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Authors: Liz Flaherty

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

Back to McGuffey's (9 page)

BOOK: Back to McGuffey's
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She hadn’t lost any weight since losing her desk job—Penny’s pastries and Dylan’s kitchen creations saw to that—but bicycling with Ben nearly every day was firming up muscles she hadn’t thought about for years. It didn’t seem to be helping the faint lines at the corners of her eyes or the little bit of extra flesh her jaws seemed to be developing on their own, but she figured she couldn’t have everything.

“The trails around here can get very challenging,” the older guest observed as she showed them to their rooms. “Do you ride them all?”

She grinned. “Not even close, although I’ve reached the point I don’t start whining until everyone else is ahead and can’t hear me.”

By the time she came downstairs, she knew the older man’s name was Colby and that he was indeed the father of River—named not after the “movie guy,” but because his mother’s maiden name was Riverton. Kate knew River had just finished his second year at Dartmouth and that Colby was single and would be interested in buying her a late dinner if she had time. He was divorced and had been for a long time. River called him the king of the weekend dads and the two men laughed together.

She thought she might take that dinner. If she had time. Friendship with Ben was working out fine—she loved spending time with him—but their past precluded their relationship from building into something more. Maybe it was time to look to the future.

The afternoon was busy. The inn filled to capacity. After her third circuit on the stairs with extra towels and pillows, Kate regretted her new self-imposed ban on using the elevator for anything except carrying up luggage. There wasn’t really all that much wrong with the size of her hips.

Samantha, Penny and Dan’s oldest daughter, arrived when the cyclists were gathering at the side of the inn for the ride. “I’m here to be the innkeeper while you’re gone.” She stepped behind the desk. “It was this or ride herd on the boys while Mom and Dad ride. Being senior to Mary Kate does have its privileges.”

“Where are they?” Kate scanned the small crowd, exchanging a smile with Ben. He was kneeling beside Debby’s bicycle, checking her back tire. Where was Jayson on this rare day off for his sister? Even though his riding skills improved every day, he wasn’t ready for the trails. Corners were an ongoing concern, and Kate didn’t think he’d ever ridden in the dark. Not only that, there was no way he could ride twenty miles on flat ground, much less this terrain.

“They’ll meet you at the trailhead. Mom was still looking for her helmet when I left.” Samantha was smiling, but it wasn’t at Kate. Her gaze was held by River Dehart. “Have fun. I’ll call you if there are any emergencies.”

“Thanks, Sam.” Kate gave her a hug, noting as she always did that the first baby she’d ever loved with every fiber of her being was now four inches taller than she was. “He’s cute, isn’t he?” she mumbled close to her ear.

“Way cute.” Sam’s lips didn’t move. “Be sure and tell him I’m free for the summer.”

Kate snorted delicately. “I’ll just tell him your dad’s a cop and your mom has a black belt in...something martial artsy.”

“She does not.”

“He doesn’t know that.” Kate beamed at her. “See you later.”

Much of the ride was on single-track—which meant not talking. Much of it was uphill as well, so Kate didn’t say much even when she was able to ride beside someone. Ben, who rode much better than she did, was far ahead of her, riding with Debby when they were on the old farm road and able to sprawl out more. Kate had to swallow a lump of resentment that felt far too much like jealousy.

“You ride well.”

She hadn’t noticed Colby Dehart slowing until he was beside her.

“Thank you,” she said, “but I don’t. I only ride because all my friends do and because I inherited my sister’s bike when she moved to Tennessee. She rides there, but she does it on a new bike. I like walking better, particularly when I can look up at the hills instead of climbing them.”

“I started when River was in middle school. It was the only thing I ever suggested we do on weekends that he didn’t hate, so I learned to like it, too. I actually prefer driving.”

Kate laughed. “My best friend, Penny, and her husband started because it was something they could do with all four kids that didn’t use gas. And challenging rides meant no one could breathe well enough to talk back.”

“Yeah, that worked for me for a while, at least until River got a lot better than me. What do you do, Kate? Are you a full-time innkeeper? Not that the inn’s not delightful—it is—but you don’t seem the type to take care of it full-time.”

Although it was dark by now, Kate could still read the interest in his face. Maybe this would be a way to get back on the socializing wagon. She usually dated fairly frequently, but she hadn’t this summer. Since the fire.

Since Ben had come back.

