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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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“What’s up?” asked Kate, giving Jayson a one-armed hug and squinting at Dan.

“Debby’s working a double at the Bagel Stop.” Dan took Bill Joe from Penny and kissed her in the process. “Jayson was there last night, which was okay, but he’s getting a little antsy this morning and she was having some trouble keeping all the balls in the air. I figured he could stay with one of you,” he finished apologetically.

“With me,” said Kate instantly. “Jayson, do you want to weed the flowers while I finish the vegetables?”

“Sure!” He looked delighted. “Do you think Ben will give me another bicycle lesson today? It’s Saturday, isn’t it?” Ben gave him lessons on Sunday afternoons and one weekday evening, but Jayson hadn’t yet conquered the concept of days of the week. He thought every day was Saturday and that he should have a lesson on all of them.

“Not today. He’s in Boston and won’t be back till Friday. That’s two sleeps, so you’re stuck with me. We can watch
Cars
again.”
Cars
was Jayson’s favorite movie—he knew most of the dialogue by heart. So did Kate, by osmosis.

“Can we have popcorn and apples together?”

“No. It’s lunchtime, so you have to eat some soup and a sandwich. We have popcorn and apples together at night.” This was not strictly true—Kate had been known to have them for breakfast—but she didn’t mind fibbing in the interest of being a good influence.

“Okay,” he grumbled.

When they finished, Penny walked back to the inn with Kate, Jayson walking ahead and pulling Bill Joe in his wagon.

“You’re so patient with him,” said Penny quietly, nodding toward Jayson. “I think I’m a good mom, but when it comes to any kind of special needs, I’m a total loss. If I can’t put a Band-Aid and a kiss on it, I can’t fix it. I used to wonder if I could have dealt with our own kids if they’d had problems other than being just like their father.”

“You could, if that’s who you were caring for,” said Kate. She smiled at her friend. “It just takes a different kind of Band-Aid.”

* * *

I
T
SURPRISED
K
ATE
how much she missed Ben while he was gone. Wednesday had been very busy, spent in the garden and with Jayson, so it had gone quickly. The second day, the inn had been empty of guests and she hadn’t seen anyone all day. She had even dusted all the collectible figurines in the glass cases in the dining room, something she would take care to avoid doing again. Dinner had been a bologna sandwich and a glass of sweet tea while she watched reruns of
Big Bang Theory.

Ben leaned into the bed-and-breakfast’s kitchen when he got back on Friday afternoon, and her heart quickened, beating a tattoo against her ribs that made her a little light-headed.

“I’m off to the tavern pretty soon,” he said. “Morgan’s talking mutiny, so I’m working the weekend. See you later.” He ducked out, only to stick his head back in a moment later. “If I need you, will you come and help?”

She thought for a moment of her weekend plans. There was a trip to the wholesale grocer tomorrow afternoon and church on Sunday. At some point, she would most likely clip her toenails and work highlights through her hair.

She could probably spare the time.

“Okay.”

“I’ll take you bowling Sunday night,” he promised. “Not that you could beat me, but it will be fun.”

She snorted. “On your best day, if I gave you twenty pins, you couldn’t beat me.”

“Those are mighty big words for such a little woman who probably doesn’t remember where the bowling alley is,” he drawled.

She laughed. “You forget, tall guy, I stayed here while you went to the big city. I bowl on a league in the winter and teach it to kids on Saturday mornings from January through March. Winner buys dinner? Just remember how much I like steak.”

“Uh-oh, I’m scared.” With a wave, he was gone, loping across the yard to his apartment, and Kate sighed, feeling the emptiness he left in his wake. She kneaded dough for the weekend’s cinnamon rolls, pushing and pushing and turning over and trying not to hurt.

She liked being a temporary innkeeper. It was interesting meeting guests from faraway places and walks of life she knew nothing about. After nearly twenty years of living alone, she enjoyed sharing space with other people, especially since she had plenty of room and time to be alone if that was what she wanted.

But it wasn’t enough. She wanted a family. She wanted children she didn’t have to give back and she wanted to be in love. She wanted a man to look at her the way Dan looked at Penny.

She thumped the dough into a greased bowl and placed it on top of the refrigerator.

Standing at the sink, washing her hands, she watched Ben’s bicycle ride away. He’d been wearing a helmet all the time lately as part of teaching Jayson to ride. It made him look a little goofy, and she’d laughed uproariously the first time she saw it. His response had been to buy her a matching helmet and refuse to ride with her unless she was wearing it.

What a great father he would be.

There’s an emptiness to it,
she remembered her sister Sarah saying during the couple of years she and Chris had had fertility problems.
It seems as though everyone we know is either pregnant or they already have children. I don’t know what to talk about anymore.

