Authors: Julia Gabriel
Falling for the Prodigal Son
by Julia Gabriel
Published by Serif Books
Copyright © 201
3 by Julia Gabriel
Cover design by Robin Ludwig Design Inc.,
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any mean, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage system, without the written permission of Julia Gabriel.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Lucy entered the library quietly, the only sound her loafers brushing against the thick pile carpet as she walked. John Matthew looked small and frail, sitting in his big leather wing chair, a soft cashmere blanket wrapped around his shoulders, his eyes closed.
"Come in, dear," he surprised her by saying. He opened his eyes, still crystal blue as ever, and brushed a lock of gray hair from his forehead. "Sarah said you were going to stop by. Did she feed you?"
Lucy walked across the library and knelt by the chair. "I was down at the camp, helping Douglas and the counselors with the first night's dinner. The first week is always crazy until the kids settle in and feel comfortable."
"The camp is in good hands with Douglas. That's one thing I don't worry about."
ucy held her breath. She had promised herself she wouldn't cry, not in front of John. John Matthew was the owner of the Chesapeake Inn and Resort in St. Caroline, a small coastal village on the eastern shore of Maryland. Five years ago, he had hired Lucy to be the marketing director at the resort, at a time when she had needed to pick up the pieces of her life and move away from Washington, DC. Move anywhere, she had thought at the time, anywhere that was away from Joshua and his broken promises.
John and his wife, Sarah, had taken her in immediately. They had introduced her to their friends in town, invit
ed her over for Sunday dinners, set her up on dates with every eligible bachelor they could think of.
And now John Matthew, a pillar of the community and a father figure to Lucy, was terminally ill. When Sarah called, Lucy had immediately cut her vacation short and returned to St. Caroline.
John pointed a frail arm toward his large mahogany desk, papers stacked neatly with almost military precision, the fountain pens he'd collected from around the world displayed in a glass-topped box. This was all Sarah's doing. John was as messy as a person could be, his mind always running on a dozen tracks at once. Sarah complained lovingly of picking up after her husband and keeping the trains running on time, as she put it, but Lucy knew she was going to miss it terribly when he was gone.
John stretched his arm out further and grimaced. Lucy finally noticed what he was pointing at. A brown leather photo album, lay in the middle of the desk.
"I gave Douglas the photo archives for the camp. But then I found this album later. Can you take it to him?"
Lucy picked up the heavy album and opened it. Tears blurred her vision as she flipped through the pages. The album was filled with snapshots of the camp and the kids who, over the years, had discovered the outdoors there, and themselves in the process. You could date the older photos just by the clothes the kids were wearing. Tube tops and flared jeans in the seventies. Cut-off flashdance sweatshirts and baggy basketball shorts in the eighties. Plaid shirts and construction boots in the nineties. Everyone in flip flops in the newest pictures.
"We will take good care of the camp. I promise you that," she said.
John leaned back into his chair. Lucy helped pull up the blanket that had slipped off his shoulders.
"People have asked me over the years why I kept the camp going when I could have used that land to make money. But you know, the regular guests, maybe some of them remember their stay at the inn. If it's their honeymoon or anniversary. But most of them stay at many places in their travels. We're not so much more special. But the kids. They remember their summer at camp forever. You, of all people, know that."
Lucy clutched the photo album to her chest. The resort—the entire town, for that matter—simply wouldn't be the same without this man. Lucy couldn't imagine it. She refused to imagine it, to even try. How could this be happening to so wonderful a man? And his sweet, dear wife Sarah? To everyone? Lucy couldn't think of a single person in the town whose life hadn't been touched by John Matthew.
How can life just be going on as usual?
Outside the library window, the Chesapeake Bay sparkled in the soft early evening light. Fishing boats were motoring back in. A skipjack was heading out, taking tourists and honeymooners out for a sunset tour. She wanted everything to come to a complete halt.
There was a soft knock on the library door and Lucy turned to see Sarah entering the room. Right behind her was a couple, a thirty-ish man and a tall slender woman with long red hair, the kind of hair Lucy would kill to have. The woman was sharply dressed, impeccable in a black sleeveless dress and heels. She was stunning, Lucy thought, with creamy skin and a light smattering of freckles that would have made Lucy look like a thirteen-year-old but on this woman simply confirmed that she was a natural redhead.
The man with her was a different story. He wore cargo-style pants that had been cut off at the knees, leaving an uneven fringe of loose threads hanging all the way around. His shirt was a stretched-out tee shirt advertising some kind of European beer. On his feet were black sport sandals. His hair was an unruly mess of waves and he clearly hadn't shaved that day.
Lucy recognized him immediately.
Sterling Matthew, John and Lucy's only child. Older, taller, more filled out than he'd been as a teenager. Lucy had thought him devastatingly gorgeous as a seventeen year old, but the mussed hair and sloppy outfit weren't as appealing on an adult.
