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By Kristy Tate
A small town girl.
A rock star living a lie.
Their paths cross and lead them down a road neither of them expected to find love at the Apple Blossom Inn.
Janey knows that life doesn’t come with a happy-ending guarantee. She needs to keep her feet securely on the ground working two jobs, going to school, and caring for her little brother. She has no time or room for romance.
After an accident leaves his charmed life in ruins, Derrick abandons his Hollywood lifestyle and checks into rehab. The world believes that Derrick Cordell the rock star is dead. And despite his beating heart and breathing lungs, that’s exactly how he feels until, disguised and living incognito in the tiny town of Rose Arbor, Washington, he meets Janey, who loves him as plain old Eric Roudell, the wanna-be music teacher.
But secrets have a way of unraveling. When Janey discovers the truth about Eric/Derric, how can she love someone she doesn’t even know? Especially since love is not on her to-do list?
Copyright 2015, Kristine Tate
Derrick’s gaze wandered around the room, taking in the hot-tarts as phony as their perky breasts, the guys, a few almost as plastered as himself, and the rare breed that defied gender generalization. He wanted to stand up and walk away from the girl leaning on his chest. She smelled of wine, and her product-stiff hair tickled his chin. But when a waiter placed another drink in front of him, he picked up the glass. Even as his head told him he had had enough, his throat burned in anticipation. The cold glass felt good in his hand.
Techno music blasted through the smoky air. He hated techno music, thought it sounded like a rumbly stomach felt. But it didn’t give him a stomach ache. It made his head hurt. And his heart. It also made him sad, because it was like music from a machine—not a person. Someone once told him that he would like it if he were drunk, but that person didn’t know shiest, because he was almost always drunk and he still hated techno music.
He glanced at the girl smiling up at him. Her features swam, and he couldn’t focus. Straight teeth? Brown eyes? Did he know her? She looked like Jen Lopez, and he’d always been a blonde hound. Goose-bumps pimpled her arms. Weird. He was hot, and she was cold.
He pushed away from her and swayed on his feet.
“Where you going, baby?” the Jen-girl slurred.
Derrick held up his finger, shushing her, and made his way through the crowded bar to the DJ behind the glass. He knocked until the moron wearing the headphones looked at him. Derrick slid his finger across his throat.
The DJ narrowed his eyes at him before catching a glance at the manager, dressed in black and hiding near the bar. The manager gave a small nod.
The squeaky, thumping sounds stopped. No one other than Derrick seemed to notice, but he sighed in relief and let the tension between his shoulders ease. Unsure of what to do next, he stumbled onto the small stage, sat at the piano, and played.
A hush fell over the room as he sang an old Irish ballad.
“The soft winds sing across the sea,
While here I sit all alone and cold.
Rapt in the rays of memory,
That flash from Golden days of old,
For oh, the oceans murmuring tune,
Speaks to my bosom of a time,
When life was as a harvest moon.”*
The piano could never replace a fiddle, but since it was better than the techno-shiest, he continued until the Jen-girl put her hand on his shoulder.
“Baby, that song’s depressing,” she whined.
But Derrick ignored her and continued the song he remembered his grandfather singing.
“Whose eyes like Saint's from sculptured niche,
Look into mine for evermore
Full voices 'mid the garden flowers,
To soothe and sanctify the day,
These once were mine but frozen hours,
Have stolen them all to depths away”
“Let’s go, baby,” the Jen-girl said, pressing against him. “There’s a party at Mac’s in Brentwood.”
He lifted his fingers and a few of the half-sober people in the room booed, begging him to stay and play. Standing, he gave the crowd a smile and a small bow.
Brentwood. He lived in Brentwood. Maybe someone could drop him off, because even though he didn’t know the girl on his arm, or where he was, or what day it was, he did know he didn’t belong behind a wheelbarrow, let alone a steering wheel. He had drowned out the driver in him drinks ago. Killed him with a shot glass, which, as it turns out, can be as lethal as a shotgun. The Jen Lopez girl took his hand and led him out the door.
A car with leather seats that smelled of cigarettes and fried food careened down a canyon road. Derrick let the car’s swaying control his movements. It occurred to him that they weren’t heading for Brentwood, after all. Somehow they had left the city. Derrick didn’t recognize the guy in the driver’s seat, but he did know that whoever he was, he probably wasn’t any more sober than himself.
Rocking with each hairpin turn, Derrick thought about death without fear or sadness. The alcohol and drugs had muted any panic, and he found he could consider his life from a spectator’s perspective. Curious. At that moment, he didn’t care whether he lived or died. He didn’t even have the emotional energy to muster a slow down or a hey, let’s call a taxi. It was almost as if he was already dead.
