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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 wasn’t unhappy with her life or the choices she’d made, exactly, but none of the things she’d written about in her adolescent diaries had come to pass. There were no young Bens or little Kates running around; she’d never passed meds at a hospital or comforted patients in her doctor-husband’s office; she’d never even slept in a dorm or gone to any of the parties her sister and Joann Demotte had talked about. The only talents she was sure she had involved answering the phone and making copies. Oh, and coffee. They’d miss her coffee back at Schuyler and Lund.

“I discovered,” he said, “that I had a bigger ego than I was comfortable with, something which wouldn’t have surprised my basketball coaches, but shocked the heck out of me. I began to feel a sense of—” He stopped, seeming to struggle with what came next.

“Entitlement?” she suggested, having worked with lawyers who’d been overendowed with that particular shortcoming.

“Yeah, I think so.” His tone became self-mocking. “Like I shouldn’t have to answer the phone in the middle of the night anymore and seriously ill patients really
could
take two aspirin and call me in the morning. It no longer bothered me that as part of a large practice, I seldom got to know the patients. After all, I was helping them, wasn’t I? And the other partners in the practice—man, they are good. It’s not as though patients needed me specifically.”

“But?” she said, stepping out and around a tree root and greatly enjoying it when he bumped into her once again.

He steadied her and kept an arm looped over her shoulders when they walked on. “But I don’t have time to ski or ride my bike or read the newspaper or even play basketball at the Y. I haven’t read a book from start to finish since I read
Green Eggs and Ham
to my brother’s kids at Christmastime.”

“Well, Ben, you’re busy. People are nowadays. They just are. Look at Penny and Dan. She caters all the time, he works twelve-hour shifts at the police department plus officiating at high school football and basketball games.”

“Yeah, and they still take care of their kids and however many they’re fostering at any given moment. Plus, he makes time to ride or go skiing every time I come back to town. I know they’re busier than I am, but they still make a life. I just make lots of money.”

Kate thought of the state of her bank account and her employment status. Although making money had never been at the top of her list of things that made her happy, she wished she’d been able to save more of what she
had
made.

“The first thing I thought of,” he said quietly, “when I heard about your fire, was that I’d send a check. We grew up together, shared more than I’ve probably shared with anyone in my life, including the woman I married, and that was all I could think, was that I’d send you a check.”

“I’d have understood,” she said, just as quietly, but she was hurt by the very notion of it. This was a man who knew every secret she’d ever had and had never told any of them. He’d made the three-hour drive from Boston to Fionnegan when she and Tark Bridger broke up just to make sure she was all right. “It wouldn’t look good,” he’d explained, “if you’d killed yourself with me being a doctor and all.” She’d laughed so hard she’d cried, and he’d held her close and hard, then gotten back in his car and driven back to Boston in time to work a night shift in the emergency room.

No, she wouldn’t have understood. Not at all. She’d have torn up the check.

“You’d have torn it up,” he said, echoing her thoughts so exactly she laughed out loud. “So if we end this walk by schlepping through the vacant lot behind the tavern, will you let me buy you lunch?”

“I could be talked into it.”

Of course, that was nothing new. He’d always been able to talk her into anything.

Oh, come on, Katy. You can do this hill with one hand tied behind your back.

We’ll be back before your folks wake up.

We’re going to get married, anyway, right?

It’s only beer. It’s not like
really
drinking.

Oh, come on, Katy...

* * *

M
C
G
UFFEY

S
T
AVERN
HAD
sat at the corner of Main Street and Creamery Road—and Tim McGuffey had stood behind the bar—for as long as Kate could remember. Maeve, Ben’s mother, ran the kitchen with an iron hand, and between the two of them, they’d reared two doctors, a priest and a college professor. Every kid in town who’d ever needed lunch money to get through the week had earned it by washing glasses at McGuffey’s.

Old habits die hard. As soon as she finished her potato soup and corned beef sandwich, Kate moved to the triple sinks behind the bar.

“Take a break, Pop, and go wheedle potato soup out of Ma,” suggested Ben. “Kate and I’ll earn our keep while you eat.” He reached for an apron and tied it around her waist.

“Think I will, at that.” Tim, elegant as always in his crisp white shirt and black vest, kissed Kate’s cheek as he passed. “There’s a lass. We’re sorry about your house, but you’re better off without that blighted job.”

She flashed him a smile, taking startled and concerned note of his grayish complexion, the dark circles under his twinkling Irish eyes.
No, you can’t be old
. “Thanks, Tim.”

For a while, she did feel like she was better off. Brushing hips and elbows with Ben behind the bar was like old times, only with slightly matured hormones. Calling greetings to patrons was a lot more fun than saying in a hushed and professional voice, “Good morning. Schuyler and Lund. How may I direct your call?”

