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Authors: Liz Flaherty

Tags: #Family Life, #Contemporary, #Fiction, #RNS, #Romance

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BOOK: Back to McGuffey's
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Kate rebanded her hair, which had half-fallen out of its ponytail, and reached for the rake.

“Hey, Kate!”

She turned to see Jayson trotting toward her. His gait was ungainly, but the appearance of clumsiness did nothing to slow him down. “Whatcha doing?” he asked. “Can I help? Did you know Ben was gonna teach me to ride a bicycle? It’s his old one and it’s blue. He says its name is Navy but if I want to change it I can. But I won’t. I like the name Navy, don’t you?”

“Wait for me, Jay.” Debby’s voice sounded thin as she followed her brother to where he stood, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

The younger woman looked exhausted, and Kate gave her a concerned look. “Of course you can help, Jayson,” said Kate. “Why don’t you stay with me while Debby goes home for a nap? Then you can go back to Kingdom Comer and help me make afternoon tea for the guests. Debby can come and get you when she wakes up.”

“Oh, that’s all right.” Debby waved a hand. “I’m fine, really.”

“You’re dead on your feet,” Kate corrected. “Do you have to work tonight?”

“Yes, and I’m working twelve-hour shifts right now. It’s hard to keep help at the Bagel Stop. That’s why I’m so tired. But Jay’s no trouble for me.”

“I’m sure he’s not, but I really could use his help, and you really could use some sleep, right?”

“Oh, man, maybe three weeks or so. Yeah, I could. But he’s my—”

“Responsibility,” Kate finished. “I know, but let me take a little share this afternoon. Besides, he’s big and strong. He’ll be a lot of help.”

And Jayson
was
a lot of help. They had most of the bare soil raked when Penny and Bill Joe, the toddler she was foster-parenting, arrived with adult-and child-sized hoes and rakes in tow. Jayson, Kate had discovered, knew more about gardening than she did. He sifted the soil through his fingers, sniffed it and pronounced it rich and ready. He raked faster than she did, and when he suggested—well, actually, he
ordered
—a particular layout of the flowers, she was delighted with his ideas.

“Have you decided what you’re going to do with the lot?” asked Penny.

“No. That’s why I’m planting flowers. They’ll look better than weeds. And I thought I’d go ahead and plant vegetables where the garden’s always been. We can use them whether I live here or not, and everyone on the street kind of counts on it. Plus, Jayson’s going to help.”

“Pumpkins,” said Jayson, nodding earnestly. He waved a hand at the trees. “They can be the haunted forest at Halloween. I’ll wear a cape and ride Navy through the forest.”

“We could do that,” Kate agreed. “The way pumpkins grow, it would only take about three seeds.”

“Is Navy your horse?” asked Penny, smiling at Jayson.

“Noooo. Navy is Ben’s bike from when he was a kid, probably a hundred years ago,” the boy explained seriously. “I’m gonna learn to ride it.”

Planting impatiens at the edge of the garden, Kate had to clamp her dirty hand over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. She couldn’t wait to tell Ben just exactly how old he was.

It was a productive afternoon. Mr. Hayes, who plowed most of the gardens in Fionnegan, drove past while they were working and unloaded his tiller to loosen the ground in the garden. Joann, on her way home from the nursery with the trunk of her car full of flowers, gave Jayson a flat of marigolds because he was so captivated by their color variations. By the time Kate returned to the inn to prepare afternoon tea, she had six guests in addition to the ones who were staying there.

Ben, looking sleepy, came in the back door to beg a cup of coffee and ended up staying. He talked to Mr. Hayes about gardening until Jayson and Sally joined them. Then they talked about bicycles. “I can’t thank you enough,” said Debby. when she arrived in time to help carry cookies and sandwiches into the parlor. Her hair was still tousled, and she smoothed it self-consciously before washing her hands and picking up a tray. “I needed some sleep and it’s good for Jayson to get away from me. Good for me, too,” she admitted ruefully. “I really resent that our mother didn’t want to take care of him, but there’s a part of me that understands it, too.”

During teatime, the rest of the inn’s weekend guests checked in. Jayson, talking earnestly all the way, helped carry their luggage upstairs. When they followed him back down for the complimentary tea, he told them the cookies and the tiny little cakes were delicious but that Kate had made the sandwiches so they were only okay.