Kate had seldom felt that kind of emptiness. She had friends, such as Joann, who had chosen to remain both single and childless and were perfectly happy that way. Kate had never minded it, either. Until recently. Until the doctor reminded her as kindly as he could that her reproductive time was running out.

She didn’t have a “why me?” personality. She’d even printed “Why
not
me?” in a 72-point font and stuck the paper to the front of the inn’s refrigerator to remind herself that she wasn’t the only person whose dreams had been deferred. She hadn’t really cried over her house until Penny poured her a pint Mason jar full of wine and told her no one liked a martyr. Then, of course, she had wept buckets. She didn’t like martyrs, either.

The truth was she didn’t want to be a single parent. She didn’t think it was wrong—some of the best parents she knew were doing it on their own—but it wasn’t right for her. She wanted not only a basketball hoop in the driveway, but a tall guard to partner up with her small forward in the game of parenting.

The thought drew her glance to the front of the refrigerator. Beside her self-directed “Why
not
me?” sign was a snapshot of Ben and Jayson on the inn’s driveway. Jayson was mid-dribble with the basketball, his tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth as he concentrated. Ben’s arms were up, and only someone who knew him well could tell he wasn’t really trying to stop his opponent.

What a great dad he would be, she thought again. What a great guard.

CHAPTER SIX

“I
S
HE
GOING
to be here?” asked Mrs. Hylton-Wise.

The woman’s voice—and the words she said—sounded as though they’d come from a 1940s B movie. She wasn’t that old, probably mid-sixties, and she was beautiful. Her hair was shiny silver, deliberately tousled around her perfectly made up face.

Startled, Kate looked up from where she was entering credit card information into the inn’s computer. “Excuse me?”

“That young man.” A forefinger with an extremely long rose-colored nail stabbed through the air in the direction of where Jayson sat in the parlor with a guest, perusing flash cards. “He doesn’t live here now, does he?”

“No, ma’am, but he’s in and out. He’s one of our best neighbors.” Kate felt anger working its way up the back of her neck. “Does that present a problem?”

“If Mrs. Comer were here, she would never permit an outsider to make himself at home among the guests the way he is.”

“I’m sorry if it makes you uneasy,” said Kate evenly, “but Jayson is a frequent and valued visitor at Kingdom Comer. If you like, I’ll be happy to call Traveler’s Rest and see if they have a vacancy.”

Mrs. Hylton-Wise drew herself up very straight. “I will stay here, as I always do, but Mrs. Comer will hear about this. You might very well find yourself unemployed. Not a good situation in this day and age. Please see that my bags are brought up immediately.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Kate handed the woman her credit card and her key. “You’re in the suite at the back, where I believe you always stay. Is there anything we can do to make your visit more pleasurable?”

“Bring coffee up, too, with cream and sugar and cookies if they’re fresh.” The woman stalked away to the small elevator at the end of the hall, and Kate waited, certain she would demand that someone operate it for her.

She didn’t, however, and Kate went over to where the woman’s elderly and arthritic driver had left her considerable luggage.

“Jayson, will you answer the phone if it rings?”

“Sure, Kate.” He came over to where she was loading herself down with bags. “I can help. Ben says I’m strong.”

“And you are, but I can do this.” Jayson was afraid of the elevator and she was unwilling to carry everything up the stairs. She also didn’t want to put Jayson in the way of any more of the new guest’s vitriol.

She reached to ruffle his thin brown hair. “If you dropped the heavy one, you’d fall through the floor.”

“You’re goofy, Kate.” He beamed at her, and she had to blink back sudden tears. How could the nasty guest upstairs be mean to such a sweet person?

In the next half hour, Kate managed to deliver everything to Mrs. Hylton-Wise’s room. She also took up two pots of coffee because the insufferable woman insisted the first one was cold. Then she went into the kitchen and called Marce.

“I’m afraid I’m not being good for business,” she said without preamble when the other woman answered.

Marce laughed. “What’s going on?”

“Do you remember a Mrs. Hylton-Wise?”

“Oh, dear.”

Kate explained about the woman’s objection to Jayson. “I know I can take him home, but it’s such a godsend for Debby if he can spend a few hours here. I like having him around, too, but the inn is still yours. I want to handle this the way you would.”

“Well, the first year she came to stay at Kingdom Comer, the girls were roller-skating through the center hallway when she came down the stairs. Mrs. H-W had a fit. Frank just walked up to her and said, ‘Ma’am, you will not insult my family in their own home. You may shut up or you may leave.’ She chose to shut up and has come back every year since and stays for weeks at a time.”

