Saturday morning dawned sunny and beautiful. The birds chirping cheerfully outside my window irritated me to no end as I lay in my four-poster cherry wood bed. Though it was only 7 a.m., I’d been awake for at least a half hour contemplating the weeks I was about to spend in Marian. I couldn’t believe I would soon be leaving the affluent suburb of Lakeview, TX with all its fabulous amenities for a tiny town I was sure would be stuck in the early 20th century.

“What if they don’t have a mall?” I mused aloud. “Or a spa?” Dear God, I’d go mad. I got up and stood in front of my vanity, surveying myself in the mirror. Smooth caramel skin. Curly, shoulder-length brown hair. Lithe, toned body. “Now what will someone of my caliber do in a place like Marian? They’ve probably never seen anyone as beautiful as me before.” Shrugging, I pulled my pile of Louis Vuitton luggage from my circular walk-in closet. My dad would have a fit when he saw how much stuff I’d be carting to Marian, TX. I probably had enough clothing to last me six months.

“Good Lord, girl!” My dad exclaimed an hour later as two maids struggled onto the front drive with my things. “Will you be opening a shop when we get there?”

Smiling saccharinely at him, I said, “Of course not, Daddy. All this is what’ll keep me sane in the middle of the wilderness.”

“You’re just like your mother,” he muttered, just as my mom emerged from the house, dressed to the nines in stilettos and a tailored suit. Her hair was elegantly coiffed. Sure enough, she was followed by the butler who was rolling a hotel-style luggage carrier piled high with bags and boxes. “Erin, we’re going for two months, not a bloody year!”

After Dad was finally done complaining about how much “junk” my mother and I had weighed the Q7 down with, we were on our way. Marian was about six hours from Lakeview and the plan was to get there around 3 p.m. While my parents sang along to some Oldies radio station, I turned on my IPod, tuning them out with the Jonas Brothers on full blast. I’m slipping into the lava…I’m burning up, I’m burning up, for you baby. Within an hour, I was fast asleep.

I woke to find myself being tossed from side to side as we drove along a narrow dirt road filled with ruts. A billowing cloud of dust rose behind us, threatening to engulf the vehicle.

“Just as I predicted,” I muttered, shaking my head.

Turning down the radio, my dad called over his shoulder, “Jo, you finally awake? We’re almost there.” There was a note of excitement in his voice. It would have been contagious if I wasn’t so depressed. “Just a few more minutes.”

“Great,” I said sardonically. “I’m ecstatic.” I stared at the back of his smooth brown head as it bounced up and down like a basketball. I really hoped a terrible road was the worst Marian had to offer.

No such luck. Fifteen minutes later, we pulled up in front of a large, rustic white farmhouse with peeling white paint and puke green shutters. There was no drive, just a long stretch of dirt. The grass in the front yard was at least knee high and weeds were growing up the wooden steps. A wide porch surrounded the house on all sides. I couldn’t believe that people actually lived in the house; it looked rundown and deserted. I found myself wishing the house would be empty so we could go back to our nice house in Lakeview with its perfectly manicured lawn and wrought iron gates.

“We’re here!” my dad announced cheerfully, jumping to the ground.

“As if we hadn’t realized,” my mom quipped as she unbuckled her seatbelt. Stepping gingerly onto the ground, she gasped as her heel sank into the soft, brown earth.

Just then, the screen door of the house creaked open and an elderly man emerged and made his way slowly down the steps. He was dressed in dirty denim overalls and a brown plaid shirt that had certainly seen better days. He was completely bald, except for a thin patch of stark white hair that stretched across the back of his head from ear to ear. Thick angry brows slashed across his forehead, giving him a sinister look.

“Is that you, Frank?” he called out in a raspy voiced as he squinted against the sun at us.

“Yes, Uncle Byron! It’s me, and my family.” My dad all but ran toward the old man who was wobbling unsteadily towards us.

Uncle Byron’s face broke into a wide grin so quickly I thought the wrinkled skin would crack and fall off. He wrapped my dad in a fierce bear hug and gave him several loud slaps on the back. Then he turned and looked at my mom and me.

