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Authors: Liz Flaherty

Tags: #Family Life, #Contemporary, #Fiction, #RNS, #Romance

Back to McGuffey's

BOOK: Back to McGuffey's
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The one that got away

Could Kate Rafael’s day get any worse? First she lost her job, then her house burned down and now her ex is back in town. Apparently, Ben McGuffey’s taking a break from being a big-city doctor to help at his family’s tavern and reassess the choices he’s made for his career.

Ben ends up giving Kate a hand…then giving her kisses…and finally, a second chance. But when a local teenager shows them both a glimpse of what it means to be a family, Ben wonders if having kids in small-town Vermont would clash with his ambitions. Or can he truly come home again…to Kate?

“Since you have clothes now,” Ben said, “I might consider taking you out to dinner in Burlington.”

“Well, you know—” Kate inserted the key into the lock and looked up at him. Even in the darkness, she saw the green gleam of his eyes, but she couldn’t read his expression “—you don’t have to do me any favors, Dr. McGuffey.” She didn’t know whether to laugh or not.

His hand covered hers before she could get the door unlocked. “Oh, come on, Katy.”

“Come on where?” she said, the words and her breath both catching in her throat at once so that she squeaked when she spoke.

“It wouldn’t be a favor, unless it was to me,” he said, turning her so that his arms surrounded her. “Don’t you ever wonder?” he asked, pulling her close. And closer. “What would be the same between us? What would be different?”

Then he kissed her.

Dear Reader,

I have lived in Indiana my entire life. This is fine with me—it’s home and I love it here. I also love traveling, and my favorite place to go is Vermont. Since our younger son and his family lived there for fifteen years, I got to go at least once a year. Every time I went—especially after the grandkids came along—it was like going home.

On one visit a piece of a story and a couple of people I hadn’t met before decided to keep me and my notepad awake one night. I love second chances both in books and in real life, so when high school sweethearts Kate and Ben introduced themselves and their Northeast Kingdom hometown, I was compelled to follow along. To see how the guy who really wanted to be a world-class skier ended up as a doctor, and the girl who only wanted to be a mom never became one.

Then, just when I thought things were falling into place, Jayson Phillip Connor entered the picture. Sixteen, with Down syndrome, a penchant for juice boxes and a great, loving heart, Jayson changed everyone he met.

I hope you enjoy finding out how.

Liz Flaherty

Back to McGuffey’s

Liz Flaherty

LIZ FLAHERTY

retired from the post office and promised to spend at least fifteen minutes a day on housework. Not wanting to overdo things, she’s since pared that down to ten. She spends nonwriting time sewing, quilting and doing whatever else she wants to. She and Duane, her husband of…oh, quite a while...are the parents of three and grandparents of the Magnificent Seven. They live in the old farmhouse in Indiana they moved to in 1977. They’ve talked about moving, but really…thirty-seven years’ worth of stuff? It’s not happening!

She’d love to hear from you at
[email protected]
.

For the Wednesday Women.

We’ve known each other since we all knew what our natural hair color was, couldn’t write our names in cursive and had no idea where we would find our happily-ever-afters. We’ve gone from passing notes in elementary school to comparing pictures of grandchildren, mourned each other’s losses and cheered every success. If we don’t see each other for ten years or so, we have no problem picking up right where we left off.

Thanks for the friendship. See you at lunch.

CHAPTER ONE

“T
WENTY
YEARS
,” K
ATE
Rafael lifted her glass and squinted at its contents. “I went to Schuyler and Lund straight out of high school. Just to work a year before college, you know, because I was going to be a nurse. A four-year-degree one—I could have learned to stop fainting at the sight of blood. Really I could. And then I was going to marry Ben and have four children. You know, two boys and two girls like you did only my boys were going to be older than the girls.”

Penny Elsbury listed to one side and sat up straight on the bar stool in her kitchen. “Is it just me or is it getting really tired in here?”

Kate frowned at Penny. “I’m not tired. It must just be you.”

