Authors: Donna Alward
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With many thanks to my brilliant and very patient editor, Lizzie, for having the vision to see the forest for the trees and for knowing exactly what to do to make this story shine. You’re absolutely right: Teamwork does make the dream work. You rock.
Special thanks to my family for persevering while Wife and Mom worked on this book during summer break. Thank you for taking on the onerous chore of enjoying the pool on my behalf, keeping the sunscreen industry in business, and for putting up with barbecued hot dogs more than you should have. I love you guys.
For Barb, Fiona, Wendy, Julia, Abbi, Jenna, and Jenn—my writing buddies who kick my butt and hold my hand and write alongside me, all in equal measure. You’re the best.
Jess Collins hated funerals.
She avoided attending when she could, though in a close-knit town the size of Jewell Cove, that wasn’t easy. When she found herself in these types of situations, she often offered condolences and got away as fast as she could.
Funerals brought back too many painful memories. Too many reminders of a time when life started to unravel. As a teenager, losing her father had been the worst thing she’d ever experienced. How she’d handled her grief, however, had led to something far more traumatic. Something she could never forget no matter how hard she tried.
The crisp breeze blew a strand of her hair into her lip gloss, and she tucked it back behind her ear. Today was about more than neighborly politeness. Rick Sullivan was a close friend of the family, and as much as she was annoyed with him, she owed it to him—and to his mother—to stay for Roberta’s funeral and interment at the Jewell Cove Cemetery.
Maybe Rick had gone off the rails lately. Maybe she didn’t approve of his choices. But once upon a time they’d been close. He’d been at her house more often than at his own, it seemed, hanging with her big brother, Josh, and her cousins Bryce and Tom. Rick had been one of the family. And one moonlit night on the beach he’d very nearly been more.
Rick had also served in the Marines, and bore the scars to prove that service to his country was no cakewalk. She couldn’t help but notice his prosthetic hand beneath the cuff of his dark gray suit, both the appendage and the clothing looking out of place on a rough-around-the-edges man like Rick …
And so here she was, standing with her sister and brother and cousins, part of a united show of support, while the autumn wind buffeted her navy skirt and the scent of funeral flowers mingled with the unique, musty aroma of fallen leaves and late September sunshine.
Roberta Sullivan’s fight with cancer had been very different from the accident that had claimed Jess’s dad, Frank, who’d been lost at sea when his fishing boat capsized in a storm. Jess’s family hadn’t had any time to prepare, just numbing shock and then the terrible weight of dealing with a funeral without a body. Suddenly Jess’s whole world had been turned upside down. She’d lost much more than a parent, she’d lost her greatest confidant and best friend.
Pushing away her own memories of grief, Jess looked at Rick, noticing the haggard lines around his eyes, the strained tightness of his cheeks, and knew what he was going through. Yes, he was a grown man and not a child as she’d been when she’d lost her father. And maybe Roberta had had a little time to say good-bye. But losing a parent was losing a parent. It was painful no matter the circumstances, and the cancer had been aggressive. It had only been a few months between her diagnosis and her death. Jess still had the blessing of her family around her. Rick had no one now.
Her heart ached at the thought. Still, knowing Rick, he’d handle his grief by heading to The Rusty Fern right after the burial, in a pathetic attempt to forget his troubles by drowning them with whatever his favorite drink happened to be. She didn’t imagine he was too choosy.
With a sigh Jess turned her attention back to the gravesite in front of her. No matter how much she sympathized with Rick, his drinking was something she didn’t want anything to do with. And so she stared at the casket, feeling a heavy grief for things that couldn’t be changed, and sad that the laughing boy she’d once known no longer existed.
And neither did the carefree girl.
* * *
Rick stole a glance at Jess Collins and tried to ignore the pain that squeezed his heart and made it hard to breathe, the constant feeling like the very last thing holding him together had just been snatched away, leaving him defenseless and alone. His mom had been the only reason he’d come back home to Maine at all, and now she was gone. He was alone. Completely and utterly.
But Jess was here, her black curls tumbling over her shoulders, her sharp gaze softened now with compassion, her plump lips unsmiling. His best friend’s sister, and even though her deep blue eyes were currently filled with pity, he knew that under normal circumstances, she would be spitting nails just being in the same room with him. Jess didn’t even try to hide her disapproval or disdain these days.
Half of Jewell Cove had been at the service, but now only a handful surrounded the gravesite, dark skirts and somber ties ruffling in the stiff autumn breeze. Other than himself and the minister, he considered the assembled group the closest thing he had to family: Meggie Collins; Pete and Barb Arseneault, and their collective children; Bryce and Mary; Tom and Abby; Josh; Sarah and her husband, Mark;… and Jess.