She liked the busyness of her life these days, but she missed going out. She missed dressing up and going to dinner and a movie in another town where she didn’t know all the other patrons. She loved McGuffey’s, but every time she ate there, she ended up behind the bar or playing darts with people she’d known all her life. People who had spouses and kids she knew, too. People she thought just might feel sorry for her because she had neither. She’d even heard it said a few times after the fire.

Poor little Kate Rafael. No family around and now not even a house or a job.

“It’s a long story,” she said, smiling at Colby. “What about you? What do you do? Where is it you’re from?”

“I’m from Concord—New Hampshire, not Massachusetts—and I’m a structural engineer. That’s not always exciting and sometimes in this economy, it’s downright scary, but I have a corner office and a secretary who’s so good she could replace me in a heartbeat. I also have most of my teeth and do my own laundry. Sound good so far?” The teeth gleamed when he grinned at her. “Now, about that dinner—”

“Kate?” Ben dropped back to ride on her other side, nodding amiably at Colby. “I promised I’d close the tavern tonight. Morgan and Jon are going away for the weekend. Did you want to go over with me and have a late supper after we have chocolate at the inn?”

It only took her a few seconds of thought and a hard bump from riding over a small hole in the trail before she answered. “Uh, no, Ben, I can’t tonight, but thanks.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

“N
O
K
ATE
TONIGHT
?” Morgan stepped out from behind the bar at McGuffey’s, waving a greeting to the customer who walked in behind Ben.

“Nah, she was busy.” Knowing who she was busy with didn’t sit at all well, either. Ben kissed his little sister’s forehead and smiled at her fiancé. The expression felt forced. “You guys have a good weekend. What do you want me to tell the folks when they call and ask where you are?”

Morgan rolled her eyes at him. “If you feel compelled to tell them anything, say I’m thirty-five and my biological clock is going off like a cuckoo on steroids.”

Well, that must be going around.
“Just be safe.” He waved them off and stepped behind the bar.

“A round for the Red Hats,” requested Mandy, the waitress, handing him a slip of paper with the list of drinks on it. “Coffee for the designated driver. It should be fresh, I think. Dylan made it just before he left.”

Ben nodded, squinting from the list to the crowded table of women wearing red hats and purple shirts and being...noisy. He smiled, thinking of his mother, who joined them when she was here. Kate said her mother did, too. He’d love to be here on a night when they were both there. Those two women, different as night and day, could occasionally get—what was his father’s word?—
raucous,
that was it.

Sometimes he loved tending bar. He pulled out the tequila. “Are we running a margarita special by any chance?”

“Nope. They just like them.”

“Then let’s have a special just for them. Two dollars—bad for revenue but good PR.” He got the blenders going, remembering that these women liked them slushy and on the weak side. “Is there any food left? I forgot to ask Morgan.”

“Just some potato soup and part of a loaf of bread they saved for you.”

“That’s good.” He loaded the tray with the drinks and a fresh bowl of popcorn and added the coffee. “Busy night?”

“Off and on.”

“You can split early if you want to. You’ve had a long week.” He had, too, but he wanted to be busy. He didn’t want to think about why Kate had refused to come with him tonight, but it seemed as though he could think about little else. They were friends—that was what they’d agreed on and what they’d enjoyed these past weeks. It had been easy, but maybe the lack of stress had been simply because neither of them was seeing anyone else.

Relief lightened the weariness in the waitress’s eyes. “I appreciate it. Let me do a last check first. What if you get called to the hospital?”

“I’ll call...Dylan.” He’d started to say he’d call Kate, but something in her eyes earlier tonight warned him against it. So much for easy.

“How was the ride?” Mandy asked when she came behind the bar to reconcile the money in her apron. “Some of the out-of-towners came in before you did. They said it was great.”

“It was.” It had been Debby’s first night ride and she’d been so excited. He’d liked helping her get started, but he’d been just as glad when a few of the college kids took his place behind her. She was a sweetheart, mature for her age because of the demands life had made on her, but she was still twenty-two; he’d rather talk to a thirty-seven-year-old.

But when he went back to ride with Kate, the sophisticated-looking guest from the inn was with her, and they were talking a mile a minute. That was when Ben saw the look in her eyes that warned him away.

It was only an hour till the tavern closed. He stayed busy, serving drinks and sharing jokes. Regulars brought their own glasses up to the bar and put chairs on top of tables before they left. Ben took his time closing out, sipping coffee and counting money while the soup heated in the kitchen. Even when it wasn’t fresh anymore, Dylan’s coffee was delicious. It was just like Kate’s—they had experimented together until they found the perfect grind and exact quantities.

