Authors: Kate Aster
Copyright 2016, Kate Aster
All Rights Reserved
This book is a work of fiction. Names,
characters, and events are products of the author’s imagination or are used
fictitiously and are not to be interpreted as real. Any similarity to real
events, locales, or people, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and not
intended by the author.
Cover design: The Killion Group, Inc.
“Attention to orders: the President of the United
States has reposed special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor,
fidelity, and abilities of First Lieutenant Tyler Griffon…”
Bridget’s heart caught in her throat at the sound of the
Adjutant’s thundering voice in the distance. From far behind the crowd that had
gathered among the historic tanks at the Fort Meade Museum, her ears strained
to hear every word.
Her eyes soaked up the image of Tyler at the front of the
crowd, standing at attention in his dress uniform looking nothing short of
The Ranger tab on his uniform flashed in the sun. She
recognized the arched design of it from that day years ago when she’d attended
his graduation from Ranger School at Fort Benning. She spotted the Ranger
Scroll on his lower pocket, as well as several other awards pinned to his chest
that were unfamiliar to her, reminders that the recent years of his life had
been without her at his side.
She regretted those years now more than ever. If she’d
remained in his life as his girlfriend, she’d be standing in that crowd near
him, rather than skulking behind an oak tree a hundred or so feet away.
When she climbed into her car this afternoon, she’d fully
intended to greet him with a warm hug at this ceremony, even though she hadn’t
been formally invited. She couldn’t imagine he’d mind, seeing as he had blasted
out the announcement of the ceremony to the entire world on Facebook.
In fact, deep in her heart, she dared to hope that he’d put
the announcement out there just so that she might find it.
Maybe he missed her as desperately as she missed him.
But something held her back from approaching him. Perhaps it
was seeing him flanked by so many friends she didn’t know. She recognized only one
of them. Bess was her name, and Bridget assumed that the little girl by Bess’s
side was her daughter. She’d seemed nice enough that time they’d briefly met in
a coffee house back when Bridget had been dating Tyler.
The other people here were foreign to her, making this day
seem so different from those years they’d been together when she had known
nearly everyone in his life. From the moment Tyler arrived at the ceremony,
they had surrounded him in welcome, a human barrier between him and Bridget, till
she decided to retreat to a shady spot on the museum grounds until she could
greet him after the ceremony concluded.
“…he is therefore promoted to the rank of Captain, United
Bridget’s heart swelled at the words, with pride and
undeniable love that hadn’t faltered through the years. A warm autumn breeze
traced over her bare arms and it made her remember the feel of his caress. Memories
cascaded over her… the day they first met in college her senior year… the first
time they made love… the feel of his hand in hers as they walked down the
streets of Annapolis… lying out beneath the stars at Sandy Point State Park. He
was her first and truest love, sweeping her off her feet, cradling her heart in
his gentle hold, and cherishing her like he would never let her go.
She dated others in their time apart, and had a small
handful of failed relationships, all seeming to serve as reminders of what a
fool she’d been to let Tyler slip through her fingers. But seeing that
announcement online, she’d taken it as a sign. She needed to be here for his
promotion ceremony after having attended so many of his milestones early in his
military career. She needed to see that moment when his Captain’s shoulder
boards were attached to his uniform for the very first time.
Her chin lowered as she watched, curious to see that he
chose a friend to do the honors. It was Bess he’d asked to attach one new
shoulder board to his uniform today, and the little girl next to her did the
other one. It wasn’t customary. Usually a parent, spouse, or a respected
commander was asked to do such a thing. Sometimes a girlfriend, but rarely. And
Bridget hadn’t seen any photos on his Facebook page that indicated he was
She reminded herself that, even as her brow creased at the
sight, and her body wavered slightly.
The uneasiness left her when she heard Tyler addressing
the crowd, the timbre of his voice so familiar to her, so soothing to her soul,
even after so long. It rolled over her like a gentle wave, making her ache for
him. She couldn’t make out his words; he’d opted to not use microphones for the
somewhat intimate gathering, and she regretted not approaching him earlier,
taking her place in the crowd. She knew he wouldn’t mind that she had come. They
had parted well—as friends—not the slightest animosity between
A good starting point, she hoped, to begin again.