In the upper room of the Rhyme’s Library, the children sat transfixed as Janey read from The Velveteen Rabbit. The light from the window shone upon their rapt and upturned faces. Most sat cross legged on the rag rug, some leaned against their mothers, a couple fidgeted, unable to sit still, but there was a hush in the room as Janey read.
“‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become real.”
“’Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’”
Janey came to the end of Margery Williams’ story and slowly closed the book. The children began to reluctantly stir.
“Miss Janey,” Henry chirped, his blue eyes gazing at her from under a lock of shockingly white hair, “do you think toys can really die?”
“Not really, do you?” Janey stretched out her legs and wiggled her toes. She loved story-hour, and she was okay sitting on the floor with the kids, but when she read, she would forget to move and her legs or feet would fall asleep. She thought it an okay occupational hazard to have.
Henry’s forehead crinkled as he thought.
“Maybe when toys die, they become zombies,” Brock said, as he pushed his glasses further up onto his nose.
Janey smiled. “I don’t think toys die, and I’m pretty sure they don’t become zombies.”
“But how can you know?”
Brock stood up and straightened his shoulders, reminding Janey that Brock’s dad was an attorney. She wondered if a love for an argument could be genetically passed on, like a hook nose or a propensity for moles.
“I’ve never seen a toy zombie, have you?” Janey stood and held the book to her chest. She loved lots of stories, but the Velveteen Rabbit was her favorite.
“Have you ever seen Jesus?” Brock asked.
“Hmm, no,” Janey said.
“Do you believe in Jesus?”
Janey put her hand to her forehead. “What does Jesus have to do with toy zombies?” she asked, but she could guess where this line of questioning was headed.
“Just because you’ve never seen something doesn’t mean that it’s not real,” Brock told her.
“Right.” Janey looked around at the children staring at her with big, questioning eyes and worried about what they would say when they got home. Someone would tattle, and Janey knew the Friends of the Library would be talking about the Jesus and toy zombie debate if she didn’t change the subject soon.
Downstairs someone screamed.
Now what? she wondered. As far as Janey knew, no one had screamed in the Rhyme’s Library since Charlotte Rhyme had been found dead in the basement last year.
Footsteps pounded up the stairs.
Emma, a volunteer, looking wild-eyed and grief stricken, motioned for her little sister, Gabby. “Let’s go.”
“Emma,” Janey said, using her hushed librarian tone, “what’s going on? Who’s screaming?”
“Jessie and Amber.” Emma twisted a lock of her dark curls around her finger, something she often did when stressed about the misfiling of books, or a computer breakdown. “They just heard about Derrick Cordell.” Emma’s voice cracked and her eyes welled with unshed tears.
“The singer?” Janey didn’t follow Derrick Cordell’s career, but she would have to be living in a cave in the hindermost part of the world—which, of course, some people argued was exactly where Rose Arbor was— to not to have heard of the heart-throb.
Emma nodded and choked back a sob. Tears spilled down her face. “He’s dead.”
Henry turned to Janey. “Will he be a zombie, too?”
Janey put her hand on top of Henry’s brown curls. “I hope not,” she said.
3 Months Later
Eric Roudell sat on the edge of his bed gazing out at the Caribbean Sea. The sun glistened on the white sand. The trade winds blew through the window, ruffling the white curtains. Someone somewhere played reggae on a xylophone.
He had grown to hate the tediously, gloriously sunny weather. It was like that Clap Along Get Happy Song forever sounding over the airwaves. He wanted dark, brooding music. He longed for a riotous thunderstorm. He wanted what he knew he could never have again.
He wanted to go home.
Standing, he faced north. Even if he stayed dry for decades, he couldn’t go back to Rosslare Harbour. According to his therapist, if he wanted to maintain his fragile sobriety, he needed to avoid alcohol. Forever. And trying to avoid whiskey in Ireland was like trying to avoid a Kardashian on TMZ.
He longed for the sharp, bone-chilling damp, the crash of waves, and the craggy shore. The calm, unruffled Caribbean endless blue was like an ocean on Prozac. Sure, the ocean was the ocean, but the Caribbean Sea was as unlike the wild Atlantic as a toy poodle was to a Doberman.
Rap, rap, rap.
“Come in,” Eric said, his gaze not leaving the window.
“Good day,” Lee said, as he pushed into the room with a tray full of food. “I see you’re wearing pants. Got something special planned?”
Eric grunted and eyed the food. Sometimes he felt so much like a caged animal, like a parrot in a beautiful aviary, that he resorted to guttural noises. Sitting at the table, he considered the grapefruit halves, the oatmeal topped with berries, and the turkey sausage links. Even this healthy breakfast should have made him put on weight, but Eric, already emaciated by his substance abuse, didn’t gain a pound. He had always seemed to float above the common problems plaguing everyone else. His life, overall, had been as sunny and easy as the Caribbean Sea.
