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Authors: Liz Flaherty

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

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BOOK: Back to McGuffey's
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She hadn’t meant to say that.

“Worse than what?” He watched her as she moved around the kitchen, his gaze concerned.

“Than not having passion.” She kept her back to him—that concern in his eyes could easily be her undoing. “I’m not talking about girl-and-guy passion. Exactly.”

She wanted to have someone in her life who could finish her sentences, who started and ended his days with her. She wanted someone’s hand to rest on her hip the way Dan’s always did on Penny’s. She wanted to do someone else’s laundry not because it was “woman’s work” but because she’d like taking care of somebody that way. It was a good way to say she loved him. She wanted someone else to empty her mousetraps and listen when her car made a funny noise. Not because she couldn’t but because it would be a good way for him to say he loved her. Especially the mousetrap part.

“I remember my mom hanging up my dad’s clothes when they came out of the dryer.” She stood still, looking into the backyard through the windows over the inn’s big kitchen sinks. “She’d stand there sometimes, and stroke her hand over and over the shirts. Getting the wrinkles out of the flannel, she said, but then she’d sniff the collar a little bit, and we knew she was just keeping in touch with Dad.” She smiled over her shoulder at Ben, even though she felt more like weeping. “That’s what I’d like to have someday. I don’t need passion.”

Ben’s eyes were dark in his lean face. He didn’t smile back at her, though his expression felt like a touch. A tender one. “That sounds like passion to me.”

It probably did to her, too, but she didn’t want to talk about that with him. Not now, at least, and maybe not ever.

“What I’m talking about is passion for
something,
not
someone.
You know—” She stopped, her heart softening. When she went on, her voice was softer, too, as if there were tears behind it. “Like Jayson and the garden. He’s in it every single day. He weeds, he talks to the plants, he worries about the rows that aren’t straight enough.” She cleared her throat and laughed, though it came out wimpy. “He says those are the ones I planted. It’s the best garden I’ve had since I moved to Alcott Street. But it isn’t because of anything I did—it’s because Jayson loves every leaf in it.”

Ben nodded. He got up from the table and came to where she stood, putting his arms around her and stepping into a hug-and-sway slow dance. “Maybe you’re looking too hard,” he suggested.

“For what?” It was amazing how they didn’t need music. Their steps matched and wove perfectly. Even with Dylan, the best dancer of the McGuffeys, Kate needed music and hand signals and silent counts. But not with Ben. Never with Ben.

“Passion. I know you say there are worse things than not having it, but you’re still looking for it.”

“No, I—” But she was. She knew that as well as he did.

“Did you ever think maybe passion has less to do with the earth moving and thunder crashing than it does with sunrises and sunsets and laughing out loud? Jayson’s passion for the garden isn’t in his excitement—although he’s always excited,” he interjected with a grin. He swooped her into a dip that had her ponytail brushing the floor. “It’s in how happy he is when he’s there.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

“B
UT
I
WANT
a
professional
gardener.” Mrs. Hylton-Wise’s finely plucked eyebrows rose into her side-swept silver bangs. “I’m preparing the property to sell and the landscaping needs to be perfect. I know you’re new at having your own business, Ms. Rafael, but surely you realize your first responsibility is to please the customer.”

As strange as it seemed, Kate had grown to like the snippy woman. The ice between them had melted considerably the first time she’d carried the morning coffee into the dining room and found Mrs. Hylton-Wise reading the cartoons from the Sunday paper to Jayson.

“The business isn’t even open yet, though we’re building up our registry. I have handymen and housewives who will work in gardens and lawns, but if you want a professional you’ll need to find a landscaper. There isn’t one in Fionnegan, but maybe someone from the nursery out on Ridge Road would be good.” She ran the feather duster carefully around the glass cases that shelved Marce’s Hummel collection.

“I already tried there. They’re far too expensive.” The woman gazed thoughtfully at the front lawn of Kingdom Comer. “Who takes care of this lawn?”

“I do. When she’s here, Marce does. Ben and Jayson help a lot.”

