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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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“Oh, no.” Horror flickered across Kate’s features. “What does Maeve have to say to that?”

“She smacks him upside the head and starts singing to him. He sleeps a lot more than he used to, though, and every now and then, one of us will catch her just watching him and crying. You know Mom—she never lets anyone see her cry.” He fell silent for a minute, searching for equilibrium amongst all the thoughts of losing his father. “It’s hard.”

Kate secured Lucy’s leash under her foot and turned to face Ben, putting her arms around him. Her cheek, damp with tears he hadn’t seen there, rested against his. She didn’t give him “buck up” pats or whisper soft shushes into his ear, but just held him.

When she did speak, her words were brisk. “So, what can I do to help?”

It never occurred to him to give her the standard answer:
Thanks anyway—we’ve got it covered.
She’d know he was lying, for one thing, and would be insulted for another. Her offer came without strings or drama. The least he could do was accept it. “Work at McGuffey’s sometimes if you’ve got the time? Morgan’s helping out on weekends. I’ve taken a partial leave—I’ll work in Boston one or two days a week. Dylan’s taking some kind of sabbatical to come and cook for the summer. Patrick’s contributing some vacation days here and there when he can and so is Morgan’s fiancé, Jon. Mandy’s been with them for years, but the other waitress finally retired. She’d probably be willing to help out, but her feet and her back can’t take it anymore.”

“Yes.” Kate drew back, mopped her face on her sleeve and smiled at him, though the smile trembled at the edges of her mouth. “I’ll work as often as I can.”

He’d forgotten how beautiful that mouth was. He had to look away from her before he did something about it. He got to his feet. “We should get moving. Lucy’s sound asleep. So to answer your original question, short woman, bartender’s looking like the profession of choice. For a few months anyway.”

“I just saw Maeve and Morgan this afternoon. They didn’t say a word.”

“No one’s supposed to know. While they’re gone to Ireland, we can tell people, but they don’t want any ‘black wreaths hanging about the pub,’ to quote Pop again. I told you because you’re by way of being family, no matter what happened that night thirteen years ago.” Ben caught Kate’s hand and pulled her past the Bagel Stop. “Let’s go around a couple more blocks.”

Kate gave him a speculative look. “It’s giving you a chance to avoid making a decision, too, isn’t it?”

“It is,” he agreed instantly, although this was the very thing he hadn’t wanted to admit aloud. “I’ve never felt about medicine the way I thought I should, though it’s been a good life and a great living. But I can’t do a thing for my father, the person who
does
love medicine. Did you know he used to study with Patrick and me? Pop’s education is spotty at best—my grandfather thought being able to sign your name and balance your checkbook was sufficient for anyone—but he could have aced a few of the hardest tests we took. The fact is that for all the time and money and effort he put into our educations, none of our knowledge can do a thing for him. I don’t know if I want to continue practicing medicine. I just don’t know.”

They dropped Lucy off at the inn, grinning at each other when she lay down in a sighing heap on the back porch. Sally came to snuggle next to her. The dog was snoring by the time they closed the gate behind them to continue their walk.

“Take time to decide then,” she suggested. “It’s not what you would have chosen—we’d all like for Tim to live to be at least a hundred—but he’d be the first one to tell you to put this time to good use. Make lemonade out of a definite lemon situation.”

“Kind of like someone I know who’s going to manage a bed-and-breakfast.” Ben put his arm around her shoulders, tugging her close enough that he could feel her body heat as they walked. He didn’t need it—it was a warm evening—he just wanted it. Being with her eased the ache of thinking about his father and the abrupt and sad turn life had taken.

It was more than her clothes and the brightness of her hair and eyes. She smelled different, too.

“You’re right,” she admitted. “I am using the time to avoid making a real decision.”

Good grief, she not only smelled wonderful, she admitted he was right about something. Maybe the day wasn’t a complete loss after all.

“What are you going to do for breakfasts when Marce is gone?” he asked. Unless more had changed than he realized, the kitchen wasn’t Kate’s favorite room in the house, although she was a good cook.

