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Authors: Georgia Bockoven

The Cottage Next Door

BOOK: The Cottage Next Door
11.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



way to know the tiny heart-­shaped fragment of translucent green beach glass that washed up on the shore seventy-­five years ago brought a touch of magic with it. The young woman who found it had gone to the beach that morning to decide whether her life was worth living alone. She’d lost the only man she’d ever loved in a nameless battle, on a nameless island, three days before the war in the Pacific officially ended.

She didn’t feel the magic right away, just a comforting sense of peace that grew to acceptance, and finally hope. The sea glass resided in the pocket of whatever pants or jackets she wore while she stayed at the cottage, a talisman she clasped when her loss threatened to return and overwhelm her. When the principal at the school where she taught fifth grade called to gently remind her that there was an upcoming mandatory staff meeting to get ready for the first day of school, she reluctantly started packing.

Distracted, she didn’t notice when the sea glass slipped from her pocket, nor did she feel it under her foot when she moved her suitcases out of the bedroom and into the enclosed back porch. She might have noticed a flash of color reflected in the sunlight when she made one more quick pass through the cottage—­if only she hadn’t stepped on the tiny heart again, this time tilting it on edge and forcing it between two six-­inch wide pieces of rustic flooring.

She left the cottage through the back porch, stopping to look out the wall of windows that gave an unimpeded view of the cove. Something had drawn her to this room for a last good-­bye, settling a sense of contentment over her as gently as one of her grandmother’s silk knit shawls.

The taxi appeared ten minutes early, the driver giving two quick honks to announce his arrival. She led him to the back porch, standing to the side while he picked up three of her four suitcases. As she reached for the last bag the sun cut through the morning fog, and for an instant, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a burst of blue light. It was gone as quickly as it had appeared. Had it not been her final day, had she not been in a hurry to get to the bus depot, had the taxi driver arrived on time rather than early, she would have investigated.

Instead she forgot all about the strange blue light until she was on the Greyhound bus to Arizona, and thought to look for the glass heart in her pocket. It wasn’t there. She checked her other pockets, desperately hoping she’d absentmindedly put it in one of them. But even as she looked, a voice whispered in her ear—­
It’s gone, leave it be

The heart that she had planned to make into a necklace would have been a constant subtle reminder of the past. Letting go meant she believed, however tentatively, in her future. There might not be a new love to spend her years with, but there were friends and family and sharing and laughter.

She leaned her head against the seat cushion and stared at the mountains that rimmed the eastern edge of the long fertile San Joaquin Valley. Her thoughts drifted to the shiny new faces that would greet her in two weeks. From now on all of her energy would be focused on her fifth graders. She would encourage them to dream, and help them to fulfill their dreams.

The bus made a quick stop at a roadside restaurant. Three ­people got off, and one, a young soldier missing a leg, struggled to get on. Passengers greeted him as he made his way down the aisle, some thanked him for his ser­vice and sacrifice, others merely dipped their heads in acknowledgement. One white-­haired man stood and saluted.

The young soldier nodded and smiled, his eyes betraying a deep weariness. Finally he reached the young woman’s seat and stopped to catch his breath from his journey down the aisle. A girl, barely five, sitting two rows behind them, asked her mother about the flash of blue light—­lasting less time than it takes to blink—­that she saw pass between the soldier and the woman. Her mother told her it was her imagination, and went back to reading her magazine.

In Santa Cruz, the wisp of magic tucked into the sea glass settled into its new home, giving comfort to a series of owners and their infrequent renters. What happened to them wasn’t so dramatic that anyone sought explanations or passed on stories that would make the cottage itself a destination. Instead, the questions that found answers, and the broken hearts that were healed, were credited to time and circumstance and luck.

While the beach house next door to the cottage sported fresh paint trim and cedar siding that was years shy of the classic faded gray, the cottage fought to keep nails in place as its wood exterior dried and shrunk with age. Inside, some rooms had been restored on a graham-­cracker budget, while others reflected more prosperous times and were more like an elegant tiramisu. Tile had replaced linoleum in the bathrooms and kitchen, and the rest of the house held new hardwood floors.

Except the enclosed back porch.

For some reason, one that he’d never shared, the professional golfer who’d purchased the cottage in the middle of a career-­threatening slump refused to make any changes to the porch. Not even when he’d readied the house for sale to go back on tour, and the realtor insisted the unpainted wainscoting and 1940s wallpaper would keep him from getting top dollar, did the golfer yield.

The cottage sold, and at closing, the new owners proclaimed the first thing they were going to do was remodel the porch. The golfer gave them an enigmatic smile and wished them luck.

And just as he knew would happen, nothing, with the exception of the curtains and furniture, changed. The wainscoting and wallpaper that the new owner had proclaimed hideous was suddenly charming, the floor a masterpiece of craftsmanship that provided a window to a past when hardwood trees grew straight and strong and thick.

