“This book reads like butter. The words flow so beautifully that you forget you are reading a book. You become the book. It evokes emotions that pour from your soul...I will read these books again, and again, and again. Five sparkly stars!” —★★★★★ Reader Review
Jackson Waller has loved Maggie Keene since they were six years old, but their dueling dreams ultimately tore them apart. First love—true love—wasn't enough to overcome their individual desires to pursue dreams on opposite coasts. When Jackson learns of Maggie's tragic death on her way to college on the east coast, his heartbreak, compounded by grief, renews his focus on his own future. He vows to do nothing but work toward his goal of becoming a doctor, and maybe enjoy the companionship of his new college buddies, the Dogs.
Maggie Keene left Cliffside Bay with two things: a broken heart and her ambition. For twelve years she relentlessly pursues her dream of a musical theater career in New York City, but when she learns her father is dying, she returns home to find the truth about her family's ugly past. There, she discovers two things that will change everything: one, the bitter old man has spread a wild rumor that she has been dead for over a decade; and two, Doctor Jackson Waller is also back in Cliffside Bay—with his brand-new fiancé.
The second installment of The Cliffside Bay Series by bestselling author Tess Thompson follows the interwoven stories of five best friends, the beach community they love, and the women who captivate them. Prepare to get lost in a wave of small town charm, men you would love to take home to your mother, and smart, resilient heroines you wished lived next door.
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Tess Thompson is the USA Today Bestselling and award-winning author of contemporary and historical Romantic Women’s Fiction with nearly 40 published titles. When asked to describe her books, she could never figure out what to say that would perfectly sum them up until she landed on, Hometowns and Heartstrings.
Chapter 1: Maggie
Maggie Keene turned thirty the week she learned she’d been dead for twelve years. It started with a phone call from across the country and a hangover. Her phone squawked and vibrated in that darkest hour before dawn, when even the Brooklyn streets had quieted to a spattering of shouts and sharp horns and rumbles from battered cabs. She groaned as she reached across the bedside table for the abhorrent gadget. Why had she chosen the whistle ringtone? It pierced the very center of a person’s brain. Which, at this precise moment, throbbed without any outside stimulus whatsoever. An empty plastic water glass fell to the floor and bounced across the room.
Finally, she found the phone and punched it into quiet submission. “Hello.”
“This is Darla.”
Maggie jerked upright, hard and straight. Darla. Her father’s wife. The Postmistress.
“It’s four in the morning.” Vodka and perspiration seeped from her pores. Maggie wiped her forehead with the corner of the sheet.
“Your father’s dying. He doesn’t have long. He’s asked for you.”
“Asked for me?” Maggie repeated the question, dull and confused. “It’s been twelve years.”
“He wants to make amends,” Darla said.
“He’s found God.”
God? Viscous, acrid syrup boiled in Maggie’s belly. She pressed her fingers against her mouth and swallowed.
“Will you come?” Darla asked. “Will you come home?”
“Home?” Come home? Cliffside Bay was no longer her home. She wanted to say that out loud, but instead a gravelly voice like Al Pacino in a bad gangster movie played in her mind. The hard streets of Brooklyn, baby. That’s my home.
“Yes,” Darla said. “Home to California.”
The idea landed with a heavy thud inside her aching head. Go home. Could she? After all this time? Not for him. But for herself? Confront the past and gain the truth? Say what she wanted to say? Not redemption for the dying, but peace for her, the living? Closure. Answers?
Yes, answers. She deserved answers. This was an irrefutable fact. The injustice of it bored into her mind like a cancer. She would never be free until there was retribution—until he had to pay with something dear to him. Just tonight, on the way home in the cab, she’d been unable to keep the images of that day from crowding into the lonely spaces of her mind.
Her mother crumpled at the bottom of the stairs. Her father teetering above with the bag in his hands. Jackson tugging at her arm, his face the color of an oyster’s pearl and his voice an octave too high.
Would this be her last opportunity to get her father’s confession?
Below, from the street, a horn blared a staccato warning.
“I’ll come,” Maggie said. “But not for him.” I’ll get him to tell the truth. Before he’s whisked off to hell, he would affirm what she already knew. He murdered her mother and baby sister. He would tell her where her newborn sister’s body was hidden. And finally, Maggie would bury the sweet baby that hadn’t had a chance to live next to their mother.
“It’s the right thing, Maggie.”
“The right thing? For whom?”
“You don’t know what you think you know. You were always too big for your britches.” Darla and her Texas sayings. Maggie had forgotten how self-righteous the Postmistress was.
The thick, bubbling hatred stewed in Maggie’s stomach. “You don’t get to say one word about me or my life. Not after what you did—what you helped him do.”
Darla cleared her throat. She must still smoke. An image of cigarette smoke wafting around Darla’s pocked face flashed before her eyes. When had Maggie last seen her? A week before she left, waiting in line at the drug store. They’d pretended not to see each other. “What do you think he did exactly, Maggie?”
Out of Darla’s mouth, Maggie sounded like a curse word. Maggie. She’d learned once from one of Lisa’s boyfriends—the sales guy—that you should insert someone’s name into conversation because it made them feel seen and heard. The technique was good for selling things or picking up chicks in a bar. It had worked on her best friend Lisa. For a while, anyway.
Darla repeated the question with even more scorn in her voice this time. “What do you think we did, Maggie?”
“There’s something I should tell you,” Darla said.
The line went silent. Maggie waited. Had they lost the connection?
After several dead seconds, Darla spoke. “Never mind. Best it waits ‘til you get here.”
“It’ll be a few days,” Maggie said. I’ll have to rummage up the cash for a plane ticket.
“He’s old. Sad and remorseful. You’ll pity him now,” Darla said.
“I won’t.” Maggie hung up and resisted the urge to toss her phone across the room.