“And they let you go why? Nobody ever bled there, so they didn’t know about your problem.” Penny squinted at her glass, too, then gave Kate a confused look that would have been funny if Kate had been sober. Which she wasn’t exactly.

“They said they couldn’t afford me.” Kate nodded sagely. “That poverty-level salary they were paying me for six-day weeks was more than the law firm of Shyster...Schuyler...Schuyler and Lund could stand.” She set down her glass. “I don’t know what to do. I never did go to college, you know. I meant to, but I didn’t.”

“I know.” Penny nodded sadly. “Me neither.”

“And I never married Ben and had babies.”
Oh, no.
Three glasses of very cheap wine weren’t enough to stop that particular pain. Kate had to concentrate on holding her mouth steady and keeping her eyes from tearing up. Not marrying Ben—she could live with that. But no babies? Not nearly so easy. She wouldn’t have been insistent on four—just a couple would have been enough. Even one.

“Me neither.” Penny nodded again. She was still tilting on her stool.

“You couldn’t. You married Dan and had
his
babies. He wouldn’t have liked it if you’d married Ben, too,” Kate said.

“Nah, he wouldn’ta cared if I married Ben. Would you, darlin’?” Penny smiled at Dan when he came into the kitchen and steadied her on her stool.

“Probably would have. Ben’s a family practice doctor and we have more need of an orthodontist.” He kissed the back of Penny’s neck and reached across the counter for Kate’s glass. “More, Katy?”

“Please.”

Dan poured the last drops of the wine into the women’s Shrek glasses and sat on the stool beside his wife’s. “You heard he’s moving back to town? At least for the summer.”

Kate blinked. “Who?”

“Ben.”

“But he left. He practices down in Boston.”

“He says spring just isn’t the same without Vermont mud.”

She thought—albeit not clearly—of Ben McGuffey and the last day he’d been her boyfriend. They’d sat on bar stools similar to these in his father’s tavern on her twenty-fourth birthday and he’d said he didn’t think he’d be able concentrate on both her and his residency and he needed to break up. For a while.

She’d sat there sipping diet cola with a maraschino cherry garnish and a shot of grenadine in it and wondered why he didn’t hear her heart breaking. Surely it made a splintering sound, didn’t it?

“I wonder why he
really
wants to come back. He doesn’t like spring. He only likes it on the mountain when he can ski.” Deciding the last little bit of wine might be crossing her own personal line, she slid off her seat and went to pour herself some coffee. She filled a cup halfway and returned to the counter that separated the kitchen from the dining room.

Dan shrugged. “All I know is that he’s staying the summer.”

Penny frowned at him. “You bicycle and ski with him every time he comes back to see his folks. How can you not know?”

“It’s been months since the last time he was here. Christmastime, as a matter of fact.”

Kate didn’t like thinking about Ben, about what might have been, although she’d spent an uncomfortable amount of time doing just that.

Ben had gotten married after he joined a practice in an affluent Boston suburb—she’d even sent a gift—but he and the pretty socialite had been divorced a few years later.

Kate had been engaged for a time in her mid-twenties, but had given Tark Bridger’s ring back due to a mutual lack of interest. They’d broken up in the same bar as she and Ben had, talking over Maeve McGuffey’s potato soup about a future they didn’t want to share. The next time she saw Tark, she introduced him to the woman he married six months later.

She’d been busy in the way that people were. She’d worked, gained and lost the same twenty pounds several times over the years and been inordinately proud of Penny and Dan’s children as they arrived. When she passed thirty, she started to think maybe it was time for her to get married and start a family, but no one had been around to help complete the equation. As a thirty-seventh birthday gift, her gynecologist had said if she had childbearing in mind, she’d better get to it.

Kate tried not to hear that particular ticking clock. She didn’t like to think about the babies she’d wanted and never had.

She was finding that a few glasses of wine made that a little difficult. More than a little.