“You still carry a good tray of glasses,” said Ben, catching her as she took empties back to the bar. He lifted the tray from her hands and set it on the nearest table. “Can you still dance, too?” And with no accompaniment other than clapping and shouting customers, he whirled her away between the tables, moving the way Tim and Maeve had taught them years ago. Keeping them in each other’s arms to dance, Maeve had said later, was their way of keeping them
out
of each other’s arms in the backseat of a car.

“And you,” Kate said, flushed and laughing when they ended up back where they’d started, “still talk good blarney, Ben McGuffey.” She was quiet for a moment, then smiled into his face. “It was fun,” she said quietly, “and for a little while, we were young again. Something, at least, wasn’t in ashes. Thank you for that. I needed it.” She stood on tiptoe to brush a kiss along the line of his jaw, then took off her apron and pushed it into his hands. “Tell your folks so long for me—I have to go.”

She fled before he could stop her.

On the way back to Kingdom Comer, she stopped at the now-vacant double lot on Alcott Street where her house had stood. The long piece of land with an unexpected grove of maples at its back was cordoned off with police tape, and the charred remains of her duplex still smoked. She remembered her excitement when she’d bought the white clapboard saltbox, her plans for making it into a single dwelling when she could afford it. There would have been room for several children and a couple of dogs, for cats to lie on heat registers and the porch swing. She’d haunted rummage sales and antiques shops, searching out blue-and-white dishes and quilts with love stitched into them.

The last time she’d danced between the tables with Ben, he’d told her he didn’t want to be her boyfriend anymore. She’d felt, even as she nodded agreement and kissed him goodbye with all the bonhomie she could muster, as though the bottom had fallen out of the world. She’d felt lonely and afraid and betrayed. She’d stared blindly into the soapy water in the bar sink and wondered what in the world she was going to do now.

Thirteen years later, still warm from being in Ben’s arms, still hearing the music of the dance, she looked at the place where her house had stood. And wondered what in the world she was going to do now.

CHAPTER TWO

K
ATE
MUMBLED
UNMUSICALLY
about making lists and checking them twice as she went over, for what was more like the twentieth time, the inventory of contents for her house. “I didn’t keep receipts from garage sales,” she told Penny and Marce, who were discussing recipes across the kitchen island from where she sat. She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Of course, even if I had, they’d have burned up.”

“I think you should buy the inn from Marce,” said Penny, “and we should be partners. I can’t afford half—no one will pay enough for the kids or Dan’s ’57 Chevy for that—but I’m good for twenty-five percent and I’ll throw in one of the boys. Michael gives good shoulder-rubs, but Josh takes out the trash without being asked.”

Kate got up and went around to hug her. “We’ve been best friends since first grade. I’m not giving that up for a partnership. Not to mention, I don’t think Marce is interested in selling.”

Penny looked sorrowful. “I can’t get you to take
any
of the kids, even if we don’t buy the inn?”

“Not a one. You’d end up wanting them back and we’d fight over them. The kids would like it—the boys always like a good fight—but it would be ugly for us. We’re too old for the whole hair-pulling thing.”

“Oh, well, okay.” Penny stopped poring over coffee cake recipes and leaned her chin in her palm. “So, best friend, how was lunch with Ben yesterday?”

“It was fine,” said Kate, “but I swear, he seems as much at loose ends as I am.”

“He is.” Marce got up when the bell on the oven dinged, opening the back door to admit Joann at the same time.

Kate looked up in surprise. “You’ve talked to him, Marce?”

“My word, I thought you knew. He’s the tenant in the garage apartment. He said he thought he’d outgrown spending summers with his parents.” Marce handed out scones before biting into one herself. “I don’t know about these. They’re cranberry, which some people are quite picky about. What do you think?”

Kate took a taste, blowing out crumbs when she sighed in ecstasy. “Yum. You need to forget about college and the B and B, Marce. You and Penny need to build a bakery where my house used to be.”

“I’ll insure you,” Joann offered, grabbing another scone before she’d finished the first one. She held up the second one. “This is the real meaning of insurance. If you’re in a kitchen with a bunch of women, don’t be too polite or you’ll end up with nothing to eat but the parsley garnish on the plate.”

Penny ignored her, latching on to the bakery idea. “But who would teach my boys algebra?” she demanded. “Although if it was a bakery and caterer combined, I could be the catering half and just make Dan help the boys with their math.”

Joann shook her head. “Dan was in my class. He only got by with a C minus because he was charming and Mrs. Wildermuth was susceptible. He should have flunked.”

Penny smiled fondly. “He was something, wasn’t he?”

“So, anyway.” Joann leaned her elbows on the solid surface of the island. “How was lunch at McGuffey’s, Kate? I heard you and Ben danced and that no one heard the music except you two.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.” Penny snorted derisively. “Everybody dances at McGuffey’s.”

