Abby Foster didn’t want to like the town of Jewell Cove. It was just her bad luck, then, that the place appeared annoyingly cheerful and quaint; a postcard-perfect sea town on the Maine coast dotted with colorful buildings nestled above the pristine inlet of Penobscot Bay. In response to her irritation, she cranked up the radio and rolled down the window. The breeze blew her hair back from her face, and she gave her head a toss as she continued into the town, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel along with the music. She had to be here. She didn’t have to like it.
But she couldn’t put the trip off any longer. Something had to be done with the house. The estate was paying the taxes on the damned place but her aunt Marian’s lawyer kept pestering her about the condition of the property and what she was going to do about it. The constant correspondence made it impossible to pretend the house didn’t exist. So she finally put in for a deferred leave from her job as an elementary school teacher and decided to deal with the family mess once and for all.
Family, heh. Abby gave a short laugh to herself. Up until a year ago, she hadn’t realized she actually had any family. And if it weren’t for Ian Martin, Marian’s pesky lawyer, she’d happily ignore the connection altogether. It was easy to resent a family she’d never known—a family who could have reached out to her at any time over the last twenty-five years and hadn’t. Ever since she’d received the so-called happy news that she was practically an heiress, she’d refused to use her inheritance from her great-aunt Marian for anything. She considered it somehow tainted, like guilt money sent too late to make amends for past transgressions. Not that she knew what those transgressions were other than years of silence. Abby’s Gram had staunchly refused to talk about her childhood, and Marian certainly hadn’t reached out. All that Abby knew was that Gram had been raised by her grandparents, who’d died right before she’d gotten pregnant with Abby’s father. In many ways, it was like Gram’s life hadn’t existed before the Prescotts took her in.
Abby frowned and picked up the slip of paper with directions scrawled on it. Now that she was here they didn’t exactly seem to make sense. She couldn’t tell if she was facing south or east, the way the road twisted around. Why hadn’t she bought a GPS or even printed the directions out from Google?
Seeing a gas station up ahead, Abby made a sharp turn and pulled into the broken paved lot. Situated at the edge of town, the old-fashioned gas pumps and faded sign definitely had a “vintage” feel to them—if you considered rundown to be vintage. She needed to fill up with gas anyway, and she could ask for directions to Foster Lane. She blew out a breath. For Pete’s sake, there was even a road named after the family … a side of the family, she reminded herself bitterly, who’d apparently been as rich as Croesus and left the rest of them to be poor as church mice.
A grizzled man in a navy shirt came out of the shop, wiping his hands on a rag as she pulled up to the gas pump. “Afternoon,” he called out, and when he smiled, she saw he was missing a few teeth. Great.
“Hi, there,” she answered back pleasantly, determined to be friendly. Gram had always said you could catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and the smoother this went the faster she’d be out of here, leaving nothing more than a vapor trail. “Fill it up, please.”
“Sure thing,” he replied. He went to the pump and opened her gas cap. “Nova Scotia plate. On vacation?”
“Um … sort of.” She pasted on her biggest smile. “I was wondering, can you tell me how to get to Foster Lane? The directions I have aren’t very clear.”
The old man’s head snapped up. “Foster Lane? Only thing up there is the house on Blackberry Hill.”
A little zing of excitement that she didn’t expect coursed through her. “The House on Blackberry Hill” sounded positively poetic, and much more evocative than plain old Foster House. “Yes, that’s it. The Foster mansion, right?”
The pump clicked off and the man put the gas cap back on and came to her window. “No one’s lived in the Foster place for years. Not since Marian got sick and had to go to the home.” He pushed his cap back on his head. “Heard some distant family member inherited it, but we’ve never heard a whisper from him. It’s a wicked mess up there after being left so long.”
Unease settled on her again, erasing the tingle of anticipation she’d felt. How much of a mess was she walking into? Maybe this grand mansion was nothing but a derelict disaster after all. The joke would be on her, wouldn’t it, if she had inherited a rundown money pit. “Could you give me directions to it anyway?”
He peered at her keenly. “Hey, you ain’t that relative, are ya? The one she left everything to?”
Abigail held in a sigh and tried to relax her shoulders. “That would be me. I’m Abigail Foster. Marian was my great-aunt.” It felt strange just saying the words.
He tilted his head and squinted at her. “You Iris’s blood, then? No one from Iris’s side’s set foot here since ’45.”
Her smile faltered at the reminder. She had to be here to do something about the house, but as she sat in her car, Abby realized that perfect strangers knew more about her family past than she did. It wasn’t exactly a comfortable feeling.
“The directions, please?”
