Authors: Liz Flaherty
Tags: #Family Life, #Contemporary, #Fiction, #RNS, #Romance
The bell sounded from below. “Kate,” said Marce, “would you attend to that please while I show Mr. and Mrs. Fallon how to open this window without breaking any nails?”
“Of course.” Kate smiled at the guests. “Welcome to Kingdom Comer.” There, that wasn’t much different from saying,
Schuyler and Lund. How may I direct your call?
But there were no guests in the foyer, only Joan n and her mother. Before Kate could inquire what they were doing there and where Joann got the blouse she was wearing, the door opened, admitting Maeve McGuffey and her daughter. Morgan was a history professor at a small private college in Fionnegan even though she still looked like the homecoming queen she’d been in high school.
Kate hugged Maeve and then Morgan. “How do you
it? Is it hard teaching students who want to take you out after class?”
“I got Mom’s bones.” Morgan beamed at her mother. “And you know the rest—clean living and good liquor.”
They shared a laugh, and Kate took a longer look at Maeve. The green eyes her son had inherited still sparkled, but she looked tired. Older. Kate shook her head at her. “You’re working too hard, aren’t you?”
Maeve waved a dismissive hand. “Working’s good for the soul—just gets a bit hard on the body from time to time.”
“Go on into the parlor,” Marce invited from the stairway. “Here we are, Kate. Now you can see how we handle parties. This is obviously an afternoon one, confined to the east parlor and the dining room—unless someone gets a bit rowdy. Penny’s catering it, so everyone will have gained ten pounds or so by the time they leave.”
“That’s odd. She didn’t say anything when we talked last night,” Kate said, following the guests toward the parlor.
The room, a well-lit expanse of cushy blue carpet, chintz slipcovers and lap-size quilts tossed over the backs of chairs, was full. More to the point, it was full of women Kate knew, all holding glasses and most of them laughing.
“Well,” she said, feeling a little more hurt than she’d have cared to admit, “is this a meeting of the Fionnegan Women’s Club? More to the point, wouldn’t I have known about it if it existed?” She wanted to ask why she hadn’t been invited but was afraid she might not like the answer.
Penny crossed the room to hug her. “We thought about telling you, but you’re not nearly well dressed enough to join.” She gestured at the crop pants and matching blouse she was wearing. “Joann handed this down to me after owning it only two years, making me the walking dress code for this group.”
Meg Palmer, a paralegal from Schuyler and Lund, stood. “We decided that since you’d given roughly four hundred wedding and baby gifts over the years, it was your turn to have a shower. And since none of us can face that sweatshirt for one more day, we elected to make it a clothing shower.”
Joann pinched Kate’s sleeve, wrinkling her nose. “Wasn’t this sweatshirt Penny’s in high school?”
“No, actually it was Dan’s. Penny’s all had baby spit-up stains on them. But the jeans were yours somewhere near the end of the last decade. They should pass muster.” Kate narrowed her eyes at the insurance agent. “And if you want to keep collecting insurance premiums from me, you won’t remind me that the reason you gave them away was that they were two sizes too big for you.”
“Sit down, Kate, and open your presents,” Marce urged, walking around the room with a bottle of white and a bottle of red wine, refilling glasses. “After Friday, when I leave you here, you won’t have that much sitting-down time.”
Kate sat in the chair offered to her, then gasped with delight when Penny and Joann brought in armloads of gifts, dumping them unceremoniously on the floor in front of her.
“Open mine first!” Penny sat on the floor with the gift bags and brightly wrapped packages and rooted until she found a box festooned with ribbons and covered in Christmas paper. “Michael wrapped it,” she explained.
The present contained a pair of pajamas “for slumber parties,” a bottle of wine “also for slumber parties and you’ll always know it was from me because it was really cheap,” and a pretty green blouse: “Dan picked it out. It wasn’t even on sale!” Also in the package were two Blue Onion cups and saucers “for
the slumber party” and a replica of their senior year T-shirt from twenty years ago—“Skip Lund still had his and his wife was glad to get rid of it.”
Kate pulled her sweatshirt off over her head and donned the only-slightly-too-big T-shirt. “This is better than having my job back.” That wasn’t quite true, but close enough.