They don’t build houses like this anymore
became a mantra passed from one owner to the next. Which meant the floor in the back porch was swept and vacuumed and occasionally polished, but never replaced.


Chapter One


about the high-­pitched whine of a circular saw that made Diana Wagnor’s imagination kick into overdrive. Without any real effort she pictured the man working in the house next door as someone in his late twenties, wearing a faded denim shirt with cut-­off sleeves, and a weathered leather tool belt topping jeans slung low on his hips.

Of course it was a given that living in California he’d have sun-­bleached hair, six-­pack abs, and a killer smile. Oh, and dark blue eyes with long curling eyelashes.

Great eyes were a must in her fantasy of what went into creating the perfect man. Not only was it important that they be beautiful, they should be playful and sexy at the same time. Oh, and filled with a sensual promise, but that went hand in hand with sexy.

Diana let out a frustrated sigh. What insanity—­to swear off men for two years and then purposely wallow in visions of a construction worker. Until she found a reason to trust her own judgment again, he could be the guy who checked off every detail on her imaginary list of what went into the perfect man, and she still wouldn’t do anything about it.

For someone who’d lived her entire life in the geographical center of the United States, seeing the ocean for the first time was tantamount to seeing Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon. And yet here she was, sitting on a deck with a view most ­people saved for honeymoons or special anniversaries, except she was alone. If only she’d come to California less burdened, the pleasure would have been more joyful. But broken hearts were heavy, and she was worn out carrying hers.

How was it that she’d never fallen for anyone who hadn’t disappointed her in the end or who had bailed when the road turned rocky?

Her first real boyfriend, Louis Bickford, had eyes that triggered fantasies far too complex for a naive thirteen-­year-­old to understand. They were a ­couple, or at least a ­couple in her mind, right up to the day he asked Judy Feldman to the graduation dance. Too embarrassed to tell her mother what had really happened, Diana faked a stomach flu and sobbed her way through the weekend.

What followed all the way through high school and into college was a string of drop-­dead gorgeous “bad boys”—­the only kind that ever held her attention past hello.

Would she never learn?

By her junior year at the University of Kansas, after she’d discovered her latest boyfriend had been tossed out of school for cheating on a final, Diana had a talk with her favorite sibling, her oldest brother Brian. She poured out her heart to him, reciting a list of loser boyfriends, ending with a tearful diatribe against men.

Brian listened patiently and then gave her one of his succinct always on-­point answers. Plain and simple, the problem wasn’t men—­it was her unerring ability to zero in on the worst ones. For whatever screwy reason, she found these supposedly misunderstood antiheroes sexy, believing all they lacked to turn their lives around was the love of a good woman.



Diana drove back to Lawrence determined to change. And she did. For a week. Right up to the moment her roommate introduced her to Howard Clausen.

He was tall and muscular, a long-­distance swimmer on the varsity team, with short brown hair that begged to have fingers run through it. His eyes were a soft electric blue, the lashes thick and curling. Best of all he was smart and articulate, and someone she actually wanted to introduce to her parents. The total package.

He was also the reason, seven years later, that she’d left the only home she’d ever known and moved to California, that she had zero balances in both her saving and retirement accounts, that she owned a bare lot where the house her great-­grandfather had built with his own hands had once stood, and that she’d sworn off men.

Not forever, of course. She had sense enough to know that forever wasn’t in her genetic makeup. Two years had seemed like a good compromise. She’d be thirty-­one by then and hopefully imbued with the wisdom that came with age. She would be able to look at an Abercrombie & Fitch model and recognize that until he proved he was more than a pretty face, all he had going for him was packaging.

Six months down. Eighteen to go.

Letting out a frustrated sigh, she leaned back in an Adirondack chair in need of a coat of varnish. The wooden deck of her cousin Cheryl’s beach cottage went half the length of the back of the house, and provided a perfect private view of the ocean. At least being here had lived up to her expectations. The waves and white sand, even the noisy seagulls and salty air were exactly as she’d pictured them. From the minute she’d pulled into the driveway and stopped to stare into the seemingly endless horizon, she’d been overcome with the feeling that if she had to leave her beloved Kansas to escape her past, she was exactly where she belonged.

Her phone vibrated on the glass top of the wicker table beside her. For a second she considered not even looking to see who it was and letting the call go to voice mail. Then she remembered her mother had said she would call before she left for her planning committee meeting. Despite Andrew and Cheryl’s reassurances that Diana would be staying in a nice neighborhood with great neighbors, in a reasonably large house that, incidentally, just happened to have a million dollar view of the Pacific Ocean, her mother had a compulsive need to find something to worry about.

“Hey, Mom. What’s up?” Diana tucked the phone between her shoulder and chin, and went inside to get a glass of the iced tea she’d made earlier.