“Kid’s got your number,” Ben, who was leaving, kissed her cheek. “Want to come help in the bar tonight?” he asked.

It would make for a long day, she realized. McGuffey’s stayed open till the wee hours on weekend nights. But it would be fun, too, bumping hips and elbows with Ben and getting a chance to visit with Dylan when she went into the kitchen. He lived less than an hour away, in a small town near Montpelier, but she seldom saw him.

“Isn’t Morgan working?” she asked.

“Not if you do. She’s still finishing up end-of-year stuff at the college.” Ben slipped an arm around Kate and gave her foot a push. “We can dance.”

That convinced her—not that she hadn’t been going to agree anyway. “Okay, I’ll come. Tell Dylan to save me a bowl of soup.”

After seeing to the guests’ comfort and snatching a forty-five-minute nap, Kate fed the animals and walked over to McGuffey’s. She went in through the kitchen, and Dylan caught her just before she pushed open the swinging door.

“Ah, there she is, the girl who broke my heart and sent me off to the priesthood without a backward glance!” Their eyes met as he pulled her through the door and into the dance. His gaze, the same twinkling blue as his father’s, was questioning.
Are you all right?

She nodded slightly. She was. Most of the time.

Ben was a good dancer, but Dylan was better. Even as Kate’s legs began to ache with the effort of keeping up, the Irish music grew louder and they were joined on the waxed floorboards by Ben, swinging past with a laughing Joann Demotte. More couples joined them, and the floor fairly shook with the combined percussion of music and pounding feet.

Then somehow they changed partners, and Kate found herself dancing slower and being held closer. She looked up, still laughing, but the look in Ben’s eyes stilled the laughter and reawakened the longing for the emotional connection they used to share. She thought she’d put it behind her, but evidently not far enough.

“I think one of us needs to get behind the bar and the other one needs to...do something else,” she said. She was breathless, and she didn’t for the life of her know if it was from the dancing of her feet or the more erratic beat of her heart. “I haven’t even put an apron on.”

“I know, which means we’re in real danger of compromising your virtue, you being out here in the middle of the floor apronless.” He looked over his shoulder at his brother and raised his voice. “Plus the only way we can get Dylan back to work is if we go first—you know how he is.”

Dylan thumped his back as he passed. “I see empty glasses on tables over there, and people who’ve come in search of a meal. You two need to get busy. I can’t do it all.”

Ben followed him. “Getting you to do even
some
of it is a challenge.”

Kate got her apron, pausing for a moment to straighten the black vest on the hanger beside it. She couldn’t bear to think of a McGuffey’s Tavern without Tim holding court behind its bar.

“Kate,” called Skip Lund from a corner table. “Can we get coffee and cards?”

“Coming right up.”

Skip and his friends playing cards meant the table would be held all night, with virtually no revenue because coffee cups were bottomless in the tavern. It was something that had irritated Kate in her younger days, but Tim had told her sometimes being a good neighbor was more important than turning tables.

She’d come to believe that, but Skip Lund still irritated her.

When she took the thermal coffee carafe and four cups to the table, her previous boss thanked her and asked how the job search was going.

“I’m running the B & B for the summer,” she said, “and helping out here sometimes.”

“Maybe you could help at the office occasionally, too,” Skip suggested. “Not on the payroll exactly, but filling in and catching up on filing like you used to.”

She didn’t have a violent bone in her body—or at least, she was pretty sure she didn’t—but Kate was sure she could level him if she smacked him with the coffeepot she still held.

“Thanks.” She set the pot down carefully, the cups a little less so—it was amazing the one she put in front of Skip didn’t shatter. She beamed at him, pleased when his expression grew wary. “But probably not.”

It was one of those days, Kate reflected later, as she soaked her aching feet—and the rest of her—in Marce’s garden tub, that had come pretty close to being perfect. It was so good to be at McGuffey’s again, to dance, to feel Ben’s hand at the back of her waist when downtime allowed them a moment of standing still and quiet.

Before she slept, however, she thought of the night thirteen years ago when he’d said he didn’t think they should see each other anymore. She’d agreed—it had been hard maintaining a long-distance relationship. “Maybe after my residency,” he’d said. “Maybe then, it will work between us again.”

“Of course it will,” she’d said, keeping her eyes wide so she wouldn’t cry. So he wouldn’t know her heart was breaking. “We still love each other, right?”