So why had he destroyed it?
Why couldn’t he be as happy as Lee? Lee wore the same thing every day: a pair of cargo shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, flip-flops, a red string tying back his dreadlocks, and a smile.
It had taken Eric months to get used to eating three meals a day. Breakfast had always, until recently, made his stomach roll. When he had first arrived, he had flushed most of his breakfast down the toilet as soon as Lee left the room, rationalizing that that was the food’s ultimate destination anyway. He was merely expediting the process. But Lee must have become suspicious, because he had since found a reason to stay until Eric finished his meals.
After setting the tray down, Lee settled into the chair in the corner, and propped his feet up on the ottoman. He generally liked to talk about his girlfriend, Marla, and today he announced, “Marla and I are done.”
So, maybe Lee wasn’t as happy as Eric had thought. “I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?”
Lee used a few colorful words to describe Marla.
“Then I guess you could come with me.”
“Where you going?” Lee asked, faking an interest.
Eric knew Lee would never leave Marla. He might curse her, but he would never leave her.
“I’m not sure yet,” Eric said before he spooned oatmeal into his mouth.
“Then why would I join you?”
Eric swallowed a slug of orange juice before he said, “I’m giving you an out.”
Lee chuckled. “Your last way out landed you here. So, no thank you, sir. I be guessing I a’staying here. You should, too. This is a nice place.”
With a very nice price tag. But Eric knew that Lee didn’t expect him to stay on the island forever. “When you going to get me a guitar?”
Lee shrugged, reminding Eric that even though no one considered him a suicide risk, the center had strict “health and safety” policies. “If I wanted to off myself, don’t you think I would have been successful before now? Besides—who wants to die by way of a guitar string? If I wanted to, I’d drown myself. There’s plenty of water.”
Lee raised a bushy eyebrow. “But you already tried that. That’s why you’re here.”
“Different type of water,” Eric mumbled.
“Anything is deadly if you take it the wrong way,” Lee said.
Eric wiped his mouth and set down his napkin. “I’m serious, Lee. Why don’t you come with me?”
“Nah. You got to go and make yourself a new life.”
“I’ve got nothing.”
How many people had to scrap their old life and make a new one at only thirty? At his tri-life crisis, he had nothing to show for all his living.
“Now, Mr. Roudell, how you be saying that? You know that’s not true.”
A voice in his head reminded him of the millions in the Caribbean banks, his sixteen thousand square foot Brentwood mansion (what had he been thinking? He must have been drunk when he bought that mausoleum) and his Tesla. Where had he left the car? Was it still in the garage? Shiest, good thing he didn’t own a cat.
“I don’t have a Marla.”
Lee burst out laughing. “You don’t want my Marla. She’s too fat for you.”
Eric bent over his breakfast. “If that’s what you think, she’s not good enough for you, and I’m going to tell her to whip your skinny—”
Outside, footsteps pounded along the boardwalk, and, moments later, Leslie burst through the door. Her dark hair looked like she’d been electrocuted, while and her olive skin was pink and flushed. She paused to catch her breath before she said, “Mr. Cordell, you got to go!”
Lee bounced to his feet. “Who knows?”
Leslie pushed her hair off her face. “Everyone knows.”
“How?” Lee and Eric demanded at the same time.
“It doesn’t matter.” Eric threw down his napkin and climbed to his feet. “I knew I couldn’t hide out here forever. We all knew this day would come.”
“No,” Lee said, his voice turning steely. “You are not going back to your old life.”
“Then where do you suggest I go? I can’t go back to Ireland. I don’t want to go back to L.A.”
“Right now, you can hide out at Marla’s.” Lee stood and took hold of Eric’s arm. “Three months ago, you were as good as dead. That ain’t happening again. Not while I’m breathing.”
“It’s like Elvis sightings,” Janey told Emma as they worked together shelving books. “Everyone thinks they’ve spotted him. Next thing we know, they’ll be finding Eric Cordell’s face on potatoes.”
“It’s not like Elvis at all. They’ve proven the…” Emma choked up, and then cleared her throat, "the body they thought was his, isn’t.”
“Because of the teeth?” Janey asked.
“That, and other things,” Emma said, her face stony.
Janey touched Emma’s arm. “I hope he is alive, but if he is—where is he?”
Emma sniffed and looked up at the ceiling. “I think if he was dead, I would know it.”
“Really?” Janey studied Emma. They were only five years apart, but sometimes she felt like Emma’s grandmother. Janey bit back a sigh. In some ways, living with an alcoholic mother had made her grow up too fast. But in other ways, it was like she was trapped in her childhood home, because she had to look out for her baby brother. When she had graduated from high school, she’d been offered a scholarship to Western Washington University, but the thought of leaving Noah alone with her mom kept her in Rose Arbor.
