Authors: Denise Hunter
Noelle glared at her brother. “He
through the south during slow season.”
Max shrugged. “That’s what I said. He e-mails when he finds a computer.”
“How often is that?” Meridith asked.
“As often as he can,” Noelle said.
“I miss him.” It was Ben’s soft voice coming from the top bunk. He was lying on his side, his knees drawn into his stomach. Meridith was sure the little boy missed more than his uncle.
“This was Mom and Dad’s room.” Across the hall, Max touched the doorknob reverently.
“Don’t, Max,” Noelle said.
Meridith wondered if the girl had eyes in the back of her head. She wandered into the only other bedroom. “Is this my room?” It was noticeably cooler inside. Maybe the vent was closed when the room wasn’t in use.
“Yeah. Rita put on fresh sheets and stuff,” Max said.
She had a view of the front yard from an old wooden window. A quilt hugged the full-size bed. A matching dresser stood across from it, bare except for a dainty ivory runner. A nightstand and chest rounded out the room. Rita had cleaned, if the lemony pine scent was any indication.
“Wanna see the guest wing?” Max asked.
She followed him down a short wide hall, leaving Ben and Noelle. Pictures of the children dotted the walls, then the hall opened into a loft identical to the family wing.
“These two rooms are suites. They have their own bathrooms and everything. These two don’t.”
There was nothing but a short corridor dividing the family wing from the guest wing, which meant strangers frequently slept just down the hall. Unacceptable. It seemed negligent that their parents hadn’t secured the family wing. They needed a solid keyed entry at the hallway and another at the back stairway.
Meridith peeked into the rooms. Honey-stained floors stretched under quaint rugs. Each room had its own beachy color scheme, each bed covered by coordinating quilts and puffy pillows. Homey. Attractive.
A loud rumble made her jump. “What in the world is that?”
Max shrugged. “The furnace.”
It sounded like a rumble of thunder. She wondered how old the heating system was. Oh well. Not her problem. She was only here until Uncle Jay returned. Max’s description of him nagged at her, but she pushed the thought from her mind.
She had to do something about dividing the guest quarters from the family’s, though. She added it to her growing mental list.
“Want me to get your suitcase?” Max asked.
Meridith smiled. “That’s very sweet. Thank you.”
While he clomped down the stairs beside Piper, Meridith wandered back to the family wing to check on the others. Ben was sprawled across his top bunk, eyes closed, mouth gaping. Poor little guy. He probably wasn’t sleeping well.
It was close to dinnertime. Maybe Noelle would like to help her in the kitchen. She walked toward Noelle’s closed door and raised her hand. The furnace kicked off, and in the sudden silence, another sound caught Meridith’s ear. She leaned closer to the door and heard the unmistakable sound of stifled sobs.
Jake Walker straddled his Harley and popped the kickstand, settling into the worn leather seat. He needed a good meal, shower, and sleep, not necessarily in that order. He was tired of the greasy diner down the road, though the service was friendly enough, but his stomach was rumbling too loud to be picky.
“Hey, Jake, hang on a minute.”
Jake released the handlebars and leaned back while Levi ambled down the new porch steps of the Habitat for Humanity home they’d been building for two weeks.
“How about a real bed tonight? Mary said not to take no for an answer.”
Jake drove his thumbs into his jeans pockets. “I don’t mind sleeping on the ground.” A pup tent, sleeping bag, and a Harley—all a man needed.
“Mary’s fixing pork roast. Haven’t you had about all you can stand of Clyde’s Diner? Or is it the flirtin’ that’s bringing you back?”
Jake grinned. “Man’s got to eat.”
Levi laughed. “So he does. But Mary’s roast will make up for any flirting you miss, and she’s already fluffed up the pillows in the spare room. Plus, you can check in with your family. Use our phone, or we have a computer now. Don’t know how to use it, but there it sets.”
A home-cooked meal and soft bed did sound appealing. And it had been a few weeks since he’d checked in with Eva. “Don’t mind if I do. Mighty kind of you.”
“You’re doing me a favor. Mary woulda had my neck if I came home without you. Follow me.”