He stepped back at her sharpish tone. “Sure, sure, right enough. Follow this road through town, then go another few miles and you’ll find Blackberry Hill Road off to your right, starting up the mountain. Foster Lane’s about halfway up, to the left.”
“Thank you so much.” She took some cash out of her wallet to pay for the gas and started her engine. But before she could drive away, the man—Bill, his shirt said—leaned his elbows on the window.
“You’re gonna want someone to have a look at the place, Ms. Foster. It’s going to need repairs for sure. I can give you some names…”
Abby forced a smile. “Maybe some other time, once I’ve had a chance to look around. But thanks for the directions, Bill. You’ve been a real help.”
He got the message and stood back, his lips pursed at the polite but clear indication that she wanted to be on her way. Abby lifted a hand in farewell as she pulled away from the pumps, knowing that she couldn’t hide forever. Sooner or later—probably sooner, once Bill started the proverbial ball rolling—the people of Jewell Cove would know that the Foster mansion and the bags of money that went with it all belonged to her. And if Abby knew anything about small towns, they’d all want to know what she planned to do with it; they’d all have suggestions and want their piece of the pie, wouldn’t they?
She rested her elbow along the open window as she slowed coming into town limits. She’d driven through fog until somewhere around the New Brunswick border, but now there was nothing but blue skies overhead as she crawled down Main Street.
Her first impression of the town had been that it reminded her of the seaside villages on Nova Scotia’s South Shore—a cheerful kaleidoscope of colorful homes and businesses above a small but vibrant harbor. That was fairly accurate, she realized, as fishing and pleasure boats bobbed on the surface of the cove. She slowed to watch a restored schooner slide effortlessly into the harbor to dock. The water glittered in the summer sun and the tangy scent of the sea filled her nostrils.
She paused at the one and only traffic light. The town looked like something off a brochure—complete with patriotic flags along storefronts and pots of cheerful geraniums, white petunias, and trailing lobelia. She snorted. Nothing was ever as perfect as it seemed on the outside. Especially innocent-looking, quaint towns with well-tended flower beds and wreaths on the doors and little girls in pigtails walking down the sidewalk eating cones of ice cream. Abby couldn’t help but think these little towns were painted so cheerfully as a form of defiance against the tragedy that always seemed to surround them. Fishermen lost at sea, that sort of thing. Resilience in the face of adversity. She’d seen enough of that growing up, moving from small town to small town.
Bill’s directions had been to follow Main Street to the end and turn on to Blackberry Hill Road, and from there up the mountain to Foster Lane. The only problem was Main Street didn’t end until it met the coastal highway again. She’d have to guess at how far a “couple of miles” was and hope she didn’t miss it.
She lifted her chin and let out a breath of relief as the sign for Blackberry Hill appeared. If she had her way, the house was going on the market and the sooner the better. She’d be free of this mess and could go back to Halifax with a clear conscience. No more nagging lawyer invading her e-mail and voice mail every few weeks.
She flicked on her blinker and made the turn.
* * *
Tom Arseneault put down the phone and sat back in his chair, his brow wrinkled in what was, lately, a constant state of worry.
Everyone said the economy was rebounding. He’d yet to see the proof. That was the second job he’d bid on that had gone under. A man needed to make a living and people simply weren’t spending. As it was, he was nearly finished with a basement reno project and the only thing on the immediate schedule was Jess Collins’s back deck at her shop. Seeing as Jess was family, Tom didn’t stand to make a lot of profit from that deal.
When the phone rang again he almost didn’t answer it. It seemed the only time it rang lately was to give him bad news. But on the third ring he couldn’t stand hearing the incessant chime of Beethoven’s Fifth—his assistant Cassidy’s attempt at office humor. The assistant who, at the moment, was taking yet another sick day. He picked up.
“Arseneault Contracting,” he said.
“Tom. It’s Meggie.”
His aunt. He relaxed in his chair and crossed an ankle over his knee. “Hey, Aunt Meggie. What can I do for you?”
Meggie didn’t waste time on pleasantries. “I have some news about Josh.”
His stomach clenched. His cousin Josh was still living in Hartford, but Tom wasn’t sure how long that was going to last. Josh’s wife, Erin, had been killed in action overseas on her last tour as an army medic. There wasn’t a lot of reason for Josh to stay in Hartford anymore.
The last time Tom and Josh had been in the same room together, Tom had come out of it with a split lip and Josh had sported a few bruised ribs.
“Is Josh okay?” Despite the bad blood between them, his heart squeezed a little at the thought of anything happening to his cousin. They had too much history.
“He’s coming home, Tom. To stay.”
The air went out of Tom’s lungs. He’d known this day would eventually come. Jewell Cove was Josh’s home. His family was here. He’d never belonged in Hartford, going into practice with Erin’s father. Josh, like the rest of the Collins family, was a small-town boy who needed to be close to the water. Not a city dweller.