Would he recognize her? She drew in a long, slow breath and held it.
"Sterling and Elle are here, darling. Are you ready for them?" Sarah said.
Neither of them seemed to notice Lucy.
"Father," Sterling said.
Lucy was surprised at his tone of voice. All business. She didn't belong here, all of a sudden, and began to slip away quietly toward the door.
"Lucy, hold on a minute. Sterling, I'd like you to meet Lucy Wyndham. She's your marketing director," John said.
Sterling finally looked directly at Lucy. "Pleased to meet you," he said without smiling and without making any effort to come shake her hand. His companion, however, strode gracefully over to Lucy.
"Elle Scott-Thomas," she said and extended a cool, slender hand. "Nice to meet you."
Sarah walked Lucy to the front door. "You didn't have to cut your vacation short, Lucy. You work hard all year. John would never expect you to do that," Sarah said. Lucy noticed the dark shadows beneath Sarah's normally lively blue eyes. Sarah was in her early sixties, younger than her husband by almost a dozen years. Lucy had said on more than one occasion that she hoped she would age as well as Sarah Matthew. But tonight, Sarah was looking older already.
"I was just visiting my college roommate. She completely understood." Lucy embraced her friend. "If you need anything, Sarah, please let me know. Anything at all. You must be glad to have your son home for awhile. He'll be a help."
"Well, hopefully, it's for more than awhile," Sarah replied. "Sterling is taking over for John."
"At the Inn?"
Sarah nodded, hugging herself. Lucy noticed the wariness in her eyes. Something wasn't right, she thought. But she couldn't imagine what.
"Well, things are in good hands then, aren't they?" In reality, Lucy had no idea whether Sterling had any sort of a head for business. Sarah and John never spoke of him. According to employee gossip, Sterling Matthew was a ne-er do well playboy who spent his time—and his trust fund—skiing in Europe and squiring around one beautiful woman after another. Well, he certainly had a beautiful woman on his arm tonight. Lucy could confirm that rumor, at least.
Outside, the sun was setting over the expansive front lawn of the Matthew estate. Lucy's bicycle was propped against the low stone wall that ran along the driveway. She dropped the camp photo album into her backpack, then slung the straps over her shoulder.
"Lucy!" She looked back to see Sarah jogging down the driveway.
"Come to brunch on Sunday," Sarah said. "My brother and his wife are sailing in from Annapolis."
"Are you sure?" Lucy wondered whether the day was a family reunion for Sterling.
"Of course. I'll invite some single men," Sarah added with a mischievous smile.
"You still haven't given up on me, have you?"
"You know I don't give up that easily. I'm going to marry you off if it's the last thing I do."
Lucy straddled her bicycle. "Well, we're running out of eligible bachelors in St. Caroline."
"Only because you and
Douglas stubbornly resist fate." Sarah looked up at the fading evening light, then frowned at Lucy's bike. "Is it safe for you to ride all the way home? It's getting dark, dear. If you can wait, I'll have Sterling give you a lift home."
Fifteen years ago, Lucy would have given anything to ride in a car with Sterling Matthew. But she'd been a mere teenager back then. Tonight? She doubted that the grown man she'd just seen in there would be all that happy at having to give her—or anyone—a ride home. He'd seemed irritated and bothered. His vibe was decidedly not happy camper.
"It's only two miles," Lucy replied to Sarah. "I'll be home before it's dark. I need to turn in early, anyway. Tomorrow it's back to the office." She smiled at Sarah, wishing with all her might that she could wave some magic wand and restore John Matthew's health.
Lucy rode back home to the small waterfront cottage she had been renting from the Matthews since she moved to St. Caroline five years ago. As Lucy pedaled around the last gentle curve, the cottage and its white painted porch came into view. It was nothing fancy, just one bedroom and an open living-dining-kitchen space, but it sat right on the water. The wooden porch wrapped around three-quarters of the house, all the way to the back where it overlooked the bay. The bows of Lucy and Douglas' sea kayaks peeked out from underneath the porch—hers orange, his a green tie-dye pattern. As much as the lapping waves called to her, it was too late to take hers out on the water tonight.
She leaned her bike against the side of the house, then trudged up the short set of stairs to the porch. She had just settled herself in with a cup of tea and the photo album when the phone rang.
"I knew it would be you," she said when she heard Gina's voice. Gina was the Inn's pastry chef and Lucy's closest friend in St. Caroline.
"How was Chicago?" Gina asked.
"Windy," Lucy replied. "Summer hasn't arrived there yet. But it was a nice visit."
"Are you okay? You sound distracted."
"I'm fine. A little tired from the flight and the drive from Baltimore. And then I went over to Sarah and John's."