“I’m going to cook them. Believe it or not, I’ve helped Penny cater enough that I’ve learned to enjoy cooking. Not to mention that I make arguably the best coffee in the Northeast Kingdom—next to Dylan. Penny’s going to make the pastries—she and Marce have always baked together and I don’t have the patience or the touch. I’ll do the laundry, and as soon as she’s home from college, Samantha’s going to help with the cleaning and be my backup when I need to be away from the inn. She didn’t have a job this summer, so that worked out perfectly.”

They’d arrived back at the Bagel Stop, and Ben opened the door, allowing Kate to go in first. “You were buying, right?” he said. “Because I’m really hungry.”

“Nobody’s gonna eat anything,” said a guttural voice from behind the door. “Put your hands up and keep walking and you ain’t gonna get hurt, either.”

What now?

CHAPTER FOUR

“J
AYSON
!”

Kate, who’d been thinking she just might wet the pants of her brand-new sweats, jumped when the shout came from behind the counter. Ben’s hand was right there beside her, so she grabbed hold.

“I’m so sorry.” The waitress, the same one who’d been there the night the student collapsed, rushed across the room. A wet bar towel swung from her hand. “He doesn’t know...he hears things on television and just says them...he doesn’t know. He would never hurt anyone. He wants to be friends, don’t you, Jay?” She reached them, panting a little, and put a protective arm around the young man who stood behind the door. “His caregiver was ill, so I needed to bring him to work.”

“No harm.” Ben’s voice was as calm as though they hadn’t just been threatened in a way-too-convincing voice. He smiled at the young man cowering behind his sister. “Jay, right? I’m Ben and this is Kate.”

Jayson ventured into full view. His face was round and flat and his sparkling eyes slanted in the manner often associated with Down syndrome. “Hi!” he said cheerfully, extending a hand in Ben’s direction. “I’m Jayson Philip Connor and I’m sixteen.”

He pointed at the waitress. “This is my sister, Debby. My sister’s really nice and she never yells mean stuff.” He looked sorrowful. “But she says sometimes I scare the poop out of her.” He gestured clumsily. “You can sit over there where there’s no junk on the floor ’cause I mopped it with stinky stuff that smells like pine trees. I helped clean the table, too.”

“Thank you, Jay,” said Kate, shaking Jayson’s hand when he remembered to offer it to her. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Do you want a bagel? I can carry them, but if I bring the coffee, I spill it and make a mess.”

“That would be good. Are you going to stay awake all night while Debby works?”

“Nooo.” He laughed as though Kate had said something particularly funny. “There’s a couch in the office and I sleep there. I brought my pillow and toothbrush from home. I can’t take a shower 'cause there isn’t one, but I don’t stink,” he assured them. “Not even like pine tree stuff.”

“Jayson.” Debby’s voice was patient but tired. “You need to sit down over there with your books or else go to bed. I have to work.”

“I want to bring them bagels.” There was obstinacy in the boy’s voice. He pointed at Kate. “She said I could.”

“He’s right, I did,” said Kate, casting the waitress an apologetic look. “Maybe he could do that first.”

“Okay. But you want a muffin, don’t you? Chocolate chip and cream cheese?”

As someone who’d been in second grade before she remembered how to spell her own last name, Kate was always impressed by a good memory. “Yes, please.”

When the order was ready, Jayson carried their plates carefully, one at a time, and set them on the table with a sigh of relief. “Sometimes I drop them,” he admitted, “but not very often. My mom says I’m a trial.” He shook his head sadly. “She doesn’t like me very much.”

“It’s hard, isn’t it?” Ben asked Debby, after Jayson had given them an enthusiastic good-night wave and retired to the office. “Are you his full-time caregiver?”

The young woman nodded. “It is, and I am. But my boss is pretty understanding. It’s why I work here. Jayson and I are all each other has. Our mother wanted to institutionalize him, and I couldn’t do that.” She bussed the table nearest their booth. “I like Fionnegan—we ended up here when my car broke down on our way to Burlington—but there’s not really anything here for Jayson. We live in a duplex on Alcott Street and the lady who lives on the other side sometimes stays with him while I work. She can’t always, though, but there aren’t any educational resources or care facilities.”

“I remember,” said Kate. “You moved into the duplex between the dry cleaners and the candle shop. My house was the one that burned last week,” she added in explanation.

