Authors: Jenny Hale
ublished by Bookouture
, an imprint of StoryFire Ltd.
23 Sussex Road, Ickenham, UB10 8PN, United Kingdom
opyright © Jennifer
right to be identified as the author of this work.
ll rights reserved
. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in any retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publishers.
his book is
a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events other than those clearly in the public domain, are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
like to thank Patty Larson for sharing her knowledge of small-town coastal living.
grateful to my husband, Justin, for his continued support and extra help as I spent so many nights clicking keys.
, a big thank you to Oliver Rhodes for his guidance and expertise.
like to thank Kate Ahl, my editor. I cannot express how thankful I am to work with her.
with whom I share so many memories, including a few from a town a lot like this one.
, Libby said to herself as she scraped mud off the Tory Burch wedge pumps she’d just bought in Manhattan last week. They’d cost nearly as much as her airfare. Her perfect shoes were probably ruined. Truthfully, though, it wasn’t the soiled shoes that had upset her; she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown in general. In an attempt to alleviate the distress that was now consuming every inch of her body, she allowed her gaze to settle on the dogwood tree in the yard.
It looked just like the one she had climbed as a kid. Back then, her thin frame had allowed her to climb its narrow branches easily. Putting her foot at just the right spots where the branches forked out from the trunk of the tree, she’d grab a higher branch. She could feel the grit on the palms of her hands despite the tree’s smooth bark. With every step, the branches wiggled under her feet, shaking the white flowers bunched at the ends.
When she reached the top, she’d lean against the trunk and pick the blooms, making a miniature bouquet. She could see all the way to the bay. She relished the quiet of her little spot at the top of the tree. With nothing but her thoughts, she’d sit, away from the demands of her mother, the pressures of growing up, and the drama surrounding her family.
But it was never long before her mother saw her through the kitchen window. Celia Potter would yell up to her, telling her that
didn’t climb trees, and she had better get down before anyone could see her. She always obeyed. She didn’t necessarily agree with her mother, she had just wanted to make her happy. The memory of it took her off guard.
Three familiar chirps came from her bag, and, still dragging her shoe along the cracked sidewalk, she retrieved her phone. She shifted her bag on her shoulder and looked around. Libby was in the middle of nowhere. She couldn’t even see the next cottage over.
She knew who it was, but at this point they barely spoke to each other. She used to answer his call with something witty and flirty, but now she could hardly muster a “hello” when she answered. The line was silent, and Libby checked the phone to be sure that she hadn’t lost the call. With a grimace, she remembered about the bad cell phone reception, and inwardly cringed at the thought of the lack of service. Even her mobile hot spot wouldn’t work consistently at that range.
“Hello, Libby. I just wanted to confirm that you’re planning to send me the paperwork on the cottage,” Wade’s voice came through smooth and unbothered—whereas she wanted to sob into the phone. The pain of losing him was still right there in her chest, waiting to be unleashed. She took in a breath to center herself before answering.
“I just got here, but yes, I’ll send it as soon as I finalize everything,” her words came out carefully controlled in an attempt to keep herself together. She cleared her throat to try and remove the lump forming there.
Wade Foster was someone with whom she thought she could be happy. He had been the kind of boyfriend she could call any time, and he’d listen if she needed him. He’d brought her flowers on all the major holidays. He knew just when to be romantic as if he’d read a manual or something. Every time, he was right on the mark. So when he proposed and asked her to move in with him a year ago, she was over the moon about it. It was a step in the right direction, a step toward her perfect future.
A planner by nature, she’d mapped it all out in her head: She’d had a quiet, unfussy proposal—nothing drawing a lot of attention, which was exactly what she’d always wanted. Wade had simply gotten down on one knee over a candlelight dinner at a secluded table in the wine cellar of a restaurant. She’d hoped for a small summer wedding, the Vera Wang dress that she’d torn out of her latest bridal magazine, a separate reception held over the weekend at Wade’s family home in the Hamptons, and a honeymoon in St. Croix.
Even more important than all that was the promise of a family. Growing up, it had only been Libby and her mother after her father left them, and she’d relied on close friends to be like family. Libby wanted nothing more than to have a
family with Wade—big, family holidays, the patter of little feet. And it had really looked like it was all going to happen. Until he’d knocked her to her knees by leaving her at her lowest moment.