Jenny Wagnor laughed. “You mean since I called you last night?”

Diana was the first of Jenny’s five children to move more than an hour-­and-­a-­half drive from Topeka. Although her mother put on a good front, she was having a hard time coping with her youngest being two entire time zones away. “It’s okay, Mom. I miss you, too.”

“It’s not fair that you’re the one who had to leave.”

No, it wasn’t, but “fair” had never been part of the dialogue in her breakup with Howard. After the fire, because she had no where else to go, Diana had moved in with her parents, insisting to her hovering mother that she was only there temporarily, just until she was back on her feet again.

What was supposed to be weeks turned into months. Promising job interviews turned into minimum wage positions with no future prospects or current benefits.

In the beginning Howard had texted hourly, emailed constantly, and finally screwed up the courage to call. When nothing worked he stupidly came to her parents’ house, carrying an enormous bouquet and insisting he be allowed to see Diana. For a minute, when her mother actually accepted the bouquet, his appeal appeared to be working. Then he must have said something that didn’t sit right because her mother abruptly took the stem ends and wielded the flowers like a baseball bat, driving Howard off the porch and back to his car, his exit marked by a rainbow of fragrant fluttering petals.

Diana actually laughed out loud. It was the first time she’d laughed since the fire.

She missed laughing, and smiling, and feeling good about herself. Her mother insisted all she needed was time. When Diana inevitably rolled her eyes in response, Jenny insisted it wasn’t just an expression, that time really did heal all wounds.

Maybe your normal run-­of-­the-­mill disappointment that comes with being turned down for a new car loan—­but not the kind of wound Howard had inflicted. It was too big and too ugly. Diana would carry the scar the rest of her life.

She started going through the unfamiliar cupboards, looking for sugar to put in her iced tea.

“So, how is it?” Jenny asked. “The house, I mean.”

Diana made a grab for the phone when it slipped from under her chin. Jenny had asked the same question the night before but plainly wasn’t satisfied with Diana’s answer. “Actually, it feels like home. Cheryl collects teapots. There’s a shelf in the kitchen filled with them. Or I guess it could be Andrew who collects them. What do you think? Does he seem like the teapot-­collecting type?”

“It’s Cheryl. She got them from Grandma Marge.”

Unsuccessful in her cupboard sugar quest, Diana leaned her hip against the counter and glanced around the kitchen for something that looked like it might hold sugar. “I think you’d like Andrew, Mom. There are pictures of him and Cheryl and the kids all over the place. Not just snapshots—­really good pictures. He looks like a nice guy.” She could have added that they looked like an insurance company ad depicting the perfect married ­couple, but that seemed a little too much. “And Bobby looks like a handful. What is he, eight years old now?”

“Seven and a half, going on sixteen, according to Cheryl. You probably don’t remember this but Rebecca, their oldest daughter, is a professional photographer. Cheryl and Andrew are so proud of her for snagging that job with the National Park Ser­vice, especially considering the competition she had.”

“Ah—­I forgot.” Diana wasn’t proud of the twinge of jealousy she felt over Rebecca’s job success, especially considering it was undoubtedly something she’d accomplished on her own without the help of family contacts.

“She was the reason they all went to Botswana this summer and you wound up with a place to stay rent free. Cheryl said she figured it was their last chance to go as a family. I told you about this already. Remember?”

She didn’t, at least not all of it. Mainly because her mother had a habit of choosing the worst possible times to tell her things, like in the middle of the detective announcing who’d committed the murder on Diana’s favorite television show. It was as if her mother had a finite time to say something before it was lost forever, and nothing was going to get in her way.

Her gaze settled on a ceramic pot decorated with hand-­painted orchids sitting beside a salt and pepper shaker. Success. “I do remember you saying they were adopting another baby when they got home. How many does this make?”

“Including the baby, four, plus a half-­dozen foster children.”

“Do you think I could talk them into adopting me? I love this place.”


“Just wait until you come for a visit. You’ll understand.”

“I was afraid that was going to happen. Since you were a little girl you’ve been drawn to water.” Jenny paused. “That’s my ride. Gotta go, sweetheart. I’ll call you tonight.”

Her mother was deep into her fifteenth year of organizing the annual three-­day women’s retreat at church. She’d miss an entire week of
Days of Our Lives
before she’d be five minutes late to one of their meetings.

“Have fun.” She hit the off button and stuffed the phone in her back pocket.

Glancing up from putting her spoon in the sink, Diana let out a startled gasp. Nose pressed to the window, staring at her as if she were an ice cream cone on a hundred-­degree day, were slightly offset brown eyes, accompanied by a pair of floppy ears, and a mouth lifted into a wide version of a canine smile. The second Diana made eye contact, a pink tongue appeared and the head bobbed in excitement.

BOOK: The Cottage Next Door
11.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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