Kate frowned. “What does she
do
here? I can’t quite imagine her riding or hiking the trails. I love Fionnegan, but unless you’re a leaf peeper in the fall, we don’t have all that much to do.”

“She has a home somewhere on Wish Mountain. She goes there when she comes to the inn, but she never says anything about it and she never stays there. I have no idea why. She has a good heart—even helped at the inn when Frank died. We were right in the middle of the fall rush and I was useless. I wanted to close the B and B for a few weeks, but she said I shouldn’t—she knew I needed the money. She just stepped up and did what needed doing. I didn’t want to take payment for her being there, but she insisted. I know she can be difficult sometimes, but she’s by way of being a friend, too.”

Marce was silent for a moment, and Kate felt grief in the gap, but then she went on. “Jayson may not be family, but the truth is that Frank wouldn’t stand for anyone being insulted at the inn. You don’t have to stand for it, either. I don’t care how good a customer or friend she is.”

Kate breathed a relieved though unsurprised sigh, but the hushed sound of Marce’s sorrow gave her pause. “Marce?” she said. “Are you ready to come home? Because you can, you know—I’m only keeping your spot warm. It’s still yours.”

Again the hesitation. “Yes,” said Marce, “and no. The girls are having the best time. One of them is working as a lifeguard and the other is waiting tables at the resort. There are boys and dances and fishing and sitting on the porch late at night.” She laughed tremulously. “They’re old enough to stay here by themselves, but I’m too old to let them. They’re so close to being on their own, I hate to give up this time.”

“Just remember that you don’t have to stay away because of me. I can get an apartment anytime.”

“Thanks, Kate. So, is Ben still there?”

“Uh-huh.”

“How’s that going?”

“Fine. He’s tending bar and working at the emergency room occasionally and back in Boston a day or two each week. Lucy and Sally spend all their time either with him or waiting for him to come home. Penny thinks they’re sorry for him because he doesn’t have any pets of his own.”

“And what about you? Are you either with him or waiting for him to come home?”

“I don’t know.”

Marce’s laugh was soft. Empathetic. “You’re a terrible liar.”

Kate laughed, too, though it sounded a bit hollow to her own ears. “Another talent I can’t lay claim to. Well, waiting or not, there’s a baby shower here in another hour and I need to get the buffet set up before Penny gets here with the food. Have fun, Marce.”

“You, too.”

That wasn’t going to happen. Kate hated baby showers. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, they reminded her of what she didn’t have.

* * *

I
F
HE
WAS
going to have more than his customary one Guinness, Ben decided, it was good to be with his brothers when he did. That way, if he
did
tell any secrets or commit other indiscretions, there was no one to hear except people who already knew all there was to know about him. And vice versa.

As he sat between Patrick and Dylan at the bar, Ben reflected on how just one thing was missing to make the night complete: he needed to find somebody to dance with.

Kate. He would dance with Kate. She was the only one who knew all the steps, whose feet fit effortlessly between his. She’d been here a little bit ago.

He should’ve married Kate, that was for sure, back when they’d been together. She’d expected it, their families had expected it—truth was, he’d expected it, too. Wanted it. Sort of. But life had all become too much for him by the time they parted ways. Going into a profession he wasn’t sure he liked. Giving up a lifelong dream of being an Olympic skier to be a medical student who never got enough sleep. “Do what you need to do,” Kate had told him in a soft voice when he complained, “and do it for you. Your dad will accept it.”

When all was said and done, though, he hadn’t been able to burst the bubble around Tim McGuffey’s dreams for his second-born—the family’s sacrifices to the cause of education had been too great. The time came and went when Ben could have been a contender in the downhill—if indeed he ever could have.

But he was angrier than he knew, and told his father at the end of an argument that he wouldn’t be coming back to Fionnegan to practice when he finished medical school. He wouldn’t be returning to the Northeast Kingdom at all. He’d be staying in Boston. He might not love being a doctor, but he loved the city. The decision had been made over time, not in an angry moment, but it had been difficult. It had left him, in a term he’d read but never used, emotionally bereft.

Harder and colder yet was reaching the conclusion he wasn’t going to marry the girl he’d loved as long as he could remember. Sweet Kate, who loved every rocky inch of Fionnegan and Wish Mountain. Who would settle for a couple of kids but really wanted a basketball team complete with a sixth man. Who’d always arranged her dreams around his—she’d even planned on going to nursing school although the sight of blood made her pass out like the proverbial light.

Even now, thirteen years later, the memory of making that decision made him think of oatmeal. He’d been sitting in a hotel dining room eating a packet of the instant maple-and-brown-sugar variety and thinking how much he’d prefer a bowl of his mother’s steel-cut oats. And then it occurred to him that if he married Kate and moved her to Boston and the lifestyle he’d decided to live, she’d in effect be eating instant oatmeal for the rest of her life instead of on the occasional weekend the way she did now.