“And here is your lovely family,” he crooned. “Such beautiful ladies.” He vigorously pumped my mom’s hand as he uttered a sugary, “How d’you do, Miz Erin?”

“Just fine, Uncle Byron,” my mom said courteously. “This is our daughter, Josephine.” She nudged me forward.

Old people gave me the creeps. I was always scared they’d either drop dead or have a heart attack right there in front of me. I plastered what I hoped was a smile on my face and shook Uncle Byron’s outstretched hand. His putrid breath wafted across my nostrils, causing me to wrinkle my nose, although imperceptibly. He reeked of fish and car grease. What a combination.

“It is very nice to meet you, sir.” Though I admit I was a spoiled brat, my parents had taught me to show respect for my elders. They’d box my ears otherwise. I thought I put on a pretty good show.

“Come in and meet the rest of the family,” Uncle Byron said as he turned and led the way into the house.

The living area was large and spread with worn but comfortable looking sofas and recliners. The wood floor was shiny and clean. Sunlight shown through parted blue gingham curtains hung at the wide windows. Very different, but pretty nice, I thought. The inside looks ten times better than the outside. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all. Turning slightly to my right, I spotted the best thing I’d seen all day.

A handsome boy with close-cropped hair and wide shoulders who looked to be about my age was grinning widely as he played a video game on a widescreen television. Please God, don’t let him be my cousin or something like that. He just might be my salvation in this place. My eyes traveled down his long, denim-clad legs, which were propped up on an ottoman. He was so intently focused on his game that it took him a few seconds to realize there were people in the room. Suddenly, he turned toward me and flashed a riveting white smile. I swore I heard an almost inaudible ‘ting!’ just like in the toothpaste commercials.

Gorgeous made his way over to where we stood just inside the door. He towered at least four inches over my five-foot-eight-inch frame. “Hi, I’m Randy.” He shook my parents’ hands politely, then nodded in my direction. “I’m a friend of Jason’s. He told me about y’all.”

I hadn’t even noticed the boy who was sitting on the sofa next to where Randy had been. Jason was certainly related to me. He looked just like Uncle Byron, right down to the severely receding hairline. Poor kid.

“It’s nice to meet you, Randy,” I smiled at him, suddenly shy. Totally out of character for me. “I’m Josephine.”

“Nice to meet you, Josephine.” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “I’d be happy to show you around Marian if you’d like.”

“I’d love that,” I said amiably, “It looks like a wonderful place.” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my parents staring at me in disbelief. Thankfully, they kept silent.

Uncle Byron broke the spell Randy had placed on me. “That right there is my grandson,” he said pointing in the general direction of the sofa. Jason gave a perfunctory wave then resumed fiddling with his game control. Poor, rude kid. “He’s staying with Sandy and me for the summer.”

Just then, a kind-looking woman emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, under which she wore a sleeveless red top and khaki Bermudas. Her salt-and-pepper hair was long and straight, and her expressive face was only slightly wrinkled.

Her eyes twinkled brightly. “Hi, y’all! It’s so good to see you.” She smiled warmly at the three of us before hugging us in turn. She cocked her head to one side, looking at me closely. “You’re such a lovely young woman, Josephine. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

I smiled genuinely at her. Aunt Sandy’s exuberance was contagious. “It’s nice to meet you also.” Another pleasant surprise, I thought. Marian, TX was looking better by the minute.

“I’ve just made lunch,” Aunt Sandy said. “You guys hungry?”

“Starving!” my dad announced. “I think I smell chicken-fried steak and gravy…” he was already halfway to the kitchen.

“Wonderful!” Aunt Sandy exclaimed, clasping her hands together. “We’ll eat, and then see about unloading your things and getting you settled in your rooms.”

As we filed into the kitchen, I glanced back at Randy and caught him staring at me. Rather than quickly averting his gaze as most guys would, he gave me a warm half-smile. I quickly turned back around before smiling too. I had a feeling it was going to be a great summer.

<<Part 1 || Part 3>>