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Authors: Emily March

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BOOK: Heartsong Cottage
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Eventually, the combination of loud music, a crowded dance floor, and her old friend the Ghost of Weddings Past drove her outside to cool off and indulge in a rare moment of self-pity. The perfume of roses drifted on the nighttime air and she slowly wandered away from the community center toward the rose garden. She was a sucker for roses. This was one of her best-loved places in Eternity Springs.

A section of the garden had been named in memory of Ali Timberlake's mother. Peace roses had been her favorite, and since they were one of Shannon's favorites, too, she instinctively headed toward that section of the garden. Peace would be a darned nice thing to find tonight.

When was the last time she'd experienced real and lasting peace? She'd known bouts of it since she'd settled in Eternity Springs. The isolation helped. So, too, did the fact that when she moved here last year, she'd sworn off making any Internet searches that involved anyone in her past.

The fact that she'd gone almost a year without finding a teddy bear part on her bed or hanging from her rearview mirror gave her hope, but having hope didn't necessarily bring a person peace. In her experience, hope actually made her more anxious.

She was tired of being anxious. She was tired of living a lie. She wanted rather desperately to make the lie the reality. Only then would she find the tranquility she craved.

“Well, I'm working on it,” she murmured. In the meantime, she'd sit in the memorial rose garden among Peace roses and think a little about Ted—her beloved but misguided lover.

Light from a nearly full moon bathed the grounds in a silver glow. The perfume of roses mingled with the sound of music drifting from the community center, and Shannon hummed along to James Taylor as she made her way along a graveled path remembering Ted and their life together.

How young and idealistic they'd been. How naïve. Nothing in either of their relatively innocent upbringings had prepared them for the wild side of life they'd found in northern California.

They'd been drawn into Russell Wilbarger's orbit so easily. The charismatic son of a Silicon Valley billionaire-turned-politician, Russell had a brilliant mind and an ability to proselytize with the zeal of a television preacher and the subtlety of a fine wine. It had taken her two semesters to recognize how sneaky and manipulative he could be. Three semesters to discover that the golden boy had a criminal streak.

By then, Ted was in too deep. He wouldn't listen to her. Didn't believe her. Refused to recognize that what he was doing was wrong—until it was too late.

Melancholy suffused her, and as if her mood ordered up the song, the band struck up the old Hank Williams ballad “I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

“Why in the world would they choose to play that at a wedding?” Shannon murmured aloud as she stepped up into the gazebo.

The male voice spoke from the shadows. “Because it is the third-best country music song of all time, a great slow-dancing song, and it's an inside joke among the Romano brothers.”

The magnet. Though she couldn't see him and had never heard him speak, she knew that's who had spoken. “You are so totally wrong.”

“About what?”

“No way is that the third-best country music song of all time. I'll give it top ten. Maybe even top eight. But three? No way.”

“Oh, yeah?” She could make out his shadowed form now that she knew he was there. He leaned against one of the support posts. “So what do you think is number three?”

Shannon took a seat on the bench that ringed the gazebo's five sides and rolled her tongue around her mouth. “I'd have to go with ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.'”

He gave an exaggerated flinch and she laughed. “Hey, it hit all the charts. Was a gold record. It can be argued that the song changed country music.”

“Not for the better,” he fired back.

“All right, then. My real number three is Johnny Cash's ‘I Walk the Line.'”

“Arguable, I'll admit. Wrong, but at least you didn't throw out ‘Achy Breaky Heart.'”

Shannon vowed solemnly, “And I never will.”

His teeth flashed. He stepped away from the post and she heard the sound of ice cubes hitting a glass, then the splash of liquid. “I have to say, this is the best-equipped gazebo I've ever seen. There's a complete bar set up here. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Bushmills, please. Straight up. Flynn told the facility's owner that he wanted everything completely stocked.”

A moment later, he handed her the drink then said, “To the bride and groom.”

“To Gabi and Flynn.” They clinked glasses.