If that wasn’t bad enough—and he thought it was—if he gave up Boston and moved back to the Northeast Kingdom, he would stay angry and it would be like...yeah, like eating instant oatmeal the rest of
his
life.

So he’d taken a long weekend and gone home. He’d broken up with her over his mother’s Guinness stew at McGuffey’s. Kate had been dry-eyed and calm, actually agreeing that parting for the short term might be a good thing. She hadn’t wanted to stay and listen to music or even long enough to finish her diet cola with a cherry in it, so he’d driven her to the apartment over the bookstore she’d rented when her folks moved to Tennessee. Ben had kissed her good-night and when he’d held her, letting her go was the hardest thing he’d ever done.

And the stupidest. Time hadn’t done a single thing to alleviate that. He’d hurt Kate and, later on, Nerissa, all because life hadn’t gone precisely the way he wanted it to.

And here he was back at McGuffey’s. Dylan had even cooked Guinness stew tonight. Now, an hour past closing time, Ben looked around the empty bar. “I miss Kate. I wanted to dance,” he said. “I didn’t even see her leave.”

“She took off early,” said Dylan. “But then again, she has to serve breakfast in—” he looked at his watch “—four hours.”

Suddenly Ben had an inspiration that could have been fueled only by the second Guinness—at least that’s what he would blame it on later. “If I call her, she will come,” he said solemnly, reaching for the phone on the bar. He scowled when Dylan snatched the receiver before he could get to it.

“I know,” said Dylan, “and she would probably build you a baseball field in her spare time, too, but you’re not going to call her.”

Ben scowled. “Losing track of birth order here, aren’t we, Dylan?”

Kate and Dylan had always been close, Ben reflected. They’d been in the same grade at school and were all the time taking the same classes or going to the same events. Ben went, too, when he wasn’t skiing, but for two years, when he was in college and the other two were still in high school, Dylan had taken Kate to more dances than Ben had.

It used to tick him off. But Kate had always treated Dylan with sisterly affection and nothing more. At least, Ben assumed it was sisterly—it had that disdainful air about it the sisters in his acquaintance—particularly Morgan—always assumed.

“She wouldn’t mind if I called her,” he said doggedly, staring at the cups of coffee Dylan set on the bar for the three of them.

“No.” Dylan drank, looking at him over the rim of the cup. “I’d mind, though. She’s tired. Between the B and B and here, she’s putting in a lot of hours.”

“Did I tell you guys she wants a baby?” asked Ben. “She’s thirty-seven and she wants to have her first baby. She’d be fifty-six when it starts college, for heaven’s sake.”

“Can’t blame her for wanting kids,” said Patrick. “We wanted two, had four, and they’re the best thing I ever did.” He smiled foolishly, the expression oddly touching. “Well, marrying Wendy’s the best thing, probably. But we were way up in our thirties when Sophie was born, Ben. It’s not too late.”

“You wanted the kids. Not just you and not just Wendy. You both did.” Ben thought of Kate, how at home she looked with a baby in her arms. He liked little ones, too. He liked delivering them, making faces at them so they’d stop crying in church or on planes, and having them crawl into his lap and go to sleep after both he and the baby had eaten too much. More than liking them, Ben thought he could safely say he
loved
kids.

As long as they were other people’s.

* * *

T
HE
GUESTS
WERE
both men, both good-looking. Their bikes, expensive ones, were on a rack on the back of their car. It was expensive, too. They had the same last name—Dehart—so Kate thought they were probably father and son.

“There will be a trail ride tonight.” She directed their attention to the brochure on the bulletin board just inside the door of the inn. “Twenty miles, starting at the trailhead behind Traveler’s Rest. I can collect the fee and give you a handy-dandy T-shirt right here if you’re interested. The ride’s being sponsored by the Chain and Sprocket bike shop and funds raised are going to—” Kate stopped, shuffling through the notes on the desk “—Fionnegan Academy.” She smiled and fluffed her hair, which probably made it look even messier than it usually did. “That’s where I went to school, so obviously it’s a superior institution of education.”

The older man gave her an appreciative look, then shared a silent conversation with his companion. The taller one, who appeared to be college age, responded, “Sounds great. We weren’t going to ride until tomorrow, but there’s no reason to wait.”

“Several of us are leaving from here at eight o’clock if you just want to come to the lobby then. When we get back, I’ll make hot chocolate and set out the liniment bottle. It’s a hilly ride, and I swear we only ride up, never down. I think that’s how Wish Mountain got its name, because the person naming it wished it had a downhill side.” Kate grinned. “Of course, I get first crack at the liniment.”

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