere is tonight, and I wanted to wish him luck.”

“You won’t be attending?”

“I wasn’t invited.” Rachelle groaned at how pathetic that sounded. She hadn’t meant for it to.

Reggie paused and scanned her face. “Would you like to go?”

Rachelle could have lied. Her pride would have preferred that option, but of all the staff, Reggie was the only one who seemed willing to talk to her. The rest scuttled away as if speaking with her put their jobs at risk. “I would, but if Eric wanted me there, he would have asked me to go.”

“You’re here without an invitation, and he seems okay with that. You should go to the premiere.”

Her pride bruised a bit. Falling into step beside him, Rachelle said, “Eric invited me. He said I could stay as long as I want.”

“And how long will you be staying?”

“I haven’t decided.” She frowned. I don’t have to explain myself. And why would an electrician care?

Because he knows the truth. He was there when I arrived and saw Eric’s initial reaction as clearly as I did. Eric didn’t expect me to take him up on his offer. He hurried to assure me I was welcome, but he doesn’t really want me here.

Maybe anyone else would go home, but I can’t. Not yet.