The Passing Storm by Christine Nolfi

Chapter 1

He never worked during school hours. Yet there he was inside the bustling craft emporium, stocking shelves near the front.

Snow whirled through the air, a battering of cold pinpricks on her cheeks. Wiping away the dampness, Rae took hesitant steps toward the shop and peered through the display window. A dark pulse of grief pierced her deeply. Why wasn’t he at the high school with the other kids? What right did he have to disregard their unspoken agreement, by putting in hours at noon on a Tuesday?

Rae avoided the shop whenever he worked. Saturdays too, if he was on the schedule. Her office was only three doors down on Chardon Square, and Rae missed the spontaneous stop-ins she’d once taken for granted—especially now, when she needed her closest friend as a bulwark against the sorrow. But she didn’t have a better solution to avoid running into Quinn Galecki, other than ensuring they were never in Yuna’s Craft Emporium at the same time.

Under normal circumstances, she wouldn’t have dropped by this early in the day. Between the art classes and Yuna’s current flash sale, the place was particularly busy.

The emporium on the corner of Chardon Square was a treasure chest for the craft enthusiast. Shelves brimmed with bottles of paint and jars of beads for jewelry making. Bolts of fabric vibrated with color as if to steal attention from the tubs of silk flowers displayed in the shop. Near the back of the store, a group of toddlers in plastic smocks and their mothers—in easy-wipe, vinyl aprons—were seated at a long table, finger painting. Older customers looked on, smiling at the tots or winking at their mothers. A happy scene, as warm and welcoming as sunlight.

Rae shivered in the cold air. Don’t go inside.

Follow the impulse to confront Quinn, and she’d cause a scene. She couldn’t trust herself to remain civil if they came face-to-face. On the other hand, Quinn’s latest stunt at her property had gone too far. Snooping around the barn, leaving his little art project behind—at seventeen, he was old enough to have some consideration for other people’s feelings. And criminal trespass laws, in general.

No, Rae. Just leave.

Stepping out of view, she leaned against the building’s icy brick. Quinn retrieved the last of the merchandise from the box at his feet. For a boy nearing manhood, he was too thin, his features too soft. He worked with careful movements, clearly intent on doing a good job. When his extraordinary, long-lashed gaze swept across the colorful yarn he’d arranged on the shelf, a surge of unwanted sympathy welled inside Rae.

Walk away. Come back later. Talk to Yuna after his shift ends.

Cars wound around the square, their tires kicking up snow. Rae’s Honda Civic was parked near the Witt Agency, where she’d been lucky to find a spot. She ought to walk back down and climb into the car. Drive home to her father, who assumed she’d taken the entire day off from her job as Witt’s office manager. Or call him and explain she’d decided to put in the afternoon at the insurance agency. Bury herself in work to force Quinn from her thoughts.

Good choices, both. Either way, she wouldn’t act on an impulse she knew she’d regret.

As Rae tried to get her feet moving away from the building—and without her conscious approval—her hand dipped into her coat pocket. To brush against the flower’s soft silk petals. Heartache surged through her too quickly to fend off. When it passed, she inhaled sharply.

A flash of anger carried her to the shop’s door.

Since it was January in northeast Ohio—and a blustery, snowy January at that—a blast of frigid air rushed in behind her. Bursts of snow scattered across two startled women near the display window. Quinn, not far behind them, dropped the empty box he’d just hefted into his arms.

Stepping around it, Rae approached. “I want you to stop,” she told him, too loud. Several customers turned around, glaring, and she pretended not to notice. “This morning’s stunt was way over the line.”

Pausing, she gave him room to apologize. Or at least explain himself, if genuine regret was a bridge too far. He was a teenager—kids often chose pride over an admission of wrongdoing.

When he remained silent, frustration bit at her. So did the withering look of a silver-haired matron by a display case of macramé projects. Busybody. The altercation was none of her business.

Even so, Rae lowered her voice to an urgent hiss. “Quinn, really—it has to stop. I get that you mean no harm, but . . . it’s too much. Do you understand? My dad is getting up there in years, and he’s angry every time he finds more footprints near our house. You’re upsetting him. And I mean a lot.” The trespassing upset her too, which was beside the point. She didn’t have twice-yearly appointments with a cardiologist or take statins.