As though he’d heard his name mentioned, Jayson came into the inn, waving happily. “Hi, Mrs. Hilly-Wy.”

The older woman’s eyes warmed, and Kate marveled at the difference a month had made. “Hello, Jayson. How are you today?”

“I turned four corners on my bicycle and didn’t fall over one time. Ben said I was awful applesauce. Got juice boxes, Kate?” He hugged her.

“You know where they are.” Kate kissed his cheek. “That’s awesome applesauce, remember?”

“That’s what I said.” He went into the kitchen, his gait as ungainly as ever, then stuck his head back into the foyer. “Debby says I should ask if anybody else wants some even if I don’t want to share. You don’t want a juice box, do you?”

“No, thank you,” said both women. Kate turned back to Mrs. Hylton-Wise when Jayson withdrew behind the swinging door. “He likes you, you know, and he’d be happy to help you with the landscaping. He’s good at it.”

“But he’s Down syndrome. I’ve learned to care for him, I must admit, but I just don’t think that would work out. I’ve passed the point in my life of wanting the kind of responsibility looking after him entails.”

Kate laughed. “When you’re gardening or working in the yard, he tells
you
what to do, and when you’re doing it wrong.”

“But he needs someone there with him. All the time.”

It was a point Kate couldn’t argue. Although Jayson didn’t require much watching, leaving him alone wasn’t an option.

“Where do they live? Debby and Jayson, I mean.”

“On Alcott Street beside the candle shop.” In a duplex their landlord was just itching to tear down. But Kate didn’t say that. Debby worked hard to provide for Jayson and herself. The Alcott Street house might be shabby, but it wasn’t through any fault of hers.

“Do they have a car?”

“Some of the time. It’s temperamental. Debby rides her bike nearly everywhere.”

Mrs. Hylton-Wise looked thoughtful as she walked toward the elevator.

“How about Mr. Hayes?” Kate blurted. “He tills everyone’s gardens for them and was a nurseryman before he retired. He helps with the yard here when we get behind. He’s very good with Jayson, too.”

Mrs. Hylton-Wise turned. “Doesn’t he smoke those dreadful cigars?”

Kate grinned. “Not inside, and I’m not sure he ever really lights them—it’s more like he chews them to death. Would you like me to talk to him?”

The other woman hesitated, holding the elevator door open. “Yes,” she said finally. “Thank you.” Her smile was faint, but it was there. “I think I was just A Day at a Time’s first customer. I must owe you a fee.”

Kate shook her head, giving the display case a final ostrich-feather swish. “It’s on the house, but if it works out, tell everybody where you got him. And call me Kate.”

She phoned Mr. Hayes, catching him on his way to mow the lawn at the Presbyterian church. Talking loudly over the noise of the lawn tractor, he promised to stop in to discuss the job with Mrs. Hylton-Wise.

Kingdom Comer was going to be full for the weekend. It always was. As much as Kate enjoyed both the guests and the inn itself, she was tired. Samantha had filled in for her at the inn a couple of times and Kate had spent quite a few evenings working at McGuffey’s, but she hadn’t had a weekend off all summer. It would be nice to not prepare breakfast for anyone but herself and to not make beds or wash towels for at least a day.

Kate had been known to make a tube of mascara last from Josh’s christening to Michael’s second birthday party three years later, but she had worn makeup every day since Marce left for the lake. Her skin was probably wrinkling and getting ready to fall off from the pressure.

The thought made her laugh at herself as she went into the kitchen to finish the morning’s chores. Ben and Jayson were at the table with flash cards and a plate of cinnamon rolls left over from breakfast. “Coffee?” she asked, taking a half-eaten pastry from Ben’s hand. “I need to make it for the parlor anyway.”

“I could force it down, and my friend here is always up for another box of liquid sugar. Aren’t you, Jayson?”

Jayson, whose mouth was already tinged purple from the juice he’d just finished, nodded eagerly.

Kate brought the coffee carafe and the juice to the table. “How are your folks doing? Are they enjoying being back in Ireland?” She sat down with them.