The little buzz she felt had more to do with the delicious timbre of his voice than the alcohol, she admitted as the final notes of the Hank Williams song faded away and the tempo of the music changed. “Hip-hop,” the stranger observed. “Eclectic selection of music tonight.”

“I heard that the playlist took quite a bit of negotiation. Gabi wanted guests to enjoy themselves, and she's made it a personal goal to lure everyone onto the dance floor at some point. There are a lot of young people here tonight, and Gabi does go all in when she commits to something.”

“It's an admirable quality, though I'll admit that I could have gone all night without hearing the ‘Hokey Pokey.' That's what drove me out into the night.”

“Then you missed one of the highlights of the evening. It's not every day you see a former federal judge shaking it all about.”

“Hmm … who's the judge?”

“Mac Timberlake.”

“I don't think I've met him. But then, I haven't met you, either.”

Shannon extended her hand. “I'm Shannon.”

“Nice to meet you, Shannon.” His large hand closed around hers, his handshake firm. “I'm…”

As he said his name an owl sitting unnoticed atop the gazebo let out a loud
whoo hoo whoo
and flapped his wings, flying away.

“… Samuel,” Shannon heard, distracted and unnerved by the little jolt of electricity she felt at his touch. Needing something to occupy herself with, she took another sip of her drink, then said, “Nice to meet you, too.”

“Are you a local?”

“Yes. How about you? You're visiting from…?”

“Back East. I'm from—” He lifted his head and turned his ear toward the community center. “Now, there's a top five country song.”

“Top five? Willie Nelson? Don't be ridiculous. ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain' is maybe top twenty. Maybe. That's if you count ‘A Man of Constant Sorrow' as bluegrass rather than country because it's definitely top five.”

“It's definitely bluegrass and you are so wrong.” And they were off.

Just how long they debated artists and covers and vocal styles Shannon hadn't a clue. A long time. They ended up seated beside each other with the bottle of Bushmills within reach. She lost track of the number of times he refilled her glass. She knew her music, but the depth of his knowledge put her to shame. He knew Nashville today and yesterday, but he also knew Texas country and bluegrass and Gospel. When he threw in an Andrea Bocelli reference, she feared she might have whimpered a bit.

“Enough,” she eventually declared. “Next you'll be rattling off the playlist the bands played at halftime of the Florida/Auburn football game last year.”

“You follow college football?” he asked, a hopeful note in his voice.

Shannon giggled. She couldn't help it. She was a little bit looped and buzzed with sexual awareness, and she'd better do something different before she did something stupid. Like lean forward and nibble at that sexy square jaw of his. “I think that the running back out of Arkansas will win the Heisman this year.”

He closed his eyes and tilted his head away, holding up his hand palm out. “Built, beautiful, knows who wrote ‘Me and Bobby McGee,' and the difference between a zone read and the veer option? Honey, I think … wait.” Now he looked at her, his stare intent. “Hear that?”

He reached out and rested his hand on her knee. Shannon shivered at his touch. She couldn't hear anything over the sudden pounding of her heart. “Hear what?”

He leaned forward. His eyes glittered like a cat's in the moonlight. “The song. It's number one. The best country song of all time.”

She heard it then. Patsy Cline. “‘Crazy.'”

“Dance with me, Shannon.”

She nodded, her mouth suddenly dry. He took her hand in his and slowly pulled her to her feet. His arm slid around her waist, and he led her into the dance. By the end of the first stanza, he held her tucked close like a lover. Before the first refrain had finished, she rested her head against his lapel, lost in the music, the scent of him, the heat of him, the rare pleasure of being held.

When he began to softly sing along with the second verse, her knees went weak and she melted.

She felt the rumble of his rich baritone voice against her cheek. The music … the moment … reached down into her soul and filled a place within her that had been empty for too long.

Shannon didn't want the song to end. She wished the band would play it a second time. A third. A dozen more times. But far too soon, Samuel crooned the final line, and Shannon summoned the strength to lift her head and smile up at him. Thinking to hide the intensity of her reaction to him with a light and breezy remark about his including two Willie Nelson songs in his top five, Shannon opened her mouth to speak, but the look in his eyes stopped her cold.