“I know. We called 911 the night of the fire. I saw it as I was leaving for work. I was sorry about your house. It’s hard to lose your home.” Debby’s grin was wry. “Even if it’s when you’re evicted because the neighbors are uncomfortable sharing the block with someone with Down syndrome.”

“Did that happen to you?” Kate was horrified.

“More than once, I’m afraid, but I think we’ll be okay here. Everyone seems friendly. Jayson likes your garden and the trees in the backyard. He wanted to ask you and your renter to come live with us, and he’s very concerned about your cat.”

“The renter moved to Burlington and Sally’s fine,” said Kate. “She and I are staying at Kingdom Comer. Maybe you and Jayson could come and see her.”

“Thank you. Jayson would be relieved.” Debby lifted the gray tub full of dishes and started toward the counter. “I’ll bring fresh coffee in a minute.”

Kate watched the waitress work. She never seemed to stop moving. Even when she stepped into the office to check on her brother, she wiped the doorsill with the wet towel she carried.

“I wish there were enough good jobs to go around for people like her.” Kate nodded in the direction of Debby’s constant motion.

“Yeah.” Ben stacked their plates, laying their forks on top. “Watching her makes me think I shouldn’t complain so much about being a doctor.”

“Or about your brothers?”

He grinned at her. “Nah, I’ll still complain about them.”

They were quiet on the walk back to the bed-and-breakfast and she hugged the comfortable silence to her. Just as she’d missed talking with Ben, she’d also missed
not
talking with him.

“Since you have clothes now,” he said, as they approached the back door, walking around Lucy and Sally where they slept in the middle of the porch, “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 their 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?”

Sure she wondered. She lay awake at night sometimes wondering. But she wasn’t going to find out. Starting over didn’t mean making the same mistakes again. He could say “Come on, Katy” all night long and she wasn’t going to. Come on, that is. She was going to say, “Good night, Ben,” and she was going into the house.

Then he kissed her.

It wasn’t the polite brush of his lips against her cheek he offered after they met at weddings and funerals and spent too much time talking to each other and not enough being polite to either the celebrants or the mourners. No, it wasn’t anything like that bittersweet touch when she had to inhale very deeply so she could store up and remember the scent of him, the strength of his fingers squeezing hers in farewell, the sensation of his cheek touching hers after he withdrew his lips.

Oh, sweet heavenly days, yes, it was the same. And different. His body was firmer in her arms—she guessed if it were possible for someone to feel older to another person, that’s how he felt. He was lean in a way he hadn’t been all those years ago when he’d been a competitive athlete—he was less muscled now, less kinetic. But still strong. Still...well, she didn’t know, but she was safe when he held her.

There was also a gentleness to him that was new. This Ben McGuffey would take care not to cause pain, either physical or otherwise, in a way the younger model had not. This man, who smelled of soap and spearmint and outdoors just as he always had, would not break up with her in his father’s tavern.

So she kissed him back, and pretty soon her arms wound around his neck and her curves fit themselves into his angles like the two halves of the broken-heart necklace he’d won for her at the Danville fair when they were in high school.

A few minutes later, when self-control was in serious danger of disappearing altogether, someone cleared his throat. And someone else cleared hers.

“I’m sorry,” the inn guest, Mr. Fallon, said in a hesitant voice. “We were out walking, and I think Mrs. Comer accidentally locked us out. Do you happen to have a key?”

“Of course.” Kate drew back from Ben’s arms, her gaze meeting his for a flickering instant before she turned a smile toward the guests. “Good night, Ben.” There, she said it. Casually and dismissively. It was painless. Almost.

Ben watched as she unlocked the door and reached inside to turn on a light. “’Night, Katy.” He nodded to the Fallons and set off toward the garage. Sally trotted along behind him. Lucy moaned in her sleep.

“We’re sorry,” said Mr. Fallon again. “We both have children—we know what it’s like being interrupted.”

Kate laughed. “I’ll bet you do. But sometimes being interrupted is the best thing all around. Can I get you some hot chocolate?”

“No, thanks.” The couple was no longer paying attention to her. They went off to bed with muttered good-nights, and Kate stood alone in the inn’s dark kitchen, looking across the tree-filled backyard at the apartment above the garage. The lights came on, and Ben stood at the window, gazing toward the house. She wondered if he could see her, if he was looking at her with the same regret she was feeling. After a moment, he waved but didn’t move away, and she knew he was aware of her.