She heard a word or two of his speech here and there. His
tone was more conversational than the stern bellow of the Adjutant who read the
promotion orders. But she couldn’t pick up the meaning of his words until she
saw the unexpected.
Tyler dropped to one knee.
Bridget’s lungs contracted and the world swayed around her. The
space between her and Tyler seemed to elongate immensely, as if the earth was
being stretched out, pulling her further away from all she ever wanted, further
away from him. Her throat burned as though she had screamed. Yet she was
silent, deadly silent as she watched the man she had loved since college reach
into his pocket and pull out a ring.
A ring for someone else.
As though in a dream—or more like a
nightmare—she watched Bess’s hands fly up to her mouth, concealing the
surprise that was apparent even from Bridget’s faraway vantage point. And she
saw her nod vigorously, the tears in her eyes glistening—joyful tears, so
unlike the ones that now stung the backs of Bridget’s eyes.
The crowd shouted, “Hooah!” and applause rang out through
the museum grounds. Tyler hugged the little girl—the little girl destined
to be his stepdaughter—then lifted her onto his hip and embraced her
As the crowd swarmed him and congratulations filled the air,
Bridget stood statue-still and blessedly unnoticed. Frozen in solitude
alongside the oak, her limbs were unable to move to make an escape until the
chill of tears on her cheeks snapped her back to reality.
A reality without any hope of Tyler in it.
For Bridget Needham, those two words had heralded a stereotypical
Except that Bridget, still in her twenties, was at least ten
years too early for it.
Now, scrunched beneath a sink armed with the plumber’s
wrench she’d picked up at the hardware store today, those words taunted her.
She quit. She had really done it.
It had been a dream job for a young lawyer at a venerable DC
firm, the kind that made her fellow law school grads salivate like hungry
hounds in a meat-packing facility. Any one of them would have told her she was
a fool to quit. But the long hours staring across a courtroom facing the dregs
of humanity had sucked half the soul from her.
She left the firm, hoping the other half might remain intact.
But this? Staring quizzically at the ancient pipes, trying—perhaps
futilely—to install the first of five new faucets she picked up at the
Pottery Barn outlet?
This was pushing her clear out of a premature mid-life
crisis and straight into insanity.
With the final twist of the wrench, a familiar burn sizzled
in her chest, the acid searing along its usual track up her esophagus.
After turning the shut-off valve back to the “on” position,
she shimmied out from under the vanity and retrieved the bottle chock-full of
antacids that she never had far from her reach these days. Returning to the
bathroom, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Lacking makeup, and
with blonde clumps of hair sticking out in unusual ways from a loose ponytail,
no one in her former life would recognize her now.
She looked like hell, yet she found herself proud of the
unadulterated mess she was. When she’d lived in DC only months ago, she
wouldn’t have been caught dead like this. But in Annapolis, Maryland, she didn’t
have any qualms about heading straight out the door without so much as a swipe
of fresh lipstick.
That, in itself, was something to smile about.
“Naptown” as Annapolis was often called, was just thirty
minutes outside DC. But it was a world away, in Bridget’s view. People were
more relaxed here, only inspired to step off their sailboats with their wind-tossed
hair if they had the urge to get a drink at one of the many pubs that filled the
historic downtown area.
It’s no wonder she loved it here, even though she still felt
the sting of certain memories when she walked down its picturesque brick-paved
The smile that had touched her lips turned downward, till
she gave herself a shake.
She was over him, she reminded herself, popping the
oversized pills into her mouth, with her lips curling at the familiar taste of
the two chewable flavored tablets, the maximum dose.
Cherry flavored, my ass.
Reaching for the faucet’s handle, her hand stilled—not
quite ready to face a possible failure. The new faucet sure
pretty—dressing up the old vanity and giving the bathroom a quick, cheap
update that she hoped guests of her inn would appreciate.