“I’m sorry.” Quinn threw his gaze on his feet. “I didn’t think it was a big deal.”

“Well, it is. A major deal, and it’s hurtful. Can’t you respect other people’s privacy? You can’t roam at will over our property. Or traipse through my barn uninvited.” Rae cut off, startled. Threads of color bled into Quinn’s cheeks, a clear sign of remorse. The reaction stirred the pity she didn’t want to feel. “Why aren’t you in school?” she demanded.

“We didn’t have classes today.”

A teacher in-service day? Presumably a truthful statement.

The silver-haired busybody lobbed another glance. “Why don’t you leave him alone? He’s apologized for going in your barn—as if that’s the crime of the century. And he’s not obligated to tell you if he has school today or not.”

The dressing-down injured Rae’s pride. A predictable outcome. Her pride often lost against her more impulsive nature. She was out of line, confronting Quinn like this.

A voice came from behind—her bestie’s.

Today Yuna Onaga-Fraser wore orange Converse high tops and metallic leggings beneath a purple T-shirt. The busy mother and wife of Chardon’s mayor could outshine a peacock.

“Rae, what are you discussing with my employee?” she asked pointedly.

“Nothing. I’m done. I’ve had my say.”

“About what, I’m sure I don’t want to know.” Dousing the rising tension, Yuna stepped between them. “Quinn, are you all right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Why don’t you run down to the coffee shop and grab something to eat? It’s lunchtime—you must be starving. Here.” She pressed cash into his hand.


When he bolted out the door, the busybody grunted. “The boy was minding his own business when Miss High-and-Mighty stormed in.”

Rae blinked. “I resent that.”

Yuna blocked her view of the woman. “Let’s all calm down, shall we? Rae, why don’t we talk in the back?”

Yuna gave a look that needed no interpretation. The bonds of affection only stretched so far. Argue with customers in your best friend’s craft emporium, and those bonds might snap.

Taking the cue, Rae marched past the people in line at the cash register and the table of happy tots to the stockroom.

A shipment of boxes crowded the stockroom’s aisle. Farther back, Yuna’s desk hid beneath stacks of paperwork. Although February was fast approaching, the bulletin board held a collection of Christmas drawings made by Yuna’s five-year-old daughter. Kameko’s list for Santa, a jumbled scrawl of wishes, was tacked nearby.

Scanning the child’s handiwork, Rae suffered a pang of guilt. Yuna carried enough burdens. Between work, parenting, and marriage, she juggled more than her share. She didn’t need theatrics in her store—or more fallout from the grief dominating Rae’s life.

The dull ache in Rae’s chest had become a constant. The sleepless nights and the surges of anger—the storms of the heart came without warning. They came without providing answers to the questions that battered her in a drumbeat of pain. Yet they didn’t justify confronting Quinn inside the shop. She should’ve found a better way to resolve the matter.

Yuna seated herself in the office chair. “I thought you and Quinn had an understanding—you’d stay out of the shop whenever he works.” She began swiveling, left and right.

“I didn’t know he was working today. I came by to talk to you. It’s important.”

“What’s the crisis?”

“I found more footprints in the snow.”

“Why, because you were hunting for them? If you want to trudge around in ten-degree weather, take up skiing.”

Rae folded her arms. “You’re supposed to be on my side.” A debatable point since Yuna refused to take sides, which hurt. “I wish you’d take this seriously.”

“I can’t. It’s stupid. You’re not a hound dog. Tracking footprints across your property has become an obsession.”

“Hardly,” Rae protested, “and this set is new. I found them today, in the backyard. That’s not all I found, after I brought Dad home from his doctor appointment.”

“You don’t have a backyard. You own a forty-acre farm that’s going to seed. Why not put the place on the market? Get the house ready to show next month. List in March.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not selling my house.”

“Your farm,” Yuna said. “One of my neighbors is planning to sell her bungalow. Three bedrooms, with a yard that doesn’t require a tractor to mow. There’s a nice fireplace in the living room. And a fabulous kitchen, in case you or your dad ever learn to cook.”

The suggestion of change was unwelcome. Rae had experienced too many shocks, too much loss. For months she’d been walking on shifting sands. Longer, if she was honest. Since the last of her teen years, when she’d learned to keep secrets. Throughout her twenties, when those secrets led to unforeseen complications. And now, into the dark, incomprehensible decade of her thirties.