And yet knowing Josh was coming home made the dull ache of Tom’s grief threaten to swell up again and he swallowed thickly. Josh was a constant reminder of all the things Tom didn’t like about himself, and despite how much he loved his cousin he couldn’t stand to look at him.
Tom had been in love with his cousin’s—with his best friend’s—wife. And he still felt like shit about it.
Aunt Meggie’s voice came gently over the line, cutting him with its understanding. He took a breath and closed his eyes. “I’m still here. Sorry, Aunt Meggie.”
“No need to apologize. I thought you should hear it from me. It’s not like Josh is going to call with the happy news, is he?”
Tom chuckled at the wry tone in Meggie’s voice. Despite being Josh’s mother and naturally biased, she’d always been fair. Meggie and the girls had never despised Tom the way Josh did.
“When’s he coming?”
“Soon. He’s going to take over Phil Nye’s practice. He’s sharing the space with Dr. Yang until Phil retires in July.”
It was a done deal, then. In a way Tom was relieved. Things had been unsettled too long. If Josh came home they could at least sort out how they meant to go on. Hopefully resolve it without fists. More likely it would be with stonewalling silence. Josh was really good at keeping his true feelings hidden.
“That’s good, Meggie. You must be real happy. He doesn’t belong in Hartford.”
“I’m glad you agree, Tom. And I’m calling for another reason, too.”
He should have known there would be a hitch.
“We’re having a barbecue on the long weekend. I expect you to be there. Your parents and Bryce and Mary have already said they’re coming. It’s time to let bygones be bygones. For both of you. There’s nothing left to fight over.”
Tom ran his free hand over his face. No one seemed to understand that there was more to the situation than two cousins fighting over the same woman.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea. The last time…” He paused, unsure of how much to say. It wasn’t the fight he couldn’t let go of, it was the grief. She was his cousin’s wife, yet Josh wasn’t the only one mourning. He had been grieving too, only he had never been able to show it. He hadn’t felt entitled to his grief.
“The last time you both were stupid. You’re cousins. You have to start somewhere. And if either one of you starts any trouble, I’ll kick your asses. You know I can do it.”
Aunt Meggie had tanned his backside enough when he and Josh had been boys that he knew she meant it. The same way his mom would say the exact same thing to Josh. The two sisters had raised their boys with tough but loving hands.
He respected her far too much to let her down now. “I’ll be there. On my best behavior, promise.”
“You could always bring your hot wings as a peace offering.”
He laughed. “You’re pushing it, Aunt Meggie.”
“I know.” The line went quiet for a minute, as if she were deciding on her next words. “He needs you, Tom. He needs all of us right now.”
Tom’s heart thumped. He wanted to ask, What about me? What about what I need? But he had no right. Erin hadn’t been his wife. And through the bitterness was another tangle of emotion. He and Bryce and Josh—they’d all been like brothers. He’d missed his cousin, too. Yet he knew it would never be the same between them again.
“Hot wings it is.”
“Good. I’ll let you go now. Hope I didn’t keep you from anything important.”
“Another canceled job is all. Looks like Jess’s decking will be getting my full attention.”
“Oh! That reminds me. I was down at the grocery store this afternoon. Gloria told me that Bill at the service station said that the new owner’s finally showed up at the Foster place. Marian’s heir, and with Nova Scotia license plates.”
Tom sat up straighter in his chair. The Foster mansion. For as long as he could remember, he’d wanted to get inside and get another good look at the old monstrosity. It was well over a hundred and fifty years old, and he’d bet any money it was gorgeous. They just didn’t build them like that anymore. But it had been closed up since Marian had taken ill. Now that it was in new hands …
He recognized an opportunity when it hit him in the face. He enjoyed his work as a contractor, but the idea of restoring an old place like that … it wasn’t work. It was a privilege.
“Thanks for letting me know,” he said casually, trying to hide the excitement in his voice. “I’ll have to pop in one of these days.” One of these days, hell. He’d be up there within the hour.
“See you at the barbecue, Tom,” Meggie answered.
He hung up the phone and stared at it for a minute. Josh, home. Family gathering. Recipe for disaster. But the house up on Blackberry Hill?
He pushed his chair back and grabbed his keys. This was his dream project. First thing he had to do was meet the new owner and get inside. Word would spread fast and he didn’t want another contractor swooping in and stealing the chance away from him. There was no one else in the area as qualified for the job as he was.
It was just the thing he needed to keep his mind occupied. Idle hands meant an idle mind.
And with Josh coming home, he needed to find a way to forget about Erin. For good. For all their sakes.
Copyright © 2014 by Donna Alward