Ben missed her. Every time he went back to Boston to work for a few days, it felt like a week because she wasn’t there. Nights in the tavern when she wasn’t working with him went on forever. He didn’t even enjoy breakfast at the inn if she didn’t take the time to sit down and eat with him.

His cell phone vibrated in his pocket, and he pulled it out to check the text message.

Got any soup?

He laughed and punched Reply, then typed,
Where are you?

At the back door of the tavern. I’m hungry.

Hold on.

He sprinted through the kitchen to unlock the door for her, then scolded, “Why didn’t you come to the front? I don’t care how safe we think Fionnegan is, walking around alone in dark alleys isn’t a great idea.”

“I just walked Jayson to the Bagel Stop.”

He frowned. “Debby didn’t go home after the ride? I thought Jayson was with her neighbor.”

“Debby had to go in to work and the neighbor was gone.”

“You were on a late date with the guy with great hair, weren’t you?” Ben stopped himself from grinning just in time. “Where did you go?”

“The Wish Mountain Pub. We just went out for a drink.”

Ben hiked an eyebrow at her. “I’ve known you since I knocked your first tooth out with my elbow when you were in first grade, and you don’t go out for drinks. You might have a drink with friends when you have those girls-only party things, but you don’t go out just to have a drink.”

“I do when I want to get to know somebody better.” She stepped past him. “And I just had a glass of wine. I didn’t go on a binge.” She looked at the potato soup. “Are you going to share this with me? We intended to have dinner, but the pub wasn’t serving food.”

“Yeah. Dip it out while I slice the bread. You want some coffee with it? I think there’s a cup left.”

“Sure.” She ladled the soup and poured the coffee, warming his up in the process. “What will we do if we ever get to where caffeine keeps us awake?” She set the bowls on the table by the window where Tim and Maeve McGuffey had been eating meals together as long as the tavern had been there.

“I’m a doctor. There’s no way I could practice without caffeine.”

Her gaze met his, and he thought he could get lost in those brown eyes. The little flecks of gold in them looked like stars. “Are you feeling better about being a doctor now?” she asked.

He took a spoonful of soup and thought about that a minute, enjoying both the flavor and the realization that he liked what he was doing these days. “I am. Sometimes.”

“Good.” Her smile was faint. “Sometimes.”

“So,” he said. It looked like he was going to have to drag every word out of her. Whatever happened to women wanting to talk about their feelings? When he’d married Nerissa, he’d called Kate to tell her, girding himself for what he expected to be a short, cold conversation. Instead, they’d talked for an hour and a half. As soon as they’d hung up, Kate had called Nerissa to offer her condolences and they’d talked for an hour, too.

He didn’t think he wanted to spend an hour talking to Colby What’s-his-name. “So,” he said again, “how was it?”

“How was what?”

“The date.”

She set down her spoon and glared at him. “Do I ask you about your dates?”

“No.” He thought about that, buttering the last piece of the crusty bread. “But you would if you knew about them.” He cut the bread in two and laid half of it on her plate. He wasn’t going to tell her he hadn’t had any dates this summer. There was only so much pride a guy could swallow before he choked on it.

“No, I wou—” She stopped and stared down at the bread. “Maybe.”

“Did you like him?”

“Yes. He was nice. And funny.”

“How old is he?”

“Forty-three.”

He won’t want kids, either, Kate. He’s already done all the diapers and chickenpox and curfew stuff. He’s already sat in those little chairs at the elementary school and grounded kids and all those things you want someone to do. It’s not going to happen with him.

“Are you going to see him again?” Surely not. The man was just a guest at the B and B. Granted, he had really good hair and drove the kind of car Nerissa’s husband used to have before their kids took to getting carsick. This guy would think Kate’s fondness for minivans, old-fashioned blue-and-white dishes and handmade quilts was cute and something he could talk her out of.

“I think so.”

Oh.
“Does he ski?”

“I don’t know. We didn’t talk about that.”

They were on the side of a mountain in Vermont and hadn’t talked about skiing. Right. They probably hadn’t discussed maple syrup or flatlanders, either. Ben wondered what they did talk about, but since she didn’t offer any further information, he desisted.

“Have you made any plans yet?” he asked instead. “For the end of summer, I mean.”

“Nothing certain. I’ve thought about opening a special-needs day care, but the truth is that I’m probably not qualified. Then I considered building on the land where my house was and opening a regular day care, but the truth about
that
is I don’t really want to.” She sipped the last of her coffee and grinned at him, fluttering her lashes. “Pretend you’re my eighth-grade guidance counselor and tell me what I should be when I grow up.”