With agitated movements, she unbuttoned her coat. “Mind telling me what’s up with the hard sell?” But she didn’t remove the garment—the conversation’s unexpected turn made her wonder if she should go. “I’m not here to discuss real estate.”

“Who gave you the right to set the agenda for all our crazy talks? They happen constantly, in case you haven’t noticed.” Yuna paused in her swiveling to cast a pointed look. “Give it some thought, Rae. If you move into town, we’ll be neighbors. You can bug me in the evenings. After I’ve finished my workday and tucked Kameko into bed.”

“You know I can’t move.”

“No, I don’t. It’s a free country.” With irritation, Yuna shook the black silk of her hair. The glossy strands danced across her shoulders. “You can live wherever you want.”

“Dad has owned the property since before I was born.” Asking him to leave was out of the question. The dense forest and the rolling acres were etched with memories—for both of them. Only one of those memories was too ghastly to revisit. The rest were sweet and good, and Rae couldn’t bear to leave them behind.

“Your father will adapt. You both will.”

Heartache tightened Rae’s throat. “Stop changing the subject.” Her anger flared, a protective shield. She was safe behind it. “Can we get back on point? Quinn’s getting careless with the trespassing. Or bold.”

“Quinn has lots of interesting qualities. ‘Bold’ isn’t one of them.”

“You may want to revise your opinion.” Rae dug into her coat pocket. “I found this.”

She withdrew a silk daisy like the ones on sale in the front of the store. Artistic flourishes had transformed the silk flower. Gold paint rimmed the petals. Glitter frosted the leaves. Glass beads were strung down the plastic stem. The beads rattled as she shook the offensive object before handing it over.

Yuna twirled the stem between her fingertips. “Give the kid credit. He does nice work.”

“His talent is beside the point. I found it inside the barn.”

“Wait. Since when does Quinn sneak into the barn?”

Uncertainty washed Rae’s stomach with acid. She didn’t check the barn regularly. This morning she’d only walked through after finding Quinn’s footprints near the building.

“You’re not sure if he’s gone inside before today?” Yuna pressed.

“I’m not. He doesn’t have to worry about expanding his reconnaissance—or startling animals in the barn. We sold them off right after the White Hurricane.”

The famous blizzard sixteen years ago remained a grim footnote in Geauga County’s history. The unprecedented winter storm was a harrowing experience for everyone who lived through it. For Rae and her father, the White Hurricane was especially tragic—the first in a series of events to irrevocably change their lives.

Yuna’s brows lifted. “Where was the flower?”

“Tied with florist’s wire to one of the stalls. There’s so much junk in the barn, it would’ve been easy to miss. Quinn must’ve stopped at my place before coming in to work for you.”

“He didn’t have school today.”

“So I gathered, from our brief conversation. I left the house early with Dad. We were gone for hours. I’m sure Quinn assumed I’d never notice the flower. Well, he was wrong.” Pausing, she lifted her accusing gaze. “Hit me with the truth, girlfriend. Are you encouraging him?”

“Of course not!”

“Are you sure? Because I want him to stop inserting himself into my life. I get that he’s coming onto my property because he has a lot to sort out. Too much, for a kid his age. He has lousy parents, the kind too selfish to help steer him through the loss. I get that, Yuna—I do. But I can’t make it my problem.”

“C’mon, Rae. You’re blowing this out of proportion.”

The bright sting of tears stopped Rae from readying a defense. Better than most people, she knew just how awful Quinn’s parents were—once, she’d had the misfortune of crossing the Galeckis’ path. Ironically, she’d been the same age Quinn was now, a naive kid without the experience to understand the danger she’d put herself in.

“I see it differently,” she tossed back, aware that she couldn’t justify her actions without telling Yuna about that night. Which will never happen. I’ll never discuss it with anyone. Frustrated, she added, “Doesn’t Quinn have anything better to do with his free time?”

“We both agree Quinn isn’t a bad kid. He’s a seventeen-year-old who’s been through too much. Does it matter if he walks around the barn?”

“It matters to me—and to my dad. He’s retired and spends too much time worrying about the . . . reconnaissance. At least that’s how he sees it. If he catches the kid trespassing, he’ll blow a fuse. He’s not Quinn’s number one fan.”