Levi climbed into his pickup and started the old thing. Minutes later they were on a two-lane highway, headed east. The air rushed over Jake’s skin, billowed his shirt. Ahead of him, Lookout Mountain rose into the cloudless sky. Maybe he’d explore it over the weekend. A change of scenery would be nice, though March in the Alabama mountains might get chilly.
Levi turned onto a gravel road, and Jake followed him a couple miles until he turned into the drive of a white farmhouse, set back off the road in a pine grove.
When they entered the house, Levi introduced him to Mary, who fussed over him, then showed him to his room.
Supper was a treat. Roasted pork, mashed potatoes, corn, and homemade bread. Made him miss his sister’s good cooking. They lingered, talking about the Habitat house, Mary’s garden plans, and his own family back on Nantucket. After the meal he took a long hot shower, and by the time he was done, he realized it was too late to call Eva. An hour later on the island. Eva would wring his neck if he woke the kids on a school night.
It would have to be e-mail. He wandered past the living room, where Levi and Mary watched TV, into the office where they’d told him to help himself to the computer.
The machine was a monstrosity, and Jake wondered if it even worked. But five slow minutes later he was online and opening his e-mail account.
There was probably a long newsy letter from Eva awaiting him, to which he’d hunt and peck his way to a four-sentence reply that would take him until midnight.
He typed in his password and waited for his inbox to appear, drumming his fingers on the scarred oak desk that hogged the tiny room. The chair squeaked as he settled back.
His inbox appeared, and he frowned as he scanned the messages. None from Eva. There were a bunch from Noelle and a couple from addresses he didn’t recognize.
He opened his niece’s oldest one first, dated three weeks ago.
Uncle J, please call as soon as you get this!!!
A smile tugged his lips. No doubt a teenage tragedy involving a boy. No one could say his niece was short on dramatics. It was Noelle who had started his nickname when she was no more than a baby. Unable to pronounce the
in Jake, she’d shortened his name to J. The name had caught and stuck.
He opened the next message from Noelle dated the following day.
Please call Uncle J!!! Something bad has happened!!
He frowned. What was going on? He was suddenly sure the urgency was more than teen angst.
Her next e-mail was sent later on the same day.
Uncle J, I didn’t want to tell you this in an e-mail but I can’t stand it anymore. Mom and Dad died! There was a boat accident and they’re never coming home again! I’m so sad I haven’t stopped crying. The funeral is in two days and we need you here!!!
Jake stopped reading. Eva and T. J. gone? His big sister, gone just like that? How could he not have known the instant she left this world? How did it happen? Why? His eyes burned, and he rubbed them hard.
He opened Noelle’s next e-mail.
The funeral was this morning. It doesn’t seem real that Mom and Dad aren’t coming back. I keep waiting for Dad to come home from work then I realize he’s not going to. Mom’s friend Mrs. Hubbard is staying with us. Where are you, Uncle J?
A heavy weight sat hard on his chest.
I’m right here!
he wanted to shout through the computer. But he hadn’t been there when they needed him. The weight nearly suffocated him.
Eva. He pictured her swingy blonde hair caught up in a messy ponytail, her small oval face, her sparkling green eyes so full of life.
Only they weren’t full of life now. They were still and cold. Lifeless. He couldn’t stand the thought of not seeing her again. Of not getting to say good-bye. He pounded the desk with his fist. Why had he left? If only he’d stayed home this winter. If only he’d called sooner.
The kids. He had to think about the kids. Who was taking care of them? He opened Noelle’s next message.
I can’t believe it!!! Dad’s attorney said that his other daughter is supposed to be our guardian!!! We don’t even know her!!
The next e-mail from Noelle was dated almost a week later.
Dad’s other daughter came today. I so hoped she wouldn’t come but now she’s here and obviously planning to stay. She doesn’t even care about us!!
The last one was sent just the day before.
Meridith is crazy!! You wouldn’t believe what she’s doing! She’s changing everything and is so strict I want to scream10 I don’t care if she is my sister, I hate her11 She isn’t fit to take care of us!! Come home, Uncle J! I know they’ll change their minds when they see how much we love you!!
Jake stood abruptly, and the office chair rolled away at the force. He paced the room with long, quick strides. He had to talk to Noelle, make sure they were okay. He stopped at the desk and picked up the phone, then slammed it back down. What good would it do to wake her?