“Eighth grade, huh?” He deepened his voice. “Well, Miss Rafael, the first thing you need to do is stop hanging around the McGuffey boys. All they’ll do is lead you astray. Especially that Dylan. Ben, now, he’s the good one.”

She frowned at him over her coffee mug, but her eyes were laughing. “You’re not helping.”

“What do you
want
to do, Kate?” He got up and went to the commercial refrigerator. “Pie? Lemon meringue?” Not only was it her favorite, it looked like the only kind that was left.

“Yes, please.” She gathered their dishes and took them to the sink, making quick work of washing and drying them. “I don’t know. I liked what I did at the law office. I like taking care of the inn. I like cooking. I like keeping an eye on Jayson and helping Penny with her kids and her catering business. But the truth is, I don’t feel passionate about any of it—I just
like
it.”

“Then why don’t you do that?” He understood lack of passion in a job—he’d been working with it for years, even before his father’s illness. He followed her back to the table, carrying both pieces of the mile-high pie Penny baked for McGuffey’s. “Open your own temp business. There isn’t one in Fionnegan. You could keep yourself busy every day. You have enough friends with small businesses that setting one up wouldn’t be prohibitive—they can advise you all the way through it. Plus, you already own property on a street that’s as much business as residential.”

She sat down, her gaze thoughtful as she speared her pie. “It wouldn’t have to be big, would it? More like a registry. There are plenty of people in town, not to mention college students, who would like to work part-time or even occasionally.” Her eyes rolled in bliss when the pie hit her tongue, then she set down her fork. “It grieves me to admit it, McGuffey, but I think you have a good idea there.”

* * *

“I
BELIEVE
I
created a monster.” Ben stood in the doorway between Kingdom Comer’s kitchen and dining room. “I haven’t seen the top of the table since we first talked about you going into business two weeks ago. I haven’t seen much of you, either,” he added, sounding disgruntled.

Kate aimed a secret smile down at the drawings and photographs in front of her. She didn’t mind at all that he’d missed seeing her. “Come sit down and I’ll tell you what’s happening.”

He brought coffee for them both and sat beside her, picking up the first of the photographs on the table. “Whoa. This looks like it belongs on Alcott Street.”

“I think so, too.” She beamed at him. “They’re prefab, but they’re built right here in Vermont, so acclimatizing won’t be an issue. I can save thousands by getting this one.” She shuffled through the pictures to come up with a green-shuttered white Cape Cod. “It’s already been built, but the person it was built for can’t take delivery on it after all. I admit, it’s not perfect. Living quarters will be on the closet side of cramped, but I can live with it. For a while, anyway, until my ship comes in and I can have a house again.”

Thinking of the fire still made her feel as though she would hyperventilate. She had to stop and breathe for a little space in time, then take a long drink of her coffee. “Especially since I don’t have much stuff anyway. No furniture, though I’ll have to furnish the office. I have enough insurance money for the building, and I can get a small business mortgage on it for whatever else is an absolutely-must-have. I already talked to the bank and offered up my IRA, pathetic though it is.” She flipped through the drawings, pulling out a sheet of sketching paper. “Look at this sign Samantha and Mary Kate designed. Isn’t it beautiful? I’ll be able to add the website, address and phone number to it and make it into a business card.”

“‘A Day at a Time,’” he read aloud, “‘for your temporary staffing needs.’”

“That means if you decide to stay a doctor and actually open an office here instead of Boston and your office manager calls in sick, I can come in and schedule appointments and answer the phone for you. I can give shots, too—remember my mom is insulin-dependent so we learned how to give them—but hardly anyone wants me to do that.”

He laughed, squeezing her shoulders. “Your little fainting habit could hurt your credibility as a shot-giver.”

“It’s not really a habit. I haven’t done it in a long time.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Given a shot or fainted?”

She shrugged, liking the feel of his arm around her shoulders. “Either. I get a little woozy when I give blood, but that’s because I’m delicate.”

His snicker turned into a completely unconvincing cough. “Do you have to have a permit? Everything else in that block is stick-built.” He picked up the picture of the Cape Cod, then opened the brochure to scan the drawings of its interior, his brows knitting as he read.

He was, bar none, the handsomest man she’d ever known. She breathed deep again. Hyperventilation could yet happen.

“Already applied for. I should be able to open for business about the same time as Marce gets back. I’m excited.” Not passionate, but excited. She shuffled the papers into a stack and left the table, going to unload the dishwasher. “There are worse things, aren’t there?”

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