Read Back to McGuffey's Online

Authors: Liz Flaherty

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

Back to McGuffey's (2 page)

BOOK: Back to McGuffey's
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Looking in the framed mirror over the bathroom sink, she thought of her house with its flower boxes and pretty shutters. Sometimes dreams just ended sadly. One thing you could count on, though, was that they did indeed always end. A soft fleece robe lay across the foot of her bed. She drew it on over the voluminous gown and went downstairs, trailing her hand along the worn-smooth wood of the curving banister. The dining room was empty, so she pushed open the swinging door into the kitchen.

“Sleep okay?” The innkeeper handed her a cup and gestured toward the double-carafe coffeemaker. “Coffee’s ready and water’s hot if you’d rather have tea.” She smiled. “No wine before dinner if you had in mind to continue your wicked ways from last night.”

Ah, that explained the niggling headache—it wasn’t a product of fires or dreams but of three glasses of supermarket wine. “Coffee works.”

The brew was half gone when she lowered the cup from her mouth. Yes, it certainly did work.

“Marce—” she went back to the coffee, refilling the cup “—are you really thinking about leaving the inn?”

“Only for the summer,” said Marce. “I need to be away from it for a bit, but I want it to come home to. I can run the inn and still go to school.”

The knock at the back door announced the arrival of Joann Demotte, Penny’s older sister, carrying Kate’s insurance policy and a bulging briefcase. “Coffee?” she pleaded, before sitting down and diving into her bag to emerge with a laptop and a yellow legal pad.

After a few minutes and a cup and a half of Marce’s breakfast blend, Joann looked over the top of her purple-framed reading glasses at Kate. “The good news is that you weren’t underinsured the way a lot of people are, and the cause of the fire was cut-and-dried.”

Kate tensed. “And the bad news?”
Not more. Please not more.

“The house is a total loss. Nothing was saved that can be restored. But you knew that.”

Kate drew a deep breath. The lead was back in her chest. She thought of the heirloom quilts that had covered the beds and the Blue Onion and Blue Willow dishes she’d collected one by one at garage sales, and she nearly wept. They hadn’t been family treasures—her mother and grandmothers would have eaten glass before they’d have sewn or kept old dishes—but she’d enjoyed them. They’d kept her warm and made her poky little house into a place of welcome and comfort.

She remembered the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the den. She’d filled them with well-read paperbacks, not worth much in the used-book trade, but priceless to her. Her knuckles turned white where she gripped her cup in both hands. But then she remembered the contents of the safe-deposit box, the laptop on the seat of the car and the fact that no one had been hurt.

Even Dirty Sally had been visiting the Siamese next door at the time of the fire. Sally had never had kittens, but she was totally captivated by the neighbor’s litters. Kate knew exactly how she felt.

“It’s all right,” she said. She took a deep breath. And another. “Yes, it is.”
Or it will be. I’ve made a life without babies or Ben McGuffey—I can make one without my house. Or handmade quilts or dishes that are blurry blue and beautiful.

“You can have the lot cleared as soon as it cools down.” Joann’s voice was brisk, bringing Kate out of the tunnel grief was taking her into. “The fire marshal and my adjuster have promised to release their reports ASAP. This, by the way, is unheard-of—normally they don’t do it until I’ve called at least five or six times, begging and weeping and threatening to do dire things to them. Are you dating anyone interesting?”

“No. Not even anyone boring.”

“Too bad, I was looking for some good gossip to spread around the tavern at lunch.” Joann’s eyes widened when Marce set a huge slice of coffee cake in front of her. “Oh, Marce, you shouldn’t have.”

“It’s your reward for taking care of Kate,” said Marce airily. “If there’s nothing else I can do for you two, I’m off to make the beds.”

Kate watched the woman leave the kitchen. “How much money will I get?” She turned her attention back to Joann.

“Lessee....” The agent put on her glasses and clicked computer keys, pausing to frown, ask questions and shake her head at Kate’s answers.

Several computer screens later, Joann gave her a number. “That’s ballpark. We don’t know how much your contents will be yet, so it will probably be more. Plus we’ll put you up here for thirty days—longer if you need it. Your car wasn’t damaged, was it?”

“No, it’s in Penny’s driveway. Dan always says it won’t run when I’ve been drinking.”