“Not at lunchtime, without music,” said Marce wisely, “although Frank and I did, and then we had the twins.” She paused, her cup halfway to her mouth, her eyes softening in memory.

“That’s a lie,” Kate accused, sending more crumbs flying.

Marce smacked her with a folded napkin. “It is not a lie. We danced at McGuffey’s and then a year later the twins were born.” She refilled everyone’s coffee cups, grinning. “It was a really long pregnancy.”

“All of them are,” Penny agreed.

Joann sighed. “I’ve heard all these stories before. I just want to know about Kate and Ben’s lunch.”

“We just walked a little, talked some and ate potato soup and corned beef sandwiches. On that rye bread Maeve makes from scratch. You need to get her recipe when you open your bakery.” Kate looked down at her list, trying not to remember the momentary look in Ben’s eyes. She ached, knowing something was wrong but not what it was. “My refrigerator was really old. Do you think I could list that under Antiques and increase its value?”

“I remember that refrigerator.” Joann reached for the cream pitcher. “You would have had to pay someone to haul it away, so you need to reimburse the insurance company for that.”

It was easy to laugh when Kate was in Kingdom Comer’s kitchen with her friends or even when she was walking with Ben McGuffey, but later that night, when she was alone in the back suite of the B and B, her situation was overwhelming. She sat in the window seat of the sitting room, hugging her knees and staring at the stars that peeked through the maple trees in the inn’s backyard. Below, Dirty Sally walked slowly across the courtyard toward the pet door that led into the three-season room on the back of the inn. Before she got there, however, a man stepped into Kate’s view and scooped the cat up, cuddling her against the side of his neck.

Ben.

They’d always been able to talk. One long and cold night soon after he’d broken up with her, she’d sat in the dark for hours, the silence of her apartment a screaming assault to her senses. Penny was just a few blocks away, but it was Ben’s voice she needed to hear.

The day she and Tark Bridger had broken their engagement, it had taken all the willpower she had not to get Ben’s number from his parents and call him. In the end, she hadn’t had to—he’d just shown up and made her laugh. He’d held her until she’d stopped shaking. When the laughter turned to tears, he mopped them up with a dish towel on her kitchen counter. Later, after he’d kissed her cheek and tugged at her ponytail before returning to Boston, she’d put the towel at the back of her underwear drawer. Sometimes, when she couldn’t convince herself she was only independent and not lonely, she’d take the towel out and hold it against her cheek.

Even at the weddings and funerals where they’d seen each other for the past thirteen years, they’d stood in corners and talked long beyond the point of good manners. Afterward, she would always tuck the memories of those conversations away behind her heart as carefully as she had stored the worn dish towel.

She started from the window seat to get the dish towel before she remembered that it had been lost in the fire. Grief, deeper and more scalding than she’d felt for her dishes and her quilts, made a shaking fist in her stomach. She hugged her knees and pressed her face against the soft cotton knit of her skirt.

A few minutes later, she was able to take a deep breath. A few deep breaths. And laugh a little at herself. She’d been so self-congratulatory that she’d felt scarcely any need to mourn over the possessions claimed by the fire, yet she was brought to her knees by the loss of one threadbare dish towel.

As though he could hear her thoughts, Ben looked up at the window where she sat. He waved, and she waved back. When he gestured—
come on down
—she didn’t hesitate, just slipped on the jeans and sweatshirt that had become her uniform and ran stocking footed down the back stairs of the B and B. She tiptoed past the closed door of Marce’s private quarters and stepped outside, stopping on the step to put on her shoes.

When he came to stand in front of her while she tied her shoelaces, she looked up. “I don’t know who I am anymore,” she blurted. “It was easy when I was the face and voice people knew at the law office and the woman who owned the duplex on Alcott Street.” She knew there were tears on her cheeks, and if she’d been talking to anyone besides Ben, she’d have been embarrassed by them. As it was, she just let them fall.

“I wouldn’t have thought my house and job and taste in household items made me into the person I was, but now that they’re gone, I don’t know who’s left. It used to tick me off so much that I was only Sarah Rafael’s little sister or one of the McGuffey boys’ girlfriends, but at least I was somebody. I wasn’t invisible even to myself.” She drew in a sobbing breath. “I’m not even somebody’s mom.”

Dirty Sally climbed into her lap and stood with her front paws on Kate’s chest to lick the salt from her face.

“She still knows who you are,” said Ben. He knelt, his gaze meeting hers in the dusky blue light from the moon and the solar lights beside the porch steps. “We’re back in the same place as we were thirteen years ago, aren’t we, Kate? We’ve both lost who we were and we’re both worried about who we’re going to become.”