“They are. I think they’ve even stopped fretting about the tavern. Dylan told Mom he’d scorched her favorite stockpot just to get her going and she told him not to worry about it—pots could be replaced.”

“That’s scary.” Kate loved Ben’s mother, but she was nervous if she was going to work with her at the tavern—Maeve was beyond territorial with her kitchen.

He sobered, looking silently at the contents of his cup for a minute. “We laughed about it, but we also figured she was thinking about losing Pop. She says he tires very easily, but wants to do and see something different every day. They’ve connected with old school friends and cousins they’d forgotten they had.”

“Are you sorry they’re gone? It’s time you won’t have with Tim.”

“No. One thing about knowing what we know is that we were able to say the things that needed saying. Even if the worst happens and Pop doesn’t come home, we’ll know that the last time we saw him, he kissed us all goodbye. He said he loved us and told us boys to ‘look after Morgan, she’s but a wee lass.’ That wee lass can take excellent care of herself and we all know it, including Pop, but it was a great moment for all of us.”

“I need to call my dad,” said Kate. “I talk to Mom all the time, but Daddy always just yells ‘tell her to keep her doors locked and to check the tread on her tires before she goes driving around on the mountain. She drives like a girl.’ Sarah insists that she’s his favorite because she
doesn’t
drive like a girl, though neither of us knows exactly how a girl drives.”

“Tell him I’m here and I’m growing my ponytail back.”

Jayson leaned around in his seat to look at the back of Ben’s head. “You’re a boy. You can’t have a ponytail.”

“Oh, yes, he can.” Kate reached for the wallet lying on the counter behind her and shuffled through the pictures she carried, coming up with a picture of Ben. He was on skis, his helmet and goggles hanging from his hand. He was partially turned away from the camera and his ponytail was clearly visible against the back of his blue jacket. “There he is. He was seventeen and all set to win the Wish Mountain Cup.”

Too late, she realized Ben now knew she carried his picture in her wallet. A twenty-year-old picture. She met his green gaze, noted the amusement in it and glowered at him. “Not one word, tall guy, or you’ll suffer for it till the day you die.”

“Oh, no, ma’am.” He grinned at her.

“Is that you, Ben?” Jayson looked hard at the picture. “You look goofy.”

Kate whooped. “He does, doesn’t he?”

Ben snapped a rubber band around the flash cards. “I’m going to ride home with young Jayson here now that he’s done his homework. I need to go by the hospital to check on last night’s patients. I’ll be back this afternoon.”

The dishwasher was loaded and fresh coffee and cookies were on the serving cart in the front parlor when the back door opened. When she saw who it was, Kate dropped the stack of towels destined for the rooms full of cyclists.

“Marce!” Kate stepped over the towels to hug the inn’s owner. “Is everything all right? Am I fired?”

Marce laughed, returning the hug. “Frank’s folks came to spend a week at camp. It gave me a chance to check on things here and see my parents while giving the girls and their grandparents some private time. You’re not fired by any means, but if you’d like a few days off, I’m a pretty good desk clerk.”

“Good grief, do you have ESP or something? I was just having a nice internal whine about no days off.”

“Hey, I’m a mother. Things like ESP and eyes in the back of the head just kind of develop on their own.”

Something Kate wasn’t likely to find out. But the thought wasn’t as painful as it sometimes was. Maybe she was getting used to the idea that some dreams were just that—dreams.

“Are you enjoying it more at the camp? I thought that first week you were going to come right back home.” She knelt to pick up the towels she’d dropped and laid them on the island to refold them. “Coffee’s fresh.”

Marce was already pouring some. “I wanted to, believe me.” She sat where Ben had earlier and reached for a towel. “But then something happened.”

A new sound in her voice alarmed Kate. “Happened? Are the girls okay?”