She collapsed back in bed and stared at the ceiling. It was her birthday in a few days, but her friends had taken her out tonight. They’d gotten all dolled up with perfectly applied makeup and dotted perfume behind their ears and worn little dresses that barely covered their behinds.
Maggie groaned again as the night rushed back to her. The club. Dancing. Birthday drinks, pink and festive in their fancy glasses. Clearly overserved. All of them spilled into cabs an hour before closing time, still giggling.
What a night, though. To the future, they had roared as they toasted and spilled and laughed and danced. They’d promised one another, for tonight, no thoughts of auditions or callbacks or diets for this gaggle of chorus girls. Just a pounding bass and those overpriced drinks they’d pretended they could afford and had no calories. They were actresses, after all, and the whole “as if” scenario from Sanford Meisner could be used for more than acting. Denial was a wonderful thing. Until rent came due. Until you got on the scale.
Now, though, reality fermented in the murky pit of her stomach where the black syrup remained. The angry scar on her left knee itched, reminding her that her story was officially over. No more dancing professionally, the doctor had said with a click of his pen. I’m sorry.
Sorry? That was all he could come up with? He could have at least added her name at the end of the sentence. I’m sorry, Maggie. I’m sorry for your broken heart and your ridiculous dreams and your empty bank account, Maggie.
What he’d actually said was much less sympathetic. “What did you expect? You started ballet at three years old. That’s a lot of years abusing your body. It’s time to retire from dancing.”
Retire? From what? Working in a bar and taking endless dance and acting classes and auditioning for chorus roles? Was this a career from which to retire?
Thirty years old. Dreams a bust. Twelve years in the Big Apple and nothing but the calluses on the bottoms of her feet and the stage name Marlena Kassidy listed under “chorus” in a handful of theatre programs to prove she’d ever been here.
Other than her friends. She’d figured the phone call just now would be one of said friends. The most likely candidate being Pepper. She’d decided to stay for another round when they left the club and Maggie figured she was stuck somewhere without cab fare. Or, crying into her vodka-soaked pumps about the former boyfriend she’d run into that night. Or, God forbid, panicked in a urine-splashed jail cell after a moment of lapsed judgment.
Maggie was always the one they called. Even on her birthday. She could figure a way out of a mess or an empty pocketbook like no one else. Like a boss, as Pepper was prone to say, which always made Maggie giggle. Pragmatic and sensible, able to get right to the heart of a thing—that was her. It was the small-town-girl vibe, they always said. She was kind, fanciful, and still had the right answer to comfort a friend, despite living as a New Yorker for twelve years.
Come to my place. I’ll pay the cab from my “mad money” when you arrive. He’s not worth crying over, sweetie. I’ll make pancakes and mimosas and we can watch Rent until the sun rises.
Maggie’s mother had called it mad money. And, like her mother, Maggie never had much, mad or otherwise. But that didn’t keep a girl from taking care of her own. There was always an extra shift behind the bar. Or two.
She stared at the ceiling. Her mind raced like the rapid beat of a club song. She wouldn’t be able to fall back to sleep. Not after that phone call. Just get up. Play guitar. Work on a new song.
Maggie stumbled to the bathroom and stared at her reflection in the mirror. She’d fallen into bed still wearing her dress and thick makeup. Her long, red hair hung in a tangled mass down her back. Smeared black eyeliner and mascara blotted out the freckles on her cheeks. The ocean blue dress, once so perky and boastful, hung in wrinkled and disheveled defeat.
Maggie scrubbed her face with soap and hot water. Steam rose from the sink and soothed her tired eyes. She swallowed a few ibuprofens and changed into leggings and a soft t-shirt, then wandered out to the front room. Lisa was asleep on the couch, still dressed from the evening in her little black dress. One of her shoes rested listlessly on the coffee table, speckled with sticky drops of a Cosmopolitan.
Since Whiskey broke up with her, Lisa had been sleeping on the couch instead of in her bedroom. Maggie didn’t need to ask why—nor the reason for the French language lessons or the shortening of her once waist-length hair. They’d been friends since their theatre days at NYU. There wasn’t much they hadn’t been through together, most recently a jerk who called himself Whiskey. Whiskey, for heaven’s sake. Maggie knew his real name was John. A stealth peek at his driver’s license had revealed that dirty little truth. No one in this town could admit to what and who they really were.
Who was she now? She wasn’t sure anymore. Beneath her exterior made of dance muscles, expensive haircuts, and thrift store clothes—always better to pay for a good haircut than clothes—was she still a small-town girl?
Fear rumbled down the back of her neck and settled in her chest, blinking like an errant traffic light. She imagined her father, dying in a hospital bed, shrunken and sick. Were his strong, mean hands and cutting words still able to hurt her, or had looming death squashed his venom? Could she summon the courage to do what needed to be done?
And what of the rest of them? Those who had betrayed and abandoned her? The ones she had believed would always love her unconditionally? What of them? That script had taken a cruel turn. Jackson and Zane, and Doc and Miss Rita were as much a façade as the sets in a theatre production. How easily they were pushed over and dismantled.
All these years she’d stuffed the pain inside, focused on her new life and her goals.
A glorious life.
Not a glorious life. A hard life.
This turning thirty was turning her into a real crybaby. She spoke in a silent, stern voice to herself. Buck up. You’re going home. You do what you have to do and get out. Once that’s done, you can and will figure out what to do with the rest of your life.
But first, she might have a good long cry.
No. No more crying. She’d cried enough self-pitying tears for a lifetime over the past few weeks.
Maggie slipped Lisa’s other shoe from her foot and set it next to its mate. She covered her friend with a blanket. Lisa stirred and mumbled something in French.
Maggie shuffled over to the front window. Her reflection was ghostlike in the glass, the details of her appearance obscured, other than the outline of her slender figure.