“Yeah.” His gaze held hers, all splintery green with heat. “We still love each other.”

It was the last time they’d said it. When the residency ended, he’d stayed in Boston and married Nerissa. Kate had gotten engaged to Tark. Life had gone on. But she wondered if Ben had ever really loved her. And if she’d ever really stopped loving him.

CHAPTER FIVE

“W
HAT
?” K
ATE

S
VOICE
over the phone was a whisper that managed to be sibilant without the use of the letter
s
. “People are sleeping here, Ben.
I
was sleeping. It’s the middle of the night. What do you want?”

“A ride to the hospital. My car’s been blocked in by B and B guests and yours is on the street, so you can take me.”

Her voice rose to a croak. “Are you sick?”

Ben rolled his eyes.
Patience
.
You woke her up.
“No, I’m a doctor, and they need me. Will you take me?”

“Mmmph.”

“What?”

“Sorry, pulling a shirt over my head. Meet me at my car in two minutes. Three.”

He almost laughed out loud when she came down the front sidewalk of the inn. She was wearing plaid pajama pants, Dan’s old sweatshirt, and canvas slides. A green baseball cap covered what hair wasn’t sticking out from underneath it in caramel-colored spikes. But he figured if he laughed, she’d make him walk to the hospital, and the call from the emergency room had sounded urgent.

“Put your foot in it,” he suggested, reaching to fasten his seat belt.

She did, and they arrived at Fionnegan Medical Center with red-and-blue lights flashing gaily in their wake. Kate glared at Ben. “Go ahead in. I’ll throw myself on the mercy of law enforcement. You can come bail me out when you’re done.”

The lights belonged to Dan Elsbury’s cruiser. He stepped out of the car. “Just escort service, ma’am,” he said to Kate. “Need anything, Ben?”

“No, but don’t ask for Kate’s license. She doesn’t have it with her. We’ll call you if you need to find family members.”

“What are you doing working nights?” Kate demanded as Dan approached. “You’ve got a hundred years’ seniority.”

Dan looked embarrassed. “I do, but the night patrolman has a pregnant wife. First baby—his life is about all the different stages of panic.”

The look she gave Dan was particularly sweet, and Ben wished it had been directed at him. “You’re a dear man.” She stretched to kiss Dan’s cheek. “Is that bribing an officer?”

“Kate, you want to park and come on in? I might be a while.” Ben waved at Dan before he went through the emergency room’s automatic doors.

“Good luck, tall guy,” she called out, and Ben smiled back at her over his shoulder.

Kate told Dan goodbye, promising to call him if he was needed, then moved the car.

When she went inside, a man with a baby in his arms and a little boy clinging to his legs was talking to the person at the desk. “I hear what you’re saying,” he said in a panic-laced voice, “but you have to understand that’s my wife in there. I have to be with her and I didn’t have anyone to leave our grandchildren with. Their parents are away.”

Kate stepped into his view. “I’m Kate. I used to work in your lawyer’s office. Do you remember me?” With his distracted nod, she reached for the baby. “If it’s all right, I’ll keep the kids out here. We’ll be right over there in the lounge where they can see us from the nurses’ station.”

It was a testament to his concern for his wife that the man didn’t ask questions, not even seeming to notice Kate’s pajamas and baseball cap. He thrust the baby into her arms. “Thank you.” He looked down. “Stay with the lady, Marcus. I’ll be with Nana.”

“Well, Marcus.” Kate took his hand and led the way to a sofa in the lounge. “Are you sleepy?”

“Not now.” His cornflower-blue eyes went wide. “Papaw pulled me right out of bed and I rode all the way here in my pajamas. Don’t tell Mommy.”

“Oh, she’d probably understand. You’re such a big boy.”

He nodded solemnly, holding up a hand with the thumb held down. “I’m four.”

Kate laid the baby on the sofa, setting two straight chairs at its edge to stop an unexpected rollover, and sat beside her, drawing Marcus into her lap. “What’s your sister’s name?”

“Daisy. She can’t walk or talk or anything—she doesn’t even have any teeth. Will you read to me? Nana already did, but I went to sleep, so I don’t think it counts.”

“You bet.”

Two dog-eared books later, Marcus was asleep in her arms. She laid him on the part of the couch not inhabited by the gently snoring baby and hurried to the desk to borrow a blanket. By the time the toddler was covered, his little sister was squirming.