She laughed, though it caught in her throat and sounded more like a sob. She supposed that was better than hysteria. “You want to go down to the tavern and break up? It was really horrible the first time, and I don’t understand even now why you did it, but it worked. We stayed broken up.”

“No.” He smiled at her. “We just
made
up in the tavern the other day. Not that we were ever mad at each other—at least, I don’t think we were. But it’s time we created a new relationship. Call it something new and life changing, like friendship. What do you think?” His expression sobered. “Maybe then we can talk to each other at weddings and funerals without feeling guilty about it.”

She frowned at him. She hadn’t felt guilty. Well, except while he was married. She’d still yearned for him, and coveting someone else’s husband wasn’t something she’d liked about herself. Later, when Ben’s younger brother Dylan told her the marriage was annulled, she hadn’t felt guilty anymore. Only sometimes, when the little flare of hope whooshed up under her breastbone and took her breath away. But she’d buried that quickly, stuffing it into a mental drawer that would have been labeled Denial if she’d been willing to give it that much thought.

Kate loved her friends. She and Penny knew things about each other no one else knew, even Joann and Kate’s sister, Sarah. But the link between Ben and herself had never come completely undone. Over the years since their breakup, she’d occasionally hated him, but she’d never stopped missing him. She’d never stopping wishing he was there to talk to. But he wasn’t her friend, was he? It was a whole lot more complicated than that.

Lucy, the inn’s resident golden retriever, slunk into the backyard from the alley behind and ambled toward the pet door. She raised a paw to push herself inside, then looked back over her shoulder at Kate and Ben. The struggle was written on the dog’s face: should she go inside and sprawl bonelessly on her bed or should she remain out here where it was cold and make sure she didn’t miss anything?

With a sigh and clicking toenails, she lay on the rug on the porch. Sally left Kate’s lap with a leap, landing in the middle of the C curve of Lucy’s body and snuggling into the burnished fur. The dog opened her eyes, sighed again, and closed them.

“Well,” said Kate, smiling at the animals, “I guess there might be stranger friendships than ours.” She got to her feet. “Come on, friend. I need to walk off some of these pastries Marce is forcing me to eat.”

“Forcing you, huh?” He chuckled and led the way out of the yard. “And here I was going to offer to buy you a bagel and a coffee—the Bagel Stop’s the only place in town that’s open this late. Guess I won’t ask you now. I’d hate to lead you astray.”

“Oh.” Kate walked beside him, stretching her stride as he shortened his so that by the time they reached the corner, she was gasping for air and he was taking baby steps. “You know,” she said, “if you’re hungry, I could probably get something down. Just a small coffee, you know, and maybe half a muffin. I could save the other half for breakfast.”

“You bet,” he said. “Come on, short woman. Move it.”

When he took her hand, it was a casual, friendly gesture, but it made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She shook her head. It was probably just the frayed collar of her sweatshirt. She was going to have to get some clothes; that was all there was to it.

The Bagel Stop was half-full of people. Kate, a natural-born morning person, looked around in disbelief. She’d never been here later than nine in the morning and assumed that’s when everyone else came, too. There couldn’t possibly be this many people in Fionnegan who stayed awake until midnight. “I thought it would be empty.”

“This is a college town,” Ben reminded her, “and it’s time for finals.” He waved at the young woman behind the counter. “That’s Debby, who works nights and always looks tired. There’s a story there, but I don’t know what it is.”

The pretty waitress’s smile did much to erase the weariness from her face. She made recommendations and didn’t roll her eyes when Kate changed her mind. Twice.

“It’s a lot of calories,” said Kate, when Ben
did
roll his eyes. “I can only walk around the block so many times before I fall asleep.”

“That one’s not worth it.” Debby pointed at Kate’s second choice. “It looks nice and a lot of people like it, but it will sit in the middle of your stomach and weigh seven pounds. That one weighs seven pounds too—” she pointed at the first choice “—but it’s so worth it. I’d even
run
around the block for it, but it would take more than once.”

Kate opted for the first one, then followed Ben across the room to slide into a booth across from him.

She was halfway through her chocolate-chip-and-cream-cheese muffin and Ben was on his second bagel when a commotion from a corner booth captured their attention. By the time she said, “I wonder what’s going on,” Ben was halfway across the room, shouldering his way into the middle of the crowd that had materialized around the booth.

“Call 911,” he barked over his shoulder. Then to the milling group of panicked students, he said, “What’s he on? I need to know
now.

Kate reached for her cell phone and dialed the emergency number, noting that several people hurried out the door of the Bagel Stop, sprinting toward the college campus a few blocks away without looking back.

“I don’t know,” she said when the dispatcher came on the line and asked her to describe the situation. “A student collapsed at the Bagel Stop is all I can tell you. There is a doctor here. Yes, I’ll stay on the line.”

“Walk!” She flinched at the shouted command.

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