“Maybe Connor needs to recharge his social life. Whatever happened to his geriatric homeboys? He hardly sees them anymore. At least you have diversions—working too many hours and driving me to distraction. On weekends, you both spend too much time cooped up in the house.”

Rae bristled. It was bad enough that Quinn worked part-time at the shop. A definite breach of her friendship with Yuna, although the reason for the act of charity was obvious. Yuna had given Quinn the job last November, a few weeks after his unnerving questioning by the PD. The officers had kept him on the hot seat for hours before releasing him—a grueling ordeal for any kid.

Under normal circumstances, Yuna’s charitable instincts were great. Rae also believed in fighting for the underdog. The two women had first grown close while volunteering at Chardon’s food bank, nearly a decade ago. The following year, they’d sealed their friendship by cochairing the committee tasked with expanding the local Meals on Wheels program for seniors.

The Galecki boy was different. Not only because of the startling facts Rae continued to resist. Not only due to the PD’s report, which she’d tossed into a forgotten drawer. Quinn was off-limits. The reasons were complicated, with roots deep in a seedbed of shame too dreadful to share.

A frigid silence overtook the stockroom. Rae wasn’t sure how to break it.

Yuna said, “Tell me what to do to make you feel better. Name it. I’ll do whatever you’d like.”

The comment broke through Rae’s muddled thoughts. Moisture collected at the corners of her eyes. She felt vulnerable and confused. The combination blurred her vision as the office chair groaned to a halt.

Yuna came to her feet. “Should I have a heart-to-heart with Quinn?” On tiptoe, she studied Rae closely. “Persuade him to stop trespassing on your property? It’ll open the door to a conversation I don’t want to have with him. He’s not ready to talk about it, and I’m not either. I’m hurting too, you know.”

“I know.”

“I’m his employer, not the village priest. It’ll weird him out if I meddle in his private life.”

Rae took a swipe at her watery nose. “Get real,” she muttered, hating the way she fell apart without warning. Her eyes were leaky too, spilling hot rivulets down her face. “Quinn doesn’t have a private life. He has school, part-time work, and a future of breaking and entering. He’s getting lots of practice, sneaking around my place.”

“Stop complaining—and hold still.” Yuna was a head shorter, but her maternal instincts were on full display. With soothing movements, she wiped the tears away. When she finished, she asked, “What’s the verdict? How do you want me to handle this with Quinn?”

Distracted, Rae combed her fingers through the tumbling lengths of her reddish-gold hair. Did she really want her bestie to have a heart-to-heart with the kid? It didn’t seem like a great solution.

As if there were a great solution on offer. There wasn’t.

“Don’t you own a hairbrush?” Yuna asked. With a sudden grin, she twirled a hank of Rae’s hair. “Let’s schedule an intervention at my salon. Bring smelling salts for my stylist.” She wagged the long strands, drawing a howl of protest. “After we revive her, she’ll make you look fabulous.”

Rae swatted her away. “What’s your next suggestion? A fashion overhaul, like metallic leggings on my oak-tree legs? Girlfriend, you’re crazy.”

“No, I’m the sugar to your spice. That’s why you love me.” Yuna’s expression grew impish. “Do you want ice cream?”

“It’s January. Ice cream is a warm-weather treat,” Rae said, aware she was being peevish. At home she kept tubs stashed in the freezer. Her father loved banana splits year-round. She peered at the lunch area, a cubbyhole arrangement where Yuna stashed goodies for her staff. “Do you have hot chocolate?” she asked.

“Dixon’s has brownies. We’ll add a scoop of vanilla on top.”

“Like I need a double dose of sugar.”

“One dessert—we’ll share. Fewer calories, less guilt.”

“Forget the fairy wings. You’re evil. You know that, right?”

Yuna shrugged. “Should we have Dixon’s heat up the brownie?”

Chocolate was Rae’s downfall. As was Dixon’s, the wine and dessert café on the opposite side of Chardon Square.

Sensing victory, Yuna nodded at the door that led to the alley behind the building. “Let’s make a run for it. Leave my staff out front to deal with the customers.”

Rae sighed. A quick snack—with or without ice cream—wasn’t the worst idea.