Only, not cold. It scorched her. An answering heat flared inside her. She went hot. Anticipation sizzled in her veins.

A glimmer of sense and sobriety fluttered to life inside her. He wasn't wearing a wedding ring—she'd already noticed that. But … “Are you with anyone?”

His voice a bit raspy, he said, “No, Shannon. I'm alone. I'm so very alone.”

Deliberately, he lowered his mouth and kissed her, rattling Shannon's world.

Her whole body reacted, aching as if the hollow emptiness inside her was finally sated. Despite her sadness, despite the warmth of a whiskey glow, despite being kissed by a virtual stranger, Shannon was more aware of this man than she had ever been of anything or anyone else in her life. When he deepened the kiss, she responded to him as if she would otherwise drown.

Explosions erupted. Screaming whistles and booms.
Boom boom boom. Crackle crackle crackle.
It took her a moment to realize that the fireworks were bursting in the sky above Angel's Rest, not inside of her.

She started to laugh. She couldn't help herself. It bubbled up from within her like the champagne in the newlyweds' flutes. Samuel released her and stepped back, seemingly startled at first. Then he, too, began to grin.

Shannon melted all over again.

“Thank you for the dance, Shannon.”

“Thank you. I enjoyed it.”

“Me, too.”

They stood staring at each other for a long minute, until she finally felt like a fool and tore her gaze away from him to stare up at the starbursts in the sky. “Wedding fireworks. How totally Gabi.”

“Yes. Absolutely.”

Shannon sighed wistfully when a huge gold sunburst filled the night sky. “She and Flynn will be leaving soon. We should be there.”

“You're probably right.”

“This was nice.”

“Very nice. I'm so glad you wandered my way.”

“Me, too.”

He set their empty glasses on a tray beside the bar station and led her from the gazebo, taking her hand in support when she wobbled a bit descending the stairs to the ground. He didn't release it as they wound their way through the rose garden, and Shannon didn't mind. She'd had enough to drink that she appreciated the support. Besides, she was in no hurry for the evening to end. She had nothing but old ghosts and memories waiting for her at home.

The wedding guests had gathered on the sprawling lawn of Angel's Rest to observe the show. Shannon and Samuel joined the crowd gazing up at the night sky, and judging by some of the interested looks she caught coming their way, the fact that they'd arrived together did not go unnoticed. In fact, she sensed Hope Romano's gaze for the rest of the show.

The fireworks concluded with a finale that left the crowd cheering and clapping. When the time came to pass out sparklers for the bride and groom's leave-taking, Shannon pitched in to help. She lost track of Samuel as guests lined the path leading to the limo to give Gabi and Flynn a rousing send-off.

The crowd was slow to disperse. The band continued to play and the wait staff hired for the event still circulated with flutes filled with champagne. Shannon incautiously accepted more than one glass. Finally, though, the band announced the final song. When she recognized “At Last,” made famous by Etta James, a wave of emotion rolled over her and tears pooled in her eyes. That was her all-time favorite song, but tonight, she really didn't want to hear it.
Lonely days over? Not hardly.

Was anything more lonely than leaving a wedding by yourself?

She grabbed her evening purse from the table where she'd left it and hurried toward the door. Once she escaped into the darkness, she could let her tears fall and no one would be the wiser.

She was almost to the footbridge crossing Angel Creek when she heard someone call her name. Samuel.

She almost didn't stop. By now, tears were rolling steadily down her face, and the music seemed to flow into her ears and down into her heart where it pumped emptiness throughout her body. The sooner she was away from Angel's Rest, away from the music and the happiness and the gaiety, the better.

“Shannon, wait up!”

She could go home and wallow in the misery. Or, she could delay the moment when she'd be alone, surrounded by four walls, paint cans, and regret.

I should get a dog.

Swiping the tears from her cheeks, she slowed her steps and drew in a deep, bracing breath. Then she stopped, summoned a smile, and turned.

BOOK: Heartsong Cottage
11.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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