Despite Jess’s apparent opinion of him, he wasn’t surprised to see her here. Jess had loved his mother, too, and the Collinses were like his second family. What he hadn’t expected was for her to look at him with such compassion. Even if she did stay as far away from him as she could. Jess was good at that. Almost as if she didn’t want any of him to rub off on her.
He wished he didn’t care one way or the other.
The taste of regret was bitter in his mouth. So much regret. He knew he’d disappointed Jess. Disappointed so many people …
He swallowed past the lump in his throat and tried to focus on the spray of roses and calla lilies blanketing the top of the casket. He knew the one he’d disappointed most was his mom. The one person who’d never given up on him since he came back from Afghanistan, less of a man than when he left. She’d never given up faith or hope that things would get better. His mom, the optimist. Even when she’d been fighting for her life, she never gave up on him.
She’d been braver than he ever hoped to be.
Rick choked back the grief inside of him. He couldn’t imagine life without his mom’s warm smile and constant support. Hell, he’d give anything just to have her nag him about his bachelor lifestyle one more time. But instead he was standing here in the chilly wind, willing himself to hold on.
Even standing with the Collinses and the Arseneaults he felt alone. Rick had known he was adopted since he was seven years old, though he’d never shared that knowledge with a single soul. At the time he’d had questions, but soon after that his father had left them and all Rick and Roberta had was each other. Over the years she’d always let him know that if he wanted to find his biological family, she’d help him. She’d especially pushed it when she’d received her diagnosis, insisting that he shouldn’t be alone, but he’d merely kissed her cheek and repeated the same thing he’d told her his whole life. That she was his one and only mother. He’d never meant anything more in his life.
The casket was lowered into the ground, the sound jarring against the peaceful backdrop of leaves rustling and birds chirping from the nearby rosebushes, which had long ago lost their blooms and now held clusters of reddish-pink rose hips. God, he could use a drink. Just a shot or two of rye to steady him out. Shit. His hand started shaking just thinking about it. The sharp fire of it on his tongue, the soft, smooth glide of it down his throat, the warmth of it spreading through his belly.
Tears stung his eyes and he blinked them away. His mom had made him promise one last thing before she died, and though he wished she’d asked anything else of him, he wouldn’t let her down. Not this time. It had been days since his last drink. All through the time she’d been in the hospice, and for the last few days as arrangements had been made. Josh and Tom had taken turns checking on him as if they didn’t trust him. They knew what Rick knew: promising his mother that he’d stay off the bottle was an impossible promise to keep. But damn if he wouldn’t do the impossible for her this one last time.
The mellifluous voice of the minister reached Rick and he lifted his head, confused. Reverend Price was holding out a spade; it was time for the ceremonial shovelful of dirt on the casket.
He could really use that drink.
He took a step forward, then another, took the spade in his right hand as he approached the hole in the earth. Teeth clenched, he anchored his prosthetic hand on the top of the shovel handle.
Goddammit to hell.
Scooped up a bit of dirt and dropped it, the sound a hollow rattle on the top of the box, meaning nothing.
Goodbye, Mom …
He handed the shovel back to Reverend Price, but he couldn’t go back to his spot. Couldn’t wait for the ceremony to end, couldn’t bear to shake everyone’s hand or see their long faces or hear the sympathetic words. He turned around and kept walking, through the maze of headstones, over the soft grass to the dirt lane that wound through the small cemetery on the hill. And he didn’t stop until he reached his beat-up old truck.
He couldn’t think right now. Couldn’t imagine anything beyond the excruciating pain of knowing that he was finally, absolutely alone.
He was stuck with no one but the man in the mirror. And that man was not someone Rick cared to spend much time with.
Jess sat behind the cash register, her hands busy with knitting needles and a ball of super-soft pale yellow yarn. Foot traffic was slow this morning at her store, and it gave her time to work on the blanket she’d started knitting way back in June.
Summer in Jewell Cove was always busy—a frenetic crush of tourists descending on the pretty seaside town for whale boat tours, sea kayaking, and lying on the beach. The waterfront was generally crowded on sunny days—kids begging for an ice-cream cone from Sally’s Dairy Shack, families taking over the picnic tables on the grassy fringes with platters of fish and chips or lobster rolls from the Battered Up canteen. On Thursday nights in August, a local drama group put on Shakespeare in the Park at Memorial Square, in the shadow of the statue of Edward Jewell, the town’s founder.