“They’re fine. The camp next to the one Frank’s family owns was always vacant. The house was tumbling down and the pier had nearly rotted away. The Comers and the people on the other side kept the grass mowed, but that was virtually all the upkeep there was. Imagine our surprise when we got there and found a pristine little cottage, a new pier and a boat tied up to it. I hadn’t seen a boat—or any other sign of life—there in all the years I’ve gone there with Frank and his family.” Marce’s eyes sparkled with the most enthusiasm Kate had seen in her since Frank died.

“Well, that’s neat. Did you meet the neighbor?”

“Yes, about a week after we got there. He came to the front door carrying this huge black cat and suggested that we keep our animals at home. He was rather huffy about the whole thing, to tell the truth.” Marce sniffed. “He put the cat down and left.”

“He didn’t wait to hear that it wasn’t your cat?”

“Oh, no, not for a minute. And of course, I just stood there gaping while the cat made himself at home on the sofa. Finally I picked him up and carried him right back. He was a lovely cat,” she added. “I really like how you’ve arranged the table linens.” She gestured toward the open shelves beside the door into the dining room. “They look like a rainbow instead of a closet you’re afraid to open the door on.”

“Then what?”

“What?” Marce looked confused—a little too purposefully so, Kate thought. “Oh, the cat. Well, the cat and I marched right over and knocked on the door and told the man—he was lovely, too, by the way—that Shingles didn’t belong to me.”

“Shingles?” Kate interrupted. She finished folding the towels and went to put them on the table at the bottom of the back staircase. She would take them up as soon as she heard the rest of the story that had Marce blushing like a teenager on her first date.

“Well, yes, because he spends so much of his free time on the shed roof—either ours or Nick’s.”

“Nick?”

“Yes. Pay attention, Kate. Nick is the next-door neighbor who bought and fixed up the camp and yelled at me and left Shingles with me.”

“And what did Nick do when you took Shingles back?”

“He invited me in for a drink. He said he’d been looking for an original way to meet me and Shingles had served that purpose beautifully. After we had the drink, well, two actually—they were small—I invited him over for dinner. The next day, I gave Shingles a few filets from the fish the girls had caught. I thought he’d earned them.” Her face shone with a delight Kate hadn’t seen there in a very long time.

“Speaking of the girls, what do they think of Nick?”

“They like him a lot. And...oh, Kate, I never thought I’d be happy again. I’d thought I’d be like Joann eventually, you know, fully content with being single. We’ve been friends for so long, like you and Penny, and I just thought our lives were going to be parallel, but they’re not. Jo
loves
being single, but I just tolerate it. We’re taking it a bit slow—I mean, I still have the girls to consider—but I’m in love with Nick, just as sure as the sun rises in the morning.”

“I’m so glad for you.” And she was, although envy tried to crowd in there, too. She pushed it aside. “What would Frank think of him?”

“He’d like him, I think. His parents do. And I know, beyond the shadow of any kind of doubt, that he’d want this for me. He’d be happy that I’m happy.”

Kate remembered what Marce had said only weeks ago when Kate had asked her if she thought she’d ever love someone again.
Maybe. But not that way. You only get that once.
“Is it the same?” Kate asked, sounding wistful enough to be embarrassed by it. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer that.”

“I don’t mind.” Marce got up, refilling their cups. She stopped for a moment to touch the worn countertop at the baking station Kate knew Frank had designed and assembled to his wife’s specifications. “No, it’s not the same, but it’s quite lovely in its own way. I’ll miss Frank Comer till the day I die, but I’m thrilled to be happy again.”

“I’m so glad,” Kate said again. “Would you do anything different, Marce, if you could start over again? Knowing what you know now, I mean.”

“You mean, would I still marry Frank if I’d known he was going to die young?”

“Yes. Would you? Would you have had kids if you’d known you were going to be a single mother?”

“I’m one of the lucky ones, I guess. I wouldn’t give up a minute with Frank for anything in the world. Even the bad minutes, which I have to admit always lasted a lot more than a minute. Same with the kids. If I hadn’t been married, I’d probably have still found a way to be a mother. I’m not like Penny is, you know, the quintessential earth mother, but it was important to me.”

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