The phone call had opened a door inside her mind. Memories surfaced in images that played on the window. Surfing next to Zane. Dancing under the full moon in Jackson’s arms. Jackson Waller. How was it possible that her heart still ached at the thought of him?
She placed her hand on the glass and whispered his name as if he were merely outside waiting in the gloomy night. Where was he now? Had he become a doctor like he’d planned? Or were his dreams like hers? Unattainable? Silly to him now that the reality of the world had swallowed all sense of self?
No, not Jackson. He would have done what he said he would. Singularly focused on whatever he wanted. Until he wasn’t.
It would be easy to find him. Everyone knew a quick social media search would pull him up in an instant. Years ago, she’d vowed to keep his memory separate from her new world. This was a different life, a different Maggie. New York Maggie hadn’t loved Jackson Waller all her life, only to have him break her with his dismissal. Not even Lisa and Pepper knew his last name. She couldn’t take the chance that they might decide to look for him. When and if the pain of their parting ever subsided, she would free him from the cage and allow the remembrances to inform the present. Until then, she kept him locked away, like a box of photographs she knew existed but that she would not open.
Maggie grabbed her guitar and sank into the faded armchair they’d rescued from the street, deleted from someone’s home for a newer, trendier model. She and Lisa had reupholstered it in an optimistic yellow. More precisely, Lisa had. She was from the Midwest and her mother was a home economics teacher, so she knew how to do useful things like cook and sew and decorate.
Maggie strummed a few chords. Usually she could think better when she played her guitar. While she recovered from her knee surgery, she had written songs with a focus and speed she’d never had before. Lyrics and tunes had come in abundant clumps of inspiration. She had to wonder if her idle body had somehow lent her brain its energy. The songs were pretty good. Maybe. Who knew, really? She’d thought there was no way she could fail until she arrived in New York and ran smack into the cement of reality.
Unlike her friends, she no longer believed tomorrow would be better. She knew after yesterday’s appointment that it would not be. She had told no one, not even Lisa, about her doctor’s visit the previous afternoon. Since her injury and subsequent surgery, a persistent thought had snuck in like a snake and wrapped its reptilian muscles around her neck. Was it time to leave New York?
The problem was this: who the heck was she if not a chorus girl looking for her big break? All these years she’d sacrificed everything to make it, and she was no further ahead than when she’d arrived at eighteen. It was time for a new chapter. If only she knew what that was.
A more traditional life? Marriage and children? A family of her own? These blessings would be welcomed, but how did one find them?
While Lisa and Pepper were in a constant search for the one, Maggie had never bothered with men. After college there had been a few men she’d dated casually, but no one important. No one who could push away the memory of Jackson. She told herself it was because of her ambition and focus. No time for men. However, the truth was—no one would ever compare to Jackson. She would never love another man like she had him. If she couldn’t have that kind of love, she’d rather have none.
Was her summons home a sign? Should she go back to California and try her luck in Hollywood? She could change the direction of her career away from theatre to television and film.
The truth, Maggie.
The idea of Hollywood left her cold and exhausted. Without dancing, performance had lost its hold on her. She loved to sing, but her voice was more suited to popular music than the operatic style of musicals. It had only taken her twelve years to admit that truth.
God, she was tired of hoping. She plucked a melody on the strings of her guitar. The sympathetic notes reverberated in the quiet room.
From the couch, Lisa stirred. “What time is it?”
“It’s just after four. Go back to sleep.”
“What happened?” Lisa asked.
“You passed out before I could get you into your pajamas,” Maggie said. “As did I.”
“I barely remember stumbling up the stairs. Oh no, did we pay the cab driver?”
“I took care of him. You want water?”
“And an aspirin? I feel like death.”
Maggie set aside her guitar and went to their kitchen. Kitchen being a loose term, as it was more like an area.
Lisa was upright by the time Maggie came back with the water and painkillers. She did her nurse-like duty, then plopped back in the armchair.
Lisa drank the entire glass of water, then swept her blond curls back from her face and wrapped the blanket around her shoulders.
“I’m afraid to ask what the doctor said yesterday. I know it’s bad because you didn’t say anything before we went out.”
“He said the surgery healed nicely, but it won’t stay that way if I keep dancing professionally. The strain on my knee is too much, unless I want to live a life with constant pain and subsequent surgeries.”
“Crap.” Tears welled in her friend’s eyes.
“What does this mean?” Lisa’s eyes looked like a baby doll’s when she cried, round and glassy blue.
“Plan B, I guess.”
“What is that?” Lisa asked.
Maggie picked up the guitar and plucked a few notes. “I got a call tonight. From home. My dad’s dying.” She needn’t provide any further information. Lisa knew what that meant.
“I have to go see him. It might be my last chance,” Maggie said.
“You have to try, at least.” Lisa wiped under her eyes with the corner of the blanket.
“I just want him to tell me where the baby’s body is.” Maggie’s voice quivered. She strummed a chord on the guitar to gather herself. “Jackson’s dad left no stone unturned twenty years ago. Whatever my father did with her, we’ll never know unless he tells me.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” Lisa asked.
“You know you can’t.” Money, for one. Money, for two.
Lisa drew her knees up to her chest. “Why do I feel like you won’t come back?”
“Because I probably shouldn’t. I don’t know who I am without dance. But I need to find out.” Right then she craved the shelter of sycamore trees and the scent of the Pacific.
Home. She had to go home.
Lisa looked toward the window, picking at the skin around her thumb like she did when she was troubled. “I got a call this morning from my mom. My twin brother and his wife are having another baby. A girl this time.”
Maggie waited for her to continue.