He had to get back to the island. What the heck was this Meridith woman doing? And why had Eva and T. J. left the kids to her?
Well, who were they going to leave them to? You?
He wasn’t the most settled man alive, and sure, maybe he had a wild streak or two . . . but he loved the munchkins.
Noelle’s anguish had come through loud and clear. He pictured Benny’s little face, so like Eva’s, and Max’s sad brown eyes. They must be lost without their parents. He knew what that was like. Knew what it was like to be unwanted, to feel like you didn’t belong anywhere.
Something in Noelle’s e-mail jarred his memory. He went back to the computer and opened the last e-mail.
Meridith is crazy!! You wouldn’t believe what she’s doing!
He remembered something Eva had told him back when she and T. J. first married. T. J.’s ex-wife had bipolar disorder, a mental illness. Was it hereditary? What if Meridith had it too? What if the kids were in the hands of a mentally ill woman?
He put his hands over the keyboard and pecked his way to a search engine to look up the disorder. It took an eternity for the list to appear.
When it did, he clicked on a link and skimmed the information.
Psychiatric disorder . . . mania . . . hallucinations . . . depression
. . . and then the nugget of information he’d feared.
“Genetics are a substantial contributing factor to the likelihood of developing bipolar disorder. Symptoms often appear in late adolescence or young adulthood.”
Jake clicked back to Noelle’s e-mails and reread them, his breath catching again at the news of his sister’s death.
Why Eva, God?
He was going to miss her so much.
But he had to focus on the kids now. There would be time for grieving later.
His niece definitely thought there was something wrong with Meridith, had even called her crazy. If this woman had inherited her mother’s disorder, there was no way she was fit to care for his niece and nephews. No way Eva would’ve wanted her to.
He had to get back there. Now.
He returned to his room and stuffed the few items he’d unpacked into his bag. It would take too long to drive back. He’d take the first flight he could and send for his cycle later. He’d already missed the funeral, missed being there for the kids. He kicked his duffel bag across the wood floor, and it
against the closed door.
He felt like punching someone. Himself. For not being there when they needed him. For not even knowing his sister was dead and cold in the grave.
A knock sounded on the door. “Jake, everything okay?”
Jake slowed his breathing before he opened the door.
Levi stood on the threshold, his gray brows drawn together.
“There’s been an emergency back home. I need to go.” He explained what happened.
Mary had appeared at Levi’s side. “What can we do?”
Jake ran his hand through his damp hair. “I need to get a flight. What city is closest? Atlanta? Birmingham?”
“I’ll handle the arrangements,” Mary said. “You go to the campsite and pack up your gear. When you get back I’ll have your reservations set.”
“And I’ll drive you to the airport,” Levi added. “We can ship your cycle to you.”
“Thanks.” Jake fished his credit card from his wallet and handed it to Mary. “Get the quickest flight you can. I don’t care what it costs.”
Jake exited the taxi and shouldered his duffel bag. Nantucket was still in the throes of winter, and he was glad for his leather jacket. Summer Place loomed ahead, big and sprawling under the clouded sky.
It had been a long night of travel, and he still hadn’t arrived before the kids left for school. He checked his watch as he walked up the drive.
Just as well. He needed to get a feel for this Meridith woman. He’d had a lot of time to think on the flight—God knew he hadn’t slept—and he didn’t like what he was thinking.
Why would a woman who’d never bothered to meet her siblings suddenly have an interest in becoming their new mommy? Why would she leave her life in whatever city she lived in to come care for the kids?
Was he supposed to think it was her big heart and tender spirit? They were talking about the guardianship of three kids, for crying out loud. Three kids she didn’t even know, much less love.
He was no fool. Summer Place might be old, but it was over three acres of oceanside property and worth a mint. Did she think she could come here and take so easily what Eva and T. J. had worked so hard for?
Not on his life.
And yet, his sister and T. J. had granted her guardianship. He knew for a fact T. J. hadn’t seen his daughter since she was in school. Why would they leave the kids to her? But Jake knew how important family was to Eva. Having only had each other so much of their lives, blood was key to her. And the kids only had two blood relatives left. Him and Meridith.