Midway through the gift-opening, Marce ran to answer the door and came back with a huge express mail parcel. “It’s from your mom and Sarah,” she explained. “They called this morning to say it was on the way. I was hoping it would make it.” She produced a box knife. “Be careful with this. We’ve seen you cut things before.”
Kate sat on the floor and opened the box carefully. “Sarah must have taped this,” she said, slicing through three layers of packing tape. “Mom’s more the ‘a piece and a promise’ type.” When Kate opened the flaps of the box, a soft
went round the room.
Kate stared at the contents of the gift for a moment in silence, holding her eyes wide and taking deep breaths. Finally, she covered her face with her hands, tears flowing inexorably between her fingers. Penny slid off the couch to sit beside her and put her arms around her.
The box contained two quilts. Not new, but beautiful and handmade. One was a Double Wedding Ring pattern, made from hundreds of scraps of fabric on a cream-colored background. The other quilt was a blue-and-white Irish Chain, nearly identical to the one that had been on her bed when the house burned. It had been the first one she’d ever bought, when she’d still thought that things with Ben were going to last forever.
“We know this was supposed to be a clothing shower,” said the note written in her mother’s scrawled handwriting, “but Sarah and I decided we just wanted you to be warm and safe, no matter how you were dressed.”
When the party ended two hours later, Kate had enough underwear to get through a week, enough church clothes for three Sundays, and enough outfits to change clothes every day from Monday through Friday as long as she wore the black pants twice and didn’t spill anything on herself. There was a pair of yoga pants, sweats, sandals and a new pair of walking shoes with a card inside the box that read, “Meet you on the porch at eight o’clock—bagels are on you.”
Her hairstylist gave her a supply of hair and skin products and the nail technician who’d gone to school on money Kate loaned her had given her ten appointments, free of charge. Tark Bridger and his wife had sent a gift card from Louisa’s Garret, the bookstore over on Alcott Street, a thoughtful gesture that made her eyes water.
As she opened presents and laughed with the roomful of women, something stirred in the back of her mind, creating an emotional itch she knew she’d end up scratching at some point.
Is this all there is of my turn? Have the bridal and baby showers Meg mentioned passed me by?
The thought was painful, and she wondered if it was like a new phone or having the gas cap in a different place on a car—just something she’d have to get used to.
She sipped from the glass of punch beside her, thinking how much time she’d spent at events like this. Playing games engineered for the guest of honor to win, hoping the gift she’d chosen would be a cause for happiness. It wasn’t till now, surrounded by her friends, that she truly believed the gift didn’t matter—it was the thoughts of the giver.
“You know,” she said, holding a silk scarf against her cheek, “I think I’m pretty rich.” And as for that itch, well, she could live with that.
Penny helped carry the bounty back to Marce’s room. “You don’t have any excuses now,” she said, slipping clothes onto the satin-covered padded hangers Morgan had included with her gift.
“Excuses for what?” said Kate, hanging a peach-colored blouse beside brown crop pants and admiring the effect.
“For starting a new life. You lost your job and now you have one. You lost your home and now you have one. You lost your clothes and now you have some. You even got a new roommate for Dirty Sally, since she prefers Lucy to you.”
“I don’t want a new life.” Kate hung up a dress, arranging a matching jacket over it. “I just want the old one back.”
“No, you don’t.” Penny caught and held her gaze. “You’re starting over, girlfriend. Do it right.”
* * *
. Watching Kate step off the back porch to join him, Ben wasn’t sure how she’d changed, but she had. Her brown eyes looked brighter somehow, her hair shinier. Tendrils that escaped her ponytail fell about her face in perky golden-brown commas. The fact that she wasn’t wearing Dan’s old sweatshirt didn’t hurt matters at all. He wondered if that had anything to do with the women that had filled the bed-and-breakfast that afternoon. He’d gone into the kitchen to beg a cup of coffee, but had left empty-handed when he heard the noise from the rest of the house.
He returned her smile. “Good day?”
She fell into step beside him. “Real good,” she said, and held up one foot, giving it a little spin. “See my new shoes? Aren’t they pretty? How about you? Have you settled your future yet? Is it doctor or ski bum? Or maybe a bartender like those guys in that old Tom Cruise movie,
He tugged at her ponytail but was silent for a half block. The only sounds were the soft ones of their rubber-soled shoes and Lucy’s toenails against the sidewalk. When he spoke, he heard the hesitancy in his own words. “Everything I said before is true, but the first and most important reason I’m here for the summer is that my dad—” He stopped, reminding himself of his promise to his parents to not talk about Tim’s illness outside the family.