Too bad people would expect the damn thing to actually
A horn honked outside, and she allowed herself to be
distracted by it, moving to the window. Tiny droplets of rain cast a halo
around the warm glow of the streetlamps along her street. Despite the evening’s
drizzle, there were still crowds of people filtering in and out of the United
States Naval Academy’s main gate for the evening’s activities.
It was Commissioning Week, a week that brought a rush of fun
memories from the four years Bridget had spent in Annapolis attending St.
John’s College for her undergrad degree. Smiling, she watched the people with a
sense of longing for the past—remembering those moments with her friends
going to the Herndon Climb, a Commissioning Week tradition when the Plebes would
try to ascend a monument slicked with grease to retrieve the cap at the top.
There were concerts she’d attended—so many of them
open to the public. Then, there were those thrilling afternoons, sitting near
City Dock with thousands of others to view the Blue Angels soaring overhead
doing their trademark loops and starbursts in celebration of the graduating
Commissioning Week in Annapolis was like an annual city-wide
festival, stretching from this first Friday night when the mids’ families and
friends started to pour into the city… straight through to that iconic moment
when a thousand midshipmen tossed their caps into the sky at the Navy-Marine
Corps Memorial Stadium.
Her grin faded, remembering the here and now. She wasn’t an
undergrad anymore, walking down King George Street headed out to meet friends
on a Friday night.
She was 28, alone in a bed-and-breakfast inn that had yet to
celebrate its grand re-opening.
Consoling herself, she turned and allowed her eyes to soak in
the image of the room around her, the fruition of months of hard work. Softly
colored painted walls replaced Aunt Lydia’s ancient wallpaper. All the other
rooms, except for her own, followed suit. Only finishing touches remained.
What was once a laundry list of things to fix in this
historic hell she’d inherited had been whittled down to something that could
easily be finished.
If nothing else breaks in the meantime
If. It seemed every time she turned around, another pipe
started leaking or a chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling.
That was the reason her bed-and-breakfast wasn’t open this
It had nothing to do with second thoughts or cold feet or the
litany of doubts that would fester in her brain every time she hung up after a
conversation with her parents.
Really, it didn’t.
Facing the sink again, she reached for the handle with a
sense of dread, and turned it on. Satisfaction oozed from her pores when she
saw the flow of water rushing from the spigot.
I did it
Pride edged out any traces of self-doubt. She
do this. She could turn this bed-and-breakfast into the profitable retreat that
she’d envisioned years ago.
A smile stretched across her face… until she heard the drip.
Kneeling, she watched the steady trickle of water seep out of the fixture and
onto the inside of the vanity.
“Dammit,” she muttered, reaching for the flashlight that
still lay on the floor beside her. She flipped onto her back, staring up at the
pipes and spotting the place where the leak came from. To her untrained eyes it
looked like a good, tight seal. She’d followed the installation directions
perfectly. So why the leak?
Why? Because she wasn’t a plumber. That’s why.
Hell, she wasn’t an innkeeper either.
Who was she kidding?
Puffing out her cheeks, she turned the shut-off valve again
and she flicked off her flashlight, ignoring the puddle of water that mocked
her from underneath the cabinet as she rose from the floor. She needed a glass
of wine if she was going to crawl under that damned sink again. A glass of wine
would soothe the ache in her back and the even worse pain that was forming just
behind her eyes.
No, make that two glasses of wine.
Thunder cracked outside, and she heard the drizzle turn to a
pounding rain on her roof.
The floors creaked beneath her feet as she padded down the
staircase toward the kitchen. On nights like these, with lightning flickering
through the shades and a sense of eerie solitude thick in the air, the small
inn felt more like a haunted house than the cheery space she wanted it to be.
But when the voices of guests and laughter filled the rooms,
she knew it would be just as she’d once imagined.
Not now, though, she thought, jumping with a start at the
sound of the icemaker kicking on. Right now, she half expected to turn the
corner and see a ghost sitting at her kitchen table.
Yep, she definitely needed a glass of wine—and a
little company, too, she decided, reaching for the cell phone on her kitchen
“How was the date?” she texted Leia, the only friendship
she’d managed to foster since she moved back to Annapolis. From the moment
Bridget had first walked into Leia’s coffee house on nearby Maryland Avenue,
she knew that Leia was a kindred soul, struggling to make her coffee business
profitable in a world that generally relied on the more recognizable chains.