After the merger at work, things seemed to be going along fine, until out of the blue, she was told they were restructuring her department and she would no longer be needed. Finding a new job was proving difficult, and Wade started working longer hours, spending weeks away on business. Feeling depressed and anxious about the future, she’d turned to Wade for support. That’s when he’d left her.
And now here they were, having a businesslike phone conversation, like strangers.
“Okay, then,” he said finally.
That’s all you have to say?
she wanted to scream into the phone. She clenched her phone, feeling the tightness in her knuckles. Leaving her hometown, becoming an adult and a successful professional, she’d felt in control of her life. This—her fiancé falling out of love with her—was out of her control, and it drove her crazy.
She fumbled with her keys and found the newest one on her key ring. “I’ll be in touch,” she said, a little more snippy than she’d meant to, and hoisted her carry-on suitcase onto the stoop.
She had to wiggle the key back and forth in the old lock to loosen it. With a pop, the knob finally turned. The line was dead on her phone, she realized, so with another deep breath, she ended the call and dropped the phone into her bag.
There had been absolutely no way Libby was going to stay with her mother while she was back here. But after actually coming home to the cottage, she wondered whether staying had been a good idea. Memories swam through her head faster than she could process them. She’d spent so many happy times there. Before she’d left for good.
She and Wade had bought the cottage together. It had belonged to Hugh and Anne Roberts, who happened to be the grandparents of someone she’d known very well, someone she’d cared for very much: Pete Bennett, her childhood best friend and high school boyfriend. When her parents were struggling with their marriage, Libby had escaped to the Roberts’ cottage with Pete. The Roberts were like her own family. She even called them Pop and Nana just like Pete did. Standing there, she could almost hear the sounds from those happy days.
The new furniture that she’d purchased with Wade looked out of place and a little too modern, but she was able to look past it into her memories—memories of card games and laughter, lemonade on the porch, apple pie and lightning bugs at dusk. Seeing what was left of it made her feel as if she couldn’t breathe. But she was a fighter; she’d come through a lot to get where she was, so she could handle it. At least that’s what she kept telling herself. Her chest tightened, despite her efforts to think positively, as the new décor came back into focus.
Wade had wanted to sell the cottage as is, but she’d suggested that with some renovations they might actually make a profit. He’d agreed that she could go there and do the work, but now the weight of it was nearly crushing. The sun streamed through the tiny windows next to the front door, letting in the only light in the room. With her bag at her side, Libby watched the dust settling in the beam of sun, her mind racing.
The apartment she’d shared with Wade in New York had been small but open with an unusual amount of natural light, bright white walls, and modern furnishings. When she’d moved in with him, she’d wanted to add some femininity to the place. She’d torn out pages in magazines and she’d copied the very best in design until their apartment was perfect. It was a stark contrast to what was before her now. This cottage was dated and weathered, the walls screaming out memories of a different time.
The wall in front of her still had five nails jutting out. Five nails for five pictures, and if she closed her eyes, she could see them exactly the way Nana had arranged them. Now, just like Nana, the pictures were gone. Like ghosts, however, the memories were still hanging there right in front of her.
Libby was supposed to go to her mother’s as soon as she’d gotten into town, but she didn’t want to see anyone just yet. She worried about running into people who knew her, about seeing her mother. At eighteen, she’d sped out of the little town of White Stone as fast as her feet could take her. And with her life in the state it was now, she didn’t want to face anyone, especially her mother. She’d come to the cottage she’d purchased with her ex-fiancé where she could be alone.
Originally, she’d never planned to even set foot in that house; the acquisition of it had all been her mother’s doing. Libby had been a little apprehensive about purchasing the property since it had belonged to people she’d known so well, but her mother assured her that it would be no problem at all. And the one thing she had learned over the years was that when her mother was happy, she was a much nicer person. Libby had made it her life’s goal, after her father left, to make her mother happy. And Libby’s buying that cottage had delighted Celia Potter. It was a physical demonstration of Libby’s success. It was her mother’s way of showing off.