She and Ben had seen each other often over the years. They always smiled, talked and exchanged looks that were at once familiar and bemused. They danced together at weddings and avoided each other’s eyes at christenings, or at least Kate avoided his. They held hands at funerals in a way that was comforting but lacking the chemistry of their youth. She thought maybe magic wasn’t meant for her at all.

“I’m a spinster, and the fact that I even use that word in conversation means I spend too much time reading historical novels.” She made the announcement to the contents of her coffee cup, overwhelmed by sadness. “And now I’m unemployed on top of it. What else can happen?”

“Now there’s a loaded question.” Penny shook her head at her. “I think the last time Dan asked that was when I told him I was pregnant for the fourth time. The washing machine heard me say it and broke down immediately.”

Kate snorted. “Washing machines don’t have ears. They might
sense
things, but they don’t hear them.”

“It really worries me,” said Dan, “that not only do I listen to the conversations you two have, sometimes they almost make sense to me.”

“Aunt Kate?” Dan and Penny’s second daughter, Mary Kate, stood in the kitchen doorway, the cordless phone clutched to the flat chest of the Denver Broncos pajamas she wore to upset her Patriots-fan father. Her eyes were wide and horrified. “The fire department buzzed in on call waiting. They called here figuring Mom and Dad would know where you were. I guess the lady who lived in the other half of your duplex fell asleep while she was cooking and the whole place burned down.”

Kate stared at her goddaughter, not quite comprehending. “Burned down? My house? Are you sure?”

“Yes, ma’am. They said it twice.”

“Come on.” Dan tossed Kate her coat and put Penny’s around her shoulders. “I’ll drive you over.”

A few minutes later, they stood at the charred remains of the saltbox house Kate had bought ten years ago. Firefighters, their faces streaked with soot, were checking the site for new flames shooting out of places still glowing hot in the darkness. The yard was a mire of mud and hopelessness.

Neighbors in pajamas hugged her, relieved to see her in one piece. The tenant who’d lived in the other half of the house had left with friends. She’d left carrying the plastic bowl of cookies something had compelled her to rescue.

Kate stood unmoving as near the rubble as the firefighters allowed. Her cat leaped from her next-door neighbor’s arms and came to stand against her legs as though to protect her.

She felt as though a block of lead was lodged in her chest. It wasn’t exactly heartbreak—everyone was safe, after all—but the sense of loss was overwhelming. Loss and loneliness. Her parents and sister lived in Tennessee, and she always missed them, but never this much.

“Do you have insurance?” Dan stood between Kate and Penny with an arm around each.

“Yes.” Her precious laptop computer was in her car. Family pictures and important legal papers had been reproduced on computer disks by her electronically savvy brother-in-law. No one had been hurt. Even Dirty Sally, the ancient one-eyed cat who stood sentinel against her legs, hadn’t been in the house. That was what mattered. Really it was.

Except that she had no job, no home and no clothing. Not even a nightgown or a pair of shoes without swooshes on the sides. She was thirty-seven years old, her roots were showing and she didn’t want to start over. She didn’t think she could. It was just too hard.

She borrowed Penny’s cell phone—her own had been on its charger in the kitchen—to call her family to tell them she was all right even though she was technically homeless. “Could you drop me off under a bridge somewhere?” she asked Dan, her voice wobbly.

He tugged at her hair. “Try not to be an idiot. It doesn’t look good on you. You’ll come home with us.”

Kate knew their house was already full to overflowing with three of their four offspring, a foster child and numerous and sundry pets. “Just loan me something to wear and take me over to Kingdom Comer. The insurance company will put me up. It probably won’t be full this time of year.”

“You sure?” Penny stood close beside her, her arm around her waist. “You know the kids love it when you stay. You always do their chores and then pretend you didn’t.”

“I’m sure.”

They drove her the few blocks to the big Victorian, Dan calling ahead so that the owner was waiting at the front door in her bathrobe.