Bridget poured herself a glass of the Riesling she’d picked up
at Sunday’s Farmer’s Market, and her grin returned to her face once again. Only
in Annapolis had she ever seen alcohol for sale at a Farmer’s Market right
alongside organic beans and tomatoes. But that might be expected from a town whose
unofficial slogan was “A sailing town with a drinking problem.”
Or was it “a drinking town with a sailing problem?”
Same difference, she shrugged, just as her phone vibrated
next to her.
“Not entirely horrific,” Leia had written back. “Just met 4
a drink. Headed home now.”
“Alone?” Bridget typed.
“Yes, alone,” Leia wrote back, adding a sad face emoji.
“Text me when u get there. K?”
A wind howled outside, rattling the shutters and sending a
chill down her spine. Resolutely, she topped off her wine glass, looking
forward to the unfaltering company that only a TV could provide. The faucet,
and the accompanying leak, could wait till tomorrow.
A creaking sound came from the entryway and the tiny hairs
on her neck stood on end. It sounded like the front door opening, but Bridget
was certain she’d locked it.
It couldn’t be the door then, she consoled herself. It was just
one of those inexplicable sounds that old houses make on stormy nights like
this. Still, she couldn’t help tiptoeing toward the sound, and arming herself
with a marble rolling pin… just in case.
Stepping through the kitchen and into the hall, she saw
him—a hulking form consuming her front doorway, with the rain pummeling
the front stoop behind him. Bridget’s heart shot into her throat and she
dropped her wineglass, letting it shatter on the floor.
In the dimly lit foyer, the man looked big, intimidating,
and very wet.
Raising her rolling pin, and poised to lurch at the
intruder, a scream caught in her throat only a millisecond till it escaped
her—so loud she was almost impressed with herself.
“Whoa, whoa, wait a sec!” His hands shot upward. “I thought
this was a B & B.”
Her eyes widened as she halted the scream. Only then did she
notice the duffel bag slung over his shoulder.
Pausing briefly to eye him skeptically, she gave him a long
look as her eyes adjusted to the dark foyer. She reached for the light switch,
only to realize the guy looked even more intimidating in the soft glow of 100
watts. His puzzled face was punctuated with two blue eyes that looked as
stunned by her scream as she was by his presence.
“Well, yeah,” she finally managed to sputter. “But I’m closed.”
“I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
In her bare feet, she stepped over the shattered wine glass
and flicked on another light. The chandelier in the foyer illuminated every
burly square inch of him.
“The door was locked,” she forced herself to say, mindful
not to silently ogle him. Looking like a weightlifter, his broad shoulders and thick
arms were showcased in his soaking wet t-shirt. He wore khaki
shorts—pretty much part of the uniform around Annapolis—revealing
legs taut with muscles. Bridget felt every cell in her body awaken with
awareness, which she considered an inappropriate response seeing as the guy was
“Well, I hate to tell you this, but the knob—”
He held his hand open toward her and showed her the old brass doorknob resting
in his palm. “—kinda fell off in my hand.”
“Dammit,” she muttered, staring at it. Another thing she’d
need to fix.
“You really might want to get a deadbolt,” he added.
She couldn’t help the glare she shot in his direction.
another thing to add to my list. Thanks, buddy.
“I have a closed sign in
He glanced to the window to the left of him. “You can’t see
that from outside, I swear. Your porch light is burned out. I’m really sorry I scared
“The porch light’s not burned out,” she muttered. “It’s
Like everything breaks around here,
she wanted to add, but
didn’t. She sighed. “It’s not your fault. Sorry to scream.”
“No problem. And uh, thanks for not hitting me with that.”
Only then did Bridget remember the rolling pin in her hands.
Awkwardly, she set it down on the table in the foyer. “Uh, yeah. No problem. Well,
anyway, I’ve been closed for renovations.”
“During Commissioning Week? That’s a hell of a time to be
No shit, Sherlock.