Joann smiled fondly. “Dan Elsbury is a nice man, isn’t he?”

“He is,” said Kate. “Of course, he’s also a cop. He knows Penny wouldn’t like it if he arrested me. Especially at their house.”

“So.” Joann shuffled the papers into a folder and turned off her laptop. She closed it and slipped it back into her briefcase. “Any ideas? You’re not going to rebuild, are you?”

“Probably not.” Kate’s street had gone from being beginner-home-cozy to a row of buildings that mostly contained small businesses with second-story office or living space. The single-family dwellings and duplexes that were left didn’t seem to belong anymore. While it still wasn’t a bad place to live, she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life there, either. At least, she didn’t think she did.

The back door opened and Penny came in, wearing a ragged sweater over jeans and a T-shirt with a slogan proclaiming it had been stolen from the Fionnegan Police Department. “You’re all right?” She took Joann’s cup from her hand and sipped, looking at Kate over its rim.

Joann took back the mug. “She’s fine. Get your own cup and see if Marce has any more of that coffee cake. For me, not you. You’re still trying to lose baby weight.”

Penny gave her a baleful look. “Michael is ten.” She brought the coffee carafe and the cake and sat at the island with the other two women.

Marce came back into the kitchen. “Doesn’t take long to make beds when you only have two guests. It also helps that one of them is gone half the time and the other one made her own bed,” she grumbled. “Now I’ll have to eat some of this coffee cake so it won’t go to waste.”

“I can take some with me,” Penny offered generously. “I’d be in good with the boys. Might even be able to get them to start cleaning their room. They wouldn’t finish, but starting would be real progress.”

“No, that’s okay.” Marce got herself a cup and plate and came to sit down. She cut the remaining cake into four pieces and passed them around. “See? No problem.”

“How busy is the inn, Marce?” asked Kate.

The older woman sipped her coffee. “In mud season, it’s often slow. It’s not always full in summer, either, though trail cyclists are changing that. We have some nearly every weekend. In the fall and winter, you don’t have time to blow your nose, so don’t even think of getting a cold. I’ve never gotten rich, by any means, but like the old saying goes, it’s a living. In the off-season, it’s a party place. Teas and showers. Meetings now and then. The dining room and the two parlors run into each other and you can accommodate up to fifty if they don’t all want to sit down at the same time, not nearly so many if they do.”

“How many guest rooms?” asked Joann.

“Two suites—the one Kate’s in and the two-bedroom one over the garage, which also has a kitchenette—and three rooms. They all have private baths, phones, wireless internet and television. I fought Frank tooth and nail over television, saying the kind of clientele we’d attract wanted peace and quiet. He said they wanted to choose their own kind of peace, and he was right.” Marce’s eyes misted over. “It seems I’m looking for Frank every time I turn a corner. The truth is he’s not there, and I need to stop looking. Maybe a couple of months away would help me with that.”

The women helped her load the dishwasher before saying their goodbyes and leaving the big Victorian. Joann returned to her office and Kate walked as far as Penny’s house with her before heading out on her own.

At loose ends for the first time in longer than she could remember, she wasn’t sure where to go. It wasn’t as though Fionnegan, Vermont, presented many choices. There were two stoplights downtown and a caution light on Worship Street at the intersection with a church on every corner. There weren’t any strip malls or chain restaurants yet, nor was there much physical space for growth, the town being nestled into the Green Mountains the way it was. So people still shopped and ate downtown, and sat on the park benches the chamber of commerce placed in front of every business. Fionnegan was a good place to live, to raise children, to find, as Frank Comer had said, one’s own kind of peace.

Before she knew it, she found herself walking along the path that meandered through dips and shallow valleys toward the more difficult trails that climbed Wish Mountain. Kate felt unaccustomed restlessness. What did she want to do? Did she want, for the first time in her thirty-seven years, to move away from the Northeast Kingdom to a place that offered longer summers, less mud and—and what? Something different. She could move to Tennessee, near the log home on Dale Hollow Lake where her parents were so happy, or the Nashville suburb to be near her sister.

But she realized neither of those places would be home. The wanderlust that had made her family relocate and had put motor homes in their driveways had skipped her completely. Whatever she decided to do, it needed to be here.