As Kate had predicted, there was room at the inn. The bed-and-breakfast, named after its owners and the Northeast Kingdom, was empty except for the apartment over the garage. “That’s rented for the summer, but you can have the suite at the back of the house. Sally can stay in the three-season room with the dog. Lucy always likes company,” Marce Comer told Kate. “The suite is the quietest and will be more comfortable if you stay till you know what you’re going to do.”

“We’ll see you tomorrow.” Penny hugged her, her cheek wet against Kate’s.

“Things’ll look better then.” Dan pulled her hair again. “I’m a cop. We know these things.”

“She’ll be fine.” Marce locked the door behind them. “Come into the kitchen. I’ll make tea.”

Once there, seated at the big island in the middle of the room, Kate scrabbled for her checkbook, grateful she’d had her purse with her at Penny’s house, but Marce waved a hand. “I’ll just bill your insurance company. Is Joann your agent?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Here you go.” Forty, widowed and pleasantly round, Marce handed Kate a steaming cup of tea. “It’ll look better in the morning. It always does, though you surely don’t know how it will.”

“How are
you
doing, Marce?” It had been over a year since the innkeeper’s husband had sat down to watch the six-o’clock news and quietly died. His funeral had been the last time Kate had seen Ben. They had sat together. She’d felt the deep, silent shock of losing a friend who was way too young. When Ben had taken her hand without even looking at her and held it all the way through the service, she’d known he felt the same grief.

For a moment, the other woman’s clear eyes looked bewildered, like those of a child who doesn’t understand why she’s being punished, but then they cleared. “All right,” she said. She looked around the big kitchen of the B and B, her expression sad. “Yes, really, all right.” Her mother was British, and some of the crispness of that heritage stiffened Marce’s voice. “But I’m not sure what to do with myself. This was our dream and we realized it, but it doesn’t mean as much without him to share it. The twins are at university. I’d like to go, too. I never finished, and I’d like to.” She grinned. “I could get my degree in time to teach algebra to Josh and Michael. I only have about a year to go.”

Kate could relate to not knowing what to do with herself. Right now, her options seemed pretty limited. She smiled at Marce, afraid her skin would snap in little places from the effort. “Well, that should make you reconsider your choices.”

The women laughed together. Penny’s ten-and eleven-year-old sons were what was euphemistically referred to as a handful. They were also hilarious and loving in a way only young boys could be.

Upstairs, Marce handed Kate a cosmetics bag and a white cotton nightgown. “It’s just the necessities. Toothbrush and stuff. I keep a few around in case a guest forgets to pack them. I got the nightgown for Christmas from my mum, who thinks I should be a nun since I’m a widow. She also thinks I’m a size bigger even than what I am. You’ll swim in it, but your virtue will be protected for all time.”

Kate hugged her. “Bless you, Marce.”

She took a bath, feeling small and forlorn in the big claw-foot tub. She washed her hair under the faucet, sniffed it and washed it again. The smell of smoke was pervasive, seeming to have seeped into her very pores as she stood on her muddy lawn and witnessed the end of yet another dream.

The rose scent of the lotion in the silk pouch of necessities seemed almost incongruous, but she breathed in deeply, thinking maybe in the greater scheme of things, inner peace smelled of roses.

She hadn’t thought she’d be able to sleep, but she laid her still-damp head on one goose-down pillow and hugged another to the chest of the borrowed gown and fell into an instant dream about Ben McGuffey and Tark Bridger. They were fighting over her, with Ben wearing a lab coat with his skis and Tark dressed in a gray three-piece suit and red canvas high-tops. His wife stood to one side holding his briefcase.

* * *

W
HEN
K
ATE
WOKE
,
with her caramel-colored hair standing straight up on one side of her head where she’d slept on it, she felt rested and unafraid despite the headache that scratched along the edges. She was also obscurely pleased that the man she had loved to distraction and the one she hadn’t loved enough had cared enough to fight over her. The only problem was she didn’t know who’d won. Dreams were that way, ending ambiguously.

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