“It got me thinking about all the stuff I’ve missed since I left home and moved to New York. All the birthdays and Christmases—I missed the birth of my twin’s little baby once already and I’m not sure I want to miss the next one. I want to be Aunt Lisa.” She smiled. “Cool Aunt Lisa who speaks French. Not loser Aunt Lisa who can’t afford the plane fare to come home for Thanksgiving. Not delusional Aunt Lisa who lies to herself and everyone else about how great things are going here.”
“Everyone but me. I know,” Maggie said. “And I love you no matter what.”
“I know you do. I saw some of your songs on the table this morning. They’re good.”
Maggie flushed, embarrassed. “Maybe.”
“I know they’re good. You should do something with them. Your voice is special. You know that, right?”
“You know you’re a great actress?” Maggie asked.
“I am, yes.”
“You are.” She was. As good as anyone out there. Not to mention, Lisa was a classic beauty, like a movie star from the forties with an hourglass figure and eyes the colors of sapphires.
Maggie was not a classic beauty. Not with her flat chest and white skin and freckles that covered every inch of her body.
“But it doesn’t matter,” Lisa said. “Every single day a new busload of girls as talented as we are show up. They’re fresh and young and their hearts haven’t been broken a thousand times already.”
“What’re you saying?” Maggie asked.
“I’m saying I want to go home. I want to live in a home with a real kitchen. I want to know people who are doing interesting things outside of the theatre. I want to find a nice man who doesn’t pretend his name is an adult beverage.”
Maggie laughed through her tears. “But what will we do?” She gestured toward the window. “We don’t know how to do anything but be chorus girls.”
“And waitresses,” Maggie said.
“I always told myself I’d give it ten years and if things hadn’t worked out by then, I’d think about Plan B.” Lisa wrapped the blanket tighter around her shoulders. “It’s been almost twelve years since the first day we met in Professor Yang’s drama class. We’ve given it a good try, but it’s time to find another path, another way to live.”
“I’m scared,” Maggie said.
“Me too. But we’re going to have to trust that we’ll figure it out along the way,” Lisa said. “You go home to California. Pepper and I will pack up or sell anything you don’t take with you.”
“Really? You’d do that for me?”
“Maggie, we’ve been friends for what feels like a lifetime. Anyway, we’re paid up until the end of the month. That’ll give me time to sort through stuff. It’s not like we have any furniture worth taking with us.”
“What about this chair?” Maggie asked. “The color’s so optimistic.”
Lisa chuckled. “That chair is like us—looks good on the outside, but a wreck underneath.”
“That’s a good song lyric.”
“It’s time to go home and get our insides fixed up,” Lisa said.
Home. She would go home to Cliffside Bay and settle her scores. Not to live, obviously. Not after what had happened with Jackson, not after the betrayal of everyone she once loved. But somewhere in California might work. Or maybe Oregon. Washington State? A place with pines and sycamore trees. A town where the briny scent of the Pacific would soothe her disappointment.
“Once I get settled wherever, you have to come see me,” Maggie said.
“Absolutely. And you can come to Iowa.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Iowa.”
Chapter 2: Jackson
The sun had not yet peeped up over the eastern mountains when Doctor Jackson Waller parked in front of Cliffside Bay’s only market. A woman in the park across the street caught his attention. His stomach lurched. Maggie stood under the birch tree. Dressed in running pants and a sweatshirt, she bent at the waist and touched the dewy grass with the tips of her fingers. Long red hair covered her face.
“Maggie.” He whispered and leapt from his truck. Maggie. His Bird. It was her. It had to be her. His feet pounded the concrete, loud in the quiet of the morning. He reached the mailbox at the edge of the grass and stopped. His breath lurched. He leaned with both hands on the cold metal of the mailbox. Not Maggie. Not even close. This woman had legs sturdy like old-growth forest, not lean dancer legs.
He expelled air from his tight chest and a strangled sob drowned out the song of a sparrow in the birch tree. The woman looked up at him and staggered backward. He’d frightened her—staring at her like he’d seen a ghost.
He’d frightened himself. This was not Maggie. No freckles scattered across a narrow nose or a birthmark on her neck in the shape of Italy. This woman had blue eyes, not the green of a mountain lake.
My God, he was slipping into insanity. Having visions. Seeing ghosts. More specifically, he was seeing Maggie. Everywhere. Not like before, when it happened maybe once a year. Since he’d moved home to Cliffside Bay six months ago, his visions had grown to daily occurrences.
Two days ago, he’d been sure it was Maggie holding a dress to her torso outside the women’s boutique. Yesterday, he’d seen her in the bookstore with her head bent over a journal. All it took was one close look at the women’s faces to realize it was only red hair they had in common with Maggie. And yet, in that first split second, he’d believed it was her.
His brain knew the truth. Maggie Keene, love of his life, had died in a car accident on her way to college in New York City twelve years ago.
But his heart had eyes too. They were made of hope and denial. They saw what was not there.
Damp with sweat, he apologized to the woman and slinked across the street to the flowers.
As the sun rose in the eastern sky and shot beams of golden light over the rolling hills, he stood between buckets of flowers outside the food market. To the west, fog hovered over the Pacific, eliminating the view of the beach and water. It would be hours before the mist conceded to the warmth of this late-June day and dissipated. Around noon, as if the dampness had never existed, the sky would transform into a deep blue and the long strand of beach would fill with umbrellas and children and dogs and picnics.
But at daybreak, the drowsy town dozed. It seemed to Jackson that the world at this hour was conversely dejected and hopeful.
Other than wetsuit-clad surfers who rode waves down at the long stretch of beach, the bustling movements of the grocery store staff was the only pocket of activity. Shades covered the windows of the rest of the storefronts along Main Street, including the bookstore, Violet’s shop of refurbished items, Zane’s bar and grill, a surf shop, Miss Rita’s dance studio, as well as Jackson’s medical office. Doctor Jon Waller and Doctor Jackson Waller. Father and son. Like Jackson had planned all his life.