One of her mother’s flaws was that when she was in good spirits, she got chatty. When she got chatty, it was cringeworthy. Libby guessed at the conversations that Celia probably had at the local market:
My daughter is living in Manhattan—she’s got a top accounting job up there—Big Four firm!—and she had a little spare cash, so she bought the Roberts’ place. I told her as soon as it went up for sale…
Her mother would lean in as if she were telling a secret, but hoping others would hear.
, she’d say in her loudest whisper,
how Hugh Roberts can’t take care of himself anymore after Anne’s death. It’s all so sad…
The idea of it made Libby shiver. She was very protective of Hugh and she didn’t want anyone speaking poorly of him in any way. He had been the most supportive, genuine person she’d known as a child, and the thought of what had happened to him was more than she could bear. She’d heard bits and pieces about him from her mother, but she hadn’t seen him in years. As she walked down the hallway, she dragged her fingers along the wall where his hat rack had been.
She couldn’t imagine Pop not being able to take care of himself. He’d always been the one who had taken care of everyone else. Once, when Libby was sixteen, she’d driven her mother’s car to the movie theater, and something in the engine had rattled all the way there. Her mother didn’t know a thing about cars, and she didn’t want to upset her with news that something may be wrong, so she’d called Pop. Without even a hesitation, he set her mind at ease and told her to swing by after the movie. She could still see his reassuring eyes as he opened the door and went out into the afternoon sun to check her car. She’d stayed inside with Nana until he returned with oily hands and told her that it was all fixed. She wouldn’t have to worry anymore. She never had to worry when Pop was around. He always made everything okay.
As she walked through the house, empty of Pop and Nana’s things, she felt more depressed with every step. Being there, she was forced to face her memories, and they were coming back—all of them at once—like a giant tidal wave. In New York, she’d compartmentalized her memories, neatly tucking away the ones from childhood where they couldn’t interfere with the new ones, but in the cottage that she’d spent so many days and nights, everywhere she looked she saw reminders of people she’d known—people she’d left—and it hurt. Terribly.
She carried on through the house. The hardwoods weren’t in bad shape in most places, Libby noted, when she reached the back of the cottage. The kitchen was outdated, however, the sink dripping. The old linoleum floor was beginning to peel, and dated floral wallpaper stretched from the small dining area all the way to where she was standing.
She tugged on the faucet knob to stop the dripping, but was unsuccessful, so she just leaned on the edge of the sink, watching the drips—one at a time—hit the basin.
Tap, tap, tap
. The sound was relentless, like the pounding in her temples. A twinge of anxiety pecked at her as she wondered why Pop’s sink was leaking. Surely he could’ve fixed it, unless his health was failing too much now. Pop had been her rock. He’d always been strong. The idea of weakness overtaking him was almost unbelievable. It all made her feel vulnerable, helpless.
The back door of the cottage was in a small breakfast nook area. It had a pane of glass in the center and let in a blast of blinding sun. The door was stuck so Libby had to pull with all her might. When she got it open, suddenly she remembered what an investment the house actually was.
She hopped off the concrete landing onto the lawn. Still dewy from the shade of the pines, the grass crunched beneath her shoes, so she kicked them off to save any further damage and set them on the edge of the sidewalk that extended the length of the property. With the wind picking up, blowing her hair in her face, she walked until the cool of the grass was replaced by the softness of sand. In front of her, as far as she could see, were the blue ripples of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. The division between water and sky was so minimal that they almost looked like one entity. She wondered about Nana, where she was, if she could look down on her.
Anne Roberts had been like a grandmother to her. Libby remembered her powdery scent, the way her gray hair fell toward her eyes when she laughed, the soft touch of her hand as she patted Libby on the back when they hugged. Anne had a formality about her—her pressed cotton shirts buttoned down the front, tucked into her trousers perfectly, not a wrinkle in sight, her nails always manicured. But there was something so uncomplicated, so relaxed about her, that made everyone fall in love with her. She told stories that could pin Libby right to her seat as she hung on every word. And when Libby was in her presence, Anne had made her feel like she was the most important person in the world, so interested in her, so ready to listen.
Libby had been in New York when Anne passed. She remembered the day her mother called to tell her. That was the second time she’d cried about someone from back home. Just the way Anne would have planned it, she had gone to sleep and she never woke the next morning. Like everything about her, she’d spent her final moments peacefully.