“We share a spiritual connection,” Emma said.
Janey loved Emma. No matter how dark her thoughts, Emma always managed to make her smile. “Does Matt know?”
Emma tossed her dark curls over her shoulder. “Why would Matt care?”
Janey stopped fighting her smile. “I think he would like to know.”
“I don’t care what Matt thinks.” Emma deliberately shifted her attention to the books on the cart.
“What I think about what?” Matt stepped out from behind a shelf, and tucked his earbuds in his pocket.
Emma flushed an interesting shade of pink. Janey envied Emma’s coloring—it was so dramatic and changed so rapidly. Janey, on the other hand, was blonde, pale, and about as interesting as vanilla.
“About Derrick Cordell,” Janey said.
“That pretty boy?” Matt scoffed and straightened his spine so he stood taller.
“You got something against pretty?” Emma asked.
“I like pretty women, not boys,” Matt said.
“Good to know,” Janey muttered.
Matt ignored her. “You need a ride home?” he asked Emma. “I brought my dad’s bike.” He showed her the helmet he had tucked behind his back. “And this for you.”
Emma’s cheeks flushed again.
Janey wanted to ask if Mr. Harnett knew Matt had his bike, but she bit her lip and went back to shelving books. She might feel like a grandma, but she didn’t need to act like one. “We’re almost done here,” she told Emma. “You should go.”
“Are you sure?” Emma asked, glancing around at the empty but practically immaculate library.
“Absolutely,” Janey said. “I can finish here on my own.”
After locking up the library, Janey climbed in her truck and offered a silent prayer that it could take her home. The Toyota coughed a few times before roaring to life, and Janey sighed in relief as she pulled out of the parking lot and headed west.
Minutes later, she pulled into the parking lot of the Apple Blossom Inn. She loved the inn, always had, even when it had been an old and abandoned ramshackle. Janey had loved coming here as a little girl. Even now after all these months, it was hard to believe that she got to live in it. So what if she got the attic room without air-conditioning or central air? She used a fan in the summer, and a space heater in the winter, and every day she got to walk through the cranberry red front doors like she owned the place.
Janey let herself in, and the bell chimed a welcome.
Victoria hustled through the spacious hall, wiping her hands on her apron. Most of her dark, curly hair had escaped its hair pins and it looked almost as frantic as Victoria’s expression. “Oh, heavens, Janey, I’m so glad you’re home!” She dropped her voice to a whisper and motioned for Janey to follow her into the kitchen. “We’ve got cranksters staying! They were supposed to be in the Golden Delicious, but I had to move them out to the Granny Smith cottage because they didn’t like the birds in the trees outside their windows.”
Janey passed through the large kitchen and headed for the mud room where she hung up her coat on a hook beside a collection of aprons and traded her shoes for a pair of slippers she kept underneath a bench. “And there aren’t birds in the trees next to the cottage?”
“Well, of course there are! But I didn’t know what else to do!” Victoria rolled her eyes and went back to the spacious butcher block counter. “They seem happy…well, at least not as cranky…there.” She covered her hands in butter and shaped the dough into a large circle.
Janey collected a paring knife, a cutting board, and sat down at the table in front of a big bowl of apples. “Don’t we have someone renting the cottage?”
Victoria sighed and sprinkled brown sugar, allspice, and cinnamon over the dough. “He’ll get here tomorrow.”
Janey peeled, cored, and chopped apples. “And when do the cranksters leave?”
“Not soon enough.”
Janey nodded, understanding. “You want me to make up the Gala?”
“Or the Pink Lady? No, wait—it’s just a man staying alone.”
“Definitely not the Pink Lady, then.” Janey took her apple bits and dumped them on top of Victoria’s dough.
Using her rolling pin, Victoria formed an apple-cinnamon roll that, come morning, would warm the hearts of even the crankiest crankster. “I don’t know what I would do without you,” Victoria said.
“You would hire someone else.” Janey leaned over and kissed the older woman’s cheek. “But I don’t know where I would be without you.”
With his hair dyed black and a UW baseball cap on his head, Eric pulled into the stadium’s crowded parking lot. He adjusted his glasses and gave himself another critical glance in the rearview mirror before climbing out of his Land Rover. All around him, other peoples’ families and friends milled. A few had portable barbecues set up, and the smell of roasting meat mingled with the sharp tangy odor of beer. He braced himself.
He could do this.
He had chosen Seattle for a number of reasons—the music, the vibe, the gloomy weather that matched his mood—but mostly because it reminded him of Ireland. Finding Rose Arbor on a map had been just a fluke, but he hoped a providential one, since he intended to make it his home. He knew that Rose Arbor could never replace his village, Rosslare Harbour, but since he couldn’t go home, he hoped to find the next best thing.