It was an invitation. All she had to do was step outside and he would probably meet her halfway across the yard. They could—what? Pick up where they’d left off thirteen years ago? Start over with a relationship just as they were starting over with their lives?

She closed her eyes and relived the kiss they’d just shared, felt again the warmth of his touch, and started toward the door. It would be so easy to go to him, to take comfort where it was offered. Oh, yes, it would be easy, and it would be fun; an enjoyable little dip into whatever pool her life was now. But it wasn’t a chance she was willing to take.

She checked the lock on the door and ran up the back stairs before she could change her mind.

* * *

“I
F
YOU
MAKE
a mistake, that’s it, you just make a mistake. It won’t be one I haven’t made at least once before and probably twice.” Marce gave Kate a hug and stood back, her bright eyes a little misty. “It’s odd, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s unbearable being here without Frank, but I can’t stand to leave, either.”

Kate thought of the lot on Alcott Street where her house had stood. The ashes had scarcely cooled before the developer who owned half of her block had made an offer. “It’s perfect for a loan shop or a phone store, Ms. Rafael. Fionnegan doesn’t have either one.”

She’d looked at the old-growth maples at the back of the lot. She’d created a winding path between the trees and coaxed flowers out of a rocky little garden. A bigger garden plot had supplied vegetables to half the neighborhood. She thought of the upstairs apartments and the duplexes that were still on the street. She remembered Burning Bright, the candle store, and the independent bookstore called Louisa’s Garret and the beauty shop named Hairtique that had an old-time soda fountain in back. “Oh,” she’d said, dismayed, “I don’t think so. Not on Alcott Street.”

She returned to the present and hugged Marce again. “Find the way you want to go,” she said. “It’s what Frank would want for you and the girls. Ben and I are finding ourselves this summer—you can, too.”

“I know.” Marce looked up at the multigabled house, her eyes tearing again. “I know.”

Kate had just finished loading the dishwasher when Ben came in the back door. “Got any breakfast left?”

She looked at the schoolhouse clock on the wall. “Running a little late, are we?” she asked in the haughty-innkeeper voice Marce had told her to use if guests got too recalcitrant.

“I was at the hospital.”

Oh. So much for recalcitrant. “Really? Everything okay?”

“The emergency room doctor had an emergency of her own. Calling me in was quicker than getting someone to come from Montpelier or Burlington, and I can practice in Vermont, so here I am.”

She poured coffee from an insulated carafe and handed him the cup. “So, how did it feel?”

“Fine,” he admitted. “You’d expect Thursday night to be slow in a town the size of Fionnegan, but it wasn’t. Being busy meant I only had time to do what I do. I couldn’t be mad about my dad or upset about hospital politics or any of that. So, yeah, it was fine. No one died, no one threatened to sue anybody else.” His smile was the one she loved, the one that had stayed alive and well in her heart ever since the first time she’d seen it.

It was a lot like his kiss.

She warmed a couple of Penny’s pastries in the microwave before setting them in front of Ben. “If you’re working the bar tonight, you’d better get some sleep.”

“I will.” He grinned at her. “But thanks for worrying about me. Mom would be relieved.”

Fifteen minutes later, she walked outside with him. “I’m going to plant some flowers today,” she said idly, looking down at the flower bed nearest the back door, where perennials were sending out brave shoots of green. “You know, tempt Jack Frost to pay a return visit.”

“It’s a sure thing the ground’s plenty soft,” he grunted. “Mud season at its peak, though all the signs say it’s going to be a short one this year. It’s a bright, sunny day. Do you want some help?”

“No.” She gave him a push. “Go to bed, Doctor.”

She planted two flats of annuals at the bed-and-breakfast before filling the garden cart from the garage with tools and still more plants. She put the inn’s cell phone and a thermos of coffee into a tote bag and walked over to Alcott Street.

The blackened area where her house had stood had been cleared a few days before. Weeds were already poking their way through the excavated soil, but as far as she could tell, none of the landscaping that had surrounded the house had survived the fire and its aftermath. She had to look at the trees in the back for a long time before the lump of grief in her throat dissolved. Back there, the maples were encouragingly green and the paving-stone sidewalk she’d laid circuitously through the grove was intact.

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