But for years, Kate had been
the family. She’d had her own toothbrush in the upstairs bathroom, her own pillow on the spare twin bed in Morgan’s room. Tim had taught her to dance and Maeve had shared the magic of Irish cooking with her. Kate and Dylan had been so close Ben had suffered a few bouts of jealousy, no less painful for being silent—they were still close as far as he knew and the thought of it still made him resentful. She’d been a bridesmaid when Patrick and Wendy got married. If it hadn’t been for Ben’s idiocy thirteen years ago—but, no, there was no way of knowing that.
“Your dad?” Kate prompted, drawing Lucy to a stop before they crossed the street. “Don’t tell me he’s going to take a vacation and you came home to help in the bar. Tim
takes a vacation.”
“More than a regular vacation, really,” Ben said, relieved she’d made answering that question so easy. “His and Mom’s trips back to Ireland have all been for funerals. Their families have always come here to visit. We know they get homesick, so we’re sending the folks to Ireland for the entire summer and we’re going to run the bar.”
Sadness settled on Kate’s features. “Who’s sick? Your grandma in Cork? One of your aunts and uncles? Tim and Maeve would never leave McGuffey’s or you kids for that long unless they had no choice.”
He should have known she’d pick up on that. The weight of knowing about his father’s illness and—worse—his prognosis, grew heavier with the effort to not talk about it. Maybe if he changed the subject, he could keep his promise.
Ben looked around, searching for something to say that didn’t have to do with Tim. The mud was dissipating early this spring. The growers in the Northeast Kingdom would be planting their gardens in the coming days. “Are you planting a garden this year?”
She shrugged. “Probably. Everyone on Alcott Street helps with it, plus Penny and Dan. One thing about a double lot is there’s plenty of space.” Her sigh was bone deep. “Especially now, with the house gone.”
“Right. All vegetables?”
“Mostly, but we put flowers around the edges. Some of them help with insects, and the butterflies look so pretty around them.” She grinned at him, though her eyes were questioning. “Did you want me to plant you a nice row of beets?”
“Yuck. You bet. Right next to your favorite kind of squash.”
She left his side, taking a seat on a park bench in front of the candle shop. Lucy collapsed at her feet. “She’s tired.” Kate leaned forward to ruffle the golden retriever’s fur. Ben thought if dogs could purr, that’s what Lucy would be doing.
Without looking up, Kate said, “I thought maybe if we sat here for a little while, you’d want to talk about whatever’s really bothering you. We’ve already broken up, so it can’t be that. We’re doing pretty well with the friendship thing, so I don’t think it’s that, either. But something’s wrong.” She continued to stroke Lucy, her hands gentle on the old dog.
He sat beside her, thinking if they weren’t looking at each other, he could stop himself from telling her. But he hadn’t reckoned on the feel of her arm against his, the warmth of her skin through her sweatpants where their thighs touched or the remembered certainty that anything he said or did was safe with her. But a promise was a promise. He couldn’t tell her what was on his mind, hurting his heart, making his knuckles white. He couldn’t—
“Tim?” She laid her free hand on Ben’s where he clutched the edge of the bench between them. “I noticed he looked tired. Is there more to it?”
He chuckled, though there wasn’t any humor in the situation that he could see. “He’s had heart disease for years. There’ve been a few surgeries and he’s been on the transplant list. Mom’s taken great care of him when he hasn’t been well and they’ve chosen how they were going to live with the disease. Actually,
chosen and she’s made it possible. Patrick and I wanted him to retire five years ago. I’m sure you can imagine how that conversation went.”
She laughed, and her fingers squeezed his. “I’ll bet it made the ones about your ponytail seem mild in comparison.”
“Oh, heck, yes. There were even a few ‘don’t darken me doors’ tossed in there.”
Her fingers, nervous now, squeezed his again. “Go on. Tell me about your dad.”
“His heart disease has followed its natural course. He was on the transplant list, but the older he got and the worse his general health became, the less likely he was to receive a heart. He is at the point now that he probably wouldn’t survive the surgery. As he puts it, ‘me ticker’s winding down and the stem’s broken off the clock.’” Ben shook his head, finding relief in talking about his father.