Eric tucked his hands into the pockets of his jeans and made his way to the entrance. No one noticed him. The crowd in the stadium surged around him, reminding him that it really was much easier to get lost and feel lonely in a crowd than on an almost deserted island.
Janey pulled her battered Toyota pickup truck into the Husky Stadium parking lot. Beside her, Noah bounced in his seat, his excitement rolling off of him, making Janey smile.
“We’re going to get Husky-dogs, right? Uncle Ted promised me Husky-dogs.” Noah thought for a moment. “But did he give you money for lunch? Because if he didn’t, that’s okay.”
Janey checked her wallet for the tickets and cash. “No…he gave me money.” Which wasn’t true, but she knew from her own experience that Uncle Ted regularly made promises he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep. Noah would learn that disappointing lesson soon enough. He didn’t need to learn it on his birthday. At least Ted had given her the tickets.
As Noah hustled out the door, Janey disconnected her phone from the power cord. Before leaving home, Janey had downloaded her homework. She didn’t want to study per se during the game, but maybe when Noah wasn’t looking she could catch up on her reading for her accounting class. She tucked her phone into her bag and followed Noah to the entrance.
Noah held onto her hand, and jumped more than walked up the concrete concourse. Janey glanced at the tickets—the seats on the fiftieth yard line made her happy and mad. Happy, because she knew that Noah would be thrilled, but mad, because she knew that the seats were outrageously expensive and Noah could have used the money for much more important things…like milk, socks, or underwear.
But knowing that Noah would gladly trade-in or abandon altogether his underwear for a chance to see the Huskies up-close and personal, Janey steered Noah to their seats.
“Can we get the Husky-dogs now?” Noah asked.
“Now? You can’t be hungry. I just watched you eat five bowls of Captain Crunch!” Janey doubled checked the row numbers as they descended closer to the field where the cheerleaders shook their sparkly pompoms. “We’ll get the dogs at halftime.”
“Before halftime!” Noah shouted to be heard over the band. “If we wait until halftime, then there will be a long line and they might run out.”
Janey put her hand on Noah’s shoulder to keep him from bumping into a man carrying a baby dressed in a dog suit. “I don’t think they’ll run out.”
“But there’s so many people here, they might, right? So, we need to get them before halftime.”
Janey pointed at their seats in front of a couple of gray-haired men, and a woman with knitting needles and a ball of yarn. A family with several children who looked younger than Noah sat in front of them, and a group of students were beside them. The students wore purple Husky shirts and hats and seemed to shuffle seats a lot. Janey hoped they would be louder and noisier than Noah, because she worried about him bothering the senior citizens and the lady-knitter.
Noah wiggled in his seat, making it bounce up and down, but once the players ranontothe field, he focused. “See there, number 32. That’s Nolan Keener. He’s the first-string quarter back.”
“Huh, huh.” Janey’s gaze followed Noah’s finger.
“And that guy, number 25, he’s the running back.”
Janey smiled as if she cared.
Beside her, one of the students chuckled.
A whistle blew, a horn blasted, and a Husky kicked the ball.
“Ugh!” Noah groaned with the crowd when the ball landed near the 30 yard line.
Janey nodded, tried to look somber, and tucked her hands in her pockets. Her fingers closed around her phone. Her thumb sought out the on button. While the teams faced off, Janey took a quick glance at her taxation preparation homework.
“First down!” Noah groaned.
Janey looked up, sent Noah a conciliatory smile, and went back to her phone.
The student beside her chuckled again.
Janey shot him a quick glance that turned into a stare. He looked slightly older than the other students, and oddly familiar. His blue eyes gazed back at her through dark-rimmed glasses. His jet black hair didn’t match his skin, and while it wasn’t so unusual for a guy to dye his hair, it seemed off with this guy. He wore a purple University of Washington sweatshirt that looked way too big for him, no-name jeans, and a pair of Ranger boots. Guys that dyed their hair black typically dressed Goth, or Emo. This guy didn’t fit a stereotype. In fact, taking note of the wrinkles around his tired eyes, she wasn’t even sure he was a student.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. You just…” Janey stuttered, “look weirdly familiar.”
The guy’s face turned white and his hand trembled. “We haven’t met,” he said in an accent Janey couldn’t place. “I would have remembered.”
Janey nodded, smiling. “You probably just look like someone on TV.”
“Hey,” one of the students leaned over, “what about me? Do you think I look like someone on TV?” He batted his long eyelashes at Janey, grinning and reminding her of a large teddy bear. But she couldn’t tell him that.
“Sure,” Noah said, “you look just like a wesen from Grimm.”