Many early mornings since his return to town, he met Zane for a surf. They would head down to the beach with their boards like they had when they were young and ride the waves as if they still were. Today he would not surf. He had other business. Flowers and the cemetery. Today Maggie would have turned thirty. And, today, like every birthday since her death, Jackson would lay ranunculus on her grave.
Clayton, the floral manager, despite being in his late seventies, had arrived before dawn with the daily allotment of locally grown flowers. Now, he stood to the side as Jackson chose a pale pink ranunculus from the bucket. The intricacies of the ranunculus were surely some of God’s finest work. Their petals were like layers of the finest crepe paper and reminded Jackson of ballerinas’ tutus. They were perfect for Maggie.
He examined another before adding it to the bunch cradled in his arms. Only the best would do.
Just inside the door, Martha wriggled her plump fingers at Jackson as she prepared her organic coffee stand for the wave of locals and tourists who would soon invade. If sympathy could be expressed through the wriggle of fingertips, Martha was your girl. The produce manager, Fred, an old friend of Jackson’s father, paused between apple stacking to tip his hat. Also in sympathy.
They knew why he was buying flowers at the crack of dawn. They even knew why it had to be ranunculus. Clayton had likely picked them that morning for just this purpose.
Ranunculus, once grown in his mother’s garden, were Maggie’s favorite. Everyone in town knew this. Everyone in town had grieved with him when they’d lost her. They didn’t pretend she’d never existed like so many did when presented with death. Not here. Here they still talked about her. How talented she’d been. How beautiful. How sad it was that she was plucked from the world so young.
Clayton’s 1970s beater of a pickup truck was parked in front of the store. Muddy tires told the story of its morning adventures to the flower farms.
“How’s your truck holding up, Clayton?” Jackson asked.
Clayton took off his hat and brushed his hands through wild white hair before answering. “Heck, she’s as good as she ever was. The old girl and I do our runs out to the flower farms every morning like we always have.”
“Ever thought of treating yourself to a new truck?”
Jackson already knew the answer, but it was fun to ask Clayton just to hear his rote response, followed by the lecture of the demise of practicality, thanks to the younger generation.
“No need to replace something that isn’t broke, Doctor Waller. Your generation needs to learn that.”
“We sure do, sir.” Jackson smiled as he handed Clayton the bunch of chosen flowers. “Every time someone calls me Doctor Waller, I want to look behind me to see if my dad’s there.”
“Well, that’s you now, son. We’re real proud of you too. Speaking of your dad, I saw him golfing yesterday afternoon with Janet Mullen. I gather they’re an item?”
“You’re correct, sir.”
“Never too late for an old dog, I guess. Not that I’d know. Harriet and me been together since we were eighteen years old. We figure we’re the lucky ones, loving so young and for so long.” Clayton wrapped the flowers in brown paper. With his shaky and weathered hands, he tied a pink bow around the cone-shaped container. Pink for Maggie.
Jackson grabbed money from his wallet, but Clayton pushed his hand away. “Not today, Doctor Waller.”
Jackson knew better than to argue. “Thanks, Clayton.”
“You tell Maggie I said hello.”
“Will do.” He bit his bottom lip as he jogged to his truck. Once inside, he rested his forehead against the steering wheel and gulped air. He would not cry. Not today. Please, not today.
The first time he’d thought he’d seen her was just a year after she died. On a busy street in Los Angeles, he’d spotted her waiting for a bus. He’d called out her name. When she didn’t respond, he’d touched her shoulder. The stranger had turned and glared at him, afraid of his unwanted touch. Like today, he’d backed away, apologizing. It was not Maggie, but a cruel imposter.
For God’s sake, she’d been dead for twelve years. Twelve years!
He was a doctor, a healer. Yet, he was sicker than any of his patients. Many people who’d lost a spouse or lover, especially when they were young, couldn’t even recall their face. Not him.
What had Clayton said about his wife?
Lucky ones to have loved so young and for so long.
I thought that was you and me, Bird.
Ten minutes later, Jackson knelt on the damp grass and brushed the dust from Maggie’s tombstone with his free hand before placing the flowers in the vase he kept there.
With his index finger, Jackson traced her name.
Maggie Laura Keene
June 27, 1987 – August 7, 2005
Jackson had nicknamed her Songbird when they were little. Over time, it morphed to just Bird, which he interchanged equally with Maggie. When they were teenagers, she used to tease him that he only called her Bird when he wanted to kiss her.
Fog hovered between pine, eucalyptus, and sycamore trees. A sparrow hopped between tree branches, singing. She would have loved a morning like this.
He arranged the bouquet so that each marvelous flower was shown to its best advantage, like ballerinas on a stage.
Sometimes he spoke out loud to her. Not today. Today his heart was so big and sore that it took up every ounce of energy just to breathe.
Thirty years old. What would she be like now? Would she have forgiven him for sending her away? Would she have ever gotten past the cruel and selfish way he’d ended things between them?
Would you, Bird?
Her answer seemed to drift up from the sea and rustle through the pines.
I would have, Jackson. It was a silly fight. We would have been back together by Christmas.
If only he hadn’t made an ultimatum that night, she would be alive and by his side.
Either stay in California with me or we’re done.
The last words he’d ever said to the girl he’d loved all his life had been cruel. He’d never had the chance to say he was sorry and beg for her forgiveness. He lived with that every single day.
She’d chosen her dream over him. Who could blame her? She’d seen him for who he was.
I never thought you could be this selfish.
Her father, Roger Keene, had been the one to tell them she was dead. His name was in the databases as “next of kin” instead of Jackson’s parents, who had raised her from the time she was ten years old. That bitter irony was lost on no one. The bastard had pounded on the Wallers’ door two mornings after Maggie drove out of town. She’s been killed in a car accident, he told them. Somewhere in Kansas she’d lost control of the car. The police had suspected she’d fallen asleep.