“Oh.” It was more a sigh than a word, and Kate lifted Daisy, amazed at how well she fit into her arms. She remembered holding Penny’s Michael and sobbing because she wanted a baby of her own. Ten years later, she felt tears threatening again and she closed her eyes hard against them. She would not cry over what she did not have. She saved that for late at night when she was alone.

Where had the time gone?

* * *

“Y
OU
WANT
WHAT
?” Ben stood at the kitchen sink in the B and B, washing the skillet that had held the sausage gravy served at that morning’s breakfast. He stopped scrubbing, looking over his shoulder at her.

“You heard me.” Kate loaded the dishwasher. “I want a baby.”

He raised an eyebrow and went back to the pan. “What about a husband? Did holding a baby in the emergency room give you a yen for one of those, too?”

She shrugged. “It would be nice. I won’t argue that point. But the truth is that I’m thirty-seven and that clock you doctors always talk about with serious looks on your faces is ticking away.”

“But parenthood isn’t something you decide in a stressful moment, Kate.” He knew he sounded patronizing, but the very idea of her having a child because of an emotional slice out of an already unusual summer made him feel panicky.

Over the past few weeks, they’d regained so much of the old ground they used to walk on together—they knew each other’s thoughts, didn’t need to finish sentences when they talked. They’d shared a few kisses. Didn’t she know he didn’t want children anymore?

If he hadn’t been in the middle of a conversation with her, he’d have laughed at his own arrogance. What made him think she cared at all what he wanted? And for that matter, why should she? He’d tossed that particular rite of relationship passage to the winds thirteen years ago when he’d been overwhelmed by medical school and the vagaries of life itself and let her go.

Let her go.
Just thinking the words was painful. He set the cast-iron skillet on the warm stove with a little thump.

She snorted. “Lots of people don’t decide at all—it just happens. It’s not as though I haven’t thought about it. I’ve been thinking about it for twenty years. This year, the gynecologist told me I needed to get busy if I wanted to have a baby, but there have been other things on my mind lately. You know, burning house, lost job, little things like that.” She wiped the counters as she talked, ending at the coffeepot. “Want another cup? There’s enough left.”

“Sure.” He dried the last pan and hung it on the rack over the island. “So, what are you thinking if the clock’s running down? Adoption? Surrogate? Or...?” He went over to where she stood, taking the coffee from her hand and wondering if she felt the energy that arced between them. How could it have been lost for all those years and then suddenly back? Not only back but bigger and stronger. And what if she didn’t feel it at all? What if it was only him?

“You know what? After I satisfy my mortgage, I’ll have enough money to rent an apartment when Marce comes home, make car payments till I get another job and spend Christmas with my family in Tennessee. I don’t think my financial options for motherhood are real wide-open.”

He shook his head. “You don’t just make up your mind about having kids in a heartbeat of time. I understand that you’ve been thinking about it since those family living classes in high school when you girls carried dolls around for two weeks, but you must admit the actual decision was pretty quick and pretty sudden.”

“No.” She sipped the coffee. “Do you remember what I said just a little while back? That I wanted to want something? That I wanted to be passionate about something?”

“Yes.”
So why not be passionate about me? Why not build on what we’ve started here? Come on, Katy.

“What better than a family?” Her eyes, when she met his, were dark and sad. “I don’t think I’m the marrying kind, Ben. It would have happened by now if I were. But I
am
the mothering kind.” She carried the coffee carafes to the sink to rinse them. “Oops, I need to make some for the thermos in the parlor.” She poured beans into the coffee grinder, muttering, “By the time I remember everything I’m supposed to do, Marce will be back.”

He watched her move through the kitchen, filling the thermos and the cookie tray for the parlor. He loved how she looked, with her streaky ponytail and her generous hips. Nerissa had been model-slim, and at the time he’d liked that, too. He’d compared old-money Boston with his high-school girlfriend and somehow gotten it all wrong, jumping headlong into a life he had no idea how to live. One he figured out too late that he didn’t even want to live.

His ex-wife was a beautiful, generous woman whose only failing had been that she wanted her husband to be a grown-up. Not just a grown-up. A father. She’d wanted children from the outset. He’d
never
been ready.