“What?” the student sputtered. “Well, you look like—”
The insult was lost in the crowd’s roar.
“Interception!” Noah yelled. He climbed onto his seat so he could see over the people standing in front of him.
While everyone else watched the Huskies lineman carry the ball to the ten yard line, Janey checked her phone.
The guy in the black rimmed glasses chuckled again.
Janey frowned at him.
He leaned over and whispered in her ear. “You don’t really give a rip about the Huskies, do you?”
Janey gave Noah a quick glance before telling the non-student to hush.
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell.”
Noah perched on the edge of his seat. “We’ll get a touchdown here, or at least a field goal.”
“So, who do you think I look like?” the non-student asked, leaning in so that his shoulder nearly touched hers.
“I’m sorry?” Janey sat back to see his face more clearly. She realized that if he didn’t look so tired, he would be incredibly handsome.
“You said I reminded you of someone. I want to know who.”
“Really? You might not like my answer.”
“What if I told you I think you look like a younger, prettier Nicole Kidman?”
“Do you want me to reciprocate and tell you that I think you look like a young George Clooney? Or be honest and tell you that you look like Curious George?”
The non-student seemed satisfied with this, and leaned back in his chair just as everyone around them bounced to their feet. “I don’t look like Curious George.”
“Maybe not, but you’re kind of acting like him.”
“Ouch,” he said with a grin that let her know she hadn’t hurt his feelings.
“Touchdown!” Noah screamed. “I knew it! I knew Nolan could do it!”
Janey clapped along with everyone else while Noah bellowed out the Husky fight song. He knew all the words, while Janey had to read the jumbotron to keep up.
The non-student kept his lips pressed together.
“You’re not a Husky die-hard?” Janey asked when the song ended and they settled back into their seats.
He shook his head. “I’m more a Rugby guy.”
“Yeah? Then why are you here?”
“It’s really hard to find rugby in the States.”
“Where you from?”
He bit his lip and took a long time to answer. “The Caribbean.”
“Oh yeah.” She leaned away from him. “That’s it. You look like Johnny Depp! Captain Jack Sparrow!”
He seemed pleased. “Really?”
“Sort of.” Janey shrugged. “Except your clothes aren’t so raggedy.”
“I’ll take Depp over Monkey George any day.”
Noah tugged on her hand. “Janey, do you think it’s time to get the dogs?”
“Um, sure. Do you want to come with me, or stay here?”
“Okay, but if I leave you, you have to promise me you won’t move.”
Noah froze in place and Janey laughed.
She turned to the guy next her. “Can you keep your eye on him?” she whispered.
He nodded. “Maybe you can read while you stand in line.”
“See, aren’t you glad you didn’t wait?” Noah asked thirty minutes later when the halftime buzzer blew and thousands of people headed for the restrooms and concession stands.
“You were right. Again.” Janey nodded and bit into her hotdog.
“Besides, you want to be here for the camera contests,” Noah told her.
“Heck yeah!” He pointed at the jumbotron. “See, they’re doing the Rock It Out contest now.”
The camera flashed to a girl in the audience who pretended to beat a set of drums with imaginary sticks. Her hair whipped around her head, moving faster than her hands.
Noah climbed on his seat and rocked out. Janey watched, silently praying he wouldn’t fall onto the senior citizens or puncture himself with the knitting needles.
“Yeah, dude,” the teddy bear student said. “They’ve moved onto the kiss-cam.”
Noah’s hand froze mid-air. “Ah, gross.” He climbed off his chair and settled back into his seat. “I hate this part.”
When the camera focused on a couple, the guy grabbed the girl and bent her over backwards in a Fred Astaire sweeping kiss. The second couple had more reservations, and did little more than peck at each other. The crowd booed.
Janey snuck her phone out of her pocket. She was reading about tax exemptions when Noah nudged her. “You’re on the camera!”
Janey dropped her phone back into her pocket, just as the teddy bear student grabbed her and planted his beer-stained lips on hers. He grinned as he pulled away.
Janey smiled politely and looked over his shoulder to watch the man in the black rimmed glasses walk away with shaking hands.
Eric found a bench to sit on outside of the stadium. Sitting, he took off his worthless glasses and put his head in his hands.
“Hey, man, they’re only down by fourteen,” someone said as they passed him by. “No need to cry.”
Eric slipped the glasses back on, took off the hat, and ran his fingers through his hair. Maybe coming here hadn’t been such a good idea. But he was just so bored and lonely.
He promised himself things would be better when he got to Rose Arbor. He would create a new life there. Start some sort of business or charity. Do something that mattered.
Standing, he shoved his hands in his pockets, and walked away. Behind him, the crowd cheered and roared, as the announcer cried, “Touchdown!”