“Coming up behind!” The shout came just before something—or someone—knocked her right off her feet, pushing her not so neatly into the mud on the edge of the trail that led down to Tierney’s Creek.

“I’m sorry,” said a familiar voice. “I know better, but I think I flunked looking where I was going in running school. Are you all right?”

Hands, wide palmed but with long and slender fingers, helped her up.

And Kate looked up into the eyes she’d once planned on looking into for the rest of her life.

“Ben,” she said, “I’m way too old for you to sweep me off my feet again. And it’s just barely May—the creek’s still freezing.”

He snorted. “Like it won’t still be freezing in July.” His voice was like a caress as he brushed her down, easing the sharp edges of her nerves even as a new—or maybe remembered—excitement thumped through her veins. “I heard about the fire. You all right?”

She wondered if his blood pressure was fluctuating as much as hers was. His eyes were still deep and mossy green, his handsome face even more compelling at thirty-nine than it had been in high school. His legs below the baggy running shorts were lean and muscled, and if he’d added any weight to his six-feet-plus frame, it was in all the right places. His hair, wheat-blond and arrow-straight, still needed cutting, though it wasn’t long enough to pull back into a leather thong anymore. This was, she admitted to herself, exactly what she noticed about him every time she saw him, but something felt different today. Warmer. Intenser.
Intenser?
Was that a word or just a sensation that made her veins jump around like they had electrical charges in them?

“My dad hated the ponytail.” She felt herself blush.
Idiot.
Her father’s opinion of her high school boyfriend’s hair hadn’t mattered twenty years ago—it mattered even less now. “But Mom said he was being a curmudgeon.”

He pushed his hair back from his face. “Pop hated it, too, but it sure did keep it out of the way. And I thought I looked really cool.” He kept looking at her. “Oh, man.”

“What?” She looked around. There were dogs farther up the trail, barking insistently. The leaves were coming on strong even though she could still see her breath in the late-morning air, but she didn’t see anything to have caused the frustration in his voice.

“You look great, Katy,” he said. “You do.”

She would congratulate herself later on whatever kind of willpower it was that kept her from putting a smoothing hand to her hair and tugging her sweatshirt down over her hips. Hips that had grown some in the past thirteen years. “Thank you,” she said. “So do you.” With a nod and a smile that even
felt
vague—she could only imagine how it looked—she started off again. “Take care, Ben.”

“You, too.”

But she was less than ten feet away when he said, “Hey!” and she stopped, feeling his nearness even before he came to stand beside her. “Where are you going?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” Her smile felt rueful this time—
she
felt rueful. “I don’t
have
anywhere to go, which feels strange. I’m unemployed and homeless.”

He put his hands on her shoulders, and she felt the warmth immediately. It made her understand how Dirty Sally felt when she found the blanket with a heating pad under it on the inn’s porch swing.

Ben turned her around briskly. “Nope,” he said, “I don’t see any signs that you’ve become a bag lady overnight.”

“Appearances can be deceiving,” she said. “But, since we’re here, what’s this I hear about you coming back to Fionnegan? I thought Boston was your dream.”

Something changed in his eyes, though she wasn’t sure what it was. She had to stop herself from touching his face, offering comfort for a pain she didn’t understand.

“I’m here for the summer—I just took a partial leave from my office. We’ll see what happens after that.” His voice was deliberately—and not all that convincingly—casual. He shrugged and fell into step beside her when she started walking again, more disturbed than she wanted to admit by the impression that something was wrong.

“Did you have a fire, too?” She met his gaze for just an instant, long enough to reestablish the connection that never seemed to entirely break, then looked away. If she didn’t watch where she was going, she was going to end up in Tierney’s Creek yet, and she didn’t have any clean clothes to put on if she did. “An internal one, maybe?”

He was silent long enough she thought she might have overstepped the bounds of questions old girlfriends could ask.

“Sometimes,” he said finally, “what you dream of isn’t what you wanted after all. Sometimes you mistake other people’s dreams for your own.”

Kate didn’t know, because none of her dreams had come true. If anyone else had had dreams for her, they probably hadn’t come true, either. Her parents, who had run the gamut from being hippies in college to becoming startlingly conservative schoolteachers to selling their house and taking off for Tennessee in a motor home, had never visited their own ambitions on their daughters.

BOOK: Back to McGuffey's
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