She’d been patient for a couple of years, as their friends and Patrick bought houses and minivans and set about filling them. But then one day she went to a baby shower and came back to their condo and packed her things. “This isn’t a marriage,” she’d said. “It’s fun, and I think I’ll always love you, but it’s not enough.”

They’d had their marriage annulled, a complicated and painful process. The following New Year’s Day, Nerissa married a neurologist who wasn’t interested in sports. In addition, Mark didn’t really mind attending fundraisers and he wore suits to the hospital. Their first child was born on Ben’s birthday—they asked him to be the godfather.

With a sigh, Ben hung the dish towels on the rack in the laundry room and came back into the kitchen.

“Ben?” Her arms full of towels, Kate looked up at him, her expression serious. And longing.

The longing broke his heart.

“Don’t you still want kids?” she asked quietly.

The question fell into a silence so heavy it felt like rain. He wanted to say what she wanted to hear. He wanted—more than anything in the world—to want what she wanted. But one thing they’d always counted on from each other was truth.

He cupped her face in his hands, meeting her eyes before he bent his head and kissed her. “I wish I did, short woman,” he said gently, “but no.”

* * *

I
T
WAS
AS
though she’d lost him all over again, Kate thought, plying a hoe to the rows of green beans in the garden on Alcott Street. Not that he’d been hers to lose. But their friendship had grown and deepened in these days of spring. They’d cultivated it just as she was doing with these beans, with late-night visits to the Bagel Stop and working together at both the tavern and the bed-and-breakfast. They spent time with Jayson, played cards with Dan and Penny, and went to Little League games to watch Josh and Michael. Kate nearly fell through the bleachers in her excitement when Josh hit a grand slam and Ben had rescued her, cheering all the while.

They’d kissed on the porch, in the kitchen, in his suite when she went over to change the sheets, and each time she’d felt that warming, curling feeling of the old magic. The ache of losing her house eased because as long as he was there, she felt as though she was home.

“It’s pathetic,” she muttered, using short, chopping strokes with the hoe. “You’re on the ugly end of your thirties and the biggest thrill of your life is your high school boyfriend. He’s been working in Boston for two days and it feels like a month. Grow up, Rafael.”

“Talking to yourself, Katy?” Penny’s voice came to her from the radish row. “I’m pulling a mess of these. Do you want some for the B and B?”

“Yes. Hi there, Bill Joe.” Kate held out her arms for the toddler, who tumbled across the garden toward her. “How are you today?”

She hugged him close, inhaling the sweet baby scent of him. “How could your mother let you go?” she murmured, rubbing noses with him and grinning when he giggled.

“Don’t be so judgmental. His mother has two other children, one of them disabled, and a minimum-wage job. She just got rid of an abusive husband and she’s overwhelmed,” said Penny, frowning at Kate. “She calls Bill Joe every day.”

“Oh.” Kate gave an embarrassed shrug. “Sorry. I think I’m at a poor-little-me point as far as children go. Seems as though everyone but me has some.”

“Ben doesn’t have any. He doesn’t even have a dog. Or a cat. Lucy and Dirty Sally are so sorry for him it’s pathetic to watch.” Penny laid the bunches of radishes in Bill Joe’s wagon and stepped over to the carrots.

“He doesn’t want them. Kids anyway. I don’t know about pets.” Kate set the little boy down in the space between the rows, handing him a shovel and pail from the wagon. “I was going to ask him if he’d give me a baby. We’re friends, we’re close, we know each other inside and out, so I thought it would be something he’d do. But he doesn’t want kids at all. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.”

Penny was silent, kneeling among the carrots, waiting. When Bill Joe crawled to her, she picked him up, nestling his head into her shoulder and dropping a kiss on his curls. Kate nearly choked on the love and the envy that rose in her.

Penny swayed side to side in an unconscious mommy dance. “What are you going to do, Kate?”

“I don’t know.” Kate took the hoe over to the garden shed that had appeared unexplained on the property a couple of days after they’d planted the garden. “And that’s a frustration, because I feel as though I’ve been saying ‘I don’t know’ ever since I lost my job. I don’t know where I’m going to work when Marce comes back. I don’t know where I’m going to live. I don’t even know how to go about having a family.” She smiled ruefully. “Poor little me.”

“Yo, ladies!”

They both looked up to see Dan walking across the lot with Jayson at his side. The officer was in uniform and his cruiser was parked at the curb.

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