He remembered when the crowd used to cheer and roar for him.
Eric’s phone guided him through the lush countryside. Wild flowers filled the fields, and cows and horses dotted the landscape. Thick gray clouds hung in the sky. The rolling hills reminded him of Ireland, but the craggy snowcapped mountains had a wild beauty all their own.
His phone told him to turn toward Warm Beach. In the last few months, Eric had had plenty of warm beaches. He wanted bracing cold.
But his reception at the inn was nothing but warm. A smiling woman in her mid-fifties welcomed him at the door. She had soft amber-colored eyes and flyaway brown hair tied up in a knot.
“You must be Victoria,” Eric said, setting down his bag and guitar case to shake her hand. He glanced around at the stately colonial’s gracious foyer, taking in the tapestry rugs on the hardwood floors, pastoral landscapes in gilded frames on the walls. A mouth-watering smell of cinnamon and apples wafted from the dining room.
“And you must be Mr. Roudell.”
Victoria’s hand felt as soft and warm as her voice sounded.
“You have such a great accent. Is it Scottish?”
Eric shook his head. “Welsh.”
“I have some sad news,” Victoria said.
Eric braced himself. If this charming woman told him he no longer had a room, he would beg to sleep on the sofa. He sized it up. Even if he took off the pillows, it wouldn’t be long enough. But he thought of all the bus, train and park station benches he had slept on before his first hit album. The couch had them all beat.
“Because of a double booking, the cottage won’t be available for another day. I was going to let you stay in the Gala room, at a considerable discount, of course, but since meeting you and hearing your accent, I’ve decided that you belong in the McIntosh.”
Eric raised his eyebrows. He didn’t care where he slept, as long as it was somewhere in the inn.
“Would you like to follow me?” Victoria reached for his bag, but Eric snatched it up first.
He followed her up the stairs, answering her questions as best as he could, mixing half-truths with lies.
“Is your family still in Wales?”
“Huh, no. They’re scattered around Great Britain and Europe.”
“What brought you to the States?”
He laughed. “A plane.”
She laughed, too, but he saw her questioning, sideways glance.
“What do you do, Mr. Roudell?”
He thought for a moment. “I’m a music teacher. I hope to set up a studio in town.” The thought had just come to him, and he’d blurted it out without really thinking, but somehow, it felt like a good plan. And just having a plan felt good.
“Oh dear. We’re a pretty tiny town. I’m not sure…”
“You’re worried I won’t be able to make a go of it.”
“I’m not worried.”
They climbed the wide stairs together, and she slid him another glance full of questions.
“I have a fairly reliable income stream from other investments.”
He wondered what she thought. Trust fund? Lottery winner? Crazy person? He smiled, deciding to let her imagination take her wherever she wanted to go, unless she wanted to go to Derrick Cordell.
They turned down the hall, and at the last door on the left, Victoria stopped and fished a key out of her pocket. She pushed the door open, her face beaming with pride.
“The McIntosh room.”
Tartan plaid upholstery, dark brown wool drapes, taupe walls with heavy moldings, a giant king-size bed with a snowy-white down comforter. The window looked out onto the Sound—a stretch of flat gray that met a stormy sky horizon. Eric blinked. It was like Ireland…but not. It was exactly what he wanted, which made him hate it. Although, he couldn’t say why.
Victoria looked up at him. “Don’t you like it? We can put you in the Gala…or the Pink Lady, although I don’t think that one would really suit you.”
“No. This is great. Perfect.” Eric dropped his bag.
“Well, it’s just for one night. The cottage will be ready tomorrow after four.”
“Great,” Eric said again.
“Okay.” Victoria wentontogive him Wi-Fi instructions, the times for meals, and information on the town. Eric only half-listened. A melancholy tune began in his head, and he couldn’t wait for Victoria to leave so he could pick it out on his guitar.
Janey turned through the broken gate that led to the Cavalier Estates—a fancy name for the bedraggled trailer park where Noah lived with their mother. Janey’s heart twisted as her truck bounced down the pothole pocked road. She hated to leave her baby brother in Loiuse’s “care,” but at the moment, she didn’t have a choice.
“Okay, Ace,” Janey said as she put the truck in park. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Sure.” Noah paused with his hand on the door. “You want to come in?”
Janey looked through the trailer’s cloudy windows to where Louise sat in the la-Z-boy in front of the TV. Janey knew she should at least make sure her mom was sober, but she didn’t want to ruin Noah’s day with a mother-daughter battle. She shook her head. “But you call me if you want to come over, or anything.”
“Is Victoria making her chili?”
“It’s a Saturday, so it’s probably cider-house chicken.”
Noah nodded, his face serious. “That’s good, too.”
“It’s all good.”
