The arguing had gone on most of the night. In her room just three doors down the hall from her parents' master suite, Abby had been able to hear the sound of raised voices, but not the words. It wasn't the first time they'd fought recently, yet this time something felt different. The noisy exchange itself and fretting about it kept her awake most of the night.
Until she walked downstairs just after dawn and saw suitcases in the front hallway, Abby hoped she'd only imagined the difference, that the knot of dread that had formed in her stomach was no more than her overactive imagination making something out of nothing. Now she knew better. Someone was leaving this time—quite possibly forever, judging from the pile of luggage by the door.
She tried to quiet her panic, reminding herself that her dad, Mick O'Brien, left all the time. An internationally acclaimed architect, he was always going someplace for a new job, a new adventure. Again, though, this felt different. He'd only been home a couple of days from his last trip. He rarely turned right around and left again.
"Abby!" Her mother sounded startled and just a little edgy. "What are you doing up so early?"
Abby wasn't surprised that her mother was caught off guard. Most teenagers, including Abby and her brothers, hated getting up early on the weekends. Most Saturdays it was close to noon when she finally made her way downstairs.
Abby met her mother's gaze, saw the dismay in her eyes and knew instinctively that Megan had hoped to be gone before anyone got up, before anyone could confront her with uncomfortable questions.
"You're leaving, aren't you?" Abby said flatly, trying not to cry. She was seventeen, and if she was right about what was going on, she was the one who was going to have to be strong for her younger brothers and sisters.
Megan's eyes filled with tears. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Finally, she nodded.
"Why, Mom?" Abby began, a torrent of questions following. "Where are you going? What about us? Me, Bree, Jess, Connor and Kevin? Are you walking out on us, too?"
"Oh, sweetie, I could never do that," Megan said, reaching for her. "You're my babies. As soon as I'm settled, I'll be back for you. I promise."
Though her declaration was strong, Abby saw through it to the fear underlying her words. Wherever Megan was going, she was scared and filled with uncertainty. How could she not be? She and Mick O'Brien had been married for nearly twenty years. They'd had five children together, and a life they'd built right here in Chesapeake Shores, the town that Mick himself had designed and constructed with his brothers. And now Megan was going off all alone, starting over—How could she not be terrified?
"Mom, is this really what you want?" Abby asked, trying to make sense of such a drastic decision. She knew plenty of kids whose parents were divorced, but their moms hadn't just packed up and left. If anyone had gone, it had been the dads. This seemed a thousand times worse.
"Of course it's not what I want," Megan said fiercely. "But things can't go on as they have been." She started to say more, than waved it off. "That's between your father and me. I just know I have to make a change. I need a fresh start."
In a way, Abby was relieved that Megan hadn't said more. Abby didn't want the burden of knowing what had driven her mother to go. She loved and respected both of her parents, and she wasn't sure how she would have handled careless, heated words capable of destroying that love she felt for either one of them.
"But where will you go?" she asked again. Surely it wouldn't be far. Surely her mother wouldn't leave her all alone to cope with the fallout. Mick was helpless with emotions. He could handle all the rest—providing for them, loving them, even going to the occasional ball game or science fair—but when it came to everyday bumps and bruises and hurt feelings, it was Megan they all relied on.
Then again, why wouldn't Megan assume Abby could handle all the rest? Everyone in the family knew that Abby took her responsibility as the oldest seriously. She'd always known that her parents counted on her as backup. Bree, who'd just turned twelve-going-on-thirty, and her brothers would be okay. With Megan gone, Bree might retreat into herself at first, but, mature and self-contained, she would find her own way of coping. Kevin and Connor were teenage guys. They were pretty much oblivious to everything except sports and girls. More often than not, they found their exuberant, affectionate mother to be an embarrassment.
That left Jess. She was only a baby. Okay, she'd just turned seven last week, Abby reminded herself, but that was still way too young not to have her mom around. Abby had no idea how to fill that role, even temporarily.