Roger Keene had been the one to go to Kansas and collect her ashes. He’d been the one to arrange for her urn to be buried in the family plot next to her mother. There was nothing Jackson or his father could do. They were only her family by love, not blood. Jackson balled his fists, remembering how Roger Keene had played the grieving father at Maggie’s memorial. As if he’d had anything to do with raising her. As if he’d ever loved anyone but his narcissistic, brutal self. In further irony, the bastard was still alive. Sick and dying, but alive. May he rot in hell.
Jackson tugged at a tuft of overgrown grass at the edge of the tombstone and tore it into bits. The lazy groundskeeper should use clippers. This plot should be kept tidy and beautiful.
His gaze moved to Maggie’s mother’s tombstone. At least her father had put Maggie next to her mother. Mae needs a flower too. He placed one from the bouquet over her grave.
Oh, Bird. I still miss you so much. I’m afraid I’m insane.
He hadn’t even confessed to his therapist that his Maggie sightings had become a daily occurrence. How much longer could he keep Sharon waiting for a proposal? How much longer until Maggie no longer filled his restless dreams at night?
The sparrow hopped from the tree and landed on the top of the tombstone. She chirped at him. Did she sing move on, move on, move on?
Happy birthday, sweet Bird. I love you. Say hi to my mom.
Jackson had a good poker hand. In fact, it was a great hand. A full house. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been up during a Dog’s poker game. Not that they played often now that they were adults. They’d come a long way from the geeky underclassmen at USC assigned to the same dorm room who’d named themselves the Dogs after the famous painting of dogs playing poker. With time had come responsibilities. What had been a weekly game during their college days had become more like a once-a-month game at best.
He looked around the table to gauge the others’ hands. Not much to see. Almost twelve years they’d played poker together and he still couldn’t read his friends’ faces.
Brody never allowed his expression to show anything but a competitive intensity, perfected during his time on the football field as the quarterback for San Francisco’s professional football team. He loved to win and would do almost anything to do so, on or off the field. His fiancée, Kara, called it his game face: glittering eyes, mouth set in a straight line with his square jaw clenched. The rest of the Dogs called it “resting douche face.” God forbid any of them would ever give one of the others a compliment without some form of mockery.
Truth was, Brody was the heart of their group. Without him, Jackson suspected the entire dynamic would fall apart. He was a born leader and, whether any of them liked to admit it, good-looking, smart, and humble. Kara said no one should be given that much talent and beauty in one lifetime. Whether it was fair or not, the man recently threw a sixty-yard pass to win the Super Bowl.
His twenty-million-dollar-a-year contract helped him build this house that overlooked the ocean. Not only had he built suites for his mother and their longtime housekeeper, Flora, but he’d also made sure to build a man cave for the Dogs’ poker games and to watch sports, including Brody’s games during football season. With dark walls and bulky, masculine furniture, the room was like a commercial for bourbon and tobacco. In one section of the room, a wraparound sofa faced a giant, flat-screen television. On the other end, a round table with five chairs had been custom built for the five Dogs.
Tonight, the scent of the sea and freshly cut grass drifted in through the open windows and mingled with the smells of leather and expensive booze. Brody and Kyle each had a tumbler of Glenlivet scotch. Zane sipped from his usual vodka on the rocks with a squeeze of lime. Jackson had a glass of a Paso Robles Cabernet. Yes, he was a wine snob, which could be blamed on his father.
“I raise you one,” Jackson said.
“Good hand, Doctor Waller?” Brody tossed in two chips. “I raise you another one.”
“It’s creepy when you call me Doctor Waller,” Jackson said.
“You sound like you have a crush on him,” Kyle said. He also tossed in two chips.
Brody smiled. “I do have a crush on him.” When Brody smiled, his face transformed from intense to striking. He’d been doing a lot of smiling since becoming engaged to Kara.
“Doesn’t the whole town? Oh, Doctor Waller, can you look at the rash on my arm?” Zane fluttered his eyelashes as he slid two chips across the table and into the pot. “I think you need to rub some ointment on it. Maybe back at my place?”
“Aren’t you talking about yourself, Shaw?” Jackson asked. “You haven’t deluded yourself into thinking women are coming into The Oar for the food?”
“You know it’s my food,” Zane said. “My rock-hard abs are just a bonus.”
Jackson looked at Zane. One hand held his cards. The other rested on the table. No movement. Zane could keep a stoic expression while riding the toughest wave, and he ran his bar and grill without ever breaking a sweat. In addition, truth be told, his restaurant’s food was fantastic. That said, he was a terrible poker player. He gave himself away when he had a good hand by tapping his fingertips against the tabletop like a miniature drum roll. Every single time. In typical Dog style, no one had ever pointed this out to him, which is why he hardly ever won a game. When he did, it was usually for a small pot. They knew to fold when they saw those fingers start to tap.
“I raise you,” Jackson said. Three chips. This was going to cost him if someone had a better hand.
“It’s definitely Zane’s pretty face bringing them into the bar,” Kyle said. “Did you see that group of girls at the back table last night? Every time you walked by, I thought the brunette was going to faint.”
“I heard one of them squealing about your eyes,” Brody said, matching the bet. “She called them turquoise, as if that’s a real eye color.”
Zane rolled his said turquoise eyes as he tossed more chips into the pot. “You guys exaggerate. Plus, those ladies were barely old enough to drink, which makes them too young for us.”
“Twenty-one’s legal, man,” Kyle said.
“We’re thirty, in case you’ve forgotten,” Jackson said.
“I refuse to acknowledge this blasphemy,” Kyle said. “Anyway, age is merely a number.”
“Have you heard of the Peter Pan syndrome?” Brody asked. “You might look into it.”