“But chili is my favorite. Will you call me if it’s chili night?”
“’K.” Noah opened his door and slowly climbed out.
“’K, bye.” Janey watched him cross the scraggly lawn, climb the cinderblock steps, and open the door.
He turned to wave before disappearing into the trailer.
Janey put the truck in gear and backed out the driveway. She had loved going to the Huskies game. She thought it funny and sad that she could spend hours doing something fun, but just two minutes anywhere near her mom could ruin her mood. Turning on the radio, she searched for a station playing something that could chase away her gloomy funk.
Political pundits, a preacher promising redemption, a country music station, a Hollywood sleaze claiming Derrick Cordell had been spotted in Seattle—Janey settled on a song about a broken heart and broken dreams. Because Janey didn’t have time to dream, she didn’t have time to think about her heart. As long as it pumped blood to her brain, she was happy.
The only guy in her life was Noah. She didn’t have room for anyone else. Going to school, working at the library and the inn, it was all more than enough. Besides, in her experience, guys always led to misery. She thought about the men her mom had paraded through her life. Janey had loved one once, but before she could think about Howie—or any of the rest of them—she pulled into the inn’s parking lot, cut the engine, and climbed from the truck.
Scotch broom filled the neighboring fields. Janey knew many considered Scotch broom a “noxious” weed and a crippling environmental problem, but she loved it when it covered the hillsides with its bright yellow flowers. Someone had once told her that allergens in Scotch broom caused depression, but because Janey loved it, she went out to the fields and gathered large armfuls of it. She’d fill vases and place them in the Golden Delicious and McIntosh rooms.
Thanks to Victoria, who ran not only the inn, but also a successful interior decorating business, every room in the inn was beautiful, but the McIntosh with its Scottish tartans, deep reds, greens, and gold, was Janey’s favorite. She loved her attic, but she loved the McIntosh more.
With her arms full of bright yellow blooms, Janey pushed open the Dutch door that led to the mud room. “Hello?”
No one answered.
She tried again. “Victoria? Jackson?”
Jackson, the gardener-handyman and guy-with-a-truck, clomped into the kitchen and gave Janey a welcome home smile. He wore the same jeans and suspenders he wore every day and one of his more colorful plaid flannel shirts. “What’s shaking, Jan-girl?”
“The Huskies lost.” Using one hand, Janey pulled a vase down from the cupboard. “Can you fill this for me?”
Jackson took the vase to the big, industrial-sized sink, and filled it with water. Then he went to the fridge, popped open a can of Sprite, and poured about a third of it into the vase as well.
“Thanks,” Janey said as she arranged the blooms.
“I hope those aren’t for the dining room.” Jackson watched her. “Someone delivered a large bouquet of roses this morning and I put them on the table.”
“By someone, do you mean Smith?”
Jackson shrugged. “The guy won’t take a hint.”
“I think he’s kind of sweet.”
“Well, too bad for him Victoria doesn’t.”
Janey picked up the vase. “I’m going to put these in the McIntosh.”
“There’s no one in there.”
Janey lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “But there will be.”
Janey pushed open the door to the McIntosh room. She thought the guitar on the bed told her everything that she needed to know—that she needed to set down the flowers and get out of the room. But when the bathroom door swung open and steam rolled out and the man from the stadium emerged wearing only a towel, she knew that she had a lot to learn.
He froze, but his blue eyes frosted with anger. “You!”
Janey slowly put down the vase on the dresser.
“Who are you?” He stalked toward her, his feet pounding on the hardwood floor. “Who sent you?”
“No one s-sent me,” Janey stuttered.
He barked out a sharp laugh. “Come on. You can do better than that. Who do you work for? Celebrity Rag? TMZ? People?”
“You forgot the CIA and the FBI.” Sarcasm bit Janey’s voice. Who did this guy think he was?
He stopped inches from her nose, his eyes raking over her. “Where’s your camera?”
“In my room.”
He barked out another laugh and his hands, still damp from the shower, patted her down.
She stepped away, furious. “Excuse me. I don’t know who you think you are, but you don’t get to touch me.”
He frowned at her through narrowed eyes, and she met his gaze.
“You expect me to believe that we just coincidentally happened to sit next to each other…wait—you must have followed me here.”
“Maybe you followed me!”
Confusion mixed with the anger on his face. “Why would I follow you?”
Janey stared at him with an open mouth for a moment before saying, “I think that you are the most conceited, arrogant person that I have ever met.” She grabbed the flowers off the dresser before turning back to him. “I’ll have you know that there are plenty of very nice, non-stalkerish-type guys that would be happy to sit next to me at a football game and to find me in their room!”
Janey slammed out the door, making it bang so loudly that the elderly couple in the Golden Delicious room poked out their heads to see what had happened.