The Redemption of Lillie Rourke

By: Loree Lough
CHAPTER ONE

RAIN SHEETED DOWN the grimy window and puddled on the blacktop, and a dozen identical buses lined up in angled parking slots.

Lillie watched as grim-faced passengers boarded, a few pulling wheeled suitcases, others hauling overstuffed backpacks. As they jockeyed for overhead bins, the scent of damp wool and denim filled the space. And, she realized, someone was eating a tuna sandwich. She hoped its owner would finish it soon, because inhaling the fishy odor wouldn’t make the four-hour trip any easier.

“Are you saving this seat for someone?”

Lillie’s gaze traveled from the man’s haggard face to his frayed sweatshirt and holey jeans. Something told her he hadn’t paid top dollar for the distressed look. The passengers waiting in line behind him seemed equally interested in her answer, so Lillie gathered up her jacket and purse.

“Don’t worry,” he said, settling in beside her. “I don’t bite.”

“That’s good to know.”

His right forefinger aimed at the straps of the backpack nestled in her lap. “I don’t steal either, so…”

She relaxed her grip, but only a bit.

“Going all the way to Florida?”

“No.” As the driver buckled himself in, she slid the backpack to the floor. “Only as far as Baltimore.”

“Ah. A surprise Mother’s Day visit, huh?”

Lillie nodded, watching the driver adjust his rearview mirror, fire up the motor and close the door. It had been dumb luck that she’d get home in time to celebrate the day with her mom. She’d missed the annual cookout last year, thanks to Rising Sun’s strict don’t-leave-the-grounds policy. And in all honesty, she hadn’t been fully present the year before that, thanks to—

“My mom moved to Orlando couple years back. That’s where I’m headed.”

Another nod. Perhaps her nonanswers would send a not interested in talking message.

But he said, “Don’t mind admitting, I’m not looking forward to it.”

Lillie knew the feeling.

“Because last time I saw her, I was falling-down drunk.” He winced, then hung his head. “I apologized. Promised I’d quit. But that look on her face…”

The look that said “I don’t believe you.” Lillie cringed, remembering it on her parents’ faces. Her siblings’. Worse yet, on Jase’s handsome face.

Her seatmate sighed in frustration. Or maybe it was regret.

“That’s what finally convinced me to sign into rehab—that look, I mean—and what kept me clean these past two years.”

A recovering addict, going home to make amends, and to prove that he’d kicked the habit, once and for all.

Just like you, Lill. Except that he’d been sober a whole year longer than she had.

Of all the empty seats on this bus, why had he chosen the one beside her?

He held out a hand. “Gabe Sheffield.”

“Lillie Rourke,” she said, taking it.

She’d learned in rehab that to truly come to terms with drug or alcohol dependence, addicts had to admit their own culpability in the addiction. Lillie had managed to take full responsibility with the staff at Rising Sun, but wasn’t at all sure she could pull it off with the people she’d hurt.

For one thing, her parents and siblings would have questions, and so would Jase. She owed them straightforward answers. What better way to practice dealing with the ugly facts than by confessing them with someone she’d never see again?

“I was in rehab, too.”

“Yeah?” He studied her face. “You could have fooled me.”

“Why?”

“You don’t look desperate, or like you have something to prove.”

During her final group therapy session, that was exactly what a fellow patient feared most. Until that moment, she hadn’t given it a thought. Funny, because she felt both right now.

“Sixteen months ago,” she continued, “I signed myself into Rising Sun. It was a really intense time.”

“How long?”

“Seven weeks.”

Gabe’s brow furrowed as he considered her words. “You beat the addiction in less than the normal amount of time?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Rising Sun, huh? Isn’t that the place where movie stars go?”

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