“I never look into anything called a syndrome,” Kyle said. Jackson studied Kyle. What kind of hand did he have? The jerk almost always won.
Kyle raised an eyebrow and winked at him. “You know you can’t read me for crap.”
“I can,” Jackson said. “Like a book.”
“No one can read me. Years of dedication and practicing my poker face in the mirror has made me who I am.” Raised in poverty, Kyle was making up for it in adulthood by buying up half of California as a real estate developer. His latest venture was a new resort here in town.
“That’s probably true,” Zane said. “As much as it disgusts me to imagine how many hours a day you spend looking at yourself.”
“Hold on there, pretty boy,” Kyle said to Zane. “I recall a certain roommate who used to spend hours fixing his hair.”
“That’s a lie and you know it.” Zane grinned and pointed to his sun-kissed blond curls. “This is just natural beauty.”
“You are pretty,” Kyle said. “If only you’d use your good looks for good. Me, I use mine to give pleasure to as many women as I can.”
“Oh, brother,” Brody said as he rolled his eyes. “That’s where you’re wrong. Giving pleasure to one woman—the woman is where it’s at.”
“And deny the rest of them?” Kyle ran his hands down his muscular torso. “That would just be cruel.”
“No one likes a braggart,” Jackson said. Kyle wasn’t bragging. His angular face, patrician nose, and dark blue eyes that glittered with intelligence and curiosity caught women’s attention. However, it was his utter self-confidence and wit that made women fall into his arms without a thought to the heartbreak waiting around the corner the moment they hinted of any real feelings. Kyle was a cad of the first degree.
“You do look better now that you pay someone at Nordstrom to dress you,” Zane said.
“Rachel is her name and she’s very clever,” Kyle said.
“She’d have to be, given the raw material,” Brody said.
When they’d first met as freshmen at USC, Kyle had been skinny and nerdy. Now, a dedication to fitness and a personal shopper at Nordstrom had transformed him from nerdy to smoldering.
“Very funny. Zane, you should call Rachel immediately for help,” Kyle said. “If you ever want to dress like an adult instead of an overgrown surfer dude.”
“I will never dress like an adult again,” Zane said. “I burned my suits when I left L.A. I have no interest in looking slick.”
“Except for my wedding,” Brody said.
“Right. For Kara, I will make an exception,” Zane said. “It’s not every day I’m asked to walk a beautiful bride down the aisle.”
“I’m not slick, by the way. Some woman called me wolfish the other night,” Kyle said.
“Wolfish? I don’t think that was a compliment,” Brody said, laughing.
“Really? I liked it,” Kyle said. “It made me feel dangerous.”
“Speaking of dangerous, it’s time to face the music, boys.” Jackson displayed his poker hand on the table. The Dogs made various noises of disgust.
Jackson smiled as he scooped the winning chips into his pile. “It’s fun to win.”
“It happens so seldom, though,” Kyle said.
“Maybe this is the start of a new chapter for me,” Jackson said. Four of the five Dogs were here, which lifted his spirits. Lance, Brody’s younger brother, was the only Dog missing. He was in New York working on Wall Street. Hopefully, they would see him next month for Flora and Dax’s wedding. Although, no one could win against Lance. He had a photographic memory and Jackson suspected an ability to count cards. If Lance were a less ethical man, he would be in Vegas right now beating the house.
A new chapter? That’s what he needed. But could he make one?
“You okay, buddy?” Zane asked him.
Jackson looked up. “Me? Sure, yeah. Fine.”
“We know what today is,” Brody said. “You doing all right?”
“It’s okay if you’re not,” Kyle said.
Jackson looked at him, surprised. Kyle was usually the first to run when a conversation turned serious. “I’m struggling a little.” The understatement of the century. “She would’ve turned thirty today.”
“Yeah, I know,” Zane said.
“I should be better than I am,” Jackson said. “No one grieves this long unless they’re a little screwed in the head.”
“You loved her very much,” Brody said. “And today’s her birthday. I understand, now that I love Kara. To lose her might kill me.”
“It’s been twelve years,” Jackson said.
“What does your therapist think?” Brody asked.
Jackson shrugged and sipped from his glass. The wine tasted bitter tonight. “She thinks I’ve never fully believed that Maggie was dead, therefore I haven’t moved on like I should.”
“What kind of half-cocked theory is that?” Zane asked.
“Right?” Kyle said. “You know she’s dead. You just wish she wasn’t.”
“Anyway, there’s no instruction manual on grief,” Brody said. “I still miss my dad every single day.”
The urge to confess his fears trampled all reason, all self-preservation. If he could tell anyone the truth, it was the Dogs. “I’ve been seeing her everywhere. Since I moved back here. Any woman with red hair—my mind thinks she’s Maggie. This is not normal, guys.”
“It’s just because you’re back here,” Kyle said. “When I went home a few years ago, it felt like my mom was around every corner. And she’s been gone a long time.”
“Sure. It’s all the memories here,” Zane said. “Stirring things up.”
“The ring I bought for Sharon’s been sitting in my desk drawer for months,” Jackson said. “I need to ask her. She’s expecting me to ask her. The longer I put it off, the less fair it is to her.”
The room went silent. No one would meet his gaze.
Finally, Zane spoke. “There’s no rush. No timeline.”
“Proposing to her isn’t going to make you miss Maggie any less,” Kyle said.
Again, Kyle surprised him. What did he know about missing someone?
“It might,” Jackson said. “Like a line in the sand for my mind. I love Sharon. She’s amazing. You all know that.” Sharon Fox was a research doctor who looked like a supermodel. She loved Jackson despite how he’d strung her along for years. Heck, they’d been friends for six years before she convinced him to become involved romantically. “She’s hung in there for a long time.”
“What about her job in L.A.?” Brody asked. “I thought she didn’t want to move here.”
“She told me she will—if there’s a ring on her finger,” Jackson said. “She’ll commute to a university in San Francisco once she secures another position.”
“I don’t think she’ll like it here,” Zane said.
“What’s not to like?” Jackson asked.
No one spoke for a few seconds. Kyle plucked strips of the paper label from his beer bottle. Brody drank down the entirety of his scotch. Zane clasped his hands behind his head and stared at the light fixture that hung over the table.
“What is it?” Jackson asked. “What’s wrong?”
“We want you to be happy,” Zane said.
“I want that too,” Jackson said. I don’t want to slowly lose my mind. “Sometimes I wonder if coming back here was a mistake.”
“No way, man. This was your plan since we were kids,” Zane said.
Maggie was my plan, too. And look what happened there.
“Maybe you’re right. It’s just being back here. All the memories.” Jackson smiled to assure them he was fine, but his dry mouth stretched painfully against his teeth.
“They’ll fade,” Zane said. “I’m sure of it.”
“I’m going to marry Sharon. I owe her that much,” Jackson said. “And I need to know you guys are on my side.”
“Of course we are,” Kyle said. “Thick and thin, like we always promised.”
“No matter what,” Brody said.
“Sure. Whatever you decide, we’ll get behind it a hundred percent,” Zane said.
Kyle raised his glass. “To the Dogs. We have one another’s backs. No matter what goes down.”
“Always,” they repeated as they clinked glasses.
“Now somebody deal,” Kyle said. “I’m in the mood to win.”
The next day, Jackson finished putting the cast on three-year-old Dakota Ellis’s arm. “All done, buddy. You did a fantastic job of staying still.”
Dakota grinned. “Mommy said to.”
His mother, Violet, sat in the chair with the same worried expression they’d come in with, even though her son’s tears had long since dried. Jackson knew a thing or two about worry.
“Now, off you go. Ask Nurse Kara for a lollipop while I talk to your mom for a minute,” Jackson said as he scooped the little boy off the table.
Dakota headed out the door, staring at his cast.
Jackson turned back to Violet. “There’s no need to look so worried. He’ll be good as new in a month.”
“It’s not that so much as, well, I’m struggling. Money-wise.”
“Is business slow?” he asked.
Violet owned a shop in town that sold goods made from refurbished items, like tires into purses and so forth. Jackson had bought a bracelet made from chicken wire for Sharon. It had not gone over well.
Violet also headed up the committee in town with a sole purpose to protect the historical parts of town from development.
“My rent at the shop is too high compared to what I’m able to sell things for,” Violet said. “If my parents hadn’t moved to their vacation place in South America and left me their house here, I’d be in deep trouble. Still, with self-employment taxes, property taxes, not to mention the price of health insurance—I’m barely making it. A broken arm wasn’t in the budget.” Violet’s bottom lip trembled. “Do you guys have payment plans?”
“We can, but insurance will cover most of this,” he said.
“Not my insurance. My deductible’s six thousand dollars before they pay a dime. I have to pay over five hundred a month for our premiums, and I make too much to get a government subsidy for Dakota.” She wiped under her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m just so tired.”
“Don’t apologize.” How was she supposed to get ahead when the system was rigged against her? “Anyway, you’re in luck. We happen to have a special running this month on little boy’s broken arms. They’re free with a purchase of a lollipop.”
“Jackson, no. I can’t take your charity.”
His mother, who had run the office when Jackson was a kid, had conveniently forgotten to bill people for visits if she knew they were struggling financially. “You let me know when things are looking up and we’ll bill you then.”
“I won’t forget,” she said.
“I’m not worried.”
Violet tucked her long, honey-hued hair behind both ears and lifted the corners of her mouth in a sad smile. “It’s been a rough few years.” Despite it all, Violet was even prettier than she’d been in high school, with hair the color of honey and small, delicate features. As Kyle had pointed out the first time he was introduced to her, she had a beautiful figure, thanks to yoga. Although, beautiful figure wasn’t exactly how Kyle had described her. He’d said something more along the lines of sizzling hot body, if Jackson recalled correctly.
However, Kyle’s admiration of Violet was short-lived. She was a zealot when it came to their little town, crusading to keep the town historically pure, which created a massive conflict with Kyle. She did not approve of new construction, especially a large resort, and was not shy about expressing her displeasure. Usually with a picket sign.
“How’s Sharon? Have you convinced her to move here yet?” Violet asked.
“She’s been pretty clear that a proposal equals her commitment to moving.” He kept his voice light.
“Well, it’s a big step,” Violet said.
“Yes. It is. Very much so.” He cringed at the uncertainty in his voice.
“I’m happy for you.”
Jackson scratched his neck under the stiff collar of his buttondown shirt. “What about you? Are you seeing anyone special?”
“No. I have Dakota, so you know, not much chance I’ll attract anyone decent. Way too much baggage.”
“Everyone has baggage. Don’t give up on love. You’re a catch, with or without your adorable boy. Some guy’s going to be lucky to have you.”
Violet rose from the chair and smoothed the front of her cotton sundress. “Thanks, Jackson. I didn’t realize a pep talk was an additional service you provide.”
“Anytime. Now go open your shop. Town’s practically crawling with tourists today.”
After he escorted Violet out to the lobby, he went into his office and opened his desk drawer. A small box nestled next to freshly sharpened pencils. He opened it; the diamond ring sparkled under the lights. Just do it.
His pulse quickened to the pace of a hummingbird’s wings. Sharon was a good woman. Even if he had to keep reminding himself, he was a lucky man. Nothing good ever came from his overanalysis. Or did it? Never mind. He must stop this nonsense.
It was time. He had to propose to Sharon and make it official. Time to grow up and start a family. Move forward with someone else. Finally.
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